It would be nice to be able to call this post “Recent Reading,” as that would indicate I’d actually finished some (non-work related) books since The End of the Affair. However! I’m going to count it as a victory that in spite of work and other distractions, I am at least making my way through all of these:
1. Harry Karlinsky, The Stonehenge Letters. This was recommended to me by Steven W. Beattie, in response (if I remember correctly) to some Twitter discussion about recent Canadian fiction. His instinct was excellent: it’s just the right kind of book to suggest to someone with a long-standing interest in overlaps between history and fiction, for one thing, and for all the eccentricity of its premise, its style is decisively lucid, with no postmodern flourishes. It’s so prosaic, in fact, that I blame its very transparency for my difficulty getting through it (I’m about 150 pages in): honestly, if I didn’t know there was no secret codicil to Alfred Nobel’s will promising a prize to the Nobel Laureate who solved the mystery of Stonehenge, I would think I was reading a slick work of popular nonfiction. There are even footnotes! As of my current location in the book, what there isn’t is much of the old-fashioned kind of plot, and so I’ve been having a hard time falling into the novel in the way that keeps me coming back when I have lots of other calls on my time and attention. I will finish it, though, and I won’t be surprised if I end up retracting some of that objection once the people I have met as this eccentric pseudo-history unfolds play out their parts. The other comment I can make at this unfinished stage of my reading is that the book itself — meaning the physical object — is lovely, one of the nicest I’ve held in a long time. It has heft, the paper is smooth and feels rich to the fingers, the whole thing is just handsome in an unassuming way. Nice job, Coach House Press!
2. Rex Stout, Fer-de-Lance. After my shocking recent confession that I’d never read any Nero Wolfe mysteries, I was delighted to receive a care package in the mail from my supplier. Being a by-the-rules kind of girl, I started at the beginning, with Fer-de-Lance (1934). The perverse charm of the Wolfe-Goodwin duo is obvious from the first page, with their Odd-Couple-like array of complentary strengths and their repartee — which is witty on Wolfe’s side, at least. The case has the absurdity of a Golden Age puzzle mystery (a poisoned dart shot out of a rigged golf club? really?) but the atmosphere of the book, while not hard-boiled, is not really cozy either: I find myself wondering how the series is usually fit into the various categories or subgenres of detective fiction. It doesn’t need a label, of course: maybe its chief virtue is its resistance to pigeon-holing! My appreciation of the main characters hasn’t been quite enough to carry me to the end yet, though, because I’m not really interested in the case they’re on. As I’ve often remarked here, I’m not really an avid reader of detective fiction qua detective fiction, so I need a little better incentive to read on than wondering whodunit. I’m sure my relationship with Archie and his strange beer-drinking orchid-growing boss will continue, though. The vintage copies Steve sent have their own peculiar charms, too. Fer-de-Lance does not have as lurid a cover as Invitation to Murder, but its blurb is pretty irresistible;
He likes his orchids rare, his beer cold, his food gourmet and plentiful. He’s Rex Stout’s brownstone-based, one-seventh-of-a-ton, super-sleuthing genius of detection . . . in Fer-de-Lance, a viper’s nest of deadly dilemmas!
3. Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland. Like The Stonehenge Letters, The Lowland is one of my Vancouver holiday purchases. I have really enjoyed the stories I’ve read from Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, and I’ve read only good reviews of The Lowland (it even made the Stevereads “Best Books of 2013” list!), so I’ve been really looking forward to reading it, and I decided to start it now even though I had other books on the go, partly because I felt like my reading life needed an infusion of energy. It turns out The Lowland is not quite the novel for that: Steve describes its self-control as “almost arctic” in its coldness, and he’s not wrong about that! To say the novel is understated would itself be a profound understatement. But it does have an underlying drive, like a quiet steady beat, and at nearly half way through, I think I can detect a slight quickening of its pace.
4. Out of the same impulse to speed up my reading pulse somehow, I picked up The Art of the Sonnet (edited by Stephen Burt and David Mikics). I sometimes feel adrift in seas of prose and long for the greater emotional and verbal density of verse, but I rarely — too rarely! — make time for it in my leisure reading. In the summer I spent a happy interlude reading Philip Larkin thanks to a prompt from Miriam Toews, and I have some other collections to hand that call to me intermittently. I have really liked the idea of The Art of the Sonnet since I heard about it — it’s a collection of sonnets (obviously) each accompanied by detailed commentaries by the editors — and I thought it would be a great dipping and browsing book. And so it is! I opened it at random at first, and found myself at Shelley’s “England in 1819,” and then I flipped around a bit and ended up at Christina Rossetti’s “Later Life 17.” I know the Shelley reasonably well, having assigned it more than once (it’s especially good for scansion practice), but the commentary brought out aspects I hadn’t fully appreciated. I had never read the Rossetti before, though, and it hit home uncannily when I read it on a recent somewhat dreary rainy evening:
Something this foggy day, a something which
Is neither of this fog nor of to-day,
Has set me dreaming of the winds that play
Past certain cliffs, along one certain beach,
And turn the topmost edge of waves to spray:
Ah pleasant pebbly strand so far away,
So out of reach while quite within my reach,
As out of reach as India or Cathay!
I am sick of where I am and where I am not,
I am sick of foresight and of memory,
I am sick of all I have and all I see,
I am sick of self, and there is nothing new;
Oh weary impatient patience of my lot! —
Thus with myself: how fares it, Friends, with you?
And thus it is with my reading: how fares it, friends, with yours?
You’re far from alone in your relative lack of interest in the mystery that Wolfe and Archie are investigating: as Westlake put it in his appreciation of Stout, that’s not why we go there: “I go there to see my old friends and watch Archie be archly secretive about his sex life and hear Wolfe say, ‘Pfui.'”
I remember it took me into the second novel to really get it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s common. At some point, the familiarity of the surroundings, the reliability of this little world that Stout has created, becomes deeply comforting. Then you’re hooked, plot holes and absurdity of the mysteries be damned.
I can see how that would (will) work. And the funny thing is, I think, a lot of us read all mysteries kind of this way. I keep up with P. D. James largely because I want to know how Dalgliesh is doing (though her cases are often quite interesting); I am (was) at least as interested in how Spenser and Susan were doing as in any particular case Spenser might have been called in for. One thing I wish I could address better in my mystery fiction class is this appeal of the series character: we talk about it as a way the genre compensates for the necessary opacity of some characters — those who need to be kept at a distance so they can still be suspects — but we only ever read one novel in any given series.
Wolfe and Archie actually make an interesting contrast to characters like Dalgleish and Spenser (about the latter of which I long felt the same–I’d read a mediocre late Robert Parker because of him and Susan just as if they truly were real people I was getting an update on): while a lot of their appeal lies in the ways that they change and grow over time, the majority of Wolfe and Archie’s appeal is that they don’t. They stay in a world that, occasional references aside, is still a mostly imaginary 1930s world. It’s more like Wodehouse, writing about the early Edwardian years well into the 1970s, than it is like any other crime series I know.
That said, there is the occasional change, or perhaps more accurately, layering, with these characters. And there’s at least one occasion where Stout takes advantage of the fact that readers settle into this as a static world. But for the most part, that is what it is, and that’s why it’s so welcoming.
(I’ve mentioned before on Twitter, but I’m not too embarrassed to say it again: every once in a while, on finishing a Stout novel, I find myself imagining the day when the routine is finally disrupted, when Fritz takes up breakfast to find that Wolfe is no more. It’s ridiculous how much genuine sadness that image conjures up in me. Good god, what would Archie do with the rest of his life? Nothing, nothing, nothing could possibly compare. Watson, in the face of Holmes’s death, could suffer no more than Archie post Wolfe.)
Can you tell I love these books?
“Supplier” makes me sound so COOL! I should grow a ponytail!
You are cool! But no, no ponytail. Please.
I’ve read individual volumes of various series, including Fer-de-Lance in the Wolfe series, but have inevitably found the mystery uninvolving and instantly forgettable once the book is finished. Since the mystery story generally takes up most of the book, I find myself reluctant to pick up further volumes and plod through similar mystery plots just to have the company of the characters. I’ve read all the Sherlock Holmes stories, where I did rather enjoy the company of the characters, but also found most of the mysteries and their solutions interesting in themselves. I’ve also liked the Raymond Chandler novels I’ve read but there I’ve found the plots engaging, while I really don’t care much about Marlowe other than to enjoy the marvelous voice which Chandler has given him.
If it’s the characters’ ongoing lives rather than the individual plots that keep readers coming back, I wonder that there don’t seem to be many series characters who just live life and don’t solve mysteries or, like Flashman, have adventures involving historical characters. In my own reading, I can only think of John Updike’s Rabbit, Thomas Berger’s Reinhart, perhaps Anthony Burgess’s poet Enderby, and the multiple characters in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time; those examples lead me to recall Updike’s Bech, in whom I couldn’t work up much interest, and C. P. Snow’s Strangers and Brothers, which I haven’t read.
That’s a very interesting point, Bill. I think in the best examples of serial detection, the cases do contribute, not just to the interest but to moving the characters forward in their stories, but the episodic nature of crime-solving itself provides a structural justification for revisiting them. There are certainly serial characters in other genres (especially fantasy), but one thing that often seems to define the “literary” is uniqueness. When I think of “literary” serials, they tend to add up to one large narrative (Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels, for instance) rather than having that revisiting structure.
Another thing that I think factors into how patient we are with cases that don’t much interest us, or how much we are willing to read in order to catch up with favorite characters, is almost certainly long acquaintance and/or nostalgia. The comfort factor Levi describes with his reading of Stout is something that surely comes as much from these books having been a longstanding part of his reading life as from anything intrinsic to the books themselves. It does have to get started somehow, but I know for me there are series characters I first “met” so long ago that I can’t even remember not knowing them.
Thanks so much for the, as always, thoughtful reply. Certainly, Powell’s novels form a single unified narrative; Updike’s Rabbit series, I think, less so, since each novel was written during the time in which it was set. I guess I was trying to figure out if there was something like the novelistic equivalent of Mad Men, to which I think the Rabbit books may be the closest approximation. There may be more examples which have not managed to reach my notice: I just recently became aware of the St. Aubyn series. And I see from the NYT today that Richard Ford has published his fourth “Frank Bascombe” book; I should probably check these out, though I have been reluctant to begin a series that starts with a novel entitled The Sportswriter.
Nostalgia and long acquaintance certainly appear to be a large determinant of one’s tolerance for the inevitable lesser installments in a long running series. My indifference to these series may be due to a psychological need for closure being stronger than the need to be able to return to a familiar and comfortable milieu, this latter need being pretty much satisfied by the actual circumstances of my daily life.
I forgot to mention earlier how much I liked that Rossetti sonnet; thanks for providing it. It has a kindred mood, but not nearly so extreme, to Hopkins’ “I am gall, I am heartburn”.
I am intrigued by the sound of the Stonehenge Letters. It might be something I would like but I will await your final assessment before I decide.
Stefanie, it’s a clever premise and very smoothly executed — and yet I’m just not gripped! But I will persevere and report back … eventually.