Another Group: Joanna Smith Rakoff, A Fortunate Age

fortunate-age-2I was relieved to discover that nobody else in my book club liked A Fortunate Age either. For once, I feel reasonably confident saying it’s not me, it’s the book! I don’t think we’ve been so unanimous in our dislike of any our choices, in fact, since the disaster that was Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife.

We ended up having a very lively discussion, however, as we tried to figure out where or how we thought the book went awry. The novel rewrites Mary McCarthy’s The Group , which we read back in March. I didn’t love The Group, but it was certainly interesting, edgy, and thought-provoking–and by and large none of us found Rakoff’s updated version any of those things. Was it because Rakoff followed McCarthy’s model too closely and thus had to wrestle her characters into plotlines that didn’t necessarily suit them, and that gave the novel a stale air in spite of all the “novelty” of its 90s setting? Was it that we were all too familiar with that setting to find it historically interesting the way we did McCarthy’s rendition of her period? Perhaps it was that Rakoff’s women seemed too much like McCarthy’s, as if nothing had really changed about their options and preoccupations despite the decades that had passed–they seemed so insular, so self-absorbed, so unengaged with the wider world, or with ideas or possibilities outside their incestuous little nest of relationships. But things have changed for women, though of course not enough and not necessarily in only positive ways: in Rakoff’s novel, however, it seems as if the narcissism of youth makes historical change illegible or irrelevant. We concluded that, more than offering an insightful account of life in the 90s, A Fortunate Age read like The Group in 90s sets and costumes. We all found it a slog.

fortunate-age-1I particularly puzzled over why I found its detailed exposition so tedious. I am on record as a fan of exposition! But by half way through A Fortunate Age I was impatiently skimming through its dense paragraphs of stuff that just didn’t seem worth taking more time over. Rakoff inadvertently furnished a clue with her epigraph, which is from Daniel Deronda. (Beware: If you’re going to invite a comparison to George Eliot, it may well work against you!) True, Gwendolen Harleth is every bit as self-absorbed and ignorant of the wider world as the characters in A Fortunate Age, but (and for me this is crucial) George Eliot is not: her account of Gwendolen’s youthful egotism and willfulness is suffused with wry compassion; the context for Gwendolen’s story is not just the relentless minutiae of her immediate experience but everything else the narrator knows and thinks about the world she lives in. Gwendolen’s limitations do not limit her novel–but Rakoff’s characters are all we get in A Fortunate Age, and they don’t repay our sustained attention. I’m not saying the novel needed exactly what Daniel Deronda has–an intrusive narrator, for instance, or profundity, both of which are risky ventures if you aren’t George eliot–but it needed a broader perspective somewhere, a sense of what kind of story it is ultimately telling about these people and this age, especially since the book aspires (as its title indicates) to be about an era, not just a few individuals.

Our collective impatience with A Fortunate Age led us to abandon our usual practice of following a thread from one book to the next–which is how we got from The Group to The Radiant Way to A Fortunate Age. Enough (for now) of scrutinizing women’s lives and relationships! We wanted something different–formally, intellectually, thematically–and so we settled on Lincoln in the Bardo, which seems about as unlike Rakoff’s novel as is possible. It’s also a book several of us have been interested in but wary about reading, so now we have a specific incentive to press on with it.

The 19th-Century British Novel from Austen to Drabble

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Jane Austen recommended three or four families in the Country Village as the thing to work on when planning a novel. . . . A few families in a Country Village. A few families in a small, densely populated, parochial, insecure country. Mothers, fathers, aunts, stepchildren, cousins. Where does the story begin and where does it end?

Margaret Drabble makes it pretty obvious that she intends The Radiant Way as a continuation of the 19th-century novel tradition. Like Jane Austen, she focuses on a few interconnected families whose personal lives are fodder for her wry wit and social satire, but The Radiant Way is also very much a social problem or ‘condition of England’ novel, full of details about the political and economic circumstances that shape and often distort its characters choices. Austen’s fiction is of course highly political, but most often in implicit or subtle ways. You never get passages like this one in an Austen novel:

On a more public level 1980 continues. The steel strike continues, a bitter prelude to the miners’ strike that will follow. Class rhetoric flourishes. Long-cherished notions of progress are inspected, exposed, left out to die in the cold. Survival of the fittest seems to be the new-old doctrine. Unemployment rises steadily, but the Tory Party is not yet often reminded of its election poster which portrayed a long dole queue with the slogan ‘Labour isn’t working.’ People have short memories, many of them are carried along with the new tide. They are fit. The less fit get less and less fit, and are washed up on the shore.

marybartonAs this passage illustrates, The Radiant Way is about the condition of England in the 1980s, and its treatment of that era matches, rather than counters, what it suggests is the spirit of the age: it is (mostly) satirical, snide, cynical, bitter. I wonder if that is why it seemed to me so much more dated than, say, Mary Barton, with its heartfelt appeals to our common experiences and better natures. There is something naive, of course, about Gaskell’s novel, and many of her attitudes are outdated. Maybe I just prefer her kindness and optimism to Drabble’s somewhat ruthless explication of people’s weaknesses and compromises. The extent to which her analysis is still painfully current, too, shows that if anything she was prescient about the corrosion of the welfare state, the devaluation of art and education, and the instability of love as a foundation for happiness. Maybe I just wish it were dated.

radiantway1I read The Radiant Way for my book club (it’s our follow-up to The Group). I’ve read it once before, years ago, but I barely remembered it, and most of it felt quite unfamiliar to me this time. The one aspect that came rushing back to me as soon as it was mentioned was the bizarre subplot about the “Hampstead Horror.” Why should this novel feature a serial killer? The murder in Mary Barton is integral to its story about class conflict; its consequences and its resolution are both devices for addressing the underlying social and moral problems Gaskell suggests need fixing. I find it harder to reconcile the melodrama of the Hampstead Horror with the rest of Drabble’s novel, even though eventually it does become part of the main plot. What kind of device is it for her–what thematic purpose does it serve? I expect this is something we’ll discuss.

Overall I didn’t much enjoy The Radiant Way, but I did appreciate how wordy it is, and how crafty Drabble is with words. Her prose is dense but still very rhythmic; it is self-conscious and sometimes arch, but also kind of stabby, in a pleasurable way. She’s very good at families and their discontents; there’s a dinner scene in which the conversation is brilliantly awkward. What was missing, for me, are the qualities I like best in the tradition she is at once invoking and updating: warmth, kindness, pathos, good humor. In this respect it reminds me of David Lodge’s Nice Work, an even more explicit homage to the 19th-century condition of England novel that I also, on rereading, found clever but dated. For better and for worse, I find more of what I want in the earlier books…which I suppose explains why Victorian, not modern British, fiction is my area of specialization!

(The title of this post is a play on the title of the course I teach frequently on “The Nineteenth-Century British Novel from Austen to Dickens.”)

“My Own Way”: Sylvia Townsend Warner, Lolly Willowes

“Say you won’t leave us, Lolly.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

“But Lolly, what you want is absurd.”

“It’s only my own way, Henry.”

In many ways, Lolly Willowes is a familiar book. Like Villette or The Odd Women or The Crowded Street, it is the story of a woman whose life does not conform to the expected story of love, courtship, and marriage. Single women were both a social and a fictional (and thus a formal) problem from at least the mid-19th century on into the 20th. The statistical overabundance of women in the earlier period led to articles with titles like “Why Women are Redundant” and “What Shall We Do With Our Old Maids”; the terrible losses of World War I created a similar feeling of crisis, at least among those who saw marriage as the only natural and desirable aim for women’s lives. That was never everybody, of course, especially not all women, but it was an assumption that one way or another affected the horizon of expectation for most people.

Stylistically and tonally, Lolly Willowes is most like The Crowded Street, which makes sense, I suppose, as they are close together chronologically: Holtby’s novel was published in 1924, Townsend Warner’s in 1926. The world they depict is quite similar: for their heroines, it is one of stultifying limitations, well-meaning but hampering advice and attention, and near-debilitating mental suffocation. Lolly Willowes is brisker, though, and (for want of a better term) quirkier: Holtby plods along realistically with Muriel until finally she makes a little space for herself in the world — at last, most readers are likely to exclaim! — because the vicarious experience of her life is really very depressing.

Lolly Willowes feints in that realist direction. In fact, for most of the book you wouldn’t necessarily know it’s going to take a turn into the weird and wonderful unless you knew it already and so were watching (as I was) for signs — Lolly’s interest in herbs and potions, for instance, and the faintly uncanny way she has of not being altogether present in her immediate place and time. What’s so important and subversive about her story is that her cry for liberation — her demand to have her own way — arises from the most ordinary circumstances of her life. Nobody is intentionally cruel to her; she’s not abused or harassed or tormented … except by being an unmarried woman expected to find sufficient meaning for her life in being an accessory to other people’s plans and purposes. The complaint, in other words, is explicitly not personal but political, not individual but systemic: it’s an indictment of normalcy.

Once Lolly has removed herself from the benevolent tyranny of her family, establishing herself in the wonderfully-named town of Great Mop, she reflects on their disapproval:

There was no question of forgiving them. She had not, in any case, a forgiving nature; and the injury they had done her was not done by them. If she were to start forgiving she must needs forgive Society, the Law, the Church, the History of Europe, the Old Testament, great-great-aunt Salome and her prayerbook, the Bank of England, Prostitution, the Architect of Apsley Terrace, and half a dozen other useful props of civilization. All she could do was to go on forgetting them.

Lolly does find contentment when she has thrown off and (mostly) forgotten these “props of civilization,” but it turns out to be harder to shake them off than she’d hoped. I loved that it was her nephew Titus who followed her to Great Mop: again, precisely because he’s the one she likes best, the one who seems least threatening, the threat he does represent turns out to be most revealing. “Where are you off to, Aunt Lolly?” he cries cheerfully as she passes him; ” Wait a minute, and I’ll come too.” But Lolly doesn’t want him to come along; she doesn’t want him anywhere near her new life:

She walked up and down in despair and rebellion. She walked slowly, for she felt the weight of her chains. Once more they had been fastened upon her. She had worn them for many years, acquiescently, scarcely feeling their weight. Now she felt it. And, with their weight, she felt all their familiarity, and the familiarity was worst of all.

Happily for her, that familiarity turns eventually into a familiar, and Lolly is able to draw on forces outside “civilization” to break those chains once and for all. The turn is sly and mischievous and almost disturbingly gratifying: things turn against Titus (milk curdles, bees swarm) until he’s driven safely away. Lolly never seems overtly in control of these events: even as she feels a new power, her disperses. She’s certainly not innocent, though, as she openly and unrepentantly allies herself with Satan.

Lolly’s final dialogue with Satan (winningly in the guise of a common gardener) is the pay-off for the somewhat slow burn of the first two thirds or so of the novel. In fact, it’s mostly a monologue, in which Lolly makes a compelling case for Satan’s intervention. “It’s like this,” she explains:

When I think of witches, I seem to see all over England, all over Europe, women living and growing old, as common as blackberries, and as unregarded. . . . Well, there they were, there they are, child-rearing, house-keeping, hanging washed dishcloths on currant bushes; and for diversion each other’s silly conversation, and listening to men talking together in the way that men talk and women listen. Quite different to the way women talk, and men listen, if they listen at all. And all the time being thrust further down into dullness when the one thing all women hate is to be thought dull.

“Some may get religion,” she concedes, after more bitter musing about women’s wasted potential, “and then they’re all right, I expect. But for the others, for so many, what can there be but witchcraft?” It’s not about exercising malevolent power, or benevolent either, for that matter:

One doesn’t become a witch to run round being harmful, or to run round being helpful either, a district visitor on a broomstick. It’s to escape all that–to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to you by others . . .

It’s the mordant genius of Lolly Willowes that this conclusion makes such perfect sense, in context–that Sylvia Townsend Warner has done such a good job bringing out the menace of the everyday that Lolly’s escape from it by such morally equivocal means is itself unequivocally something to celebrate, rather than fear or judge. She’s only trying to go her own way, after all: that should not be too much to ask.

Recent Reading: the Good, the Bad, and the OK

Image result for the walworth beautyOver the past week I read three novels. Only one, Michele Roberts’s The Walworth Beauty, was for a review! The short version: it’s fine. Some things about it are very good, but overall I wasn’t that excited about it. I’m starting to feel I’ve read enough neo-Victorian novels. This has never been my favorite genre in any case, but it is (for obvious reasons) a reasonable one for me to pitch or be assigned for reviewing. As a result, over the past year or so, I’ve read (and reviewed) Steven Price’s By Gaslight, Dan Vyleta’s Smoke, Graeme Macrea Burnet’s His Bloody Project, Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children, Lesley Krueger’s Mad Richard, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, and now The Walworth Beauty. I’m never 100% sure what makes a novel ‘ne0-Victorian’ instead of just ‘set in the 19th century’; if I use the broader category, Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder would also count, as would Dinitia Smith’s The Honeymoon and Diana Souhami’s Gwendolen. Some of these have been really good, but there’s a certain sameness to a lot of them–a palpable restraint in the prose, for instance, a lot of short sentences, an artful absence of sentimentality, or indeed any extremes of overt emotion. Sometimes this style works beautifully, but often it leaves me hungry for the qualities I love in novels from, rather than about, the Victorian period. I think this feeling that modern incarnations of the period are somewhat stifled artistically is starting to affect my judgment of individual examples–which is one reason I’m happy that my next couple of writing projects take me in completely different directions.

Image result for we have always lived in the castleFor my book club, I read Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. What a treat that was. It’s like a perverse inside-out fairy tale. In our discussion of it, we got particularly interested in the way it destabilizes our sympathies. There’s the initial instinct to side with the narrator, which of course quickly turns out to be a mistake, except that she is being persecuted–though not unfairly, since after all, she is a murderer.  Jackson evokes the horror of mob violence as well here as she does in “The Lottery”: the scene that begins with the fire chief throwing the first stone unfolds in an equally horrifying way–except that at least one of the targets is in no way an innocent victim, and later on, some of the villagers seem to be horrified, in their turn, at what they’ve done. We puzzled over Merricat’s motivation, or rather, over whether she has one, for killing her family. The suggestion seems to be that she didn’t much like being sent to her room without dinner, or in any way being thwarted or crossed. So the murders may be the act of a vengeful narcissist, a spoiled brat gone rogue. On the other hand, maybe there is no reason, which in its own way is even scarier. It’s a brilliantly written little book. I was hooked from the first paragraph, which is a perfect combination of whimsy and menace:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

There’s so much else going on, from the intimations of magic to Constance’s cloistered virtue to the predatory character of Cousin Charles — it’s a lot of twisted fun, and followed even better than expected on our last book, Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress, especially the story “Torching the Dusties.” Our next pick is Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes, which carries on the theme of women acting in uncanny ways.

I expected Sarah MacLean’s The Day of the Duchess to be a lot of fun too, but I really didn’t enjoy it and ended up skimming the last third or so of it just to get to the end. I have liked some of MacLean’s romances a lot, including The Rogue Not Taken, the first one in this series, but this book tilted too far towards the “feels” for me: it’s all angst and yearning, without any frolicking. I’m not necessarily saying it isn’t well done. It’s just that my own taste in romance tilts instead towards comedy. Also, more than I remember noticing in MacLean’s books before, The Day of the Duchess is full of the kind of writing that seems meant to force feelings on you, rather than allow you to arrive at your own reactions–lots of fragments, and lots of single line paragraphs, devices which to me almost always backfire: rather than increasing the impact of the line, they make it seem artificial, especially if the trick is used over and over again. I’ve been trying to think if there are any consistently serious romances that I really like. Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm is the only one I can come up with. Blame my inner cynic, which, as I’ve said before, makes me accept an HEA only if it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

I’ve picked Arnaldur Indridason’s Arctic Chill to read next. It suits the weather we’ve had this holiday weekend: two days of dark clouds and heavy rain, and cold and damp enough that I’m in slippers with the heat on, down in my basement office.

“Tempest of the Headspace”: Margaret Atwood, Hag-Seed

“Also,” said Felix, “it’s on a universal theme.” What he had in mind was vengeance – that was certainly universal. He hoped she wouldn’t ask him about the theme: vengeance was so negative, was what she’d say. A bad example. Especially bad, considering the captive audience.

Hag-Seed is one of a series of novels commissioned for the Hogarth Shakespeare project, which is just the kind of hybrid literary-commercial venture that usually puts me off — and which, in its Austen incarnation, I have recently sworn off altogether. Too often, the intent is too clearly to cash in, or the results are too clearly inferior to the inspiration, and I am left wishing authors would just write their own d–n books. (I realize, of course, that many classics are themselves, in one way or another, indebted to or homages to other texts. But who says irritability has to be entirely consistent?)

I was fretful, therefore, when my book club settled on Hag-Seed for our next read. As my experience with Atwood’s fiction has also been mixed over the years, I would at least have been happier if we’d chosen Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl: one of Tyler’s main virtues is that she is dependable! But one of the reasons to belong to a book club is so that I read some things I wouldn’t necessarily pick for myself, so I dutifully ordered Hag-Seed, read it … and (surprise!) thoroughly enjoyed it.

Why does Hag-Seed succeed (for me, at least) where so many other derivative novels have failed? I think it’s because throughout, it communicates Atwood’s own gleeful enjoyment of the undertaking. I don’t think Hag-Seed is particularly profound, and it has little (though not none) of the poetry that decorates the original (what grace and beauty there is in the novel often comes by way of lines from The Tempest itself). But — at least for someone with only a passing acquaintance with Shakespeare’s play — Hag-Seed is a clever, as well as entertaining, recreation of The Tempest on Atood’s own chosen terms.

Hag-Seed particularly embraces the “play within a play” conceit of The Tempest, in which Prospero contrives and manipulates events for his own gratification. Atwood’s protagonist, Felix Phillips, is ousted from his position as Director of the Makeshiweg Festival just before he launches a spectacular new production of The Tempest. He had thrown himself into it to distract himself from his heartbreak over the death of his baby daughter Miranda:

What he couldn’t have in life he might still catch sight of through his art: just a glimpse, from the corner of his eye.

He would create a fit setting for this reborn Miranda he was willing into being. He would outdo himself as an actor-director. He would push every envelope, he would twist reality until it twangled. There was a feverish desperation in those long-ago efforts of his, but didn’t the best art have desperation at its core? Wasn’t it always a challenge to Death? A defiant middle finger on the edge of the abyss?

But the treachery of a colleague who then usurps his place ruins Felix’s plans and forces him into exile, where he broods for years over his lost daughter, his lost position, and his dreams of revenge. When he takes on a job promoting literacy in a local prison by producing Shakespeare plays, he unexpectedly discovers the perfect plan.

There’s lots of fun in the development of Felix’s elaborate plot, which both mimics and incorporates the multiple interconnected plots of The Tempest. Though Hag-Seed is ultimately more satirical than earnest, there’s also a more serious strand, woven through the novel’s comedy, about the role of literary programming in prisons, something Atwood addresses in her acknowledgments as well as through the actors’ discussions of real and metaphorical prisons in the play they are putting on. (I found the classroom sessions on The Tempest fascinating, even though — or maybe because — they were wholly unlike the kinds of classroom discussions I am used to.) Though Felix’s quest for vengeance is as absurd as it is diverting, his mourning for his own lost Miranda (whose spirit haunts him) is often very touching; it adds a human dimension to him that balances the novel’s arch tone.

Of course, I have to wonder if not knowing the ‘primary source’ is what freed me up to appreciate Hag-Seed. If The Tempest were dear to my heart the way Jane Eyre and Daniel Deronda are, would I have gone along less cheerfully? There’s a playful quality to Atwood’s interaction with The Tempest throughout that makes me think I would still have liked it: she’s not overriding it or imposing herself on it, or (worst of all) condescending to it or correcting it, but rather (like her actors) immersing herself in it and making it her own. Still, I’d be interested to hear from people who approach the novel from a more informed position.

“The Magic of the Island”: Gerald Durrell, My Family and Other Animals

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Gradually the magic of the island settled over us as gently and clingingly as pollen. Each day had a tranquility, a timelessness about it, so that you wished it would never end. But then the dark skin of night would peel off and there would be a fresh day waiting for us, glossy and colourful as a child’s transfer and with the same tinge of unreality.

Last night my book club met for our holiday potluck and a discussion of Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals — which we all agreed had been a great choice to cheer us up at the end of what has been, for all of us, a pretty challenging year. Reading it in between our other obligations and distractions had been, as someone said, like slipping away on vacation, just for a while, to a place full of sunshine and laughter and, of course, amazing (if often disconcertingly anthropomorphized) animals.

What is it exactly about My Famly and Other Animals that makes it so delightful? When I mentioned I was reading it, a number of my friends responded enthusiastically that it had been one of their favorite books as children, which at first I found a bit puzzling: I’m not sure that as a child I would have enjoyed it, with its long descriptive passages and its anecdotal shapelessness. Reading it now, though, I loved Durrell’s word paintings:

The moon rose above the mountains, turned the lilies to silver except where the flickering flames illuminated them with a flush of pink. The tiny ripples sped over the moonlit sea and breathed with relief as they reached the shore at last. Owls started to chime in the trees, and in the gloomy shadows fireflies gleamed as they flew, their jade-green, misty lights pulsing on and off.

durrell2Lovely as Durrell’s scenery is, he’s at his best (as you’d expect) with animals:

The inhabitants of the wall were a mixed lot, and they were divided into day and night workers, the hunters and the hunted. At night the hunters were the toads that lived among the brambles, and the geckos, pale, translucent with bulging eyes, that lived in the cracks higher up the wall. Their prey was the population of stupid, absent-minded crane-flies that zoomed and barged their ways among the leaves; moths of all shapes and sizes, moths striped, tessellated, checked, spotted and blotched, that fluttered in soft clouds along the withered plaster; the beetles, rotund and neatly clad as business men, hurrying with portly efficiency about their night’s work. When the last glow-worm had dragged his frosty emerald lantern to bed over the hills of moss, and the sun rose, the wall was taken over by the next set of inhabitants. Here it was more difficult to differentiate between the prey and the predators, for everything seemed to feed indiscriminately off everything else. Thus the hunting wasps searched out caterpillars and spiders; the spiders hunted for flies; the dragon-flies, big, brittle, and hunting-pink, fed off the spiders and the flies; and the swift, light and multi-coloured wall lizards fed off everything else.

Maybe the appeal lies in the imaginative way he brings these communities to life, giving the players so much character and purpose: there is something childlike about that blurring of lines between “us” and “them,” so that (as the title of the memoir declares), people and animals are all part of the same vibrant landscape, humming and buzzing and barking and talking. There’s no sense in the book of adult Gerald watching or judging or second-guessing his younger self, but instead he seems to have done his best just to recapture the wide-eyed curiosity and patient attention of a boy set free on an enchanted island to follow his bliss.

durrell3Perhaps, then, the child’s point of view (though of course the sophistication of the writing subtly belies it) is one reason children have loved this book. Another would be its humor: when things do happen, they are usually very funny. There’s some high drama, as well: the epic battle, for example, between the gecko Geronimo and the giant mantid Cicely:

His speed and weight told, for he crashed into the mantis and made her reel, and grabbed the underside of her thorax in his jaws. Cicely retaliated by snapping both her front legs shut on Geronimo’s hind legs. They rustled and staggered across the ceiling and down the wall, each seeking to gain some advantage. Then there was a pause while the contestants had a rest and prepared for the second round, without either losing their grips.

“I wondered,” Gerald comments, “whether I ought to interfere; I did not want either of them to get killed, but at the same time the fight was so intriguing that I was loath to separate them.” This detachment surprised us a bit: of course in some ways it is the necessary attitude of the scientist, watching but not intervening, but at the same time Gerald takes all of his animals very personally and often seems more interested in their well-being than in his family’s.

We were also surprised that, at the end, Gerald took his collection of animal friends with him back to England — we had all expected he would set them free. One of the group said that this brought home to her one way in which the memoir seemed somewhat dated: she thought there was something colonial in the Durrells’ expedition, heading off to a foreign country to observe it curiously and then collect what they wanted to take back with them. I can see her point, but the book didn’t strike me that way, mostly because the curiosity and interference is quite reciprocal between the Durrells and the Greek residents of Corfu (their guide and mentor Spiros, for instance, who adopts and manages them at least as decisively as they take any part of the island as their own). Here again, I think the book’s point of view may be the real issue: we can’t help but put this “English abroad” story into the context of British colonialism, but it never occurs to (young) Gerald, and why would it?

We wondered more about the absence of any shadows of impending war: though the reason he gives for their return to England is the need for him to go to school, apparently the real reason was the outbreak of war, and it’s unusual to read a retrospective narrative about the 1930s that doesn’t include even the faintest hint of what is to come. Is this, too, part of a determination the book will be bathed in childlike innocence — and is that resolution one of the reasons it reads like such a lovely escape from reality? It would certainly be a very different book if it let history or politics, or even adulthood, play a larger role. As it is, it has a combination of buoyancy and beauty that we all found irresistible.

An American Story: Jane Smiley, Some Luck

some-luckMy book club met last night to discuss Jane Smiley’s Some Luck. We didn’t choose it with this in mind, but it ended up feeling like a good choice to talk about the night before the American election, because it is pretty clearly meant not so much as a story about a particular American family as a story about America told through a particular family. You can’t quite tell this at first (though the structure of the novel, a chapter a year, is a hint), but by the time this novel — the first in her ‘Last 100 Years’ trilogy — ends in 1953, it’s the march of time and the sense of a changing nation that predominate, not the details of individual lives.

How much the different readers in the group enjoyed the novel turned to a large extent on how they felt about this concept, which along with the relentless year-at-a-time pace, necessarily meant a degree of superficiality in Smiley’s treatment of any particular story line. Most of us felt that she had struck a good balance between getting us interested in her character through judicious details with moments of greater depth and the rapid movement across time necessitated by her chosen form. We were interested enough in her people that we wanted to know what turns their lives took. For one of us this had already meant reading on into the next book, Early Warning, though she said she had begun to tire a bit of the trilogy’s concept, which began to seem too much like a gimmick as, Forrest-Gump-like, her people managed to keep turning up, one way or another, at every landmark event in 20th-century America. I haven’t decided yet if I’ll read more of the series; that’s where my hesitation would come from, that the concept might overwhelm the humanity, but I was pleasantly surprised by how engaged I was with the Langdon clan and their extended family by the end of Some Luck, so that gives me some confidence that Smiley can pull it off.

some-luck-1I think it is in part because the election was on all of our minds that our discussion turned quite a bit on what kind of story Smiley had chosen to tell about America. One conspicuous feature of Some Luck, for instance, is that it’s very much a story of white rural America: if Smiley intends the trilogy to be something of a national biography or a broader chronicle of the country, that seemed to us like a strategic error, one that replicates a certain vision of America’s “heartland” as the “real” America. That said, as some people argued last night, Smiley’s focus on an Iowa farming family and how it is affected by social changes that often seem to come upon them from elsewhere is itself certainly a very American story, even if it is not the story of America as a whole, and there’s not in principle anything wrong with her choice of a starting point. One reason I’d like to read on is that I’m curious about whether Smiley finds a way to complicate her origin story — to highlight its partiality as a story about America. Clearly, even in Some Luck, she is taking us well beyond Iowa as the family members spiral outwards into places and lives very different from those of our first couple, Walter and Rosanna.

Another possibility that came up is that the specific story she’s telling might illuminate the causes of what is now such a prominent divide in American life and politics as the Langdons disperse and bring new differences with them when they return home (as has already happened to some extent), but also as the Langdons still rooted to the land find their way of life harder to sustain. We talked about the way that technology has already transformed life on the farm: Smiley is good about not idealizing the ‘old’ ways even as she shows how unsettling it is to adapt to new ones. We all had found the shift from horses to tractors, for example, particularly effective in confronting us with the inexorability of change and the possibility it brings of both pathos and liberation.

One particular challenge for me with Some Luck is that the stories Smiley focused on the most were not the ones I wanted most to read a novel about. I would love, I expect, the whole book that took Eloise — writer, agitator, city dweller — as its protagonist, but though she’s a recurrent presence in Some Luck she’s peripheral, never well understood by the rest of her family, impossible to completely integrate into their way of being in the world. Smiley spends a lot more time on Frank, whom I felt, in my turn, I did not understand very well. I think the next generations will become increasingly congenial to me, but that in a way is a testament to the value of Smiley’s chosen focus: for me, there is something quite foreign about the Langdons’ America so far, so by taking such a prototypical American story as her beginning she has reminded me that my own norms are partial too.