“A Grand Mass of Detail”: Ian McEwan, Lessons

lessonsReading back since 1986 did not bring him any fresh understanding of his life. There were no obvious themes, no undercurrents he had not noticed at the time, nothing learned. A grand mass of detail was what he found and events, conversations, even people that he could not remember. In those sections it was if he was reading of someone else’s past. He disliked himself for complaining onto the page—about living hand to mouth, not having the right kind of work, not making a long and successful marriage. Boring, no insight, passive. He had read many books. His summaries were hasty, without interest.

Ian McEwan’s Lessons is what I think of as a “soup to nuts” novel, one that, like William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, earns our interest in its protagonist just by sticking with him. Like Logan Mountstuart, Roland Baines doesn’t really develop: he acquires no particular wisdom or insight over the years. He just gets older, and as he does, things happen: people come and go, priorities change, happy times give way to sad ones, opportunities are seized or missed, regrets arise then are displaced by more immediate crises or distractions. The novel’s title suggests that these accumulated experiences teach him something, that the Roland on the last page will be knowing in a way that the Roland we meet at the outset of the novel is not. He is, but not because of any grand epiphany, just because he is older and has been through a lot. Roland is not Pip, reflecting on his earlier life from the moral vantage point of the end of his Bildungsroman. When he looks back, as he often does, it’s with the same mixture of speculation, resignation, satisfaction, and self-reproach that probably most of us become familiar with as we pass from youth into middle age:

These days he ate less, drank more and thought a lot. He had a chair, a view, a certain glass he favoured. Among his subjects were other single starting errors that multiplied through time into a fan-shaped array. On close examination the errors dissolved into questions, hypotheticals, even into solid gains. On this last he may have been deluding himself. But in surveying a life it was inadvisable to acknowledge too much defeat. Marrying Alissa? Without [his son] Lawrence there would have been no joy, no Stefanie, Roland’s new best friend. If Alissa [who left him to pursue her writing] had stayed?  . . . Her novel remained exquisite. Leaving school early? If he had stayed, Miriam [his sexually predatory piano teacher], by her own admission, would have hauled him from the classroom and he would have been sunk. . . . Abandoning classical piano and the chance of becoming a concert pianist? Then he would never have discovered jazz, would never have run free in his twenties or learned to respect manual labour or developed a snappy backhand.

And so it goes, on through the many choices that, for better and for worse, have made his life what it was and is.

Following Roland along the journey is consistently interesting, sometimes surprising, occasionally both funny and poignant. There is (unusually for McEwan) no big twist, unless you count that in itself as the trick he pulls on us this time: except for the cuts back and forth between grown Roland and his childhood, the novel is straightforward, chronological, with an almost old-fashioned dedication to exposition, creating a “grand mass of detail” the effect of which is not revelatory but cumulative. At first it takes a bit of patience: where is it all going, you wonder? It’s McEwan, after all, and also right at the beginning Miriam puts her hand on eleven-year-old Roland, where she shouldn’t: surely dark things are in store. But instead time just keeps passing, and though Roland and Miriam’s relationship does turn into something inappropriate and disturbing (how much better is it that at least he’s fourteen by then?), it doesn’t seem, in the end, to be very important. “Were you damaged by it?” a police officer asks Roland, when the possibility arises that Miriam could be held criminally liable for their affair. “No, not at all,” replies Roland promptly, and there really is no evidence in the novel that he was. Should that matter, to the detective, to Roland, to Miriam, to us? Isn’t what she (they) did just wrong? Is the implicit message that there are some wrong things that actually needn’t be a big deal, if we don’t make a big deal of them? Roland is not  haunted or traumatized, although when he finally confronts her many years later he is angry: “It had an effect, do you understand? An effect!” He never does press charges. If hers are the lessons of the title, I ended the book uncertain what they were, or what they meant.*

Roland asks himself those retrospective questions about his life during the pandemic: “His London was of the plague year, 1665,” he thinks, “of the diseased wooden town of 1349.” One of his lockdown projects is to sort and annotate boxes of photographs; like so many projects we all imagined would see us through those long indistinguishable days of anxious yet boring isolation, this one founders. One of the side-effects of reading Lessons for me, as it checks off the world events that affect Roland more or less directly (Chernobyl, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban missile crisis, the Thatcher years, 9/11, 7/7, COVID), was remembering where I was when Big Things happened. Usually, like Roland, I was at most a distant witness, and yet when I think of them I have the feeling that I was there, that they happened to me too: I was in northern Italy when news broke of the accident at Chernobyl, for example, and for weeks we wondered (as Roland does) about the safety of the water, and whether we should keep eating local produce; I was nursing Owen late at night when news broke of Princess Diana’s fatal car accident, and nursing Maddie while idly watching morning talk shows when every station broke way from their regular programming because the first plane had hit the Twin Towers. We are always living in history; I enjoyed Roland’s journey through it. McEwan never uses him as a facile device for a “front row seat,” though; except for some idealistic early attempts to do something “meaningful” by smuggling items into East Berlin, Roland’s own story is (as most of ours are) relentlessly personal.

One of the most interesting aspects of the novel arises from one of its most personal events: Alissa’s decision to leave her husband and infant son. It isn’t until Roland reads her novel that he comes, not just to understand, but to accept the fierce necessity of her decision, which initially I thought might devolve into a predictably judgmental arc, Kramer vs Kramer style, about the selfishness of women seeking personal fulfilment at their family’s expense. Alissa herself describes her situation in ways much like Meryl Streep’s character does, in fact:

The two of you . . . I was nothing. I had nothing. No thoughts, no personality, no wishes except for sleep. I was sinking. I had to get out. . . . You’re a good father and Larry was tiny and I knew he’d be OK. And that you would be too, sooner or later. I wasn’t OK but I’d made my choice and I did what I had to do.

But unlike that character, she has no regrets. When Larry, grown up, shows up on her doorstep, she basically slams the door in his face: she chose otherwise. And when she tells Roland that she did what she had to do, she adds “This,” and hands him her book, The Journey, and it is a masterpiece, one he knows she never could have written if she had stayed home:

Would she, could she, have written The Journey there? The lapidary prose, the high-flying digressions offered up to the ghost of George Eliot, whom Catherine [the protagonist] admires, the fine painfully attuned consciousness of the heroine, the hovering watchful eye, the ever-generous tolerant narrative self-consciously organising, as if in slow motion right before the reader, the vast body of its material? No, impossible, no one could conceive a book of such ambition and execution in that house.

What is it worth, a book like that? More, Roland acknowledges, than the life she rejected. Yet that life has been his life: in rejecting it, she has declared, perhaps, that his life is not a worthwhile one, or perhaps that he is not capable of a better one, a higher one, because he does not have her talent, or her ambition, or her ruthlessness. The question of what we owe the geniuses among us, or what they owe us, is a perennially interesting one, for Roland and for us (and for Helen DeWitt, whose tart confection The English Understand Wool I also read recently). “I am a male Hardwick,” Roland plans to say when he attends a panel on Robert Lowell that takes up the painful story of The Dolphin, for which Lowell “plundered and plagiarised and reshaped the anguished letters and phone calls” from Hardwick when he left her for another woman. “You have to live it to know it,” he wants to say; “the quality of the work absolutely matters . . . Yes, I forgave her because she was good, even brilliant. To achieve what she did she had to leave us.”

Alissa achieves greatness (and very nearly the Nobel Prize). What does Roland have to show for his life, in his old age? A small hand in his, to lead him across the room. It’s an unexpectedly sentimental ending, from McEwan, another way in which this novel surprised me, but also pleased me. Maybe in his old age, he has tired of acerbity and cynicism, of twists that make us cringe or that shake our faith in each other and in the stories we tell. I have always admired the precision and heft and intelligence of McEwan’s prose; I am a big fan of Atonement (which I really miss teaching!), and also, if a bit more equivocally, of Saturday. I have read nearly all of his novelsbut I hated (hated!) Nutshell and so I passed on Machines Like Me. I’m glad I didn’t skip this one: I thought it was really good, and I’m looking forward to talking it over with my book club soon.

*A brief post-book club meeting update: After our discussion, I ended up thinking I underestimated the influence of Miriam’s assault, the effect of what you might call the residue of its trauma – although I do still think that it ends up absorbed in the larger story of his life. It is significant but not its defining event, which (perhaps – we debated this) is meant to signal something of a corrective to the current trend towards prosecuting “historical” wrongs.

“Still A Life”: Emily St. John Mandel, Sea of Tranquility

mandelIf my book club hadn’t settled on Sea of Tranquility for our next read, I don’t think I would have read it, not because I haven’t liked the other novels I’ve read by Emily St. John Mandel, because I’ve liked them just fine (Station Eleven more than The Glass Hotel, though), but because the premise didn’t really pique my interest and I’m having enough trouble sticking with books without deliberately choosing ones that don’t sound like my kind of thing. And yet I enjoyed it quite a lot—much more than Free Love, which I had expected would be exactly my kind of thing, and much more than Free Food For Millionaires, which I abandoned after about 50 pages.

Mandel is very good at scene setting, and one nice thing about Sea of Tranquility is that, because it takes place in several different times and places, she gets to show off that skill. Books that shift our attention around like this can be jarring, but she’s also good at pacing, so for me anyway, the journey from 1912 to 2401, and the stops in between, and then the returns, felt pleasantly seamless, like a literary version of the airships she imagines whooshing people around in the future. By the end, however, I thought the story she told was kind of thin: though I was consistently interested in the people and scenarios she set up, I felt much as I did at the end of The Glass Hotel—that, to borrow Henry James’s (extremely incorrect!) verdict on Middlemarch, the novel is a treasure house of details but an indifferent whole.

Mare_TranquillitatisThere’s real cleverness to the novel’s time-travel plot (though I don’t think these can ever be completely convincing), and a poignancy to the human story threaded through it, and the ongoing theme of pandemics created both menace in the moment and resonance for our moment. Maybe all of these things, done as well as they are, should be enough, but I am always looking, when I read a novel, for a sense of growing excitement about meaning, and I don’t think Sea of Tranquility delivers on that front. The big idea at the heart of it is what it would mean if we discovered we were living, not in reality, but in a simulation. What difference would or should that make to us? Would our experiences be any less real? Gaspery, the novel’s protagonist (more or less), concludes that the “correct response” to the news that we’re living in a simulation would be “So what. A life lived in a simulation is still a life.” I suppose that’s true, but it also seems to oversimplify the potential philosophical issuesnot that I know anything about them myself, but I have lived in close proximity to a professional philosopher for long enough to be sure that the implications of the “simulation hypothesis” are more complex than Gaspery supposes or Sea of Tranquility explores.

mandel2The other key idea in Sea of Tranquility seems to be “if you have the chance to save someone’s life, you should do it, rules or consequences be damned.” This hardly seems like a big ideain fact, it seems trite, a point hardly worth making, a choice so obvious it hardly counts as heroism . . . except that for Gaspery, the rules are made by vast and powerful institutions and the consequences are literally historic. Does that make the “right” choice any less obvious? A different novelist, or a different kind of novel, would have made more of this, of how we weigh the kindness to others that defines our humanity against our own needs and vulnerabilities, and also against larger goals and values that might be incompatible with it and yet still, possibly, worth serving. “We should be kind,” the poem goes, “while there is still time,” but Mandel pits kindness against time (you’ll understand if you read the novel) and again, I think figuring out what to do might be more complicated than the novel suggests, if you let it be. Yet I liked the absolute clarity of Gaspery’s choice: for him, there’s no question at all.

In the variety of its imagined worlds, Sea of Tranquility reminded me a bit of Cloud Atlas, although it has been so long since I read Cloud Atlas that I can’t really be sure if that’s a fair comparison. Mandel doesn’t have Mitchell’s ambition: Sea of Tranquility is all in more or less the same style, for example, whereas Cloud Atlas (IIRC) is a virtuosic sampler of different kinds of fiction, some of which I remember not enjoying at all. Mandel’s novel is easily readable; it’s clever and a bit tricksy, but not so in love with its tricks that it lost me.

“My heart must break too”: Andrew Miller, The Slowworm’s Song

the-slowworm-s-song-1I’ve spent thirty years trying to say something to the woman who keened over him in the alley. I have tried, drunk and sober, to find the words. At some point I began to imagine the words as a spell that would release me from a curse. I broke her heart that day. I know that. I knew it at once from the sounds she was making. I think now that my heart must break too and only then will I know what to say to her.

My book club met this week (on Zoom) to talk about Andrew Miller’s The Slowworm’s Song. It’s the first time I’ve participated since Owen died. It was nice to see everyone’s friendly faces and have our usual lively and interesting conversation. It helped that it is such a good book—helped me, that is, because it isn’t easy yet for me to engage ‘normally,’ cheerfully, but I was genuinely keen to know what everyone thought about it. Everyone in the group is so kind, too, and we’ve been meeting for so long (over a decade, now!) that this was a good place to practice being more like myself again. Once we got started, it wasn’t that difficult after all.

The Slowworm’s Song is narrated by Stephen Rose, a former soldier traumatized by his actions in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. He tells his story through letters to his daughter Maggie, with whom he has been belatedly and precariously building a relationship. He is prompted to write to her by the arrival of a request for him to testify in front of a commission of inquiry. The idea of bearing witness is central to The Slowworm’s Song: the need to speak the truth, and also the importance of being heard, and of listening. I wasn’t entirely sure that the epistolary set-up worked. There’s the element of artifice, for one thing (the novel does not really sound like it’s written by someone with Stephen’s history), but I wondered more about how directing what amounts to a confession to Maggie affects the novel’s themes. For example, it would have been a very different novel if we were reading, instead, the statement he prepared for the commission—not better, just different. His writing to Maggie ensures that our focus is more personal than political: that we think about the consequences of the kind of violence he is involved in for individuals, rather than in abstract or ideological terms.

One detail that intrigued me is why the Open University essay Stephen is writing off and on across the novel is about The Mill on the Floss. Maybe this is not particularly significant, but Mill isn’t the most obvious choice, and also one of Miller’s epigraphs is from George Eliot’s translation of Strauss, about how “all things are linked together by a chain of causes and effects which suffers no interruption.” And the protagonist’s name is Stephen and his daughter is Maggie, so those are also (maybe) Mill connections. However, the plot of The Mill on the Floss bears no resemblance to Miller’s novel and his Stephen and Maggie seem entirely unlike Eliot’s. All I have come up with so far is that Mill is very  much about the ways circumstances constrain people’s choices, which often therefore end up being imperfect. Eliot’s determinism is backward-looking: it explains (which is not to say it excuses) those imperfect choices by examining their contexts. That’s true of The Slowworm’s Song too, as by the end we see Stephen’s bad choices as wholly explicable, given the contexts (personal, social, historical, etc.) in which he makes them. That seems kind of thin, though. Maybe I’m overthinking it.

The Slowworm's Song - Andrew MillerThe aspect of the novel that I found the most thought-provoking is that the act that precipitates Stephen’s subsequent descent into alcoholism and despair is (relatively speaking) quite a small-scale one. There’s a lot of build-up to it, a lot of manipulative anticipation created. In the lead-up to the revelation, we hear about a range of horrifying atrocities—booby-traps and bombs; gangs kidnapping, torturing, and murdering people; cold-blooded shootings of people pulled from their cars in front of their families—so it’s almost an anti-climax when we find out that what Stephen did (“all” Stephen did) was shoot an unarmed teenager. It happens during a house search, a routine but also very tense operation: everything, we have learned by this point, is unpredictable in Belfast, and being on edge is a way of life for the soldiers on patrol. Stephen is posted in the alley; when the boy comes out of the back door, all Stephen registers is that “his hands were not quite empty.” Afterwards, Stephen is encouraged to dwell on the perceived threat: “if I’d believed my life was in danger then I’d had every right to do as I did.” He does as he’s told, and in the end there are no formal consequences beyond his being relocated out of Ireland.

There are consequences, however, for Stephen, whose life spirals into ruin, and of course there are consequences for the boy’s family and, worst of all, for the boy himself, who it turns out, poignantly, was just holding his asthma inhaler. One thing we talked about in our group discussion was that precisely because it’s “just” one killing, the novel’s focus on its devastating after-effects forces a reckoning with the scale of devastation caused by war. Multiply that one death, that one loss-stricken family, that one young man traumatized by pilling the trigger, by thousands and it feels impossible to bear, much less to justify any of it. It’s only the omnipresence of violence, including its institutionalization in the military, that makes it possible to encounter that one death and think, for a minute, that it’s not much, not that big a deal. In fact, in its singularity, because of its singularity, that one death is everything that matters, as everyone who has lost a loved one knows. Large-scale catastrophes blur our attention to individual cases (as we know about deaths due to COVID, which have been shockingly normalized, in the aggregate). Like so much great war (anti-war) literature (All Quiet on the Western Front, for instance, or Testament of Youth) Miller’s story refuses to let us retreat into statistics. We get very little information about the boy and his family, but it’s enough—and for obvious reasons I felt this very deeply—to picture his mother keening over his body.

We debated whether Stephen too is meant to be understood as a victim. I think this comes back to the issue of cause and effect, and of how far an individual is responsible for decisions they make when the context of those decisions is very much outside their control. His training, his experiences up to that point in Belfast, the whole situation in Northern Ireland that put him there in the first place: it all matters, but in the end it is also his finger that pulls the trigger. Then in the aftermath, he gets no support, and the lack of real consequences hurts, rather than helps, because it is so morally destabilizing. Maybe it comes back to the point that explaining is not excusing. George Eliot knew that sympathy is not the same as forgiveness (here I think of Hetty in Adam Bede, though, not of anyone in The Mill on the Floss).

Miller seems quite interested in these questions of guilt and responsibility: at any rate, they are central to Now We Shall Be Entirely Free as well. I’ve read three of Miller’s novels now and would like to read more. His prose is not flashy but it has great resonance, and his stories are complicated—not their plots, but their problems, and their people. He’s good at pacing, too: once I started The Slowworm’s Song, I wanted to keep going, and lately that’s a rarity. Even so, I might not have managed it without some external obligation, so that’s another reason to be grateful for my book club. We settled on Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility for our summer read and we plan to meet in person, outside, to talk it over. I’m looking forward to it, and that seems like a small good thing.

“That terrible ungrateful age”: Elsa Morante, Arturo’s Island


We should recognize that it’s not easy to cross the last frontiers of that terrible ungrateful age without having anyone to confide in: neither a friend nor a relative! Then, for the first time in my life, I truly felt the bitterness of being alone.

Arturo’s Island was my book club’s choice to follow Lampedusa, which we all loved so much that we wanted to stay longer in Italy, if only in our imaginations. We thought a real Italian book would give us something different than another book just set there, and we were right: Arturo’s island is nothing like the languorous, sensual, sun-drenched Italy of so many English novels. There is plenty of passion, but it is all ugly, uncomfortable, awkward, confused, confusing passion–that is to say, it is the passion of male adolescence, and being immersed in it for 350 pages is anything but a holiday in the sun.

I really disliked reading Arturo’s Island. I don’t know if I would have stuck with it, if it hadn’t been for my book club. It may be (and I think we ultimately concluded that it is) a “good” novel, in that it does what it sets out to do (as far as we could discern what that was) really effectively. It seems fully committed to its own unpleasantness and to Arturo’s emotional disarray. It does not do any of the formal or literary things that would have lessened the impact of Arturo’s account of his youthful errors and offenses, from his vaguely loutish behavior to his obsession with and eventual cruelty to his young stepmother, from his hero-worship of his horrible father (his father is really really horrible, in general and to Arturo) to his murderous thoughts about his tiny stepbrother. There is no retrospective narration to show us how he has learned and grown: there are a couple of comments that tell us he has grown up and away (“Later, when we’re old, I know, such tragedies are, more than anything, comic; and, If I like, now, at a distance, I, too, can laugh”) but nothing frames his nasty story, nothing softens it, nothing excuses it. We get no post-childhood, post-island Arturo to show us either that he never really got over his turbulent past, with all the freedom a boy could want but none of the love, or that he found the nurture and maturation he needed somewhere else.

arturo smallWe thought that absence of solace or redemption had to be deliberate: that Morante had to be setting us up to see how wrong Arturo is, and to infer explanations and justifications (perhaps) for his wrongness, without ever letting us escape from it. Assuming the goal was immersion, emotion, and discomfort (with a significant tincture of pity, because Arturo really has a pretty deprived and distorted life) it’s a novel that is very good by the Lewes Standard (matching means to ends, a measure of greatness I derive from GHL’s assertion that Austen was “the greatest artist that has ever written, using the term to signify the most perfect mastery over the means to her end”). There are some other good things about the novel, too. The descriptions of the island are full of vivid details, and you really get a strong sense of Arturo’s strange life there, running wild and shaping his own strange identity from his father’s books. It’s also (and again, we thought maybe this was purposeful) a powerful antidote to sentimental or picturesque notions of Italy: it makes sense to me that the novel as Elena Ferrante’s endorsement, as her novels too (IMHO etc.) are ugly and unsentimental and driven by raw emotion–and, as Arturo’s Island is (at least implicitly), highly critica of certain strains of macho Italian masculinity. No flowery Tuscan hills here; no operatic gorgeousness; no above all, no love.

So: an interesting, unsettling, reading experience – and a very good discussion, because we all had quite strong, complicated, and sometimes contradictory reactions to the book, which I guess makes it a good choice even though I didn’t like it!

“No one took any notice”: Helene Tursten, An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good

turstenSlowly she set off in the direction of the Rosenlund Canal. In order to make herself look a little shorter and older, she stooped over her walker. She had pulled on a white fabric sunhat with a wide brim, which hid her hair and part of her face. No one took any notice of the elderly lady. . . . The best thing was that none of the people bustling about took any notice of her. An elderly lady out and about in the lovely weather didn’t attract much attention.

Maud, the protagonist of Helene Tursten’s An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good, is a sly inversion of Agatha Christie’s iconic “elderly lady” detective, Miss Marple. Both are well aware that they are in the demographic least likely to be noticed or, if seen, taken seriously as decisive players in their own or anyone else’s life. While Miss Marple turns expectations of her irrelevance on their head with her ingenuity in solving crimes, Maud uses them to camouflage her guilt. A nimble octagenarian with all her wits about her, Maud uses canes and walkers to appear more physically feeble than she actually is (and also, when necessary, to trip, strike, or knock people down stairs). When pressed for information about a crime (or, as it often seems, a very unfortunate fatal accident) in her vicinity, she puts on a show of confusion that blends seamlessly with everyone’s assumption that she’s of no importance to their investigation:

A man who introduced himself as Head of Security at the hotel came over to ask Maud if she could tell him how the accident had happened. She told him she had been in the shower, and therefore hadn’t seen the woman fall.

“My hearing isn’t very good, and I had soap in my eyes. And the shower was running, so I didn’t hear anything. But maybe I sensed something, because suddenly I noticed her lying in the water. I . . . oh my goodness . . . sorry, I can’t stop crying . . . that poor woman . . . she was just lying there in the water. I couldn’t help her . . . she wouldn’t grab hold of my stick . . . all that blood . . . that poor, poor . . . ” she sobbed.

He patted her awkwardly on the arm and left her alone.

Reading about Maud’s evil deeds was wryly amusing, but I think the overall effect would have been a lot more interesting if she was more clearly either a straight-up villain or an avenger of wrongs ill-served by proper justice. One of her victims is an abusive husband, and so there’s some moral satisfaction in her scheme to take him out even though her actual motivation is just to end the disturbances his beatings create and get a little “peace at Christmastime.” Otherwise, she’s basically just going after people who annoy or disappoint her.

tokarczukI suppose Maud’s ability to get away with her petty crime spree is a cautionary tale about the dangers of ageism and sexism, which contribute to obscuring the truth about people. But compared to the moral and psychological layers that emerge from Janina’s murders in Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead–to the thought-provoking questions Tocarczuk raises about how we decide who matters and who doesn’t and who, if anyone, should act in the interests of higher concepts of justice than the human–Tursten’s offering is pretty slight. It seems unlikely my book club will be meeting any time soon, but if we were able to, I’m not sure this book would give us that much to talk about. It is definitely entertaining, though, in that uncomfortable way that any relatively light-hearted treatment of violent crime can be. Tursten is a writer I’ve had my eye on for a long time: I’m still interested enough that eventually I will still try one of her full-length Inspector Huss novels.

“The Printed Word”: Ruth Rendell, A Judgement In Stone


In those moments the words they cried and their pleas passed over her almost unheard, and by some strange metamorphosis, produced in Eunice’s brain, they ceased to be people and became the printed word. They were those things in the bookcases, those patchy black blocks on white paper, eternally her enemies, hated and desired.

“Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write” is the chilling first line of Ruth Rendell’s 1977 thriller A Judgement In Stone. I’m not sure “thriller” is the right word, but “mystery” seems wrong, as obviously it is not a whodunit–and if you take that opening sentence at face value, it is not a “whydunit” either, as Rendell immediately gives away both the name and the motive of her murderer. The only suspense in A Judgement In Stone comes from wondering exactly how the massacre will happen, and it is a testament to Rendell’s skill as a storyteller that the novel is in fact gripping in spite of our already knowing who, what, when, and why.

A Judgment In Stone relies heavily on narrative devices that could easily turn into gimmicks: dramatic irony and foreshadowing. Rendell uses dramatic irony to cast a grim shadow over the lives of the Coverdale family: one of the most effective things about the novel, I thought, is how we read it doubly, as a very ordinary story of a well-to-do English family going about their privileged but otherwise basically inoffensive lives. There’s handsome George, “as trim of figure as when he had rowed for his university in 1939”; there’s Jacqueline, his second wife, “fair, slender, a Lizzie Siddal matured,” unfortunately for all of them overwhelmed with the work of maintaining Lowfield Hall; and there are the children of this blended family, including eccentrically bookish Giles and sweet-tempered Melinda. They all contribute to their eventual violent deaths by the way they treat Eunice Parchman when she becomes their housekeeper, but until the very last minute–their very last minutes–we are the only ones who know how it will all end. The effect is to infuse their commonplace activities–shopping, dining, listening to music, going to parties–with pathos, to make their cheerfully unexceptional characters accidentally tragic. “I’ll be two minutes,” says George as he goes to check what the noise is in the kitchen;

He went to the door where he paused and looked at his wife for the last time. Had he known it was the last time, that look would have been eloquent of six years’ bliss and of gratitude, but he didn’t know, so he merely cast up his eyes and pursed his mouth before walking across the hall and down the passage to the kitchen.

Rendell adds extra shots of menace occasionally with moments of explicit foreshadowing. When her parents have offended Eunice by banning her only friend from visiting Lowfield Hall, for instance, Melinda decides to intervene by being kind:

So that evening Melinda began on a disaster course that was to lead directly to her death and that of her father, her stepmother and her stepbrother. She embarked on it because she was in love. It is not so much true that all the world loves a lover as that a lover loves all the world. Melinda was moved by her love to bestow love and happiness, but it was tragic for her that Eunice Parchman was her object.

There is so little out of the ordinary about the Coverdales that they could hardly be the subject of fiction if it weren’t for what happens to them. Shortly before their deaths, they eat out, and “afterwards the waiters and other diners were to wish they had taken more notice of this happy family, this doomed family.”

rendell-2Is it true that Eunice Parchman–and her accomplice, the same friend the unknowing Coverdales tried to keep away from their home–killed this hapless family “because she could not read or write”? Rendell’s striking opening is as much provocation as declaration, I think. It is certainly true that Eunice’s illiteracy haunts, shames, and distorts her life. It is easy to imagine a version of her story in which, as a result, we pity her and direct our antipathy at a society that repeatedly fails her–fails to educate her, fails to support her, fails to make it safe for her to overcome this debilitating disadvantage–while she retreats into the safety of suspicious solitude:

When she was a child she had never wanted to read. As she grew older she wanted to learn, but who could teach her? Acquiring a teacher, or even trying to acquire one, would mean other people finding out. She had begun to shun other people, all of whom seemed to her bent on ferreting out her secret. After a time this shunning, this isolating herself, became automatic, though the root cause of her misanthropy was half-forgotten.

There are lots of painful and potentially poignant scenarios as which she struggles to hide her inability to read the family’s grocery list or to identify which papers George needs sent from home to his office. There’s something sad, too, about her absorption in the television the Coverdales provide for her room. She’s finally happy there:

She drew the curtains, put on the lamps and then the television. Her evenings were hers to do as she liked. This was what she liked. She knitted. But gradually, as the serial or the sporting event or the cops and robbers film began to grip her, the knitting fell into her lap and she leant forwards, enthralled by an innocent childlike excitement.

It’s not much, but it’s all she wants.

But this sad story is not quite what Rendell gives us–and surely that’s as it should be, unless we really do believe illiteracy leads inexorably to homicide! Instead, Eunice is a completely unsympathetic character. It’s not just the shell she has withdrawn into for fear her inability to read will be discovered. By the time she starts work at Lowfield Hall she has already committed murder: she killed her own father, who was taking a bit too too long to die: “She took one of the pillows from behind her father’s head and pushed it hard down on his face. He struggled and thrashed about for a while, but not for long.” It’s the combination of her heartless personality with the shame and anxiety of her illiteracy that’s toxic–that, and the influence of her friend Joan, who is out and out deranged, “daily growing more and more demented.” I think I would actually have liked A Judgement In Stone better if it vested responsibility for the Coverdales’ deaths squarely in Eunice and explored the ramifications of her illiteracy in a more nuanced way, rather than having it shade into moral and psychological deficits. Joan’s role is especially disappointing in this respect, as there is no “good” explanation for her behavior, no cause beyond her own unreason for the violence she instigates.

AjudgementinstoneRendell’s opening line is thus a bit of a feint, I think: it seems to set up a novel about the consequences of social and educational failures, but unlike, say, Dickens’s account of Magwitch’s history in Great Expectations, she doesn’t really account for Eunice’s criminality on those terms alone, leaving us to point the finger at ourselves for creating an uncaring system that generates criminals where there should have been (and still could be) a caring human being. Eunice seems irredeemable; Rendell doesn’t make a convincing case that she would have been a different person–and the Coverdales would have lived–if only she could read the printed word. It’s hard to be sure, though, and maybe that’s the question Rendell means to leave with her readers.

“Ideological Ambiguity”: Qiu Xiaolong, Death of a Red Heroine


The alliance between Chen and Yu put him in a disadvantageous position. But what really worried Zhang was Chief Inspector Chen’s ideological ambiguity. Chen appeared to be a bright young officer, Zhang admitted. Whether he would prove to be a reliable upholder of the cause the old cadres had fought for, however, Zhang was far from certain. He had attempted to read several of Chen’s poems. he did not understand a single line. He had heard people describing Chen as an avant-gardist–influenced by Western modernism.

I found Death of a Red Heroine pretty slow going at first. The prose is quite flat, almost plodding, and the slow pace was compounded by the amount of what seemed like a lot of extraneous detail. As I read on, though, I warmed to Chief Inspector Chen, who though a dedicated police officer also (like P. D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh) has the sensitive heart and whimsical eye of a poet. Then as his investigation began to quicken and complicate, other things got more interesting: the prime suspect is an HCC (“High Cadre Child”) and Chen’s inquiries become “politically incorrect,” his loyalty to the Party coming into question. As his career is threatened, he has to decide what is most important: justice, or what is good for the Party. He also has to come to terms with his own power, or at least his access to it: in the end, he figures out not how to stay out of politics but how to play them to win. Gradually, then, over the course of an otherwise fairly conventional murder mystery, the stakes go up, both politically and philosophically, as Chen and his little band of co-conspirators struggle to express their own freedom in a highly constricting society by holding one privileged perpetrator to account. The ending is not unequivocally triumphant, but the effort is very satisfying.

qui-xiaolongI didn’t start enjoying the novel more just because the plot became more engrossing, though it did–or because the prose became more pleasurable, because it really didn’t. The other thing that happened was I got used to the slow pace and came to appreciate all the cultural context I was getting through what initially seemed like digressions. It’s true that all the many (many!) descriptions of meals aren’t strictly necessary to the plot, but they certainly added to my sense of what life in Shanghai in the 1990s was like, as did the meticulous accounts of where and how people live:

They lived in an old-fashioned two storied shikumen house–an architectural style popular in the early thirties, when such a house had been built for one family. Now, sixty years later, it was inhabited by more than a dozen, with all the rooms subdivided to accommodate more and more people. Only the black-painted front door remained the same, opening into a small courtyard littered with odds and ends, a sort of common junk yard, which led to a high-ceilinged hall flaked by the eastern and western wings. This once spacious hall had long since been converted to a public kitchen and storage area. The two rows of coal stoves with piles of coal briquettes indicated that seven families lived on the first floor.

One of the more memorable bits of scene setting was this account of a woman prepping an eel for market:

Having slapped an eel hard like a whip against the concrete ground, the woman was fixing its head on a thick nail sticking out of a bench, pulling it tight, cutting through its belly, deboning it, pulling out its insides, chopping off its head, and slicing its body delicately … Her hands and arms were covered with eel blood, and her bare feet too. The chopped-off heads of the eels lay scattered at her bare feet, like scarlet-painted toes.

There are too many appreciative descriptions of noodles, soups, dumplings, and duck to keep track of: the book makes clear the importance of meals, not just for sustenance (though there is a lot of exuberance around eating for its own sake) but also as social and bonding rituals.

red-heroineI also really enjoyed the role of Chen’s poetry in his life and in his case–and in the case against him. The idea that his elusive (and allusive) verses harbor subversive messages at once works with the intense suspicion shown by loyal Party members towards anything suggestive of a “Western bourgeois decadent lifestyle” and seemed to me a sly play on the literary difficulty of modernist poetry and the challenge of figuring out what it means. Poring over Chen’s poem “Night Talk,” Zhang wonders if the phrase “mind’s square” is a reference to Tiananmen Square:

“Deserted” on a summer night of 1989, with no “pennant” left there. If so, the poem was politically incorrect. And the issue about “history,” too. Chairman Mao had said that people, people alone make the history. How could Chen talk about history as the result of a rubric?

Zhang was not sure of his interpretation. So he started to read all over again. Before long, however, his eyesight grew bleary. He had to give up. There was nothing else for him to do. So he took a shower before going to bed. Standing under the shower head, he still thought that Chen had gone too far.

Who hasn’t felt that sometimes, reading poetry that seems full of significance you can’t quite grasp? I liked Chen’s habit of quoting poetry as well, and the general sense that in his world it matters–being a poet gets him respect and admiration! He also translates English mystery novels, so there’s another nice self-referential strand woven into the novel. Coincidentally, he is translating Ruth Rendell, a writer I was already thinking about this week because she came up in my Women & Detective Fiction class and I realized how little of her I had read. I read Death of a Red Heroine for my book club; maybe I should suggest Rendell as our follow-up–though crime fiction is not a typical choice for us.

Catching Up: Recent Reading and Rectify

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) The Reader 1877 Oil on canvasIt certainly is easy to fall out of the habit of blogging–and this in spite of the fact that the most fun I’ve had in the last little while was writing my two previous posts. I enjoyed doing them so much! I felt more engaged and productive than I had in a long time, not because I was fulfilling any external obligation but because I was sorting out my ideas and putting them into words. To be honest, though, in both cases I was also a bit disappointed that the posts didn’t spark more discussion in the comments, and that set me back a bit, as it made me wonder what exactly I thought I was doing here–not a new question, and one every blogger comes back to at intervals, I’m sure. I appreciate the comments I did get, of course, and there was some Twitter discussion around the Odyssey post, which as I know has been remarked before is a common pattern now–though I can’t help but notice that there are other blogs that routinely do still get a steady flow of comments. Anyway, for a while I felt somewhat deflated about blogging and that sapped my motivation for posting. I know, I know: it’s about the intrinsic value of the writing itself, which my experience of actually writing the Woolf and Homer posts more than proved–except it isn’t quite, because if that was all, we’d write offline, right?

hunting meet cuteIt hasn’t helped my blogging motivation that not much has been going on that seems very interesting. I certainly haven’t read anything since the Odyssey that was particularly memorable. I’ve puttered through some romance novels that proved entertaining enough but aren’t likely candidates for my “Frequent Rereads” club. Two were by Helena Hunting, a new-to-me author–Meet Cute and Lucky Charm, both of which were pretty good; one was Olivia Dade’s Teach Me, which had good ingredients but seemed just too careful to me, too self-consciously aware of hitting all the ‘right’ notes; and finally Christina Lauren’s Roomies, which was diverting enough until the heroine breaks out of her career funk by writing her first (ever!) feature essay, submitting it (not pitching it, submitting it) to the New Yorker, and learning in THREE WEEKS that it has been accepted. I’m not sure which struck me as more clearly a fantasy: the acceptance itself or the timeline.

peonyThe other book I finished recently is Wayson Choy’s The Jade Peony, for my book club. I wanted to like this one more than I did. It certainly illuminates a lot about the Chinese community in Vancouver in the time it is set (the 1930s and 1940s): one thing our discussion made me appreciate more than I did at first is how deftly telling the story from the children’s perspectives lets Choy handle the historical and political contexts, as they often don’t quite understand what is happening and so our main focus is on the young characters’ emotional experiences in the midst of them. The book reads more like linked short stories than a novel, and for me it lacked both momentum and continuity as a result (that’s not my favorite genre), but many of the specific scenes have a lot of intensity and I think they will linger with me more than I initially thought.

obasanWe chose Joy Kogawa’s Obasan for our next read. I’ve been trying to sort out why I’m not entirely happy about this. It makes perfect sense given our policy of following threads from one book to the next, and also Obasan is widely considered a CanLit classic, so it’s not that I don’t expect it to be a good book. I was mildly frustrated, though, that one of the arguments made in its favor was that The Jade Peony was very educational (about a time and place and culture not well-known to the group members) and Obasan would be more of the same. It will be, I’m sure, and in some ways this is an excellent reason for us to read and discuss it. But at the same time this “literature as beneficent medicine for well-intentioned consumers” approach is what turns me off Canada Reads, and I’m not sure it’s the way I want my book club to play out.

I’m torn about this, though! It is undoubtedly good for us (all white middle-aged middle-class Canadian women) to unlearn some of the complacency of our upbringing. I mentioned at our meeting that when I visited Vancouver’s Chinatown as a child I thought about it wholly in terms of feel-good multiculturalism–it never occurred to me in those days that it housed a community that had experienced many hardships including persistent and ongoing racism. Reading Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers similarly made me reconsider my childhood trips to the Museum of Anthropology and what I once thought they meant. We chose The Jade Peony because our discussion of Katherena Vermette’s The Break contributed, as it should have, to a collective sense that we should be trying as hard as we can to understand experiences of Canada that aren’t our own. But at the same time I want us to choose and discuss our books for lots of different reasons–and also not to fall into approaching books as if they are valuable only for their representative and/or didactic potential, using them to check off boxes rather than giving them room to be idiosyncratic works of art, if that makes sense. I think, too, that if you go looking for a book whose lessons suit the demands of your conscience, you may not end up with a book that really surprises or challenges you. I’m not sure if these concerns are reasonable ones or if I’ve articulated them properly. I’d love to hear from other people who puzzle over things like this when choosing what to read next, whether for themselves or for a book group or for some other purpose.

rectifyMy recent viewing has actually been more engrossing than my recent reading: we just finished watching Rectify, which I thought was superb–it is intense, thoughtful, and full of turns that surprise without seeming like cheap twists. It is very much character- rather than plot-driven, and it works because every performance is entirely believable. I hadn’t even heard of Rectify before I noticed it on a list of ‘best TV dramas’ and decided we should give it a try. It is not at all what I expected from the premise (a man is released after 19 years on death row): it is much more about how he and his family and community deal with this unthinkable change in circumstances then about the case and his guilt or innocence–though what they do with that question is also very interesting. If you haven’t watched it, I highly recommend it; if you have, I’d be interested to know what you thought of it.

And that’s what I’ve been up to since I last posted! Well, that and reading Téa Obreht’s forthcoming novel Inland, which I am reviewing, so I won’t steal my own thunder by laying out what I think about it here. (I’m writing the review ‘on spec’ so if the magazine doesn’t want it, then I’ll come back and thunder away about it!)


“A Kind of Castaway”: Octavia Butler, Kindred


I opened the book with some apprehension, wondering what archaic spelling and punctuation I would face. I found the expected f’s for s’s and a few other things that didn’t turn up as often, but I got used to them very quickly. And I began to get into Robinson Crusoe. As a kind of castaway myself, I was happy to escape into the fictional world of someone else’s trouble.

I read Kindred with unflagging attention: it is a gripping narrative, fast-moving and suspenseful and emotionally harrowing. It also, however, felt heavy-handed, almost didactic, and seemed formally and stylistically uninteresting. The time-traveling, which is never really explained or motivated–never given any autonomous logic–within the novel itself, functions as little more than a device to haul us back to to the antebellum South with Dana; its authorial objective is pretty clearly to teach us by immersion about the corrupting horrors of slavery. The back-and-forth in time also, of course, provides a neat mechanism for comparison: how much have things in fact changed; how deep-rooted and long-lasting are the effects of this traumatic past on the present; how, if at all, can a nation build a unified future on such a rotten foundation. It’s not that these aren’t interesting and important, even urgent, questions; I just didn’t find Butler’s literary treatment of them especially artful. Dana, too, seemed more a tool than a distinct character, though her relationship with Kevin, especially as his habits and attitudes are affected by his long stint away from their real (modern) life, seemed the most subtle and thought-provoking aspect of the novel.

kindred (1)Thinking more about Kindred after I’d finished reading it, I wondered if I would notice more subtleties in it if I knew more about the specific genres it combines: it is a hybrid of time-travel fiction and the slave narrative, and while I have read an example or two of each of these, I have never given sustained thought to their conventions and I have little, therefore, to compare Butler’s effects or choices to. The reader’s guide in my edition includes an essay by Robert Crossley that says some things about these contexts. “One of the protagonist’s–and Butler’s–achievements in traveling to the past,” he says, for instance,

is to see individual slaves as people rather than encrusted literary or sociological types. . . . Here we see literary fantasy in the service of the recovery of historical and psychological realities. As fictional memoir, Kindred is Butler’s contribution to the literature of memory every bit as much as it is an exercise in the fantastic imagination.

OK, I can see that, although there may be less novelty in that recovery effort now than there was in 1979–which of course does not diminish Butler’s contribution. He also remarks that “Science fiction and fantasy are a richly metaphorical literature,” but Kindred itself is not, as he tacitly acknowledges when he says that in it “the most powerful metaphor is time travel itself” but then explains that “metaphor” as “a dramatic means to make the past live”–which is not really metaphorical, is it? In fact, time travel aside, Kindred is an almost laboriously literal novel; sometimes the research behind it seemed to have been simply incorporated into Dana and Kevin’s conversations or into her narration. Not that anything’s wrong with that literal approach, and it delivers a lot of drama that is both heartrending and morally devastating, but the result is really just historical fiction with a twist.

The one big exception is the obviously symbolic loss of Dana’s arm, which, as Crossley says, Butler “makes no attempt to rationalize” but allows to stand as a shocking mystery: “the author is silent on the process by which Dana’s arm is severed in the twilight zone between past and present.” He goes on to quote Butler’s explanation of the figurative meaning of this amputation: “Antebellum slavery didn’t leave people quite whole.” That makes perfect sense, but I’m less satisfied than Crossley is with the inexplicable and arbitrary process by which her arm is lost, which is wholly unrelated to the way Dana has passed between the eras up to that point. It feels, again, like a device that gets the job done, rather than like the culmination of a meaningful pattern that would give the novel the kind of creative unity and flair that I felt the novel, for all its ingenuity and sincerity, was somehow missing.

I should add that I read Kindred (or read it right now, at any rate) because my book club chose it for our next meeting. As always, we are following a thread from our previous book, which in this case was Lincoln in the Bardo. Perhaps it is inevitable that the next book after Lincoln in the Bardo would seem somewhat pedestrian!

“All were in sorrow”: George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo


All were in sorrow, or had been, or soon would be. [roger bevins iii]

It was the nature of things. [hans vollman]

Though on the surface it seemed every person was different, this was not true. [roger bevins iii]

At the core of each lay suffering; our eventual end, the many losses we must experience on the way to that end. [hans vollman]

We must try to see one another in this way. [roger bevins iii]

I realized Lincoln in the Bardo was going to work for me about a dozen pages in. The first little bit was hard going: who are these people? are they going to prattle and pontificate like this for the whole book? (By the end of the novel, I knew these two well enough to want them to stay, even though by then I also understood that it was better they should go.) Then the voices multiplied, and it was easier, if still disorienting; then we were at the party, and there were flower arrangements and “hives … filled with charlotte russe” and venison steaks; and then there was this:

Yet there was no joy in the evening for the mechanically smiling hostess and her husband. They kept climbing the stairs to see how Willie was, and he was not doing well at all. [Kunhartdt and Kunhardt, op. cit.]

A lot else goes on in Lincoln in the Bardo besides the illness, death, and interment of 11-year old Willie Lincoln.Saunders takes Lincoln’s mourning for his lost son and his own extraordinary, creative, phantasmagorical vision of the inhabitants in Willie’s new home, at once among and apart from the living, and builds up a powerful story about both historical particulars and human universals. Lincoln enters the Georgetown cemetery a man broken by grief; he is ultimately overtaken by what seems like an entire nation, with all its sins and aspirations and accomplishments and omissions. In the process we too take on a multitude of stories, no less powerful (to my ongoing surprise) for coming to us in fragments. The novel is a swirl of voices, but they are placed and paced so that the narrative accumulates momentum and gains rather than loses power from the juxtaposition of the drama in the cemetery with comments about the Lincolns and their loss from observers and historians.

lincoln-bardo-2It’s a bravura display of narrative ingenuity, and especially given how fantastical the premise is, the result could easily have been (and I fully expected it would be) flamboyant gimmickry, clever and original but soulless. It isn’t, though: I think Lincoln in the Bardo is actually one of the most touching and heartfelt novels I’ve read in years. However far it spirals away from reality, and however abstract its political or philosophical or historical implications become, it always comes back to the hardest and most intimate truth of all: nothing we love lasts. “None of it was real,” says roger bevins iii near the end:

nothing was real.

Everything was real; inconceivably real, infinitely dear.

These and all things started as nothing, latent within a vast energy-broth, but then we named then, and loved them, and, in this way, brought them forth.

And now must lose them.

This is the reality Lincoln faces as he puts his beloved son in a box in a marble crypt and walks away (“imagine the pain of that, Andrew, to drop one’s precious son into that cold stone like some broken bird & be on your way [in ‘Wartime Washington: The Civil War Letters of Isabelle Perkins…]). “The president,” reports Mr. Samuel Pierce in his “private correspondence,”

turned away from the coffin, it appeared by sheer act of will, and it occurred to me how hard it must be for the man to leave his child behind in a place of such gloom and loneliness, which never, when responsible for the living child, he would have done.

“When a child is lost there is no end to the self-torment a parent may inflict”:

When we love, and the object of our love is small, weak, and vulnerable, and has looked to us and us alone for protection; and when such protection, for whatever reason, has failed, what consolation (what justification, what defense) may there possibly be? [Milland, op. cit.]

bardo-3Willie’s death is as much the occasion for Lincoln in the Bardo as its subject, and there are many other sorrows recorded in it–many losses as or even more wrenching, many deaths as arbitrary or worse, and many lives that before those deaths were more deprived, more isolated, than Willie’s, that never had the kind of love that brings his stricken father out into the dark, cold night to sit one last futile time with his son. The world is much bigger, and has much bigger problems, than little Willie. His Presidential father, for one thing, carries the burden of leadership alongside his personal responsibilities and feelings. Lincoln imagines his own grief multiplied by the thousands dying in the Civil War:

He is just one.

And the weight of it about to kill me.

Have exported this grief. Some three thousand times. So far. To date. A mountain. Of boys. Someone’s boys. Must keep on with it. May not have the heart for it. One thing to pull the lever when blind to the result. But here lies one dear example of what I accomplish by the orders I–

How should such personal suffering be weighed against the political and moral causes for which these boys are dying? “Did the thing merit it,” Lincoln wonders. “Merit the killing”:

On the surface it was a technicality (mere Union) but seen deeper, it was something more. How should men live? How could men live?

Lincoln believes that there is an ideal, an aspiration, worth fighting for: “all of it, all of that bounty, was for everyone, for everyone to use, seemingly put here to teach a man to be free, to teach that a man could be free.” “The thing,” he concludes, “would be won”; he leaves the cemetery with his resolve restored and, significantly, accompanied in spirit by someone whose sadness is a motive not for retreat but for battle:

Sir, if you are as powerful as I feel you are, and as inclined towards us as you seem to be, endeavor to do something for us, so that we might do something for ourselves. We are ready, sir; are angry, are capable, our hopes are coiled up so tight as to be deadline, or holy: turn us loose, sir, let us at it, let us show what we can do. [thomas haven]

They ride “forward into the night, past the sleeping houses of our countrymen,” their unity a hopeful symbol of common cause, an optimistic invocation of a better, if distant, future.

But Saunders never lets these big ideas overpower the simplicity and finality of death, which is what gives his novel its almost unbearable poignancy.  After all, whatever our unfinished business or our unfulfilled promise, no matter the strength of our loves or our hates, one day our wish for “the great mother-gift: Time. More time” will be refused. He does at least offer some consolation in his enumerations of the “things of the world,” things that are no less precious–that are perhaps even more so–for being impermanent:

Pearls, rags, buttons, rug-tuft, beer-froth.

Someone’s kind wishes for you; someone remembering to write; someone noticing that you are not at all at ease. . . .

Geese above, clover below, the sound of one’s own breath when winded. . . .

Tying a shoe; tying a knot on a package; a mouth on yours; a hand on yours; the ending of the day; the beginning of the day; the feeling that there will always be a day ahead.