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


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.

Book Club Update: Moby-Dick Contains Multitudes

moby-dick-penguinMy book club met last night for the first of two sessions on Moby-Dick. For this one we read only about half way through, so a lot of our discussion either began or ended with some variation on “I wonder where this goes.” Does the novel as a whole uphold Ishmael’s endearing open-mindedness – or, for that matter, does Ishmael himself continue in the same tolerant spirit he initially shows towards Queequeg’s “Pagan” predilections? Does Ahab’s single-minded quest for the white whale turn out to be in any way noble, or is this model of ruthless heroism thoroughly undermined? When we finally see Moby-Dick for ourselves, what picture do we get, to put up against those described in Chapters 55-57? How far can — or should — we read the novel symbolically or allegorically? What theory of fiction makes sense of the novel’s extraordinary blend of realism and prophesy, concrete detail and metaphorical reach — what kind of book is it? Will there ever be an important woman character (we’re guessing not), how far is women’s absence part of what, for some, has defined its story as great and universal, and what does that mean about the American literary tradition or cultural imagination?  What is it about this book, anyway, that accounts for its having been invested with so much cultural significance? And so on.

We’re pretty unlikely to answer these questions in a really substantial, much less very original, way over a couple of dinners. (However, if you want to talk about seafaring, there are worse times and places to do it than at Shuck Seafood on a foggy Maritime night. The food was so good and the atmosphere and service so pleasant we might do our follow-up Moby-Dick meeting there too!) I’m not going to hazard any answers here now, either. What I wanted to comment on at this point is just a feature of our Moby-Dick discussion that seemed to me different than some, maybe most, of our other bookish conversations. I can’t remember another book in which it wasn’t so much general opinions that differed but the specifics that won or lost us as individual readers. One of us, for instance, particularly loved the details about New Bedford and Nantucket life but was impatient with the “digressions” that impeded the story of the Pequod’s voyage; one (the scientist) was fascinated by the taxonomies of the “Cetology” chapter and Melville’s obvious interest in replacing (or maybe supplementing) myths about sea monsters with whatever facts could be gleaned, often at great cost, about actual whales; one was won over by the humor, such as the good-cop bad-cop scene with Peleg and Bildad in Chapter 16; one (you’ll never guess which) kept bringing up some guy called Carlyle. Moby-Dick offered every one of us something to fascinate or frustrate, and while there was some overlap (interest in Ishmael’s narrative voice, for instance — though again, some of us loved it while others were impatient with it), it sometimes seemed as if we’d all been reading different versions of the novel. (We all brought literally different editions, but that’s a separate issue.)

moby-dick-penguin-4This dispersed effect no doubt stems from the book’s chaotic-seeming and inclusive structure, which has led critics to call it things like an “intellectual chowder” or a “magnificent mess” (that’s Nathan Philbrick, in Why Read Moby-Dick). It seems to be built on a premise of embracing capaciousness: it includes everything Melville finds interesting or significant to his subject, rather than pursuing an aesthetic of elegant perfection. This blotchiness could easily be seen as a fault. (I’d love to know what, if anything, Henry James said about Moby-Dick, given his dismissive view of Middlemarch‘s formal construction. No golden bowl here — more an ungainly pitcher!) It’s certainly risky: surely no self-respecting MFA instructor would dare encourage anyone to write such a book! But I think our group’s diverse responses point to one aspect of the book’s greatness: there was something in it for — and against — all of us. It’s not one thing: it’s all kinds of things (though it’s not everything, though Philbrick’s little book suggests he might think so).  The challenge for a first-time reader is dealing with the bits that don’t immediately suit: we all admitted to having skimmed one part or another, but, again, not usually the same parts. Listening to people pointing out the aspects that most interested them made me want to reread: it made me aware, not just of the book’s mulititudinousness, but of my own limitations (which, in the context of Moby-Dick, are many). That can be off-putting, but it’s part of Melville’s magic to have made it inspiring instead.

“Boldly Launched” — On My First Reading of Moby-Dick


Already we are boldly launched upon the deep; but soon we shall be lost in its unshored, harborless immensities.

When I wrote about Madame Bovary here a couple of years ago, I commented that reading a very famous novel for the first time is

like meeting a celebrity in person (or so I imagine). It is intensely familiar and yet strange at the same time: it is exactly what it always appeared to be, and yet it is no longer an idea of something but the thing itself.

That certainly applies in this case too — more so, perhaps, because I think Moby-Dick has a larger presence in the popular imagination than Madame Bovary. And not just the things everyone “knows” about it (the white whale! Captain Ahab! “Call me Ishmael”!) but the book itself, which is a kind of legendary object, so deep and vast that reading it (or so you’d think) is itself a kind of fantastical quest.

So, once again, I find myself reading something that I already knew a lot about, and in the process discovering how little I really knew about it. So far, anyway, the surprise factor is much greater with Moby-Dick than it was with Madame Bovary (which really was the perfection of the sort of thing I expected it to be). I didn’t really know what Moby-Dick would actually sound like, and I especially had no idea (I don’t know why, but I really didn’t) that Moby-Dick would be so much fun. I also thought it would be much longer! I ended up getting the Penguin Classics edition — a choice I’m very happy with, as the font is very readable and the notes are helpful but not overwhelming — and it’s under 700 pages, which for someone who reads Vanity FairMiddlemarch, and Bleak House regularly is not scary at all.

moby-dick-penguin-2I decided against the highly- recommended Norton Critical edition because I wanted to approach this first reading not as a chore to be done diligently but as a reading experience to be, well, experienced! No doubt I will finish the novel without having plumbed its depths, and if I weren’t enjoying Melville’s prose so much first-hand, I might have changed my mind (and in fact I do have a copy of the Norton out from the library, ready to turn to if the need arises). I feel like Herman and I are doing pretty well so far, however.

One reason for that, I’m quite sure, is that I’ve read Carlyle, which makes a lot of the wackier features of Moby-Dick (its rapid changes of register, from the prophetic to the bathetic; its elliptical allusions; its delight in the grotesque and the absurd; its insistence that everything — everything — is not just literal but symbolic) seem, if not necessarily reasonable and explicable, at least familiar. Here’s one of many examples of a moment that wouldn’t be out of place in Sartor Resartus:

Men may seem detestable as joint-stock companies and nations; knaves, fools, and murderers there may be; men may have mean and meagre faces; but man, in the ideal, is so noble and so sparkling, such a grand and glowing creature, that over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes. That immaculate manliness we feel within ourselves, so far within us, that it remains intact though all the outer character seem gone; bleeds with keenest anguish at the undraped spectacle of a valor-ruined man. Nor can piety itself, at such a shameful sight, completely stifle her upbraidings against the permitting stars. But this august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes, but that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture. Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God; Himself! the great God absolute! The centre and circumstance of all democracy! His omnipresence, our divine equality!

All it needs is some more capital letters and it could be part of the unfolding of the Clothes Philosophy — or at any rate some kind of appendix to it.

moby-dick-penguin-3I know from experience that not every reader finds Carlylean prose exhilarating, but I do: I have ever since I read The French Revolution as an unsuspecting undergraduate. What I loved about The French Revolution then (before I knew anything at all about Carlyle) was that it exuded the conviction that its writing absolutely mattered — that it was about something hugely important and written in a style meant to convey and to reproduce that significance. It was daring and unconventional because it had to be. I get the same feeling from Moby-Dick. Even when it’s going along a bit more quietly than in the passage I quoted, it has the humming energy of a book with something (many things!) it really, really wants to say, and to say in a memorable way. It doesn’t feel artful, if that means constructed to create an aesthetic effect: it feels spiritual — meaning not religious in any doctrinal way but about the spirit, about what matters, what drives us, what scares us, what means something to us. It’s exciting! I’d really rather quote from it (or read it aloud) than write about it!

That said, so far I can’t disagree with the contemporary opinion I’ve read that the book is an “intellectual chowder.” Up to the half-way point I’ve reached (Chapter 60) there has certainly been (off and on) a forward-moving narrative — I hesitate to call it a “plot” when really all that’s happened, in terms of events, is that Ishmael and Queequeg have met, signed on to the Pequod and been at sea for a while, including one “lowering” of the boats. That through-line is enough, but barely enough, to give some coherence to what is otherwise rather a jumble of anecdote, sea lore, nautical trivia, character sketches, and poetic outbursts. I like the divisions into short chapters, though: that helps each of those ingredients have a certain distinctness, and also mostly prevents them from feeling like digressions, because they are so clearly puzzle pieces. In fact, a metaphor that might work as well as the chowder one is patchwork: I wonder if anyone has worked up a theory of Moby-Dick as literary quilting.

moby-dick-penguin-4I doubt it, because something else that’s hard to miss even on a first reading is just how very masculine the book is. I don’t recall that any women have even had any speaking parts at all in the novel so far — though I may be forgetting something, perhaps from back at the Spouter Inn. Certainly at sea it’s a man’s world. What does that mean for the oft-invoked universality of the novel’s mythos? Coincidentally, we’re watching Season 2 of The Affair, and last night’s episode featured a long scene between Noah and his therapist (played by Cynthia Nixon, which kept confusing me — why is Noah talking to Miranda?) in which Noah expounds a theory of greatness founded on abandoning ties — isn’t it more important to do (write) something great than to respect constraints like family and fidelity? What does it matter if other people suffer through your pursuit of greatness, especially if you achieve it? Obviously, in his case there’s a lot of wishful self-justification at work there, but what struck me was how much power that myth of greatness at any cost still has … when it’s a man talking, anyway. Not that Ahab (who is the most single-minded one in Moby-Dick) comes across as great; if he’s heroic, he is dangerously so, and presumably one thing the rest of the novel does is explore what is noble and what is disastrous about his quest for the white whale. (“And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?”)

I’m reading Moby-Dick because my book club chose it; we’re meeting next week to discuss the first 60 chapters, so I’m going to set it aside for other reading in the meantime so as not to muddle the conversation. I’ve already discovered that the fragmented structure makes putting it down and picking it up again easier than with books whose plots are more intricately woven (which is not to say that there aren’t continuities and patterns unifying Moby-Dick, particularly metaphorical ones). I’m really glad we did choose it: the suggestion was quite unexpected, and I was kind of skeptical about it when it was made, but now I’m grateful to have been giving that extra push. One more thing I’ll be able to cross off my ‘Humiliation’ list! (Maybe next I can suggest we read Ulysses … )

Dubious Comfort: Barbara Pym, Quartet in Autumn


There was something to be said for tea and a comfortable chat about crematoria.

Early in Quartet in Autumn, Letty — one of the novel’s quartet of main characters — reflects on her past as an “unashamed reader of novels”: “she had come to realize,” we’re told, “that the position of an unmarried, unattached, ageing woman is of no interest whatsoever to the writers of modern fiction.” They are of great interest, of course, to Barbara Pym, who could be considered the patron saint of all such overlooked and underestimated women.

Quartet in Autumn actually balances our attention between two more in Pym’s panoply of spinsters and two — what to call them? what is the male equivalent of a ‘spinster’? That we don’t really have one is suggestive of the ways in which aging alone is different for women than it is for men. Still, terminology aside, the characters have a lot in common besides having worked for many years in the same office (that we never learn anything about where they work or what they actually do becomes one of the novel’s tragi-comic aspects). Though one of the men is a widower, now they are all equal in their mutual isolation, and if that sounds like a paradox (how can they be so alone if they’re all together so much?), I think that’s one of Pym’s points: that simply sharing time and space, even over many years, does not in itself create meaningful connections between disparate people. And yet by the end of the book, which is certainly one of the gloomier Pym novels I’ve read, the connection between them has become something just slightly more than any of them thought or expected, and therein lies what small comfort a book about aging, retiring, losing one’s strength and faculties, and dying unmourned can offer.

I thought Pym was especially good — meaning both funny and painful — about retirement, which for many working people surely seems as much a looming threat as an anticipated promise. When Letty and Marcia retire, they are not replaced: “indeed,” we’re told, “the whole department was being phased out,” which raises discouraging questions for them about the value of the work they’ve done for all those years, and even about the reality of their entire working lives:

It seemed to Letty that what cannot now be justified has perhaps never existed, and it gave her the feeling that she and Marcia had been swept away as if they had never been.

This gives her, understandably, a “sensation of nothingness” that is hard to overcome despite the opportunity retirement affords “to do all those things she had always wanted to do” — “unspecified” things that turn out not to be all that fulfilling after all, and which hardly take up all the time she now has. Her first day of retirement is “as tiring as a working day” from the very effort to occupy herself, including during “a period between tea and supper which she did not remember as having existed before.” Perhaps because retirement is much in the air at my own workplace, with similar non-replacement policies raising questions both practical and principled, personal and existential, for all of us, her experience seemed particularly poignant to me: I know how much it can hurt someone to get the message the institution they have devoted themselves to can treat them as an expensive redundancy, someone to be urged out and happily done without.

Sad as the novel’s premise is — it is, indeed, autumnal, with its focus on unwelcome but inevitable changes in all facets of its characters’ lives — it is somehow never, or never completely, melancholy: Pym is too funny for that. There’s the saga of the misfit milk bottle, for instance, which I won’t spoil by relating — it’s not so much that I would ruin any suspense about it as that I could never capture quite why it is so daftly comical, but also so spot on about human nature. Alexander McCall Smith is quite right, in his introduction, to say that “we all have something that is the equivalent of that symbolic milk bottle.” It’s a smaller-scale comedy here than we get in Kingsley Amis’s Ending Up (which is the earlier book club choice that led us here), but it’s also kinder: wry, rather than bitter. Though Pym gives us one truly depressing story about ending up alone, she softens the blow by helping us realize that even in age there are choices, and as long as you have a little life left in you, there are still “infinite possibilities for change.” The novel ends up feeling like a calming cup of tea on an otherwise bad day: it can’t really fix anything, but in its own way, it is bracing.