Recent Reading: Late September Edition

Arcimbolo LibrarianComparisons are foolish, I know, but often these days I recoil uncomfortably from cheerful exchanges among my many bookish ‘tweeps’ about what they’ve been reading because they seem to read so much and so enthusiastically—which is great, of course, but because I’m struggling to finish most of the books I pick up, the contrast can make me feel discouraged instead of interested and inspired. Social media has a way of making you feel inadequate or alienated, doesn’t it? And I say this as someone who has long championed Twitter (and would still do so, if challenged) on the grounds that it is very much what you make it. “My” Twitter is full of avid readers and I love that about it. It’s absolutely not their fault that lately it sometimes seems to hurt as much as it helps. I’m trying to think of it as aspirational: one day, I too will feel cheerfully bookish again!

Anyway, it’s not that I haven’t been reading at all. For one thing, I’m reading for my classes, which most recently has meant Great Expectations, Agatha Christie, and Nancy Drew and the Secret of the Old Clock. Next week it will be Lady Audley’s Secret in 19th-Century Fiction and Gaudy Night in Women & Detective Fiction: as Joe Gargery would say, what larks!

light-yearsEarlier this month I read Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Light Years, the first of her much-admired Cazalet Chronicles. I enjoyed it just fine but wasn’t swept up in it—or swept away by it! The aspect of it that surprised me the most was how much it read like a book written in the 1930s (or perhaps the 1950s) rather than in the 1990s: it felt very much of the time it depicts. As a result, in some ways it seemed like a missed opportunity, artistically speaking: it’s a smart, elegant, readable portrayal but it didn’t seem to have any layers of reflection, or to take advantage of being what it actually is, namely historical fiction. Maybe the idea was to give us the feeling of being transported back, rather than to encourage us to look back and consider gaps and differences. I already had a copy of the second book in the series, Marking Time, and I will probably read it eventually, but I’ve picked it up, read a few pages, and put it down again more than once: I just don’t feel compelled to persist. The last time I tried, I found myself thinking that (deliberately or not) it read like the novel I imagine Woolf was trying not to write when she wrote what ended up as The Years. The problem, she noted, was “how to give ordinary waking Arnold Bennett life the form of art.” Not (we might conclude, following her lead) by just recounting in meticulous detail everything that happens to a large number of people over a long period of time.

the fellAlso this month I finally got my hands on Sarah Moss’s The Fell. I’m a big admirer of Moss’s fiction (see here, here, and here for more formal reviews plus any posts in this category here) but like other readers I know, I did not get terribly excited about The Fell. It has her usual combination of intelligence, precision, and undercurrents of menace or stress, and it really captured the grim absurdity of early lockdowns, but I keep wishing for her to go back to a more expansive canvas. I also found the somewhat breathless or chaotic stream of consciousness style of The Fell quite tiring to read.

mandel2My book club met in the middle of September to talk about Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility, but I actually read it in August, so it doesn’t really count as “recent”. I will say that it was not a big hit with the group, although most of us found at least some aspects of it enjoyable, provocative, or entertaining. There seemed to be a general consensus that it too often felt thin or sketchy: that she had not taken the time to make the most of her premise and her scenarios, or perhaps even that she had just cobbled together a lot of different ideas she’d had and tried to make a single novel out of them.

During Hurricane Fiona, I read mostly on my Kobo, which can be illuminated: when it’s really stormy, there’s rarely enough light to see print books very clearly, even with our best battery-powered lanterns. First I ended up rereading Normal People, which I had been thinking about and talking with other people about and so wanted to revisit. It still strikes me as such a melancholy novel; I find it odd when people refer to it as some kind of romance.

us-bookThen I read David Nicholls’s Us, which I happened to have recently downloaded, inspired by having enjoyed the TV adaptation starring Tom Hollander (which I thought was excellent). I wouldn’t say it’s a great novel, or even a particularly good one, at least in the prose: it’s a bit awkward and heavy-handed. I really empathized with its protagonist Douglas, though, and I appreciate that Nicholls refused the simplistic happy ending you might expect from a novel about a man hoping to save his marriage while going on a ‘grand tour’ with his wife and son.

I found myself thinking a lot about Douglas’s wife Connie’s explanation for deciding to divorce him: that their “marriage has run its course,” that with the departure of their son for college there isn’t really anything left for them to do as a couple and she just wants something new, different, better for the next and probably last phase of her life. Is that a reasonable or a selfish position? Obviously, a lot depends on specifics (for example, on whether she’s right that, as a couple, they have exhausted their options). A different novel (or novelist, I guess) would have explored that question more fully, perhaps even given us a split perspective so that we heard from Connie as well as from Douglas. There’s something enigmatic about her to the end, as it is: our story is really just about Douglas coming to terms with the inarguable fact that what you want is not always what someone else wants, and it might not be possible, never mind right, to change that. Because there’s never any doubt in the novel that Douglas loves Connie and would stay married to her if he could, there’s real pathos in watching him struggle with her resolution, including with the judgment of him (and his parenting) that is part of it. It was a good hurricane read: just absorbing enough to pass the time without being terribly demanding. rose-nicolson

I have a few books around that I hope will help me out of my current slump: Andrew Greig’s Rose Nicolson, which looks great; Nicola Griffith’s Spear, which I’ve been meaning to read for months now; and Ian McEwan’s Lessons, which my book club chose for our next meeting. Kate Atkinson’s Shrines of Gaiety is incoming, as well: I always find Atkinson immensely readable, even when I end up dissatisfied with the result, so the timing of this release seems perfect.

In My Classes: Stopping and Starting

DALHOUSIE-UNIVERSITYIt has been a somewhat chaotic time in my classes since I last posted—not in the classes themselves, really, which have gone on much as usual, when they have actually met. But there have been a couple of unanticipated disruptions to the term, as a result of which it feels as if we are struggling to build up any momentum.

First, Queen Elizabeth died. I did not expect this to affect my class schedule at all, but when the day of her funeral was declared a provincial holiday, Dalhousie decided to follow suit, so all classes were cancelled that day. I was not in favor of this plan: it’s embarrassing enough that we still have a hereditary monarchy in the first place, and the university doesn’t close for every non-statutory holiday (we are business as usual on Easter Monday, for example). A lot of other folks still had to work that day, too. However, once the public schools were closing there were certainly pragmatic arguments for making parents’ lives easier, and although it was a pain having to revise course plans with so little notice, once I’d done that I decided just to embrace the extra day off.

fionaWhen I announced the schedule changes for the “day of mourning,” I commented “Let’s just hope we don’t also have a hurricane!” Well, what do you know: Hurricane Fiona headed straight for us this past weekend, and classes are cancelled again today, as crews clean up the debris and work on restoring power. The storm was not as severe in Halifax as in other parts of the region, where it did really catastrophic damage. Other parts of the city also fared worse than we did in our particular corner, where there were lots of limbs and branches blown off and some trees sheared in two, but no huge trees or poles down. We lost power for about 38 hours; we got it back last night and then lost it again for a short time this afternoon, meaning we are definitely not taking it for granted! Our freezer packs did a decent job keeping the food in the fridge chilled, and luckily the freezer itself wasn’t packed and what was in it stayed pretty much frozen solid. We have a small camp stove we use to boil water and do a bit of cooking as needed. Increasingly, folks around us have generators, and more than one neighbor kindly offered us whatever help we needed; if the outage had gone on much longer, we would have taken them up on it gratefully.

Assuming we are back on Wednesday, that will actually be our only day of classes this week, as Friday is another day off, although this time deliberately so, in recognition of National Truth & Reconciliation Day.

agedIn between these disruptions, we have actually met a few times and I think it has gone basically fine. The energy seems a bit low to me in 19th-Century Fiction, although I blame it partly on our dreary windowless room, and it’s also possible that it seems that way to me because I can’t see students’ faces. I’ve been encouraging them to nod at me the way Wemmick nods at the Aged:

“Here’s Mr. Pip, aged parent,” said Wemmick, “and I wish you could hear his name. Nod away at him, Mr. Pip; that’s what he likes. Nod away at him, if you please, like winking!”

“This is a fine place of my son’s, sir,” cried the old man, while I nodded as hard as I possibly could. “This is a pretty pleasure-ground, sir. This spot and these beautiful works upon it ought to be kept together by the Nation, after my son’s time, for the people’s enjoyment.”

“You’re as proud of it as Punch; ain’t you, Aged?” said Wemmick, contemplating the old man, with his hard face really softened; “there’s a nod for you;” giving him a tremendous one; “there’s another for you;” giving him a still more tremendous one; “you like that, don’t you? If you’re not tired, Mr. Pip—though I know it’s tiring to strangers—will you tip him one more? You can’t think how it pleases him.”

I tipped him several more, and he was in great spirits.

I have wondered if stretching out our time on each book (which I did because of the advice we keep getting to ease up on students because of, well, everything) might be backfiring, because we’ve been talking about the same book for so long now. On the other hand, my competing fear is that a lot of them are quite behind in the reading, which could suggest I’m not allowing enough time. Well, we’ll be done with Great Expectations this week, one way or another, and next week we start Lady Audley’s Secret, which (if previous years are any indication) will perk them up, with its lurid and fast-moving plot and utter lack of subtlety (albeit it plenty of ambiguity, some of it, IMHO, evidence of authorial ineptness, not artistic complexity). (I do enjoy the novel a lot, and wrote an appreciation of it years ago for Open Letters Monthly.)

the-secret-of-the-old-clockWe’ve finished with Agatha Christie already in Mystery & Detective Fiction. I used to allot two class hours to Miss Marple stories, but for all Christie’s significance to the genre, I honestly don’t find there’s all that much to say about them, so I don’t regret having trimmed away one of those hours this year. We had a good student presentation on her, which gave us a productive second round of discussion. On Friday we had our first hour on Nancy Drew; we’re losing an hour on her to Fiona but will get another chance on Wednesday, with another student presentation. I always enjoy these so much: the students are so smart and creative and engaged, and they come up with such good ideas for class activities. Overall the energy in this seminar started off pretty good and seems to be getting better: spirits were high on Friday, partly because Nancy always proves very provocative. She’s just so good, and so good at everything: it’s annoying, I agree!

Personally, I continue to feel somewhat disoriented and unfocused, and I’m struggling to find my rhythm and pace in the classroom, especially (to my surprise, as it has long been my favorite lecture course) in 19th-Century Fiction. I don’t think (I certainly hope!) that this wavering isn’t evident to my students—that as far as they can tell, I’ve got my head in the game. I did mention to my seminar, in the context of one confusion I fell into, that (without going into details) I wasn’t as on top of things this term as I usually expect to be and that they should just ask or set me straight if they notice me getting something wrong. These recent cancellations and the last-minute changes they have required to my carefully laid plans are not helping: I don’t enjoy uncertainty at the best of times, which these definitely are not. Here’s hoping that once Fiona is well behind us, we don’t get any more unpleasant surprises for a while.

The First Week

3032-Start-Here-cropMy classes have been meeting for a week now, and I said I was going to try to get back in the habit of reflecting on them, so here I am, although to be honest I find myself at something of a loss about what to say. Should I just focus on the classroom time, on what we’re reading and talking about, as if it’s just another year? Or should I try to explain how surreal it feels to be in the classroom, talking about our readings as if it’s just another year, and then, when the time is up, to be back in the strange disordered world of grief?

I’ll start with the basics, the way I did in the early days of this series.

In 19th-Century British Fiction From Dickens to Hardy I have done my usual contextual introductions and now we are working our way through Great Expectations. I have mentioned here before, I’m sure, that sometimes I get a bit tired of Great Expectations, which I assign a lot. The last time I taught it was in the British Literature survey course in Winter 2020, right before we all got sent home. In my online courses since then we did Hard Times and Bleak House, and I think stepping away from Great Expectations for a couple of years has been good for me—I’m really appreciating it this time. It has an intensity and also (at least in some parts) a restraint that shows Dickens’s control and maturity as an artist. Today we talked about the novel as a version of a Bildungsroman except that, so far, Pip is developing in all the wrong ways. We talked about Miss Havisham and Estella as (bad) influences, and we looked especially at Chapter XIV as an illustration of the way Pip’s retrospective narration not only makes sure that we see how he’s going wrong but shows us that, eventually, he sees that too. “It was not because I was faithful,” he reports,greatexpectations

but because Joe was faithful, that I never ran away and went for a soldier or a sailor. It was not because I had a strong sense of the virtue of industry, but because Joe had a strong sense of the virtue of industry, that I worked with tolerable zeal against the grain. It is not possible to know how far the influence of any amiable honest-hearted duty-doing man flies out into the world; but it is very possible to know how it has touched one’s self in going by, and I know right well that any good that intermixed itself with my apprenticeship came of plain contented Joe, and not of restlessly aspiring discontented me.

It isn’t young Pip who knows to call himself “ungracious,” as he does twice in this chapter; it’s an older, wiser Pip. But (and essentially, for this eventual moral growth) even young Pip knows enough to break into tears when he leaves Joe behind:

I whistled and made nothing of going. But the village was very peaceful and quiet, and the light mists were solemnly rising, as if to show me the world, and I had been so innocent and little there, and all beyond was so unknown and great, that in a moment with a strong heave and sob I broke into tears. It was by the finger-post at the end of the village, and I laid my hand upon it, and said, “Good-bye, O my dear, dear friend!”

Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts. I was better after I had cried than before,—more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle. If I had cried before, I should have had Joe with me then.

4205 start hereIn Women and Detective Fiction I also began with some broad overviews, of detective fiction as a genre and of some of the questions that organize the course and will frame our readings. For last class we read a handful of “classic” stories to serve as touchstones for the resisting or subversive versions to come: “The Purloined Letter,” “A Scandal in Bohemia,” and, as a sample of hard-boiled detection, Hammett’s “Death & Company,” which is one of his ‘Continental Op’ stories. These give us a good sense of the masculine milieu of so much classic detective fiction, of the habits and practices of their detectives, and of the reductive roles assigned to women, or assumed of the women, in them. Today, as a contrast, we discussed Baroness Orczy’s “The Woman in the Big Hat,” which is one of her stories about Lady Molly of Scotland Yard. It has a delightful “reveal”:

“The big hat,” replied my dear lady with a smile. “Had the mysterious woman at Mathis’ been tall, the waitresses would not, one and all, have been struck by the abnormal size of the hat. The wearer must have been petite, hence the reason that under a wide brim only the chin would be visible. I at once sought for a small woman. Our fellows did not think of that, because they are men.”

You see how simple it all was!

Baroness_Emma_Orczy_by_BassanoWe had already talked about Sherlock Holmes’s condescending remark, “You see, but you do not observe!” and now we could revisit it with observations about how gender affects what you see, or what you understand about what you see, and about kinds of expertise that are typically devalued because they are women’s and therefore considered trivial. This issue was also key to our other reading for today, Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers,” a wonderful story that highlights the way the law fails women, making justice something that can only be achieved by subverting it. We talked about the way Glaspell’s story, instead of offering up a big reveal at the end by the superior figure of the detective, instead allows the story to unfold gradually, the women’s dawning awareness drawing us along with them as our sympathies shift from the murdered man to the woman whose happiness he destroyed. Their solidarity grows partly in reaction to the men, who are lumbering around doing more typical (but, we easily see, entirely misguided) kinds of investigating. Every time they come in and make their jovially condescending remarks about “the ladies,”  we too close ranks against them:

“Oh well,” said Mrs. Hale’s husband, with good-natured superiority, “women are used to worrying over trifles.”

The two women moved a little closer together. Neither of them spoke. The county attorney seemed suddenly to remember his manners—and think of his future.

“And yet,” said he, with the gallantry of a young politician, “for all their worries, what would we do without the ladies?”

 In both classes, it feels as if we are still warming up, but all things considered I think participation has been good. We are all masked, and that’s a bit hot and uncomfortable and makes some things a bit harder—since I can’t see people’s whole faces, for instance, it is taking me longer to match them with names, and also I can’t really see people’s reactions, to get a sense of how things are going. It’s worth it, though, obviously, for the risk reduction. Considering how sheltered I’ve been for the last two and a half years, I’ve actually been more relaxed than I expected about suddenly being surrounded by so many more people, and I think the mandatory masking (even it if isn’t everywhere) has really helped with that. 

Weeping Woman 1937 by Pablo Picasso 1881-1973Other than the masks, nothing about teaching has changed, as far as I can tell, and in the moment I find I still enjoy the things I have always enjoyed about it: the material, the students, the dynamics and demands of discussion. I am relieved that (a few minor hiccups aside) I seem to staying on top of things in spite of being tired, distracted, and out of practice. When I’m not teaching, though, or busy with the other ever-proliferating work of the term, I feel more, not less, disoriented with the difference between the sameness of it all and my new changed reality. It’s a good thing, I know, that I am able to show up and be (more or less) my old self in the classroom, but at the same time I don’t know how to make sense of that or be at ease with it.

It has been a strange, confusing, and exhausting week, with some pretty good moments and some really bad ones. But at least it’s over now, after so much anticipation, and that’s one more “first” I never have to face again: my first week teaching again in person, after.

This Week: Classes

It’s 15 years now since I began posting regularly about “this week in my classes.” The series was hard to sustain during the past two years of teaching fully online, not because teaching wasn’t taking up a lot of my time and attention but because teaching ansynchronously made the concept of a “week” a lot less meaningful (among other challenges). Under different circumstances, I would be eagerly looking forward to tomorrow’s in-person class meetings. Ongoing concern about COVID (allayed only somewhat by Dalhousie’s decision to require masks in classrooms—but not in other shared spaces) would be reason enough for some ambivalence; add in that I am still grieving, and that campus is saturated with memories, and the result is a complex mixture of anticipation and anxiety, relief and sorrow. I have always loved teaching, so I do expect the demands, distractions, and rewards of being back in the classroom to be good for me, as it has been in the past. Those of you who have also experienced difficult losses will appreciate, though, that I have mixed feelings even about that.

Just as it hasn’t been possible for me to keep Owen’s death away from my reading or out of my writing, I expect it will come up as I reflect on my teaching experiences this term. In fact, because one of my ongoing challenges is finding ways to integrate his loss into my life, compartmentalizing—which has its uses for my day-to-day functioning—can also be counterproductive, not to mention painful and artificial, as an overall strategy. I don’t really know at this point what it’s going to be like for me this term, or, in a way, who I’m going to be. Maybe what I’ll discover is a healing continuity; maybe I’ll realize ways in which I have changed, or need to change. One of my worries is that, because of the strain I am under myself, I won’t have the emotional capacity to support my students as much as I usually aspire to—but perhaps exerting myself to meet their needs will be a useful counter-measure to the exhausting self-absorption of grief. In any case, I’m about to find out, and as I have always found posting about my teaching valuable for me pedagogically as well as personally, I’m going to try to return to it as a regular routine, so if you’re a regular reader, you’ll find out too.

So what exactly lies ahead? I am grateful that my department allowed me to change some course assignments around so that I have two upper-level classes this term, both of which are among my very favorite ones to teach. One is The 19th-Century British Novel from Dickens to Hardy; I have assigned Middlemarch as one of our readings, and allowed a relatively luxurious five weeks for it, because I can’t think of any better way to remind myself why my work matters to me (and, I hope, to my students). The other is Women and Detective Fiction, which has always prompted really high levels of student engagement. This week’s class meetings are primarily warm-ups: introductions to the courses on Wednesday, with an emphasis on broad framing themes and questions; and then on Friday in both classes, background lectures (on the ‘rise of the novel’ in 19thC Fiction and the history of detective fiction in the other), to make sure everyone has something like the same preparation for the readings and discussions to come.

I’ve been doing this for a pretty long time now (27 years, thanks for asking), so ordinarily I’d feel quite confident at this point. Practically and logistically, I’m well prepared—though it will be interesting to see how more than two years of working from home on a very flexible, if still often very intense, schedule, plus the psychological upheaval of the past 8 months, have affected my executive function. “To-do lists are your friends,” grief experts say, and I believe them. I have a new planner and good intentions; we’ll see how far they get me. This may be the term I feel most acutely the truth of this observation from Middlemarch‘s wise narrator, though:

Doubtless some ancient Greek has observed that behind the big mask and the speaking-trumpet, there must always be our poor little eyes peeping as usual and our timorous lips more or less under anxious control.

Behind my (hopefully adequate) Layfield KN-95 mask, there’s going to be a lot of emotional turmoil, more or less under control.

Hands of Water

PPP flowers“This is me trying,” I said in a post back in May. I was trying to read again, and also to write about my reading again. I have been trying even harder recently, though with mixed success: I’m still abandoning more books than I used to, and watching TV instead of reading because it’s more quickly and easily distracting, but I’ve also written up some of the books I have managed to read in something more like the old spirit of “just say what you think and don’t second guess it.” What a liberating feeling that was, back in the early days of this blog, and it really has continued to be freeing—this space, while in some senses a public one, is my space, a place where I just write what I want to.

I was surprised, after Owen’s death, by how strongly I wanted to write about it. Words and phrases came to me and would echo in my head until I found a place for them. That still happens, but as time keeps relentlessly passing the sameness of my grief feels like a reason to write less about it; I have been trying, here anyway. What else is there to say, after all? My son is still dead; I am still grieving him daily and deeply. And yet things aren’t exactly the same: how could they be, eight months later? One of the strangest things for me now—and here I think I am understanding better what Denise Riley meant when she talked about her grief in terms of dropping out of time—is that the passing time suddenly feels less linear than circular, as if instead of its carrying me further and further away from Owen (unwillingly left behind in his timelessness, as Riley puts it), it is bringing me back, impossibly, to a time when he was right here with us, because it was just (just!) last summer that, after hardly seeing each other in person for the first year of the pandemic, we had begun visiting again, and just (just!) last August that he came to share his finished Hackenbush video with us. He was also starting classes again at Dalhousie; things seemed to be looking up on all fronts. Those days are so vivid, so immediate, in my memory, that it makes me literally dizzy sometimes when I bring myself back to this moment, this August, the start of this new term.

Something else that’s different is how emotionally confusing and therefore exhausting I’m finding the present. The early days of grief are awful but absolute, almost simple, I realize now: there are no options, no expectations, for anything besides mourning. I have learned so much about grief since then, from experience but also from others, and from reading. One thing I’ve learned is that “it takes time” doesn’t mean that with time the grief lessens; it means something more like you get used to living with it, you learn to walk around with it, but it’s still there, fierce and painful and disorienting. Something else I’ve learned is that grief changes your relationship with happiness. I’ve read a lot of poetry in the last few months, taking comfort in finding words “in the shape of [my] wounds” (in Sean Thomas Dougherty’s phrase). I like this poem by W. S. Merwin, which captures both the relief of finding words for my pain and the pain of encountering “the joy of the world” when it feels impossible to share in it.


When the pain of the world finds words
they sound like joy
and often we follow them
with our feet of earth
and learn them by heart
but when the joy of the world finds words
they are painful
and often we turn away
with our hands of water

I am trying—to read, to write, to be—but it’s hard and uncomfortable and often I would rather not. Turning away is easier. Still, time keeps passing, and soon I won’t be able to default to comfortless passivity: next week, I will be back in the classroom.

“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.

Rereading Never Let Me Go

book-cover-never-let-me-go-by-kazuo-ishiguroMy copy of Never Let Me Go is a 2006 edition, and it may well have been in 2006 that I read it for the first time. I’ve tried several times since then to reread it. The Remains of the Day is one of my personal top 10 novels: I consider it pretty much perfect. Many people I know admire Never Let Me Go even more, so it has always seemed that it would be worth going back to, both to experience it in that fuller way you usually can on a rereading and to see if I might like to assign it some day. And yet I have never read it again until now—at least, not all the way through. Why? Because every time I have tried, I have found it too dull, too slow, too (to put a more positive spin on it) subtle. Subtlety is one of Ishiguro’s great gifts, of course, but his characteristic understatement actually demands a lot of his readers en route to its rewards, and on every other attempt I just couldn’t keep it up.

I did this time, though just barely. The truth is that much of the first, say, 7/8 of Never Let Me Go is remarkable in its banality; what gives it momentum on a first read is the underlying eeriness, the creeping sense that something is awry with these children and their teachers and their situation, that there’s a mystery we need resolved. Sure, there are some intense moments along the way, but it’s the final 1/8 that, retrospectively, illuminates the earlier parts. It’s only as you near the end that you understand that the very triviality and pettiness and (more or less) normalcy of those years is the point, or the challenge, of the entire concept. A really attentive rereading would make the most of that later knowledge, and I expect all kinds of details would turn out to be much more significant than they seem in the moment, just as Stevens’s obsession with silver polish or choice of light reading in Remains turn out to matter much more than you might think at first. (Another novel that gets better and better, IMHO, the more you reread its earlier sections in light of its later ones is Atonement, which I really miss teaching!)never-go

Anyway, I kept reading this time even though I was a bit bored, because I knew what was coming and I wanted to get there again. More than the novel itself, I have remembered James Wood’s review of it, which—rereading it today—still seems like an exemplary work of criticism. I have thought often of his discussion of the novel’s allegorical implications, the way it turns out to be not really (or at least not just) about cloning, but about life and death and how we all spend the time in between, about the strangeness of our assumption that “that to be assured of death at seventy or eighty or ninety returns to life all its savor and purpose.” “Why is sheer longevity,” Wood asks, “if it most certainly ends in the same way as sheer brevity, accorded meaning, while sheer brevity is thought to lack it?”

Offered, at last, some unsparing truths about the life she and her friends have lived, Kathy asks,

Why did we do all of that work in the first place? Why train us, encourage us, make us produce all of that? If we’re just going to give donations anyway, then die, why all those lessons? Why all those books and discussions?

Answers to this are implicit throughout Never Let Me Go: creativity, art, music, friendship, love are among the things that give any human life meaning, no matter its beginning or end. They are also, as Miss Emily defensively points out, things “which even now no one will ever take from you.” If the children had known the full context, “you would have told us it was all pointless, and how could we have argued with you?”

never-let-meThe novel’s thought experiment about cloning is chilling and provocative in the questions it raises about where scientific or medical “advances” might take us. I think it’s more powerful, though, as a commentary on meaning and value in our own lives, which also end in death sentences, if usually of a less calculated kind. Why would reading Daniel Deronda be pointless for Kathy and not for me? Why all these lessons, all these books and discussions? Why do we do all of this work? Some novels (I’m thinking of Sarah Winman’s Still Life, for example, perhaps because I read it relatively recently) answer these questions more robustly just by the force and delight of their own fiction. Never Let Me Go is more somber and equivocal, though I think ultimately it leads us in the same direction. A line from the series Angel comes to mind: “If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do.” The ending isn’t, in itself, where meaning lies, but it’s the certainty of the ending that gives meaning to what comes before—an idea which is both explored and represented in Ishiguro’s novel itself.

If we had to take sides, I’m still on Team Remains, but (though I’m unlikely ever to assign it) I’m glad I finally read Never Let Me Go a second time: in the end—by the end—it was worth it.

To Begin Again: Tessa Hadley, Free Love

hadleyPhyllis felt after this meeting with Nicky that she had crossed a line, like being on board a ship where there were certain ceremonies for when you crossed the Equator. It wasn’t only that Nicky spoke as if they might go out together and she could meet his friends, gain entry to a whole new world of social relations. It was that she knew nothing about this world of his. Everything she’d ever known had been nothing: she might as well scrape away all the things she’d taken for granted all her life, to begin again. She seemed to watch herself undressing, in that room of Nicky’s with no accretions of furniture or domesticity, dropping the pieces of her clothing one by one onto the bare floorboards, leaving her old self behind, climbing into his bed, weightless and transparent as a naked soul in an old painting.

If you like the passage I took as my epigraph for this post, you’ll probably like Free Love overall, or at any rate you will like it more than I did, which wasn’t much at all. Since I finished reading it, I have puzzled over why I disliked it so much. None of the reasons I came up with are faults in the novel itself, I don’t think, although I suppose you could construe them that way if you take it as a ‘fault’ to be a certain kind of novel. But why would you? (Why would I?) The house of fiction has many windows, etc.

I’ll comment on a few of the things I disliked about the novel, while acknowledging that some of them are idiosyncratic and others probably evidence of inadequate attention, and also that I was just generally out of sorts the day I finished reading it. (And yet the right book can change my mood, so that can’t be all that was going on.) First of all, it’s more or less all like that passage: meticulous, well-crafted (almost too conspicuously so), analytical, unemotional. Free Love has the kind of flat affect I associate with a lot of contemporary writers, which always seems pitched to the kind of reader that considers “unsentimental” high praise. It is full of well-observed details, but they felt well-observed to me: I could never lose myself in the descriptions, or feel something emerging from beyond them—something you might call theme,  or meaning. Even though the novel deals a lot in people’s inner worlds, it always felt superficial, never immersive. The way prose reads to us can be so idiosyncratic, though: perhaps other readers are carried away by Hadley’s style, or perhaps this is not something they want from her, or from anyone.

free-loveThe novel turns on a dramatic act of rebellion: suburban housewife Phyllis leaves her home, husband, and children to move in with her lover (who, spoiler alert, turns out—in what felt like a completely unnecessary plot wrinkle—to be her husband’s son by another woman). It’s a decision that should have felt weighty, dramatic, consequential, but it did not feel well motivated: it’s impulsive, and it’s only after the fact that Phyllis really begins to understand the social upheavals that she asserts interest in. If she has an epiphany, it’s an unconvincing one, and (maybe this is just my Victorian moralist showing up) yet Phyllis ups and walks away from people who love and need her, as if duty doesn’t mean anything in the face of desire. I found her both uninteresting and unsympathetic, a bad combination, and the novel just presents her, so I was never really sure whether I was supposed to feel differently.

I could go on about the other characters I didn’t care about, but that’s no fun, and also it might make it sound as if I require “relatable” characters to like a novel, which is not true. (It may be more true about what I require from the implied author.)  My impatience with Free Love was more to do with my impression that it carefully depicted a moment in time but did not bring a novelistic sensibility or perspective to that depiction that I could get a grasp on. What’s the point of all of it? (And by the end, it did seem like there was a lot of it.) Maybe I haven’t read the right other books to appreciate it (Dorian mentioned that he liked it as a spin on Doris Lessing, for example, and I wouldn’t know). Hadley mentions having immersed herself in writers from the period, including Margaret Drabble—but I haven’t had the same stifled reaction to Drabble’s novels. I reviewed Late In the Day for the TLS and was a bit lukewarm, which should maybe have been a caution. Frances Wilson reviewed Free Love, I think admiringly, though actually the review (not unlike my earlier one) is noncommittal about evaluation and admits Hadley’s “cold eye.” Is that praise or criticism? Maybe neither, but it’s accurate, and it’s as good an explanation as any other one I have for my negative reaction.

In a Dark Wood: William Styron, Darkness Visible

Content warning: depression and suicide

styronThe vast metaphor which most faithfully represents this fathomless ordeal . . . is that of Dante, and his all-too-familiar lines still arrest the imagination with their augury of the unknowable, the black struggle to come:

In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark wood,
For I had lost the right path.

Early in his brief “memoir of madness” Darkness Visible, William Styron tells us about the op-ed he wrote for the New York Times after Primo Levi’s suicide, which to his great annoyance had left so many “worldly writers and scholars . . . mystified and disappointed.” “The argument I put forth,” he explains,

was fairly straightforward: the pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it, and it kills in many instances because its anguish can no longer be borne.

Straightforward, perhaps, but the “spontaneous—and enormous” reaction to his article convinced him that it was worth saying more about his own experiences with depression. The result was first a lecture, then an article in Vanity Fair, and then this slim but powerful book.

darknessI read Darkness Visible on the recommendation of a friend who knew that I have been struggling to understand Owen’s decision to end his life from his point of view, not just because he did not share many details of his struggle but because I have never experienced depression myself—sadness, yes, and now grief, but these are far from the same thing.

There are always going to be things about Owen’s life and death that elude my understanding. An article I read about grief after suicide loss talks about the damage suicides do to people’s “assumptive world,” the things they assume to be true, which includes their beliefs about other people. There can perhaps be no more drastic reminder that other people are ultimately, precisely, other. I am working on accepting that many questions I have will never, can never, be answered. I also think it would be a mistake to think that depression in itself answers those questions: for one thing, as Styron emphasizes, many—in fact, most—people who suffer with depression survive it:

one need not sound the false or inspirational note to stress the truth that depression is not the soul’s annihilation; men and women who have recovered from the disease—and they are countless—bear witness to what is probably its only saving grace: it is conquerable.

Still, keeping that in mind, and also knowing that Styron’s experience was uniquely his own (something else Styron is clear about—”I don’t intend my ordeal to stand as a representation of what happens, or might happen, to others”), I was grateful, reading Darkness Visible, for the clarity and intensity of its depiction of depression from the inside, from the perspective of the sufferer. It was not an easy read, especially in my situation, but it made depression less “unimaginable” for me.

Darkness Visible by William Styron: 9780679643524 |  BooksStyron dislikes the term “depression”: “melancholia,” he thinks, “would still appear to be a far more apt and evocative word for the blacker forms of the disorder,” whereas “depression,” bland and innocuous sounding, inhibits understanding “of the horrible intensity of the disease when out of control.” Styron carefully chronicles his own descent into the worst of it, frankly examining the role of his drinking (which he believes actually held the depression at bay for some time), the onset of “a kind of numbness” in which his own body began to feel unfamiliar to him, and then a pattern of “anxiety, agitation, unfocused dread” leading to “a suffocating gloom” and “an immense and aching solitude.” He recounts the medications he took (this was before the widespread use of today’s most frequently prescribed antidepressants), the therapy he finally sought out, and his eventual hospitalization, which in his case proved life-saving, mostly because (as he tells it) it bought him precious time:

In the hospital I partook of what may be depression’s only grudging favor—its ultimate capitulation. Even those for whom any kind of therapy is a futile exercise can look forward to the eventual passing of the storm. If they survive the storm itself, its fury almost always fades and then disappears. Mysterious in its coming, mysterious in its going, the affliction runs its course, and one finds peace.

visibleNot always, of course, and as a book like this can only be written by just such a survivor, it is bound to tilt more towards optimism than might in other cases seem warranted. From his own experience, Styron appreciates that convincing a depressed person (usually “in a state of unrealistic hopelessness”) to see things as he now does is “a tough job”:

Calling ‘Chin up!’ from the safety of the shore to a drowning person is tantamount to insult, but it has been shown over and over again that if the encouragement is dogged enough . . . the endangered one can nearly always be saved.

In some ways, these cheering “chin up” sections of the book were harder for me to read than the other, grimmer parts. This one in particular actually angered me, for implicitly blaming friends and families for not offering dogged enough encouragement or, Styron’s other key term, “devotion,” to save their loved ones.

Instead, insofar as depression is an explanation for “drowning,” its deadly force surely lies in what Styron powerfully conveys as its horrors, which can be “so overwhelming as to be quite beyond expression”: 

for those who have known it, [depression] is a simulacrum of all the evil of our world: of our everyday discord and chaos, our irrationality, warfare and crime, torture and violence, our impulse toward death, and our flight from it held in the intolerable equipoise of history.

“If our lives had no other configuration than this,” he considers that “we should want, and perhaps deserve, to perish.”

PPP-ShoreTrue to his own experience, though, Styron does not end on this gloomy note, but on a more uplifting one:

For those who have dwelt in depression’s dark wood, and known its inexplicable agony, their return from the abyss is not unlike the ascent of the poet, trudging upward and upward out of hell’s black depths and at last emerging into what he saw as “the shining world.”

The last words of the book are not his but Dante’s:

And so we came forth, and once again beheld the stars.

I only wish that were true for us.


ghostJuly was not a very good reading month for me. By habit and on principle I usually finish most of the books I start, at least if I have any reason to think they are worth a bit of effort if it’s needed. In July, however, I not only didn’t even start many books (not by my usual standards, anyway) but I set aside almost as many books as I completed—Bloomsbury Girls (which hit all my sweet spots in theory but fell painfully flat in practice), Gilead (a reread I was enthusiastic about at first but just could not persist with), A Ghost in the Throat (which I will try again, as I liked its voice—what I struggled with was its essentialism and its somewhat miscellaneous or wandering structure). I already mentioned Andrew Miller’s Oxygen and Monica Ali’s Love Marriage, both of which I finished and enjoyed, in my last round-up post; I can add Maggie O’Farrell’s forthcoming The Marriage Portrait to the tally of successes since then (I liked it a lot).

smithAli Smith’s how to be both was a mixed experience for me. My copy began with the contemporary story (as you may know, two versions were published), and it read easily for me and was quite engaging, in the same way that the seasonal quartet books all were (though it was funny—funny strange, not lol funny—to find that once again, but this time accidentally, I had chosen a book fundamentally about grief). But the Renaissance section pretty much lost me, and I was not willing or able to put in the work to understand and appreciate the connections between the parts. I’m quite ready to blame myself, not Smith, as my concentration has been quite poor recently, as has my motivation to persist with anything that isn’t either required or readily rewarding—but this was also a reminder of why until fairly recently I had been wary of her fiction: I’m not an experimentalist by habit, my sensibility or taste just runs to the more conventional. I like my novelists to actually write their novels, not leave the work of making sense of it, or filling in the actual content of it, up to me—not absolutely, of course, or I’m in the wrong job, but how to be both was too far in the wrong direction for me, for now.

Ow1Another reread for me in July was Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End. As with everything I’ve read about both grief and suicide, this novel made me very conscious of the particularity of loss, and also of relationships, including mother-child ones: there is not much in it that specifically reminds me of my own son or what it was like being his mom. But there are some passages in it that vividly capture emotions I have had or thoughts I have struggled with, of sorrow, pain, confusion, disorientation, and helpless, bereft love. I am so grateful for the writers who have done the hard work of finding words for these feelings.

Owen would have turned 25 on July 22, another ‘first.’ On his birthday last year I told him (as I always did) that the day he was born was one of the happiest days of our lives. This year it was one of the saddest.