“Solitude Deepens”: May Sarton, The House By the Sea

sarton-houseSolitude has replaced the single intense relationship, the passionate love that even at Nelson focused all the rest. Solitude, like a long love, deepens with time, and, I trust, will not fail me if my own powers of creation diminish. For growing into solitude is one way of growing to the end.

There’s not really much new or different in A House By the Sea: like the other Sarton memoirs or journals I’ve read, it is a patchwork of records of her daily life (“At the end of the afternoon yesterday Raymond came to see how I was getting on, and we sat at the table in the porch and had a little talk”), reflections on people she knows, or memories of those she has lost (“The Julian Huxley I knew and loved is beginning to emerge again after the shock of seeing him, old and crotchety, last October”), a lot of fretting and some very occasional rejoicing over her writing projects (“I wonder sometimes whether the sea may not constantl defuse the anxiety without which poetry is impossible for me”), observations on the solitude that nourishes but also occasionally devastates her (“This morning I feel better for having let the woe in, for admitting what I have tried for weeks to refuse to admit–loneliness like starvation”), and descriptions of the natural world around the house she has moved to by the sea:

If there is one irresistible piece of magic here among many others, it is the slightly curving path down to the sea that begins in flagstones on the lawn, cuts through two huge junipers, and proceeds, winding its way down to Surf Point, through the wood lilies in June, to tall grasses in summer, the goldenrod and asters in September, leading the eye on, creating the atmosphere of a fairy tale, something open yet mysterious that every single person who comes here is led to explore.

It’s the last two elements that draw me to these books, which otherwise are such so committed to the everyday that they risk being as dull as uncomposed reality. At their best, they bring out the poetry of the quotidian–and Sarton’s own everyday life, too, sometimes has real drama, while her literary work and connections mean that her activities do become more interesting than they would otherwise be.

The House By the Sea seemed less engaging in those ways than Plant Dreaming Deep or Journal of a Solitude–like At Seventy, it is more incidental and miscellaneous. Still, there are many wonderful descriptions of nature and many moments when her observations about life, death, and especially solitude really resonated with me. The book covers a time that is not without its troubles–a dear friend succumbing to dementia, others to death, her own illnesses bringing constant reminders of her own mortality, importunate visitors, harsh winter storms–but she seeks and often finds strength and comfort in her quiet life and habits. “I have never been so happy in my life,” she says, thinking back over her first year and a half in her house by the sea:

I have not said enough about what it is to wake each day to the sunrise and to that great tranquil open space as I lie in my bed, having breakfast, often quietly thinking for a half hour. That morning amplitude, silence, the sea, all make for a radical change in tempo. Or is it, too, that I am growing older, and have become a little less compulsive about ‘what has to be done’? I am taking everything with greater ease. When I was younger there was far more conflict, conflict about my work, the desperate need to ‘get through,’ and the conflict created by passionate involvement with people. There are compensations for not being in love–solitude grows richer for me every year.

Enough: Anne Tyler, Clock Dance

clock“I’ll just tell you what I’ve learned that has helped me,” he said. “Shall I?”

“Yes, tell me,” she said, growing still.

“I broke my days into separate moments,” he said. “See, it’s true I didn’t have any more to look forward to. But on the other hand, there were these individual moments that I could still appreciate. Like drinking that first cup of coffee in the morning. Working on something fine in my workshop. Watching a baseball game on TV.”

She thought that over.

“But …” she said.

He waited.

“But … is that enough?” she asked him.

“Well, yes, it turns out that it is,” he said.

It’s odd that Anne Tyler’s novels are so consoling to read when over and over the message they quietly send is that for a lot of people (maybe especially middle-aged women) ordinary life is something you either want to escape from or need to recover from. Ladder of Years has been a favorite comfort read of mine for decades now: in times of stress I find my mind wandering to the small barren room Delia moves into after she walks away from her family at the beach and simply doesn’t go back. A place to sleep, a library nearby, a way to make tea: isn’t that enough?

tyler-ladderBut the other thing about Tyler’s novels is that while her characters may stray, they almost always come home again (literally or emotionally). I think that might be part of why her books are soothing rather than disturbing, but sometimes it also seems to me that her vision is very conservative. Settle down, she often seems to be saying; appreciate what you’ve got; don’t go looking for trouble. You have enough, if you’d just stop wanting more. There’s no room for Maggie Tullivers in her fiction, with their “blind unconscious yearning” bringing everything to ruin, or for a character like Reta in Carol Shields’ Unless, who is quietly but fiercely enraged by “the great female secret of wanting and not getting.” What if we push back, in a way that Tyler’s characters mostly don’t? Maybe it isn’t enough. What if change–maybe even disruption, rebellion, rage–is not just good but necessary? What if I’m being, not consoled but placated?

Clock Dance felt very familiar. From the first page, you’re clearly in Anne Tyler territory, and the whole novel is good in just the way I expect Anne Tyler novels to be good. Ordinary people, ordinary lives, small griefs, a few wounds, some gestures of kindness that create gently transformative connections. I liked it a lot but it did not surprise me at all, except in the faint ambiguity of the ending. Does Willa in fact go home again? Is the new life she imagines so vividly a comforting dream to hang on to, or is there a chance this time that she might take off and leave her disappointments behind? “In her new life,” she thinks, “she will rent a room somewhere.” Maybe it will be Delia’s room. Maybe this time she’ll stay. Or is that just me, asking (for me, for her, for whoever wonders) if this really is enough, and trying to imagine what else it could be?

Romance and Re-Reading

love-letteringIt hasn’t been a good stretch for me in my romance reading. I haven’t read anything since Love Lettering that I expect to re-read, which for me is the real sign of success: since I found my groove as a romance reader (nearly a decade ago, now!), romance has filled a nice niche for me as my go-to genre for incidental reading, books that divert, distract, and cheer me when I don’t have the time or am not in the mood for heavier options. I don’t mean to belittle the genre at all with this characterization. I have always read and reread books in that spirit, but they used to be mostly ‘light’ mysteries (Dick Francis, for instance) or relatively undemanding but satisfying general fiction (Anne Tyler, Joanna Trollope). I still reread old favorites in those genres too, but now my interstitial reading (as I have come to call it) also includes Georgette Heyer and Loretta Chase, Courtney Milan and Kate Clayborn.

tyler-ladderWhat is it that makes rereading–sometimes frequent rereading–pleasurable? Why do some books invite and reward it and others not? I reread for a living, of course, and for the books I teach the answer usually has to do with complexity: with layers of meaning and intricacies of language or form. Books teach well that don’t reveal themselves completely on a first try–otherwise what is there to talk about, after all? The better you know a book like that, the more you appreciate on each reading: the pleasure itself gets more complicated and multidimensional. That’s not (or not quite, or not usually) the same with the mysteries or romances I reread, though–or with writers like Anne Tyler, whose novels are many good things, including smart, touching, and subtle, but not particularly layered or complicated. You might notice more details on rereading, or see some connections or patterns that you missed the first time through, but for me anyway, rereading these books is about familiarity, not novelty, about confirmation rather than revelation. The pleasure comes from watching things unfold again as you already know they will, and enjoying again what you enjoyed before, whether it’s witty banter, angst-ridden suspense, sparky sexual tension, or whatever genre tropes the novel is built around.

evvie-drakeBut not every romance novel inspires rereading for me, even if I enjoyed it just fine the first time. Sometimes there’s an obvious problem–stilted prose, unconvincing characters, a plot that feels too utterly contrived, leaden dialogue–but others fall flat for no reason I can really put my finger on. The recent string of books that prompts this post included just one of the first kind (Tessa Dare’s The Wallflower Wager, which felt creaky from the get-go and then lumbered predictably along while trying to be spritely and witty, which is the worst effect for me) but mostly books of the second sort, where nothing was overtly wrong but they still didn’t do much for me. Get A Life, Chloe Brown was like that–it was perfectly fine, sometimes even charming, but when I was done, it went straight into the ‘donate’ pile. Ditto Mhairi McFarlane’s Don’t You Forget About Me, and Lucy Parker’s Headliners, and Alyssa Cole’s A Duke by Default. This morning I finished Linda Holmes’s Evvie Blake Starts Over and overall I enjoyed it the most of this recent batch–though I’m not 100% sure it qualifies as romance. (It sits on the fuzzy line between contemporary romance and “chick lit” or “women’s fiction,” especially as it doesn’t quite serve up the requisite HEA–its ending is a very nice happy-for-now one.) If I went back a couple of months, I could give a much longer list of titles–very few of them actually bad but also few of them particularly good. (In romance as in all reading, of course, YMMV, and these are all books others have enjoyed a lot. Love works in mysterious ways, I guess! As we say on Twitter, “don’t @ me.” 😉 )

crusieWhen I mentioned my discouraging string of “meh” romance reads on Twitter, Liz (who, more than perhaps anyone else, got me into reading romance in the first place!) commented that she “might be off romance for good.” It’s not (I am sure she meant) that she has lost respect for or interest in the genre overall, but that it gets tiring (and boring) having to read through so many to find the ones you like. This is certainly true of my own experience of romance, at any rate. There are lots of contributing factors to the skewed hit-to-miss ratio: the sheer quantity of books, for one thing, and the equally wide-ranging variety of readers and tastes they serve. Marketing–covers, blurbs, hype–makes useful discernment a challenge (this is true of all the genres I read, but the problem feels more pronounced with romance), as does the (perfectly understandable) desire of romance readers and writers to support each other and the genre they love, which is so frequently reviled and misrepresented.

lady-225Although my relationship with romance has come a long way since my first skeptical and ill-informed attempts at reading in the genre, I do sometimes get fed up. As I mentioned in that Twitter conversation, I “DNF” romance novels far more often than books of any other kind, and while it’s possible that this result is mostly about me (as a reader or a person, who knows) it’s hard not to think it also says something about the genre, though what exactly that is, I’m not sure. But it’s also true that most romance novels are relatively fast reads, which is why I can get through so many of them in such a short time. Perhaps, proportionally, the hits and misses are not really that out of line with the rest of my reading–they just stack up more quickly! That also means that each romance novel on its own is a fairly low risk endeavor (certainly compared to, say, Ducks, Newburyport, which so far I dislike much more intensely than any of the romances I have picked up and put down without finishing, and which will require a vastly greater investment of time and effort to get the rest of the way through). Moreover, when I do find a romance novel I really like, the pay-off is disproportionately large because of how often I am likely to end up rereading it. I have now read all three of Kate Clayborn’s ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ trilogy three or four times each, for example, and will no doubt reread them again before too long; the same is true of Cecilia Grant’s ‘Blackshear Family’ series, the first one of which, A Lady Awakened, I recently reread with great pleasure. There are even some individual scenes that make the whole exercise worthwhile! Sometimes I pick up Heyer’s Devil’s Cub just to reread the chapter in which Mary, all unwitting, tells the Duke of Avon about her misadventures with his wayward son Vidal: it’s the perfect antidote for a fit of gloom, a reliable dose of “restorative pork jelly” (an allusion other Heyer readers will appreciate!).


Discovering that, if it’s the right one, a romance novel is the best bookish friend imaginable–always there when you need it and sure to cheer you up–is the happiest result of my now decade-long romance reading adventure. In the end, that’s what keeps me trying again and again even when it starts to seem that the ones I really like are few and far between: when I do find them, the rewards outweigh the accumulated tedium of the many others that weren’t for me. If that balance ever tips too far the other way, I too might go off the genre, though I can’t imagine clearing out my collection of favorites, which is a sign of much I have come to value romance as part of my reading life. It feels apt (if a bit trite!) to point out that my optimistic pursuit of just the right book for me is a bit like the stories romance novels themselves tell–which I guess means it’s rereading that turns out to be the real HEA!

“The cosmic Catastrophe”: Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

tokarczukIt’s clear that the largest things are contained in the smallest. There can be no doubt about it. At this very moment, as I write, there’s a planetary configuration on this table, the entire Cosmos if you like: a thermometer, a coin, an aluminum spoon and a porcelain cup. A key, a cell phone, a piece of paper, and a pen. And one of my gray hairs, whose atoms preserve the memory of the origins of life, of the cosmic Catastrophe that gave the world its beginning.

Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a pretty strange novel. Or maybe it just has a pretty strange narrator. What would be the difference, really? It has the structure of a whodunit, but without quite the same clarity of purpose, as it also has–or its narrator Janina also has–a tendency to tip over from the literal into the metaphysical, from the gruesome to the lyrical, from the mundane to the cosmic. And yet all the things about the story Janina tells that seem to make no sense (that seem to blur the lines between magic and reality, as if we were in that kind of fictional world) turn out to make perfect sense: with the neatness of a Sherlock Holmes story, all of the novel’s impossibilities are resolved without recourse to the fantastical after all.

That doesn’t mean Tokarczuk doesn’t leave us things to puzzle over, however. It’s just that they aren’t questions about who did what, or even why: they are questions about what we should think about it all. Here Janina–eccentric, fanatical, pragmatic, occasionally poetic–is a provocative and informative but not very reliable guide. Most of the local officials she encounters concludes she is “a nutter.” They aren’t wrong, but they also aren’t quite right. At least, I don’t think so! Because she tells us the story, Janina has a lot of opportunities to show us the world as she sees it, and while it’s an odd perspective (for instance, she believes completely in the interpretive and predictive power of astrology and appeals constantly to the wisdom of William Blake–not, himself, perhaps the most straightforward guide to the meaning of life) there’s something convincing about it too.

driveJanina’s main idiosyncrasy is that (as the people around her often protest) she cares more for animals than for people.  She is particularly outraged by hunters and their hypocritical justifications for what, to her, is simply murder, and often barbarous murder, at that. “Just look at the way those pulpits work,” she exclaims to the officers taking her statement about a body that turns up in the remote mountainous region where she lives–in this case, a wild boar, though the deaths the police are actually concerned about are the human ones. “It’s evil–you have to call it by its proper name,” she goes on:

it’s cunning, treacherous, sophisticated evil–they build hay racks, scatter fresh apples and wheat to lure Animals there, and once the Creatures have become habituated, they shoot them in the head from their hiding place, from a pulpit.

Later, at the consecration of a church dedicated to Saint Hubert, the patron saint of hunting, she is outraged by the sermon, by the priest’s ardent advocacy for “the customs and traditions of hunting.” “Now it seemed clear to me,” she observes,

why those hunting towers, which do after all bear a strong resemblance to the watchtowers in concentration camps, are called ‘pulpits.’ In a pulpit Man places himself above other Creatures and grants himself the right to their life and death. He becomes a tyrant and a usurper.

“Murderers!” she exclaims, as her protests lead to her removal from the church. “How can you listen to such nonsense without batting an eyelid? Have you lost your minds? Or your hearts? Have you still got hearts?”

tokarczuk_prowadz_2015_mJanina abhors the indignity and suffering humans inflict on animals: “People have a duty towards Animals,” she says, “to lead them–in successive lives–to Liberation. We’re all traveling in the same direction, from dependence to freedom, from ritual to free choice.” It appalls her that other people can go about their business indifferent, or worse–“What sort of a world is this, where killing and pain are the norm? What on earth is wrong with us?” When she proposes that the mysterious deaths in her neighborhood are actually animals exacting retribution, her theory seems at once bizarre and, coming from her, perfectly reasonable. In support of her allegations, after all, she can cite historical cases in which animals were charged with crimes and even put on trial. Who are we to be so sure animals–smarter than we are, or than we give them credit for, in so many ways–aren’t astute enough to get their revenge on the worst offenders among us?

As the bodies pile up and theories and suspicions proliferate, Janina draws us into her small circle of allies against the inanity and inhumanity of life. One of her quirks is giving people names that sum up their characters–Big Foot, Oddball, Good News. Her interactions with her friends are often lightly comical (my favorite interlude was the Mushroom Pickers Ball), and the loyalty they eventually show to her is unexpectedly touching. Looking around the table at them near the end of the novel, she thinks

we were the sort of people whom the world regards as useless. We do nothing essential, we don’t produce important ideas, no vital objects or foodstuffs, we don’t cultivate the land, we don’t fuel the economy … So far we’ve never provided the world with anything useful. We haven’t come up with the idea for any invention. We have no power, we have no resources apart from our small properties. We do our jobs, but they are of no significance for anyone else. If we went missing, nothing would really change. Nobody would notice.

And then, overcome as she frequently is with emotion so strong it makes her weep, she fights back against that verdict:

But why should we have to be useful and for what reason Who divided the world into useless and useful, and by what right? Does a thistle have no right to life, or a Mouse that eats the grain in a warehouse? What about the Bees and Drones, weeds and roses? Whose intellect can have had the audacity to judge who is better, and who is worse? A large tree, crooked and full of holes, survives for centuries without being cut down, because nothing could possibly be made out of it. This example should raise the spirits of people like us. Everyone knows the profits to be reaped from the useful, but nobody knows the benefit to be gained from the useless.

blakeShe and her former student Dizzy share a preoccupation with Blake, and as I read the novel I wished I knew enough about him to see how much Tokarczuk is invoking his ideas. Her title is from the Proverbs of Hell, from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.
Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.
He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.

I don’t know how much of Janina’s way of looking at the world or being in the world is specifically connected to Blake–or, for that matter, whether there is any connection between Blake and astrology. For me, the riffs on signs and planets and horoscopes were the least compelling parts of the novel, even though they are centrally important to Janina’s world view. Sometimes, though, in spite of my disbelief, they too became compelling, poetic, even profound:

I wondered whether the stars can see us. And if they can, what might they think of us? Do they really know our future? Do they feel sorry for us? For being stuck in the present time, with no chance to move? But it also crossed my mind that in spite of it all, in spite of our fragility and ignorance, we have an incredible advantage over the stars–it is for us that time works, giving us a major opportunity to transform the suffering, aching world into a happy and peaceful one. It’s the stars that are imprisoned in their own power, and they cannot really help us. They merely design the nets, and on cosmic looms they weave the warp thread that we must complete with our own weft.

I don’t believe even for a minute in the explanatory value of astrology, but for Janina it is way of organizing and coping with the complications of life. We all need something to do that for us, especially if, like her, we are sensitive to the suffering around us. One of her theories is that the human psyche itself protects us by blocking out the truth:

Its main task is to filter information, even though the capabilities of our brains are enormous. For it would be impossible to carry the weight of this knowledge. Because every tiny particle of the world is made of suffering.

Perhaps, in addition to Blake, she (and Tokarczuk) have been reading Middlemarch:

If we had a keen vision of all that is ordinary in human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow or the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which is the other side of silence.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is about someone who reacts to the perception of universal suffering by seeking justice, not sympathy. The surprise of the novel is that someone so odd, crusty, and uncompromising turns out to be so appealing. I enjoyed her abrasiveness, her frankness about her aches and pains, her determination to live on her own terms.

Tokarczuk_okladka.cdrBy making Janina the narrator, Tokarczuk sets the novel up to test us about just how far we will go along with her: for all her wit and principle–really, because of them–she is quite a problematic character, especially if we take her at her own word about the logic of everything that happens. But what is a reasonable response to all the things we see around us, after all, or to all the things we know are going on but try not to face? “You know what,” Janina’s neighbor the Writer says to her,

sometimes it seems to me we’re living in a world  that we fabricate for ourselves. We decide what’s good and what isn’t, we draw maps of meanings for ourselves … And then we spend our whole lives struggling with what we have invented for ourselves. The problem is that each of us has our own version of it, so people find it hard to understand each other.

Janina’s version is pretty strange, but by the end of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead we understand very clearly what’s good and what isn’t in her world, and this lets Tokarczuk wrap up her eccentric whodunit so that, at least according to the “map of meaning” it has established, the punishment fits the crime in a morally and philosophically satisfying way.

The Smell of Failure: Mick Herron, Slow Horses


She meant well, he supposed, but her predecessor here had quit the Service, ground into submission by routine tasks. As had his own; a man called Black, who had lasted only six months, and left before River arrived. That was the true purpose of Slough House. It was a way of losing people without having to get rid of them, sidestepping legal hassle and tribunal threats. And it occurred to him that maybe that was the point of Sid’s presence: that her youth and freshness were meant as a counterpoint to the slow horses’ failure, rendering it more pungent. He could smell it now. Looking at this hooded boy on his screen, River could smell failure on his own skin.

When I mentioned on Twitter how much I had enjoyed Mick Herron’s TLS essay on rereading John Le Carré, several people encouraged me to try Herron’s own fiction–both his espionage novels, the Slough House series, and his Oxford crime novels. I found some of the more recent Slough House ones at Bookmark a while ago but held off because I was advised to start at the beginning if I could, so I was excited to find the first one, Slow Horses, in stock the next time I went looking. I settled in to read it yesterday, a treat for a day off classes, and I finished it by the light of our Coleman lantern after the power went out around 9:30 p.m. Yes, it was that good: I didn’t want to just leave the last 25 pages or so until today! Plus I was a bit concerned that if I put it down, I would drop the threads of the plot before I picked it back up again–though compared to Le Carré’s plots, Slow Horses is relatively straightforward.

Because the twists and turns of the plot are central to the pleasure of reading Slow Horses, I won’t go into much detail. I’ll just say that the story unfolds in the shadow of the 7/7 bombings and deals in quite a pointed way with their consequences, both for the state apparatus charged with protecting the British public and with elements of that public who find in the terrorist threat justification for their own retrograde form of nationalism, with its own equally destructive extremism. Instead of the Circus–which is, at least in theory, a center of excellence for discovering and outwitting Britain’s enemies–Herron gives us Slough House, a dumping ground for failed agents (the punningly named “slow horses” of the title), where deliberate discouragement is the strategy for getting them to quit, an administratively preferable option to simply firing them. And instead of Smiley–gloomy, taciturn, brilliant, and principled–he gives us Jackson Lamb–gloomy, taciturn, brilliant, and flatulent.slow-horses

As that detail suggests, Herron does not take his subject quite as seriously as Le Carré: at least in the ones of his I’ve read so far, at most there’s the occasional bit of wry humor, or wincing irony, while parts of Slow Horses are actually laugh-out-loud funny, and others, while still suspenseful, are structured a bit like a comedy of errors, with near misses and clever ploys that stay just on the shadowy side of farce. It’s hard after a while not to root for Slough House’s collection of misfits and fuck-ups, to hope that Lamb himself underestimates them when, for instance, he gives the hostage they undertake to rescue no better than 60-40 odds of surviving the attempt. As our motley assortment of underdogs discovers what it feels like to have a real purpose again, you can feel them also recovering their self-respect, and it’s oddly touching.

Slow Horses doesn’t have quite the moral gravitas I found so compelling in the Smiley novels, but Herron shares Le Carré’s focus on the conflict between integrity and self-interest, and the challenge of negotiating both in the service of one’s country. He is grimmer than Le Carré — more graphically violent — but the violence is played with a touch of mordant humor that, while occasionally unsettling, keeps things exciting rather than horrifying. Perhaps Herron is a bit too fond of the bait-and-switch as a technique to keep the suspense simmering … but it works! That’s why I stayed huddled by my lantern in our dark and rapidly chilling living room until I knew how everything turned out. I call that an endorsement! I’ll definitely read more Mick Herron, both in this series and (if I can find them) his Oxford mysteries.

“A Certain Solace”: Nancy K. Miller, My Brilliant Friends


There’s a certain solace in writing about loss, too, of course, because it’s a way of coming to terms with mortality. As long as you are doing the writing, you are rehearsing the losing; unlike the friend, you are still there. You are the mourner, after all. But what happens when you start losing yourself?

Nancy K. Miller’s My Brilliant Friends: Our Lives In Feminism is an odd kind of book, or perhaps it just seems that way to me because it hovers in between genres I recognize–it is part friendship memoir, part introspective autobiography, with dashes of campus tell-all and dabs of philosophical reflection on grief and aging and physicality and mortality. It often felt unfinished to me, with its uneven sections and abrupt segues never quite developing, never going for a long time in any one direction. Miller is too experienced and self-conscious a writer not to be doing all of this on purpose: that I found the end result rather scattered is a reflection of my own preference for continuity and order, but I imagine she would say that continuity and order are exactly what the experiences the book is about have not provided, and so the form fits the content.

heilbrunA lot of things about My Brilliant Friends really interested me. The friendships Miller is reflecting on were with Carolyn Heilbrun, Naomi Schor, and Diane Middlebrook: all four of them are big names, renowned scholars of the generation that basically pioneered feminist literary scholarship in the American academy in the later 20th century–and thus the generation that laid the groundwork for my own education as a feminist critic. I’ve written here before about the influence of Heilbrun on my own scholarship and my ongoing interest in her life and work. Miller’s own 1981 PMLA essay “Emphasis Added: Plots and Plausibilities in Women’s Fiction” greatly influenced my thinking about many novels but especially The Mill on the Floss. Part of the fascination of the book for me, as a result, was purely anecdotal and personal: I liked getting to know more about what it was like to be these women doing this groundbreaking work, getting a glimpse behind the scenes. I found myself envying these women their drive and also marveling at their persistence. It was oddly reassuring, too, to hear about their doubts and hesitations, and their fears about whether their work was worth what it took to produce or getting the notice or credit they wanted for it–familiar academic neuroses. “I don’t want to die thinking I’ve been left out of a footnote, excluded and erased” Miller comments (harking back to Naomi’s “pain at being left out of a footnote in an essay by a historian we both knew”), “though it’s not a feeling alien to me [or to me!]; alternately, I don’t want to be relegated to a footnote, which at best is what happens to most academic work.”

middlebrookAt its heart, though, My Brilliant Friends is really about more personal things than that (again, I think Miller might reply that the personal and the academic are not really so separable, or shouldn’t be). I found I wasn’t always able to be as interested as I wanted to be in the details. The Heilbrun section was the easiest one for me to engage with, because I have a relationship of my own, however indirect, with its subject. Miller’s thoughts on her friendship with Naomi Schor (a relationship which was long, complex, and of intense interest and significance to her) left me mostly unmoved, a detached spectator to the emotional intricacies of its ebb and flow. Of her three main subjects, I knew the least about Diane Middlebrook when I started the book; for some reason she came more vividly to life for me than Schor did, through both Miller’s recollections and her own letters. She sounds wonderful: she possessed, Miller says, “the art of making her friends feel loved and appreciated.” Theirs was a friendship formed relatively late in life, and I found Miller’s reflections on the different bases on which such belated bonds are formed really thought-provoking, especially as I have spent so many years distant from the very dear friends I made in my younger years.

220px-Carolyn_Gold_HeilbrunDeath is the occasion for the book. Middlebrook died of liposarcoma, which she was diagnosed with not long after she and Miller met; Schor suffered a cerebral hemorrhage at only 58, which, Miller remarks, “while not a tragically young age, is young enough to feel untimely.” Heilbrun, of course, committed suicide: though a relatively small part of the book as a whole, the other women’s reactions to her choice are among the most thought-provoking moments, because they are tied up with their deepest convictions about autonomy, especially for women, as well as with their thoughts about living, aging, and dying. Miller quotes from an exchange about Heilbrun’s death between Middlebrook and Elaine Showalter (another accomplished and very influential feminist scholar of this generation, of course, and another whose work has played a large part in my own scholarly life–her book A Literature of Their Own was the first book of literary criticism I ever bought for myself, when I was just starting down this academic path). Middlebrook argues that the suicide was an act “taken on behalf of what she valued in herself, which was her independence,” while Miller sides with Showalter, at least emotionally, that while the death itself may have been a legitimate choice, it was regrettable that leading up to it Heilbrun had (as Showalter put it) withdrawn herself “from life, from the trivial, quotidian treats that gave pleasure, and from the tasks and obligations that give pleasure to others.” (As a side note, I looked up the rest of the Showalter-Middlebrook exchange because it is also a discussion about retirement, something that, while most likely a decade or more away for me, has begun to pose itself to me as a question: not just when, but what. My attention was especially caught by Showalter’s reference to a book that makes the case for “people reinventing themselves after 55. She believes,” Showalter says, “that it is actually necessary to make major life changes at this point, or fade away.” Hmm. That gives me just over two years!)

miller-but-enoughIt’s not just her friends’ deaths that prompt and shape Miller’s writing: early in her work on the book, she herself was diagnosed with lung cancer. “You discover that your position, secured among the living, is unstable, unsure,” she observes; “You may have imagined yourself safely on the side of the living, and then suddenly … you are on the verge, possibly, of disappearing yourself.” This increases her desire to be “the subject”–“to be in charge of the story even if it seemed I had lost control of the narrative.”

This is why the generic oddity of the book ends up making sense to me. At first there seemed to be a strange kind of self-assertion to the book, an assumption about the relevance of these very particular and very personal relationships. In themselves, they are probably not that different from many friendships, ones that have been written about (such as that between Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby) and ones that will never be written about (such as most of the ones all of us experience). But for a feminist theorist, one whose life has been bound up in articulating what (and how) women’s lives mean, and especially one like Miller who has been particularly interested in criticism as a form that intersects with autobiography, some kind of commentary on the complex dynamics of loyalty, affection, support, rivalry, and resentment that made up her most important relationships with other women seems more than reasonable–it seems necessary. Miller is especially aware that in writing this book she is claiming the last word: “What else am I doing here,” she asks at one point, “but sketching biographies of my dead friends without their permission?” But she isn’t using it to put them in their place, to settle scores or fix definitions or perfect narratives about them. My Brilliant Friends is also not a manifesto about the “right” kind of friendship: it doesn’t have and also doesn’t seek that kind of unity. It just offers up Miller’s friendships, warts and all, for readers to think about. It also invites us to think about what Miller’s diagnosis has forced her to confront: not just who we will mourn and why, but who will mourn us, and what role writing will have for us, in that particularly difficult exercise in being human.

Berlin Noir: Philip Kerr, March Violets

violetsI didn’t much like March Violets–it just didn’t work for me. I should perhaps have anticipated this: in general, noir fiction isn’t really my thing. But I didn’t expect Kerr to go all in on his imitation of Raymond Chandler. Stylistically at least, I think I would have liked it better if he’d gone all in as the next Dashiell Hammett. I have to grit my teeth to get through the metaphorical excesses of The Big Sleep, and Kerr’s, while less florid, also seemed less poetic and a lot more forced. I also think there’s no excuse for perpetuating the sexism of classic hard-boiled detective novels in a contemporary pastiche. In fact, while I find Philip Marlowe’s misogyny disturbing, I give Chandler credit for showing the price Marlowe pays for it, in his embittered isolation, while Bernie Gunther’s sexism (“Her breasts were like the rear ends of a pair of dray horses at the end of a long hard day”) serves only to show off Kerr’s own hard-boiled credentials. (“There’s only one thing that unnerves me more than the company of an ugly woman in the evening, and that’s the company of the same ugly woman the following morning.”)

There were certainly things about March Violets that I thought were well done. The historical setting is one: Kerr really effectively conjures up the atmosphere of 1936 Berlin–the violence and brutality, the pomp and posturing and power-brokering, the shady corners and the moral gray areas. The plot was pretty convoluted, but that’s authentically Chandleresque, for better and for worse. I was amused by the metafictional interlude with the SS officer who is a crime fiction aficionado. “Part of the image, eh?” he says to Bernie when he takes a refill of schnaps:

“And what image would that be?”

“Why, the private detective of course. The shoddy little man in the barely furnished office, who drinks like a suicide who’s lost his nerve, and who comes to the assistance of the beautiful but mysterious woman in black.”

violets2When Bernie gets smart with him, the officer observes that “the ability to talk as toughly as your fictional counterpart is one thing … Being it is quite another.” I can’t imagine any reader of March Violets needing any such overt signals of Kerr’s knowingness about genre conventions, as there’s nothing subtle about his attempt to recreate the feeling and many of the themes of his hard-boiled predecessors, but it was still a nice light moment in an otherwise dour novel.

Something that really didn’t work for me was the episode in which Bernie goes “undercover” at Dachau. One problem, I thought, was that Kerr handled it badly: it seemed obvious that he took the responsibility of writing about Dachau seriously and the result was a tonal shift and some sudden onset “info-dumping” as Bernie turned from cynical private eye to eloquent witness (“Work sufficient to destroy the human spirit was the aim of Dachau, with death the unlooked-for by-product”). The whole sequence (which was also wildly implausible) felt like a device, a gimmick to give Kerr the opportunity to include Dachau in his scene setting–and that, in turn, felt tasteless to me.

Kerr’s concept–to revisit Chandler’s “mean streets” in the context of fascism and the fear and instability it brings, when everyone might be an informer and nobody’s life (or death) is really worth inquiring into very closely–is a really good one, and Bernie’s attempt to negotiate this world while being (in Chandler’s terms) “neither tarnished nor afraid” sets up what I can imagine become a lot of morally interesting scenarios as the series goes on. I didn’t enjoy reading March Violets, though: its tone just didn’t suit. I finished it thinking that rather than reading any further in this series, I’d rather read more of Maurizio de Giovanni’s Commissario Ricciardi series. They too take us down the mean streets of fascism, but they have a gravity to them–an elegance, almost, and a sadness–that I find more appealing than Kerr’s noir nastiness.