Novel Readings 2012

2012 seems to have been a particularly rich and rewarding reading year – also, a particularly maddening and occasionally stultifying one. I suppose what I’m saying is that it was a reading year like any other one! As always, some books stand out, though sometimes as much for the challenge and gratification I found in writing about them, or for the conversations that my posts generated, as for the reading experience in itself. As is traditional, here’s a look back at the highlights.

peacockBook of the Year:

Molly Peacock, The Paper Garden. This book drew me to it by its physical beauty and turned out to be the right book for me at the right moment. This is the kind of serendipitous discovery that seems unlikely to happen except in a real (and well-curated) bookstore: for reasons I explain in my original post, it’s unlikely I would have deliberately sought out a book like this. I’m so glad I succumbed to its charms. My review is one of my favorite pieces of my own writing from 2012.

Other books I’m particularly glad I read or wrote about:

Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies. Well, of course. But then, it’s no small feat to follow up the brilliant Wolf Hall with something equally brilliant. I did think, as I read it, that it would have been just a teensy bit more exciting if Mantel–who is a prose virtuoso–had decided to approach each novel in her Cromwell trilogy in a different way, a different voice. But the close third-person narration is just as compelling and even more morally complex here than in the first volume, and my expectations are now sky-high for the concluding one.

T. H. White, The Once and Future King. Another surprise: I don’t “do” fantasy any more than I “do” the 18th century, and yet from the first page I loved this novel. I can’t think of another novel I’ve read recently–not just in 2012 but in several years–that had this much emotional range. For once, the adjective “Dickensian” doesn’t seem out of place, as this really is fiction written to change how you think as well as to make you laugh and cry.

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary. Along with St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels, Madame Bovary was the most thought-provoking read of 2012 for me as a critic, because it was the least congenial for me as a reader. Even while I couldn’t deny its mastery, I couldn’t help but decry its grim and limited worldview. Yes, we can all sometimes be Emma Bovary, but most of us will surely never be exclusively so self-absorbed or self-deceived. If we are, shame on us, and we need books that help us out of that moral rut even more.

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina. I’ve only just finished Anna Karenina so I’m still thinking about it. I wasn’t swept up in it, but then, limited as my experience with Tolstoy is, I guess that shouldn’t have surprised me: there’s a quality of ruthlessness in his fiction that I’d noticed before.

Edward St. Aubyn, The Patrick Melrose Novels. I abhorred and admired these novels in about equal measure. Actually, I think by the end of At Last admiration had won out, but it was a close thing.

Helen DeWitt, Lightning Rods. Another surprise. I don’t think any author except DeWitt could have pulled this off in a way I would, if not exactly enjoy, at least applaud.

Susan Messer, Grand River and Joy. I was completely absorbed by this novel set in Detroit around the time of the 1967 riot and focusing on tensions “between blacks and Jews but [also] between individual identities and group allegiances, between narrowly-defined protective self-interest and the desire to reach out and make connections.”

J. G. Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur. I liked this as much as I liked the first in the trilogy, Troubles. If you want to read something truly substantial about Farrell, skip my post and read Dorian Stuber’s essay on him in Open Letters.

Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front. The ultimate novel of the ‘lost generation’: “We are forlorn like children, and experienced like old men, we are crude and sorrowful and superficial–I believe we are lost.”

Books I didn’t much like:

Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea. Meh.

Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier. Hey, it’s my blog, isn’t it?

Low point of my reading year:

George Sand, Indiana. Don’t worry, George: it’s not you, it’s me! Or maybe not.

Books I’m especially looking forward to reading in 2013:

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All the ones in my Christmas loot pile, of course. But also:

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. It has been fabulous so far, and my only (lame) excuses for not having persisted are not having committed deliberately enough (I proved to myself with Anna Karenina this month that being busy with other things is no reason not to get through a doorstopper) and its weight: there’s no way you can tuck this volume in your purse for reading at odd moments.

The Singapore Grip. One more in Farrell’s Empire Trilogy, and I’m sure it will be as strange and brilliant and darkly comic as the others.

The rest of the Raj Quartet. I found The Jewel in the Crown engrossing and complex and am keen to make my way through the next volumes.

War and Peace. This has featured in this “to read” list for several years now; maybe 2013 is the year I’ll finally get it done.

Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts. This is another book I picked up on my spring trip to Boston and one of the few from that expedition that I haven’t read yet. Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose is another, and that’s high on my TBR pile too.

Up next, though, will be Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which is the January book for my local book club, and then Doctor Glas, which is the next read for the Slaves of Golconda.

Notable Posts of 2012:

Finally, it seems worth noting a couple of posts that weren’t exactly reviews but that generated more excitement than is usual in this quiet corner of the internet:

Your book club wants to read Middlemarch? Great idea! I have not forgotten or abandoned the idea of creating the “Middlemarch for Book Club” site I proclaimed so boldly here. In fact, it already exists in skeletal form. I wanted to do it well, though, and thus took my time over it at first, and then I put it on the back burner and then it was the new term. One of my resolutions for 2013 is to build more of it and then start making it available in a ‘beta’ version. It’s not going to be anything too fancy: I’m just using WordPress to set it up. But if people seem to like it and find it valuable, it’s the kind of thing I might eventually seek out some funding for and try to make really good.

How to Read a Victorian Novel. I put this together as part of Molly Templeton’s call for responses to the NYTBR “How-To” issue that seemed to think women didn’t know how to do much of interest beyond cook and raise children. How does that even happen, in 2012? Where are the editors? What are they thinking, when they see a cover graphic like that? Anyway, the resulting tumblr turned into something quite amazing, and it was really energizing to be a part of it. Thanks to a couple of high-profile links to it, this is my most-read post of all time.

Thanks to everyone who read and commented on Novel Readings in 2012. Happy New Year!

“A Tincture of Grandness in Simplicity”: T. H. White, The Once and Future King

It comes back to the geese, in the end. I hoped it would, because of all the marvellous episodes in Wart’s education (the tyrannical pike, the totalitarian ants, the philosophical badger), his time with the geese is the most sublime. It’s beautifully written, for one thing, detailed and evocative, freely fanciful:

The sun, as it rose, tinged the quick-silver of the creeks and the gleaming slime itself with flame. The curlew, who had been piping their mournful plaints since long before the light, flew now from weed-bank to weed-bank. The widgeon, who had slept on water, came whistling their double notes, like whistles from a Christmas cracker. The mallard toiled from land, against the wind. The redshanks scuttled and prodded like mice. A cloud of tiny dunlin, more compact than starlings, turned in the air with the noise of a train. The black-guard of crows rose from the pine trees on the dune with merry cheers. Shore birds of every sort populated the tide line, filling it with business and beauty.

The dawn, the sea-dawn and the mastery of ordered flight, were of such intense beauty that the boy was moved to sing. He wanted to cry a chorus to life, and, since a thousand geese were on the wing about him, he had not long to wait. The lines of these creatures, wavering like smoke upon the sky as they breasted the sunrise, were all at once in music and in laughter. Each squadron of them was in different voice, some larking, some triumphant, some in sentiment or glee.

Like the lengthy excursus on the Middle Ages much later on in the book, these expeditions into natural history speak above all of the writer’s joy in his subject–and what writing is more delightful, more uplifting, to read than joyful writing?

But the flight of the geese is not just natural history: it’s also, like Merlyn’s other lessons (like the whole novel), an embodied class in political theory. “Are we at war,” asks Wart. The goose Lyo-lyok does not understand the question. “There are no boundaries among the geese,” she eventually explains to him. “How can you have boundaries if you fly? Those ants of yours–and the humans too–would have to stop fighting in the end, if they took to the air.” “I like fighting,” replies Wart. “It is knightly.” “Because you are a baby,” replies Lyo-Lyok.

At the end of The Once and Future King, Wart is no longer a baby. Now he’s an old, exhausted king staring in near despair on the failure of his experiment to reconcile might and right. Why do men fight, he wonders? “Suspicion and fear: possessiveness and greed: resentment for ancestral wrong: all these seemed to be a part of it”:

Yet they were not the solution. He could not see the real solution. He was too old and tired and miserable to think constructively. He was only a man who had meant well, who had been spurred along that course of thinking by an eccentric necromancer with a weakness for humanity. Justice had been his last attempt–to do nothing which was not just. But it had ended in failure. To do at all had proved too difficult. He was done himself.

But he isn’t quite done: there’s a bit of thinking in him yet, not to mention “something invincible in his heart, a tincture of grandness in simplicity,” and he uses his last bit of hope and strength to tell his story to young Tom (“his surcoat, with the Malory bearings, looking absurdly new”), and then “to think again,” and what he thinks of is Lyo-lyok–and there it is, “the problem before him as plain as a map”:

The fantastic thing about war was that it was fought about nothing–literally nothing. Frontiers were imaginary lines. There was no visible line between Scotland and England, although Flodden and Bannockburn had been fought about it. It was geography which was the cause, political geography. It was nothing else. . . . The imaginary lines on the earth’s surface only needed to be unimagined. The airborne birds skipped them by nature. How mad the frontiers had seemed to Lyo-lyok, and would to Man if he could learn to fly.

Imagine there’s no countries…it isn’t hard to imagine it. But to realize it? The Once and Future King isn’t that kind of fantasy. Ideas are only as good, as strong, as tenable as principles, as the people who try to live up to them, or to subvert or destroy them. And people, the novel shows over and over, are mixed, complicated, contradictory, creatures.

There’s Arthur himself, for instance. He’s such an ordinary fellow for a legendary hero! As the Orkneys gather to force Arthur’s hand with an open accusation against Lancelot and Guenever, Gareth sees him “as he was … a plain man who had done his best–not a leader of chivalry, but the pupil who had tried to be faithful to his curious master, the magician, by thinking all the time–not Arthur of England, but a lonely old gentleman who had worn his crown for half a lifetime in the teeth of fate.” Because we first meet him as Wart, we carry with us throughout the novel a sense of his childish innocence and his simple desire to do his best. “He was sadly unfitted for hating his best friend or for torturing his wife,” says the narrator; “He had been given too much love and trust to be good at these things.” Such innocence and simplicity should surely be strengths, but for Arthur they are weaknesses. If he were more suspicious, more wily, less scrupulously loyal and just, he would not have been there in that room, “hoist,” as the vengeful Agravaine exults, “with his own petard”–“trapped by his enemies into crushing his friends,” as Steve Donoghue nicely puts it, “using the very structure of law and order he worked so hard to champion.”  But “it seems, in tragedy, that innocence is not enough.”

Lancelot and Guenever, too, are painfully ordinary, which is not to say that they are dull or commonplace but that they are flawed and mistaken and loving and loyal and treacherous all at the same time. If they were worse people than they are, they could have simplified the situation, as we would handle it today “when everybody is so free from superstitions and prejudice that it is only necessary for all of us to do as we please.” But they have other values, and they love Arthur as well as each other. Their love (the love of all three of them for the others) is a beautiful, fragile thing, more so as they get older and become “seasoned people, who knew what they were about.” Here they are late in the story, poised on the very threshold of disaster:

The room glowed into colour round the lovers, who had released each other quickly. It began to show the splendour of its hangings as the boy put fire to the wicks. The flower meads and bird-fruitful spinneys of the Arras teemed and rippled over the four walls. The door curtain lifted again, and the King was in the room.

He looked old, older than either of them. But it was the noble oldness of self-respect. Sometimes even nowadays you can meet a man of sixty or more who holds himself as straight as a rush, and whose hair is black. They were in that class. Lancelot, now that you could see him clearly, was an erect refinement of humanity–a fanatic for human responsibility. Guenever, and this might have been surprising to a person who had known her in her days of tempest, looked sweet and pretty. You could almost have protected her. But Arthur was the touching one of the three. He was so plainly dressed, so gentle and patient of his simple things. Often, when the Queen was entertaining distinguished company under the flambeaux of the Great Hall, Lancelot had found him sitting by himself in a small room, mending stockings. Now, in his homely blue gown…he paused on the threshold of the gleaming room, and smiled.

‘Well, Lance. Well, Gwen.’

Such a homely greeting, from this simple man to the two people he loves most in the world. Doesn’t this scene make you yearn for their safety? It’s terrible watching the calamity descend on them that you know all along is coming–for inevitably, the novel is governed by dramatic irony, not just for us, who can’t help but know the story already, but for Arthur too, who is warned at the outset by Merlyn. If only, if only, if only… but there’s no way out for any of us: “before she was quite certain of what had happened, Guenever was laughing or weeping, unfaithful to her husband, as she had always known she would be.” And the rest, after that, is as foreseen and foretold.

For such a tragic story, the telling is surprisingly lighthearted–or light, at least. I was equal parts enchanted and puzzled by the novel’s tone. How can something so sad also be so funny? How can something so elevated also be so colloquial? If it’s not that serious, why am I crying? In the end, though, what I came to see was that the sadness lay precisely in the lightness of it all, in the way the joyousness I already remarked–the bursting excitement about nature and creativity, about “the age of fullness, the age of wading into everything up to the neck”–is undermined so steadily by the awareness of its eventual destructionThe story would not be so sad, also, if it were kept at more of a distance from us. The novel’s most ridiculous, delicious flights of fancy (the thwarted romance of the Questing Beast, for instance) are narrated in the same down-to-earth way as the most extreme moments of betrayal or grief or psychic torment (“Do you think it would be fine to be the best knight in the world? Think, then, also, how you would have to defend the title. Think of the tests, such repeated, remorseless, scandal-breathing tests, which day after day would be applied to you–until the last and certain day, when you would fail.”) and so we experience them both as part of the same world of people who may transform into animals, trap unicorns, and perform miracles, but are somehow, bizarrely, wonderfully, just like us. White’s casual references to Malory and Tennyson, rather than making his version seem coolly metafictional or presciently postmodern, make it seem natural, real, sincere: “Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites would have found it difficult to recognize this rather sullen and unsatisfactory child, with the ugly face,” he says of Lancelot; “An observer of the present day, who knew the Arthurian legend only from Tennyson and people of that sort, would have been startled to see that the famous lovers were past their prime.”

It’s sad because even though it’s a myth, it’s also a true story, one that ought to be told in as direct and simple a way as possible so that we’ll understand it. It’s a sad story because it’s the story of our failure, of our inability to solve King Arthur’s dilemma: to build a just world in which such joy can flourish. Merlyn’s lessons were based on the premise “that man was perfectible: that he was on the whole more decent than beastly.” At the end of his reign, Arthur finds this “central tenet of his heart” undone, “ravaged.” If anything, man is worse than beastly–Mordred’s scheming, the blood feuds, the fatal seductions are all calculated and so beyond the capacity of animals. “What creature could be so low,” wonders Lyo-lyok, “as to go about in bands, to murder others of its own blood?” Taught by Merlyn, Arthur had dreamed of a world in which these evils could come to an end. To read The Once and Future King is both to participate in his dream (just as he hopes young Tom will “tell everybody who would listen about this ancient idea, which both of them had once thought good”) and to experience its failure. Can we, perhaps, create the future he dreams of, a day ready for his return? “The hope of making it would lie in culture,” he thinks:

If people could be persuaded to read and write, not just to eat and make love, there was still a chance that they might come to reason.

That must have seemed like a pretty slim chance when the novel was first published in 1939. It still seems like something only a dreamer would imagine.

In his fine review of this handsome Penguin re-issue, Steve Donoghue writes, “The novel ends in a crescendo of loss and disillusion, and yet it’s all so brilliantly cathartic that no reader will be anything but happy they encountered this book.” I couldn’t agree more–and I can’t thank him enough for sending me his copy.

‘Baking Has Assumed a Sinister Character’: My Grandmother the Writer

My grandmother (right), c. 1929 (click to see full size)

My grandmother was a remarkable woman–energetic, vivacious, difficult, independent. Above all, she was what she called a “word person”: she loved to read, and nearly half way through her life she discovered that she also loved to write. In 1955, after staying home for years to raise my father (her only child), she launched a new career for herself by offering to do a gardening column for the local paper, the Lions Gate Times. As she tells it, the editor learned she had once trained as an accountant and asked her to help with the books. Eventually she was sent on her first assignment, to cover a municipal council meeting. She had no training as either a writer or a reporter.  She recalls,

I carefully wrote down every word, shaking with insecurity and fright, and filled the front page on press day. The mayor commented, “the best coverage we have ever had.” That was the beginning of my writing career. . . . The writing was easy. My drive came from an insatiable curiosity and an unquenchable urge to tell everyone what I found interesting.

Everyone who knew her would agree that she never lost either that curiosity or that urge to share her enthusiasms, which is one reason her letters were always such fun.

Editor, Lions Gate Times, c. 1965 (click to see full size)

In 1959, she became editor of the paper, which under her management was named “best community service paper” by the Canadian Weekly Newspaper Association,  and her features on local issues won awards–including the MacMillan-Bloedel journalism award in 1966. She also did travel features, including several pieces on a trip to Germany in 1964. This anecdote, sadly, was not in the published version, but she wrote it up for a scrapbook she made for me about her work. It gives a great sense of her indomitable spirit, headlong writing style, and sense of humor:

My first trip to Germany was done in style–six people on Air Canada’s biggest jet; champagne all the way; playing bridge with the crew and ending up with a police escort to our destination in Hamburg.

It was a heady experience. The reporter from Sports Illustrated, NY, Tom (the CBC engineer from Montreal) and myself stayed at the same hotel for the ten days we were there. Near the end, the New Yorker went off to Denmark and I wanted to see West Berlin so Tom crept along. Tom was about my age, very tall with a small moustache. He was not an outgoing person, sort of mentally huddled, but pleasant enough to drag around with. He was drawn to the beer halls and me to the opera. Neither of us could understand the other’s tastes.

We had a small crisis in Berlin. We sought out the efficient hotel advice expert at the airport when we landed to find the city crawling with conventions. Not a hotel room to be found. I cried out in despair. What would we do? More phoning brought up a room in a pension with a double bed.

Tom had been lounging at the door but at this good news he turned linen white and seemed about to faint. However, I had no urge to sleep on a bench in the park all night and briskly took the room, feeling we could cope with the facilities later that night. . . .

Tom was inside our room reading when I got back and I decided on strategy. I had no illusions that my elderly presence and pinched face would set his blood boiling, so I just said, “Tom, you put the paper over your head while I get undressed, then it will be your turn.” He uttered not a sound and promptly obeyed.

I got into bed, he mumbled he was going to read, and I lay, stiff and uncomfortable, on the edge of the mattress. But I had forgotten the toll on a body of an early flight, incessant sightseeing, the Mexican show, and the tension of one bed. The next thing I knew it was 8 a.m. and Tom was snoring merrily beside me. We had a big laugh, launched into the trip to East Berlin and then flew back to Hamburg.

The newspaper stories themselves are wonderful time capsule pieces. “West Berlin is one city in the world where a tourist will never see a ‘Yankee Go Home sign,'” one of them opens,

Why? Because this free city, in an unfree, Russian-occupied East German zone, owes its very life to the benevolent protection of the United States.

It is true that the three western allies are committed to defend Berlin. But a traveller quickly learns it is to strong and democratic America that Berliners have given their hearts.

The flight from Hamburg to Berlin–it only takes an hour–is an eerie one along the 20-mile-wide corridor paced off by the Russians. . . .The Wall, an unbelievable object, runs 30 miles through the heart of this beautiful city. A German businessman told me passionately that it was not a wall but a wound cut across the body of Berlin, with the flesh dying on either side of it.

She loved politics (“I found I was what is called ‘a political animal,'” she says), and in 1968 she took a position as Special Assistant to Jack Davis, the federal minister of Fisheries and Forestry. After her ‘retirement’ in 1974 she continued to do freelance writing and editing projects, the biggest of which was the 1980 West Vancouver Community Plan, a project which reflected her deep love for local history and for the community where she lived.

At my UBC graduation, 1990
At my UBC graduation, 1990

I wish I had more of the letters she sent me over the years. We used to have long phone conversations too, but she always loved to rattle off her correspondence on her trusty manual typewriter, full of anecdotes and excerpts from her current reading. An ardent natural history enthusiast, she had a particular fondness for earthworms and often wrote about their contributions to our world (she would have loved George Levine’s podcast on ‘worm excrement,’ I know). In one of the letters I do have still in my box of family papers she has been reading a Carl Sagan book we’d sent her for Christmas–it was 1992, so I think the book may have been Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors–and after several paragraphs of excited summary there’s this:

I’ve come to the part where Sagan says, “It seems clear there is only one hereditary line leading to all life now on earth. Every organism is a relative, a distant cousin of every other. This is manifest when we compare how all organisms on earth do business, what genetic language they speak. All life is kin.”

I love that. Rohan, we are brethren of our worms that so fascinated us.

She was always so confident that her fascination would be contagious–and usually it was. She also could not resist making a story out of everything that happened, a trait that could sometimes be tiresome if you happened to be a character in one of them and weren’t sure her version represented your truth, never mind the truth. Here’s one that made me laugh and then cry a little bit, because it brings her back so vividly. It features her very best friend of many years and his long-suffering wife, who patiently tolerated their great closeness.

My news is all wrapped up with Stewart. He and Joan went to Hawaii for 2 weeks and arrived home Monday. It was the day I decided to make muffins. Baking has assumed a sinister character in my life. I hate it now and am glad my feelings parallel Dorothy’s so I know it is endemic with the elderly. Anything to put off even boiling an egg. But I decided to make bran muffins for health’s sake and my doctor’s orders and instead of getting dressed and clearing off the sink and lining up the ingredients like sensible people do I rushed into it in my usual sloppy fashion with my old dressing gown with its floppy sleeves in the act as well. I became depressed when I forgot if I had put 2 cups or 1 of brown sugar into what I was blending then hand beat up the eggs and when the handle got caught in my sleeve and whipped the eggs onto the carpet I was ready to throw everything into the garbage. But I pressed on which turned out to be a bad decision. I floundered along with the huge recipe — it makes 30 muffins — and flour and bran and chopped dates were all over the place as I got sick of the act and dumped everything in one huge bowl instead of folding and delicately coupling wet with dry as the recipe says. I then got the muffin cases in the pans, all 30 of them, and started to ladle out the sticky dough. By now it was over my fingers and I was wiping them on my dressing gown when the phone rang and I rushed to answer it. WHY? Don’t ask. Over the wire came the thrilling, sonorous voice — “greetings from Aloha!” It was Stewart, fresh off the plane and full of joy and good will. My eyes looked at the mess of dough and the 30 little beds awaiting it and decided it was not the time to have one of our long visits so cried that I was muffining and would call him back. He did not understand and waited 5 minutes with phone in hand for the sound of my voice. We finally got connected again and well into the news of Hawaii. . . . By this time my muffins were busy in the oven and a nice fragrance came into the office, followed by a darkening overtone. I searched my soul to cut my friend of 35 years short in his high-spirited saga of lotus land and felt the damn muffins were not worth such a long friendship. . . . We finished our talk on a high note and I drew the muffins out — burned thoroughly at the bottom and around the edges, and so well-cooked they fell apart when I tasted one. I stuffed the 29 in a plastic bag and threw them in the freezer and cleaned up the joint. Well, I had to, as Stewart was on his way, “with a gift,” he says.

Next time I’ll carry on with the story of Stewart and Joan and the silver spoons.

Novel Readings 2010

My turn! Here’s my traditional look back at the highs and lows of my reading and blogging year.

Book of the Year:

Hands down, and entirely to my delighted surprise, since I had no particular expectations going into it, my favourite book of the year was Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom. I raved about this book in my original post, and I’d like to emphatically repeat what I said there:

If you ever read a book, or were a child, or read a book to a child–if your childhood was shaped in any way by the books you read–then you should buy this book and read it immediately.

I don’t usually do this, but I feel strongly enough to provide a link straight to Amazon so you don’t waste any time getting your own copy. Mine was a gift, and for that, many, many thanks to the amazing Steve Donoghue of stevereads, book-giver extraordinaire.

More books I’m particularly glad I read:

After featuring it three times running on my ‘most looking forward to’ list and making at least one false start, I did finally read Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy (it took two posts to cover it, here and here). I enjoyed it thoroughly, proving my long-held theory that sometimes books simply have to ripen a while on the shelf before the reading experience can be perfectly tasty. “Would I read A Suitable Girl?” I asked, rhetorically, I thought; “You bet I would.” Imagine my pleasure in learning that just such a book is forthcoming!

Lynne Sharon Schwartz’sLeaving Brooklyn proved every bit as rich and satisfying a read as my long-time favourite Disturbances in the Field, though in quite a different style and register. It’s a coming-of-age story, “an intensely personal but also profoundly commonplace experience, movingly represented in a book by a woman, about a woman, that [I concluded my original review] I think deserves to be called ‘important.'” It would have been my ‘book of the year’ if it hadn’t been edged out by Dear Genius–but that’s OK, because Dear Genius is a book that advocates for all other books!

Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety took longer to grip me than Wolf Hall, but once I was well into it, it really wouldn’t let me go, even though there was absolutely nobody in it to like or even (except sort of theoretically) to root for. A bit like A. S. Byatt, Mantel is resolutely severe, not only towards her characters, but also towards her readers, giving them little comfort or even encouragement as they press on:

if, as I recently suggested, reading Ian McEwan’s prose is like getting acupuncture to your brain, I found reading A Place of Greater Safety akin to walking barefoot across a stretch of gravel towards a graveyard: you aren’t particularly enjoying the experience, but it has its own vividness and particularity, and there’s a morbid fascination in the direction you know you’re headed.

Even at the end–the guillotine for pretty much everyone, as we know it will inevitably be–she avoids what I called “tumbril sentimentality” of the Tale of Two Cities variety (I can’t imagine Oprah ever assigning this novel to her followers). Impressed as I was by Wolf Hall, I read several other novels from Mantel’s back catalogue this year and was repeatedly startled by her range of styles and interests (not one, not even A Place of Greater Safety, really fits the marketing tag ‘by the author of Wolf Hall‘ as they are all simply too dissimilar). The other that resonated most deeply with me was The Giant, O’Brien. Fludd was under the tree for me this year, so there will be at least one more Mantel novel in 2011.

Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop. I found this “a gem of a book: spare but revealing, quirky but unsentimental” (hmm, I’m noticing a trend away from sentimentality this year–even A Suitable Boy, though full of sentiment, does not ultimately cater to our more wistful or wishful emotions).  I’m glad finally to have begun my relationship with Fitzgerald; I’ve been meaning to read The Blue Flower for years and I look forward to doing so in 2011.

Elizabeth Hardwick, A View of My Own. When I grow up, I want to be Elizabeth Hardwick. Well, OK, not exactly, but I envy her the force and confidence of her critical voice. Even when I disagree with her, I really want to talk to her about what she says. I was particularly interested in her essay “George Eliot’s Husband,” which sets a high standard for biographical thinking not met at all by a particular more recent attempt to write about my favourite novelist–Hardwick says more worthwhile things in a few pages than that author comes up with in a couple hundred.

A. S. Byatt, The Children’s Book. Another tough-minded, unsentimental novel, as expansive in its own way as A Suitable Boy or A Place of Greater Safety. I called it “history as information management,” and I meant that as a tribute of a sort. Byatt is an accomplished novelist; while Seth’s abundance (though I loved it) occasionally seemed cluttered, Byatt’s somehow has a tautness to it. If Mantel writes historical fiction that defies conventional expectations of the genre, Byatt does the same with the ‘sweeping family saga.’

Laila Lalami, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. I called this “a quietly harrowing account of hopes turned back and diminished,” and concluded that “hope is a dangerous pursuit, not just because of the risks of the pursuit itself, but because sometimes the chance you take brings you only further away from what you really wanted.”

Morley Callaghan, Such is My Beloved. This book, a classic of Canadian modernism, took me out of my comfort zone as a reader; talking about it with the new book group I belong to took me out of my comfort zone in other ways–but salutary ones! I ended up finding some kinship between Father Dowling and a couple of Victorian protagonists who founder, similarly, on the mismatch between their most strongly felt principles and the pragmatic realities of their world. But Callaghan’s setting, contexts, and language are not Victorian at all.

May Sarton, The Small Room. In the end I didn’t love this novel, but it interested me enormously, as did the conversation it generated on (and around) the Slaves of Golconda reading group. Its central themes certainly struck a chord with my ongoing anxieties about my professional work and the public discourse around higher education:

So much about the discourse of education today seems to disregard the value of that connection to the whole person–it’s all about outcomes and measures and productivity and, of course, jobs after graduation. Is that really what we want? We as teachers? or as parents? as students? If Lucy’s view seems dangerously personal, the current obsession with students as consumers seems dangerously limited and limiting. If we can’t ever hope to teach students as people, or to be people ourselves when we teach, who will ever, in the end, actually learn anything worth knowing?

Daphne du Maurier, Frenchman’s Creek. Dare I say that they don’t write pulp fiction like they used to? Purple prose, absolutely, but as I said in my original post, it’s ‘royal purple, richest velvet.’ I haven’t worked my way through the rest of the du Maurier collection on my shelf, but what’s a sabbatical for, if not to catch up on books you otherwise have no excuse at all for reading?

Books that disappointed, for one reason or another:

Happily, once again there weren’t very many of these. Leading the pack is certainly Brenda Maddox’s George Eliot in Love, which I reviewed for Open Letters Monthly. Here’s the money quote:

I wasn’t just disappointed in George Eliot in Love—by the time I finished it I was equal parts astonished and enraged. The book is not just George Eliot ‘lite’–it is superficial, prurient, and at times simply offensive. Maddox comes across as naively underqualified for her task: her good intentions are as painfully evident as the bad judgment and limited expertise she displays throughout. Focusing persistently on the pettiest details of Eliot’s biography, Maddox strips her of both dignity and intellectual substance and leaves us with an impoverished version that belies Elizabeth Hardwick’s confidence (expressed in her marvelous essay “George Eliot’s Husband”) that it was impossible to make this accomplished woman “look foolish and small.”

I was pleased (though hardly surprised!) that George Eliot in Love also won a spot in the ‘Worst Nonfiction, 2010‘ smackdown at stevereads: “Maddox should chronicle Paris Hilton next and leave the deep end of the pool to the grown-ups.” Ha! Between us we perhaps give the lie to the old saw about the only thing worse than not being talked about.

I was underwhelmed by Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas:

I really wish that, having grabbed people’s attention, Menand would have seized the opportunity, not to lob another petty grenade at his struggling colleagues but to insist that we not concede too much to either the rhetoric or the pressures of the marketplace. Surely an English professor who is also a public intellectual is uniquely positioned to make the case for, not against, the rest of us.

For quite different reasons, Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures was also distinctly unremarkable: “The subject of the book is intrinsically interesting, but if a novelist can’t do any better than this, we might as well read non-fiction, or, better yet, poetry”–the salient example of the latter being, of course, In Memoriam A.H.H.

I think my expectations were just too high for David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. I really enjoyed reading some parts of it, but I don’t ordinarily seek out work in some of the genres he plays with (notably, science ficton) and I was frustrated by the way so many different kinds of storytelling were shoehorned into one book–even though Mitchell is dazzlingly smart (too conspicuously so, I sometimes thought) about the unifying threads. My conclusion after reading it was “after a while I found I was more aware of  his virtuosity and the ingenuity of the nesting narratives than I was actually engaged in them.”

The best of the not-entirely-satisfying collection is Ian McEwan’s Solar. I’d rather read an imperfect novel by Ian McEwan than any novel by probably the majority of other contemporary writers. I actually couldn’t quite decide which category to put Solar in, it’s so nearly excellent–but in the end, I decided McEwan set too high a standard for himself with Atonement and (for me, at least) Saturday, so for failing to live up to it, here he is down here.  A bit of my original post:

Of course it is not a universal prescription for excellence that a novel satisfy both heart and head, but that’s what I want, that’s what I think takes a novel from good to great, and Solar seems quite content to leave my heart untouched. I think this is a missed opportunity for a novelist with McEwan’s gifts. Why not set against the shabby opportunism of the protagonist (who is both brilliantly drawn and wholly unsympathetic) either some idealism not undermined by the general attitude of cynicism that permeates the novel–even if only to show it up as ineffectual against the absurd realities of political and scientific institutions–or some unembodied but evocative commitment to the beauties of the planet Michael Beard only pretends to cherish? Bleak House is an unforgettable critique of the stupidities of a system that serves, at most, only those who constitute it, because we see beyond it, unrealized, an idea of human flourishing, of love and justice, worth yearning for. Thus we find the yammering of innumerable lawyers both comic and tragic. Where is Miss Flite, or Lady Dedlock, never mind Jo the crossing sweeper, in McEwan’s universe?

Books I’m most looking forward to reading in 2011:

There are too many to enumerate, really, including all the treasures delivered for Christmas from my lovely family, but here are a few titles, if only to motivate me as the new year gets underway.

  1. Tolstoy, War and Peace. This is the new Suitable Boy: it will be on this TBR list until I get it read! Surely being on sabbatical, if only for half  the year, will remove most of the standard excuses.
  2. Flaubert, Madame Bovary. Yes, the new Lydia Davis translation. I’ve begun this, but it got pushed aside during the Great Cough and Cold of late 2010.
  3. Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children. I’ve been curious about this since reading about it in Hardwick’s A View of My Own.
  4. Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter. This one is another object lesson in why you should never “purge” your book collection, no matter how often you move or how many times someone close to you mutters baleful warnings about running out of space. I owned this trilogy as a girl, never got around to reading it, purged it, and now–older and wiser–rejoice to have found a nice Penguin edition in a local bookstore.
  5. A delicious stack of old Virago Modern Classics, including novels by Margaret Kennedy, Antonia White, Rebecca West, and many others.
  6. Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games. I’ve owned this for a couple of years without reading it–I think its time has come.
  7. Helen DeWitt, The Last Samurai. The discussion at Conversational Reading piqued my interest about this novel, which I’ve owned for many years without reading (note again the value of the ‘ripening on the shelf’ theory to justify these habits!).
  8. Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory. This is the next book up for the book group that read Such is My Beloved. I read it many years ago but Greene is an author I haven’t done anything with since turning ‘pro,’ and I’m finally, belatedly, interested.
  9. Colm Toibin, The Master and Brooklyn.
  10. Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf. I’ve made some progress on this one, helped by an excursion into Woolf’s letters and diaries. I’d like to finish it in 2011!

I observe that not one of these is a work of literary history or criticism! There’s some chance that being on sabbatical will also give me a chance to recover some energy for that kind of reading! Certainly I will be doing some of it, as I am working (still!) on at least one academic paper which I hope to get into publishable form by the end of my leave.

Other Novel Readings highlights:

In 2008 I noted the invitation to contribute to The Valve as an important development in my blogging life. 2010 saw my farewell to The Valve, following on a resolution to “Get On With It!“–whatever, exactly, “it” is. The biggest development in 2010, congruent with this shift in emphasis, was the invitation from the fine folks at Open Letters Monthly, first to move Novel Readings to its new home, and then to join their editorial team. Both steps have been good ones for me, helping to sustain my blogging energy, bringing me into contact with all kinds of interesting writers and readers, even providing an excellent excuse for a trip to New York. Under the influence of these developments I increased my contributions to Open Letters, taking advantage of the flexibility and outstanding editorial input the magazine offers to write some more pieces on Victorian literature (Felix Holt and Vanity Fair), a couple of reviews (in addition to George Eliot in Love, I reviewed Claire Harman’s Jane’s Fame) and an essay on Gone with the Wind that took me a little outside my usual 19th-century ‘beat’ but reflected  my ongoing interest in ethical criticism–and my desire to write in a more personal voice. The Gone with the Wind essay earned me a link from Arts & Letters Daily, which helped me believe that I do have something interesting and even valuable to say as a critic–something that I have rarely felt in my almost 20 years as a practising academic critic. Looking ahead to 2011, I hope I can continue to build my confidence as a writer and critic, keep discovering what I have to say and saying it as well as I possibly can, in my own voice.

To everyone who reads and comments here at Novel Readings, and to all of you who keep up your own wonderfully thoughtful, diverse, and stimulating book blogs, thank you, and Happy New Year.

Fearless Pedantry: A. S. Byatt, The Children’s Book

byatt

The Children’s Book has a tremendous solidity to it, a kind of fearless pedantry that I think a reader is bound to find either fascinating and reassuring or tedious, even burdensome–or both, I suppose, at different points in the novel. Mostly, I liked the novel a lot, though I can’t say I loved it because t is an oddly passionless book, resolutely unsentimental. I don’t hold that against Byatt: in fact, I  respect her for it. She doesn’t pander to readerly prejudices. Instead, she rewards the persistent reader with her own accumulated knowledge and insight, and with the emotional aftershocks that follow a cerebral, rather than visceral, commitment. One is surprised, or I guess I should just say that I was surprised, at how involved I was, by the end, with her people. The Children’s Book is a panoramic historical novel, a ‘sweeping’ family saga, that reads not at all like those blurb tags might lead us to expect. In this respect, I’m reminded of Wolf Hall, which is not at all what typically passes for historical fiction. But where Wolf Hall is magnificent in its intensely idiosyncratic, sideways approach to history–history as and through character–The Children’s Room insists on the chronicler’s detachment, as well as the cataloguer’s combination of breadth and specificity–it’s history as information management.

For me, then, a big part of the reading experience was the learning experience: all kinds of things I had never given any sustained thought to, from puppetry to pottery, as well as abstractions I had never thoroughly personified, including anarchism and Fabianism (thus revealing myself not much of a scholar of the fin-de-siècle, I realize) were both explained and dramatized. There are passages of deliberate exposition that make really no concession to the fiction they support:

Backwards and forwards, both. The Edwardians knw they came after something. The sempiternal Queen was gone, in all her manifestations, from the squat and tiny widow swathed in black crape and jet beads, to the gold-encrusted, bedizened, crowned idol who was brought out at durbars and jubilees. The little pursed mouth was silent for ever. Her long-dead mate, who had most seriously cared for the lives of working-men and for the wholesome and beautiful and proliferating arts and crafts, persisted beside her in the name of the unfinished Museum, full of gold, silver, ceramics, bricks and building dust. The new King was an elderly womaniser, genial and unhealthy, interested in oiling the wheels of diplomacy with personal good sense, in racehorses, in the daily shooting of thousands upon thousands of bright birds and panting, scrambling, running things, in the woodlands and moors of Britain, in the forests and mountains of Germany, Belgium, Denmark, and Russia. It was a new time, not a young time. Skittishly, it cast off the moral anguish and human responsibility of the Victorian sages Lytton Strachey was preparing to mock. The rich acquired motor cars and telephones, chauffeurs and switchboard operators. The poor were a menacing phantom, to be helped charitably, or exterminated expeditiously. The land, in places, was running with honey, cream, fruit fools, beer, champagne.

This particular section actually runs almost 10 pages, proliferating context, with no reference to the novel’s characters until we rejoin them–or more accurately, until the narrator picks up their threads again, tying them back in. Though I can imagine being bored or annoyed by Byatt’s strategies, for the most part I was simply too interested to be impatient.

I did get impatient, sometimes, at the attention lavished on the puppet shows. I understand–or at any rate I assume–that they are integral to the novel’s thematic development in various ways, and that they provide opportunities to deepen character development by adding associations (some literal, some suggestive or allegorical) to what we know about them. I didn’t always get it, though (for instance, I felt rather a dunce about the whole Tom Underground fiasco), and I turn out not to be as interested in special effects in theatrical productions as I am in pots (and thus I reiterate my earlier wish that the novel were illustrated–perhaps the V&A could put out a special edition? or, indeed, here’s a book that might be fabulously developed as a hypertext,  or as an etext, complete with animations of the puppetry and interactive maps of the trenches of WWI).

But I don’t want to undersell the power The Children’s Book had over me by its final chapters. It’s a testament to Byatt’s skill and creative depth that she can generate such a large cast of characters, divide her narrative attention among them so dispassionately, and yet make them all distinct enough that any loss is a blow. In my earlier post I mentioned that I felt the war bearing down on them all. It came later than I expected, but its effect was all the more devastating for concluding the novel (more or less) as well as so many of the stories we have followed for so long. The ruthless quality that’s always there in Byatt’s prose finds its moral purpose in this section; I found myself thinking of Yeats’s criticism of the war poets and their emphasis (as he saw it) on “passive suffering” as well as the more general problem that has come up a few times in my Brit Lit survey class about the aestheticization of violence. Here are a couple of excerpts from the trenches (I’ll blank out the names of the specific characters, out of deference to those who haven’t read the novel yet):

**** went into the shelter, to fetch cigarettes. There was a singing howl, and a shell exploded in the trench. A splinter of it took off most of ****’s head. **** took one look, and vomited. Men came running, stretcher-bearers, men with a blanket to cover up what they could, men with buckets and mops to cleanse the dugout. . . . Two days later **** stood up, in his newfangled tin hat, which like most of the men he wore at odd angles, on the back of his head, like a halo. He was not the first, or the last, to be killed by the very skilful German sniper behind the stump of the ruined tree.

—-

They were told to advance. The German shelling was precise. Hundreds of men died behind their own front line, or struggled back to the medical post. **** got out of the trench in one piece and so did Corporal Crowe. They started to walk forwards towards the black stumps of a wood on the skyline. There was noise. Not only shells and bullets, whistling and exploding, but men screaming. They stumbled over the dead and wounded, over men, and pieces of men, and were reduced to crawling, so mashed and messed was the earth and the flesh mashed into it. After a brief time **** felt a thump, and found his tunic damp, and then soaked, with his blood. He tried to crawl on, and could not, and other men crawled past him and sprawled in the mud. He bled. He lay still. He knew in the abstract that stomach wounds were nasty. His head churned. He wished he had not had the rum. He wished he would die quickly. He did not. Men crawled round and over him and he came in and out of consciousness. He noticed when there were no more men, and he noticed nightfall, unless the dark was death. It was not. But he was dead by the time he was found by the stretcher-bearers, so they took his identity-tag, and looked in his bloody pockets for letters of photos…

In the first example, there’s simply no time to recover from the first death before the second one, which is two days but not even two paragraphs later. I thought for a moment, reading about the German sniper, that Byatt was going to indulge in the melodramatic ironies available to a novelist with protagonists on both sides of the conflict. I should have known better. The tone of these passages, also, never changes from the bluntly descriptive, but notice how the perspective shifts in the second example, from “their” joint mission to the pair of walking men, then to our particular man, until his consciousness cannot sustain the story and he is overtaken by the stretcher-bearers. Byatt’s persistent prose can seem artless in its steady march from one statement to the next, but over and over I found that a little close attention showed the steady, experienced hand shaping the clay into a capacious yet subtle and detailed form.

Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom

If you ever read a book, or were a child, or read a book to a child–if your childhood was shaped in any way by the books you read–then you should buy this book and read it immediately. It’s available at the astonishingly low price of $5.36 U.S. from Amazon. Go order it. Now! Then spend a few hours in the company of a woman who helped make you who you are, and make childhood what it is, through her passion, enthusiasm, and advocacy for children’s literature. Good Night Moon, Charlotte’s Web, Harriet the Spy…these and many, many more books were published by the Department of Books for Boys and Girls at Harper’s under the guidance of Ursula Nordstrom. Until a couple of weeks ago I had never heard her name, and now I consider her one of the best friends I have that I’ve never actually met. She actually reminds me a lot of my grandmother, also an editor, also a working woman in a man’s world, also a passionate lover of the written word, and also a firm believer that you could accomplish almost anything with a great letter, especially one bursting with conviction and affection and bristling with CAPS, dashes, and exclamation points. The combination of Nordstrom’s powerful personality and lively writing style and the interest and nostalgia of the discussions of so many now classic children’s books makes this volume an enormous treat to read. Because you are all going to rush out and get your own copies, I won’t do more here than touch on some of the many highlights. Here’s Nordstrom writing to Maurice Sendak in 1963 (Nordstrom contracted Sendak as an illustrator in 1950 when he was working at F. A. O. Schwartz setting up window displays):

Maurice, before I sent the paste-up I went through it, rereading the words, and looking at the pictures again. It is MOST MAGNIFICENT, and we’re so proud to have it on our list. When you were much younger, and had done only a couple of books, I remember I used to write you letters when the books were finished, and thank you for “another beautiful” job — or some such dopiness. Now you’re rich and famous and need no words of wonder from me. But I must send them, anyhow, when I look through Where the Wild Things Are. I think it is utterly magnificent, and the words are beautiful and meaningful, and it does just what you wanted it to do. And you did just what you wanted to do.

I’ve felt sort of down in the dumps about picture books lately, (and about those who write and illustrate and buy and review them, too, to be frank!). But this bright beautiful Monday your beautiful book is exhilarating, and it reminds me that I love creative people and love to publish books for creative children.

Her conviction that children are creative, and that they and their imaginations will flourish if only plodding adults will get out of their way, is one of her most attractive qualities–it seems even more appealing and important today, actually, because a former student told me a shocking story about the preschool teacher she’s currently working with who does not allow any fiction at all in her classroom, including, explicitly and emphatically, books with such unrealistic ingredients as talking animals. No Charlotte’s Web for them, though perhaps this anecdote in one of Nordstrom’s letters to E. B. White would help to change her mind:

I went to a convention of librarians and saw a lot of good souls there and I met a lot of teachers, too. I was really amazed and pleased to discover how many of them (teachers) know and use some of the good children’s books–especially your two. One teacher told me that she’d had a principal who didn’t care what she did with her students as long as she “got them through the Cumberland Gap by Thanksgiving.” But, she said, she was trying to stand firm and trying to use books imaginatively with her students. Or scholars, as you put it. She said she had one class of “culturally deprived” you should excuse the expression youngsters, and she was supposed to “teach them Emerson’s essay on Friendship.” She said it was a lost cause so instead she read them Charlotte’s Web which, she stated, does everything Emerson could have done……She put it better, but I thought it was a good idea and wanted to tell you about it.

We long for another E. B. White book.

She boosts and encourages and promotes and hassles and celebrates and coddles and challenges her writers, determined to get the very best out of them she possibly can–for them, and for the children. (In his introduction, editor Leonard Marcus notes that her characteristic marginal note was “N.G.E.F.Y.,” or “Not Good Enough For You”–which is indeed a brilliant and highly motivating combination of praise and criticism.) It’s endlessly engaging to read her missives to them. I found the back-and-forth about illustrations particularly fascinating; here’s a little bit from a letter to Katharine White (E. B.’s wife):

You will see that in the sample drawings for Stuart Little Mr. [Garth] Williams did one picture in different techniques. We like the more detailed technique, don’t you? He was careful about lots of small but important details. For instance, in the picture of the doctor examining Stuart, Stuart is standing up. Mr. Williams had him lying down in the first sketch but changed it because he was afraid he might look like a little dead mouse if he were lying down. (That is probably a silly detail to pass on to you, but it was somehow encouraging to us.)

Garth Williams (who also did the drawings for the Little House books) was the illustrator for Charlotte’s Web as well:

On drawing marked (1) [Nordstrom writes to EBW] Charlotte has 8 eyes, which apparently she should have. Two on the top of her head, two low on the sides of her head, two where eyes usually are, and two where Garth has indicated a nose. I think that if the nose dots were made larger (as her eyes would be) and the line he has put in for her mouth were omitted, she would be still attractive but more of a spider. I put a small piece of paper over that line of her mouth and she looked better (less like a person).

Tell me you didn’t just go get your copy (of course you have one, right?) of the illustrated Charlotte’s Web to check out Charlotte’s eyes!

My favourite mode for Nordstrom, though, is advocate. She is impatient with bumbling adults who put their limited imaginations in the way of children’s more innocent, creative, and adventurous way of looking at and experiencing the world. In 1954, she rattles off a long (in this edition, nearly five full pages) letter to a Harper’s rep who was struggling with complaints about How to Make an Earthquake by Ruth Krauss, the author of A Hole is to Dig (which Sendak illustrated). “I bleed at every pore,” she tells him, “when I read your plaintive statement to the Sales Manager, ‘I wonder if the book couldn’t stand a little editing if it isn’t too late.” It is too late, she tells him, but more importantly, it would be a huge mistake, a catastrophe, to revise the book in order to placate buyers who thought it encouraged children to be messy and disrespectful. “What does Ruth have to do to convince some of your customers that she knows something about children they don’t know?” Nordstrom wonders. “Oh hell, it all boils down to: you just can’t explain this sort of wonderful stuff to some adults, Jim”:

I saw the finished book, type and pictures, yesterday, and it is really swell. The pictures are delightful. There will be a couple of ‘activities’ that some grown-ups will object to but the book as a whole is a book of freshness, imagination, love, originality, humor, pathos, and–well, take your pick of flap-copy nouns. Just look at the last line of the How to Entertain Telephone Callers–which ends “or whatever is your talent.” Believe me, that is so close to children, so exactly right, so damn warm and perfect that any little child can’t help but feel happier at the moment when it is read to him. “Happier” isn’t the right word. I guess I mean that “or whatever is your talent” can’t help but make any child feel warm and attended to and considered. And, believe me, not many children’s books make children feel considered. No child would define it that way but you’ll know what I mean.

“Krauss books,” she admits, “will not charm those sinful adults who sift their reactions through their own messy adult maladjustments.” But rather than edit the book to please them, she stands up and fights for a book that is “pure 100% Krauss.”

Perhaps her most heroic moment is her defense of Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen, which as I’m sure all of us remember, includes among its many wonderful drawings one of “a little naked 6-year old,” as Nordstrom describes it to E. B. White. “I have had several requests,” she goes on, “for a revised edition in which the little boy is clothed or covered in some graceful way.” One librarian took it upon herself to solve this problem by painting on a diaper. “Other librarians might wish to do the same,” said a letter to the School Library Journal. Nordstrom’s statement in response to this act of  “censorship by mutilation”  is a manifesto not just for children’s books but for the whole idea of creative freedom, and for the principles of openness and access that libraries in particular ought to represent:

A private individual who owns a book is free, of course, to do with it as he pleases; he may destroy his property, or cherish it, even paint clothes on any naked figures that appear in it. But it is an altogether different matter when a librarian disfigures a book purchased with public funds–thereby editing the work of the author–and then presents this distortion to the library’s patrons.

The mutilation of Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen by certain librarians must not be allowed to have an intimidating effect on creators and publishers of books for children. We, as writers, illustrators, publishers, critics, and librarians, deeply concerned with preserving the First Amendment freedoms for everyone involved in communicating ideas, vigorously protest this exercise of censorship.

452 writers, illustrators, publishers, critics, and librarians signed the letter.

Nordstrom is just as outspoken on the challenges of being a working woman in a male-dominated environment as she is on everything else; she helped later generations of women understand themselves better by supporting works like Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy and its sequel, The Long Secret, which included the first mention of menstruation in literature for young people:

I remember clearly the day I read the manuscript of The Long Secret and came upon the part devoted to Beth Ellen’s first menstruation. I wrote in the margin, “Thank you, Louise Fitzhugh!”, for it seemed to me it was about time that this subject, of such paramount importance to little girls of Beth Ellen’s age, was mentioned naturally and accepted in a children’s book as part of life.

Here’s a moment where her efforts certainly touched my own life:

The great Shel Silverstein told Marlo Thomas the great Marlo Thomas to look me up while she is in NY making a TV special. . . She is very caught up with Women’s Lib . . . and she has been upset by some of the ‘sexist literature’ being fed to children. She had seen a couple of particularly obnoxious books called I’m Glad I’m a Girl and I’m Glad I’m a Boy. What she wants to do is make a record for Caedmon Records (very good people) that people can play to their children, and she hoped I could find her some writers who would contribute brief stories and/or poems which will in some way counteract the sexist stuff. I showed her William’s Doll

That’s right: the resulting album was Free to Be…You and Me. (When I listened to it as a child, I never fully appreciated the track “Parents are People”–now it means a lot more to me!)

The fun just goes on and on, and my appreciation for who Nordstrom was and what she accomplished just goes up and up as I look through the volume again, but I can’t go on forever here–and you need time to read the whole thing for yourself, so I’ll end by thanking SD (again!) for another unexpectedly great reading experience.

Novel Readings 2009

It’s time for my annual review of the highs and lows of my reading year.

Books I’m most glad I read, either for the intrinsic richness of the aesthetic, affective, or intellectual experience they offered, for the conversations they generated, or for the ideas and connections they offered for my teaching and research:

1. Daniel Mendelsohn, The Lost. This book made by far the strongest impression on me of any I read this year. Devastating though it is, it also manages to be surprising, suspenseful, and sometimes even comical. Mendelsohn manages to be self-reflexive about his research and writing, about his own assumptions and limitations, without ever compromising his dedication to reaching after the truth of the story he is telling or his respect for the suffering of those whose story it really is. It’s a remarkable accomplishment.

2. Naguib Mahfouz, Palace Walk. I ended up enjoying this novel as much for the way it implicitly chastised me for my own assumptions (about fiction, about families) as for the story it told. I’m happy to say that Santa (OK, my mom) sent me Sugar Street and Palace of Desire for Christmas, so I’ll be reading–and, I expect, writing about–Mahfouz again in 2010.

3. Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns. Although (as I say also in my original review) I don’t think this is actually a great novel by literary standards, and in retrospect I feel my own emotional reaction to it was the result of some heavy-handed narrative and ideological manipulation (pain! suffering! injustice! misogyny!), it’s impossible to ignore the very real pain, suffering, injustice, and misogyny of the world it fictionalizes.

4. Mahbod Seraji, Rooftops of Tehran. Unlike A Thousand Splendid Suns, Rooftops of Tehran is not a sensational or particularly populist treatment of its material. It reaches across cultural differences to tell a story of yearning and love, emphasizing feelings that are universal, if differently embodied or characterized based on circumstances. At times a bit heavy-handedly pedagogical, it still avoids the trap of what I am now thinking about as ‘moral tourism’: it isn’t an Iran packaged for mass consumption and political ends, but something more inward-looking and sincere.

5. Charlotte Bronte, Villette. This year’s choice for our summer reading project at The Valve, Bronte’s perverse exploration of thwarted desire, religious conflict, surveillance, and narrative unreliability offers all kinds of fun and surprises, especially for those who think the Victorians were all naive realists. (D’oh! But there really are people who think that. In my experience, many of them are specialists in late 20th-century fiction whose favourite straw man looks a lot like Trollope, but doesn’t have his metafictional savvy.)

6. Ian Colford, Evidence. Understated, even insidious, these stories leave their mark on your consciousness, like inky thumbprints.

7. Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway. It seems somehow significant that I quoted from this novel instead of writing much about it. It’s not that there aren’t ideas in it, or that its form and technique isn’t inviting to criticism, but for me this was a reading experience that was very much about easing up my critical grip (which seemed to be deforming my reading) and savouring the tactile quality of the language. My feelings about this book were also much affected by my thoughts about a special student, Samantha Li; I only wish I had read it before it was too late to talk to her about it.

8. William Boyd, Any Human Heart. Dear students: The main character in this book is not at all “relatable.” Guess what–that doesn’t matter! You don’t have to like him (though by the end I was fond of him after all, as you are of someone you’ve known their whole life). You just have to go along, feeling the pulses of his idiosyncratic life and personality. He has no special insight, into himself or any larger contexts; he isn’t even especially charismatic. But, as George Eliot points out in Adam Bede, most of the people around us are nothing special–we need to adapt our aesthetic to that reality, and it turns out to be a surprisingly moving experience.

9. Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall. Wolf Hall surprised me by not resembling any other historical fiction I’ve read. For one thing, there is almost no exposition. Mantel’s trick of referring to Cromwell throughout as “he,” though it does create the occasional awkwardness, also creates an oddly intimate atmosphere: we are with him, in close proximity, as if standing by his shoulder, but there’s a little separation remaining. First-person narration would have overcome it, but then I think the novel would have felt more artificial, and the emotions would have had to run higher–a mistake in a novel remarkable for its restraint (yes, even at 650 pages, it feels tightly controlled). And the language: it is crafted with the precision of Ian McEwan’s prose, but with a higher sheen of poetic possibility. Here’s a little bit that describes and exemplifies the novel’s characteristically taut balance of eloquence and repression:

There’s a feeling of power in reserve, a power that drives right through the bone, like the shiver you sense in the shaft of an axe when you take it into your hand. You can strike, or you can not strike, and if you choose to hold back the blow, you can still feel inside you the resonance of the omitted thing.

The central conflict is not Henry VIII against God, or fate, or his wives, for denying him a son, or Anne against Katherine, or any of the other stock melodramas of Tudor fiction (and television), but Cromwell, the self-made man, the accountant, the bureaucrat, the statesman, the pragmatist, the modern man, against extremism, privilege, waste, indulgence–and especially against Thomas More, who delights in torturing heretics and seeks a pointless (to him, a martyr’s) death.

10. Nadeem Aslam, The Wasted Vigil. Is it wrong to make something so beautiful out of material so terrible? Is terrorism really analogous to vandalism? Both obliterate the beauty (realized or potential) and the creativity of humanity.

This year I’ll skip over the list of low points. There weren’t many, happily–most of the other books I read were in the OK – to – mediocre range, which only irks me when they win awards.

In last year’s post I noted the expansion of my blogging horizons that came with the invitation to write for The Valve. This year I have been pleased to contribute to Open Letters: I’m glad they made room for my piece on Trollope among their many astute and engaging essays and reviews, and I’ve got a little thing on Felix Holt appearing in their January 2010 issue, so stay tuned for that.

Looking ahead, I’m anticipating an unusually busy term coming up, with three classes including one all-new one and some new kinds of assignments. Still, I hope to have time to keep up my usual series on teaching, and also to fit in some reading for myself. Looking over my year-end posts for 2007 and 2008, it is notable how such ‘pleasure’ reading feeds into my research and teaching (the leading example being Ahdaf Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun, which went from being just another book I’d read to the lynchpin of a reconceptualized research program). Perhaps something I read in 2010 will end up turning me in another new direction, or adding in some other unanticipated way to my life. But in any case here are some of the books I’m most looking forwarding to reading or re-reading:

  1. Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger. It’s great to feel so confident that a book will be both extremely smart and extremely entertaining.
  2. Hilary Mantel, A Place of Great Safety. Speaking of confidence, Wolf Hall gave me confidence in Mantel as both a stylist and a historical novelist.
  3. Naguib Mahfouz, Sugar Street and The Palace of Desire.
  4. Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf.
  5. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead.
  6. War and Peace. Somehow, it didn’t get read in 2009, but I’m sure it will be there for me when I’m ready for it.
  7. Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy. I’m going to keep putting this on my TBR list until I actually read it.
  8. Dickens, Our Mutual Friend. I haven’t read this since my undergraduate Victorian fiction class in 1989. Once every twenty years seems like a minimum for what I remember as one of the best of Dickens.
  9. George Eliot, Romola. I’ve assigned this for my graduate seminar on George Eliot this term. It was a tough call between it and Felix Holt, but Romola has been on the back burner the longest. When it is good, it is very, very, very good. When it is bad, characters say things like ‘You are as welcome as the cheese to the macaroni.’
  10. Audrey Niffenegger, Her Fearful Symmetry. All appearances (and movie adaptations) to the contrary, The Time Traveller’s Wife is a gritty, suspenseful, intellectual romance. Sure, you have to accept a wacky premise, but for me at least, it was worked through with surprising toughness. So I’m game to see how Niffenegger follows it up.
  11. David Mitchell, Black Swan Green. Because you told me to!

Daniel Mendelsohn, The Lost

the-lost“So many people know these horrible stories by now,” Daniel Mendelsohn reflects near the end of The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million; “what more was there to say? How to tell them?” The Lost itself is, of course, his answer.

This extraordinary book, at its simplest level, is a more or less chronological account of Mendelsohn’s quest to learn the fate of his great-uncle Schmiel (Sam) Jager, his wife Ester, and their four daughters, Lorka (b. 1920), Frydka (b. 1922), Ruchele (b. 1925), and Bronia (b. 1929?). From early in his childhood Mendelsohn knows where his relatives lived, in the Polish town of Bolechow, and he knows that they died during the Holocaust, but beyond this he has only fragments of information, from stories half-heard or half-understood (“Once, I overheard my grandfather saying to my mother, I know only they were hiding in a kessle. Since I knew by then how to make adjustments for his accent, when I heard him say this I simply wondered, What castle?”), from photographs (“killed by the Nazis,” his grandfather has written on the back of a photograph of Schmiel in his WWI uniform, brought by Daniel to school for a presentation to his Grade 10 history class: “I remembered what had been written because I so clearly remembered the reaction to those words of my high school history teacher, who when she read what my gradnfather had written clapped a hand to her handsome, humorous face, . . . and exclaimed, ‘Oh, no!'”), from letters (“The date of Onkel Schmil and his family when they died nobody can say me, 1942 the Germans kild the aunt Ester with 2 daughters,” writes his Great-Aunt Miriam from Israel in 1975).

Only once he makes it his mission to fill in the gaps in his knowledge does Daniel realize, over the course of many years and many interviews with surviving “Bolechowers,” in America and Australia, Israel and Denmark and Poland, that he “knew” almost nothing. Indeed, The Lost is in large part a meditation on what nobody knows, what nobody can know: not just the facts, what happened to Schmiel and Ester and their daughters (“such darling four children,” Schmiel writes in 1939, in one of his desperately dignified letters to his American relatives, asking for money and help to get his family “away from this Gehenim,” this Hell), the facts of their deaths, but also their lives. Who were they, these six people, now almost as lost (as Mendelsohn ruminates near the volume’s close) as the many millions who, before them, lived and were lost into what is now history? What can we really know of them, or say about them?

For everything, in time, gets lost: the lives of people now remote, the tantalizing yet ultimately vanished and largely unknowable lives of virtually all of the Greeks and Romans and Ottomans and Malays and Goths and Bengals and Sudanese who ever lived, the peoples of Ur and Kush, the lives of the Hittites and Philistines that will never be known, the lives of people more recent than that, the African slaves and the slave traders, the Boers and the Belgians, those who were slaughtered and those who died in bed, the Polish counts and Jewish shopkeepers, the blond hair and eyebrows and small white teeth that someone once loved or desired of this or that boy or girl or man or woman who was one of the five million (or six or seven) Ukrainians starved to death by Stalin, and indeed the intangible things beyond the hair and teeth and brows, the smiles and frustrations and laughter and terror and loves and hunger of every one of those millions of Ukrainians, just as the hair of a Jewish girl or boy or man or woman that someone once loved, and the teeth and the brows, the smiles and frustrations and laughter and terror of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust are now lost, or will soon be lost, because no number of books, however great, could ever document them all, even if they were to be written, which they won’t and can’t be; all that will be lost, too . . . everything will be lost, eventually, as surely as most of what made up the lives of the Egyptians and Incas and Hittites has been lost. But for a little while some of that can be rescued, if only, faced with the vastness of all that there is and all that there ever was, somebody makes the decision to look back. . . .

And of course that is what Mendelsohn himself has done, to look back, to see “not only what was lost but what there is still to be found.” Though his initial interest is in just how his lost relatives died (“we did end up finding out what happened to Uncle Schmiel and his family–by accident,” he tells us early on), his preoccupation becomes something at once more expansive and more elusive: their lives, their experiences, their identities–what they lost, in becoming no longer “themselves, specific” (“I was reminded the more forcefully,” he says at a crucial moment of discovery, “that they had been specific people with specific deaths . . . they were once, themselves, specific, the subjects of their own lives and deaths”) but only six of six million, lost in the sheer magnitude of the loss of which their own deaths were specific only to them.

Mendelsohn’s refusal to take over their specificity, to presume to know them or speak for them, for me was one of the most impressive features of the book. Even when he reconstructs likely scenarios, he frames them with a respectful uncertainty. How presumptuous, after all, to think we can stand, vicariously, in the place of his sixteen-year-old cousin Ruchele, killed in Bolechow’s first official Aktion. “I have often tried to imagine what might have happened to her,” Mendelsohn remarks, “although every time I do, I realize how limited my resources are.” Not only is the evidence fragmentary and unreliable, not only can “memory itself . . . play tricks,” but “there is no way to reconstruct what she herself went through.” Still, he tries, drawing on his own interviews with survivors and witnesses but also from documents in Yad Vashem, but never presuming to know what was really only Ruchele’s knowledge (“It is indeed possible that,” “if she survived those thirty-six hours,” “with what thoughts it is impossible to know,” “Did she hear it? . . . We cannot know.”) “That is the last we see of her,” he says at the end of this section; “although we have, of course, not really seen her at all.” The sense of loss at this point is acute: the waste, the horror, the mystery, the finality of death.

These and the many other, often quite extended, meditations on the limits of our historical knowledge risk bringing a degree of narrative self-consciousness to The Lost that could turn it too far towards Mendelsohn himself. If the book had become more about the storytelling than the stories, I would have liked it far less, but I never felt that the humanity of his family was put second to intellectual gamesmanship or philosophical speculation. Even the long sections of biblical exegesis are woven, always, into his thinking about what might have happened, what it all might have meant or be made to mean, what larger (cyclical, universal) stories these individual stories might in their own ways reiterate. There are high stakes involved in his project, and his insistence that it matters how much we know, where our information comes from, how we piece it together into something meaningful–the effort he puts into questioning or undermining or revising what he learned during his interviews and travels–keeps alive for us that history is made as well as lived by human beings whose complexity cannot be reduced and should not be underestimated. Not that he is a relativist about truth: it matters deeply to him to reach as close as possible to what really happened to Schmiel and Ester and their daughters. The moments at which he comes physically closest take on a special poignancy because as he stands there–for instance, in the kestle, box, not kessle, castle, where Schmiel and Frydka hid for months, and “the material reality” allows Mendelsohn “to understand the words at last”–he is most sharply aware he will never know, really: “those lives and deaths belonged to them, not me.”

Early in the book Mendelsohn points out that “it is naturally more appealing to readers to absorb the meaning of a vast historical event through the story of a single family.” Such, clearly, is the strategy of this book. And yet we are often reminded, because Mendelsohn too is often reminded (sometimes, deservedly, harshly), that in focusing so exclusively on six of six million, others whose lives were equally “specific” are being sidelined, turned into secondary characters. He interviews Jack Greene, “born Grunschlag,” who once dated Ruchele:

I can tell you, he began, that Ruchele perished on the twenty-ninth of October 1941.

I was startled, and immediately afterward moved, by the specificity of this memory.

I said, Now let me just ask you, why–because you remember the date so specifically–why do you remember the date?

As I wrote down Ruchele–>Oct 29 1941, I thought to myself, He must have really loved her.

Jack said, Because my mother and older brother perished on the same day.

I said nothing. We are each of us, I realized, myopic; always at the center of our own stories.

There is no way, of course, to include every story, but Mendelsohn’s strategy of frequently spiralling away from the “main” narrative, following memories and anecdotes as they come into his mind or come from those he is interviewing, is a constant reminder that each story we do hear is one branch on a vast spreading tree. The sheer scope of the horror and loss would be overwhelming even if it were possible to represent it all, so instead we get glimpses, again and again, so that like Mendelsohn himself, though we are focusing on the Jagers, we can never forget that there were many, many others–or if we do, we are soon chastened:

As I looked I suddenly felt foolish for asking Mrs Begley to look in her book [of the victims] for my relatives, whom I never knew and who meant something rather abstract for me at that point, when so many of hers, so much closer to her, were there too. . . .

Then she took a breath that was also a sigh, and started telling me her own stories of slyness and survival, and other stories, too. Of, for instance, how, successfully hidden herself, she had bribed someone to bring her parents and in-laws to a certain place from which she would take them to safety, . . . and how when she arrived at this rendezvous she saw a wagon filled with dead bodies passing by, and on top of the pile of bodies were those of the elderly people she had come to rescue. . . .

And then she added this: Because she herself was in danger, was “passing” at that point, she couldn’t allow herself to betray any emotion when she saw the bodies of her family passing by in the wagon. . . .

Mrs Begley’s story of “passing” (You see, I was fair, and I spoke German) points to another issue Mendelsohn confronts, as a researcher and storyteller: all those he interviews are, necessarily, survivors. So not only do they (like Mrs Begley) all have remarkable stories of their own to tell, of hiding and running and starving, of those who helped them, or didn’t, but they also could not have been witnesses (“Had he seen [Ruchele] being taken? I stupidly questioned. He laughed grimly. If I would have seen her, I would have been dead too!“). One of Mendelsohn’s aunts, asked by her inquisitive relation for details of her own birth, replies, “I’m not going to tell you when I was born because it would have been better if I’d never been born“, and we realize that though the survivors were not lost in the same way as Ruchele and Frydka and Schmiel and Ester and Lorka and little Bronia, still, they lost everything they had and are lost as well. “‘Well,'” says Jack Greene, “‘think of Bolechow. Of six thousand Jews, we were forty-eight who survived.'”

Novel Readings 2008

One of the best features of blogging is turning out to be the record it provides of my reading experiences. 2008 doesn’t seem to have been my most rewarding year of novel reading (being on sabbatical for part of last year accounted, in part, for the greater number and variety of books I went through in 2007), but there have certainly been highlights. Some of my most stimulating reading in 2008 was re-reading, and some was non-fiction. Here’s my look back at the highs and lows of my reading year.

Books I’m most glad I read, either for the intrinsic richness of the aesthetic, affective, or intellectual experience they offered, for the conversations they generated, or for the ideas and connections they offered for my teaching and research:

  1. Ann Patchett, Bel Canto. Without a doubt, this was my favourite new novel of the year: exquisite, finely tuned art about the beauty, value, and fragility of art.
  2. Olivia Manning, The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy. Though the prose throughout these books is consistently, almost perversely, flat, I found the series consistently interesting, especially in its depiction of ordinary, flawed, but mostly likable people trying to organize meaningful lives for themselves amidst the constantly unfolding chaos and danger of war. The understated style comes to seem appropriate for characters who are never really dramatic, always on the periphery of the ‘real’ action and yet, of course, always the protagonists of their own stories.
  3. George Eliot, Adam Bede. I hadn’t read Adam Bede in a couple of years and have never paid it as much attention as my favourite George Eliot novels. When it emerged as the front-runner for our summer reading group at The Valve, I was uncertain how things would go, if relieved to be on somewhat familiar territory. In the end, I gained a greater appreciation of the uneven beauties and oddities of the novel. I also found it constantly stimulating seeing how other readers responded to it and learning from the range of approaches and expertise that inflected their readings. Of the many memorable passages, this is the one that I find has echoed in my mind since we wrapped things up:

    “It would be a poor result of all our anguish and our wrestling, if we won nothing but our old selves at the end of it–if we could return to the same blind loves, the same self-confident blame, the same light thoughts of human suffering, the same frivolous gossip over blighted human lives, the same feeble sense of that Unknown towards which we have sent forth irrepressible cries in our loneliness. Let us rather be thankful that our sorrow lives in us as an indestructible force, only changing its form, as forces do, and passing from pain into sympathy–the one poor word which includes all our best insight and our best love.”

  • James Wood, How Fiction Works. Though my assessment of this much-hyped book from today’s most talked-about literary critic was not altogether positive, Wood is certainly an inspiration to anyone who would like to see the gap between academic and public criticism bridged without false populism.
  • Ronan McDonald, The Death of the Critic. Like How Fiction Works, The Death of the Critic stood out in my reading year more because of the conversations it generated than because of its intrinsic merits. I’m still thinking about the emphasis McDonald (and others) places on evaluation as the key to critical relevance, and I’m still inclined to think that people’s everyday reading practices have at least as much to do with ethics (broadly construed, as Booth does in The Company We Keep). Eventually I hope to make this case–and, further, the case for ethical criticism as a useful framework for public criticism–in a careful way.
  • The Reader. I’ve been so happy to discover this excellent publication from The Reader Organization. I first came across it through this article on Scott and have since read several back issues and both of the issues made available as PDFs for download. I’ve been promised that a two-year subscription is part of my Christmas haul this year, and I really look forward to keeping up with its stimulating blend of intelligent but accessible literary analysis, readers’ reports, and new fiction and poetry.
  • Vanity Fair and Bleak House. The enormous pleasure and challenge of teaching both of these books in the same class nearly compensates for an academic year in which I am not teaching Middlemarch even once (I’ll have to make up for that in 2009-10).
  • The Wire. OK, it’s not a novel…but it was certainly one of the most enthralling narrative experiences of my year, and in its social and thematic ambition and its attempt to convey the connections between multiple layers of a complex socio-economic world and a sprawling cast of characters, it has much in common with the 19th-century ‘condition of England’ novels.
  • Two recent additions I haven’t had time to write up properly: Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories and One Good Turn. I first read the former on the way home from a trip to Sydney. I’m not a happy flier and I was fairly well medicated, which must be why I didn’t appreciate it much at the time and wantonly gave it away on landing. After hearing a number of people speak very highly of both of Atkinson’s mysteries, I got One Good Turn from the library last week and enjoyed it so much that I picked up a new copy of Case Histories, which I just finished reading and found thoroughly impressive.

Books I could have done without (happily, a shorter list than last year’s):

  1. Inger Ash Wolfe, The Calling. There’s a good book–even a good series–to be had from the materials in this creepy thing. Maybe the sequel will abandon the cheap thrills in favour of intelligent plotting and character development.
  2. Paul Auster, City of Glass. Actually, I wasn’t sure which list to put this one one. I hated it and yet I thought it was very smart, and I’ll be teaching it in April. Wish me luck!

Books I’m most looking forward to reading in 2009:

  1. Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy. Yes, this was on my books to read in 2008 list too. I don’t blame the novel at all for my failure to get through it; I was enjoying it, but other things intruded and my attention wandered.
  2. Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace. My Christmas wish list this year reflected a certain impatience with hot new books that rather disappointed; War and Peace is one of those Great Classics that I have read only once (years ago, trying to look smart) and have often thought I should read properly. Now I have it in a highly praised new translation and I’m excited to get started.
  3. John Galsworth, The Forsyte Saga. This is another from my wish list. I’ve never read it, but it looks like just the kind of thing I’ll enjoy.
  4. Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited. See above.
  5. Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca. I read this many times in my youth, but it was part of our family library and since I moved away from home I’ve never owned my own copy. Now I do!
  6. Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep. For someone who teaches a course on detective fiction, this one is probably my “Humiliation” winner. I’m tiring a bit of The Maltese Falcon, so I figure it’s time I tried the other obvious one.

Not directly related to reading novels but of much significance to Novel Readings in 2008 was the invitation I received to become a contributor to The Valve. It has been invigorating, if sometimes intimidating, to share my posts with a wider audience and to participate in the lively exchanges that go on among the diverse community of readers and thinkers that write and comment there.

I have no bold new plans for Novel Readings in 2009 except to keep it up. Thanks to everyone who came here to read or comment!

Ann Patchett, Bel Canto

Bel Canto is a beautiful, poignant, and fragile novel about the beauty, poignancy, and fragility of art and love. The simplicity of its narrative suits the underlying simplicity of its ideas: that music can transcend differences, for instance, or that art and love and beauty matter and should be nourished and shared.

In the early parts of the novel, these insights, which sound hackneyed stated so baldly, nonetheless come upon the characters as surprises borne in upon them by the extremity of their circumstances. Even Mr. Hosokawa, whose love of opera brings soprano Roxanne Coss to the party aborted so dramatically when the guests are taken hostage, has a complex life to which music can be only an accessory, an indulgence that makes a gift of a few days home with food poisoning: “He remembered this time as happily as any vacation because he played Handel’s Alcina continually, even while he slept.” The party itself is a business occasion: Mr. Hosokawa is “the founder and chairman of Nansei, the largest electronics corporation in Japan,” and “the host country” hopes he can be seduced into investing, perhaps even building a factory. Only Mr. Hosokawa is there only to hear Roxanne Coss sing–and as it turns out, only he is there for the right reason, the only reason that matters. And yet, her singing propels the other guests beyond business to love:

They were so taken by the beauty of her voice that they wanted to cover her mouth with their mouth, drink in. Maybe music could be transferred, devoured, owned. What would it mean to kiss the lips that had held such a sound?

Some of them had loved her for years. They had every recording she had ever made. They kept a notebook and wrote down every place they had seen her, listing the music, the names of the cast, the conductor. There were others there that night who had not heard her name, who would have said, if asked, that they would much rather pass three hours in a dentist’s chair. These were the ones who wept openly now, the ones who had been so mistaken.

In retrospect, we realize that this transformation captures the essence of the novel. But because this moment of intense aesthetic and erotic passion coincides with the moment the terrorists cut the lights, it initially seems associated with weakness or vulnerability, especially as the guests continue applauding. This impression builds as the guests in their party finery are surrounded by gun-toting guerillas who first take rough command of the house and then order their hostages to lie down; the guests are relieved, “like small dogs trying to avoid a fight.” Easy oppositions lurk, ready to cheapen the novel’s effects: music, refinement, civilization, under siege by bullets, brutality, savagery.

But (and what do we expect, in a novel called Bel Canto?) the music connects, rather than divides, guests from intruders. Quickly we learn, for example, that the uneducated terrorists (“No one having explained opera, or what it was to sing other than the singing that was done in a careless way . . . No one having explained anything”) have been emotionally overwhelmed (or is it undermined?) by listening to Roxanne Coss from their hiding places in the air-conditioning vents:

When a girl in their village had a pretty voice, one of the old women would say she had swallowed a bird, and this was what they tried to say to themselves as they looked at the pile of hairpins resting on the pistachio chiffon of her gown: she has swallowed a bird. But they knew it wasn’t true. In all their ignorance, in all their unworldliness, they knew there had never been such a bird.

And so it begins: an impossible, unrealistic, dream-like sequence in which, bit by bit, the underlying humanity of each character surfaces. The stale-mate of the hostage-taking, which maroons many men, one woman, and two girls of wildly different nationalities, backgrounds, and characters in a bizarre suspension from ordinary life, gradually liberates them to seek new loves, mostly of music, but also of each other; it’s a brave (but, we always understand, endangered) new world in which the worst come to lack conviction and the best discover their passionate intensity.

The sad but fundamental implausibility of all this requires that we suspend not only our disbelief but, to some extent, our critical faculties, liberating ourselves, you might say, to test and extend the limits of our own artistic sensibilities, to consider seriously, for instance, that song might, in its own way, be wielded as a weapon against petty tyranny:

In retrospect, it was a risky thing to do, both from the perspective of General Alfredo [a leader of the terrorists], who might have seen it as an act of insurrection, and from the care of the instrument of the voice itself. She had not sung in two weeks, nor did she go through a single scale to warm up. Roxanne Coss . . . stood in the middle of the vast living room and began to sing “O Mio Babbino Caro” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. . . . All of the love and longing a body can contain was spun into not more than two and a half minutes of song, and when she came to the highest notes it seemed that all they had been given in their lives and all they had lost came together and made a weight that was almost impossible to bear . . . .

Roxanne took a deep breath and rolled her shoulders. “Tell him,” she said to Gen, “that’s it. Either he gives me that box right now or you will not hear another note out of me or that piano for the duration of this failed social experiment.”

How can it work? What can such a threat possibly mean to a man such as General Alfredo? Even he does not know, for the music has “confused him to the point of senselessness.” The stupidity of opposing art with violence incapacitates the Generals, as General Benjamin points out when they consider how to reassert complete control:

“If we put a gun to her head she would sing all day.”

“Try it first with a bird,” General Benjamin said gently to Alfredo. “Like our soprano, they have no capacity to understand authority. The bird doesn’t know enough to be afraid and the person holding the gun will only end up looking like a lunatic.”

However artificial the forms of art may seem (and surely opera is among the most contrived), over and over here the association is with nature, with transparency, with revelation. One of the loveliest epiphanic moments, less melodramatic than Roxanne’s confrontation with Alfredo, is Kato’s ascension from “a vice president at Nansei,” a man known “for being very good with numbers,” to pianist and accompanist. Kato’s playing of Chopin brings the young fighter Carmen to a new life; another terrorist, Cesar, is inspired and finds his own voice. Love and beauty are contagious in this novel. We are all either musicians or music-lovers, Patchett seems to be saying: isn’t that enough to allow us to live together?

Even within the novel, though, the answer has to be that it is not enough, and the certainty of tragedy on an operatic scale haunts the novel from the beginning. This is one cause of what I referred to as the novel’s fragility: it imagines impossibilities, dreams and hopes drawn from yearnings its readers may well recognize from their own encounters with art, especially with music, but its characters recognize, as do we, that theirs is not the real world. We are reminded of this by the recurrent visits of the Red Cross negotiator, Messner, painfully aware that the military is literally undermining the paradisaical garden in which hostages and terrorists play soccer. He knows, and they know, and we know, that they can’t in fact live there forever, despite Carmen’s prayer that “God would look on them and see the beauty of their existence and leave them alone.”

On the novel’s own terms, this kind of fragility adds to the beauty and poignancy of the situation: like fine lace or delicate filigree, the loves that form inspire a protective tenderness, a desire to save them from tearing or breaking. I think there is a further kind of fragility to Bel Canto as well, though, that is potentially more problematic because it arises from the novel’s deliberate distancing from history and politics. Take the refusal to place the novel in any particular time or place. As I noted, it’s always just “the host country”; the terrorists’ grievances and demands are boilerplate, even stereotyped; the government is an implacable yet vague force against them. This separation from real-world politics is necessary to preserve the fable-like sensibility of the novel, yet it undermines its credibility and perhaps even its own arguments: the solution the novel implicitly proposes is, after all, to real-world problems, isn’t it? But to imagine a way out of them, it has to leave them altogether behind, or reduce the conflict to the simplistic oppositions between beauty and power, art and guns, that seemed to have been avoided earlier: the only difference at the end is that by and large the terrorists too have been converted, seduced away from politics by love and opera. The novel also skips over any possible association of music in general and opera in particular with history or politics. Verdi, for instance, to whom Mr. Hosokawa is so loyal (Rigoletto is his first opera, and he “never forgot the importance of Verdi in his life”) was a hero of Italian nationalism; crowds at his funeral procession sang the chorus of the Hebrew slaves from Nabucco. Opera may once have been a popular form, but today too it is inseparably associated (however justly or unjustly) with cultural and economic elites of just the kind attending the party at the Vice Presidential mansion. Do these considerations matter to the affective or aesthetic aspects of opera? I’m not sure, but there’s something a bit naive and wishful about ignoring them completely in a novel that pits opera against so many of the brutalities and vulgarities of modern life. This naivete is echoed in the extra materials at the end of my edition, which include a piece by Patchett called “How to Fall in Love with Opera”:

The fact is we need opera. We especially need it now. It is an enormous, passionate, melodramatic affair that puts the little business of our lives into perspective. . . . Opera, more than any other art form [really? even novels?] has the sheer muscle and magnitude to pull us into another world, and while that world may be as fraught with heartache as our own, it is infinitely more gorgeous.

As a life-long opera lover* who loves to bliss out to the Sutherland-Horne recording of “Mira, O Norma,” of course I agree. But I recognize that my bliss is based on escape, and while it may be escape into something transcendent and “gorgeous,” I’m not comfortable using it to measure the rest of my life.

And, speaking of being a life-long opera lover, I thought Bel Canto betrayed some signs of its author having (as she admits) come to opera relatively late. For one thing, Roxanne Coss’s repertoire is entirely predictable, from “O Mio Babbino Caro” to the “Song to the Moon” from Rusalka. I suppose familiar tracks were meant as a way to make the novel’s emphasis on opera (to some, as initially to Patchett, an esoteric expertise) user-friendly. Still, the risk is that the transcendent aesthetic moments in the novel approach cliche to the knowledgeable reader. (My own operatic taste is quite mainstream, but even I might have sought out arias with more thematic resonance–facing Alfredo with “Vissi d’arte” instead, for example, an area which does come up later on but more incidentally). Patchett points to Renee Fleming as one of her favourite singers (“I came to believe that Renee Fleming was the living embodiment of art”), a feeling I certainly second, but like Mr. Hosokawa, she shows little historical reach in her other recommendations, and even Fleming, whose voice is certainly beautiful, is no better to my ear, and maybe not as breathtaking, as early recordings of Leontyne Price or Montserrat Caballe. But here, of course, I’m heading well away from the novel (and into the dangerous waters of opera fandom, where everyone notoriously steers by their own stars).

The final weakness I felt in the novel was its epilogue. Patchett should have had the courage of her operatic predecessors and ended with her catastrophe, which I found painful, shocking, and inevitable. Tragic operas don’t rescue you from the emotional impact of their conclusions. Alfredo does not find consolation in Flora’s arms for the loss of Violetta; Rodolfo has no second chance at love after Mimi’s death; nobody responds to Pinkerton’s anguished cries of “Butterfly!” as he rushes upon her corpse; Amneris does not force open the tomb and give Radames a second chance he wouldn’t want anyway. Operatic love is total; there are no compromises. Perhaps Patchett could not accommodate this aspect of opera into her utopian vision, but the result of the epilogue for me was not the sustenance of hope but the bathos of anti-climax.

That said, I carried Bel Canto around for several days after I finished it. I wanted to read parts of it again and again; I needed to think about it; and I was sorry it ended, sorry its dream was over.


*Life-long, you ask? Not really an exaggeration: I still cherish an LP of highlights from La Traviata I got for my 5th birthday and had signed by La Stupenda herself in 1976 (I was 9).