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!

Hilary Mantel, A Place of Greater Safety

George Eliot considered the writing of historical fiction “a task which can only be justified by the rarest concurrence of acquirement with genius,” requiring “a form of imaginative power [which] must always be among the very rarest, because it demands as much accurate and minute knowledge as creative vigour.” Novels of “the modern antique school have a ponderous, a leaden kind of fatuity,” she complained, “under which we groan.” The extraordinary difficulty of the genre is testified to by her own attempt “to reanimate the past” in Romola, the only one of her novels set back more than a couple of generations. She began writing Romola as a young woman and ended it an old one, she said herself, and having worked through the novel recently in my graduate seminar, I know that the effort it demands can make it feel as if it is having the same effect on its readers. To be sure, Romola does have its thrilling moments, and it certainly demonstrates both “accurate and minute knowledge” and “creative vigour”–just not always at the same time, or always in harmony with each other. And there’s the whole “cheese to the macaroni” moment…but I digress from my main point, which is that really good historical fiction is really hard to write, and thus really rare to read.

This brings me, of course, to Hilary Mantel. Like so many others, I admired Wolf Hall a great deal, not least because it was so unlike what I have come to expect of run-of-the-mill contemporary historical fiction. Unsentimental in its approach, economical in its prose, uncannily sideways in its perspective, Wolf Hall evoked the ‘difference’ of the past without condescending to us with faux antiquities or excessive explanation. Its momentum was achieved by Mantel’s gift for the evocative moment or detail, and by her tacit confidence that her reading audience could handle complexity without handholding. Rather than yoking her narrative to one of the reliable moneymakers of the period, she chose a man of  some principle but also much ambition, who not only loves and hates but befriends, alienates, and outmaneuvers. Then she had the courage to portray him as neither the hero nor the attendant lord, but as a man at work and at home, a man being, simply, himself–or, rather, never simply himself but always intensely himself, and thus, in many specific ways, not Everyman, and not us. Mantel’s Cromwell is (in the spirit of, say, Scott’s Fergus MacIvor) a man of his time, shaped and motivated by currents of ideas, by situations, by contexts and opportunities, by values and beliefs, that are not universal. The slight but persistent sense of disorientation created by the odd point of view Mantel adopts for the novel, putting us at Cromwell’s shoulder, in his mind but not of it, helps to keep us at an appropriate distance from that other time towards which we can, after all, only reach out imaginatively but never truly enter. But by not providing elaborate passages of exposition, Mantel also allows us to take that other place for granted, as a reality we can, provisionally, inhabit. We aren’t told about historical trends or events–the shift, for instance, from sacred to secular power–but we are there as they are happening. It’s a risky strategy, a difficult balance: not enough information, after all, and we’d just be confused, but too much information and we might disengage.; not enough excitement or pathos, and we might cease caring, but tip into histrionics and the book’s literary integrity would be compromised. The critical and popular success of Wolf Hall (and sucha long book, too, as so many readers seem compelled to remark!) speaks to Mantel’s achievement.

Many of the same qualities and techniques are evident in Mantel’s earlier novel A Place of Greater Safety, particularly the lack of sentimentality and the sharpness of the writing, which is at once prolix and poignant, even uncomfortable–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. (I seem to be finding my reading especially, if only metaphorically, tactile lately.) A Place of Greater Safety also, like Wolf Hall, builds momentum gradually by developing our relationship, with not just one complicated protagonist this time, but with three, the revolutionary triumverate of Georges-Jacques Danton, Camille Desmoulins, and Maximilien Robespierre. Again, there are neither heroes nor villains in this crowd, though each has his heroic, as well as his villainous, moments. (Desmoulins, beautiful, erratic, alternately effervescent and enervated, and writing, always writing, seemed to me a particularly brilliant characterization.) And just as Wolf Hall only incidentally informs its readers about the causes and contexts of the Reformation, A Place of Greater Safety eschews the potential pedagogical role of the historical novel. At the end of its 750 pages I really didn’t feel much better informed about the events or even the political and philosophical stakes of the French Revolution than I was already. Here again, Mantel adopts a slantwise approach: not altogether personal, not just the ‘human story’ of the men and women who lived it, but not abstract, theoretical, or fully contextualized either. Here’s a rare but characteristic ‘explanatory’ passage, terse and ominously proleptic:

Bread is the main thing to understand: the staple of speculation, the food for all theories about what happens next. Fifteen years from now, on the day the Bastille falls, the price of bread in Paris will be at its highest in sixty years. Twenty years from now (when it is all over), a woman of the capital will say: ‘Under Robespierre, blood flowed, but the people had bread. Perhaps in order to have bread, it is necessary to spill a little blood.’

There’s as little exposition here as in Wolf Hall, and the overall impression is one of a great deal going on that wasn’t well understood by, and certainly wasn’t under the control of, even the major participants. But Mantel only very rarely steps in to explain to us what they can’t know, or even, most of the time, what they do know: we get fragments of debates, pamphlets, laws, and contexts, in a kind of swirl of partial information and misinformation. I found this effect frustrating at times: I wanted to know just what the Girondins or the Cordelier Club stood for, what (if anything) was accomplished at and by the Tennis Court Oath or the storming of the Bastille. But it isn’t really a book about that. Though her people are intensely political, the novel is primarily personal, more so than Wolf Hall, with more emphasis on relationships, but without the sentimental premise that, for instance, home is the ‘place of greater safety’–or, if it is so, or if it feels so, that safety is temporary, or illusory. It’s a novel, then about the personal side of politics, or about political personalities, and above all it emphasizes the ways politics, especially revolutionary politics, are ultimately antithetical to personal loyalties. Principles have consequences to which even cherished friendships may ultimately need to be sacrificed. “From now on,” Louis Suleau tells Desmoulins, “personal loyalty will count for very little in people’s lives,” and we feel the inexorable truth of this statement as the Revolutionaries turn, eventually, on each other.

It’s tribute to Mantel’s peculiar gifts and strategies as a storyteller that she assembles an even less attractive crew here than in Wolf Hall and yet what matters is not how appealing they are but how compelling they are, and how intensely themselves, so that by the final chapter, as the Revolution devours its children, I didn’t care who they were, really, only that they were going to die, after my having known them for so long. Mantel manages their end (known from the novel’s beginning because, after all, it is history) without any of the tumbril sentimentality the inevitable Dickens comparisons on the jacket blurb might lead us to anticipate. None of the characters comes across as heroic or noble, but they have such great vitality (even Robespierre, with his tedious incorruptibility), that their deaths felt like great losses–losses, quite simply, of life, of the energy and lust for life, for words, and for action, that characterized them all. Again, a sample of her terse, epigrammatic style:

There is a point beyond which–convention and imagination dictate–we cannot go; perhaps it’s here, when the carts decant onto the scaffold their freight, now living and breathing flesh, soon to be dead meat. Danton imagines that, as the greatest of the condemned, he will be left until last, with Camille beside him. He thinks less of eternity then of how to keep his friend’s body and soul together for the fifteen minutes before the National Razor separates them.

But of course it is not like that. Why should it be as you imagine?

And the famous final flourish:

He watches each death, until he is tutored to his own.

‘Hey, Sanson?’

‘Citizen Danton?’

‘Show my head to the people. It’s worth the trouble.’

In that predictable Dickens allusion, the Library Journal says he “did it first in A Tale of Two Cities.” But Dickens got his information from an earlier and far, far better, far more revolutionary, account of the Revolution: Thomas Carlyle’s 1837 The French Revolution. There’s no overt reference to Carlyle in A Place of Greater Safety, but I feel Mantel must have read it and learned from it that the only way to approach the reality of that wild, idealistic, turbulent, violent period was through story-telling that itself embraces confusion. Her book is far more orderly than Carlyle’s, of course: you couldn’t write The French Revolution today, I think, and indeed it was rightly felt and understood to be extraordinary in its own time. Just to give a sense of how crazy and yet compelling it is, here’s Carlyle’s version of Danton’s execution:

Danton carried a high look in the Death-cart. Not so Camille: it is but one week, and all is so topsyturvied; angel Wife left weeping; love, riches, Revolutionary fame, left all at the Prison-gate; carnivorous Rabble now howling round. Palpable and yet incredible; like a madman’s dream! Camille struggles and writhes; his shoulders shuffle the loose coat off them, which hangs knotted, the hands tied: ‘Calm, my friend’, said Danton; ‘heed not that vile canaille (laissez la cette vile canaille).’ At the foot of the Scaffold, Danton was heard to ejaculate: ‘O my Wife, my well-beloved. I shall never see thee more then!’–but, interrupting himself: ‘Danton, no weakness!’ He said to Herault-Sechelles stepping forward to embrace him: ‘Our heads will meet there‘, in the Headsman’s sack. His last words were to Samson the Headsman himself: ‘Thou wilt show my head to the people; it is worth showing.’

So passes, like a gigantic mass, of valour, ostentation, fury, affection, and wild revolutionary force and manhood, this Danton, to his unknown home. He was of Arcis-sur-Aube; born of ‘good farmer people’ there. He had many sins; but one worst sin he had not, that of Cant. No hollow Formalist, deceptive and self-deceptive, ghastly to the natural sense, was this; but a very Man: with all his dross he was a Man; fiery-real, from the great fire-bosom of Nature herself.

This is history as philosophy and prophecy, which is not Mantel’s history. Her theory of the revolution, as far as she offers one, is economic (“the price of bread”). But she too feels, or at least conveys, the urgency of understanding that whatever it means, if anything, history is lived (as Carlyle said in another context) “not by state-papers and abstractions of men” but by “very” men.