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.