What I Read, July 2021

July was for roadtripping, not reading. We made an epic 4000-mile trip to Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota and back again, a trip filled with glorious landscapes, terrible meals (I do like fry bread, though, even if a little goes a long way), and irrefutable evidence of our changed climate: heat, drought, fire. Sobering isn’t the word. Our exhilaration at being together as a family outside in wonderful places was undermined by our anxiety about masks (that is, their almost total absence) and the low-level irritation at finding ways to eat outside to keep our unvaccinated daughter safe. Anyway, those Western States are amazing—go if you ever have the chance! Sitting in a car and hiking through national parks didn’t leave much time for books—though the book shopping (in Missoula, MT and Omaha, NE) was great. Here’s what I found time for.

Edward Burtynsky, Railcuts #1, Canadian National track, Skihist Provincial Park, British Columbia (1980s?)

Menachem Kaiser, Plunder: A Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure (2021)

Regular readers know I’m critical of third-generation Holocaust memoirs. (Memoirs written by grandchildren of survivors.) When I heard about Plunder, in which Menachem Kaiser sets out to reclaim a family apartment building in Poland, I reacted the way I always do—with skepticism mingled with resignation (I knew I’d read it) and curiosity (I only know of one other book that’s similar, Rutu Modan’s The Property). It didn’t take long, though, before I recognized the special qualities of Kaiser’s book. It’s so smart and interesting! So self-reflective—which all 3G memoirs ought to be—and, even better, without being annoying about it. It’s even funny. As Kaiser plunges into his quixotic enterprise—his extended family doesn’t know what to make of it, after all his father’s father died eight years before Kaiser was born, who is he to take up this quest, what does he expect to get from it?—things gets complicated. Does the building even exist anymore? What would you do with the people who live in it now? How do you prove to Polish authorities that someone has died?

Throughout, Kaiser’s grandfather remains an enigma, but one of the man’s cousins turns out to have written a memoir of his time in the Gros-Rosen concentration camp complex, a book that has become legendary in a surprising and surprisingly large community of treasure seekers who live to ferret out the secrets of Silesian caves. (There’s supposed to be a train full of Nazi hidden somewhere.) Next thing you know, Kaiser’s squeezing into underground tunnels hacked out by slave labour in the waning days of the war, getting drunk with weekend treasure hunters, and learning first-hand how family histories are usually litanies of error.

Basically, Plunder is brilliant from the title on. Whether as noun or verb, plunder is the perfect term to encapsulate the connotations of avarice, need, and longing that accompany any attempt to grasp the past. It’s a fantastic book, which I’ll be assigning next spring for sure.

Wendy Lower, The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed (2021)

Lower’s short book—well under 200 pages before notes—manages to be both highly specific and usefully wide ranging. The specific part concerns a photograph of an execution in the Ukraine in October 1941. There are not many visual representations of what’s come to be called “the Shoah by Bullets,” and almost none that show, like this one, a Jewish family being murdered together. Lower set out to learn everything she could about the photo. Who were the victims and who the perpetrators? Who took the picture? Could she find the location of the murder? Her aim, she writes, was:

to break the frame around the crime scene, which kept the victims frozen in that awful moment. The photograph captures an event locked in time, but I knew it was part of a fluid situation. What precede that moment of death, what followed, and what happened to each person visible there?

Lower diligently answers these questions—the photo is even more poignant and terrible than initial inspection suggests—but she also has a larger agenda. Not only does she explain how the genocide was implemented, especially by the Einsatzgruppen in their push east during the invasion of the Soviet Union, but she also usefully and expansively defines collaboration. Plus, she shows us how the past is excavated, by survivors, archaeologists, and historians. All of this in lucid, accessible prose. The Ravine isn’t a comprehensive Holocaust history by any means, but there are many worse places to start learning about it. I’ll be moderating a panel with Lower at this year’s Six Bridges Literary Festival; can’t wait to see her in action.

Fonda Lee, Jade City (2017)

Enjoyable fantasy novel about a world in which only people known as Green Bones are able to harness the power of magical jade, which heightens their warrior powers. An uneasy truce among rival clans, which has held since the end of a war of independence, collapses when one group begins to traffic in a synthetic jade substitute. Jade City, the first in a trilogy that will conclude this fall, is a Godfather / martial arts mashup with juicy characters, but more than anything it’s about cartels and gangs and bureaucrats. Even if, like me, you don’t read much fantasy, you might really like this.

Joanna Pocock, Surrender: The Call of the American West (2019)

I’m working—a little too desultorily, I’m afraid—on something about this book and my trip to the American West, so maybe I’ll have more to say later, but I do want you all to know how good this perfectly titled essay/memoir is. Pocock moved from the UK to Missoula, Montana, a place that entranced her—even having spent only three days there I totally understand why—and prompted her to explore various ways of living with others and the land. The West—where land feels present in a way I’ve never experienced elsewhere—will do that to you. Pocock meets ecosexuals, foragers on “the Hoop” (a circular route around the Western US, once followed by indigenous tribes from season to season), minutemen, mining company shills, and hunters keen to hunt wolves. Mostly—cliché, I know, but she finesses it—she meets herself. Approaching midlife, to what or whom does she want to surrender? I strongly recommend.

Gil Adamson, Ridgerunner (2020)

Took this book—kindly sent me by its American publicist—on vacation because I thought it was set in Montana. In fact, it takes place mostly in Alberta, specifically in what in 1917 was still called Rocky Mountains National Park (it was renamed Banff, after its main railway station, in 1930). As someone who grew up hiking its trails, I was amazed at how much I learned: Lake Louise was once called Laggan; interned POWs, known to the locals as Germans but mostly from Austro-Hungary, specifically Galicia, built much of the road that is now the Trans-Canada highway; the Stoney Nakoda and other indigenous people were forcibly removed from the park. Adamson handles this history deftly, using it to serve her story about Jack Boulton, a twelve-year-old whose mother dies, at the beginning of the book, of an illness that almost fells him too, leading his father to make a deal with the woman who nursed the boy back to health: he will leave him with her while he handles his grief by taking off. The man, William Moreland, is a former thief (his nickname gives the novel its title); he returns to his life of genteel crime, crisscrossing the Canadian/US border, stealing from abandoned ranger cabins and planting harmless explosions in mining towns (when everyone rushes to check out the noise, he slips into hotels and mine offices to purloin jewels and cash). Moreland has a plan—to gather enough money for the boy’s future before reclaiming him. The erstwhile nurse has another—to make Jack her own. Before long Jack legs it back to the family homestead, where he gets by with help from his nearest neighbour. (I picture their cabins somewhere between Carrot Creek and Dead Man’s Flats, if you know the area: that is, the very eastern edge of the park, some of the most beautiful country in the world.)

At first I was skeptical about Ridgerunner—I thought it might be overwritten and dutiful like so much Canadian literary fiction—but I was quickly won over. Yes, the plot skirts melodrama, especially at the end. It seems Adamson decided the book needed drama, which she sandwiched into the last fifty pages; I understand the reasoning without being convinced. After all, the best bits are about how Jack survives on the land (mostly) on his own; these descriptions are compelling without being self-consciously lyrical and I didn’t need anything more. The other weakness of the book’s construction is that the Jack and Moreland sections sit uneasily together. But Adamson has an elegant, loose style (like a less earnest Ondaatje), she can be funny, and she’s damn good on horses. Ridgerunner is a sequel to Adamson’s previous novel, The Outlander, which, I gather, tells how Mary Boulton and William Moreland met. (The Frank Slide features prominently.) It holds up just fine on its own, though. Feel like this has gone totally under the radar Stateside, and that’s a shame; it deserves a better fate.

Elly Griffiths, The Crossing Places (2009)

Home from holiday and at a loose reading end, I happened upon this in the neighbourhood Little Free Library (usually a wasteland of self-help and James Patterson). It was just what I needed, a no-fuss, competently written crime novel with an engaging Norfolk setting and the feel of a romance novel in its setting up of what I am guessing will be a slow-burning “will they or won’t they” relationship between its two leads, a professor of archaeology and a cop.

Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories (1976)

It’ll make some folks sad, but I did not care for this book, which I bought in Missoula, because how could I not? (As children Maclean and his brother discover that—you can read this quote all over town—“the world… was full of bastards, the number increasing rapidly the farther one gets from Missoula, Montana.”) Reading the book during and after our trip, I enjoyed recognizing its landscapes, and I appreciated the author’s love of western Montana (all the while thinking how sad he’d be at its changed climate). But mostly I found it a slog. Its attitudes to women are old-fashioned and tiresome, its humour misfires, and its detailed descriptions made me less not more interested in fly-fishing: I couldn’t square his complicated instructions with the elegant arabesques I’d seen in men and women performing in swift-running rivers across Montana. Of the book’s three stories, I enjoyed “USFS 1919” the most, because it’s about being in the woods and hiking, which I can relate to, especially since I’d walked some of the very same trails just days earlier. Yet its plot, too, fell victim to the boyish/loutish hijinks I didn’t care for in the other two. It’s all very hearty and stoic and, friends, you know that’s just not me.

Dolores Hitchens, Sleep with Strangers (1955)

Library of America has done us all a favour by reissuing this seriously good California PI novel from a prolific midcentury writer. It’s got the elements we know from Hammett and Chandler but deploys them at an angle. Jim Sader is a good guy with demons (he is a mostly sober alcoholic, he gets involved with his clients in inappropriate ways); as such he’s is a familiar character, but less macho, less hard-bitten. The plot of Sleep with Strangers is appropriately complicated, but less preposterous than, say, The Big Sleep’s. Hitchens takes her female characters, especially their motivations, much more seriously than the canonical writers of American noir. Sader’s relationship to his younger partner is unexpectedly moving (an alternate universe version of the one between Spade and Archer in The Maltese Falcon). On the basis of this novel I’d say Hitchens is a more straightforward writer than Dorothy Hughes, but she’s definitely in the same league. And the second (and sadly final) Sader novel, which I finished just too late to include in this July list, is even better: a truly excellent example of the genre.

Elly Griffiths, The Janus Stone (2010)

How quickly things change. I ran out to buy the second in the Ruth Galloway series before I’d even finished the first. Alas, my initial enthusiasm might have been misguided. The archaeology bits didn’t interest me much (big liability in these books), and the ending was silly. Will Ruth have to be rescued in every book? Unsure if I’ll persist. Sophomore slump maybe?

Arnold Bennett, The Old Wives’ Tale (1908)

Rohan and I—along with valiant readers from around the world—read this novel over several weeks. You can read my posts here, and hers here. The tl;dnr: a naturalist novel about sisters whose life paths at first seem different but ultimately aren’t. Thoughtful about the meaning of change, poignant about the frailty that afflicts us all as we age, interesting about technological and social change. It’s no Middlemarch, but Bennett didn’t deserve Woolf’s opprobrium. I’ll read more by him, even if it probably won’t be any time soon. Which ones do you recommend?

Dorothea Lange, TheRoad West, 1938

How about you? Did you read anything good last month? Hope you’re surviving whatever weather and political shenanigans are plaguing wherever you are. (I fervently wish they are better than this August in Arkansas.) As my sabbatical comes to its end, my reading time is about to plummet. In the meantime I’m trying to squeeze a few last titles in—more on that in a couple of weeks!

“The Bully, Destiny”: Still More of The Old Wives’ Tale

After an unexpected and busy vacation across parts of the American West in which reading time was in short supply I returned home to The Old Wives’ Tale. Took me a minute to get my groove back, but I eventually found myself unable to stop and read straight through to the end. I promise not to reference the final chapters so that Rohan can have her say. (I will note, though, that I might have enjoyed writing about the book more if we’d finished it first, but I also realize I wouldn’t have paid attention to the earlier parts as much had we done so.) Anyway, I have a long section to cover, and I’ll just scrape the surface, so please add to the conversation in the comments.

Jean Béraud, Paris Kiosk, ca. 1880 – 1884

As I read about Sophia’s life after Gerald—how good that she has a life after Gerald, and what an interesting one it is!—I found myself struck by one passage in particular. Not an exciting one: no hoarding of food stuffs, no balloon rides to escape a besieged city, no business or sexual propositions, nothing like that. But to me it got at a central concern. It comes after Sophia—now proprietress and landlady of a successful boarding-house catering to English tourists in Paris, known to her guests as Mrs. Frensham, after the previous owner—has been approached by Matthew Peel-Swynnerton, scion of a Five Towns family and friend to Sophia’s nephew, Cyril Povey. Sophia suspects that Matthew has recognized her as the woman who ran away from Bursley thirty years ago. In the time it takes for each to twig to the other, the routines of years are overturned. Sophia retires to bed early, leaving her second-in-command to deal with the thousand details that must be managed for an establishment like Frensham’s to keep ticking along. Alone in her room, Sophia wonders if the elegant young man could really be acquainted with her family. He’s too young to know her sister’s husband. More to the point, isn’t he far too wealthy, far too important, far too socially-prestigious to have anything to do with the likes of the Poveys? Even the illness of her beloved poodle, Fossette (the novel’s greatest character) takes second place to the thoughts whirling through her head:

Moreover – a detail of which she had at first unaccountably failed to mark the significance – this Peel-Swynnerton was a friend of the Mr. Povey as to whom he had inquired … In that case it could not be the same Povey. Impossible that the Peels should be on terms of friendship with Samuel Povey or his connexions! But supposing after all they were! Supposing something utterly unanticipated and revolutionary had happened in the Five Towns!

Copying this passage now I notice the awkward syntax of the first sentence—mimicking, perhaps, Sophia’s flustered state. I realize too how typical it is that I would seize on a moment that references significance, and the failure of a first reading: fits the struggle I’ve been having to know what matters most in this book, what kind of significance it aims at. But what snagged me at the time, and what, reading on, I returned to again and again as a way to make sense of the novel’s concerns, was the word “revolutionary.” My first posts were preoccupied by the novel’s unstable tone, so I won’t belabor that topic here, but much hinges on how ironic we take that adjective to be.

The word choice could be a sign of Sophia’s irreducible Baines-ness, her provincialism, her lifelong alignment with the values of her childhood. When she returns to Staffordshire she herself broods over these concepts: both consciously kicking against the small-mindedness of a world that seems to her unchanged, and unconsciously manifesting similar traits by having lived in a small and unchanging Paris that has nothing to do with the elegance or cultural avant-gardism that intrigues someone like Doctor Stirling, whose love of Zola, for example, is not reciprocated by the woman who lived the events of his novels without really noticing them. On this reading, “revolutionary” would have to be ironic, the narrator poking fun at Sophia’s misguided sense of what counts as radical or extraordinary. We’d have to conclude that a social order in which Peels consort with Poveys would be a change, yes, but hardly a revolution.

And yet—for Peels to know Poveys is a big deal, even if the circumstance happened gradually, undramatically, such that one could never point to a single moment and say “then, that’s when this happened.” To demonstrate that change is inexorable—evolution in the strictly Darwinian sense, with no telos, no moral judgment: neither progress nor regression—becomes increasingly important to the novel as it comes to its conclusion. All of which is to say that I think we should take “revolutionary” straight: heartfelt on Sophia’s part and endorsed by the narrator.

As I thought more about it, I became convinced the word mattered a whole lot. The big question posed by Bennett in this novel is nothing less than: What is the meaning of revolution? A subset of related questions follows: Could the idea of a gradual revolution be anything other than an oxymoron? Is revolution a concept worth hanging on to, or should we discard it in favor of something else, perhaps simply change? What, in the end, changes in our lives? How much do we remain the people we always were? How much do we reinvent ourselves? How much do we slide into lives that our younger selves could never have imagined? It seems to me now that when Sophia, in that crucial encounter I wrote about earlier, drawing on the values of her upbringing and inflecting them with her own personality, first rejected and then accepted Gerald at the site of the old mine and the new railway (these standing as examples, and critiques, of progress), the novel was already staging a scene by which we could begin to ask such questions.

I snagged on the reference to revolution because I was surprised by the oblique, even casual way Bennett dealt with the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune. I had guessed these would feature as prominently as the execution of the criminal that Rohan wrote about last time. But I see now that it makes sense that this relatively minor event would be of larger importance to this novel than the big ones of public history. The execution matters less for questions of justice and more for Gerald’s rather pathetic response, for the final wedge it drives between him and Sophia, for her realization that no one will take care of her but herself. Thus the war with Prussia and the subsequent insurrection appear as the stuff of rumours, fantasies, and speculation—the latter in two senses of the term, since Sophia begins making her fortune by scrounging the shops in order to buy low and sell high. I wouldn’t say the novel is dismissive of these events—the material struggle, pain, and loss is real—but it’s convinced that for most people (or at least for Sophia and the world she operates in) their effects are muffled, reduced to the pressing but local questions of where to sleep and what to eat. At times, Bennett employs an almost Flaubertian irony in the bathos by which History appears. Sophia notes the end of the Second Empire, for example, only in the “mechanical” observation that it is a lot easier for women to sit in a carriage now that crinolines have gone out of fashion.

But Bennett doesn’t just give us the “ordinary person’s” perspective on momentous events. He gives us Sophia’s. Which is governed by her upbringing and the Baines values that she never shakes, even as she seems to build a life so different from anything her family can understand. She, unlike her husband or like Chirac when he clings to the false rumour that the French have scored a decisive victory over Pussian forces, has no truck with the idea of sudden reversals, coups de théâtre that reverse a bad situation (whether in politics or in household finances). For Sophia, such thinking could only be a fantasy (which contributes to my sense that the book is imagining alternate ideas of revolution). Sophia doesn’t flee Paris when the Prussians encircle the city—not from her love for her adopted home but from beliefs that come straight from Staffordshire:

She ardently wished to be independent, to utilize on her own behalf the gifts of organization, foresight, common sense, and tenacity which she knew she possessed and which had lain idle. And she hated the idea of flight.

Ironic, that last line, given her absconding with Gerald, but the point of this section of the novel is that she never flew from anything, really. She is happy during the siege because “she had a purpose in life and was depending upon herself.” That self-reliance, which kicks into overdrive after her collapse and illness—and it’s fascinating how much she struggles to recognize what she owes to the women who saved her, whose life choices she cannot respect and whom she ultimately displaces—is her greatest strength. She names it “pride”, and it is the most noted continuity with her sister, her upbringing, and the whole world of the first part of the novel. Yet it is also a weakness, in that it keeps her from life, prevents her from getting entangled with others, which is often to the good (hard to see what would be gained from agreeing to the advances of men like Niepce or Carlier, and life with Chirac might well have been a less awful but still subordinating version of life with Gerald) but ultimately makes her somewhat brittle and self-satisfied. I need to hold my tongue and wait until Rohan writes about the very end before commenting more on how we’re asked to evaluate Sophia, when all is said and done, but confining myself to what we’ve read so far, I think the New Year’s scene with Chirac was brilliantly handled, delicately describing the pleasant fug of sensual pleasure to which Sophia might have succumbed/given herself, and her ultimate inability to do so. The right thing to do, but still a missed opportunity, a complication we are more permitted to see than Sophia is herself. (So interesting, just as an aside, how few good/decent men there are in this book. Maybe only Povey? What do you all think?)

Rejecting Chirac allows Sophia to accept a new career. But running a pension, especially one as big as Frensham’s, means a life of endless labour. Like the domestic labour that it transposes to the business realm, the work of organizing the cleaning and cooking and managing of dozens of tourists involves constant running just to stay still. (Teaching, the career Sophia was set on and regrets the loss of, constitutes a similar treadmill, though it offers more gratification in the sense that teachers see pupils develop and move on to other things.) The end result of all the changes in Sophia’s life—escaping Gerald via her interregnum as a landlady to owning Frenshams—is an odd kind of stasis. Which brings me again to the idea of change, and what it means in this novel. I don’t want to foreclose the idea of revolution, but I think Bennett is pointing to an idiosyncratic, gradual meaning of the term, in which the gradual abrasions of daily life lead to changes we can see, let alone understand, only in retrospect. Could one reason Woolf had it out for him was that, like her modernist fellows, she believed in the more conventional sense of revolution: rupture, trauma, human nature changing on or about a certain date?

I’ll end with a point of continuity in the novel that surprised me—and that might also speak to my uncertainty of what change means or does in this novel. Elephants! That first one who comes to an untimely end at the Fair was not just a bizarre one-off. The landlord of the restaurant where Chirac and Sophia have their New Year’s feast proudly tells them of a friend, a butcher, “who has bought the three elephants of the Jardin des Planes for twenty-seven thousand francs.” (Two really were killed for their meat.) Seventy pages later, Sophia, returned to England and reunited with Constance, looks out the train window and is surprised to see “two camels and an elephant in a field close to the line,” which her sister tells her is the central depot of Barnum’s circus, a source of civic pride because the location, so close to Bursley, is in the very middle of England (and “there can be only one middle”). It is fanciful, but I think elephants will return one more time, a mere echo, to be sure, but a striking one, late in the novel (this is the only forward glance I’ll allow myself) when a shock to Sophia is described as a “crude, spectacular shame… that the gallant creature should be so maltreated by the bully, destiny.” Sounds to me like all the poor elephants in this novel. And that resonant phrase, “the bully, destiny,” returns us to the question of change. Will the end of the novel vitiate the very possibility? Or will it ask us to redefine what we mean by it? Stay tuned for the moving conclusion of The Old Wives’ Tale

What I read, June 2021

In June I realized my sabbatical is in fact coming to an end. (Technically, it ended last week, but I have a few weeks’ grace until the school years grinds into gear.) Soon I will be back among people all the time; this knowledge made me anxious. The weight I gained over the pandemic made me depressed. The discoveries at two of the many former Residential Schools in Canada shocked but did not surprise me. (Similar mass graves will be found at others in the coming months, I have no doubt.) The extreme heat and firestorms in the West, including my home province terrified me; ironically, the weather in Arkansas was cooler than usual. (This too a function of climate of change, of course.) Everything seemed ominous. I was working hard, too, mostly on an essay I’m excited to share with you all in August. My daughter and I started taking one of the dogs for a walk each morning: that was a good thing. As to reading, the month started strong, then tailed off. Here’s what I finished.

Georgia O’Keefe, Evening Star III, 1917

Madeleine Watts, The Inland Sea (2020)

Strong debut novel about a young woman, fresh out of university, who takes a job as an emergency dispatcher, eliciting from panicked callers where in Australia they are and which service to connect them to. Filled with wonderful place names and terrible events, The Inland Sea is a novel of emergencies: fires and petty crimes and surfing accidents, but also the narrator’s depression and despair, the violent settler colonialism of Australia’s past and present, and above all the changing climate. A wildfire from the early 90s, which the narrator’s family had to flee, is a primal moment the novel returns to again and again, presenting it as a harbinger of the terrible changes to come. The title refers to the 19th century settler belief that the continent’s rivers must have had a common source; the mythical inland sea stands in for all hubristic fantasies that aim to make reality fit ideology. (Patrick White, especially his novel Voss, about a megalomaniac explorer, is referenced repeatedly: the shittiest of the narrator’s shitty exes is writing a thesis about him.)

The Inland Sea captures the rage and despair that I’ve seen in younger people these past years, faced as they are with an increasingly uncertain future, and that I am myself enveloped in more every day. (It’s the same future; they just have, or should have, more of it.) Here the narrator reflects on her mother—whom she loves and is close to but can’t tell anything important to:

This was what my mother had never understood. The things she never would have done—moving out of the city, dropping out of the university system and into paid-by-the-hour work, reckless sex and drinking—they were not things I did because I didn’t know any better. I just didn’t think there was any point in trying to shelter myself. If working on the phones had taught me anything, it was that emergency could not be avoided. Emergency would come for you no matter what you did.

In this moment the dispatch center comes close to mere symbol. Fortunately it’s usually described more fully, though I wouldn’t have minded learning even more about it. (I loved the details, like the mid-morning lull when older women, mostly widows, call in with invariably false stories of burglaries or strange men in the back garden.)

The Inland Sea reminded me of some other recent novels—like Conversations with Friends, with its description of endometriosis—that present women’s bodies as a site of violence and harm, even when the women who live in those bodies try to take charge of them: here, a procedure to implant an IUD goes badly. As the narrator concludes, “My body could not be made to behave. It disdained all methods of prevention and protection.” Danger everywhere.

Last thought: I only know Australia from books, which means I know nothing, but I’ve always thought Melbourne was the cool place and Sydney beautiful but tedious, but Watts makes Sydney seem, not appealing, really, it’s mostly a terrifying landscape of drunk men lurching after women, but something other than the “world city” of the opera house and Bondi beach. The final image, of the narrator swimming in Gordon’s Bay, looking back at the “scum of waste… weeds and straws and band Aids and bottles” washed up after yet another 100-year storm, reminded me of the ambivalent swimming scene at the end of Cusk’s Kudos.

Doris Lessing would have liked this book.

Anakana Schofield, Bina (2019)

Bina—“Bye-na not Bee-na,” consider yourself warned—is 74. Who know how long she had left: she has a lot to say even if it’s not what you want to hear (“I’m here to warn you, not reassure you”), so she’s not going to waste any time. Empathy has been her undoing (interesting, given how empathetic this book is): it led her to invite a Bad Man into her home, who abused her and took advantage or her and whose return she daily fears; it got her involved in a secret organization that helps people end their lives which in turn led to her arrest. We let people into our lives, Bina says, it’s what we do. The trouble is getting them back out. Bina reminded me of Beckett’s Molloy, not just because it’s set in Ireland (though Schofield now lives in Canada) but because of its fascination with both the rhythms of spoken language and the frailty of the human body (there’s a relationship there I’m not able to articulate just now—or maybe I’m just following Bina’s quite Beckettian demand that “the explanation-hungry get over themselves”).

Bina is a fabulous character: self-aware (“I was a great woman for delivering the verdicts to others that I could neither conjure or conquer for myself”), wise (“I have noticed that it’s the decent people who are buried/While it’s the parasites and demolishers who endure”), scathing (“There are those reading and thinking, isn’t she daft, why didn’t she walk or why didn’t she do this or that. Well I am not worried about you, because maybe you’ve had the good fortune to be trained different and would not scupper yourself this way. And it’s it as well for you.”), and funny (women have to get up and pee at night because they are “widdling the confused strain of anger gathered up there all day”—why men have to pee at night is a mystery, “perhaps it’s God’s subtle way of tormenting them. He goes straight for the pipe does our Saviour”).

Schofield is a terrific writer (men like Eddy, the Bad Man, are “bullies in woolens”): I loved this book and can’t wait to read her others.

Bryan Washington, Lot (2019)

Many of the stories in this debut collection center feature versions of the same family: black father (sometimes absconded, sometimes just about to), Latina mother, daredevil older brother, sister looking to get the hell out, and at the center, the young gay narrator. Restaurant kitchens, johns, animals in the bayous—this isn’t the Houston of Rice, the Menil Collection, or even Minute Maid Park. That world is present only at the edges of the frame, mostly through the specter of gentrification. No surprise that a book called Lot is interested in real estate (not to mention one’s lot in life, having a lot to deal with and a lot to live for, and maybe even Lot of Genesis, who looked upon and fled Sodom). Much as I would miss Malamud’s The Magic Barrel, I’m thinking of replacing it with Lot as the centerpiece collection the next time I teach my course on the short story. My students—a good number of whom are from Houston, though rarely the parts described in the book—would like it, I suspect, and I’ll be able to decide if it’s as good as my first reading suggests.

Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence (1920)

Fantastic. Read this in college, probably a year after the movie came out (I believe it was the first film I saw as a college student), and, I realize now, completely missed the point. Not only did the story seem slight, worse, I identified with Newland Archer, the ironic yet self-satisfied scion of a wealthy New York family in the 1860s whose imminent marriage to athletic, kind, incurious May is threatened by the return of her disgraced cousin, Ellen, on the run from a bad marriage to a Polish nobleman, with whom he falls in love. Wharton’s irony—her brilliant control of the narrative voice—passed me right by. I can’t think of a better advertisement for re-reading than my experience returning to this novel—though I now wonder how many other books I’ve misunderstood over the years.

Newland is such a carefully constructed character, his world-view so dominant, his criticisms of a world he loves and is much more enmeshed in than he ever realizes so easy to side with, that it is easy to miss that this is in fact a novel of two women, neither of whose interiority we ever access directly. Both May and Ellen are so much more interesting than Newland realizes. Ellen, in particular, fascinates as a figure who has suffered greatly from men, including from Archer, who is nowhere near as nice to her as he thinks he is, but who gains hard-won freedom—not least from us, the intrusive readers. (The bit players are wonderful too, from the titanic Mrs. Mingott to the ladies’ man Beaufort to the subdued Janey, Archer’s sister—I would have liked more of her.)

The novel is filled with rituals, rites, tutelary deities, and the like, the whole language of the ascendant anthropology of the 1920s. This motif is connected to Archer’s interest in the moeurs of New York society, which he studies as another scholar might the curious customs of some primitive tribe. He mostly has Ellen to thank for this—when he first visits her bohemian downtown apartment (unfashionable neighbourhood, artistic tchotchkes, and all), he decides the advice he wants to give her on how to behave in society is as useless in her bohemian world as warning someone bargaining in a Samarkand market about New York winters. Ellen, he thinks, has helped him see his native city clearly: “Viewed thus, as through the wrong end of a telescope, it looked disconcertingly small and distant; but then from Samarkand it would.” Archer fancies himself having transcended his world—now seeing it as curious as anywhere else—but you look foolish holding a telescope the wrong way ‘round, and Archer doesn’t have it in him to pursue the idea to its logical consequences. Maybe his privilege—his ability to imagine himself being rescued by Ellen from what no doubt feels genuinely and excruciatingly like a spiritual wasteland—isn’t as natural as he believes.

But before we get too comfortable at our own perspicaciousness in seeing through Archer, we might wonder at what we want from this novel. I read the new Penguin Classics edition (the cover of which was roundly pooh-poohed on Twitter, though I don’t mind it myself), and you should too, because the introduction by Sarah Blackwood is outstanding. (There’s also a Foreword by Elif Batuman—her name is on the cover—which is fine but nothing special.) Blackwood deftly summarizes the result of Wharton’s narrative decisions:

In keeping us in Archer’s perspective, Wharton allows us to experience the limited and impoverished viewpoint of a selfish young man, even as we are drawn to him and his desires, even as we relate to how deeply and ineffectually he wants.

[That’s what I missed as an undergraduate. I identified with his tragic position without seeing the harm it incited.]

Thus I read passages like this, in which Archer reflects on his mother and sister, as sympathetic:

Mother and daughter adored each other and revered their son and brother; and Archer loved them with a tenderness made compunctious [a word to warm the fussy heart of the lawyer in Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener] and uncritical by the sense of their exaggerated admiration, and by his secret satisfaction in it. After all, he thought it a good thing for a man to have his authority respected in his own house, even if his sense of humour sometimes made him question the force of his mandate.

That it is anything but natural for him to have been granted such a mandate—and what it means for the organization of the world that he does—never intrudes on even his rueful thoughtfulness.

Blackwood continues by offering a startling and brilliant reading of what she rightly calls the novel’s “innovative’ ending:

By one metric, the fully realized novel [as opposed to drafts in which Wharton had Newland and Ellen get together, only to realize they had nothing in common] is a tragic story of two people trying to surmount the obstacles to their love. But in another… the published novel does have a happy ending. The Age of Innocence is one of the only stories Wharton ever wrote where everyone does, indeed, ‘get what [they] want.’ May gets to achieve the sentimental, sacrificial maternal and wifely status she desired. Newland gets to feel like an outsider while remaining an insider; he experiences no shortage of people to enlighten over the years. [Archer, Blackwood notes, is a preeminent mansplainer.] And Ellen? Well, Ellen gets to live a life that evades even our own prying eyes.

In this way, she finds a way to evade both the cruelty of impermanence—at the not-yet-fashionable Metropolitan Museum she regrets the way daily objects and implements, once so important to the people who made and used them, fade into obscurity until they are exhibited in a vitrine labelled “Use unknown”—and the cruelty of “the meanwhile,” of life as it is lived before time’s transience has done its work, a cruelty Archer fails to understand.

If you’re past your own age of innocence—though how can we ever know that we have reached this stage?—I urge you to read or reread this American masterpiece.

Mick Herron, Real Tigers (2016)

More adventures for the Slow Horses. Totally enjoyable. Not as good as the first, but better than the second. Since I love Standish the most, I both appreciated and was alarmed by the plot. Odd the way Herron frames these books with extended descriptions of Slough House from the perspective of a ghost or spirit stalking its floors, which I fancifully want to believe he has borrowed from the “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse.

Mick Herron, Spook Street (2017)

I mean, it’s a spy novel, but even so this one is a little preposterous. Still has its moments, but the bait-and-switch it pulls midway through annoyed me.

Judy Batalion, The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos (2021)

Fascinating & detailed narrative history about female resistance fighters in Polish and Lithuanian ghettos. Smuggling information, living under false papers, shooting Nazis, stitching up partisans: these young women did exciting, dangerous, and important work. I have reservations about the book’s tone, structure, and narrativizing tendencies, but Light of Days is a valuable, accessible book that is well-sourced. So useful to have this experience brought to non-Yiddish speakers. Writing about it for another outlet, so more soon.

Jessica J. Lee, Two Trees Make a Forest (2020)

Memoir/nature writing by a Canadian writer of Taiwanese and British ancestry who now lives in Berlin (with all the other writers). The book tries to do a lot: relate walks and bike rides all over Taiwan, narrate the history of her mother’s family and their journey from mainland China to Canada via Taiwan, probe the family’s silences and antagonisms. All while giving us a potted history of the discovery of the island’s flora and fauna by mostly European scientist explorers. The weaving of these various strands isn’t always seamless. But each concerns the task of naming, defining, or fixing. Which explains Lee’s interest in mapmaking, language differences, and histories of classification. In each case these gaps—her difficulty, as a child in southern Ontario, in communicating with her Chinese Taiwanese grandparents, for example—prove to be both generative and debilitating, connecting even as they separate. That paradox leads to Lee’s final comparison, spurred by a trek through the Shanlinxi forest and its enormous cedars, of people to trees, connected through subterranean roots that make of these separate entities a forest. Language itself carries this affinity within it, Lee argues, noting that Carl Linneaus’s name is rendered in Chinese by characters meaning “someone related to the forest” or “someone who endures the forest” (the latter suggestion especially fraught and intriguing). To model human interrelatedness on the nonhuman natural world, Lee suggests, isn’t fanciful; it’s an expression of the truth of our own insignificance: “our fleeting human worlds are so easily swallowed up by nature, our fate fastened to its course. What we believe to be culture is only ever a fragment of natural world that we have sectioned off, enclosed, pearl-like, for posterity.”

I did not like Two Trees unreservedly—the writing is uneven: sometimes genuinely affecting, sometimes straining for lyricism—but I learned a lot. I recommend Nicie’s reflections on her own ambivalence.

Jeong You-Jeong, Seven Years of Darkness (2011) Trans. Kim Chi-Young (2020)

Compelling sort-of crime novel from Korea, a bit Gothic, a bit horror. Reminded me of Les Revenants (The Returned), that French show about ghosts—not least because both show and novel feature villages flooded by the construction of hydroelectric dams. If I knew more about Korean history I might suggest that Seven Years of Darkness is an allegory of the country’s rapid modernization. There’s that dam, of course, but also all kinds of sophisticated surveillance technologies A novel, then, about both 20th and 21st century technologies. Good stuff; I’ll definitely be reading more Jeong.

Sujata Massey, The Satapur Moonstone (2019)

Second in the Perveen Mistry books about a female solicitor in 1920s India. This time Perveen travels to a Himalayan princely state (once again to interview women in purdah). That world is interesting and compellingly presented. Perveen gains a possible love interest; that worked for me too. Massey is a plodding writer, though; suspense is not her forte. The third book has just been published but I’m not sure I’ll keep reading.

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (1958)

I enjoyed my online class with Samantha Rose Hill on The Origins of Totalitarianism so much that I signed up for one on Arendt’s follow-up, The Human Condition. Much shorter, but much more philosophical, harder to read. Sam is a great teacher, though, and the class was filled with smart people from literally all around the world. (Zoom doesn’t always suck.) Arendt and I don’t always see eye-to-eye, but the scope of her thinking and its anti-transcendence are inspiring.

We live, so Arendt, between the no-longer and the not-yet: there is no ideal society because there is no teleology to our lives or this universe. We have to rethink the human condition all the time based on experience, on what is. In her concern with what is, Arendt might seem like a materialist; she might seem, in other words, to be influenced by Marx. And indeed, the book began as a study of Marx, but became something else, especially as Arendt offers a (pretty idiosyncratic and, I am told, weak) reading of Marx. Marx believed labour to be the essence of human experience, Arendt argues, but he also wanted to liberate us from labour (and its alienation). Which would mean there would be no more human essence. Marx, Arendt continues, failed to distinguish between labour and work. Labour is necessary, but limited and limiting. It consumes itself because its task is consumption. Labour is endless, even circular: we need to feed and clothe ourselves, take care of our children and elders, etc. Almost all of the ways we spend our time and earn our living today are forms of labour. (Even the things we do in our spare time—our hobbies, which Arendt is hilariously scornful about—are just disguised labour.) Work, by contrast, is fabrication, it makes something that is durable, that is made of (some element of) the earth but exceeds the earth by the process of shaping and making. Work has dignity, though it barely exists anymore (says Arendt in the late 1950s), some scientists and, mostly, artists are the only ones lucky enough to work in this way.

In the process, Arendt, using Augustine’s concept of the love of the world, overturns the dualism present since Aristotle between the life of contemplation and the life of action. Philosophy has always valued the former and denigrated the second. Arendt flips this around. Because only in action can politics come into being. (Politics is when people come together to bring about a new beginning—always risky, always unstable, something like revolution; it is not the administration of the results of that action: that’s the political, bureaucracy, an all-around bad scene.) To love the world is to look at it for what it is, to face reality, to see all the good and evil in it. The Human Condition is a secular theodicy, a vindication of the world. We should not want to get outside ourselves—Arendt references Kafka’s parable of the man who found an Archimedean point but only because he was able to use it only against himself as a warning against the idea of transcendence—which explains why she is so fixated on the Sputnik rocket: it’s an image of science’s failed attempt to find that impossible place outside the world, impossible because what science has done with its Archimedean discovery is to use it against the human, to turn away from our experience in the world. We live in a world without much freedom (the world of consuming, of language deadened into cliché, of administrative rationality) but the possibility of freedom is always there. Things can always be different than they are. We know this because of what Arendt ominously/grandiosely calls “natality,” by which she simply means that we are born and we die. Every time someone is born something utterly new has come into the world. It is this principle of change—which is politics properly considered—that we must live by.

My summary surely misunderstands Arendt in some ways—please correct me. But it’s stirring stuff. I recommend Arendt, especially if you have someone to help you through it. I couldn’t help, however, but find her emphasis on the human overbearing and misguided in the time of the Anthropocene. I’m not sure the earth can take the world Arendt wants us to build. I so wish she were alive to help us think our current moment. But she’d probably tell me that’s for us to do…

Georgia O’Keefe, Sun Water Maine, 1922

Lots to recommend here, I hope you’ll find something you like the sound of and that you’ll share your favourites of the month. Above all, (re) read The Age of Innocence: it’s really something.

Lost Causes: More The Old Wives’ Tale

Here we are, halfway through The Old Wives’ Tale and I still have no idea what to make of this book, or even what kind of a book it is.

My very reading experience is odd. I seldom find myself gripped by any particular moment, but I’m delighted by how often the book surprises me. Like Rohan who wrote similarly in a comment to her last post, I expected neither Daniel’s significance nor Cyril’s development into an aesthete. Is “development” the right word? Time and again, the novel ignores or downplays process, jumping ahead or passing by in a single sentence events that other novels might linger over. Consider, for example, how offhandedly Mrs. Baines is dispatched in comparison to the heartrending death of Gertrude Morel, also of cancer, in Sons and Lovers. (The books, published only two years apart, depict a similar Edwardian world, poised between the rural and the industrial.) For a novel so interested in observing social and technological change (the coming railways, the rise of advertising, the shifts in fashion which, for example, deprive Constance of a waist), The Old Wives’ Tale doesn’t seem to think of character or personality as particularly developmental.

Take the example of Cyril. Perhaps retrospectively we can see the seeds of Cyril’s aestheticism in his infant interest (or, rather, the narrator’s interest in his interest) in perception. But I’m unconvinced Cyril’s current interests will be anything more than a fad, and I don’t know how to reconcile his dandyism with his placid robustness. (Think of his decidedly non-finicky interest in food.) Maybe the relationship between the boy’s past and present is meant to be ironic. Hard to say because we aren’t given much help in figuring out how the book feels about present-day Cyril. (Is Dandy Cyril a better Cyril? Worse? Neither?) Maybe Cyril is going to become one of England’s great artists. Or maybe he will lose interest in art and find a different path. Or maybe he won’t even be in the novel anymore. Who knows? That said, I suspect he will not become an artist-hero like Lawrence’s Paul Morel. I suppose what I’m grappling with is that The Old Wives’ Tale has elements of the Bildungsroman (whether its heroes are the sisters or the child or someone else) without actually seeming to be one.

There is, however, at least one topic towards which novel’s attitude is clearer: the relationship between generations. In my previous post I noted the surprisingly violent antagonism in the scenes between Mrs. Baines and her young daughters. By the time we reach Constance and Cyril, things have calmed down a bit, at least on Cyril’s side. But that might just be because we don’t often get inside his head. It’s true that Sophia was much more violent than Constance, who at first seems governed by a fitting placidity. But Constance too coolly struck a blow against her mother when she accepted Povey, and she certainly feels keenly the pain—it’s presented as a kind of anguish—of her child’s moving away and perhaps beyond her. What she doesn’t seem to see—but which we can, noting the patterns Bennett gives us, especially his way of structuring chapters and sections so that they end with dramatic changes that are seldom described in detail—is a pattern. What she did to her mother, her son is doing to her. I think the point is that such antagonism (the callousness of youth) is to be expected, as is the surprise when the former child now adult gets what they once dished out, as is the reality of the pain that accompanies it at least from the parent’s perspective. I was moved by the description of Constance returning home from seeing Cyril off to London, full of sorrow but perhaps also the lugubrious satisfaction of being able to declare one’s self useless, and looking into the boy’s room:

And through the desolating atmosphere of reaction after a terrific crisis, she marched directly upstairs, entered his plundered room, and beheld the disorder of the bed in which he had slept.

Typical Cyril, leaving the bed unmade on his last day at home. A bit of a thrown gauntlet, too. What is more immoral in the Baines/Povey household than “disorder”? What gets me most here, though, is that adjective “plundered,” which encapsulates her desolation. Cyril has stolen before, let’s not forget. Here’s he’s literally and metaphorically taken what he needs and lit out for the big city.

Yet change (a child leaving home, say) isn’t development, even if it sometimes is regular or predictable. So it’s still unclear to me where Bennett is going with this notion. Even when he offers us clear patterns and repetitions he’s hard to read. Take the juxtaposition of the chapters “Crime” and “Another Crime.” A joke, right? Surely Cyril’s petty theft isn’t comparable to Daniel’s murder. But they are similar in having a strong, though not identical, effect on Povey. Each challenges Povey’s complacent world-view, though in the first case he is able to smooth over the disorder, able through his will-power and action to restore the world to its satisfactory functioning, which he cannot do in the second.

The Daniel plot-line is fascinating. A whole Zola novel hiding in plain sight. I’m imagining how luridly and/or excitingly Daniel’s story could be told. Bennett instead chooses indirection, keeping the focus on Povey. What matters is how Samuel responds, not what Daniel feels. (Is it remorse? Resignation? Anger? I wanted to know! What do you think? Why doesn’t Bennett tell us? That is, how does his decision shape the novel we have? Does the novel’s utter indifference to the murdered woman–slatternly, disgraceful, and that’s the end of it–affect how we understand how it portrays Constance and Sophia?) Povey’s belief that the good people who make up the moral majority of the Five Towns can do no wrong is shattered when his respected and respectable cousin commits murder. The challenge is especially severe because it comes from the state. (It will be interesting to compare—as I suspect we will be asked to—how the French handle violent transgressions.) I had to laugh in appreciation of Bennett’s skill in describing how easily citizens will fall in line with the power of the law, even if it means contradicting themselves:

They [Samuel and others who believed in Daniel’s innocence] talked as if they had always foreseen [a guilty verdict], directly contradicting all that they had said on only the previous day. Without any sense of inconsistency or shame, they took up an absolutely new position. The structure of blind faith had once again crumbled at the assault of realities, and unhealthy, un-English truths, the statement of which would have meant ostracism twenty-four hours earlier, became suddenly the platitudes of the Square and the market-place.

Povey’s death, too clearly foreshadowed to stand as another instance of the unpredictability of human mortality (like, say, Aunt Hester or Mrs. Baines’s deaths), feels to me like a commentary on the man’s inability to reconcile the contradiction between his beliefs—Daniel did a bad thing, but he was provoked; he should be punished, but not to the fullest extent of the law—and the conclusions the authorities of the nation he also believes in come to. In this sense, Povey seems to die from being disabused of long-held beliefs. Is that tragic? Farcical? Again, I can’t say, partly of course because there’s still 300 pages to go, but partly because the novel’s take on events continues to be hard to interpret. I am all the more puzzled because it is at this moment that an unsuspected and hitherto unseen first-person voice appears:

A casual death, scarce noticed in the reaction after the great febrile demonstration! Besides, Samuel Povey never could impose himself on the burgesses. He lacked individuality. He was little. I have often laughed at Samuel Povey. But I liked and respected him. He was a very honest man. I have always been glad to think that, at the end of his life, destiny took hold of him and displayed, to the observant, the vein of greatness which runs through every soul without exception. He embraced a cause, lost it, and died of it.

If destiny takes hold of everyone, though presumably never quite the same way twice, then this is a backhanded appreciation of Povey, who is great only in the way that everyone is. (Although maybe no greater appreciation can be imagined?) I’m not so sure the narrator has done laughing at Samuel Povey. And who is this I? Someone like Bennett? If so, he would here appear in the guise of as one who can only record, never invent, the fates of the figures who appear in the text. Or is the I someone like us, as readers? I should say me, I suppose. I don’t know about you, but I felt a twinge of guilt as I recognized myself in that description: I have often laughed at Samuel Povey. But I do like him, yes, even, in his way, respect him. Maybe I should stop laughing. Maybe I should admire his fatal embrace of a lost cause. But I don’t, quite. I don’t trust the text not to be fooling me here, too…

PS: At some point we have to talk about old wives’ tales. Are there any in the book? Why is it called that?

“The Ridiculous Child”: Continuing The Old Wives’ Tale

Having so to speak thwarted—through no effort of her own since she had no knowledge of it—her mother’s plan to keep her away from Gerard Scales, a bounder if I ever saw one, Sophia Baines follows a plan of her own, as much to deceive herself as anyone else. She will visit her good friend Miss Chetwynd, a teacher who has seen promise in the young woman and offered her a different life, one she has rejected but, we are led to believe, from having read other novels and the not-so-subtle hints dropped in this one, will live to regret not taking.

She will arrive at Miss Chetwynd’s shortly after four, soon after school lets out, which, admittedly, is the time when her friend invariably takes a walk. Which means that when she calls she will be told Miss Chetwynd is not at home. She will be surprised by this mistake, having come all this way for naught. Perhaps she will walk a little more, on her own, already a daring thing to do. (Is it Miss Chetwynd’s age that allows her such freedom?) Sophia might take a right turn here, in fact she will, for she is not wandering, she has a destination, the one doubtless indicated in the note Scales passed to her in the shop that morning. Her heart is beating fast—she is having a “terrific adventure.” She tells herself she is “a wicked girl” and “a fool,” but the words don’t mean anything, or if they do they are no match for her actions. We are told she is motivated in part by vanity at Scales’s interest in her. But also by “an immense, naïve curiosity.” She is doing something nothing in her background has prepared her for or would ever license, and she wants to know what it feels like.

My questions about this second section of The Old Wives’ Tale are exemplified by that phrase “immense, naïve curiosity.” Is it earnest or ironic? What’s most interested me about the novel so far is its narrative voice. The secret meeting between Sophia and Scales—breathlessly called in the chapter title “escapade,” with neither definite nor indefinite article to qualify it—is a fine place to consider that voice. Besides, it’s such a vivid, exciting, and strange scene.

A few things caught my eye. First, the detail of the marl on Scales’s shoes, a hint that he is soiled in some way, though if so presumably she is too, since the clay-lime mixture gets on her shoes as well, eventually catching her out, but more interesting to me as an example of the way the oddest details sear themselves into our attention at heightened moments. Second, the description of the railway construction as violent both to the earth and the social order (the railway cutting is “a raw gash,” the busy workers confusingly both “like flies in a great wound”—I was obscurely reminded of the elephant corpse—and like “dangerous beasts of prey” who are scandalous, unspeakable, and virile (open shirts “revealing hairy chests”): as such the navies both disgust and entice Sophia and Scales. Third, the triangulation of desire through the combination of sex and class: the initial awkwardness between the soon-to-be couple disappears when the two literally look down on the workers and consider their own superior manners, although something about the men must be arousing, for even though Bennett tells us “No doubt they both thought how inconvenient it was that railways could not be brought into existence without the aid of such revolting and swinish animals” this peculiar description (it incites doubt rather than quelling it) is accompanied by “a united blush,” which I read less as embarrassment than excitement. And finally there’s the business with the old pit-shaft, which Scales, perhaps out of boyish shyness or, more likely, brute carelessness, must look down, even though Sophia really doesn’t want him to. (To be fair to him, he expresses “awe” at the presence of this old, terrible thing. Will future generations look on the railway line, perhaps itself one day abandoned, similarly?) Sophia’s vision of miners’ ghosts trapped underground amid “the secret terrors of the earth” surprised me. Where does this horror come from? It’s not that I didn’t believe it; it’s that I found it so intriguing. Her shrieks—which are either only in her mind, or else of no consequence to Scales: he doesn’t seem to hear them, only notices her transformed face when he comes down the wall around the shaft—indicate fear as intense and jarring as the language describing the navies. This might be an expression of Sophia’s guilt and fear at keeping the rendezvous, but the moment also felt somehow atavistic. (Just like the elephant was excessive in some fascinating way.) Not sure what I have in mind, exactly, but if someone falls into a pit or something later in this novel, I won’t be surprised.

The mismatch between how the abandoned mine—and perhaps the whole encounter—makes each of them feel leads to disagreement. At first, as Sophia stormed away, I thrilled to the possibility that she might leave Scales for good, but of course it’s not to be. (That wouldn’t happen even in Lawrence.) Sophia doesn’t know herself enough to know what she is feeling. Or does she? Help me understand the tone of this passage:

She kept on, the ridiculous child. But the agony she had suffered as he clung to the frail wall was not ridiculous, nor her tremendous indignation when, after disobeying her, he forgot she was a queen. To her the scene was sublimely tragic. Soon she had recrossed the bridge, but not the same she! So this was the end of the incredible adventure!

Here the narrative voice seems especially labile. The final sentence, probably the final two sentences, offer Sophia’s thoughts. Indignation, despair, even something like a fall into experience. (Though not one that will change her behaviour, as we soon learn. If she is changed, it is as someone who now knows what it is to have an adventure—you don’t get what you expect—not as someone who sees through the gaudy charms of a fancy man.) But what about the first half of the paragraph? That “ridiculous child”: does its judgment come from the narrator or from Scales? (Is this free indirect discourse, in other words.) The phrase would fit with Scales’s actions in this scene and elsewhere, but there’s no other indication here that we are inside his mind. Which must mean the narrator owns the description. In that case, does the second sentence qualify the first? It begins by seeming to acknowledge the authenticity of Sophia’s feelings. She really was in agony. But as it continues the sentence becomes less generous. That her indignation is “tremendous” already hints at something overstated, silly. The idea of disobedience seems rather strong too. It implies that the relationship is asymmetrical. As does the description of Sophia as a queen. These aren’t, as we might first have thought, the narrator’s conclusions, they’re the girl’s delusions. I think we’re meant to roll our eyes here, and say, “Yeah that’s what she thinks she is.”

That said, the adjective “frail” counters that reading. The initial description of the pit describes it as “a dilapidated low brick wall,” quite a contrast to Scales’s later claim that it is “as firm as a rock.” Sophia’s take is “right”—it accords with the objective reality of the world. And yet that first description might not be “objective”—there may be no such thing here, for it reads, in full, “Suddenly Mr Scales stopped at a dilapidated low brick wall, built in a circle, close to the side of the road.” To me, that “Mr” strongly implies Sophia’s perspective—and in fact she later calls him that: “‘I’ll thank you not to follow me, Mr Scales.’” Then again—nothing but zigzags here, sorry—flipping back through the text Scales seems always to be called Mr. So I don’t know what to think. I’m similarly puzzled by the next sentence in our passage: “To her the scene was sublimely tragic.” Is the narrator telling us how Sophia feels? Or is he continuing to present her thinking? If the latter, is the idea that Sophia has some sense of the partiality of her interpretation? If the former, does the narrator want us to respect her feeling or dismiss it? Sometimes I think the novel uses these narrative techniques or irony and ventriloquism to argue that people can’t understand each other. Other times I think the novel is itself an unwitting example of that failure.

Two more quick thoughts:

  • The stakes of generational conflict feel peculiarly strange in this novel. Parents and children alike think of it in terms of murder. I’m thinking of the commonly held belief that Sophia killed her father in her moment’s inattention. And of the way Sophia inwardly braces for her mother’s anger when she learns about the meeting with Scales, by repeating—so often that I have to conclude she really believes it to be a possibility—“She can’t kill me.”
  • The temporal compression at the end of Book I is impressive. So much happens so quickly. Do you think we have seen the last of Mrs. Baines?

Let me know what you think of the narrative voice—and about anything else that struck you this week!

What I Read, May 2021

Lotta reading, lotta writing. Busy month.

Sally Rooney, Normal People (2018)

A girl and a boy, one rich one poor, are the stars of their school in County Sligo in the post Irish Tiger years. They go on to Trinity College, Dublin. The girl, who had been shunned in school, becomes popular. The boy, who had been a star—an athlete and loved by all in addition to being smart—struggles. They get together, break up, get together again, and have lots of sex. Normal People offers all the pleasures of a happily-ever-after romance with a sprinkle of self-consciousness in case you’re worried that storyline is too simple or retrograde. I stayed up late reading it and finished with a satisfied sigh. And yet it hasn’t stayed with me; Rooney’s first, Conversations with Friends, is the more interesting book. She can be a little bald as a writer, but sometimes baldness hits the mark: “She [the girl’s mother] believes Marianne lacks ‘warmth,’ by which she means the ability to beg for love from people who hate her.” Yep.

Robin Stevens, Poison is Not Polite (aka Arsenic for Tea) (2015)

My daughter and I continue our way through this series. No sophomore slump here: this one is even better than the first. I admired how Stevens tackles head-on the implausibility of the girls coming across murder so often—and the psychological toll that takes on them.

Georges Simenon, The Krull House (1939) Trans. Howard Curtis (2018)

Julian Barnes’s piece on this novel has stayed with me, especially its opening anecdote about Anita Brookner, who loved the romans durs. When Barnes asked her which was the best, she was firm: Chez Krull. I’ve been waiting ages for this new translation to make its way to the US. (It’s sxcellent, though it can’t, as Barnes notes, get at the striking juxtaposition of French and German, domestic and foreign, in the original title.) I gave in and ordered from the UK. After all, you don’t mess with Anita Brookner.

I’m no Simenon expert, but this is by far the best of the ten or fifteen I’ve read. Near the Belgian border, at the edge of a small town, the Krulls run a shop and bar that caters mostly to bargees. The father is German originally but has lived most of his life in France. His wife is French (though she’s not a local), as are their three children, the youngest of whom is 17. Yet the Krulls are outsiders, fitting in nowhere, tolerated by their neighbours but not much more. Old Krull’s French remains poor, even as he is forgetting his German, rendering him nearly mute: he is a terrifying and pathetic character, almost as impotently knowing as the old woman in Zola’s Thérèse Raquin. The action begins when a cousin arrives from Germany, on the run in some unspecified way. It takes Hans only a few days to blow the Krulls’ precarious existence wide open. He seduces the youngest daughter, borrows money he can’t repay, bullies his relatives, consorts with “unsavory” locals. He does what immigrants are supposed not to do: he draws attention to himself. When a girl’s body is found in the canal, suspicion falls on the Krulls, and Simenon brilliantly depicts the sudden ratcheting up of amorphous dislike into vicious hate.

As chilling as I found the novel, I struggled to get a handle on its politics. In a particularly fascinating scene, Hans rebuts his cousin Joseph’s despairing cry that the locals hate them because they’re foreigners: You’re not foreign enough, he says, you’re ashamed of your foreignness. The best way to show you belong is to be sure of yourself, sure enough to stick out. Hans’s philosophy sounds appealing, but it might be more bravado than solution. A final chapter that flashes forward from the 1930s to a later time maintains the novel’s ambiguity. It’s clear, though, why The Krull House would have appealed to Brookner. As Barnes says: “Simenon lays out with ruthless exactitude the way selfish, conscience-free greed exploits modest, hospitable decency.” Sounds like Look at Me. Track this one down.

J. L. Carr, A Month in the Country (1980)

Thanks to David Kern of Goldberry Books for the chance to write for the store’s newsletter. What a pleasure to read A Month in the Country again. It’s perfect.

Scholastique Mukasonga, Our Lady of the Nile (2012) Trans. Melanie Mauthner (2014)

My take on Mukasonga’s first novel is here.

Oakley Hall, Warlock (1958)

Grave, even somber Western about the rule of law. That might not sound exciting, and, despite some vividly tense scenes, this is no page-turner. But pertinent as all hell. I’m no expert on Westerns, but this might be the most “novel of ideas” the genre gets. In 1880s Arizona, in a mining town in the middle of nowhere barely avoiding utter lawlessness, the self-interested elite come together to hire a gunfighter nicknamed the Marshall to keep a lid on things, especially a local thug and his band of cattle rustlers. The bad guys have killed the Deputy, the latest in a line of short-lived lawmen. A former rustler takes the job and makes a go of it, despite the suspicion of the townsfolk and the scorn of the outlaws. But is the power of the badge any match for the power of the gun? Is the Marshall an appendage of the Deputy, or a sign of the law’s emptiness? (A self-appointed Judge, a drunk, helps us see the stakes.)

I read this with Paul and Ben, and I’m glad I did, because I don’t think I would have finished on my own. For me, the book was too gravid, lacking warmth; at times I found it hard-going. (I guess not every Western is Lonesome Dove.) But it swells to its own magnificence, and I loved the subplot about a miner’s strike, the doctor who comes to take their side, his nurse, whom he loves but who loves the Marshall, and a young miner who becomes a leader of the cause, a good guy who can’t escape his drive to self-aggrandizement.

Linda B. Nilson, Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time (2015)

Specifications grading replaces nebulous, often unstated values with clearly stated standards for what counts as acceptable work, that is, work that satisfies assignment and course learning goals. Students either achieve these specifications or they do not. No “partial credit.” They can revise in order to meet the standards and are given opportunities to excel (doing more work than other students or the same amount to a higher caliber). Spec grading makes learning more intrinsically motivated for students and reduces grading time for instructors. That’s the theory, anyway, as outlined in this book, which I gather is the standard on the subject.

Nilson is a social scientist and she writes like one. The prose is not enjoyable. And her examples are taken from fields far different from my own. I (sped) read this in advance of a faculty workshop on the topic, though, and was able to hear colleagues, including one from my own department, talk about how they’ve used and modified the concept. I’m intrigued. I’ve used my own take on spec grading in the past—using a portfolio system and avoiding grades on individual assignments. That’s great because students actually read the comments. But I see now that it’s not great because it leaves too much in the dark. By creating clear specifications I’ll eliminate unnecessary and probably stressful mystification. I plan to rework one of my courses for spec grading this coming year and see how it goes.

Rachel Cusk, Second Place (2021)

M, the narrator, lives on a property “in a place of great but subtle beauty” comprised mostly of tidal marshes; for some reason I took it to be in Norfolk but I’m not sure why. The “second place” is a cottage M and her husband, Tony, have fitted out where they often host people they admire. It also, perhaps, names the role the narrator inhabits, not in regards to her husband, with whom she has an often silent but profound relationship, nor to her grown daughter, who has washed up at the marsh with a man who suddenly decides he is meant to be a writer despite not having any talent for it. (Unlike the narrator, who is a modestly successful writer, though not one who ever actually spends any time on it.) No, it is in relation to a man known as L, a famous painter, that she is secondary.

At a critical juncture in her life, M had an almost religious experience at an exhibition of L’s paintings. In homage to that moment, which emboldened her to change her life (I am making this sound more coherent and psychologically motivated than it is in the book; Cusk is more mysterious, less reductive about M’s feelings), she invites L to stay in the guest cottage. Some unspecified event which has damaged the economy and shut down world travel—maybe a depression, maybe a pandemic, maybe some climate event, though the landscape of the novel seems fecund—prompts L to accept. (The art market has collapsed; he’s broke.) It takes some machinations for him to arrive and when he does he’s accompanied by a young woman, Brett, which puts M out a little, forcing her to wonder how much of her interest in L is sexual, though in the end she loves him in another, maybe more existential way. Brett, at first a pretentious nightmare, eventually proves a kinder and better person than L.

The plot, such as it is, centers on the way L disrupts M’s life. The details aren’t important; this isn’t a book you read for plot. You read it as an attempt to redress the state of affairs D. H. Lawrence lamented in his essay “Surgery for the Novel—Or a Bomb”: “It was the greatest pity in the world, when philosophy and fiction got split.” Second Place explores vitality: what it enables, what it harms, what happens when it fades.

I’ve read Cusk’s autofictional trilogy of novels about a woman named Faye, and liked them in parts a lot but on the whole not so much. The first, Outline, is in my opinion the most successful. Cusk’s strategy of having her narrator retell involved and largely self-incriminating stories given to her by strangers she encounters on a sojourn to Greece was exciting; subsequent volumes, describing Faye’s experiences at various literary festivals and the other promotional aspects of the contemporary writing life, were not. The trilogy does end with an indelible scene, though; in general, as proved again in the new book, Cusk excels in writing about swimming.

Anyway, I had no plans to read this new book, but then I learned that it was based on a section of Mabel Dodge Luhan’s memoir of her time with D. H. Lawrence at her ranch near Taos, New Mexico. For someone who wrote a dissertation largely about Lawrence, I’m quite ignorant of this part of his life. I do know, however, that the socialite and painter Dorothy Brett joined them, and that there was occasional harmony but more often tumult among Lawrence; his wife, Frieda; Luhan; Brett; and Luhan’s husband, Tony, a Taos Pueblo Indian. Clearly, Lawrence is a model for L, and M for Luhan; interestingly, there’s no Frieda figure in the novel. As Cusk notes at the end of the book, the narrator is intended as a tribute to Luhan’s spirit. Cusk appears less interested in Lawrence, apparently, though L shares certain aspects of the writer’s character: his coldness when he declares himself “done” with someone, his moments of sudden warmth, his love of and knowledge of the natural world, his aptitude for work. Cusk’s L is more tediously provocative than Lawrence was, though. Overall, she’s written a not unsympathetic but also somewhat offhanded depiction of the writer. More to the point, I don’t think you gain much from knowing the background.

That interest, for Cusk anyway, isn’t primarily biographical. (Again, this isn’t really a roman a clef.) Instead she revisits some of Lawrence’s preoccupations. Here, for example, she has M reflect on the idea of authority:

Only tyrants want power for their own sake, and parenthood is the closest most people get to an opportunity for tyranny. Was I a tyrant, wielding shapeless power without authority? What I felt a lot of the time was a sort of stage fright, the way I imagined inexperienced teachers must feel when they stand at the front of the class looking at a sea of expectant faces. Justine [her daughter] had often looked at me in just that way, as though expecting an explanation for everything, and afterwards I felt I had never explained anything quite to her satisfaction, or mine.

This riff on a key Lawrentian concern is not, in the end, entirely Lawrentian. He never undermined power that way, at least not in his direct statements. The indirect example of his characters and their fates, by contrast, certainly did. Nor did he think much about being a parent (he wasn’t one); his take on parents and children is always explicitly or implicitly from the child’s point of view.

More obviously in sync with Lawrence is M’s riff on the connection between insight and cruelty:

What was so liberating and rewarding in looking at a painting by L. became acutely uncomfortable when one encountered or lived it in the flesh. It was the feeling that there could be no excuses or explanations, no dissimulating: he filled one with the dreadful suspicion that there is no story to life, no personal meaning beyond the meaning of a given moment. Something in me loved this feeling, or at least knew it and recognised it to be true, as one must recognise darkness and acknowledge its truth alongside that of light; and in that same sense I knew and recognised L.

There’s more going on here than “don’t meet your artistic heroes” or even “art makes palatable subjects or experiences that are uncomfortable in life.” The idea that only a moment can hold meaning is juxtaposed, by the very form of the speculation, to the idea that meaning also inheres in a set of linked moments, a story. For this contradiction to be fully felt, narrative requires a form that challenges its limits. This is a task Lawrence and Cusk share, however different their solutions.

Other parts of Second Place are more purely Cusk-ian: aperçus challenging cultural pieties: “The game of empathy, whereby we egg one another on to show our wounds, was one he would not play”; “I believe that as a rule children don’t care for their parents’ truths and have long since made up their own minds, or have formulated false beliefs from which they can never be persuaded, since their whole conception of reality is founded on them.”

Is this book any good? Not sure! It’s short and engaging. Will it stick with me? I’m skeptical. In the end I am most interested in the book’s experiment with what happens when you add some of the elements of realism (developed characters, framed narration, dramatic events) to autofiction (characterized by a first-person narrator whose perceptions offer a scaffold on which to hang essayistic associations). How much of the former can you add without overwhelming or undoing the latter? And what would you gain in the process? Second Place leaves plenty of questions; the answers are unclear.

Susan Bernofsky, Clairvoyant of the Small: The Life of Robert Walser (2021)

Wonderful biography of the lyrical and snarky Swiss writer Robert Walser. My thoughts here.

Scholastique Mukasonga, Cockroaches (2006) Trans. Jordan Stump (2016)

Read this as background for my Mukasonga piece. It’s the first of three autobiographical texts, this one about Mukasonga’s childhood as a Tutsi refugee—first within Rwanda then in neighbouring Burundi—her eventual emigration to France, and, most compellingly, her search to uncover the circumstances of the murder of her extended family in the 1994 genocide. In this, the text both reminded me of post-Holocaust texts and felt different from them in ways I can’t yet put my finger on. One thing that’s the same, though, is the belief that testimony is a necessary but feeble recompense for loss. Mukasonga, who lost 37 people and keeps their names in a school exercise book she is never without, concludes: “I have nothing left of my family and all the others who died in Nyamata but that paper grave.”  

I’m reading these in English and don’t know the original, but Jordan Stump who has translated this and subsequent works might be a better fit for her style than Mauthner.

Georges Simenon, The Carter of La Providence (1931) Trans. David Coward (2014)

I’ve finally figured out this Simenon fellow: the more canals, the better the book. Here Maigret is called out to the Marne department after a body is found in a stable at an inn next to one of the river’s many locks. Two boats are anchored for the night: a motorized yacht, captained by an Englishman, and a horse-drawn barge, piloted by a couple and an almost silent old man, who tends their horses. Maigret will uncover how these different worlds are connected. Along the way he bicycles at length along the canals, not always happily (“He had ridden fifty kilometers without once stopping for a beer”). Simenon was a boater himself—apparently, he wrote Carter on board his second boat, the Ostrogoth—which might explain why the details of barge life are so convincingly and engagingly portrayed. And Barthes himself would have thrilled to the telling because otherwise meaningless details Simenon slips into his prose:

But the barge men who had discovered the body and helped to fish it out had all crowded into the café where the tables were still littered with glasses and bottles from the night before. The stove roared. A broom was lying in the middle of the floor.

That broom! Those sentences without a single comma! Great stuff.

Robin Stevens, First Class Murder (2015)

Wells & Wong travel on the Orient Express to get away from murder, but guess what??? Stevens nods to Christie (Daisy is reading the book, just published when the girls take their trip) and just generally has a high old time.

Shirley Hazzard, The Transit of Venus (1980)

I can’t summarize this novel better than Parul Seghal did. (I can’t do anything better than Parul Seghal does.) “Two orphaned Australian sisters arrive in England in the 1950s: placid, fair Grace, who marries a wealthy and officious bureaucrat, and independent, dark-haired Caroline, who falls in love with the unscrupulous (and attached) Paul Ivory, while another man, the shabby and sweet Ted Tice, pines for her.” As she also rightly says, this is the kind of book lost on youth, a hymn to missed opportunities, regrets, second chances, and the patterns of experience that only become visible toward the end of life. Everything about Transit should have been catnip to me, and at times I thrilled to its scope and wisdom. My two favourite sections are about affairs contemplated by Grace and her husband, Christian (Seghal’s “officious bureaucrat”). In both cases, minor characters gain complexity that, in the case of Christian at least, might not make us like him more but that make us feel we can understand him.

And yet. Hazzard’s prose is so burnished it turns itself inside out and becomes obscure. Her narrative voice is knowing, sometimes effectively acidic—showing us Christian’s unrepentant self-satisfaction: “It was to his judiciousness, at every turn, that he owed the fact that nothing terrible had ever happened to him”—but too often unhelpfully clotted. Here’s one that could come from Elizabeth Bowen: “Provocation had become the basis of her relations with the world.” Many of these sentences turn on oracular similes: “His enunciation gave immortality, as slow motion makes any action beautiful by an appearance of control.” That last sentence could be the novel’s motto: it certainly takes it time, it absolutely presents control as an illusion when life is rather an accumulation of storms. But for me a little Hazzard went a long way, so that even though I sighed over the devastating ending, and turned back to see the foreshadowing the author had larded into its opening pages, I admired this book more than I loved it. I kept wishing I were reading Tessa Hadley, who handles the complications of middle-class lives, those with the luxury of thinking about encroaching mortality, with a surer hand—and syntax.

Mick Herron, Slow Horses (2010)

The Slow Horses are spies who have fucked up—made a mistake that cost lives, or could have; struggle with drugs or drink or gambling; just can’t get along with anyone. It’s expensive and embarrassing to fire them, so MI5 ships them to a sad-sack building called Slough House and sets them mind-numbing tasks in the hope they’ll eventually quit. Their boss is Jackson Lamb, a fat, sarcastic, mean spymaster who smells as bad as he looks. Lamb was a legend back in the Berlin days, but now he’s putting in the time, shuffling papers, firing off insults, and farting a lot. Or is he playing the longest con game of them all? When a white nationalist group kidnaps a British Muslim, Lamb proves a master at institutional politics and the Slow Horses get a taste of field work again. Are they up for it? Part A-Team (google it, young’uns), part manual on bureaucracies, Slow Horses is all winner. Herron cleverly teases us with Lamb’s character: suggesting he’s kinder and more together than he seems, then pulling the rug out from under our genre expectations. I’m not in love with the writing, but the dialogue pops and the plot is complicated without becoming preposterous. Good thing there are like six more. Rohan liked it too!

Georges Simenon, Maigret and the Headless Corpse (1955) Trans. Howard Curtis (2017)

In Paris’s Quai de Valmy some bargees—more canals: you know what that means!—fish a leg out of the water. More body parts follow, until the corpse is only missing its head. Who is the missing man, and who sawed him to pieces? Maigret solves the case less by acumen or diligence than by chance. [Spoiler alert, though that’s not really the point of this book.] Casing the neighbourhood in search of a drink and a phone, he enters a dusty local bar and becomes fascinated by the owner’s wife, Madame Calas. Calas himself is mysteriously absent. As in her own way is his wife, who possesses a blank self-possession that Maigret can’t help but respect even as it stymies him. The novel—at 179 pages, positively gargantuan for the series—becomes a psychological study of a character who prefers to reveal nothing of herself. Insight comes when Maigret meets a lawyer from the part of France where the couple grew up, a man as loquacious as Madame Calas is reticent. There’s also a nice bit with the couple’s cat. Another good Maigret.

Peter Cameron, What Happens at Night (2020)

Strange, beautiful novel about a New York couple traveling in an unnamed northern country to adopt a baby. They check into a version of the Grand Budapest Hotel—the book is part Wes Anderson, part Ishiguro—where the woman takes to her bed while the man drinks schnapps made from moss in the nearly silent bar. The woman (the main characters are never named) is grievously ill; she falls under the spell of a local mystic who might have wandered in from a well-behaved Dostoyevsky novel. The man dodges the attentions of a businessman and a chanteuse. This all sounds preposterous, doesn’t it? But somehow the book isn’t. It is somber and very snowy, but also light on its feet. And sometimes funny. You could remake yourself, go anywhere in the world, the man tells the morose bartender. “Only in this world? That is the only choice you give me?” Thanks to Twitter pal NancyKay Shapiro for the rec. (Bonus: check out the cover. Nice work, Catapult!)

Mick Herron, Dead Lions (2013)

More complicated plotting serving more organizational maneuvering within MI5. Not as good as Slow Horses, but I’m all in for this series.

That’s all, folks. A Month in the Country was the best novel I read this month. Those Maigrets were good, especially Krull House. Mick Herron is a light reading champion. Mukasonga is thought-provoking. Hazzard a force, if not always to my taste. And Clairvoyant of the Small is an impressive accomplishment. Do yourself a favour and discover Robert Walser. Until next month, keep reading and stay well.

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On Being Absorbed & The Double Life of Véronique

What do we see when we’re not looking? We say we are “lost in a trance.” Could we in fact be finding our way? In a series of interlocking scenes from the middle of his 1991 film The Double Life of Véronique, Krzysztof Kieślowski repeatedly shows one of his two conjoined heroines lost in thought: at a puppet show held for the entertainment of the children at the school where she teaches; in her classroom, as she gazes out the window while her students play a new piece of music; in her car, at a traffic light, where she absent-mindedly puts a cigarette in her mouth the wrong way round.

At each moment, her reverie is connected to the same man, a puppeteer who masterminds the show she and her students are so taken by. In the auditorium she stares at his reflection, seeing him pulling the strings. In the classroom, she looks out distractedly at his van in the courtyard of the school. In the car, she eventually sees him pulled up next to her at the light. In the last case, he interrupts her absorption, honking at her as she is about to light the cigarette before motioning to her with a twist of the wrist that she needs to turn it around.

He has saved the day, it seems; the lesson is that you need to turn things around, look at them, not differently, but the right way; you need to be brought out of your absorption. But what if the man is not the hero but the villain? What if he has destroyed something? What if the scarf that in an earlier scene trails along behind the woman as she walks through the corridor of the cardiology unit in the hospital, test results clasped to her chest—suggesting a different reason for absorption than romantic infatuation—is a sign not of absent-mindedness, even carelessness, but of strength, elegance?

Several weeks ago, I sat in on a workshop for some of the students at the school where I teach who hope to apply for distinguished scholarships, like the Fulbright or Rhodes. The facilitator–who was teaching essayistic writing without naming it as such–showed part of The Double Life of Véronique and gave the students ten minutes or so to write about it. Because I loved this movie when I was in college, I decided to take up the prompt, too, and recently found what I wrote when I was cleaning off my desktop. I thought it was interesting enough to post here, in the hopes that those of you who know the movie better than I do–or who have thoughts about being absorbed–can tell me what to write next.

The Old Wives’ Tale Reading Group

Gwen John, “The Convalescent” (1918 – 19), detail

I’ve long wanted to read something together with Rohan. (She was my professor, long ago–when she was very young, I might add–and so I have read a number of things at her behest, but that’s different…) We traded ideas and decided on Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale (1908). And I hope you will consider joining us!

As Rohan wrote in her post introducing the project, we chose Bennett because he bridges the periods we study and teach (Victorianism for her, modernism for me), and because we’re curious to actually read him, rather than about him. Although Bennett was popular with both critics and ordinary readers, his reputation, at least in literary studies, suffered a blow from which it’s yet to recover when Virginia Woolf wrote an essay savaging him (and his Edwardian confreres H. G. Wells and John Galsworthy) for writing books that failed to respond to the changes in life Woolf somewhat facetiously dates to December 1910. (To be fair to Woolf–and the essay’s fascinating, well worth reading, she was responding to a review Bennett wrote of her third novel, Jacob’s Room, which he spectacularly failed to get.)

I’ve heard it said that The Old Wives’ Tale is Bennett’s masterpiece. It’s certainly hefty: its story of two sisters from Staffordshire, one of whom stays tied to their father’s drapery shop and one of whom elopes to Paris, runs to 600 pages in my old Penguin edition. But we’ve spaced the reading out over six weeks and the chapters look manageable, so I hope you won’t be daunted!

Rohan’s even designed a schedule to keep us on track. As you can see, we’ll alternate posting, offering reflections, asking questions, and soliciting your ideas. We hope for lively comment sections, but you can also post at your own blog or newsletter, or share thoughts on Twitter (#OldWivesTale21). If you feel ambitious and want to write a guest post, I will be delighted to host it.

Drapery shop vs. Paris: one of these sounds better than the other. Yet I suspect Bennett will play with my expectations. How different will these destinies prove to be? This piece–admittedly, I’ve only skimmed it, to avoid spoilers–enticingly suggests the novel will be anything but staid. “No English novelist ever suggested more unspeakable things, and got away without being understood, than me in that book,” Bennett later claimed. I say, bring it on, Arnold! Who wants to join me to see if he does?

What I Read, April 2021

April in Arkansas, azaleas in blossom, reading at the table under the trees. April in Arkansas: this is a feeling no one can reprise. Even though I’m making no progress on this book project, I wrote a lot last month, including essays on teaching the Holocaust and on a favourite book of mine that I once considered a secret. I wrote some other things that might come to anything, but I found the process useful and I also got a small piece of good news. I bumbled along, in other words. Here’s what I read.

Héctor Abad, The Farm (2014) Trans. Anne McLean (2018)

Three siblings take turns telling this story, which centers on La Oculta, a farm in the mountains of Columbia that has been in their family’s hands for generations. Pilar has kept the place going, even as she’s also worked alongside her mother in the family bakery; she has lived the life closest to the older generations, bearing children, married to her teenage sweetheart, a woman both capable and strong, good at everything from cooking to embalming. Eva has forged her own path, building a career, surviving various marriages and love affairs, becoming a single parent later in life. Antonio has escaped to New York, where he has made his way as a musician and settled down with a good man, yet despite, or because, of that distance he is the most drawn to the farm, making annual visits and taking on the task of unraveling the family history.

In alternating chapters, the siblings tell us about their pasts, their beliefs, their relationships to others. Put together, their narratives allow us to consider the competing forces of inheritance and invention. How much of who we are comes from the people and ways of life that came before us, and how much do we generate for ourselves? The novel delights in showing continuity—but it soars when depicting rupture. Even if the farm originated in a utopian attempt to generate community, Columbia’s violent past regularly interrupts daily life. This intrusion is most vividly evident in Eva’s memory of narrowly escaping a rebel attack on the homestead. (Terrific set piece.) Abad is a marvelous writer, and McLean a marvelous translator. I sunk into this sprawling novel—the beauty of the Archipelago edition adding extra sensory pleasure to the experience—and was sad when it ended.

Vanessa Springora, Consent (2020) Trans. Natasha Lehrer (2021)

Powerful memoir about the abusive sexual relationship between Springora and a famous writer whom she calls G. M. but is widely known to be Gabriel Matzneff. (Apparently, he was a big deal in the French literary scene; I’d never heard of him.) His identity as a “lover” of children was widely known too, at least among French artistic and political elites. These overlap much more than I, as a North American, would have expected; Matzneff had a letter in his wallet from Mitterand, lauding his artistic daring; he seems to have thought of it as a get out of jail card, except nobody ever put him in jail.

Matzneff’s career—he published several novels, all autobiographical, many overtly about pedophilia, as well as regular installments of his diaries—was built on the suffering of children and adolescents. Signora was one of many boys and girls he slept with, both in France and on sex tours in Asia; he was quite open about all of this. Springora met Matzneff in 1986, when she was 14. He seduced her intellectually, emotionally, and sexually; they were together for two years; the relationship damaged her badly, could, in some senses, have been said to have destroyed her life. This memoir proves it didn’t—but shows the cost. In fact, it was not until Springora realized that the way to get justice for herself was to speak in the only language that could touch Matzneff—that of writing itself—that she found any relief from her trauma. As she puts it, in a formulation comprising the grace and irony of classic French intellectual style, “Why not ensnare the hunter in his own trap, ambush him within the pages of a book?”

In so doing, she has had some effect, not only on Matzneff (he remains unrepentant, but the government took away a sinecure and his publisher dropped him) but on France more generally, where the book has been a best-seller and led people to acknowledge the ills that can be cloaked the mantle of freedom. In this regard, France’s so-called intellectual elite have a lot to answer for. The mantra of the 68ers, “it is forbidden to forbid,” was used by Matzneff to present child abuse as liberation, care, even love. A real who’s-who of the literary and philosophical scene signed open letters in support of these ideas back in the 70s. (Interesting that Foucault refused. Sad that Barthes did not.)

Consent, Springora observes, is an ambivalent term, sometimes signifying volition but often connoting something less than full agreement. After all, consent can be given on behalf of others, especially minors. Ultimately, consent is a mirage, a fig-leaf allowing those with cultural and literal capital to sweep away the reality of power imbalances. Consent is a sobering read, valuable for its indictment of the world that looked on while its writer suffered—from leering teachers to her overwhelmed and willfully blind parents. Its tone is uneven, sometimes epigrammatic, sometimes abstract, sometimes lyrical, but Springora doesn’t pretend to be a literary artist. That’s what she wanted to be, before Matzneff dispossessed her of her own words, not least by training her to write in a style he deemed timeless and elevated. (They sent each other hundreds of letters; he later published some of hers without permission.) To even consider Springora’s style feels fraught: to critique it is to risk playing the same game as her abuser (and his enablers), who argued that artistic beauty, passion, and fearlessness mattered above all. Yet it’s also important to advocate for style without thereby agreeing that its value trumps anything else.

Consent ends with a brief, illuminating afterword by translator Lehrer; I wish more books let us hear from the translator.

Flynn Berry, Under the Harrow (2016)

First of the three psychological thrillers by Berry I devoured this month. Under the Harrow is a fine debut; its tricksy narration makes it the most Highsmithian of her books. Berry’s prose is plain but not flat. Here the narrator looks out the window of a train:

Land streams by the window. Sheep arranged on the stony flank of a hill. The troubling clouds surging behind it. A firehouse with a man doing exercises in its yard. He pulls himself above a bar, lowers himself, vanishes.

The disembodied man, swallowed up by movement and perspective, is a suitably unsettling touch, offering a glimpse of what’s to come: the world the narrator thinks she knows is about to become similarly unmoored.

Guzel Yakhina, Zuleikha (2015) Trans. Lisa C. Hayden (2019)

My second Hayden translation in as many months; again, I read this as part of a Twitter reading group, and, again, I was glad I did. Zuleikha is a page-turner that comes at its historical events—the dekulakization of the peasantry under Stalin and the creation of the Gulag system—from what, I believe, is an unusual perspective. The heroine, who lends her name to the title, is a Tatar, a culture I knew basically nothing about; when I think of the famines of the late 1920s and early 30s, I think primarily of Ukraine, not Soviet Tatarstan. And since that culture is shown to be harshly patriarchal, Zuleikha is an even more intriguing, marginalized character. Too bad that the novel seems to find no way for Zuleikha to leave behind her status as “pitiful hen” and become as strong and independent as she does other than to abandon her Tatar identity.

Zuleikha is engrossing historical fiction that is never quite predictable. For example, it is more interested in relationships between mothers and children than between men and women. Its descriptions of the landscape are loving and evocative. Its plot is both eventful and uneventful: much of the action centers on how to survive—how to cut trees when your tools are bad; what to grow in a northern climate; how to hunt and gather on the land; even, in the days before exile, how to prepare the bathhouse for a steam session—but those everyday tasks take place against a backdrop where terrible events always threaten to intrude. In the end, I thought the “band of misfits pitches together against all odds” aspect of the story of the settlement was a bit cute. (Even though I still loved it.) And Yakhina’s use of focalization didn’t always work. We are mostly in close third person (present tense, natch, ugh), but that sometimes becomes implausible when Yakhina needs to tell us stuff that her heroine might not need or care to think about. Here she is in prison in Kazan, before being transported to Siberia:

The Tatar language is even constructed so you could live your whole life without once saying “I.” No matter what tense you use to speak about yourself, the verb will go in the necessary form and the ending will change, making the use of that vain little word superfluous. It’s not like that in Russian, where everybody goes out of their way to put in “I” and “me” and then “I” again.

There might be a point here about the role of the individual in resisting a collective system. Or maybe a critique of the project of Russianizing the Soviet Union’s plurality. Mostly though this moment is clunky. But I hope Yakhina’s second novel is translated soon. Hayden, who again generously offered her expertise to the Twitter group, would be the obvious choice to take on the project. Are you listening, Oneworld?

Henia Karmel and Ilona Karmel, A Wall of Two: Poems of Resistance and Suffering from Kraków to Buchenwald and Beyond Introduction and Adaptations by Fanny Howe Trans. Arie A. Galles and Warren Niesłuchowski (2007)

More about the Karmel sisters and their poetry here.

Flynn Berry, A Double Life (2018)

Berry’s take on the Lord Lucan case. Creepy and satisfying. Berry’s best, IMO.

Anna Goldenberg, I Belong to Vienna (2018) Trans. Alta L. Price (2020)

Another third generation Holocaust memoir. The difference here is that Goldenberg’s grandparents, after a short postwar dalliance in upstate New York, returned to Vienna, where their children and grandchildren still live. When Goldenberg herself moves to New York to study for an MA, people, other Jews mostly, ask her in appalled fascination: How can you [i.e., Jews] live there [i.e., among the killers]? Which prompts Goldenberg to speculate—not as interestingly as I’d have hoped—on what it means to belong, both to family and to place.

The other noteworthy thing about the story is that the most interesting person in it isn’t technically even in the family. When Goldenberg’s then 17-year-old grandfather, Hansi, received his deportation papers he ripped off his star, hopped on the streetcar, and made his way to a close friend, the pediatrician Josef Feldner. (Hansi had his parents’ blessing: they rightly suspected his chances were better in hiding. Indeed, he never saw them again.) Feldner, a Catholic child psychologist, was a remarkable man. He kept Hansi safe for the rest of the war, and prompted the previously mediocre student into his future medical career by taking the boy with him to see his patients, which he treated in a gentle, humane, and courteous manner that would be rare today, to say nothing of then. Pepi, as Goldenberg’s grandfather came to call him, eventually adopted Hansi. For the rest of his life the two men were inseparable: even after Hansi married Goldenberg’s grandmother, herself a doctor, the two ate breakfast together every morning (Pepi lived downstairs) and took vacations together. In the original German the book is called Versteckte Jahre: Der Mann, der meinen Großvater rettet (Hidden Years: The Man who Saved my Grandfather), which rightly captures its emphasis. Anyway, while I don’t regret reading this book, I note that until I sat down to write this review I’d forgotten all about it.

Flynn Berry, Northern Spy (2021)

The wider political backdrop of the novel—set in Northern Ireland at an unspecified time that seems like it could be just before the Good Friday agreement, but which also can’t be (technology doesn’t match up, for example)—gives Berry’s new novel extra heft. Impressively, she does this without any bloat. I just love how short her books are. She’s such an efficient writer.

In Northern Spy—turns out this is also a kind of apple, fitting for a book which shows the domestic and the political to be so entwined—Tessa, a BBC producer just back from maternity leave, is shocked when she sees her sister in footage from the latest IRA attack (a gas station hold up). She’s floored by this revelation, of course, but things prove to be even more complicated. Before long, Tessa is volunteering to infiltrate the IRA. In a tense interrogation, she is asked by the man she will report to why she wants to become an IRA informer. Tessa experiences no cognitive dissonance in the moment:

This isn’t so difficult. I’m a woman, after all, so I’ve had a lifetime of practice guessing what a man wants me to say, or be.

Berry’s smart and engrossing thrillers are among my favourite discoveries of the year.

Robin Stevens, Murder is Bad Manners (UK title: Murder Most Unladylike) (2014)

British boarding school crime fiction written for middle-grade readers but with wide appeal. I bought this for my daughter a few years ago when I read about it in the TLS (their irregular children’s column is excellent; I hope the new editor won’t get rid of it). Something made her pull it off the shelf last month and she immediately got stuck into it. Then she raced through the other four titles available in the US. While we waited for the others to arrive from the UK we decided to read them together, aloud. And they are a delight: suspenseful in themselves, though not too scary (even as they are thoughtful about the toll that even playacting as a detective could take) but with plenty of nods to Golden Age sleuthing that older readers are likely to enjoy. Set in the 1930s at a school called Deepdean, the books are narrated by Hazel Wong, who at the time of the first volume is newly arrived in England from her home in Hong Kong. Hazel plays Watson to Daisy Wells, the book’s beautiful, brainy, incorrigible Sherlock and self-appointed President of the Wells & Wong Detective Society.

After earning their stripes in dull but useful cases like The Case of Lavinia’s Missing Tie (Clementine took it in revenge for Lavinia hitting her during lacrosse practice, after Clementine said Lavinia came from a Broken Home), the girls take on a crime of a much greater magnitude when Hazel stumbles on the dead body of a teacher—a body that disappears in the time it takes her to find help. The headmistress thinks nothing is amiss because she finds a resignation letter from the teacher on her desk the next morning. But Wells & Wong know better. And things soon get pretty hairy. Will they solve the case before the killer strikes again?

Hazel is much smarter than Watson and Daisy less unerring than Sherlock. Which makes the books often funny, but also moving, especially in their depiction of a friendship between a popular girl who seems to have everything together and a shy one who seems to be a bit hopeless. Each needs the other—for me, the books are about shared vulnerability—and I’m looking forward to seeing how Stevens develops their story.

Ruth Rendell, One Across, Two Down (1971)

Someone on Twitter put this on their highlights of 2020 list—please remind me who you are—and I was intrigued enough to check out a copy from the library. At which point it sat around the bedroom for months until, at a time when I was supposed to be reading something else, I realized I absolutely could not live another minute without taking it up. And I was glad I did: it’s an impressive book.

Vera lives with her layabout husband, Stanley, and nagging mother, Maud. Stanley and Maud hate each other and make poor Vera’s life even worse with their endless arguments. But when Stanley learns that Maud has socked away a lot of money and plans to leave it all to Vera, he swaps her stroke medication with saccharine pills, just to see if he can hurry the process along. Pretty soon, though, events escalate, in ways he never expected. Although technically not responsible for the old woman’s death—I won’t give away the details here—in all the ways that count he’s absolutely responsible. Most of the novel is about how he gets found out. Stanley’s awful; spending time with him is not pleasant. But Vera gets a surprisingly happy ending, so the book isn’t entirely grim. Along the way, Rendell asks us to think about what draws readers to crime fiction. Is it any different from the many seemingly harmless but ultimately consuming obsessions—like the crossword puzzles Stanley wants not only to solve but to set—that litter the book? Lots going on here, in unfussy but quality prose. If One Across, Two Down is anything to go by, early Rendell is the real deal.

Becky Chambers, To Be Taught, If Fortunate (2019)

Standalone novella in the Wayfarers series, which I have not read but definitely will, as soon as my library holds come in. Recommended to me by a brilliant former student now in graduate school who has just taken a course on science fiction. Someone online described Chambers’s books as sf cozies, which makes sense to me. Some might take this as criticism, and maybe that’s how it was meant, but what I liked most about To Be Taught, If Fortunate is its fundamental kindness. This is a book fascinated by otherness and worried about how vulnerable it is to even well-intentioned encounters.

In 2045, four astronauts are sent to explore the life forms—some quite minimal, all hard for us to fathom, all valuable in their own right—on the moons of a distant planet. At some point in their exploration—and because of the distances involved, time is passing much more slowly for them than it is back home: taking on the mission means that none of them will see their families again—they realize that they aren’t getting messages from earth anymore. A companion mission, sent elsewhere in the galaxy, confirms that they too have lost contact. Should they try to return to what might be a destroyed home, or continue on, knowing that once they do there’s no going back?

The descriptions of the alien lifeforms are fantastic. I really thought this was a wise book. The only sour note is a coda referencing the title. The phrase comes from a welcome speech made by then-UN Secretary Kurt Waldheim and placed on board the Voyager spacecraft. If you’re going to mention Waldheim in a book about respecting difference, you should mention his Nazi past.

Jacqueline Winspear, The Consequences of Fear (2021)

I have to stop reading these. The circle of recurring characters has become so wide that keeping up with them means the crimes (never Winspear’s strength, or, to be fair, interest) are solved much too offhandedly. For whatever reason, the thing about the series that first drew me to it—its investigation of responsibility—just irritated me this time. I could see what Winspear was doing with the concept of fear—asking whether our duty to a nation is enough to make us repress our feelings; wondering if personal responsibilities outweigh political demands—but I couldn’t bring myself to care. Maybe because I saw the novel’s depiction of WWII as the product of philosophical liberalism, which I was feeling frustrated by because I was just coming to end of reading…

Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951, revised 1958)

I spent a lot of time this month with Arendt’s quasi-history, quasi-philosophy of totalitarianism. It’s long and hard. I was sometimes frustrated by Arendt—she’s from a different philosophical tradition than the one I was trained in; she’s completely uninterested in psychology, which is baffling to me; our thinking isn’t the most sympatico—but I was often amazed. In the end, this was such a rewarding reading experience.

Which I would not have had if I hadn’t signed up for a course offered through the Brooklyn Institute of Social Research, taught by Samantha Rose Hill, who teaches at several schools in the New York area, runs a center for Arendt Studies at Bard, and has a book about Arendt coming out this summer. (Her recent Five Books interview on Arendt is exemplary.) The ideal teacher, in other words, and she taught us a lot. I enjoyed being in a class again, although I noted that some of the same anxieties that plagued me in college and graduate school resurfaced. I still fear the things I have to say are beside the point and unhelpful—but I’m not as shy anymore and say them anyway.

But what’s important here are the ideas, not my reading experience. In nearly 500 small-font pages, Arendt unfolds a sweeping argument about the connection between antisemitism, imperialism, and totalitarianism.

Alas, I don’t fully understand Arendt’s take on antisemitism. I had to miss most of the class in which we discussed this—fittingly (?) to run a Holocaust memorial program—and I haven’t finished the section. But a key idea is that, counterintuitively, Jews thrived in Europe as long as nations did. (Well, thrived, I don’t know about that, and the Jews Arendt talks about comprised a thin stratum of rich, Western European Jews. Of the Jews in Eastern Europe and the Pale of Settlement, i.e., almost all European Jews, she has little to say: Arendt was always what the Israelis call a Yekke.) The cosmopolitanism of Jews, so often held against them, and forced upon them by the fate of their diaspora, paradoxically enabled them to flourish as bankers to nation states. But when nations were replaced with Empires, specifically in the 19th Century, that relationship failed. Jews were then taken to have privilege tethered to neither role nor responsibility, earning them even greater enmity. They were left to become either parvenu (upstarts who try to fit in everywhere) or pariahs (those defiant rejects who don’t fit in anywhere). Arendt is sympathetic but disdainful to the parvenu, and fascinated by the pariah.

Both positions are responses to statelessness, an affliction that Jews especially in the 1930s but that others too throughout the 20th century experienced as the nation state came under crisis. Moreover, as Jews had been granted equality over the course of the 19th century, they proved that otherness persisted despite putative equality. (They were equal under the law but they maintained their traditions and beliefs.) Because the nation state—government by consent—is predicated on homogeneity, it responds poorly to pluralism. As pluralism increased in the 19th century, nations responded by looking beyond their borders. The result is modern imperialism, which is not the integrated pluralism of Rome but a fractious destabilized agglomeration that eventually turns on itself.

Modern imperialism mostly took place overseas (Africa, the Middle East.) It occurred as a combined political and economic crisis. After centuries of increasing economic power, the bourgeoisie finally wanted political power as well. In a brilliant reading, Arendt says that the bourgeoisie found its philosophical underpinning in the ideas of Hobbes (or, put differently, that Hobbes had prophesized the bourgeoisie). In Hobbes’s “war of all against all” the only possible “philosophy” is individual growth, resulting eventually in tyranny. The bourgeois worldview is fundamentally destructive, because fundamentally acquisitive. It believes only in endless growth: more has to become more. (Sound familiar?)  Overseas imperialism allowed this antihumanist thinking to flourish, at least temporarily, and at the cost of great suffering and destruction to the local or “native” people. (Which Arendt is frankly pretty uninterested in.) The imperialist encounter with non-European others led to the development of racism from what had previously been race thinking. That is, individual instances of prejudice became turned into an ideology. Race became weaponized by the state as a form of violence. (Racism is totalized race thinking.) As an ideology, racism must be understood as necessary/inevitable, not like race thinking, which was the result of individual instances of prejudice, bias, or domination.

When the domination of racism combined with the inherently metastatic avarice of imperialist capitalism, an inherently unstable contradiction arose. (We think the world is infinite, but its resources are finite—we live every day the dawning realization of that contradiction—this is the kind of instability Arendt has in mind.) Eventually the instability of racist imperialism, which had been a kind of safety valve for the European nation (now Empire), bounced back, such that the tactics of violence, oppression, and power previously used overseas were perpetrated on civilians in the homeland. (The power of police and paramilitary forces rose greatly in this period.) Unlike nations, empires are no longer organized around classes—that structure collapses, and along with it the primary way we have developed of organizing people so that individuals feel they belong and find meaning. The loss of this meaning is, Arendt warns, very bad. With it the distinction between public and private life that is the foundation of freedom vanishes. Those realms are replaced by what Arendt calls “the social,” which is an atomized levelling: no more classes, only masses. The masses are desperate to regain the meaningful experience they have been cut off from. Enter totalitarianism. Totalitarian regimes work on people who have no meaning. Totalitarianism—the governmental form of imperialism—is what happens when expansionism takes political form. The belief in endless growth, avarice, accumulation is turned to conquering and subordinating every subject of the regime.  

As far as Arendt is concerned, from her vantage point in the 1950s, there have only ever been two totalitarian regimes: Nazi Germany (from its inception, perhaps, but certainly from 1935 – 45) and Stalinist Russia (from about 1930 to Stalin’s death). Totalitarianism is not, for her, a synonym for autocracy, tyranny, or even dictatorship. Totalitarian regimes are barely regimes at all: they are movements. Neither nation nor empire is their real focus. Instead they focus on the party. Nazism and Stalinist Communism are at stake, not the Reich or the USSR. When a totalitarianism movement comes to power, they do everything they can to change reality. The ideologies animating totalitarian movements are about what will be, not what is. Totalitarian movements promise a future but they are not in fact interested in attaining it. Or, rather, their philosophy of aggression and accumulation, their inexorable drive to dominate, means that they cannot in fact countenance any final or complete end.

An important consequence of this mindset is that the enemies of the movement are never final. Strikingly, Arendt argues that the Jews, although the primary victims of the way Nazism played out, were not the Nazis’ sole or even primary enemy. It’s true that, historically, Jews were not the first victims: those were communists and socialists and, importantly, the mentally and physically disabled: the latter was the first group singled out for being killed tout court. The refusal of ordinary citizens to accept this state of affairs meant that the party delayed the plan, but they never shelved it. And there were definite plans to exterminate what the Nazis called “the Slavs” after they conquered Russia and finished with the Jews. (A genocide they began in Poland in 1940.) Arendt also points to memoranda and bits in Mein Kampf where bureaucrats and Hitler muse about eliminating people with various incurable illnesses, or even predilections toward them, like cancer. Arendt’s point is that regardless of what the Party says publicly there will always be more victims. It is in the nature of totalitarianism to find them.

In doing so, totalitarianism relies on a belief in secret meanings. That is how it begins to change reality. What you see is not the real truth of things. (To use one of Samantha’s examples—you think you see a pizza place in DC but really you see a front for child sexual exploitation; how much Arendt’s diagnoses pertain to the US today exercised the class a lot, but that’s a different topic.) Totalitarianism forces its adherents, and everyone who lives under it, to affirm the false. Experience, under totalitarianism, only affirms ideology. It has no meaning in itself. The result: thinking is replaced by thought (the already known, the prepackaged, the tidy explanations of ideology). For Arendt, that is one of the worst things that can happen to human beings. (Note, by the way, that those who wield thought can be smart, and they’re not cynical either (which is terrifying, IMO). But they are incapable of thinking. Which, it seems to me, means that for Arendt they are barely human.

It’s all fascinating, and quite compelling. For me, Arendt fails to consider how power creates as much as represses. (She is not Foucault). That is, she fails to account for the meaning people find in even hateful or oppressive thinking. She also ignores the effort totalitarian movements put into creating a community of believers. (There’s nothing in her book about, say, the Hitler Youth or the Bund deutscher Mädel or the Kraft durch Freude vacations or any of the myriad ways Nazism, to take only the example I know best, created the Volksgemeinschaft (the community of the people).

Plus, Arendt’s understanding of the camp system comes too much from the model of Buchenwald (and to some extent Auschwitz). No surprise, given her background and sources, and the reality of what she was able to read in the late 40s and early 50s. And her knowledge is impressively nuanced for the time. But she is led astray, in my opinion, by relying so heavily on the work of David Rousset, whose fascinating book about his time in Buchenwald I want someone to reissue in English ASAP, but whose experience as a communist prisoner in that particular camp (there was strong communist leadership, even a kind of resistance movement, in Buchenwald) is anomalous in comparison to the general KZ experience.  

Anyway, as Samantha put it, Arendt asks key questions. Is there a way of thinking that’s not tyrannical? How can we protect spaces of freedom? How can we live under something other than imperialism or totalitarianism? These remain resonant, indeed urgent. The Origins of Totalitarianism gave me so much to think about; I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to read it closely.

Charles Portis, True Grit (1968)

I wanted to spend my birthday with some good light reading, so I chose three possible contenders from my massive TBR pile and put up a Twitter poll to help me decide where to start. Portis’s novel about a teenager avenging her father’s death in Reconstruction-era Arkansas and the Indian Territory of Oklahoma won by a landslide. And the people knew what they were talking about! True Grit is a delight, often laugh-out-loud funny. I would have loved it even more had I not seen the movie (the Coen Brothers version), as some of the best jokes and the plot came back to me as I read. But the film can only approximate the novel’s primary pleasure: Portis’s masterful use of voice, evident in both Mattie’s narration and the characters’ conversations. (This is not a Western about strong, silent types: nobody ever shuts up.) An added pleasure was reading about Arkansas locations (and types) I know; I noticed that some of the bit characters even had last names I recognized from living and teaching here.

I suspect that a second reading—which the novel definitely merits—would give me a lot more to think about. But even on a relaxed first reading I recognized that much of what makes the book so interesting comes from the difference between the time of the telling and the time of the events. Mattie is fourteen when she sets out to find Frank Chaney, but an old woman when she tells us about it. In part it explains, or makes us wonder about, Mattie’s engaging but puzzling mixture of naivete and pursed-lipped moral certainty. Is that the difference between the girl and the old woman, or did she always combine these contrary aspects? The disparity between past and present is especially evident in a final scene at a traveling fair in 1920s Memphis: the “wild west” of the novel’s main action has become fully commodified. But was it ever any different? After all, the novel’s many crimes are prompted by money, even if they hide under the veil of honour. Too many guns, too much economic inequality: in this sense, True Grit still rings painfully true.

Let me quote a couple of choice bits, just because.

Here’s Rooster Cogburn, the one-eyed US Marshall Mattie hires to help her find Chaney, complaining about paperwork:

If you don’t have no schooling you are up against it in this country, sis. That is the way of it. No sir, that man has no chance any more. No matter if he has got sand in his craw, others will push him aside, little thin fellows that have won spelling bees back home. [Little thin fellows! Much funnier than “thin little fellows.”]

Here’s Rooster, on first meeting a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf who is also on Chaney’s trail of, learning that there’s a bounty out on the man because he’s also shot a Texas senator:

“Anyhow, it sounds queer. Five hundred dollars is mighty little for a man that killed a senator.”

“Bibbs was a little senator,” said LaBoeuf. “They would not have put up anything except it would look bad.”

And here’s Rooster telling about the time he ran an eating place called The Green Frog, but had to give it up after his wife left him:

“I tried to run it myself for a while but I couldn’t keep good help and I never did learn how to buy meat. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was like a man fighting bees.”

Fighting bees. Perfect. Reading True Grit is the opposite of fighting bees. Easy, full of sweet and honey.

So that was a pretty damn good month. Arendt: titanic. Abad: deeply satisfying. Portis: such fun. Rendell and Berry: old and new masters of suspense. The Karmel sisters: what have you done to my heart?

“It Screamed in its Own Blood”: Poems by Henia and Ilona Karmel

Henia and Ilona Karmel grew up in a cultured bourgeois family in Kraków. Photos show them together, always touching: an arm around the shoulders, a hand clasped. In one from 1938 Ilona, wearing a polka-dotted top and flowers in her hair that almost obscure the braid tied around her head, kisses Henia on the cheek, a full-on “come here, you” kiss that Henia responds to with a frozen smile that combines pleasure at the experience with irritation at the camera.

Ceija Stojka, “Los, Los, weitergehen! Damals 1943-1944. Auschwitz ist kein(e) Lüge. (Move, move, keep moving! In the years 1943–44. Auschwitz is not a lie),” 2006

I don’t know enough about them to say that they lived with an “us against the world” mentality—Henia remains a complete mystery; this remembrance offers insight into Ilona—but I can certainly say they went through an awful lot together. In 1940, the sisters, 18 and 14, travelled with their parents to eastern Poland, now held by the Soviet Union, in search of relatives who might take them in. But their mother, Mita, got cold feet, saying she would rather be killed by the Germans than saved by the Russians. (Regrettably prophetic.) In the end, she got her wish.) The family returned to Kraków, which meant German rule but also familiar faces. One of these would prove to be consequential. One day Henia ran into Leon Wolfe, a young man with whom she had begun a short, intense relationship at a resort in the Tatra mountains the year before; before long they were together again. When the Germans established the ghetto in early 1941, Leon insisted they move to a nearby village; Henia persuaded her family to join them. For a short time, life seemed about to improve—Henia and Leon were able to get married in June 1941—but the idyll didn’t last. The Karmels were forced out of the village, lived for a time in the forest and then on a farm where they narrowly escaped death after being mistaken for partisans (only the last-minute intervention of a relative in the local Jewish Council saved them), before making the difficult decision to split up. Leon accompanied the women back to Kraków; the girls’ father, Hirsch, went elsewhere. (Unclear where or why, but Ilona blamed herself for her father’s decision for the rest of her life. All that is known of Hirsch Karmel after that moment is that he was murdered at Treblinka.)

In the ghetto, Leon and Henia worked at a paper company, Mita nursed typhus patients, and fifteen-year-old Ilona joined a Zionist resistance movement, gathering information and passing messages. In March 1943 all four were sent to Plaszow, the camp depicted in Schindler’s List, which had been built on the grounds of a Jewish cemetery. (If you’ve seen the film, you might remember the car taking Commandant Amon Goeth to his villa along a road paved with headstones.) After a few months, the family underwent another separation. The sisters and their mother were sent, away from Leon, to a forced labour camp at Skarzysko-Kamienna. There the Germans had taken over an existing ammunitions plant, which they contracted out to a company called HASAG. Mostly the factory produced bullets, but one section—where the Karmels ended up—made underwater mines. These were filled with picric acid, a terrible chemical that poisoned many of the workers after turning their skin yellow.

Yet Skarzysko-Kamienna, like all camps, especially forced labour camps, was also a site of resistance—sometimes political but more often cultural. Prisoners prayed, danced, drew, and sang. The Karmel sisters began writing poetry, using bits of paper and pencil stubs slipped to them by a non-Jewish worker. In the summer of 1944, as the Germans began to retreat from the Red Army, the Karmels were shipped to another HASAG factory, a satellite camp in the Buchenwald system. The poems accompanied them, sewn into the hem of their clothing. (In later years survivors would remember the girls reciting their texts.) The poems were still there when, along with thousands of other prisoners, Ilona and Henia were sent on a forced march through the forests and fields of Germany in the catastrophic final days of the war. Along the way many prisoners died, killed by shooting, hunger, disease, or exhaustion. Some were deliberately run over by tanks and left for dead. This was the fate of the Karmels. As the woman lay in a pile of victims, the dead mingled with the nearly-dead, Henia saw a cousin march by in another set of prisoners. She managed to hand off the poems, begging the woman to pass them on to Leon, who would surely return to Kraków if he had survived. The next day—the last day of the war in Europe—the Karmels were rescued and taken to a field hospital. The women were barely alive, so badly had they been mutilated. Henia and Ilona each lost a leg; their mother did not survive.

Eventually the sisters were taken to a proper hospital in Leipzig, though given how ruinous conditions were in Germany at the end of the war, care was erratic, even dangerous. Henia and Ilona lay there for six months. Amazingly, Leon had survived the war (how I do not know, but I’m sure his story is equally remarkable) and duly returned to Kraków. More amazingly, he met the cousin who had been entrusted with the poems. Most amazingly of all, word of a memorial service held for the girls in late September (Leon, convinced they were still alive, had given only grudging consent) reached Leipzig. A man who knew the Karmels sent word to a refugee commission, which sent a telegram to Leon (still extant), who drove the 500 dangerous miles to Leipzig to be reunited with the Karmels in a scene that I imagine was similar to the emotional one depicted at the end of Art Spiegelman’s Maus.

Although they had survived, the sisters were in poor health and badly needed reconstructive surgery. Leon desperately searched for help. Back in Kraków he happened to meet a Swedish naval officer attached to the Red Cross. After learning of their predicament, the man, who was on the point of returning to Sweden, promised to arrange visas. In the final amazing turn of the story, he kept his word and before long the sisters were in Stockholm, where they found themselves in one of the best rehabilitation facilities in the world.

In 1948, Henia and Leon immigrated to New York. Ilona, whose injuries had been more serious, remained behind, but joined them the following year. She enrolled at Radcliffe, met her future husband Francis Zucker, a philosopher and physicist, and even moved with him to Germany for a number of years during which she worked at an orphanage and wrote the novel that would make her name, An Estate of Memory. Later the couple returned to the US; Ilona taught writing at MIT for years. Henia wrote two novels herself and many short stories. The poems were forgotten, although they had in fact been published by a Polish organization in New York in 1947 under the title Song Behind Barbed Wire.

After Ilona’s death in 2000 the manuscript passed to the poet Fanny Howe, a longtime friend of Ilona’s, who began the process of bringing the poems into English. As she notes in her introduction to a volume called A Wall of Two—from which I have taken these biographical details—the task grew into a complex creative endeavor. Translators Arie A. Galles and Warren Nieschłuchowski rendered the texts into English; Howe selected her favourites and adapted them, aiming to remain true to the originals while also shaping them for more powerful effect. The Karmels, she observes, were young and living in conditions of extreme duress when they wrote these texts, which she describes as awkward and unpolished. The versification drew on a culture that was being destroyed along with the writers; Howe sought to make the poems more modern, never adding but cutting repetition and avoiding poems “that used high and archaic language.” She sent her versions back to the translators whose comments inspired her final versions. A bold but also fraught strategy, which risks implying that the sisters did not quite know what they were doing. Leon Wolfe, who gave his blessing to the project, suggests something similar when he writes that “the essence [Howe] conveyed was truer than the original poems.”

Howe argues that the art made in the camps took two forms: it either looked back to the lost world of its makers or it depicted their new one. In making her selections, Howe concentrated on the latter. She gets a little high-flown explaining this decision, explaining that she avoided using the word “death” because it is “the end of language.” (I’m reminded of Poe’s remark that grammar can do what reason cannot, allowing us to write the impossible sentence “I am dead.”) But Howe has earned our good will: her project is a great success. Her versions are generous and generative. In an afterword, she considers three of the poems, comparing her adaptations to the originals. In each case, hers is indeed more powerful.

That’s especially true of my favourite poem, “Procession,” written by Henia. (The sisters later decided that Henia was the better poet and Ilona the better prose writer; although I’ve yet to read their prose, I agree about Henia as poet.)

Procession

By Henia Karmel, translated by Arie A. Galles, adapted by Fanny Howe

Two marched by

in striped prison garb

then two more in rags.

After them came four

on stretchers.

Their bodies jerked up

comically at the night sky.

Half-naked with broken legs.

A frozen cadaver and then

just beside the prison gate

came four more stretchers.

One pressed a blood-soaked cloth

across his face.

The parade went on

while we watched in dread.

The rag man on the litter was dying.

And at the end, four from a nightmare

lugged on their heavy shoulders

a bundled body.

They couldn’t cope and let it drop.

It screamed in its own blood.

“Procession,” a word that doesn’t appear in the poem, connotes something more stately, more subdued, and, aptly, more funereal, than a word that does, the ironic “parade.” A procession is solemn. (I’m reminded of Woolf’s “procession of the sons of educated men” from Three Guineas, her passionate condemnation of masculinity, violence, and fascism, that is, the things the Karmels would suffer.) But the title puzzles me, because I don’t think this is a solemn poem. It is more terrible than that. At first it seems flatly descriptive: here is a typical camp scene, probably from the end of the day, when the work details would return to barracks. It is observed by some unknown group, a “we” presumably comprised of other inmates, though as readers we too watch the scene in dread. But as it goes on, the poem becomes less observational and more expressionist. More hallucinatory. More pointed. The final, terrible image, in particular, belies the affectlessness of the opening. (Of course, any Holocaust representation is bound to show horror as inextricable from description.)

In some sense “Procession”—preceded by no article, neither definite or indefinite, as if the event described here were unending or, worse, coterminous with the world—is an account. I mean this literally. It counts victims. Two, then two, then four (although these, on stretchers, must surely be carried by others), then one, then four more, then a final four that carry one. Eighteen in all. In Hebrew, eighteen is lucky; it shares a name with the word for “life.” But there is more than easy irony here. The eighteen are a mix of the living and the dead. And they aren’t just eighteen, either. They must be accompanied by some shadowy, unknown carriers, to say nothing of the numberless, observing “we.” Perhaps Karmel is offering her own account, in order to challenge the counting that prisoners suffered each evening, the nightly roll call that sometimes went on for hours.

That challenge mingles precision with confusion, which befits the world of the Lager, which was at once regimented and chaotic. A similar, but even more consequential blurring concerns the relationship between the living and the dead. Are the bodies on the stretchers alive or dead? Presumably alive, otherwise why would the speaker describe a cadaver in the next lines? (Unless the difference is that one is frozen and the others aren’t, yet. What, incidentally, is the difference between a “cadaver” and a “corpse,” which is the word I would expect in this context? Will this cadaver be used for some kind of experiment? Does cadaver connote death more fully than “corpse”? Or does it imply, via its future utility, something less completely dead?) But if those stretchered bodies aren’t dead, how alive are they? “Their bodies jerked up/comically at the night sky”: the phrase “jerked up” is, to me, really strange. Presumably this is an adjective phrase not an action—it’s not that the bodies are convulsing (right?), but that their limbs, perhaps, are akimbo. This gruesome scene is made even worse, in my opinion, by that distressing adverb “comically,” which intimates the onlookers the speaker hasn’t yet referred to. After all, someone has to find their state comical. But what the hell does that mean? Are the bodies funny? Surely only despairingly so. But maybe we shouldn’t foreclose the possibility of humour so quickly. We wouldn’t want to enforce our pious sense of how the experience should be understood.

Besides, the poem soon leaves humour far behind. Horror is coming soon enough for those onlookers. Their distance from the procession only increases as the poem ends. What they see is awful. “The rag man” is dying; note the difference between this description, which seems to speak to his essence, and the more idiomatic “the man in rags.” Howe’s choice of “litter” is inspired. We can’t help but hear the implications of waste—in keeping with the language of the perpetrators, which routinely called the victims Figuren (puppets), Stücke (pieces) or Schmatte (rags).

And then comes the worst part, the final horror, the “four from a nightmare.” (Again, the implication is that these figures are themselves fundamentally nightmarish, although the reference is most likely to their situation.) Is the “bundled body” dead or alive? Dropped, it “scream[s] in its own blood.” So that means alive, right?  It screamed in its own blood. This vivid, terrible expression makes me think of someone screaming through a mouthful of blood, though I admit I’m influenced by the earlier image of another victim pressing “a blood-soaked cloth/across his face.” (That “across” subtly implies the face itself is bloody, some injury more devastating than the one the more idiomatic “to” would suggest.) But screaming in the blood is hard to imagine. If the victim is not in fact gurgling from a bloodied mouth—and could they really be screaming if their mouth were so full?—then maybe the description is metaphorical. (Even if yes, this poem is remarkable at evoking bodily pain.) Maybe to scream in the blood is to scream inside? From the depths of one’s being? How would the onlookers know, though? The end of “Procession” seems less psychological than existential. Beyond an individual who suffers at least twice-over—in addition to their initial injuries they are dropped by their fellows—this final line offers a howl of despair, pain, and abandonment. One that is decidedly not universal, but perhaps the unhappy fate of all the camp’s victims.

The cover image shows Ilona (in the wheelchair) and Henia in the garden of the clinic in Stockholm, 1946

Descriptions and judgments. Living and dead bodies. Physical and psychological pain. Observers and participants. “Procession” makes us wonder whether any of these oppositions stand. Fanny Howe has done English speakers a service bringing it and the other poems collected in A Wall of Two to our ears. I hope they will find many readers.