On the Weather in Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Gate of Angels (1990)

One of the projects I’m working on during my sabbatical is an essay on the English writer Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000), so I’m haphazardly and happily reading and re-reading her novels.

I recently finished The Gate of Angels, which was new to me. It’s delightful, like everything by Fitzgerald I’ve read. One of my aims in the essay is to describe that delightfulness as precisely as possible.

“Angels” in the title is overdetermined. It’s the fictional Cambridge college St. Angelicus, the conventional description of nurses, and even the metaphysical, religious, spiritual entities that we might think of first.  St. Angelicus is devoted to the study of science, which, in 1912, the year of the book’s setting, means primarily the study of the nature of matter, particularly atomic and sub-atomic matter. Fred Fairley holds a Junior Fellowship at Angels. Contrary to the instructions of his position, which is that like all Angels’ Fellows he must remain a bachelor, Fairly has fallen in love with a woman he has literally crashed into, Daisy Saunders, a (former) nurse trainee. There are complications to this love, even beyond the risks to his career. He does not, for example, know Daisy’s name, or indeed almost anything about her. And after a single night that he spends next to her, in half-consciousness, in a makeshift ward where the two are brought after a traffic accident he doesn’t even know where she is. The careering of these and other characters is an analogue for the movements of sub-atomic particles. But Fitzgerald’s novel is never schematic, not even in its treatment of the relation between science and faith. In so many ways the book could be tedious or heavy, but it is always light, quicksilver, and yet so careful.

But I don’t want to go into the book at length here. I want instead to share a reflection prompted by its terrific first paragraph:


How could the wind be so strong, so far inland, that cyclists coming into town in the late afternoon looked more like sailors in peril? This was on the way into Cambridge, up Mill Road past the cemetery and the workhouse. On the open ground to the left the willow-trees had been blown, driven and cracked until their branches gave way and lay about the drenched grass, jerking convulsively and trailing cataracts of twigs. The cows had gone mad, tossing up the silvery weeping leaves which were suddenly, quite contrary to all their experience, everywhere within reach. Their horns were festooned with willow boughs. Not being able to see properly, they tripped and fell. Two or three of them were wallowing on their backs, idiotically, exhibiting vast pale bellies intended by nature to be always hidden. They were still munching. A scene of disorder, tree-tops on the earth, legs in the air, in a university city devoted to logic and reason.


You want to read more, of course. And you should! The book is terrific, so subtle and smart. Several important themes are introduced already in this vivid anecdote: danger, disorder, blindness. Even more than these, though, what most strikes me, especially as a way of understanding the novel’s abrupt ending, is the suggestion of felix culpa, the good fortune that arises from bad. The trees are uprooted; but the cows are showered in delicacies. The cows are overturned; but still they munch away. Licensed by the repetition of the double l in “wallowing” and “bellies,” I transpose the words and hear “bellowing.” Fanciful, I know, especially when it’s exactly fear and rage that is absent here. The world is turned upside down in these lines, but that might not be a bad thing. 

Reading from the perspective of 2014—and here I finally approach my real subject—I don’t know how much to attribute the delight and ease at the heart of this dangerous, even disastrous situation to the supposed innocence of the time of the book’s setting or the time of its writing. Of course, to speak of innocence at all here is foolhardy. Fitzgerald’s wit and irony make short work of the idea of the innocence or naivety of the past. (Gate of Angels had been preceded, two novels before, by one called, acerbically, Innocence.) But for readers today, at least this reader, it’s hard not to read apocalyptically, at least when it comes to the weather. Writing in 1990, when discussions of climate change were beginning to gain broader currency, though nothing like the sort they have today, Fitzgerald might herself have been pointing to a climactic innocence that she already suspected we can only dream of, but I think it is the reader of today who is more likely to experience the pathos I’m referring to.

What I mean is that I was struck—reading this book in the week when much of England was under water, when the Thames barrier had been shut for days—by just how little there is to worry about in the weather of this passage. Yes, the tempest is dangerous to cyclists. But the plot of the novel will show that romance might arise from that very danger. (It is central to the plot of this novel that cycling is a dangerous but exciting way to travel.) Similarly with the cows: the weather’s not fine, but the eating’s good anyway. Only the suffering of the trees seems unredeemed.

The poignancy of the passage, for me, is its suggestion that this scene of disorder is only that, a scene, an interregnum. Everything is topsy-turvy, but it won’t be forever, and besides, it’s good for things to get topsy-turvy once in a while. That’s not the feeling I have when I think about our “topsy-turvy” weather today. I think about the tip of the iceberg, about the end of all things, about the world I am leaving my daughter. I think, in other words, apocalyptic thoughts. And I just can’t find any fortune in this particular fall.

More generally, I wonder whether scenes like this—and, even more powerfully, less ironic and pointed scenes of landscape and weather in older novels, say those by Eliot or Hardy or Lawrence—won’t be the most estranging and most enticing parts of literature to future generations, assuming those brave new people will even have the means or desire to read them. Already I marvel at the safety of weather in literature of the past. Even when it’s terrible, it’s not the end of life as we know it. Again, I know there’s something both morbid and defeatist in my assumption that bad things must lead to ruin. But I also think there’s something even more perverse in denying that drastic change is happening.

Do these thoughts strike a chord with anyone else? Can others imagine that future readers will glory in the “weather porn” that is the English novel just as contemporary readers and viewers (Jane Austen, Downton) relish the nostalgia of servant labour?



An Unsuitable Job for a Woman–P.D. James (1972)

I have a testy history with P. D. James. I’ve read a few of her more recent books (most recently her Jane Austen-as-Golden-Age mystery A Death at Pemberley, which passed through me without leaving a trace), but never been able to warm to them, even if they’re competent enough as mysteries. Mostly I can’t get past how insufferable I find her hero, Adam Dalgliesh. I guess I don’t care for thoughtful, poetic, dreamy detectives, especially when they bludgeon everyone around them with their rectitude and wisdom. (I abandoned Susan Hill’s Simon Serrailer series for the same reason.)

But I’ve long been curious about this novel, precisely because it doesn’t star Dalgliesh. Also, my friend Rohan Maitzen values it highly, as you can see here. So when I recently came across a lovely little British paperback edition, snug enough to fit in a pocket, I snapped it up.

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman is about Cordelia Gray, a young woman who inherits the Pryde Detective Agency (“We Take Pride in Our Work”) when she comes into work one morning to find the corpse of her partner and mentor, Bernie Pryde. Unlucky Bernie—“in some undramatic but positive way life had turned against him” (how double-edged that “positive”)—takes his own life after learning that he has cancer. It’s hard to know how we should take Bernie. He has been drummed out of the force, which makes him seem disreputable. He takes Cordelia under his wing, acting as a somewhat bumbling, avuncular figure to her, which makes him seem sympathetic. But whether his failures are sinister or charming, the most important aspect of his character is that he retains a place in the male-dominated world Cordelia wrestles with throughout the book.

Cordelia’s conflicted feelings about Bernie are encapsulated in her relationship to his gun. She admires the fortitude of his decision to slit his writs rather than to shoot himself, so that the gun hidden in his desk drawer might come to her rather than the police. Yet this gun—which Bernie taught Cordelia to fire, lessons deemed important enough to be presented in some of the book’s few flashbacks—causes Cordelia no end of worry. You can read the book as a woman’s quest to give the gun back to the patriarchy without being punished for having had it. In the end, the gun is no match for intelligence (hers in particular, women’s in general). And yet it comes in handy on more than one occasion, whether or not it is fired. Neither Cordelia nor the novel simply dismisses its violence, power, and, perhaps, pleasures. And yet even as I write about the triumph of intelligence over force, which at some moments in the book seems the same as the triumph of women over men, I’m not so sure. I take one of the book’s central questions to be: Is there a female justice that requires women to evade male law? And yet Cordelia and James alike value the law. Indeed, James’s own ambivalences—it is by no means clear that she is progressive in her attitudes towards politics, gender, class, or indeed any other category—are a large part of what gives the book its power.

We don’t know exactly why Bernie has had to leave the force—he tells Cordelia he was invalided out, but later on we learn that’s not the whole story—but we do know that the person responsible for firing him was his superior, none other than then-Inspector, now-Superintendant Adam Dalgliesh. You might think Bernie would be embittered to the man, but, no, he regularly offers Cordelia bits of the master’s wisdom, prompting her to wonder caustically (Cordelia is appealing for several reasons, one of which is that she’s not always nice) “whether this paragon had actually existed or whether he had sprung impeccable and omnipotent from Bernie’s brain.”

At first I enjoyed what I thought was an amusing moment of self-criticism or at least self-deprecation on James’s part here—a joke at Dalgliesh’s and thus her own expense—but soon I was disappointed to see that Dalgliesh’s wisdom, translated through Bernie’s remembered instructions and teachings, accompanies Cordelia throughout her investigation of the case that falls in her lap in the days following Pryce’s death.  And in fact Dalgliesh himself makes a brief but important appearance at the end of the book in which he makes it clear that he knows both that Cordelia has perverted the workings of the law and that he is unable to do anything about it.  That would seem to be a vindication of Cordelia’s methods—she doesn’t fool the great Dalgliesh but she does checkmate him—but the more important fact is that his recognition is required to validate her talent. (If he’s impressed by her, she really must be impressive.) This turn of events had me wondering about the book’s politics. Is the idea that a female detective can only work against the law? Or is it that the efforts of that detective are only meaningful in the paternalistic, all-knowing if not all-efficacious eyes of the (male) law? I would prefer the former to the latter, but then we’d need to read Dalgliesh’s presence ironically and I don’t see any indication that we’re supposed to.

It’s fitting that James’s motives here are obscure, because the case Cordelia is called on to investigate is all about motive. Mark Callender, the son of the prominent research scientist Sir Ronald Callender, has killed himself just weeks after withdrawing from college. Sir Ronald wants to know why and hires Pryce to find out, ostensibly because of Pryce’s one big success but actually because of Pryce’s many failures. But by the time Sir Ronald’s amanuensis/partner, the formidable Miss Leaming, arrives at the agency to offer him the job, Bernie has just been cremated and there’s nothing for it but to take on Cordelia, who, after all, is herself most unpromising as a detective, being only 22 years old and a woman to boot, which means that she is in Callender’s eyes quite promising. Of course Cordelia is much more competent than Bernie and she makes good headway with the case, which is genuinely suspenseful, and becomes even more interesting when its resolution moves first from “why?” to “who?” (it’s hardly surprising that the suicide is really a murder), and then to the need to disguise the truth that Cordelia has so painstakingly and dangerously revealed.

At first I found it strange and unpersuasive that Cordelia should identify so strongly with Mark. (She moves into his cottage, wears his clothes, reads his books, etc.) But later I came to see her fascination as necessary for the book to explore one of its chief preoccupations. Contrary to what the title, and indeed many of my comments so far, might suggest, gender is not the only thing James is interested in. “Job” not “woman” is the most important word in the title. In other words, this is very much a book about class. Cordelia—who has had a fascinating upbringing that the book treats with admirable lightness, just enough to make some further parallels between her and Mark (which I won’t go into here in case anyone actually plans to read this book and my discussion hasn’t yet given everything away)—has not been to university. Asked by Mark’s don which college she is at, she responds tersely, “None; I work.”

That work, the investigation of Mark’s death, takes her into the heart of Cambridge college life. The students and other young people she meets (Mark’s friends, lovers, tutors, acquaintances) are presented perhaps not quite as hippies or members of the counter-culture (remember the book is from 1972), but certainly as opposed in values and life-style both to mainstream society and, more importantly, to Cordelia. Had James made her main character older, the book’s depiction of youth culture would have been about struggle between the generations. (There’s some of that going on in the Endevour films shown on PBS last year.) More interestingly, however, she pits one kind of young person against another. (On this view, the book is about Cordelia’s struggle to claim Mark, who after all has left college, for her side, as it were.) Mark’s friends are at once seductive and irritating to Cordelia, and, it would seem, to James.

But the book’s class politics are just as complicated as its gender politics. Cordelia might have less money than many of the students she is investigating, but she has just as much if not more cultural knowledge than they do. (She knows the plots of Pinter plays, recognizes a Rubens from a distance, buys a second-hand volume of Keats on her day off.) Indeed, a surprising aspect of the book is the way it equates college life with middle-class, mass-culture vulgarity. Feeling belittled by Mark’s friends she “comforted herself with the censorious reflection that they were as bitchy as guests at a suburban cocktail party… hotbeds of snobbery, spite and sexual innuendo.” To be sure, the passage criticizes Cordelia a little here—the reflection is “censorious,” after all—but I can’t help but feel it agrees with her, and praises her besides for her self-knowledge. Mostly, her problem with college life is that people in it don’t work very hard, don’t finish what they start, don’t follow procedure. There’s a telling moment when Cordelia finishes a job in the garden Mark had left half-done, fork still in the soil, on his death, even though this means destroying evidence. The unfinished job is “unbearably irritating” to her. Cordelia’s love of order and procedure fits uneasily with the idea we might want to have—and that the book sometimes gives us—that, as a woman, she is a renegade in her society. Instead, her values align with the legal and criminal system that she can never really be a part of (at the end of the day the police have to be called in). Nor does she fit in with the academic world that you would think would share her cultural values.

James is least interesting to me when she indulges in censoriousness, even if in the guise of criticizing it. That’s when she feels fussy and joyless to me. (For whatever reason, this quality is encapsulated for me in her fatal attraction to the word “fawn” when describing clothes. No one ever wears brown, only fawn will do. This tic is everywhere in James’s work.) Instead, it’s when James stops praising Cordelia for her good opinions and lets her inhabit the strangeness of her position as one who doesn’t fit in anywhere that things get really good. For this reason, the novel’s best moment comes when Cordelia is rescued from a well in which she has become trapped and almost drowned. Her rescuer is a woman whose child had indeed drowned there years earlier. Cordelia’s gratitude is breathtakingly perfunctory: mostly she hates the woman’s sense of hysterical relief at the chance she has been given to do something she couldn’t do years before. So Cordelia repudiates her, sends her away. No solidarity, female or otherwise, there. It’s gripping stuff.


I see that James only returned once to Cordelia Gray, and that almost a decade later. I wonder why. Gray is a fascinating character, one I’d be happy to spend much more time with. Perhaps the spell of Dalgliesh (which is to say, of a certain kind of male authority, even superiority, all the stronger for appearing as it does in the guise of such a sensitive character) was simply too strong. Perhaps James’s conservatism won the day. Whatever the reason, in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman James wrote something pretty great, something smart and suspenseful and, most interestingly, something hard to pigeonhole. I’ve got the sequel, if that’s in fact what it is, on order from the library. I’ll be curious to see what light it sheds on this intriguing, worthy novel.

Am I Reading this Book?

Below are some thoughts I put together last summer when I first started thinking about this blog. They have to do with what I’m reading at any given moment, and more grandiosely what it even means to say I’m reading something—topics which, for many, are doubtless completely straightforward but which, for me, take up an inordinate amount of psychic wherewithal. The specific examples from my nightstand have changed since last summer, but the questions they pose remain.


How do you know when you’re reading a book?

A question with an obvious answer, surely. Because I’m reading it, that’s how. But at any given time I’ve got plenty of books in various states of being read, such that the concept of “being read” starts to lose meaning. For example, right now I am definitely reading David Copperfield.  I’ve been plugging away at it most days for two or three weeks, a decent chunk at a time. Unlike the first two times I tried to read it, when I stalled out at around page 100, I’m definitely reading this book—before long I’ll be finished and then the answer to my initial question will be clear. Nope, all done.

I’m also reading a Donna Leon novel, kind of nibbling away at it around the edges, ten minutes here, fifteen minutes there. Pretty soon I’ll finish that too.

But what about those books on my to-be-read pile? From one perspective (my wife’s, say), most of the house is a TBR pile. I’ve got hundreds, maybe thousands of unread books, and unrealistic plans to get to all of them, eventually. In my experience a pretty sure-fire way to not read a book, or to not read it for a long time, is to put it on a shelf. It immediately ossifies, gets hard to even pick up. But I have a more defined TBR pile, though it’s more a cluster on and around my nightstand than a discrete pile. There are books I have more or less vague plans to get to soon—volume one of Knausgaard’s My Struggle, an Icelandic crime novel M recommended. But then there are the books—more troubling both psychologically and in terms of categorization—I actually have started reading. Take Rebecca, for example. I read the first half at the beginning of the summer, and, although I loved it, I eventually lost interest, thanks to my familiarity with the film. I still plan to finish it, though, so I guess I could plausibly be said to be reading it.

But am I reading the J. G. Ballard novel I read the first 30 pp of back in the spring? Or the book by Alan Bradley that’s been stashed in the drawer of my bedside table for a couple of years? (I unaccountably left off after enjoying its first three-quarters—well, perhaps not unaccountably: I often don’t finish books I’ve been reading on the way home from a trip. Somehow, the books can’t make the transition from that world to my everyday one.) Or what about that new Michelle de Kretser novel that I dipped into the very evening it arrived from Amazon but was disappointed by, all the more so after loving her last one, the unjustly neglected The Lost Dog?

It appears that reading, for me, is closely tied up to finishing. I suppose that’s why I’m so drawn to narrative (rather than poetry, say, or drama.) Plot propels me forward. All plots tend deathward, we learn in Don DeLillo’s White Noise. And death is certainly relevant to this topic. Finishing a book means being able to get on to the next one, and the next one after that, and, eventually, the last one, on that day (happy? sad?) when I’ll have read all the books.

Sometimes I can step back from my compulsions just long enough to get dispirited by them. And then I’m glad that my position as a member of what Roland Barthes once called “certain marginal categories of readers (children, old people, and professors)” requires me to re-read. Barthes explains that “those who fail to reread are obliged to read the same story everywhere,” a line I never fail to remember when picking up yet another police procedural or when reading yet another middling review of contemporary so-called literary fiction in The New York Times.

It’s also true, of course, that books put aside (but temporarily, thus still in the position of “being read”) can be hard to return to. I really enjoyed the opening to that Ballard novel, but the details are hazy now. In fact, I’ve forgotten almost everything except an image of a couple driving a fast car on a dusty road in the South of France. Does that mean I’m not reading it?

Such thoughts make me wonder about the many books I have indeed read. Can I really be said to have read them, if I remember hardly anything about so many of them? (Sometimes, especially with crime fiction, I can’t even remember whether I have read them at all—at least I can’t overcome that uncanny feeling that a book feels awfully familiar, and I can’t tell if it’s because of the repetitions of the series or because I have in fact read it before.) These feelings become especially acute when it comes to the books I teach. I need to teach a book three or four times before I really feel comfortable with it, able to recall its incidents and details without difficulty and grasp clearly its shape or pattern. By the measures of memory and recall, I haven’t read that many books at all.

Maybe it’s necessary to have these half- or partially-read books, these ghostly companions. Maybe they are what power or give meaning to our “actual” reading. Or maybe this distinction between what I’ve actually read and what I haven’t is spurious, even pernicious. Maybe the only thing that matters is simply reading, in the gerundive, infinitive sense—without completion, without cessation.


My nightstand looks quite different now. (Correction: it looks exactly the same, littered with splayed and stacked books. But the titles are all different.) I didn’t finish Rebecca, or the Ballard, or the de Kretser. At some point, in a fit of literary housekeeping, I put them all back on my shelves. The Bradley is still tucked away in that drawer. I did finish David Copperfield, and that Donna Leon, and the Icelandic novel.  And I just last week read the Knausgaard. (Post forthcoming here.) Those books are gone, replaced with some other ones I’m “reading.” War & Peace, for example, which in a fit of determination I decided I would read on my sabbatical (I’m on p. 25). And Sarah Waters’s Tipping the Velvet, which I adore but still for some unknown reason left off at p 100 several months ago. And Trollope’s The Warden. And the second volume of Knausgaard.

What about you? What’s beside your bed (or wherever you keep your pile)? Do these anxieties ring true for you, or is your relation to reading healthier than mine?

Necessary Errors–Caleb Crain (2013)

I haven’t enjoyed a work of contemporary fiction this much in a long time.  It’s engrossing, funny, poignant, smart & beautiful. Crain writes for various publications, including The New Yorker, often on topics related to 19th century American literature and culture. He has an interesting blog. This is his first novel. I’m very curious what he’ll do next.

Here’s the opening paragraph:

It was October, and the leaves of the oaks around the language school had turned gold and were batting light into its tall windows. A young Irish woman was seated alone in the teacher’s lounge. She had made herself a cup of tea on the range in the corner, and she was opening a tangerine on a paper napkin, with hungry carelessness.

The setting is not Ireland—after all, if it were, the young woman’s nationality wouldn’t need to be named—but Prague. The time, we’ll learn, is almost a year after the Velvet Revolution. The young woman, Annie, is not our protagonist, as we might have expected. That claim goes to Jacob Putnam, introduced laconically in the next paragraph—“one of the American teachers walked in”—and interestingly unnamed for the next couple of pages. In addition to being American, Jacob has just graduated from Harvard and only recently come out, mostly to himself, as gay. Although it’s not immediately apparent in the novel’s initial interaction, Annie will become Jacob’s close friend, a member of the group of young people, mostly foreigners, whom the novel follows. Jacob is always center stage, but the group is important, and one of the book’s many nostalgic pleasures is remembering how people used to meet up and get together (or fail to do so) before we could contact everybody all the time. (Jacob rents a basement suite from a Czech family; the stratagems required to be able to use the family’s phone is a minor, amusing subplot.)

Let’s return to that opening paragraph. Referring to the school where Annie and Jacob and some of the other characters work, a bit desultorily, the novel, already in its first sentence, introduces the topics of communication and language. In so doing, it encourages us think about the book’s own language. The paragraph is representative: here and elsewhere the prose is careful, quiet, syntactically straightforward. The novel is resolutely realist in its depictions. I hope I haven’t made the style sound safe or uninteresting. Crain is not a flashy writer, but he is an elegant, thoughtful, and sometimes sneakily dazzling one.

Consider the marvelous touches apparent in the opening—the use of “batting,” for example, odd not only because it anthropomorphizes the leaves, but also because of what it has the leaves do. We usually say that light shines through leaves. But here the leaves do the work—except it’s gentle, playful work. (The best kind of work, or not work at all?) “Batting” is a funny word: it ought to be violent (most of the things you do with a bat are pretty forceful), but it actually signifies lightness and ease. Those are not qualities we would ascribe to the passage’s final phrase—Annie opens the tangerine with “hungry carelessness.” Whose description is this? The omniscient narrator’s? Mostly there is no such thing; the narration usually hews closely to Jacob’s perspective. (There are only a handful of moments when we know things he doesn’t yet.) But how could this be Jacob’s free indirect discourse when he hasn’t yet entered the room or the novel? Is the description a moment of self-criticism on Annie’s part? Wherever it comes from, the content of the phrase—suggesting abandon, need, urgency—is at odds with the controlled quality of the prose, and it gets at the sense the book’s characters have of having been given the opportunity, by virtue of their privileged Western backgrounds, to live all they can, to devour new opportunity, to enjoy their relative ease in this beautiful city in which they can think endlessly about themselves, each other, art, love, life, etc. Yet even when the characters do things that are hungry or careless or both—when their innocence is disabused, when a lover takes up with another, when they argue, usually out of their depth, about politics—they do so gently, if not always kindly.

At least a few readers seem to agree that the book isn’t like much else in American fiction today, and the decorum, for lack of a better word, of the book’s characters and events—which is real, but which I fear might give the wrong impression of the book as precious or twee—might account for that response. I’m thinking of some of the blurbs on the jacket—though when one of those writers compares this book to Musil’s Törless, a remarkable if disagreeable novel with which Crain’s has absolutely nothing in common, I have to wonder—but also, more substantially, of Norman Rush’s review in the NYRB. Rush has a lot of shrewd things to say, though I think his conviction that the novel is first and foremost about the idea of utopia says more about his own fiction than about Crain’s.

Although I don’t read very much American fiction, I’m inclined to agree the book seems unusual. For one thing, it’s not about America, or, rather, it’s about America in the way Henry James’s novels of Americans abroad are. Which is another way to say that it’s really quite a bit about America, but, more than James, even, it takes seriously the foreign surroundings in which the Americans abroad find themselves. I won’t say too much about James here, partly because I don’t actually know his work that well—enough about The Ambassadors to know that it’s in the background here, a kind of intertext Crain gestures to—but mostly because the book is ahead of me. It references the Master, but suitably ironically: Jacob knows James only through an essay about a famous James’s story that he read in college (never named, but clearly Sedgwick’s “The Beast in the Closet”).

 We can see here how delicate and slippery the novel’s presentation of its protagonist is: we are allowed to feel equal to, or possibly a little bit superior to, Jacob, in this moment and others. But we feel for him too. We aren’t asked to look down on him. The book doesn’t have a condescending bone in its body. At the end of the book, on the bus from Prague to Paris, Jacob luxuriates in the dramatic, rather selfish thought: “Now I know what it feels like to go into exile.” He doesn’t—his life has been nothing but privilege and safety. And yet the book doesn’t just make fun of him; Jacob is losing something real here, the sense of possibility afforded him by his time abroad. This is what I mean when I say that the most central thing about this book is its generosity.

Maybe that generosity comes from its sense that books are central to life. In general, it’s a book that loves books. Jacob finds out that he read the same children’s book as a unrepentant Danish Communist with whom he otherwise has nothing in common: “Love for the book lay sudden between them, an awkward intimacy.” Coming across a store filled with English-language books at British prices, Jacob “fell into a reverie of imaginary possession; he was visiting the books in his future library; they were prisoners he could not yet free.” He even meets his Czech lover, the wry, sad, and life-affirming Milo, at a bookstore. (Milo gets a lot of good lines: when Jacob’s pet hamster dies, just days after Jacob finds an exercise wheel for it, Milo suggests it be read “as a warning to Americans.”) But books, as these lines suggest, lead to desire. Desire—sometimes for sex, but more often, in the hungry way of the opening passage, for experience—finds its way into every part of the text. Here are Jacob and his friend Melinda, who experiences perhaps more than anyone else in the book, sitting in a courtyard: “The grass at their feet fluttered, like a boy’s hair being smoothed.” Their conversation is just as poised between comfort and the erotic. Later, when Jacob’s friend Carl, on a visit from the States, meets Melinda, his “silly talk” takes on more flourish than usual: “He seemed to be laying it out for Melinda’s unacknowledged admiration, and perhaps comfort, like a coat over a puddle, to be taken for granted.” I love that coat—to say nothing of that devastating “unacknowledged.”

What does it mean for a book that seems to do everything so right, so elegantly, to be named after things that go wrong? What are necessary errors? Mistakes we can’t help but make? False solutions that turn out to be solutions, such that we’re glad we made them, can’t see how we could have done otherwise? Crain’s title is like his book: a bit opaque, prompting reflection, increasingly pleasing at least for those who find pleasure in mulling things over.

As I’ve said, Jacob and some of the others work as language teachers. Some of the book’s necessary errors are linguistic, the kind that come up when one is learning another language, or when one lives between languages. Jacob is always telling his students what native English speakers typically say, which means he is put in the position, necessarily faintly ridiculous, of correcting others. One of the book’s pleasures is its depiction of the happy distortions of non-native speakers. And that goes both directions. Crain gives us Jacob’s hesitant Czech in a pleasingly formal English (which has something, I gather, to do with the Czech language, and something with Jacob’s haltingness). The inadvertent poetry of the second-language speaker sometimes seems to infect the novel’s own prose, like in the “batting” example from the beginning.

Maybe it’s not surprising I loved the book: in many ways I’m its target audience. Although I’m neither American (yet) nor Harvard-educated nor gay, I was about the same age as the book’s characters when the Wall came down, and I spent the year immediately afterward in Europe (though in Switzerland, so I didn’t experience first hand that sense of dreamy possibility and anxiety Crain depicts so well). And I too wanted to write and didn’t write much and relished the chance that living in a different place gave me to become a different person. But it does Crain’s novel a disservice to talk of a “target audience.” To be out of fashion or out of step with prevailing trends, if that’s in fact was this book is, could of course also be a kind of branding. But I think the novel will appeal to all sorts of readers, especially those who have ever plunged into a foreign country or language. That’s certainly a privileged position to be in, and maybe those not materially fortunate enough to have been able to do their growing up abroad, to say nothing of those who have been forced or chosen to live in a place not their home for a lifetime rather than an extended visit might find this novel a bit precious. But Crain’s sure narrative touch means that the book is always just a little bit more critical of its characters than they are themselves (and they’re hardly narcissists). The striking thing to me—what really separates the book in a good way from the cultural climate of the day, is that its criticism is so kind, so affectionate. Its irony is gently, not scathing, but it cuts all the more deeply for that.

 My only visit to Prague was in 1992; the economic and political situation might have solidified a bit from the one depicted in the novel, but my (rather hazy) memory of the city, where I only stayed a few days, was of a place still between things. I remember entering a little grocery. Each aisle—there were only three or four, narrow, not exactly laden with goods, but not bare either—was patrolled by an employee. I reached up to take something from a shelf and received a stern rebuke. Apparently I wasn’t to do that myself. The employee took down whatever it was and placed it in my basket. At the time, I could only think of this as at best bemusing and at worst as inefficient and hopeless. But thanks to Crain’s lovely novel I’m reminded by how little my younger self knew, how clueless he was about the consequences of the changeover for Czechs and Slovaks, how spoiled and sheltered (complaisantly, vaguely bien-pensant liberal though it may have been) his perspective on life was—and yet also how open that younger self was to new experiences, how fearful and yet how brave, how in thrall to the idea that nobody here knows who I am supposed to be, and therefore how not entirely to be condemned from the position of hindsight by the putatively older and wiser self I am today.


This blog is intended to help me write more frequently, with luck more fluently. Most people who write, even those who write a lot, find it hard. At least, that’s my hunch (hope?). I certainly do. Which is a problem for an academic, especially one who spends a lot of time teaching writing. I’m always telling students that writing doesn’t come naturally or easily to people. It happens only as part of a lengthy (maybe interminable) process. So to write well you have to write a lot: start, revise, revisit, eliminate, stop, start again. As a young child, I never enjoyed writing much. I didn’t dislike it, I just didn’t think about it much one way or the other. I was always more of a reader. But when I was ten, I spent the summer with my family visiting our extended family in Switzerland and at my mother’s prompting I kept a travel diary. I wrote entries for every day of our visit, even when I got behind a few times. The first entries were short, only two or three laconic lines about weather. But soon they became more and more elaborate. When I returned to school in Canada that fall, Language Arts became my favourite class, especially when we got to write stories. So the title of this blog pays homage to the place of my first writerly successes, if I can put it that way.

I don’t intend for this blog to be particularly personal, at least for now. Instead I’ll be using it as a place to reflect on the things I’ve been reading, whether for work, pleasure, or both. (“Reader” is still my primary marker of identity.) But I also believe that one’s reading is intensely personal—aspirational, developmental, revelatory of one’s (desired and actual) selves—so readers will be seeing into one of the most meaningful parts of my life.

As to the style or form of these entries, well, that too is up for grabs. My plan for now is to aim to create small pieces of literary criticism that are (I hope) intelligent and sophisticated but not academic. The goal would be something like the work I’ve done for Open Letters Monthly except shorter, more provisional, less structured. Essayistic, maybe, but not actual essays. I don’t read much straightforward academic work, because I don’t like much of it. (I suspect this is true of many academics.) These things are mostly written only because they have to be—for (meaningful) professional rewards—rather than because they need to be. Not always true, of course, but judging the work I’ve reviewed over the past several years, mostly true. But there are other models beyond the academy for intelligent criticism, and in a small way I want this blog to be a way for me to help me figure out how I might contribute to that effort.

Finally, I’ve always been envious of the community that springs up around the lit blogs I like best. I’d be so pleased if something similar developed here. So please comment!