November: as long as three regular months! Did the mood swings of the US election and the relative calm of Thanksgiving happen in one four-week stretch? The rest of the world might have been busy, but at my writing table all was at a standstill. I felt blocked, uninspired, guilty, anxious, ashamed. A late-month breakthrough—apparently this manuscript wants to be both about teaching the Holocaust and teaching writing?—made me feel a little better; here’s to more of that in December. On the reading front, though, things hummed along.
Philip Kerr, Metropolis (2019)
The last Bernie Guenther book, a prequel, is set at the end of the Weimar Republic when Bernie is first promoted to Detective. He solves a crime that gives Thea von Harbou—Fritz Lang’s sometime wife and collaborator—the plot for M. I’ll miss Bernie; he was all right.
Géraldine Schwarz, Those Who Forget: My Family’s Story in Nazi Europe—A Memoir, a History, a Warning (2017) Trans. Laura Marris (2020)
Journalist Schwarz grew up in France to a French mother and a German father. Summers were spent in Mannheim; the schoolyear in Paris. In the first part of this sort-of-memoir, she researches what her grandparents did during the war. She starts on her father’s side. In the mid 1930s, Karl Schwarz took over a petroleum company, which gave him not only his livelihood but protected his life. (He avoided being conscripted because his products were deemed essential to the war effort.) Karl’s wife Lydia, though no fanatical Nazi, was impressed by the Führer’s dedication and would later regularly mourn his absence. After the war, a letter arrived from an American lawyer representing Julius Löbmann, whose brother, Siegmund, had been forced to sell his company to Karl at a cut-rate price. Siegmund and his immediate family were later deported to Gurs, a camp in Vichy France, then later to the transit camp at Drancy, and from there, on April 15, 1944, to Auschwitz, where they were gassed on arrival.
Löbmann’s desire for reparation incensed Karl, but the fallout of the affair wasn’t just economic. Karl’s already stormy relationship with his son, Volker, Schwarz’s father, disintegrated, as Volker joined the student movements determined to call their elders to account. Seeking a “European” identity, Volker traveled to France, where he met Schwarz’s mother. Josiane grew up next to Drancy, site of the notorious transit camp from which so many, including the Löbmanns, were deported to the killing sites of the East, a fact that interested no one in her postwar childhood. As Schwarz investigates her maternal family she learns about France’s denial of its complicity in German crimes, which persisted at least into the 1980s and 90s, but really, she maintains, to this day. Schwarz argues Germany’s “memory work” has been superior to France’s: hardly contentious.
Inspired by the example of her family, Schwarz wants to understand those who after the war became known in Germany as die Mitläufer, people who went along with the regime. A worthy topic, to be sure, but instead of, for example, exploring the effort the Nazi regime put into generating such connivance and considering how that effort worked on her ancestors, Schwarz leaves us with op-ed caliber banalities:
By our opportunism, by our conformity to an all-powerful capitalism, which places money and consumption over education, intelligence, and culture, we are in danger of losing the democracy, peace, and freedom that so many of our predecessors have fought to preserve.
There’s plenty more armchair pontificating in the book—“We Europeans have come a long way”; “the most dangerous monster is a not a megalomaniacal and violent leader, but us, the people who make him possible, who give him the power to lead”—leading to a risible ending in which Schwarz makes a tour of European countries, dispatching the failure of memory work in Italy, Hungary, Britain, and Austria in a couple of pages each, often invoking as her evidence a friend’s statement or an experience she once had on vacation.
I learned a few things from this book, of course. I didn’t know, for example, that at the end of the war the French brought several hundred German scientists home with them: their work laid the foundation for the still-flourishing French aviation and weapons industries. Nor, still more fascinatingly, did I know about the prosecutor Fritz Bauer, a Jew who spent the war in exile in Denmark and Sweden after having his legal career destroyed by the Nazis, returned to Germany and, as the general prosecutor of Hesse, doggedly pursued cases against many mid-level perpetrators, leading to the Auschwitz trials in the 1960s. (I want to read a book about him.) But such moments are rare. Most of the stuff in Those Who Forget is introductory and uninspiring. Schwarz has neither the analytic chops of a historian or the panache of an essayist. Her title, referring to those who went along with atrocity, unwittingly describes her readers, who, if they are anything like me at least, will quickly forget this book and its nostrums.
Fleur Jaeggy, These Possible Lives (2015) Trans. Minna Zallman Procter (2017)
Everyone loves Jaeggy, but I’m not sure I get the fuss. I was led to this little book by Brian Dillon, but I think I prefer him on Jaeggy to Jaeggy herself. Three short essays—on De Quincy, Keats, and the French symbolist writer Marcel Schwob—emphasize unusual biographical details. Quirky and poetic, I guess, but not really my scene. I’ve forgotten almost everything about it.
Tana French, The Searcher (2020)
Still the champ.
Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend (1865)
What can I say, it’s a classic for a reason. I read it mostly with pleasure and always with interest, but not avidly or joyfully. Dickens is, in the end, not my guy. I’d rank Our Mutual Friend below Great Expectations and Bleak House in my own list (though I’ve only read 5). The story’s ambitious, maybe too ambitious, seems to have run away at the end, relying on hasty/convenient thread-tying. On further reflection, though, I feel something about the story does not want to—maybe even should not—end, because it’s a book about revenants and ghosts, about corpses that don’t stay hidden, about material (junk, trash, ordure, tidal gunk, or whatever the hell “dust” is supposed to be) that never comes to the end of its life, being neither waste nor useful, or, rather, both.
For this reason, Our Mutual Friend is best when describing in-between states: a famous example, which I’d read about years ago in an essay by the philosopher Gilles Deleuze and was delighted to finally encounter in the flesh, as it were, concerns the resuscitation of man no one likes, a river scavenger and a meddler, who has fallen overboard into the Thames in an accident. (Book III, Chapter 3.) A group of bystanders work diligently to restore the rogue to life: their attention is fixated on the unconscious man’s body, so much so that in addition to their CPR it’s as if the men were willing him to life. (The man’s daughter watches “with terrified interest”—the phrase describes the onlookers too.) When the man splutters to, when the “spark of life” rekindles, they are relieved, even briefly exultant. But then they return to disparaging him, and drift away. A brilliant, vivid scene–and a useful comment on the title. Just how much mutuality is there in this book?
I spoke above of in-between states. This concerns the novel’s form as much as its content. I liked best those bits where the novel threatens to become full-on Gothic. (Wilkie Collins’s influence? Or was their friendship over by then?) Any scene with Bradley Headstone (that name!) counts—that guy could be out of a novel from Hamsun or Dostoyevsky—but especially the one where he tries to kill Lightwood. Yowza!
Assorted other thoughts:
Appreciate the attempt to rehabilitate the Jews, Charles, but Riah did not do it for me. (Tip: next time, avoid having your Jewish character regularly cite the New Testament.)
Sloppy, on the other hand! Sometimes it is easier to thrash the mangle than to say what’s in your heart. What a dear.
Boffin, you had me worried there!
The Lammles, oof hard core, reminded me of bits of Collins’s No Name.
Pa and Bella—cute, but also creepy.
Mr. Venus, terrific, that first scene with him and Wegg is 10/10 Dickens. Must be a connection, though not sure how, between his taxidermy and Jenny Wren’s dolls. (Maybe also Sloppy’s newspaper-reading?) Model making, alternative modes of reproducing the world, etc.
Not the first person to say it, sorry for the banality, but sucks that Dickens didn’t write better women characters. Has anyone tried to argue against this? I’d like to see how—I guess Mrs. Lammle is the most interesting here—because this inability really stops me from liking him more.
Thanks to Alok Ranjan for prompting me to read this. Totally don’t regret it.
Inge Deutschkron, Outcast: A Jewish Girl in Wartime Berlin (1978) Trans. Jean Steinberg (1989)
Ian Rankin, A Song for the Dark Times (2020)
Not good. Read the print version and wondered whether I’d enjoyed the previous Rebus novels more because of the audiobook narrator than because of the text. The narrator brings out a curt elegance in the writing that seems inert or clumsy on the page. Feels like a series at risk of losing its way.
Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future (2020)
At the beginning of Robinson latest novel, a terrible heatwave blankets India. Wet bulb temperatures reach 35 C; at this point, the body can no longer regulate its temperature by sweating and basically boils. Twenty million people die. Frank May, a young American aid worker, is almost one of them. Like everyone else in town, he seeks refuge in a nearby lake; many are burned alive even in the water, but rescue workers find Frank still alive, but barely conscious. He returns to health, but never returns to America, partly because he’s furious at his home country’s response to climate change, and partly because he gets panic attacks anywhere it’s warm. Eventually he settles in Zürich, which brings him into contact with the novel’s real hero, Mary Murphy, the Irish-born head of a UN subsidiary organization developed at the Paris climate talks, The Ministry for the Future.
Mary is a fitting hero for Robinson’s novel—capable, no-nonsense, politically savvy, but without extraordinary powers, charisma, or superhuman intelligence. She is instead a damn good bureaucrat. She knows experts need to be listened to without being allowed to run the show. Someone needs to intercede between them and politicians and power-brokers, especially the most powerful people on the planet, the unelected heads of the world’s central banks. Mary also knows that big problems are solved by plugging away at lots of small solutions. And the problem her ministry has been tasked with is the biggest one of all: lowering the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Starting from basically our own present (I think the first events are in 2025, though I’m not sure—it’s a big novel, I might well have missed something) and extending for thirty years or so, The Ministry for the Future imagines how this seemingly unimaginable task could be accomplished. The solution is to think 100 years out—the whole seven generations thing—but such thinking must be incentivized, both by carrot and stick. Mary presides over a team with various departments (legal, computing/AI, agriculture, etc.), all of which are needed to solve the problem, even though economics is first among equals: Mary’s world-saving legacy is to finally convince those central bankers to create a new currency, the Carboni, that has its eye on the long term (it pays out in hundred-year installments) and can only be earned by carbon sequestration, whether by leaving fossil fuels on the ground (as Saudi Arabia is eventually forced to do), or by offsetting emissions (planting trees, rethinking agriculture, etc.). Carbon quantitative easing, she calls it.
The bankers only get there, though, after many other changes have been made. India, furious at the mass death brought on by the heatwave, organizes a “double Pinatubo”—it fires enough sulfur dioxide into the air to equal two times the amount released by the volcanic explosion of Mount Pinatubo in the early 1990s, which lowered the world’s temperature by about a degree for a couple of years. India leaves the Paris Accords to do so, and begins detaching from the rest of the world, tired of providing its service workers. Various radical political movements—including the decisive rejection of the BJP, who presided over the wet bulb fiasco—and progressive social movements, especially in the realms of agriculture, make India a world leader.
These changes are spurred by terrorist acts (some of which may be orchestrated or even perpetrated by a rogue element within the Ministry of the Future; Mary doesn’t want to know, though she silently acknowledges that terrorism will be central to changing hearts and minds). The Children of Kali, for example, inject bioengineered parasites into the world’s beef supply and shoot down most of its commercial air traffic in a single day through massive coordinated drone attacks, which kill the meat and airline industries, respectively.
There’s also geoengineering (even though the scientists in the book scoff at it), notably, pumping out water from underneath the great Antarctic glaciers and ice shelves to slow their movement. It costs a fortune, but when looked at in terms of the survival of civilization, it’s cheap (and it works). The glaciologists and Antarctica heads want to help, but mostly they are just psyched that someone is paying them to work and play in the part of the world they’ve become addicted to. (Robinson plays a double game here—at once admiring scientists’ cynicism about their bureaucratic masters and critiquing their claims to disinterestedness.)
While all this is going on, the novel’s more personal plot grinds on, too. Frank and Mary meet up in Zürich, under circumstances I won’t get into, and a lifelong pas de deux ensues. Robinson doesn’t stint their relationship—it’s not romantic, it’s more interesting than that—but in the end he cares about other stuff more. Like setting. Zürich in particular and Switzerland in general serves as more than its typical role as an anonymous backdrop for espionage or banking. One way to read The Ministry for the Future is as a hymn to this little country’s biggest city, which might seem ridiculous—who cares about Zürich, for God’s sake—but it’s precisely Zürich’s dull practicality, its unshowy livable-ness, that the novel values. Robinson clearly knows Switzerland. He includes some exciting set pieces in the mountains (one of them invoking Frankenstein, natch), as well as lovely evocations of lake swimming and Zürich’s Fastnacht (carnival), but what he really loves is the Swiss insistence that when the world is secure, Switzerland is secure. If we help others, we help ourselves. That’s the kind of thinking we all need.
I could go on, but my basic point is: I loved this book. It’s a page-turner about extremely undramatic but highly consequential decisions. It’s also only sort of a novel: yes, it has central characters, but it also considers other beings, only some of which are human (short chapters are narrated from the POV of caribou, the sun, carbon atoms: not especially convincing, but the idea is good). It’s really an essay-novel hybrid, desperate to cram into its pages as many possible solutions to a lower carbon world as possible, like the 2000-Watt club (if you divided all the people in the world by the amount of energy we consume, you’d get 2000 watts per person per year—or 48 kilowatt-hours per day—which the club’s members demonstrate is really quite achievable and doesn’t require that many changes, at least in many parts of the world). Reducing inequality, learning to share, valuing security as a good that arises when everyone has enough—these goals will be needed to help us survive. Rewilding, the 50% project (grouping people into half the world’s territory), worker cooperatives based on the Mondragón model pioneered by the Basques, new technologies, new legal realities (in which nonhumans have rights), new economies—all are ways in which we can work to solving the climate crisis.
What’s amazing is that Robinson shows how it could happen. He is optimistic but not naïve. He heaps special scorn on economists, which I found satisfying, and points out that it’s when the shit hits the fan—like when water stops coming out of the taps—that’s when you need society. Neoliberalism has always been full of shit. The Ministry for the Future is at times an alarming book—I won’t soon forget that grim opening scene—but more often it’s a rousing one. It offers what we collectively need: “An earthquake in the head.” Since reading it I’ve felt more hopeful than I have in ages, and I’d love for it to get many, many readers.
Lissa Evans, V for Victory (2020)
The trilogy that started with Crooked Heart and continued through the marvelous Old Baggage comes to a satisfying close. Noel Sedgewick, the character who connects the books, now 15, struggles with his identity. To whom does he belong—the parents he never knew, or the women who raised him, in such different but mutually compatible ways? Evans takes tropes from WWII British literature—the female warden both hardened but given purpose by war—and ruffles them a little, making them fresh—the warden’s clueless socialite sister, who has written a surprise bestseller based on lurid fantasy, becomes her defender. Ne’er-do-wells prove at the last minute to have surprising self-knowledge or unexpected reasons for their actions. And as always Evans is drawn to the ridiculous aspects of life: a reporter, suddenly pressganged into running the tombola at a church fair with strict instructions to keep back some of the best prizes to the end lest people stop buying tickets, thinks of “the article he could squeeze from this (‘Fraud Allegation Shatters Methodist Merriment’).” The novel’s final vision, of a London just after VE day, when, for a brief moment at least, no one is waiting for anything, neither falling bombs nor barked orders, is beautiful in its swooping energy: the moment feels fully earned. Probably Evans has set these characters aside, but they’re so lovable, we can always hope for more. And if not, dayeinu, it would be enough.
Mark Roseman, A Past in Hiding: Memory and Survival in Nazi Germany (2000)
From 1989 – 1996, Mark Roseman spent much of his time in an “intimate, respectful, wary, guilty clinch” with Marianne Ellenbogen née Strauss, who, as a young woman in 1943, had slipped out of her family’s home as it was being searched by the Gestapo. Her parents, her younger brother, her uncle and his wife and her mother—among the last Jews left in the city of Essen at that time—were deported, first to Theresienstadt and later to Auschwitz. Marianne, the only person in her immediate family to survive, spent the rest of the war passing as Aryan, dodging both officials who would have seen through her flimsy false ID and the increasingly devastating Allied bombing raids. She was aided in this feat by members of a little-known organization called the Bund, whose members resisted what the Nazis had made of their beloved Germany.
I recently wrote about Lives Reclaimed, Roseman’s most recent book, which complements this, his first, by telling the story of the Bund. (Tl; dnr: brilliant.) The books overlap, of course, but I was surprised how little Roseman repeats himself. A Past in Hiding (note the subtle difference between this title and the more commonplace A Life in Hiding) provides background on the Bund and introduces some of its main players, but it’s only incidentally about that. Indeed, inasmuch as Marianne was convinced to work with Roseman only because she wanted the world to know about the Bund’s achievements, which extended beyond saving her life, then it’s really Lives Reclaimed that fulfills her desire.
Here Roseman concentrates on Marianne. And why not? Her story is amazing, and she herself is extraordinary. He freely admits that Marianne would have hated the result. She wouldn’t have wanted him to spend the years after her death in December 1996 interviewing with surviving friends, acquaintances, relatives, and lovers, and combing through her exhaustive archive of written documents. But she might have been surprised—not in a good way, maybe, but in an interested way, doubtless—by Roseman’s conclusion. Her own story, as told to Roseman in lengthy interviews, doesn’t quite align with the story told by these external sources, not because Marianne lied or even because memory is fallible, but because the life we life and the life we remember aren’t the same.
Specifically, in Marianne’s case, the guilt she felt about surviving distorted her memory in particular ways: she accentuated the suffering of her loved ones (claiming that her father was imprisoned in a concentration camp for six weeks after Kristallnacht when it was three, or that the love of her life, deported a year before she went into hiding, was blinded in a medical experiment rather than in an accident); she minimized her own suffering; and she dramatized the most traumatic moments of her life (claiming she accompanied her boyfriend to the station the day he was deported when in fact she said goodbye to him the evening before, or telling Roseman that she learned on her birthday, via a BBC broadcast, that her parents’ transport has been gassed, when in fact that terrible knowledge came to her some weeks later).
(How the fate of that particular transport came to be broadcast on the BBC—and how by amazing coincidence Marianne happened to be clandestinely listening to it—is a story in itself, having to do with the Czechoslovakian resistance within Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Nazis’ creation of the so-called “family camp” at Birkenau, where for six months in late 1943/early 44 families who had been at Theresienstadt were allowed to stay together, with their hair and clothes, and given better rations. The Nazis were worried that the Danish Red Cross, who had “inspected” Theresienstadt, would do the same at Auschwitz, and wanted these prisoners in case a “show camp” was going to be necessary: in the end it was not, and almost all of the prisoners in the family camp were gassed.)
In finding discrepancies in Marianne’s story, Roseman isn’t arraigning her or asking us to doubt her. He’s using painstaking research to prove that the stories we tell ourselves in order to live aren’t quite the stories we lived. Instead, we interpret the past through concepts developed only in hindsight. For example, Roseman thought of Marianne as a Jewish victim of the Holocaust, a position she herself espoused late in life, but at the time she thought of herself as a German victim of the war. He is aided in this revelation by some remarkable documents: a diary Marianne kept while on the run in 1944, and the correspondence between Marianne and her boyfriend from the time her was deported in April 1942 (to a camp-ghetto in Lublin province called Izbica) until his ominous silence that fall. Reading these documents Roseman notes differences between what Marianne said at the time and what she said later—even as he acknowledges that the primary documents themselves must be understood not as a record of unmediated truth but as traces of a fluid experience, in which Marianne was trying out ideas, changing her mindset, and struggling with the identity crisis brought on not only by being made into a Jew by the Nazis (true for so many victims) but in juggling different identities while on the run.
A Past in Hiding is thus both theoretical and particular. It both analyzes what it means to interpret the past and offers a portrait of an extraordinary person—capable, clever, charismatic—who was both amazingly fortunate and terribly unhappy. Highly recommended.
Clare Chambers, Small Pleasures (2020)
Satisfying novel that makes much of a preposterous scenario. In 1950s suburban England, The North Kent Echo receives a letter to the editor replying to an article about parthenogenesis. The writer admits she knows nothing about science, but she does know that her daughter was born without the involvement of a man. On a lark, the paper sends, Jean Swinney, its only female journalist, to interview the woman, Gretchen Tilbury. No one expects anything of the Virgin Birth lady, but Jean is captivated by Gretchen, amazed at the daughter (Margaret, ten, looks exactly like her mother), and is unable to find anything in her initial reporting to dispute the outlandish claim. Before long scientists get involved and Jean is on to a big story. But the novel veers into more interesting territory, becoming the tale of how Jean, lonely and tired of being saddled with her claustrophobic mother, is drawn into the Tilburys’ orbit, especially by kind Howard, the husband who came along when Gretchen was already pregnant. In this regard, Small Pleasures is a bit like Brookner’s Look at Me—retiring young woman drawn out of herself by another couple, to the dismay of everyone else in her life—except everyone is much nicer. You might say, well, then that’s no Brookner novel at all, to which I can only say, fair enough. Chambers’s is a more muted work, and not as brilliant. But I found it absolutely engaging, and was surprised at the directions it took, especially at the end. (Devastating!) A thoughtful novel about the ambivalent consequences of taking your pleasures, however small, wherever you can find them. Nina Stibbe put it on her best of 2020 list; if you won’t take my word for it, take hers.
Tessa Hadley, The Past (2016)
Reading Hadley’s backlist—only two more to go now—has been one of the year’s pleasures. Here, three sisters and a brother spend one last holiday at their grandparents’ former home, an increasingly dilapidated place in the English countryside. There’s some pretty serious drama—Hadley has a Gothic side she mostly but happily never quite fully keeps under wraps—but the manner of telling makes big events seem ordinary—which only amplifies the weight of the revelations on offer. (I was led to think about the difference between her mode of approach and, say, the early Ian McEwan; he’s so much more histrionic.) What is it like, Hadley asks, to spend a life with someone? And what is it like to spend one without the person we wanted? (She’s good at making us experience the passing of time.) As usual, Hadley is a master of roving omniscience, teasing us with free indirect discourse, so that we wonder how much of what we learn about the characters they themselves know. Consider this description of a nine-year-old discovering an abandoned cottage:
Ivy wasn’t brave, she was a coward when it came to sports or party games, the kind where you ran in a team and had to burst a balloon by sitting on it. But she also had a greedy curiosity which was like a hunger; she wanted to get clear, all by herself and without the shame of other people knowing she was doing it, the truth of what could happen.
So much psychological acuity in such a short space! And so much ambivalence. Are we to admire Ivy? That “greedy curiosity” feels so double-edged. “The truth of what could happen”—not just the world as it is, but the world as it might, secretly, desperately, be.
In a passage that seems more heartfelt, I appreciated this description of a couple’s reading habits:
Sophy and Graham devoured their books: reading was a freedom torn out of the day’s regulated fabric. Without ever having spoken of it, each knew that the other approved their habit of having the face of their alarm clock, set for seven, turned away from them, so that they couldn’t know how much time passed while they sat up awake and turning pages, couldn’t know how rash they were or how much they would pay for it next day.
But don’t be fooled. Hadley is no nice chronicler of middle-class moeurs (though, yeah, that too). Even the most bourgeois habit of all, reading, is offered in terms of rashness. Everyone pays for everything.
Daniel Mendelsohn, Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate (2020)
When I think about the book I’m trying to write I keep coming back to Mendelsohn, not because he wrote maybe the best book about uncovering a family’s Holocaust history (I have no such history) but because he is so good at structuring nonfiction narratives. Indeed, structure is the subject matter of this little book, originally given as lectures at his alma mater, the University of Virginia. Mendelsohn begins with the acedia that overcame him after finishing The Lost (the Holocaust book) and his subsequent struggle to improve the manuscript of his next book, An Odyssey (about the time when his father, near the end of his life, enrolled in Mendelsohn’s Homer class), beyond his editor’s initial verdict: interesting in parts yet fundamentally dull. The solution, he eventually realized, lay in the source material itself, specifically in Homer’s use of “ring structure.”
The classic example of nested narration of this sort is the moment when Odysseus, returned to Ithaca but disguised, is found out by Eurycleia, his childhood nursemaid, who, in the process of washing the feet of a man she believes to be a traveling beggar, recognizes the hero because of a distinctive scar. Homer flashes back in time to tell us the story of how Odysseus got the scar (in a boar hunt), first explaining how he had been on the hunt in the first place, necessitating yet another digression about the man hosting the hunt, Odysseus’s grandfather, who had been enjoined by this very same Eurycleia to name the child; thus, after beginning with a seemingly insignificant moment Homer offers the in fact consequential history of the hero’s very identity, before looping back to the present moment, the scene of the foot washing. Recognition, Homer teaches, implies a toggling between past and present. (In this sense, his most skillful disciple was Proust.) Narratives similarly shuttle between the essential and the inessential, eventually compromising, even undoing that distinction: “In ring composition, the narrative appears the meander away into a digression… although the digression, the ostensible straying, turns out in the end to be a circle, since the narration will return to the precise point in the action from which it had strayed.”
The reason I called this scene the classic instance of anagnorisis—a moment of revelatory (self) recognition—is not because Homer is the “founder of Western literature” but because it was presented as such in a book of literary criticism written by a German Jewish refugee in Istanbul during WWII, famously without the benefit of the comprehensive library he had been used to having at his disposal. The man was Erich Auerbach; the book was Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Its most famous chapter is the first, “Odysseus’s Scar,” in which Auerbach juxtaposes the Greek mode of telling to the Hebrew: the former offers transparency and clarity (the ring structure allows Homer to give us the backstory of the scar); the latter offers obscurity and uncertainty, privileging unknown—perhaps unknowable—psychological motivation. (The example Auerbach chooses is the Akedah—G-d’s (batshit-insane) demand that Abraham sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac.) The difference, Mendelsohn says, summarizing Auerbach, is between a story that leaves nothing out and a story that leaves almost everything out. And the philosophical debate underpinning this distinction is whether reality is knowable. And the stakes of that question concern nothing less than interpretation itself. What is it for? Are we constrained to its endless approximations?
In thinking about the oscillation between these two beliefs—reality is transparent; reality is obscure: events can be represented; events will always exceed being represented—Mendelsohn is led to think about an at-one-time influential 17th-century text, an early novel by a French archbishop named François Fénelon. The Adventures of Telemachus, a sequel to the Odyssey, made its author famous, but the book’s too-overt criticism of Louis XIV led its author to be banished to northern France. The book’s influence lived on, though, delighting readers across Europe and, later, America, including Thomas Jefferson, who would found the University of Virginia where Mendelsohn would centuries later begin his study of the classics.
Three Rings is a book about “that deep connectedness among things which, for the optimist at least, is detectable in history as well as literature.” Thus, Mendelsohn moves from discussing Proust’s work—his use of ring composition to create oppositions (bourgeois vs aristocrat, hetero vs. homo, Swann vs. Guermantes) that eventually undo themselves—to considering his life, specifically the revelation that the model for the character of Saint Loup in Proust’s epic work was a diplomat named Bertrand, posted, to Proust’s unrequited frustration, to Constantinople, whose ancestor happened to be none other than François Fénelon, the former archbishop of Combrai—a name Proust adapted as the town where his alter-ego spent his formative childhood summers.
How are we to understand such connections? Mendelsohn ends by reflecting on the work of W. G. Sebald, that great writer of inconclusive digressions. Mendelsohn considers some of Sebald’s monomaniacal solitaries—not least the figure of Sebald himself who, in The Rings of Saturn, wanders through abandoned landscapes picking up intimations of former grandeur—as in his encounter with a man obsessed by making a model of the Temple in Jerusalem, a lost, enigmatic structure: the more the model maker learns of it the less he understands; the same is true of Sebald in relation to the model maker. Mendelsohn is reminded of his own childhood obsession with model making, one he abandoned but later transformed into his writing practice, through which he has learned to make the most of insoluble dilemmas. Pondering Sebald’s melancholy digressions—in which every possible link seems to fall to pieces, and destruction is the fate of all creativity—Mendelsohn turns that failure into success, as in his final section where he considers the most influential book in the 19th-century Ottoman Empire, a translation of Fénelon’s sequel to the Odyssey by Yûsuf Kâmil Pasha, the Empire’s Grand Vizier, one of many examples in this short book of how “Western” literature would never have existed had it not been “returned” from the East. In the end, perhaps the greatest digression of all is that the “foundational” texts some like to laud as essential to the “western mind” required saving by its too-often maligned “other.” Made rich by the success of his translation, Kâmil Pasha gave part of his wealth to the university in Istanbul—in this way, imitating however unknowingly Jefferson’s gesture—a center of learning that decades later, in the middle of the 20th century, would welcome scholars fleeing yet another auto-da-fe in the heart of so-called civilization, among them a German Jewish literary scholar named Erich Auerbach.
Three Rings is brilliant essayistic narrative, which satisfies and surprises in its series of historical connections; it is also brilliant interpretation, as it shows every story of destruction to be one of creation, every moment of obscurity one of clarity, every Jewish moment to be Greek—provided, of course, we realize that Greek ways of storytelling always also need Jewish ways of storytelling. It is only through interpretation that we can imagine a literature that wouldn’t require it.
Three Rings didn’t solve my problem of how to structure my book, but it did remind me—exhilaratingly, dismayingly, vertiginously—of the accomplishment I can only hope to imitate.
Alison Lurie, Foreign Affairs (1984)
Read this just a few days before learning of Lurie’s death. Judging from Twitter reaction, her work is loved by many, this book especially. Must say, alas, I was not seduced. You know how for a long time everything associated with the 70s was reviled but is now cool as hell? Maybe we’ll get there for the 80s eventually but now it just feels dated. In her story about two American academics on sabbatical in London—they work at a not even thinly disguised version of Cornell, where Lurie taught for a long time; come to think of it, someone once pointed her out to me in Olin library, though I think she was emerita even then—Lurie quotes Eliot and riffs on Austen, not to mention children’s literature and John Gay (the subject of their respective projects) but I’m not sure why. What is the relation of this book to the English literary tradition?
One protagonist starts by hating England, swings to reveling in it (as he enters into a dalliance with a well-known actor), and finishes with a clear-eyed recognition that he doesn’t belong there. The other is Anglophilic to the extreme, convinced of the place’s superiority, but learns a chastening lesson when she falls in love with a countryman, a loud American businessman. Is Lurie arguing a version of Wilde’s line about America and England having everything in common but the language? Telling us that people belong where they come from? Or that you can only know what home means when you’ve left it? None of these suggestions are inspiring, but I’m out of ideas. Lurie lovers, help!
I admired Lurie’s willingness to make her female lead plain, crotchety, supercilious, and matter-of-fact in her sexual desires. She gets a comeuppance that doesn’t require her to change herself. (The story of the male lead is a lot less interesting.) But it’s not an especially kind book, and its meanness isn’t used to any particular purpose (it feels generalized and diffuse, not pointed or critical). And the portrayal of the American businessman—a lumpen aw shucks gee willikers giant from Oklahoma, much the nicest person in the book—is grating. Maybe from the novel’s preferred mid-Atlantic viewpoint, nothing could be more risible than being from Tulsa, but when it’s, say, four hours’ drive from where you live it’s just a town, no better or worse than anywhere else. I’m willing to give Lurie another chance, but she’s on a tight leash.
William Maxwell, They Came Like Swallows (1937)
Despite an intense Maxwell phase in my mid-twenties—I was as weird and twee then as now—I somehow missed this one. Maybe my unconscious knew to wait, certain it would resonate so much more strongly during a pandemic than in the glib 90s. They Came Like Swallows is set in the fall of 1918. The armistice might be signed in Europe, but in small-town Illinois what matters is the influenza outbreak, which in a few short weeks will utterly transform the Morrison family. Just as devastating illness plays with our sense of time, the novella’s structure shapes our understanding of events. Each of its three sections focuses on a different character: eight-year-old Bunny, sensitive, in love with his mother and in dread, in different ways, of his father and older brother; the brother, Robert, who suddenly appears to us in a quite different light, diffident at best to Bunny, yes, (I mean, the kid’s five years younger, how can you take him seriously?), but sympathetic for his drive to ignore his disability and his being so prey to feelings of responsibility he cannot be expected to take on; their father, James Morrison, distant, yes, and when uncertain inclined to turn to conventionality instead of kindness, but baffled and buffeted by terrible events. I thought it a missed opportunity that Maxwell never foregrounded any of the female characters—they are many: Elizabeth Morrison, the woman these men revolve around, but also her sisters and sister-in-law; and they are much the most interesting figures in the book—but then I realized it had to be that way. The book is about its absent center, about the uses men put women to, about their consequential bafflement toward women. That it makes its men as sympathetic as it does, and the women as vital as they are is the book’s art. The title, from Yeats’s “Coole Park, 1929,” is perfect:
They came like swallows and like swallows went,
And yet a woman’s powerful character
Could keep a swallow to its first intent;
And half a dozen in formation there,
That seemed to whirl upon a compass-point,
Found certainty upon the dreaming air
There’s more dreaming than certainty in the book—impressive how Maxwell doesn’t just depict illness but, more ambitiously, suffuses every page with the estranging, eye-opening quality illness sometimes offers—and we’re never allowed to forget that the woman’s powerful character, as Yeats has it, is a function of male fantasy. But both poem and novel are elegies, fascinated with the paradoxes of loss, how survivors have the power to recall the dead, but only because the dead have given them the power of recall.
Amazing how wise and good this is for a young man’s book (Maxwell was only 29 when it was published). Obviously time to read his novels again, and to tackle his stories.
Big month! More hits than misses! Death of American democracy staved off for at least two years! Dickens, Robinson, Hadley, Maxwell—all winners. Deutschkron, Roseman, Mendelsohn—inspiring! I hope you found even half as much to enjoy in your reading month. Leave a comment with your favourite.