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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12 thoughts on “What I Read, May 2021

  1. My thoughts entirely on the Shirley Hazzard which, against my better judgement, has slipped away. Lack of warmth, or wit? Whereas Bowen resists. If your daughter, like mine (and me!), is lapping up Robin Stevens then I highly recommend Mud by Emily Thomas, the best books for children being for everyone, etc, etc… Nothing to add about A Month in the Country which is perfect. Also, I’ve long wanted to ask whether you might, perhaps and please, give details of the paintings which accompany your posts? They add so much. With thanks and every good wish from here in the UK.

    • Thank you, Caroline!

      A friend recently asked about the paintings as well, and I had vowed to do so, except this new WordPress editor has me flummoxed–I can’t figure out how to do captions! I hope I will solve the problem, but please let me know if you’ve ideas.

      I really appreciate the support on Hazzard–so many readers I trust love her and I recognize the problem is me not her, but it’s good to see that I’m not the only one. I think I love Bowen more because she never aims for elegance, if that makes sense?

      Now I am off to google Mud–thank you, I ALWAYS want recs for great books for kids.

  2. It was a busy month! Lots going on, lots of interesting stuff here. I appreciate your comments about Hazzard’s style. The old ‘Slaves of Golconda’ reading group read The Transit of Venus some years ago and I really liked reading it but also (I realized) didn’t quite grasp its details – there was something too elusive about it. You’re right that I like the Slough House books: I’ve only read the first three so far (they are a bit hard to get ahold of here) so you will know them much better than I do soon. I’m curious to see if you think they hold up in greater quantities. If you do, that will encourage me to keep rounding them up!

    As you might remember, I used specifications grading this past year. I think that laying out the specifications really is crucial to (in your apt word) demystifying the process. If the pass/fail standard is still qualitative in vaguely judgmental ways (like ‘excellent’ or ‘insightful’ or whatever) then the stress for the students is still going to be there. One of the criteria that ended up being super helpful for me and my TA was “a good faith effort to meet the terms of the assignment”: that signaled to the students that our primary goal was to get them to try the kind of work we were asking for, without fear of doing it “right,” and it helped us decide, in the rare cases where a submission seemed really borderline, whether it fell below what was acceptable. But drawing up specifications for each assignment was by far the trickiest part of the planning process!

    • Going back to read your posts about spec grading is on my to-do list, Rohan. Thanks for that helpful tip. I quail a little at designing the specs. Luckily, a generous colleague has let me look at her stuff, so I will probably borrow a lot.

      As I was just saying to Caroline, I am glad to hear other Hazzard skeptics. Well, maybe that’s not the right word, but readers for whom she doesn’t quite land. Still, I’m willing to try at least one more of her books.

  3. Robin Stevens is an absolute joy and a genius. Has your daughter (and/or you) discovered Katherine Rundell’s work yet? She’s similarly brilliant.

    Mick Herron is really fun for the first, I would say, three to four books. After that the hackneyed character work and the casual misogyny and fatphobia started to grate on me excessively. But certainly Slow Horses is exceptional as light reading goes, as you say, and its immediate sequels are also worthwhile.

    • Robin Sevens = genius.

      Thank you for reminding me about Rundell. I had THE EXPLORERS from the library when it first came out and never got to it. My daughter and I will investigate. Do you have a favourite?

      I am on #4 right now and still loving them (thought 3 was especially good) but distressed to here about later volumes. They do seem to be coming out fast and furious now. I am also worried Standish is gone. She’s the best.

  4. Butcher’s Crossing, by your pal Mr. Perfect, is a 100% pure novel-of-ideas Western.

    I have doubts about the Simenon-canal theory, but I have only read five of the books. Try My Friend Maigret, a late one, which is set on a Mediterranean island and thus lacks canals but is full of boats. Maybe it is boats rather than canals? Or maybe there is a Mediterranean corollary to the canal rule.

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