May finally brought the end of the semester. Man, that was a tough one. As always, I thought it would be a relatively easy month, now that I no longer needed to have something to say in the classroom every day. As always, I forgot how much energy it takes to get through the final administrative tasks. Squeezed in a little reading on the side, though.
Abdulrazak Gurnah, The Last Gift (2011)
Sometimes I’m struck with amazement when I consider exactly how I have found myself here. But then I suppose many people can say that about their lives. It may be that events constantly take us by surprise, or perhaps traces of what is to become of us are present in our past, and we only need to look behind us to see what we have become, and there is really no need for amazement.
An elderly man, arrived from Uganda in England in 1960 to study journalism, reflects on his experiences to thee young man who has moved in next door. The young man, Jamal, is himself the son of an immigrant, who came from Zanzibar at around the same time, literally coming ashore as a sailor before meeting his soon-to-be-English wife. But Jamal’s father, Abbas, has told his family almost nothing about his life before England. Now Abbas, weakened by a series of strokes, begins to reveal the past that has gnawed at him in silence for years.
It is typical of the novel’s structure that the son is more easily able to have a conversation about immigration with someone other than his father. This is a book of echoes and doublings, of stories told circumspectly and in layers. That indirection fits with the dislocation that comes from making a new life in a strange place, even when that rupture has been freely chosen.
And while Harun, the retired journalist, implies that choice may be overrated—perhaps in looking back we will see intimations of what was to come, though if that is true it is strange to use the word “traces,” implying as it does that those causes are themselves effects—elsewhere the book reminds us of something irrepressible in life, something that resists order and control, which appears in moments both great and small. Take Abbas’s reflections on his schooldays in Zanzibar:
The teachers worked so hard to keep them [he and his fellow students] quiet and obedient, like it was a point of honour for them to do so. Sometimes it was as if they failed as teachers if the children so much as twisted or scratched themselves. How their teachers loved that deep submissive silence. But they could not make that silence endure. They could not quite keep the children in check. Something always happened, some small insurrection, irrepressible laughter, an undaunted boy whose cheek could not be suppressed.
The two Gurnahs I’ve read—and I’ll read them all, eventually—seem to me to be about the difference between insurrections that oppress and insurrections that free: the latter are minor, like irrepressible laughter, but vital, subversive.
Abdulrazak Gurnah, Gravel Heart (2017)
Had plenty to say about this on Episode 4 of One Bright Book. Suffice it say, I liked it a lot, and it’s only grown on me since. Nobel committee did something right for a change.
Martha Wells, All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries) (2017)
Murderbot is a cyborg SecUnit (Security Unit) that has hacked itself to override its governance programming. What Murderbot wants to do is watch tv (soap operas, basically); what it finds itself having to do, thanks to an inconveniently developing conscience and self-awareness, is help humans who are too stupid and frail not to get into trouble. The second-best thing about All Systems Red is Wells’s insistence that the need comes from the desire, awareness from soaps: these books are smart about the power of representation to shape consciousness. The first-best thing is Murderbot’s wry narration. A few examples:
I needed to a) keep them here or b) kill them. Let’s go with option b.
Oh right, I often have complex emotional reactions which I can’t easily interpret.
I thought I had gotten good at controlling my expression, but apparently only when I wasn’t feeling actual emotions.
(The lesson was: if you’re going to fuck with something bigger and meaner than you, use a quick targeted attack and then run away really fast. This is the way I always try to operate, too.) [Wells is good with the parentheses.]
Having returned the book to the library, I have taken these examples—not all from the first book—from the Twitter account @MurderBotBot. Give it a follow!
I already named two best things, but I could also have talked about the books’ depiction of being autistic—which is basically how Murderbot experiences the world. Its anxiety around humans and their complex demands for emotional interaction is movingly depicted. Reading Murderbot’s sighs of relief when it can lower its face shield, or engage with people via mirrors or screens gave me new insight into this mode of experiencing the world.
There’s a plot, too, about a corporation intent on regaining control over its intellectual property (aka Murderbot) and some terrible things Murderbot may have done in its past thanks to that corporation. The events are compelling enough, especially since Wells has gone on to draw out their consequences in subsequent books, but the narrative voice is the real appeal. (And props to sff writers & publishers for embracing the novella form.)
Jeremy Denk, Every Good Boy Does Fine: A Love Story, in Music Lessons (2022)
Jeremy Denk is a classical pianist known for his wide-ranging repertoire, including 20th and 21st century music. He is also something of a genius: MacArthur and Avery Fisher prize winner, a soloist who travels the world playing recitals and concerts, the holder of a doctorate and a liberal arts degree, a one-time science and mathematics prodigy, and, on the basis of his thoughtful references to Roland Barthes and Herman Melville, a hell of a reader too. Every Good Boy Does Fine—a mnemonic for the lines on the treble clef—is a midlife memoir that takes us from his childhood in New Jersey through his upbringing in New Mexico and on to Oberlin, Indiana, Julliard, and other exalted spots of American musical life.
I loved Denk’s attention to his many teachers—his piano teachers, of course, but also those who alternately inspired, coached, and browbeat him in his official and unofficial life as a student. Denk, now himself a teacher and not, he admits, at least at first a good one, shows how important it is to be taught by lots of different people. Everyone offers him something different, and most of those approaches contradict each other, leading to much insecurity but also eventually a sense of self. Although open-hearted, though, the book is more realistic and idealistic about teaching. Denk shows how the things a teacher offers come at the cost of something they can’t. (Paul de Man: every moment of insight carries with it a corresponding area of blindness.) The same is true of learning. Denk doesn’t shy from showing his own failures as a student: lessons he refused to take until it was (almost) too late, obstinacies that got in his own way, needs (for praise mostly) that set him back.
Of the many remarkable teachers Denk has had the privilege to work with, the greatest was his mentor at Indiana, the Hungarian pianist György Sebók. A prodigy who like Denk excelled in many fields, Sebók entered the conservatory in pre-war Budapest already as a teenager and studied with an extraordinary array of musicians. As a Jew Sebók could not fight in the army but still had to serve: he did road work and was interned in what was basically a concentration camp, from which he escaped in 1944 after which he spent the rest of the war under the protection of the Swiss embassy. (Lucky for him, given what happened to half a million Hungarian Jews in the summer and fall of that year.) After the war he remained in Budapest, keeping up a concert career in Eastern Europe, but he left in 1957 after the Revolution, first for Paris and then, in 1962, for Indiana, where his countrymen, friend, and musical partner, Janos Starker, had invited him. Sebók is like a character from a Lubitsch or Wilder film and his world-weary, urbane Mitteleuropean outlook both captivated and bewildered the American provincial Denk.
Denk’s portrait of Sebók—and indeed all his teachers—is generous and forgiving. Unfortunately, his self-portrayal is murkier. He admits he can be difficult, especially when it comes to hurting other people, mostly thanks to his years-long inability to admit his sexuality, and he presents plenty of evidence for how his family, his father in particular, damaged him. But he offers no comprehensive reckoning re: those harms. Maybe because the book isn’t really about that, it’s about music. But it also sort of is. Denk bypasses the question of whether you need to be self-obsessed to be a success in a field as rarified, competitive, and unforgiving as music. But he shows us enough of himself, sometimes unwittingly, to let us see that Denk can be a bit of a dink.
Denk reads the audiobook himself, and while I would not call his narration distinctive (he seems to take perverse pleasure in barely stopping between chapters), he is a dab hand at an accent. I learned about Every Good Boy from this thoughtful review, and I’m glad I did. I learned a lot—I haven’t even mentioned the theoretical interludes on rhythm, harmony, and melody. These are fascinating—at once metaphorical, lyrical, and conceptual.
Martha Wells, Artificial Condition (The Murderbot Diaries) (2018)
Murderbot is also good on audio.
Martha Wells, Rogue Protocol (The Murderbot Diaries) (2018)
There can never be a love interest, can there? Like, Murderbot is never gonna get with Dr. Mensah. Right? Right?
Judith McCormack, The Singing Forest (2021)
More on this elsewhere.
Nina Stibbe, One Day I Shall Astonish the World (2022)
The title is the motto of the university that Susan, the narrator of Stibbe’s latest novel, ends up working at—not as a professor, which is what she imagined before she dropped out of college after getting pregnant, but as the indispensable and indefatigably cheerful PA to the Vice Chancellor. Instead it’s her best friend, Norma, whom Susan once coached in English literature, back when they first met and Norma was a science major who had tired of geology, who gets the job she once dreamed of.
That’s the way things go between them. Susan is a puzzle—easy to dismiss but shrewder than we are likely to credit. Life—by which I mean the most important people in her life—always seems to be pulling one over on her, and it’s true Susan does not always see what is in front of her. But we dismiss her at our peril. Here’s Susan thinking about how someone she’s known for a long time but not intimately wouldn’t make a good friend:
You’d never know what she was really thinking which is what I dislike about nice people: having to wonder if they secretly despise you or feel bitterly jealous, or just think you common but want someone to go to the cinema with or need help with their computer or for you to befriend their child.
Reading this, we realize, ah, perhaps Susan does know how terrible Norma is to her. (I’m not sure Norma quite works, as a character, her motivations are too opaque.) Maybe Susan’s a “devil you know” kind of person. But she’s nice—she’s the sort of person people are always asking favours of, expecting help from, unthinkingly demanding time of. Does she dislike herself? Or is she perhaps not as nice as she seems? Is her agreeableness—which, no question, keeps a torrent of despair at bay—fake?
Maybe because of this unexpected complexity, One Day I Shall Astonish the World made me think of Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms. Weird comparison, I know: an arty darling and a seemingly determinedly middlebrow book club novel. But both demand that we read against their female narrators, revising our initial opinions. Unlike Riley, Stibbe makes us like her narrator more. Riley’s is the more vivid novel, the one I will remember better in a year. But I appreciated how Stibbe reminded of my tendency to disparage someone whose default mode is not irony or skepticism. These days, especially, Stibbe’s generosity feels like a gift.
One Day I Shall Astonish the World is occasionally laugh-out loud funny, but only occasionally, a surprise given Stibbe was once responsible for getting me kicked out of the bedroom for laughing too much. I’m doing my best not to be like the people in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories who want the director character to leave off his arthouse aspirations and get back to his early, funny stuff (God those movies meant a lot to me, and now I can’t imagine watching a single one); I’m trying not to wish Stibbe would just keep doing what she’s always done. And yet, and yet—this book could have been funnier.
Jacqueline Winspear, A Sunlit Weapon (2022)
Ken Krimstein, When I Grow Up: The Lost Autobiographies of Six Yiddish Teenagers (2021) Trans. by Ellen Cassedy
In 2017, 180,000 pages worth of documents were found by a construction crew in a decommissioned cathedral in Vilnius, Lithuania. The pages, written in Yiddish, had been through a lot: collected by YIVO, the institute for the study of Yiddish language and culture; plundered by the Nazis; rescued by Jewish forced labourers who hid them in the ghetto; disinterred after the arrival of the Red Army; stored in the newly created Vilna Jewish Museum; and eventually walled up in the cathedral by a non-Jewish Lithuanian librarian who refused Stalin’s order to pulp them. (This was in 1949, after Stalin had ratcheted up his antisemitic attacks once the State of Israel turned to the West rather than to the USSR.)
Ken Krimstein tells this story in the opening pages of his fascinating graphic nonfiction narrative. The book comprises six excerpts from diaries written by young people across Yiddish speaking Eastern Europe. The diaries were among the more than 700 entered into a competition sponsored by YIVO in the 1930s (first prize: 150 Zlotys; about US $1000 today). The contest aimed to generate an ethnographic study of Yiddish youth: their hopes, dreams, fears, resentments. To ensure truthfulness, entries were anonymous. (An elaborate system ensured that winners could receive their prizes.) In a fittingly Jewish irony, the grand prize was to be awarded on September 1, 1939.
Krimstein’s book brings these stories to light for the first time since they were submitted almost a century ago. The writers and their lives are so vivid. A girl cannot help but love her father, despite his terrible behaviour (he drank away the family’s money, stole from the children’s mother, abandoned his family, and remarried a non-Jew after converting to Russian Orthodoxy). A boy enters yeshiva because he thinks it will impress a girl (she has deemed him not serious enough), only for her to get together with his best friend. Another girl sees her dreams of attending the gymnasium foiled by a faux pas; she quits school, becomes a nanny and only finds freedom on her weekly evening off, when she goes skating. We meet Bundists and Zionists and religious Jews. In addition to failed marriages and broken families we hear of foiled attempts to get a visa to America. So much failure—yet so much life.
The stories are briskly told, offered in Krimstein’s spindly lettering and illustrated by almost abstract, spidery black and white drawings enlivened with splashes of an odd orange colour. They are not beautiful, but the book is lovely nonetheless.
What isn’t lovely—downright sketchy, actually—is Krimstein’s lack of clarity re: the texts. Has he abridged or edited them? He never says. (He does annotate references to the period and to Jewish ritual, often wittily.) Worse, he only names the translator in the acknowledgements page at the end. Shame on Bloomsbury for presenting the book as though Ellen Cassedy doesn’t exist.
Ruth Minsky Sender, The Cage (1986)
Memoir for teens about the author’s Holocaust experiences. Born Rifkele Riva Minska in Lodz in 1926, Sender was the fourth of seven children. When Germany invaded Poland, her older siblings fled to Russia (happily, she would be reunited with them after the war), while Sender, her younger siblings, and her mother were interned in the Lodz ghetto. (Her father had died when she was just a child.) After her mother was deported in September 1942, Sender looked after her younger brothers, especially the gentle Laibele, who had contracted tuberculosis. Despite heroic efforts, notably adopting her brothers so they wouldn’t be dispersed into orphanages or other families, Sender can neither save Laibele, who dies of his illness (the fate of so many in the ghetto), nor ward off deportation for herself. Together with most of the rest the Jews of Lodz, Sender and her remaining brothers are sent to Auschwitz, where they are separated; she never sees them again. After a week in camp, Sender is selected for labour at Mittelsteine, an all-female subcamp of Gross-Rosen in the mountains of southern Silesia. There she continues the habit she had begun in the ghetto of recording her experience, writing poems that she whispers to the other inmates. She becomes a sort of camp mascot, a status that rescues her: the camp doctor persuades the commandant to send the teenager, who has contracted blood poisoning from an infected cut, to the civilian hospital in a nearby town because her poetry is good for camp morale and therefore productivity. Sender recovers from the near-fatal sepsis and survives a subsequent deportation further west, where she is liberated in March 1945. She returns to Lodz, but the family home has been taken over (the new occupants threaten her), and, like so many Polish survivors, she departs Poland for a DP camp in the American sector.
I appreciated the extraordinary aspects of Sender’s story, but The Cage (her name for the various locations of her suffering) didn’t do much for me. Sender hits the “where there’s life there’s hope” note hard and strains for uplift. Arriving at her final place of internment, a camp named Grafenort, she is informed by a fellow inmate that the name means “a place for nobles.” Stroking Sender’s face, the woman adds: “We are nobles, broken in body but still alive.” Maybe this happened, but the book’s insistence on values that the experience itself was daily destroying rings false.
I read The Cage because one of my better recently graduated students had been assigned it in high school. I’m not convinced it’s the best choice for those readers—I’d go with Tec’s Dry Tears, which contextualizes its events more clearly and doesn’t insist on human uplift—but it’s better than a lot of things my students have read. (Looking at you, Striped Pajama Boy.)
Len Deighton, Mexico Set (1984)
Thinking Deighton might be the spy writer for me. Not so twisty or circumlocutionary that I can’t tell what’s happening, but stylish, clever, exciting, as good on character as on plot. Mexico Set is the second Bernie Sampson book—I listened to the first one a while ago, and now I’m thinking it’s time to go on a binge. (There’s 9 all told, I think.) Here Sampson—under suspicion after the bombshell revelation at the end of Berlin Game—is tasked with turning a Soviet agent. As the title implies, the book is partly set in Mexico, and those scenes were much less exoticizing than I’d feared. But Deighton, like Sampson, likes Berlin best, and the book kicked into gear when it returned to the coal-fired atmosphere of the muttering, shabby heart of the 20th century. (That’s me being flowery, the books aren’t like that.) The cliché that the middle part of a trilogy is the weakest doesn’t hold here. Porch reading at its finest.
As you can see, light reading ruled the day—much that was enjoyable, nothing too heavy. (The Gurnahs the richest of the lot, by far.) But that’s what I needed in bringing the semester to a close, and I set myself up for a pretty stellar June. More on that soon. In the meantime, thoughts on any of these?