What I Read, July 2020

Life got to me this month. Days passed in a haze, routines crumbled, mosquitoes and heat kept us inside, a foot injury sharply curtailed my running. No endorphins, no Vitamin D, no hope. US politics even more of a cluster than usual; COVID everywhere, no end in sight, no good options for our daughter’s schooling next year. In theory, I had nothing but time on my hands. In practice, I split my time between Twitter and playing increasingly intricate/soul-destroying games devised by my nine-year-old. Our annual trip to Canada fell through—not a surprise, but a source of real sadness. Not everything was bad: I wrote a short essay on my grandmother; I enjoyed a resurrected reading group; I slowly made my way through David Cesarani’s 1000-page history of the Holocaust (amazing, though not cheering). And I read some other things, namely:

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Ann Cleeves, The Long Call (2019)

New series by Cleeves (of Vera and Shetland fame) set in north Devon featuring DI Matthew Venn, methodical, gay, married, alienated from his religious family. Totally solid procedural (Cleeves knows what she’s doing); I’ll read more about Venn and his colleagues, who Cleeves delineates with care, even managing some surprising character developments without stinting the mystery. It’s not going to rock your world, but it’ll absolutely scratch your procedural itch. Read Kay’s review (though we disagree on Venn’s husband: I liked him a lot more than she did).

Sarah Moss, Cold Earth (2009)

Moss’s first novel isn’t as brilliant as her more recent work, but it’s absorbing and unsettling. The setting is Greenland; the scenario is a haunted archeological dig. The isolation and harsh conditions start getting to the team, especially when one of its members becomes convinced someone or something is upset about the dig. Things get even more freaky when the team loses contact with the outside world, where a pandemic is raging. (Might have seemed a bit far-fetched on the book’s release, but not anymore…) Reading Cold Earth after most of her other books, I realized how much of a piece Moss’s concerns have always been. Her great subject is the intersection of physical and mental extremes, and how women experience those extremes differently than men. Here, though, that interest is more academic than felt; the book more schematic than alive. Except in the description of the landscape: there it sings. If you love wild northern places as much as I do, though, you’ll find enough to like here.

Kate Clanchy, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me (2019)

Powerful book about teaching and learning and writing. Won the Orwell Prize just recently. I had more to say here.

Ijeoma Oluo, So You Want to Talk About Race (2018)

Like many well-meaning leftists, I wanted to read more about race in the wake of the George Floyd/Breonna Taylor protests. (For me, reading is the most comfortable way of doing—a fact I’m ashamed of, though I do translate reading into teaching, which, my therapist keeps trying to tell me, is also doing.) Lucky for me, then, that a colleague organized a group reading of Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race. 80 faculty and staff signed up (!); we discussed the book via Zoom in small groups. Hard to imagine a better introduction to the task of becoming anti-racist. By race, Oluo, born to a Nigerian father and a white American mother, mostly means “black,” but she also includes Latinx, Asian, Pacific Islander, and Indigenous concerns. At first, I found the book a little simple. But as I read on I was impressed by how much material Oluo covers so accessibly without sacrificing nuance. For example, Oluo explains that when it comes to racist speech and actions impact matters more than intention; what microaggressions are and how pervasive and abrading they are; how to understand important terms like intersectionality and equity (vs. equality); and why white people need to do everything they can to avoid centering their own feelings of discomfort when they talk about race.

I moderated one of the Zoom sessions: it was disheartening to see some of the expected sticking points arise (it’s not easy to accept that white people who live in a racist society are in fact racist, even though they’re good people and personally think the Klan is terrible; it’s not easy to realize that even though plenty of white people are poor they’re still privileges when it comes to race; it’s amazing how pernicious and powerful the idea of meritocracy remains); on the other hand, it was heartening to see that the conversation about race on our campus seems to have shifted in the past months (before the meeting we read a report compiled last semester by students of colour about their experience of the college: what to many of us had seemed hectoring now felt simply just).

Katherine Addison, The Angel of the Crows (2020)

Second novel from Addison (who also writes as Sarah Monette), following the much-loved The Goblin Emperor (which I was in the middle of listening to when I stopped commuting; I haven’t found the energy to return to it, though it’s very good). The Angel of the Crows is a steampunk Holmes novel—it started as “wings fan fiction,” which, I learned, is a subset of fan fiction about angels—starring one Dr. Doyle, recently invalided out of the war in Afghanistan after being attacked by a fallen angel, who knocks aimlessly and in increasingly precarious financial straits around London until he meets an angel named Crow who needs a roommate for his flat at 221B Baker Street, from where he, Crow, helps Scotland Yard solve impossible crimes, not least the murders of prostitutes in Whitechapel.

Sound familiar? If you enjoy Holmes, you’ll love the way Addison reworks some of the most famous cases (Copper Beeches, Baskervilles, Speckled Band, etc.) in a world peopled by angels, vampires, and hellhounds. Addison eschews exposition, which I found both satisfying and confusing. I’m still not quite sure how angels are meant to function in this world. (They are good, because anchored to a building or other place, which they protect, unless they are fallen, in which case they are bad, but there’s also a vast stratum of nameless angels—used by Crow as Irregulars—who have neither a domain nor malign intentions. Or something like that). Anyway, it’s good fun, made even more interesting by a nice twist halfway through that I won’t reveal.

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (1881) Trans. Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson (2020)

Got the Proust and Flaubert band back together to tackle this strange and funny 19th century Brazilian novel, out in a brand-new translation. Brás Cubas has died: he tells us about his life, riffs on what it means to tell a story, generally has a zany old time. Part Sterne, part Kafka. Hope to write more about this soon.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah (2013)

Ifemelu, the protagonist of Adichie’s third, splendid novel, comes to the US for college and stays for fifteen years, making it sort-of-big with a blog about race, written from the perspective of an NAB (Non-American Black). Even though Ifemelu has a fabulous gig at Princeton, a (recently-ended) longtime relationship with a hip Ivy League professor, entrée into intellectually and socially elite worlds, and even US citizenship, she decides to return to Nigeria, where she finds herself an Americanah, not fully a foreigner but not a native anymore either. She’s torn between relief and distress, even disdain at what has happened to the country (which is to say, what has happened to her) during her absence. Americanah is a sprawling novel, with dozens of characters, mostly brilliantly realized, even the walk-ons. It’s also a straightforward two-hander: the real reason Ifemelu returns is to reconnect with her first boyfriend, Obinze, whose own travels to the West, in his case a much more difficult and less successful sojourn in the UK, take up about a third of the book.

At first I didn’t think much of Ifemelu’s blog entries (included at the end of many chapters), but I liked them more as I read on and eventually I realized Adichie had pulled a clever trick on me—the posts improve as Ifemelu does as a writer. The blog’s didactic elements sometimes spill over to the novel itself—Adieche’s portrayal of academics and other professionals during the Obama campaign is the least convincing part of the book, though I too, with a stab of pain when I compare then and now, remember dancing with joy the night of the election. (Not that I want another Obama; I want more; I don’t want a slightly nicer status quo plus respect for rule of law (although I do want that too!); I want change: I want AOC.)

Ifemelu isn’t always likeable—being “nice” isn’t something she learned while in the US; her impatience is bracing—and Adichie doesn’t feel the need to redeem her, but the novel does have a satisfyingly happy ending, made even more compelling because it doesn’t let us forget that one person’s happiness is usually someone else’s unhappiness.

I learned a lot from the book—what it’s like to be the kept woman of a high-ranking official with largesse to dispose yet who lives in constant fear of being deposed; what jollof is and why it’s delicious but why one could also get used to being able to choose to eat anything from anywhere; what kind of work illegals do in the US versus in the UK; how one generation’s accomplishments and pride in a nation become another’s confinement and shame. And I learned a lot about hair: about weaves and braids and afros and how to take care of hair (wrapping it in a satin handkerchief overnight is key) and how much it hurts (like, physically) to do so, which is to say I learned that hair is politics.

I’m planning to read Adieche’s other books, especially her epic of the Biafran war, Half of a Yellow Sun. The legacy of that conflict, especially as it’s shaped the relationships between Igbo and Yoruba, seemed important background to Americanah that mostly passed me by.

Kate Clanchy, Antigona and Me (2008) (first published as What is She Doing Here?)

I loved Clanchy’s book on teaching (see above), but I really, really loved this earlier work of narrative nonfiction. One day, walking through her neighbourhood with her young son, Clanchy meets a woman and her three children. The children get to playing, the women to talking. Antigona (Clanchy’s appropriate pseudonym for the woman, whose story involves plenty of defiance) is a refugee from the recent war in Kosovo. The story of how she and the children made it to the UK, which comes out, like all stories of trauma, in confusing bits and pieces over a long time, is remarkable, and, again like all stories of trauma, nigh-on implausible.

The women become friendly, and Clanchy hires Antigona as a cleaner (and later as a nanny), and rounds up a bunch of her middle-class professional friends to do the same. Antigona is a remarkable worker—in addition to all the domestic work she also has a job as a waitress—who does her best to get ahead, making a good life for her children at the cost of rarely seeing them. (She also has debts to people smugglers and the debts of family members to pay off.)

There are two reasons Antigona is so good at cleaning: one, she knows how to do manual labour in a way Clanchy and her friends, and probably most readers of this book, don’t (though Antigona never lets her romanticize that experience, casting scorn on Clanchy’s preference for old things, and reminding her the backbreaking work she and all women in her part of the world grind away at has no redeeming quality); and two, her life has been organized around ideas of cleanliness, as much metaphorically as literally. In the Malësi—“the highlands,” the mountainous region where Kosovo, Albania, and Macedonia meet—the rules that matter are neither legal nor religious (her family is nominally Muslim, but it means nothing to her) but rather cultural, specifically a complicated, unwritten, but clearly codified set of values and behaviours called the Kanun. To break the rules of Kanun is to feel shame—for yourself and for everyone in your family. The Kanun, Clanchy argues, is way of controlling women, a way to keep them “clean.” Cleanliness isn’t just a temporary state in the face of the endless messiness of life—not just a matter of vacuuming or scrubbing things that will soon once again be dirty—but a state of being that must be maintained at all costs.

As you can see, Clanchy’s memoir gets into thorny and abstract issues. But it’s written with verve, clarity, and ease. It’s about how women get along, with other women, with their children, with their families, with their careers and aspirations. Men barely make an appearance: the ones that do are clueless, wastrels, or violent. Antigona is the star of the show—physically and emotionally she’s built to be a star, and she knows it (qualities that make life hard for her children): when Clanchy proposes the idea of a book, she nods her head, and immediately suggests a movie, or a miniseries, that would be even better. She’s not selfish, though: she recognizes her story is also the story of many: “There are a thousand women behind me in this country, having shit lives, ‘scuse my language. No one can understand their lives, here. They are stuck, they cannot move forward. It takes one to break the ice.”

But Clanchy is important too, and not just as the one with the skills and resources and nous to interpret for Antigona, with all the ethical dilemmas that position holds: her no-nonsense personality is so appealing, and her willingness to butt heads with Antigona fills me, a person who flees from conflict, with awe. Clanchy recalls Betty Friedan writing in the 50s about “the problem,” which in the new century has morphed into a different one: “The ‘problem’ in 1959 was women’s shame over their wish to work outside the home, whereas ours in 2001 was same at our inability to work outside the home or even inside the home without the home collapsing.” “Our” here refers predominantly to middle-class white women, but whatever differences might exist between these women and women in the Malësi, they are linked by the experience if shame. What does it mean, Clanchy asks, for her flourishing to be possible only at the cost of another woman’s constriction (“I benefit from her stunting”)?

Seems like Antigona and Me went largely unnoticed when it first came out. That sucks, and I’d love to see it get another chance. People might be readier to read it now than they were in 2008, since memoir is read so much more widely now. The concerns of what those of us in safe, stable countries owe to those on the run from unsafe, unstable ones (which in many cases we made unsafe) has only become timelier. Antigona’s appreciation for the rule of law feels so poignant at a moment when we see that breaking down, at least in the US. And Clanchy’s thoughtful account of difference—how do you love someone with whom you have fundamental disagreements—is perennially relevant.

Clanchy told me on Twitter that this is her best book—or at least the one she likes best. I believe it. I stayed up until three in the morning to finish it; I regretted nothing the next day. It’s going to be on my best of the year list no question, and I urge you to track it down.

 Irmgard Keun, Gilgi, One of Us (1931) Trans. Geoff Wilkes (2013)

Got a jump start on WIT month with an old favourite. Gilgi has neither the joy of The Artificial Silk Girl nor the anguish of After Midnight, but it’s an impressive debut. In his excellent afterword, translator Wilkes tells the story of how Keun chose a publisher from the phone book, dropped off the manuscript, then returned the next day to see if they would buy it. It kept us up all night, the publisher admitted. And a star was born. Of course, fate got in the way, specifically having her books banned by the Nazis. And in this regard—the Hollywood glamour story of success; the crumbling of that success by forces larger than any individual—the anecdote fits the trajectory of many of Keun’s heroines, not least the eponymous Gilgi.

When the story begins, twenty-one-year-old Gilgi is a go-getter in late Weimar-era Köln (passing reference is made to street battles between communists and Nazis). She exercises every morning, takes language classes, saves money to travel, and spends an hour or two in a rented room every evening improving herself. She’s also a little conformist/prissy, though her skill at deflecting male attention is amusing—and depressing. It sucks how carefully she must deflect the fragile male egos that have so much power over her. The book has strong Rhys/Comyns vibes, not least in its use of “you,” a technique Rhys especially used to create distance between her female protagonists and themselves. Gilgi often laments her inability to express herself, to speak in anything other than “grey words,” unlike the men in her life. Her language is as constricted as her life possibilities—fitting, then, that she is a typist, transcribing the language of others. (I’m reminded by the theorist of technology Friedrich Kittler’s point that typewriter—like computer—originally meant the young woman who typed or computed, and only later named the tool she used to it.)

In addition to the matter of language, Gilgi is a book about mothers—at least four are important to the young woman—and what other roles, if any, women can fill. It’s also about how being with another person both enriches and shrinks your life: in this regard, it has an unconvincing, although open happy ending. (It’s interesting to compare the end of After Midnight, which depicts the same scenario, but packs a much more powerful emotional punch.) Still, I loved the novel’s roving point of view, and the way Keun used that play with perspective to make her gender critique even clearer (as when we see into the minds of the men who only want one thing from Gilgi, for example).

If you’re new to Keun, I’d start with those other two books, but Gilgi is absolutely worth reading.

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That was July. Clanchy was the clear winner, with Adiechie coming second. And August promises better, including a vacation with some uninterrupted reading time, which will, I hope, prepare me to launch into whatever the new year promises.

 

Going Beyond Ourselves: Kate Clanchy’s Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me

In the early 90s, Kate Clanchy was a young teacher in a decaying mining town in Scotland. Tasked with teaching her thirteen-year-olds about HIV, she soon realizes the children know nothing about sex. She has them write their questions anonymously and promises to answer them, no matter what. Never since in her thirty years in the classroom, Clancy avers in Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, has she been so frightened. But the sex education class goes well: the children are interested, relieved, full of relieved laughter. What if you’re having sex and need to pee? Can you have sex while menstruating? Most of the questions, she explains in a characteristically deft phrase, are “not about juices, but about love: could anybody love; could gay people love; could you change later on. I only had to say the words aloud and say yes.”

As a prize-winning writer, Clanchy is in the classroom less often these days, but she can still silence a fractious room with a glance or chasten obnoxious teenagers on a bus. Yet despite these formidable qualities, she invariably appears in the book as the kind of teacher she was in that moment in Scotland: someone who makes things possible, someone who offers a model. I only had to say the words aloud and say yes.

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In the Scottish classroom, lesson completed, Callum sidles up to her. Callam, who, “in a class of undersized, undeveloped children,” is “by far the least tall, the least developed.” The boy asks:

‘Whit wis the name for men and men?’

‘That was homosexuality, Callum.’

‘Aye. And whit wis the name for women and men?’

‘That’s heterosexuality, Callum.’

‘Aye. Well, when I grow up, I’m no’ going to have either o’ them. Ah think Ah’ll just have a big dog.’

But Kids Say The Darndest Things is not, thank God, Clanchy’s modus operandi. Here’s what she says next:

No one said ‘fluid’ back then—gender fluid, fluid identity—but fluid is a good word for that afternoon. The room seemed liquid, lacking in barriers. And fluid was what those children were, behind their stern names and rigid codes. Changeable, molten, and warm as any child; waiting for a mould, hoping there would be space for the swelling, shrinking, and unknowable quantity of themselves. For Callum, that space needed to include the possibility of living on his own, and that was as important to him as the possibility, for surely one child in that class, and very probably more, of falling in love with someone of your own sex. So, I didn’t say that would be bestiality, Callum, though the thought flickered across my mind. I said yes, yes, Callum, you could do that. A dog would be very nice. That, Callum, would be grand.

The book is full of generous and smart reflections of this sort. It would have been easy (but wrong) to joke about this provincial child. And Clanchy is honest enough to suggest that she thought about it. Instead she gets a laugh without a joke, and a warm laugh at that. Plus, she shows us how important flexibility is to good teaching. Look how alive her prose is, studded with precise, mobile adjectives—students are “changeable, molten, and warm,” wanting their “swelling, shrinking, unknowable” selves to find a place in the world. We don’t create ourselves from nothing, no matter what bootstrap conservatives would have us believe, we need models, moulds to use Clanchy’s word. Family—especially extended family, especially that extended family of friends and mentors and people who wish us well we have if we are lucky, a topic Clanchy explores brilliantly in her earlier memoir, Antigona and Me—often provides such a mould. And so does school.

In addition to her narrative non-fiction, Clanchy has written a novel and a book of short stories. But she is best known as a poet; in addition to her own verse, she has complied anthologies of poetry written by her students, mostly from the multicultural school in Oxford where she teaches. Students speak dozens of languages at home; no ethnic/racial group makes up a minority. It is a truly diverse place, an exhilarating but also difficult reality, especially for someone trying to teach poetry. The landscapes Clanchy’s students have grown up in are not “ones with lakes and low hills and houses filled with grandmothers in aprons who baked sponge cakes”; thanks to unconsciously imbibed structural racism, the students don’t understand their experiences as proper subjects for poems. (She tells an anecdote about two girls from the subcontinent who write adventures stories together, stories set in American summer camps they have no experience with. The stories are awkward, misshapen. “‘The thing is,’” she gently points out, “‘canoes don’t have engines? Usually.’”)

So Clanchy brings to class examples from young poets, written by POC whenever possible. More than the subject matter, though, or the background of the writer, what matters is her method. She passes around a poem, asks the students to read it, then starts talking with them, not interpreting the poem so much as just seeing what conversation it sparks. Then she sets them to writing their own poems, maybe asking them to copy the structure of the example, or giving them a line to repeat. They write amazing poems.

Everything Clanchy does with students follows this credo, music to my ears:

We are learning to write by reading and to read by writing.

She adds:

We will know we are learning to read well when we recognize beauty and truth in our own writing and in others’ writing. We will know we are progressing in writing at those times when we go beyond ourselves; when we express what we did not even know we meant in a graceful synthesis of words and sounds that is both ours alone and part of the richness of our languages and literatures. We will know we have learned much about English at various points in the future, near and far, when we express ourselves confidently in writing, and when we find joy and humour and wisdom in reading.

I almost balked at “beauty and truth,” but this isn’t Keats or Arnold (not that I imagine Clanchy has any problem with them). And I love the “going beyond ourselves” formulation (not least because of that inclusive “our”—these words apply to Clanchy as much as her kids). I believe in this idea too, I chant it at my students, I’ve seen it happen. When you give students time, and encouragement, and good models, when you help them let go of the idea that writing is a mere transcription of some preexisting idea, and show them that writing is thinking, is creating, you get exciting results. Moreover, you don’t always know the full extent of what they will achieve. You plant the seeds and trust in the flower, though you’re not often around to see it.

Interestingly, Clanchy doesn’t follow the prevailing (in the US, anyway) wisdom that writing, especially creative writing, is self-expression. She is uninterested in using writing to process trauma, especially for students who are refugees or poor or both (as many of Clanchy’s students are) and who know trauma first-hand. She admits, though, that her philosophy has changed: she has come to see how expression matters inasmuch as it leads to detachment, distance, and control: “The writing of a poem does not open the writer to a desperate blurt… rather, it orders the experience it recounts and gives the writer a grip on it.” Even when they exaggerate or self-aggrandize, as her student poets often do, they are controlling their experience. And if they do more, “if they dig deep, and find effective images, and make a good poem out of the truths of their lives, then that is not just control, but power. It is different from being happy; it isn’t a cure for anything, but it is profoundly worth having.”

Clanchy’s insistence that feeling oneself a valid, meaningful person—being legible to others as a fellow human being, sadly much rarer than you’d think—lies at the root of the book’s most inspiring idea. She calls it “patrimony,” by which she means the abilities, interests, and dispositions a child brings to an educational situation. Instead of worrying—as middle-class parents in the US and UK routinely do—what school will give their kid, we should consider what their kid will bring to school. Writing about the decision she and many of her well-educated friends face—do we send our kid to the local school (more diverse, less highly ranked) or to the “better” one?—she concludes, “You are taking something away from the community when you withdraw your child.” Moreover, to do so is to destroy a virtuous circle. Because it isn’t just the community that gains; it’s also the child. Here’s the balance she draws up after she and a friend decide, inciting much neighbourhood consternation, to send their boys to the local school:

What they received at school: those grades [her son did just as well as he would have done at the “better” school], a special card from Faroq entitling them to free minicab rides in exchange for  all the help in Maths, the ability to knit, an acquaintanceship with kids from every corner of the globe, and the confidence that if they walked across any rough park in town, late at night, and were approached by a hooded gang, it would probably just be Mo and Izzat, saying hi. What they gave: their own oddity in the rich mix of the school, their Maths coaching, their articulate voices in class, their academic demands, their parents’ informed labour, their high grades to spike the stats, their evident wellness and cheer to act as advertisement for other parents… And one other thing they got: the knowledge that they had something to give—a patrimony—as well as something to take, from the communities they joined.

Clanchy disparages academic streaming: “the good done to the selected minority is always smaller than the bad done to the rejected majority.” By contrast, she values special classes for struggling students—what at least at the time of writing was called in the UK Inclusion Units (IU). These beliefs are contradictory only from the position of equality, rather than that of equity. Many, even in the education system, disparage the IU as holding lower performing kids to lower standards. But “higher standards” is almost always a code for “what rich, white, well-adjusted kids know how to do.” Standards in the IU, where Clanchy teaches poetry once a week, are in fact challenging. “It’s just that the IU acknowledged that for some kids, very simple things were challenging.”

I love how Clanchy’s mixes tartness (evident when she demolishes streaming) and generosity (evident in her writing about the IU). She’s always ready to counter received wisdom, always ready to imagine why people do what they do, even when those actions seem self-defeating or dismaying to middle-class norms. Writing about why so many girls in the IU got pregnant, for example, she concludes:

The IU girls did it to contribute to the family home, to be like their families, or because even six months in the council mother-and-baby unit as you waited for a flat was better than living in an unhappy home. [From a US perspective, it’s amazing how generous the UK benefits system seems. That is not a compliment to the UK.] They did it because they didn’t know anyone who had done it differently, and middle-class choices such as university seemed completely unreal. They did it because they weren’t willing to reject everything about their own upbringing, especially when people from different backgrounds had not been helpful to them. They did it because they wanted someone to love, and because they believed, as we all do, that they could make a better job of it than their own mothers. They did it because it was the only route to a bit of independence and status realistically available to them. They did it because they weren’t stupid, not because they were.

These analyses are even easier to take on board because Clanchy doesn’t spare herself. Take, for example, the story of Kristell, a girl in the IU who is bombarded with unwanted attention by boys (they snatch her papers, they read aloud over her shoulder, they harass her in all sorts of petty, maddening ways). One day Kristell plaintively asks why they do it. Because you’re so beautiful, Clanchy replies, because they want your attention, because they like you.

Kristell’s face crumples: You’ve got it all wrong, she says. They hate me. No, Clanchy tuts, that’s not right. But later she concedes that Kristell knew what’s what. And the problem wasn’t just the boys. She was right

to tell me that the boys’ attention was a form of hate; it was, and so was my attitude to her, so was the attitude of our entire society, the attitude that identifies disruption as coming from the young girl, not the gazing man, that attributes power to such a powerless person.

Clanchy’s writing pedagogy aims to chip against this structural disparity, to replace, even just a little, even for the kids as expert in self-sabotage as Kristell—that is, as resourceful in finding even this desperate and Pyrrhic strategy for responding to the impossible situations of their lives: Kristell writes poems about self-harm and rape—powerlessness with power.

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Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me has many fine qualities. It’s often funny—a student at a debate tournament makes a long speech “about climate change, linked, as it so often is, to littering.” It’s often heartfelt—to a colleague who, having dedicated herself to the IU and done so much for so little recognition, despairs over the value of her work, Clanchy stoutly insists, “‘It was a great thing, what you did in the IU. One of the best things I’ve ever seen.’” And, as these and the many other examples I’ve been compelled to quote suggest, it’s always wise and generous.

I wish this book would be published in the US, but I bet it won’t. US publishers are parochial and the book’s necessarily specific to the UK education system: seldom have I so enjoyed a book I understood so little of. But Some Kids will speak even to readers who, like me, don’t know what GCSE stands for or what a comprehensive is. Not because growing up is the same everywhere (though some bits are) or because everyone could learn from Clanchy’s way of teaching (though many could). But because to write carefully about particular situations—to indulge our fascination about the details of our lives—is to write for wide appeal. Some Kids recently won the Orwell Prize for Political Writing. Maybe that will entice someone to give it a try over here.

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Clanchy starts the book with a little hymn to September, “school’s New Year.” A time to start afresh, to meet new students, to see how old students have become new people over the summer. A time when it’s easy to remember the wonderful parts of teaching, perhaps most importantly, she suggests, how the classroom takes her out of herself.

This line resonated strongly with me—I’ve always found the classroom a way of both being and escaping myself. That’s how this introvert can thrive in that performance space; that’s why the crap of daily life can fall away for an hour. This September will be the first time in twenty years I won’t be in the classroom—given how fraught, how dangerous this fall is likely to be, I’m even more grateful for a fortunately timed sabbatical—and I know I’ll miss it. But I’ll be thinking about it. Instead of being in the classroom I’ll be writing about it—or trying to, anyway. It’s time to give myself the chance to write a long-imagined book on teaching the Holocaust. I’m frightened of this opportunity, at least half-convinced I’m not up to the task. I read Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me as an example of what I might write. Often I was daunted. How will I ever write anything this good? How will I capture my students so vividly? How will I blend narrative and analysis so elegantly? Then I thought about Clanchy’s idea of models. I remembered what she said about writing poems. First you read some, and then you try them on for size. You imitate them, you tinker, you improvise, you bring your inimitable self to the thing you’re copying.

Deep breath. Here goes.

 

 

 

On Lumbago

Both of my Swiss grandmothers loved to garden—vegetables more than flowers. They came of age in the 1930s, when thrift, frugality, parsimoniousness, always characteristic Swiss traditions, were especially valuable. Decades later, as a child, I would spend the summer in Switzerland every four years or so. These trips were the most indelible experiences of my life.

After especially busy sessions in the garden, my paternal grandmother (we called her Grossmami) would be almost laid-up with back pain. Nothing could actually incapacitate her: she was always in motion, a doer more than a thinker. She allowed herself the occasional nap, but that was it. Idleness was not for her.

I was never as close to Grossmami as to my maternal grandmother, my Grossmueti, but I loved her: she was sweet and witty and sassy and had gorgeous, opulent hair she was vain about. I inherited the hair and the vanity.

In the summer of 1986, when I was 14, my sister and I spent a month in Switzerland on our own before our parents joined us. We ate a lot of vegetables from the garden: lettuce, tomatoes, rutabagas (gross) and green beans, so many green beans. (In retrospect, I wonder how much radiation we consumed with them—the Chernobyl disaster had happened only a few months earlier.)

Once, when Grossmami came in from the garden, hands on her back, bent forward, I asked how she had hurt herself. She spoke no English, really; my Swiss German was good but hardly perfect. She told me she had a Hexenschuss. I did not know this word, it seemed strange and ominous. Something about a witch?

I mean, I was not totally crazy. Eine Hexe is a witch. Ein Schuss is a shot. A shot from a witch? A witchy shot? Surely not. She tried to explain: it came from bending over in the garden too long, it happened when you got older, it hurt, it went away in a day or two. It was no fun but it was no big deal.

The next time I was at my maternal grandmother’s (the grandmothers lived about 20 minutes apart) I looked in a German-English dictionary. Grossmueti spoke only a little more English than Grossmami, but hers was a house of books.

The few books owned by my paternal grandparents were clearly for show, unwanted sediment from some long-forgotten Book of the Month Club-type membership. I still remember a gilt-backed Crime and Punishment, a book I’m sure they never read but that I knew I would. (Even then I was good at using the thought of reading something—as opposed to actually reading it—to mark the person I wanted to be.) My maternal grandmother, by contrast, had lots of books. They were mostly my grandfather’s, a Marxist machinist who loved Charlie Chaplin but who never seemed funny to me, on the contrary, he was stern and unsmiling and had always scared me (he died of a heart infection when I was ten). Some of the books were her own, mostly about women in religion; in her quiet way she was a feminist, it seemed to me to fit with her quiet dignity (she was very tall, especially for a woman of that time, that might have contributed to my sense—when I think of her I see her on her bicycle, she took it everywhere and never learned to drive). Even as kid it was clear how different Grossmueti’s house was from Grossmami’s. Grossmueti lived in a town, Grossmami in the country. Grossmueti’s kitchen had no need of flypaper. Her living room had no television. Television was a big deal at Grossmami’s, although this was back when there were no programs during the day. All of these things made their houses seem totally different to me. What I might say now is that although my father’s parents were richer, my mother’s parents had more cultural capital.

Which takes me back to the dictionary. Ein Hexenschuss, I read, was “lumbago.” (The dictionary was clearly British.) That didn’t help. I knew the word from Agatha Christie mysteries, where people, mostly curates, sometimes suffered from it, but I didn’t know what it meant. It always sounded vaguely like a dance, though I knew that couldn’t be right. Hexenschuss, the word as inscrutable as my grandmother’s pain, remained one of those cross-cultural mysteries, those gaps in communication that made me feel more helpless and childish than I was, and that always left a gap between me and my relatives. It was frustrating to be a bookish child, in love with language, yet unable to communicate to family with ease and nuance.

Flash forward thirty-five years and now I know that the pinching feeling I get when I vacuum is lumbago. Every week, as I push the bloody thing around in a losing battle against the dog hair that coats the house, the word runs through my head (Hexenschuss, Hexenschuss, Hexenschuss) and I think of my grandmother Madeleine Stuber, née Muriset, who was from a town known in German as Biel and French as Bienne (like the writer Robert Walser whom I almost wrote my dissertation on) and whose first language was French and who was as elegant as people in that part of rural Switzerland got, and who would have surely been happier with another husband but who, I think, had a good life, certainly a long one, and might in fact even still be alive had she not elected in 2015 to take up her right, under Swiss law, to end her life.

She was in her mid 90s then, depressed and ground down by age but still mentally and mostly physically together. She shuffled a bit, worried about falling. She was probably developing Parkinson’s. Her decision to kill herself through physician-assisted suicide did not go over well with her children, my father and my aunts. (No one ever knew what my uncle was thinking.)

I’m reminded now that hexen means to do witchcraft, to perform black magic, to do ill—this is where the English word “hex” comes from. Our word “hag” has the same origins; eine Hexe is also a pejorative for a woman, a minx, a hussy, at least it used to be, the term might be old-fashioned and definitely should be retired. Madeleine was not a minx, though it’s the kind of thing people in my father’s family might say: the Stubers were into snappy retorts and teasing, all very funny, but with an undercurrent of meanness, as teasing always carries. So Hexe is also a curse, which is probably the primary referent in Hexenschuss—that pain makes you feel cursed all right. I feel sad about the end of my grandmother’s life, but not angry. I don’t think her life was curses, or her suicide a curse on her descendants. No crime, no punishment.

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My grandmother Madeleine with my grandfather Paul

Instead I think that at least I spend an hour or so thinking about her each week. As I busy myself with the vacuum, taking grim satisfaction in making order from mess—I’m a little grossed out by dirt, gardening has never been my thing, the vacuum is my rake, my hoe, the rug and the floorboards my garden—I feel the pinch in my lower back and think about Madeleine, who knew I was different from her and everyone else on that side of the family, but didn’t mind, wasn’t made insecure by that difference, never forced her gangly, awkward grandson into the garden, left him to his books. Takes my mind off the pain of the lumbago.

 

What I Read, June 2020

The reading month was a tale of two parts: a blissful vacation week, non-stop reading, each book as strong as the last, followed by two weeks teaching a workshop on writing personal statements. Fun, but tons of work and although I read a lot it was all med school and Fulbright applications. In non-reading life, the weather remained surprisingly agreeable, and the COVID situation in Arkansas hadn’t yet deteriorated as it has since (though the mask-less signs were there). I was doing okay at the time, but now that feels like a century ago. I worry about my job, my health, my loved ones’ health, the planet’s health. Let’s talk books instead.

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Tessa Hadley, The Master Bedroom (2007)

Not as terrific as Late in the Day but still pretty damn terrific. Kate Flynn leaves London and her academic career behind and returns home to Wales. Cardiff is small—it’s not long before she runs into the brother of a childhood friend and falls for him. David’s marriage is not falling apart exactly, but something’s going on, his wife has new friends, disappears for days at a time. David is drawn to Kate—or maybe to her childhood home, a ramshackle mansion grandiosely named La Firenze where Kate’s delightful, increasingly senile mother potters about while Kate practices chamber music. Before long, Kate meets Jamie, David’s 17-year-old son from his first marriage, and before she knows it finds herself involved, in different, complicated ways, with both men.

This could be a farce, but poignancy is more Hadley’s thing. But so is passion, with its messy and violent challenge to decorum. By the end of the novel, a lot of things get broken; some new things get made from the pieces. Hadley’s really doing it for me at this stage in my life.

Sarah Moss, Signs for Lost Children (2015)

I’m usually impatient with novels that switch between two perspectives. Just when I’ve fallen into scenario or point of view, I’m jarred by having to return to the other. And I’m usually more interested in one of the stories. But Moss, really hitting her stride as a writer in this, her fourth novel, a sequel to the very fine Bodies of Light, avoids these traps. At the end of the previous novel, Ally Moberley, one of Britain’s first female doctors in the 1880s, married an engineer named Tom Cavendish. Here the newlyweds find themselves separated when she takes on a job as a doctor in an insane asylum in Falmouth and he travels to Japan to build lighthouses. We learn a lot about Ally’s work and almost nothing about Tom’s—the sections in Japan focus on his secondary task of buying fabric and art objects for an English collector (this makes him basically a personal shopper, and part of the way the novel feminizes him, to use Moss’s own description). Moss’s research is impeccable but lightly worn, even oblique—I think Rohan said something about these being modernist Victorian novels. Moss evokes with equal skill Tom’s feelings of foreignness (which turn to admiration for Japanese society) and Ally’s struggles to challenge the norms of a medical world in which she is as much on sufferance as her mentally-ill patients. There’s even an intriguing plot element: will the couple survive the geographic and psychological distance between them?

Above all, though, Signs for Lost Children, like its predecessor, is Ally’s book. For Moss’s main subject is how easily, terribly, and insidiously we internalize the bad emotions other people, often those closest to us, direct at us: whether jealousy, anger, disparagement or contempt. Ally’s struggles to overcome those voices hit me in the gut.

Tanya Talaga, Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Deaths, and Hard Truths in a Northern City (2017)

The northern city of Toronto Star reporter Talaga’s title is Thunder Bay, Ontario, but it could be almost anywhere in Canada, a country where indigenous lives matter less than anyone else’s. Which isn’t to deny the particularity of Talaga’s subject. The fallen feathers are seven indigenous teenagers who went missing and were later found dead, mostly pulled from one of the city’s many waterways. The police, Talaga shows, were never too interested in investigating: another missing Indian, probably drunk and careless. In fact it’s likely some of these young people were murdered—indigenous people are regularly attacked and abused in Thunder Bay: the podcast Canadaland, in a powerful series(featuring Talaga), explored this possibility—but Talaga’s interest here is on a whole system built on broken promises, especially when it comes to education. After the terrible legacy of the residential school system, indigenous people were supposed to have more say in their children’s education, and more money to help them build a new system. But if young people in small northern settlements want to continue to high school they need to fly south, which, in Ontario anyway, usually means going to Thunder Bay. Billeted with foster families paid to take them—some good, some not—living in a place many times bigger than anywhere they’ve known before, missing loved ones themselves damaged by generations of abuse, they struggle. Even though organizations, some indigenous-led, exist to help them, resources and cultural will are lacking.

Talaga’s prose is workmanlike, and her choices in structuring the book sometimes confused me. (A moving section on residential schools could have been the basis of a separate book.) But this powerful book should be read by all Canadians, and everyone who idealizes the place. I cried reading the last pages. The prejudices instilled in me growing up white on the prairies in the 1970s an 80s haven’t been uprooted from reading this book, but they’re more obvious to me now.

Anita Brookner, Look at Me (1983)

Justly famous. This novel provoked many responses when I tweeted my love for it, mostly similarly enthusiastic. Many readers seem to think this, Brookner’s third novel, is her first great one. (Her debut was pretty terrific; I’ve yet to read her second.) Frances Hinton works in a medical library, the kind of sleepy, not especially oppressive job that doesn’t seem to exist anymore (and maybe never did, outside books). She lives with her mother’s former servant in a sepulchral apartment she inherited on her parents’ death. She writes, a little, a story is published and admired. Her life is quiet without being desperate. Yet desperation runs through Frances, as suggested by Brookner’s marvelous title, a phrase Frances regularly howls onto the page. “Look at me” could be self-deprecatory, or coquettish, or rebuking. But in France’s narration it’s a demand—for visibility, legibility, intelligibility. A demand kindled when she is taken up by the dashing physician Nick Fraser and his glamorous wife, Alix. Suddenly Frances is eating out and meeting people, including a kindly doctor whom she gets involved with, but in a detached way, until the relationship that blows up in a surprising way. The WASPs are horrible, it’s the beginning of the rise of the City and all that 80s excessive consumption stuff, the kindliest character is a disabled Jew. All strange and marvelous, and offered to us in less than 200-pages. The most marvelous bit of all, the scene everyone on Twitter mentioned, is a hallucinatory walk through nighttime London, incredibly menacing. There’s a lot of menace in this book, in fact (Frances’s previous lover has been cruel, perpetrated some Jamesian obscure hurt alluded to darkly but firmly.) Brookner is often compared to James or Bowen, but the novel’s last line reminded me of the end of Beckett’s Molloy. Brookner is icier, though, and less funny. Icy domesticity? Yes, please! I’m going to read the rest of her books on my sabbatical.

Sybille Bedford, Jigsaw: An Unsentimental Education (1989)

Book of the month! The year? The century?!? Oh who knows but damn this is good. I saw it was shortlisted for the Booker and, amazed that it didn’t win, took a look at what did. (Remains of the Day: worthy for sure and hard to pick but might take Jigsaw.) Clearly some people appreciated it at the time, but I think it reads less strangely now than it might have then—reviews could call it autofiction and have a way to pigeonhole it. Although pigeonholing is everything this book is not. A fictionalized version of Bedford’s extraordinary life, what she called her unsentimental education. From her first memory (being wheeled in a too-small pram through the streets of Copenhagen, then parked outside the apartment of a writer her mother had come to seduce) through her childhood with her father in a chateau in Baden (which sounds amazing, but post WWI the once-noble family was so poor that father and daughter nearly froze to death in the place, with hardly any clothes and little to eat, only a fabulous cellar to console them), on through life with her mother and her mother’s kind younger lover, first in Italy and then on the Côte d’Azur, with interregna in England, all on her own, a teenager making her way in the world, and back to France where she ran with a crowd that included Aldous and Maria Huxley—the whole thing is so incredible. Not glamorous, mostly she was poor and hard done-by, but amazing.

The book belongs to Bedford’s mother: titanic, careless, insecure, lordly, in the end tragic. But there are a ton of other great characters too. Most delightful of all, though, is Bedford’s narrative voice. You get aperçus:

Are all young children unregenerate creatures? Incapable of moral responses? responses of the heart? Can these be awakened? Mine were not. I was unregenerate and self-absorbed.

You get loose-limbed syntax:

He [her grandfather] had died in his nineties at Voss Strasse before the end of the war – I was there: a death in the house.

And you get both at once:

When I am trying to think of those years in NW1, and I haven’t thought of them for a very long time, they seem to have been all of a piece, a uniform round. It can’t have been wholly like that. There must have been some process of growing up, at whatever rate; life does widen and not only by visits to the British museum, the Tate and Winchester Cathedral. Yet the only thing that remains vivid is the physical feel of living in London, young and on very little though sufficient money. The buses—one was always running after, catching or just missing a last bus; the queuing for a play in Shaftesbury Avenue; the Lyons’ Corner House afterwards (poached egg on toast); Bovril at a coffee stall very late at night; the elegance of Mayfair streets at lunch time; how splendid the men, how pretty the girls, how well dressed everyone was, how en fête; the smell of the cheaper Soho restaurants (upholstery, grease, spice, trapped air); my digs.

Read it!

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Susie Steiner, Remain Silent (2020)

Third Manon Bradshaw novel isn’t as suspenseful as the first, but its character development is even better. Such a range of registers: I laughed aloud and wanted to cry. An Eastern European subplot is handled with much more thoroughness than usual. But more important than the book is the news that Steiner is gravely, perhaps terminally ill. It is so terrible, I send a prayer for her healing.

James Alan McPherson, Hue and Cry (1968)

McPherson’s debut includes two terrific stories—“A Matter of Vocabulary” and “A Solo Song: For Doc,” the former about brothers who pick up after-school jobs at a grocery store and learn how much they differ (it’s going straight onto my short fiction syllabus); the latter about the end of the Pullman porter era—a couple of satisfactory ones, and several joyless and unpleasant ones. There’s not a single sensitively portrayed female character in the book and, although the scenarios occasionally reminded of Malamud I missed the sympathy that attends even Malamud’s most miserable characters. Sometimes I think the 60s were a happier time than our own unhappy one, but then I read something like this and think, nope, at least not for everybody. Even Edward P. Jones’s introduction—which I looked forward to, he’s a favourite of mine—feels dutiful. Did McPherson get better?

Dola de Jong, The Tree and the Vine (1954) Trans. Kristen Gehrman (2020)

More curiosity than masterpiece, de Jong’s novel of unconsummated lesbian love in 1930s Holland is given a sprightly translation by Kristen Gehrman. Bea meets Erica, they move in together as friends, Bea is more and more obsessed with her, to the point that her boyfriend leaves her, which Bea isn’t sad about, in part because she’s so sad or conflicted or unsure or something by Erica, who isn’t especially nice to her. Unhappy lesbian stories are pretty common in the first half of the 20th century, though this one has an intriguing frame in which Bea, writing from postwar life in the US, intimates that she has found happiness or at least contentment. But de Jong is pretty haphazard with that retrospection. I dunno, the book didn’t quite work for me; I wanted to like it more than I did.  I’ve a hunch, though, that I might appreciate it more on a second reading.

Megha Majumdar, A Burning (2020)

Ostensibly about the aftermath of a sectarian terrorist attack in Kolkata (fictional, but modelled on a real one in Bangladesh), A Burning is really about how money and a sense of belonging and counting as a human being are connected—in other words, about the reality for most people in the world right now. The novel is structured around different first-person points of view. (Surely some Jameson-inspired critics are writing about how different-walks-of-life-that-get-connected narratives reflect our economic and social ties under late capitalism.) A young woman—who might have abetted the terrorists—posts a mild criticism of the government on Facebook and is arrested. Her former PE teacher happens upon a demonstration organized by a nationalistic political party—drawn there in the first place by the chance to see a movie star speak—and finds himself more valued than at the girls’ school where he has worked, even if that means becoming a fixer and a perjurer (he ends up a Minister, so who’s to say he was wrong?). A hijira—an intersex and/or transgender person—who had been tutored by the arrested woman overcomes obstacles on their way to stardom.

The teacher—called by his classroom nickname, PT Sir—is the most compelling character, but maybe that’s just because he is most developed according to the codes of realism (he does the most doing, incites the most complicated feelings, has the most developed interiority—he reminded me a little of the lead in Daniyal Mueenuddin’s story “Nawab Electrician”). But PT, like Lovely, the hijira, and Jivan, the accused woman, live in a world in which public spectacle and outcry drive success. Individuals only have meaning in relation to the mass (a more fitting term for the world of this novel than public or citizenry IMO). But this reality poses a dilemma for Majumdar. Because novels rely on individual agency, in a world in which such agency (fancy word for willpower), novels have to turn on themselves. Accordingly, the most compelling moments in A Burning are when characters both do and don’t decide something. Its most representative scene, then, shows Jivan’s lawyer being bribed to abandon his client. Gobind—note the suggestion of blindness in his name; to say nothing of the bind he is in—agrees to drop the case. The narration adds, “He is unsure if he chooses this.”

Reading A Burning I was reminded of Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar, a better because less schematic, more oneiric book, but similarly concerned with the compromises of success in contemporary India. Majumdar’s is a formidable debut; I’ll read the followup with interest.

Paulette Jiles, Simon the Fiddler (2020)

After News of the World I was eager to read Jiles’s new novel, which centers on Simon Boudin, a character who featured briefly in the earlier book. (Because I listened to an audiobook from the library I couldn’t go back to read that scene again—a source of repeated frustration to me as I read Fiddler.) In Texas in the last months of the Civil War, Boudin is conscripted into the Confederate Army, a fate the slight young man had avoided by pretending he was only a teenager. But he is a musician, not a fighter and at the end of the hostilities finds himself playing at a garden party for officers of both sides, a reconciliation event that is unsuccessful—except for Simon, who spots a beautiful young woman and immediately falls in love with her.

The object of his affection, Doris Dillon, an immigrant from Ireland, is an indentured servant to a Union Captain who is posted to San Antonio where he is meant to bring order to the lawless city when in fact he spends most of his time creeping on Doris. Simon the Fiddler is half love story, half picaresque, as Simon and some charmingly idiosyncratic fellow musicians form a scratch band and play their way across Texas. No, it’s not as great a book as News of the World, but Jiles’s descriptions are evocative and you get a happy ending despite some terrible events along the way. This won’t be on my end of year list, but I enjoyed every minute of it.

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There you have it. The year’s more than half over (I’d say good riddance except I’m scared of what’s coming after it). Maybe I’ll look back on the first half, which, reading-wise, hasn’t been too bad, a damn sight better than everything else. Stay safe, friends.

“The Old, Wild Blood”: Henri Bosco’s Malicroix

A while back I suggested a group reading of Henri Bosco’s 1948 novel Malicroix, admirably translated by Joyce Zonana and published by NYRB Classics. Quite a few readers took me up on the suggestion, and some of them wrote about their experiences, either on their blogs or on Twitter (#Malicroix2020). It was great to see so much interest. Here I’ll highlight some of their observations, and then add some of my own.

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At the centre of Malicroix is its narrator, Martial de Mégremut, a young man who comes into a mysterious inheritance from a great-uncle on his mother’s side, the last full-fledged member of the Malicroix line. As the man’s only heir, Martial now owns “some marshland, a few livestock, a tumbled down house” on an island in the Rhone, that is, he will if he manages to live there for three months without setting foot on the mainland. He’s not alone, as he has the company of old Malicroix’s servant Balandran, as competent as he is silent, and the latter’s Briard, Bréquillet. (Everyone loves that dog; NYRB should make t-shirts.) From time to time, Malicroix’s lawyer, the sinister Dromiols, and the lawyer’s dogsbody, the oddly named Uncle Rat, drop in to make ominous noises. The lawyer turns out to have a personal interest/vendetta in the matter, and wants Martial to leave; by contrast, Rat turns out to be a mole, helping instead of harming the young man. The first half of the book details Martial’s first months on the island, through autumn fogs and winter storms, but Malicroix is not really a tale of survival—Balandran sees to Martial’s modest needs. It’s more a tale of psychological endurance, in which doing must be replaced by being. After the initial three months, however, Martial learns of a codicil that requires him to perform one more task, to exorcise a past wrong, and the last half of the book describes how he manages it.

Our little band of readers liked Malicroix a lot. (Though people who didn’t might not have felt compelled to write about it, so my sample might be skewed.) My comrades repeatedly described themselves as captivated by the novel’s depiction of isolation. But this atmosphere also made them uneasy. A novel that at first seems to be a primer on mindfulness eventually reveals itself as ominous, even threatening. For Karen, it was “immersive,” “hypnotic,” and “hallucinogenic.” That immersion also resonated with Meredith, who described herself as “living with” the book, not just reading it. Trevor found it “enriching,” but also “inquisitive” (a nice distinction—as if it’s not just readers who are curious about what’s going to happen, but also the text itself). Guy similarly found the novel “mysterious” and “cryptic.” Grant said the book put him on “high-alert”; he admired its “foreboding” and “threat.”

I too was drawn to this solitude. Given the circumstances in which we read it—sheltered in our homes around the world—the topic appealed to me even more strongly than usual. (I’m a sucker for books about people who jump the tracks of their lives to spend time alone—something I always fantasize about but am too frightened and/or constitutionally disinclined to do.) To live alone in a little house on a little island in a great river, with a small but doughty fire to keep off the chill and simple meals of lentils and rough wine to keep one’s spirits up—this minimalist, faux-peasant fantasy appealed to me. (Though I was frankly horrified that Martial has no books with him. None at all! Books, however, would distract from the matter of existing. The Mégremuts might have recourse to books. Books are not for the Malicroix!) The novel even sometimes plays up this minimalist element, as when Martial describes the house as one in which “everything was so clearly reduced to the soberest utility.”

Reading late at night, during a semester unlike any other, I was calmed by this aspect of the novel. I wasn’t the only one to think about it as a nighttime book. Meredith notes how many of its important actions—even if those “actions” are rain, wind, storms—happen at night. As befits this attention to surroundings, Malicroix is a great book of weather. It is atmospheric in the literal sense. The daily changes of Martial’s immediate environment matter a lot. No wonder the philosopher Gaston Bachelard cited it at length in his The Poetics of Space (which is where translator Zonana first encountered it). Bruce—whose erudite thoughts you can read in a comment on my original post—thought of this darkness in both literal and figurative senses. Comparing Malicroix to Bosco’s other work (which, with luck, non-French readers will be able to read before too long), he concluded that Bosco’s primary concern is:

the symbolic power of a lamp or candelabra surrounded by vast darkness; the sanctity and shelter of a building that envelops and protects a human, and which has a spirit of its own; the presence of full-blooded animation in nature all around; and the inner conflicts of blood and family history.

(Note that Bruce has used the term “blood” twice—fittingly, as it is Bosco’s central term; I’ll return to this in a moment.) Like Meredith and Bruce, Trevor also picked up on the novel’s captivating physicality. He writes:

This is a book to read in the late hours, which is also when much of it takes place. There are winter wind storms that will make you pull up the covers no matter what the temperature is in your room. The fire place in Martial’s room will also bring you comfort. Bosco — and his skillful translator Joyce Zonana — helped me to feel the physical and mental strains and comforts with our poor protagonist. I was particularly swept up in Martial’s lonesome Christmas Eve. Normally, surrounded by the Mégremuts who pray and feel the presence of angels, Martial, no matter how skeptical the rest of the year, is lifted by angels himself; not so on this Christmas in the Camargue.

Nighttime can be comforting, if one is inside, by a small fire, especially after coming inside from the elements. Even better if you’ve a dog “sigh[ing] with well-being” by the fire, “long tremors [running] along his spine as he closed his eyes to savor the pleasures of a warm hearth.” But nighttime is also, as Meredith notes, a time of obscurity, and this obscurity can be unsettling, to character and reader alike. For me, the vivid descriptions of night are inversely related to the confusing references to what happens at night: the more I thrilled to those scenes, the less I knew what happened during them. What is the task that Martial is asked to take up on July 16th, the anniversary of a terrible event in the old man’s life? Who is the woman who appears one night to tend to him? Is she real? Is she a figment? How does Martial respond to Malicroix’s final demand? (I mean this literally: what the hell actually happens at the end?)

What I’m saying is that the longer I read, the more confusing I found the book. I was wrongfooted by the turn from plotlessness to plot, and then wrongfooted once again by my inability to comprehend that plot. I was as adrift as the book’s few characters risk becoming any time they venture near the river. But then I read Tom’s series of excellent posts, which helped me see that reading Malicroix as a hymn to the simple life misses the point:

My impression is that readers have been enjoying reading about solitude, watching the fire, and the weather, the wind and rain that keeps Martial from even going for a walk. This is certainly part of the novel. But the mysticism is central to what I take the novel to be, as is the quest story, which I am not seeing anybody mention.

Pulling together otherwise disconnected bits of the text (references to east and west, the appearance of a blind ferryman, the role of a white bull), Tom reads the novel through the lens of Mithraism, the Roman mystery religion. Not only is Tom’s reading textually convincing (he explained stuff in the novel that made no sense to me), it’s also psychologically consoling, at least for me. The reason I was so confused is that the novel is about confusion! Or, more accurately, about the esoteric. Its questions are: who is an initiate—and what is the secret knowledge into which they are being initiated? Its plot forms a quest, undertaken by a hero who completes it in his own spirit, in Tom’s words, “for redemption and rebirth, rather than revenge.”

In making his claim, Tom referenced Frazier’s The Golden Bough, that late 19th century study of comparative religion and mythology that exercised such outsized influence in modernist Europe. That was the clincher for me—it made total sense, and also explained why I liked the book less as it went along. I’ve always been allergic to that sort of key-to-all-mythologies mystical revelation stuff (The Frazier-inspired parts of “The Waste Land” are my least favourite, for example.) But Tom’s reading, as always attuned to the big literary historical picture, allows us to characterize Malicroix as a (late) modernist syncretic text.

Emphasizing Mithraism in particular also brings out the Mediterranean elements of the novel, which fits with Bosco’s own life experiences (he spent decades in Italy and North Africa, as well as southern France). To me, it makes a lot more sense to call Malicroix Mediterranean than French—its Frenchness is evident primarily in the repeated term “wild,” Zonana’s translation of sauvage, which I can’t help hearing as a reference to Rousseau (no idea if that’s accurate).

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But the cultural-mystical-philosophical sweep of the novel interested me less than the psychology of the narrator. Tom’s point, I think, is that the latter always leads in this novel to the former. But I was interested in a strange push-pull in Martial’s character. Sometimes he seems passive (he never quite decides to stay on the island; he just doesn’t leave; he is depicted as a child, as exemplified by his first night in the little house, when he awakes to find that someone—Balandran, of course, though he doesn’t know it yet—has pulled a blanket over him). But other times he is active, deliberate, as in his “solution” to the task imposed by the codicil. In this regard, I was drawn to a passage cited by Chris. When Martial stays on after initial difficult days, he tells us:

To stay was becoming my function. It was useless to try to explain my conduct: my arguments seemed laughable. You do not debate your hunger.

“Hunger” is such a fitting word here—in English, at least, it can be used as a synonym for “drive.” But it also refers to a sensation that merely arises, under the right conditions. You don’t say “I think I’ll have hunger now.” The word is both active and passive. It speaks of something that acts upon one. Fittingly, Chris interprets this quote by referring to blood:

[Martial’s] change of heart is related to the centrality of the metonymy of blood for breeding, lineage, and citizenship.

If Malicroix has a politics—as opposed to a mythology—it is centered on the idea of blood. And this is where the novel made me nervous. Even the merest amount of Malicroix blood, we learn, is enough to make Martial not just a satisfactory but in fact a fully-fledged member of the line. (Cue 19th/20th century discourses on race.) The novel believes in blood so insistently, as shown in the way all of its characters speak of it more or less constantly. Old Malicroix, Martial reflects, was “besotted with his blood.” But despite the implied criticism of that “besotted,” Martial is similarly obsessed. Even though he is superficially almost all Mégremut, when it counts he is pure Malicroix. The latter, he explains at the beginning of the book, is “hidden within the darkest part of myself,” but “seemed more alive than all the Mégremuts who inhabited me with such ease.”

Martial and his great-uncle aren’t the only ones taken with blood. The lawyer Dromiols—old Malicroix’s perhaps illegitimate son, the possessor of “a deep, spiteful spirit”—complains about the harshness of the region’s “untamable wildness,” despite having been “shaped by this blood and this land.” Dromiols’ subordinate, the surprising Uncle Rat, has a “passion for secret knowledge” in his blood. Dromiols later thunders on about “the blood that has transmitted the strength, the will, the courage.” Explaining how the mysterious Anne-Madeline (the woman I mentioned earlier, who at first seems imaginary, but then isn’t), Rat tells Martial in a “muted but passionate tone,” “she has the blood.” When Martial asks what blood, Rat replies, “There is only one blood.” Martial himself adds, “the true blood always speaks.” (These italics are all mine.) Maybe the apotheosis of the idea of blood as a force that only slumbers, never dies appears in old Malicroix’s codicil to his will:

For it is through this [the completion of the task Malicroix has set Martial] that you will enter into possession of the blood that is in you, but which most likely still slumbers. Have no fear, my child, it is a blood that always awakens.

Malicroix is steeped in blood. But not in gore. This blood isn’t corporeal; it’s essential, a synonym for value and meaning. Such references litter the novel’s pages. Just a few examples:

[F]or the first time in my life, [I] sensed a darker blood flowing into my peaceful heart, a bitter blood that warmed me.

And [Balandran] had seen in it the strong blood of that old, wild lineage. From that moment on, he was my man, for this is a blood that binds and commands, even in me, who usually would not know how to insist on anything nor how to give an order, so much am I a Mégremut. Yet, through my innate gentleness, Balandran had scented the old, wild blood.

And I have a great deal of Mégremut within me. At every moment their blood speaks to me; at the least emotion, it quickens and throbs. I can hear its gentle murmur at the very tips of my smallest veins. Never has good-natured, stay-at-home tenderness and nonchalance—the legacy of a blood opposed to action—shown such deep-rooted vigor, such overpowering strength. … I bathe in and breathe a Mégremut air. It is as a Mégremut that I drink, eat, sleep, love, think, act, dream. I would be them and not myself were it not for that tiny, entrenched, irreducible something—three drops of Malicroix blood. I had always felt them present, gliding through the Mégremut blood without mingling with it.

Even when we might expect another term, the novel prefers blood. Martial girds himself “to face—without any aid—the five enemies of my name and of my blood” (instead of, say, “my family” or “my people”). He worries, for the nth time, about whether “the gentle blood… would from now on be replaced by the dark, bitter blood I had also inherited” (instead of, say, “my gentleness would be replaced by bitterness”).

The metaphoricity is relentless. The only reference to physiological blood comes when Martial describes his body relaxing after the tension incited by a terrible storm:

My heart was unclenching, regaining a more natural rhythm—the slow, gentle pulse of my peaceful, easily dilated blood. My lungs swelled, and air entered in steady breaths without disturbing the thousands of sensitive veins through which my blood was patiently flowing.

Even here, Martial’s description shades into metaphor—his “peaceful” blood flows “patiently.” These terms have been used earlier to describe the Mégremuts. A later example uses blood as a synonym for body or vitality:

My convalescent blood, sweet with youth, rose from my life’s depths toward my soul, whose outline, taken up again by my body’s flesh, grew firmer.

I’d like readers who know more about Bosco to weigh in on the topic of blood. Because the more I read Bosco’s essentialism—the Mégremuts’ and Malicroix’ respective ways of being: these aren’t just habits and manners, or choices about how to live, or contingent differences based on a tangle of history and happenstance, but fixed essences—the more I thought about fascism. (It seemed fitting that the novel reminded Karen of Ernst Jünger’s On the Marble Cliffs.)

I was especially troubled by these repeated references to blood in a book published just three years after the end of WWII. What, I wondered, had Bosco been up to during the war? Was he a pétainiste? A fascist? An apologist? There doesn’t seem to be much about Bosco in English, but I did learn he was in Morocco from 1931 – 1955, where he taught classics and ran the Alliance Francaise. Born in 1888, Bosco was in his fifties during the war years, too old to fight. (He did serve in WWI, at the front in the former Yugoslavia.) The novel’s set in the early 19th century, well, probably anyway—a teasing prefatory note explains, “A reader who wanted to date this tale could set it during the first three decades of the nineteenth century”—and nothing in it lends itself to being read as an allegory of the French Occupation. In France, Bosco seems to be known as a writer of adventure, of nature (inasmuch as the French go in for that sort of thing, which, I gather, they don’t really), and of the region of the Camargue. All of this information suggests Bosco wasn’t fascist, maybe not even political. Of course, adventure stories can absolutely be political (think Haggard or, more interestingly, Kipling). So I’d love to hear from readers who know more.

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Grant noted that the title poses the question of inheritance. Is Martial “deserving” of his great-uncle’s name? (It could be called Malicroix?) What is a Malicroix, and is Martial himself one? Again, I can’t help but read this insistence on inheritance, especially when it is insistently figured in terms of blood, as reminiscent of fascist rhetoric of authenticity and nativism. By the end of the book, when we see how the protagonist answers the demand of the codicil in his own particular way, we can see that the answers to these questions are complicated: Yes, he is a Malicroix, but in his own way. What the novel doesn’t answer satisfactorily, for me, is why he might want to be.

One answer comes fromNat, who suggests the novel refuses the oppositions it sets up. (Which is why the end, he writes, intimates “a new order.”) There’s Malicroix in every Mégremut. Extrapolating from those family essences, as they are given to us in the novel, Nat concludes that the novel shows how the rational is always troubled by the irrational. It might be worth adding that the novel inserts gender into this binary: conventionally, it is men who are associated with reason, but here the Mégremuts are the reasonable ones and they are associated with stereotypically female qualities of domesticity. Interesting, too, that Martial’s link to the Malicroix comes through his mother. (When I say “interesting” I mean I don’t know what that means.)

Nat refers to Levinas and Blanchot’s contemporaneous ideas of the power of radical weakness or passivity. Both thinkers are reacting to Heidegger in particular and the ideals, if I can put it that way, of fascism in general. This is a brilliant reading, but I’m left wondering: how abstract is the novel’s investigation of the power of the irrational? And why does it have to be figured in blood? Again, I find the novel’s Gnosticism—its fascination with secret truth that is available only to a selected few—uncomfortably close to the mysticism of fascism.

For me, Malicroix’s ending was unsatisfactory because I was unconvinced by its suggestion of what Grant describes as inheritance, Nat calls a new order, and Tom calls redemption. Ostensibly, the ending is triumphant, a liberal rejection of the atavism of grudges and vengeance. But in practice it feels like a let-down, because, deep down, that unrepentant, old, wild Malicroix blood continues to boil. Martial’s actions might calm the ferment, but I didn’t believe the novel wanted that calm. Who wants calm when you can have a storm, it seems to say—and not one to hide out from, one to exult in.

 

 

What I Read, May 2020

Finished the semester, was sad about not getting to see students graduate. Hair grew. Won a teaching award, finally something unequivocally good, a helpful validation. Made occasional trips to pick up groceries and the like, and to drive the car a little so my already temperamental battery didn’t complete die, was bewildered by the apparent alternate reality outside my door: no masks, no distancing, no cares. Hair grew longer. Thought about my upcoming sabbatical, worried over how to use this gift of time. Feared failure more than usual. Read too much news, was despondent, angry, grief-stricken. Hair reached crisis point. And, as always, read, quite a lot, most of it pretty undemanding.

EZIlJ48XYAA-tuGSusie Steiner, Missing, Presumed (2016)

When Lissa Evans and Nina Stibbe tell you to read a book, you don’t fuck about. Happily, this was as delightful and engrossing as promised. Manon Bradshaw is getting on for 40. She’s a bit lonely, but she’s a good cop, she’s funny and sarcastic, and she is just ordinarily neurotic, not hell-bent on self-destruction. Steiner manages the trick of putting the investigator’s personal life front and center and writing a suspenseful plot. Above all, Missing, Presumed is a properly female-centered crime novel (there’s more than one important female character, they don’t hate each other, they aren’t pitted against each other by men). Mostly what I took away from the book is that women’s clothes are often extremely uncomfortable. There’s lots of strap-tugging and pushing and pulling.

Israel Gutman, Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (1994) Trans. Ethel Broido (1994)

Twenty-five years on, Gutman’s history of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising feels dated. It’s filled with detailed information about an extraordinary moment, and is especially good on the various Jewish political and social groups in both pre-war and wartime Poland. But it has a narrow definition of resistance—namely, the use of force, especially the taking up of arms. I don’t reject this in principle—the power of violent resistance is on display across America as I write—and I get that Gutman is presenting events as the actors experienced them (he quotes various documents in which the handful of Jews left after the ghetto’s liquidation in late 1942 exulted in finally feeling human again, once they were able to shoot a gun or set an explosion, etc.). But Gutman also implicitly validates these statements, in part by underplaying other forms of resistance (he has surprisingly little to say about the Ringelblum archive, for example). His take makes sense when you learn that Gutman actually fought in the uprising himself. But you won’t learn that from his book. In fact, I’d no idea of his role until the students I was reading the book with told me. I can’t imagine a book written today that wouldn’t acknowledge the writer’s involvement in the material. Time for a new history of this moment, I say. One more thing bothered me: I’ve never before seen a book that acknowledged its translated status in a brief aside in the acknowledgements. Reprehensible!

Susie Steiner, Persons Unknown (2017)

DI Bradshaw is back, and her life has become more complicated, more exasperating, more fraught, and more joyful. Part Laurie Colwin, part Tana French, these books are terrific. Forgot to mention that Steiner is worth reading in paperback, because each of the two books so far includes a bonus chapter that bridges the current book to the next. I’ve not seen that before.

Maryla Szymiczkowa, Mrs. Mohr Goes Missing (2015) Trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones (2020)

Maryla Szymiczkowa is the pseudonym of a young Polish gay couple. This is the first of what I imagine has become a series centered on Zofia Turbotynska, a society woman in Cracow in 1893, who feels herself coming alive when she inadvertently begins investigating a series of murders at an almshouse. The novel doesn’t quite avoid the pitfalls involved in stories of amateur detectives, but if like me you can’t get enough of late-19th, early 20th century Galicia, or if you just appreciate a well-drawn character (Zofia isn’t entirely likable, a bit self-satisfied and prim, but we are asked through her to think about our own fascination with investigation, which makes us like her more and ourselves less) you should give this a try. Props to Houghton Mifflin for bringing Szymiczkowa to the US, and to East Bay Books, who put their inventory online for online browsing by section, which is how I stumbled across this.

Kathleen Jamie, Sightlines (2012)

Wonderful essays.

Emiliano Monge, The Arid Sky (2012) Trans. Thomas Bunstead (2018)

Young Mexican novelist plays with temporal order and the relation between narrator and character in telling key events (dire or violent or, most often, both) in the life of a criminal turned priest turned criminal. (At least, I think that’s what’s going on; it’s not always easy and I read it in snatches, when immersion would probably be better, given the style.) Bunstead, I sense, is a great translator (I thought his translation of María Gainza’s Optic Nerve was terrific), and there are some resonant, Bernhardian sentences here. My sample size is small, to be sure, but so much Latin American literature seems to come out of Faulkner, who I don’t much care for. Are there Spanish-language equivalents of Barbara Pym or Tessa Hadley, or is that simply a misguided/stupid question?

Marcie R. Rendon, Murder on the Red River (2017)

Don’t sleep on this one. Jenny Davidson recommended it as the best crime fiction she’d read this year. Cash Blackbear is a nineteen-year-old Anishinabe woman in the Red River Valley in the early 1970s. (The war in Vietnam is a repeated touchstone.) Cash does farm work, mostly driving grain trucks. She adds to that income by hustling pool. And she drinks pretty steadily. She has a close relationship to the local sheriff, who watched over her when she was taken into care as a child, keeping her away from the worst of the foster parents. (They were all pretty bad, and Rendon slips in glimpses of those microaggressions throughout the book.) Cash has an ability to listen to the dead (this dreaming isn’t particularly well-developed, and I’d have liked to hear more about it). So when a native man is found stabbed to death, the sheriff brings Cash in to give him a hand. The resolution of the crime is anticlimactic; suspense is not the reason to read the book. Cash, though, is a great character, dogged and smart and torn apart by her love of a place that has no love for her. As an indigenous woman, Cash has suffered a lot, but the suffering is more constant low-level trauma rather than singular overwhelming moment. When I complained to my wife, who’d already read the book, that the hard-drinking investigator was a cliché, she pointed out that what Cash was doing was medicating. Rendon is good with action scenes (and I appreciate how modest those are—this is not Jack Reacher stuff). The reason they’re so good is that Rendon’s descriptions of Cash’s actions are fascinatingly detailed (yet the book is a short, quick read). We learn about every bath Cash takes in futile attempt to rid herself of wheat chaff, every trip to the bar, every cigarette she smokes, every meal she eats (when she remembers to), every route she takes through the isolated towns of the valley. I wondered about this, and finally it dawned on me that the prose was mimicking Cash’s need to control what she can in life. The repetition, the circumscribed life—these are the analogues of a person always at risk of losing a sense of self.

Cornelia Funke, Inkheart (2003) Trans. Anthea Bell (2003)

My daughter and I read this together over a couple of months (it’s like 500 pages), and I’ve been badgering her to write a review, but so far without luck. Inkheart has a good premise—what if you could read yourself into a book?—and then complicates it by adding the caveat that, every time you did, something from the world of the book came into our own. Meggie lives with her father, Mo, a bookbinder; when a stranger arrives at their door one night and Mo becomes shifty, even frightened, Meggie learns a lot of things, including, eventually, what really happened to her mother. Bell’s translation of Funke’s German text is excellent, and although I didn’t find this as breathtaking as, say, The Golden Compass, I loved how much my daughter loved it. It was too scary for her to read alone, but manageable with me reading it. It’s the first of a trilogy and we’re on the second book now—seeing my daughter’s joy and fascination with the map at the front of the second volume has been a joy in itself.

Daphne Du Maurier, The Flight of the Falcon (1965)

Even second-tier Du Maurier is worth reading.

Marcie R. Rendon, Girl Gone Missing (2019)

Cash returns, and the big development from the end of the first book means her life is different—that change is both an opportunity and a challenge to her always fragile stability. When several young women from different farming communities go missing, Cash follows the trail to Minneapolis, where she has never been before. In my favourite scene she visits the Grain Exchange, walking around the imposing stone building, amazed to find that this name, from which the all-important commodity prices come through farmers’ radios each day, is attached to a physical place where people actually work. Rendon brings Cash into contact with the American Indian Movement (AIM), which allows her explore the idea of whether a loner like Cash, at once attached to her native identity and frustrated by it, can find any meaning in an identity-based movement. A significant hanging thread from the first volume is reintroduced, which I appreciated. Rendon’s going to have to step up the crime aspects of these novels (the plots are thin), but I want many more books about Cash. Great midwestern farm neepery, too. During beet season, the local roads develop “a sheen of mud. This close to the Red River, the mud was mixed with river clay that was slicker than ice if a rainfall or early frost or, god forbid, an early snow coated the road.”

Tessa Hadley, Late in the Day (2019)

It’d been a while since I’d read Hadley, a writer I’ve always liked, but who has exceeded herself here. Late in the Day tells the story of four friends whose lives have been connected since student days. It begins with the death of one of them and goes both forward and backward from this traumatic beginning. Hadley is great with character—she sketches them so clearly (they are among the few literary characters I can actually picture) and lets them change and surprise us. She’s also adept with narrative voice, changing perspective regularly and using omniscience to its potential. There’s a scene when the four friends, drunk and high after celebrating a big accomplishment, almost exchange sexual partners, only to have the moment interrupted by one of the children, who can’t sleep; later, that child, now grown up, tells a sibling about a dream—which we know was real. I found this misunderstanding moving, somehow.

What does it mean to create something? Is a relationship or a friendship a kind of creation? Is middle age the time when creation is most fruitful? These are Hadley’s questions; in her answers I got a strong To the Lighthouse vibe. Hadley is warm, almost fond of her characters, but never indulgent with them. Fittingly, I stayed up late with the book, willing myself to the end but sad to reach the final page. Read Catherine Taylor’s piece in The Financial Times, it’s very good.

Dan Stone, Concentration Camps: A Very Short Introduction (2019)

Historian Stone has written an amazingly lucid and useful book, which covers much historical ground and asks big theoretical questions, all in only a little more than 100 pages. Stone looks at late 19th-early 20th century camps in South Africa, Cuba, and the Philippines, noting how they were designed for non-combatants. He of course considers the camps of the Third Reich (his own area of expertise), which clearly distinguishes the various Nazi camps and, even more interesting, compares them to the institutions set up to create and validate the Volksgemeinschaft (Hitler Youth camps and the like). Camps, Stone argues, were for the Nazis as necessary to those “drilled into” the community as to those excluded from it, given that the regime’s aim was a society modelled on the barracks. To that end, “inclusion and exclusion went hand in hand.” Stone adds a chapter on the Gulag (really helpful to someone like me who knows too little about it), and on camps around the word (in colonial scenarios, within so-called liberal-democracies, under Communism). He concludes by casting a critical but not unsympathetic eye on theorists who make the camp a metaphor for modernity, and then tackles the difficult issue of comparison. In the end, although he says there is no clear line between camps and other sites of incarceration, Stone doesn’t think, for example, the migrant camps at the US border are concentration camps because they offer at least the possibility of the rule of law. I disagree, but I think he’s absolutely right in concluding, “Concentration camps are the compressed and condensed values of the state when it feels itself most threatened.” As if this wasn’t enough, his bibliography is excellent. The book’s a keeper, and I plan to start assigning it in all my Holocaust-related courses.

Ariana Neumann, When Time Stopped: A Memoir of My Father’s War and What Remains (2020)

A frustrating book that tells a gripping story in undistinguished prose. Neumann grew up in Venezuela in the 1970s and 80s with a father, Hans Neumann, who was a magnate of industry, a patron of the arts, and a general force of nature. Hans had a past in Europe—specifically in Czechoslovakia—that he rarely addressed. As a child, Neumann once found a box of papers that included what looked like a passport written in a language she couldn’t read. It had a photo of a man who was clearly her father at a much younger age. But the name underneath the photo was someone else’s. When she asked about it, her parents put her off. The box disappeared. But it came to her after her father’s death, along with some other family papers, which launched Neumann on a years-long project to uncover her father’s story, and to relate what she discovered to otherwise unexplained moments in her past—like when a fellow student in college asserted that she must be Jewish (first Neumann ever heard of it), or when she accompanied her father on a trip back to Prague after the fall of the Wall, a trip in which he refused to visit places from his past. When Time Stopped, in other words, belongs to the genre of the second-generation Holocaust memoir, like Maus or Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost (third generation, actually) or Bart van Es’s The Cut-Out Girl.

Neumann’s book is better than van Es’s and not as good as Mendelsohn’s. (No one’s as good as Spiegelman.) I was so irritated by the laxness of Neumann’s descriptions of her own life (I especially wanted to know more about Venezuela) and her trite meditations (on receiving an important letter, for example, she writes, “There is a moment of connection in receiving an object, a physical link, that is lacking in the virtual instantaneity of email”). But if you can get through this stuff, the story Neumann tells about her father and his family is incredible. Plus the book is well-structured, the slow unfolding of the story deftly and engagingly arranged.

Hans was one of only nine people in an extended family of 34 to have survived the war. He did so by having papers that declared him an essential worker at his father’s expropriated paint factory as well as a network of friends who risked their lives for him. The two most incredible stories involve clandestine forays into the world of the perpetrator. His brother’s sister smuggled herself into the ghetto-camp of Theresienstadt twice in order to bring packages to her in-laws. (Neither survived the war.) And Hans himself, once it was clear that no Jew, no matter how “essential,” would be permitted to live in Prague after a certain date, hatched an insanely audacious plan to use a friend’s passport to travel to Berlin in the fall of 1943, where he posed as a Gentile Czech willing to offer his services as a foreign worker. He obtained an identity card and work permit under the assumed name of Jan Sebesta and was hired at a paint factory that made protective polymer coating for German warplanes. It is amazing that Hans was never found out (fortunately for him, he had not been circumcised); it is amazing he did not die in the Allied bombing raids, especially as he was conscripted into the civilian firefighting service; it is especially amazing that he did not go crazy from cognitive dissonance. Except that he kind of did—as is true in so many second-generation stories (Maus again being the great example), “survival” is shown to be an ongoing project that is often incomensurate with a “happy ending.”

Laurie R. King, Justice Hall (2002)

I blow hot and cold on the Mary Russell—Sherlock Holmes series. Not sure what brought me back after not particularly enjoying the previous installment, but this one is better. Russell and Holmes are tasked with finding out what happened to the heir of a grand family fortune in the Great War. It’s an open secret he was court-martialled and executed by firing squad for disobeying an order, but what led to that terrible moment has been a secret until now. Jacqueline Winspear wrote a book on the same topic at about the same time; I wish I’d read King’s first, as she’s a better writer. Anyway, diverting enough, especially if you’re into English country houses, but nothing spectacular.

William Trevor, After Rain (1996)

My first collection of Trevor stories, and, yes, he is as good as everyone says. There are two kinds of stories in this book—New Yorker stories (resonant, rueful, wise, maybe a bit perfect) and uglier ones, which remind me of early Ian McEwan (grubby, a bit horrible). A couple of these stories mix both modes—I liked those best, especially “A Friendship,” which I found shocking (a man discovers his wife’s infidelity: he forgives her but forces her to break with the lifelong friend who had helped her arrange the logistics of the affair) and “Lost Ground,” set in a Protestant farming family in rural Ireland in the 1980s, which I at first took to be an ingenious reworking of Chekhov’s “The Kiss,” but which takes a darker turn. Friends extoled “The Piano Tuner’s Wives” and “The Potato Dealer,” both excellent. I could imagine teaching any number of these stories and learning much more about them that way. (Just great: the last thing I need is another white guy to teach.) I thought Trevor would be nicer than he is. He reminded me a bit of Alice Munro. Both are cold writers, and I can’t warm to them, much as I admire them. For a sense of the whole collection, Jacqui’s overview is really good.ETrQo6eWAAITlxPIn summary: Trevor’s good—no surprise there—and I’ll be reading more of him in the next few months. Jamie is a brilliant essayist; I’m finding her especially enlivening in these times when distancing is our reality rather than our fantasy. Neumann’s book is at once clunky and captivating. But the pick of the month was Hadley’s Late in the Day; a great book of middle age. I hope June brings more good reading, but events being what they are right now—I don’t know if I’m more thrilled or scared that people are finally saying enough is enough—I’ll settle for any reading at all.

 

“The Stench of Lust”: Daphne Du Maurier’s Flight of the Falcon

The Flight of the Falcon (1965) comes late in Daphne Du Maurier’s career. After it, she published only two further novels (the next one, The House on the Strand, is excellent; the final one, Rule Britannia, quite interesting). Like The House on the Strand, The Flight of the Falcon challenges the dangerous fantasy of recreating the past. It is a novel much preoccupied by generations—the narrator, Armino Fabbio, is 32, but he thinks of the students he spends time with almost as a separate species. He’s right, though, because he experienced the war, even if as a child, whereas they did not.

As a result of his upbringing—after the death of his father, his mother took up first with a German and then an American officer—Fabbio is fluent in several languages, knowledge he puts to good use in his job as a tour guide (though the novel prefers the more obviously hermeneutic term “courier,” reminding us of his role as a go-between). Fabbio spends his days shepherding mostly Anglo-American tourists across Italy, making the same jokes, answering the same questions, jollying along the same grumpy men and excitable women. In just a few deft pages, Du Maurier sketches the toll this life takes. Fabbio is a man stretched thin: hunting down lost packages and making nice-nice to exhausted Americans has brought him to the unstated but palpable edge of despair.

And it doesn’t take long for his life to go astray. A homeless woman who reminds Fabbio of his childhood nurse is found murdered down the street from the hotel where he and his charges are staying. His uncanny encounters with the woman—he pressed a 10,000 Lira note into her sleeping hand only to find her dead in the morning—prompts him to abandon his post and return to his hometown of Ruffano for the first time since leaving it in the backseat of a Nazi officer’s jeep. (Ruffano is made up; apparently it is closely modelled on Urbino; I must not remember much of my visit there, since I recognized nothing.)

fdf6c86a90b3191f6eee6792026e49bcFabbio finds Ruffano dominated its expanding university—in fact, his childhood home now belongs to the Rector. (I was fascinated—and made more than a little melancholy—by the novel’s depiction of higher education in growth mode—people fight over how to use resources, as they do at all colleges and in all campus novels, but in this case the resources are growing instead of dwindling to nothing.) Fabbio also finds Aldo, the charismatic Director of the Art’s Council, who each year organizes an elaborate recreation of some aspect of Ruffano’s past. Aldo, a cod-Nietzschean Fabbio can’t help but be attracted to (for reasons connected to his past), has devised a plan in which he pits the traditional (but already declining in numbers) Humanities students against the arriviste (but dominant in numbers) Commerce and Economics students in a plan to re-stage the five-hundred-year old uprising of the townspeople against the capricious and mandarin Duke who was known to all as the Falcon. Aldo wants to repair the Falcon’s image, but mostly he wants to stage trouble just because he can. “‘I’m here to bring trouble and discord,’” he tells the younger man, “ ‘to set one man against the other, to bring all the violence and hypocrisy and envy and lust out into the open.’”

If this sounds ludicrous, that’s because it almost is, but Du Maurier pretty much pulls it off. In particular, her characterization of Aldo is effective: we see that his amorality is wrong but we also see how students might respond to it. And we are made to thrill, against ourselves, to the real violence that the pretend battles incite. (If you liked The Secret History you might give Falcon a try.) What runs beneath Aldo’s plan—and the novel as a whole—is his desire to return to a glorious Italy untainted by fascism, though that effort comes to seem just as fascistic as the inglorious past. Aldo was shot down by the Allies and then joined the Partisans—an ideological shiftiness that runs throughout the book. Aldo seems more upset that the Germans took over the country than that Italy was fighting alongside them.

The novel’s national-political-social aspect, its preoccupation with how the present (especially an economically ascendant present: the novel is filled with the roar of Vespas) ignores the past (especially unpleasant and hardscrabble ones), is accompanied by a psychological-personal plot. For even as Fabbio becomes enmeshed in the politics of Ruffano, he is trying to find out who killed his old nurse, Marta, and why—for the murdered woman in Rome didn’t just look like his beloved servant. The time of capitalism—even in the midst of les trente glorieuse—is always out of joint; so too is the time of Fabbio’s fractured family. In retrospect, the obstreperous banality of the opening line—“We were right on time,” a reference to the tour bus’s punctual arrival in Rome—is in fact meaningful, and ominously so. To be right on time is to be at the risk of madness—whether from the death-by-a-thousand-cuts of the work of making possible other people’s leisure or from the megalomania of the dream of bringing the past into the present.

When the present seems either banal or tawdry, the past might seem enticing. That might explain why the past holds such a pull on the characters: early on, Fabbio dreams of his childhood and experiences release: “sleeping, I had been a traveler in time, no longer a courier.” Later sleep evades him as a thousand images run through his mind, people from the past and present blurring together: “Too many faces, too many passing strangers, too many hotel bedrooms, hired apartments; none of them mine, nothing I called home.” On the day of the Festival he relishes how the present has been replaced by a vivid, even virile past:

The palace was no longer a museum, a gallery hung with tapestries and pictures round which the tourist would prowl his indifferent way, but a living entity. Thus the link-boys saw it five hundred years ago, under moonlight and with flares and torches. Horses’ hooves rang on the cobbled stones, mingled with the clink of spurs [notice how the verb tense makes it unclear if Fabbio is talking about the Festival’s recreation of the past or the past itself]. … Behind me lay the present, slick, proficient, uniform, the young the same the globe over, mass-produced like eggs; and before me stood the past, that sinister and unknown world of poison and rapine, of power and beauty, luxury and filth, when a painting could be carried through the streets and worshipped by the rich and by the rabble alike; when God was feared; when men and women sickened of the plague and died like dogs.

The present feels impoverished, provisional, identikit; the past offers excitement and allure. But this vision is a dangerous fantasy, as the passage also indicates (with luxury comes filth; disease carries people away mercilessly—how much more like our present day does this description seem than like the 1960s Fabbio begins by despairing over). Du Maurier would develop this idea—that the pull of the past is dangerous—even more compellingly in The House on the Strand. But the theme can be seen in much of her work.

It is ironic that Du Maurier is known casually as a writer of historical romances, because she is skeptical of both history and romance. I actually don’t know what the deal was with Du Maurier’s own sexuality—I think I read somewhere that she was a closeted bisexual—but her writing is so queer, both in the modern sense of undoing the binary between hetero- and homosexuality and in the everyday sense of being just plain weird. Falcon shares with Strand (and My Cousin Rachel and Rebecca) a distaste for female characters, who want from men not just stability but also sex. That desire takes the chaste/Romantic form of the Rector’s wife; the grasping, malicious, yet indisputably alive form of the lecturer Carla Raspa, as abrasive and sexually dominant as her name; and, worst of all, the slatternly promiscuous way of Fabbio’s mother, who us presented without sympathy (instead of being a woman at the mercy of history and male violence who manages a good life for her child, she is presented, in Fabbio’s vision, as a slut, moving from one conqueror to another), a coldness that extends past the narrator to the text itself. Here’s a typical passage. Fabbio, wandering uninvited through Professor Raspa’s apartment, half ghost, half voyeur, is reminded of his mother:

I went through into the bathroom. Jars and bottles were on the shelves, and a dressing-gown had been flung on a stool. A nightgown, hastily rinsed through, hung limply on a hanger above the bath. The bidet was full of soapy water in which a pile of stockings had been left to soak. The sight made me sick. I went back into the kitchen, retching. The disorder, the intimacy, reminded me of hotel bedrooms long ago, in Frankfurt and other cities, when side by side with my mother’s underwear, similarly washed and rinsed, would be male socks and handkerchiefs, toothbrushes and hair-lotion. Streaky hairs would be lying in the bath. As a boy of eleven or twelve, my stomach had heaved. The stench of lust pursued me across Germany to Turin. It followed me still.

I could imagine someone looking at the scene and thinking of cleanliness and order, or at least the labour needed to provide it. But Fabbio isn’t just scornful—he’s disgusted. In addition to the heaving stomach, look at those descriptions: for some reason, “rinsed through” seems to me more judgmental than mere “rinsed” would be; worse, it hangs “limply.” Female appearance, in Fabbio’s apocalyptic, misogynist vision, has only one purpose: to attract men. “The stench of lust” seem to be his mother’s, not her lovers.

This passage shows female bodies run riot—but the same is true of Fabbio’s own. It is as much—no, more—unruly than the women he disdains. Stepping into the church he was taken to as a child, he experiences “an intense awareness of being small and hemmed in by adults” that always provoked “a desire to urinate.” Later, when he glimpses a naked man who has been the victim of a student prank, he immediately runs “behind one of the newly-planted municipal trees and vomited.”

Moments like these suggest that Du Maurier is more J. G. Ballard than Winston Graham. This is now the eighth of her books I’ve read, about half of them in other words, and I’m enjoying seeing how even a minor work like The Flight of the Falcon fits into the larger picture. If you’ve never read Du Maurier before, this isn’t the place to start, but those already familiar with her enticing, disquieting vision should give it a try.

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I read Flight of the Falcon for Ali’s Daphne Du Maurier Reading Week (see the list of posts here; see especially her take on Falcon). Like last year, I didn’t finish in time, but maybe if she hosts again I can get my act together.

 

 

 

“A wing’s beat and it’s gone”: Kathleen Jamie’s Sightlines

Sightlines is the second collection by the Scottish writer Kathleen Jamie I’ve read recently. Jamie would be an essayist even if she didn’t write essays—she has the temperament. She approvingly cites a friend, an addiction specialist, who tells her his job “isn’t to provide answers, only more questions.” In Sightlines Jamie’s fundamental question, arising again and again in different guises, is, “What is that we’re just not seeing?”

(This particular formulation comes from a fascinating description of what she learns after spending time with pathologists, who share with her the terrible beauty of the tiny pathogens that unwittingly enact such mighty change.)

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Asking herself what she might not be seeing allows Jamie to undo some longstanding oppositions. Chief among these are the distinctions between what’s remote and what’s central, and what’s wild and what’s cultivated. Jamie visits St. Kilda, Rona, and various other Shetland and Hebridean specks on the map: like so many others she is drawn to their isolation, but she soon begins to wonder why we don’t think of, say, Central London as isolated and remote. (I’ve often felt that way, coming down from the mountains to Banff, Canmore, and finally Calgary: not returning to civilization but rather leaving something vital behind.) Meditating on the corpse of a storm petrel and the metal birding-ring adorning its leg (the glint of which first caught her eye), Jamie argues that only a naïve belief in “a pristine natural world” would find it intrusive to catch a bird and make it wear such a ring. Instead, the man-made object only illuminates the bird’s startling life:

When I got the chart out, traced the route, measured the distance, and understood that yes, of course, on a southwest bearing, you could swoop via certain channels from the North Sea through to the Atlantic, on small dark wings, it was because this one ringed bird had extended my imagination. The ring showed only that it was wedded to the sea and, if anything, the scale of its journeyings made it seem even wilder than before.

This moment exemplifies the conclusions Jamie comes to on the basis of her attentiveness to detail. In this regard, a sentence from the opening essay is emblematic of Jamie’s method:

Once everyone is settled, the guide makes a suggestion: why don’t we keep silent, just for a few minutes, sit still and keep quiet, just listen?

The guide here has taken a group of travelers onshore in Greenland, but it could refer to Jamie herself. Perhaps what it means to be a guide at all is to be in a position to offer to gift of attention. Jamie differs from the tour guide only in that her preferred mode of paying attention is seeing, not listening. After I finished the collection I started to wonder about its title. What exactly is a sightline? An imaginary line from a person’s eye to an object, apparently, especially from the eye of a theatre spectator to the edge of the stage. But also the line representing the horizon in a perspective drawing. In both definitions seeing is connected to representing, to depicting the given, phenomenal world, to imitating it. I was reminded of an aperçu from an essay on observing a lunar eclipse:

Isn’t that what great paintings tell us? That to take the form of flesh, the form of a body, is difficult, vulnerable, and yet—partly because of that—sweetly enviable.

Notice again the importance of having a sightline, a point of view. How do we learn that being embodied is at once risky and desirable? By turning to art. Not because art is greater than nature, but because both partake of the same essence, which, paradoxically, is changeableness. The moon herself is described as “undergoing some Ovidian metamorphosis,” as if “she were one of those gods who want to stop looking down on us all, and instead participate, at least for a while; who want to taste the mutability of earthly existence.”

Mutability—and its accompanying fragility—is again evident in an amazing little essay called “Magpie Moth,” in which Jamie comes across a moth pinned down by the surface tension of the water of a lochan. Jamie decides to intervene, with mixed results, at least for the moth, but with the reminder, for herself, that even on a barren moor millions of tiny creatures are on about their business: “It’s all happening out there, and all you have to do, girl, is get your foot out of your eye.” “Magpie Moth” is Jamie’s contribution to that small but vital genre, the moth essay. In her decision to free the moth, she alludes to but counters the decisions made by Virginia Woolf and, later, Annie Dillard in essays each titled “The Death of the Moth.” Like these predecessors, Jamie begins from an encounter with this evanescent life form (moths seem, in Woolf’s work in particular, to stand in for the idea of the minimal—the basic threshold of intelligibility). And like them she moves from particular observation to abstract comment. Yet she pulls up short—“get your foot out of your eye”—never taking herself too seriously. I’m tempted to think of this down-to-earth quality as particularly Scottish, but I’ve no idea really.

Yet lightness is important to Jamie. It means more than self-deprecation or modesty or piss-taking. In “La Cueva,” an essay on a visit to a complex of caves in Spain filled with Paleolithic and Neolithic drawings, Jamie is led to think about fundamental human tendencies, as expressed in the way we talk about the cave art: “When we distinguish and segregate, we are serious-minded. When we make connections, when we say look, this is like a dress, like an owl, I am like you—then we laugh.”

(This could be John Berger, though, happily, less solemn.)

To make a connection is to acknowledge transience. In an essay on that topic, written in 1915, Freud, spurred by a memory of a walking excursion with the poet Rilke, broods on how constitutionally unable we are to recognize our mortality. Yet unconsciously we are aware of it, for otherwise we would not take such otherwise perverse pleasure in times of death and suffering. We would not find ourselves so stimulated by circumstances that remind us of our finitude. (Freud wrote the essay as the Great War lurched into its first full year.)

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As noted in the essay on the eclipse, mutability is Jamie’s great theme. The landscapes we admire didn’t always look the way they do now: nor will they persist. Even whalebone—the subject of two wonderful essays—is mutable, no matter how carefully preserved. A naturalist friend debunks the idea of natural harmony—catastrophes happen, people, places, species get wiped out. It is fitting that a book most consistently set along windswept coastlines ends by finding consistency in only two things, themselves of course emblematic of ceaseless change: “The wind and the sea. Everything else is provisional. A wing’s beat and it’s gone.”

 

The Book of Chloe by Chloe Harris

Some years I’m lucky enough to teach a course I’ve designed called Writing for Life. In it, I help students write personal statements for scholarships, internships, or professional and graduate schools. I also work with them as they write personal essays. My aim is to help students see that writing is inextricable from thinking, and, as such, that writing is an important part of a reflective life, no matter what one’s eventual life path.

All students have been affected by COVID-19. But I have particular sympathy for the students of the Class of 2020, who have been denied those important, bittersweet last moments of triumph, expectation, and longing that compose the final weeks of a college career.

As a small way of compensating some of those students–as well as to highlight some outstanding work from my class–I asked three students who wrote particularly excellent final essays if I could share their work here.

The final assignment was to write about an important object in their lives in a way that case light on the object, on the writer, and on some concept or idea that could only be reached by thinking about the relationship between writer and object.  This year, I gave students the choice of reflecting on their experience of the pandemic. I think it will be clear which direction each student chose. At the end of the essay, you can learn more about the writer.

Today’s essay is by Chloe Harris. It is titled The Book of Chloe. You can read the two earlier essays in this series here and here.

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The author’s mother showing off some of her crosses.

The Book of Chloe

I like to read. I used to love to read. My younger self dove into book after book, living vicariously through the main characters, losing all touch with reality while my eyes drank in the details. You would find me curled up on a bench during recess, sneaking to the bathroom during dinner or with a flashlight late at night, catching up with my favorite friends.

When my focus returned to the present, I was involved in a program called National Girls Ministries from Kindergarten to 8th grade. In the later years of the program, we were expected to read the bible every week and write about what we learned. My initial resentment of the assignment for taking me away from the mystical world of wizards and dragons wore away when I started reading more of this Good Book. War, love, sacrifice, betrayal – I couldn’t put it down, reading more than I was assigned every night. I read the entire collection cover to cover, rereading the books that interested me the most. I always skipped Numbers, but Exodus, Thessalonians, Ezekiel, Job and Revelations had pages nearly ripped at the spine from the many times I flipped back through the stories.

I was forging my own sermons by the time I was 11 and even wrote a song for the choir to sing during a Sunday morning service. For each resonating passage I found, I’d practice the way I’d interpret it in front of my mirror, throwing in phrases I’d heard in church and long pauses to build suspense. I suppose this is the first place I found my love for taking leadership, expressing my opinions, connecting with those around me. When I think about the bible, I often think about my father. We shared many moments discussing the verses and relating words written nearly 3000 years ago to twenty-first-century society. He taught me how to see beyond the words, finding meaning hidden in the verses. Our back-and-forth sharpened my mind, opening my eyes to perspectives I hadn’t considered in my initial readings of the captivating stories.

My relationship with religion, and with my father, was commensal. I was a remora fish suctioned on to the belly of large shark. I gained a lot from the shark when I was younger: Protection, nutrients, a great community. Eventually, though, I realized the shark was not gaining anything from me, ignoring my presence when I asked where we were going or suggested an alternate route. Something once so integral to my identity is now only a fading memory.

My parents had been divorced for many years, but my mother opened a new case for custody when I was in 8th grade. She won, and after moving out of my father’s home, I was able to start forming my own opinions. I started questioning the connections we drew from the scriptures more often during the weekends I spent with him. My father’s responses were condescending, rigid, and offered little for my understanding. The more I asked, the harsher his reactions became. A shark snapping at the small fish that swam too close to its snout.

“I don’t understand why God allowed Job to be tortured” My words tip-toed from my mouth as I skimmed over the pages of one of my favorite chapters.

“Mmm? Why’s that?” His eyes peered through his reading glasses as he sorted through papers scattered across the coffee table, too preoccupied to see my furrowed brow.

“Aren’t we supposed to resist Satan’s temptation? It seems like Satan was goading God and rather than ignoring it, God felt challenged and Job suffered for it.” I glanced up from the passage to see my father glaring at me, his glasses pulled away from his face as if to make sure the small windows weren’t impeding his anger. He regurgitated the lesson on how God will test us and the next day, our devotion was centered around what happens to those whose faith strays.

My questions soon turned into statements of disbelief and angry mutterings as my relationship with God became seemingly one-sided and futile. I was tired of hearing “read these verses and pray about it” when I wanted validation. I’m not sure when exactly it happened, but the book I used to love transformed into a tiresome riddle that I was weary of reading. Anger lingered around me for a long time. My anger grew when I couldn’t justify my faith any longer or discuss scripture with my youth group without a cynical shadow looming over the conversations. It exploded when my mom finally told me that the church had shunned her, the kindest woman I have ever known, even as the pastor preached acceptance and community in every sermon. It simmered when I realized the only connection I had with my father was our shared love of the bible and mine was dissipating. I was just angry, and all my rage was directed at God and everything about him.

My father and I never recovered our relationship after I rejected my faith. I haven’t seen him since the summer after my 9th grade year and reading the bible only opens a wound that isn’t fully healed. I stopped going to church services, removed myself from youth group chats and threw away the extensive scripture journal I kept, distancing myself from any reminders of religion. I became the shark, refusing to acknowledge any part of my past that remained attached to me. At least until my mom came home with an obsession with crosses.

My mom’s crazy addiction for the simple shape made seeing them bearable. The excitement and joy she radiated when a new cross settled into its space on the wall made it difficult to look at the shape with disdain. I found myself drawn to her reactions. All giggles and scrunched noses and happy dances while she hung the ones my brothers and I would give her. Mom’s joy was infectious. She was always 100% herself, with chaotic decorations, loud laughter, and random bursts of energy.

During my years in high school, I saw my momma cry for herself for the first time and many more times. Her post-partum depression deepened when we found out she needed surgery to remove a tumor from her cervix. Her hormonal instability worsened when menopause wreaked her endocrine system and she found out my little sister had sensory OCD. Her heart broke when her husband cheated on her and she was facing yet another divorce that she knew would be difficult for everyone involved. I watched her strain to maintain her happiness while the world continually threw shots at her, as if it were trying to find her breaking point. But she never broke. I think the crosses had something to do with it. Despite loving her reactions to them, I was not exactly thrilled about the dozens of crosses gracing the wall right across from our front door. They were obnoxious and loud, with giant gemstones, bright colors, and mismatched patterns painted on the limbs, but I think I think the crosses made her feel closer to God. They reminded her she could shift some of the weight of her burdens onto His shoulders and He would take them, the same way Jesus took them when He carried a cross through Jerusalem.

I started to appreciate God for helping my mom even if I could not bring myself to repair my relationship with Him. He was helping her be who she really was underneath the pain and those crosses reminded her of that. They reminded her of the love she was able to give. During my Pentecostal upbringing, countless sermons reminded me to let the Lord’s light shine from within us. “Show others the kindness and mercy of our savior, let Him lead them to the light through you.” I cannot think of a more light-filled person than mom. Working as a nurse for more than half her life, the patients my mom has taken care of remember her. The words “nurse Kristy” shout to her from across parking lots and in grocery stores when people recognize the woman who took the time to care about who they were rather than what they were diagnosed with. Visiting her at work and seeing the smiles she could bring to the faces of those riddled with cancer and losing hope fueled my determination to make a difference in the medical field – to have her light shining from within me. I strove for many years to shine the way she does, letting the love of God fill her so that when people are around her, they can feel the love too. Her selflessness, empathy, and wholehearted kindness leak from her as if she’s made of a porous material that cannot contain it all. She took a small, simple symbol, and shaped it into something that gave her strength, resilience, openness, and the ability to change.

The older I get, the more I see how much of my mother seeps out of me. I laugh while I’m crying when watching sappy movies, I jump up and down, singing out my words when I’m excited, I cry for my friends and dance to songs in my head when I’m bored. Though my interior design skills are far superior, I am so proud to be her mirror image. The first cross my mom bought was large, nearly 3 feet of bronze decorated with elegant twirls of metal, twisting in and out of large gaps found at the end of each limb. The middle of the cross was a raised hemisphere with small curled knobs circling it, once a dark brown, now shining with oil from the many times my mom rubbed it as she passed. A small gesture reminding her she was okay.

“What you don’t like this one? EEEEK I love it! Y’all know I have my special style!” I raised an eyebrow as mom threw up her arms and pretended to cock a shotgun holding the hot-pink trimmed zebra printed cross in her hands. Hiding my grin, I rolled my eyes and watched her struggle to find space for it on the crowded wall. My eyes skimmed over the bedazzled, glittering objects, falling on the Dallas Cowboys themed cross she was moving to the side and laughing as I cringed. She started humming some hymn I vaguely recognized from church. I felt my chest squeeze tight and the grin drop from my mouth as that familiar feeling of resentment settled over me.

Though my mother and I are so similar, I am sometimes lacking in her ability to let things go, change her thinking and move forward without burdens. My anger toward God fueled an ongoing battle between my past self and the person I was becoming. It took a lot of energy to house all that hatred, to blame a single entity for every negative aspect of my past and work to forget a lifetime of experiences. For a long time, I saw my religious past and the relationship I had with my father as something that needed to be cut off so that I could grow into who I was meant to be. I realize now that I did not lose a part of myself when my opinions and beliefs contradicted the rigid interpretations my father had laid out for me. I reshaped it. I reshaped it the way my mom is constantly reshaping herself so she is not consumed by morbid and harmful realities and can accept the world as it is.

My religious past gave me critical thinking skills. Sitting criss-cross applesauce at the end of my bed, my neck craned over the yellowing pages of a bible, I saw more than laws and stories. I found my opinions. I owned my voice. When reading essays and research articles, I appreciate their beauty and intelligence, but still critique and interpret their meanings.  The bible gave me a curious mind and a desire to understand the afflictions of those suffering. I am not easily satisfied with unanswered questions. I push and I speculate, and I can change my mind. My mom’s relationship with crosses reminded me of my ability to see things in different perspectives while respecting each one. She helped to put aside the pain I held onto. I am still a shark. Swimming along with my remora fish, no longer ignoring the suggestions and lessons they have, I use their guidance to build my own path. I do not have the same relationship with my father or God as I once did, but I am grateful for the things they taught me.

“This is great, Chloe Anne-Marie. You wrote this all by yourself?” I struggle to picture the blurry face of my father as he said these words the first time I brought him a sermon. Written in purple marker with small yellow flowers, orange fish and blue crosses decorating the borders, the paper filled me with pride. “You need to reference the bible more often though,” his cheery tone turned flat, “or these are just your words and not words that were given to you by God.” I watched as he stenciled in possible verses, slashing his black ball point pen through the words I had practiced a dozen times in the mirror. My eyes glued themselves to the wrinkles lining his forehead while my teeth dug into the soft flesh of my cheek. I wrote two sermons later that night. One was written in pen, with the addition of versus and quotes from the bible lying neatly on my father’s desk. The other, a replica of the original, hanging beside my bed, signed Chloe Harris.

Fin

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Born and raised in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Chloe Harris graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in biochemistry and molecular biology from Hendrix College. She will go on to work in a urology clinic during her gap year before attending medical school next fall. When she isn’t making detailed lists or talking off her friends’ ears, she’s covered in paint and hunched over a canvas. 

“Hidden Within the Darkest Part of Myself”: Malicroix, the Gothic, and the Experience of the Unknown by Nat Leach

As always, I’m delighted to post writing by my friend Nat Leach. Here Nat contextualizes Henri Bosco’s Malicroix (1948) twice over: by thinking about its uneasy relation to Gothic literature, and by comparing it to contemporary works by the theorists Maurice Blanchot and Emmanuel Levinas. The resulting essay made sense of much of the novel for me. Enjoy!

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Literature can create an experience that, illusory or not, appears as a means of discovery and an effort not to express what one knows but to experience what one does not know.

—Maurice Blanchot, The Work of Fire, 1949, trans. Charlotte Mandell.

Reading Henri Bosco’s Malicroix (originally published in 1948, and recently re-published by NYRB in a new translation by Joyce Zonana) put me in mind of the work of some of his contemporary French writers of the late 40’s, such as Blanchot and Emmanuel Levinas, and the above passage from Blanchot resonated very much with my experience of reading the book. Not only does the protagonist, alone on a strange island, reflect on his own strange experience, but readers are confronted with an unknown world that does not entirely correspond either with their sense of the real world or with their expectations of fiction. While Bosco employs conventions from genres such as the adventure novel and the Gothic novel, he takes them in unfamiliar directions.

The plot itself appears straightforward: the protagonist, Martial de Mégremut, inherits his uncle’s property on the condition that he not leave the remote island on which his house is located for a period of three months, and that he accomplish an as yet unspecified action after that period has expired. The inheritance is not particularly lucrative, but Martial’s determination (which surprises even himself) to remain on the island creates conflict with his uncle’s notary, Dromiols, who tries to induce him to leave. While this is the stuff of adventure novels, it’s also significant that the most dramatic encounter with this antagonist takes place about 2/3 of the way through the book. This underscores that the book is much more about Martial’s internal struggles, of which he himself is sometimes only dimly aware.

Bosco establishes the dominant conflict within his protagonist in the first few pages of the book. Martial belongs to the “gentle and patient” Mégremut family, which is characterized by its amiable sociability, but his uncle Cornélius, from whom he inherits, was, conversely, the last of the line of the Malicroix, a passionate and prideful lineage. Cornélius himself was a wild and anti-social being, and we soon learn that these characteristics were the product of an unhappy past linked to these negative qualities of his line.

Many of the characters, Martial himself included, question whether he is a “true” Malicroix, possessing as he does the “blood” but not the “name” of Malicroix. From the beginning, Martial acknowledges the presence of the Malicroix blood “hidden within the darkest part of myself” and this hidden force often seems to dictate his actions throughout the book, as when his conscious mind decides to leave the island even as he unconsciously determines to stay. The structure of the book suggests that Martial’s journey is a progression from Mégremut (the title of the book’s first section) to Malicroix (the title of its final section), but the ending actually complicates this opposition, showing the Mégremuts to have an unexpected toughness, while Cornélius’ final request has an unexpectedly redemptive quality to it. One significant question raised by the ending, then, is whether Martial’s actions succeed in harmonizing these two dimensions of his character, or whether he remains fundamentally split between them.

Another way of framing this opposition is that the Mégremuts represent sociability and communicability, or the beautiful as opposed to the obscurity and secrecy of the Malicroix sublime. Martial notes of his family: “We are not given to unvoiced sorrow or silent reproach. Faces and gestures speak; voices confirm. In this gentle family we love each other too much not to confess everything, especially the reproaches, the sorrow, the deep roots of tenderness.” Martial moves from the family hearth where everything is expressed directly on the surface to the mysterious island where nothing is clear. His solitude and the force of the elements (powerful winds and blinding snow) produce insomniac reveries and, eventually, feverish dreams as he falls ill after collapsing in the snow. At the height of his solitary anxiety, he observes that “I suspected that because my situation was not reasonable, it concerned my whole self, not just my reason. It was up to my soul to speak, but my soul was silent.” This sums up much about the book; it takes us beyond a merely rational apprehension of events towards their deeper, hidden meanings, which nevertheless remain mysterious. In other words, it reveals the Malicroix at the heart of every Mégremut.

This lesson is also suggestive of the book’s associations with the Gothic genre. On the surface, it is a very Gothic book indeed, with its solitary, foreboding house, mysterious will, passionate, anti-social ancestor with a traumatic past and even a woman with a strange ghost-like quality. The troubling of the distinction between Mégremut and Malicroix is also typical of the Gothic’s tendency to blur boundaries between the rational and the irrational, the human and the inhuman, communal order and individual desire. Categories that, on the surface, appear to be opposites are shown in fact to be intricately implicated with one another at a deeper, unconscious or secret level.

The book also Gothically hints at the possibility of supernatural agency, but these hints are neither confirmed nor rationalized away, leaving it in the category designated by Tzvetan Todorov as “the fantastic,” which constitutes a “hesitation” between the real and the imaginary. The action of the book thus takes on a dreamlike quality, resistant to the faculty of reason and consequently to the limiting logic of genre. For example, when Martial is rescued by a mysterious woman (who later gives her name as Anne-Madeleine, while insisting that this is just her “name of this earth”), we are made to wonder whether she is a supernatural figure come to nurse him back to health, a femme fatale come to deceive him, or just an ordinary woman who lives nearby. She functions in the narrative, variously, as all of these things, but in the end, there is no definitive answer, and only the rational mind would insist on one; it is Martial’s often indistinct perceptions of her that are most significant in this book.

In fact, this is a book full of ambiguous and shifting characters, which seem to correspond to some dimension of Martial’s psyche rather than following their own internal logic. Like Anne-Madeleine, Dromiols’ clerk, “Uncle Rat,” and the old shepherd Balandran veer abruptly between appearing as threats or helpers; for example, Balandran’s initial surliness, coupled with the fact that he stands to inherit if Martial defaults on the conditions of the will, lead us to expect him to become a significant obstacle in the narrative. Instead, he quite suddenly transfers his loyalty to Martial. Only Bréquillet, Balandran’s dog, is consistent in his character, one of steadfast canine loyalty.

Even Bosco’s brief “Notice” to the reader at the beginning of the book frames it as a Gothic text, explaining that some 40 pages that “form a separate, private account” have been removed and that “only someone truly qualified for such revelations might one day break the seal”. This minor detail already suggests the major themes of the book: its secrecy and the notion that there is a single “proper” reader of the secret, just as Martial is the single proper reader of the codicil to Cornelius’ will.

But this centrality of Martial—which is undeniable, as everything is focalized through him—is troubled the fact that his own sense of identity is uncertain and shifting. For example, before his final confrontation with Dromiols, he observes the face of his adversary, unperceived:

Into this mask had flowed a massive thought whose immobility revealed savagery, stubbornness. It fascinated me. For this thought was me, and most likely Dromiols was actually seeing me, inside himself. Troubling impression of presence. I was there. I was solely there. Did I have a life, a will, outside that savage head whose slow meditation revolved around my weak figure? I obsessed him; I was his anxiety, what haunted him.

Bosco goes beyond the convention of the Gothic double in which the antagonist mirrors the protagonist and represents his darker impulses; rather, the distinction between the two characters seems to collapse completely as Martial describes Dromiols by describing his perception of himself within Dromiols, while simultaneously demonstrating Dromiols’ power over him, as they mutually “obsess” and “fascinate” one another.

The “troubling impression of presence” described here characterizes much of the book, and suggests a more troubling experience of the unknown than is typically conveyed in the Gothic. Martial speaks of himself as inhabiting some level of being that goes beyond his experience of his own identity. It is in this respect that the book particularly made me think of Levinas and Blanchot, whose works of the late ‘40s (and beyond) articulate a sense of a self that is not an autonomous master of the world, but is inescapably chained to it. Levinas, for example, writes about what he calls the “there is,” the inescapable fact of being that eludes the rational mind’s attempt to reduce all phenomena to objects of knowledge. Martial is plagued by this kind of anxiety-inducing awareness of the world around him. Compare, for example, Martial’s reflections:

The sharpness of these sensations soon grew so strong I began to suffer from a kind of pure insomnia. Not a normal state of wakefulness, in which confusion alternates with mental effort and is prolonged. I felt as if I had fallen prey to a dry lucidity. A hypervigilance refused to surrender any shadow to self-forgetfulness, and I remained painfully aware of everything.

to Levinas’s:

Insomnia is constituted by the consciousness that it will never finish—that is, that there is no longer any way of withdrawing from the vigilance to which one is held. Vigilance without end (Time and the Other, 1948, Trans. Richard A. Cohen)

This experience of the anonymous, unshakeable awareness of “being” seems to be something more than the anti-social “blood” of the Malicroix talking, a more profound experience of the unknown than that associated with the Gothic.

This contrasts with the book’s ending, which is active as opposed to passive, and describes an action that can only be completed by one person: Martial. One might therefore be tempted to read this as a progression from Martial’s initial state of undifferentiated being on the island to his specialized status as the last of the Malicroix, but again, this seems too simple; the final action is less a resolution than a gesture in the direction of some kind of new order. The book ends without dispelling its profoundly unsettling apprehension of something not just unknown, but perhaps unknowable, because, as Martial says, it is not simply rational but concerns the “whole” silent, irrational “self”.