May 2019 in Review

In contrast to last month, May was a good reading month. No surprise: April is the worst month of the year for my schedule; May is one of the best. Plus, I had a lovely few days at my in-laws’ farm, where there’s nothing for me—a person who avoids bush-hogging (it’s a thing, look it up) as if his life depended on it—to do but sit on the porch swing and read.

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David Downing, Diary of a Man on Leave (2019) The new standalone from Downing is about a German-born Soviet spy who is sent back to Germany in 1938 to see if any of the members of the now-suppressed Communist party can be enticed into sabotage or resistance work. As is often the case with Downing, the historical background is more compelling than the writing or the story. But I also didn’t give this book my best. I bet I would have enjoyed it more if I’d read it in a couple of sittings, instead of in dribs and drabs over the last week of the semester.

Miriam Toews, Women Talking (2018) Lots of people have already written about this excellent novel, including Parul Seghal in this very nice essay about #Metoo in fiction. It’s based on a true story: in a Mennonite community in Bolivia, women of all ages were regularly drugged with animal anesthetic and raped by men they lived among and knew well. In Toews’s novel, the men of the community have gone to the city to bail out the culprits. The women have two days to decide what to do: stay, leave, or fight. The novel consists of their debates, as recorded by August, a man who in his younger years left the community (his parents were expelled) and has now returned. August is an educated man, a man useless at farming, and, as such, in the eyes of the women as well as his own, not really a man at all.

I loved this smart, slippery novel, and I suspect I would get a lot more out of it on a second reading. I don’t think I’ve come close to plumbing its depths. I’ll simply note for now that the use of the male transcriber (the women are illiterate) is brilliant—it lets us see how even an ostensibly “good,” that is, sympathetic man, is complicit in patriarchy. When August describes the underside of a woman’s arm as “very smooth and white, like the keel of a new canoe,” my first response was to admire this simple but effective simile. My second was to wonder over the nature of the comparison. Is it neutral? (And what would that even mean?) Appreciative? Objectifying? Can there be appreciation without objectification? Relatedly, can there be forgiveness without complicity? What is forgiveness even for? By evoking these sorts of questions, Women Talking reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, another rhetorically complex investigation into social structures, gender politics, and the uses and abuses of violence.

I’ve a longstanding aversion to Canadian literature that I perceive to be worthy but dull (i.e. most mainstream English-language Canadian fiction of the past thirty years). I’d never read Toews before because I thought she fit that bill. On the basis of this book, anyway, I was totally wrong, and I look forward to looking into her backlist. Anyone have preferences?

Katherine Marsh, The Night Tourist (2007) This one is special to me because my daughter and I read it together (mostly me to her, but sometimes her to me), and it’s a pretty sophisticated book, probably best suited for middle readers or even teenagers. It reworks the Orpheus myth (and as such gave my daughter her first consistent exposure to Greek myth—another milestone). Jack Perdu is a teenager who experiences mysterious visions that eventually lead him to experience a whole New York underworld full of ghosts. These recently and not-so-recently dead people must come to terms with their past before they can, in the language of the novel, “move on” to Elysium. Befriended by a girl named Euri, Jack learns why he, a mortal, can see ghosts and at what cost. In so doing, he uncovers the truth about his mother’s death, about which his father has always been so tight-lipped. And he reenacts his own version of the Orpheus story. Along the way he travels through all kinds of unusual New York landmarks—it’s a good city novel—and meets all kinds of people, like the poet Dylan Thomas and the psychoanalyst and early translator of Freud Abraham Brill. In other words, The Night Tourist was as much fun for me to read as for my daughter. I’m grateful to a colleague who teaches Classics and Children’s literature for turning me on to this book.

John Warner, Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities (2018) Catnip to me, since I spend much of my professional life decrying the five-paragraph essay, teaching students why it’s boring and awful, and supporting them through the realization that a skill they had to master in order to get to college now means nothing at all.

Warner, who is clear that his teaching discoveries have been possible because he hasn’t had a full-time, secure academic position (which is to say, he is the most common kind of academic there is today), is funny without being cutesy. He’s clear and thoughtful. And best of all, he’s inspiring. I’ll be changing my teaching this Fall based on his suggestions. His practical advice is great—and his sample exercises even better. I could have done without some of the sections demolishing what has passed as educational reform in the last decades—mostly because I already agree with Warner, but also because these sections feel a bit padded—but on the whole this is a book anyone who writes or, especially, teaches others to write should take a look at. It opens with a great bit on the reactions Warner gets when people learn about his job (It’s the phones! It’s that they’re snowflakes!). Warner says, it’s not the phones, and it’s not the snowflakes: it’s that students are doing exactly what we’ve trained them to do.

Andrew Taylor, The Anatomy of Ghosts (2010) My last audiobook of the semester was a good one. I’ve read some of Taylor’s historical fiction before (always crime-ish, sometimes Gothic, a bit pastiche-y), and although some are better than others, he’s always good light reading. This is a story of secrets and corruption in 18th century Cambridge. Some appealing characters, some dastardly ones, some nice twists. Good stuff.

Ben Aaronovitch, Whispers Under Ground (2012) I really liked Midnight Riot, the first book in Aaronovitch’s urban fantasy Rivers of London series. In the first book, PC Peter Grant learns to his surprise that he has an affinity for the supernatural and is assigned to a unit of the Met dealing with all things inexplicable to reason. (I especially like the personification of the various rivers and streams in and under London that gives the series its name.) A while ago, I read the second book, and it was ok. Now I took a flier on the third, and I’m realizing that I like crime a lot more than fantasy. There’s always a climactic bit in these books with some kind of monster or supernatural creature that I find tedious. So maybe these books aren’t really my thing. They’re funny, though. Maybe I’ll pick up the fourth in a year or so.

Nathan Englander, kaddish.com (2019) Englander is the heir to Bernard Malamud, which is some of the highest praise I can offer. My appreciation for his (admittedly a bit uneven) work only grew when I got to host him for a few days several years ago. The man’s a prince.

I liked kaddish.com a lot, but this review in The Nation made me doubt my response. (I respect Nathan Goldman’s taste.) I agree with Goldman that the book (which is really a novella—a form that, happily, seems to be making a comeback: thinking of Moss’s Ghost Wall for example) is more expanded short story than fully-fledged novel. But I don’t think it’s padded or slight or overworked. I appreciated how it used the kind of temporal shifts more common to a story than a novel. There’s a big, and to my mind fascinating, shift about 30 pages in: some readers characterize it as undeserved or ill-explained, but I think it’s important for making sense of the book, which is about persistence or, better, the inexpungable, whether that takes the form of pop up windows or Torah study.

What’s this book about? The eponymous website, of course, which promises to exploit a Talmudic loophole in order for users to hire someone to say kaddish (the prayers for the dead) for a deceased loved one for the year prescribed by Jewish law. Englander’s protagonist, who has taken advantage of this service, spends most of the book trying to meet the shadowy and perhaps unreal person who took on that burden. Like so much of Englander’s work, kaddish.com simultaneously challenges and appreciates Jewish tradition. (Again like Malamud.) It also asks to be read in tandem with his last book, the similarly short The Dinner at the Center of the World: both are about Israel around the turn of the century; the first political, the second religious.

James Sturm, Off Season (2019) Melancholy comic, which I wrote about here.

Judith Kerr, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (1971) I’d been thinking about how I first learned about the Holocaust, and I remembered this book, which—along with Anne Holm’s I Am David (does anyone read that anymore? I should track it down)—was one of the first places I got even a hint about the fate of Europe’s Jews under Nazism. (How old was I? 10 maybe?) Re-reading When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit was a revelation. For one thing, I realized it’s not really about the Holocaust: it’s indirectly about the Nazi persecution of Jews, and directly about exile.

Anna, the protagonist, clearly modelled on Kerr herself, is nine when Hitler takes power. Her father is a well-known writer critical of National Socialism. (As was Kerr’s father, Alfred Kerr, nicknamed the Kulturpapst (cultural Pope) of Weimar Germany.) Just before the fateful elections in January 1933, Anna’s father is tipped off that he should leave the country, as he is likely to be arrested should the Nazis win. What he hopes will be a short vacation turns into a life-long exile, in which he is joined by his family, first in Switzerland, then Paris, and finally London.

Kerr writes piercingly of what it means to have no home other than one’s immediate family (“If you haven’t got a home, you’ve got to be with your people”—lucky for her, and her character, that she could). Being a refugee is hard, the book suggests, but it also has its benefits. (Maybe this is the difference between exiles and refugees. Only the former can look on their experiences so philosophically.)

There’s an especially moving subplot about a family friend, a naturalist and a Luftmensch who laughs off the idea that he should leave Germany. (One of his grandparents was Jewish.) When Uncle Julius is forced out of his job and can only find work as a sweeper in a factory, his only pleasure is his daily visit to the Berlin zoo, where, Anna’s father notes sadly, the monkeys recognize him not just for the peanuts he brings but also for his gentleness. If only the people were as perceptive. When the zoo is decreed off-limits to Jews, Julius swallows a bottle of sleeping pills.

Yet despite such stories, the book is very funny. The family’s pluck is heartening, and their dry wit a pleasurable, if necessarily limited, fuck you to fascism. (The title comes from Anna’s decision to leave behind her favourite stuffed animal, a pink rabbit, with all the rest of the family’s possessions, in favour of a new toy that she later recognizes she doesn’t love at all. The family’s things are sent “into storage,” but of course, none of it is ever seen again.) Reading Kerr’s delightful book, I sometimes laughed out loud, which I really didn’t expect.

Kerr wrote two more books about the family’s experiences, taking up Anna’s story after her arrival in England. These are out of print, but I’ve tracked them down in various local libraries. Just a few days after finishing Rabbit, I learned of Kerr’s death at the age of 95. (Judging from the stories circulating on Twitter, she was a delight.) I’ll be reading the rest of the trilogy soon: maybe an essay will come of it.

Chia-Chia Lin, The Unpassing (2019) Contemporary American literary fiction is not my thing, but I like Garth Greenwell, and he’s been saying good things about this book. So I plucked it from the library’s New Book shelf. I almost quit on the first page:

During an uneventful part of my childhood, my mother walked into the room with a plate of loose washed grapes. She collapsed. Grapes thudded dully on the carpet. One rolled under the couch. The plate lay overturned, and my mother’s body was beside it, limbs splayed.

This is just the sort of in medias res, flatly written, and ominously portentous sort of thing I associate with American literary fiction. So annoying. (At least it’s in past tense. Why does everyone feel they have to write in present tense?)

Anyway, I persevered, and I’m glad I did. It turns out the mother is testing her kids, checking to see whether they would call for an ambulance. (They didn’t.) This gives you some idea of the fraught family dynamic at the heart of Lin’s debut novel, which is narrated by a sensitive child, alert to some of the nuances of what’s going on around him, but blind to others, which we glimpse by reading against his limited perspective.

Not a particularly unusual scenario for a literary novel. But who the child is and where he tells his story from is more unusual. Gavin, ten years old in 1986, is the middle child in an immigrant family. His parents are from Taiwan; he grows up in Alaska. His father is a wastewater engineer, but whether from bad luck or incompetence, he makes a mistake and a child dies from a poisoned well. (The motif of poisoning returns at the end of the book, with a reference to the Exxon Valdez disaster/fiasco.) The child who dies barely figures in the book—though the event has consequences for the narrator’s family, which spirals into severe poverty—but that fate echoes in another, significant way: Gavin’s younger sister dies of meningitis, and we see how each member of the family struggles with the repercussions of that terrible event. It’s all made worse in that no one in the family is able or willing to talk about their feelings.

Even though the book’s not especially long I thought it could have been shorter: I think it would have been better as a novella. Especially as Lin is better with set pieces than sustained narration. Two in particular stand out: one in which Gavin and his mother encounter a beached whale (it’s not as crassly symbolic as it sounds), and another in which the family’s youngest child goes missing during a violent storm. (That scene is so suspenseful I could feel my hands clutching the pages.)

As a child of immigrants, I’m captivated by stories of children forced to become the interpreters of a new land for their elders. I was surprised, and interested, to find that racism isn’t central to the story. Gavin’s family is different from most everyone around them, no question, and those differences embarrass and confuse the children, but the white Alaskans in the novel—admittedly few in number: the family is isolated, more by choice than geography—are more puzzled than hostile when they encounter the narrator and his siblings and parents. But then there’s the title, with its ungainly nonce noun, which I can’t quite figure out. Does “unpassing” suggest their inability to fit in? What isn’t being passed? I couldn’t make much of it.

It’s neither here nor there, but I was also surprised by the affinities between Lin’s novel and David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide (2008). Moral of the story: try not to grow up with emotionally distant parents in Alaska.

Daphne Du Maurier, The House on the Strand (1969) A great time travel novel! Richard Young is invited to stay at a house on the Cornish coast owned by his friend Magnus Lane, a scientist who has secretly invented a concoction that takes whoever swallows it back to the fourteenth century. Richard, who agrees to test it, experiences a different moment in the lives of the local gentry on each trip. As befits a novel from the 60s, Du Maurier explicitly plays up the analogy between time travel and drugtaking, not least because the professor’s tincture turns out to be addictive. Richard’s visits to the past are momentary, and he cannot intervene in events. But even mere observation is risky.

I happened to read The House on the Strand as I was writing about Sarah Moss’s recent novel Ghost Wall, which concerns an anthropology study course, in which participants try to live as the Celts of Northumberland did in the years before the Roman invasion of Britain. Both novels investigate the power—and danger—of the desire to inhabit the past. Although Du Maurier’s narrator is more generous in his relationship to the past than most of Moss’s characters, he experiences the fantasy of direct connection to the past just as intensely as they do: “Imagination was not enough, I craved the living experience which had been denied me.”

The drug means Du Maurier’s narrator can experience what Moss’s characters cannot. Yet the opportunity comes at great cost. Madness results when the boundary between past and present dissolves. Which is really not that different from what we see in Moss’s novel. Moreover, both writers are equally convinced that the desire to control and dominate the past, rather than just to know it, is particularly male. The most disagreeable thing about The House on the Strand is the way Richard bullies his wife. (I think Du Maurier is critiquing this behavior, but I’m actually not sure. I find her gender politics hard to figure out.)

Anyway, you can read The House on the Strand without reading Ghost Wall. It’s a great book, a highlight in the Du Maurier canon, in my opinion, one I am steadily exploring with great pleasure (six books so far, and not a dud among them).

I read this for Ali’s #DDMreadingweek, which was a big success: I wish I’d been in time to write about it. But she promises to run it again next year, which gives me the excuse to read more Du Maurier!

Henrik Pantoppidan, Lucky Per (1898 – 1904, rev. 1918) Trans. Naomi Lebowitz (2010) I made a big deal about asking everyone to read this, and some of you even did. What I haven’t done is written anything about the experience yet. Will rectify this week.

Esther Freud, Peerless Flats (1993) I’ve long been a fan of Freud’s first novel, Hideous Kinky, which I gather is closely based on her own childhood experiences in Morocco, where she and her sister were taken by her clever, free-spirited, feckless, Hippie (choose your modifier) mother. But I’ve never read any of her others, even though I’ve collected most of them. I’ve long had the idea to catch up with them, and I think this is the summer for it.

Peerless Flats (you’ve got to admit, she has a way with titles) is, by all accounts, another fairly autobiographical novel, though this time with an older protagonist. In 1979, Lisa is sixteen and newly arrived in London where she’s just started an acting course. She lives with her mother (a version of the mother in Hideous) and much younger (and hilariously anarchic) brother. She’s also trying to keep tabs on her half-sister, who is into punk and drugs and lousy men; Lisa is the sensible one in the family, with all the travails that entails.

Two passages I liked a lot:

In the first, Lisa is in a pub, waiting for an older man she’s not sure she’s in love with. She’s ordered a drink she doesn’t want because she’s convinced ordering a soft drink would be a tip-off that she’s underage. She thinks about how late it’s getting:

Lisa began to worry about her mother. She imagined her waiting up. Listening for every tread on the stairs. She knew from experience that the more she worried about her mother, the less anxious her mother seemed when she did finally appear. But it didn’t stop her. Maybe this was what people meant by sensible.

In the second, she starts a new term to find that Brecht has replaced Stanislavsky on the syllabus:

Lisa felt completely thrown. For her the whole point of acting was the license it gave you to become another person, protected by a stage set and someone else’s words. … ‘What kind of actress are you going to be, Brechtian or Stanislavskian?’ [her friend] Janey asked Lisa in the canteen.

Lisa wasn’t sure. Really she just wanted to be Julie Christie in Doctor Zhivago and wear a fur hat and a tailored coat with buttons down the front.

Right?!?

It seems to me that Freud is the link between a writer like Barbara Comyns and one like Nina Stibbe. All are exemplars of a British tradition of female experience—predominantly realist in expression, but where the Gothic is never far away—in which stoicism is leavened by humour, and competent haplessness is, maybe not a value, but a totally okay way to be. Anita Brookner might fit somewhere here too.

Yuko Tsushima, Territory of Light (1979) Trans. Geraldine Harcourt (2018) Evocative 1970s Japanese novella about a woman who separates from her husband and lives with her small daughter. As the title hints, the book is as much about patterns and sensations as about emotions: or, rather, the latter are mostly evoked through the former. (The particular territory of light is a fourth-floor apartment, but it’s surely also the psyche.) My sense is that single mothers were unusual in Japan at the time, and the narrator deals with a certain amount of animus and hardship. But the book is really about resilience, about making a life which is sometimes exhilarating and sometimes imprisoning. (I especially loved a bit where the mother loses it on her tantrum-y child in a park and wants nothing more than to leave her behind.) Territory of Light was initially published in a newspaper in twelve monthly installments. No doubt that’s why there’s the chapters repeat themselves a bit, but I liked this: it captured that crushing sense of getting though daily life that characterizes life with small children, even as the change in seasons makes the book more fluid than stagnant. The only thing I wondered at was the portrayal of the daughter, who seemed not so much precocious (thank God, that’s the worst) but developmentally older than I expected. She said and did things I don’t associate with three-year-olds. Regardless, Tsushima is an impressive writer, and it’s great to see her in English: I’ve got Child of Fortune and will read that soon.

Helen Dunmore, The Siege (2001) Last year, I read the late Helen Dunmore’s last novel, Birdcage Walk. I liked it a lot, and I think about it often. I liked The Siege even better, mostly because it is set in the period of my intellectual interests/obsessions (the 1930s and 40s in Europe). The title refers to the terrible siege of Leningrad by the Nazis, especially its horrifying first months during the winter of 1941-2.

Dunmore sometimes reminds me of Penelope Fitzgerald in her use of unusual and vivid details to evoke the foreignness of the past. In the end, she’s a less surprising writer than Fitzgerald (I mean, who isn’t?), but still a very good one. Especially memorable here is her depiction of what prolonged hunger does to bodies, both metaphorical (the body politic, which bends and often breaks) and, most interestingly, literal.

Hearts palpitate after the simplest actions (climbing a flight of stairs, to say nothing of chopping a hole in the frozen Neva or dragging a pailful of its water back to an apartment). Legs swell. Teeth fall out. Short-term memory fades. Breath stinks. Sexual desire evaporates. I’d need to think more about whether the book ignores important political and historical distinctions by emphasizing the body (not in itself an ahistorical concept, but presented here as such), but that focus is certainly powerful.

The Siege isn’t a short book. And aside from some important chapters at the beginning set during the summer of 41, when Germany invaded the USSR, it concentrates on the months between September 1941 and April 1942. That level of detail is impressive—and sometimes hard to take. We watch a family’s precious supplies dwindle (we ache when the very last teaspoon of honey is meted out to a little boy; we wonder how many times tea can be made from the same dried nettles) and we wring our hands in anticipation—in a way I have often considered with my students of Holocaust literature—of an end we know, with the benefit of hindsight, is coming. Just hold out a little longer, I silently urged the characters, even as I worried because there were so many more years of the siege to go. How could they survive?  Dunmore’s decision to elide the rest of the war and leap to its end in the final chapters worked for me. Only a different kind of book—and probably not a novel—could cover the whole event in such detail. Plus, although life remained terribly hard for Leningraders, it was never as bad as that first winter, since the authorities were eventually able to fly supplies in—plus every available inch of the city was turned into a vegetable garden.

More Dunmore is in my future, no question. Maybe I’ll start with her sort-of sequel to The Siege, The Betrayal. Anyone have any other suggestions?

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Judith Kerr’s story of exile & Dunmore’s depiction of the siege of Leningrad aside, I deliberately took a break from all things fascism/Holocaust-related this month. In June, though, I’ll be returning to my regular fare. In particular, I’ll be reading and writing about Primo Levi, as a way to commemorate his centenary. More on that in a separate post soon.

Wearing the Mask: James Sturm’s Off Season

Off Season, the title of James Sturm’s latest comic, refers to New England in winter, as experienced on a trip that the main character, Mark, newly separated from his wife, Lisa, takes with their kids to Maine one blustery November weekend. It’s off season: most of the stores and restaurants are closed; the beach is freezing; the kids hungry and restive. The only place open is a 7-11. Walking past an art gallery, Mark remembers that he and Lisa bought a painting there in happier days. He was shocked, and pleased, to find himself becoming the kind of guy who buys art. But now he wonders if that decision was all Lisa’s. He imagines coming back to the seaside town in the summer, to find out what he really wants. Maybe he is a guy who buys art.

Not that he can afford any. Lisa has, as he sourly puts it, “the house, the rich parents, and plenty of time to volunteer for ol’ crooked Hillary” (he supported Bernie). Mark, a contractor who can fix anything, has had to sell his truck, which means that instead of being independent, he now works for a shady guy named Mick, a Bernie Bro with a BMW who does good work when he gets around to it, but gives Mark the runaround, writes bad checks, and eventually spreads lies about him. We don’t know enough about Mick to say for sure, he’s probably a shit all the time, but Mark’s hard time, at least, is an aberration from the life he thought he had been living.

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Which brings us to the second meaning of Sturm’s title.  Not the off-season, but an off-season. A spell of bad luck and despair that can happen to anyone, anytime. And not just anyone: even countries can have off seasons. Mark’s trip with his kids to the shore doesn’t happen in any old November. It’s November 2016. Trump, seen only once in the book, haunts the book: his oleaginous, bullying, smug, thoughtless bluster seems at once a threat to some basic American decency and a confirmation that the very idea of decency was a fantasy, told by a few for a few. (We can’t just console ourselves by thinking that Trump and the selfishness and hatred he’s emboldened is an aberration.)

Sturm draws Trump as a piggy-faced dog–everyone in the book is a dog. Or a person-dog. Sturm’s choice nods to Art Spiegelman’s Maus, where the characters are humanoid animals, one for each ethnic or national group. The use of animals in place of people will always prompt questions of empathy and identification—and those are important questions to ask in a time when difference is even more demonized than usual. (Sturm alludes to the issue in a chapter showing how Mark and Lisa met: they worked backstage at a summer theater on the Cape, helping with a production of Orwell’s 1984 in which the actors wore masks: from off-screen, as it were, we hear the director and actors participating in a Q & A with the audience: “Using animals as human stand-ins is as old as storytelling…” one says; another asserts, “As an actor, it’s liberating to wear the mask.” Here Sturm at once acknowledges and ironizes what he’s up to.) But where Spiegelman’s conceit is tied to the world view of his father, a Holocaust survivor, Sturm’s feels less subjective. That is, the dogs don’t symbolize Mark’s views. It’s pretty amazing how much variety Sturm gets from his dog characters, and if I knew my breeds as well as my daughter does I could hazard some connections between how the characters look and what they’re like. But that would be to miss the point. The book isn’t schematic—most of these dogs aren’t pure breeds, I don’t think, they’re mutts.

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Off Season is unhappy about American politics. But it has nicer, and more nuanced, things to say about Americans. This comes up in its depiction of parenting, which might be its real subject. (Perhaps the idea is that Trump’s America is an unruly, even monstrous child, and good-enough—sympathetic but firm—parenting is what it needs.) The book is filled with parents trying to do their best, and mostly but of course not always succeeding. Mark and Lisa try hard not to take out their marital problems on their kids, though they sometimes fight through them. The best parent in the book is a minor character named Kirsten, the mother of a friend of Mark and Lisa’s son, and who, it is intimated, voted for Trump. In a memorable chapter, Mark and his daughter drive through a blizzard to pick the boy up from his friend’s house. The car spins off the road: they are unhurt but by the time they’ve trudged through the snow to the shelter of the house they’re cold and wet. Mark spends an enjoyable evening playing board games and eating chili with Kirsten and the various neighbourhood children who’ve gathered at her house, while he waits for her boyfriend to get home from work.

Barry gets Mark out of the ditch: when Mark thanks him, he replies, “Thank Jesus. He has our backs whether we know it or not.” That feels a little much (it’s not a totally implausible response, but in my experience people who think like this are usually more circumspect when first meeting someone—they will, however, say “Have a blessed day” to you all the time), but the point, maybe not subtle but also not wrong, is that we shouldn’t reduce people to their political convictions or opinions, shouldn’t be so quick to pigeon hole them. Maybe Mark is, after all, both a builder and an art lover. What would be so weird about that? (Or maybe the point is that we should consider the material and social conditions that allow people to live in cognitive dissonance: generous to individuals, even ones they don’t know, but hostile to groups. Or, maybe, hostile to individuals who don’t look like them.)

Apparently Sturm first published the book serially online in the wake of the 2016 election. But his concerns here aren’t only topical; he’s been thinking about them for a while. Sturm wrote one of my favourite comics, Market Day, set in the Pale of Settlement in the early 20th century, I. B. Singer, Sholem Aleichem territory, but shorn of anything folksy or sentimental. Its Yiddishkeit is as somber as Sturm’s palette—and as moving. I disagree with the Times reviewer who finds Off Season more vibrant than his earlier books because, unlike them, it’s set in the present. That’s a spurious distinction. It’s been several years since I read Market Day, so I may be misremembering, but both it and Off Season want us to think about how people—men, really: Sturm isn’t bad with women, but they are never center stage in his books—can make a living in economies that don’t value them. (Market Day is about a rug maker who can’t sell his work anymore; machine-made rugs cost a lot less.) In both books, the main characters respond to their precarity with violence, directed at others and at themselves. When Mark loses his cool, he doesn’t hurt anyone (at least not directly) but his response (he vandalizes the house he’s been building with Mitch) is disturbing. My criticism of Sturm is that he’s not sure what to make of violence. Is it an understandable, if regrettable, response to an intolerable situation? An intolerable response? Secretly exciting and laudable?

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Off Season ends in oblique, low-key optimism. Which is maybe the best we can hope for right now. It’s a beautiful, pensive, involving work: you can read it in an hour but you’ll want to linger longer. My only wish is that in his next book Sturm thought a little more about violence, frustration, anxiety, loathing, all kinds of bad affects. Are they what’s off this season? Or are they with us all the year long?

April 2019 in Review

April is always the worst month of the year, work-wise, with end of semester assignments added to the administrative work that’s been pushed off all year. (Step away from that Eliot joke.) For various reasons, this year was worse than usual. Which is a shame, as April is also the loveliest month in Little Rock, weather-wise. No surprise, then, that my reading suffered. Few standouts here.

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Jacqueline Winspear – The American Agent (2019) I’ve been a dedicated reader of Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series, which emphasizes character over mystery. From the beginning, Winspear has presented post-WWI England as a traumatized culture (an idea that sometimes works and sometimes grates). Now that the series has reached WWII, Winspear seems to be casting about for a new idea; the result is the weakest book so far, not least because the author seems to have become famous enough that she no longer gets much editing. The book’s too long: the first third, especially, drags. I’ve read a lot of books on the Blitz: you have to be doing something special to get me interested. I’m no fan of Maisie’s new love interest, either. I’ll be back for the next installment, but Winspear’s now on notice.

Tadeusz Borowski – This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen and Other Stories (1959) Trans. Barbara Vedder (1976) Although I teach the title story every semester and can practically recite it from memory—a dubious pleasure, if you know it: I mean, it is one of the extraordinary texts of the Holocaust but it is so dark—I haven’t read the entire collection in several years. This time I read it with the small group of students I’ve spent the past year teaching how to be Holocaust educators. Even though they, like me, weren’t at their best this late in the school year, they still taught me things. For example, it was instructive to see how shocked yet riveted they were by a story like “Silence,” which shows the prisoners in a DP camp paying lip service to their American liberators’ insistence on due process before taking more visceral and irrevocable revenge on a collaborator. In a way, their surprise should have come as no surprise: Borowski is a genius at overturning our received view of the Holocaust.

Joseph Roth – The Radetzky March (1932) Trans. Eva Tucker revising Geoffrey Dunlop (1974) The best book I read this month by a mile, a genuinely great work of art. I read it for the group reading hosted by Caroline & Lizzy. My thoughts here.

C. J. Tudor – The Chalk Man (2018) I listened to this first book by Tudor on my commute, which is probably a good way to experience it. The story switches between the present and 1986 when Eddie, the narrator, was a young teenager. The dramatic events of that time in his life—a violent accident, an untimely death, and a body found in the woods (a young girl’s, natch)—return in the present. The scenes in the past are better than those in the present: they have a “Stand by Me” vibe. Tudor isn’t much of a writer (check out this take-down of her infelicities); not even the audiobook narrator could smooth things over. Diverting in its way, but the stinger at the end feels a bit cheap and I haven’t been tempted to try Tudor’s second book.

John Williams – Stoner (1965) Sorry, everyone, I am not a fan of the book. I say that even though “formalist precision” and “the letter-perfect novel,” are absolutely my jam. These terms come from yet another Stoner encomium, this one a New Yorker essay that imagines a counter-factual US literary tradition in which William Maxwell, Richard Yates, and Jean Stafford and not Pynchon, Barth, and Robert Coover are the acknowledged postwar American literary masters: frankly this seems a straw argument: Pynchon, perhaps, aside, who reads these guys anymore?

You could say that reading a book about an introverted college professor with a quietly undistinguished career is too much of a busman’s holiday for me, and it’s true that I don’t like campus novels (when they engage with anything that actually happens on a campus, it’s usually interpersonal politics: i.e. animosity). But I’m always on the lookout for good novels about teaching (do you know any?), which the titular character of Williams’s novel claims to have a vocation for. I appreciated that Williams was willing to show his protagonist as not especially capable—there’s a mismatch between what he wants to convey to his students and what he actually can—but that criticism gets erased by the novel’s repeated avowals that Stoner experiences teaching as transcendent. But we only ever hear this: we don’t feel it. Yet at the same time, we are asked to sympathize so strongly with Stoner, to feel indignant at the way the world treats him, that we can never take the telling rather than the showing of teaching as ironic (that is, there is no suggestion that we should wonder at Stoner’s overestimation of himself—the idea is that he is great, it’s just that the world can’t realize it).

But none of this is what’s awful about the book. Stoner’s wife, Edith—or, rather, the book’s treatment of her—is what’s awful. Edith is a monster—a fact explained only through crudely misogynistic pop-psychology (she is frigid and alcoholic because she was abused by her father). Worst of all, Stoner rapes her without the novel commenting on the fact, or even seeming to recognize it as such. Had I not been reading the book for professional reasons (see below) I would surely have abandoned it.

I’m not surprised that Stoner’s return to print in the US was spurred by huge sales in Europe: it seems like one of those cultural products that speak more to European fantasies of America than anything real (c.f. Janis Joplin, Blue Velvet, “The House of the Rising Sun”).) I’m grateful, however, that its success has underwritten the many delightful oddities published by my beloved NYRB Classics.

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Benjamin Dreyer – Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style (2019) Entertaining, even stylish guide to language use. Neither dogmatically prescriptive nor airily descriptive. Recognizes everyone has their linguistic crotchets. A book to dip into, but be warned: once you start, it’s hard to stop. It’s pretty damn funny.

Brantley Hargrove, The Man Who Caught the Storm: The Life of Legendary Tornado Chaser Tim Samaras (2018) Not a book I would ever have read on my own, but I’m glad I did. As a member of the Talent Committee for the Arkansas Literary Festival, I sometimes get asked to moderate panels at the event. This year it was a session on biographies. Hargrove was immediately recognizable at the author party the night before: he was the only one wearing a Stetson. He’s affable, soft-spoken, good-looking, smart: he could play himself in the movie version of the book. Except that one of the great things about the book is that Hargrove plays almost no role in it. (Swimming against the tide, that is.) Even though he learned to chase storms as part of his research (he shared some hair-raising footage with the Lit Fest audience), he keeps himself out of it. Instead the focus is on Tim Samaras, a self-educated tinkerer who parlayed his engineering work for a defense contractor into a position as one of the world’s foremost tornado researchers (he designed probes that could withstand the force of tornados and managed to deploy them in the very heart of storms; thanks to Samaras, for the first time, researchers were able to understand what actually happens inside a tornado).

Hargrove structures his book effectively, mixing comprehensible summaries of meteorological research, a narrative of Samaras’s life (yes, he did fall in love with tornadoes watching The Wizard of Oz as a child, a film he always turned off once Dorothy got to Oz), and an exciting yet never voyeuristic reconstruction of Samaras’s last chase. Samaras and two members of his crew, including his oldest son, were killed in a tornado (the widest ever recorded) near El Reno, Oklahoma in 2013. (I was amazed to learn that they are the only storm chasers who have ever died in action, as it were.)

Tornadoes are a feature of life in the American South (in Central Arkansas, they test the sirens every Wednesday at noon). They terrify me, a transplant who did not grow up with them (although the climate has changed such that they are pretty common in Canada now). (It does not help that there are no basements in Arkansas.) I worried the book would only increase this fear, but actually it’s allayed it: not that I find them safer or less random than I did before, but now I’m more interested in them as a phenomenon. If extreme weather or extreme passion interest you, you might enjoy this book too.

Jane Harper – The Lost Man (2018) Excellent novel about a fascinating place, outback Queensland, Australia. Two brothers, Nathan and Bub Bright, meet for the first time in months, even though their cattle ranches share a fence-line: the cause of their reunion is the death of their elder brother, Cameron. As befits a psychological mystery, plenty of family secrets come out over the course of the book, which doesn’t feature a detective per se. Instead, Nathan becomes the investigator of his family’s past—and in the process of himself. (Almost everyone in the book is a lost man.)

I read Harper’s first book, The Dry, a couple of years ago: it was good but not so terrific that I raced out to get the sequel. The new book is her first standalone, and a giant leap forward in sophistication and ability. A suspenseful character study with a satisfying ending that can rightly be said to be devastating, the book cleverly combines vast outdoor spaces with the closed world of a country house murder mystery. Above all, it offers an absorbing depiction of a difficult way of life in a place where children attend school via Skype, generators cut out at 11 p.m., the skin doctor flies in once a month to excise cancers, and every house has something called a “cold room” (I never did figure out how that works when the generator’s off). Stephen Shanahan reads the audiobook beautifully.

Charles J. Shield – The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel: John Williams, Stoner, and the Writing Life (2018) The other book on the Arkansas Literary Festival biography panel. (Or as I liked to think of it: The Men Who Did Shit panel.) This biography did not further endear me to Williams, a man who was careless of women (though unaccountably attractive to them) and blessed (admittedly after surviving dozens of dangerous flights over the Himalayas in WWII) with the prosperity postwar America gave to white men, especially those who found their way into the rapidly expanding public university system. (Churlish to resent those who were lucky in their birth, but I do.) Shield’s telling of the life (he has previously written biographies of Harper Lee and Kurt Vonnegut, and is completing one on Lorraine Hansberry: he told some good Vonnegut anecdotes at the festival) is workmanlike. He doesn’t quite apologize for Williams, but he doesn’t take much distance from him either.

By the way, if you, like me, were wondering how the hell the tornado book and the Stoner book were ever going to work together, the answer is: quite well! Both writers were professional, courteous, and thoughtful in their responses to an enthusiastic crowd. And we made some interesting connections between the works, especially concerning whether there is any meaningful distinction between passion and obsession.

That’s it! A paltry nine books. The tornado book was interesting, but the only ones likely to stick in my mind are The Lost Man and The Radetzky March. (Plus the Borowski, but I hardly count it, since it’s practically ingrained in me.)

May’s reading has already proven much more fruitful. More on that in a couple of weeks.

 

 

 

 

March 2019 in Review

March is a long time ago now, but I wanted to say a few words about my monthly reading. A better than average set.

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Yiyun Li – Where Reasons End (2019) Sad, funny, wise, painful. I quoted bits here.

Christopher R. Browning – Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (1992/98) This Holocaust scholar could have won plenty of rounds of Humiliation for not having read Browning’s classic microhistory of the actions of Order Police Battalion 101 near Lublin in 1942. Sometimes books you feel just have to have read disappoint. Not Ordinary Men, which remains as eye-opening now as then. (Browning has written a thoughtful essay for the 25th anniversary edition, bringing the latest research, especially concerning the photograph record of the unit, to bear on his original conclusions.)

The book begins with a sobering statistic: in March 1942, 70—80% of the eventual victims of the Holocaust were still alive, and 20—30% had been murdered; by February 1943, the proportions were reversed. 1942 was the darkest year in Jewish history; Browning examines one example of the men who perpetrated that darkness. The average age of the 500 men in the battalion was in the upper 30s, meaning that they had come of age before the Nazis came to power, and they were working- and lower middle class men from Hamburg, an area and the social classes famously antipathetic to National Socialism—facts which, taken together, suggest these men would have been among the least likely to be drawn to fascism. Yet they readily participated in mass executions, round-ups, and deportations.

Browning notes that 10—20% refused to partake in atrocities (and they had the benefit of a commander who actually asked before the first action if anyone wanted out—rather than a death sentence or a transfer to the front, these dissenters were moved into clerical positions or even sent back home); 20—30% participated avidly in atrocities; while the majority (50—70%), although reluctant, participated anyway. For the men in this last category, it was easier to follow along, and too unpleasant to risk the scorn of their more hateful colleagues. These are sobering numbers, with implications beyond Browning’s specific example. What makes us think we wouldn’t number among the majority in a similar scenario?

Leslie Morris, The Translated Jew: German Jewish Culture Outside the Margins (2018) I had a realization as I reviewed Morris’s book on the idea of translation in postwar German Jewish culture: academic monographs make me grumpy and I should stop writing about them. Thus, I’ve given up reviewing books for Choice, a publication designed to help libraries decide what to buy. (I wrote for them for 10 years.) Morris, whom I have not met even though the field we work in is small, probably deserves a more charitable reviewer. I did my best to point out the inspiring range of her material—ranging from a defunct Berlin sculpture park to Jewish body art to the poets Raymond Federman and Rose Ausländer. But her insistence, so typically academic, that we think, read, or engage “in new ways,” without explaining how or why, grated on me. As I concluded: “her description of Jewishness as an endlessly deferred cipher, at once spurring and spurning interpretation, is as unexceptional as it is unexceptionable.”

Andrea Camilleri – The Overnight Kidnapper (2015) Trans. Stephen Sartarelli (2019) Of course, the crime itself has vanished from my memory, but I recall the latest Montalbano as a decent effort. I didn’t want any surprises, and I didn’t get any.

Gengoroh Tagame – My Brother’s Husband [Volume 2] (2016) Trans. Anne Ishii (2018) I read Volume 1 last month; happy to say that the conclusion doesn’t disappoint. It plays a trick on us, but a fair one: leading us to believe in an impossible ending, then gently showing us why the all-too-possible one, however melancholy, is the right choice.

Ian Rankin – In a House of Lies (2018) The latest Rebus—once again improved, I suspect, by the audiobook’s excellent narrator—is one of the best in a while, featuring a rich set of storylines, plus better use of Brillo the dog (see my February complaint). The détente between Rebus and Edinburgh crime boss Big Ger Cafferty suggested in the previous installments is gone. This despite the fact that Rebus is coming to terms with a COPD diagnosis. Has anyone written about the pathos of ailing detectives?

H. F. Heard – A Taste for Honey (1941) I admit, I did not do this book justice. I read it on a Friday night when I was exhausted and should have gone to bed. But even in a better frame of mind, I think I would have found this tale of Holmes in retirement thin gruel. You better like Holmes a lot more than suspense if you’re going to enjoy it.

Virginie Despentes – Vernon Subutex I & II (both 2015) Trans. Frank Wynne (2017 & 2018) Not sure how long they’ll stay with me, but I liked these books a lot. I tried to articulate why—and the issue I take with the conclusion they seem to be coming to—here.

Mihail Sebastian – Women (1933) Trans. Philip Ó Ceallaigh (2019) More anon.

Solomon Perel – Europa, Europa (1990) Trans. Margot Bettauer Dembo (1997) Almost on a whim, I decided to teach Agnieska Holland’s adaptation of Perel’s extraordinary Holocaust memoir this semester. It went well—I’m finding the movie more interesting the longer I spend with it (always a good sign). The film is plenty unusual, but Perel’s memoir even more so. His story is stranger than fiction: after escaping the Nazi advance by fleeing east of the Bug river (the part of Poland annexed by the Soviet Union in the Hitler—Stalin pact) and finding refuge as a Komsomol in an orphanage in Grodno, the Jewish Perel passed himself off as an Ethnic German when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. (He had been born in Germany before moving to Poland with his parents as a child.) Perel found himself honoured for fighting at the Front and then shipped to a boarding school for elite members of the Hitler Youth, where he spent most of his time worrying someone would notice his circumcision. (Tonally, both book and film are crazy: sort of funny, sort of campy, sort of moving.) Remarkably, Perel survived the war surrounded by Nazi true believers, and at war’s end found himself reunited with his elder brother, the only other member of the family to survive. Perel’s story is even more unlikely than most survivor tales. What is most interesting is the way his cognitive dissonance features in odd switches between first and third person. At heart there seems something fundamentally incurious about Perel. An effect of his experiences? Or a predisposition towards surviving them?

Michelle McNamara — I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer (2018) I don’t read much True Crime. But I do read a ton of crime fiction. So, I naively assumed, when I started listening to McNamara’s acclaimed description of her pursuit of the serial rapist she named the Golden State Killer, that I knew what I was in for. Nope. I was shocked by how visceral, graphic, and uncomfortably voyeuristic this book—and, I suspect, its genre—turns out to be. It’s creepy as shit. To her credit, McNamara is aware of these difficulties, and doesn’t shy from highlighting her obsessive interest. Sadly, McNamara couldn’t finish her book: she died about three-quarters of the way through, and the finished version has been pieced together from notes. (The editors clearly describe when and how they’ve reconstructed.) Still, I did find the book repetitive and confusingly structured—perhaps a fitting response to the relentlessness of the crimes, dozens and dozens of them, perpetrated over a decade all over California. (If I had a better sense of California’s geography I might have had an easier time of it.) The tension between what we know—the killer was finally caught (in part thanks to McNamara’s efforts—and what she didn’t gives the book a macabre poignancy. Not for the faint of heart.

Lissa Evans — Their Finest Hour and a Half (2009) Read my take, if you like, but be sure to read this novel. There’s a dog that understands Yiddish!

David Bezmozgis — Immigrant City: Stories (2019) Bezmozgis is one of my favourites, the heir to Bernard Malamud. I snapped up his new collection on a recent weekend in Canada (why no US pub date?) and finished it before I was even home. I’m not sure Bezmozgis has ever written anything as rich as his first novel, The Free World (the great novel of the emigration of Soviet Jewry), but most of these stories are the equal of those in his terrific first collection, Natasha and Other Stories. Of course, some stories are stronger than others. “A New Gravestone for an Old Grave,” for example, is a bit travelogue-y. But “Immigrant City” breaks new ground for Bezmozgis (not sure the attempt to juxtapose earlier generations of Jewish immigrants to newer ones from Syria and Somalia completely works, but it’s thought provoking—I suspect it would hold up to rereading). And “Little Rooster” is a classic that is going straight onto the syllabus of my course on postwar representations of the Holocaust.

More before too long, I hope, about April reading, which is proving decidedly more unavailing.

The Radetzky March Readalong

Caroline and Lizzy have organized a group reading of Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March. The novel has three parts: they posed questions for each section. (Not something I’d seen done before for an online readalong. Such a good idea!) Rather than responding each week, I’ve chosen the questions that spoke to me the most and answered them in one shot.

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Welcome to the #germanlitmonth spring readalong of The Radetzky March.  What enticed you to read along with us?

Many years ago I spent part of a summer at my uncle’s vacation house, in a remote valley of northern Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland. The house, a tiny thing of stone and wood built in the seventeenth century, was, as we’d say now, off the grid, even more so than most everything was in those days. A bakery van came by each morning, and once a week a grocery truck would come up from the main valley and stop in the little mountain villages. The villages were mostly empty then, filled with old people and some summer vacationers. I haven’t been there in decades: God only knows what they’re like now.

Along with my backpack, I had an old briefcase—I think it had been my grandfather’s—that I’d filled with books I was determined to read. Hard books: Proust, Broch, Faulkner, Malaparte. Of course, I didn’t read them all. The Broch was too hard, the Proust I didn’t get to until decades later. I did, however, read The Radetzky March. Did I like it? No idea. It left no big impression. I suspect I found it difficult. I didn’t know anything about the Hapsburg Empire then. And it’s slow. I remember the Malaparte much more vividly. Malaparte is not slow. Where Roth foresees the apocalypse, Malaparte is already in it. Which is perhaps to say that Roth is wasted on the young.

The older I get the more I’m interested in what we mean when we say we’ve read a book. If I’ve read it but can’t remember much of anything about it (a vague sense that, well, it’s about Hapsburgs, ends of empires, nostalgia), then have I really read it? I’m always caught between an insatiable drive to read everything and a wish to read books the way I read the books I teach—to have them seep into my soul, to be able to recall them fully, to have them totally at my fingertips.

When I heard about the readalong, I thought back to that summer, which, certainly with the glow of passing time, and from the position of middle-aged worries and responsibilities, stands out in a shimmer of pleasure. When I sat out in the sun on a stone terrace and read all day long, with breaks only for walks and coffees and wine in the evenings.

Here’s a chance, I thought, to pay homage to that past self, and to get a little closer to soaking up this book, assuming I still thought it warranted such close attention.

And I was curious what I would make of it now that I spend much of my time thinking about Eastern Europe (admittedly, the events twenty or thirty years later). Plus a year or two ago I read The Emperor’s Tomb, Roth’s sort-of sequel to Radetzky, and liked it very much.

That’s probably more than you wanted to know!

Which edition/translation are you using and how is it reading?

A Penguin Modern Classic, first published in 1984. (The sticker on the back says I bought it Bei Morawa and paid 4,99 for it—I don’t know in what country and with what currency.) Eva Tucker translated it, revising an earlier translation by Geoffrey Dunlop. Part of me wanted to get the Michael Hofmann translation, because he handled Emperor so beautifully, and I thought he might offer easier, less syntactically difficult reading. But in the end I didn’t mind Tucker’s revision of Dunlop. A bit formal—Tolstoy and Zola are in the background—but that suits the book, and may in fact be an accurate reflection of the original.

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How would you comment on the first few sentences? Is this an effective opening? “The Trottas were not an old family.  Their founder had been ennobled following the battle of Solferino.  He was a Slovene. The name of his village – Sipolje – was taken into his title.  Fate had singled him out for a particular deed. He subsequently did everything he could to return himself to obscurity.” (Translation: Michael Hofmann)

Compare Tucker:

The Trottas were not an old family. Their founder’s title had been conferred on him after the battle of Solferino. He was a Slovene and chose the name of his native village, Sipolje. Though fate elected him to perform an outstanding deed, he himself saw to it that his memory became obscured to posterity.

(As best I can tell, Hofmann follows Roth’s sentence length more closely; Tucker combines short sentences into longer ones by using conjunctions not present in the original.)

As to whether the opening is effective: absolutely. It gives us so much to think about.

We could start with the difference between “not an old family” and a young one, which, to me, suggests the book values continuity and tradition (interestingly, the English versions contrast Roth’s text: “Die Trottas waren ein junges Geschlecht”— I’ve no idea why Hofmann & Tucker made the change. Maybe because it would sound weird to say something like “The Trottas were a young lineage). But if we think this is going to be a story about upstarts, the next few sentences set us straight. In fact, the reference to Solferino, where French and Italian troops defeated the Austrians, already hints at failure. That’s followed by the information that the first von Trotta sought to undo the rise in station that accompanies ennoblement. Or at least, that he tried. (Tucker is more definitive than Hofmann.) Given that he’s fighting against fate, we might wonder whether this surprising attempt to fail—to avoid the spotlight, to fall in the world—will itself be a failure.

The other important element in this opening paragraph is the reference to the first von Trotta’s ethnic/national identity. Although very little will be made of that origin—none of the characters ever visit Sipolje—The Radetzky March is a book about the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and as this fact becomes more evident the early reference to a minority identity—“He was a Slovene”—seems in retrospect especially telling. And all the more so because it’s not accurate. Or not in any meaningful sense. The first von Trotta shows no connection to or interest in his Slovene-ness. We learn that in the recent past his father—a vivid and delightful bit character who, after losing an eye fighting Bosnian smugglers, has been pensioned off as a caretaker of a palace about ten miles from Vienna—would address him in Slovene, even though his son can hardly speak it. But after Trotta becomes a “von” and is elevated to the rank of Captain (he takes a bullet intended for the Emperor: Solferino was one of the last battles in which heads of state fought), his father resorts to “the ordinary harsh German of army Slavs.”

Although the von Trottas identify themselves almost to the point of pathology with the Empire, this early reference to ethnic minorities, along with later ones to class unrest, unionization efforts, and strikebreaking, points to the fissures that will undo that Empire. In the opening pages, the Captain is shown writing up his weekly inspection of his regiment’s sentries: he “scribble[s] his bold, forceful None under the heading UNUSUAL INCIDENTS, thus denying even the remotest possibility of such occurrences.” The line is telling because, most of the time, nothing much happens in the book. But even the most seemingly serene status quo doesn’t just maintain itself. And the book shows first the fraying and then the destruction of a way of life that had seemed as unchanging as the entries in the regimental logbook.

In sum: not a flashy opening, but a telling one.

BTW do any other German speakers hear Trotta and think Trottel (idiot)?

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Roth subscribed to Chekhov’s view that a writer “should not be a judge of his characters or what they say, but an impartial witness.” What is the effect of this impartiality? (I changed this question a little.)

Put differently: if the book is about decline, does it judge that decline? At times, I compared the novel to Lawrence’s The Rainbow, another modernist novel about three generations of a family. Lawrence is pretty clear that the changes that happen to the family are bad. Or, at least, he regrets the way the second and third generations are forced to come to terms with history. They lose touch with a peasant, premodern, prelapsarian timelessness. Lawrence also changes his style rather dramatically from beginning to end: from an amazing King James Biblical richness to a much flatter description of modernity. Roth, by contrast, writes about the Captain, the District Commissioner, and Carl Joseph in the same way. His style remains consistent. And I’m unconvinced he really thinks that the third generation is more decadent, less vital, more helpless than the first one.

Maybe, then, the Captain’s crusade to return to obscurity is analogous to Freud’s description of what he termed “the death drive,” by which he meant not a suicidal longing, but rather the way each organism seeks to return to the nothingness from which it came. In this regard, maybe these generations are equally modern.

What does the old servant Jacques and his death stand for?

I was moved by Jacques death, especially his insistence on working even in his last hours. Similarly moving, though less consequential, is the effect of this perverse dedication on the district administrator (the Captain’s son).

In many ways Chojnicki is the opposite of Jacques. What did you think of him?

I think he’s great. He brings energy to every scene. I suspect Roth liked him. He’s almost but not quite cynical. He knows the Empire is coming to an end: he doesn’t look forward to it (after all, he stands to lose a lot), but he doesn’t mourn it either.

He reminded me of Proust’s Charlus (less louche—maybe it’s the baldness that made me think them alike—but also the change that comes over them during the war). That late scene when the District Commissioner visits the mad Chojnicki, invalided out from the front, is pretty intense. (It’s a nice touch to turn the femme fatale Frau von Taussig into a nurse: that shift in our sense of who a character is also feels Proustian.)

Chojnicki’s fate makes me think that he and Jacques are more similar than different. Duty to the Empire does them both in.

By the way, this isn’t the same Chojnicki as in The Emperor’s Tomb, right?

Were you surprised to find the last chapter of part 2 told from the point of view of Kaiser Franz Josef? How effective did you find it?

Yes, but it worked. I’ve written about this strategy before, in one of my posts on Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, where I quoted the bit in S/Z where Roland Barthes says realist fiction can only mention historical personages in passing, lest they risk absurdity. Maybe it is a function of how little I know about Franz Josef (merely that he lived to be very old, a doddering stand-in for his Empire: Roth doesn’t exactly disagree, but he embroiders on this outline, and I found the Emperor’s brief moments of decisiveness among his general fog quite touching), but to me he appeared as a fully realized character. And maybe Roth’s decision to include Franz Joseph’s POV is a sign that he isn’t writing a realist novel, but instead a modernist one.

There seems to be only one true and honest relationship in this novel—the friendship between district administrator von Trotta [the Captain’s son] and doctor Skowronnek. Would you agree? What did you think of their relationship?

I would. And I found it surprising and touching. Since women are basically absent from this novel—its most striking failure: the two or three female characters are clichés, and I’m unconvinced Roth is offering any kind of critique of, say, the limited possibilities for women in the Empire—intimacy must take place between men. The relationship between Von Trotta and Skowronnek’s also bridges a class barrier, making it even more telling, and unusual. I appreciated the delicacy of their regard for each other.

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What is the significance of the regimental party at Chojnicki’s country house?

The greatest scene in this great novel. So portentous and symbolic—a great storm breaks weeks of sultry, oppressive heat, throwing the party into disarray, but also egging it on to greater, more debauched heights, a hectic state that only becomes more intense when the news arrives that the heir to the throne has been shot. Half of the guests dance in drunken, ignorant abandon; the other half work themselves into nationalistic frenzies. You can see the Empire splintering; you can admire/pity/condemn the ignorance of those who waltz along the abyss.

It’s all so obvious; it shouldn’t work at all. But it does. (Like the later references to the wild geese who migrate south earlier than ever before that summer: the natural world, like the empire that pretends to be similar unchanging, is out of kilter. We get it! And yet those geese are great.) How? Why? Maybe because Roth has a way of being both ironic and sincere. Take the party scene: it’s knowing (look at the decadent empire!) but not too knowing (the emotions are big, heartfelt, I was totally captivated).

Chapter 21 takes us to the Eastern front.  What do you think about the way Roth depicts the conflict? How do you feel about the manner of Carl Joseph’s [the son of the district administrator: the third of the three von Trotta generations] death?

Pleasingly oblique. Carl Joseph is shot by a sniper while filling up water buckets for his men. The difference between this death and the near-death of his grandfather at Solferino is clear. One saves the Emperor, one dies for his men, doing a dangerous but mundane job. The novel is obvious about that difference—“Lieutenant Trotta died, not with sword in hand but with two buckets of water”—but I didn’t find that obviousness offputting or heavy-handed. (Roth is not Mann.)

The Radetzky March has been described as a nostalgic novel for a lost empire.  Is nostalgic the adjective you’d use?

It’s so tempting, but I’m suspicious. Too easy, surely. See what I wrote above about decline. Characters talk about it all the time, worry over its apparent inevitability, but the book doesn’t necessarily agree. Not that the present is better (by “present” I mean the time of WWI—by the time Roth wrote the book, that already seemed like the distant past) . Roth isn’t a liberal, or a socialist. There’s no belief in progress here. But neither is he conservative, reactionary. (Well, except maybe when Dr. Skowronnek and the District Commissioner bond over the ridiculous of that new fad, meat-eating contests. They’re not wrong, though.) He’s dispassionate, but not in that Olympian way that bugs me about Flaubert and some of Nabokov. Roth is warm, accepting, enlightened. I suspect he’s talking about himself when he says of Skowronnek: “He liked people as much as he despised them.”

What struck you the most in this novel, what do you like or dislike the most?

I dislike its lack of interest in women, as I said before.

I like its slow burn. So much of the novel consists of people doing the things they always do (the descriptions of the District Commissioner’s Sunday meals are mouth-watering, especially those cherry dumplings), and being bored and irritated but also fiercely insistent on that repetition.

And there are some lovely, lyrical passages, whether a deft turn of phrase (a man exhales to reveal “a surprisingly powerful set of teeth, pale-yellow teeth, a strong protective fence guarding his words”) or an indelible set piece. I was especially taken with the Emperor’s encounter with a Jewish delegation. Or this snippet, coming just after Chojnicki tells Trotta war has been declared:

Never, it seemed to Trotta, had nature been so peaceful. At this hour you could look straight into the sun as, visibly, it sank westward. A violent wind came to receive it, rippled the small white clouds in the sky and the wheatstalks on the ground, caressed the scarlet face of the poppies. A blue shadow drifted across the green meadows. Toward the east the little wood disappeared in deep violet. Stepaniuk’s low house, where he lived, gleamed white at the edge of the wood, its windows burnished with evening sunlight. The crickets increased their chirping. The wind carried their voices into the distance; there was silence and the fragrance of the earth.

Would you reread The Radetzky March?

Absolutely. I want to read so many other things, so I’ve no idea whether I will. Probably not anytime soon. But I’m so glad to have read it a second time, and grateful to Caroline & Lizzy for providing the incentive.

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Reminder! Lucky Per Readalong

Tomorrow is US pub day for the Everyman Library edition of Henrik Pontoppian’s Lucky Per (1904) in Naomi Lebowitz’s translation.

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A while ago I wrote about why I want to read it, and how much I hope others will join me. At the time, lots of you said yes. Here’s hoping you’re still interested! Whether you’re drawn to canal building, Jews, the influence of Thomas Mann on Danish literature, or the sheer delight of saying (and typing) “Pontoppian,” I encourage you to read and share your thoughts.

As a reminder, here’s what the publisher has to say about it:

Lucky Per is a bildungsroman about the ambitious son of a clergyman who rejects his faith and flees his restricted life in the Danish countryside for the capital city. Per is a gifted young man who arrives in Copenhagen believing that “you had to hunt down luck as if it were a wild creature, a crooked-fanged beast . . . and capture and bind it.” Per’s love interest, a Jewish heiress, is both the strongest character in the book and one of the greatest Jewish heroines of European literature. Per becomes obsessed with a grand engineering scheme that he believes will reshape both Denmark’s landscape and its minor place in the world; eventually, both his personal and his career ambitions come to grief. At its heart, the story revolves around the question of the relationship of “luck” to “happiness” (the Danish word in the title can have both meanings), a relationship Per comes to see differently by the end of his life.

Given the exigencies of the end of the semester, I’ll have to wait until next month to encounter Per.

So the plan is to read and write about Lucky Per anytime in May. Do join in. Write one post or several. As short or as long as you like. I’ll gladly run guest posts from anyone who doesn’t have a blog. Or you can make your contributions in the comments.

Let’s use the hashtag #LuckyPer2019 for Twitter conversations. Maybe I’ll even figure out how to make one of those emblem things participants can add to their posts.

“Good at Wrecking Things”: Virginie Despentes’s Vernon Subutex

Virginie Despentes is a novelist, filmmaker, rock journalist, and former sex worker. She is best known for her book Baise-moi (1983; translated as Rape Me), a revenge fantasy inspired by the rape and abuse she suffered as a young woman. And if her awesome author photo is anything to go by, she’s still rocking that punk sensibility.

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As a long-standing square, terrified of drugs and able to appreciate punk only as an idea (so noisy!), I’d never even considered reading Despentes. But then I started hearing about this trilogy she’d written about a man in midlife, who falls victim to the precarity of neo-liberalism and finds himself pushed to the margins of society. But even after reading an enticing review in the TLS, I still figured these were books I was more likely to read about than read myself. But then Frances and Eric raved about them; Eric even offered to pass along his copies. The die was cast.

So it was that I recently spent a week or so happily immersed in the first two volumes of the Vernon Subutex trilogy. (Volume 3 hasn’t yet appeared in English.) Vernon—“the guy with the name like an orthopaedic mattress, Subutex,” as the grown daughter of one of his former customers acidly but aptly puts it—ran a record store named Revolver for twenty five years. But then came downloading, and rising rents, and he had to close. For a few years he eked out a living selling off the rest of his stock on Ebay. But on the first page of the first volume, he’s about to be evicted, the last of his remaining possessions taken as collateral. He’s hardly eaten in days, even quit buying coffee and cigarettes. He’s 49 years old and without any plan for what comes next. Without even his noticing it—Vernon is not shrewd; in that TLS review, Chris Kraus calls him an “affable loser,” which is near enough I guess, though it makes him seem sweeter and more hapless than he is—his friends have left him behind: moved away, started families, schemed desperately to cling to economic stability (unless of course they married into money). Or they’ve left him permanently: cancer, car accident, overdoses, the losses mount up.

Of those deaths, the most consequential is Alexandre Bleach’s. Alex, a mixed-race kid who found his way into Revolver one day and learned about bands like Stiff Little Fingers and Bad Brains under Vernon’s tutelage, made it big. (Along the way he passed through a punk phase: his former bandmates are some of the first people Vernon turns to once he finds himself on the streets.) But Alex never much liked being a star, though he has enough self-knowledge to know how irritating it is to complain when you get everything you’re supposed to want. Alex would periodically hole up in Vernon’s apartment, listening to music, getting high, and hiding from the responsibilities of fame; as a recompense for having this bolt-hole, Alex would pay Vernon’s rent.

But now Alex is dead, and Vernon immediately wonders where the rent money’s going to come from. Yet like the characters of so many 19th-century novels—subject matter aside, Vernon Subutex is quite old-fashioned (and I don’t mean that as a slight)—Alex is never so alive as when he’s died. One of his last acts was to record a manifesto/testament, a combination of stoned philosophizing and vituperative score-settling. Vernon, predictably, slept through the whole thing, but the tapes are some of the only things he takes with him onto the streets because he’s convinced he’ll be able to sell them.

The series is plotty and I’ll try not to go into too much detail and reveal too many secrets, other than to say that the tapes, which Vernon deposits with a friend from whom they are promptly stolen, link the trilogy’s large set of characters. For the bombshell hidden in all that rambling is that Alex has told the truth about the death of his former girlfriend, a porn star named Vodka Satana (yeah, it doesn’t work for me either), at the hands of a movie mogul named Laurent Dopalet (part Harvey Weinstein, part Dominique Strauss-Kahn). Dopalet hires a woman known as the Hyena to find the tapes, but she joins forces with another former porn star and friend of Vodka Satana’s to forge an alliance with Vernon’s friends. (The Hyena’s job is to boost and attack directors, actresses, and other media personalities, “to plaster the internet with love notes, photos, passionate declarations and real-life accounts about how lovely and approachable they are,” or, conversely, “to stop some young starlet from making it too quickly.” Fascinating stuff, and I wish Despentes had done more with it.)

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Even more than plot, the Vernon Subutex series cares about character. This is both good and bad. Vernon’s friends, in particular, are a mixed blessing. On the one hand, they are the focus of much of the book’s energy and social critique. For example, there’s Xavier Fardin, a screenwriter with only one hit to his name who has been living for years off his wife’s family money and his peculiar fame as an avowed conservative in the leftist Parisian art world, basically a shit but a fairly decent one, especially in his love for an old and practically hairless poodle, not to mention his willingness to stand up to alt-right thugs (he’s beaten badly defending Vernon and another homeless person). Even more interesting is Patrice, a punk musician who cut ties with the industry and is now a mailman. Patrice lives alone because of his inability to stop himself from physically and emotionally abusing his ex-wife and girlfriends. (Despentes writes great male characters—the various gradations of male douchebaggery and assholery seems to be her real subject.)

On the other, the friends are a problem, because they complicate what’s really great about the books: their depiction of Vernon’s journey to homelessness. Despentes shows how easy it is to drift to the margins of society, how quickly one can be reduced to something less than human. Without being clumsy or preachy, Despentes shows a world many of her readers don’t know. Along with Vernon, we learn the rules and strategies of begging (which are the best pitches—outside bakeries, because people pay cash and leave with change—what is the etiquette about finding a new one, when to look at people’s feet and when in their faces). We experience with him the constraints of public space (realizing that the world is made up of park benches with bars down the middle of them and shop fronts with spikes, designed to stop people sleeping and sitting). We also see the camaraderie, even freedom that prevails among the homeless (one woman has a theory about how much the system needs people like her; without her example, she avers, most people wouldn’t keep going to work). But we also see how violent and dangerous it is to be on the streets: you are tired, cold, sick most of the time; your body changes on you, becomes unrecognizable, from your smell to your painful uncut toenails, not to mention the ineradicable grime that colours your skin.

Like Zola in his day, Despentes critiques the depredations of a gilded age. Unlike Zola, however, she isn’t also fascinated by the extravagance and excesses of the one percent. The Vernon Subutex books are great novels of the failures of neo-liberalism. One of my favourite sections concerns Patrice’s reflections on what he’s learned being a postman:

It’s hard fucking work. He is sorry he has always been so down on postmen. First off, it’s hard not to steal stuff. But the main problem is all the walking. And it’s an obstacle course, working out where people mount their letter boxes … If it were left to him, he would have regulations in place like a shot—the fuckers already get their mail delivered for free, the least they can do is have standard-size letter boxes situated in the same places. Make things move faster. People take public services for granted—they’ve been spoiled. People need to make sure they have the letter-box in the right place, that there are no vicious dogs barring the way, they need to realize how lucky they are to have a postman come by every morning.

Which leads him into a screed against deregulation:

The old-timers are devastated to see what the postal service has come to. It’s like everything else. They’re witnessing the systematic dismantling of everything that worked, and to top it all they get told how a mail distribution system should work by wankers straight out of business school who have never seen a sorting office in their lives. Nothing is ever fast enough for them. The skeleton staff is too expensive. Tearing down a system that already works is quicker. And they’re happy with the results: they are good at wrecking things, these bastards.

(Substitute higher education for the mail distribution system and this works just as well—for lots of other things too, no doubt, public utilities, health care, anything important that isn’t amenable to profit.) Patrice, as I’ve noted, is no saint. He’s quite repulsive, actually—but he’s also appealing. Despentes forces us to sit with that contradiction. We can even see in his own fulminations against the people he serves that he’s been infected by the neo-liberal language of efficiency (“make things move faster”).

As these passages suggest, the Subutex books, despite the presence of alt-right bullies, porn stars, popular music and movies, and plenty of drugs and alcohol, owe more to Honoré de Balzac than to J. G. Ballard. But there is some Ballard in these books. Nothing like the fascinating sexual and consumer excesses of Crash, but moments when the books’ social critique is decoupled from realism and, as in Ballard, connected to something more fantastic and oneiric.

This tendency is most apparent when Vernon becomes something like a shaman, the still, doped-out center of a network of people who reconnect through his tribulations—and his way with a playlist. Vernon’s friends track him down, and offer him money, couches to crash on, help of various kinds: he refuses all offers and finds a place for himself in an encampment on a disused railway line near the Buttes Chaumont. (Readers who know Paris better than I do will probably get even more from this book.) Vernon no longer cares about rejoining society. He only cares for music. He becomes a DJ at regular events, raves of a sort, first at a bar and then in abandoned industrial sites across France, where hundreds of people come to lose themselves in his sets.

Vernon hasn’t been on the streets for long before he starts experiencing fevered visions: sometimes he feels himself to be growing wings, soaring through the air. Sometimes he feels himself, “a hobo perched on a hill, in Paris,” to be an amalgam of all those who suffer from ordinary life, from “the drug mule pissing myself in fear ten metres from customs” to “the nurse made deaf by the cries of the patients and by dint of powerlessness” to “the cow in the abattoir.”

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I don’t know what to make of this. At least character agrees with me: “how does a guy who’s likable enough but a bit short of change when it comes to charisma turn himself into the messiah of the Buttes-Chaumont? The guy is homeless, stinks of sweat and wears trailer trash boots, but everyone treats him like he’s baby Jesus if he’d skipped the bit with the cross, he’s surrounded by dozens of Magi who bring him gifts every day.”

For the most part, though, the book asks us to take Vernon’s reincarnation as a guru at face value. But how is all this shamanistic stuff supposed to be a critique of neo-liberalism? Is Despentes arguing for the power of fantasy to counter alienation and inequality? Or is she depicting nothing more than ineffective resistance to those states? At times the books seem to manifest the inchoate rage of the gilet jaunes, but then the belief in the power of music and dance mitigates that sense of injustice. In the end, Vernon Subutex seems to hold fast to the radical potential of the 1960s and 70s, even as it is alive to the irony that its middle-aged characters, through the world they built, have done so much to undermine these ways of being.

Maybe the books’ most interesting social criticism concerns the idea of friendship. Although the books are peopled by dozens of characters (volume 2 even starts with a list), all of whom are connected in some way, they contain almost no marriages. Nor are there many sexual relationships (even though the male characters are always moaning about how women won’t sleep with them anymore, that is, when they’re not commenting on their lack of sex drive: “his libido has long since been running on empty”). If these books have utopian tendencies, they’re quite chaste. Or quite pornographic—in the sense that sex has retreated to a realm of private, managed fantasy. Which makes the insistence on friendship all the more striking.

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I’ve quoted a few bits of the books already. Enough for you to know that the individual sentences are not particularly interesting. Despentes is not a stylish writer. In its rapid cutting between different characters it seems written for tv (and apparently a series is coming, maybe already out in France). But I wouldn’t say these are badly written or structured books. They have a hurried, helter-skelter charm, which their translator Frank Wynne (presumably following the original, I’m not sure) evokes with commas rather than semi-colons, dashes, periods, or other more formal methods of linking and separating clauses. The books are easy to read and soothing to plunge into, even when the subject matter is enraging or disquieting.

At times, Despentes dabbles in aphorism. (She is French, after all.) “Past the age of forty, everyone is like a bombed-out city.” “He recognizes the fervent foolishness of people who feel the need to put the same expressions in every sentence.” “But heredity is a patient spider” (this from a man horrified to find himself becoming like the father he hated).

Sometimes aphorism connects with social critique. Alex compares life under capitalism to “the battered wives you see on documentaries: we are so gripped with terror, we have forgotten the basic rules of survival.” A woman who played in the band with Patrice and Xavier reflects on how poorly they’ve aged: “Women survive prison better than men because, throughout history, they have been accustomed to being locked up spied on hobbled punished and deprived of their freedom. Not that it’s in their blood, but it’s part of their heritage. The same thing can be said about social success: women don’t suffer as much when they don’t succeed.”

Thinking about the books’ tendencies toward pronouncements (“women don’t suffer as much when they don’t succeed”), I was reminded of a much earlier French text about how to live, one with a similarly naïve hero: Voltaire’s Candide. Admittedly, I haven’t read it in 30 years, and that was in high school French class, so I probably didn’t understand it even then, but the way Despentes depicts the raves organized by Vernon and his friends, I couldn’t help but think of Pangloss’s insistence that we cultivate our own gardens.

Of course, Voltaire ironizes the imperative as much as he avows it. And maybe Despentes is similarly ambivalent. Nothing stuck with me in these books as much as  the last line in volume 2. We’re at one of the parties, Vernon is spinning his tunes (Bootsy Collins, a favourite). He’s watching the dancers (“shapes peel away and form fleeting groups”); he’s thinking about those who aren’t there, especially Alex (“he makes contact with those who are absent”), it’s all very mystical (“whorls of moonlight open up between people”). And then this: “He is making them all dance.” On the one hand, this is a mere description, of something nice no less. But on the other, it’s a more sinister observation, even a prophecy. Does Vernon have a plan we don’t know about? Is there more to him than affable helplessness? Are the love, drugs, and music that seem to resist neoliberalism’s cruel optimism in fact nefarious?

I trust all will be revealed in volume 3.

“A Matter of Authenticity”: Lissa Evans’s Their Finest Hour and a Half

It takes all day to get from Little Rock, Arkansas to Halifax, Nova Scotia, a trip I made last week, and so I had plenty of time for reading. From the teetering stacks on my study floor, I plucked Lissa Evans’s Their Finest Hour and a Half (2009) to take with me. I chose well. It’s that rarest and most valuable thing, perfect light reading. I hope that doesn’t sound like damning with faint praise. As in her other books, Evans here is funny, but also poignant. Her prose feels effortless—but the book is about what hard work underlies effortlessness.

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Their Finest Hour and a Half is a Blitz novel. It follows a young woman named Catrin Cole, who escapes her Welsh childhood by running away to London with a painter she has only known for a week or so, takes a job writing advertising copy, and then finds herself conscripted by the Ministry of Information. Her war work will be to write scripts for propaganda/morale boosting films, specifically to write women’s roles, which apparently men can’t do. After doing her best with some tragically lame shorts—warnings against loose talk and encomiums to the delights of carrots, grown in good British soil—Catrin finally gets her big chance, a feature (very) loosely based on the story of twin sisters who took their father’s boat to help with the Dunkirk evacuation.

The creation of the film brings together a set of wonderful characters: Edith, a seamstress who worked at Madame Tussaud’s until it was bombed; Arthur, a catering specialist who finds himself over his head when he is seconded to the production as its military advisor; Ambrose, an actor who was never as good as he thinks he was but whose career is now definitively on the skids; Parfitt, a writer who almost never speaks and only in short bursts, much of which consists of grunts; and Myrtle, a teenager mad about movies.

Equal parts heartwarming, engaging, and even delightful, Their Finest Hour and a Half is also smart about how historical events get represented, both by those experiencing them and by those who come later. By centering her novel on a film production—in which a complicated, somewhat underwhelming but still inspiring event is transformed into a flattened heroic epic, and in which every decision about how to tell a story passes through multiple people and committees, each with their own agenda—Evans shows us how all events, whether dramatic or not, whether in war or at peace, must be shaped in order to be understood. I appreciated that Evans wasn’t content simply to show up Londoners’ response to the Blitz as mere myth (“London can take it,” etc.). (I’ve been speaking of Their Finest Hour and a Half, which is the UK title; unaccountably, the US publisher has reduced that to the nonsensical Their Finest. By doing so, the book loses at once its allusion to Winston Churchill’s own mythologizing of WWII, the reference to the run time of the film, and that endearingly bathetic, even ramshackle half hour. I’m reminded of the way all programs in Canada are always announced as starting a half hour later in Newfoundland.)

By focusing on the worlds of theatre, advertising, and mass media, Evans shows myths to be more than just lies, ideology, or false consciousness. It’s not that there are no truths in a modern age, but that truths need to be told—they are representations. Every telling is a framing, the result of a series of choices. And Evans, who worked as a radio and television producer before writing full time, knows how hard it is to create those representations. Some of the novel’s best bits emphasize craft, whether it’s Ambrose trying out a series of line readings, Edith replacing old bead work, or Parfitt and his partner Buckley moving around bits of paper as they organize the plot of the film, before spending hours bashing out bits of script to hit just the right note in a scene. Yes, everyone is selling something, some vision of the past, but they’re not just lying.

No wonder, then, that Evans’s own craft—her own language—is so effective. Here are a few bits that caught my eye.

The narrator, here focalized through Catrin, describes the enigmatic Parfitt, who for several months won’t even talk to the new employee: “All communication had been via Buckley, as if the latter were the string between two cocoa tins.”

A character actor bridles at how much will be added to the film in post-production. He’s insulted that a gunshot will be indicated in the take by an offstage fingersnap: “‘I want to react to the sniper out there, and not the finger-snap in here, do you see what I mean? It’s a matter of authenticity. In fact, there’s no chance of actually firing a rifle is there?’”

A cab driver recognizes Ambrose from his 1931 film “A New Leaf.” We get a sublime description of the film and its making:

The angel-faced child who’d played ‘Sonny’ (‘I don’t know whose son I am, mister, so I might as well be yours…’) had not only fleeced the entire cast at poker, but had turned out to be playing with a marked pack, supplied to him by his mother.

That’s practically Wodehouse, with the risible dialogue, and the almost gentle hardboiled story of the hard-bitten child actor. Then we get a second joke, when the puffed-up actor, filled with surprised pride that he has been recognized for a role from ten years ago, learns that the only reason the cabbie remembers him is that it was the last film he ever saw, having found religion right afterwards.

Edith, the seamstress, reflects on her impending marriage: “She would shortly be installed as Mrs Edith Frith, a name unpronounceable to all but professional linguists.”

The girl Myrtle despairs when, after years of dreaming of visiting London, she finds it entirely underwhelming:

‘Is this really London?’ whispered Myrtle, suddenly, desperately.

‘It’s a suburb of London.’

‘But it’s just houses.’

‘I know.’

‘Just house after house after house. I thought there’d be things to look at. I thought it would be exciting. I told everybody at school I was going to see film-stars. I even brought my autograph book, but it just looks like anywhere.’

‘I know,’ said Edith, ‘I’m sorry.”

And just to show that Evans isn’t just funny (though, really, what’s more important?), here is Catrin escaping the worst night of Blitz in a crowded cinema showing the Jimmy Stewart – Marlene Dietrich vehicle Destry Rides Again:

And the audience erupted again, and Catrin found herself being pulled along by the crowd, caught up in a vast and vocal caravan determinedly heading Westward for the evening, and for an hour or two there was enough applause, there were enough celluloid gunshots and gusts of laughter and galloping music, enough songs and fist-fights, enough glamour and wit and plot and spectacle to blot out the real barrage, and for a short while, the theatre seemed safer than any shelter, and the noise inside was like a shield, keeping the night at bay.

This is a resonant, almost hortatory passage, one of the few unleavened by gentle irony and wit, the one that comes closest to embracing the myth of the Blitz (J. B. Priestley: “It took bombs to deliver us”) without examining that myth. But it feels earned to me, and in keeping with Evans’s belief in spectacle, illusion, and representation as constitutive of rather than merely a second-rate imitation of political reality.

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In its interest in how the story of the Blitz has been told, Their Finest Hour shares concerns with Sarah Waters’s more overtly revisionist The Night Watch (2006). Waters’s register is different, darker, more traumatized. She’s worth reading, too. But the book that Their Finest Hour most reminded me of is Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices (1980), set at the BBC during the same time period. And when I think about the two novels Evans has written since Their Finest Hour—I wrote briefly about them here—I wonder if she might not be becoming our own Fitzgerald. What could be better than that?

 

Diversify your Delusions: Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End

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A parent’s folly, I thought, is to want to give a child what she does not have. A parent has to be quixotic. The word reminded me what I had forgotten all these weeks, that on the day Nikolai had died, when I had not known it would happen, I had been listening to Don Quixote on a long drive. I had been laughing to myself in the car. I had laughed at times since then, but that laughter in the car—quixotic—would never be mine again. [Does the “she” in the first sentence refer to the child or the parent? The narrator mentions Nikolai, so the answer is probably the parent. But if so, why parent and not mother? I’m interested in the push and pull between specific and general here.]

***

Are some days more special than others, or are we giving them names and granting them meaning because days are indifferent, and we try to wrangle a little love out of them as we tend to do with uncaring people?

***

Where should I go from here?

Oh you know you’re doing fine.

I didn’t know it. I wasn’t feeling fine. I had but one delusion, which I held on to with all my willpower: We once gave Nikolai a life of flesh and blood; and I’m doing it over again, this time by words.

A good tactic is to diversify your delusions, he said. Don’t keep all your eggs in one basket kind of thing.

I couldn’t refrain from pointing out that he had used a cliché.

Whatever, he said.

Sorry, I said. Still, please enlighten me.

Oh, do what squirrels do. Dig a hole and store a handful of delusions there, and dig another one and store more. Some delusions are for today. Some are for tomorrow. Some take a few months to ripen. Keep them dry so they don’t get moldy. Keep them private so others don’t step on them by accident or dig them up and steal them. Be patient. Delayed gratification is the key to a successful life of delusions. And if you’re lucky, some delusions become self-seeded. Some even go wild like dandelions.

Are you making fun of me?

Indeed I am, he said. Nobody needs to be taught how to live under delusions. It’s like sleeping.

There is a condition called insomnia, I said.

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Some representative passages from Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End (2019).

The narrator, a writer and a teacher, conducts a series of conversations with her oldest son, who has recently killed himself. These are interspersed with meditations, as in the first two examples. Over and over the two of them return to language, playing with it, acting as guardians of it (the contest over cliché here, for example).

This is a very sad book, but wise and even sometimes joyful, though a joy always on the verge of despair. You can see it in the narrator’s claim that she is giving life to her lost child, once again, but this time in words. The book wants to believe in this beautiful sentiment, but it also recognizes it as fatuous: a delusion. (And what about that “we” in her sentence? What does her husband, the boy’s father, think? This is one of the only times the narrator mentions him.) And yet delusions might be good things to live under, especially if they disseminate, no matter how much an even brilliant teenager derides the idea. For delusions are connected, Li suggests, to imagination to thinking, to the life of the mind. And the mind—even or especially a mind in distress—can go off in all sorts of directions. Which might be a way to counter the terrible reality that time can only go in one.

Speaking of terrible reality, the book’s composure is even more striking when you find out that, like her narrator, Li had a teenage son who killed himself.

A couple of years ago I read one or two of Li’s early story collections. I found them uneven, sometimes exciting, sometimes too careful. She’s made the quite the leap in the intervening years, and I’ll be seeking out the books I missed.

February 2019 in Review

Short month, short books. Verdict: plenty of decent reading, some even better than that. Here’s what I read in February 2019.

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Gengoroh Tagame – My Brother’s Husband [Volume 1] (2014) Trans. Anne Ishii (2017) Gentle manga about Yaichi, a single parent raising a delightful, rambunctious daughter, Kana. Their lives are interrupted by the arrival of Yaichi’s brother-in-law, a white Canadian named Mike Flanagan, who visits Japan in the wake of his husband’s (Yaichi’s brother’s) death. Yaichi spares no effort to welcome Mike—aided by Kana’s joy in the sudden appearance of this unexpected uncle—but his not-so-latent homophobia keeps getting in the way. Lots of secrets, lots of emotion, but all handled lightly. I was engrossed and moved and have the sequel from the library ready to go. Plus, who doesn’t like a hunky Canadian hero?

Ken Krimstein – The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth (2018) I enjoyed this comic, which combines Arendt’s biography with her political philosophy. Maybe I found the experiment so compelling because I don’t really know my Heidegger. (I’ve been avoiding him since college; my undergraduate institution was regrettably besotted by the thinker of Being.) At least that’s how I felt after reading the TLS review, which called out Krimstein for his misleading summary of Arendt’s erstwhile lover’s philosophy. I agree that Krimstein rather hurried over Arendt’s report on the Eichmann trial, and maybe he does spend too much time offering potted biographies of the many intellectuals, artists, and otherwise famous people Arendt came across, but Three Escapes gave me a clearer sense of Arendt’s life, especially the years before the war, and made me thrill to the capacious generosity of her ideas. A book could do worse.

Hana Demetz – The House on Prague Street (1970) Trans. Hana Demetz (1980) Score another one for open stacks. While at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum archive earlier this year, I was browsing the shelves when my eye was drawn to the cornflower blue spine of Demetz’s book, written in German and later translated into English by the author herself. Happily, my local library had a copy, which, I suspect, no one had checked out for years. Which is a shame: The House on Prague Street is really good. It tells the story of Helene Richter, who grows up in eastern Czechoslovakia in the 1930s but whose life revolves around the summers she spends in the small town in Bohemia where her maternal grandparents live in the house that gives the book its title.

Her mother’s Jewish family are successful industrialists, the classic success story of Austro-Hungarian emancipation. (The first pages might have come from a Joseph Roth novel.) Imagine their unhappiness when Helene’s mother marries a law clerk from a Sudeten German family. This makes Helenka, as she is affectionately known, half Jewish, which has important consequences for her after 1938. Unlike the rest of her mother’s family she is not deported to Theresienstadt or further east. Instead she comes of age in wartime Prague, where she experiences plenty of privations but nothing like those suffered by her mother. Imagine her mother’s anguish when Helenka falls in love with a German soldier, on leave for a few days from the eastern front. That Gerd seems to be a genuinely kind person, and no Nazi, does nothing to assuage the mother’s hurt. These scenes are riveting—the tone is different from, say, the bitterness of Ruth Kluger’s fights with her mother in her memoir Still Alive; Demetz’s bitterness is always mixed with sweetness—and only become more poignant in light of the traumas that descend upon the family.

The mother dies of a sudden illness because she cannot be taken to the Jewish hospital after curfew. Gerd is declared missing, presumed dead. The father survives the war, only to be murdered in a street fight between German sympathizers and communists in the weeks after armistice. At the end, Helene returns to her grandparents’ house, which has been taken over by Orthodox Jews returned from the death camps. They are suspicious and resentful of her; she respects their claim on the house, but has no respect for them, describing them as uncouth, even primitive. Not even genocide, we learn, will necessarily bring people together. Demetz offers no vision of Jewish solidarity. And why should she? After all, it was the perpetrators who defined the victims as much as or even more than the victims themselves.

The neatness of the book’s narrative structure—it ends with Helene on the station platform, awaiting the train back to Prague, standing under the same swaying begonias that so imprinted themselves on her mind as a child—reminds readers that The House on Prague Street is a novel, not a memoir. Yet it reads more like the latter than the former. It has the feeling of coming directly from the life of the author.  It’s not perfect, sometimes it strains a little for effect, but it’s captivating and moving. Some enterprising publisher ought to reissue it.

Anthony Horowitz – The House of Silk (2011) (Audiobook) Enjoyable Holmes novel, improved by Derek Jacobi’s peerless narration. It’s true, I did guess the ending (a subplot fooled me, though I also found it a bit silly), but the book’s real pleasure lies in its subtle characterization of Watson, nothing like the “sack stuffed with straw” so derided by Virginia Woolf. As always, Horowitz brings the stuff.

Hana Demetz – The Journey from Prague Street (1990) After so enjoying Demetz’s earlier novel I had to read its sequel, which sees Helene and her husband escape Czechoslovakia and build a life in America. Unfortunately, Journey isn’t a patch on its predecessor. Maybe the problem is that Demetz wrote it in English. But I think it’s more that the situations—infidelity, divorce, the trials of starting over in mid-life—are tired and their handling uninspired. Maybe Demetz only had one book in her. (I believe, actually, she wrote some others before House, but I don’t think they’ve been translated.)

Sarah Moss – Ghost Wall (2018) I’m writing about this for another outlet, so will only say: I liked it, sometimes quite a lot, but I wasn’t as crazy about it as so many people on Book Twitter seem to have been.

Liana Millu, Smoke over Birkenau (1947/1986) Trans. Sharon Lynne Schwartz (1991) Brilliant, evenhanded, non-judgmental and unsparing narrative memoir (what I mean is that Millu tells her experience in Birkenau through a series of stories about other inmates, stories that have the texture of fiction—not that their made up, but that their telling is literary). I’ve written about Smoke before. How good is it? Well, this is the fourth or fifth time in the last couple of years I’ve read it, and it gets better and better. I now know it well enough that I won’t have to read it from cover to cover each semester, but I’ll look forward to dipping into it.

Cay Rademacher, The Murderer in Ruins (2011) Trans. Peter Millar (2015) My high hopes for this mystery, set in the rubble of immediate postwar Hamburg, were dashed almost immediately. The writing is pedestrian, and the murderer pretty obvious. The use of the setting is good, and I learned what people did to survive the brutal winter of 1947. I’d have been better off reading a history, though. I believe it’s a first novel, and it might be that Rademacher improves (there are two sequels plus a whole other series), but I’m not inclined to give him a chance. (Especially since I got the book from the UK.) No Philip Kerr, let me tell you.

Laurie R. King, O Jerusalem (1999) My third audiobook of the semester was the fifth in the Holmes/Mary Russell series. It looks back to the first book, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (still the best so far), and expands upon an interlude referred to there in which the leads find themselves in Mandate Palestine. I’m really interested in that time and place, and I enjoyed learning about General Allenby, who seems to have been quite a character, but this book is much too long and much too dull. King hasn’t lost me entirely, Russell is still a good character, and I’ll continue with the series, but plan to take a break for a while.

Katherena Vermette, The Break (2016) Not only the book of the month, but the book of the year so far, and one of the best I’ve read in a long time. I want to write a proper post about it, so for now will just say that it’s about an indigenous family in Winnipeg, specifically its female members, and their response to the countless aggressions (micro and macro) they endure. (The Break is a strip of land, a hydro corridor, in the city’s North End). The highest praise I can give books is that I still remember them weeks later, and The Break passes that test easily.

Lauren Wilkinson – American Spy (2018) Wilkinson’s debut novel, conversely, does not. I enjoyed it as I was reading it, and I found its central conceit—that African Americans are like spies in enemy country, nicely formulated in an epigraph from Ellison’s Invisible Man—fascinating and timely. Marie Mitchell is an African American woman in the FBI in the late 1980s. She ends up working for the CIA in the then-newly renamed Burkina Faso on a mission to ingratiate herself with its charismatic President, Thomas Sankara. Until reading this novel I was completely ignorant of Sankara’s revolutionary Marxist and anti-imperialist program, which seems to have transformed life for the country’s poor. In the novel—and I suspect in life—the CIA wanted him gone; when Marie is sent on a mission of the kind she has always wanted she is forced to reconcile her love of the work with her feelings that the country she is working for isn’t really her own.

The sections in Africa are nicely handled: the book never feels like a travelogue. Yet even though I was impressed by what Wilkinson was trying to do I didn’t feel she quite pulled it off. There are two reasons for that: one, she’s trying to do too much, and, two, she doesn’t do the genre justice. In addition to everything I’ve mentioned the book also tells a family story, involving Marie’s divorced parents (one a cop and one, it turns out, a former spy) and her sister, who had tried to forge a path into intelligence work and couldn’t. Wilkinson ties this together with the political story, but it’s too much. As Wilkinson admits in this interview, she isn’t that well versed in spy fiction. I appreciate her efforts to queer/diversify the genre—it needs it!—but I want that effort to be accompanied by a better sense of suspense, pacing, etc.  For me, a fascinating misfire.

Primo Levi – The Reawakening (1963) Trans. Stuart Woolf (1965) (The proper title is The Truce.) Although I have taught a short excerpt from this for years in my Holocaust Lit class, I’d never read the whole thing. I read it with some students, and their appreciation of it increased my own. It’s a picaresque, describing the eleven months it took Levi to return to his home in Turin from Auschwitz-Birkenau. We enjoyed comparing The Reawakening to the much more famous Survival in Auschwitz (a.k.a. If This is a Man: Levi’s American publishers didn’t do him any favours). The sequel is markedly different in style, tone, and structure. It is ordered chronologically, for one thing, unlike its much more essayistic predecessor. “Picaresque” is misleading: it suggests scrapes and hijinks and ne’er-do-wells (all of which feature here), when in fact the book contains at least as much that is somber as triumphant. But it’s a book about coming back to life: hard, painful, but ultimately affirming. Levi is sometimes even funny, especially in his appreciation for Soviet organization, or lack thereof. At one point, describing a Soviet DP camp, he says something like (I don’t have the book in front of me), “There was no organization, but we got fed every day. It was a perfect system.” At moments like this, my students and I were reminded of the well-known encounter between Levi and a man named Steinlauf in Survival in Auschwitz. Steinlauf, a WWI veteran, perseveres even in the Lager he with a diligent regime of personal cleanliness, even though in those conditions hygiene was impossible. The point, he explains to Levi, urging him to wash in the ice-cold dirty water provided the prisoners, is to maintain one’s self as a human. Levi sees the man’s point, but he admits himself incapable of following another man’s system. This is the Levi we see in The Reawakening, a man who is finally free yet not forced to navigate the chaotic, ramshackle, uncoordinated but ultimately inescapable Allied bureaucracy.

Although short, The Reawakening is full to bursting with vivid characters and outlandish scenarios. Through a series of misadventures, Levi and the handful of Italian deportees who survived with him are sent east, through the Ukraine and almost up to Minsk, before making their way back down through Romania, Hungary, Austria, even Munich (where Levi refuses to leave the train station) and finally home to Italy. Maybe the thing that made the biggest impression on my students was how fraught the immediate months after the war were. We tend to think that liberation brought a return to normal life; Levi makes it clear, however, that this concept didn’t survive the war.

Looking back, February’s highlights were The House on Prague Street, The Reawakening and, above all, The Break. Anyone read them?