Although everything else in the world was pretty much shit, January was a good reading month. I was still on break the first two weeks, which certainly helped. I’ve realized that all I need to be happy is to cut out sugar, run twice as much as usual, and not work. Simple! Here’s what the Happy Man read:
Vladimir Nabokov, Mary (1926) Trans. Michael Glenny in collaboration with the author (1970) Nabokov’s first novel, really more a novella, is predictably good. His strengths are evident: moments of intense lyricism, typically invoking sensory experience, and ironic reversals of conventional thinking, specifically, here, what it means to be an exile. In his introduction to the English translation (if he didn’t have such tiresome animosity toward Freud his introductions might be on par with James’s), Nabokov notes with possibly genuine surprise that the depiction of exile in this early work aligns closely with the one in the much later and more famous Speak, Memory. As is typical for Nabokov, though, his interest in social-political-material experience is more abstract than concrete. If you want to know details about émigré life in western Europe in the 20s and 30s you would be better to read Berberova, Gazdanov (I’m guessing—haven’t yet actually read him) or the wonderful and too-little known David Vogel. Still, I appreciated the ending’s sly reversal, which suggests that Nabokov was from the beginning a comic writer (not as in funny but as in a writer of texts that end happily, or with their losses repaired or made good, as opposed to tragedy).
I planned to read all of Nabokov’s Russian novels this month, but I didn’t.
Tim Maughan, Infinite Detail (2019) Novel toggling between a Before (plausible and only slightly extrapolated version of life today) and an After (post-apocalyptic), the pivot event being a sudden and seemingly irrevocable loss of the internet, and networks more generally. The story focuses on a group of hackers and activists, whose protests against nonstop surveillance and late capitalism is initially confined to a vibrant, boisterous neighbourhood in Bristol, but who, we slowly learn, become instrumental in the crash, with results none of them expected. This essayaccurately criticizes the novel’s romantic/individualistic ideology (for a book about systems and networks it spends a lot of time thinking about the power of individuals to change the world), but it ignores what I thought was the best part of the book: its nuanced portrayal of the new kinds of intimacy that online life has enabled. These aren’t just feeble versions of “real” face-to-face relationships. Infinite Detail is also optimistic about the kinds of art that survivors of a collapse of capitalism as we know it might engage in (aligning it with something like Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140). The result was too much (if not quite infinite) detail about future pop music for my taste, but I appreciated the idiosyncrasy. (Also, making Bristol the center of things, that’s pretty cool.) I also wondered if Maugham was writing with J. G. Ballard in mind. Consider this passage, describing a character’s return to Bristol several years after the collapse:
She’s strangely embarrassed that part of her had imagined walking out into some huge abandoned space: a bourgeois science-fiction fantasy of a long-lost civilization where she’s the special one, the only survivor that could see past the crass commercialism of the masses and got out in time, the intrepid, educated explorer unearthing this forgotten, archaic relic of barbaric capitalism, an empty cave filled with unfamiliar, alien branding.
Andrew Miller, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free (2018) This is going to be on the end of the year list, I know it already. Now We Shall Be Entirely Free (wasn’t crazy about this title until the very end of the novel, when it became so interesting, so poignant) gave me the kind of reading experience I had more often as a child than I do now. I was enthralled, I was moved, I was anxious (for the fate of the characters), I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next, but I feared leaving the world of the book. It’s that last quality that’s so rare—mostly I’m eager to get on to the next book, but this time I wanted to linger. I would like to read this book again, even though it’s unlikely I would ever teach it, and that too is something I rarely say.
The novel follows John Lacroix, who returns, badly wounded, to England from the war against Napoleon. Something happened to him in Spain—he saw something, did something, knew something—that has damaged his mind as much as illness has damaged his body. Tentatively, almost unwillingly, he returns to life and eventually gets it into his head that he will travel to the Hebrides to gather folk music (he is a violinist in addition to having been a soldier and an aimless son of landed gentry). Two men are sent after him: I won’t say too much about it, since the plot is genuinely suspenseful, but it has been decided that Lacroix must be punished for the events in Spain. One of the men is a bad man. And bad things happen. In the Hebrides, Lacroix stumbles across a small utopian community which he sinks into with, to him, unexpected gratitude. But he is unknowingly bringing danger to those he is becoming close to.
Now We Shall Be Entirely Free concerns violence, trauma, early 19th century politics, and early 19th century medicine without ever being plodding or padded. It’s gorgeously written without striving for “poetic-ness.” In its ability to manifest the foreignness of the past, Miller’s novel reminded me of Penelope Fitzgerald. And that’s pretty much the highest praise I can offer.
Please read Rohan’s review—she says it better than I do.
Dorothy B. Hughes, Dread Journey (1945) I admire Hughes a lot, especially The Expendable Man, but she was an uneven writer. The recently reissued Dread Journey is one of her weaker ones. Set on a transcontinental train (very cool), it has a locked room vibe (less cool), but Hughes is always more interested in the why than the who. But I found the characters mostly uninteresting, even the Canadian (!) ingenue. What Hughes always excels at is creating and exploring terror, dread, fear. So many of her female characters are in a continual state of near-panic. That’s what makes her work still feel timely.
Helen Garner, The Spare Room (2008) I read this in a few hours, loving it from beginning to end. Then I spent the rest of the day following a fascinating conversation about it on Twitter. Garner, it turns out, is a polarizing writer. (Though I sometimes got the sense that the Australians, in particular, who dislike her do so because she takes up too much space in the country’s literary discourse, and that the bien pensant media has anointed her as their literary/national standard bearer. Not Garner’s fault that she’s so great, though!) Anyway, I’ll definitely read more; I’m particularly curious about her nonfiction. (Her true crime writing really divides readers.) The Spare Room reminded me of Doris Lessing, though it’s much more interesting at the sentence level. Two old friends reunite when one comes down to Melbourne from Sydney to stay with the other while she pursues what her friend at first privately and then not so privately deems a dubious (read: completely bullshit) alternative treatment for her advanced cancer. A smart and beautiful book about fear and anger.
Sandra Newman, The Heavens (2019) The strange tale of a woman who is drawn from an alternate version of the present or near-future to 16th Century England, I enjoyed this novel as I was reading it but now I can barely remember it. The more she travels between times the more the present alters, and for the worse. Eventually the world that has banded together to mitigate, even circumvent climate change becomes our own. Each time she visits the past she becomes more intimate with a young man who, in the first iterations of the past, occasionally scribbles verses and, in later ones, becomes William Shakespeare, Famous Playwright. The price of his fame is the brutalization of the world. In retrospect, this premise seems nonsensical, an odd way of asking readers to consider what it means to value individuals over collectives. All I can say is at the time I was under the book’s spell—dreamy and oblique—but now, well, the spell is broken. This review is too harsh, in my opinion, but also on to something. In the end, The Heavens is less interesting than Du Maurier’s The House on the Strand.
Nina Berberova, The Book of Happiness (1996?) Trans. Marian Schwartz (1999) A Russian novel about happiness? Surely not. It’s true, though, and although I was pitting Berberova against Nabokov a moment ago, they share a sense that exile, although enormously destructive in many ways, isn’t just about loss. The Book of Happiness begins with the suicide of Sam Adler, a Russian violinist, in a Paris hotel. He leaves behind a note addressed to a woman he hasn’t seen in years, who herself lives in Paris, and turns out to have been his best friend in childhood. After identifying the body, Vera reflects on their long acquaintance, especially their years as childhood playmates and confidantes. This is the best part of the novel—I found it magical, though it might be a bit Wes Anderson for some tastes (“I’m a violinist. What are you?” Vera replied mechanically, “I’m just me.”). The middle section, describing Vera’s ill-fated marriage and departure from Russia in the wake of the Revolution, flags a bit, but the ending, which is indeed happy, though in a low-key way, worked for me. (Berberova seems to be speaking of herself, or at least her style, when she writes that “Vera regarded everything excessively emotional with embarrassment.”) Berberova doesn’t shy from presenting the recued circumstances of exile, but to say, as a blurb on the edition I read does, that Berberova “rivals Jean Rhys in detailing the sights and smells and despairs of trying to exist as a stranger” in Paris tells me only that the reviewer has never actually read Rhys. Anyway, I read elsewhere that the translator, Marian Schwartz, finds The Book of Happiness ultimately unsuccessful, but I have to disagree.
PS I don’t know when this book was written. 1996 is the date of its publication in France, but Berberova wrote it, I believe, in the 1930s, in Russian, which is the language Schwartz has translated it from. I’m unclear if it was never published at all until the 90s or if with some small exile press or what. Anyone know?
Nate Leipciger, The Weight of Freedom (2015) This is part of the Azrieli Foundation’s extraordinary effort to collect and publish in excellent and pedagogically useful editions (good introductions, glossary of terms students might be unfamiliar with) memoirs by Holocaust survivors who settled in Canada. Leipciger’s book is perhaps best known for his frank description of his experience as a pipel (a messenger boy in the camps—typically, this role, which came with privileges like better rations, also required providing sexual favours). The sexual violence Leipciger experienced naturally left its mark on him, but exactly how is hard to say, as it’s not easy to get a read on his tone. (He is not a professional writer: the flatness of the telling sometimes seems a function of inexperience, and sometimes of (perhaps unconscious) reticence.) Yet as one of the students with whom I read the text pointed out, to single out this aspect (the sexual abuse takes up about 2 or 3 pages in a 350-page book) is to sensationalize the experience, risking further victimizing the victim. Yet sexual violence against both men and women was common during the Holocaust; this fact is not often enough acknowledged. Just as interesting for me, as a Canadian, was Leipciger’s ability to think about his suffering in relation to that experienced by indigenous people.
The Weight of Freedom covers Leipciger’s truncated childhood in Chorzów, Poland; his internment in various ghettos, including a period in hiding; his deportation to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Fünfteichen, Gross-Rosen, Flossenbürg, and eventually a sub-camp of Dachau, from where he was liberated; his time as a DP in post-war Germany (in which he pursued an active sex life that he freely admits involved an element of revenge); his eventual emigration to Canada; and the long years building up a life there, which, as the title of the memoir suggests, was by no means easy, not so much economically as psychologically. Throughout he is accompanied by his father, a man with whom he has a difficult and intense relationship (those who have read Wiesel’s Night will find similarities). In later life, Leipciger settles into a role as a Holocaust educator; one of the things I like best about him is that he loves young people, he has no scorn or distaste for them. Always a good sign if you ask me.
Omer Bartov, Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz (2018) Today Buczacz is a nondescript town in western Ukraine. In the past 150 years it’s also been part of the Hapsburg Empire (specifically Galicia), independent Poland, the Nazi Reich, and the Soviet Union. In the first half of the 20th century it was home to Jews, Poles, and Ukrainians (perhaps better called Ruthenians—my one criticism of this book is that Bartov sometimes uses Ruthenian as a synonym for Ukrainian, and sometimes suggests there’s a difference, and I’m still confused about the distinction, which Wikipedia has failed to clear up for me. If you can, please do!). During WWI the front passed through Buczacz several times; during WWII it was similarly occupied by different armies at different times. In this fascinating book, Bartov, whose mother’s family hailed from the town, uses the history of Buczacz to show the intimacy of violence in the so-called Bloodlands of Eastern Europe in the 20th century. In his telling there was a seemingly ineluctable drive on the part of almost every group to reduce the region’s cultural diversity, and that much of the violence required to do so was perpetrated by one neighbour against another. During the Hapsburg times, Poles and Ruthenians agitated for independence. In the wake of WWI Ukrainians chafed under Polish rule, which led them to welcome the Nazis. After WWII the Soviets upheld Ukrainian claims to the area; in one of history’s ironies, that decision furthered the Ukrainian nationalism that Russia is now contesting in its dirty war in the Donbass.
Bartov shows how everyone was at one time both a victim and a perpetrator—everyone except the Jews, who suffered no matter who was in charge (they had it best under the Hapsburgs, leading many of them to defend the Empire ardently—cf Joseph Roth; they had it worst, of course, under the Nazis). Anatomy of a Genocide is at once granular and theoretical—an amazing accomplishment; it had me asking myself why I don’t read more history.
Nina Berberova, The Ladies from St. Petersburg: Three Novellas (1995?) Trans. Marian Schwartz (1998) Uneven but mostly engaging collection, once again detailing life before, during, and after the Russian revolution. The first and second stories (to me they are too slight to be novellas) are the best—the first, set at the very beginning of what people are not yet calling a revolution, depicts a vacation in the country during which a young woman is abruptly forced out of the comforts, and limits, of the life she’d known. The second centers on a woman who has challenged the norms of her culture by leaving her husband and is trying to keep ahead of the conflict between Whites and Reds; as the translator Marian Schwartz notes in her admirable introduction, the irony is that the women of the provincial boarding house she washes up at are much less accepting of the woman’s perceived transgressions than their political sympathies would suggest. The third, an uninteresting failure, is set in what is clearly New York though it is never named. Berberova spent much of her life in the US, but maybe she was never able to write about it convincingly. Probably not the best introduction to Berberova, but worth checking out once you’ve read some of her other stuff.
Carys Davies, West (2018) Many online book friends (and a real life one, the writer Kevin Brockmeier) have extolled this novella, and I decided to make it the first audiobook of the new semester (back to the commute…). Davies is a Welsh writer, but she lived in the US for quite a while, which must have helped her with some of the book’s settings. Cy Bellman is a mule breeder in Pennsylvania in the first part of the 19th century; this reviewsays 1815; I don’t know where that date comes from, nothing in the book says so, though it’s true my knowledge of US history is shamefully hazy so I probably missed something; certainly, events take place after the Lewis & Clark expedition (1804 – 06). In the newspaper Bellman learns that giant bones have been found in Kentucky (presumably from mammoths, or maybe dinosaurs, this was also unclear to me) and becomes obsessed with the idea that the creatures must still be alive, out west, and that it is his destiny to find them. To the disdain of his sister, whom he asks to look after his ten-year-old daughter, Bess, Bellman sets off for the frontier (St. Louis) and beyond. In Missouri, a trader sets him up with a Shawnee teenager, named Old Woman, who guides Bellman as far west as the Rockies. In the meantime—two years pass, then three—Bess fends off the local librarian and the increasingly unwelcome attentions of a neighbour, all of which leads to a dramatic, slightly preposterous happy ending, in which Old Woman plays hero. I admired some things about the novel: it’s spare, and enigmatic in a pleasing enough way, and the descriptions of the landscape are lovely without being overwritten. But I couldn’t get on fully on board, because I found the Shawnee character so troubling. As one might expect of a revisionist Western (I sometimes feel all Westerns are described as revisionist), the book critiques white settler attitudes to indigenous people. And yet it also embraces those attitudes: it’s not just that Bellman and others say that Indians can be bought off with a few shiny beads, but that Old Woman indeed loves shiny beads. Towards the end of the book, Davies shifts focalization from Bellman to Old Woman. Her attempt to inhabit a different way of looking at the world goes awry—Old Woman thinks in a way that seems not foreign but reduced, childlike, naïve. I just didn’t get what she was trying to do here. Maybe an interesting failure, but a failure nonetheless.
There you have it. Miller and Bartov were the standouts. Berberova a great discovery (for me; I know others have been reading her for a while). February has already begun promisingly, reading-wise, but I know the pace will slow down as the semester hits full-force.
I was so happy this month to post my friend Nat’s reflections on his year in reading. I know we’re well into 2020 now and maybe nobody cares about 2019 anymore, but I’m happy to post reflections and lists from anyone. (I’ve asked a few folks; no takers so far.) In general, I’d love for EMJ to become more of a salon, so if you have something bookish you want to say, hit me up.