What I Read, February 2020

February. When was that? Oh yeah, when we were stressed and run into the ground by daily cares. Part of me wants that life back so much. But part of me thinks the world that generated those cares wasn’t all that great. I swing between terror (about illness and death, about financial and economic collapse, about those lines around the block at the gun shop) and hope (maybe things could be different on the other side of this). Mostly I feel paralyzed, with many things to do but little incentive to do them.

So what was happening in that long-ago time? The treadmill of the semester, mostly. Rumblings of the disease. (Would my students and I be able to take our trip to Europe? Long since canceled, of course.) The hockey playoffs drawing ever nearer. (Amazing how much time I spent on that stuff.) And, of course, some reading. To wit:

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Ruth Kluger, Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered (2001) One of thegreatest Holocaust memoirs, no, a fucking great book, period. Ruth Kluger is one of the original badasses. Unlike many Holocaust memoirs, Still Alive (even the title is a spit in the face of her persecutors) focuses as much on postwar as prewar and wartime life. Kluger’s persecutors are legion: the Nazis, of course, and all the silent Germans who acquiesced to them. But also all those who insist on minimizing or relativizing her experiences. And then there are the oppressive systems she’s had to live under, not least racism and patriarchy. (Kluger was one of the first to insist that the experience of the Holocaust was thoroughly gendered.) And, most painfully, the people closest to her: her first husband; an old friend (the well-known German writer Martin Walser); a great-aunt who, in prewar Vienna, took away Kluger’s streetcar ticket collection from her, deeming it dirty and vulgar; the distant familial connections in America who wanted little to do with her when she and her mother landed there in the late 1940s. (Kluger is a great hater and knows how to hold a grudge.) But of all these persecutors the greatest is her mother, the woman with whom she experienced the Anschluss, the depredations and degradations of Nazi Vienna, Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Christianstadt, a death march, the DP camps, and finally postwar life in America. A woman who saved her and protected her, yet also tormented her, dismissed her, ignored her, even, it’s fair to say, hated her.

The more times I read Still Alive the more towering I find its achievement. I think this might be the fourth time I’ve taught it. Plus, I did the best job I’ve done with it yet, which was satisfying and solidified my love for the book. I sense readers are catching up to it. In the past, students have felt intimidated by it, even a little shocked. The new generation, angrier, eats it up.

Paulette Jiles, News of the World (2016) Charming without being cloying. News of the World is one of my finds of the year, and I’m pretty sure it’ll be on my end-of-year list. (Look at me with the optimism.) I’d never read Jiles before, only vaguely been aware of her, but now I’m making my way through the backlist.

 News of the World centers on one Captain Jefferson Kidd, who travels through post-Civil War Texas offering readings from a collection of newspapers that he periodically replenishes whenever he reaches a larger town. (Audience members drop their dimes into an old paint can.) He’s a performer, knowing just how much political news he can offer before tempers flare (Texas in these days is roiled by animosity between those supporting the current governor and those opposed) and offering enough news of far-off explorers and technological inventions to soothe, even entrance the crowds. At one such gig near the Oklahoma border an old friend begs him to take charge of a ten-year-old girl who had been stolen from her family by the Kiowa four years earlier and has now been retaken by the US Army. Kidd is prevailed upon to take the girl to her nearest relations, in the country near San Antonio, four hundred dangerous miles south.

Johanna has forgotten English, has no memory of her parents, is devastated by the loss of her Kiowa family and its culture. The novel considers such matters as cultural difference (which it is much more sensitive about than most of the Westerns I’ve been reading lately) and U.S. history (the Captain has fought in three wars, going back to the war of 1812—he’s in his 70s and his great age is part of the story’s poignancy) and the question of whether law can take root in the wake of years of lawlessness. It’s an adventure story and a guide to the Texas landscape. But mostly it’s the story of the bond that arises between the old man and the young girl. And all of this in less than 250 pages. The Captain becomes ever fonder of the child (not in a creepy way, it’s totally above board in that regard), but the feeling hurts him. He senses nothing but heartbreak can come of the situation, and his heart doesn’t feel up to it. I was moved and delighted and recommend it without reservation—could be just the ticket when you’re stuck inside feeling anxious.

Apparently they’ve made a movie and it stars Tom Hanks and probably everyone’s going to love it but I bet it’ll be as saccharine as shit.

Philip Kerr, Prussian Blue (2017) Regular readers know I’m marching though Kerr’s series. This one is especially despairing and cynical, which for this series is saying something. Moving between 1938 and 1956, it finds Bernie Guenther on the run and reminded of an old case in which he was dragooned into finding out who shot a flunky on the balcony of Hitler’s retreat at Bechtesgaden. Set as they are amid the Third Reich, all of these novels are about corruption, but the stink is especially pervasive here. Not the series’ best, though as always Kerr is great at dramatizing history: in this case he particularly nails the Nazi reliance on amphetamines.

Sarah Gailey, Upright Women Wanted (2020) “Are you a coward or are you a librarian?” Tell me you don’t want to read the book that accompanies this tagline. Yet the problem is that the former seems the product of the latter instead of the other way around. Gailey’s novel of a future run on Handmaid’s Tale lines is engaging but slight. Gailey doesn’t much go in for world-building: it’s unclear what happened to make the former western US states technologically poor, violently misogynistic, hardscrabble and suspicious (not really a stretch). Instead, she focuses on the role of the librarians who make their way by wagon-train through the western desert, officially bringing state-sanctioned propaganda to fortified settlements but unofficially acting as couriers for a fledgling resistance. The librarians are women who get to shoot and ride and swear and live, enticing exceptions to the rigidly prescribed gender roles of the times. Upright Women Wanted is a queer western that includes a non-binary character; its most lasting legacy might be its contribution to normalizing they/them/their pronouns. In the end it was too casual/slapdash for me, but I enjoyed reading it well enough for the hour or two it demanded of me.

Eric Ambler, Epitaph for a Spy (1938) Apparently the amateur who falls into an espionage plot is Ambler’s stock in trade. I’ve actually read one or two of his books, but so long ago that I’d forgotten this description, if I ever knew it. Anyway, the machinery of this formula hums along at high efficiency in this finely executed story of a schoolteacher who gets mistaken for a spy and then has only days to find out who among the guests at his Mediterranean pension is the real culprit. The way states use the precariousness of statelessness (the fate of many of the book’s characters) remains painfully timely. For more, read Jacqui’s review. (I know other bloggers have reviewed this too. Please tag yourself in the comments.)

Magda Szabó, Abigail (1970) Trans. Len Rix (2020) The back cover of this new translation of Hungarian writer Szabó’s most popular novel hits the Jane Austen comparisons hard. At first I found this idea both implausible and annoying (it used to be that publishers and reviewers compared books to Austen when they meant “this is set in the 19th century and includes a love plot” but now it seems to have expanded to mean “this book is by a woman”), but as I read on I started to see the point. For Abigail, like Emma, is focalized through a young woman who thinks she knows more than she does. Yet where Austen’s protagonist misunderstands love, Szabó’s misunderstands politics. Gina is the willful teenage daughter of a general in the Hungarian Army during WWII. She is baffled and hurt when her father abruptly sends her to a convent school far from Budapest. The first half of the book is classic boarding school story—Gina is a haughty outsider, she alienates the other girls, she struggles to become part of their cliques—but, after a failed escape attempt, as the political situation in Hungary changes drastically (the Germans take over their client state in early 1944; Adolf Eichmann is sent to Budapest to oversee the deportation of what was at that point the largest intact Jewish community in Europe), Gina learns how much more is at stake than her personal happiness. That realization is marked in her changed understanding of the book’s titular character, which is, in fact, not a person but a statue on the school grounds with whom the girls leave notes asking for help or advice. Eventually it becomes clear that Abigail—the person who answers those notes—is a member of the resistance, and in real danger. But who is it? Throughout Szabó juxtaposes our knowledge with her heroine’s ignorance—in the end, the effect is like that of her countryman Imre Kertesz’s in his masterpiece Fatelessness. Both novels challenge our reliance on what psychologists call “hindsight bias” (reading the past in light of the future).

Téa Obrecht, Inland (2019) Another one for my little project of westerns written by women (specifically, ones I can get on audiobook from my library). Like a lot of literary fiction today Obrecht’s novel goes all in on voice. She alternates between two first person narrators. Lurie, the son of a Muslim immigrant from the Ottoman Empire, ends up after a picaresque childhood on the lam and is rescued from lawlessness by joining the United States camel corps (a failed but surprisingly long-lasting attempt to use camels as pack animals in the American west). Nora, a homesteader in the Arizona Territory whose husband has gone missing when he went in search of a delayed water delivery, teeters on the verge of succumbing to thirst-induced delirium exacerbated by her guilt over the death of a daughter, some years before, from heat exhaustion. Lurie tells his story to Burke, and it takes a long time before we figure out that Burke is his camel. (I confirmed with some other readers that this wasn’t just an effect of my listening to the audiobook, which, I find, makes it easy to miss important details.) Nora tells her story ostensibly to herself but really to the ghost of her daughter. So the stories—which of course ultimately intersect in a surprising way—are similarly structured as confessions. Nora’s is the more successful—her combination of intelligence and wit and hurt and delusion comes through powerfully. She’s just a great character. Lurie has his moments, too, especially near the end, but I was always a little disappointed when we left Nora for him. The book has a hallucinatory quality—in this it reminded me a bit of Jim Jarmusch’s wonderful film Dead Man—that works the hysterical realism angle more successfully than most. I don’t regret listening to the book and by the end I was pretty moved by it, but I also found it too long and too unsure of itself. In her excellent piece, Rohan really gets the book’s betwixt and betweenness. But boy if you want to feel anxious and thirsty, Obrecht is your woman. Never has the watery juice of a can of tomatoes seemed such a horrible relief.

Vivian Gornick, Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader (2020) In this short book about re-reading, Gornick presents re-reading as a way of thinking about our self over time. Unfinished Business begins with an autobiographical chapter about Gornick’s life as a reader, which riffs on and is itself an example of the distinction between situation and story she articulated in a brilliant book of that title several years ago (situation is something like experience, the raw material of our lives; story is the way we articulate that experience, the way we transform it through reflection/writing: I use this distinction in my writing classes all the time). The book then offers several case studies of writers who have meant a lot to Gornick. I found the chapters on D. H. Lawrence and Elizabeth Bowen especially good; not coincidentally these are writers I’ve very familiar with (which bodes well for her readings of writers I don’t know, like Colette and Natalia Ginzburg). Gornick combines the history of her own reading (what she first loved in Sons and Lovers only later to disavow as misguided, what she emphasized in her second reading, and so on) with succinct summaries of what makes each writer tick.

Here she is, having re-read Adrienne Rich’s conclusion about Dickinson—that extreme psychological states can be put into language, but only language that has been forged, never in the words that first come to us—thinking about Bowen:

She had created stories and novels meant to acquaint the reader with the power of the one thing—the extreme psychological state—that she deeply understood: namely, that fear of feeling that makes us inflict on one another the little murders of the soul that anesthetize the spirit and shrivel the heart; stifle desire and humiliate sentiment; make war electrifying and peace dreary.

On Duras:

For years this [buried events, hidden feelings] was Duras’s mesmerizing subject, inscribed repeatedly in those small, tight abstractions she called novels, and written in an associative prose that knifed steadily down through the outer layers of being to the part of oneself forever intent on animal retreat into the primal, where the desire to be at once overtaken by and freed of formative memory is all-enveloping; in fact, etherizing.

On Ginzburg:

Ginzburg’s abiding concern, like that of any serious writer, has always been with identifying the conflicts within us that keep us from acting decently toward one another.

If what Gornick calls the Freudian century is not for you, then give this book a pass. But if the idea that the self we so identify with is only a small part of what we are rings true to you, you’ll find Gornick’s readings sympathetic. I loved the short final chapter describing her shame and bewilderment, on taking up a favourite (unnamed) book, at the passages she had marked in earlier readings. How could that have interested her? Didn’t she see how obvious or trite or embarrassing this aspect of the text was? But then: “My eyes drifted to a sentence on the page opposite where nothing was underlined, and I thought, Now here’s something really interesting, how come this didn’t attract your attention all those years ago.”

May such a life of reading be given to us all.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (2013) A book about reciprocity and solidarity; a book for every time, but especially this time.

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In sum, a good month: Kluger, Jiles, Szabó, Gornick, and Kimmerer all excellent. Which is good because so far, social distancing is not given me the promised bump in reading time. Until next time I send you all strength, health, and courage in our new times.

“All Flourishing is Mutual”: Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass

“All flourishing is mutual.”

I read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants last month for a faculty, student, and staff reading group organized by one of my colleagues in the Biology department.

That was in the middle of a wave of protests across Canada regarding indigenous rights (more specifically, their absence), prompted by an RCMP raid against the hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, who along with their allies are seeking to prevent a pipeline from being built across their unceded territory. To me the Wet’suwet’en protests felt like such an important moment in Canadian political life. Unfortunately, it seemed that the unwillingness of settler Canadians to acknowledge their status as such would once again win the day, but I was heartened by the wide-ranging solidarity shown the protesters.

Now, only a few weeks later, when I’m finally making the time to set down my thoughts about Kimmerer’s remarkable book, that moment seems a lifetime ago. Life has been overturned by COVID-19, and it feels as though we will be lucky if that upheaval lasts only into the medium term.

Yet perhaps even more now than last month, Kimmerer’s teachings feel timely, even urgent. “All flourishing is mutual”: what else are we learning now, unless it is the opposite—when we fail to be mutual we cannot flourish. We are only as vibrant, healthy, and alive as the most vulnerable among us. We see that now, clearly. But can we be wise enough to live that truth?

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For an example of mutual flourishing, Kimmerer considers mycorrhizae, fungal strands that inhabit tree roots. They connect the trees in a forest, distributing carbohydrates among them: “they weave a web of reciprocity, of giving and taking. In this way, the trees all act as one because the fungi have connected them.”

The particular context of Kimmerer’s conclusion is a discussion of mast fruiting (i.e. nut production). It takes a lot of energy to make nuts, much more than berries or seeds. Mast fruiting trees spend years making sugar, hoarding it in the form of starch in their roots. Only when their stores of carbohydrates overflow do nuts appear. And when one tree in a forest produces nuts they all do—the trees act collectively, never individually.

For Kimmerer, mast fruiting is a metaphor for how to live. As she says, in a phrase that ought to ring out in our current moment, “We make a grave error if we try to separate individual well-being from the health of the whole.”

One name Kimmerer gives to the way of thinking that considers the health of the collective is indigeneity. For me, this is a generous, even awe-inspiring definition. It transcends ethnicity or history and allows all of us to think of ourselves as indigenous, as long as we value the long-term well-being of the collective. “For all of us,” Kimmerer writes, “becoming indigenous to a place means living as if your children’s future mattered, to take care of the land as if our lives, both material and spiritual, depended on it.” Or, similarly, “The more something is shared, the greater its value becomes.” This statement is true both biologically and culturally. The pejorative term “Indian giver” arises, Kimmerer suggests, from a terrible and consequential misunderstanding between an indigenous culture centered on a gift economy and a colonial culture based on the concept of private property. In indigenous cultures, gifts are to be shared, passed around. (Thus it is offensive to keep something you have been given without passing it to others in some form.) But those same cultures insist that gifts aren’t free: they come attached with responsibilities. (She compares these to rights in a property economy.)

The question for me, then, is whether in a market economy we can behave as if the earth were a gift. Reading Braiding Sweetgrass was almost painfully poignant; I couldn’t reconcile what I experienced as the rightness of Kimmerer’s claims with the lived experience of late capitalism. (Someone on Twitter joked recently how touchingly naïve that “late” is.) I just can’t figure out how to get from here (our ravaged planet, our unbridled consumption) to there. Yes, it’s true, Kimmerer offers examples, not least in a chapter in which her students brainstorm ways each of them can give back to the swamp they’ve been on a research field trip to. The people in my reading group pointed out that change has to be local, that we can’t be responsible for the big picture, that we need to avoid paralysis. True enough. But the genuine hopefulness of Kimmerer’s words sometimes had the contradictory effect of making me feel despair.

It is true, though, that Kimmerer offers some practical advice for how to return our world to a gift economy. She urges us to name people, places, and things (especially the things of the natural world), as if they had the same importance. To consider the significance of nonhuman people. To speak of Rock or Pine or Maple as we might of Rachel, Leah, and Sarah. She suggests we emphasize ways to develop ceremonies in our daily lives, for these create belonging. (This could be a moment of meditation in the morning, or a shared weekly meal, or the injunction, as pertained in her family, to never leave a campsite without piling up firewood for the next guests.) In this way we might live in gratitude for the world, and the opportunity we have to contribute to its flourishing. Kimmerer asks that we join in her mindset: “My natural inclination,” she writes in a moment of characteristically lucid self-description, “was to see relationships, to seek the threads that connect the world, to join instead of divide.”

I fear I have not given a good sense of this book. Its essays cover all sorts of topics: from reports of maple sugar seasoning (Kimmerer is from upstate New York) to instructions for how to clear a pond of algae to descriptions of her field studies to meditations on lichen. I particularly love the moments, like her description of mast fruiting, when she teaches us about the natural world. As she says, “sometimes a fact alone is a poem.” (But she also says “that metaphor is a way of telling truth far greater than scientific data.”) Kimmerer is a scientist, a poet, an activist, a lover of the world. She seems fun, if a bit dauntingly competent. She challenges the idea of (scientific) detachment: “For what good is knowing, unless it is coupled with caring?” (I will say, she likes rhetorical questions too much for my taste.)

The book concludes with a meditation on the windigo, the man-eating monstrous spirit from Algonquin mythology. Kimmerer suggests that the windigo rests potentially in all of us, less a monster than an aspect of human being. That aspect can only be thwarted or defeated by a purgation: rather than hoard we must give (back). The world is not inexhaustible; it is finite. But the braiding of reciprocity is a powerful tool that nature and culture alike has given us to stave off that finitude.

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I do have quibbles with Braiding Sweetgrass: it’s too long, too diffuse. It’s hard to figure out why it takes the form that it does. I liked that its structure is not chronological or geographical or even cyclical/seasonal. But, reading, I sometimes found myself adrift. We could say that the book moves loosely from theory to action (towards the end, there are a couple of chapters offering what might be called specific case studies—how people have responded to particular ecosystems). It’s possible the book has some more complicated structure—like that of the rhizome perhaps, the forkings of those mycorrhizae invisibly linking tree to tree—that I can’t see. But I found myself, after finishing the book, having a hard time remembering individual essays. The whole matters more than the parts, I think, even though Kimmerer is a good essayist, deft at performing the braiding of ideas demanded by the form.

More significantly, I am not sure how to reconcile Kimmerer’s claim about indigeneity—that it is a way of being in the world that speaks to our actions and dispositions, and not to ethnicity or history—with her more straightforward, and understandable, avowal of her indigenous background. (She is a member of the Potawatomi people and writes movingly about her efforts to learn Anishinaabe.) What, I’m left wondering, is the relationship for her between becoming indigenous and being indigenous? The former seems like a metaphor; the latter an embodied reality. Sometimes Kimmerer opens indigenous ways of being to everybody; more often, though, she limits them to Native people. I’m unconvinced this is an insuperable difference, but it’s not one Kimmerer resolves, or, as best I can tell, even sees.

Yet I’m left convinced, after spending several hundred pages in the company of her authorial persona, that Kimmerer would be more than happy to talk through my confusion, perhaps even be able to show me that what I perceive as a problem might in fact be the way to a solution. So powerful is the sensation of good will and generosity given off by this book. Although the settler in me worries it is grandiose to say so, perhaps my thoughts in this post, however meager, can be taken as my way of giving something back for the gifts Kimmerer has given me. May you accept them as such.

What I Read, January 2020

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:

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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.

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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.

 

2019 Year in Reading

Looking back, I see that January to June was much better to me than July to December. I read all but one of the nine books that meant the most to me in 2019 in the first half of the year. It could be they’ve had the longest to marinate. It could be I was more tired, distracted, and at times distraught in the second half of the year (I was). It could just be the luck of the Book Gods.

Whatever the reason, I’ve a better record of my reading than ever before because 2019 was the year I started to write monthly reflection pieces. To my own surprise, I was able to keep this strategy up, which means I wrote at least a sentence or two about everything I read this year. Links to the monthly roundups are at the end of this post. If you want to know more about any of the texts I reference below you can always search by author. If you want to see previous year-end reviews, you can find them here: 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 & 2018.

For those who like that kind of thing, a few stats: I read 136 books in 2019. 74 (54%) were by women; 62 (46%) were by men. 104 (76%) were originally written in English; 32 (24%) were translated. 16 were audiobooks. 7 were re-reads. (I include books I re-read for teaching in my list only if I re-read the whole thing, not if I dip into, skim, or speed re-read it.)

And now some thoughts on the books that made a particular impression on me, for good or ill.

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Best of the Bunch

Katherena Vermette, The Break. My Book of the Year. I think about The Break all the time, especially now that I am learning about the violence and injustice perpetrated on Indigenous Canadians, not just in the distant past, but in my own lifetime. I’ve spent my whole life thinking that Canada was a Good Place that has mostly been on the right side of history. It is in ways a good place. But the way its colonial violence (itself inexcusable) continues into the present, the way that violence was happening all around me in my childhood, the way that I was nevertheless able to remain blissfully ignorant—that really gets to me. (I know, I know, “Thanks a lot, privileged White Dude, for all your well-meaning soul-searching.”)

Anyway, I love how Vermette takes my favourite genre, crime fiction, opens it up and turning it inside out, enabling her to write about systemic racism and (sexual) violence while still using fictional conventions (such as strongly developed characters and a keen sense of place) that were developed to propagate ideas of individuality and willpower—ideas that largely shunted the people who experience structural violence to the margins.

I love too that Vermette is able to imagine an affirmative, even joyful ending to her story.

Sarah Moss, Ghost Wall. On first reading I actually wasn’t sure how well this worked, but fortunately I’d been given the chance to write about it for The Mookse & the Gripse, so I read it another couple of times. (It’s really more novella than novel.) And now like everyone else I recognize its brilliance. Timely—it addresses climate change, misogyny, fantasies of national purity—but not didactic. Plausibly harrowing without being a total downer. A book that will last.

Yiyun Li, Where Reasons End. So smart and so sad. Parents in particular might find this tough going. But I also found it joyous. Li isn’t showy, but her style is so compelling.

Virginie Despentes Vernon Subutex I/II. Didn’t think these would be my thing (being into neither pop music nor post 68 radicalism curdled into conservatism), but I fell for them in a big way. I’ll be ordering the third volume from the UK when it’s published there later this year. An indictment of neo-liberalism with the pleasures of a soap opera.

Miriam Toews, Women Talking. Another super-smart book that sneaks up on you. Dramatic events—the women of a Mennonite community in Bolivia find out that for years many of the men they live with have been drugging them at night and raping them—play second fiddle to the attempt to come to a collective response to trauma. The genius of the book lies in its narration: the largely illiterate women recruit the local schoolteacher, a man who grew up in the community but lived apart from it for years, to record their deliberations. Toews shows us, however, that every description is also an interpretation (recording isn’t just a neutral act), leading us to wonder how the self-understanding of an oppressed group (and the efforts of those not in that group to understand them) is affected by disparities in privilege.

Daphne Du Maurier, The House on the Strand. Fascinating and suspenseful story of time-traveler. Postulates that identity is a form of addiction. As in Rule Britannia, her final novel, written just a few years after House, Du Maurier here questions the continuity of Englishness.

María Gainza, Optic Nerve (Translated by Thomas Bunstead). Fragmentary essayistic auto-fiction-type thing of the sort I usually admire more than like. But Gainza’s book won me over, particularly her use of ekphrasis to connect representation and political violence.

 Philip Marsden, The Spirit-Wrestlers: A Russian Journey. The most joyful book I read last year concerns Marsden’s journey through the Caucasus in the early to middle 1990s, a place that fascinates him as a historical refuge for dissenters and schismatics of all sorts. Marsden is a good traveler, respectful of those he meets and their beliefs. But in the endless battle between idealism (which always curdles, murderously, into ideology) and humble materialism (the struggles and pleasures of surviving everyday life) he’s always on the side of the latter.

Sally Rooney, Conversations with Friends. Thoroughly enjoyable and really funny story of two young women in Dublin, best friends, and the older and much richer married couple they get involved with. Great dialogue. Doesn’t go where you think it will. Lots of darkness at its heart, mostly concerning the narrator’s fraught relationship to her own body.

Other Awards

Best backlist deep dive: I read six novels by Esther Freud, all great. I think I still love her first, Hideous Kinky, best, but the next six were all good, some of them excellent, especially Summer at Gaglow and The Wild. Whether she is writing about the late 19th or early 20th centuries or about the 1970s and 80s, Freud always creates characters who know that they don’t know as much as they need to. She reminds me of Anita Brookner, who is really only now getting her due. Will Freud have to die to achieve similar respect? More pressingly, will she write another novel? (It’s been a while.)

Best ending: Henrik Pantoppidan, Lucky Per (Translated by Naomi Lebowitz). The only big 19th century novel I read in 2019 was actually written in the early 20th century. Per is a frustrating, vacillating character (even more than Pantoppidan knew, I think), but what happens to him, the kind of person he becomes, in the book’s final chapters is really moving. Don’t give up on it, is what I’m saying.

Most indelible: Helen Dunmore, The Siege. Literary critics are always saying that books are haunting. But Dunmore’s depiction of the cold and hunger suffered by the people of Leningrad during WWII might actually qualify. Dunmore’s painstaking descriptions are almost physically painful to read, so vivid are they. Turns out, if you boil leather shoes for a really long time you’ll get “broth” with a little nutritional value. Dunmore was a really good writer and I’m glad I have plenty more of her books left to read.

Best portrayal of parenting a small child: Yuko Tsushima, Territory of Light. First published in the 1970s, this book is having its moment in the English-speaking world. And deservedly so. I appreciated Tsushima’s willingness to admit that parenting toddlers in particular can be terrible & enraging.

Most important classic in my field that I only just read: Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. Browning uses the example of one particular battalion of the Order Police (the Orpo—not members of the SS, but often sent to work alongside them during the eastern campaign) to draw far-reaching conclusions about what makes men do terrible things. Many have found those conclusions too far-reaching, but to me it seems that history offers corroborating examples all the time. Important evidence for challenging the still-prevalent idea that perpetrators must be monsters.

Book that most influenced my teaching: John Warner, Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. Music to my ears. I was already a convert to Warner’s way of thinking before reading his book, but he phrases his objections to conventional writing pedagogy so well that I gained lots of new ammunition for my beliefs. More importantly he offers practical ways to break free of old teaching habits. That’s what made this book so important to me. When we challenge students to write about things that matter to them we let them take the first step to realizing that for writing to be good at all, no matter the genre, the writer needs to have a stake in it. Students need to become thinkers. To do so they need to become writers. To be writers they need to be thinkers. We can make this recursive loop productive by teaching writing as a process. Even readers who are not teachers will gain a lot from this book.

Books I forgot about but when I saw them on my list again I thought, Oh yeah, that was really good: Samantha Harvey, The Western Wind; Vivek Shanbhag, Ghachar Ghochar.

Book Twitter loved it but I didn’t: Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman; Lauren Wilkinson, American Spy, Bart van Es, The Cut Out Girl.

Most irritating: Luce D’Eramo, Deviation; John Williams, Stoner (Hello! He rapes her!).

Creepiest: Michelle McNamara, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer (true crime is weird); Georges Simenon, Strangers in the House (finally a Simenon that totally worked for me).

Lousy: Cay Rademacher, The Murderer in Ruins; C. J. Tudor, The Chalk Man, Colin Dexter, Last Bus to Woodstock; Günter Ohnemus, The Russian Passenger.

Tawdry (felt gross for being as drawn into it as I was): Adrian McKinty, The Chain

Best comics: James Sturm, Off Season; Gengoroh Tagame, My Brother’s Husband (sweet, gentle).

Best crime: Jane Harper, The Lost Man (sometimes it pays to stick with an author: Harper’s third book a huge leap forward, an indelible story of the outback; would read again); Dervla McTiernan (best new procedurals I read this year); Laura Lippman, The Lady in the Lake (Lippman goes from strength to strength); Steph Cha, Your House Will Pay (can wrongs ever be made right?). Men, step up your crime game!

Reliable pleasure: Philip Kerr’s Bernie Guenther series is my jam: my preferred historical period (about which Kerr has taught me a lot), my preferred tone (ironic, a little despairing). I only have three Bernies left and am feeling sad about it.

Best surprise: Brantley Hargrove, The Man Who Caught the Storm: The Life of Legendary Tornado Chaser Tim Samaras. Would never have read this had it not been assigned me as part of my duties for the Arkansas Literary Festival. Learned a lot about tornadoes—of which I am especially mindful today, as Arkansas sits under a tornado watch—and was gripped by Hargrove’s description of how the best storm chaser of them all lost his life.

Had its moments: Chia-Chia Lin, The Unpassing (a couple of scenes have stayed with me, but it’s a bit self-consciously “literary novel” for me).

Disappointing: Anthony Horowitz, The Sentence is Death (fine, but without the magic of its predecessor); Marlen Haushofer, The Loft (The Wall is an all-time fave; this one was ok, but I struggled to finish: too dour, I missed the earlier novel’s joy); James Gregor, Going Dutch (could have been in the lousy category TBH; one great character, but a preposterous view of graduate school); Tayari Jones, An American Marriage (better as an essay).

Best spy novel: Len Deighton, Berlin Game (pleasant surprise—nice take on grimy 70s/80s Berlin, which it avoids romanticizing). Honorable mention: Helen MacInnes, Decision at Delphi (Starts off like Highsmith, turns into Lionel Davidson). Plan to read more of both in 2020.

Light reading discovery: Robert Harris (have listened to three so far, all winners).

Best book nobody’s ever read: Hans Eichner, Kahn & Engelmann.

Best memoirs: Fierce Attachments (not my favourite Gornick, but, hey, it’s Gornick, she’s a genius); Tara Westover, Educated (believe the hype); Laura Cumming, Five Days Gone: The Mystery of My Mother’s Disappearance as a Child (family history with a surprise ending); Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk (believe the hype II). Men, step up your memoir game!

Best Holocaust books (memoirs): Primo Levi, The Reawakening (a.k.a. The Truce) (didn’t expect a picaresque from Levi, but there you go); Max Eisen, By Chance Alone (more people should take heed of the sentiment expressed in Eisen’s title); Solomon Perel, Europa, Europa (every Holocaust survival story is implausible, but this one might take the cake).

Best Holocaust books (history): David E. Fishman, The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis. The publisher must have wanted crossover success, but the attempts to narrate from the viewpoint of the historical figures flop; fortunately, they make up a small part of the book, which details the remarkable efforts of Jewish prisoners to rescue sacred and profane texts from the Vilnius ghetto. I started a post on this last summer and really should finish it.

Best Holocaust books (for children): Esther Hautzig, The Endless Steppe; Judith Kerr, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (plus Rabbit’s two sequels, which aren’t really for children but are fantastic and really deserve to be in print; we lost a giant, not to mention an amazing human being, when Kerr died last May).

Books I wrote about elsewhere: Sarah Moss, Ghost Wall; Margarita Liberaki, Three Summers; Mihail Sebastian, Women.

Classic that revealed itself to me in a totally new way on re-reading: Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March. Thanks to Caroline and Lizzy for the impetus.

Monthly Review Posts

January, February, March, April, May,  June, July/August, September, October, November, December

Coming in 2020

More of the same, probably. These days, with blogging seemingly on the wane, just keeping the lights on feels like an accomplishment. I think the monthly posts worked well, and I plan to keep them. When it comes down to it, I prefer the deep dive (basically: posts that involve close reading), but that takes a lot of time and effort. At least this way I have some kind of record of my responses.

In the spring, I’ll be reading Henri Bosco’s Malicroix, suggested by its publisher as being perfect for fans of Jean Giono. That made me want to get back together the group who read Giono’s Hill a few years ago. Most everyone is enthusiastic, so look for that in May. I welcome all readers to join us, whether you blog or not. In general, I’m always keen to post pieces by other writers, so if you’re looking for somewhere to share your work hit me up.

One of the pleasures of last year was finding a set of kind and thoughtful German book folks on Twitter. Thanks to them, I may find the courage to start reading more in German in again. I’ll definitely keep reading Holocaust literature; and I’ll definitely keep writing about my teaching.

As to what else I’ll be reading, I suspect I will continue to want to be a person who reads only difficult, demanding, and serious books, but who in fact is someone who reads a few of those and lots of relatively undemanding (but still engaging and valuable) ones. I’ll aim to read more widely, in more genres and from more languages, and I probably won’t. I’ll chip away at the frighteningly large number of unread books filling my little house, and undo that good work with new purchases. (Though I did rein my book-buying in a lot last year.) I’m aiming to be less drawn to new or newly published books and concentrate on older titles. But in the end, as always, I’ll go wherever my fancy takes me.

And thanks to all of you who have read my posts and engaged me in dialogue about them I will continue to write about those readerly peregrinations. I wish you all a good year in these dangerous times. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for helping to sustain me.

December 2019 in Review

December brought the end of the semester: busy, but less oppressive than the lead-up to it. Which meant more time for reading. And I spent the last week on Hawai’i, which, though not exactly my scene, is lovely and a good place to inhale undemanding thrillers.

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Robert Harris, The Fear Index (2011) Thriller about a Geneva-based hedge fund that makes spectacular profits thanks to an algorithm so complex it starts running itself. As I’ve reported before Harris can’t do female characters, but, given that he’s rewriting Frankenstein, a novel famously about men plotting to do away with the need for female reproduction, that’s kind of fitting. This book could have turned out hokey or lousy, but it’s quite good.

Philip Kerr, The Lady from Zagreb (2015) Another fine addition to the Bernie Guenther series, this one taking in events in the Balkans.

Peter Hayes, Why? Explaining the Holocaust (2017) I read this with four students I’m working with on a year-long Holocaust education project, and we found it an excellent introduction to the subject. It benefits from being organized around the questions Hayes has most often come across in his decades of teaching about the Holocaust, meaning that its history is as much of ideas as events (as in, for example, his lucid explanation of the differences between different generations of European antisemitism). Hayes is an economic historian (the next time someone tells you how complicit IBM, say, was in the Holocaust, you’ll know exactly what to tell them); unsurprisingly, then, anecdotes, memories, and individual experiences are notably absent. But since we’re studying just those things in our project on Holocaust literature, that fact was more useful complement than omission. Others might think differently.

Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk (2014) As wonderful as everyone says. A hybrid of memoir, literary criticism, and nature writing—a proper essay—the story of how Macdonald trained a goshawk (appealingly named Mabel) is woven around the effect on her life of two men: her father, by all accounts a lovely man, a photojournalist and champion of his daughter’s passions, whose sudden death sends Macdonald into deep, violent grief; and the midcentury writer T. H. White, by all accounts, not least his own, an unlovely man, unable to accept his own queerness and desperate to prove his competence no matter what the cost, but whose books, especially an account of his own experience keeping a hawk, have been important to Macdonald from childhood. I learned lots about hawks, the English countryside, ideas of wildness, and plenty of good words (when hawks try to jump off their owner’s fist while tethered—with thin strips, usually of leather, called “jesses”—they are said “to bate”).

I listened to this book: Macdonald reads it herself, wonderfully, but it’s a bit more demanding than my usual audiobook fare and I found myself skipping back a lot. Probably better read in print, or at least not while you’re trying to drive.

Andrzej Szczypiorski, The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman (1986) Trans. Klara Glowczewska (1989) Back in the day, when trade paperbacks were new and the Vintage International series ruled the shelves of better bookshops across North America, I used to see this book all the time. I’m glad I didn’t read it then, though, because I didn’t have the background to understand its oblique take on Poland from the 1930s to the 70s. With the benefit of experience and study I was able to appreciate Szczypiorski’s achievement here, though I still had the sense that the book was aimed at the Poland of the post-1968 period rather than of the war years with which most of its events are ostensibly concerned. And because my knowledge of postwar Poland is fairly schematic I still wasn’t the most informed reader. Yet I didn’t mind this—my ignorance somehow fit with Szczypiorski’s indirect treatment. (By this logic, my young, ignorant self would have been an even better reader…) I read the novel thinking it would foreground the Holocaust—the Mrs. Seidenman of the title is a Jew who passes as Gentile in Warsaw during the war—yet despite references to the Ghetto the novel has the self-knowledge to avoid writing what it doesn’t know intimately.

The most eye-catching stylistic feature is the regular use of flash forwards to show us the (largely futile, depressing, and deadly) futures of its characters. (Like Sparks’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.) But this isn’t a flashy book. Its tone is elegant, cerebral, hushed, rather like its opening sentence: “The room was in twilight because the judge was a lover of twilight.” Not that he loved twilight, but that he was a lover of twilight. Nice.

Cathleen Schine, The Grammarians (2019) Wrote about this here. It’s ok.

Steph Cha, Your House Will Pay (2019) Crime fiction is going to have to think about what it wants to be in an era characterized by the need to think more systemically (structural racism, inequality, “stop and frisk” profiling, etc.). Can its individualistic model (the dogged PI, the obsessive cop, the intrepid journalist) translate to our world? Your House Will Pay is an intriguing answer to this question. It sidelines the police, turning its attention instead on those affected by violence, inequality, racism, without being perpetrators or victims in the conventional sense. Modelled on the riots in LA’s Koreatown in the 90s, Cha’s novel follows two well-developed characters, an African American ex-con and a Korean American pharmacist, who are forced to grapple with what it means to forgive the wrongs of the past. I’m excited to see what Cha will do next.

Émile Zola, Pot Luck (1882) Trans. Brian Nelson (1999) Swear to God I’m going to write about this soon. Disagreeable, but compelling.

Philip Kerr, The Other Side of Silence (2016) Not my favourite Bernie novel, but a very agreeable way to pass a long plane trip.

Helen MacInnes, Decision at Delphi (1960) My first MacInnes, but not my last. I was impressed how she kept the plot going without flagging (it’s over 600 pages). As a smart Twitter correspondent pointed out, MacInnes can be a little buttoned-up—amazing how much chasing through the mountains happens in heels and suits & ties—but her representation of place is acute, and her use of point of view interesting. Delphi centers a male character, yet regularly dips into the consciousness of the female lead, which makes the relationship that develops between them more compelling than usual for the genre. Because the book features artists and photographers who accidentally are enmeshed in political plot by a terrorist cell it is also smart about what it means to represent places, people, and events. Not sure why MacInnes isn’t talked about the way Le Carré, for example, is, though I guess sexism is the likely answer.

That brings my reading year to a close. In a day or two I’ll reflect on what and how I read in 2019.

Enervated: Cathleen Schine’s The Grammarians

“Twin” is one of those wonderful hinge words in English, that mean two opposite things. Like the more celebrated “to cleave,” to twin means both to join and to divide, to double and to halve. As a noun, twin refers to one of a couple. As a verb it means to part, sever, sunder, deprive (of).

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Cathleen Schine offers these definitions of “twin” as the epigraph for her enjoyable new novel, The Grammarians. Its plot charts the move from noun to verb. Laurel and Daphne are identical twins, born seventeen minutes apart. As the girls age, those minutes loom ever larger, symbolizing the differences they are surprised to discover open up between them. As small, very precocious children, the girls invent a private language. They listen to a record of My Fair Lady over and over, swanning about the house singing “Ah-wooo-dent it be loverly.” They are fascinated by words. The most significant event of their childhood is the day their father comes home with a lectern and a giant book he places on it in his study; they watch him wrestle it out of his trunk “like a doctor delivering a baby.” Their new sibling is the second edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language; even as five-year-olds the oversize volume with its “cliff of compressed pages notched with steps the size of a fingerprint” becomes the centre of their world. Their mother contemplates forcing them to watch television to get them away from the damn dictionary for a while.

The girls become adults in the New York of the 80s, reviling Reagan but like plenty of comfortable white people not really suffering from him. Daphne makes a good living at a thinly disguised version of The Village Voice—perhaps this was possible in that lost world, though I’m not sure. Even more implausibly, she becomes famous as the author of a disapproving, sarcastic grammar column called “The People’s Pedant,” later turned into various books. Meantime, Laurel becomes first a kindergarten teacher, then a stay-at-home mother, and eventually a poet, assembling the often agrammatical expressions she finds in a collection of letters written by the relatives of soldiers to the Department of War—she “hear[s] their voices through the grammar”—into texts that are lauded by critics as generous but disparaged as appropriation by Daphne.

In other words, the sisters explore different ways of being women, of becoming creators, and, most importantly, of understanding language. Daphne is prescriptive, Laurel descriptive. Daphne believes that rules govern usage, Laurel that usage should shape rules.

Schine isn’t particularly subtle about her theme. At a deli, awaiting their blintzes, Daphne asks Laurel which is better, the way sour cream looks or tastes. Her sister calls it a tie:

Daphne thought about that as they ate, looking at the beautiful, shimmering sour cream, tasting it cool and smooth against the warm, buttery blintz. Could anything really be a tie? Was anything really equal to any other thing? She and Laurel were twins, eggs of a feather, so to speak, but were they tied? Tied together, yes. But tied?

The sentiment if expressed even more pithily early in the novel, ostensibly (but unconvincingly) from the POV of the young girls: “Identical twins, dressed in identical outfits—are they half or double?”

At the end of the blintz passage, Daphne turns from meditating on equality to thinking about words:

“‘Tie’ is a funny word,” she said.

“Sometimes,” Laurel said, “I think all words are funny.”

But funny ha ha or funny peculiar? Are words—and language more generally—something to marvel at, something that can be used in all sorts of peculiar ways, giving rise to new meanings, new uses? Or are they something that instills discipline and order? Is grammar truth or just the naturalized prejudices of rich people?

Most of us probably slide unreflectively from one position to the other. Sometimes sanguine about the seemingly infinite flexibility of language, especially English (think of all the ways we can use “fuck”). And sometimes grumpy about the decline of linguistic decorum, usually when it comes to uses that we for whatever reason hold dear (our particular crochets).

You’d think that how readers feel about language would be reflected in how they feel about the sisters. That is, prescriptivists will prefer Daphne while descriptivists will prefer Laurel. The problem, for me, is that Daphne is insufferably priggish, and it’s hard to imagine anyone liking her. (But I’m a pretty unreflective descriptivist, so I suppose I would say that.) Though, on reflection, Laurel is rather vague, so maybe what Schine has done is created characters that epitomize the stereotypical complaints about each philosophy.

The sisters eventually reach a version of détente (as the novel might put it, the ties that blind become, once again, the ties that bind), but not until after a years-long row in which they don’t speak. (The book is oddly structured, with a short opening chapter that references the feud, before sending us back to the beginning to find out how the twins got to that point, but then bursting past the opening frame, even ignoring it altogether, at the end.) In the end their love is reaffirmed—they remember that they are albumen and yolk and shell together.” But I found myself caring more for the novel’s minor characters than the grammarians themselves. Their cousin, Brian, turns in just a few deft scenes from bewildered child to snotty teen to sage adult. Their husbands, Michael and Larry, long-suffering and genial, are even more appealing, even though they really have bit parts. After the sisters break off relations, the men, whose initial forced friendship turns genuine, continue to meet in secret. In the end, I found their life-long affair more moving than the twins’ relationship with language.

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In the end, how much you enjoy The Grammarians depends on how much you enjoy its almost aphoristic riffs on bits of language usage. Here’s Daphne, talking about her job:

Copyediting is helping the words survive the misconceptions of their authors.

And here’s Laurel, expressing a thought I’ve often had:

“I’m enervated,” she said after soothing and congratulating her sister. “I like that word because it sounds like it means the opposite of what it means.”

The Grammarians is a quick, fun read. Maybe more miss than hit, though. It’s definitely too schematic. And its evocation of 80s New York is glib, an exercise in nostalgia that makes it different from books actually written in that period. (There’s a brief reference to the AIDS patients Michael treats when almost no one else will, a discussion about how you can get avocados and radicchio at Fairway, the sort of period detailing that tv shows set in the past spend enormous amounts of time and money getting right and which the shows of the period effortlessly exude.) In this regard, The Grammarians made me want to return to the works of Laurie Colwin, another low-key Jewish writer specializing in relationship stories set in arty bourgeois New York. Colwin was both warmer and more bittersweet than Schine, a better writer altogether, and one whose reputation seems sadly to be at rather a low ebb just now. Schine’s novel is perfectly enjoyable, but I doubt I’ll remember it in a couple of months, whereas Colwin has stayed with me for decades.

November 2019 in Review

O grim November. The semester at its most grinding. Thousands of leaves to bag. Even the Thanksgiving break busier than usual with several grant and conference applications sadistically due in the same week. On the plus side, crisp, even cold weather (at least for Arkansas). Which would have to console me, since I sure didn’t get much from my reading.

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Günter Ohnemus, The Russian Passenger (2002) Trans. John Brownjohn (2004) I’d had this around for ages and took it from the shelf thinking it would be a quick read to ease me into German Literature Month. And it was quick. But it was also terrible. Ostensibly a crime novel about a cabbie who falls into lawlessness when he picks up a woman running away from her Russian Mafiosi husband, whom she has just defrauded of a lot of ill-gained money. I knew this novel was really going to stink when the pair (they never really get together, which is kind of interesting) head to San Francisco, the city that incarnates a certain European idea of American chic that I can’t stand (the way Europeans go bananas for Blue Velvet: ugh). I guess Ohnemus has pretentions to “exceed” the genre, because the last third of the book is about the guy’s rekindled relationship with an American woman he loved as a teenager (he was either on exchange or his family moved to SF for a bit: I forget, and I gave the book away, and who cares anyway). A ho hum thriller, a tedious relationship novel: stay far away.

Lee Child, The Affair (2011) It wasn’t until I was most of the way through that I realized this is sort of a Reacher prequel. Having only read two or three of this vast series so far, I wasn’t the right audience. Underwhelming.

Sarah Manguso, The Two Kinds of Decay (2008) Manguso’s memoir of the seven years she suffered from an autoimmune condition that attacked the myelin around her nerves, rendering her numb, weak, even (fortunately temporarily) paralyzed, is worth reading. I was a fan when it came out, and subsequently taught it a few times, to good effect. (Manguso was an undergrad at Harvard when she fell ill: students relate to her life situation and her subsequent efforts to (over)compensate for the years her younger self thought of as missed—i.e. sleeping around a lot.) A few years ago I even had the privilege of meeting her and having her teach one of my classes (this was around the time of Ongoingness, her book about her diary): she was thoughtful, patient, wonderful with the students. I’ve been teaching introductory composition this semester for the first time in several years, and so I decided to assign it again. Although the students weren’t great at discussing the book (to be fair, it’s a writing course, not a literature course, so they hadn’t had much practice), but judging from their essays they enjoyed it well enough. I, on the other hand, found it less compelling this time. I wonder if Manguso would too. Definitely a young person’s book.

Robert Harris, An Officer and a Spy (2013) Terrific novel about the Dreyfus Affair. The audiobook—wonderfully read by David Rintoul—kept me enthralled for a couple of weeks’ worth of commutes. Many, many, many years ago, in my Grade 11 History IB class, I wrote a term paper on the injustice done to Captain Alfred Dreyfus, falsely accused (in no small part because of his Jewishness) of passing secrets to Germany. So the story wasn’t exactly new to me. But I’d forgotten a ton, and it was fun to hear a name—Major Henry or General Boisdeffre, say—and wonder, Now, is that the really bad guy? (Not spoilt for choice in this business.) Harris’s narrator is George Picquart, the army officer who unwittingly began the slow and costly process of exposing the corruption and mendacity that had led to Alfred Dreyfus’s wrongful conviction and imprisonment. Picquart is an interesting character: we thrill to his persistence in uncovering Dreyfus’s innocence, but in Harris’s careful rendering we aren’t allowed to forget that he was never motivated by strong feelings for Dreyfus (he never liked the man, and was pretty antisemitic himself, though nothing like the main conspirators). That leads to a bitter concluding scene when the two men finally meet in which Picquart proves himself to have been telling the truth all those years in avowing that his search for the truth was prompted by his total commitment to the French army. Harris has found another milieu in which he can pretty much avoid writing female characters altogether, which sucks but given what we see here probably for the best. (Picquart’s love interest isn’t a cliché, she’s actually quite interesting, but she’s definitely underwritten.) The guy’s a genius, though, with suspense and back story. He knows how to pace. I even forgave him the present tense narration (a bête noire). Highly recommended.

Hans Eichner, Kahn & Engelmann (2000) Trans. Jean M. Snook (2009) Actually wrote a post about this! Tl; dr: not perfect, but impressive, with a few nice Yiddish jokes.

Friedrich Gorenstein, Redemption (1967) Trans. Andrew Bromfield (2018) Difficult but fascinating book set in the immediate aftermath of WWII (opens on New Year’s Eve 1945/6) offering a rare description of the Holocaust from the Soviet perspective. (Rare to those of us in the so-called West, but also rare in the former USSR, as the topic was pretty much forbidden (“do not divide the dead”).) This first English translation—from what I can tell, beautifully handled by Andrew Bromfield—is in Columbia UP’s newish Russian Library series. It has a useful but frustratingly narcissistic introduction by Emil Draitser, who cites his own memoir repeatedly, but nonetheless explains pertinent background and details Gorenstein’s life. Best known in the West at any rate for his film scripts (including Tarkovsky’s Solaris), Gorenstein left Russia for Germany in the 1980s.

After a fair bit of mental back and forth, I decided to assign Redemption for my course Literature after Auschwitz next semester. I know already that my students are going to find it hard: it’s very Russian, bits of it remind me of Dostoyevsky, and a lot of it isn’t about the Holocaust, at least not in the ways they’re used to thinking about it. (Which is the point of assigning this text.) But I decided to go for it. Not only is a challenge a good thing, but I’m bringing in a ringer to teach it. My friend, Marat Grinberg, who teaches at Reed and has written at the blog before, will be visiting campus next semester and I know he’ll be able to contextualize the work much better than I can.

Anyway, read this book to learn more about the prevalence of American goods in Russia just after the war, the vicissitudes of denunciation, and, above all, the way in which someone who lived for years next door to someone else could suddenly up and murder them, and the way the Soviet government did and didn’t want to know about it afterwards.

Philip Kerr, A Man Without Breath (2013) I complained a little about the previous installment of the Bernie Gunther series. But here Kerr’s back in form. Dark and absorbing, A Man Without Breath has Bernie sent to investigate the Katyn massacre (the murder of over 20,000 Polish officers and intellectuals in a forest near Smolensk by the NKVDS, the Soviet secret police, in the spring of 1940). The Nazis hope to use the discovery of the giant mass grave as a way to galvanize international outrage and drive a wedge between the Allies. Pretty rich, of course, given the atrocities they themselves were busily pursuing. Sordid events, but the book doesn’t feel that way. Kerr was just brilliant with historical thrillers. I’m starting to feel keenly how few of these books I have left.

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In sum: two good thrillers, and two good novels about the Europe’s terrible 20th century. But a totally underwhelming month, and it is clear to me that the problem is that I read way too many books by men. Will see what I can do about that in December.

October 2019 in Review

A busy month, the semester grinding away, an invited lecture to prepare and deliver, the puppy growing more Clifford-like by the day. Yet also, finally, some relief from the heat. Unseasonably cool, even; some of the best fall weather I can remember in Arkansas. And along with it some decent reading.

b6bcfe645b912607d81ca0905c9cffa8Nechama Tec, Dry Tears: The Story of a Lost Childhood (1982/84) I’ve written before about this memoir of the author’s time in hiding in Poland during WWII. I re-read it because I’ve added it to my Holocaust Lit syllabus. Although I missed Imre Kertesz’s brilliant Fatelessness, which I had to cut in order to fit Dry Tears in, I’m glad I made the switch. It was useful for students to read about a Holocaust victim who avoided the camps (plus it gave them a glimpse into life in the ghettos, although Tec and her family did not spend long there). It’s leading nicely into our current discussion of Agnieszka Holland’s film Europa, Europa. And it’s a great book pure and simple. Tec’s style is low-key, but that just heightens the impact of the psychological abuse she suffered. Pretty sure I’ll keep this memoir in my teaching rotation for a while.

Andrew Taylor, The Fire Court (2018) Second volume in Taylor’s series set in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London, featuring James Marwood, a Whitehall clerk whose father supported Cromwell and is now is disgrace, and Cat Lovett, similarly at odds with the new Court and her family as well, who is beginning to pursue her dream of becoming an architect. The books are nominally crime stories, but more interestingly they are about rebuilding: London itself, and the lives destroyed by both the fire and the Restoration. This one was better than the first, and I look forward to future installments.

Yoko Ogawa, Hotel Iris (1996) Trans. Stephen Snyder (2010) A few days before the awarding of the Nobel Prize, someone on Twitter was speculating that Ogawa might win. This piqued my interest and reminded me I had one of her books on my shelves. At first, I was engrossed in this story of a teenage girl, Mari, who helps her domineering mother manage a down-at-heel hotel in a Japanese seaside resort. One night they have to kick out a man who becomes violent with a woman he’s hired for sex. Mari is unaccountably intrigued by the man, and when they later meet on a ferry to a nearby island—where the man, who is a translator from the Russian, lives in regimented solitude—they begin a relationship that at once frees and imprisons the girl. In ordinary life, the translator is courtly, snobbish, a little nebbish-y. In his sex life, he is violent, abusive, domineering. Mari, it turns out, perhaps to her surprise, it’s hard to tell, loves it.

Hotel Iris made me uncomfortable because, even though narrated from Mari’s point of view, it’s unforthcoming about what Mari might be getting out of the affair. Eventually it’s hard to see it as anything other than abusive. Yet the novel offers no clear signals that it wants us to see things this way. There’s a subplot about a nephew of the translator, rendered mute after a childhood accident: also enigmatic, but in a way that felt clumsy rather than intriguing. In the end the book left a sour taste in my mouth. I could feel quite differently on another reading—it’s clear Ogawa is a writer of interest: she’s brilliant on atmosphere—but I don’t really feel like visiting that world again. Any thoughts, hive mind?

Tayari Jones, An American Marriage (2018) Much fêted, but in the end forgettable novel about an African American couple who seems to have it made—recent graduates from terrific HBCs, they have interesting jobs and a nice life in Atlanta—until one night everything they know is overturned. Roy is falsely accused of raping a woman; he’s convicted and begins a lengthy sentence. Celestial supports him, but her need to forge her own life, and the distance between them (both literal—he’s in jail in Louisiana—and figurative—they can’t imagine each other’s lives) drives them apart. And yet not quite apart. A bond between them persists.

Mass incarceration is one of the issues in the US today—I’ve been heartened by how strongly students now feel about this, many of them rejecting the idea of incarceration tout court, thinking of it (rightly IMO) as just a form of torture: I’m reminded of how strongly students 5-10 years ago felt about LGBTQ issues, especially gay marriage. Jones ably depicts the psychological brutalization that incarceration is deigned to cause. And she makes you feel strongly for all of the major characters, even when their desires conflict. But in the end, I was annoyed by how “literary fiction-y” the book was. This is the kind of book that feels the need to introduce, apropos of nothing, ¾ of the way through, Roy’s childhood hobby: collecting keys. A lyrical aria on Roy’s keys follows, what they look like, where he found them, what he did with them. But keys, get it? He’s in prison. (Celestial’s career—she makes dolls, all of which are uncanny variations of Roy, that become collectors’ items—is similarly freighted, though at least Jones develops it more than the key business.) Give me an essay or non-fiction study of incarceration instead, thanks.

Waubgeshig Rice, Moon of the Crusted Snow (2018) The second Canadian Indigenous post-apocalyptic novel I’ve read in the last year or so. This one isn’t a patch on Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves—the writing clunkier, the characterization blunter, the idea that Indigenous people have resources to survive dark times that Whites don’t less developed—but Rice has a nice hand with suspense, and he offers a pleasingly enigmatic ending My wife read it before me and, as she predicted, once I’d read the first 30 pages or so I had to read the rest with as few breaks as possible. Pretty sure this is a first novel; curious to see how Rice develops as a writer. He’s got potential.

Jane Gardam, Old Filth (2004) Late to this party, but better late than never. A really fine and moving novel, a bit old fashioned, but so well done. You have to write for a lifetime to write a novel like this, I think. I pretty much agree with Daniel Polansky’s take entirely. (His reading log is pure joy. So punchy. Check it out.) Old Filth—as every review will tell you, the name stands for “Failed in London, Try Hong Kong”—is Edward Feathers, a Raj Child (a history totally unknown to me: fascinating and sad) who has, in fact, never failed at anything, except perhaps making emotional connections with others, yet even this judgment, which comes from the ways his childhood failed him, proves to be premature. I was captivated by the book from the beginning, in which an old man locks himself out of his house on a snowy Christmas day and is forced to ask his neighbour, also his oldest enemy, for help.

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Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas (1938) I’ve read Woolf’s extended essay on violence and gender many times: it never gets easier or less thrilling. A difficult book to master—the conceit is that Woolf is responding to a letter from a man asking her how we can best prevent war, but there are letters within the letters, imagined responses to an imagined response, so it’s hard to stay oriented—Three Guineas always seems relevant, especially in its gender and class politics. As always, I was fascinated by the violence of Woolf’s own rhetoric, as if to suggest that violence cannot be expunged even in an investigation into its dangers. But this time I was particularly struck by how cynical (realistic?) my students were about how far their own college is from the ideal (women’s) college Woolf imagines in the second letter. The shift from Millenials to Gen Z has happened.

Max Eisen, By Chance Alone (2016) Even though it won a big recent prize in Canada I had no great expectations for By Chance Alone. Yes, it’s my personal mission to read every Holocaust memoir, but sometimes the ones written many years after the event can be forced or pious. But even though Eisen is by his own admission no stylist, the book is fascinating, of interest to specialist and general readers alike. Eisen’s experience was amazingly wide-ranging: he lived through almost every facet of the Holocaust.

Born in Czechoslovakia in 1929 in a small town near the Hungarian border—in territory which was in fact given to Hungary in 1939, a fact which played a part in his survival—Eisen grew up in a close-knit family under almost idyllic circumstances. But in August 1942, together with his mother and siblings (his father has already been conscripted into forced labour), Eisen was deported to the Ukraine where he miraculously escaped death in the infamous killing fields near Kamenets-Podolsky (their transport was turned back at the last minute). Because after this short series of deportations Hungary dragged its feet in persecuting its Jewish population (at least from the Nazis’ perspective), after that narrow escape Eisen was able to live in relative freedom under Passover 1944, at which time he was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  There another extraordinary turn of events led him to get a (coveted) position in the medical unit at Auschwitz I, where he became the assistant of the remarkable Polish surgeon Tadeusz Orzeszko.

Many Holocaust memoirs speed up at the end, stopping at liberation and alluding only vaguely to the difficulties that came afterward. But Eisen describes at length his experience on one of the notorious Death Marches in the freezing winter of 1945, and his long odyssey through a series of work and displaced persons camps in Austria, his journey home to Slovakia, and the events leading to his emigration to Canada in 1949. Eisen is an appealing character; I was moved by and engrossed in his book. (And it has great maps—something most Holocaust texts lack.)

Jane Gardam, The Man in the Wooden Hat (2009) More about Filth and friends, this time focusing on Filth’s wife, Betty. On Twitter, Teresa suggested that the second and third volumes are good but not quite as good as the first, and I agree. But Gardam has a nice line in revelation, managing to keep surprising us without seeming manipulative.

Jane Gardam, Last Friends (2013) In some ways, the slightest of the trilogy, but Gardam has tricks up her sleeve even here. Here she focuses on Filth’s rival and Betty’s lover Edward Veneering, whose upbringing is, as the publisher rightly says, as Dickensian as his name. But two minor characters from the other volumes end up stealing the show: the trilogy ends with on a ramshackle but joyous note. Gardam knows what she’s about, and I’m curious to try some of her other stuff.

Tara Westover, Educated (2018) I confess that when I saw this on several best-of lists last year my not-so-secret-inner-snob thought, “Not for me.” But a couple of colleagues recommended it, and when I was looking for a new audiobook there it was on the New Shelf. And now I’m so glad I got over myself. By now probably everyone knows the deal: Westover grew up in a survivalist Mormon family in Idaho. Like most of her six siblings, real didn’t go to school. Now way was she going to succumb to the godless socialism of the Government. Westover wasn’t immunized, visit doctors (charlatans all, at best, according to her father), own a birth certificate, or participate in any of the milestones of middle-class American life.

Instead she spent her childhood working in her father’s junkyard and, later, on his crew building barns. Dangerous work. One of the many extraordinary things in this book is its description of bodily harm. Westover herself narrowly escapes falling into a crusher. One of her brothers burns his legs terribly, and her father nearly dies (suffering permanent disfiguration) from burns suffered while preparing a car for the crusher. (He’s removing the gas tank with a welding torch but he’s forgotten to drain it.) Another brother falls off a roof on to his head and later smashes it again in a motorcycle accident. Her mother suffers a traumatic head injury in a car crash. Westover is regularly abused, even tortured by one of her brothers, who bends her wrists until they threaten (and once, actually do) snap. I winced many times while listening to the book. I was struck by Westover’s depiction of the head as the vital part of the human being: the damage to the brain is juxtaposed to the development of the mind.

In some ways the arc of the book is conventional: Westover escapes her upbringing and thrives; she seems to be amazingly good at almost everything she tries, from musical theater to writing a dissertation; after getting into BYU by scoring well on the ACT, she attends Cambridge on a Gates Fellowship (insanely hard to get) and scores a fellowship to Harvard. Yet in other ways, she is permanently damaged by her upbringing: unable to accept help, ungrateful to the people who go out of their way to help her, terrified of being ostracized by her family to the point of being willing to recant what she knows to be true. She is abused in so many ways. Yet she never makes fun of her family. I wasn’t left thinking, Wow, what a bunch of nuts. Westover’s mother, in particular, is a compelling, complicated, even tragic figure, at once highly competent (she is a midwife and herbalist who grows her kitchen business into a million-dollar concern) and terribly deluded about the abuse perpetrated in the family.

As a teacher, I was struck by how relatively little time Westover spends talking about the kind of learning that goes on in and around a classroom. Which suggests how many different ways to learn there are. And Educated was a salutary reminder that we don’t know and shouldn’t take for granted what our students have experienced before they come to us. It would be interesting to compare Educated to Rousseau and Mill’s autobiographies (Westover ends up specializing in social thinkers like Locke, Mill, Smith, and Bentham, so she is undoubtedly referencing those texts in ways I missed).

One scene in particular I’ll want to come back to. (Almost every piece on the book seems to refer to it: I want to think more about why.) In her first semester at college, Westover takes an Art History class. She sees an unfamiliar word in the textbook and raises her hand to ask about it. The room falls silent. The Professor winces and cuttingly says, “Well, thanks for that.” The girl who sat next to her, with whom she has struck a tentative friendship, berates her at the end of class: “Some things you don’t joke about.” No one in the class speaks to her again. At the end of the period she runs to the library and searches for this mysterious word: Holocaust.

Laura Cumming, Five Days Gone: The Mystery of My Mother’s Disappearance as a Child (2019) (a.k.a. On Chapel Sands: My Mother and Other Missing Persons) The US title isn’t a patch on the UK original, a much better reflection of this slow-burning memoir centered on the author’s mother, who was taken from a Lincolnshire beach in 1929 before being returned to her adopted parents five days later, unharmed. (Though there is plenty of harm in this story.) At first, I wasn’t sure how much it was working for me. (Reading it right after Educated was probably unwise: the former so brash, the latter so muted.) But the more I read, the more I appreciated, and by the end, which is amazing, I was well under its spell. Cumming is an art critic (her book on Velasquez awaits me on the library hold shelf) and she folds interpretations of various images into the story of her mother to surprisingly good effect. She’s a brilliant close reader: the book particularly comes alive when she considers family photographs. And she’s just really smart. I’ll close with a few choice quotes:

  • What is my mother’s own true nature, and what is the life she has been dealt, the tide of daily events that knocked her back and forth, that she swims in, or tries to swim in?
  • In the great democracy of family albums we all have photographs upon which, disastrously, nothing is written. Identities drift in a sea of unknowing. We have no idea who they were, these people smiling, frowning, or resisting the camera’s tyrannical hold. Each may be somebody, or nobody, of importance to the past or future story.
  • The lives of even quite recent generations might almost disappear from our understanding if we did not think of their aspirations.
  • Home is where nobody ever says anything by way of explanation about loss, death, or tragedy; where it is possible for George and Veda [her mother’s parents] to explain nothing about anything, for a whole childhood to pass, with all its racing school weeks and Sunday longeurs, its endless summer holidays and cyclical autumns, without anyone ever telling her anything—for the secret of her own origins to be kept entirely from her. The catastrophe is happening and everyone is looking away.

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There you have it, another month gone. Of the books new to me, the Gardams were satisfying, but a trio of memoirs, by Eisen, Westover, and Cumming, carried the day.

 

A Centenary of Levi Facts

As part of my efforts to celebrate Primo Levi’s centenary, I read Ian Thomson’s biography. Primo Levi: A Life (2002) is thorough, chilly, occasionally a little plodding. But it’s full of fascinating material. Here are 105 things that struck with me. (Tried to keep it to a round hundred, but the effort defeated me.) After the list I offer brief thoughts on the biography itself.

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1. Bartolo Mascarello, apparently the maker of the best Barolo in Piedmont, described Levi this way:

Primo was a sort of owl, you know, extremely intelligent and observant—but at the same time apparently quite ordinary. Primo had a kind face, laughing eyes, extraordinary eyes—penetrating and sagacious. He struck me then and much later as un uomo allegro, a happy man. He was very measured but not in an aristocratic way, in a human way.

2. Levi was “raised on a mixture of coddling and bourgeois stiffness”

3. His mother, Ester, was formal, reserved, cautious, prudish, fastidious. Passed on many of these traits to her son. His father, Cesare, trained as engineer, sold machinery, fancied himself man about town, a sophisticated roué. In fact, claims Thomson, he was an autodidact and a bit of a bumpkin.

4. Cesare grudgingly joined Fascist party (like so many Italian Jews, though many were enthusiastic); Primo joined fascist youth movement in 1924, as a five-year-old.

5. Levi was a frail boy who grew up determined to overcome this frailty. As a teenager (and for the rest of his life) he was an avid mountaineer.

6. The Torinese have an expression for the fatigue that comes from a strenuous mountain hike, la grande fatica.

7. In August 1932 Levi observed his Bar Mitzvah—later in life he described his religious education as entirely perfunctory: in the milieu he grew up in, boys could read Hebrew just well enough that their family could be congratulated.

8. Levi was drawn to study of science because other learning (especially of classics) was done by rote. Fascist regime valued humanities; devalued science.

9. Entered university in October 1937. His first professor told the entering students, “Chemistry is a bricks-and-mortar trade and you lot are brick-layers. Don’t expect to discover the meaning of life around here.” Levi would eventually set his sights on just that grandiose aim, but he always appreciated the brick-layer role. Nonetheless he Later wished he had studied physics.

10. In 1938 Levi narrowly avoided being thrown out of university along with most Jewish students as Mussolini’s regime acceded to Hitler’s demands for anti-Semitic Nuremberg-style laws. At the last minute, it was decided that those who were already in their second year of study could complete their education.

11. The assimilated Jews of Turin and throughout Italy were blindsided by new anti-Semitic laws. Couldn’t believe they would really be affected.

12. Like so many young European Jews, Levi was intrigued by Zionism, especially its secularism. Encouraged by his English tutor (many Italian Jews belated prepared to leave the country), he even translated the British White Paper of 1939 (which reduced number of Jewish refugees to Mandate Palestine). But the Levis would never have been persuaded to leave Turin: 95% Italian, 5% Jewish, they said.

13. Indeed, Levi had no interest in the Jewish refugees arriving in Turin and other parts of Italy from Eastern Europe.

14. Levi wrote his dissertation on what would eventually be called quantum chemistry, specifically the idea that asymmetry is central to the make-up of the universe: the carbon atom is asymmetrical.

15. In summer 1941, Levi graduated with first class-honours—only the second such degree in 25 years. He was a Dottore, but as a Jew had no career prospects.

16. In summer 1942 Levi was hired by a Swiss film in Milan. His project: to extract anti-diabetes medication from burdock root. Swiss firms could hire Jews but needed to keep them on the down low. Levi was taken on as Doctor Primo.

17. In Milan Levi ate at canteen across from the main newspaper. There he met reporters and editors who knew the paper’s Russia correspondent Curzio Malaparte (Kaputt, The Skin). All of them, Thomson says, knew what was happening in the East.

18. By 1942, when Levi’s father died, Italian Jews were no longer allowed to place obituaries in the newspaper.

19. At this time, Levi began to be involved with the Resistance: wrote slogans (LONG LIVE PEACE) on Lira notes and smuggled propaganda into provinces from Milan.

20. 1 December 1943, Salò regime decrees Jews of all nationalities be arrested & placed in special camps.

21. Levi joined Partisans in the mountains in the high valleys above Turin. His ragtag group was soon infiltrated by fascist spies; he and the others were arrested on December 13, 1943.

22. The night before the arrest, Levi spent the evening discussing the famous Lippizaner horses of Slovenia, said to be able to spell words with their hooves.

23. Levi spent 39 days in jail before being transferred to a transit camp at Fossoli.

24. Life in Fossoli under its corrupt Commissar Avitabile (he demanded sexual favours from women, for example) was relatively good: communal living, packages allowed in, sharing of food and clothes. “Primo is well,” one of his fellow prisoners wrote to her relatives.

25. A minimum number of prisoners was needed for a deportation train: to meet this quota, Italian officials raided a Jewish old folks home. Numbers in the camp began to swell. On February 22, 1944, Levi and the other prisoners in Fossoli were deported to Auschwitz.

26. Levi later described the assimilated Italian Jews who arrived with him at Auschwitz as “eggs without a shell.”

27. Levi sent as slave labour to a sub-camp of Auschwitz, Monowitz-Buna, run by the chemical company IG Farben. The rubber-producing plants at Buna, which came online in mid-1944, consumed as much electricity as all of Berlin. It gave Levi satisfaction that the plants never produced any useable rubber.

28. Buna was short for Butadiene and Natrium (Latin for sodium).

29. The SS & I. G. Farben sabotaged each other: former wanted to kill prisoners as quickly as possible; latter needed them for labour. SS ordered Jews to bring back 40 bricks every day from Buna to delay construction; Farben allowed Levi to sell blankets he stole from barracks.

30. In Buna Levi met Alberto Dall Volta, also an Italian chemist—Alberto spoke German well, and was a genius at “organizing” (finding ways to steal and otherwise get ahead in the camps). He and Levi became inseparable—eventually dividing their rations. Alberto died in the so-called Death March just before liberation.

31. Levi also met Lorenzo Perrone, a Piedmontese mason, a volunteer worker in the Third Reich (i.e, he was not Jewish), who smuggled an extra soup ration to Levi every day for six months. His help contributed immeasurably to Levi’s survival. As a civilian, Perrone received packages from home and had a reasonable ration. The soup wasn’t pleasant—it “might contain a sparrow’s wing, prune stones, salami rind, even bits of La Stampa newsprint reduced to pulp”—but it gave Levi an extra 500 calories a day. Perrone suffered upon returning home; he became an alcoholic, which Levi understood as a form of suicide. He died in April 1952.

32. Thanks to his training, Levi was conscripted into a work commando in the lab at Buna. It was in the relative warmth of the lab during the winter 44-45 that Levi began to secretly record his experiences. His notes never amounted to 20 lines, and he destroyed them after committing them to memory. But If this is a Man born already in camp.

33. Caught scarlet fever in January 1945. When admitted to Infektionsabteilung (the camp infirmary) on January 11th, Levi weighed 80 lbs.

34. In the weeks before and after liberation, Levi formed a close friendship with Leonardo De Benedetti, a Turinese doctor who was appointed head of surgery by the Russians after they took over the camp. Benedetti: “I’m like a beggar who has lost everything—except life.” They would be lifelong friends, although they never quite recovered from an argument over Israel late in their lives.

35. On June 6, 1945, Levi—at this point halfway through the six months it took him to make the journey home—wrote a letter to his mother and sister. Here is the PS, which Thomson rightly calls extraordinary:

Maybe I’ll come home shoeless, but in compensation for my ragged state I’ve learned German and a bit of Russian and Polish, I also kjow how to get out of many situations without losing my nerve, and how to withstand moral and physical suffering. To economise on the barber I’m sporting a beard. I know how to make a cauliflower or turnip soup, cook potatoes in a hundred different ways (all without seasoning). I know, too, how to assemble, light, and clean stoves. And I’ve been through an incredibly variety of careers: assistant bricklayer, navy, sweep, porter, grave-digger, interpreter, cyclist, tailor, thief, nurse, fence, stone-breaker. I’ve even been a chemist!

36. Levi reached Turin 19 October 1945. Of the 650 Jews on the transport from Fossoli, 24 returned.

37. At the end of 1945, beginning of ‘46 Levi began buttonholing strangers on trams and on the street to tell them of his experiences. He was in the grip of a compulsion.

38. At Rosh Hoshanah 1945, Levi met Lucia Morpurgo, who would become his wife. A coup de foudre, but although their marriage was lifelong, it wasn’t especially happy. A big reason was the fact that they lived with Levi’s mother for their entire marriage.

39. In January 1946 Levi began to work at a paint factory (DUCO) near Turin. Train service was still so poor that Levi roomed there during week. That’s when he began writing If this is a Man.

40. He began with the last chapter, “The Story of Ten Days.” The famous and brilliant “Canto of Ulysses” chapter was composed in a single half-hour lunchbreak!

41. That chapter describes an experience with a fellow prisoner, the Alsatian Jean Samuel. He also survived, and the two men stayed in touch for the rest of their lives. Levi to Samuel: “Whether we like it or not, we are witnesses and we bear the weight of it.”

42. The hardest thing for Levi to deal with in writing If this is a Man was his anger.

43. Lucia was an exacting editor of the manuscript.

44. The book was turned down by Little, Brown in 1946 on recommendation of a well-known American Rabbi.

45. Even earlier, it had been turned down by Einaudi, the most prestigious Italian publisher. A huge blow to Levi. The novelist Natalia Ginzburg, a reader at the publisher, liked it but thought it not right for their list. Rejected by 5 other Italian publishers too.

46. Levi’s classical style was paradoxically a reminder of Fascist times.

47. Franco Antonicelli, a former leader of the Resistance, agreed to publish the manuscript with his (valiant but small) press. The working title was In the Abyss. Then Drowned and Saved. Antonicelli decided on the final title.

48. Levi was asked to testify at the trial of Rudolf Höss, the infamous commandant of Auschwitz, but couldn’t get the time off work.

49. Levi married Lucia Morpurgo 8 September 1947; on 11 October If this is a Man was published.

50. Levi frustrated by being labelled as a witness. Thought of himself as writer first, witness second.

51. This now canonical book was indifferently reviewed (except by the writer Italo Calvino). Sold less than 1500 copies.

52. The Levis’ daughter, Lisa Lorenza, born 31 October 1948; their son, Renzo Caesare, born 2 July 1957.

53. SIVA (the paint and varnish company Levi moved to in the late 1940s and spent the rest of his career at) moved to new head office about 20 miles from Turin. Levi would choose the wines for the canteen. Employees enjoyed a 2-hour break, complete with, depending on season, snowball fights and bicycles rides.

54. Levi received a reparation payment from I. G. Farben worth about $12 000 today.

55. In 1955 Einaudi agreed to republish If this is a Man but the press’s financial problems meant it wouldn’t appear until 1958. In meantime, Levi revised and added a new chapter (“Initiation”). He also changed the opening sentence, added the section on the WWI vet he names Steinlauf. Steinlauf was modelled on a man named Eugenio Gluecksmann, but also, apparently, on Otto Frank, who Levi had seen at Auschwitz and then met later in Turin (1952 or 53). He also added material on Alberto, but misrepresented him, saying, for example, that he couldn’t speak German.

56. Einaudi’s first printing sold out; Levi began to become a spokesman of the Holocaust.

57. Met Stuart Woolf, who would translate If this is a Man into English. Levi worked closely with him. One day, Woolf gave Levi Tolkien to read. He hated it, returning it the next day.

58. Samuel Fischer bought German rights, with Heinz Riedt as translator: remarkable man who had grown up in Italy where his father was consul in Palermo, got himself exempted from Wehrmacht, fought with partisans in Padua. His father-in-law imprisoned in Auschwitz as a political prisoner. “Perfect collaboration” between two.

59. US reviews middling; UK better.Germany different: 20,000 sold immediately. Levi spoke to Germany’s young.

60. Began writing The Truce in 1961—important moment in his writing career because it was the first time Levi consciously turned his experience into literature. Published in 1963, it was an immediate success in Italy—but more with ordinary readers than critics. Where If This is a Man had not been neo-realist enough in 1947, The Truce in 1963 was criticized as too neo-realist.

61. At the end of 1963 Levi suffered his first serious depression. He feared he had said all he had to say about his experiences and that he was finished as a writer. This fear reappeared regularly for the rest of his life.

62. In April 1965 Levi returned to Auschwitz for 20th anniversary of the end of the war. Felt nothing at Auschwitz. Saw Birkenau for the first time (!). Amazingly, the plant at Buna was still operational.

63. Levi published two collections of science fiction. Neither was a success. Later he would virtually disown them.

64. Levi wouldn’t tolerate anyone who made fun of others, even children playing together: “The moment the defenceless are derided is the moment Nazism is born.”

65. In late 1966, entered into what would become sixteen-year correspondence with Hety Schmidt-Maas, a German who came from an exemplary anti-Nazi family. As a child, she had refused to join the League of German Women (v unusual). Her ex-husband had been a chemist for I. G. Farben. Schmidt-Maas was on a one-woman mission to understand Germany’s recent past. Levi asked Hety if she had any contact information for the German chemists he had worked under at Auschwitz. Most were dead or had disappeared. But Ferdinand Meyer, who had treated Levi as an equal more than anyone else, was still alive—she offered to put them in touch. Meyer wrote to Levi in 1967. Levi was wary, especially of Meyer’s platitudes of working through past.

66. Meyer (wrongly) saw in If this is a Man the spirit of forgiveness. (Surprisingly, the survivor and philosopher Jean Amery also saw this trait in Levi.)

67. Levi decided not to meet Meyer. He didn’t want the responsibility of forgiving him: not his place. The survivor and historian Hermann Langbein called Meyer a “spineless grey creature.”

68. Later in 1967 went to visit Hety. Successful visit. She called Meyer while Levi was there; the two men spoke by phone. It is not known what they said. Levi confessed to Hety his great fear of seeing Meyer again. Meyer died in December 1967. Thomson’s verdict: “Meyer was less infamous than inadequate.”

69. In 1968 Levi made his only trip to Israel. Not a success. Levi couldn’t square Israel with his preference for the diaspora. Levi was only published in Hebrew in 1988, after his death.

70. In late 1971 Levi wrote to Hety about his depression:

We are not masters of our mood, of our reactions, of our very personality: a slight disturbance in one’s hormonic [sic] balance, and you are turned into somebody else; and you are liable to revert to this obnoxious state again and again, and each time you will stubbornly be persuaded that this is your ral and final condition, that you will have no future…

71. Neither of his children wanted to hear of his past experiences. Thomson concludes Levi had neighbourly but not affectionate relationships with them.

72. In early 1973 Levi began writing The Periodic Table.

73. This was a time of serious neo-fascist violence in Turin: gangs prowled the streets with knuckledusters. Later in the decade, businessmen would take tourniquets with them when going to work in case of being shot.

74. Levi retired from SIVA on December 1, 1974. Had long wanted to do so. Not a good manager, the responsibility tormented him. He felt like a Kapo. At his retirement party, the staff urged him to make a speech. He said, in full: “I believe I have always tried not to get on anyone’s nerves.”

75. Both he and Lucia’s mothers were in poor health. Levi walked his mother around the block twice a day. The only time in their life they were separated for any length of time was the 22 months he was deported.

76. The Periodic Table published in 1975—big hit, much feted, Levi by now a literary legend in Italy. The book expresses the tension between the writer he was becoming and the writer he was taken to be (invention v documentation).

77. Hety visited the notorious Nazi Albert Speer in prison and gave him If this is a Man. Speer didn’t read it, saying he didn’t want to “disturb” Levi by reading it (?!?!)

78. In the late 70s, Levi was indicted on two counts of ‘personal injury’ for causing involuntary injury to workers at the SIVO plant. In the end, no evidence was found and he never stood trial. But the incident shook Levi. The investigating magistrate did find Levi to have been careless of others’ safety—perhaps, Thomson speculates, because of his Auschwitz experience.

79. After retiring, Levi took German lessons diligently for several years at Turin’s Goethe Institut: enjoyed being “their oldest student.”

80. Levi’s literary taste was conservative: found Proust boring, Beckett “annoys me terribly.”

81. In 1979 Levi began to research what would become If Not Now, When. Thomson thinks it a bad book, embarrassing even. (Crude rhetoric, schematic, mouthpieces, over-researched: that was the US critical consensus too.) Began writing in October 1980—wrote the novel quickly in what he called eleven blissful months.

82. On 7 November 1980, the remains of the Holy Virgin St Lucy stolen in Levi’s name from a church in Venice. The thieves left an anonymous ransom note: “St Lucy will be returned on condition that a page of If this is a Man be read each day in all secondary schools and lycèes in the Veneto area.” A local criminal eventually claimed responsibility.

83. Levi thought the natural world was inimical to language, not a human phenomenon like Auschwitz.

84. In 1982 Levi accepted a commission to translate The Trial. He didn’t like the book—“revived his disquiet about Jews and Judaism.”

85. Levi met regularly with students who were writing about him. He was very patient. One student telephoned him about his school essay on If this is a Man, which he hadn’t read: “I promise to read all your books soon,” he told the bemused Levi. (See under: chutzpah)

86. Visited Auschwitz again in summer 1981. Flinched at the sound of a passing freight train.

87. Levi: “Sometimes I wonder if I belong to the Jewish people at all.”

88. The US had been largely uninterested in Levi. If Not Now, When published only reluctantly. The Periodic Table had been published only when Saul Bellow offered a rave blurb. But when Levi met Bellow on his US tour in 1985 Bellow snubbed him.

89. Levi met Elie Wiesel in summer 1981. He had no fondness for Wiesel. The latter had claimed to have had a friendship with Levi in Buna. Levi denied this, saying he had no memory of him.

90. In the fall of 1981, the doctor and survivor Leonardo de Benedetti Nardo died. Levi, as he put it, “became a lonely survivor.” De Benedetti’s maid claimed she never saw Levi smile again.

91. In summer 1984 Levi bought a personal computer. Became a “Mac bore”—convinced the American translator of Italian William Weaver to buy one. Talked about it all the time.

92. The Periodic Table published in the US in the fall of 1984. Finally, Levi received praise and recognition in the US, and he accepted his publisher’s request for a US tour the following year. In America, Levi was always a survivor first and a writer second. Indiana UP had accepted Periodic Table in 1981 but on the condition that only the Holocaust parts be published. (Levi declined.)

93. Einaudi had shorthand for his two Levi writers, Primo and Carlo: “Levi Man’ and “Levi Christ” (Carlo Levi’s most famous book is Christ Stopped at Eboli.)

94. The US trip was a mixed success at best. When Levi met Nahum Glatzer, the publisher of Schocken Books, he left his prosciutto and melon untouched; he didn’t want to offend the observant Glatzer. Thomson claims Levi was puzzled by how much Americans emphasized his Jewishness, complaining that they had “pinned a Star of David” on him. Yet he was very glad to have the US market open to him; his publishers thought he would be back within a year.

95. At the end of June 1985, Esther Levi turned 90. Levi felt increasingly imprisoned by her. He even likened her to “the drowned” of his famous Holocaust metaphor.

96. Jean Samuel visited in the fall and found his friend in very low spirits. In particular, Levi worried about the rise of revisionism; feared all his writing would one day fall on deaf ears.

97. Writing to an Englishwoman who thought she had recognized her uncle in The Periodic Table (it turns out she was right), Levi said “I preserve absurdly precise memories of that period.”

98. In response to an interviewer who asked if he ever dreamed of Auschwitz, Levi told of a dream he occasionally had. He was being driven back into the camp, but protested: “Gentlemen, I have already been here. It is not my turn.”

99. In April 1986 Levi met Philip Roth in London. The two men got on very well: “With some people you just unlock—and Levi was one of them,” Roth later said. In the fall, Roth and his then-wife Claire Bloom visited the Levis in Turin. Roth insisted Levi take him to the paint factory. They shared an emotional farewell: both men cried. Levi: “I don’t know which of us is the older brother, and which is the younger brother.”

100. In an interview, Levi rejected the interviewer’s claim that he wrote from the experience of an underdog:

Levi: I was never an underdog.

Interviewer: But you were in Auschwitz…

Levi: The ones below me were the underdogs. I kept my human abilities. I never sank that far. Underdogs lose the capacity to speak, to articulate. An underdog would never be likely to write anything.

101. Levi’s essay collection The Drowned and the Saved was published in June 1986. Levi planned to write a sequel investigating the German industries involved in the camps. Would that this had come to fruition.

102. Levi’s “unidentified antagonist” in his last book was Bruno Vaari, survivor of Mauthausen, who believed ex-deportees survived thanks to their virtue.

103. Levi fell into a particularly dark depression in the winter of 1987. In February he wrote to a friend: “I know that this phase will pass, just as others have done, but I’m aware of this only at the rational level; my overriding impression is that it will last for ever and that I will never find an exit out.”

104. On the morning of Saturday, April 11, 1987, Levi fell from the landing of the stairwell in front of his third (in the US, fourth) floor apartment. He died immeditely. Ever since, people have debated whether he jumped or fell. (He was on medication that made him dizzy.) Thomson plumps for suicide. To my mind, it doesn’t matter. What is more instructive is our desire to want to make sense of the event. At any rate, news spread quickly in Turin and respectful crowds gathered in front of the building.

105. Levi had said he wanted words Homer uses to describe Odysseus, pollà plankté, much erring, driven to wander far and wide, as his epigraph.

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I don’t read biographies much, so it’s hard to say how good this one. My sense is it’s ok. Thomson is a pretty pedestrian writer, which surprised me, as I read a fabulous essay about his father’s death in the TLS a couple of years ago. The last third of the book feels like a grim, plodding forced march, but, then, Levi’s last years were not easy.

Thomson doesn’t seem to know much about Jewishness. And he has the attitudes of the time regarding depression and mental health. (I gather he did most of the research in the 1990s). He’s not exactly judgmental, but says, for example, that Levi “abandoned himself to black moods.” Just a little dubious, and unsympathetic.

He’ll also occasionally say something silly, as when he writes, apparently with a straitght face, that in Los Angeles Levi “saw no evidence of the murderous gunplay that defines the City of Angels.”

But Thomson, who knew Levi and interviewed him, knows Italian well, and seems very sound on the politics of the 30s and 40s as well as the terror of the Years of Lead in the 1970s. Most importantly, I learned a lot about Levi from this book, which is the point. It reaffirmed by love of him, but also usefully tempered it. Levi wasn’t a saint, and he didn’t want to be one. He was endlessly frustrated at being known as a witness first and a writer second. But witnessing matters. And he can rest assured that he is both a great witness and a great writer.