“The Bully, Destiny”: Still More of The Old Wives’ Tale

After an unexpected and busy vacation across parts of the American West in which reading time was in short supply I returned home to The Old Wives’ Tale. Took me a minute to get my groove back, but I eventually found myself unable to stop and read straight through to the end. I promise not to reference the final chapters so that Rohan can have her say. (I will note, though, that I might have enjoyed writing about the book more if we’d finished it first, but I also realize I wouldn’t have paid attention to the earlier parts as much had we done so.) Anyway, I have a long section to cover, and I’ll just scrape the surface, so please add to the conversation in the comments.

Jean Béraud, Paris Kiosk, ca. 1880 – 1884

As I read about Sophia’s life after Gerald—how good that she has a life after Gerald, and what an interesting one it is!—I found myself struck by one passage in particular. Not an exciting one: no hoarding of food stuffs, no balloon rides to escape a besieged city, no business or sexual propositions, nothing like that. But to me it got at a central concern. It comes after Sophia—now proprietress and landlady of a successful boarding-house catering to English tourists in Paris, known to her guests as Mrs. Frensham, after the previous owner—has been approached by Matthew Peel-Swynnerton, scion of a Five Towns family and friend to Sophia’s nephew, Cyril Povey. Sophia suspects that Matthew has recognized her as the woman who ran away from Bursley thirty years ago. In the time it takes for each to twig to the other, the routines of years are overturned. Sophia retires to bed early, leaving her second-in-command to deal with the thousand details that must be managed for an establishment like Frensham’s to keep ticking along. Alone in her room, Sophia wonders if the elegant young man could really be acquainted with her family. He’s too young to know her sister’s husband. More to the point, isn’t he far too wealthy, far too important, far too socially-prestigious to have anything to do with the likes of the Poveys? Even the illness of her beloved poodle, Fossette (the novel’s greatest character) takes second place to the thoughts whirling through her head:

Moreover – a detail of which she had at first unaccountably failed to mark the significance – this Peel-Swynnerton was a friend of the Mr. Povey as to whom he had inquired … In that case it could not be the same Povey. Impossible that the Peels should be on terms of friendship with Samuel Povey or his connexions! But supposing after all they were! Supposing something utterly unanticipated and revolutionary had happened in the Five Towns!

Copying this passage now I notice the awkward syntax of the first sentence—mimicking, perhaps, Sophia’s flustered state. I realize too how typical it is that I would seize on a moment that references significance, and the failure of a first reading: fits the struggle I’ve been having to know what matters most in this book, what kind of significance it aims at. But what snagged me at the time, and what, reading on, I returned to again and again as a way to make sense of the novel’s concerns, was the word “revolutionary.” My first posts were preoccupied by the novel’s unstable tone, so I won’t belabor that topic here, but much hinges on how ironic we take that adjective to be.

The word choice could be a sign of Sophia’s irreducible Baines-ness, her provincialism, her lifelong alignment with the values of her childhood. When she returns to Staffordshire she herself broods over these concepts: both consciously kicking against the small-mindedness of a world that seems to her unchanged, and unconsciously manifesting similar traits by having lived in a small and unchanging Paris that has nothing to do with the elegance or cultural avant-gardism that intrigues someone like Doctor Stirling, whose love of Zola, for example, is not reciprocated by the woman who lived the events of his novels without really noticing them. On this reading, “revolutionary” would have to be ironic, the narrator poking fun at Sophia’s misguided sense of what counts as radical or extraordinary. We’d have to conclude that a social order in which Peels consort with Poveys would be a change, yes, but hardly a revolution.

And yet—for Peels to know Poveys is a big deal, even if the circumstance happened gradually, undramatically, such that one could never point to a single moment and say “then, that’s when this happened.” To demonstrate that change is inexorable—evolution in the strictly Darwinian sense, with no telos, no moral judgment: neither progress nor regression—becomes increasingly important to the novel as it comes to its conclusion. All of which is to say that I think we should take “revolutionary” straight: heartfelt on Sophia’s part and endorsed by the narrator.

As I thought more about it, I became convinced the word mattered a whole lot. The big question posed by Bennett in this novel is nothing less than: What is the meaning of revolution? A subset of related questions follows: Could the idea of a gradual revolution be anything other than an oxymoron? Is revolution a concept worth hanging on to, or should we discard it in favor of something else, perhaps simply change? What, in the end, changes in our lives? How much do we remain the people we always were? How much do we reinvent ourselves? How much do we slide into lives that our younger selves could never have imagined? It seems to me now that when Sophia, in that crucial encounter I wrote about earlier, drawing on the values of her upbringing and inflecting them with her own personality, first rejected and then accepted Gerald at the site of the old mine and the new railway (these standing as examples, and critiques, of progress), the novel was already staging a scene by which we could begin to ask such questions.

I snagged on the reference to revolution because I was surprised by the oblique, even casual way Bennett dealt with the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune. I had guessed these would feature as prominently as the execution of the criminal that Rohan wrote about last time. But I see now that it makes sense that this relatively minor event would be of larger importance to this novel than the big ones of public history. The execution matters less for questions of justice and more for Gerald’s rather pathetic response, for the final wedge it drives between him and Sophia, for her realization that no one will take care of her but herself. Thus the war with Prussia and the subsequent insurrection appear as the stuff of rumours, fantasies, and speculation—the latter in two senses of the term, since Sophia begins making her fortune by scrounging the shops in order to buy low and sell high. I wouldn’t say the novel is dismissive of these events—the material struggle, pain, and loss is real—but it’s convinced that for most people (or at least for Sophia and the world she operates in) their effects are muffled, reduced to the pressing but local questions of where to sleep and what to eat. At times, Bennett employs an almost Flaubertian irony in the bathos by which History appears. Sophia notes the end of the Second Empire, for example, only in the “mechanical” observation that it is a lot easier for women to sit in a carriage now that crinolines have gone out of fashion.

But Bennett doesn’t just give us the “ordinary person’s” perspective on momentous events. He gives us Sophia’s. Which is governed by her upbringing and the Baines values that she never shakes, even as she seems to build a life so different from anything her family can understand. She, unlike her husband or like Chirac when he clings to the false rumour that the French have scored a decisive victory over Pussian forces, has no truck with the idea of sudden reversals, coups de théâtre that reverse a bad situation (whether in politics or in household finances). For Sophia, such thinking could only be a fantasy (which contributes to my sense that the book is imagining alternate ideas of revolution). Sophia doesn’t flee Paris when the Prussians encircle the city—not from her love for her adopted home but from beliefs that come straight from Staffordshire:

She ardently wished to be independent, to utilize on her own behalf the gifts of organization, foresight, common sense, and tenacity which she knew she possessed and which had lain idle. And she hated the idea of flight.

Ironic, that last line, given her absconding with Gerald, but the point of this section of the novel is that she never flew from anything, really. She is happy during the siege because “she had a purpose in life and was depending upon herself.” That self-reliance, which kicks into overdrive after her collapse and illness—and it’s fascinating how much she struggles to recognize what she owes to the women who saved her, whose life choices she cannot respect and whom she ultimately displaces—is her greatest strength. She names it “pride”, and it is the most noted continuity with her sister, her upbringing, and the whole world of the first part of the novel. Yet it is also a weakness, in that it keeps her from life, prevents her from getting entangled with others, which is often to the good (hard to see what would be gained from agreeing to the advances of men like Niepce or Carlier, and life with Chirac might well have been a less awful but still subordinating version of life with Gerald) but ultimately makes her somewhat brittle and self-satisfied. I need to hold my tongue and wait until Rohan writes about the very end before commenting more on how we’re asked to evaluate Sophia, when all is said and done, but confining myself to what we’ve read so far, I think the New Year’s scene with Chirac was brilliantly handled, delicately describing the pleasant fug of sensual pleasure to which Sophia might have succumbed/given herself, and her ultimate inability to do so. The right thing to do, but still a missed opportunity, a complication we are more permitted to see than Sophia is herself. (So interesting, just as an aside, how few good/decent men there are in this book. Maybe only Povey? What do you all think?)

Rejecting Chirac allows Sophia to accept a new career. But running a pension, especially one as big as Frensham’s, means a life of endless labour. Like the domestic labour that it transposes to the business realm, the work of organizing the cleaning and cooking and managing of dozens of tourists involves constant running just to stay still. (Teaching, the career Sophia was set on and regrets the loss of, constitutes a similar treadmill, though it offers more gratification in the sense that teachers see pupils develop and move on to other things.) The end result of all the changes in Sophia’s life—escaping Gerald via her interregnum as a landlady to owning Frenshams—is an odd kind of stasis. Which brings me again to the idea of change, and what it means in this novel. I don’t want to foreclose the idea of revolution, but I think Bennett is pointing to an idiosyncratic, gradual meaning of the term, in which the gradual abrasions of daily life lead to changes we can see, let alone understand, only in retrospect. Could one reason Woolf had it out for him was that, like her modernist fellows, she believed in the more conventional sense of revolution: rupture, trauma, human nature changing on or about a certain date?

I’ll end with a point of continuity in the novel that surprised me—and that might also speak to my uncertainty of what change means or does in this novel. Elephants! That first one who comes to an untimely end at the Fair was not just a bizarre one-off. The landlord of the restaurant where Chirac and Sophia have their New Year’s feast proudly tells them of a friend, a butcher, “who has bought the three elephants of the Jardin des Planes for twenty-seven thousand francs.” (Two really were killed for their meat.) Seventy pages later, Sophia, returned to England and reunited with Constance, looks out the train window and is surprised to see “two camels and an elephant in a field close to the line,” which her sister tells her is the central depot of Barnum’s circus, a source of civic pride because the location, so close to Bursley, is in the very middle of England (and “there can be only one middle”). It is fanciful, but I think elephants will return one more time, a mere echo, to be sure, but a striking one, late in the novel (this is the only forward glance I’ll allow myself) when a shock to Sophia is described as a “crude, spectacular shame… that the gallant creature should be so maltreated by the bully, destiny.” Sounds to me like all the poor elephants in this novel. And that resonant phrase, “the bully, destiny,” returns us to the question of change. Will the end of the novel vitiate the very possibility? Or will it ask us to redefine what we mean by it? Stay tuned for the moving conclusion of The Old Wives’ Tale

Lost Causes: More The Old Wives’ Tale

Here we are, halfway through The Old Wives’ Tale and I still have no idea what to make of this book, or even what kind of a book it is.

My very reading experience is odd. I seldom find myself gripped by any particular moment, but I’m delighted by how often the book surprises me. Like Rohan who wrote similarly in a comment to her last post, I expected neither Daniel’s significance nor Cyril’s development into an aesthete. Is “development” the right word? Time and again, the novel ignores or downplays process, jumping ahead or passing by in a single sentence events that other novels might linger over. Consider, for example, how offhandedly Mrs. Baines is dispatched in comparison to the heartrending death of Gertrude Morel, also of cancer, in Sons and Lovers. (The books, published only two years apart, depict a similar Edwardian world, poised between the rural and the industrial.) For a novel so interested in observing social and technological change (the coming railways, the rise of advertising, the shifts in fashion which, for example, deprive Constance of a waist), The Old Wives’ Tale doesn’t seem to think of character or personality as particularly developmental.

Take the example of Cyril. Perhaps retrospectively we can see the seeds of Cyril’s aestheticism in his infant interest (or, rather, the narrator’s interest in his interest) in perception. But I’m unconvinced Cyril’s current interests will be anything more than a fad, and I don’t know how to reconcile his dandyism with his placid robustness. (Think of his decidedly non-finicky interest in food.) Maybe the relationship between the boy’s past and present is meant to be ironic. Hard to say because we aren’t given much help in figuring out how the book feels about present-day Cyril. (Is Dandy Cyril a better Cyril? Worse? Neither?) Maybe Cyril is going to become one of England’s great artists. Or maybe he will lose interest in art and find a different path. Or maybe he won’t even be in the novel anymore. Who knows? That said, I suspect he will not become an artist-hero like Lawrence’s Paul Morel. I suppose what I’m grappling with is that The Old Wives’ Tale has elements of the Bildungsroman (whether its heroes are the sisters or the child or someone else) without actually seeming to be one.

There is, however, at least one topic towards which novel’s attitude is clearer: the relationship between generations. In my previous post I noted the surprisingly violent antagonism in the scenes between Mrs. Baines and her young daughters. By the time we reach Constance and Cyril, things have calmed down a bit, at least on Cyril’s side. But that might just be because we don’t often get inside his head. It’s true that Sophia was much more violent than Constance, who at first seems governed by a fitting placidity. But Constance too coolly struck a blow against her mother when she accepted Povey, and she certainly feels keenly the pain—it’s presented as a kind of anguish—of her child’s moving away and perhaps beyond her. What she doesn’t seem to see—but which we can, noting the patterns Bennett gives us, especially his way of structuring chapters and sections so that they end with dramatic changes that are seldom described in detail—is a pattern. What she did to her mother, her son is doing to her. I think the point is that such antagonism (the callousness of youth) is to be expected, as is the surprise when the former child now adult gets what they once dished out, as is the reality of the pain that accompanies it at least from the parent’s perspective. I was moved by the description of Constance returning home from seeing Cyril off to London, full of sorrow but perhaps also the lugubrious satisfaction of being able to declare one’s self useless, and looking into the boy’s room:

And through the desolating atmosphere of reaction after a terrific crisis, she marched directly upstairs, entered his plundered room, and beheld the disorder of the bed in which he had slept.

Typical Cyril, leaving the bed unmade on his last day at home. A bit of a thrown gauntlet, too. What is more immoral in the Baines/Povey household than “disorder”? What gets me most here, though, is that adjective “plundered,” which encapsulates her desolation. Cyril has stolen before, let’s not forget. Here’s he’s literally and metaphorically taken what he needs and lit out for the big city.

Yet change (a child leaving home, say) isn’t development, even if it sometimes is regular or predictable. So it’s still unclear to me where Bennett is going with this notion. Even when he offers us clear patterns and repetitions he’s hard to read. Take the juxtaposition of the chapters “Crime” and “Another Crime.” A joke, right? Surely Cyril’s petty theft isn’t comparable to Daniel’s murder. But they are similar in having a strong, though not identical, effect on Povey. Each challenges Povey’s complacent world-view, though in the first case he is able to smooth over the disorder, able through his will-power and action to restore the world to its satisfactory functioning, which he cannot do in the second.

The Daniel plot-line is fascinating. A whole Zola novel hiding in plain sight. I’m imagining how luridly and/or excitingly Daniel’s story could be told. Bennett instead chooses indirection, keeping the focus on Povey. What matters is how Samuel responds, not what Daniel feels. (Is it remorse? Resignation? Anger? I wanted to know! What do you think? Why doesn’t Bennett tell us? That is, how does his decision shape the novel we have? Does the novel’s utter indifference to the murdered woman–slatternly, disgraceful, and that’s the end of it–affect how we understand how it portrays Constance and Sophia?) Povey’s belief that the good people who make up the moral majority of the Five Towns can do no wrong is shattered when his respected and respectable cousin commits murder. The challenge is especially severe because it comes from the state. (It will be interesting to compare—as I suspect we will be asked to—how the French handle violent transgressions.) I had to laugh in appreciation of Bennett’s skill in describing how easily citizens will fall in line with the power of the law, even if it means contradicting themselves:

They [Samuel and others who believed in Daniel’s innocence] talked as if they had always foreseen [a guilty verdict], directly contradicting all that they had said on only the previous day. Without any sense of inconsistency or shame, they took up an absolutely new position. The structure of blind faith had once again crumbled at the assault of realities, and unhealthy, un-English truths, the statement of which would have meant ostracism twenty-four hours earlier, became suddenly the platitudes of the Square and the market-place.

Povey’s death, too clearly foreshadowed to stand as another instance of the unpredictability of human mortality (like, say, Aunt Hester or Mrs. Baines’s deaths), feels to me like a commentary on the man’s inability to reconcile the contradiction between his beliefs—Daniel did a bad thing, but he was provoked; he should be punished, but not to the fullest extent of the law—and the conclusions the authorities of the nation he also believes in come to. In this sense, Povey seems to die from being disabused of long-held beliefs. Is that tragic? Farcical? Again, I can’t say, partly of course because there’s still 300 pages to go, but partly because the novel’s take on events continues to be hard to interpret. I am all the more puzzled because it is at this moment that an unsuspected and hitherto unseen first-person voice appears:

A casual death, scarce noticed in the reaction after the great febrile demonstration! Besides, Samuel Povey never could impose himself on the burgesses. He lacked individuality. He was little. I have often laughed at Samuel Povey. But I liked and respected him. He was a very honest man. I have always been glad to think that, at the end of his life, destiny took hold of him and displayed, to the observant, the vein of greatness which runs through every soul without exception. He embraced a cause, lost it, and died of it.

If destiny takes hold of everyone, though presumably never quite the same way twice, then this is a backhanded appreciation of Povey, who is great only in the way that everyone is. (Although maybe no greater appreciation can be imagined?) I’m not so sure the narrator has done laughing at Samuel Povey. And who is this I? Someone like Bennett? If so, he would here appear in the guise of as one who can only record, never invent, the fates of the figures who appear in the text. Or is the I someone like us, as readers? I should say me, I suppose. I don’t know about you, but I felt a twinge of guilt as I recognized myself in that description: I have often laughed at Samuel Povey. But I do like him, yes, even, in his way, respect him. Maybe I should stop laughing. Maybe I should admire his fatal embrace of a lost cause. But I don’t, quite. I don’t trust the text not to be fooling me here, too…

PS: At some point we have to talk about old wives’ tales. Are there any in the book? Why is it called that?

“The Ridiculous Child”: Continuing The Old Wives’ Tale

Having so to speak thwarted—through no effort of her own since she had no knowledge of it—her mother’s plan to keep her away from Gerard Scales, a bounder if I ever saw one, Sophia Baines follows a plan of her own, as much to deceive herself as anyone else. She will visit her good friend Miss Chetwynd, a teacher who has seen promise in the young woman and offered her a different life, one she has rejected but, we are led to believe, from having read other novels and the not-so-subtle hints dropped in this one, will live to regret not taking.

She will arrive at Miss Chetwynd’s shortly after four, soon after school lets out, which, admittedly, is the time when her friend invariably takes a walk. Which means that when she calls she will be told Miss Chetwynd is not at home. She will be surprised by this mistake, having come all this way for naught. Perhaps she will walk a little more, on her own, already a daring thing to do. (Is it Miss Chetwynd’s age that allows her such freedom?) Sophia might take a right turn here, in fact she will, for she is not wandering, she has a destination, the one doubtless indicated in the note Scales passed to her in the shop that morning. Her heart is beating fast—she is having a “terrific adventure.” She tells herself she is “a wicked girl” and “a fool,” but the words don’t mean anything, or if they do they are no match for her actions. We are told she is motivated in part by vanity at Scales’s interest in her. But also by “an immense, naïve curiosity.” She is doing something nothing in her background has prepared her for or would ever license, and she wants to know what it feels like.

My questions about this second section of The Old Wives’ Tale are exemplified by that phrase “immense, naïve curiosity.” Is it earnest or ironic? What’s most interested me about the novel so far is its narrative voice. The secret meeting between Sophia and Scales—breathlessly called in the chapter title “escapade,” with neither definite nor indefinite article to qualify it—is a fine place to consider that voice. Besides, it’s such a vivid, exciting, and strange scene.

A few things caught my eye. First, the detail of the marl on Scales’s shoes, a hint that he is soiled in some way, though if so presumably she is too, since the clay-lime mixture gets on her shoes as well, eventually catching her out, but more interesting to me as an example of the way the oddest details sear themselves into our attention at heightened moments. Second, the description of the railway construction as violent both to the earth and the social order (the railway cutting is “a raw gash,” the busy workers confusingly both “like flies in a great wound”—I was obscurely reminded of the elephant corpse—and like “dangerous beasts of prey” who are scandalous, unspeakable, and virile (open shirts “revealing hairy chests”): as such the navies both disgust and entice Sophia and Scales. Third, the triangulation of desire through the combination of sex and class: the initial awkwardness between the soon-to-be couple disappears when the two literally look down on the workers and consider their own superior manners, although something about the men must be arousing, for even though Bennett tells us “No doubt they both thought how inconvenient it was that railways could not be brought into existence without the aid of such revolting and swinish animals” this peculiar description (it incites doubt rather than quelling it) is accompanied by “a united blush,” which I read less as embarrassment than excitement. And finally there’s the business with the old pit-shaft, which Scales, perhaps out of boyish shyness or, more likely, brute carelessness, must look down, even though Sophia really doesn’t want him to. (To be fair to him, he expresses “awe” at the presence of this old, terrible thing. Will future generations look on the railway line, perhaps itself one day abandoned, similarly?) Sophia’s vision of miners’ ghosts trapped underground amid “the secret terrors of the earth” surprised me. Where does this horror come from? It’s not that I didn’t believe it; it’s that I found it so intriguing. Her shrieks—which are either only in her mind, or else of no consequence to Scales: he doesn’t seem to hear them, only notices her transformed face when he comes down the wall around the shaft—indicate fear as intense and jarring as the language describing the navies. This might be an expression of Sophia’s guilt and fear at keeping the rendezvous, but the moment also felt somehow atavistic. (Just like the elephant was excessive in some fascinating way.) Not sure what I have in mind, exactly, but if someone falls into a pit or something later in this novel, I won’t be surprised.

The mismatch between how the abandoned mine—and perhaps the whole encounter—makes each of them feel leads to disagreement. At first, as Sophia stormed away, I thrilled to the possibility that she might leave Scales for good, but of course it’s not to be. (That wouldn’t happen even in Lawrence.) Sophia doesn’t know herself enough to know what she is feeling. Or does she? Help me understand the tone of this passage:

She kept on, the ridiculous child. But the agony she had suffered as he clung to the frail wall was not ridiculous, nor her tremendous indignation when, after disobeying her, he forgot she was a queen. To her the scene was sublimely tragic. Soon she had recrossed the bridge, but not the same she! So this was the end of the incredible adventure!

Here the narrative voice seems especially labile. The final sentence, probably the final two sentences, offer Sophia’s thoughts. Indignation, despair, even something like a fall into experience. (Though not one that will change her behaviour, as we soon learn. If she is changed, it is as someone who now knows what it is to have an adventure—you don’t get what you expect—not as someone who sees through the gaudy charms of a fancy man.) But what about the first half of the paragraph? That “ridiculous child”: does its judgment come from the narrator or from Scales? (Is this free indirect discourse, in other words.) The phrase would fit with Scales’s actions in this scene and elsewhere, but there’s no other indication here that we are inside his mind. Which must mean the narrator owns the description. In that case, does the second sentence qualify the first? It begins by seeming to acknowledge the authenticity of Sophia’s feelings. She really was in agony. But as it continues the sentence becomes less generous. That her indignation is “tremendous” already hints at something overstated, silly. The idea of disobedience seems rather strong too. It implies that the relationship is asymmetrical. As does the description of Sophia as a queen. These aren’t, as we might first have thought, the narrator’s conclusions, they’re the girl’s delusions. I think we’re meant to roll our eyes here, and say, “Yeah that’s what she thinks she is.”

That said, the adjective “frail” counters that reading. The initial description of the pit describes it as “a dilapidated low brick wall,” quite a contrast to Scales’s later claim that it is “as firm as a rock.” Sophia’s take is “right”—it accords with the objective reality of the world. And yet that first description might not be “objective”—there may be no such thing here, for it reads, in full, “Suddenly Mr Scales stopped at a dilapidated low brick wall, built in a circle, close to the side of the road.” To me, that “Mr” strongly implies Sophia’s perspective—and in fact she later calls him that: “‘I’ll thank you not to follow me, Mr Scales.’” Then again—nothing but zigzags here, sorry—flipping back through the text Scales seems always to be called Mr. So I don’t know what to think. I’m similarly puzzled by the next sentence in our passage: “To her the scene was sublimely tragic.” Is the narrator telling us how Sophia feels? Or is he continuing to present her thinking? If the latter, is the idea that Sophia has some sense of the partiality of her interpretation? If the former, does the narrator want us to respect her feeling or dismiss it? Sometimes I think the novel uses these narrative techniques or irony and ventriloquism to argue that people can’t understand each other. Other times I think the novel is itself an unwitting example of that failure.

Two more quick thoughts:

  • The stakes of generational conflict feel peculiarly strange in this novel. Parents and children alike think of it in terms of murder. I’m thinking of the commonly held belief that Sophia killed her father in her moment’s inattention. And of the way Sophia inwardly braces for her mother’s anger when she learns about the meeting with Scales, by repeating—so often that I have to conclude she really believes it to be a possibility—“She can’t kill me.”
  • The temporal compression at the end of Book I is impressive. So much happens so quickly. Do you think we have seen the last of Mrs. Baines?

Let me know what you think of the narrative voice—and about anything else that struck you this week!

The Old Wives’ Tale Reading Group

Gwen John, “The Convalescent” (1918 – 19), detail

I’ve long wanted to read something together with Rohan. (She was my professor, long ago–when she was very young, I might add–and so I have read a number of things at her behest, but that’s different…) We traded ideas and decided on Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale (1908). And I hope you will consider joining us!

As Rohan wrote in her post introducing the project, we chose Bennett because he bridges the periods we study and teach (Victorianism for her, modernism for me), and because we’re curious to actually read him, rather than about him. Although Bennett was popular with both critics and ordinary readers, his reputation, at least in literary studies, suffered a blow from which it’s yet to recover when Virginia Woolf wrote an essay savaging him (and his Edwardian confreres H. G. Wells and John Galsworthy) for writing books that failed to respond to the changes in life Woolf somewhat facetiously dates to December 1910. (To be fair to Woolf–and the essay’s fascinating, well worth reading, she was responding to a review Bennett wrote of her third novel, Jacob’s Room, which he spectacularly failed to get.)

I’ve heard it said that The Old Wives’ Tale is Bennett’s masterpiece. It’s certainly hefty: its story of two sisters from Staffordshire, one of whom stays tied to their father’s drapery shop and one of whom elopes to Paris, runs to 600 pages in my old Penguin edition. But we’ve spaced the reading out over six weeks and the chapters look manageable, so I hope you won’t be daunted!

Rohan’s even designed a schedule to keep us on track. As you can see, we’ll alternate posting, offering reflections, asking questions, and soliciting your ideas. We hope for lively comment sections, but you can also post at your own blog or newsletter, or share thoughts on Twitter (#OldWivesTale21). If you feel ambitious and want to write a guest post, I will be delighted to host it.

Drapery shop vs. Paris: one of these sounds better than the other. Yet I suspect Bennett will play with my expectations. How different will these destinies prove to be? This piece–admittedly, I’ve only skimmed it, to avoid spoilers–enticingly suggests the novel will be anything but staid. “No English novelist ever suggested more unspeakable things, and got away without being understood, than me in that book,” Bennett later claimed. I say, bring it on, Arnold! Who wants to join me to see if he does?

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

to Levinas’s:

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

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

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

On D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love

I wrote this essay in 2016–O brave old world!–for Open Letters Monthly (of blessed memory–how I miss it). You can still find it in the OLM archives, but when I heard that Karen and Simon had chosen 1920 for their latest Reading Club project, I thought I’d dust it off. Women in Love is my favourite book, and I never miss a chance to talk it up. Thanks to Karen & Simon for their indefatigable hosting of these events. And thanks to the old gang at Open Letters: Sam Sacks, John Cotter, Steve Donoghue, Greg Waldmann, and, especially, Rohan Maitzen. They made this piece better.


D. H. Lawrence’s masterpiece, Women in Love (1920), is one of the great novels of the twentieth century. It’s also intense and uncompromising, to the point that it daunted even its author. To one of his most supportive friends, the Scottish writer Catherine Carswell, Lawrence admitted, “The book frightens me: it is so end-of-the-world.” Indeed, its working title was Dies Irae (Day of Wrath). Yet the book isn’t apocalyptic. Its grim fascination with endings is balanced by a joyful appreciation of beginnings. The letter to Carswell continues, “But it is, it must be, the beginning of a new world too.” Perhaps that’s why my students love the novel so much. After all, it’s about young, intelligent, talented people figuring out how they want to live in the world, and what they will have to change to make that happen. But you don’t have to be a student to enjoy Women in Love. There’s nothing dutiful or high-minded about it. You’ll race through it, I promise, caught up in its passion, its intensity, its extraordinary prose. Reading it, you’ll feel alive.

That aliveness might be a reaction against the terrible war during which it was written. Although the novel is set in the English Midlands in an unspecified year before WWI and so doesn’t concern the war itself, Lawrence wished “the time to remain unfixed, so that the bitterness of the war may be taken for granted in the characters.” That’s a strange thing to say: it only makes sense if war — or at least its emotional effects, like bitterness — is a natural state of affairs. And that’s in fact true of this novel. The characters might not actually be at war with each other, but they are always at loggerheads. The novel thrives on these arguments: disagreement is a moral force in Women in Love, its highest value.

At the center of those disagreements are two sisters, Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen, a teacher and an artist, respectively. Early in the book, they meet two men who are close friends: Rupert Birkin, an inspector of schools, and Gerald Crich, an “industrial magnate,” heir to a large mining company. As the novel begins, Rupert is extricating himself from a relationship with Hermione Roddice, an avowedly modern and progressive Baronet’s daughter. Eventually Birkin leaves Hermione for Ursula, and Gerald and Gudrun get together. The foursome, sick of England, travel to a snowy valley in the Tyrolean Alps. In this “cradle of snow,” ominously described as “the navel of the world, where the earth belonged to the skies, pure, unapproachable, impassable,” their relationships end badly.

Although the ending is quite dramatic, Lawrence is not much interested in plot. Instead he cares about ideas, specifically, ideas about human relationships. What does it mean to be involved with another person? What characteristics would an ideal relationship have? How do individual relationships combine to create society?

The novel launches us into these considerations from its first sentence: “Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen sat one morning in the window-bay of their father’s house in Beldover, working and talking.” Whereas Lawrence’s earlier novels (The White Peacock and Sons & Lovers) emphasize work, this one emphasizes talk. And talk isn’t just a way of passing time while the day’s work gets done. It’s the main attraction — and a lot rides on it. In this first conversation the sisters consider marriage: is it something they want? Is it anything they could even imagine for themselves? Is there any way for them to avoid it? What begins as speculation rapidly dissolves into enmity and resentment. Marriage, children, managing a household: these conventional female roles seem absurd. But their absence is frightening. The sisters find themselves “confronted by a void, a terrifying chasm, as if they had looked over the edge.” The impasse is only surmounted, ironically, by their decision to watch the guests arriving for a nearby wedding. Standing in the throng outside the church, the sisters catch their first glimpses of Rupert, Gerald, and Hermione. The wedding symbolizes the social norms the characters reject but are nonetheless drawn to. They want to be modern, but they can’t just ignore the past. The uncertainty of their position — knowing that established ways of living are impossible yet not knowing what to replace them with — is what Gudrun responds to when she cries in frustration, “Don’t you find, that things fail to materialize? Nothing materialises! Everything withers in the bud.”

We soon learn that for things to blossom they must be subject to conflict. Despite its title, Women in Love is characterized more by anger, even hatred, than love. It might not be surprising that these self-styled modern women loathe the provincialism of the Midlands, the violent bluster of their father’s patriarchal values, and the contempt they feel emanating from the local miners and their families. But a lot of the time they also hate each other. Even though Gudrun is the one who proposed looking at the wedding as a way to ease the tensions between them, she feels “a friction of dislike” when Ursula readily agrees. The novel captures this ambivalence through competing similes: “The two sisters were like a pair of scissors, snipping off everything that came athwart them; or like a knife and a whetstone, the one sharpened against the other.” In the first, the sisters are a team; in the second they are at odds. Yet in both the relationship is antagonistic, whether they’re fighting the world or each other.

Every important relationship in Women in Love is like this, equal parts attraction and repulsion. These conflicting emotions are invariably expressed violently. Consider a famously tempestuous scene between Hermione and Birkin in which she comes across him in her boudoir, absorbed in a book. Realizing that he is as shut off from her as he is in his reading, Hermione is overcome with rage:

A terrible voluptuous thrill ran down her arms — she was going to know her voluptuous consummation. Her arms quavered and were strong, immeasurably and irresistibly strong. What delight, what delight in strength, what delirium of pleasure! She was going to have her consummation of voluptuous ecstasy at last. It was coming! In utmost terror and agony, she knew it was upon her now, in extremity of bliss. Her hand closed on a blue, beautiful ball of lapis lazuli that stood on her desk for a paper-weight. She rolled it around in her hand as she rose silently. Her heart was a pure flame in her breast, she was purely unconscious in ecstasy. She moved towards him and stood behind him for a moment in ecstasy. He, closed within the spell, remained motionless and unconscious. Then swiftly, in a flame that drenched down her body like fluid lightning, and gave her a perfect, unutterable consummation, unutterable satisfaction, she brought down the ball of jewel stone with all her force, crash on his head.

Hermione wants to be recognized by Birkin as his intellectual equal but the harder she tries the more he disparages her. Their relationship is excruciating. He doesn’t know how to escape her smothering attentions except by retreating into cold detachment. She exasperates him, and everyone else, by always having to know better, but she also suffers cruelly from his disdain and unwillingness to make a clean break. No wonder she is reduced to a desperate, literal attempt at cracking his exterior. No matter how sensual this moment — “the flame that drench[s] down her body like fluid lightning” is obviously orgasmic — what Hermione really wants is to get inside Birkin’s head. The crash of paperweight against skull is really a clash of ideas. Hermione and Birkin’s psychosexual troubles stem from their competing world-views. They are not alone in subordinating sex to philosophy. Everybody in the novel upholds an ideal way of being in the world. Hermione has her need to know and grasp everything; Gerald his love of domination and the will-to-power; Gudrun her elitism; Ursula her ironic deflating of any self-satisfied philosophizing; and Birkin his misanthropic insistence that the human species is at best a nuisance and at worst a menace to be exterminated. In Birkin’s view, the only hope for humanity lies in relationships of tense equilibrium between like-minded souls, like the one he offers Ursula and which he calls “a perfect union” and “a sort of ultimate marriage.”


As this catalogue suggests, the novel offers a bewildering set of arguments about how to live. But if we think that our job as readers is to choose the best one — that is, if we think we’re supposed to side with one character over another — we’re missing the point. Women in Love is dialogic. What matters is not that one set of beliefs triumphs over another but that these beliefs continually do battle. The novel’s highest value is contestation itself. That’s why it’s filled with so many fights. Characters are always being roused to sudden passions. Nothing is worse than indifference. Reading Women in Love you need to be prepared for wild swings of emotion. Birkin will interrupt a seemingly friendly conversation with Gerald to proclaim, “I rather hate you.” A pages-long bare-knuckle argument with Ursula end abruptly when Birkin, who has been fulminating against the idea that love is a kind of fusion, accepts a flower from Ursula: “It was peace at last. The old, detestable world of tension… passed away at last… they were at peace with each other.” “Peace at last… they were at peace with each other.” Like so many other, this passage demonstrates the novel’s most obvious and contentious stylistic trait: repetition. Remember how often “consummation” and “voluptuous” and “ecstasy” appeared in the paperweight passage. Fittingly, Lawrence’s repetition has incited strong reactions. In her memoirs, Ottoline Morrell — who had been a friend and patron of Lawrence’s before a bitter quarrel ended their relationship permanently — recalls reading the manuscript of Lawrence’s previous novel, The Rainbow:

I was shocked in reading it by what then seemed to me to be the slapdash amateurish style in which it was written, and the habit he then began of repeating the same word about ten times in a paragraph … reading very loose sloppy writing gives me always a feeling of great discomfort, almost shame.

Her reaction to the manuscript of Women in Love was even stronger. “Lawrence has sent me his awful book,” she wrote to the philosopher Bertrand Russell. “It is so loathsome one cannot get clean after it.” Morrell’s forceful response — her shock, her discomfort, her almost-shame, her feeling of having been dirtied — is even more over the top than Lawrence’s prose. (It didn’t help that Lawrence based the character of Hermione on her, a fact she noticed immediately.) What Lawrence wrote in a short Foreword attached to the first edition of Women in Love might have been written in response to criticisms like Morrell’s:

In point of style, fault is often found with the continual, slightly modified repetition. The only answer is that it is natural to the author: and that every natural crisis in emotion or passion or understanding comes from this pulsing, frictional to-and-fro, which works up to culmination.

It’s characteristic that even when he’s writing about his sentences Lawrence seems to be writing about sex. But that’s not because he’s obsessed with sex, as his frankness and impatience with prudishness has sometimes led him to be described. It’s not that everything in Lawrence is about sex; it’s that even sex in Lawrence is about arguing. The “pulsing, frictional to-and-fro which works up to culmination” describes the principle of contestation that characterizes every meaningful relationship in the novel.I believe that Lawrence’s repetition enacts his theory of relationships. In the scene with Hermione and her paperweight, for example, almost every word is repeated, but these repetitions don’t simply reiterate. Instead, they introduce variation. “Voluptuous,” for example, modifies first “thrill,” then “consummation,” then “ecstasy”; the metaphor of flame shifts, first describing Hermione’s heart (“her heart was a pure flame in her breast”), then something more general that it is hard to name — perhaps her way of bringing the paperweight down on his head, or perhaps her entire mode of being (“in a flame that drenched down her body like fluid lightning”). Repetition is Lawrence’s way of dramatizing shifting emotional responses, of making us feel the uncertain, unfinished, even self-contradictory qualities of his characters. That’s because repetition always appears in the guise of continual refinement or qualification. Something has to be said but there is no definitive way of saying it.

Seen in this light Lawrence’s style offers an extraordinary balance between artlessness and carefulness. The former risks clumsiness, the latter artificiality. Some of Lawrence’s contemporaries — James, Joyce, Woolf — are heirs to Flaubert. They strive for the perfection of le mot juste. Lawrence is not like that, and indeed formal perfection of all kinds is suspect in this novel. Birkin describes the neoclassicism of Hermione’s country house as “a snare and a delusion… a horrible dead prison.” Artlessness keeps things alive, ensures emotional truth. But artlessness that doesn’t attend to form at all is simply shapelessness. Too many of Lawrence’s readers have failed to see that attention and thereby missed Lawrence’s interest in structure. Earlier I quoted Morrell’s criticism of Lawrence’s style, her rejection of what she called “very loose sloppy writing.” To my mind this description reads as an unacknowledged expression of her own anxiety: the only reason you might feel shame over what appears to be loose and sloppy writing would be if you were frightened by its vulnerability, its willingness not to conform to accepted standards of literary decorum. Lawrence is loose, yes, out of a belief that truth is only caught on the wing, that imperfection keeps things alive, but he isn’t sloppy. Even his critics admit that his writing can have electrifying power. Morrell, for example, was also alive to its pleasures. Lawrence’s writing, she admitted, contains “passages of such intensity and such passionate beauty that they never leave one’s memory.” Women in Love is filled with such passages. Here’s one I love. It’s the opening of a chapter called “Diver”:

The week passed away. On the Saturday it rained, a soft, drizzling rain that held off at times. In one of the intervals Gudrun and Ursula set out for a walk, going towards Willey Water. The atmosphere was grey and translucent, the birds sang sharply on the young twigs, the earth would be quickening and hastening in growth. The two girls walked swiftly, gladly, because of the soft, subtle rush of morning that filled the wet haze. By the road the blackthorn was in blossom, white and wet, its tiny amber grains burning faintly in the white smoke of blossom. Purple twigs were darkly luminous in the grey air, high hedges glowed like living shadows, hovering nearer, coming into creation. The morning was full of a new creation. When the sisters came to Willey Water, the lake lay all grey and visionary, stretching into the moist, translucent vista of trees and meadow. Fine electric activity in sound came from the dumbles below the road, the birds piping one against the other, and water mysteriously plashing, issuing from the lake.

In his appreciation of Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, the essayist Geoff Dyer says that Lawrence was the kind of person who knows the name of every flower, every tree. We see that knowledge here, the sense of being rooted in a particular place (for example, in the reference to dumbles, Midlands idiom for a little valley with a stream). But Lawrence, who spent the last decade of his life restlessly travelling through Australia, Ceylon, Mexico, and the American Southwest, doesn’t simply chronicle provincial English life. Nor does he unthinkingly extol nature against the depredations of modernity. Lawrence doesn’t love birds and flowers more than mines and dams, and in fact he uses the language of the second to describe the first: recall the “fine electric activity” of the dumbles. What he admires is nature’s ceaseless change, all those high hedges “glow[ing]” and “hovering” and “coming into creation.” The incessant coming into being of new life is the reason the passage’s phrase “a new creation” isn’t a solecism. Purple twigs notwithstanding, this isn’t a purple passage, though one thing we might say about Lawrence’s writing is that you have to risk some purple passages to write ones that shimmer with the intensity of the ones I’ve quoted here. “Darkly luminous”: this isn’t just a paradox, but rather an example of what the critic James Wood calls Lawrence’s “anti-pictorial” style. Yes, the scene is vivid, glowing even. We can just picture it. But Lawrence’s language is as antagonistic to simple depiction as his quarrelling characters are to each other. In phrases like “darkly luminous” Lawrence shows us, says Wood, that language “at its densest becomes its own medium, like night. At such moments one feels language’s lack of transparency as a new kind of visibility; and this also enables us to see the old transparency as a new kind of obstruction.”

In its preoccupation with the new, Lawrence’s novel shares something with the literary modernism with which he is sometimes aligned. Lawrence is an uneasy modernist, however. He is less concerned with sensation and perception than writers like Woolf and Mansfield, more invested than they in a tradition of literary realism he nonetheless contests. The works of Lawrence’s contemporaries, no matter how brilliant, sometimes feel to me like period pieces. But Lawrence feels vital, relevant, not just modern but contemporary, and in Women in Love most of all.Nowhere is this more evident than in its preoccupation with forms of life. By that I mean both the biological quiddity shared by all living beings and the structures that make up human society. The first is evident in the novel’s vivid descriptions of something like a life force, as when a rabbit resisting capture is described as a “black-and-white tempest,” “lunging wildly, its body flying like a spring coiled and released, as it lashed out.” The second is evident in the array of possible permutations for human relationships. Just when we’ve convinced ourselves that Birkin and Ursula’s relationship is the best because it’s the most balanced, if not the most harmonious, we’re forced to revise our ideas completely. In the novel’s final pages, Birkin realizes that his “sheer intimacy” with Ursula needs “an eternal union with a man, too: another kind of love.” Ursula rejects this claim, saying. “You can’t have two kinds of love” and the novel finishes with one of the great unresolved endings in fiction, another version of the “terrifying chasm” that Ursula and Gudrun faced in the opening scene. Women in Love, then, is a queer novel, not just in the sense Lawrence’s contemporaries would have used it (strange, odd) but in our own. It refuses normative sexual relationships and personal identities, whether through the same-sex love Birkin evinces for Gerald, or Ursula’s tortured relationship with her sister, or Gudrun’s eventual refusal to enter into any kind of relationship at all. How to live, how to be alive; who can you love, what makes something living: these are Lawrence’s great concerns, and in this age of same-sex marriage and animal rights activism they feel like our own.


It’s easy to speak of writers as rebels or misfits. But Lawrence truly was out of step with his time. That was especially true during the war. Just weeks after its publication in September 1915, his previous novel, The Rainbow, which he rightly considered the pinnacle of his career to that point, was banned for obscenity. This was the great trauma of Lawrence’s life. All copies were pulped, and for the next five years Lawrence, whose poor health precluded him from regular work, who had no inherited wealth to rely on, who lived only on the income brought in by his writing, who owned almost nothing, not even any copies of his own books, couldn’t find anyone willing to publish him. He and his wife, Frieda, a German national — a woman who left her respectable husband to be with him at the price of never seeing her children again — were suspected of being spies by British authorities. He was at odds with the jingoistic nationalism of the time. And his masterpiece, which he recognized Women in Love to be, languished in obscurity, not published until 1920 and even then only in the US and only in a private, limited edition. Yet he knew what he had done in writing it and took great joy in it. “It is the book of my free soul,” he told a friend. To read it is to experience that freedom. In its time this extraordinary work went through extraordinary difficulties. But perhaps its true time has finally come. What Gudrun fears — that things wither in the bud — is certainly not true of this brilliant bloom of a book.


Malicroix Readalong


A nice young man, of stolidly unimaginative, good bourgeois stock, is surprised to inherit a house on an island in the Rhône, in the famously desolate and untamed region of the Camargue. The terms of his great-uncle’s will are even more surprising: the young man must take up solitary residence in the house for a full three months before he will be permitted to take possession of it. With only a taciturn shepherd and his dog for occasional company, he finds himself surrounded by the huge and turbulent river (always threatening to flood the island and surrounding countryside) and the wind, battering at his all-too-fragile house, shrieking from on high. And there is another condition of the will, a challenging task he must perform, even as others scheme to make his house their own. Only under threat can the young man come to terms with both his strange inheritance and himself.

That’s how the good people at NYRB Classics summarize Henri Bosco’s Malicroix, first published in 1948 and now available in English in a translation by Joyce Zonana. Bosco (1888—1976) was born in Provence but spent much of his life abroad, teaching in Algeria, Italy, and Morocco. Maybe all that moving around is why he’s known as a great writer of place.

Bosco is sometimes thought of as kin to his near contemporary Jean Giono, who grew up just a bit to the north. A few years ago, several bloggers and I read and wrote about Giono’s Hill, a wonderful novel (also published by NYRB). Doubtless that’s why the publisher reached out to us to encourage us to read Malicroix. Most of us didn’t need much convincing: after all, what could be more relevant than a novel about isolation? Yet the novel also gives us a taste of what so many of us are missing these days: freedom. Like Malicroix’s first-person narrator, our lives have been suddenly upended, but unlike for him the upheaval hasn’t been of our choosing. If the first ten pages are any indication, the novel is both exciting and philosophical. The perfect book for a time when so many of us are thinking a lot about place.

Frances of Nonsuchbook, Meredith of Dolce Bellezza, Grant of 1streading, Nat Leach (@gnatleech), and Scott of seraillon will join me in blogging about the novel in the second half of April. We encourage you to join us: either at your own blog or by writing a guest post here at mine. We’re using the hashtag #malicroix2020 on Twitter if you prefer to participate that way. We hope to arrange some other Malicroix-inspired material, perhaps an interview with translator Zonana. Stay tuned, and drop me a note in the comments if you’d like to join our little group!

Primo Levi: A Centenary Celebration

The Italian writer and scientist Primo Levi was born 100 years ago in Turin, Italy. He spent his entire life there, except for the months he spent imprisoned by the Nazis in a sub-camp of Auschwitz, Buna-Monowitz, and the year it took him to make his way home. Although Levi’s actual birthday is not until next month (he lived from July 31, 1919 – April 11, 1987), I’ve decided to spend much of June reading and writing about him.


Levi is a writer close to my heart. It would not be wrong to say that I am in love with him. Which is of course a preposterous thing to say. But from the time I first read Levi, in my second year at university, I was smitten with his secular humanism. I admired the way he bridged the so-called “two cultures” (not an idea, I suspect, he would have had much time for). And mostly I sensed that he was a decent, kind person—a mensch of the first order. Of course, I gleaned that sense from his autobiographical writings, and, like all memoirists, the persona Levi offers us in writing is related to but not the same as his actual person. I have long had Ian Thomson’s biography on my shelves, and this seems the perfect time to read that alongside Levi’s own works.

(Thomson is a great writer, and I’m really looking forward to his book, but I know there are at least two other biographies in English, one by Carole Angier and one by Berel Lang. I won’t have time to read them, but if anyone has read one or both, I’d like to know what you think. I’m dimly aware that Thomson and Angier come to different conclusions about Levi, particularly, I believe, about his mysterious death.)

When I speak to groups about the Holocaust, I am often asked what books I would most recommend for people who want to learn more. It’s a question to which there are so many possible, equally worthy answers. There are so many urgent Holocaust books. But I always list Survival in Auschwitz (as it is frustratingly titled in the US: a much better, and more accurate title would be If This is a Man) first. For me, it is one of the most indispensable books of the twentieth century.

Here’s what I have in mind at the moment for my centenary celebrations:

  • A post on Survival in Auschwitz, specifically how I teach it. [Note: this turned into two long posts: here and here.]
  • A post on his genre-defying The Periodic Table, which I read 25 years ago and look forward to revisiting. [Note: Didn’t do this, but my friend Nat did–he’s thoughtful as always.]
  • A post on If Not Now, When?, a novel in which Levi takes on the Eastern Jewish experience that wasn’t his own (it’s about a band of partisans making their way from Russia to Palestine, perhaps loosely based on the Bielski partisans).
  • A post on some of Levi’s non-Jewish writing: I’m thinking Other People’s Trades and some of the stories
  • A post on some of the things I learned from Thomson’s biography

That’s an ambitious schedule, and who knows how much of it I’ll get to. In the meantime, you could check out a couple of things I’ve already written on Levi. Here at the blog I wrote about how I always begin my introductory Holocaust Lit course with a close reading of a passage from the second of Levi’s memoirs, The Reawakening. And a couple of years ago I reviewed an interesting new book about Levi’s time as a partisan in the Italian Alps in 1943. (It was for this resistance work, rather than his being Jewish, that Levi was first arrested.)

I’d be thrilled if anyone wanted to join me in reading Levi—no need to match my choices, especially since I’m not even sure I know what they’ll be yet. And if you feel compelled to write about your responses to those works, I’ll gladly post your thoughts on the blog.

April 2019 in Review

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





The Radetzky March Readalong

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s probably more than you wanted to know!

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

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

Orchard with Roses Gustav Klimt

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

Compare Tucker:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would you reread The Radetzky March?

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