What I Read, July 2020

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

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Ann Cleeves, The Long Call (2019)

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

Sarah Moss, Cold Earth (2009)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine Addison, The Angel of the Crows (2020)

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

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

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

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

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

‘Whit wis the name for men and men?’

‘That was homosexuality, Callum.’

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

‘That’s heterosexuality, Callum.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She adds:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deep breath. Here goes.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

What I Read, May 2020

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

EZIlJ48XYAA-tuGSusie Steiner, Missing, Presumed (2016)

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

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

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

Susie Steiner, Persons Unknown (2017)

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

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

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

Kathleen Jamie, Sightlines (2012)

Wonderful essays.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even second-tier Du Maurier is worth reading.

Marcie R. Rendon, Girl Gone Missing (2019)

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

Tessa Hadley, Late in the Day (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laurie R. King, Justice Hall (2002)

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

William Trevor, After Rain (1996)

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

to Levinas’s:

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

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

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

What I Read, April 2020

Ugh, April. A terrible month in my line of work at the best of times. Which this April, of course, was not. I was both busy—the last four weeks of the semester are always crunch time—but also, strangely, not. (No commute, far fewer admin obligations, the many office hour meetings vanished to almost nothing.) The month felt like a Zoom class that leaves exhausted but also unsatisfied. (God, I hate looking at myself so much.) Some days the pandemic routine was just fine, even enjoyable. Other days terror and depression pinched hard. On the plus side, we spent so much time together as a family. But on the downside, we spent so much time together as a family.

April is the best month of the year, weather wise, in Little Rock. And in that regard at least 2020 didn’t disappoint, so we were outside in the yard a lot. I fear what will happen when the hot weather sets in, in a couple of weeks or so. So I tried to read outside as much as I could. But what I mostly read this month was undergraduate prose—many, many essay drafts and short writing exercises. Some of that writing was excellent, some not. Either way, it took me away from books, plus I was working away at some chunksters. Thus this meager final tally:

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Philip Kerr, Greeks Bearing Gifts (2018)

Ingenious of Kerr to make his rumpled anti-hero Bernie Gunther an insurance adjuster in this last book of the series. (Kerr completed one more before he died, but it is set back in the 1920s, with Bernie a rookie beat cop.) Insurance is a great milieu for non-PI crime investigating, and I’m surprised more writers don’t take advantage of it. (Double Indemnity, of course, and Don Winslow’s California Fire and Life—can you think of others?) Here, Bernie is sent to Greece to investigate a suspicious claim. No surprise, what he finds relates to the Nazi occupation of the 1940s. What is a surprise is the ending, which offers a new, but quite fitting, direction for Bernie, serving an intriguing new set of masters. I would have loved to see Kerr develop these possibilities, but it’s satisfying as it is.

Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove (1985)

A damn good book, which kept me company through the first confusing and anxious pandemic weeks, back when things felt both more terrifying and less depressing than now. In the 1870s, down by the Mexican border, a group of cowboys work the Hat Creek ranch under the direction of two former Texas Rangers. The return of an old comrade and a sense that life has become played out convince the men to drive a herd of cattle north to Montana, where they plan to set up the first ranch in the territory.

Lonesome Dove has an exciting plot (McMurtry is good with weather, and he sure knows how to create drama out of a river crossing), but what it really has is a set of great characters. (Be warned: the intersection of these qualities often takes the form of death. You’ll lose several people you’ve become quite attached to.) For me, the book is about the things other people can see about you that you yourself just can’t. (A theme abetted by the novel’s roving omniscience.) Lonesome Dove is about the limits of self-knowledge—limits that abet the uncaringness of the universe that everyone, we learn, runs aground against anyway. Most heartbreaking is the inability of the outfit’s stoic leader, Captain Woodrow Call, to acknowledge that he’s the father of one of its youngest members. (There’s a beautiful, moving, frustrating scene between them at the end: the book’s plenty sentimental, which I like.) Almost as heartbreaking is the story of Call’s partner, Captain Augustus McCrae, as excitable and gregarious as Call is reticent, who is felled not by reencountering the love of his life but by his own stubbornness and vanity.

The novel’s only weakness is that there are almost no women in, only three really, though to be fair they’re important, and McMurtry handles two of them well (especially McCrae’s old flame, Emily). The prostitute Lorena Wood is less successful: what might have seemed a sensitive portrait in the 1980s doesn’t work today. But the book has a sweep, a verve, a love of life (it’s often laugh-out-loud funny) that really captivated me, and I can imagine tit ending up on my end of the year list.

Georges Didi-Huberman, Bark (2011) Trans. Samuel Martin (2017)

I can’t be fussed to look back and see what I wrote when I first read this a couple of years ago. Pretty sure I liked it then; I like it a lot now. I’ve taught it twice, and it’s a keeper. Didi-Huberman—a French academic who has written a lot about photography—juxtaposes photographs he took on a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau with little essayistic reflections on the experience. I now have a better handle on his argument, viz, we need to see without looking, which is to say, without being guided by preconceptions. Only self-awareness about the limitations of looking can let us do that. Students love the book—that came through even over our less-than-ideal video sessions. On my previous readings, I hadn’t picked up how much Didi-Huberman hates Claude Lanzmann, so that was a nice little bonus for me.

Henri Bosco, Malicroix (1948) Trans. Joyce Zonana (2020)

Strange and compelling, especially in its first half. A young man inherits a small house on a small island in the middle of the Rhone river—or he will if he satisfies the unusual requirements of the bequest. I will have more to say soon!

Sujata Massey, The Widows of Malabar Hill (2018)

First in a crime series set in 1920s Bombay (with detour to Calcutta). Parveen Mistry is the city’s first female solicitor (unlike her father, with whom she practices, she cannot argue in court) and a member of the city’s small but influential Parsi community. (She is modelled on the real-life Cornelia Sorabji.) When the firm is asked to execute the will of a longstanding Muslim client, Parveen’s gender turns into an asset, as the deceased three wives live in purdah. Her ability to speak to the widows directly becomes more pressing when a member of the household is found murdered. As I said about Greeks Bearing Gifts, I enjoy seeing how writers tackle the problems and opportunities offered by non-police or PI characters. It will be interesting to watch Massey deal with this constraint as the series goes forward. The crime takes a backseat to Parveen’s involved history—in this, as well as the period setting and the sensibilities of the main character, Widows reminded me of the first Maisie Dobbs novel; fans of that series will enjoy this one—but the story of her education and the unhappy events that led her to work with her father are compelling enough that I didn’t mind. I’ve already bought the second book, which, I gather, riffs on The Moonstone.

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May is shaping up to be a better reading month, once again with plenty of crime but other things too. Among other things I’ve been plugging away at Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. I’ve read 650 pp, and there are still 800 to go! Sometimes I just laugh at how big it is. Soothing, though. Tune in next time to see if I finish it.

“A Cemetery of Books”: David Fishman’s The Book Smugglers

Remember in 2001 when the Taliban blew up the Buddhas of Bamyan, those giant statues in Afghanistan? Cue handwringing about the desecration of an important cultural treasure. I was in graduate school at the time and I remember one of my professors rejecting that response. People care more about those sculptures than they do other people, he said. Where’s the outcry about everyone the Taliban oppressed, violated, killed?

My tendency to please others, to see the point they’re making, especially in situations I perceive as confrontational, combined with the inescapable servility of grad students toward the professors who have such power over them made me accept this claim, even though there had in fact been plenty of horror at the Taliban’s human targets. And, after all, I could see the man’s point. It is easier to lament cultural rather than human destruction, cultural objects being less difficult than people. Paintings and buildings and books—they’re less annoying, insistent, demanding, less, you know, living than people. Silently, to myself, I worked myself into righteous indignation. Shouldn’t we care more about people than about the things they’ve made? Fuck everyone getting all weepy about, say, a manuscript while they’re resigned to torture or genital mutilation or mass rape. I resolved to take this line from then on, to harden my heart against the loss of “cultural treasures,” especially since this sort of dismay is usually accompanied by the idea that culture is morally improving, something I’ve never been able to stomach.

I maintained my people > objects stance even as, years later, I began to study the Holocaust seriously. But having done so I couldn’t maintain the belief for long. Not because people don’t matter. But because the differences between people and objects are less evident than my professor would have us believe. I’ve written before, for example, about how diaries, Holocaust diaries in particular, treat books as extensions of people. Not just that the book is a synecdoche for the person, but that diary and diarist become indistinguishable, an equation made by the writers themselves. Think of Chaim Kaplan, writing on August 2, 1942, amidst liquidation of Warsaw ghetto, in the last line of his last entry: “If my life ends—what will become of my diary?” Or of Hélène Berr, writing in October 1943: “It makes me happy to think that if I am taken, Andrée [the family’s cook] will have kept these pages, which are a piece of me, the most precious part, because no other material thing matters to me anymore.” Neither Berr nor Kaplan effaces themselves by valuing their writing. Rather, each pays tribute to the reality of experience by affirming its indirection: what’s real is what’s written.

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But maybe books—which I’ll use as a synonym for cultural artifacts generally: I mean representations—are different from other things. Do books have a special quality that is either the same as or, if different, then morally equivalent to the one that we rightly assign to people? These thoughts were prompted by my reading of David Fishman’s The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis, a book centered on events in Vilna, Lithuania, known for centuries “the Jerusalem of the North” because of its status as a center of Jewish learning and study.

Fishman’s story begins in the interwar years, when Vilna was part of Poland. (Before WWI, it had been ruled by Russia for 125 years; today, Vilnius is in Lithuania.) Almost 30% of its 193,000 inhabitants were Jewish, making it the fourth largest Jewish city in Poland. But its cultural weight was even greater. Its Great Synagogue, modest looking from the outside (by decree, synagogues had to be shorter than churches), astonished visitors, who descended a staircase and looked up at its marble columns and silver ornaments. Nearby was the home and synagogue of the Vilna Gaon (genius), Rabbi Elijah, an 18th century Talmudist, and spiritual head of the Misnagdim, the opponents of Hasidic Judaism.

But by the 20th century much of Vilna’s Jewish life was secular. The most famous Yiddish play, S. Ansky’s The Dybbuk, was first performed there in 1921. The Strashun Library, “the intellectual hub of Jewish Vilna” contained 40,000 volumes and was open even on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. A Jewish gymnasium (academic high school) taught modern chemistry and physics in Yiddish. Publishing companies and newspapers pumped out Jewish books and reported on Jewish life. Most importantly, Vilna was home to the Yiddish Scientific Institute (YIVO), “a modern research academy that employed the methods of the humanities and social sciences to study Jewish life.” Founded in 1925, by the 1930s YIVO had branches in Berlin, Paris, and New York (the latter is still around). Befitting its status as what Fishman calls “the national academy of a stateless people, the Jews of Eastern Europe,” YIVO held a vast archive of all things related to Jewish life: religious texts, but also folksongs, playbills, posters, you name it. YIVO housed scholars but also offered wide-ranging educational programming for general audiences.

Having introduced the setting, Fishman turns to some of the key players (helpfully introduced in a Dramatis Personae). They include:

Shmerke Kaczerginski (1908—1954), known as the heart of the “Young Vilna” literary group. This poet and sing-songwriter had been orphaned at a young age and educated at night school. After the invasion of Vilna in 1941 he spent seven months roaming the countryside disguised as a Polish deaf-mute, but voluntarily slipped into the ghetto in 1942 where he and Avrom Sutzkever (see below) became inseparable. He participated in the failed ghetto uprising and escaped to the forest where he joined a band of partisans. After the war, Kaczerginski set up the Vilna Jewish museum, the first post-Holocaust Jewish museum. He clashed repeatedly with Soviet authorities, however, and, after ensuring that many of the documents that survived the war were shipped to YIVO in New York, he left Vilna, first for Lodz, then Paris and, in 1950, Argentina, where he died a few years later in a plane crash.

Zelig Kalmanovitch (1885—1944), who held a doctorate from university in Königsberg, became co-director of YIVO in 1928. In midlife, he was increasingly religious and Zionist. Known as “the prophet of the ghetto” for urging those imprisoned to maintain their dignity.

Rachela Krinsky (1910—2002) was a historian and high school teacher whose (first) husband died weeks after the German invasion of Vilna, leaving her with a small child. Krinsky later gave her daughter up to the girl’s Polish nanny in hopes she might survive outside the ghetto. The girl did, and the two were later reunited.

Herman Kruk (1897—1944) had been the director of the largest Jewish library in Warsaw, an ardent Bundist who believed books were central to Jewish flourishing. Kruk fled Warsaw for Vilna after the German invasion of Poland in 1939. He turned down the chance to emigrate to the US in 1940 because he hoped to track down his wife and child, who were trapped in Warsaw. (They perished.) In occupied Vilna, Kruk became the director of the ghetto library, an enormously popular and life-affirming institution. He kept a diary of his experiences in the ghetto and beyond, after he was deported to various labour camps. Miraculously, this document survived, though Kruk did not. (It’s available in English, but it’s very expensive!)

Abraham (Avrom) Sutzkever (1913-2010) is the most famous person in this story: the poet laureate of Young Vilna, and probably the greatest Yiddish poet of the 20th Century (Jakob Glatshteyn would seem to be his main competitor). Sutzkever escaped death many times, first in the ghetto and later with the partisans in the forests of Lithuania. (His infant son, murdered in 1942, was not so lucky.) From there, Sutzkever was brought by special plane to Moscow (the Soviets plucked him out of the forest), but he returned to Vilna at end of war. Sutzkever later testified at Nuremberg trials, made his way to Paris, and eventually settled in Mandate Palestine, later Israel.

All these principals were members of the paper brigade, a work detail founded in February 1942 to sort through Jewish documents for the Nazis. The brigade was founded at the insistence of Johannes Pohl, a former Catholic priest turned Nazi orientalist who worked for the Einsatz Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), the agency in charge of looting cultural treasures in occupied Europe. Much of that plunder was Jewish; Pohl, who had lived and studied in Jerusalem, was appointed a Judaica expert. Soon after, he was named chief librarian at the Institute for Investigation of the Jewish Question in Frankfurt. (The Nazis planned to commemorate the people they had exterminated.)

Pohl had first arrived in Vilna in July 1941, just weeks after the German invasion. At that time, he arranged for a mass of Jewish material to be shipped to Frankfurt. But the YIVO archives were so big a dedicated work detail was needed to sift through the materials. Thus the “paper brigade,” which gave surprising shelter to the intellectuals and artists named above. The brigade was unusual in that it was one of the only all-Jewish work details (no non-Jewish overseers) and that its work took place outside the ghetto, as that’s where the YIVO building was located. As a result, the brigade was a peaceful place to work, with plenty of chances to snatch a cigarette and to hide valuable documents on one’s person for smuggling back into the ghetto. As you can imagine, such smuggling was dangerous; Fishman dramatizes various near catastrophes when workers were searched at the gates. For most of the Jews imprisoned in the ghetto, however, the paper brigade was not a desirable work assignment. Not so much because of their lack of interest in smuggling paper, or their fear of being caught if they did, but because opportunities for the most valuable kind of graft were almost nonexistent. You couldn’t find or trade any food while toiling in the YIVO archives.

Food, of course, was all-important. As was true in all the ghettos the Nazis set up across Eastern Europe, life in the Vilna ghetto was terrible: overcrowding, hunger, and despair were rife; these conditions led to widespread disease. Yet the Jews of Vilna also made heroic efforts at maintaining more than mere life. (That was true in other ghettos as well; Fishman sometimes implies that Vilna was unique in this respect, though I think that implication stems more from his focus: this isn’t a comparative work.)  A distinguishing feature of the Vilna ghetto was its lending library, composed of 45,000 titles, which was extraordinary well used. Fifteen months after its inauguration in September 1941, over 100,000 books had been checked out. Because the director, Kruk, kept detailed statistics, Fishman is able to show what kinds of people used the library and what kind of books they checked out. Users were mostly young, they mostly read novels, and most of those novels were what Fishman dubiously calls “pulp fiction” (Margaret Mitchell and Vicki Baum were especially popular). “Socially mature readers” gravitated to books that resonated with their own wartime experience. Favourite titles included War and Peace, All Quiet on the Western Front and, especially (heartbreakingly, all too pertinently) Franz Werfel’s novel of the Armenian genocide, Forty Days of Musa Dagh.

Kruk hung two signs near the circulation desk. One was prosaic:

Keep the books clean and intact; do not read while eating. Do not write in books; do not dampen them; do not fold pages or break bindings. If a reader has been ill with a contagious disease, he must notify the librarian upon returning the book.

The other exhortatory:

Books are our only comfort in the ghetto!

Books can help you forget your sad reality.

Books can transport you to worlds far away from the ghetto.

Books can still your hunger when you have nothing to eat.

Books have remained true to you, be true to the books.

Preserve our spiritual treasures—books!

Reading these words now, I’m filled with respect for this commitment to literature in the face of suffering. But I’m also filled with doubt—are these sentiments accurate or advisable? Kruk was aware that books in the ghetto were a narcotic, with all the double-edged qualities we might associate with the term. “It often seems to the ghetto librarian that he is a drug pusher,” he wrote, adding that it sometimes seemed what he saw in patrons was not so much reading as “self-intoxication.”

We often find references to fantasy in Holocaust literature: day-dreaming, sleeping, reveries, memories are regularly described as ways to help manage the situations victims found themselves in. It makes sense that books would do so too. But every description of a strategy for removing one’s self from current reality is immediately qualified: fantasy is as dangerous as it is helpful.

Similar ambivalence haunted the members of the paper brigade. “Kalmanovitch and I don’t know if we are gravediggers or saviors,” Kruk confided to his diary. Despite the relatively benign working conditions, workers were often in tears at what they were asked to do. Fishman compellingly shows how the protagonists of his tale regularly compared the fate of the cultural objects they were helping the Nazis spirit away and/or destroy to the fate of the Jewish people. When the brigade was first sent to the YIVO headquarters to begin their mission they found the place a ruin (it had been briefly used as a barracks), which papers piled a meter high in the basement: “It looked like after a real pogrom,” wrote one member. Kruk was even more explicit: “like everything here, [YIVO] dies in a mass grave, along with scores and scores of others … The mass grave, ‘the trash paper,’ grows bigger every minute.” Zelig Kalmanovitch—former YIVO co-director—wrote similarly in his diary. In an entry dated August 26, 1943 he notes:

I sorted books all week. I sent several thousand books to their destruction with my own hands. A mound of books is lying on the floor of the YIVO reading room. A cemetery of books. A mass grave. Books that are victims of the War of Gog and Magog, along with their owners.

Once again we see books equated to people. Both are vulnerable. Both can be murdered. (Even, as was true so often during the Holocaust, by their own—Kalmanovitch speaks of sending books to destruction in the same way members of the Sonderkommandos, for example, spoke or sending people to death.) There is a strong sense that people and books need each other. The paper brigade workers often used their lunch hour to read some of the books they were surrounded by, not idly but desperately. Rachela Krinsky later wrote of this intense experience: “Who knows? These might be the last books we ever read. And the books were also, like us, in mortal danger. For many of them, we were their last readers.”

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Sorting through material at YIVO, April 1943

Fishman makes his story accessible without sacrificing nuance. Sometimes that informality misfires, as in a present tense reconstruction of smuggling scene at the beginning of the book, or a tour of pre-war Vilna, imaged to be given by Kaczerginski. But the book gets better as it goes along. Readers whose knowledge of the Holocaust is limited might find the topic a bit niche, yet they are exactly who I most wish would read The Book Smugglers. It’s important to understand that resistance took many forms in this period (knowledge that might help us imagine similar forms of resistance in our own, increasingly authoritarian times). It’s important to recognize that Jews suffered under both the Nazis and, after the war, the Soviets (not in the same way, to be sure, but neither regime was interested in enabling Jewish life). It’s important to see how Jewishness remained a problem in a post-war world still defined in nationalist terms, a problem that persists to this day. (A problem that, in a different world, could be taken as an opportunity.) And, finally, it’s important to think, pace my grad school professor, about how the objects we live among, perhaps especially those we use to tell the story of ourselves, are versions of ourselves. We shouldn’t mourn the lost manuscripts of Vilna—or the Buddhas of Bamyan—more than the death of the people who made, read, or otherwise appreciated them. But we shouldn’t disparage that mourning either. The destruction of the one is so tightly connected to the murder of the other.

(I was recently introduced to this footage of Avrom Sutzkever testifying at the Nuremberg trials–in Russian rather than Yiddish, as he desired, because, perversely, Yiddish was not a recognized official language of the trials. Anyway, he’s much more dashing than I expected!)

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.