A Personal Anthology: 12 (More) Favourite Stories

I recently added my thoughts on twelve favourite short stories to The Personal Anthology. I thank Jonathan Gibbs, the editor of this valuable project, for the invitation to contribute. (Do browse the archives—you’ll find all kinds of things worth reading.) I made my choices based on my experience teaching short fiction. In doing so, I had to leave off many worthy candidates. So even though nobody asked for it, here’s a baker’s dozen more wonderful stories.

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“Nervous” by Robert Walser, translated by Christopher Middleton

Walser’s little prose texts, scribbled on bits of paper, published in feuilletons across German-speaking Europe, are one of the glories of 20th century literature. Amazingly, they are finally getting their due in English. But thanks especially to the efforts of poet and translator Christopher Middleton, some of his work already appeared in English in the 1980s, including one of my favourites, “Nervous.” Walser’s writing is characterized by what I think of as a very Swiss mixture of sweetness and snark: its coziness soon goes off the rails. Here, in a text not coincidentally written in the middle of WWI, Walser is more anguished than gentle. But the reversals, hesitations, and self-cancellations of his prose are clearly evident.

I’ve often taught “Nervous” together with Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” (1983) another bravura exercise in narrative voice (in her case, in the imperative). Both texts undermine the coherence of the speaker, leading us to ask whether the very idea of identity is a fantasy of writing. Because both pieces are so short, they’re ideal for forcing students to linger over details. Students can even read them for the first time in class, which, in my experience, typically generates the best conversations.

First published in German in June 1916 in Neue Zürcher Zeitung. Published in English in Selected Stories Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1982. You can read an excerpt here and the German (with facing Dutch translation) here.

“The Demon Lover” by Elizabeth Bowen

It hurt to cut this from my original list, just as it hurt to cut it from my syllabus a few years ago. Students never loved it the way I do, and that disparity was getting me down. To be sure, it’s not straightforward. Bowen’s brilliant ghost story centers on Kathleen Drover, who has returned to London during the first Blitz to check on the house she and her children have left behind for shelter in the country. She finds a letter pushed under the door, a curt missive reminding her that the writer has not forgotten the troth she plighted, the promise she made. “Today is the day we said” it says, ominously. The letter takes her back to the Great War, and the man she fell in love with, the man she promised to marry, a cruel man, a man who returned to the front from leave and never returned. (The students have a hard time distinguishing between the two wars.) The letter sends Mrs. Drover into a panic, and she collects what she came to get as quickly as she can and runs away to hail a taxi. But you can’t outrun the past. This is a story of trauma, about physical and mental stains and strains. I can never shake the image of the weal on Kathleen’s hand when her fiancée presses it hard against the buttons of his uniform. One thing my students and I always agreed on, though: the editors of Bowen’s Collected Stories must have had a lot of fun when they made sure the story ended on p 666.

First published in The Demon Lover and Other Stories, Jonathan Cape, 1945. Available in The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen, Ecco, 1989. Read the story here.

“The Bear Came over the Mountain” by Alice Munro

Maybe it’s because I’m Canadian, where we are All Munro All the Time—I remember reading “Boys and Girls” in middle school and having “the symbolism of the foxes” drilled into me—but I am lukewarm on our Nobelist. I mean, I recognize her greatness. But for me she’s so cold, and not just because that’s the emotional register of the largely Scottish and English WASPs that comprise a certain idea of “Old Canada,” fictional versions of which populate Munro’s stories. I find the stories themselves chilly, almost clinical in their attitudes to these figures. (No accident that so many of her editions have a reproduction of an Alex Colville painting on the cover.)

They do teach well, though. And this one in particular works for me. “The Bear Came over the Mountain” intertwines two couples: elegant Fiona, whose forgetfulness grows into dementia, and bien pensant Grant, who is not as nice as he thinks he is, on the one hand, and Aubrey, a former sweetheart of Fiona’s who she reconnects with in the facility Grant reluctantly moves her to, and Marian, Grant’s seemingly unsophisticated but in fact defiant and shrewd wife, on the other.

As the couples re-arrange, our suspicion grows that Fiona has orchestrated the events. The story asks: what is true, in the life of a couple and even in life itself? Epistemological uncertainty isn’t just something faced (with terror, stoicism, even grace) by the patients who lose their memories, but by readers as well.

First published in The New Yorker, December 27, 1999. Collected in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage McClelland & Stewart, 2001. You can read the story here.

“The Bad News” by Margaret Atwood

Atwood, by contrast, is another CanLit big shot whose work I do admire. (For whatever reason, her chilliness doesn’t bother me as much as Munro’s.) Although best known for her novels, Atwood’s written plenty of stories; the ones I’ve read are good. For a while I taught this story regularly, highlighting, in particular, its narrative structure and use of time. Like “The Bear Came over the Mountain,” “The Bad News” is about (the fear of) dementia. But I don’t think memory loss explains the story’s structure, which reminds me of a möbius strip. The narrator and her husband live in a dystopic near-future (if I were to read the story now, I’d probably just think it was set in the present) but part-way through the narrator remembers a trip they took to Glanum, the Roman ruins in the South of France. The memory sparks a fantasy that, at some point, becomes the present of the narrative itself. It ends with the couple, living in what to them is simply an outpost of Rome, nothing ancient at all, talking themselves out of worrying about the barbarian invasions (“They won’t be here for a long time. Not in our lifetime, perhaps. Glanum is in no danger, not yet”). We’re left wondering if the modern couple, similarly obsessed with but in denial about bad news, is perhaps a dream of the ancient one, rather than the other way ‘round. “We don’t like bad news, but we need it. We need to know about it in case it’s coming our way.”

First published in The Guardian, 2005. Collected in Moral Disorder and Other Stories, Nan A. Talese, 2006.

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“Indian Giver” by Max Apple

Probably the least famous writer on this list, which is a damn shame. Especially as he is probably the nicest (admittedly, the only one I’ve met, but man what a mensch). Apple is a worthy heir to Malamud (which, if you’ve read my original list, you’ll know is high praise). Seymour Rubin owns an automotive junkyard, but the only person who can work the baler that keeps the place going, a man named Alonso Johnson, has just converted to Islam and needs to pray on his lunch hour every Friday. Seymour, incensed at what he sputteringly calls “once a week anti-Semitism,” fires Alonso, which leads to his near ruin. (“Indian Giver” is a take on Malamud’s “The First Seven Years.”) Everyone begs Seynour to take Alonso back, especially Seymour’s son, Chuckie, who calls from the reservation in the South West where he is working with indigenous people. When a rival Jewish recycling firm offers to buy him out, Seymour has no choice but to go back to Alonso. Who, Apple’s story asks, is a Jew? And what does that mean? Are the identities we live by enabling or disabling? Funny, too!

First published in Story and collected in The Jew of Home Depot and Other Stories, Johns Hopkins, 2007.

“The Night Rhonda Ferguson was Killed” by Edward P. Jones

Now that I think of it, I briefly met Edward P. Jones at a reading from his novel The Known World. And he too was lovely, so soft-spoken and introverted, clearly a man uninterested in platitudes or bullshit. I warmed to him immediately. Though I’ve yet to read that book, I love his early stories, especially this one, which I use in teaching literary realism. This is a beautiful and very sad story about an angry, vulnerable teenage girl, Cassandra G. Lewis, whose best friend, the Rhonda Ferguson of the title, is about to sign with a record label. Rhonda almost never appears in the story—instead we follow Cassandra and some of her other friends as they spend a flirty, chaste, emotional, ordinary Friday evening that is upended by tragedy. By the time we learn of Rhonda’s death, so much has happened we’ve forgotten all about it, and we’re shocked despite the title. I love how one of the girls, a quiet soul Cassandra hardly knew before the fateful night, becomes the story’s central focus. And its last line is heartbreaking: “She sang on into the night for herself alone, pushing back everything she did not yet understand.”

Collected in Lost in the City, William Morrow, 1992.

“Tapka” by David Bezmozgis

A bittersweet, funny, but ultimately rather ominous story about a family of Latvian Jews who emigrate to Canada in the early 1980s as part of the exodus of Soviet Jews. (In this sense clearly autobiographical.) Mark Berman is in first grade at George Best Elementary School in his new home of Toronto. Together with his slightly older sister, he is tasked with walking a neighbour’s dog every day at lunch. Tapka is spoiled; her owners, also Russian emigres, though of a lower social class than the Bermans, have no children. Tapka is their everything. While the adults struggle through English classes by day, the children learn through osmosis (the narrator likens his brain to a catchment basin, with rivulets of language steadily accumulating into a pool). Pride of place goes to schoolyard insults, like “shithead” and “gaylord” (how it pains me to remember that we used to say things like that). The children love Tapka. But they also hate her, for inscrutable reasons that have to do with their powerlessness and general sense of being lost in a new place. So they start calling her the names they’ve learned, maybe felt the lash of; Mark feels the thrill and shame at having violated something. One thing leads to another, and the kids let the dog off the leash, whereupon it dashes into traffic and is hit by a car. Everything ends okay, except nothing will ever be okay again.

I also use this story to teach my American students the correct pronunciation of Toronto and what a washroom is. I think of it as a duty.

First published in The New Yorker in 2003. Collected in Natasha and Other Stories, Harper Collins, 2004.

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“The Knock at the Manor Gate” by Franz Kafka and translated by Willa and Edwin Muir

My favourite Kafka to teach is “A Hunger Artist” (though I confess I don’t love to teach Kafka—he is too hard, too much about the resistance to interpretation), but my favourite Kafka altogether might be this little text, which is perfectly Kafkan, but, more importantly, for me, comes unbidden to me every time we chant the v’ahavta in synagogue. That’s the prayer in which we name the ways we shall love G-d. Tell them to your children, think of them when you wake and when you sleep. And, finally, “bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead; inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” Kafka would have known this prayer (it comes just after the sh’ma, Judaism’s affirmation of monotheism); every week I wonder if he had it in mind in writing this enigmatic work.

First published posthumously in Beim Bau der Chinesischen Mauer in 1931. Collected in English in The Complete Stories of Franz Kafka, edited by Nahum Glatzer, Schocken, 1971. You can read the story here.

“The Use of Force” by William Carlos Williams

Although only four pages long, this story is so rich, it’s easy to spend an hour talking about it and still have plenty to say. Based on Williams’s own experience as a doctor in Rutherford, NJ, it tells the story of a doctor summoned by a poor, terrified couple who suspect their daughter has diphtheria. To confirm his diagnosis—which will lead only to quarantine, there being nothing else the man can do: the story is from the 1930s; there are no antibiotics—the doctor needs her to open her mouth. Which the girl refuses to do. The result is a battle not just of wits but of strength. The title doesn’t just describe the doctor’s actions; it also poses a question: what is the use of force? What purpose does it serve? Can we diagnose a condition without causing harm? And if we think about the similarities between diagnosis and interpretation, we might extrapolate to ask, can we read a text without doing violence to it?

First published in 1933 in Blast and collected in Life Along the Passaic River, New Directions, 1938 and The Doctor Stories, New Directions, 1984. You can read the story here.

“A Family Supper” by Kazuo Ishiguro

Rohan Maitzen tipped me on to this story, one of only a few by Ishiguro. Although it would be terrific for any lesson on unreliable narrators, I always teach “A Family Supper” on the second day of the semester to help students begin the semester-long process of learning to support claims with textual evidence. For the central question demanded by this story of a young man who returns after the death of his mother to his home in Japan from a new life in America is whether his father has poisoned their supper of fish soup. (The first thing we learn is that the mother died from eating improperly prepared fugu.) Students always have strong opinions, but they’re not always sure why they think what they think. Ishiguro has a fine way with dread and unease. In addition to everything else, this is good ghost story.

First published in Firebird 2 in 1982. Collected in Malcolm’s Bradbury’s anthology The Penguin Book of Modern British Short Stories, Penguin, 1989. You can read the story here.

“Drown” by Junot Díaz

The narrator’s former best friend Beto is back in town, but the narrator doesn’t want to see him. We learn that Beto once gave him a blow job, which the narrator both liked and hated. “Drown” is a story of repression, confused masculinity, and growing up in a society that has no expectations for you (note the imperative of the title). My students and I often linger on this early passage, where we can already see the rivalrous relationship between the boys. Along with the rest of the kids in the neighbourhood, the boys have climbed the fence at the local pool:

I sit near the sign that runs the pool during the day. No Horse-Play, No Running, No Defecating, No Urinating, No Expectorating. At the bottom someone has scrawled in No Whites, No Fat Cbiks and someone else has provided the missing c. I laugh. Beto hadn’t known what expectorating meant though he was the one leaving for college. I told him, spitting a greener by the side of the pool.

At night the pool runs by other rules: the difference between no expectorating and a greener by the poolside. Nighttime pool has vitality, but what is that worth compared to the power of daytime rules?

First published in The New Yorker, January 29, 1996 and collected in Drown, Riverhead, 1996. Read the story here.

“The Marquise of O” by Heinrich von Kleist, translated by David Luke and Nigel Reeves

A crazy, long story about a woman, the Marquise of the title, who becomes pregnant after being raped during the Napoleonic wars. The scholar Mary Jacobus has a nice essay about how everyone sees the Marquise as an empty O just waiting to be filled (literally or figuratively). The story’s told with Kleist’s characteristic indirection, which means students have a hard time with it—it doesn’t help that the central event is elided in a dash—but they often get into rousing discussions of contemporary slut-shaming that makes them see things haven’t changed as much as they like to think. For me the big question is: can we read the Marquise as having any control over her circumstances? Does she have any agency?

First published in German in Phöbus in 1808. Available in English in The Marquise of O and Other Stories, Penguin 1978.

“Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street” by Herman Melville

What is there to say? A stone-cold masterpiece. “I would prefer not to” doesn’t mean no. It’s much more destabilizing (or insidious, depending on how much you side with the narrator). A wonderful story about men at work.

First published in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine in November and December 1853. Collected in The Piazza Tales, 1856. Read the story here.

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Now you tell me: what would be on your list?

September 2019 in Review

Enervating month. Endless heat, relentless bullshit in the news cycle, demanding semester, various personal and professional irritants. And hardly any time to read, as you’ll see in this meagre list.

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James Gregor, Going Dutch (2019) Recommended to me as literary fiction written in both third person and past tense—increasingly rare!—Gregor’s debut is a strange one. I often said to myself, Why am I still reading this, I don’t really like it. But then I’d read another chapter. Going Dutch is about Richard, a grad student studying Italian Renaissance literature at Columbia whose personal and academic lives are a mess. He’s completely blocked in his writing, and all the guys he meets disappoint him. Then he falls in with a brilliant fellow grad student, Anne, who coaxes him back into academic life (by basically writing his papers for him) just as Blake, a lawyer he’d had a disastrous first date with, comes back into his life. Pretty soon Richard is intimate with both, while trying to keep each secret from the other. I found this scenario crazily stressful. And although the sense of ennui and diffuse anxiety rang totally true, in general the novel’s depiction of grad school is ludicrous. Anne is a great character—I wanted a book about her. Not for me, then, but YMMV.

Colin Dexter, Last Bus to Woodstock (1975) I love Endeavour as much as the next PBS-loving, Viking Cruise-aspirer. Watching the latest series this summer, I thought I would give the books that gave us Morse a try. Big disappointment! The first in the series is tolerable enough as a procedural, I guess (nothing fancy: Morse is irascible without being endearing, which could in theory be interestingly against type but didn’t read that way to me), but its casual misogyny is icky and disheartening. Many series start slowly, so I suppose I could always give Dexter another chance. I see no real reason why I should—Last Bus likely my last Dexter—but let me know if you have strong feelings.

Len Deighton, Berlin Game (1983) This summer, a question I asked on Twitter about what books to take on vacation sparked an interesting discussion about Deighton and Le Carré. The verdict is in: I’m Team Deighton. Berlin Game was my first Deighton since adoring SS-GB as a teenager in the 80s. And it’s so good! I loved its evocation of late 70s, early 80s Berlin (and London for that matter). (Funny how the 80s now seem like the 60s—so old fashioned.) The spy story is suitably but not overly complicated. (That’s my rap on most spy fiction—I’m not smart enough to keep all the double agents and moles straight.) The final explanation didn’t completely surprise me, but Deighton’s chutzpah in going through with it did. I listened to an old audiobook, enjoyably narrated by someone whose name I’ve forgotten: a perfect commute book. Pity my library only has the sequels in print form. Let the Deighton revival begin!

Kit Pearson, The Lights Go on Again (1993) This summer I enjoyed the first two books in Kit Pearson’s trilogy about two English children sent to Canada during WWII. Since my public library didn’t have the third, I figured I’d either have to wait until my next trip home or find it via ILL. Imagine my delight, then, when my daughter and I, finally tackling the long overdue job of cleaning her room, found this on her shelf! (I think my mom bought it at a garage sale or something.) Anyway, I devoured it that same day, particularly appreciating Pearson’s decision to switch focus from Norah (the elder sibling) to Gavin (the younger). In the final volume, the war is in its last weeks, and a series of terrible events and big decisions make for anxious times for the Stoakes children and their guardians. I was genuinely surprised by the ending, which I imagine the publishers might have resisted. Suitably ambivalent. Can’t recommend this series enough, either for children (probably 10+) or adults.

Liana Millu, Smoke over Birkenau (1947) Trans. Lynne Sharon Schwartz (1991) I’ve written about this Holocaust memoir before. Fifth or sixth time I’ve read it; with this last reading I feel confident I won’t have to re-read it every semester any more. (Though I see I wrote that last semester too.) Millu’s been a fabulous addition to my class. Students love her, and I keep finding new things to say about her. Of interest to anyone who wants to know more about the female experience of the camp system—and anyone interested in a memoir that has the pacing, structure, and textual grain of a fine short story.

Ngaio Marsh, Death at the Bar (1940) I had this lying around, I’d enjoyed the first couple of books in the series when I read them three or four years ago, and the first pages grabbed me. But before long I was finding it a slog. Not enough Alleyn. Could it be that the only “Golden Age” crime writer I like is Josephine Tey?

Robert Harris, The Conclave (2016) The inimitable Jenny Davidson recommended Harris to me; I started with this one because my local library had a copy of the audiobook. I’ve rarely given the mechanics of how Pope’s come to power a second’s thought; it is one of my failings that I find books on Jewish topics engrossing, but books on Christian topics irritating or, at best, alienating. But I was caught up in this book from the start. It helps that it’s more about politics (gossip, ambition, the use, even manipulation of procedures to get something done) than about religion. But I also appreciated that Harris takes the faith of his characters seriously. He helped me imagined how someone could devote their lives to God in what to a Jew is such an unusual, even off-putting way (cloistering the self from the world, I just don’t get that). But where Harris really excels is in telling a suspenseful story. The Conclave follows Cardinal Lomelli, Dean of the College of Cardinals, (as such, responsible for running Papal elections), from the time he receives the news of the death of the Holy Father until white smoke finally ascends through the Vatican chimney. It should tell you everything you need to know about how much I enjoyed this book that for the week and a half it took me to listen to it, I eagerly awaited my daily commute. No idea whether Harris is always this good, but I’m definitely going to find out.

Andrea Camilleri, The Other End of the Line (2016) Trans. Stephen Sartarelli (2019) My first Montalbano since Camilleri’s death, which lent the whole thing extra poignancy: the number of this reliably pleasing series is now finite. This is an especially good installment. It includes the usual shenanigans (great food, amusing banter, clueless supervisors), but an important subplot about the nightly arrival of hundreds of desperate refugees on Sicilian shores lends the book unusual gravitas. Montalbano and his colleagues find themselves on the front lines, working almost every night, in addition to their day jobs, to “process” exhausted and frightened people.

Tony Judt, The Memory Chalet (2010) Amazing that we even have the essays collected in this volume, as Judt wrote them (via, I gather, a difficult process of dictation, having composed them in his mind during many sleepless hours) while his body was inexorably overtaken by ALS. I’ve had his huge history Postwar on my shelves for a long time; I’m daunted just looking up at the thing. These essays were a much more manageable introduction to his work. But I’m guessing a not particularly representative one. Judt is a good memoirist, but not a great one. For understandable reasons, the book is quite fragmented, and some essays are better than others. Being of Swiss background, I appreciated his defense of Switzerland (a small hotel in the Berner Oberland, site of a memorable childhood family vacation, gives the book its title). I especially liked his piece on public transportation, and how much he loved it as a child. Judt rightly marvels that his parents thought nothing of his setting out for day-long journeys across and around London as a child of only 10 or so. And I admired his midlife decision to learn Czech (a language he had no previous familiarity with), thereby launching himself on his way to becoming, in mid-career, an expert on Central and Eastern Europe. But I’m never that impressed by academics who don’t seem to like teaching (which, judging by its almost total absence here, would seem to include Judt). And some of his chapters criticizing the kids today for their snowflake tendencies are downright irritating. Might be hard pressed to remember this one in a year’s time.

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There you have it. Deighton and Harris win the light reading sweepstakes. Millu is a writer for the ages. October’s gotta be better, right?

July & August 2019 in Review

Been a long time since I wrote anything here, and two months since my last reading update. What have I been doing? Took a long vacation back home the end of July and early August. Then school started up again. (We’re through the first two weeks: I’m surviving, but the whole thing doesn’t feel quite real yet. The entering class seems sharp, though, which is heartening.) And my wife and I finally gave in to our daughter’s pleas: we got a puppy (exhausting, even though our older dog is doing a lot of the work). I’ve found it hard to make time to write, but I did do a fair bit of reading, especially on holiday, mostly light stuff. Much of it was enjoyable, but I’m not sure too much here will be on the end of the year list.

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July

Ian Thomson, Primo Levi: A Life (2002) Not especially captivating (the writing was surprisingly pedestrian), but a great way to learn a lot about Levi. He could be joyful, caring, and inquisitive, but the older he grew the more those sides of him struggled to get out from under serious depression. At the end of his life he despaired about the resurgence of fascism. This was in the mid 80s. Think how unhappy he’d be today.

As part of my centenary celebration of Levi’s life and work, I made a list of Levi facts.

Esther Freud, Lucky Break (2011) My summer project to make it through Freud’s backlist (see May and June’s posts) continued with this, her second-most-recent novel. It begins at an acting school in London in the late 70s, early 80s, almost certainly modelled on the one Freud herself attended. (She’s written about this milieu before, most notably in Peerless Flats.) What’s different here is that Freud continues past the adolescent/early-adult years and tracks the fates of several characters into middle age. She moves between perspectives, showing us who makes it, who doesn’t, who never gets over that formative drama school experience, who brushes it off or takes it in stride in becoming their mature self. What is a lucky break? When you get what you want? When you make a narrow escape? Not Freud’s best, but I don’t think she has a bad book in her.

Margarita Liberaki, Three Summers (1946) Trans. Karen van Dyck (1995) You can read my thoughts here. Short version: good!

Inge Auerbach, I Am a Star: Child of the Holocaust (1986) Illustrations Israel Bernbaum A Holocaust memoir for young readers (I’d say maybe 9-12). For me, the primary appeal was the unusualness of the writer’s circumstances. Auerbach grew up in a small town near the Black Forest, surprising because Germany had a Jewish population of only half a million before the war, and few lived in the south-west. Auerbach was deported to Theresienstadt, a former military barrack turned Potemkin village, from which she was fortunate not to have been deported to Auschwitz. She was there at the time of the infamous Red Cross visit (the Germans spruced the place up to show the world how much they had the interests of Jews at heart) and she clearly remembered the production of the children’s opera Brundibar. I Am a Star would be a good introduction to the Holocaust (unusually for a book of its time it is not centered on a Gentile child who witnesses events at second hand), but I must confess it hasn’t particularly stayed with me. (I had to look up most of these details.) What is vivid is a scene in which the six-year-old Auerbach has to take the train, all alone, to the not-so-nearby city of Stuttgart in order to go to the only school in the area for Jews. She’s wearing the star, which I believe was instituted in Germany proper only in 1941, which means this was happening when preparations for the full implementation of the “Final Solution” were gaining speed rapidly; the adults around her are hostile, indifferent, or mutely embarrassed.

I’ve just learned I’m going to get to meet her this fall. It will be an honour.

Vivian Gornick, Fierce Attachments (1987) Impelled to read this by the NYT poll that listed it as the best memoir of the past 50 years. Well, who knows about that, but it’s definitely great. Personally, I found it less fascinating than her much more recent The Odd Woman (crazily underrated), but I still liked it a lot. Even if you’re less fascinated than I am by American (aka Jewish) communism of the 1930s and its long, mostly sad aftermath you’re bound to find much to love here. Who doesn’t love a great tale of generational conflict? Gornick’s mother is a monster, and a delight, and a show-stealer. (Gornick has the grace not to begrudge this.) The book moves between memories of Gornick’s childhood and descriptions of the long walks she takes with her mother in the present (now long past) day. These walks are the venues for a life-long argument about how women should understand their lives. As Gornick explains so usefully in the first half of her book The Situation and the Story (I teach it all the time), good writing doesn’t so much depend on what you’re writing about (the situation) as it does how you frame it, how you tell it, how you organize it (the story). Fierce Attachments gives an old situation (which is why people from all kinds of backgrounds will likely relate to it) a killer story.

Ross Macdonald, The Moving Target (1949) The first Archer novel, notable mostly for showing how much Macdonald improved as a writer over his career. The book has its moments—Macdonald was always terrific with California geography (here best expressed in two harrowing drives, one along the coast in thick fog and one through the mountains at night), and his fascination with misunderstandings between generations is already evident—but on the whole it’s fairly thin. For completists only.

Georges Simenon, The Strangers in the House (1940) Trans. Geoffrey Sainsbury w. David Watson & others (1951) I’ve read a few Simenons (a couple Maigrets, a couple romans durs), but I’ve never really got on with him. My attention wanders, even though they’re so short. But everyone loves them, so I keep trying. With The Strangers in the House everything finally clicked. Hector Loursat has given up: he holes up in his crumbling house, whole floors of which are boarded up, where he lives alone except for some servants and his adult daughter, Nicole, emerging from his room only for meals and trips to the cellar for more Burgundy. Drinking and reading is all that’s left in his life. (Honestly, is that so bad?) His law career is abandoned, his reputation in tatters (not that he cares). But one day he hears a gunshot from inside the house. He investigates: there’s a dead man upstairs. Nicole admits that she and some friends had run over a man during a drunken late-night joyride. Her boyfriend, Emile, was the one driving the car, but the young couple insist they didn’t kill him. In fact, they’d brought him into the house and tended to him in the hopes he would heal. The police don’t believe a word of it, and they arrest Emile. To everyone’s surprise, even his own, Hector decides to defend the boy, which brings him closer to his daughter than he’d been for years.

I loved three things about this book: its atmosphere (perennially foggy, drizzly, and grey); its refusal of redemption (it teases us with the possibility before foreclosing it abruptly); and its hair-raising depiction of a man who just wants to be left alone being brought out into the world. A frightening parable for introverts everywhere.

Alex Beer, The Second Rider (2017) Trans. Tim Mohr (2018) Had high hopes for this Viennese crime novel set in the immediate aftermath of WWI, but, although diverting enough for a plane ride, it’s disappointingly clunky. The series might improve (at least two installments remain untranslated), but doubt I’ll follow up. The more historical crime fiction I read, the more I realize no one can touch Philip Kerr.

Dorothy Baker, Cassandra at the Wedding (1962) They don’t write them like this anymore. I don’t really know what I mean by that. Maybe it’s the tone—kind of old-fashioned, but not in a bad way. Maybe it’s the self-confidence of the world it depicts (Berkley and a ranch in rural California), even though the main character has no such assurance. Ingeniously narrated in three parts, the first and last by the eponymous Cassandra, and the middle by her twin sister, Judith, the book is set in the days before Judith is to be married. Cassandra doesn’t want her to. She wants to be with Judith forever. Baker’s trying to do something really complex. We have to be drawn to Cassandra, but we have to see that there’s something monstrous about her, too. Yet if we demonize her we risk capitulating to some pretty conventional ideas of what life should be like, especially for women. But we also have to recognize that someone could desire to be conventional without being in bad faith. Baker pulls it off—always keeping us off balance, always make us think further. She ends with a beautiful, vivid, and enigmatic image, a shoe spiraling from the Golden Gate bridge into the water. Intimation of release or premonition of bad things to come? Jacqui has a good review. Please link to others in the comments.

Sally Rooney, Conversations with Friends (2017) I confess I started this as a hate-read. A number of readers I trust had disparaged it (thin gruel, overrated, the kids today). But I loved it. And not just the book, but the reading of the book. Sometimes reading feels like work, or like something I steal from the rest of life. But every once in a while it’s pure pleasure and amazement. I stayed up much too late, as compelled to read just one more chapter as if it had been the most suspenseful thriller. Although initially unimpressive at the level of the sentence—an impression I increasingly questioned and that I look forward to revising when I read it again, as I’m sure I will—the novel really impresses in its depiction of new models of relationships. (I was reminded of Women in Love, which is pretty much the highest praise I can give!) As soon as I finished I started thinking about how well it would fit at the end of my 20th Century Experimental British Fiction course. Rooney’s depiction of relationships would complement Lawrence and Ballard, while her use of narrative voice could be juxtaposed to Woolf (in The Waves) and Beckett (in Molloy). Conversations with Friends is contemporary without being topical. (It’s not the inclusion of text message strings that makes it of our moment.) By all means read this essay by Claire Jarvis: she has so many interesting things to say about Rooney. For example: “She is baring her teeth at the group of female writers she closely resembles. Masochistic elements run through her fiction, not exactly as fully fledged fetishes or desires, more as evidence of the baseline structure of heterosexuality.”

Can’t wait to read Normal People (after three months on the library waiting list I’ve finally cracked the top 20!).

John Le Carré, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) I didn’t love this book, but I did come to admire it. Le Carré tells his story with impressive vagueness. Imagine a spy novel in which all the action is told second or third hand. (In this way, Le Carré is the anti-Lionel Davidson.) As I read I kept seeing Smiley as Alec Guiness—but, since I dozed through most of that lengthy British mini-series when my wife and I watched it years ago (she loved it; I recognized it was good but found it a powerful soporific), the ending hadn’t been ruined for me. And as the book went on (it’s not short) I grew increasingly invested in who the mole in the British service might be, and how Smiley’s duel with Soviet string-puller Karla would turn out. Probably spy stories are not my preferred genre (I’m too stupid—all the double and triple crossing confuses me), but I can see that this is good stuff. And I’m interested enough to read more Le Carré, especially the rest of the Karla trilogy. But not so interested that I’m dropping everything to do so.

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August

Kit Pearson, The Sky is Falling (1989) While on vacation I read three books by the Canadian children’s writer Kit Pearson. They were perfect choices. (I hadn’t read her before; I was just too old for her books when she started writing.) Pearson doesn’t seem well known in the US. (Or in the UK?) But she should be. The Sky is Falling is the first of The Guests of War trilogy, which focuses on child evacuees from England to Canada during WWII. Norah and Gavin Stokes, ten and five years old in this first book, are sent along with hundreds of other English children in a convoy across the North Atlantic to safety in Canada. Especially for Norah, through whose eyes we experience events, the journey is a mixed blessing. She misses her friends and family, she fears she has been made by her parents to be a coward, and she resents the superiority of the Canadians she meets (she resents their security). The Stokes children are taken in by the old-moneyed Ogilvies, who live in Toronto’s tony Rosedale neighbourhood. Florence Ogilvie, the family’s matriarch, is bossy, used to getting her way, and blinded by grief at the death of her son in WWI. Florence’s chief victim is her gentle but cowed daughter, Mary—that is, until she shifts her attention to trying to rein in Norah. I was impressed by the profound moral dilemma Pearson considers here: what happens when learning to make your way in a new life comes at the cost of losing the old one? What do children and parents owe each other? Lots to chew on here: I recommend for readers of all ages 10 and up.

Vivek Shanbhag, Ghachar Chochar (2013) Trans. Srinath Perur (2017) Wonderful novella about a family in Bangalore who are much richer than they used to be, but who aren’t willing to acknowledge what they had to do to get there. Shanbhag doesn’t judge them for it, but he makes the cost clear. He’s a genius at suggesting something’s wrong without telling us what exactly (like Ishiguro, but less mystical). A friend of mine, talking about college donors, says there’s no clean money. More books today should be about money. If I were Fredric Jameson I might say something about how only a so-called Third World country—only a country that has the particular vexed relationship to capitalism that so-called emerging economies have—could take up the mantle of the 19th century European realists. I’m most left haunted by the untranslated title, an expression made up by a family peripheral to the story to describe something tangled beyond repair. A beautiful, mysterious book. Read Joe’s review for a more detailed take.

Kit Pearson, Looking at the Moon (1991) The second volume of the Guests of War trilogy is set at the Ogilvies’ summer place in Muskoka, the genteelly shabby Gairloch. A couple of years have passed since the first book (it’s now 1943), and Norah is becoming a teenager. The war is more in the backdrop here than in the previous book, but it matters all the same, especially when a cousin of the family, dashing 19-year-old Andrew, arrives for summer vacation. Norah has her first crush, but she can’t understand why he is terrified of enlisting. Even in this perfect summer book—if you want to know about a certain kind of Old Canadian life, real Group of Seven stuff, sort of New England patrician transported to the Canadian shield, complete with lots of canoeing and sailing and fishing and blueberry pies, this is the book for you—difficult problems arise.

Kit Pearson, A Handful of Time (1987) Not part of the trilogy (the last book was checked out at the library: now that I’m back in the States I’ll have to track it down via interlibrary loan), but another enjoyable read from Pearson. Twelve-year-old Patricia’s parents are getting divorced, and her brittle, accomplished mother (a news anchor) sends her West for the summer. Leaving Toronto—where she is used to cooking sophisticated meals with her father and going to art classes she doesn’t particularly enjoy—Patricia arrives in Edmonton and is immediately taken to a nearby lake where her relatives summer. As she fears, Patricia (a more immediately likeable character than Norah) is scorned by her outdoorsy cousins; taking refuge in a disused cabin she finds an old watch that takes her back to the 1950s, and the summer when her mother was twelve. Another terrific summer read.

Marlen Haushofer, The Loft (1969) Trans. Amanda Prantera (2011) Last year I read Haushofer’s The Wall for Women in Translation month. I loved it, and thought I’d follow up with The Loft, Haushofer’s final novel. (She died of cancer shortly before her 50th birthday, leaving only a handful of works.) Maybe it wasn’t the right book to read on holiday. Maybe the translation isn’t quite up to snuff. (Shaun Whiteside did a wonderful job with The Wall; not sure I can say the same for Amanda Prantera here. The book felt awkward to me in ways the earlier one didn’t. The syntax is straightforward enough that I could have a go at the original, just to see.) But in the end, I think it’s that The Wall, despite its post-apocalyptic setting, is simply a more generous book. Haushofer’s subject is the crippling conformity of post-war Austria (she’s a less histrionic Bernhard).

The loft of the title is the narrator’s atelier, where she works on her drawings of insects for children’s books, and pursues her endless quest to draw a bird that doesn’t look as though it is the only one in the world. Mostly, though, it’s the place where she hides away to read entries from her own diaries, which begin arriving mysteriously by post. The diaries are from a two-year period in her life, shortly after the war, when she was sent away by her husband to recuperate in the countryside (with only the company of two differently vexing and surly men, nursemaids and confidantes of a sort) from an unnamed traumatic event and sudden attendant deafness. (Hysterical in the true sense of the term: that is, her deafness is a way to express in bodily form feelings that can’t otherwise come out.) Pleasingly, the arrival of the diaries is just as non-cathartic as the event is undescribed. (It presumably has something to do with the legacy of the war, but I appreciate Haushofer’s unwillingness to spell that out.) Yet the book feels cramped and airless in a way The Wall doesn’t. Which makes sense of course: the conceit of the earlier work is that it would take a vast destructive event (an event even more traumatic than a war) to liberate women. (And even that liberation would be on temporary, on sufferance). In this regard, The Loft is the kind of book it has to be. I just like the kind of book The Wall is better.

Daphne Du Maurier, The Glass-Blowers (1963) Pretty different from the other Du Mauriers I’ve read. Historical, yes, but neither a romance nor Gothic. Written apparently in a fallow time in Du Maurier’s life, when she decided to spend time in France researching the origins of her mother’s family. (While there she became inspired to write The Scapegoat, one of her best books. It’s unclear if Du Maurier really understood what it was to be fallow.) At any rate, this is a book about the years before, during, and after the French revolution centered on a family of glass-blowers. It has always been a shame of mine how poorly I understand the revolution. I’ve never read Tale of Two Cities or The Scarlet Pimpernel or even Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety. In her excellent introduction to this recent Virago edition, Michelle de Kretser (I loved The Lost Dog) uses the term “dutiful” to describe parts of the book. Accurate, but as de Kretser says, not because Du Maurier has written a bad book. Rather, Du Maurier’s interestingly taking on herself here—aiming to write a realist novel different in tone, style, and premise from the books that made her famous. De Kretser suggests that the best parts of the book are the ones in which Du Maurier can’t hold herself to her task, or, to say it another way, when she can’t help but be her herself. (I was particularly struck by the book’s ambivalent exploration—part condemnation, part fascination—with rumour-mongering as a political tactic. Rumours and gossip are presented as monstrous, taking on a life of their own with grim results.) The Glass-Blowers isn’t Du Maurier’s best book, and I’d never suggest anyone start with it, but it’s never dull. It’s more muted than her other work, but still highly readable. I do wish there’d been more actual discussion of glass blowing, though. Du Maurier uses it as a metaphor for shape- and sense-making more generally. Which, when a society moves from a time when meaning is monarchical (fixed and guaranteed) to one in which it is arbitrary (arbitrary and relational), is no small matter.

Adrian McKinty, The Chain (2019) High-concept crime novel that starts fabulously but fades badly. The idea is pretty genius: a shadowy cabal creates a demonic chain letter. The parents of a kidnapped child don’t get their child back until they kidnap another child, and so on down the list. The idea is terrifying, and almost plausible. But the resolution is antic and overdrawn. By the end of the day—yes, I read it in a single day, almost against my own wishes—I felt tawdry and bloated, as if I’d eaten nothing but junk food.

Dervla McTiernan, The Ruin (2018) By contrast, a much quieter and more successful crime novel, an old-fashioned procedural, with echoes of Tana French (partly from the Irish setting, partly from the mistrust among members of the murder squad). A pleasant surprise.

Philip Kerr, Prague Fatale (2010) Not the best Bernie Guenther, but solid nonetheless. Kerr has always included historical figures in the series, but usually in walk-on parts. Here Reinhard Heydrich, known as the Blond Beast, the primary architect of the Final Solution, takes center stage, and this seems to hamper Kerr. The Guenther books are always despairing, but they’re usually leavened with laugh-out loud humour. Here things felt sour.

Dervla McTiernan, The Scholar (2019) The second in the Cormac Reilly series isn’t quite as good as the first, but it’s still better than your average procedural. McTiernan is fleshing out the other members of the murder squad admirably, which promises even better things from the third installment, due next year. (One of the things that made Mankell’s Wallander series so good—aside from their suspense—is that the other cops mattered too.)

Laura Lippman, Lady in the Lake (2019) The first audiobook of the semester was a doozy. I loved last year’s Sunburn (still think about it all the time), but Lippman has outdone herself here. True, I’ve only read four or five of her many books, so my sample size isn’t huge, but I can easily imagine this is her best book. Like all her work, it’s set in Baltimore. But it’s also about Baltimore, and, by extension, plenty of other cities that are in fact really more like small towns. She’s so good at showing how various parts of the city—journalism, politics, the police—and various groups, especially Jews and Blacks, intertwine. There’s a sociological or anthropological quality, fascinating in itself, but even better in that it serves a suspenseful and moving plot, about a 30-something Jewish woman in 1966 who leaves married life and sets out to become a newspaper reporter. Added bonus: Lippman writes sex really well.

Georges Simenon, The Train (1958? 1961?) Trans. Robert Baldick (1964) Strange book, from the bibliographic information on down. (The copyright page of my edition has no original pub date, and an online search revealed conflicting information. Any ideas, people?) After enjoying Strangers so much (see above), I thought I’d make my way through some more of my Simenon backlog. (I own a lot of books by him, considering how lukewarm I am on him.) This started promisingly, another quasi-everyman (but maybe a bit of a wrong un) dropped into extreme circumstances. But the circumstance here is the German invasion of France. In June 1940 Marcel Féron escapes his northern French town for points south together with his pregnant wife and small child. But they are soon separated, and his convoy, mostly filled with Belgian refugees, becomes a version of the transports taking Jews to death in the East. Marcel meets a woman on the train, they get involved, they live for a while in a refugee camp in the south. Their relationship ends as suddenly as it began: Marcel gets word of his family’s whereabouts and returns to them. He sees the woman once more, and only then do we learn her full name, Anna Kupfer, and her particular war work. The idea is that’s she’s Jewish, and Marcel’s unwillingness to get involved with her or her resistance work is perhaps a metaphor for French quietism. But the book works neither on its own terms nor as a political allegory. And so my interest in Simenon has waned once again. Maybe we’re just not meant to be.

There you have it. The highlights were Baker, Liberaki, Gornick, Shanbhag, the McTiernans and, above all, Sally Rooney. How was your summer, reading or otherwise?

 

“Antidote to Fascism”: Primo Levi, Chemist and Writer (Guest Post, Nathaniel Leach)

“Ah, yes, you’re the fellow who wrote a book,” a customer tells Primo Levi in The Periodic Table, Levi’s third memoir, a book about his first career, chemistry. Levi stifles his annoyance at this comment under his professional exterior in a way that reminds us that Levi, too, sees his career as a writer as secondary, a historical accident that sometimes either interferes with or assists his professional endeavours. Despite these occasional self-deprecatory references, The Periodic Table invites us to see connections between his two “careers,” both of which require careful observation and an inquiring mind that is willing to revise its initial hypotheses about the world.

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Of course, the book being referred to is his first memoir, Se questo è un uomo, notoriously translated in the U.S. as Survival in Auschwitz, but literally If this is a Man. Levi notes that if it had not been for his deportation to Auschwitz, he may never have become a writer in the first place, but the book’s careful descriptions, thoughtful analyses and avoidance of simplistic explanations or judgments anticipate a long writing career that would only gradually start to supplant his life as a chemist. The title of this first book, in fact, provides an appropriate orientation towards The Periodic Table; the question posed by Auschwitz, Levi suggests, is whether its victims (or its perpetrators) have been completely dehumanized, reduced to the level of mere physical matter, or whether something ennobling or redeeming persists in the midst of such horror. In The Periodic Table, this question is taken up in its descriptions of the human attempt to come to terms with the materiality of the world.

In each chapter of The Periodic Table Levi presents this struggle via an anecdote related to one of the elements of the periodic table. The chapters are arranged in a loose chronological order, starting with Argon, the “inert” or “noble” gas used as a metaphor for Levi’s Jewish-Italian ancestors and ending with Carbon, a seemingly whimsical “micro-history” of an atom of carbon. In between, most chapters are autobiographical, describing an incident in the life of Levi, the chemist, although he includes two short stories written in his youth and two brief stories in which Levi does not appear (and which therefore seem to be fictional). In describing these experiences, Levi suggests resonances between the rulebound world of chemical interactions and the less predictable world of human interactions. At the heart of these parallels lies the question of Levi’s earlier book, the question of humanity; are human beings simply physical matter composed of the chemical elements discussed in the book, or something more? And in what might that something more consist?

It is characteristic of Levi that there are no simple answers offered; from the outset of the book, he calls attention to the complexity of the “human condition, since man is a centaur, a tangle of flesh and mind, divine inspiration and dust”. Chemistry itself becomes emblematic of this division, as Levi’s chapters illustrate both the human desire for scientific knowledge, mastery and overcoming of the physical world and the recalcitrance of matter to even the most inspired human stratagems. As an example of the former, the chapter on “Chromium” is structured much like a detective story in which a problem (the production of faulty paint) presents itself and Levi must use his powers of deduction to solve it. In this case, Levi does indeed come up with an ingenious solution, but many other chapters describe dismal failures—explosions, escaped rabbits, chicken shit that refuses to give up its valuable chemicals, to name a few—that remind us of the limits of human science.

While Levi describes his younger self’s attraction to chemistry as idealistic (if confused), the book’s seemingly disconnected chapters illustrate many different perspectives on this science. His initial attraction to chemistry, Levi says, came from a sense “That the nobility of Man, acquired in a hundred centuries of trial and error, lay in making himself the conqueror of matter, and that I had enrolled in chemistry because I wanted to remain faithful to this nobility. That conquering matter is to understand it, and understanding matter is necessary to understanding the universe and ourselves…” And later, in the “Chromium” chapter, he asks: “It is the spirit that dominates matter, is that not so? Was it not this that they had hammered into my head in the Fascist and Gentile liceo? I threw myself into the work with the same intensity that, at not so distant a period, we had attacked a rock wall; and the adversary was still the same, the not-I, the Button-Molder, the hyle: stupid matter, slothfully hostile as human stupidity is hostile, and like it strong because of its obtuse passivity.”

Levi himself points out the fascist undertones of this rhetoric of conquering and domination, which is perhaps softened by his equation of “conquering” with “understanding,” but the book raises the question of whether understanding can take place in a way that does not equate to such a violent metaphor. As his schooling progresses, he changes his position: “Matter was our ally precisely because the Spirit, dear to Fascism, was our enemy; but, having reached the fourth year of Pure Chemistry, I could no longer ignore the fact that chemistry itself, or at least that which we were being administered, did not answer my questions.” Levi criticizes the apparent alliance between the fascist and the scientific spirit, but also holds out hope that science may be thought of in other terms by noting that it is “that which we were being administered” that is harmful, not chemistry in itself. Indeed, Levi’s book presents the sciences as tentative, speculative pursuits, often quixotic in their aims, and alternately satisfying and disappointing.

In fact, one of the dominant threads that can be traced through this book is the idea that chemistry is fundamentally anti-fascist both in its humbling of the human spirit and in its illumination of the disproof the material world offers to fascist rhetoric. He notes that the sciences may be seen as an “antidote to Fascism… because they were clear and distinct and verifiable at every step, and not a tissue of lies and emptiness, like the radio and newspapers”. Chemistry, above all, is not “fake news”; its results will always reveal truth at an elemental level, even if this truth is not the desired result.

But Levi values chemistry for reasons beyond its factuality; in an early passage describing his study of chemistry in fascist Italy, he suggests that the lesson we can learn from chemistry is that the natural world itself resists the simplistic, uniform ideals that fascism stands for: “In order for the wheel to turn, for life to be lived, impurities are needed… Dissension, diversity, the grain of salt and mustard are needed: Fascism does not want them, forbids them, and that’s why you’re not a Fascist; it wants everybody to be the same, and you are not. But immaculate virtue does not exist either, or if it exists it is detestable.” Levi uses chemistry to form a positive metaphor for “impurity”; rather than the Nazi metaphors drawn from the field of biology that compared Jews to a virus or to vermin, he identifies his own otherness with the catalysts in a chemical reaction. In this metaphor, difference and diversity are needed in order to propel progress forward.

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Levi (foreground, right) during his study of chemistry at the university in Turin, 1940

From this point of view, then, perhaps it is most useful to see The Periodic Table as the place where Levi’s two careers collide, and produce something original. Levi describes his early, idealistic self as feeling that “Mendeleev’s Periodic Table, which just during those weeks we were laboriously learning to unravel, was poetry, loftier and more solemn than all the poetry we had swallowed down in liceo; and come to think of it, it even rhymed! That if one looked for the bridge, the missing link, between the world of words and the world of things, one did not have to look far: it was there in our Autenrieth [textbook], in our smoke-filled labs, and in our future trade.” Chemistry, like writing, Levi suggests, is the transformation of the material world into a communicable form, a means of making some kind of harmony or understanding out of the raw “world of things”. In The Periodic Table, Levi is both a chemist who writes, as in “Chromium,” and a writer who uses chemistry as a metaphor, as in “Argon,” or to examine minutely the nature of the world, as in “Carbon,” which ends the book on a point that quite literally fuses the fields of chemistry and writing.

Or, as in the case of “Vanadium,” the penultimate chapter, to explore the complex relationships between Levi’s lives as professional chemist and author, and between his present and his past. Levi’s professional activities bring him into contact with a Dr. Müller, whom he confirms that he met in Auschwitz. Levi assesses him with his characteristic clarity of vision: “Neither infamous nor a hero: after filtering off the rhetoric and the lies in good or bad faith there remained a typically gray human specimen, one of the not so few one-eyed men in the kingdom of the blind.” Levi is reluctantly drawn into a personal correspondence while trying to resolve a professional problem, and the chapter suggests both the power and the limitations of writing as a means of making human connections and resolving the issues of the past. As with chemistry, so with human relations; imperfections and failed connections are an inherent part of the process.

Levi suggests towards the end of the book that “matter is matter, neither noble nor vile, infinitely transformable, and its proximate origin is of no importance whatever.” This is what much of the book, and especially the final chapter on “Carbon” seems to suggest; the power of the chemist, like that of the writer, is to transform things, change them from one state to another without ascribing to them a single stable value. This, perhaps, is the great skill exhibited by Levi in both his careers: the power to transform matter into meaning without the hubris of claiming to have ever spoken the final word.

“Without Families You Don’t Get Stories”: Bart van Es’s The Cut Out Girl

In The Cut Out Girl (2018), the Dutch-born English academic Bart van Es investigates his family’s past. At its heart is Lien de Jong, who in August 1942 was given into the safekeeping of van Es’s grandparents by her desperate Jewish parents.

Van Es’s title refers to a paper silhouette that Lien pastes into an album that surprisingly survived the war. Such albums were common in Holland (the famous diary Anne Frank received for her 12th birthday, less than two months before Lien joined her new family, was probably an album of this sort). Friends, family, and neighbours would fill the pages with well-wishes, typically phrased as achingly sententious poetry.

But the title also refers to Lien herself, who is sliced away from life as she has known it—and then, many years later, cut out again, this time by her adopted family. Van Es’s detective work is prompted by the confusion and resentment, the whole no-go zone that surrounds Lien’s place in his family. Is Lien his aunt or not? What happened between her and his grandmother? Most families suffer from blights of this kind: some fight or hurt the causes of which no one is even sure any more but the effects of which persist through the generations. In this case, though, that ordinary event is complicated by war, displacement, and trauma.

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In their first meeting, Lien tells van Es, “Without families you don’t get stories.” For Lien, stories are important because they ensure continuity. They let you make sense of yourself by connecting you to those around you. Van Es would agree, but for him the act of telling is as important as the substance of what’s told. After all, the word Lien uses is stories not story: stories compete with but also complete each other. The plural implies richness, motivation, complexity.

Midway through his researches, van Es is shown a book called Bennekom: Jewish Refuge, detailing the fates of the 166 Jews who were hidden in the town, more than 80% of whom survived. (This is particularly remarkable, since the death rate for Jews in Holland was the exact opposite of Bennekom’s—80% were murdered, higher than anywhere else in Western Europe.) With trembling fingers, van Es finds the entry for Lien:

At Algemeer 33 with Gijs van Laar there was a Jewish girl, Lientje [a diminutive of Lien], in hiding. Lientje belonged to the family and was a total part of it. She attended the Reformed School. She survived the war.

The Cut Out Girl is an attempt to replace this brusque—and, we learn, misleading—narrative with a fuller picture; to take this quasi-official story and to show what it doesn’t or cannot tell; to expose what is self-serving or misguided in it. For van Es also recognizes that stories can blind us. They can confer a false sense of mastery. Which is why he aims to be as self-aware as possible in reconstructing Lien’s story.

That story begins in 1933 in The Hague, when Lien is born to Charles de Jong and Catharine de Jong-Spiero. In the handful of surviving photos, Lien’s parents are attractive, sporty, carefree. That can’t have been the whole story: there was some sort of trouble between her parents when Lien was very small, and she was sent to live with relatives for a year. But her parents reconcile, and Lien grows up an ordinary child living an ordinary life, even after Germany invades Holland in May 1940. But by the next year life is more difficult for Dutch Jews, even ones like the de Jongs who do not identify as such. By 1942, deportation notices are widespread. Lien’s parents look for a way to send her into hiding; in August they entrust her to a resistance organization headed by a couple named Heroma (who seem absolutely heroic and deserve a book of their own). Mrs. Heroma brings Lien to the van Es home in Dordrecht, and later ferries her to the many safe houses she passes through.

Despite some initial difficulties—Lien has always been a finicky eater and her new family has no patience for that sort of thing; she has never slept in a room with other people; her upbringing has been more sheltered and more emotional than the world she now enters—Lien fits in well with the family, who have children close to her age. At first she calls Jans and Henk van Es Auntie and Uncle; later it will be Ma and Pa. Van Es includes heartbreaking letters smuggled from Lien’s parents to their daughter congratulating her on her ninth birthday. By the time she receives them, both have been deported to Auschwitz. Neither survive.

Lien does, though it is a near thing. One day in early 1943 two policemen arrive at the house, looking for Jews. (Holland was the only country to offer cash rewards to those who turned in Jews.) Lien narrowly escapes: Auntie sends her to a neighbour where she cowers in the unused sitting room). Thus begins the most difficult phase of her time in hiding. She is moved from one safe house to another, often staying only a day or two in any one place. Eventually, she is placed with a family in Bennekom. The van Laars are pious and self-righteous. Yes, they have taken a risk by accepting Lien into their home, but they also treat her as a servant. Lien spends the rest of the war with the van Laars. By this time, events have taken a toll on her. She loses a clear sense of who she is: her life was on low heat, she tells van Es. She lived in a dreamworld, she sometimes felt herself flying over her surroundings. She regresses, wetting her bed, losing weight. She becomes numb, disassociated, feelings that only intensify when Gijs van Laar’s charismatic but violent brother, a man she has also learned to call Uncle, sexually abuses her. The van Laars turn a blind eye—it is understood that Lien and her Uncle have a special friendship. What this means is that the man takes her into the forest and rapes her.

Lien is desperate to escape. When the war ends, Mrs. Heroma asks her what she wants to do. She wants only to return to the van Esses. At first they refuse. It is a great blow. In the time Lien has been away they have had another child; Henk is increasingly involved in socialist politics and the postwar reconstruction effort; bringing Lien back into the house would just be too much. But Mrs. Heroma senses it is a matter of life and death, and eventually the family relents.

A happy ending? Not quite. Lien is happy, she becomes one of the family again, even more so than before. But she never fully fits in. There’s an unhappy incident when the van Esses basically browbeat her into not applying for the gymnasium, the academic high school: the practical school was always good enough for them. But Lien finds her way. She trains to be a social worker, specializing in troubled children. Unsurprisingly, she is perfectly suited to the work. One day, in 1953, she is at home for a few days from school and falls ill. Dozing on the sofa, she is awakened by Pa kissing and stroking her. It is yet another terrible hurt, but, amazingly, this incident, which Lien keeps to herself, doesn’t separate her from the van Esses. That happens later, around 1980, after Lien has married and had children and gotten divorced. The ostensible reason for the falling out is banal, but presumably it’s just a stand-in for the sense both Lien and Ma have long felt that she never quite fit with them. Ma writes Lien an icy letter: she doesn’t want to see her again. Lien becomes part of murky family lore: thirty years pass until Bart van Es reaches out to her.

*

I certainly enjoyed The Cut Out Girl, reading it in a single day, drawn into the mystery van Es sets out to solve. But I wasn’t only reading for the plot. I had another agenda, another question in mind. Would I teach this book? On the face of it, The Cut Out Girl fits perfectly with the concerns of a course I teach called Literature after Auschwitz, which explores “postmemory,” Marianne Hirsch’s influential term for the experience of those who did not live through the Holocaust but whose lives have nonetheless been strongly shaped, often disfigured, by what those close to them (usually their parents) did experience.

Van Es’s memoir would usefully add a third-generation perspective to the class, plus one that isn’t Jewish. My interest in it as a teaching tool lies elsewhere, though. Ever since Helen Epstein first wrote about the children of survivors in the 1970s, the language of generations has dominated scholarship on the after-effects of trauma. Last year I was at a conference where Erin McGlothlin suggested that we retire or at least question this language, which she finds unnecessarily biologizing, as if there were a genetic component to trauma. Recent neurological research suggests this might in fact be true, but we should consider the relationship between these findings and the racism and biological essentialism of fascism. And what do we lose if we emphasize neuroscience? What happens to history, personal or otherwise, if we think about generations in a primarily genetic sense? What would be narrative’s place in understanding trauma? What would happen to Lien’s stories?

The Cut Out Girl adds to this conversation by advocating a non-biological sense of family. Movingly, at the end of the book Lien introduces van Es to her friends as her nephew, the man who is going to tell her story. (Too bad van Es dilutes this moment by adding an epilogue, though it’s lovely to read that in her 80s Lien has formed a relationship with a man she knew briefly as a child.) I think the book’s expansive, generous definition of family (or at least its willingness to challenge the dominance of biology in our thinking of family) will interest students.

As will its unflinching portrayal of sexual abuse during wartime, which emphasizes how easily victims can be re-victimized. This aspect of the book is so relevant to our own time, as we finally begin to acknowledge the scope of abuse and assault in society writ large. Van Es’s frankness fits with a sea change in Holocaust studies: in the past many Holocaust stories would have passed over such material in silence, though we are learning how common such experiences were. (I could usefully contextualize this material by assigning an Ida Fink story and brief selections from Molly Appelbaum’s diary that also depict the sexual abuse of Holocaust victims.)

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As you can see, then, there is a lot to like from both a readerly and a pedagogic perspective about The Cut Up Girl. Yet I also have reservations, particularly about its style and structure. I found it pedestrian at the level of the sentence, and I’m always nervous about teaching texts that I don’t think are especially amenable to close reading. (I’ve barely quoted from the book, because it’s the content much more than the expression that’s interesting.) In terms of structure, van Es does a few things well. At times, he doubles back when narrating Lien’s experiences, explaining that she has no memory of the events he’s just told. He’s forthright about how he put the story together, how he supplemented Lien’s telling with other sources, where he is speculating, etc. His telling is self-aware, which is an essential component of Holocaust literature. (But why oh why must he write in the present tense? I hate that it’s become the default narrative mode.)

But van Es’s own story is not very interesting. Of course, it’s never going to match Lien’s, nor should it. But his exercise routine, his trips to the archives, his nights clubbing with his cousin, they are all so prosaic. The point of including his own story, I think, is to assert how easily familiar terrain can become unfamiliar. How could this village have been filled with hidden people? How could this pleasantly anodyne fitness center have been the home of a family dispersed and destroyed? Sudden revelations—where what you think you know vertiginously reveals a hidden face—are as much a part of family history as of geography.

But for this conceit to really work the book would need more of van Es’s past. We would need to know more about his childhood memories, more about his own (much more modest) dislocation, between England and Holland, more about what being Dutch means to him. And we would definitely need to know more about his relationship with his stepdaughter Josie, which has been fraught in ways that, he hints, resonate compellingly with Lien’s experiences. (Not the abuse part; the having a hard time accepting someone who is thrown into your life part.) I totally get why he won’t tell us more, but it’s frustrating to be asked to imagine these connections.

But if in talking about himself van Es is too elliptical, in telling Lien’s story he uses indirection to good effect. He ably delays the big reveal (what happened between Lien and Ma?) And, more interestingly, when the answer turns out to be pretty underwhelming, he is smart about the significance of what it means that we feel let down. In other words, he has a lot to say about our desire to explain and understand. On the one hand, order is central to self-understanding. As Lien says, once she understood her own experiences as part of a pattern (a sentiment she thinks of in Buddhist terms) she was able to live more fully and freely. But on the other, we can value order too much. Patterns can become templates, sense can become cliché. The villains in The Cut Out Girl—aside from the obvious ones of the Nazis, who, true to the experience of most of their victims, barely figure in the story, or the Dutch collaborators (and there are quite a lot of these)—are those, like Mother van Laar and even Ma, who live with unshakeable conviction about how the world works. Rigidity can be a way to handle the troubles the world throws at you, not least when you’re risking your life to hide someone in your home, but it can also cause further trouble. (This paradox is similar to the one van Es proposes when he considers the Dutch tradition of tolerance, which has involved staying out of other people’s business, leading to the creation of a siloed society comprised of “pillars” (Protestants, Catholics, liberals, etc.) that seldom overlap. Could that very separateness, he asks, have been what allowed the Germans to act as they did in Holland?)

In this regard van Es’s use of the poems from Lien’s album is interesting. At first I wondered why he felt the need to include so many of them. They’re objectively terrible. Here’s one:

Roses big and roses small

Soft as velvet on a wall

But the softest petal part

Is the rose of Lietje’s heart.

But the contrast between the sentiments they express—the things Lien’s loved ones wish for her: health, happiness, success, long life—and the reality of her experience is important, and not just because of their ironic juxtaposition. Instead van Es explores an analogy: conventional form is to idealized (that is, false) sentiments as unconventional form is to accurate experience. The clunky poetry of the well wishes is so kitschy because it can’t express actual experience. To do so, especially in a time of war and disruption, would require a more unconventional way of telling.

In the end, I’m unconvinced van Es has found such a form. His book is nothing like those poems, but neither is it like the daring comparison of the story of a family and the story of a people that structures Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost: A Search for Six of the Six Million or the elegant prose of Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with the Amber Eyes, to name two books doing similar work to The Cut Out Girl. In the end, van Es’s book reminds me a bit of the doggerel that Lien’s friend Lily, who copied the lines I cited above, added at the bottom of the page: “I lay in bed and mucked about / so mum got cross and started to shout.” A lot better than the canned poem, and an engaging and daring act of non-conformism in a conformist society, but not exactly great art.

Still and all, I think I’ve talked myself into assigning the book. Do you agree? A couple of years ago I did something similar with Sara Kofman’s memoir of her time as a hidden child in Paris, Rue Ordener, Rue Labat. And Kofman has been a staple of the class for years. Students love it. Indeed, I might describe it as the book Lien might have written. That is, it is totally fractured, cryptic, and fragmented. It’s like an expression of trauma, whereas van Es’s book is a consideration of trauma, if that makes sense. The latter is less striking, but also, perhaps, more necessary. Certainly more healthy.

 

Rohan’s post on The Cut Out Girl is well worth reading. She liked it more than I did, but in general we agree about its merits. She also mentions an important sub-plot, as it were, when van Es visits the street where Lien first lived in Dordrecht, which has now become public housing inhabited mostly by Muslim immigrants. A man gets upset at him for taking pictures—van Es agrees that coming to look and not to tell is a problem. Which leads me to wonder: when does a story end? What would happen if we juxtaposed that man’s story with Lien’s?

 

 

“Look what the Bolsheviks have done to the horses!”: Philip Marsden’s The Spirit-Wrestlers

Sometime in the mid-90s, Philip Marsden spends a winter in Moscow, researching the Cossacks and the Old Believers—dreaming, in other words, of the Caucasus.

When spring comes Marsden goes to Rostov. There he begins the meandering journey across the land between the Black and Caspian seas that is the subject of The Spirit-Wrestlers. Marsden describes the territory as “Russia’s Vendée, where serfs and schismatics fled to become Cossacks … where the perennial urge to conformity seems at its weakest—the place where the sea-like flatness of the steppe breaks against the Caucasus and all its scatterings of non-Russian peoples.”

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Some of these people are long-vanished, like the Scythians, whom the Cossacks have styled as their forbearers (a claim Marsden dismisses as nonsense), and the Alans, another vanished Steppe group famous for its warrior temperament, and whose descendants are likely today’s Ossetians. In addition to sojourns among Cossacks, Ossetians, Georgians, and Armenians, Marsden also tracks down some more obscure peoples, like the Molokans (the milk drinkers, named after an epistle from Peter that describes believers desiring the Word as babies do milk), whose numbers at one point reached a million and were important in the movement to abolish serfdom in the 19th century, and one of whose subgroups were the first to call themselves “communists” after pooling their resources.

The people he’s most interested in, though, are the Doukhobors (the “spirit-wrestlers” of the title). Their origins—like those of pretty much every group in this book and, indeed, the world—are unclear, but they date to the late 18th century. The sect’s adherents distanced themselves from what they saw as the corruption of the Church; instead they “tried to live in the way most likely to release the spark that lives in each individual.” In the 19th Century their most famous leader was imprisoned in Siberia and the rest were exiled to the southern edge of the empire. Above all it was their pacifism that got them in trouble—they refused to serve in the army—but this was what brought them to the attention of Tolstoy, who donated the proceeds from his last novel, Resurrection, to them, which allowed many Doukhobors to emigrate to Canada in the early 20th century. (They settled in the prairies, and flitted on the periphery of my childhood, but only as a kind of joke: their reputation for espousing a kind of hippie millenarianism stemmed from their tendency to avow nudism. I remember them being portrayed to me as something like grubby Hutterites. It was useful—and not a little shaming—to learn the meaningful context for people and practices I’d only known as derisive.)

Yet as its division into parts named Steppe and Mountain suggests, The Spirit-Wrestlers is as much about landscape—sometimes verdant, sometimes stony, always seemingly inexhaustible—as about the stormy co-existence of religious and ethnic groups.

Last year I read Marsden’s The Bronski House, about a similarly contested border region in Eastern Europe, this time to the north-west of Russia (Poland, Lithuania, Belarus). I loved it. But I think I might like The Spirit-Wrestlers even more. Which surprises me, since the subject matter isn’t immediately appealing to me. I’m not really that religious a person, and non-Abrahamic religions interest me least of all. (Many of the people Marsden interacts with are Christians, but they are typically dissenters: the Doukhobors, for example, do not recognize the authority of the Church.) Yet despite its concern with spiritualism, Marsden’s true interest is ordinary material life, in all its pains and pleasures.

That dogma is his enemy is clear throughout. But in his final pages, Marsden allows himself to editorialize a little. In Armenia he goes looking the Yezidi, a group that recognizes evil as an integral part of creation. He concludes:

Our universe is naturally flawed, they say, and to deny it is to miss an elemental truth. I could not help being drawn to this idea. It was a riposte to all those dreamers—from Christians to Communists—who clog their thinking with the way things should be and ignore the way they are, who gaze for too long at their own glittering visions and fail to see the glories in the twists and bumps that make up the real world.

The Yezidi—the long history of whose suffering took a further, terrible turn a few years ago when they were genocidally persecuted by ISIS—don’t try to purge the world of evil. They just try to avoid it. In so doing, Marsden argues, “they sidestep one of the great paradoxes of our earthly existence. For as any dictator learns, it is precisely what you try to purge that becomes your downfall.”

These conclusions explain Marsden’s epigraph, attributed to Russian villagers, who, when camels were brought to their collective farms, exclaimed: “Look what the Bolsheviks have done to the horses!” The joke might at first seem to be on the villagers, rubes who can’t tell a horse from a camel. But really it’s on the Bolsheviks, and anyone who tries to mash square pegs into round holes. Or, more painfully, on those who take on the role of the pegs, who suffer the murderous grandiosity of conviction forced on life from on high. Can we even call it a joke? So much pain lies behind it: a classic if-you-don’t-laugh-you’ll-cry scenario.

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Suffering also explains the importance of food in the book, for food, Marsden suggests, is the preeminent way of bringing people together peacefully. In the steppe and the mountains, food (and peace) has so often been in short supply. When Marsden talks to old people he hears terrible stories of starvation, mostly due to Stalin’s forced collectivism. They remember eating grass and birch bark, boiling leather shoes for a desperate soup, devouring the seed-corn. These stories are from long ago, but they resonate into the present. In Maikop, in the Russian Adygei Republic, a fraught conversation about ethnic nationalism is brought to a peaceful conclusion only when it’s time for lunch:

The whole subject was too serious to be taken seriously in public. They unpacked more food, and with the food the harmless chatter resumed; in Russia there is no anxiety so great that it cannot find relief in a full table.

As this passage suggests, food matters less for its own sake (the book is pre-Foodie, thank God) and more for its ability to bring people together.

Rather unusually for a travel writer, Marsden likes people. He’s curious about everyone and everything, without being credulous. He stays just the right side of folksy in his observations, some of which are quite funny:

I left Fyodor Mikhailovich sitting on a bench outside his gate. He was waiting for something to happen so that he could watch it. Nothing had happened yet and it probably wouldn’t that day.

In South Ossetia he meets a doctor nicknamed Pushkin, “a tireless walker, not fast, but who walked without really being aware he was walking.” They discuss the famously long-lived people of the Caucasus, people who lived not just into their 120s but, apparently, into their 170s. Why aren’t there such people anymore? We eat yeast, Pushkin says, adding, “Everything’s different now.”

The doctor, who visits tiny villages on foot, bringing only the comfort of his presence (he hasn’t had medicine since the fall of the Soviet Union), experiences change only as loss:

To Pushkin, these elongated lives were just one of the vanished riches of the Soviet past, like a full medicine cabinet, like the kolkhoz sheep, like peace between the peoples of the union.

But the Union brought pain, too. In Kidlovodsk, a spa town in the mountains, he rents a room from Natalya Petrovna, a “teacher of ideology” who is at first presented almost as a figure of fun, an eccentric anyway: “She was also an expert on local buses.” He sleeps on her balcony, under “a canopy of fresh walnut leaves.” In the morning he listens to Natalya toss “scraps of bread to the dogs in the yard: ‘Maronchik! Sobachka!’” She spends her days working in the garden at her dacha, which she reaches by taking the Number 52 to the post office, then changing to the Number 10. It’s all gentle and sweet. Then we learn about her two sons, who appear “loose-hipped and laughing” in a photo on the kitchen wall.

They had gone to Afghanistan together. They had written long letters home. They had sent photographs of themselves in uniform. Natalya’s sons had returned separately, each one in a box.

The tone darkens all in a moment. The life of the lonely woman suddenly seems different: the precision of the bus routes becomes a way of salvaging sense from senselessness. And her repeated lament “They’ve drunk Russia away…” becomes not a quixotic railing against the Russian national pastime but fury at the generals who stole her boys.

As these examples suggest, Marsden isn’t a showy writer. But he’s a good one. That “loose-hipped and laughing” is a fine example. “Loose-hipped”: I’d never have thought of it, but I can just see it. Or take this description of a sudden rainstorm: “Women scuttled into doorways with handbags over their heads; dogs ran flat-furred through the water.” I love that “flat-furred.” Marsden’s good with dogs. In Armenia, “warm Asiatic winds were blowing unchecked across [the land’s] grassy tracts, flicking the neck-fur of the dogs.”

Marsden is like his style: impressive but modest. He keeps to the edge of the story. We learn almost nothing about him. (By comparison The Bronski House is practically an autobiography.) He cuts an appealing figure: modest, uncomplaining, able to find a place for himself no matter where he goes. When things go wrong, as they always do, he doesn’t fuss. I especially wondered what language he speaks to the people he meets, many of whom have little formal education. (Which of course isn’t incompatible with the ability to speak several languages.) It’s clear his Russian is excellent, and that’s presumably the language of choice. But did that work in Ossetia, Georgia, and Armenia?

Similarly, I wondered what such a trip would be like now. Even more difficult to accomplish, I assume. Marsden is kicked off a bus by Russian security forces the first time he tries to get to Georgia, and he worries about being shot at night in Tbilisi. But I suspect these places are even more dangerous for Westerners now. I would imagine the rise of Islam in the area has changed things a lot (Marsden only meets one Muslim, a convert who is the source of bemused contempt by his family.) Wherever he goes, he records everyday examples of Islamophobia (plus the casual anti-Semitism you’d expect).

These changes notwithstanding The Spirit-Wrestlers didn’t seem dated, despite being written twenty years ago. Not that its concerns are timeless. But the battle between idealism and ordinary life (which I admit I am romanticizing, as, perhaps, does Marsden) is endless. And it’s clear Marsden has influenced later writers. The Spirit-Wrestlers, for example, reminded me of Kapka Kassabova’s Border, a similarly intelligent and sensuous investigation of a place where cultures collide, in that case Thrace and the Rhodope.

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If I haven’t already enticed you to give The Spirit-Wrestlers a try, I’ll add two last notes. One, it’s got a great map. Who doesn’t love a map? Two, it’s a perfect summer book, filled with descriptions of people sitting outside late into the night eating and, especially, drinking. And with a new set of true believers causing trouble all across the world what’s not to like about that?

April 2019 in Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

The Radetzky March Readalong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s probably more than you wanted to know!

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

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

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

Compare Tucker:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would you reread The Radetzky March?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which leads him into a screed against deregulation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I trust all will be revealed in volume 3.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘It’s a suburb of London.’

‘But it’s just houses.’

‘I know.’

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

‘I know,’ said Edith, ‘I’m sorry.”

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

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

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

Grey Tube Shelter 1940 by Henry Moore OM, CH 1898-1986

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