Look for more reflections from a wonderful assortment of readers every day this week and next. Remember, you can always add your thoughts to the mix. Just let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter (@ds228).
I tend to read erratically, not methodically, and my favorite books of a given year are always an eclectic list. For 2021 this was more the case than usual. I’m at a loss to discern any overall theme, what my college professors would call an organizing principle, in my reading life of the past twelve months. I seemed to bounce between serious works that might help me make sense of the grim circumstances overtaking the globe and marvelous, much-needed diversions from the same.
In nonfiction, one stand-out read was Barack Obama’s Promised Land. America’s 44th President is simply a terrific writer, with an ear for the rhythms of language and an eye for telling detail. This memoir tacks back and forth between two main narrative lines, one a chronicle of the administration’s initiatives and setbacks and the other—thankfully—the more personal side of life in the White House. The latter sections, relating everything from travel and cultural thrills to trying to find some kind of normalcy as the First Family, were merciful oases after long slogs through the housing crisis, the auto bailout, and never-ending Congressional acrimony, which kindled angst that not even Obama’s elegant telling could dispel. This book doesn’t touch the greatness of his earlier memoir, Dreams from my Father. Still, it wowed me, and I flagged many passages about race and democracy as keepers.
Slight but strong, and thoroughly entertaining, was The Actor’s Life: A Survival Guide by Jenna Fischer (aka Pam from the U.S. version of The Office). It’s fresh, unaffected, and utterly absorbing—fun reading not just for aspiring actors or anyone interested in an inside view of Hollywood, but for creative artists of any type who have to cope with rejection, ignominy, and professional jealousy. Along with a frank account of her own loopy path to success and some behind-the-scenes stories from The Office, Fischer gives practical tips on how to persevere.
In the surprising-oldie category of nonfiction, I stumbled upon Isabella Bird’s A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, an Englishwoman’s account of her 1873 travels through the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. What a woman! What adventures! Bird was tough as nails, a skilled equestrian who dismissed injury, privation, and subfreezing conditions with less complaint than most of us bestow on two seconds’ delay in our Netflix buffering. [Ed. – But it’s so fucking irritating, Hope!] The edition that I read provided zilcho context to her prose—no editor’s note, no prologue, no afterward, no jacket copy—and the utter absence of context made me somehow enjoy her acquaintance even more. Bird is an efficient narrator who knows what to skip over or leave out and what to leave in, and a good describer, if one excuses a bit of 19th-century excess when her sunset rhapsodies go a bit over the top.
Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century absorbed me from start to finish. I had not appreciated the extent of the nomadic van culture that has swelled since the 2008 economic collapse, and was struck by so many slices of that experience that are portrayed here, from jobs in national parks and Amazon warehouses, to ad hoc communities that have sprung up around this culture, to the Earthship vision that is gaining attention as the climate worsens. The movie starring Frances McDormand was based on this, and while I admired her performance, I’m not sure I could have made much sense of the movie if I hadn’t already read the book.
I enjoyed Edwidge Danticat’s The Art of Death: Telling the Final Story, another in Graywolf’s fine series of craft books commissioned from current writers; but then I’m a Danticat fan and love pretty much everything she writes. [Ed. – Hmm, that seems a bit backhanded…]
My final nonfiction standout was Gene Lyons’s Widow’s Web, which I reread last year for the first time since its publication in 1993. [Ed. – Arkansas, represent!] A riveting true crime story, it also exposes a fascinating picture of Arkansas politics of that era: jockeying police and sheriff’s departments, ambitious prosecutors and defense attorneys, criminal lowlifes, and, yes, venal liars, evildoers, and demagogues. This time around I was more aware of the challenge Lyons faced in figuring out how to pace, frame, and sequence all the byzantine storylines (I remember running into him frequently in the late 1980s in the aisles of the then-Safeway in Little Rock’s Hillcrest neighborhood, and hearing him air the difficulties of his process while my ice cream melted in my cart). This book proved as zesty and trenchantly told as I remembered from my first reading nearly thirty years ago. (Gene, if you read this, I don’t begrudge the ice cream.)
Segueing into fiction, let me lift up Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies, which dazzled me at first, though my enthusiasm cooled some as the chapters wore on. Memoir, novel, autofiction? Who cares? I liked the hero less by the end of the book; but then again one has to admire a writer honest enough to present an obviously autobiographical self on the page warts and all, allowing readers like me to sit back and make judgments about them. As one more take on the migrant search for identity—arrivees simultaneously attracted by American ideals and repelled by the failure to live them out—it was a fine read. Two more terrific novels about migration that I read last year are The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri and The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota. I also reread some of Mohsin Hamid’s work in connection with his April visit to my campus: How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is a wonderful read; and Exit West remains one of my top-tier favorite novels, debonair, quietly funny, and bearing much significance for our time.
Other memorable novels from the past year: Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone(1947), a story of Nazi resistance that’s just as grim as the title suggests [Ed. – God I love that book]; Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, a post-pandemic apocalypse novel, dark fun and strangely prescient of our current plague, although published in 2014; and Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William—not as good as her Olive Kitteridge novels, in my opinion, but still enjoyable.
Thanks to Our Fearless Blogmeister [Ed. – Please, call me OFB], I read Arnold Bennett’s Old Wives’ Tales (bad title, good book) for an online group-discussion experience that he co-led with Rohan Maitzen last summer. I enjoyed it for two main reasons. First, if you like 19th-century fiction at all you probably have a soft spot for description, and Bennett is a top-notch describer: he serves up well-chosen, well-rendered detail of both the mundane and the weird, affording us the sheer pleasure of learning how things were in certain times and places. Second, there are the character arcs. One advantage of getting older is the ability to see more and more of the complete trajectories of the lives transpiring around you. Sometimes this is surprising (who would think she would ever have become XYZ?) and sometimes it’s droll because so completely predictable (of course that person would turn out ABC, they were just the same way in kindergarten). Either way, long observance of the crooks and bends and straightaways of other people’s fates, not to mention one’s own, is something I value in fiction as well as real life. Bennett chronicles the lives of the two protagonist sisters and their circles with this sort of long-view verisimilitude. In his effort to represent entire lives, wielding omissions and foreshortenings and jumps in perspective, it seemed he was feeling his way toward modernism.
Audiobooks, for me, are reserved for dog walks (this pairing helps keep my dog and me well exercised, and my commutes are long enough that listening in the car would gulp up the chapters way too fast). [Ed. – Too fast? These words seem to be English, but I do not recognize them.] In March I finished Troubled Blood, the fifth in the Cormoran Strike series by Robert Galbraith, aka J. K. Rowling. If you admire the Harry Potter series and want to see Rowling’s talents applied to adult material, check these out: for plot, wit, and rich evocations of contemporary Britain, they’re unbeatable. (If you don’t admire the Harry Potter series, well… just… oh, go talk to someone about Proust instead.) [Ed. – It’s me, she means me.] Robert Glenister, who reads the audio version, is on a par with Jim Dale, Grammy-winning reader of the HP series. [Ed. – Glenister makes the Strike books a thousand times better, IMO; I loved them, but I confess the worse Rowling gets, the less taste I have for anything she touches.]
What do you call the fear of running out of something good to read? Bibliolackaphobia? or maybe it’s not a phobia but an addictive behavior. At any rate, I was afflicted with a fresh bout of this particular anxiety around Thanksgiving, and desperately downloaded as many books as I could from the library as an antidote. Out of this batch there were a few passable reads, several that deserved the Dorothy Parker treatment (“not a book to be tossed aside lightly—it should be thrown with great force”), and one absolute delight: Hilma Wolitzer’s new collection, Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket. The stories span a number of years, from 1966 to 2020. In their understatedness, their quizzical humor, their recurrent portraiture of New York women in different roles, they are reminiscent of, say, Grace Paley, and I became a Wolitzer fan by the time I was a few pages in.
In the last and most moving story, “The Great Escape,” the protagonist mentions a book she’s eager to discuss with her book club. The title didn’t ring a bell, but because I liked the sensibility of the collection so much I looked up this novel and ordered it, too, from the library. It was Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge, which became my final great discovery of the year. The novel concerns a post-World War I Kansas City housewife, a woman whose life is circumscribed by wealth, enforced idleness, and the rigid values of her social set; who senses something lacking from her life that she cannot even express. It’s told in very short chapters that refrain from plot contrivance or heavy-handedness and are often funny, in an oblique, Lydia Davis sort of way. [Ed. – I’m listening…] There are sharp observations about race and feminism, and stirrings of change on the horizon, but at every point the novel resists collapsing into the artifice of having a theme or Social Meaning. (It was made into a movie starring real-life wife and husband Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman, but of course the book’s artistry and restraint were savaged when they went through the sausage-grinder of screenplay adaptation. So if you’ve seen the movie don’t hold it against the novel.) I can’t think of another instance when I’ve sought out a book based on the recommendation of a fictional character, but this one turned out so well that I might have to consult other made-up people for their tips.
Meanwhile, you real people out there are serving quite well too. Thank you for your guest columns and your comments, and thanks, Dorian, for inviting me to chime in. I’m humbled by the opportunity. [Ed. – Nonsense, the pleasure is all ours!]
Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Nat Leach, a longtime friend of mine and of this blog. Nat now lives and works in Peterborough, after returning home to Ontario from Cape Breton last year. He tweets @Gnatleech.
Look for more reflections from a wonderful assortment of readers every day this week and next. Remember, you can always add your thoughts to the mix. Just let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter (@ds228).
Readers who may have caught my annual posts over the last couple of years know that I am trying to work through all the partially read books on my shelves and am proceeding methodically, in alphabetical order. I’ve just wrapped up my fourth year, and I must admit that I have not been entirely happy with my progress lately; I spent all last year on “G” and this year I didn’t even finish “H”. Of course, given the year that I’ve had—getting a new job, working remotely for half the year, then moving halfway across the country during a pandemic—it’s a minor miracle that I’ve read anything at all. [Ed. – The country is Canada. Halfway is like all the way across twelve ordinarily sized countries.] And indeed, when I think back to the last time I had a similarly challenging year, when my daughter was born a few months before I was made Chair of my department, I recall that at that time I really did read absolutely nothing that was not work-related, so maybe I’m not really doing too badly. [Ed. – Absolutely!]
One of the key differences between then and now is that I joined Twitter four years ago, right at the start of my project, and was able to connect with a wonderful and supportive group of readers who frequently entice me into joining in collective reading endeavours [Ed. — Please admire this correct spelling] and who tacitly encourage me to take some time—however little—out of my day to read. Even though I never keep pace with any proposed reading schedule, the idea of reading collectively keeps me going, and I do always finish eventually. So, while I may joke about Twitter distracting me from my project, feeling like part of a reading community has really helped to keep me grounded and to make sure that I take time for myself in the midst of a chaotic schedule, and for that I am very grateful.
And besides, I’m not sure that it is true that these group reads are delaying my progress; fortuitously, I was able to participate in three reads of “H” authors (Hartley, Hasek, Hrabal), and besides, as will become clear, I was also able to put a pretty large dent in my “M” shelf, which will surely save me some time later on. In total, I finished 28 books this year, 18 from the “H” shelf, in addition to sampling some 19th century poetry (Hardy, Heine, Hemans, Hogg, Hölderlin), non-fiction (Hazlitt), and drama (Ralph Hamilton, J.G. Holman), not to mention a smattering of philosophy/theory (Hegel, Heidegger, Geoffrey Hartman).
Looking ahead to next year, I still have some significant “H” books ahead of me (Homer promises to be a highlight) and hope to get through “I” and “J” as those shelves are much less populated, so if anybody has any 2022 group reads planned for that particular alphabetical neighbourhood, just let me know.
In the mean time, here is a brief summary of my 2021 reading:
A Walk through H
Hardwick, Michael – The Private Life of Dr. Watson (1983)
I was given this book as a child when I was a young Sherlock Holmes enthusiast, but it didn’t really catch my interest, as it seemed too “grown up” for me at the time. Many years later, I have come to realize that it just isn’t a very interesting book. It doesn’t flesh out Watson’s character in any meaningful way, and in fact Watson just seems a vehicle to incorporate various famous Victorian individuals (Henry Ward Beecher, Sarah Bernhardt) and contexts (gold mining in Australia, war in Afghanistan), sometimes prompted by the most minimal of hints in Conan Doyle’s stories.
Hardy, Thomas – Jude the Obscure (1894-95)
I have long cited this as my favourite Hardy novel; I read it as an undergraduate and its representation of its protagonist as an aspiring intellectual and frustrated social outsider certainly resonated with me at the time. Re-reading it in middle age, I still think it is a great book, but was slightly less satisfied with it. I couldn’t help perceiving, in the midst of Jude’s tragic fate, the web of artifice behind his sufferings. The most inconvenient things happen at the most inopportune times, and characters change their minds about things just at the moment when it will do the most damage. Such misfortunes are the nature of tragedy, of course, and Hardy writes it very effectively—it’s just that those moments where I could see him pulling the strings felt more disruptive to me this time around. Hardy gave up novel-writing after this one because he was accused of immorality after having written what he thought was a morally didactic novel, and I’m starting to think he was a little bit too right about that.
Hartley, L.P. – The Eustace and Hilda Trilogy (1944-49)
Hartley is one of the authors I’ve read the most, and when he’s good, he’s brilliant, but when he’s not, he can be infuriating. Reading this trilogy, I experienced plenty of both. Readers of The Go-Between know how good Hartley is at representing children, and the first book of the trilogy, The Shrimp and the Anemone, amply demonstrates this strength. Eustace and Hilda are brother and sister living in a seaside town in Norfolk in the early 20th century; most of the book is focalized through Eustace (who stands in for Hartley himself in this semi-autobiographical trilogy) and his anxieties and misunderstandings of the adult world are highly poignant because they ring true to the way children think (or at least to the way I thought as a child). The second two books, which deal with Eustace and Hilda as young adults, did not seem as strong to me, and I think part of the reason is that while the characters age, they do not seem to change or grow from their experience. Part of this is no doubt deliberate— Eustace receives an inheritance that shelters him from having to deal with many real-world problems— but Eustace’s thought processes no longer have the same ring of truth in a grown adult. And in the final book, Hilda’s extreme physical debilitation in reaction to a failed love affair seems so absurd (if not anti-feminist) that it strains all credulity.
Hartley, L.P. – Simonetta Perkins (1925)
In the final book of the trilogy, while vacationing in Venice, Eustace more or less accidentally writes a book (his hostess tells everyone he is a writer, so he feels obliged to write something to live up to it). [Ed. – Maybe this should be my strategy. Please help me by inviting me to Venice.] A publisher accepts the book, but warns Eustace not to expect it to sell because it’s too long to be a short story and too short to be a novel. Interestingly, this description closely fits Hartley’s own first book, Simonetta Perkins, which is also set in Venice, and is about a young American woman who becomes infatuated with a gondolier. It’s a powerful, if slight, exploration of the nature of desire, which is even suggested by the title; the woman’s name is Lavinia Johnson not Simonetta Perkins— that’s the name she makes up when she seeks advice about her situation and claims to be “asking for a friend.” The title thus gives prominence to what might otherwise have been a minor scene in the book; Simonetta is the desiring alter ego upon whom Lavinia’s suppressed sexual urges are projected.
Hašek, Jaroslav – The Good Soldier Švejk (1921-23) (Trans. Cecil Parrott)
I had not intended to read this, but a Twitter reading group was starting just after I finished Hartley, so it was alphabetical fate. The book is a satire about World War I, but its satire is wide-ranging and sometimes a bit ambiguous. Švejk is zealously patriotic, but, as his superiors incessantly point out, he is also an idiot who screws up every task he is assigned; so is he really a “good” soldier, or is that moniker ironic? Or is the implication that the qualities of a “good” soldier (mindless obedience and patriotic fervor) are inherently idiotic? Moreover, Švejk’s overzealous efforts for the cause very often have subversive effects, whether intended or not, so it can be hard to separate incompetence from sabotage; for this reason, Švejk is often suspected of being a traitor, though we have no indication that this is actually the case. As for the satire, sometimes, the joke is on Švejk, but he always manages to get out of the scrapes he gets himself into. More often, the joke is on the absurdity of military bureaucracy, which appears to be the primary target of the book’s satire; Švejk’s idiocy is nothing compared to the massive failures of logic and planning attributed to so-called “military intelligence.” It’s a pity Hašek died before he could finish the book, as it breaks off in the middle of the war, leaving me wanting more of Švejk.
Hays, Mary – The Victim of Prejudice (1799)
I first read this as an undergraduate, and was less than charitable towards it, but later read Hays’s Memoirs of Emma Courtney (a better book) and resolved to give this one another chance. The titular character, Mary, narrates her progression from a child of mysterious parentage, raised by a benevolent father figure, through a period of young love, to her persecution by a vicious and lustful landowner. It reads as a feminist take on the Richardsonian seduction narrative with a bleak vision of a victim-blaming culture that really hasn’t changed in 200+ years.
Haywood, Eliza – Eovaii (1736)
This was my first introduction to Haywood, and possibly not the best choice, since it does not seem to be characteristic of her work, but it was the only one I had. If Hays’s book is a feminist version of Richardson, this is a feminist version of Gulliver’s Travels:the titular princess loses her kingdom, is abducted by an evil magician and goes through a number of weird, magical adventures in order to return to her rightful place. It’s all meant as political satire, as the evil magician stands for Sir Robert Walpole, but most of the topical allusions are now quite obscure. Still an enjoyable, fantastical, narrative.
Hébert, Anne – Kamouraska (1970) (Trans. Norman Shapiro)
Over the years, I’ve written quite a bit about the Gothic, and the texts that interest me the most are the ones that represent the instability of human identity not just at the level of content (e.g. ghosts and monsters that disrupt our belief that the world—and our place in it—is rational) but also at the level of form. If Gothic phenomena disrupt what we think we know about our place in the world, they must also disrupt our attempts to represent that world to ourselves and to others. Hébert’s novel is exemplary in this regard. Its content is Gothic in that it represents extremes of passion and revolves centrally around a murder, but it has no supernatural trappings. Rather, it is Hébert’s narrative devices that convey the Gothic haunting that afflicts the protagonist, a woman whose first husband was murdered, and whose second husband is on his deathbed. The novel’s fluid shifts between past and present tense and between first and third person convey her struggles with her memories, which seem to come unbidden and which challenge the identity she has crafted for herself since childhood. She is haunted not by ghosts but by her past selves and the persistence of her memories. An intense and breathtaking narrative, and quite possibly my favourite book of the year.
Hession, Rónán – Leonard and Hungry Paul (2019)
I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction, but when I do, it’s usually because Dorian has recommended a book highly, as with this one. And, as usual, I didn’t regret it; reading this was just good for my soul. [Ed. – I love to hear it!] It’s a gentle book with simple problems, heart-warming solutions and socially awkward characters that I could relate to far more than I’d like to admit. It’s also very funny, in its low-key way.
Hillesum, Etty – An Interrupted Life/Letters from Westerbork (1941-43) (Trans. Arnold J. Pomerans)
I first read Hillesum’s diary describing her life in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands when I was a graduate student, and fear I was quite uncharitable to the book at the time. (Noticing a theme yet? Student Nat was quite a mean reader.) Her philosophical approach, which involves accepting evil, forgiving Nazis, and refusing to resist, seemed infuriatingly defeatist to me at the time, and while I certainly can’t wish that more people shared this view, with age has come a greater appreciation for the moral strength required to hold this position. I had not read the letters appended to her diary before; these were written during Hillesum’s time in the Westerbork camp before being deported to Auschwitz where she was killed. These letters deal mostly with practical matters: begging friends for food, thanking them for sending it, and apologizing for being such a burden on them (she had an extensive network that helped keep her and her family alive in terrible conditions). There are, however, some surprisingly poetic moments, as Hillesum proves able to see beauty even in a concentration camp, and some predictably brutal ones; her last long letter is a harrowing description of the preparations for the transport prior to the one on which she herself was forced to leave. She tries to help where she can, but recounts commenting to a companion, in a way that is both painfully matter-of-fact and as close to violent passion as Hillesum gets: “this is what hell is like.”
Hoess, Rudolf – Commandant of Auschwitz (1946) (Trans. Constantine FitzGibbon)
By an appalling coincidence in my alphabetical system, I went from Etty Hillesum to this, the autobiography of Hoess, the Commandant of Auschwitz, written while awaiting his execution, a book that Primo Levi in his introduction describes as “filled with evil” and as having “no literary quality” and as being “agony” to read. [Ed. – Too fuckin right.] It is probably pointless to attempt to add to that description except to say that it was somehow even worse than I expected. Obviously, that’s a low bar for a book written by a Nazi, but having read some of Albert Speer’s diaries, I know that some degree of post-war self-reflection was possible. But Levi is right; the degree of disingenuousness and refusal to take responsibility for his actions is utterly appalling. The passive voice does a lot of heavy lifting in this book (things “were done” to prisoners, nobody did them) and ditto formulations involving the imperative (Hoess “had to” do the things he describes, he never has any agency). Despite his plea of loyalty to the Reich, he spends most of the book throwing his superiors under the bus; to read his account, Auschwitz would have been a model camp if he had just been given the resources to run it properly along with competent underlings who would not have behaved with such unsanctioned brutality towards prisoners (and this is not even to mention the casually awful throwaway bits he chooses to include, such as his extensive explanation of his theories about how to cure homosexuality.) [Ed. – ugh]
Holcroft, Thomas – Anna St. Ives (1792)
I certainly understand why Holcroft is no longer widely read; his novels are highly political responses to philosophical and social debates specific to the late eighteenth century. If that doesn’t put you off, though, there’s a great deal to admire in his work. Like his contemporary, William Godwin, Holcroft uses his narratives to explore the concrete implications of radical philosophical ideals, often teasing out resolutions much more complex than those of other political radicals of the time. Anna St. Ives is an epistolary novel that details a love triangle between the title character, and Frank Henley, a Godwinian idealist who believes in the perfectibility of the human species in its gradual development towards an ever-increasing level of truth, and Coke Clifton, a libertine and all-around cad. [Ed. – Those libertines, why they always gotta be cads?] That this novel is as engaging as it is, is in itself a challenge to Frank’s principles, as the truth is nowhere near as obvious as Frank hopes it should be. Like Hays, Holcroft rewrites the Richardsonian narrative didactically. Preachiness notwithstanding, the book culminates in a suspenseful and action-packed sequence that kept me on the edge of my seat. If I have a quibble, it’s with the way that characters, as so often in epistolary novels, just happen to have access to writing implements in the most unlikely of places, deciding to write their narratives even when there is nobody within the book likely to be able to read them.
Hornby, Nick – High Fidelity (1995)
I admit that I can be quite grumpy about film adaptations of good books, but I was grumpy about the film version of High Fidelity long before I ever read the book. It sounded like a great concept, was being made by a director I like a lot (Stephen Frears), but turned out to be a mess. Part of the problem, no doubt, was the Hollywood tendency to cast characters who are supposed to lack charm, charisma and good looks with Hollywood stars who embody those very qualities. It’s hard to find a character unlikeable when he’s played by John Cusack. [Ed. – Truth.] By contrast, I ended up liking the book a great deal, as it does a much better job of keeping its protagonist/narrator/second-rate record store owner/obsessive list-maker/terrible boyfriend teetering on the edge of unlikeability just enough to keep you rooting for him, not to simply get what he wants (whatever that is) but to become a better person. The book is just very smart about the flaws in conventional standards of masculinity, and about relationships more generally.
Hrabal, Bohumil – Too Loud a Solitude (1976) (Trans. Michael Henry Heim)
Although they are very different kinds of book, it really helped to have read Švejk before this, as Hrabal’s narrator echoes Švejk’s garrulity, and gossipy tone about Czech life. The book also inherits a satirical strain from Hašek, as both criticize the unthinking inefficiency of political authorities. The brief narrative reads very allegorically: it is narrated by a man who works crushing paper, and incidentally rescues much classic literature, but his manual process is ultimately supplanted by modern methods, which embody both the modern socialist state and the ephemeral nature of popular culture, both of which threaten the more enduring forms of literature and knowledge for which the narrator stands.
Best of the Rest
Barthes, Roland – A Lover’s Discourse (1977) (Trans. Richard Howard)
I was excited to participate in a theory-based Twitter group read, although I admit that I found it rather difficult to say something sensible about the book in that forum, needing a bit more time to process theoretical texts. I happened to be reading this book at the same time as I was revisiting Éric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales on film, and I think I’ve come to understand this book better by opposition. Rohmer’s characters are all very discursive lovers (lots of talk, little action) but in a different way to that described by Barthes. In each of the tales, a male protagonist engages in a tentative kind of relationship with an inappropriate female partner (inappropriate because of age, disposition or worldview, but most importantly for the tautological reason that they are not the appropriate partner). By working through these relationships and avoiding the potential entanglements they entail, the protagonist in most of the films becomes free to pursue, or return to, the genuine object of his passion. Rohmer’s characters calculate and overthink their relationships in a way entirely antithetical to the discourse that Barthes writes about, which is that of the desperate, passionate lover of whom Goethe’s Werther is presented as the archetype. We do see a few moments of passion in Rohmer’s tales, but for the most part, that kind of love is the absent centre around which the action takes place. Barthes writes, “most often, I am in the very darkness of my desire” and it is from this darkness that this “lover’s discourse” originates. Barthes structures the book as a series of fragments based on various discursive positions taken by the lover (e.g. jealousy, languor, ravishment et cet.), all of which are ways of expressing in some way the maddening delusions of love. But these forms of expression do not fully enlighten the “darkness of my desire”; rather, they express the position of the lover in all its irrationality. The “lover’s discourse” is thus at the limits of language, challenging the systems of language that structure the world in a rational way, even as it cannot entirely escape those systems.
Bennett, Arnold – The Old Wives’ Tale (1908)
This book was not on my radar until Dorian & Rohan suggested it for a group read; I found it intriguing and mostly enjoyable, though not exactly what I expected. Not that I’m sure just what I expected except that the book begins in a manner reminiscent of a Victorian novel that made me feel that it was establishing some kind of moral framework through which I was supposed to read it. Hence, when the narrative diverges, telling the separate stories of two sisters, one who stays home and runs the family business in the Midlands of England, while the other runs off to Paris, I was expecting some kind of moral judgment to be attached to the two stories. In the end, though, I’m not sure that ever happened. The novel speaks to the inevitability of aging and death and to the value of the experiences that take place in the course of that process, but it doesn’t seem to reflect on the relative value of those experiences. [Ed. – Well put!] Both sisters experience happiness and sadness, successes and failures, and perhaps, despite their many differences, we are meant to see how much they actually have in common. So maybe it was just more modern than I expected? (But knowing Woolf’s hate for Bennett, maybe I shouldn’t say that.)
It wasn’t until I was halfway through this book that I realized what it was really about, and I’m not sure I grasped all of the intricacies of the plot even by the end. The book is a convoluted web of intrigues, which take to an extreme the typical Dostoyevskyian representation of characters who embody extreme challenges to conventional moral values. I probably shouldn’t be shocked by Dostoevsky any more, but the title really isn’t an exaggeration: the book is filled with unpleasant, violent, and diabolically evil characters. Moreover, I wasn’t prepared for the political angle, although it spurred me on to learn a lot about 19th century Russia along the way.
Lowry, Malcolm – Under the Volcano (1947)
As a student, I tended to avoid literature of the early 20th century, in part because I had little interest in the seemingly wide swath of canonical literature (especially American) that either romanticizes the lives of over-privileged alcoholics, or treats their sufferings as some kind of archetype of the human condition. This book falls squarely in the latter camp, and is certainly a superior example of the genre; it’s brilliantly written and cleverly plotted (in a way that calls for a reread to piece together all the details), but I just couldn’t muster up the sympathy — or even much of the interest—- that I thought I was supposed to feel for the protagonists.
Manning, Olivia – The Balkan Trilogy (1960-65) and The Levant Trilogy (1976-80)
I had read (and loved!) Manning’s School for Love, so was eager to read more by her, although I doubt that I would have had the focus to get through these six books had I not been reading in the company of an intrepid group of Twitterers, whose companionship in this journey was greatly appreciated. And quite a journey it is too, as we follow Guy and Harriet Pringle, who are forced, during the course of World War II, from Bucharest to Athens to Cairo. They are more acted upon than acting, forced to adapt to circumstances beyond their control, but because we are made to care so much about the characters, even descriptions of their everyday activities remain absolutely gripping. [Ed. – Also well put.] These books are sheer character-based narrative pleasure; we come to know the characters intimately and become entirely immersed in their world despite the general lack of highly dramatic events (which do come occasionally, and always shockingly, out of the blue). To be completely honest, I still have about 100 pages of the Levant Trilogy left to go, and I am not rushing to finish it; judging by the responses of some of my companions, I will feel quite bereft without Harriet & Co. and I’m not quite ready for that yet.
Musil, Robert – The Man Without Qualities (1930-43) (Trans. Sophie Wilkins)
After 18 months, numerous library renewals, and ultimately photographing the last 200 pages of notes and fragments, I finally finished this book. I’m not sure how to do the experience justice, though I can say it was entirely worthwhile. No plot summary would be adequate, especially as Musil died before completing the book, and the edition I read was filled with drafts which sketch out very different directions for the characters. In any case, the plot felt entirely secondary to Musil’s powerful ability to sum up the incipient crises of the emerging modern age with devastating clarity; the book feels shockingly current.
July was for roadtripping, not reading. We made an epic 4000-mile trip to Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota and back again, a trip filled with glorious landscapes, terrible meals (I do like fry bread, though, even if a little goes a long way), and irrefutable evidence of our changed climate: heat, drought, fire. Sobering isn’t the word. Our exhilaration at being together as a family outside in wonderful places was undermined by our anxiety about masks (that is, their almost total absence) and the low-level irritation at finding ways to eat outside to keep our unvaccinated daughter safe. Anyway, those Western States are amazing—go if you ever have the chance! Sitting in a car and hiking through national parks didn’t leave much time for books—though the book shopping (in Missoula, MT and Omaha, NE) was great. Here’s what I found time for.
Menachem Kaiser, Plunder: A Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure (2021)
Regular readers know I’m critical of third-generation Holocaust memoirs. (Memoirs written by grandchildren of survivors.) When I heard about Plunder, in which Menachem Kaiser sets out to reclaim a family apartment building in Poland, I reacted the way I always do—with skepticism mingled with resignation (I knew I’d read it) and curiosity (I only know of one other book that’s similar, Rutu Modan’s The Property). It didn’t take long, though, before I recognized the special qualities of Kaiser’s book. It’s so smart and interesting! So self-reflective—which all 3G memoirs ought to be—and, even better, without being annoying about it. It’s even funny. As Kaiser plunges into his quixotic enterprise—his extended family doesn’t know what to make of it, after all his father’s father died eight years before Kaiser was born, who is he to take up this quest, what does he expect to get from it?—things gets complicated. Does the building even exist anymore? What would you do with the people who live in it now? How do you prove to Polish authorities that someone has died?
Throughout, Kaiser’s grandfather remains an enigma, but one of the man’s cousins turns out to have written a memoir of his time in the Gros-Rosen concentration camp complex, a book that has become legendary in a surprising and surprisingly large community of treasure seekers who live to ferret out the secrets of Silesian caves. (There’s supposed to be a train full of Nazi hidden somewhere.) Next thing you know, Kaiser’s squeezing into underground tunnels hacked out by slave labour in the waning days of the war, getting drunk with weekend treasure hunters, and learning first-hand how family histories are usually litanies of error.
Basically, Plunder is brilliant from the title on. Whether as noun or verb, plunder is the perfect term to encapsulate the connotations of avarice, need, and longing that accompany any attempt to grasp the past. It’s a fantastic book, which I’ll be assigning next spring for sure.
Wendy Lower, The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed (2021)
Lower’s short book—well under 200 pages before notes—manages to be both highly specific and usefully wide ranging. The specific part concerns a photograph of an execution in the Ukraine in October 1941. There are not many visual representations of what’s come to be called “the Shoah by Bullets,” and almost none that show, like this one, a Jewish family being murdered together. Lower set out to learn everything she could about the photo. Who were the victims and who the perpetrators? Who took the picture? Could she find the location of the murder? Her aim, she writes, was:
to break the frame around the crime scene, which kept the victims frozen in that awful moment. The photograph captures an event locked in time, but I knew it was part of a fluid situation. What precede that moment of death, what followed, and what happened to each person visible there?
Lower diligently answers these questions—the photo is even more poignant and terrible than initial inspection suggests—but she also has a larger agenda. Not only does she explain how the genocide was implemented, especially by the Einsatzgruppen in their push east during the invasion of the Soviet Union, but she also usefully and expansively defines collaboration. Plus, she shows us how the past is excavated, by survivors, archaeologists, and historians. All of this in lucid, accessible prose. The Ravine isn’t a comprehensive Holocaust history by any means, but there are many worse places to start learning about it. I’ll be moderating a panel with Lower at this year’s Six Bridges Literary Festival; can’t wait to see her in action.
Fonda Lee, Jade City (2017)
Enjoyable fantasy novel about a world in which only people known as Green Bones are able to harness the power of magical jade, which heightens their warrior powers. An uneasy truce among rival clans, which has held since the end of a war of independence, collapses when one group begins to traffic in a synthetic jade substitute. Jade City, the first in a trilogy that will conclude this fall, is a Godfather / martial arts mashup with juicy characters, but more than anything it’s about cartels and gangs and bureaucrats. Even if, like me, you don’t read much fantasy, you might really like this.
Joanna Pocock, Surrender: The Call of the American West (2019)
I’m working—a little too desultorily, I’m afraid—on something about this book and my trip to the American West, so maybe I’ll have more to say later, but I do want you all to know how good this perfectly titled essay/memoir is. Pocock moved from the UK to Missoula, Montana, a place that entranced her—even having spent only three days there I totally understand why—and prompted her to explore various ways of living with others and the land. The West—where land feels present in a way I’ve never experienced elsewhere—will do that to you. Pocock meets ecosexuals, foragers on “the Hoop” (a circular route around the Western US, once followed by indigenous tribes from season to season), minutemen, mining company shills, and hunters keen to hunt wolves. Mostly—cliché, I know, but she finesses it—she meets herself. Approaching midlife, to what or whom does she want to surrender? I strongly recommend.
Gil Adamson, Ridgerunner (2020)
Took this book—kindly sent me by its American publicist—on vacation because I thought it was set in Montana. In fact, it takes place mostly in Alberta, specifically in what in 1917 was still called Rocky Mountains National Park (it was renamed Banff, after its main railway station, in 1930). As someone who grew up hiking its trails, I was amazed at how much I learned: Lake Louise was once called Laggan; interned POWs, known to the locals as Germans but mostly from Austro-Hungary, specifically Galicia, built much of the road that is now the Trans-Canada highway; the Stoney Nakoda and other indigenous people were forcibly removed from the park. Adamson handles this history deftly, using it to serve her story about Jack Boulton, a twelve-year-old whose mother dies, at the beginning of the book, of an illness that almost fells him too, leading his father to make a deal with the woman who nursed the boy back to health: he will leave him with her while he handles his grief by taking off. The man, William Moreland, is a former thief (his nickname gives the novel its title); he returns to his life of genteel crime, crisscrossing the Canadian/US border, stealing from abandoned ranger cabins and planting harmless explosions in mining towns (when everyone rushes to check out the noise, he slips into hotels and mine offices to purloin jewels and cash). Moreland has a plan—to gather enough money for the boy’s future before reclaiming him. The erstwhile nurse has another—to make Jack her own. Before long Jack legs it back to the family homestead, where he gets by with help from his nearest neighbour. (I picture their cabins somewhere between Carrot Creek and Dead Man’s Flats, if you know the area: that is, the very eastern edge of the park, some of the most beautiful country in the world.)
At first I was skeptical about Ridgerunner—I thought it might be overwritten and dutiful like so much Canadian literary fiction—but I was quickly won over. Yes, the plot skirts melodrama, especially at the end. It seems Adamson decided the book needed drama, which she sandwiched into the last fifty pages; I understand the reasoning without being convinced. After all, the best bits are about how Jack survives on the land (mostly) on his own; these descriptions are compelling without being self-consciously lyrical and I didn’t need anything more. The other weakness of the book’s construction is that the Jack and Moreland sections sit uneasily together. But Adamson has an elegant, loose style (like a less earnest Ondaatje), she can be funny, and she’s damn good on horses. Ridgerunner is a sequel to Adamson’s previous novel, The Outlander, which, I gather, tells how Mary Boulton and William Moreland met. (The Frank Slide features prominently.) It holds up just fine on its own, though. Feel like this has gone totally under the radar Stateside, and that’s a shame; it deserves a better fate.
Elly Griffiths, The Crossing Places (2009)
Home from holiday and at a loose reading end, I happened upon this in the neighbourhood Little Free Library (usually a wasteland of self-help and James Patterson). It was just what I needed, a no-fuss, competently written crime novel with an engaging Norfolk setting and the feel of a romance novel in its setting up of what I am guessing will be a slow-burning “will they or won’t they” relationship between its two leads, a professor of archaeology and a cop.
Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories (1976)
It’ll make some folks sad, but I did not care for this book, which I bought in Missoula, because how could I not? (As children Maclean and his brother discover that—you can read this quote all over town—“the world… was full of bastards, the number increasing rapidly the farther one gets from Missoula, Montana.”) Reading the book during and after our trip, I enjoyed recognizing its landscapes, and I appreciated the author’s love of western Montana (all the while thinking how sad he’d be at its changed climate). But mostly I found it a slog. Its attitudes to women are old-fashioned and tiresome, its humour misfires, and its detailed descriptions made me less not more interested in fly-fishing: I couldn’t square his complicated instructions with the elegant arabesques I’d seen in men and women performing in swift-running rivers across Montana. Of the book’s three stories, I enjoyed “USFS 1919” the most, because it’s about being in the woods and hiking, which I can relate to, especially since I’d walked some of the very same trails just days earlier. Yet its plot, too, fell victim to the boyish/loutish hijinks I didn’t care for in the other two. It’s all very hearty and stoic and, friends, you know that’s just not me.
Dolores Hitchens, Sleep with Strangers (1955)
Library of America has done us all a favour by reissuing this seriously good California PI novel from a prolific midcentury writer. It’s got the elements we know from Hammett and Chandler but deploys them at an angle. Jim Sader is a good guy with demons (he is a mostly sober alcoholic, he gets involved with his clients in inappropriate ways); as such he’s is a familiar character, but less macho, less hard-bitten. The plot of Sleep with Strangers is appropriately complicated, but less preposterous than, say, The Big Sleep’s. Hitchens takes her female characters, especially their motivations, much more seriously than the canonical writers of American noir. Sader’s relationship to his younger partner is unexpectedly moving (an alternate universe version of the one between Spade and Archer in The Maltese Falcon). On the basis of this novel I’d say Hitchens is a more straightforward writer than Dorothy Hughes, but she’s definitely in the same league. And the second (and sadly final) Sader novel, which I finished just too late to include in this July list, is even better: a truly excellent example of the genre.
Elly Griffiths, The Janus Stone (2010)
How quickly things change. I ran out to buy the second in the Ruth Galloway series before I’d even finished the first. Alas, my initial enthusiasm might have been misguided. The archaeology bits didn’t interest me much (big liability in these books), and the ending was silly. Will Ruth have to be rescued in every book? Unsure if I’ll persist. Sophomore slump maybe?
Arnold Bennett, The Old Wives’ Tale (1908)
Rohan and I—along with valiant readers from around the world—read this novel over several weeks. You can read mypostshere, andhershere. The tl;dnr: a naturalist novel about sisters whose life paths at first seem different but ultimately aren’t. Thoughtful about the meaning of change, poignant about the frailty that afflicts us all as we age, interesting about technological and social change. It’s no Middlemarch, but Bennett didn’t deserve Woolf’s opprobrium. I’ll read more by him, even if it probably won’t be any time soon. Which ones do you recommend?
How about you? Did you read anything good last month? Hope you’re surviving whatever weather and political shenanigans are plaguing wherever you are. (I fervently wish they are better than this August in Arkansas.) As my sabbatical comes to its end, my reading time is about to plummet. In the meantime I’m trying to squeeze a few last titles in—more on that in a couple of weeks!
After an unexpected and busy vacation across parts of the American West in which reading time was in short supply I returned home to The Old Wives’ Tale. Took me a minute to get my groove back, but I eventually found myself unable to stop and read straight through to the end. I promise not to reference the final chapters so that Rohan can have her say. (I will note, though, that I might have enjoyed writing about the book more if we’d finished it first, but I also realize I wouldn’t have paid attention to the earlier parts as much had we done so.) Anyway, I have a long section to cover, and I’ll just scrape the surface, so please add to the conversation in the comments.
As I read about Sophia’s life after Gerald—how good that she has a life after Gerald, and what an interesting one it is!—I found myself struck by one passage in particular. Not an exciting one: no hoarding of food stuffs, no balloon rides to escape a besieged city, no business or sexual propositions, nothing like that. But to me it got at a central concern. It comes after Sophia—now proprietress and landlady of a successful boarding-house catering to English tourists in Paris, known to her guests as Mrs. Frensham, after the previous owner—has been approached by Matthew Peel-Swynnerton, scion of a Five Towns family and friend to Sophia’s nephew, Cyril Povey. Sophia suspects that Matthew has recognized her as the woman who ran away from Bursley thirty years ago. In the time it takes for each to twig to the other, the routines of years are overturned. Sophia retires to bed early, leaving her second-in-command to deal with the thousand details that must be managed for an establishment like Frensham’s to keep ticking along. Alone in her room, Sophia wonders if the elegant young man could really be acquainted with her family. He’s too young to know her sister’s husband. More to the point, isn’t he far too wealthy, far too important, far too socially-prestigious to have anything to do with the likes of the Poveys? Even the illness of her beloved poodle, Fossette (the novel’s greatest character) takes second place to the thoughts whirling through her head:
Moreover – a detail of which she had at first unaccountably failed to mark the significance – this Peel-Swynnerton was a friend of the Mr. Povey as to whom he had inquired … In that case it could not be the same Povey. Impossible that the Peels should be on terms of friendship with Samuel Povey or his connexions! But supposing after all they were! Supposing something utterly unanticipated and revolutionary had happened in the Five Towns!
Copying this passage now I notice the awkward syntax of the first sentence—mimicking, perhaps, Sophia’s flustered state. I realize too how typical it is that I would seize on a moment that references significance, and the failure of a first reading: fits the struggle I’ve been having to know what matters most in this book, what kind of significance it aims at. But what snagged me at the time, and what, reading on, I returned to again and again as a way to make sense of the novel’s concerns, was the word “revolutionary.” My firstposts were preoccupied by the novel’s unstable tone, so I won’t belabor that topic here, but much hinges on how ironic we take that adjective to be.
The word choice could be a sign of Sophia’s irreducible Baines-ness, her provincialism, her lifelong alignment with the values of her childhood. When she returns to Staffordshire she herself broods over these concepts: both consciously kicking against the small-mindedness of a world that seems to her unchanged, and unconsciously manifesting similar traits by having lived in a small and unchanging Paris that has nothing to do with the elegance or cultural avant-gardism that intrigues someone like Doctor Stirling, whose love of Zola, for example, is not reciprocated by the woman who lived the events of his novels without really noticing them. On this reading, “revolutionary” would have to be ironic, the narrator poking fun at Sophia’s misguided sense of what counts as radical or extraordinary. We’d have to conclude that a social order in which Peels consort with Poveys would be a change, yes, but hardly a revolution.
And yet—for Peels to know Poveys is a big deal, even if the circumstance happened gradually, undramatically, such that one could never point to a single moment and say “then, that’s when this happened.” To demonstrate that change is inexorable—evolution in the strictly Darwinian sense, with no telos, no moral judgment: neither progress nor regression—becomes increasingly important to the novel as it comes to its conclusion. All of which is to say that I think we should take “revolutionary” straight: heartfelt on Sophia’s part and endorsed by the narrator.
As I thought more about it, I became convinced the word mattered a whole lot. The big question posed by Bennett in this novel is nothing less than: What is the meaning of revolution? A subset of related questions follows: Could the idea of a gradual revolution be anything other than an oxymoron? Is revolution a concept worth hanging on to, or should we discard it in favor of something else, perhaps simply change? What, in the end, changes in our lives? How much do we remain the people we always were? How much do we reinvent ourselves? How much do we slide into lives that our younger selves could never have imagined? It seems to me now that when Sophia, in that crucial encounter I wrote about earlier, drawing on the values of her upbringing and inflecting them with her own personality, first rejected and then accepted Gerald at the site of the old mine and the new railway (these standing as examples, and critiques, of progress), the novel was already staging a scene by which we could begin to ask such questions.
I snagged on the reference to revolution because I was surprised by the oblique, even casual way Bennett dealt with the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune. I had guessed these would feature as prominently as the execution of the criminal that Rohan wrote about last time. But I see now that it makes sense that this relatively minor event would be of larger importance to this novel than the big ones of public history. The execution matters less for questions of justice and more for Gerald’s rather pathetic response, for the final wedge it drives between him and Sophia, for her realization that no one will take care of her but herself. Thus the war with Prussia and the subsequent insurrection appear as the stuff of rumours, fantasies, and speculation—the latter in two senses of the term, since Sophia begins making her fortune by scrounging the shops in order to buy low and sell high. I wouldn’t say the novel is dismissive of these events—the material struggle, pain, and loss is real—but it’s convinced that for most people (or at least for Sophia and the world she operates in) their effects are muffled, reduced to the pressing but local questions of where to sleep and what to eat. At times, Bennett employs an almost Flaubertian irony in the bathos by which History appears. Sophia notes the end of the Second Empire, for example, only in the “mechanical” observation that it is a lot easier for women to sit in a carriage now that crinolines have gone out of fashion.
But Bennett doesn’t just give us the “ordinary person’s” perspective on momentous events. He gives us Sophia’s. Which is governed by her upbringing and the Baines values that she never shakes, even as she seems to build a life so different from anything her family can understand. She, unlike her husband or like Chirac when he clings to the false rumour that the French have scored a decisive victory over Pussian forces, has no truck with the idea of sudden reversals, coups de théâtre that reverse a bad situation (whether in politics or in household finances). For Sophia, such thinking could only be a fantasy (which contributes to my sense that the book is imagining alternate ideas of revolution). Sophia doesn’t flee Paris when the Prussians encircle the city—not from her love for her adopted home but from beliefs that come straight from Staffordshire:
She ardently wished to be independent, to utilize on her own behalf the gifts of organization, foresight, common sense, and tenacity which she knew she possessed and which had lain idle. And she hated the idea of flight.
Ironic, that last line, given her absconding with Gerald, but the point of this section of the novel is that she never flew from anything, really. She is happy during the siege because “she had a purpose in life and was depending upon herself.” That self-reliance, which kicks into overdrive after her collapse and illness—and it’s fascinating how much she struggles to recognize what she owes to the women who saved her, whose life choices she cannot respect and whom she ultimately displaces—is her greatest strength. She names it “pride”, and it is the most noted continuity with her sister, her upbringing, and the whole world of the first part of the novel. Yet it is also a weakness, in that it keeps her from life, prevents her from getting entangled with others, which is often to the good (hard to see what would be gained from agreeing to the advances of men like Niepce or Carlier, and life with Chirac might well have been a less awful but still subordinating version of life with Gerald) but ultimately makes her somewhat brittle and self-satisfied. I need to hold my tongue and wait until Rohan writes about the very end before commenting more on how we’re asked to evaluate Sophia, when all is said and done, but confining myself to what we’ve read so far, I think the New Year’s scene with Chirac was brilliantly handled, delicately describing the pleasant fug of sensual pleasure to which Sophia might have succumbed/given herself, and her ultimate inability to do so. The right thing to do, but still a missed opportunity, a complication we are more permitted to see than Sophia is herself. (So interesting, just as an aside, how few good/decent men there are in this book. Maybe only Povey? What do you all think?)
Rejecting Chirac allows Sophia to accept a new career. But running a pension, especially one as big as Frensham’s, means a life of endless labour. Like the domestic labour that it transposes to the business realm, the work of organizing the cleaning and cooking and managing of dozens of tourists involves constant running just to stay still. (Teaching, the career Sophia was set on and regrets the loss of, constitutes a similar treadmill, though it offers more gratification in the sense that teachers see pupils develop and move on to other things.) The end result of all the changes in Sophia’s life—escaping Gerald via her interregnum as a landlady to owning Frenshams—is an odd kind of stasis. Which brings me again to the idea of change, and what it means in this novel. I don’t want to foreclose the idea of revolution, but I think Bennett is pointing to an idiosyncratic, gradual meaning of the term, in which the gradual abrasions of daily life lead to changes we can see, let alone understand, only in retrospect. Could one reason Woolf had it out for him was that, like her modernist fellows, she believed in the more conventional sense of revolution: rupture, trauma, human nature changing on or about a certain date?
I’ll end with a point of continuity in the novel that surprised me—and that might also speak to my uncertainty of what change means or does in this novel. Elephants! That first one who comes to an untimely end at the Fair was not just a bizarre one-off. The landlord of the restaurant where Chirac and Sophia have their New Year’s feast proudly tells them of a friend, a butcher, “who has bought the three elephants of the Jardin des Planes for twenty-seven thousand francs.” (Two really were killed for their meat.) Seventy pages later, Sophia, returned to England and reunited with Constance, looks out the train window and is surprised to see “two camels and an elephant in a field close to the line,” which her sister tells her is the central depot of Barnum’s circus, a source of civic pride because the location, so close to Bursley, is in the very middle of England (and “there can be only one middle”). It is fanciful, but I think elephants will return one more time, a mere echo, to be sure, but a striking one, late in the novel (this is the only forward glance I’ll allow myself) when a shock to Sophia is described as a “crude, spectacular shame… that the gallant creature should be so maltreated by the bully, destiny.” Sounds to me like all the poor elephants in this novel. And that resonant phrase, “the bully, destiny,” returns us to the question of change. Will the end of the novel vitiate the very possibility? Or will it ask us to redefine what we mean by it? Stay tuned for the moving conclusion of The Old Wives’ Tale…
Here we are, halfway through The Old Wives’ Tale and I still have no idea what to make of this book, or even what kind of a book it is.
My very reading experience is odd. I seldom find myself gripped by any particular moment, but I’m delighted by how often the book surprises me. Like Rohan who wrote similarly in a comment to her last post, I expected neither Daniel’s significance nor Cyril’s development into an aesthete. Is “development” the right word? Time and again, the novel ignores or downplays process, jumping ahead or passing by in a single sentence events that other novels might linger over. Consider, for example, how offhandedly Mrs. Baines is dispatched in comparison to the heartrending death of Gertrude Morel, also of cancer, in Sons and Lovers. (The books, published only two years apart, depict a similar Edwardian world, poised between the rural and the industrial.) For a novel so interested in observing social and technological change (the coming railways, the rise of advertising, the shifts in fashion which, for example, deprive Constance of a waist), The Old Wives’ Tale doesn’t seem to think of character or personality as particularly developmental.
Take the example of Cyril. Perhaps retrospectively we can see the seeds of Cyril’s aestheticism in his infant interest (or, rather, the narrator’s interest in his interest) in perception. But I’m unconvinced Cyril’s current interests will be anything more than a fad, and I don’t know how to reconcile his dandyism with his placid robustness. (Think of his decidedly non-finicky interest in food.) Maybe the relationship between the boy’s past and present is meant to be ironic. Hard to say because we aren’t given much help in figuring out how the book feels about present-day Cyril. (Is Dandy Cyril a better Cyril? Worse? Neither?) Maybe Cyril is going to become one of England’s great artists. Or maybe he will lose interest in art and find a different path. Or maybe he won’t even be in the novel anymore. Who knows? That said, I suspect he will not become an artist-hero like Lawrence’s Paul Morel. I suppose what I’m grappling with is that The Old Wives’ Tale has elements of the Bildungsroman (whether its heroes are the sisters or the child or someone else) without actually seeming to be one.
There is, however, at least one topic towards which novel’s attitude is clearer: the relationship between generations. In my previous post I noted the surprisingly violent antagonism in the scenes between Mrs. Baines and her young daughters. By the time we reach Constance and Cyril, things have calmed down a bit, at least on Cyril’s side. But that might just be because we don’t often get inside his head. It’s true that Sophia was much more violent than Constance, who at first seems governed by a fitting placidity. But Constance too coolly struck a blow against her mother when she accepted Povey, and she certainly feels keenly the pain—it’s presented as a kind of anguish—of her child’s moving away and perhaps beyond her. What she doesn’t seem to see—but which we can, noting the patterns Bennett gives us, especially his way of structuring chapters and sections so that they end with dramatic changes that are seldom described in detail—is a pattern. What she did to her mother, her son is doing to her. I think the point is that such antagonism (the callousness of youth) is to be expected, as is the surprise when the former child now adult gets what they once dished out, as is the reality of the pain that accompanies it at least from the parent’s perspective. I was moved by the description of Constance returning home from seeing Cyril off to London, full of sorrow but perhaps also the lugubrious satisfaction of being able to declare one’s self useless, and looking into the boy’s room:
And through the desolating atmosphere of reaction after a terrific crisis, she marched directly upstairs, entered his plundered room, and beheld the disorder of the bed in which he had slept.
Typical Cyril, leaving the bed unmade on his last day at home. A bit of a thrown gauntlet, too. What is more immoral in the Baines/Povey household than “disorder”? What gets me most here, though, is that adjective “plundered,” which encapsulates her desolation. Cyril has stolen before, let’s not forget. Here’s he’s literally and metaphorically taken what he needs and lit out for the big city.
Yet change (a child leaving home, say) isn’t development, even if it sometimes is regular or predictable. So it’s still unclear to me where Bennett is going with this notion. Even when he offers us clear patterns and repetitions he’s hard to read. Take the juxtaposition of the chapters “Crime” and “Another Crime.” A joke, right? Surely Cyril’s petty theft isn’t comparable to Daniel’s murder. But they are similar in having a strong, though not identical, effect on Povey. Each challenges Povey’s complacent world-view, though in the first case he is able to smooth over the disorder, able through his will-power and action to restore the world to its satisfactory functioning, which he cannot do in the second.
The Daniel plot-line is fascinating. A whole Zola novel hiding in plain sight. I’m imagining how luridly and/or excitingly Daniel’s story could be told. Bennett instead chooses indirection, keeping the focus on Povey. What matters is how Samuel responds, not what Daniel feels. (Is it remorse? Resignation? Anger? I wanted to know! What do you think? Why doesn’t Bennett tell us? That is, how does his decision shape the novel we have? Does the novel’s utter indifference to the murdered woman–slatternly, disgraceful, and that’s the end of it–affect how we understand how it portrays Constance and Sophia?) Povey’s belief that the good people who make up the moral majority of the Five Towns can do no wrong is shattered when his respected and respectable cousin commits murder. The challenge is especially severe because it comes from the state. (It will be interesting to compare—as I suspect we will be asked to—how the French handle violent transgressions.) I had to laugh in appreciation of Bennett’s skill in describing how easily citizens will fall in line with the power of the law, even if it means contradicting themselves:
They [Samuel and others who believed in Daniel’s innocence] talked as if they had always foreseen [a guilty verdict], directly contradicting all that they had said on only the previous day. Without any sense of inconsistency or shame, they took up an absolutely new position. The structure of blind faith had once again crumbled at the assault of realities, and unhealthy, un-English truths, the statement of which would have meant ostracism twenty-four hours earlier, became suddenly the platitudes of the Square and the market-place.
Povey’s death, too clearly foreshadowed to stand as another instance of the unpredictability of human mortality (like, say, Aunt Hester or Mrs. Baines’s deaths), feels to me like a commentary on the man’s inability to reconcile the contradiction between his beliefs—Daniel did a bad thing, but he was provoked; he should be punished, but not to the fullest extent of the law—and the conclusions the authorities of the nation he also believes in come to. In this sense, Povey seems to die from being disabused of long-held beliefs. Is that tragic? Farcical? Again, I can’t say, partly of course because there’s still 300 pages to go, but partly because the novel’s take on events continues to be hard to interpret. I am all the more puzzled because it is at this moment that an unsuspected and hitherto unseen first-person voice appears:
A casual death, scarce noticed in the reaction after the great febrile demonstration! Besides, Samuel Povey never could impose himself on the burgesses. He lacked individuality. He was little. I have often laughed at Samuel Povey. But I liked and respected him. He was a very honest man. I have always been glad to think that, at the end of his life, destiny took hold of him and displayed, to the observant, the vein of greatness which runs through every soul without exception. He embraced a cause, lost it, and died of it.
If destiny takes hold of everyone, though presumably never quite the same way twice, then this is a backhanded appreciation of Povey, who is great only in the way that everyone is. (Although maybe no greater appreciation can be imagined?) I’m not so sure the narrator has done laughing at Samuel Povey. And who is this I? Someone like Bennett? If so, he would here appear in the guise of as one who can only record, never invent, the fates of the figures who appear in the text. Or is the I someone like us, as readers? I should say me, I suppose. I don’t know about you, but I felt a twinge of guilt as I recognized myself in that description: I have often laughed at Samuel Povey. But I do like him, yes, even, in his way, respect him. Maybe I should stop laughing. Maybe I should admire his fatal embrace of a lost cause. But I don’t, quite. I don’t trust the text not to be fooling me here, too…
PS: At some point we have to talk about old wives’ tales. Are there any in the book? Why is it called that?
Having so to speak thwarted—through no effort of her own since she had no knowledge of it—her mother’s plan to keep her away from Gerard Scales, a bounder if I ever saw one, Sophia Baines follows a plan of her own, as much to deceive herself as anyone else. She will visit her good friend Miss Chetwynd, a teacher who has seen promise in the young woman and offered her a different life, one she has rejected but, we are led to believe, from having read other novels and the not-so-subtle hints dropped in this one, will live to regret not taking.
She will arrive at Miss Chetwynd’s shortly after four, soon after school lets out, which, admittedly, is the time when her friend invariably takes a walk. Which means that when she calls she will be told Miss Chetwynd is not at home. She will be surprised by this mistake, having come all this way for naught. Perhaps she will walk a little more, on her own, already a daring thing to do. (Is it Miss Chetwynd’s age that allows her such freedom?) Sophia might take a right turn here, in fact she will, for she is not wandering, she has a destination, the one doubtless indicated in the note Scales passed to her in the shop that morning. Her heart is beating fast—she is having a “terrific adventure.” She tells herself she is “a wicked girl” and “a fool,” but the words don’t mean anything, or if they do they are no match for her actions. We are told she is motivated in part by vanity at Scales’s interest in her. But also by “an immense, naïve curiosity.” She is doing something nothing in her background has prepared her for or would ever license, and she wants to know what it feels like.
My questions about this second section of The Old Wives’ Tale are exemplified by that phrase “immense, naïve curiosity.” Is it earnest or ironic? What’s most interested me about the novel so far is its narrative voice. The secret meeting between Sophia and Scales—breathlessly called in the chapter title “escapade,” with neither definite nor indefinite article to qualify it—is a fine place to consider that voice. Besides, it’s such a vivid, exciting, and strange scene.
A few things caught my eye. First, the detail of the marl on Scales’s shoes, a hint that he is soiled in some way, though if so presumably she is too, since the clay-lime mixture gets on her shoes as well, eventually catching her out, but more interesting to me as an example of the way the oddest details sear themselves into our attention at heightened moments. Second, the description of the railway construction as violent both to the earth and the social order (the railway cutting is “a raw gash,” the busy workers confusingly both “like flies in a great wound”—I was obscurely reminded of the elephant corpse—and like “dangerous beasts of prey” who are scandalous, unspeakable, and virile (open shirts “revealing hairy chests”): as such the navies both disgust and entice Sophia and Scales. Third, the triangulation of desire through the combination of sex and class: the initial awkwardness between the soon-to-be couple disappears when the two literally look down on the workers and consider their own superior manners, although something about the men must be arousing, for even though Bennett tells us “No doubt they both thought how inconvenient it was that railways could not be brought into existence without the aid of such revolting and swinish animals” this peculiar description (it incites doubt rather than quelling it) is accompanied by “a united blush,” which I read less as embarrassment than excitement. And finally there’s the business with the old pit-shaft, which Scales, perhaps out of boyish shyness or, more likely, brute carelessness, must look down, even though Sophia really doesn’t want him to. (To be fair to him, he expresses “awe” at the presence of this old, terrible thing. Will future generations look on the railway line, perhaps itself one day abandoned, similarly?) Sophia’s vision of miners’ ghosts trapped underground amid “the secret terrors of the earth” surprised me. Where does this horror come from? It’s not that I didn’t believe it; it’s that I found it so intriguing. Her shrieks—which are either only in her mind, or else of no consequence to Scales: he doesn’t seem to hear them, only notices her transformed face when he comes down the wall around the shaft—indicate fear as intense and jarring as the language describing the navies. This might be an expression of Sophia’s guilt and fear at keeping the rendezvous, but the moment also felt somehow atavistic. (Just like the elephant was excessive in some fascinating way.) Not sure what I have in mind, exactly, but if someone falls into a pit or something later in this novel, I won’t be surprised.
The mismatch between how the abandoned mine—and perhaps the whole encounter—makes each of them feel leads to disagreement. At first, as Sophia stormed away, I thrilled to the possibility that she might leave Scales for good, but of course it’s not to be. (That wouldn’t happen even in Lawrence.) Sophia doesn’t know herself enough to know what she is feeling. Or does she? Help me understand the tone of this passage:
She kept on, the ridiculous child. But the agony she had suffered as he clung to the frail wall was not ridiculous, nor her tremendous indignation when, after disobeying her, he forgot she was a queen. To her the scene was sublimely tragic. Soon she had recrossed the bridge, but not the same she! So this was the end of the incredible adventure!
Here the narrative voice seems especially labile. The final sentence, probably the final two sentences, offer Sophia’s thoughts. Indignation, despair, even something like a fall into experience. (Though not one that will change her behaviour, as we soon learn. If she is changed, it is as someone who now knows what it is to have an adventure—you don’t get what you expect—not as someone who sees through the gaudy charms of a fancy man.) But what about the first half of the paragraph? That “ridiculous child”: does its judgment come from the narrator or from Scales? (Is this free indirect discourse, in other words.) The phrase would fit with Scales’s actions in this scene and elsewhere, but there’s no other indication here that we are inside his mind. Which must mean the narrator owns the description. In that case, does the second sentence qualify the first? It begins by seeming to acknowledge the authenticity of Sophia’s feelings. She really was in agony. But as it continues the sentence becomes less generous. That her indignation is “tremendous” already hints at something overstated, silly. The idea of disobedience seems rather strong too. It implies that the relationship is asymmetrical. As does the description of Sophia as a queen. These aren’t, as we might first have thought, the narrator’s conclusions, they’re the girl’s delusions. I think we’re meant to roll our eyes here, and say, “Yeah that’s what she thinks she is.”
That said, the adjective “frail” counters that reading. The initial description of the pit describes it as “a dilapidated low brick wall,” quite a contrast to Scales’s later claim that it is “as firm as a rock.” Sophia’s take is “right”—it accords with the objective reality of the world. And yet that first description might not be “objective”—there may be no such thing here, for it reads, in full, “Suddenly Mr Scales stopped at a dilapidated low brick wall, built in a circle, close to the side of the road.” To me, that “Mr” strongly implies Sophia’s perspective—and in fact she later calls him that: “‘I’ll thank you not to follow me, Mr Scales.’” Then again—nothing but zigzags here, sorry—flipping back through the text Scales seems always to be called Mr. So I don’t know what to think. I’m similarly puzzled by the next sentence in our passage: “To her the scene was sublimely tragic.” Is the narrator telling us how Sophia feels? Or is he continuing to present her thinking? If the latter, is the idea that Sophia has some sense of the partiality of her interpretation? If the former, does the narrator want us to respect her feeling or dismiss it? Sometimes I think the novel uses these narrative techniques or irony and ventriloquism to argue that people can’t understand each other. Other times I think the novel is itself an unwitting example of that failure.
Two more quick thoughts:
The stakes of generational conflict feel peculiarly strange in this novel. Parents and children alike think of it in terms of murder. I’m thinking of the commonly held belief that Sophia killed her father in her moment’s inattention. And of the way Sophia inwardly braces for her mother’s anger when she learns about the meeting with Scales, by repeating—so often that I have to conclude she really believes it to be a possibility—“She can’t kill me.”
The temporal compression at the end of Book I is impressive. So much happens so quickly. Do you think we have seen the last of Mrs. Baines?
Let me know what you think of the narrative voice—and about anything else that struck you this week!
I’ve long wanted to read something together with Rohan. (She was my professor, long ago–when she was very young, I might add–and so I have read a number of things at her behest, but that’s different…) We traded ideas and decided on Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale (1908). And I hope you will consider joining us!
As Rohan wrote in her post introducing the project, we chose Bennett because he bridges the periods we study and teach (Victorianism for her, modernism for me), and because we’re curious to actually read him, rather than about him. Although Bennett was popular with both critics and ordinary readers, his reputation, at least in literary studies, suffered a blow from which it’s yet to recover when Virginia Woolf wrote an essay savaging him (and his Edwardian confreres H. G. Wells and John Galsworthy) for writing books that failed to respond to the changes in life Woolf somewhat facetiously dates to December 1910. (To be fair to Woolf–and the essay’s fascinating, well worth reading, she was responding to a review Bennett wrote of her third novel, Jacob’s Room, which he spectacularly failed to get.)
I’ve heard it said that The Old Wives’ Tale is Bennett’s masterpiece. It’s certainly hefty: its story of two sisters from Staffordshire, one of whom stays tied to their father’s drapery shop and one of whom elopes to Paris, runs to 600 pages in my old Penguin edition. But we’ve spaced the reading out over six weeks and the chapters look manageable, so I hope you won’t be daunted!
Rohan’s even designed a schedule to keep us on track. As you can see, we’ll alternate posting, offering reflections, asking questions, and soliciting your ideas. We hope for lively comment sections, but you can also post at your own blog or newsletter, or share thoughts on Twitter (#OldWivesTale21). If you feel ambitious and want to write a guest post, I will be delighted to host it.
Drapery shop vs. Paris: one of these sounds better than the other. Yet I suspect Bennett will play with my expectations. How different will these destinies prove to be? This piece–admittedly, I’ve only skimmed it, to avoid spoilers–enticingly suggests the novel will be anything but staid. “No English novelist ever suggested more unspeakable things, and got away without being understood, than me in that book,” Bennett later claimed. I say, bring it on, Arnold! Who wants to join me to see if he does?