What I Read, July 2020

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

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Ann Cleeves, The Long Call (2019)

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

Sarah Moss, Cold Earth (2009)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine Addison, The Angel of the Crows (2020)

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

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

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

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

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

On Teaching Anna Kavan’s Ice

Like all teachers, I’m always tinkering with my syllabi. Sometimes I’ll add texts I haven’t taught before. More rarely I’ll do something even more outrageous (exciting, foolish: choose your adjective): I’ll assign something I’ve never even read.

Before you get too excited (is he crazy? What a charlatan!), know that when I say I’ve never read it I’m not saying I’ve simply plucked the book off a shelf at random. It’s possible to know quite a bit about books we haven’t read—maybe we’ve glanced at them, paged through them, read snippets and summaries of. But I still couldn’t say in any meaningful sense of the term that I’ve read the book.

(Why do such a thing? Setting aside laziness or chronic over-commitment—academic summers are pretty full and it’s not easy to get to everything you mean to read—the main reason is to mimic students’ experience: it’s never a bad idea to remember what it’s like at the other side of the seminar table. (Answer: hard and stressful.) Teaching something for the first time, although always kind of a cluster, can be exciting and an excellent way to reckon with a book in a pretty intense way.)

This past semester I taught one book I’d never read before: Anna Kavan’s Ice, first published in 1967 and recently reissued by Penguin Classics. I assigned it in Experimental 20th Century British Fiction, a class I’ve taught many times (this was probably its sixth or seventh iteration). As I said, I don’t pull this trick of teaching something brand new too often, but whenever I do I choose something I am pretty sure I am going to like. Well, there’s a first time for everything. I did not like Ice. But my struggles teaching it taught me some things, especially about I value in a book, and, not unrelatedly, about what kind of book is easiest for me to teach.

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First a few words about the course. My idea is that in Britain in the last century, at least, the idea of experimental literature is best understood in terms of Freud’s definition of the uncanny. Writing in the wake of his experience with shell-socked soldiers in WWI and on the cusp of the dramatic revision of his thinking that was first developed in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), the essay “The Uncanny” (1919) is part of Freud’s increasing fascination with unpleasant and traumatic experiences. In that sense it fits in with the trajectory of his thinking. In another respect, though, it is quite unusual: it is Freud’s most sustained act of literary criticism.

Reading E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Romantic/Gothic story “The Sandman” (1817), Freud comes to understand the uncanny—in German, das Unheimliche—as “that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar.” The inextricable relationship between comfort and discomfort inheres in the very etymology of the word: unheimlich contains within it Heimlich, which, Freud notes, means both cozy/comforting and secret/stealthy. Only that which we think we know can truly disturb us. What most has the power to terrify us—to freak us out, even, as in the case of the Hoffmann story, to drive us insane—is the revelation that something or someone close to us is not what we take them to be. The strangest things don’t, at first glance, look that strange. But when we look at them more closely we see how strange they are. And that is unsettling.

I think this idea of strangeness helps us understand 20th Century British literature, which, especially in its post-war manifestations, is often taken to be conventional, formally unadventurous and pedestrian in its subject matter. (The exciting, experimental stuff is thought to be happening elsewhere: France, America, anywhere but at home.) But this is a misreading. After all, the “experimental” only makes sense in relation to the “conventional.” The strangest textual effects, the riskiest narrative strategies, the most disquieting subject matter—these indicators of the experimental might be all the more pronounced when they appear in seemingly straightforward guise.

Having taught the course many times, I have a few fixed points on the itinerary. I start with D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1920) and end with J. G. Ballard’s Crash (1973). (Yes, mine is a short century—I’ve added more recent texts into the mix before, but this arc seems to work best.) I always teach Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. And Beckett’s Molloy (I know, not British). And either Henry Green’s Loving or Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day. (It was Green this year, and I think I’ve really finally figured out how to teach him: went very well.) The past couple of times I’ve taught Barbara Comyns’s The Vet’s Daughter and often I include Jean Rhys’s Voyage in the Dark, as I did this year. Doris Lessing is usually in there too, though this year I took a break. That’s what opened up the slot for Kavan.

I knew Ballard admired Kavan, and I thought Ice might work nicely with Crash. But I’m not sure we made much of the pairing. Both are about violence, and oblique about how they understand that violence. But the books didn’t have as much in common as I’d suspected.

Ice is set in some ill-defined apocalyptic landscape. (Some say it is modeled on New Zealand, where Kavan spent part of WWII. But it feels like nowhere.) The narrator is a former soldier and explorer. Now he is “home,” driving through an isolated landscape in an ice storm to visit the girl he had once planned to marry and her husband, a painter. In some complicated fashion that is probably metaphorical, the girl is abducted by a sinister figure known only as the Warden, with whom the narrator is also infatuated, though he professes to despise him. It is even possible that the Warden is just another aspect of himself—after all, the narrator admits on the second page, “Reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me.”

The book is an extended chase scene (if you can imagine a chase in which the setting is inconclusive and the mechanisms of the chase unexplained—it is not, in other words, an exciting chase scene): the narrator searches for the girl, who doesn’t want to be found by him (until, perhaps, at the end, though the narrator’s description of their final reunion is so self-serving I’m unconvinced), and no wonder, since most of his fantasies about her involve her violation. (The Warden is equally violent towards her; more so, since his fantasies actually seem to be realized. It is hard to tell for sure.) At the same time, the planet is threatened by an encroaching ice age; the breakdown of civilization engenders further violence. Although climate change as we know it today couldn’t have been on Kavan’s radar, the way the narrator talks about the coming apocalypse mirrors some of the rhetoric you might hear today: “The ultimate achievement of mankind would be, not just self-destruction, but the destruction of all life; the transformation of the living world into a dead planet.”

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Ice is short: straightforward prose, less than 200 pages. So I allocated only two class periods for our conversation. I was scrambling to prepare for our first meeting: it was three-quarters of the way through the semester, pressures mounting on every side, plus I was having trouble staying motivated to teach this group. Lots of smart students, but reticent, and, what’s worse, afraid. They worried a lot about saying the right thing, I could tell, and that sort of attitude is terrible in a discussion-based class. I’d tried all semester to loosen the atmosphere, but nothing had worked and by this point I’d mostly given up. Worse, their tenseness had affected me, which made me a less effective teacher. I didn’t particularly enjoy meeting with them, even though all the interactions I had with students one-on-one were absolutely fine.

So the situation was not ripe for success. And I was down to the last minute preparing for that first class. We had the first third or so of the novel to consider. I was wary of both my own uncertainty about the book and mindful that the first day on any novel is usually a bit halting. So I offered a few remarks on Kavan’s remarkable life—most of which I pilfered from this fine New Yorker profile, along with the information that her life-long heroin habit began when she was introduced to it by a tennis pro on the French Riviera, who thought it would be good for her serve!—and then passed around a handout with questions I’d prepared. I split the class into groups and assigned each a question. (I thought about including them, but decided that was overkill. Leave a comment if you want me to send them to you.)

The exercise worked okay: we got at some of the novel’s concerns, but I found it hard to get students to point to specific passages in their answers. It’s always hard to get students to do this—they’re always happier with generalities. But the problem seemed more intransigent this time. The reason, I realized, concerned the nature of the book itself. Ice doesn’t lend itself to close reading. The style is flat, with little texture, grain, weirdness. Even the narrator, so problematic, seemed less complex than I’d hoped. Certainly, he is untrustworthy, but he isn’t seductive in the way of Nabokov or Ishiguro’s narrators, for example. Class discussion felt aimless: we didn’t know what to do with this book.

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As I was preparing for the next class I realized I was bored. I resented Ice, hated having to read it. I found my attention even more fragmented than usual: my thoughts wandered away from the page; I was checking Twitter and hockey scores even more than usual. The last hundred pages were killing me. Now, it is true that sometimes I am resentful of having to re-read books for teaching because doing so takes me away from reading other things, things I’ve never read before, but I’m never bored or resentful. I leave that to the students! I like the books assign. Most of them I even love. So what was going on? And why was I the only one (outside my classroom, I mean) who seemed to feel that way?

I’d decided to assign Ice in the first place on the basis of conversations with readers I trust, all of whom were enthusiastic about the book. And as I prepared to teach, I read what Grant and Max and John Self and others had written about the book (I think Jacqui likes it too but I can’t find her review). They all loved it. But I just couldn’t see what they saw.

Finally, I had an insight that offered, I hoped, a way to think more productively about my resistance. I was reading a passage in which the narrator, who has, for reasons too obscure to go into here, joined a group of mercenaries ultimately in the pay of his nemesis the Warden, decides he needs to meet him face to face. But his immediate superior, the only person in the unit with even occasional direct dealings with the Warden, refuses, fearing that his own privilege will thereby be undermined. So the narrator comes up with a scheme:

For days we had been attacking a strongly defended building said to contain secret papers. He [the leader of the narrator’s unit] would not ask for reinforcements, determined to get the credit for taking the place unaided. By a simple trick, I enabled him to capture the building and send the documents to headquarters, for which I was highly praised.

My mind snagged on that “by a simple trick.” Quite possibly we are to take that as another sign of the narrator’s unpleasant character—look how boastful he—but in that case wouldn’t he want to tell us all about the trick so that we could see just how clever he is? It seems more likely that this is an example of everything Ice isn’t interested in. I imagined the kind of novel that would make much of that offhanded phrase. In that novel, a thriller, say, the mechanics of the trick would matter a lot. But Ice doesn’t care about plot, or plausibility, or cause and effect (its logic, if it can be said to have one, is dreamlike). It also doesn’t care about character, at least not as an expression of a complicated psychology or interiority.

So what does it care about?

I still don’t know the answer to that, which is why my attempt to teach it failed. Pressed, though, I would say it cares about the repetition and re-arrangement of certain images and motifs. But if so, its interest in repetition is totally different than Lawrence’s. We’d spent a long time at the beginning of the semester looking at how Lawrence repeats himself—the most noticeable, and, to his critics, most annoying aspect of his style. But in Lawrence, repetition always leads to difference. When he repeats himself, he seldom uses exactly the same word; he offers slight variations (adjectives become adverbs, for example). When repetition leads to difference, the prose becomes propulsive, befitting his fascination with change. Kavan’s repetition didn’t inhere in her style (she doesn’t repeat the same words); it inheres in her structure (the girl is trapped in one way, then another, then still another).

Thinking about that difference helped me—if not my students—clarify my own values. I care way more about experiments at the sentence-level rather than at the book-level. The flatness of Kavan’s prose offered me no handholds. If, to return to the passage that snagged my attention, the prose could be likened to a strongly defended building, it is one whose slippery surfaces repel me. I cannot grapple with them. The prose offers me no traction, nothing to grab hold of by resisting. At the sentence level, it’s just not weird enough. The book’s weird as hell, don’t get me wrong, but at any given moment it feels so ordinary. In this sense, Ice is the opposite of the books we’d been reading all semester, perhaps exemplified by Loving and The Vet’s Daughter, books that seem straightforward at first glance, but get stranger and stranger the more we look at them, specifically because of their deceptive style. With these texts, we think we know what we are getting (“ordinary” realism—keeping in mind that realism actually ordinary at all, that’s just the straw position it’s held for many 20th century writers and readers) but once we get into them we find ourselves in a stranger place than we’d expected.

Having had us look at that phrase “by a simple trick,” and having broached the question of what Kavan’s novel values, I asked the class: Is this novel boring? The students were reluctant to answer, sensing some kind of trap, but I wasn’t having them on. I told them I found it very boring. But what was boring about it? Was boredom a flaw or a tactic?

One way to recuperate this boredom, I suggested, might be to read Ice as a novel about the violence men perpetrate on women. Such violence is boring. Not unimportant. Nor excusable. Something that ought to be combated (though I don’t think the book has any ideas about how to do so, or if it even can be). It is boring because, no matter how many forms violence takes, no matter what lurid and dismal fantasies give rise to it, it is always the same. In other words, in boring us the book is performing the boredom of misogyny and patriarchy.

Does this reading work? I’m not sure. I am sure, though, that the novel refuses to glamourize violence. On the contrary, it shows that part of violence’s power comes from its resolutely static nature.

In this regard, Ice is quite different from Crash, a novel which also presents violence in an affectless manner but which is also thrilled by it. (It is also so much richer in its prose). Ballard’s world-view—though also quite mad—is less stultifying than Kavan’s, because in Crash violence is equal opportunity (it’s not only men who enact it), and, more importantly, not the point. The point is that violence combined with sex begets fantasies that are transformative and therefore generative, even if in ways that make us uncomfortable. (It’s a book about people who get off on car crashes; it’s about people fascinated by the way bodies can be transfigured through violent collisions with machines. It’s insane, but you should read it.)

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On the course feedback form I asked students whether they thought I should teach Ice again. I’ll be curious to see their answers. My guess is they’ll say no, because none of them chose to write about it for their final papers. And I’m pretty much ready never to read it again. And yet it’s almost always rough the first time one teaches anything. I bet I’d do a better job next time. But I don’t think I’m interested enough to try. Teaching Ice turned out to be a failed experiment. Of course, those are the ones you learn the most from.

“A Long Smudge of Faces”: Elizabeth Bowen’s The Hotel

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If ever there was a writer who improved upon re-reading, it’s Elizabeth Bowen. Bowen’s style isn’t simple or easy to follow. Her syntax is famously knotty, often baffling until you figure out which words to emphasize and everything clicks into place. Here’s a classic from her masterpiece, The Heat of the Day (1948), which describes London during the Blitz:

Parks suddenly closed because of time-bombs—drifts of leaves in the empty deckchairs, birds afloat on the dazzlingly silent lakes—presented, between the railings which sill girt them, mirages of repose.

Until you realize that the subject of the sentence is the long noun phrase “parks suddenly closed because of time-bombs” rather than just parks, and that the verb is “presented” not “closed” this makes no sense at all. A reader at Jonathan Cape, Bowen’s publisher, said that her sentences were baffling until you understood the emphasis and then everything clicked into place.

At any rate, Bowen is never straightforward in her syntax. She can contort even simple sentences. Again from Heat: “He seldom was, and was not this time, put out.” Honestly, that one almost parodies itself.

But Bowen’s circumlocution, misdirection, even apparent clumsiness serves a function. I think Rohan is spot on when she says of Bowen’s prose: “that sense of interference between our attention and the point prevents us from imagining that the point is, itself, in any way direct or obvious.”

Nonetheless, especially in her first novel, The Hotel, which I’ve just been reading with Jacqui, Bowen is sometime just plain opaque. Consider for example this sentence:

Her reprehensible undistress had been a constant temptation.

A character, a young man, is here reflecting on why he’s left Germany with its economic crisis to come to be with his mother in Italy: the undistress refers to the mother’s lack of interest in the crisis. At least I think so—it’s really hard to tell! The substance of the sentence is as tricky as its context. What is “undistress” anyway? I can just about make sense of it as an adjective, but as a noun it flummoxes me. Is undistress the same as lack of distress? Is that the same as calmness? And why would it be reprehensible? So reprehensible, in fact, as to be tempting. It seems the distress we can’t help hearing in “undistress” ought to have carried the day: as if his mother should have been worried about it. We might think it would be nice to be drawn to someone who’s refusing to be worried about a political crisis, but the language here is more alarming than reassuring.

Not everything in Bowen is hard going, though. There are plenty of good bits. We find, for example, the occasional piece of social commentary, a la the Dowager Lady Crawley in Downton Abbey: here two characters are reading the English papers:

“There’s been the pit disaster.”

“Miners,” said the lady distastefully, “always seem to be getting into trouble. One is so sorry, but it is difficult to go on and on sympathizing.”

More frequent are striking apercus. Sometimes these are given to characters—“She had found that in actually dealing with children theories collapse and one must retreat on the conventions”—and sometimes to the narrator: “Sydney, who was still near enough to her own childhood to mistrust children profoundly, wondered what Cordelia could be getting at.”

And best of all are things that are just plain weird: a woman suddenly plucks a bitter orange from a tree and bites into it: “She glanced shamefacedly at her tooth-marks in the orange, then guiltily up at the windows of the Hotel, then she wiped the orange and tucked it quietly away behind her.” The tooth-marks are good, and so is the wiping and that “quietly.”

More conventional but quite beautiful are some moments of description: “She must have been made conspicuous by her abstraction or by her yellow dress; people turned to stare at her and a tram announced by a hum of overhead wires rushed past with a long smudge of faces turned her way.” I like the smudge.

If I haven’t said much about what The Hotel is about, it’s because I’m not sure. (And also because Jacqui is so good at summaries. Be sure to read hers.) I think—and this is what most makes the book worthwhile, even if it’s not always easy going—it’s about queerness.

The hotel of the title is on the Italian Riviera. The guests are British, and they’re mostly women. Most interesting to me are two pairs: Miss Pym and Miss Fitzgerald, and Sydney Warren and Mrs. Kerr, the mother of the young man who comes to visit from Germany.

The novel begins brilliantly, with Miss Pym and Miss Fitzgerald wandering dazedly around the hotel and the resort after having had a terrible fight. We don’t see the fight, we never learn what it was about, we don’t even know who these women are, and we have to piece together what they mean to each other. It’s pretty clear they are lovers, though, and I really wished they’d been more present in the book. Even in this episodic novel, they disappeared for long stretches of time, though they importantly close the book. On a picnic together, they remember the day they almost lost each other, which gives a kind of happy ending that nonetheless reminds us of loss just when it clams to be celebrating togetherness.

In this sense they comment on the more oblique and much less resolved relationship between Sydney—a young woman who had planned to be a doctor and who has been sent to the Riviera by her family to accompany her cousin, one of those invalids who are really just women who need a break from life of the sort you find in so much fiction in the late 19th and early 20th century, and, they hope, to get married—and the much older Mrs. Kerr. It seems pretty clear that Sydney loves Mrs. Kerr. It’s not at all clear what Mrs. Kerr thinks of her. Sydney is a kind of factotum to the older (richer) woman, sometimes a kind of daughter or even a pet who Mrs. Kerr deigns to take an interest in, and sometimes something much more like a lover.

Bowen’s refusal to clarify is brilliant. But she’s clear that other characters (men especially but not only) wonder and worry about it. Consider this exchange, three-quarters of the way through the novel. A visiting clergyman, James Milton, is talking with Mrs. Kerr’s son, Ronald:

“An hotel, you know, is a great place for friendships.”

“Mustn’t that be,” said Ronald, “what people come out for?”

“Perhaps some—”

“But are there really people who would do that? asked Ronald sharply, in a tone of revulsion, as though he had brought himself up more squarely than he had anticipated to the edge of some kind of abyss. “You mean women?”

Well, as the kids say these days, that escalated quickly. The reference to friendship is redescribed as a code for same-sex desire, a desire that Ronald, at least, is revolted by. The book is at its best when it’s at its queerest: that is, when it offers us relationships that challenge the homo-hetero binary, relationships that are hard to name.

If Miss Pym and Miss Fitzgerald are straightforwardly gay, Sydney and Mrs. Kerr are, I don’t know, not. They’re something else. But whatever it is it’s powerful. Partly through the book—here come some spoilers now, watch out—the clergyman Milton proposes to Sydney, out of nowhere. She rejects him as gently as she can. But then just as unaccountably she later accepts. All of which leads to an amazing scene near the end of the book when the couple along with Sydney’s cousin and Mrs. Kerr rent a driver to take them on an excursion into the mountains. Coming back down they run up against a timber wagon that has almost tipped over one of the hairpin turns that Sydney has spent the ride silently wishing the party would plunge over. Something about the moment—the shock, or maybe the shock is just a cover for a decision she’s already come to, unconsciously—prompts Sydney to break off the engagement. It has to do with her feelings for Mrs. Kerr, but we don’t know how exactly. Nor do we find out. At the end of the novel, Milton leaves in embarrassed chagrin. Sydney is set to leave too. And only on one of the last pages do we sense that Mrs. Kerr will in fact be devastated by the loss, though whether out of love or out of loss of power is uncertain.

The Hotel is a chilly novel, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I did have a hard time with it, never able to get stuck in it, always reading a few pages at a time, and often having to go back over those knotty sentences.

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However lukewarm I am about The Hotel I certainly do love Bowen in general. She’s sadly underrated and definitely poorly classified. People often compare her to Woolf—with whom she had a rivalrous but also mutually admiring relationship—for no other reason as far as I can see than that they were both women writing at around the same time. But Bowen is much better understood as part of that great British mid-twentieth century tradition of women writers who defy the longstanding and increasingly useless distinction between modernism and post-modernism. This tradition—which for me includes writers like Jean Rhys, Barbara Comyns, Elizabeth Taylor, Angela Carter, and Penelope Fitzgerald: a pretty heterogeneous bunch!—is uncannily experimental, the strangeness of the works heightened by how ordinary they first seem.

In The Hotel Bowen seems to still be finding her way. When we were talking about it on Twitter, Jacqui said it’s as if Bowen were rooting through English fiction of the period for ideas. Milton seems like someone out of a Forster novel, though perhaps less interested in art. And sometimes the prose, which at its worst is sub-Jamesian, overtly imitates The Master: “The party hung fire, embarrassed by this choice of attractions, then continued to move slowly up the avenue in a close formation.” I thought only James was allowed to use the expression “hung fire”!

In other words, if you’ve never read Elizabeth Bowen before, I wouldn’t recommend starting here. It is, after all, a first novel. (Though first novels often seem to me most representative of a writer’s preoccupations, and that’s not the case here.) I’m curious about her two earlier collections of stories. Bowen’s wartime stories are justly famous—if you’ve never read “The Demon Lover,” you’re in for something special—and I wonder if she had already mastered the form. At any rate, it’s impressive how quickly Bowen improved as a novelist. Her next one, The Last September—a moving description of the Anglo-Irish war—is miles better and a terrific point of entry into her work. More conventional in structure and more compressed in scope than The Hotel, The Last September feels like a novel in a way that the earlier book doesn’t. After that I’d recommend two terrific but dark novels of the 30s, The Death of the Heart and To the North (which has one of the most ominous final scenes ever) and of course her absolute masterpiece, maybe the greatest novel about the Blitz, The Heat of the Day.

Has anyone read any of her late novels (Eva Trout, The Little Girls, etc)? I wonder what they’re like.

“Even Stranger”: Two Serious Ladies

 Mr. and Mrs. Copperfield had gone over to Panama City for two days. The first day after lunch Mr. Copperfield proposed a walk towards the outskirts of the city. It was the first thing he always did when he arrived in a new place. Mrs. Copperfield hated to know what was around her, because it always turned out to be even stranger than she had feared.

Coming to Jane Bowles’s only novel, Two Serious Ladies, I didn’t fear it would be strange. But I certainly found it to be strange. I don’t think Bowles intended this passage, which for me centers on that comparative adjective “even stranger,” as a description of her novel, any more than Mrs. Copperfield is an advertisement for ignorance. It doesn’t take us long, after all, to see that Mr, Copperfield, like all the men in this novel, is caught up in his own brutish self-righteousness. His spirit of adventure is a lot less interesting than he thinks it is. It’s not that the novel is advocating being afraid, only that it admits that for women, even wealthy and eccentric women like the ladies of the title, there’s quite a lot to be afraid of, mostly men and their violence and neediness. Mrs. Copperfield, in other words, is much shrewder than almost anyone gives her credit for.

The Serious Ladies of the title are Christina Goering—impossible, in a novel published in 1943, not to hear an ominous echo of fanaticism in that name—and Frieda Copperfield. They know each other slightly, and near the beginning of the novel even meet at a party in New York. Mrs. Copperfield is about to leave on the trip to Panama referenced in the passage I’ve quoted above. Miss Goering has just taken on a female companion, a Miss Gamelon, who she will eventually be quite mean to. Goering and Copperfield run into each other again at the end of the book, but one of the things I liked about it is that it doesn’t spend much time making parallels between them, beginning with its narrative structure, which quite favours Goering’s story over Copperfield’s. I found that a pity, since I much preferred Mrs. Copperfield to Miss Goering, but I appreciated the (at least apparent but actually I think quite sincere) casualness, even haphazardness of the book’s structure.

I confess I’ve never actually understood what a picaresque novel (technically a solecism, I suppose—a picaresque isn’t a novel, it’s another literary form altogether, right?) but I think the term applies here. It really was never clear to me why characters did the things they did, this despite but perhaps ultimately in keeping with Miss Goering’s claim that something she is about to do “is against my code, but then, I have never even begun to use my code, although I judge everything by it.” There’s the sense here of a moral imperative, however inchoate, a desire to push established ways of behaving to a limit. Taken out of context, Goering’s comment about the code she never uses but judges everything by sounds a little arch, like something from Wilde. But the book isn’t arch at all. In fact, I’m not quite sure how to get a handle on its tone., and in the end that might be the thing that bothers me the most about it.

Miss Goering takes up with one man after another, each worse to her than the last, and leaves the city for increasingly precarious and transitory living situations. Mrs. Copperfield abandons her husband to live in a Panamanian brothel, befriending its alcoholic owner, Mrs. Quill, and one of the prostitutes who live there, Pacifica. In the loveliest scene in the book, Pacifica takes Mrs. Copperfield to an isolated beach where she tries to teach the terrified older woman how to swim. It’s an idyll of sorts in a book that doesn’t hold much truck with anything that gentle, though it’s also a sad scene, foreshadowing the falling out between the two women by the end of the book.

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Two Serious Ladies quite bedeviled me. I’ve written before about the risks of thinking of books as sui generis. What that often means is that we haven’t valued their context highly enough. But even though neglected Anglophone women writers of the 20th Century are my bread and butter, as it were, nothing I knew helped me to categorize Bowles’s novel. So many of the writers I love—Jean Rhys, Barbara Comyns, Rebecca West, Penelope Fitzgerald—would seem to be close kin to Bowles. But I didn’t find that to be the case. Maybe it matters that Bowles was American and the others weren’t. I did compare her fleetingly to Kay Boyle, but the comparison is mostly to Bowles’s credit. She seems both more viscerally clear about the dangers of authoritarianism than Boyle (it took her a while to come around) and less obviously in thrall to an aesthetic of high modernist seriousness. As I think about it now, Bowles strikes me as much less invested in a tradition of literary realism than those other writers, even though they all, in their different ways, contested it, mostly by having recourse to the Gothic tradition that has always been the doppelganger of English-language realism. Bowles is doing something else, but I can’t figure out what. It matters a lot, I think, that unlike the women in Rhys and Comyns’s novels, especially, money insulates them from the patriarchy’s harshest depredations. Goering and Copperfield can be more overtly in control over their own lives than the protagonists of those other writers’ books. But just because they’re financially independent doesn’t mean they know who they are.

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The longer I blog—and WordPress tells me it is exactly two years ago today, in fact—the more I’m convinced that I only really care to write about things I really like. And so I’m a bit hamstrung by Two Serious Ladies. If I hadn’t agreed to participate in Dolce Bellezza’s readalong I probably wouldn’t have written about it. And even then I don’t know if I would have had I not read Seraillon’s wonderful & intelligent piece.

It’s always a pleasure to read criticism where the subject clearly resonates with the critic. Although Scott’s post confirmed for me that Two Serious Ladies didn’t speak to me in that way, it also opened up the possibility that I might change my mind. Frankly, it’s unlikely I’ll read this book again anytime soon, but because of the carefulness of his reading I can imagine wanting to do so. All of which is to say, read his post, and those of the others taking part in the group. If you’re like me, you’ll be amazed and grateful that thanks to the glorious strangeness of the Internet you can always find someone out there who has understood something more richly than you have.

2015 Year in Reading

2015 was a good year in reading. Better than 2014, though nowhere near the annus mirabilis of 2013 (pre-blog, alas). I read 80+ books. Here are the ones that most stayed with me:

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A Little Life—Hanya Yanigahara

The reading event of the year for me. Everyone has an opinion about it, and they’re mostly strong opinions. I understand the main objections—it’s too long, it’s indulgent, it gets off on abusing its main character and even maybe its readers, its prose is sometimes clunky, even embarrassing—but I don’t feel them. These days I struggle to keep my attention away from my phone, social media, hockey scores, you name it. Sometimes I worry I don’t have the reading stamina I used to. In this regard, A Little Life was a gift: an intense, immersive reading experience that captivated me not just for the week of the reading but throughout the whole year. I wrote about it here.

Married Life—David Vogel

Written in Hebrew and published in Vienna in 1930, this is an extraordinary book that expands our sense of what European modernism was all about.

If I read Hebrew, I would write Vogel’s biography. Born in the Pale of Settlement, Vogel made his way via Vilnius and a brief stint as a yeshiva student to Vienna just in time to be interned as a Russian citizen during WWI. After the war he loafed, nearly penniless, in Vienna’s cafes, finding a little translation work and writing his first poems and novellas. He immigrated briefly to Palestine in the late 20s but Zionism never held much appeal for him and he returned to Europe, eventually finding his way to Paris in the early 30s. Tragically he was interned in the next war, this time as an Austrian citizen, and was deported via the infamous transit camp at Drancy to Auschwitz where he was murdered in 1944.

In Married Life the poor but promising writer Rudolph Gurweil meets the impoverished and rapacious aristocrat Thea von Takov and falls immediately under her spell even though he’s not sure he likes her very much. The two marry after only kowing each other for a few weeks and things go badly from the start. Thea converts to Judaism to marry Gurweil but among other things she’s a terrible anti-Semite. The novel is a drawn-out depiction of a disastrous marriage, but it’s also a glorious depiction of shabby Jewish Vienna.

I started a review and got sidetracked. I’d really like to finish it. If it got this book even one more reader it would be worth it.

Heartfelt thanks to heroic translator Dalya Bilu and to Australian-based Scribe for publishing this masterpiece, not least in such a gorgeous edition.

The Vet’s Daughter—Barbara Comyns

Wonderful, heartbreaking novel about a young woman who levitates. I wrote about it at length here and my appreciation only increased when I taught it this fall. Happily, my students loved it too; I received several excellent papers about it. I’m about to write more about Comyns myself. More on that soon, I hope.

The Heat of the Day—Elizabeth Bowen

The same students who enjoyed Comyns did magnificently with this marvelous novel of the Blitz and its aftermath. The course is on Experimental 20th-Century British Fiction, and I hadn’t taught Bowen for a while (six years, in fact), after my previous attempt at teaching her failed spectacularly. I finally worked up the courage to try Heat again, and am so glad I did. It helped, of course, that this was a particularly strong group of students. It was really fun helping them work through Bowen’s famously thorny sentences. To the North might still be my favourite Bowen, but this novel about lying to one’s self and to others is one of her best. I often grumble about how teaching gets in the way of reading. But sometimes the chance to return to the same set of books is a joy. As Roland Barthes once said, those who don’t re-read are doomed to read the same text over and over again.

Bernard Malamud

Another one from the teaching files, at least in part. I taught an introductory level course on short fiction this fall. (For a while I blogged about it regularly—the first installment is here, if you’re interested—but eventually I capitulated to the semester’s demands and gave up.) The touchstone text was Malamud’s first collection, The Magic Barrel. I’d taught these marvelous stories before but it had been a while and found I liked them even more this time.

I’ve always loved their enigmatic qualities, and had long been curious whether his novels were like that too. So I read The Assistant over Thanksgiving (I started a post on that too which I also failed to complete). It tells the story of Morris Bober’s struggle to eke out a living from his small grocery store in a poor part of New York, a struggle that only deepens when he takes on a drifter as a de facto assistant. It is also one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read, with a scene that genuinely shocked me. Malamud’s stories are hardly heartwarming, but they have a lightness missing from this novel. Absolutely worth reading, though.

Various short stories

The Penguin Book of the British Short Story—Philip Hensher, Ed.

As I said, I taught a lot of short stories this fall, and in the process I remembered how much I love the form. Edith Pearlman, Katherine Mansfield, and D. H. Lawrence were particular favourites. I also want to tip my hat to this wonderful two-volume edition of short stories edited by Philip Hensher. I’ve got volume 2 (they’re only available in the UK and a bit pricey but the production values are amazing) and I’ve only read a handful of the stories. But the roster is exciting; not just the usual suspects. Hensher plowed through a ton of late-19th and early-20th century magazines and has found some amazing stuff. I especially like one by “Malachi” (Marjorie) Whitaker, called “Courage”: it’s going straight on to the Spring syllabus. Hensher’s introduction makes a fascinating case for why Britain produced such good short fiction in the years 1890-1940 and why economic and structural conditions make it unlikely for the form to flourish in the same way again (which isn’t the same as saying there are no good instances of the form today: volume 2 goes from P. G. Wodehouse to Zadie Smith). Please Penguin, bring this out in the US.

The Book of Aron—Jim Shepard
A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz—Göran Rosenberg

Holocaust literature is central to my teaching, and so also to my reading. These two books impressed me this year, the first a novel of the Warsaw Ghetto that I wrote about at Open Letters Monthly and the second a second-generation memoir that I reviewed at Words without Borders.

Death of a Man—Kay Boyle

Thanks to Tyler Malone of The Scofield I learned a lot about Kay Boyle this year. The best thing I read by her was a heartbreaking early story about failed pedagogy called “Life Being the Best” (read it!), but the book I spent the most time with was this 1936 novel about an American heiress who falls in with fascist sympathizers in pre-Anschluss Austria. I can’t say I liked the book all that much, but I was utterly fascinated by it and I enjoyed wrestling with its slippery politics. You can read my essay, along with many other wonderful pieces, here.

A Wreath of Roses and Blaming—Elizabeth Taylor

These are two of the best books I read this year, but they’re wrapped up in guilt for me because I promised someone a piece about them and never delivered. (Not yet, anyway…. I still want to, though!) I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Taylor, but these are the best of the bunch. Blaming (1976), her last book, is about what happens to a middle-aged woman after the unexpected death of her husband. It manages to be both rueful and acerbic. A Wreath of Roses (1949) is a masterpiece and if it were in print in the US I would have taught it this semester for sure. Less histrionic than Bowen’s Heat of the Day but similarly a novel of what the war did to England, it’s also a story of female friendship that earns its epigraph from Woolf’s The Waves. Genuinely haunting: I read it in June and still think about it regularly.

The Secret Place—Tana French

French doesn’t need me to sing her praises. Everyone already knows she’s the best crime writer today. Some thought this latest book—for some unaccountable reason I held off reading it for almost a year—in the Dublin Murder Squad series a falling off, but I adored it. I especially loved the echoes of Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes. French is such a genius because she writes super suspenseful books that are ultimately about something quite different: they are fascinated to the point of obsession with the idea of friendship—interestingly, romance or sex features hardly at all—especially how friendship intersects with the partnership between detectives. Yet again French proves she writes vulnerable men better than anyone.

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Other good things: Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City is a brilliant essay-memoir and I would have written more about it here but it’s late and I’m tired (the Open Letters piece is good, though); The Hare with Amber Eyes (again, everyone already knows it’s amazing—I most liked a surprising Arkansas connection!); Emma (enjoyed re-reading this and wrote about the experience here and here); bits of Balzac (the last 100 pp of Pere Goriot, which practically had me in tears; the scene in Eugenie Grandet when Eugenie wakes at night to see her father and his servant taking his gold downstairs: hallucinatory); Wilkie Collins (I liked both The Dead Secret and The Law and the Lady). Also, good light reading: Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London (urban fantasy—smart and funny: read the first two this year and mean to finish the series in 2016); Hans Olav Lahlum’s K2 books (engaging Norwegian homage to Golden Age crimes, locked room mysteries and the like); Ellis Peter’s Cadfael books (read the first: surely the beginning of a beautiful friendship).

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Reading is a passionately solitary experience, but also a joyously communal one. That’s true (mostly) in my classroom and, increasingly, on social media and the Internet more generally. Sometimes I find the constant stream of books to read that come through my Twitter feed a little daunting, but mostly I’m thrilled to know that so much reading is going on, so vigorously and passionately.

Thanks to everyone who read this blog in 2015, especially those who encouraged me and prompted me to think harder or differently about the books. It is wonderfully strange for me to speak so much with people I haven’t for the most part even met about something so important to me.

Thanks too to those who published me this year, especially the wonderful people at Open Letters Monthly. Here’s to more writing next year, and of course to more reading.

The Vet’s Daughter–Barbara Comyns

Barbara Comyns’s strange little book The Vet’s Daughter (1959) is narrated by Alice Rowlands, a seventeen-year-old girl who temporarily escapes the desperate circumstances of her home life when she takes a position as companion to an old woman, the mother of one her father’s colleagues. This woman, a Mrs. Peebles, is so sunk into depression or anxiety or ennui or something that she earns Alice’s description of her as “so sadly vague and harmless.”

Mrs. Peebles has survived a house fire, the death of her husband, and even a suicide attempt. A man delivering bread to the house discovered her “limply hanging in the green barn among the apples, and he had the presence of mind to cut her down with a pair of sheers and untie the dreadful rope around her neck.” This passage puts me in mind of the suicide Mr. Valpy, whose death in Virginia Woolf’s autobiographical fragment “A Sketch of the Past” gets fused in the mind of the young Virginia with the image of an apple tree in the garden. More pertinently, it offers a fine sense of Comyns’s calm way with horrible things. Some of that measured quality attaches to the narrator too, though equally characteristic is the gallows sprightliness evident in the sentence that comes right after the description of that macabre discovery: “Sometimes, when I looked at her there appeared to be a sinister brown stain round her neck, and I couldn’t help wondering if her eyes had always been so prominent.” This is funny, but not arch or knowing; mostly it’s discomfiting. Alice’s sentiments here seem almost naïve, but she is neither guileless nor foolish, even though she is almost always at the mercy of others.

Of all the unsettling, even startling things that happen to Alice in The Vet’s Daughter, why is it that the detail I remember most is so benign? Alice’s time with Mrs. Peebles comes to an abrupt end when the old woman—distraught that the couple who have kept house for her, a nasty pair straight out of a Roald Dahl story, have absconded with the silverware—is found drowned, presumably having finally succeeded in killing herself.

A kind policeman questions Alice and, as she has nowhere else to go, takes her in for the night. His house—unlike all the other filthy, dilapidated houses in the book—is “red-bricked and very clean.” (I picture it like the policeman’s house in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, all bachelor ship-shape.) And there’s an unexpected grace note: “Homing pigeons that had failed to return were in a box beside the fire, waiting to be claimed.”

Maybe the reason this image stays with me so strongly is that it’s one of the few homey, domestic, and even hopeful moments in the book. True, these birds are failures, homing pigeons that never made it home. In their dispossession they are rather like Alice. But they seem to have ended up well. Imprisoned, perhaps, or packaged at least, yes, but well looked after, all cozy beside the fire. And surely someone will want them: they are waiting to be claimed, after all. It’s unclear anyone wants Alice, for anything other than abusive or mercenary reasons, except perhaps Mrs. Peebles’s son Henry, Alice’s father’s colleague, the man who arranged for her to look after his mother and who cares a great deal for her even though she can’t bring herself to return the feeling. (In the end, he proves unable or unwilling to save Alice.) The pigeons in their box remind us of so many unhappy animals in the book, especially those in Alice’s father’s care—a term we can only use ironically, since he sells the ones he doesn’t like to a vivisectionist. That’s to say nothing of the ones he has used to furnish his house: a rug from a Great Dane’s skin, a monkey’s skull that sits on the mantelpiece, “a horse’s hoof without a horse joined to it” to prop open the door to his study. The house is full of piteous and frantic mewling and screeching and barking—as well as, before long, the tortured cries of Alice’s mother, who dies from a painful, undiagnosed illness.

Whatever their fate, then, the pigeons don’t suffer as these other animals do. Maybe I held on to the image’s intimation of a happier future—the moment someone finally claims the birds—as a corrective to my uneasy suspicion that Alice has had something to do with Mrs. Peeples’s death. And I don’t just mean that in the childish sense of the omnipotence of thoughts: Mrs. Peeples disappears on an afternoon when Alice has fled the house, unable to take the woman’s presence any more (“She became repulsive to me, like some old brown flower”) and the girl feels guilty for having felt that way. I mean it more literally: in the possibility that Alice has done her companion in.

That suspicion might be a way to understand the strange paragraphs—suddenly and unusually narrated in present tense—that describe Alice’s search for Mrs. Peeples. Here’s the first one:

Clank, clank my feet on the stairs; clank, clank on the landing. All the doors are open. One of Mrs. Peeples’s black shoes is caught in the ironwork and abandoned. Through the open doors are rooms with open windows, and it is like a zoo with the animals let loose and escaped. No one is there. “Mrs. Peeples, where are you?” Where are you? Not upstairs or below, or in the garden where you never went. Where are you? For a long time I look for her, even in the green shed, but she isn’t there hanging from the roof with the rope cutting into her brown neck.

The garden where you never went. It’s as if Alice knows she is already dead. The odd syntax of the final sentence, which paints the picture of the death it claims to disavow, doesn’t make the scene any less creepy. And why is Alice saying to herself (“Where are you?”) what she has already said out loud? In the end, I don’t think Alice has really killed Mrs. Peeples. Instead it’s as though she’s in a fugue state here, which is a pretty good description of the whole atmosphere of this strange little novel.

*

So who is this Barbara Comyns and where did she come from? The US edition includes a short introduction by Comyns, reprinted from a British reprint from the 1980s. (It is the fate of writers like Comyns always to be reprinted, always to be rediscovered.) Comyns gives us a rather helter-skelter autobiography. We learn of a violent father who went through the family fortune, an invalid mother who suddenly, unaccountably went deaf, a series of unlikely governesses. Her childhood seems to have been both privileged and hardscrabble. Later came art school and two marriages and a whole series of odd jobs, in advertising and in real estate, as an artist’s model and a refurbisher of cars. Throughout she kept writing, though with only middling success, it seems.

It’s heartening anyone published her at all, so odd is her prose (at least based on this book). I remember once in graduate school, having recently discovered Henry Green, another unusual English writer of the mid twentieth century, telling one of my advisors that I wanted to include him in my dissertation. She was generally speaking encouraging of my project (as well as unusually well read for an academic). But talking with her made me nervous and prone to prattle on. I remember saying to her, rather grandiosely, that Green wasn’t like anyone else, it was as if he’d dropped to earth from the moon, to which she tartly responded that no one dropped from the moon, that he wasn’t so unusual as all that, that he had his context like anyone else. I think now that this is true. And reading Comyns I was reminded of a number of other wonderful, more or less minor British writers from about the same time.

There’s something of Jean Rhys in Comyns’s portrayal of the hopelessness felt by young women (though Alice, and perhaps even her deaf friend Lucy, who flits intriguingly along the margins of the novel, is more resourceful than Rhys’s protagonists). I caught echoes of Richard Hughes’s hallucinatory portrayal of childhood in A High Wind in Jamaica (1929) and of Rebecca West’s matter-of-fact inclusion of supernatural elements in her amazing The Fountain Overflows (1957). (It’s probably no accident that these last two titles, like The Vet’s Daughter, are published by NYRB Classics.) Sometimes Comyns reminded me of Penelope Fitzgerald, in the obliquity of both her narrative structure and her own biography. (Fitzgerald kept herself and her family afloat by taking all sorts of odd jobs, too.) I even caught an anticipatory hint of early Ian McEwan—The Vet’s Daughter is like a less macabre Cement Garden (1978). And those are just the writers I know: I’ve a hunch, that Comyns might be like Ivy Compton-Burnett and Muriel Spark, though I haven’t actually read them yet.

So Comyns might not be sui generis. But I don’t think I was entirely wrong in thinking (wishing?) that Henry Green, or Barbara Comyns, or any similar writer, the ones that slink through the supposedly dull and genteel world of twentieth century British fiction like feral cats, is an alien, weird figure. However romantic or idealized, that way of thinking might keep us alive to the wonder of such writers. And in literary historical terms it can help us see that realism only ostensibly triumphed in the fiction of the period. In reality, a perverse, fantastic, Gothic strain runs throughout it. I’m thinking, in addition to those I’ve already mentioned, of writers as seemingly different as Elizabeth Bowen, Doris Lessing, and Daphne du Maurier. (Importantly, I suspect, the weirdness that disrupts these novels almost always manifests itself in depictions of children.)

In The Vet’s Daughter the clearest example of this strangeness—the oddest, most unsettling thing in this odd, unsettling book—is Alice’s sudden ability to levitate, or, as she prefers to call it, to float. One night Alice finds herself rising out of her bed and she knows she isn’t dreaming because she hits her head on a sconce that is still cracked in the morning. She is as surprised by this turn of events as we are. But the novel takes it in stride. It quickly becomes clear that we aren’t to take the floating as a hallucination on her part or a metaphor on the novel’s (her way of rising above the unhappy events of her life, say). Alice’s ability is both ordinary (when she cautiously asks Mrs. Peeples if she has ever heard of anything like it the woman says she believes it used to be quite common) and extraordinary (it fills everyone who sees it with horror, even disgust). I like that the novel doesn’t try to explain it away, or use it as a way to redeem or transform Alice’s mostly grim and unhappy life. Indeed, it’s not long before someone—her father, the very man who hatefully said he hoped he would never see her again—tries to profit from Alice’s ability. He arranges a public demonstration, doubtless the first step on a tour that, Alice sees all too clearly, will make her into a freak show exhibit.

In a marvelously ambivalent ending, though, these plans are foiled. Alice’s appearance in the air above Clapham Common causes a riot in which three people, including Alice herself, are killed. The first person narration comes abruptly to an end, her fate given to us through a newspaper report. The bitter irony of the book’s end fits with its way of ruthlessly undermining anything nice or good that happens to Alice: a boy she falls for, who teaches her to skate, throws her over; Henry, Mrs. Peebles’s kind son, doesn’t come when she calls him in her hour of greatest need.

Perhaps surprisingly, given what I’ve said, The Vet’s Daughter isn’t unrelievedly bleak, but it’s hardly easy going. You can see why I needed to hold on to those pigeons, and to think of them as rescued. But the book whetted my interest in Comyns’s other books, even though I’ll need to take a deep breath first.

Writing about this book made me like it more. (Always a good sign.) I read it along with the good folks at Slaves of Golconda. I’m curious to see what they made of it, and hope you will too.