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.

9780143131991

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.”

*

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.

ccn0e2qviam6ufz1

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.)

717xdHIekSL

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.

Magical Thinking: L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between

I reckon I’ve had The Go-Between on my shelves for more than 20 years. Jacqui’s enthusiastic and thoughtful review finally spurred me to read it. (That plus I’ve taken a doubtless-brief-but-nonetheless-well-intentioned pledge to read books I already own rather than buy new ones.)

I can’t imagine matching Jacqui’s summary of the novel, so I direct you there for more details. I’ll just give a brief synopsis here. Leo Colston is a man in his middle sixties who, when the novel begins, finds a trunk full of old papers, including his diary from the year 1900.

As he remembers the dramatic events of that year—events we’re told have marked him forever, somehow left him unfit to participate in life—he tells us about his school days where he was first bullied and then later respected based on a strange incident I’ll say more about in a minute. When the school is suddenly closed for the year because of a measles outbreak, the almost-thirteen-year-old Leo is invited by his friend Marcus Maudsley to spend the summer at his family’s estate in Norfolk. The Maudsleys are richer than Leo and his widowed mother and he feels ill at ease and awkward in their home, not least because he has no proper summer clothes and the weather turns hotter than anyone can remember. Maudsley’s sister Marian (I think she’s about 19 or so) takes pity on Leo, buys him a new summer suit, and then, either as a result of a premeditated plan or, more likely, a readiness to seize the situation, for she knows Leo is ready to do anything for her, entices him into carrying secret letters to Ted Burgess, the hunky tenant farmer. Readers know long before Leo does that Marian and Ted are lovers; Leo is shocked when he finds out, not only because of the class difference, but also because she is engaged to be married to Viscount Trimingham, a fatally decent man who has been badly wounded in the Boer War.

(If the book sounds a bit melodramatic when I summarize it this way, I think I’m doing it justice.)

Anyway, Leo doesn’t want to be the lovers’ go-between anymore but Marian has ways of convincing him, ways just slightly more pleasant than those used by her rather demonic mother, the lady of the house, Mrs. Maudsley, who forces the presumably unwitting Leo to reveal the affair. Things end pretty badly, though most of the drama happens off-stage. What’s really bad, it seems, is the hold the whole situation has had on Leo, as we see in a coda in which the now elderly Leo continues to be manipulated by a very old Marian all these years later.

IMG_0435

I read an old Penguin 20th Century Classics edition of the book, but in the US the book is published by New York Review Classics. Their edition has an excellent introduction by the Irish novelist and critic Colm Tóibín. Tóibín offers some background on Hartley, whose solicitor father made a fortune in the brick trade, moving the family up from the middle class. Hartley seems to have felt uncomfortable in the new world in which he moved (Harrow and then Oxford). Rather than rebelling against it, Hartley sought to become more a part of the establishment, trading the Methodism of his childhood for the Church of England, for example. In this regard, he seems rather like his protagonist Leo. Although it wasn’t much of a secret that Hartley was gay, there seems to have been something of the closet about him, a desire to blend in, but more to efface than to protect his difference.

Hartley doesn’t seem to have been much liked by the literary world. In 1923 Virginia Woolf recorded meeting “a dull fat man named Hartley” while visiting the socialite and patron of the arts Ottoline Morrell. One of the Sitwells called him “Bore Hartley.” I confess these descriptions make me more not less sympathetic to him, though Tóibín reports him as becoming increasingly conservative as he aged and always quarrelsome with servants (who certainly appear in a dim light in The Go-Between). I wonder, has anyone written his biography?

Tóibín’s most interesting point is that the novel isn’t really about either the foreignness or the persistence of the past—lots of people who have never read this novel know its first line: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”—but rather about Leo’s self-division. He dislikes, even condemns Marian and Ted, yet he’s helplessly drawn towards them. Hartley professed to be surprised and dismayed when readers sympathized with the lovers. If that’s true, it’s a remarkable lack of insight that proves writers aren’t always good readers of their own work. Tóibín interestingly links Hartley to writers like D. H. Lawrence and E. M. Forster (all these sets of initials, aren’t their real names good enough for them?), other writers of the period who extolled the value of the senses in hide-bound English society.

I’m not really buying this comparison, because I don’t think Forster and Lawrence have much in common. Hartley is like Forester, I grant, in that both are writers who are at best ambivalent about the power of sensuality. Lawrence, by contrast, had no ambivalence there. Where the Hartley – Forster comparison comes up short, in my opinion, is in their differing use of narrative voice. Forester never wrote in first person, as far as I know; he certainly wasn’t compelled to trace the modulations of a distinctive first-person narrative voice the way Hartley does here. Forster’s concern with the unreliability of perception attaches itself to skepticism about third-person omniscience.

No, the writer Hartley really reminded me of is Kazuo Ishiguro. Now that I think of it, I rarely hear critics placing Ishiguro in any kind of literary tradition or continuum. (Not that I know the Ishiguro criticism particularly well; correct me if I’m wrong.) If anything he’s discussed as part of that flowering of new English writing in the 1980s, the Granta writers, the young Turks who are now the old guard of English literature (Rushdie, Amis, Graham Swift, Jeanette Winterson, McEwan, etc). Hartley seems like an important model and precursor for Ishiguro, although I think Ishiguro is more sophisticated in his use of unreliability, more unreliably unreliable if I could put it that way, and a better writer all around. But I’ve only read one novel by Hartley, and most of Ishiguro’s, so I ought to read more of the former to be sure. Looking around my shelves, I find I’ve got six other Hartley novels lying around—he’s apparently one of those writers I’m highly invested in even though I hardly know anything about them—so I certainly could find out.

5149117717_af98c99ebf

I just want to say two other things about The Go-Between:

I couldn’t decide how clueless Leo is supposed to be. Or, rather, I couldn’t quite decide whether the events of that summer are supposed to be told by Leo at the time or by Leo in retrospect. Sometimes we are clearly dealing with a child’s voice:

She was silent and I felt for the first time that she was unhappy. This was a revelation to me. I knew that grown-up people were unhappy—when a relation died, for instance, or went bankrupt. At such times they were sure to be unhappy: they had no option: it was the rule, like mourning after a death, like a black margin around the writer paper. (My mother still used it for my father.) They were unhappy to order. But that they should be unhappy in the way that I was sometimes, because something in my private life, to which perhaps I couldn’t give a name, had gone wrong—that hadn’t occurred to me.

Here we’re in that Jamesian world of innocence ruined, though James famously set himself tougher challenges than writing about a teenager, as when he sought to narrate from a child’s perception though not in a child’s language in his novel about a five-year-old buffeted by a nasty divorce, the magisterial What Maisie Knew. Plus, the parenthetical sentence could only be narrated within the present of the narrated events.

But at other times it’s harder to pin down the voice. Here the narrator has accompanied the family and the other house guests to church:

Again Lord Trimingham was the last to leave. I thought Marian would wait for him, but she didn’t, so I did. Most of my shyness with him had worn off, and I was disposed to think that everything I did or said became me. But I did not want to broach at once the subject that was uppermost in my mind.

I was disposed to think that everything I did or said became me. By this point in the novel, Leo has had two great successes. He’s made a splendid catch in an important cricket match and then sung two songs to great success at the party afterwards. And he’s meditated a lot on how extraordinary the attention made him feel, and how uncomfortable too. But that complex and complexly phrased sentiment, of being disposed to think one’s words and actions become one, with its quality of self-deprecation and irony that undermines the ostensible meaning of the words—that seems an attitude that only the older Leo, looking back on himself, would be in a position to note. And yet the story really only works if the older Leo is kept in abeyance. If retrospection governed the narrative too completely there would be no suspense, and our sense of how children and adults can work at cross-purposes, in which ignorance tragically shades into malevolence, would be much reduced.

One way to read the end of the book is that it shows Leo never really learns anything, but that would challenge even further the sense that the older man can make sense of his younger self. Perhaps it is just this uncertainty—that the older man thinks he knows more than the younger, yet proves to be just as or maybe even more clueless—is what Hartley wants to get at in a passage like the one I’ve cited. That would be pretty sophisticated; I suppose I wasn’t convinced that novel is quite that sophisticated, but maybe I’m under-selling it. (And it’s an awfully good book, don’t get me wrong.)

So that’s one thing. The other is about the supernatural. Young Leo, we learn, is fascinated by the zodiac and by the idea that events can be determined by spells. The way he moves from being bullied to being respected at school is that he puts a curse on two boys who have been tormenting him; soon afterwards they fall off the roof during a nighttime escapade and hurt themselves badly. When word of the spell gets around—I can’t remember if Leo puts it out himself or if it’s found out in some other way—Leo’s stock rises dramatically and he is soon being asked by his classmates to create imprecations and spells to order. Towards the end of the book he again has recourse to magic and again succeeds, though less clearly than the first time.

What is this material doing in this book? My sense is that the general way this book gets talked about (hot summer, lost innocence, boy becoming man, elegy for forgotten way of life) ignores this supernatural material. But it’s pretty important to the book; we hear a lot about it, especially in the first quarter or so. These weren’t the most evocative bits of the book, by any means (that would be the languorous descriptions of the heat, and the landscape, and the rituals of English life that someone like Ishiguro would later so profitably explore as strange performances). They seemed awkward, kind of clunky, something that belonged more in a Roald Dahl story, or some minor Greene work, than in the kind of book this seemed to want to be.

This lack of fit interested me, and I wonder if anyone has any ideas about it. One thought I had was that the spells are meant ironically, a way to emphasize how little control Leo (like all children) has over the world, and even to disparage him in our eyes, since he thinks he has control when he doesn’t. But I’m unconvinced because the book rather seems to believe in the spells. In that case, their efficacy would suggest Leo knows more than he thinks, if not more than he lets on. (This would be a peculiarly unconscious certainty.) But does Leo’s magic run out when he exchanges school for the adult world? Or are we to take him as more responsible for his actions towards Marian and Ted than it at first seems? Are Leo’s spells magical thinking—or are they really magic? I’m not sure the book knows how to answer that question. And that uncertainty makes me like it all the more.

 

“Teeming with Life”: Jean Giono’s Hill

Scott from Seraillon & I have organized a group reading of Hill. I’ll update this post with links as I learn of them. You can read what Grant from 1streading’s Blog, Teresa from Shelf Life, Frances from Nonsuch Books, and Dolce Belezza have to say about it.

*

When I sat down to write about Jean Giono’s Hill (1929), I did what I usually do: I re-read the opening pages to get my head back into it. Then I did something I almost never do: I kept on reading until I’d read the whole book again. It helps that Hill, in this lovely new edition from New York Review Books, is only 112-pages long. But I bet if it had been three times as long I would have kept turning the pages, as hypnotized as the characters are by the story one of them tells to explain the events they’ve suffered through:

They were listening, with their eyes wide open, their jaws slack, their lips drooping, their pupils dilated, their hands frozen, overwhelmed by the vision of the avenging spirits of the vegetal world.

The “they” in this passage are the men of a tiny hamlet called the Bastides, halfway up the side of the Mount Lure in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. Too tiny to even be called a village, the Bastides is a remnant, a leftover, an almost-abandoned former market town in which only four houses are still inhabited. Twelve people live here, plus an unlucky thirteenth, a gentle stranger, a simpleton the others call Gagou, after the only syllables he is able to make. There’s Gondran le Mérédic, who married Marguerite Ricard and farms the land that belonged to her father, Janet. There’s Aphois Arbaud and his wife, Babette, who have two small children. There’s César Maurras, who lives with his mother and a servant. And there’s Alexandre Jaume, whose wife committed suicide a few years back. He lives with his grown daughter, Ulalie.

Only on my second reading did I begin to get a handle on these characters. That’s telling: Hill isn’t a novel of character. In fact, it’s hardly a novel of human beings. Instead it’s a novel about the relationship between humans and the non-human world. As its title suggests, Hill is about the earth; in its world-view, geological formations are as alive as non-human animals or plants.

With that thought in mind, let’s return to that passage I quoted above. The men are “overwhelmed by the vision of the avenging spirits of the vegetal world.” They’ve been listening to Jaume as he tries to explain a series of frightening things they’ve experienced. But even though Jaume has a privileged place in the village—he reads, he’s the one the others turn to when they need their world explained to them—he isn’t held in the same esteem by the novel as a whole. We shouldn’t confuse Jaume’s explanation with the truth. No doubt the vegetal world of this book is animated. And no doubt the villagers have been right to be afraid of what’s happened to them. But whether the world is out to get them is less clear.

So what’s gone wrong for the people of Bastides? In his excellent introduction to this edition, the philosopher David Abram suggests it all starts when Gondran, working in his olive orchard, sees a lizard. He’s filled with a spasm of irritation. The text adds—and its narration is interestingly hard to get a handle on: often in present tense, sometimes in past, often in third person, but sometimes referencing a first person narrator, often omniscient but sometimes attached to a character’s perspective—“Man wants to be the master-beast, the one who kills.” Gondran smashes the lizard with his shovel. He’s first ashamed and then uneasy. A sound fills the air:

The wind comes rushing.

The trees confer in low voices.

(Giono likes one-sentence paragraphs.) Gondran gets back to his work, but as he does

 it occurs to him for the first time that there’s a kind of blood rising inside bark, just like his own blood; that a fierce will to live makes the tree branches twist and propels these sprays of grasses into the sky.

Here’s an example of what I said before: the book believes in something we might call a generalized sentience, a life force that manifests itself through everything on earth, not least the earth itself. A passage like this one seems to support Jaume’s later suggestion that the earth is taking revenge for the things people have done to it. Shortly after that day in the field, the villagers suffer a series of inexplicable events. First the village’s spring runs dry, forcing the villagers to carry water from an abandoned village far away. They set up a rotation but the effort irritates them and sets them against each other. Then one of Arbaud’s children get sick and no one in the village, not even Jaume with his medical book, can make her better. The fever that rocks the little girl’s body is echoed in the final catastrophe: a terrible forest fire sweeps across the region and threatens to destroy the village.

The villagers certainly think of these events as connected, and the novel doesn’t give us any reason to doubt that. But as to why they’re happening, well, that’s harder to say. Maybe it wasn’t the murder of a lizard. Maybe it all started when old Janet, Gondran’s father-in-law, is incapacitated by something like a stroke, leaving him bed-ridden in his daughter’s kitchen, able to do nothing other than swallow, move his fingers, and talk, talk, talk. Or maybe it started with the return of a black cat to the village, a cat the others are convinced is tied to unlucky events in the past. Or maybe it has to do with the connection between the old man and the cat. Janet, who seems to have some kind of supernatural power (as a younger man he was famous for dowsing), or the very least who sees in ways the others cannot, sometimes seems the know the source of the trouble, maybe even to have brought it on himself. Right after his stroke he says something to Gondran that could apply to any of the villagers: “When you come right down to it, you’re incapable of looking at a tree and seeing anything but a tree.” It sounds like a curse.

maxresdefault

You’ll notice I’m using a lot of qualifiers in describing these events. That’s because the book refuses to explain them. In fact it doesn’t even know exactly how to define them. Fittingly, Giono’s preferred pronoun is “it”, his favourite noun is some version of “thing”: “Then all at once, it started”; “It all took shape—a whole world being born out of his words”; “Whatever it is, it’s brought a cold sweat to their brows”; “There’s still this thing lingering in Jaume’s brain”; “This kind of thing, it always starts with someone who sees farther than the rest”; “It runs out of him in a stream and it’s not so funny.” Those are just a few examples.

But even though the characters are the ones who either directly (in speech) or indirectly (through the narrative voice) use these inherently vague terms, they aren’t satisfied with vagueness. And neither are readers. Needing an explanation, the villagers convince themselves that Janet must be the source of their trouble. They decide to kill him, sure that this is the only way they can get back to the good relationship they had with the hill. As their spokesman Jaume puts it:

“It’s Janet who made this happen, with his head full of ideas.

“Things were going well before all of this. It had never said or done anything to harm us. It was a good hill. It knew pleasant songs. It hummed like a big wasp. It let us have our way with it. We never dug too deep. One or two blows of a spade, what harm could that do? We walked across it without fear. When it spoke to us, it was like a spring. It spoke to us though its cool springs and its pine trees.

“He must have messed with it.”

The villagers’ scapegoating of Janet is disturbing. And yet as readers we’re complicit in the same thinking. We too want to know why the things that have happened have happened. The novel is sharply critical of this kind of knowing, which symbolizes a disposition towards the world that the philosopher Martin Heidegger, a contemporary of Giono’s, called “standing reserve.” When we see the world as a standing reserve, we see it only for our purposes, only for the ends we could put it to. We look at a river and we only see the hydroelectric power it could provide, for example.

But whereas Heidegger’s philosophy is fundamentally nostalgic—which might explain why he was seduced by fascism—Giono’s novel is harder to pin down, and all the better for that uncertainty. Once in a while it suggests an age-old peasant wisdom in which people live in harmony with the land. But it also argues that this so-called harmony is always exploitative. And yet as readers we are asked to sympathize with the people who perpetrate that exploitation. Is there any way of living on the land that isn’t living off it, in the way a parasite lives off its host?

Thus the ambivalence of the novel’s end is so fitting. At the last minute, the villagers don’t need to murder Janet because he dies, naturally as it were. And as soon as he does, the village’s spring starts running again. The fire has been beaten back. The little girl “looks like she’s doing better.” It’s a relief to have misfortune and acrimony between the villagers and their environment replaced by harmony and the hope of better things to come. This vision of plenitude is best symbolized by the newly plashing spring, which “sings a long lament that conjures up cold stones and shadows. The water trough quivers, teeming with life.”

Cold stones and shadows are lovely things, especially on hot Provencal days. But why a “long lament”? Here Giono qualifies the idyll he’s just given us. After all, there has been a scapegoat: the interloper Gagou succumbs (rather ecstatically, it must be said) to the fire. And on the book’s last page, the villagers shoot a wild boar and stretch its skin to dry on a tree. We might remember the murder of the lizard and worry what atrocities might arise from this new killing, especially when we read the novel’s last lines:

 Now it’s night. The light has just faded from the last window. A large star keeps watch over Lure.

From the skin, which turns in the night wind and drones like a drum, tears of dark blood weep in the grass.

It’s egotistical to think the nonhuman world would respond in human terms (vengeance, say) to human actions. But Hill conjures up such non-human emotional sentience on almost every page. Yet it doesn’t pit the non-human world against the human in a vision of environmental apocalypse that would only flatter human depredation (we must be special to have caused—even deserved—such harm). Nor does it aim for some consoling vision of harmony between the human and the natural.

That’s a lot of contradictions, I know. What’s amazing is how vividly Giono animates them in such a short book.

Here’s the final contradiction, one it would take a post much longer even than this one to tease out: if language is fundamentally human, something (maybe the main thing) that distinguishes the human from the non-human, would it even be possible for language to depict the non-human world in a way that wasn’t anthropomorphic or romantic? I think Giono accomplishes this feat. He’s very good at using language to represent things that seem inherently non-linguistic. In this he reminds me of another early twentieth century writer skeptical of knowledge and compelled to see a life force in all living beings, D. H. Lawrence. Both are visionary writers who value the non-human environment without apologizing for the humans who are inescapably but not necessarily harmoniously intertwined with it.

burtynsky043

Like many people, I’ve been preoccupied by and aghast at the fire that swept through Fort McMurray in my home province of Alberta and might burn for as long as a year. Since Fort McMurray is the center of the tar sands industry, a horrifying industrial sublime well captured by the photographer Edward Burtynsky, it’s tempting to see the fire as climatological blowback, the nightmarish effects of climate change coming back to strike one of the centers of the industry largely responsible for creating it. I’ve thought such things myself. But tell it to the people who have lost everything. It’s a lot easier to talk about karma from the safety of somewhere distant. Yet I’m also repelled by the “Alberta Strong!” chauvinism that insists “we” will return and rebuild. The Horse River fire is much more devastating than the one in Hill, but, more than anything I’ve read in the media so far, Jean Giono’s almost ninety-year-old novel helps me to think through our relationship to what we so casually call nature.

*

I never know what to say about translations, especially when I haven’t compared them to the original. I know it’s bad form to ignore a book’s having been translated, but to me it’s just as unhelpful merely to assert how well it’s been done (a “sprightly new translation,” “ably translated by…” and so forth). So my apologies to translator Paul Eprile. I don’t know what to say, other than thank you. The translation seems powerful and lucid, as forceful as the original must be. I’m hoping Scott will have more to say about Eprile’s work, since I know he read both the original and the translation. All I can say is how excited I am to learn that Eprile will be bringing another Giono title into English. It can’t come soon enough.

Short Fiction 2015 Weeks 6 & 7: Englander & Lawrence

I’m writing weekly about my Short Fiction class this fall. The first installment is here.

The semester has more than caught up with me, and I’ve fallen behind with the Short Fiction project. In the past weeks, I did manage to complete a writing project, assemble and file my dossier for my first post-tenure review, advise a pile of students on their Fulbright and Watson applications, teach my classes, and more or less keep up with my grading. So it’s not like I haven’t been doing anything. But I’ve missed keeping up with this blog. In the interest of catching up, I’ll combine the last two weeks into one post.

Last week, we discussed three stories: Kay Boyle’s “Life Being the Best” (I actually haven’t been figure out the exact year of publication, but it’s late 20s or early 30s), Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Demon Lover” (1945), and Nathan Englander’s “The Wig” (1999). These are wonderful stories: I’m particularly under the sway of the Boyle, which I only discovered this summer. Although its milieu—a community of poor refugees from Mussolini’s Italy in Southern France in the late 1920s—was completely foreign to the students, the subject matter—an orphaned child, an erudite, sensitive, but clueless teacher—seemed to resonate, and we had a reasonably lively discussion about the subtle ways the story undermines its teacher protagonist. I definitely have more to learn about this story, but it’s a keeper and I look forward to doing more justice to it next semester.

After that, though, the week went downhill fast.

I adore Bowen’s ghost story set during the Blitz, and I’ve taught it successfully many times. This time, though, I had a hard time getting the students to say anything useful about it. I even tried some group work, since we hadn’t done any in a couple of weeks, but, unusually, that tatic only took the air out of the room even further. Things reached a low point on Friday with the Englander story, another one I’d not taught before. I was lucky enough to host Englander on a visit to campus last year, and found him as funny and intelligent as his stories. I actually usually dislike meeting writers, it usually makes me like the work a little or even a lot less. But Englander was different: a total prince, and a smart reader of his own work. (Also, incredibly manic and charmingly neurotic.)

33d34edf46fb452e4ecd6f2c81d9302a

One of the reasons I assigned “The Wig” is that it is written in present tense, a tic of contemporary fiction I usually despise, but tolerate here because the story is so interesting. It’s about Ruchama, an Orthodox Jewish sheitel macher, a wig maker, who meets a Manhattan deliveryman with the most exquisite hair, hair she buys with money a client has given her and uses to make, in secret, a wig for herself, the wig of her dreams. I don’t have much interesting to say about first person narrative—it increases our sense of immediacy, I suppose—but what I like in Englander’s story is the way that immediacy, that connection with the reader, is undone by the story’s careful distancing techniques.

I started by asking students to look at the description of Ruchama’s frustration with her husband’s grudging performance of even the most modest household chores: “He trayfs up her kitchen to spite her. He is forever putting meat silverware in the dairy sink.” What does trayf mean, I asked? Only one student knew it meant food that doesn’t conform to Orthodox dietary laws (he had looked it up). I half-threatened, half-pleaded with the class to do the basic diligence required of them as students and look up words they don’t understand. (I’m about ready to assign some kind of basic vocabulary exercise to this class: they simply refuse to look words up). I continued by asking the students how they could have come close to knowing what the word meant by using its context. It took longer than I’d hoped, but I eventually got them acknowledge that the sentence about the meat silverware and the dairy sink could provide a clue, though admittedly one that is more meaningful if you know about the prohibition on mixing meat and milk.

Since I’d been expecting the students wouldn’t have looked up unfamiliar words, I had already prepared the next exercise. I had the students take out their phones and look up six words from the story. One side of the room took narishkeit, sheitel, and macher, and the other took gabbai, bimah, and Pesach. We discussed how Englander gives just enough context to help readers basically understand these words, as when he describes the fashion magazines Ruchama surreptitiously studies: “The magazines are contraband in Royal Hills, narishkeit, vain and immodest, practically pornographic.” The phrase “vain and immodest” modifies “narishkeit” as much as “magazines”; even if we don’t know the Yiddish word for foolishness, we sense it means something disreputable. Note that Englander doesn’t italicize these words. Why, I asked the class, are these foreign words in the story? For authenticity, one student finally replied. (Actually, she said: It makes it more real. I translated to the concept I wanted.) What, I continued, is the relationship between authenticity and comprehensibility, a question I had to rephrase as, Why doesn’t Englander give us a translation of the word or a glossary or something? I imagined they would say something like: The people the story is about would know the meaning of the word. To which I would say two things: (1) those (Orthodox) people wouldn’t read this (secular) story and (2) what about you—you don’t know the meaning. But the class couldn’t get there, and so I was left simply to assert my idea, namely, that these words make it clear that the story might not be for every reader. (Who the ideal audience for this story might be is an interesting question: I think the answer is, Jews, more particularly, Jews like Englander himself, who have grown up Orthodox (especially Hasidic) but aren’t any more—a small audience indeed.)

My point was that literature isn’t in any simple or straightforward way universal. One of its pleasures is its ability to offer us a glimpse into a world very different from our own. In other words, the story deliberates sets out not to be relatable, that term so beloved of students today. I suppose the students picked up on the implied chastisement in this reading, and maybe I was unconsciously assuming they wouldn’t get the story and had put myself in the position of being the only one in the room who knew the right answers. (Generally, I prefer to arrange our discussions so that I can pretend they have come up with answers of their own—which, in fact, on good days they do.) At any rate, that’s the most generous reading I can give of the discussion that followed, which was halting and stilted and left me frustrated at the students’ apparent inability to appreciate the story’s ambivalent but not defensive or accusatory portrayal of its Orthodox world. I like, for example, that Ruchama is a savvy and successful businesswoman, and that the vanity she ultimately succumbs to is evident in the story’s secular characters too. Ruchama is an enamored with fashion advertisements that depict a world so shallow and ridiculous that we’re led to ask: isn’t that world—of laughing models bobbing for apples or hailing taxi cabs, with star-struck men at their feet—much more preposterous than the Orthodox one? But the story isn’t holding Orthodox society up as better than a secular one. It’s not even that the woman who wears a wig to protect her hair from the eyes of anyone other than her husband is less oppressed than the woman who has to model her sense of self on impossible standards of beauty—because the Orthodox woman is herself under the sway of those standards.

I thought this accessible but not simplistic story about the relationship between the secular and the religious as figured through ideas of female appearance and empowerment would be a hit with students. But I was wrong. And so I approached the next class, this past Monday, with trepidation—especially because one of my colleagues would be coming to observe me.

I was also excited because we would be reading D. H. Lawrence, the writer closest to my heart. But mostly I was nervous, because I’d never taught the story before, and because I’d been so disappointed with the students’ performance the past few days.

Tate; (c) Was Luke Gertler - now out of copyright; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Tate; (c) Was Luke Gertler – now out of copyright; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Lawrence initially called the story “Fanny and Annie” (1922), but at the last minute asked his agent to change it to “The Last Straw.” The agent responded that it was too late, he’d already sold the story. And for decades the story went under the original; only with its publication in the authoritative Cambridge Edition in the 1990s was it finally published under Lawrence’s preferred choice.

Here are the quintessentially Lawrentian and very striking opening paragraphs:

Flame-lurid his face as he turned among the throng of flame-lit and dark faces upon the platform. In the light of the furnace she caught sight of his drifting countenance, like a piece of floating fire. And the nostalgia, the doom of the home-coming went through her veins like a drug. His eternal face, flame-lit now! The pulse and darkness of red fire from the furnace towers in the sly, lighting the desultory, industrial crowd on the wayside station, lit him and went out.

Of course, he did not see her. Flame-lit and unseeing! Always the same, with his meeting eyebrows, his common cap, and his red-and-black scarf knotted round his throat. Not even a collar to meet her! The flames had sunk, there was shadow.

The woman arriving at this phantasmagorically lit train station in the English midlands—the flames are from the local industry, an iron foundry—is Fannie, returning home after twelve years as a lady’s maid. The job is no more, for reasons we never learn, as are Fanny’s hopes to have married her dashing cousin. The man meeting her at the station is her first love, a foundry worker named Harry, who she has strung along for all the years she’s been gone.

After having a student read these paragraphs, I had us list the oppositions that structure the passage. I’ve found this a pretty fail-safe exercise for generating conversation and for forcing students to think more abstractly and analytically. We began with light and dark, of course, and eventually managed to add seeing/blindness, expectation/disappointment, individual/crowd (Fanny v the throng), and him/her—I used that last opposition as a way to think about the class differences evident in the passage and the story as a whole. Here industry is implicitly contrasted to gentility, an opposition made even clearer on the next page. That allowed the class to note Fannie’s superiority. Yet it’s hard to know what the story thinks about that superiority.

From this initial exercise, I asked students to look at characteristic elements of Lawrence’s style, particularly his use of those more or less unusual compound adjectives “flame-lurid” and “flame-lit” and the sentence fragments, all of which place us firmly within Fanny’s perspective. (We’ll return to this moment when we think about free-indirect narration in a few days.) The class really struggled to make sense of these attributes, though, and I had to drag every piece of information from them. I asked them what lurid meant and what its presence at the very beginning of the story suggested. Eventually we got to the shocking or sensational connotations of the word, which allowed me to ask whether Harry was in fact lurid in any way. That didn’t go anywhere, but when I asked what Harry looks like, thinking now about things we learn elsewhere in the story, students admitted he is repeatedly described as physically attractive. Fanny’s superiority clashes with her frank admiration for that beauty but her equally insistent shame at those feelings.

Eventually we turned to the final sentence of this opening passage. How does its tone compare to what’s come before? It seemed more ordinary to them, less strange and exalted than the earlier sentences. Absolutely right, I agreed, though I noted that even here Lawrence wasn’t giving us an entirely simple sentence: the parataxis (a fancy way of describing the comma splice) places the two clauses on equal footing, even though the register of the first is more literal than the second. (“There was shadow” comes to seem metaphorical or symbolic, in the absence of an article or modifier that we might have expected: a shadow or some shadow, or the shadow of the now darkened train station. That “there was” makes shadow into a kind of entity or force.) But the final sentence is less dramatic than earlier ones, and I argued that this suggests Fanny’s exalted life is coming to an end, as she returns to the ordinariness of home repeatedly and ominously described as a kind of doom.

Whereas the opening passage sticks closely to Fanny’s perspective, the final sentence doesn’t, or at least much less obviously so. This change is representative of the story’s trajectory which privileges Fanny’s voice less and less as it goes along.

To show students what I meant, I had us look at a later passage, one of the more dramatic moments of the story. Harry is a soloist in a concert at the local church:

But at the moment when Harry’s voice sank carelessly down to his close, and the choir, standing behind him, were opening their mouths for the final triumphant outburst, a shouting female voice rose up from the body of the congregation. The organ gave one startled trump, and went silent; the choir stood transfixed.

‘You look well standing there, singing in God’s holy house,” came the loud, angry female shout. Everybody turned electrified. A stoutish, red-faced woman in a black bonnet was standing up denouncing the soloist. Almost fainting with shock, the congregation realized it. “You look well, don’t you, standing there singing solos in God’s holy house—you, Goodall. But I said I’d shame you. You look well, bringing your young woman here with you, don’t you? I’ll let her know who she’s dealing with. A scamp, as won’t take the consequences of what he’s done.” The hard-faced, frenzied woman turned in the direction of Fanny. “ That’s what Harry Goodall is, if you want to know.”

And she sat own again in her seat. Fanny, startled like all the rest, had turned to look. She had gone white, and then a burning red, under the attack. She knew the woman: a Mrs Nixon, a devil of a woman who beat her pathetic, drunken, red-nosed second husband, Bob, and her two lanky daughters, grown-ups as they were. A notorious character. Fanny turned round again, and sat motionless as eternity in her seat.

I’d seized on this passage because of this careful reading that I’d found in my class preparation. It’s such a rich passage, but this post is already too long and class-time was getting short. So I had to move quickly past the ironic replacement of one outburst (the choir’s) with another (Mrs Nixon’s), past the passive voice that defers naming her and offering any sense of her subjectivity for a long while, past the seemingly unnecessary description of the congregation “realizing it,” a redundancy that performs for us the very shock of belatedness that the scene is describing, and past the oblique suggestion that Fanny and Mrs Nixon might not be as different as Fanny, at least, would like to think, given that both, whether in direct dialogue or in indirect speech, use “as” to introduce a modifying or characterizing clause (“a scamp, as won’t take the consequences of what he’s done,” “ground-ups as they were”), thereby suggesting Fanny is indeed of this place she has spent so long keeping away from.

Portrait-Of-Lydia-Sherwood

Instead I focused on the topic of perspective. Where, I asked, is Fanny’s perspective here? Only in the sentence beginning “She knew the woman” and the one following (the clearest indicator of her perspective, and a return to the fragments of the opening.) But why would we get less of Fanny’s perspective the further we get into the story?

Another way to ask that question, I said, is to ask about the story’s two titles. What’s the difference between them? Is one better than the other?

Annie, it transpires, is pregnant and has named Harry as the father. Harry doesn’t deny having been involved with Annie, but won’t admit to being the father, saying that it’s no more likely to be him than six or seven other men. The title “The Last Straw” suggests frustration and final consequences. And at the end of the story, Fanny decides not to return to the second concert but to stay at home with Mrs. Goodall, who she calls “mother” for the first time. She will, it seems, marry Harry. But when we say that something is the last straw, we are usually talking about something that pushed us over the edge, into an extreme position. What then would it mean to say: That’s it, you were involved with another woman and maybe are the father of her child, I’ve had it, it’s the last straw—I’m going to marry you”? How does that make any sense? Wouldn’t “The Last Straw” work better if Fanny were going to leave Harry?

And what about Lawrence’s first title, the one the story was saddled with for so many years? To me it’s just as intriguing. It promises a relationship that we never see. Annie, in fact, is only spoken of, and then only in the last few pages; she never appears directly. Wouldn’t it make more sense to call the story “Fanny and Harry”? As one of my better students pointed out, the title “Fanny and Annie” makes Harry the most important figure: these women are linked only through him. That would be yet another way of undermining Fanny’s importance. In both cases, Fanny is made lesser. Perhaps the story’s use of “doom” to describe her feelings at coming home isn’t as exaggerated as it might first appear.

Even after having been a teacher for more than ten years, I don’t find it easy to have someone else in my classroom, especially someone who is evaluating me. My colleague was very nice about the class, in the brief conversation we had on our way to our next obligations (we’ll talk more at a formal meeting with my Area Chair in a few weeks). “It’s really like pulling teeth with these kids,” she noted. And that has absolutely been my feeling the whole semester. My colleague was kind enough to say, “It makes me feel better to know that you have classes like this too.” The class wasn’t a disaster, we got through some useful material, and they warmed up by the end, a little, when we talked about the different titles. But I’m really not used to having to coax so many observations out of a class, so my mood as we arrive at the midway point of the semester is a little bit somber and a whole lot discouraged.

The rest of the week’s classes were devoted to writing exercises in preparation for the first longer paper, due next Wednesday, just before Fall Break. I’ll say more about that next time.

Alfred & Emily–Doris Lessing (2008)

I came to Doris Lessing’s final book, the genre-defying Alfred & Emily, through Roberta Rubenstein’s consideration of it in her recent book Literary Half-Lives. Rubenstein rightly praises the generosity of its depiction of Lessing’s parents, who, in their different ways, made so much trouble for her in life. Alfred & Emily (shelved in the biography section of my local library) includes a novella-length treatment of what her parents’ lives might have been like had WWI not happened, and had they not married, as well as a series of little essays, vignettes really, about different aspects of Lessing’s childhood. There are also pages of intriguing family photos to pore over. But the vignettes and photos are ancillary to the novella or whatever it is—counterfactual biography, perhaps? Its power stems from the blow it deals to its author’s narcissism. To write about one’s parents as they might have been but were not is to imagine a world in which one couldn’t have appeared. Perhaps only someone at end of a long, productive life—Lessing was 89 when the book was published—could have the equanimity needed to efface herself so thoroughly.

It helps, perhaps, that Lessing has documented her life extensively elsewhere. She wrote two volumes of autobiography and miscellaneous bits of autobiographical writings (Going Home (1957) is particularly interesting). In the five-volume Children of Violence series Lessing worked through her relationship to her parents, especially her mother. The facts, briefly, are these: her father, Alfred Tayler, was badly wounded just before the battle of Passchendaele and met her mother, Emily McVeigh, in hospital in England where she nursed him after his leg had to be amputated. After the war the young couple moved to Persia, where Lessing was born, and then in 1925 to Rhodesia, where her father pursued his life-long dream of becoming a farmer, with very middling results, and her mother wilted and hardened in the absence of the cultured, convivial surroundings she considered her due.

Twice in Alfred & Emily, Lessing presents the Great War as the great trauma in her life, even though it happened before she was born. The first time, the war is a malevolent, threatening blot:

That war, the Great War, the war that would end all war, squatted over my childhood. The trenches were as present to me as anything I actually saw around me. And here I am, still trying to get out from under that monstrous legacy, trying to get free.

The tone here is angry, the irony bitter, the spirit fighting—these are the notes we hear over and over again in Lessing’s remarkable oeuvre. (And the qualities that connect her to the writer that was most important to her as a child, D. H. Lawrence.)

The second time, the war is just as inescapable, but Lessing’s response to it is more embittered:

I think my father’s rage at the Trenches took me over, when I was very young, and has never left me. Do children feel their parents’ emotions? Yes, we do, and it is a legacy I could have done without. What is the use of it? It is as if that old war is in my memory, my own consciousness.

What touches me most in this passage is not the unnatural burden of a child taking on her father’s pain, but that little shift to first person plural in the third sentence. (Here, as so often, grammar creates pathos.) Lessing asks, Do children feel their parents’ emotions? I expect the answer to be: Yes, they do. No matter how many times I read it, that we catches me off guard. It makes the rather abstract claim about what the psychoanalysts Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok call trans-generational haunting as visceral as a sob in the throat. It makes us feel that Lessing still is that child.

None of us ever escapes the child we once were. But if we are lucky we learn what our adult self can do to make the child inside feel safe enough that it no longer need act out its anxieties and insecurities. That makes our lives easier on our loved ones and ourselves. In Alfred & Emily Lessing is done fighting with her parents through herself. She has realized that their problems were not hers. In the process she releases herself, and, posthumously, them too. She gives them the gift of imagined, happier lives. At the end of a short introduction, she writes: “I hope they would approve the lives I have given them.” Surely they would, not least because of the surprising twists their lives, and the world they live in, take in Lessing’s telling.

The fictional Alfred and Emily are connected not through marriage but through a shared maternal figure, Mrs. Lane. Emily is a friend of Mrs. Lane’s daughter Daisy. Emily and Daisy leave their village in Sussex to train as nurses at the Royal Free hospital in London. The decision is particularly consequential for Emily: her distant father disinherits her because he believes nursing is beneath her. In the years to come, Emily will return to Mrs. Lane, and her cozy home, whenever she feels overwhelmed. Alfred is a kind of adopted son to Mrs. Lane; she has taken him under her wing as compensation for his own mother’s obvious lack of interest in him. Alfred apprentices to a local farming family, the Redways; he is a friend of their son Bert, a moody, difficult young man with a tendency to drink.

The world of these Edwardian years (we can’t say pre-war, since war never comes, at least not the Great War) is the world of Lawrence’s early fiction, The White Peacock, Sons and Lovers, even bits of The Rainbow. It’s a world in which town and country are not readily separated, a world in which communal agricultural labour is important even to those who don’t dedicate their lives to it, a world in which young people thing nothing of walking or cycling five miles to a dance. (I’m fascinated by how much walking people used to do. It’s nothing for Paul Morel, in Sons and Lovers, to walk several miles to the Leivers’s farm nightly. Lawrence’s letters are filled with invitations to friends to visit him and Frieda in whatever isolated place they happened to be living, always with cheery instructions about how he will meet them at the station to walk the four miles home for tea.)

At one point it seems as though Alfred might settle down with Daisy. But then he meets Betsy, an outgoing and nurturing woman even more like Mrs. Lane than Daisy is. Alfred, helped by Betsy, tends to Bert, who manages a shaky recovery from the alcoholism he has begun to slide into; throughout Alfred continues to manage the Redways farm which everyone assumes Alfred will inherit on the sickly Bert’s death.

Emily, meanwhile, rises through the nursing ranks to become Head Sister. She marries a doctor, the respected but desiccated and thoroughly conventional William Martin-White. (In real life, Lessing’s mother’s first, great love had been a doctor who drowned at sea.) She is saved from the life of glittering society woman that she helplessly pours herself into, since she can no longer work once she is married, by her husband’s sudden death. Thanks to the efforts of a sympathetic nephew, a lawyer, Emily sets up and manages a charitable trust that runs schools for poor children. She meets a Scotsman whom she nurses when he falls ill with cancer, realizing only after his death how much he loved her. A controversy over a pregnant unmarried teacher at one of her schools, in Alfred’s village, leads her to set up refuges for unmarried mothers. Alfred and Emily occasionally run into each other; they respect each other. But they are not important to each other. A postscript tells us that Alfred Tayler lived to a great age while Emily McVeah died at age 73 when some boys she remonstrated for tormenting a dog attacked her.

It’s a funny little book. A bit rough and ready, a bit abrupt. But it stays with you. I’ve mentioned Lawrence as a literary influence. But another influence is more important, especially in the second half: Virginia Woolf, especially the Woolf of Three Guineas (1938). That intricate work, perhaps Woolf’s most interesting, attacks, among other things, militarism, patriarchy, and exclusionary models of education. It criticizes the fascism it sees ascendant not just in Italy and Germany but at home in England too. But its criticism of violence and aggression is accompanied by its clear-eyed recognition of the persistence, perhaps even inevitability, of those instincts.

Thus, although England never goes to war in Lessing’s alternate history, war is never far away. There is a longstanding conflict between Turkey and Serbia that young people in England take violent sides in. (Allegiances are displayed through differences in hair styles and clothing; supporters of one side frequently attack those of the other.) With the entry of women into the workforce, many young men find themselves without an obvious place in society. Many travel abroad to fight as mercenaries, including Alfred’s two eldest sons. Those who have been spared a war claim to miss it. As Alfred puts it,

“‘This is a silly, pettifogging little country, and we’re so pleased with ourselves because we’ve kept out of a war. But if you ask me I think a war would do us all the good in the world. Were soft and rotten, like a pear that’s gone past it’s best.’”

Given Lessing’s description of how the Great War ruined her father, this is an ironic speech to say the least. But Lessing doesn’t condescend to her father. She pays discrete homage to the man who spent much of his life obsessed with the war, partly in rage at how callously his generation was destroyed, but partly in the certainty that nothing so exciting would ever happen to him again. Like Woolf, Lessing hates war, especially the way its dehumanization snakes across society. But also like Woolf she respects the power of the aggression that fuels war. By recognizing the power of war, violence, and aggression, Lessing gives us something more than a mere fantasy of reparation, in which everything that was bad in real life is made good. (I’m struck by how Jo Walton uses war in a similar way in her recent novel about counterfactual lives and world histories, My Real Children.) After all, no matter how difficult her childhood was—and it was pretty difficult, with a sick, disaffected father and a disillusioned, spiteful mother—it’s still the only one she ever had, and there had to have been value in it, too. Another way to say what I mean is that although Lessing no longer needs to settle any scores with her parents her literary preoccupations haven’t changed. She is still fascinated by the double-edged qualities of violence and power, the way they break things (especially women’s lives) but also the way they make things (especially women’s lives). Her books are remarkable studies of this ambivalence; The Good Terrorist (1985) is maybe the best.

I’m glad to have read this strange, generous, and wise little book. But I’m also glad that even though it was Lessing’s last, it’s not mine. There are still lots of her books for me to enjoy.