Ah, April—beloved of American academics everywhere. Not.
I got through it, though, even managing to celebrate Passover and observe Yom HaShoah and embark on an unusual teaching exercise (more on that another day, maybe). Celebrated a big birthday at month’s end with a weekend in Fort Worth, a town full of great art and better steaks.
Making it through he days was the big accomplishment. For reading, there was little time. Here’s what I managed.
Georges Simenon, The Saint-Fiacre Affair (1932) Trans. Shaun Whiteside (2014)
In which we learn about Maigret’s childhood. Nothing too revealing, no traumas from the past, nothing dramatic to motivate the man he became, just the incidental irony of investigating a murder at the chateau where he lived as a boy (his father was the estate manager). The ending, well, imagine a Poirot if it had been written by Zola. Pleasing subplot about a village kid, too.
Katherena Vermette, The Break (2016)
I’ve loved this book since first reading it, but now I love it even more because I just taught it for the first time. Always an unpredictable situation, but even more so in this case, as I included it in my course on the afterlife of the Holocaust. On the face of it, Vermette’s novel of three generations of an indigenous family in Winnipeg coming to terms with an act of violence (which resonates with similar events in their lives) has no business on my syllabus. Yet traumatic and genocidal events are more connected than we might like to think—something I’ve written about elsewhere—even setting aside the fact that many indigenous writers and academics have cited second-generation Holocaust memoirs (those by the children of survivors) in referring to the experience of living with elders who suffered in the residential school system.
Happily, my students loved The Break. We had wide-ranging conversations about the possibility of intersectional responses to cultural trauma (using Michael Rothberg’s idea of multidirectional memory), the current culture’s fascination with crime, both real and imagined, and the novel’s shrewd use of point of view to resist the fetishization of violence to women’s bodies. Students who have suffered abuse themselves—sadly, a not negligible number—particularly appreciated Vermette’s intelligence and compassion. Thanks to Liz for talking me through her teaching of the book: she gave me so many ideas that improved my classroom experience.
Becky Chambers, A Psalm for the Wild-Built (2021)
A joy. On Panga, as the earth has become known after the great Crisis, a tumultuous time precipitated by the sudden coming-to-self-awareness of the world’s robots, which led humans to decarbonize and limit themselves to half the earth’s surface, a tea monk—someone who peddles from town to town offering tisanes and words of comfort—lights out for the territory, heading into the Wild with the aim of reaching an abandoned monastery. On the way they meet a robot, something they know only from textbooks. The robot is on a quest of its own, determined to meet humans and learn why they do what they do. Funny, sweet, moving; a road movie, a buddy pic, the intersection of the Venn diagram of Rónán Hession’s Leonard and Hungry Paul and Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future. I know, I know, who would even imagine such a thing?
Yūko Tsushima, Woman Running in the Mountains (1980) Trans. Geraldine Harcourt (1991)
Wonderful. Frances, Rebecca, and I had a lot to say on One Bright Book. Tl; dnl: single mother in 1970s Japan struggles through the first year of her son’s life and half seeks out, half falls into a job at a garden that satisfies her and opens up her life. Smart and satisfying, I liked it even more than Territory of Light, the other Tsushima I’ve read. Don’t sleep on this one.
Garry Disher, Under the Cold Bright Lights (2017)
My fourth Disher; I really like the guy. This one’s a standalone, although the appealing protagonist—a former homicide detective who comes out of early retirement to work cold cases—must have tempted Disher to write more. That would have been a terrible idea. This book barely but deftly circumvents the preposterous—a fate that would be unavoidable in future installments. (Read it, you’ll see what I mean.) Disher excels at keeping several plots running without needing to tie them together. Most interesting is his hero’s domestic situation: he inherited a rambling house in a hipster Melbourne neighbourhood and rents out or lends rooms to a rag-tag set of grad students, the temporarily homeless, his adult daughter, and even his wife, from whom he is sort of separated—she comes and goes as she pleases. All very unusual in the genre, seems to me.
Elisa Shua Dusapin, Winter in Sokcho (2016) Trans. Aneesa Abbas Higgins (2020)
Forgettable. I enjoyed the novella’s setting—the seaside town of the title, cold and forlorn—but I didn’t take to its story, about a young woman of mixed Korean-French ancestry who fixates on a guest at the hotel where she works. Lots of simple sentences, lots of fragments—it’s told from the young woman’s point of view, and the syntactic banality could be, I suppose, a reflection of her mindset, though I think we’re meant to find her enigmatic rather than empty. The best bits are about the fish market—plenty of food in these few pages, almost always offered as an incitement to disgust—but if I’m going to read a book set in Korea about body trouble, I’m going with The Vegetarian every time.
Andrew Miller, The Slowworm’s Song (2022)
Miller takes his unusual title from Basil Bunting—a slow worm’s a legless lizard, turns out—a decision that points to a technical conundrum: the narrator, Stephen Rose, ex-military, recovering alcoholic, failed father looking to make amends, liver of a small life in a small town in Somerset, is a closed man trying to open. Miller struggles to get the voice right, and mostly manages: sometimes flat, sometimes something more, almost poetic. (Sephen’s a bit of a reader, flourished in some open university literature courses, even if a paper on The Mill and the Floss remains unwritten (too tumultuous a book, maybe?), which gives Miller cover for the more high-flown moments.) I think close third person suits Miller better, though. The conceit is that the book is a manuscript addressed to Stephen’s adult daughter, who has cautiously entered his life after years of neglect and mistakes, a labour spurred by the arrival of a letter from Belfast. A commission is investigating events from the early 70s; Stephen’s not compelled to testify, but he is encouraged to, first gently and then much less so. Eventually he reveals the event in question, the one at the center of his life, the one that put it off the rails and forms the backdrop against which the construction of the rickety parallel rail of his life has taken place. (Wow, this metaphor went awry fast). There’s much to be said, no doubt, about the novel’s place in the current landscape of trauma narratives, as recently explored in an essay of Parul Seghal’s I still haven’t read out of a resistance I’ve yet to examine. At one point, a therapist says to Stephen:
We have to be careful not to get trapped by our stories. That’s one of the things we can learn. To tell the story differently, even to let go of it completely. To do that for a single minute and see what’s in the space we free.
Your enjoyment of this book will depend on how much that sentiment resonates with you. (For me, absolutely.) Even if it doesn’t, you might appreciate how Miller ironizes or complicates the possibility. (Remember the title?) A thoroughly satisfying novel, if less earth shattering than Now We Shall Be Entirely Free.
Now that I am firmly middle-aged, well on the way to being old, in fact, I hope for the wisdom to make more time for reading. (The end of the semester should help.) And for the reading to be better. Even in this thin month, though, I can recommend Chambers and Disher for comfort, and Vermette, Tsushima, and Miller for complexity. How was your month? Come at me, BookTwitter, I know you all love the Dusapin…
Today‘s reflection on a year in reading, I’m delighted to say, is by Scott Walters. Scott launched a litblog, seraillon, in 2010, and expects to return to it one of these days. He largely follows Primo Levi’s model of “occasional and erratic reading, reading out of curiosity, impulse or vice, and not by profession” (profession in his own case being academic administration). He lives with his partner in San Francisco and tries to visit family in France as often as possible.
seraillon has long been a favourite blog: in the past year or so I’ve checked in regularly, half disconsolate, half hopeful, looking for new content. You can imagine, then, how happy I am to feature Scott here in his return to blogging. I hear rumours that more may be afoot at the site!
With Scott’s post, this run of Year in Reading posts comes to an end–except, of course, for my own, which I hope to write soon… The project grew into something bigger than I’d ever imagined; it’s been a delight to showcase the work of so many thoughtful readers. Thanks to everyone who wrote, read, and commented on these pieces. (If you’d talked with me about writing a piece but haven’t sent it to me yet, it’s not too late. Just be in touch and we’ll make a plan.)
How gracious of Dorian to invite me to submit an end-of-year post! I have been avidly following the others he’s posted, which now have my to-be-read list runnething over. So thank you Dorian, and everyone, and hello. [Ed. – Such a pleasure!]
I’ve written nothing on the seraillon blog for more than two years—”hellacious times and I’ve slipped between the cracks,” as a character says in David Greenberg’s play, The Assembled Parties. But I have been reading, finishing 42 books in 2021. Though about half my typical yearly volume, I also read much more in books, most of which I intend to finish: The astounding Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini. Milton’s “Paradise Lost.”Chateaubriand’s Mémoires d’outre tombe (to be continued in the original French, no knock on Anka Muhlstein’s translation). A re-read of Wuthering Heights. Franz Werfel’s monumental novel of resistance against the Armenian genocide, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, following an interest in Henri Bosco. Henri Bosco himself, in his novels Le Mas Théotimeand Sabinus. A book about book designer Robert Massin, who designed these French Bosco editions. There are others, down other rabbit holes.
Here are ten highlights of works I did finish in 2021, plus honorable mentions:
The Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson
Hugo and Nebula Award winner Robinson has shouldered a massive responsibility: digesting everything we know about climate change as well as everything we know about how we might address it, then packing it into a stunningly wide-ranging geopolitical thriller interspersed with chapters that concretize climate change’s multivarious, cascading impacts. The novel is also one of few I’ve encountered (Vincent McHugh’s 1943 pandemic novel I Am Thinking of My Darling being another) that explore competent administration of a crisis. [Ed. – Yes! This is a book about competency. Maybe that’s why it feels so comforting.] Robinson’s book appeared in October 2020, a date to fix precisely given the furious pace of change as regards the book’s subject. In fact, the novel seemed a kind of sundial around which shadows spun and deepened rapidly as I read, some elements already obsolete as others swam into view. This is no criticism; I marveled at the real-time context while reading as well as at Robinson’s courage in being able to place a period on his final sentence, and I’ve been pushing the work on everyone for its articulation of the enormity of the challenges facing us, some lovely conceits such as the return of airships, and a bracing radicalism that makes Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang seem like a Sunday School picnic. Despite offering a path forward, Robinson eschews easy answers and offers little in the way of reassurance, seeming to have taken as the novel’s departure point Greta Thunberg’s memorable warning: “I don’t want you to feel hopeful. I want you to panic.” [Ed. – On my 2020 list; still think about it daily.]
Last Summer in the City, by Gianfranco Calligarich (translation by Howard Curtis)
The cover blurbs’ promise of a resurrected 20th century Italian classic certainly delivered; Calligarich’s short, tight, engaging 1973 novel of dissolution in 1960’s Rome seems to pick up where Alberto Moravia left off in depicting modern Italian existential malaise. The story follows the peripatetic wanderings around Rome of Leo Gazzara, an impecunious, alcoholic, bookish young Roman who becomes embroiled in a tumultuous on-again/off-again love affair. The energy of Calligarich’s automobile-driven narrative and the drifting yet fascinating tour he offers of Rome—the city itself a “particular intoxication that wipes out memory”—help balance out the novel’s bleakness, and a frequent invocation of books provides both literary diversion and dark warning of Bovary-esque entrapment in fictions. One might easily envision a film version by an Italian neo-realist director such as Dino Rossi or Antonio Pietrangeli.
Norwood, by Charles Portis
Considerably brightening a dark year, Norwood (1966) edged out Portis’s True Grit and The Dog of the South as the funniest book I read all year [Ed. – Arkansas, represent!], and even topped W. E. Bow’s The Ascent of Rum Doodle and Patrick Dennis’s Genius. A howling road trip and love story that begins when Norwood Pratt of Ralph, Arkansas gets a job tandem-towing a couple of hot cars to Brooklyn, Norwood limns the seedy, grifty, free-wheeling side of American life with caustic, irreverent humor; splendid dialogue; and unforgettable characters. I have Jacqui to thank for this introduction to Portis and will certainly read his remaining two novels and collection of short pieces, a literary cornucopia inversely proportional to the author’s small output, and no doubt as delicious as a biscuit and Bre’r Rabbit Syrup sandwich.
Stories With Pictures, by Antonio Tabucchi (translation by Elizabeth Harris)
“From image to voice, the way is brief, if the senses respond,” writes Antonio Tabucchi in his preface to 2011’s Stories with Pictures, a collection of 30-some short pieces sparked by a particular painting or drawing. Inspired by his having spent an entire day in the Prado (I did the same thing on the one day I spent in Madrid), Tabucchi writes at an angle about the pictures, riffing on them in a dazzling range of ways, from mediations to letters to what seem at times multi-page, arabesque-like captions. As in much of Tabucchi’s work, motifs connected to Fernando Pessoa abound. Most of the artworks come from 20th century Italian or Portuguese artists, all but a few new to me. As if the posthumous appearance in English of a Tabucchi work wasn’t reason enough to celebrate, the Archipelago Books edition, featuring color plates of each picture, make this a volume with a presentation as lovely as the author’s concept.
Bear, by Marion Engel
“Is a life that can now be considered an absence a life?” Marion Engel’s Bear (1976) has made so many end-of-year lists here and elsewhere that Dorian should get a medal for this revival of interest. [Ed. – Aw shucks. No medal, though. I want cash.] Thanks to a new edition from London’s Daunt Books, I finally got in on Engel’s singularly odd tale of Lou, an archivist cataloging the contents of a deceased eccentric’s isolated mansion in Ontario’s remote north—and falling maw over claws for its resident bear. [Ed. – Ha! Maw over claws! That’s good! Gonna steal that.] Literally going wild in shaking herself loose of “the flaws in her plodding private world” and the various civilized confines that have entrapped her, Lou exults in a rebirth as liberating as it is perturbing. Bear’s atmosphere of isolation made it seem readymade for pandemic reading; I suspect that most of us are more than ready to go a little wild ourselves. [Ed. – Sounds pretty good to me!]
Dissipation H. G., by Guido Morselli (translation by Frederika Randall)
My terrific excitement at seeing another Morselli novel appear in English received an abrupt check upon my learning that Frederika Randall, one of the finest of Italian to English translators, had died shortly after finishing the translation. Readers of seraillon may know of my interest in Morselli; this short novel, his last, takes a common theme in which a person suddenly discovers that they are alone on earth. Morselli spins the conceit into a bittersweet, moving and darkly humorous exploration of isolation and the need for human contact. The “H. G.” in the title refers to humani generis and the dissipation “not in the moral sense” but rather from “the third and fourth century Latin dissipatio,” meaning “evaporation, nebulization, some physical process like that.” In other words, Dissipation H. G. turned out to be another work suited for pandemic reading—if perhaps in the manner of providing solace through affirmation of one’s sense of reality.
Malacarne, by Giosué Caliciura (French translation by Lise Chapuis)
Sicilian writer Giosué Caliciura has yet to be translated into English, a pity, as his fierce, inventive, densely baroque novels, delving into the lives of those on society’s margins, are among the most original and powerful I’ve found in contemporary Italian literature. Malacarne (1999) presents a ferocious testimonial from a Sicilian malacarne (literally “bad flesh”), one of the young hoods employed to do the Mafia’s dirty work. Palermo—and at the same time a vaguely defined post-mortem space—provide the setting(s) for the malacarne’s reckoning, before a judge, with the brutal details of a violent, savage life. Caliciura’s use of a deliberately impossible narrative voice, an articulation both belonging to and channeled through the late malacarne, adds to the novel’s otherworldly, underworld atmosphere. But the story the malacarne relates is as worldly, gripping and linguistically spectacular as a story could be, a profound exploration of the forces that perpetuate organized crime and engulf the youth it attracts, manipulates, and destroys.
Okla Hannali, by R. A. Lafferty
I did not know of R. A. Lafferty (apparently revered in science fiction circles), nor had I heard of this novel (not a work of science fiction), and so little suspected what I was about to get into. I found Okla Hannali (1972) astonishing. The author called its initial appearance “a torturous undertaking even though it wasn’t much more than an overflowing of crammed notebooks.” Something of the “crammed notebooks” quality seems to remain in this revised, shaggy final version, but small matter: why this vastly-larger-than-life legend of fictional Choctaw “mingo” (king) Hannali Innominee isn’t a standard feature of the American literary canon is beyond me. Lafferty turns the historical telescope around, viewing early 19th century frontier history from the Choctaw perspective. We know we’re in the realm of legend when the novel begins with a creation myth, which swiftly moves to the early life of Hannali, a “big man who would fill almost a century” and who, during one of the several forced resettlements of the Choctaw, abruptly picks out a plot of land in what is today eastern Oklahoma, “a place less no damn good than other land.” At this nexus where many elements of 19th century American history converged, the reader witnesses, through Hannali, the westward European expansion, the enactment of genocidal policies towards indigenous populations, the flight of escaped slaves (some of whom become slaves of the Choctaw and/or members of the tribe), the lingering resonances of the Louisiana Purchase, the inauguration of new states, the misunderstood “Jacksonian Revolution” that amounted to little more than “a war of the rich against the poor,” and finally the American Civil War and the grim destruction of the Choctaw republic. Hannali is a magnificent character: defiant, stubborn, courageous, wise, irreverent, a folk hero of magnitudes. Big, boisterous, hilarious, indignant, heart-breaking tales like this don’t come along often; one mourns the unrealized project Lafferty intended to call “Chapters in American History,” of which Okla Hannli, his “Indian [sic] chapter,” is the only one he completed. [Ed. – Wow! Sounds amazing!]
The Transit of Venus, by Shirley Hazzard
“The calculations were hopelessly out…Calculations about Venus often are.” Australian writer Shirley Hazzard and Graham Greene were close friends, and I thrilled to find Greene-like elements in this exceptional, elegant, psychologically penetrating work. But The Transit of Venus (1980) is something all its own, a dense, intimate, furiously compelling narrative tracing the life trajectories and romantic entanglements of two Australian sisters orphaned at a young age. Tracking the sisters’ moves to England (and one to New York), with events of the tumultuous 20th century backgrounding their stories, Hazzard describes, in exacting prose, the psychological nuances of human interactions. Henry James, another obvious influence here, seems constricted by comparison [Ed. – hmm]; The Transit of Venus did more to put in perspective James’s limitations with regard to women characters than any other work I’ve read [Ed. – hmm]. Hazzard’s antecedents range from Greek tragedies to Goethe to 19th century Realism, resulting in a story almost classical in form and style, yet palpably burning with a sense of lived experience—from a writer who led an utterly improbable life. I’ll be reading more.
A True Novel, by Minae Mizumura (translation by Juliet Winters Carpenter)
“…I still could not feel at home, either in the new country or in the new language,” states the narrator on the first page of Mizumura’s 2002 novel (to which I was steered by Dorian – thank you, Dorian!). [Ed. – So welcome! Delighted to see this here.] This might be a line from any work addressing displacement, but it scarcely begins to hint at the extraordinary directions Mizumura will take over the ensuing 853 pages. I harbored some doubts about descriptions of the novel as a Japanese Wuthering Heights, but Mizumura evinces little interest in simply grafting Emily Bronte’s work onto a Japanese setting. Instead, her ambitions aim broadly and deeply. Taking the coinciding of the 19th century western novel’s golden age with Japan’s opening to western influence as her beginning, Mizumura then uses her own transnational experience (with formative years spent in the US before a permanent return to Japan) to explore, through both western and Japanese literary and linguistic lenses, multiple questions of transnational identity, cultural cross-pollination, Japanese post-war history, and – through her mysterious character Taro, a kind of Japanese Heathcliff/Gatsby amalgam – issues of class and otherness. A True Novel takes its title from a prevailing style of Japanese literature in which works like Wuthering Heights were held up as an ideal form, “where the author sought to create an independent fictional world outside his own life.” But meta-fictional elements in Mizumura’s narrative also link it to the later Japanese style of the “I-Novel” (also the title of another, more personal Mizumura work), close to memoir and hewing to the author’s personal experience. Through concatenations of narrative (the prologue alone to A True Novel goes on for 165 pages) and using black and white photographs to heighten sense of place in the mountainous Karuizawa area where much of the story unfolds, Mizumura aligns the substrate of the Japanese literary enzyme with that of its Western counterpart, sparking a catalysis that creates something strikingly original. While it’s rare enough to find something that seems new in fiction, it’s more unusual still to find a work also incorporating something old and familiar and—by means of steady, crystalline, superbly atmospheric prose—so completely absorbing. Re-reading this true novel, my favorite book of 2021, will be a goal for 2022.
Isak Dinesen’s Winter’s Tales;
Miklós Bánffy’s The Enchanted Night, an excellent collection of short stories that aligned surprisingly with Dinesen (great to see more of Bánffy’s work emerging in translation);
Federico Fellini’s The Journey of G. Mastorna, the director’s screenplay for what many consider to be the greatest film never made;
N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn, an American classic, gorgeous and heartbreaking;
Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These, a marvel of concision concerning Ireland’s Magdalen laundries;
Henri Bosco’s Le Trestoulas, affirming Bosco as a writer I will certainly keep reading;
Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March.
(And in the noir/polar/mystery realm):
Georges Simenon’s Chez Krull [Ed. – So good!];
Eric Ambler’s Journey into Fear and A Coffin for Demetrios;
Seishi Yokomizo’s The Inagumi Curse, terrific to read directly after Mizumura so as to linger a bit in a Japanese mountain atmosphere.
Thanks for reading, and felicitous reading to all in 2022!
Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Anne Cohen (@aecnyc). Anne is a lifelong reader (preferably stretched out on couch or bed), retired lawyer, and former reporter. She lives in New York City with part of her family and two dogs and is firmly convinced that Book Twitter saved her from homicidal behavior in 2021.
Look for more reflections from a wonderful assortment of readers every day this week. Remember, you can always add your thoughts to the mix. Just let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter (@ds228).
Most beautifully-written book: Transit of Venusby Shirley Hazzard was the most exquisitely-written novel I read in 2021 but also one of the most frustrating. It was as if the plot and the characters were unworthy of the prose.
Am trying avoid spoilers, but the coyness of the last page infuriated me and even drove me to the internet for clarification. “WTF” endings don’t bother me; reader and narrator of The Sense of an Ending share the same information and deluded memories and are equally gobsmacked at the conclusion, and Kate Atkinson, whose A God in Ruins had a similarly tricksy ending, is a master of showing but not telling. Although the language was gorgeous, the last paragraph of Transit felt cheap.
(You still should read it.)
Second most beautifully-written book: Daddy’s Gone A’Hunting written by Penelope Mortimer and published in 1958 was also the most frightening book I read this year. Daddy is the story of Ruth, an upper-middle-class woman in her late 30’s trying to navigate the potential termination of her college-age daughter’s pregnancy (whose pre-marital conception was the impetus for Ruth’s own marriage).
The scary part was not just the ordinary shivers of recognition present in most good novels about families. Perhaps it is a function of my age and gender—Daddy and I were both born in the middle of the baby boom—but I was horrified by the sight of Ruth, already feeling old at 38!, being shamed as she searched for a physician who might be willing to terminate the pregnancy on behalf of her clueless and nasty daughter.
This year, I also read Mortimer’s biography of the Queen Mother, which is not scary, and her first volume of memoirs, About Time, which has as a central character her impious cleric father. (Maybe read it as a double feature with Priestdaddy.) I recently located a copy of her second volume, About Time Too, and it’s on my TBR stack.
Other wonderful fiction: Cathedral, by Ben Hopkins, hasn’t gotten as much attention as it deserves. I can’t get into The Constant Nymph, but Margaret Kennedy’s The Feast was enormous fun, beautifully written, and (spoiler alert) the right people survive; I also enjoyed her contemporaneous account of the early days of World War II, Where Stands a Winged Sentry, a country companion of sorts to a similar book about London read last year, Chelsea Concerto, by Frances Flavell. Daisy and The Six made me laugh when I was sick.
Lolly Willowes entranced me [Ed. – Paging Frances Evangelista!], as did both Scenes From Childhood, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s memoir and her collected letters. (Have not yet finished The Corner that Held Them or Summer Will Show.)
Also read and liked Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker, The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins, A Month in the Country, by J.L. Carr and several pieces of fiction by Tove Jansson. I was thrilled by parts of Gerard Reve’s The Evenings and wondered when other sections would end, which may have been the sensation the author intended.
Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour offered an instructive counterpoint to Transit: annoying characters, obsessive conduct, and an ending that made me want to go back to the beginning, but without feeling as if I’d been snookered along the way.
Not fiction but an elegant presentation of how an interesting woman’s actual life was commandeered by fiction and biography: The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith by Diane Johnson.
Biggest project of the year: Diaries and letters have always fascinated me and taken up significant space shelf. Their proportion in my reading diet has increased over the last 22 months, as I’m comforted by the notion that their authors didn’t know what was going to happen to them any more than we do now. [Ed. – Nicely put!]
Someone who was often wrong about the future was Henry “Chips” Channon, an American-born writer, pal of the rich, royal and merely titled from his late teens onward, member of the British Parliament, and from 1938 to 1941 a senior cabinet aide in the Foreign Office. The first two volumes (total 2000+ pages) of his unexpurgated diaries were published in 2021 and edited brilliantly by Simon Hefner, whose dazzling footnotes include some tart asides and everyone’s courtesy titles.
“Chips” knew everyone, and everyone appears in the diaries. He was a wrong-headed bigot, a sniveling acolyte of Neville Chamberlain, a toady to almost anyone with a royal title, and a nasty, insecure, self-important snob, who occasionally recognized his reputation as a well-connected lightweight.
What makes the diaries worth £35 each plus postage to the States is the astonishing range of Channon’s access and the detail of his descriptions— his failing marriage to a rich and titled woman, who left him for a horse dealer; events, including his dinner for Edward VIII, and Mrs. Simpson a month before the abdication; his crushes on a series of other well-connected men and his schemes to marry them off to “suitable” women; changes in society during the war, including his mother-in-law (“the richest woman in England”) doing without a cook; and the perfidy of his enemies of the moment. [Ed. – Ok, that sounds really good.]
My fascination with these books is more than historical. As someone who annually orders but doesn’t always use a big Smythson daybook, I’m reluctantly moved by dogged if not heroic maintenance of a diary for decades and even more by the willingness to write down so much of one’s deepest and often foolish feelings in real time.
A year for letters:Love From Nancy: The Letters of Nancy Mitford; The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh; Letters from Tove [Jansson]; Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner; Letters of E.B. White; and A Whole World: Letters From James Merrill.
Not surprisingly, there were many connections among Channon, Mitford and Waugh, who lived in a small world they thought was the whole.
But other connections were less expected—the Merrill letters were terrific, and not just because his frequently-mentioned mother and daughter Connecticut neighbors were novelist Grace Zaring Stone and Eleanor Stone Perenyi, author of both More Was Lost [Ed. – A long-time EMJ favourite!] and Green Thoughts: A Writer in The Garden, which I’d consulted only days before about dahlias.
The best connection came when I was alternating books—Hermione Lee’s biography of Willa Cather and the E. B. White letters—and suddenly realized the same “character” appeared in both: Cather’s good friend Elizabeth Sargent was also White’s sister-in-law Elsie, older sister of New Yorker editor and garden writer Katherine White. [Ed. — !]
Mysteries: Spine for spine, I probably read mysteries more than other category and can inhale a whole series of 10-15 books in a week. (Hey, I’m retired and read fast.) [Ed. – Goals!] This year, in addition to rereading half a dozen of Simenon’s Maigret books and the first few chapters of Busman’s Honeymoon, and adding to my list of books by E. C. R. Lorac, John Rhode, and Patricia Wentworth, I was introduced to Jane Haddam’s Gregor Demarkian, Craig Rice’s John Malone and pals, Delano Ames’s Jane and Dagobert Brown, and Elizabeth Daly’s Henry Gamadge.
Of these my favorite was probably the last, not for the quality of the story or the story-telling, but for the flavor of New York City in the early 1940s and the depiction of people for whom the world had changed since the turn of the century. Part of my attraction to mysteries, and especially those of the “Golden Age,” is the way they incidentally reflect the details of their time, whether clothes, food, manners, or relationships.
Audiobooks: I’m not snobbish about the idea of audiobooks but I’m picky about both the sound of the voice generally and the rightness of it for a specific work. These are obviously very subjective criteria; most people were probably thrilled by Patti Smith’s reading of Just Kids but I ripped off my headphones during the foreword.
I read quickly, sometimes too quickly (see possible explanation for my reaction to Transit of Venus), and so have been fascinated by my reaction to hearing books I’ve previously read. Listening to The Age of Innocence made me much more aware of Wharton’s humor and devastating nuance.
Some books—like The Thursday Murder Club—can be aural candy, perfect for walking the dogs; this is not a put down, at least from me. It’s also when I listen to the Backlisted podcast, whose fingerprints are all over this list.
What I Didn’t/Haven’t Finished: There are mystery tropes I can’t abide (especially the protagonist as suspect), and if one of those sneaks by my “blurb” filter, I’ll let it go. [Ed. – Almost as bad as “investigator’s loved one in danger”…]
Books not finished in 2021 but still open are Hamnet (and I loved I AM I AM I AM), as well as Klara and the Sun, Our Spoons Came From Woolworth’s, Shuggie Bain, and Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont. I couldn’t get into Adam Thorpe’s 1921, which broke my heart, because his work is so varied and usually so very good.
Best reading experience: Not the “best” book or the most interesting or important—but an almost out-of-body moment late one night propped up in bed with the five-book Percy Jackson series, which I’m reading along with an 11-year-old friend.
The apartment was quiet. Maybe it was Percy’s adolescent demi-god angst, but for a sudden moment, I was in my childhood bedroom, trying not to wake up my sister and hearing my father’s voice at the door, telling me to go to sleep. Sam died almost 25 years ago, and it was nice to have him back for that instant.
Ah, November, we hardly knew ye. Wait—November?! What about October? Well spotted, eagle-eyed reader—I know you and many others have been refreshing this page daily in the hopes of getting your EMJ fix. Sorry to disappoint. Trust me, I feel bad about it. A two-year streak of monthly reading reviews broken, just like that. Still hope to catch up, but what can I say, October was a cluster. November was better, which is surprising since it’s usually one of the worst months of the academic calendar. This semester has been one of my lightest ever, though, a blessing since it’s allowed me to keep the rest of my life ticking along, just barely. I had a lot going on. My mother visited, the first time we’d seen each other in two years. There was Thanksgiving to celebrate. And leaves piled up steadily on our tree-lined corner lot, those things don’t rake themselves. But I read some stuff too.
Sarah Hall, Burntcoat (2021)
Preordered this even though the idea of “pandemic novels” doesn’t appeal because I’m a Hall fan. Burntcoat is narrated by Edith Harkness, a sculptor—the resonant title is the name of her studio—who, after studying the Japanese art of shou sugi ban (charred or burned wood) has become one of the UK’s premier landscape artists. Some short flashbacks describe an apprenticeship in Japan, but these moments are underdeveloped, serving more as a metaphor—the technique is counterintuitive, “damaging wood to protect it”—than as detailed reality. There are many damaged people in the novel, mostly those infected by a virulent disease, much worse than a coronavirus, that either kills quickly or lies dormant for years after infection. But the most important damaged person in the novel, certainly one who has been protected by that harm, is Edith’s mother, a writer felled by a brain disease that transforms her personality and, for a time, makes her unable to speak or write. She recovers from the trauma to become an outsider artist, whose experimental works are underappreciated until after her death. Before that she had taken her young daughter, Edith, to live in the Cumbrian fells. As always, Hall is great with northern landscapes, but where Burntcoat really shines is in her other area of descriptive specialty. Hall writes great (cishet) sex scenes—exciting, never cringe-y, hot. Quite a feat. The sex in this novel is between Edith and her lover Halit, a migrant from Turkey who works as a chef in a middle eastern restaurant. Their relationship has no sooner begun, though, than the pandemic hits and Halit gets sick. Burntcoat is about making and healing, about losing and grieving, about the depredations and losses of time’s passing that can also become transformations and developments. It’s a good if not great novel, a bit suggestive, sometimes more a sketch of something than the thing itself. Curious how it will fit in her body of work twenty years on.
Nastassja Martin, In the Eye of the Wild (2019) Trans. Sophie R. Lewis (2021)
In 2015, Martin, a French anthropologist with deep knowledge of the indigenous people of Kamchatka, was mauled by a bear while conducting field work. After initial treatment in Russia, she is flown back to France, and suffers from further, supposedly superior, operations and treatments, one of which almost kills her. She suffers, physically and emotionally. Eventually she decides she must return to Siberia, to learn, as the jacket copy of the newly released English-language translation has it, “what it means to have become, as the Even people call it, medka, a person who is half human, half bear.”
From the time Magda first told me about this book, I’ve been psyched to read it, devoted fan that I am of another book about a woman and a bear. (In that one, incidentally, the main character, a librarian cataloguing the books in a great house in northern Ontario, learns that Kamchatkans use the sharpened shoulder blade of a bear as a scythe.) Nathan Goldman brings the two books together in his terrific essay on In the Eye of the Wild. Even more valuably, he points out the central tension in Martin’s memoir/essay: on the one hand, she resists attempts to explain or understand her experience, whether the lens be therapeutic, medical, or cultural (one of Martin’s Evenk friends, for example says the bear left her, the friend, a gift by keeping Martin alive); on the other, she writes in a language of abstraction that feels quintessentially French, especially that of post-Hegelian (i.e. post-Kojève) philosophy: structuralism, poststructuralism, deconstruction, etc., language that values nothing more than explanation and understanding, even if only to resist those very concepts. Take this passage for example:
To be the human who sees the bear (or to be the bear who sees the human) is to embody reversibility: it is to describe a face-to-face encounter in which a necessarily radical alterity is actually revealed as the greatest proximity.
Let’s just say I recognize several tics of my own writing in this sentence. (And, yes, Nathan quotes the same line, but I swear I marked it in my copy before reading his piece!) I was trained as a theorist in the 90s, and I still have a lot of time for its insights, if not always its language (though I’m mindful of what Barthes said: between jargon and platitude, take jargon every time). All of which is to say I think I’d have loved In the Eye of the Wild even more had I been able to read it twenty years ago. The whole books isn’t as abstract as that quote, but it’s pretty abstract. I kept waiting for a description of the attack—the encounter as she styles it—but it never happens, not even indirectly, Grizzly Man style.
Some of Martin’s resistance to explanation stems from her experience on the land: “In the heart of these frozen woods, you don’t ‘find’ answers: first you learn to suspend your reasoning and allow yourself to be caught up in the rhythms of an existence entirely organized around staying alive in a forest in winter.” Some of it comes from her anthropological training. Elaborating on her friend’s idea that the bear gave her a gift of Martin’s survival, Martin writes:
I know that this encounter was planned. I had marked out the path that would lead me into the bear’s mouth, to his kiss, long ago. I think: who knows, perhaps he had too.
That “kiss,” I dunno. Maybe I’m just irredeemably Canadian, and want my bear kisses to be literal, or, like Lou, the librarian in Bear, to realize that however necessary the fantasy has been, when bears get kissed things have gone too far. Kiss feels a little dramatic to me. (Lacan: the word kills the thing. Kills it?) I’ve been presenting In the Eye of the Wild and Bear as opposites, and in their representational strategies and general MO they are. But they agree, fundamentally, that, as Martin puts it, “a bear and a woman is too big an event.” The challenges posed by the female-ursine conjunction aren’t the same in each text—which after all were written in different circumstances and in different genres—but both Engel and Martin consider what it means to be a self, and whether one sealed off from the world is worth anything at all.
Dervla McTiernan, The Good Turn (2020)
The third book in Australian McTiernan’s Irish-based Cormac Reilly detective series is skillfully done—less engrossing as the first but absolutely engaging. (I spent a happy Saturday on the couch with it.) Yet the police procedural is a genre in crisis—books about heroic inspectors and their harried, money-conscious superiors just don’t cut it any more for readers faced with the violence and racism of the police-incarceration complex. McTiernan isn’t immune to this crisis. She circumvents it by placing the two investigations at the forefront of the book against the backdrop of a larger narrative arc concerning police corruption. But then a wise and trustworthy superintendent of police has to step in last minute to save the day, which keeps intact the myth of rogue agents within a sound system.
Charles Portis, The Dog of the South (1979)
Ray Midge leaves Little Rock, Arkansas for Mexico, on the trail of his wife, Norma, and her ex-husband, with whom she has taken up again. Before she split, Norma palmed Ray’s credit card. Using the receipts, he tracks the pair south of the border all the way to Belize, which at the time had only recently changed its name from British Honduras. (I’d no idea.) Along the way Ray meets Dr. Reo Symes, a hard-luck case/charlatan whose medical license has been revoked for fraud and who has since poured his energies into grandiose dreams of developing an island in the Mississippi owned by mother. All he needs is for her to give him the deed. To this end, he’s on his way to Belize, where the woman runs a Christian charity, but the old school bus he commandeered somewhere along the way has broken down, and Ray is his only hope for completing the journey. Classic odd couple stuff: unlike the disreputable and excitable conman Symes, Ray is a pedant with strong opinions about Civil War strategy and plenty of observations about human behaviour (“Most children are close with their money”); the men squabble about most everything, including, hilariously, who invented the clamp—a guy from Louisiana or the Sumerians? Finally they fetch up in Belize, where a lot of dramatic things happen quite suddenly before events trail off meekly, in the way of many foolhardy adventures.
The Dog of the South is not a long book, but maybe because the quest itself never feels urgent (we get little sense of Norma until the end, except that she is both long-suffering and careless—the Midges are anything but a match made in heaven) the book drags at times. The first third is comic gold, though, real laugh-out-loud stuff, including some loving disparagement of Little Rock. Plus, Portis’s way with bit characters is unbeatable. My favourite was Melba, a friend of Symes’s mother who helps run the orphanage. A real hoot, that Melba. An insufferable Canadian hippie in Mexico runs a close second.
I listened to the audio book narrated by Edward Lewis (which is different from the version on Audible, FYI), and his intonations and pacing were perfect. Really hits that strange note between smart aleck and stick-up-the-ass that characterizes Ray. I only wish Lewis’s accent were more Arkansan. He avoids generic Southern (it feels specific, though I can’t pin-point it) but that weird Arkansan combination of flatness and drawl escapes him.
Andrea Camilleri, The Cook of the Halcyon (2019) Trans. Stephen Sartarelli (2021)
Grete Weil, Aftershocks (1992) Trans. John S. Barrett (2008)
Grete Weil née Dispeker was born to a privileged bourgeois intellectual household near Munich in 1906. Her father was a well-known lawyer, her elder brother a hero of the Great War; the family believed profoundly, tenaciously, unrequitedly in German-Jewish togetherness. As a Young Person, Grete palled around with Erika and Klaus Mann, Thomas Mann’s children, and climbed a lot of mountains. In 1932 she married the dramaturg Erich Weil; he was arrested shortly after the Nazi takeover and fled to Holland on his release to found a branch of his father’s chemical company. Grete followed in 1935: the couple settled in Amsterdam, where Grete opened a photography studio. Their circle included fellow émigrés Max Beckmann and Bruno Walter. After Holland was occupied, the Weils tried but failed to get to England. They turned their efforts to Cuba. The night before Edgar was to pick up their visas, he was arrested in a roundup and deported to KZ Mauthausen, where he was murdered in September 1941.
Weil was forced to give up her business—she lent her photography skills to the underground, helping to forge documents—and took a job in the Dutch Jewish Council, which helped her evade deportation. When her notice finally came, in summer 1943, she and her mother, who had been with all this time. went into hiding. For almost a year and half they lived on a mattress in a small space behind a bookshelf in a friend’s apartment. There Weil took up writing again—it had been one of the passions of her childhood. After the war, she felt comfortable neither in Holland nor in England, where her brother had settled. To the consternation of Klaus Mann, who tried to talk her out of it, she returned to Germany in 1946. She received her husband’s family’s pharmaceutical company as restitution (one of the only instances I know of in which that process actually did anyone any good) and devoted herself to writing, including opera libretti and translations from the English (including John Hawkes). She published various novels, collections of short prose, and memoirs in the years before her death in 1999.
Before coming across this book, I’d never heard of Weil, which surprises me, given my research and teaching interests, plus the fact that Godine published three of her books in the early 2000s. Aftershocks is the third, a collection of stories and memoiristic pieces about the long afterlife of the Shoah. I was not always gripped by the book, Weil does not seem the most graceful writer (that may be down to Barrett, the translator, not sure), but I admired her unwillingness to ingratiate herself with her audience. In this she reminded me of Ruth Kluger, a writer I also did not fall in love with straight away but who has since become a lodestar. I plan to keep reading Weil, not to mention (the ultimate test) teaching her, so look for a more informed opinion in several years.
Like Kluger, Weil was willing to think the Holocaust together with American state-sponsored racism. In a text called “The House in the Desert,” the narrator, a figure much like Weil herself, arrives in Los Angeles to visit an aunt and uncle who, having settled in America, are determined to laud the place as the land of milk and honey. Walking through the city—her first mistake—she thinks that if she were Black she would rather live in the desert. Even if the chances of getting away “if things really got bad” were slim, they would be better than in LA itself; the desert would be an easier place to run from. For she is an expert in running away. Even though the war’s been over for years she isn’t likely to ever forget:
As if you could simply put aside a habit that had gotten into your very fiber. Once a body’s picked up momentum, it doesn’t just stop suddenly. It doesn’t matter that there are no more Gestapo agents asking for your papers, that no trucks are driving through the streets to pick up people [her husband’s fate]; that no one’s ringing your doorbell at night, that the concentration camps have been turned into museums where cut-off hair and knocked-out teeth are displayed in glass cases, that there’s no reason to run away any more. The running away goes on. Running away from the name. when Auschwitz wasn’t yet a name, you didn’t need to run away, but who’s going to take the name back? Who’s going to tell me it’s not my hair, my teeth. They meant it for me.
She proceeds to eviscerate the white people, her relatives among them, who inform her, with useless regret, that “it’s not possible to solve the race problem from one day to the next.” Weil is nothing if not clearsighted, speculating, in a final text, almost an afterword, which is clearly about her own experiences, that “maybe I’ve remained alive simply because I didn’t witness enough. I witnessed the persecution, but not the deportations, really, let alone the horrors of the concentration camps.”
I’ve got another of Weil’s books here, and I’m on the lookout for her (as-yet-untranslated) autobiography.
Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety (1987)
Two couples arrive in 1930s Madison where the men, an aspiring poet from money and a newly-minted scholar from nowhere, have landed jobs at the university; the women meet and the four become lifelong friends. The framing action takes place in the 70s, when they gather in Vermont, as they regularly did for many years, to say farewell to one of their number, who is dying, furiously, of cancer, though that hasn’t stopped her from orchestrating their time together the way she always has. The narrator, Larry Morgan, the scholar, though he has left that behind and become a novelist, moves between the present and the past, unfolding the story of the couples’ lives together.
I read Crossing to Safety because Paul spoke of it so enticingly on The Mookse and Gripes podcast. I’m afraid I didn’t love it as much as he does (though I love how much he loves it) but I did appreciate a lot of things about it. The book really is about both couples, the women as important as the men (though I wanted more about Larry’s wife, Sally). Each marriage matters on its own, of course—maybe the most moving thing in the novel is the disconnect between what the poet’s wife wants for her husband and what he wants for himself, compounded by his deeply held wish not to disappoint anyone, her most importantly—but it’s really a novel about friendship: between two men, two women, and between two couples. As Larry notes (he talks to us, his readers, regularly), you’d expect a situation like this to get derailed by sexual desire: by someone falling in love with someone else, maybe an affair, a great smash of hurt and regret. But that’s not what happens: the book is much quieter, though there are plenty of things to grieve amid the joy they take in each other’s company. Stegner is good on the rituals of comfortable WASP American life. He’s even better on the natural world: though he is known as a writer of the West, he must have spent a lot of time in Vermont; he clearly loved the place. And he can do a fine dramatic set-piece: a difficult birth; a boat-ride in the Wisconsin winter that almost ends in tragedy; a last family bonfire, with delightedly screeching children sheering in packs through the summer night.
Why then, after offering such praise, do I say I didn’t love the novel? (I read it over a weekend, after all: it definitely kept my interest.) Not sure, but it might have something to do with the WASPs I mentioned earlier. Despite its insistence on maintaining connection and husbanding memory—the title comes from a Frost poem in which the speaker exults in protecting the things that “while the Customs slept/I have crossed to Safety with”—the novel felt remote. The characters tend to be arch and gay with each other—in this world, to be heartfelt is to be vulnerable, and being vulnerable for these characters is never good. I think it’s the complacent assumption of how life is supposed to work for (certain kinds of) Americans that grated on me, though this isn’t a Boomer novel, the characters are a generation older. And I definitely did not love the depiction of Jewishness (part and parcel of its chilliness IMO). There’s a disturbing scene early on where a striving Jewish husband and wife embarrass themselves at a faculty party—reflecting on how he and the others treated Marvin Ehrlich, Larry says, “Maybe we were all anti-Semitic in some sneaky residual way, but I don’t think so.” Well I do! Especially when he adds, “I think we simply felt that the Ehrlichs didn’t permit themselves to be part of the company.” I don’t see the novel putting much distance between itself and Larry here. Later there’s a Jewish son-in-law, a kind economist (natch) who stutters, literally tripping over himself to ingratiate himself into the family. Not crazy about any of that.
This was the second Stegner that left me ambivalent: he might just not be my guy. Haven’t tried Angle of Repose yet, though, which I gather is the masterpiece, so if I do go back to the Stegner well, that’ll be the one.
Garry Disher, Bitter Wash Road (2013)
Constable Paul Hirschhausen, known to all as Hirsch, has been demoted and sent to the middle of nowhere, three-hours’ drive from Adelaide, because he blew the whistle on some corrupt cops. No one likes him for having done this, himself included. Now he’s enduring the petty hazing of his new colleagues and keeping an eye on a mysterious person who is trying to frame him as bent. Then there’s a crime to solve, a murder made to look like a hit-and-run. That’s on top of the regular work he does: stopping desperate farmers from beating their wives and children, checking in on invalids, keeping the town quiet on football nights. Hirsch is a pleasingly ambivalent figure (he gets nicer toward the end: disappointing); Disher’s prose better than serviceable, with plenty of great Australianisms. He’s no Peter Temple, but who is? Recommended.
Natasha Brown, Assembly (2021)
The writer Olivia Sudjic bizarrely describes this debut novel as Mrs. Dalloway mixed with Citizen. The Rankine, yes, definitely (the poet is cited in the novel’s end notes—yes, you read that right). But the Woolf? Makes no sense. The action does not take place over a single day, various characters do not intersect by passing one another, the narration is not even in close third person (with the exception of a short initial section). Who cares about blurbs, I know, but my reaction to this description was like my reaction to the novel itself: I don’t get it. Bits of Assembly are really good: the descriptions of aggressions, some micro, some decidedly not, faced by people of colour will make you wince; the narrator’s boyfriend, able to be dedicated to a meaningful life thanks to great wealth, inherited wealth, wealth that comes in part from England’s colonization of places like Jamaica, which to the consternation even of immigrants the narrator is not from, knows only from family stories, is perfectly delineated: that foppish, well-meaning, smart-but-mustn’t-be-too-obviously-smart, knows-his-way-about-a-wine list insouciance that characterizes many English men of a certain class. The narrator, though, who works hard in finance, doing things with data, making a lot of money, more money than her boyfriend, he likes to joke—she is harder to pin down. She’s just been promoted, an event she has to share with another member of the firm, a white man, who is spiteful about it, muttering about “diversity.” Not even he can tarnish the good news completely, though, and she allows herself a moment to take a break from the endless climb up the ladder, a brief respite from the fear of having nothing beneath her. But only for a moment: even when she receives some lifechanging news, she can’t stop doing and worrying and putting her head down. Most immediately, there’s a party to attend, it’s not hers, though, she isn’t Clarissa, it’s a party being given by a Clarissa, her boyfriend’s parents, who are grudgingly tolerant in a way, I suppose, not dissimilar to the Peter Walshes and the Richard Dalloways.
Assembly is fine, interesting enough, but too short to make a real impression, not nearly as formally innovative as critics are making out.
Susanna Clarke, Piranesi (2020)
Most everybody loves this book, and most everybody is right. Or, I am like most everybody. My experience matches Rohan’s almost exactly: failed at reading Jonathan Norrell and Mr. Strange, donated it to the library sale, gave the new book a whirl, was captivated by it and convinced I should try her doorstopper again. As to Piranesi, I won’t say much about the plot, for that would ruin it, but I will say how much I loved the descriptions of the world inhabited by the narrator—called by The Other, the only other person he knows, Piranesi, a name he has adopted for himself, even though he is convinced it is not really his—a lonely place of sea and stone and shrieking seabirds that felt joyful and sustaining rather than bleak and damp (though it’s those things too).
In its unraveling of unraveled minds, Piranesi reminded me of Beckett’s Molloy but the better, if at first glance stranger, comparison might be to J. G. Ballard’s wonderful little story “The Autobiography of J.G.B.” (which you can read here if you can get the damn New Yorker site to work). Ballard’s text and Clarke’s novel are happy Robinson Crusoe stories, in which solitude is pleasurable and plenitude rules the day. Piranesi’s plenitude takes the form not of the physical things that wash ashore, as in Defoe, but of experiential connection: he speaks to his world and his world speaks to him. In the end, this communing is, indirectly, what does eventually bring loss into the story.
I’m not explaining this well, you really have to read the book for yourself. Piranesi lends itself to allegorizing, but it warns readers against doing so. It challenges the separation of human and world enacted by science qua knowing without romanticizing the numinous. It describes the life of those, like its author, who are shut off from the world (Clarke suffers from a chronic illness), yet who have gained something from that experience even if it doesn’t mitigate what they have lost. Mostly, though, it tells the story of a man who is alone but not lonely, a distinction it preserves even when the man’s life is, once again, turned inside-out.
Georges Simenon, My Friend Maigret (1949) Trans. Shaun Whiteside (2016)
Getting the hang of these Maigrets. The crime hardly matters, the outcome certainly doesn’t. Mostly Maigret just vibes. My Friend Maigret is pleasingly meta about this state of affairs. Maigret is tasked with showing an English colleague how he solves crimes, which incites some embarrassment on his part—he doesn’t actually want to conduct any interviews, or do any deducting, he just wants to hang out on the island in the Mediterranean he has escaped rainy and cold springtime Paris for on the flimsiest of rationales. For a while he does what he thinks the Scotland Yard inspector would want him to. But he quickly realizes that guy just wants to swim and drink and vibe too. It’s all very entertaining, and I am thankful to John Wilson for recommending it to me as an especially good installment in the series.
Charles Cumming, The Moroccan Girl (aka The Man Between) (2018)
Cumming takes on Eric Ambler’s favourite gambit—ordinary guy tumbles into espionage—and gives it a twist: his ordinary guy, C. K. (Kit) Carradine, is a successful spy novelist who is recruited to run an errand for the Service. All he has to do is pass an envelope to a woman while he attends a literary festival in Marrakesh. Of course, Kit gets more than he bargained for, and proves himself, in his naïve way, good at spying. Cumming has fun with the differences between espionage in fiction and in fact. At its best. The Moroccan Girl is pleasantly dizzying and self-referential while still offering the thrills and other pleasures of the genre. I’ve noted before that Cumming is great with tradecraft; I love how exciting his action scenes are without being flashy. (Every car chase takes place in a taxi.) Without being heavy-handed about it, Cumming makes us think about what we do when we read spy stories: Kit is never sure if what’s happening to him is ordinary or suspicious, whether an event is coincidental or conspiratorial. He’s an endless reader of events, just as spy novels ask us to be. Unfortunately, not everything succeeds in this stand-alone (though Cumming leaves himself the chance to write more if he chooses: this would be a mistake). The woman Cumming meets—and of course falls in love in, though at least that’s discreetly and non-cringingly handled—has been involved in an anarchist leftist Occupy-type group called Resurrection, which leads to a number of tedious scenes in which characters debate whether violence is ever necessary. In the end, the novel is ploddingly middle-of-the-road liberal, aghast at “excesses.”
Kiku Hughes, Displacement (2020)
YA comic about a teenager, Kiku, who travels back in time, finding herself interned in a camp in Utah. One of the other prisoners is her grandmother. Before this Kiku had known almost nothing about what her relatives had gone through—which means readers learn a lot, too: I now know where the expression “no-no boy/girl” comes from, for example. In the book’s most interesting development, Kiku tells her mother about her experience, expecting to be disbelieved, only to learn that the same thing happened to her. The mother calls them “displacements,” and thinks of them as a way to correct the shame and silence experienced by Japanese Americans in the decades after the war, responses displaced into the dive to become “a model minority.” (The book is good at explaining intergenerational trauma.) The comic is beautiful, evocatively illustrated—a cloud of cigarette smoke as enervated as the man who’s breathed it out; Kiku’s mother, eyes glued to the television as Trump stampedes to the Republican nomination, a study in disdain, all crossed arms and silent judgment. I must admit that even as I devoured Displacement I did say to myself, well this is all well and good but it’s no Kindred, only to be chagrined when I read Hughes’s hymn to Butler in her acknowledgements. Anyway, worth reading, even if you’re no longer a young adult.
Some perfectly good things this month, but not many standouts. Piranesi was the winner, I’d say. Here’s hoping for a more memorable December. I have several exciting things lined up, including some group reads. How about you? Did your November reading make an impression?
September. Up north, a great month. In Arkansas, as sticky and hot as August but with brown leaves. Having been back at work for several weeks, and having given the matter much thought, I can now conclude: sabbatical life is better. Returning to teaching has not been easy—I almost never see my colleagues; I miss the chattering clumps of students as they wait outside our offices for meetings, all now diverted to the screen; and I’m struggling to meet the freshmen where they are, which, as a wise, soon-to-be graduating student said, is sixteen rather than eighteen. The pandemic took its toll on us all, but on their cohort especially. The students and I had a breakthrough at the end of the month, though; maybe better times are ahead.
In addition to all that there were Jewish holidays to celebrate/squeeze into the demands of the non-Jewish world, scholarship deadlines to navigate, and home fires to keep burning. What there was not was much time for reading. Here’s what I squeezed in.
Georges Simenon, The Grand Banks Café (1931) Trans. David Coward (2014)
Short, even for Simenon, and vicious, even for Simenon. I think this is the first one in which Madame Maigret appears. She’s pretty long-suffering, isn’t she?
Tomasz Jedrowski, Swimming in the Dark (2020)
Moving novel about a gay love affair in early 80s Poland. Ludwik meets Janusz at a summer agricultural camp for university students—they are bused from the capital to help with the sugar beet harvest. Ludwik brings with him a copy of Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, which he glues into the pages of a less incendiary book, and the knowledge that he’s gay, which he has rarely acted upon. He’s immediately drawn to Janusz’s beauty—he comes across Janusz swimming after a hot, dusty day in the fields—but convinces himself his feelings could never be reciprocated. Still, mustering his courage and giving in to the other man’s teasing, he lends Janusz the forbidden Baldwin. Days later Janusz returns it, saying only that he liked it and could see why the authorities had banned it. Then he suggests they take a camping holiday after the season is over. The trip is an idyll, intoxicatingly depicted by Jedrowski, who has a fine feeling for the landscapes of late-Communist Poland, a place that despite its repression feels quiet and simple. But Jedroski cuts any hint of nostalgia short. Things get complicated when the lovers return to Warsaw: Ludwik struggles to have his dissertation topic approved by the requisite state functionaries, and Janusz turns evasive, unwilling to risk his career prospects in a country where the intelligence service regularly blackmailed gay men, even as he is torn between his feelings for Ludwik and his commitment to the ideology that had allowed him to escape his rural working-class background. I won’t reveal the ending; suffice it to say that the novel takes the form of an unsent letter from Ludwik’s exile in New York.
Swimming in the Dark is modest, less gorgeous at the sentence level than, say, Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You, but satisfying anyway. There’s nothing unusual about its style or structure—though I’m now keen to re-read Giovanni’s Room to see just how much how much Jedrowski plays with it—but its story of two young men, each blind in his own way, has a pleasing inevitability. (I learned some things, too, not least that Michel Foucault was caught in a honey-trap in 1960s Poland.) I look forward to seeing what Jedrowski, who has written what for him is a historical novel in what must be his second or third language (he was born in West Germany in 1985 to Polish parents and educated at Cambridge and the Université de Paris), will write next.
Sarah Perry, After Me Comes the Flood (2014)
A real tolle lege situation: browsing in my local indie while my daughter collected an armful of dragon books, I came across Perry’s first novel, which I did not think had been published in the US. (It was not, until recently.) I picked it up and read the opening paragraph:
I’m writing this in a stranger’s room on a broken chair and an old school desk. The chair creaks if I move, and so I must keep very still. The lid of the desk is scored with symbols that might well have been made by children or men, and at the bottom of the inkwell a beetle is lying on its back. Just now I thought I saw it move, but it’s as dry as a husk and must’ve died long before I came.
Part I Capture the Castle, part Molloy: I was hooked. I swallowed the book in a few short bursts, including the hot tired almost hallucinatory parts of Yom Kippur afternoon. A man, an antiquarian bookseller in London, is plagued by headache. It has not rained for more than a month. He must leave his cramped life, he sets out to stay with his brother on the coast of Norfolk. On the way, his car breaks down; when he ascends the steps of the first, solitary house he comes across, the door opens and he is greeted by name. He has been expected. It is all a mistake, but not one he finds himself willing to correct. So far, so satisfyingly Gothic—shades of Du Maurier’s masterly The Scapegoat. The house belongs to a solitary, ugly, motherly, sinister woman who has gathered a number of odd people around her: a former preacher who lost his faith; a pianist who practices endlessly in an adjoining room, breaking off only to berate herself; a young man convinced that only his nightly watch is keeping the adjoining reservoir from crumbling and flooding the property.
After Me Comes the Flood takes a surprising turn, though, in explaining its situation—how the household came to be, how the narrator could be mistaken for someone else—but in remaining no less puzzling and delightful. There’s an outing to the beach, a misunderstanding that leads to a crisis, and a final literal and metaphorical storm. And plenty of good writing—look again at that opening, with its fear and longing for movement, to the point of near-hallucination. And that strange line about symbols that might have been “made by children or men,” the addition of “children” making it unlikely that “men” means “human.” Do symbols made by women look different? Or are these scratchings of more unearthly origin?
Don’t sleep on this strange little book about interpretation.
Kristen Radtke, Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness (2021)
Radtke’s comic, drawn in shadowy, pained colours—even the reds and browns look green—is a hybrid essay/memoir about loneliness. A CQ call is what ham radio operators make when they are looking to see if anyone is listening. Radtke learns that her father, a forbidding, silent man she could never talk to, was obsessed with ham radio as a boy. Fitting, then, that his daughter would later experiment with the new technology of internet chat forums. Radtke describes a life spent looking for connection and fearing rejection, but her book is mostly not about her. The memoir elements are deftly handled—I especially liked a closing riff on the letters listeners would send to Casey Kasem’s Top 40 Countdown radio show in the 80s and 90s, in which they bared their souls about abandoned lovers, damaged friendships, family arguments, all of which they hoped to overcome by dedicating a song into the void—but they play second fiddle to her descriptions of a century’s worth of psychological and neurological research into loneliness. Radtke references the philosopher Hannah Arendt, the sociologist Robert Putnam (whose book Bowling Alone considers the drift away from civic engagement in late 20th early 21st century America), and the artist Yayoi Kusama, whose installations of mirrored balls respond to but perhaps also further human separation. She considers spinsters, cowboys, and so-called “lone gunmen.” She writes about how grief is processed on social media and how some nursing homes use robotic companions for lonely patients. But most fascinatingly she tells the story of Harry Harlow, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, near where Radtke grew up, whose research on rhesus monkeys challenged the early 20th century ideology that parents should be distant from their children lest they make them soft, weak, too easily attached.
But these humane conclusions stemmed from experiments that tortured his nonhuman animal subjects. Harlow separated infants from their mothers and reared them in isolation, offering them dummy substitute caregiver figures (the monkeys would cling to one made of cloth even though another one, which dispensed milk but was made of prickly wire, was their source of food). Later introduced into groups of ordinarily socialized monkeys, the formerly isolated subjects were shunned—the damage done to them was apparent—and abhorrent—to their fellows. In his most horrifying experiment, Harlow wanted to find out what would happen when the monkeys who had been so traumatically separated became parents. He strapped the females into a contraption he called a “rape rack” and let male monkeys loose on them. The mothers ignored their offspring, sometimes even attacking and killing them. Harlow—a depressive alcoholic who crushed the spirit of two brilliant wives—concluded that love is nothing but proximity. Touch and contact are central to primate flourishing. Perversely, the man who gave us these insights was unable to demonstrate closeness or kindness. Harlow’s life makes harrowing reading, but I won’t soon forget him—or Radtke’s telling in this smart and engaging work.
Walter Mosley, Charcoal Joe (2016)
My first Easy Rawlins PI novel—though I remember loving the movie version of Devil in a Blue Dress back in the day—and I see I’ve picked up the series deep into its baroque period. (The audio book was ready to hand at the library.) I struggled to get a handle on all the characters established earlier in the series, but the mystery occupied me and the character of Rawlins appealed. The book’s sexual politics are not great, though: both sentimental and a little prurient. And yet I enjoyed it enough—compelled by its portrait of the black counterculture of 1960s LA—to go back to the series’ beginning.
Cal Flyn, Islands of Abandonment: Nature Rebounding in the Post-Human Landscape (2021)
A forbidden area near Verdun where poisoned gas has been dumped into the soil. An abandoned research garden in Tanzania where the botanical specimens have invaded the surrounding forest. The green line running across the island of Cyprus. These are just some of the places Cal Flyn visits in her book about how nature reclaims and reinvents landscapes abandoned by people. There’s the zone of exclusion at Chernobyl, too, that’s almost a must for anyone thinking about this topic. But Fyn considers lesser-known places too, like the Scottish bings, mountains of stone chips—blaes, technically—formed from oil shale extraction perpetrated in the late 19th century. Or the abandoned fields of Estonia, where, since the collapse of the USSR, forests have sprung up, erasing the scars of collectivized agriculture. Or the Caribbean island of Montserrat, covered over by lava flows and ash in the mid 1990s. These are ruined but also vital places: despite having been harmed they contain much more biodiversity than the spaces humans inhabit. Flyn writes:
And yet everywhere I have looked, everywhere I have been—places bent and broken, despoiled and desolate, polluted and poisoned—I have found new life springing from the wreckage of the old, life all the stranger and more valuable for its resilience.
It seems that all the world needs is for people to get out of the way. Nature will do its thing, life will find a way. In this sense the book—written in accessible but not simple prose, Flyn writes a better sentence than most contemporary non-fiction writers—is a hymn to the possibilities of a world without us. But it rejects the consoling fantasy of human annihilation, rejecting terms like “pristine” or “untouched”—these are fantasy states, neither possible nor desirable. Flyn worries that her book is too sanguine, too suggestive of a future that will be good again despite our efforts to destroy the planet. She knows time is short if biological life as it currently exits is to persist. I can’t forget her description of the Salton Basin—a former lake created in the middle of California after the damning and diverting of the Colorado river, but which has evaporated leaving a desert of dust and toxic residue, now how to a population of loners, escapees, dropouts—as a denuded, yet not meaningless future. Flyn thinks of her book as a suggestion that all is not yet lost, and that if we can leave things alone, rather than always trying to intervene, the “natural world” will do what it does, namely, to persist, to adapt, to live.
I’d be curious what readers more familiar with what gets called nature writing today think, but I appreciated how Flyn consoled without flattering human self-satisfaction.
Denis Johnson, Train Dreams (2011)
As I wrote to reader, podcaster, and all-around good guy Paul Wilson, I had such a hard time leaving off the hilarious set-piece in which a man tells the story of how he was shot by his dog that I sat in the parking lot at school, in thrall to actor Will Patton’s delivery of Denis Johnson’s much-loved novella, until I was almost late for my first meeting. Which might make the book seem quirky, even feel-good—the misapprehension that this was some Coen Brothers-type mashup of violence and sentimentality had kept me from reading it sooner—but it is much stranger and lovelier than that. Robert Granier is a railroad labourer and logger in Idaho and Washington in the early part of the 20th century. His is a life of solitude, with the all-too brief exception of his marriage and fatherhood. It is an unexceptional but terribly dramatic life, which, despite extending into the era of television and Elvis Presley, is, as is true for most people, governed mostly by the mores and concerns of the horse-drawn years of his childhood and youth. Johnson structures his book around vivid scenes—a terrible forest fire, an encounter with wolves, a late explosion of almost overwhelming sexual desire—but the most vivid, the most terrible of them is the opening, in which Granier, for reasons he can never fathom, though racism and the instinct to join in with the actions of a group that the rest of his life is a reaction against are among them, helps some white workers throw a Chinese labourer accused of stealing from the company store of the Spokane International Railway off a railway bridge. The man gets away, but the specter of the violence and hatred unleashed in the scene colours the whole narrative. I feel like everyone loves this book—for once everyone is right.
Not a lot of books this month, but not a lot of duds, either. The Simenon and the Mosley were the weakest; the Perry and the Johnson the strongest. How about you? What were you up to last month?
A girl and a boy, one rich one poor, are the stars of their school in County Sligo in the post Irish Tiger years. They go on to Trinity College, Dublin. The girl, who had been shunned in school, becomes popular. The boy, who had been a star—an athlete and loved by all in addition to being smart—struggles. They get together, break up, get together again, and have lots of sex. Normal People offers all the pleasures of a happily-ever-after romance with a sprinkle of self-consciousness in case you’re worried that storyline is too simple or retrograde. I stayed up late reading it and finished with a satisfied sigh. And yet it hasn’t stayed with me; Rooney’s first, Conversations with Friends, is the more interesting book. She can be a little bald as a writer, but sometimes baldness hits the mark: “She [the girl’s mother] believes Marianne lacks ‘warmth,’ by which she means the ability to beg for love from people who hate her.” Yep.
Robin Stevens, Poison is Not Polite (aka Arsenic for Tea) (2015)
My daughter and I continue our way through this series. No sophomore slump here: this one is even better than the first. I admired how Stevens tackles head-on the implausibility of the girls coming across murder so often—and the psychological toll that takes on them.
Georges Simenon, The Krull House (1939) Trans. Howard Curtis (2018)
Julian Barnes’s piece on this novel has stayed with me, especially its opening anecdote about Anita Brookner, who loved the romans durs. When Barnes asked her which was the best, she was firm: Chez Krull. I’ve been waiting ages for this new translation to make its way to the US. (It’s sxcellent, though it can’t, as Barnes notes, get at the striking juxtaposition of French and German, domestic and foreign, in the original title.) I gave in and ordered from the UK. After all, you don’t mess with Anita Brookner.
I’m no Simenon expert, but this is by far the best of the ten or fifteen I’ve read. Near the Belgian border, at the edge of a small town, the Krulls run a shop and bar that caters mostly to bargees. The father is German originally but has lived most of his life in France. His wife is French (though she’s not a local), as are their three children, the youngest of whom is 17. Yet the Krulls are outsiders, fitting in nowhere, tolerated by their neighbours but not much more. Old Krull’s French remains poor, even as he is forgetting his German, rendering him nearly mute: he is a terrifying and pathetic character, almost as impotently knowing as the old woman in Zola’s Thérèse Raquin. The action begins when a cousin arrives from Germany, on the run in some unspecified way. It takes Hans only a few days to blow the Krulls’ precarious existence wide open. He seduces the youngest daughter, borrows money he can’t repay, bullies his relatives, consorts with “unsavory” locals. He does what immigrants are supposed not to do: he draws attention to himself. When a girl’s body is found in the canal, suspicion falls on the Krulls, and Simenon brilliantly depicts the sudden ratcheting up of amorphous dislike into vicious hate.
As chilling as I found the novel, I struggled to get a handle on its politics. In a particularly fascinating scene, Hans rebuts his cousin Joseph’s despairing cry that the locals hate them because they’re foreigners: You’re not foreign enough, he says, you’re ashamed of your foreignness. The best way to show you belong is to be sure of yourself, sure enough to stick out. Hans’s philosophy sounds appealing, but it might be more bravado than solution. A final chapter that flashes forward from the 1930s to a later time maintains the novel’s ambiguity. It’s clear, though, why The Krull House would have appealed to Brookner. As Barnes says: “Simenon lays out with ruthless exactitude the way selfish, conscience-free greed exploits modest, hospitable decency.” Sounds like Look at Me. Track this one down.
J. L. Carr, A Month in the Country (1980)
Thanks to David Kern of Goldberry Books for the chance to write for the store’s newsletter. What a pleasure to read A Month in the Country again. It’s perfect.
Scholastique Mukasonga, Our Lady of the Nile (2012) Trans. Melanie Mauthner (2014)
Grave, even somber Western about the rule of law. That might not sound exciting, and, despite some vividly tense scenes, this is no page-turner. But pertinent as all hell. I’m no expert on Westerns, but this might be the most “novel of ideas” the genre gets. In 1880s Arizona, in a mining town in the middle of nowhere barely avoiding utter lawlessness, the self-interested elite come together to hire a gunfighter nicknamed the Marshall to keep a lid on things, especially a local thug and his band of cattle rustlers. The bad guys have killed the Deputy, the latest in a line of short-lived lawmen. A former rustler takes the job and makes a go of it, despite the suspicion of the townsfolk and the scorn of the outlaws. But is the power of the badge any match for the power of the gun? Is the Marshall an appendage of the Deputy, or a sign of the law’s emptiness? (A self-appointed Judge, a drunk, helps us see the stakes.)
I read this with Paul and Ben, and I’m glad I did, because I don’t think I would have finished on my own. For me, the book was too gravid, lacking warmth; at times I found it hard-going. (I guess not every Western is Lonesome Dove.) But it swells to its own magnificence, and I loved the subplot about a miner’s strike, the doctor who comes to take their side, his nurse, whom he loves but who loves the Marshall, and a young miner who becomes a leader of the cause, a good guy who can’t escape his drive to self-aggrandizement.
Linda B. Nilson, Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time (2015)
Specifications grading replaces nebulous, often unstated values with clearly stated standards for what counts as acceptable work, that is, work that satisfies assignment and course learning goals. Students either achieve these specifications or they do not. No “partial credit.” They can revise in order to meet the standards and are given opportunities to excel (doing more work than other students or the same amount to a higher caliber). Spec grading makes learning more intrinsically motivated for students and reduces grading time for instructors. That’s the theory, anyway, as outlined in this book, which I gather is the standard on the subject.
Nilson is a social scientist and she writes like one. The prose is not enjoyable. And her examples are taken from fields far different from my own. I (sped) read this in advance of a faculty workshop on the topic, though, and was able to hear colleagues, including one from my own department, talk about how they’ve used and modified the concept. I’m intrigued. I’ve used my own take on spec grading in the past—using a portfolio system and avoiding grades on individual assignments. That’s great because students actually read the comments. But I see now that it’s not great because it leaves too much in the dark. By creating clear specifications I’ll eliminate unnecessary and probably stressful mystification. I plan to rework one of my courses for spec grading this coming year and see how it goes.
Rachel Cusk, Second Place (2021)
M, the narrator, lives on a property “in a place of great but subtle beauty” comprised mostly of tidal marshes; for some reason I took it to be in Norfolk but I’m not sure why. The “second place” is a cottage M and her husband, Tony, have fitted out where they often host people they admire. It also, perhaps, names the role the narrator inhabits, not in regards to her husband, with whom she has an often silent but profound relationship, nor to her grown daughter, who has washed up at the marsh with a man who suddenly decides he is meant to be a writer despite not having any talent for it. (Unlike the narrator, who is a modestly successful writer, though not one who ever actually spends any time on it.) No, it is in relation to a man known as L, a famous painter, that she is secondary.
At a critical juncture in her life, M had an almost religious experience at an exhibition of L’s paintings. In homage to that moment, which emboldened her to change her life (I am making this sound more coherent and psychologically motivated than it is in the book; Cusk is more mysterious, less reductive about M’s feelings), she invites L to stay in the guest cottage. Some unspecified event which has damaged the economy and shut down world travel—maybe a depression, maybe a pandemic, maybe some climate event, though the landscape of the novel seems fecund—prompts L to accept. (The art market has collapsed; he’s broke.) It takes some machinations for him to arrive and when he does he’s accompanied by a young woman, Brett, which puts M out a little, forcing her to wonder how much of her interest in L is sexual, though in the end she loves him in another, maybe more existential way. Brett, at first a pretentious nightmare, eventually proves a kinder and better person than L.
The plot, such as it is, centers on the way L disrupts M’s life. The details aren’t important; this isn’t a book you read for plot. You read it as an attempt to redress the state of affairs D. H. Lawrence lamented in his essay “Surgery for the Novel—Or a Bomb”: “It was the greatest pity in the world, when philosophy and fiction got split.” Second Place explores vitality: what it enables, what it harms, what happens when it fades.
I’ve read Cusk’s autofictional trilogy of novels about a woman named Faye, and liked them in parts a lot but on the whole not so much. The first, Outline, is in my opinion the most successful. Cusk’s strategy of having her narrator retell involved and largely self-incriminating stories given to her by strangers she encounters on a sojourn to Greece was exciting; subsequent volumes, describing Faye’s experiences at various literary festivals and the other promotional aspects of the contemporary writing life, were not. The trilogy does end with an indelible scene, though; in general, as proved again in the new book, Cusk excels in writing about swimming.
Anyway, I had no plans to read this new book, but then I learned that it was based on a section of Mabel Dodge Luhan’s memoir of her time with D. H. Lawrence at her ranch near Taos, New Mexico. For someone who wrote a dissertation largely about Lawrence, I’m quite ignorant of this part of his life. I do know, however, that the socialite and painter Dorothy Brett joined them, and that there was occasional harmony but more often tumult among Lawrence; his wife, Frieda; Luhan; Brett; and Luhan’s husband, Tony, a Taos Pueblo Indian. Clearly, Lawrence is a model for L, and M for Luhan; interestingly, there’s no Frieda figure in the novel. As Cusk notes at the end of the book, the narrator is intended as a tribute to Luhan’s spirit. Cusk appears less interested in Lawrence, apparently, though L shares certain aspects of the writer’s character: his coldness when he declares himself “done” with someone, his moments of sudden warmth, his love of and knowledge of the natural world, his aptitude for work. Cusk’s L is more tediously provocative than Lawrence was, though. Overall, she’s written a not unsympathetic but also somewhat offhanded depiction of the writer. More to the point, I don’t think you gain much from knowing the background.
That interest, for Cusk anyway, isn’t primarily biographical. (Again, this isn’t really a roman a clef.) Instead she revisits some of Lawrence’s preoccupations. Here, for example, she has M reflect on the idea of authority:
Only tyrants want power for their own sake, and parenthood is the closest most people get to an opportunity for tyranny. Was I a tyrant, wielding shapeless power without authority? What I felt a lot of the time was a sort of stage fright, the way I imagined inexperienced teachers must feel when they stand at the front of the class looking at a sea of expectant faces. Justine [her daughter] had often looked at me in just that way, as though expecting an explanation for everything, and afterwards I felt I had never explained anything quite to her satisfaction, or mine.
This riff on a key Lawrentian concern is not, in the end, entirely Lawrentian. He never undermined power that way, at least not in his direct statements. The indirect example of his characters and their fates, by contrast, certainly did. Nor did he think much about being a parent (he wasn’t one); his take on parents and children is always explicitly or implicitly from the child’s point of view.
More obviously in sync with Lawrence is M’s riff on the connection between insight and cruelty:
What was so liberating and rewarding in looking at a painting by L. became acutely uncomfortable when one encountered or lived it in the flesh. It was the feeling that there could be no excuses or explanations, no dissimulating: he filled one with the dreadful suspicion that there is no story to life, no personal meaning beyond the meaning of a given moment. Something in me loved this feeling, or at least knew it and recognised it to be true, as one must recognise darkness and acknowledge its truth alongside that of light; and in that same sense I knew and recognised L.
There’s more going on here than “don’t meet your artistic heroes” or even “art makes palatable subjects or experiences that are uncomfortable in life.” The idea that only a moment can hold meaning is juxtaposed, by the very form of the speculation, to the idea that meaning also inheres in a set of linked moments, a story. For this contradiction to be fully felt, narrative requires a form that challenges its limits. This is a task Lawrence and Cusk share, however different their solutions.
Other parts of Second Place are more purely Cusk-ian: aperçus challenging cultural pieties: “The game of empathy, whereby we egg one another on to show our wounds, was one he would not play”; “I believe that as a rule children don’t care for their parents’ truths and have long since made up their own minds, or have formulated false beliefs from which they can never be persuaded, since their whole conception of reality is founded on them.”
Is this book any good? Not sure! It’s short and engaging. Will it stick with me? I’m skeptical. In the end I am most interested in the book’s experiment with what happens when you add some of the elements of realism (developed characters, framed narration, dramatic events) to autofiction (characterized by a first-person narrator whose perceptions offer a scaffold on which to hang essayistic associations). How much of the former can you add without overwhelming or undoing the latter? And what would you gain in the process? Second Place leaves plenty of questions; the answers are unclear.
Susan Bernofsky, Clairvoyant of the Small: The Life of Robert Walser (2021)
Wonderful biography of the lyrical and snarky Swiss writer Robert Walser. My thoughts here.
Scholastique Mukasonga, Cockroaches (2006) Trans. Jordan Stump (2016)
Read this as background for my Mukasonga piece. It’s the first of three autobiographical texts, this one about Mukasonga’s childhood as a Tutsi refugee—first within Rwanda then in neighbouring Burundi—her eventual emigration to France, and, most compellingly, her search to uncover the circumstances of the murder of her extended family in the 1994 genocide. In this, the text both reminded me of post-Holocaust texts and felt different from them in ways I can’t yet put my finger on. One thing that’s the same, though, is the belief that testimony is a necessary but feeble recompense for loss. Mukasonga, who lost 37 people and keeps their names in a school exercise book she is never without, concludes: “I have nothing left of my family and all the others who died in Nyamata but that paper grave.”
I’m reading these in English and don’t know the original, but Jordan Stump who has translated this and subsequent works might be a better fit for her style than Mauthner.
Georges Simenon, The Carter of La Providence (1931) Trans. David Coward (2014)
I’ve finally figured out this Simenon fellow: the more canals, the better the book. Here Maigret is called out to the Marne department after a body is found in a stable at an inn next to one of the river’s many locks. Two boats are anchored for the night: a motorized yacht, captained by an Englishman, and a horse-drawn barge, piloted by a couple and an almost silent old man, who tends their horses. Maigret will uncover how these different worlds are connected. Along the way he bicycles at length along the canals, not always happily (“He had ridden fifty kilometers without once stopping for a beer”). Simenon was a boater himself—apparently, he wrote Carter on board his second boat, the Ostrogoth—which might explain why the details of barge life are so convincingly and engagingly portrayed. And Barthes himself would have thrilled to the telling because otherwise meaningless details Simenon slips into his prose:
But the barge men who had discovered the body and helped to fish it out had all crowded into the café where the tables were still littered with glasses and bottles from the night before. The stove roared. A broom was lying in the middle of the floor.
That broom! Those sentences without a single comma! Great stuff.
Robin Stevens, First Class Murder (2015)
Wells & Wong travel on the Orient Express to get away from murder, but guess what??? Stevens nods to Christie (Daisy is reading the book, just published when the girls take their trip) and just generally has a high old time.
Shirley Hazzard, The Transit of Venus (1980)
I can’t summarize this novel better than Parul Seghal did. (I can’t do anything better than Parul Seghal does.) “Two orphaned Australian sisters arrive in England in the 1950s: placid, fair Grace, who marries a wealthy and officious bureaucrat, and independent, dark-haired Caroline, who falls in love with the unscrupulous (and attached) Paul Ivory, while another man, the shabby and sweet Ted Tice, pines for her.” As she also rightly says, this is the kind of book lost on youth, a hymn to missed opportunities, regrets, second chances, and the patterns of experience that only become visible toward the end of life. Everything about Transit should have been catnip to me, and at times I thrilled to its scope and wisdom. My two favourite sections are about affairs contemplated by Grace and her husband, Christian (Seghal’s “officious bureaucrat”). In both cases, minor characters gain complexity that, in the case of Christian at least, might not make us like him more but that make us feel we can understand him.
And yet. Hazzard’s prose is so burnished it turns itself inside out and becomes obscure. Her narrative voice is knowing, sometimes effectively acidic—showing us Christian’s unrepentant self-satisfaction: “It was to his judiciousness, at every turn, that he owed the fact that nothing terrible had ever happened to him”—but too often unhelpfully clotted. Here’s one that could come from Elizabeth Bowen: “Provocation had become the basis of her relations with the world.” Many of these sentences turn on oracular similes: “His enunciation gave immortality, as slow motion makes any action beautiful by an appearance of control.” That last sentence could be the novel’s motto: it certainly takes it time, it absolutely presents control as an illusion when life is rather an accumulation of storms. But for me a little Hazzard went a long way, so that even though I sighed over the devastating ending, and turned back to see the foreshadowing the author had larded into its opening pages, I admired this book more than I loved it. I kept wishing I were reading Tessa Hadley, who handles the complications of middle-class lives, those with the luxury of thinking about encroaching mortality, with a surer hand—and syntax.
Mick Herron, Slow Horses (2010)
The Slow Horses are spies who have fucked up—made a mistake that cost lives, or could have; struggle with drugs or drink or gambling; just can’t get along with anyone. It’s expensive and embarrassing to fire them, so MI5 ships them to a sad-sack building called Slough House and sets them mind-numbing tasks in the hope they’ll eventually quit. Their boss is Jackson Lamb, a fat, sarcastic, mean spymaster who smells as bad as he looks. Lamb was a legend back in the Berlin days, but now he’s putting in the time, shuffling papers, firing off insults, and farting a lot. Or is he playing the longest con game of them all? When a white nationalist group kidnaps a British Muslim, Lamb proves a master at institutional politics and the Slow Horses get a taste of field work again. Are they up for it? Part A-Team (google it, young’uns), part manual on bureaucracies, Slow Horses is all winner. Herron cleverly teases us with Lamb’s character: suggesting he’s kinder and more together than he seems, then pulling the rug out from under our genre expectations. I’m not in love with the writing, but the dialogue pops and the plot is complicated without becoming preposterous. Good thing there are like six more. Rohan liked it too!
Georges Simenon, Maigret and the Headless Corpse (1955) Trans. Howard Curtis (2017)
In Paris’s Quai de Valmy some bargees—more canals: you know what that means!—fish a leg out of the water. More body parts follow, until the corpse is only missing its head. Who is the missing man, and who sawed him to pieces? Maigret solves the case less by acumen or diligence than by chance. [Spoiler alert, though that’s not really the point of this book.] Casing the neighbourhood in search of a drink and a phone, he enters a dusty local bar and becomes fascinated by the owner’s wife, Madame Calas. Calas himself is mysteriously absent. As in her own way is his wife, who possesses a blank self-possession that Maigret can’t help but respect even as it stymies him. The novel—at 179 pages, positively gargantuan for the series—becomes a psychological study of a character who prefers to reveal nothing of herself. Insight comes when Maigret meets a lawyer from the part of France where the couple grew up, a man as loquacious as Madame Calas is reticent. There’s also a nice bit with the couple’s cat. Another good Maigret.
Peter Cameron, What Happens at Night (2020)
Strange, beautiful novel about a New York couple traveling in an unnamed northern country to adopt a baby. They check into a version of the Grand Budapest Hotel—the book is part Wes Anderson, part Ishiguro—where the woman takes to her bed while the man drinks schnapps made from moss in the nearly silent bar. The woman (the main characters are never named) is grievously ill; she falls under the spell of a local mystic who might have wandered in from a well-behaved Dostoyevsky novel. The man dodges the attentions of a businessman and a chanteuse. This all sounds preposterous, doesn’t it? But somehow the book isn’t. It is somber and very snowy, but also light on its feet. And sometimes funny. You could remake yourself, go anywhere in the world, the man tells the morose bartender. “Only in this world? That is the only choice you give me?” Thanks to Twitter pal NancyKay Shapiro for the rec. (Bonus: check out the cover. Nice work, Catapult!)
Mick Herron, Dead Lions (2013)
More complicated plotting serving more organizational maneuvering within MI5. Not as good as Slow Horses, but I’m all in for this series.
That’s all, folks. A Month in the Country was the best novel I read this month. Those Maigrets were good, especially Krull House. Mick Herron is a light reading champion. Mukasonga is thought-provoking. Hazzard a force, if not always to my taste. And Clairvoyant of the Small is an impressive accomplishment. Do yourself a favour and discover Robert Walser. Until next month, keep reading and stay well.
Strange little month. Epic snow storm (20 inches!) and record cold snap (below freezing for a week, pretty intense for these parts) kept us busy frolicking in the snow and dealing with burst pipes. A week later 70 degree temps reminded us of the hot weather coming. I flailed in my writing, though I did manage to publish this piece I was proud of. As pleased to get my second shot as frustrated that my parents, in Canada, have yet to have even the first. Our daughter turned 10, a happy-making and bewildering occurrence. And of course I read a few books.
Georges Simenon, The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien (1931) Trans. Linda Coverdale (2014)
A group of men, friends since their student days, are haunted by past misdeeds. Maigret traipses around Europe to solve the case. You can’t expect me to remember more than that, it’s been four weeks!
David Shneer, Grief: The Biography of a Holocaust Picture (2020)
Dmitri Baltermants (1912—1990) was a Jewish Soviet photojournalist who took iconic pictures at Stalingrad and in newly liberated Berlin, edited a prestigious photography magazine, and successfully navigated life under Stalin and Khrushchev. Despite a long and storied career, he is best known for one photograph, which came to be known as “Grief.” Sent to the Crimea in January 1942 after its initial liberation from German occupation, Baltermants photographed relatives grieving over the corpses of their loved ones on the site of a mass grave near Kerch. These were victims of Nazi reprisals, shot when the Germans retreated from the city in late December. (They would retake Kerch in May 1942, before the Soviets expelled them for the last time in April 1944.) In the six weeks of this first occupation, the Germans executed about 7000 Jews, both locals and refugees from Poland and elsewhere in the Ukraine, turning a Soviet anti-tank trench near the city into a five-kilometer-long mass grave.
As Shneer (z”l) shows, Baltermants took several striking photos that cold January day. But state media seized on one in particular and made it central to Soviet commemoration of Nazi atrocities. In keeping with Soviet refusal to recognize the Holocaust as a Jewish tragedy, “Grief” depicts non-Jewish survivors and victims. (Jewishness is literally the photo’s invisible substrate: by the time it was taken, the region’s Jewish victims were already buried in the mass grave, with no one left to search for them.) Yet it was increasingly marketed and understood as a Holocaust photo, especially once it was exhibited around the world in the 1960s and 70s, where it segued from historical document to artistic commodity.
The photo that impressed so many curators and art lovers was not the one Baltermants first took. As he prepared his work for exhibition he was increasingly bothered by blemishes in the sky on the original negative. In keeping with the norms of Soviet photojournalism—in which montage and editing was an accepted, even admired way to tell a greater truth—he revised the image, producing a new one “by overlaying a second negative with an undamaged sky to replace the flaw in the exposure” and then retouching the composite. What this means is: the dramatic clouds, so central to the power of the image as it has come to be known, are from somewhere else altogether. (The actual day of Baltermants’s visit was overcast: leaden rather than anguished.) This needn’t be understood as falsification or ideology. In the conclusion to his book, Shneer argues:
the tension between documentation and aestheticization demonstrates why Grief is the ideal image to serve as an iconic Holocaust photograph. … Its inclusion in the icons of Holocaust photographs broadens what we mean by the Holocaust and chips away at the term’s parochialism and nationalism.
Shneer comments intriguingly on the Kerch memorial today, caught up in Russia’s annexation of Crimea, arguing that the memorial to the atrocities has both been reclaimed as a public Jewish space while still being embedded in a broader pan-Soviet context (Jews finally get to be recognized as a victim group, but only so much). But his conclusions about contesting Holocaust parochialism remain entirely suggestive. He never develops what this would mean and how to navigate the ethics of using a photo without any Jews in it to comemmorate a primarily Jewish genocide.
Grief: The Biography of a Holocaust Photograph is frustrating and disappointing, from its subtitle onward. (How can a photograph have a biography?) It flirts with being many things—a biography of Baltermants, a history of Soviet photography, a disquisition on the Russian art market after the collapse of the USSR—without actually becoming any of them. And cultural history/cultural studies, Shneer’s preferred methodologies, are not for me. I wanted to blame the publishers for falsely marketing the book as Holocaust scholarship, but the final chapter proves that Shneer wants to own the designation But he simply never convinces.
I feel bad saying this, as Shneer, who I met once and found delightful, as I think did everyone who knew him, was ill with brain cancer as he completed the book. He died weeks after its publication. But I also don’t think he’d want readers to give him a pass. So I’ll say it again: this book is a mess.
Dominique Goblet, Pretending is Lying (2007) Trans. Sophie Yanow in collaboration with the author (2017)
After many years, Belgian comic artist Dominique Goblet (or at least the version of herself featured in this brilliant comic) takes her daughter to visit her father and his second wife. While the father finds ways to disparage Goblet and insult his wife, the little girl amuses herself by drawing a picture of her friend. The step-grandmother—drawn by Goblet as half alien, half Edvard Munch Scream figure—remarks on the friend’s long hair.
She doesn’t have long hair, little Nikita offhandedly remarks.
But look at the picture, replies the woman, already disproportionately angered. In the picture she has long hair.
Oh, that’s just a character, says the child. (Precocious!)
Which prompts the woman, in a fit of Platonist totalitarianism, to rage: “PRETENDING IS LYING, IT’S LYING! PRETENDING IS LYING!”
Aside from making it chillingly clear how messed up the father’s household is, this scene also alerts us to the text’s interest in creation. That self-awareness isn’t cerebral, though. Or if so then only as a necessary, self-preserving response to strong, often violent emotions.
Pretending is Lying considers various moments in Goblet’s life, from her childhood with her blustering, abusive father and her creative yet fragile and, in her own way, punishing mother to her own life as a parent via the story of a once-promising but soon-floundering love affair. Although the father takes up the most oxygen, I found the mother more interesting. The same person who, by a magical sleight of hand, diverts young Goblet from a meltdown when she trips on the sidewalk and rips her tights (she whips them off the sobbing child and puts them on backwards—the child, none the wiser, is amazed) later locks her daughter in the attic on a rainy day when the restless child won’t settle to anything. This traumatic experience is juxtaposed to the father’s absorption in the 1973 Dutch Grand Prix, in which Roger Williams’s car overturned and burst into flame: only one other driver, David Purley, stopped and tried to rescue him almost by himself, to no avail. Apparently, Purley and the ineffectual race marshals could hear Williams screaming as he burned alive. The event is horrible, both in Goblet’s remarkable rendering and in this video, mawkish music aside.
The terrified child, the crazed mother, the raging father (a fire-fighter, he is convinced he could have saved the day): everything’s going wrong at once; the scene is one of the most harrowing things I’ve read in a while. And yet there is also so much tenderness in the book: in one scene, Goblet’s daughter is scared to sleep in a strange bedroom, mostly because it has a giant graffiti of a snarling man on the wall. Goblet tells Nikita, “You have to laugh at the things that scare you, you’ll see, it works with everything!” What follows is a lovely row of panels in which the little girl tentatively thumbs her nose at the image, giggles to herself, and falls asleep smiling.
As befits the book’s emotional scope, Goblet draws in all kinds of styles, from careful line drawings to expressionist exaggeration to washes of abstraction; she accompanies these images with gorgeously varied and expressive lettering (she hand-lettered the English translation herself). The result is beautiful; a book you could read many times and keep finding new things to notice, a triumphant rebuke to the argument that imitation is dangerous because it falsifies.
Andrea Camilleri, The Safety Net (2017) Trans. Stephen Sartarelli (2020)
After reading almost 20 of these, I’ve finally noticed how often the Montalbano books begin with the detective surfacing from a dead sleep. That struggle seems to be harder to overcome as he ages, as if Camilleri had been preparing for his detective to die. (I gather he deposited a final installment with his publisher before his own death in 2019.) The Safety Net offers more of the usual complicated to-ing and fro-ing and mixing of cases, all of which is mere background to Camilleri’s specialties: describing food and fulminating against Italian governments. In this investigation, Montalbano has to spend time with teenagers and that could have gone badly, but Camilleri gracefully lets his character value what contemporary technology allows rather than bemoan the hell it consigns us to.
Andrea Camilleri, The Sicilian Method (2017) Trans. Stephen Sartarelli (2020)
A meatier plot than usual, which turns on the similarity of dramaturgy to detection. What, Montalbano wonders, does it mean to be the one pulling the strings? And who is doing the pulling? The detective/director, or the suspects/actors? And where is the audience in all of this? Ends with a surprise; curious to see if this development is followed through on in the remainder of the series.
Rachel Howzell Hall, And Now She’s Gone (2020)
PI novel with a twist. Rader Consulting has a secret mission: most of the time its agents look for missing people, but sometimes they help people go missing, specifically women who are escaping abusive partners. Grayson Skye, newly promoted to investigator from desk work, is herself one of those women. (That explains the preposterous name.) Still recovering from a burst appendicitis (not to mention some pretty serious PTSD) Grayson suddenly has even more on her plate: her first case proves more complicated than she’d like (the woman she is supposed to find begs to be left alone—but is she telling the truth?) and the worst part of her past catches up with her. Very busy, this novel, too much so. The jagged chronology is more irritating than effective. Yet I still devoured it over a weekend, especially enjoying its depiction of some unglamorous neighbourhoods in LA and Las Vegas.
Brilliant retelling of Wuthering Heights replete with unreliable narrators in the Ishiguro mode. (At least three main ones, not counting many small instances of gossip and storytelling along the way.) The outermost of these nested tellers is Mizumura herself. At one point she considers the Japanese tradition of an “I Novel,” comparing it to the invisible, omniscient narrator more prominent in Europe. (I summarize badly.) The main thing I disagree with in this fine summary of the novel is the reviewer’s suggestion that this digression is dull. To my mind, it’s central to the book’s project. Are writers supposed to tell us about themselves or about others? To tell what they know (the truth, their own perspective) or what they surmise, imagine, make up (the novel)? If the latter, how do we do justice to others? Can we overcome our prejudices toward them? These are the big questions of narrative, art, and politics that A True Novel explores. The main prejudices in evidence in the story concern family background and economic status. What happens when those don’t align, as is the case of the Heathcliff figure, Taro Azuma, who is born poor and of “mixed stock” in Manchuria but who becomes hugely wealthy?
I know I’m not doing A True Novel justice. Suffice it to say: I adored the book, raced through it (even though it’s 850 pages), and was sad when it ended. In fact, I haven’t found anything to match it, even though I’ve read a fair few good things since. It was even more fun reading alongside some smart, knowledgeable, and generous Twitter friends. Shout out to translator Juliet Winters Carpenter, too, who has done amazing work here, as best I can tell. I’ll be reading more Mizumura soon, that’s for sure.
Joan Silber, Improvement (2017)
A novel with as many strands as a Turkish kilim, one which belongs to one of the characters at its center. (The point, though, is that there isn’t a center to either rug or novel but rather a web of relationships, some clear and some glimpsed only in passing.) The story moves from New York to Turkey to Berlin: the mish-mash of locales could have been a mess, but it works. Or at least it did for me as I was reading it. I was reminded of Tessa Hadley, Esther Freud, a little of Laurie Colwin, and talked it up on social media. But now, a couple of weeks later, I can hardly remember a thing about it. (There’s a good bit about a woman who visits a man in prison, I remember that.) I’d been keen to read Silber’s backlist but now… *looks at piles of unread books climbing like mould spores up the walls * probably not.
Francis Bennett, Making Enemies (1998)
Terrific spy novel set in 1947, when the West begins to realize how different the Soviets’ beliefs and methods are from their own. The rest of the great powers are trying to catch up to the Americans and create a hydrogen bomb. Britain, though, is broke and would really prefer not to devote resources it doesn’t have to the project. What if the Russians felt the same? Is someone in the government sending them coded olive branches to this effect? The novel has two plot lines: one following a widowed atomic physicist in Moscow; the other concerning a young British political influencer, recently returned, disillusioned, from Berlin. These characters turn out to be connected; Bennett convincingly melds personal and political.
This thriller is more chess-game/byzantine bureaucracy than cool gadgets/explosions. The best part of the book, though, is a section set in Finland, featuring a thrilling chase on skis. In general, Finland comes across very appealingly. As does Making Enemies. Well written without drawing attention to itself; complicated without being ridiculous. (Impressive for a spy novel, in my experience.)
In keeping with his debut’s ethos of modesty, Bennett only wrote three novels. I’ve managed to track down used copies of the other two (together they form a trilogy) and can’t wait for them to show up. Thanks to Retroculturati for the tip.
Sarah Moss, Summerwater (2020)
Summerwater is not as good as Moss’s two historical novels, Signs for List Children (2014) and Bodies of Light (2016), or 2018’s Ghost Wall (with which it pairs nicely), but it’s really good. The setting is a holiday resort on a loch in Scotland. (But because UK “resort” means some not especially amazing cabins in the middle of nowhere.) It’s the beginning of summer: the day is long, but not bright, in fact cold, rainy, and thoroughly miserable. The holidaymakers are questioning their decision. In a series of short sections, we move among several perspectives—a husband and wife with young children, a husband and wife with really young children, the teenage daughter and son of an older couple, an elderly couple who are the only ones to actually own their cottage. At one point each thinks, usually darkly, about the extended family of foreigners whose nightly parties torment, or bemuse, them. (The foreigners are variously described as Romanians and Bulgarians, but at least one of them is from nowhere more glamorous/threatening than Glasgow.) These sections are interspersed with even shorter ones written from the perspective of trees, birds, and animals. Even more than the human characters, these nonhuman beings experience the deluge as dangerous; the possibility of starving to death recurs.
As usual in Moss, violence—threatened and actual; physical, emotional, and sexual; hidden and open—is everywhere, not least in a dramatic conclusion. There are also many more ordinary events: the effort required to shepherd bored or fretful children through a wet day, the various negotiations couples navigate at various life stages, the secrets people keep from each other, especially regarding their fantasies. (A minor thesis of the book is that the older women get the fewer fucks they give that their men know their fantasies don’t include them.) I love how Moss leaves things unsaid: how exactly did a child’s shoe end up on the shore? What will happen to Justine’s health? What’s the deal with that guy in the tent?
My only criticism is that Moss’s control over the various voices felt uneven. The free indirect discourse changes to match each character, as it should, and yet the prose mostly feels the same. It sounds more like Moss than like any of her characters. I mean, that’s a contradiction built into free indirect discourse, but at times Summerwater exhibits a lack of control in a writer who otherwise feels fully in control of her descriptions of how little control we have over our lives. (I wouldn’t mind if Moss were a little wilder, honestly.)
A final word: the jacket of the US edition is gorgeous, a scene wrapping across front and back covers of a black loch against even blacker mountains with only an initially puzzling scrawl of red in the center of the image. The design is by June Pak, who I have now followed on Instagram. The image doesn’t reproduce well and I had to return my copy to the library anyway, and for some reason I can’t find the whole thing on line, but here is the front bit anyway.
Marga Minco, An Empty House (1966) Trans. Margaret Clegg (1990)
Moving and effective novel about the aftermath of the Holocaust, even better than Minco’s quasi-autobiography Bitter Herbs. Set on three days—June 28, 1945; March 25, 1947; April 21, 1950—it follows Sepha, who, alone of her family, has survived the war in hiding, and who falls into a hasty marriage with a man she meets in the resistance. He plunges into a career in journalism, she flounders except for an interlude in the south of France, entering into various affairs that she enjoys but not enough to keep up for long. Throughout she visits with her friend Yolanda, another survivor. Yolanda is tormented by guilt at surviving; Sepha is sympathetic but unmoved. Readers, however, will be moved by their relationship—especially its ending—for Minco manages to keep their disagreement from feeling schematic. To that end, she deftly uses motifs and time shifts, which challenge the idea of continuous experience without making a big deal about it. As its title suggests, the novel is filled with empty houses—whether the various places in hiding Sepha recalls, a cherished bolt hole in France, the new house she and her husband are set to move into at the novel’s end, or, most powerfully, her childhood home, now inhabited by someone else, to which she returns like a criminal to the scene of the crime—only the crime, as she reminds Yolanda, was perpetrated by others on the likes of them.
Hans Keilson, Da steht mein Haus: Errinerungen [There Stands My House: Memories; alternatively, My House is There: Memoirs] (2011) Hrsg. Heinrich Detering
Keilson began this collection of autobiographical fragments in the 1990s, when he was in his 80s and beginning to wind down his long-running psychoanalytic practice. He’d written three novels and some poetry, but that was long ago. A decade later, now almost blind, he returned to the pieces, pruning and ordering them for publication. With the help of the literary scholar Heinrich Detering—whose conversation with Keilson ends the volume—the book was released soon after Keilson turned 100 and had become the subject of renewed interest in both Germany and the US. (I wrote about Keilson’s wartime diary a few years ago; that book too is worth reading.)
In short sketches that make full use of the roving quality allowed by German-language syntax, Keilson describes his childhood in Freienwalde an der Oder, a town near the Polish border where lumber and small-time health spas were the main industries. Keilson’s father managed a store (his wife ran it ably, maybe better than he did when he served on the western Front in WWI). Keilson’s parents were active in the local Jewish community, although her education, in her hometown at the foot of the Silesian mountains, a place now in Poland, was much stronger than his. (Keilson recalls her prompting him for the weekly Shabbat prayers and describes his ambivalent feelings about her unselfconscious voice in the women’s choir.) Keilson was a sporty kid—there are some great passages on ice skating—and also musical. Both experiences came in handy later, when he taught at a Jewish sports club in Berlin and paid his way through medical school by playing trumpet in a jazz band.
Despite his late success as a doctor and therapist, Keilson had never been particularly scholarly, though he vividly remembers presenting a Heine poem only to have a classmate student object: a Jewish student reciting a Jewish poet was “fouling the nest.” That moment, in the late 1920s, marked the first time Keilson sensed the change that would envelope him, his family, and his community. The memoir is filled with little but telling moments like this. By contrast, Keilson says little about his flight to Holland in 1936, at the urging of his non-Jewish wife, and his time living under a false identity during the war, where he first encountered the orphans he would make his postwar analytic reputation helping. He does describe how he managed to get his parents to Holland right before the war and how they decided against going underground, citing age, ill-health, and general exhaustion at a world that had so betrayed them. They were murdered in Birkenau.
In the afterword, Detering asks Keilson if he ever thought of going back to Germany. He did, after all, continue to write in the language. Keilson answers that he couldn’t. The moment he learned of his parents’ murder, he stopped being a German. Moreover, he knew he couldn’t work as an analyst for German patients. Regardless of their personal culpability they would always feel too guilty towards him; that would be fatal for successful therapy. At which point Detering expostulates, “Das klingt alles so vernünftig” [That sounds so reasonable]. Keilson responds: “Aber ich bin so vernünftig, Heinrich, sonst hätte ich nicht überlebt! [“But I am reasonable, Heinrich, I wouldn’t have survived otherwise.”] Reason was a gift, a talent [eine Begabung] that he used to help himself.
This exchange gives a good sense of Keilson: a similar calmness and wisdom, maybe evenhandedness is the best description, colours these reminiscences. He writes about his parents as if they were people he had known long ago—not that he is distant to them, his whole life was ruled by their loss, but he is so fair to them, so loving in his equanimity, presenting their kindnesses and their cruelties (especially on the father’s part). Even a brief scene describing a time when, aged 10, he caught a glimpse of his mother’s half-naked body is anything but prurient. He and Detering talk a lot about what it’s like to be so old, so close to death. Keilson knows he had a good life, despite everything; knows too what he did to further that sense of satisfaction.
In the last section of the memoir, Keilson describes an encounter on his daily walk—he was 91 at the time and could still get around. Only a few hundred meters from his house he meets a child playing in the street. The boy says to him, matter of factly, You are very old. Keilson agrees. And how old are you? Three, the boy proudly responds. Without warning, he picks up his toy to run home, but not before pausing to yell, Where do you live?
Right near here, Keilson shouts back.
Just straight ahead, then turn left and go up the street. My house is right at the intersection.
The boy is satisfied. In the distance a woman’s voice calls him home.
Keilson walks straight ahead, turns left, and, at the intersection, finds his house, here, in Holland.
A lovely end to a lovely book of a lovely life.
I didn’t mean to read two books by Dutch survivors preoccupied by houses back-to-back: sometimes the reading life has its reasons of which reason knows nothing. An English translation of the memoirs was published in Australia, but I couldn’t get it: no library in North America either had it or was willing to lend it to my college’s library. Shame.
Barbara Yelin, Irmina (2014) Trans. Michael Waaler (2016)
Nineteen-year-old Irmina von Behdinger arrives in London in 1934, thrilled to escape her stultifying home in Stuttgart and excited to study typing. For a while, she lives with a host family. Later she is taken on by an eccentric Countess, a former Suffragette who buys her a bicycle and takes her to various Labour party events. One day, a distant relative takes her to a cocktail party, where she’s prickly and bored stiff until she meets Howard, a student from Barbados on a full scholarship to Oxford. They become friends—punting on the Cherwell, strolling through Hyde Park (where, as a mixed-race couple, they narrowly escape a gang of Blackshirts)—and inch toward becoming lovers. But then the Countess asks Irmina to find somewhere else to live—she feels obliged to take in a Jewish refugee—and Irmina has no choice but to return home. She settles in Berlin, putting her English to use as a translator in the Reich Ministry of War. All the while she writes to Howard, dodges the advances of ardent fascists, and angles for a posting in England.
A series of events conspire to keep her in Germany, where she eventually marries one of the ardent fascists, has a child, looks the other way at things she doesn’t want to deal with, and enjoys the advantages that come from having a husband in the SS. By 1942 she is a single mother (her husband is on the Eastern Front) seeking refuge from bombing raids and roughly answering her son’s questions about an impromptu auction in the street over the goods from an expropriated house (What are they doing? What is a Jew?) with Nazi vitriol: “The Jews are our misfortune.”
Decades later, in the early 1980s, Irmina, now widowed, receives an official letter from Barbados. The secretary to the Governor General, Sir Howard Green, writes on behalf of his employer: would the esteemed Mrs. von Behdinger consider visiting? The trip—centered on a birthday party for Howard’s adult daughter, herself named Irmina—is a mixed success. The past can’t be overcome, but old ties still mean something. Everywhere she goes the now grey-haired woman, in her sensible outfits, is introduced as “the brave Irina.” Howard has described her that way for decades, partly because he doesn’t know what became of her life and partly because he can’t let himself think about that life.
Hamburg-based bookseller Buchi, as she is known on Twitter, recommended Irmina to me, and I’m so glad she did. It’s smart, beautiful, moving: really impressive. Yelin’s delicate lines, and subdued palette (all greys, blues, and sepia yellows) demand that we linger on her images, even as the story pulls us forward. The panels create alternating rhythms, with regular small boxes interspersed with gorgeous two-page spreads. A fine afterword by the Holocaust and genocide scholar Alexander Korb fills in some of the historical background. (Irmina is based on Yelin’s grandmother, though it’s unclear how closely.) An excellent book for anyone who has ever wondered, How could so many ordinary Germans be drawn to National Socialism? Yelin’s answer is particular rather than general; it has no sweeping thesis. She never gives Irmina a pass, never lets us think, Well, she’s just an old woman now, no harm done. But she also has sympathy for roads not taken, missed encounters, and wrongs that can’t be apologized for. Check out Yelin’s site for more of her work: I especially enjoyed this short film about her current project, illustrating a Holocaust survivor’s memories.
A good reading month. A True Novel was the best, no question. That will be on my end of year list, I’m sure. But Yelin and Goblet, the two graphic memoirs, were great. Keilson, Minco, Bennett, and Moss too.
A few days of quiet, lingering feelings of winter break. (Eat the extra chocolate, have a glass of wine at dinner.) Then the fear and anger at the insurrection. Later the bated breath about the inauguration, the mixed feelings about applying for an American passport, the horror at the passport photos. Then calm: the relief, the joy at not having to hear a certain name. And then malaise, something like despair, exhaustion, ennui: no energy, writing difficult. Finally, the amazingly good fortune at being able to get vaccinated, thanks to Arkansas state policy of including teachers in the second group.
Among all this, of course there was reading, including a long book I’d long wanted to read.
Jean-Claude Grumberg, The Most Precious of Cargoes (2018) Trans. Frank Wynne (2020)
Strange little book that tells in fairy tale-fashion—it is subtitled “A Tale”— the story of a husband and wife and their twin infants who are deported from Drancy to some ominous point in the East. On the train, the woman’s milk has dried up; the hungry babies scream inconsolably; the others in the sealed railway car glower when they aren’t staring dejectedly into space. In a forest somewhere in Poland the man makes an abrupt, terrible decision. He rips one of the children—the little girl—from his wife’s breast, wraps it in his prayer shawl, and squeezes the parcel through the barred window. He cannot know that a peasant, a woman who has prayed for a child that has never come, will find the baby and raise her, over the objections of her husband and at risk to her own survival. How she loves the child, barters for milk, runs away when someone informs the occupying forces about the Jew Child—these descriptions make up the bulk of the novella, which is told in a quaint, implausible style. Even more impossible is the story of the father, who, unlike his wife and son, having survived the camps, stumbles into a village where a woman and her young daughter are selling cheese in the local market. Yes, it’s her, his daughter, he’s beside himself—his plan worked—but with a suppressed cry he leaves without a backward glance. And nobody knows, the narrator concludes, if they ever met again.
Preposterous and kitschy, monstrous even, this story. Yet Grumbach (b. 1939)—many of whose relatives were murdered in the Shoah and who himself survived as a hidden child—has a trick up his sleeve. In an epilogue he addresses an imagined reader who wants to know whether this is “a true story.” Over three pages he arraigns the question—why challenge the veracity of the story when so many question the veracity of the events?—concluding that fiction can tell a truth that history cannot. I happen to agree, but I’m unconvinced by Grumbach’s example. It lacks the sophistication of, say, Ida Fink, whose own short works incisively probe the limitations of the historical record, limitations that fiction can redress. I appreciate how Grumbach pulls the rug out from the heartwarming story many readers might have been moved by—but he’s too self-congratulatory and not all that smart about what his rug-pulling means.
Yishai Sarid, The Memory Monster (2017) Trans. Yardenne Greenspan (2020)
Novella about an Israeli academic who is groomed by the head of Yad Vashem—to whom the book is written as a letter after an eventually specified moment of disgrace; a conceit I’m unconvinced is effective—to lead Israeli tour groups through Holocaust sites in Poland. At first he works with school groups, but his self-loathing and contempt for/fear of the young people becomes too much, and he starts working with dignitaries, who care about photo ops instead of information. He knows too much, is the problem, and he needs to tell it all. But no one wants, or is in position, to hear it. The narrator begins to disintegrate, a process mimicked in the text’s ambiguous syntax. Here, for example, he is with his flock at Birkenau:
I stood before them over the underground undressing hall with the shaved roof, like a picked-over scab, underneath all rot.
Do the last clauses describe the roof, or the narrator? For he has become a memory monster, and as such must be banished. But it is equally true that memory itself is the monster. What is memory for? Does it cause more harm than good? Why do the visitors he ferries around—students, teachers, and politicians alike—say, with varying degrees of explicitness, that “to survive we need to be a little bit Nazi, too”? Sarid is excellent at skewering complacencies and false piety, whether Israeli or Polish. I agreed with so much in this book, was made nervous by the parts of myself I could see in the narrator. And yet The Memory Monster has not stayed with me. Maybe I’d need to read it again. For now, at least, I much prefer David Albahari’s Götz and Meyer, which covers some similar ground, but which has more to say than this book about teaching traumatic history.
Primo Levi, Moments of Reprieve: A Memoir of Auschwitz (1981) Trans. Ruth Feldman (1986)
Late work by the Italian master, a collection in which each essay focuses on someone Levi encountered in his eleven-month incarceration in the Monowitz subcamp of the Auschwitz complex. To call this a memoir as the English-language publisher does might seem misleading, but Levi was always more interested in others than himself. At first blush these pieces are primarily anecdotal, but they use obliquity and juxtaposition to create their own arguments. And Levi does open up about himself a little, although always indirectly, as we see in particular in his portrait of Lorenzo Perrone (the Piedmontese forced labourer who regularly slipped Levi extra rations), and in general in the fascinated way the essays return to allegorical stand-ins for the writer (conjurors, carpenters, violinists). I read this slim collection with some students and we agreed it packs a punch far beyond its size. If you’ve never read Levi, start with his classic first book, If This Is a Man but don’t sleep on this one. Underrated.
A weird thing: I don’t know whether the collection was conceived as such by Levi—as best I can tell, most of the pieces included here were in the original Italian, but one or two others have been added to this edition—a shame the Complete Works published in English a few years ago has such a terrible critical apparatus. Does anyone know?
Étienne Davodeau, The Initiates: A Comic Artist and a Wine Artisan Exchange Jobs (2011) Trans. Joe Johnson (2013)
Keith tipped me off to this in his year-end review, and I’m glad he did. The subtitle tells the story, mostly: Davodeau helps his friend, Richard Leroy, a biodynamic wine producer in the Anjou, prune, harvest, decan tinker, while Leroy reads the comics Davodeau assigns him, visits a publisher, other artists, a comics con, even the press where the books are printed. Each learns to appreciate the labour that goes into the other’s work, and to think about what it means to be creative, have a passion, challenge expectations, respond to failure. It’s a generous book (it helps that people are always drinking wine, though a running joke is how few wines Leroy will agree to drink—not because they’re not famous enough, but because they aren’t interesting enough for him). Oddly, the winemaking comes across as much the more interesting of the two enterprises. Maybe that’s not odd at all: Davodeau is a realist and realism has always shone at explaining how to do things. You’d think a book like this would be plenty meta, but because that’s not Davodeau’s approach (he’s no Art Spiegelman, though he rightly admires him) his own métier comes across as a bit dull.
Anyway, lovely conceit, beautiful drawing. My only complaints: (1) the translation seems awkward (a typical sentence: “Marc-Antoine’s garden juxtaposes the deep blacks and sharp whites of his books by the moving affability of its shadows”—moving affability??) and (2) it’s so overwhelmingly guy. The book includes almost no female characters, and doesn’t find this as ridiculous as it should. Maybe the idea of métier is gendered in ways Davodeau misses the chance to explore. Indeed, the whole idea of métier could be complicated in relation to capitalism. Is the idea of vocation one that capitalism promulgates to further enslave us? Or is it a challenge to capitalism? There’s more to be said here.
Peg Kehret, Escaping the Giant Wave (2003)
My daughter was assigned this for school, and we read it together. It’s a lot worse than Hatchet. A teenage boy and his irritatingly quirky little sister accompany their parents on a working vacation to the Oregon coast. (The parents are in real estate; their firm is holding a retreat for its best agents.) Everything would be great except the lodge is under construction and they have to stay instead in a rickety old place, also there’s a tsunami warning out for the coast. No bigs. Oh yeah, Kyle’s nemesis, the school bully, comes along too. (His parents also being ace realtors.) Thalia and I agreed that the chapters describing the tsunami are by far the best. Kyle and his sister, who have been separated from their parents for reasons of plot rather than plausibility, run inland and uphill, just as they have been told. Even so they barely escape. Who knows what happened to the bully, who predictably poo-pooed the safety instructions. Afterward I asked Thalia if she wasn’t bothered that none of the books she’d read for school this year were about female characters, but she ignored my righteous indignation, concentrating on the fact that the book was finished and she could now read something else. Escaping the Wave isn’t entirely pointless—I’d no idea tsunamis ever hit Oregon. But yeah I don’t recommend this book.
Caroline Moorehead, A Train in Winter: A Story of Resistance, Friendship, and Survival (2011)
On January 24, 1943, a convoy left the internment/transit camp at Compiègne for Auschwitz-Birkenau. Among those deported were 230 French women, all associated with the resistance in some way, almost none of them Jewish. It was the only transport of its kind to leave occupied France. Moorehead has written a popular history of these women, the best known of which was the writer Charlotte Delbo. It’s a big task—that’s a lot of people to keep track of—and Moorehead doesn’t really succeed. She wants to do justice to these women, fair enough, but it’s hard to write a group portrait when you’re beholden to an idea of narrative history centered on the individual.
I read A Train in Winter with four students and we agreed we couldn’t keep anyone straight. Perhaps more importantly, we were frustrated both by the book’s structure and its lack of analysis. The first half considers Vichy France, the activities of the resistance, and the deplorably avid willingness of the French security apparatus to do the Germans’ dirty work for them; useful enough background, but nothing Moorehead has to say here is new, and into this general material she has to shoehorn the clandestine experiences (sabotage, resistance, betrayal, arrest) of her protagonists. The second half shifts to the women of the convoy and their experiences in the concentration camp system (first Auschwitz, then Ravensbrück). It is more focused, more dramatic, and more successful.
Yet here the failures of analyses become most apparent. Moorehead asserts—to be fair, on the testimony of the surviving women themselves, whether in the interviews she was able to perform with the handful still alive at the time of writing or in written documents (Delbo’s books again playing an outsized role)—that women experienced the camps differently than men. There’s plenty of evidence to support this idea, but exactly how and why is more complicated than Moorehead admits. She relies instead on gender essentialism, though she vacillates on whether she’s quoting the women themselves or affirming the idea herself: “Their own particular skills as women, caring for others and being practical, made them, as they told themselves, less vulnerable than men to harsh conditions and despair” (that “as they told themselves” reads like a hedge—Moorehead cites no source here; impossible to know if she’s speculating or transcribing). She similarly makes general statements about group solidarity without telling us why they might be true:
those who came from recognized groups—the communists, the Catholic Bretons, the intellectual bourgeoisie—were team players … the French, as a national group, were more cohesive than the other nationalities, more prone to look after their own.
“Recognized groups” is doing a hell of a lot of work here. (The part in the ellipsis disparages rich Parisians as the most selfish of the prisoners—isn’t that a “recognized group” too?) And Moorehead conveniently leaves out the fact that as political prisoners, these women had a better (though still terrible) experience than Jewish ones, which surely contributed to their “national” solidarity. In fact, the whole idea of nationalism verges uncomfortably on the longstanding rootlessness canard of antisemites everywhere, not least the Nazis. As if that wasn’t enough, Moorehead too often implies that survival was a matter of willpower (“Even as the French women reached Birkenau, it was clear that not all would, or could, or would choose, to survive”—I’m allergic to this language).
I’m glad to know about the existence of this convoy, am impelled to finally read Delbo, and was fascinated to learn about the experimental farm at Raisko/Rajsko, a subcamp run by I. G. Farben where inmates (including some of the French women) cultivated an Asian dandelion whose roots the Nazis hoped to synthesize into rubber. (Conditions on the farm were positively human compared to Birkenau: the women slept in beds with sheets, were able to wash regularly, ate meals rather than watery cabbage soup.) But all told I regret the time I spent reading A Train in Winter. Moorehead has written three other books about fascism in France and Italy, styling them into a loose quartet. After this one I’m in no hurry to read the others.
Georges Simenon, Night at the Crossroads (1931) Trans. Linda Coverdale (2014)
Maigret is called to Arpajon, about an hour south of Paris, to investigate a strange crime. The location is a busy crossroads just outside town, uninhabited except for a gas station, the villa of a parvenu insurance salesman, and a cottage that a reclusive Danish designer and his sister have recently rented. A man has been found dead in the salesman’s car—but the car is parked at the designer’s house. His, meanwhile, has been moved to the salesman’s. The foggy, bleak atmosphere is good, but there’s not enough eating and drinking to make it a top-notch Maigret. Throughout, the inspector seems unaccountably weary—an emotion that might be ascribed to the near-ridiculousness of the plot. Maigret’s response to a kerfuffle between two suspects could describe the book as a whole:
For some strange reason, this entire episode had not risen to the level of tragedy, or even drama. It was more like buffoonery.
Mary Kelly, The Spoilt Kill (1961)
I had been spying on Corinna for two weeks; spying on her for pay.
Good first line, right? The narrator is a PI specializing in industrial espionage. Corinna is a designer at a Staffordshire pottery firm called Shentall. Its owner hires the narrator to find out who is passing on the company’s designs to an American competitor. As the opening makes clear, though, the narrator might not mind spying on the woman. Indeed, in a manner beguilingly at once sinister and generous, he soon falls for Corinna.
In Staffordshire, centre of the British pottery industry for two centuries, kiln is pronounced kill. A “spoilt kill” is a firing that’s gone wrong, preserving some blemish immutably, such that the product can only be smashed and thrown away. A spoilt kill is an expensive mistake.
There are expensive mistakes aplenty in this excellent crime novel, especially in the narrator’s mishandling of his relationship to Corinna, who doubles as the prime suspect and his love interest. Kelly uses the plasticity of clay—the way shaping and heating turns brute material into beautiful but fragile pottery—as a metaphor for the hardening of human relationships. In a typical passage, the narrator dissects a heightened moment with the object of his desire and suspicion:
The look she gave me then. Joyful, triumphant, and aghast, How can a look be all that at once? I don’t know. I know nothing, nothing. These moments, these glances, flash past too quickly for analysis. Besides, I turned away. One always turns away. If one didn’t, all would be well.
This is real Ishiguro stuff: a narrator trying but failing to understand other people, and, in the process, failing to understand himself. In so doing, he reveals to readers things he himself doesn’t know. We read “against” him, even if doing so doesn’t eventuate into any clear understanding. In this example, the tell is the narrator’s recourse to “one”—a failed attempt to universalize his own failure.
Here’s another unwittingly offered revelation, this time about the narrator’s snobbery. His cover at the factory—he’s meant to be writing a history of the firm—means he’s welcomed into the social life of its tightly knit workers. Invited to a party by a hale, conventional, but kind and lively young man, a favourite at work, the narrator is surprised by the man’s home:
The house was in good repair, spotless, decorated throughout in slightly off-key colours, startling, unusual and weak: ‘contemporary’ intentions, diluted by time and democracy, and even then imperfectly grasped.
Unpleasant, right? Interestingly, though, Kelly holds back from making him thoroughly disagreeable. For me, much of the power of the book comes from a female author writing a male character. Not that Kelly is breaking new ground here or anything, but I was struck by several moments I doubt a male writer would have included. Here, the narrator, who has been married before, takes Corinna back to her flat. She doesn’t feel well because she’s getting her period. The narrator settles her for the night:
How strange, yet how mustily familiar, like coming home after a long holiday, to light the geyser, run the bath, fill the hot water bottle, put on the gas fire, turn down the bed—to do these things for a menstruating woman was the fabric of marriage, one of its few memories that was not unhappy but quiet, neutral, steadying in its ordinariness.
I’m not sure, exactly, that this response is nice. (Maybe a little self-satisfied? What do you think?) But I’m fascinated by its inclusion. All in all, The Spoilt Kill is suspenseful, well-written, and interesting. (You’ll learn a lot—but not too much—about making pottery.) An unusual, and unusually successful, book. Kelly didn’t write much, but I look forward to reading more. Fortunately, the British Crime Classics series, edited by Martin Edwards, is reissuing another one later this year.
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (1869) Trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude, Revised Amy Mandelker (2010)
This one needs a post or two of its own. For now I’ll tell the story of my previous attempts to read it—and my fantasy of how I thought I eventually would.
First attempt, late 1990s, twenty-hour train-ride from Toronto to Halifax. I bought a lovely Everyman Library hardcover of the Garnett translation, with a forbiddingly unvarnished, minimalist dust-jacket. Like Charlie Brown in the tv special, I dragged it around a whole winter’s vacation (my girlfriend and I were spending Christmas with her family). I abandoned it pretty soon after arriving—in fact, there is still a bookmark at p 186 (Pierre has just been nudged into convincing himself he loves Hélène)—but I guess I read it on the train. I say I guess because the only thing I remember about the trip—something I do remember quite often, it was so remarkable—is waking up in the early morning, the train chugging through New Brunswick, along the Miramachi, I think, with absolute piles of snow flanking the tracks. More snow than I’d ever seen before (which is saying something). Snow towering on the rooftops, snow drifting almost up the rooftops, that kind of thing. It was sunny and cold, that sunshine-y cold that is marvelous and crisp but also really fucking cold—and just magical. We had breakfast in the dining car and my girlfriend persuaded me to order fishcakes and a pot of tea and it was absolutely delicious. Maybe I gave up on the book because I had the Russian winter of my dreams right outside the window.
Years later, now living in a different country, married, a father (I think, I actually can’t remember if this was before or after we had T—an event that destroyed my memory, possibly for good), I made my second attempt. Now I had a different hardcover, the Peaver & Volokhonsky translation, an even bigger, more unwieldy book—its size being, I maintain, the main reason I didn’t persist past the first few dozen pages. Not that I wasn’t enjoying it, but it was kind of hard keeping everyone straight, and it was the winter vacation (I associate the book strongly with winter, even after having read it), and so I quietly set it aside.
I’d see them on the shelf, though, those War & Peaces, and they just kept forbiddingly insisting themselves on me. I’d sometimes lugubriously think that if I were diagnosed with cancer or something I would immediately take them up again to be spared the indignity and wasted life of dying without having read War and Peace. (Of course when I did later have a cancer scare that was the last thing on my mind.) But as time passed and my current sabbatical crept into view, I concocted a plan, the kind that keeps you going in tough times, like when you’re grinding up a hill into a headwind late in a run. I would spend a week all by myself in the Canadian Rockies. It would be fall, late September maybe, the most glorious time in the mountains but one I never get to experience anymore because of the academic calendar. I would take only War and Peace, so I wouldn’t be tempted to read anything else. I’d live without internet in a bee-loud glade. I’d hike every day, admiring the turning larches, while also finishing the novel, I saw no problem there. I pictured myself reading late into the night after a simple but satisfying supper of all the things no one else in my family likes to eat, sipping scotch. (This is how I know this scenario was pure fantasy, I do not much care for scotch, it just seems like something I should like.) How this was all going to work in reality was of no concern—and when the pandemic arrived it became clear that I wouldn’t have to worry about turning fantasy into reality.
In the end, reality was less triumphant than imagination—but it had the benefit of being real. I did, once again in winter, though not in a single immersive burst but instead over eight weeks, sometimes more intensively sometimes less, what with all the bits of daily family life to manage, actually read War and Peace. And it’s terrific.
Paraic O’Donnell, The House on Vesper Sands (2018)
Enjoyable 19th-century pastiche, bit of a Wilkie Collins vibe. Unusually, it’s as interested in the supernatural as in crime—I guess you’d call it urban magic—though its alternate-reality, speculative aspects aren’t as developed as they could be. In O’Donnell’s Victorian London, certain women emanate a kind of half-physical, half-psychological vibrancy that select others can perceive. And now someone is killing them. It’s up to Inspector Cutter, a gruff genius with a nice line in cursing the limitations of his juniors; Gideon Bliss, a disillusioned divinity student with a personal investment in the situation; and Octavia Hillingdon, a tyro journalist, to solve the case. The House on Vesper Sands is that rarest of books: one I wish had been longer, so that it could have fleshed out the implications of its scenario. As it is, it has strong characters, who exceed the caricatures they initially seem to fall into and whom I can absolutely imagine carrying a long-running series, and excellent writing, which never feels forced and is often genuinely arresting. A mournful Ben Aaronovitch, a fantastical Sarah Waters: take your pick.
Georges Simenon, The Yellow Dog (1931) Trans. Linda Asher (1987, revised 2013)
In a small town in Brittany, a man on his way home from a night out with the boys at the local café is shot while stopping in a doorway to light his cigar. A mysterious yellow dog is spotted at the scene of the crime. The next day it shows up in the café itself. Before long—everything happens fast in a Simenon—bad things befall the man’s friends: one turns up dead, one narrowly escapes poisoning, one disappears leaving only a bloodstained car. And that animal keeps showing up: is the yellow dog a red herring? Maigret sorts things out, which mostly means avoiding reporters and telling the mayor to shut up. Great opening scene, decent ending: absolutely serviceable.
On the whole, an underwhelming reading month—except for War and Peace. Genuinely titanic, worth every minute. That Mary Kelly’s good too, though. See you next month.
I feel bad saying it, it is a mark of my privilege and comfort, but 2020 was not the most terrible year of my life. In many ways, it was even a good year. I have secure employment, about as secure as can be found these days, and what’s more I spent half the year on sabbatical, and even before then I was working from home from mid-March and didn’t miss my commute for a minute. Thanks to the sabbatical, I avoided the scramble to shift my teaching to a fully online schedule—watching colleagues both at Hendrix and elsewhere do this work I was keenly aware of how luck I’d been to have avoided so much work. I do worry, however, that I’m hopelessly behind the curve, clueless about various technologies and best practices; I expect elements of the shift to virtual will persist.
My family spent a lot of time together last year; among other things, I watched my daughter grow into someone who edits YouTube videos with aplomb. (At not-quite ten she is already the house IT person.) As an introvert, I found staying home all the time the opposite of a burden. (Last week I had to be somewhere relatively crowded, for the first time in months, and boy am I going to be in for a rude awakening when this is all over.) I missed seeing friends, but honestly my social circle here is small, and I continued to connect with readers from all over the world on BookTwitter. Most excitingly, I had a lot of time to read. I’ve heard many people say their concentration was shot last year, and understandably, but that wasn’t my experience. For good or for ill my response to bad times is the same as to good—to escape this world and its demands into a book.
But sometimes, usually on my run, I’ll wonder if I’m mistaken in my assessment of the year. I suspect a deep sadness inside me hasn’t come out yet: sadness at not seeing my parents for over a year; at not being able to visit Canada (I became a US citizen at the end of the year, but Canada will always be home; more importantly, our annual Alberta vacations are the glue that keep our little family together); at all the lives lost and suffering inflicted by a refusal to imagine anything like the common good; at all the bullying and cruelty and general bullshit that the former US President, his lackeys, and devoted supporters exacted, seldom on me personally, but on so many vulnerable and undeserving victims, which so coarsened life in this country.
I think back to the hope I sometimes felt in the first days of the pandemic that we might change our ways of living—I mean, we will, in more or less minor ways, but not, it seems, in big ones. I feel hopelessness at the ongoingness of the pandemic, the sense that we may still be closer to the beginning than the end. And a despair fills me, affecting even such minor matters, in the grand scheme of things, as this manuscript I’m working on—could it possibly interest anyone?
I suppose what most concerns me when I say that 2020 was not a terrible year is my fear of how much more terrible years might soon become. My anxiety about the climate-change-inspired upheavals to come sent me to books, too, more in search of hope than distraction. A few of the titles below helped with that. Mostly, though, reading books is just what I do. I am reader more than anything else, and I expect to be for as long as that’s humanly possible.
For the second straight year, I managed to write briefly about every book I read. You can catch up on my monthly review posts here:
All told, I finished 133 books in 2020, almost the same as the year before (though, since some of these were real doorstoppers, no doubt I read more pages all told). Of these 45 (34%) were by men, and 88 (66%) by women. 35 were nonfiction (26%), and 98 (74%) were fiction. Sadly—if predictably—I read no collections of poetry or plays last year. I didn’t read much translated stuff: only 30 (23%) were not originally written in English. Only 4 were re-reads; no surprise, given how little I was teaching.
These are the books that leap to mind, the ones I don’t need to consult my list to remember, the ones that, for whatever reason, I needed at this time in my life, the ones that left me with a bittersweet feeling of regret and joy when I ran my hands consolingly over the cover, as I find I do when much moved. These are the books a reader reads for.
Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove
My book of the year. A road novel about a cattle-drive from the Mexican border to Montana around 1870. Thrilling, funny, epic, homely. Characters to love and hate and roll your eyes at and cry over and pound your fists in frustration at. And landscapes to swoon over, described in language that is never fussy or mannered or deliberately poetic, and all the better able to capture grandeur for that. I think about the river crossings all the time. And those last scenes in wintry Montana. Lonesome Dove is good for people who love Westerns. It’s good for people who don’t love Westerns. Recently someone asked me to recommend a 20th century Middlemarch. Crazy, I know, but I immediately thought of this book, which, albeit in a different register and in a different location, is similarly fascinated by the webs that form community, and why we might want to be enmeshed in them. (A goal for 2021 is to re-read Eliot’s masterpiece to see if this comparison has any merit.) If you read novels for character, plot, and atmosphere—if you are, in other words, as unsophisticated a reader as me—then Lonesome Dove will captivate you, maybe even take you back to the days when you loved Saturdays because you could get up early and read and read before anyone asked you to do anything.
Kapka Kassabova, To the Lake
I loved Kassabova’s previous book, Border, and was thrilled that my high expectations for its follow-up were met. Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa, connected by underground rivers, straddle the borders of Greece, Albania, and the newly-independent North Macedonia. This book is about these places, but as the singular noun in the title suggests, “lake” here primarily concerns a mindset, one organized around the way place draws together different peoples. Like Border, To the Lake is at first blush a travelogue, with frequent forays into history, but closer inspection reveals it to be an essayistic meditation on the different experiences provoked by natural versus political boundaries. Unlike Border, To the Lake is more personal: Kassabova vacationed here as a child growing up in 1970s Bulgaria, as her maternal family had done for generations. But Kassabova seems more comfortable when the spotlight is on others, and the people she encounters are fascinating—especially as there is always the possibility that they might be harmful, or themselves have been so harmed that they cannot help but exert that pain on others. In Kassabova’s depiction, violence and restitution are fundamental, competing elements of our psyche. One way that struggle manifests is through the relationships between men and women. As a woman from the Balkans who no longer lives there, as a woman travelling alone, as an unmarried woman without children, Kassabova is keenly aware of how uncomfortable people are with her refusal of categorization, how insistently they want to pigeonhole her. (No one writes ill-defined, menacing encounters with men like she does.) People have been taking the waters in these lakes for centuries—the need for such spaces of healing is prompted by seemingly inescapable violence. I’ve heard that Kassabova is at work on a book about spas and other places of healing, and it’s easy to see how the forthcoming project stems from To the Lake. I can’t wait.
Kate Clanchy, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me & Antigona and Me
Clanchy first earned a place in my heart with her book based on her life as a teacher, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. She is particularly good on how we might teach poetry writing—not by airily invoking “inspiration” but by offering students the chance to imitate good poems. These models will inspire students to write amazing poems of their own, and offer students whose background is from outside the UK (where Clanchy lives) the chance to refract their own experiences into art. Clanchy is committed to the idea that students have things to gain from their education, if they are allowed to pursue one. But she is equally adamant that students have things to give to the institutions where they spend so much of their lives. Thinking about what a child might bring to her school reminds us that education is a public good first and not just a credentialing factory or a warehouse to be pillaged on the way to some later material success. It’s an idea that might begin to redistribute the social and economic inequalities attendant in neoliberalism.
I’m sure I liked Some Kids as much as I did because I’m also a teacher. Which doesn’t mean I don’t think non-teachers (and non-parents) will enjoy it too. But I do think Clanchy’s earlier book Antigona and Me is an even greater accomplishment, with perhaps wider appeal. Antigona is Clanchy’s pseudonym for a Kosovan refugee who became her housekeeper and nanny in the early 2000s. The two women’s lives became as intertwined as their different backgrounds, classes, and values allowed them. Yet for all their differences, they are linked by the shame that governs their lives as women. Antigona’s shame—her escape from the code of conduct that governed her life in the remote mountains of Kosovo, and the suffering that escape brought onto her female relatives—is different from Clanchy’s—her realization that her own flourishing as a woman requires the backbreaking labour of another—and it wouldn’t be right to say that they have more in common than not. What makes the book so great is what fascinating an complex characters both Antigona and Clanchy are. Riveting.
Andrew Miller, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free
A brilliant historical novel. My knowledge of the Napoleonic wars is thin—though having just finished War and Peace I can say it is less thin than it used to be—and I appreciated learning about both the campaign on the Iberian peninsula and the various milieu in England, ranging from medicine to communal living, that were both far removed from and developed in response to that war. (Miller has Penelope Fitzgerald’s touch with the telling detail, conjuring up the mud and blood-spattered viscera of the past while also showing its estrangement from the present.) But what has really stayed with me in this book about a traumatized soldier on the run from both his memories and, more immediately, a pair of contract killers hired to silence the man before he can reveal a wartime atrocity is its suggestion that the past might be mastered, or at least set aside. Reading the last fifty pages, I felt my heart in my throat. Such anxiety, such poignancy. This book really needs to be better known.
Helen Garner, The Spare Room
Garner is a more stylistically graceful Doris Lessing, fizzing with ideas, fearless when it comes to forbidden female emotions. Old friends Helen and Nicola meet again when Helen agrees to host Nicola, who has come to Melbourne to try out an alternative therapy for her incurable, advanced cancer. Garner brilliantly presents Helen’s rage at the obviously bogus nature of the therapy—and Nicola’s blithe (which is to say, deeply terrified) unwillingness to acknowledge that reality. Helen is resentful, too, about the demanding and disgusting job of taking care of Nicola (seldom have sheets been stripped, washed, and remade as often as in this novel). Emotions about which of course she also feels guilty. Nicola expresses her own rage, in her case of the dying person when faced with the healthy. In the end, Nicola has to be tricked into accepting her death; the novel lets us ask whether this really is a trick. Has Nicola gained enlightenment? Is false enlightenment, if it gets the job of accepting reality still enlightenment? What does enlightenment have to do with the failure of the body, anyway? I loved the novella’s intellectual and emotional punch.
Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants
Kathleen Jamie, Surfacing
Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future
I’ve grouped these titles together, not because they’re interchangeable or individually deficient, but because the Venn diagram of their concerns centers on their conviction that being attuned to the world might save it and our place on it. These are great books about paying attention. Whether describing summer days clearing a pond of algae or noting the cycles nut trees follow in producing their energy-laden crop, Kimmerer reminds us that “all flourishing is mutual.” We are only as vibrant, healthy, and alive as the most vulnerable among us. The past year has taught us the truth of this claim—even though so far we have failed to live its truth. Jamie observes a moth trapped on the surface of the water as clearly as an Alaskan indigenous community whose past is being brought to light by the very climactic forces that threaten its sustainability. Robinson imagines a scenario in which dedicated bureaucrats, attentive to procedure and respectful of experts, bring the amount of carbon in the atmosphere down to levels not seen since the 19th century. Even though Robinson writes fiction, he shares with Kimmerer and Jamie an interest in the essay. We need essayistic thinking—with its associative leaps and rhizomatic structure—more than ever. These generous books made me feel hopeful, a feeling I clung to more than ever this year.
Best of the rest:
Stone cold modern classics: Sybille Bedford’s Jigsaw (autofiction before it was a thing, but with the texture of a great realist novel, complete with extraordinary events and powerful mother-daughter drama—this book could easily have won the Booker); Anita Brookner’s Look at Me (Brookner’s breakout: like Bowen with clearer syntax and even more damaged—and damaging—characters); William Maxwell, They Came Like Swallows (a sensitive boy, abruptly faced with loss; a loving mother and a distant father; a close community that is more dangerous than it lets on: we’ve read this story before, but Maxwell makes it fresh and wondering).
Stone cold classic classics:Buddenbrooks (not as heavy as it sounds), Howells’s Indian Summer (expatriate heartache, rue, wit).
Thoroughly enjoyed, learned a lot (especially about hair): Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah
Best deep dive: I read four novels by Tessa Hadley this year, two early ones and the two most recent. Since I’ve read a few of her books before I now only have two more to go before I’ve finished them all. That will be a sad day, though with luck we will get a new one before too long. Hadley has been good from the start, but The Past and Late in the Day show her hitting new heights of wisdom and economy. Her characters are arty types or professionals who learn things they don’t always like about what they desire, especially since those desires they are so convinced by often turn out later to have been wrongheaded (like Proust’s Swann, they spend their lives running after women who are not their types, except “women” here includes men, friends, careers, family life, their very sense of self). I can imagine the future day when young literary hipsters rediscover Hadley’s books and wonder why she wasn’t one of the most famous writers of her time.
Did not totally love at the time, but bits and pieces of which would not quite let me alone: Tim Maugham’s Infinite Detail (struck especially by the plight of people joined by contemporary technology when that technology fails: what is online love when the internet disappears?); Henri Bosco’s Malicroix translated by Joyce Zonana (so glad this is finally in English; even if I was not head-over-heels with it, I’ll never forget its descriptions of weather. Do you like wind? Have I got a book for you!).
Loved at the time but then a conversation with a friend made me rethink: Paulette Jiles’s The News of the World. I was a big fan of this book back in the spring—and its rendering on audio book, beautifully rendered by a gravelly-voiced Grover Gardner—and I still think on it fondly. But a Twitter friend argued that its portrayal of a girl “rescued” from the Kiowa who had taken her, years earlier, in a raid is racist. I responded that the novel is aware of the pitfalls of its scenario, but now I’m not so sure.
Maybe not earth-shattering, but deeply satisfying: Lissa Evans’s V for Victory, Clare Chambers’s Small Pleasures, two novels that deserve more readers, especially in the US, where, as far as I know, neither has yet been published.
Best Parul Seghal recommendation: Seghal elicits some of the feelings in middle-aged me that Sontag did to my 20-year-old self, with the difference that I now have the wherewithal to read Seghal’s recommendations in a way I did not with Sontag’s. Anyway, I’ll follow her pretty much anywhere, which sometimes leads me to writers I would otherwise have passed on. Exhibit A in 2020 was Barbara Demnick, whose Eat the Buddha is about heartrending resistance, often involving self-immolation, bred by China’s oppression of Tibetans. In addition to its political and historical material, this is an excellent book about landscape and about modern surveillance technology.
Ones to watch out for (best debuts): Naoisie Dolan’s Exciting Times; Megha Majumdar’s A Burning; and Hilary Leichter’s Temporary. Have I ever mentioned that Leichter was once my student?
Longest book: Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. Almost 1500 pages of easy reading pleasure that I look on with affection (perhaps more than when I first finished it) rather than love. Although now that I have finished War & Peace I see that Seth frequently nods to it. Wolf hunts!
Longest book (runner up): Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend A mere 900-pager. As I said back in November, “I read it mostly with pleasure and always with interest, but not avidly or joyfully.” Most interesting as a story about “revenants and ghosts, about corpses that don’t stay hidden, about material (junk, trash, ordure, tidal gunk, or whatever the hell “dust” is supposed to be) that never comes to the end of its life, being neither waste nor useful, or, rather, both.” Happy to have read it, but don’t foresee reading it again anytime soon.
Slow burn: Magda Szabó, Abigail (translated by Len Rix). Bit irritated by this at first but then realized the joke was on me—the narrator’s self-absorption is a function of her ignorance. All-too soon ignorance becomes experience. Not as gloriously defiant as The Door, but worth your time.
Frustrating: Carys Davies, West. Ostensibly revisionist western that disappoints in its hackneyed indigenous characters. I do still think of bits of it almost a year later, though, so it’s not all bad.
Left me cold: James Alan McPherson, Hue and Cry; Fleur Jaeggy, These Possible Lives (translated by Minna Zallman Procter); Ricarda Huch, The Last Summer (translated by Jamie Bulloch) (the last is almost parodically my perfect book title, which might have heightened my disappointment).
Not for me, this time around (stalled out maybe 100 pages into each):The Corner That Held Them; Justine; The Raj Quartet; Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight. Promise to try these again another time.
Stinkers: Géraldine Schwarz, Those Who Forget: My Family’s Story in Nazi Europe—A Memoir, a History, a Warning (translated by Laura Marris); Jessica Moor, The Keeper; Patrick DeWitt, French Exit; Ian Rankin, A Song for the Dark Times
Writer I read a lot of, mostly very much enjoying and yet whose books do not stay with me: Annie Ernaux. I suspect to really take her measure I would need to re-read her, or, better yet, teach her, which I might do next year, using Happening. As I said in regards to the latest Sigrid Nunez, I think I do not have the right critical training to fully appreciate autofiction. I enjoy reading it, but I cannot fix on it, somehow.
Good crime fiction: Above all, Liz Moore’s Long Bright River, an impressive inversion of the procedural. Honorable mentions: Susie Steiner; Marcie R. Rendon; Ann Cleeves, The Long Call (awaiting the sequel impatiently); Tana French, The Searcher; Simenon’s The Flemish House (the atmosphere, the ending: good stuff). In spy fiction, I enjoyed three books by Charles Cumming, and will read more. In general, though, this was an off-year for crime fiction for me. What I read mostly seemed dull, average. Maybe I’ve read too much the last decade or so?
Inspiring for my work in progress: Daniel Mendelsohn’s Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate. Mendelsohn excels at structure—and in these three linked lectures he tackles the subject head on.
Best Holocaust books (primary sources): I was taken by two memoirs of Jewish women who hid in Berlin during the war: Marie Jalowicz Simon’s Underground in Berlin (translated by Anthea Bell) and Inge Deutschkron’s Outcast: A Jewish Girl in Wartime Berlin (translated by Jean Steinberg). Gerda Weissmann Klein’s memoir All But my Life is worthwhile, with a relatively rare emphasis on forced labour camps. In her novel Other People’s Houses, closely based on her own experience as a child brought from Vienna to England on the Kindertransport, Lore Segal takes no prisoners. Uri Shulevitz’s illustrated memoir, Chance: Escape from the Holocaust, is thoroughly engrossing, plus it shines a spotlight on the experience of Jewish refugees in Central Asia. Of all these documents, I was perhaps most moved by the life of Lilli Jahn, a promising doctor abandoned in the early war years by her non-Jewish husband, as told by her grandson Martin Doerry through copious use of family letters. My Wounded Heart: The Life of Lilli Jahn, 1900 – 1944 (translated by John Brownjohn) uses those documents to powerful effect, showing how gamely her children fended for themselves and how movingly Jahn, arrested by an official with a grudge, contrary to Nazi law that excepted Jewish parents of non or half-Jewish children from deportation, hid her suffering from them.
Best Holocaust books (secondary sources): I was bowled over by Mark Roseman’s Lives Reclaimed: A Story of Rescue and Resistance in Nazi Germany. Fascinating material, elegantly presented, striking the perfect balance between historical detail and theoretical reflection. To read is to think differently about our misguided ideas of what rescue and resistance meant both in the time of National Socialism and also today. His earlier work, A Past in Hiding: Memory and Survival in Nazi Germany, which focuses on a part of the larger story told in the new book, is also excellent. Omer Bartov’s Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz is another fine example of the particular used to generate general conclusions. Considering the fate of the Galician town of his ancestors in the first half of the 20th century, Bartov uses the history of Buczacz, as I put it back in January, “to show the intimacy of violence in the so-called Bloodlands of Eastern Europe in the 20th century. In his telling there was a seemingly ineluctable drive on the part of almost every group to reduce the region’s cultural diversity, and that much of the violence required to do so was perpetrated by one neighbour against another.” Dan Stone’s Concentration Camps: A Very Short Introduction does exactly what the title offers. It covers an impressive amount of material—Nazi and Stalinist camps feature most prominently, no surprise, but they are by no means the sole focus—in only a few pages. Rebecca Clifford’s Survivors: Children’s Lives after the Holocaust skillfully combines archival and anthropological material (interviews with twenty child survivors) to show how much effort postwar helpers, despite their best intentions, put into taking away the agency of these young people.
Because my sense of how long things will take me to do is so terrible (it’s terrible), I’m always making plans I can’t keep. I should either stop or become more of a time realist. I do have a couple of group readings lined up for the first part of the year: Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel in February, and L. P. Hartley’s Eustace and Hilda trilogy in March. I’ve enjoyed, these past months, having a long classic on the go, and will keep that up until the end of my sabbatical. Having just completed War and Peace—guaranteed to be on this list in a year’s time—I might read more Russians. We’ll see. I want to read more Spanish-language literature—though I’ve been saying that for years and mostly not doing it. I want to read more writers of colour, especially African American writers. I took a course in college but have so many gaps to fill. I’m reading more nonfiction with greater pleasure than ever before—the surest sign of middle age I know; I’m sure that will continue in 2021. I read almost no comics/graphic novels last year, unusual for me, but I’m already rectifying that omission. I’ll read more science fiction in 2021, I suspect; it feels vital in a way crime fiction hasn’t much, lately. My two prime candidates for “deep dives” this year are Edith Wharton and Toni Morrison. Now that I am an American I should know the literature better!
What I’ll probably do, though, is butterfly my way through the reading year, getting distracted by shiny new books and genre fiction and things that aren’t yet even on my radar. No matter what, though, I’ll keep talking about it with you. That is, I’ll put my thoughts out here, and hope you’ll find something useful in them, and maybe even that you’ll be moved to share your own with me. Thanks to all my readers. Your comments and reactions and opinions—that connection—means everything to me.
August. Well, it was better than July. After much hand-wringing over safety and ethics, we took a short vacation to Colorado, to assuage some of our sadness at missing our time in the Canadian Rockies. We were amazed at how different Colorado is from Alberta, alternately enjoyed and suffered the long drive from Missouri (where we’d been staying), got in some good hiking, and marveled at how much cheaper holidays are when you don’t go out to eat or buy any souvenirs. Immediately after returning, though, it was right into a new routine: both my wife and my daughter are attending school remotely (Zoom rules our lives); I’m trying to write a little each day and not be too cruel to myself about the quality or quantity or even the topic. Some days I simmer in rage at the needlessness of this all (we didn’t have to experience this pandemic this way); on others I make the best of it. And I get my reading time in whenever I can.
Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy (1993)
Possibly the longest single-volume novel I have ever read (almost 1500 pages, sometimes I laughed just at the size of it). I did not read it all in August. In fact, I’ve been working on it since March or April. I could have read faster, no doubt—I set it aside for long stretches—and that might have made me a better reader. But the book lends itself to slowness—its many parts, divided into short chapters, provide plenty of places to pause, even as they also offer a reason to keep going (“I can read ten more pages”).
The setting is India in the early 1950s, mostly in the cities of Brahmpur and Calcutta (only the latter of which is real), but with forays into the countryside. Lata Mehra needs to be married—at least according to her mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra (as she is typically named by the gently teasing omniscient narrative voice). But which boy will be suitable? Focused on four interlocking families, the novel offers plenty of possible choices. (The resolution surprised me, but after a moment’s reflection I accepted its rightness.) Sensible, intelligent Lata is perhaps the most sympathetic character in a book filled with them. (I did like its kindness.) A few are caricatures, but most are well-rounded and interestingly changeable. Seth’s vision is heavy on the “foibles of human nature”—if this isn’t your thing, this book isn’t for you. It’s old fashioned, dipping occasionally into free indirect discourse, but more often relying on a wise, almost arch omniscience. That retro quality feels a bit stagey—I’m not sure it has the convictions of its 19th century heart—but that could just be because the 90s now feel a little impossible. (To me, they are what the 70s were to the 90s: embarrassing. Since the 70s now seem amazing, the book, like the decade in which it was published, may age well.)
Something A Suitable Boydoes share with Victorian triple-deckers is a delight in instruction. I learned so much from this book, from all kinds of Indian vocabulary (mostly Hindi but sometimes Urdu words) to the structure of the Zamindari system, the abolition of which forms one of the important subplots.
If I think about it more, I could probably draw a connection between newly-independent India and self-made men, at least one of which is important to the novel’s plot, but A Suitable Boy is not a book that asks us to think much. It kept me pleasantly diverted through the first months of the pandemic; I felt fondness for it and its characters. I didn’t quite shed a tear at the end, but I definitely let out an almost risibly satisfied sigh on reading the final pages. A month later, though, I rarely think of it (much less than I do Lonesome Dove, the other chunkster I’ve read this year), so I can’t say it’s a book for the ages. Apparently, Seth has been working for decades on a sequel, A Suitable Girl. I’ll read it, if it ever comes to pass.
Jessica Moor, The Keeper (2020)
The title, a nice pun suggesting how little separates the ideal man from Bluebeard, is the best thing about this book. A procedural centered on a domestic abuse shelter is a good idea. The slick trick the book plays at the end is not.
Kapka Kassabova, To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace (2020)
Ever since I fell in love with Kassabova’s travelogue, Border—you can read my rave here—I’ve been eager for her next book. To the Lake didn’t disappoint. The earlier book was about Thrace, the lands where, today, Greece, Turkey, and Bulgaria meet. The new one is about another place that borders both do and do not separate. Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa—joined by underground rivers—lie at the intersection of Albania, Greece, and the newly-independent Republic of North Macedonia, where, back when it was Yugoslavia, Kassabova summered as a child. Because it is about the Balkans, the book is about history, specifically, about violence. It is also about the possibility of overcoming that violence (as symbolized by the tentative rapprochement between Greece and North Macedonia). To that end, Kassabova considers the lakes as a place of healing—people have taken their waters for centuries, for both physiological and psychological relief.
But as dialed into a century’s worth of political upheavals as Kassabova is, she is even more interested in war and peace, violence and restitution as fundamental human qualities, as competing elements of our psyche. One way that struggle manifests is through the relationships between men and women. As a woman from the Balkans who no longer lives there, as a woman travelling alone, as an unmarried woman without children, Kassabova is keenly aware of how uncomfortable people are with her refusal of categorization, how insistently they want to pigeonhole her. (No one writes ill-defined, menacing encounters with men like she does.) The personal parts of To the Lake concern her mother’s family, and certain unhappy psychological traits that seem to have been passed down through it. These might, however, be social rather than genetic. As she writes:
Like many ambitious women in a patriarchy where they don’t have full expression in society but absolute power in the family, [Kassabova’s great-grandmother] Ljubitsa inhabited the destructive shadow archetype of the mother-queen: needing everyone to remain small and needy, looking up to her and infusing her with importance (after all her sacrifices, it’s the least they could do). Like a poisoned mantle, this psychological imprint was taken on by my grandmother and then by my mother, and sometimes I feel it creeping up behind me too, ready to enshroud me and make me mean.
As you can see here, Kassabova is really smart (no one gets off lightly in that passage), which is what I love best about her, even more than descriptions of outings to the lakeshore to pick cherries. (Though I am a sucker for that Chekovian shit too.) I gather Kassabova is working on a book about healing more broadly. I’ll miss the Balkans, but I can’t wait.
Incidentally, To the Lake pairs terrifically with Antigona and Me; interesting, how two of the best books I’ve read this year are about women from the Balkans.
Annie Ernaux, The Years (2008) Trans. Alison L. Strayer (2013)
I finally read Annie Ernaux! Even though it is the surest way to jinx myself, I want to write an essay about her, so won’t say too much about either this book or the other three I read this month. (They are very short.) Many readers seem to think this is Ernaux’s masterpiece. That is wrong. In fact, I thought about abandoning this book a couple of times. I didn’t because I sensed Ernaux’s intelligence. And I’m glad I didn’t; her other work is more to my taste.
Ernaux is upfront about her challenge in The Years—she wanted to write about herself as part of a generation. But what voice to use? “I” wasn’t right—first-person legitimates or values the individual in a way she didn’t want. (Intriguing, given her masterly use of it in her other books.) But “she” wasn’t right either: third-person coalesces phrases and descriptions into character (Barthes wrote brilliantly about this in S/Z). She turned to “we” to write the story of French Boomers. (Technically, she is an earlier generation, having been born in 1941, but still.) My decades-long feud with Boomers is surely influencing me here, but I didn’t think Ernaux was as careful as she should have been (and that she is in her other work) to note how her “we” is the story of a particular class. I mean, I get that the upper-middle class of intellectuals or other white-collar worker—the generation that turned conservative after 68 and, having benefitted from the thirty glorious years made possible by the destruction of WWII, proceeded to dismantle all its good things, specifically its attempts to undo inequality—think that their experience simply is experience. But I didn’t sense that Ernaux was critiquing that tendency. I dunno, The Years feels a little smug to me—which her writing otherwise never seems to be. Read Ernaux, but start somewhere else.
Georges Simenon, The Flemish House (1932) Trans. Shaun Whiteside (2014)
Finally, a Maigret that worked for me! (Admittedly, I’ve only read four.) Some Maigret-loving friends suggested many of the best books in the series send the detective out of Paris. Maybe that’s the trick. Here Maigret travels to the border with Belgium, called by a young woman who wants him to save her brother, who is under suspicion when the woman who fathered his child is found dead. Lots of rain, lots of barges, lots of hot toddies, and a damn good ending.
Laura Shepherd-Robinson, Blood and Sugar (2019)
Historical crime fiction centered on the British slave trade, set in one of its hubs, Deptford, in the 1780s. Unexceptionable but forgettable.
Annie Ernaux, A Man’s Place (1983) Trans. Tanya Leslie (1992)
Concerns the life and death of Ernaux’s father, a man unsure what to do with his daughter’s life, so different from his own.
Concerns an affair Ernaux carried out with a younger, Eastern European man. Begins with a description that might be familiar to people who remember the 80s, of watching a scrambled porno on TV. As so often, Ernaux is brilliant at creating metaphors for what she wants her writing to do without writing texts that are tediously metafictional.
Norman Ohler, Bohemians: The Lovers Who Led Germany’s Resistance Against the Nazis (2020) Trans. Tim Mohr and Marshall Yarborough (2020)
Annie Ernaux, The Possession (2002) Trans. Anna Moschovakis (2008)
Concerns the dual meaning of possession. Does the lover own the beloved? Or is she owned by him?
Bessora, Alpha: Abidjan to the Gare du Nord (2014) Trans. Sarah Ardizzone (2018) Illus. Barroux
I learned so much from this beautiful and sad comic, not least how huge Mali is, to say nothing of Algeria. Alpha Coulibaly, a cabinet maker in Abidjan, the biggest city in the Côte d’Ivoire, has heard nothing from his wife and son since they set off to Europe. They hoped to make it to her sister, who has a hair salon near Paris’s Gare du Nord. In search of them, he sells up and heads north, an epic journey first to Mali, then to Algeria, and then 1800 miles across the desert to the Spanish enclave at Ceuta, where he fails to gain EU entry, forcing him to try a dangerous voyage to the Canary Islands. Along the way, he is guided/abused by smugglers, and even becomes one himself: it’s the only way to make the money he needs. He meets many fellow migrants, all of whom are well aware of the dangers—though some, like an extended family that has pooled all its resources to send a young man to Spain, where they are convinced he will play for FC Barcelona, are more naïve than others. All know, however, that there is nothing for them at home. The desperation is as real as the risks they confront trying to escape it. Alpha and the others are both physically and psychologically damaged: this is not a book with a happy ending. Paradoxically, it’s a beautiful one: Barroux’s illustrations are washes of greys, whites, blacks, and reds.
Laurie R. King, The Game (2004)
It felt like time for another episode of Mary Russell’s adventures with Holmes, so I pulled this one from the shelf. In The Game Mycroft sends the pair to India, near the border with Afghanistan (this is in the 1920s), where the Russians, newly Soviets, are threatening Britain’s prize colony. I might have enjoyed this more had I read Kim—Kipling’s hero is a minor but important character—but I liked it anyway. As always, King is better at setting up her scenarios than in resolving them. The books always feel both slow and rushed at the same time, it’s weird, but I find enough in the series to keep plugging along.
Brit Bennett, The Vanishing Half (2020)
Deserving of its current popularity. The Vanishing Half is a novel about identical twin sisters, Desiree and Stella Vignes, who grow up in rural Louisiana in a town founded by a freed slave (the girls’ great-great-great grandfather) as an enclave for Blacks as light-skinned as himself. When they turn sixteen, in 1952, the sisters abscond to New Orleans to begin a new life. It’s hard to find work that isn’t badly paying and dangerous, so Desiree convinces Stella to take a secretarial job—which requires her to pass as white. Soon their paths diverge. Stella abruptly disappears, leaving Desiree bereft, her belief that she and her sister shared everything shattered. Stella marries her white boss—who has no idea of her background—which locks her into a life of both material privilege and constant anxiety over her secret. Desiree flees to DC, where she eventually marries the darkest man she can find, but returns to her hometown with her small daughter to escape his domestic abuse.
Years later, that daughter, Jude, moves to Los Angeles to attend college on a track scholarship. On a catering job she sees a woman she knows immediately must be her aunt. She becomes close to Stella’s daughter, an aspiring actress. Family secrets are revealed, to ambiguous ends.
Stories of racial passing often take the form of melodrama—Sirk’s film Imitation of Life is a classic example—and Bennett embraces that quality. In fact, I think she could have made more of it. The Vanishing Half is fascinated by acting-pretending-dissembling: both the many forms they can take and their consequences. For example, there’s a great trans subplot, and another important minor character is enmeshed in the 1970s/80s LA drag scene. But the book is about acting more than itself an example of it. I sometimes wanted Bennet to do more than depict impersonation; I wanted her to perform it through her style. Although, even as I write this, I wonder whether Bennett’s straightforward prose is itself a kind of acting—a way for her novel to pass as “respectable” literary fiction. (Hmm, the novel may be savvier than I credit!)
My favourite novel about racial passing is Nella Larsen’s Harlem Renaissance masterpiece, a real literary touchstone for me. And for Bennett, too, who references Larsen in shrewd ways (a smashed wine bottle echoes a smashed teacup from an important scene in Passing; the queer subplot gestures to the unavowed love between Larsen’s female protagonists). I loved how lovingly Bennett responded to Larsen’s novel. (If you haven’t read either, I recommend reading Larsen first.) And I admired her portrait of Stella, whose consciousness we often inhabit, in a way we don’t with the analogous figure in Passing. Bennett leaves unanswered whether Stella suffers from false consciousness or whether she simply wants the anonymity that white people can take for granted in a world that sets them as the default. This line haunts me: “She could think of nothing more horrifying than not being able to hide what she wanted.”
Ernaux’s works are an elegant rabbit-hole, and Ohler’s book taught me a lot. But this month’s winner was without question Kassabova’s terrific essay-travelogue. We’re lurching to the middle of September already, but if you had good reading in August, let me know. Lately my reading has taken me to north Germany in the 19th century, among other places. More on that in a few weeks. In the meantime, stay as safe and well as you can, everybody.