What I Read, March 2021

The daffodils came and went. Then the quince bushes and spiraea (some call it meadowsweets, apparently, which I like better). Next the plum, the dogwood, and the redbuds. Most spectacularly, the cherry. Some days were cold, most were warm, no bugs yet. Good sitting-outside weather. Our daughter went back to in-person school. I wrote some things, though not my book. And as always I was reading.

Alena Schröder, Junge Frau, am Fenster stehend, Abendlicht, blaues Kleid (2021)

The title is something like “Young Woman, Standing at the Window, Evening Light, Blue Dress.” It’s a description of a Vermeer meant to have been expropriated from a Jewish art dealer in 1930s Berlin but perhaps saved for his descendants although more likely lost in the turmoil of WWII. The protagonist of Schröder’s engaging debut novel—I read it in less than a week, which should tell you something, as I am not exactly a speed-reader in German; just couldn’t put it down—is Hannah, a wry if rudderless graduate student whose sole anchor is her weekly visit to Evelyn, her maternal grandmother and only living relative. At her swish retirement home, the proud and irascible old woman instructs (read: yells at) her granddaughter: how to water the orchids, how to arrange the blinds, how to do everything the right way. The two love each other, but they also can’t be close, too much is between them, especially Hannah’s mother, who died of cancer a few years earlier but whom Evelyn could never find it in her heart to love.

When Hannah finds a letter from an Israeli lawyer explaining that Evelyn might be eligible for reparations from an art restitution case—a letter Evelyn refuses to say a word about—Hannah uses this sudden interruption of an inexplicable family past (they aren’t Jewish—how can the Nazis have stolen from them?) as a pretext to further a disastrous affair with her dissertation advisor. The novel moves between the present-day and 1920s/30s Berlin, so that we are always one step ahead of Hannah, and in fact end up knowing more than she does, but the search, although in some respects futile, is hardly a failure: Hannah changes her life, mostly, but in ways that readers will cheer on, she is so likeable.

Schröder handles the Weimar/Nazi-era sections well, they never seem like a pastiche. Her female characters are especially good; they struggle with feelings of inadequacy when they cannot live up to the impossible demand that their personal and professional lives be equally perfect. Even minor characters are vivid—a woman named Rubi comes in and steals the show in the last quarter; I begged Schröder to write a novel just about her but nothing doing. More importantly, in its modest way (this is not a stuffy or self-important book), the novel says something interesting about German-Jewish relations. By emphasizing the non-biological familiar relations that link its main characters, Schröder argues that Jews and Germans (at least for assimilated German Jews, which is a big caveat) were so intertwined that the Nazis’ murderous efforts to distinguish them passed down intergenerational trauma that only hurt everyone (though of course not equally). In a wonderful subplot, Schröder satirizes the ghoulish fetishization of the Jewish past—Hannah is pressganged into attending a meeting of a group bent on maintaining Jewish life in Berlin (no one in the group is Jewish)—which is an easier way to respond to the past than mourning the interconnectedness that was lost.

Junge Frau is funny, smart, and suspenseful. I think English-language readers would eat it up and I hope it will be translated soon. Thanks, Magda, for giving me a copy.

Philippe Sands, The Ratline: The Exalted Life and Mysterious Death of a Nazi Fugitive (2020)

I had mixed feelings.

Miriam Katin, We Are on Our Own: A Memoir (2006)

Memoir in comic form about the author’s year in hiding with her mother in the Hungarian countryside in 1944 – 45 when she was a very young child. Thanks to the Horthy regime’s relatively lax attitude to Jews, Hungary had the largest intact Jewish population in Europe at this late stage of the war. Tired of their ally’s foot-dragging, the Nazis deposed Horthy and sent Eichmann to deport Jews en masse (100,000 were gassed at Birkenau that summer). When Katin’s mother, Esther, receives a deportation notice, she contacts a blackmarketeer from whom she buys a false identity. Thanks to the connivance of her devoted non-Jewish maid, who agrees to lie to the SS, Esther fakes her death and escapes to the countryside, first to the uncle of the man who sold her the papers. The man and his wife have no idea who she is, but they take her in; the elegant city woman quickly becomes a farm girl. She suffers the unwanted attentions of a German officer (rape disguised by chocolates and declarations of love), survives Allied bombing raids, and lives to be liberated by the Russians, an event greeted by the locals with fear. To be sure the drunken Ivans who take over the uncle’s farm are dangerous—when one of them dies while trying to slip into Esther’s bed she is again forced to go on the run—but others are helpful, including some kindly officers who direct her to a refugee center. An old family friend takes the woman and her small child into his own home, a villa he rattles around in, after the deportation of his parents, with only his old governess for company. The old woman, who lives in a prewar Paris of the mind, teaches little Miriam to plié while her former charge falls in love with Esther. Esther’s husband, who has been in the army this whole time (I am hazy on how a Jew, assuming he was one, could have served with the Hungarians) and through a combination of luck and effort has retraced his wife’s journey, miraculously arrives at the same refugee center. The reunification of the family is more successful than most—certainly more so than the one depicted in Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the text that inspired Katin, who spent her career as a graphic artist, to take up comic making in her 60s.

I’ve read many Holocaust memoirs, but I always learn something new. Across Europe, Jews were forbidden to own pets: I knew this, but somehow hadn’t realized they had to abandon the ones they already had. In a heartbreaking scene, Esther leaves Miriam with a trusted friend and slips off to bring their beloved Schnauzer, Rexy, to a central depot, where a German officer eyes him with greedy appreciation.

Publisher Drawn & Quarterly has produced We Are on Our Own with their usual care. At first glance, the cover looks stark and ill-designed. The boards are stiff cardboard, the pages thick and creamy. It looks, I realized, like a homemade scrapbook—a perfect fit for the contents. Scraps, a frequent trope in Holocaust literature, are an apt way to think about victim experience. Scraps are waste or refuse that, through care and work—like the alchemical work of literature—can be transmuted into meaning and value.

Although some of the events might be confusing to readers without background in the subject (Katin is chary with context), this memoir is worth your time.

Ida Jessen, A Change of Time (2015) Trans. Martin Aitken (2019)

Novel about a schoolteacher in a remote part of Denmark in the late 1920s whose husband, a doctor, has just died. The husband was not a bad man—devoted to medicine and insistent upon improving the living conditions of his patients, even the ones he didn’t like. But he was so austere, so contemptuous of the world, so spartan in his affection that being married to him was a trial the cost of which Lilly—almost always known by her married name, Fru Bagge—had not even realized. And yet she still grieves his death. With the passing of time, she allows herself to process these feelings—and to open herself to new ones.

To me, the title refers more to “the change that time is” than to “a specific change over months or years.” Nothing stays the same, not the fruit trees that slowly take root in the region’s sandy soil, not the children she once taught, not Lily’s sense of herself. This is a short, gentle, careful book, beautifully translated by Marin Aitken. It reminded me of J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country. Perfect if you like wistful, quiet books that are sort of sad and sort of happy and make you sigh at the end. A source at Archipelago Books tells me another book by Jessen is forthcoming. Happy (but moderate, restrained, melancholic) news.

Narine Abgaryan, Three Apples Fell from the Sky (2015) Trans. Lisa C. Hayden (2020)

Under the guidance of the indefatigable Reem, I read this novel as part of a group on Twitter. (A group read I actually completed, amazing!) Of particular joy was the participation of the book’s translator, Lisa Hayden, whose love for the text is obvious. Abgaryan is Armenian, though the book was written in Russian, which is interesting given the role Armenia has played in the Russian literary imaginary: several members of the group were able to instruct me on this. Three Apples is set in a fictional mountain village called Maran. As the novel begins, the main character, Anatolia, prepares for death: she lays out her best outfit so that those who find her will be able to dress her for the funeral, she makes sure her house is spotless, she feeds the chickens. At 58, Anatolia is the village’s youngest resident. Maran used to be home to 500 people. Now there are 23 households clinging to a mountainside that was devastated by an earthquake (almost as devastating as the earthquake of modernity that has taken away the young people). But what promises to be an elegy takes a sudden swerve. Anatolia doesn’t die; nor does Maran, at least not quite. I agree with Olga Zilberbourg’s argument, in this excellent review, that Maran is “Abgaryan’s attempt to if not bypass imperial history altogether, then to find a way out of imperialism’s cycle of violence and destruction.” In this sense it is a fantasy—but an enabling one.

Those of us in the reading group spent a fair bit of time wondering when the novel is set—there are some historical markers, but other events aren’t readily identifiable. The novel is both in time and outside it. As one reader thoughtfully put it, “there is history and there is tradition and though the two do not necessarily match, they are both true.” This double quality is also evident in the novel’s style, which has fantastical elements but is also rooted in realism. The opening chapter about Anatolia’s preparation is followed by dozens of marvelous descriptions of how to do the things that make life go on: cooking, cleaning, finding and preparing herbs, building fences and coops, shoeing horses, the list goes on. I loved this material, enjoyed the book a lot, and hope for more Abgaryan in English.

Myron Levoy, Alan and Naomi (1977)

1944. Queens. Alan Silverman, 12, is busy with stickball, model airplanes, and his new friend Shaun (Catholic and thus a source of unease to Alan’s mother). He has no time for or interest in helping that weird girl upstairs—Crazy Cat, Frenchie-the-nut, the kids call her—the one who moved in with the Liebmans. Naomi Kirshenbaum is a refugee: her father, a member of the resistance, was murdered in front of her; together wither her mother she escaped Paris for Switzerland and then America. Ever since she’s been traumatized, barely speaking, starting at every noise, prone to tearing maps into tiny shreds. Her psychologist—Levoy shrewdly keeps the doctor off stage, filtering their suggestions through the adults in Alan’s life—thinks it would be good for Naomi to spend time with someone her own age. Alan, threatened with failing to be a mensch if he refuses, grudgingly does so. Their slowly developing friendship is deftly handled; the neighbourhood near the abandoned Homes airfield lovingly evoked. A good (Jewish) boy, Alan berates himself for not being able to help Naomi better or faster, and he reacts with fascinating touchiness when adults coo over how lovely and kind he is. Things are best when he can simply acknowledge how much he likes spending time with her. But what will his friends think? Has Alan misunderstood them as much as he once did Naomi? Everything seems to be heading to a predictable if satisfying ending when Levoy offers a devastating final swerve that changes everything—and which I suspect would not be published today. After beginning by distinguishing the fates of American and European Jews, Levoy ends by equating them: no place is safe. Such an interesting book: obliquely about the Holocaust, directly about trauma, and quite a challenge to the feeling, ascendant in the 1970s, that American Jews were Americans first.

I can’t remember who recommended this book to me—pretty sure I didn’t stumble across it myself. If it was you, make yourself be heard so I can thank you! [Edit: Turns out this was Magda, too. I owe her even more this month than usual!]

Miriam Katin, Letting It Go (2013)

This follow-up of sorts to We Are on Our Own jumps to the present day. Katin’s son—he was a little kid in her earlier book—has grown up and moved to Berlin, fallen in love, and wants Katin to get him EU citizenship by virtue of her birth in Hungary. She is reluctant, and even more so to visit Germany. What she comes to realize, though, is that even though you have to hold on to the past, you can’t let it strangle you. It all feels a bit pat, a sort of whirlwind tour of German memory culture circa 2010.

Simon Wiesenthal, Max and Helen (1981) Trans. Catherine Hutter (1982)

The Ratline got me interested in Simon Wiesenthal; I’d heard of the “Nazi hunter” before, of course, but I knew hardly anything about him. I started with Max and Helen because Sands listed it in his annotated bibliography as a work he recommended for a better sense of the atmosphere in and around wartime Lviv/Lvow/Lemberg, especially the camps in which the Nazis interned the slave labour they used to build Durchgangsstrasse 4 (DG 4), a highway through the Ukraine. (The same milieu is memorably evoked in Rachel Seiffert’s excellent novel A Boy in Winter.) I certainly learned more about Galicia in 1941 – 43 (an especially terrible place to be Jewish). But I got something else too, something closer to “the remarkable true love story” promised on the terrific cover of the US first edition I checked out of the library.

In Max and Helen Wiesenthal hunts the commandant of one such camp, a man notorious for his brutality, who after the war has become a manager at a prospering West German firm. To make his charge stick, Wiesenthal needs witnesses, but almost no one survived the DG 4 camps. Eventually he is led to a man, the Max of the title, now a doctor in Paris. Max puts him off but eventually agrees to an interview—but only to explain why even though Wiesenthal’s information is correct, the industrialist and the Nazi are indeed the same man, Max cannot testify against him. In a long, almost hallucinatory encounter in Switzerland, Max tells Wiesenthal how he and his fiancée, Helen, were imprisoned together; how, thanks to certain privileges accrued from being the camp “doctor” (he had no supplies worthy of the name), he was able escape and join the partisans hiding out in the nearby marshes (alone, because despite his pleading Helen refused to leave her disabled sister behind); how he spent a decade in a Soviet gulag before being repatriated to Poland in 1958. Upon his return Max searched tirelessly for Helen; a chance encounter led him to discover she was living under a different name in West Germany. He made the trip, tracked down the address, rang the bell. The door opened—only to reveal… well, I won’t say, though it’s fairly dramatic. The revelation leads Wiesenthal to visit Helen himself, to learn her side of the story, and to see for himself why Max said he couldn’t testify. An epilogue brings the story of the tragic pair to the present (that is, the early 80s).

Max and Helen is short, but even if it had been twice as long I would have read it as raptly. The story fascinated and moved me. I resolved to read more Wiesenthal, and immediately checked his autobiography out of the library. Paging through the front matter my eye fell on a list of titles, divided into fiction and nonfiction. There, under fiction, stood Max and Helen! I was astonished—and then chagrined. Googling the Nazi’s name revealed a general in the Wehrmacht, who had never been in the SS; searching for the camp drew a similar blank. Some of the narrative longeurs, in which Wiesenthal presses Max on the importance of Wiesenthal’s self-imposed task of meting out justice to former perpetrators, now made more sense. Still, if the book is intended as an advertisement for his project, it’s a funny one. Because justice isn’t done. Unless we take Wiesenthal’s point to be that justice is more complicated than we might like to think. In which case his book proves that admirably.

I still don’t know the relation of fact to fiction in this tale—do you? I’ll be taking a look at Tom Segev’s fairly recent biography in hopes of learning more.

David Downing, Wedding Station (2021)

I’m a fan of Downing’s series about John Russell, an English-American journalist in 1930s – 40s Berlin who becomes a spy (for various agencies, it gets complicated) in order to protect his German son, and his girlfriend, Effi Koenen, a film actress on the outs after the Nazis take power. The Station books (each is named for a train station in Berlin or elsewhere in Europe) are less dazzling than Philip Kerr’s Bernie Guenther novels, which detail the same period, but they are also less cynical. (Less misogynist too; Effi becomes a major character.) Downing has written several books since ending the series, but I don’t think I’m the only one who missed Russell and Koenen. Seems Downing has too, because he’s done what seems de rigeur for crime novelists and written a prequel. It’s good! In fact, it’s better written than usual (Downing is not flashy) while still being just as well researched (always his strong point). Newcomers could start here; fans will enjoy learning the background of favourite characters. Wedding Station (the title refers to a working-class, pro-Communist neighbourhood) is set in the immediate weeks after the Nazis take power and ably conveys how quickly the new rulers chilled dissent and attacked their enemies, especially socialists and communists.

Vigdis Hjorth, Long Live the Post Horn! (2013) Trans. Charlotte Barslund (2020)

Sad to say, my favourite part of Long Live the Post Horn! was the passage from Kierkegaard from which it takes its title. (The post horn never sounds the same twice; no one who blows into it will ever be guilty of repetition; it is a symbol of authenticity.) The idea of a “good old-fashioned letter,” as the text somewhat ironically, somewhat earnestly calls it, is dear to my heart. Which meant I was drawn to the premise of this novel in which a PR consultant is lifted out of a general ennui when she throws herself into the fight by the Norwegian postal workers union to challenge an EU-directive deregulating delivery service. More novels about arcana, bureaucracy, and politics, please! Too bad the details of the battle, which surprisingly becomes a hot topic at the annual Labour Party congress, are passed over pretty hastily.

At first I found the main character’s flat affect irritating—I kept comparing it to the much more devastating portrayals of female despair in Jean Rhys—and almost put the book aside but I was glad I stuck around long enough to see her wary transformation. In the end, though, Hjorth is better at naming values than at making us feel them. Here’s Ellinor watching through a lit window as a man paces his office with his phone to his ear: “It was a comforting sight. If I had kept a diary, I would have written about it. About the working human being, the committed human being, about people trying to change things, people investing their energy, talking to one another and coming together.” Later this sentiment turns into a full-blown encomium for “a language that didn’t seek to spin or obfuscate, but to open and elevate, a language that had helped me to greater clarity, which had pulled me from the mire.” Ellinor herself never experiences that kind of language, and I’m unclear Hjorth knows it. But a lot of smart readers like this book; for a much more positive take, read Grant’s piece.

Jane Harper, The Survivors (2020)

Crime novel set on the southern coast of Tasmania. A local boy who survived a terrible storm ten years before (his brother did not) returns home with wife and newborn to help his mother pack up before his father is moved into a facility for dementia patients. Shortly after, a seasonal worker, an art student from the mainland, is found dead on the beach. The events of the past intertwine with the present; small-town rivalries, pent-up hostilities, and long-buried secrets come to light. The police investigate, but they are at the periphery of the book. In sum, The Survivors is structured very much like Harper’s previous book, The Lost Man. It’s not as good, but it’s definitely diverting.

Monica Hesse, They Went Left (2020)

I was skeptical about this book even though it featured on the NYT’s list of best YA books for 2020. A novel about an eighteen-year-old girl in the months after liberation? I feared Holocaust porn. (Not actual porn: I mean using the Holocaust for grisly, unwarranted thrills.) Although Zofia Lederman, the girl in question, sounds at times like a 21st century teenager, They Went Left is a gripping and intelligent read. I enjoyed the focus on life after liberation: yes, we get glimpses of Zofia’s Holocaust experiences and gradually learn a more complete story of what happened to her, but such moments are important not in themselves but to show how someone so victimized might go about putting a life back together.

Most of the novel is set in the DP camp at Föhrenwald, in Bavaria, where Zofia ends up in search of her younger brother, whom she hopes against hope has survived. The camp allows Hesse to depict different responses to the gift/curse/fate of having survived: ardent Zionists, determined to get to Palestine by any means possible; survivors who just want to return to their former homes; people eager to leave the past behind; people hoping they can resurrect that past.

In addition to being, as best I can tell, carefully researched and historically accurate, the novel also offers some dramatic (even melodramatic) plot twists, and weighs in on big questions: what does family mean, in the wake of genocide? can people who suffered different persecutions come together? Some scenes are especially vivid: a joyful wedding in the DP camp; the arrival of a pile of cast-off clothes that survivors desperately paw through; a night between two lovers whose bodies are marked by past suffering. Some striking moments are sensitively presented: when her lover asks if he needs to use protection, Zofia says he needn’t worry—she hasn’t menstruated in years.

In sum, a visceral and thoughtful novel. I’ll read more by Hesse, who has two other WWII-era YA novels.

Ariana Franklin, City of Shadows (2006)

Readers of this blog—hell, of this post—will know that I am a suck for all things Berlin. Which is probably why I crammed this book into my nightstand when my wife, who bought it on vacation in Canada years ago, was ready to get rid of it. For some reason—probably because I had agreed to read several other books, which is a surefire way to get me not read them—I decided that now was the time to give it a go. I was prepared to be dismissive—it’s about a lost Romanov—but I was won over by the book’s strong characterization and plot.

Esther is a Russian Jew who, like so many other refugees, washes up in 1920s Berlin, in her case after being mutilated in a pogrom in the Pale of Settlement. She becomes the secretary to a Russian nightclub impresario who has stumbled upon what he thinks will be his ticket to fame and fortune—he’s been given a tip that Anna Anderson, a nearly silent woman locked up in an asylum on the outskirts of Berlin, is in fact the Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov. Anna looks like Anastasia. She has the peremptoriness and carelessness of a Royal. But she seems to have forgotten Russian. And although she knows details of Romanov family life she might just have read about them somewhere. The nightclub owner is convinced, though—mostly, he’s convinced that Esther can coach/bully the woman into satisfying the distant Romanov relatives scattered across Europe that Anna is the real deal. But before that can happen a terrifying man tries to attack her. Anna insists it’s the Cheka, the Russian secret police, looking to finish what the Bolsheviks started but apparently failed to do in Yekaterinburg. But Esther thinks the threat concerns Anna’s non-Royal past. Together with a sympathetic police officer, she sets out to learn the truth. Split between 1923 (the worst year of Weimar-era hyperinflation) and 1933, the book covers a lot of ground. Franklin plays a little fast and loose with the history of the first months of the Nazi regime, but she acknowledges this and in general her history is sound. At one point her inspector thinks that “political violence was unleashing individual savagery,” and City of Shadows does a fine job thinking through the intersection of structural and psychological violence. No book for the ages, but totally worth tracking down. In fact, you can have mine if you like.

Sarah Krasnostein, The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster (2017)

I do not like dirt. Or clutter. (I will pause here so that readers who have been to my house can finish laughing. I used to protest that books are not clutter, but have since bowed to reality.) Anyway, dirt especially, I’m not phobic about it, exactly, but definitely a little grossed out by it. And yet fascinated, too. Same with squalor. That long section about cleaning up the alcoholic father’s house in volume I of My Struggle? Couldn’t get enough. “Time Passes”? My favourite part of To the Lighthouse. The business of cleaning up otherwise unlivable squats? That’s why The Good Terrorist is Lessing’s underrated masterpiece.

In other words, I’m an ideal reader for The Trauma Cleaner. The title refers to Sandra Pankhurst, who has been many things in her eventful life: an adopted and abused child, a young married father and husband, a drag queen, a sex worker (including at a mining town in central Australia that sounds terrifying), a wife and homemaker, a businesswoman, and, in her latest and perhaps most triumphant incarnation, the owner of a business that cleans up after violent deaths, acts of nature, meth lab explosions, and hoarding cases. Somehow I always assumed someone official, the police or emergency services or something, was responsible for these unpleasant situations, but not true, at least in Australia, and I’m guessing the US too.

It is Sarah Krasnostein’s genius to show how the accumulated weight of Pankhurst’s experiences—mostly traumatic: as an unloved child, for example, she was relegated to a shed in the back garden of her working-class Melbourne home, allowed inside to eat with the rest of the family only once a week—has made her so adept at managing the people and situations her business remediates. Sandra leads her team through work that most of us would balk at, despite being almost constantly out of breath (she suffers from COPD, probably brought on from the combination of past recreational drug use and zealous hormone therapy), all while maintaining perfect makeup, hair, and nails. Pankhurst is remarkably non-judgmental. She’s not interested how her clients, whether living or dead, ended up in their situations. She’s interested in results. (I’m fascinated by how this trans woman encapsulates the unruffled non-introspective competency enshrined in at least a cliched idea of Australian masculinity.) Krasnostein notes, poignantly, that Pankhurst’s acceptance stems from her insistence that everyone deserves to life their life. Everyone fits into “the order of things, even those who most of us would exclude from it.

Krasnostein’s intelligence is evident throughout The Trauma Cleaner. Sometimes she’s even epigrammatic; reflecting on abuse and neglect she writes: “In the taxonomy of pain there is only the pain inflicted by touching and the pain inflicted by not touching.” She’s up front about her love for Pankhurst, and how difficult that love can be. (The flip side of Pankhurst’s equanimity is her ability to erase unpleasant parts of her past, like the wife and children she abandoned in penury.) It’s not a perfect book: Krasnostein’s metaphors sometimes get away from her, and the sections about Pankhurst’s clients are better than the ones about her biography. (I liked seeing Pankhurst in action more than hearing about her.) But I think even people less fastidious/compulsive about clearing away clutter, dirt, mold, dust, blood, shit, and pus than I am will find this book deeply interesting. Decay comes to us all—and the only thing that mitigates it even temporarily is love. Sandra Pankhurst’s gift is to love those whom others would rather not.

Thanks to Tali Lavi for the recommendation (seconded by other Australian book friends). Looking forward to the US release of Krasnostein’s second book—it’s called The Believers and, as such, promises to be about something else I have a fascinated yet ambivalent relationship to. Bring it on!

That was March. Plenty of decent reading, especially the Schröder, Jessen, Abgaryan, Levoy, and Krasnostein. Onward into the fullness of Arkansas spring!

What I Read, July 2020

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

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Ann Cleeves, The Long Call (2019)

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

Sarah Moss, Cold Earth (2009)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine Addison, The Angel of the Crows (2020)

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

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

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

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

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her reprehensible undistress had been a constant temptation.

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

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

“There’s been the pit disaster.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Perhaps some—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2016 Year in Reading

Considering its tumultuous and largely depressing events as well as my own poor physical and mental health at various times, I’m surprised I read as much as I did last year. But those challenges meant I needed the comfort of books more than ever.

I read 79 books in 2016: 54% were by women and 46% by men; 68% were written in English and 32% in translation.

A few words about my favourites, in no particular order:

The Best of the Best:

I wrote about (and have already linked to) my absolute favourites for Open Letters Monthly. But I can’t say enough good things about them so I’ll list them again here:

More was Lost—Eleanor Perényi

I adore this book—just thinking about it makes me smile. But I haven’t heard anyone else talking about it, and so I just want to trumpet its moving elegance over and over again. Do you like Lubitsch? Of course you do. Then you’re going to like this book. My list is stacked with New York Review Books, but this year I am most grateful to my favourite press for reissuing this little marvel, the story of an American who falls in love with a Hungarian and experiences a world that is on the point of vanishing. I wrote about it here.

Eline Vere-Louis Couperus

You can read my thoughts on this magnificent 19th century Dutch novel of female anxiety here.

The Fifth Season & The Obelisk Gate—N. K. Jemisin

2016 was the year I started reading science fiction again after a twenty or thirty year absence. I’ve a long way to go to get up to speed, but I think we’re all going to need more SF in the coming years, not as escapism but as laboratories for how to resist the coming darkness.

These two novels, the first parts of the Broken Earth Trilogy, offer an allegory for the psychic damage minorities experience every day—as if Du Bois’s double consciousness was used as the basis for an exciting and carefully detailed epic story. I hope the final volume will be out in 2017.

Best of the rest:

The Trespasser—Tana French

French made the list last year, too. For me she is the best crime writer today, period, and shows no signs of falling off with this excellent, smart novel that continues her preoccupation with friendship. What’s new is how overtly the twists of the investigation are offered as an allegory for the process of storytelling. I hope that doesn’t sound boring or airy-fairy. The book’s as gripping as all her others.

The Door—Magda Szabó

On vacation at the end of the year I had some good reading time and made my way through a number of interesting books. But the most amazing one—so great that it’s jumped on to this list—was this Hungarian novel from 1987. Szabó has this power, I don’t know how to describe it, it’s not as though her style is particularly flashy or anything. It’s the story of a woman and her housekeeper. And about the history of Hungary in the 20th Century. It’s as good on psychology as on politics. None of these things come even close to suggesting how awesome it is. All I can say is that I was just riveted. I’ve got another of her books now and hope to write about them together soon.

Three by Patrick Leigh Fermor

A Time of Gifts; Between the Woods and the Water; The Broken Road

I wrote a short appreciation of these extraordinary travel books for Open Letters Monthly back in the summer. In 1933, the eighteen-year-old Fermor set off to walk across Europe, from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. It took the rest of his life to tell the story, but what amazing books these are, so full of joy and life, and neither naïve nor knowing. Can’t think of anyone else who has captured as well as Fermor that sense of heady reinvention you sometimes feel, especially as a young person, when living abroad.

The Vegetarian—Han Kang

Wasn’t sure about this one at first—kept wanting it to be more like Atwood’s Edible Woman, which it superficially resembles—but decided to teach it later in the year and seeing my students take to it so strongly made me like it so much more. A book about a woman who just really wants to be a plant, and the people in her life who want other things for her. Han tackles this without ever letting us inside the protagonist’s head: impressive. Feel I could get a lot more from this book if I knew more (i.e. anything) about modern Korean history. Looking forward to reading Human Acts in 2017.

What Belongs to You—Garth Greenwell

Critically acclaimed for a good reason. Proustian sentences, good sex scenes, impressive ability to generate menace. Had the good fortune to hear Greenwell at the Little Rock Literary Festival: he was smart and kind. Started to write about the book and got bogged down but one day I am going to write an essay about the uncanny parallels between what happens to the narrator of this novel and to Patrick Leigh Fermor, as recounted in The Broken Road, in Varna, Bulgaria.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths—Barbara Comyns

Less bleak than Comyns’s amazing The Vet’s Daughter (on the 2015 list) but just as terrific. The wonder here is the vast tonal range of the narrator’s voice. Sometimes Sophia is naïve (“I had a kind of idea if you controlled your mind and said ‘I won’t have any babies’ very hard, they most likely wouldn’t come”) and sometimes she’s hilariously, ruefully inept (making an impromptu meal of spaghetti she finds a piece of dry cheese: “it grated so fine I thought afterwards it must have been a knife handle”). She’s also no-nonsense (she tells a man who has fallen in love with her and is masochistically kissing the bottom of her skirt, “Don’t do that. The hem is coming undone already”) and knowing (describing that same man, who for a time becomes her lover, she says, “His dark face became full of animation when he talked (I think the right word to use for his face would be mobile)”). British women writers of the mid twentieth century are still criminally underrated.

Best group reading experience:

Jean Giono’s Hill. A terrific book that speaks to us today in ways its author surely couldn’t have anticipated. My take here. Thanks to Scott for co-hosting and to Meredith, Grant, Frances, Melissa and others for reading along with.

Most revelatory experience of a book I’ve taught many times:

Lots of contenders here (Woolf, Jacob’s Room, To the Lighthouse, Three Guineas (I really love that one), Lawrence, Sons and Lovers) but the winner has to be Imre Kertesz’s Fatelessness, which is one of the greatest novels about the Holocaust. Only now, on my fourth or fifth go round with this book, and thanks in large part to some stellar students who really responded to it, do I feel I’m getting the hang of this one.  I blogged about teaching it here.

Most revelatory experience of a writer I’ve taught many times:

Ida Fink. I’ve taught a few of her amazing short stories about the Holocaust before but only this year, thanks to the scholar Sara Horowitz, did I really get what Fink was up to. She didn’t write much, just two short story collections and a novel, but man, what a writer. Want to write about her in 2017.

Two books about hotels:

Grand Hotel by Vicky Baum (1929) and A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (2016). In my head I composed a mini-essay comparing these books, which I happened to read back to back. Both consider the transience of hotel life, though Gentleman inverts the idea by making its protagonist a nobleman in 1920s Russia who can’t quite be done away with by the new regime because of his service to the cause in the past and so is put under house arrest in Moscow’s luxurious Metropol Hotel.

Baum’s book might be better—it holds up amazingly well, and becomes a real page-turner in its last third—but I enjoyed Towles’s more. It’s sweeter and that’s what I needed in the days after the election. I kept wondering if its pleasures weren’t in fact too regressive, but the book would regularly throw little curve balls, show its self-consciousness about the difficulties of structuring a book around a seemingly perfect protagonist. And sometimes you just want a suave, kind, handsome, intelligent, well-manner character! Anyway, you should read both of these books, they are terrific. I’m unconvinced anyone will be reissuing Towles in 80 years, but that’s okay, some books we just need for today.

Best book about life during the rise of fascism:

Plenty of contenders, but Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight made a big impression on me.

Reliable pleasures:

Ellis Peters’s Cadfael books (have read the first four so far, but need to ration: important to know they are still out there for me to savour); Hans Olav Lahlum’s K2 series (the last one was a bit bloated but I’m still a fan); Denise Mina (she keeps on going from strength to strength)

Light reading winners:

Natasha Pulley, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street (pleasing alternate history-steampunk-thing all about queer and non-queer friendship—very much look forward to the sequel in 2017); Joe Ide, IQ (smart and funny Sherlock update in East Long Beach. Not suspenseful, really, but totally enjoyable); Dorothy Sayers, Strong Poison (I finally met Harriet Vane! Must read the others)

Finally, although, I didn’t actually read that much Jean Rhys this year, one of the most satisfying parts of the year was contributing this post on my experiences teaching her work to students to the Jean Rhys event co-hosted by Jacqui and Eric.

Above all, my heartfelt thanks to everyone who’s visited the blog in the past year. Your comments, whether here or on Twitter or Facebook or even in person, mean so much to me. Here’s to more good reading and good talk about our reading in 2017.

“Something Which Bites or Stings”: Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight

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Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight was published in Holland in 1937, the year after she left her native Germany. As Geoff Wilkes writes in his informative afterword to this newish edition—well, maybe not so new, it was published five years ago—Keun’s relatively late departure meant that she had experienced National Socialist Germany more fully than those émigrés who left shortly after 1933.

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For the opening scene Keun drew on her experience of Hitler’s visit to Frankfurt on May 19, 1935, where she was living at the time. Sanna Moder, the novel’s nineteen-year-old narrator, is trying to return to her brother’s apartment with her friend Gerti when the SS block off the streets in order that the Führer and other Nazi bigwigs might more easily reach the opera.

The friends don’t care about the officials; they’ve got other things on their minds. Sanna has finally had a letter from her boyfriend in Köln after a silence of several months. Gerti’s family wants her to marry Kurt, a member of the SA, the paramilitary group that helped bring Hitler to power, but she’s in love with Dieter, who, as a Jew, is “what they call a person of mixed race, first class or maybe third class—I can never get the hang of these labels.”

What seems like blithe insouciance can be read as sly critique. Sanna—it’s short for Susanna—seems clueless, and it’s true that the most important thing on her mind is a party her sister-in-law wants her to help plan. Gerti by contrast seems much more politically conscious, coolly snubbing the attentions of some SS men by pretending to be Jewish. But Sanna is keenly aware of how much Gerti risks in such moments. Similarly, stringing Kurt along so that she can continue to see Dieter is a dangerous game.

But the longer we spend with Sanna, the more her ingenuousness starts to seem like a strategy to undermine fascism’s fathomless self-regard. Here she is, for example, standing in the crowds who have gathered to see the Führer but who must content themselves with a sighting of Göring, recognizable to all by his fancy suits:

[W]e all know from photographs that he likes to wear stylish suits. Though by now he’s really so well known he doesn’t need to make his mark by wearing striking clothes. … Then again, however, even established film stars can never let up—they have to keep showing their public the latest thing in fashion and elegance. I expect someone like Göring is obliged to think hard all the time, if he’s going to keep offering the German public something new. And men like that have to find time to govern the country as well. Take the Führer: he devotes almost his entire life to being photographed for his people. Just imagine, what an achievement! Having your picture taken the whole time with children and pet dogs, indoors and out of doors—never any rest. And constantly going about in aeroplanes, or sitting through long Wagner operas, because that’s German art, and he sacrifices himself for German art as well.

This is wonderful, especially, to me at any rate, that parenthetical description of the pictures Hitler has to take “indoors and out of doors”—I don’t know why that makes me laugh so much, but it does. And then of course there is the joke about Wagner—more obvious, maybe, but it comes with a sting, in its criticism of the idea of German (healthy) art as opposed to the degenerate art created by so many of Keun’s circle.

Keun had already perfected her use of the faux-naïve female narrator in her second novel, The Artificial Silk Girl (1932). It’s a wonderful book, you should absolutely read it, it reminds me of Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but the targets (big city sophisticates) are less dangerous, less necessary than those in After Midnight. The passage about Göring and Hitler is so brilliant because Sanna does sort of believe what she’s saying (she really does start out rather naïve, though she doesn’ end that way: even though the main action of the novel takes place only over two nights, Sanna ages a lot over the course of the book). Yet her reflections aren’t simply artless or simplistic. She shrewdly diagnoses fascism’s love of spectacle, and the energy it devotes to what is in some sense an endless publicity campaign for itself.

Keun suggests Sanna is able to see through appearances precisely because she is so attuned to them. Here she is describing a woman so desperate for a fox fur that she condescends to buy one from a Jewish furrier, a secret she must hide from fellow party members at all costs: “When she wears it, they look like a rich fur taking a poor woman for a walk.” At times like this, Sanna reminded me of the heroines of Jean Rhys’s novels, though Sanna has better luck than they do. Yet Rhys shares with Keun her belief in the observational power of otherwise disempowered, marginalized young women.

Whatever seems blithe, even careless in Sanna’s narration reveals itself as sly, even cutting. Indeed, she is more effective than more established critics of the regime, such as her stepbrother Algin, a once famous but now blacklisted writer who considers writing an epic poem extolling Hitler in order to get back into the regime’s good graces, or the journalist Heini, who “hardly writes at all these days—for political reasons again,” and whose only resistance now comes from introducing virulent anti-Semites to Jews without their knowing, then delighting after the fact in how readily they had become chummy with someone they purport to hate, a dismayingly risky tactic that might explain why he is so filled with self-loathing.

In a climactic speech, Heini explains that he “can’t be a witty and humorous journalist in this country or anywhere else with screams from German concentration camps in your ears.” Keun admires Heini but she doesn’t like him. Her novel imagines less official or perhaps officious or at any rate less male forms of resistance. But Heini isn’t entirely disparaged. His concluding peroration ends with some resonant sentences distinguishing today’s émigrés from those of previous generations:

It’s different today. You’re a poor emigrant. You’ll find any other country is smooth and hard as a chestnut shell. You become a trial to yourself and a burden on others. For the roofs that you see are not built for you. The bread that you smell is not baked for you. And the language that you hear is not spoken for you.

At the end of the book Sanna’s lover, Franz, finds her after several months of silence. It turns out he has been locked up by the Gestapo after having been informed on by a disgruntled neighbour. After his release he murders the man and is now on the run from the police; the end of the novel finds the couple on a train heading for the border, hoping to make it out of the country. Although sobered by recent dramatic events, Sanna once again finds herself inhabiting a position of strategic subordination that seems to be women’s lot in the novel: “My head is in Franz’s lap. I must seem to be weaker than I am, so that he can feel strong, and love me.” Shortly after this statement, the novel repeats Heini’s words:

 “The roofs that you see are not built for you. The bread that you smell is not baked for you. And the language that you hear is not spoken for you.”

The sentences are presented in quotation marks, but it’s unclear who says them. Does Sanna relate them to Franz? Or is she saying them to herself? But the previous line—“It will be all right, Franz, I am happy, we’re safe, we will live”—is not quoted, which suggests Sanna isn’t simply repeating Heini’s words to herself. It’s as if the words are coming from the text itself, from some position greater than Sanna’s. Are we to take the peculiar, unanchored appearance of Heini’s speech as a refutation of his prediction? In other words, is it a sign that the lovers will get away? Or is it a confirmation that they won’t?

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Maybe it’s none of these things. Maybe it’s a statement of Sanna’s predicament: to live in a world that doesn’t always take her seriously. “The language that you hear is not spoken for you”: that could be a description of the way Sanna is always threatened to be sidelined or disparaged. And yet of course she is the one in this novel who wields language so wittily and compellingly. In this sense, Keun argues that readers shouldn’t join in the cultural tendency to dismiss young women like Sanna (or indeed, like herself—she was only 32 when After Midnight was published). For in voices like Sanna’s we might find a resistance to authoritarianism worthy of the name.

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After Midnight is translated by Anthea Bell. She’s kept that vivid voice of Sanna’s that is so vital to the novel’s success. Yet I did wonder at some of her choices. Here’s the novel’s opening paragraph, in the original and then in Bell’s translation:

Einen Briefumschlag macht man auf und zieht etwas heraus, das beisst oder sticht, obwohl es kein Tier ist. Heute kam so ein Brief von Franz. “Liebe Sanna”, schreibt er mir, “ich möchte Dich noch einmal sehen, darum komme ich viellercht. Ich konnte Dir lange nicht schreiben, aber ich habe oft an Dich gedacht, das hast Du sicher gewusst und gefühlt. Hoffentlich geht es Dir gut. Viele herzliche Grüsse, meine liebe Sanna. Dein Franz.”

You can open an envelope and take out something which bites or stings, though it isn’t a living creature. I had a letter like that from Franz today. “Dear Sanna,” he writes, “I want to see you again, so I may be coming to Frankfurt. I haven’t been able to write for some time, but I’ve been thinking about you a lot. I’m sure you knew that, I’m sure you could feel it. All my love, dear Sanna, from Franz.”

Already in the first sentence, Keun indicates that this text will bite. But why does Bell say “living creature” rather than the more fitting “animal” or “beast”? And why does she use a modal auxiliary (can) to make this conditional when the original presents this as something that simply or always happens? Throughout we find subtle additions and elisions. Why does Bell add Sanna’s location? (Keun doesn’t mention Frankfurt.) Are English-language readers so unable to have their understanding deferred? And since she proves herself (rightly) willing to break English syntax and embrace comma splices, why does she break the long sentence starting “Ich konnte Dir lange nicht schreiben” in two, and, in so doing, to add a parallelism (“I’m sure you”) that isn’t there in the original? Lastly, why does she cut an entire sentence? (Before his salutation, Franz says, “I hope you are well.”).

I’m no translator, and Bell probably has good reasons for her choices. What’s more, his translation reads so smoothly and supplely that I was surprised, turning to the German, to see the alterations he’d made. But maybe that’s the point—to write something that sounds great in translation maybe you need a strong editorial hand. Anyone have thoughts on this?

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I started reading Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight the weekend before the US Presidential election: the book felt cautionary. I had to set it aside and couldn’t come back to it until the weekend after: now the book felt urgent. These are dangerous times. We need all the stories of resistance to power that we can get.

I wrote this review as part of German Literature Month, hosted by Caroline and Lizzy. There are many wonderful posts to read across the blogosphere.

Teaching Rhys

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I’ve taught Jean Rhys regularly for more than ten years: the quietly devastating story “Learning to be a Mother,” perfect for showing students how much you can say about something that seems at first glance so slight; the heartbreaking Good Morning, Midnight, with its hair-raising and endlessly discussable ending; and, most of all, my true Rhys-love, the marvelous Voyage in the Dark. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve taught this book, the third of Rhys’s five novels, but I know it’s never failed me yet. Even students who hate it get passionately caught up in our conversations. There’s a lot to talk about because Rhys’s fiction is such a challenge to how we talk about fiction.

Most of the things I have to say about Rhys come from the person who first introduced me to her, Molly Hite, now retired but when I knew her a professor of English at Cornell. The best courses I took in graduate school were the two I took with Molly. Anyone who’s been to graduate school knows that this could be faint praise, but Molly cared as much about her teaching as about the books she taught. And she cared about those a lot. Molly pressed Voyage on me the semester I was studying for my comprehensive exams. We were talking about an essay I wanted to write about representations of children in modernist literature. Molly said I had to add Voyage to my list. It’s about a girl who is eighteen, but none of the men she meets believe her when she says that, because, as one points out, women always say they’re either eighteen or twenty-two. This is just one instance in which Anna Morgan, the figure at the center of the novel, finds her lived reality butting up against dismissive patriarchal expectations.

Voyage isn’t obviously about childhood, but it turns out to be a smart way to think about the book. After all, Anna ends up pregnant, plagued by nightmares about the monstrous child within her that she desperately wants to abort, possibly at the cost of her own young life. After just the first few pages I saw how wonderful the book is. Molly was perhaps the only professor I knew in graduate school who really seemed to love reading, and I thrilled to that infectiousness. But I was also a little scared of Molly. Nothing unusual there, I was scared of most of my professors, but I felt it more strongly with her, probably because I cared about her opinion more than I did other professors’.

In my line of work, I often meet people who had very close, even nurturing relationships with their dissertation advisors. That was not my experience. Not that they were bad or hostile relationships. Just not close. But Molly was as close as I came to having a mentor. She cared the most about my writing, pushed me the hardest, and shaped my approach to reading most strongly. What she said to me about an essay I wrote on D. H. Lawrence’s The Fox has stayed with me: “You have to let the story be as weird as it is.” I say it to my students every semester, but these are words for every reader to live by.

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Although I didn’t know it at the time, this sentiment is expressed in Molly’s terrific essay on Jean Rhys, “Writing in the Margins” (published in The Other Side of the Story in 1989). Molly was modest enough not to tell me she’d written about Rhys, and in fact I can’t even remember when I read the article, not until I left grad school for my first job I think.

In an incisive critique of existing Rhys criticism, Molly says:

Both mainstream and feminist critics who admire Rhys’s fiction in effect try to settle her, accommodating her to [dominant cultural] presuppositions either by interpreting her as an alien and inferior sort of person who serves as an object of study (in the process sacrificing authorial empathy), or by interpreting her as Rhys’s own unexamined self-projection (in the process sacrificing authorial control).

The reason critics and ordinary readers alike feel the need to “settle” or domesticate Rhys’s fiction has everything to do with her particular, and to my mind highly experimental, conception of character. Molly says a lot of smart memorable things in this essay—you should totally read it, it’s quite accessible—but what sticks with me the most is her argument that our ideas of what fictional characters are supposed to be like are governed by an idea of voluntarism that simply doesn’t apply to protagonists like Anna Morgan.

By voluntarism, Molly means something like an unshakeable belief in willpower. The idea that characters—at least active, important, main characters, the kind E. M. Forster described in his engaging Aspects of the Novel as “round”—should change. They should make decisions, take charge of their actions, act on their wishes, shape the world around them. Rhys’s characters aren’t like that. But neither are they static, or minor, or clichéd or any of the things Forster says about what he calls “flat” characters.

What happens when a novel centers on someone who is unable to change or take charge or her circumstances? And not because of some kind of personality defect (she’s weak or stupid or passive) but because of who she is (a woman, young, poor, from a far-away place that most of the people who live in the country she’s moved to have never heard of and even when they have can’t take seriously: Anna, like Rhys, is from the Caribbean island of Dominica).

One of the first things I ask students about Anna is: what should we call her? Here I’m riffing off an anecdote Molly offers in the essay: a male student “remarked wonderingly that he wasn’t sure why we were taking a floozy so seriously.” I don’t think any of my students even know what a floozy is. But they have other names. Is Anna a pushover? A weakling? A depressive? A gold-digger? A space-cadet? An idiot? A heartless bitch? I’ve heard all these things. Most often, I hear some version of the half-plaintive, half-aggressive question: Why doesn’t she get her act together? As I tell those students, it’s quite revealing how Anna can upset us. The mostly privileged students I teach are deeply attached to the idea that those who work hard will succeed.

Ultimately, these conversations always turn on the question of whether Anna is a victim. As Molly puts it: “Rhys’s protagonists are victims who are fully aware of their victimization.” She adds:

Their awareness does not make them any less victimized, it serves only to make them self-conscious in their roles and thus alienated from the society that wants to identify them completely with these roles. Worst of all, because their situation as both marginalized and wholly conscious is impossible in the terms proposed by the dominant culture, the statements in which they express their awareness cannot have any acknowledged context.

They can speak in ways that are expected of them—but if they do they are dismissed. Or they can not speak at all. No wonder they are so unhappy.

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Yet Rhys’s characters are anything but inarticulate. The abiding interest of her novels lies in the presence of a distinctive consciousness that is pretty much unintelligible to the society in which she lives but possibly, if we’re willing to expand our expectations of literary character, intelligible to us. Especially in Rhys’s first person novels, this conundrum is expressed through narrative voice. I could talk for a long time about the many wonderful qualities of Voyage in the Dark—it’s a desert island book for me—but I don’t want to go on too long. Let me just give a few examples:

She can be funny and shrewd, as in this moment when the older man she falls in love with, a man who keeps her and later abandons her, leaves her some money:

I took the money from under my pillow and put it into my handbag. I was accustomed to it already. It was as if I had always had it. Money ought to be everybody’s. It ought to be like water. You can tell that because you get accustomed to it so quickly.

She is a fascinated observer of others—though what that observation is used for is harder to figure. Here she’s writing about how much she liked one of the women who worked in her father’s household in the Caribbean:

The thing about Francine was that when I was with her I was happy, She was small and plump and blacker than most of the people out there, and she had a pretty face. What I liked was watching her eat mangoes. Her teeth would bite into the mango and her lips fasten on either side of it, and while she sucked you saw that she was perfectly happy. When she had finished she always smacked her lips twice, very loud—louder than you could believe possible. It was a ritual.

Is this ritual positive? A kind of repetition compulsion? Does the passage express female desire, or, on the contrary a way of curbing it?

Notice how in both passages Anna uses “you.” This is characteristic, but oddly enough it doesn’t always make us feel closer to her, as when she says:

 I didn’t say anything. I put my face nearer the glass. Like when you’re a kid and you put your face very near to the glass and make faces at yourself.

You might do this, and you might not. The attempt to universalize—or at least widen—the behaviour actually ends up seeming estranging, though it doesn’t mitigate the pathos of this attempted challenge to the overwhelming power of female appearance. (A constant anxiety in the novel is that when women age, men will replace them with someone younger.)

Some similar examples:

Being afraid is cold like ice, and it’s like when you can’t breathe.

After a while I crossed everything out and began again, writing very quickly, like you do when you write

I felt emptied out and peaceful—like when you’ve had a toothache and it stops for a bit, and you know quite well it’s going to start again but just for a bit it’s stopped.

Or, finally, this description of depression:

But I stopped going out; I stopped wanting to go out. That happens very easily. It’s as if you had always done that—lived in a few rooms and gone from one to the other. … You feel peaceful but when you try to think it’s as if you’re face to face with a high, dark wall. Really, al you want is night, and to lie in the dark and pull the sheet over your head and sleep, and before you know where you are it is night—that’s one good thing. You pull the sheet over your head and think, “He got sick of me,” and “Never, not ever, never.” And then you go to sleep. You sleep very quickly when you are like that and you don’t dream either. It’s as if you were dead.

Rhys’s prose is at once affectless, even artless, and affecting. It’s carefully shaped; I’m struck by how the repetition of “you” distances at least as much as it draws us closer.

It’s always hard to know what to make of Rhys’s tone, once again, I’d say, because of the way the characters are at once powerless without being stupid or unaware. On the contrary they are highly aware, but that awareness only lets them see more clearly the prison they live in. As in this example, when Anna daydreams about being back at home and feeling that everything that’s happened to her—abandoned by her lover, without any money or prospects, and now pregnant on top of it all—is just a dream:

She’ll smile and put the tray down and I’ll say Francine I’ve had such an awful dream—it was only a dream she’ll say—and on the tray the blue cup and saucer and the silver teapot so I’d know for certain it had started again my lovely life—like a five-finger exercise played very slowly on the piano like a garden with a high wall round it—and every now and again thinking I only dreamt it it never happened…

How could we read that “lovely life” as anything but ironic, especially as it’s likened to a doubled metaphor of control and imprisonment—the piano exercise, the walled garden? And yet it’s more lovely than her current life, which has the ominousness of a dream she cannot escape.

Although I don’t think Molly was appreciated by her colleagues or the profession as much as she should have been, I don’t want to suggest that she and Rhys were the same. Yet I’ve a hunch that they had a few traits in common—at once brash and shy, both seem to me to be people the world hasn’t always know what to do with. (I’m writing as though Molly were dead! That’s so weird; I’m sorry. As best I can tell, she’s enjoying retirement in the Pacific Northwest.) But it does seem fitting that I can never read Rhys without thinking of Molly. Both were fiercely committed to the idea that books are always more off-putting, more ready to wrong-foot us, than we think, especially if we come to them with ready-made ideas of how they should work and what they should mean.

When Molly leant me her copy of Voyage in the Dark in the fall of 2001, Rhys wasn’t read that often. Most people knew her only as the author of Wide Saragasso Sea. I never studied her in a class. Fifteen years later, Rhys feels firmly canonical. Even more than her critical or academic acceptance, I take heart in the way non-specialist readers have embraced her, as evidenced by ReadingRhys week. I suspect that wherever she is, whatever she’s doing, beachcombing near Seattle maybe, Molly approves too.

“Even Stranger”: Two Serious Ladies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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