Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Anne Cohen (@aecnyc). Anne is a lifelong reader (preferably stretched out on couch or bed), retired lawyer, and former reporter. She lives in New York City with part of her family and two dogs and is firmly convinced that Book Twitter saved her from homicidal behavior in 2021.
Look for more reflections from a wonderful assortment of readers every day this week. Remember, you can always add your thoughts to the mix. Just let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter (@ds228).
Most beautifully-written book: Transit of Venusby Shirley Hazzard was the most exquisitely-written novel I read in 2021 but also one of the most frustrating. It was as if the plot and the characters were unworthy of the prose.
Am trying avoid spoilers, but the coyness of the last page infuriated me and even drove me to the internet for clarification. “WTF” endings don’t bother me; reader and narrator of The Sense of an Ending share the same information and deluded memories and are equally gobsmacked at the conclusion, and Kate Atkinson, whose A God in Ruins had a similarly tricksy ending, is a master of showing but not telling. Although the language was gorgeous, the last paragraph of Transit felt cheap.
(You still should read it.)
Second most beautifully-written book: Daddy’s Gone A’Hunting written by Penelope Mortimer and published in 1958 was also the most frightening book I read this year. Daddy is the story of Ruth, an upper-middle-class woman in her late 30’s trying to navigate the potential termination of her college-age daughter’s pregnancy (whose pre-marital conception was the impetus for Ruth’s own marriage).
The scary part was not just the ordinary shivers of recognition present in most good novels about families. Perhaps it is a function of my age and gender—Daddy and I were both born in the middle of the baby boom—but I was horrified by the sight of Ruth, already feeling old at 38!, being shamed as she searched for a physician who might be willing to terminate the pregnancy on behalf of her clueless and nasty daughter.
This year, I also read Mortimer’s biography of the Queen Mother, which is not scary, and her first volume of memoirs, About Time, which has as a central character her impious cleric father. (Maybe read it as a double feature with Priestdaddy.) I recently located a copy of her second volume, About Time Too, and it’s on my TBR stack.
Other wonderful fiction: Cathedral, by Ben Hopkins, hasn’t gotten as much attention as it deserves. I can’t get into The Constant Nymph, but Margaret Kennedy’s The Feast was enormous fun, beautifully written, and (spoiler alert) the right people survive; I also enjoyed her contemporaneous account of the early days of World War II, Where Stands a Winged Sentry, a country companion of sorts to a similar book about London read last year, Chelsea Concerto, by Frances Flavell. Daisy and The Six made me laugh when I was sick.
Lolly Willowes entranced me [Ed. – Paging Frances Evangelista!], as did both Scenes From Childhood, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s memoir and her collected letters. (Have not yet finished The Corner that Held Them or Summer Will Show.)
Also read and liked Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker, The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins, A Month in the Country, by J.L. Carr and several pieces of fiction by Tove Jansson. I was thrilled by parts of Gerard Reve’s The Evenings and wondered when other sections would end, which may have been the sensation the author intended.
Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour offered an instructive counterpoint to Transit: annoying characters, obsessive conduct, and an ending that made me want to go back to the beginning, but without feeling as if I’d been snookered along the way.
Not fiction but an elegant presentation of how an interesting woman’s actual life was commandeered by fiction and biography: The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith by Diane Johnson.
Biggest project of the year: Diaries and letters have always fascinated me and taken up significant space shelf. Their proportion in my reading diet has increased over the last 22 months, as I’m comforted by the notion that their authors didn’t know what was going to happen to them any more than we do now. [Ed. – Nicely put!]
Someone who was often wrong about the future was Henry “Chips” Channon, an American-born writer, pal of the rich, royal and merely titled from his late teens onward, member of the British Parliament, and from 1938 to 1941 a senior cabinet aide in the Foreign Office. The first two volumes (total 2000+ pages) of his unexpurgated diaries were published in 2021 and edited brilliantly by Simon Hefner, whose dazzling footnotes include some tart asides and everyone’s courtesy titles.
“Chips” knew everyone, and everyone appears in the diaries. He was a wrong-headed bigot, a sniveling acolyte of Neville Chamberlain, a toady to almost anyone with a royal title, and a nasty, insecure, self-important snob, who occasionally recognized his reputation as a well-connected lightweight.
What makes the diaries worth £35 each plus postage to the States is the astonishing range of Channon’s access and the detail of his descriptions— his failing marriage to a rich and titled woman, who left him for a horse dealer; events, including his dinner for Edward VIII, and Mrs. Simpson a month before the abdication; his crushes on a series of other well-connected men and his schemes to marry them off to “suitable” women; changes in society during the war, including his mother-in-law (“the richest woman in England”) doing without a cook; and the perfidy of his enemies of the moment. [Ed. – Ok, that sounds really good.]
My fascination with these books is more than historical. As someone who annually orders but doesn’t always use a big Smythson daybook, I’m reluctantly moved by dogged if not heroic maintenance of a diary for decades and even more by the willingness to write down so much of one’s deepest and often foolish feelings in real time.
A year for letters:Love From Nancy: The Letters of Nancy Mitford; The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh; Letters from Tove [Jansson]; Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner; Letters of E.B. White; and A Whole World: Letters From James Merrill.
Not surprisingly, there were many connections among Channon, Mitford and Waugh, who lived in a small world they thought was the whole.
But other connections were less expected—the Merrill letters were terrific, and not just because his frequently-mentioned mother and daughter Connecticut neighbors were novelist Grace Zaring Stone and Eleanor Stone Perenyi, author of both More Was Lost [Ed. – A long-time EMJ favourite!] and Green Thoughts: A Writer in The Garden, which I’d consulted only days before about dahlias.
The best connection came when I was alternating books—Hermione Lee’s biography of Willa Cather and the E. B. White letters—and suddenly realized the same “character” appeared in both: Cather’s good friend Elizabeth Sargent was also White’s sister-in-law Elsie, older sister of New Yorker editor and garden writer Katherine White. [Ed. — !]
Mysteries: Spine for spine, I probably read mysteries more than other category and can inhale a whole series of 10-15 books in a week. (Hey, I’m retired and read fast.) [Ed. – Goals!] This year, in addition to rereading half a dozen of Simenon’s Maigret books and the first few chapters of Busman’s Honeymoon, and adding to my list of books by E. C. R. Lorac, John Rhode, and Patricia Wentworth, I was introduced to Jane Haddam’s Gregor Demarkian, Craig Rice’s John Malone and pals, Delano Ames’s Jane and Dagobert Brown, and Elizabeth Daly’s Henry Gamadge.
Of these my favorite was probably the last, not for the quality of the story or the story-telling, but for the flavor of New York City in the early 1940s and the depiction of people for whom the world had changed since the turn of the century. Part of my attraction to mysteries, and especially those of the “Golden Age,” is the way they incidentally reflect the details of their time, whether clothes, food, manners, or relationships.
Audiobooks: I’m not snobbish about the idea of audiobooks but I’m picky about both the sound of the voice generally and the rightness of it for a specific work. These are obviously very subjective criteria; most people were probably thrilled by Patti Smith’s reading of Just Kids but I ripped off my headphones during the foreword.
I read quickly, sometimes too quickly (see possible explanation for my reaction to Transit of Venus), and so have been fascinated by my reaction to hearing books I’ve previously read. Listening to The Age of Innocence made me much more aware of Wharton’s humor and devastating nuance.
Some books—like The Thursday Murder Club—can be aural candy, perfect for walking the dogs; this is not a put down, at least from me. It’s also when I listen to the Backlisted podcast, whose fingerprints are all over this list.
What I Didn’t/Haven’t Finished: There are mystery tropes I can’t abide (especially the protagonist as suspect), and if one of those sneaks by my “blurb” filter, I’ll let it go. [Ed. – Almost as bad as “investigator’s loved one in danger”…]
Books not finished in 2021 but still open are Hamnet (and I loved I AM I AM I AM), as well as Klara and the Sun, Our Spoons Came From Woolworth’s, Shuggie Bain, and Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont. I couldn’t get into Adam Thorpe’s 1921, which broke my heart, because his work is so varied and usually so very good.
Best reading experience: Not the “best” book or the most interesting or important—but an almost out-of-body moment late one night propped up in bed with the five-book Percy Jackson series, which I’m reading along with an 11-year-old friend.
The apartment was quiet. Maybe it was Percy’s adolescent demi-god angst, but for a sudden moment, I was in my childhood bedroom, trying not to wake up my sister and hearing my father’s voice at the door, telling me to go to sleep. Sam died almost 25 years ago, and it was nice to have him back for that instant.
Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Bryce Sears (@BryceSears5). Bryce, one of the nicest people on Book Twitter (which is saying something), is an avid reader and writer who lives in Oakland.
Look for more reflections from a wonderful assortment of readers every day this week and next. Remember, you can always add your thoughts to the mix. Just let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter (@ds228).
I kept up in 2021 a trend toward escapism in my reading. I’ve been on this kick about five years – a habit of reading a lot more fiction and a lot less non-fiction than I used to. I used to read a lot of history; the one piece of non-fiction I read last year was a travelogue – Kapka Kassabova’s Border. It was terrific, to my thinking, as you can see below. [Ed. – Straight up honest to God terrific, Bryce; it’s not just you!] Later, reading a few pages of its follow-up, To the Lake, I found it all a bit depressing, thinking about facts and history. It was this thing I’m dealing with. My view, I guess, is that the world is on fire. In a dozen different ways at least. So I’m voting to put it out. I’m volunteering and protesting. [Ed. – I admire you!] But also, for the sake of my own mental health, I might need more breaks from thinking about our predicament.
Such a cheery opening! The other thing helping with my mental health is my homelife. Two years ago my wife and I bought a house in Oakland. So, we’re doing a lot of work digging up strange things in our back yard, etc. [Ed. – Uh, how strange? Like dead body strange???] We have a three-year-old son who is delightful. His interest in books has really taken off. I spend a lot of time reading with him when I’m not writing or reading books for myself.
The Vet’s Daughter, and some other works by Barbara Comyns
Barbara Comyns is the writer I was most thrilled to discover this year. I was surprised. I tend to like best stories about people (to paraphrase Diane Williams in her recent interview with Merve Emre) dealing with the life we’re all stuck in. For a long time now, I haven’t tended to go in much for stories with magical or supernatural elements. If this sounds like you, too, don’t let it keep you from Comyns. Somehow, the supernatural in her stories isn’t startling (or at least I don’t find it so). It might be her prose, which is both cool and somehow scintillating. It might be the way she links the supernatural elements in her stories to the mental health of her protagonists. In The Vet’s Daughter, my favorite of the books of hers I’ve read, the supernatural in the story appears (at least as I read it) to come as a reaction the protagonist is having to a pervasive threat of violence. Which is to say it feels like a state of shock. It adds something to our sense of what the protagonist is feeling.
Or it could be my tastes are changing.
In any case, in addition to The Vet’s Daughter, the other books I read by Comyns this year are The Juniper Tree, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, and Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead. They’re all quite different from one another. I liked The Juniper Tree best, but ask me again tomorrow. Saying I like this Comyns better than this other Comyns is almost no better than saying ‘I prefer apples to oranges’.
The Remains of the Day, and some other works by Kazuo Ishiguro
I’m not sure when I would have read Ishiguro if not for Book Twitter. Somehow, years ago, I got it into my head that I’d find his work cinematic in some off-putting way. The Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson adaptation of The Remains of the Day was so famous. Before I got around to reading that one an adaptation of Never Let Me Go came out, and it also got a big hoopla. I got the sense Ishiguro’s work must be reductive, somehow. Well, as I’m sure everyone else knew, it isn’t. The books behind these two movies are so very much better than the movies. I should have had more faith in literature.
My first Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day, was likely the first book I finished in 2021, going by my Twitter history. And what a revelation it was. Later in the year I read An Artist of the Floating World, and Never Let Me Go. Now I have five additional, as yet unread, Ishiguros in a stack on the shelves next to me. They make me feel rich.
Happening, and some other works by Annie Ernaux
I was a bit obsessed with Annie Ernaux in 2021. I read Happening, A Man’s Place, A Woman’s Story, and I Remain in Darkness (all translated by Tanya Leslie). I read The Possession(tr. Anna Moschovakis). Over a period of months I reread Happening, A Girl’s Story (tr. Alison L. Strayer), and Simple Passion (tr. Tanya Leslie). These are all short, auto-fictional stories that feel like memoirs.
The confessional quality of these books is one thing that draws me to them. Another is the skepticism Ernaux displays in her writing. She tries to make clear, as she writes about events in her past, how little she knows of the women she used to be, how false it would be to pretend to walk in the shoes of these younger selves. [Ed. – Nicely put!] She goes out of her way to avoid exaggeration. And I find this humility so refreshing.
One last word on Ernaux. My favorite work of hers is Happening. It is quite harrowing – the story of an abortion Ernaux had in 1963, when she was 23 and abortion hadn’t yet been decriminalized in France. If I could I’d have everyone in the US read this book. It strikes me we could do worse here, where many women will likely face choices soon like the ones Ernaux faced, than encourage people to understand what it was like for this particular woman – a white woman, highly educated, in 1960s France. I’m not a teacher, but I think it’d make a nice class discussion, a group of close readers considering how the situation might vary in the US for people of color, for people with less access to information of the sort Ernaux had, etc.
Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry
West Texas, where I grew up, is the part of Texas where all the worst Texas clichés come to life. The whitest, most reactionary part. I always wanted out of it. I might have become a reader in part to avoid it. Which is all by way of an excuse for not having read a western before last year. Still, I picked a great book to begin with.
Lonesome Dove was the most absorbing book I read in 2021. It’s a big, twisty story, rich with joyful writing (I mean, it is often dark, but you can tell McMurtry enjoyed writing it). It struck me as escapist in the plainest sense of the word – it took me to a very different world from my own. The jokes worked for me. Consider the wry twist of this line that comes when Gus, the protagonist (I think, it could be Call), gives a junior partner money for a prostitute, then reminisces (in free indirect): “Best to help boys have their moment of fun, before life’s torments snatched them away.” Or this line, Gus again (he gets a lot of the best jokes), talking to Call, claiming he indulges in remorse for his mistakes so often that the pain on each indulgence isn’t “much worse than a dry shave.” Or these lines, near the climax of the story, when another character (called Pea Eye – his name is its own joke), is on the run: “His feet were swollen to twice their size, besides being cut here and there. Yet they were the only feet he had, and after dozing for an hour in the sun, he got up and hobbled on.” You can see McMurtry building out his characters with these jokes. You can see him building the world they live in, which he leans into the hardness of. One character lives with a leaky gunshot wound in his stomach. The book begins with two pigs “having a fine tug-of-war” with a rattlesnake they’ve found.
Slowly, drawn along by the humor and descriptive power of the writing, I think most readers of Lonesome Dove will find themselves hooked by its story. I did. It can worry me sometimes, the feeling I’ve been hooked. I’ve read a lot of bad writing in books after finding myself interested in a story (the writing was often bad in the beginning of these books, when I wasn’t hooked and should have given them up). Here, reading Lonesome Dove, I found myself wanting to know what would happen when the big cattle drive got underway. What would happen with Gus, who had seemed to have a pretty empty life in Lonesome Dove. I wanted to know if Newt would find out about his parentage. If Laurie would make it to San Francisco. It worried me, the sense I was getting hooked, letting my guard down. But I don’t think it should have. I read Lonesome Dove last summer. Time has passed, and now I’m flipping through it again. And already want to reread it.
Other writers I enjoyed in 2021
Anita Brookner tops the list of writers I discovered last year, and loved, but am still just getting to know. I read Look at Me,Hotel du Lac, and Latecomers. They’re all terrific. [Ed. — “Hartmann, a voluptuary, lowered a spoonful of brown sugar crystals into his coffee cup, then placed a square of bitter chocolate on his tongue, and, while it was dissolving, lit his first cigarette.”]
Another writer I greatly enjoyed reading is Tove Jansson. I read The True Deceiver last year and The Summer Book the year before (I think). I’d really like to read Fair Play soon and her stories (and maybe the Moomin stories, too).
I reread Beckett’s Molloy last year. I read Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star. Thinking of these books gave me pause in saying Lonesome Dove was the most absorbing book I read last year. I was locked into both from the start.
I read The Copenhagen Trilogy, the three-part memoir by Tove Ditlevsen, which is devastating. I read Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, my first Tokarczuk. And now I want to read everything she has written, or will write.
I read, as mentioned above, Kapka Kassabova’s Border last year. It is so good. I think I sold it short above calling it a travelogue. Border strikes me as meditative work. Its use of language is gorgeous. Dorian recommended this one, and I read it as a group read with Kim McNeill, Catherine Eaton, and Naguib Mechawar. I benefited greatly from their thoughts on it. The next Kassabova I’d like to read is To the Lake: a Balkan Journey of War and Peace. Just need to find the nerve. [Ed. – It’s worth it!]
I read Toni Morrison’s Jazz for the first time last year, and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Both are phenomenal. NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names is so good, and I wanted live forever in the strange mysteries of The Taiga Syndrome (tr. Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana), by Christina Rivera Garza.
I could go on – I haven’t mentioned Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon, or Grace Paley’s Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, or Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas, or Cynan Jones’s The Dig, or Andrea Bajani’s If You Kept a Record of Sins, …, or … or …. But I have to make myself quit.
I’ve really enjoyed writing this. Thanks for reading.
Strange little month. Epic snow storm (20 inches!) and record cold snap (below freezing for a week, pretty intense for these parts) kept us busy frolicking in the snow and dealing with burst pipes. A week later 70 degree temps reminded us of the hot weather coming. I flailed in my writing, though I did manage to publish this piece I was proud of. As pleased to get my second shot as frustrated that my parents, in Canada, have yet to have even the first. Our daughter turned 10, a happy-making and bewildering occurrence. And of course I read a few books.
Georges Simenon, The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien (1931) Trans. Linda Coverdale (2014)
A group of men, friends since their student days, are haunted by past misdeeds. Maigret traipses around Europe to solve the case. You can’t expect me to remember more than that, it’s been four weeks!
David Shneer, Grief: The Biography of a Holocaust Picture (2020)
Dmitri Baltermants (1912—1990) was a Jewish Soviet photojournalist who took iconic pictures at Stalingrad and in newly liberated Berlin, edited a prestigious photography magazine, and successfully navigated life under Stalin and Khrushchev. Despite a long and storied career, he is best known for one photograph, which came to be known as “Grief.” Sent to the Crimea in January 1942 after its initial liberation from German occupation, Baltermants photographed relatives grieving over the corpses of their loved ones on the site of a mass grave near Kerch. These were victims of Nazi reprisals, shot when the Germans retreated from the city in late December. (They would retake Kerch in May 1942, before the Soviets expelled them for the last time in April 1944.) In the six weeks of this first occupation, the Germans executed about 7000 Jews, both locals and refugees from Poland and elsewhere in the Ukraine, turning a Soviet anti-tank trench near the city into a five-kilometer-long mass grave.
As Shneer (z”l) shows, Baltermants took several striking photos that cold January day. But state media seized on one in particular and made it central to Soviet commemoration of Nazi atrocities. In keeping with Soviet refusal to recognize the Holocaust as a Jewish tragedy, “Grief” depicts non-Jewish survivors and victims. (Jewishness is literally the photo’s invisible substrate: by the time it was taken, the region’s Jewish victims were already buried in the mass grave, with no one left to search for them.) Yet it was increasingly marketed and understood as a Holocaust photo, especially once it was exhibited around the world in the 1960s and 70s, where it segued from historical document to artistic commodity.
The photo that impressed so many curators and art lovers was not the one Baltermants first took. As he prepared his work for exhibition he was increasingly bothered by blemishes in the sky on the original negative. In keeping with the norms of Soviet photojournalism—in which montage and editing was an accepted, even admired way to tell a greater truth—he revised the image, producing a new one “by overlaying a second negative with an undamaged sky to replace the flaw in the exposure” and then retouching the composite. What this means is: the dramatic clouds, so central to the power of the image as it has come to be known, are from somewhere else altogether. (The actual day of Baltermants’s visit was overcast: leaden rather than anguished.) This needn’t be understood as falsification or ideology. In the conclusion to his book, Shneer argues:
the tension between documentation and aestheticization demonstrates why Grief is the ideal image to serve as an iconic Holocaust photograph. … Its inclusion in the icons of Holocaust photographs broadens what we mean by the Holocaust and chips away at the term’s parochialism and nationalism.
Shneer comments intriguingly on the Kerch memorial today, caught up in Russia’s annexation of Crimea, arguing that the memorial to the atrocities has both been reclaimed as a public Jewish space while still being embedded in a broader pan-Soviet context (Jews finally get to be recognized as a victim group, but only so much). But his conclusions about contesting Holocaust parochialism remain entirely suggestive. He never develops what this would mean and how to navigate the ethics of using a photo without any Jews in it to comemmorate a primarily Jewish genocide.
Grief: The Biography of a Holocaust Photograph is frustrating and disappointing, from its subtitle onward. (How can a photograph have a biography?) It flirts with being many things—a biography of Baltermants, a history of Soviet photography, a disquisition on the Russian art market after the collapse of the USSR—without actually becoming any of them. And cultural history/cultural studies, Shneer’s preferred methodologies, are not for me. I wanted to blame the publishers for falsely marketing the book as Holocaust scholarship, but the final chapter proves that Shneer wants to own the designation But he simply never convinces.
I feel bad saying this, as Shneer, who I met once and found delightful, as I think did everyone who knew him, was ill with brain cancer as he completed the book. He died weeks after its publication. But I also don’t think he’d want readers to give him a pass. So I’ll say it again: this book is a mess.
Dominique Goblet, Pretending is Lying (2007) Trans. Sophie Yanow in collaboration with the author (2017)
After many years, Belgian comic artist Dominique Goblet (or at least the version of herself featured in this brilliant comic) takes her daughter to visit her father and his second wife. While the father finds ways to disparage Goblet and insult his wife, the little girl amuses herself by drawing a picture of her friend. The step-grandmother—drawn by Goblet as half alien, half Edvard Munch Scream figure—remarks on the friend’s long hair.
She doesn’t have long hair, little Nikita offhandedly remarks.
But look at the picture, replies the woman, already disproportionately angered. In the picture she has long hair.
Oh, that’s just a character, says the child. (Precocious!)
Which prompts the woman, in a fit of Platonist totalitarianism, to rage: “PRETENDING IS LYING, IT’S LYING! PRETENDING IS LYING!”
Aside from making it chillingly clear how messed up the father’s household is, this scene also alerts us to the text’s interest in creation. That self-awareness isn’t cerebral, though. Or if so then only as a necessary, self-preserving response to strong, often violent emotions.
Pretending is Lying considers various moments in Goblet’s life, from her childhood with her blustering, abusive father and her creative yet fragile and, in her own way, punishing mother to her own life as a parent via the story of a once-promising but soon-floundering love affair. Although the father takes up the most oxygen, I found the mother more interesting. The same person who, by a magical sleight of hand, diverts young Goblet from a meltdown when she trips on the sidewalk and rips her tights (she whips them off the sobbing child and puts them on backwards—the child, none the wiser, is amazed) later locks her daughter in the attic on a rainy day when the restless child won’t settle to anything. This traumatic experience is juxtaposed to the father’s absorption in the 1973 Dutch Grand Prix, in which Roger Williams’s car overturned and burst into flame: only one other driver, David Purley, stopped and tried to rescue him almost by himself, to no avail. Apparently, Purley and the ineffectual race marshals could hear Williams screaming as he burned alive. The event is horrible, both in Goblet’s remarkable rendering and in this video, mawkish music aside.
The terrified child, the crazed mother, the raging father (a fire-fighter, he is convinced he could have saved the day): everything’s going wrong at once; the scene is one of the most harrowing things I’ve read in a while. And yet there is also so much tenderness in the book: in one scene, Goblet’s daughter is scared to sleep in a strange bedroom, mostly because it has a giant graffiti of a snarling man on the wall. Goblet tells Nikita, “You have to laugh at the things that scare you, you’ll see, it works with everything!” What follows is a lovely row of panels in which the little girl tentatively thumbs her nose at the image, giggles to herself, and falls asleep smiling.
As befits the book’s emotional scope, Goblet draws in all kinds of styles, from careful line drawings to expressionist exaggeration to washes of abstraction; she accompanies these images with gorgeously varied and expressive lettering (she hand-lettered the English translation herself). The result is beautiful; a book you could read many times and keep finding new things to notice, a triumphant rebuke to the argument that imitation is dangerous because it falsifies.
Andrea Camilleri, The Safety Net (2017) Trans. Stephen Sartarelli (2020)
After reading almost 20 of these, I’ve finally noticed how often the Montalbano books begin with the detective surfacing from a dead sleep. That struggle seems to be harder to overcome as he ages, as if Camilleri had been preparing for his detective to die. (I gather he deposited a final installment with his publisher before his own death in 2019.) The Safety Net offers more of the usual complicated to-ing and fro-ing and mixing of cases, all of which is mere background to Camilleri’s specialties: describing food and fulminating against Italian governments. In this investigation, Montalbano has to spend time with teenagers and that could have gone badly, but Camilleri gracefully lets his character value what contemporary technology allows rather than bemoan the hell it consigns us to.
Andrea Camilleri, The Sicilian Method (2017) Trans. Stephen Sartarelli (2020)
A meatier plot than usual, which turns on the similarity of dramaturgy to detection. What, Montalbano wonders, does it mean to be the one pulling the strings? And who is doing the pulling? The detective/director, or the suspects/actors? And where is the audience in all of this? Ends with a surprise; curious to see if this development is followed through on in the remainder of the series.
Rachel Howzell Hall, And Now She’s Gone (2020)
PI novel with a twist. Rader Consulting has a secret mission: most of the time its agents look for missing people, but sometimes they help people go missing, specifically women who are escaping abusive partners. Grayson Skye, newly promoted to investigator from desk work, is herself one of those women. (That explains the preposterous name.) Still recovering from a burst appendicitis (not to mention some pretty serious PTSD) Grayson suddenly has even more on her plate: her first case proves more complicated than she’d like (the woman she is supposed to find begs to be left alone—but is she telling the truth?) and the worst part of her past catches up with her. Very busy, this novel, too much so. The jagged chronology is more irritating than effective. Yet I still devoured it over a weekend, especially enjoying its depiction of some unglamorous neighbourhoods in LA and Las Vegas.
Brilliant retelling of Wuthering Heights replete with unreliable narrators in the Ishiguro mode. (At least three main ones, not counting many small instances of gossip and storytelling along the way.) The outermost of these nested tellers is Mizumura herself. At one point she considers the Japanese tradition of an “I Novel,” comparing it to the invisible, omniscient narrator more prominent in Europe. (I summarize badly.) The main thing I disagree with in this fine summary of the novel is the reviewer’s suggestion that this digression is dull. To my mind, it’s central to the book’s project. Are writers supposed to tell us about themselves or about others? To tell what they know (the truth, their own perspective) or what they surmise, imagine, make up (the novel)? If the latter, how do we do justice to others? Can we overcome our prejudices toward them? These are the big questions of narrative, art, and politics that A True Novel explores. The main prejudices in evidence in the story concern family background and economic status. What happens when those don’t align, as is the case of the Heathcliff figure, Taro Azuma, who is born poor and of “mixed stock” in Manchuria but who becomes hugely wealthy?
I know I’m not doing A True Novel justice. Suffice it to say: I adored the book, raced through it (even though it’s 850 pages), and was sad when it ended. In fact, I haven’t found anything to match it, even though I’ve read a fair few good things since. It was even more fun reading alongside some smart, knowledgeable, and generous Twitter friends. Shout out to translator Juliet Winters Carpenter, too, who has done amazing work here, as best I can tell. I’ll be reading more Mizumura soon, that’s for sure.
Joan Silber, Improvement (2017)
A novel with as many strands as a Turkish kilim, one which belongs to one of the characters at its center. (The point, though, is that there isn’t a center to either rug or novel but rather a web of relationships, some clear and some glimpsed only in passing.) The story moves from New York to Turkey to Berlin: the mish-mash of locales could have been a mess, but it works. Or at least it did for me as I was reading it. I was reminded of Tessa Hadley, Esther Freud, a little of Laurie Colwin, and talked it up on social media. But now, a couple of weeks later, I can hardly remember a thing about it. (There’s a good bit about a woman who visits a man in prison, I remember that.) I’d been keen to read Silber’s backlist but now… *looks at piles of unread books climbing like mould spores up the walls * probably not.
Francis Bennett, Making Enemies (1998)
Terrific spy novel set in 1947, when the West begins to realize how different the Soviets’ beliefs and methods are from their own. The rest of the great powers are trying to catch up to the Americans and create a hydrogen bomb. Britain, though, is broke and would really prefer not to devote resources it doesn’t have to the project. What if the Russians felt the same? Is someone in the government sending them coded olive branches to this effect? The novel has two plot lines: one following a widowed atomic physicist in Moscow; the other concerning a young British political influencer, recently returned, disillusioned, from Berlin. These characters turn out to be connected; Bennett convincingly melds personal and political.
This thriller is more chess-game/byzantine bureaucracy than cool gadgets/explosions. The best part of the book, though, is a section set in Finland, featuring a thrilling chase on skis. In general, Finland comes across very appealingly. As does Making Enemies. Well written without drawing attention to itself; complicated without being ridiculous. (Impressive for a spy novel, in my experience.)
In keeping with his debut’s ethos of modesty, Bennett only wrote three novels. I’ve managed to track down used copies of the other two (together they form a trilogy) and can’t wait for them to show up. Thanks to Retroculturati for the tip.
Sarah Moss, Summerwater (2020)
Summerwater is not as good as Moss’s two historical novels, Signs for List Children (2014) and Bodies of Light (2016), or 2018’s Ghost Wall (with which it pairs nicely), but it’s really good. The setting is a holiday resort on a loch in Scotland. (But because UK “resort” means some not especially amazing cabins in the middle of nowhere.) It’s the beginning of summer: the day is long, but not bright, in fact cold, rainy, and thoroughly miserable. The holidaymakers are questioning their decision. In a series of short sections, we move among several perspectives—a husband and wife with young children, a husband and wife with really young children, the teenage daughter and son of an older couple, an elderly couple who are the only ones to actually own their cottage. At one point each thinks, usually darkly, about the extended family of foreigners whose nightly parties torment, or bemuse, them. (The foreigners are variously described as Romanians and Bulgarians, but at least one of them is from nowhere more glamorous/threatening than Glasgow.) These sections are interspersed with even shorter ones written from the perspective of trees, birds, and animals. Even more than the human characters, these nonhuman beings experience the deluge as dangerous; the possibility of starving to death recurs.
As usual in Moss, violence—threatened and actual; physical, emotional, and sexual; hidden and open—is everywhere, not least in a dramatic conclusion. There are also many more ordinary events: the effort required to shepherd bored or fretful children through a wet day, the various negotiations couples navigate at various life stages, the secrets people keep from each other, especially regarding their fantasies. (A minor thesis of the book is that the older women get the fewer fucks they give that their men know their fantasies don’t include them.) I love how Moss leaves things unsaid: how exactly did a child’s shoe end up on the shore? What will happen to Justine’s health? What’s the deal with that guy in the tent?
My only criticism is that Moss’s control over the various voices felt uneven. The free indirect discourse changes to match each character, as it should, and yet the prose mostly feels the same. It sounds more like Moss than like any of her characters. I mean, that’s a contradiction built into free indirect discourse, but at times Summerwater exhibits a lack of control in a writer who otherwise feels fully in control of her descriptions of how little control we have over our lives. (I wouldn’t mind if Moss were a little wilder, honestly.)
A final word: the jacket of the US edition is gorgeous, a scene wrapping across front and back covers of a black loch against even blacker mountains with only an initially puzzling scrawl of red in the center of the image. The design is by June Pak, who I have now followed on Instagram. The image doesn’t reproduce well and I had to return my copy to the library anyway, and for some reason I can’t find the whole thing on line, but here is the front bit anyway.
Marga Minco, An Empty House (1966) Trans. Margaret Clegg (1990)
Moving and effective novel about the aftermath of the Holocaust, even better than Minco’s quasi-autobiography Bitter Herbs. Set on three days—June 28, 1945; March 25, 1947; April 21, 1950—it follows Sepha, who, alone of her family, has survived the war in hiding, and who falls into a hasty marriage with a man she meets in the resistance. He plunges into a career in journalism, she flounders except for an interlude in the south of France, entering into various affairs that she enjoys but not enough to keep up for long. Throughout she visits with her friend Yolanda, another survivor. Yolanda is tormented by guilt at surviving; Sepha is sympathetic but unmoved. Readers, however, will be moved by their relationship—especially its ending—for Minco manages to keep their disagreement from feeling schematic. To that end, she deftly uses motifs and time shifts, which challenge the idea of continuous experience without making a big deal about it. As its title suggests, the novel is filled with empty houses—whether the various places in hiding Sepha recalls, a cherished bolt hole in France, the new house she and her husband are set to move into at the novel’s end, or, most powerfully, her childhood home, now inhabited by someone else, to which she returns like a criminal to the scene of the crime—only the crime, as she reminds Yolanda, was perpetrated by others on the likes of them.
Hans Keilson, Da steht mein Haus: Errinerungen [There Stands My House: Memories; alternatively, My House is There: Memoirs] (2011) Hrsg. Heinrich Detering
Keilson began this collection of autobiographical fragments in the 1990s, when he was in his 80s and beginning to wind down his long-running psychoanalytic practice. He’d written three novels and some poetry, but that was long ago. A decade later, now almost blind, he returned to the pieces, pruning and ordering them for publication. With the help of the literary scholar Heinrich Detering—whose conversation with Keilson ends the volume—the book was released soon after Keilson turned 100 and had become the subject of renewed interest in both Germany and the US. (I wrote about Keilson’s wartime diary a few years ago; that book too is worth reading.)
In short sketches that make full use of the roving quality allowed by German-language syntax, Keilson describes his childhood in Freienwalde an der Oder, a town near the Polish border where lumber and small-time health spas were the main industries. Keilson’s father managed a store (his wife ran it ably, maybe better than he did when he served on the western Front in WWI). Keilson’s parents were active in the local Jewish community, although her education, in her hometown at the foot of the Silesian mountains, a place now in Poland, was much stronger than his. (Keilson recalls her prompting him for the weekly Shabbat prayers and describes his ambivalent feelings about her unselfconscious voice in the women’s choir.) Keilson was a sporty kid—there are some great passages on ice skating—and also musical. Both experiences came in handy later, when he taught at a Jewish sports club in Berlin and paid his way through medical school by playing trumpet in a jazz band.
Despite his late success as a doctor and therapist, Keilson had never been particularly scholarly, though he vividly remembers presenting a Heine poem only to have a classmate student object: a Jewish student reciting a Jewish poet was “fouling the nest.” That moment, in the late 1920s, marked the first time Keilson sensed the change that would envelope him, his family, and his community. The memoir is filled with little but telling moments like this. By contrast, Keilson says little about his flight to Holland in 1936, at the urging of his non-Jewish wife, and his time living under a false identity during the war, where he first encountered the orphans he would make his postwar analytic reputation helping. He does describe how he managed to get his parents to Holland right before the war and how they decided against going underground, citing age, ill-health, and general exhaustion at a world that had so betrayed them. They were murdered in Birkenau.
In the afterword, Detering asks Keilson if he ever thought of going back to Germany. He did, after all, continue to write in the language. Keilson answers that he couldn’t. The moment he learned of his parents’ murder, he stopped being a German. Moreover, he knew he couldn’t work as an analyst for German patients. Regardless of their personal culpability they would always feel too guilty towards him; that would be fatal for successful therapy. At which point Detering expostulates, “Das klingt alles so vernünftig” [That sounds so reasonable]. Keilson responds: “Aber ich bin so vernünftig, Heinrich, sonst hätte ich nicht überlebt! [“But I am reasonable, Heinrich, I wouldn’t have survived otherwise.”] Reason was a gift, a talent [eine Begabung] that he used to help himself.
This exchange gives a good sense of Keilson: a similar calmness and wisdom, maybe evenhandedness is the best description, colours these reminiscences. He writes about his parents as if they were people he had known long ago—not that he is distant to them, his whole life was ruled by their loss, but he is so fair to them, so loving in his equanimity, presenting their kindnesses and their cruelties (especially on the father’s part). Even a brief scene describing a time when, aged 10, he caught a glimpse of his mother’s half-naked body is anything but prurient. He and Detering talk a lot about what it’s like to be so old, so close to death. Keilson knows he had a good life, despite everything; knows too what he did to further that sense of satisfaction.
In the last section of the memoir, Keilson describes an encounter on his daily walk—he was 91 at the time and could still get around. Only a few hundred meters from his house he meets a child playing in the street. The boy says to him, matter of factly, You are very old. Keilson agrees. And how old are you? Three, the boy proudly responds. Without warning, he picks up his toy to run home, but not before pausing to yell, Where do you live?
Right near here, Keilson shouts back.
Just straight ahead, then turn left and go up the street. My house is right at the intersection.
The boy is satisfied. In the distance a woman’s voice calls him home.
Keilson walks straight ahead, turns left, and, at the intersection, finds his house, here, in Holland.
A lovely end to a lovely book of a lovely life.
I didn’t mean to read two books by Dutch survivors preoccupied by houses back-to-back: sometimes the reading life has its reasons of which reason knows nothing. An English translation of the memoirs was published in Australia, but I couldn’t get it: no library in North America either had it or was willing to lend it to my college’s library. Shame.
Barbara Yelin, Irmina (2014) Trans. Michael Waaler (2016)
Nineteen-year-old Irmina von Behdinger arrives in London in 1934, thrilled to escape her stultifying home in Stuttgart and excited to study typing. For a while, she lives with a host family. Later she is taken on by an eccentric Countess, a former Suffragette who buys her a bicycle and takes her to various Labour party events. One day, a distant relative takes her to a cocktail party, where she’s prickly and bored stiff until she meets Howard, a student from Barbados on a full scholarship to Oxford. They become friends—punting on the Cherwell, strolling through Hyde Park (where, as a mixed-race couple, they narrowly escape a gang of Blackshirts)—and inch toward becoming lovers. But then the Countess asks Irmina to find somewhere else to live—she feels obliged to take in a Jewish refugee—and Irmina has no choice but to return home. She settles in Berlin, putting her English to use as a translator in the Reich Ministry of War. All the while she writes to Howard, dodges the advances of ardent fascists, and angles for a posting in England.
A series of events conspire to keep her in Germany, where she eventually marries one of the ardent fascists, has a child, looks the other way at things she doesn’t want to deal with, and enjoys the advantages that come from having a husband in the SS. By 1942 she is a single mother (her husband is on the Eastern Front) seeking refuge from bombing raids and roughly answering her son’s questions about an impromptu auction in the street over the goods from an expropriated house (What are they doing? What is a Jew?) with Nazi vitriol: “The Jews are our misfortune.”
Decades later, in the early 1980s, Irmina, now widowed, receives an official letter from Barbados. The secretary to the Governor General, Sir Howard Green, writes on behalf of his employer: would the esteemed Mrs. von Behdinger consider visiting? The trip—centered on a birthday party for Howard’s adult daughter, herself named Irmina—is a mixed success. The past can’t be overcome, but old ties still mean something. Everywhere she goes the now grey-haired woman, in her sensible outfits, is introduced as “the brave Irina.” Howard has described her that way for decades, partly because he doesn’t know what became of her life and partly because he can’t let himself think about that life.
Hamburg-based bookseller Buchi, as she is known on Twitter, recommended Irmina to me, and I’m so glad she did. It’s smart, beautiful, moving: really impressive. Yelin’s delicate lines, and subdued palette (all greys, blues, and sepia yellows) demand that we linger on her images, even as the story pulls us forward. The panels create alternating rhythms, with regular small boxes interspersed with gorgeous two-page spreads. A fine afterword by the Holocaust and genocide scholar Alexander Korb fills in some of the historical background. (Irmina is based on Yelin’s grandmother, though it’s unclear how closely.) An excellent book for anyone who has ever wondered, How could so many ordinary Germans be drawn to National Socialism? Yelin’s answer is particular rather than general; it has no sweeping thesis. She never gives Irmina a pass, never lets us think, Well, she’s just an old woman now, no harm done. But she also has sympathy for roads not taken, missed encounters, and wrongs that can’t be apologized for. Check out Yelin’s site for more of her work: I especially enjoyed this short film about her current project, illustrating a Holocaust survivor’s memories.
A good reading month. A True Novel was the best, no question. That will be on my end of year list, I’m sure. But Yelin and Goblet, the two graphic memoirs, were great. Keilson, Minco, Bennett, and Moss too.
I recently added my thoughts on twelve favourite short stories to The Personal Anthology. I thank Jonathan Gibbs, the editor of this valuable project, for the invitation to contribute. (Do browse the archives—you’ll find all kinds of things worth reading.) I made my choices based on my experience teaching short fiction. In doing so, I had to leave off many worthy candidates. So even though nobody asked for it, here’s a baker’s dozen more wonderful stories.
“Nervous” by Robert Walser, translated by Christopher Middleton
Walser’s little prose texts, scribbled on bits of paper, published in feuilletons across German-speaking Europe, are one of the glories of 20th century literature. Amazingly, they are finally getting their due in English. But thanks especially to the efforts of poet and translator Christopher Middleton, some of his work already appeared in English in the 1980s, including one of my favourites, “Nervous.” Walser’s writing is characterized by what I think of as a very Swiss mixture of sweetness and snark: its coziness soon goes off the rails. Here, in a text not coincidentally written in the middle of WWI, Walser is more anguished than gentle. But the reversals, hesitations, and self-cancellations of his prose are clearly evident.
I’ve often taught “Nervous” together with Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” (1983) another bravura exercise in narrative voice (in her case, in the imperative). Both texts undermine the coherence of the speaker, leading us to ask whether the very idea of identity is a fantasy of writing. Because both pieces are so short, they’re ideal for forcing students to linger over details. Students can even read them for the first time in class, which, in my experience, typically generates the best conversations.
First published in German in June 1916 in Neue Zürcher Zeitung. Published in English in Selected Stories Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1982. You can read an excerpt here and the German (with facing Dutch translation) here.
“The Demon Lover” by Elizabeth Bowen
It hurt to cut this from my original list, just as it hurt to cut it from my syllabus a few years ago. Students never loved it the way I do, and that disparity was getting me down. To be sure, it’s not straightforward. Bowen’s brilliant ghost story centers on Kathleen Drover, who has returned to London during the first Blitz to check on the house she and her children have left behind for shelter in the country. She finds a letter pushed under the door, a curt missive reminding her that the writer has not forgotten the troth she plighted, the promise she made. “Today is the day we said” it says, ominously. The letter takes her back to the Great War, and the man she fell in love with, the man she promised to marry, a cruel man, a man who returned to the front from leave and never returned. (The students have a hard time distinguishing between the two wars.) The letter sends Mrs. Drover into a panic, and she collects what she came to get as quickly as she can and runs away to hail a taxi. But you can’t outrun the past. This is a story of trauma, about physical and mental stains and strains. I can never shake the image of the weal on Kathleen’s hand when her fiancée presses it hard against the buttons of his uniform. One thing my students and I always agreed on, though: the editors of Bowen’s Collected Stories must have had a lot of fun when they made sure the story ended on p 666.
First published in The Demon Lover and Other Stories, Jonathan Cape, 1945. Available in The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen, Ecco, 1989. Read the story here.
“The Bear Came over the Mountain” by Alice Munro
Maybe it’s because I’m Canadian, where we are All Munro All the Time—I remember reading “Boys and Girls” in middle school and having “the symbolism of the foxes” drilled into me—but I am lukewarm on our Nobelist. I mean, I recognize her greatness. But for me she’s so cold, and not just because that’s the emotional register of the largely Scottish and English WASPs that comprise a certain idea of “Old Canada,” fictional versions of which populate Munro’s stories. I find the stories themselves chilly, almost clinical in their attitudes to these figures. (No accident that so many of her editions have a reproduction of an Alex Colville painting on the cover.)
They do teach well, though. And this one in particular works for me. “The Bear Came over the Mountain” intertwines two couples: elegant Fiona, whose forgetfulness grows into dementia, and bien pensant Grant, who is not as nice as he thinks he is, on the one hand, and Aubrey, a former sweetheart of Fiona’s who she reconnects with in the facility Grant reluctantly moves her to, and Marian, Grant’s seemingly unsophisticated but in fact defiant and shrewd wife, on the other.
As the couples re-arrange, our suspicion grows that Fiona has orchestrated the events. The story asks: what is true, in the life of a couple and even in life itself? Epistemological uncertainty isn’t just something faced (with terror, stoicism, even grace) by the patients who lose their memories, but by readers as well.
First published in The New Yorker, December 27, 1999. Collected in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage McClelland & Stewart, 2001. You can read the story here.
“The Bad News” by Margaret Atwood
Atwood, by contrast, is another CanLit big shot whose work I do admire. (For whatever reason, her chilliness doesn’t bother me as much as Munro’s.) Although best known for her novels, Atwood’s written plenty of stories; the ones I’ve read are good. For a while I taught this story regularly, highlighting, in particular, its narrative structure and use of time. Like “The Bear Came over the Mountain,” “The Bad News” is about (the fear of) dementia. But I don’t think memory loss explains the story’s structure, which reminds me of a möbius strip. The narrator and her husband live in a dystopic near-future (if I were to read the story now, I’d probably just think it was set in the present) but part-way through the narrator remembers a trip they took to Glanum, the Roman ruins in the South of France. The memory sparks a fantasy that, at some point, becomes the present of the narrative itself. It ends with the couple, living in what to them is simply an outpost of Rome, nothing ancient at all, talking themselves out of worrying about the barbarian invasions (“They won’t be here for a long time. Not in our lifetime, perhaps. Glanum is in no danger, not yet”). We’re left wondering if the modern couple, similarly obsessed with but in denial about bad news, is perhaps a dream of the ancient one, rather than the other way ‘round. “We don’t like bad news, but we need it. We need to know about it in case it’s coming our way.”
First published in The Guardian, 2005. Collected in Moral Disorder and Other Stories, Nan A. Talese, 2006.
“Indian Giver” by Max Apple
Probably the least famous writer on this list, which is a damn shame. Especially as he is probably the nicest (admittedly, the only one I’ve met, but man what a mensch). Apple is a worthy heir to Malamud (which, if you’ve read my original list, you’ll know is high praise). Seymour Rubin owns an automotive junkyard, but the only person who can work the baler that keeps the place going, a man named Alonso Johnson, has just converted to Islam and needs to pray on his lunch hour every Friday. Seymour, incensed at what he sputteringly calls “once a week anti-Semitism,” fires Alonso, which leads to his near ruin. (“Indian Giver” is a take on Malamud’s “The First Seven Years.”) Everyone begs Seynour to take Alonso back, especially Seymour’s son, Chuckie, who calls from the reservation in the South West where he is working with indigenous people. When a rival Jewish recycling firm offers to buy him out, Seymour has no choice but to go back to Alonso. Who, Apple’s story asks, is a Jew? And what does that mean? Are the identities we live by enabling or disabling? Funny, too!
First published in Story and collected in The Jew of Home Depot and Other Stories, Johns Hopkins, 2007.
“The Night Rhonda Ferguson was Killed” by Edward P. Jones
Now that I think of it, I briefly met Edward P. Jones at a reading from his novel The Known World. And he too was lovely, so soft-spoken and introverted, clearly a man uninterested in platitudes or bullshit. I warmed to him immediately. Though I’ve yet to read that book, I love his early stories, especially this one, which I use in teaching literary realism. This is a beautiful and very sad story about an angry, vulnerable teenage girl, Cassandra G. Lewis, whose best friend, the Rhonda Ferguson of the title, is about to sign with a record label. Rhonda almost never appears in the story—instead we follow Cassandra and some of her other friends as they spend a flirty, chaste, emotional, ordinary Friday evening that is upended by tragedy. By the time we learn of Rhonda’s death, so much has happened we’ve forgotten all about it, and we’re shocked despite the title. I love how one of the girls, a quiet soul Cassandra hardly knew before the fateful night, becomes the story’s central focus. And its last line is heartbreaking: “She sang on into the night for herself alone, pushing back everything she did not yet understand.”
Collected in Lost in the City, William Morrow, 1992.
“Tapka” by David Bezmozgis
A bittersweet, funny, but ultimately rather ominous story about a family of Latvian Jews who emigrate to Canada in the early 1980s as part of the exodus of Soviet Jews. (In this sense clearly autobiographical.) Mark Berman is in first grade at George Best Elementary School in his new home of Toronto. Together with his slightly older sister, he is tasked with walking a neighbour’s dog every day at lunch. Tapka is spoiled; her owners, also Russian emigres, though of a lower social class than the Bermans, have no children. Tapka is their everything. While the adults struggle through English classes by day, the children learn through osmosis (the narrator likens his brain to a catchment basin, with rivulets of language steadily accumulating into a pool). Pride of place goes to schoolyard insults, like “shithead” and “gaylord” (how it pains me to remember that we used to say things like that). The children love Tapka. But they also hate her, for inscrutable reasons that have to do with their powerlessness and general sense of being lost in a new place. So they start calling her the names they’ve learned, maybe felt the lash of; Mark feels the thrill and shame at having violated something. One thing leads to another, and the kids let the dog off the leash, whereupon it dashes into traffic and is hit by a car. Everything ends okay, except nothing will ever be okay again.
I also use this story to teach my American students the correct pronunciation of Toronto and what a washroom is. I think of it as a duty.
First published in The New Yorker in 2003. Collected in Natasha and Other Stories, Harper Collins, 2004.
“The Knock at the Manor Gate” by Franz Kafka and translated by Willa and Edwin Muir
My favourite Kafka to teach is “A Hunger Artist” (though I confess I don’t love to teach Kafka—he is too hard, too much about the resistance to interpretation), but my favourite Kafka altogether might be this little text, which is perfectly Kafkan, but, more importantly, for me, comes unbidden to me every time we chant the v’ahavta in synagogue. That’s the prayer in which we name the ways we shall love G-d. Tell them to your children, think of them when you wake and when you sleep. And, finally, “bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead; inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” Kafka would have known this prayer (it comes just after the sh’ma, Judaism’s affirmation of monotheism); every week I wonder if he had it in mind in writing this enigmatic work.
First published posthumously in Beim Bau der Chinesischen Mauer in 1931. Collected in English in The Complete Stories of Franz Kafka, edited by Nahum Glatzer, Schocken, 1971. You can read the story here.
“The Use of Force” by William Carlos Williams
Although only four pages long, this story is so rich, it’s easy to spend an hour talking about it and still have plenty to say. Based on Williams’s own experience as a doctor in Rutherford, NJ, it tells the story of a doctor summoned by a poor, terrified couple who suspect their daughter has diphtheria. To confirm his diagnosis—which will lead only to quarantine, there being nothing else the man can do: the story is from the 1930s; there are no antibiotics—the doctor needs her to open her mouth. Which the girl refuses to do. The result is a battle not just of wits but of strength. The title doesn’t just describe the doctor’s actions; it also poses a question: what is the use of force? What purpose does it serve? Can we diagnose a condition without causing harm? And if we think about the similarities between diagnosis and interpretation, we might extrapolate to ask, can we read a text without doing violence to it?
First published in 1933 in Blast and collected in Life Along the Passaic River, New Directions, 1938 and The Doctor Stories, New Directions, 1984. You can read the story here.
“A Family Supper” by Kazuo Ishiguro
Rohan Maitzen tipped me on to this story, one of only a few by Ishiguro. Although it would be terrific for any lesson on unreliable narrators, I always teach “A Family Supper” on the second day of the semester to help students begin the semester-long process of learning to support claims with textual evidence. For the central question demanded by this story of a young man who returns after the death of his mother to his home in Japan from a new life in America is whether his father has poisoned their supper of fish soup. (The first thing we learn is that the mother died from eating improperly prepared fugu.) Students always have strong opinions, but they’re not always sure why they think what they think. Ishiguro has a fine way with dread and unease. In addition to everything else, this is good ghost story.
First published in Firebird 2 in 1982. Collected in Malcolm’s Bradbury’s anthology The Penguin Book of Modern British Short Stories, Penguin, 1989. You can read the story here.
“Drown” by Junot Díaz
The narrator’s former best friend Beto is back in town, but the narrator doesn’t want to see him. We learn that Beto once gave him a blow job, which the narrator both liked and hated. “Drown” is a story of repression, confused masculinity, and growing up in a society that has no expectations for you (note the imperative of the title). My students and I often linger on this early passage, where we can already see the rivalrous relationship between the boys. Along with the rest of the kids in the neighbourhood, the boys have climbed the fence at the local pool:
I sit near the sign that runs the pool during the day. No Horse-Play, No Running, No Defecating, No Urinating, No Expectorating. At the bottom someone has scrawled in No Whites, No Fat Cbiks and someone else has provided the missing c. I laugh. Beto hadn’t known what expectorating meant though he was the one leaving for college. I told him, spitting a greener by the side of the pool.
At night the pool runs by other rules: the difference between no expectorating and a greener by the poolside. Nighttime pool has vitality, but what is that worth compared to the power of daytime rules?
First published in The New Yorker, January 29, 1996 and collected in Drown, Riverhead, 1996. Read the story here.
“The Marquise of O” by Heinrich von Kleist, translated by David Luke and Nigel Reeves
A crazy, long story about a woman, the Marquise of the title, who becomes pregnant after being raped during the Napoleonic wars. The scholar Mary Jacobus has a nice essay about how everyone sees the Marquise as an empty O just waiting to be filled (literally or figuratively). The story’s told with Kleist’s characteristic indirection, which means students have a hard time with it—it doesn’t help that the central event is elided in a dash—but they often get into rousing discussions of contemporary slut-shaming that makes them see things haven’t changed as much as they like to think. For me the big question is: can we read the Marquise as having any control over her circumstances? Does she have any agency?
First published in German in Phöbus in 1808. Available in English in The Marquise of O and Other Stories, Penguin 1978.
“Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street” by Herman Melville
What is there to say? A stone-cold masterpiece. “I would prefer not to” doesn’t mean no. It’s much more destabilizing (or insidious, depending on how much you side with the narrator). A wonderful story about men at work.
First published in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine in November and December 1853. Collected in The Piazza Tales, 1856. Read the story here.
This year I read three novels by Daphne Du Maurier. They’re all terrific. The Scapegoat, which I wrote briefly about, is the best of the lot—a completely satisfying book likely to feature in my year-end list. I also enjoyed her final novel, Rule Britannia (1972), a strange and compelling little book that I suspect was greeted with bemusement or even hostility at the time but that is uncannily prescient now: England has left the EEC and is on the brink of financial ruin (sound familiar?) and is taken over by the US. A once-famous actress features prominently; she turns out to have one more great role in her. Rule Britannia is a late work, with more than a touch of The Tempest in it. A bit ramshackle, no question, no one’s going to say it’s her best, but it’s absolutely worth reading.
Anyway, I recently spent a few pleasant evenings reading My Cousin Rachel, an earlier novel (1951) that is often reckoned as one of her best. The narrator is Philip Ashley, who at the beginning of the novel lives alone on the Cornish coast on the estate of his guardian Ambrose. Some twenty years earlier, Ambrose had taken the orphaned Philip in and raised him in his idiosyncratic fashion. But now he has left the young man, who is recently down from Oxford, to his own devices, in order to travel in Italy in search of relief from his rheumatism.
In Florence Ambrose meets a cousin of theirs, a young widow. Some months later he writes Philip to say they have married and have no plans to return to England. But the idyll doesn’t last: Ambrose’s increasingly scarce letters are filled with complaints of poor health and grievances with the Italy he had previously extolled. Eventually Philip is alarmed enough to travel to Italy himself, but he finds only a grave: Ambrose has died, his wife has closed up their villa and gone away, and no one seems to want to tell him anything. An otherwise unsatisfactory meeting with her lawyer reveals that Ambrose never changed his will: Philip remains heir to the estate.
Shortly after returning to England, Philip learns that Rachel has arrived in Cornwall for a visit, and here the novel really begins. An intricate dance between the two follows. Philip, who has learned that Ambrose believed he was being poisoned, is initially suspicious and hostile to Rachel. But Rachel is charming and his attitude to her changes so much that he eventually decides to sign over the estate to her, even to marry her. A lot happens in the last third of the book, as Du Maurier forces us to wonder whether Rachel is a murderer who has insinuated herself into an inheritance that should never have been hers or a victim of two generations of the Ashley family’s misogyny and paranoia.
It’s been a couple of weeks since I read the novel, and I’m trying to keep these posts shorter, so I encourage you to read Rohan’s review; she articulates many of my feelings about the novel clearly and elegantly.
Like her, I was ensnared by Du Maurier’s clever narration: not until late in the novel did I realize how adroitly she had controlled my responses, from my initial disparagement of Rachel, through rising frustration at what I took to be the novel’s misogyny, to my final realization that I had taken aligned myself much too closely with Philip’s perspective. For even as I struggled with the novel’s portrayal of Rachel—it seemed so vindictive towards her—I was still assuming that she was in fact up to no good, a real femme fatale. I was, in other words, far too beholden to Philip’s point of view. At the end we are left unsure less about who did what to whom but about our own complacency as readers. Philip is no obviously untrustworthy narrator—he’s no Humbert Humbert, no Stevens—but he ends up being more disturbing for that.
Every time we think we’re ahead of the book we’re made to learn the error of our thinking. Apparent deficiencies reveal themselves to be carefully constructed traps. For example, if we find ourselves frustrated by the lengthy scenes in which Philip falls for Rachel without realizing it—why is it taking him so long to figure out what’s happening to him?—we are only thinking what the novel wants us to think. We have to feel superior to the narrator so that our later realization that we’ve been blind to his delusion and violence is that much more painful and powerful.
So we get a passage like this one, typical of the novel’s play with tone:
I went indoors and up to my room, and dragging a chair beside the open window sat down in it, and looked towards the sea. My mind was empty, without thought. My body calm and still. No problems came swimming to the surface, no anxieties itched their way through from the hidden depths to ruffle the blessed peace. It was as though everything in life was now resolved, and the way before me plain. The years behind me counted for nothing. The years to come were no more than a continuation of all I now knew and held, possessing; it would be so, forever and ever, like the amen to a litany. In the future only this: Rachel and I. A man and his wife living within themselves, the house containing us, the world outside our doors passing unheeded. Day after day, night after night, as long as we both should live. That much I remembered from the prayer-book.
Ostensibly a moment of calm and happy anticipation, this passage in fact reveals the narrator to be deluded, and more than that, creepy in his unearned confidence. (Look at the way he equates his present state of knowing and holding with “possessing”: recall the title, My Cousin Rachel.) Instead of seeming relieved and at rest, the narrator is empty, almost vacuous. This is a passage not just about the surfaces it references but also about superficiality. I simply don’t buy the narrator’s description of “blessed peace.” His responses seem to be governed by the half-remembered phrases of the Anglican wedding service; he’s a kind of automaton, and so it’s fitting that a few pages later he finds himself putting his hands around her throat without a clear sense of how he got there. We can take him at his words, but what do those words actually mean? And how is it that we could have been so sympathetic to him for so long?
It’s quite a trick Du Maurier pulls off here in forcing us to ask questions of this sort. (And I don’t mean that disparagingly: the trick’s magic, not dirty.) But even her masterful manipulation of our response isn’t the best part of that book. That would have to be the portrayal of Louise, the daughter of Philip’s godfather, a woman everyone, even sometimes she herself, seems to think is destined for Philip. Louise is unexpectedly steely and resourceful. I loved that Du Maurier didn’t feel the need to pair her with Philip at the end. She suffers at his hands, but she’s no victim. I wouldn’t have minded a novel all about her.
In the end, though, as in all Du Maurier novels, as best I can tell, the real love affair isn’t with a person but with a property. No one loves anyone in this book as much as the book itself loves the estate. (Surprisingly, it is unnamed. No Manderley here. Or maybe that’s the point: we’re supposed to think of Du Maurier’s most famous novel and lay it over this one. Could this lack of definition be connected to the novel’s refusal to tell us when it is set? It’s presumably Regency, but it would have been so easy to make clear. Why didn’t Du Maurier do so?) Philip even acknowledges the power of houses—he tells Rachel soon after he meets her, “If it’s warmth and comfort a man wants, and something beautiful to look upon, he can get all that from his own house, if he loves it well”—but where he is mocking the novel is serious: it loves the house and its demesne well indeed. No real estate porn here, though. Rather, a completely unsentimental belief—which, based on my limited sample size, is one that Du Maurier held dear—that places are better than the people who merely pass through them.
I reckon I’ve had The Go-Between on my shelves for more than 20 years. Jacqui’s enthusiastic and thoughtful review finally spurred me to read it. (That plus I’ve taken a doubtless-brief-but-nonetheless-well-intentioned pledge to read books I already own rather than buy new ones.)
I can’t imagine matching Jacqui’s summary of the novel, so I direct you there for more details. I’ll just give a brief synopsis here. Leo Colston is a man in his middle sixties who, when the novel begins, finds a trunk full of old papers, including his diary from the year 1900.
As he remembers the dramatic events of that year—events we’re told have marked him forever, somehow left him unfit to participate in life—he tells us about his school days where he was first bullied and then later respected based on a strange incident I’ll say more about in a minute. When the school is suddenly closed for the year because of a measles outbreak, the almost-thirteen-year-old Leo is invited by his friend Marcus Maudsley to spend the summer at his family’s estate in Norfolk. The Maudsleys are richer than Leo and his widowed mother and he feels ill at ease and awkward in their home, not least because he has no proper summer clothes and the weather turns hotter than anyone can remember. Maudsley’s sister Marian (I think she’s about 19 or so) takes pity on Leo, buys him a new summer suit, and then, either as a result of a premeditated plan or, more likely, a readiness to seize the situation, for she knows Leo is ready to do anything for her, entices him into carrying secret letters to Ted Burgess, the hunky tenant farmer. Readers know long before Leo does that Marian and Ted are lovers; Leo is shocked when he finds out, not only because of the class difference, but also because she is engaged to be married to Viscount Trimingham, a fatally decent man who has been badly wounded in the Boer War.
(If the book sounds a bit melodramatic when I summarize it this way, I think I’m doing it justice.)
Anyway, Leo doesn’t want to be the lovers’ go-between anymore but Marian has ways of convincing him, ways just slightly more pleasant than those used by her rather demonic mother, the lady of the house, Mrs. Maudsley, who forces the presumably unwitting Leo to reveal the affair. Things end pretty badly, though most of the drama happens off-stage. What’s really bad, it seems, is the hold the whole situation has had on Leo, as we see in a coda in which the now elderly Leo continues to be manipulated by a very old Marian all these years later.
I read an old Penguin 20th Century Classics edition of the book, but in the US the book is published by New York Review Classics. Their edition has an excellent introduction by the Irish novelist and critic Colm Tóibín. Tóibín offers some background on Hartley, whose solicitor father made a fortune in the brick trade, moving the family up from the middle class. Hartley seems to have felt uncomfortable in the new world in which he moved (Harrow and then Oxford). Rather than rebelling against it, Hartley sought to become more a part of the establishment, trading the Methodism of his childhood for the Church of England, for example. In this regard, he seems rather like his protagonist Leo. Although it wasn’t much of a secret that Hartley was gay, there seems to have been something of the closet about him, a desire to blend in, but more to efface than to protect his difference.
Hartley doesn’t seem to have been much liked by the literary world. In 1923 Virginia Woolf recorded meeting “a dull fat man named Hartley” while visiting the socialite and patron of the arts Ottoline Morrell. One of the Sitwells called him “Bore Hartley.” I confess these descriptions make me more not less sympathetic to him, though Tóibín reports him as becoming increasingly conservative as he aged and always quarrelsome with servants (who certainly appear in a dim light in The Go-Between). I wonder, has anyone written his biography?
Tóibín’s most interesting point is that the novel isn’t really about either the foreignness or the persistence of the past—lots of people who have never read this novel know its first line: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”—but rather about Leo’s self-division. He dislikes, even condemns Marian and Ted, yet he’s helplessly drawn towards them. Hartley professed to be surprised and dismayed when readers sympathized with the lovers. If that’s true, it’s a remarkable lack of insight that proves writers aren’t always good readers of their own work. Tóibín interestingly links Hartley to writers like D. H. Lawrence and E. M. Forster (all these sets of initials, aren’t their real names good enough for them?), other writers of the period who extolled the value of the senses in hide-bound English society.
I’m not really buying this comparison, because I don’t think Forster and Lawrence have much in common. Hartley is like Forester, I grant, in that both are writers who are at best ambivalent about the power of sensuality. Lawrence, by contrast, had no ambivalence there. Where the Hartley – Forster comparison comes up short, in my opinion, is in their differing use of narrative voice. Forester never wrote in first person, as far as I know; he certainly wasn’t compelled to trace the modulations of a distinctive first-person narrative voice the way Hartley does here. Forster’s concern with the unreliability of perception attaches itself to skepticism about third-person omniscience.
No, the writer Hartley really reminded me of is Kazuo Ishiguro. Now that I think of it, I rarely hear critics placing Ishiguro in any kind of literary tradition or continuum. (Not that I know the Ishiguro criticism particularly well; correct me if I’m wrong.) If anything he’s discussed as part of that flowering of new English writing in the 1980s, the Granta writers, the young Turks who are now the old guard of English literature (Rushdie, Amis, Graham Swift, Jeanette Winterson, McEwan, etc). Hartley seems like an important model and precursor for Ishiguro, although I think Ishiguro is more sophisticated in his use of unreliability, more unreliably unreliable if I could put it that way, and a better writer all around. But I’ve only read one novel by Hartley, and most of Ishiguro’s, so I ought to read more of the former to be sure. Looking around my shelves, I find I’ve got six other Hartley novels lying around—he’s apparently one of those writers I’m highly invested in even though I hardly know anything about them—so I certainly could find out.
I just want to say two other things about The Go-Between:
I couldn’t decide how clueless Leo is supposed to be. Or, rather, I couldn’t quite decide whether the events of that summer are supposed to be told by Leo at the time or by Leo in retrospect. Sometimes we are clearly dealing with a child’s voice:
She was silent and I felt for the first time that she was unhappy. This was a revelation to me. I knew that grown-up people were unhappy—when a relation died, for instance, or went bankrupt. At such times they were sure to be unhappy: they had no option: it was the rule, like mourning after a death, like a black margin around the writer paper. (My mother still used it for my father.) They were unhappy to order. But that they should be unhappy in the way that I was sometimes, because something in my private life, to which perhaps I couldn’t give a name, had gone wrong—that hadn’t occurred to me.
Here we’re in that Jamesian world of innocence ruined, though James famously set himself tougher challenges than writing about a teenager, as when he sought to narrate from a child’s perception though not in a child’s language in his novel about a five-year-old buffeted by a nasty divorce, the magisterial What Maisie Knew. Plus, the parenthetical sentence could only be narrated within the present of the narrated events.
But at other times it’s harder to pin down the voice. Here the narrator has accompanied the family and the other house guests to church:
Again Lord Trimingham was the last to leave. I thought Marian would wait for him, but she didn’t, so I did. Most of my shyness with him had worn off, and I was disposed to think that everything I did or said became me. But I did not want to broach at once the subject that was uppermost in my mind.
I was disposed to think that everything I did or said became me. By this point in the novel, Leo has had two great successes. He’s made a splendid catch in an important cricket match and then sung two songs to great success at the party afterwards. And he’s meditated a lot on how extraordinary the attention made him feel, and how uncomfortable too. But that complex and complexly phrased sentiment, of being disposed to think one’s words and actions become one, with its quality of self-deprecation and irony that undermines the ostensible meaning of the words—that seems an attitude that only the older Leo, looking back on himself, would be in a position to note. And yet the story really only works if the older Leo is kept in abeyance. If retrospection governed the narrative too completely there would be no suspense, and our sense of how children and adults can work at cross-purposes, in which ignorance tragically shades into malevolence, would be much reduced.
One way to read the end of the book is that it shows Leo never really learns anything, but that would challenge even further the sense that the older man can make sense of his younger self. Perhaps it is just this uncertainty—that the older man thinks he knows more than the younger, yet proves to be just as or maybe even more clueless—is what Hartley wants to get at in a passage like the one I’ve cited. That would be pretty sophisticated; I suppose I wasn’t convinced that novel is quite that sophisticated, but maybe I’m under-selling it. (And it’s an awfully good book, don’t get me wrong.)
So that’s one thing. The other is about the supernatural. Young Leo, we learn, is fascinated by the zodiac and by the idea that events can be determined by spells. The way he moves from being bullied to being respected at school is that he puts a curse on two boys who have been tormenting him; soon afterwards they fall off the roof during a nighttime escapade and hurt themselves badly. When word of the spell gets around—I can’t remember if Leo puts it out himself or if it’s found out in some other way—Leo’s stock rises dramatically and he is soon being asked by his classmates to create imprecations and spells to order. Towards the end of the book he again has recourse to magic and again succeeds, though less clearly than the first time.
What is this material doing in this book? My sense is that the general way this book gets talked about (hot summer, lost innocence, boy becoming man, elegy for forgotten way of life) ignores this supernatural material. But it’s pretty important to the book; we hear a lot about it, especially in the first quarter or so. These weren’t the most evocative bits of the book, by any means (that would be the languorous descriptions of the heat, and the landscape, and the rituals of English life that someone like Ishiguro would later so profitably explore as strange performances). They seemed awkward, kind of clunky, something that belonged more in a Roald Dahl story, or some minor Greene work, than in the kind of book this seemed to want to be.
This lack of fit interested me, and I wonder if anyone has any ideas about it. One thought I had was that the spells are meant ironically, a way to emphasize how little control Leo (like all children) has over the world, and even to disparage him in our eyes, since he thinks he has control when he doesn’t. But I’m unconvinced because the book rather seems to believe in the spells. In that case, their efficacy would suggest Leo knows more than he thinks, if not more than he lets on. (This would be a peculiarly unconscious certainty.) But does Leo’s magic run out when he exchanges school for the adult world? Or are we to take him as more responsible for his actions towards Marian and Ted than it at first seems? Are Leo’s spells magical thinking—or are they really magic? I’m not sure the book knows how to answer that question. And that uncertainty makes me like it all the more.