My Year in Reading, 2020

I feel bad saying it, it is a mark of my privilege and comfort, but 2020 was not the most terrible year of my life. In many ways, it was even a good year. I have secure employment, about as secure as can be found these days, and what’s more I spent half the year on sabbatical, and even before then I was working from home from mid-March and didn’t miss my commute for a minute. Thanks to the sabbatical, I avoided the scramble to shift my teaching to a fully online schedule—watching colleagues both at Hendrix and elsewhere do this work I was keenly aware of how luck I’d been to have avoided so much work. I do worry, however, that I’m hopelessly behind the curve, clueless about various technologies and best practices; I expect elements of the shift to virtual will persist.

My family spent a lot of time together last year; among other things, I watched my daughter grow into someone who edits YouTube videos with aplomb. (At not-quite ten she is already the house IT person.) As an introvert, I found staying home all the time the opposite of a burden. (Last week I had to be somewhere relatively crowded, for the first time in months, and boy am I going to be in for a rude awakening when this is all over.) I missed seeing friends, but honestly my social circle here is small, and I continued to connect with readers from all over the world on BookTwitter. Most excitingly, I had a lot of time to read. I’ve heard many people say their concentration was shot last year, and understandably, but that wasn’t my experience. For good or for ill my response to bad times is the same as to good—to escape this world and its demands into a book.

But sometimes, usually on my run, I’ll wonder if I’m mistaken in my assessment of the year. I suspect a deep sadness inside me hasn’t come out yet: sadness at not seeing my parents for over a year; at not being able to visit Canada (I became a US citizen at the end of the year, but Canada will always be home; more importantly, our annual Alberta vacations are the glue that keep our little family together); at all the lives lost and suffering inflicted by a refusal to imagine anything like the common good; at all the bullying and cruelty and general bullshit that the former US President, his lackeys, and devoted supporters exacted, seldom on me personally, but on so many vulnerable and undeserving victims, which so coarsened life in this country.

I think back to the hope I sometimes felt in the first days of the pandemic that we might change our ways of living—I mean, we will, in more or less minor ways, but not, it seems, in big ones. I feel hopelessness at the ongoingness of the pandemic, the sense that we may still be closer to the beginning than the end. And a despair fills me, affecting even such minor matters, in the grand scheme of things, as this manuscript I’m working on—could it possibly interest anyone?

I suppose what most concerns me when I say that 2020 was not a terrible year is my fear of how much more terrible years might soon become. My anxiety about the climate-change-inspired upheavals to come sent me to books, too, more in search of hope than distraction. A few of the titles below helped with that. Mostly, though, reading books is just what I do. I am reader more than anything else, and I expect to be for as long as that’s humanly possible.

For the second straight year, I managed to write briefly about every book I read. You can catch up on my monthly review posts here:

January February March April May June July August September October November December

All told, I finished 133 books in 2020, almost the same as the year before (though, since some of these were real doorstoppers, no doubt I read more pages all told). Of these 45 (34%) were by men, and 88 (66%) by women. 35 were nonfiction (26%), and 98 (74%) were fiction. Sadly—if predictably—I read no collections of poetry or plays last year. I didn’t read much translated stuff: only 30 (23%) were not originally written in English. Only 4 were re-reads; no surprise, given how little I was teaching.

Highlights:

These are the books that leap to mind, the ones I don’t need to consult my list to remember, the ones that, for whatever reason, I needed at this time in my life, the ones that left me with a bittersweet feeling of regret and joy when I ran my hands consolingly over the cover, as I find I do when much moved. These are the books a reader reads for.

Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove

My book of the year. A road novel about a cattle-drive from the Mexican border to Montana around 1870. Thrilling, funny, epic, homely. Characters to love and hate and roll your eyes at and cry over and pound your fists in frustration at. And landscapes to swoon over, described in language that is never fussy or mannered or deliberately poetic, and all the better able to capture grandeur for that. I think about the river crossings all the time. And those last scenes in wintry Montana. Lonesome Dove is good for people who love Westerns. It’s good for people who don’t love Westerns. Recently someone asked me to recommend a 20th century Middlemarch. Crazy, I know, but I immediately thought of this book, which, albeit in a different register and in a different location, is similarly fascinated by the webs that form community, and why we might want to be enmeshed in them. (A goal for 2021 is to re-read Eliot’s masterpiece to see if this comparison has any merit.) If you read novels for character, plot, and atmosphere—if you are, in other words, as unsophisticated a reader as me—then Lonesome Dove will captivate you, maybe even take you back to the days when you loved Saturdays because you could get up early and read and read before anyone asked you to do anything.

Kapka Kassabova, To the Lake

I loved Kassabova’s previous book, Border, and was thrilled that my high expectations for its follow-up were met. Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa, connected by underground rivers, straddle the borders of Greece, Albania, and the newly-independent North Macedonia. This book is about these places, but as the singular noun in the title suggests, “lake” here primarily concerns a mindset, one organized around the way place draws together different peoples. Like Border, To the Lake is at first blush a travelogue, with frequent forays into history, but closer inspection reveals it to be an essayistic meditation on the different experiences provoked by natural versus political boundaries. Unlike Border, To the Lake is more personal: Kassabova vacationed here as a child growing up in 1970s Bulgaria, as her maternal family had done for generations. But Kassabova seems more comfortable when the spotlight is on others, and the people she encounters are fascinating—especially as there is always the possibility that they might be harmful, or themselves have been so harmed that they cannot help but exert that pain on others. In Kassabova’s depiction, violence and restitution are fundamental, competing elements of our psyche. One way that struggle manifests is through the relationships between men and women. As a woman from the Balkans who no longer lives there, as a woman travelling alone, as an unmarried woman without children, Kassabova is keenly aware of how uncomfortable people are with her refusal of categorization, how insistently they want to pigeonhole her. (No one writes ill-defined, menacing encounters with men like she does.) People have been taking the waters in these lakes for centuries—the need for such spaces of healing is prompted by seemingly inescapable violence. I’ve heard that Kassabova is at work on a book about spas and other places of healing, and it’s easy to see how the forthcoming project stems from To the Lake. I can’t wait.

Kate Clanchy, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me & Antigona and Me

Clanchy first earned a place in my heart with her book based on her life as a teacher, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. She is particularly good on how we might teach poetry writing—not by airily invoking “inspiration” but by offering students the chance to imitate good poems. These models will inspire students to write amazing poems of their own, and offer students whose background is from outside the UK (where Clanchy lives) the chance to refract their own experiences into art. Clanchy is committed to the idea that students have things to gain from their education, if they are allowed to pursue one. But she is equally adamant that students have things to give to the institutions where they spend so much of their lives. Thinking about what a child might bring to her school reminds us that education is a public good first and not just a credentialing factory or a warehouse to be pillaged on the way to some later material success. It’s an idea that might begin to redistribute the social and economic inequalities attendant in neoliberalism.

I’m sure I liked Some Kids as much as I did because I’m also a teacher. Which doesn’t mean I don’t think non-teachers (and non-parents) will enjoy it too. But I do think Clanchy’s earlier book Antigona and Me is an even greater accomplishment, with perhaps wider appeal. Antigona is Clanchy’s pseudonym for a Kosovan refugee who became her housekeeper and nanny in the early 2000s. The two women’s lives became as intertwined as their different backgrounds, classes, and values allowed them. Yet for all their differences, they are linked by the shame that governs their lives as women. Antigona’s shame—her escape from the code of conduct that governed her life in the remote mountains of Kosovo, and the suffering that escape brought onto her female relatives—is different from Clanchy’s—her realization that her own flourishing as a woman requires the backbreaking labour of another—and it wouldn’t be right to say that they have more in common than not. What makes the book so great is what fascinating an complex characters both Antigona and Clanchy are. Riveting.

Andrew Miller, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free

A brilliant historical novel. My knowledge of the Napoleonic wars is thin—though having just finished War and Peace I can say it is less thin than it used to be—and I appreciated learning about both the campaign on the Iberian peninsula and the various milieu in England, ranging from medicine to communal living, that were both far removed from and developed in response to that war. (Miller has Penelope Fitzgerald’s touch with the telling detail, conjuring up the mud and blood-spattered viscera of the past while also showing its estrangement from the present.) But what has really stayed with me in this book about a traumatized soldier on the run from both his memories and, more immediately, a pair of contract killers hired to silence the man before he can reveal a wartime atrocity is its suggestion that the past might be mastered, or at least set aside. Reading the last fifty pages, I felt my heart in my throat. Such anxiety, such poignancy. This book really needs to be better known.

Helen Garner, The Spare Room

Garner is a more stylistically graceful Doris Lessing, fizzing with ideas, fearless when it comes to forbidden female emotions. Old friends Helen and Nicola meet again when Helen agrees to host Nicola, who has come to Melbourne to try out an alternative therapy for her incurable, advanced cancer. Garner brilliantly presents Helen’s rage at the obviously bogus nature of the therapy—and Nicola’s blithe (which is to say, deeply terrified) unwillingness to acknowledge that reality. Helen is resentful, too, about the demanding and disgusting job of taking care of Nicola (seldom have sheets been stripped, washed, and remade as often as in this novel). Emotions about which of course she also feels guilty. Nicola expresses her own rage, in her case of the dying person when faced with the healthy. In the end, Nicola has to be tricked into accepting her death; the novel lets us ask whether this really is a trick. Has Nicola gained enlightenment? Is false enlightenment, if it gets the job of accepting reality still enlightenment? What does enlightenment have to do with the failure of the body, anyway? I loved the novella’s intellectual and emotional punch.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants

Kathleen Jamie, Surfacing

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future

I’ve grouped these titles together, not because they’re interchangeable or individually deficient, but because the Venn diagram of their concerns centers on their conviction that being attuned to the world might save it and our place on it. These are great books about paying attention. Whether describing summer days clearing a pond of algae or noting the cycles nut trees follow in producing their energy-laden crop, Kimmerer reminds us that “all flourishing is mutual.” We are only as vibrant, healthy, and alive as the most vulnerable among us. The past year has taught us the truth of this claim—even though so far we have failed to live its truth. Jamie observes a moth trapped on the surface of the water as clearly as an Alaskan indigenous community whose past is being brought to light by the very climactic forces that threaten its sustainability. Robinson imagines a scenario in which dedicated bureaucrats, attentive to procedure and respectful of experts, bring the amount of carbon in the atmosphere down to levels not seen since the 19th century. Even though Robinson writes fiction, he shares with Kimmerer and Jamie an interest in the essay. We need essayistic thinking—with its associative leaps and rhizomatic structure—more than ever. These generous books made me feel hopeful, a feeling I clung to more than ever this year.

Best of the rest:

Stone cold modern classics: Sybille Bedford’s Jigsaw (autofiction before it was a thing, but with the texture of a great realist novel, complete with extraordinary events and powerful mother-daughter drama—this book could easily have won the Booker); Anita Brookner’s Look at Me (Brookner’s breakout: like Bowen with clearer syntax and even more damaged—and damaging—characters); William Maxwell, They Came Like Swallows (a sensitive boy, abruptly faced with loss; a loving mother and a distant father; a close community that is more dangerous than it lets on: we’ve read this story before, but Maxwell makes it fresh and wondering).

Stone cold classic classics: Buddenbrooks (not as heavy as it sounds), Howells’s Indian Summer (expatriate heartache, rue, wit).

Thoroughly enjoyed, learned a lot (especially about hair): Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah

Best deep dive: I read four novels by Tessa Hadley this year, two early ones and the two most recent. Since I’ve read a few of her books before I now only have two more to go before I’ve finished them all. That will be a sad day, though with luck we will get a new one before too long. Hadley has been good from the start, but The Past and Late in the Day show her hitting new heights of wisdom and economy. Her characters are arty types or professionals who learn things they don’t always like about what they desire, especially since those desires they are so convinced by often turn out later to have been wrongheaded (like Proust’s Swann, they spend their lives running after women who are not their types, except “women” here includes men, friends, careers, family life, their very sense of self). I can imagine the future day when young literary hipsters rediscover Hadley’s books and wonder why she wasn’t one of the most famous writers of her time.

Did not totally love at the time, but bits and pieces of which would not quite let me alone: Tim Maugham’s Infinite Detail (struck especially by the plight of people joined by contemporary technology when that technology fails: what is online love when the internet disappears?); Henri Bosco’s Malicroix translated by Joyce Zonana (so glad this is finally in English; even if I was not head-over-heels with it, I’ll never forget its descriptions of weather. Do you like wind? Have I got a book for you!).

Loved at the time but then a conversation with a friend made me rethink: Paulette Jiles’s The News of the World. I was a big fan of this book back in the spring—and its rendering on audio book, beautifully rendered by a gravelly-voiced Grover Gardner—and I still think on it fondly. But a Twitter friend argued that its portrayal of a girl “rescued” from the Kiowa who had taken her, years earlier, in a raid is racist. I responded that the novel is aware of the pitfalls of its scenario, but now I’m not so sure.

Maybe not earth-shattering, but deeply satisfying: Lissa Evans’s V for Victory, Clare Chambers’s Small Pleasures, two novels that deserve more readers, especially in the US, where, as far as I know, neither has yet been published.

Most joyful, biggest belly laughs: Rónán Hession’s Leonard and Hungry Paul. That bit in the supermarket! Priceless.

Best Parul Seghal recommendation: Seghal elicits some of the feelings in middle-aged me that Sontag did to my 20-year-old self, with the difference that I now have the wherewithal to read Seghal’s recommendations in a way I did not with Sontag’s. Anyway, I’ll follow her pretty much anywhere, which sometimes leads me to writers I would otherwise have passed on. Exhibit A in 2020 was Barbara Demnick, whose Eat the Buddha is about heartrending resistance, often involving self-immolation, bred by China’s oppression of Tibetans. In addition to its political and historical material, this is an excellent book about landscape and about modern surveillance technology.

Ones to watch out for (best debuts): Naoisie Dolan’s Exciting Times; Megha Majumdar’s A Burning; and Hilary Leichter’s Temporary. Have I ever mentioned that Leichter was once my student?

Longest book: Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. Almost 1500 pages of easy reading pleasure that I look on with affection (perhaps more than when I first finished it) rather than love. Although now that I have finished War & Peace I see that Seth frequently nods to it. Wolf hunts!

Longest book (runner up): Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend A mere 900-pager. As I said back in November, “I read it mostly with pleasure and always with interest, but not avidly or joyfully.” Most interesting as a story about “revenants and ghosts, about corpses that don’t stay hidden, about material (junk, trash, ordure, tidal gunk, or whatever the hell “dust” is supposed to be) that never comes to the end of its life, being neither waste nor useful, or, rather, both.” Happy to have read it, but don’t foresee reading it again anytime soon.

Slow burn: Magda Szabó, Abigail (translated by Len Rix). Bit irritated by this at first but then realized the joke was on me—the narrator’s self-absorption is a function of her ignorance. All-too soon ignorance becomes experience. Not as gloriously defiant as The Door, but worth your time.

Frustrating: Carys Davies, West. Ostensibly revisionist western that disappoints in its hackneyed indigenous characters. I do still think of bits of it almost a year later, though, so it’s not all bad.

Left me cold: James Alan McPherson, Hue and Cry; Fleur Jaeggy, These Possible Lives (translated by Minna Zallman Procter); Ricarda Huch, The Last Summer (translated by Jamie Bulloch) (the last is almost parodically my perfect book title, which might have heightened my disappointment).

Not for me, this time around (stalled out maybe 100 pages into each): The Corner That Held Them; Justine; The Raj Quartet; Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight. Promise to try these again another time.

Stinkers: Géraldine Schwarz, Those Who Forget: My Family’s Story in Nazi Europe—A Memoir, a History, a Warning (translated by Laura Marris); Jessica Moor, The Keeper; Patrick DeWitt, French Exit; Ian Rankin, A Song for the Dark Times

Writer I read a lot of, mostly very much enjoying and yet whose books do not stay with me: Annie Ernaux. I suspect to really take her measure I would need to re-read her, or, better yet, teach her, which I might do next year, using Happening. As I said in regards to the latest Sigrid Nunez, I think I do not have the right critical training to fully appreciate autofiction. I enjoy reading it, but I cannot fix on it, somehow.

Good crime fiction: Above all, Liz Moore’s Long Bright River, an impressive inversion of the procedural. Honorable mentions: Susie Steiner; Marcie R. Rendon; Ann Cleeves, The Long Call (awaiting the sequel impatiently); Tana French, The Searcher; Simenon’s The Flemish House (the atmosphere, the ending: good stuff). In spy fiction, I enjoyed three books by Charles Cumming, and will read more. In general, though, this was an off-year for crime fiction for me. What I read mostly seemed dull, average. Maybe I’ve read too much the last decade or so?

Inspiring for my work in progress: Daniel Mendelsohn’s Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate. Mendelsohn excels at structure—and in these three linked lectures he tackles the subject head on.

Best Holocaust books (primary sources): I was taken by two memoirs of Jewish women who hid in Berlin during the war: Marie Jalowicz Simon’s Underground in Berlin (translated by Anthea Bell) and Inge Deutschkron’s Outcast: A Jewish Girl in Wartime Berlin (translated by Jean Steinberg). Gerda Weissmann Klein’s memoir All But my Life is worthwhile, with a relatively rare emphasis on forced labour camps. In her novel Other People’s Houses, closely based on her own experience as a child brought from Vienna to England on the Kindertransport, Lore Segal takes no prisoners. Uri Shulevitz’s illustrated memoir, Chance: Escape from the Holocaust, is thoroughly engrossing, plus it shines a spotlight on the experience of Jewish refugees in Central Asia. Of all these documents, I was perhaps most moved by the life of Lilli Jahn, a promising doctor abandoned in the early war years by her non-Jewish husband, as told by her grandson Martin Doerry through copious use of family letters. My Wounded Heart: The Life of Lilli Jahn, 1900 – 1944 (translated by John Brownjohn) uses those documents to powerful effect, showing how gamely her children fended for themselves and how movingly Jahn, arrested by an official with a grudge, contrary to Nazi law that excepted Jewish parents of non or half-Jewish children from deportation, hid her suffering from them.

Best Holocaust books (secondary sources): I was bowled over by Mark Roseman’s Lives Reclaimed: A Story of Rescue and Resistance in Nazi Germany. Fascinating material, elegantly presented, striking the perfect balance between historical detail and theoretical reflection. To read is to think differently about our misguided ideas of what rescue and resistance meant both in the time of National Socialism and also today. His earlier work, A Past in Hiding: Memory and Survival in Nazi Germany, which focuses on a part of the larger story told in the new book, is also excellent. Omer Bartov’s Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz is another fine example of the particular used to generate general conclusions. Considering the fate of the Galician town of his ancestors in the first half of the 20th century, Bartov uses the history of Buczacz, as I put it back in January, “to show the intimacy of violence in the so-called Bloodlands of Eastern Europe in the 20th century. In his telling there was a seemingly ineluctable drive on the part of almost every group to reduce the region’s cultural diversity, and that much of the violence required to do so was perpetrated by one neighbour against another.” Dan Stone’s Concentration Camps: A Very Short Introduction does exactly what the title offers. It covers an impressive amount of material—Nazi and Stalinist camps feature most prominently, no surprise, but they are by no means the sole focus—in only a few pages. Rebecca Clifford’s Survivors: Children’s Lives after the Holocaust skillfully combines archival and anthropological material (interviews with twenty child survivors) to show how much effort postwar helpers, despite their best intentions, put into taking away the agency of these young people.

In addition to reviews of the things I read, I wrote a couple of personal things last year that I’m pleased with: an essay about my paternal grandmother, and another about my love for the NYRB Classics imprint.

You can find my reflections on years past here:
2019 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014

Coming in 2021:

Because my sense of how long things will take me to do is so terrible (it’s terrible), I’m always making plans I can’t keep. I should either stop or become more of a time realist. I do have a couple of group readings lined up for the first part of the year: Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel in February, and L. P. Hartley’s Eustace and Hilda trilogy in March. I’ve enjoyed, these past months, having a long classic on the go, and will keep that up until the end of my sabbatical. Having just completed War and Peace—guaranteed to be on this list in a year’s time—I might read more Russians. We’ll see. I want to read more Spanish-language literature—though I’ve been saying that for years and mostly not doing it. I want to read more writers of colour, especially African American writers. I took a course in college but have so many gaps to fill. I’m reading more nonfiction with greater pleasure than ever before—the surest sign of middle age I know; I’m sure that will continue in 2021. I read almost no comics/graphic novels last year, unusual for me, but I’m already rectifying that omission. I’ll read more science fiction in 2021, I suspect; it feels vital in a way crime fiction hasn’t much, lately. My two prime candidates for “deep dives” this year are Edith Wharton and Toni Morrison. Now that I am an American I should know the literature better!

What I’ll probably do, though, is butterfly my way through the reading year, getting distracted by shiny new books and genre fiction and things that aren’t yet even on my radar. No matter what, though, I’ll keep talking about it with you. That is, I’ll put my thoughts out here, and hope you’ll find something useful in them, and maybe even that you’ll be moved to share your own with me. Thanks to all my readers. Your comments and reactions and opinions—that connection—means everything to me.

Paul Wilson’s Year in Reading, 2020

In the next week or so I’ll be writing up my reflections on my 2020 reading year. In the meantime, I’ve solicited guest posts from friends and fellow book lovers about their own literary highlights. I’m always looking for new contributors; let me know here or on Twitter (@ds228) if you have something you want to share.

The second post is by Paul Wilson (@bibliopaul), one of the nicest folks on Book Twitter. (Which is saying something.) Paul lives with his wife in a small house in Colorado filled with boys, books and a Basset.

In spite of everything, 2020 turned out to be a great reading year for me. I’ve been fortunate enough to come across some books this year that will stick with me for a long time. Here are my favorite reads of 2020.

Some Tame Gazelle – Barbara Pym

Barbara Pym has become one of my favorite authors in recent years and her first novel, detailing the lives of two sisters in a small village in post-war England, was a perfect read amidst the chaos and uncertainty of 2020.

Sons And Lovers – D.H. Lawrence

Lawrence’s ability to capture the complicated tides and eddies of family lives and relationships is staggering. I read and admired Lady Chatterley’s Lover a few years ago, but this book is on a whole different level. I’m already contemplating which of his books I’ll read next. Perhaps The Rainbow? [Ed—yes!]

My Ántonia – Willa Cather

I wish I could travel back in time and tell my slacker high school self to actually read this instead of skimming the CliffsNotes version. Then again, given its wide lens on the cycles of nature and of human lives, maybe this is one of those books you only truly appreciate with age. [Ed–Makes sense.] I plan to read it often in the coming years and I’m sure I’ll discover something new every time.

The Go-Between – L.P. Hartley       

In the wrong hands, a child narrator can be disastrous. But when done well, as in The Go-Between, it can perfectly capture the magic, mystery and confusion of being young in a world you don’t fully understand. I’ve heard people rave about this book for years, and now it’s my turn to join the chorus. Don’t ignore it any longer.

The Mountain Lion – Jean Stafford

Speaking of stunning childhood narrators… A pair of siblings get a reprieve from their cloistered routines and protective mother when they spend a summer in the backcountry of Colorado. The descriptions of landscape and pitch perfect immersion into the tenderness and brutality of childhood blew me away. This book is devastating.

Weather – Jenny Offill

There’s always a mix of excitement and foreboding when one of my favorite authors comes out with a new book. For years now, I have recommended Offill’s Dept. Of Speculation as often as any other book I can think of, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from her follow up. Let’s just say I’m now more of an Offill evangelist than ever. Have you heard the good news?

Piranesi – Susanna Clarke

Few books have made a larger impact on me than Susanna Clarke’s first novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. I still remember certain scenes and images I read 10+ years ago far more vividly than those from books I’ve read in the past few months. As with Offill, I was both thrilled and a bit queasy when I heard Clarke had a new one on the way. Again, I needn’t have worried. Piranesi is very much its own book, but it contains the magic, mystery, and spectacular settings that are everything I could have hoped for. It was definitely worth the wait.

The Unreality Of Memory – Elisa Gabbert

I’ve found myself reading more essays in recent years, and this is one of the best collections I’ve come across. Given the subject matter—“disaster culture, climate anxiety, and our mounting collective sense of doom”—I was afraid that 2020 might be the wrong time to pick this one up. Instead, it was strangely cathartic to stare directly into the sun, guided by Gabbert’s masterful hand.

Winter Morning Walks – Ted Kooser

I first came across Kooser through Braided Creek, a wonderful “conversation in poetry” between Kooser and author Jim Harrison that often left me feeling like I was eavesdropping on an intimate conversation between friends. Winter Morning Walks is made up of 100 poems that Kooser sent to Harrison on postcards after Kooser developed cancer in the late 90s. Written and sent over the course of 12 months, these early morning ruminations are by turns elegiac, humorous, and contemplative. Accompanying Kooser during his year of doubt, fear, and hope made for perfect 2020 reading.

Sightlines – Kathleen Jamie

Over the past 10 years, I’ve begun to collect a handful of treasured nature writers: Robert Macfarlane, Terry Tempest Williams, Barry Lopez, Edward Abbey, Rebecca Solnit. This year, I added Kathleen Jamie to the list. This collection displays an impressive range, focusing on everything from microscopic cellular landscapes to mammoth whale skeletons hanging in the rafters of museums. As with the other authors on my list, I plan to slowly parcel out Jamie’s remaining books to make them last, despite the strong temptation to gobble them up as quickly as I can. 

Hurricane Season – Fernanda Melchor

This is one of several books I read this year that felt like jumping into a raging river and holding on for dear life. Dark, grimy, violent and incredibly compulsive, it refuses to provide the reader with any relief, even once you’ve turned the last page.

Ulysses – James Joyce

As I get older, I am increasingly drawn toward what Roberto Bolaño describes as “the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze a path into the unknown.” Ulysses is all of those things and more. What can I say? It’s breathtaking. I highly recommend reading it while simultaneously listening to Jim Norton’s incredible narration.

Ducks, Newburyport – Lucy Ellman

How can a book that has received so much attention and hype still deserve more? I have never read anything like it. Even after nearly 1,000 pages, I didn’t want to leave the narrator’s troubled, compulsive, and familiar head. She was a much-needed companion during the darkest parts of this year. The fact that I can’t stop thinking about this book. The fact that I may just read it again in 2021. The fact that you should, too.

In Search Of Lost Time – Marcel Proust

Like many others, I’ve spent years warily circling Proust’s masterpiece, simultaneously fascinated and intimidated. I should have started sooner. Spending the last few months making my way through the first four books of In Search Of Lost Time has been wonderfully immersive. As I make my way through the last two volumes, I find myself slowing down, savoring every word, reluctant to see it end.

2017 Year in Reading

Although traumatic and anxious-making in so many ways, 2017 was a good year for reading. I read more books last year than in any year since I started keeping a list in 2014. I was freed of an onerous work responsibility halfway through the year, which helped, as did my decision to switch to audio books on my commute, once I realized that even my beloved NPR was raising my stress levels. (I don’t mind audio books, it turns out, though I learned what most of you probably already knew: the narrator matters a lot.)

Of the 115 books I completed, 50% were by women and 50% by men (one was co-authored). 37% were translated and 63% were originally written in English. (I read one book in German.) Only 13% were non-fiction. The glib explanation might be that reality is bad enough right now without reading about it; the better one is that we need fiction to understand reality.

I wrote about my books of the year in the final issue of Open Letters Monthly. If you don’t want to click the link, I’ll repeat what I said at the beginning of my reflection:

The books that meant the most to me this year recount the rise of—and resistance to—fascism in 1930s and 40s. These might be books from the past, but they feel all too timely.

Mihail Sebastian, For Two Thousand Years. Trans. Philip Ó Ceallaigh. My god, this book is good! I had a lot to say about it at OLM.

Hans Keilson, 1944 Diary. Trans. Damion Searls. Keilson was a mensch. I wrote about him for Numéro Cinq.

Girogio Bassani, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. Trans. William Weaver. Together with Scott and Nat, I enjoyed this wistful but definitely not precious remembrance of pre-war Jewish life in Ferrara.

And best of all, the highlight of my reading year:

Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate. Trans. Robert Chandler. For several weeks I was consumed by this extraordinary book about the pivotal months of late 1942 and early 1943 in the Soviet Union. At OLM I said, “But Life and Fate isn’t just a work to respect. It’s also a book to love. What Life and Fate has in spades is flow, momentum, energy. It has life. Combining the warmth of Chekhov with the scope of Tolstoy, Grossman’s magnum opus is that paradoxical thing, an intimate epic.” I wrote several posts about it, too.

Other highlights:

Carl Seelig, Walks with Robert Walser. Trans. Anne Posten. I wrote about it here. This is a joyous book. Couldn’t you use some joy right about now?

Roger Lewinter, The Attraction of Things and Story of Love and Solitude. Trans. Rachel Careau. Thanks to Scott Esposito for giving me the chance to write about these enigmatic but indelible syntax-destroying books.

Liana Millu, Smoke Over Birkenau. Trans. Lynne Sharon Schwartz. This memoir of Holocaust survivor Millu was a revelation to me. We don’t hear enough about women’s experiences in the Shoah. So impressed that I added it to my course this coming semester.

Nathan Englander, Dinner at the Center of the Earth. Is it the lousy title that’s kept people from talking about this book? Or is it that Englander has written a smart, balanced, non-polemical/non-hysterical novel about Israel likely to alienate readers with entrenched opinions about the situation there? The best review I’ve read is shigekuni’s. Englander’s second novel is short and deceptively simple. I bet it took him ages to write. I’m looking forward to re-reading it soon.

Nina Allan, The Race and The Rift. Speaking of shigekuni, he turned me on to these wonderful SF novels. Both brilliant; I liked The Race best. For fans of Doris Lessing and David Mitchell, and especially people who think they don’t like SF.

Joseph Roth, The Emperor’s Tomb. Trans. Michael Hofmann. A nominal sequel to Roth’s famous Radetzky March (which I read so long ago that I can’t remember a thing about it), this is a fascinating example of that rare species, the modernist historical novel. I planned to write about it for German Literature Month but I left it too late and then I got the stomach flu… This book is amazing, though: it tempts us to wallow in Hapsburg nostalgia before pulling the rug out from under us, as it details first the hardscrabble aftermath of WWI and then finally taking an unexpected swerve into the even worse depredations of an incipient WWII. The philosophers Deleuze and Guattari were fond of the enigmatic term “line of flight.” I never understood what they meant, but Roth’s novel embodies what I think it might. The Emperor’s Tomb is a book on the run from itself, jumping forward temporally and stylistically in unexpected ways; it is a late work by an author who refuses to give readers what they have come to expect from him.

Daphne du Maurier, The Scapegoat, Rule Britannia and My Cousin Rachel. I wrote about these here and here. All wonderful, especially The Scapegoat.

Willa Cather, My Antonia. Late to that party! It’s amazing! More here.

Some bests:

Best comic with disagreeable characters: A surprisingly competitive field, including the first two volumes of Riad Sattouf’s The Arab of the Future, the first two volumes of Jason Lutes’s Berlin serial, and the winner, Manuele Fior’s 5,000 km per Second, which I wrote about here in what is surely the least-visited post in the history of this blog.

Best non-apocalyptic SF: Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2140. It’s too long and some of the characters are flat/embarrassing, but I was fascinated by Robinson’s carefully detailed vision of New York after a huge rise in sea levels. Maybe not plausible when it comes to climate (though I sure want it to be) but definitely when it comes to capitalism. “Wherever there’s a commons there’s enclosure. And enclosure always wins.”

Series that most kept my spirits up: Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs. I listened to or read the first eight this year, and I’m starting to worry what I’ll do when I’ve finished them all (at least she’s still writing them). Maisie calls herself a psychological investigator: she’s a former WWI nurse who is trained by a philosophical/medical/psychological/political éminence grise and social reformer to do PI work and, as the series develops, a whole lot more. (That sounds preposterous and it is a little preposterous, but not that much, or not enough to bother me, anyway.) The books aren’t particularly suspenseful, and sometimes Maisie is a little too good, but I love the period details, I’m willing to believe in the centrality of trauma (maybe the books’ abiding belief), and most of all I’m captivated by the way Maisie wrestles with the combination of ability, work, and good fortune that let her succeed at a time when so many equally deserving people did not.

Best unpretentious essayistic biography: Marie Darrieussecq, Being There: The Life of Paula Modersohn-Becker. I blogged about this terrific book here.

Book I most regret not posting about: Anita Brookner, A Start in Life. Seems like a lot of people are (re)discovering Brookner’s charms. And why wouldn’t readers be in love with a writer whose first book begins: “Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature”? Maybe many of those readers share my fascination with the late 70s/early 80s, a period that still seems to me at least to be relatively recent but is actually closer to WWII than the present. Brookner has an old-fashioned gravitas and authorial certainty, yet she doesn’t read like a mid-century author. I plan to read more of her this year.

Best use of modernist literary style to tell a Victorian story: Sarah Moss, Bodies of Light. Read this early in the year: it stayed with me, and I look forward to reading the sequel.

Best first half of a book: Philip Pullman, The Book of Dust Volume I: La Belle Sauvage. I agree 100% with Michael Orthofer: the brilliant, insidious first half devolves into an overly long chase/pilgrimage sequence (I don’t care if it’s modeled on Spenser: still fundamentally boring). I’ll read the next one eagerly, though.

Best WWII spy story no one seems to know about: William Christie, A Single Spy. Double agents. Soviets and Nazis. Dramatic escapes. Strong writing. Perfect light reading.

Best romance novel: Jennifer Crusie, Bet Me. Admittedly, the only one I read, but Rohan steered me right here. Like Laurie Colwin, but hot. I’ll read more.

Funniest book of the year: Elif Batuman, The Idiot. Hoping to post about this before my copy is due back at the library. I laughed to the point of tears many times: “We learned about people who had lost the ability to combine morphemes, after having their brains perforated by iron poles. Apparently there were several such people, who got iron poles stuck in their heads and lived to tell the tale—albeit without morphemes.” If you went to college in the 90s, this book is for you. Don’t worry, it’s not really a college novel.

Reliable pleasures: The Cadfael series continues to delight; the Montalbano books are back in form after some mediocre episodes; three books by Maurizo de Giovanni impressed me (would have read a lot more if only my library carried them). I finally read the first three Bernie Guenther books by Philip Kerr: fantastic!

Not-so reliable pleasures: The latest Lahlum disappointed—the bloat that crept into the last one is in full force here; I read my first book by John Lawton, in the Inspector Troy series: unpleasant; the new Indridason series: the jury is still out.

Good but maybe overrated: Jane Harper, The Dry (I’ll read the next, but it faded fast in memory); Don Winslow, The Force (part of me adored this Richard Price/George Pelecanos/David Simon novel of New York corruption, but part of me thought it was getting away with validating the homophobia, misogyny, and racism of its main characters in the guise of being cool/anthropological).

*

I published a number of pieces in 2017, and I look forward to doing so again this year. (Apologies to any editors reading this—I am working on your piece, I promise.) Sadly, though, the two venues I have written for the most, Numéro Cinq and Open Letters Monthly shut down this year. Together with Tom’s change of pace at Wuthering Expectations, my reading and writing year ended up feeling somber and end-of-an-era-ish.

But I’ll end on a happy note: I was lucky to share reading and writing experiences with several friends. Jacqui and I read Elizabeth Bowen’s The Hotel. Scott and Nat and I read Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (as mentioned above). Marat helped me out with Grossman. Nat and I read L. P. Hartley’s The Boat, which was fun even if we didn’t much like it. Thanks to them, and to everyone who read what I had to say at this space, however erratically, especially those who commented either here or on social media. You make doing this worthwhile. Best wishes in 2018.

My plans for the year are to make very few plans. But if you want to read something with me, just drop me a note in the comments or on Twitter. And if you want to see my reflections on the last few years, you can read about 2014, 2015 & 2016.

Six Emails about L. P. Hartley’s The Boat

Earlier this summer, based on some conversations we’d had about my post on The Go-Between, my friend Nat and I decided to read another of L. P. Hartley’s novels. We settled on The Boat (1949). Here’s what the publisher says about it on the back of my edition:

Timothy Casson, a bachelor and a writer, is forced to return from his contented life in Venice to an English village.

Taking a house by the river where he can pursue his passion for rowing, he has to do battle with the locals to overcome his isolation and feelings of incompleteness. This most complex of Hartley’s novels examines the multiple layers of Casson’s relationships with servants, local society and friends.

Over a week or so, Nat and I emailed back and forth about the book. Here’s what we had to say. Warning: spoilers ahead (such as they are).

Peter-Doig-100-Years-Ago-2001-via-peterdoig.mbam_.qc-ca1-865x577

Mon 8/21 10:50 PM

Nat,

After enjoying The Go-Between so much last year I was really excited to read more of Hartley’s work. And I was even more excited to read him along with you. But I confess I wouldn’t have finished this book if I’d been reading it on my own. It’s long. Really long. 450 pp in now-I-am-getting-old-and-irritated-with-small-print long. I’m trying to be charitable to the book, but I can’t immediately see why it has to be so long, other than that maybe the end is that much more exciting because we’ve had such a slow build up. The narrative dam bursts, like the river in spate that Timothy finally rides (to disastrous results). But honestly I think I’m being kind here. A lot of this book is just boring.

What I want to know is: how savvy is Hartley about this? It’s pretty clear that he’s set up his protagonist to be dull, a bit muddled, though basically decent. So is the novel’s dullness strategic? Does he want to tell us something about it? I guess the thing that interests me most about the book is that it’s written in 1949 and set in 1940-41 and hardly mentions the war at all. The war is happening, of course (even if at first it’s the “Phony War”) but way off-stage. This seems like a deliberate and almost wilfully anachronistic choice. (After all, this is a time when writers like Green and Bowen and Panter-Downes are writing novels that try to make sense of the war and its aftermath.)

Hartley in fact alludes to his possibly unusual subject matter late in the book (p 397 in my edition), when he ruminates on the war within the war–his war with the local grandees who have blocked the river from “the people” (or, at least, him), which his friends Tyro and Esther are sure to disparage in comparison to the actual war. Where do you think the book’s sympathies are here? Is Timothy right to insist on the importance of his fight? Is it a fight the book believes in? Does Timothy actually believe in it? Or is he just doing it in a last-ditch effort to hold Vera’s attention? In a similar vein, how do you read Timothy’s sleep at the end? A well-deserved rest after many trials and slights? Or a sign of his quiescence/cluelessness?

I think the book likes Timothy–his lack of certainty is better than Magda and definitely Tyro’s blunt convictions (see p 445). He’s a bit of an E. M. Forster muddled liberal type, which I’m not sure the book disapproves of. And often I don’t either. But I’m a bit put off by him too. He doesn’t have the saving qualities of innocence of Leo in The Go-Between.

On another note, is it crazy to think of The Boat as a version of The Mill on the Floss? Actually, I think it is crazy. But the whole boat/flood thing made me wonder. It’s only been a few years since I read MF but I’m embarrassingly hazy on details. Do you know it?

Ok, going to stop now but will flag two things I want to think more about: children, and third person instead of first.

Let me know what you think about what I’ve had to say.

d

25c43810c457a9796098b6e9e0e3a491--alex-colville-alex-katz

Wed 8/23 10:42 AM

Dorian,

I have to agree that this book was a bit of a grind; I was very enthusiastic about your suggestion to read a Hartley novel together, and I thought The Boat sounded like the most interesting option. Coming chronologically between the novels I knew (after the Eustace and Hilda trilogy of the earlier ’40s and before The Go-Between and The Hireling in the ’50s), I was intrigued to see where this novel fit. But it really wasn’t what I was expecting; some Hartley trademarks are there, such as his incisive psychological portraits of character, his exploration of class distinctions, and his occasionally epigrammatic wit (my favourite: “to do a thing badly is an affirmation of independence, whereas to do it well is to confess oneself a slave to other people’s standards”) (181). But there is also a heavy dose of politics, philosophizing, and digressing into the details of English country life. And you’re right; the book is too long by far. Never have I more strongly willed a fictional character to do something than I willed Timothy to get in that boat, which takes him a full 3/4 of the book to do (I imagine that Hartley’s alternative titles for the novel must have been Waiting for the Boat and Much Ado about Boating). The bottom line is that if we do this again (and I hope we do!), I’m letting you choose the book.

This may be just another way of phrasing some of your questions, but I wonder what you make of the central symbol of the boat itself? It’s clear that Timothy has an almost quasi-religious reverence for it, and that it represents freedom and peace for him, but does it mean the same thing to us? Or is Hartley ironically presenting Timothy’s love for boating as a foolish obsession, no different from the fishermen who object to his boat? At the end, Tyro interprets Timothy’s desire as escapism and a death wish; how much credence do we give to that opinion?

I’m tempted to play the Hartley apologist here a little bit; despite many things that I would objectively call flaws in the book (an excessive reliance on letter writing, a significant lack of action, as the main antagonists in the novel hardly ever meet, and when there is action, it is often highly melodramatic and implausible), I still found it strangely compelling. Maybe it’s just what I want to believe, but I do tend to think that Hartley is a bit more savvy than this novel appears to be. He mixes his dull protagonist with characters who belong in a range of different genres; there are the stereotypical servants who actually run the house, the upright but a bit clueless village policeman, and the femme fatale, Vera Cross, who is self-reflexively positioned in this role through the bad noir fiction that Edgell Purbright convinces Timothy to read. I feel like we are supposed to hope that Timothy can find his place in his adoptive village amongst this assortment of figures, but that Hartley is perhaps suggesting the generic and political confusion of a heteroglot England. His hero can’t find a place in this world because it doesn’t quite make sense in itself.

I’m not sure that this playing with genres ever fully works, though; take, for example, the melodramatic scene in which Timothy accidentally stumbles across the secret of Desiree Lampard’s birth and has to decide whether to use this information to prevent her upcoming wedding. Here, Timothy plays a highly conventional role, and one rather expects Hartley to return to this with some kind of twist, but instead, these characters simply fade from view.

Similarly, it seems as if the reader is supposed to be intrigued (and titillated?) by the fact that Vera Cross seems to take a romantic interest in Timothy (who is twice her age) but the explanation of this as being politically motivated is both underwhelming and implausible (she spends over a year cultivating this relationship just to try to get him to do something that would annoy the village elites?). On another note, what is with impossibly idealized women being called Miss Cross? Thinking of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, of course. On that note, I wonder what you think of Hartley’s treatment of his female characters in general? There is the painfully obvious angel/temptress opposition at work between Mrs. Purbright and Miss Cross, but is Hartley challenging this with his self-aware treatment of these types?

Your question about the war really gets at what I thought was most interesting about the book, but again, not quite interesting in a thoroughly satisfying way. I don’t know nearly enough about post-war British fiction to compare it to the other authors you mention, but on a personal level, having had a grandfather in the RAF and a grandmother who was evacuated from London during the blitz, I had always had a very homogenous idea of Britain being a united nation during the war. Hartley provides a vision of an England still very much divided along class lines, with highly politicized factions at work. It certainly wasn’t what I expected (a communist plot in little Upton?) although maybe my lack of familiarity with the period is showing here. Are there other books you can think of that deal with the role of communism/political dissent in England at this time?

As for the war itself, I thought myself pretty clever for tracing the outlines of an allegorical relationship between the larger events of the war referred to throughout the novel, and Timothy’s personal struggle. But then, Hartley has Timothy (on page 361) pretty much declare the allegorical significance of his actions. So much for being subtle. Again, I’m not sure how well the allegory holds together, but at the very least, we see Timothy moving from a Chamberlain-like stance of appeasement in which he believes that if he plays the game and ingratiates himself with the ruling elite, he will be allowed to use his boat, towards a more militaristic Churchill-like position in which he openly defies them and gives a revolutionary speech to the gathered masses. On the one hand, then, Timothy is England, learning that he can only get the freedom he desires if he stands up for himself. On the other hand, though, there are many ways in which he does not embody Englishness in this context; he is the outsider, invading the space of the landed elites (all ex-military officers) and the driving force behind his boat trip is Vera, who is using Timothy to antagonize these elites.

One can’t help but feel that Hartley is expressing sympathy for Timothy’s revolutionary action (after so much failure, taking the boat out on the water and giving a rousing speech seem like great successes) but if that’s the case, what do we make of the fact that he is, in the end, seduced by the elites and eventually flees? His near-death experience seems to change his attitude towards life in general, but is it really a change for the better, or is he simply allowing himself to be deceived by their promises yet again?

The elites are depicted as dinosaurs who need to be replaced, but Timothy doesn’t want to do this; he just wants to be able to use his boat. I agree that the novel likes Timothy, but the ending seems like yet another in a series of anti-climaxes; he leaves town and falls asleep, flanked by his two very different friends. Is this an image of a new England in which the old order (Esther) and a new modern cynicism (Tyro) unite to save Timothy, the sort of English everyman? That might be the most positive reading I can muster. On the other hand, Timothy is still blaming himself for what has happened to Vera and Mrs. Purbright when he conveniently falls asleep; is this another form of escapism?

I hadn’t thought about the connections to The Mill on the Floss, but it could certainly be said that Maggie Tulliver and Timothy Casson are both figures who repress their strong desires out of consideration for others, and both endure a flood that overpowers the arbitrary limitations of social convention with the force of nature (and, perhaps, a Freudian return of the repressed). I’m not sure how far I would go with the parallel, though, given the gender differences that inform this repression (Maggie is a young girl, relatively powerless with respect to Victorian gender norms, while Timothy is an old man in a relatively privileged position who often creates his own obstacles). Also, the flood in The Mill on the Floss has a redemptive quality to it, which is perhaps more ambiguous in The Boat; does the near-death experience really change anything for Timothy?

Your final questions put me in mind of what I really like about Hartley. For one thing, he is very good at depicting the minds of children. This is what makes The Go-Between and The Shrimp and the Anemone so fantastic. We get glimpses of that in The Boat, with the two evacuee boys who are interestingly doubled at the end by the two boys who join Timothy in the boat, but these figures are never really developed very far. The one moment that stands out for me is when Billy drops his teacup in the drawing room, which instead of being a disaster, causes all the social restraints in the room to be dropped; children are in this sense aligned with a natural rather than social way of life. In this respect, we might also want to talk about Felix the dog, who seems to play a similar role?

Finally, and most tentatively, what I really like about Hartley is his ability to explore the relationship between self and other, how the self can find a place in a world that it necessarily experiences as foreign and other. It seems to me that this almost requires the use of third person, an “other” outside the self-other relationship who is able to witness, describe and analyze it. In The Go-Between, first person works because the narrator is already “other” to himself through the passage of time. I don’t think anything else I’ve read by Hartley has used first person. But that’s just a theory; feel free to explode it.

Sorry, that was long, but you asked so many very good questions. I guess the big question that I’m left with is whether Hartley is sympathizing with the revolutionary politics that is implicit (and often explicit) within the narrative trajectory of the novel, or whether he, like Timothy, would prefer to hold an aesthetic view of the world and simply leave the politics behind?

Nat

Homer-Rowing_Home

Sat 8/26 4:40 PM

Nat,

Great question: does Hartley sympathize with the revolutionary politics referred to both implicitly and explicitly in the novel?

I would have to say, No. There’s just too much bathos for me at least to think he wants us to take it seriously. After all, isn’t Vera a bad character? She gets Mrs. Purbright killed. She leads Timothy on, and is really quite cruel to him. We’re clearly supposed to dislike her. So how can we take her crusade seriously? And what the hell kind of crusade is it anyway? Opening up the river to boating just seems extraordinary small potatoes–not even worthy as a symbol. Now, I suppose a lot does depend on whether you think she did indeed seduce Timothy only to insist he imagined it, or whether he has in fact imagined it. Where are you on that? I think it’s the former. But if it is the latter, then we would have to see Vera in at least a somewhat different light. It would have the benefit of making Timothy even more ambivalent–pathetic at best, sinister at worst. I guess looking back on it I’m really confused about Vera’s motives. She’s like a super-low-rent Mephistopheles: just doing something bad/unpleasant (not sure it quite rises to evil) just because she can.

I like what you’re saying about the third person (or a retrospective first person) as a requirement for the self-other investigation you prize in Hartley. But in that case, why attach the third person so closely to a single character? Wouldn’t a more roving, omniscient-minded narrative voice be able to do that work more fully? If we got insider other people’s heads, we might get a better overview of English society–in other words, the political element of the novel would be strengthened, or at least that’s the way I see it.

It’s a great question as to whether there are other books about the role of communist/political dissent in the period. There must be but I can’t think of anything. Bowen’s Heat of the Day (a masterpiece) is certainly about dissent–but of a fascist rather than communist sort. Bits of Lessing’s The Golden Notebook are critical of English communism, but that’s in reference to the 50s–the debates over Stalinism etc. Maybe others can help us out here. But I think we are agreed that the most interesting thing about the book is the way it addresses the class ambivalences of war-time England (thereby contesting the “we’re all in it together” myth).

You’ve helped me see that The Mill on the Floss comparison isn’t very fruitful. Eliot is a lot more progressive than Hartley. And she cares about women, which, based on the two novels I’ve read, I can’t say Hartley does. At least the women in The Go-Between have the fascination of monstrousness about them. Vera never quite rises to that level.

I’m starting to think of the book as more and more conservative. Perhaps Hartley belongs with other English writers who despaired of what they saw as the spiritual impoverishment of postwar life (often because the privileges of their own classes were being taxed away): Evelyn Waugh, late Henry Green (certainly true in his letters and such; in his early work, in particular, he is much more nuanced about such matters). I should read some more Hartley to find out, but for the time being I need to take a bit of a break from him…

Totally agree with your points about the children–I wanted more of both sets of them. And the dog’s maybe the best character in the book. Who was it said never to act with children and animals? Timothy should have known better…

What other things do we need to talk about?

d

cezanne_barque_baigneurs

Mon 8/29 12:39 PM

Dorian,

Yes, I absolutely agree that we are supposed to dislike Vera and that the revelation of her motives is just about the weakest part of the book. I like your characterization of her as a “super low-rent Mephistopheles” but even more than that the disparity between her rather minimal objective and the amount of effort she puts into achieving it (cultivating a relationship with Timothy, whom she is revealed not to like very much, over the course of something like two years) just seems laughably implausible. As for whether Timothy has imagined his seduction by Vera, it’s a tempting theory, but Hartley doesn’t really seem to have done anything to get us to doubt Timothy’s reliability (which would have actually made things a lot more interesting, I think). In fact, when I was about 2/3 of the way through the book, and it didn’t seem to me that Hartley could possibly end things in a satisfactory way, I actually found myself hoping that Vera would turn out not to exist at all, but be some kind of psychological projection of Timothy’s. No such luck, but even that would have made more sense than what we got.

But if we don’t like Vera, surely we don’t much like the representatives of the established order either? Aren’t we hugely disappointed at the end when Timothy goes to Colonel Harbord’s party and is seduced by the beauty of his lawn? Would it be possible to make the case that Hartley is advocating for some kind of liberal “middle way” between the uptight old order and the flaky young revolutionaries? Timothy fails to find such a way, being pulled back and forth between the two camps, but perhaps this is what Hartley wants his readers to strive for? Interesting that you conclude that he is being ultimately conservative, and I can certainly see that argument, but is it simply for the lack of any reasonable alternative? Is he, to invoke the Arnoldian cliché, caught “between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born”?

Good point about Hartley’s narrative being so chained to Timothy’s consciousness that it’s not all that different from a first-person narrative. The exception that proves the rule is that the sequence of chapters that is probably the most effective in the novel is (I think) the only time where the narrative strays from Timothy’s side for any length of time. Just as we are anxious to learn whether Timothy’s project of taking the boat out is to be accomplished, Chapter 28 takes us to the Rector’s house, where Mrs. Purbright makes the decision to try to warn Timothy about the high water, then Chapter 29 reveals how Vera came to arrive at just the same spot on the riverbank as Mrs. Purbright. This helps to build suspense about what is going to happen to Timothy, and then that chapter ends with uncertainty about what has happened to Vera and Mrs. Purbright, which builds more suspense as we return to Timothy and the boat in the following chapter. Hartley is at his best in this sequence, and the rest of the novel really does suffer from being so confined to Timothy’s point of view. On the other hand, part of Hartley’s point is that Timothy doesn’t really know how the other Uptonians feel about him, and perhaps if the reader did know, it would take away from the incessant anxiety he feels about how is being perceived by others. I suspect the feeling of unease that Timothy feels would be difficult to sustain with a more free-flowing omniscient narrator. (But still, your point about needing other perspectives is spot on.)

And yes, the dog probably is the best character in the book and Hartley’s genius can be seen in how he captures the essence of dogs in one sentence: “He seemed to know at once where he wanted to go and to think it did not matter what happened to his body, provided his head got there.” Also, probably the best comic sequence in the novel is the servants’ efforts to convince Timothy that he needs a dog. After deciding that he needs a companion who can speak a foreign language, Wimbush in his roundabout way tells Timothy, “A dog, now, he speaks what you might almost call a foreign language.” I found it funny, but such sequences also add to the generic inconsistency of the novel; what exactly is it trying to be?

I think we may have just about exhausted the novel, but one last thing I was thinking about was the role of Italy. Timothy comes back to England after years of living in Venice, which establishes his “foreignness” in Upton, but does this code him as somehow suspicious (he seems to prefer many Italian values and customs to English ones) or refreshingly cosmopolitan and worldly? Esther expresses the quintessential Anglo-centric world view in an early letter: “I don’t see how another country can really disagree with England, for England is every country’s other self” but on the whole, it always seems that Timothy would rather be in Italy. Is he an escapist who has been forced by the war to confront his own country? And is the bottom line that he lacks the ability to deal with living in England? And if so, is that more of a reflection on him or on the country itself?

Nat

21943919

Tues 8:29 9:43 PM

Nat,

Was I ever disappointed in Timothy for falling in love with that lawn! The middle-way theory makes so much sense, but what does it mean that the novel can’t seem to imagine it? A similar throwing up of the hands might be at work in the novel’s portrayal of Italy. I’m glad you brought that up, as I was thinking about it too. His love of Italy makes Timothy a bit more worldly, less parochial. (and it’s another way he was reminding me of Forster.) But he’s unwilling to cut Italy too much slack–rightly decrying its turn to fascism. (Does it make a difference, I wonder, that he is the only character with any direct experience of fascism? Unlike his much more political friends.) Mostly Italy seems to function as a lost paradise–it’s like a synonym for the youth and vigour he no longer has. So in the end I don’t know that it much matters that it is Italy, just that it’s a place he felt himself to have been more free in than his current circumstances. Do you think that’s right?

I agree I think we’ve done about all we can for this novel. If anybody is inclined to pick it up after our exchange (which frankly I doubt!) I sure would like to hear what they had to say.

Let’s time we’ll go for something different. Or maybe we should push on with Hartley to see whether The Boat is an aberration.

Thanks for talking about it with me–totally enjoyed it!

xo

d

Wed 8/30 12:49 PM

Dorian,

Yes, I think you’re right about Italy. Not only is it his lost paradise, but it was his job as a writer to send back romanticized portraits of Italy to England. That falls apart with the outbreak of war, and Timothy’s attempts to romanticize England in a similar way also fall apart rather quickly. This also adds to the sense of Timothy as an escapist who lacks the tools (or desire) to deal with his real social situation.

I really enjoyed our conversation as well, and only wish we had both enjoyed the book a bit more. Probably best to give Hartley a break for the time being (although I did get my hands on a copy of Facial Justice) but I do look forward to reading something with you again. Perhaps you should choose next time; your judgment in these things is clearly better than mine!

Best,

Nat

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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.