What I Read, August 2020

August. Well, it was better than July. After much hand-wringing over safety and ethics, we took a short vacation to Colorado, to assuage some of our sadness at missing our time in the Canadian Rockies. We were amazed at how different Colorado is from Alberta, alternately enjoyed and suffered the long drive from Missouri (where we’d been staying), got in some good hiking, and marveled at how much cheaper holidays are when you don’t go out to eat or buy any souvenirs. Immediately after returning, though, it was right into a new routine: both my wife and my daughter are attending school remotely (Zoom rules our lives); I’m trying to write a little each day and not be too cruel to myself about the quality or quantity or even the topic. Some days I simmer in rage at the needlessness of this all (we didn’t have to experience this pandemic this way); on others I make the best of it. And I get my reading time in whenever I can.

Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy (1993)

Possibly the longest single-volume novel I have ever read (almost 1500 pages, sometimes I laughed just at the side of it). I did not read it all in August. In fact, I’ve been working on it since March or April. I could have read faster, no doubt—I set it aside for long stretches—and that might have made me a better reader. But the book lends itself to slowness—its many parts, divided into short chapters, provide plenty of places to pause, even as they also offer a reason to keep going (“I can read ten more pages”).

The setting is India in the early 1950s, mostly in the cities of Brahmpur and Calcutta (only the latter of which is real), but with forays into the countryside. Lata Mehra needs to be married—at least according to her mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra (as she is typically named by the gently teasing omniscient narrative voice). But which boy will be suitable? Focused on four interlocking families, the novel offers plenty of possible choices. (The resolution surprised me, but after a moment’s reflection I accepted its rightness.) Sensible, intelligent Lata is perhaps the most sympathetic character in a book filled with them. (I did like its kindness.) A few are caricatures, but most are well-rounded and interestingly changeable. Seth’s vision is heavy on the “foibles of human nature”—if this isn’t your thing, this book isn’t for you. It’s old fashioned, dipping occasionally into free indirect discourse, but more often relying on a wise, almost arch omniscience. That retro quality feels a bit stagey—I’m not sure it has the convictions of its 19th century heart—but that could just be because the 90s now feel a little impossible. (To me, they are what the 70s were to the 90s: embarrassing. Since the 70s now seem amazing, the book, like the decade in which it was published, may age well.)

Something A Suitable Boy does share with Victorian triple-deckers is a delight in instruction. I learned so much from this book, from all kinds of Indian vocabulary (mostly Hindi but sometimes Urdu words) to the structure of the Zamindari system, the abolition of which forms one of the important subplots.

If I think about it more, I could probably draw a connection between newly-independent India and self-made men, at least one of which is important to the novel’s plot, but A Suitable Boy is not a book that asks us to think much. It kept me pleasantly diverted through the first months of the pandemic; I felt fondness for it and its characters. I didn’t quite shed a tear at the end, but I definitely let out an almost risibly satisfied sigh on reading the final pages. A month later, though, I rarely think of it (much less than I do Lonesome Dove, the other chunkster I’ve read this year), so I can’t say it’s a book for the ages. Apparently, Seth has been working for decades on a sequel, A Suitable Girl. I’ll read it, if it ever comes to pass.

Jessica Moor, The Keeper (2020)

The title, a nice pun suggesting how little separates the ideal man from Bluebeard, is the best thing about this book. A procedural centered on a domestic abuse shelter is a good idea. The slick trick the book plays at the end is not.

Kapka Kassabova, To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace (2020)

Ever since I fell in love with Kassabova’s travelogue, Border—you can read my rave here—I’ve been eager for her next book. To the Lake didn’t disappoint. The earlier book was about Thrace, the lands where, today, Greece, Turkey, and Bulgaria meet. The new one is about another place that borders both do and do not separate. Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa—joined by underground rivers—lie at the intersection of Albania, Greece, and the newly-independent Republic of North Macedonia, where, back when it was Yugoslavia, Kassabova summered as a child. Because it is about the Balkans, the book is about history, specifically, about violence. It is also about the possibility of overcoming that violence (as symbolized by the tentative rapprochement between Greece and North Macedonia). To that end, Kassabova considers the lakes as a place of healing—people have taken their waters for centuries, for both physiological and psychological relief.

But as dialed into a century’s worth of political upheavals as Kassabova is, she is even more interested in war and peace, violence and restitution as fundamental human qualities, as competing elements of our psyche. One way that struggle manifests is through the relationships between men and women. As a woman from the Balkans who no longer lives there, as a woman travelling alone, as an unmarried woman without children, Kassabova is keenly aware of how uncomfortable people are with her refusal of categorization, how insistently they want to pigeonhole her. (No one writes ill-defined, menacing encounters with men like she does.) The personal parts of To the Lake concern her mother’s family, and certain unhappy psychological traits that seem to have been passed down through it. These might, however, be social rather than genetic. As she writes:

Like many ambitious women in a patriarchy where they don’t have full expression in society but absolute power in the family, [Kassabova’s great-grandmother] Ljubitsa inhabited the destructive shadow archetype of the mother-queen: needing everyone to remain small and needy, looking up to her and infusing her with importance (after all her sacrifices, it’s the least they could do). Like a poisoned mantle, this psychological imprint was taken on by my grandmother and then by my mother, and sometimes I feel it creeping up behind me too, ready to enshroud me and make me mean.

As you can see here, Kassabova is really smart (no one gets off lightly in that passage), which is what I love best about her, even more than descriptions of outings to the lakeshore to pick cherries. (Though I am a sucker for that Chekovian shit too.) I gather Kassabova is working on a book about healing more broadly. I’ll miss the Balkans, but I can’t wait.

Incidentally, To the Lake pairs terrifically with Antigona and Me; interesting, how two of the best books I’ve read this year are about women from the Balkans.

Annie Ernaux, The Years (2008) Trans. Alison L. Strayer (2013)

I finally read Annie Ernaux! Even though it is the surest way to jinx myself, I want to write an essay about her, so won’t say too much about either this book or the other three I read this month. (They are very short.) Many readers seem to think this is Ernaux’s masterpiece. That is wrong. In fact, I thought about abandoning this book a couple of times. I didn’t because I sensed Ernaux’s intelligence. And I’m glad I didn’t; her other work is more to my taste.

Ernaux is upfront about her challenge in The Years—she wanted to write about herself as part of a generation. But what voice to use? “I” wasn’t right—first-person legitimates or values the individual in a way she didn’t want. (Intriguing, given her masterly use of it in her other books.) But “she” wasn’t right either: third-person coalesces phrases and descriptions into character (Barthes wrote brilliantly about this in S/Z). She turned to “we” to write the story of French Boomers. (Technically, she is an earlier generation, having been born in 1941, but still.) My decades-long feud with Boomers is surely influencing me here, but I didn’t think Ernaux was as careful as she should have been (and that she is in her other work) to note how her “we” is the story of a particular class. I mean, I get that the upper-middle class of intellectuals or other white-collar worker—the generation that turned conservative after 68 and, having benefitted from the thirty glorious years made possible by the destruction of WWII, proceeded to dismantle all its good things, specifically its attempts to undo inequality—think that their experience simply is experience. But I didn’t sense that Ernaux was critiquing that tendency. I dunno, The Years feels a little smug to me—which her writing otherwise never seems to be. Read Ernaux, but start somewhere else.

Georges Simenon, The Flemish House (1932) Trans. Shaun Whiteside (2014)

Finally, a Maigret that worked for me! (Admittedly, I’ve only read four.) Some Maigret-loving friends suggested many of the best books in the series send the detective out of Paris. Maybe that’s the trick. Here Maigret travels to the border with Belgium, called by a young woman who wants him to save her brother, who is under suspicion when the woman who fathered his child is found dead. Lots of rain, lots of barges, lots of hot toddies, and a damn good ending.

Laura Shepherd-Robinson, Blood and Sugar (2019)

Historical crime fiction centered on the British slave trade, set in one of its hubs, Deptford, in the 1780s. Unexceptionable but forgettable.

Annie Ernaux, A Man’s Place (1983) Trans. Tanya Leslie (1992)

Concerns the life and death of Ernaux’s father, a man unsure what to do with his daughter’s life, so different from his own.

Annie Ernaux, Simple Passion (1991) Trans. Tanya Leslie (1993)

Concerns an affair Ernaux carried out with a younger, Eastern European man. Begins with a description that might be familiar to people who remember the 80s, of watching a scrambled porno on TV. As so often, Ernaux is brilliant at creating metaphors for what she wants her writing to do without writing texts that are tediously metafictional.

Norman Ohler, Bohemians: The Lovers Who Led Germany’s Resistance Against the Nazis (2020) Trans. Tim Mohr and Marshall Yarborough (2020)

Fascinating.

Justus Rosenberg, The Art of Resistance: My Four Years in the French Underground (2020)

Incredible, the things that happened to Justus Rosenberg as a young man during the war. Strange, how little he says about what those things mean.

Annie Ernaux, The Possession (2002) Trans. Anna Moschovakis (2008)

Concerns the dual meaning of possession. Does the lover own the beloved? Or is she owned by him?

Bessora, Alpha: Abidjan to the Gare du Nord (2014) Trans. Sarah Ardizzone (2018) Illus. Barroux

I learned so much from this beautiful and sad comic, not least how huge Mali is, to say nothing of Algeria. Alpha Coulibaly, a cabinet maker in Abidjan, the biggest city in the Côte d’Ivoire, has heard nothing from his wife and son since they set off to Europe. They hoped to make it to her sister, who has a hair salon near Paris’s Gare du Nord. In search of them, he sells up and heads north, an epic journey first to Mali, then to Algeria, and then 1800 miles across the desert to the Spanish enclave at Ceuta, where he fails to gain EU entry, forcing him to try a dangerous voyage to the Canary Islands. Along the way, he is guided/abused by smugglers, and even becomes one himself: it’s the only way to make the money he needs. He meets many fellow migrants, all of whom are well aware of the dangers—though some, like an extended family that has pooled all its resources to send a young man to Spain, where they are convinced he will play for FC Barcelona, are more naïve than others. All know, however, that there is nothing for them at home. The desperation is as real as the risks they confront trying to escape it. Alpha and the others are both physically and psychologically damaged: this is not a book with a happy ending. Paradoxically, it’s a beautiful one: Barroux’s illustrations are washes of greys, whites, blacks, and reds.

Laurie R. King, The Game (2004)

It felt like time for another episode of Mary Russell’s adventures with Holmes, so I pulled this one from the shelf. In The Game Mycroft sends the pair to India, near the border with Afghanistan (this is in the 1920s), where the Russians, newly Soviets, are threatening Britain’s prize colony. I might have enjoyed this more had I read Kim—Kipling’s hero is a minor but important character—but I liked it anyway. As always, King is better at setting up her scenarios than in resolving them. The books always feel both slow and rushed at the same time, it’s weird, but I find enough in the series to keep plugging along.

Brit Bennett, The Vanishing Half (2020)

Deserving of its current popularity. The Vanishing Half is a novel about identical twin sisters, Desiree and Stella Vignes, who grow up in rural Louisiana in a town founded by a freed slave (the girls’ great-great-great grandfather) as an enclave for Blacks as light-skinned as himself. When they turn sixteen, in 1952, the sisters abscond to New Orleans to begin a new life. It’s hard to find work that isn’t badly paying and dangerous, so Desiree convinces Stella to take a secretarial job—which requires her to pass as white. Soon their paths diverge. Stella abruptly disappears, leaving Desiree bereft, her belief that she and her sister shared everything shattered. Stella marries her white boss—who has no idea of her background—which locks her into a life of both material privilege and constant anxiety over her secret. Desiree flees to DC, where she eventually marries the darkest man she can find, but returns to her hometown with her small daughter to escape his domestic abuse.

Years later, that daughter, Jude, moves to Los Angeles to attend college on a track scholarship. On a catering job she sees a woman she knows immediately must be her aunt. She becomes close to Stella’s daughter, an aspiring actress. Family secrets are revealed, to ambiguous ends.

Stories of racial passing often take the form of melodrama—Sirk’s film Imitation of Life is a classic example—and Bennett embraces that quality. In fact, I think she could have made more of it. The Vanishing Half is fascinated by acting-pretending-dissembling: both the many forms they can take and their consequences. For example, there’s a great trans subplot, and another important minor character is enmeshed in the 1970s/80s LA drag scene. But the book is about acting more than itself an example of it. I sometimes wanted Bennet to do more than depict impersonation; I wanted her to perform it through her style. Although, even as I write this, I wonder whether Bennett’s straightforward prose is itself a kind of acting—a way for her novel to pass as “respectable” literary fiction. (Hmm, the novel may be savvier than I credit!)

My favourite novel about racial passing is Nella Larsen’s Harlem Renaissance masterpiece, a real literary touchstone for me. And for Bennett, too, who references Larsen in shrewd ways (a smashed wine bottle echoes a smashed teacup from an important scene in Passing; the queer subplot gestures to the unavowed love between Larsen’s female protagonists). I loved how lovingly Bennett responded to Larsen’s novel. (If you haven’t read either, I recommend reading Larsen first.) And I admired her portrait of Stella, whose consciousness we often inhabit, in a way we don’t with the analogous figure in Passing. Bennett leaves unanswered whether Stella suffers from false consciousness or whether she simply wants the anonymity that white people can take for granted in a world that sets them as the default. This line haunts me: “She could think of nothing more horrifying than not being able to hide what she wanted.”

Ernaux’s works are an elegant rabbit-hole, and Ohler’s book taught me a lot. But this month’s winner was without question Kassabova’s terrific essay-travelogue. We’re lurching to the middle of September already, but if you had good reading in August, let me know. Lately my reading has taken me to north Germany in the 19th century, among other places. More on that in a few weeks. In the meantime, stay as safe and well as you can, everybody.

Secretly Canadian

Dr. Dionne Jackson, head of the Office for Diversity and Inclusion at Hendrix College, where I teach, asked me to give a lunchtime talk in their monthly series on identity. I chose to write about being a Canadian in the US. Here’s a slightly cleaned-up version. It’s stilted–half speech, half notes. I ad-libbed somewhat; I think it sounded better than it reads. But I offer it here in case anyone’s interested, along with my powerpoint slides.
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I chose this title as a joke, because if you know anything about me you probably know that I’m Canadian. It’s not exactly something I hide. Many people at Hendrix have probably heard more than enough from me about Canadian awesomeness.

But I chose it for other reasons too.

One reason is the suggestion that someone—maybe some American— in their heart of hearts might wish to be Canadian. They are secretly Canadian. Of course, a Canadian would say that. Despite our irritating sense of superiority, Canadians have a total inferiority complex in regards to the US. All we want is to be acknowledged by you—and you don’t even know that we exist! (Except for weather—all those cold fronts coming down from Canada.)

Another reason is the suggestion that one could practice one’s Canadian-ness secretly. This is often the experience of Canadians abroad, especially in the US. We can pass, for the most part. Even though people make fun of me when I say “about.”

I like this idea of a kind of stealth existence. It feels subversive.

Yet it’s not enough to just hide out—at least not for me, and, I suspect, for many Canadians. Otherwise how can you can explain Canadians’ inescapable need to point out famous Canadians. (Seth Rogen… Canadian. Leonard Cohen… Canadian. Joni Mitchell… Canadian. Ellen Page… Canadian. Feist… Canadian.)

[Jews do this too BTW. So imagine how bad Canadian Jews are! (Drake!)]

Canadians even do this weird pointing-out-asking-for-affirmation thing when Americans aren’t listening. I remember when I was a kid every time the space shuttle was launched [explain space shuttle to students], the news back home would say, “The Space Shuttle Endeavour, with its Canadian-built Canadarm, launched from Cape Canaveral this morning…”

Today I’m going to say more about this paradoxical hiding in plain sight—this sense of being secretive, of being hidden, of being overlooked, all while simultaneously wanting to be acknowledged—and how it’s affected my own life.

Here for example is a well-known New Yorker cartoon from 2001:

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The implication here is that the guy isn’t Canadian. He’s probably American. He is the dominant against which the other he is faced with seems different, though, reassuringly, not too different: familiar yet somehow strange. In this sense, Canadians are queer; Americans are straight.

Notice, though, that the guy seems only mildly, even politely interested. Maybe a little bemused. Nothing in his phrasing suggests that he is obsessed with the woman’s Canadian identity.

What about her? What’s she thinking? Who knows. But if she is anything like the Canadians I grew up with, during the 70s and 80s, then she cares a lot. Then (and still to some extent now) Canadians spent a lot of time thinking about their identity. What did it mean to be Canadian? On the radio, in the newspaper: you’d here this question all the time.

This was a time when the country was threatened by Quebec separatism. There was the very real possibility the country could break up, even no longer exist. My sense is that we are lot less anxious as a nation than we used to be, but it is striking to me that Americans never spend any time worrying about what it is to be American. They just know. Rich, free, morally good. (White Americans anyway.)

You have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We have peace, order, and good government.

In 1972, the great Canadian radio host Peter Gzowski organized a little competition. He was thinking about the phrase “As American as apple pie” (my crack online research reveals the phrase was apparently already in use in 1860s but gained traction during and shortly after WWII – “as American as motherhood and apple pie—at some point motherhood dropped out).

Anyway, Gzowski wondered what the Canadian version would be. What is the quintessential Canadian simile? So he asked listeners to complete the phrase. As Canadian as…

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What do you think the winning entry was?

[I canvassed the audience—various answers were mooted: “as poutine,” “as maple syrup,” “winter,” “hockey.”]

Nope, nope, nope. All plausible answers, but the actual answer is much stranger, much more delightful. The winner was: “As Canadian as possible under the circumstances

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Heather Scott was a 17-year-old student at the time. I could not find a photo of her; the image is a reproduction of a painting by the great Quebecois artist Jean Paul Lemieux.

[I counted on laughter; fortunately, there was laughter.]

Why is this funny?

  • Modesty, almost hapless
  • Dayeinu, good enough
  • passive aggressive?

[These were my ideas. The audience had better ones: the suggestion that one might have to work (perhaps quite hard) to be Canadian; the sense that being Canadian in some full sense is impossible; the sense that circumstances might work against being Canadian.]

1972 happens to be the year I was born: I am as Canadian as possible under the circumstances.

This is the kind of avowal I can get behind. An ironic patriotism. The patriotism of peacekeeping.

When I was growing the US was always equated with brashness, vulgarity, and aggression.

(All Canadians are familiar with some marginal American town/city where the US TV channels came from: in my case, it was Spokane, WA and Coeur d’Alene, ID. I can still probably tell you the names of the used-car dealerships in both those places in the mid-80s. Always shouting—that was my sense of American TV as a kid. Why are they always shouting?)

I’m not sure Americans know how many parts of the world perceive their flag as a sign of aggression, even warmongering. That’s how it felt in my childhood, and it took me many years of living in the US to get over that feeling.

[Driving from Canada to Ithaca, NY for grad school—on a trip in summer to find an apartment—every little upstate NY town littered with flags. I was freaking out. Later learned it was Flag Day…]

When Canadians ask who they are, their first answer is always, Well we’re not American.

You are so much bigger than us, you set the terms of our own self-understanding.

I’m always reminded of the famous comparison offered by former PM Pierre Elliott Trudeau:

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So snarky: that “beast”! He said this at the Washington Press Club!

In the metaphor, you are blissfully—though also apparently quite restlessly—asleep. Ignorant of us. But we are highly aware of you.

The Canadian mice are troubled by the elephant, but they also kind of love it.

For a certain generation of Canadians making it in the US was the ultimate goal. Again, I think that’s changing now. But I think it’s true for my generation. Or at least for me. When I applied for PhD programs in the late 1990s I really wanted to go to the US. I did not love the US. In fact, I kind of scorned it. But I felt that was where the best programs were. The best libraries. The most famous faculty. If I could make it there I could make it anywhere.

And I did come to the US. It was 20 years ago this year. August 20, 1999. I remember the date vividly because it is on all my immigration documents. I need to know it, not to celebrate anniversaries, but to keep the authorities happy.

And I got my education, and I met my amazing wife, and I got this job, and my wife and I had our daughter. I have wonderful American in-laws and they have taught me to love baseball. In seven more years, I’ll have lived as long in the US as in Canada.

It’s quite possible I’ll spend the rest of my life here.

But I’m still not a citizen, even though I’ve been eligible to become one for years.

Even with the election of Trump, when so many people in this country, immigrants and would-be immigrants especially, became more vulnerable, and as my wife and in-laws started pressing me more and more to get citizenship, I’ve kept dragging my heels. (I’ve been “getting to it” for almost a decade.)

(I recognize I am much safer than most immigrants: white male, Canadian, have Green Card, could stay on it forever, but…)

Friends sometimes ask me, more or less nicely: What’s my problem? Why haven’t you got citizenship yet? Don’t you want to vote?

The answer, I must confess, is that deep down I really don’t want to become American, even symbolically.

Every year my family spends part of the summer in Canada, and we always ask ourselves, Why don’t we live here?

I miss:

  • Sidewalks
  • Public transportation
  • Health care not tied to job
  • Politics not equal to sports—two party system turns everything into a horse race
  • Gun laws
  • Most of all, sense of public space/common good—that government can do things for you, not just ruin your life

Of course, there are wonderful things about the US:

  • Generosity
  • Can-do-spirit
  • Liberal arts colleges—America’s great gift to civilization

And terrible things about Canada:

  • Parochial
  • Chilly (I mean the people, not the weather: “old” WASP Canada)
  • Shameful destruction of indigenous communities
  • Passive aggressive
  • Smug

But my real stumbling block is internal. It has to do with me, with who I am.

As I was preparing for this talk, I realized I am governed by twin fears:

  • Fear of joining (have to take a side, stand out, which in my family = be a spectacle)
  • Fear of being lonely (not quite same as alone, but similar)

It’s almost physically painful for me to join in a group movement: I am fundamentally a-political. Partly because I am deeply introverted. And partly because I am scared of rejection. Having to ask for what I want is very hard for me. I’d rather people ask me to join than me having to ask them.

At the same time, I hate to be left out, I want to know the gossip, I have FOMO. Warhol anecdote: I don’t want to go to any parties; I just want to see what happens at all of them.

So in the end I think my situation—being a resident alien—is the response I’ve found to these competing imperatives. It suits me to be neither here nor there. Were I ever to move back home (and no one has ever shown signs of wanting to hire me…), I would probably quickly become frustrated. As it is, by being the Canadian in the US, I can assert my difference, but quietly. And I don’t have to take the risk of putting myself out there.

I ask myself: is this a critical position, a way to use the power of the minority position? Or is it paralysis, a kind of fence-sitting?

As I was writing this talk realized that maybe the reason I love Nella Larsen’s Passing so much is because that’s what my current situation allows me to do: to pass, to hide in plain sight, to be familiar yet strange.

And yet I am always avowing that hiding. Hiding itself is not enough for me. Of course, to be able to do so is a sign of privilege. Most of time passing happens, as it does in Larsen’s novel, for much more desperate motives.

And increasingly I think this privilege is something to give up. I love being betwixt and between. But I worry that maybe it is cowardly in some fashion.

What, I wonder, would it mean for me to be as American as possible under the circumstances?