What I Read, April 2021

April in Arkansas, azaleas in blossom, reading at the table under the trees. April in Arkansas: this is a feeling no one can reprise. Even though I’m making no progress on this book project, I wrote a lot last month, including essays on teaching the Holocaust and on a favourite book of mine that I once considered a secret. I wrote some other things that might come to anything, but I found the process useful and I also got a small piece of good news. I bumbled along, in other words. Here’s what I read.

Héctor Abad, The Farm (2014) Trans. Anne McLean (2018)

Three siblings take turns telling this story, which centers on La Oculta, a farm in the mountains of Columbia that has been in their family’s hands for generations. Pilar has kept the place going, even as she’s also worked alongside her mother in the family bakery; she has lived the life closest to the older generations, bearing children, married to her teenage sweetheart, a woman both capable and strong, good at everything from cooking to embalming. Eva has forged her own path, building a career, surviving various marriages and love affairs, becoming a single parent later in life. Antonio has escaped to New York, where he has made his way as a musician and settled down with a good man, yet despite, or because, of that distance he is the most drawn to the farm, making annual visits and taking on the task of unraveling the family history.

In alternating chapters, the siblings tell us about their pasts, their beliefs, their relationships to others. Put together, their narratives allow us to consider the competing forces of inheritance and invention. How much of who we are comes from the people and ways of life that came before us, and how much do we generate for ourselves? The novel delights in showing continuity—but it soars when depicting rupture. Even if the farm originated in a utopian attempt to generate community, Columbia’s violent past regularly interrupts daily life. This intrusion is most vividly evident in Eva’s memory of narrowly escaping a rebel attack on the homestead. (Terrific set piece.) Abad is a marvelous writer, and McLean a marvelous translator. I sunk into this sprawling novel—the beauty of the Archipelago edition adding extra sensory pleasure to the experience—and was sad when it ended.

Vanessa Springora, Consent (2020) Trans. Natasha Lehrer (2021)

Powerful memoir about the abusive sexual relationship between Springora and a famous writer whom she calls G. M. but is widely known to be Gabriel Matzneff. (Apparently, he was a big deal in the French literary scene; I’d never heard of him.) His identity as a “lover” of children was widely known too, at least among French artistic and political elites. These overlap much more than I, as a North American, would have expected; Matzneff had a letter in his wallet from Mitterand, lauding his artistic daring; he seems to have thought of it as a get out of jail card, except nobody ever put him in jail.

Matzneff’s career—he published several novels, all autobiographical, many overtly about pedophilia, as well as regular installments of his diaries—was built on the suffering of children and adolescents. Signora was one of many boys and girls he slept with, both in France and on sex tours in Asia; he was quite open about all of this. Springora met Matzneff in 1986, when she was 14. He seduced her intellectually, emotionally, and sexually; they were together for two years; the relationship damaged her badly, could, in some senses, have been said to have destroyed her life. This memoir proves it didn’t—but shows the cost. In fact, it was not until Springora realized that the way to get justice for herself was to speak in the only language that could touch Matzneff—that of writing itself—that she found any relief from her trauma. As she puts it, in a formulation comprising the grace and irony of classic French intellectual style, “Why not ensnare the hunter in his own trap, ambush him within the pages of a book?”

In so doing, she has had some effect, not only on Matzneff (he remains unrepentant, but the government took away a sinecure and his publisher dropped him) but on France more generally, where the book has been a best-seller and led people to acknowledge the ills that can be cloaked the mantle of freedom. In this regard, France’s so-called intellectual elite have a lot to answer for. The mantra of the 68ers, “it is forbidden to forbid,” was used by Matzneff to present child abuse as liberation, care, even love. A real who’s-who of the literary and philosophical scene signed open letters in support of these ideas back in the 70s. (Interesting that Foucault refused. Sad that Barthes did not.)

Consent, Springora observes, is an ambivalent term, sometimes signifying volition but often connoting something less than full agreement. After all, consent can be given on behalf of others, especially minors. Ultimately, consent is a mirage, a fig-leaf allowing those with cultural and literal capital to sweep away the reality of power imbalances. Consent is a sobering read, valuable for its indictment of the world that looked on while its writer suffered—from leering teachers to her overwhelmed and willfully blind parents. Its tone is uneven, sometimes epigrammatic, sometimes abstract, sometimes lyrical, but Springora doesn’t pretend to be a literary artist. That’s what she wanted to be, before Matzneff dispossessed her of her own words, not least by training her to write in a style he deemed timeless and elevated. (They sent each other hundreds of letters; he later published some of hers without permission.) To even consider Springora’s style feels fraught: to critique it is to risk playing the same game as her abuser (and his enablers), who argued that artistic beauty, passion, and fearlessness mattered above all. Yet it’s also important to advocate for style without thereby agreeing that its value trumps anything else.

Consent ends with a brief, illuminating afterword by translator Lehrer; I wish more books let us hear from the translator.

Flynn Berry, Under the Harrow (2016)

First of the three psychological thrillers by Berry I devoured this month. Under the Harrow is a fine debut; its tricksy narration makes it the most Highsmithian of her books. Berry’s prose is plain but not flat. Here the narrator looks out the window of a train:

Land streams by the window. Sheep arranged on the stony flank of a hill. The troubling clouds surging behind it. A firehouse with a man doing exercises in its yard. He pulls himself above a bar, lowers himself, vanishes.

The disembodied man, swallowed up by movement and perspective, is a suitably unsettling touch, offering a glimpse of what’s to come: the world the narrator thinks she knows is about to become similarly unmoored.

Guzel Yakhina, Zuleikha (2015) Trans. Lisa C. Hayden (2019)

My second Hayden translation in as many months; again, I read this as part of a Twitter reading group, and, again, I was glad I did. Zuleikha is a page-turner that comes at its historical events—the dekulakization of the peasantry under Stalin and the creation of the Gulag system—from what, I believe, is an unusual perspective. The heroine, who lends her name to the title, is a Tatar, a culture I knew basically nothing about; when I think of the famines of the late 1920s and early 30s, I think primarily of Ukraine, not Soviet Tatarstan. And since that culture is shown to be harshly patriarchal, Zuleikha is an even more intriguing, marginalized character. Too bad that the novel seems to find no way for Zuleikha to leave behind her status as “pitiful hen” and become as strong and independent as she does other than to abandon her Tatar identity.

Zuleikha is engrossing historical fiction that is never quite predictable. For example, it is more interested in relationships between mothers and children than between men and women. Its descriptions of the landscape are loving and evocative. Its plot is both eventful and uneventful: much of the action centers on how to survive—how to cut trees when your tools are bad; what to grow in a northern climate; how to hunt and gather on the land; even, in the days before exile, how to prepare the bathhouse for a steam session—but those everyday tasks take place against a backdrop where terrible events always threaten to intrude. In the end, I thought the “band of misfits pitches together against all odds” aspect of the story of the settlement was a bit cute. (Even though I still loved it.) And Yakhina’s use of focalization didn’t always work. We are mostly in close third person (present tense, natch, ugh), but that sometimes becomes implausible when Yakhina needs to tell us stuff that her heroine might not need or care to think about. Here she is in prison in Kazan, before being transported to Siberia:

The Tatar language is even constructed so you could live your whole life without once saying “I.” No matter what tense you use to speak about yourself, the verb will go in the necessary form and the ending will change, making the use of that vain little word superfluous. It’s not like that in Russian, where everybody goes out of their way to put in “I” and “me” and then “I” again.

There might be a point here about the role of the individual in resisting a collective system. Or maybe a critique of the project of Russianizing the Soviet Union’s plurality. Mostly though this moment is clunky. But I hope Yakhina’s second novel is translated soon. Hayden, who again generously offered her expertise to the Twitter group, would be the obvious choice to take on the project. Are you listening, Oneworld?

Henia Karmel and Ilona Karmel, A Wall of Two: Poems of Resistance and Suffering from Kraków to Buchenwald and Beyond Introduction and Adaptations by Fanny Howe Trans. Arie A. Galles and Warren Niesłuchowski (2007)

More about the Karmel sisters and their poetry here.

Flynn Berry, A Double Life (2018)

Berry’s take on the Lord Lucan case. Creepy and satisfying. Berry’s best, IMO.

Anna Goldenberg, I Belong to Vienna (2018) Trans. Alta L. Price (2020)

Another third generation Holocaust memoir. The difference here is that Goldenberg’s grandparents, after a short postwar dalliance in upstate New York, returned to Vienna, where their children and grandchildren still live. When Goldenberg herself moves to New York to study for an MA, people, other Jews mostly, ask her in appalled fascination: How can you [i.e., Jews] live there [i.e., among the killers]? Which prompts Goldenberg to speculate—not as interestingly as I’d have hoped—on what it means to belong, both to family and to place.

The other noteworthy thing about the story is that the most interesting person in it isn’t technically even in the family. When Goldenberg’s then 17-year-old grandfather, Hansi, received his deportation papers he ripped off his star, hopped on the streetcar, and made his way to a close friend, the pediatrician Josef Feldner. (Hansi had his parents’ blessing: they rightly suspected his chances were better in hiding. Indeed, he never saw them again.) Feldner, a Catholic child psychologist, was a remarkable man. He kept Hansi safe for the rest of the war, and prompted the previously mediocre student into his future medical career by taking the boy with him to see his patients, which he treated in a gentle, humane, and courteous manner that would be rare today, to say nothing of then. Pepi, as Goldenberg’s grandfather came to call him, eventually adopted Hansi. For the rest of his life the two men were inseparable: even after Hansi married Goldenberg’s grandmother, herself a doctor, the two ate breakfast together every morning (Pepi lived downstairs) and took vacations together. In the original German the book is called Versteckte Jahre: Der Mann, der meinen Großvater rettet (Hidden Years: The Man who Saved my Grandfather), which rightly captures its emphasis. Anyway, while I don’t regret reading this book, I note that until I sat down to write this review I’d forgotten all about it.

Flynn Berry, Northern Spy (2021)

The wider political backdrop of the novel—set in Northern Ireland at an unspecified time that seems like it could be just before the Good Friday agreement, but which also can’t be (technology doesn’t match up, for example)—gives Berry’s new novel extra heft. Impressively, she does this without any bloat. I just love how short her books are. She’s such an efficient writer.

In Northern Spy—turns out this is also a kind of apple, fitting for a book which shows the domestic and the political to be so entwined—Tessa, a BBC producer just back from maternity leave, is shocked when she sees her sister in footage from the latest IRA attack (a gas station hold up). She’s floored by this revelation, of course, but things prove to be even more complicated. Before long, Tessa is volunteering to infiltrate the IRA. In a tense interrogation, she is asked by the man she will report to why she wants to become an IRA informer. Tessa experiences no cognitive dissonance in the moment:

This isn’t so difficult. I’m a woman, after all, so I’ve had a lifetime of practice guessing what a man wants me to say, or be.

Berry’s smart and engrossing thrillers are among my favourite discoveries of the year.

Robin Stevens, Murder is Bad Manners (UK title: Murder Most Unladylike) (2014)

British boarding school crime fiction written for middle-grade readers but with wide appeal. I bought this for my daughter a few years ago when I read about it in the TLS (their irregular children’s column is excellent; I hope the new editor won’t get rid of it). Something made her pull it off the shelf last month and she immediately got stuck into it. Then she raced through the other four titles available in the US. While we waited for the others to arrive from the UK we decided to read them together, aloud. And they are a delight: suspenseful in themselves, though not too scary (even as they are thoughtful about the toll that even playacting as a detective could take) but with plenty of nods to Golden Age sleuthing that older readers are likely to enjoy. Set in the 1930s at a school called Deepdean, the books are narrated by Hazel Wong, who at the time of the first volume is newly arrived in England from her home in Hong Kong. Hazel plays Watson to Daisy Wells, the book’s beautiful, brainy, incorrigible Sherlock and self-appointed President of the Wells & Wong Detective Society.

After earning their stripes in dull but useful cases like The Case of Lavinia’s Missing Tie (Clementine took it in revenge for Lavinia hitting her during lacrosse practice, after Clementine said Lavinia came from a Broken Home), the girls take on a crime of a much greater magnitude when Hazel stumbles on the dead body of a teacher—a body that disappears in the time it takes her to find help. The headmistress thinks nothing is amiss because she finds a resignation letter from the teacher on her desk the next morning. But Wells & Wong know better. And things soon get pretty hairy. Will they solve the case before the killer strikes again?

Hazel is much smarter than Watson and Daisy less unerring than Sherlock. Which makes the books often funny, but also moving, especially in their depiction of a friendship between a popular girl who seems to have everything together and a shy one who seems to be a bit hopeless. Each needs the other—for me, the books are about shared vulnerability—and I’m looking forward to seeing how Stevens develops their story.

Ruth Rendell, One Across, Two Down (1971)

Someone on Twitter put this on their highlights of 2020 list—please remind me who you are—and I was intrigued enough to check out a copy from the library. At which point it sat around the bedroom for months until, at a time when I was supposed to be reading something else, I realized I absolutely could not live another minute without taking it up. And I was glad I did: it’s an impressive book.

Vera lives with her layabout husband, Stanley, and nagging mother, Maud. Stanley and Maud hate each other and make poor Vera’s life even worse with their endless arguments. But when Stanley learns that Maud has socked away a lot of money and plans to leave it all to Vera, he swaps her stroke medication with saccharine pills, just to see if he can hurry the process along. Pretty soon, though, events escalate, in ways he never expected. Although technically not responsible for the old woman’s death—I won’t give away the details here—in all the ways that count he’s absolutely responsible. Most of the novel is about how he gets found out. Stanley’s awful; spending time with him is not pleasant. But Vera gets a surprisingly happy ending, so the book isn’t entirely grim. Along the way, Rendell asks us to think about what draws readers to crime fiction. Is it any different from the many seemingly harmless but ultimately consuming obsessions—like the crossword puzzles Stanley wants not only to solve but to set—that litter the book? Lots going on here, in unfussy but quality prose. If One Across, Two Down is anything to go by, early Rendell is the real deal.

Becky Chambers, To Be Taught, If Fortunate (2019)

Standalone novella in the Wayfarers series, which I have not read but definitely will, as soon as my library holds come in. Recommended to me by a brilliant former student now in graduate school who has just taken a course on science fiction. Someone online described Chambers’s books as sf cozies, which makes sense to me. Some might take this as criticism, and maybe that’s how it was meant, but what I liked most about To Be Taught, If Fortunate is its fundamental kindness. This is a book fascinated by otherness and worried about how vulnerable it is to even well-intentioned encounters.

In 2045, four astronauts are sent to explore the life forms—some quite minimal, all hard for us to fathom, all valuable in their own right—on the moons of a distant planet. At some point in their exploration—and because of the distances involved, time is passing much more slowly for them than it is back home: taking on the mission means that none of them will see their families again—they realize that they aren’t getting messages from earth anymore. A companion mission, sent elsewhere in the galaxy, confirms that they too have lost contact. Should they try to return to what might be a destroyed home, or continue on, knowing that once they do there’s no going back?

The descriptions of the alien lifeforms are fantastic. I really thought this was a wise book. The only sour note is a coda referencing the title. The phrase comes from a welcome speech made by then-UN Secretary Kurt Waldheim and placed on board the Voyager spacecraft. If you’re going to mention Waldheim in a book about respecting difference, you should mention his Nazi past.

Jacqueline Winspear, The Consequences of Fear (2021)

I have to stop reading these. The circle of recurring characters has become so wide that keeping up with them means the crimes (never Winspear’s strength, or, to be fair, interest) are solved much too offhandedly. For whatever reason, the thing about the series that first drew me to it—its investigation of responsibility—just irritated me this time. I could see what Winspear was doing with the concept of fear—asking whether our duty to a nation is enough to make us repress our feelings; wondering if personal responsibilities outweigh political demands—but I couldn’t bring myself to care. Maybe because I saw the novel’s depiction of WWII as the product of philosophical liberalism, which I was feeling frustrated by because I was just coming to end of reading…

Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951, revised 1958)

I spent a lot of time this month with Arendt’s quasi-history, quasi-philosophy of totalitarianism. It’s long and hard. I was sometimes frustrated by Arendt—she’s from a different philosophical tradition than the one I was trained in; she’s completely uninterested in psychology, which is baffling to me; our thinking isn’t the most sympatico—but I was often amazed. In the end, this was such a rewarding reading experience.

Which I would not have had if I hadn’t signed up for a course offered through the Brooklyn Institute of Social Research, taught by Samantha Rose Hill, who teaches at several schools in the New York area, runs a center for Arendt Studies at Bard, and has a book about Arendt coming out this summer. (Her recent Five Books interview on Arendt is exemplary.) The ideal teacher, in other words, and she taught us a lot. I enjoyed being in a class again, although I noted that some of the same anxieties that plagued me in college and graduate school resurfaced. I still fear the things I have to say are beside the point and unhelpful—but I’m not as shy anymore and say them anyway.

But what’s important here are the ideas, not my reading experience. In nearly 500 small-font pages, Arendt unfolds a sweeping argument about the connection between antisemitism, imperialism, and totalitarianism.

Alas, I don’t fully understand Arendt’s take on antisemitism. I had to miss most of the class in which we discussed this—fittingly (?) to run a Holocaust memorial program—and I haven’t finished the section. But a key idea is that, counterintuitively, Jews thrived in Europe as long as nations did. (Well, thrived, I don’t know about that, and the Jews Arendt talks about comprised a thin stratum of rich, Western European Jews. Of the Jews in Eastern Europe and the Pale of Settlement, i.e., almost all European Jews, she has little to say: Arendt was always what the Israelis call a Yekke.) The cosmopolitanism of Jews, so often held against them, and forced upon them by the fate of their diaspora, paradoxically enabled them to flourish as bankers to nation states. But when nations were replaced with Empires, specifically in the 19th Century, that relationship failed. Jews were then taken to have privilege tethered to neither role nor responsibility, earning them even greater enmity. They were left to become either parvenu (upstarts who try to fit in everywhere) or pariahs (those defiant rejects who don’t fit in anywhere). Arendt is sympathetic but disdainful to the parvenu, and fascinated by the pariah.

Both positions are responses to statelessness, an affliction that Jews especially in the 1930s but that others too throughout the 20th century experienced as the nation state came under crisis. Moreover, as Jews had been granted equality over the course of the 19th century, they proved that otherness persisted despite putative equality. (They were equal under the law but they maintained their traditions and beliefs.) Because the nation state—government by consent—is predicated on homogeneity, it responds poorly to pluralism. As pluralism increased in the 19th century, nations responded by looking beyond their borders. The result is modern imperialism, which is not the integrated pluralism of Rome but a fractious destabilized agglomeration that eventually turns on itself.

Modern imperialism mostly took place overseas (Africa, the Middle East.) It occurred as a combined political and economic crisis. After centuries of increasing economic power, the bourgeoisie finally wanted political power as well. In a brilliant reading, Arendt says that the bourgeoisie found its philosophical underpinning in the ideas of Hobbes (or, put differently, that Hobbes had prophesized the bourgeoisie). In Hobbes’s “war of all against all” the only possible “philosophy” is individual growth, resulting eventually in tyranny. The bourgeois worldview is fundamentally destructive, because fundamentally acquisitive. It believes only in endless growth: more has to become more. (Sound familiar?)  Overseas imperialism allowed this antihumanist thinking to flourish, at least temporarily, and at the cost of great suffering and destruction to the local or “native” people. (Which Arendt is frankly pretty uninterested in.) The imperialist encounter with non-European others led to the development of racism from what had previously been race thinking. That is, individual instances of prejudice became turned into an ideology. Race became weaponized by the state as a form of violence. (Racism is totalized race thinking.) As an ideology, racism must be understood as necessary/inevitable, not like race thinking, which was the result of individual instances of prejudice, bias, or domination.

When the domination of racism combined with the inherently metastatic avarice of imperialist capitalism, an inherently unstable contradiction arose. (We think the world is infinite, but its resources are finite—we live every day the dawning realization of that contradiction—this is the kind of instability Arendt has in mind.) Eventually the instability of racist imperialism, which had been a kind of safety valve for the European nation (now Empire), bounced back, such that the tactics of violence, oppression, and power previously used overseas were perpetrated on civilians in the homeland. (The power of police and paramilitary forces rose greatly in this period.) Unlike nations, empires are no longer organized around classes—that structure collapses, and along with it the primary way we have developed of organizing people so that individuals feel they belong and find meaning. The loss of this meaning is, Arendt warns, very bad. With it the distinction between public and private life that is the foundation of freedom vanishes. Those realms are replaced by what Arendt calls “the social,” which is an atomized levelling: no more classes, only masses. The masses are desperate to regain the meaningful experience they have been cut off from. Enter totalitarianism. Totalitarian regimes work on people who have no meaning. Totalitarianism—the governmental form of imperialism—is what happens when expansionism takes political form. The belief in endless growth, avarice, accumulation is turned to conquering and subordinating every subject of the regime.  

As far as Arendt is concerned, from her vantage point in the 1950s, there have only ever been two totalitarian regimes: Nazi Germany (from its inception, perhaps, but certainly from 1935 – 45) and Stalinist Russia (from about 1930 to Stalin’s death). Totalitarianism is not, for her, a synonym for autocracy, tyranny, or even dictatorship. Totalitarian regimes are barely regimes at all: they are movements. Neither nation nor empire is their real focus. Instead they focus on the party. Nazism and Stalinist Communism are at stake, not the Reich or the USSR. When a totalitarianism movement comes to power, they do everything they can to change reality. The ideologies animating totalitarian movements are about what will be, not what is. Totalitarian movements promise a future but they are not in fact interested in attaining it. Or, rather, their philosophy of aggression and accumulation, their inexorable drive to dominate, means that they cannot in fact countenance any final or complete end.

An important consequence of this mindset is that the enemies of the movement are never final. Strikingly, Arendt argues that the Jews, although the primary victims of the way Nazism played out, were not the Nazis’ sole or even primary enemy. It’s true that, historically, Jews were not the first victims: those were communists and socialists and, importantly, the mentally and physically disabled: the latter was the first group singled out for being killed tout court. The refusal of ordinary citizens to accept this state of affairs meant that the party delayed the plan, but they never shelved it. And there were definite plans to exterminate what the Nazis called “the Slavs” after they conquered Russia and finished with the Jews. (A genocide they began in Poland in 1940.) Arendt also points to memoranda and bits in Mein Kampf where bureaucrats and Hitler muse about eliminating people with various incurable illnesses, or even predilections toward them, like cancer. Arendt’s point is that regardless of what the Party says publicly there will always be more victims. It is in the nature of totalitarianism to find them.

In doing so, totalitarianism relies on a belief in secret meanings. That is how it begins to change reality. What you see is not the real truth of things. (To use one of Samantha’s examples—you think you see a pizza place in DC but really you see a front for child sexual exploitation; how much Arendt’s diagnoses pertain to the US today exercised the class a lot, but that’s a different topic.) Totalitarianism forces its adherents, and everyone who lives under it, to affirm the false. Experience, under totalitarianism, only affirms ideology. It has no meaning in itself. The result: thinking is replaced by thought (the already known, the prepackaged, the tidy explanations of ideology). For Arendt, that is one of the worst things that can happen to human beings. (Note, by the way, that those who wield thought can be smart, and they’re not cynical either (which is terrifying, IMO). But they are incapable of thinking. Which, it seems to me, means that for Arendt they are barely human.

It’s all fascinating, and quite compelling. For me, Arendt fails to consider how power creates as much as represses. (She is not Foucault). That is, she fails to account for the meaning people find in even hateful or oppressive thinking. She also ignores the effort totalitarian movements put into creating a community of believers. (There’s nothing in her book about, say, the Hitler Youth or the Bund deutscher Mädel or the Kraft durch Freude vacations or any of the myriad ways Nazism, to take only the example I know best, created the Volksgemeinschaft (the community of the people).

Plus, Arendt’s understanding of the camp system comes too much from the model of Buchenwald (and to some extent Auschwitz). No surprise, given her background and sources, and the reality of what she was able to read in the late 40s and early 50s. And her knowledge is impressively nuanced for the time. But she is led astray, in my opinion, by relying so heavily on the work of David Rousset, whose fascinating book about his time in Buchenwald I want someone to reissue in English ASAP, but whose experience as a communist prisoner in that particular camp (there was strong communist leadership, even a kind of resistance movement, in Buchenwald) is anomalous in comparison to the general KZ experience.  

Anyway, as Samantha put it, Arendt asks key questions. Is there a way of thinking that’s not tyrannical? How can we protect spaces of freedom? How can we live under something other than imperialism or totalitarianism? These remain resonant, indeed urgent. The Origins of Totalitarianism gave me so much to think about; I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to read it closely.

Charles Portis, True Grit (1968)

I wanted to spend my birthday with some good light reading, so I chose three possible contenders from my massive TBR pile and put up a Twitter poll to help me decide where to start. Portis’s novel about a teenager avenging her father’s death in Reconstruction-era Arkansas and the Indian Territory of Oklahoma won by a landslide. And the people knew what they were talking about! True Grit is a delight, often laugh-out-loud funny. I would have loved it even more had I not seen the movie (the Coen Brothers version), as some of the best jokes and the plot came back to me as I read. But the film can only approximate the novel’s primary pleasure: Portis’s masterful use of voice, evident in both Mattie’s narration and the characters’ conversations. (This is not a Western about strong, silent types: nobody ever shuts up.) An added pleasure was reading about Arkansas locations (and types) I know; I noticed that some of the bit characters even had last names I recognized from living and teaching here.

I suspect that a second reading—which the novel definitely merits—would give me a lot more to think about. But even on a relaxed first reading I recognized that much of what makes the book so interesting comes from the difference between the time of the telling and the time of the events. Mattie is fourteen when she sets out to find Frank Chaney, but an old woman when she tells us about it. In part it explains, or makes us wonder about, Mattie’s engaging but puzzling mixture of naivete and pursed-lipped moral certainty. Is that the difference between the girl and the old woman, or did she always combine these contrary aspects? The disparity between past and present is especially evident in a final scene at a traveling fair in 1920s Memphis: the “wild west” of the novel’s main action has become fully commodified. But was it ever any different? After all, the novel’s many crimes are prompted by money, even if they hide under the veil of honour. Too many guns, too much economic inequality: in this sense, True Grit still rings painfully true.

Let me quote a couple of choice bits, just because.

Here’s Rooster Cogburn, the one-eyed US Marshall Mattie hires to help her find Chaney, complaining about paperwork:

If you don’t have no schooling you are up against it in this country, sis. That is the way of it. No sir, that man has no chance any more. No matter if he has got sand in his craw, others will push him aside, little thin fellows that have won spelling bees back home. [Little thin fellows! Much funnier than “thin little fellows.”]

Here’s Rooster, on first meeting a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf who is also on Chaney’s trail of, learning that there’s a bounty out on the man because he’s also shot a Texas senator:

“Anyhow, it sounds queer. Five hundred dollars is mighty little for a man that killed a senator.”

“Bibbs was a little senator,” said LaBoeuf. “They would not have put up anything except it would look bad.”

And here’s Rooster telling about the time he ran an eating place called The Green Frog, but had to give it up after his wife left him:

“I tried to run it myself for a while but I couldn’t keep good help and I never did learn how to buy meat. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was like a man fighting bees.”

Fighting bees. Perfect. Reading True Grit is the opposite of fighting bees. Easy, full of sweet and honey.

So that was a pretty damn good month. Arendt: titanic. Abad: deeply satisfying. Portis: such fun. Rendell and Berry: old and new masters of suspense. The Karmel sisters: what have you done to my heart?

“All that is Seen, Understood”: Jessie Greengrass’s Sight

There is nothing more horrible than this: a world elucidated and all that is seen, understood.

So concludes the narrator of Jessie Greengrass’s marvelous novel Sight (2018). Although I’m reluctant to think of novels as having keys—it suggests they’re problems to be solved, secrets to be transgressed—this sentence gets to the heart of the book. I almost wrote, “to the heart of Greengrass’s argument.” For Sight at times masquerades as an essay. At others it’s a compelling example of what people are calling autofiction (at least, I think so: I’m not actually sure what that means). Whatever it is, it’s wonderful. Maybe not to everyone’s taste. (If you want a lot of plot you will not love this book.) But definitely to mine. Reading it, in fact, I often had the rare, even uncanny feeling that the book was written just for me, which made me both eager to plough through it and reluctant to finish. Greengrass’s sentences are often long and always, as the example above suggests, complex. I don’t think it was just because I was squeezing the book into the ends of my mid-semester days that I often found myself going back and re-reading.

X-Ray HandSometimes when reading something I sense I’m the target audience for I get restive and grumpy, frustrated at having been pigeonholed, no matter how accurately. But with Sight I felt the difference between a book written for someone like me and a book actually written for me. Which of course is crazy. But I’m totally taken with the book’s central question: can there be seeing without knowing? The way I usually phrase it is: can there be experience without interpretation? Like Greengrass and the narrator with whom she seems to share so much, I always answer no. But I’m obsessed with what it might mean to answer yes. What is the cost of interpretation, of knowing? We can see what we gain when seeing turns into understanding. (Our very language, which offers seeing as a synonym for understanding, underlies this connection.) But can we see what we lose in that process?

Here I think of the paradox central to the Freudian enterprise. If the unconscious can be made conscious, much of its damaging power might be undone. But when the unconscious becomes conscious it dissipates, and even Freud was clear that we lose something—some energy, some power, some part of us that is larger than us but deeply part of us—in that evanescence. The goal of analysis, for Freud at least, was never just normativity. After all, symptoms aren’t just problems. (Symptom, for Freud, are compromise expressions: versions of unconscious desires that have been distorted enough to be acceptable to the censor of conscience and thus see the light of day: symptoms are things like dreams or slips of the tongue or obsessive behavior or bodily symptoms that have no physiological origin.) Symptoms are also who we are. We need to recognize them as valuable parts of ourselves, even as we work to mitigate their most harmful qualities.Freud_hansAll this talk of Freud is relevant to Sight. The narrator, who spends many of her days idly paging through books in the library at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine in London, weaves scenes from her own life (the death of her mother, childhood vacations with her psychoanalyst grandmother, vacillations over whether to have a child) with scenes from medical history: Wilhelm Röntgen’s discovery of x-rays; Freud’s analysis of the child of an associate, a four-year-old patient he named Little Hans; and the eighteenth century surgeon John Hunter and his sometime colleague the medical illustrator Jan van Rymsdyk’s fascination with the anatomy of pregnant bodies.

When I compare Greengrass’s use of historical material to that of, say, Pat Barker or Giles Foden (I’m thinking of Toby’s Room and Turbulence), I can’t help but think that there is no point to the latter novels, despite their charms. These historical fictions are ruled by the principle of the info dump, no matter how skillfully applied. Why not, Greengrass’s novel made me wonder, be more honest and use that material the way a good essay might? Why not use the strategies of juxtaposition and reflection to come to a new way of seeing? Greengrass doesn’t try to naturalize her use of the medical material—despite her narrator’s days in the library she’s not trying to write a book about Röntgen, Freud, or Hunter. Instead, she asks us to think about the (oblique) connections between this material and the narrator’s life. For me, these connections center on the role of the unseen and the unspoken in the narrator’s life, her sense of living precariously amidst an incompletely understood past and an unknowable future.II-B-1Let me close with a couple of examples of the book’s prose. They’re concerned with time as the medium of experience, time as a way to see what—like the bones in the hand made evident by the x-ray, the phobia exposed by the analyst’s question, or the fetus revealed by the scalpel—would otherwise be hidden. A loss of mystery accompanies that endeavor: the hidden alters itself in some fundamental way the very moment it becomes the known. The consolation for that loss, like the song of Orpheus meant to compensate for the loss of Eurydice in the original instance of the treachery of sight, might be Greengrass’s beautiful sentences.

Here’s the narrator remembering the room she would stay in when she visited her grandmother in Hampstead every summer:

Before I was born [the room] had been my mother’s, and the white-painted bookshelf which leaned fifteen degrees west of true was still filled with books which had once been hers. Sometimes, opening them, I would disturb loose sheets of paper that fluttered downwards, drifting to the floor to settle gently amongst the swirling patterns of the rugs, disjointed lists of words, phone numbers or addresses or single pages cut from longer letters, descriptions of nameless places, congratulations on achievements since forgotten. I would pick them up and hold them and, trying to connect their recipient with my mother, so uncompromisingly grown up, so firm and sure, I would catch from the corner of my eye the outline of my own inescapable adulthood flicker against the yellowed walls, a long shadow cast by a low sun.

And here she is, reflecting on Röntgen and his rivals, men who discovered the same phenomenon yet who for reasons of chance have not gone down in history, and resisting the lure of the counter-factual:

To say that something other might have been is not to diminish the value of what was, the marvel of it or its solidity, besides which it is not the fact of Wilhelm Röntgen’s discovery which fascinates but rather it is those days and nights through which he worked alone, bringing to this mystery’s unravelling all of his slow, systematic persistence until he possessed not just the sight of something but that extra thing that knowledge, understanding is—not the mere serendipity of discovery but the moment of its tipping into insight which draws our lonely curiosity. We are unsatisfied. Revelation is by definition isolate., it can neither be communicated nor transferred, and trying to comprehend it we feel only the chill of our exclusion.

What a ride that passage takes us on! A brilliant description of creating and discovering, which matters, it seems, only when it becomes something more than itself, something called knowing, is followed by a reversal, in which the narrator, even as she argues for the need to turn seeing into understanding, intimates (in part via that “chill”) how difficult, even unlikely that process is—and, moreover, that it might entail loss as much as gain.

 If these passages excite you as much as they do me, you need to read this book. They’re examples of the things I love about Sight: its intelligence, its beautiful language, its seamless blend of essayistic and novelistic. (This might have been the kind of thing Barthes had in mind when he imagined “the novelistic without the novel.”) And, truth be told, the fact that no one seems to know about this book. And yet here I am, giving up another secret. But in this case, the cost of making the unseen seen feels unequivocally worth it.

 

 

“Gone Crazy”: Life and Fate’s Characters

cad88d2266987fc1ea82b49bc1691ada

Thesis: in Life and Fate there are only minor characters.

Yes, the family Shaposhnikova is at the center of the book. Yes, Viktor is modeled on Grossman and his fall from and return to political favour is compellingly detailed. Yet even the characters we might be tempted to call central feel secondary. Not because they’re imperfectly or casually developed. We know them well, get inside their heads, feel for them. Nor is it because the “hero” of the book is really some abstraction like the Soviet Union, or the Russian soul, or even the war effort.

Grossman learned from Chekhov how to draw us towards characters while also distancing us from them. (I’m thinking here of someone like Gurov in “The Lady with the Little Dog.”) Honestly, I’m talking through my hat here because I don’t know enough about Chekhov, but I do know Life and Fate reminded me of him. And that was even before one of the characters declaimed at length about Chekhov’s genius. (“Chekhov brought Russia into our consciousness in all its vastness—with people of every estate, every class, every age…. He said—and no one had said this before, not even Tolstoy—that first and foremost we are all of us human beings. Do you understand? Human beings!”)

This passage, in which some air force pilots who have been ordered to leave the village where they’ve been billeted decide to spend one last night on the town, as it were, reminded me of “The Kiss”:

Everything—the river, the fields, the forest—was so beautiful, so peaceful, that hatred, betrayal and old age seemed impossible; nothing could exist but love and happiness. The moon shone down though the grey mist that enveloped the earth. Few pilots spent the night in their bunkers. On the edge of the village you could glimpse white scarves and hear quiet laughter. Now and then a tree would shake, frightened by a bad dream; the water would mumble something and return to silence.

The uncertainty of who speaks the opening sentence, which gives way to the speculation that the narrator is ventriloquizing the collective sentiments of the pilots and thereby gently satirizing them (gently, gently, though: after all, so much suffering awaits them at the front: for most of them, old age really is impossible); the juxtaposition of the slumbering landscape and the sexual possibility of the evening’s entertainment, so reminiscent of the regiment’s nighttime walk from the country home past the brothel in “The Kiss”; that amazing and amazingly strange image of the tree “frightened by a bad dream”: all of this is pure Chekhov!

But I didn’t want to talk about Chekhov. I wanted to talk about minor characters. I said yesterday that Life and Fate contains dozens, even hundreds of characters. Some appear only once without serving any important narrative function. Yet Grossman makes them all vivid.

For example: In a scene just a few pages before the one I cited above, Lieutenant Viktorov is gathering his belongings in preparation for being deployed for active duty. The scene is ostensibly about the Lieutenant—whose lover is the daughter of one of the Shaposhnikova sisters—but he finds himself remembering the old woman he had been billeted with until just a few days ago, “a dreadful landlady, a woman with a high forehead and protuberant yellow eyes,” who filled her home with smoke in an attempt to get rid of her tenant:

He walked past the hut Yevdokiya Mikheevna had smoked him out of; he could see her expressionless face behind the dirty window-panes. No one ever talked to her when she stopped for a rest as she carried her two wooden buckets back from the well. She had no cows and no sheep; she didn’t even have any house-martins in the eaves. Golub [the Lieutenant’s friend] had asked questions about her, hoping to bring to light her kulak background [which would allow him to denounce her], but she turned out to be from a very poor family. The women in the village said she had gone crazy after her husband’s death: she had walked into a lake in cold autumn weather and sat there for days. But she had been taciturn even before that, even before her marriage.

That’s the first and last we ever hear of Yevdokiya Mikheevna. But don’t you want more? What could be more Russian than sitting in a freezing lake for days crazed with grief? What’s typical here is the way a character who had seemed entirely one-dimensional—she is mean, stubborn, possibly disloyal to or uninterested in the war effort—suddenly gains unexpected depth. I’m not even sure why Grossman thought to include her. We don’t need to see the Lieutenant chased out of a billet by a disagreeable landlady. (And in fact we don’t; we only hear about it in retrospect.) The only function this anecdote seems to serve is to reinforce what a good guy Viktorov is—he doesn’t report her to the authorities even though his friend Golub wants him to.

So what is she doing here? Is she supposed to remind us of the suffering of the Russian people? Or is the brief, intense glimpse of her life story intended to allow us to recognize the transience of any given moment? Especially in wartime, people brush past each other, coming into contact in ways they otherwise wouldn’t, though that contact doesn’t necessarily lead to anything.

Thinking about it some more, I suspect what Grossman really wants from this scene is to remind us that Yevdokiya Mikheevna is a human being, with a past, with value, with her own reasons for her actions even though his novel can’t pause to make more of them.

stalin70th_pppa

It seems important that for Grossman humanity is best expressed through fiction. To understand the thing that (for him, at any rate) is most real we need recourse to a thing that is fake. But what happens when that fiction is based on real life? And especially when it includes real historical figures? Life and Fate famously includes a number of such characters, including German and Soviet military leaders, like General Paulus of the 6th Army, who we may or may not know, as well as the Heads of State that we surely will. Yes, Stalin and Hitler get their own brief sections, scenes in which they aren’t just mentioned or pass by in the background, but which are narrated from their perspective.

In thinking about these scenes I was reminded of the bit in S/Z where Roland Barthes, citing Proust on Balzac’s weighting of fictional and historical characters (in the Comédie humaine Napoleon is much less important than Rastingnac, say), notes that realist fiction must introduce historical characters only in passing:

It is precisely this minor importance which gives the historical character its exact weight of reality: this minor is the measure of authenticity… for if the historical character were to assume its real importance [if the novel was about Napoleon, or in our case, Stalin or Hitler, that is, made them central to the text, tried to get inside their heads, etc] the discourse would be forced to yield it a role which would, paradoxically, make it less real (thus the characters in Balzac’s Catherine de Médicis, Alexandre Dumas’s novels, or Sacha Guitry’s plays: absurdly improbable): they would give themselves away.

I think this is a pretty sound critique of historical fiction, and one reason why something like Hilary Mantel’s wonderful Cromwell novels work precisely because they are about Cromwell (little known) rather than about Henry—imagine them from the King’s perspective: impossible.

At any rate, some critics, I gather, have indeed found the Hitler & Stalin sections of the novel (they’re very brief, only a few pages each) absurdly improbable. I think it’s telling, and a further sign that Barthes is on to something, that Grossman does better with Hitler than with Stalin, because he’s much more familiar with the latter. It’s easier for Grossman to imagine Hitler as fully fictional, Hitler has much less reality for him; for this reason, his depiction of Hitler taking a solitary walk in the forest of Görlitz, near the border with Lithuania, and falling prey to a sudden terror (“Without his body guards and aides, he felt like a little boy in a fairy tale lost in a dark, enchanted forest”) is quite convincing. The final thought he gives Hitler, however—“For the first time, he felt a sense of horror, human horror, at the thought of the crematoria in the camps”—is not. Not because Hitler wasn’t human, but because this sentiment isn’t prepared for by anything that comes before.

The Stalin section is similarly kitschy: the Great Leader imagines “all those he thought he had brought low, chastised and destroyed… climbing out of the tundra, breaking through the layer of permafrost that had closed over them, forcing their way through the entanglements of barbed wire.” But this rather Grand Guignol vision of Stalin’s victim’s coming back to assault him isn’t the real problem with this section. Instead, the Stalin section fails because Grossman turns it into a meditation on all the future glories (“jetplanes, intercontinental missiles, space rockets”) and horrors (the oppression of Eastern Europe, the show trials of various writers and artists) that were to come after the war.

Unlike the other characters—unlike Viktor Shtrum, unlike Lieutenant Viktorov, unlike Yevdokiya Mikheevna—neither Hitler nor, especially, Stalin are minor enough.

Next time: Grossman’s lists.

 

Eugénie Grandet–Honoré de Balzac

It will tell you something about me that the Balzac I know best is his story “Sarrasine” (1830), a text mostly ignored by readers for a century until, so the story goes, Roland Barthes came across an offhand reference to it by Georges Bataille that intrigued him enough to devote an entire seminar to the little story, the result of which was his extraordinary narratological study S/Z.

“Sarrasine” is amazing and holds up to many readings. But one story out of the thousands of pages Balzac wrote, well, it’s not much to base a judgment on, is it? (Technically I read Père Goriot a long time ago, too, but I can’t tell you anything about it except that it’s about a boarding house. It’s about a boarding house, right?) But now as part of the Slaves of Golconda group I’ve read Eugénie Grandet (1833) and I’m planning to immerse myself in Balzac as soon as reasonably possible. The guy was clearly a genius.

To come to Balzac through Barthes and post-structuralism is now so old-fashioned as to be almost quaint. The news that Princeton has bought the library of Jacques Derrida, though it warms my heart, makes me certain that the theory that was meat and drink to me is rapidly becoming antiquated. As Alexander Trocchi once said of the canonization of Dada, even “the turds of anti-art were framed and hung alongside “The School of Athens.”

Although Barthes offered his reading of Balzac as a critique of the ideological dominance of literary realism—specifically, its way of pretending that what it is doing is merely transforming things into words when in fact every thing, in this case every referent, is already produced through the combination of a number of interpretive codes—Barthes would be the first to acknowledge what time has made increasingly clear: S/Z is a paean to that realism, and especially to Balzac. Barthes described the realist writer as a painter whose main tool was not his canvas but the frame he placed around it, which Barthes employs as a figure for the condition of representability itself. To show anything it must first be selected, chosen, made. The trick played by realism—the ideological sleight of hand that bothered Barthes in the early 70s—was to pretend that the frame didn’t exist and that the canvas was simply a swathe of the real. But that didn’t mean, as critics of post-structuralism liked to say, that the art of the canvas was second-rate or disingenuous or bad. After all, S/Z is as much love letter as critique.

It’s entirely possible, though, that what Barthes said about literary realism might really only be about Balzac. Maybe the circulation of codes—by which Barthes meant both pre-established conventions for depicting and thinking about the world, and the way texts are in fact citing other texts when they claim to be showing life—isn’t the way realism works. Maybe it’s just how Balzac works. That’s the thought that came to me when I read, in Eugénie Grandet’s stilted and awkward opening pages, this description of Monsieur Grandet, the heroine’s father, a miserly cooper whose speculations first in the wine trade and later in the financial markets make him rich: “Financially speaking, Monsieur Grandet had the qualities both of a tiger and a boa-constrictor.” A tingle ran down my spine. Hadn’t I read about tigers and boa constrictors before? I pulled my copy of “Sarrasine” off the shelf where I duly found this description of a woman entranced by an old man she does not yet know is a castrato: “She was under the spell of that timorous curiosity which leads women to seek out dangerous emotions, to go to see chained tigers, to look at boa constructors.”

No doubt someone has written a book on the history of circuses and the Paris zoo (which, a quick Wikipedia search tells me, was founded in 1793) or any of the other ways in which such exotic animals might have made their way to 19th century France. If anyone knows about that stuff, please let me know, but honestly I’m only halfheartedly interested in that sort of background. What I’m genuinely interested in is how this repeated imagery tells us something about Balzac’s method and the preoccupations of this book. It’s not that Balzac copies himself—Barthes says copies are at the heart of Balzac’s work: what they are about and how they are made—but that in citing himself, in returning even to tropes that aren’t at all central to the subject matter of his writing, Balzac incorporates a process of circulation that is central to that subject matter.

Balzac delights in expressing and examining received wisdom; Barthes called this doxa and Franco Moretti called it Balzac’s “loquacious wisdom.” One of Balzac’s favourite formulations (present dozens of times in “Sarrasine,” admittedly less frequently in Eugenie) is “one of those”: “Prompted by one of those ideas which arise in a young girl’s heart…”; “It was one of those looks in which there is almost as much coquetry as deep feeling.” The implication is that readers will know what the narrator is talking about (ah, one of those ideas, one of those looks). The narrator becomes a kind of cataloguer of the world, able to show us what we might have missed but what, prompted by his description, we recognize as present in the world. But again the point isn’t that literature simply reflects the world beyond it but that it summons that world into being. The circulation of tropes, whether the “repetition” of known truths (“one of those”) or the self-citation of metaphors and images (tigers and boa constrictors) contributes to the way Balzac’s texts elide their own construction. How otherwise could such fanciful and melodramatic tales have come to seem so natural? The seemingly haphazard quality of the prose and the structure—this isn’t Flaubert—similarly contribute to the “natural” or “found” quality of the work: here is a slice of life.

As I said above, circulation isn’t just present in the form of the text. It’s also important in its content. The circulation of tropes that realist representation depends on is like the circulation of capital. And Eugénie Grandet is, at least superficially, about a miser (though the fact the miser is Eugénie’s father and that the book is not named for him suggests we might need to rethink that assertion). Grandet amasses his fortune first through trade (often by deviously undercutting his fellow vintners) but later through investment and speculation, where money is made from money. Rohan wrote about how unconcerned the novel seems to detail the source of Grandet’s money, how uninterested in detailing the labour that goes into making it. But from the perspective of capitalism, the more alienated capital is from labour the more powerful its ideological purchase.

That said, there are important counterweights in the novel to the idea of effortless speculation. Grandet loves gold, even picking gold threads out of a dress. He hoards copper coins in his study, so many that when he takes them out of the house, under cover of night, he needs a servant to help him carry the cauldron on a yoke around his neck. (The scene where Eugénie, half asleep and in the fever of new love, chances upon her father in this act is a masterful phantasmagoria.) In this sense wealth is highly material—and so too are the vividly evoked deprivations Grandet’s household endures as a result of the father’s miserliness, like the sugar cubes Grandet finds time in his busy schedule to cut up. Indeed, the miser challenges the idea of capitalist circulation, because he wants to hoard his money rather than keep it moving about. So although the novel depicts the increase of the Grandet fortune as implacable and inevitable, it also positions the miser as not just the capitalist par excellence, but also, more challengingly, as the limit of that economic system.

I struggled with how to understand the relation between money and heredity in this book. For heredity—by which I mean the passing on of emotional traits and values rather than of physical characteristics—seems to be something that also persists implacably. The novel tells the story of a family, but mostly it focuses on just the father and his daughter. What the daughter takes from the father is important to understanding the book’s remarkable ending. (Balzac might not be too great with beginnings, at least as evidenced by this book, but he sure knows what to do with an ending.)

The back cover of the Oxford edition I read—which comes with a really excellent, smart but not pedantic introduction by Christopher Prendergast, you should check it out if you’re at all interested in this book—asks “Who is going to marry Eugénie Grandet?” “This is the question,” the copy adds, “that fills the minds of the inhabitants of Saumur,” the town in the Loire where the book is set. Amateur Reader has pointed out that this is not really the question of the book. I submit that if there were something like a guiding question for the book it would be something like: “How should we understand Eugénie’s fate?”

I love the book’s way of wrong-footing us, of presenting scenarios we’ve seen before and then upending them. When Eugénie’s glamorous and spoiled Parisian cousin Charles comes to visit, and when the girl is instantly smitten with him to the point of giving him her heart, and, just as importantly in this novel, paying off his debts, we think we know what to expect. Surely this rakish dandy will do her wrong; surely he will be her ruin. When Charles learns, shortly after his arrival in Saumur, of his father’s suicide after the shame of becoming a bankrupt and accepts that his only hope of recovering any position in Parisian society is to seek his fortune in the Indies, we are sure he will abandon to Eugénie. And in this case we are right, just as we are also right that Eugénie will hold fast to his memory. Charles, who whatever his flaws was always rather sweet, becomes hardened in his seven years overseas—not least because he soon realizes that the real money is in selling people not goods. Embroiled in the slave trade—in “unremitting contact with selfish interests”—he becomes hardened and cynical: “his feeling for others contracted and withered away.” Balzac immediately adds that after all Charles is a Grandet: “The blood of the Grandets fulfilled its destiny. Charles became hard and ruthless in the pursuit of gain.” That ruthlessness extends to his personal life. On the ship home, Charles meets a titled, well-positioned family that has been much reduced materially. Although he doesn’t much care for Mademoiselle d’Aubrion—and Balzac does his best to make sure we don’t either, describing her as “thin and spare, with a supercilious mouth, dominated by a blunt, over-long nose, which was normally yellowish but became quite red after meals, a kind of vegetable phenomenon that is more unpleasant in a pale, bored face than in any other”: nothing by halves for our Balzac—Charles marries her anyway, because her family’s connections will open Parisian society to him. So important to him is this idea of securing a brilliant position that even when he learns that Eugénie has repaid his father’s creditors, with interest, he only pauses momentarily to lament the loss of a fortune the size of which he hadn’t suspected—what he really cares about, Eugénie can’t give him.

I suspect Charles isn’t the only Charles in Balzac’s works, and I bet some of them get their own novels. But in this novel his trajectory must remain only a sketch because its main interest is in Eugénie. Her honour has not been besmirched; she hasn’t become a fallen woman. She and Charles share only two kisses before his departure; he does not force himself upon her or leave her ruined. Nor does she simply renounce the world after her disappointment. She doesn’t become a nun, exactly—this isn’t The Princesse de Cleves. It’s true that her first reaction to the news of Charles’s dismissal of her after seven years is to calmly state that now she can only “suffer and die.” She even tells her priest that she wishes to leave the world and live in seclusion. But she doesn’t. She learns Charles’s marriage will not come off until his father’s creditors are appeased and arranges to pay all the outstanding bills. We don’t know why she does this. From self-abnegation? From a desire for revenge? To make Charles dependent on her? None of these are right. What we do know is that when she decides to take this action, a friend of the family tells her, “ ‘As you said that, your voice was just like your late father’s.’” This a moment after the text has told us: “she decided that, in future, she would assume an impassive expression as her father had always done.”

So the heredity that concerns the book pertains as much to Eugénie as to her Charles. For she too is a Grandet. And she becomes increasingly like her father. She is immured neither in a convent nor in the walled garden where she once sat with Charles, but she is imprisoned in a life of emotional nullity. Although enormously rich, she doesn’t hoard her wealth; indeed, she gives generously to charity and the Church. But the hardness that attached itself to Charles also begins to manifest itself in her. She isn’t cynical, but she does, the narrator tells us, respond to others “ironically,” a word it would never have used to describe her earlier.

It is in this spirit of emotional asperity that she agrees to marry a lawyer from Saumur, the now middle-aged son of one of two families that had been vying for Eugénie’s hand—and her fortune—since even before the arrival of Charles. But she marries Monsieur de Bonfons only on the condition that he expect nothing more than friendship from her. (And that friendship seems quite icy.) She doesn’t pine for Charles, she doesn’t preserve the memory of their courtship in Havishamian aspic. She simply turns that part of herself off. When Bonfons dies only a few years later, she becomes even richer, even more isolated, even more forbidding. The irony of the Grandet family is complete: the one who cares nothing for gold is showered with it. She uses it to do good in secret. But despite this charity, and despite her beauty, which, the narrator tells us, persists even as she approaches forty, despite her poise, she isn’t the same as she was as a girl:

She has all the nobility of grief, the saintliness of one whose soul is unsullied by contact with the outside world. But she has also the rigid outlook of an old maid and the narrow vision that comes from the restricted life of a provincial town. In spite of her income of eight hundred thousand livres, she lives as poor Eugénie Grandet used to live. She lights her fire only on the days when her father used to allow the fire to be lit in the living-room, and puts it out according to the rules in force when she was young. She always dresses as her mother did. The house at Saumur, sunless, devoid of warmth, gloomy, and always in the shade, reflects her life.

I’m interested in the way the book here reverses its understanding of the distinction between Paris and the provinces (Paris = flashy, vain, superficial; provinces = solid, demure, profound). There’s enough criticism of Eugénie in this passage to complicate the saintly resignation that would otherwise have reduced her to caricature. To be sure, if the book really believes in the ideas of emotional inheritance it so often references, then she couldn’t have ended up any other way, and so it would be meaningless to speak of criticism. And on the book’s final page, the narrator both backpedals on some of the things it says here—claiming that “the greatness of her soul lessens the effect of the narrowness of her upbringing”—and finds fault with the situation itself. Whether the tragedy is really that “a woman who, made to be a magnificent wife and mother, has neither husband nor children nor family” (a surprising thing to say, given the book’s interest in heredity, which would seems to make nonsense of the possibility raised here that Eugenie was made to be something her family could not have given her), the book does leave us feeling the hopelessness of her situation.

But Eugénie Grandet is melancholic not tragic. From the first sentence, in which the houses in certain provincial towns arouse melancholy as much in the stranger who comes across them as in the people who live in them, melancholy is referenced throughout the book, the best way to describe the strange uncertainty of the narrator’s description of the widowed Madame de Bonfons. Melancholy is the way the book gives its protagonist a fate more complicated, if not necessarily more pleasant to experience, than those typically granted to heroines of the period. I find myself thinking about her a lot, and, as Barthes once did, look forward to delving further into the vast and surprising work of her creator.