R. Nicht’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by R. Nicht (@Sediziose_Voci). R. is a reader who lives in the southern U.S.

Look for more reflections from a wonderful assortment of readers every day this week. Remember, you can always add your thoughts to the mix. Just let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter (@ds228).

Girogio Morandi, Still Life, 1960

William Gardner Smith, The Stone Face

This terse novel of brutal images and elegant concision, as forceful as a punch in the face, depicts the effects of personal and collective racial trauma in the life of an African American journalist who takes refuge from the corrosive racism of American life in the bohemian expat culture of Paris in the days of the Algerian conflict. Smith casts a disapproving eye on this celebrated cultural milieu, which fostered such talents as James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Miles Davis and whose creative ferment has been the subject of admiring studies by Tyler Stovall and others, depicting its members not as artistic mavericks but as an idle group of lotus-eaters who fritter their time away in futile creative projects and vaporous dreams of Pan-Africanism. Briefly tempted by the escape they offer from the crushing burdens and responsibilities of African American selfhood, the protagonist ultimately rejects it after befriending a group of Algerians and witnessing the events of the 1961 Paris Massacre, when French National Police violently attacked a pro-FLN demonstration, killing more than 100 protesters.

Paradoxically, the protagonist’s experience of cross-racial solidarity with another persecuted minority and his affair with a Holocaust survivor (perhaps the least convincing character in the book) propel him into a commitment to a harsh racial sectarianism at odds with the racial ecumenicism the novel seems to hold out as an alluring but ultimately unachievable dream. In another time, another place, perhaps, the author seems to suggest, such a vision of cross-racial struggle might be realizable, but in the exigent moment of armed conflict and brutal racial oppression the novel depicts, the only moral option for members of subaltern groups is dedication to their separate, geographically delimited battles: the Algerians to armed conflict against the French occupiers in Algeria, the narrator to a militant fight against racism in the U.S. It is a bleak vision, but one that Smith dramatizes with undeniable power.

Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters

A swashbuckling classic that documents the CIA’s tentacular reach into multiple areas of cultural production in the West during the “hot” period of the Cold War from the late 1940s to the 1960s. Charting the tortured ideological trajectory that left-leaning writers and intellectuals followed after they broke with communism in the late 1930s following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and Stalinist show trials and became willing conscripts in a cultural struggle against the Soviet Union that relied as much on mendacity and ratfucking as the ruthless counteroffensive waged behind the Iron Curtain, Saunders’ book is an indictment not so much of the cultural crusade against Stalinism itself but of the brutal and reckless way it was waged. The hasty denazification of prominent cultural figures who would be “wins” for the West, the persecution of artists and writers with suspect communist pasts, the sidelining of dissenting voices unwilling to celebrate the new pax Americana, the sclerotic intellectual culture of the Cold War period that resulted—such things were neither necessary for victory nor inevitable, Saunders argues.

The book offers a useful intellectual genealogy of Cold War cultural liberalism, a force that still makes its presence felt—30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall—in certain sectors of the American and British intelligentsia in the form of a disenchanted but loyal statism, a florid reverence for “democratic norms” and the elites who supposedly safeguard them, and a genteel form of literary and cultural criticism that floats free from all questions of political economy. Left-leaning intellectuals may have broken with the CIA and its anti-communist crusade during the Vietnam War, but the distinctive intellectual style they developed during the heady days of that alliance has had a long afterlife.  

Hazel Carby, Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands

A worthy contribution to life writing about the Black Atlantic, this memoir breaks the conventions of the form to offer a sweeping account of colonialism, empire, capitalism, and the construction of racialized subjects that relies as heavily on archival evidence as it does on personal and familial memory. Roving from suburban London to Bristol and Kingston and back to Britain again, Carby’s narrative shows how both strands of her family—proletarianized Welsh farmers displaced from their lands and mixed-race Jamaicans who ended up on the wrong side of the line that divided “white” Carbys from “black” Carbys—were conscripted into the British Empire’s race-making project, some as slaves, some as working-class whites in Bristol who came to identify themselves as proud subjects and beneficiaries of empire even as it brutally extracted their labor.

The book is above all an eloquent elegy for Carby’s parents, a bookish, soft-spoken Jamaican and a white Englishwoman from a hardscrabble background whose lives were destroyed, Carby makes clear, when they crossed forbidden racial boundaries during a period of illusory wartime sexual freedom. That their half-caste daughter also paid a severe penalty for their transgression is made clear in Carby’s narrative of her own childhood, which was evidently so painful that she refers to herself in the book in the third person as “the girl,” and then only glancingly (she does not, however, spare the reader the details of her rape by a white neighbor). Imperial Intimacies concludes with a perfectly cadenced sentence of stinging irony that encapsulates the entire book and returns the reader to the beginning pages. [Ed. – Now of course I have to read this. Impressively effective, R.]

Igiaba Scego, Oltre Babilonia

In this fiercely exuberant novel, Scego, an Italian of Somali descent, throws the doors and windows of Italian fiction wide open to admit silenced voices from Italy’s horrific colonial past in East Africa and Argentina’s Dirty War. The stories of trauma and loss they tell cross boundaries of continents and language to enrich and trouble Italy’s multiracial present, personified most vividly in the novel by the irrepressibly candid Zuhra, a daughter of the African diaspora in Italy who speaks Romanesco but yearns to learn Arabic and whose own psychic and physical maladies can be traced directly to the silences and omissions of her immigrant family’s tormented history and to her own experience of childhood sexual abuse. The novel’s recuperation of long-suppressed family stories is a work not simply of therapeutic healing but of regeneration—the attempt to build a living present out of the scattered fragments of the past and fashion a self in which memory and bodily health, pleasure and sexuality, are fully integrated. The novel has recently been translated into English by Aaron Robertson with the title Beyond Babylon.

Marta Barone, Città Sommersa

A daughter’s efforts to fill in the lacunae in the life of her recently deceased father, an enigmatic, secretive man who served a prison term for giving medical assistance to a member of a terrorist group in the 1970s, broadens to become a forensic reconstruction of the Years of Lead (gli anni di piombo), a period of convulsive political violence on the right and the left in Italy and in Turin, the author’s home city, that has been explored in fiction and non-fiction alike by Nadia Terranova, Giovanni De Luna, and others but still remains imperfectly understood. De Luna has suggested that the very term “years of lead” has been used to erase the complexities of a decade that saw Autonomist labor militancy, peaceful protest, and violent attacks against jurists and journalists by members of the Red Brigades and Prima Linea, the last of which involved only a fraction of the many people who were caught up in the political ferment of the time. Offering a harrowing account of one man’s personal and political journey through those tumultuous years as well as a narrative of her own present-day reconnoitering of her father’s past, Barone brings light and a searching intelligence to an era whose intricacies and contradictions have been buried under that unilluminating epitaph.

What Barone seems less assured at providing is any real understanding of the impassioned commitments and ambitions of the political actors of those years, which are perhaps apt to seem outsized and extravagant (Vogliamo tutto!) to one brought up in a neoliberal era of technocratic governance and constricted horizons of political possibility. Yet it is the tension created by the irreducible distance between her own present and her father’s past—the sense that the past is, despite all her efforts to recover it, a foreign country, they do things differently there—that is part of the allure of Barone’s mysterious and elegiac book, which will appear in English under the title Sunken City this spring courtesy of Serpent’s Tail Press and translator Julia MacGibbon.      

Natalia Ginzburg, Tutti i Nostri Ieri

Sandra Petrignani, La Corsara: Ritratto di Natalia Ginzburg

Having recently reread Ginzburg’s substantial 1952 novel, which deals with, among other topics, teenage sexuality, abortion, suicide, war, bombings, displacement, fascism, the Nazi invasion after the armistice, and the violent deaths of several key characters, I found it a bit disconcerting to hear one of the author’s English translators seemingly reinforce the view in a recent podcast that Ginzburg is a writer of slight domestic fictions, all short in length. It made me wonder if there is a sneaking tendency or perhaps marketing strategy to present women writing in languages other than English, particularly those published during the recent translation boom (with a few notable exceptions), as practitioners of exiguous and rarified rarefied fictional forms—peripheral, approachable, decidedly minor. [Ed. – Intriguing. I want to know what Rebecca Hussey thinks.]

There is certainly nothing small-scale about this panoramic work, the only novel in Ginzburg’s oeuvre written in the third person; if it lacks the technical finesse and playfulness with form of Family Lexicon, for which it is many ways the fictional antecedent, it makes up for these qualities in its scope, its variegated plot and settings, and dramatic power. At the center of the novel, which deals with the wartime experiences of two families in an industrial northern city much like Turin, one bourgeois, one “respectable” but down at the heels, stands the charismatic, rumbustious figure of Cenzo Rena, who seems a composite of Leone Ginzburg and several other heroic figures of Ginzburg’s Torinese youth. The only character in the book who has the inner resources to resist the deadening influence of fascism and rise to the moral challenges of the war, he is at the same time—and this is one of the book’s painful ironies—part of a transient, dying world, belonging to Italy’s past, who will not live to see the defeat of the Axis powers or the advent of the shattered postwar world that the surviving characters, among them Anna, the novel’s protagonist, gropingly confront in the concluding pages.

Sandra Petrignani’s La Corsara, a freeform biographical portrait of Ginzburg, offers a welcome corrective to the view of Ginzburg in the English-speaking world as a minor, grandmotherly author of piquant domestic fictions (one must of course guard against the tendency to see “domestic fiction” as a minor genre), presenting her as a major writer of prodigious output in multiple genres over several decades. The book is also a liberating example of literary biographical writing that departs from the two forms that have come to dominate the genre in the Anglophone world: the exhaustively documented doorstop biography by a literary scholar and the brief memoir by a family member or fellow writer that confines itself to small-scale portraiture and personal anecdote. Combining standard chronological exposition of biographical facts with interviews, personal reflections, memories of her own meetings with Ginzburg, and even a charming digression on her astrological chart, Petrignani creates a complex, vivid portrait that is no less authoritative for having violated in significant respects the conventions of contemporary literary biography. The English-language literary biography, a tradition that did not always adhere to the rigidities of present-day practice (think of Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Brontë, or De Quincey’s portraits of the Lake Poets), could benefit, it seems to me, from Petrignani’s example. Her book is currently being translated into English.

Walter Kempowski, All for Nothing; translated by Anthea Bell

One of the principal questions that Kempowski’s astonishing novel seems to ask is just how much sympathy the reader can allow herself to feel for its characters, comfortable Germans of the landed upper-middle classes living in a shrinking enclave of calm in East Prussia during the last days of World War II as the Soviet Army moves towards them. How much will the reader’s reflexive tendency to identify and empathize with characters be tempered by her desire to judge them, to adjudicate what measure of blame they deserve for their relative comfort amidst the horrors of wartime and their silent complicity with Hitler’s regime, with Auschwitz and Treblinka and the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto not far to the south of them? Do the characters “earn” the terrible fate that befalls most of them at the novel’s conclusion? Kempowski’s master stroke in the novel seems to me to understand that negotiating these complex questions—writing about characters whom the reader at some level opposes from the outset—is as much a technical as it is a moral problem, a problem of style and technique, as it were.

The technical approach Kempowski chooses is a sequence of brief scenes—quick sketches, brief dashing episodes and asides—and a tone that is playfully ironic, interrogative, sly, detached, almost harmonium-like, with the fictional “camera” pulled back at a chilly distance to expose the characters’ foibles and weaknesses (Katharina’s idleness and indolence, the aging schoolmaster’s homoerotic reveries of long-ago hiking expeditions). Kempowski makes no effort to excuse or condemn his characters. He lets the reader see that Katharina’s decision to shelter a fugitive Jewish musician in her house for one night springs more from ennui than from sympathy or principle. The coarse working-class Nazi in the housing development across the road is a harried, put-upon figure with a sick wife, but Kempowski makes no overt efforts to humanize him. Seduced by the astringent lightness of the narration, a complicitous partner in the author’s drily ironic observation, the reader imagines that she can watch with a certain pleasurable detachment as the characters are overtaken by the terrible events that surely await them and that they may even in some way “deserve.”

And yet the operations of sympathy and identification with characters begin their stealthy work inside the reader once Katharina’s young son, a peripheral character until the book’s midpoint, takes a central role. For it turns out that All for Nothing is, at least obliquely, an autobiographical novel, a chronicle of Kempowski’s own horrific childhood experience of the same historical events the novel describes, and the reader cannot resist the pull of emotion that slowly accumulates around the character that is his fictional surrogate. Entangled by these skeins of feeling, the reader finds herself unexpectedly invested in his fate and, through it, in the fates of all those on whom the boy’s safety and life depend, particularly when the novel’s setting shifts from the family’s manor house to apocalyptic scenes of devastation and carnage. The novel’s playfully ironic tone, it turns out, has been a lure and a trap. Summoned to watch what had initially seemed an interwar comedy of manners, the reader finds herself at the novel’s conclusion a witness to a human calamity on an overpowering scale—a calamity to which she can properly respond only with those emotions that an authentic artistic experience of catharsis can arouse: pity and fear. This novel shook me; I read the last 50 or so pages seemingly with one held breath.

Wolfgang Hilbig, The Interim; translated by Isabel Fargo Cole

This ribald, lacerating exploration of the psychological and territorial scissions of postwar Europe, which I read in Isabel Fargo Cole’s marvelously assured translation, seems to me the real deal: a major European novel of wild, idiosyncratic ambition that merits comparison with the works of Bernhard and Sebald. I would follow its wastrel writer protagonist—priapic one moment, impotent the next, a narcissist, a drunk, a philanderer, a genius, a failure, at home neither in the catastrophically failed “actually existing socialism” of the GDR nor in the vapid consumer society of the FRG—anywhere. Hilbig is a magisterial commander of both interior and exterior space, expertly guiding his narrative through multiple excursuses with the same efficiency as the trains that conduct the protagonist across the border to West Germany and back to the East, taking us through horrific flame-lit industrial landscapes and scenes of domestic squalor and in and out of nightmares and states of inner torment with equal ease. He does it all with grace and a perfectly tuned sense of fictional pacing: the restless narrative never stalls out in rhetorical excess even during the most lurid passages, and the reader somehow keeps her bearings through multiple flashbacks and digressions. The plot, such as it is, follows the wanderings and tergiversations of an East German writer in the throes of a full-blown artistic and sexual crisis, exacerbated by abject alcoholism, while overstaying his visa to West Germany. As the reader comes to understand, the narrator’s restless transits from East to West and his circuitous inner journeys of memory and imagination trace and retrace the contours of a European map set in place by a century of devastating war, partition, displacement, drawn and redrawn national boundaries, and genocide.  

Mary Fulbrook, The People’s State: East German Society from Hitler to Honecker

Fulbrook’s book was a useful companion during my reading of Hilbig. Departing from the “Stasicentric” (as Paul Betts has called it) totalitarian model of GDR scholarship, this revisionist social history of East Germany doesn’t excuse the regime’s many calamitous failures, but neither does it engage in pointless sermonizing. Rather, it attempts to explore the paradox that while East German society was undoubtedly repressive in the extreme (the GDR’s citizens were quite literally caged, subject to surveillance and numerous intrusions on their personal liberty), many former citizens recall living “perfectly ordinary lives” there, a sentiment that can’t be chalked up to simple Ostalgie or to a kind of false consciousness in reverse. Combing through archival evidence and interview transcripts, Fulbrook looks at women’s rights, labor, childcare, recreation and leisure, and other facets of life in East Germany and concludes that the GDR was not a monolithic tyranny in which citizens cowered, silent and passive, under despotic rule, but an evolving, changing, albeit extraordinarily repressive society in which ordinary people shaped the culture around them as much as they were shaped by it. What Fulbrook makes clear is that it was Honecker’s decision to attempt the beat the West on its own terms through a “consumer socialist” model that ultimately led to East Germany’s demise. Plausible perhaps in the early 1970s, when East Germany might be said to have been at its zenith, the regime’s aspiration to provide material plenty for its people in any way comparable to that enjoyed in the West became less and less viable in the 1980s, when shortages of food and other basic supplies, together with increasing repression by state security services and ongoing environmental collapse, sounded the death knell for the GDR.   

Alighiero Boëtti, Non parto non resto, ca. 1979

Other Favorites:

Noo Saro-Wiwa, Looking for Transwonderland

Enzo Traverso, The Origins of Nazi Violence

Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom

Herman Melville, Redburn

Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason

Christina Stead, Cotter’s England

Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions [Ed. — Fascinating book.]

Pier Paolo Pasolini, Scritti Corsari

Edward Said, Music at the Limits

Alina Stefanescu’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Alina Stefanescu (@aliner). Alina was born in Romania and lives in Birmingham, Alabama with her partner and several intense mammals. Recent books include a creative nonfiction chapbook, Ribald (Bull City Press Inch Series, Nov. 2020) and Dor, which won the Wandering Aengus Press Prize (September, 2021). She is currently working on a novel-like creature. More online at www.alinastefanescuwriter.com.

Look for more reflections from a wonderful assortment of readers every day this week. Remember, you can always add your thoughts to the mix. Just let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter (@ds228).

Diane Arbus, Girl in a watch cap, N.Y.C. 1965

Forget the books I reviewed for literary journals…

I’d prefer to talk about The Others—to dwell on the fact that I lost my Barbara-Comyns-virginity this year, thanks to Richard Mirabella and Kyle Winkler. I wound up in a zoom room which led to a rabbit hole—and, after climbing back into the regular world, my head included a bookshelf full of Comyns, starting with her first novel, Sisters by a River, which Emily Gould introduced as “a barely fictionalized account of her strange childhood” created to entertain and amuse her own kids while living in London and “working as a cook on a country estate to escape the Blitz.”

Comyns’s second novel, Our Spoons Came From Woolworth’s, continues to mine her life, carrying the reader through adulthood, which is to say: a series of ordinary remarkable things, including childbirth, child loss, marital drudgery, peak misogyny, and pets (from newts to foxes). Then I devoured her haunting, impeccably grotesque novel, The Vet’s Daughter. According to the 1981 Virago edition, Barbara Comyns “dreamt the idea” for this novelwhile honeymooning “in a Welsh cottage lent to her and her new husband by the Soviet agent Kim Philby in 1945.”

It was delicious. I regret nothing.

Nor do I regret the acrobatic harrow of Jennifer Fliss’s The Predatory Animal Ball; flash fiction in Fliss’s hands feels simultaneously epic and dioramic. These creature stories stayed in my head—fantastic. Also compelling for its compressive impact: Men You Don’t Know You Know by Chase Burke, a book of short fiction about masculinity. I found something gutting in Burke’s deployment of segmented narrative strategies and trivia questions to undo gender, or probe its least secure spaces.

Because catastrophe attracts me, I re-read Diane Williams’ The Collected Short Stories of Diane Williams and talked to myself about her use of interior monologue. Few writers have permission to write such irreverent viciousness about men and romantic relationships. Magda Carneci’s FEM (translated by Sean Cotter) came close, though—in a different way, in a sort of neo-confessional efflorescence that indicts masculinity from the space of the intimate whisper. Mining a vein that reminds me of Hélène Cixous, Carneci’s novel engages the social construction of femininity in first-person. It opens interesting discussions about the distance between the dominant American feminism and feminisms nurtured in different soils and continents. Claudia Sadowski-Smith’s The New Immigrant Whiteness: Race, Neoliberalism, and Post-Soviet Migration to the United States brought new perspectives on marriage, social relations, and the market for brides to a topic that continues to interest me, namely, the construction of transnational identities.

Like many pandemiacs, epistolary-fever ruined what remained of my life. The hunger for correspondence met my affinity for ghosts and queer cherubim in Letters Summer 1926: Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetaeva, Rainer Maria Rilke, introduced by Susan Sontag. And then, after picking up my invisible shovel and digging around the names associated with the letters, I fell a little bit in love with Boris Pasternak’s sonorous memoir, Safe Travels, where I discovered Pasternak’s childhood dream of being a Scriabin, or being someone his father adored as much as he adored Scriabin. I suspect we all want to be loved a little too much—and then promptly forgiven for it.

I forgave Pasternak, but the last-page blues—that narrowing dread which signals the finitude of a book’s world, the cessation of a voyage, the reentry into everyday life—hit me hard upon finishing Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory, in Sasha Dugsdale’s lyrical, lush translation. [Ed. – “Last-page blues”: gonna steal that one.] One of my favorite books this year, and a model for how to write the untouchable past while touching every single porcelain cat in the off-limits cabinet.

Thanks to #APSTogether, I read W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants (translated by Michael Hulse), and enjoyed both the reading and the ride. The world of Machado de Assis opened wide with The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (translated by Flora Thomson DeVeaux). There is something fantastic in de Assis’s use of hindsight to undermine respectability and status—something surreal in the aspirational, posthumous voice. And the reader is prepared for it with “The Delirium,” the long, hallucinated description of riding atop the back of a swift hippopotamus, the juxtaposition of absurdity with respect, an opening into that wicked improbable. Cubas says no one else has narrated their own delusion before; certainly, no one has ever narrated the delusional as convincingly and seductively as Machado de Assis.

Cubas is looking for a way to realize a sublime idea that hopped into his head while walking—namely, the invention of “an anti-hypochondriacal plaster destined to alleviate our melancholy humanity.” In this, our narrator resembles others looking for theories that will make them rich and famous. It feels prescient for theory to be commodified as a sort of entrepreneurship-vessel for the chattering classes, an economic opportunity for leisured libidinals. One can’t help but notice a resemblance between Cubas’s aspirations and the contemporary economic muscle of self-help industry experts. We have it all, from Emily Oster’s “evidence-based, statistical parenting” (parenting by the numbers according to capitalist constructions of humanity) to the lean-in feminisms of Sheryl Sandberg and straight to the plaster face masks of the Insta-influencer scientists—to be so rich in plaster solutions and yet disoriented, miserable, and clueless. This is the American dream as it plays out in the bourgeoisie classes.

The posthumous narrative pleasures continued with Silvina Ocampo’s genre-bender, The Promise, translated by Jill Levine, a metaphysical narrative that started as her first book—and wound up being published as her last. Ocampo’s surreal, fragmented, atemporal exploration of hindsight and promises stayed glued to the underside of my eyelids. Alas, I could not wake up without writing a series of poems in response—which turned into a chapbook—which I am burying for lack of time. [Ed. – Tease! Where is your Max Brod?]

A fascination with Decadent writers and artists led me into many brocaded tunnels this year, including Haldane McFall’s Aubrey Beardsley: The Man and His Work, an old book shot through with fireworks of crackly syntax and necro-romanticism. Idyllic for those who need a new temporality, a “twelvemonth” in which to exist.

Beatrice Bracher’s Antonio (translated by Adam Morris) uses disembodied narration to probe family skeletons and narratives—the price of telling and not telling.

My addiction to Sublunary Press objects continued, and it was exciting to hear Chris Clarke describe the experience of translating Éric Chevillard’s The Posthumous Works of Thomas Pilaster during an online book launch. I also found Chevillard’s website, which is a sort of ongoing paratext in French—and I translated a little bit for myself so that I could cheer when the author reported getting his covid vaccine—”Still, no adverse effects from the vaccine. I have rarely even felt so happy.”

Choi Jin-young’s To the Warm Horizon (translated by Soje) made me think about time-signatures in prose narrative—as well as apocalypse. First published in Korea in 2017, prior to the onset of the pandemic, the novel alternates between the lives and decisions of characters fleeing an unnamed virus. This is fine vs. is this fine—Jin-Young repeatedly lays the ethical questions of the disaster over small, personal choices in the characters’ lives. The time-signature is unforgettable. As is the book.

Diane Arbus, Man in Hat, Trunks, Socks and Shoes, Coney Island, N. Y. 1960

Where to begin among the 112 poetry books I read this year? [Ed. – Exqueeze me?] Louise Labé’s Love Sonnets & Elegies (translated by Richard Sieburth) enchanted me with antiquated forms, including the poetic blazon. [Ed. — *takes notes *] But I also wondered how, and in what form, Labé actually existed. [Ed. — ?] Karen Lessing’s “preface” to this book is tremendous. Henri Michaux’s A Certain Plume (also translated by Sieburth) felt fresh and modern—it’s difficult not to imagine one’s own Plume as a writer-self, or to imagine the secret Plumes of others. Following my OBERIU fascination from last year, I wandered into the fabulous esoterica of Alexander Vvedensky’s An Invitation for Me to Think (translated by Eugene Ostashevsky and Matvei Yankelevich), and the forms that silence begets in poetry. Some silences are more ornate than others, and it was also instructive in revealing how Symbolism changed and evolved in Russia.

The Jenny Erpenback obsession—this I blame on David Naimon’s incredible podcast, which led me to every Erpenbeck ever published, including The Book of Words, which many dislike, but which I valued for how it engages family secrets. For the daughter, the secret changes the world in which one can exist, and it changes the self as known by the world. Sometimes we want answers, but other times we just want the world to continue in a way that allows us to have parents. The complexity of this book spoke to many migrant stories somehow, and it continues to derange me.

Anne Anlin Cheng’s The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief was published in 2000; I ran across it when searching, oddly, for books on melancholy of the left. Cheng argues that racial grief is not just the result of racism, but also the foundation for racial identity—and the book forms a fascinating contrapuntal subject in current discussions about diaspora, race, clinical language, and trauma. And Robert Musil’s Notebookseverywhere in my head and essays and writing this year. O, Jenny Croft and Phillip Boehm—two translators I follow closely, everything they translate—I find and devour. Other writes I read obsessively include Marguerite Yourcenar…. nevermind, nevermind. I just realized that I need to send this book list to you immediately, there is no time for me to talk about all the books I loved and read in 2021—just as there has never been enough time for me to talk about all the books I read and love. This is the curse of bibliomania. I think INXS wrote a song about it. [Ed. – This one? Or this one? Oh, you mean this one.] My lament continues.

What I Read, December 2021

I had quite a bit of free time this month, especially when I wasn’t writing the things I should be writing. But it didn’t feel especially restful: living amid the continual, not-so-slow erosion of a functioning civil society takes a toll. Plus I had a lot of leaves to rake. Like, a lot. (Corner lot, seven pin oaks.) I did read some books, though.

William Steig, New Yorker, October 14, 1967

Elizabeth Taylor, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont (1971)

In his odd and to my mind often unsatisfactory but certainly never dull introduction to this excellent novel, Michael Hofmann suggests that Saul Bellow struck a fatal blow to its chances at winning the Booker prize because he thought it sounded like a book with a lot of ladies sipping tea. (Apparently he hadn’t even read it? Which ugh Saul not a good look.) As Hofmann notes, almost no tea is sipped in this novel, there’s nothing cute or sweet or twee about it. It’s a late novel by a writer now finally getting her due as one of the best England produced in the 20th Century and by this point in her career Taylor really knew what she was on about.

What she’s specifically on about in this novel is death, and the loneliness that leads to it. Mrs. Palfrey, recently widowed and unwilling to stay with her daughter in Scotland, where she does not feel particularly welcome anyway, chances on an advertisement for the Claremont Hotel in London. “Reduced Winter Rates. Excellent cuisine.” Mrs. Palfrey is no dummy, she knows the latter is unlikely but she has the idea that London could be exciting and seizes the chance to strike out on her own. She arrives on a Sunday afternoon in January, and although the events take place over the course of the most of the rest of that year, it feels a wintry book to me.

Mrs. Palfrey finds the Claremont to be populated mostly by people as old as herself (rather than the bewildered, moneyed American tourists the manager much prefers), all of whom have nothing much to do other than to mark out their days and husband their dwindling resources. Mrs. Palfrey brags about her grandson, who works at the British Museum, implying he will soon visit; his failure to do so causes her much embarrassment. So when she takes a fall while on a walk (pacing out the time, duration, and direction of the daily walk being one of her important occupations) and is helped by a young man who lives in the basement flat opposite the accident, she is happy to pass him off as her grandson. The young man, Ludo (not quite as playful as his name suggests), is happy to oblige, as he is writing a novel and living on next to nothing (he writes at Harrod’s where he can sit in the warmth for nothing) and is always up for a free meal, even at a place where the cuisine is decidedly as non-excellent as the Claremont Hotel.

All the elements are in place for a farce—pretending Ludo is her grandson proves trickier than Mrs. Palfrey had anticipated, especially when the real one shows up—but the novel is dark rather than sparkling. Ludo is not a bad man, exactly, but he uses Mrs. Palfrey’s infatuation with him, not so much for financial gain as artistic material—he uses the milieu of the boarding hotel and its status as an antechamber to death for his novel and is generally more contemptuous of Mrs. P than he lets on. He’s not just a chancer, and does much more for the woman than her actual family, so it’s all interestingly complicated.

In one sense, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont is about the definition of family. Can the community of those who are thrown together be more powerful than the connections between blood or marital ties? The answer might not be yes, but the novel doesn’t have any nostalgia for those conventional ties, either. When one of the residents, the only man, proposes to her, Mrs. Palfrey is horrified. The most indelible scene in the novel, for me, is when the man refuses to wash his hands after using the toilet but runs the water briefly so that people will think he did. This is funny but also grim—and that gets the tone of the book, for me.

There’s a lot more to say about this novel—much more interesting than the film, which I saw many years ago and remember as cloying, an interpretation that kept me from reading the book for years, alas—which punches above its short length and too-easily dismissed subject matter (old people, especially women). Shout-out to NYRB Classics for publishing this in the US. I especially approve of their cover choice. Would have been easy to go for something with more chintz. That’s what Saul would’ve done.

Garry Disher, Peace (2019)

The second Hirsch novel is even better than the first. Disher evens out the ambivalence of Hirsch’s character, making Peace the more conventional book, but maybe I just want to be comforted—this book really worked for me. I love how Hirsch is as much social worker as cop: much of his job involves visiting shut-ins or otherwise marginalized figures who live on the out of the way farms or properties that seem to almost exclusively comprise his far-flung district. Eventually the plot coalesces into a central investigation, but this is a pleasingly loose-limbed novel.

John Le Carré, Silverview (2021)

At some point I might have to conclude I’m a Le Carré philistine. He’s just not my guy. The story of a man—a former finance guy who’s left the City and opened a bookshop in a seaside town in East Anglia—who meets and becomes entangled with another—a broken former spy offers a promising narrative structure is promising, lending itself to indirection and the juxtaposition of private and public secrets. But the bookseller character feels cursory and implausible, which means that his interest in the second man is hard to figure out. It’s a book written by someone who feels betrayed by the turn his country has taken—I read it as an anti-Brexit novel; I assume the otherwise odd extended references to Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn are meant symbolize an idea of Britain as inextricable from Europe—but the betrayal at the heart of the novel is confusing. Are we supposed to accept, even admire its consequences? In the end, Silverview left barely an impression on me.

Garry Disher, Consolation (2020)

Third Hirsch novel, best of the lot. Like most actual cops (I assume), Hirsch usually has a number of cases, many minor, barely worthy of the term, on the go at once. Consolation is a procedural, so inevitably a number of these strands end up coming together, but I like what Disher is doing in these books a lot. They’re generous, maybe a little regressive, but I prefer “cop doing his best” to “burnt-out obsessive with his demons.”  Can’t we all use some generosity these days? I found the ending as satisfying as the title promises. It would be fine to end the series here, but I gather a fourth’s on the way and I’ll read it for sure.

Claire Keegan, Small Things Like These (2021)

Beautiful novella set in Ireland in 1985—I was surprised when the date was first mentioned, I thought it might be the 50s, but as a friend told me the 80s in Ireland were the 50s elsewhere—about the Magdalene Laundries. That makes it sound worthy and dour, but it’s not, it’s a quiet heartbreaker in the William Trevor or Alice Munro mold.

Bill Furlong runs a coal delivery service—I loved the details of the business scattered throughout—and in the weeks leading up to Christmas he becomes aware of something terrible at the local convent. He finds a terrified young woman hiding in the convent’s coal shed, she begs him to take her with him, he doesn’t, even bringing her back to the nuns, but as soon as he does he knows he shouldn’t have, the nuns treat her kindly and with concern but he knows something is wrong and worries about what’s happened to her once he left. When he enquires into the situation he gets messages, some subtle and some not, that he shouldn’t mix himself in the nuns’ business, it’ll only end badly for him. In a moving conclusion, Furlong has the chance to right his previous wrong and Keegan leaves us poised on a knife edge—exultant that the right thing has been done but dreading what will likely be the terrible consequences of his decision. Furlong is a magnificent creation—Gabriel Conroy with self-knowledge (maybe a fanciful comparison, but the snow storm of the final pages had me thinking of snow being general over Ireland)—but one of many extraordinary things about the book is Keegan’s facility with characters. Especially fascinating, to me, was Furlong’s upbringing, being raised by a single mother, a domestic at the local Big House, whose welfare was taken in hand by the local Protestant grandee. (It tells you how much is going on in this little book that I haven’t even mentioned what Furlong learns about his paternity.) Equally brilliant is how these events are told: the prose is so careful, so infused with the rhythms of speech, so crafted without being labored or poetic. I read somewhere that Keegan revised the book forty times, and it shows—without ever being showy.

Everyone loves Small Things Like These, it was on half of the TLS contributors’ year in review lists, and I get it. It’ll be on mine too.

Paula Fox, The Coldest Winter: A Stringer in Liberated Europe (2005)

“I knew so little, and the little I did know, I didn’t understand.” That’s how Paula Fox describes her barely adult self when she sailed for Southampton in the summer of 1946. After a few weeks in bombed-out London she finagled a gig as a stringer and headed for Paris, Prague, and then, in the snows of December, to Poland. As in the novels that would make her name, the memoir is good with telling details: a woman’s clenched knuckles appearing white through the worn cloth of her apron signifies her trauma more than anything she says; a couple struggling with their wartime losses slowly press their cheeks together, the pained ritual “more intimate… than a passionate kiss would have been.” The point of the Poland trip was to observe the first post-war election, though given the Soviet-backed communist takeover, the results were a foregone conclusion. Fox is accordingly more interested in her fellow journalists, especially Helen Grassner, a Midwestern matron sent by an American Jewish organization to see what Poland was doing for its surviving Jews. Fox is fascinated by and disparaging of Grassner, a mixture mostly born of the contempt young people have for anyone they think of as old but a smidge of antisemitism is evident too. Fox reports with respectful bewilderment Grassner’s painful despair at not having lost anyone to the Holocaust (“When they have no dead, people feel it worse, somehow,” one of her colleagues notes) and records, first with dismay but eventually with respect, the woman’s affair with a younger Czech reporter.

Fox all but admits the book is slight, an addendum to her much-better known memoir Borrowed Finery, which I plan to read soon. The Coldest Winter feels like a sketch, missing the reflection that characterizes the best memoirs. Two of its most interesting moments—a memory of seeing Paul Robeson at Grand Central Station and a description of the torment she experienced as a puzzlingly fair-haired child of Spanish immigrants in a New York public school populated by Irish Catholics—are also the most retrospective, the older, experienced writer reflecting on and therefore shaping those moments. Still, an interesting glimpse into the rubble, hunger, and cold of Europe right after the war.

David A. Robertson, The Barren Grounds (2020)

Bought this book for my daughter for Hanukkah 2020, with the idea that the whole family might read it together. Which we did, for a while, but then my daughter lost interest (I think she found it a bit scary), and so it sat on the nightstand until my wife and I decided that we would finish it.

The easy summary is that this is Narnia told through Cree traditions: two indigenous kids fostered by a white couple in Winnipeg, Manitoba, find a portal to another world populated by humanoid animals who are suffering from a curse that has turned their lands into the barren grounds of the title. I enjoyed the first half or two-thirds of this middle-grade novel: the present-day framing material is poignant (no surprise that I, a well-meaning white liberal, was drawn to the kids’ struggles with their well-meaning white liberal foster parents), and the initial description of the alternate world is enticing. (Robertson is good on cold.) I also appreciated how the author matter-of-factly sprinkles Cree words and expressions throughout. But when the inevitable quest takes center stage (which, to be fair, is pretty interesting, as the villain is, as the kids realize, just a sad little ordinary white man, which doesn’t make his damage less powerful), the book takes on the mannerisms of an action movie, most gratingly the mechanical use of quips and sarcasm to punctuate the tension. In general, everything gets hasty, as if the book were rushed to meet a deadline. I’m not the intended audience, so whatever right, but I won’t be rushing to read volume two.

Charlotte Carter, Rhode Island Red (1997)

Breezy crime novel starring Nanette Hayes, “more or less a Grace Jones lookalike in terms of coloring and body type (she has the better waist, I win for tits).” Nanette plays saxophone on the streets of New York while putting her degree in French to use by translating Verlaine and dreaming of escaping to Paris. One day she takes home a fellow busker; when she wakes up he’s dead, leading her to discover that he was an undercover cop who has left 60K in her sax: predictably Nanette is caught up in some bad shit. The mystery is implausible, but the book’s worth reading for its style. Nanette on her investigation is funny—“It didn’t make sense. But on the other hand, it didn’t make no sense”—and self-aware: “This had all the elements of a film student’s low-budget homage to Godard.”

I read Rhode Island Red in a battered, smelly 90s mass market edition from the library, but I heard about it because Vintage has reissued the three Hayes novels in stylish new editions. Since the library here doesn’t have volumes two and three, I probably need to buy them, right?

K. C. Constantine, The Rocksburg Railroad Murders (1972)

Tom convinced me to give this long-running series a try—a kind of American Sjöwall & Wahlöö set in the fictional western Pennsylvanian town of Rocksburg. Chief of Police Mario Belzic, Italian-Serbian-American, is diverted from the thankless task of directing post-Friday night football traffic and desultory hooliganism to investigate the death of a man found bludgeoned to death at the local train station. (The train station! Where passenger trains regularly come and go! The victim takes the train to work at the night shift of the nearby mill! We once had a better country!) Some series take a while to hit their stride; on the basis of The Rocksburg Railroad Murders, the Belzic books arrive fully formed. The lead is great but Belzic is joined by several good minor characters: his deputies; the head of the local detachment of the State Troopers; the DA; a crime reporter; and, best of all, his wife, Ruth, his two teenage daughters, and his infirm and lovable mother. I hope Belzic’s family life will continue to feature prominently. Ruth is especially great—it’s a treat to read a crime novel about a cop whose relationships are not only not terrible but even loving. Mario and Ruth been married a long time and still have the hots for each other. At one point, Ruth is embarrassed to kiss him first thing in the morning because her breath smells. Cute!

The most surprising thing about the book, though, is how skeptical Belzic is about the police. (I mean, Nixon was President when this thing was published!) He believes cops shouldn’t carry guns:

“Nobody thinks twice about sending out a meter maid without a gun or a school crossing guard—why the hell do guys doing practically the same job—giving tickets or directing traffic—why the hell does everybody think they need a gun?”

It’s not the same, retorts his colleague.

“The hell it’s not. You’re just brainwashed, that’s all. You just can’t picture a man cop without a gun, but you see meter maids without them, and you don’t even think about it.”

The mystery itself is more psychological than suspenseful, more why than who, and that stuff felt dated, but as the quote about taking guns away from cops shows the book’s real interest is sociological. And for me, anyway, life in a small-town largely Catholic rust-belt town in the 1970s is fascinating—one of the important characters, a good friend of Belzics, is a priest, who, along with most everyone else in the book, enjoys late night card games and plenty of drinking, though it’s more convivial than desperate and includes local wine (!). Belzic himself is a fan of a late-night snack of provolone and banana peppers washed down with a beer.

His creator seems himself to be a figure of mystery—Wikipedia speculates Constantine may have been a minor-league baseball player, which would account for the matter-of-fact way the sport threads its way through the dialogue—and so maybe he is as laconic and gimlet-eyed as his protagonist. Here’s Belzic lamenting breaking a personal rule:

“It’s one I made about six, seven years ago when I made lieutenant. I told myself that whenever I don’t know what to do, I’d never make the mistake of doing something.” Advice more of us should follow.

And here he is with a bleak one-liner:

“Well, Mario, how’s it feel to be right?”

“Shitty.”

I laughed when I read this exchange; if you did too, give these books a try. K. C. Constantine revival 2022, I say!

Leigh Bardugo, Ninth House (2019)

Fantasy novel about New Haven as a nexus of magic, the secrets of which are lorded over by Yale’s Societies—and it fucking slaps. Haven’t enjoyed a book this much in ages, so grateful to the brilliant former student who told me about it. Strong Secret History / Prep vibes, but with more social criticism and a hell of a lot more ghosts. Even if you are a person who does not read fantasy, doesn’t want to hear the word “portal,” and could care less about the idea that some people see the remnants of those who’ve died, you should try this book. The world-building is so clever, the prose is impressive, and the commentary on the way privileged classes expand who gets accepted to them only to protect themselves is spot on. That utterly rare thing, in other words, a great campus novel.

Tadeusz Borowski, Here in Our Auschwitz and Other Stories Trans. Madeline G. Levine (2021)

More on this new translation of these indispensable stories in another venue before long.

Maurice Utrillo, Winter Scene

That was December—and another year. Soon I’ll drop my Year in Review piece, but not before I present similar reflections from some other readers. If you’d like to be included, just let me know. And tell me about your December reading, please!

Spindle, Scissors, Thread

I wrote this essay for a Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) ceremony organized by the Jewish Federation of Arkansas. For the past three years, a grant from Hendrix College has allowed me to train a small cohort of students as future Holocaust educators. As part of the commemorative programs, this year’s students and I read personal reflections about what we’ve learned studying and teaching the Holocaust.

Gerda Weissmann was 18 years old in 1942. That was the year when, having already suffered the German occupation of her hometown in southern Poland, she was deported to Bolkenhain, a subcamp in the Gross-Rosen concentration camp system. Bolkenhain was the site of a weaving mill; in a perverse way, Weissmann was lucky to end up there, as it was considered one of the best labour camps for women. Which didn’t mean it was easy or pleasant. Weissmann and her fellow internees were expected to run four looms at a time—”experts who had spent their lives weaving never handled more than three,” she later wrote, not without pride—and the work was grueling: the women were on their feet for hours, deafened by the noise of the machines, suffering from eye-strain that must have been exacerbated by the threat that any mistake would be punished as an act of sabotage.

Still, as Weissmann recounts in her memoir, All But My Life (1957, revised 1995) she came to enjoy the work: “the intricate process of weaving gave me a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.” These were emotions she would need to hold close when, in August 1943, she was sent to another camp, the notorious Märzdorf. After she rejected a supervisor’s demand for sex, her life became a living hell. He ensured she was put on so-called flax detail, a chain of women who unloaded enormous bundles of flax from freight trains for hours at a time until their bodies were bloody from the prickly fibers.

Weissmann considered killing herself, so profound was her misery, but before she could put her head on the rails she was transferred to yet another camp where she made silk parachutes that would be used by the soldiers fighting to destroy her, her family, and her people. That was merely a brief stop, though, on the way to her penultimate destination, yet another textile mill repurposed as a camp. In the recent past, Grünberg had been a model factory, designed for the well-being of its workers. But in its terrible new incarnation, that care had become a mocking façade: “The camp was modern, well scrubbed, clean, and filled with suffering.” Most of the suffering took place in the Spinnerei, the spinning hall, where a giant machine shredded finished material into a kind of mash that was then spun into yarn. Some of the material had been donated by German civilians; but other material had been ripped from the backs of those who arrived at Auschwitz. The spinning room was a terrible place. The women who worked there were soon as destroyed as the old clothes they repurposed. Weissmann describes them as:

Living skeletons with yellowish-gray skin drawn tight over prominent cheekbones; there were gaping holes in their mouths where teeth had either been knocked out or rotted out. These girls ran to and from huge spinning machines, repairing broken threads with nimble fingers. Their tired eyes and sallow jaws seemed to belie the swiftly running feet and dexterous fingers.

This mixture of life and death horrified Weissmann—not least because it prefigured her own fate. Before long she too was a living skeleton, though not nearly to the extent she would become when, after nine months in the Spinnerei, in the freezing cold of late January 1945, she and 4,000 other prisoners were forced by the SS away from the advancing Red Army and deeper into Germany. (You can read more about the infamous Death March to Volary here.) For more than a hundred days she and the rapidly dwindling prisoners (many froze, starved, were shot by callous, anxious guards, or succumbed to illness) marched over 300 miles, eventually ending up in a town in Czechoslovakia where they were liberated by American troops on May 5, 1945. At the time, Weissmann weighed 68 pounds. Only 120 women survived the march.

*

Gerda Weissmann was just one of the millions of victims of Nazi persecution. We know some of their stories. We know little, almost nothing about many others’. Most Holocaust stories did not end as Weissmann’s did. Most ended in the mass graves of Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia; the steadily accumulating piles of corpses in the ghettos of Eastern Europe; or the gas chambers of the extermination camps. For the past 15 years I have made it my self-appointed task to read as many of these stories as I can, and to learn as much as I can about the conditions of the lives and deaths of those whose stories must go untold. I am often asked how I can spend so much time reading, thinking, and teaching about the Holocaust. Isn’t it depressing? How can you take it? Doesn’t it make you despair for humanity?

I understand these questions. In fact, a few times a year, without fail, I feel the same way. A great weariness comes over me, repugnance, sometimes even disgust. I’ll sink into depression, overwhelmed by the enormity of the event. I’ll say to myself: no more histories or novels or memoirs, not even ones as engaging and moving as Weissmann’s.

Over the years, I’ve noticed a pattern to my depression. I’ll feel it mildly in January and strongly in June. It took me a long time to realize what should have been obvious—those are the times after and between academic semesters. That, in turn, helped me realize that I seldom feel despair about the Holocaust when I’m teaching it. On the contrary, teaching the Holocaust energizes me. It’s even, and I know it is weird to say this, affirming. How can I say that? Because in doing that work I am not so different from Gerda Weissmann—my satisfaction and accomplishment comes from an analogous work of weaving, unweaving, and weaving again: placing one story next to another, juxtaposing, comparing, adding, measuring, bringing this fact together with that, paying out these threads to my students, who are themselves individual strands whose various abilities and experiences I braid into the accomplishment that is a successful class.

*

The work Gerda Weissmnan was forced to do was always dangerous, always backbreaking, destructive of her body and her spirit, but occasionally, and certainly contrary to the intentions of the perpetrators, satisfying. Remember what she said: “the intricate process of weaving gave me a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.” That work also offers a metaphor for how we might think and teach about the Holocaust. Think about what Weissmnan did. She bound. She tied. She created. She spun yarn. She wove fabric. She brought different strands together to create something new. I’m not suggesting she should have been grateful for the work; I’m not transforming her slavery into something good. I’m suggesting that even in oppression there will be resistance, however slight or ultimately futile. And that making something new from diverse strands offers a model for such resistance, a model that we in our different time and place might emulate. “The intricate process of weaving gave me a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.” What was true for her might be true for us.

Literary people like myself love to talk about weaving. From Homer onward, with the story of Penelope’s secret resistance to her importunate suitors, weaving has offered a powerful metaphor for creation and destruction. Literature is itself woven; in fact, the words “text” and “textile” have the same root. They both refer to tissues and webs, to the activity of tying strands together in order to make something greater than the sum of the parts. You make an essay like you make a carpet. You write a memoir like you shuttle a loom. You study the past like you stitch and unstitch and re-stitch a garment. And when you are a maker, even one persecuted by a terrible master, some Pharaoh, some Nazi, you have just the tiniest bit of control over your situation.

In the Classical tradition of Greece and Rome, in fact, the person who weaves—I should note that it is almost always a woman who weaves: I don’t have time to talk about it here but the study of the Holocaust has for decades been imbalanced when it comes to gender: that’s a story for another day—the woman who weaves is the greatest maker of all, has the greatest control of all. A similar idea struck the writer W. G. Sebald, who, at the end of his remarkable book The Emigrants (1992) recalls his time in Manchester, the city he moved to in the mid 1960s in an attempt to escape the stifling amnesia of postwar Germany, where he grew up, having been born in a village in the Alps in 1944, and which he couldn’t wait to leave. Manchester, of course, was for a long time one of the greatest manufacturing centers in the world. Mostly it manufactured fabric made from cotton and flax, which was mostly brought across the Atlantic as a result of the slave labour and indentured servitude of African Americans.

There were other manufacturing centers across Europe, of course. One was the Polish city of Lodz, which the Germans renamed Litzmannstadt when they occupied it in 1939, but which in earlier decades had been known affectionately as the Polish Manchester. That infrastructure was the reason that the Lodz ghetto—one of the most crowded places in human history, where 165,00 Jews and Roma lived in 1 1/2 square miles, a dense landscape of suffering, illness, despair, and death—became home to dozens of workshops, in which Jews made among other things uniforms for the German army.

The Lodz ghetto was a terrible, terrible place, but you wouldn’t know it from the most famous pictures of it that have come down to us. These were taken by a man named Walter Genewein, a Nazi accountant, sent to Lodz as financial manager of the German ghetto administration, and a passionate amateur photographer, perhaps as much as, across Europe, in an utterly different situation, a man named Otto Frank had been. Genewein’s ghetto photographs are tinted pale blue or green, which gives them an otherworldly air, as does the absence of crowds. His photos are staged, not state-sanctioned propaganda exactly but saturated in the Nazi worldview nonetheless. In the last lines of his book, Sebald describes a single photo taken by Genewein, one of many the accountant took of the metalwork shops, basket-weaving ateliers, and nail factories that constituted the futile hope of the Jews of Lodz that their essential labour would protect them from death. The photo Sebald fixates on is of a textile workshop. Three women, probably about 20 years old, the same age as Gerda Weissmann, sit behind a loom. Here’s how Sebald describes them, in a beautiful translation by the poet Michael Hulse:

The light falls on them from the window in the background, so I cannot make out their eyes clearly, but I sense that all three of them are looking across at me, since I am standing on the very spot where Genewein the accountant stood with his camera. The young woman in the middle is blonde and has the air of a bride about her. The weaver to her left has inclined her head a little to one side, whilst the woman on the right is looking at me with so steady and relentless a gaze that I cannot meet it for long. I wonder what the three women’s names were – Roza, Luisa and Lea, or Nona, Decuma and Morta, the daughters of the night, with spindle, scissors, and thread.

Nona, Decuma, and Morta: in Latin, the Parcae, in Greek, the Moiri, in English, the Fates, who spun the thread of life, measured its length, and cut it, thereby determining the length, time, and mode of a person’s death. Women who meted out life and death. Weavers, writers, creators. Like Gerda Weissmann, the unnamed women in the photo are victims of particular circumstances, and emblems of suffering more generally. But like Weissmann they take on at least some of the power of the Fates. They are helpless, determined, accomplished. Unknown yet not forgotten. In weaving their stories together with those of others—just as in pacing my classroom like Weissmann among her looms—just as in sending the students you heard from tonight out into the world as weavers themselves—I hope in some small way to do their example justice.

What I Read, November 2020

November: as long as three regular months! Did the mood swings of the US election and the relative calm of Thanksgiving happen in one four-week stretch? The rest of the world might have been busy, but at my writing table all was at a standstill. I felt blocked, uninspired, guilty, anxious, ashamed. A late-month breakthrough—apparently this manuscript wants to be both about teaching the Holocaust and teaching writing?—made me feel a little better; here’s to more of that in December. On the reading front, though, things hummed along.

Philip Kerr, Metropolis (2019)

The last Bernie Guenther book, a prequel, is set at the end of the Weimar Republic when Bernie is first promoted to Detective. He solves a crime that gives Thea von Harbou—Fritz Lang’s sometime wife and collaborator—the plot for M. I’ll miss Bernie; he was all right.

Géraldine Schwarz, Those Who Forget: My Family’s Story in Nazi Europe—A Memoir, a History, a Warning (2017) Trans. Laura Marris (2020)

Journalist Schwarz grew up in France to a French mother and a German father. Summers were spent in Mannheim; the schoolyear in Paris. In the first part of this sort-of-memoir, she researches what her grandparents did during the war. She starts on her father’s side. In the mid 1930s, Karl Schwarz took over a petroleum company, which gave him not only his livelihood but protected his life. (He avoided being conscripted because his products were deemed essential to the war effort.) Karl’s wife Lydia, though no fanatical Nazi, was impressed by the Führer’s dedication and would later regularly mourn his absence. After the war, a letter arrived from an American lawyer representing Julius Löbmann, whose brother, Siegmund, had been forced to sell his company to Karl at a cut-rate price. Siegmund and his immediate family were later deported to Gurs, a camp in Vichy France, then later to the transit camp at Drancy, and from there, on April 15, 1944, to Auschwitz, where they were gassed on arrival.

Löbmann’s desire for reparation incensed Karl, but the fallout of the affair wasn’t just economic. Karl’s already stormy relationship with his son, Volker, Schwarz’s father, disintegrated, as Volker joined the student movements determined to call their elders to account. Seeking a “European” identity, Volker traveled to France, where he met Schwarz’s mother. Josiane grew up next to Drancy, site of the notorious transit camp from which so many, including the Löbmanns, were deported to the killing sites of the East, a fact that interested no one in her postwar childhood. As Schwarz investigates her maternal family she learns about France’s denial of its complicity in German crimes, which persisted at least into the 1980s and 90s, but really, she maintains, to this day. Schwarz argues Germany’s “memory work” has been superior to France’s: hardly contentious.

Inspired by the example of her family, Schwarz wants to understand those who after the war became known in Germany as die Mitläufer, people who went along with the regime. A worthy topic, to be sure, but instead of, for example, exploring the effort the Nazi regime put into generating such connivance and considering how that effort worked on her ancestors, Schwarz leaves us with op-ed caliber banalities:

By our opportunism, by our conformity to an all-powerful capitalism, which places money and consumption over education, intelligence, and culture, we are in danger of losing the democracy, peace, and freedom that so many of our predecessors have fought to preserve.

There’s plenty more armchair pontificating in the book—“We Europeans have come a long way”; “the most dangerous monster is a not a megalomaniacal and violent leader, but us, the people who make him possible, who give him the power to lead”—leading to a risible ending in which Schwarz makes a tour of European countries, dispatching the failure of memory work in Italy, Hungary, Britain, and Austria in a couple of pages each, often invoking as her evidence a friend’s statement or an experience she once had on vacation.

I learned a few things from this book, of course. I didn’t know, for example, that at the end of the war the French brought several hundred German scientists home with them: their work laid the foundation for the still-flourishing French aviation and weapons industries. Nor, still more fascinatingly, did I know about the prosecutor Fritz Bauer, a Jew who spent the war in exile in Denmark and Sweden after having his legal career destroyed by the Nazis, returned to Germany and, as the general prosecutor of Hesse, doggedly pursued cases against many mid-level perpetrators, leading to the Auschwitz trials in the 1960s. (I want to read a book about him.) But such moments are rare. Most of the stuff in Those Who Forget is introductory and uninspiring. Schwarz has neither the analytic chops of a historian or the panache of an essayist. Her title, referring to those who went along with atrocity, unwittingly describes her readers, who, if they are anything like me at least, will quickly forget this book and its nostrums.

Fleur Jaeggy, These Possible Lives (2015) Trans. Minna Zallman Procter (2017)

Everyone loves Jaeggy, but I’m not sure I get the fuss. I was led to this little book by Brian Dillon, but I think I prefer him on Jaeggy to Jaeggy herself. Three short essays—on De Quincy, Keats, and the French symbolist writer Marcel Schwob—emphasize unusual biographical details. Quirky and poetic, I guess, but not really my scene. I’ve forgotten almost everything about it.

Tana French, The Searcher (2020)

Still the champ.

Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend (1865)

What can I say, it’s a classic for a reason. I read it mostly with pleasure and always with interest, but not avidly or joyfully. Dickens is, in the end, not my guy. I’d rank Our Mutual Friend below Great Expectations and Bleak House in my own list (though I’ve only read 5). The story’s ambitious, maybe too ambitious, seems to have run away at the end, relying on hasty/convenient thread-tying. On further reflection, though, I feel something about the story does not want to—maybe even should not—end, because it’s a book about revenants and ghosts, about corpses that don’t stay hidden, about material (junk, trash, ordure, tidal gunk, or whatever the hell “dust” is supposed to be) that never comes to the end of its life, being neither waste nor useful, or, rather, both.

For this reason, Our Mutual Friend is best when describing in-between states: a famous example, which I’d read about years ago in an essay by the philosopher Gilles Deleuze and was delighted to finally encounter in the flesh, as it were, concerns the resuscitation of man no one likes, a river scavenger and a meddler, who has fallen overboard into the Thames in an accident. (Book III, Chapter 3.) A group of bystanders work diligently to restore the rogue to life: their attention is fixated on the unconscious man’s body, so much so that in addition to their CPR it’s as if the men were willing him to life. (The man’s daughter watches “with terrified interest”—the phrase describes the onlookers too.) When the man splutters to, when the “spark of life” rekindles, they are relieved, even briefly exultant. But then they return to disparaging him, and drift away. A brilliant, vivid scene–and a useful comment on the title. Just how much mutuality is there in this book?

I spoke above of in-between states. This concerns the novel’s form as much as its content. I liked best those bits where the novel threatens to become full-on Gothic. (Wilkie Collins’s influence? Or was their friendship over by then?) Any scene with Bradley Headstone (that name!) counts—that guy could be out of a novel from Hamsun or Dostoyevsky—but especially the one where he tries to kill Lightwood. Yowza!

Assorted other thoughts:

Appreciate the attempt to rehabilitate the Jews, Charles, but Riah did not do it for me. (Tip: next time, avoid having your Jewish character regularly cite the New Testament.)

Sloppy, on the other hand! Sometimes it is easier to thrash the mangle than to say what’s in your heart. What a dear.

Boffin, you had me worried there!

The Lammles, oof hard core, reminded me of bits of Collins’s No Name.

Pa and Bella—cute, but also creepy.

Mr. Venus, terrific, that first scene with him and Wegg is 10/10 Dickens. Must be a connection, though not sure how, between his taxidermy and Jenny Wren’s dolls. (Maybe also Sloppy’s newspaper-reading?) Model making, alternative modes of reproducing the world, etc.

Not the first person to say it, sorry for the banality, but sucks that Dickens didn’t write better women characters. Has anyone tried to argue against this? I’d like to see how—I guess Mrs. Lammle is the most interesting here—because this inability really stops me from liking him more.

Thanks to Alok Ranjan for prompting me to read this. Totally don’t regret it.

Inge Deutschkron, Outcast: A Jewish Girl in Wartime Berlin (1978) Trans. Jean Steinberg (1989)

Very good.

Ian Rankin, A Song for the Dark Times (2020)

Not good. Read the print version and wondered whether I’d enjoyed the previous Rebus novels more because of the audiobook narrator than because of the text. The narrator brings out a curt elegance in the writing that seems inert or clumsy on the page. Feels like a series at risk of losing its way.

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future (2020)

At the beginning of Robinson latest novel, a terrible heatwave blankets India. Wet bulb temperatures reach 35 C; at this point, the body can no longer regulate its temperature by sweating and basically boils. Twenty million people die. Frank May, a young American aid worker, is almost one of them. Like everyone else in town, he seeks refuge in a nearby lake; many are burned alive even in the water, but rescue workers find Frank still alive, but barely conscious. He returns to health, but never returns to America, partly because he’s furious at his home country’s response to climate change, and partly because he gets panic attacks anywhere it’s warm. Eventually he settles in Zürich, which brings him into contact with the novel’s real hero, Mary Murphy, the Irish-born head of a UN subsidiary organization developed at the Paris climate talks, The Ministry for the Future.

Mary is a fitting hero for Robinson’s novel—capable, no-nonsense, politically savvy, but without extraordinary powers, charisma, or superhuman intelligence. She is instead a damn good bureaucrat. She knows experts need to be listened to without being allowed to run the show. Someone needs to intercede between them and politicians and power-brokers, especially the most powerful people on the planet, the unelected heads of the world’s central banks. Mary also knows that big problems are solved by plugging away at lots of small solutions. And the problem her ministry has been tasked with is the biggest one of all: lowering the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Starting from basically our own present (I think the first events are in 2025, though I’m not sure—it’s a big novel, I might well have missed something) and extending for thirty years or so, The Ministry for the Future imagines how this seemingly unimaginable task could be accomplished. The solution is to think 100 years out—the whole seven generations thing—but such thinking must be incentivized, both by carrot and stick. Mary presides over a team with various departments (legal, computing/AI, agriculture, etc.), all of which are needed to solve the problem, even though economics is first among equals: Mary’s world-saving legacy is to finally convince those central bankers to create a new currency, the Carboni, that has its eye on the long term (it pays out in hundred-year installments) and can only be earned by carbon sequestration, whether by leaving fossil fuels on the ground (as Saudi Arabia is eventually forced to do), or by offsetting emissions (planting trees, rethinking agriculture, etc.). Carbon quantitative easing, she calls it.

The bankers only get there, though, after many other changes have been made. India, furious at the mass death brought on by the heatwave, organizes a “double Pinatubo”—it fires enough sulfur dioxide into the air to equal two times the amount released by the volcanic explosion of Mount Pinatubo in the early 1990s, which lowered the world’s temperature by about a degree for a couple of years. India leaves the Paris Accords to do so, and begins detaching from the rest of the world, tired of providing its service workers. Various radical political movements—including the decisive rejection of the BJP, who presided over the wet bulb fiasco—and progressive social movements, especially in the realms of agriculture, make India a world leader.

These changes are spurred by terrorist acts (some of which may be orchestrated or even perpetrated by a rogue element within the Ministry of the Future; Mary doesn’t want to know, though she silently acknowledges that terrorism will be central to changing hearts and minds). The Children of Kali, for example, inject bioengineered parasites into the world’s beef supply and shoot down most of its commercial air traffic in a single day through massive coordinated drone attacks, which kill the meat and airline industries, respectively.

There’s also geoengineering (even though the scientists in the book scoff at it), notably, pumping out water from underneath the great Antarctic glaciers and ice shelves to slow their movement. It costs a fortune, but when looked at in terms of the survival of civilization, it’s cheap (and it works). The glaciologists and Antarctica heads want to help, but mostly they are just psyched that someone is paying them to work and play in the part of the world they’ve become addicted to. (Robinson plays a double game here—at once admiring scientists’ cynicism about their bureaucratic masters and critiquing their claims to disinterestedness.)

While all this is going on, the novel’s more personal plot grinds on, too. Frank and Mary meet up in Zürich, under circumstances I won’t get into, and a lifelong pas de deux ensues. Robinson doesn’t stint their relationship—it’s not romantic, it’s more interesting than that—but in the end he cares about other stuff more. Like setting. Zürich in particular and Switzerland in general serves as more than its typical role as an anonymous backdrop for espionage or banking. One way to read The Ministry for the Future is as a hymn to this little country’s biggest city, which might seem ridiculous—who cares about Zürich, for God’s sake—but it’s precisely Zürich’s dull practicality, its unshowy livable-ness, that the novel values. Robinson clearly knows Switzerland. He includes some exciting set pieces in the mountains (one of them invoking Frankenstein, natch), as well as lovely evocations of lake swimming and Zürich’s Fastnacht (carnival), but what he really loves is the Swiss insistence that when the world is secure, Switzerland is secure. If we help others, we help ourselves. That’s the kind of thinking we all need.

I could go on, but my basic point is: I loved this book. It’s a page-turner about extremely undramatic but highly consequential decisions. It’s also only sort of a novel: yes, it has central characters, but it also considers other beings, only some of which are human (short chapters are narrated from the POV of caribou, the sun, carbon atoms: not especially convincing, but the idea is good). It’s really an essay-novel hybrid, desperate to cram into its pages as many possible solutions to a lower carbon world as possible, like the 2000-Watt club (if you divided all the people in the world by the amount of energy we consume, you’d get 2000 watts per person per year—or 48 kilowatt-hours per day—which the club’s members demonstrate is really quite achievable and doesn’t require that many changes, at least in many parts of the world). Reducing inequality, learning to share, valuing security as a good that arises when everyone has enough—these goals will be needed to help us survive. Rewilding, the 50% project (grouping people into half the world’s territory), worker cooperatives based on the Mondragón model pioneered by the Basques, new technologies, new legal realities (in which nonhumans have rights), new economies—all are ways in which we can work to solving the climate crisis.

What’s amazing is that Robinson shows how it could happen. He is optimistic but not naïve. He heaps special scorn on economists, which I found satisfying, and points out that it’s when the shit hits the fan—like when water stops coming out of the taps—that’s when you need society. Neoliberalism has always been full of shit. The Ministry for the Future is at times an alarming book—I won’t soon forget that grim opening scene—but more often it’s a rousing one. It offers what we collectively need: “An earthquake in the head.” Since reading it I’ve felt more hopeful than I have in ages, and I’d love for it to get many, many readers.

Lissa Evans, V for Victory (2020)

The trilogy that started with Crooked Heart and continued through the marvelous Old Baggage comes to a satisfying close. Noel Sedgewick, the character who connects the books, now 15, struggles with his identity. To whom does he belong—the parents he never knew, or the women who raised him, in such different but mutually compatible ways? Evans takes tropes from WWII British literature—the female warden both hardened but given purpose by war—and ruffles them a little, making them fresh—the warden’s clueless socialite sister, who has written a surprise bestseller based on lurid fantasy, becomes her defender. Ne’er-do-wells prove at the last minute to have surprising self-knowledge or unexpected reasons for their actions. And as always Evans is drawn to the ridiculous aspects of life: a reporter, suddenly pressganged into running the tombola at a church fair with strict instructions to keep back some of the best prizes to the end lest people stop buying tickets, thinks of “the article he could squeeze from this (‘Fraud Allegation Shatters Methodist Merriment’).” The novel’s final vision, of a London just after VE day, when, for a brief moment at least, no one is waiting for anything, neither falling bombs nor barked orders, is beautiful in its swooping energy: the moment feels fully earned. Probably Evans has set these characters aside, but they’re so lovable, we can always hope for more. And if not, dayeinu, it would be enough.

Mark Roseman, A Past in Hiding: Memory and Survival in Nazi Germany (2000)

From 1989 – 1996, Mark Roseman spent much of his time in an “intimate, respectful, wary, guilty clinch” with Marianne Ellenbogen née Strauss, who, as a young woman in 1943, had slipped out of her family’s home as it was being searched by the Gestapo. Her parents, her younger brother, her uncle and his wife and her mother—among the last Jews left in the city of Essen at that time—were deported, first to Theresienstadt and later to Auschwitz. Marianne, the only person in her immediate family to survive, spent the rest of the war passing as Aryan, dodging both officials who would have seen through her flimsy false ID and the increasingly devastating Allied bombing raids. She was aided in this feat by members of a little-known organization called the Bund, whose members resisted what the Nazis had made of their beloved Germany.

I recently wrote about Lives Reclaimed, Roseman’s most recent book, which complements this, his first, by telling the story of the Bund. (Tl; dnr: brilliant.) The books overlap, of course, but I was surprised how little Roseman repeats himself. A Past in Hiding (note the subtle difference between this title and the more commonplace A Life in Hiding) provides background on the Bund and introduces some of its main players, but it’s only incidentally about that. Indeed, inasmuch as Marianne was convinced to work with Roseman only because she wanted the world to know about the Bund’s achievements, which extended beyond saving her life, then it’s really Lives Reclaimed that fulfills her desire.

Here Roseman concentrates on Marianne. And why not? Her story is amazing, and she herself is extraordinary. He freely admits that Marianne would have hated the result. She wouldn’t have wanted him to spend the years after her death in December 1996 interviewing with surviving friends, acquaintances, relatives, and lovers, and combing through her exhaustive archive of written documents. But she might have been surprised—not in a good way, maybe, but in an interested way, doubtless—by Roseman’s conclusion. Her own story, as told to Roseman in lengthy interviews, doesn’t quite align with the story told by these external sources, not because Marianne lied or even because memory is fallible, but because the life we life and the life we remember aren’t the same.

Specifically, in Marianne’s case, the guilt she felt about surviving distorted her memory in particular ways: she accentuated the suffering of her loved ones (claiming that her father was imprisoned in a concentration camp for six weeks after Kristallnacht when it was three, or that the love of her life, deported a year before she went into hiding, was blinded in a medical experiment rather than in an accident); she minimized her own suffering; and she dramatized the most traumatic moments of her life (claiming she accompanied her boyfriend to the station the day he was deported when in fact she said goodbye to him the evening before, or telling Roseman that she learned on her birthday, via a BBC broadcast, that her parents’ transport has been gassed, when in fact that terrible knowledge came to her some weeks later).

(How the fate of that particular transport came to be broadcast on the BBC—and how by amazing coincidence Marianne happened to be clandestinely listening to it—is a story in itself, having to do with the Czechoslovakian resistance within Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Nazis’ creation of the so-called “family camp” at Birkenau, where for six months in late 1943/early 44 families who had been at Theresienstadt were allowed to stay together, with their hair and clothes, and given better rations. The Nazis were worried that the Danish Red Cross, who had “inspected” Theresienstadt, would do the same at Auschwitz, and wanted these prisoners in case a “show camp” was going to be necessary: in the end it was not, and almost all of the prisoners in the family camp were gassed.)

In finding discrepancies in Marianne’s story, Roseman isn’t arraigning her or asking us to doubt her. He’s using painstaking research to prove that the stories we tell ourselves in order to live aren’t quite the stories we lived. Instead, we interpret the past through concepts developed only in hindsight. For example, Roseman thought of Marianne as a Jewish victim of the Holocaust, a position she herself espoused late in life, but at the time she thought of herself as a German victim of the war. He is aided in this revelation by some remarkable documents: a diary Marianne kept while on the run in 1944, and the correspondence between Marianne and her boyfriend from the time her was deported in April 1942 (to a camp-ghetto in Lublin province called Izbica) until his ominous silence that fall. Reading these documents Roseman notes differences between what Marianne said at the time and what she said later—even as he acknowledges that the primary documents themselves must be understood not as a record of unmediated truth but as traces of a fluid experience, in which Marianne was trying out ideas, changing her mindset, and struggling with the identity crisis brought on not only by being made into a Jew by the Nazis (true for so many victims) but in juggling different identities while on the run.

A Past in Hiding is thus both theoretical and particular. It both analyzes what it means to interpret the past and offers a portrait of an extraordinary person—capable, clever, charismatic—who was both amazingly fortunate and terribly unhappy. Highly recommended.

Clare Chambers, Small Pleasures (2020)

Satisfying novel that makes much of a preposterous scenario. In 1950s suburban England, The North Kent Echo receives a letter to the editor replying to an article about parthenogenesis. The writer admits she knows nothing about science, but she does know that her daughter was born without the involvement of a man. On a lark, the paper sends, Jean Swinney, its only female journalist, to interview the woman, Gretchen Tilbury. No one expects anything of the Virgin Birth lady, but Jean is captivated by Gretchen, amazed at the daughter (Margaret, ten, looks exactly like her mother), and is unable to find anything in her initial reporting to dispute the outlandish claim. Before long scientists get involved and Jean is on to a big story. But the novel veers into more interesting territory, becoming the tale of how Jean, lonely and tired of being saddled with her claustrophobic mother, is drawn into the Tilburys’ orbit, especially by kind Howard, the husband who came along when Gretchen was already pregnant. In this regard, Small Pleasures is a bit like Brookner’s Look at Me—retiring young woman drawn out of herself by another couple, to the dismay of everyone else in her life—except everyone is much nicer. You might say, well, then that’s no Brookner novel at all, to which I can only say, fair enough. Chambers’s is a more muted work, and not as brilliant. But I found it absolutely engaging, and was surprised at the directions it took, especially at the end. (Devastating!) A thoughtful novel about the ambivalent consequences of taking your pleasures, however small, wherever you can find them. Nina Stibbe put it on her best of 2020 list; if you won’t take my word for it, take hers.

Tessa Hadley, The Past (2016)

Reading Hadley’s backlist—only two more to go now—has been one of the year’s pleasures. Here, three sisters and a brother spend one last holiday at their grandparents’ former home, an increasingly dilapidated place in the English countryside. There’s some pretty serious drama—Hadley has a Gothic side she mostly but happily never quite fully keeps under wraps—but the manner of telling makes big events seem ordinary—which only amplifies the weight of the revelations on offer. (I was led to think about the difference between her mode of approach and, say, the early Ian McEwan; he’s so much more histrionic.) What is it like, Hadley asks, to spend a life with someone? And what is it like to spend one without the person we wanted? (She’s good at making us experience the passing of time.) As usual, Hadley is a master of roving omniscience, teasing us with free indirect discourse, so that we wonder how much of what we learn about the characters they themselves know. Consider this description of a nine-year-old discovering an abandoned cottage:

Ivy wasn’t brave, she was a coward when it came to sports or party games, the kind where you ran in a team and had to burst a balloon by sitting on it. But she also had a greedy curiosity which was like a hunger; she wanted to get clear, all by herself and without the shame of other people knowing she was doing it, the truth of what could happen.

So much psychological acuity in such a short space! And so much ambivalence. Are we to admire Ivy? That “greedy curiosity” feels so double-edged. “The truth of what could happen”—not just the world as it is, but the world as it might, secretly, desperately, be.

In a passage that seems more heartfelt, I appreciated this description of a couple’s reading habits:

Sophy and Graham devoured their books: reading was a freedom torn out of the day’s regulated fabric. Without ever having spoken of it, each knew that the other approved their habit of having the face of their alarm clock, set for seven, turned away from them, so that they couldn’t know how much time passed while they sat up awake and turning pages, couldn’t know how rash they were or how much they would pay for it next day.

But don’t be fooled. Hadley is no nice chronicler of middle-class moeurs (though, yeah, that too). Even the most bourgeois habit of all, reading, is offered in terms of rashness. Everyone pays for everything.

Daniel Mendelsohn, Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate (2020)

When I think about the book I’m trying to write I keep coming back to Mendelsohn, not because he wrote maybe the best book about uncovering a family’s Holocaust history (I have no such history) but because he is so good at structuring nonfiction narratives. Indeed, structure is the subject matter of this little book, originally given as lectures at his alma mater, the University of Virginia. Mendelsohn begins with the acedia that overcame him after finishing The Lost (the Holocaust book) and his subsequent struggle to improve the manuscript of his next book, An Odyssey (about the time when his father, near the end of his life, enrolled in Mendelsohn’s Homer class), beyond his editor’s initial verdict: interesting in parts yet fundamentally dull. The solution, he eventually realized, lay in the source material itself, specifically in Homer’s use of “ring structure.”

The classic example of nested narration of this sort is the moment when Odysseus, returned to Ithaca but disguised, is found out by Eurycleia, his childhood nursemaid, who, in the process of washing the feet of a man she believes to be a traveling beggar, recognizes the hero because of a distinctive scar. Homer flashes back in time to tell us the story of how Odysseus got the scar (in a boar hunt), first explaining how he had been on the hunt in the first place, necessitating yet another digression about the man hosting the hunt, Odysseus’s grandfather, who had been enjoined by this very same Eurycleia to name the child; thus, after beginning with a seemingly insignificant moment Homer offers the in fact consequential history of the hero’s very identity, before looping back to the present moment, the scene of the foot washing. Recognition, Homer teaches, implies a toggling between past and present. (In this sense, his most skillful disciple was Proust.) Narratives similarly shuttle between the essential and the inessential, eventually compromising, even undoing that distinction: “In ring composition, the narrative appears the meander away into a digression… although the digression, the ostensible straying, turns out in the end to be a circle, since the narration will return to the precise point in the action from which it had strayed.”

The reason I called this scene the classic instance of anagnorisis—a moment of revelatory (self) recognition—is not because Homer is the “founder of Western literature” but because it was presented as such in a book of literary criticism written by a German Jewish refugee in Istanbul during WWII, famously without the benefit of the comprehensive library he had been used to having at his disposal. The man was Erich Auerbach; the book was Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Its most famous chapter is the first, “Odysseus’s Scar,” in which Auerbach juxtaposes the Greek mode of telling to the Hebrew: the former offers transparency and clarity (the ring structure allows Homer to give us the backstory of the scar); the latter offers obscurity and uncertainty, privileging unknown—perhaps unknowable—psychological motivation. (The example Auerbach chooses is the Akedah—G-d’s (batshit-insane) demand that Abraham sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac.) The difference, Mendelsohn says, summarizing Auerbach, is between a story that leaves nothing out and a story that leaves almost everything out. And the philosophical debate underpinning this distinction is whether reality is knowable. And the stakes of that question concern nothing less than interpretation itself. What is it for? Are we constrained to its endless approximations?

In thinking about the oscillation between these two beliefs—reality is transparent; reality is obscure: events can be represented; events will always exceed being represented—Mendelsohn is led to think about an at-one-time influential 17th-century text, an early novel by a French archbishop named François Fénelon. The Adventures of Telemachus, a sequel to the Odyssey, made its author famous, but the book’s too-overt criticism of Louis XIV led its author to be banished to northern France. The book’s influence lived on, though, delighting readers across Europe and, later, America, including Thomas Jefferson, who would found the University of Virginia where Mendelsohn would centuries later begin his study of the classics.

Three Rings is a book about “that deep connectedness among things which, for the optimist at least, is detectable in history as well as literature.” Thus, Mendelsohn moves from discussing Proust’s work—his use of ring composition to create oppositions (bourgeois vs aristocrat, hetero vs. homo, Swann vs. Guermantes) that eventually undo themselves—to considering his life, specifically the revelation that the model for the character of Saint Loup in Proust’s epic work was a diplomat named Bertrand, posted, to Proust’s unrequited frustration, to Constantinople, whose ancestor happened to be none other than François Fénelon, the former archbishop of Combrai—a name Proust adapted as the town where his alter-ego spent his formative childhood summers.

How are we to understand such connections? Mendelsohn ends by reflecting on the work of W. G. Sebald, that great writer of inconclusive digressions. Mendelsohn considers some of Sebald’s monomaniacal solitaries—not least the figure of Sebald himself who, in The Rings of Saturn, wanders through abandoned landscapes picking up intimations of former grandeur—as in his encounter with a man obsessed by making a model of the Temple in Jerusalem, a lost, enigmatic structure: the more the model maker learns of it the less he understands; the same is true of Sebald in relation to the model maker. Mendelsohn is reminded of his own childhood obsession with model making, one he abandoned but later transformed into his writing practice, through which he has learned to make the most of insoluble dilemmas. Pondering Sebald’s melancholy digressions—in which every possible link seems to fall to pieces, and destruction is the fate of all creativity—Mendelsohn turns that failure into success, as in his final section where he considers the most influential book in the 19th-century Ottoman Empire, a translation of Fénelon’s sequel to the Odyssey by Yûsuf Kâmil Pasha, the Empire’s Grand Vizier, one of many examples in this short book of how “Western” literature would never have existed had it not been “returned” from the East. In the end, perhaps the greatest digression of all is that the “foundational” texts some like to laud as essential to the “western mind” required saving by its too-often maligned “other.” Made rich by the success of his translation, Kâmil Pasha gave part of his wealth to the university in Istanbul—in this way, imitating however unknowingly Jefferson’s gesture—a center of learning that decades later, in the middle of the 20th century, would welcome scholars fleeing yet another auto-da-fe in the heart of so-called civilization, among them a German Jewish literary scholar named Erich Auerbach.

Three Rings is brilliant essayistic narrative, which satisfies and surprises in its series of historical connections; it is also brilliant interpretation, as it shows every story of destruction to be one of creation, every moment of obscurity one of clarity, every Jewish moment to be Greek—provided, of course, we realize that Greek ways of storytelling always also need Jewish ways of storytelling. It is only through interpretation that we can imagine a literature that wouldn’t require it.

Three Rings didn’t solve my problem of how to structure my book, but it did remind me—exhilaratingly, dismayingly, vertiginously—of the accomplishment I can only hope to imitate.

Alison Lurie, Foreign Affairs (1984)

Read this just a few days before learning of Lurie’s death. Judging from Twitter reaction, her work is loved by many, this book especially. Must say, alas, I was not seduced. You know how for a long time everything associated with the 70s was reviled but is now cool as hell? Maybe we’ll get there for the 80s eventually but now it just feels dated. In her story about two American academics on sabbatical in London—they work at a not even thinly disguised version of Cornell, where Lurie taught for a long time; come to think of it, someone once pointed her out to me in Olin library, though I think she was emerita even then—Lurie quotes Eliot and riffs on Austen, not to mention children’s literature and John Gay (the subject of their respective projects) but I’m not sure why. What is the relation of this book to the English literary tradition?

One protagonist starts by hating England, swings to reveling in it (as he enters into a dalliance with a well-known actor), and finishes with a clear-eyed recognition that he doesn’t belong there. The other is Anglophilic to the extreme, convinced of the place’s superiority, but learns a chastening lesson when she falls in love with a countryman, a loud American businessman. Is Lurie arguing a version of Wilde’s line about America and England having everything in common but the language? Telling us that people belong where they come from? Or that you can only know what home means when you’ve left it? None of these suggestions are inspiring, but I’m out of ideas. Lurie lovers, help!

I admired Lurie’s willingness to make her female lead plain, crotchety, supercilious, and matter-of-fact in her sexual desires. She gets a comeuppance that doesn’t require her to change herself. (The story of the male lead is a lot less interesting.) But it’s not an especially kind book, and its meanness isn’t used to any particular purpose (it feels generalized and diffuse, not pointed or critical). And the portrayal of the American businessman—a lumpen aw shucks gee willikers giant from Oklahoma, much the nicest person in the book—is grating. Maybe from the novel’s preferred mid-Atlantic viewpoint, nothing could be more risible than being from Tulsa, but when it’s, say, four hours’ drive from where you live it’s just a town, no better or worse than anywhere else. I’m willing to give Lurie another chance, but she’s on a tight leash.

William Maxwell, They Came Like Swallows (1937)

Despite an intense Maxwell phase in my mid-twenties—I was as weird and twee then as now—I somehow missed this one. Maybe my unconscious knew to wait, certain it would resonate so much more strongly during a pandemic than in the glib 90s. They Came Like Swallows is set in the fall of 1918. The armistice might be signed in Europe, but in small-town Illinois what matters is the influenza outbreak, which in a few short weeks will utterly transform the Morrison family. Just as devastating illness plays with our sense of time, the novella’s structure shapes our understanding of events. Each of its three sections focuses on a different character: eight-year-old Bunny, sensitive, in love with his mother and in dread, in different ways, of his father and older brother; the brother, Robert, who suddenly appears to us in a quite different light, diffident at best to Bunny, yes, (I mean, the kid’s five years younger, how can you take him seriously?), but sympathetic for his drive to ignore his disability and his being so prey to feelings of responsibility he cannot be expected to take on; their father, James Morrison, distant, yes, and when uncertain inclined to turn to conventionality instead of kindness, but baffled and buffeted by terrible events. I thought it a missed opportunity that Maxwell never foregrounded any of the female characters—they are many: Elizabeth Morrison, the woman these men revolve around, but also her sisters and sister-in-law; and they are much the most interesting figures in the book—but then I realized it had to be that way. The book is about its absent center, about the uses men put women to, about their consequential bafflement toward women. That it makes its men as sympathetic as it does, and the women as vital as they are is the book’s art. The title, from Yeats’s “Coole Park, 1929,” is perfect:

They came like swallows and like swallows went,
And yet a woman’s powerful character
Could keep a swallow to its first intent;
And half a dozen in formation there,
That seemed to whirl upon a compass-point,
Found certainty upon the dreaming air

There’s more dreaming than certainty in the book—impressive how Maxwell doesn’t just depict illness but, more ambitiously, suffuses every page with the estranging, eye-opening quality illness sometimes offers—and we’re never allowed to forget that the woman’s powerful character, as Yeats has it, is a function of male fantasy. But both poem and novel are elegies, fascinated with the paradoxes of loss, how survivors have the power to recall the dead, but only because the dead have given them the power of recall.

Amazing how wise and good this is for a young man’s book (Maxwell was only 29 when it was published). Obviously time to read his novels again, and to tackle his stories.

Big month! More hits than misses! Death of American democracy staved off for at least two years! Dickens, Robinson, Hadley, Maxwell—all winners. Deutschkron, Roseman, Mendelsohn—inspiring! I hope you found even half as much to enjoy in your reading month. Leave a comment with your favourite.