The inaugural Folio Prize winner is Tenth of December, by George Saunders.
I just posted a few brief thoughts on this last week when the book picked up The Story Prize (see that post here).
But this does just reconfirm that I need to put aside my old grievances and give the remaining stories in the collection their due.
And, incidentally, Paul commented on my old thread and mentioned how nice Saunders seems and how great his readings are. Every time I see an interview with him or have an opportunity to hear him read one of his stories, I tune in. He is fantastic to listen to, genuinely kind and interesting. Congrats! I wonder if we’ll be hearing his name a few more times this season . . . the Pulitzer comes our way next month.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. T. Coraghessan Boyle’s “The Relive Box” was originally published in the March 17, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
Click for a larger image.
New fiction up! We’ll have our thoughts here shortly. In the meantime, feel free to comment below.
Today (a day early) the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist was announced. I love this time of year! Below is the list, which includes the UK covers and blurbs from the UK publishers, this being a UK publication prize.
I’ve read three of the fifteen titles (thought two of the three were excellent) and, where applicable, have included links to my reviews.
A Man in Love (published as My Struggle: Vol. 2 in the United States), by Karl Ove Knausgaard; tr. from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett.
This is a book about leaving your wife and everything you know.
It is about fresh starts, about love, about friendship. It is also about the earth-shattering experience of becoming a father, the mundane struggles of family life, ridiculously unsuccessful holidays, humiliating antenatal music classes, fights with quarrelsome neighbours, the emotional strains of childrens’ birthday parties and pushing a pram around Stockholm when all you really want to do is write.
This is a book about one man’s life but, somehow, about everyone else’s too.
A Man in Love, the second book of six in the My Struggle cycle, sees Knausgaard write of tempestuous relationships, the trials of parenthood and an urge to create great art. His singular insight and exhilarating honesty must be read to be believed.
[my review forthcoming]
[Review from The Complete Review]
[Review from Winstonsdad's Blog]
[Review from Tony's Reading List]
[Review from Messengers Booker]
A Meal in Winter, by Hubert Mingarelli; tr. from the French by Sam Taylor.
One morning, in the dead of winter, three German soldiers are dispatched into the frozen Polish countryside. They have been charged by their commanders to track down and bring back for execution ‘one of them’ – a Jew. Having flushed out the young man hiding in the woods, they decide to rest in an abandoned house before continuing their journey back to the camp. As they prepare food, they are joined by a passing Pole whose outspoken anti-Semitism adds tension to an already charged atmosphere. Before long, the group’s sympathies have splintered as they consider the moral implications of their murderous mission and confront their own consciences to ask themselves: should the Jew be offered food? And, having shared their meal, should he be taken back, or set free?
[Review from Winstonsdad's Blog]
Back to Back, by Julia Franck; tr. from the German by Anthea Bell.
Käthe is a Jewish sculptor living in East Berlin. A survivor of the Nazi era, she is a fervent socialist who has been using her political connections to secure more significant commissions. Devoted entirely to success, she is a cruel and abrasive mother to her children. Käthe barely acknowledges Ella’s vulnerable loneliness and Thomas’s quiet aspirations, and her hard-nosed brutality forces her children to build an imaginary world as a shelter from the coldness that surrounds them. But the siblings find themselves enclosed by the Berlin Wall, and unable to pursue their dreams.
Heartbreaking and shocking, Back to Back is a dark fairytale of East Germany – a moving personal story of love, betrayal and disillusionment within a single family that reflects the greater tragedy of the world around them.
[Review from Lizzy's Literary Life]
Brief Loves that Live Forever, by Andreï Makine; tr. form the French by Geoffrey Strachan.
In Soviet Russia the desire for freedom is also a desire for the freedom to love. Lovers live as outlaws, traitors to the collective spirit, and love is more intense when it feels like an act of resistance.
Now entering middle age, an orphan recalls the fleeting moments that have never left him – a scorching day in a blossoming orchard with a woman who loves another; a furtive, desperate affair in a Black Sea resort; the bunch of snowdrops a crippled childhood friend gave him to give to his lover.
As the dreary Brezhnev era gives way to Perestroika and the fall of Communism, the orphan uncovers the truth behind the life of Dmitri Ress, whose tragic fate embodies the unbreakable bond between love and freedom.
[Review from Winstonsdad's Blog]
[Review from Tony's Reading List]
Butterflies in November, by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir; tr. from the Icelandic by Brian FitzGibbon.
After a day of being dumped – twice – and accidentally killing a goose, the narrator begins to dream of tropical holidays far away from the chaos of her current life. Instead, she finds her plans wrecked by her best friend’s deaf-mute son, thrust into her reluctant care. But when a shared lottery ticket nets the two of them over 40 million kroner, she and the boy head off on a road trip across Iceland, taking in cucumber-farming hotels, dead sheep, and any number of her exes desperate for another chance.
Blackly comic and uniquely moving, Butterflies in November is an extraordinary, hilarious tale of motherhood, relationships and the legacy of life’s mistakes.
[Review from The Writes of Woman]
The Corpse Washer, by Sinan Antoon; tr. from the Arabic by the author.
Young Jawad, born to a traditional Shi’ite family of corpse washers and shrouders in Baghdad, decides to abandon the family tradition, choosing instead to become a sculptor, to celebrate life rather than tend to death. He enters Baghdad’s Academy of Fine Arts in the late 1980s, in defiance of his father’s wishes and determined to forge his own path. But the circumstances of history dictate otherwise. Saddam Hussein’s bellicose dictatorship reaps war, economic disruption, occupation, and sectarian violence, one following another in dreadful succession. Corpses pile up, and Jawad returns to the inevitable washing and shrouding. Trained as an artist to shape materials to represent life aesthetically, he now must contemplate how death shapes daily life and the bodies of Baghdad’s inhabitants. Through the struggles of a single desperate family, Sinan Antoon’s novel shows us the heart of Iraq’s complex and violent recent history. Descending into the underworld where the borders between life and death are blurred and where there is no refuge from unending nightmares, Antoon limns a world of great sorrows, a world where the winds wail.
[Review from The Complete Review]
The Dark Road, by Ma Jian; tr. from the Chinese by Flora Drew.
Meili, a young peasant woman born in the remote heart of China, is married to Kongzi, a village school teacher, and a distant descendant of Confucius. They have a daughter, but desperate for a son to carry on his illustrious family line, Kongzi gets Meili pregnant again without waiting for official permission. When family planning officers storm the village to arrest violators of the population control policy, mother, father and daughter escape to the Yangtze River and begin a fugitive life.
For years they drift south through the poisoned waterways and ruined landscapes of China, picking up work as they go along, scavenging for necessities and flying from police detection. As Meili’s body continues to be invaded by her husband and assaulted by the state, she fights to regain control of her fate and that of her unborn child.
Exposure, by Sayed Kashua; tr. from the Hebrew by Mitch Ginsberg.
In Jerusalem, two Arabs are on the hunt for the same identity. The first is a wealthy lawyer with a thriving practice, a large house, a Mercedes and a beautiful family. With a sophisticated image to uphold, he decides one evening to buy a second-hand Tolstoy novel recommended by his wife – but inside it he finds a love letter, in Arabic, undeniably in her handwriting. Consumed with jealous rage, the lawyer vows to take his revenge on the book’s previous owner.
Elsewhere in the city, a young social worker is struggling to make ends meet. In desperation he takes an unenviable job as the night-time carer of a comatose young Jew. Over the long, dark nights that follow, he pieces together the story of his enigmatic patient, and finds that the barriers that ought to separate their lives are more permeable than he could ever have imagined.
As they venture further into deception, dredging up secrets and ghosts both real and imagined, the lawyer and the carer uncover the dangerous complexities of identity – as their lies bring them ever closer together.
[Review from Follow the Thread]
[Review from Word by Word]
The Infatuations, by Javier Marías; tr. from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa.
Every day, Maria Dolz stops for breakfast at the same café. And every day she enjoys watching a handsome couple who follow the same routine. Then one day they aren’t there, and she feels obscurely bereft.
It is only later, when she comes across a newspaper photograph of the man, lying stabbed in the street, his shirt half off, that she discovers who the couple are. Some time afterwards, when the woman returns to the café with her children, who are then collected by a different man, and Maria approaches her to offer her condolences, an entanglement begins which sheds new light on this apparently random, pointless death.
With The Infatuations, Javier Marías brilliantly reimagines the murder novel as a metaphysical enquiry, addressing existential questions of life, death, love and morality.
[Review from The Complete Review]
[Review from Winstonsdad's Blog]
[Review from Tony's Reading List]
The Iraqi Christ, by Hassan Blasim; tr. from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright.
From legends of the desert to horrors of the forest, Blasim’s stories blend the fantastic with the everyday, the surreal with the all-too-real. Taking his cues from Kafka, his prose shines a dazzling light into the dark absurdities of Iraq s recent past and the torments of its countless refugees. The subject of this, his second collection, is primarily trauma and the curious strategies human beings adopt to process it (including, of course, fiction). The result is a masterclass in metaphor a new kind of story-telling, forged in the crucible of war, and just as shocking.
[Review from Tony's Reading List]
The Mussell Feast, by Birgit Vanderbeke; tr. from the German by Jamie Bulloch.
The German book that has shaped an entire generation. A mother and her two teenage children sit at the dinner table. In the middle stands a large pot of cooked mussels. Why has the father not returned home? As the evening wears on, we glimpse the issues that are tearing this family apart. ‘I wrote this book in August 1989, just before the Fall of the Berlin Wall. I wanted to understand how revolutions start. It seemed logical to use the figure of a tyrannical father and turn the story into a German family saga.’ Birgit Vanderbeke Why Peirene chose to publish this book: ‘I love this monologue. It’s the first Peirene book which made me laugh out loud with tears in my eyes. The author lays bare the contradictory logic of an inflexible mind. This is a poignant yet hilarious narrative with a brilliant ending.’ Meike Ziervogel.
[Review from Winstonsdad's Blog]
[Review from Tony's Reading List]
[Review from Reading Matters]
[Snapshot from Follow the Thread]
[Review from Word by Word]
Revenge, by Yoko Ogawa; tr. form the Japanese by Stephen Snyder.
A woman goes into a bakery to buy a strawberry cream tart. The place is immaculate but there is no one serving so she waits. Another customer comes in. The woman tells the new arrival that she is buying her son a treat for his birthday. Every year she buys him his favourite cake; even though he died in an accident when he was six years old.
From this beginning Yoko Ogawa weaves a dark and beautiful narrative that pulls together a seemingly disconnected cast of characters. In the tradition of classical Japanese poetic collections, the stories in Revenge are linked through recurring images and motifs, as each story follows on from the one before while simultaneously introducing new characters and themes. Filled with breathtaking images, Ogawa provides us with a slice of life that is resplendent in its chaos, enthralling in its passion and chilling in its cruelty.
[Review from Lizzy's Literary Life]
[Review from ANZ LitLovers]
[Review from The Complete Review]
[Review from Winstonsdad's Blog]
[Review from Dolce Bellezza]
[Review from Word by Word]
The Sorrow of Angels, by Jón Kalman Stefansson; tr. from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton.
It is three weeks since the boy came to town, carrying a book of poetry to return to the old sea captain – the poetry that did for his friend Bárður. Three weeks, but already Bárður’s ghost has faded. Snow falls so heavily that it binds heaven and earth together.
As the villagers gather in the inn to drink schnapps and coffee while the boy reads to them from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Jens the postman stumbles in half dead, having almost frozen to his horse. On his next journey to the wide open fjords he is accompanied by the boy, and both must risk their lives for each other, and for an unusual item of mail.
The Sorrow of Angels is a timeless literary masterpiece; in extraordinarily powerful language it brings the struggle between man and nature tangibly to life. It is the second novel in Stefánsson’s epic and elemental trilogy, though all can be read independently.
[Review from Tony's Reading List]
Strange Weather in Tokyo, by Hiromi Kawakami; tr. form the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell.
Tsukiko is in her late 30s and living alone when one night she happens to meet one of her former high school teachers, ‘Sensei’, in a bar. He is at least thirty years her senior, retired and, she presumes, a widower. After this initial encounter, the pair continue to meet occasionally to share food and drink sake, and as the seasons pass – from spring cherry blossom to autumnal mushrooms – Tsukiko and Sensei come to develop a hesitant intimacy which tilts awkwardly and poignantly into love. Perfectly constructed, funny, and moving, Strange Weather in Tokyo is a tale of modern Japan and old-fashioned romance.
[Review from The Complete Review]
[Review from Winstonsdad's Blog]
[Review from Tony's Reading List]
[Review from Messengers Booker]
[Review from Dolce Bellezza]
[Review from Jacqui Wine]
[Review from The Writes of Woman]
Ten, by Andrej Longo; tr. from the Italian by Howard Curtis.
The Mafia and the Ten Commandments meet in these interlinked short stories about the undebelly of Naples. Ten uncovers the raw heart of a city, telling the stories of ordinary people forced to make extraordinary compromises in a place permeated by crime.
We encounter a son who finds that he is capable of a terrible act when faced with his mother’s suffering ‘because someone had to do it’; a girl whose only outlet for the horrors of an adult’s abuse is to confide in a stuffed toy; an ancient nightclub singer whose ambition has led him to become a drug tester for a Mafia boss; and Ray-Ban who, during a night of mayhem with his friends, manages to steal the wrong car and pays dearly for it.
Each comes to life with painful precision in the hands of Andrej Longo – their fears, regrets, energy and grace. In direct and sometimes brutally raw prose, he conjures a searing new vision of Naples. With the lightest of brush strokes, Longo builds a vivid portrait of a city, its people, and their dreams of escape.
[Review from Winstonsdad's Blog]
- March 8, there will be a panel discussion of the longlist at the Independent Bath Literary Festival from 2:45 – 3:45 pm in the Guildhall with Boyd Tonkin, Nadifa Mohamed, and Natalie Haynes.
- April 8, 2014: The shortlist of six books will be announced at the London Book Fair, followed by a panel discussion with Boyd Tonkin, Shaun Whiteside, and Alev Adil from 3:30 – 4:15 pm in the Literary Translation Centre.
- May 8, 2014: The winner will be announced at a ceremony in central London at the Royal Institute of British Architects.
The newly branded Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize and then, for one year, the Women’s Prize) longlist was just announced. The shortlist will be announced on April 7, and the winner (who gets a check for £30,0000) on June 4.
Here are the titles, along with their UK covers (soon) (this being a UK prize) and blurbs either from the UK publisher’s website or from Amazon UK:
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
From the award-winning author of ‘Half of a Yellow Sun,’ a powerful story of love, race and identity.
As teenagers in Lagos, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are fleeing the country if they can. The self-assured Ifemelu departs for America. There she suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race. Obinze had hoped to join her, but post-9/11 America will not let him in, and he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London.
Thirteen years later, Obinze is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a blogger. But after so long apart and so many changes, will they find the courage to meet again, face to face?
Fearless, gripping, spanning three continents and numerous lives, ‘Americanah’ is a richly told story of love and expectation set in today’s globalized world.
Maddaddam, by Margaret Atwood.
A man-made plague has swept the earth, but a small group survives, along with the green-eyed Crakers — a gentle species bio-engineered to replace humans. Toby, onetime member of the God’s Gardeners and expert in mushrooms and bees, is still in love with street-smart Zeb, who has an interesting past. The Crakers’ reluctant prophet, Snowman-the-Jimmy, is hallucinating; Amanda is in shock from a Painballer assault; and Ivory Bill yearns for the provocative Swift Fox, who is flirting with Zeb. Meanwhile, giant Pigoons and malevolent Painballers threaten to attack.
Told with wit, dizzying imagination, and dark humour, Booker Prize-winning Margaret Atwood’s unpredictable, chilling and hilarious MaddAddam takes us further into a challenging dystopian world – a moving and dramatic conclusion to the internationally celebrated trilogy that began with Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood.
The Dogs of Littlefield, by Suzanne Berne.
Littlefield, Massachusetts, named one of the Ten Best Places to Live in America, full of psychologists and college professors, is proud of its fine schools, its girls’ soccer teams, its leafy streets and quaint village centre.
Yet no sooner has sociologist Dr Clarice Watkins arrived in Littlefield to study the elements of ‘good quality of life’ than someone begins poisoning the town’s dogs. Are the poisonings in protest to an off-leash proposal for Baldwin Park – the subject of much town debate – or the sign of a far deeper disorder?
The Dogs of Littlefield is a wry exploration of the discontent concealed behind the manicured lawns and picket fences of darkest suburbia.
The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, by Fatima Bhuto.
Fatima Bhutto’s stunning debut novel The Shadow of the Crescent Moon begins and ends one rain swept Friday morning in Mir Ali, a small town in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas close to the Afghan border.
Three brothers meet for breakfast. Soon after, the eldest, recently returned from America, hails a taxi to the local mosque. The second, a doctor, goes to check in at his hospital. His troubled wife does not join the family that morning. No one knows where Mina goes these days. And the youngest, the idealist, leaves for town on a motorbike. Seated behind him is a beautiful, fragile girl whose life and thoughts are overwhelmed by the war that has enveloped the place of her birth.
Three hours later their day will end in devastating circumstances.
The Shadow of the Crescent Moon chronicles the lives of five young people trying to live and love in a world on fire. Individuals are pushed to make terrible choices. And, as the events of this single morning unfold, one woman is at the centre of it all.
‘A first novel of uncommon poise and acuity, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon is set in an old and protracted war for land and dignity. But its swift and suspenseful narrative describes a fiercely contemporary battle in the human heart: between the seductive fantasy of personal freedom and the tenacious claims of family, community and history’ Pankaj Mishra
The Bear, by Claire Cameron.
Anna is five. Her little brother, Stick, is almost three. They are camping with their parents in Algonquin Park, in three thousand square miles of wilderness. It’s the perfect family trip. But then Anna awakes in the night to the sound of something moving in the shadows. Her father is terrified. Her mother is screaming. Then, silence.
Alone in the woods, it is Anna who has to look after Stick, battling hunger and the elements to stay alive. Narrated by Anna, this is white-knuckle storytelling that captures the fear, wonder and bewilderment of our worst nightmares – and the power of one girl’s enduring love for her family.
Eleven Days, by Lea Carpenter.
Eleven Days is, at its heart, the story of a mother and a son.
It begins in May 2011: Sara’s son Jason has been missing for nine days in the aftermath of a special operations forces mission. Out of devotion to him, Sara has made herself knowledgeable about things military, but she knows nothing more about her son’s disappearance than the press corps camped out in her driveway.
In a series of flashbacks we learn about Jason’s absentee father – a man who died, according to “insiders,” helping to make the country safer – and Jason’s decision to join the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis after 9/11 and enter into the toughest military training in the world: for the U.S. Naval Special Warfare’s Navy SEAL Teams.
Through letters Jason wrote his mother while training, we see him becoming a strong, compassionate leader. But his fate will be determined by events that fall outside the sphere of his training, and far outside the strong embrace of his mother’s love.
As well as a touching picture of the bond between a mother and a son this is a unique look into the training, history and culture of one of the world’s elite forces. Page-turning and haunting, this is an astonishing debut which questions the very nature of sacrifice and love.
The Strangler Vine, by M.J. Carter.
Calcutta 1837. The East India Company rules India – or most of it; and its most notorious and celebrated son, Xavier Mountstuart, has gone missing.
William Avery, a down-at-heel junior officer in the Company’s army, is sent to find him, in the unlikely company of the enigmatic and uncouth Jeremiah Blake. A more mismatched duo couldn’t be imagined, but they must bury their differences as they are caught up in a search that turns up too many unanswered questions and seems bound to end in failure.
What was it that so captivated Mountstuart about the Thugs, the murderous sect of Kali-worshippers who strangle innocent travellers by the roadside? Who is Jeremiah Blake and can he be trusted? And why is the whole enterprise shrouded in such secrecy?
The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton.
Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2013. It is 1866, and Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men, who have met in secret to discuss a series of unsolved crimes. A wealthy man has vanished, a whore has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely patterned as the night sky. The Luminaries is an extraordinary piece of fiction. It is full of narrative, linguistic and psychological pleasures, and has a fiendishly clever and original structuring device. Written in pitch-perfect historical register, richly evoking a mid-19th century world of shipping and banking and goldrush boom and bust, it is also a ghost story, and a gripping mystery. It is a thrilling achievement for someone still in her mid-20s, and will confirm for critics and readers that Catton is one of the brightest stars in the international writing firmament.
Reasons She Goes to the Woods, by Deborah Kay Davies.
Pearl can be very, very good. More often she is very, very bad. But she s just a child, a mystery to all who know her. A little girl who has her own secret reasons for escaping to the nearby woods. What might those reasons be? And how can she feel so at home in the dark, sinister, sensual woods, a wonder of secrets and mystery? Told in vignettes across Pearl s childhood years, Reasons She Goes To The Woods is a nervy but lyrical novel about a normal girl growing up, doing the normal things little girls do.
The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert.
5 January 1800.
At the beginning of a new century, Alma Whittaker is born into a perfect Philadelphia winter. Her father, Henry Whittaker, is a bold and charismatic botanical explorer whose vast fortune belies his lowly beginnings as a vagrant in Sir Joseph Banks’s Kew Gardens and as a deck hand on Captain Cook’s HMS Resolution. Alma’s mother, a strict woman from an esteemed Dutch family, has a knowledge of botany equal to any man’s.
It is not long before Alma, an independent girl with a thirst for knowledge, comes into her own within the world of plants and science. But as her careful studies of moss take her deeper into the mysteries of evolution, the man she comes to love draws her in the opposite direction.
The Signature of All Things is a big novel, about a big century. It soars across the globe from London, to Peru, to Philadelphia, to Tahiti, to Amsterdam. Peopled with extraordinary characters – missionaries, abolitionists, adventurers, astronomers, sea captains, geniuses and the quite mad -above all it has an unforgettable heroine in Alma Whittaker, a woman of the Enlightened Age who stands defiantly on the cusp of the modern.
Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent.
Northern Iceland, 1829.
A woman condemned to death for murdering her lover.
A family forced to take her in.
A priest tasked with absolving her.
But all is not as it seems, and time is running out:
winter is coming, and with it the execution date.
Only she can know the truth. This is Agnes’s story.
The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner.
Reno mounts her motorcycle and sets a collision course for New York.
In 1977 the city is alive with art, sensuality and danger. She falls in with a bohemian clique colonising downtown and the lines between reality and performance begin to bleed.
A passionate affair with the scion of an Italian tyre empire carries Reno to Milan, where she is swept along by the radical left and drawn into a spiral of violence and betrayal.
The Flamethrowers is an audacious novel that explores the perplexing allure of femininity, fakery and fear. In Reno we encounter a heroine like no other.
The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri.
From Subhash’s earliest memories, at every point, his brother was there. In the suburban streets of Calcutta where they wandered before dusk and in the hyacinth-strewn ponds where they played for hours on end, Udayan was always in his older brother’s sight.
So close in age, they were inseparable in childhood and yet, as the years pass – as U.S tanks roll into Vietnam and riots sweep across India – their brotherly bond can do nothing to forestall the tragedy that will upend their lives. Udayan – charismatic and impulsive – finds himself drawn to the Naxalite movement, a rebellion waged to eradicate inequity and poverty. He will give everything, risk all, for what he believes, and in doing so will transform the futures of those dearest to him: his newly married, pregnant wife, his brother and their parents. For all of them, the repercussions of his actions will reverberate across continents and seep through the generations that follow.
Epic in its canvas and intimate in its portrayal of lives undone and forged anew, The Lowland is a deeply felt novel of family ties that entangle and fray in ways unforeseen and unrevealed, of ties that ineluctably define who we are. With all the hallmarks of Jhumpa Lahiri’s achingly poignant, exquisitely empathetic story-telling, this is her most devastating work of fiction to date.
The Undertaking, by Audrey Magee.
Desperate to escape the Eastern front, Peter Faber, an ordinary German soldier, marries Katharina Spinell, a woman he has never met; it is a marriage of convenience that promises ‘honeymoon’ leave for him and a pension for her should he die on the front. With ten days’ leave secured, Peter visits his new wife in Berlin; both are surprised by the attraction that develops between them. When Peter returns to the horror of the front, it is only the dream of Katharina that sustains him as he approaches Stalingrad. Back in Berlin, Katharina, goaded on by her desperate and delusional parents, ruthlessly works her way into the Nazi party hierarchy, wedding herself, her young husband and their unborn child to the regime. But when the tide of war turns and Berlin falls, Peter and Katharina, ordinary people stained with their small share of an extraordinary guilt, find their simple dream of family increasingly hard to hold on to . . .
A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, by Eimear McBride.
Eimear McBride’s debut tells, with astonishing insight and in brutal detail, the story of a young woman’s relationship with her brother, and the long shadow cast by his childhood brain tumour. Not so much a stream of consciousness, as an unconscious railing against a life that makes little sense, and a shocking and intimate insight into the thoughts, feelings and chaotic sexuality of a vulnerable and isolated protagonist, to read A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing is to plunge inside its narrator’s head, experiencing her world first-hand. This isn’t always comfortable – but it is always a revelation.
Touching on everything from family violence to sexuality and the personal struggle to remain intact in times of intense trauma, McBride writes with singular intensity, acute sensitivity and mordant wit. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is moving, funny and alarming. It is a book you will never forget.
Almost English, by Charlotte Mendelson.
Home is a foreign country: they do things differently there.
In a tiny flat in West London, sixteen-year-old Marina lives with her emotionally delicate mother, Laura, and three ancient Hungarian relatives. Imprisoned by her family’s crushing expectations and their fierce unEnglish pride, by their strange traditions and stranger foods, she knows she must escape. But the place she runs to makes her feel even more of an outsider.
At Combe Abbey, a traditional English public school for which her family have sacrificed everything, she realises she has made a terrible mistake. She is the awkward half-foreign girl who doesn’t know how to fit in, flirt or even be. And as a semi-Hungarian Londoner, who is she? In the meantime, her mother Laura, an alien in this strange universe, has her own painful secrets to deal with, especially the return of the last man she’d expect back in her life. She isn’t noticing that, at Combe Abbey, things are starting to go terribly wrong.
Still Life with Bread Crumbs, by Anna Quindlen.
Still Life with Bread Crumbs begins with an imagined gunshot and ends with a new tin roof. Between the two is a wry and knowing portrait of Rebecca Winter, a photographer whose work made her an unlikely heroine for many women. Her career is now descendent, her bank balance shaky, and she has fled the city for the middle of nowhere. There she discovers, in a tree stand with a roofer named Jim Bates, that what she sees through a camera lens is not all there is to life.
Brilliantly written, powerfully observed, Still Life with Bread Crumbs is a deeply moving and often very funny story of unexpected love, and a stunningly crafted journey into the life of a woman, her heart, her mind, her days, as she discovers that life is a story with many levels, a story that is longer and more exciting than she ever imagined.
The Burgess Boys, by Elizabeth Strout.
Haunted by the freak accident that killed their father when they were children, Jim and Bob Burgess escaped from their Maine hometown of Shirley Falls for New York City as soon as they possibly could. Jim, a sleek, successful corporate lawyer, has belittled his bighearted brother their whole lives, and Bob, a legal aid attorney who idolises Jim, has always taken it in his stride. But their long-standing dynamic is upended when their sister, Susan – the sibling who stayed behind – urgently calls them home. Her lonely teenage son, Zach, has landed himself into a world of trouble, and Susan desperately needs their help. And so the Burgess brothers return to the landscape of their childhood, where the long-buried tensions that have shaped and shadowed their relationship begin to surface in unexpected ways that will change them forever.
The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt.
Aged thirteen, Theo Decker, son of a devoted mother and a reckless, largely absent father, survives an accident that otherwise tears his life apart. Alone and rudderless in New York, he is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. He is tormented by an unbearable longing for his mother, and down the years clings to the thing that most reminds him of her: a small, strangely captivating painting that ultimately draws him into the criminal underworld. As he grows up, Theo learns to glide between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love – and his talisman, the painting, places him at the centre of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.
The Goldfinch is a haunted odyssey through present-day America and a drama of enthralling power. Combining unforgettably vivid characters and thrilling suspense, it is a beautiful, addictive triumph – a sweeping story of loss and obsession, of survival and self-invention, of the deepest mysteries of love, identity and fate.
All the Birds, Singing, by Evie Wyld.
Jake Whyte is the sole resident of an old farmhouse on an unnamed British island, a place of ceaseless rains and battering winds. It’s just her, her untamed companion, Dog, and a flock of sheep. Which is how she wanted it to be. But something is coming for the sheep – every few nights it picks one off, leaves it in rags.
It could be anything. There are foxes in the woods, a strange boy and a strange man, rumours of an obscure, formidable beast. And there is Jake’s unknown past, perhaps breaking into the present, a story hidden thousands of miles away and years ago, in a landscape of different colour and sound, a story held in the scars that stripe her back.
In my recent post on Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (here), I mentioned that Winter Light is one of my favorite films of all time. Well, now we come to my least favorite Bergman film – at least at this point in my life and viewing – The Silence (1963), the final film in what is sometimes called The Faith Trilogy and sometimes The Silence of God Trilogy. Premiering the same year (just over seven months later) as Winter Light, this film is a striking change in form and, in my opinion, content. Where the first two films in the set are quiet narratives — I use that term loosely – dealing with relatively clear psychological and spiritual concerns, The Silence becomes even quieter, focusing on the relationship between two sisters and a young boy within a world that feels vast yet appears to be closing in on itself. What these characters are going through is not nearly so clear, even to themselves, and we wander around behind them as they try to deal with sickness, war, death, isolation. These are themes Bergman will continue to address in the late-1960s, and, as masterful as The Silence is, for me it is inferior to what has come before and what is coming after, though it does mark the transition. The Silence is still a fascinating film from a director who was exploring his own concerns without trying to preach to us.
At the end of my post on Winter Light I mentioned that the idea of “carrying on” (and whether to) in what can be seen as a senseless world is very much the point. In some ways, I think in The Silence Bergman is exploring that theme further. Here we have a silent, torn-up world. We first see it from a train.
On that train, we meet our three central characters: the two sisters, Ester (played by Ingrid Thulin) and Anna (Gunnel Lindblom), and Anna’s ten-year-old son Johan (Jörgen Lindström). The atmosphere is stifling. The train hum is barely audible and it becomes uncomfortable. We feel that the train compartment is hot and that the air is thick and heavy. They are on a journey (those looking to interpret the film can find a rich field of symbolism — though in a way I’m with Susan Sontag when she said, in effect, that there’s enough going on on the screen to respond to). Johan goes to the window and looks out upon the world, and that humming train noise just seems to emphasize that we are in some kind of uncomfortable vessel with the world going on outside:
It’s some kind of war zone, or people are preparing for war, or brutality is blatantly presented (by the way, when Sontag decried attempts to ”interpret” this film, she was talking about a tank that enters an alley-way; many said it was a phallic symbol; Sontag said it was a tank and worth responding to in its own right).
The train finally stops in the town of Timoka, and the three characters go into a grand — yet almost entirely empty — hotel. We get to know the space and art in the hotel through the eyes of the wandering Johan. But still, outside the windows, just below the windows, in fact, so close you’d swear they were in the same room, are thousands of people, amidst tanks and, creepily, this cart pulled by a starving horse:
This starving horse is a clear reference to the starving horse in The Phantom Carriage (1921) (directed by the great Victor Sjöström, who starred in Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (my thoughts here)):
In The Phantom Carriage, that horse is pulling Death’s cart as Death sweeps around the country picking up the souls of the dead. For those looking, there is nothing outside but destruction and death, and yet the people carry on.
Inside the hotel, there is a different battle going on between the two sisters. Ester is a translator, an intellectual, and she’s dying. She doesn’t like to be left alone, yet Anna, either because she’s sick of it or because she simply doesn’t think about it enough to care, doesn’t want to be the crutch. Anna is the opposite of Ester. Where Ester is intellectual and essentially hopeless as she considers the future, Anna is physical and focused on the present. She takes care of her body throughout the film, and Bergman uses this to show what for some might be an uncomfortable degree of physical intimacy between mother and child:
In contrast, Ester’s body is falling apart. She is often shown in bright, unflattering light, and she destroys her body by drinking and smoking constantly.
Both sisters are vying for Johan’s attention and affection.
Many interpret the two sisters as physically separate representations of two halves of the same person. This avenue certainly goes takes us to some interesting insights, but to me they are not as interesting as ones we may get when we go down the same avenue in Persona. For me, it works just as well to look at the two women as two ways of approaching a decadent world, each vying for the conviction of the impressionable young boy. The state of the world outside urging Ester to connect with the boy, while it is Ester’s own urgency that makes Anna more protective of her son.
Both are able to gain some ground. Obviously, Johan is faithful to his mother, yet Ester finds a way to communicate with him by writing down some of her own thoughts on translation.
But for the most part Johan just wanders, lost. No one can help him. He doesn’t know the language.
Meanwhile, the battle between the sisters rages on as Anna attempts to increase the distance between her and her sister. Anna complains that for Ester “[e]verything has to be desperately important and meaningful.”
We know who’s going to win in the end.
So how does all of this relate to the prior films in the trilogy and to Bergman’s exploration of faith and god? I already mentioned the idea of “carrying on” in the world — how does one approach that chaotic mess outside the window (and in one’s own heart)? Also, I think it’s fruitful to explore this quiet world where these two women are the only forces in Johan’s life. If the world is silent, if god does not exist and does not direct the affairs of mankind, then perhaps it doesn’t really matter who wins out. In fact, perhaps it’s better that it is Anna. Ester’s interest in the metaphysical and in art are not doing her any bit of good.
But while I think this film fits with the other two, I also think its inclusion in a “trilogy” forces us to look at it from a funky angle that probably was never intended. Bergman didn’t intend for these films to form a trilogy. It was only in retrospect that he called it one, and — if my memory of unknown sources serves me correctly — he later regretted the appellation. Indeed, The Silence seems much more related to Bergman’s other films of the late 1960s than to the other films in the trilogy.
Still, I probably don’t do it any favors by comparing (in my head — not here, not yet) The Silence to these later films like Persona and Shame. Still, I feel those two films are much richer as they explore psychology and war.
Speaking of those later films, one reason I’m posting this review so soon after my review of Winter Light is because later this month The Criterion Collection is releasing a new transfer of Persona, one of my favorites that I haven’t seen in some time. I plan to revisit that film and review it and the accompanying package close to its release date. Bring on Persona!
Tonight they announced that Tenth of December, by George Saunders, has won this years Story Prize (click here for the official post at The Story Prize website).
I have read most of the stories in Tenth of December, and I liked maybe half of them. The rest felt like he was relying on a formula, or, if not a formula, a style that has become his trademark. I think it’s time I finished the book, though, and saw whether I’ve come around.
The other finalists were Bobcat, by Rebecca Lee, and Archangel, by Andrea Barrett. I’ve been working my way through those and my vote would have gone to Archangel. Still, congratulations to George Saunders!
“Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You” is the first story in Alice Munro’s third book, Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You. For an overview with links to reviews of the other pieces in this book, please click here.
“Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You” can be demented love story, a murder mystery, or simply a family drama with gothic roots, but it is certainly a story about secrets. Et, one of the most terrifying characters we’ve met in an Alice Munro story, is a bitter, deeply envious outsider of her sister’s love life. Even at the end, even her sister is dead and gone, she can barely resist the urge to do some final damage by sharing a secret. As I alluded to above, in a perverse way, “Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You” is Et’s love story, only we know it’s dark because Et considers “lovers” to be “not a soft word, as people thought, but cruel and tearing.”
For at least half a century, Et harbors a great deal of resentment for her beautiful older sister, Char. When the story begins, sometime around the middle of the twentieth century, Et and Char are older, Char “like a ghost now, with her hair gone white.” Yet the third-person narration, closely following Et’s perspective says Char is still beautiful, “should couldn’t lose it,” as if beauty were an act of will that Et finds repugnant. It may well be.
After a thirty year absence Blaikie Noble has returned to town. Char and Blaikie were once “lovers,” though Et never knows just how far they went. At the end of their summer together — the summer of 1918 – Blaikie married someone else, a woman who was at least forty years old. He’s come back to town single after being widowed twice over. He doesn’t have much to show for the years he’s been gone.
The story goes back and forth quite a bit, from the present summer when Blaikie has reappeared to the 1910s when Char and Et were young. We learn, somewhat digressively, that Char and Et had a younger brother who drowned when he was just seven. We learn this as Et “remembered the first time she understood that Char was beautiful”:
She was looking at a picture taken of them, of Char and herself and their brother who was drowned. Et was ten in the picture, Char was fourteen and Sandy seven, just a couple of weeks short of all he would ever be.
Even at this early date, when Et is ten and throughout her early teens, Et resents Char, whose beauty is otherworldly, statuesque. We are not entirely certain why she resents her sister so early in life. Perhaps it stems from Sandy’s death, which is somehow attached to Et. Perhaps it’s more to do with the fact that Et is four years younger than Char, never knows what kind of relationship Char and Blaikie have, and feels left out of this side of life entirely, she herself never having a relationship with anyone.
All she knows is that one night she saw Char outside with Blaikie. She doesn’t know what state they were in, only that she had seen her sister “when she lost her powers, abdicated.” As she thinks about this moment, she thinks a seemingly random thought: “Sandy drowned, with green stuff clogging his nostrils, couldn’t look more lost than that.”
When Blaikie leaves and marries, Char swallows what she hopes will be poison but what actually just makes her sick. Somehow, they move on in life. Char marries Et’s highschool history teacher, Arthur. It seems that Et may be in love with him, or at least it’s some kind of competition to win some of his affections from her sister, especially since Char does not love Arthur. At first all three live together, but Et finally leaves to start her own life:
“Why do you have to go off and live by yourself anyway?” [Arthur] scolded her. “You ought to come back and live with us.”
“Three’s a crowd.”
“It wouldn’t be for long. Some man is going to come along some day and fall hard.”
“If he was such a fool as to do that I’d never fall for him, so we’d be back where we started.”
“I was a fool that fell for Char, and she ended up having me.”
Just the way he said her name indicated that Char was above, outside, all ordinary considerations — a marvel, a mystery. No one could hope to solve her, they were lucky just being allowed to contemplate her.
Et continues to foster a desire to usurp her sister, to challenge her sister. She knows her sister is not perfect (she saw the way she looked when she was with Blaikie).
There is a lot going on here as Alice Munro explores the idea of image and reality. Under the surface, Char is a mess. She maintains her figure by regurgitating her food — and she is still in love with Blaikie, the man she almost killed herself for decades earlier.
And though I think Et is a terrifying character, maybe Char is the more terrifying of the two. We just don’t get a clear picture of her, just as Et never can pin her down. When we first meet Arthur he’s old and ill. Blaikie has just returned to town and comes over to keep company and play games. Later that summer, Et finds a bottle of rat poison in the cupboard. She doesn’t know why it’s there. It doesn’t look like it’s been used. And yet . . . there is a strong implication that Char is poisoning Arthur, hoping to get back with Blaikie. Et obviously suspects this, though she doesn’t come out and say it:
All those battles, and wars, and terrible things, what did Arthur know about such affairs, why was he so interested? He knew nothing. He did not know why things happened, why people could not behave sensibly. He was too good. He knew about history but not about what went on, in front of his eyes, in his house, anywhere. Et differed from Arthur in knowing that something went on, even if she could not understand why; she differed from him in knowing there were those you could not trust.
But maybe nothing is happening. Et checks the bottle every time she visits and there is no indication its contents are diminishing. And yet . . .
Et cruelly sees her opportunity. When Blaikie leaves at the end of the summer, Et implies that he has hooked up with another woman. Why”
Only to throw things into confusion, for she believed then that somebody had to, before it was too late.
Char leaves the room, and soon she is dead. The rat poison is gone. Arthur “lived on and on.” Et moves back in to take care of him and herself, her “eyesight not as good as it used to be.”
What on earth has happened? We have ideas, of course. Perhaps Char committed suicide. Perhaps she simply died; the means she has used to “take care of her body” are not healthy. In any case, the story makes us think back to another death Et may have had a hand in. It’s never resolved. And why did Et think of Sandy after she saw Char kissing Blaikie all those years ago? Does Arthur have any idea of what’s gone on in these women’s hearts? Was it Arthur?
If the story is a bit too loose, I forgive it. Munro will tighten things up in later stories, and this is a dark start to the complexities of the heart that Munro will continue to explore in this collection. It also has a brilliant final paragraph:
Sometimes Et had it on the tip of her tongue to say to Arthur, “There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you.” She didn’t believe she was going to let him die without knowing. He shouldn’t be allowed. He kept a picture of Char on his bureau. It was the one taken of her in her costume for that play, where she played the statue-girl. But Et let it go, day to day. She and Arthur still played rummy and kept up a bit of garden, along with raspberry canes. If they had been married, people would have said they were very happy.
“Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You” is the title story of a book Alice Munro published in 1974. The decade that preceded 1974 marked the height of the women’s movement, often referred to as “Women’s Liberation.” The contraceptive pill became available in 1960; Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963; the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed; the National Organization for Women was founded in 1966; Our Bodies, Our Selves was published in 1971; and Ms. magazine burst into print in 1973. Alice Munro’s own life mirrored the tumult: at about the time she was finishing and publishing Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You she became divorced from her husband of twenty years, moved a half a continent away to take up a new life not far from her hometown, and settled into producing stories steadily for the next 40 years.
Given the time and milieu within which this book came into being, the title story has, on the surface, nothing to do with women’s liberation. The story begins in about 1912, when the two sisters, Et and Char, are about 10 and 14, the year their little seven-year-old brother drowns. It ends almost fifty years later, when the younger sister has been retired for a while. The story is told within the moral compass of the younger sister Et, and, given that she is a spinster who has made her living as a seamstress, she is not a candidate, as are some of the other women in the book, to illuminate the tumbling rush and conflict of the 1960s.
The title alone, however, speaks to the time: “Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You.” Thousands of women writers wrote all kinds of essays, manifestos, polemics, articles, books, novels, and poetry saying “something” to “someone” that had been on their minds for quite a while.
It’s Et who has something to say, and yet she has held off saying it for years, even though the man to whom she wants to say it is nearing the end of his life and would probably be grievously and undeservedly hurt by it. She still holds this wish dear – that she will tell him what he needs to know – that “he shouldn’t be allowed.” She means, he shouldn’t be allowed to be deceived, even if knowing the truth will kill him.
The trouble is, Et is “a terror.” There is the slightest possibility that she is responsible for her brother’s drowning, and there is the definite fact that she is responsible for the sexual appropriation of her sister’s husband, albeit with her sister’s tacit consent. There is the possibility that she wants to destroy Arthur’s confident faith in Char’s beauty, and there is the fact that a lie she tells appears to result in Char’s suicide.
So how does this story fit into the consciousness of the time?
Starting with the sister’s odd names, there is a pattern of brokenness and unfinished promise: Char for Charlotte, Et for Harriet, perhaps. Char for burned, Et for eating or eaten. These sisters are shadows of what they could have been, both of them sexually unsatisfied, both denied, one an idle, beautiful parasite, and the other as mean as a snake. One of them tries to poison herself, not once, but twice, and the other is casually poisonous to other people. What happened? Was it that one of them or one of their parents was responsible for their little brother’s drowning? Was it that the drowning was something from which their mother never recovered, essentially leaving them motherless? Or was it that 14-year-old Et, one night when she couldn’t sleep, saw her older sister Char out in the dark yard having sex with Blaikie under the lilac?
If, in fact, Et was somehow responsible for the little brother’s death, or thought she was responsible – having this hold over her sister, this knowledge of her liaison – evens the score.
I think that the truth that Munro is trying to get at is that liberation is a complex affair. One can be imprisoned by a sister’s jealousy, as much as by a wicked patriarch. In fact, the father hardly figures in the sorrows of these two sisters. In the course of the story, Munro alludes to ghost stories, murder, death by poison and mystery, suggesting that imprisonment can have complicated origins.
Munro closes the story by saying of the fraternal pair, the brother- and sister-in-law, Arthur and Et, that “If they had been married, people would have said they were very happy.” They are neither married nor very happy. They have half selves, but for reasons far darker than those the women’s movement intended to address. It’s not just male chauvinists, it’s not just inequality, it’s not just reproductive rights. Some people, like Et, do evil things, and it is difficult to survive when you are bound to such a person.
What is interesting, especially in relation to the explosion of writing that was occurring at the time, is that Et is someone who makes up things, says things that aren’t true. In a way, she is a writer and a story-teller, but her stories contain lies that have very bad effects. At one point she thinks, “She never knew where she got the inspiration to say what she said, where it came from. She had not planned it at all, yet it came so easily, believably.” So when Et thinks, “There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you,” the reader doesn’t trust her at all.
Placing this story where she does, as the title story and as the first story, at the height of the women’s movement, Munro highlights her concern about the writer’s responsibilities: that what is written might not always be true.
This title story, this introductory story, sets the stage of the book: you must assume that what you hear may be only a partial iteration, like the girls’ names, and in effect, a dangerous lie.
“Even as I most feverishly, desperately practise it,” Alice Munro has written, “I am a little afraid that the work with words may turn out to be a questionable trick, an evasion (and never more so than when it is most dazzling, apt and striking) an unavoidable lie.” *
It’s not that Alice Munro is not a feminist, it’s that she is first a humanist. I think the stories yet to come will demonstrate a fine interest in the way the feminist movement played out, but, always, Munro is most interested in the way people lie unavoidably, and the way one person’s point of view is inescapably blindered and broken – like the girls’ names.
* from Alice Munro’s essay, “The Colonel’s Hash Resettled,” which was published in The Narrative Voice, edited by John Metcalf and published in Toronto by McGraw-Hill Ryerson in 1972, on page 182 (here).
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Yiyun Li’s “A Sheltered Woman” was originally published in the March 10, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
Click for a larger image.
When I first started reading Yiyun Li’s work, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. In the reading process, I would often wonder just what I was supposed to be getting out of it, and then when I put it down the strength would hit me. I’ve since read quite a few of her short stories (though not yet one of her novels, something I will correct shortly with her latest, Kinder Than Solitude), and I consider her an outstanding story writer. I was thrilled to see her story this week. And, to cut to the chase, I wasn’t disappointed.
This is a story about the risks of human attachment, through the eyes of a woman who has chosen to be as detached as possible. Yet we might wonder just how this is possible given her work: she is a live-in nanny who cares for infants in their first month. She is called Auntie Mei.
Auntie Mei’s strange detachment is apparent early on in the story. She sits rocking a new baby. Instead of thinking of the baby, she thinks of the rocking chair:
I wonder who’s enjoying the rocking more, she said to herself: the chair, whose job is to rock until it breaks apart, or you, whose life is being rocked away? And which one of you will meet your demise first?
And yet we learn that in a way Auntie Mei has already met her demise. She is completely stripped of human attachment. She always refuses to stay with the family longer than a month. She calls all of the babies “Baby” and all the mothers “Baby’s Ma.” When she can, she refuses to go help a family she’s already helped:
Once in a while, she was approached by previous employers to care for their second child. The thought of facing a child who had once been an infant in her arms led to lost sleep; she agreed only when there was no other option, and she treated the older children as though they were empty air.
We learn that she comes from a line of women who also forsook personal attachment. It’s an interesting portrayal because Auntie Mei is healthy and has a steady job that she’s very good at. For some people, this is enough, but it doesn’t seem that Auntie Mei is going anywhere. Her life is, as she said, “being rocked away.”
But rocking away life is all by Auntie Mei’s design. She doesn’t want to be known, but she also doesn’t want to know others. She sees it as, somehow, unfair:
Auntie Mei wondered if knowing someone — a friend, an enemy — was like never letting that person out of one’s sight. Being known, then, must not be far from being imprisoned by someone else’s thought.
It looks like things might change in this instance. The mother, who calls herself Chanel (she’s also stripped away much of her past), absolutely refuses to have anything to do with the baby. Since she is being paid, she takes care of Baby in ways she normally would not.
But the urge to take Baby and walk out the door is an urge she long ago pushed down. There may be pain caused because Auntie Mei wasn’t there, but she will not be the one to cause pain.
I found the story fascinating and elusive. I’m still wrestling with it and a few of the avenues it ventures. One I did not touch on above is the difference Auntie Mei sees between men and women. The men in the story are mostly absent, usually by the choice of the women. They are off forsaking their own personal attachments, creating things that are not alive but that appear alive. I’m curious why Auntie Mei doesn’t see this ability in herself. Why is she caring for living creatures? Is it economic necessity? We don’t really know, unless it’s because it’s the minimal form of attachment she allows herself. It’s just enough — almost.
Yiyun Li, in an interview with NPR (here), talks about a character in her new book, Kinder Than Solitude:
But at the end of the book she said she realized she did not have solitude, all she had was a life-long quarantine against love and life.
Li goes on to say that writing the book changed her attitude toward solitude “a little bit.” She says that “solitude can be kind, but there has to be something more than solitude.”
In this week’s New Yorker story, “A Sheltered Woman,” an immigrant who makes her way as a baby-nanny is able to live without an apartment, going from one family to another, month by month. She calls all the babies “Baby” and all the mothers “Baby’s Ma.” Thus, she is a sheltered woman in a variety of ways: she can have shelter without needing an apartment of her own; she can have human contact without becoming attached. She says she has been doing this for eleven years, which makes 132 babies and 132 mothers — babies and mothers she hopes never to see again. For the purpose of references, she keeps the names of these families in a small notebook she bought at a garage sale for five cents.
In this story we hear about six heartless women: Auntie Mei, her mother, and grandmother; and Baby Ma, her mother, and great-grandmother. By heartless, I mean that these women all appear mired in self-extermination. Marriages are bleak, men are banished, blotted out, and treated carelessly. Children are neglected, abandoned, and orphaned. There is a profound lack, in John Bowlby’s words, of attachment.
Auntie Mei’s grandmother abandoned her baby daughter to go and live with another man; at her own birth, Auntie Mei‘s mother threatened suicide unless her husband left; she then slowly starved herself to death when the grandmother returned. Chanel, the Baby Ma, is unmoved by her infant. She talks about a great-grandmother who hanged herself after giving birth, and she claims to have post-partum depression. That may be, but she is also in love with her story — that she conceived the baby to take revenge on her father for having an affair, and that her father forced the man to leave his wife and marry Chanel. Of course, the man is hardly ever around.
These women’s stories are an endless cycle of cold. Auntie Mei had been married once but had found the arranged marriage something she wished she could escape, her husband having been a man she “married without any intention of loving.”
Actually — this is a story about people with no ties and no history. Chanel, who has abandoned her Chinese name, is now the wife of a man who will abandon her, and the mother of a child she will neglect. The reader knows the family will beg Auntie Mei to stay, but the reader knows she will move on.
The story appears to be studying the ways people quarantine themselves against love and life. Auntie Mei has the attentions of an older man, and yet we know she will resist him, just as she will resist staying with the family and their baby who need her.
Auntie Mei is as cold as ice. Who can resist the needs of a baby? Somehow, I think these stories have some root in Chinese history and Chinese culture that is missed by me. I sense in these psychologies the result of famine or plague or war or atom bomb, and yet these women have no memory of such cataclysm. Stephen Jay Lifton has talked about how nuclear war is so total that it would cause a profound disconnectedness in its survivors, a social disconnectedness far worse than radiation sickness in itself. In this story, however, there is hardly a hint of a global explanation for the profound deadness of these women, except that they are dead, and each new generation is dead as well.
Yi Yun Li’s writing is precise, dispassionate, and engaging, but basically unfinished. What I mean is this. It’s not that I want the story to provide a deus ex machina; I know that nothing will convince Auntie Mei to stay and rescue the baby. It’s that I want the story to provide me with a vision of what caused this emotional and moral disintegration in so many women.
At the same time as I am impatient with the author, however, I think I understand what she is doing. She is exploring this psychology; she is testing it. She is asking, Am I really seeing what I think I am seeing? She is testing the possibility that there are more than a few Chinese women who have locked themselves against the pain of engaging with anyone, even their children.
I need for the writing to do what the writer resists: give an explanation.
What the writer needs is something different, however. I feel in the writer a need to prove that these ghostly women are real. It is as if she senses a terrible, alienating detachment from human connection in the culture of women, or in the culture of Chinese women. It is as if her fiction is testing whether or not her sense is accurate; she appears to be using the fiction to establish the exact nature of these women, the exact depth of their dislocation, and the exact effect of their lack of what Bowlby would call attachment.
That, in fact, may be enough for her. It may be not just enough, it may be actually Sisyphean for her to explore this territory — to prove through fiction that what she feels in the culture is actually so.
That goal must be (and rightly so), regardless of this reader’s American yearning for explanation, intervention, and reformation.
Nevertheless, I sense in the writing Li’s deeper need for just such an analysis, as if by the fiction, she hopes to provoke that explanation.
I know for many of my friends around the world, this has been a harsh winter that isn’t yet letting up, though spring is just three weeks away. In my neck of the woods, we might think spring has already arrived. It’s been sunny, and the snow has melted. As I write this, there’s a fresh rain falling outside. With the promise of warmth out my window lifting my spirits, it feels a bit untimely to post about Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (1962), but perhaps this warm weather is just setting me up. In any case, I have been waiting to do this post ever since my first of (so far) six Bergman posts. I’ve been building up to this one. Cold and quiet, Winter Light is one of my top three favorite films — perhaps it’s my favorite film.
This is the first Bergman film I ever saw. I’d heard about The Seventh Seal, but it was this title — Winter Light — that stood out when I was at a wonderful local library looking at their Bergman films. The original Swedish title actually translates to “The Communicants,” which is an important theme I will touch on below, but before getting into the film itself I’d like to talk about what the English title “Winter Light” suggests to me.
Light in winter is cold and rare. Weeks of cloud cover make the world gloomy, and the light is dark. The promise of more light to come does little; it’s hard to hope. It is hard to see. The prior film in this loose “trilogy” was Through a Glass Darkly, which to me suggests some of the same problems. And yet, in the winter we have some of the brightest days, and the light can be unforgiving. Stripped of the warm yellows and reds it can feel stripped of illusion. We might feel we can see too well. It’s an uncomfortable time of existential crisis.
The basic story of Winter Light comes from Bergman’s own experiences, which he shared with his assistant Vilgot Sjöman, as recounted in the essay included in the Criterion edition DVD:
In 1959, my wife and I went to say hello to the pastor who had married us. On the way, in the village shop, we saw his wife talking very seriously to a schoolgirl. When we reached the vicarage, the pastor told us that this little girl’s father had just committed suicide. The pastor had had several conversations with him earlier, but to no avail.
According to that same essay, the story developed further while Bergman was scouting locations and soaking in the atmosphere of the churches he planned to use. He asked his father, a strict Lutheran pastor to accompany him. That day, the presiding pastor said he was ill and would not be able to hold the full service. Bergman’s father stood up, got dressed, and helped out, the idea being that the service must go on, no matter how anyone is feeling. This is what it means to lead a flock.
And despite sickness, dread, doubt, bitterness, panic, the service does go on for the central character in Winter Light, the Lutheran pastor Tomas Ericsson, played to perfection by Gunnar Björnstrand, one of my favorite actors I’ve brought up in almost all of the previous Bergman posts. Here he is in my favorite role:
Mimicking his character’s need to go on performing, even while miserable, Björnstrand was apparently very sick while filming Winter Light. He finished the role under doctor’s care.
It’s an early service in the local church, and almost no one has come to attend. To make matters more dire for the man in charge, most of those in attendance are not really there because of any inner conviction. On the far left of the picture above kneels Märta Lundberg (Ingrid Thulin). She does not believe in God. She’s at service because she is in love with Tomas. Next to her is Karin Persson (Gunnel Lindblom) and then her husband Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow). They are at this service because Jonas is having his own existential crisis. He doesn’t believe God could exist and preside over a world that has and has used the atomic bomb. More than that, though, Jonas does not want to exist in such a world. He has no hope and no desire to continue. Karin has brought her husband for comfort and counsel. They have three children and another on the way. When the Perssons meet with Tomas after service, Jonas lets his wife do most of the talking.
Tomas tries to talk to them, but ends up simply repeating the same things he’s been saying to so many people who must have come before. It’s all rote, and he knows it. He feels nothing. His flock is leaving, and he doesn’t blame them, yet he has nothing else.
At least, he believes he has nothing else. Since he was widowed — which may have instigated his crisis of faith, his anger at and ultimately disbelief in a God who stands by and does nothing when his faithful servant’s wife is dying — he has been receiving the caring attention of the local schoolteacher Martä.
She wants him to love her. It’s she who cares for his sickness, making him warm drinks and giving him his medicine. And, perhaps consequently, to Tomas Märta has come to represent all that is physical and fallen. He doesn’t believe in God anymore, yet he can’t get beyond his belief that the disappointing world around him is fallen.
But fallen from what? From some transcendent state? He doesn’t believe that anymore. So he doesn’t believe in anything.
He has been abandoned, by his God and now by his own idea of self and existence.
Abandonment, for me, is one of the strongest themes in the film. One of the most poignant monologues in this quiet film comes from Tomas’s assistant Algot Frövik (Allan Edwall). Algot is physically handicapped and says that, in his humble way, he has suffered physically as much as Jesus Christ. Where Christ’s suffering on the cross must have been awful, at least it was over in a few hours. Algot has been suffering for a lifetime already longer than Christ’s, and he has no idea when it will end. Yet Algot is not trying to minimize Christ’s suffering — Algot is the most faithful person in the film — he’s trying to explain where true suffering comes from: abandonment. He thinks Christ’s true suffering must have come when he felt that God had abandoned him.
Tomas must agree. As I mentioned above, he felt abandoned by God when God did nothing to save his wife from dying. Like Jonas Persson, Tomas does not know what the point is any more. To him, everything he stood for — still stands for — has turned out to be false. He has been abandoned by purpose.
Abandonment comes again in the tragedy of Jonas’s suicide. Jonas’s dread is most often remarked upon, and we do a disservice to his wife and three — almost four — children when we ignore the fact that they have to carry on in this world without this man they were supposed to be able to rely on.
So what does it mean to carry on? Each character in this film must either end things or carry on. Algot, with his physical pain; Karin and her children, without Jonas; Märta, with Tomas, who has been absolutely cruel to her — she must carry on. And Tomas, with his doubt, with his responsibilities to somehow comfort those who seek comfort where he believes there is none.
Or does he really believe there is none? I don’t have a lot to say about it, but to be abandoned means someone who was there. To complain that God did nothing means he could have done something. Perhaps Tomas still believes in a God, but since his wife’s death he has not felt that that God has cared and is, therefore, not worth caring about. And yet he carries on.
David and I are back with another episode of The Eclipse Viewer, the podcast dedicated to the Criterion Collection’s Eclipse Series of DVDs.
In this episode, we talk about Eclipse Series 8: Lubitsch Musicals. Ernst Lubitsch is a titan of early cinema. His career started in Germany in the silent era, and he eventually moved to the United States to specialize the Hollywood comedy. Several of his first sound films were musicals, and we had the pleasure of viewing four of them in this set.
The first, The Love Parade (1929), stars Maurice Chevalier as a philandering diplomat and Jeanette MacDonald as his Queen who eventually marries him. No one will listen to him, though, as the Queen has all power in state and in the home.
Monte Carlo (1930) is the next feature and it again stars Jeanette MacDonald as a runaway bride. She escapes — for the umpteenth time — her wedding to an old Duke and finds herself in Monte Carlo where she hopes to win enough money to avoid marriage altogether. There she meets another rich man, but she won’t give him the time of day. So he poses as her hairdresser until he can charm her into submission.
The third feature is The Smiling Lieutenant (1931). Maurice Chevalier returns as the titular character who falls happily in love with Claudette Colbert, a forward-thinking leader of an all-woman orchestra. One day, he is presenting arms to passing royalty when he tries to wink at Colbert across the way. This innocent gesture causes havoc when the passing Princess (Miriam Hopkins) mistakenly believes he was winking at her.
The fourth and last feature in this set is One Hour with You (1932), which brings back together Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald. They play, strangely for this set, the happily married couple. Their marriage is put to the test when Genevieve Tobin comes along and tries to seduce Chevalier.
Please find the podcast, the shownotes, and plenty of links over at CriterionCast here.
In the next episode of The Eclipse Viewer, David and I are planning to discuss Eclipse Series 1: Early Bergman, which contains five of Ingmar Bergman’s earliest films: Torment (1944; dir. by Alf Sjöberg), Crisis (1946), Port of Call (1948), Thirst (1949), and To Joy (1949).