Ever since I read Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer and learned that Nathan Zuckerman’s reclusive literary father-figure E.I. Lonoff was likely inspired by Roth’s own affection for Bernard Malamud, I’ve been wanting to find out why Roth, a master, would consider Malamud a master. Where better to start than with his book that garnered the rare combination win of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize: The Fixer (1966)? (Only a few other books of fiction have won both awards: The Shipping News (1993), The Color Purple (1983), Rabbit Is Rich (1982), The Stories of John Cheever (1981); The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter (1966), A Fable (1955); Gravity’s Rainbow (1975) was close.) So, with Roth and the big awards, the book has a lot going for it. Good thing, too, because I certainly think the cover condemns it to be purchased only by those who have heard a good word about it.
The Fixer begins by introducing thirty-year-old Yakov Bok, a Jew suffering in a Jewish settlement in 1911 Tsarist Russia. His wife left him a few months before the book begins, and we meet a depressed Yakov packing his tools (he’s the eponymous fixer) preparing to leave the settlement. His father-in-law tries to talk Yakov into staying in the settlement with his own where he will be safe from the Jew-hating Russians. But Yakov knows the safety is merely illusion that evaporates when the Cassocks come; pogroms have a way of finding their way even into the settlements. Yakov’s father was killed in an earlier pogrom (probably the one from 1881-1884) when a man went out to kill the first three Jews he saw and Yakov’s father was the second. And only a few years before, in 1903-1906, an even bloodier pogrom had occurred (here is a link to a New York Times article about a particular riot in 1903; scroll to the bottom to see the relevant article).
Still, while these Jewish settlements were not safe, it was a bit safer to be in them than outside them in day-to-day life. Yakov doesn’t care anymore. He wants to go to Kiev to find a better life. He almost gets it, too. After saving a wealthy owner of a brick-making plant, Yakov is offered a job supervising shipping and keeping the ledger. It’s complicated, though, because Yakov does not admit he is a Jew; his new employer is a member of the Black Hundreds, and he wants Yakov to live in a district where it is illegal for a Jew to reside. The anxiety is so great Yakov cannot sleep at night, but he lies about his name and accepts the offer.
Soon a young Russian boy turns up dead in a cave. Yakov’s Jewish identity comes out, and, claiming that Yakov committed a ritual murder to recreate the crucifixion or fulfill some Jewish rite or torture for the sake of torturing or collect blood for passover matsos or whatever, the state arrests Yakov.
There are those among us, my children, who will argue that these are superstitious tales of a past age, yet the truth of much I have revealed to you—I do not say it is all true—must be inferred from the very frequency of the accusations against the Jews.
It sounds ridiculous, but we know well how true to life this situation was (is?). Indeed, this book is based on a historical event. Yakov is based on the real Mendel Beilis, who was imprisoned for the murder of the young Andrei Yushchinsky (now considered a saint by many Orthodox Christians). Unable to create a solid case, the state refused to indict Beilis/Yakov, but he remained in prison indefinitely while the state hoped for a confession of some type.
The first sixty or so pages of the book, while compelling, are basically straight narrative, and Malamud does little to show off his command of style. However, as Yakov’s time in prison draws out, and Yakov himself begins to lose his place in his own narrative while getting engulfed in history’s, Malamud creates this sensation for the reader with virtuosity. For example, ninety-nine percent of the book is told in the third person. But suddenly we get a short chapter in the first person. The next chapter begins in the second person:
But now I look at it like this: She had tied herself to the wrong future.
You wait. You wait in minutes of hopes and days of hopelessness.
Furthermore, most of the book takes place in a prison cell where a man simply waits. Malamud makes us feel the passage of time and its effect on the prisoner, but it never gets old (for the reader). Malamud keeps the narrative moving while adding segments where the form makes the reader stop to consider the passage of time:
Thus the days went by. Each day went by alone. It crawled along like a dying thing. Sometimes, if he thought about it, three days went by, but the third was the same as the first. It was the first day because he could not say that three single days, counted, came to something they did not come to if they were not counted. One day crawled by. Then one day. Then one day. Never three.
Malamud’s characters are full, realistic portraits of conflicted human beings. They are inspiring and heroic or repulsive and evil without being elevated to the unreal. Their interactions (and the results) are as intricately drawn as anything Dickens could dream up but without that feeling of convenience so common in Dickens; on the contrary, this book feels at once unbelievable and entirely real.
And as far as Roth connections go, Malamud also explicitly analyzes how history overtakes individuals.
Once you leave you’re out in the open; it rains and snows. It snows history, which means what happens to somebody starts in a web of events outside the personal. It starts of course before he gets there. We’re all in history, that’s sure, but some are more than others, Jews more than some.
Malamud is often included with Roth and Bellow as being one of the three largest figures in American Jewish literature in the mid- to late-twentieth century (sorry to Norman Mailer, though one of his nonfiction pieces, The Armies of the Night (1968), won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize). But Malamud has, to a degree, been lost in the cracks. Bellow studies are strong in universities, and his books regularly take up a shelf in bookstores. Roth is still a best-selling author whose books take up even more shelves in bookstores. With Malamud, however, sometimes I’ve struggled to find any of his books in the bookstore, and I never heard of a Malamud conference when I was in academia (not to say there isn’t one, but if there is it isn’t a large point on the radar).
I’m trying to figure out why this is so. Is it justified? While I thought The Fixer was an enjoyable book, a fantastic book, a stylistic book, an important—even vital—book, I don’t think it is as complicated or nuanced as Roth and Bellow. Perhaps that’s why he’s slipping away. Then again, this is the only one I’ve read, and I plan on doing my part to keep him around by reading his entire oeuvre.
My first new book of 2009 set a high standard I hope is met by many more books written this year. Lark and Termite (2009) received an extremely positive review from Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times daily. Just a couple of weeks later, the New York Times Book Review, which runs independent of the daily book reviews, also gave a positive review. On that same day, the Washington Post printed yet another positive review. Who can resist reading such a highly praised book? Who can know if that praise will set up unattainable expectations, making the book less than expected, and therefore disappointing?
The book begins on July 26, 1950. On the other side of the world from where he left his pregnant wife Lola, Corporal Robert Leavitt is directing a group of soldiers and Korean civilians in a plan to help the Korean civilians escape advancing North Korean forces. As he walks, Leavitt straddles two worlds: the immediate, urgent world of the war and the march and the vaulted, dreamy (indeed, visionary) world of home where his wife is expecting the child to be born any day. The narrative shifts from one world to the other almost seamlessly, rendering an almost halucinogenic effect similar to what I felt in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (O’Brien, incidentally, said that Lark and Termite is the best book he’s read in the last five years). And even as the narrative of what’s going on in Leavitt’s head, Phillips keeps the reader focused on the setting by pausing the narrative with haunting descriptions:
Smoke veils the air like souls in drifting suspension, declining the war’s insistence everyone move on.
While directing the civilians, Leavitt sees a young Korean girl holding an apparently blind and perhaps handicapped Korean boy. The girl is refusing to walk because next to her is an old Korean woman who refuses to move. The girl cannot handle this old woman and the young child. Leavitt, disregarding the instructions he had just voiced to his men (“Monitor, do not assist.”), goes over to help. The narrative pauses, momentarily, as the young boy is briefly introduced. There is no doubt the boy is blind, as his eyes are covered by a blue film. However, the boy seemed hyper-aware of what was going on and sensed before anyone the coming onslaught.
Moving quickly, edging through, he feels the boy’s small body go rigid, his apprehension heighten to a nearly audible pitch; Leavitt imagines the clear, high tone of a tuning fork struck in midair. It’s that kind of focus, emotionless and pure, so sharply true that nothing else exists.
Bullets fly all around as U.S. planes begin strafing the area, wounding Leavitt as he runs with the three Koreans into a tunnel where they become trapped by paranoid friendly fire. When Leavitt is wounded, the borders between reality and halucination disappear and the boundaries of perceived reality give way to another sensation of reality.
The book then proceeds to July 26, 1959 and introduces three other main characters who will narrate portions of the book. Lark, Termite, and Nonie reside in West Virginia. It doesn’t take too long before we understand the family dynamic. Termite, now nine, is the baby Leavitt never gets to meet. He’s severely handicapped. Some characters don’t believe he understands a thing about what is going on. Lark, however, believes he does even if he doesn’t experience it in the same way and even if he cannot express it the same way. Lark, seventeen, is Termite’s half-sister, Lola”s daughter from another relationship. Nonie is Lola’s sister, and all we see suggests that Lola is out of the picture and that Nonie has been raising both children as if they’re her own.
She chuckles and shakes her head. “Poor Lola, gone so long and still the elephant in the room. She got what she wanted, in a way. Well out of it and still pulling the strings.”
“There aren’t any strings,” I tell Elise. “There’s just what happened.”
“There’s Lark,” Elise says, “and there’s Termite.”
She offers me a cigarette and I take it. We stand here smoking, adjusting to the heat.
There are several ties to William Faulkner throughout the book. Indeed, one of its three epigrams is from The Sound and the Fury. And like that novel, Lark and Termite divides its chapters into discreet narratives from the perspective of one of the main characters – and one of the characters is severely handicapped. Also, a running theme in Faulkner is the tie between the generations. However, where Faulkner seemed to focus on how the sins of the fathers affects later generations, Phillips shows a more touching and perhaps deeper connection between the generations. In her novel, the characters seem to feel each other across the ether of time and space. This renders an effect that is at once haunting and touching. Here is a small passage where the connection between Termite and the Korean boy is particularly apparent:
Gently, she turns the boy’s head so that his gaze falls unseeing on Leavitt’s face. The uneven blue of his pupils is impenatrable, depthless and cloudy, but the blue seems quietly, deeply lit. The blue never wavers. What does he see behind it. Shadows. Sounds. Leavitt doesn’t ask but the boy inclines his head as though to answer.
And now, to Termite’s time:
There’s a picture inside the roar, a tunnel inside the tunnel. He’s been here before and he looks deeper each time and he sees. There are sleepers everywhere, bodies crowded together. The bodies are always here, so many of them in the tunnel when the train roars across above, bodies spilled and still, barely stirring. The train pulls and lifts and shows them and lets them move. They know he sees them but they cannot see or say. No sounds, just the roar, lifting them with their eyes still closed, turning them over like the pages of a book.
Also, much like Faulker, the events in the novel remove themselves from the sphere of straight narrative and become something not so much abstract as mythical. A tunnel is a womb and a tomb. A pending rainstorm brings a scourging and purging flood. One is struck by the power of such images. Further, music and sound run through the novel just as much as the words on the page. Phillips utilizes the feel of sound and injects it into the books form, giving the novel some wonderful texture.
Jayne Anne Phillips has graciously agreed to answer a few questions I put to her, but she’s been busy on her book tour and has not been able to finish the interview quite yet. Hopefully in the near future her interview will appear here.
Never one to shirk a worthy challenge, I decided to venture outside the usual scope of this blog and review a children’s book, one whose characters are so ubiquitous that it might seem a bit redundant—but I certainly don’t believe that. The other day Kevin from Canada had an interesting post on creating a reading legacy. There Kevin puts two dovegreyreader posts together: one on the inner child and one on the outer beauty of books. It came up that I’m a big fan of Winnie-the-Pooh and that Kevin has some story from the sixties that involves Pooh (he’s promised to share). Biased since Pooh himself is Canadian (I learned!) Kevin suggested I review Winnie-the-Pooh here. Happily.
After our marriage but some time before our first son was born, my wife gifted me A.A. Milne’s The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh. Published in 1994, it compiles the two Winnie-the-Pooh books: Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928).
This particular edition is beatiful. Hardcover, complete with a ribbon marker, full color original illustrations by Ernest H. Shepard (which is a must, as fun as Disney’s permutations are), it really is a great addition to a home library, espeically one intended to be passed on to the next generation. It’s a $40 book, but on Amazon.com you can get it at a steal for $25.20.
In 2006, when Winnie-the-Pooh turned 80, another beautiful edition was published to celebrate, tempting my wife and I to invest more money not just in our library but in Winnie-the-Pooh. This one, also hardback, sports a die-cut window in the dust jacket, revealing the art on the cover. Here each book is sold separately for $20, but again it’s a steal on Amazon (.com and .co.uk) with a total cost around $26. (And no, I’m getting nothing from Amazon by bringing them into this).
I don’t have these two editions yet, but we have two sons . . . why not two editions of Winnie-the-Pooh? And what am I going to do when they leave? Maybe a beautiful 100 year edition will be available then. I’ll wait. After they leave, I might never be able to read the last few stories again. It’s hard enough even while they’re young.
Both Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner contain ten stories (perfect for one-a-night or even one-half-a-night routines). Included are some classics, some made popular by Disney: “In Which Pooh Goes Visiting and Gets Into a Tight Place,” “In Which Eeyore Loses a Tail and Pooh Finds One,” “In Which A House Is Built at Pooh Corner for Eeyore,” and my favorite “In Which Christopher Robin and Pooh Come to an Enchanted Place, and We Leave Them There.”
Even though these are children’s stories, they fit all of my criteria for any great book. First, I am fascinated by style. As a child, I didn’t pay attention to Milne’s technique, but reading it again recently I have several times reread sentences. Milne knew what he was doing, and he obviously took this work very seriously, knowing that even though it was for children it could also communicate to adults in profound ways. To do this, Milne adopts a very simple-sounding prose style, but digging into the construction, Milne’s diction and syntax are far from natural. Yet it flows, and it is perfect. Furthermore, Milne somehow creates a range of distinct voices for all of the characters, and reading them interact with each other is much of the fun. For example, Winnie-the-Pooh’s roundabout, humble, self-doubting without being self-depracating way of speaking is inimitable. We get a sense of this in the introductory paragraph:
Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it. And then he feels that perhaps there isn’t. Anyhow, here he is at the bottom, and ready to be introduced to you. Winnie-the-Pooh.
As I’m sure you know, Milne’s characters are each unique and skillfully drawn out over the short stories as they interact. My favorite relationship in the book, the one that resonated the most, is between Pooh and Piglet. Through these two characters Milne shows what it is like to truly love someone exactly as they are. There is confidence in the relationship and joy in mere presence, and in simple sentences Milne portrays a full set of emotions I’ve never been able to put into words.
“I wonder what Piglet is doing,” thought Pooh.
“I wish I were there to be doing it, too.”
As I said, Milne’s sense for sentence construction is superb and on display here. He could have said—and most would—”I wish I were there doing it too.” But the inclusion of “to be” changes the feel, makes Pooh a bit more unique while showing his care for Piglet. Furthermore, read out loud, it is very pleasant in its rhythm and rhyme. It manages, while skirting the line of formal English, to come off child-like but not childish. I’m not sure I’m capable of explaining why, but that’s how it feels to me.
Also a book, to be great, has to touch on larger themes without shoving them in your face as is all too common in contemporary fiction. Milne succeeds. In Pooh, as in life, things like friendship, life, death, etc., are omnipresent, yet somewhat just outside our thoughts most of the time. Without knowing what’s happening, we feel them, and they find a way to influence the quotidian. Simple events, while allowed to remain simple, represent some of the most profound elements of life. To me this is particularly present as Christopher Robin slowly ceases to be a strong presence in the narrative. One day, there’s a sign on Christopher Robin’s door saying he’s gone to school, be back soon. Innocent at first, but we all know where this is going.
Then, suddenly again, Christopher Robin, who was still looking at the world, with his chin in his hands, called out “Pooh!”
“Yes?” said Pooh.
“Yes, Christopher Robin?”
“I’m not going to do Nothing any more.”
“Well, not so much. They don’t let you.”
Pooh waited for him to go on, but he was silent again.
“Yes, Christopher Robin?” said Pooh helpfully.
“Pooh, when I’m—you know—when I’m not doing Nothing, will you come up here sometimes?”
“Will you be here too?”
To continue on DGR and KFC’s ideas then, here is my contribution to bringing out the inner child. Turns out it’s much more than that.
Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. “Pooh,” he whispered.
“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw, “I just wanted to be sure of you.”
W.G. Sebald. I’ve finally entered his pages which, since (and maybe before) his tragic early death, have become somewhat hallowed. For good reason. His books are so incredibly unique that they resist classification—fiction? nonfiction? history? mystery? travelogue? biography? autobiography? Who knows? He wrote only four books of, to go with the general term, fiction: Vertigo (Schwindel, 1990; tr. from the German by Michael Hulse, 1999), The Emigrants (1992, German; 1996, English), The Rings of Saturn (1995, German; 1998, English), and Austerlitz (2001 in both languages; National Book Critics Circle Award). He also wrote three books of poetry and one massive essay, On the Natural History of Destruction(1997). But just as his work was gaining prominence and he was becoming accepted as a literary master, tipped by Horace Engdahl himself to be have been a deserving recipient of the Nobel Prize, he was killed in a car crash in December 2001, leaving behind these four ellusive yet intimate books.
I admit, I think 9/10s of this book went over my head. But before you jump to the conclusion that therefore I didn’t like it, I should say that that actually made the book very appealing. Let me explain: The book contains many many historical references to an area I know little about, namely, Northern Italy and Southern Germany. I’ve never travelled the route between Vienna and Verona. Vertigo also tracks the pathway of three historical figures whom I know relatively little about: Stendhal, Casanova, and Kafka. But seeking to figure out just where I was and just who I was reading about was part of the fun. For example, I read the entire first short chapter about Henri-Marie Beyle before I stumbled onto the lead that that was Stendhal’s real name and that I’d been reading about Stendhal the whole time. Vertigo is rich with historical and geographical detail that, amazingly, didn’t inhibit my enjoyment of the book but further piqued my curiosity. It helps that Sebald’s prose, translated wonderfully by Michael Hulse (who worked closely with Sebald in the process), is unassuming yet mystical, plain yet poetic. Though I knew little about the place, Sebald evoked it in my mind.
The narrator is of this unusual book is Sebald himself, sort of. Perhaps suffering from Stendhal syndrome, perhaps from some other more sinister anxiety, this narrator has returned to the land between Verona and Vienna years after having left his hometown of W. in Bavaria (I have been to Bavaria), to live in England. However, the book deals particularly with two trips the narrator took to Northern Italy in 1980 and then again to the same region in 1987, ultimately leading him to revisit W. for the first time in thirty years. Interspersed in these travelogues are details about the narrator’s own hysteria, his own inability to get out and enjoy the scenery which so powerfully evokes memory and history. We also come to know the reason he cut his 1980 trip short. Also taking up substantial room are narrated accounts from the life of, as I said above, Stendhal, Casanova, and Kafka, all intertwining with the narrator’s account of his own journey which follows the footsteps of these writers. Indeed, the narrator makes a fool of himself on a bus by asking some parents for a picture of their twin boys because they look strikingly similar to the young Kafka. After the incident, Sebald tells of hiding himself in the open bus, looking forward to the shadows afforded by tunnels. The narrator’s character is an enigma because he is, in some ways, an anxious man, almost agorophobic at times (at least in this region of the world), but with a strong sensitivity to place and to people.
Besides the interest in the historical and geographical context, the book’s real intrigue is in its dealing with memory’s role in history and in our lives. This is why Sebald is now venerated. His elegiac style ties his characters together with the same strings he uses to capture us. He introduces the idea of memory on the second page when Stendhal is thinking back on his experiences during the Napoleonic war:
The notes in which the 53-year-old Beyle, writing during a sojourn at Civitavecchia, attempted to relive the tribulations of those days afford eloquent proof of the various difficulties entailed in the act of recollection. At times his view of the past consists of nothing but grey patches, then at others images appear of such extraordinary clarity he feels he can scarce credit them—such as that of General Marmont, whom he believes he saw at Martigny to the left of the track along which the column was moving clad in royal- and sky-blue robes of a Councillor of State, an image which he still beholds precisely thus, Beyle assures us, whenever he closes his eyes and pictures that scene, although he is well aware that at this time Marmont must have been wearing his general’s uniform and not the blue robes of state.
So we see from the beginning that memory, while vivid, perhaps especially when vivid, is also faulty, yet it has the power to transform our perspective of the event itself. Along those same lines, but in the other direction, Sebald also offers up a case for memory being better than a picture:
This being so, Beyle’s advice is not to purchase engravings of fine views and prospects seen on one’s travels, since before very long they will displace our memories completely, indeed one might say they destroy them.
This last statement in particular is quite ironic since Sebald has peppered his pages (in this book and in his others) with images—drawings, portraits, scenic views, ticket stubs, etc.—that, besides making the book feel more like a travelogue or history book, subvert the above statement as well as Sebald’s own prose depictions. The design of the book alongside with statements about the power and faults of images, particularly reproduced images, reminded me immediately of Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. Different in objective, these two massive essays of the twentieth century revolve around the phenomenon of the visual reproduction of images. Benjamin’s essay says that the visual reproduction of art emancipates the art from its aura—the mystical qualities art assumes based on its hierarchy of ownership, its limited display, its location of display, etc.—which allows it to become more fully subject to critique from even the lower rungs of society, effectively eliminating the aristrocratic hold on art up to the twentieth century. While I didn’t get a whiff of marxism in Sebald’s book, the concept of the aura is there. Baudrillard’s essay deals with the layering of images that effectively anihilates the original. This book definitely has layer upon layer and plays with that theme not just in its images but also in its narrative structure.
These fairly complex themes come together in a brilliant way when the narrator returns again to W.:
A good thirty years had gone by since I had last been in W. In the course of that time—by far the longest period of my life—many of the localities I associated with it, such has the Altachmoos, the parish woods, the tree-lined lane that led to Haslach, the pumping station, Petersthal cemetery where the plague dead lay, or the house in Schray where Dopfer the hunchback lived, had continually returned in my dreams and daydreams and had become more real to me than they had been then, yet the village itself, I reflected, as I arrived at that late hour, was more remote from me than any other place I could conceive of.
One doesn’t need an extensive understanding of twentieth-century aesthetic theory or of the historical context to enjoy Vertigo. Much of that only serves to show just how much this book holds, just how many times the reader could revisit this book and still glean more. At the same time, the book as its own discreet entity holds enough power to captivate the reader. As I said above, the prose is beautiful, and I felt myself taken away by the images Sebald creates with words. I can echo a statement made by one of the characters and apply it gratefully to Sebald’s book:
Once I am at leisure, said Salvatore, I take refuge in prose as one might in a boat. All day long I am surrounded by the clamour on the editorial floor, but in the evening I cross over to an island, and every time, the moment I read the first sentence, it is as if I were rowing far out on the water.
I have apparently been grossly negligent in my reading. Many times people have recommended I read something—anything—by Cynthia Ozick, but I figured I’d get to it . . . later . . . maybe when I had read everything else I already had to read. It’s not that I had anything against Ozick, but there is so so much to read already. But I was in the bookstore and saw that one of her most famous works, The Shawl (1989), was a mere 70 pages. Not such a burden to undertake.
Did I say burden? This was no burden. And the benefit was extremely high, a highlight in an already good year of reading. I began it late one night as a bit of reading before bed, and I finished it the next morning before I did anything else.
The Shawl in book form is actually composed of two short stories (well, it says one short story and one novella) first published in The New Yorker: “The Shawl” (May 26, 1980) and its sequel “Rosa” (March 21, 1983). Both short stories went on to win the O’Henry Award, the prestigious (the only) annual short story award.
“The Shawl” nearly prevented me from sleeping. It took me only about ten minutes to read, but there is a lot of power packed into that short space. Much like the best short-short works of Chekov, here Ozick draws us in emotionally and physically in a short time and then, in just a few sentences, drains us. It was a wonderful experience.
Okay, a little about the events. It’s a Holocaust story involving three females: Rosa, a twenty-something mother; Magda, Rosa’s just-walking fifteen-month-old daughter; and Stella, Rosa’s teenage niece. The three are being herded into a concentration camp.
Rosa did not feel hunger; she felt light, not like someone walking but like someone in a faint, in trance, arrested in a fit, someone who is already a floating angel, alert and seeing everything, but in the air, not there, not touching the road.
Because the child would otherwise be killed, Rosa hides the skinny Magda in a shawl which she carries next to her own depleted body.
Such a good child, she gave up screaming, and sucked now only for the taste of the drying nipple itself. The neat grip of the tiny gums. One mite of a tooth tip sticking up in the bottom gum, how shining, an elfin tombstone of white marble gleaming there. Without complaining, Magda relinquished Rosa’s teats, first the left, then the right; both were cracked, not a sniff of milk. The duct-crevice extinct, a dead volcano, blind eye, chill hole, so Magda took the corner of the shawl and milked it instead. She sucked and sucked, flooding the threads with wetness. The shawl’s good flavor, milk of linen.
The shawl takes on a mystical quality—it is both sustaining and hiding Magda. It’s a powerful story, and definitely stands alone despite its short length and the subsequent sequel. If I possessed the skill to write it (I don’t, of course—few do), I don’t think I possess the courage. Thankfully, Ozick has both. And speaking of courage, it was pretty risky of Ozick to attempt a sequel; it easily could have diluted the power of the initial story. Thankfully, “Rosa,” which also could stand on its own, adds without detracting.
“Rosa” begins around thirty years after “The Shawl.” Rosa has survived (“Consider also the special word they used: survivor. Something new. As long as they didn’t have to say human being.”) This story takes place in Miami, Florida, where Rosa has moved to after destroying her shop in New York City. Stella, the niece, has, to an extent, managed to forget what they went through, and she wants Rosa to do the same. But Rosa cannot do that.
“My niece Stella,” Rosa slowly gave out, “says that in America cats have nine lives, but we—we’re less than cats, so we got three. The life before, the life during, the life after.” She saw that Persky did not follow. She said, “The life after is now. The life before is our real life, at home, where we was born.”
“This was Hitler.”
“Poor Lublin,” Persky said.
“You wasn’t there. From the movies you know it.” She recognized that she had shamed him; she had long ago discovered this power to shame. “After, after, that’s all Stella cares. For me there’s one time only; there’s no after.”
Persky speculated. “You want everything the way it was before.”
“No, no, no,” Rosa said. “It can’t be. I don’t believe in Stella’s cats. Before is a dream. After is a joke. Only during stays. And to call it a life is a lie.”
“But it’s over,” Persky said. “You went through it, now you owe yourself something.”
“This is how Stella talks. Stella—” Rosa halted; then she came on the word. “Stella is self-indulgent. She wants to wipe out memory.”
The shawl itself, of course, surfaces again to become central to the story, but this time in a different, completely unexpected way. Wonderful that these two masterpieces have been complied into one masterpiece, short but tremendous.
It continues to surprise me how many things I’ve read, even over just the last year, that reference directly or indirectly the Holocaust. Even more surprising is how from that horrendous history so many individualized works can be produced without making the event trivial or overdone (though some of the individualized works are just that). Here is yet another example of how this history refuses to be washed away by the characters or by literature.
About a year ago there was an article in the New York Times that made me laugh and cringe and that ultimately baffled me.
She [Jinzhao, a Chinese student who immigrated to the United States two years earlier] is inspired by the green light at the end of the dock, which for Jay Gatsby, the self-made millionaire from North Dakota, symbolizes the upper-class woman he longs for. “Green color always represents hope,” Jinzhao said.
“My green light?” said Jinzhao, who has been studying “Gatsby” in her sophomore English class at the Boston Latin School. “My green light is Harvard.”
I thought, is the Times playing around here? Where is this article going to take me? They couldn’t possibly be mocking this poor girl. But then, here is a quote from one of the teachers:
“They all understand what it is to strive for something,” said Susan Moran, who is the director of the English program at Boston Latin and who has been teaching “Gatsby” for 32 years, starting at South Boston High School, “to want to be someone you’re not, to want to achieve something that’s just beyond reach, whether it’s professional success or wealth or idealized love — or a 4.0 or admission to Harvard.”
Though nothing in this quote indicates that Moran thinks the students are wise in their dreams – that the dreams, whether or not attainable, are good dreams — the article itself is apparently unaware of the irony (or sheer honesty) of comparing one’s hope with Gatsby’s greenly lit spurious aspiration. Not once does it bring up the tragedy that is The Great Gatsby (1925).
Many of you know my passion for Joseph O’Neill’s novel Netherland. Well, I have to admit, much of that passion arises from the fact that O’Neill latched on to The Great Gatsby, one of my favorite books (perhaps my favorite book – but I can never be too sure about that statement), and did it proud. It was more than a decade between the first time I read The Great Gatsby and the second. When I began it the second time, I remembered almost nothing of the story. But the images . . . as I read it again I could remember the vivid images and how they made me feel when I was young (it was a great trip into my memories, like hearing a forgotten song). Here’s a particular fresh and refreshing image from the first chapter:
The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.
The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall.
The novel is narrated by Nick Carraway, a young man from Minnesota who has just moved to Long Island to work in bonds in New York. New to the city, a bit unsure whether it’s really the right place for him, he accepts an invitation to visit his cousin, Daisy Buchanan, with whom he grew up and who now lives in a neighboring town on Long Island with her husband and young daughter. It is on this excursion that he meets his cousin and her friend Jordan Baker lying on that couch in the image above, seeming to float in the room. But the bouyancy and dreamlike feel are somewhat subverted when we get a sense of the somber tone of the novel. Daisy tells Nick a bit about her life since she married and moved to New York, and a bit about the birth of her daughter:
I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool — that’s the best thing a girl can be in the world, a beautiful little fool.
Upon returning to his own home, Nick looks next door and sees his neighbor, the eponymous Jay Gatsby, standing on the dock behind his home, looking out across the sea.
But I didn’t call to him, for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone — he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward — and distinguishd nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness.
There we meet the dreamer. Gatsby has fixated his life and all he does on attaining something potentially unattainable: his lost love, Daisy. Learning that his new neighbor is Daisy’s cousin, Gatsby enlists his help in securing Daisy from her waspish husband. Gatsby is not the only one who uses Nick or who abuses Nick’s good natured nuetrality. Daisy’s husband, for example, thinks nothing of taking Nick along as he meets up with his mistress. Slowly Nick comes to realize that he despises everything about all of these people, their social games, their wasteful lives — that is, he despises everyone escept for the myopic Gatsby, who has done all he could to achieve the kind of life he thinks will help him win Daisy back.
The Great Gatsby is a quick read, surprisingly accessible given the depth of the subject. The American Dream seems alive and well in Gatsby. Sure, being newly rich we get a sense that he is more veneer than substance, but he’s filthy rich. And his true dream is in sight. There are few works so meaningful and few that can convey that meaning so simply.
I put the last chapter as one of the greatest conclusions in literature, alongside James Joyce’s “The Dead” or Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude or Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. A book I think about often and try to read annually, The Great Gatsby stuns me every time. But how could it not with a passage such as this:
And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he niether understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
This review was originally slated to post last Tuesday, the day John Updike died but before his death was announced. I’m not sure how I would have felt about that, but this now gives me the opportunity to put up a sort of review in memorium. I’m not yet familiar with most of Updike’s work. I’ve read only a few of his short stories, and those long enough ago that I don’t remember them though I remember not understanding them. I was in the bookstore a couple of months ago with a coupon for a free book, and I knew I wanted to use it to get to know Updike. Perhaps fortuitously for me, the bookstore did not have any of the Rabbit books (strange, I know). I’d heard good things about Bech though, so I grabbed the first one: Bech: A Book (1970).
This book is actually a collection of short pieces written during the 1960s and published principally in The New Yorker. In them we come to know Updike’s antithetical alterego (or is it correct to say the anti-alterego?), Henry Bech, a Jewish New Yorker whose suffering from writer’s block. Bech has never married, and his behavior at 40 years of age is decidedly curmudgeon. Yet, in him we get a whiff of some of Updike’s own character. Then again, perhaps we get no more here than we get in any other book by any other author. But Updike himself, in his very playful introduction to this collection, suggests there’s at least a bit of him in here.
Well, if you must commit the artistic indecency of writnig about a writer, better I suppose about me than about you. Except, reading along in these, I wonder if it is me, enough me, purely me. At first blush, for example, in Bulgaria (eclectic sexuality, bravura narcissism, thinning curly hari), I sound like some gentlemanly Norman Mailer; then that London glimpse of silver hair glints more of gallant, glamorous Bellow, the King of the Leprechauns, than of stolid old homely yours truly. My childhood seems out of Alex Portnoy and my ancestral past out of I.B. Singer. I get a whiff of Malamud in your city breezes, and I am paranoid to feel my “block” an ignoble version of the more or less noble renunciations of H. Roth, D. Fuchs, and J. Salinger? Withal, something Waspish, theological, scared, and insulatingly ironical that derives, my wild surmise is, from you.
It is also in this introduction that I was really introduced to Updike’s love for poetry and wordgames. He obviously had fun writing these stories:
I don’t suppose your publishing this little jeu of a book will do either of us drastic harm.
However, though the introduction started me off on the right foot, the first story “Rich in Russia” confused me. I was expecting to really get a sense for this character. Updike’s linguistic flavor was present (“Virtue, in Russia as in his childhood, seemed something that arose from men, like a comforting body odor, rather than something from above, that impaled the struggling soul like a moth on a pin.”), but I didn’t care for Bech himself. It’s not that I didn’t like Bech. I really didn’t care one way or the other. My disinterestedness continued in the second story, “Bech in Rumania; or, The Rumanian Chauffeur.”
These were interesting stories in their own way. Bech, not getting too much out in the publishing world these days, has been invited to tour the countries of Eastern Europe. In his encounters we get a sense for the man. But like I said, I was not engaged.
All of this changed with the subsequent stories: “The Bulgarian Poetess,” “Bech Takes Pot Luck,” “Bech Panics,” “Bech Swings?,” and finally “Bech Enters Heaven.” The many things I’d heard about Bech - how compelling his particular mixture of libido and impotence was, how offbeat his observations were, how well Updike filled this man up with life, etc. – came to be in me. I guess I like my alter-ego authors to have some sort of existential crisis. It began with this beauty of a line: “Actuality is a running impoverishment of possibility.” Suddenly Bech the man became accessible to me on a deeper level, and surprisingly to me, his first stories – the ones I’d discounted – became significant.
My personal favorite was “Bech Panics.” It begins this way:
This moment in Bech’s pilgrimage must be approached reverently, hesitantly, as befits a mystery. We have these few slides: Bech posing before a roomful of well-groomed girls spread seraglio-style on the floor, Bech lying awake in the frily guest room of a dormitory, Bech conversing beside a granite chapel with a woman in a purple catsuit, Bech throwing himself like a seed upon the leafy sweet earth of Virginia, within a grove of oaks on the edge of the campus, and mutely begging Someone, Something, for mercy.
In this story, we meet up with Bech a few months into the relationship he began at the end of “Bech Takes Pot Luck” (“As to love, he had been recently processed by a pair of sisters, first the one, and then the other; the one was neurotic and angular and harsh and glamorous and childless and exhausting, and the other had been sane and soft and plain and maternal and exhausting.”). A southern female voice calls him on the phone to invite him to speak to an all-girls college in Virginia. Bech, who doesn’t accept invitations to speak at Columbia two subway stops away, takes this chance to get one thousand miles away from his latest mistress, or perhaps I’m being unfair there. What he finds when he arrives is a great crisis of his faith – no, not in the Jewish religion, Bech doesn’t believe in that, but in his faith in himself, in his being, in his own value as an author, and in the value of art itself.
He saw that even in an age of science and unbelief our ideas are dreams, styles, superstitions, mere animal noises intended to repel or attract. He looked around the ring of munching females and saw their bodies as a Martian or a mollusc might see them, as pulpy stalks of bundled nerves oddly pinched to a bud of concentration in the head, a hairy bone knob holding some pounds of jelly in which a trillion circuits, mostly dead, kept records, coded motor operations, and generated an excess of electricity that pressed into the hairless side of the head and leaked through orifices, in the form of pained, hopeful noises and a simian dance of wrinkles. Impossible mirage! A blot on nothingness. And to think that all the efforts of his life – his preening, his lovemaking, his typing – boiled down to the attempt to displace a few sparks, to bias a few circuits, within some random other scoops of jelly that would, in less time than it takes the Andreas Fault to shrug or the tail-tip star of Scorpio to crawl an inch across the map of Heaven, be utterly dissolved.
I’m not sure, had I encountered the first few stories in The New Yorker, I would have been able to follow them. As I said above, the stories came alive as they built on one another. For me, these stories work best in book form, all compiled into one place, ready to be read as if a novel and not as discreet parts. And now that I’m done with Bech: A Book, I can’t wait to get a hold of Bech Is Back and Bech at Bay. Perhaps I’ll encounter them on some library shelf in the Mid-West. I think that would make Updike happy.