In anticipation of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize, I thought it might be nice to look a few past winners (by the way, don’t miss out on the opportunity to win a $75 gift certificate for books from KevinfromCanada by picking this year’s Pulitzer).
I first read The Road (2006; Pulitzer) shortly after it came out and shortly after my first son was born. It struck me so profoundly that on the day the Pulitzer Prize was announced I was in such a state of anxiety that one would have thought I had written the book. Honestly, I don’t care who wins the Pulitzer, but that year I wanted it to win. It won, I think, against the odds (it had <warning: potentially alienating bias> already been nabbed by Oprah). I know that some of the reason this book touched me so much was because I was (I still am) very touched and overcome by my relationship with my son (sons now). It’s something I never expected and cannot explain. Yet somehow, in a bleak—some say depressing—postapoalyptic novel, McCarthy communicated a father-son relationship incredibly well. No doubt McCarthy’s relationship with his recently born son informed his writing. This review might seem heavy on that perspective, so I’m interested in how others responded to this book.
In the first sentence, McCarthy shows the father-son relationship:
When he awoke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath.
That was not sentimental. That was not sentimental. It’s what I still do every night. And I’m not living on the side of a road in the cold. I also like this opener because with such conciseness we get a sense for the repetitious passage of time. The verb tense shows that this is not one particular night but rather any number of nights, perhaps every night, for a while now.
The world is gray, and ash falls in the place of snow. Something awful has happened—what, we’re never told, and it doesn’t matter because that’s not the point. We have few details, but we know that it happened shortly after the son was born, so this son knows no other world. The father and son have been travelling because the father knows they could not survive another winter where they were. So they set off south across the United States and apparently into Mexico, looking for the sea, using the road, hoping to make it to a warmer climate.
The father sees little hope in the world. He has lost faith. Though they are travelling to a warmer climate, he has no idea what they will find there, if anything, and he knows they could die in any number of ways during their course. However, he maintains a pretense for the son, who is trusting and good natured. His son’s demeanor is dangerous, actually, since the son often wants to help those they meet on the road. The father would sooner have nothing to do with others; he’s seen what could happen. I found the father’s pretenses to be particularly touching and insightful. Despite his own lack of hope, he wants his son to have it. Somehow, this expresses a deep, desperate faith in humanity that the father can’t help but cling too for his son’s sake—it would be too painful otherwise.
That the father has lost hope and faith is completely understandable, however. Though not nearly as violent as McCarthy’s magnum opus Blood Meridian (I haven’t yet managed to get through Blood Meridian, in fact, because of the violence, though I found it brilliant), The Road is still a violent book. And as in Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men, the violence is sudden and McCarthy is almost as disinterested and descriptive as a detailed crime report, not romanticizing violence by any means, but not shying away from a matter-of-fact description, say, <warning: violent image> of a beheaded infant roasting on a spit. It is this world the father sees all around him, and it is difficult for him to reconcile the ugliness of this world with the beauty he sees in his son. How can the two coexist?
And what is the point? Why seek to perpetuate existence in such a world? The father knows that the son’s fate is potentially going to be worse than death. That’s why he carries a pistol with two bullets, one for his son and one for him should they be captured by the marauding cannibals. If brought to that point, could he do it?
I think McCarthy’s prose style, which I admire greatly, found its best substance here. Always laconic, always complex while seeming simple, here the form fits its function: it mimics existence in an intense but mundane thousand mile walk on a road. The book is broken up into many small sections, each running for half a page to a few pages at most. Again, I think this form mimics the tension they feel and what must have been a fairly laconic, bare essentials existence.
Yet in all of this simpleness, there is a layer of complexity and linguistic virtuosity. Though he most often uses blunt Anglo-Saxon words (which, again, I find fitting in this book), he’s the type of writer you should read to study for the verbal section of the GRE. Here are a few: granitic, collet, chifforobe, discalced, macadam, woad, tang (of a shovel), bolus, knurled, isocline, patteran). McCarthy also knows how to use ordinary words in new, but obvious ways (even James Wood said McCarthy was almost Shakespearean in his capacity to use old words in new ways. For example, when using a pair of binoculars, the father “glasses” the land (could be new just to me). And in the next paragraph, sands are coagulate and a fire is feral.
They stood on the far shore of a river and called to him. Tattered gods slouching in their rags across the waste. Trekking the dried floor of a mineral sea where it lay cracked and broken like a fallen plate. Paths of feral fire in the coagulate sands. The figures faded in the distance. He woke and lay in the dark.
I also like the above passage because it shows the almost pre-civilization view of the world and the gods. There are several eerie places where one gets the sense that this is a ravaged world ruled by gods more like ghosts, haunting but almost not there. This paragraph also contains another of McCarthy’s references to a W.B. Yeats poem. Assuming, as I’m sure he does, McCarthy knows Yeats’s philosophies—what all the gyres mean—and used some of it in structuring this book, it is a fascinatingly ambiguous venture into hope and despair.
After finishing I Married a Communist—which I didn’t like—I didn’t know how long it’d be before I gained the courage to read the next book in Roth’s America trilogy, The Human Stain (2000; PEN/Faulkner). But I did know that for many The Human Stain is Roth’s best book. And unlike I Married a Communist, The Human Stain was critically acclaimed and seemed to hark back to the success of American Pastoral, which I loved. So I picked The Human Stain off the stack and didn’t ever want to put it down again.
I don’t know how to begin to take the measure of this book. Beginning with a broad stroke, the book overtly reaches back to the great themes of the Greek tragedies and arranges them in the unlikely context of America in 1998. In the first few pages we meet this book’s Jewish protagonist, Coleman Silk, fortunate enough to have his life analyzed, turned around, and reanalyzed by our narrator, Nathan Zuckerman. Coleman is a seventy-one year-old classics professor voluntarily exiled from Athena College, where he was once a king. Coleman has just informed Nathan Zuckerman that as a mistress he has a thirty-four year-old cleaning woman from the college. In a short span of sentences we learn this even as Roth zooms his lense out to introduce the setting and some of the themes of the novel: we get the American flag waving in the back ground; Nathan explains “the ecstasy of sanctimony”; and we learn that it “was the summer when a president’s penis was on everyone’s mind, and life, in all its shameless impurity, once again confounded America.”
In excellent Roth form, the narrative takes us back and forth through time and location until we get a sense of who Coleman Silk is and why he is being cast as the protagonist in a Greek tragedy. He has caused an uproar in his community because one day in class he asked about two students who had as yet never attended class: “Do they exist? Or are they spooks?” It turns out the two students are black, and they soon file a complaint to the dean of faculty, and, surprisingly, many faculty members side with the students, claiming that Professor Silk was racist. Here is the chorus, clamoring for purification. It is clear, however, that Coleman was not being racist; nevertheless, things get so ugly he resigns out of principle and vows to fight the college. In the midst of the struggle, his wife dies, he claims because of the stress the college placed on them. Now in exile, Coleman has settled with Faunia Farley, the new mistress who pretends she is illiterate.
The story soon takes an unexpected twist, however. Nathan Zuckerman takes us back into Coleman Silk’s hidden past, where we find that he was raised in East Orange, New Jersey, in a black family. Yes, Coleman himself is a black man wearing the mask of a white Jew. Indeed, one could say that his profession, his college, and all, that he is more white than most white men. This might appear unbelievable, but this has happened, particularly in the time before the Civil Rights movement when it was just so much easier to get around (let alone get a job) as a white man in America. If you were pale enough, it could work. Roth delves into the mind of a man who would cast off his birth and family to assume a new role. Even before his momentous decision to live life as a white man, Coleman resents being classified with a group. Here is a passage taken from when he has left home to attend Howard, one of the nation’s most prestigious black colleges.
Overnight the raw I was part of a we with all of the of the we’s overbearing solidity, and he didn’t want anything to do with it or with the next oppressive we that came along either. You finally leave home, the Ur of we, and you find another we? Another place that’s just like that, the substitute for that?
We spend many pages on Coleman’s childhood and adolescence (all excellent pages), and we sense the oppressive atmosphere bearing down on this incredibly successful black man even in Roth’s subersive prose:
Yet on the Silks’ own modest tree-lined side street ordinary people needed not to be quite so responsible to God and the state as those whose vocation it was to maintain a human community, swimming pool and all, untainted by the impurities, and so the neighbors were on the whole friendly with the ultra-respectable, light-skinned Silks—Negroes, to be sure, but, in the words of one tolerant mother of a kindergarten playmate of Coleman’s, “people of a very pleasing shade, rather like eggnog”—even to the point of borrowing a tool or a ladder or helping to figure out what was wrong with the car when it wouldn’t start. The big apartment house at the corner remained all white until after the war. Then, in late 1945, when colored people began coming in at the Orange end of the street—the families of professional men mainly, of teachers, doctors, and dentists—there was a moving van outside the apartment building every day, and half the white tenants disappeared within months. But things soon settled down, and, though the landlord of fthe apartment building began renting to colored just in order to keep the place going, the whites who remained in the immediate neighborhood stayed around until they had a reason other than Negrophobia to leave.
Coleman’s white family does not know about his past. It is like a sin waiting to be uncovered, one that could be uncovered in the most tragic way, say when one of his children marries a white man but has a black child. Hopefully, if nothing else has, this gives a sense for how this book has the feel of Oedipus or The Bacchae. Roth weaves this strange secret into Coleman’s current life in 1998, and the irony is rich:
As a force, propriety is protean, a dominatrix in a thousand disguises, infiltratin, if need be, as civic responsibility, WASP dignity, women’s rights, black pride, ethnic allegiance, or emotion-laden Jewish ethical sensitivity. It’s not as though Marx or Freud or Darwin or Stalin or Hitler or Mao had never happened—it’s as though Sinclair Lewis had not happened. It’s, he though, as though Babbit had never been written. It’s as though not even that most basic level of imaginative thought had been admitted into consciousness to cause the slightest disturbance. A century of destruction unlike any other in its extremity befalls and blights the human race—scores of millions of ordinary people condemned to suffer deprivation upon deprivation, atrocity upon atrocity, evil upon evil, half the world or more subjected to pathological sadism as social policy, whole societies organized and fettered by the fear of violent persecution, the degradation of individual life engineered on a scale unknown throughout human history, nations broken and enslaved by ideological criminals who rob them of everything, entire populations so demoralized as to be unable to get out of bed in the morning with the minutest desire to face the day . . . all the terrible touchstones presented by this century, and here they are up in arms about Faunia Farley. Here in America either it’s Faunia Farley or it’s Monica Lewisnsky! The luxury of these lives disquieted so by the inappropriate comportment of Clinton and Silk! This, in 1998, is the wickedness they have to put up with. This, in 1998, is their torture, their torment, and their spiritual death.
One might think the weight of these large themes, would crush the individual characters in the novel, that the characters would be mere props for Roth’s ambitious trek through humanity. However, Roth achieves here what he himself calls the “juxtaposition of grandeur and intimacy” (yes, there’s metafiction at work here too; isn’t Roth always a bit solipsistic? a bit metafictional?). Despite these large themes working in the background, the characters remain fixed in the foreground, completely in focus. The characters are always given priority over theme. Indeed, in this book Roth succeeds in introducing us intimately to more characters than in any other Roth novel that I’ve read. Roth takes the time to explore these lives, from Coleman Silk and Faunia Farley, to Coleman’s nemesis at the college, Delphine Roux, and Faunia’s ex-husband Lester Farley. Roth even takes the time to put a personal face on a herd of milk cows and a black crow. Somehow, in all of the tangle that would normally be confusion in such an ambitious story, Roth is able to shine the light on the perfect detail to bring his characters achingly to life without distracting the reader from the whole, and that whole never distracts us from its pieces. This is master craftsmanship at work.
Yesterday KevinfromCanada pointed out that my blog runs slowly and that when you post comments they sometimes don’t appear for a long time. I’m hoping to remedy the problems and make this site if not perfect at least less frustrating to access.
So, if you have experienced any difficulties on my site, in any way at all, please let me know by posting a comment here or by accessing my “Report a Problem” forum (which is not up quite yet, but will be soon). I’ll then see what I can do. And if you have never had problems, let me know that too so I can try to isolate the problem others are having.
I think I took care of the comment issue already (my suspicion is that it was a caching issue, that the comment posted immediately but that you couldn’t see it on your own computer until the cache emptied). The speed is something else. I don’t know much about what I’m doing here, so I don’t know if there’s anything to be done. Interestingly, for the first time yesterday, I went to Kevin’s site and it took over a minute to load. Is this a global meltdown?!
Anyway, if you have suggestions for fixes, also leave those.
In the meantime, I hope you’ll keep visiting and commenting on the blog! Don’t forget that I’m still interested in your views on what exactly happened in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.
Henry James pops up everywhere I look. So many of my favorite (and many of my not-so-favorite) writers reach back to him, not only in their writing style but explicitly in their prose. Also, last year in my post on Patrick McGrath’s Asylum many people recommended I read Henry James if I wanted some good ghost stories. And last week when my review of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, the comments made room for Henry James because he is a contemporary of Wharton’s and also roams in the murky contrasts between the United States and European society at the end of the nineteenth century.
Now, I’m not completely ignorant—only mostly ignorant—when it comes to Henry James. I know that he was born in America but basically left that all behind to become British. It is because of his ties to both countries that I have read Daisy Miller a few of times, in a survey course on American Literature and a survey course on British Literature (the only other author that I read in both classes was T.S. Eliot). But, though I loved Daisy Miller, I avoided the sometimes coercive attempts to get me to read James further. Sometimes it’s nice to hold with pride to a bit of ignorance. It shocks people. I did the same thing by successfully avoiding The Wizard of Oz until I was 25, when my urge to watch all 100 of the AFI’s top movies overcame my urge to shock people by saying, “I’ve never seen that.”
And now it’s time to move on and read more Henry James. Looking for something quick to get my palate warmed up, I chose the ghost story—some say the most sophisticated ghost story ever—The Turn of the Screw (1898).
As I have not read that many ghost stories, I cannot say with certainty that this is the most sophisticated, but I believe it. This is one of the most sophisticated narratives I’ve ever read.
Because much of this review will be taken by the structure of the story and how James uses the narrative devices to craft a fantastic look at the psyche, I need to say a word or two now about the writing. This was written in James third period—his last. By this time his syntax is incredibly complicated, subjects tied to multiple verbs strewn throughout sentences filled with multiple interjectory phrases. But that shouldn’t frighten anyone away. It’s invigorating and forces you to examine each word’s meaning. And it’s not all complicated. James doesn’t sacrifice nice phrases and build up:
There was many a corner round which I expected to come upon Quint, and many a situation that, in a merely sinister way, would have favoured the appearance of Miss Jessel. The summer had turned, the summer had gone; the autumn had dropped upon Bly and had blown out half our lights. The place, with its grey sky and withered garlands, its bared spaces and scattered dead leaves, was like a theatre after the performance—all strewn with crumpled playbills.
The novella begins with a curious framing device. An unnamed narrator explains that a few years ago, around Christmas time, a group of sophisticated friends were telling ghost stories to one another. Though it’s obvious this group loves a good ghost story, they are incredibly sceptical. They accept little at face value and interrupt whoever is telling the story many times to read into what the speaker says, whether it be sexual undertones in apparently innocent statements or flagrant romaticism which deserves to be derided. After a successful ghost story involving one child, Douglas, one of the older men in the group, says he has a story about two children that will turn the screw. It’s been forty years or so since he received it from the mouth of his sister’s governess, with whom he was possibly in love, giving some way for derision:
They were all listening now, and of course there was somebody to be arch, or at any rate to draw the inference.
This setup in itself is incredibly sophisticated. In this framing device, James tells his audience how to read the story that is coming: be critical, deride the romantic, read between the lines, draw the inference—raising our expectations. And then James will astound us by clearing by a mile the hurdle he’s set up for himself. So off we go . . .
The main narrative is told in the first person by the unnamed governess. As it begins, she is arriving at Bly, an estate where she will meet her new assignments, Miles and Flora, the orphaned nephew and neice of her new employer, whom she met briefly in London and with whom, in that short time, she fell in love.
At first, all seems innocuous enough. Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, tells her the children are both angels. The governess can’t help but agree when she meets Flora, charming with her mixture of perfect manners and cherubic features. Mrs. Grose assures the governess that Miles, too, is beyond reproach. But even before Miles has arrived from school, an unopened letter arrives accompanied by a note from the employer (“This, I recognise, is from the head-master, and the head-master’s an awful bore. Read him, please; deal with him; but mind you don’t report. Not a word. I’m off!”). The unopened letter is from Miles’s school saying that he has done something unspeakably terrible and is not going to be allowed to return after the holiday. The school didn’t disclose the details. After meeting Miles, the governess cannot imagine what he did that could be so bad because he is so perfect. Furthermore, she cannot bring herself to mention it to Miles, even to figure out what it was to rectify the situation, for fear of corrupting him by speaking about something taboo. And even if she did know, she’s from a time where, if it was truly bad, she wouldn’t write the details of it in her own narrative, which is all we have here. So James allows his reader’s imagination to run wild. Just what did this ten year old angel do? Brilliant! The ambiguity is so great that the spectrum of what this boy could have done is as large as the reader’s imagination. Whatever happened is assumed unspeakable and therefore remains completely unspoken, though James teases the reader with other clues that are equally ambiguous and capable of just as many readings.
The ambiguity increases. One evening the governess is out for a walk, thinking of her employer, wishing he would appear before much like Rochester appears to Jane Eyre, when she sees a man walking around one of Bly’s towers. No one of his description is at Bly. A few days later she sees the man again, staring through the window, looking for someone other than the governess. When she runs out to confront the man, he is no where to be seen. After discussing the matter with Mrs. Grose, the governess finds out that the man fits the description of one Peter Quint, who is dead. Adding to the horror, one day while at the lake with Flora, the governess spots a woman in black watching them. This new presence, the governess is certain, she feels it, is the ghost of Miss Jessel, the governess’s predecessor. Eerily, the governess senses that Flora feels the presence but is purposefully pretending to not notice by keeping her back turned to the ghost.
The governess knows these ghosts have returned from the dead to continue their influence on the children. From Mrs. Grose she learns that they were very bad people (again, because they had bad manners? because they were bawdy? or because they sexually abused the children? It’s all up to the reader to imagine, along with the governess). Worse, it appears the children are welcoming the influence, almost colluding with the ghosts. Nevertheless, the governess sees it as her role to prevent the ghosts from further corrupting Miles and Flora.
They had nothing but me, and I—well, I had them. It was in short a magnificent chance. This chance presented itself to me in an image richly material. I was a screen—I was to stand before them. The more I saw the less they would. I began to watch them in a stifled suspense, a disguised tension, that might well, had it continued too long, have turned to something like madneses.
We can take this story at face value. We can assume the governess is telling the truth as it happened. However, in the narrative, James gives us many clues about the governess’s subjectivity. For one, we see that her love for her employer warps her judgment. When he tells her not to bother him with anything, even when she gets a letter from Miles’s school saying Miles cannot return to school due to some unspeakable act, she takes this as an expression of his utmost trust and faith in her ability to manage his affairs. She is flattered where she should be concerned. This is our narrator.
And just as he uses our narrator’s imagination and lack of information to infuse deep layers of ambiguity into the narrative, James uses the reader’s own imagination to further deepen the layers. Given the governess’s fears and the way she presents her own narrative, dialogue that might seem normal in another context we cannot help but read into a sort of horror we cannot define, making it all the more horrific.
But we definitely do our best to fill in the blanks! And the great thing is that any way the story is read, it is still a fascinating tale, an incredible look at the human psyche from any direction. Which James then reverses on the reader. In the end, because James gives us so much room to use our imagination, the book reveals more about us than about what realy happened at Bly.
I finally did it! After seeing that I could order one of the new Penguin Modern Classics editions from The Book Depository (free international shipping) for even cheaper (despite exchange rate) than I could on Amazon (free two-day shipping for Prime Members; highly recommended), I finally possess what I’ve been pining for. I have been envious of all of you in the UK who can just go to a bookstore and browse through these editions. Browsing is even a pain online since Penguin doesn’t appear to have all of these titles in one spot. (You’d think there’d be some small bookstore in Manhattan that imports these book for sell, wouldn’t you? Everything else is available there. Anyone know?)
I bought Nineteen Eight-Four (1949) (1984 in many American editions, and for all of you googlers) because my wife chose it for a family bookclub read. We had read it before, me something like fifteen years ago, and I didn’t think it would live up to my fading memories. I thought it might be dated, better suited to the typical highschool reader than to readers of modern and contemporary fiction. I thought the book would be heavy-handed, basing my opinion on one of the heaviest images from the book: Big Brother’s face on the telescreens. I also thought that, like many futuristic tales from then (and now) the image of the world of the future would be annoyingly populated with tacky technology. After all, most depictions of futuristic technology holds on to contemporary form and changes the technology; thus you get a television that looks just like a 1950s television but now it serves you dinner. Typically, the technology remains basically the same while the form changes around it (telephones, mobile phones, cars, airplanes, televisions, etc.). But I was very wrong about all of my preconceptions preceeding my second time reading it. Nineteen Eighty-Four is much subtler and undertoned than I thought, and I enjoyed it as if reading it for the first time.
Apparently, more Britons lie about having read Nineteen Eighty-Four than any other book, even The Bible (here’s the article). I think part of the reason for this is that one hears so many references to the book that one feels they have read it. Big Brother, telescreens, crimethought, doublespeak, newspeak, “abolish the orgasm,” are all parts of the book so ingrained in contemporary dialogue that, for many, actually reading the book might appear redundant.
Most people also know about the basic way the government controlled members of its party: fear brought on by totally invasive government that punishes any appearance of dissent.
You had to live—did live, from habbit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinised.
Winston Smith, our protagonist, has lived in fear for years. What if you talk in your sleep? What if your eyebrow gives away a bit of your hesitation to accept a blatant lie? At forty he’s just old enough to vaguely remember a life before the Revolution that put Big Brother and the Party in power. This has caused him to always have the feeling that life could be better, despite propoganda stating otherwise. As the book begins, Winston is committing high treason, and he knows if he is caught he will be killed—truly, he knows he will be caught and killed, just not when. He has purchased a pen and paper and has commenced writing in a journal. That alone is a death sentence. Independent thought is not tolerated. To make matters worse, however, Winston has written DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER!
Basically, Winston is giving up. He has hope that awareness of a better time would stick in posterity, but he feels powerless to do anything in his time. Then he meets Julia one of the most actively involved Party members, devoting plenty of time to such endeavors as the Junior Anti-Sex League. Julia is fifteen or so years younger than Winston, but she was born when the Party was already in power, actively working to rewrite history so its members could have no past with which to compare the present. The Party has not succeeded in stamping out her natural desires. She and Winston commence a secret affair, giving Winston a bit more of a desire to live and a bit more of a desire to expose the Party.
So the plot is exciting and definitely what I remember best from my first read. This time, however, all the rest stood out to me. I have always admired Orwell’s ability with the essay; “Shooting an Elephant” and “A Hanging” are two of my favorites. I thoroughly enjoyed some of the more essayish segments of Nineteen Eighty-Four, when Orwell seeks to describe the Party structure and its ideology:
In the Middle Ages there was the Inquisition. It was a failure. It set out to eradicate heresy, and ended up by perpetuating it. For every heretic it burned at the stake, thousands of others rose up. Why was that? Because the Inquisition killed its enemies in the open, and killed them while they were unrepentant: in fact, it killed the because they were unrepentant. Men were dying because they would not abandon their true beleifs. Naturally all the glory belonged to the victim and all the shame to the Inquisitor who burned him. There were the German Nazis and the Russian Communists. The Russians persecuted heresy more cruelly than the Inquisition had done. And they imagined that they had learned from the mistakes of the past; they knew, at any rate, that one must not make martyrs. Before they exposed their victims to public trial, they deliberately set themselves down to destroy their dignity. They wore them down by torture and solitude until they were despicable, cringing wretches, confessing whatever was put into their mouths, covering themselves with abuse, accusing and sheltering behind one another, whimpering for mercy. And yet after only a few years the same thing happened over again. The dead men had become martyrs and their degredation was forgotten. Once again, why was it? In the first place, because the confessions the they had made were obviously extorted and untrue. We do not make mistakes of that kind. All the confessions that are uttered here are true. We make them true. And above all we do not allow the dead to rise up against us. You must stop imaging that posterity will vindicate you, Winston. Posterity will never hear of you.
And this great bit of play:
But we make the brain perfect before we blow it out. The command of the old despotism was “Thou shalt not”. The command of the totalitarians was “Thou shalt”. Our command is “Thou art“.
It might sound strange that my absolute favorite part of this book was the appendix where Orwell, in essay form, explains Newspeak, the language of the Party, the language to do away with English within a century. Though exaggerated, Orwell’s insights into rhetoric are fantastic as he discusses how the Party seeks to control human thought by reducing the ability to express thought under the guise of reducing linguistic baggage. Do away with all synonyms. Do away with all opposites: to say the opposite of “good,” “ungood” is just as good—no, even better—than “bad.”
Quite apart from the suppression of definitely heretical words, reduction of vocabulary was regarded as an end in itself, and no word that could be dispensed with was allowed to survive. Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum.
. . . .
In Newspeak it was seldom possible to follow a heretical thought further than the perception that it was heretical: beyond that point the necessary words were non-existent.
In the negative, Orwell’s appendix provides an excellent love letter to language—its variety, its movement, even its baggage. Though I’ve read and reread Orwell’s ”Politics and the English Language” time and again, I did not know this little fictional gem of an essay existed. Did I even read it fifteen years ago?
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, in the main text and in the appendix, Orwell has provided us with a framework and a language we can use to discuss political and rhetorical phenonema that happen all around. And the book succeeds, then, in using the framework and language to delve into human nature. Is it possible to use language to change and control an individual? This is the book’s true value, and Orwell’s fluid writing makes the lessons go down easy and with pleasure. Thankfully, though I may have been a lowly prole the fist time I read this novel, I’m proud to think that this time through might I might have developed intellectually enough to prove a legitimate threat to the Party.
It’s sad that we regard many classic novels as stuffy things of the past. There are several I’m still afraid of reading (Portrait of a Lady comes to mind) for fear of getting lost in a month-long haze of reading. I’m sure some of the fault lies in the way these novels are presented in schools. It wasn’t until late in my education that I came to realize that classic novels were classic for a reason: usually they are very very good and people like to read them because they are more than just an intellectual exercise and more than just a formulaic plot.
I now challenge anyone to read Edith Whaton’s The Age of Innocence (1920; Pulitzer (the first to be awarded to a woman)) and call it stuffy. Sure, the cover might look very formal and the society it describes is certainly stuffy, but Wharton’s prose is full of comedy and insight on par with or perhaps better than Jane Austen’s best. If that scares some of you away because you find Austen’s stories too happy, don’t worry about that here.
Let me begin by presenting a sample of Wharton’s writing that made me laugh out loud. Here Wharton is describing the morbidly obese matriarch, Mrs. Manson Mingott:
The immense accretion of flesh which had descended on her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon. She had accepted this submergence as philosophically as all her other trials, and now, in extreme old age, was rewarded by presenting to her mirror an almost unwrinkled expanse of firm pink and white flesh, in the center of which the traces of a small face survived as if awaiting excavation. A flight of smooth double chins led down to the dizzy depths of a still-snowy bosom veiled in snowy muslins that were held in place by a miniature portrait of the late Mr. Mingott; and around and below, wave after wave of black silk surged away over the edges of a capacious armchair, with two tiny white hands poised like gulls on the surface of the billows.
That is not stuffy prose. And I’m not going to work hard to temper my desire to quote liberally from the book. With that introduction to Wharton’s skill, I now feel secure in describing the setup of the story, hoping that it won’t sound stuffy now.
It’s New York in the 1870s. Young Newland Archer of the upper-class has passed through the initial stages of manhood lock-step with what society expected. He is now grown and has a job at a prestigious law firm that handles the affairs of the upper-class. He’s had his conventionally wild post-adolescence, carrying on an affair with a married woman, etc., but as expected he has now found the value of settling down in matrimony.
There was no better match in New York than May Welland, look at the question from whatever point you chose. Of course such a marriage was only what Newland was entitled to; but young men are so foolish and incalculable—and some women so ensnaring and unscrupulous—that it was nothing short of a miracle to see one’s only son safe past the Siren Isle and in the haven of a blameless domesticity.
Strangely, even that feeling of relief when one’s son passes the Siren Isle is conventional. Despite the fact that Newland’s life is hardly unconventional, he has always seen himself as above New York’s social mores and considers himself quite cosmopolitan. He didn’t have an affair with a married woman in his youth because that’s when his society condones that sort of behavior; he did it because he wanted to. He is not now settling down to marriage because it is expected; he’s truly fallen in love with May Welland, and together they will rise above society.
May is purely conventional, however. But Newland looks forward to liberating her, though recently he’s had fears about how easily that might be accomplished:
It would presently be his task to take the bandage from this young woman’s eyes, and bid her look forth on the world. But how many generations of the women who had gone to her making had descended bandaged to the family tomb? He shivered a little, remembering some of the new ideas in his scientific books, and the much-cited instance of theKentucky cave-fish, which had ceased to develop eyes because they had no use for them. What if, when he had bidden May Welland to open hers, they could only look out blankly at blankness?
As marriage approaches, Newland is less secure about his future with May:
He reviewed his friends’ marriage—the supposedly happy ones—and saw none that answered, even remotely, to the passionate and tender comradeship which he pictured as his permanent relation to May Welland. He perceived that such a picture presupposed, on her part, the experience, the versatility, the freedom of judgment, which she had been carefully trained not to possess; and with a shiver of foreboding he saw his marriage becoming what most of the other marriages about him were: a dull association of material and social interests held together by ignorance on the one side and hypocrisy on the other.
To complicate matters further, Newland’s heart is drifting away from May. In the first chapter we meet the Countess Olenska, May’s older but not old cousin who married a count and has lived abroad for years. Returning to New York in a scandal, the Countess has just left her husband in Europe (“And now it’s too late; her life is finished”) and is even seeking a divorce. In another scandal, the Wellands have allowed the Countess to accompany them to the opera. Newland is proud of his almost-fiancée for avoiding false prudery and receiving her cousin, but to bring her to the opera is shocking even to him. But that doesn’t stop him from meeting the Countess.
Recognizing an innate attraction to the Countess, Newland convinces his family and May’s family to announce the engagement sooner than planned. He then attempts to get them to flout convention and advance the date of the marriage, though this frustrates him because it is expected that the future groom will desire such things. May asks Newland if he’s afraid he’ll fall out of love with her if they don’t move the date. And then in a form of magnanimity appropriate to one of her well-bred station, but shockingly genuine (May is a fantastically elusive character, allowing Wharton to criticize the society while recognizing its strength), May asks whether it is because Newland is in love with someone else but is unable to marry that other person.
Newland denies everything, which is all the easier when Newland sees that May thinks the woman he loves is his old fling and not the Countess, neither of whom he could marry since they were not divorced. Surprisingly, Mrs. Manson Mingott says the marriage date should be sooner, not later. Thus begins a torturous marriage where Newland has an affair in extreme slow motion, seeing the Countess only occasionally and her basically unwilling. But though he rarely sees her, his mind is absent while he is with May. The marriage deteriorates quickly as Newland blames May for not being as interesting as the Countess. There was “no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free . . . .” The ideas of his “untrammeled bachelorhood” no longer interest him.
This is a great story about a society afraid to approach the brink of change except by paying it lip service only to create the illusion of an enlightened mind. Fascinatingly, and I didn’t expect this, Wharton also shows the intricacies of that society’s power. Not even Newland understands how it works, even when it is working to make him fall in line. And underneath these giant themes are the lives of three individuals—the heart of the story. We feel for Newland, though we may not like him. We are attracted to and respect the Countess who both flouts and respects the social construct of New York. And while we sympathize with May, at first because she looks pathetic, we increasingly come to respect her as we see that she is far from naïve and powerless even though—and perhaps all the more so because—she has to do her maneuvering beneath the surface and within the social constructs she considers inviolate.
I was struck recently by the beauty of two covers for J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country (1980; Booker Shortlist). I would like to find a bookstore that places together all NYRB Classics and Penguin Modern Classics for browsing. I’d be a poorer man.
Also, with this particular book, the title stood out to me, perhaps because I don’t like February, and a summer month in the country sounded so pleasant when I picked it up to read. This short novel paid off. It was moving and peaceful and interesting. In it Carr, about whom little is known but who has some whimsical biographical information detailed in the introduction to the NYRB edition, packs layers of nostalgia, making the reader aware of emotions lost to time but evident in what remains of the past.
And even now, a few weeks after finishing the novel, I look back on the short time it took to read with a bit of nostalgia. I felt the peace and youth and mystery.
This cover has been updated to the new Penguin Modern Classic style, but the picture is the same.
Tom Birkin, our youthful narrator, has also been craving a month in the country. It hasn’t been too long since he returned from serving in World War I, and in that short time he has already separated himself from a failed marriage. Birkin has taken a job restoring a medieval judgment painting recently discovered in a church in Oxgodby.
The marvelous thing was coming into this haven of calm water and, for a season, not having to worry my head with anything but uncovering their wall-painting for them. And, afterwards, perhaps I could make a new start, forget what the War and the rows with Vinny had done to me and begin where I’d left off. This is what I need, I thought—a new start and, afterwards, maybe I won’t be a casualty anymore.
Though a sense of restoration is present in the novel, I was much more fascinated by the way Carr plays with the present, with the past, and with memory. In his introduction, Carr discusses the process of writing the book:
And I found myself looking through another window at a darker landscape inhabited by neither the present nor the past.
This strange feeling of being out of time takes over in the novel, and I enjoyed it so much more for it.
Birkin’s past is only alluded to, which might seem strange as important as the past and memory is in this novel. However, Carr’s decision to provide only fleeting details of his character’s pasts is very effective. Just as Carr wants us to feel a sort of misplaced nostalgia (“. . . knowing a precious moment gone and we not there.”), he also wants us to feel rather than see the not-so-precious moments.
While uncovering the medieval painting, Birkin becomes obsessed with its painter, the one who centuries ago stood exactly where he stands. That individual’s history has been erased from time and memory, yet here remains something that has been hidden from view for centuries, since only a few decades after its completion. The painting offers a few clues into the artist’s life (somehow he got a hold of some very expensive paint) and even his death. Clearly, he was brilliant. And interestingly, he seemed to have painted the judgment with certain people in mind.
It was the most extraordinary detail of medieval painting that I had ever seen, anticipating the Breughels by a hundred years. What, in this single detail, had pushed him this immense stride beyond his time?
Perhaps that detail or others like it are the reason the painting was covered up so soon after it was created. It’s a sad fact of life that though a residue of evidence remains, much of a life, particularly its emotional intensity, is doomed to be forgotten, often even by those who’ve lived it. Thankfully, some of what remains is at least enough to spark hopefully a shadow of memory. This hope applies, of course, to individual human beings, but also to the great world events they engaged in while they lived.
I’ve left out of this review some of the main characters and elements of the novel. But that’s okay; you should discover them for yourself. It is enough to know that Carr treats all of them with respect, recognizing in all of them latent memory. But to slightly make up for my failure to introduce these characters, here’s a small list from the novel itself.
God, when I think back all those years! And it’s gone. It’s gone. All the excitement and pride of that first job, Oxgodby, Kathy Ellerbeck, Alice Keach, Moon, that season of calm weather—gone as though they’d never been.
Kevin Vennemann is a new name for me and indeed for most of the world—he was born only in 1977. Thanks to Melville House’s Contemporary Art of the Novella series, which focuses on publishing the neglected art form, we in the English-speaking world get this strange little book by a very young German author. I was shocked that Melville House would publish the young writer’s Close to Jedenew (Nahe Jedenew, 2008; tr. from the German by Ross Benjamin). Seems like in such a limited publication series they’d want to focus on the novellas of the truly great. I was shocked, that is, until I read the book.
Before I give a brief description of the plot, I want to say that I did not intentionally place this review right after Malamud’s The Fixer, though the unjust treatment of the Jews is again the theme. This one, however, is markedly different. For one thing, Kevin Vennemann, from what I can tell, is not a Jew. Further, it is written by a young German who grew up when memories of the Holocaust are fading though the images remain. Also fading is the guilt. Hence, Vennemann’s novel has been heralded as the first Holocaust novel of a new generation, a generation that need not be concerned that stylistic flare will detract from the theme. While it seems all I’m reading lately is dealing with some matter Jewish, I’m no expert, but the style here is definitely the most important aspect of this book, despite its tragic story. Now, I usually don’t like showy styles. I think too much contemporary literature is actually nothing more than clever sentences stacked against each other. Who can come up with the showiest simile? How about ten of them in a row? Who can do yet another post-linear novel, telling a story that has no need to be anything but linear? And Vennemann’s Close to Jedenew has a style that stands out immediately. The difference is that Vennemann has used the style to get at a story and perspective that could not be told in a simpler way. As a reader, I quickly lost myself in the feel of the novel and was no longer drawn out of the story by striking writing.
The story takes place in 1941 in Eastern Poland, on a farm close to Jedenew. The Russians have recently left, and the Nazis are due to arrive at any time. Anticipating their arrival, local farmers begin a murderous assault on the local Jews who had been their friends for generations. They’d celebrated weddings together, the local farmers bringing most of the celebratory necessities. They’d worked together. One of the leaders of the murderous pack even had helped the children begin building a treehouse. These children are telling this tale. They are hiding in the treehouse. While Vennemann’s story is his own, events like this actually happened in the summer of 1941.
Translator Ross Benjamin has done an exceptional job translating from German what must have been a very difficult book. It’s a difficult book to even pull quotes from. A good way to describe the language is fugal. The following pulled quote may look like I’ve just negligently typed the same line over again (and again), but this is how it is:
We stand leaning against the oven, Marek and Anna stand together leaning against the kitchen door, and we count to one hundred, and we count to one thousand, and we count until Marek cries Now, and starts to run, and so we run behind him, stumble through the garden behind the house and over the ridge behind the house toward the woods, toward the field, and Antonina with little Julia on her arm twists her ankle and falls and remains lying in tears on the path that we cut in the field in May, and lays her head in her arms, as we could see if we’d turn around, but we do not turn around, we keep running, we run into the field and think: She falls, she lays her head in her arms, as we could see if we’d turn around, but we do not turn around, we keep running, we run into the field, we think: She falls, she lays her head in her arms, as we could see if we’d turn around, but we do not turn around, we keep running, we run into the field, we think: We are running without turning around even one more time to Antonina.
The book is also fugal in its dreamlike feel. Emphasizing this, though the book goes back and forth in time, often beginning a sentence in one time and ending it in another, the whole book is told in the present tense. The following quote begins sometime before the local farmers attacked. It ends with the children, dwindling in number, hiding in the treehouse watching the soldiers, who have started arriving.
We climb down, we go into the house and throw our jeackets onto the first chair we come across, and to ensure that the treehouse is finished before winter begins, we arrange during dinner, our faces hot with excitement, to go back into the treehouse the next day, to finish building the treehouse, to put up the roof, to put in the door, the windows, the next day we get up at the crack of dawn and get dressed and wash as quickly as we can, and comb each other’s hair and braid each other’s hair and tie on each other’s headscarves and want to rush outside, outside it’s snowing. We lie on our bellies, scarcely dare to breathe, and lay aside the rusty hammers and nails as quietly as possible, we look across to our house and see that some of the soldiers are gathering before our house to receive before our house the first of the slowly approaching black trucks.
The use of present tense is most striking in sentences where its awkwardness jars the reader. I know I normally don’t like style to jar me out of the text, but it was so effective here, creating a disorientation that makes the book not only post-linear but out of time entirely. Here the book is told simultaneously.
It’s scarcely three months ago that Marek is not yet a doctor. . . .
It’s scarcely a handful of moments ago that we’re still sitting . . . .
The simultaneaity of the book works well with the images. Forever the farmers are friendly neighbors. Forever they are tracking the Jews in the fields. Forever in the background Wasnar and Antonina’s farm burns. Forever the tree house is being built. Forever the nine, seven, two children are hiding in it. The book begins, “We do not breathe.” It ends “I do not breathe.”
So I’ve said a lot about style here, and that’s a good reason to take Venneman seriously. However, an even better reason to take him seriously is that he seems to be aware of the extra-narrative function of his stylistic approach to the Holocaust. He knows that such a stylistic account of the Holocaust was virtually impossible in the last generation of German authors. It is good to note that German authors often tried to annihilate any sense of style from their accounts of the Holocaust for fear of appearing to exploit the event to bring attention to themselves. Vennemann seems to know, in a way only the most mature authors know, how his style affects his substance not just in his own book but in the entire genre. And, in a way only the best of writers can manage, he injects this awareness into his book. A father tells his children a story about how he came to the farm close to Jedenew. The children know it is not true.
That doesn’t bother us. For everything that happens at our home close to Jedenew is a story, we determine and decide, when we consult about how we’re going to deal from now on with the fact that Father’s story is not his at all, that he only pilfers his story from here and there and devises it as his, that we know nothing about his true story, and so also don’t know how he actually in reality comes to be on the farms close to Jedenew, but we decide that this story that he pilfers from here and there and devises as his is now, for our, his story, just as everything around us is only a story that can just as well be an invention as Father’s. That we preserve and keep for ourselves, or forget, or someday pass on, or can only remember for ourselves, once, twice, more often, and then can forget when we want, or must forget when nothing else is possible. But always remember and must remember again one last time when, as we decide, we have no other choice.