To my knowledge, the only Czech literature I’ve read is from that fairly famous author who has his own adjective. It was to expand my range, more than anything then, that led me to open Michal Ajvaz’s The Other City (Druhé mesto, 1993; tr. by Gerald Turner 2009), lauded as a hymn to Prague, a city I’ve never been to but hope to visit. Of course, the intimations of eccentric imagery and the connection to Borges also interested me. Oh, and everything the Dalkey Archive puts out is at least worth looking into.
Review copy courtesy of The Dalkey Archive Press.
The book started clearly and methodically enough with a nice scene where the narrator is reading a book on a snowy Prague day. It spoke nicely to my mood.
I was in no hurry; I was happy to be in a room that smelled pleasantly of old books, where it was warm and quiet, where the pages rustled as they were turned, as if the books were sighing in their sleep.
This peaceful beginning, while somewhat indicative of the nice imagery to come, is completely misleading in other respects. This is perhaps the only peaceful part of the book. Soon we are taken for a ride, getting whiplash, as Ajvaz pulls us from one scene to the next, each getting increasingly bizarre. It all starts when the narrator finds a book with a purple binding and a strange unearthly alphabet. It emits a sort of glow and he starts getting glimpses of another world just out of his periphery.
It was not the first such encounter in my life. Like everyone, I had, on many previous occasions, ignored a half-open door leading elsewhere — in the chilly passages of strange houses, in backyards, on the outskirts of towns. The frontier of our world is not far away; it doesn’t run along the horizon or in the depths. It glimmers faintly close by, in the twilight of our nearest surroundings; out of the corner of our eye we can always glimpse another world, without realizing it. We are walking all the time along a shore and along the edge of a virgin forest. Our gestures would seem to rise out of an entity that also encompasses these concealed spaces, and in an odd way they reveal their shadowy existence, although we are unaware of the roar of waves and shrieks of animals — the disquieting accompaniment to our words (and possibly their secret birthplace); we are unaware of the glitter of jewels in the unknown world of nooks and crannies; usually we don’t stray off the path even once in the course of our lives. What golden temples in the jungle might we find our way to? With what beasts and monsters might we contend and on what islands might we forget our plans and ambitions? Maybe it was the fascinating flurry of snowy chimeras outside the window or maybe an ironic love of fate, engendered by my failures of recent years, that caused my old fear of crossing frontiers to protest only feebly — as if out of habit — and then quickly fall silent; I pulled the book out and opened it once more.
As the narrator goes about his business, thinking about the book, other people begin to admit they’ve encountered the strange letters and have felt the presence of, or even seen, another world that coexists with Prague (perhaps it was my uninitiated senses, but this book didn’t seem to hinge on knowledge of Prague at all; seemed more incidental, but I’d love the insights of others). A particularly affecting account came from an old man whose daughter was taken away by the strange citizens of the other world.
We’ve never met our daughter since, except for a few occasions when we’ve caught sight of her face in the depth of a mirror or in a darkened room, and sometimes we’ve caught the sound of her voice in the roaring of a stove. At first we would occasionally come across slips of paper at the bottom of drawers or between the pages of books, bearing sad messages that we would understand less and less: she would write about halls through which there flowed rivers with rafts carrying bronze lions, and also about never-ending symposia in fossilized forests, or about cafés, where the waiter would emerge out of thick mist.
These accounts get stranger, and finally the narrator himself has a more substantial encounter with the other city when a tiny rusted hatch opened up to a massive cathedral where a priest was leading a congregation. This other city comes to be an obsession for the narrator because he’s sure knowledge of it will lead somewhere. He’s at the time of his life when he no longer wants to ignore the glimpses. In Prague, ”the flame of meaning had gone out,” but in this other perhaps it could be kindled. Thus begins a quest for meaning among absurdities and contradictions.
For the first quarter of the book I must say that the only thing keeping me going was the fantastic though bizarre imagery. It was too disconnected and episodic and didn’t seem to be leading anywhere. In other words, bizarreness for the sake of being bizarre, and I’m not a fan of that. Thanks to the imagery, though, I kept going and the quest for meaning took me in. The episodes, while still strange in unexpected ways, began to cohere also, and I found the theme of clarity and sight to mesh well with the theme of questing and meaning.
One of my favorite passages comes in the latter part of the book. The narrator, still searching for the center, enters a library. Deeper in the library, the stacks of books transform slowly into a jungle. It’s a fantastic scene, but I also enjoyed its introduction where a library patron requests a book from the deep. The librarian about to search for the book accepts his quest.
He is warned by his colleagues not to go there but he just laughs and says he’s worked in the library for thirty years and knows every nook and cranny. When he takes no heed of the warnings, the other librarians rush off to find the reader and beg him to cancel his request, bringing him teetering stacks of magnificent books, books with flashing jewels embedded in the binding and pages scented with the rarest perfumes of the Orient, books with three-dimensional illustrations, full of soft velvets and find sand, books with edible pages tasting of lotus leaves, which the reader may immediately devour after reading, silken books that can be unfolded and used either as a hammock or on windy days as a hovercraft with which to float high above the landscape, books with intoxicatingly erotic stories played out on nocturnal marble terraces beneath cypress trees by the sea: the pages of these books have been soaked with hashish so that after a while anyone reading the book is gripped by a hallucinatory vision and becomes part of the story, bathing with beautiful girls in the warm nocturnal sea, but the stubborn reader casts not one glance at the books they have brought and insists on his book—a book about car maintenance or making pickles — he wants it because he requested it and believes it to be the duty of the library staff to obtain it for him willy nilly, and to the unfortunate librarian’s beautiful daughter whom someone has meanwhile summoned by telephone and who is offering the reader, like Sheherezade, to tell him stories all night long, he merely declares: ‘Look here, young lady, there is nothing for us to discuss, I want my book on car maintenance (making pickles)’ — and so the librarian embraces his daughter and sets off into the depths of the library, everyone gazing stupefied at his departing figure; at the bend in the corridor he turns and waves before disappearing behind the shelves and no one sets eyes on him again; the reader waits in vain for his book, pangs of conscience start to gnaw at him, every hour he goes to ask whether the librarian has returned with his book and he ends up spending the entire day by the book delivery hatch and by five in the morning is marking time outside the locked doors of the Clementium intoning dismal dirges. Several librarians disappear in the depths of the library every year and the librarianship schools are unable to turn out enough graduates.
Surely you get a sense for how wonderfully strange this book is. And thankfully, though we also quest with the narrator for meaning, the book itself is not without purpose, and the meaning comes along.
I’m rocketing through César Aira’s books available in English (others reviewed here and here). Which is not hard since they are incredibly short, and there are only three readily available (The Hare, published in the U.S. in 1997 is cheapest used on Amazon at a mere $363, so I don’t count it). It also helps that their plots are wild, taking turns at corners the reader can’t see coming. How I Became a Nun (Cómo me hice monja, 1989; tr. from the Spanish by Chris Andrews, 2007) is no exception. In fact, of the three I’ve read, it is the wildest yet.
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.
How I Became a Nun is different from the other two in that it starts with the sense of immediacy the others built up to. The opening thirty pages are intense and worth reading in and of themselves. In them we meet our narrator, a young boy (or girl, if you rely on her account) named César Aira, who has just moved from a small interior town to a larger town. To his father’s delight, ice cream is available in the larger time, and, remembering his own excellent experiences with ice cream, the father is taking the young son for his first taste. Shockingly, touching his first spoonful to his mouth, César hates it, can’t even manage to swallow it so awful is the taste. The unbelieving father becomes indignant and finally outraged. How can anyone not like strawberry ice cream? This incident becomes somehow very important to the narrator’s development:
My story, the story of “how I became a nun,” began very early in my life: I had just turned six. The beginning is marked by a vivid memory, which I can reconstruct down to the last detail. Before, there is nothing, and after, everything is an extension of the same vivid memory, continuous and unbroken, including the intervals of sleep, up to the point where I took the veil.
Once this excellently rendered episode is over, the narrator takes us into a chilling fever dream, complete with doppelgänger parents, wherein the narrator is able to step out of the story for a moment in order to see from the outside her story moving onward (all of the ellipses in the following quote are Aira’s own):
Over all these stories hovered another, more conventional in a way, but more fantastic too. Separate from the series, it functioned like a “background,” always there. It was a kind of static story . . . a chilling episode, with a wealth of horrific details . . . It filled me with dread, making the four-part delirium seem like light entertainment by comparison . . . Except that it wasn’t just one more element, a bolt of lightning in a stormy sky . . . it was everything that was happening to me . . . everything that would happen to me in an eternity that had not yet begun and would never end . . . I was the girl in an illustrated book of fairy tales; I had become a myth . . . I was seeing it from inside . . .
This section is so different in form from the first section that I began to wonder just what kind of story I was entering. Then the next section came along, and it was very different from the first two. Again, that is part of the creative process that is on display in the form of the novella. And again, Aira ties this process into the substance of the themes underlying the strange narrative: creation of a personal narrative, identity, mimicry, parental figures’ role in all of the above.
The drama was triggered for me by the realization that the mute scene I was witnessing, the teacher’s and pupil’s abstract mimicry, affected me vitally. It was my story, not someone else’s. The drama had begun as soon as I had set foot in the school, and it was unfolding before me, entire and timeless. I was and was not involved in it; I was present, but not a participant, or participating only by my refusal, like a gap in the performance, but that gap was me.
Like the other two novellas, this one is packed with pleasure and intellect. My only problem was that each section is so separate and distinct from the one preceding it that it felt episodic and, therefore, lacked of the powerful forward thrust in the other two. But . . . as annoyed as I was that every ten pages or so I was thrown out of the narrative and dropped into a strange new place, once I settled down and thought about the form (form is so important to Aira, which I find ironic since his works seem so formless and ad hoc), things started to make sense. These gaps in the narrative are fundamental to the strangeness of Aira’s themes. That they are not discussed (or even, apparently, recognized) by the narrator is just as strange as the fact that he never seems cognizant of the little gender discrepancy so often apparent to the reader but never remarked upon in any way by any of the characters.
Aira gives me the impression that for him writing is a discovery process, and he doesn’t mind making the reader come along the way. As polished as his novels are, they come off feeling like the spiritual cousin to an old fashioned essay—the intial “trying” brings about a complete result where both author and reader are fulfilled.
A few weeks ago John Self highly recommended Hugo Wilcken’s Colony (2007), a book that, through no fault of its own, passed quickly into obscurity upon its release. Indeed, word is that the book “wasn’t so much published as dropped from a height.” I’ll take any recommendation from John, but this one was a bit more expeditious because it came with a blogger call to arms: resurrect Hugo Wilcken’s Colony through blog power! Which is really one of the best things about book blogs: many bloggers do not limit themselves to reviewing new books or new editions, and in a community of people with similar tastes they have the ability to bring back rewarding but otherwise lost books.
Colony is one of those rewarding books that should attract a variety of readers due to its masterful mixture of plot and what I’m thinking can be called anti-plot. On the plot side, I’m not one who requires a tight plot spinning faster and faster as I near the end of a book, but I had other things to do when reading the last fifty pages of Colony and kept finding myself avoiding those other things just to get a few pages closer to the end. It’s an exciting, tense book. But that’s not all. It wasn’t just the excitement of needing to know what would happen or even why things happened. I couldn’t wait to finish so I could start to ruminate on how things happened. Though the plot moves along clearly in limpid and direct prose, by the end we readers aren’t sure we’ve remembered things correctly. As straight forward as the narrative is, it subverts itself nicely and without being self-conscious. Up to the end (and, to be sure, even after), I was having the same trouble as one of the characters in that I “couldn’t quite seize it in its entirety.” (Even that bit of apparent self-consciousness fits perfectly in the direct story, so it doesn’t jar the reader coming across it).
I will follow the honorable lead of other reviewers and not give away much of the plot here. It’s worth discovering on one’s own. But here’s how the book starts, introducing us to the setting as Sabir, a French convict, arrives at French Guiana on a ship in 1929:
Lurid rumours abound about life in the penal colony. There are the labour camps where they make you work naked under the sun; the jungle parasites that bore through your feet and crawl up to your brain; the island where they intern leper convicts; the silent punishment blocks where the guards wear felt-soled shoes; the botched escapes that end in cannibalism. As the stories move through the prison ship, they mutate at such a rate that it becomes impossible to gauge their truth.
Sabir is a veteran of the Great War and his mind frequently (yet not so frequently that one feels Wilcken is trying to stretch connections) reflects on that time of captivity when he was tempted to desert. Now, he’s in a new form of captivity where ”his only real hope is to become someone else entirely.” The atmosphere is tangible. I lived for quite a time just south of French Guiana along the Amazon, and Wilcken made me feel the afternoon heat and lethargy all over again, with all of its mind altering effects.
That’s about as far as I am willing to go into the plot, though, as I said above, the plot moves at a gripping pace. It is one form of irony in this book that it could be read almost as a form of escapist literature—just something with excitement guaranteed to keep your mind in the book and out of whatever else you’re doing. Escape is its theme, one of them at least. There are many forms of escape in this book, and most all characters are trying to escape or have escaped from something. Two of the most compelling threads, I found, were the ideas of escaping into and out of dreams and of escaping one’s self.
During the long, humid afternoon spent transcribing the impossible wishes of others, the realisation has grown in him that his old life is dead. That he can now never expect to resurrect it. That his survival—should he want it—depends on sloughing off this dead skin.
The book’s intelligent structure (I’ve alluded to it above) is another reason I was compelled to finish it as quickly as possible. See, somewhere towards the middle Wilcken has the reader second-guessing his or her reading, which is quite a feat for someone who writes so clearly and who moves the plot forward with little showiness. It’s one of “[t]hose moments. The tiny instants when, almost imperceptibly, one’s world tilts, then tips over into something else entirely.” This second guessing continues through the remainder of the book. Far from being an annoyance, this is part of the book, this sense of shifting reality and of shifting identity. It plays with our own memory of events, makes us question the impressions it just made on us. Though reading a book like this is like finding a forgotten treasure, it would be a shame Colony were allowed to drift into further obscurity.
Javier Marías’s name pops up frequently in the high altitudes of literary discussion. Several Nobel laureates and those deserving of the Nobel consider him a master (and also deserving of the Nobel). All of his books look incredibly interesting to me, but I hadn’t read any. Later this year the third and final volume in his trilogy Your Face Tomorrowwill be published in English. I’ve had my eye on these books since KevinfromCanada mentioned how much he enjoyed them and was looking forward to the last volume. His recommendation and the annual Nobel Prize hype was enough to convince me it was time to read Your Face Tomorrow, Volume I: Fever and Spear (Tu rostro mañana 1. Fiebre y lanza 2002; tr. from the Spanish by by Margaret Jull Costa 2005).
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.
If you peruse the first lines of Marías’s books, I can almost guarantee you’ll want to read more . . . ahhh, I’ll indulge myself and put a few here for you to peruse—this is a post about Marías too.
I did not want to konw but I have since come to know that one of the girls, when she wasn’t a girl anymore and hadn’t long been back from her honeymoon, went into the bathroom, stood in front of the mirror, unbuttoned her blouse, took off her bra and aimed her own father’s gun at her heart, her father at the time was in the dining room with other members of the family and three guests.
—A Heart So White
No one ever expects that they might some day find themselves with a dead woman in their arms, a woman whose face they will never see again.
—Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me
I feel that the opening of Fever and Spear is no exception, also offering an introduction that tantalizes the reader with strange details we only hope will get fleshed out in the novel:
One should never tell anyone anything or give information or pass on stories or make people remember beings who have never existed or trodden the earth or traversed the world, or who, having done so, are now almost safe in uncertain, one-eyed oblivion.
It is somewhat ironic, perhaps, that the narrator’s warning against telling people anything are the very lines that begin this story. The reason for these lines becomes quickly apparent: someone has betrayed the narrator, someone close, and tellinggave the means to the betrayal. Or, at least that’s what I think; we’re not told the whole story by a long shot in this first volume, and, while those lines are dealt with thematically, we don’t know how they relate directly to the narrator’s life yet. Not knowing the story, particularly the betrayer’s identity, however, is also part of the irony, for our narrator, Jaime (or Jacobo, or Jacque, or Iago, or Jack, depending on the speaker) Deza is astute—his powers of perception are capable of stripping the covers off of anybody in the room. Indeed, the job he acquires during this story was to simply observe people the government brought in for questioning. Are they telling the truth? But that’s just a general question. They get much more specific: What is that man’s relationship with that woman? Will that military leader kill the president in a coup should things get rough? His gift is a benefit to the government, but seems to be a bit of a curse to him:
I did, for some time, listen and notice and interpret and tell, and I was paid to do so during that time, but it was something I had always done and that I continue to do, passively and involuntarily, without effort and without reward, I probably can’t help it now, it’s just my way of being in the world, it will go with me to my death, and only then will I rest from it.
Mr. Deza’s family history is quite fascinating. His father and mother were highly involved in and highly persecuted in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. Indeed, his father’s life was nearly taken from him as a result betrayal from his best friend. When young, Deza asked his father if he had an intuition that his friend was capable of such betrayal. No. His father said that never did he see any indication in his friend. Never did he doubt, and even in retrospect cannot see where he should have doubted. Deza cannot accept this.
But even so. How could he have spent half his life with a colleague, a close friend—half his childhood, his schooldays, his youth—without having so much as an inkling of his true nature, or, at least, of his possible nature? (But perhaps any nature is possible in all of us.) How can someone not see, in the long term, that the person who does end up ruining us will indeed ruin us? How can you not sense or guess at their plotting, their machinations, their circular dance, not smell their hostility or breathe their despair, not notice their slow skulking, their leisurely, languishing waiting, and the inevitable impatience that they would have had to contain for who knows how many years? How can I not know today your face tomorrow, the face that is there already or is being forged beneath the face you will show me or beneath the mask you are wearing, and which you will only show me when I am least expecting it?
I’m finding this review difficult to write. I cannot capture, not even close, the amount of depth to this story. It’s incredibly dense and requires some time to digest. Betrayal, while so far the focus of this review, is actually in this book a side note, almost incidental, though it seems it will come up in future volumes. Perhaps it is best, then, to tell a bit about the book’s structure. I don’t want my lack of ability to affect your desire to get to know this amazing book. Give me a bit more time.
This book is structured around a few simple events: Peter Wheeler, a father-figure teacher Deza knew while at Oxford, has asked Deza to come to a party. Deza is back in London from Spain, having just separated from his wife. Wheeler asks Deza to observe an individual at this party, one Bertram Tupra, who will be attending the party with his new girlfriend. Tupra arrives with a woman introduced as Beryl. Deza does attends and tries to do as he was told. Here’s some of the humor in the book.
‘Tell me, what did you think of Beryl? How did she strike you? What impression did she make?’
‘Beryl?’ I said, caught slightly offguard, I hadn’t imagined he would ask me about her, but rather about his friend Bertram, if he was a friend, and about whom he forewarned me. ‘Well, we barely spoke really, she seemed to take very little notice of anyone else, and she didn’t appear to be enjoying herself much either, as if she was here out of duty. But she’s got very good legs, and she knows she has and makes the most of them. She’s got rather too many teeth and too big a jaw, but she’s still rather pretty. Her smell is the most attractive thing about her, her best feature: an unusual, pleasant, very sexual smell.’
Wheeler shot me a glance that was a mixture of reproof and mockery, although his eyes seemed amused. . . . ‘As I’ve todl you before, you’re far too alone dodwn there in London. That isn’t what I meant at all. I would never have dared even to ask myself if you had or hadn’t found Beryl’s animal humours stimulating, you’ll have to forgive my lack of curiosity about your proclivities in that area. I meant regarding Tupra, what impression did you have about her in relation to him, in her relation to him now. That’s what I want to know, not if you were aroused by her . . .’, he paused for a moment, ‘by her secretions. What do you take me for?’
That’s as far into the novel as I’ll take you, but I think it’s still worth mentioning the compelling discussions in the book about the Spanish Civil War and about the “Keep Silent” propaganda passed around during World War II. All of it ties together nicely in this volume, but I hope it broadens out in the next volumes.
To close this review, I’d like to move away from the thematic elements inherent in the book’s prose and structure. Some of the most compelling parts of the book actually don’t contain such political or intellectual overtones. Rather, they are very intimate. Deza is deeply lonely in London, and he’s most sympathetic when he yearns for his family in Spain.
. . . it’s wretched knowing the precise habits of a house from which you are suddenly absent and to which you return now only as a visitor and always with prior warning or like a close relative and only occasionally, yet remain caught in the web of settings and rhythms that you established and which sheltered you and seemed impossible without your contribution and without your existence . . .
At its heart, it seems (I’ll have to wait until I know more to be more sure) to be a novel about more than just our perception of others but also about how those perspectives shape our perspective of ourself.
I had never read P.G. Wodehouse before finally picking up Leave It to Psmith (1923). A few months ago (crikey! I mean six months ago—time flies!), John Self posted a picture of one (of many, I’m assuming) of his book shelves; on it were several Wodehouse titles (in the wonderful hardback collector’s edition available from Overlook here in the United States and Everyman in the United Kingdom—I highly recommend them!). I asked where one would start reading Wodehouse for the first time. See, I’d heard of Wodehouse, but with these authors who’ve written so many books, how does one know where to start? I put it to the back of my mind until my wife was reading The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks and kept telling me about Frankie’s ruminations on Wodehouse. Alright—if Frankie was reading Wodehouse, it’s time I was reading Wodehouse! No offense to this fictional teenage girl.
I expected this book to be funny. The first lines clued me in:
At the open window of the great library of Blandings Castle, drooping like a wet sock, as was his habit when he had nothing to prop his spine against, the Earl of Emsworth, that amiable and boneheaded peer, stood gazing out over his domain.
That made me chuckle in the bookstore. Despite that, however, I did not expect to be incapable of holding in my laughter while on the train. But I couldn’t help it when unexpected things like legs dangling through ceilings and flung flower pots pepper the pages.
The mood at Blandings Castle (a locale used in several Wodehouse stories) is sour this morning. Lord Emsworth has lost his glasses and, to make matters worse, his sister Constance has invited more artists to the home. All he wants to do is potter about in this garden, but with wealth come silly responsibilities. Then there’s the matter of his bumbling son, the Hon. Freddie Threepwood, who’s been pulled back home. Good natured, Freddie accepts but hopes to escape this lot. Here’s a good reason why:
He had a long and vacant face topped by shining hair brushed back and heavily brilliantined after the prevailing mode, and he was standing on one leg. For Freddie Threepwood was seldom completely at his ease in his parent’s presence.
It would be paltering with the truth to say that Lord Emsworth’s greeting was a warm one. It lacked the note of true affection.
In other parts of the castle there are perhaps more serious matters causing a sour mood. The wealthy Mr Keeble, Constance’s husband, would like to give his daughter, Phyllis, some money so she and her new husband can buy a farm. Constance is a problem, however:
Her eyes were large and grey, and gentle—and incidentally misleading, for gentle was hardly the adjective which anybody who knew her would have applied to Lady Constance.
Phyllis, by marrying the wrong man, deeply wronged Constance.
Mr Keeble, whose simple creed was that Phyllis could do no wrong, had been prepared to accept the situation philosophically; but his wife’s wrath had been deep and enduring. So much so that the mere mentioning of the girl’s name must be accounted to him for a brave deed, Lady Constance having specifically stated that she never wished to hear it again.
Fortunately for us readers, Freddie Threepwood overhears Mr Keeble’s futile attempt to wrest some of his money for his daughter’s benefit from his wife’s control. Once Constance has left, Freddie comes in the window and suggests Mr Keeble simply steal his wife’s £20,000 diamond necklace and then get some money to buy her another. Then when he gets the money for the new one, he can give Constance the same diamonds in a different setting and do with the £20,000 whatever he’d like. Nothing bad has happened; just a minor readjustment in the bank account, loosening up some of the money for Phyllis.
‘Steal my wife’s necklace!’
‘That’s it. Frightfully quick you are, getting on to an idea. Pinch Aunt Connie’s necklace. For, mark you,’ continued Freddie, so far forgetting the respect due from a nephew as to tap his uncle sharply on the chest, ‘if a husband pinches anything from a wife, it isn’t stealing. That’s law. I found that out from a movie I saw in town.’
Freddie offers to nick the necklace for Mr Keeble, but he gets cold feet, bringing us to the advertisement that introduces titular character:
LEAVE IT TO PSMITH
Psmith Will Help You
Psmith Is Ready For Anything
DO YOU WANT
Someone To Manage Your Affairs?
Someone To Handle Your Business?
Someone To Take The Dog For A Run?
Someone To Assassinate Your Aunt?
PSMITH WILL DO IT
CRIME NOT OBJECTED TO
Whatever Job You Have To Offer
(Provided It Has Nothing To Do With Fish)
LEAVE IT TO PSMITH!
While this is the fourth Wodehouse story to include Psmith, it feels like a first. There is no necessary knowledge from the past stories to inform this text. Wodehouse is even so kind as to have Psmith explain his name:
‘ . . . The name is Psmith. P-smith.’
‘No, no. P-s-m-i-t-h. I should explain to you that I started life without the intial letter, and my father always clung ruggedly to the plain Smith. But it seemed to me that there were so many Smiths in the world that a little variety might well be introduced. Smythe I look on as a cowardly evasion, nor do I approve of the too prevalent custom of tacking another name on in front by means of a hyphen. So I decided to adopt the Psmith. The p, I should add for your guidance, is silent, as in phthisis, psychic, and ptarmigan. You follow me?’
The plot takes a strange turn here, adds a few more humorous characters, and doesn’t stop tying itself up until the pleasant ending. There are mistaken identities leading to assumed identies leading to misunderstandings leading to tragic comedy. All of the characters are wonderfully drawn up, making even the unbelievable predicaments logical extensions of their bizare yet believable personalities.
The humor comes in many varieties. First, the plot itself is a good natured jewel heist in an old castle. Then there’re the characters themselves, particularly Psmith and Freddie, who both have a charming way with words, though Psmith is witty and Freddie idiotic. But then there’s Wodehouse’s own ability to strike humorous notes in his own comic ellaborations and understatements:
The Hon. Frederick Threepwood was a young man who was used to hearing people say ‘Well, Freddie?’ resignedly when he appeared. His father said it; his Aunt Constance said it; all his other aunts and uncles said it. Widely differing personalities in every other respect, they all said ‘Well, Freddie?’ resignedly directly they caught sight of him.
Wodehouse is also capable of including a bit of poetic prose as he advances the comedy to its next high point:
Day dawns early in the summer months, and already a sort of unhealthy palor had begun to manifest itself in the sky. It was still far from light, but objects hitherto hidden in the gloom had begun to take on uncertain shape. And among these there had come into the line of Baxter’s vision a row of fifteen flower pots.
If you also take John’s advice and start with Leave It to Psmith, you might be disappointed to find out that this was the fourth and final story featuring Psmith. Not to worry: it is complete and self contained. To worry: it perfectly sets up more adventures with the people that grew on me. Not to worry: many of the characters come and go in several other Wodehouse novels and stories, and there are those three backlist Psmith books.
Michael Thomas’s Man Gone Down won this year’s IMPAC award. I remember the New York Times picked it as one of their five best books of fiction a couple of years ago, but when I picked it up on their recommendation I didn’t see any other reason to buy it. Not sure that will change with this win.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started the very short Splendide-Hôtel (1973). I run into Gilbert Sorrentino’s name only sometimes, but when I do it’s like the person I hear it from is keeping a treasured secret. I get the feeling I should already know about Sorrentino, and if I don’t, there’s no use speaking to me about him—casting pearls before swine, or something like that.
Review copy courtesy of The Dalkey Archive Press.
When I receive books I like to open them to peruse their structure. Is it divided into parts, books, chapters (long or short)? Are there several pages of unbroken text? The like. I was surprised when I opened this book to find several short segments all beginning with a letter of the alphabet. Turns out the book is a bunch (27 to be exact) of incredibly short, uhm, musings?, beginning with the letter A all the way through Z, the extra letter being the Rx pharmacy symbol thrown in for good measure. And, to introduce you to the loose feel of the book, here is what Sorrentino said, “One must find some structure, even if it be this haphazard one of the alphabet.” Each letter is important to the segment as that letter inspires a starting point. A, for example, brings out a discussion on flies. I never even noticed—doubt I would have noticed—that an A looks kind of like a fly from above, wings pulled up on the side. As you can tell, even that bit of structure is loose. I can take a strange structure as long as the content provides a reason for it. Here, the content is just as strange and seemingly arbitrary as the structure, so there’s reason enough. And there’s reason for the strange content too.
The title of the book comes from Arthur Rimbaud’s prose poem “Après le Déluge” in his Illuminations: ”Et le Splendide-Hôtel fut bâti dans le chaos de glaces et de nuit du pôle.” (“And Hotel Splendid was built in the chaos of ice and of the polar night.”) For Sorrentino, Splendide-Hôtel is a place of and for the imagination. Within its structure dwell many poetic characters, but the structure is also a place where the work of art is praised for itself, for the toil of its creation and for its grandeur.
Everyone who is a devotee to graciousness in living knows under what incredibly difficult conditions the Splendide-Hôtel was built: the chaos of ice and polar night, the blizzards and avalanches, the black bitter frosts that took so many workers’ lives. Why it was built in such an unprepossessing spot remains a mystery to this day, yet its location has certainly not prevented it from being one of the most elegant hotels to be found anywhere. From the day it was opened in 1872 until the present, it has stood as the epitome of Old World charm.
The primary presences in the novel, besides Sorrentino himself, are the poets William Carlos Williams and Arthur Rimbaud. In many of the segments Sorrentino engages with their work on a formal and substantive level. I believe some familiarity with Williams and Rimbaud is important, but I don’t think it is necessary to enjoy this short book. In fact, this short book might be a good segue into their work. More than analyze their work, Sorrentino uses it to draw out more general meditations on writing, politics, whatever, while keeping the beauty or power of language front and center. Here’s one I particularly liked. It’s how the letter E begins:
It is my opinion as well as that of others that the word grey spelled with an e is “greyer” than the same word spelled with an a: gray.
Can the poet be correct in assigning the color white to this letter? Admitting, therefore, more light to the world so that it becomes itself lighter, creamier, if you will: on the other side of darkness. The blackness of a. Gray holds to itself more black than does grey.
Yes, it is loose. Somehow, though, Sorrentino brings many of the images together in later segments, each building somewhat on what has come before, creating, in a manner of speaking, Splendide-Hôtel, even while discussing it.
While most of the writing is pensive or expository in nature, there are several segments where, though still ruminating about the power of prose, the reader gets a glimpse of feeling that might be more common in Sorrentino’s novels.
I learned to play chess—or play at chess as the expression goes—from a man in my company in the army. Of the many things I remember about him two come to mind immediately each time I think of him: his love for avocados and his showering in a Mexican bordertown brothel with five whores. I see him there, streaming with soapsuds and water in the whirling steam, he and the girls laughing with enormous joy. He was, I believe, a regional chess champion in his native Pennsylvania.
It would be an enormous pleasure to me if he would read this book—finding it on his own—and recognize himself in it. To open it in his easy chair, his four or five children involved in their various activities, his wife preparing supper. He sits back and takes a swallow of cold beer and suddenly—suddenly he tastes that ripe avocado, lightly salted and tangy with a squeeze of lime and smells the clean flesh of those harsh Mexican whores, sees their white teeth and golden crucifixes. He puts the book down to look across the room at his wife. the aroma of meat loaf in the oven, apple pie with plenty of cinnamon.
Outside, the streets and lawns of Allentown are white with the last snowfall of winter, it comes down with that fabled gentleness all writers at some time remark upon in one way or another. And why not?
This passage shows all the evidence I need of his greatness. The contrast between the whore’s flesh and their golden crucifixes, the exotic avocado and the good old American apple pie . . . I wonder, did this fellow ever find himself in the book?
When I began this book I was not looking for a sort of treatise. The talk about Sorrentino I’ve been privy to was all about his devestating novels (which must be somewhat in the cutting tone of the above quote). It was with some trepidation then that I began with the letter A, that fly. Soon I was engaged and it then took me only an hour or two to read straight through. A small cost in time, but it lead me to think about many things, literary, political, personal, etc. Not a bad result when commencing a relationship with an author.
Over the Christmas holiday last year I read Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. I wrote a review that balances on the negative side because it just didn’t come together for me—at all. The over-the-top praise surely didn’t help me going in to the book. That said, taking 2666 by its pieces, I loved it. The writing was so compelling and interesting, as were the individual stories. I figured that I’d probably get along better with Bolaño’s works of less than 900 pages that he actually finished before he died. My first attempt: Nazi Literature in the Americas (Literatura nazi en América, 1996; tr. from the Spanish by Chris Andrews, 2008).
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.
Strangely enough, this one was even more in pieces even than 2666, but it tied together better and felt more cohesive. What we have here is a series of short (usually only a few pages, sometimes as short as a paragraph) biographical sketches of a few dozen writers from Latin and North America. Some tie together because they are from the same family or from the same movement, but all tie together because of their extremely far Right political views in which they see the hope for the human race (at least, the human race as they’d like to define it):
Shortly before his death, in a letter to a friend in Buenos Aires, he foresaw a radiant epoch for the human race, the triumphant dawn of a new golden age, and he wondered whether the Argentinian people would rise to the occasion.
Of course, it’s no secret, if you read the title, that their views are terrifying. And Bolaño has a great ability to present their wishes in detailed lists where the writing, in its disinterested rhetoric, is very compelling (not the thoughts: I said ”the writing”).
As a young man, Salvático advocated, among other things, the re-establishment of the Inquisition; corporal punishment in public; a permanent war against the Chileans, the Paraguayans, or the Bolivians as a kind of gymnastics for the nation; polygamy; the extermination of the Indians to prevent further contamination of the Argentinean race; curtailing the rights of any citizen with Jewish blood; a massive influx of migrants from the Scandinavian countries in order to effect a progressive lightening of the national skin color, darkened by years of promiscuity with the indigenous population; life-long writer’s grants; the abolition of tax on artists’ incomes; the creation of the largest air force in South America; the colonization of Antarctica; and the building of new cities in Patagonia.
He was a soccer player and a Futurist.
I love that little “He was a soccer player and a Futurist” thrown in the next paragraph, as if what we read above were just facts of biography and nothing more. In fact, Bolaño is incredibly adept at making these writers seem real. Though none in this book is real, all are realistically situated among real writers and real literary and political movements. One moment that stood out to me was an ill-fated encounter one of the characters had with the poet Allen Ginsberg. The episode was made more real in light of a recent article I read about a similar encounter between the poet and the younger poet Matthew Dickman (Dickman’s encounter was completely different than the one in this book; it ended in a kiss, not a beating).
The pseudo-reality becomes important when you realize just why (well, at least one reason why) Bolaño wrote this book. When I started it, I couldn’t get my head around this man’s depth of imagination. Here he has created a series of realistic figures, complete with the titles of the novels they wrote, dissertations about them, movements they joined, all told in greater detail and with more flare than many good biographies. He does an excellent job seeming to sound like a disinterested, though fluent, purveyor of information while keeping in the editorial jabs, one of the best things about such magazines as The New Yorker and The Economist. Here’s a good example of a place where I was laughing out loud while admiring Bolaño’s scope:
That was not to be Pérez Masón’s last visit to the jails of socialist Cuba. In 1965 he published Poor Man’s Soup, which related—in an irreproachable style, worthy of Sholokov—the hardships of a large family living in Havana in 1950. The novel comprised of fourteen chapters. The first began: “Lucia was a black woman from . . .”; the second: “Only after serving her father . . .”; the third: “Nothing had come easily for Juan . . .”; the fourth: “Gradually, tenderly, she drew him towards her . . .” The censor quickly smelled a rat. The first letters of each chapter made up the acrostic LONG LIVE HITLER. A major scandal broke out. Pérez Masón defended himself haughtily: it was a simple coincidence. The censors set to work in earnest, and made a fresh discovery: the first letters of each chapter’s second paragraph made up another acrostic—THIS PLACE SUCKS. And those of the third paragraph spelled: USA WHERE ARE YOU. And the fourth paragraph: KISS MY CUBAN ASS. And so, since each chapter, without exception, contained twenty-five paragraphs, the censors and the general public soon discovered twenty-five acrostics. I screwed up, Pérez Masón would say later: They were too obvious, but if I’d made it much harder, no one would have realized.
I was being short-sighted, though, in just admiring Bolaño’s scope. What he has to say about literature and rhetoric is quite profound. There are several places where he highlights the works of an author and I thought That sounds interesting.
A number of the poems are noteworthy:
—”A Dialogue with Hermann Goering in Hell,” in which the poet, astride the black motorcycle of his early sonnets, arrives at an abandoned airfield, in a place known as Hell, near Maracaibo on the Venezuelan coast, and meets the shade of Reichsmarschall, with whom he discusses various subjects: aviation, vertigo, destiny, uninhabited houses, courage, justice and death.
—”Concentration Camp,” by contrast, is the humorous and at times touching story of Zwickau’s life as a child, between the ages of five and ten, in a middle-class neighborhood of Caracas.
And after thinking hmmm, interesting, I had to stop and cringe. Ahh, the seductive power of literature and rhetoric. Sometimes something so reprehensible is made interesting and noteworthy, perhaps even praiseworthy, because of the skillful use of language holding it up, even if the ideas it espouses are ugly. I found this book a nice review of several tragedies of the 20th century. Rhetoric will undoubtedly continue to be the cause of tragedies to come (but hopefully also of good things). Of course, it is ironic coming from a master rhetorician who seductively pulls us into these accounts with great sentence fluency, comedy, and poetry. And they are interesting, and compelling, and horrific (indeed, the book is complete with an EPILOGUE FOR MONSTERS).
On a final note: Somehow, after 175 pages of brief biographical sketches, all from a scholarly third person, Bolaño throws in a mighty conclusion. It’s worth reading for many reasons, but to feel his conclusion is its own reward. So, see if you can guess how I feel about Bolaño now.
Marilynee Robinson’s Home won the 2009 Orange Prize.
Over the past six months, I read Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and Gilead all in an attempt to catch up so I could read Home. I enjoyed those two books so much I have been putting off reading Home. Soon. Soon.
I am thrilled today to post an interview with Jayne Anne Phillips, whose novel Lark and Termite I enjoyed thoroughly and reviewed earlier this year here. I mention all of the critical acclaim the novel has received. It has since been featured in several places, including the New York Review of Books.
I want to thank her for answering these questions!
Q: I am curious about how the idea for Lark and Termite came to you. Did the first ideas come after the news of the No Gun Ri massacre/incident broke in 1999? Was No Gun Ri integrated into an already developing idea?
I have actually been “working” on Lark and Termite, somewhat consciously, for nearly thirty years. That long ago, I was visiting a high school friend in my hometown; she’d rented a small apartment over a detached garage behind a residential house. Her window overlooked a grass alley, beautiful, quiet, tire tracks full of white stones or gravel. Several small houses fronted on the alley. There was a 1950s style lawn chair, metal, in front of the house just opposite. In it sat a boy, nine or ten, his legs folded up under him as though he couldn’t feel them; he was holding up to his face a long strip of a blue dry cleaning bag, and blowing on it, looking through it. He was clearly in his own world. I asked my friend, “Who is that, and what is he doing?” “I don’t know,” she said, “but he sits that way for hours.” The image really burned itself into me.
Years later, I went to a birthday party hosted by the American artist Mary Sherman—in Cambridge, for her boyfriend, who happened to have the same birthday as me. I was looking at her sketchbook and admired a particular drawing, and because it was my birthday, she ripped the page out and gave it to me. The drawing is the one that appears in the American edition of Lark and Termite, opposite the title page. She had written “Termite” across the top, with some illegible writing; the drawing reminded me so of the boy, and he became Termite in my mind at that time. I wasn’t really thinking of a book, but I carried the drawing, framed, around with me, moving it house to house.
The novel began with my question of so long ago, and incorporated birthdays as part of its mystery. Lark’s first words, first section, were the beginning, and she begins with the chair, the alley, the town; she says who Termite is, what he’s like, what she knows and doesn’t know. I consciously set the book in 1959 so that he would not be “diagnosed,” labeled, figured out. The chair I originally saw suggested that time, and the silence. Lark tells us that his father was killed in Korea, which was the war of the 50s, and she tells us they “never got his body back.” She goes on to describe how Termite loves big sounds, storms, the double railroad tunnel by the river, when the trains go over on the tracks above, the train yard. I had a strong sense of the look of the tunnel, which is a common sight in West Virginia—those stone structures, bridges, tunnels, built during the Depression by the WPA.
This novel was kismet from the beginning. I had written at least Lark’s and Nonie’s first sections of the book before September 1999, when the AP broke the story of No Gun Ri. A large color photo on the front page showed the tunnel, from above, over the should of a survivor in a pale pink suit. I just wish I could meet that woman some day. At any rate, I recognized the shape, the space, the tunnel, immediately, and knew that was what happened to Leavitt, Termite’s father. The parallel worlds of the book began building and layering.
Q: In my review I make note of what looked like the obvious influence of William Faulkner, particularly his The Sound and the Fury, whose elements—the overlapping narratives, the sound and the fury going on in Termite’s inert body—you use in your own unique way. What other authors do you feel influenced by?
James Agee. Katherine Anne Porter. McCullers. Authors who articulate childhood, time, from deep inside.
Q: Your last novel,MotherKind, was published in 2000. Did writing Lark and Termite, published nine years later, take longer to write than your other novels? Was writing it a particular challenge?
Each novel is a particular challenge in its own way. I blame my constant multi-tasking, and it’s true that I can’t write if there are other things to be done—but, in some way, I write the way I do because I live with the material of the books for so long. They become alternate worlds, and they must be compelling enough that I can come back to them, despite time and distraction, trauma, loss, life (!) in its goodness as well—and sometimes the distance even seems to solve problems, or advance my understanding, when I enter the book again. It’s always been five to nine years between books for me.
The challenge with this one was the immense problem of all it encompasses, sustaining parallel worlds, really through language and mystery. Language is, I think, a layered mystery that encompasses history, and dimensions beyond the physical. Language is consciousness itself, which, like music, prayer, thought, is more than physical, and bridges time.
Q: On your website you have a page called “The Secret Country” which contains many photographs, letters, and other items from various time periods in which your books are set. In Lark and Termiteyou begin each day’s section with a picture from a variety of angles of the bridge at No Gun Ri. What role do these visual elements play in your writing?
I often build up a sort of artifact collection around the book I’m writing, private things that help me hang on to the work, enter the work, get inside the world that is still unknown to me. Some of the photographs on the website I discovered in hindsight. For Lark and Termite, I had a movie that I took, many years later, of the alley—it looked exactly the same, except that the house where he lived was gone, replaced by a garden.
And when I was researching No Gun Ri, I depended heavily on the AP series, which won a Pulitzer for Martha Mendoza, Charles Hanley, and Sang-Hun Choe, and did further reaserach—including emailing various travel book companies. Robert Nilsen, a writer for Sun Moon guide books, happened to be in South Korea when I reached him, and he generously volunteered to go to the tunnel and photograph it for me. The black and white, cropped versions, the color translated to black and white, are the photographs he sent me, and allowed us to use in the novel. They get tighter as we enter into Leavitt’s mind, into what’s happening to everyone in the tunnels. The post cards of Main Street (that Lark collects), the small moon pitcher Termite loves, are all things, real things, that were part of the process.
Q: You are also an acclaimed short story writer. Your first compilation, Sweathearts, was published in 1976, followed by another, Counting in 1978, and then Black Ticket in 1979. Since then you’ve written five novels, interspersed with collections of short stories. Is there a different sense of fulfillment when completing a novel than when completing a short story?
Well, yes, if only because a novel has to be sustained over such a long period, and the arc is so much longer and more complex. I loved writing stories, but I feel as though my stories and poems are inside my novels. I often publish excerpts along the way, that work as stories or focused excerpts. My books are mysteries to me—for me, material dictates form, meaning that the material teaches me how to write the book, what form the book will take.
Q: Has your work become more focused on novels?
If ind that the novel, as I conceive of it and write it, gives me the long arc of time I need in order to really enter the work. I want that long, familial form—which is never a given, and always a gamble.
Q: This might not be a fair question, but what is your favorite short story you’ve written?
I don’t play favorites! To me, the work is a continuum. Everything I’ve written had to precede what came next. It is one body of work.
Q: What are some of your favorite short stories?
“Pale Horse, Pale Rider” comes to mind, as perfection in itself, but there are dozens of stories I love.
Q: This book was set in your native West Virginia. Now that you are the director of the MFA program at Rutgers Newark, can we New Jersey residents hope to see a book set in or around this area?
Hmmmm, well, in some way, perhaps. Perhaps when I write my “academic” novel!
Q: And finally, what are three novels that you recommend we all read?
Here are four. You’ll love them. I live by them.
- A Death in the Familyby James Agee
- They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell
- Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby
- Fat City by Leonard Gardner