I’ve been looking forward to reading Raymond Chandler for a long long time — so long, in fact, that I almost forgot I was looking forward to reading him. Over a year ago I asked my wife to get me The Big Sleep (1939) for my birthday. The problem was that I also asked for a few other books, and they were the ones I chose to read first. By the time I’d finished them, other books fell into line . . . well, you’ve all been there. The shocking thing is that I almost didn’t finish reading it this time around. I picked it up and read the first twenty pages and enjoyed them quite a bit, but not enough to make other books less appealing. It lost out to some others again. Finally I said enough was enough and finished the bugger off. It was worth the toil.
Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s iconic private detective, is so entrenched in our culture that I was nervous about reading his first incarnation as it refined hardboiled fiction. What if the mimicry is better than the original? The cynicism and dryness were very familiar, but (as is often the case) the original still shines through, even if it is misogynist and anti-homosexual. From early in the novel, here’s a typical show of flippancy as Marlowe overstates metaphor and understates his cynicism:
Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying.
Marlowe has arrived at the mansion of millionaire General Sternwood. There are many visible problems at the mansion but the General wants Marlowe to chase after only one: Arthur Geiger has been blackmailing Carmen, one of the General’s two daughters. Marlowe says clear things up discreetly. On his way out, Marlowe runs into Vivian, the General’s other daughter. She assumes that the General asked Marlowe to investigate the disappearance of her husband, Terence Regan.
All of this built up to a nice and fairly straightforward story — at first, at least. In fact, things were working out so well for Marlowe that I began to get annoyed with the plot structure and figured the book was a classic merely because it was Chandler’s first book and our first introduction to Marlowe — surely the later books make up for the debt owed by the first. I have to say I was wrong though. Around the half-way point (and it wasn’t a struggle to get there, really) the book transforms, Marlowe’s cynicism becomes understandable. Marlowe has basically solved the case for General Sternwood, and he has no interest in the disappearance of Regan – so he says, anyway. However, by this point several people have died, and while Marlowe is no longer certain he wants to figure out why, he can’t help it, he’s enmeshed in the downfall.
Chandler’s ability with language shines through at this point too. Though Marlowe continues to narrate the story in his hard manner, he discloses the terror he feels. In fact, his hard manner almost makes the disclosures more intimate:
It was raining hard again. I walked into it with the heavy drops slapping my face. When one of them touched my tongue I knew that my mouth was open and the ache at the side of my jaws told me it was open wide and strained back, mimicking the rictus of death carved upon the face of Harry Jones.
It’s a great book because not only does the case start to fall apart but also the very structure of the book begins to contort and become uncertain and opaque. While some have criticized it for this, I found the technique fascinating (I’m assuming Chandler threw the plot away on purpose, though who can say? He was later shocked to discover, when questioned, that he didn’t know who killed one of the characters). When the the plot line no longer was ticking away predictably, when Marlowe’s character started evolving from the cynical professional to the shuddering man who knew too much – not about the case, but about life — I was wide awake.
A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to stumble upon Archipelago Books, a non-profit publishing house based in Brooklyn that specializes in literature in translation. I always like finding those! I was especially interested in their production style — their books are all published in an almost square format (though the dimensions of their books are not uniform from book to book); the covers are lovely in their simplicity, usually showcasing a piece of art or photography; the covers are nicely textured (you can see a bit of that in the image below). All in all, the books are unique in a way that highlights the high standards of the publishing house. If you’re interested in supporting Archipelago books with a donation (remember, they are a non-profit organization), you can click here and go to the donation page. If you’re interested in supporting them by becoming a subscriber, you can click here, and you will receive their books as they come off the press for the duration of your subscription (they have an attractive frontlist). They are about to publish their fiftieth book, and I hope there will be many many more.
My first Archipelago book happens to be the first book by Dominique Fabre available in English: The Waitress Was New (La serveuse était nouvelle, 2005; tr. from the French by Jordan Stump, 2008).
Review copy courtesy of Archipelago Books.
This book is told by Pierre, a fifty-six year-old barman working in Le Cercle, a café that sits close to the Seine. It begins on a day much like any other he’s lived for several years except for one thing:
The waitress was new here. She came out of the underpass and hurried down the sidewalk, very businesslike, keeping to herself, as tall as me even in flat-heeled shoes. Maybe forty years old? That’s not the kind of thing you can ask a lady. She had a sort of flesh-pink makeup on her eyelids, she must have spent a long time getting ready. I didn’t look closely at her shoes, the way I usually do to size someone up, because I had a feeling she’d seen some rough times, and there was no point overdoing it. And I’ve seen some rough times too, I tell myself now and then, but I’m not even sure it’s true.
The new waitress is stepping in to fill the spot temporarily vacated by Sabrina, a single mother of two who has gotten ill. This first paragraph introduces not only the story but also the deferential, observant Pierre, who is quietly trying not to interfere in anybody’s life and who doesn’t expect anyone to wish to interfere with his (though he probably wouldn’t mind).
I’ve slept alone for too long. I’ve never even had a chance to try Viagra, which apparently works wonders, and ends lots of marriage, from what I hear in the café.
Pierre has been working at Le Cercle for several years now, and he has come to know his boss’s foibles well despite a lack of any real friendship. After the new waitress shows up, the boss leaves inexplicably. For a while now Pierre has noticed his boss getting unsettled. This has happened before — the boss is just passing middle age — but usually he comes back soon enough and things are better than ever. Pierre has a feeling it might be different this time. The boss’s wife comes down to help work at the cash register, and as the hours pass without her husband’s return she gets increasingly nervous. It’s even worse that his leaving coincided with Sabrina’s. The book proceeds to tell what happens over the next few days as the boss remains absent and all who work at Le Cercle struggle to maintain the café’s regular schedule serving the regular clientele (of which there are several interesting and compassionately described individuals).
Pierre’s narration stays quiet, despite the commotion going on around him. When he describes his loneliness, though, he almost betrays too much — but he usually stops himself from divulging, content to relate the lives of others to his readers rather than his own. Consequently, what we get is one of my favorite stylistic feats: the narrator who says much about himself by talking about others.
Pierre does divulge that he was married once, long ago, and it ended in divorce. He’s pretty nonchalant about it at this point in his life, his most recent relationship having ended three years ago. Still, in spite of his compassion and empathy (or, perhaps, because of his compassion and empathy), he harbors a biting cynicism about long-term love:
The young couple finally left, they seemed very much in love, the way people are when it’s part-time, if you don’t mind my saying.
It would be easy to say that his bitterness comes from personal knowledge — he’s witnessed destructive relationships in his own life and he’s observed it every day in his job — but I’m not sure that’s the right answer. At times he betrays what could be the real reason: the bitterness that accompanies loss of something so desired. At fifty-six he’s thirteen and a half trimesters from receiving a full pension, but quantifying this (and also the number of trimesters he’s already worked) makes him realize how much of his life has been protected behind a bar and how soon that will all be over (indeed, how soon it all will be over). Pierre is a unique individual, one living on the periphery of what could be considered a larger story, but his voice — a nice juxtaposition of cynicism and empathy — pulls us into his story, a story he doesn’t want to tell us and that he himself doesn’t want to consider in too much detail.
Some days I’d rather not have to come out from behind my bar at all, but there’s no getting around it, life is still on the other side.
I’m getting on better with Roberto Bolaño now than I was before. By that I mean that I am converted. After finding 2666 a brilliantly written mess and Nazi Literature in the Americas a horrific human mess (again, brilliantly written), I wanted to go back and read the first of his books translated into English: By Night in Chile (Nocturno de Chile, 2000; tr. from the Spanish by Chris Andrews, 2003). What I found here was a clearer vision of the savage politics of the last century, particularly of Latin America. Bolaño has a way of presenting the politics in an almost farcical way . . . for a while – and then it becomes a horrific climax (sadly missing in 2666; but there the horror was throughout in clinical understatement).
In a way, By Night in Chile is the first conventional novel I’ve read by Bolaño. It has a beginning and an end and narrative cohesion. Still it is not that conventional. On a first look, stylistically it reminded me of Imre Kertész’s Kaddish for an Unborn Child – both are powerfully stated first person narratives laid out in a virtually unbroken style. By Night in Chile is a 130 page single paragraph (Kaddish is around the same length but was mostly one long sentence — but it did have a few paragraph breaks!). This might be offputting, or at least intimidating, to some people. It is both to me because somehow you have to navigate through all that text. What I’ve found time and again, however, is that the authors who attempt this style are usually very good at utilizing it for purpose, and somehow they pull it off without making it a cumbersome mass.
Here, the style is definitely not cumbersome. It produces a narrative pace that gives the reader little time to breath, let alone think, an effective device in this context where the speaker doesn’t want you to have time to consider his words to see what he is and is not saying. Our narrator is Father Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix, a priest who has served the church, even entering the ranks of Opus Dei, and who has served the Chilean government. Sometimes he has served one through the other. He’s pulled himself up on his death bed, “propped up on one elbow” and lifting his “noble, trembling head,” to offer a final confession.
I am dying now, but I still have many things to say. I used to be at peace with myself. Quiet and at peace. But it all blew up unexpectedly. That wizened youth is to blame. I was at peace. I am no longer at peace.
The confessional tone, however, is misleading because ultimately he admits to no wrong, and we know he’ll be ellusive from the start. In the middle of the first page we see that we are dealing with someone who is weighed down by something he is unwilling to name and therefore unwilling to accept.
One has to be responsible, as I have always said. One has a moral obligation to take responsibility for one’s actions, and that includes one’s words and silences, yes, one’s silences, because silences rise to heaven too, and God hears them, and only God understands and judges them, so one must be very careful with one’s silences. I am responsible in every way. My silences are immaculate.
Father Urrutia Lacroix then narrates his youth, and we know that he recognizes he was a more innocent person then, indeed he constantly feels chastized by his memories of his youth. But even at this point of his narrative he avoids responsibility for what was to follow:
And a year later, at the age of fourteen, I entered the seminary, and when I came out again, much later on, my mother kissed my hand and called me Father or I thought I heard her say Father, and when, in my astonishment, I protested, saying Don’t call me Father, mother, I am your son, or maybe I didn’t say Your son but The son, she began to cry or weep and then I thought, or maybe the thought has only occurred to me now, that life is a succession of misunderstandings, leading us on to the final truth, the only truth.
While attending seminary and after, our narrator wanted to be a literary critic. He had enough talen to become attractive (mentally and physically) to the prominent critic Farewell. Through Farewell he meets the other prominent figures of the arts and politics of his youth, including Pablo Nerruda. There is something compelling in these people, and it affects how he feels about his responsibilities flowing from his station in the church.
And I heard one of the women saying Father, won’t you try some of this or that. And someone was talking to me about a sick child, but with such poor diction I couldn’t tell if the child was sick or dead already. What did they need me for? If the child was dying, they should have called a doctor. If the child had already been dead for some time, they should have been saying novenas.
This back story eventually leads our narrator to a special assignment to help preserve the European cathedrals, which are being soiled by pigeon droppings. When he arrives in Europe, Father Urrutia Lacroix is surprised but unaffected by the manner the custodians of the cathedrals have chosen to fix the problem: they have become falconers, and they send their hawks up to violently purge the area of the pigeons (the irony of the church’s killing doves is not lost in the text).
This episode leads directly to the next episode both literally and figuratively. In a way, Father Urrutia Lacroix’s assignment can be seen as a primer for more important political work that is no less violent and disturbing. It ultimately leads him to Maria Canales, whom he now says was merely an acquaintance, no one he knew well, no one who knew him well. (Maria Canales is a stand-in for Mariana Callejas.) This is the horrific climax. This is the complicity our narrator seeks to strip from himself. However, though we never know just how complicit our narrator was, whether he had an active role in the horrors is a side note for Bolaño. Much more important to him here (and in Nazi Literature in the Americas) is his and others’ passive role in the horrors, particularly those who can hide under aesthetics. Our narrator sums it up nicely in one line:
That’s how literature is made in Chile.
William Maxwell has come up on my radar three times in the last few months: once on John Self’s review of The Château, once on my blog when Jayne Anne Phillips recommended They Came Like Swallows, and then again in two parts on KevinfromCanada’s blog with reviews of Bright Center of Heaven and They Came Like Swallows. I had never really looked into him and was shocked to find that he was the fiction editor of The New Yorker for forty substantial and influential years: 1936 – 1975 (imagine!). The only book I could find in any nearby bookstore was one of his more recent and well loved, So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980; National Book Award).
The cover looks quite a lot like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and indeed the book has some similarities. This one also deals with a murder (introduced early) that shook a small midwestern farm town. However, So Long, See You Tomorrow is a completely different novel. Perhaps a good way to introduce its theme is to say this: I thought Ian McEwan’s Atonement to be a masterpiece — I don’t feel quite that way anymore. (If you haven’t read Atonement but plan to, perhaps now would be a good time to sidle away from this review — there are no spoilers concerning So Long, See You Tomorrow).
As in Atonement, here we have a guilty mind attempting to construct a fictional narrative of the past in order to get some closure:
I very much doubt that I would have remembered for more than fifty years the murder of a tenant farmer I never laid eyes on if (1) the murderer hadn’t been the father of somebody I knew, and (2) I hadn’t later on done something I was ashamed of afterward. This memoir — if that’s the right name for it — is a roundabout, futile way of making amends.
The story begins by telling the bare-bone facts about the murder of a tenant farmer. We know little else about what happened other than that a tenant farmer went out one morning to milk the cows and was shot. He was discovered by his son – the children are central to the themes but on the periphery of the narrative. The narrator was a young child at the time, no more than a handful of years old. His own life had been in some upheavle because of his mother’s death during childbirth of his younger brother, his father’s subsequent remarriage, and his move into town to a newly constructed house. The construction of this house is an important motif in the story. In its description, the narrator introduces his faulty memory and the idea of story building.
I seem to remember that I went to the new house one winter day and saw snow descending through the attic to the upstairs bedroom. It could also be that I never did any such thing, for I am fairly certain that in a snapshot album I lost track of there was a picture of the house taken in the circumstances I have just described, and it is possible that I am remembering that rather than an actual experience. What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory — meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion — is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes in the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storytelling to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.
During this trying time of his youth, the narrator befriended Cletus, the son of the soon-to-be murderer. “Befriended” might be the wrong word, though, because really they simply played together, silent to all the trouble going on around them.
My father represented authority, which meant — to me — that he could not also represent understanding. And because there was an element of cruelty in my older brother’s teasing (as, of course, there is in all teasing) I didn’t trust him, though I perfectly well could have, about larger matters. Anyway, I didn’t tell Cletus about my shipwreck, as we sat looking down on the whole neighborhood, and he didn’t tell me about his. When the look of the sky informed us that it was getting along toward suppertime, we climbed down and said “So long” and “See you tomorrow,” and went our separate ways in the dusk. And one evening this casual parting turned out to be for the last time. We were separated by that pistol shot.
The heart of the book is what follows — the narrator’s reconstruction of the years before the murder and what it must have been like in the two households involved, all of this to sooth his mind. Maxwell’s prose is sparse and beautiful, very different from McEwan’s florid poetic and sometimes beautiful prose. So silently does the story progress that the moments of violence are audible to the reader and reverberate in the later pages though silence returns. Another contrast with McEwan is that fact that Maxwell lets you know from the get-go that this is an exercise in metafiction. McEwan springs it at the end to great effect if you’re in the right mood or to frustrating effect if you feel the novelist just tried to pull a hat trick. Honestly, after reading this one, I’m leaning more to the hat-trick perspective now. Despite the foreknowledge, this one is a powerful fiction riddled with guilt and deep childhood pain.
Boys are, from time to time, found hanging from a rafter or killed by a shotgun believed to have gone off accidentally. The wonder is it happens so seldom.
Like many, I have come to admire and appreciate the work of Australian Chris Andrews, whose translations have been key in bringing to English readers the works of Roberto Bolaño and César Aira. His exceptional renderings are so strong in style and voice that they never feel like works in translation. Andrews has translated five books by Roberto Bolaño: By Night in Chile (2003), Distant Star (2004), Last Evening on Earth (2007), Amulet (2008), and Nazi Literature in the Americas (2009). From César Aira, he has brought us three: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (2006), How I Became a Nun (2007), and Ghosts (2009).
The work continues! From Bolaño, in August, we will see Andrew’s translation of The Skating Rink; in 2010, of Monsieur Pain (January), Assassin Whores (June), and The Insufferable Gaucho (August); and in 2011, of The Secret of Evil (November). All will be published by New Directions (New Directions will also be publishing, in the same general time period, two other Bolaño books — Antwerp (April 2010) and Between Parentheses (June 2011) — translated by Natasha Wimmer, who did exceptional work on Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives and 2666). Besides a translation of Aira’s Varamo (forthcoming), I’m hoping that in the mix there are some more transations of Aira’s books.
I’m pleased that Mr. Andrews has taken the time to respond to some questions about his work as a translator, and in particular as a translator of Bolaño and Aira. (All typos in the interview are mine — not because I wrote it myself but because I typed it up myself.)
Q: Mr. Andrews, I’d like to begin by asking about your pathway to your current work translating Roberto Bolaño and César Aira. How long have you been translating, and why from Spanish?
I studied literature, French and Spanish, at university and started translating in the mid-1990s with travel narratives (including Ana Briongos’ memoir Black on Black about living and travelling in Iran) and some short stories (including Cortázar’s uncollected, early story “The Season of the Hand”). I wanted to translate longer works of fiction, but it’s hard to get a contract; there’s simply not much work for translators of fiction into English. With Bolaño, I had a lucky break: I was approaching publishers in England, expressing interest in translating work, and it happened that I visited Christopher Maclehose at The Harvill Press in London shortly after he had acquired the rights to By Night in Chile. That was in 2001. He asked me what I had been reading and I spoke enthusiastically about Bolaño (I had just read The Wild Detectives). Harvill already had a translator lined up for By Night in Chile, but when that fell through, they needed a replacement, so they asked me for a sample, then commissioned me to translate the book. Barbara Epler at New Directions published By Night in Chile in the United States, and I’ve been working directly with her since Last Evenings on Earth (which was originally commissioned by Harvill but published first by New Directions in the United States).
What happened with Aira was also serendipitous. New Directions were considering some of his books, and Barbara was asking for opinions. I had been “converted” by An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (I remember clearly reading it on a tram on a sunny winter’s day in Melbourne and suddenly feeling that I “got it”, after an initial phase of bewilderment, or more precisely realizing that if I stopped trying to “get it” as historically responsible fiction, it would open up as a strange and beautiful blend of phantasmagoria, essay, and narrative poem. After that, I was hooked and embarked on the treasure hunt that Aira has set up for his readers by publishing his books all over the place, with all sorts of outfits). So when the chance to translate An Episode and How I Became a Nun came up, I was very keen.
Q: What attracted you to the work of translating in the first place?
Translating is a very practical, hands-on way of working with literature: taking the sentences apart, puzzling over the bits, and reassembling them; poring over dictionaries and other reference works. I like trying to think about literature in critical and theoretical ways too, but there’s pleasure in losing the distance that theory requires and losing yourself in the details.
Q: I have found Bolaño and Aira to be two incredibly different authors, yet authors whose style is part of the product. In other words, their subject tends to determine the very form they write in. How do you approach such diverse and complex translating projects?
I think you’re quite right: they are very different, but in both cases style, in the broadest sense, encompassing the organization of a life-work and a working life, is central. Part of Aira’s style in that broad sense is to keep changing his style at the level of the chapter or paragraph, or rather to keep jumping from genre to genre to genre (Patri’s dream in Ghosts is a clear example of that: it is made up of free-wheeling anthropological reflections, which contrast strongly with the fairly straightforward narration in which the dream is set). So there are sharp differences within the books as well as between them, which are disorienting for the translator, as for the reader. When the translator reaches those discontinuities, he or she just has to hang on tight.
Q: Do you find yourself suffering from translator’s block?
Yes, but it lasts for hours, not days, weeks, or months, and I think it’s quite different from writer’s block. The problems to be solved are complex, but largely pre-set by the original, whereas a writer has to keep coming up with problems as well as solving them.
Q: Having translated a handful of works by each author, have certain things become automatic or at least easy?
No. That hasn’t happened yet!
Q: Now that we’ve talked about some of the challenges of translating, what are the pleasures?
César Aira has said that for him becoming a writer gave him an excuse to go on reading in the luxurious, irresponsible way that children do. Translating is a good excuse for reading too, and rereading. So I’d say that one of the main pleasures of translating is prolonged immersion in interesting fictions. Handling literary language is a great source of pleasure too.
Q: What are you working on now? And, if it doesn’t breach any pact of secrecy, what is coming up?
Right at the moment I’m finishing off Bolaño’s Monsieur Pain, before getting on to some more Bolaño stories. César Aira’s Varamo is coming up after that.
Q: Who are some of your favorite authors writing in Spanish who have not been translated into English?
I’ll mention two, who are very different from each other.
Dalia Rosetti, from Argentina. Recently I read her book Me encantaría que me guestes de mí (clumsy translation: I’d love it if you fancied me). It’s a lesbian surfing romance that jumps into the future. The labels make it sound like a genre mish-mash, and I guess that’s what it is, but what fascinated me was the falsely naive vitality of the narrative voice, which is cunningly sustained.
Juan Villoro, from Mexico. His El Testigo (The Witness), about a self-exiled Mexican intellectual returning home after the elections that ended the PRI’s long reign in 2001, is dense, epigrammatic, and built like a palace. It’s the most ambitious of Villoro’s books to date, but there are many more, in an impressive range of kinds: stories, essays, travel writing, children’s books.
Q: Do you have a say in what works you will translate? If so, how do you select your next process?
Generally publishers do the commissioning and translators take the job or don’t. Publishers often listen to the opinions of translators, or ask them for reader’s reports, but they usually gather a fair few opinions and then they just have to “go on their nerve” as Frank O’Hara said of poets. When a book is proposed, two main factors influence my decision: (a) Am I in tune with the book? and (b) Can I do it in the publisher’s time frame, given my other commitments?
Q: Finally, what are three books you recommend we all read?
These aren’t recommendations for everyone, just some things I like and that might appeal to some readers of The Mookse and the Gripes: Anything the Landlord Touches, poems by Emma Lew, from Melbourne (Giramondo Press); A God’s Breakfast, poems by Frank Kuppner, from Glasgow (Carcanet); The Power of Flies, a novel by Lydie Salvayre, from France, translated by Jane Kuntz (Dalkey Archive Press).
What a puzzling book! Or rather – what a puzzle of a book. How to review it? I think a good way to start is by contrasting it to books that failed me where it succeeded. About a year ago I reviewed Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist. My feelings toward that book have declined sharply, in part because it has come to represent — surely unfairly – something I despise. To me, it was obfuscated solely for the sake of appearing more substantial than it was, mistaking opaque for profound. That is about as bad in my book as being clever just to be clever. I like inovative and unconventional and even obfuscated style, but it should serve and not detract from the substance of the book. When I started Inger Christensen’s Azorno (1967; tr. by Denise Newman 2009), I was a bit wary because there are enough blatant contradictions and perspective shifts early in the text to suggest Christensen is just poking fun at the reader because, as the author, she can. (However, there were never parts with strange abstractions like in Gordimer, and I remember that being the worst part of that book.) Well, my worries quickly went away when Azorno, though not being clear in itself, clearly settled on some fascinating themes — and the obfuscation enhanced those themes (yes!).
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.
The first line is very interesting. It also introduces the loose boundaries of the text and the uncertain nature of the facts presented.
I’ve learned that I’m the woman he first meets on page eight.
I admit, I didn’t wait to read pages one through seven before skipping to page eight to see who was talking. Strangely, there is no encounter of this sort on page eight, so either that first page is not talking about this book or it is lying. Disoriented, I read on to discover what it was talking about. A writer named Sampel is working on a book. Azorno is the main character. The woman who wrote this introductory sentence thinks she is the inspiration for the lovely woman Azorno meets on page eight of Sampel’s book. In the next section, another narrator takes over, though at the time the transition is not apparent. It soon becomes obvious that we are dealing with multiple narrators who are writing letters to one another. But then come the contradictions:
But if the truth is finally to come out, there’s one thing that can’t have two meanings: Yesterday I was with Azorno here in Rome. It was the first Sunday in May, and the noon hour was unbelievably hot.
It was the first Sunday in May and the air was unusually cool. I had just said good-bye to Azorno and wasn’t sure which direction to walk now that I was alone after three uninterrupted days with Azorno, who always decides which direction to take . . . .
Slowly, despite the uncertainty of who the women are and where they stand in relationship with each other and with Sampel and Azorno, the women take shape in the minds of the reader. Then Christensen blurs the image, and we’re just not sure (and I never was again sure) who was real and who was imagined, who was writing what I was reading and who was the potential pseudonym. Was one of the women writing this book under an assumed name? Was Sampel himself writing it? Is it Sampel’s wife? Is it Adorno?
This might sound frustrating, and I suppose it could be if approached with the wrong expectations. However, as I alluded above, the technique is not without its purpose. Furthermore, the story itself is very compelling. See, there are five women in all. The one who is silent for the first part of the book takes a greater role in the second half. This is Bet Sampel, Sampel’s wife. Here is a heartbreaking thing she says when she finally gets her voice and is not merely the subject of the other women’s letters.
As early as page eight I noticed a very incisive and loving account of the woman Azorno, the main character, meets.
At first I was flattered to think that Sampel had used me as a model for this compelling description, but gradually, as I read on, it became clear that he was describing someone else.
Trying to figure out just who is the inspiration for that fabulous description, Bet narrows it down to four candidates and, using a telegram from Sampel, invites them all to their house while Sampel is away. Sampel has been away for months, and during this time Bet has found out she is pregnant with his child. All four women show up, and all of the other four are also pregnant. Christensen doesn’t let this go to melodrama, though, and the scene where the women sit awkwardly around while Bet analyzes them is fantastic. It also ends bizarrely, alluding to the possibility that someone is insane, perhaps institutionalized. And maybe someone has been murdered. Maybe not. Figuring out the truth is not the point.
There is nothing to be solved, but something to bind. Bind one to the other. Bind yourself to a random person whose random circumstances cause you to no longer recognize yourself simply as a human being, but rather as a human-made being.
I’ve had a few Tobias Wolff novels on my shelf for years now, but until recently I’d never picked one out to read it. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because I acquire books quickly, and the new additions tend to take precedence over the old. Perhaps it was because I knew nothing about Tobias Wolff or these books. But on the blogs (again, trusted blogs are the best place to get word of books) I’d been picking up an esteem for Wolff that helped me realize that this gap in my reading was larger than I’d thought. I pulled Old School (2003) off the shelf. I remember thinking, “Well, I’ll give a it a few minutes to see how it feels.” As you can see by the presence of this review, that was all it took.
Wolff is best known for his short stories and his memoirs, This Boy’s Life probably being the most famous (I have that next on my list). Indeed, Old School is only his second novel, coming over twenty-five years after his first, Ugly Rumors (1975), which was never published in the United States and has never been reissued (you can get it from Amazonfor a mere $894.50 to $1790.63, if you’re that interested in a book the author has essentially repudiated – Old School was touted as his first novel). Despite my own ignorance of Tobias Wolff, I have been conscious of him for a long time by word of mouth. To me, it is impressive that in today’s market a writer can become so well known primarily through novellas, short stories, and memoirs. But after reading Old School, it is not surprising that Wolff should be well regarded. This book is brilliant from page one to the end.
As you may guess from the cover and title, we’re in the familiar boys’ school setting from a time period just before the political upheaval of the 1960s. The first paragraph, however, is fresh and all misgivings that this might be a book covering overworked ground are set to rest.
Robert Frost made his visit in November of 1960, just a week after the general election. It tells you something about our school that the prospect of his arrival cooked up more interest than the contest between Nixon and Kennedy, which for most of us was no contest at all. Nixon was a straight arrow and a scold. If he’d been one of us we would have glued his shoes to the floor. Kennedy, though — here was a warrior, an ironist, terse and unhysterical. He had his clothes under control. His wife was a fox. And he read and wrote books, one of which, Why England Slept, was required reading in my honors history seminar. We recognized Kennedy; we could still see in him the boy who would have been a favorite here, roguish and literate, with that almost formal insouciance that both enacted and discounted the fact of his class.
Each year several famous authors visit the school. It is the privilege of all to submit a piece of writing (fiction or poetry, depending on the visiting author). The author then selects one student as the winner, and that student gets to take a stroll around the garden one-on-one with the author. Our narrator is a budding author struggling to find his voice. So far he’s never been able to be completely honest with himself, and his writing shows it. He is a great reader, though, and has a position on the school’s literary journal wherein he gets to help select which of the students’ pieces get published. He loves literature and deeply hopes to win a meeting with one of the visiting authors. In a way, he thinks such a meeting might just get his own writing career started.
All these writers were welcomed by other writers. It seemed to follow that you needed such a welcome, yet before this could happen you somehow, anyhow, had to meet the writer who was to welcome you. My idea of how this worked wasn’t low or even practical. I never thought about making connections. My aspirations were mystical. I wanted to receive the laying on of hands that had written living stories and poems, hands that had touched the hands of other writers. I wanted to be anointed.
These author visits keep the book’s narrative on track, moving us methodically through the school year and through the development of this artist and of art. First we have Robert Frost, a nice representation of conventional formalism passing away, but not without a fight. Next comes the incendiary Ayn Rand, whom many in the school didn’t want to invite. The narrator becomes infatuated with The Fountainhead and is eventually baffled by how much it changes his perspective and his relationships. It’s a tragic part of the novel, and the role of fiction is excellently discussed in these passages and when Rand herself visits the school. The last scheduled author for the school year is the soon-to-be-late Hemingway.
I myself was in debt to Hemingway — up to my ears. So was Bill. We even talked like Hemingway characters, through in travesty, as if to deny our discipleship: That is your bed, and it is a good bed, and you must make it and you must make it well. Or: Today is the day of meatloaf. The meatloaf is swell. It is swell but when it is gone the not-having meatloaf will be tragic and the meatloaf man will not come anymore.
Wolff doesn’t let the story hang on these author visits, however, as central to the book as they are. Despite our narrator’s youthful self being stifled, the writer he becomes — the writer who writes this account – approaches this memoir of sorts with a cutting honesty but without easily answering the dilemmas encountered this school year. Nothing is easily resolved, if it is ever resolved. The end, in fact, is a sort of pseudo-resolution, and it’s excellent. I’m not giving anything away when I say that Wolff completely reworks the perspective of the novel in the last few pages, not through a surprise twist or an epiphany but by unconventionally straying from the narrative he’d been so strict to follow up to that point, playing with our notions of the narrator’s aesthetic as well as his personal development — and justifications.
A year ago today I posted a giddy review of Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer. Since then I’ve slowly — but still giddily — made my way through the eight other Zuckerman books (you can find my thoughts on them all here). It was a fantastic project that I’d recommend to anyone. The Nathan Zuckerman alter-ego is one of the most ingenious vehicles ever used to study the elusive nature of identity and the influences that shape it, be they familial, ethnic, national, extra-marital, etc. It was completely unintended but fitting that on this anniversary of sorts I’d post the review of Roth’s last Zuckerman book, Exit Ghost (2007), a book end for my first year blogging and a bookend for one of the best literary projects I’ve embarked on in that time or any time.
I was a little wary starting this book. On the one hand, the only book in the series that I didn’t like was I Married a Communist, so 7 out of 8 are pretty good odds suggesting I’d like this final one. But some reviews were less than glowing, and I hated the thought of tainting my Zuckerman experience with a final bitter swallow. Then again, how could I not read this? That was never a question.
The first few pages, while not bad, didn’t do much to encourage me. Where I found the prose in The Ghost Writer to be so vivacious and robust, here the prose felt a bit more stifled. The ideas were interesting, and I liked encountering Nathan Zuckerman, now 71 years old. He’s been living in the Berkshires, eschewing society, for eleven years. He’s incontinent following a surgery for prostate cancer, and he’s impotent. Little by little the prose sunk in. No, it’s not robust anymore. Neither is Zuckerman. If one of his sentences doesn’t feel as tight as it used to, neither does he have the quick brain he used to. But he does still know how to pinpoint a malady:
I hadn’t been in New York in eleven years. Other than for surgery in Boston to remove a cancerous prostate, I’d hardly been off my rural mountain road in the Berkshires in those eleven years and, what’s more, had rarely looked at a newspaper or listened to the news since 9/11, three years back; with no sense of loss — merely, at the outset, a kind of drought within me — I had ceased to inhabit not just the great world but the present moment. The impulse to be in it and of it I had long since killed.
After eleven impotent years on his own, Zuckerman hears of a simple treatment offered in New York that might help his incontinence (he knows his impotence, unfortunately, is incurable). Not sure it’s worth the trouble, Zuckerman nevertheless decides to undertake the treatment. Reentering “the present moment,” Zuckerman finds life teaming in New York, and he’s anxious to leave it.
All the city would add was everything I’d determined I no longer had use for: Here and Now.
Here and Now.
Then and Now.
The Beginning of the End of Now.
These were the lines that I jotted onto the scrap of paper where I’d previously written Amy’s name and the phone number of my new New York apartment. Titles for something. Perhaps this. Or should I just come right out with it — call it A Man in Diapers. A book about knowing where to go for your agony and then going there for it.
Completely by chance, Zuckerman runs into Amy Bellette, whom he hasn’t seen since the last few pages of The Ghost Writer, nearly fifty years earlier. She’s wearing a worn out, reworked hospital gown and her head is somewhat misshapen. He doesn’t go to her at that point, but just seeing her brings back his past. On a whim he frequently regrets afterwards, he decides to answer an ad in the New York Review of Books: a young writing couple wants to swap homes for a year. He goes to the apartment to meet the young couple and falls immediately in lust with the young wife, Jamie Logan. He finds it unbearably delightful and terrible. He at once wants to run away from and with her. Jamie has an ex-lover writing a biography on E.I. Lonoff, Zuckerman’s father/mentor for the night we experienced in The Ghost Writer. Already thoroughly enjoying myself, it is at this point that the book took off for me, becoming one of my favorites in the series.
Biography/identity is always an interesting underlying thread in the Zuckerman books. In The Ghost Writer we get Zuckerman’s fantastic self-serving yet profound alternate biography for Amy Bellette. In The Counterlife we get Zuckerman’s alternate biography/obituary for himself. In American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain we get biographies that are alternate, but we don’t know to what extent, and at this point Zuckerman doesn’t hide his view that the fiction is more true than the fact. In Exit Ghost we get Zuckerman’s alternate version of his conversations with Jamie Logan. And underlying all of this is the Nathan Zuckerman character as an autobiographical character for Philip Roth himself. Again, the line between fact and fiction is blurred, and we’ll never know just how much Roth sees himself in Zuckerman, though we do know Roth is having fun with just that blurred line. Biography is an ingenious strain that runs through already complex and tightly woven themes.
It is ironic, but Zuckerman, the master of biographies, all fictional, is livid that this importunate would-be biographer would dare tread on Lonoff under the pretext of bringing a forgotten literary master back to the light. While it is made worse that the young man plans to focus his biography on a secret Lonoff apparently hid all of his life, we get the sense that what Zuckerman is really trying to protect is his own biography. Biography as fiction, fiction as biography — has it ever been done better?
All of this leads to the elegiac resolution, typical yet sought after in all of these books. Zuckerman knows his death is just around the corner. Then his biography is no longer his own. He will have lost control of his story. And there’s that nagging possibility of losing control before death.
If one morning I should pick up the page I’d written the day before and find myself unable to remember having written it, what would I do? If I lost touch with my pages, if I could neither write a book nor read one, what would become of me? Without my work, what would be left of me?
This book came at a particularly poignant time in literary history, called by the importunate young biographer “The Twilight of the Gods.” We talk about Art Buchwald and George Plimpton, and, though he was still alive for a few months more when the book was published, Norman Mailer. And I read it just a few months after John Updike passed. All of these immortals now dead.
Humorously and unusually — that’s how George and his friends imagined themselves dying back before they believed they would, back when dying was just another idea to have fun with. “Oh, there’s death too!” But the death of George Plimpton was neither humorous nor unusual. It was no fantasy either. He died not in pinstripes at Yankee Stadium but in pajamas in his sleep. He died as we all do: as a rank amateur.