Here is my first review as a member of this year’s Giller Prize Shadow Jury: The Year of the Flood (2009) (long listed for 2009 Giller Prize). I’m excited to discuss this book! However, because I don’t want that sentiment to mislead any Atwood lovers into reading a highly irreverent review you’d rather avoid, I must forego witholding my opinion of this book and forewarn you: my basic response to The Year of the Flood was (1) giddiness because the first half, to me, was ”So Bad It’s Great!”; (2) indifference as the book became nothing more than a faux-literary thriller, with all of the conventions and lack of depth so that it read more like Stephen King than Margaret Atwood; and (3) indignation at the author’s pretensions, particularly in the self-promoting build-up to this novel’s release and as showcased on the “Acknowledgements” page. In brief, this is not a glowing review. In fact this might be my most negative review yet, and I usually avoid such negativity. However, it’s worth discussing this book, negativity and all (well, negativity is about all that’s here), and not just because of the Shadow Jury. There are a lot of books out there that don’t pretend to be literature; they have their place and meet their expectations. Then there is an ugly class of books that pretend to be more than they are. I don’t like it when an author who knows better presents that faux literature as something profound. And it’s almost offensive when that author’s methods for promoting that faux literature are beyond pretentious.
Let me get one thing straight, though, before I call down your ire, or at least before I call down more of your ire: I do respect some of Atwood’s contributions to genuine literature. She has exceptional talent. You’ll find nothing but my deepest praise for The Handmaid’s Tale; it is one of my favorite books, truly a highlight not just of Atwood’s career, but also a highlight of speculative fiction. Alias Grace (which won the Giller and was one of the first books I reviewed on this site) had me intrigued throughout until the disappointing ending. And The Blind Assassin was as clever and enjoyable a book-that-should-not-have-won-the-Booker as you’ll find. Furthermore, after reading The Year of the Flood, I am actually more likely to read Oryx and Crake (The Year of the Flood takes place at the same time and even involves some of the same characters), as the references to it towards the end seemed more substantial and interesting than the melodrama I was reading. So, hopefully you see that while I do not hold myself out to be Atwood’s greatest fan, I am attracted to her books. She is a terrific writer, sometimes, but I’m afraid what we have here is a prime example of talent gutted by ego.
The plot itself is engaging only because its structure keeps the mysteries alive. This is a structure we’ve seen in other Atwood novels, so though it is effective and well executed here, it must now be Atwood’s go-to formula. The Year of the Flood is divided into several large sections with chapter titles. Each section begins with a short speech from Adam One, the founder of God’s Gardeners, to his fellow Gardeners. The speeches, besides letting us know which time period the bulk of the events of the upcoming section cover, give Atwood a chance to express blunt philosophy with no nuance or depth, but with many aphorisms, because Adam One is seen as a bit of an eccentric:
By covering such barren rooftops with greenery we are doing our small part in the redemption of God’s Creation from the decay and sterility that lies all around us, and feeding ourselves with unpolluted food into the bargain. Some would term our efforts futile, but if all were to follow our example, what a change would be wrought on our beloved Planet! Much hard work still lies before us, but fear not, my Friends: for we shall move forward undaunted.
I am glad we have all remembered our sunhats.
Each speech ends with “Let Us Sing” (or its equivalent), and we then have the dubious pleasure of reading the hymn the congregation is singing. After the hymn, the section moves to a brief segment about one of the two main characters, Toby or Ren, in Year Twenty-Five, the Year of the Flood. Year Twenty-Five is the book’s present time. Some pandemic, a “waterless flood” (a wonderfully apt name, showing that Atwood still has a gift for new perspective as she ties together culture, the present, and its future — there’s something positive!), is about to spread or has spread over the earth, wiping out humanity, but these two women are survivors (as, we find out, are several other characters, all fortuitously and conveniently — it’s beyond a stretch that they all survive and come together).
After that brief glimpse into what Toby and Ren are doing in the Year Twenty-Five, the section moves into the past (to the year Adam One’s speech indicated) for several smaller chapters within the larger section. Either Toby or Ren tell how they became part of God’s Gardeners, introducing us to the people in their lives, their doubts, their tragedies, eventually leading us up to the causes and effects of the Flood, eventually filling in the gap in the narrative.
That gap between the past and the bleak present is the heart of the novel. But this is where Atwood’s structure becomes formulaic, a low-grade authorial trick. In the Year Twenty-Five, Toby and Ren speak of the past in vague but suggestive ways, and most of the time we can tell that it’s actually Atwood teasing the reader and that the prevaricating is not based in the characters themselves; or, in other words, the prevaricating does nothing to deepen the characters, to make their minds come alive. Some of my favorite books use a similar technique, but for more purpose than to snag the reader: for example, in Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day Stevens is vague about his past because he himself doesn’t want to acknowledge it; it’s an effective way to show his own evasiveness. Perhaps Atwood is emphasizing the stark contrast between the Ren and Toby of the past and present, though that in itself isn’t particularly important. Also, with Atwood we’re getting junk like this: “He was an older guy, bald on top, with a ponytail at the back, and a lot of arm tattoos. There was something familiar about him — maybe he was a repeat — but I didn’t get a very good look.” Such plotting is artificial. It’s an author’s evasiveness shoved onto her characters, meant to drag readers on to a promised climax that is often much less interesting than the one we imagined. Atwood is a master at this structure and has used it more effectively before, and on a sentence-by-sentence level this is still a well written book. So – as was the case in Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin – I found myself reading because the pages flowed on smoothly and I wanted to know what happened between the past and present. Many more author’s shenanigans, I’m afraid.
I’m sure there are many readers who will disagree with this next proposition, but I also didn’t find Toby and Ren to be particularly interesting characters. Atwood has given them a past that is compelling reading; the problem is that again it is familiar territory Atwood has plodded before: abandonment, sexual warfare, wandering hands of otherwise innocuous men, outright brutal sexual abuse of not-so-innocuous men, psychological warfare between the affected women as their identities fade away, the way our culture infects us with these tendencies. Because the background was so familiar, Toby and Ren become stock characters; the things that happened to them lost their impact when it felt they were meant to quickly and conveniently trigger our sympathy for otherwise empty characters. In the end, Ren and Toby offer nothing new, so, really, they offer nothing.
What’s different in The Year of the Flood is the environment. We stand in the future, and North America has become an exaggerated version of its current worst traits (again, from the acknowledgments page: “The Year of the Flood is fiction, but the general tendencies and many of the details in it are alarmingly close to fact.”). While these worst traits deserve critical literary treatment, we don’t get it here. Instead, in this book Atwood’s clever lexicon that melds the future world with our current world is downright cutesy, reducing all potential depth to mere cleverness for the sake of cleverness.
Government as we know it is nonexistent. Instead, massive corporations have conglomerated and privatized everything. The brand name is “Corporations.” They run the world, careful to keep the profit margin as large as possible. They have a private security force called the Corporation Security Corp, or, as Atwood calls it with her ham-fist: CorpSeCorps. The world is a very materialistic place, and the corporations like that. Keep the pleeblanders (that’s what Atwood calls Orwell’s proles) happy with cosmetics from AnooYoo, with toys from SeksMart, with food from an omnipresent fast-food chain called SecretBurger, “Because Everyone Loves a Secret!” Right up front Atwood explains that the secret is that “no one knew what sort of animal protein was actually in them.” However, within this awful (if comical) future, there is a subversive group called God’s Gardeners that has melded traditional elements of Judeo-Christian religious doctrine with environmentalism and vegetarianism. They call themselves “bioneers.” They take their “Vegivows.” And then there are the hymns. In her “Acknowledgments” page Atwood claims, “The clearest influence on Gardener hymn lyrics is William Blake, with an assist from John Bunyan and also from The Hymn Book of the Anglican Church of Canada and the United Church of Canada.” As much as I love the subtlety of Blake’s poetry or the nuance and perspective of Bunyan’s allegories, I certainly couldn’t take the hymns seriously. Here’s an example from the first hymn:
Who is it tends the Garden,
The Garden oh so green?
‘Twas once the finest Garden
That ever has been seen.
It goes on. Here’s a bit of the second:
When Adam first had breath of life
All in that golden place,
He dwelt in peace with Bird and Beast,
And knew God face to face.
Man’s Spirit first went forth in speech
To name each Creature dear;
God called to all in Fellowship,
They came without a fear.
. . . . .
How shrunk, how dwindled, in our times
Creation’s mighty seed –
For Man has broke the fellowship
With murder, lust, and greed.
I don’t care if you believe in the sentiments expressed in these hymns or not, they are not poetry. They don’t do justice to the sentiments expressed. For many of the hymns I wondered if Atwood did her research in contemporary megachurches to come up with the appropriate amount of bathos. If that is the case — brilliant! But she’s serious. Besides comparing her work to Blake and Bunyan, she has made the hymns available online if anyone would like to use them for “amateur devotional or environmental purposes.” It takes a certain amount of pride to set oneself up as a de facto poet for some movement, but she’s apparently got it. Which might also explain the large cathedral gatherings, promoting the release of this book, where the hymns are sang by a choir.
And now for my real problem with the book: if Atwood had offered something worthy of the cause it pretends to promote, then go to! However, The Year of the Flood is nothing more than a slight thriller mascarading as serious literature. It is unfortunately just as full of stock images and techniques as it is of cutesy futuristic lingo. In its exaggerated portrayal, it does not analyze our current culture. Its only critique is made in blunt and obvious references. Again, the shallow treatment makes it seem as though Atwood is throwing these references in the text not to critique, not to discuss, but rather to come across as important. Here’s one reference topical for us in America. It’s just thrown into the narrative to further show how bad this future is:
Nobody could get public wellness coverage unless they had no money of their own whatsoever.
That’s it. It’s done its job. It’s created the illusion of depth, and, perhaps more importantly, the illusion of commeradery as many readers will think that Atwood so gets it! Here’s a particularly offensive one that exploits Hurricane Katrina to introduce a history for Amanda, who lived in Texas before it was destroyed:
The shelter was a football stadium with tents in it. There was a lot of trading going on: people would do anything for twenty dollars, Amanda said. Then her mother got sick from the drinking water, but Amanda didn’t because she traded for sodas. And there was no medicine, so her mother died. “A lot of people shat to death,” said Amanda. “You should have smelled that place.”
Again, it’s not whether I agree or disagree with Atwood’s underlying claims about our current times; it’s how poorly she deals with them and the sense that they are there as a shortcut to build her ethos.
Where the book settles into a narrative without worrying about throwing in any of these familiar but poorly used motifs, it becomes nothing at all, just a few characters trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. To me, the best speculative fiction is fiction with a real human story, where the environment is merely incidental, where the environment merely allows the author to explore themes more deeply (I’m thinking of McCarthy’s The Road, or even Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four). But here we have an author hung up on her own creativity – the creative future environment is the subject of this book, the characters are secondary, any discussion about how to make the world a better place is tertiary. Were it not for the fact that Atwood’s covenant of silence with Canadian book reviewers who received advance copies, for her cathedral promotional show, for her self-appointment as poet laureate for environmentalism, I would have simply dismissed this book as a poor addition to Atwood’s late period. But if ever there were a book written in bad faith, where a talented author makes a mockery of serious writing while actively promoting it as something profound, it’s this book.
Earlier this year I bought all of W.G. Sebald’s “fictions” and decided to read them in chronological order, starting with Vertigo. I was incredibly affected by that book, where the narrator seemed capable of making the past tangible as he roamed paths where Stendhal, Cassanova, and Kafka wandered. It was hauntingly real. However, having now read Sebald’s second book (the first published in English), The Emigrants (Die Ausgewanderten, 1993; tr. by Michael Hulse, 1996), I feel as though Vertigo were more of a tutorial, a primer, preparing me for the richer, even more tangible past in The Emigrants.
In The Emigrants time and space again contract as our narrator, whom I’ll call Sebald, traces the steps of the dead, going to their home, listening to or reading their stories, and — it’s beautiful — looking at their photographs, which are embedded in the text. And though in Vertigo Sebald managed to make everything very intimate, in The Emigrants the intimacy is much more intense. Yet still I’m reading about people I know nothing about; their experiences are not part of my heritage.
The Emigrants is divided into four accounts: that of (1) Dr. Henry Selwyn, whose family emigrated from Lithuania from England, a secret he kept from his wife for a while; (2) Paul Bereyter, a quarter-Jew, still discriminated against though he served in the Wehrmacth, who taught Sebald in school and, later in life, emigrated to France; (3) Ambros Adelwarth, Sebald’s great-uncle, who travelled the Near East with a great friend but who, when that friend was committed to a mental institution, then went to be the butler to that friend’s family in Long Island; and (4) Max Ferber, a painter in Manchester, who ended up in Manchester when his parents succeeded in sending him away from Germany on a plane in 1939 but then failed to get themselves out.
The book begins with a picture of a cemetery, the same one showed on the cover above. It is 1970, and Sebald is driving around the English countryside with his wife, taking everything in, apparently, though not fully understanding the weight of everything he sees. At least, he doesn’t know how much he will eventually be affected by Dr. Henry Selwyn, the husband of his new landlord. Dr. Selwyn is surprisingly open to Sebald, telling him about a past friend named Naegeli, with whom he climbed mountains:
I can still see him standing at the station at Meiringen, waving. But I may only be imagining it, Dr Selwyn went on in a lower tone, to himself, since Elli has come to seem a stranger to me over the years, whereas Naegeli seems closer whenever he comes to my mind, despite the fact that I never saw him again after that farewell in Meiringen.
Naegeli disappeared, and they think that he was buried in the snow. Dr. Selwyn doesn’t cease divulging to Sebald there. In a later visit, he tells more of his past, “prompted by his asking whether I was ever homesick,” Sebald says. Interestingly, the fact that Sebald himself is an emigrant stays underneath the narrative most of the time. Dr. Selwyn tells Sebald of his emigration to England (they thought they’d landed in New York, got off the boat, and, realizing their mistake, decided to stay). Henry Selwyn’s name was Hersch Seweryn. When Dr. Selwyn finally divulged this information to his wife, their relationship changed. Now, he thinks his secret is what made them drift apart. Sebald finds out later that Dr. Selwyn eventually took his own life. As shaking as this must have been, Sebald says, “I had no great difficulty in overcoming the initial shock.” Years pass.
But certain things, as I am increasingly becoming aware, have a way of returning unexpectedly, often after a lengthy absence.
Many times throughout the book we find the past encroaching on the present, whether in the lives of the subjects or Sebald:
And so they are ever returning to us, the dead.
As he grows older, he begins to feel the weight of history. Or, perhaps more exact, he begins to understand the nature of time as it moves through people, and he begins to devote his time to finding the past these people left behind, the past they themselves have tried to forget. One of tales is told primarily by Mme Landau, and she talks about “the systematic thoroughness with which these people kept silent in the years after the war, kept their secrets, and even, I sometimes think, really did forget. . .”
But Sebald suggests they don’t forget. In fact, it’s all they can remember, and it follows them everywhere, to their death. This is a fantastic book, and while I’d love to keep paraphrasing the accounts and quoting Sebald, I think the best thing is to say you should read this book.
Before the Giller Prize longlist was announced, KevinfromCanada rounded up some of the most likely picks for me to read. Crummey was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2001 for River Thieves, and Galore (2009), his incorporation of modes familiar from Garcia Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude into the folklore of Newfoundland, seemed an obvious choice. Well, we were wrong. The Giller Prize jury did not include it on their list of twelve (in 2008, there were fifteen books on the longlist, making the exclusion more deliberate, unless there was a change in policy I’m unaware of).
Copy courtesy of KevinfromCanada.
I’ll be up front: I wouldn’t have included it in my longlist either, though it still surprised me that it wasn’t selected because I think it would appeal to many readers. Galore is an ambitious novel, filled with fascinating stories, and Crummey is a gifted writer. His sentences flow nicely, and his images are poetic without being overdone. While I didn’t love it, I did enjoy it.
As I said above, Galore is an homage to (or a rip-off of) One Hundred Years of Solitude. One of the epigraphs for the book is from Garcia Márquez: “The invincible power that has moved the world is unrequited, not happy, love.” And not that One Hundred Years of Solitude owns this feature, but Galore also contains a nice family tree portending of its scope. There’s the strange old matriarch who seems to survive everything and intimidate everyone. There are some moments of magical realism; for example, a dead husband walks around, morosely watching his wife cuckold him with the priest. There is even a “kind of sleeping sickness.” With all of this, I’m sorry to say, Galore is no One Hundred Years of Solitude. And the references serve more to heighten reader expectations, which are not fulfilled. Where One Hundred Years of Solitude is a profound and moving book about the joy of life, Galore is really simply a lengthy tale about a Newfoundland community through the eyes of a few families. Where One Hundred Years of Solitude can be generally and specifically applied, Galore might work more for those who know Newfoundland.
Divided into two parts, Galore takes place throughout much of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, following five generations of characters (don’t worry, that family tree makes sure we’re never lost). Part one starts out cleverly, even if it does come off a bit contrived. A whale has come to shore, “a gift” to the community raising itself in the cold wilderness on the shore. The young Maria Tryphena Devine (the middle generation of the five we meet in the pages — yes, the book’s structure goes back and forth in time, but it’s smooth) waits impatiently for the whale to die so they can begin to harvest it. Finally the whale dies:
The Toucher triplets were poking idly at the massive gut with splitting knives and prongs, dirty seawater pouring from the gash they opened, a crest of blood, a school of undigested capelin and herring, and then the head appeared, the boys screaming and falling away at the sight. It was a human head, the hair bleached white. One pale arm flopped through the ragged incision and dangled into the water.
Mary Tryphena can’t know this at the time, but naked man born of a whale is Judah, who will always stink of fish, and who will become her undesired husband. Crummey lets us know this from the beginning, and as a result much of the book comes off as fated (something also bordering mimicry of One Hundred Years of Solitude). Sometimes that works, and sometimes it feels more like the author is making the story and its consequences more profound than it really is. I felt the latter here. However, this beginning is an effective introduction to the major points in the book: the generations of family, the Newfoundland coastal wilderness, the almost oral folklorish feel, the religious references that permeate (though mostly in fragments) the society’s Catholic or Episcopalian faiths. Judah is white, a freak. The village is suffering from a fishing drought, and they’re just about to get rid of him, the obvious bad omen. But then he saves them by taking a boat out to where there are fish galore. Judah’s status as a bad omen changes immediately, but he’s still not really accepted into society.
One of the problems with the book, for me, was that all of this seems a bit heavy-handed. And Crummey follows this up later in the story by explicitly adding yet more layers to Judah:
Watching Judah emerge from the whale’s guts, King-me felt the widow was berthing everything he despised in the country, laying it out before him like a taunt. Irish nor English, Jerseyman nor bushborn nor savage, not Roman or Episcopalian or apostate, Judah was the wilderness on two legs, mute and unknowable, a blankness that could drown a man. King-me was happy enough to think of that carted off to England and hung.
I’ll admit that I’m the type of reader who starts to find lots of bad things about a book once it starts to disappoint. I tried hard not to let that happen here, but I failed. At first, the book kept going back and forth for me. At one moment I would start to get interested in the story, but then the exposition would become too explicit, or — worse — the story would culminate in a punchline, effectively reducing whatever subtlety I was feeling into nothing. Once I started to believe that underneath the good writing there was nothing for me to engage with, I stopped trying. Which was sad, because the setting was compelling, the characters were interesting. I expected something deeper, something that would pound in my gut — but that’s Crummey’s own fault for making me think of One Hundred Years of Solitude too often while reading Galore.
Today the 2009 Giller Prize longlist was announced! I’ll pass you on to KevinfromCanada, who has written up a bit about the prize, a bit about this longlist, and a bit about the Shadow Jury, of which I’m a part.
But, here is the list itself:
- Margaret Atwood: The Year of the Flood
- Martha Bailie: The Incident Report
- Kim Echlin: The Disappeared
- Claire Holden: The Heart Specialist
- Paulette Jiles: The Colour of Lightning
- Jeanette Lynes: The Factory Voice
- Annabel Lyon: The Golden Mean
- Linden MacIntyre: The Bishop’s Man
- Colin McAdam: Fall
- Anne Michaels: The Winter Vault
- Shani Mootoo: Valmiki’s Daughter
- Kate Pullinger: The Mistress of Nothing
The shortlist will be announced on October 6 (soon!).
I love it when I read two books that seem to be speaking to each other. Badenheim 1939 dealt with a group of ordinary middle-class civilians who were forced to confront violence and death. Now we in North America can read The Armies (Los Ejércitos, 2007; tr. from the Spanish by Anne McLean, 2009; winner of the 2009 Independent Foreign Fiction Award) (it was published in Great Britain earlier this year). As Badenheim 1939, in The Armies we watch as the residents of San José, a rural Colombian village, struggle to survive as their livelihoods are increasingly disturbed and ultimately destroyed by the senseless violence of battles that have nothing to do with them.
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.
That is not to say that if you’ve read Badenheim 1939 you have already read The Armies. They are very different. The Armies, for one thing, is much more violent. Yet if violence disturbs you, you might be surprised at how compassionately, tenderly Rosero’s narrator recounts what he’s seeing.
We first meet Ismail Pasos, our seventy-year-old narrator, while he is up a ladder picking oranges, peering over the wall at Geraldina, the wife of his neighbor, Eusebio Almida. She is carelessly lying naked in the sunshine while macaws laugh nearby. Ismail’s wife, Otilia, is “further back.” In his old age Ismail has lost his ability to be discreet, and everyone knows why he spends his time peering over a wall. His wife thinks he’s pathetic, but says she cares more for her fish and cats. Eusebio and Geraldina think he’s harmless.
Ismail and Otilia are both retired school teachers. They are established in the community of San José, and though their daughter keeps imploring them to move away to live with her, they have no intention of leaving. At first this seems strange, given the frequent violence in the city brought on by “the guerrillas, the paramilitary, the army and the drug traffickers”:
The hundreds of hectares of coca planted around San José in the last few years, the “strategic location” of our town, as those in the know classify us in the newspapers, have made of this territory what the protagonists of the war also call “the corridor,” dominion over which they fight tooth and nail, and which causes the war to surface in everyone’s pores: this is what people talk about in the street, in furtive hours, and they talk in words and curses, laughter and laments, silence, invocations.
However, we soon learn that Ismail and Otilia are used to violence. They met in a train station. They were sitting there when a fat man in a white suit, sitting near them, was shot and killed by an eleven or twelve year old. When teaching school one of the students was “not yet twenty when he was killed, in the street, by a stray bullet, without anyone knowing who, where from, how.” Ismail and Otilia still visit one of their neighbors on the anniversary of the day her husband disappeared. And only two years ago, dynamite exploded in the church, killing fourteen and wounding and wounding sixty-four. Knowing this makes Ismail’s following question and answer very interesting:
Where have I existed these years? I answer myself: up on the wall, peering over.
Ismail and Otilia cannot comprehend what they are about to witness, though. One morning, Ismail got out of bed early, wandered around town, and got arrested. He knows the presence of the soldiers is bad news, but he is released and is anxious to tell his wife the story. On his way home, he finds that the army (who knows which one) has taken away Eusebio, his neighbor, and two of their children. Several people are trying to comfort Geraldina:
“But do you know what this is like?” she asks him, with sudden force, as if rebelling.
“I know, we all know,” the doctor replies, looking around.
We all, in our turn, look at each other, and it is as if we did not really know, as if in a surreptitious way we understood, without shame, that we do not know what this is like, but this not knowing is not our fault, this we do seem to know.
She has turned back to me.
“He came in at midnight with other men and took the children, just like that, profesor. He took the children, saying nothing, without a word to me, like a dead man. The other men held guns on him: I’m sure they had forbidden him to speak, don’t you think? That’s why he could not say anything to me. I don’t want to think he couldn’t speak out of pure cowardice. He himself took the children by the hand. . . .”
It becomes worse for Ismail himself when he goes home and can’t find Otilia. She has gone looking for him, and now he’s always a step behind her. It’s truly tender how he searches and searches and talks to Otilia. Here is a wonderful passage, a good example of the quality of the prose and of Rosero’s ability to play with rhythm and imagery to make it all tangible.
My arms and legs swing with no rhythm whatsoever as I proceed along the streets as if through piles of cotton, what bad dream do these empty, uneasy streets belong to; down each of them I am pursued by physical, floating, dark air, although I see that the sun weighs heavily on the streets: why did I not bring my hat?
That last little bit there about the hat — it is a perfect coda to this great, weary sentence, bringing the dreaminess back to the quotidian. In fact, several times while searching for his wife and witnessing unspeakable violence, Ismail is embarrassed at his preponderance to be distracted by, say, a woman’s thigh. He’s humiliated and he cannot seem to help it, yet in him we recognize a humanity that is worthy of emulation.
In case it is not apparent in this review, I found this book to be masterful. McLean’s translation is flawless, definitely worthy of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Rosero’s writing and story are beautiful and worthy of our time. I read it in one very busy day, and in the end I wanted to sit in reverent silence for the wonderful writing and especially for the tragic story it tells.
If you, like me, suffer from extreme book lust, you might not want to read this post. There’s fair warning.
I recently stumbled upon Godine, a Boston-based publisher. They have a fantastic world literature series entitled Verba Mundi. They got my attention when I saw that they were publishing a couple of J.M.G. Le Clézio books (he was last year’s Nobel Prize winner — I’ll be reviewing them soon!). They also are the principal publisher in English of the novels of Georges Perec. The other titles in the series look equally fascinating, and I spent a long time looking over their backlist. But what makes these books even more inviting is the beautiful aesthetic cohesion found in the cover and spine — and the spines are numbered, so watch out collectors!
For my first venture into Godine’s selection, I chose to read the short Badenheim 1939 (Badenhaim ‘ir nofesh, 1978; tr. from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu, 1980). This short book would allow me to show off Godine books sooner. I also chose this book because in 1988 Philip Roth interviewed Aharon Appelfeld, his friend, and published it in the New York Times. There he called Badenheim 1939 “vexing,” “almost impulsively antic and indifferent to matters of causality.” Appelfeld also plays a role in Roth’s 1993 book Operation Shylock, which might be the next Philip Roth book I read, if I get to it before The Humbling.
Review copy courtesy of David R. Godine, Publisher.
Badenheim in 1939 is a small resort town near Vienna that attracts many middle-class Jews. The date in the title effectively gives away their ultimate fate. Appelfeld uses our foreknowledge in his first paragraph, subverting our expectations along the way:
Spring returned to Badenheim. In the country church next to the town the bells rang. The shadows of the forest retreated to the trees. The sun scattered the remnants of the darkness and its light filled the main street from square to square. It was a moment of transition. The town was about to be invaded by the vacationers.
When Appelfeld was eight years old, his hometown was invaded by the Nazis, his mother was killed, and he and his father were sent to a concentration camp. With this background, his rhetoric is surprising, particularly in such sentences such as this one:
The town had grown used to them, as it had grown used to Dr. Pappenheim’s eccentricities and to the foreigners who had insinuated themselves like diseased roots.
The way the story sets itself up reminded me of a Victorian pastoral novel. The characters and their idiosyncrasies are introduced matter of factly until we get a slight sense of the community in Badenheim. It is a masterful structure. Just as matter of factly, the terror of 1939 invades the community. At first it seems simple: the Sanitation Department has been given more jurisdiction, including the authority to execute investigations. The characters eventually learn that they are going to be moved back to Poland.
“And if we have to emigrate?” asked Sally.
“Then we’ll emigrate,” said Pappenheim. “There are wonderful places in Poland.”
The characters both sense and don’t sense what’s about to happen (“. . . Will my pension be recognized there too?”), but we readers know exactly what’s going to happen, even if it doesn’t happen exactly as we think it did. In fact, the novel is more a fable than a historic work. The characters stand for something else, though they themselves are not one-dimensional props. Also, Roth is right (obviously) about the intentional lack of causality. Things happen. Appelfeld writes a number of times, surprises never stop occurring. This unsettling of the narratrive stream can be frustrating to anyone wanting to read this as a strcit narrative. Appelfeld leaves out a lot of the framework and relies on his readers to fill in the historical blanks as well as the motives directing the characters.
It’s always a pleasure when an author trusts his readers that much and then doesn’t let his readers down in the end.
These little novellas, brought to us by Melville House, feel so nice in the hand, and it’s so fulfilling to read a good book in a sitting, that I’m hoping to keep expanding my collection and reviewing the classic and new works here. In their latest batch of classic novellas, Melville House offered a Henry James book I’d never heard of: The Coxon Fund(1894). You may remember from my previous post on Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw that I am not well versed in James, but I thought I’d heard of most of his work here or there. Turns out I’m not the only one to find The Coxon Funda new discovery; a few of my friends, who also thought they were moderately familiar with James’s work, looked at me quizzically when I showed them the book.
Review copy courtesy of Melville House.
On a first read, I can understand why The Coxon Fund is not as famous as Daisy Miller, The Turn of the Screw, or The Aspern Papers. This story, still psychologically acute and full of beautiful sentences, lacks some of the drama found in the more famous works. At least, that’s true on the surface. While I was in law school, I always wanted to dig a bit deeper into the cases, particularly the areas of family, trusts, and estates. It’s amazing to see what money and inheritance can do to people, but we were often given only a dry version of the facts post-decline. I am always on the lookout for a book that explores this area better, and I never knew Henry James offered one. The Coxon Fund, as its title suggests, has at its center an endowment that will become the subject of a few disputes, wrecking the potentiality of one family while showing fault lines in others.
Here we have a nameless narrator who is only tangentially involved in any of the main events in the novella. However, he knows all of the primary actors, and his interactions reminded me somewhat of Nick Carraway’s. At the beginning of the story, he tells us he’s just left the Mulvilles. They have recently began boarding Mr. Saltram, a remarkably talented artist who nevertheless is broke and estranged from his wife, “a deeply wronged, justly resentful, quite irreproachable and insufferable person.” On the one hand, our narrator is awed by Mr. Saltram, amazed by his intelligence and articulate manner. But Mr. Saltram is not really sophisticated. He fails to show up to his scheduled lectures, or perhaps worse shows up to lecture drunk. Our narrator, while attracted to Saltram, is also aware that Saltram takes advantage: “remarkable men find remarkable conveniences.”
One of our narrator’s friends is Mr. Gravener. Gravener doesn’t accept Saltram — “there was no cad like your cultivated cad.” In fact, Gravener finds Saltram so unimportant that Gravener fails to understand the man’s pull on other people. One of the individuals is Miss Ruth Anvoy, an American who’s come to visit her aunt in Britain. We first meet Miss Anvoy when she attends one of Saltram’s lectures — one Saltram failed to attend. Our narrator tells her she must come again; Saltram is worth it. But our narrator also tells her that Saltram is far from perfect.
A few years pass, and Gravener and Miss Anvoy are engaged to be married. There are some deaths and failed aspirations. Through Gravener we become aware that Miss Anvoy’s aunt has a sum of money she wishes to put to good use:
“She wishes to endow — ?”
“Some earnest and ‘loyal’ seeker,” Gravener said. “It was a sketchy design of her late husband’s, and he handed it on to her; setting apart in his will a sum of money of which she was to enjoy the interest for life, but of which, should she eventually see her opportunity — the matter was left largely to her discretion — she would best honour his memory by determining the exemplary public use. This sum of money, no less than thirteen thousand pounds, was to be called the Coxon Fund; and poor Sir Gregory evidently proposed to himself that the Coxon Fund should cover his name with glory — be universally desired and admired. He left his wife a full declaration of his views, so far at least as that term may be applied to views vitiated by a vagueness really infantine. A little learning’s a dangerous thing, and a good citizen who happens to have been an ass is worse for a community than bad sewerage. He’s worst of all when he’s dead, because then he can’t be stopped. However, such as they were, the poor man’s aspirations are now in his wife’s bosom, or fermenting rather in her foolish brain: it lies to her to carry them out. But of course she must first catch her hare.”
Lady Coxon gives the money to Miss Anvoy to dispose of how she sees fit. Miss Anvoy feels the moral obligation to use the money to support someone who can help the world: “He was like a jelly minus its mould, he had to be embanked; and that was precisely the source of her interest in him and the ground of her project.” Not an idealist, Mr. Gravener disagrees.
Typical of Henry James, what I’ve told you above merely gives structure to a deeper inquiry into the human psyche. All of the characters are greatly realized and offer much to think about. I was only partially disappointed that James left so much for me to figure out on my own (just like those old legal decisions!). An interesting strain of inquiry — the one Melville House focuses on in its book blurb — is that of the artist’s role in the world. Can the artistic abilities of the crass Saltram really make things better? And what do the rest of us do to support such a person? There is plenty of food for thought. Though there were parts, even in this novella, where I became easily distracted by what was going on around me, in the end it had my complete attention — and I have continued thinking about it ever since.
A.S. Byatt: The Children’s Book
J.M. Coetzee: Summertime
Adam Foulds: The Quickening Maze
Hilary Mantel: Wolf Hall
Simon Mawer: The Glass Room
Sarah Waters: The Littler Stranger
I have the Byatt and the Foulds, and I’ve just been waiting to get the Mawer and the Coetzee. Have to say, I’m a bit uncertain I can stomach the Byatt or the Mantel, but we’ll see. At any rate, the only surprise is that Brooklyn and Love and Summer are no where on the list. Good luck to the authors, and good luck to any of you out there reading the list — I hope it proves to be worth the time!
A few weeks ago when I reviewed Spring Tides, the ever-perceptive John Self asked whether I had also read The Invention of Morel (La Invención de Morel, 1940; tr. from the Spanish by Ruth L.C. Simmons, 1964). Though I couldn’t say there’s any thematic similarities, similar elements abound: an island with only a few developed structures, an unnamed man and named woman, loneliness, and the tides — spring tides, to be exact. As fate would have it, I had purchased The Invention of Morel only a few weeks earlier and had it packed with me while on holiday. At a mere 103 pages, each densely packed and adroitly controlled, it was definitely a pleasant holiday read.
The cover image that NYRB Classics chose to place on this book is a 1927 publicity still of film star Louise Brooks. It is both misleading and perfect. Louise Brooks apparently inspired this novel, but it’s a spoiler to say how. So I won’t.
In fact, I don’t really want to say much of anything about the book — it’s worth exploring with little to no foreknowledge. In what I have written below I have tried hard not to spoil this book for anyone. I think the best place to start, then, is the first paragraph. On a first read, it sounds like Bioy Casares is simply establishing the setting:
Today, on this island, a miracle happened: summer came ahead of time. I moved my bed out by the swimming pool, but then, because it was impossible to sleep, I stayed in the water for a long time. The heat was so intense that after I had been out of the pool for only two or three minutes I was already bathed in perspiration again. As day was breaking, I awoke to the sound of a phonograph record. Afraid to go back to the museum to get my things, I ran away down through the ravine. Now I am in the lowlands at the southern part of the island, where the aquatic plants grow, where mosquitoes torment me, where I find myself waist-deep in dirty streams of sea water. And, what is worse, I realize that there was no need to run away at all. Those people did not come here on my account; I believe they did not even see me. But here I am, without provisions, trapped in the smallest, least habitable part of the island — the marshes that the sea floods once each week.
Astonishingly, this first paragraph is packed with plot elements. It’s a very different paragraph after having read the book. What we know now (well, we’ll know it in a few pages) is that our narrator is hiding out on a mysterious island. He is an escaped convict, nervous that these newcomers will turn him in to the authorities. Even when he figures out that they are not aware of his presence, he continues hiding out in the marshes. The part of the island he had to leave was much more pleasant. There was a museum, a chapel, a swimming pool. All were completed in 1924 but then abandoned, leaving these strange, lonely structures. Despite these strange, lonely structures, it doesn’t appear that anyone will be visiting the island. Indeed, that is why the narrator came here. When escaping, he was told,
“Chinese pirates do not go there, and the white ship of the Rockefeller Institute never calls at the island, because it is known to be the focal point of a mysterious disease, a fatal disease that attacks the ouside of the body and then works inward.”
Then why did these strange people, who look like snobbish vacationers, come? The plot thickens when our narrator falls in love with one of them. From a hidden vantage point, he watches an ambiguous woman as she silently watches the sunset. She hardly misses a night, and neither does he. Hating the hope it engenders, the narrator nevertheless thinks of ways he can meet the woman, whose name, he learns, is Faustine. But as he gains courage, he finds that something is keeping them apart, no matter how close he gets to her.
It’s a very lonely novel, and the loneliness is nearly driving the narrator mad.
I dreamed of Faustine. The dream was very sad, very touching. We were saying good-bye; they were coming to get hre; the ship was about to leave. Then we were alone, saying a romantic farewell. I cried during the dream and then woke up feeling miserable and desperate because Faustine was not there; my only consolation was that we had not concealed our love. I was afraid that Faustine had gone away while I was sleeping. I got up and looked around. The ship was gone. My sadness was profound: it made me decide to kill myself.
One of the best things about The Invention of Morel, though, is that even when we readers understand the nature of what is going on, Bioy Casares doesn’t stop there. Many lesser books stop with cleverness. In this one, the intelligent construct is only incidental to an even more intelligent examination of love, lust, loneliness — and the ambiguities of immortality.
It’s a great time for English readers. After years of neglect, Robert Walser’s novels have now all been translated into English, the last being his first : The Tanners (Der Geschwistern Tanner, 1907; tr. from the German by Susan Bernofsky, 2009 — click here for an interview with Susan Bernofsky by Jed Lipinski). The others are The Robber, The Assistant, and Jakob von Gunten. We can finally know what those famous German writers – including Kafka, Hesse, Benjamin, Sebald, and Handke — have been talking about and admiring. Of course, there is still a lot of work to do: these novels represent only a small fraction of Walser’s output. He mostly wrote short stories. I’m excited for the work to continue — this was only my introduction to Robert Walser!
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.
Well, my real introduction to Walser was in the wonderful W.G. Sebald essay, which New Directions packaged with the novel. Of course, the essay includes fantastic insights as Sebald traces his personal connection to Walser as well as Walser’s achievements in prose. And there are a few pictures. It’s a treasure, alone worth the price of the book. Walser’s biography, which Sebald touches on, is fascinating and tragic — as exciting as most books I’ve read lately.
That’s not to say the novel The Tanners isn’t worth the price of the book. It’s worth buying two! What we have here is the first novel written by someone who must be one of the best writers of the twentieth century. I had read of Walser’s reputation before I read this book, and I armed myself with what I thought to be an appropriate amount of scepticism — to avoid disappointment – but I was blown away by the light sentences. The precision with which Walser captures the seasons and the times of day makes the experience of reading these impressions almost surreal. Truly, Susan Bernofsky did a fantastic job translating this book.
On its face, the book is an account of the five Tanner siblings: Klaus, Kaspar, Hedwig, Emil, and Simon. Simon, “the youngest and the one who occasions the fewest hopes,” is the principal character; we follow him throughout the book as he seeks for jobs and encounters his siblings. The siblings come into the narrative only now and again, though all are masterfully real, even Emil whom we hear about in only a couple of small passages late in the book. Simon is a wanderer, a loafer, he cannot submit to working for anyone for very long. He’s funny, and yet we never forget there is a lot of sadness under the light prose.
At the beginning of the book Simon is seeking a job with a small book shop. He seems to be forthright: “to be perfectly truthful, any inquiries concerning my person you might make will only result in your hearing bad reports.” This chapter seems to be a nice introduction to a lengthy book about Simon’s struggles in a bookshop. The owner is, as are most all characters, alive in the prose — at least, alive enough I expected his relationship with Simon to continue. But within just a few pages, Simon has quit this job. When the indignant owner asks what Simon could possibly be thinking, Simon launches into a long monologue about how the job is below him. Just as he charmed the owner into giving him the job in the first place, Simon now thoroughly offends him for giving Simon a job beneath his dignity — but it’s still rather charming to us readers. And that is the last we hear from the owner; Simon moves on. Similar episodes occur frequently throughout the novel. Here is a later example:
When I found myself running late today, I merely felt angry and annoyed, I was by no means filled with honest conscientious concern, nor did I reproach myself, or if I did so, it was only for still being such a cowardly fool that I leap to my feet at the stroke of eight and start running like a wind-up clock that runs whenever it’s wound. I thank you for having the energy to dismiss me and request that you think of me however you please. You are surely an admirable, commendable, great man, but, you see, I too wish to be one, and that’s why it’s good you’re sending me away, why it was so advantageous for me to comport myself today in a manner one might call unseemly.
A few sentences later, this boss discusses Simon’s reference letter. Here is Simon’s telling response:
I am glad to be leaving you without a letter in hand, for a reference from you would only remind me of my own cowardice and fear, a condition of sluggishness and relinquished strength, of days spent in idleness, afternoons filled with furious attempts at escape, evenings dedicated to sweet but pointless longings.
We quickly learn that Simon often launches into such rambling though pointed and beguiling monologues (“But it’s my habit to say anything and everything that comes to my mind, even if it should happen to be, for example, self-praise.”). The length of these monologues is the only gripe I have about the book, and it’s not a true gripe; they were just some of the more difficult and slower passages for me. Some paragraphs run on for pages, and Simon, though eloquent, is also frustratingly contradictory — we never know when he’s being honest and when he’s just saying something to please himself with his cleverness. So this cause for a gripe, it turns out, is instead a strength in the story. Walser, very aware of Simon’s preponderance to speak at length, comically inserts at one point, “At just this moment when he was preparing to launch into a monologue, a scream rang out in the corridor, followed immediately by the loud crash of crockery falling to the ground.”
Despite his flippancy and fickleness, Simon is a likeable — even admirable — character. He has an attractive joie de vivrethat at once is the cause and excuse of his failings. He wakes in the morning and finds the new day beautiful and promising (and Walser describes these moments with his own joie de vivre). Simon wants to live for the present. He has no interest in the future or in the past. Walser’s prose — the diction and syntax – seems to emphasize this in a very strange way. In his introduction, Sebald says that Walser writes each sentence to make us forget the preceding sentence. I found this hard to comprehend (I still do), yet it was very much my experience when reading The Tanners. Walser’s writing is so potent and vivacious, it is consistently trampling over itself with new delights and moments of lucidity. As the prose moves one, characters also come and go with little fanfare, frequently upsetting the readers’ expectations since the characters become so real and tragic. Yet for all of this forgetting, it makes the novel hold an impression of the weight of living — without ever becoming impressionistic! In the following example we meet Rosa, one of Simon’s friends. Simon is about to leave her, but I expected him to return to her after only a few pages.
Rosa held out her little hand to her young friend, who kissed it, said good night and departed. When he was gone, little Rosa sat there for a long time crying quietly to herself. She was weeping over her beloved, a young man with curls on his head, an elegant gait, an aristocratic mouth, but a dissolute lifestyle. “And so you love the one who doesn’t deserve it,” she said to herself, “and yet should I love out of reason, out of wishing to assign value? How laughable. What do I care about what is valuable — all I want is what I love.” Then she went to bed.
Except for a few brief scenes, Rosa, who has now gained the reader’s sympathy, leaves the narrative. We almost forget about her and her unrequited love for the unworthy Simon. When she does return, we again sense how pathetic her feelings are: ”She was delighted to see him again after such a long time, but called him wicked and disloyal for having abandoned her like that, saying these things more in a pouting than an aggrieved tone of voice, and she would not be dissuaded from giving Simon a glass of red wine to drink, saying it would strengthen him for his nocturnal journey. She also quickly fried a sausage for him on her gas stove . . .” (By the way, that nocturnal journey Rosa refers to is fantastic.)
Simon’s lust for life, as can be seen in the brief encounters with Rosa (whom he leaves again quickly after she has fed him), forms part of the book’s tragedy. The other Tanner siblings (Emil excepted, presumably), worry about Simon. They all have professions of some sort, and they hope Simon will get his feet on the ground and anchor himself to some fulfilling profession. However, the siblings, particularly Hedwig, also find Simon’s lifestyle attractive. One winter, after ignoring his sister for years, Simon moves in with Hedwig. She works as a school teacher in the country and makes little money, but together they are happy passing away the evenings talking. Nevertheless, Hedwig feels unfulfilled herself. One evening (she’ll see things differently in the morning) Hedwig says: “I almost have the impression there’s something like a thin but opaque wall cutting me off from life. I can’t even manage to feel sad about it, just pensive. . . .” Though she is established in a country community, Hedwig longs for some change. Simon becomes more than just a brother to her; he becomes a life-filled companion with whom she longs to remain, though she knows he’s a usurper: “What a pity you can’t be more to me: This too you’d do willingly; for I see you nodding your head.” In the end, Hedwig sends him on his way, saying, “Neglect me, just as you used to neglect me.” Comforting herself, she says some lines that echo in the novel: “You haven’t the slightest talent for leaving behind memories. You don’t leave behind anything at all.” Their relationship, the subject of only a fraction of this novel, is touching, twisted, comic, sad, and tragic.
In this review I’ve managed to touch on only a scintilla of what this plotless, meandering book offers. Emil, “who is unfortunate and nothing more,” for example, adds a whole new dimension to the story in his brief, late introduction. He’s the mad brother, and it is suggested that “perhaps madness just ran in the family.” There are many other wonderful characters that leave behind ghosts of themselves when the leave the narrative. Their vague feelings make them all the more realistic.