I know, I know — sometimes these celebratory Man Booker awards can seem a bit indulgent. But I love them.
I did not know this, but in 1969 and 1970 the Booker Prize was awarded retrospectively. In 1971 it became a prize for the best novel in the year of publication. From the Man Booker webpage:
At the same time, the date on which the award was given moved from April to November. As a result of these changes, there was a whole year’s gap when a wealth of fiction, published in 1970, fell through the net. These books were simply never considered for the prize.
Now, to correct this, forty years later, a longlist of 22 books “which would have been eligible and are still in print and generally available today” has been chosen. This long (very long) list will be wittled down to six by a three-judge panel: Rachel Cooke, Katie Derham, and Tobias Hill.
Their shortlist will be announced March. Then we, the “international reading public” get to pick the ultimate winner with our votes. This time, Salman Rushdie will not win — I don’t think.
Here is the list:
- Brian Aldiss: The Hand Reared Boy
- H.E. Bates: A Little of What You Fancy?
- Nina Bawden: The Birds on the Trees
- Melvyn Bragg: A Place in England
- Christy Brown: Down All the Days
- Len Deighton: Bomber
- J.G. Farrell: Troubles
- Elaine Feinstein: The Circle
- Shirley Hazzard: The Bay of Noon
- Reginald Hill: A Clubbable Woman
- Susan Hill: I’m the King of the Castle
- Francis King: A Domestic Animal
- Margeret Laurence: The Fire Dwellers
- David Lodge: Out of the Shelter
- Iris Murdoch: A Fairly Honourable Defeat
- Shiva Naipaul: Fireflies
- Patrick O’Brian: Master and Commander
- Joe Orton: Head to Toe
- Mary Renault: Fire from Heaven
- Ruth Rendell: A Guilty Thing Surprised
- Murial Spark: The Driver’s Seat
- Patrick White: The Vivisector
I haven’t read a one of them. I haven’t heard of most of them — or several of the authors. I look forward to hearing about them, hopefully picking up a gem, and perhaps I’ll try to make my way through the shortlist when it comes next month.
The first W.G. Sebald book I heard of was The Rings of Saturn (Die Ringe des Satrun, Eine englische Wallfahrt, 1995; tr. by Michael Hulse, 1998). Something in the tone of the recommendation and the title of the book made me start to imagine how the book would feel and how I would feel about it — you’ve been there too. I tried to avoid such imaginings, but with all of its positive criticism it was hard to hold back my expectations. About a year ago I began my Sebald project (to read all four of Sebald’s books of “fiction” in the order in which he wrote them), and Vertigo and, particularly, The Emigrants just made my anticipation for this book all the more acute.
When I began reading The Rings of Saturn I knew next to nothing about the book. Sure, I knew that it was structured as as walking tour around Norfolk, in eastern England. I knew from the other two books I’d read that this walking tour would be replete with ruminations on the past, complete with documentary photos. But the main theme? I didn’t know what this one would be about.
The title, with no context, did little to help. What do the rings of Saturn have to do with East Anglia or even with modern history in general? I see it now: a lot, in a very beautiful metaphorical sense. This is a book about the ravages of time, about destruction, particularly the destruction (self- or otherwise) of human endeavor. East Anglia was once the scene of thriving communities living off of some of the most important ports in Europe. Today, little of that remains. The fishermen Sebald encounters facing the east, sitting on the beach ”just want to be in a place where they have the world behind them, and before them nothing but emptiness.” That line alone, and the orientation of the fishermen, nicely sums up the book. The rings of Saturn were once large moons in orbit, but through time and great destruction they’ve been reduced to an ephemeral dust — something tragic, something whose trace haunts the present with its reminder of the past — yet it’s beautiful.
And that’s one of the best ways I can think of to describe this book — tragic, yet beautiful. Sebald begins the book in his unassuming manner; he’s just finished a project that entailed a lot of work (I see many think he’s referring to his book The Emigrants), and he wants to relax and settle down again by taking a walking tour around Suffolk:
At all events, in retrospect I became preoccupied not only with the unaccustomed sense of freedom but also with the paralysing horror that had come over me at various times when confronted with the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past, that were evident even in that remote place.
What follows would be very difficult for me to summarize in any decent way in the space I’m giving myself here. It’s a walking tour, so Sebald encounters many people, many sights, and many artifacts. During such encounters, he lets his mind roam through his own personal past as well as into the history of the region — and of the world (I particularly liked the segment on the silk worm’s migration). One of the first things he encounters is the skull of Thomas Browne, a seventeenth-century physician (whose father was a silk merchant). As a doctor, Browne was very interested in the human body, but his other interests also brought in the natural world. Sebald briefly discusses Browne’s book Urn Burial. In this book, Browne describes an ancient Roman burial site found in Norfolk. Urn Burial becomes very melancholy when Browne discusses mortality and destruction. Browne’s view (which reminded me of Yeats’ view) is that “On every new thing there lies already the shadow of annihilation. For the history of every individual, of every social order, indeed of the whole world, does not describe an ever-widening, more and more wonderful arc, but rather follows a course which, once the meridian is reached, leads without fail down into the dark.”
Over this burial ground, over the centuries, battles were fought and forgotten — or remembered with a slant, as this one Sebald describes from a painting:
This then, I thought, as I looked round about me, is the representation of history. I requires a falsification of perspective. We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was. The desolate field extends all around where once fifty thousand soldiers and ten thousand horses met their end within a few hours. The night after the battle, the air must have been filled with death rattles and groans. Now there is nothing but the silent brown soil. Whatever became of the corpses and mortal remains? Are they buried under the memorial? Are we standing on a mountain of death? Is that our ultimate vantage point? Does one really have the much-vaunted historical overview from such a position?
As with the other two Sebalds I’ve read, The Rings of Saturn has no strong narrative. Sebald goes from topic to topic at will. Yet the book is held together wonderfully by melancholy and that central theme of destruction. It’s got a beautiful, respectful tone. And it is full of wonderfully rendered scenes, my favorite being that of a massively destructive storm that Sebald witnessed first-hand — fantastic writing (and translation). I think this may change at times through my life, but right now my favorite Sebald book is still The Emigrants, but I can see how The Rings of Saturn could swap positions — they are both marvelous works, full of insight and beauty as they force us into astonishment as we gaze at a great void.
For those of you who have been interested in but wary of Roberto Bolaño, you might find a friendly meeting place (more friendly than, say, 2666, which was my meeting place) in Monsieur Pain (1999; tr. from the Spanish by Chris Andrews, 2010). This is one of Bolaño’s earliest works — that’s not to say “easy” works, but I think it is more accessible than anything else of his I’ve read. It was published as Monsieur Pain only in 1999, but it was written in 1981 or 1982 and titled The Elephant Path, an apt title that connotes both trailblazing and following, though I can’t say that is why the title was used. Under this title it won a few awards in Spain; under another, it won some more. Though it’s an early work, and one in which we can see seeds of what would sprout in his later books, I would hesitate to call this an apprentice novel. To me, that means the novel is useful primarily to the author, helping him or her develop something else that is of benefit to readers. That is not the case here, though, because in Monsieur Pain we see an already mature author. More than an apprentice novel, then, it is a fully developed point of departure. Rather than follow the elephant track created by other writers, which he shows he can do in this book, he shows he is also going to create his own elephant track through the bushes. In his later books he starts knocking down the trees.
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.
Of the works I’ve read, this is Bolaño’s most traditional prose piece. He sets up what appears to be a fairly conventional story set in Paris in 1938. In fact, the setup (and Chris Andrews’ excellent translation) seems to come from this period in literature. It adheres to formal constructs while showing an awareness of what’s going on underneath the text. Here are the first lines in the novel; they reminded me, to my pleasure, of modern European literature:
On Wednesday the sixth of April, at dusk, as I was preparing to leave my lodgings, I received a telegram from my young friend Madame Reynaud, requesting, with a certain urgency, my presence that evening at the Café Bordeaux, on Rue de Rivoli, relatively close to where I live, which meant that if I hurried, I could still arrive punctually at the specified time.
The narrator is Monsieur Pierre Pain, a veteran of the first world war, in which, he says he might have been a deserter had he not nearly died when his lungs were burned out by gas. He doesn’t have much direction in his life, but since his convalescence he has stumbled into a profession of sorts.
From then on, supported by a modest invalid’s pension, and perhaps as a reaction agains the society that had imperturbably sent me forth to die, I gave up everything that could be considered beneficial to a young man’s career, and took up the occult sciences, which is to say that I let myself sink into poverty, in a manner that was deliberate, rigorous and not altogether devoid of elegance. At some point during that phase in my life I read An Abridged History of Animal Magnestism, by Franz Mesmer, and, within a matter of weeks, became a mesmerist.
At the beginning of the book, as is seen in the first quote above, Pain receives a telegram from the young widow of one of his ex-patients. Pain rushes out of his apartment to meet her, but on his way out he is surprised to run into two men who are speaking Spanish. When they see him, they go quiet and stop going up the stairs. They also don’t move aside to let him by easily. They seem confused by his presence or by his leaving, and do not hide the fact, even as he is walking out the door, that they are watching him. The narrative then interrupts a bit, and we go back to the short week when Pain was treating the widows husband, truly trying to save this admirable man’s life even though he knew it was too late. This interruption is one of the novel’s highlights, in my opinion — he, of course, falls in love with the widow, but he can never tell her. He and the widow have met several times in the intervening months, but this telegram is unprecedented. When he meets her, she requests his assistance:
“Pierre,” she repeated, stressing each word, “you must see my friend’s husband, professionally, it’s urgent.”
I think I ordered a glass of mint cordial before asking what illness Monsieur . . .
“Vallejo,” said Madame Reynaud, adding, with equal concision, “Hiccups.”
Throughout the remainder of the novel, Pain tries to meet with this man dying of hiccups. The first time, he is thwarted by doctors who scoff at him and his strange trade, though they can find nothing wrong with Vallejo. But even after Pain has left, thinking his assistance will not be needed, the two men speaking Spanish show up and ask him not to treat the dying man. They offer him quite a large bribe to just go away.
I can already tell that if I try to recount even just a little bit more of the novel I’m going to describe something the novel is not. Yes, Pain continues to attempt to meet and treat Vallejo, but that is not really what the story is about. Pain is an interesting character in Bolaño’s universe because, though like others he is seeking an elusive target through strange mazes, he does not have the ability to ascribe meaning to his search — he’s no poet, in other words. He tends to reflect the following description of mesmerism well:
For me, mesmerism is like a medieval painting. Beautiful and useless. Timeless. Trapped.
Still, he is an interesting character to watch as he becomes increasingly paranoid, and perhaps delusional (we’re not really sure if the horrors he believes are coming are really on their way). The book becomes surreal and dreamlike at times, and we’re sailing smoothly on Bolaño’s flowing prose. Interestingly, I wouldn’t classify the other Bolaño books I’ve read as surreal. Here, the disorientation he conveys is more akin to Kafka’s type of absurdity; his later works tend to show a disorientation brought on by an empty shock caused by violence or loss. Perhaps, because of its surrealism, it also feels more conventional. But even while this seems more like a conventional novel, within it are the fascinating rifts, subtly placed, the anti-climactic dead ends that leave his character (and his reader) wondering what the buildup was for, that show what Bolaño will be capable of when he throws convention out. If you cannot tell, I am becoming more and more a Roberto Bolaño fan.
The NBCC finalists were announced today.
- Bonnie Jo Campbell: American Salvage
- Marlon James: The Book of Night Women
- Michelle Huneven: Blame
- Hilary Mantel: Wolf Hall
- Jayne Anne Phillips: Lark and Termite
American Salvage and Lark and Termite were finalists for the National Book Award in November, but Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin took that prize. Wolf Hall took the Booker in October. I’ve seen a lot of positive coverage for The Book of Night Women, probably from several of the critics who will choose the final winner. The only finalist I’ve already read is Lark and Termite. I also interviewed Jayne Anne Phillips about the book and a few other things early last year. I wish her the best. The book is fantastic.
After feeling, slightly, like I was reading Philip Roth’s memoir when I was reading the Zuckerman books (I know it is not really autobiographical), I have been very interested in reading his real memoir, Patrimony (1991; National Book Critics Circle Award). Roth’s books have such a real feel to them, such a sense of history, that I never doubted for a second that Patrimony would be less substantial than his books.
When the book begins, Roth tells us that his father, at age 86, was incorrectly diagnosed with Bell’s palsy. He woke up one morning to find that he couldn’t move half of his face. Apparently, if the paralysis was caused by Bell’s palsy, it would go away eventually. Unfortunately, Roth soon learns from the doctors that this diagnosis was incorrect. For the last decade a tumor had been growing in his father’s head. Here is how, in a scene where Roth tells his father the bad news, Roth weaves together so many of the themes he will focus on a decade and a half later:
I sat in the chair across from him, my heart pounding as though I were the one about to be told something terrible. “You have a serious problem,” I began, “but it can be dealt with. You have a tumor in your head. Dr. Meyerson says that given the location, the chances are ninety-five percent that it’s benign.” I had intended, like Meyerson, to be candid and describe it as large, but I couldn’t. That there was a tumor seemed enough for him to take in. Not that he had registered any shock as yet — he sat there emotionless, waiting for me to go on. “It’s pressing on the facial nerve, and that’s what’s caused the paralysis.” Meyerson had told me that it was wrapped around the facial nerve, but I couldn’t say that either. My evasiveness reminded me of his on the night my mother had died. At midnight London time, he had told me that my mother had had a serious heart attack and that I’d better make arrangements to fly home because they didn’t know if she was going to survive. “It doesn’t look good, Phil,” he said; but an hour later, when I phoned back to tell him my flight plans for the next morning, he began to cry and revealed that she had actually died in the restaurant where they had had dinner a few hours earlier.
The main narrative in the rest of the memoir focuses on the events leading up to the death of Herman Roth. Herman Roth has not always been an easy father: expecting perfection, he constantly berated his quiet wife and, even during his illness, does the same to his girlfriend; he frequently gives advice where none is wanted, saying it is because he truly loves and is truly caring for those around him. Nevertheless, Roth also develops the vulnerable side of Herman Roth, a first-generation American Jew who, unlike the father in the Zuckerman novels, fully supported his son’s literary endeavors.
Also, while Roth describes the vulnerabilities of his father, he also shows us his own weaknesses, some of which came unexpectedly and were most unwelcome given the circumstances. Here, for example, is where Roth learns that he has been mostly cut out of the will. Roth himself told his father to do this, that he didn’t need the money. Nevertheless, with death imminent, he is shocked by a bit of bitterness:
Didn’t I think I’d deserved it? Did I consider my brother and his children more deserving inheritors that I, perhaps because my brother, by having given him grandchildren, was more legitimately a father’s heir than was the son who had been childless? Was I a younger brother who suddenly had become unable to assert his claim against the seniority of someone who had been there first? Or, to the contrary, was I a younger brother who felt that he had encroached too much upon an older brother’s prerogatives already? Just where had this impulse to cast off my right of inheritance come from, and how could it have so easily overwhelmed expectations that I now belatedly discovered a son was entitled to have?
I think this small passage also shows how many angles Roth can add to his themes. This matter with the will is just a small side-road in the narrative. It shows Roth dealing with what he considers to be selfishness that he is now entitled to. It shows how sentiment can get attached to otherwise unimportant things like money. And through all of this are constant questions as Roth tries to pin down the cause. It is a very philosophical novel, and it hearkens, at times, to another great rumination on death: “Had it been the MRI of Yorick’s brain that Hamlet had been looking at, even he might have been speechless.”
The entire book is a well controlled look at many of the intimations that come when death is imminent. One of my favorite aspects was the look at Newark, New Jersey. Herman raised his family in Newark. He and his Jewish neighbors spent years toiling in poverty, as first-generation immigrants, hoping to give their children the opportunities they could never have. And that generation, and their city, is passing away seemingly with Herman Roth:
He only quieted down about it when I turned up from Elizabeth Avenue toward Bergen Street and began to drive through the most desolate streets of black Newark. What in my childhood had been the busy shopping thoroughfares of a lower-middle-class, mostly Jewish neighborhood were now almost entirely burned out or boarded up or torn down. The only ones about seemed to be unemployed black men — at any rate, black men standing together on the street corners, seemingly with nothing to do. It was not a scene conducive to alleviating the gloom of three people on their way to consult with a brain surgeon, and yet the rest of the way to the hospital, my father forgot the encounter awaiting him there and, instead, reminisced in his random fashion about who had lived and worked where when he was a boy before the First World War and on these streets immigrant Jews and their families were doing what they could to survive and flourish.
Newark is haunted by memories. Memory is also one of the central themes in the novel. Here is a passage where Roth and another man are discussing suicide. Both men had been tempted at times in their life, but Roth says that is not the case with his father:
“Not him. He doesn’t even have a fantasy solution. I was over there today to get him to the doctor. I had to drive him across poor, poor, poor old Newark. He knows every street corner. Where buildings are destroyed, he remembers the buildings that were there. You mustn’t forget anything — that’s the inscription on his coat of arms. To be alive, to him, is to be made of memory — to him if a man’s not made of memory, he’s made of nothing. . . .”
But these memories are all contained in perishable human beings. These archives do not last. Once Herman Roth is gone, so are his memories of his first-generation life — that whole generation will have passed away. And therein lies some of Roth’s main themes, themes that must keep him up at night given how pervasive they are in his fiction and the quality of his ruminations and his rants on mortality:
“Understand,” my father said, “I’m talking about just another three or four years . . .”
The doctor nodded; he understood very well. The original request for a couple more years had, in a matter of minutes, been extended to three or four, I noticed. My father was obviously coming to trust and even to imbue with a certain divine might this doctor who was at once so much more patrician and potent-looking that haimisher, heavyset Dr. Meyerson, who had proposed to do rather more than stick a needle up through the roof of his mouth. It occurred to me that if we were all to sit and talk together in Benjamin’s office for another day or two, my father would eventually overcome his fear of calling down even worse misery upon himself by appearing sinfully greedy and proclaim to his doctor what had to be in his heart, which was that he wanted not just three or four years more, but to tackle the whole damn thing all over again: “I raised myself up out of the immigrant streets without even a high school education, I never knuckled under, never broke the law, never lost my courage or said ‘I quit.’ I was a faithful husband, a loyal American, a proud Jew, I gave two wonderful boys every opportunity I myself never had, and what I am demanding is only what I deserve — another eighty-six years! Why,” he would ask him, “should a man die at all?” And of course, he would have been right to ask. It’s a good question.
It’s a terribly touching memoir through and through. I was reading the last few pages on the trainride home and I got choked up. From page one we know what will happen to Herman Roth, but that knowledge doesn’t stop the emotional response — Roth is a master. Amidst all of the distractions on the train — the noise, the people getting up, my approaching stop, the fact that I didn’t want to get emotional in front of a bunch of strangers — I was still completely emotionally engaged with the story. I put this up with The Ghostwriter and American Pastoral as my favorite Roth.
So a few book awards have already been announced. These are more in my wife’s specialty, though I like to see what happens here and often find myself really admiring the work.
- Winner – Rebecca Stead: When You Reach Me
- Honors – Phillip Hoose: Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice; Jacqueline Kelly: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate; Grace Lin: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon; Rodman Philbrick: The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg
My wife read When You Reach Me a few months ago, and she liked it but doesn’t think it’ll be that accessible to children because the ideas are much more prominent than any story. In fact, for most of the book she kept telling me that she had no idea what the point was. I don’t mind that for me — plotlessness can be a great thing — but I see what my wife means when we’re talking about children reading. The Newberry seems to go back and forth on that line, don’t they. One year they pick a book that parents will want their chilren to read and understand (like this year) and another they will pick a rather substance-less book that the children will enjoy (like last year’s The Graveyard Book). I can see each side: on the one hand, let’s immortalized (as best we can) a book with great ideas we want children to consider, even if they won’t do it until they are much older; on the other had, let’s immortalize a book that children can read and love when they are children.
- Winner – illustrated and written by Jerry Pinkney: The Lion and the Mouse
- Honor — illustrated by Marla Frazee and written by Liz Garton Scanlon: All the World; illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski adn written by Joyce Sidman: Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Colors
Because of its fine illustrations, we’ve had our eyes on The Lion and the Mouse for a while, but we haven’t got it for our boys yet. Maybe soon.
- Winner – Libba Bray: Going Bovine
- Honor — Deborah Heiligman: Charles and Emma: The Darwin’s Leap of Faith; Rick Yancey: The Monstrumologist; Adam Rapp: Punkzilla; John Barnes: Tales of the Madman Underground: An Historical Romance, 1973
The Printz is my wife’s favorite book award. It deals only with young adult literature. With their audience, they seem to succeed where the Newberry fails, meaning they award books that deal with real issues but that do so by approaching the reader. I’ve read two of the nominees: The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks and The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation:Vol. 1 — The Pox Party (I really need to read Vol. 2, also a Printz finalist, which came out in paperback not too long ago). My wife loved last year’s winner Jellico Road. Also, one of her favorite books of the last year was Northern Light, a YA book that deals with the same case as An American Tragedy.
Some five years ago, my wife, on a whim, bought This Boy’s Life (1989; PEN/Faulkner winner). I thought it looked interesting (and I’d seen previews for and clips from the film version with Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro), but I never bothered to pick it up. My wife then completely forgot that she was the one who bought it with the intention of reading it. Last year I finally entered the work of Tobias Wolff with his exceptional novel Old School. I was surprised at how good that novel was because Wolff (if he is known — and more people should read him) is better known for his short stories and this memoir. So I finally pulled This Boy’s Life off the shelf. I will make sure my wife reads it soon because this is, again, exceptional.
After reading Old School and knowing that it is in part inspired by Wolff’s own adolescence at an exclusive private boys’ school (The Hill), I was taken completely off-guard when he presents himself as a young delinquent child of a poor single-mother. How does this boy who rolls cars down hills, smashing them into other cars, who doesn’t do his homework and cheats on his tests, whose wealth is gained by robbing his paper route patrons, and whose wealth is lost in a carnival game binge become a Hill School boy who grows up to be the award-winning author of such disciplined prose?
But even without that mystifying angle – which is certainly a real angle to the story (indeed, it is the angle that helps this memoir transcendant) – the young Wolff’s life is heartbreaking and captivating. The book begins on the road. Wolff, who at this point in his life would prefer to be called “Jack” instead of “Toby” (because he knew a girl named Toby), and his mother Caroline are fleeing an abusive relationship in Florida. “Jack’s” father and mother are divorced — he lives, they think quite comfortably, in Connecticut with the older son (Geoffrey Wolff — an acclaimed writer himself, and who wrote his own memoir about living with the father: The Duke of Deception). The two sides of the split family have little contact. After Florida, Caroline hopes to settle in Utah where she wants to take advantage of the uranium mining opportunities in the 1950s. When they see that Moab is over-populated by others with the same goal, they continue on to Salt Lake City. The fact that no one has found any uranium in Salt Lake City just means there’ll be more for them when it is found. When the boyfriend they left behind in Florida finds them, but not before he settles in with them again, mother and son eventually flee again, this time to maybe Phoenix . . . or Seattle — Seattle it is.
In this first part of the story Wolff gives a penetrating portrait of his relationship to his damaged mother. She loves him tremendously and with no small amount of guilt, though she recognizes that it is an asset to him if he is tough. He tentatively takes advantage of her love and guilt from time to time (the book opens just before a truck crashes down a canyon; seeing his mother’s grief and worry that he witnessed such a tragedy, Jack gets her to buy him some souvenirs, which he knows she cannot afford). Caroline actually grew up quite wealthy, and she misses that lifestyle somewhat. But all is lost now. Worse, she was emotionally beaten down by her own father, and we see how much she does not want to do the same to her young son. He has her trust and her loose discipline. Though he sees himself as becoming a better person, at this time in his life he can hardly stop himself from exploiting her softness. Though the book doesn’t explore this too much, there might even be a punitive motive to how Wolff acts out; he’s aware of what he doesn’t have.
To many who freely give their opinion, Jack needs a father. Caroline, obviously, has bad luck with men, and she doesn’t really want to get into a relationship again. But for her son, she does her best. Here is a poignant scene of intimacy between mother and son after a failed date with a charming man who has promised to buy Jack a Raleigh bicycle:
I slept badly that night. I always did when my mother went out, which wasn’t often these days. She came back late. I listened to her walk up the stairs and down the hall to our room. The door opened and closed. She stood just inside for a moment, then crossed the room and sat down on her bed. She was crying softly. “Mom?” I said. When she didn’t answer I got up and went over to her. “What’s wrong, Mom?” She looked at me, tried to say something, shook her head. I sat beside her and put my arms around her. She was gasping as if someone had held her underwater.
I rocked her and murmured to her. I was practiced at this and happy doing it, not because she was unhappy but because she needed me, and to be needed made me feel capable. Soothing her soothed me.
She exhausted herself, and I helped her into bed. She became giddy then, laughing and making fun of herself, but she didn’t let go of my hand until she fell asleep.
In the morning we were shy with each other. I somehow managed not to ask her my question. That night I continued to master myself, but my self-mastery seemed like an act; I knew I was too weak to keep it up.
My mother was reading.
“Mom?” I said.
She looked up.
“What about the Raleigh?”
She went back to her book without answering. I did not ask again.
Among her several suitors after they arrive in Seattle is the very persistent Dwight. Each weekend, he drives from his home in Chinook, a few hours away, to see her. Tobias’s actions in school and in the street are increasingly cause for alarm. Worse are the things she doesn’t know about; for example, when home alone he points a loaded rifle at pedestrians outside. Dwight sees the mother’s concern as leverage to get her to marry him:
Dwight drove down that weekend. They spent a lot of time together, and finally my mother told me that Dwight was urging a proposal which she felt bound to consider. He proposed that after Christmas I move up to Chinook and live with him and go to school there. If things worked out, if I made a real effort and got along with him and his kids, she would quit her job and accept his offer of marriage.
She did not try to make any of this sound like great news. Instead she spoke as if she saw in this plan a duty which she would be selfish not to acknowledge. But first she wanted my approval. I thought I had no choice, so I gave it.
It’s terrible to see what is happening here. Nevertheless, the young Tobias moves out of his mother’s house to live with a new family in Chinook. Not wanting to hurt his mother, and still unaware that there is any choice, he never tells her just how horrible a person Dwight is.
My mother told me she could still change her mind. She could keep her job and find another place to live. I understood, didn’t I, that it wasn’t too late? / I said I did, but I didn’t. I had come to feel that all of this was fated, that I was bound to accept as my home a place I didn’t not feel at home in, and to take as my father a man who was offended by my existence and would never stop questioning my right to it. I did not believe my mother when she told me it wasn’t too late. I knew she meant what she said, but it seemed to me that she was deceiving herself. Things had gone too far. And somehow it was her telling me it wasn’t too late that made me believe, past all doubt, that it was. Those words still sound to me less like a hope than an epitaph, the last lie we tell before hurling ourselves over the brink.
Needless to say, the marriage takes place. But this is still the beginning of the book. And, without giving much away, as looming a character as Dwight is, his relationship with Tobias is still secondary. This is a story about growing up into an identity you’ve always imagined as yours but that seems completely unlikely. It is highlighted with sometimes fun and sometimes terrible images and perspectives of youth. I can’t recommend it enough.
* This book has started me on two mini-projects. One is to read everything I can find written by Tobias Wolff. I’ve already got his other novel The Barracks Thief, his other memoir In Pharaoh’s Army, and many of his short stories in the collection Our Story Begins. I am so delighted by his writing that I think I’ll get through all of this in no time.
Maybe to pace myself in the Wolff project, I set myself up on another project: to read some other literary memoirs. By literary memoir, I mean that it has to be more than recollections — I want to feel the same as I do when I read a great novel. I’ve only dabbled in the genre (love Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood, don’t love Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes). For this project, I’ve slated Philip Roth’s Patrimony, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (I know, is it really a memoir? close enough for my purposes), Primo Levi’s Survival at Auschwitz, Jacques Roubaud’s The Great Fire of London, Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence, and, killing two birds with one stone, Tobias Wolff’s In Pharaoh’s Army. This list may grow. I already feel I should go buy Geoffrey Wolff’s The Duke of Deception. I’m not sure how interspersed these will be among other reading projects, but I’m looking forward to getting through these titles, most of which have been sitting on the bookshelf far too long. If you can think of some other literary memoirs, please feel free to list them below.
You are about to begin reading The Mookse and the Gripes review of Italo Calvino’s not-so-new novel If on a winter’s night a traveler (Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore, 1979; tr. from the Italian by William Weaver, 1981). . . . Okay, I won’t indulge myself any longer with this silly little introduction — I can’t beat Italo Calvino.
This is how the book begins:
You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room.
The first chapter goes on to tell you how to sit comfortably, how to tell your family to be quiet for a few hours, how you determined to purchase this particular book when there are all of the other stacks of books to choose from, etc. It definitely speaks to people like me who troll bookstores, people whose three- and one-year-old sons ask to go to the bookstore for a night out. So I’d read this first chapter several times, but to be honest, as fun as it is, as much as I could relate to it, I wasn’t sure I’d like to read the whole book. It looked, well, a bit like cleverness just to be clever. Plus, I don’t like books told in the second person unless the “you” the narrator is speaking to isn’t actually me.
But I’d heard too much praise for the book to trust my predisposition. And it has been published, after all, by Everyman.
I don’t like books told in second-person if they are actually trying to talk to me. I certainly don’t mind if the narrator is talking to some other “you.” In fact, it’s always fun for me to try to figure out just who the “you” is. I was very happy, then, to discover that in this book “you” didn’t actually mean me, despite the fact that I found myself in similar circumstances to ”you.” Rather, this “you” is a character in the novel, a reader that the author is talking to, a reader who becomes increasingly frustrated. And I was equally pleased to discover that the character “you” shifted from the male reader in the story to the female reader he lusted after.
Lust — or at least a desire for sexual consummation — is a major motif in this book. It shows up even in the first chapter, when we are just discussing the act of beginning to read a book. Sensually translated by William Weaver, we get a feeling that Calvino is being clever, very clever — but the cleverness begins to have some real substance to it:
Of course, this circling of the book, too, this reading around it before reading inside it, is a part of the pleasure in a new book, but like all preliminary pleasures, it has its optimal duration if you want it to serve as a thrust toward the more substantial pleasure of the consummation of the act, namely the reading of the book.
Both types of consummation ellude the reader, that “you.” After the first chapter getting situated, the reader finally begins reading If on a winter’s night a traveller. Along with the reader we read the first twenty or so pages of a book when suddenly the text ends. The book is faulty. Frustrated, because it ended just as it was getting interesting, the reader goes to the bookstore to demand another copy. There he meets Ludmilla (the female reader who will eventually be addressed as “you” by the narrator). She has also been a victim of the faulty book, so “you” think to yourself that this common problem could be a great opportunity, something that can help the two of you to become closer.
The faulty If on a winter’s night a traveler that you and Ludmilla returned to the bookstore is just the beginning. It is replaced with another faulty book, which book also comes to no conclusion. This happens several times: “you” simply cannot get a book he can read through to the end. One of my favorite unconsummated readings takes place at a university. Ludmilla’s sister Lotharia has a copy of the book “you” and she are both searching for. Lotharia and a group of students are going to read it that evening. It turns out, of course, to not be the book you two are looking for. Nevertheless, it is interesting, and you find the desire to keep reading, until –
At this point they throw open the discussion. Events, characters, settings, impressions are thrust aside, to make room for the general concepts.
“The polymorphic-perverse sexuality . . .”
“The laws of a market economy . . .”
“The homologies of the signifying structures . . .”
“Deviation and institutions . . .”
“Castration . . .”
Only you have remained suspended there, you and Ludmilla, while nobody else thinks of continuing the reading.
The reading gets interrupted by intellectualizing. Which is just as well since the book has been torn to pieces and distributed among other student groups — but Lotharia is certain her group got the best section. Maybe, but you don’t like that again your build-up has been suspended, perhaps forever.
Calvino allows us to read all of these incipits (beginnings of stories) with the reader “you.” And they are, for the most part, excellent starts to stories that I, for one, would have liked to have finished. Still, I also looked forward to their end so I could see just how Calvino was going to develop this notion of getting to the end of the book and consummation. The sexuality, which at first looked like an interested parallel in which to explore the idea of reading, comes back to the foreground and becomes a primary subject.
Lovers’ reading of each other’s bodies (of that concentrate of mind and body which lovers use to go to bed together) differs from the reading of written pages in that it is not linear. It starts at any point, skips, repeats itself, goes backward, insists, ramifies in simultaneous and divergent messages, converges again, has moments of irritation, turns the page, finds its place, gets lost.
All of this, then, becomes a way to explore human sexuality, or, more generally, human interaction, human relationships. Here is a part when the “you” shifts from the male to Ludmilla:
Ludmilla, now you are being read. Your body is being subjected to a systematic reading, through channels of tactile information, visual, olfactory, and not without some intervention of the taste buds. Hearing also has its role, alert to your gasps and your trills. It is not only the body that is, in you, the object of reading: the body matters insofar as it is part of a complex of elaborate elements, not all visible and not all present, but manifested in visible and present events: the clouding of your eyes, your laughing, the words you speak, your way of gathering and spreading your hair, your initiatives and your reticences, and all the signs that are on the frontier between you and usage and habits and memory and prehistory and fashion, all codes, all the poor alphabets by which one human being believes at certain moments that he is reading another human being.
So I finally finished Italo Calvino’s not-so-new novel If on a winter’s night a traveler. In the end, how was it?
A sixth reader, who was standing, examining the shelves with his nose in the air, approaches the table. “The moment that counts most for me is the one that precedes reading. At times a title is enough to kindle in me the desire for a book that perhaps does not exist. At times it is the incipit of the book, the first sentences. . . . In other words: if you need little to set the imagination going, I require even less: the promise of reading is enough.”
Perhaps like this sixth reader I created an image of this book in my mind, an image of a book that does not exist. Perhaps I was anticipating too much and anticlimax was a foregone conclusion, but in the end, I have to say, I still found it more clever than deep. I feel it is my loss, though, because even writing this review much of the book is just beginning to open itself up to me. Perhaps I rushed things, finishing the book too soon, before I had established a real relationship. Or, more hopeful, perhaps finishing it was the beginning of a real relationship.
Just a few days after seeing his play Democracy, I was wandering around London’s National Gallery bookshop when I first saw Michael Frayn’s novel Headlong (1999). I didn’t know Frayn wrote novels because I knew him only for Copenhagen, Noises Off, and now Democracy, all great plays. I was even more surprised when I saw that Headlong was a Booker finalist, losing out that year to Coetzee’s Disgrace . I didn’t buy Headlong that day. And in the intervening years I never saw it on a bookshelf again nor have I seen it come up in book discussions. Now, I’m sure I’ve just been myopic, but I’ve seen dozens of discussions devoted to Disgrace and almost as many devoted to another 1999 Booker finalist, The Blackwater Lightship. Who knows when or if I would have picked up and read this book had KevinfromCanada not recommended it to me when I asked him for books related to one of my favorites A Month in the Country (also, Booker shortlisted, and also almost forgotten). Thank goodness he recommended it to me. I haven’t had as much fun reading a book in a long time.
Much like Copenhagen and Democracy postulate ways to fill in historical gaps and curious motives (both excellently, in my opinion), Headlong looks at one of the many blank spaces in art history and fills it in — or doesn’t: you get to evaluate the evidence. Let me just say that lost art — and its potential discovery – fascinates me. I also love when an intelligent person — Frayn, here — discusses art in the historical context surrounding its creation. But even if you don’t enjoy such things, I still think there’s plenty in this book to love. For one, it’s absolutely hilarious.
Our narrator is Martin Clay. He used to be a psychologist, but a wild interest in the effects of nominalism on 15th-century Netherland painting has caused him to leave psychology behind to study art. The action of the book begins when he begins a sabbatical from teaching to write a book on his new interest. His wife Kate and their new daughter Tilda join him at their country home. We get the sense that Kate has begrudgingly allowed Martin to chase this whim. Apparently he dives headlong into something for a time and then moves quickly on to something else. Nevertheless, we sense that she does love him and wishes him to find happiness by chasing his dreams. But with a new daughter, those dreams had better be kept in check. This dream of writing a book, for instance, had better be fulfilled while on this short sabbatical.
We know from page one that his book on nominalism is not going to be written during this sabbatical. Something else has taken his interest. We also understand that he might have debased himself a bit while pursuing his new obsession:
I have a discovery to report. Many of the world’s great treasures are known to have been lost over the centuries. I believe I may have found one of them. What follows is the evidence for my claim. / I’m in a difficult position, though. If my claim is not accepted by scholars, I shall look a fool. If it is . . . then I shall be in a worse position. The circumstances of the discovery are such that I shall emerge not only as a fool but as an object of outrage and horror.
This new discovery is made almost right when the Clays get to their country home. Their neighbor Tony Churt has parked his landrover in their driveway and is waiting for them when they arrive. He’s heard they were coming and invites them over for dinner with he and his much younger wife Laura. And while there, he hopes to get their opinion on something. Without much enthusiasm, the Clays make their visit to the Churt estate, Upwood, once stately but now dilapidated. The estate is behind on its taxes, and Tony would like to pawn off some of the old artwork to get himself out of the red — something his young wife failed to do when after they were married her father shut down the trust fund.
So Martin goes to look. We see that he’s really out of his depths when asked to put a value on the paintings. Here are his thoughts:
All right, knock off a thousand for plausibility. But then the frame must be worth a few hundred. And probably the bare breast increases its salability. Perhaps even the naked knee’s an attraction. Add a tenner for the intimate expression on her face. Another couple of thousand out of politeness to my hosts. A thousand off as a sop to honesty . . . Where have we got to?
But among the few pieces of art, stopping the soot from the chimney, is something Martin believes is a true treasure:
I recognize it instantly.
I say I recognize it. I’ve never seen it before. I’ve never seen even a description of it. No description of it, so far as I know, has ever been given. No one knows for sure who, if anyone apart from the artist himself, has ever seen it.
And here is where the already fun narrative takes on a new dimension by adding some fascinating discussions of art and, in particular, about the history of this piece which no one knew existed anymore. I read this book next to a computer so I could look up images of the art work discussed (except for the one Martin thinks he’s found), and it was a very rewarding experience.
But this book is rewarding all the way around. We have as fast-paced a narrative as one can hope to find. Frayn’s writing is smooth, and very very funny. Throw in some genuinely intriguing art history (as opposed to that falsely intriguing stuff making bestsellers), and it’s already a winner for me. But now, throw in Frayn’s skill at tying the human drama to the art drama. As Martin formulates his own plot to attain this painting, without showing too much interest, he realizes just what he’s willing to do to get it, including leading on the young Mrs. Churt. And no matter how honest you are with your wife, that kind of thing just isn’t going to sit well. So amid all of the excitement, we get to witness the personal and sad drama of a marriage in decline. With his natural skill for dialogue, Frayn shows us the intricate machinations Martin and Kate develop to both punish and forgive one another.
I’m going to end this review with a rather lengthy excerpt of a light argument between Martin and Kate. It showcases a bit of Frayn’s skill at playing with multiple layers — the theoretical, the intimate, and the sad — and multiple character motives and misunderstandings. And all with a humorous overtone that softens it up and makes it very delightfully British:
“In any case,” I say, rocking Tilda tenderly back and forth, “however terrible it is to destroy works of art, it isn’t as terrible as torturing people to death.”
“Isn’t it?” she says coolly. “Though the Calvinists did plenty of that, too, in the areas they controlled.”
I ignore the irrelevant provocation, and swoop like a hawk on those first two shocking words. “Are you suggesting that destroying pictures and statues might be worse than destroying people?”
“Of course not,” she should reply, if she had any sense. But she doesn’t. She allows herself to be maneuvered into a position far more extreme than she intended, as people do when they’re angry. “Isn’t it?” she repeats. “Isn’t what people do more important in the end than what they feel? Isn’t what they leave behind more important that what they were?”
This is art history grown monstrous in its self-importance. I drive home the implications of what she’s said with complete ruthlessness. “You’re implying that a painting might be worth more than us? Than you and me?”
She thinks. She’s becoming quiet and still. It occurs to me that she’s perhaps not just allowing herself to be maneuvered — that she really does think that she means what she’s saying. I have a glimpse into the depths of her, into the quiet darkness that usually remains hidden. And yes, she has some kind of hard obstinacy lurking down there. Some element of fanaticism, even, that I lack completely. And without which, I realize with dismay, even in the midst of my merciless pursuit of her, human beings never leave anything much behind them anyway.
“More than me, yes,” she says finally. She does mean it, too. I should take her hands in mine, of course, and smile at her tenderly, and tell her how much more she is to me, at any rate, than any painting in the world could ever be. But I don’t. I’ve not finished with her yet.
“More than me?” I ask her quietly.
She thinks once more. “Possibly,” she says slowly at last. Okay. Fine. This is damage I can take, because she still hasn’t seen the ambush I’m leading her into. I don’t even say the words. I simply kiss the top of Tilda’s head, very gently, as she lies against my shoulder, and then look up at Kate with the question in my eyes.
And again she thinks. She seems to change right in front of my eyes. She looks away, and all that hardness in her is transmuted into a kind of terrible sadness.
I break. I shouldn’t have done this to her. I repent unreservedly. I love her. I feel the most wrenching tenderness toward her.
She gets up and gently takes Tilda from me. I as gently let her go. Kate carries her toward the front door, then comes back.
“There seems to be at any rate one picture in the world,” she says quietly, “that you think is worth more than either me or Tilda.” She turns and disappears into the house. I remain sitting on the picnic blanket, unable to move, like someone who’s been knocked down in the street. That happened to me once.
Three Percent — a great blog on literature in translation as well as the blog from Open Letter Books, a great publisher of books in translation — postedtheir annual Best Translated Book Award longlist.
The finalists will be announced on February 16.
Of particular interest is the range: authors from 23 countries, writing in 17 languages, published by 15 publishers. Literature in translation may not be as big on the map as it should be, but there are those devoted to it, and we are the fortunate beneficiaries.
Here they are, all twenty-five of them. The links are to my reviews:
- Ghosts by César Aira, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews
- The Ninth by Ferenc Barnás, translated from the Hungarian by Paul Olchváry
- Anonymous Celebrity by Ignácio de Loyola Brandão, translated from the Portuguese by Nelson Vieira
- The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker, translated from the Dutch by David Colmer
- The Skating Rink by Roberto Bolaño, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews
- Wonder by Hugo Claus, translated from the Dutch by Michael Henry Heim
- Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Falada, translated from the German by Michael Hofmann
- Op Oloop by Juan Filroy, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman
- Vilnius Poker by Ricardas Gavelis, translated from the Lithuanian by Elizabeth Novickas
- The Zafarani Files by Gamal al-Ghitani, translated from the Arabic by Farouk Abdel Wahab
- The Weather Fifteen Years Ago by Wolf Haas, translated from the German by Stephanie Gilardi and Thomas S. Hansen
- The Confessions of Noa Weber by Gail Hareven, translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu
- The Discoverer by Jan Kjærstad, translated from the Norwegian by Barbara Haveland
- Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, translated from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull
- Desert by J.M.G. Le Clézio, translated from the French by C. Dickson
- There’s Nothing I Can Do When I Think of You Late at Night by Cao Naigian, translated from the Chinese by John Balcom
- The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk, translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely
- News from the Empire by Fernando del Paso, translated from the Spanish by Alfonso González and Stella T. Clark
- The Mighty Angel by Jerzy Pilch, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston
- Rex by José Manuel Prieto, translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen
- Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda, translated from the Catalan by Martha Tennent
- Landscape with Dog and Other Stories by Ersi Sotiropoulos, translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich
- Brecht at Night by Mati Unt, translated from the Estonian by Eric Dickens
- In the United States of Africa by Abdourahman Waberi, translated from the French by David and Nicole Ball
- The Tanners by Robert Walser, translated from the Gernamn by Susan Bernofsky
I actually read There’s Nothing I Can Do When I Think of You Late at Night last May, but I couldn’t think of anything to say about it when I was done. I both liked and didn’t like it. I both admired and detested the translation. What I appreciated was the fact that Cao Naigian wrote it while holding other jobs — he wasn’t really a writer. I’m going to refresh my memory of it and see if it was just me at that time of my life. I also have copies of The Twin and The Discoverer that I frequently think I should read begin (though The Discoverer is the third book in the Wergeland trilogy, so I probably won’t get to it for a while — I have the second book, The Conqueror, but not the first, The Seducer).
Of the ones I’ve already read and reviewed, I am not surprised they are on this list. Ghosts, The Tanners, and Desert were all supreme books and supremely translated. I also thoroughly enjoyed — just not as much — The Skating Rink and Death in Spring. There are three books I’m surprised didn’t make the cut: Guillermo Rosales’s The Halfway House, Horacio Castellanos Moya’s The She-Devil in the Mirror, and Michal Ajvaz’s The Other City. But New Directions and Dalkey are both well represented in the list. Plus, that makes the list more interesting to me because it leaves more I haven’t read.
If you’ve read and reviewed any of the books above, please leave a link in the comments.