Like the eminent scholar who introduces the Modern Library edition of Blood Meridian (1985), on previous attempts I failed to read this book through due to the violence. It’s on every page. While I recognized the quality of what I was reading, I just wasn’t in the mood for it at the time. Even when I stopped reading it before, though, I always knew I’d return to it. I’ve finally done it! What changed? Well, I’ve a bit more reading under my belt, both of McCarthy and in general, so my ability to understand (not just recognize) the brilliance was enhanced. But probably the most significant change this time around: I read Moby-Dick. Moby-Dick helped me learn how to read Blood Meridian.
Moby-Dick is definitely one of the highlights not just of last year but of my life in literature. I loved it from page one until that emptying last line. It is no spoiler, and it is important, I believe, to repeat that line here:
It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.
Blood Meridian has been Harold-ed as a worthy successor to Moby-Dick, though it is probably reductive to think of it only in those terms. However, since I only finished Moby-Dick last August, it is fresh on my mind, so I’m going to use it as a springboard. In the first page of Blood Meridian we meet another orphan: the kid. The first sentence is, “See the child.” He’s actually not an orphan when we meet him, and in the first paragraph we get an interesting line about his heritage: “His folk are known for hewers of wood and drawers of water but in truth his father has been a schoolmaster.” The Biblical allusion to “hewers of wood and drawers of water,” a reference to the curse Joshua places upon the people Gibeah after they’ve beguiled the Israelites, hearkens violence of Biblical proportions as well as the curse that followed. It’s also suggestive of the profound issues McCarthy will be juggling through the book. Following the allusion, we meet the kid’s father briefly when he says,
Night of your birth. Thirty-three. The Leonids they were called. God how the stars did fall. I looked for blackness, holes in the heaves. The Dipper stove.
We then learn little of the kid’s mother:
The mother dead these fourteen years did incubate in her own bosom the creature who would carry her off. The father never speaks her name, the child does not know it.
And then, just before another literary allusion, we learn this tragic fact about this young child:
He can neither read nor write and in him broods already a tastes for mindless violence. All history present in that visage, the child the father of the man.
Again, the line “the child the father of the man” comes from a William Wordsworth poem, “My heart leaps up when I behold.” This poem speaks about a much more innocent theme: a child’s heart leaping when he sees a rainbow becomes the old man whose heart leaps when he sees the rainbow — so we hope. In Blood Meridian, what the child fathers is much more desolate.
And it is here, at the end of that first page, which is not very long, that we orphan the kid. At fourteen he runs away from home, never to return. On the next page he is shot, though not mortally wounded. And then there’s this beautiful sentence about his lost origins, which to me hearkens back to Ishmael’s concerns with the whiteness of the whale and with his own parentage:
His origins are become remote as is his destiny and not again in all the world’s turning will there be terrains so wild and barbarous to try whether the stuff of creation may be shaped to man’s will or whether his own heart is not another kind of clay.
All of that incredibly deep setup in just a couple of pages, and I am sure I’ve left out much more. I’m afraid that that type of depth and that weighty dense prose is the nature of this book, but it pays much to the devoted reader. It’s violent — but it’s beautiful to behold.
In his paths through that wild and barbarous terrain there is one looming figure, his main antagonist, Judge Holden. How the kid first sees the judge is another part of the book that hearkens to Moby-Dick. In the first few pages of Moby-Dick, when Ishmael is wandering the streets thinking of his mortality, possibly contemplating suicide, he attends the sermon of Father Mapple and is in part invigorated into going to sea. In the first few pages of Blood Meridian, the kid attends a sermon by the Reverend Green. Suddenly, Judge Holden enters the room and claims Reverend Green is an impostor, that he has no degree of divinity, and in fact he is wanted by the law:
On a variety of charges the most recent of which involved a girl of eleven years — I said eleven — who had come to him in trust and whom he was surprised in the act of violating while actually clothed in the livery of his God.
Reverend Green’s only response: “This is him, cried the reverend, sobbing. This is him. The devil. Here he stands.” After Reverend Green has been killed by the congregation turned mob, Judge Holden is asked how he knew all of that about Reverend Green. His response is that he had never set eyes on the man before. Judge Holden is a brutal man, the embodiment of the loftiest philosophical conflicts found in Blood Meridian. He is, however, a kind of second to another man named John Joel Glanton, the leader of the filibusters. The Glanton Gang is a real gang of mercenaries hired by the Mexican government to protect civilians from the Apache Indians. They were paid by the scalp. And there is one reference in history to a Judge Holden, perhaps the most ruthless of the bunch. In Blood Meridian, Glanton leads the warfare; the judge leads the philosophizing and haunts the nights, eventually rising far above his role to the point where the story cannot contain him.
It is the kid’s misfortune to eventually become part of Glanton’s scalphunters. We witness massacres and, sometimes, the aftermath:
Long past dark that night when the moon was already up a party of women that had been upriver drying fish returned to the village and wandered howling through the ruins. A few fires still smoldered on the ground and dogs slank off from among the corpses. An old woman knelt at the blackened stones before her door and poked brush into the coals and blew back a flame from the ashes and began to right the overturned pots. All about her the dead lay with their peeled skulls like polyps bluely wet or luminescent melons cooling on some mesa of the moon.
We also see the filibusters ride into a Mexican village, champions, saviors:
Hundreds of onlookers pressed about as the dried scalps were counted out upon the stones. Soldiers with muskets kept back the crowds and young girls watched the Americans with huge black eyes and boys crept forth to touch the grisly trophies. There were one hundred and twenty-eight scalps and eight heads and the governor’s lieutenant and his retinue came down into the courtyard to welcome them and admire their work. They were promised full payment in gold at the dinner to be held in their honor that evening at the Riddle and Stephens Hotel and with this the Americans sent up a cheer and mounted their horses again. Old women in black rebozos ran forth to kiss the hems of their reeking shirts and hold up their dark little hands in blessing and the riders wheeled their guanted mounts and pushed through the clamoring multitude and into the street.
The, well, rather: A terrible thing about it is that many of these scalps are the remnants of anything that even looked passably like an Indian scalp. So we have here the scalps of women and children, to be sure, but also of the Mexicans the filibusters were asked to keep safe. But, much like the whale and the search for the whale in Moby-Dick serves a greater philosophical narrative, the disgusting actions of the Glanton gang serve a similar purpose:
If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now? Wolves cull themselves, man. What other creature could? And is the race of man not more predacious yet? The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die but in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night. His spirit is exhausted at the peak of its achievement. His meridian is at once his darkening and the evening of his day.
It really is superb to watch the judge and the other characters and McCarthy discuss grand ideas. It is especially remarkable that the judge himself is a massive idea. In Blood Meridian the judge is, in some respects, more than just a member of the searchers. He is the white whale. Albino, large, incomprehensible, seemingly – or perhaps literally — immortal. More than a being of flesh and blood he, like Moby-Dick himself, is the bulging embodiment of bigger ideas.
To end this slight review, I’d like to change the focus from suggesting the big ideas to a quick look at McCarthy’s style. More than in his other books, Blood Meridian is written almost as if it were written in the 1850s or earlier. The word choice, the syntax, everything is archaic. But it is also poetic and fresh. Here, to end, are a few examples of his description of the loneliness or the violence encountered in the dessert surrounding the Texas – Mexico border in the 1850s (and today). The following sentences do not follow one another in the book, though the final two are from the same episode (and what an episode! where the kid has the judge in his sights three times while the judge, naked but with skins covering his nake head, calls to the kid while walking an idiot man on a lead).
There is hardly in the world a waste so barren but some creature will not cry out at night, yet here one was and they listened to their breathing in the dark and the cold and they listened to the systole of the rubymeated hearts that hung within them.
His leg had begun to bleed and he lay soaking it in the cold water and he drank and palmed water over the back of his neck. The marblings of blood that swung from his thigh were like thin red leeches in the current.
He looked at the expriest and at the slow gouts of blood dropping in the water like roseblooms how they swelled and were made pale.
I have now read five of McCarthy’s ten novels. I’ve loved each one, and each is masterful in its way — but this stands out as a masterpiece among masterworks.
I have several Waugh novels sitting on my shelf due to my sudden infatuation with his writing in late 2008. Just those two books made me start boasting that Waugh was one of my favorite authors. After over a year of neglect, I decided it was time to visit Waugh again and read what some consider his best work, A Handful of Dust (1934). I remembered immediately why I fell for Waugh in the first place.
The title comes from one of my favorite poems (and one I’ve hated too), The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot.
I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
I devoted a chapter of my masters thesis on that nasty poem; I can tell you an awful lot about it and its allusions, though I still don’t understand it all and could not explain it. I think we can all agree, though, that it is centered around a dying civilization, or, perhaps better, a decaying civilization — civilization already being dead. Its imagery, both of the city and of sex, and set pieces of conversation between lonely souls feel so sad, so dry — I think it’s beautiful. Leavened with quite a lot more humor, Waugh is taking on the same theme in A Handful of Dust. His isolated characters represent a civilization in decline.
In the novel’s first few pages we meet a young Mr. John Beaver. Beaver is relatively poor and quite lazy and selfish, though to an extent the reader might find him charming as he tells his mother he has accepted an invitation to visit Hetton Abbey, the proud inheritance of Tony Last. Tony, incidentally, did not intend his invitation to be taken literally; it was merely an act of courtesy during a night drinking at the club. Beaver probably knows this, but he is ever the social climber.
While Beaver is travelling to Hetton Abbey, we arrive there first to meet Tony and his wife Brenda. This is Tony Last at his most confident and Brenda Last at her most docile as they discuss their plans. Brenda is bored of Hetton Abbey. Tony cannot comprehend. Tony winces when he realizes that Beaver has taken the invitation seriously and decides to put him in the most uncomfortable room in the house, the room called Sir Galahad.
At this point in the novel, perhaps we can hardly blame Beaver and Brenda for commencing an affair. They flirted slightly during the weekend, and before Beaver left Brenda had already planned to go to London to see him the next weekend. Here is a nice little snippet on their behavior just after Brenda’s sister Marjorie leaves them alone this first weekend together:
They were awkward when Marjorie left, for in the week that they had been apart, each had, in thought, grown more intimate with the other than any actual occurrence warranted.
Their affair suddenly increases everyone’s interest in Beaver; he was below their notice before. That’s not to say anyone really likes him now. Perhaps Brenda herself expresses why best:
Brenda had come into Marjorie’s room and they were having breakfast in bed. Marjorie was more than ever like an elder sister that morning. ‘But really, Brenda, he’s such a dreary young man.’
‘I know it all. He’s second rate and a snob and, I should think, as cold as a fish, but I happen to have a fancy for him, that’s all . . . besides I’m not sure he’s altogetherawful . . . he’s got that odious mother whom he adores . . . and he’s always been very poor. I don’t think he’s had a fair deal. I heard all about it last night. He got engage once but they couldn’t get married because of money and since then he’s never had a proper affair with anyone decent . . . he’s got to be taught a whole lot of things. That’s part of his attraction.’
As you can see, there is quite a bit of comedy involved, even when the subject is so sad when we stop to think about it. It is quite some time before Tony finds out about the affair. And the plot itself has a few twists and turns, some tragic, many comic, before he finally agrees to a divorce. And this was, for me, one of the best parts of the novel. Under British law of the time, a divorce was not easily executed. Furthermore, if Mrs. Last is found to be the cause of the severance, the court would grant her next to nothing. It is privately arranged that Mr. Last will be the cause. To this end, Tony seeks a partner in his fraud, some woman who will understand the delicacies of falsifying an affair:
But when he came to discuss the question later with Jock, it did not seem so easy. ‘It’s not a thing one can ask every girl to do,’ he said, ‘whichever way you put it. If you say it is merely a legal form it is rather insulting, and if you suggest going the whole hog it’s rather fresh — suddenly, I mean, if you’ve never paid any particular attention to her before and don’t propose to carry on with it afterwards . . . Of course there’s always old Sybil.’
Old Sybil — that ominous figure in The Waste Land. The book is still just rolling along, but much of the comedy will be absent from what remains. Which brings me to a fascinating tidbit about the novel. Waugh’s first ending takes off as Tony leave England to pursue a hidden country in Brazil, and one could feel the book is almost split in halves that don’t quite balance. I found it fascinating, particularly given the inspiration for the title. This ending was actually written first as a short story called “The Man Who Loved Dickens.” Yes — it takes place in Brazil. Waugh said that he wanted to write the story that preceded “The Man Who Loved Dickens”; hence, A Handful of Dust in its original form.
However, also included in my version, and I hope in most versions, is the alternate ending the American press demanded to give the book more balance. The ending is much shorter, very different, and much more conventional than the original. That it is shorter, different, and conventional is not to suggest it isn’t satisfying. I’m sure there are many who prefer it to the original. I’m not sure where I stand in preference, but I’m glad to have them both. Both endings were for me fantastic expansions on the first part of the novel. One is long and exotic and counterbalanced against the first half of the book; the other is short and bitter tasting, but in a satisfying way.
Here, because I couldn’t find any other place to put it in my review, but because I really just love the dialogue, is another bit of the comedy. It also showcases a bit of Hemingway’s influence on Waugh’s style of dialogue, though thankfully Waugh didn’t give up his British humor.
‘But all the same, making every allowance for your feelings, I do think that you are behaving rather vindictively in the matter.’
‘I’m doing exactly what Brenda wanted.’
‘My dear fellow, she doesn’t know what she wants. I saw this chap Beaver yesterday. I didn’t like him at all. Do you?’
‘I hardly know him.’
‘Well, I can assure you I didn’t like him. Now you’re just throwing Brenda into his arms. That’s what it amounts to, as I see it, and I call it vindictive. Of course at the moment Brenda’s got the idea that she’s in love with him. But it won’t last. It couldn’t with a chap like Beaver. She’ll want to come back in a year, just you see. Allan says the same.’
‘I’ve told Allan. I don’t want her back.’
‘Well, that’s vindictive.’
‘No, I just couldn’t feel the same about her again.’
‘Well, why feel the same? One has to change as one gets older. Why, ten years ago I couldn’t be interested in anything later than the Sumerian age and I assure you that now I find even the Christian era full of significance.’
The names familiar to me from the longlist were the ones that made it to the shortlist of six. But I haven’t read any of these books:
- Nina Bawden: The Birds on the Trees
- J.G. Farrell: Troubles
- Shirley Hazzard: The Bay of Noon
- Patrick White: The Vivisector
- Mary Renault: Fire from Heaven
- Muriel Spark: The Driver’s Seat
When the Best of the Booker shortlist was announced I raced to read the ones I hadn’t yet read. I’d like to do the same this year, but I have so many other things to read right now — we’ll see!
It doesn’t appear that Bawden’s The Birds on the Trees is in print here in the U.S. The other five are, however, and, as it happens, they are still in print by some of my favorite publishers: New Directions, NYRB Classics, and Penguin Classics, Picador, and Vintage. I’m a bit wary of the Renault because I read and didn’t like in the least The Last of the Wine. To me it was like reading a bad translation. In its defense, it was required reading in a classical Greek class (professor’s attempt to show how the subject has been approached in more contemporary times); and of course every other book, play or poem we read was better.
Good luck if you join in the fun! If you have a favorite in this list, you can also join in the public vote. The vote closes on April 23, and the winner will be announced on May 19.
Sherman Alexie has won this year’s PEN/Faulkner Award for War Dances. I haven’t read it, but I have enjoyed Alexie’s work before.
Click here for the full press release.
I love John Cheever’s short fiction. Over the years I’ve made my way through quite a bit of The Stories of John Cheever, that massive collection of his short stories that won the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award in the various years surrounding its publication in 1978. Until Falconer (1977), I’d never read one of his novels. I’d heard mixed things about Falconer, and about Cheever’s other novels as well. For some, they are brilliant. For others, they are just pieced together short stories, and not great ones at that. I guess my own review of Falconer is mixed as well: I was at times elated and at other times — too many, actually — disappointed.
One moment of elation came with the first sentence where Cheever introduces us to Falconer, the state prison in which Ezekiel Farragut, the book’s protagonist, a professor of literature, is going to be incarcerated for fratricide.
The main entrance to Falconer — the only entrance for convicts, their visitors and the staff — was crowned by an esutcheon representing Liberty, Justice and, between the two, the soverieng power of government. Liberty wore a mobcap and carried a pike. Government was the federal Eagle holding an olive branch and armed with hunting arrows. Justice was conventional; blinded, vaguely erotic in her clinging robes and armed with a headsman’s sword.
Sadly, for me the rest of the descriptions of Falconer fell rather flat. Where this first sentence succeeds in being poetic and gritty, many of the other general descriptions of the prison felt simply overdone and fake. It was kind of hard to take it all seriously, and I got rather tired trying. But then, as I mentioned above, a moment of elation –
There is real strength in this novel’s depiction of symbolic prisons. Farragut has been imprisoned in a sarcastic marriage, he is imprisoned by drug addiction, he is imprisoned in a condescending family, he has been imprisoned his entire life in one construct or another. Here is an example of just how brilliant some passages are:
The accident or what they called the murder had taken place, Farragut thought, because of the fact that whenever he remembered or dreamed about his family he always saw them from the back. They were always stamping indignantly out of concert halls, theaters, sports arenas and restaurants, and he, as the youngest, was always in the rear. “If Koussevitzky thinks I’ll listen to that . . .” “That umpire is crooked.” “This play is degenerate.” “I don’t like the way that waiter looked at me.” “That clerk was impudent.” And so on. They saw almost nothing to its completion, and that’s the way he remembered them, heading, for some reason in wet raincoats, for the exit. It had occurred to him that they may have suffered terribly from claustrophobia and disguised this weakness as moral indignation.
This passage and others like it were reminiscent of some of my favorite pieces of Cheever’s short fiction. Cheever was gifted in his ability to take an abstract emotion and help us readers come to feel it so closely. Indeed, his short stories are, to me, passages like the one above expanded over a few more pages.
Another aspect of Falconer that I liked was its approach to addiction:
Farragut was a drug addict and felt that the consciousness of the opium eater was much broader, more vast and representative of the human condition than the consciousness of someone who had never experienced addiction.
Several of Farragut’s prisons are addictions he suffers through, and again Cheever is able to broaden that to, as he says, “the human condition.” Farragut not being the typical criminal, his imprisonment is more representative of what Cheever was saying about society. Perhaps that is why the actual descriptions of the prison fell flat while the description of the entrance to the prison, with its cuts at society, was so strong. The following passage is loaded with irony when we take the story as a whole, particularly when we set this passage next to the description of Falconer’s entrance and next to the description of Farragut’s family:
“Your sentence would be lighter were you a less fortunate man,” said the judge, “but society has lavished and wasted her riches upon you and utterly failed to provoke in you that conscience that is the stamp of an educated and civilized human being and a useful member of society.
Because society itself is being indicted, Falconer is in many ways an escape for Farrugut. He finds a more passionate love with a young prisoner than he ever had with his wife. He gets his government-mandated drug fix daily (almost). Still, his jailer’s frequent refrain undercuts any feeling of release: “Why is you an addict?”
Overall, I’m glad I read Falconer. I don’t care that it seemed to have several separate stories. There is a wholeness to the work that makes it more than just a bunch of short stories. My main problem was the way the transitions between the events created several moments when my interest drifted. Perhaps this is a book that requires a second reading to capture the textures — but if I ever read it again, it will not be for a long while.
J.F. Powers is one author who frequently is called “criminally neglected.” I am definitely guilty of that neglect, but here is the beginning of my repentance process — and what a bizarre story to repent with! I didn’t know this, but J.F. Powers wrote many stories about priests. It was when I was looking in the archives of The New Yorker, where he published just over a dozen, that I saw this fact in the stories’ abstracts. I decided to start with his first New Yorker story, “Death of a Favorite,” published July 1, 1950.
Click for a larger image.
If you’ve read this story, you will understand my confusion upon reading the first line of this story about Catholic priests. If you haven’t read the story, here it is:
I had spent most of the afternoon mousing — a matter of sport with me and certainly not of diet — in the sunburnt fields that begin at our back door and continue hundreds of miles into the Dakotas.
I was thrilled. Not only is the writing great, but realizing that this story was going to be told by a cat . . .
That cat is Fritz. For years he has been the favorite of Father Malt, a leading priest in the parish. “Favorite” is not limited to “favorite cat.” It is apparent to all that Fritz is Father Malt’s favorite companion, and Fritz enjoys certain benefits for this.
At least I was late late coming to dinner, and so my introduction to the two missionaries took place at table. They were surprised, as most visitors are, to see me take the chair at Father Malt’s right.
This story was delightful. Fritz is an exceptional narrator (this story alone suggests to me that Powers really is criminally neglected). While showing us the petty struggles of these priests, Fritz gives us great descriptions of the parish and of its inhabitants.
As Father Malt was the heart, they were the substance of a parish that remained rural while becoming increasingly suburban. They dressed up occasionally and dropped into St. Paul and Minneapolis, “the Cities,” as visiting firemen into Hell, though it would be difficult to imagine any other place as graceless and far-gone as our own hard little highway town — called Sherwood but about as Sylvan as a tennis court.
Of course, given the title, not all is going well for Fritz. At that table where Fritz sits proudly next to his master, eating from the table, also sits Father Burner, a jealous priest.
My observations of humanity incline me to believe that one of us — Burner or I — must ultimately prevail over the other. For myself, I should not fear if this were a battle to be won on the solid ground of Father Malt’s affections. But the old man grows older, the grave beckons to him ahead, and with Burner pushing him from behind, how long can he last? Which is to say: How long can I last?
Unfortunately for Fritz, Father Malt will be absent for three days, a Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, returning again on Tuesday morning (religious imagery or references are used throughout, though this is not your typical religious story). In this time, Fritz discovers another enemy in the form of Father Philbert. The two priests conspire to rid themselves of this cat. Their plan is startlingly brutal: they will beat Fritz while holding a crucifix up to him. When Father Malt returns, they will tell him the cat is possessed, proving their point when Fritz flees at the sight of the crucifx.
I had no appetite for the sparrows hopping from tree to tree above me, but there seemed no way to convince them of that. Each one, so great is his vanity, thinks himself eminently edible. Peace, peace, they cry, and there is no peace.
Definitely a classic story from a nearly forgotten author. Fortunately, there is a limited but fruitful body of work awaiting.
Today the Orange Prize longlist was announced, along with some criticism from the chair about the abundance of miserable novels offered up for consideration this year. The shortlist will be announced April 20.
Here is the list — I have read not a one, but some look very good:
- Clare Clark: Savage Lands
- Amanda Craig: Hearts and Minds
- Roopa Farooki: The Way Things Look to Me
- Rebecca Gowers: The Twisted Heart
- M.J. Hyland: This Is How
- Sadie Jones: Small Wars
- Barbara Kingsolver: The Lacuna
- Laila Lalami: Secret Son
- Andrea Levy: The Long Song
- Attica Locke: Black Water Rising
- Hilary Mantel: Wolf Hall
- Maria McCann: The Wilding
- Nadifa Mohamed: Black Mamba Boy
- Lorrie Moore: A Gate at the Stairs
- Monique Roffey: The White Woman on the Green Bicycle
- Amy Sackville: The Still Point
- Kathryn Stockett: The Help
- Sarah Waters: The Little Stranger
I had wanted to wait to read Wolff’s In Pharaoh’s Army (1994), a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction in 1994. I wanted to wait because besides his short stories, most of which I’ve now read, this was it until Wolff’s next novel is published. But I couldn’t, because every other book I started was some kind of torture, for sitting right there on the table was another unread Wolff book. Finally realizing that I might not fully enjoy reading until I got this one out of the way, I caved. It was highly satisfying, and, I’m happy to say, I’ve enjoyed the books I’ve read since I finished it.
This Boy’s Life ends when Wolff is still a troubled fifteen year old, having just found out, against all probability, that he was accepted at one of the most prestigious private schools in America. I guess for now we have to take Old School, Wolff’s only novel proper still published, as an account of what that part of his life could have been like, because In Pharaoh’s Army picks up after Wolff has been expelled and is searching for the next step in life.
In a way, In Pharaoh’s Army is a sampling of what Wolff does best, memoir and short story. While there is a general narrative arch, the book is divided into thirteen discrete stories, each able to stand alone though best read as part of the larger structure. The first of these stories is called “Thanksgiving Special.” Here we meet Wolff, already in Vietnam:
Some peasants were blocking the road up ahead. I honked the horn but they chose not to hear. They were standing around under their pointed hats, watching a man and a woman yell at each other. When I got closer I saw two bicycles tangled up, a busted wicker basket, and vegetables all over the road. It looked like an accident.
When I read these first lines, I paused briefly at that last sentence. This is clearly an accident; what does “looked like” mean. I was further taken by surprise when Wolff describes the sound of the crunching metal as he runs his vehicle over the bicycles. To me this was adding insult to injury. And it was all done so matter-of-factly.
I didn’t say anything . What could I say? I hadn’t done it for fun. Seven months back, at the beginning of my tour, when I was still calling them people instead of peasants, I wouldn’t have run over their bikes. I would have slowed down or even stopped until they decided to move their argument to the side of the road, if it was a real argument and not a setup. But I didn’t stop anymore. Neither did Sergeant Benet. Nobody did, as these peasants — these people — should have known.
The first story showcases Wolff’s control over his material. He always seems to know where to lead readers so that the story reveals fresh and sometimes shocking observations. This could be just me. His tone and style are unassuming, and I for one am usually so engaged in what is going on on the page at that moment that I don’t think too much about where we’re going — consequently, I’m frequently pleasantly surprised.
Rather than try to summarize the thirteen segments here, let me describe their arch. We a few stories from Woolf’s training, a few from the year he spent in Washington D.C. studying Vietnamese to become an officer, several from the his tour, and a few after he returned home.
More appropriate for this review would be, I think, to show one of the most interesting threads that ties the stories together. When Wolff enlisted, he did so for a variety of muddled motives. For one, he didn’t have a high school diploma; for another, he felt the need to surpass his father, to be the honorable man his father was not (and, to my delight, we get to know his father a bit in this book, whereas he was just a ghostly presence in This Boy’s Life); and for another, he had a strong desire to be a writer, and his favorite authors, particularly Hemingway, witnessed war — Vietnam would offer him wide experiences and give him the chance to invent himself anew, yet again:
I wanted to be a writer myself, had described myself as one to anybody who would listen since I was sixteen. It was laughable for a boy my age to call himself a writer on the evidence of two stories in a school lit mag, but improbable as this self-conception was, it nevertheless changed my way of looking at the world. The life around me began at last to take on form, to signify. No longer a powerless confusion of desires, I was now a protagonist, the hero of a novel to which I endlessly added from the stories I dreamed and saw everywhere.
One of the threads in these stories is the problem of writing about experience, particularly about this kind of experience. And particularly about how to write about one’s self in such experiences. But Wolff deals with himself rather unsympathetically, though not coldly.
It seems that Wolff enlisted with faith in the war effort. Even if his primary motive wasn’t to help the cause, he at least believed the cause was right. Perhaps, “believed” is the wrong word — he “trusted” the cause was right. But as the muddle of war took over, as he saw himself running over bicycles in the street, and felt the grief as one friend after another “died a man at a time, at a pace almost casual,” we see him evolve.
The Quiet Americanaffected me disagreeably. I liked to think that good intentions had value. In this book good intentions accomplished nothing but harm. Cynicism and accommodation appeared, by comparison, almost virtuous. I didn’t like that idea. It seemed decadent, like the opium-addicted narrator and the weary atmosphere of the novel. What really bothered me was Greene’s portrayal of Pyle, the earnest, blundering American. I did not fail to hear certain tones of my own voice in his, and this was irritating, even insulting. Yet I read the book again, and again.
(Incidentally, The Quiet American is one of my favorites.)
Not are Wolff’s old ideas stripped, but nothing replaces them except an unpleasant sense that it is all arbitrary. He describes his close calls; the most haunting is one that isn’t really “close” in the conventional sense. Rather, it is close because, when preparing for a specific assignment, the commanding officer put his hand on Wolff’s friend of the same rank rather than on Wolff. The friend was killed. Wolff knows that had he been the one standing where his friend was, it would have been him. Now, this is not an original idea. Because of this it’s not quite as compelling as This Boy’s Life, but as I expected it was a true pleasure to read. Wolff the writer has made Wolff the character such an interesting life to follow.
One of my favorite personal projects has been reading through what is available in English from Nobel Prize laureate Imre Kertész. My wife bought be Detective Story for Christmas, but I saw that Melville House was publishing a newly translated piece for their The Contemporary Art of the Novella series. So, I guess because I like the idea of reading something newly published rather than something a few years old, I put off reading Detective Story to wait for The Union Jack (Az Angol Lobogó, 1991; tr. from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson, 2009).
Review copy courtesy of Melville House.
Everything I’ve read from Kertész has been about the Holocaust, to one extent or another (since much of his work is still unavailable in English, though, that’s not necessarily saying much). However, after his tragic youth in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, Kertész struggled to find a life in post-war Hungary and Communist rule. When reading his later works one can see the influence of this period on his narrative, but it is in The Union Jack that I’ve first seen those formative years described, albeit in a very strange fashion. Here is how the book begins:
If I may perchance wish now, after all, to tell the story of the Union Jack, as I was urged to do at a friendly gathering a few days ago — or months — ago, then I would have to mention the piece of reading matter which first inculcated in me — let’s call it a grudging admiration for the Union Jack; I would have to tell about the books I was reading at the time, about my passion for reading, what nourished it, the vagaries of chance on which it hinged, as indeed does everything else in which, with the passage of time, we discern what, whether it be the consequentiality of destiny or the absurdity of destiny, is in any even our destiny; I would have to tell about when that passion started, and whither it propelled me in the end; in short, I would have to tell almost my entire life story.
Kertész’s style in this piece is very roundabout, much more in the vein of Kaddish for an Unborn Child than, say, Fatelessness — you can see that easily in this first, fairly convoluted, sentence where we learn that he has a story about the Union Jack. It turns out that in 1956, in the midst of those struggling post-war years, Kertész spotted the Union Jack on a jeep. However, we only hear his account of this sighting a couple of pages before the book ends. The rest of it, which does not tell his whole life story actually, is focused on a few recollected experiences centered around reading and becoming aware of Wagner’s Die Walküre all told with a heightened awareness of how intervening years have changed him.
The young man (he would have been about twenty) who, through a sensory delusion to which we are all prey, I then considered was, and sensed to be, the most personal part of myself, I see today as in a film; and one thing that very likely disposes me to this is that he himself — or I myself — somehow also saw himself (myself) as in a film. This, moreover, is undoubtedly what renders tellable a story that otherwise, like every story, is untellable, or rather not a story at all, and which, were I to tell it in that manner anyway, would probably driver me to tell precisely the opposite of what I ought to tell.
This is an impossible book to summarize, but again it showcases one of the most intriguing aspects of Kertész’s writing: the constant awareness of the arbitrariness of history, a theme I’ve been happy to find in my favorite Roth novels. As in Kaddish for an Unborn Child, Liquidation, and particularly Fatelessness, though Kertész is recounting history, there is a constant awareness of dumb luck.
I had become acquainted with my wife-to-be in the late summer the year before, just after she had got out of the internment camp where she had been imprisoned for a year for the usual reasons — that is to say, no reason at all.
It’s a wonderful reflective piece, complex and rewarding, but I’m not sure how much I would have liked it were I not already interested in Kertész. I like to hope I would have, but I’m not sure I would have followed it well. Still, I do know I didn’t like this one as much as The Pathseeker, Kertész’s other book in Melville House’s series, but that one is a masterpiece.
The fiction winner for the National Book Critics Circle Award is Hilary Mantel for Wolf Hall. I am interested in the book, especially now, and I will read it someday.