Albert Cossery, according to the write-ups I’ve read of this book, has been called “the Voltaire of the Nile.” Egyptian by birth, he moved to France when he was around seventeen and lived there until his death, in 2008, at the age of ninety-four. Despite the long separation between Cossery and his birthplace, he set most all of his books in Egypt (and all in some Arab country). I knew nothing about the author before seeing this book, but I enjoy Voltaire enough to wonder just what someone with Voltaire’s cynicism and wit might write about Egypt in the twentieth century. So with little background, I began A Splendid Conspiracy (Un Complot de Saltimbanques, 1975; tr. from the French by Alyson Waters, 2010)
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.
When the novel begins, we meet the young Teymour, recently returned to his hometown after spending six years in Europe getting a degree. The first line is pretty perfect:
Seated at the café terrace, Teymour felt as unlucky as a flea on a bald man’s head.
Teymour despises his hometown. There is nothing to do. It is completely barren of the things he’s sustained himself with over the past several years. We learn that Teymour has a rich father who sent him to Europe to study almost on a whim:
Nevertheless, somewhat belatedly — perhaps his daily reading of the paper had made him concerned about the transformations taking place in the world — the ludicrous idea had come into his head of seeing his son get a degree; and — the height of ambition! — a degree in chemical engineering, merely because of some stock he owned in the sugar refinery that was the city’s sole industry. This request, so late in coming, would probably have been rejected by the party in question had Teymour not seen his father’s vanity a means of spending a few years abroad where, he knew from reliable sources, fascinating pleasures and lasciviousness reigned supreme.
And Teymour did engage in all forms of lasciviousness, so much that the streets of his hometown seem completely sanitized by the daytime sun. In fact, Teymour engaged in so much lasciviousness that he failed to do any real studying — he never matriculated in any subject, never went to a class, just spent the money sent to him and managed, through some miracle, to spread his education out to six years. Upon his return home, he spent the bulk of his remaining small fortune on a forged diploma, a small one that displeases his father somewhat.
“It isn’t very big,” he said. “I hope you haven’t forgotten everything you’ve learned. This piece of paper cost me a fortune.”
Teymour remained silent; he almost pitied his father. But a mad hope led him to say:
“Father, if you’d like, I can get a bigger one, but I’ll need to go back there for a few more years.”
I think from the above passages that one can see the understated humour and social cynicism of Voltaire. It’s in little bits like this one — “This romance had been going on for some minutes when suddenly the husband appeared at her side and, although not blessed with particularly good eyesight, quickly perceived the danger to which his honor was being exposed.” — that began to solidify, in my mind, Cossery’s reputation as a writer.
However, as entertained as I was by the book, I had a hard time taking in Cossery’s philosophy, particularly as it is presented in this book. Cossery, it turns out, had “elevated idleness to an art form,” according to The London Times. That’s not to say I wasn’t refreshed by the thought of spending six years in Europe on someone else’s dime, and it certainly isn’t to say that I think a degree is the noblest achievement of life — I got along fine with Teymour’s malaise, even if I myself failed long ago to take his path through life. No, my problem comes a bit later, after Teymour’s attitude has had an about-face thanks to a couple of his friends. One friend in particular, Medhat, has never left his hometown, has no desire to, looks down on those who can’t find enough to do:
Medhat refused to forgive the absurdity and madness of people who learned all kinds of foreign tongues simply to grasp the meaning of the same idiotic remarks they could hear at home for free.
In the middle of “this vast universal dupery,” Medhat has taken it upon himself to enjoy life to the fullest because life, “while essentially pointless, is extremely interesting.” I’m still entertained at this point. I can even say that I follow the idea that many of the things we do in this life are pointless, part of a system we pay homage to in order to enjoy a few moments here and there (okay, I’m only that cynical when work is really busy — which it certainly has been lately). I’m enjoying this splendid book. The story and the characters grow in ways that show Cossery was a magnificent talent. It turns out that in the little hometown wealthy men are disappearing. No one knows what has happened to them, but the local police chief suspects Medhat, Teymour, and their friends. Why else wouldn’t they be working? he asks at one point. He assumes they are up to some political mischief and are planning something much larger. His paranoia is entertaining to the reader; it is also entertaining to Medhat and Teymour who do all they can to encourage the poor police chief in his beliefs. After all, this gives their pointless life some desirable color. Teymour completely engages in Medhat’s philosophy and never regrets leaving Europe again.
Besides pulling pranks agains the police chief, though, Medhat and Teymour do other things to keep themselves entertained, at the expense of several of the city’s fools. Again, no real problems from me, except that so often these pranks involved pedophilia, a topic that is often brought up and to no real derision. It’s one thing to have pedophilia in a story — it’s a real topic, a part of this world — it’s another to use it as a way of showing just how interesting (and entertaining) this life can be if we only open our eyes. The fools get just desserts; but it’s not the same for Teymour and Medhat who encourage and probably partake in the behavior. We get the definite sense that they are the real heroes in Cossery’s eyes, that their actions are above reproach because they are simply enjoying this otherwise pointless existence. It certainly rubbed me the wrong way, and it didn’t surprise me afterwards to discover that Cossery is also known as an anarchist.
The tiniest bomb that explodes somewhere should delight us, for behind the noise it makes when it explodes, even if barely audible, lies the laughter of a distant friend.
I found the characters, in the end, repulsive, and the author’s presentation of them fascinating because I feel so very much the opposite. Things happen that should never be laughed at. Cossery wrote an absolutely entertaining and compelling book that shows a different perspective. I’m not sure whether to praise its obvious skill or throw it across the room for its hideous ideas. I see that New Directions is issuing another of his books later this year. I suppose that the fact that I’m very anxious to read it gives you my answer, though it is mostly to see this author’s mind in action again.
It has been only a few weeks since I last read Edith Wharton; I enjoyed Ethan Frome so much I just couldn’t hold out any longer to read The House of Mirth (1905), Wharton’s first major success. I picked up this copy when, almost exactly one year ago this week, my wife and I took a trip to the Berkshires and visited Wharton’s beautiful home, The Mount. I was so struck by the beauty of the surroundings and amazed at the genius of the mind who created them (Wharton was a student of architecture and landscaping) that I thought I’d read the book immediately. As often happens, though, one book led to another . . . But enough of that: I now have read three of Wharton’s books, and I place each of them in my top tier.
The House of Mirth begins Grand Central Station when Mr. Selden spies Miss Lily Bart. Wharton’s skill in the opening is incredible: from Mr. Selden’s few observations we get a sense of who Lily Bart is and how their relationship is. Miss Bart is famous in New York’s high society. Her beauty out-classes them all. Any wealth she hoped to inherit, however, has been lost in prior generations until her mother and father had to live with the fact that they had nothing to pass on. As seemed to be the case in the hardened class system, Lily is able to live off of her family’s reputation for wealth, and, of course, off of her beauty.
Her parents, though, have now been dead for years. Lily lives with her aunt who gives her a generous but irregular allowance. Lily spends the money living among the rich. It is a kind of investment for the one goal she’s always had in front of her, a goal which Mr. Selden brings up during their brief visit together at the beginning of the book: marriage.
She coloured and laughed. “Ah, I see you are a friend after all, and that is one of the disagreeable things I was asking for.”
“It wasn’t meant to be disagreeable,” he returned amicably. “Isn’t marriage your vocation? Isn’t it what you’re all brought up for?”
She sighed. “I suppose so. What else is there?”
“Exactly. And so why not take the plunge and have it over?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “You ask as if I ought to marry the first man who came along.”
“I didn’t meant to imply that you are as hart put to it as that. But there must be some one with the requisite qualifications.”
She shook her head wearily. “I threw away one or two good chances when I first came out — I suppose every girl does; and you know I am horribly poor — and very expensive. I must have a great deal of money.”
Selden was not proposing Lily marry himself — he certainly doesn’t have the money she needs, and he knows it. He merely posed the question generally: why isn’t Miss Lily Bart, the handsomest eligible (or ineligible) woman unmarried? Even stranger, she needs to be married if she’s to maintain her precarious position in society. It isn’t getting any easier since Lily is not nearing completion of her third decade of life. Worry, of course, is counterproductive: it just hastens the wrinkles she can’t afford to have.
She remembered how her mother, after they had lost their money, used to say to her with a kind of fierce vindictiveness: “But you’ll get it back — you’ll get it all back, with your face . . . .” The remembrance roused a whole train of association, and she lay in the darkness reconstructing the past out of which her present had grown.
Selden’s question is a very good one. Lily should have her pick of men. Obviously most of them are fools pandering to society, but they are the fools she needs. Early on we understand that Selden is not such a fool; she values his high opinion, knowing that it comes with more heart and understanding than the others’.
She had always been glad to sit next to him at dinner, had found him more agreeable than most men, and had vaguely wished that he possessed the other qualities needful to fix her attention; but till now she had been too busy with her own affairs to regard him as more than one of the pleasant accessories of life.
Selden is often on the fringes of the novel while Wharton eviscerates New York society by showing how ridiculous it is for people to pander to a society they despise only to keep that social structure functioning. Lily is no different here, though she seems more conscious of how ridiculous it is — these games. She can’t quite bring herself to marriage, though, just to solidify her place:
“That’s Lily all over, you know: she works like a slave preparing the ground and sowing her seed; but the day she ought to be reaping the harvest she over-sleeps herself or goes off on a picnic.”
Mrs. Fisher paused and looked reflectively at the deep shimmer of sea between the cactus-flowers. “Sometimes,” she added, “I think it’s just flightiness — and sometimes I think it’s because, at heart, she despises the things she’s trying for. And it’s the difficulty of deciding that makes her such an interesting study.” She glanced tentatively at Selden’s motionless profile, and resumed with a slight sigh: “Well, all I can say is, I wish she’d give me some of he discarded opportunities.”
This novel shows that it is not as simple as it might seem — and that is where it transcends being just a fabulous story. This social structure has locked itself into place by essentially killing any who oppose it: “it was easy enough to despise the world, but decidedly difficult to find any other habitable region.” Lily cannot simply go out and get a job: she has not been raised to do labor, for one thing, so she lacks basic skills necessary to do what women laborers were doing at the time; for another, a laboring woman then could hardly survive on her wages even if she weren’t nearly killed by the labor itself. If Lily is repudiated by this society, then, she loses the source of living — not just of living the high life, no — of living at all. If she doesn’t marry, she will be forced down the rungs until she dies in the street. What a brutal society. They hated this book, by the way. A great discussion of this social structure as presented in The House of Mirth can be found in one of KevinfromCanada’s first blog posts.
The House of Mirth is strong in every way a good book should be strong. On its basic level, the words Wharton chooses are just perfect, and she arranges them in beautiful sentences that are in and of themselves lessons on rhetoric and wit. Using such sentences, Wharton creates a powerful plot that explores the consciousness of a woman in the early twentieth century who has nowhere to go. I think the writing gets better in Ethan Frome and The Age of Innocence, but all the skill of observation and presentation to the reader is already well developed in this great book.
I looked for The Custom of the County at a bookshop tonight. They didn’t have it. If they did, I have no doubt I would have put of writing this review in order to begin another great reading experience with Edith Wharton.
This is going to be a short review. If you’re familiar with Wodehouse, you won’t need my recommendation to read more — you’ve beat me to it. If you haven’t, the bottom line is that you should. My own first experience with Wodehouse was just last year, and Leave It to Psmith quickly became one of my favorite books. I bought copies for my dad and my nephew. They read and loved it. My brother and mom read and loved it — at least, my brother did. I’m not sure my mom cared much one way or the other. In the comments to my review I gleaned that Wodehouse is consistently great but that I might find that too much at one time would be a bit overwhelming — and I’m looking at staying properly whelmed. So almost a year has gone by, time enough to set myself up for The Code of the Woosters (1938).
It brought a smile to my face to read the first lines — Wodehouse’s style, though imitated, is really in a league of its own:
I reached out a hand from under the blankets, and rang the bell for Jeeves.
‘Good evening, Jeeves.’
‘Good morning, sir.’
This surprised me.
The sudden, dry turn leading to the understatement. It might get old if you read it in one book after another (I assume it might), but Wodehouse can definitely sustain it throughout a book. These turns within a few sentences match the larger flow of the plot. We think we’re going one direction and are surprised when we end up somewhere else. Within the first few pages, Wodehouse, through his narrator Bertie Wooster, lays out the set pieces in this twisting plot:
Little knowing, as I crossed that threshold, that in about two shakes of a duck’s tail I was to become involved in an imbroglio that would test the Wooster soul as it had seldom been tested before. I allude to the sinister affair of Gussie Fink-Nottle, Madeline Bassett, old Pop Bassett, Stiffy Byng, the Rev. H.P. (‘Stinker’) Pinker, the eighteenth-century cow-creamer and the small, brown, leather-covered notebook.
These characters and set pieces are related to each other in multiple ways. Gussie Fink-Nottle is engaged to Madeline Bassett. It was an unlikely relationship because Fink-Nottle himself used to be shy and stumbled over himself. No one, Wooster included, didn’t think Fink-Nottle would ever marry:
But Love will find a way. Meeting Madeline Bassett one day and falling for her like a ton of bricks, he had emerged from his retirement and started to woo, and after numerous vicissitudes had clicked and was slated at no distant date to don the sponge-bag trousers and gardenia for buttonhole and walk up the aisle with the ghastly girl.
I call her a ghastly girl because she was a ghastly girl. The Woosters are chivalrous, but they can speak their minds. A droopy, soupy sentimental exhibit, with melting eyes and a cooing voice and the most extraordinary views on such things as stars and rabbits.
Sadly, the engagement hits a bit of a rough spot:
You know what engaged couples are like in mixed company, as a rule. They put their heads together and converse in whispers. They slap and giggle. They pat and prod. I have even known the female member of the duo to feed her companion with a fork. There was none of this sort of thing about Madeline Bassett and Gussie. He looked pale and corpse-like, she cold and proud and aloof. They put in the time for the most part making bread pills and, as far as I was able to ascertain, didn’t exchange a word from start to finish. Oh, yes, once — when he asked her to pass the salt, and she passed the pepper, and he said ‘I meant the salt,’ and she said, ‘Oh, really?’ and passed the mustard.
Wooster has many tasks, one of which is to help them get over their rough spot. Ah! But that leaves out his own troubles with Pop Bassett and Stiffy Byng. It leaves out the cow creamer that everyone seems to want. There’s a lot of blackmail, a lot of intimidation, and a lot of very dry humour.
I completely enjoyed this book. I completely (plus a bit) enjoyed Leave It to Psmith. I have a feeling I’ll keep enjoying Wodehouse for years and years to come.
J.G. Farrell’s Troubles has the Lost Man Booker Prize by winning the popular vote (by a landslide — 38% of the vote against five other competitors).
I think Troubles is an excellent choice. I might have voted for it myself, had I voted. I might have voted had there been a bit more time to get through the books. That was one of my major problems with this award: for most, there was too little time to read all six books, particularly given that two were fairly large.
I always enjoyed reading and read a lot growing up. Still, I think one of my first truly literary experiences was when I first read Daisy Miller (1879). Though I had read some excellent books from excellent authors, Daisy Miller, for whatever reason, was the first one where I was truly cognizant of the writing itself. I’m sure I was impressed by a turn of phrase before, but in Daisy Miller suddenly I was struck by the arrangement of a sentence and how that in an of itself can help reveal the consciousness of a character. I have since read Daisy Miller many times, and it doesn’t get old.
Before I read it the first time, had someone told me the premise of the novella I probably would have been discouraged. Perhaps that’s exactly what happened; I don’t remember. But Henry James prose brings the story to life. It is so fluid without sacrificing precision and depth. Consequently, I am at a loss at how to convey my thoughts here. Oh well, that hasn’t stopped me before. Perhaps I can introduce it with one of my favorite lines, a funny line that, I believe, proves James’s ability at observation and wit — and it’s certainly not stuffy:
Mrs. Costello was a widow with a fortune; a person of much distinction, who frequently intimated that, if she were not so dreadfully liable to sick-headaches, she would probably have left a deeper impress upon her time.
That was just for fun. No need, at this point, to worry about who fusty Mrs. Costello is. This story has two principal characters, each American. The story is told from a close third-person narrator, the character this narrator is close to is a Mr. Winterbourne. Winterbourne has spent many years in Europe, particularly in Geneva. He’s gotten used to European customs and is struck by the glaring presence in the European landscape of a young, very foreward American girl named Daisy Miller (actually, as her little brother would tell you, her name is Annie), an “inscrutable combination of audacity and innocence.”
He felt that he had lived at Geneva so long that he had lost a good deal; he had become dishabituated to the American tone. Never, indeed, since he had grown old enough to appreciate things, had he encountered a young American girl of so pronounced a type as this. Certainly she was very charming; but how deucedly sociable! Was she simply a pretty girl from New York State — were they all like that, the pretty girls who had a good deal of gentlemen’s society? Or was she also a designing, an audacious, an unscrupulous young person? Winterbourne had lost his instinct in this matter, and his reason could not help him. Miss Daisy Miller looked extremely innocent.
Daisy Miller is unlike the continental girls, in disagreeable ways. She and her mother disregard all of the proper modes of conduct: they don’t understand wealth, they are unsophisticated, they dine with their servant, Daisy goes about with men without an escort — she flirts openly. It is this flirting that surprises and attracts Winterbourne (he obviously has an appetite). He’s perplexed: Is this young American girl innocent in her flirting? Or does she have schemes? He goes back and forth, most often settling on innocence. Afterall, this flirting might be proper for some women — Winterbourne has had experience with them — but they are dangerous; Daisy is not:
He had known, here in Europe, two or three women — persons older than Miss Daisy Miller, and provided, for respectability’s sake, with husbands — who were great coquettes — dangerous, terrible women, with whom one’s relations were liable to take a serious turn. But this young girl was not a coquette in that sense; she was very unsophisticated; she was only a pretty American flirt.
Winterbourne spends much of the story trying to pin down Daisy Miller, constantly offering to be at her service and escort her to the various places she’d like to go. This distresses his proper aunt, but, because he has some license as man, he doesn’t fret. He must know who Daisy is. He must decipher this young flirt.
Let’s step back a minute; I’d like to bring up my first experience with Daisy Miller. I was much younger. I was probably attracted to Daisy for the same reasons as Winterbourne (James is so good at her characterization), so I felt I understood Winterbourne. He was pleasant to her, didn’t seem to judge her as much as others, and, I thought, had her own interests at heart. As the years have passed I’ve come to despise the man. The following passage gives some insight into why I now understand why Winterbourne bears the name Winterbourne.
At the risk of exciting a somewhat derisive smile on the reader’s part, I may affirm that with regard to the women who had hitherto interested him it very often seemed to Winterbourne among the possibilities that, given certain contingencies, he should be afraid — literally afraid — of these ladies. He had a pleasant sense that he should never be afraid of Daisy Miller. It must be added that this sentiment was not altogether flattering to Daisy; it was part of his conviction, or rather of his apprehension, that she would prove a very light young person.
There’s a darkness to Winterbourne’s motives. Though he might not condemn Daisy’s innocent flirtations, niether does he desire them to be entirely innocent. If she is truly innocent, then the complicated social games he finds amusing in all their complexity and in all their secrets are for naught. This is all part of the layers James places in this story.
Daisy, for her part, is wonderfully drawn by James. Though an enigma, she certainly feels like a tangible character we know well. All of our questions about who she is are like the real questions we wonder about those around us in real life who intrigue us.
This is a marvelous short book. Before now, it had been about five years since my last reading. It won’t be that long before I read it again. There is so much here and so many reasons to want to get to know these characters better — it feels as if one has a personal stake in the outcome.
Jean Stafford is a name I’ve heard often but I have never gotten to know her work. I noticed that later this year NYRB Classics is releasing her 1947 book The Mountain Lion. Checking out The New Yorker I found that she was a prolific contributor with a couple dozen short stories to her name. Not having the first clue where to start, I opted for “Children Are Bored on Sunday,” which was published on February 21, 1948.
Click for a larger image.
This story did two things for me: (1) it made me want to get to know Stafford more — it’s an intriguing character portrait; (2) it made me think that neglecting Stafford might be like neglecting Edith Wharton — their style (at least, according to my limited perspective) is very similar and their dissection of New York society very acute.
The main character, Emma, is visiting the Metropolitan Museum on Sunday. While there she almost panics when she sees an old acquaintance. Here are the opening lines:
Through the wide doorway between two of the painting galleries, Emma saw Alfred Eisenburg standing before “The Three Miracles of Zenobius,” his lean, equine face ashen and sorrowing, his gaunt frame looking undernourished, and dressed in a way that showed he was poorer this year than he had been last.
There’s no sign of the panic there yet. It doesn’t come for a while, actually. We first get some interesting insights into Emma’s relationship with Alfred and, even more importantly, into Emma’s troubled heart:
Emma liked Alfred, and once, at a party some other year, she had flirted with him slightly for seven or eight minutes. It had been spring, and even into that modern apartment, wherever it had been, while the cunning guests, on their guard and highly civilized, learnedly disputed on aesthetic and political subjects, the feeling of spring had boldly invaded, adding its nameless, sentimental sensations to all the others of the buffeted heart; one did not know and never had, even in devouring raptures of adolescence, whether this was a feeling of tension or of solution — whether one flew or drowned.
Still no sign of panic. But soon we get this interesting sentence wherein we learn that something has happened to Emma relatively recently:
In another year, she would have been pleased to run into Alfred here in the Metropolitan on a cold Sunday, when the galleries were thronged with out-of-towners and with people who dutifully did something self-educating on the day of rest.
That line “in another year” is almost a repeat from above. There is something that has made this year unlike any other year. The encounter with Eisenburg has thrown off Emma’s plan. This little outing to the Met was part of a bigger plan that resembles some sort of rehabilitation, but that plan has not only been thwarted but its goal is shown to be more distant than Emma hoped.
She paused because she could not decide what to look at now that she had been denied the Botticelli. She wondered, rather crossly, why Alfred Eisenburg was looking at it and why, indeed, he was here at all. She feared that her afternoon, begun in such a burst of courage, would not be what it might have been; for this second’s glimpse of him — who had no bearing on her life — might very well divert her from the pictures, not only becuase she was reminded of her ignorance of painting by the presence of someone who was (she assumed) versed in it but because her eyesight was not bound to be impaired by memory and conjecture, by the irrelevant mind-portraits of innumerable people who belonged to Eisenburg’s milieu.
Emma has withdrawn from society — not that it was her society to begin with. She grew up where they could play hide-and-seek behind lilac bushes and not behind ash cans; these had a head start “because they had grown up in apartments, where there was nothing else to do but educate themselves.”
This is only a glimpse at this story. There are a few pages left where Emma looks at the others in the museum, in particular at some of the youths wandering around. There are some powerful social dynamics going on, but this is played out in the Met and in the context of art and science and religion. As I said above, the style and the precision reminded me of Edith Wharton. The tone of the story isn’t lightened by Wharton’s wit and charm, but this particular one didn’t need that. Certainly it is time to develop a relationship with Stafford.
It’s been almost two years since I first heard of the author John Williams, right here on this blog, in the comments to my review of American Pastoral. There Kevin from Canada said “John Edward Williams may be the most overlooked novelist in American history.” Last year, all over the blogosphere, I saw people reading his book Stoner, so hopefully he is getting less and less overlooked. About Stoner: I haven’t read it — at least, I haven’t read all of it. I have it, and I’ve read the beginning of it several times and each time put it down in a bit of ecstasy. Frankly, it was so good I didn’t want to read it yet (yes, strange). I wanted to save it for the perfect reading weekend, which just doesn’t occur that often (i.e. never) when there are young children and busy jobs clamoring for attention. For similar reasons, I had also been saving Butcher’s Crossing (1960), but when I finished Blood Meridian I wanted some more literature taking apart the American west. Oakley Hall, I’ve got Warlock on my radar too.
In its history, America has been looked upon as a land of promise, a place where people can come and reach as far as their hope and hard work will allow them. The land to the west represented, among other things, untapped resources; and these represented untapped wealth to anyone with enough endurance and ingenuity to get there and take it. This idea of America deserves its criticism, and a healthy perspective is as dire yet hard to find today as it was back then. Resources were eaten up with disregard if not pure malice to human life, that of the laborers or natives. Policies were in place to encourage complete exploitation of the resource itself, all but guaranteeing its speedy depletion and the broken dreams of those who came just a fraction of second too late. I grew up in the western United States and saw many dead cities, completely abandoned when the dream of prosperity turned out to be a figment of their imagination. Last September I drove around Southern Utah, looking along the old trails to California for cities of which there is no trace whatsoever (it is haunting to look at barren ground and realize that not long ago it was covered with homes and businesses and families). In other places there are still the bare foundations of homes, a few signs, a small cemetery, but to get there one must drive in the middle of the desert — no one goes there anymore, except we curious few. These cities bore the names of founding families, now forgotten, or collective aspirations and ideals, never achieved. Despite the numerous success stories and the very real wealth gained in the process of expanding the United States westward, this destruction is a substantial part of our past that we tend to forget even as we continue to repeat it.
As an American reader, deeply interested in what literature has to say about this land, its promise, its spirituality, and its emptiness, Butcher’s Crossing hit me with the same force as (if not more than) Huckleberry Finn, Moby-Dick, The Age of Innocence, The Great Gatsby, Martin Dressler, American Pastoral, and Gilead. Yes, I expected Butcher’s Crossing to be great, I expected it to be well written — people told me so — but I was shocked at how much it contained, at how well it balanced jubilance and heartbreak, innocence and depravity, all while reinventing the western to expose the fault lines the American Dream is founded upon. Another part of the shock was that such a book, fifty years old, is all but forgotten. Thanks to the superb work of NYRB Classics for ensuring that this book is available to us again, and in such a lovely volume. Still, it’s been out by NYRB Classics for a number of years now, and I’m still ignorant of any burgeoning awareness.
A week or so ago, via Mark Athitakis’ blog American Fiction Notes (go there for more context in the commentary), I read this 1962 quote from James Baldwin, and it expressed perfectly what I found in Butcher’s Crossing:
One hears, it seems to me, in the work of all American novelists, even including the mighty Henry James, songs of the plains, the memory of a virgin continent, mysteriously despoiled, though all dreams were to have become possible here. This did not happen. And the panic, then . . . comes out of the fact that we are now confronting the awful question of whether or not all our dreams have failed. How have we managed to become what we have, in fact, become? And if we are, as indeed we seem to be, so empty and desperate, what are we to do about it? How shall we put ourselves in touch with reality?
Okay — that’s enough of a preamble to the book itself. Butcher’s Crossing begins with a fitting reference to the American spirit. The young Will Andrews has left Harvard in his third year, inspired by the lofty injunction of Ralph Waldo Emerson to go find “an original relation to nature.” Andrews packs up and heads to the frontier in the west, eventually ending up in Butcher’s Crossing, a “hide town,” where a Mr. J.D. McDonald, an old family acquaintance, has set up a business tanning buffalo hides he acquires from the town’s rough buffalo hunters. When Andrews arrives, McDonald takes a paternalistic role and tries to get Andrews to work for him in the tanning business – the paperwork is a burden for him alone, the buffalo hunters are beasts and a curse to any who joins them, and, besides, the railroad is soon coming through town, guaranteeing that anyone with a head for business and real estate can make it rich. That isn’t what Andrews wants, though:
“Mr. McDonald,” Andrews said quietly, “I appreciate what you’re trying to do for me. But I want to try to explain something to you. I came out here — “ He paused and let his gaze go past McDonald, away from the town, beyond the ridge of earth that he imagined was the river bank, to the flat yellowish green land that faded into the horizon westward. He tried to shape in his mind what he had to say to McDonald. It was a feeling; it was an urge that he had to speak. But whatever he spoke he knew would be but another name for the wildness that he sought. It was a freedom and goodness, a hope and a vigor that he perceived to underlie all the familiar things of his life, which were not free or good or hopeful or vigorous. What he sought was the source and preserver of his world, a world which seemed to turn ever in fear away from its source, rather than search it out, as the prairie grass around him sent down its fibered roots into the rich dark dampness, the Wildness, and thereby renewed itself, year after year.
Instead of entering the employ of McDonald, Andrews seeks someone who knows the land, someone who can help him find that “source and preserver of his world.” All fingers point to Miller, a man with a history that goes further west than Butcher’s Crossing into Colorado and the mountains. Miller has hunted buffalo, but he is prideful and will not hunt with the other men in town, nor will he accept McDonald’s requests that Miller hunt for McDonald. The buffalo near Butcher’s Crossing have been weakened by massacres; their hides are scrawny. What Miller wants is a way to get back to Colorado where, nearly ten years earlier, he saw an enormous buffalo herd sheltered in a hidden valley. He’s certain the herd is still there, that their hides are thick, and that anyone who can enact the slaughter and harvest the hides will be rich. His only problem is finding someone who will pay for the voyage.
It is surely obvious what is going to happen here: Andrews doesn’t blink an eye when he offers to underwrite the trip, just let him come along. A few weeks later four men set off for Colorado: Andrews, Miller, Miller’s sad, Bible-reading side-kick Charley Hoge, and the less-than-spiritual skinner. On the journey, Williams shows his writing skill by entering the consciousness of Andrews as he observes the land and begins to soak in what it represents. The land, incidentally, and the men’s experience with the land, is another highlight of the book. The descriptions and the feelings felt real and reminded me of my own time in the mountains; here is an example from one of the first mornings in the Colorado valley:
When Andrews awoke, Charley Hoge was already up and dressed; he huddled over the fire, adding twigs to the coals that had been kept overnight by the banking. Andrews lay for a moment in the comparative warmth of his bedroll and watched his breath fog the air. Then he flung the blankets aside, and, shivering, got into his boots, which were stiff and hard from the cold. Without lacing them, he clumped over to the fire. The sun had not yet come over the mountain against which their camp was set; but on the opposite mountain, at the top, a mass of pine trees was lighted by the early sun; a patch of turning aspen flamed a deep gold in the green of the pines.
Another highlight is the change that overcomes the men in the valley. Miller becomes as tyrannical and obsessed as Captain Ahab (again, there are many connections to Moby-Dick). Andrews transformation is more subtle, more disturbing:
The stench of the buffalo, the feel of the warm meat on his hands, and the sight of clotted blood came to have less and less impact upon his senses. Shortly he came to the task of skinning almost like an automaton, hardly aware of what he did as he sucked the hide from an inert beast and pegged it to the ground. He was able to ride through a mass of skinned buffalo covered black with feeding insects, and hardly be aware of the stench that rose in the heat from the rotting flesh.
One thing that also makes Andrews’ own transformation more interesting is the fact that Andrews himself, at times, is conscious of its occurrence and watches, helplessly knowing that he can never go back and no longer fully understanding all that he’s lost. Butcher’s Crossing deserves to be sitting on the shelf with the great books of American literature, even those that speak with the authority of the American conscience.
Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Since I read it, I’m sorry to say but helpless to change, it has become one of those books I use when unintentionally guaging how well I’ll get along with someone: Did you like The Age of Innocence? If the answer is “no” or, worse, “eh, it was okay,” I cease to foresee any future literary discussions between me and that person. In fact, our relations may end right there. I’m the same way with The Great Gatsby. And look out those of you who hate Henry James: I’m becoming just as unattractively judgemental against those who dislike the Master too. (Don’t worry you haters of Moby-Dick; some books we can disagree on, yet I completely understand where you’re coming from). The hard truth for me, though, is that as much as I loved The Age of Innocence and presumptuously use it as a foundation to my literary pride, I still fail to live up to my passion. I’ve neglected my relationship with Wharton. It took a slim novel, Ethan From (1911), to remind me of the treasure that Wharton’s work is.
If it is possible, I might have loved Ethan Frome even more than The Age of Innocence. Thankfully there is no need to make any decision of that kind. They are quite different and can be loved equally if basing that love on Wharton’s top-quality prose and perfect observations.
Ethan Frome begins with a framing device. The narrator has recently moved to Starkfield, Massachusetts, and has noticed a broken figure of a man sometimes going about his business in the streets. This is Ethan Frome, fifty-two years old. Bit by bit the narrator learns of his history — some disfiguring event happened to Ethan Frome one February twenty-four years earlier. How much credence to give the bits of knowledge surrounding this event is anyone’s guess:
I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.
One of my favorite bits of knowledge comes from Harmon Gow. Wharton makes it clear very early that, yes, this is a human drama, but the setting — this poor village in Massachusetts that suffers brutal winters – is very important to her text.
Though Harmon Gow developed the tale as far as his mental and moral reach permitted there were perceptible gaps between his facts, and I had the sense that the deeper meaning of the story was in the gaps. But one phrase stuck in my memory and served as the nucleus about which I grouped my subsequent inferences: “Guess he’s been in Starkfield too many winters.”
Winter plays a large, sinister role in this novel, but the underlying truth is that Starkfield itself is the center of this frozen world where men and women get stuck in life, stumbling into relationships for warmth, failing to ever realize spring.
After the brief framing introduction, the narrative slips back those twenty-four years to a time when Ethan Frome was desperately in love with the young Mattie. He doesn’t know how she feels about him.
Watching Mattie whirl down the floor from hand to hand he wondered how he could ever have thought that his dull talk interested her. To him, who was never gay but in her presence, her gaiety seemed plain proof of indifference. The face she lifted to her dancers was the same which, when she saw him, always looked like a window that has caught the sunset.
The central problem is that Ethan has already wed Zeena, and Mattie is Zeena’s cousin, come to stay with them to assist Zeena in the housework. So we witness as Ethan suffers silently, unable to embrace his passion but also unwilling to cut it off. He is truly conflicted, and his internal struggle affects his observations of everything. Here is paragraph where Ethan attempts to discern whether Mattie has any esteem for him:
These alterations of mood were the despair and joy of Ethan Frome. The motions of her mind were as incalculable as the flit of a bird in the branches. The fact that he had no right to show his feelings, and thus provoke the expression of hers, made him attach a fantastic importance to every change in her look and tone. Now he thought she understood him, and feared; now he was sure she did not, and despaired.
Zeena, for her part, is always sickly — at least, that is her claim. More likely she is a depressed hypochondriac, seeking any way to gain her husband’s attentions, which he no longer wishes to give.
Then she too fell silent. Perhaps it was the inevitable effect of life on the farm, or perhaps, as she sometimes said, it was because Ethan “never listened.” The charge was not wholly unfounded. When she spoke it was only to complain, and to complain of things not in his power to remedy; and to check a tendency to impatient retort he had first formed the habit of not answering her, and finally of thinking of other things while she talked. Of late, however, since he had had reasons of observing her more closely, her silence had begun to trouble him.
We can relate Harmon Gow’s comment — “Guess he’s been in Starkfield too many winters” — to Ethan and Zeena’s marriage. Ethan first met Zeena because she came to assist him in caring for his dying mother. His mother ended up dying in winter, and Ethan simply couldn’t stand the thought of being alone. He admits that had his mother died in the spring, he would not have wed Zeena. But that wedding is now a curse, keeping him from the young Mattie. Now Ethan is forced to enjoy Mattie’s company only on the sly. Toward the middle of the book, the prospect arises that he might have an entire evening alone with Mattie; Zeena has told him that she must travel to visit a doctor:
She continued to gaze at him through the twilight with a mien of wan authority, as of one consciously singled out for a great fate. “I’ve got complications,” she said.
Ethan knew the word for one of exceptional import. Almost everybody in the neighborhood had “troubles,” frankly localized and specified; but only the chosen had “complications.” To have them was in itself a distinction, though it was also, in most cases, a death-warrant. People struggled for years with “troubles,” but they almost always succumbed to “complications.”
Ethan’s heart was jerking to and fro between two extremities of feeling, but for the moment compassion prevailed. His wife looked so hard and lonely, sitting there in the darkness with such thoughts.
I see I’m drifting into plot summary. Wharton’s plotting is fascinating, though, and the story advances quickly. The reader is almost helpless to fight against it, drifting along on the wonderful prose as it takes us into the complicated consciences of the characters. Incidentally, there is more joy in any one of Wharton’s sentences than in most books in their entirety.
I would like to point out again, though, that despite the human drama that pushes the plot forward, this story is not simply about these poor people. This is Wharton’s edict on these small New England villages. Just as Ethan is locked in his marriage, he cannot escape this region, he cannot become something different somewhere else. It is almost impossible to realize his dreams.
Which brings me to my final point. Ethan Frome skirts a Romantic ending and punches the reader in the gut. In her introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, Elizabeth Ammons talks about the book’s initial critical reception and quotes some of the critics. The New York Timeswrote, “Mrs. Wharton has, in fact, chosen to build of small, crude things and a rude and violent event a structure whose purpose is the infinite refinement of torture. All that is human and pitiful and tender in the tale — and there is much — is designed and contrived to sharpen the keen edge of that torture.” I thought I could see the ending clearly. I thought the clues throughout the book were leading me to that Romantic ending suitable of a poet. I was wrong and so much more disturbed by the perfect ending than any Romantic ending could have offered. There’s a cynicism that reveals an ugly undercurrent and that brings on an eternal winter.
A few months ago I finally ventured into the novels of Michael Frayn with Headlong, his wonderful novel about a lost Brugel painting. I loved that novel so much that I knew it wouldn’t take me nearly as long to read another. I didn’t know quite where to go, though. Headlong so perfectly suited my mood and my taste, but what could follow it? Thanks to some comments, I decided to turn to Spies (2002).
I’m much more into lost art than I am into spies, in general, so I went into this one with faith in the comments and faith in Frayn. Thankfully, much like Headlong and Frayn’s plays, while there is an exciting story at work that many lesser writers would settle for, Frayn goes below the narrative and into the motives of the narrative itself, into what the narrative means, into what it is to be a human being going through these experiences.
Spiesbegins when an elderly man named Stephen Wheatley gets a whiff of some aroma that always reminds him of some almost-lost memory of his youth.
The third week of June, and there it is again: the same almost embarrassingly familiar breath of sweetness that comes every year about this time. I catch it on the warm evening air as I walk past the well-ordered gardens in my quiet street, and for a moment I’m a child again and everything’s before me — all the frightening, half-understood promise of life.
This year, when the smell comes, Stephen attempts to figure out what exactly it is. When the knowledge comes to him so does another wave of memory that intrigues him and shames him. It takes him back to the years of World War II when he was a young boy, around eleven, and he played with his best friend Keith Hayward, the leader of their two-man gang. In an effort to finally understand the questions he didn’t even consider when he was a child, Stephen goes back to his childhood neighborhood to search for stronger memories.
I look up at the sky, the one feature of every landscape and townscape that endures from generaiton to generation and century to century. Even the sky has changed. Once the war was written across it in a tangled scribble of heroic vapor trails. There were the upraised fingers of the searchlights at night and the immense colored palaces of falling flares. Now even the sky has become mild and bland.
The books is mostly a narrative of that one summer long ago, the last time he and Keith were friends. Every once in a while the elder Stephen interjects the narrative to question what he was thinking, what he really knew, what he currently knows. When he thinks back on the moment in that summer when Keith said those five words that changed everything, his older self muses:
I don’t think I say anything at all. I think I just look at Keith with my mouth slightly open, as I’ve done so many times before, waiting to find out what comes next. Am I surprised? Of course I’m surprised — but then I’m often surprised by Keith’s announcements. I was surprised when he first told me that Mr. Gort, who lives alone at No. 11, was a murderer. But then, when we investigated, we found some of the bones of his victims in the waste ground just beyond the top of his garden.
So I’m surprised, certainly, but not as surprised as I should be now. And of course I’m immediately excited, because I can see all kinds of interesting new possibilities opening up, for hiding and watching in the gloaming, for sending and receiving messages in invisible ink, for wearing the moustaches and beards in Keith’s disguises kit, for examining things through Keith’s microscope.
Keith, beginning a new game, has disclosed some fact, made up (which the younger Stephen knows and doesn’t know) that causes the two boys to delve too deep into the private lives of their families. What comes out of this is a superb story about a young man’s opaque understanding of his surroundings, even those closest to him.
What Iwant to know, though, is why there’s something awkward about going out to play on Friday evening. Why my father has never killed any Germans. Why no one in the whole of my family is in the RAF. Why we have an embarrassing name like Wheatley. Why we can’t be called something more like Hayward. There’s something sad about our life, and I can’t quite put my finger on what it is.
There are sad secrets in both families, and in many others. Frayn doesn’t stop there, either, though. Because he’s going through two different time periods, he’s also able to examine not just what the secrets mean to those who come to know them but he’s able to examine what it means to look for those secrets in the first place, what that process does to someone.
I like that when I read a Frayn work, I want to read it all in one sitting. He knows how to keep the narrative moving. But I particularly like that while the narrative is moving Frayn is able to dig deeply into character and motives. Spies did not disappoint me in the slightest.
I loved and still love William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow. I think it is a classic of American literature and should be more widely read. So, when looking toward my next glimpse into the archives of The New Yorker for this feature, I wondered whether Maxwell had ever published any short stories in his own fiction section of the magazine. Well, not only has he, he also published what could be considered a series of stories, entitled “Two Old Tales About Men and Women” (and other varieties such as “Two Old Tales About Women,” “More Old Tales About Women,” “Further Tales . . . ,” etc.). In 1958, these tales made the part of four of the magazines. In 1965, the series returned with five more offerings.
Meaning to start at the beginning by reading “Two Old Tales About Women (Found in a Rattan Tea Caddy c. 1913),” published March 15, 1958, I instead accidentally picked up “Two Old Tales About Men and Women,” the second appearance of this strange series, published June 21, 1958.
Click for a larger image.
As the title suggests, there are two stories. If you’ve read So Long, See You Tomorrow, a beautiful narrative by a man looking back on his youth, you might be surprised, as I was, by the way the first tale begins:
Once upon a time, there was a country so large that messengers journeying from the capital to the frontier were often never heard from again.
I wasn’t expecting the tale to be a kind of fable. I had been expecting something lonely, something a bit more reflective. But here the main character is the King who rules a land with no regard for time. Everything that happens happens drawn out over hours or even years.
It took the King a long time to realize that something was wrong and another five years to consider carefully what he ought to do about it. The council of state had not met since his father’s time, and when it finally convened, at his order, the King’s opening remarks took three weeks, after which the council adjourned and met again in the following autumn.
The solution to the problem (the coffers are empty and spending is going up) is to build a big marble watch. Before the watch can be completed, though, the kingdom is overthrown by some enemy. The King goes into hiding for a while, until finally news comes:
The enemy — never, it seemed, very large in number — had grown weary of subjugating so inactive a country, had provoked a war with another small neighboring state, and had not been heard of for nearly six months.
This is a strange little story, more strange because it just wasn’t what I expected from Maxwell or The New Yorker. I don’t want to suggest it is slight, though, just because it takes the form of a fable. Furthermore, the writing is top-notch, very fluid and very clever.
The second story is a bit more what I expected from Maxwell. Here’s how it begins:
Once upon a time, there was a half-crazy woman who lived off the leavings of other people, who shook their heads when they saw her coming, and tried not to get in the conversation with her. They wanted to be kind, but there is a limit to kindness, and the half-crazy woman was so distracted that anyone listening to her began to feel half-crazy, too.
It still has a friendly-narrator tone to the telling, but it is a bit darker, a bit lonelier and a bit more intimate than the first tale. Here we watch the woman talk to her pig, the fire, and finally death, yet this is a strangely intimate tale. It kind of felt warm, like a good holiday story.
I don’t want to talk much about the stories themselves. They are very short and to summarize them is to simplify them and take the pleasure out of Maxwell’s voice. What I’d like to find out is what Maxwell’s motive was? Why did he publish two series of these tales which read like fables, one in 1958 and one in 1965? I’m anxious to read the others, and I hope to get a better idea about the work as a whole. If anyone has any insights, they are very welcome.