I’ve had my eye on Swimmer in the Secret Sea (1975) since I read about it earlier this year and saw that it was published by Godine, one of my favorite publishers. As happens, though, I put off purchasing it online, which is the only place I thought I would find it. However, last month my wife and I were driving around and decided to take a little detour to Montclair, a lovely town just north of us. I slammed on my breaks when I saw an independent bookstore on the corner by the train station. I could have spent all day browsing at the Watchung Booksellers — I’m sure to my family it felt that way; they had loads of interesting books that you just don’t see in the major bookstores. I was delighted to find this painful novella on their shelf.
This short book (just under 100 pages of generously large type and margins) was originally published in Redbook, but in the same year it was published as a paperback. I believe it is a rare thing for a magazine short story to find its way into its own cover. To remain in print through the years is also quite a feat. Off the top of my head, I can think of only one other that has similar success: Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl (and even it is actually two stories).
The story of Swimmer in the Secret Sea couldn’t be simpler. It begins when Diane’s water breaks and Laski runs out to to start the truck:
“I’ll get the truck warmed up.” He went outside into the snow. Beyond the shadowy tops of the pines the vast sky bowl-glittered, and the half-ton truck sat in the moonlight, covered with brightly sparkling ice. He opened the door and slid in, pulling on the choke and turning the ignition key.
Laski and Diane are expecting their first child. I have two young children, so I remember well how the general anxiety just before the delivery mixes with a strange calm (or is it numbness?). Kotzwinkle wonderfully captures these contradicting feelings perfectly.
It seemed to Laski there were two distinct Dianes — one who was shaking like a leaf, and another who was as calm and decisive as any old midwife. He felt the same split in himself as he picked up her valise and carried it toward the stairs. His hand was trembling, his heart pounding, but another part of him was calm, unshakable as an old tree. This calm quiet partner seemed to dwell in some region of the body Laski couldn’t identify. His guts were jumping, his brain was racing, his legs were shaking, but somewhere in him there was peace.
Sadly — and this is no spoiler because it happens at the beginning — the child, whose heartbeat we’ve just heard, dies during labor. Laski and Diane are forced to go back to their cold home and bury the child. The couple doesn’t even know this child, yet they feel its loss greatly. The child had, after all, been with them for nine months, and they had prepared for a life with it. Any comfort the doctors and nurses try to give — the good news is that this is unlikely to happen again; you will certainly be able to have another — just doesn’t cut it: “He thinks that’s what has been at stake, our wish for a child, any child, not this particular child who swung down the road between us. They can’t know how special he is.”
The book’s strength is the simple story, the seemingly simple way it is told, and the cold landscape that all at once emphasizes the book’s tragedy and its hope. The anxiety and the calm, a landscape that is both lonely and comforting, a child that never arrived but is deeply missed, tragedy and hope — or is there really any hope at all here? Such contradictions give the simplicity a full range of emotion. Another strength: the book’s ability to make the reader question any warmth he or she may be feeling.
This novella is depressing, but it also contains a lot of beauty.
Over the past year I have been acquiring everything I can by J.M. Coetzee, and I’m planning on spending the next year getting through it all. I’ve read only four of his books (three reviewed here: Life and Times of Michael K, Foe, and Disgrace), but each one was strong enough (and disturbing enough) that I am convinced everything he writes is worth some time. They are also usually quite strange: they begin with an ordinary enough premise, but Coetzee warps it around into something different. Slow Man (2005) is no exception.
The book begins with Coetzee’s masterful, direct prose describing a bike wreck in Adelaide, Australia:
The blow catches him from the right, sharp and surprising and painful, like a bolt of electricity, lifting him up off the bicycle. Relax! he tells himself as he flies through the air (flies through the air with the greatest of ease!), and indeed he can feel his limbs go obediently slack. Like a cat he tells himself: roll, then spring to your feet, ready for what comes next. The unusual word limber or limbre is on the horizon too.
That is not quite as it turns out, however. Whether because his legs disobey or because he is for a moment stunned (he hears rather than feels the impact of his skull on the bitumen, distant, wooden, like a mallet-blow), he does not spring to his feet at all, but on the contrary slides metre after metre, on and on, until he is quite lulled by the sliding.
The unfortunate person on the bike is Paul Rayment. He was simply riding his bike to the market when, well, a blow catches him from the right. He has been hit by a car driven by the young Wayne Bright or Blight, we’re never sure which. The way Coetzee describes this action from the point of view of a man in shock who thinks he will be able to get through this problem with just a bit of acrobatics is fantastic. And that Rayment is “quite lulled by the sliding” is just the kind of unexpected but perfect detail I like from Coetzee.
Rayment is getting old. If he were a younger man, the doctors may have tried to reconstruct the knee that was pulverized in the accident; however, since recovery can take years of surgery and therapy, the doctors opt to amputate. This brings thoughts of suicide, but not exactly in the simple way we might expect; Coetzee plays with Rayment’s motives:
He is convinced that he would put an end to himself it he could, right now. Yet at the same time that he thinks this thought he knows he will do no such thing. It is only the pain, and the dragging, sleepless nights in this hospital, this zone of humiliation with no place to hide from the pitiless gaze of the young, that make him wish for death.
When Rayment is released from the hospital, he is tended to in his home by a nurse whom he hates, as nice as she is. He finally gets a nurse named Marijana, an immigrant from Croatia. He dreams of having a romance with her. When he knows that is not possible, as she is completely faithful to her husband, he dreams of being a benefactor who, because of his pure love towards her, takes care of her and her children.
The story is developing interestingly. And then, out of the blue, Elizabeth Costello arrives at Rayment’s door. For readers who don’t know, Elizabeth Costello is a fictional character Coetzee has used before. Coetzee uses her as a stand-in for himself, similar, in some ways, to how Philip Roth uses Nathan Zuckerman. Having read a good portion of Slow Man, the arrival of “the author” completely surprised me.
When she arrives, she recites some of the lines from the early pages of Slow Man, and says,
‘Do you know what I asked myself when I heard those words for the first time, Mr Rayment? I asked myself, Why do I need this man? Why not let him be, coasting along peacefully on his bicycle, oblivious of Wayne Bright or Blight, let us call him Blight, roaring up from behind to blight his life and land him first in hospital and then back in this flat with its inconvenient stairs? Who is Paul Rayment to me?
Indeed, why do any of us care about the story of Paul Rayment, the old man who loses his leg and then falls for his nurse. As much as I value Coetzee’s prose (and despite how much I was enjoying the book before the appearance of Miss Costello), when I step back and think about it, I agree with Miss Costello when she says,
Two a penny, Mr Rayment, stories like that are two a penny. You will have to make a stronger case for yourself.
Needless to say at this point, Slow Manbecomes something completely different than what it at first appeared. Impressively, though, Coetzee doesn’t allow his story to become entirely metaphysical and metafictional; he continues to tell us Rayment’s story with Marijana even as Miss Costello makes an unwelcome guest in his house. Miss Costello comments on Rayment’s action and inaction. They are stuck together for the time being, and she’d rather he get on with his story so she can be rid of him and he of her.
There are several things going on here — any list would be reductive and do a disservice. However, I would like to comment on one of my favorite threads: the idea of an author and his or her subject growing old together. Elizabeth Costello is no young woman. She is awkward with age, and she is tired, just as Rayment is. Indeed, at least Rayment has Marijana to fawn after. As Coetzee enters his later years, Slow Man is a touching and sometimes blunt look at searching for meaning in old age.
As I mentioned earlier, reading Coetzee is, for me, always an interesting mixture of delight and frustration. I cannot put his books down because the writing is so incredibly good, and yet throughout I find myself wondering just how much I’m enjoying going where Coetzee is taking me. Then I finish and the books begin the process of aging in my mind. All of his books that I’ve read age so well. Slow Man is proving to be no different — I highly recommend it.
When Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize earlier this year, Mark Orthofor at The Complete Review’s Literary Saloon said that, while he can see a strong case for Vargas Llosa, he thought Amos Oz or Harry Mulisch were the more deserving. I hadn’t read either and, a few days later, hoping to get a jump on next year’s Nobel winner, I went and bought Harry Mulisch’s The Assault (De Aanslag, 1982 ; tr. from the Dutch by Claire Nicolas White, 1985). Sadly, when I returned from the book store, I found out that Mulisch had died that day and will never be a Nobel laureate. I still haven’t read any Vargas Llosa (have a few in hand, though), but I can certainly see why Mulisch would be a strong candidate based on this book alone, and it is not even considered his masterpiece.
The book starts out softly, almost with a comforting air of nostalgia, by describing a row of four houses, all with homey names. Twelve-year-old Anton Steenwijk has grown up on this street, getting to know the neighbors, some of whom are more friendly than others. It obviously hard living, but in this prologue we feel there is friendship. However, the year is 1945. Any warmth or coziness we feel from the scene is subverted by our growing knowledge of the true state of these homes.
It was January, nineteen forty-five. Almost all of Europe had been liberated and was once more rejoicing, eating, drinking, making love, and beginning to forget the War. But every day in Haarlem looked more like one of those spent gray clinkers that they used to take out of the stove, when there had still been coal to burn.
It is frigid outside, and everyone is starving. Peter, Anton’s seventeen-year-old brother hasn’t been out of the house for months, not even for school, because they are afraid he will be conscripted.
On that January night, Anton, Peter and their mother and father move to the back of the house to play a game as it gets dark outside. It’s a wonderfully rendered scene, and there’s some hope in the air due to the simple fact that the family is together engaging in a pastime. Suddenly they hear gunshots outside. Peter, to the horror of his parents, runs to the window and discovers that there is a body lying in the street in front of their neighbor’s home, neighbors the Steenwijks are quite friendly with. The Steenwijks, still contemplating the tragedy that an assassination could bring to the street, are shocked when their neighbors run outside and move the body from their part of the street to the front of the Steenwijk’s home.
The German soldiers have been known to retaliate quickly and fiercely, and the fact that the body is in front of the Steenwijk’s home is probably going to be excuse enough for them to burn the home to the ground. Petrified, the Steenwijk parents watch as their oldest son Peter runs into the street to try to drag the body again. It turns out that the dead man is Chief Inspector Fake Ploeg, known as a violent Nazi collaborator. Unfortunately, before Peter can do anything, the Germans arrive. Peter runs through a fence. Anton looks on in shock as the Germans bully his parents. In the confusion, Anton is ushered outside and into a police car, where, eventually, he watches his house burn down, leaving a gap in that line of four homes.
The police send Anton to stay with his uncle and aunt while they figure out what to do. No one knows what has happened to Peter or Anton’s parents, but the war doesn’t last much longer. A few months later, when the war has ended, Anton finds out that his entire family was killed that January night.
The book jumps to 1952, and says:
All the rest is a postscript — the cloud of ash that rises into the stratosphere from the volcano, circles around the earth, and continues to rain down on all its continents for years.
It may be postscript, but we still have quite a large chunk of the book left. Through it Anton attempts to forget that night and the war and just move on. He goes to a middling school and becomes a middling doctor, specializing in anesthesiology. Through the years (the book moves from 1952 to 1956, 1966, and finally 1981), Anton grows older, that night becomes more and more unbelievable but is always vivid, despite his best wishes:
Boundaries have to be continuously sealed off, but it’s a hopeless job, for everything touches everything else in this world. A beginning never disappears, not even with the ending.
The book doesn’t just track Anton’s life, though. Through chance encounters with others involved in that fateful night, Anton learns some of the motives behind the actions, but this, strangely, only makes issues of guilt and innocence murkier. This is a fantastic book about chance and fate, about guilt and innocence, all against the backdrop of the twentieth century as the big issues range from World War II to Budapest to nuclear weapon talks in the 1980s. For all its scope, it remains intimate, just like that opening section when we looked on the four homes lined up in a row.
This year’s National Book Award winners are:
Fiction — Jaimy Gordon: Lord of Misrule
Nonfiction — Patti Smith: Just Kids
Poetry – Terrance Hayes: Lighthead
Young People’s Literature – Kathryn Erskine: Mockingbird
Here is a link to all of the finalists. Jaimy Gordon’s book follows the Giller Prize winner by being a small press release. In fact, it has just been released, and undoubtedly the print run must now be increased by some large percentage. And I just saw that Vintage/Anchor will be publishing the paperback sometime next year.
Cynthia Ozick’s new novel Foreign Bodies (2010) is touted as a retelling of Henry James’s classic The Ambassadors. I haven’t read The Ambassadors, so let this review be a favor to anyone who wonders whether reading The Ambassadors is a prerequisite. Answer: no. At least, I enjoyed this book a great deal. Then again, not having read The Ambassadors, I have no idea what layers and issues I missed out on, or how much more I would have enjoyed my reading experience. So, perhaps I’m no help at all.
Review copy courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
The premise upon which the action is built is fairly easy to explain. The book begins with a letter, written in 1952, from Beatrice Nightingale (in New York) to her brother Marvin Nachtigall (in California; incidentally, Bea has changed her last name). From this letter we learn that Marvin sent Bea to Paris to find his wayward son, Julian, who has left his comfortable home in California to live the bohemian lifestyle abroad. Bea quickly tells Marvin that she has left Paris without ever encountering his son. Marvin immediately shoots Bea a disapproving (to put it mildly) letter, reminding her of how inept she has always been. He wants her to go back.
So! A wild goose chase, useless, pointless, it was eating into her vacation time, and all to please Marvin, to serve Marvin, who — after years of disapproval, of repudiation, of what felt almost like hatred — was all at once appealing to the claims of family. This fruitless search, and the murderous heat. Retrograde Europe, where you had to ask bluntly for a toilet whenever you wanted a ladies’ room, and where it seemed that nothing, nothing was air-conditioned — at home in New York, everything was air-conditioned, it was the middle of the twentieth century, for God’s sake!
In the first chapters, Ozick’s descriptions of Paris as a torn up land are amazing. Contrary to what James presented, so I’ve heard, in Ozick’s rendering of 1952 Europe and America, America is the civilized land (at least, on the surface) and Europe is brutal; the streets of Paris are filled with sad souls. To make matters worse for Bea, it is one of the hottest summers on record. She had meant to go from Paris to Rome, but instead she just takes off to go back to New York, where for years (she’s 48) she has been a modestly successful teacher of literature to a bunch of rough boys destined to become mechanics (something her incredibly successful brother can’t help but remind her).
Bea and Marvin have never been close. Their Jewish heritage means different things to each of them. Interestingly, it is Marvin, who does not change his name, who wants to the least to do with it. He has married a Christian named Margaret; if anything, he retained the name Nachtigall to give him an advantage. For decades, Bea and Marvin have barely corresponded. In fact, Bea has never seen Julian, who is in his early 20 when she’s sent to salvage him. Some time in the past, however, Bea did meet Marvin’s oldest daughter, Iris.
Marvin hatches another plan. He will send his daughter to Bea so that Iris can educate her on Julian’s character (Iris and Julian are still close). Once Bea knows more about Julian, she is to return to Paris — nevermind the inconvenience of leaving that terrible job — and, for once, do something worth while in fetching Julian. Iris shows up as planned; however, instead of educating Bea on Julian’s character she asks Bea to lie for her: she will go to Paris and fetch Julian and Bea will simply tell Marvin that Iris has decided to stay in New York a bit longer. Shocking Bea further, a week later, when Iris was to return, a letter arrives: Iris has decided — well, had always intended — to stay in Paris too. If things were at one time bad between Marvin and Bea, they are about to get much worse.
However, just before Iris left for Paris, she hit a key on a grand piano that was taking up most of Bea’s apartment. The piano is a haunting reminder of Bea’s first marriage to Leo, an aspiring composer, which ended in failure and hurt (we meet Leo, and at one time he and Bea are face-to-face again; here are his thoughts: ”Inconceivable that this unsmiling middle-aged woman could ever had been a wife, anyone’s wife. Certainly not his! Her ankles, those shoes. Even her wrist bones. She was dry all over. Were there breasts under that wool jacket?”). Bea could never get rid of that piano, which Leo simply abandoned, but she never had it make a sound. When Iris makes that note rings out, Bea has a flash of desire. When Iris’s letter comes from Paris, rather than tell Marvin what happened, and rather than just let her brothers’ family figure out their own mess, she returns to Paris herself.
Foreign Bodies, though not my favorite Ozick, has many of the strengths for which Ozick should be more widely read. Her sentences are filled with perfect words, and she can make the rhythm do whatever she likes, giving it a mournful tone here and a vibrant — sometimes even frenetic — tone there. Her characters, even though we don’t particularly like any of them (and there are a lot in this book), are alive to us. We may hate Marvin, we may hate Bea, we may hate Julian, Iris, Leo, Margaret, or, two I didn’t bring up here, Lili or the ”Doctor,” but they each have a depth to them that few other writers could muster in their characters — if anything, I wanted more about each character. And through the entire book, under the surface of everything, are threads of themes and all come together — still under the surface. Ozick sums up an important one for us:
She thought: How hard it is to change one’s life.
And again she thought: How terrifyingly simple to change the lives of others.
When I first read Aira, I became an immediate fan. I have loved the three books New Directions has offered us: Ghosts, which was quietly disturbing and atmospheric; An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, which was full of nature and adventure and how to capture that in art; and How I Became a Nun, which is a bizare — bizare — take on childhood memories (ohh! that strawberry ice cream!). I recommend any of them. I couldn’t wait to read the most recent offering, but, due to some postal service mishaps over the past months, it took me a lot longer to get to The Literary Conference (El congreso de literatura, 2006; tr. from the Spanish by Katherine Silver, 2010). It was well worth the wait! Not at all what I expected (I should know better than to try to predict anything about an Aira book), and showing just how versatile Aira is, this is the funniest book I’ve read all year. No offense meant to Bertie and Jeeves.
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.
The Literary Conference borders on . . . no, devles into the ridiculous — in the best way possible. A superlative stylist (and being translated by the superlative Katherine Silver), Aira’s matter-of-fact tone somehow manages to stay in tact in a book that begins as a puzzle-adventure in Venezuela, turns into a mad-scientist take-over-the-world science-fiction, and ends as a B-movie — and still manages to be about the creation of art.
Allow me to elaborate:
In the first section, “The Macuto Line,” a relatively well known translator and author (named César) is making his way to a literary conference but has made a stop in Venezuela. Near his hotel is the famous Macuto Line, a rope that wraps around a rock and plunges into the ocean. This line, it is said, is a centuries old puzzle that, if solved, leads the way to buried treasure. The line was obviously made by a genius; it is itself a piece of art. No one, in all the years (and, thankfully, the line is still in tact despite the ocean and wind), has solved this great mystery.
On stormy nights the wind made it sing, and those who heard it during a hurricane became obsessed for the rest of their lives with its cosmic howls. Sea breezes of all kinds had strummed this lyre with a single cord: memory’s handmaiden.
César arrives, takes a look at it, and solves it. He admits, “My own intelligence is quite minimal, a fact I have ascertained at great cost to myself. It has been just barely adequate to keep me afloat in the tempestuous waters of life.” Nevertheless, his individual experiences, the events and moods that build up him as an individual, suited him for this task. It’s an excellent, slightly insane, discourse on the complexity of the individual.
Immediately wealthy, he could now skip the literary conference and go anywhere in the world, waking up the next morning to immense luxury. But that is not part of his plan, so, on to the literary conference. On the way, our narrator tells us a story about a mad scientist who has it in his mind to take over the world. He then proceeds to “translate” this story for us: the mad scientist is, of course, himself — César, our narrator, a slightly respected author, newly wealthy, is, it turns out, a bit handy with the science of cloning. For some time he has been hatching a diabolical plan, the central feature of which is to figure out whom he could clone who would best help him take over the world. This discourse is hilarious, and César finally lands on the perfect candidate: Carlos Fuentes. Naturally. And since Fuentes is going to be at this literary conference, César’s new fame and wealth do not deter him.
What does all of this mean? Does it mean anything? Is Aira simply telling us a fun story? Perhaps, and if so, it is still worth the short time it takes to read it. Still, this is Aira, and this book is, among other things, self-conciously concerned with its own inception and with its own process:
And (in conclusion) I have filled these plots with contents that have between them a relationship of only approximate equivalencies, not meanings.
Telling the reader that there is no such thing as “in the meantime,” César sets up his cloning station on a mountain (not for the atmospheric effect, as it might appear, but because the air is more conducive to the process) and, because it takes some time to create an army of Carlos Fuentes clones, he goes down to the town in the valley to wait “in the meantime.” In the chapters that come before the clone army descends upon the town, we go to parts of the literary conference, watch the staging of one of César’s plays he does not remember, and we have a funeral for a tiny insect. Events proceed to escalate, until César seems to realize that it’s all just a bit ridiculous, but –
Since turning back is off limits: Forward! To the bitter end! Running, flying, gliding, using up all the possibilities, the conquest of tranquility through the din of the battlefield. The vehicle is language. What else? Because the valve is language.
Where does this lead us? Well, César himself will tell us:
It seems like the insertion of a different plot line, from an old B-rated science fiction movie.
And, remember that I mentioned at the top that through all of this Aira maintains a matter-of-fact (though energized!) tone, delivering to us this ridiculous plot from the eyes (and mouth) of someone slightly above it all, but who is, I’m sure, having a blast. I don’t know what it all means – how the discourse on the individual relates to the cloned army, how the funeral connects to the plot, or, frankly, how the Macuto Line fits into the plot — but it is fun and interesting because such a frenzied writer is taking us there, and because this frenzied writer is showing us a bit of his mentality as he does so:
Which reminds me of the answer to the questions I left hanging: how to measure the velocity of my thoughts. I am trying a method of my own invention: I shoot a perfectly empty thought through all the others, and because it has no content of its own, it reveals the furtive outlines — which are stable in the empty ones — of the contents of the others. The retrograde cloned mini-man, the Speedometer, is my companion on solitary walks and the only one who knows all my secrets.
I was talking to Barbara Eppler, president of New Directions, a few weeks ago, and she mentioned how she went to Argentina where, lucky her, Aira took her on a tour of some of the museums. Fittingly, they saw many museums in just a couple of hours. I must feel slightly similar after having read this book.
This year’s Giller Prize winner is The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud! That was my second choice after Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod. Certainly, The Sentimentalists is the best produced book on the shortlist — and, up to now, the hardest to come by. Apparently a few weeks ago I could have sold my used copy for nearly $200. I wonder what people would pay now . . . Not that it’s for sale.
One of my favorite stories in The New Yorker this year was Nicole Krauss’s “The Young Painters,” which turned out to be a short selection from her new novel Great House (2010). When I made the connection, I knew I would have to read this book. That it is now a finalist for the National Book Award is just a bonus incentive for me (especially since I don’t plan on reading any of the other finalists this year).
Review copy courtesy of W.W. Norton & Co.
When I began Great House I had no idea what it was about; after all, the short story, about the guilt a writer faces later in life upon reflecting on whether she has exploited personal stories for the sake of her art, is nicely contained. What does it have to do with a story that apparently centers on a desk?
To be honest, I have had a hard time writing this review, though I really enjoyed this book. Great Housecontains two parts, and each part contains four sections. The four discreet narratives that begin in Part I all end at an important moment and are then picked up again when the sections (and their characters) reappear in Part II. The book is very character driven, and Krauss is at her best when she has her characters opens up and speak about their pasts and what haunts them. Because the characters have interesting stories that tie into the main themes, my review has come off a bit heavy on the plot summary. I apologize for that, though I have decided it works for my purposes.
The first section is “All Rise”; it is about that guilty writer, Nadia, who showed up in The New Yorker this past summer. As in the short story, Nadia is addressing “Your Honor,” though at the moment we have no idea who Your Honor is or why she is recounting her life to a judge.
Nadia’s story begins when she is much younger and had not yet become an established writer. She was living in New York in the early 1970s when a relatively long-term relationship ended. When this happens, Nadia is unsure what to do and how practically to go on living in New York. Another friend recommends that she get in touch with an acquaintance, a young Chilean poet named Daniel Varsky. Varsky is planning to go back to his native Chile, and he is looking for someone to watch after his furniture while he is away. The central piece is a large desk with an unknown past. The young Chilean goes back to his troubled country only to become a victim of the Pinochet regime. Though she barely knew him, Nadia is haunted by Varsky, but for the next 25 years the desk is her own and “renewed in my sense that a potential in me had been acknowledged, a special quality that set me apart and to which I was beholden.” Nadia doesn’t necessarily lead a happy life — she marries, but it doesn’t last (none of her relationships last) – and as she ages she wonders about her relationship to her art (and to the desk): she wonders how much of her art is just a way of “countering the appearance of a certain anemia in life with the excuse of another, more profound level of existence in my work.”
This section ends when a young woman appears claiming to be Varsky’s daughter. She would like the desk. After 25 years, Nadia gives up the desk which she has used to write every novel she’s published. It is where she sat as she forged meaning in her life. In its absence, Nadia suffers a major breakdown. “All Rise,” and the story of Nadia and her desire to learn more about this daughter, is taken up again in Part II.
When “All Rise” ends, suddenly we readers are thrust into a vehement diatribe in “True Kindness.” We are in Israel, and the new narrator’s wife has just died. His son Dov, who moved to England for his professional life, has returned for the funeral, but in this first part, the narrator cannot accept Dov’s return. Uri, the narrator’s other son, never left. The newly widowed narrator has resorted to writing down his rant to Dov. In his lengthy epistle he uses a variety of cruel methods to make Dov feel he is hated and not wanted. For example, we despise the narrator when he recounts this to Dov:
Suddenly I saw you as you were at the age of ten on the trail in Ramon Crater, pacing wildly, out of breath, your little mouth agape, sweat trickling down your face, the ridiculous sun hat drooping around your head like a wilted flower. Calling and calling to me because you thought you were lost. Guess what, my boy. I was there the whole time! Crouched behind a rock, a few meters up the cliff. That’s right, while you called, while you screamed out for me, believing yourself to be abandoned in the desert, I hid behind a rock patiently watching, like the ram that saved Isaac. I was Abraham and the ram.
“True Kindness” in Part I is consistently and believably bitter and cruel. We know that the narrator is angry at his loss and is directing his fury at Dov, yet we know that there are other reasons his heart is so filled up with Dov. Part I’s section ends when Dov arrives at the narrator’s home after the funeral, fully expecting to stay there a while. It turns out he has quit his job in England and is not sure what he’s going to do now that he’s returned to Israel. Honestly, I didn’t know if the father would allow his son in the door.
When we take up “True Kindness” again in Part II, it is ten days later. Dov has been staying with his father, but the father’s tone has changed. He has moved from anger to sorrow and regret. It is a masterful and believable shift in tone, and it adds many layers of feeling to Great House‘s overarching narrative.
The third section, “Swimming Holes,” is narrated by another widower named Mr. Bender. He has spent his life in England with his wife, Lotte Berg, who fled Europe during World War II when she managed to become an escort with the Kindertransport. Bender knows that his wife lost all of her family during the war, something she rarely spoke to him about. It turns out she never particularly shared any aspect of her life with him. She was a reclusive writer (used to write on a massive desk until 1970 or so) whose mood often required he leave her alone; after all, part of the reason she wrote was to distract her from the guilt she feels at having, he thinks, abandoned her parents. He was happy to oblige, to become a servant to this great woman. Nevertheless, he is surprised to find out that she harbored another secret. “Swimming Holes” is an excellent account of grief subverted by doubt.
Of course she needed me — to keep order, to remember the shopping, to pay the bills, to keep her company, to give her pleasure, and, in the end, to bathe, and wip, and dress her, to bring her to the hospital, and finally to bury her. But that she needed it to be me who performed these duties and not some other man, equally in love with her, equally at the ready, was never entirely clear to me. I suppose it could be said that I never demanded she make the case for her love, but then I never really felt I had the right. Or maybe I feared that, honest as she was, unable to tolerate the smallest insincerity, she would fail to make the case, that she would stutter and grow silent, and then what choice would I have but to get up and leave forever, or continue with things as they had always been, only now with the full knowledge that I was simply one example where there could have been many?
That full range of emotions and the uncertainty of the real source of the pain is in each section of Great House.
The last of the four sections, “Lies Told by Children,” is narrated by a young woman named Leah. In 1999 she was spending a semester at Oxford, but she fell in love with Yoav Weisz. Before long she has moved in with him and his sister Leah (and people have often mentioned how strange the siblings’ relationship is). Their father is a famous collector of antiques who has an astonishing ability to find the pieces of furniture stolen from the Jews during World War II. He rarely surfaces at home (and they’ve had several homes), but he maintains a high degree of control over his children — or rather, when he is present they are subservient; when he is away, they run their own lives and share nothing with him.
All of the characters are interesting and well developed. The desk, though important, is entirely on the side and eventually comes to represent the relationships these characters have with other people in their past rather than their relationships with each other. As such, the desk is a powerful (if familiar) symbol of the past, a physical remainder that is now haunted by ghosts. Mr. Weisz, whose passion for antiques is really just a result of his obsession with finding his father’s lost desk, explains the symbol to Mr. Bender:
Their childhoods, Mr. Bender, because it is only the ones who were children who come to me now. The others have died. When I first started my business, he said, it was mostly lovers. Or husbands who had lost their wives, wives who had lost their husbands. Even parents. Though very few — most would have found my services unbearable. the ones who came hardly spoke at all, only enough to describe a little child’s bed or the chest where he kept his toys. Like a doctor, I listen without saying a word. But there’s one difference: when all of the talking is through, I produce a solution. It’s true, I can’t bring the dead back to life. But I can bring back the chair they once sat in, the bed where they slept.
I’m afraid this summary may not sound like much, but Krauss’s greatest skill, in my eyes, is her ability to create believable obsessions out of these characters’ troubled lives. It turns out that we are hearing from these characters at moments when circumstances have forced them to be (somewhat) honest with themselves, when they must admit to things they have avoided for much of their lives. It is a well written, interesting, emotional work.
As expected, participating in the Giller Shadow Jury again this year was an excellent experience! Working with KevinfromCanada and Alison Gzowski was always a pleasure and never a chore, though we did have to deliberate to come up with this year’s winner. That said, we are unanimous in our choice, and I, for one, am very pleased and can’t wait to read more of this author’s work! Please pop over to Kevin’s blog to see who it is.
The Real Jury will select their winner on November 9.
A few years ago I was stunned when I read Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl. It was superb. Since then, I’ve tried to get my hands on other things she’s written, but, as it often happens with authors I’m pretty sure I’ll like, I’ve been saving them up as a treat. No more. I went back to her second novel, The Cannibal Galaxy (1983).
Sadly, The Cannibal Galaxy appears to be out of print in the United States (I checked it out of my local library), as is her next novel, The Messiah of Stockholm (which, to my surprise, I found in a local bookstore). Why we let her novels go out of print is beyond me. We can’t, I don’t think, blame the media entirely (though I haven’t seen much about her new book Foreign Bodies; I’ve read it and will review it soon); after all, Ozick is critically acclaimed: The Cannibal Galaxy was praised in both The New York Times Book Review and the daily New York Times long before Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was. She’s won several awards. She is considered one of America’s greatest living writers. But her books, even those still in print, are hard to find in bookstores. Well, thank goodness for libraries, because I would hate to have missed out on this book.
I have many unread books on my shelves, and I’m anxious to read many of them. But when I read the opening lines in The Cannibal Galaxy I couldn’t resist checking the book out from the library. They’re wonderful as they introduce our elderly protagonist Joseph Brill, a school teacher, and the American Midwestern setting in which he teaches:
The school was on a large lake in the breast-pocket of the continent, pouched and crouched in inwardness. It was as though it had a horror of coasts and margins; of edges and extremes of any sort. The school was of the middle and in the middle. Its three buildings were middling-high, flat-roofed, moderately modern. Behind them, the lake cast out glimmers of things primeval, cryptic, obscure. These waters had a history of turbulence: they had knocked freighters to pieces in tidal storms. Now and then the lake took human life.
Brill is nearing sixty when the story begins, but quickly Ozick takes us to his youth in Paris. As a Jew, he was raised to shun idolatry of any kind, and this produced in him an innate fear of museums and the relics they hold. Of course, they are also an inviting temptation. One in particular is too alluring. “He did keep away, at least for a while; his conscience was strong, and hummed with his mother’s own inflections.” But, after a few tantalizing years (honestly) in which he took the long route past the museum, Brill finally enters. It turns out to be the home of and memorial to Madame de Sévigné, whose writings to her daughter — now considered great works of art, though to some her daughter was hardly deserving – become important to the book’s themes of maternity and idolatry.
Brill’s Parisian childhood does not take up much of the book, but such is Ozick’s skill that it comes off vivid and nuanced. We learn, for example, of Brill’s best friend Claude who, understanding that his love for Brill does not match Brill’s love for him (or, does it — Brill is not sure), turns on Brill and calls him Dreyfus.
When the Nazis occupy France, Brill is protected by some nuns. He is kept in a basement with plenty of books, so he reads constantly from both Jewish and secular texts. Thus the inception of Brill’s great work — to found a school based on a powerful new pedagogy:
It was a thought infinitely remote, mazy and tantalizing — a school run according to the principle of twin nobilities, twin antiquities. The fusion of scholarly Europe and burnished Jerusalem. The grace of Madame de Sévigné’s flowery courtyard mated to the perfect serenity of a purified Sabbath. Corneille and Racine set beside Jonah and Koheleth. The combinations wheeled in his brain. He saw the civilization that invented the telescope side by side with the civilization that invented conscience — astronomers and God-praisers united in a majestic dream of peace.
We know, from the first pages of the book, that late in live, principal Brill feels stuck in a middling school. He blames the parents and the uncultured students who never, it seems, amount to anything. Certainly none is as gifted as he.
He longed for a noble scholarship — the pleasure-pain of poetry and the comely orderliness of number and the logical passion of Gemara, all laced together in an illustrious tapestry; but he had only these children, the cleverest not clever enough, the mothers shallow brass, the fathers no more than plumbers, the teachers vessels of philistinism, rude, crude, uncultivated, unbookish, raw, oh the ignorance, the vulgarity! Middling, middling! Himself the governor of all this. Royal charlatan.
One day, though, Brill feels he is finally about to be graced by the genius he’s sought. Hester Lilt — the brilliant, confident scholar — has moved to town, and her daughter Beulah will be attending Brill’s school. In every way he can, Brill attempts to offer this child what she needs to become as brilliant as her mother; he favors her above the other pupils and even rearranges the teachers’ assignments when he thinks they are failing Beulah. Despite his efforts, Beulah remains quiet and, apparently, rather dim.
As the book moves on, Brill becomes more and more infuriated when Hester doesn’t seem to take an interest in Beulah’s work. The conflict between Brill and Hester is brilliant. Brill believes that Hester is a gifted mother wasted on a dumb daughter, and, to make matters worse, Hester seems unaware — no, Hester almost seems to wilfully ignore and excuse any potential problems.
“. . . You’re listening to the truth. It all comes out of Beulah.”
She cried, “Leave out Beulah!”
“All your metaphysics. All your philosophy. All your convictions. All out of Beulah. You justify her,” he said. “You invent her around her. You make things fit what she is. You surround her. I’m onto you! If Beulah doesn’t open her mouth, then you analyze silence, silence becomes the door to your beautiful solution, that’s how it works! If Beulah can’t multiply, then you dream up the metaphor of a world without numbers. My God — metaphor! Image! Theory! You haven’t got any metaphors or images or theories. All you’ve got is Beulah. Any idea of yours — look into it, look right at it, and what you’ll see is the obverse of Beulah. Wherever there’s a hole in her — a deficiency, a depression, a dent, an absence — you produce a bump. You make up something to suit the hole, to account for it. You compensate for everything. You re-tailor the universe. You haven’t got any ideas. You’ve only got Beulah.”
How hollow his voice was in the instrument! But he kept it up.
His voice sounds hollow, of course, because some time before Hester disconnected her line, leaving Brill to shout into a void.
If it seems I’ve summarized a great deal of the plot, I assure you that I have not — there is plenty of ground still to cover; indeed, much of what remains unsaid is central to the themes in the book and to how the plot presents those themes. Though this is a relatively short book, it is incredibly dense with both plot and idea. The writing is top-notch. Though Ozick has long strings of sentences and lists tied together with semicolons, it was certainly never cumbersome. A bit more difficult to go through are the dense ideas, but there lies a great deal of pleasure.
Here’s to hoping that some day soon this book is back in print. In the meantime, none of us should wait to read it and more of Ozick’s work.