I’m a Karen Russell fan. I love the way she dips into the fantastic to examine the quotidian. When I look back at The New Yorker‘s “20 Under 40″ project (now seven months in the past), her short story, “The Dredgeman’s Revelation,” comes out as my favorite of the bunch. There are so many shades in that wonderful story that takes us on a slow ride on a dredger in Florida’s swamplands during the Great Depression. I was very excited, then, when I found out that “The Dredgeman’s Revelation” was an excerpt from her new novel Swamplandia! (2011). I had no ideat how she could turn it into a novel, particularly since the novel took place much later than the Great Depression and featured a family of gator wrestlers.
Review copy courtesy of Knopf.
The Bigtree family are the proprietors of and performers at Swamplandia!, a swampland theme park that is a forty minute ferry ride from the Florida mainland. Sawtooth Bigtree is the proud grandpa, though when the book begins he’s already on the mainland in an institution. He cannot remember anyone. The Chief is the father and the idealistic founder of the park. Hilola Bigtree is his wife; she’s the star of the show. They have three children: a son, Kiwi (17), and two daughters, Osceola (16) and Ava (13).
Ava is the principal narrator. When the book begins, she tells us about her mother’s grand act. In the moonlight, Hilola would climb above the gator pool, jump in, and swim across. It terrified the audience and was the park’s biggest draw. This is, though, the beginning of the end:
The Beginning of the End can feel a lot like the middle when you are living in it. When I was a kid I couldn’t see any of these ridges. It was only after Swamplandia!’s fall that time folded into a story with a beginning, a middle, and an ending. If you’re short on time, that would be the two-word version of our story: we fell.
Hilola thought she might be pregnant, but when she went to the doctor they discovered cancer instead. After she died, it doesn’t take long before the park dies, too. Fewer and fewer tourists arrive, and the family is in quite a bit of trouble; not only are they uneducated, but they have nothing in common with the mainlanders. Ava is aware of the park’s financial problems, as is Kiwi. But where he wants to pack up and go to the mainland to get a job and some schooling, she wants to hone her gator wrestling skills and find a way to make the park profitable, a task made even more difficult since The World of Darkness, another theme park, opened on the mainland.
I feel the need to skip quite a bit of back-story here because, honestly, I didn’t find its presentation (almost half of the book) particularly relevant or poignant. I want to get to “The Dredgeman’s Revelation,” which just precedes each child’s personal journey to Hell. Kiwi runs away and eventually ends up working at The World of Darkness. The Chief heads to the mainland, too, for a business trip, he tells his two young daughters. So with everyone gone and no one else arriving, Ava and Osceola (Ossie, they call her) are alone. Finally, a wrecked dredger drifts to Swamplandia!
Since their mom died, Ossie has been drawing into herself. She picks up a book on spiritism and, she says, begins dating ghosts. The walls of Ossie’s room contain the obituaries of the boys she’s dating. The family is cynical (“It could be worse: at least she’s not dating some mainland jackass with a motorcycle, huh?”), but they don’t worry too much about her. It is as if she is just going through a phase. When the dredger arrives, she and Ava go on board and see that it has the stench of death, but not a fresh stench. It is probably a relic of the dredge and fill campaign, which dates it back to the 1930s. That night, Ava falls in love with the dredgeman Louis Thanksgiving, a seventeen-year-old boy who died before his life had even begun.
Now, if you’re against the supernatural, that is no reason not to go on reading here. There’s a good reason for it, and the most haunting aspect of this book is that it isn’t necessarily anything supernatural. In fact, it’s not just haunting. Creeping about in this damaged girl’s mind is terrifying.
So now Ossie is in love with an old ghost with a terrible past. Infatuated (and drifting away), Ossie tells Ava the dredgeman’s story, or, “The Dredgeman’s Revelation.” Now, I had been less than moved with the first part of the book. Despite the lush descriptions, I found that it lacked texture and a sense of dimensional space I enjoy in Russell’s work. I didn’t feel the emotions, and I wasn’t believing in the characters. But “The Dredgeman’s Revelation” changes all that. Finally we feel the swampland. We feel time passing in the heat and sweat. Instead of over-describing, Russell holds back and gives us only a couple of elliptic paragraphs about the dredgeman’s childhood. Those paragraphs, as little as they say, are enough to make us believe it when we find out that the dredgeman is ebullient on the dredger. Where his coworkers are miserable and depressed, he can’t believe his luck and signs on for more work, feeling a bit sad when his “friends” escape while they can. For Louis, life is just beginning, until it is plucked up out of the sky on a clear day.
Swamplandia! becomes very dark at this point. Ossie decides to run off and elope with the dredgeman in the Underworld. Ava needs to stop her, but she has no idea how to get to the Underworld. Then arrives the Bird Man, a tall fellow who frequently comes to the island to help take care of the bird problems. He is friendly and Ava quickly trusts him with Ossie’s story and with the problem. Grave and with some hesitation, the Bird Man asks Ava if she’d like to go to the Underworld; he knows the way, though it is not easy.
Thus begins another strong passage in the book: Ava’s trip to the Underworld with the Bird Man. Unlike the first half of the novel, but rather like “The Dredgeman’s Revelation,” this part is strengthened by what is left unspoken — perhaps even unthought.
Ava’s story has life and a journey worth seeing from beginning to end, and we sense the emotion in the chapter titles: “Ava Goes to the Underworld,” “Ava’s Eclipse,” “The Silently Screaming World.” As it happens in “The Dredgeman’s Revelation,” death can come from the sky and pluck someone up before their life has even begun.
Sadly, the book is weaker because it does not stay focused on Ava. After Kiwi leaves Swamplandia!, the chapters alternate between Ava’s account and his own parallel story, told by some third-person narrator, about his travails on the mainland at The Heart of Darkness. For me, much like the book’s back-story presented in the first half of the book, Kiwi’s life on the mainland is not particularly interesting and lacks Russell’s typical vim and sensitivity to what should not be said. Consequently, I don’t think Russell succeeds at making Kiwi important enough to occupy that much space. In trying to show that Kiwi’s development is more stilted than Ava’s, I again find it helpful to refer to the chapter titles: “Kiwi Climbs the Ladder,” “Kiwi Goes to Night School,” ”Kiwi Bigtree, World Hero,” “Kiwi Rolls the Dice,” “Kiwi Takes to the Skies.” I did like Kiwi enough as a side character, but despite the many chapters dedicated to him, Kiwi doesn’t come off as anything more than the side character we came to know in the first half of the book.
Swamplandia!‘s strengths are impressive. It is a book worth reading. But with the filler back-story and Kiwi chapters, the book felt to me like a very good novella plumped up into a decent but disappointing novel.
I’ve been looking forward to this for days!
- The Literary Conference by César Aira, tr. from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (New Directions)
- The Golden Age by Michal Ajvaz, tr. from the Czech by Andrew Oakland (Dalkey Archive)
- The Rest Is Jungle & Other Stories by Mario Benedetti, tr. from the Spanish by Harry Morales (Host Publications)
- A Life on Paper by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, tr. from the French by Edward Gauvin (Small Beer)
- A Jew Must Die by Jacques Chessex, tr. from the French by Donald Wilson (Bitter Lemon)
- A Splendid Conspiracy by Albert Cossery, tr. from the French by Alyson Waters (New Directions)
- The Jokers by Albert Cossery, tr. from the French by Anna Moschovakis (NYRB Classics)
- Eline Vere by Louis Couperus, tr. from the Dutch by Ina Rilke (Archipelago)
- Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck, tr. from the German by Susan Bernofsky (New Directions)
- The Blindness of the Heart by Julia Franck, tr. from the German by Anthea Bell (Grove)
- Hocus Bogus by Romain Gary (writing as Émile Ajar), tr. from the French by David Bellos (Yale University Press)
- To the End of the Land by David Grossman, tr. from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen (Knopf)
- The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, tr. from the Swedish by Thomas Teal (NYRB Classics)
- The Clash of Images by Abdelfattah Kilito, tr. from the French by Robyn Creswell (New Directions)
- Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico by Javier Marías, tr. from the Spanish by Esther Allen (New Directions)
- Cyclops by Ranko Marinkovic, tr. from the Croatian by Vlada Stojiljkovic, edited by Ellen Elias-Bursac (Yale University Press)
- Hygiene and the Assassin by Amélie Nothomb, tr. from the French by Alison Anderson (Europa Editions)
- I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson, tr. from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund and the author (Graywolf Press)
- A Thousand Peaceful Cities by Jerzy Pilch, tr. from the Polish by David Frick (Open Letter)
- Touch by Adania Shibli, tr. from the Arabic by Paula Haydar (Clockroot)
- The Black Minutes by Martín Solares, tr. from the Spanish by Aura Estrada and John Pluecker (Grove/Black Cat)
- On Elegance While Sleeping by Emilio Lascano Tegui, tr. from the Spanish by Idra Novey (Dalkey Archive)
- Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk, tr. from the Afrikaans by Michiel Heyns (Tin House)
- Microscripts by Robert Walser, tr. from the German by Susan Bernofsky (New Directions)
- Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer by Ernst Weiss, tr. from the German by Joel Rotenberg (Archipelago)
Whew! That’s quite a list! It will be narrowed down to a ten-title short list on March 24, which is also when the poetry finalists will be announced. The winners will be announced on April 29.
I’ve read three of these (each a strong work) and have eight others on hand, which I now have more reason to read. Conspicuously missing: the publishing house of last year’s winner, Melville House, who, upon hearing that Amazon would be underwriting the award announced they would not be participating. Chad Post, who organizes the award, responded that the award was not based on publisher submissions, so their books would be eligible regardless. Which means they just didn’t have a book that made the longlist.
New Directions, on the other hand, has six books on the list. After looking at their 2011 catalog, they’ll certainly be all over it again next year.
Language breakdowns are as follows: French (7), Spanish (5), Afrikaans (1), Arabic (1), German (4), Croation (1), Czech (1), Dutch (1), Hebrew (1), Norwegian (1), Polish (1), and Swedish (1).
Let me start this review with a warning: apparently I’m particularly long-winded when I’m writing a grumpy review because I feel a great need to explain myself, and I was very grumpy when I finished this book. To me, it exemplifies the type of literary book that I abhor: the novel with a pretense to depth but that, under the crafty writing, lacks substance. Probably, because I’m using this book as an example, some of my grumpiness is better directed elsewhere.
Hannah Pittard’s debut novel, The Fates Will Find Their Way (2011) filled me with misgivings when I picked it up, but my curiosity prevailed. The blurb reads as if the book were a variation on The Virgin Suicides (which I reviewed here). The narrator — in first-person plural perspective “we” – is the collective consciousness of a group of middle-aged men (or just over middle-aged men) looking back to their adolescent, foolish selves. Their youth and the intervening years have been marked by their continuing obsession with the possible whereabouts of one of the girls they knew, Nora Lindell, who, still young and full of possibilities, disappeared from their lives one Halloween night.
Review copy courtesy of Ecco.
The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides’ debut novel, is a favorite. How could I not want to enter into a world the reminded me of it, despite misgivings? After all, Eugenides does not own the first-person plural point of view (though I was nervous that perhaps the unique technique’s raison d’être, and thus the thematic reverberations, would be the same; plus, Eugenides did it so well); also, Eugenides should not be the only one to deal with how lost girls affect the boys as they grow into men (but, again, Eugenides did it so well, and it’s not exactly a unique idea anyway).
I was happy,then, to discover that The Fates Will Find Their Way is not that similar to The Virgin Suicides except in those superficial ways. First, in The Virgin Suicides the boys know what happened to the girls — we all do (it’s in the title); but, here, Nora Lindell, the object of obsession, disappears. She may have died, but perhaps not — who knows? In the narrator’s minds she can die or go on to live and fulfill a multitude of potentialities. And they do this to the point of obsession for over thirty years. It is an interesting concept. They are mystified by this girl not because of who she was but because of who she could be. The book is also not like Eugenides’ because it never succeeds in exploring the live-long obsessions. To me, this book suffers from the fallacy that by merely alluding to profundity a deeper meaning is called into existence. No, this is not a retelling of The Virgin Suicides. And, no, this is not your typical disappearing girl act. But that doesn’t make it a good book.
The book begins with an echo of the first few lines of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, of all things. Pittard sets up the foundation of certainty, a distinct point of departure, Nora’s egress from the real to the limitless, mysterious, imagined:
Some things were certain; they were undeniable, inarguable. Nora Lindell was gone, for one thing. There was no doubt about that. For another, it was Halloween when she went missing, which only served to compound the eeriness, the mysteriousness of her disappearance.
The next day, when the disappearance is discovered, the narrator’s mothers spread the news on their phone tree. That night, the teenage boys gather to share any bits of knowledge they have about Nora’s disappearance. One swears he saw her at the train station, so she must have jumped on a train heading whoknowswhere. Another says he must have seen her even later when, at the train station, she got into a Catalina with a stranger. But really, they are certain about only one thing: ”One day here, the next day gone. All that’s left: innuendos and guesses, half-true stories and gossip about what might have been.”
“What might have been” is the book’s central theme. The boys are very good at imagining what happened to Nora, beginning from the day they heard about Nora’s disappearance: “As our curfew drew nearer, the stories became more lurid, more adult, more sinister, and somehow more believable.” In that first chapter we learn that their collective fabrication of Nora’s fate didn’t stop then; the narrator — the “we” — tells us that they grew older, moved away, and we know they have gone on to fairly conventional lives. Through it all, they’ve never stopped wondering what happened to Nora.
But it would be a lie to pretend that every one of us — alone finally, that last night of childhood, that last night before leaving for college — didn’t close our eyes, perhaps in unison even, and imagine Nora Lindell.
The second chapter begins with a promising concept. The narration stops following the boys’ actions and moves into their imaginations:
But what if Drew Price and Winston Rutherford weren’t lying? What if there really was a Catalina, and what if she really did get in? What if she didn’t know the man but she’d seen him before, and when he leaned across and opened the passenger-side door, she got in? What if it was that simple?
Facts and certainty aside, we venture with the narrator into the hypothetical. If she did get into that Catalina, where did she go? Was it sinister? Is she dead just a few counties over, as the first extended ellaboration tells us? Or was the driver just doing her a favor, just taking her to the airport? The chapter posits, in striking detail, potential trajectories from that Halloween. It is possible, for example, that Nora ended up in Arizona – after all, one of the boys spoke to her at the Houston airport and she said that’s where she was going — and from there the boys fill in the details:
It’s possible that, in Arizona, Nora Lindell’s hair turned a burnt yellow. Her skin became a caramel color she’d never seen before. She aged quickly. She waited tables. She worked hard. She rented a trailer.
Throughout the book, we see that all of the possibilities (her ending up dead a couple of counties over, her ending up in Arizona, later India) are partially substantiated by minor clues the boys (now men) pick up through the years: a sighting in another airport (and she has children!), a news report that just might show her in the background at the Mumbai bombings, mysterious people showing up with her family. The book settles into a reliable structure: in one chapter we are introduced to a possible existence for Nora; in the next we learn what grain of rumor the men heard that led them to imagine that particular potentiality. In those chapters the narrator also describes how the boys’ lives progress. Or don’t progress, but rather move from stage to stage. There’s a quaint moral that raises its head: what might have happened to Nora becomes what might have happened to these men had they been paying as much attention to their own lives as they were to the imagined lives of this girl. It’s a familiar variation on the argument against philosophy that the Thracian maidservant uses against Thales in Plato’s Theaetetus when Thales gazes at the stars so long that he tumbles down a well: “She scoffed at him for being so eager to know what was happening in the sky that he could not see what lay at his feet.”
On a technical level – sentence by sentence, episode by episode — Pittard is a good writer. It is obvious that she has put a lot of time into honing her craft because her sentences read clearly and, through her fluency, she maintains a steady pace as the episode progresses. Despite the fundamental lack of development I described above, there is mystery and intrigue that keeps the reader moving forward. But it didn’t work on the larger scale. Eventually, the alternating chapters began to feel episodic, which sometimes is just right, but not here. Pittard has received attention for her short stories, and in the end — when it is clear the book will not fulfill its promise — the book reads like it was a bunch of severely underdeveloped short stories, any one of which (due to the lack of that developmental thread) could be discarded without diminishing the whole. Simple algebra tells us that their addition, then, also adds nothing.
Part of what’s left out is the whole reason the boys are obsessed with Nora in the first place? It isn’t enough that she disappeared and I’m afraid I can’t just accept that they are because they are. I know such events linger, but for the boys to be so intrigued that they speak of her each time they get together for the next thirty years, including a collective thought the night before graduation, that link must be established. They were friendly with her before she disappeared, but nothing gives the sense that they were particularly close. One claims to have had sex with her, but he’s never really aligned with the narrators and, by the end, is in prison, effectively ousted from the third-person plural narrator.
It seems that the reason they are obsessed with Nora is because of her limitless potential when viewed in relation to their own conventional lives. And thus my central problem with the novel: I could never make the mental leap (and I believe a substantial leap is required) that these shallow men ever viewed her potentiality or their obsession with her potentiality in relation to their own lives. The book lacks the foundation and development that would support this interesting insight. The boys, on some level, realize they should have been looking at their own lives. But why should the reader accept this? There is no indication that their lives could have been better because we get only snippets from their lives, they do stupid things, but these also read just like gossip.
Let me explain why I think the book’s development fails to substantiate its themes. For one thing, despite the considerable chapters about the boys’ lives and about Nora’s potential lives, many of the characters remain shallow and stereotypical. I was annoyed throughout, for example, that the boys’ mothers were primarily used as the embodiment of gossip. The phone tree never dies, and for a book about growing old and “what might have been,” these parental figures could have been more important. Then again, as the boys grow up, none of their family relationships are well developed: “We owned homes, had wives. Some of us had more than one child by then. In many ways, we were kings. Everything was ahead of us.” Their wives are nags who always complain that their husbands don’t comprehend. The only wife who becomes more is the mother of a thirteen-year-old girl who has sex with a forty-year-old man – in fact, the friend who says he had sex with Nora before she disappeared.
Not only are the mothers, the wives, and the children underdeveloped, but the boys themselves are stereotypically shallow. As they grow up, a few of them escape from the collective “we” and become individuals (by, for example, having sex with a thirteen year old and going to prison). Nevertheless, the remaining men grow into a stereotypical, unsatisfied man who has lived a stereotypical life. Because of that failure to develop them, they never seem like men who have lived. I don’t mean that in a “they never seized the moment” way; I mean, these men, despite the fact that we’re told they have wives and children, don’t speak like men who have any life experience. The portrayal of their relationships with their wives is rote, stereotypical, shallow, and annoying. Their children, to them, are merely reflections of their own adolescent potential and stupidity. While it is true that Pittard wants their lives to appear conventional and unfulfilled, certainly such features don’t have to be developed by resorting to stereotypes. But this development begins even when they are adolescents just beginning their obsession with Nora.
Pittard primarily uses sexual urges to show the boys’ fascinations, but, as is shown in The Virgin Suicides, obsession is fueled by much more. While they’d probably have liked to have had sex with Nora — and they’re jealous of the one among them who claims the honor — this doesn’t substantiate a life-long collective obsession. If the boys are as stereotypically shallow as they seem, I just don’t believe they would possess the acuity or the gravity required to consider Nora’s fate for long. Furthermore, as we watch these boys grow into men, a lot happens to them — paedophilia, rape, prison, death — and I’m not certain why, after all of that, Nora remains relevant to them at all. It would have worked better had we seen how Nora Lindell was more than just a disappearing girl who became a symbol. So, in the end, those who have relationships with the narrators are shallow, the narrators themselves are shallow, and Nora herself, despite the chapters that develop her post-disappearance life, is relegated a symbol – shallow.
Pittard would have us believe that Nora Lindell represents the unlimited to the boys. Their lives have settled down around them, but Nora holds a fixed point of departure from their lives, which could lead to anywhere.
Certain outcomes are unavoidable, invariable, absolutely unaffectable, and yet completely unpredictable. Certain outcomes are that way. But maybe not Nora’s. Maybe she was the only one who escaped; who had the chance to become something not completely inevitable.
So this missing girl is a symbol for other potentialities. She never feels like a real missing girl. She remains relevant to the boys only because of her symbolism (which, as I said, I just can’t believe they could consider). Sadly, her symbolism is also the reason she remains relevant to the book. By making her a symbol and not a reality, the book’s concept strangles the book’s mystery. Without the mystery, some tug from before the point of departure, the obsession doesn’t make sense. Consequently, the book takes on a constructed feel: the intrigue is stated (though not established) to facilitate the hypothetical future. But the book could have accomplished this and much more. “There would have been possibilities. Perhaps.”
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Alice Munro’s “Axis” was first published in The New Yorker‘s January 31, 2011, issue.
Click for a larger image.
It’s always nice to see that the weekly story is by Alice Munro. “Axis,” a story that begins half a century ago, when two girls are attending college, and spans the many years to old age, does not disappoint.
When the story begins, Avie and Grace are two college girls, history majors, to be exact. They’re carrying books home for vacation, though they will never read them. Partly, they will never read them because that is the nature of a vacation; partly, though, because an education is not their primarily goal in college.
They understood — everybody understood — that having any sort of job after graduation would be a defeat. Like the sorority girls, they were enrolled here to find somebody to marry. First a boyfriend, then a husband. It wasn’t spoken of in those terms, but there you were. Girl students on scholarships were not usually thought to stand much of a chance, since brains and looks were not believed to go together. Fortunately, Grace and Avie were both attractive. Grace was fair and stately, Avie red-haired, less voluptuous, lively, and challenging. Male members of both their families had joked that they ought to be able to nab somebody.
Both girls have potential. Yes, they have potential in their education, but I mean here that they have solid marriage prospects. Avie is dating Hugo. Avie thought that having sex might make her love Hugo, but mostly it has just created the stress of a potential pregnancy. Avie has just finished telling Grace about a terrible dream in which she has two children with Hugo; one she has locked away in the basement, the other is lively and loved. So Avie has Hugo, but when she’s being honest with herself, she’d rather be with Grace’s boyfriend, Royce, a veteran of World War II. Grace is a virgin, something Royce is not used to but will patiently tolerate for a time.
As happens in an Alice Munro story, once the stage is set there is no more dilly-dallying. We quickly move in time to Royce getting on a bus to visit Grace at her home. At one of the stops, he looks out the window and sees Avie.
He remembered that she had quit college just before her exams. Hugo had graduated and got a job teaching high school in some northern town, where she was to join him and marry him.
Royce is tempted to get off the bus and ask Avie out, but he doesn’t. Instead, he goes to Grace’s home and, primarily interested in one thing (somehow claiming Grace’s “vaunted virginity), he suffers through the niceties of the family, including a provincial day of making strawberry jam.
The story slows down here to allow us to experience these few days before Royce looks back on them with the following sentiment:
He remembered whispering to Grace the day before they were doing the strawberries, kissing under the rush of cold water when her mother’s back was turned. Her fair hair turning dark in the stream of water. Acting as if he worshipped her. How at certain moments that had been true. The insanity of it, the insanity of letting himself be drawn. That family. That mad mother rolling her eyes to heaven.
It seems like the climax of the story has passed — certainly there has almost been a climax — but Munro is not through with these characters. She moves to Avie and Hugo, through their long years together, and finally to a time in old age when Avie and Royce again meet.
This is a powerful story, superbly crafted. I must say, January’s New Yorker fiction has been a great way to begin the year.
The National Book Critics Circle announced the finalists for its 2011 award. The winners of each category will be announced on March 10.
- Jennifer Egan: A Visit from the Goon Squad
- Jonathan Franzen: Freedom
- David Grossman: To the End of the Land
- Hans Keilson: Comedy in a Minor Key
- Paul Murray: Skippy Dies
- Anne Carson: Nox
- Kathleen Graber: The Eternal City
- Terrance Hayes: Lighthead
- Kay Ryan: The Best of It
- C.D. Wright: One with Others: [a little book of her days]
- S.C. Gwynne: Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches
- Jennifer Homans: Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet
- Barbara Demick: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
- Siddhartha Mukherjee: The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
- Isabel Wilkerson: The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration
- Sarah Bakewell: How to Live, Or a Life of Montaigne
- Selina Hastings: The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham: A Biography
- Yunte Huang: Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History
- Thomas Powers: The Killing of Crazy Horse
- Tom Segev: Simon Wiesenthal: The Lives and Legends
- Kai Bird: Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956 – 1978
- David Dow: The Autobiography of an Execution
- Christopher Hitchens: Hitch-22: A Memoir
- Rahna Reiko Rizzuto: Hiroshima in the Morning
- Patti Smith: Just Kids
- Darin Strauss: Half a Life
- Elif Batuman: The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
- Terry Castle: The Professor and Other Writings
- Clare Cavanagh: Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics: Russia, Poland, and the West
- Susan Linfield: The Cruel Radiance
- Ander Monson: Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir
All of the fiction books have been well covered. I’ve had all of them except for Skippy Dies for months, though I’ve read only A Visit from the Goon Squad. I’ve also read Anne Carson’s Nox, that brilliantly produced accordian poem. I haven’t written about it here because, well, I’m not that good at talking about poetry. I wanted to read it again, which hasn’t happened yet — but now it will. As for the other categories, Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy and Patti Smith’s Just Kids have been tempting me.
It is certainly worth noting that the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing went to Parul Sehgal and, more closely related to my interests on this site, the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award went to Dalkey Archive Press — congrats!
Melville House is publishing “The Essential Heinrich Böll” over the next year. This month they have published The Safety Net, Billiards at Half-Past Nine, and The Clown (Ansichten eines Clowns, 1963; tr. from the German by Leila Vennewitz, 2010). In April, we will see The Train Was on Time, Irish Journal, and Group Portrait with Lady; next January they will be bringing out the final two volumes: What’s to Become of the Boy? Or: Something to Do with Books — A Memoir, and The Collected Stories of Heinrich Böll.
Review copy courtesy of Melville House.
This was my first experience with Böll. I had no idea whether his prose was dense and daunting, though that was certainly my preconception. I was surprised (and relieved, honestly — I wasn’t in the mood for obfuscation when I opened the book), then, to find the prose smooth and fluid and highly readable. The substance is still layered and folded, making much of this fine reading.
The Clown is Hans Schnier, our narrator:
What I do best are the absurdities of daily life: I observe, add up these observations, increase them to the nth degree and draw the square root from them, but with a different factor from the one I increased them by.
Hans is in his late twenties, and, despite his relatively substantial success for a professional clown, his parents still don’t consider him gainfully employed. When the book begins, Hans narrates his fall from grace; the style of the narration shows very clearly that he is distracted, depressed, and demotivated. Marie, the girl he has been living with “in sin” for several years, has been struck with guilt and has left him to marry a Catholic man in the Catholic church (“I must take the path that I must take.”). Hans comes from a Protestant family, but he has never been religious. Here is a great passage that shows how well Böll packs all of this information into a moody first-person narration:
I am not religious myself, I don’t even go to church, and I make use of the sacred texts and songs for therapeutic purposes: they help me more than anything else to overcome the two afflictions Nature has saddled me with: depression and headaches. Since Marie went over to the Catholics (although Marie is a Catholic herself I feel this phrase is appropriate), the intensity of these two complaints has increased, and even the Tantum Ergoor the Litany of Loreto — till no my favorite remedies for pain — are not much use any more. There is one temporarily effective remedy: alcohol; there could be a permanent cure: Marie. Marie has left me. A clown who takes to drink falls faster than a drunk tile-layer topples off a roof.
Besides suffering from depression, Hans also suffers from an inclination toward monogamy, which he describes as an affliction though something deeply embedded in his nature. Hans is completely lost without Marie; he has never wanted and still does not want anyone else. Not being religious but believing in monogamy, Hans rages that Marie will be committing adultery is she marries someone else, even though her Catholic friends keep insisting that by marrying someone else she will actually become pure. The conflict between unity (as portrayed in this relationship) being torn apart by social mores is central to the novel and was certainly the most interesting aspect for me.
The structure of the novel is interesting. Mostly, we are with Hans for only one day. He has returned to Bonn, his hometown, after his dependence on alcohol made him fall, literally; during a particularly clumsy performance which lacked the subtle movements that made him an artist, he fell, twisted his knew, and didn’t get up. The stage manager cancles all upcoming performances and refuses to pay full price for this one. His agent cannot secure another booking and is, frankly, getting tired of dealing with Hans anyway; where his agent could once book a nightly performance at a substantial price (and a substantial commission), Hans is now threatening to rely on the pennies thrown at him for performing in the street. Through all of this, Hans remains apathetic; performing on the street would, apparently, be just fine. Mainly, he wants more to drink:
I would have given my shirt for a drink, and only the thought of the complicated negotiations involved in such an exchange discouraged me from undertaking this transaction.
So the book picks up in Bonn, after Hans has returned. Through the remainder of the day, Hans makes a series of phone calls to and is visited by some family, friends, and enemies. He doesn’t necessarily want to speak to any of them — unless they can help him speak to Marie; mainly, he hopes some of them will give him a bit of money. His parents, after all, are millionaires.
As these interactions take place, we get a substantial back-story to the relationships and to Hans’ bitterness (it is no surprise to see that Hans has often been compared to Holden Caulfield). For example, we learn that during World War II, when Hans was just barely an adolescent, his mother bought into and supported the new regime and all of the atrocities it committed: “You do see, don’t you, that everyone must do his bit to drive the Jewish Yankees from our sacred German soil.” This ardent national spirit led her to send her older daughter, Henrietta, into service at age seventeen. Henrietta died, and one of Hans’ bitterest memories is of her departure. Now, his mother has a different tone, and Hans derides her as a hypocrite.
Meanwhile for years my mother has been president of the Executive Committee of the Societies for the Reconciliation of Racial Differences; she goes to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, sometimes even to America, and lectures to American women’s clubs about the remorse of German youth, still in the same gentle, mild voice she probably used when saying goodbye to Henrieta.
When Hans speaks to her on the phone, he lets his hatred show. Here’s what he says when she answers: “‘I am a delegate of the Executive Committee of Jewish Yankees, just passing through — may I please speak to your daughter?’ I even startled myself.” He also startled me.
The personal relationships and the conflicts portrayed are what made this book delightful for me. However, it wasn’t all delight. I’m not versed in the larger social conflicts Böll is addressing here. I’m not familiar with the role of the Catholic church in post-War Germany, and I’m not familiar with the criticisms against it. I also got the distinct impression that this was not speaking about Germany generally but about this particular region of Germany. When Hans goes into the politics and social constructs of this region, I was lost and the book seemed to drag on. Surely it would be more interesting if I were better educated on these matters, but, coming at it as a general reader, these longueurs were difficult to get through.
Thankfully the book is filled with intimate relationships between people, and those I do understand. Böll’s mixture of depression and wit — “There’s nothing more depressing for people than a clown they feel sorry for. It’s like a waiter coming up in a wheelchair to bring you your beer.” — also filled this book with life. Overall, a good read, and I’m anxious to see what the other Essential Bölls are like.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Hisham Matar’s “Naima” was first published in The New Yorker‘s January 24, 2011, issue.
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Hisham Matar’s new book Anatomy of a Disappearance comes out in the UK in March and in the U.S. in August, and everything I see suggests that “Naima” is an excerpt from that book, or at least a bit of back story. It certainly reads like an excerpt, and at this point I’m ambivalent about whether to read the book, although it is possible we’ll hear more about it during Booker Prize season (Matar’s In the Country of Men was shortlisted in 2006, which means this book is automatically submitted for the judges’ consideration).
The narrator of “Naima” is Nuri who, now an adult, is looking back on his youth right before and after his mother died. Matar’s prose is strong, and from the beginning his mother is depicted as an almost ghost-like presence and absence. Though they are from Egypt, she prefers the cold, and on their yearly vacations she takes the family north to, say, the Swiss Alps or even northern Norway.
Some afternoons, Mother disappeared and I would not let on to Father that my heart was thumping at the base of my ears. I would keep to my room until I heard footsteps on the deck, the kitchen door sliding open. Once I found Mother there with hands stained black-red, a rough globe dyed into the front of her jumper. With eyes as clean as glass, wide, satisfied, she held out a handful of wild berries.
On some of the cold nights up north, Nuri would imagine that Naima was there. She was their maid (had been since before Nuri was born), and she remained in Cairo while they travelled. Though Nuri yearns for his mother, his relationship with Naima is more maternal: “But if I was ill it was Naima who would not leave my bedside. Mother would occasionally come in and stand at the foot of the bed, clearly concerned but awkward, as if she were intruding on a private moment.” Why this is the case is alluded to, particularly when his mother’s melancholy is most apparent.
I did not know then why Mother looked better in photographs taken before I was born. I do not mean simply younger but altogether brighter, as if she had just stepped off a carousel: her hair settling, her eyes anticipating more joy.
Before Nuri is born, his father was a goverment minister. When the king is killed, his parents and Naima escape to Paris, which is where Nuri is born. His parents avoid speaking about the city.
It’s strange. I found ”Naima” very well written bit by bit, but, as a whole, as suffocating as anything I can remember reading. I had to keep taking deep breaths as the unvarying lugubrious tone sucked the wind out of me. It is better on a reread, and I am intrigued with where the story is apparently going. Here is what I gather from a synopsis of the upcoming book: several years later, another woman appears and both father and son fall in love with her; she falls in love with and marries the father; he disappears. I am interested, if I can manage to keep my breath.
Well, here we go with the second NYRB Classic in a row. Because they are always refreshing and always interesting, I often crave NYRB Classics, and neither this one nor the last one have disappointed (though, be careful, they only make the craving stronger). I’m always shocked because I cannot believe the book I’m reading once languished out of print. This one was no exception. Despite the title — The Murderess (1903; tr. from the Greek by Peter Levi, 1983) — I was for some reason not expecting quite the chilling read this little book provided.
The title character is introduced with three names. She is ”Hadoula, or Frankissa, or Frankojannou, [. . .] a woman of scarcely sixty, well built and solid, with a masculine air and two little touches of moustache on her lips.” Frankojannou’s daughter has just had another child, and — horror of horrors, is there no mercy? — the baby is yet another girl. And she’s sick! Besides the father, no one is getting any rest in this new infant’s household.
For many nights Frankojannou had permitted herself no sleep. She had willed her sore eyes open, while she kept vigil beside this little creature who had no idea what trouble she was giving, or what tortures she must undergo in her turn, if she survived.
In the first few chapters, as she sits caring for her new granddaughter, Frankojannou’s consciousness wanders, and Papadiamantis describes her life in small episodes. The portraits of the underclass in nineteenth-century Greece are wonderful because we quickly understand — we can feel — why Frankojannou at sixty, caring for her granddaughter, would lament, ’O God, why should another one come into the world?’ And so we readers go back and forth in time: at one moment Frankojannou is sitting up in that night trying to quiet an infant; in another, she is a young woman getting swindled by her own mother (who, in turn, she steals from); in another, her son is threatening to kill her in the street.
As Frankojannou gets more and more tired and agitated, her reason starts to warp in a terrifying way:
Ah, look . . . Nothing is exactly what it seems, anything but, in fact rather the opposite. Given that grief is joy and death is life and resurrection, then disaster is happiness and disease is health. So are all those scourges that seem so ugly, that mow down ungrown infants, the smallpox and scarlet fever and diphtheria and the rest of the diseases, are they not really happiness? Loving gestures and wingbeats of the little angels who rejoice in the heavens when they receive the souls of children? And we humans in our blindness think of these things as unhappy, as the strokes of heaven, as an evil thing.
The astute reader (who merely needs to read the title of the book) knows where this is going, even if Frankojannou does not. It’s just off the edge of her reasoning at this point.
Her accustomed prayer for little girls was ‘May they not survive! May they go no further!’
On occasion she went so far as to say:
‘What can I say to you! . . . The minute girls are born a person thinks of strangling them!’
Yes, she did say it, but she would certainly never had been capable of doing it, Not even Hadoula herself believed that.
The unthinkable happens, and happens again (and again . . .). Soon in the novel, quite a lot of damage is done to the community, all absolutely inexcusable and yet understandable. In other words, never does Papadiamantis excuse Frankojannou’s actions, but the road to those actions is sadly plausible. It’s a brutal look at a society where a woman was a utility, where both anger and compassion can drive someone to kill.
We spend the last half of the book following Frankojannou’s sixty-year-old frame as she desperately tries to survive in the Greacian hills while the law pursues her through days and nights. The scenery is beautiful, with its echos of Homer, and enriches the pursuit as well as the complicated look at justice, both from below and above.
I kept holding out on buying Vivant Denon’s only literary work, a novella — no, a short story — because it didn’t seem sensible to pay full price for something that will only last 30 pages. But when a few of my favorite book bloggers praise it, and it’s published by one of my favorite publishers, I had to see what the fuss was about. Now I know: it may be that the story is only 30 pages (though in the NYRB Classics edition, the book also contains the original French and an excellent 20 page introduction by Peter Brooks), but No Tomorrow (Point de Lendemain, 1777, revised in 1812; tr. from the French by Lydia Davis, 1997) will be read again and again. It gives a reward several times that of a new, expensive, 800 page hardback.
The story itself is fairly simple. Our narrator is looking back to his youth at a particularly pleasurable night he passed with a marvelous woman. I’m sure you can guess why it was so pleasurable. The next morning, he leaves, never to encounter the woman again — at least, not . . . err . . . in the same way. The magic of the story is the vim of the style and the way that style presents the machinations going on under the text. Here is how the story begins:
I was desperately in love with the Comtesse de — ; I was twenty years old and I was naive. She deceived me, I got angry, she left me. I was naive, I missed her. I was twenty years old, she forgave me, and, because I was twenty years old, because I was naive — still deceived, but no longer abandoned — I thought myself to be the best-loved lover, and therefore the happiest of men.
That clipped, clear, succinct, moving introduction is brilliantly translated by Lydia Davis (another reason I need to revisit Madame Bovary now that she’s put her translation out there; oh, and it is also the reason I jumped up and got her collection of short stories). As succinct as it is, though, we hear three times that the narrator was twenty years old and three times that he was naive. It’s a great passage into the mind of the older narrator who is mocking his youth at the same time as he envies it. These three sentences are a marvel of construction.
Comtesse de — , our narrator’s deceitful lover, is friends with Mme de T — . One evening, our narrator meets Mme de T — at the opera. When she sees him, she begins the game:
A divine hand must have led you here. You don’t by any chance have plans for this evening? I warn you, they would be pointless.
One can read this story as a straight line from Point A (the Opera) to Point B (the Night), and it is still a fantastic story, a seductive bit of erotic literature that is highly literate, just a pleasure to read:
Kisses are like confidences: they attract each other, they accelerate each other, they excite each other. In fact, I had barely received the first kiss when a second followed upon its heels, and then another: their pace quickened, interrupting and then replacing the conversation. Soon they scarcely left us time to sigh. Silence fell all around us. We heard it (for one sometimes hears silence), and we were frightened. We stood up without saying a word and began to walk again.
But this story is much more than that straight line between Point A and Point B. Mme de T — tells the narrator to accompany her to her estranged husband’s house for dinner. During the course of the meal, the husband is visibly angered at the youth his wife has invited, but he praises his wife’s foresight. It’s good she invited a friend since he would be retiring early that night.
The game continues, and, as the evening progresses, Denon’s story ventures into the nature of lust and passion and just what an intimate connection between two people means. And also how to get the most out of it:
When lovers are too ardent, they are less refined. Racing toward climax, they overlook the preliminary pleasures: they tear at a knot, shred a piece of gauze. Lust leaves its traces everywhere, and soon the idol resembles a victim.
Again, though, there is much more to this story than meets the eye, and a couple of rereads continues to reveal the subtleties in the text and the true game that is being played. This short book is not to be missed.
I recommend reading the blog reviews I linked to above. John Self read a different translation, and I think the strengths of Lydia Davis’s translation are apparent when comparing the first paragraph of his text to the first paragraph here. All three showcase different strengths from this superb story.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Amos Oz’s “The King of Norway” was first published in The New Yorker‘s January 17, 2011, issue. It was translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston.
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For the third time in a row, The New Yorker‘s fiction is a very short piece, and again it is from an established author; Amos Oz’s name comes up every October in conjunction with the Nobel Prize. However, as short as it is, this story, with its fabular pace, is slower than the last two, and that is not a bad thing. We recognize it is a fable from the tone in the very beginning:
On our kibbutz, Kibbutz Yekhat, there lived a man, Zvi Provizor, a short fifty-five-year-old bachelor who was given to blinking. He loved to convey bad news: earthquakes, plane crashes, buildings collapsing on their occupants, fires, and floods.
Zvi is the kibbutz gardener, and apparently he is very good (“Thanks to him, the kibbutz bloomed.”). Each morning he gets up early to work and carries around a transistor radio “that provided him with a constant stream of disastrous news.” Due to his strange hobby of watching the news in order to report all of the tragedies, Zvi is well known by everyone in the kibbutz, but no one likes to be around him. They call him the Angel of Death. They also deride him, saying “that he didn’t have, and had never had, an interest in women. Or in men, for that matter.” They mimic his voice.
In the dining room, they rarely joined him at his table. On summer evenings, he would sit alone on the green bench at the foot of the large lawn in front of the dining room and watch the children playing on the grass. the breeze billowed his shirt, drying his sweat. A hot summer moon shone red as it rose aboe the tall cypress trees.
In the course of the story, Zvi greets a forty-five-year-old widow named Luna Black: “Did you hear? In Spain, an orphanage burned down and eighty orphans died of smoke inhalation.” She says simply, “That’s horrible.” Zvi and Luna become quite close and soon are meeting every evening. Everyone quickly notices: “Roni Shindlin said in the dining room that the Angel of Death had spread his wings over the Black Widow.” Zvi and Luna carry on, hardly caring that they are the object of gossip and sarcasm. It only goes bad when Luna gets a bit too close:
One evening, as he regaled her with an affecting description of the starvation in Somalia, compassion for him so overwhelmed her that she suddenly took his hand and held it to her breast. Zvi trembled and pulled it back quickly, with a gesture that was almost violent. His eyes blinked frantically.
He leaves quickly. The rest of the story — about a fourth of it — is the weeks and months afterwards when Zvi completely avoids Luna: “At lunch, Roni Shidlin told his tablemates that the Angel of Death had cut his honeymoon short and, from now on, they were all in danger.” It’s a sad little fable, told by the community — the “we” the “our” — about this strange, tragic old bachelor.
Now, to be honest, I need your help here. I haven’t come up with a satisfying interpretation of all that goes on here, as much as I enjoyed just letting the story take me in.