I enjoyed Echenoz’s Lightning so much that I immediately read the other two books in his trilogy of fictionalized biographies. Running (Courir, 2008; tr. from the French by Linda Coverdale, 2009), the second Echenoz wrote, is the only one about someone I knew nothing about, though that’s probably more my own ignorance at fault. Do you know who Emil Zátopek was? I didn’t.
Nevertheless, I looked forward to this book for a couple of reasons. The first: as I mentioned above, I’m a recently converted fan of Jean Echenoz and will seek out all he has written, regardless of the subject. It is a lot of fun to read his whimsical prose. The second: reading a book about running interested me. I’m no runner, but there’s something about that sport, particularly endurance running, that has always fascinated me, something about the pain these athletes put themselves through each time they seek to cross a finish line. Watching long-distance events, albeit while I’m seated, wears me out, but I love it. Now, if running doesn’t interest you, go back to my first point above: read Running because Echenoz wrote it, and Echenoz will make sure you have a good time.
Emil Zátopek was a world-famous long-distance runner from Czechoslovakia. He was born in 1922, just four years after Czechoslovakia became independent due to the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and he died in 2000, just eight years after Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In the middle was German occupation, Communism, revolution, the quashing of revolution, and garbage collection (due to Emil’s minor role in the revolution he was assigned to be a garbageman, this world-famous Olympic gold medalist).
Though Running tracks Emil’s life as a runner – focusing on his unlikely start, his vigorous personal training, his emergence into competitive running, his eventual world-fame, and then his decline as younger athletes started beating him – there is no doubt that Running probably wouldn’t have been written were it not for the political turmoil that underscored and controlled Emil’s running career.
The book begins with Emil as a young man, about sixteen years old, working in the Bata shoe factory in his hometown Zlín. He was not a runner and didn’t have much interest in sports of any kind. One day at the factory (and he wasn’t happy about it at all at the time), he was pressured into participating in a footrace. The way Echenoz describes it, something fell into place. Emil discovered he loved running and soon went to extremes to test himself:
Emil walks along a lane lined with poplars on his way to the factory and back every day, which gives him a new idea. The first day, he holds his breath until the fourth poplar; the next two days, until the fifth; then the sixth, and so on every two days until he can finally get to the end of the lane without breathing. But once he gets there, he passes out. He passes out another time while taking a cold shower after twelve straightaways taken at top speed. He gives up such eccentricities but finds it all very interesting. He always wants to know how far . . .
Around this time, the Germans who entered and occupied Moravia at the beginning of the book, creating an oppressive atmosphere of fear, are ousted, and the people hope for life free from fear. Of course, this isn’t how it turns out, as one form of oppression gives way to another and people still felt that they couldn’t speak to each other about anything. Meanwhile, Emil keeps going, surprising himself and others as he continues to do better; he even begins to break some Czech records. In large part, Emil’s success is so surprising because his form is awful. How can a man apparently so clumsy and out of control run so swiftly for so long? I love how Echenoz describes his peculiar style:
There are runners who seem to fly, others who seem to dance, still others who look as if they were sitting on top of their legs. There are those who simply look as if they’ve been summoned and are hurrying as fast as possible. Emil, nothing like all that.
Emil, you’d think he was excavating, like a ditch digger, or digging deep into himself, as if he were in a trance. Ignoring every time-honored rule and any thought of elegance, Emil advances laboriously, in a jerky, tortured manner, all in fits and starts. He doesn’t hide the violence of his efforts, which shows in his wincing, grimacing, tetanized face, constantly contorted by a rictus quite painful to see. [. . . ] and hunkered down between his shoulders, on that neck always leaning in the same direction, his head bobs along endlessly, lolling and wobbling from side to side.
You can check out Emil’s form in this archival footage (here). When told he should work on his form, Emil said no, he just needed to run faster. When told he should at least try to look decent out there, he responded, ”I swear it really does hurt, what I do — don’t you think I’d rather smile?” If ever he is judged on grace and smiles, like figure skaters, he’ll work on his form.
As it stands, of course it doesn’t matter; Emil is soon the best long-distance runner in the world, at one point holding eight world records. It’s a fabulous story in and of itself, but, as I said, there’s more to Echenoz’s project.
As Emil rises to international fame, his government notices and seeks to capitalize on his success to the point of limiting it.
World champion: the reaction is immediate and he’s promoted to captain and then his troubles begin. Those in high places put their heads together: the definitely consider Emil living proof of the wonders of Socialism. In which case, they should keep him close to home, not waste him, not send him abroad too much. The rarer he is, the better. Plus, it would be too bad if while on one of those trips he were — on a sudden impulse — to cross over to the other side, the unspeakable side of capitalism and imperialism.
While in real life Emil was known to have publicly stated his support for his government and to have insulted the governments of countries who invited him to be their guest, Echenoz presents another side, a side that seems to match up nicely with Emil’s later life. For example, here is how Echenoz presents Emil’s plight just after he is invited to the United States:
Comrade, you will of course refuse this invitation, announce the authorities, handing him a paper, but we’d also welcome a few words from you on the subject. Words, for example, like these.
As Echenoz writes on the subject of one man’s individual success exploited for the good of the whole, Echenoz really is having fun, making this short book far from dry no matter your feelings toward running or the post-War government of Czechoslovakia. Echenoz fills the book with fun facts (or, fictions close to fact — I don’t know, for example, if Emil’s interviews were so manipulated by his government) and linguistic play. All the while, despite the games he’s playing, Echenoz keeps the book focused. Here he is, for example, having fun with Emil’s name:
This name of Zátopek that was nothing, that was nothing but a funny name, begins to clatter around the world in three mobile and mechanical syllables, an inexorable waltz in three beats, galloping hooves, the throbbing of a turbine, the clacking of valves or connecting rods punctuated by the final k, sparked by the initial z that darts off already quite fast: say zzz and it’s speeding right away, as if that consonant were a starter.
About a page later, and underscoring how something can ultimately come to represent anything with just the right amount of spin — including how the practically solitary and personal achievement of long-distance running can represent the good of Communism — Echenoz undercuts his theory on Emil’s last name:
This is all fine and dandy, except that a last name — you can make it say or evoke whatever you please. Had Emil been a grain broker, a non-figurative painter, or a political commissar, his name would doubtless have proved completely suitable for each profession, equally well denoting rational management, lyrical abstraction, or a chill up the spine. It would have worked just fine every time.
Ultimately, behind his name, Emil is just a man who loves to run and who is sucked into the whims of history. Echenoz’s balance is deft; after all, isn’t he also using Emil to represent some statement? It’s not that simple, for throughout Running, despite his own steps to use Emil’s life to represent an idea, Echenoz succeeds in presenting this man as a man, and it’s an enjoyable ride.
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Each time a New Directions catalog comes in the mail, the first thing I look for is a new title by César Aira, so much have I loved what I’ve read by him. Thankfully, it seems New Directions is not slowing down their Aira releases, and we can now read the bizare The Seamstress and the Wind (La costura y el viento, 1994; tr. from the Spanish by Rosalie Knecht, 2011). Now, naked ghosts roaming a construction site, lightning striking a painter, the Macuto Line giving way to treasure, and cloned silk worms invading a city notwithstanding, I’d still say that How I Became a Nun (my review here) was the strangest Aira I’d read — until now. So it was nice to learn that when The Seamstress and the Wind was first published in Spanish, it appeared in the same volume as How I Became a Nun, whose opening pages of a childhood scene turned nightmare (we’ll get some of this in The Seamstress and the Wind, too) I still read with glee.
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.
Why do I love reading Aira? Well, his books are incredibly immediate. We get the sense (and we’re right on the money) that Aira is writing these events on the fly, as if he’s watching the events occur as he dramatically narrates them to us. There’s so much energy behind his scenes. I’ve mentioned it here before, but it’s worth remembering Aira’s writing process. He sits down in a cafe in the morning and writes whatever comes to mind, even allowing the events in the cafe to invade the story (like a fly, or a drunk man). In this way, his story is not only a story but also a record of its own production. He’ writes himself into puzzles and then writes himself out of them the next day, refusing to make things easy on himself by allowing extensive revision. Not just anyone can pull this off, by which I mean that few writers following this method could come up with something anyone would want to read, but somehow Aira does it, creating something not simply entertaining and certainly not simply interesting because of the method of its production; besides this, he comes up with something meaningful and thoughtful, often something haunting.
On to The Seamstress and the Wind. I just mentioned how Aira writes in a cafe and includes whatever is going on in the writing; well, here we open the book to find Aira in a cafe in Paris, writing about what he’s thinking about as he writes in a cafe in Paris. It’s the new book:
These last weeks, since before coming to Paris, I’ve been looking for a plot for the novel I want to write: a novel of successive adventures, full of anomalies and inventions. Until now nothing occurred to me, except the title, which I’ve had for years and which I cling to with blank obstinacy: “The Seamstress and the Wind.”
It’s a little tricksy, sure, but writing about whatever he’s doing also serves to introduce one the issues he plays with in this book: memory; or, rather, forgetting, losing, maybe never having. We find out that the title he clings to is the result of a dream he had. It was a brilliant dream, a vivid story, a marvel he couldn’t wait to write down, and it had something to do with a seamstress and the wind.
However, when I woke up I had forgotten it. I only remembered that I had had it, and it was good, and now I didn’t have it. In those cases it’s not worth the trouble to wrack your brain, I know from experience, because nothing comes back, maybe because there is nothing, there never was anything, except the perfectly gratuitous sensation that there had been something . . .
So the story itself is gone, if it ever was there. Aira knows it’s pointless to try to remember, but he resists letting it go “and in that resistance it occurs to me that there’s something else I could rescue from the ruins of forgetting, and that is forgetting itself.” Aira goes on to explain how this “taking control of forgetting” is “consistent with my theory of literature.” He expresses a perhaps hypocritical disdain for writers who rely on memory and says, “Forgetting is richer, freer, more powerful.”
Which leads Aira to a childhood memory that has its moment of loss and forgetting. He is playing with his friend Omar near a truck’s trailer. Aira is startled to find his friend has disappeared. He’s shocked. Omar was there and now he is not. Aira wanders home and finds out that it is much later than he thinks. Everyone is, in fact, worried about him – he had disappeared, and now he cannot remember the afternoon. He has no idea what happened to that time (even now), but the fact that so much time has passed causes him even more anxiety. After all, he has arrived, and Omar is still missing: “It wasn’t me, they were wrong . . . it was Omar who’d disappeared! It was his mother who had to be told, a search for him that had to be undertaken. And now, I though in a spasm of desperation, it would be much more difficult because night was falling. I felt responsible for the lost time, whose irretrievable quality I understood for the first time.”
Omar’s mother is Delia Siffoni, the local seamstress. She’s working on a wedding dress for the pregnant school teacher when she hears Omar is missing. She freaks out, takes her sewing kit and the wedding dress, jumps in a car and tells it to go! She’s certain that her son is in that trailer and on his way to the abyss — Patagonia. “What else could she do?”
Now, this is where the story gets whacked, and I mean that as a technical term. Coming home to find his wife missing since she’s fled to find their missing son, Ramón Siffoni takes off too. And then someone else takes off after them, and it’s a mad race to Patagonia. There’s a wreck, flight, a monster child, and the wind eventually falls in love. To be frank, it was a bit magical and, for me, incoherent. That’s not to say it isn’t fun, but I admit that it left me a bit baffled at times, and not in a good way. It’s says a lot for the book, then, that I came away still feeling I’d been through something powerful.
There’s a moment with Delia: ”Then this is Patagonia? she said to herself, perplexed. And if this is Patagonia, then what am I?” Indeed. Who is she? What is any of this? I don’t know if there is a symbolic meaning to the monster child or the wind or any other of the strange things we encounter in this book. But there’s the forgetting, the loss, and the chase, and Aira doesn’t leave those alone, and they become a powerful look at his own childhood experiences and, perhaps, into the Argentina of his childhood. What was threatening? What was forgotten? What was lost, that perhaps never was? I will close with a passage I loved from early in the book that I think shows that, despite the whimsy, Aira is talking here about something more serious. The passage shows peace, a near surety of peace, yet a peace threatened by something, perhaps only something imagined but that, imagined, is becoming real:
How could we get lost in a town where everyone knew each other, and almost everyone was more or less related? A child could only be lost in labyrinths and they didn’t exist among us. Even so, it did exist if only as a fear, the accident existed: an invisible force dragged the accident toward reality, and kept dragging at it even there, giving it the most capricious forms, reordering over and over its details and circumstances, creating it, annihilating it, with all the unmatched power of fiction.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Julian Barnes’ “Homage to Hemingway” was originally published in the July 4, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
Click for a larger image.
This is a three-part story. The first section is called “The Novelist in the Countryside.” The story begins in the early 1980s. An unnamed British writer — at this point a young writer with only one book to his name (but it did win a prize, after which his first wife left him) — is overseeing a type of writing retreat in Wales. Though he certainly wants to help with the chores, which are typically the students’ responsibility, and though he wants the students to find their own way, he is nevertheless confident in his abilities and feels he has wisdom to pass on to them.
The students bicker about writing, and one of the conclusions he draws is “Don’t try putting your own life into fiction. It won’t work.” Attempting to get this point across, he tells the story of a man he saw in Greece. The man had a beard and the machismo of Hemingway. The author, without much more to go on, assumed the man must have been attempting to mimic Hemingway, as some do.
He left it at that, hoping that his students would reflect on the assumptions we automatically make about people [. . .]. He also hoped that they would reflect back on life’s influence on art, and then art’s influence back on life. And, if they had asked, he would have replied that, for him, Hemingway, as a novelist, was like an athlete bulked up on steroids.
The next section, “The Professor in the Alps,” takes place a few years later. The writer, with more books under his belt, is more famous and has been asked to participate in a six-day writing course in the Alps. If he was confident as a writer before, he’s now full of swagger. He knows he doesn’t have that much to offer, but he’s become good at the public performance. Here he is speaking about what he’s learned about writing from Sibelius the composer:
“Seven symphonies, one violin concerto, orchestral tone poems, songs, a string quartet called ‘Voces Intimae’ — ‘Intimate Voices.’ Let’s take the symphonies.” Not least because he had nothing to say about the other works. “They start — the first two — with great melodic expansiveness. You hear a lot of Tchaikovsky, a bit of Bruckner, Dvorák, perhaps, anyway, the great nineteenth-century European symphonic tradition. Then the Third — shorter, just as melodic, and yet more restrained, held back, moving in a new direction. Then the great Fourth, austere, forbidding, granitic, the work where he most engages with modernism.” He’d stolen that phrase from an Austrian pianist who said in a radio interview, “No, Sibelius is not of much interest to me, except for the Fourth, where he engages with modernism.”
The author knows it’s a performance and eventually turns on part of one of Sibelius’s symphony, a good ten minute portion. He loves that he gets paid for this.
That comes off a bit harsh, though, as if the author were exploiting the system. In truth, the author is also a bit relieved to just listen to Sibelius. Later, when some of the students told him they enjoyed the music:
In another mood, he might have taken this amiss, and presumed they were saying they didn’t like something else — his way of teaching, his clothes, his opinions, his books, his life — but the music had delivered, if not a peacefulness, at least a quiet pause into his being.
His life, after all, is a bit of a mess. Beneath the performance, the man is vulnerable and a bit of a wreck. Where he once didn’t think much of Hemingway, he is starting to see more in the fiction that relates to his own life.
For completion sake, but without spoilers, the third part is called “The Maestro in the Midwest.” A bit later in life, the author is now teaching in the American Midwest, and he’s a considerably different presence. Hemingway is still there, perhaps more than ever. He sees that sometimes in the myth of the writer, the writer is also trapped.
In the end, I enjoyed this story, as I often do enjoy stories by Julian Barnes. But I’m afraid that “Homage to Hemingway” was a bit unsatisfying. I believe this is, in part if not in whole, because this story followed what I thought to be an excellent Alice Munro story where so much remained under the surface. Here, in contrast, so much of the material is fairly explicit, as well done as it is. Whatever the case, even though I found quite a bit of interesting character development and enjoyed watching the author change and contradict himself over time, I don’t believe ”Homage to Hemingway” will remain long in my memory.
When Animalinside (2010; tr. from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet, 2010) arrived in the mail, I didn’t know what to make of it. It’s a beautiful book, even though it’s staple-bound (this was published by New Directions in collaboration with Sylph Editions for Sylph Editions Cahier Series — see an example here), it is still one of the most beautifully produced books I’ve seen this year (nicely following New Direction’s releases of Robert Walser’s The Microscripts and Anne Carson’s Nox last year). When you open the matte cover, inside are a series of wonderfully textured pieces of art by Max Neumann (the back of the book says that they used “a deluxe seven-stage printing process . . . to reproduce the stunning Neumann images”). Accompanying the images are 14 short texts by Krasznahorkai. This book (or booklet, if you like) came about when Krasznahorkai wrote a response to one of Max Neumann’s paintings that Krasznahorkai had hanging up. This, in turn, inspired Neumann to create more art pieces, each using the armless, lunging hound-like creature you see below. Krasznahorkai then wrote short segments for each of those pictures, and we are fortunate to benefit with their end product.
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.
Two of Krasznahorkai’s books are available in English from New Directions, and another is due out later this year. However, I haven’t read them yet. That’s a big yet there; so much did I enjoy what I found in Animalinside that I’m sure I’ll be reading The Melancholy of Resistance and War & Warvery soon. Still, I’m writing this post as a reader who has, on the one hand, no experience with Krasznahorkai I can use to engage with this little book; on the other hand, I also no preconceptions about Krasznahorkai’s work and can say that, if you haven’t read him either, that shouldn’t stop you from reading this one.
On the topic of reading Animalinside: this is a limited edition. Only 2,000 copies are out there. I’m sorry; I will be keeping mine and keeping it safe.
Back to when this book arrived in the mail and I didn’t know what to make of it. After the short preface by Colm Tóibín I find a strange picture of a simple three-dimensional space. Hulking there is a solid black, two-dimensional beast (it’s not the armless one above yet); it stands in the room at some strange angle that is all wrong. Under the image is the first section, and I give the first few lines a skim:
He wants to break free, attempts to stretch open the walls, but he has been tautened there by them, and there he remains in this tautening, in this constraint, and there is nothing else to do but howl, and now and forever he shall be nothing but his own tautening and his own howling, everything he was is no more, everything that could shall never be, so that for him there is not even anything that is.
I was certainly intrigued, but also a bit wary. Is it going to be a bit too artsy for my tastes? Would this abstract text accompanying the (fantastic) abstract images open up for me? Is this going to be a run-on rant?
Quickly, though — very quickly, despite a bit of wariness – I was taken in, propelled forward by the text and the images on the page. It’s a beautiful nightmare; a very unique experience.
Before I had any idea what was really going on (and I admit, it’s not necessarily all clear to me even now), I was simply enjoying the imagery and the prowling menance that, at first, is locked up in that room. The first section is told in the third person, but soon the beast is speaking, and he’s speaking to the reader, speaking right to the reader’s disorientation.
[. . .] you know nothing, nothing, but nothing, about anything, because you don’t even know that you’re thinking about me, because you don’t even know if you should be afraid now or not, or if you should be terrified or if you should be anxious [. . .]
It’s important to remember that all of this is accompanied by images that are themselves disorienting. There’s a calm surface, but details and just the strangeness of the images subvert any calm to build up, initially (before it gets downright terrifying in its imagery), a slight anxiety. We don’t hear the creature howling, whether in mourning or to threaten, but how can we look at the image and not imagine it.
Krasznahorkai’s text does not necessarily remain abstract. This beast is threatening absolute destruction, and not just physical: ”no verb at all shall ever be heard again[ . . .]”
But that’s just the narrative. It’s how Krasznahorkai (with Neumann) gets to that ultimate destruction and what we see there when we get there that makes this book a work of art and not just an accomplished post-apocalyptic image. The short segments are filled with repetitions, in the best sense. Apparently Krasznahorkai told his translator, “There are many repetitions in the text, and this is very important; repeat everything exactly as it is in the original regardless of what the English language WANTS.” I’d say it was successful; even in translation, there’s a rhythm throughout that intensifies or retreats slightly, depending on the moment.
Animalinside is also filled with contradictions, and these supply what to me is the most interesting and worthwhile substance here. At first the beast is ranting because he’s imprisoned somehow, in the next he covers infinite space — and he’s coming! And in one moment he’s coming from the outside, in the next he’s already inside us. There, he’s predicting the end of all things and then here he is lamenting infinity. Finally, we get that last section when “no verb at all shall ever be heard again.” Of course, he’s speaking and we are listening, so what has really been lost? What is the significance? And that is the frightening answer.
I don’t believe Animalinside will be for everybody, though I think it’s one of the more interesting books I’ve read (and looked at) this year, and I’d certainly recommend it even to those wary of it.
I’ve had my eyes on Jean Echenoz since his book Ravel was a finalist for the IMPAC a couple of years ago. That books, it turns out, was the beginning of a type of trilogy of fictionalized biographies of, respectively, Maurice Ravel, Emil Zátopek, and Nikola Tesla. Lightning (Des éclairs, 2010; tr. from the French by Linda Coverdale, 2011) is the third, the one about Tesla. While this will be my first post on Echenoz, this is not the first Echenoz book I’ve read; I recently read and liked I’m Gone (I just haven’t been able to review it yet); however, Lightning, I’d say, is in another league. This is supreme story telling that brought back the charm and grace I felt from Gert Hofmann’s fictionalized biography of a (slightly) famous, eccentric genius in Lichtenberg & the Little Flower Girl (my review here). What? You haven’t read that one yet? Well, add it and Lightning to your TBR-Now list. While we’re on the topic, add Running and Ravel, too.
All three of these fictionalized biographies are very short at only 150 to 200 pages of generously spaced type, and they recount these lives with the charm of a great storyteller who can use understatement, timing, pace, and a variety of emotions to sweep the reader up. Echenoz creates an intimacy between the narrator (just some unnamed, third-person narrator; we’ll call him Echenoz) and the reader; it’s as if we’re sitting together during the evening. Often Echenoz begins a series of paragraphs with “Well [. . .]” as he traces the narrative threads in a conversational style. The casual style is one of the things I loved about Lichtenberg & the Little Flower Girl, filled with its exclamation marks and the reader’s plea, ”And then?” It shows just how interesting, eccentric, sad, and entertaining these lives can be. They are worthy of supreme story-telling gifts, and it seems I’m a sucker for this strange yet effective mode of biography.
Lightning begins with the dramatic birth of Gregor (for whatever reason, Echenoz’s Nikola Tesla is called Gregor (to my knowledge, he didn’t change the name of either characters in Ravel or Running)). No one knows on what day he was born because it was a stormy night, dark, and people were too startled by the events to use a lightning flash at Gregor’s birth to record the time — was it just before midnight or just after, or maybe it was right at midnight, no one knows. It’s a nice, ominous scene with plenty that foreshadows Gregor’s life: time, lightning, the end of one age and the beginning of another. But the book gets even better — we’re dealing with such an interesting man whose life is filled with eccentricities, such as counting:
He must also count the number of forkfuls, just as he continues and even increases, by the way, his efforts to count everything, because in this department things have not calmed down. The number of steps between the hotel and the lab. The number of buildings, vehicles, men, women, pigeons — more than ever, the pigeons — encountered on his walk. The steps of every staircase, even those he uses daily, going up and coming down, just to check or, perhaps, simply to keep from falling on his face. [. . .] Although he doesn’t keep track of his breathing, it’s certainly not an oversight, he was tempted, and he hasn’t decided if he’s upset or relieved at having given up that idea, it depends on his mood. Still, he gained some free time that way, since always counting everything, well, it keeps you pretty busy.
Besides being eccentric, Gregor is a genius (“His memory is as precise as the recently discovered process of photography.”). He can design things in his head so that ”he almost never needs sketches, diagrams, models, or preliminary experiments.” He also has a grand imagination. One of his early ideas is a gigantic, stationary ring to be constructed around the earth above the equator; people could board and then watch the earth rotate below while they’re ”comfortably seated in armchairs (the ergonomic design of which Gregor has offhandedly but precisely anticipated).” It might seem ridiculous, as do many of Gregor’s ideas, like a flying contraption that has no wings, looks like a refrigerator box, and is supposed to be able to fly so precisely as to go in and out of windows. Silly. But it turns out this is an early idea for the helicopter. Other seemingly ridiculous ideas: radio, x-rays, liquid oxygen, remote control, robots, the electron microscope, the particle accelerator, the internet. This is really just the beginning of a long list of inventions Gregor thought up and for which he filed a patent.
Despite his genius, Gregor can never quite capitalize on his ideas — why, after all, would the army want to waste a lot of money on the development of such a ridiculous concept as remote controlled missiles? But lack of funding isn’t his only problem. People often play “dirty tricks” on him.
This trend begins early when he is hired to be an assistant to Thomas Edison. Edison has been raking in profits for his Direct Current electrical power. Gregor, quite a while before, developed a better system, the Alternating Current. When Edison sees what Gregor can do, Gregor’s employment is terminated. Whatever profits were promised to Gregor were dismissed by Edison as an American joke. This, the first of many “dirty tricks,” is the beginning of a great feud, nicely and succinctly detailed in Lightning, the battle of the currents, during which Edison, to build up negative publicity for his rival, used alternating current to publicly electrocute animals (including an elephant), a publicity stunt that (perhaps) culminated in the invention and utilization of the first electric chair. Despite Edison’s tactics, we know who won: George Westinghouse, the financier who funded Gregor’s research and development of the alternating current. When the time came for Westinghouse to pay out to Gregor the contracted royalties, the amount was around $12 million. Gregor waived his right to payment, “[p]roving that in the dirty tricks department, sometimes he plays them on himself. May I freshen your drink?”
These events take up only the first part of this book. One would think a rivalry with Thomas Edison in which one forever changes the world would be sufficient, but there’s much more to Gregor’s life, ups as well as the ultimate downs. Gregor can do amazing things with electricity; indeed, he seems to think he can do anything with electricity:
One of these days, for example, he really must — it’s an old plan — envelop himself in a cloak of cold fire that, as he conceives it, would warm a naked man at the North Pole and from which he would emerge not only unharmed but improved: mind refreshed, organs rejuvenated, skin renewed. Another medical angle: he should work on the idea of high-voltage anesthesia in hospitals. It would be equally advisable to bury high-tension cables under schools to stimulate the poorest students, while in theaters, electrically charged dressing rooms would put actors in the proper frame of mind and end the problem of stage fright. He’ll have to get busy on that.
Gregor showcases — to the chagrin of “serious” scientists — his fluency with electrical currents in his famous shows. He’s popular and he lives a lavish lifestyle funded by the likes of J.P. Morgan, who emphasizes that the money is a loan. But he doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere because he cannot focus long enough to develop one of his ideas, though he is constantly filing patents: “He’s making a mistake, going much too quickly; he ought to spend five minutes on an idea to carry it through, explore the possibilities, especially since his ideas are all so promising.”
Lightning doesn’t just explore Gregor’s life as a scientist, though. We also get some brilliantly rendered bits on his romances, or lack thereof. He doesn’t seem to have time for love, when could he? But through his life Ethel, the wife of one of his acquaintances sticks close by, and she’s a comfort to him and “warms his heart a little: as she walks him to the door while Norman, his back turned, pours another round of his revolting digestifs, Ethel — perhaps a tad tipsy — knots his new tie playfully around his neck. Despite his aversion, even with her, to physical contact, and despite his sudden irrepressible fear for one second that she will strangle him, he finds to his surprise that he enjoys this moment. A little erection, Gregor? Go on, just this once.”
Another romance: the pigeons, the beautiful, revolting, plotting pigeons. Enough of them for this post. There’s much more on them in Lightning, and Echenoz is anxious to tell you about them.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Alice Munro’s “Gravel” was originally published in the June 27, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
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It’s always a good way to start the week: a new story by Alice Munro, who obviously hasn’t slowed down much. This one may be one of my favorites of the recently published (and I have a lot of her back catalog to go through). “Gravel” is a masterful piece that showcases simple style and complex structure so nicely done it looks simple too.
Our narrator is an older woman looking back on something terrible that happened when she was only five years old, something she feels guilty about even though she can’t really remember that much (“I barely remember that life. That is, I remember some parts of it clearly, but without the links you need to form a proper picture.”). When she was five and her older sister Caro was nine, her mother became pregnant, allegedly by one of the actors who moved into town with the new professional summer theater.
My mother and father had been among those in favor, my mother more actively so, because she had more time. My father was an insurance agent and travelled a lot. My mother had got busy with various fund-raising schemes for the theatre and donated her services as an usher. She was good-looking and young enough to be mistaken for an actress. She’d begun to dress like an actress, too, in shawls and long skirts and dangling necklaces. She’d left her hair wild and stopped wearing makeup. Of course, I had not understood or even particularly noticed these changes at the time. My mother was my mother. But no doubt Caro had. And my father. Though, from all that I know of his nature and his feelings for my mother, I think he may have been proud to see how good she looked in these liberating styles and how well she fit in with the theatre people.
After she becomes pregnant, she moves herself and the two girls into a small home by a gravel pit.
My mother was the one who insisted on calling attention to it. “We live by the old gravel pit out the service-station road,” she’d tell people, and laugh, because she was so happy to have shed everything connected with the house, the street — the husband — with the life she’d had before.
Through much of the story, the narrator’s five-year-old self has no real idea what is going on. When she visits her father and her mother asks if she had a good time, she simple says yes, “because I thought that if you went to a movie or to look at Lake Huron or ate in a restaurant, that meant that you had had a good time.” At nine, Caro is much more bothered by the whole situation (indirectly, this story is her story rather than the narrator’s); she said yes, too, “but in a tone of voice that suggested that it was none of our mother’s business.”
The story develops wonderfully. Through small details, we get to know these people very well, even if our narrator is someone who is only piecing together poorly remembered moments. Amazingly, it accomplishes this though the story is very short, and nearly half of it dwells on one particular moment.
In the way “Gravel” deals with memory and guilt, and the way it is structured to do so (and not to simply tell a story from start to finish) reminded me a great deal of William Maxwell’s masterpiece, So Long, See You Tomorrow (see my review here). Incidentally, I think such a connection is purposeful. After Maxwell died in 2000, Alice Munro said of So Long, See You Tomorrow, “I thought: so this is how it should be done. I thought: If only I could go back and write again every single thing that I have written.” Certainly she has accomlished something similar but about a very different tragedy than the one Maxwell recounts. I loved it.
Take advantage of the fact that this story is freely available through the link above.
I read and enjoyed Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto and The Patron Saint of Liars, but in neither case did I fall in love and feel I needed to read more of her work. For whatever reason, I’ve passed on her other books and skipped Run when it came out a few years ago. In fact, I would have skipped her most recent, State of Wonder (2011), had it not been for a personal interest: this book is set in the Amazon. I’ve explained before (here) that I spent a couple of years in the Amazon region of Brazil. I don’t read anything and everything set in the Amazon, but I trust Patchett enough to let her take me there again. She’s sensitive to physical details but, importantly, also to how those details are perceived in a disoriented mind.
Review copy courtesy of HarperCollins.
There are many things that disorient in this book, and Patchett captures the feelings wonderfully. Before the book begins, Doctor Marina Singh has a quiet, safe job doing unremarkable research for Vogel, an American pharmaceutical company. She shares a small office with Anders Eckman, and she’s having a secret relationship with Vogel’s CEO, Mr. Fox (that’s what she calls him, being his employee before his lover), who is about 20 years older than her. That secret relationship is about the spiciest thing going for her, but even it is fairly unremarkable. Mr. Fox is a polite, unmarried man, respectful of Marina just as he’s discreet about dating one of his younger researchers. Patchett presents a loving relationship where Marina and Mr. Fox depend on one another and comfort one another, yearn for one another, but if you’re seeking flares of passion, this isn’t it — they’re kind of past that. Marina is very satisfied with her life; she’s eliminated a lot of risk. Outside the laboratory, winter is just about to give way to a cold spring in Minnesota.
But the very first sentence of the book announces the death of Anders Eckman. For the last few months he was travelling in Brazil, trying to find out whether any progress has been made on a project Vogel has been funding for years. Doctor Annick Swenson, the head researcher who has spend over half of her 73 years researching in the Amazon, has never been forthright about her progress, preferring to work in peace. They should trust she’s keeping up her end of the bargain and keep up theirs by not meddling and delaying progress by asking for progress reports. Mr. Fox doesn’t know if a drug has already been made or if the research has even progressed past stage one. In fact, Mr. Fox doesn’t even know where the research is taking place, so secretive is Dr. Swenson. He had had enough and he hoped to get some response by sending Anders Eckman to find Dr. Swenson, only now Eckman is dead. When Marina hears the news, “[t]here was inside of her a very modest physical collapse, not a faint but a sort of folding.”
Dr. Swenson’s letter is our first real introduction to this mysterious woman:
The rain has been torrential here, not unseasonable yet year after year it never ceases to surprise me. It does not change our work except to make it more time-consuming and if we have been slowed we have not been deterred. We move steadily towards the same excellent results.
But for now this business is not our primary concern. I write with unfortunate news of Dr. Eckman, who died of a fever two nights ago. Given our location, this rain, the petty bureaucracies of government (both this one and your own), and the time sensitive nature of our project, we chose to bury him here in a manner keeping with his Christian traditions. I must tell you it was no small task. As for the purpose of Dr. Eckman’s mission, I assure you we are making strides. I will keep what little he had here for his wife, to whom I trust you will extend this news along with my sympathy. Despite any setbacks, we persevere.
Marina, who was once going into obstetrics, was once Doctor Swenson’s pupil. After an error during a high risk procedure, Marina bailed and became a pharmacologist. All along, though, it turned out Doctor Swenson was travelling to Brazil to research and develop a drug for fertility, the drug Vogel is paying a lot of money to develop, a drug so important they’ve given Doctor Swenson so much leeway they don’t even know where she is, but being in the dark has worn their patience thin. In light of the new tragedy of Eckman’s death, Mr. Fox is even more intent on finding out just what is going on. Eckman’s wife, whom Marina considers a friend, wants to find out what’s going on too, and even better if she can bring back Eckman’s body. Marina is the perfect candidate, albeit an unwilling one, to go following in Eckman’s footsteps and find out just what is going on in Brazil.
It’s a nicely developed story, even if for me it was a bit hard to believe in Mr. Fox’s insistence that Marina head to the jungle on her own. But eventually she strips the comfort of a cold spring in Minnesota for the disorientation of the Amazon jungle, made so much worse for all the sun and rain’s effects on the body and mind, a phenomenon Patchett captures beautifully here (“She wasn’t entirely sure if the preventative medicine that worked against insect borne diseases was making her sick or if she had in fact contracted an insect borne disease in spite of the medication.”).
Marina lands in Manaus after suffering from nightmares brought on by Lariam, the drug meant to protect against malaria. She also gets sick from other things and her time in Manaus waiting for Dr. is a hell in itself. One respite is when Marina goes to the opera to see Orpheus and Eurydice. Well, Marina comes to the obvious parallel quickly: “She was Orpheo, and there was no question that Anders was Euridice, dead from a snake bite. Marina had been sent to hell to bring him back.” Soon Doctor Swenson comes to Manaus for supplies, and Marina begins her trek into the jungle on the river. Of course this leads to obvious comparisons with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Doctor Swenson being the Kurtz character, though I’m not too sure this gets us as far as the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. Whatever the case, I love the way Patchett describes the transitions from one world to the next:
In a matter of minutes the nameless river narrowed and the green dropped behind them like a curtain and the Negro was lost. Marina had thought that the important line that was crossed was between the dock and the boat, the land and the water. But as they glided between two thick walls of breathing vegetation she realized she was in another world entirely, and that she would see civilization drop away again and again before they reached their final destination.
I hesitate to go much further and follow Marina into the jungle in this post, but I did enjoy it. Her relationship with Doctor Swenson is interesting and develops in a natural unease as they battle back and forth over how far one should go for science and what is the best way to interact with the Lakashi, the Amazon tribe where women remain fertile throughout their life, inspiring Doctor Swenson’s work and Vogel’s interest. Naturally, Doctor Swenson and the few other researchers are keeping secrets from Vogel, so I suppose I should keep them from you. Suffice it to say, their progress has been great indeed, and I enjoyed watching Marina’s growing awareness and fear.
But just as she’s becoming happy in her surroundings, which she initially felt was hell’s epicenter, Marina has another descent even deeper and Patchett, for me, fully realized hell there. I found it beyond excruciating and it showed me just how emotionally involved I had become.
Stepping back from my emotions for a second, I believe this book will not please everyone as it pleased me. Patchett is a fine writer, and I don’t think that can be disputed well. She’s just excellent at the slight turn of phrase that illuminates moments of shock or surprise. Besides the folding she describes when Marina finds out Eckman is dead, I also enjoyed when Marina delivered a baby and was surprised because there was suddenly “an entire boy.” I can related to that bafflement, as strange as it might sound, and the shock as Patchett described it was perfect. But, as I mentioned earlier, there are some bits that trouble those who want their fiction “real,” that is, free from conveniences meant to further the plot (why would Mr. Fox send his lover to the jungle right after hearing his other employee just died there?) and free from things that are a bit out-of-this-world (like the Lakashi’s remarkable and frightening capacity to bear children, among other things).
Furthermore, while I don’t think the questions posed in this book merely serve to make the characters or plot interesting, neither is this exactly a book of ideas. Patchett, thankfully, doesn’t simplify things by making this book a criticism of pharmaceutical companies; she also doesn’t get bogged down in moral questions of science and humanity and how one engages with another people without interfering in their way of life. Those elements are there, but the characters are developed enough they come off as real, and we can sympathize with their viewpoints. But some might want a more nuanced discussion of these issues or might wish to tie them to the structure of the book. I don’t think this is the book for that. Rather than examining modern humanity, Marina’s several journeys into hell are more personal. Still, it makes excellent, smart storytelling.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this story is available only for subscribers). Lauren Groff’s “Above and Below” was originally published in The New Yorker‘s June 13 & 20, 2011, issue.
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Lauren Groff is certainly the least known author of this issue’s pieces of fiction. She is probably even be the least known author in the entire issue, filled as it is with short vignettes by Aleksandar Hemon, Jennifer Egan, Junot Díaz, Jhumpa Lahiri, Téa Obreht, Edward P. Jones, Vladimir Nabokov, and Salvatore Scibona. While not a fiction writer, Annette Gordon-Reed, who reviews books on the topic of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in this issue, is better known. Groff is young and, from what I can find, has one novel (The Monsters of Templeton, which I’ve seen plenty of but have never read) and one collection of short stories (Delicate Edible Birds, which I’ve also not read in its entirety but which contains some excellent short stories I read elsewhere). “Above and Below” is her first piece to be published in The New Yorker, and I don’t think it will be her last (that is my hope, anyway).
When “Above and Below” begins, much has already happened to the nameless narrator, and she’s done.
She’d been kept awake all night by the palm berries clattering on the roof, and when she woke to the sun blazing through the window she’d had enough. Goodbye to all that! she sang, moving the little she owned to the station wagon: her ex-boyfriend’s guitar, the camping equipment they’d bought the first year of grad school (their single night on the Suwannee, they were petrified by the bellows of bull gators), a crate of books. Goodbye to the hundreds of others shew as leaving stacked against the wall: Worthless, the man had told her when she tried to sell them.
She has been a graduate student in Florida, teaching a few English classes to undergrads, but the nicely structured life began to fall apart. Her boyfriend of four years has left her (“Worst of all, he’d taken his parents, who had welcomed her for four years of holidays in their generous stone house in Pennsylvania.”), she is no longer receiving funding and her teaching stipend is not enough to pay for anything (I remember those days), and for the summer months she’s been living with the power off, reading books by the window’s light. Groff is gifted when it comes to slowly constructing the key elements of the story. Yes, we know because we are told explicitly that she is on the brink of utter poverty, but we get a sense of the desperation that drove her to leave her apartment in such details as the man telling her the books she is trying to sell — probably to pay for her power, or food — are worthless. All that she’s learned is practically worthless (“Here, ‘Derrida’ was only French for rear end.”).
She has parents, kind of. Her father died when she was young and her mother, a bit later “marrying in exhaustian,” has ceased to be supportive, forgetting her birthdays and sending empty care packages. It’s not out of cruelty; her mother has simply “fold[ed] herself entirely away.” As we learn this, it makes her loss of her boyfriend’s parents even more wrenching.
As the story moves on, she gets more and more destitute. We think she has it rough when she’s sleeping in her car and ripping off food from coolers on the beach. It turns out those will be happy memories. Adding even more to the story, Groff spends a good amount of time developing the girl’s relationships with a few of the people she meets in her hard time, people who are also having it rough but who are able to help her.
It’s a strong story.
After winning the National Book Award in 2009, Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin has now won the IMPAC (see the announcement on the IMPAC website here).
I have this book on hand, but I haven’t been compelled to read it quite yet. Perhaps this will do the trick.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this story is available only for subscribers). Jeffrey Eugenides’s “Asleep in the Lord” was originally published in The New Yorker‘s June 13 & 20, 2011, issue.
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I was thrilled to see that this fiction issue featured a new piece by Jeffrey Eugenides, whose third novel, The Marriage Plot, comes out in October. For whatever reason, it took me a while to read. It’s a slowly-paced story, and I found myself putting it down to think quite often. I’m still not sure how I feel about it, but it has made an impression on me and I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit since I finished it.
The story takes place in 1983. A post-graduate named Mitchell has left his home in Michigan and, after travelling Europe for a while, has ended up in Calcutta, just beginning to serve at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying Destitutes. Nothing in his life has prepared him for his task.
Mitchell had never so much as changed a baby’s diaper before. He’d never nursed a sick person, or seen anyone die, and now here he was, surrounded by a mass of dying people, and it was his job to help them die at peace, knowing they were loved.
He takes it easy at first, offering head massages to those with headaches and passing out medication he knows nothing about, feeling he should work his way up to the larger tasks he finds repulsive, like bathing the sick. We note his hesitation early on, and we wonder if he’ll get over whatever barrier is keeping him from fully engaging in the service he’s signed up for.
For me, the best part of the story was the background on Mitchell’s own spiritual quest. He doesn’t seem to believe, only to want to; or, rather, he wants to be the kind of person he sees when he sees someone who believes (perhaps it’s even a bit of vanity). He was heavily influenced by William James, finding himself perfectly described in the passages about the infirm, and he finds particular promise in this line: “If there were such a thing as inspiration from a higher realm, it might well be that the neurotic temperament would furnish the chief condition of the requisite receptivity.” So he’s questing for such a signal.
Mitchell had embarked on his post-graduate travels in a state of exquisite receptivity. In Europe, he had found churches everywhere, spectacular cathedrals as well as quiet little chapels, all of them still functioning (though usually empty), each one open to a wandering pilgrim. He’d gone into these dark, superstitious spaces to starte at faded frescoes or crude, bloddy paintings of Christ. He’d peered into dusty reliquary jars containing the bones of St. Whoever. In stiff-backed pews, smelling candle wax, he’d closed his eyes and sat as still as possible, opening himself up to whatever was there that might be interested in him. Maybe there was nothing. But how would you ever know if you didn’t send out a signal? That was what Mitchell was doing: he was sending out a signal to the home office.
On the other hand, despite feeling giddy, “like a fan with a backstage pass,” when he finally catches a glimpse of Mother Teresa after he’s arisen pre-dawn to attend Mass, he still “didn’t feel as if he fit in with them, not matter how much he tried.”
I found the ending perplexing in the best of ways, though, as I said above, I’m still not entirely sure what I think of it. Looking forward to comments to help me out.