A few years ago, The Guardian ran an article titled “How did we miss these?” Here, “50 celebrated writers” chose one book that was a lost literary treasure. (I have been happy to see a few from this list come out from NYRB Classics in the past few years). Colm Tóibín picked a book by a fellow Irish author. According to Tóibín, K. Arnold Price was 84 when she published her debut, The New Perspective (1980). I don’t think I saw this article until a few years later, and when I did I didn’t run out and find the elusive book. William Rycroft did, though, and loved it (his review is here). Loved it so much, in fact, that he lent me his copy, hoping this book finds another admiring reader. It did.
I had read Will’s thoughts onThe New Perspective, but I couldn’t remember what it was about, and that cover didn’t help. So I just dug in, without even reading the jacket cover. I was a bit surprised at how quickly the book’s tone settled on me and I felt I knew the two main characters, Cormac and Pattie, husband and wife. Butnotknowing these characters is part of the point.
For much of the book, Pattie is a first-person narrator, and here she is as she and Cormac drive home from her son’s wedding:
At any rate the unflagging movement of the car is satisfying. We are driving away from — yesterday we were driving to. The thing is done, accomplished, not brilliantly, not even with the excitement that might be expected on such an occasion, but at least carried through and settled — as far as any human contract can be said to be settled.
Price puts Pattie’s mood on page perfectly. She herself is rather unassuming for herself but also for other people. It’s as if she doesn’t expect much from them and they never fail to meet that expectation. On this occasion, though, she feels she might should feel something:
Later, lying on our backs in bed in a room faintly lighted from a street lamp, I confess my guilty feelings to Cormac.
I couldn’t feel any proper sentiments! Everything seemed absurd — I couldn’t get up any interest in Valerie. She is a dull girl, Cormac!
M’m . . . dull to you, perhaps. She suits Bob. It’ll last, I think.
And I couldn’t stop criticising. Did you notice Valerie’s mother? I thought she looked grotesque, poor thing! I felt we were taking part in some elaborate clowning — and not even well done . . .
A wedding, says Cormac, yawning, is a survival. It’s archaic, a Feast of Unreason.
That’s what it is. Nothing was real.
Don’t worry, says Cormac. It’s the last. There won’t be any more in this family.
When this last son has left the house, Pattie and Cormac have been married for 26 years. They are the quiet type. They have no real interest in society, and Pattie finally feels like they can now phase into their private life together, a private life in which she has the utmost confidence. Pattie feels secure that she and Cormac have weathered whatever storms would come their way, and she doesn’t want to be with anyone besides this man who may not communicate much vocally but “whose power of physical communion I must call perfection.” He is obviously kind to her, expects her to do as she pleases.
To start off their new life together, they move to a new home, one they can make their own, stripped of the obligations of their past lives. Pattie is excited to set it up with Cormac. One day Cormac comes home and simply tells Pattie that he’s purchased a violin. And then, the stranger, proceeds to play it. Pattie had no idea he had ever touched one. He hasn’t since a few years before they were married. He had other priorities that needed taken care of, so he put it aside and never mentioned it.
Over and over again I hear our voices in question and answer:
Didn’t you miss it?
When has Cormac ever admitted to missing anything? To being disappointed? Depressed? Frustrated?
And yet a silent renunciation for thirty years.
Nearly all those years he was with me.
This is what shakes me.
I don’t know him. I don’t know my husband.
This is still fairly early in this short (84 pages) book, and what follows is a one-sided unravelling of years of comforting assumptions. The central premise reminded me of one of my favorite devastating passages in literature, in James Joyce’s “The Dead,” when Gretta Conroy tells her husband Gabriel about a young boy who a long time ago loved her and died. A failure to even know about a spouse’s passion is a terrible thing, and we see Pattie’s certainty wash away and then become restored into something darker. Price’s controlled, layers prose opens this new, dark space nicely — I’m overstating a bit to say she reminded me of Cynthia Ozick, but only a bit.
This is a fine book, a lost treasure indeed (something NYRB Classics specializes in, ahem).
They’ve announced the 2012 Booker longlist today:
- The Yips, by Nicola Barker
- The Teleportation Accident, by Ned Beauman
- Philida, by André Brink
- Skios, by Michael Frayn
- The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce
- Swimming Home, by Deborah Levy
- Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel
- The Lighthouse, by Alison Moore
- Umbrella, by Will Self
- Narcopolis, by Jeet Thayil
- Communion Town, by Sam Thompson
- The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng
Also, I was surprised and upset (as were many) that when the Man Booker revamped its homepage they discontinued the forum. I met many of my literary friends there, and it has been a lively place.
As luck would have it, I have recently been putting together a forum dedicated to my favorite publishers and to short stories. I thought, why not add in literary prizes as well. So we did, and several familiar faces from the old Booker forum have made there way there already.
Feel free to join us discussing all things Booker related there, http://mookseandgripes.myfreeforum.org.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Zadie Smith’s “Permission to Enter” was originally published in the July 30, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
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I admit I’m excited to read this one by Zadie Smith, though I am disappointed the magazine has again opted to publish an excerpt from a forthcoming novel by a prominent novelist.
For the past month or so, in whatever spare time I have, I’ve been setting up a new forum dedicated to discussing the publications of certain select publishers. I’m a fan of NYRB Classics, Open Letter Books, Archipelago Books, and Dalkey Archive Press, and I wanted to create a place where interested people can go to find out about and discuss the fantastic books these publishers put out (as opposed to just the ones that happen to get reviewed) withou the distractions from the other large presses.
My hope is that this will allow people to dig in, review the books, present minutia about the authors, discuss cover art, discuss introductions, discuss publication history, show scholarship, and in general to be a reservoir for whatever information, objective and subjective, that can be put together on these books. Really, I want this to be a true fan site.
So far, I’m the only member of the new forum, and so far I have only seeded the NYRB Classics discussion thread by posting information about and covers for each and every NYRB Classic book ever published. I’m now working to cross-post my blog reviews of these books and will be moving on to the other publishers as time allows.
That said, before I get too far into this by myself, I’d like to welcome you to take a look, join the forum, post some thoughts, get involved, give suggestions etc.
You can find this forum at http://mookseandgripes.myfreeforum.org. Invite your friends.
We’re all very familiar with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, even those of us who have never read the book. Through various radio, film, and cartoon iterations as well as simple word of mouth, we know the basic story of the innocent, newly-wed solicitor called to help a strange client in Transylvania move to London. Interestingly, in Vlad (2004; tr. from the Spanish by E. Shaskan Bumas and Alejandro Branger, 2012), Carlos Fuentes opts not to become trendy and reimagine the basic structure of the myth or original story. But while he presents us with something familiar, he does so from a unique perspective, searching some new shadows in the old material.
Review copy courtesy of Dalkey Archive.
I admit to being a traditionalist when it comes to my vampire fun. (How can I say that having never read Stoker’s book? Anyway . . . ) Most of my joy has come from old films like F.W. Murnau’s brilliant Nosferatu and Carl Theodor Dryer’s eerie Vampyr, so I admit that a certain degree of skepticism I had going into this book was washed away when Fuentes’ fidelity to old conceptions of the vampire became apparent.
On the first page, our terrorized solicitor introduces us to the horrific story he has already lived. Navarro is an attorney in Mexico City. In his forties and relatively senior in his law firm, he’s not as young as Stoker’s Jonathan Harker, but, importantly, the love and intense passion he feels toward his wife, Asunción, has never died down. It appears they make love every single night and reflect on the bliss during breakfast in the morning. While young Harker’s love for Mina is pure and innocent and filled with adoration, Navarro’s love for Asunción has matured, allowing room for bright lights and shadows to co-exist. They have one daughter, Magdelena, and one son, Didier, who has unfortunately died, creating one of their darkest shadows. “This is our everyday life. I need to emphasize, however, that this is not our normal life, because there can be no normal life for a couple that has lost a son.”
Other than the death of his son, Navarro is content. He is successful in his practice and in love with his family. One morning he is mildly surprised when his boss, Eloy Zurinaga (R.M. Renfield in Dracula) says, “I wouldn’t trouble you, Navarro, if Dávila and Uriarte were available.” Don Eloy, the old, eccentric partner, wants Navarro to help an old friend, “displaced by wars and revolutions,” immigrate to Mexico City. We know where this is going, of course. But in this iteration, the attorney is not simply an unlucky man with an equally unlucky young wife; this plot of terror has been circling the content attorney for some time. Dávila and Uriarte are subordinates in the law firm, and Navarro initially (until the terror is over) assumes their absence was simply chance, that he was given this task simply because he was at hand. Why else, after all, would he be asked to find a house (with no windows) for his boss’s friend?
We understand immediately why Navarro is uneasy during his first meeting with the hairless, creepy Vlad, and Fuentes doesn’t need to give any specifics when Navarro begins to feel disoriented during his usually peaceful nights with his wife. Fuentes can simply say, “In my dream someone had been in my bedroom but then that someone walked out of it. From then on, the bedroom was no longer mine. It became a strange room because someone had walked out.”
So, as is apparent now, the basic structure of the story follows Dracula, so I want to hone in on one thing that makes Fuentes’ work worth reading: the mature love between Navarro and Asunción, which has survived the death of their only son. The children also add a new dimension to the seductive powers of Vlad. For Harker and Mina, the appeal may be lust and eternal youth, but since Navarro and Asunción are no longer particularly young, how can Vlad upend their world? They have had children:
“You don’t want to sentence children to old age, do you Mr. Navarro?”
I protested with a helpless gesture, slamming my hand down, spilling the remnant of my wine on the lead table.
“I lost a son, you old bastard . . .”
“To abandon a child to old age,” the Count repeated impassively, “to old age. And to death.”
Borgo picked up my glasses. My head fell to the metal table.
Just as I lost consciousness, I head Count Vlad continue, “Didn’t the Unmentionable One say, ‘Suffer the little children, and forbid them not to come unto me’?”
Vlad is not essential Fuentes, but it’s fun Fuentes, and, given my expectations, surprisingly deep (which is not to say it is particularly deep). I’m a fan of the myth of the vampire as it emerged in the early part of the twentieth century, so I may be predisposed to enjoying this more than others. That said, Fuentes gives the material reverence and respects it with his fine writing. Also, it’s short and, with Fuentes’ unfortunate recent death, we know getting ”new” Fuentes will soon end.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Junot Díaz’s “The Cheaters Guide to Love” was originally published in the July 23, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
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More Junot Díaz inThe New Yorker? That’s three so far this year, and in such close proximity. It’s been a bit crazy around here, but I’m getting on me feet again, and I will have this post up soon together with some other reviews of books.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Tessa Hadley’s “An Abduction” was originally published in the July 9 & 16, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
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I have generally really enjoyed Hadley’s many pieces in The New Yorker. They unravel slowly and bring familiar bits of the past forth with unique characters. ”An Abduction” was similar in tone and style to what we’ve had before, but unfortunately it didn’t quite do it for me. Strangely, though, I do believe — as usual with me and Hadley — that I will remember it and the characters for quite some time; Hadley again does a great job developing her character. The problem is — and I don’t usually complain about this — she cuts it short.
Here’s how it begins:
Jane Allsop was abducted when she was fifteen, and nobody noticed.
That’s an intense and provocative beginning, but the story (purposefully, I believe, and to great effect) does not deliver the thrill we might expect from “An Abduction.” The first few pages take us through one of Jane’s mornings in upper-class Surrey in the 1960s. We know she is about to get abducted, but Hadley let’s us spend some time with her on this warm day as she wanders from thing to thing, never quite finding what it is she is looking for, feeling there’s something she wants but unable to find it. She’s both too young and too old to enjoy the day.
Jane was listless, her mind a blank with vivid little jets of dissatisfaction firing off in it. Real children, somewhere, were wholesomely intent on untying boats or building dams or collecting butterflies to asphyxiate in jars (as she and Robin had done one summer). She should be like them, she reproached herself; or she should be more like some of the girls at school, painting on makeup, then scrubbing it off, nurturing crushes on friends’ brothers she’d only ever seen from a distance, cutting out pictures of pop stars from Jackie magazine. Jane knew that these girls were ahead of her in the fated trek toward adulthood, which she had half learned about in certain coy biology lessons. Yet theirs seemed also a backward step into triviality, away from the thing that this cerulean day — munificent, broiling, burning across her freckled shoulders, hanging so heavily on her hands — ought to become, if only she knew better how to use it.
Up the road come three young men, on break from Oxford, also anxious to find something to satisfy whatever urges they have. They need a girl, they say, and when they see Jane they figure she’ll do. At this point, we know that Jane is going to go with them willingly, and as selfish and despicable as the three Oxford boys are, they never become the dangerous boys we might expect. Yes, things happen, and Jane believes she is on the path to adulthood. Enjoying the change she feels, Jane is deflated when it becomes obvious she’s going to go back home, the path she started merely a cul-de-sac that, somehow, stunts her for life.
In the last few paragraphs, we fast-forward through Jane’s life (as well as the life of one of the boys, who will not remember this day), and it’s here, right when I’m completely involved in what that day did to Jane, that I wanted more since Hadley was at least interested enough in the consequences to summarize them. Unlike Munro, who can summarize a life in such a way we almost feel we’ve lived it, here Hadley seems to be wrapping up a bunch of things she wanted to describe but didn’t have the space to develop. Central to the story is Jane’s state of limbo between that childhood of “cerulean” days and adulthood, and, when it becomes clear she’s staying in that limbo for a long time, we get more, but it’s essentially no more than an afterthought. Consequently, the story, despite its promise, didn’t do much more than many other stories about the threshold of adulthood.
It may well be that as this story and its characters sit in my mind for a few days, I’ll start to find more and more to them, but I’m doubtful. Nevertheless, I was completely engaged and, as I said, won’t be forgetting it anytime soon.