Occasionally on Twitter I will post pictures of upcoming books. None in recent memory got quite the response that the new NYRB Classics edition of Saki’s The Unrest-Cure and Other Stories with its illustrations by the great Edward Gorey. This is the first time such an edition has appeared in English, and it’s all that you’d hope: beautiful, whimsical, disturbing, macabre, hilarious.
Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.
I should start this with a confession: I have not finished this book yet. It collects 26 tales by Saki (a.k.a. H.H. Munro), published from 1904 to 1919. Though they are all short and could easily be read in a day, I didn’t want to rush through them (I’m currently enjoying one or two at night — and they go down so smoothly). However, rather than wait until I finish the whole book, I wanted to get the word out now. Most of us have encountered Saki and Gorey in the past, so you probably don’t need much from me other than notice that the book is now out.
If, on the other hand, this is your first encounter, I would like to say that Saki and Gorey are a divine — or devilish — match (does providence want us to contemplate our ridiculous state in such an irreverent way?). Both Saki and Gorey have a way of revealing our ridiculous, emotional, precarious state by showing us just how easily, how gruesomely, this life can end for the old and young alike. In some ways, it’s not such a big deal. If society is so hypocritical, if life is so ridiculous, it doesn’t hurt to chuckle a bit at our demise.
Then again, in some ways, I suppose, Saki may be doing the work of God, revealing to us our hypocrisies, the way we worry more about society than our own soul. There is, for example, an early story from Saki’s Reginald stories, “The Woman Who Told the Truth.” Here an Edwardian woman has a distasteful preference for telling the truth: “It may have been pleasing to the angels, but her elder sister was not gratified.” Society is scandalized and speaks their own half-covered truths:
It was unfortunate, every one agreed, that she had no family; with a child or two in the house, there is an unconscious check upon too free an indulgence in the truth. Children are given us to discourage our better emotions. That is why the stage, with all its efforts, can never be as artificial as life; even in an Ibsen drama one must reveal to the audience things that one would suppress before the children and servants.
It is all a lot of fun, reminding me often of P.G. Wodehouse. For example, this opening from “The Reticence of Lady Anne”:
Egbert came into the large, dimly lit drawing-room with the air of a man who is not certain whether he is entering a dovecote or a bomb factory, and is prepared for either eventuality. The little domestic quarrel over the luncheon-table had not been fought to a definite finish, and the question was how far Lady Anne was in a mood to renew or forego hostilities.
It turns out it’s fitting I think often of Wodehouse when reading Saki; Saki is apparently one of Wodehouse’s primary influences. And all of this leaves me with a bit of depression. It seems we currently live in an age of cleverness, an age of voice. How wonderful it would be to have a resurgence from the age of wit.
Before we recorded our podcast going over the early 2013 NYRB Classics releases (you can listen to it here), I had never heard of Russell Hoban. Now, it seems I hear about his novel Riddley Walker all the time. Why, I even listened to Michael Dirda on a podcast the other day (here) and he said something to the effect that, while he would never venture to guess what books will be read in a century, if he were to venture a guess, he’d guess Riddley Walker.
So who is this Russell Hoban? Incredibly prolific, Hoban wrote everything: novels for adults, including mainstream, fantasy, and science fiction; stage plays; librettos; essays; a script for an animated film; and lots of children’s books. Well, having just heard about him, I’ve also just finished my first book by him: today NYRB Classics is publishing a new edition of Hoban’s Turtle Diary (1975), which may be the best book I’ve read this year.
Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.
The central premise — though not the focus — of Turtle Diary is simple if a bit strange. William G. and Neaera H., two lonely souls in London, independently decide to go to the London Zoo, steal a trio of old sea turtles, and set them loose in the sea. William and Neaera find each other and decide to work together.
To me that sounds like a sappy journey to self-fulfillment (stay with me). In fact, if you watch the trailer for the 1985 film adaptation (here on YouTube), starring Ben Kingsley and Glenda Jackson, you’d get the sense that this is a quirky, sentimental, half-baked, comic adventure story. As fun as such a thing might be, such is not the case. After all, being attracted to the source material, it was the great, morose, quiet Harold Pinter who wrote the screenplay. There are moments of comedy in Turtle Diary, and the wit — even in passages about, say, suicide — often comes across as an amusement, but I feel it is more on the mark to bring up two of my favorite novels about existential despair, Moby-Dick and The Rings of Saturn, and say that these two lonely souls have been, for years and years, contemplating the whiteness of the whale and the rings of Saturn. Turtle Diary takes us into the minds of two people who have been staring at the abyss for so long, they have made the emptiness a part of themselves.
Turtle Diary is told as a series of first-person passages, alternately by William G. and Neaera H. Each voice is distinct, even though each shares the quality of a kind of loneliness and despair that is so pervasive and long-standing it comes off as only slightly less distant than happiness and hope. As Neaera says, “My despair has long since been ground up fine and is no more than the daily salt and pepper of my life.”
A quick introduction to William and Neaera:
William G. (I don’t think it says how old he is, but probably mid-forties) works as a clerk in a bookstore. Several years ago his wife and two daughters left him. It’s been at least three years since he’s heard from them, and he doesn’t even know where they are now. Terribly lonely and filled with self-loathing and a general loathing for the false promises of life, his early passages are bitter and biting. He does not want to interact with anyone. He lays in bed at night and thinks of how disappointing his life has been. He blames his current state on his family’s absence — that is, until he is honest with himself and understands that even when he was with Dora and the children he had a biting sense that his life was a disappointment, already winding down into nothingness. In this passage he yearns for over a paragraph before simply saying to himself, “rubbish”:
The past isn’t connected to the future any more. When I lived with Dora and the girls the time I lived in, the time of me was still the same piece of time that had unrolled like a forward road under my feet from the day of my birth. That road and all the scenes along it belonged to me, my mind moved freely up and down it. Walking on it I was still connected to my youth and strength, the time of me was of one piece with that time. Not now. I can’t walk on my own time past. It doesn’t belong to me any more.
There’s no road here. Every step away from Dora and the girls leads only to old age and death whatever I do. No one I sleep with now has known me young with long long time and all the world before me. Rubbish. I remember how it was lying beside Dora in the night. O God, I used to think, this is it and this is all there is and nothing up ahead but death. The girls will grow up and move out and we’ll be left alone together. I remember that very well. It’s the thisness and thisonlyness of it that drives middle-aged men crazy.
Neaera H. is forty-three years old and she’s never married, though we get the sense she almost was once. Or maybe that’s just her view of events. At any rate, she’s a successful children’s books author. When we first meet her, she says, “I am tired of meek and cuddly creatures, my next book will be about a predator.” For most of her life she’s been making impermanent plans while waiting for the permanent things to appear. She’s long since accepted “[t]he longevity of impermanent things!”
While William and Neaera have each had relationships, they are past the point of dwelling on them. None of these past events ever comes completely into the foreground. They are not things to be overcome; rather, they are just there in the narrative, as they are in life.
And that is one of the book’s primary strengths. It’s a slice of life story, despite the shared “turtle thoughts.” We get a sense of what these characters are dealing with in their every-day life. Even the build-up to the turtle liberation is internal. It’s anxiety, it’s fear, not excitement, that permeates life at the bookshop or life contemplating the next children’s book. In fact — and this is devastating — the turtle plans may well be, at least subconsciously, a way for William and Neaera to stave off suicide, but in forcing them out of their miserable comfort zones, it may actually bring suicide closer. That’s what Hoban is exploring here.
To better explore the effects of this one-time event, Hoban doesn’t allow the turtle liberation to some glorious event that ends the book. He takes us to what Neaera calls the back side of the event, showing us that whatever moment of glory they experienced, it would be fleeting, and they’d have to return to London:
Well, then. This was the back of the turtle thing. Not quite despair as I had thought before. Just a kind of blankness, as blank and foolish as a pelmet lying face-down on the floor with all the staples showing.
It’s a sad book, there’s no getting around that. The happiest character is the man who takes care of the turtles at the zoo, and his reasoning is that he doesn’t mind being alive. Neaera is intelligent enough to recognize that not minding being alive doesn’t mean life meant a great deal to the zookeeper.
And yet, somehow — I haven’t put my finger on it yet — this book is warm, even uplifting. Yes, I’ll say it: this book, this book that ends with a suicide, is inspiring. These characters may not think life is anything grand, and they certainly have good reasons for their beliefs, but they are putting up a fight. The unsentimental, unflinching look at this fight is beautiful to behold.
Last month, we both reviewed and podcasted about NYRB Classics’ new editions of Kingsley Amis’s The Green Man and The Alteration (reviews here and here, respectively, and here’s the podcast). But on the same day those were released, NYRB Classics also published a new edition of Anna Seghers’ Transit (1944; tr. from the German by Margot Bettauer Dembo). I really enjoyed the two Amis novels, but, between you and me, if I could choose only one of the three, I’d swoop up Transit – even with its ending that doesn’t quite live up to the rest of the book — without second thoughts.
Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.
Anna Seghers was born in 1900 to an upper middle-class Jewish family in Germany. In 1933, after Hitler took over, she moved to France but had to flee the Nazi invasion again in 1940. She sailed from Marseille to Mexico on the same ship that carried Victor Serge, André Breton, and Claude Lévi-Strauss, around the same time she heard her friend Walter Benjamin had committed suicide on the French-Spanish border after being turned away from Spain when Spain cancelled all transit visas.
In a sense, then, Transit is autobiographical, focusing as it does on those trying to flee before the Nazis arrived, particularly those held up in Marseilles, waiting for the perfect combination of documents that would take them to a new world. That said, here our central character and narrator is a twenty-seven-year-old man who has already escaped a concentration camp in Germany and another in Rouen. Transit begins with this narrator sitting across from some “you” in a Marseilles café, watching the ships in the harbor.
He offers to buy the listener a slice of pizza and then says he once gave up a chance to take a ship — he already had the ticket, the visa, and the transit visa — and now there is a rumor that ship, the Montreal, struck a mine and sank. He knew a couple who was on the ship. He’d like to imagine that they made it. Ah, if it won’t be too boring, he’d like to, for once, tell someone the whole story.
Dealing as it does on the life of a refugee who is always circling just on the cusp of survival, the story can be repetitive — wait in line here, wait in line there, secure a visa here, lose it there, always dealing with some bureaucrat – but Transit is far from boring. And so we begin his story in a concentration camp, move from there to an escape that takes us quickly past Paris, and then a life on the edge of frontiers on the dusty, hazy port of Marseilles.
When I say our narrator is nameless, I mean that we don’t know his real name. In the story, he actually possesses two names. On the way to Marseilles, someone asks if he’d deliver a letter to a writer named Weidel, in Paris. When he gets there, he finds Weidel has committed suicide, so the narrator leaves for Marseilles, assuming the name Siedler to assist him along the way, but the authorities think his real name is Weidel. Kafka would have been proud to see a nameless narrator with two names attempting to secure temporary residence papers, for which one is required to have a transit visa, for which one is required . . . and so on.
In the midst of this waiting game, the narrator befriends a man with an invalid son. When he goes out to find a doctor, he meets Marie, the doctor’s lover. The narrator, now that he’s Weidel/Siedler, turns out to have other connections to Marie.
But as fascinating as the story with Marie is, as fascinating as the trips around the bureaucracy are, for me the book’s real treasure lies in its examination of narrative and its postulation that, in a way, life is but a dream. These two concepts come together.
As I mentioned, when the story begins, the narrator talks of a ship that carried this mysterious couple and that might have sunk, and now he’d like to, for once, tell the whole story. He may feel it’s a way of rescuing them. Also, the manuscript Weidel left behind is a kind of fairy tale that the narrator claims could rescue from evil. And in all of this, there are the hazy harbors of Marseilles, where the narrator seems to be in a state of waiting, or limbo, no longer living, not yet dead, and all the time waiting transit to some promised land where the terrors chasing them down do not exist.
Such a perspective, on narratives and on this dreamy afterlife, is not all positive. The narrator wonders if he’d survived all of these things simply to write about them, as if life is only meant to be the source of some exciting story of humans in mortal peril. And the narrator also knows that the promised land everyone is lining up for is not yet tangible. If — and that’s a big if – we even succeed in arriving there, it won’t be heaven. We are all passing through this life, which perhaps has no meaning and which perhaps leads to nowhere.
Unfortunately, as alive as these concepts are through most of the novel, in the end they take backseat to a strangely compelling love triangle that leads to a rather sentimental epiphany. If you’re thinking of Casablanca, you’re not alone. Still, provocative in so many ways (and the love triangle is rather great), Transit remains powerful and relevant today as we all move about in this life.
Yesterday, we looked at Kingsley Amis’s science-fiction/alternate history novel, The Alteration. NYRB Classics also published a new edition of Kingsley Amis’s horror novel, The Green Man (1969), a novel that begins with comedy and ends with existential dread.
Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.
Life, for Maurice Allington, is a daily repetition of filling time, particularly with his favorite activities: drink and seduction. He owns The Green Man, an inn that has a charming back story of being haunted. Maurice lives at The Green Man with his second wife, his thirteen-year-old daughter (who was with his first wife when she was struck by a car and killed), and his seventy-nine-year-old father.
When the story begins it is pleasantly like watching an old episode of Fawlty Towers. Maurice runs around the inn, slightly exasperated and self-centered, drinking and planning how he can seduce his doctor’s wife. The only bit of ghostliness we get here is the appearance of a red-haired woman on the upper landing, where most guests don’t go. She says nothing, and she’s gone before Maurice has a chance to wonder who she is. Business goes on as usual.
Like a classic ghost story, then, The Green Man builds its tension slowly, with only a few slight hints that something is happening within the folds of the day-to-day. Maurice thinks little of it until he believes he sees the ghost of Thomas Underhill, the notorious ghost from the old stories of The Green Man. Underhill, a fellow at Cambridge, lived at the inn in the late 1600s. It’s possible he’s responsible for two unexplained deaths — all this intrigue!
When Maurice begins to tell others about the occurrence, they scoff, albeit politely. Maurice is such a character. Oh, they think he thinks he saw something, of course, but they wouldn’t be surprised if Maurice’s lifestyle was finally catching up with him. His older son Nick is the most skeptical and the most worried:
Nobody wants to see ghosts or think they see them or whatever you prefer. Can’t do you any good, even if it is all only in your mind — worse if it’s that, in fact. As I said, Dad, drop it. If there’s nothing in it there’s nothing in it. If there’s something in it, nobody with any sense would want to know.
But Maurice knows what he saw, so he starts looking into Underhill, starting with the work of an old scholar named Thornton. Curiously, Thornton’s account tells about Underhill’s private journal, which is kept at Cambridge, but Thornton doesn’t tell his readers what’s there and seems even to dissuade them from seeking the journal. When Maurice goes to Cambridge, he finds the journal in the “anonymous” section, despite the fact that Thomas Underhill’s name is all of it. When he reads it, he knows why people haven’t exactly made it accessible.
It’s a very fun ghost story with some fascinating undertones. The most interesting of these, for me, was Maurice’s growing understanding of why Underhill seems to be choosing him as an agent among the living. Maurice is too selfish to change, but he does rather despise himself. He feels guilty for the relationships he’s destroyed, though that doesn’t stop him from setting up a menage-a-trois with his wife and mistress.
The appearance of the ghost unsettles him. As his son’s wife says, when they are discussing whether Underhill’s ghost could exist in their own time:
Of course, he might just have mistaken you for someone else, but if he really did recognize you, then there’s an obvious case for saying that he is in some sense or other existing in the twentieth century, having died physically in the seventeenth — existing to the extent of being able to perform at any rate one kind of action, involving intelligence, memory and so on: recognition.
Maurice doesn’t believe in life after death. If a ghost appears, it should just be an image from the past, not some kind of consciousness from the past. For someone who almost looks forward to death as a means of escaping oneself, Underhill’s machinations in the twentieth century are not only terrifying because he’s a ghost, but they are also terrifying on an existential level. An exciting read.
Last year NYRB Classics began publishing new editions of Kingsley Amis’s books, starting with two of his most famous, Lucky Jim and The Old Devils. Today they are publishing two more of their planned ten-book project, venturing into Amis’s “genre” books with the horror novel The Green Man and the science fiction/alternate history novel The Alteration (1976). Aren’t the covers, by Eric Hanson, fantastic? This one is probably my favorite so far.
Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.
The novel takes place in 1976 and begins with ten-year-old Hubert Anvil singing Mozart’s Second Requiem at the funeral of King Stephen III of England. It’s the present day, but to us readers it feels like the late middle ages. Electricity and invention “were held in general disesteem” in the Europe (there are rumors that in New England there are people experimenting).
This is the world, as Amis imagines it, had Martin Luther not protested against the Catholic Church back in 1517. Indeed, in this history, Martin Luther was made Pope Germanian I (sadly, though in this world Mozart lived to give us more music, including a second Requiem Mass, Roman architecture is blocky and austere thanks to Pope Germanian I).
Amis’s world is filled with fun divergences from history. Far from being executed by Henry VIII, Sir Thomas Moore became Pope Hadrian VII. Shakespeare’s work is unknown except in some underground playhouses in America, but we do still have Thomas Kyd’s Hamlet. It appears there was no African slave trade, but Native Americans are still considered sub-human and enslaved.
Young Hubert Anvil, innocent, faithful, has a gift from God. Even the Pope’s emissaries to the funeral think he has the best singing voice in history (some dispute this, but how? no one has recordings). A gift from God; they take it upon themselves to protect that gift with a slight alteration: “Master Anvil, I hope you see it as our sacred duty to preserve this divine gift that has been entrusted to our stewardship.” Castrating boys to preserve their singing voice was common until the late 1800s. Did recordings have anything to do with the decline, I wonder? At any rate, in The Alteration the Church, especially in Rome, desires to preserve art unto itself, for the glory of God, so it says. But look at how uncomfortable the Abbot is here, trying to explain what they plan to Hubert’s father; as he starts, he barely makes sense and takes his time to get to the point; of course, by the end, he’s twisted it all into rationalization:
‘Now: there’s only one way whereby to bring it about that the gift we’ve mentioned shall be preserved. This is what it is. Surgery. An act of alteration. Simple, painless, and without danger. Then, afterwards, a glorious career in the service of music, of God and of God’s Holy Church. Any other course,’ said the Abbot, looking quite hard at Tobias, ‘would be a positive disservice thereto.’
The Church is going to get what it wants, make no mistake. They have hoops they need to jump through, like getting permission from Hubert’s father and his in-house priest, Father Lyall. This turns out to be more difficult than they’d hoped — Father Lyall looks for opportunities to thwart the Abbott — but this is a world where the Church holds all political and police power as well.
So in some ways, the book turns into an interesting discussion about what we sacrifice for art and about the conflict, sometimes, between art and genuine human intimacy. There are those, even in the Church, who think love and sex are much more important than preserving Hubert’s voice, but their dissent is easily pushed away:
“It’s simply that not even the wisest of us is infallible. Suppose that in a few years Anvil’s powers decline. There was such a case — at any rate, if it should so turn out, what do we say to ourselves then?”
“What you have just said, that none of us is infallible. Let me put your mind at peace, my lord. There are these, these declines you mention, but they’re very rare, too rare to be allowed for, and your duty to music and to God is too great.”
Though I’ve focused on the adults above, the novel spends most of its time with young Hubert, the ten-year-old with a great capacity for nuance and sophistication. For me, it was one of the great weaknesses of the novel, this well-spoken young boy who could reason with the best of the clergy, who could feel the pull of sex and family, who could also feel some sense of security in being altered:
‘Fornication and adultery. I shall never commit those, and I shall never want to, and wanting to is another sin, isn’t it, Father?’
‘Yes, my child.’
Hubert is a bit too smart to come across as a ten-year-old boy, which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if it weren’t paired with Amis’s rather simplistic views of sex-is-everything (as I understand his views, any way). Amis certainly has a message here, but for my taste it is both a bit too blatant and stops a bit too soon.
But oh well. I still really enjoyed this book, for the ingenious altered world Amis created and for interesting context for his discussion. Plus, there’s a creepy coda to it all.
This spring, NYRB Classics will reissue Frederick the Great, the last of the four biographies Nancy Mitford wrote in her lifetime. The three prior biographies each focused on French subjects: Madame de Pompadour, Voltaire, and Louis XIV. Attracted to her wit, I have been looking forward to digging into these and decided to start with the one that covers the earliest period of time, The Sun King (1966).
This book has one of the best first sentences I know, a sentence that shows the tone, the wit, and the clear subjects of the biography:
Louis XIV fell in love with Versailles and Louise de La Vallière at the same time; Versailles was the love of his life.
Louis XIV began his reign in 1643, at the age of five. He finally died in 1715, just days before his 77th birthday, well after almost everyone else he knew, including legitimate children and grandchildren, leaving the throne to his five-year-old great-grandson, Louis XV.
The Sun King covers his life in more or less chronological order, from the early days of his personal reign (starting in 1661 when his chief minister Cardinal Mazarin died) when he was converting “his father’s little hunting lodge” into the new seat of government in Versailles, to the final days when he died unsure whether the frail Louis XV would live (he did, and died at the age of sixty-four, having reigned for nearly sixty years; it’s during this reign that Madame de Pompadour and Voltaire come in).
Far from a stodgy biography of one of history’s strongest monarchs, a man whose commissioned paintings depict him as the Sun King, Mitford’s biography is a giddy and guilty little treat, as if she were a tabloid journalist wandering around Versailles, recording the foibles of the aristocracy.
Of course, besides Louis XIV, the main topics of this story are also introduced in that opening sentence: Versailles and the women who went up and down in his favor.
Versailles itself gets quite a lot of attention at the beginning of the book when Louis XIV is trying to make it “grand without being pompous” (not so sure he succeeded here, but Mitford, who died at her home in Versailles, seems to think he did). We learn about the aristocrats who didn’t like that Louis was shifting the seat of government from Paris to Versailles, about the ministers who did the design and ensured, as best they could, that funds would continue to flow in. Soon Versailles almost like a party palace, and, though Louis XIV was a smart leader of what was arguably the strongest world power at the time, we get the sense he was the king of the party.
And the women. Throughout the book we learn the names of women vying to become his principal mistress (though many of them still succeeded in sleeping with him and bearing him children, that did not do them much good).
It takes little time for the King’s looks to stray from Louise de La Vallière to another — and then another, all, of course, while he was married to the Queen. Here’s a fun passage about an early transition, perhaps instigated by some kind of voodoo performed on the woman:
Mme Voisin knew a priest who was willing to help. He read the Gospel over Mme de Montespan’s head; there was some nonsense with pigeon’s hearts under a consecrated chalice; and she prayed: ‘Please let the King love me. Let Monseigneur le Daupin be my friend and may this love and this friendship last. Please make the Queen sterile; let the King leave La Vallière and never look at her again; let the Queen be repudiated and the king marry me’. It was all rather harmless and undeniably successful.
Yes, poor La Vallière:
The King’s looks in the direction of La Vallière were getting fewer and colder, though this did not prevent him from giving her another baby as a parting present.
Mme de Montespan went on to have seven children with the King.
Besides going through the King’s life and his interests in Versailles and women, The Sun King also presents other topics, such as the rampant poisonings going on among the upper class and the awful services provided by the physicians.
Yet as fun as the book is to read, the tone changes when the Queen dies and Louis marries Mme de Maintenon in a secret ceremony. At about this time, the tone around Versailles and the tone in Mitford’s book shifted from light and fun to serious and weighty. Louis XIV had a kind of conversion and began to strictly uphold — on the outside — the rules of the church, and he enforced these beliefs on his subjects. To make matters worse, as he aged, feeling quite healthy and strong, he watched his line diminish, not knowing if he would have any heirs, something that must have seemed ridiculous in the mind of the Sun King, the man verifiably divinely appointed to rule France in a Golden Age.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Checking Out” was originally published in the March 18, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
Click for a larger image.
I’ve never really enjoyed Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s stories. I’ve never read her novels and in fact have wondered whether I’m approaching her work in the wrong way. Perhaps she’s a novelist who cannot really write short stories, so I should try one of her novels. “Checking Out” leads me to believe that even more. This piece is an excerpt from her forthcoming novel, Americanah. I don’t think it’s a successful short story, as readable and emotional as it may be, but I do get the sense that it will be a piece of a good novel.
The basic premise is this: Obinze has left his native Nigeria and has been living in England for two years, most of that time undocumented, suffering from the draconian demands of those who, under the guise of being helpful, take advantage of his precarious situation.
He’s already learned that these people have absolute power over him. Not long after he arrived it was agreed he could use the documents of a man named Vincent to secure work. He just had to pay Vincent forty percent of anything he got. When Vincent called to increase his share to forty-five percent, Obinze thought he could simply ignore the request. Why, after all, would Vincent give up his weekly payments by reporting Obinze. Because Vincent has the power and only keeps the power if he uses it. Of course, there’s also a sick pleasure in exercising such power to punish.
When the story begins, things might be looking up for Obinze. He’s met with some people who are arranging a sham marriage for him. It’s expensive, yes. And, again, they, and the woman who agrees to marry him, have absolute power over him. At any time they can demand more money by threatening to walk away or turn him in. This woman won’t, though. Obinze knows that. Cleotilde seems genuinely attracted to Obinze, and Obinze certainly is attracted to her. Though a sham to secure his legal status, he is hopeful their marriage will have other benefits:
There were difficulties in her life that he wanted to know more about, parts of her thick, shapely body that he longed to touch, but he was wary of complicating things. He would wait until after their wedding, until the business side of their relationship was finished.
It’s a compelling story about the inhuman status of undocumented immigrants. So sad is Obinze’s life, you can’t help but hope all turns out for the best. As usual, Adichie’s writing is emotionally gripping.
That said, my problems with the story stem from the fact that I cannot help but see it as a somewhat simplistic piece of social criticism. The precarious state of immigrants is tragic. Certainly the events of this story happen again and again and again in cities around the world. Immigrants suffer indignities, often at the hands of people who simply want to deal out indignities. It’s tragic and inhuman. This story does little other than tell it again with a sympathetic, honorable, capable protagonist. I’m not even saying Obinze is unrealistic; I spent years working in Newark and New York City and became very close to many undocumented immigrants. I’ve met people just like Obinze, intelligent, good-hearted, generous people who do not deserve what’s happened to them — not that anyone does — but are essentially powerless to change their situation. What I’m saying is that this story builds up our sympathies but in the end only confirms what we already know:
Removed. The word made Obinze feel inanimate. A thing to be removed. A thing without breath and mind. A thing.
This is worth remembering. But, sadly, this story feels like phony humanism. Obinze is presented to us as a sympathetic human being, but really he’s only an object on which Adichie piles on indignities, all in an effort to offer up criticism and morals, like this:
Sometimes he would stop outside a tube station, often by a flower or a newspaper vender, and watch the people brushing past. They walked so quickly, as if they had an important destination, a purpose to their lives. His eyes would follow them, with a lost longing, and he would think, You can work, you are legal, you are visible, and you don’t even know how fortunate you are.
All this is not to say I didn’t like the story. I couldn’t help but have hope for Obinze and felt the impact any time things went wrong. Still, in the end, there’s little here other than the social criticism, which I found simplistic in this form. There is so much here, and this story seemed to take the easy way out.
I actually think this will work better in a novel, especially as novels are usually better vehicles for social criticism. From what I understand, this is only an episode in the broader life of Obinze, hopefully giving him a bit more room to breath and become more than an object for our sympathy.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Checking Out” is complicated by its title, suggesting as it does the idea of being able to check out of a homeland the way you check out of a hotel. In this case, it is Nigeria that Obinze wants to leave behind — the Nigeria of “no good roads, no light, no water.” But Obinze is a dreamer, and he seems unprepared to make the leap. In fact, when he arrives in London, fellow Africans (even a fellow Nigerian) cheat him and make his humiliating deportation a certainty.
The story is bleak and almost hopeless, except for the promise a beautiful girl of Angolan-Portuguese descent provides, given that she is an English citizen. An arranged marriage to Clotilde, one for which he has paid the price of two thousand pounds, would mean Obinze would be set for life.
The real “checking out,” however, is that done on Obinze by the Angolans and Nigerians who run the marriage scam on him, cheating him of his money, his future and his hope. He is their mark. Possibly, probably, even the beautiful Clotilde is in on the scheme.
The story is so depressing it is hard to recommend it, especially given that the central artistic metaphor is a pile of human shit left on top of a toilet lid. So much for the impossible dream. Or perhaps the metaphor is actually “arranged” marriage: the way an entire country can wed itself to a hopeless dream of “going to America.” After all, Obinze’s mother says, “One day I will look up and all the people I know will be dead or abroad.” Or maybe the metaphor is the scam — that deliverance will be anywhere but Africa.
The story is an excerpt from a forthcoming novel Americanah. Possibly the novel is not as bleak as this excerpt. In her interview with The New Yorker, Adichie says the novel deals with immigration and remaking yourself. While the experience of moving to another country can be electrifying, I would be disappointed if Adichie abandoned Nigeria and Nsukka as the setting for her fiction. Alice Munro thrived when she returned from the sophisticated west coast to her home town on the prairie; Adichie herself says many people who fled Nigeria are now returning. I hope that her writing will not be confined just to the immigrant experience. We know quite a bit about the immigrant experience from a variety of writers, but what we know that is true regarding the beating heart of modern Nigeria could be put in a tea cup.
Friedrich Reck was a self-proclaimed conservative who, while the Nazis held power in Germany, longed for the days of monarchy, of order and nobility. He saw the Nazis as a horde of vicious apes and, over the course of eight years, put his life in danger as he kept a kind of journal of hatred and lamentation, cursing the Nazis and the German people for allowing such a brutish force to destroy what was once a great nation. Arrested in 1944 and executed (or did he simply die in a concentration camp) in early 1945, his diary was only published posthumously as Diary of a Man in Despair (Tagebuch eines Verzweifelten, 1947; tr. from the German by Paul Rubens, 2000). A fascinating historical document, it is also a great piece of literary, declamatory art.
Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.
The book begins with an entry in 1936. Its first line: “Spengler is dead, then.” It’s been three years since Hitler took power, and Reck still cannot believe such a weak, short, mouse of a man could be leader of Germany. Spengler was a philosopher who in the early 1930s refused to accept Nazi ideals; he was a man Reck looked to for solidarity in his quest to delegitimize Hitler and return Germany to what it should be. But now Spengler is dead, Spengler, who was a bulwark, a force, a true “man,” the exact opposite of the diminuitive Hitler:
I still remember our first meeting, when Albers brought him to my house. On the little carriage which carried him from the station, and which was hardly built with such loads in mind, sat a massive figure who appeared even more enormous by virtue of the thick overcoat he wore. Everything about him had the effect of extraordinary permanence and solidity: the deep bass voice; the tweed jacket, already, at that time, almost habitual; the appetite at dinner; and at night, the truly Cyclopean snoring, loud as a series of buzz saws, which frightened the other guests at my Chiemgau country house out of their peaceful slumbers.
As the book continues, Reck becomes more and more disheartened, more and more pessimistic about the future of Germany. At first, thinking some foreign aid would stop this experiment in barbarism early he soon sees “the inevitable Second World War.” He can’t stand the fact that it is his own people causing such destruction:
My life in this pit will soon enter its fifth year. For more than forty-two months, I have thought hate, have lain down with hate in my heart, have dreamed hate and awakened with hate. I suffocate in the knowledge that I am the prisoner of a horde of vicious apes, and I rack my brain over the perpetual riddle of how this same people which so jealously watched over its rights a few years ago can have sunk into this stupor, in which it not only allows itself to be dominated by the street-corner idlers of yesterday, but actually, height of shame, is incapable any longer of perceiving its shame for the shame that it is.
I found the book fascinating throughout. Reck is perhaps not our perfect hero, but his principled and dangerous stand against the Nazis is heroic and poignantly written down in this book he had to keep buried to avoid capture and execution.
Besides being a fascinating piece of history, a first-person account from the ground (a perspective that does cause Reck to get a number of details wrong, but that also exemplifies just how chaotic the time could be), the book is also a magnificent piece of poetry. One could liken many passages to Psalms, and I thought many times of Lamentations, written by Jeremiah as he mourned the destruction of Jerusalem and his people as well as connecting the tragedies to their own faults and hoping, almost beyond hope, that somehow things might be recovered:
You threaten all who oppose you with death, but you forget: our hatred is a deadly poison. It will creep into your blood, and we will die shouting with joy when our hate pulls you down with us into the depths.
Let my life be fulfilled in this way, and let my death come when this task is completed! This promise has come out of the heart of the people you are now striking, and I set it down, at this moment, since it applies to you as well as to us:
If you banish God from the earth, we will meet him under the earth. And then we, the underground men, will sing a song to God, who is joy . . .
We know how this ends before we begin the book, but that doesn’t lessen the power of the last few chapters in 1944 when Reck still has no idea how or even if this terror, which he hoped would be quashed soon after it began, will end. Still, the book somehow ends on a jubilant note of relief and hope, and then we simply see the empty pages beyond the last words. An important book that must be read.
NYRB Classics has published a few books by Vasily Grossman, including Life and Fate, a book that was not published in Russia until the late 1980s, over twenty years after Grossman’s death. Life and Fate has been called his masterpiece and one of the greatest Russian novels of the twentieth century. I still haven’t read it. In fact, until I read An Armenian Sketchbook (partially published in 1967 and fully in 1988; tr. from the Russian by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler, 2013) I had not read a word by Grossman. This book, at just over 100 pages, was a great place to start.
Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.
An Armenian Sketchbook was also published posthumously. The book’s introduction notes that it could have been published in Grossman’s lifetime but he refused to take out fifteen lines the censors demanded he cut. After a lifetime allowing his work to be mangled by the Soviet authorities, he wouldn’t be pushed around any more. His principled stand shows through in the pages of this little “sketchbook” he wrote during two months he spent in Armenia. He begins with his train ride into the country:
My first impressions of Armenia were from the train, early in the morning: greenish-grey rock — not in the form of a mountain or crags but in the form of scree, a flat deposit, a field of stone. A mountain had died, its skeleton had been scattered over the ground. Time had aged the mountain; time had killed the mountain — and here lay the mountains bones.
This passage beautifully introduces the vast history of this region, a sense of the antiquity as well as of decline. Supposedly Noah’s ark landed on Mount Ararat, which can be found on the country’s coat of arms. Over the centuries, this country that sits between Eastern Europe and Western Asia has seen many tragedies, including the Armenian Genocide during World War I, an event that comes up often in this book. When speaking of the nation’s diversity, Grossman refers to the country’s history:
This diversity is the reflection of centuries, of millennia, of victors passing the night in the homes of those they have defeated. This diversity is the story of the crazed hearts of women who passed away long ago, of the wild passions of soldiers intoxicated by victory, of the miraculous tenderness of some foreign Romeo towards some Armenian Juliet.
To me, that’s a remarkably sensitive passage, and I was honestly surprised at how often I was struck by Grossman’s sensitivity to humanity in general and to the humanity he witnessed in Armenia specifically. In some ways, this book reminded me of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts (review here and podcast here). Each shows a thoughtful outsider examining the humanity and history of an unfamiliar region, writing with tenderness and spontaneity.
An Armenian Sketchbook, however, is more philosophical. As Grossman discusses the region, he ties his observations to his thoughts on such subjects as nationalism. That particular discussion begins when Grossman reflects on the Armenian national character:
But just as thousands of streams running through forests, mountain rocks and desert sands, just as thousands of silent, thoughtful, roaring, foaming, transparent and turbid streams can spring from the same underground source and contain the same salts — so all these human characters and fates are united by thousands of years of Armenian history, by the tragedy that befell the Armenians in Turkey, by the longing every Armenian feels for the lands of Kars and Van.
Again, I found this passage to be particularly insightful, especially as it led to some of the uglier and more unfortunate aspects of transforming national character into an attitude of nationalism, what he calls favoring the husk for the kernel.
I also found An Armenian Sketchbook to be more spontaneous than A Time of Gifts. Here Grossman seems constantly able to link whatever is going on around him with some deeper thought. Consequently, we even get discussions on his physical state (he didn’t know it at the time, but he was already suffering from the cancer that was going to kill him).
I particularly enjoyed a passage early in the book when he arrives in Yerevan, the city in which he’d spend one of the two months he spent in Armenia. Grossman talks about all of the things he sees, and we know that these things have been around forever and have been witnessed by millions of people. Yet, Grossman makes the case that he himself is the creator of this city: “This city that suddenly arises from non-being is a special city; it differs from the city that exists in reality — it is the city of a particular person.” Another beautiful image and a pleasing perspective on humanity, on our individual ability to perceive this world: “And when a man dies, there dies with him a unique, unrepeatable world that he has created — an entire universe with its own oceans and mountains, with its own sky.” Yes, this universe may be strikingly similar to thousands of others, but it “lives in the soul of the man who has created it.”
Lord and creator, I wander through the streets of Yerevan; I build Yerevan in my soul.
And in this way, throughout the book Grossman moves from the universal to the individual and back again. It’s pleasant, thought-provoking, and even a bit reverent, and I’m anxious to get to know Grossman’s masterpieces.
Written in Moscow between 1926 and 1930, in the decade following the October Revolution, the seven pieces that make up Memories of the Future (tr. from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull, 2009) are surprisingly critical of Soviet life, even bitter. Consequently, they, along with most of Krzhizhanovsky’s works, were never published during Krzhizhanovsky’s lifetime. Most were not even shown to editors. Rather, they languished in the state archives until 1976 when scholar Vadim Perelmuter uncovered them. The first pieces were published in Russia only in 1989. He has since overseen the publication of five volumes of Krzhizhanovsky’s works, and we’re starting to get them in English (see my review of The Letter Killers Club here). It’s always surprising to get a glimpse into how easily great works of art can be lost for all time, sometimes unread.
Memories of the Future is composed of six short stories and one novella. Besides being critical, they are remarkably bizarre. In one, a gravedigger has a conversation with a corpse (“It’s not right: dropping dead then dropping in”); in another a man’s train takes a detour into the land of dreams (“Don’t over-stay-awake”); and in another a man wakes every morning to practice the art of resignation (“he walks over to the wall, puts his back up against it and stands there in an attitude of utter resignation. For a minute or two. And that’s all. The exercise is over. He can begin to live”). At the time the arts in Russia were steadily moving toward the ideal of socialist realism, a form of art that portrayed the virtues of the working class and spread the good news about communism. Obviously, Krzhizhanovsky’s works did not fall in line, and what we have are these fantastical stories that, far from being realistic, show the existential struggles of the citizens of this new world.
One of my favorites in the book is the first story, “Quadraturin.” Here we meet citizen Sutulin who, like everyone else, lives in an eighty-six square feet room. It is illegal to occupy a space any larger (I was shocked to turn to the notes at the back of this edition and find out that this was not a farcical element — there really was a Remeasuring Commission created in the early 1920s whose job it was to measure rooms and find out who had “excess” living space). One day Sutulin is approached by a salesman who has “an agent for biggerizing rooms.” It’s a salve of sorts that, when applied to the interior walls, floors, and ceilings of a room will “biggerize that room on the inside, but not on the outside. Sutulin decides it’s worth a shot and soon finds his room is growing on the inside, albeit a bit mishapenly since he didn’t apply the agent evenly.
But the agent doesn’t stop working. Soon the room is so large, light from one end doesn’t travel to the other and Sutulin finds that ”an unpleasant sense of morringlessness interfered with his sleep.” The darkness proliferates, and Sutulin breaks down. The story ends with this brilliant single-sentence paragraph:
In their sleep and in their fear, the occupants of the quadratures adjacent to citizen Sutulin’s eighty-six square feet couldn’t make head or tail of the timbre and intonation of the cry that woke them in the middle of the night and compelled them to rush to the threshold of the Sutulin cell: for a man who is lost and dying in the wilderness to cry out is both futile and belated: but if even so — against all sense — he does cry out, then, most likely, thus.
It’s a darkly fun story that can be enjoyed even if one doesn’t put it into context in 1920s Moscow. However, in context, it is an examination of the alienating darkness that had been proliferating in Moscow, making its citizens feel unmoored, lost, and wretched.
Each story contains such criticisms. In “The Bookmark” Krzhizhanovsky is critical of the state of Russian literature as one of his characters says, “‘Authors?‘ his scraggly beard twitched nervously. ‘We have no authors: we have only second-raters. Imitators. And outright thieves.’” In that story, as in The Letter Killers Club, a man invents strange stories — or, themes — out of the random things going on around him, valorizing the imagination, the dangerous imagination. In “The Branch Line,” a man finds the world of dreams, which is attempting to take over the world of reality. There was no better time to attempt such a feat, and nightmares would be the surest means to that end:
The main advantage of the heavy industry of nightmares over the light industry of golden threads plunged into brain fibrils, over the production of so-called sweet dreams, is that in marketing our nightmares we can guarantee that they will come true, we can hand our customers ‘turnkey dreams.’ Sweet dreams cannot withstand reality, sleepy reveries wear out faster than socks; whereas a heavy dream, a simple but well-made nightmare, is easily assimilated by life.
Krzhizhanovksy was certainly ahead of his time, and it’s easy to see why he never quite fit into the literary crowd during his lifetime. His stories are, thankfully, still fresh and still relevant today. There’s much more Krzhizhanovsky in Russian, and it will be a treat to read as it makes its way into English. Quickly, please.