This year’s Halloween treat from NYRB Classics is a new translation of Gotthelf’s novella/religious sermon The Black Spider (Schwarze spinne, 1842; tr. from the German by Susan Bernofsky, 2013). With the threat of plague and damnation around every corner, it fits the bill nicely.
Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.
The book opens with a beautiful sunrise over a green valley. Bernofsky’s wonderful translation skills immediately pay off as we read about the animals, including the “amorous quail,” waking up and singing songs as we zoom in on a nicely kept house.
About the house lay a Sunday gleam such as cannot be produced with just a few strokes of the broom applied of a Saturday evening between day and night; such gleaming splendor bears witness to a precious inheritance — inborn purity — that like family honor must be upheld day after day, for a single unguarded moment can besmirch it for generations with stains as indelible as bloodstains, which are impervious to whitewash.
This house, we may already guess, is a stand-in for the soul. It’s not enough to brush it off on Saturday night. To keep it clean — truly clean — one must tend to it every day.
And this is a particularly festive day. The house is all a bustle as everyone prepares for the baptism of a baby boy. Gotthelf lovingly spends twenty pages of this 100-page book on this baptismal day, showing us the foibles of the characters — none of them too severe. However, we also spend a bit of time getting to know their superstitions, the things that haunt them, and for good reason: going back to the house, salvation requires constant vigilance.
As the party relaxes, someone asks the grandfather, patriarch of the house, why he has an ugly, rough, black window post on his otherwise lovely home. It’s been a family secret, but the grandfather knows that it’s an important story that could save someone’s life — someone’s very soul.
He reluctantly begins the first of two related stories, one from a very long time ago indeed, and one from a few hundred years ago, each dealing with the inhabitants of this house and the reason for that black post.
Long ago, this was a village of peasants working under a sadistic overlord. This overlord and his knights were of the world, and cared more for their own pleasure than for their own soul. After nearly killing themselves with overwork building the overlord’s castle, the peasants receive an invitation to visit. Thinking they’ll be praised and thanked, perhaps with a feast, they hustle along. Instead, the overlord demands something impossible. He wants them, in the next thirty days, to transplant 100 fully grown birch trees, so he can enjoy some shade on the pathway to his new castle.
The peasant men know they cannot do this, and while they moan they are visited by a green huntsman — yes, the green man — who says he can help. Excited, they ask what he wants in return: an unbaptized child.
The remainder of the book is a fun, creepy, atmospheric horror story about a deal with the devil and the peasants’ unfortunate attempts to outwit the bad man.
Surprisingly, to me at least, Gotthelf doesn’t hold back. He must have figured if he was going to make a parable about damnation he might as well make it truly horrific. Physical travail, pain, death, and the like are inescapable. The best one can hope is to die smiling.
I highly recommend this quick read as you prepare for the witching hour.
This week, NYRB Classics published a new collection of Robert Walser’s short fiction in A Schoolboy’s Diary (1904-1925; tr. from the German by Damion Searls). It’s very short fiction: approximately 70 pieces in about 180 pages. Those of you who follow this blog don’t need to hear it again, but for those of you who are just dropping by: Robert Walser is one of my greatest personal literary discoveries. At this point in my life, I cannot imagine living without his work. It’s deeply influenced the way that I look at the world. I’m not the only one who feels that way.
Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.
The book begins with collection of pieces entitled “Fritz Kocher’s Essays.” In Walser’s introduction, we learn that these essays were written by Kocher at his school as part of a periodic writing assignment. The teacher would write a theme on the board — Man, Friendship, Nature, The Fatherland, Christmas, The Classroom — and the students would write. Kocher’s essays are wandering and filled with clumsy observations, as Walser notes in the introduction. But there are also some striking, remarkable insights, lent more gravity by the tragic early death of Kocher, shortly after these essays were completed.
The essays are cleverly naïve, boyish, and, in many places, a lot of fun. For example, Kocher loves taking digs at the teacher, digs he tries to make up for, kind of:
The teacher is a short, frail, feeble man. I’ve heard it said that men like that are the smartest and most learned.
We see Walser’s comic timing and ability to subvert throughout as well, as exemplified in this passage from “School”:
School is the unavoidable choker around the neck of youth, and I confess that it is a valuable piece of jewelry indeed. What a burden we would be to our parents, workers, passersby, shop owners, if we didn’t have to go to school!
Of course, Kocher also speaks of the imagination and the life of the mind, of his fascination with the world around him and of pleasures like Christmas, and this is constantly overshadowed by the fact of his death. This life, this ebullient life, is no more.
In some cases, we look at art as an attempt at immortality. Yes, someone has died, but in this work they live forever. For me, Walser’s work is more tragic. It reminds us of the mortality — of the humming mind — that no piece of art can replicate.
And that’s what I love about Walser: there is always a tension between living life and trying to create art out of it because one knows that death is imminent. These pieces contain those pleasantly familiar, though consistently surprising, themes, drawn out in the setting of school days, writing, walking. But we also get some pieces that venture away from this into war, being a soldier, and adultery. In all of it, though, there is a sense of joy, a thrill that a new day is dawning, and a sense of melancholy, for we know nighttime is coming. There’s a push and a pull.
Here is a piece published in May 1920 called, fittingly, “Morning and Night.” For me, it encapsulates Walser’s ornate, exuberant style as the daylight hits, and the sense of unease as nighttime hits:
Morning and Night
Early in the morning, how good, how blindingly bright your mood was, how you peeked into life like a child and, no doubt, often enough acted downright fresh and improper. Enchanting, beautiful morning with golden light and pastel colors!
How different, though, at night — then tiring thoughts came to you, and solemnity looked at you in a way you had never imagined, and people walked beneath dark branches, and the moon moved behind clouds, and everything looked like a test of whether you too were firm of will and strong.
In such a way does good cheer constantly alternate with difficulty and trouble. Morning and night were like wanting to and needing to. One drove you out into vast immensity, the other pulled you back into modest smallness again.
This summer NYRB Classics Children’s Collection is releasing new editions of two Dorothy Kunhardt books from the 1930s, Junket Is Nice (1932) and Now Open the Box (1934). While not moving and deep like the last one we reviewed, Hickory (see our review here), these two books are filled with imagination — they’re hilarious. My kids loved each of them
In each book, Kunhardt sets up a basic concept and then lets her imagination go.
In Junket Is Nice, the concept is this: a man with a big red beard is eating junket from a big red bowl (we are still in the process of procuring the right ingredients to make our own junket). He just keeps eating junket. He eats so much junket, people start to get curious, until the whole world comes to see the man eating junket. The man decides to have a little fun and asks them to guess what he’s thinking of while he’s eating his junket.
At this point, I stopped reading the book and asked my two boys, Carter and Holland. They each guessed correctly. If only they were in this crowd of people guessing the craziest — but funniest — things.
This one was Carter’s favorite:
And this one was Holland’s favorite:
As I said above, both of my kids got the actual answer right, so they’d win the wonderful prize the man with the red beard promised, but I wanted to push them a bit, see if they could come up with some crazy guesses. Here’s what they said:
Holland: “Phones. A phone getting called with.”
Yes, crazy, I know. But look where Carter takes that prompt:
Carter: “Two phones that are trying to jump but can’t.”
We’ve now read this book a few times, and it’s been a lot of fun each time. Here’s part of our second conversation about the book.
Me: Holland, does junket sound good?
Me: But junk is in the name. Do you like eating junk?
Carter: It’s not junk because Holland has a hall and an and, and he’s not a hall or an and.
Me: So you’re saying you’re not a car, a cart, or a ter.
Carter: That’s not even a word.
I did ask for a crazy guess again this time, and Carter, showing he’s highly literate when it comes to children’s books, said he’d guess that there was a pigeon wanting to drive the bus.
We were really excited, then, when the next Kunhardt book came in the mail:
But, I’ll be honest, I was skeptical. I enjoyed Junket Is Nice so much that I almost didn’t want to read Now Open the Box, lest I be disappointed. But, almost immediately, the book felt comfortable. There were the now familiar colored pages with run on sentences on the left, pulling crazy images from a basic concept.
Here, we go to a circus with a special dog named Pee Wee. Pee Wee is tiny, and everyone loves him. We were all very excited to see the crazy images popping up.
Holland’s favorite was the strong baby:
Carter’s was the lady hanging by her nose.
While the concept isn’t as strange as a man eating junket while the world guesses what he’s thinking of, it was still a lot of fun, particularly when Pee Wee started to get bigger, just like a normal dog, and everyone at the circus was nervous.
Carter made comparisons to Clifford and recognized the run-on sentences: “There are like 100 ands in this book.” Holland seemed skeptical about everyone’s love for Pee Wee: “He can’t do any tricks.” Carter was a bit more beneficent. When I asked if he’d love Pee Wee if Pee Wee were a normal sized dog, he said, “Yeah. Because it wouldn’t be nice to not like him.” And I’m happy to say that they thought the skinny man looked just like Dad.
In the end, I think they both enjoyed Now Open the Box almost — I don’t think they liked it as much — as Junket Is Nice.
They’re beautiful books, once again, and they emanate the kind of creative imagination that I hope inspires my children. If you haven’t already, get to know the man with the red beard and Pee Wee.
Today marks the exciting publication of Simon Leys’ collected essays, The Hall of Uselessness. I wasn’t familiar with Leys before starting this collection, but this goes down as one of my favorite collections. Please forgive what may appear to be gushing enthusiasm. Forgive it, because there was nothing to be done about it.
Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.
Simon Leys is actually the pen name of the famous sinologist Pierre Ryckmans. In 1971, when he was about to publish The Chairman’s New Clothes: Mao and the Cultural Revolution, a scathing report on the destruction of Mao’s cultural revolution, one of the first of its kind, his publisher recommended he use a pseudonym. In this way, as Pierre Ryckmans he could continue to visit and report from China.
As you might expect, then, this collection contains several (fourteen, to be exact) essays on China, and they’re fascinating, ranging in subject from Confucianism (for beginners) to the Chinese attitudes toward the past to Roland Barthes in China to the Cambodian genocide. Besides these perhaps more familiar topics (though Leys treatment is never rote), there are more obscure topics. For example, an article on Father Laszlo Ladany, a Jesuit priest based in Hong Kong who published the weekly China News Analysis, in the essay entitled, “The Art of Interpreting Non-Existent Inscriptions Written in Invisible Ink on a Blank Page.” While the essays are interesting, readable, and witty, the most striking feature is the humane passion Leys displays that he easily transmitted to me via the page. When talking about Chinese calligraphy, for example, Leys says:
Like painting (which, being born of the same brush, is its younger brother rather than its twin), Chinese calligraphy addresses the eye and is an art of space; like music, it unfolds in time; like dance, it develops a dynamic sequence of movements, pulsating in rhythm. It is an art that radiates such physical presence and sensuous power that it virtually defies photographic reproduction — at times even, its execution can verge on an athletic performance; yet its abstract and erudite character also has special appeal for intellectuals and scholars who adopted it as their favourite pursuit.
After reading this essay, I’d challenge you to not immediately go seeking for more information and examples online.
That humane passion shows itself in a variety of essays, on a variety of topics, and through a variety of emotions. One of the most striking essays for me was “The Cambodian Genocide,” which begins with a discussion on the shame it is to be human in the twentieth century. Leys continues this essay by describing the horrors of the Kmer Rouge, and concludes with a section that begins:
One mistake must be avoided. Descriptions of the Cambodian genocide strike our imaginations and shock our feelings — the horror is unbearable, and precisely because it is unbearable, we instinctively attempt to dismiss it from consciousness by supposing that these events, in their exotic remoteness, are so foreign to us that they might as well belong to another planet.
In fact, they concern us directly.
Leys becomes outraged, and that’s how the piece ends.
Leys’ interests and opinions and emotions are not limited to China and events in Asia. Besides the large section on China, this collection has five other sections: Quixotism, Literature, The Sea, University, and Marginalia.
Quixotism, besides an essay on why it’s not a bad thing to be quixotic, there is a good sample of what must, for Leys, often feel like a lonely fight. When it was published, Leys took issue Christopher Hitchens The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, which had received a positive review in The New York Review of Books, a periodical to which Leys has often contributed. After a few letters to and from Hitchens, Leys finally wrote his own review. Leys begins:
Eighteenth-century literature developed the new literary genre of the epistolary novel; I wonder if it would not be legitimate for me to propose now a new form of book review, the epistolary criticism, in which arguments are developed through an exchange of letters between the reviewer and the author of the book under examination. Or perhaps I should not try to disguise the fact: what follows is not much of a book review. But then, what is being reviewed is not much of a book either.
We get to read at least the essence of the letters between Leys and Hitchens, all of which, while strongly worded, seemed to keep the topic on point, never diving into attacks on the man, only on the views. It was a great read, whether you end up being convinced by Leys or not. He has worked hard to wrestle with the issues and to clearly record his response.
And that’s how I felt toward the entire book. Whether I had prior knowledge of a topic or not, whether in the end I was convinced by Leys or not, I was always drawn in, always happy to hear whatever he had to say. On anything (indeed, when finishing the long section on Chine, I was still fully engaged by the three short remaining sections, The Sea, University, and Marginalia). By sharing his thoughts with us, we not only get those thoughts but we also get a fine example of how to engage with the world, respectfully, intelligently, compassionately, all through clear, controlled writing.
Thankfully, this is a comprehensive book, at just over 500 pages of prose. Sadly, it’s such a pleasure to read, it still ends a too soon. Is it obvious that I highly recommend this book?
Five years after publishing In Love (my review here), Alfred Hayes delved into another doomed relationship in My Face for the World to See (1958). Both short novels by this screenwriter from a classic/cynical Hollywood, are now available from NYRB Classics, each with lovely covers featuring photographs by Saul Leiter.
Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.
In My Face for the World to See, Hayes moves us to Hollywood, a town where, according to our narrator, people “weren’t particularly evasive, nor did they make any particular effort to seclude themselves: there was just something invisible, I found, about everybody who lived in the town.”
This unnamed narrator is a successful screenwriter, like Hayes. He’s not famous, but he’s finally someone he can consider wealthy. He and his wife live in New York, but for a few months each year he comes to Los Angeles, alone, for work.
When the novel begins, he’s at a party at a beach house in Los Angeles. It’s that awkward time of evening: “It seemed silly to stay, tired as I was and the party dying; it seemed silly to go, with nothing home but an empty house.” He steps outside to watch the ocean. A young woman has also left the party to walk on the beach, and he thinks she’s silly as she walks out into the water. Suddenly he realizes she’s going too far and is getting pulled under, drowning. He yells and rushes to pull her out. He saves her, but throughout he is annoyed at the people, that he’s kneeling in sand in nice trousers, and that she’s vomited:
It all came up, the salt water and the gin and the food she’d had, a mess. She wasn’t pretty at all. It was a nuisance, and ugly. Of course, the dogs had to come over and smell it.
This is no hero. Before too long we’ll also see that the unnamed girl is not a fallen angel.
The man wants nothing to do with her, at first, but he decides he should call to see how she’s doing, in the process recognizing that rescuing her was an intimate act that gave him a proprietary feel. He has no intention of calling her again, but he fesses up: he’s so lonely.
I’ll skip to the chase: despite a large age difference (he married fifteen years ago, when she was only eleven), they sidle into an affair.
Throughout, the dialogue is witty. You can easily tell that Hayes was writing for Hollywood in the 1950s and you can almost see someone like Cary Grant speaking:
“You’re married, aren’t you?” she said at the table. The floor show had ended and the dancing had begun again.
“A little. Why?”
“Nothing. Doesn’t your wife mind you going out like this?”
“She’s in New York.”
“You’re not falling in love?”
“You say it so grimly.”
“It’s a grim subject.”
It’s an interesting, witty, bitter love affair centered around the fallen dreams of two lonely people who have never found what they’re looking for. Yes, this is an examination of the fact that money and success are not only elusive (she’s in Hollywood in order to become an actress) but are not the answer, and it’s interesting on this line.
However, for me the more interesting aspect, the one that felt the most tragic, was that these two unlovable characters and their embarrassing, short relationship was put on display for me, the reader. Here, the face they — particularly she — put on for others is stripped clean and we see them at their most unattractive and vulnerable. It’s almost cruel, reminding me of the part in Revolutionary Road when April is running away from Frank and Yates remarks on her backside.
Of course, it’s hard to turn away, as in some way this seems to get at the heart of the matter.
I’m afraid I found a late scene of a breakdown a little bit, well, perhaps a bit Hollywood, but, despite that moment of showy surface-bound material, there is a lot going on underneath it all. Each of these characters are sinking quickly, and it’s fascinating to stand on the side and watch.
Over the next couple of weeks NYRB Classics will be publishing four books I’m really excited about: two nonfiction titles, Frederick the Great and The Hall of Uselessness, and two novels, In Love and My Face for the World to See.
The two novels, which could be novellas at 130 pages apiece, are each by Alfred Hayes, an author I’d never heard of before but who, I was surprised to learn, already had an impact on me. Hayes wrote seven novels, but I know better his work on film. Along with Federico Fellini and Roberto Rossellini, he was nominated for an Academy Award (his first of two nominations) for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay for his work on Roberto Rossellini’s Italian neo-realist classic, Paisan (1946). Keeping up his work in this area, he was also an uncredited writer on Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948). These are two highly influential and important movies in the history of cinema. In the 1950s, when he returned to the United States and went to Hollywood, he worked with Fritz Lang, John Huston, Fred Zinnemann, and Nicholas Ray. Then, to top it off, besides many other writing credits, in the 1960s he did the teleplays for a handful of episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (including, incidentally, episodes that starred Peter Falk, Robert Redford, Joan Fontaine, Ann Southern, and John Cassavetes). Hayes may not be the central player in these productions, but he had a hand in the work of some exceptional, and exceptionally influential, artists.
Before I knew any of that, though, NYRB Classics drew me to their editions of his books with striking covers, using 1950s photographs by Saul Leiter, and, after reading the blurbs, I was very anxious to read these particular works for themselves and not as part of a larger career. Let’s start with In Love (1953).
Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.
The salacious premise of In Love is relatively basic and easy to understand. A man is sitting at a bar across from a beautiful woman, who is getting more and more beautiful as the night drags on. What’s the topic of conversation? The man’s dead relationship with a young woman who, one innocent night, met a rich man who offered her $1,000 to go to bed with him. She does not accept, but it still spells doom for the couple. They spend most of the book unsuccessfully broken up.
Possibly drunk when he tells this story, it’s obvious the relationship — or the absence of the relationship — is still affecting him deeply. It may be a strange topic of conversation when one is sitting across from another woman, but the man is, quite frankly, sick of it all. After all, when you strip it away, when you stop imitating someone you’re apparently supposed to be, what on earth are you? He tells the girl she can look at him closely, “all of me real enough if one doesn’t look too closely.”
I was completely engaged as this story took off. It’s remarkably astute, Hayes’s portrait of a man’s existential dread when he’s witnessed the dissolution of a relationship he felt was solid — well, at least a relationship he couldn’t imagine ending. If that relationship wasn’t real, if it’s just a prop on a stage, then what is real? What is the purpose? What is our destination?
But there is one. There must be one. We must behave, mustn’t we, as though there is one, cultivating that air of moving purposefully somewhere, carrying with us that faint preoccupation of some appointment to be kept, that appearance of having a terminal, of a place where, even while we are sitting here drinking these daiquiris and the footsteps are all quieted by the thick pleasant rugs and the afternoon dies, you and I are expected, and that there’s somebody there, quite important, waiting impatiently for us?
Though it now seems obvious, I’m not sure if I’ve ever considered the termination of a relationship as an existential crisis. Oh, sure, when it happens we all question the direction of life, perhaps even whether it’s worth living, but to really dig deeply and see the relationship itself as something unreal, of being incapable of being real, to feel that one is suddenly stripped of the external forces and now sits alone with one’s true self, and why is that self so sad to have lost something that perhaps wasn’t even deeply enjoyed, or is it even sadness it’s feeling? – that’s an interesting avenue.
In Love does not completely dwell here – after all, the man and woman do go on living in this world, despite their suspicions that none of it adds up — but there are tremendous moments when the slow plot slows down even more and we get the woman looking out the window at the black ocean, questioning her own reality, or of the man, after the sorrow of the breakup, taking a walk: “So, with the only face I had, I continued to walk uptown, imitating a man who is out for some air or a little exercise.” Love is deeply affecting, and deeply affected we continue to dwell in a world that sees us only on the surface.
Before he gets too far into the ins and outs of their relationship, the man tells the woman at the bar (us) about his ex-girlfriend, who is around twenty-two years old. She first married at seventeen, certain she’d entered into the dream life she was supposed to have. But now, with a five-year-old child, she’s divorced and living in New York City. The dream — I’ll hit it again — is just that, some figment of her imagination.
She soon finds the man (I’m sorry, but these two individuals have no names), and they strike up an amicable affair that each thinks is stable. They’re in love. Sometimes either may wonder what they’re doing together, but for now they simply cannot remove themselves from the relationship:
Sometimes, hating the violent dispossession of myself which love brought on, I would wish to be elsewhere; and feeling me withdrawn from her, she would ask (as I would ask when I felt her withdrawn) what I was thinking of, and I would reply that I was not thinking of anything; but those fleeting resolutions I would make, as I lay in the darkness, to live differently, or those desires I’d experience for another sort of life, were absurd and untrue, for no sooner would I leave her and find myself ideally alone that I would begin longing for her.
It’s no accident, and probably no real lie, when he answers that he’s not thinking of anything. It comes up later on when he, in turn, asks her what’s wrong:
Nothing. That endless nothing; that persistent nothing; that nothing that always turned out to be the cause of everything.
For me, though the book slows down toward the end and doesn’t feel as tightly controlled as it had at the beginning, this was a fascinating book about the death of a relationship — and it works on that level perfectly — but an even more fascinating look at an individual who allows himself to glimpse at the “nothing.” He refuses to let up as he digs, and this digging is mimic in the book’s interminable, layered sentences that reminded me of Steven Millhauser, always digging deeper, even if one never gets to the bottom of it.
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.