Some time last year, when NYRB Classics posted the books they’d be publishing in the near future, I immediately began tweeting about them (I pay close attention). One of the books that got people most excited was a new translation of selected stories from Balzac’s The Human Comedy. Apparently, people who know Balzac well have been hoping for some updated translations. I say “apparently” because I cannot count myself as someone who knows Balzac well. Before this edition I had . . . this is hard to say . . . I had never read any Balzac. If you feel the need to strike me from your blog reader, I guess I understand.
That said, I do think I have something to say on this particular story and this particular translation. Furthermore, I don’t think I’m alone in my ignorance of Balzac. So, I have been working hard over the past month to educate myself as well as I could so that I could talk to two audiences: those who have read Balzac and who might be curious whether this edition is worth picking up and those who have never read Balzac who might be curious whether this is a good place to start. The direct answer to each of those questions: yes.
Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.
The Human Comedy is a gigantic series of novels, novellas, and stories that Balzac published between 1829 and 1847. In 1832, Balzac was struck with the ambitious idea to write this enormous series that would portray “all aspects of society” in France from about 1815 (the Bourbon Restoration) through 1830 (when the Bourbon Restoration was ended with the July Revolution, setting up the July Monarch) to 1848 (when the July Monarchy ended with the Revolution of 1848). Obviously, these were times of change and tumult, and Balzac was interested in tracking the social, economic, legal, philosophical, etc. underpinnings that affected the daily life of these characters. In the end, the project, which morphed over the years, eventually taking in almost everything Balzac wrote or thought to write, found some containment in a “definitive” 24 volumes.
Obviously, this single book from NYRB Classics does not contain the entire series (though NYRB Classics has published Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece, which is included in The Human Comedy). What we get here are nine stories, some short and some quite long, including “The Duchesse de Langeais,” “A Passion in the Desert,” and “Sarrasine.” At 415 pages, it’s still a weighty undertaking. The introduction by Peter Brooks is in itself adds another fifteen pages, and it’s a great introduction that introduces Balzac’s weaknesses even before introducing Balzac’s strengths. It helped make Balzac less intimidating while simultaneously whetting my appetite, giving as it does glimpses at the ”mysterious circulation of blood and desire” the volume promises.
In this post, I’m going to address only “Facino Cane,” the first story in this new edition, leaving the other eight stories for future posts (after seeing the length here, I think you’d agree that’s best, right?). “Facino Cane” being the first thing I ever read by Balzac, I can say that it took me by the hand and led me in quite nicely — in other words, this story makes for a pleasant initiation.
Before getting to the substance of the story, I’d like to take a moment to praise the translation. I think those waiting for improvement have what they’re looking for in this new translation by Linda Asher. Taking some lines out of context, I’d like to compare Clara Bell’s translation, which we’ve had for most of the last century, with Linda Asher’s.
Here is Bell’s translation of the first few sentences:
I once used to live in a little street which probably is not known to you — the Rue de Lesdiguieres. It is a turning out of the Rue Saint-Antoine, beginning just opposite a fountain near the Place de la Bastille, and ending in the Rue de la Cerisaie. Love of knowledge stranded me in a garret; my nights I spend in work, my days in reading at the Bibliotheque d’Orleans, close by. I lived frugally; I had accepted the conditions of the monastic life, necessary conditions for every worker, scarcely permitting myself a walk along the Boulevard Bourdon when the weather was fine.
And here is Asher’s:
At the time, I was living on a little street you probably do not know, rue de Lesdiguières: Its starts at rue Saint-Atoine across from a fountain near place de la Bastille, and ends at rue de la Cérisaie. A passion for knowledge had flung me into a garret room where I worked nights, and I would spend the day in the nearby library established by Monsieur, the king’s brother. I lived frugally; I had accepted all the conditions of monastic life so necessary to serious workers. In find weather I would at most take a brief stroll on boulevard Bourdon.
I think Asher’s comes alive, touching on the boring details of the street without making them simply boring details. What’s more, looking at the original, Bell actually adds in another boring detail: that the Bibliotheque d’Orleans was the nearby library. In fact, it seems that in most every way Asher’s translation is not only more lively but also more closely related to the original French:
Je demeurais alors dans une petite rue que vous ne connaissez pas, la rue de Lesdiguières: elle commence à la rue Saint-Antoine, en face d’une fontaine près de la place de la Bastille et debouche dans la rue de La Cerisaie. L’amour de la science m’avait jeté dans une mansard où je travaillais pendant la nuit, et je passais le jour dans une bibliothèque voisine, celle de MOINSIEUR. Je vivais frugalment, j’avais accepté toutes les conditions de la vie monastique, si nécessaire aux travailleurs. Quand il faisaint beau, à peine me promenais-je sur le boulevard Bourdon.
The energy found even in those first few relatively boring sentences is found throughout Asher’s translation. On to the story . . .
Though published in 1836, well into Balzac’s project, ”Facino Cane” seems a natural place to start The Human Comedy, and not just because of its brevity (sixteen pages). It opens with the narrator — is this Balzac himself? — looking back to when he was twenty years old, living the life of a passionate scholar, the kind of life that demands the rigors of monasticism. Spending much of his day inside and alone, the narrator was drawn out by the promise of one activity: taking a walk and observing “the customs of the neighborhood, its inhabitants and their character.” He’s blessed with imaginative faculties that “allowed me to live a person’s life, let me put myself in his place, the way a dervish in The Thousand and One Nights would take over a person’s body and soul by pronouncing certain words over him.”
One gets the sense that in these lives he finds the “life” necessary so he can go on with his monasticism. In other words, by doing this he can live hundreds of lives, even if he is mostly alone and in one room. However, it’s more than that. This is the kind of knowledge he’s hungry for: what makes people tick, what do their lives convey about society? Thus, his studies extend from that room to these walks and encounters. It’s all the same.
I will say, though, that from that time on, I have gone on teasing apart the elements of the heterogeneous mass we call “the people,” analyzing and evaluating its good or bad features.
He is interested for his own knowledge and how these lives would reveal themselves in art. The lives, he says, are “masterpieces born of chance,” and he admits that his “[i]magination could never touch the reality hidden there,” but that is not going to stop him from relating the stories he’s collected. And so we transition to the story about an eighty-two-year-old, blind clarinetist who claims to be a descendant of Facino Cane, a noble condottiero who lived four centuries earlier.
The young narrator met this blind clarinetist at the wedding of his housekeeper’s sister (though this story is short, Balzac doesn’t withhold much, and we get a lovely page on this housekeeper, though her only apparent role in this story is to get us to that wedding). The three musicians performing at the wedding are each blind, but one stands out: the clarinetist. Examining his face, the narrator knows that “[t]here was something grand and despotic in this old Homer, who harbored within himself an Odyssey consigned to oblivion.” Intrigued, wanting to know the stories that would make the old man’s face shaped just so, the narrator talks to the clarinetist. The old man claims he is named Marco-Facino Cane, after his famous ancestor, though in France he goes by Old Man Canet. Canet tells the narrator he once lived in Venice and longs to go back. His desire is not simply born of nostalgia. He has something there he wants to retrieve. He wants the narrator to take him there: “If I went there with you, it would be worth your time.” He practically begs.
For his part, the narrator thinks the man may be mad, but he wants to listen, wants to hear how the “profound physical and moral degradation” came about.
His ancestor, Facino Cane, was brutal in his military exploits, and at his death he had amassed a massive treasure, and his descendants were wealthy senators in Venice. Old Man Canet was, sixty years earlier, a very wealthy young man in love with a woman named Bianca. She was married.
It’s a rather exciting tale, filled with murder, the loss of all riches, the threat of execution, a prison escape, and a secret treasure. Essentially, the old man blames all of his misfortunes on his lust for riches, having, more than once, lost everything — including his love – in an attempt to get more. And now he wants to go back to Venice because he knows of a secret treasure that could still redeem him in some way. He’ll share it with this young narrator.
The story is quite unbelievable — the old man found the secret treasure by digging under his prison cell, something he knew to do because of Arabic scribblings on his cell wall, scribblings he could read because he once studied Arabic at an Armenian Convent. The old man finishes and must know that the young man is skeptical. He settles back and plays a Venetian song:
It was something like the psalm “Super flumina Babylonis.” My eyes filled with tears. If a few late-night strollers happened along boulevard Bourdon just then, they probably stopped to listen to that ultimate prayer of the exile, the last longing for a lost name, touched with the memory of Bianca. But soon gold took the upper hand again, and that fateful passion stamped out the youthful gleam.
Even this song is overtaken by a lust for gold. Perhaps because he experiences his own lust for gold, perhaps because he pities the man and wants to give him the burst of energy he needs so he can walk home — or, perhaps, because he can’t bear to see this specimen walk away – the narrator says, “We’ll go to Venice!”
If his goal were to give the old man a pick-me-up, it worked. They walk off into the night with the old man saying they don’t need to wait to get money because they can simply walk to Venice — “I’m sturdy, and a person is young when he sees gold ahead.”
The story ends immediately:
Facino Cane died during the winter, after a two-month illness. The poor man had suffered a bad cold.
If that long paragraph about his maid left us feeling that Balzac would tell us everything, we’re shocked at this ending, after which we feel we know nothing. Did our young narrator believe him? Was he seriously going to go to Venice if he could find the way? Perhaps they were on their way when the old man got sick, leaving the unfulfilled promise of wealth and adventure.
Or maybe not. It seems that a lot of people who are underwhelmed with “Facino Cane” take the old man’s story at face value. I’m not saying they’re wrong to do so — that’s a viable reading — I just think it leaves a lot of the richness of this story out on the floor. I’ve seen it suggested that “Facino Cane” shows that Balzac succumbed to the allure of the implausible, that adventure story, but attempting to write the realist piece (which he was writing well before “Facino Cane” came along) just had to throw up his hands and abruptly end the story with something absolutely mundane, as if he were upset at the kind of art he devoted his life to.
But the old man’s story is not the most exciting thing about “Facino Cane.” And I don’t think the narrator — and certainly not Balzac — thinks so either. After all, in contrast to the build up, the old man’s story takes up merely a few pages, and for the most part it’s skimmed over, one exciting summary leads to the next. It’s not thoughtful like the young man’s narrative had been before. It talks of love and betrayal in Romantic terms: “I loved as no one loves any longer these days — to the point of closing myself into a chest and taking the risk of being stabbed in it for just the promise of a kiss.” What Balzac means here is that no one speaks of love that way these days. The Romantic period was over, by his clock, and this is a story ushering in his brand of realism.
And it’s all the richer for it, for Balzac is not too concerned with the adventure story (just as the narrator is not too concerned with the old man’s treasure); both Balzac and the narrator are interested in the old man himself, what his life has been, and what has made him share this story in the first place. There’s the suggestion that Old Man Canet is mad. The narrator suspects this from the beginning, and I’m not convinced that his suspicions aren’t confirmed by the end of the old man’s story. Certainly, just going off what the narrator writes to us readers, the narrator is not as interested in telling us of the man’s adventures as he is in telling us about the man’s face, a face marked with troubles, but perhaps not the troubles the old man claims.
I’ll concede that it’s ambiguous, but it seems to me that Old Man Canet’s claims to great treasure are mere imaginings, and thus he’s to be all the more pitied. Yes, pity — partially – made the narrator say he’d take the old man to Venice, but I find it unlikely he ever intended to take the trip. His pity wasn’t meant to help the old man get to Venice in reality. It was meant to get the old man through that night and to keep up the acquaintance, for it’s there – though it’s not spoken, it’s not even written – it’s there that this narrator finds the treasure he’s looking for.
In this episode we look at what NYRB Classics will be releasing in the first part of 2014 (and a bit beyond).
Podcast: Play in new window
While we do discuss all fourteen of the titles, the fun part of the episode is when Brian and I step back and list our top five most anticipated releases from this group. There’s some great stuff coming, of course, so this was a bit difficult. Please let us know what you’re most looking forward to.
- Brief discussion of each book (the individual times are below): 00:03:27
- Brian courageously offers the “least anticipated”: 00:31:45
- Our top five anticipated titles: 00:37:50
Here are the fourteen books we talk about:
The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, by Patrick Leigh Fermor.
March 4, 2014
On Being Blue, by William H. Gass.
March 18, 2014
The Use of Man, by Aleksandar Tišma.
April 29, 2014
April 8, 2014
Brian and I both muddled this one. It’s the translation of Montaigne that Shakespeare would have read.
During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, by Joan Chase.
April 15, 2014
Fortunes of War: The Levant Trilogy, by Olivia Manning.
May 13, 2014
Agostino, by Alberto Moravia.
July 8, 2014
Last Words from Montmartre, by Qiu Miaojin.
June 3, 2014
Zama, by Antonio di Benedetto.
October 21, 2014
The Mad and the Bad, by Jean-Patrick Manchette. [no cover available yet]
June 17, 2014
Fear, by Gabriel Chevallier.
May 20, 2014
The Professor and the Siren, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa.
July 15, 2014
You’ll Enjoy It When You Get There: The Selected Stories by Elizabeth Taylor.
August 12, 2014
The Captain’s Daughter, by Alexander Pushkin.
August 19, 2014
Podcast: Play in new window
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.