Some of you may know that I’m currently up to my ears in grad school applications. Luckily, posting on The Millions has a salutary effect on me, and also, I just finished a book, so I need to write about it. Jamesland opens with Alice, great-granddaughter of philosopher William James, having an odd waking dream of a deer in her house. Alice fixates on the deer as a portent of a coming change in her life, and the very next day her life begins to change slowly and inexorably. The book does not dwell on the supernatural, though it does have a bemused dialogue with the otherworldly throughout. Mostly it is about three forty-somethings whose social and professional lives are deteriorating and reconfiguring. I’d call it a mid-life crisis, but these characters have that quality, peculiar to Californians, of being youthful, unserious adults. The book is mostly set on the East Side of Los Angeles in neighborhoods that I know well. It was great to read a book that addresses a somewhat larger Los Angeles than usual. Movie stars are around, and Hollywood is nearby, but they are just parts of the great stew of the city, things that are noticed but after a while not accorded any greater importance than things like Griffith Park or the LA River. The only other book that I have read that successfully turns LA’s flashy side into just another bit of peripheral scenery is T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. Huneven is well-known in Los Angeles as the food critic for the LA Weekly, and the way she writes about food in this book is magnificent. Pete (who along with Helen, a modern sort of minister, are the other two wayward adults) is a former near-celebrity chef who is recovering from a nervous breakdown, suicide attempt combo. His character is both abrasive and charming, the type of person who makes you nervous the moment he steps into the room. As he coaxes himself back into the functioning world, he takes up cooking again, and this is the venue for Huneven’s descriptions of foods. It was nice to see that Huneven did not place this book firmly in the world of food and restaurants in the way that many writers tend to crib from their day jobs. Instead, Huneven manages to weave her knowledge skillfully into the larger narrative. The book itself is a rather satisfying meal, best taken over a few languorous days on a sunny balcony or sitting on a park bench.
“No story is ever told just once… We will return to it an hour later and re-tell the story with additions and this time a few judgments thrown in. In this way history is organized.”In 1978, and again two years later, Michael Ondaatje left his Toronto home and embarked on an ancestral odyssey – destination Ceylon. Now Sri Lanka, it was Ceylon in his youth. It was his childhood. It was the courtship of his parents, the setting for endless hours of family stories, in all their re-tellings. Ceylon was his history, and echoes of it are captured in his 1982 memoir Running in the Family.Asia. An ancient whisper of a word. Wrapped around the island of Ceylon, the seducer of all of Europe. Dutch, English, Portuguese have all fallen for its charms. Ceylon has been “the wife of many marriages, courted by invaders who stepped ashore and claimed everything with the power of their sword, or bible, or language.”More than traveling from Canada to this storied land, Ondaatje journeyed back through time, through generations. It was a journey to 1970s Sri Lanka, but also to his childhood in the 40s and 50s, and back further still to the land of his parents in the 20s and 30s.To Jaffna in the north he traveled, to the Dutch-built 18th century fortressed home of his Aunt Phyllis and his improbably named Uncle Ned. Phyllis was the keeper of the family stories and she held court telling and re-telling tales of eccentrics long gone. “We are still recovering from her gleeful resume of the life and death of one foul Ondaatje who was ‘savaged to pieces by his own horse.'”In Nuwara Eliya in the 20s and 30s everyone “was vaguely related and had Sinhalese, Tamil, Dutch, British and Burgher blood in them going back many generations.” There was Francis, who once attacked his wife in an alcoholic haze. Riddled with guilt, he tried to drown himself in a lake. And he might have succeeded if that part of the lake had more than one foot of water. Francis was the social pivot around which Ondaatje’s father’s society swirled. He hosted parties on the rubber estate where he worked, and lived on a steady diet of Gin and Tonic. Around him, the charmed group was part of a lost world. And when he died, the party was over. “What seemed to follow was a rash of marriages.”Ondaatje’s father Mervyn had a thing about trains. There was the drunken occasion when he stripped naked and leapt from a moving train as it entered a tunnel. And another time when he stopped a moving train by threatening to kill the driver with his army pistol if he didn’t wait for his friend who was stranded in Colombo. But none of his train escapades matches the tale of Mervyn’s ongoing feud with someone through the pages of “comment/complaint” books at a succession of roadside rest-houses.Ondaatje’s mother Doris, whose patience with Mervyn eventually reached an end, could take the smallest incident or reaction and explode it into a myth-making epic. With a husky, wheezing laugh, she could turn one into a footnote to one’s own action. But this kept their generation alive, this oral mythologizing.Running in the Family is storytelling from all angles. There are Ondaatje’s narrative accounts of his visits. There are tales told by his aunts sifted through Ondaatje’s narrative pen. There are direct first person accounts from friends and family who remember the events in question, told in their voices, sometimes vying for the reader’s attention. There are poems and photos to flesh out the picture. But at its heart, this is oral family history. Its focus is small, direct. It’s not meant to be an expansive travelogue of a foreign land, though so strong is Ondaatje’s narration that your senses will be filled with the heat. With the breezes and monsoons. With the luxurious wafting aromas from the kitchens. But it’s the people that linger the most, and we fully understand the effect that all these voices, conjuring up all these ghosts, have on Ondaatje.”During waking hours, at certain times in our lives, we see ourselves as remnants from earlier generations that were destroyed.”See Also: A new novel from Ondaatje, Divisadero, has just been published.
Knowing how to make yourself disappear does not serve you well in life, writes Helen Macdonald, unless you are attempting to train a hawk. When there is a goshawk on her arm, a huge bird of prey who has no experience with the human world and who is staring at her in absolute terror, Macdonald can make herself invisible. Holding a chunk of raw steak in her hand, her goal is to get the hawk to forget about her, to forget the terror, and eat. “But the space between the fear and the food is a vast, vast gulf,” she writes, “and you have to cross it together.” To do that, you must disappear: you empty your mind, you remain still, you “think of exactly nothing at all.” You gradually expand your invisibility to cover everything in the room except the food, which you squeeze slightly. When the hawk begins to eat, you may, very slowly, reappear.
A professor of mine introduced me to that idea a couple of years ago; for him, the process of crossing a “vast gulf” while negotiating your own visibility was akin to the process of translation (a word which means, in fact, “to carry across”). As it appears in Macdonald’s new book, H is for Hawk, the scene serves as a metaphor of a different, though related, kind: as a journey from death into life, from absence into presence. It is no accident that this journey is mediated by a bird of prey. In many of the world’s mythic traditions, hawks are cast as the messengers of the gods and the companions of the soul on its voyage to the afterlife. In ancient Egyptian mythology, the ba (the immortal part of the soul) departs the body in the shape of a hawk.
The goshawk, in Macdonald’s scene of invisibility, represents a bridge between two worlds: fear and food, death and life. Like many books about hawks, H is for Hawk begins on the side of death. Macdonald’s father passes away suddenly in the book’s first pages, and the author finds herself before a vast gulf of grief. Sorrow is not a rational problem and cannot be solved by rational means; as a poet and falconer, Macdonald seeks out a poetic, avian remedy to her pain. Soon after her father’s death, she starts dreaming of hawks “all the time.” She orders a goshawk from Northern Ireland, and when it arrives, she sets it on her arm and turns invisible.
Read symbolically, Macdonald’s act of disappearance becomes much more than an effective training technique; it becomes a deliberate act of surrender to the unconscious, an appeal to a shadow guide. Erasing yourself for the sake of a hawk is one way of learning that you must disappear before you can be present in your own life.
H is for Hawk is not a mystical book, but it is one of those rare works of non-fiction that stand up to a metaphorical reading. The echoes of myth in Macdonald’s writing, however subtle and unobtrusive, lend her book an emotional weight usually reserved only for literature, and a grace only for poetry. But this is one of the book’s great achievements: to belong to several genres at once, and to succeed at all of them. The narrative includes elements from memoir, biography, and natural history, with some chapters exploring the human history of Macdonald’s English landscape and others turning inward, toward Macdonald herself and her ghostly counterpart, the writer T.H. White. Translating between them, guiding the reader as it once guided lost souls, there is always the goshawk.
Of all birds of prey, the goshawk is the most difficult to train. Described by hawking manuals as “jumpy, fractious, unsociable,” goshawks are temperamental, prone to fits of “passing madness” in which they perch on a high tree branch and refuse to come down, resolutely ignoring the hopeless humans who wait for them below. They have never been domesticated and never even truly tamed. More than any other bird, they seem to embody the Romantic sublime, terrifying and magnificent at once: Macdonald describes her own hawk as “a dinosaur pulled from the Forest of Dean” and “something bright and distant, like gold falling through water.”
Though a highly accomplished falconer, Macdonald writes that, before her father’s death, she had never wanted to train a goshawk. She preferred peregrines, which her books assured her were “the finest bird[s] on earth.” “It took me years,” she says, “to work out that this glorification of falcons was partly down to who got to fly them.” The falcon is a rich man’s bird: flying a peregrine requires huge amounts of space, a luxury traditionally only available to aristocrats with large country estates. A goshawk, by contrast, can be flown anywhere, and were therefore popular among those without wealth or connections. These solitary trainers, known as austringers, were disdained by the aristocratic falconer community, cursed for “hat[ing] company and go[ing] alone at their sport.” The goshawk is the bird of the temporary exile, and Macdonald was not the first to seek it out in lieu of human company. Indeed, no sooner has she decided to man a goshawk than her eyes start avoiding a particular book in her study, “second shelf down. Red cloth cover. Silver-lettered spine.”
The book is T.H. White’s The Goshawk, a record of the author’s attempt to train, as he put it, “a person who was not human, but a bird.” Written in 1936, though not published until 1951, the book was condemned as a falconer’s checklist of what not to do. White had never trained a hawk before; he was inexperienced, he was using manuals centuries out of date, and he unintentionally caused his hawk, a tiercel (male) named Gos, a great deal of suffering. Macdonald had read The Goshawk as a hawk-obsessed child and found it infuriating. And yet, as soon as she has arranged for a Gos of her own, she unconsciously reaches out to this author who, like herself, wanted to disappear.
The brilliant but “unfashionable” writer best known for his Arthurian saga The Once and Future King, Terence Hanbury White was, in Macdonald’s words, “one of the loneliest men alive.” Homosexual and self-loathing, with a sadistic streak, White spent much of his energy trying to flee from humanity. His two great refuges were writing and the outdoors. The Goshawk was his first book as a full-time author; despite its failings as a work of falconry, it is a marvelous piece of literature. Macdonald reads it several times in the months she spends with her own hawk, and observes that “every time it seemed a different book; sometimes a caustically funny romance, sometimes the journal of a man laughing at failure, sometimes a heartbreaking tract of another man’s despair.”
Though H is for Hawk is not intended to be a biography of White, Macdonald explains, “I have to write about him because he was there.” Some of her reasons for sequestering herself with a goshawk, she realizes, are not her own but White’s; and though the personalities and experiences of the two writers are quite different, there is still a strange kinship between them. “Like White I wanted to cut loose from the world,” Macdonald writes, “and I shared, too, his desire to escape to the wild, a desire that can rip away all human softness and leave you stranded in a world of savage, courteous despair.” Here, too, the goshawk is the messenger between the living and the dead: across the gulf of time, Macdonald finds in White a companion, a point of reference, an object of study, and her own foil.
White lived in constant fear. He feared the cruelty of his homophobic, militaristic society, and, especially, the cruelty he felt within himself. He knew that enjoyed inflicting pain and he hated himself for it, and so always took great care to be gentle. (Of Sir Lancelot, his double, White wrote: “He felt in his heart cruelty and cowardice, the things which made him brave and kind.”) White wanted desperately to be good, but believed goodness was only possible away from his fellow man. Spending time with Gos, a “person who was not human,” was the only way he could tolerate his own humanity. Training Gos offered him a chance to confront his own darkness and not merely repress it; one of the many ways to read The Goshawk, Macdonald says, is as a war, where, through Gos, White “battled the dictator in himself.” White ultimately lost that battle; perhaps he failed to recognize Gos as his guide, and instead mistook him for his enemy, albeit a much-loved one.
Macdonald, though she, too, yearns to leave her weaknesses behind, never sees her own hawk as an adversary. She understands that her hawk is not only the individual she has named Mabel, but a tangle of many centuries’ worth of human associations. “So much of what she means is made of people,” Macdonald muses. Shortly afterward, she discovers that Mabel likes to play; she likes the sound of crinkled paper, and she shakes in bird-laughter when Macdonald calls to her through a rolled magazine telescope. The revelation is a delight, yet it fills Macdonald with an “obscure shame.” “I had a fixed idea of what a goshawk was,” she writes, “…and it was not big enough to hold what goshawks are. No one had ever told me goshawks played. It was not in the books. I had not imagined it was possible.”
But writers know better than most that books cannot always be trusted. Books urge us to flee to the wild when our hearts are broken; books, like John Muir’s, assure us that “Earth hath no sorrows that earth cannot heal.” Macdonald argues that our ideas of nature, like our ideas of goshawks, are too small, having more to do with ourselves than with the world around us. “I’d fled to become a hawk,” she writes, “but in my misery all I had done was turn the hawk into a mirror of me.” Here again, that ability to disappear, which Macdonald says serves her so badly elsewhere in life, proves crucial. When she makes herself invisible — suspending her ego, suspending the knowledge of books — she begins to understand what, in fact, she has been trying to do.
Macdonald’s dream of goshawks, her father’s death, her sudden renewed interest in White are all facets of a single desire: she wanted to help White recover what he had lost, because in the dark forest where his hawk was, there might her father be too. She sought out the hawk, the ancient companion of dead souls, “to find my father; find him and bring him home.”
One cannot go into the dark forest to recall anyone from death, however, but only to learn to accept death. The journey is over when the survivor consents to return to human life; Macdonald has to go into the wild to learn that the wild is not what she needs. In the end, she chooses not to flee and disappear: her hands, no longer invisible, “are for other human hands to hold.”
There are a few digs at you, reader, in Purity, Jonathan Franzen’s big new novel. Here’s one buried in the musings of Andreas Wolf, the sociopathic leader of a data-dumping transparency project — one analogous to but at odds with WikiLeaks: “The more he existed as the Internet’s image of him, the less he felt like he existed as a flesh-and-blood person. The Internet meant death.” Have you read a take or a tweet excoriating Jonathan Franzen? You inhabit a world “governed…by fear: the fear of unpopularity and uncoolness, the fear of missing out, the fear of being flamed or forgotten.”
Ironically, the Internet — the thing with which Franzen’s opprobrium is most frequently associated — is also the vehicle by which his utterances become collectively memorable. The Internet is why I know, for example, that 20 years ago, Franzen expressed anxiety about cultural irrelevance in the type of tone-deaf revelation primed to annoy less-famous writers and destined to become characteristic: “I had already realized that the money, the hype, the limo ride to a Vogue shoot weren’t simply fringe benefits. They were the main prize, the consolation for no longer mattering to the culture.”
No one should be permanently lashed to his or her remarks of decades past, but Franzen, with his frequent public grumping, invites a certain amount of scrutiny. And despite the easy prey of Franzen’s Vogue shoots, that essay, “Perchance to Dream,” published in Harper’s in 1996, contains an artist’s statement that remains the tidiest, most cogent thesis on the project of Franzen’s writing: “It had always been a prejudice of mine that putting a novel’s characters in a dynamic social setting enriched the story that was being told; that the glory of the genre consisted in its spanning of the expanse between private experience and public context.”
Of course, nailing the “public context” was a source of considerable anxiety:
I’d already worked in contemporary pharmacology and TV and race and prison life and a dozen other vocabularies; how was I going to satirize Internet boosterism and the Dow Jones as well while leaving room for the complexities of character and locale? Panic grows in the gap between the increasing length of the project and the shrinking time increments of cultural change…
With Purity, the project is long, the cultural change significant, time of the essence. Time presses in all of Franzen’s novels, for reasons of health — human or environmental — or economics, or plate tectonics. In his latest, several plot devices add urgency: there’s a home on the verge of foreclosure, a sensational news story in danger of being scooped, more data in need of the “disinfecting” sunshine of the aforementioned Wolf’s Sunlight Project.
If there’s anything that denotes a Franzen text, it’s a socio-cultural rant, and the slightly Bill-and-Ted-like deployment of the adjective “excellent.” Here’s Walter Berglund of Franzen’s last novel, Freedom, telling the employees of an Appalachian body-armor plant what’s what:
‘You, too, can help denude every last scrap of native habitat in Asia, Africa, and South America! You, too, can buy six-foot-wide plasma TV screens that consume unbelievable amounts of energy, even when they’re not turned on. But that’s OK, because that’s why we threw you out of your homes in the first place, so we could strip-mine your ancestral hills and feed the coal-fired generators that are the number-one of cause of global warming and other excellent things like acid rain.’
Or Chip of The Corrections, foaming at the sister who is just trying to get him upstairs for a parental lunch:
‘I’m saying the structure of the entire culture is flawed. I’m saying the bureaucracy has arrogated the right to define certain states of mind as “diseased.” A lack of desire to spend money becomes a symptom of disease that requires expensive medication. Which medication then destroys the libido, in other words destroy the appetite for the one pleasure in life that’s free, which means the person has to spend even more money on compensatory pleasures. The very definition of mental “health” is the ability to participate in the consumer economy. When you buy into therapy, you’re buying into buying. And I’m saying that I personally am losing the battle with a commercialized, medicalized, totalitarian modernity right this instant.’
Franzen, for all that he attracts online derision, knows that nobody is irredeemable who has a sense of humor (as he told the Guardian in a recent profile, he considers himself a “comic novelist”). Comic, ranting males abound in his last two novels, but Purity as a whole is comparatively humorless in ways that are both intentional and not; humor’s absence, on the intentional front, is what damns the leaker Wolf and a cruelly drawn character named Anabel Laird, the mother of the novel’s heroine, Purity “Pip” Tyler.
Purity is baggy — comprising several deep, character-driven sections linked together by a series of unlikely events. Wolf’s segments are in a jarring, significantly darker key than that of Franzen’s previous fiction. Wolf wrestles throughout the book with a second self he calls “the Killer;” in some especially gross moments he almost channels Jonathan Littell’s seemingly placid, ultimately depraved Nazi narrator in The Kindly Ones. Here’s Wolf recalling his troubled mother: “He remembered remembering, when he saw her pussy in the rose garden, that this wasn’t the first time he’d seen it — that something he’s thought was a disturbing dream from his early childhood hadn’t actually been a dream.” Or here, exercising his sexual frustrations about Pip: “It was a relief to stop fighting the Killer and submit to the evil of his idea; it turned him on so much that he went to the spot on the floor where Pip had stood naked and used the panties she’d left to milk himself, three times, of the substance he hadn’t spent in her…”
Purity’s “public context,” as Franzen put it in 1996, also feels more urgent than that of his previous work; there’s a polemic built into Wolf that his character is finally a bit too flimsy to support. You’d think that someone like Wolf would worship the Internet for its purifying possibilities; but its potentiality is more obliterating — more like the state in George Orwell’s Oceania — than it is a vehicle for liberation. In Wolf’s conception, the Internet is aligned with the totalitarian system that characterized the East Germany of his youth: “If — and only if — you had enough money and/or tech capability, you could control your Internet persona and, thus, your destiny and your virtual afterlife. Optimize or die. Kill or be killed.” In a keystone passage, Franzen intersperses a description of East Germany under Socialism with the tech orthodoxies and infelicities of the present day:
The real appeal of apparatchikism was the safety of belonging. Outside, the air smelled like brimstone, the food was bad, the economy moribund, the cynicism rampant, but inside, victory of the class enemy was assured. Outside, the middle class was disappearing faster than the icecaps, xenophobes were winning elections or stocking up on assault rifles, warring tribes were butchering each other religiously, but inside, disruptive new technologies were rendering traditional politics obsolete. Inside, decentralized ad hoc communities were rewriting the rules of creativity, the revolution rewarding the risk-taker who understood the power of networks. The New Regime even recycled the old Republic’s buzzwords, collective, collaborative. Axiomatic to both was that a new species of humanity was emerging. On this, apparatchiks of every stripe agreed. It never seemed to bother them that their ruling elites consisted of the grasping, brutal old species of humanity.
It’s unclear, ultimately, why Wolf, with his mistrust of the Internet’s role in society, has spent so much time, so much effort, to set up his Bolivian hacker’s commune. (Because he’s a little insane, basically.) And his Sunlight Project, apart from the spectacular descriptions of its setting in a Bolivian valley, takes place essentially in front of a green screen, cobbled together with references to a “private fiber-optic line,” a “network of malcontents and hackers,” “facial-recognition software,” or an “impenetrable maze of electronic red herrings to protect the source.”
Perhaps due to generational differences, something about Franzen’s “public context” has never quite rung true to me — his college freshman’s September 11th in Freedom didn’t match my freshman self, staring blank-faced at the television in week two of college. But it has also never much mattered to me, because I think Franzen’s ability to convey the private experience is often transcendent and perfect. I can just look at the final paragraph of The Corrections and start crying — Alfred and Enid and the ice chip and the changes she’s going to make in her life. Goddamn.
But in Purity, like Freedom, the world is sometimes only an echo of a world that should be familiar. Gertrude Stein said of Oakland that there was “no there there,” and Franzen seems content to take her at her word. Pip, too, occasionally lacks a “there;” in the end she works as a character — you root for her happiness — but Franzen includes oddly few context clues for her. Who were the friends that Pip slowly broke up with via aloof text messages and hangout-cancellations? What clothes did they wear; what things did they read; what shows did they watch? Barring financial constraints, would Pip see Magic Mike XXL in the theater? $130,000 in student loans is alleged to loom over Pip, clouding her future happiness, but the day-to-day math of her straitened circumstances is missing, with none of the lovingly crafted accounting of pitiful finances that resulted in Chip Lambert’s memorable salmon-down-the-pants scene in The Corrections. Nothing about the description of the Oakland squatters’ domicile that Purity inhabits — or her co-residents — necessarily convinces the reader that Jonathan Franzen has embedded with Occupiers and freegans.
Purity sang for me in its least overtly culturally relevant moments — like the complex romantic history of Pip’s mentor (and Wolf’s brother/foil) Tom Aberant, or that of his partner Leila Helou, who blooms into brilliant life for one section and then more or less fades away. There’s the twisted romance of Tom and Pip’s mother, Anabel, put forth in a memoir saved on Tom’s hard drive as “A river of meat.” Like Patty Berglund in Freedom, Tom’s explosive personal document drives events in the text. This is a vengeful — on Franzen’s part, it seems — piece of writing that describes Tom’s long marriage with a comically unhinged harpy. Anabel is an artist; for much of their marriage she is at work on a decade-long performance piece visually documenting every centimeter of her own body: “You need to do whatever it takes to be finished,” Tom tells her. “You know I’ve never finished anything in my life,” she says.
She beat her fists on her offending head. It took me two hours to talk her down and then a further hour to emerge from the sulk she’d put me in by suggesting that my aesthetic was vulgar. Then, for three hours, I helped her block out a rough schedule for completing her project, and then, for another hour, I began the transfer of important thoughts from the first of her forty-odd notebooks into a new notebook, written by me. Then it was time for her three hours of exercise.
It’s cruel, but it works. We never get Anabel’s point of view, although Pip more or less corroborates Tom’s account with her experience of being Anabel’s dutiful child. But unlike Tom, Pip has access to Anabel’s most endearing feature: “The pure, spontaneous love in that smile, every time she’d caught sight of Pip…Her mother had needed to give love and receive it…Was that so monstrous?”
In a recent article in Harper’s, William Deresiewicz lamented the neoliberalism that has taken over the university campus. “For all its rhetoric of freedom and individual initiative, the culture of the market is exceptionally good at inculcating a sense of helplessness. So much of the language around college today…presumes that young people are the passive objects of economic forces. That they have no agency, no options.” Franzen gives Pip a healthy dose of agency, considering the challenges posed by her financial situation and her difficult mother, but he also gives her a Dickensian surprise, making a millennial fairy-tale out of the story that somewhat corroborates Pip’s oblivious young-person-ness: “The flight, in a too-small jet, dodging thunderstorms, cured Pip of any desire for future air travel. She expected death the whole way. What was interesting was how quickly she then forgot about it, like a dog to whom death was literally unimaginable…”
As Pip hits tennis balls with a young man in a touching, chaste courtship, Franzen gives us all tacit permission to stop caring about the big stuff; it’s nearly an acknowledgement that the big stuff, globally speaking, is never really what matters in his novels — not nearly so much as love, anyway: “All over the state, reservoirs and wells were going dry, the taste and clarity of tap water worsening, farmers suffering, Northern Californians conserving while Orange County set new records for monthly consumption, but none of this mattered for the hour and a half that she was on the court with Jason.”
Franzen’s last book was The Kraus Project, an annotated translation of essays by the Viennese writer Karl Kraus. In one of these, Kraus lashes out against a style of brief, impressionistic journalism ascendant in his day. “Writing feuilletons means twining curls on a bald head,” Kraus grumped, and thus provided a point of entry for Franzen’s own celebrated brand of grumping. By coincidence, mere days after the release of Purity, New Directions will publish a collection of feuilletons by Joseph Roth, the great Austro-Hungarian novelist and journalist — and a contemporary of Kraus — beautifully translated by Michael Hofmann. Roth was a master of shedding light onto the “public context” in the uneasy interwar moment when Germany was gearing up for the great smash-up, when “in these assembly halls, where people used to go to smooch and drink, they [were] now daubing swastikas and Soviet stars on grimy walls.”
I read this haunting compilation — one which utterly gives the lie to Kraus’s denigration of the feuilleton form — concurrently with Purity. About Germany in this awful, pregnant moment, Roth wrote:
Anyone who has sat at the bedside of a sick patient will know that the hours are not all pathos and anguish. The sick man will talk all kinds of nonsense, ridiculous, trivial, unworthy of himself and his condition. He is missing the regulating consciousness. That’s just want is missing in Germany: the regulating consciousness.
I can’t say how well Franzen writes Germany — according to Roth in 1923, it is the “least understood nation in all of Europe” — but I know that he is interested in the “regulating consciousness.” The noble art of journalism practiced well, the good sense of Pip, whatever it is that keeps Tom from strangling Anabel, whatever it is that’s lacking from Andreas Wolf’s strange brain — these things are that consciousness embodied. Franzen is also, I think, interested in creating the kind of luminous societal prophesy that animates Roth’s short, wondrous pieces. But Roth himself knew the pitfalls of that effort:
From time to time I think of describing the ‘German,’ or defining his ‘typical’ existence. Probably that isn’t possible. Even when I sense the presence of such a thing, I am unable to define it. What can I do, apart from writing about individuals I meet by chance, setting down what greets my eyes and ears, and selecting from them as I see fit? The describing of singularities within this profusion may be the least deceptive; the chance thing, plucked from a tangle of others, may most easily make for order. I have seen this and that; I have tried to write about what stuck in my senses and my memory.
I think Jonathan Franzen is a wonderful novelist. I don’t know him, but I often feel like he knows me, and for that I love him. His work is most vulnerable to attack when it tries too visibly to be the chief diagnoser and prognosticator of “the culture.” It is most meaningful when it deals in those “singularities within the profusion.” Still, it endeavors always to do both — and therein, I think, lies its essential goodness, its essential purity.