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.
“A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.” Kentuckian Chris Offutt chose that line from Joan Didion’s The White Album as the epigraph for his memoir, No Heroes: A Memoir of Coming Home. Appalachian literature plays an elegaic refrain. It is a literature of dislocation and transition and survival. Ron Rash, echoing Offutt, reflects how everybody who lived on the two-mile dirt road that led to his grandmother’s farm was either family or friend. Now, “I probably know three families out of 60 or 70. And that place is gone. The accent’s gone. A lot of the culture is disappearing.”
Rash and Offutt hesitate to sentimentalize that passing world, but the pull is inescapable. As Rash says, “there’s something in us as human beings that–we know our lives are transitory, but we want something not to be transitory, something to endure, whether it’s a landscape or a place.” Rash’s poem “Preserves” is a concise dramatization of that process. After a funeral, the dead’s land and property are divided among kin, but the narrator has forgotten a springhouse. He opens the rotting door and he finds “woodslats bowed with berry and vegetable.” The double meaning of the poem’s title is less meant to be clever than funereal, as the family “heaped our paper plates and ate, one chair / closest to the stove unfilled.”
Later this year, Rash’s novel Serena gets the full Hollywood treatment. Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper will likely send more readers back to his work, including his newest release, Above the Waterfall. For many readers, the life and fiction of Breece D’J Pancake still haunts the discussion of Appalachian literature. Pancake killed himself in 1979 at 27-years-old, and his rough but lyric tales have made him a martyr. Jon Michaud’s recent retrospective at The New Yorker is a fitting tribute. He recommends Thomas E. Douglass’s biography, A Room Forever, and Samantha Hunt’s essay “The Secret Handshake,” which appeared in The Believer. I would add Marion Field’s touching “Complicated Manners” from the Oxford American. But start with the man’s fiction; my favorites are “The Way It Has To Be” and “Time and Again.”
It would be foolish to deny Pancake’s literary influence on how we speak about literary Appalachia. The parallel nature of his passionate but short life, his brief output (he only published enough stories to fill one book), and the crafted compression of his tales make him almost too perfect of a symbol. During a review of Rusty Barnes’s story collection, Mostly Redneck, I positively compared Barnes to Pancake, noting that both writers used finely crafted settings to add gravity to the minutia of their characters’ lives. In an interview, Barnes pushed back against my comparison, citing a frustration with reviewers using Pancake as metonym for Appalachian literature. While that certainly wasn’t my intention, I welcome his excellent list of other noteworthy contemporaries from the region: Nikki Finney, Frank X. Walker, Lee Smith, Lisa Koger, Maurice Manning, Silas House, James Still, Crystal Wilkinson, Charles Dodd White, Gurney Norman, Denise Giardina, Mark Powell, Pinckney Benedict, and Chris Offutt. Readers should get Red Holler: Contemporary Appalachian Literature, edited by John Branscum and Wayne Thomas, or issues of Appalachian Heritage, Still, and Appalachian Journal to see the newest work coming from Appalachia. Countless others could be added to Barnes’s list, including Harry Humes, Jayne Anne Phillips, Tom Bailey, the late Irene McKinney, Ann Pancake, RT Smith, Fred Chappell, Joseph Bathanti, and Scott McClanahan, whose memoir, Crapalachia, is a self-admitted yarn. “God bless those who keep trying to make myths,” he writes.
One of the finest mythmakers in contemporary Appalachian letters is Rose McLarney, a poet from western North Carolina. Although she now teaches in Oklahoma, while looking for her first teaching job back east, McLarney “was living without electricity, hiking 17 miles to use the phone or internet.” Her first book, The Always Broken Plates of Mountains, hits elegaic notes, as in poems like “Autumn Again,” where the sumac-stabbed hills create a beautiful color, but “this time of year, there is always / a wounded feeling.” Her first book was not provincial, but her newest release, Its Day Being Gone, widens her range.
The book begins with violence. In “Facing North,” the narrator needs to put down a sick goat. “Silent animals” on the farm watch in judgment. She is not without guilt, wondering if she “should have given her southerly pasture,” and then cleverly turning the hesitance on herself, thinking “I should have gone in another direction.” Her threnody might seem archaic. After all, “In this era, when there is no need / to farm, who is drawn to have livestock, / which die so much?” Yet again, the narrator has used “animals / as the figures for my sorrows.” But she is “still here. / I can’t stay away / from the hard images.”
Those hard images, like the tenuous truths of McClanahan’s memoir, are no less painful if they are myths. Later in the collection, McLarney writes “much of what you grew up with had already faded– / there was less paint than rust on the metal, and littler / hope.” This tension between past and present, reality and hope moves the book forward. In “Shadow Cat,” the narrator walks a dirt road, thinking how the “houses on bits of flat / kept their backs to the walls / of mountains, knowing / their place.” The natural world reigns, and is untouched until higher up the mountain, where a man pulling a bulldozer whispered a warning: “Careful out here alone. / Big cat will get you.” She’s been hearing such admonitions her entire life, although few people have actually seen such animals. She wonders if the warnings are a comfort, “keeping alive the belief / that what wildness abides / out there is the danger.”
Dangerous, but it is their wildness, and the narrator of “Watershed” defends the local, “murky” waterways. She is not interested in clear water “filtered by mosses and lichens.” She wants an “ancient, worn landscape,” where she can swim over sunken cars. A certain level of toughness is expected. Someone who enters her house must be “unafraid / of stumbling on sagging floors, into low doorframes, features / of old structures, the past, people I know.”
Great books can be local, but Its Day Being Gone gains another dimension through the inclusion of McLarney’s chapbook, Hone Creek, originally published in Mudlark. The poems in this sequence dramatize the upheaval of South American communities from hydroelectric damming. “Imminent Domain” introduces the section. Although McLarney does not identify herself as an activist–“as much as [my poems] say what is wrong, [they] end up admitting my complicity”–these poems are written with anger. Although some of these engineers “meant well,” “Power always is sent to serve regions other / than where it is made.”
The disparate regions are also connected by methods of storytelling. McLarney’s narrators often smirk, as good yarn spinners do. “Setting,” a story about a thief and his lover, is told “because I want your attention. For you to come for dinner again.” These “bellyful tales,” told “when no one is hungry,” are variations on a theme:
No, there’s nothing new in it. But it couldn’t be richer.
What would you rather have than a thing you know
spiced and simmered, spoken and seconded,
in another’s accent?
Its Day Being Gone is several books in one, and “Story with a Real Beast and a Little Blood in It” helps decode the synthesis. A bull breaks loose, and after the men, “butted and bruised / with rope-burned hands, give up,” the narrator makes a path of sweet feed that leads into a gated fence. But she pauses the poem to warn that we should “not look to make any allegories, / for any meaning beyond the marvel.” In Its Day Being Gone, McLarney has it both ways. Her stories are real, but they are symbols. Appalachia will remain, but it helps that the region has such skilled writers to document its truths and myths. McLarney’s poems contain enough eloquence to make a passing world permanent. Her work reminds us that when the bull ran, when the past began to fade, you “followed / on your knees down the mountain, noting / even in brambles, as you bled, the stars.”
Haruki Murakami, perennial favorite for the Nobel Prize in Literature, eccentric juggernaut with a penchant for classical music, cats, and the quotidian lameness of life in the modern world, has returned with yet another occasionally charming, often frustrating novel. Unlike Kafka on the Shore (2002), arguably Murakami’s most accomplished realization of his aesthetic, however, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is considerably flawed, even when judged within the strange and disjointed context of the author’s previous work.
We meet Tsukuru Tazaki when he is in the throes of suicidal depression. He had been an integral member of a group of five creepily close friends, each of whose names contained a color except Tsukuru’s. One day, without warning or explanation, he is banished from this group. None of his former companions so much as answers a phone call for the next 16 years. Alongside this, a separate narrative of Tsukuru’s life in the present as an engineer of train stations follows our bland hero as he gets to know Sara, an efficient, sensible professional who, like most of the women in Murakami’s fiction, possesses a beauty that strains metaphor and breasts worth remarking upon. Sara, like any reasonable person, is amazed that Tsukuru has never once tried to discover why his friends exiled him. She refuses to sleep with him until he does so. “You mean you can’t make love with me?…Because I have some — emotional issues?” Tsukuru asks her over dinner during one of the novel’s many exasperating conversations. She responds, “That’s right…But I think they’re the kind of problems you can overcome, if you really make up your mind to do so. Just like you’d set about repairing a defect in a station.”
That remarkably short-sighted idea — that everything from impotence to “deep-seated emotional issues” (variously described as feeling like “a sudden, stabbing pain,” “swallow[ing] a hard lump of cloud,” and a “silent silver pain”), can be solved like a black and white Rubik’s Cube — is how Murakami initiates the quest structure in his narratives. It is a good trick, too. There is something relentlessly compelling about following a sympathetic character on a journey to find the missing pieces to the jigsaw puzzle du jour, whether those pieces are lost relatives, unuttered truths, or, I don’t know, horcruxes. The object itself does not matter so much as its status as an answer, both to the literal questions posed by the plot and to the narrative as a whole, an answer that resolves the suspension that the book comprises and allows it to end.
This structure (problem + answer = resolution) is distinctly at odds with the inordinate violence that Murakami often employs, and Colorless Tsukuru is no exception. We are supposed to believe that the world of the novel is a charming one in which adults say things to each other like, “If you had told me then how you felt, of course I would have loved for you to be my girlfriend,” and, “Thinking freely about things means…letting pure logic soar free, giving a natural life to logic,” but also a graphic place filled with “pubic hair as wet as a rain forest,” “modestly sized breasts,” and the occasional brutal rape. The fundamental problem of desire — its unpredictably, its curious tendency to resist satisfaction — does not disrupt Murakami’s world of kindly old people and ancient magic and beige dialogue about the nature of reality. “Like me, his favorite thing is mulling over abstract ideas,” one character says at Tsukuru, and we get the impression that that may be the author’s inclination as well.
All of the hallmarks of Murakami’s style — the supernatural, the uncanny, the grotesque, music (this time, it’s “Le mal du pays,” from Franz Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage), metaphor, sex, philosophy — all are present in Colorless Tsukuru, but for perhaps the first time in his work, they seem flat and uninteresting, almost overused, as if the novel is a parody of his earlier work. There is nothing intrinsically bad about each of those elements, but at this point anyone who has read an article about the author will expect them. If they were employed in the novel to some effect, they would seem more like load-bearing columns than filigrees. As it stands, however, they largely serve to alienate.
It is hard to sympathize with a character like Tsukuru, who seems to have arisen out of a writing prompt that challenges the writer to create someone with no personality at all. He is the hero, our eyes and ears, but he is mostly hidden from the reader. We never learn too much about what really went on in the group of friends from which he was banished (“They just hung out someplace, and talked for hours.”), so the life-ending misery his expulsion causes seems incongruous. As a result, the redemption he finds on his quest does not ring particularly true either.
This is not to mention the problem of femininity, which is surely the greatest weakness in Colorless Tsukuru. Women are either utterly inscrutable, fabulously beautiful, stunningly efficient, or insane. The female body stuns the narrative and resists analysis. As the novel progresses, Tsukuru’s search for answers, his “pilgrimage,” turns into a hunt for the source and reason for one female character’s hysteria. The most that can be said without revealing too much is that this character falsely claims to have been raped. The best explanation Murakami’s shamanic wizardry can give for this is that it was a product of “hysteric confusion.”
That is, of course, not to say that Colorless Tsukuru is without merit. Several paragraphs are downright beautiful, filled with prose that is both delicate and strong. Murakami is certainly at his best when he composes the novel’s metafictional sections. The story a character tells to Tsukuru about his father’s time at a spa in the mountains is effective and memorable. These strengths are finally not enough to save the novel from the jarring elements that dominate its pages, however. Like the melody that begins “Le mal du pays,” Colorless Tsukuru is aloof, quiet, and finally, dissonant.
We tend to associate W.G. Sebald and his characters strongly with melancholy and sadness. “[T]he figures who populate Sebald’s world are lost souls,” Ruth Franklin has noted, “breaking beneath the burden of their own anguish.” Susan Sontag said that Sebald’s voice has a “passionate bleakness.” “W.G. Sebald’s books…have a posthumous quality to them,” Geoff Dyer stated. “He wrote — as was often remarked — like a ghost.” Others have written about Sebald’s “weary, melancholy wisdom” (Mark O’Connell) and his characters being “racked by conflict between a self-protective urge to block off a painful past and a blind groping for something, they know not what, that has been lost” (J.M. Coetzee).
No wonder, then, that most everything written about W.G. Sebald, at least in the last dozen years, begins with his death. In 2001, Sebald was driving not far from his home in Norwich, England, with his daughter, Anna. We now know he suffered a heart attack, and the car, as a result, swerved into oncoming traffic, where it collided with a truck head-on. Anna, badly injured, survived. Perhaps it is because we connect Sebald so strongly with the past—and that his sad, sudden death seems as tragic as anything in his books— that we cannot get over his own passing. At only 57, and during the prime of a literary career that didn’t bloom until he was in middle age, Sebald left too soon. As much as Sebald wrote about the past — he noted in an interview he was “hardly interested in the future” because there was “something terribly alluring” about the past — we are obsessed with the future that wasn’t, with the books that he didn’t live to write.
Posthumously, however, a few books have been trickling into English, including Across the Land and the Water, a collection of poems; Campo Santo, a collection of essays on Corsica; and now A Place in the Country, a series of six essays on artists Sebald found inspirational. Although this book was first published in German in 1998, it only arrives now in English, translated by Jo Catling; in a way, Sebald has not died quite yet — at least not for us English-language readers.
Reading A Place in the Country, then, marks that sad Rubicon.
“A Place in the Country” opens hauntingly enough, with a foreword written by the author, discussing his reasons for embarking on this work: “The unwavering affection for Hebel, Keller, and Walser,” Sebald writes, “was what gave me the idea that I should pay my respects to them before, perhaps, it may be too late.” (Even Sebald opens an essay with a oblique statement about his own death.) The bulk of the focus here is on German language writers — Eduard Mörike, Johann Peter Hebel, Gottfried Keller, Robert Walser — but the volume also includes a taut exploration of the hyperrealistic pictures of German painter and former Sebald classmate Jan Peter Tripp, and a masterful, long excursion (part travelogue, part biography) into the life of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
I suspect there may be two essential audiences for this type of book. The first are the Sebald enthusiasts, who have gobbled down everything he has written; and the second are those who are genuinely interested in the artists Sebald explores. While the book may have some revelations for the latter group, it seems more likely the Sebald devotees will find more to like.
Each of these essays’ subjects could have fit into Sebald’s fiction — perhaps most especially in The Rings of Saturn, which most closely resembles nonfiction — although here they receive as deep of a consideration as any historical figure in the novels. The deepest and most profound analysis, rightfully, is for Walser, a writer who, Sebald says, “was only ever connected with the world in the most fleeting of ways” and for whom there exists “no reliable answer” as to what he was. Born in Switzerland, Walser was a lonely young ascetic — a “clairvoyant of the small” in his own words — who, Sebald reports, probably died a virgin and didn’t even possess copies of his own books. He only ended up famous posthumously, thanks to the work of Carl Seelig, his champion, who secured the cryptic pencil writings Walser had been incessantly working on toward the end of his life. But despite Seelig, Walser “remains a singular, enigmatic figure.” Here Walser seems a prototypical, aloof Sebald protagonist, akin to the nameless narrator of The Rings of Saturn, who says he sets off on a walk of Suffolk “in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work.” Walser, perhaps the most famous literary walker after Sebald himself, may have been the model for this — and, to some extent, all the others. It is testament to Sebald’s command and distinctive imprint on our imaginations that Walser’s biography now seems utterly Sebaldian. Walser is almost as fine a Sebaldian character as Austerlitz, the eponymous protagonist of Sebald’s final novel.
Nearly equally impressive to the Walser essay — although for different reasons — is the piece on Rousseau, the famous promeneur solitaire. Part travelogue and part biography, Sebald frames the essay around the period the famous philosopher spent on the Swiss Île de St-Pierre. Sebald first sighted the island in September of 1965, some 200 hundred years to the day that Rousseau found refuge there. It takes Sebald another 31 years, however, before he visits the island in 1996.
The Île de St-Pierre was the last redoubt Rousseau possessed in his native Switzerland, and was, he would later report, the place where he was the happiest. Rousseau spent much of his time on the island botanizing, writing ceaseless letters, and drafting a constitution for Corsica. The philosopher’s room was fitted with a trapdoor, to allow Rousseau to escape from visitors’ constant calls, and Sebald provides a memorable imagining of what must have happened there:
When one considers the extent and diversity of this creative output, one can only assume that Rousseau must have spent the entire time hunched over his desk in an attempt to capture, in the endless sequences of lines and letters, the thoughts and feelings incessantly welling up within him.
As he so often does so well, Sebald takes the sins and the tragedy of Rousseau — a man who abandoned all of his children, and who has been the subject of endless character studies and biographical attention — and pulls out something fresh: “No one…recognized the pathological aspect of thought as acutely as Rousseau, who himself wished for nothing more than to be able to halt the wheels ceaselessly turning within his head.” He has much in common with the four exiles in The Emigrants.
While the other German-language writers Sebald focuses on may have made less of an impression on us English-language readers, they are no less important to Sebald. In Keller, Sebald writes, “no other literary work of the nineteenth century can the developments that have determined our lives even down to the present day be traced as clearly…” Like Rousseau — who was a huge influence on Keller’s Green Henry — Keller was a similar victim of thought: for many years, Keller subjected himself to writing, to the “attempt to contain the teeming black scrawl which everywhere threatens to gain the upper hand, in the interests of maintaining a halfway functional personality.” This is a bleak notion of one’s art, but then again, Keller seemed to live a fairly bleak personal life: “From the very beginning, despite a deep need of and evidently inexhaustible capacity for love, Keller’s life was marked by rejection and disappointment.”
Of the avuncular Hebel, Sebald paints a somewhat sunnier portrait, as he does with Eduard Morike, who lived surrounded by women. Yet all — including Walser — Sebald cites as having a certain “unluckiness in love,” which Sebald connects with the beauty of their writing. This notion only seems somewhat silly in retrospect. To be fair, Sebald also cites these artists’ “very long memor[ies],” but one imagines they didn’t hone such an “adeptness at their craft” because of a couple bad breakups. (Or, in Keller and Walser’s case, the lack of a break-up at all.) But, in Sebald’s essays, these fuzzy bits of logic are few and far between — what we are left with is a striking series of stories and feelings, all connected in surprising ways. Ruth Franklin has said that Sebald’s life project was a “a drawing-out of connections primarily through language and image rather than narrative or causality.” In that way, A Place in the Country is a rousing success.
If one was hoping for more insight into the author himself (as I admittedly was), this volume may disappoint. Instead of the mischievous narrators of his fiction — nearly always sharing significant details with Sebald, such as a similar hometown or profession, or through the use of photographs actually taken by Sebald himself — we receive only fleeting, if transparent, glimpses of the writer beneath. (The most interesting may be the importance of his grandfather in Sebald’s life.) But what the book may lack in personal revelations about the author, it makes up for with a better understanding of his process — “an oblique comment on his own style of writing,” as translator Jo Catling notes in her foreword. Much can be gleaned from Sebald’s careful analysis of Hebel and Walser.
Anything more direct and personal would probably have not been fitting, anyway. Sebald’s writing is as much about what is written on the page as what cannot be. (“What Sebald seems to be writing about, in other words,” Mark O’Connell astutely observed, “is frequently not what he wants us to be thinking about.”) It is elliptical, because, it seems, some things have to be; words cannot describe every feeling, every sensation — no matter how many we write — and of all multitudinous topics that would be tough to grasp, perhaps the complexities and depths of our own selves are the most difficult. Even the prodigious Rousseau, Keller, and Walser could not contain half of everything in their works. Walser claimed to be always writing the same book, a novel which could be described as “a much-chopped up or dismembered Book of Myself.” We can take much from the fact he was scribbling up until the very end.
The authors in this volume, Sebald writes, have given him “the persistent feeling of being beckoned from the other side.” Sebald has now become one of these ghosts, haunting us still. Writers “are expected to keep writing until the pen drops from their hand.” Even though the pen was taken from his grasp far too early, we are lucky that Sebald, for a time, held it firm.
Image via Wikimedia Commons