When I was in college, I became excited about some poets, Frank O’Hara, Tennyson, C.K. Williams, and some others. This interest stemmed from a poetry class and from hanging around too much in the local used book store. But I’ve never been grasped by poetry, there’s something too arbitrary about it for me. Still, Some poems by Williams in the New Yorker piqued my interest and I picked up his collection, The Singing, which went on to win the National Book Award. There are handful of very moving poems in this collection. Williams’ best poems are grounded by concrete imagery, and they are engagingly anecdotal. But there are too many poems in this book that aren’t tethered to earthly things at all, and it is difficult for the reader to reach them. He writes engagingly about growing old and about war. The best in the collection is called “The Hearth.” It can be found here.
It has been said, though by whom I can't remember, that the Great New York Novel is as elusive a creature as the Great American One. Because this city (the argument goes) concatenates the fictional challenges of other urban settings - the scale of Tokyo, the insularity and cinematic overfamiliarity of Paris, the mutability and lunatic vitality of Bombay - no novelist can own it the way Dreiser and Wright and Farrell own Chicago or Dickens owns London. And so Ishmael pushes out to sea, Isabel Archer steams for England, and Gatsby is left standing at West Egg, chasing the green light. The world's most expensive real estate beggars the literary imagination.Of course this is more truism than truth. Melville, James, Fitzgerald, Wharton, Ellison, and, more recently, Doctorow and DeLillo and Auster have done the city justice. Three great novels by Saul Bellow - Seize the Day, Herzog, and Mr. Sammler's Planet - constitute their own kind of New York Trilogy, rendering midcentury Manhattan indelible for all time. (Bellow, of course, cut his teeth on Chicago). But it speaks to the size of Joseph O'Neill's ambitions - and the sublimity his accomplishments - that his third work of fiction, Netherland, merits comparison with these authors. Indeed, in its extraordinary literariness, it invites such comparison. It is, for long stretches, a Great New York Novel.The book is deceptively slim, and concerns a Dutch-born investment banker named Hans van der Broek who becomes estranged from his family and from himself in the wake of (though not because of) the September 11 attacks. Exiled in a haunted Chelsea Hotel and a benumbed city, Hans finds a measure of belonging in a cricket league populated largely by working-class immigrants.Hans' narration has a Proustian sensitivity - and, more strikingly, a Proustian elasticity. Making scant use of page- and chapter-breaks, Netherland travels backward and forward in time, arranging events by emotional, rather than chronological, logic - and, in the process, creating suspense. We learn in the first few pages that by the end of his story, Hans will have settled back into bourgeois stolidity, in London. But how will he have gotten there? we wonder. And will he have learned anything in the process?The answer to the latter question is, of course yes; Netherland, which starts as a murder mystery, is really a novel of awakening. The vehicle for that awakening is O'Neill's finest creation, a dynamo named Chuck Ramkissoon who will, by 2006, end up face down in the Gowanus Canal. Chuck is an operator, a calculator, and a charmer, but he takes the American dream quite earnestly. "'Think fantastic,'" he tells Hans. "'My motto is, Think fantastic.'" He has interests in a kosher sushi business, a numbers game, and real estate. His most ambitious project, however, is to convert a little-used airfield in outermost Brooklyn into Bald Eagle Field:"I'm talking about an arena. A sports arena for the greatest teams in the world. Twelve exhibition matches every summer, watched by eight thousand spectators at fifty dollars a pop. I'm talking about advertising, I'm talking about year-round consumption of food and drink in the bar-restaurant."Or rather, I should say, Chuck's most ambitious project is Hans. Initially a cricket buddy, he becomes a kind of mentor for Hans, Quixote to Hans' Sancho Panza, West Indian Gatsby to his Continental Carraway, shuttling him through insalubrious outer-borough locales and slowly pulling him out of his deep freeze. "He was going to fascinate me," Hans says, describing both the trajectory of the book and Chuck's strategy for drawing Hans into the tangled business of "Chuck Cricket, Inc."As James Wood noted in his New Yorker review, O'Neill finds in cricket a beautiful controlling metaphor; it comes to stand variously for upward aspiration; for camaraderie; for innocence; for fragile, ridiculous, sublime democracy - for all the things Hans feels he lost in the fall of 2001. Beautiful, too, is the way O'Neill puts the metaphor to work, letting his diction suggest, rather than insist (just as he does with the novel's other preoccupation, the aftermath of September 11). In a scene that recalls Levin among the mowers in Anna Karenina, Hans trims the grass of the wicket-to-be:We took turns driving a lightweight fairway mower with an eighty-inch cut and fast eleven-blade reels. Chuck liked to stripe the grass with dark green and pale green rings. You started with a perimeter run and then, looping back, made circle after circle, each one smaller than the last, each one with a common center. They would soon be gone, but no matter. What was important was the rhythm of the cutting, and the smell of the cutting, and the satisfaction of time passed fruitfully on the field with a gargling diesel engine, and the glory and suspensefulness of the enterprise. [...] For all of its apparent artificiality, cricket is a sport in nature. Which may be why it calls almost for a naturalist's attentiveness: the ability to locate, in a mostly static herd of white-clothed men, the significant action. It's a question of lookingO'Neill's writing is this luminous, this precise, this cadenced, and this understated throughout the novel. It creates, in Henry James' formulation, the present palpable-intimate: Even as the above passage evokes a world, its aphoristic intelligence evokes a worldview, and in the modulation from hesitation ("it calls almost for...attentiveness") to penetrating insight (It's a question of looking), it embodies Hans' weaknesses and capacities. Perhaps even more deft, because less exquisite, is the way O'Neill gives us Chuck Ramkissoon, almost entirely through gesture and dialogue. Along with The Emperor's Children and The Line of Beauty, Netherland contains some of the most immaculately written English prose of the new century.When O'Neill is using his miraculous instrument to capture the underrepresented precincts of Eastern Parkway and the Herald Square DMV and the Chelsea Hotel and Floyd Bennett Field, it takes on a moral majesty. With the great hole of the World Trade Center smoldering in the background, to record is to memorialize; and apprehending the world as clearly as Hans does becomes a kind of metaphysics, as in the novels of Bellow. It is not a question of looking, but one of seeing.That said, although Netherland moves like a great book, it is, like The Emperor's Children, sometimes merely a good one. Which is to say that sometimes, Hans merely looks. The stakes of the novel, the things we're led to believe matter most to him - his wife, Rachel, and his child, Jake - never fully matter to us, because they never assert their independence from Hans' literary imperatives. A lovely description of Jake's "train-infested underpants" makes a statement about Hans (what an eye!), rather than one about Jake; whereas Keith Neudecker playing catch with his son in DeLillo's Falling Man actually, if laconically, sees the boy. Of Keith, James Wood wrote, "He had never been, perhaps, an easy husband - uncommunicative, driven, adulterous, tediously male," but when it comes to relationships with other people, is there really so much difference between DeLillo's protagonist and O'Neill's?Even at the end of the narrative, Hans doesn't quite seem to see Rachel or Jake as real people, nor is his failure in this regard presented ironically. And because of the novel's chronological structure and its insistence on the importance of seeing, this threatens to become a serious flaw beneath the novel's manicured surface. If Hans has been vouchsafed some kind of revelation, there in the green fields of Brooklyn, why are his feelings for his wife so much less convincing than his feelings for Chuck Ramkissoon? And how are we to feel about his return to the IKEA'd embrace of bourgeois "lifestyle" from the dicier terrain of actual life? Is this growth or surrender?This being a novel, style provides the answer, or at least begs the question. O'Neill's, ultimately, is elegiac, and so, like the tide Fitzgerald's boats beat against, it keeps tugging Hans toward the past, which is the book's, and Hans', center of gravity. The point is not that Hans' suffering clears the way to redemption, but that for a few moments, it seemed it could have. As the book nears its conclusion, Hans circles back and back to the moments when he came closest to grace, seeing them with ever fiercer clarity. The paragraphs take on the surging rhythms of Hans van der Broek's wounded heart. Which is a rather too literary way of saying that, in Netherland Joseph O'Neill has accomplished something even more impressive than the Great New York novel. He has brought - has restored - Hans van der Broek to life. We see him.See also: Kevin's take on Netherland
● ● ●
London has become so separate from the rest of England that anyone who wishes to write about it will have to match the essential weirdness of a disembodied city. It is the cultural, political, and financial capital of the country, but also, in parts, the most deprived and conflicted. This means that, of course, there’s a lot to say about London. It has been busy lately. But to take on the capital as a subject for a novel seems increasingly maniacal. A.A. Gill, in a recent piece for the New York Times, called London “the most successful mongrel casserole anywhere.” It has achieved this while having a uniquely unwelcoming atmosphere. For an international city it feels closed, cordoned-off, as if even when you’re there you’re not really there. If you want to be ignored, go to London. Perhaps this is why the best recent novels about the city are radically subjective, interested in perceptions, ghosts, and pseudo-history rather than The Way We Live Now. Intelligent writers since Dickens have dodged the city-wide survey and focused on their own polemics and pathologies. Iain Sinclair’s novels pack in a lot of factual information about the capital, but he is less interested in shedding light than casting shadows. Peter Ackroyd’s exhaustive peregrinations are strictly solo, partly because he writes faster than we can read, while Will Self and J.G. Ballard have veered towards the satirical and surreal. None of these writers catches the whole thing and, perhaps with the exception of Ackroyd’s non-fiction, they are all as interested in their own obsessions as they are in the social and political reality. Anyone familiar with John Lanchester’s work will know that he does not sit comfortably with this roster at all. Weirdly he has managed to get half a dozen books into a writing career without establishing a particular style. His first novel, The Debt to Pleasure, is a decadent and Nabokovian riff on gastronomy and murder, completely unlike, say, Fragrant Harbor, which is a teetotal take on the recent history of Hong Kong. That novel was published ten years ago and for a while it seemed like he had ditched fiction for its straighter cousin. After a series of fantastic essays for the London Review of Books, and a family memoir published in 2007, Lanchester wrote I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, a brief and accessible examination of the financial crash and its various follies. “I began working on the subject as part of the background to a novel, and soon realized that I had stumbled across the most interesting story I’ve ever found,” he writes in the introduction to I.O.U. The novel he was researching, we now know, was Capital. In hardback form, Capital is as heavy as a black cab, its very title – which has already been used by Maureen Duffy for her own London novel – refreshingly immodest. The setting is Pepys Road, a fictional place somewhere in central London where, due to the housing boom lunacy, the properties that were once made for the lower-middle-classes (“the respectable, aspirational no-longer-poor”) are now worth millions of pounds. This is a solid conceit, guaranteeing an automatic cocktail shaker of characters. Eighty-two-year-old Petunia rattles around her £1.5 million house alone, terminally ill and about to make her daughter property-rich. A Muslim family living above a shop can barely afford heating, but across the road a wealthy banker wishing for a million pound bonus lives with an unemployed wife and an entourage of nannies for his spoiled children. Non-residents who nonetheless have many reasons to spend time on Pepys Road include a Zimbabwean traffic warden who vows only to go back to her country when its despotic ruler dies; an urban artist (based on Banksy) called Smitty whose identity is hidden from everyone but his embittered assistant; and Zbigniew, a Polish carpenter who finds himself jammed in an ethical dilemma with a case full of cash. Capital is a novel in almost entirely discrete segments and many of the characters never have cause to meet. Their parallel lives are tied together by a subplot that starts with mysterious postcards being found on the doormats of every resident. On one side a picture of their house, on the other an ominous message: “We Want What You Have.” The torment escalates to graffiti and vandalism, but nothing ever feels truly at stake. There is no premonition of 2011’s riots. Nothing slouches towards Brixton to be born. Lanchester is soft on all his characters and the satire never bites. The most enthralling figure (and it’s hard to tell whether this is satire backfiring or part of the plan) is Roger the banker, “a man to whom everything in life had come easily.” To begin with, he is described in the blandest and laziest possible fashion – he is “good-looking” but in “an anonymous way,” with “good manners” and “good fortune.” Taken at face value, he is going to be the least sympathetic character for most readers, which means Lanchester can let rip with stereotypes in a way that would be much more uncomfortable with, for example, a Polish carpenter. You can tell – lazy character sketching aside – that Lanchester relishes the chance to write about the ruthlessly superficial. Roger is a man who doesn’t appear to do any work all day, but nonetheless expects seven figures for a bonus. In fact, because of his family’s overspending, he needs seven figures. The most entertaining – and tense – set-piece in the book is when Roger is about to discover what his bonus will be for the year. Roger, who had been feeling cool and even-tempered in his silk knickers, felt his heart rate and blood pressure shoot up. A pound sign followed by a one with six zeroes, one with six zeroes, one with six zeroes. Two with six zeroes? No, that was greedy. One with six zeroes. His wife, Arabella, is equally fun to be around because she is equally two-dimensional. Obsessed with expensive things, she tries to justify her one-track mind by convincing herself that she hasn’t lost the true value of money. For Arabella, “the knowledge of what money meant gave the drama of high prices a special piquancy.” Unfortunately most of the book is not about Roger and Arabella, and when we are not in their company the pleasures are scarce. A cynic might say that Capital was rushed for publication to cash in on the Olympic tourists. The cynic, in this case, might be on to something. At times it feels designed for the casual, inattentive reader. Because of the short chapters it feels like the pace is quicker than it really is. Truthfully, Capital is slow going. It was somewhere around chapter 78 – or 67, or 49 – that I realized I no longer cared about what the next vignette had in store. I was simply counting the numbers. Circumstances are not helped by the suspicion that Lanchester, who showed real literary flair in his debut, has forgotten everything he has ever learned about prose. So, to start the ball rolling, we get the irritating repetition of the word “genuinely” – “a genuinely shitty mood”; "genuinely proud”; “genuinely powerless”; “one of the things Daisy did genuinely love about him” – which after a while begins to sound like an excitable teenager trying to convince you that what they have to say is genuinely important. It is a basic lack of faith on Lanchester’s part. He has to hammer these things deep into our brains. At one point he hypes up the footballing Wunderkind Freddy Kamo by telling us that “there would be a day when everyone in the world with the slightest interest in football, amounting to billions of people, would know that name.” There is something so graceless and hand-holding about that “amounting to billions of people,” as if Lanchester doesn’t trust us to be sufficiently aware of the sport’s popularity. Freddy’s solicitor is “fluent in money,” and later on we discover that the Kamal family is “fluent in irritation.” Why not recycle a phrase or two? Who will notice? The biggest problem with this novel, though, is its terrible sense of futility. Lanchester has already said everything he can say about the financial crisis in I.O.U., which was a lot shorter and denser than Capital. It was a story of greed and failure that found its way to the heart of the City inside the city, with all the complexity intact. The panoramic novel that has followed feels like the husk trailing the seed. On the shelf, Capital looks promising, bold, satisfyingly baggy. After finishing the book it resembles more of a failed project – well-intentioned but risible, empty, Millennium Dome-esque. We would have been foolish to expect the definitive fictional account of 21st century London, but Lanchester, in muffling the talents he has shown elsewhere, has managed to write a novel that is both amateurish and patronizing.
1. In his Brenner and God, recently issued in translation by Melville House, Wolf Haas presents us with one of the most thoroughly likeable characters I’ve come across in a very long while. Simon Brenner is an ex-detective, a man in middle age who has decided after trying out more than 50 professions that he was born to be a chauffeur. Although actually, "chauffeur" doesn’t seem exactly the right word for his current employment: he’s almost, when you come right down to it, a sort of Autobahn-based nanny. His job involves ferrying a two-year-old, Helena, over the 300 miles that separate her parents’ respective businesses. Helena’s father is a wildly successful construction magnate -- a Lion of Construction, in the parlance of the book -- with headquarters in Munich. Her mother is a physician with a small clinic in downtown Vienna. Both have any number of enemies, the father because Construction Lions always have enemies and the mother because she performs abortions. A permanent crowd of protestors menaces patients by the clinic’s front door. They feel safer having their small daughter in the care of a former detective. Brenner is devoted to his charge. He feels that he can tell Helena anything, and keeps the car impeccable for her benefit. He runs the windshield wipers ever so often in perfectly clear weather, because the windshield wipers delight her so. As for Helena, her first word: “Not ‘Mama,’ not ‘Papa’ -- ‘Driver.’” Theirs is a perfectly happy friendship. Former Detective Brenner is on a calmer keel than he used to be. He used to have some inclination toward flying off the handle, the book’s unnamed narrator tells us, but that’s all changed since he took a less stressful job and started on the anti-depressants. He takes his pills, maintains his car, and carefully ferries his charge 300 miles each way up and down the Autobahn. He likes his life. His employers are delighted. Until the day when he stops at a gas station -- he always gases up the car the night before but this one time he forgot -- and decides to dash in quickly to get Helena a chocolate bar, even though chocolate bars are specifically forbidden by her parents on the grounds that they're bad for her teeth, because she does after all love chocolate and those are after all only her baby teeth. But while he’s on the gas station, the girl disappears from the car. He’s dismissed from his job and loses his chauffeur’s apartment above the garage. And just like that, ex-detective Brenner is a detective again. 2. There are, at least, no shortage of leads. Given the parents’ respective professions, the main problem lies not in finding someone with a motive, but in narrowing down the list of plausible suspects. There’s a questionable congressman whose phone number is unaccountably programmed into Helena’s mother’s cell phone, a somewhat shady bank director who works with Helena’s father, and Knoll, a fanatical abortion-clinic protestor who once obliquely threatened the child. There’s something Brenner should know, Knoll tells him: Helena’s mother once performed an abortion on a 12-year-old girl. He has a blurry picture of the girl entering the clinic, and there’s 10,000 euros in it if Brenner can find her. Who was the 12-year-old, and is she connected in some way with Helena’s disappearance? The story is told by a narrator who is never named, but who manages nonetheless to be curiously intrusive. Mostly it’s charming, a narrator who continually hectors us to pay attention (literally, as in “Pay attention: I’m only going to say so much”) and who conversationally drops in his opinions every so often (“By this point...Brenner himself wasn’t placing any large bets on his life. And me neither, to be honest.”) It has to be said, though, that you can only be extorted to pay attention by your narrator so many times before the novelty starts to wear off, and by the three-quarter mark the device has gotten a little cute. And yet, stylistic flaws notwithstanding, the book is a meticulously plotted, dark, and often very funny ride.
● ● ●
1. Despite all the changes in literary fashions over the past 150 years, Gustave Flaubert remains an essential influence on how novelists approach their work, and Madame Bovary remains the key book in his career. Given Flaubert’s obsession with style and craft, any translation of Madame Bovary into English requires not merely competence but a touch of full-on windmill-charging madness. Lydia Davis has this madness, tempered by a Flaubertian fastidiousness and dedication to language. The results are exhilarating: an English Bovary that is in forceful, energetic tension with the original French. Sentence by sentence, Davis takes up the same quixotic struggle between idealism and pragmatism that Flaubert has set at the core of his writing. 2. The sense of the quixotic was always strong in Flaubert. Don Quixote was one of his favorite books, and Madame Bovary consciously reaches for many of the effects that Cervantes achieved in a less methodical fashion. One of the surprises in reading Don Quixote is discovering how, especially in its early chapters, the characters are more cartoonish than human. Don Quixote is a madman, a delusional fool. His devotion to his book-fed vision of knighthood exposes him to incessant mockery and attack, not only from other people but from the author. Sancho Panza, even more surprisingly, is less a voice of reason than a dull-witted clown. His proverbs aren’t presented as insights—they’re the lazy observations of someone who is down-to-earth mainly in the sense that he lacks imagination. For much of the first half of Don Quixote, we’re reading something that’s close to a vaudeville routine: Sancho plays the sluggish straight man to his master’s flamboyant, hyperactive idiocy. Gradually, though, Cervantes begins to probe some of his characters’ larger possibilities. I think most of us go into Don Quixote expecting the story of a noble dreamer and a levelheaded realist, but Cervantes only allows us to find this story by first working our way through his constant ridicule. Eventually, and particularly in the second half of the novel, Cervantes adds more subtlety to the satire, and rescues his characters from their puppet-show crudeness. He isn’t always consistent about this, however, and Don Quixote is one of those books where the changeability of the writing invites us to make endless interpretations of what its author is trying to accomplish. 3. Flaubert first read Don Quixote in 1832, when he was eleven years old, and he had heard tales from the book when he was even younger. By the time Madame Bovary was published, in 1857, he had already been thinking about Cervantes for at least a quarter of a century. Moreover, he had created in Emma Bovary a character who would renew and deepen the meaning of Don Quixote for the future. Emma embodies, in one person, the conflict between idealism and pragmatism that Cervantes divides between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. The argument between the knight and the squire is Emma’s argument with herself: she touches both of their extremes at once, as well as many points in between those extremes. This is why so much of the novel takes place inside her head. Her marriage to Charles and her adulteries with Rodolphe and Léon matter less than her fluctuating attitudes towards the world. It’s traditional for English-speaking readers to think of Emma mainly as a deluded romantic, but this is a serious distortion of her complexity. Fortunately, the new Davis translation allows us a fresh chance to consider the harsh, observant aspects of Emma’s personality. The various strains of her sentimentality are always doing battle with the various strains of her cynicism. When Flaubert said “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” he didn’t just mean that Emma expressed his secret yearnings. He also meant that she expressed all the different temperatures of coldness and despair in his many degrees of pessimism. 4. Even before her marriage, as an inexperienced young woman who knows little of the world beyond her father’s farm and the convent where she was educated, Emma “considered herself to be thoroughly disillusioned, with nothing more to learn, nothing more to feel.” Throughout the novel, she can’t help comparing her abstract hopes against her keen eye for everything that is discouraging and ugly. Within ten pages of the start of her affair with the well-to-do landowner Rodolphe, she realizes that he has become depressingly sensible and brisk towards her. Devastated by his detachment, she again mourns the loss of all her dreams. She feels she has spent her illusions “in all those successive stages she had gone through, in her virginity, her marriage, and her love…like a traveler who leaves some part of his wealth at every inn along the road.” Her feelings for Rodolphe revive, of course, but he leaves her at precisely the time he has promised to take her away with him forever. Later she goes to the opera, and convinces herself that nothing in the performance could possibly move her, since she now knows “how paltry were the passions exaggerated by art.” At this same opera she meets Léon, a young law student. They start an affair, but she soon cools towards him, and her bitterness becomes all-encompassing: Why was life so inadequate, why did the things she depended on turn immediately to dust?...Every smile hid a yawn of boredom, every joy a malediction, every pleasure its own disgust, and the sweetest kisses left on your lips no more than a vain longing for a more sublime pleasure. 5. Emma’s cynicism and pessimism are critical to our understanding of her. Yet if they were all she had to offer us, Madame Bovary would be as narrow and harsh as some of Flaubert’s later novels. I admire Sentimental Education and Bouvard and Pécuchet—it’s hard not to enjoy Flaubert’s exacting technical skills—but the melancholy resignation of those books feels a bit mechanical to me. All action is doomed to failure and absurdity, all emotion is ghostly and pale, and nothing matters very much, either to the characters or to us as readers. I have friends who love the later Flaubert precisely for his refusal to hide his conviction that everything tastes bitter and stale. Still, on most days I want more than this from a novelist. I want a fuller sense of our possibilities: the heightened alertness to everything and everyone around us that Tolstoy and Woolf and Shakespeare provide at their best. Emma is full of this alertness, a heady combination of physical, emotional, and intellectual responsiveness that makes her unique in Flaubert’s writing. Though it’s common for critics to ignore her intelligence, she is by a wide margin the smartest and most perceptive of the novel’s main characters. The world gives Don Quixote a beating for his romanticism, but he is usually in the honorable position of standing up for his convictions against external circumstances—circumstances that he amusingly chooses to reinterpret to his advantage. Emma, in contrast, gives most of her beatings to herself. She faces the difficult task of finding something to believe in when she must constantly fight her own mixed feelings. She is far too fierce for the tame choices available to her, and far too wise to find fulfillment in the limits of her socially allotted slots as either a contented wife or a secret adulteress. Often in the novel we join her at the window as she looks outside and struggles with the subtleties of her dissatisfaction. She wonders how to “express an uneasiness so intangible, one that changes shape like a cloud, that changes direction like the wind…” At times she works towards a tentative feminist critique, and ponders how much more freedom her hoped-for son might someday enjoy compared to her. She sees quite clearly that much of her sense of confinement comes from the restraints placed on her as a woman, “always some desire luring her on, some convention holding her back.” Soon the gap between what she actually thinks and what she can openly admit grows intolerable: She was sometimes surprised at the shocking conjectures that entered her mind; and yet she had to keep smiling, hear herself say again and again that she was happy, pretend to be happy, let everyone believe it… 6. When Emma receives the letter in which Rodolphe admits he is abandoning her, she runs up to her room “as if an inferno were blazing behind her.” In a sense, she carries this inferno with her everywhere she goes, and moves through the book with an intensity that none of the other characters comes close to attaining. Flaubert continually brings out her restless energy. Thinking about her marriage, she “would hold the tongs in the fire till they turned red.” She sits down on the grass at one point, and quickly starts “digging into it with little thrusts of the tip of her parasol.” Later, as she listens to someone during a stroll, she begins “stirring the wood chips on the ground with the heel of her boot.” She talks to Léon before she sleeps with him for the first time, and we find her “contemplating the bows on her slippers and making little movements in the satin, now and then, with her toes.” She overflows with so much dynamism that she can’t even pass through a church without dipping her finger in the holy water. Her tragedy is that her vitality has been diverted into channels which can’t possibly satisfy her. Like Don Quixote, she has let the fantasies of second-rate writers imprison her dreams. In her case, she is infected not with the ideal of knighthood but with the ideal of a perfect mate, as found in the novels and stories she read as a girl. Since this ideal is absurdly distant from the more difficult rewards of any actual relationship, it guarantees that she will always be unhappy. Her love affairs can momentarily appease her frustration, but in the end they always take her in a false direction, away from the more mysterious passions that drive her at a level neither she nor anyone else in the novel can quite understand. When she begins her relationship with Rodolphe, she experiences for an instant this obscure desire, which is less for a lover than for transformation and escape: But catching sight of herself in the mirror, she was surprised by her face. Her eyes had never been so large, so dark, or so deep. Something subtle had spread through her body and was transfiguring her. Ultimately, it’s this promise of transfiguration that Emma seeks. She wants to break away from the confines of her life and undergo a metamorphosis into something better than the petty existence that surrounds her. Yet the only way she has been taught that she can attain any kind of transcendence—through the love of a man—repeatedly ends by making her feel cheated and unfulfilled. It’s appropriate that, by the novel’s climax, when she decides to kill herself, her rage against men takes on a magnificent ferocity, the flipside of Hamlet’s rage against women when he attacks Ophelia: She longed to strike out at all men, spit in their faces, crush every one of them; and she walked rapidly straight on, pale, trembling, enraged, searching the empty horizon with her tearful eyes, as though reveling in the hatred that was suffocating her. 7. Madame Bovary is about a world where people’s highest aspirations are turned against them—are cheapened into standardized, prepackaged dreams that others can pillage and control. We’ll never know how Emma’s ambitions might have developed if she hadn’t become addicted to the romantic fantasies she read at the convent. She understands that those fantasies have failed her, but the novel prepares an even crueler recognition for her—one that’s as current for us today as the rows of foreclosures and bankruptcies along our streets. Behind the story of Emma’s marriage and affairs, Flaubert quietly builds a hidden theme: the manipulations of Homais and Lheureux. After their introduction at the start of Part Two, their presence grows bit by bit until they finally replace Emma altogether and lead us to one of the most coolly nightmarish endings in literature. For much of the novel we barely notice them, and we wonder why Homais, that absurd apothecary obsessed with prestige, keeps returning to the story. His mind consists entirely of received ideas: prejudices that parrot the hand-me-down Enlightenment notions of his favorite newspapers. Since he has no outstanding personal qualities to prop up his megalomania, he spends all his time trying to manipulate others and invent a public reputation that defies the extent of his ineptitude. Emma is intelligent enough and independent enough to fight back against her fantasies at least as often as she indulges them. Homais, on the other hand, revels in the fatuousness of his ideas. He needs all thought to be secondhand and simplistic, needs all beliefs to fit strict rules of banality, because only in a society of the borrowed and the rote can he flourish. At first he seems harmless. So does Lheureux, the merchant who loans money to Emma so she can buy the little luxury items that accompany her adulteries. As the novel goes on, however, we find that Homais and Lheureux work their way forward by exploiting and damaging the people around them. 8. Lheureux’s method is more obvious, and more immediately effective. He draws Emma into taking higher loans than she can realistically repay, and he keeps extending her credit in what she finally sees is an effort to ruin her. By selling her the romantic clothes and props that she thinks will spike her affairs with greater potency, he ends up winning the right to take all of her family’s possessions. This, for Emma, is the final disillusionment, the one that tips her towards her suicide. She is forced to understand that not only have her dreams failed to satisfy her—they’ve been twisted, through her own foolishness, to lead her into financial ruin. Homais, in turn, accidentally provides the arsenic that Emma uses to poison herself. He also fails to purge her of the poison in time to perhaps save her life. His incompetence here mirrors his earlier incompetence in the novel’s famous clubfoot episode, where a young man’s leg has to be amputated after an unnecessary operation. (Interestingly, in both situations, Homais is less negligent than Emma’s husband, a medical practitioner who should know better.) Moreover, in addition to the pain that Homais inflicts unintentionally, he becomes steadily more aggressive in mistreating anyone he perceives as a nuisance or a rival. He has a habit of practicing medicine without a license, and has always feared that Emma’s husband, the hapless Charles, will expose his misconduct. Because of this, Homais has done his best to undermine Charles in constant small ways while pretending to be his friend. Then Emma dies, leaving Charles plagued with debts, and Homais completely abandons him as soon as it becomes clear that Charles no longer has the social standing to interfere with anyone’s ambitions. This is when Homais largely takes over the narrative. He tries to cure a blind man with a salve, fails,and then keeps the failure from harming his reputation by attacking the man in a series of newspaper articles. The success of his articles emboldens him, and he decides that he is an expert on government affairs and major social issues. He starts to crave awards and honors, and uses his public position to discredit and drive out of town three doctors in a row. The novel’s stark final lines tell us that he is protected by the authorities and local opinion, and has just won the cross of the Legion of Honor. His conquest is complete. He has replaced conscientious medical practice with irresponsible quackery, and has successfully made over reality in his own image. Public recognition is all, and the manipulation of appearances not only hides his banality but enshrines that banality as the mark of superior skill. In the light of his grotesque victory, we see more clearly the confused splendor of Emma’s struggles, which have at least the nobility of her outsized passion. People like Homais and Lheureux, Flaubert suggests, are the source of much of the fraudulence that ensnares Emma and the rest of us throughout our lives. With our enthusiastic cooperation, they build mazes of debased aspirations and desiccated dreams, traps in which we lose our sense of direction, wasting our strength as we search for a way out. 9. Lydia Davis, already a formidable translator and short story writer, has now presented us with an English Bovary that powerfully recreates the different elements of Flaubert’s style. Flaubert is often as hard on Emma as Cervantes was on Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, and Davis brings a tart, astringent tone to much of the writing. Some reviewers have complained about this, but it seems to me that Davis is usually just following Flaubert more closely than, say, the overly placid Francis Steegmuller version does. I love the Steegmuller version, and he deserves permanent recognition not only for his Bovary translation but for Flaubert in Egypt and his two-volume edition of Flaubert’s correspondence. Still, Davis provides a necessary corrective to Steegmuller, similar to the corrective she provided to Scott Moncrieff’s florid Proust. It’s an essential virtue of this Bovary that Davis conveys the full force of Flaubert’s harshness. After all, the novel’s constant mockery of Emma is part of Flaubert’s overall plan, and I suspect it was Don Quixote’s scornful prose he had in mind when he wrote passages like these, ridiculing the way that Emma uses her mother’s death as an excuse for indulging in self-conscious displays of grief: Elle se laissa donc glisser dans les méandres lamartiniens, écouta les harpes sur les lacs, tous les chants de cygnes mourants, toutes les chutes de feuilles, les vierges pures qui montent au ciel, et la voix de l’Éternel discourant dans les vallons. Elle s’en ennuya, n’en voulut point convenir, continua par habitude, ensuite par vanité, et fut enfin surprise de se sentir apaisée, et sans plus de tristesse au cœur que de rides sur son front. With characteristic sharpness, Davis reproduces Flaubert’s air of fast-moving amusement at Emma’s stylized mourning: And so she allowed herself to slip into Lamartinean meanderings, listened to harps on lakes, to the song of every dying swan, to the falling of every leaf, to pure virgins rising to heaven, and to the voice of the Eternal speaking in the valleys. She became bored with this, did not want to admit it, continued out of habit, then out of vanity, and was at last surprised to find that she was at peace, and that there was no more sadness in her heart than there were wrinkles on her forehead. “Lamartinean meanderings” captures the rhythmic elegance of “méandres lamartiniens” and is much more concise than Steegmuller’s typically relaxed “meander along Lamartinian paths.” It’s also a bit less flat-footed than the “Lamartine meanderings” in the old Eleanor Marx-Aveling translation. More crucially, the second sentence shows the skill with which Davis renders the bounce and pace of the novel’s French. Flaubert rushes through Emma’s psychological changes with the comic deftness of a sped-up film clip, and Davis keeps the speed without losing the sense. On page after page, Davis succeeds in conveying Flaubert’s invigorating bravado whenever he’s treating Emma’s foibles with unrestrained contempt. Part of what Flaubert learned from Cervantes is that you could make merciless fun of your characters without destroying them. Both Emma and Don Quixote emerge from their authors’ derision battered yet triumphant, oddly purified and preserved by the very attacks that superficially seem to discredit them. 10. For the most part, Davis sticks tightly both to the meaning of Flaubert’s text and to its constant changes of tone. She is especially good at following the different rhythms of the original and making them work in English, a difficult task with Flaubert. He is a hard writer to imitate. He approaches each sentence as a separate problem, and painstakingly fits each of those problems into the larger problem of the paragraph, the episode, the novel as a whole. Stylistically, you never quite know what the next sentence is going to be like—long or short, stoic or humorous, rich with description or sparse with subtle pathos. A key source of Flaubert’s greatness is that he manages to contain such variety within a voice that is still distinctive and strong. Davis has done a wonderful job of catching both the main voice—the rigorous, lucid tone that dominates the novel—and the wide range of other styles that wrestle with this voice throughout the story. Flaubert’s French practically seethes with all the moods and emotions that it includes. You have the sense, crucial to the novel’s impact, that powerful feeling is being conducted under powerful control. Davis recognizes this. She knows that Flaubert’s style depends not merely on his renowned chill but on the heat that is constantly threatening to melt through the ice—the passion that the style needs to save while purging the words of sentimentality or sensationalism. Flaubert is celebrated for his irony, but we wouldn’t care about his irony if he weren’t equally good at moments like the one when Emma first considers killing herself in the wake of Rodolphe’s rejection. Upstairs in her home, she leans against the window and looks down at the paving stones while she listens to the whirring of a nearby lathe: Le rayon lumineux qui montait d’en bas directement tirait vers l’abîme le poids de son corps. Il lui semblait que le sol de la place oscillant s’élevait le long des murs, et que le plancher s’inclinait par le bout, à la manière d’un vaisseau qui tangue. Elle se tenait tout au bord, presque suspendue, entourée d’un grand espace. Le bleu du ciel l’envahissait, l’air circulait dans sa tête creuse, elle n’avait qu’à céder, qu’à se laisser prendre; et le ronflement du tour ne discontinuait pas, comme une voix furieuse qui l’appelait. Without doing anything especially tricky or spectacular, Davis gives this passage its full measure of life, the force of Emma’s despair mingled with the lathe’s turning: The ray of light that rose directly up to her from below was pulling the weight of her body down toward the abyss. It seemed to her that the ground in the village square was swaying back and forth and rising along the walls, and that the floor was tipping down at the end, like a vessel pitching. She was standing right at the edge, almost suspended, surrounded by a great empty space. The blue of the sky was coming into her, the air circulating inside her hollow skull, she had only to give in, to let herself be taken; and the whirring of the lathe never stopped, like a furious voice calling to her. Flaubert presses his translators into a nearly impossible position. They must balance fidelity to his meticulously chosen words against the desire to communicate his awesome stylistic achievement—must sway, as his characters do, between the earthbound and the ideal. Lydia Davis, stronger than Emma Bovary, sustains this balance from start to finish. The time is always right for a Flaubert revival. Davis has now given us the best possible reason to start one.
● ● ●
● ● ●
1. In 1887, Hamlin Garland, then a 27-year-old aspiring writer, traveled by train from Boston back to his family's farm in Ordway, South Dakota. Having spent most of his life in the Midwest, and shuttling around the Dakotas, Iowa, and Wisconsin, Garland was familiar with agrarian life, but with his return, he had evolved: "The ugliness, the endless drudgery," he later wrote, "and the loneliness of the farmer's lot smote me with stern insistence." Once he arrived at home, he was even more shocked. "I found my mother imprisoned in a small cabin on the enormous sunburnt, treeless plain, with no expectation of ever living anywhere else." He continued: "Deserted by her sons and failing in health, she endured the discomforts of her life uncomplainingly..." This encounter would have a profound impact on his life. Garland worried that he was "without power to aid my mother in any substantial way" and didn't know what to do about it. The answer, then, must have seemed obvious: he would write short stories. 2. Garland's first effort was the story "Mrs. Ripley's Trip," which later became part of his first collection Main-Travelled Roads, published to acclaim in 1891, but now mostly forgotten. Garland wrote the stories under "the mood of bitterness." Mrs. Ripley, probably based on Garland's own mother, is described in the story as "pathetically little, wizened, and hopeless in her ill-fitting garments" and with "withered and shapeless lips." (His mother was one of the first to read the story.) Stuck in her house for many years, Mrs. Ripley suggests to her husband Ethan that she travel across the country to visit her relatives, whom she hasn't seen since before the couple moved west. Ethan is genuinely surprised when he finds out she has spent years ferreting away coins for the trip — but the reader isn't; we've have grown accustomed to her sharp and smart tongue. Downtrodden and oppressed women, in fact, resonate in Main-Travelled Roads. Mrs. Haskins, the homeless wife in "Under the Lion's Paw," "like the heroic woman that she was, bore also uncomplainingly the most terrible burdens." Julia Peterson had been working the fields on her father's farm — toiling "Among the Corn Rows" — and dreaming of a husband to take her away, when she instead receives a sudden proposal from a modest local farmer, Rob. He makes a telling comment after he finds her tiredly plowing: "'You're pretty well used up, eh?'" Mrs. Sanford, in another story, starts her own general store when her husband's bank fails and convinces him not to skip town to avoid his debts. And then there is Agnes, perhaps the toughest of them all, who in "A Branch Road" is forced into a marriage with a violent man after she thinks her beau stood her up. In fact, most every story of Main-Travelled Roads has a heroic, burdened woman. "Cut off from human community," wrote Joseph McCullough in his introduction to the volume, "[the farm wife] is destined to live in a depressing, lonely life, with little or no intellectual, sexual, or emotional fulfillment." Garland's obvious concern for the plight of women in the late 19th century American Midwest was not just a product of concern for his mother, though — he was actively involved in the day's politics. Generally, the criticism of his fiction has been for its obviously political overtones. Take, for example, "Under the Lion's Paw," which was written under the influence of politician and political economist Henry George, and with the express purpose of persuading voters to enact a land value tax, which Garland contended more fairly excised wealthy property owners. Garland supported Populist candidates (including, along with his contemporary Willa Cather, William Jennings Bryan during Bryan's 1896 presidential run). Sometimes the stories of Main-Travelled Roads are distractingly political, but other times an emotional core reveals itself, as when the poor farmer Grant, angry at the return of his prodigal (and successful) brother in "Up the Coolly," says: "A man like me is helpless... Just like a fly in a pan of molasses. There ain't any escape for him. The more he tears around the more liable he is to rip his legs off." 3. Eventually, though, Garland grew weary of writing fiction. Perhaps this was for the best, as the quality of his writing had been diminishing since Main-Travelled Roads; even the later stories (added to the volume after initial publication) find Garland drifting toward the sentimental. Instead of telling fictional stories of farmers like his family and friends, Garland focused on telling his own — and by extension his family's — story. Born in a farm near West Salem, Wisconsin in 1860, Garland had been christened Hannibal Hamlin Garland, after Abraham Lincoln's then-presidential running mate. Garland's father was strict, his mother stoic. Continually moving the family, Richard Garland never had much luck farming. But his travails, and his difficult relationship with Garland's mother, Charlotte, would provide his son with a rich source of material. There are echoes in many of the early stories. Garland moved to Boston in the fall of 1884, and became enthralled with its in-bloom literary scene, culminating in a meeting with William Dean Howells in 1887 (not long before he returned for his career-forming trip back west). Howells was perhaps the biggest influence on Garland's career, both in its development and in its success: he reviewed Main-Travelled Roads in Harper's, calling it "robust and serious." Starting in Boston, Garland would have a lasting influence on Stephen Crane, mentoring Crane and reading his manuscripts. Son of the Middle Border was the first significant result of Garland's turn away from fiction — although in 1894 he had produced a work of realist literary theory, Crumbling Idols, which Crane read fervently. Son of the Middle Border appeared serially before arriving as a book in 1917. It received such acclaim that he wrote Daughter of the Middle Border, the story of his wife's family — he had married Zulime Taft, the sister of the sculptor, Lorado Taft, in 1899 — which won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography. He continued on to Trail-Makers of the Middle Border and Back-Trailers of the Middle Border a few years later. The latter completed the series by depicting the return of several members of his family back east. 4. Although his production later in life probably stained his reputation — Garland had turned, in the late 1920s, to credulously investigating psychic phenomena — the stories of Main-Travelled Roads remain nuanced and enlightening, pioneering pieces of realist fiction. And despite much of the criticism it has received — essentially for being didactic and dreary — Garland always ensured that there were some lessons that could not be taught, and some bright spots in the most dreadful existence. Mrs. Ripley, after her vacation, finds her life on the farm to be bearable again. In "A Day's Pleasure," a distraught wife enjoys an afternoon respite with some genuinely kind, wealthy benefactors. Mrs. Sanford continues her store even after her husband's investments rebound, deciding she's a better mother for working, too. Even poor Agnes escapes her misogynist husband by running off with her childhood sweetheart, baby in her arms, searching out a life east. Howard and Grant make peace after Howard scrounges up his money to buy the family's old farm back. There are no easy solutions for these characters, and certainly no political ones. With his fiction, Garland said he sought to "touch the deeper feelings of the nation." It is a shame that more are not reading these stories, which reach out from a hardscrabble time, and which still mirror our own.