Though Elizabeth Crane’s All This Heavenly Glory is billed as a collection of stories, after just a few, I shifted into novel mode, which was easy to do, seeing as the whole collection is about one character viewed in many snapshots from the age of 6 to 40, Charlotte Anne Byers. Those who who have read Crane before will be familiar with her rambunctious, elbows-flailing prose, in which the dependent clauses become so laden that they at times break free into outlines and lists. The effect of this stylistic departure from standard convention is, miraculously, not at all gimmicky, because a) Crane manages to keep those piled up words from toppling over, and b) it is in keeping with the persona of the character that she has created to inhabit this book. Because All This Heavenly Glory, necessarily, touches upon many trials and tribulations of girlhood and womanhood, it seems likely that it will have the “chick lit” moniker attached to it at some point. So be it. But what this book really is is an unflinching character study of a complicated person. Charlotte Anne is raised on the Upper West Side, comes of age in the 1970s in a family branched by divorce and remarriage, and endures a decade of being lost in her 20’s – both geographically and spiritually. She is both foolish and clever, endearing and infuriating, hopelessly falling apart and really good at “having it together.” Not all at the same time, of course. Crane tells Byers’ story episodically, filled with details and discursions, and though the book threatens to come apart under the pressure of Crane’s furiously frantic stylings, she manages to pull together an overarching narrative that is telling and poignant, less – and therefore more meaningful – than the sum of its frenetic parts.
I left New York for Windhoek in early October, exchanging the end of an Indian summer for the beginning of an African summer. Around January, I began to despair of my lost winter, and I experienced that peculiar disorder in which the current season obliterates the memory – indeed, the existence – of all other seasons. Maybe John Crowley felt the same way when he wrote: “Love is a myth, like summer. In winter, summer is a myth. A report, a rumor. Not to be believed in.”
I bought Crowley’s Little, Big shortly before I came to Windhoek. After special-ordering it from my local bookstore, I waited patiently for it to arrive, sustained by Harold Bloom’s assurance that it was a book he “regularly reread[s].” The family tree in the introductory pages, the flowery miniature work throughout, and the headings (“Sylvie and Destiny,” “Some Notes About Them,” “Lady with the Alligator Purse,” and “Still Unstolen,” among others) within chapters within books immediately won my heart. But Little, Big was not such an easy conquest, especially for a reader like me who loves devouring books whole and quick. For the first hundred pages or so, I felt the way I feel when I eat a hardboiled egg too fast and I have to stand still, sipping water until the thickness passes through my gullet. I foundered, starting and stopping the book numerous times over the course of three months. Its extended, reproachful presence on the windowsill next to my bed began to undermine my vision of myself as a diligent and avid reader.
Finally, I cut the nonsense and undertook one of my approximately bi-monthly, epic reading nights, in which I stay up until 3 or 4 in the morning finishing a book, then stay awake another hour thinking about the book. (George Eliot’s Middlemarch inspired the last such night.) Little, Big squeezed the sides of my brain and fought me for each page. In one story line, Sophie Drinkwater, a probable descendant of fairies, unknowingly goes for years without sleeping, only to have her sleep finally returned by the child who was once stolen from her and replaced with an ancient baby-like creature who eats coals. That’s a fair interpretation of what it felt like to read and finish the book.
The book truly is little and big at the same time: relationships fated for a hundred years last for one month; the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa is resurrected as a New York-based political leader who fights for a kingdom the size of a thumb; Smoky Barnable is instructed to travel by foot, not by bus or train, from New York City to Edgewood – a house that swallows people up in its architectural mishmash – in order to marry Daily Alice Drinkwater, another fairy descendant; their son, Auberon, meets a girl with a Destiny in New York, while he writes the story of his fairy-sprinkled family into the plotline of a soap opera. They are all part of a tale that is foretold in a stack of cards. I was often lost in the book’s epic relationships and murky details, in the same way that visitors to Edgewood become lost within its endless corridors and transient doorways. I don’t think I could say what the Tale exactly was, what fairies are, or who won the final battle. This thin veil between knowing and not knowing seemed natural, deliberate, and inevitable with a book whose subtle magic lies in leaving patterns half-obscured and cataclysms unrealized.
Harold Bloom is right. It is a tale that requires multiple readings, whose story lines will alternately disappear, expand, and fluctuate with each return. But I think I will wait to come home from dusty Windhoek, where I first met this book, until I can sit down in the enclosure of a deep American winter to return, by foot, to Little, Big. By then, my endless summer will be a myth. A report, a rumor. Not to be believed in.
Bonus Link: Celebrating the anniversary of Little, Big
Andrea Levy’s Small Island is a post-colonial novel told from four points of view. Queenie and Bernard, separated by war, are a British couple with a tepid relationship and Hortense and Gilbert are Jamaican, married out of convenience and lured to England by opportunity. The book explores British racism in the 1950s. It’s less overtly ugly than its American cousin, but it nonetheless dictates the borders of the lives of Gilbert, Hortense and their fellow immigrants. Britain, long the colonizer, renowned for her Empire, in Small Island has reached a point where it would like to forget about the past and start from scratch. This time all these people of different colors can stay in their own lands. But, of course, this is not an option. Instructed by centuries of colonialism to believe they are British subjects and stirred up by the global tumult of World War II, immigrants from all over the world resettle in their “Mother Country.” Nearly all of the white folks in the book are like Bernard, dismissive and even affronted by the arrival of darker people on their shores. They stare, heckle, slam doors and on occasion take a swing at these people. It matters not that thousands of Jamaicans fought along side the British during the war. It is telling that most of the British folks Gilbert interacts with think that Jamaica is in Africa. Queenie, however, is the anomaly and perhaps even a cliche since so often these novels of race relations have at their center an enlightened white person. But luckily Levy gives her sufficient depth to carry a large chunk of the novel. What sets this book apart, and what probably helped Levy win awards for it – the Orange prize in 2004 and then this year’s Orange “Best of the Best” – was her ability to imbue each of the four narrators with his or her own voice. Gilbert and Hortense speak with the native rhythm of their home island, Bernard’s voice is pinched and fidgety, and Queenie is the voice of hope and happiness. Though the chapter headings indicate who will narrate each chapter, the voices are so distinctive that this touch is unnecessary.
“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.
Somebody needs to start a 12-step program for compulsive readers of presidential biographies. It can be a dangerous little addiction. My Millions colleague, Janet Potter, who is reading biographies of the 44 U.S. presidents in chronological order for her Presidential Biography Project, has reached Ulysses S. Grant, or President #18. I myself am nowhere near so ambitious or organized, but at last count I’ve read biographies of 11 of the 44, a fair number of them in multi-volume sets. In some contexts this might sound like boasting, but at the meetings of ARPBA (Addicted Readers of Presidential Biographies Anonymous), it would be recognized for what it is: a cry for help.
So when I heard about Thomas Mallon’s new novel, Watergate, I thought: Aha! Here’s a way to stay out of rehab and still kick the habit. I can read fictional presidential biographies. Mallon, author of eight novels, mostly on historical themes, has spun a fictional insider’s tale of the famed Nixon scandal that, for a hopeless junkie like me, held out the promise of a book-length methadone cure for my presidential biography jones.
Told from the point of view of numerous players in the Watergate saga, from the president on down to minor walk-ons like Mississippi-bred campaign operative Fred LaRue, Mallon’s novel is a dizzying high-wire act mixing fictional explanations of famous historical mysteries (how did Nixon’s secretary Rose Mary Woods create that 18-minute gap?) with outright fictions (Plastic Pat Nixon, the president’s cipher of a wife, has a secret lover!). Mallon writes like a dream, and his mastery of the complex historical record and the equally byzantine folkways of Washington’s establishment class are staggering. But the book itself remains, for all its shining prose and historical insight, more of a literary achievement than an illuminating read.
This is unfortunate because Richard Nixon is in desperate need of better biographers, nonfictional and otherwise. It is an odd fact that Nixon, surely one of the most Shakespearian figures to hold the office occupied by that long rogue’s gallery of Iagos, Hamlets, and Lears, has yet to inspire a truly great biography. Stephen Ambrose’s three-volume Nixon is admirably thorough in all the ways that makes that sound like faint praise, and so many of the other writers to take Nixon on, like Rick Perlstein, whose Nixonland appeared in 2008, are so busy blaming Nixon for every bad thing that ever happened since he entered politics that the man himself gets lost. To my mind, the most convincing, and compelling, portraits of Nixon and his administration remain the Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein originals, All the President’s Men and The Final Days, which is curious since those books were written largely on the fly while the Watergate scandal was still being fought out in the courts.
Mallon’s singular achievement in Watergate is to present Nixon and his co-conspirators not as the fright-mask caricatures they have become in popular culture, but as flesh-and-blood human beings trying, however crookedly, to run the country. Mallon performs this trick by making masterful use of close third-person narration, which allows him to bounce seamlessly from character to character and still give the reader access to those characters’ innermost thoughts and feelings. In one delicious scene, Mallon has a fuming Nixon attend the 1973 Washington Correspondents’ Association dinner, at which Woodward and Bernstein were honored for their trailblazing Watergate reporting:
The president looked at the three Washington Post tables just below the dias — a whole little government-in-exile presided over by [Post executive editor Ben] Bradlee, Jack Kennedy’s fellow cocksman; the two of them had fornicated their way into middle age like Harvard boys still panting outside the burlesque stage door in Boston.
But this rare chance to inhabit the minds of a gang of criminals hatching one of this country’s most notorious political crimes is also the novel’s fatal flaw. In Watergate, the scandal’s central figures, while occasionally aware that what they’re doing might be technically illegal, always see their actions as furthering the greater good of the United States. “I am not a crook,” Nixon famously declared during a press conference, and, in Mallon’s telling, it never seems to occur to him that he might be. Late in in the novel, as Nixon is flying home to California hours after delivering his mawkish farewell address to his staff and resigning the presidency, Mallon has a damp-eyed Nixon tell his wife:
I don’t know how it happened, how it began. Half the time I hear myself on those tapes I realize I’m barely remembering who works for who over at the Committee [to Re-Elect the President]. I hear myself acting like I know more than I do — pretending to be on top of the thing so I don’t embarrass myself with whoever’s in the room — especially [presidential advisor John] Erlichman. Christ, I can’t now apologize for what I can barely understand!
This is, as history, fanciful — Nixon was far too good a manager and politician not to know exactly who worked for him on his re-election team — but, worse, as literature it is mendacious. It is as if at the end of Othello, Shakespeare gave Iago a speech saying he couldn’t remember just how that handkerchief ended up in Cassio’s hands. Or, perhaps more accurately, it is as if at the end of the play Shakespeare turned Iago into a doddering, ill, self-pitying King Lear, howling insensibly among the rustling palm trees in San Clemente, always and forever “more sinn’d against than sinning.”
One could argue that such reflexive self-justification is inevitable in a novel that aims to give us a view of the scandal from the inside out, but I don’t think so. Mallon follows enough characters to fill a cell block, but all of them are, in one way or another, inside the Nixonian tent. LaRue, the Mississippi operative and bagman, is as close as the book comes to a protagonist, as is indicated by the fact that he is granted an invented — and entirely bogus — side plot involving an investigation into his role in the shooting death of his father during a hunting trip. But LaRue, who in real life was an early proponent of Nixon’s cynical, and deeply racist, “Southern strategy” to bring the once-Democratic South into the Republican column by playing to the region’s fear of black power, is a True Believer in Richard Nixon from start to finish. LaRue doesn’t experience a crisis of faith, or learn that his hero has feet of clay. He just thinks the break-in was a stupid waste of time and resources, and wishes, like the rest of the gang, that they hadn’t gotten caught.
Some of the other characters, particularly Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the rapier-tongued octogenarian daughter of Teddy Roosevelt, and even Plastic Pat, whose portrayal as a quietly passionate woman loyal to a marriage that no longer really makes human sense is the book’s most revelatory, are a lot of fun to be around, but they too are Nixon partisans. All Mallon had to do was follow one outsider — a reporter like Seymour Hersh, say, who worked the story for The New York Times; or one of the Republican politicians, of whom there were many, who finally broke with the president over the scandal — and he could have cracked the book wide open. After all, what gives those early Woodward and Bernstein books their lasting power isn’t merely the thrill of the chase, but the poignancy of insiders like Deep Throat, later revealed to be FBI Associate Director Mark Felt, who believed passionately in their government and were at the same time disgusted by what it was doing.
But Mallon, for all his talent and insight, doesn’t want to take that risk, because to do so would expose Watergate for what it was, a laughably pointless and ill-conceived but nevertheless grievous crime against the American system of government. Mallon has said in interviews that he is a moderate Republican, which is to say he is a Nixonian Republican before Nixon the man let his pathologies get the better of Nixon the president. One cannot read this book without thinking that, in key elements of structure and characterization, Mallon the partisan got the better of Mallon the novelist.
In this, of course, he is no worse than countless liberals who, to this day, brainlessly invoke the jowly Nixon mask to personify all that is wrong with this country, but then he isn’t any better, either. In the end, Watergate is not a whitewash. The book is too well-written, too smart about people and politics for that. But it isn’t really history, either. It is history by other means, the made-up kind.
So, no rehab for me. I’ll take my presidential biography straight, thanks.
On the cover of his When I Was a Photographer, we see a studio self-portrait of Félix Nadar in a hot air balloon. The French artist gazes into the distance like Hernán Cortés staring out over the Pacific, binoculars at the ready lest something should warrant closer inspection. He is also fully clothed. When he became the first person to capture an image from the air, he was stark naked. Low on gas, he had closed his balloon’s valve on the ascent and began lightening the load, dropping his trousers, shoes and everything else except his camera onto the ground below. Shivering as he rose to an altitude of 80 meters in his “improvised laboratory,” he produced the world’s first successful aerial photograph. (In his many previous failed attempts, the balloon’s gas valve had been open, which had contaminated the developing bath: “silver iodide [from the bath] with hydrogen sulfur, a wicked couple irrevocably condemned to never produce children.”) Nadar, it could thus be said, was a pioneer in both aerostatic and nude photography.
This triumphant, naked flight is one of the spirited accounts in When I Was a Photographer, Nadar’s 1900-book translated and introduced by Eduardo Cadava and Liana Theodoratou. Nadar’s is not one of those conventional memoirs in which the orderly progression of reminiscences serves to obscure rather than illuminate the subject. Rather, Nadar relates an assortment of vignettes, some approaching the central subject head-on, others slantwise, but all in an engagingly conversational style. Reading Nadar’s eccentric musings brought to mind Max Beerbohm’s praise for the lively, unorthodox prose of James McNeill Whistler’s The Gentle Art of Making Enemies: “It matters not that you never knew Whistler, never even set eyes on him. You see him and know him here.” Like Whistler’s, Nadar’s writing is revelatory in the literal sense of the word.
Born Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, Nadar moved from his native Lyon to Paris in 1838, where as a man of letters on the make he became a fixture of the Latin Quarter’s bohemian set. The talented eccentric would eventually turn his attention from journalism to caricature, prompting one illustrator, Paul Gavarni, to exclaim: “Ah! we are done for now that Nadar has learned to draw.” Nadar was prolific, composing caricatures for such publications as Charivari and Le Journal Pour Rire and pouring his considerable energy into the “Panthéon Nadar” (1854), in which the brightest of Paris’s literary lights — nearly 300 in all — appear in a tightly-packed, snaking line. The work is a marvel of compression, the distinctive faces of the teeming cast standing out in stark relief from the collective, sinuous body of the French intelligentsia.
Nadar prepared for the Panthéon project by photographing some of his subjects, and soon his artistic focus shifted yet again, this time to photographic portraiture, which, like his comicalities, sought to capture the “moral and intellectual” nature of the subject. Though his studio was primarily a commercial outfit, Nadar could never resist a technological challenge. Apart from his foray into aerostatic photography, he experimented with artificial lighting in the catacombs and sewers beneath Paris’s streets, embarking on a katabatic “journey through this outlet of the infinite putridness of a great capital.” Nadar and his team lugged their equipment through the stygian mire and staged shots that could take up to 18 minutes of exposure. In the final minute of one such exposure, “a cloud rising from the canal came to veil our photograph — and how many imprecations, then, against the beautiful woman or the good man above us, who, without suspecting that we were there, chose that exact moment to replenish the water in their bathtub!” The ruined plate goes out with the bathwater.
Nadar’s life was full of exploits. In Sidetracks, Richard Holmes notes that Nadar and 500 Republicans attempted to liberate Poland from the Prussians in 1848. As if providing instructions for fellow caricaturists, Nadar’s fake passport read: “Age 27 years, height 1.98 meters, hair rust red, eyes protuberant, complexion bilious.” Nadar found himself resisting the Germans once again, this time during the 1870-71 siege of Paris when he oversaw the effort to transport mail over enemy lines in hot air balloons. Neither snow nor rain nor the Prussian army…Nadar’s “patriotic satisfaction” mixed with wry bemusement over his new role:
Certainly never, after passing through diverse professions in our life, never would we have imagined our latest incarnation under the aesthetic of a varnished cockaded hat and a mailman’s bag on the belly.
Still adventurous in his old age, Nadar would plunge himself, camera in hand, into an unleashed swarm of bees, trusting only the blithe assurances of a Provencal apiarist (“They are sheep, sir, real sheep!”) that he would emerge unscathed:
They have always been alluring for me, these kinds of expeditions: it seems that the adventure whistles for me… — and then once again, as my friend Banville would say, it is so much fun to get mixed up in something that does not concern you: and what’s more, well, my tempter appeared to be so sure of his business, of our business…
In that shift from his to our we can glean the essence of the photographer, who makes a life getting up in his subjects’ business, so to speak.
Nadar’s reverence for the medium and its skilled practitioners is undeniable; that for his everyday clients nonexistent. Nadar compares a colleague’s studio, a “fateful hut” perched on a Parisian rooftop, to “the Greek temple of the Odeon.” Most of the clients he mentions, however, are distinctly unheroic or comically clueless. One orders a portrait, pays, and leaves. Nadar chases him down and tells him he must actually pose. “Ah…As you wish…But I thought that this was enough…” In general, men suffer from an infatuation with their photographic appearance “pushed to the point of madness;” one spends a sleepless night fretting over a single misplaced hair in his proofs. Men might be the worst offenders, but all subjects present problems:
So good is everyone’s opinion of his or her physical qualities that the first impression of every model in front of the proofs…is almost inevitably disappointment and recoil (it goes without saying that we are talking here of perfect proofs).
In that wonderful parenthetical, Nadar counters his client’s vanity with a display of his own.
Nadar’s breezy style at times belies the book’s gnomic core, in which the “astonishing and disturbing” photographic technology inspires exultation and anxiety in equal measure. (As the translators note, Nadar’s reflections on art in the age of mechanical reproduction attracted the attention of Walter Benjamin, who refers to certain passages in The Arcades Project.) Nadar believed himself to be living in “the greatest of scientific centuries,” an era in which technologies arose with dizzying speed:
Such is in fact the glorious haste of photography’s birth that the proliferation of germinating ideas seems to render incubation superfluous: the hypothesis comes out of the human brain in full armor, fully formed, and the first induction immediately becomes the finished work.
The reference to Athena’s birth from Zeus’s head resonates when Nadar describes the godlike element of photography, which
finally seems to give man the power to create, he, too, in his turn, by materializing the impalpable specter that vanishes as soon as it is perceived, without leaving even a shadow on the crystal of the mirror, or a ripple in the water in a basin.
One detects here, not for the last time, a hint of the demonic: photography as a dark art.
Nadar’s recollections begin with the initial unease brought about by photographic technology, “the contagion of…first recoil” that afflicted even “beautiful minds” such as Honoré de Balzac, Théo Gauthier, and Gérard de Nerval. Balzac, for instance, subscribed to the theory that “each body in nature is composed of a series of specters, in infinitely superimposed layers, foliated into infinitesimal pellicules, in all directions in which the optic perceives this body.” Each “Daguerreian operation” would thus seize one of these spectral layers until a body could waste down to nothing. The ever-playful Nadar seizes on this theory to needle his friend about his weight — “Balzac had only to gain from his loss, since his abdominal abundances, and others, permitted him to squander his “specters” without counting.” (The playground taunt would go something like, Yo Mama is so fat, I could Daguerreotype her all day and she still wouldn’t disappear!)
From Balzac’s “terror before the Daguerreotype,” Nadar moves on to the demonic perceptions of photography:
This mystery smelled devilishly like a spell and reeked of heresy: the celestial rotisserie had been heated up for less. Everything that unhinges the mind was gathered together there: hydroscopy, bewitchment, conjuration, apparitions. Night, so dear to every thaumaturge, reigned supreme in the gloomy recesses of the darkroom, making it the ideal home for the Prince of Darkness. It would not have taken much to transform our filters into philters.
The passage is tongue-in-cheek, but Nadar repeatedly flirts with occult rhetoric to describe his art. Take, for example, his attempts at underground photography, described in the language of esoteric exploration:
The subterranean world was opening up an infinite field of operations no less interesting than the telluric surface. We were going to penetrate, to reveal the mysteries of the deepest, the most secret caverns.
When Nadar leaves the subterranean world and takes to the skies, his initial inability to capture a clear image makes him feel “as if under a cast spell,” unable to “get out of these opaque, fuliginous plates, from this night that pursues me.”
Generally lighthearted though he is, Nadar is haunted by sinister faces and spectral gazes. One chapter involves Nadar’s mysterious entanglement with a mountebank named Mauclerc, one of whose cons involves long-distance portraiture (i.e., a camera in Paris produces an image of a subject in Toulouse.) Years later, Nadar is visited by a young man claiming to have performed the same feat, at which point the has an eerie vision of Mauclerc and his “hideous smile:”
..the features of my noble Hérald [a friend] and the honest face of the young worker were merging, blending into a kind of Mephistophelian mask from which appeared a disquieting figure that I had never seen before but recognized immediately: Mauclerc, deceitful Mauclerc…mockingly handing me his electric image…
Long-distance photography at last! By conjuring the face of his distant tormentor out of thin air, Nadar’s feverish imagination has performed the impossible feat promised by the conmen.
In another vignette, Nadar receives a “funeral call” to photograph a recently deceased man. “Surely, this man had been loved…” begins a chapter that will end with an expression of “hatred and contempt.” As Nadar delivers the print to the deceased’s wife and mother-in-law, whose “hellish gaze bore into [him] relentlessly,” he is compelled to admit that he has already given out a print to another mourner: the man’s mistress. Here Nadar witnesses the perils of reproduction. The copy is just one of a (potentially) infinite series, but its circulation destroys the wife’s own image of her husband. She collapses, and Nadar, crushed to have “unwillingly caused so much pain,” is forever after haunted by yet another specter troubling the photographer’s regard:
How many, many times have I found her unexpectedly, at a street corner, at another, everywhere, suddenly focused upon me, an always living reminder of that atrocious hour — motionless and piercing me with her ashen eyes — which I still see…
The most dramatic display of photography’s dark side comes in a chapter entitled “Homicidal Photography.” There Nadar recounts the sensational case of a pharmacist, his bored wife, and a scheming assistant who cuckolds the former, jilts the latter, and robs both. Nadar traces the characters of this “insipid epic of little people” as they develops with the “fateful monumentality and progression of a Shakespeare drama…” Once the wife confesses her adultery, the pharmacist enlists her and his brother to lure the assistant to a remote location, stab him to death, drop his corpse from a bridge, and return to Paris. According to Nadar, a sure acquittal, a simple case of “adultery committed, adultery avenged.” Until, that is, a journalist photographs the decomposing body. Nadar describes this body in vivid detail, but prose is prose, no matter how sickening. Photography exposes the full horror of the “drowned man in total putrefaction, so abominably fashioned that the humor form soon becomes illegible.”
The drama, “monstrous…and sensational in its staging,” riles up the public such that only one outcome is possible: “It is the photograph that has just pronounced THE SENTENCE — the sentence without appeal: “DEATH!” Nadar personifies photography as an avenging angel who, through the accursed image, makes her terrible will known. “But PHOTOGRAPHY wanted it this way this time, ” Nadar concludes, stoically accepting the whims of the capricious demiurge to whom he is, or was, in thrall.
The passages I have selected attest to Nadar’s peculiar temperament, his buoyant lugubriousness. Nadar threw himself into his art with the same abandon with which he followed the apiarist into the beehive:
We find ourselves enveloped, obscured, blinded, lost in the midst of these myriads of sword-bearers, titillated everywhere…by these moving effervescences — an immersion into a universal touch.
This tableau is emblematic of Nadar, an artist forever immersing himself — in a swarm of bees, in the “thickest part of a cloud,” in the Piranesian sewers of Paris, in the mysteries of photography, in darkness and in light.
“They are close to one another but not exactly side by side,” says the unnamed narrator of Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond, discussing two framed fragments of decorative cloth sitting on her mantelpiece. “They are related, but they aren’t a pair.” She might as well be describing the stories contained in Bennett’s first book. As a book, Pond rests with no little charm somewhere between collection and novel without ever settling on one or the other. Some biographical details concerning our central character do emerge. The narrator has moved to a small cottage in the countryside in the west of Ireland. She has recently quit an academic career and given up on her doctoral thesis. One or more relationships have ended, if not disastrously, then not without lingering complication.
The book is something like a diary, detailing a time just after a major decision was made by someone without much of a plan concerning what would happen next. The combination of a life-left-behind and the lack of a distinct life-to-come leaves the book swirling in some kind of dream-like stasis, the tiny world of house and garden mushrooming until those narrow grounds constitute an entire universe. The feeling is not exactly one of loneliness. The narrator does not feel dispossessed of others; she is most often quite content, and indeed finds it preferable, to be alone.
The narrator’s isolation allows for her mind to range across her small and homely cosmos. Nothing is below notice, and everything can be considered. When the narrator sits beside a bowl on a garden bench, she describes it as “an effort on my part not to glance down at it and ask it how it was doing.” When she decides to iron two of her lover’s shirts, she spends some time choosing which one to do first. Even though the decision makes no material difference – perhaps because of that – she can take pleasure in making it, and feel as if the right decision was made: “It wasn’t long after I got started on the darker shirt that I began to feel very happy indeed.”
This elevation of the mundane into the highest order of aesthetic consideration has its literary forebears. It could be reminiscent of Joris-Karl Huysmans’s Against Nature, where the eccentric Jean des Esseintes actively seeks out the most rarified of aesthetic experiences, living a fin de siècle existence where no aspect of daily life could not be refined. But Pond is not satire. Even though it is regularly very funny, and the narrator is possessed of a very sharp and witty mind, there is nothing ironic about it. The short, farcical prose-poem about the refrigerated tube of tomato puree (“Oh, Tomato Puree—let me lay you out and pummel those rigid furrows and creases!”) is surrealist comedy at its finest, but the joke is not made at the expense of tomato puree, or for that matter anyone who currently has a tube lying twisted and forgotten in their fridge. It’s just funny, what you might notice, without ever being sure quite why.
Uncertainty is perhaps the book’s pervading emotion. Moments of clarity, such as the soft domestic scene with the shirts or a more abstruse conviction in the age and character of a storm, are never without a shadow of doubt. This uncertainty worms its way into the writing of the stories themselves. The narrator repeatedly tells us that she is unsure why she is telling us whatever it is she’s telling us. Sometimes, as in the wonderfully discursive “Morning, Noon & Night,” there is a sense of reading whatever is crossing the mind; “I don’t see what all the fuss is about where en suites are concerned” or “Placemats aren’t really my thing to be perfectly honest…” Elsewhere, in the tellingly-titled “Words Fail Me,” there is a questioning and revisioning of the veracity of what is being said: “I don’t know why I came to stop standing there and shut the door. Or maybe I didn’t shut the door. That’s more like it.”
Gradually, an impression builds that much of what the narrator is telling us is a way of avoiding telling us something else, something altogether more troubling. She herself acknowledges this when, in “The Deepest Sea,” she covers a clandestine love for green ink, the origins of Parker and Sheaffer fountain pens, shopping bags, shabby clothes and the hidden treasures of her cottage’s communal shed before telling us that “this is all a preamble really, of course it is, going on and on, as much as possible, so as not to ever get to what it was I really came across.” There is an echo here of Virginia Woolf’s famous essay on going out to get a pencil and being sucked into the fascinating street life of London. Here, the true object of the narrator’s concern is a letter from a former lover, a love letter “intent upon pushing right into every corrosive crevice and scabrous contour of its own impossibility. So much action, so much energy—so much of everything; I stopped and looked around, turning my head so as to include the gates in my survey—surely he was somewhere.” This is writing so powerful, writing that so “directly came into contact with his mind in motion,” that it seems to make its author present.
If the letter serves as a mirror to the ambition of Bennett’s own writing, Pond is a record of the difficulties of following so closely the “mind in motion,” particularly a mind that lives almost eternally in the “corrosive crevice and scabrous contour of its own impossibility,” a mind that knows that “the desire to come apart irrevocably will always be as strong, if not stronger, than the drive to establish oneself.” The book as such is about control; the control of the author over the words they use, the control of the individual mind over the thoughts it thinks. Might the words control the writer, or might the thoughts possess the thinker? Much of the book examines the strange process of alienation anyone might experience as they find themselves with time and space to interrogate their own behavior, private or otherwise. The narrator’s rambling often acts as a way of breaking down that behavior into manageable parts, seeking some form of control over a mind that sometimes slips the yoke of established social logic, an identity that loses track of where it ends and the rest of the world begins.
This is most obvious in “Morning, 1908,” where the long build-up of musings relating to the subjectivity of things like storms and holly branches finally reaches a head. The narrator’s tendency toward the cosmological, a viewpoint which elides the borders of thing and person, leads her to wonder if, were she to be raped by a stranger on a deserted country road, whether she would be at all transgressed, if indeed there was any coherent “her” to transgress upon. This penetrating but ambiguous rumination is quickly succeeded, in “The Gloves Are Off,” by a total breakdown of language. What starts out as a simple, if uncharacteristic, decision to weed the garden quickly devolves into something deeper and more fractious. “Oh, fuck the leaves and fuck the flowers! I want to see naked trees and hear the earth gasp and settle into a warm and tender mass of radiant darkness.” Down beneath the grass of the lawn, deep in the bare earth, something pivotal has been hidden, or lost. “You don’t know how passionate it is down there. I believe that’s where I lost my heart.” At this point, coherence is given up entirely, and the words descend into something other than what they mean, something below what they mean, and attack the senses directly. “No, no. None shilly shilly on that here first run. So, much girded with new multitudes, a sun came purple and the hail turned in a year or two. And that was not all. No, no. None ganny ganny on that here moon loose. Turns were taken and time put in, so much heft and grimace, there, with callouses, all along the diagonal.”
What this beautiful section highlights, and what those two stories back-to-back make clear, is both the desire for control and an elemental joy perhaps only to be found in losing it. In contrast to so much ecstatic rhetoric, the narrator is not concerned with transcending herself through an absolute clarity but returning to some “unalloyed self” through direct contact with the lower layers of the everyday – this is a darker kind of epiphany. It is a rejection of the often stifling social mores of modern living, a circumvention of the pressure to be ambitious or driven or efficiently purposeful in one’s daily activities, an undermining of the idea of a stable, coherent self. It is a rejection of the form of a life as much as an expansion of what might be recognizable within one.
It does much the same for the idea of a story. Pond is maybe best understood as an embrace of all that wriggles in the dirt, and an experiment in uncovering that engrossing underworld beneath our more refined and constructed selves through the act of writing. Bennett, like Clarice Lispector or Robert Walser before her, writes through the dramatic into something deeper, and the result is a reverie of “fervid primary visions,” the dredging of a riverine mind.