A few of the twentieth century Russian history books that I’ve read have touched on a detachment of Czech soldiers who were stranded in Russia after World War I. The Bolshevik Revolution soon followed and the soldiers remained stranded, thousands of miles from home. The soldiers who numbered as many as 40,000 and were stretched out along the length of the Trans-Siberian were, according to John Keegan in his history of World War I under the sway of an anti-Bolshevik officer and were “both in a position and soon in a mood to deny the use of the railway to anyone else.” In his novel, The People’s Act of Love, James Meek drops into to the town of Yazyk amongst a stranded group of these Czech soldiers. In a book of many protagonists, the point of view of Lieutenant Mutz, one of those Czech soldiers, is the most reliable. Mutz, who mostly wants to return home after years in Siberia is surrounded by a collection of eccentrics. Anna Petrovna, the woman who Mutz would like to escape with, is restive and noncommittal. Mutz’s boss Matula is a vicious young man drunk on the power he wields over the small backwater that his soldiers occupy. Yazyk is also home to mystical sect of castrati who lurk through the town like ghosts. But the catalyst for much the book’s action is Samarin, an escaped prisoner who claims he is being chased by a cannibal. Meek ably handles these characters and many others as he crafts a story that feels both otherworldly and historically accurate. The novel was longlisted for the Booker and is engagingly dense and action-filled – worthwhile for any reader but a must for anyone interested in Russian literature or history. Meek himself is not Russian. He’s British, formerly a journalist, the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent for many years.
First the good: there’s lots of neat info in this book about antique map collecting and about the history of maps in general. Anyone with a passing interest in maps will find that the The Island of Lost Maps contains a number of absorbing digressions about adventurous mapmakers from centuries ago. Miles Harvey’s book also, however, bills itself as an account of the crimes and ultimate downfall of map thief Gilbert Bland. As Harvey writes early on in the book, Bland never agreed to talk to him, and the crimes themselves, while interesting, are not compelling enough to carry the 400-some pages that it takes Harvey to tell the story. The book is a 15 page magazine article enveloped in hundreds of pages of discursions and asides about various cartographic topics as well as a great deal of melodramatic meta-narration about Harvey’s efforts to tell Bland’s story:I was trying to map the life of a man – an anonymous and elusive man, a man I did not know, and a man who demonstrated no desire to meet me. And even all that might not have been so bad if I had somehow been able to find a way inside his head, to put myself in his shoes. But Bland and I were very different people. Other than a few shared superficialities – both of us white males, both right-handers, both map lovers – our common frames of reference were few.It’s as though Harvey, realizing that he is devoting a tremendous amount of writerly energy to what is, in the end, a rather straightforward crime committed by an uninteresting man, feels the need to overexplain himself. Over and over he tells the reader how fascinating this crime is and obsessed he has become with telling Bland’s story, and after a while it seems that Harvey has forgotten about his readers and is simply trying to convince himself. The best creative nonfiction seems effortless (John McPhee’s books, for example), but Maps reads like it was a tremendous effort to write.
Through the Window, Julian Barnes’s sparkling new collection of essays, is a veritable treasure house of letters on novels and their authors. His subjects span the Anglo and French traditions within which Barnes work is rooted – Flaubert’s Parrot and England, England highlight in his own fictional oeuvre the interplay between the two – from Orwell and Kipling on the one hand to Mérimée and Houellebecq on the other.
This is not to say that the American pantheon is neglected. Far from it. Barnes is not immune, for example, to the work of John Updike. “Any historian wanting to understand the texture, smell, feel and meaning of bluey-white collar life in ordinary America between the 1950s and 1990s will need little more than the Rabbit Quartet,” Barnes concludes, labeling Updike’s Angstrom sequence “the greatest postwar American novel”:
It’s rare for a work of this length to get even better as it goes on, with Rabbit at Rest the strongest and richest of the four books. In the last hundred pages or so, I found myself slowing deliberately, not so much because I didn’t want the book to end, as because I didn’t want Rabbit to die.
The collection concludes with an essay of searing clarity on Joyce Carol Oates’s memoir A Widow’s Story. Barnes is somewhat kind to the book in general terms, labeling it “novelistic and expansive” and arguing that in focusing in the main on “the dark interiors, the psycho-chaos of grief,” Oates plays to her strengths. Moreover, he goes some way to defending the lax character of her prose, arguing that if it appears repetitive, obsessive, or incoherent, well, “so is grief.” Barnes is critical, and oddly so, of Oates’s failure to disclose her decision to remarry following the death of her first husband:
This isn’t a moral comment: Oates may quote Marianne Moore’s line that “the cure for loneliness is solitude,” but many people need to be married, and therefore, at times, remarried. However, some readers will feel they have good case for breach of narrative promise. Was not Ray “the first man in my life, the last man, the only man”? And what about all those perennials she planted?
In the main, however, Barnes appears drawn towards a certain type of trans-Channel writer. His take on Rudyard Kipling is at once jarring and refreshing in the way in which it seeks to highlight the bond between Kipling and France. “He seems to us such an English writer, such a British imperialist, such a pungent purveyor of the lore and language of his tribe,” Barnes writes, “that it comes as a surprise to find how well known and widely read he was in France.”
Such was his fame in fact that when Kipling’s family would tour the country by automobile after the war, they found that “three days was the maximum they could stay in one place without his identity being discovered,” without being invited into the local church by the priest or accosted in the street by grateful soldiers. In terms of the latter, Barnes notes how on a tour of the front lines in 1915 in his role as a war correspondent, Kipling discovered to his astonishment how well read his stories and poems were in the trenches.
Indeed, the bond between Kipling and France was “made lifelong – and sealed with blood – by the Great War.” Kipling spent a good deal of his postwar life there, working with the War Graves Commission, advising that Ecclesiasticus 44:14 – “Their name liveth for evermore” – be chiseled into the Stones of Remembrances. Kipling came to admire in France “what he thought his own country could do with more of,” qualities of “work ethic, thrift, simplicity.” Enforced military service, Kipling believed, “promoted not only civic virtue but also a fundamental seriousness of mind which he felt his compatriots lacked.”
But Barnes goes further, attempting to assert that France would influence his literature, too. “Direct literary influence is small,” Barnes concedes, yet he sees in his work an inspiration “of a more diffuse kind.” Kipling was criticized for being “democratic in personnel and truthful in theme and detail. An early exposure to French literature,” Barnes concludes, citing Rabelais, Balzac, and Maupassant, “would have endorsed this aesthetic.”
Barnes also sees a converse influence, of Kipling on France, though this appears to be minimal, too. In a second essay on Kipling, Barnes analyses Jérôme and Jean Tharaud’s 1902 roman à clef, Dingley, l’illustre écrivain, perceiving the protagonist to be unmistakably Kipling – “his energy, his ceaseless curiosity are all acknowledged; what is questioned is the use to which the famous imagination and the public fame are put.” In this vein, the novel emerges as a “critique of British imperialism and a warning against literary populism.”
Barnes’s efforts to impress the link between Kipling and France feel clean and are indeed intriguing. It is evident that Kipling, like many Englishmen, had Francophile tendencies, with a feeling for the landscape and the people. But Barnes is less persuasive when attempting to expound literary influence. Not so with his take on Ford Madox Ford novel of the First World War, The Good Soldier. “France certainly provided The Good Soldier’s point of emulative origin,” Barnes states, noting Ford’s ambition to do for the English novel what Maupassant’s Fort comme la mort did for the French form.
Ford sought to imitate the “violently transgressive passion” of Maupassant, applying the “tropes of torments” of Fort comme la mort to “a very English set of characters.” Barnes concludes that while The Good Soldier is “much less of a social novel” than Maupassant’s, it is “in terms of emotional heat even Frencher than Fort comme la mort.” Whereas Maupassant “turns up the burners only towards the end of his novel,” Ford goes all in, raising the stakes of “madness and terror,” audaciously starting “at the highest emotional pitch” and only continuing to elevate it thereafter.
The result, Barnes believes, is “Ford’s masterpiece,” noteworthy for its “immaculate use of an unreliable narrator, its sophisticated disguise of true narrative behind a false facade of apparent narrative, its self-reflectingness, its deep duality about human motive, intention and experience, and its sheer boldness as a project.” It is a novel which “constantly asks how to tell a story, which pretends to fail at narrative while richly succeeding.” Yet for all its qualities, The Good Soldier and also Ford himself was derided by his contemporaries. Barnes proposes why:
He presents no usefully crisp literary profile; he wrote far too much, and in too many genres; he fails to fit easily into university courses. He seems to fall down a hole between late Victorianism and modernism. He also presented himself as an elderly party fading out before this new generation which was probably a bad tactical move.
It might be a bit much (and I dare say a little rude) to venture that like Ford, Barnes as a novelist remains under-appreciated, or at least under-read, when compared to his contemporaries. But it bears mentioning because, due to the personal nature of the format, Barnes’s examinations of these authors can’t help but say a little something about the essayist. In both Kipling and Ford, he strives to unearth the ties and sentiments which he holds most dear, which most impact upon his novels, those of an Anglo inexorably bound to France. Through the Window confirms not only this love of England and of France, but of language and literature as well.
“When I was twelve,” Larry Levis wrote in “Family Romance,” “I used to stare at weeds / Along the road, at the way they kept trembling / Long after a car had passed.” The narrator watches “gnats in families hovering over / Some rotting peaches, & wonder why it was / I had been born a human. / Why not a weed, or a gnat? / Why not a horse, or a spider?” Levis was a master of such turns, although my favorite practitioner of poetic metamorphosis is Gerard Manley Hopkins. In 1887, Hopkins described Loch Lomond, where the “day was dark and partly hid the lake, yet it did not altogether disfigure it but gave a pensive or solemn beauty which left a deep impression on me.” “Inversnaid,” his poem of that place, follows the churning flow of a burn that is “horseback brown.” The poem’s final stanza arrives as a chant: “What would the world be, once bereft / Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left, / O let them be left, wildness and wet; / Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.”
Bright Dead Things, the fourth book of poems by Ada Limón, begins with an epigraph from Levis — “Who among the numberless you have become desires this moment / Which comprehends nothing more than loss & fragility &; the fleeing of flesh” — yet the collection breeds her own particular mixture of wildness. The mixture is by turns melodious and tight. Endemic to a wildness of flee and freedom is a sense of transformation. I think again to Hopkins, who believed that the poetic sense was not merely meant to document the observed world, but that poetry should transform lived reality into a new plane. Limón’s poems are like fires in this way: charring the page, but leaving a smoke that remains past the close of the book.
The narrators — or perhaps singular narrator — of these poems has undergone a transformation from living in Brooklyn to Kentucky. In the prose poem “Mowing,” the narrator watches a man mow “40 acres on a small lawn mower” in slow, hypnotic fashion. “I imagine,” she says, “what it must be like to stay hidden, disappear in the dusky nothing and stay still in the night. It’s not sadness, though it may sound like it.”
The narrator demurs, but there is a curious link between wildness and sadness in the collection. “This land and I are rewilding,” says another narrator. The speakers of these poems lean on the pastoral world for support and rebirth; they are skeptical of God. Yet in “What It Looks Like To Us and the Words We Use,” the narrator plays with the reader’s spiritual sense. “All these great barns out here in the outskirts,” she begins, “black creosote boards knee-deep in the bluegrass. / They look so artfully abandoned, even in use.” Artfully, artifice: “You don’t believe in God?” The narrator doesn’t, but her interlocutor says she is merely mislabeling nature. Still: “we stood there, / low beasts among the white oaks, Spanish moss, / and spider webs, obsidian shards stuck in our pockets, / woodpecker flurry, and I refused to call it so.” Those feelings — doubt, wonder, rejection, flirtation, penance — swirl throughout the book, and are borne of the wildness of self: “I’m cold in my heart, coal-hard / knot in the mountain buried / deep in the boarded-up mine.”
There are also spaces for open hearts in the book, as in the aptly-titled “The Wild Divine.” It’s rare to read a poetics of affirmation — I don’t mean sappy songs, but rather a poet capturing joy, however temporary: “I could barely feel my hands, my limbs numbed / from the new touching that seemed strikingly / natural but also painfully kindled in the body’s stove.” Cue the wildness of Hopkins, for the euphoria that follows love is broken by a “wandering / madrone-skinned horse…bowed-back, higher than a man’s hat, high up / and hitched to nothing.” She thinks: “He seemed almost worthy of complete devotion.” The poem’s ending encapsulates the collection: “I thought, this was what it was to be blessed— / to know a love that was beyond an owning, beyond / the body and its needs, but went straight from wild / thing to wild thing, approving of its wildness.”
Bright Dead Things is an outdoor book, but this is not to say that Limón can’t write a poem about domestic and mundane spaces. “The Good Wave” is an ethereal baseball poem. Other poems sketch homes and apartments (Robert Bly was correct to title one of his collections of poetry essays American Poetry: Wildness and Domesticity). “Nashville After Hours” is a knockout: “Late night in a honky-tonk, fried pickles / in a red plastic basket, and it was all Loretta / on the heel-bruised stage, sung by a big girl / we kind of both had a crush on.” Limón effortlessly narrows the lens of a moment without narrowing its significance. “Good grief we were loaded,” the narrator quips, and in lines that made me long for Elizabeth Tallent’s “Why I Love Country Music,” Limón exits with the perfect breath: “I won’t deny it: I was there, / standing in the bar’s bathroom mirror, / saying my name like I was somebody.”
I look for a healthy tension in a book of poems; call it a scar of being reared on Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate. The big-sky poems of this book are well-contrasted with heart-skipping narratives like “The Riveter.” The narrator, a manager whose office is in a “high rise,” learns that her mother has a month to live. She “called in my team” for advice about what to do next. Hospice? Total parenteral nutrition? She writes down advice “like this was a meeting / about a client who wasn’t happy,” and soon realizes that the hardest job belonged to her mother, whose work “was to let the machine / of survival break down.” I think of a later poem, “Outside Oklahoma, We See Boston,” that ends “How / masterful and mad is hope.” Madness, wildness, transcendence. Bright Dead Things offers many answers, but is equally appealing for its questions: “Yesterday I was nice, but in truth I resented / the contentment of the field. Why must we practice / this surrender?” May our poems always be wild.
To read one of George Saunders’ stories is to gain a glimpse into an antic, often frightening, just-slightly-shifted alternative world. To read a George Saunders collection is to discover the human sorrow his stories plumb. Reading Pastoralia was something of a revelation for me because, though I’ve read many of Saunders’ stories before, I had never dug into one of his collections and had not appreciated the full force of reading several of his stories back to back. As an aside, this would be an argument in favor of short story collections, which, well constructed and edited, should bring on a “greater than the sum of its parts” reaction in the reader.In the case of Pastoralia, Saunders’ characters are, as ever, pathetic, trapped in soul-sucking existences, with demeaning jobs and dysfunctional relationships. What elevates Saunders’ stories from what might be depressing muck is his eye for detail and his dry (almost deranged) wit. In the long title story that opens the collection, we peek in on the world of a caveman impersonator. Imagine if the life size caveman diorama at your local natural history museum were populated by actors, and you get the idea. That sounds bad enough, but Saunders overlays the world of corporate bureaucracy and buzzword double-speak onto this “edutainment” scenario. The “actors” are as much prisoners as they are employees.But this is not 1984 or The Matrix. Saunders’ characters do not conform to the typical occupants of dystopias – millions of buzzing drones and a handful of “enlightened” struggling against the status quo. He offers characters, who are, well, like us.In the story “Pastoralia,” we have a guy with a mind-numbing job (fake caveman), not enough money, a sick kid at home, coworkers that range from annoying to malicious, and a company in the throes of an “employee remixing.” This sounds more like someone who spends his days stocking shelves at Wal-Mart or temping at a cubicle farm than the gray and black Big Brother, robot-controlled nightmare of the future that has always been offered as civilization’s worst case scenario.And this is what is so subversive about Saunders. He essentially is telling us that we are living in that worst case scenario, in the dystopia that we have been taught to fear and fight against. But he does so with such humor and well crafted detail that there is none of the didacticism that one my might expect from such a point of view. Saunders is no raving Luddite, instead he has the ability to highlight the absurd minutia of modern life that we typically ignore or take for granted: the “Daily Partner Performance Evaluation Form,” the “fax makes the sound it makes when a fax is coming in,” “Stars-n-Flags… They put sugar in the sauce and sugar in the meat nuggets,” “Cute Ratings,” “Credit Calcs,” and “Personal Change Centers.”If our dystopia hasn’t already arrived, then we are perilously close to it. And whether or not you choose to look for these parallels, consumed without prejudice, Saunders’ stories are well crafted and utterly readable. I found myself careening through, hungry for the next off-kilter detail and scenario. I finished the book thinking that Saunders is a worthy chronicler of modern life.