Though I’ve heard great things about Paul Theroux, Dark Star Safari was the first by him that I’ve read – well, listened to actually. Thanks to our current location in Chicago and the locations of our respective families, the holidays involve a lot of driving for Mrs. Millions and me – 36 hours worth this year if my math is correct. One of the best ways to pass the time is with audiobooks and even though Mrs. Millions got me XM Radio this year, Dark Star Safari was so engaging that we spent a lot of our trip listening to it. It’s a shame that the audio version appears to be unavailable (we got ours from the library) because it was very well done. Norman Deitz, as narrator, is very much in character as Theroux, and he gamely contorts his voice when relating the dialog of the many men and women of various nationalities that Theroux meets on his way from Cairo to Capetown. Though Africa is the centerpiece of this book, Theroux shares top billing. As he explains, this trip, very much a solo journey, was a return to the continent where he lived 40 years ago as a young Peace Corps volunteer and teacher. He soon finds that a lot of Africa has changed and not for the better. Much of the book is devoted to finding out why. We learn a lot about Africa’s history and geography and we meet dozens of fascinating people along the way from Nobel Laureates to prostitutes. But Theroux, writing in his 60s and having earned the right to hold forth on such things, dwells most upon his likes and dislikes. He does not like most of the aid workers in Africa and he explains, rather convincingly, why the aid system is broken. He does not like proselytizing missionaries, with whom he gleefully argues theology. He does not like Africa’s sprawling, destitute, dangerous cities. Theroux, however, likes the “bush,” the great trackless stretches of Africa where people still live simply, uncorrupted by foreign aid and oppressive governments. Of the people he meets, Theroux likes the straight-talkers, the honest people who care about Africa and aren’t trying to get something from him. Though Theroux spends a lot of time analyzing the current state of Africa in his own engaging, non-technical way, the enormity of his journey was what made the book so enjoyable for me. He travels by every method imaginable in a meandering path from Egypt to South Africa. Along the way he is shot at by bandits, harassed by border guards and harangued by Africa’s urban predators. Theroux acknowledges the similarities of his travels with those of many Westerners before him, but he does not slip into romanticism or despair. He loves Africa for its chaos.
It’s official. I’m done!This month, I finally finished my Penguin Pockets 70th Anniversary Box Set. I read nearly every page over a broken, two-month period (the first month – my Millions debut – can be found here). It was a difficult, grueling battle, but I made it through with only a few bruises and just one small paper cut. And now, as I had always hoped, I have a full awareness of all things “literature.” I’m ready to start teaching World Lit at Harvard.Well, actually, I’m not. In fact, I’ve given myself an even greater test: I’m giving myself three years to fully comprehend at least one title from the classic authors I’ve (until now) completely missed.But that’s the future. This is the present. Revel with me as I celebrate this accomplishment!Choosing one of these selections as the “book of the month” turned out to be more difficult than actually reading them. I read 36 books this month: part of a classic (the very long, very complicated, incredibly wordy and not entirely pleasant A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens) and 35 54-page Pocket Penguins. That’s a lot of books to filter through.Obviously, I can’t choose any of the books that I didn’t really fully read or any of the books that I quickly skimmed through on my way to another selection. Yeah, that’s right. Sometimes I cheated. You can’t blame me – this entire collection features a wide array of genres: poetry (skimmed), history (primarily rooted in World War II, most of which I read, but honestly didn’t read fully and skimmed), biography (Churchill’s and Percy’s biographies were skimmed, Selassie’s outright skipped after the first ten pages) and memoir (many were skipped after a few pages). I couldn’t possibly do it all without screaming.This left me with about 20-25 works of fiction that I enjoyed at varying degrees.What I found is that this entire 70-book collection is really a celebration of the short story. When condensing an author into 54 pages, a publisher can only choose the shortest of selections. A majority of the time, this means a selection of short stories. When “true” short stories weren’t chosen, we find excerpts or expurgated chapters instead. Regardless of its original form, it’s a short story all the same. I was blind to it through the first 35 books, but this time it was all I could think of.Throughout the second half of my Anniversary travels, I marveled at how so many authors could sum up a literary career into just 54 pages – how they could completely buck the novel’s tradition and contain their words concisely into these Penguin selections.So with that in mind, I needed to choose one book – the one book that captures everything that short stories are to me: emotion, curiosity and mystery; ultimately, thought-provoking literature that drives me to read on and devour the next short story while still feeling the heat of the previous one.Enter Melissa Bank’s The Worst Thing a Suburban Girl Could Imagine. The Book of the Month.I have found that most short story writing involves a quick slice of life, one that reveals only as much as needed, leaving the reader a chance to fill in the gaping holes. A great short story fills those holes without much effort, using the power of its passages as an assumed backbone, driving characters together not through writing, but through the normal constraints of society and culture.Bank’s title story does a great job of doing this. In it we find a young woman – an assistant editor who is not entirely sure of her own talents – struggling with two relationships; a love/hate connection with her on-again-off-again boyfriend and a wait-and-see connection with her father, a once strong man who is dying from leukemia.The emotion is there – this is a young woman who doesn’t know what to do in life. We’ve all been there, obviously; unsure of our place, wondering if we chose the right life, the right partner, or the right career. In this case, we find a woman who is being overwhelmed through every aspect of life – at work, with an older boyfriend, and with her father’s sickness. She feels pulled in every direction, forced to accept her position editing books (a job that is quite below her position) and to accept the criticism from an older man – her personal father figure. All the while, her actual father is sick – very sick.The curiosity is there. Where did these people meet? Why has she made these decisions, and why does she continue to stick by them? How will her father end up, and will her boyfriend be there to support her. Is he drinking again?Is she safe with herself?As good as Bank’s story was, it all kept bringing me back to the style as a whole – the short story as a concept and viable literary interest. Short stories are designed to view a small, minute portion of life and weigh it against society. They’re created to leave a suspenseful impression, one that makes you wish you could know the rest of the story and one that – for just a few seconds – leaves you considering just writing the story yourself.Often times, this is exactly what happens. In your mind, you have the ability to fill in the holes, to create biographies based on the hints an author leaves behind. There’s no better writing prompt than a short story. And it seems sometimes like there’s no harder piece of literature to actually compose.It is said that poetry is literature condensed. It gives each word an incredible weight that cannot be reproduced in prose (lest it become too weighty and difficult). Short stories take the weight away from the words and give it to the moment. Each second of a shortened piece of literature means the world. It is intensely analyzed and purposefully constructed. For me, it’s the most perfect form of writing.So let’s hear it for short stories, eh? Let’s hear it for Lorrie Moore, for David Sedaris, and for Lewis Thomas. A round of applause for Ian McEwan, for Will Self, and for David Foster Wallace. And let’s not let the brevity of a short story ruin the weight of its moment in the spotlight.Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May, June, July, Aug, Sept, Oct
A minor lapse in comprehension caused me to believe, for about the first half of this collection, that I was reading a book called Imitations. I liked that title (though the actual one, Intimations, is more than adequate), because it struck me as slyly self-aware, particularly when applied to an author’s first story collection. (Kleeman’s debut novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, was published last year to great acclaim.) Writers learn to write stories by imitating their influences, and Kleeman’s collection is more mindful than most when it comes to sampling the various traditions of American short fiction.
The book is divided into three sections (which promotional material describes as “birth, living, and death,” though that is an oversimplification). The first offers a set of surreal stories that feature characters floundering under the expectations of others. In “Fairy Tale,” the narrator might be describing a dream: she is at a dinner with her parents and a man who claims to be her fiancé, though she does not recognize him and feels no attraction to him. As the story proceeds, more and more men show up at the table, each claiming to be a boyfriend or lover or paramour, and the pressure for the narrator to choose one leads to increasingly extreme scenarios. In “The Dancing-Master,” the eponymous instructor is goaded by the village philosopher into teaching a feral boy to dance like a proper gentleman: “Portesquieu would claim that this is impossible, that a body cultivated in the wild assumes the essence of wildness, turns swampy and will not admit of the growth of more refined habits. But with my labor, I prove him wrong: my wild child dances the minuet on command, as well as several other current dances.” The dancing-master achieves his pedagogical aims through use of a rod. When left to his own devices, the poor wild boy much prefers to chew on whatever objects are available. In their cold, fantastic minimalism, these first stories recall the work of Aimee Bender or Robert Coover (whose lengthy blurb, given its own page at the beginning of the book, functions like an oddly self-referential epigraph).
Section two begins with a suite of stories following the trials of a woman named Karen. “I May Not Be the One You Want, But I Am the One For You” finds her attempting to write a profile of a humane dairy farmer shortly after breaking up with her boyfriend. She meets a German man in a cafe and the two begin an awkward flirtation. “Choking Victim” flashes forward half a decade, when Karen is now married to an architect and the mother of an infant daughter. She attempts to acclimate to life in a new city, but finds she is forever at odds with her surroundings. “Jellyfish” skips back to the day the architect, Dan, proposed to her, while on vacation at a resort in a developing country where the seas are plagued by blooms of jellyfish that unnerve the swimmers. These stories are naturalistic, if quirky: more Rivka Galchen than Bender. Kleeman proves herself an skilled conjurer of familiar life. In “Choking Victim,” Karen observes the hacking cough of an unseen neighbor: “The coughing continued, louder and more urgent. It grew and solidified simultaneously, like a skyscraper seen from an approaching car.”
The section ends unexpectedly with “Intimation,” a nightmarish parable where an unnamed narrator finds herself trapped in a dynamic house with a man who seems to think that they are in a relationship. Though the story reverts to the surrealism of the first section, after the three Karen stories it is difficult not to read this narrator, too, as Karen (or a version of Karen), and to interpret the story not simply as an allegory for marriage in general but for Karen’s marriage to Dan (or her awkwardness with the German). What’s more, the piece invites the reader to think back to the stories in section one, particularly “Fairy Tale,” and insert Karen into those narrative as well. Like an avocado pit surrounded by malleable flesh, the Karen stories orient the pieces around them, providing the reader a notion of center.
The third section is more similar to the first than to the second, though categorized less by anxiety than by full-blown desperation. In “Fake Blood” a woman arrives in costume to a non-costume party, where her bloody outfit is construed by the other guests as evidence of a murder mystery game. Their belief in such a game causes people to misinterpret the real murders that begin to occur, even as the narrator attempts to convince them otherwise. The disjointed vignettes of “Rabbit Starvation” use the conceit of fluffy whiteness to explore the existential horror of aberration and loneliness, from a cotton ball sorting facility to accounts of Robert Falcon Scott’s fatal South Pole expedition to the thoughts of a person trapped in a room full of rabbits: “Stack the rabbits. Number the rabbits. Place a fingertip on the nose and stroke from forehead over spine to the tip of its adorable puff. Regret and regroup. Enumerate the possibilities. Write messages in the sky.”
The final story, “You, Disappearing,” is a dystopian tale of a world laid waste by the incremental disappearance of objects: apples, trousers, magazines, parts of Ferris wheels. “Nobody thought the apocalypse would be so polite and quirky. Things just popped out of existence, like they had forgotten all about themselves. Now when you misplaced your keys, you didn’t go looking for them.” But pets disappear as well, as do people, memories, even entire concepts. The narrator is unnamed, though she is in love with an architect. They are unmarried, without children, torn apart by the disparate ways they react to a world in which the disappearance of all things is inevitable. “There had been times,” the narrator writes of her boyfriend, “when I thought I might be with you indefinitely, something approaching an entire life. But then when there was only a finite amount of time, a thing we could see the limit of, I wasn’t so sure. I didn’t know how to use a unit of time like this, too long for a game of chess or a movie but so much shorter than we had imagined.” The story is perhaps the collection’s strongest, benefiting not only from the intimacies of this unnamed couple, but from the accrued emotions of all that has come before it: the lives (or potential lives) the reader has lived with Karen, lives which will not occur in the world of this final tale.
It is interesting that Intimations should appear so shortly on the heels of the American publication of Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond. Though the books are largely dissimilar, they both take well-established strategies for giving a novel an innovative kick and apply them to the medium of the short fiction collection. (Some reviewers have referred to Pond, which is composed of self-contained short stories, as a novel. They are mistaken. Mislabeling a linked short story collection as a novel does a disservice to both forms.) In the case of Pond, Bennett adapts the accumulating, knot-of-language aesthetic used successfully in the works of David Markson and, more recently, Eimear McBride. Kleeman, on the other hand, is working in the surrealism-neighboring-naturalism tradition of preceding wunderkinds like Téa Obreht and Jonathan Safran Foer, where sections of dreamlike allegory supplement sections telling the primary “real life” story. These tropes, when employed by novelists, have grown to feel quite domesticated over time, anchored as they are to book-length narratives that mostly guarantee a sense of progress by the end. In applying them to story collections, Bennett and Kleeman have essentially thrown out the instruction manual, allowing the reader to assemble whatever larger narrative they are able, knowing it will be incomplete and that there may even some parts leftover.
Save for a few standouts, the stories are not as strong, individually, as their original publications (The New Yorker, The Paris Review) might suggest. Several pieces obstruct more than they aid in explication. At 40 pages, “A Brief History of Weather” is a collection within a collection, divided into titled sections that follow a family’s attempt to create a house immune from and absent of any weather. It feels like Kleeman’s attempt to create her own Cooverian fragmentary epic (à la “The Gingerbread House” or “Seven Exemplary Fictions”), but the motifs are a bit too spasmodic and numerous (games, Russian dolls, unattributed quotes, an invented twin) to add up to anything coherent. The ethereal “Hylomorphosis” reads (purposefully) like a piece of 16th-century angelology that, while initially promisingly, refuses to solidify into anything digestible for mortal readers. Even the Karen stories are rather unexceptional when removed from their context in the book. Cumulatively, though, the collection offers an experience that is more surprising and, in some ways, more provoking than that of a standard collection composed of better stories. Kleeman is masterful at the sentence level. At the book level, she is ambitious and inventive. Once she works out the interstitials, she’ll be spawning imitators of her own.
We tend to associate W.G. Sebald and his characters strongly with melancholy and sadness. “[T]he figures who populate Sebald’s world are lost souls,” Ruth Franklin has noted, “breaking beneath the burden of their own anguish.” Susan Sontag said that Sebald’s voice has a “passionate bleakness.” “W.G. Sebald’s books…have a posthumous quality to them,” Geoff Dyer stated. “He wrote — as was often remarked — like a ghost.” Others have written about Sebald’s “weary, melancholy wisdom” (Mark O’Connell) and his characters being “racked by conflict between a self-protective urge to block off a painful past and a blind groping for something, they know not what, that has been lost” (J.M. Coetzee).
No wonder, then, that most everything written about W.G. Sebald, at least in the last dozen years, begins with his death. In 2001, Sebald was driving not far from his home in Norwich, England, with his daughter, Anna. We now know he suffered a heart attack, and the car, as a result, swerved into oncoming traffic, where it collided with a truck head-on. Anna, badly injured, survived. Perhaps it is because we connect Sebald so strongly with the past—and that his sad, sudden death seems as tragic as anything in his books— that we cannot get over his own passing. At only 57, and during the prime of a literary career that didn’t bloom until he was in middle age, Sebald left too soon. As much as Sebald wrote about the past — he noted in an interview he was “hardly interested in the future” because there was “something terribly alluring” about the past — we are obsessed with the future that wasn’t, with the books that he didn’t live to write.
Posthumously, however, a few books have been trickling into English, including Across the Land and the Water, a collection of poems; Campo Santo, a collection of essays on Corsica; and now A Place in the Country, a series of six essays on artists Sebald found inspirational. Although this book was first published in German in 1998, it only arrives now in English, translated by Jo Catling; in a way, Sebald has not died quite yet — at least not for us English-language readers.
Reading A Place in the Country, then, marks that sad Rubicon.
“A Place in the Country” opens hauntingly enough, with a foreword written by the author, discussing his reasons for embarking on this work: “The unwavering affection for Hebel, Keller, and Walser,” Sebald writes, “was what gave me the idea that I should pay my respects to them before, perhaps, it may be too late.” (Even Sebald opens an essay with a oblique statement about his own death.) The bulk of the focus here is on German language writers — Eduard Mörike, Johann Peter Hebel, Gottfried Keller, Robert Walser — but the volume also includes a taut exploration of the hyperrealistic pictures of German painter and former Sebald classmate Jan Peter Tripp, and a masterful, long excursion (part travelogue, part biography) into the life of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
I suspect there may be two essential audiences for this type of book. The first are the Sebald enthusiasts, who have gobbled down everything he has written; and the second are those who are genuinely interested in the artists Sebald explores. While the book may have some revelations for the latter group, it seems more likely the Sebald devotees will find more to like.
Each of these essays’ subjects could have fit into Sebald’s fiction — perhaps most especially in The Rings of Saturn, which most closely resembles nonfiction — although here they receive as deep of a consideration as any historical figure in the novels. The deepest and most profound analysis, rightfully, is for Walser, a writer who, Sebald says, “was only ever connected with the world in the most fleeting of ways” and for whom there exists “no reliable answer” as to what he was. Born in Switzerland, Walser was a lonely young ascetic — a “clairvoyant of the small” in his own words — who, Sebald reports, probably died a virgin and didn’t even possess copies of his own books. He only ended up famous posthumously, thanks to the work of Carl Seelig, his champion, who secured the cryptic pencil writings Walser had been incessantly working on toward the end of his life. But despite Seelig, Walser “remains a singular, enigmatic figure.” Here Walser seems a prototypical, aloof Sebald protagonist, akin to the nameless narrator of The Rings of Saturn, who says he sets off on a walk of Suffolk “in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work.” Walser, perhaps the most famous literary walker after Sebald himself, may have been the model for this — and, to some extent, all the others. It is testament to Sebald’s command and distinctive imprint on our imaginations that Walser’s biography now seems utterly Sebaldian. Walser is almost as fine a Sebaldian character as Austerlitz, the eponymous protagonist of Sebald’s final novel.
Nearly equally impressive to the Walser essay — although for different reasons — is the piece on Rousseau, the famous promeneur solitaire. Part travelogue and part biography, Sebald frames the essay around the period the famous philosopher spent on the Swiss Île de St-Pierre. Sebald first sighted the island in September of 1965, some 200 hundred years to the day that Rousseau found refuge there. It takes Sebald another 31 years, however, before he visits the island in 1996.
The Île de St-Pierre was the last redoubt Rousseau possessed in his native Switzerland, and was, he would later report, the place where he was the happiest. Rousseau spent much of his time on the island botanizing, writing ceaseless letters, and drafting a constitution for Corsica. The philosopher’s room was fitted with a trapdoor, to allow Rousseau to escape from visitors’ constant calls, and Sebald provides a memorable imagining of what must have happened there:
When one considers the extent and diversity of this creative output, one can only assume that Rousseau must have spent the entire time hunched over his desk in an attempt to capture, in the endless sequences of lines and letters, the thoughts and feelings incessantly welling up within him.
As he so often does so well, Sebald takes the sins and the tragedy of Rousseau — a man who abandoned all of his children, and who has been the subject of endless character studies and biographical attention — and pulls out something fresh: “No one…recognized the pathological aspect of thought as acutely as Rousseau, who himself wished for nothing more than to be able to halt the wheels ceaselessly turning within his head.” He has much in common with the four exiles in The Emigrants.
While the other German-language writers Sebald focuses on may have made less of an impression on us English-language readers, they are no less important to Sebald. In Keller, Sebald writes, “no other literary work of the nineteenth century can the developments that have determined our lives even down to the present day be traced as clearly…” Like Rousseau — who was a huge influence on Keller’s Green Henry — Keller was a similar victim of thought: for many years, Keller subjected himself to writing, to the “attempt to contain the teeming black scrawl which everywhere threatens to gain the upper hand, in the interests of maintaining a halfway functional personality.” This is a bleak notion of one’s art, but then again, Keller seemed to live a fairly bleak personal life: “From the very beginning, despite a deep need of and evidently inexhaustible capacity for love, Keller’s life was marked by rejection and disappointment.”
Of the avuncular Hebel, Sebald paints a somewhat sunnier portrait, as he does with Eduard Morike, who lived surrounded by women. Yet all — including Walser — Sebald cites as having a certain “unluckiness in love,” which Sebald connects with the beauty of their writing. This notion only seems somewhat silly in retrospect. To be fair, Sebald also cites these artists’ “very long memor[ies],” but one imagines they didn’t hone such an “adeptness at their craft” because of a couple bad breakups. (Or, in Keller and Walser’s case, the lack of a break-up at all.) But, in Sebald’s essays, these fuzzy bits of logic are few and far between — what we are left with is a striking series of stories and feelings, all connected in surprising ways. Ruth Franklin has said that Sebald’s life project was a “a drawing-out of connections primarily through language and image rather than narrative or causality.” In that way, A Place in the Country is a rousing success.
If one was hoping for more insight into the author himself (as I admittedly was), this volume may disappoint. Instead of the mischievous narrators of his fiction — nearly always sharing significant details with Sebald, such as a similar hometown or profession, or through the use of photographs actually taken by Sebald himself — we receive only fleeting, if transparent, glimpses of the writer beneath. (The most interesting may be the importance of his grandfather in Sebald’s life.) But what the book may lack in personal revelations about the author, it makes up for with a better understanding of his process — “an oblique comment on his own style of writing,” as translator Jo Catling notes in her foreword. Much can be gleaned from Sebald’s careful analysis of Hebel and Walser.
Anything more direct and personal would probably have not been fitting, anyway. Sebald’s writing is as much about what is written on the page as what cannot be. (“What Sebald seems to be writing about, in other words,” Mark O’Connell astutely observed, “is frequently not what he wants us to be thinking about.”) It is elliptical, because, it seems, some things have to be; words cannot describe every feeling, every sensation — no matter how many we write — and of all multitudinous topics that would be tough to grasp, perhaps the complexities and depths of our own selves are the most difficult. Even the prodigious Rousseau, Keller, and Walser could not contain half of everything in their works. Walser claimed to be always writing the same book, a novel which could be described as “a much-chopped up or dismembered Book of Myself.” We can take much from the fact he was scribbling up until the very end.
The authors in this volume, Sebald writes, have given him “the persistent feeling of being beckoned from the other side.” Sebald has now become one of these ghosts, haunting us still. Writers “are expected to keep writing until the pen drops from their hand.” Even though the pen was taken from his grasp far too early, we are lucky that Sebald, for a time, held it firm.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
“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.