I have read only a very few graphic novels, but the ones I have read all seem to tread the same emotional ground. Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World and now I Never Liked You by Chester Brown. Their stories center on a sort of teenage emptiness that inspires a combination of pity and fascination in me. Visually, however, the three are quite distinct with Brown’s artwork being far more spare than the other two. Brown’s jagged panels placed asymmetrically on the page are surrounded by black, drawing the eye to his simple lines. (Unfortunately, later editions of the book have replaced the black pages with white.) His panels are devoid of details and instead focusing of the setting, the reader dwells on the characters, primarily young Chester himself. Brown’s picture of himself is both funny and sad, and while the book touches on his mother’s death, the focus is on his interaction with girls. He tells his friend Sky that he loves her but doesn’t know what to do next. His neighbor Carrie has a crush on him and they engage in this strange wrestling ritual as a stand in for actual communication. Girls are drawn to the odd, artistic boy but they are also repulsed by him. In the end, the book is about Brown’s inability to engage emotionally – with these girls, with his mother, with the rest of his family. It’s a poignant and quick read (it took me about an hour), but Brown’s dreamy artwork will stay with you.
Maria Dolz sees the same couple at the same café in the same city, Madrid, nearly every morning. “[T]he sight of them together” calmed her, and provided her “with a vision of an orderly or, if you prefer, harmonious world.” Maria works for a book publisher, where she often must deal with vain and pretentious authors — including one who is so infatuated with the Nobel Prize that he has already prepared an acceptance speech in Swedish. She is somewhere just south of 40, and has not married. To her, the couple was the ideal form of love, a couple who unselfconsciously enjoyed every second in each other’s presence. “[I] didn’t regard them with envy, not at all,” Maria says, “but with a feeling of relief that in the real world there could exist what I believed to be a perfect couple.”
But then the husband, Miguel Desvern, is murdered violently by a deranged homeless man, who raves about his daughters’ forced prostitution and wildly accuses Desvern of taking his inheritance. Thus ends the tranquil preprandial café moments — although the murder is less jarring (for Maria) than its aftermath. After another encounter with Miguel’s wife, Luisa, Maria strikes up a small friendship. Maria also begins seeing Javier Diaz-Verela, a friend of the couple’s; their relationship forms the core of Spanish author Javier Marías’s 12th novel, The Infatuations.
If you have been paying attention, you have noticed this is a book by a man named Javier Marías that features a complicated story of Javier and Maria. And if you knew Javier Marías’s work, this type of tongue-in-cheek wordplay would not be surprising: While The Infatuations contains strong elements of its author’s biography — Marías’s own life is often a motif in his fiction — it is not autobiographical. His novels “dare us — subtly here, grandly there — to mistake the narrator for the author himself,” Wyatt Mason has written. “Marías seems to be saying, what we believe — and what is believed about us — is where the trouble begins.”
As The Infatuations opens, Maria Dolz believes, it seems, in love — or “true love,” as the way we often refer to it — of a “perfect couple.” And that was precisely the start of a catastrophe.
Javier Marías may be the only significant working writer to also be a king. As the sovereign of Redonda (a small, rocky island north of Montserrat and west of Antigua), Marías is the honorary (“void of content,” in his words) monarch. His two-decade reign has nearly entirely consisted of bestowing titles on various artists — John Ashbery is the Duke of Convexo, for example — as part of an effort at tongue-in-cheek recognition.
Marías does not take it seriously, but the title of “king,” in some ways, feels apt. The cover of The Infatuations notes striking praise for the author from heavyweights J.M. Coetzee (“one of the best contemporary European writers”), Roberto Bolaño (“By far Spain’s best writer today”) and Orhan Pamuk (Marías “should get the Nobel Prize”). His books have sold more than 6.5 million copies throughout the world, and have been translated into 42 languages, yet neither my local libraries nor any hometown shop — independent bookstore or Barnes & Noble — carried any of his titles, and even the state university’s large library only had a handful of his books, mostly in Spanish. Marías may be royalty, but in the United States he remains nearly as obscure as Redonda.
Nearly the moment after Marías’s birth, his father, Julián, a philosopher, moved from Madrid to Massachusetts for a teaching job at Wellesley, while Marías, his mother, and his older brothers moved shortly thereafter. Marías would spend chunks of his childhood in the United States, where his first novel, completed before he turned 21, was set; but he eventually went on to study English at Complutense University in Madrid. After two novels, he turned to translation for a half-dozen years. His work — Spanish versions of Sir Thomas Browne, Laurence Sterne, and William Faulkner, for example — seems to be a guide to his subsequent fiction. For a period he taught translation theory at Oxford, where his novel All Souls takes place. It is difficult to understate how fundamental translation (as a concept) is to reading Marías, and that is perhaps one reason why reading him in English seems almost as fitting as the original Spanish; indeed, his work, in its original language, has been criticized as “sound[ing] like translations,” because, among other things, it lacks much distinct Spanish-ness, no (in Marias’s words) “bullfighting, no passionate women.” To Marias, sounding like a translation was praise, even if it was meant as an insult. “One of the things I didn’t want to be was what they call a ‘real Spanish writer.'”
A translator is a “privileged reader and a privileged writer,” Marías has said. “[I]f I ever had my own creative writing school I would only admit people who could translate, and I would make them do it over and over again.” The narrator of A Heart So White is a translator, for example; the narrator of Marías’s Your Face Tomorrow trilogy is an “interpreter of people,” who is asked to establish if a person would lie or kill in the future. Translation is, in typical Marías fashion, an allusion to his biography: the author’s own mother, in fact, was also a translator.
Marías’s other narrators are frequently interpreters by another name, who occupy themselves interpreting and translating, from Juan’s obsessive interpretations of his wife’s small gestures in A Heart So White, to Victor’s ghostwriting in Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, to Maria’s attempts at deciphering words not being said by feminine lips of Javier Diaz-Verela in The Infatuations. It is a fundamental human occupation, Marías seems to be conveying, prone to gaps and misses. “[A]ll the valuable information to which people imagine we translators and interpreters working in international organizations are privy,” Juan says, “in fact, escapes us completely, from beginning to end, from top to bottom, we haven’t a clue about what’s brewing or being plotted and planned in the world, not the slightest glimmer.”
As a regular columnist for El Pais, Marías has opined on a huge range of topics. Perhaps having to produce so much copy, and so often, has rendered him to strikingly straightforward and eloquent — in virtually any interview — about his process and his books, although one suspects that Marías possesses such grace naturally. He seems to understand his own writing — which often seems effortless, and never showy — better than anyone. He is a retort to Barthes: the author, in other words, is not dead, but a key to the entire process. “A novel is a more savage and wild thing in the sense that you can say anything, and your narrators or characters can say anything,” Marías has said. “Yet it still arrives at a kind of truth.”
The truth that The Infatuations arrives at, if it does, is a most uncomfortable and perplexing one.
Perhaps the only thing wrong with The Infatuations is its title. In Spanish, it is Los Enamoramientos, which could also be translated as “crushes,” but which is defined in the novel — in a long speech of Javier Diaz-Varela — as the “state of falling or being in love.” Of course, the title is one of the vagaries of translation — how fitting for a Marías novel — since “enamoramiento” cannot be easily translated into English. If, in English, there had been a noun form for “to be enamored with,” perhaps that would have worked best; still, “infatuation” manages well enough.
The book probes what defines the boundary between love and infatuation, and how often both can be on shaky ground. Our lives are “very limited in our choices of partner by location, class, history and who is willing to accept our advances,” Marías said, talking about the novel. “How many times are we not the first choice? Or even the second, or the third?”
This is rather a disturbing notion, after all; many hardened atheists still believe in love or perhaps a version of a soulmate, and most often it seems it’s the religiously devout who remain unmarried. The Infatuations purposefully attempts to suggest imperfect, impure love is more common than is ever spoken. Javier tells Maria that she is not in love with him, as she claims, and that “even the most transient and trivial of infatuations lack any real cause, and that’s even truer of feelings that go far deeper, infinitely deeper than that.” In this way, human affection seems tantamount to human hatred, such as the homeless man’s killing of Miguel: causeless, random, the product of inward self-obsessions instead of the outward direction of the self. (Perhaps that was hinted by “Maria” falling for “Javier,” as they are both just the creations of Javier Marías.)
But maybe this depressing suggestion is just Marias speaking out of both sides of his mouth — what he has called *pensamiento literario*, or “literary thinking,” a way of thinking that lets the writer contradict himself. In The Infatuations, we have the possibility that perhaps life, unlike the novel, is quite a different, more complicated thing, and the jaded notions of manipulations and cynicism apparent to Maria are simply products of her bitter worldview: “…no novel would ever dare give houseroom to the infinite number of chances and coincidences that can occur in a single lifetime,” Maria thinks at one point, “let alone those that have already occurred and continue to occur. It’s quite shameful the way reality imposes no limits on itself.” It’s shameful to Maria, but perhaps it is hopeful for the rest of us.
Beyond the interesting ideas his work draws on, Marías’s novels are simply a pleasure to read — they possess the sort of flat, hypnotic quality of the prose of W.G. Sebald, who, along with Marías, can make anything seem interesting. Marias’s sentences — like Sebald’s — are long, and feature lots of commas, where thoughts appear and pop up and then disappear, building and strengthening, and often the sentences contains strings of complex and compound ideas, much like this sentence, as the author burrows further and further into particular moments, stretching them out for pages. His novels contain what Marías calls “a system of echoes or resonances,” or ideas, motifs, details, which the story keeps revisiting. Sometimes these are literary touchstones — in The Infatuations, Maria keeps coming back to bits of Balzac and Dumas, while in A Heart So White it is Macbeth — and other times they are bits of distinct dialogue or details (such as Diaz-Verela’s feminine lips). Perhaps because Marias does not outline his novels, these important “reoccurrences” feel organic. If there is a Chekhov’s gun, it was in the first draft.
Throughout the course of The Infatuations, Maria learns too much about Javier Diaz-Verela, too much about Luisa, too much about Miguel. The love of Luisa and Miguel, that perfect couple, is replaced with another kind of love — to say more would spoil it — that seems no less dedicated, if significantly less pure. There hardly exists, at the end of the novel, a “perfect couple,” but perhaps that feels more real. It is precisely these quandaries, contradictions, and realities that makes Marías’s fiction so good; The Infatuations, containing the qualities of Marías’s best work, is an important addition to his oeuvre.
Literature, Marías has said, “doesn’t properly illuminate things, but like the match it lets you see how much darkness there is.” The Infatuations leaves us with the unsettling possibility that the darkness is deep indeed.
Uwe Johnson never quite knew what to do with the self-satisfied authority of superlatives. He was interested in the inconclusive, the ambiguous, and preferred observing things from the edge. The texture of a frame seemed to him more revealing than the painting, the smell of ink on one’s fingers more revealing than the content of a newspaper article. He had originally wanted to call his novel The Third Book about Achim something different: Description of a Description, which would have been the more apt title. Thus, he would only have quietly shaken his bald head and tapped out his pipe ashes when confronted with a statement like: Anniversaries is the best novel ever written about America in the German language. Nevertheless, it is true.
Anniversaries was conceived as a book of normal length, but became a life’s work, in the true sense of the word. Johnson worked for fifteen years, and sometimes he was defeated. It would take him 1,900 pages to finish, and in reading one quickly realizes that even a single page less would have been a problematic simplification. (It is all the more inexplicable that there has only been an abridged version published in English.) After the last of its four volumes appeared, he died at the early age of 49. He was very lonely in the end; life on the edge had turned into solitude. He was found in his house in England three weeks after he died.
For all its bulk, though, the book doesn’t give you much time to decide against reading it. Two long sentences, to be precise:
Long waves sweep slanting against the beach, hump muscled backs, raise trembling combs that tip over at the greenest summit. The taut roll, already streaked with white, enfolds a hollow space of air that is crushed by the clear mass as if a secret had been created and destroyed there.
Yes, I will read you, I thought, as I finished these lines last summer. I would begin Anniversaries on an anniversary – August 20th, 2009 – and planned to read its 365 entries in 365 days.
Anniversaries follows the form of a diary. It begins on August 20th, 1967, at the New Jersey coast, and ends exactly one year later, when Russian tanks invade Prague. To describe what happens in between seems almost out of the question; the book is more of a literary landscape than a novel, and a mountain wants to be climbed, not surveyed. Once, when Johnson was asked to summarize the plot before a reading, he talked for one and a half hours (no time was left for the reading itself) not because the plot was so extravagant, but because some books are long for a reason, and because some novels about the passing of time need time to pass instead of just claiming that it passes. One needs to actually read them in order to respect them, just as Hannah Arendt wanted to call a life a life only after it was lived.
The particular life we follow in Anniversaries belongs to Gesine Cressphal, who works as a translator in a Manhattan bank. She was born into Hitler’s Reich and grew up in East Germany, where, in many offices and classrooms soon after the war, pictures of Hitler were simply replaced by portraits of Stalin. Gesine has learned early on how to lie; when she arrives in New York, “freedom” isn’t much more than a word. She has left behind in Germany a dead husband, Jakob. He didn’t exactly die peacefully. (In fact, Jakob has been the protagonist of Johnson’s earlier novel Speculations about Jakob. As with Faulkner, whom Johnson admired almost more than any other writer, Johnson’s books are intertwined over decades, full of connections, rumors, and secrets between people and places, like an old neighborhood. Johnson refused to bring characters into life just to have them suffocate between the boards of a book. During his time in New York, Johnson would sometimes say to his acquaintances that he just ran into Gesine Cressphal at Grand Central. He was actually serious.)
From August of 1967 to August of 1968, at a rate of one entry per day, Gesine tells her daughter the story of her life and asks – as Johnson does in all of his writing – What brought us here? She talks about her father who, in his hometown of Jerichow in Mecklenburg, saw the evil of Nazism approaching but nevertheless accommodated himself to it in order to not lose his family. She talks about her mother who once tried to let little Gesine drown in a rain barrel. She talks about time and guilt and why one passes and the other doesn’t. She also deals with religion, Vietnam, and America as the fetish of our world – but only marginally. Throughout, a larger question looms: Is it possible, after all, that the truth doesn’t have an essence, only edges?
Long before it became the duty of cultural theorists to damn it, Johnson was mistrusting “truth.” For him, it was no more palpable than memory, which Gesine likens to a cat: “independent, incorruptible, intractable. And yet a comfortable companion, when it puts in an appearance, even if it stays out of reach.” Perhaps one learns this automatically, growing up during a dictatorship.
And yet, as a reader, I can’t let go of truth – not for moral reasons but because nothing else touches me. The truth I look for in a novel has little to do with what is depicted, with the characters or historical details. It lies instead in what one might call the tone. Over time, I forget much of what I read; only this tone stays with me. But when is a tone truthful? When is it authentic? I suppose the answer has something to do with what is personal and peculiar, with what Nabokov called, when he spoke about exhilarating reading and writing experiences, “looking through glasses which will fit no one else.” The dialect of a text, something between the lines, more audible than actually readable, its volume, its acoustic color… The hidden lust for life in Thomas Mann’s books. The curiosity and angst (those twin sisters) in Kafka’s. With people, too, one knows after a few sentences whether one wants to show them one’s favorite café.
Many North Germans feel more familiar with the English temper than with, say, the Bavarian temper. Johnson’s language has much of this polite and confident restraint, which, in every sentence, hides as much as it displays. He barely dares to say “I.” To mistake this for frigidity, however, is a popular misunderstanding, about Johnson as much as about North Germans.
When Max Frisch, one of his few long-term friends, said that it’s not the writer who finds his language, but vice versa, it was especially true for Johnson. He approaches his sentences carefully; he doesn’t triumph over them by stretching them into long technically obsessed hypotaxis or by brutally shortening them into bossy staccatos (both of which we Germans know how to do very well.) Sometimes he inadvertently falls into an English syntax shorter and more flexible than German, a syntax that flows where the German constricts. He seems to let the sentences have the shapes they chose for themselves. This has nothing to do with the trivial concept of the “death of the author.” Johnson always remains tangible in the background, but discreetly, like a concerned father who secretly hides in the car when his daughter goes to her first party. He believes in narrative, but wants neither the dubious dominance of an omnipotent narrator nor a visa into the anonymous universe of texts and textures. For where there’s no narrator, there can be no responsibility – and of course writing was for Johnson an act of social conscience.
In the Sixties, in Germany, literature and politics were still strongly looking to communicate with each other; the “Gruppe 47,” in which Günter Grass, Heinrich Böll and many others grew as writers, was regarded as a moral authority. Johnson was perhaps the most intellectual among them; certainly he was the quietest. In a time of heated debates, his tone was laconic. Lacking the vanity required for outright outrage, he analyzed where others barked. He didn’t have to be politicized by loud agitation; the infringement of political power on private life had already shaped him in his youth, when he refused to denounce “hostile elements.” It is said that the division of Germany first came into literature with Johnson, that he was a representative for the people whose lives were, like his, shaped by living in East Germany. But nothing was farther from him than to draw a line under German misery. He didn’t want to conjure up a “zero hour” or a new beginning which was as clamorous as it was convenient. The present, in his work, is too full of the past. Gesine Cresspehl always hears the voices of the dead and calls upon them when she needs them, just as Johnson’s calm and serious tone resembles someone remembering those forgotten by time. Anniversaries, then, is a singular monument to justice, unraveling the fates of dozens of people over a span of forty years along the eternal conflict of assimilation and protest.
As I’ve moved through it over the last several months, it has been the curious unity of thoughtfulness and definiteness, of irony and moral seriousness that has fascinated me most. Alone, each is more often than not hard to bear. But Johnson both respects and distrusts language. He plays with it and, in the next moment, forces it to be austere. If he gets carried away with a pun, a dramatic turn or even just a jaunty image – for example with a waiter who “tucks a smile into his mustache” – then it seems as if he wants to apologize for it in the next sentence, as if he needed to put a stop to what mustn’t get out of control.
Johnson is a moralist, but not a polemicist who would lose his authority by putting himself above his topic, even for the sake of a laugh. His sentences are humorous in themselves, but don’t tell jokes; they’re chucklers, not kneeslappers. He knows better than to celebrate the violence of a Nazi-gang with rhetorical drama, and he portrays them instead as a pathetic but brutal amateur dramatic performance. One is almost relieved when he suddenly describes a Nazi official as a pig, only to be brought up short by the ironic twist that follows: “Not in any metaphorical sense, simply on the basis of physical similarity.”
Admittedly, he isn’t easy on his readers: He rushes them through places, times and several narrative levels, at times – dauntingly, within one sentence. The frame of the plot is complex; the structure of the journal is porous. Sometimes Gesine is the narrator, sometimes she is being narrated. She merges into the narrative and surfaces again, unexpectedly. Sometimes she is in dialogue with the author himself – in Plattdeutsch, the Low German dialect. Perhaps this, too, has roots in an adolescence defined by state power, when not being too direct can save one’s life.
But the unity is greater than that; it’s as if the peculiar was only made discernible by the random. The more complex a truth is, the harder it is to bind it into sentences, and one will be more successful looking for it in the margins. Johnson approaches the truth like a partisan, indirectly; but where postmodernity often circles narcissistically around an empty center, Johnson fulfills his self-imposed task – depicting the embrace of political history and personal biography – by sometimes losing sight of it. Gesine, for example, is addicted to reading The New York Times, which she respectfully calls a “stubborn old aunt,” and which doesn’t only report the number of crosses erected on American military cemeteries during the Vietnam war, but also what wood they were made from and where it was cut.
As with a picture that loses its sharp contours as we move closer, one can get dizzy in the face of this abundance of details and episodes, the branching out of coincidences and allusions, a cocoon in which (hi)story lies like a larva. But Johnson’s language is always both concrete and allegorical. As smooth as the surface seems, there is above it a large space for reverberations.
Anniversaries is, above all, a novel about guilt. I have never read a book that dissects guilt with such precision and empathy without ever losing the clarity of its point of view. Evil is not personified in Johnson’s novels; it remains nameless, and thus threatening. Characters are people, not incarnations, and they are all entangled in their own time, their own space. That Johnson avoids a quick verdict doesn’t weaken his judgments. On the contrary, his moral questions gain power precisely by being less flexible for the lookers-on and hangers-on: the readers, us. The attraction of accusing others, which often lies in the suggestion of one’s own innocence, is what Johnson denies us; we are drawn closer already during the process of reading, by gazing into the abyss – just like Gesine’s mother, who sees synagogues burning and a Jewish girl dying during the Kristallnacht of November 9, 1938, and hours later goes into the flames herself.
Any kind of over-dramatization seems to embarrass Johnson, and yet his prose is distant and serene only as long as we stubbornly swing from one word to the next while the seething has started beneath us. No sentence in itself gives in to the fury of horror―but just as every bright photograph has a disturbingly dark negative, so also is the beauty of Johnson’s language one that chokes on itself. It describes an execution as indifferently as it describes the ocean “crocheting delicate fringes to the land.” And seemingly all of a sudden, the stores of the Jewish cloth merchants in Jerichow are burning.
Here is what’s most disturbing about Johnson’s language: that the barbarism takes hold of it so gradually, just as with people, where it may have hidden in all-too-familiar notions of envy or fear or pain. The idea that evil rages with unmistakable thunder right from the start provides us, in the present, with a false reassurance. When Hitler’s soldiers marched into Poland, Mein Kampf had been standing on German bookshelves for 14 years already.
Anniversaries studies Germany from the viewpoint of New York for a reason. Martin Luther King is shot in Memphis, and one week later the revolutionary leader of the student movement, Rudi Dutschke, is shot in Berlin. In 1968, the New World present merges with the Old World past. Wrong wars are being fought. Capitalism falters, but Communism also fails. There have been worse times than ours to rediscover Uwe Johnson.
It is worth noting, in this connection, that Anniversaries is a Heimatroman, a “home-novel.” The word Heimat, which can be your home or home country, bears a burden, a patina unlike any other German word. Its proximity to Unheimlichkeit (uncanniness) is definitely appropriate. Origin always needs the gaze of someone looking back or coming back in order to become Heimat; it only exists with distance, loss, and in the realization of the past. For Kafka, only death was a true Heimat, the actual good place.
The fact that his beloved New York didn’t need to embrace or suffocate him like a homeland was a relief to Uwe Johnson as much as to Gesine. “True,” he wrote,
our home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side is imaginary. The process of addiction to the area has been solely on our side, we cannot expect the others to reciprocate. And yet, an hour’s walk through the neighborhood inoculates us for years against moving away.
To read Anniversaries in New York, in its own rhythm, over the course of one year, has been like looking doubtfully at long-hidden pictures from the wild youth of an old lady. One will see her with different eyes from now on. And like hearing at least one familiar voice every day.
Like Anniversaries, New York is “crowded with the past, with presence.” The dialectic of freedom and constraint has always been more palpable here than anywhere else in the world. Freedom and promises can rise like water up to one’s neck; where everything seems possible, the road to nothingness seems very short. (Tell me your city, I’ll tell you mine.) But since reading Anniversaries I feel more at home in this foreign land – as if I had returned after a long time and as if Gesine Cressphal’s presence were my past and Johnson’s sentences the echo of my memory. Whoever recognizes something is at home. I’ve been here before.
(Translated from the German by Christian Hawkey and Uljana Wolf)
Don DeLillo has said that his mammoth Underworld emerged from the juxtaposition of two headlines on the front page of a 1954 New York Times. One trumpeted a pennant-winning home run by the Giants’ Bobby Thomson. The other announced that the Russians had tested their first atomic bomb. Each, in its own way, was a shot heard ’round the world.For anyone paying attention, the International section of this Saturday’s Times offered a similarly suggestive juxtaposition: three articles on a single page reported suspicious events in and around Vladimir Putin’s Russia. To wit: The Kremlin informed a group of dissident journalists that they were going to be evicted from their offices. Leaders of an opposition party, detained by police on thin pretenses, were forced to miss a protest rally. And the government of Estonia, which had offended Russian nationalists by taking down a monument to Soviet soldiers, had its Internet service disrupted by a ferocious denial-of-service attack (which originated from Russian servers). In each case, the reporter hesitated to blame Putin directly, but the overall picture is grim. And this is not even to mention the radiation poisoning plots, or the Chechen conflict. Basically, the man our president once certified as “a good soul” is consolidating power with a kommissarial zeal. The mystery is why the Russian people, after seven decades of totalitarian misrule and centuries of feudalism, are putting up with it.A quick answer might be that, after the economic deprivations of the Communist era, they’re willing to trade freedom for a little prosperity. A more complicated one (not unrelated to the rise of ethnic gangs in Iraq) might involve the psychological toll totalitarianism exacts on its masses. Call it The Captive Mind, or Stockholm Syndrome, but it’s basically a protection racket: authority seems to offer insurance against violence, where freedom seems to leave one exposed. Give a kid enough bruises, and he’s likely to get in line behind the schoolyard bully. The problem comes when the bully runs out of other victims.But a reading of Tatyana Tolstaya’s splendid contemporary novel The Slynx reminds us that the thirst for freedom and the hunger for authority are not merely the byproducts of Russia’s recent history. Rather, they are the reacting agents in much of the finest Russian literature. They lend the novels of Tolstaya’s great-uncle Leo – and the poems quoted by her characters in The Slynx – their signature phosphorescence. In the great American novel, the imperative to submit to something larger than oneself – tradition, law, religion – is usually an obstacle. Our Augies and Ishmaels and Rabbits set out to find their freedom. In Tolstoy’s Levin and Dostoevsky’s Karamazovs, individualism alternates – sometimes on the same page – with a sense that a greater freedom comes in accepting one’s duty and place in the world.Is this a radical simplification? Of course. But I feel licensed to make it. No one likes to speculate about the Russian soul more than the Russians. I want to emphasize here that The Slynx succeeds, radiantly, as a self-contained work of art. But a view to Russia’s literary and political history can only enrich one’s reading.The protagonist of The Slynx is a “golubchik” named Benedikt – born a century after a nuclear catastrophe has leveled Moscow and erased most cultural memory. Benedikt is a simple fellow, subsisting on mice and eking out an existence as a scrivener. He unquestioningly copies the decrees and poems written by Fyodor Kuzmich, the chief Murza of the village – even when those poems seem suspiciously Pushkinesque. Benedikt’s life strikes us as a nightmare of deprivation, but because he has nothing to compare it to, he doesn’t know it. His only inkling is a melancholy feeling that comes over him from time to time, which he blames on a mythical predator said to live in the forest… The Slynx.Like a Russian George Saunders, Tolstaya creates a sci-fi bizarro world seemingly without effort – the details are there when she reaches for them. And, like Saunders, she renders her world in an entirely original idiom. Her depictions of life in the village of Fyodor-Kuzmichsk (natch) leaven poetic stream of consciousness with a salty and frequently hilarious orality. The effect Tolstaya creates, hovering between second- and third-person narration, is like nothing I’ve ever read. The narrator both is and isn’t Benedikt. Benedikt both is and isn’t us. Here’s a little taste, in Jamey Gambrell’s supple translation:In the summer the Scribe is like an ordinary Golubchik – a sickle on his shoulder and into the fields and glades to cut goosefoot, horsetail. Bring in the sheaves. You tie them up – lug them to the shed, and go back again, another time, once more, all over, run, run, run. While he’s gone the neighbors or a stranger will filch a couple of sheaves for sure, sometimes from the field, sometimes straight from the shed. But that’s all right: they steal from me, and I’ll get good and mad and steal from them, those guys will steal from these guys – and so it goes in a circle. It comes out fair. Everyone steals, but everyone ends up with their own. More or less.For the first half of the book, we keep rooting for him to awaken, like his Anglo counterparts in 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, to the dystopia he’s living in. As he discovers the source of Fyodor Kuzmich’s poems, and develops an appetite for books, consciousness-raising starts to seem inevitable. But – spoiler alert – consciousness will not prove to be synonymous with freedom. In fact, after aiding a putsch, Benedikt will become “Deputy for Defense and Marine and Oceanic Affairs.” Rather than living out his books, he seems content to live in them. More Bovary than Quixote.Tolstaya is well-known in Russia as a television personality and an outspoken critic. She began her first and only novel under Gorbachev and finished it under Putin. In the West, where knowledge is seen as a path to freedom, the plot trajectory she arrived at may strike some readers as perverse. What at first seems an allegory of Communism becomes something more unsettling: an examination of our universal frailty.In light of what’s happening in Moscow right now, the final pages of The Slynx take on a resonance almost too painful to countenance. History is not only a nightmare… in Russia, it seems to be a recurring one. Tolstaya preserves the possibility of an awakening, of a more personal socialism or a more collective freedom. But she’s not optimistic.
Joseph Skizzen, the main character of William Gass’s masterful new novel, constantly reconsiders and rewrites the above sentence, sometimes with slight modifications; other times, the sentence balloons to more than a page, but its despairing tone never changes. Gass would certainly sympathize with Joseph’s compulsion for revision. “Something gets on paper,” says Gass about his methods, “and then it gets revised, and then it gets revised, and then it gets revised.” Due in part to his obsessive rewriting process, Middle C took the author nearly 20 years to finish, and The Tunnel — a tome that has baffled critics and sustained a cult readership since its publication in 1995 — took Gass nearly three decades to complete.
Middle C begins in Austria, where Joseph’s father decides on a whim (“presto-chango”) to persuade the family to forgo their Catholic upbringing and assume Jewish origins instead. This way, the poverty-stricken family can access the underground organization that smuggles Jews to England and escape the trajectory of fascism that was beginning to take hold in Austria, one that Joseph’s father anticipates. In London, Yankel Fixel, Joseph’s father, once again sheds his name (and identity) for one more properly English: Raymond Scofield. It is as Raymond that the father suddenly stumbles into a great fortune that irrevocably changes him once more. He deserts the family without notice, leaving his wife and two kids to board a New World-bound ship to search in vain for him in America. Only much later on in life, still trying to make sense of his absence, does Joseph, in his rather bookish way, forgive his father: “…you wouldn’t arrest the actor who played Hamlet for the death of Polonius.”
But despite the appearances of its beginning, Middle C is not just another story of the immigrant struggle in America. The main struggle, as the central sentence of the novel alludes to, is the question of whether or not the human race, given its bloody history, deserves to go on, to survive.
Joseph’s a clipper: he cuts newspaper articles about the world’s atrocities and posts them on the walls of his attic, a collection he refers to as the “Inhumanity Museum,” a museum that will “remind its visitors of the vileness of mankind — not its nobility and triumphs.” He undertakes this task as if it were his life’s work. Professor Skizzen resembles more the thoughtful, melancholy professor-protagonists that inhabit Saul Bellow’s work than he does the rambling Professor Kohler of The Tunnel. While much of the book takes place inside the world of Skizzen’s mind, a dark, roving mind preoccupied with the future of humanity, the sections that depict his childhood (as Joey) are so precisely told with vivid details that they read less like reminiscence, and more like scenes unfolding before our eyes. Gass, who was briefly a student of Wittgenstein’s at Cornell, is a playful writer. And Wittgenstein’s theory that language creates its own reality is very much apparent in Middle C, not just in its absurd, enigmatic beginning, or its many language games — several words at the end of sentences intentionally rhyme — but with its questioning of identity and reality, notions that Gass constantly upends. For who cares if Skizzen (German for “Sketches”) fibs about his age, lies about his family’s past, and even concocts an imaginary career for himself as a music professor? He is, after all, an invention.
After leaving London, the Skizzens resettle in “The Heart of It All” — the middle C of the country, if you will — in fictional Woodbine, Ohio, a “tiny two-bus town” where Joseph and his older sister, Deborah, are raised by their husbandless mother. Joseph quickly loses himself in a love for the piano and eventually learns to play with some level of distinction, though not without great effort: “His approach to playing was like that of someone trying to plug always fresh and seemingly countless leaks — his fingers were full of desperation…” The cast of grotesque characters that Joseph meets in Woodbine easily rivals those from Winesburg, Ohio (the comparisons are inevitable). There’s Mr. Kazan, proprietor of the High Note, the music store where Joseph works, “who brought his beard around every morning at ten when the store opened, if he remembered the key.” Madame Mieux, the bosomy community college French teacher who employs a fake French accent even when she speaks English and fails to seduce Joseph after she invites him over to her home decorated in piles and piles of pillows. The head librarian, known as the Major, not only gives Joseph employment, but also a place to live in the garage of her home, where the rooms overflow with puddles from house plants. Then there’s Hazel Hazlet, a black woman with a mullet who talks to her teddy bear and sells Joseph a beat-up car for under $50 (she also possesses an angelic singing voice). And those are just a few of the odd characters in a much larger cast, each of whom bursts with an eccentricity all his or her own, as if they’re trying to upstage one another in quirkiness.
For an author who’s nearly 90 years old, Gass writes remarkably well about what it’s like to be young. The reflective lyricism of the passages on youth throughout the book recall Rilke’s great coming-of-age novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, a work Gass admits a fondness for in interviews. From Middle C:
When you’re young, time is a puzzle, like interlocking nails. You wonder what you ought to be doing or what the future holds or how things that don’t seem to have worked out will work out; and in such a mood, even when you are focused on the future because you are yet to get laid, to bloom, to beget, to find your way, to win a tournament, you nevertheless don’t detail far-off somedays in your head; you don’t feel your future as you feel a thigh…because the present is too intense, too sunny, brief as a sneeze, too higgledy-piggledy, too complete, too total, a drag already, whereas there is simply so much future, the future is flat as the sea three miles from your eye while the beach you are sitting on is aboil with sunshine and nakedness.
But unlike Rilke’s provincial Malte, Joseph never leaves his small town for the big city. For one thing, he doesn’t even have proper citizenship, an annoyance that surfaces just as he’s about to accept employment at a small library in Urichtown, or Whichstown — as the residents pronounce it, partly because it’s said to be haunted by witches. Despite the risk, Joseph makes a fake ID so he doesn’t have to confront his past, and gets the job. Gass plays with the notion that each person has many “selves” in a lifetime, not just the one filed on bureaucratic records.
Throughout the novel we see Joseph continue down a path of fabrication that his father had begun. He lies on his CV about advanced degrees acquired overseas in Vienna so that he can obtain a musicology professorship at nearby Whittlebauer College, where he calculatingly selects Schoenberg, the father of atonal music, as his area of emphasis. Although Joseph doesn’t even really care to listen to him, he’s such an “intimidating composer” nobody will question it.
The book ends on a note of astonishing suspense when Joseph’s fate is quite literally sealed in an envelope. The president of Whittlebauer College discovers that an imposter is among them, a professor “with an educational history that has proved false.” What unfolds proves that readers would do well to heed the book’s epigraph: “Remember me! remember me! / but ah! forget my fate.” For as loveable and harmless a creature as Professor Joseph Skizzen may be, especially in a world so cruel, his behavior during the faculty’s Ethics Committee meeting in the final pages leaves us terrified and shows us that he too is only human. We’re left, like the apocalyptic sentence he’s forever rewriting in the book, to reexamine all that we thought we knew about him, about our place in the world, and the philosophy of the so-called “self.”
So, I’m back again after a week in New York. We move to Chicago in three weeks, and after a summer living out of suitcases, an apartment all our own will be a relief. Over the past few weeks I’ve read four books. I read them on the beach, in cafes, in cars, subways, and airplanes, and in halflit, air-conditioned rooms over the course of long, languid afternoons. This has been some serious summer reading. I plan to get to all of them this week, beginning today with the modern classic and winner of the National Book Award in 1962, The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. I had never heard of this book before I started working at the book store, and it seems to be one of those books that is half-remembered and dimly loved by those who read it decades ago. The moviegoer is Binx Bolling, a successful businessman and a member of a prominent and eccentric New Orleans family. He is unmarried and enjoys the escape that going to the movies provides. He is unable to keep himself from dating his secretaries, and he is constantly trying to hold “despair” at bay. It is an existential novel of the American suburbs where Binx tries to find meaning or hope in the midst of mundanity. But it isn’t preachy or didactic, it meanders and searches, and one begins to wonder if Binx is a madman and not just a lonely bachelor. In this sense it has a lot more depth than some other books of middle-aged male suburban angst that I’ve read over the years, The Sportswriter and Independence Day by Richard Ford and Wheat That Springeth Green by J.F. Powers to name a few, and Binx seems far more ethereal than Frank Bascombe or Joe Hackett. It’s short and cleverly written, and I recommend the book to anyone with a taste for the internal monologues of a Southern thinker.I added Adam Langer’s much-praised debut, Crossing California to the reading queue, and I’m about to start reading part one of Peter Guralnick’s two-part biography of Elvis Presley, Last Train to Memphis. More soon!