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.
Have you ever wondered why someone doesn’t write a really interesting book about shoemakers or Idaho or health inspectors? When I worked at the bookstore I used to get questions like this all the time. Usually, I was forced to stare blankly for a moment before performing a futile search on the computer. But every once in while, someone would ask, “Are there any really good books about the geology of North America?” And my eyes would light up and I would say, “Yes!” The same was true if they asked for books about merchant marines, Alaska, or canoes. John McPhee has the ability – which I prize as a reader – to write engagingly about any subject, and Founding Fish is no exception. In this case, the subject is the American Shad. The fish is prized by anglers and gourmands and pops in and out of American history. But this is not “the cultural history of American Shad” (are we tired of these “cultural history of…” books yet?”) Instead he weaves history with science as well as plenty of personal observation. The myriad digressions are like seams of precious metal. McPhee’s world is populated with fascinating characters – ichthyologists, shad dart makers, and a seine fisherman from the Bay of Fundy. If you have a taste for non-fiction and would like a book that is diverting and pleasurable (rather than “hard-hitting” and topical) try reading John McPhee.Spotted on the el: The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin ThomasonNew list: The Economist best of the year.
When I graduated from high school, my English teacher and advisor gave me The Berlin Stories, a New Directions paperback, with a note inside. The note said the book seemed right for me. It was written on the back of a Wallace Stevens poem.
I was very lucky, and I had a great many fine teachers in high school. But this teacher glowered and stalked and had an ancient cat. He assigned The Whitsun Weddings. He was empathetic and caustic and kind. I was a difficult student (a terrible student), but he was always on my side. I think of him often.
Largely because of this teacher, Philip Larkin is the only poet for me. Philip Larkin puts his finger in an aching, adolescent spot and presses just hard enough to leave one with a lingering delicious pain. Even so, I love that Wallace Stevens poem, the one tucked inside my graduation gift. It’s called “The Poems of Our Climate.” Here’s how it goes:
Clear water in a brilliantbowl,
Pink and white carnations. The light
In the room more like a snowy air,
Reflecting snow. A newly-fallen snow
A the end of winter when afternoons return.
Pink and white carnations–one desires
So much more than that. The day itself
Is simplified: a bowl of white,
Cold, a cold porcelain, low and round,
With nothing more than the carnations there.
Say even that this complete simplicity
Stripped one of all one’s torments, concealed
The evilly compounded, vital I
And made it fresh in a world of white,
A world of clear water, brilliant-edged.
Still one would want more, one would need more,
More than a world of white and snowy scents.
There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.
I’m so impatient, I’m a bad reader of poetry. I read poems like I read novels, rushing to find out what happens. A poem is what happens, though, and I usually arrive at the end of one breathless and flummoxed. It’s like sprinting to the flight gate, heart bursting, only to find you’ve got the wrong day. The wrong month, even. So I read this poem a number of times before I understood that it had been written especially for me.
I keep the note inside the book. They go together. They go together because I got them together and because “The imperfect is our paradise” could be the book’s epigraph. It would make a hell of an epitaph, too.
The Berlin Stories is two short novels, published separately in the 1930s. New Directions put them together in 1945. It was an inspired pairing. The novels support one another. Together they flesh out the world Isherwood describes: Berlin of the very early 1930s, imperfect in the extreme, but a paradise for Isherwood’s hitherto uneven talent.
The first novel, The Last of Mr. Norris, is an affectionate panegyric to an old reprobate. Mr. Norris is into petty crime, BDSM, and poorly written porn. He wears an almost-convincing wig, and has two doors to his apartment: “Arthur Norris. Private” and “Arthus Norris. Import Export.” A most unlikely communist, he’s also an inveterate double-crosser, fooling no one but himself (and, sometimes, Isherwood). The details the novel provides about the Communist Party of the period are interesting, but mostly they lend to the farcical aspect of Isherwood’s story. It’s almost as silly as Travels With my Aunt, but it feels real. Perhaps it is.
Goodbye to Berlin provides fine counterbalance. Its subject is the city, as it was gearing up to participate in one of civilization’s greatest horrors. On the first page Isherwood tells us, in an rare meta moment, “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.”
This novel is something like the first cantos of Inferno. Pre-war Berlin is the outskirts of hell, and its people, through Isherwood’s lens, are its lesser sinners–the lustful, the slothful, the avaricious. In the Nowaks’ cramped attic flat, Isherwood seems literally to inhabit a part of hell, what with the suffocating stove and the freezing draughts, Frau Nowak coughing out her lungs, fat Grete and piggish Otto and Nazi Lothar and Isherwood’s suspicious rash and the sounds of the tenement all around him. They eat lung hash, cooked by the consumptive Frau. I don’t know what lung hash is, but it sounds like hell. Even Bernard Landauer, the doomed department store scion, is something out of the first circle–a gentle, urbane philosopher, damned only for falling outside Jesus’ jurisdiction.
Like Dante writing Inferno, Isherwood knew the worst as he wrote. If Otto and Peter and Sally Bowles (later of Cabaret fame) are Isherwood’s lesser criminals, there are intimations of the coming inner circles: the violent, the treacherous, the Devil himself. Isherwood left Berlin in ’33. The writing was on the wall.
But for all that these stories anticipate an onslaught of death, they celebrate life. Isherwood celebrates the lowlifes of Berlin, the bizarre modes of sex and romance, the vicissitudes of fortune, the indignities of poverty, the shabby glamor of his writer’s life. I love when he gets a five mark piece from a wealthy pupil, tosses it in the air to celebrate, drops it, and scrambles to find it in a pile of sand. I like how he goes to bed drunk and worries about his rash. I like how he speaks German and listens to his landlady lament her large bosom.
I read this book every year. It is a good book for the end of December. It is piquant and sad, like New Year’s Eve. Bittersweet is not the right word, it’s too pat and saccharine for Isherwood and for this Berlin. When I began to think about the book for this essay, I wondered if there is something awful in enjoying a story that heralds the death of millions. But I don’t think of it as a holocaust novel. (It’s my privilege not to, I understand; it was Isherwood’s privilege to leave Berlin, too.)
No, I think of it as marking time. It’s about storytelling and memory, for all it is about hell. It is a story about time and how it passes, and it reminds me of time that has passed. Isherwood used his story to call out to friends long-disappeared, to remember a part of his life that was gone. It was a way to remember a time when everything was uncertain, and better for that uncertainty. The worse had yet to happen.
This book is one of my most treasured gifts. For me it is the dear memory of that teacher, and leaving school, and leaving adolescence. When I first read it, this book was a harbinger of freedom, even if freedom turned out to be different than I expected.
I can’t say it right, what it means to me. The imperfect is so hot in me, lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.
The title of Nathan Englander’s new collection of short stories unmistakably references Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (on which: more later), but it is the question articulated by that title, the matter of What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank that I want to take up first. The subject of Anne Frank — if we may take her somewhat unnerving appearances as a fictional character as a form of evidence — is, for certain writers, a singularly tempting one. Part-muse, part-rival, she storms the late-twentieth, early-twenty-first century novel, an improbable survivor testifying to human cruelty and human resilience, the full range of human experience borne on her shoulders. There she is, posing as Amy Bellette, the intriguingly-accented, large-eyed seductress of Nathan Zuckerman’s wildest erotic dreams and fantasies of filial duty in Philip Roth’s Ghost Writer. And here she is, again, holed up in an upstate-New York attic, foul-mouthed, decrepit, toiling on a novel and making a neurotic man’s life hell in Shalom Auslander’s recent debut novel Hope: A Tragedy. What do these manifestations of the paradigmatic child-martyr tell us about her and about us? If these fictional examples are anything to go by, it is mostly that when we talk about Anne Frank we are not talking about Anne Frank at all.
When we — and by “we” here I naturally mean Next-Big-Thing Jewish authors, men reaching for the height of their creative powers — talk about Anne Frank, we seem to be invoking a wide swath of anxieties, a whole megillah of insecurities, real and imagined angst that has everything and nothing to do with Anne Frank herself. Still, she has the tendency to lend gravitas to the proceedings at hand, to signal that whatever else is being discussed, it is serious indeed. In the title story of Englander’s collection, for example, when the narrator and his wife and their guests, a Hasidic couple visiting from Jerusalem, decide, after smoking some pot, to play “the Anne Frank game,” the reader knows that something portentous, something Terribly Significant, is coming. That game, a.k.a. “the Righteous Gentile Game,” a.k.a. “Who Will Hide Me?,” involves ascertaining, “in the event of an American Holocaust, …which of our Christian friends would hide us.” (Curiously, Solomon Kugel, the hapless hero of Hope, enjoys a one-player version of the game, his thoughts on the topic of who might hide him and his family — and what he ought to bring along to the business of sitting out a genocide — forming a sort of refrain through the novel.) In “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” the two couples — our narrator and his wife Deb, her former schoolmate Shoshana and her husband Mark — decide to up the ante, to imagine each other as the (possibly Righteous) Gentiles, and the “Anne Frank Game” becomes a dubious session of marital therapy, a process for working through neuroses by forming new neuroses still.
Like Raymond Carver, to whom he is admittedly, unabashedly indebted, Englander mines the intersection of the stunningly obvious and the subtly but potently implied. The tension of his best stories, as in Carver’s best stories, resides in the fissures that slowly open up in the fabric of what had been assumed with little thought, with no reservation. Invoking Anne Frank — her innocence, her belief in the fundamental goodness of people — heightens the tension to a nearly unbearable degree; that Englander walks the fine, fine line between manipulation and genuineness, that he manages the strain of his material, positions him as Carver’s rightful heir.
Such genealogy matters. Anne Frank, I would wager, resonates with writers because she is a writer, the author of one of the twentieth-century’s most indelible works. It is her voice — uncalculated, authentic, a voice on the cusp of learning something significant about itself — her ability to command our attention, her power over us, that we are talking about when we talk about Anne Frank. (It is no coincidence, surely, that both Roth and Auslander imagine their respective Anne Franks as writers.) Anne Frank — at least the idealized Anne Frank — speaks to our better selves, and she speaks to our writers’ desire to say something meaningful, something immortal. (This last concern is explored in “The Reader,” one of the more opaque stories in the collection, a perhaps-too-literal allegory about the relationship that exists between the portentously identified Author and the sole determined reader who appears, angel-like, at stops on the Author’s promotional tour for his latest.)
Englander announced himself as the Great Practitioner of the Short Story with his first collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. At once profoundly sad and terribly funny — amusingly despondent? dejectedly comical? — the stories in Urges considered the absurdities and indignities of contemporary life at an empathetic remove. In Anne Frank, Englander builds on his earlier accomplishment, masterfully honing in on the tiny details and producing a finely drawn vision of lives colored by shame and despair and longing and the barely concealed, terrifying capacity for impotent rage. Neither wallowing nor fleeing, Englander suggests that none of us is truly “righteous.” Which is perhaps why we talk — and talk and talk — about Anne Frank, endlessly hoping to satisfy some unbearable urge.
I went to college in the late nineties, when any mention of Philip Roth was prefaced with the label “misogynist.” As a result, I did not read him until I was out of school and attempting to catch up on contemporary fiction. I read Portnoy’s Complaint and Goodbye, Columbus back-to-back, expecting to be at least mildly shocked by the subject of these two controversial-in-their-time books. Instead I was more startled by the difference in tone; Portnoy’s barreling comic monologue seemed to have nothing in common with the traditional realism of Goodbye, Columbus. How could this even be the same writer? I decided I had to read more Roth, misogynist or not, and I’ve been reading him ever since. I tend to go on Roth binges, reading three or four of his books in a row. Eventually I get worn out (his books, at least for me, require a lot of concentration) and I take a couple years off until say, the New York Times publishes a list of the best American works of fiction of the past 25 years and six of Roth’s novels receive mention. Or maybe a librarian friend tells me I have to read The Counterlife, that it’s secretly the best Roth, the writer’s Roth.
Claudia Roth Pierpont’s Roth Unbound, a new critical study of Roth’s books, brought me back to Roth again, this time to Sabbath’s Theater, a novel that has been sitting unread on my bookshelf for several years. Pierpont has also persuaded me to take a look at a couple of Roth’s short late books, Exit Ghost and Nemesis. She’s an unabashed Roth enthusiast, so if you’re looking for a provocative critique that delves into the less flattering aspects of his career and persona, then this is not the book for you. But if you’re someone like me, someone who has read Roth on and off for years in a haphazard way, then this book may help to fill in the gaps in your understanding, both in the way it puts Roth’s work in a larger context (social, political, historical) and through its gentle (but astute) assessment of his books.
Pierpont’s approach is straightforward: she reports on each of his books in chronological order, providing reviews of the books, summaries of their critical reception, and, when relevant to the book’s subject matter or creation, details from Roth’s own life. Roth and his books are her primary sources, and in her introduction, Pierpont explains that Roth Unbound began as an essay but turned into a book for two reasons: first, because Roth had written so many books, and second, because he was willing to talk to her about them for hours at a time.
Pierpont’s access comes out of a long friendship with Roth, which began in 2002, after Pierpont, a staff writer at The New Yorker, wrote an article about the anthropologist Franz Boas, someone Roth had researched while writing his (then) most recent novel The Plot Against America. Roth often writes letters to writers he admires, and in the case of Pierpont, it turned into a genuine exchange, with Pierpont eventually becoming a first reader of drafts of his novels. Pierpont’s previous book of criticism, Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting The World, is a series of portraits of female artists, including Mae West, Doris Lessing, and Margaret Mitchell. It’s easily one of my favorite works of criticism, one that is especially sensitive to the particular obstacles female artists face. I would never have guessed that Roth would be the subject of her next book. But she is a good match for the material. In Passionate Minds, she marries biographical details to artworks in a way that illuminates both the artwork and the life, and she brings the same precision to Roth Unbound, always choosing just the right detail, and in some cases, just the right word.
Roth’s last book, Nemesis was published in 2010, capping a fifty-year career, and one thing that makes Roth Unbound interesting is that Pierpont was able to interview Roth in the first years of his retirement. You can feel Roth’s reflective, relaxed state of mind as he looks back on his career, cataloging his regrets and triumphs. His regrets mostly fall in the realm of his personal life, most significantly his first marriage, which he believes held him back, emotionally and artistically, for most of his late twenties and early thirties, years Roth now views as lost. Another low point occurred in the late nineties, when his ex-wife, Claire Bloom, wrote a memoir that included a scathing account of her marriage to Roth. The memoir had, in Pierpont’s words, “a tremendous effect on Roth’s personal reputation — perhaps more than anything since Portnoy’s Complaint.” Published in 1996, Bloom’s memoir interrupted a peak moment in his career, coming shortly after the publication of Sabbath’s Theater, which won the National Book Award in 1995, and just before American Pastoral, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. In retrospect, Roth sees the two books as related, novels whose “essential subject” is the “vulnerability, even of the apparently strong.” He also describes the creation of each book as an “outpouring.”
Roth’s insights into his own work are fascinating, but Pierpont’s are more instructive. She’s particularly good on describing his technique. I have always found Roth’s style difficult to grasp; is his prose playful or brutal? Is he telling a story or is he having a conversation? Sometimes he seems sentimental beneath his bluster, and at other times he seems determined to wipe every last bit of nostalgia off the face of the earth. Pierpont acknowledges these contradictions in her assessment:
His style has always been hard to characterize beyond the energy and concentration, the uncanny capturing of voices…He distrusts extended description — the glinting observations of a surrounding world that give Updike’s work its texture — and seems ever wary of the risks of pretentiousness or of diffusing the pressure of the voice.
The comparison to Updike is useful and one that Pierpont returns to several times in Roth Unbound. In one analogy, Pierpont likens Roth to Picasso, “the energy, the slashing power,” and Updike to Matisse, “the color, the sensuality”:
The essential difference in their perspectives isn’t so much Christian versus Jewish, or believer versus nonbeliever, or small town versus city, although it involves all of these. As writers, their greatest virtues seem to arise from different principal organs of perception, which might be crudely categorized as the eye and the ear. Updike was a painter in words…Roth is the master of voices: the arguments, the joke, the hysterical exchanges, the inner wrangling even when a character is alone, the sound of a mind at work.
It’s this mix of voices that makes Roth such an exciting (and sometimes exhausting) writer. It’s also, I think, what makes him so vulnerable to criticism. Just as his prose isn’t clearly beautiful, (as Updike’s is), his opinions are not clearly delineated. He refuses to write about his convictions, only “the comic and tragic consequences of holding convictions.” In fact, Pierpont reports, “there is hardly anything he considers more crucial to his work…one of the great strengths (and sources of confusion) in Roth’s novels — as opposed to his political satire — is that he rarely takes an open stand. Countervoices clutter up every discernible argument, even shout it down.”
The phrase “countervoices” is a reference to The Counterlife, Roth’s fifteenth novel, and one Roth considers a breakthrough, the book that taught him “how to enlarge, how to amplify, how to be free.” Pierpont references it through Roth Unbound, as shorthand for the way Roth uses his fiction to explore the lives he might have lived, the people he might have been or known, and even the alternative histories he might have witnessed. It also alludes to the way Roth has truly lived through his work, devoting hours and days and years to the slippery task of putting his restless mind into books. There will be biographies of Roth, with names and events and objective reporting of facts, but for a portrait of what occupied the majority of his time and thoughts — his fiction — I doubt there will be anything more revealing than this volume.
“Obliged to admit that for the first time in my life I feel myself in the middle of a psychological collapse.”Albert Camus was in Montevideo, nearing the end of a lecture tour of South America, when he entered those words into his diary. American Journals, chronicling Camus’ 1946 voyage to North America and his 1949 visit to South America, shows a humane soul with a sharp mind who’s teetering on the brink, one minute penning astute observations on human suffering; the next – perfunctory, and seemingly overwhelmed almost to the point of paralysis by the simplest, most mundane, obstacles.The North American trip in spring of 1946 came four years after publication of The Stranger, and mere months before Camus would complete The Plague. The diary begins on board a ship as Camus struggles with an ocean voyage and girds himself against odd and intrusive fellow passengers. By the end of the crossing, he’s figured them out.”Everyone prides himself on being elegant and knowing how to live. The performing dog aspect. But some of them are opening up.”On such extended voyages as these, false fronts fade after a while and forced impressions begin to wear away. One’s fellow-passengers begin to reveal their true nature, or at the very least one catches on to their facades.Once in New York, Camus observes the many sides of the American character. After noting how funeral homes and private cemeteries operate (“you die and we do the rest”), Camus comments that “one way to know a country is to know how people die there. Here, everything is anticipated.”Of American generosity, Camus has nothing but admiration. While he was giving a lecture, someone had made off with the box office takings which were to have gone to a children’s charity. When the audience finds out, a spectator proposes that everyone give the same amount upon exiting as they gave upon entering. In fact, they gave much more.”Typical of American generosity,”Camus lauds. “Their hospitality, their cordiality are like that too, spontaneous and without affectation. It’s what’s best in them.”Camus travels through New England and on up to Quebec. He also visits Philadelphia and Washington D.C. By the time he’s back on ship for the return voyage, he’s begun to lose interest in his fellow passengers, and his musings reveal his frustration and hopelessness:”Sad to still feel so vulnerable. In 25 years I’ll be 57. 25 years then to create a body of work and to find what I’m looking for. After that: old age and death.”In fact, Albert Camus would die 14 years later in a car crash. But not before yet again braving the Atlantic – this time for a lecture tour of Brazil, Argentina and Chile.Amusingly, Camus provides loose sketches of fellow shipboard passengers. It seems like a mystery or intrigue novel or film noir just waiting to be written – especially as this was 1949. If anything is frustrating about the journals, it is simply that one wishes that Camus would flesh out his often skeletal thoughts.”Woke up with a fever.” I tried to calculate just how many of Camus’ shipboard entries began with “Woke up with a fever” or some variation. But I lost count. I’m now wondering whether a shipboard memoir could even exist without that sentence. Still, despite his physiological reaction to the voyage, or perhaps even because of it, Camus is deeply enamored of the sea in all its raging power – often remaining transfixed by it. It is “a call to life and an invitation to death,” and leaves him with “inexplicably profound sadness.”His exhaustion and his ocean fixation clash on one occasion, when he enters this into his diary: “Too tired to describe the sea today.”Arriving in Rio, Camus notes: “Never have I seen wealth and poverty so insolently intertwined.” Finding himself in the company of a Brazilian poet, Camus offers this scathing assessment:”Enormous, indolent, folds of flesh around his eyes, his mouth hanging open, the poet arrives. Anxieties, a sudden movement, then he spills himself into an easy chair and stays there a little while, panting. He gets up, does a pirouette and falls back down into the easy chair.”The corpulent poet later points out “a character from one of your novels” – a thin, gun-toting government minister. But Camus silently decides that it is the poet himself who is in fact a “character.”In the hills outside of Rio, Camus is taken to a macumba – a trance-inducing spiritual dance where the dancers attempt to arrive at a state of ecstasy. Camus, hanging back and observing with his arms crossed, was told to uncross his arms so as not to impede the descent of the spirits. In the end, Camus yearns for fresh air rather than heat, dust, smoke and writhing bodies: “I like the night and sky better than the gods of men.”After Rio, Camus travels to Recife (A map somewhere in the book would be nice. My edition has none). He describes it as Florence of the tropics. (Although while in Recife, he did “wake up with the grippe and a fever.”)Then it was off to Bahia: “In bed. Fever. Only the mind works on, obstinately. Hideous thought. Unbearable feeling of advancing step by step toward an unknown catastrophe which will destroy everything around me and in me.”For every journal entry soaked in fever and depression, there’s one that lifts you up. Camus writes of a radio program in Sao Paulo where people can go on air to make a public entreaty. An unemployed man went on the air one day and said that since his wife had abandoned him, he was looking for someone to temporarily take care of his child. Five minutes after the program ended, another man came into the station, half-asleep, half-dressed. His wife had heard the plea, woke her husband, and dispatched him to go get the child.After Sao Paulo, it was off to Montevideo, then Buenos Aires, across to Santiago, Chile, then back to Brazil and then home.A slight volume, American Journals nevertheless reveals a fragile man at the height of his fame, who can still, through all of his medical and psychological problems, offer observations which are astute and often amusing, and it offers some personal context to the ideas that would show up in his later works of fiction.