Brimming with Curiosity: On Philip Pullman’s ‘La Belle Sauvage’

It was my then-girlfriend (now wife), G, who spotted the unassuming flyer by the door of the Church of St Mary the Virgin, just a few steps away from the elegant dome of the Radcliffe Camera. There was something about Philip Pullman giving a talk, and it was the next day, and there wasn’t anything about an admission price. We had to go.

G and I were studying abroad in the U.K. that year and visiting Oxford for the first time. G would later go on to study at Oxford, which was a longtime dream. We’re part of the generation that grew up with great fantasy series: the Harry Potter books came out when we were Harry’s age, and we both read The Lord of the Rings voraciously as children, snubbing those who only saw the movies (which we also loved). Oxford, as the home of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and the filming location for many scenes in the Harry Potter movies, held a special magic for us. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, with its reimagined version of Oxford, was also part of that magic.

What we should’ve realized about Philip Pullman’s talk that morning in Oxford, and the fact that he was giving it in a church on a Sunday morning, was that it was in fact a sermon. Which meant we had to sit through mass in order to hear him speak. The place was packed, and we heard some local ladies mention that they noticed many young new faces in the pews. I’d never attended an Anglican mass before, and I was glad to find out that much of it consisted of listening to beautiful singing.

Pullman is an outspoken agnostic, so it’s a credit to the Church of England and to this church in particular that he was invited to give the sermon. He climbed up the pulpit in his trailing black robe, wisps of white hair framing his round head, rimless glasses around his eyes. Philip Pullman has said that if he had a daemon—a kind of animal companion the characters in his books have, a physical manifestation of their souls—it would be a raven. He certainly looked like one that day. Instead of talking about God or analyzing a quote from The Bible, Pullman used his mellow storyteller’s voice to talk to us about the motivating force in his own life: intellectual curiosity.

Pullman has been promising his readers a sequel to His Dark Materials for a long time. We’ve even known the title for several years: The Book of Dust. The Dust in question is a mysterious substance, conscious matter that clusters around human ingenuity, that is a driving force behind the plot of the original trilogy. Pullman, as if to help us wait for his new opus, has published two short stories and an audio story in the intervening years, but these amounted to pleasant collectibles that excited briefly but could not fully satisfy.

Now, finally, with the publication of the new trilogy’s first volume, La Belle Sauvage, Pullman’s readers are seeing the fruits of his work these last 17 years, and I’m happy to say that the wait has been worth it.

Authors do well to limit the scope of the first book of a trilogy. With the exception of a few short scenes, The Golden Compass sticks to the point of view of Lyra, a scrappy orphan with a knack for lying, as she travels north from her home in Oxford, in search of her kidnapped friend, Roger. She befriends witches, armored bears, and a Texan aeronaut along the way, and, of course, learns who her real parents are. At the end of The Golden Compass, Lyra crosses into another world, using a bridge in the sky opened by her father in a horrific scene in which he sacrifices Roger, tapping into the energy that connects Roger to his daemon to wrench open the heavens. In the second book, The Subtle Knife, Pullman puts his omniscient third person narrator to greater use by expanding the cast of characters and the setting. That book begins by following Will Parry, a young man from our own world, as he runs away from home. The change in perspective is so stark that I remember wondering if I was really reading the sequel to The Golden Compass when I first opened it or if there had been some kind of printing error. Eventually Will meets Lyra and they become close friends. As The Subtle Knife progresses and leads to The Amber Spyglass, the action gets bigger and madder, introducing a defrocked nun physicist, angels split into two warring factions, tiny knights who ride dragonflies, creatures from another world who get around on wheels made of large seeds. All the action drives towards a cosmic conflict, a moment of redemption, and a heart-wrenching scene between our two protagonists.

Pullman has certainly kept things (relatively) intimate for the first volume of The Book of Dust, which takes place exclusively in Lyra’s world, and largely in and around its alternate version of Oxford. La Belle Sauvage recounts the (mis)adventures of Malcolm Polstead, about a decade before the events of The Golden Compass, with Lyra present as a baby. Malcolm is a capable boy, quiet, sensitive, serious, and crafty. He’s equally at ease talking to adults, repairing broken windows, or canoeing out onto the river to watch birds. He’s the perfect young hero, very much in the mold of Will Parry, although Will had an inner darkness because he grew up without a father and had to take care of his mentally ill mother, whereas Malcolm lives with loving parents. The darkness in La Belle Sauvage comes from Malcolm’s unexpected ally Alice, a withdrawn girl who’s capable of defending herself when necessary, and who, because she’s older than Malcolm, is also more aware of what the adults are up to. Tellingly, though, her daemon hasn’t fixed into its final form yet, which suggests that she still hasn’t quite figured out who she is.

The villain, once again, is organized religion, which takes the form of a powerful, dogmatic, and politically implicated Catholic Church and its tentacular agencies, such as the ominously named Constitorial Court of Discipline. In Pullman fashion, everyone who’s associated with the church is automatically suspicious, with the exception of a few good nuns across the river. Yet the one character who actually stalks our heroes and endangers their lives isn’t an agent of the Church: he’s a psychopathic, manipulative, relentless French scientist called Bonneville, and he’s out for revenge. Bonneville’s daemon is a horrendous, maimed hyena that symbolizes his violent impulses, and it’s telling that he’s often in conflict with her, at one point even striking her. I was reminded of a scene Pullman wrote for the film adaptation of The Golden Compass, in which the character of Mrs. Coulter hits her golden monkey daemon. As the characters keep saying in La Belle Sauvage, only the very deranged would hurt their own daemon.

After a pleasant but slow-moving first half, La Belle Sauvage climaxes with a dramatic flood, not of biblical proportions—although several characters refer to its scriptural precedent—but rather of biblical implications, since it unexpectedly carries away Malcolm and Alice, along with baby Lyra, and we know that Lyra’s survival will lead to the world-changing events of His Dark Materials.

Journeys are an essential element of Pullman’s original trilogy: to the north, between worlds, even to the land of the dead. But whereas the travels in those books took their mythological underpinnings from the Old Testament, along with a smattering of Nordic imagery and a sheen of science fiction, here the fantasy elements are decidedly folkloric. The journey itself is less epic in scale, and even a little rushed as Malcolm, Alice, and Lyra paddle from island to island in a changed landscape. The flood strips away the veneer of modernity and unleashes the magic of old Albion. Malcolm becomes an Odysseus-cum-gallant knight who encounters, in quick succession, vicious nuns in their fortress-like priory, fairies that must be tricked like Rumpelstiltskin, enchanted riverbanks where a thick fog causes adults to forget their past, and a pagan river god who guards his tributary of the Thames. Finally, we reach a “quiet rode” inspired by Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, a figurative place of rest that is both a pause in the journey and a break in the story. In these dreamy, feverish scenes, Philip Pullman is tilling the same creative soil at Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. It’s the soil of English myth, and of English country folklore. So less high fantasy, and more of what Neil Gaiman would call English fantasy.

In earlier chapters the novel flirts with other genres, especially thanks to the character of Dr. Hannah Relf, an Oxford scholar who works with the Bodleian’s alethiometer, a mysterious truth-telling device that Lyra will eventually use herself. Careful readers will recognize Dr. Relf from short scenes in the original trilogy when she enquires about Lyra’s education early in The Golden Compass, and then offers her a place at a boarding school and the chance to study with her to read the alethiometer at the very end of The Amber Spyglass. In La Belle Sauvage, Dr. Relf works for a secret service agency that protects democracy against the agents of the Church, who are bent on stifling free speech and personal freedom. We’re plunged into a light spy novel: there are secret levels of government at war with each other, tradecraft, double-dealings, spy masters ready to do the very worst to bring about good—right out of the pages of the world’s most famous spy novelist, another Oxford-educated writer, who happened to study at a college on the same street as Lyra’s beloved Jordan.

There’s also a more sinister undercurrent, whiffs of an Orwellian brand of dystopia. In dispiriting early chapters, one of the Church’s organizations called the League of Saint Alexander takes over schools in the Oxford area, with the aim of having children snitch on parents and teachers who don’t follow the church’s dictates. Pullman was inspired by the kind of tactics used in Soviet Russia; I was reminded of the terrifying children in 1984 who are trained to spy on their parents and report them as bad party members. Pullman, who worked as a middle school teacher before writing full time, has an excellent ear for schoolyard arguments.

The prerogative of the curious protagonist of a YA novel is to observe and half understand the world of adults. Think of the number of scenes in which Harry Potter overhears an interesting conversation from underneath his cloak of invisibility. In La Belle Sauvage, Malcolm is rather conveniently always at the right place and time to witness important events and talk to the right people. That convenience could be explained on the one hand by the fact that he lives and works in a pub his family owns, The Trout, and so gets to meet and talk to many adults who frequent it, and on the other by the fact that greater powers—Dust, perhaps—bind him to the task of protecting Lyra, just as Lyra herself will one day be nudged into action by the alethiometer and the prophecy that foretells her role in replaying humankind’s fall.

Yet I was somewhat bothered by the role Pullman has Malcolm play within the larger story. Although Malcolm is the protagonist of this book—his precious canoe even gives the volume its title—we know that his place is inevitably at the fringe of the greater drama of Lyra’s story. Lyra’s parents, Marisa Coulter and Lord Asriel, who both have arresting cameos in La Belle Sauvage, are powerful, charismatic individuals. They’re also beautiful and noble. So it seems almost inevitable that their daughter will grow up to become someone important. Similarly, Will Parry’s father, unbeknownst to Will, is a world-crossing scientist and shaman. Will’s story is entangled with Lyra’s, but as the bearer of the subtle knife and, later, as the figure of Adam, he takes his place as Lyra’s equal.

What about poor Malcolm? Well, he’s a publican’s son, and for all his craftiness and courage, and the fact that Dust appears to play some role in guiding his actions, he will always be subservient to Lyra. When he meets baby Lyra for the first time, his immediate thought is that he will be “her servant for life.” Before the end of the book, he will have risked much to make sure that she’s alive to fulfill her destiny in a decade’s time. I can only hope that Malcolm will return in the next volumes of The Book of Dust to get some credit for everything he’s gone through, and that he’ll grow up to be more than a servant. He deserves a story of his own.

It’s only with the publication of the second and third volumes of The Book of Dust that we’ll be able to recognize the figure in the carpet, and to see if Pullman has been able to create a story that holds together in his new trilogy. From the information Pullman and his publishers have made public, I assume that it will be a baggier series than His Dark Materials because it has to cover a longer time period. The second volume, The Secret Commonwealth, will apparently be set 20 years after the action of La Belle Sauvage, with Lyra as an undergraduate student. Pullman has the opportunity to correct some of the mistakes he made in The Amber Spyglass, whose plot, though enthralling, hung together only with an added dose of suspended disbelief.

At least with La Belle Sauvage Pullman has avoided the biggest pitfall: by expanding his cast of characters and nodding to his past books while keeping this novel different in tone, he’s avoided sounding as if he was writing his own fan-fiction. Pullman’s novels communicate big ideas, and some have criticized him for the relentless dogmatism with which he pursues them, but for all the god-killing and evil priests, Pullman is first and foremost an extremely skillful storyteller—the warmest, fuzziest kind that takes readers by the hand and guides them with sharp prose and a fast moving plot. There was some violence and some fairly dramatic moments in His Dark Materials, yet I found La Belle Sauvage more mature because it explores psychological darkness as well. There are whispers of pedophilia and sex crimes at the fringes of the story, which heightens the sense of danger, and underscores the theme of innocence and experience, which plays an essential role in Pullman’s books.

The Amber Spyglass ends with Lyra declaring that she will build “the Republic of Heaven” on earth, in a celebration of the physical world and its joys. That’s exactly what Pullman is doing with the universe he’s expanding with each new book, except he’s building his republic with words, with stories, with human characters brimming with curiosity.

The Body Doesn’t Lie: On Ian McEwan’s ‘Nutshell’

A few months ago, like the dull thuds of a heart beginning to beat, I heard the first stirrings of Ian McEwan’s new novel as publicists and publishers began preparing its delivery into the world. Interviews appeared, an atmospheric trailer that revealed absolutely nothing was released on McEwan’s Facebook page, a blurb was posted on his publisher’s website. By then we had a short description, and we knew that there was something a little special about this one: the novel would be narrated by a fetus.

The novel’s first line sets the tone: “So here I am, upside down in a woman.” Now that’s what I call first-person limited. As for plot, it’s straightforward enough, “the classic tale of murder and deceit” we were promised in the blurb: pregnant Trudy has taken on a lover, Claude. Together, they plan to murder Trudy’s husband, John, who is also Claude’s brother. The motive? Money, of course, in the form of the marital home, a “Georgian pile on boastful Hamilton Terrace” whose “six thousand aching square feet will buy you seven million pounds,” even in its dilapidated state.

Our unborn narrator, privy to these murderous musings, begins by discussing the abstractions he has to dwell on since he has yet to see anything, although it’s soon clear that he’s awfully well informed about things like the U.S. constitution, climate change, and contemporary world politics for someone who hasn’t taken his first breath yet. He (and we know from the “shrimp-like protuberance” between his legs that he is a he) soon explains that he’s learned most of these things by listening to the podcasts his mother plays at night when she can’t sleep. Our narrator has pretentious tastes: an audiobook of James Joyce’s Ulysses “thrills” him, but sends his mother to sleep.

He also knows a lot about wine, which he is apparently able to taste even though it is “decanted through a healthy placenta.” McEwan enjoys peppering his novels with mouth-watering descriptions of food and drink (I often dream of the seafood stew in Saturday), and he hasn’t found a reason not to do so, quite elaborately, even from this undeveloped perspective. A Pouilly-Fumé taken in a moment of high emotional intensity is “too thin, too piercing,” while an earlier Pinot Noir is “a mother’s soothing hand” whose “hint of violets and fine tannins suggests that lazy, clement summer of 2005, untainted by heatwaves though a teasing, next-room aroma of mocha, as well as more proximal black-skinned banana, summon Jean Grivot’s domaine in 2009.”

This unborn baby knows his grapes, and a lot more besides.

Much of McEwan’s work can be understood as a knotted tension between realism and — what, exactly? Let’s call it falsehood. Atonement and Sweet Tooth both pulled the narrative rug from beneath the reader’s feet, tipping the story into meta-fiction. Personally, I was delighted by McEwan’s bravura — by the clean, clever way the narrative coiled back upon itself — but I know readers who are unimpressed by such tricks. Solar and Amsterdam, while not entirely unpleasant, offered little depth in their leap towards satire. The Children Act bored me with its clunky symbolism and Dickensian social commentary. As Tessa Hadley put it in her review of that novel, “[r]ealism seems beside the point after a while: it’s more like being inside the workings of an allegory or a parable.”

But at a sentence-level, McEwan’s work remains that of an old-fashioned realist. In a lecture he gave at Harvard University in 2012, he stated that one of the novel’s supreme virtues was “the air of reality, the solidicity [sic].” In the same lecture, McEwan stated: “I have refused to give my character wings.”

Now, with Nutshell, McEwan has nudged his hallowed realism onto unsteady ground. Although the story itself is realistic enough, and steeped in McEwan’s usual attention to detail, the voice that tells it to us is, in a way, complete fantasy. The novel might as well be told from within the consciousness of a dog, a ghost, or a piece of furniture.

The wine tasting, which I described above, is part of the problem, but so are the metaphors. Our narrator feels the sound of a cork drawn from a Jean-Max Roger Sancerre “like the caress of a summer breeze,” “innocent toes” are imagined lined up “like children in a family photo,” his first headache is “a gaudy bandana,” a moment of silence is “creamily thick” while at another moment something “hangs in the air, like a Beijing smog.” Some of these comparisons are quite good, although most are barren of the thematic resonance that would make them great. Sometimes the writing strains and groans with the pressure of its own self-conscious preciosity, as when the narrator pictures his mother “youngly slumped” on a table and then tells us he “insist[s] on the adverb,” which means that McEwan does. You can almost see him penciling that in for his editor.

More importantly, the metaphors don’t make sense because our narrator has never experienced or seen any of the vehicles he uses, just as he’s never seen a table or knows what it is to slump. And I refuse to believe he picked all that up from podcasts. Any realism in this novel is undermined by the simple fact that a fetus can’t know what this fetus knows. An unborn baby can’t differentiate between an Échézeaux Grand Cru and a Romanée-Conti from the snugness of the womb, an unborn baby can’t “picture a hayloft, off which a hundred-kilo sacks of grain is tossed to the granary floor” and compare that image to the sound of his mother’s beating heart. It is not improbable, like some plot points of other McEwan novels; it is impossible.

I’m doing what I shouldn’t do, which is to dissect the basic realism of the novel’s conceit. In Sweet Tooth McEwan gave us a constructed narrator, a fiction, who is a voracious reader of realist fiction — Serena Frome likes novels that mention real events, real people, and real places. Like McEwan himself, who was thrilled in his youth to find a reference in a novel he was reading to a real illustration from Punch that he was able to look up, Frome reads to see fact collapse within fiction.

The in-utero narrator of Nutshell is, by comparison, a dreamer. At one point in the story, drunk on the bottle of Sauvignon Blanc his mother has imbibed on her own (or, as it were, in his company), he spreads his imaginative wings and visualizes for us the conversation occurring at that moment between his father and his uncle. Upon returning to the womb, he writes, “One could make a living devising such excursions,” which is of course exactly what McEwan has done as a novelist.

So perhaps we have here an indication that the author has given up on his obsession with the real, that he has come to terms with the fact that he writes about characters and events that are not factual. He has dealt with the question: if none of this is real, then why go to such lengths to make sure that it appears to be?

The moment of fiction doesn’t last, though. In the next line, the narrator thinks, “But the actual, the circumscribed real, is absorbing too and I’m impatient for Claude to return and us what really happened.” Old habits are hard to kill.

Still, it looks like McEwan, this once at least, has decided to shuffle off the mortal coil of realism in favor of an impossible point of view. I applaud his new purpose because the payoffs are worth it. For all its un-believability, Nutshell’s narrator offers us interesting moments, and gives McEwan the chance to show off some fresh writing. Particularly good are scenes of high emotion described from within Trudy’s anatomy. McEwan replaces the smiles, blushes, glances, and head movements that are the fiction writer’s traditional arsenal of “telling” descriptors with even more telling organ movements. A moment of hesitation in a conversation is rich with unspoken feeling: “my mother’s heart begins a steady acceleration. Not just faster, but louder, like the hollow knocking sound of faulty plumbing. Something is also happening in her gut. Her bowels are loosening, with a squeaky stretching sound, and higher up, somewhere above my feet, juices race down winding tubes to unknown destinations.” The body doesn’t lie.

Likewise, sex between the murderous lovers becomes a particularly disturbing turbulence when described from within. The pressure of a penis penetrating near our narrator’s skull, swallowed sperm being converted into nutrients, these are small horrors that seem at times more criminal than the murder at hand.

Another interesting aspect of the book is the narrator’s unequivocal love for his mother, a love that remains troubled but true over the course of the novel, despite her desire to kill the father who has all the fetus’s sympathy. Here McEwan is using William Shakespeare as his touchstone. The book’s epigraph is from Hamlet, and the novel recycles some of the Danish play’s basic story elements, with our narrator as an unborn Hamlet.

As in Hamlet, there is poison, although not administered in the ear, and while the cuckolded father is plain John, his brother and rival lover has the unusual name of Claude, too close to Claudius not to be a wink. Another allusion: once their dark deed is done, McEwan has Claude and Trudy order Danish take-away (“open sandwiches, pickled herring, baked meats,” maybe from Snaps & Rye in nearby Notting Hill?).

And in the role of Gertrude, we have Trudy. The Queen of Denmark fascinates because it’s hard to know how duplicitous she is. Hamlet’s attitude towards her shifts between pity, hatred, resentment, and affection. While Nutshell’s narrator disapproves of his mother’s actions, his blame and anger are always directed at his uncle, and in his fantasies he saves her from him. Like Gertrude, Trudy never comes off as the villain, and our young hero seeks revenge on his uncle alone.

For all her motherly defects Trudy remains something of an enigma in the book, a half-realized character. John is the poet — hopeful, naïve, generous — and Claude the over-eager younger brother, slimy almost to the point of caricature. But what about Trudy? An early story about a dead cat and a late reference to her mother do little to give us a better of understanding of who she is. She’s beautiful, we know that. And smarter than Claude. And unlike him she feels uncertainty, remorse, and regret. But what does she like? What does she want? She has no friends, no family. No job and no interests, other than drinking — and even there she seems less knowing than Claude and her unborn child. She doesn’t leave the house for the duration of the novel.

Maybe that’s the point. To our narrator she is the mother, and he doesn’t want her to be anything more or less. The house she doesn’t leave is akin to the womb her unborn son can’t leave, until he can. Near the end of Nutshell, when the narrator has grown almost too big for the womb, he says, “I wear my mother like a tight-fitting cap.” It’s no longer she who bears him, but he who wears her.

My questions about McEwan’s devotion to realism seek to prod the aesthetic motivations behind his new novel. Realist or not, though, McEwan’s abilities as a fiction writer are undeniable. In Nutshell especially he demonstrates his skill with pacing. He ends each chapter with a satisfying morsel that moves things along. The murder plot remains taut throughout and, thanks to a certain owl poet who probably isn’t what she seems, not altogether as straightforward as the reader might first assume. The climax delivers the right amount of action and the dénouement settles things in a satisfying way thanks to the agency of our narrator.

There remains only to see if McEwan will follow this new path and continue to explore the chaos of invention, or if he will return to the comforting order of fact.

Instead of a Review: On Reading Diana Athill

I fell in love with Diana Athill in the bath, which is unusual for me because I’m more of a shower person. It was a Friday morning, a cold bright winter day. I had gone into the city for my classes, but I was coming down with a bad cold and I decided to go back home early. I remember waiting for the bus in the sharply lit terminal, sniveling, my brain increasingly numb. By the time my commute was over I felt worse, but now at least I was at home, alone. I was glad I’d decided to miss my last class of the week: a sleep-inducing lecture on critical theory. I’d stolen an afternoon to rest and get better, and read something that wasn’t for school.

This was in 2009, around the time Athill was reaching new heights of popularity with her memoir about aging, Somewhere Towards the End, which won the Costa Prize and the National Books Critics Circle Award for Autobiography. I’d picked up her previous book Yesterday Morning at a used book sale at my university a couple of months earlier. I ran a bath, lowered myself into the hot water, and began to read. I usually can’t stand more than about 10 minutes in the tub. The water is never quite the right temperature. At first I get too hot, then I feel clammy. It’s hard to find a comfortable position: my neck rests crookedly against the rim of the tub, my arms become tired of holding up the book. So then I have to hold it up with one hand and let the other arm rest in the water. When I switch hands every five minutes, I have to carefully dry the hand and forearm that were just in the water before they can hold up the book. I inevitably lose my patience and get the hell out of there. I don’t remember how much I read of Yesterday Morning that day in the tub, but I know that I’d never had such a long bath, and that I finished the book later that day.

Diana Athill’s writing is warm, straightforward, natural, enveloping. A blanketing comfort for a sore heart, a fuzzy head, or a worn out body. Yesterday Morning opens with a short introduction in which Athill talks — and I use this verb on purpose because when Athill writes it really is more as if she is simply talking to you –about her mother’s death at 96, when Athill herself was in her 70s. Then Athill dips into a longer middle section where she unravels memories of her childhood, spent largely in her grandparent’s estate in Norfolk. It’s a gloriously English, upper-class childhood, full of berry picking, game hunting, and horseback riding. Naturally, all this sounds charming; the book eventually delves more deeply into the family relationships, and finds its emotional cornerstone when Athill deals with her parents’ (mostly unhappy) marriage. Here, especially, in the pages where Athill discusses, with shrewdness and clarity, the sexuality of her own parents, their discomfort with each other, her mother’s affair with one of her husband’s fellow officers, the pain and guilt inflicted on the family, Athill’s skill as a writer of feelings is on full display. She is incisive without coming off as mean or angry, clear without being flat.

I went on to read most of the other books Athill wrote during her long life. I started with Somewhere Towards the End and then moved my way down the list as I picked up the volumes in bookshops here and there. One of the surprising pleasures of Athill’s writing is that there is a certain amount of overlap from book to book. Like the ramblings of the elderly, which in some ways many of these books are, Athill inevitably ends up repeating herself. But in fact the repetition only makes her work more candid; I feel that I know her better because of it. It’s a pleasure to recognize the same people and anecdotes as they rear their familiar heads from book to book, reminding us that we are in fact peering into someone’s whole life.

Around the time I started reading Athill, I assumed she had begun writing in her 80s, when she published her memoir Stet about her career of five decades as an editor for André Deutsch, and that she then kept going, telling her life story with new volumes of memoir. The editor turned writer — it was a neat idea. But Athill’s first book, and still one of her best, was Instead of a Letter, written in 1963, which detailed her relationship with an RAF pilot with whom she was engaged during the war. The pilot in question eventually stopped writing altogether, then wrote one last time asking her to release him from their engagement because he was going to marry someone else, and finally was killed in action. The traumatic event was foundational to Athill’s sense of self-worth, and to her love life.  Instead of a Letter recounts the development of this relationship, Athill’s years at Oxford, the abrupt end, the absence of closure, her heartbreak, and how she managed to rebuild herself and find love again. The book is also in some ways a call that would be answered 40 years later by Yesterday Morning, which ends where Instead of a Letter leaves off.

Athill herself has said that it was this book, Instead of a Letter, that made her feel for the first time that she was a writer, when she came home from work and her story simply poured out of her a few pages at a time each evening. In fact she had started writing even earlier than that. Her first breakthrough came when she won The Observer’s short story competition in 1958, with a story she submitted under the pseudonym of Mr. Watt. Other stories and a handful of books, including a novel, followed, sporadically over the decades. Many of her short stories were republished by Persephone Books in 2011 in a delightful little book titled Midsummer Night at the Workhouse.

In my opinion the strangest, and the only genuinely harrowing, of Athill’s books is After a Funeral, which was originally published in 1986. This book tells the story of Athill’s friend, the Egyptian writer Waguih Ghali, whom she calls Didi in the book. Ghali was an expatriate who lived in Germany and London, including in Athill’s own flat for a time. He did odd jobs, lived on the generosity of his friends, family, and acquaintances; he suffered his whole life from mental illness, and would fall into crippling periods of depression and self-loathing. During his life he managed to produce one well-received novel and some nonfiction pieces, published in Britain. He committed suicide in Athill’s flat in 1969.

Although After a Funeral contains all of Athill’s usual incisiveness and clarity, it’s the only one of hers that I didn’t find comforting, largely because of the distressing nature of the story. Athill herself would probably disapprove at my reading; she included a number of funny, self-deprecating moments in the book that are meant to balance the darkness at its centre. Dark or not, it is a phenomenal piece of introspective non-fiction and a gripping portrait of mental illness.

In 2011 Athill published Instead of a Book, a collection of letters written to the American poet Edward Field between 1981 and 2007. It was supposed to be the last volume of Athill’s work, book-ending a career she had begun with Instead of a Letter. It was a tidy end. The letters are funny and filled with love, the style is looser than in her memoirs. They trace Athill’s final years at André Deutsch, her growing fame as a writer and as a grand dame of British letters, and the small but increasingly numerous illnesses and medical needs of an aging person. It also provides good glimpses, which Athill barely offers elsewhere, of her relationship with the Jamaican playwright Barry Reckord, with whom she lived for over 30 years. Reckord, who was very ill and became a huge weight for Athill during this period, eventually moved back to Jamaica to live with his niece. Athill’s readers knew from an article she published in The Guardian in 2010 that she then moved to a fancy old people’s home in North London — it is said that its residents need to have read Marcel Proust in French in order to be admitted. She was slowing down, enjoying her last years in comfort: reading, gardening, visiting museums from the stately comfort of a wheelchair. She slowed down, but didn’t stop writing. She continued to produce short pieces for magazines and newspapers, or for herself, and last January she came out with a slim collection, Alive, Alive Oh!, which brings some of these pieces together for her final adieu.

The book is a pleasant, bite-sized (even by her standards, since she has never written a long book) dose of Athill. Alive, Alive Oh! presents a series of vignettes and unconnected recollections: a description of her grandparents’ garden at the Norfolk house that perhaps didn’t make it into Yesterday Morning, a few pages on death, another handful on luxuries, her memories of a post-war Europe that steadily became more comfortable and fun (including the description of an early Club Med trip to Greece in the ’50s), “Thoughts on the attempted revolution in Trinidad and Tobago.”

Athill is honest and direct, but rarely tidy. Athill’s other books have a way of rambling on a bit, or seeming to ramble on, about a variety of different events and memories, but always have a strong emotional pull at their center, something by which the reader inevitably gets sucked in. In Yesterday Morning it was the messy drama between her parents, in Stet the relationships she had with the writers she published (especially V.S. Naipaul and Jean Rhys), in Somewhere Towards the End Athill’s sharp honesty about aging, and sex. Even the wide-ranging letters in Instead of a Book are anchored in the fact that she is always addressing the same person, and in the ebb and flow of life’s successes and failures. Alive, Alive Oh!, although it’s a lovely book, feels more disparate.

The best piece in the book, the one that manages her usual winning combination of strong personal narrative layered with sharp, unadorned introspection, is the one that gives the collection its title. In it, Athill recounts how she became pregnant in her ’40s. She’d had a couple of abortions in the past, thinking of them as little more than nuisances, and expected to have one again. But then she reconsidered and decided to keep the baby after all, even though she was living alone at the time, and the father was married to someone else (this was Barry Reckord, before they lived together). The decision fills her with exuberant joy for a few weeks, until she loses the baby — and here Athill gives us some pages of gruesome sensory details, such as a “thudding gush, the sensation that a cork had blown” and “the peppery smell of blood.”

The details contribute to the poignancy of the scene, but in the end Athill’s feeling at losing the child, after she comes out of a life-threatening episode in the hospital, is not sadness but joy: the joy of still being alive. “Not having died,” she writes, “was more important to me by far than losing the child: more important than anything.” A little harsh in its frankness, unfussy and definitely unsentimental, this piece elevates a collection that would otherwise lack the author’s usual bite.

In the postscript to Instead of a Book, Athill writes: “I would like to end with a bang rather than whimper, but bangs don’t happen to the old (short of the last one), so please accept a quiet ‘The End.’” Personally, I will do more than merely accept the end she’s chosen to give us — I will celebrate it. Alive, Alive Oh! may be a bit slight for my liking, but I’ll take a quiet essay from 98-year-old Athill any day over a bang from someone younger. Here’s to a full life well lived, and well told.

The Black and the White: Maus and the Art Spiegelman Exhibit

In the late 1960s, Irving Layton, a Montreal Jewish poet who had risen to international fame a decade earlier, began to write poetry about the Holocaust. Like other Jewish artists of the period, his avoidance of the subject before then was almost conspicuous. Perhaps he was finally spurred to address the elephant in the room when he saw a new generation of poets do so, including his protégé Leonard Cohen, whose first collection, Flowers for Hitler, was published in 1964.

The Holocaust is so massive a subject that it can easily overshadow everything else in an artist’s work. When Layton began to acknowledge it more openly in his writing, he soon found it difficult not to write about the holocaust. Massacres and dead animals began to crop up with frightening regularity in his work; the loud, intractable violence choked every other topic and made them seem banal in comparison.

The poster for the Art Spiegelman exhibit currently showing at the Vancouver Art Gallery, “CO-MIX: A Retrospective of Comics, Graphics and Scraps,” illustrates a related sentiment. The image is taken from a Spiegelman drawing from 1989 entitled “Self Portrait with Maus Mask.” In the foreground there’s the human Spiegelman with his usual shirt, vest, and cigarette, seated at his drawing table. An expressive mask of a mouse covers his face. His hands are pressed against his cheeks in a gesture of despair as he stares despondently at whatever he is trying to draw. In the background there hangs the covers of Maus I and an issue of RAW, the magazine thought up by Spiegelman’s wife Françoise Mouly, in which Maus was originally serialized. More ominously, a Nazi cat sharpshooter from the pages of Maus stands on a guard tower outside the window with stripes of barbed wire and a brick chimney belching black smoke.

In this image, we see the artist struggling to write and draw the subject he feels compelled to turn into art. We see Spiegelman dreading the inescapably difficult path he has set himself on.

The mouse mask echoes not only the mouse and cat metaphor Spiegelman uses illustrate Jews and Nazis in his book, but also the animal masks that characters wear when trying to pass off as members of groups there are not (so that Vladek Spiegelman is shown as a mouse wearing a pig’s mask when he is trying to pass as a non-Jewish Pole). By wearing the mask, Spiegelamn may also be showing us that he sees himself as a fraud when telling this story, because it isn’t really his to tell.

The self-portrait also represents Spiegelman’s very real struggle to finish writing Maus after the publication of the first volume in 1986, which garnered great acclaim. Spiegelman deals with this dilemma in the second chapter of Maus II, “Time Flies,” when he pulls a Cervantes and steps back from the narrative to address the reader and discuss the publication of the first volume. In the images, Spiegelman shrinks to the size of a child under the aggressive questions of journalists and businessmen who try to turn his book into a commercial product. The writer finally retreats to the home of his wise but eccentric shrink, who happens to keep framed photos of his dogs and cats.

Finally, “Self Portrait with Maus Mask” is an artistic manifestation of the struggle that was to come after the publication of Maus II in 1991, when Spiegelman found himself unable to take off his mouse mask and write a narrative about anything else. The black stain of the holocaust had spilled onto his drawing table.

The Art Spiegelman exhibit, which collects decades of material from the artist’s personal collection, makes the artist’s struggle visible on the curated walls of a museum. One of the most enlightening aspects of the exhibit for me was its ability to portray Spiegelman’s chronology. There’s the explosive, variform comix of his youth, some of which was eventually collected in Breakdowns, in parallel with his hilarious work as art director of Topps, including the infamous Garbage Pail Kids, which gave him the income necessary to work on his personal projects. There’s the decade of scandalous New Yorker covers (not all of which were accepted) which followed Maus in the ’90s: a Hassidic Jew kissing a black woman, a presidential press conference with all microphones turned towards Clinton’s crotch, a haggard-looking concentration camp prisoner holding an Oscar to mark the success of Roberto Benigni’s film Life is Beautiful. And then came the recovery of Spiegelman’s voice as a narrative comic artist in the wake of 9/11 with In the Shadow of No Towers, his intensely political, satirical, personal account of the attack on the World Trade Center and its aftermath, printed as a board book to avoid the image-splicing seams of usual bindings.

The room devoted to Maus in the exhibit hushes visitors when they walk in. It is darker than the other rooms, and the walls are more cluttered: the finished pages of a few chapters are spread out horizontally at eye level and preliminary sketches extend above and below them. Historical documents, mementos, and source material are displayed in a handful of glass cases in the center of the room, while overhead the frank voice of Spiegelman’s father Vladek can be heard recounting his experience during World War II in one of the recordings which were the basis for the book.

The depth of Spiegelman’s talent and craft is immediately obvious from a glance at any page from Maus. He employs a dark, heavily striated style that replicates something drawn quickly, furiously. Yet the draft pages for Maus demonstrate that, in fact, Spiegelman slaved over each image to find just the right framing, the correct length of eyebrow to create the desired expression on his characters’ anthropomorphic faces. The highly energetic technique displayed in Maus only serves to make individual drawings more compelling — clear enough to be immediately recognizable, cramped enough to demand careful attention. At the same time, there is a fluidity in the drawings that helps each panel meld into the others and create a powerful impression that goes far beyond the punch of its constituent pieces.

I was also amazed, looking at the variety of pictures hanging in the other rooms of this exhibit, to discover the breadth of Spiegelman’s work. His drawing and narrative style is surprisingly flexible, adapting to the requirements of the story he is telling. He was once commissioned to design covers for the German editions of Boris Vian’s books. He drew lurid, sexy collage images with sharp lines and bold blocks of color, inspired by 1950s comics and cubism; he also took advantage of the book’s spine for mirroring effects between the front and back covers and the placement of elongated objects. In The Prisoner on the Hell Planet, Spiegelman uses stark contrasts and an expressionist style in both his text and drawings to express the deeply personal impact of his mother’s suicide.

In the exhibit, I also discovered with a great pleasure a short graphic piece Spiegelman made to commemorate the retirement of Charles Schulz. Spiegelman draws himself as a simplified mouse ruminating on the roof of a doghouse in honor of his subject’s work; even the font he uses for his characters’ speech is borrowed from Peanuts. “At its best, which was often,” Spiegelman writes, “the strip had the simplicity and depth charge of a haiku…only easier to understand.” In the next panel, Snoopy has appeared and is surprised to find another animal sitting on top of his doghouse. Spiegelman adds: “…and cuter.” Spiegelman’s work, in spite of the animals, is rarely cute — and yet here, to honor his subject, he too has made his own style as light and pleasant as a Peanuts strip.

It is through pieces like this that Spiegelman has continued to help nudge comics into rich new territory. After showing that it was possible to write a graphic memoir that couldn’t work in any other form (unless as a kind of doomed hybrid between Elie Wiesel’s Night and Brian Jacques’s Redwall), he began to experiment with essays in graphic form, like the piece on childhood he made for the McSweeney’s special “San Francisco Panorama” issue. On display at the exhibit is the original of another non-fiction piece on the same subject called “In the Dump,” co-written and drawn with Maurice Sendak for in the The New Yorker in 1993. In the piece, Spiegelman goes to visit the reclusive Sendak to discuss the realities of childhood and the nature of imagination. This piece is also impressive because it’s a full-on collaboration: Sendak and Spiegelman worked on the panels at the same time, each drawing himself and then working together on the background.

Born from universal ideas, crafted by the hands of artists, written with passion, the comic strip has become the medium for narratives that can be read again and again and images that can be stared at pensively in the hushed space of a museum.

Discussing his famous graphic novel V for Vendetta, Alan Moore once stated that he always preferred the original, serialized version of the book because it wasn’t in color. “The images were entirely in black and white,” he explains, “but the whole story, in moral terms, had only shades of grey.”

Something similar occurs in Maus, where the drawings often fall into a thick chiaroscuro and hard hatching turns page space into almost solid black. Arguably, no other story has been made to express absolute black and absolute white as clearly as World War II. So how can an artist integrate the textures of grey that make a story truly poignant?

Spiegelman allows his book to transcend its own purpose as a holocaust survival tale by crafting it as a metafiction. This was something I did not expect before I began to learn more about Maus and its writer. At first, I thought the book was just (although that’s not quite the right word) a story about holocaust survivors in which the Nazis are cats and the Jews are mice. But that story is only the core around which the other elements gravitate.

Maus is also very much about a son trying to come to terms with his father — it is an exploration of their relationship, in which the father’s story creates a bridge between them, a reason for them to get together and talk. Spiegelman was very clever in framing his father’s story in the war years with material from the present day: visiting his father, giving us a portrait of his life in old age, mulling over ethical questions, asking his father about specific details. The back and forth between past and present makes the story he tells all the more real.

But there’s still more. On a foundational level, Maus, like every work of literature that admits to being one, is a book about the process of writing a book. It explores not only the meaning of surviving the holocaust and managing a difficult father, but also the difficulties of drawing and writing about this father and telling his story. The fact that the reader is privy to Spiegelman’s questions, comments, and process within Maus, especially in the second volume, is essential to the book’s agenda.

One of Spiegelman’s most admirable qualities, expressed by both the man and his art, is an honest form of moral rectitude. He experienced the success of Maus with considerable discomfort, a discomfort he folded into the book itself: Is this his story to tell? Is he disrespecting the memory of the millions of people who died in the concentration camps by telling it? To this day, Spiegelman believes one of his greatest achievements is to have resisted attempts to make a film version of the book.

I believe his peculiar strength lies in his resolve not to go down the path of artists like Layton who, once they started, were unable to leave behind the subject of the holocaust. Spiegelman refuses to become a figure of authority on the holocaust, another Elie Wiesel. (The closest he has come, admittedly, is in his Life is Beautiful cover for The New Yorker.) Despite his struggle to find another narrative thrust for his graphic art after Maus, his decade of so-called silence was in fact one of his richest — most of his truly arresting shorter work and many pieces I used in this essay to illustrate his genius, were produced in this period. Besides, as Françoise Mouly has said, a decade is not really so long to find your voice again as a storyteller. And Spiegelman has proven that he has many more stories to tell.

“CO-MIX: A Retrospective of Comics, Graphics and Scraps” is open at the Vancouver Art Gallery until June 9, 2013. It was originally shown at Angoulême and Paris, France, and then at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Germany. It will move to the Jewish Museum in New York later this year.

The Lies We Tell: Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth

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In Ian McEwan’s thirteenth novel, Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) is an assistant officer in MI5 who is part of a special project to fund writers who are critical of the communist utopia in 1970s — this is the soft cold war. The author she is running, T. H. Haley, who also becomes her lover, thinks that he is receiving the generous stipend from a private foundation, because he’s an up-and-coming writer with a lot of potential. In reality, it’s because he’s written some newspaper articles against communism. At one point, Serena reads one of Haley’s stories, which is “narrated by a talking ape prone to anxious reflections about his lover, a writer struggling with her second novel.” On the last page of the story, Serena learns that the narrator of the story is, in fact, the female writer in question. “The ape doesn’t exist, it’s a spectre, the creature of her fretful imagination.” Serena is revolted; she distrusts “this kind of fictional trick.”

Without this kind of trick, Sweet Tooth, the large novel in which T. H. Haley’s own fictions are nestled like mirrors reflecting back upon reality, would fall apart completely. The tension between truth and duplicity lies at the heart of Sweet Tooth, which turns out to be a carefully constructed trick, as spectral, perhaps, as the ape in Haley’s story.

Fabrication is a well-explored topic in McEwan’s fiction. Briony Tallis’s manipulation of real events into fiction lies at the heart of Atonement, while a very big lie forms the principal device in Solar’s elaborate climate change plot. Similarly, double duplicity is what drives Amsterdam to its tragicomic finale. In these novels, however, the fabrications become so elaborate that they begin to sound hollow. In order to raise the stakes and make the fiction more compelling, McEwan has been known to stretch his plots to the point of tearing. In Sweet Tooth, the stakes — a budding relationship, government money, one or two people’s jobs — are high enough to be interesting, but low enough for the novel to remain manipulative in a merely pleasant way.

For the trick to pay off at the end, McEwan does require a certain amount of patience from the reader. If, like me, you expect the lush, thickly internalized prose of Saturday, the sparkling dialogues and quirky characters of On Chesil Beach, or even the atmospheric sense of dread of McEwan’s other spy novel, The Innocent, you will be disappointed. The principal reason for this lack is that, for Sweet Tooth to work, it needs to be told in the first person. While Serena Frome — a beautiful, blonde, romantic young woman who obtains a third in math at Cambridge and uses her photographic memory to devour novels — makes for an interesting character, she does not have a particularly compelling narrative voice. Her landscape is a little flat, her story is strictly chronological, her tone is chatty but cold. More importantly, she — or, I began to wonder as the novel progressed, perhaps McEwan himself — is obsessed with realism. The novel’s backdrop is the social and political crises in England in the 1970s: the IRA, the coal miners’ strike, the return of the Labor government in 1974. For a better part of the book, the narrator reminds us what decade we’re in regularly, defending herself if she’s acting against the norm, and explaining how the 70s were different from today when she isn’t.

Being constantly hit on the head with historical facts can get a little frustrating; if you’ve read Atonement, you’ll know that McEwan can make history come to life without overstating it. Serena herself may offer an explanation for this narrative tic when she describes her own reading habits:
I craved a form of naive realism. I paid special attention, I craned my readerly neck whenever a London street I knew was mentioned, or a style of frock, a real public person, even a make of car. Then, I thought, I had a measure, I could gauge the quality of the writing by its accuracy, by the extent to which it aligned with my own impressions, or improved upon them.
This passage suggests that Serena’s obsession with historical accuracy as a narrator is a result of her own literary taste for hyperrealism, fiction that borders on fact. At least she practices what she preaches. Still, my resistance to this forced historicity raises an interesting caveat: how far should a writer stray away from what he does well, and what pleases the reader, in order to create a narrative voice that is consistent with the character? The answer, of course, depends entirely on the book.

When dealing with a writer as experienced as McEwan, however, one must be ready to give him the benefit of the doubt. I’m glad I did. A few months into Serena’s work at MI5, she receives a warning from a superior and one-time love interest (the word in the agency is that she’s more trouble than she’s worth):
In this work the line between what people imagine and what’s actually the case can get very blurred. In fact that line is a big grey space, big enough to get lost in. You imagine things — and you can make them come true. The ghosts become real.
Intelligence work sounds a little bit like writing novels, and McEwan proves that he’s sufficiently deft at the latter to navigate the grey space between fact and fiction without getting lost in it. In the end, Sweet Tooth is successful enough as a work of well constructed, brilliantly rendered fiction for Serena’s voice to work within the larger whole. The author remains so removed from his fiction that, once you understand what he’s up to, you have to strain to see him pulling the strings of the narrative.

Sweet Tooth purports by its content and its opening lines to be a spy novel, but it isn’t really. In a traditional spy/thriller/whodunit, the end reveal is never as interesting as the tension-filled pages of clues and red herrings that got you there. On the contrary, Sweet Tooth is a much finer novel in retrospect, once the final chapter and its revelations have been absorbed. Only then can the reader understand why the early elements in the book, characters shown for only a few pages and then quickly carried offstage, were there at all. These characters are carefully mentioned again throughout the book like touchstones for the plot’s unraveling, and are finally given their full purpose in the story. The novel’s ending, and its final question, turns the fiction back upon itself. Therein lies McEwan’s genius when he’s at the top of his form; he writes a novel like a jeweler cuts a diamond, by following the natural tensions in the raw material to create an object of admirable sharpness, perfection, and complexity. Like a diamond, the novel may not be to everyone’s taste, but its objective qualities are undeniable, nonetheless.

At Night, All Books Are Bright

“If a musician’s insomnia allows him to create beautiful music, then it is a beautiful insomnia.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Night Flight
I learned many things when I read Anne Fadiman’s collection of essays At Large and at Small: Confessions of a Literary Hedonist. I learned, for instance, that Balzac was addicted to coffee to a point where he would munch on raw coffee grounds, and that the best way to make ice cream is by freezing it with liquid nitrogen. I also learned, in the essay “Night Owl,” that there are two types of people: owls and larks. I am definitely of the latter category: my favorite time of day to work is in the morning, I need over six hours of sleep to be functional (eight to be in a good mood), and I start yawning as soon as it gets dark. Anne Fadiman is one hundred percent owl: when she starts working on a project—say a book, or an essay—she switches her schedule around and begins to write and research at night and she sleeps during the day.

Imagine being awake to see it: the inspiring pools of light, the surrounding darkness, the computer screen shining in the gloom like a beacon, the quiet hum of the sleeping world, beyond the room… I’ve always wanted to be an owl myself. It seems to me that reading and writing are essentially nocturnal activities. To say, “I’ve read through the day” or “I just spent the day writing,” makes it sound like a mind numbing nine-to-five job. But to say, “I’ve read through the night” or, even better, “I spent the night writing,” speaks to my romantic side, elevates these activities to something compelling and secret.

Writing requires a plunge into the imagination, so it’s no surprise that many associate literature with the night. We populated it with the monsters of our nightmares: vampires, werewolves, ghosts, ghouls, zombies, and everything else that shifts in our closets and whispers under our beds. These creations thrive at night because they embody our fear of the dark and, by extension, our fear of death. It’s the same thing; after all, Dylan Thomas’s famous line reads “Do not go gentle into that good night.” In Negotiating with the Dead, Margaret Atwood compares literary inspiration to katabasis: writers go deep down in some dark place, the place where stories are, and emerge with something to tell—just as the epic heroes travel to the land of the dead and negotiate with its spirits to learn their future.

Then why shouldn’t night also be a time for readers? To read is to slip into that dark place, lulled by the voice of a writer, which the act of reading summons from the page. The phenomenon, surely, occurs more powerfully, more completely, in the quiet, nocturnal darkness. The day is too bright and noisy; there’s always something to do; the real world crowds around you and won’t let you take a stroll down the shaded path of imagination. Night offers shelter for the mind. At night, when the world is asleep, when windows are mirrors, when the light you read by is the one you must turn on yourself, you can almost hear books whispering. They call you. They quiver on their shelves, ready to open up and reveal what’s inside them like clams in heat. At night, all books are bright.

At least, that’s the way it goes if you’re an owl. When you’re a lark, you start yawning uncontrollably after 9 o’clock, your mind begins to drone with fatigue, thereby drowning out the sound of the words on the page, and your body equates your bed with sleeping, not reading, which means you can’t hope to read more than 10 pages before falling asleep.

Luckily, when you don’t get to enjoy the inspiring nighttime calm because you’ve succumbed to Morpheus’s spell, you can read about it in books during the day. Leave the long hours of solitary insomnia to others, like Alberto Manguel. His bibliomemoir The Library At Night recounts the construction of his library (which houses 30,000 books) in an old presbytery in France, and riffs on the subject of libraries more broadly. The night he finished shelving all the books in the library he built himself, Manguel slept on the floor, between the bookcases—in the words of his partner, in order to mark his territory, like a dog urinating in the corners. For Manguel, his library takes on all its meaning and all its magic at night, when he is prone to wake up, grab something on the shelves at random, and read through his insomnia. “At night,” he writes, “thoughts grow louder.” For Manguel, during the day the library suggests order, classification, and work; but from dusk to dawn it is joyfully chaotic and random.

At night, it seems, all books are equal. The to-read pile recedes into the shadows and all the other books get their chance to shine—the one’s you haven’t read yet, or the ones you dropped halfway through. It’s not a question of who the author is or which one won a prize. Night lets books speak for themselves, reveals what they’ve really got to offer, and allows readers to jump from one to the other effortlessly.

Manguel, libraries, night: how can I go further without mentioning Jorge Luis Borges? Here’s a man who knew something about living in the dark: he spent over 30 years of his life completely blind, and several more years in progressive stages of blindness. He lived in the night, he roamed the night, and he read the night. His poems on the subject, translated from the Spanish, are collected in an elegant volume by Penguin: Poems of the Night. On the book’s cover, the silhouette of Borges’s face in profile, against a charcoal backdrop, is speckled with golden stars, as if his mind had been drawn out in the night sky like a constellation. The poems reveal the purity of Borges’s wisdom and the beauty of his thinking. Here, again, night is not something to be feared; rather, it is the stuff of inspiration, “good fertile ground / for the sower of verses.” Night is the muse that inspires the poet; he feels “in the crack of night / the verses that are to come” (“The Forging”). Night is also a time for reading: Borges became director of the National Public Library in Buenos Aires in 1955, the year he went blind, an irony he appreciated. “God granted me books and blindness at one touch,” reads the English translation, by Alastair Reid, of “Poem of the Gifts.” The Spanish original reads rather “los libros y la noche”: “books and the night.” Thus night and blindness—in the eyes of readers, writers, and translators—are interchangeable.

I’m not certain Borges himself would agree, however, because his depictions of night are manifold. In “History of Night,” Borges conceives night as a human construct: “Down through the generations / men built the night.” Night is a myth, a kind of playground, a drug, even, “which would not exist / but for those tenuous instruments, the eyes.” With no eyes to see it, Borges either exists in constant night, or else he exists outside night—and, therefore, outside time. If night is a place, then it is a place of suspension and solitude, as in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Vol de nuit (Night Flight), which often describes night as an ocean, with its islands and tides. (The connection between both authors is also geographical: Night Flight takes place in South America, notably Buenos Aires, where Borges spent most of his life.)

In Night Flight, night isolates postal plane pilots. Conversely, darkness reveals man to man, bridges the distance between them:
And now, in the core of the night like a watchman, he finds out that night shows Man: these calls, these lights, this worry. This lone star in the shadow: the isolation of a home. One of them is blown out: a house that closes itself in on its own love. (…) Those men think that their lamps shine for the humble table, yet eighty kilometers away one already receives the call of their light, as if, from a deserted island, they were swinging it desperately before the sea.
Night, in this short, beautifully crafted novel, is at once limitless—“it contained Buenos Aires, but also, like a vast hall, all of America (…) under the same, deep vault”—and finite, holding in its belly dangers that may end a plane’s flight, kill the men aboard, and destroy the precious cargo of words.

Saint-Exupéry treats night as the frontier to a vast land full of dangers and wonder. Man must traverse this frontier, explore the unknown beyond the darkness, familiarize himself with it. That, then, is how I should approach night and its literature: I must undertake to discover it tentatively and slowly, minute by minute. I need to shed my lark habits and learn to peer into the folds of darkness like an owl.

One of the best books on the subject remains Night: Night Life, Night Language, Sleep, and Dreams, by British man of letters Al Alvarez. Anne Fadiman talks about it in her essay on night owls. Alvarez offers a very complete exploration of night through literary criticism, psychoanalysis, historical inquiry, and even autobiographical writing. He melds all these different strands to form a cogent, fascinating whole.

His premise, essentially, is that most people have lost contact with night in the last hundred years because, instead of learning to inhabit its darkness, artificial light has allowed us to turn night into another day. For Alvarez, our attitude toward the darkness of the night is linked to a primordial fear of what lies beyond the ring of firelight. I remember, as a child, when my parents asked me to turn off the lights downstairs before going to bed (Alvarez tells a similar story in his book): I would hit the switch and race up the stairs as fast as I could, imagining the smoky shadows at my heels, enveloping the staircase and threatening to swallow me up.

For years, Alvarez lost contact with the night and forgot about its existence, until a stay in Italy made him fall in love with dusk, and the hours that follow: the dipping of the sun into the horizon, the light bleeding slowly out of the sky like watercolors, the comfortable coolness that brings people out of their homes, the night sky like a vast cathedral ceiling, speckled—in the absence of man-made light—with innumerable scintillations. Alvarez’s book is a testament to the richness and beauty of nighttime. Night cannot be merely ignored or illuminated away; it must be dealt with, dwelt in.

I wish I could say that this essay was the product of quiet, nocturnal activity, but, alas, I wrote most of it in the glare of warm spring mornings. Still, I like to think that I’m writing this under the influence of night. I’m getting used to living more nocturnally: I work long hours in a restaurant this summer and I often come back home past midnight. Split between exhaustion and excitement, I need to unwind before I head for bed: I eat a bit, I read a few pages, I write a couple of lines. I inhabit the dark, solitary space as best I can. I peer into the extremities of night and ponder its meaning. But restaurant work has not made an owl of me yet; I’m still waiting for my beautiful insomnia, the one that will drag me away from my bed for hours on end and send me out into the night to discover what lies beyond the reading lamp’s light.

Charles Dickens had his beautiful insomnia, although it wasn’t as directly productive as you’d expect. In “Night Walks,” he describes all the things and people he encountered during “a temporary inability to sleep” that led him to walk around London in the middle of the night: the drunks, the tramps, the night workers, the whores. Night, again, is an ocean: Dickens feels, as he coolly observes these nocturnal specimens, “much as a diver might, at the bottom of the sea.” There is beauty in Dickens’s night, but it is more twisted and macabre than in Alvarez or Saint Exupéry:
[T]he river had an awful look, the buildings on the banks were muffled in black shrouds, and the reflected lights seemed to originate deep in the water, as if the spectres of suicides were holding them to show where they went down. The wild moon and clouds were as restless as an evil conscience in a tumbled bed, and the very shadow of the immensity of London seemed to lie oppressively upon the river.
No friendly clams opening in the heat, then, and no quiet hours under studious lamplight, reading or writing—only the ghosts of the damned and a bleakness that is oppressing. But also, inspiring. This passage recalls what Atwood discovers about literature in Negotiating with the Dead: Dickens used night and its odd characters to populate his stories. Gritty, scary nocturnal London was his land of the dead; walking was his way of negotiating with the spirits and feeding his imagination.

Perhaps that’s the trick: night can also be retroactively productive. You’ve got to learn to revert your vision. Dickens understood his city when most of its inhabitants were asleep. Borges read and wrote at his best when he was blind. Saint Exupéry grasped the meaning of solitude when darkness enveloped his plane. So the speaker of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 43 sees his lover best in dreams, when his eyes “darkly bright are bright in dark directed” and “through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay.” “All days are nights […] / And nights bright days” for Shakespeare. If literature is my mistress, then nights are made brighter by her books and days are darker in their absence.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Quintessentially English: Middlemarch Between Bristol and Bath

“It is painful to be told that anything is very fine and not be able to feel that is it fine — something like being blind, while people talk of the sky.”
— George Eliot, Middlemarch

With barely a week left in England after having studied there for nine months, I knew I needed to read something significant to last me through the difficulties of packing and the harsh reality of leaving. I went to the university library and browsed its stacks for the last time. I wanted a long book that was remarkably English, rural, certainly, and preferably a classic. As a reader, I get this type of urge sometimes, at once vague and specific.

I picked up Middlemarch, by George Eliot, which so often gets mentioned as an important book in English Letters. I knew very little about it, except that it was big and written by a woman who wrote under a man’s name. I’d also read somewhere that it was a Victorian pastoral novel in the tradition of realism. Julian Barnes once called it “the greatest English novel”, and if it’s good enough for Julian Barnes…

So, as I began to unmake my life in Bristol — decide which books to bring back with me and which to leave behind, pack my clothes, roll up my posters, throw away the food I hadn’t eaten — I simultaneously delved into my first Eliot and met her protagonist (or one them), Miss Dorothea Brooke. I was rapidly enthralled by the simple marriage plot with which the novel begins, and I hoped that the young, beautiful Miss Brooke would do as she wished and marry the old intellectual Mr. Casaubon. When she did, I realized with her that the match she had fiercely desired was not so great, after all. You often find yourself rooting for the characters to get what they want in these novels, and you are as bitterly disappointed as they are when you find out things did not turn out as you would have wanted them to — or maybe I just empathize too much.

In reading Middlemarch, what I was looking for — beyond the comfort of escapism — was a breath of English air. The England I wanted to see and feel one last time was the one you can glimpse from the window of a passing train, say between London and Bristol: rolling green hills and meandering rivers, pastures speckled with grazing cattle and sheep, and neat fields with ancient trees casting long shadows in the middle of them.

I soon discovered that Middlemarch does not have the descriptive beauty I was expecting. The setting is certainly rural, however: the most wealthy characters are landowners who have to deal with their tenants, the others do business in cattle and horse-trading, and the appeal of London as an urban center is almost non-existent. For instance, when two of the three principal couples go live in London at the end of the novel, it is because the prejudices of the Middlemarchers have become too much to bear. London appears not as a goal or even an escape, but as a kind of punishment. Yet, despite this apparent attraction toward the countryside, the rolling green hills and quiet pastures are merely mentioned in passing, or glimpsed at in the turn of a paragraph, without ever becoming the focus of the narrative. Eliot is more concerned with exploring the intellectual landscape of her characters, rather than the beauty of the changing, English landscape around them.

In Middlemarch, the characters she dwells on with the most interest are Dorothea and Dr Lydgate, who stand out from the other characters as researchers and thinkers. More importantly, they are also the characters in the novel who try to act on their convictions and be useful to society; Dorothea employs her husband’s money to ameliorate the difficult lives of her tenants, while Lydgate hopes to revolutionize the practice of medicine and works in a hospital for the poor. Ironically, it is these two who are forced to live in London, at the end, perhaps because they are too forward thinking for the quiet community of Middlemarch.

By the time I reached chapter 27 (of 86), I realized that my copy of Middlemarch was due back at the library, only two days after I had taken it out. I went back and tried to renew the book, only to learn that my status as a full-time student at the University of Bristol ended that day.

“You can always read it in here,” the librarian offered meekly.

I glanced at the 700-page hardcover on the counter. The prospect of spending my last three days in England reading Middlemarch in the dark, concrete block of the library was not enticing. I walked back down to the main street (Bristol, like Rome, is built on seven hills), and found a perfectly suitable Wordsworth Classics edition of Middlemarch, with an awful cover in The Last Bookshop (where everything is two pounds). I had just given a dozen books away to Oxfam that morning because I didn’t have enough room for them in my luggage. Despite the library having put an end to any real incentive to finish the book before I left, I was still resolved to the turn the last page before my feet were off British soil.

The next day, I packed a light lunch and brought Middlemarch with me to walk from Bristol to Bath (about 14 miles). They’ve paved the old railway that connected the two cities to make a walking and cycling path. Railway tracks get recycled into public pathways, now; in Middlemarch, they aren’t built yet, and exist only in the form of industrial agents who come to plan their route through the fields, to the dismay of the farmers who don’t understand what they want.

Bristol has sprawling suburbs, but eventually the path traverses open fields and even crosses the river Avon (of Shakespeare fame, although this is miles from Stratford), which has a track that runs along it for a few miles. I decided to leave the railway path and follow the river’s slow bends for a bit. It is here that I finally found the bucolic beauty I had been seeking: boat houses on the water, waves of wheat rippling in the wind with dozens of swallows skimming the field’s surface for insects, and crumbling country cottages peeping out from behind the hills. Eventually I spotted an old factory on the other side of the river, built in 1881 (the date was written on the building) — only a decade after Middlemarch was first published. This, all around me, was the England that Eliot had known (although she came from further north, in the Midlands).

It is important to remember that Middlemarch is a historical novel. Written around 1870, the story is set in the time leading up to the Reform Act of 1832, which reconfigured the fabric of English society by significantly enlarging the number of voters, and was also a precursor to other important social and economic changes. So the England I was seeing on my hike that day was also the one Eliot was writing against by focusing on a “simpler” time in her novel — a time when the railroad hadn’t yet come to Middlemarch, or connected Bath to Bristol (in fact, this was done in 1869, the very year Eliot started writing Middlemarch). Eliot was thus bending backward and peering with the powerful lens of her realism into a period of change, which would result in the making of Victorian society, in which she was now living herself.

The origin of the word text and textile is the same, from the Latin verb for “weaving”. I often find myself thinking about this commonality when I read books as long as Middlemarch, which in French are called romans fleuve — literally, “river novels” — because they are so long. Reading Middlemarch is like reading three or four novels, with their plots intricately interlocked in ways that are often unexpected. Its scope is so vast and it encompasses so much action and detail that it actually illustrates how narrative texts work on a mechanical level, how novels can be stripped down to strands of stories, like different colored threads woven together to make a larger pattern. It’s the only way to construct a world that is believable, as Eliot does by building her Middlemarch house by house, character by character, interweaving events to create a pattern that resembles life.

Eliot is also remarkable as a Victorian novelist because her characters are as round as they come. There are no slapstick comics or stock villains here; Eliot provides her characters with complex motives, and challenges them at every corner of their crooked paths, taking and giving freely in order to test their resilience. Even those characters that come closer to villainy only tread on the happiness of others because of their inability to empathize. Thus, Dorothea’s first husband Mr. Casaubon, Dr. Lydgate’s beautiful wife Rosamond, and the rich banker Mr. Bullstrode are all given attention and consideration in order for the reader to understand their motives and even sympathize with them. This attention demonstrates generosity and an acute psychological understanding on Eliot’s part, because it proves that she is able to place herself in the point of view of all her characters.

In my opinion, Eliot combines the best of all of the other major writers that I know of her century. She writes with the emotional acuity and depth of Jane Austen, the social scope and monetary awareness of Dickens, and even something of Thomas Hardy’s careful plot construction and moral ambiguity. While her novel remains a fine example of what Henry James described as the “loose, baggy monsters” of the 19th century, with a large cast of characters and lots of filler between the juicy bits, it is surprisingly even throughout and, at times, gripping. Besides, James probably owes something to Eliot’s seamless psychological descriptions for his own novels, as well as a prototype for the strong and virtuous Isabel Archer in Dorothea Brookes. Well-rooted in the literary ethos of the Victorian era, Eliot’s writing, at least in Middlemarch, stands well above the rest and provides the reader with the best of what that literature has to offer.

Despite my good intentions, and the fact that I was enjoying reading Middlemarch, I simply didn’t have the time to finish it before I left England. I read the last hundred pages back home, in Quebec, on a warm, sunny afternoon at my family cottage. The setting was altogether different from when I had started the novel in grey, drizzly Bristol, but I was happy to have a little piece of Englishness with me to help ease the transition back into my life on this side of the pond.

Previously: Middlemarch: The Fraught Lives of Women and Men, Holden and Middlemarch in Windhoek

(Image courtesy the author.)

Henry James and the Joys of Binge Reading

During a recent semester spent studying abroad in the UK, I had the opportunity to take an undergraduate course on Henry James. I seized the chance, having never taken a class devoted to a single author before. Previously, Henry James had existed in my mind as a hazy legend in Anglo-American letters who wrote hefty novels and dense stories in an ominously opaque prose. The only thing I had ever read of his was “The Middle Years”, a short story about an aging writer resting in Bournemouth, who befriends a doctor who also happens to be a fervent admirer of his work. It sounds awfully boring but I was impressed by the story, which reveals a great deal about reader-writer relations, although of course I found the writing itself a little impenetrable at times (the number of commas in the first sentence alone would send a good number of readers packing). It’s easy to lose your way in a James story if you’re not careful. Your eyes keep scanning the words, but your thoughts tend to wander off. Often what’s literally happening is buried beneath endless looping sentences, words that lap like waves, eddies of thoughts and counter-thoughts. It all sounds beautiful, but the reader is left wondering: what does it actually mean?

It’s obvious that Henry James is ill suited for a text-heavy undergraduate course, which requires extensive reading in a very short time. It’s not so bad when you’re studying earlier James, which tends to be more straightforward (although with the novels the length can sometimes get to you) — but things get an awful lot worse with later James. The prose becomes denser, the metaphors extend into page-long emotional parables, the grammar is impossibly convoluted, and numerous adverbs cling to and clutter the sentences.

James’ prose is notorious for becoming more elusive and complex and he grew older (it may be in part due to the fact that he started dictating to a typist in 1897, just before the advent of his “late phase”). In a letter to the Duchess of Sutherland, dated 1903, James gave his correspondent a few tips on how to read one of his novels:

Take, meanwhile, pray The Ambassadors very easily & gently: read five pages a day — be even as deliberate as that — but don’t break the thread. The thread is really stretched quite scientifically tight. Keep along with it step by step — & the full charm will come out.

It may have been that the Duchess was a particularly obtuse reader, but I do think it’s true that James is much better appreciated with lots of time to take him in slowly, a few pages at a time, to let his magic quietly come through. But James’ own recommendations, of course, are impossible to follow when you have to rifle through a whole novel in a few days for a seminar.


The reading list for the class in question included:

A selection of tales: “Daisy Miller”, “The Aspern Papers”, “The Pupil”, “The Real Thing”, “The Figure in the Carpet”, and “The Lesson of the Master”
Roderick Hudson
The Europeans
What Maisie Knew
The Portrait of a Lady
The Princess Casamassima
The Ambassadors
The Golden Bowl
The Wings of the Dove

I ended up quite liking most of the tales, especially “The Lesson of the Master”, about the relationship between a young, promising writer and an older one whose art is in decline. It has a certain ironic bite, which I found enjoyable — the “lesson” in question being that novelists shouldn’t marry, in order to concentrate on their art (James remained a bachelor all his life). It is apparent that there are quite a few gems in the tales of Henry James, which are often in the vein of the French nouvelles (Maupassant often comes to mind). Although writing many of these short stories was bread-and-butter work for James, they offer much insight into art and human expression.

Among the novels, I never finished The Wings of the Dove, What Maisie Knew, or The Princess Casamassima, one of James’ forays into more traditional social realism (with The Bostonians), which I found read like a bad imitation of Dickens. The Portrait of a Lady was by far the most readable and engaging of his novels, and Isabel Archer remains one of his most sympathetic characters — despite the famously unsatisfactory ending. The two later novels I read, The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl — especially the latter, where so little happens for so long — initially put me off. They are demanding books, but in the end they proved more interesting to think and write about. The Ambassadors, for instance, through some intricate literary trick, manages to charm the reader into embracing the middle-aged protagonist’s point of view. Strether’s fascination for Paris, for Chad (whom he comes to Paris to save) and for Madame de Vionnet (with whom Chad is having an affair) becomes the fascination of the reader, while James masterfully pulls the strings behind the scenes. It’s a rewarding, beautiful reading experience; and there really is a kind of taut, charming thread running through it.

A certain reputation precedes Henry James, I think — and it’s not a very good one. Another preconception I had about him was that he was rather passé, in both style and content. He already seemed outdated in his own time (at the turn of the century, who else was writing novels about adultery among the rich and beautiful in such wordy prose?), so how could he possibly be relevant today?

I was wrong, of course. Although James was never read by the masses, he still generates a fair deal of critical attention and admiration. Many authors today use James’ life and work to inspire their own fiction: Colm Tóibín’s Booker short-listed The Master is a fictionalized account of a part of James’ life (more on that later), while David Lodge’s Author, Author (published six months after Tóibín’s novel) does something similar. Joyce Carol Oates’ recent collection of stories Wild Nights! includes a moving story about James visiting a wounded soldier in a London hospital during World War I, and Cynthia Ozick’s 2010 novel Foreign Bodies is a retelling of The Ambassadors. In the last decade, Penguin Classics has reedited most of James’ novels and stories in a new series under the general editorship of one of the most prominent Jamesian critics, Philip Horne. NYRB Classics has also included many of James’ little known titles in their series, while Cambridge University Press is planning a new, multi-volume critical edition of James’ works, to be published by 2016 for the centenary of his death.

It is clear that James is not passé, and never was. He is, in fact, perhaps more relevant than ever; but his works lie in a strange place outside of time, and they were written that way. James was and remains a demanding author because he found something intensely true about the complexity of human nature and felt compelled to communicate this truth in the stories that took hold of his imagination. He was a careful writer, true to his art and craft, and a meticulous revisionist. His works are deep, long, airless dives into the complexities and multiplicities of the self. It’s not an easy subject to write about. His stories, lacking in plot, are simple accounts: mere turning points in the lives of characters or revelations of social organizations. Yet in their self-consciousness and ambiguities, and even in the circumlocutions of James’ language — which in truth is closer to the fragmented consciousness of modernism than to Victorian verbosity — they reveal something irresistibly true about life.

It’s easy, of course, to call binge reading Henry James a joy when the term is over and the essay is handed in and corrected. For most of the duration of the course, I would’ve probably called the process “Henry James and the Woes of Binge Reading”. Often times it felt like I was out of breath as I jumped from one work to the next, trying to catch up on my reading just before class, and then having to move on to the next book down the list without having finished the previous one.

But, as anyone who has taken a class like this (or anyone who has ever binge read from a single author in a short period of time) will know, this type of reading can also be highly rewarding. One passes from one book to the next almost seamlessly, without having to adapt to a new style, witnessing (if the works are read more or less chronologically) the progression of the writer’s art over time, the evolution of his concerns, and the development of his authorial voice.

James’ themes become richer and more multi-faceted when looked at across his entire oeuvre: things like the so-called international theme, problematic endings, his obsession with art and reality (or realism v. romance), and the self-consciousness of his fiction. For instance, I noticed that in nearly all of his novels, whenever fate intervenes in a way that seems exaggerated, a character usually declares something along the lines of: “I feel like we’re in a novel!”

The binge reader also starts to notice stock characters as they crop up from story to story. One of the most common, in James, is the young, empowered American heiress: for example the eponymous heroine of “Daisy Miller”, James’ first successful story; Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady, who struggles between her freedom and her duty; and Maggie Verver (aka The Princess) in The Golden Bowl, who starts off as a meek wife and manages to get rid of her husband’s lover (also married to her father) by the end of the novel through the most skillful, subtle social maneuvering.

Theater is another recurring (although not always explicit) theme in Jamesian fiction. James uses a great deal of theatrical metaphor throughout his stories to describe the shifting nature of his characters and the multiplicity of their personalities, which they project out into the world like carefully constructed roles. Thus the adulterous women in his novels — another stock character — like Madame de Vionnet in The Ambassadors or Madame Merle in The Portrait of a Lady, are often described as actresses. They put on masks, makeup, and costumes and bury their identities beneath layers of constructed characteristics to manipulate their audiences.

Perhaps the great number of theatrical metaphors relates to James’ involvement with the theatre, which more or less ended with the failure of his play Guy Domville in 1895 (again, shortly before his “late phase” began). It was a deeply traumatic experience for James (both Tóibín and Lodge make it a central element in their novels). He described the humiliating premier in a letter to Henrietta Rendell as “the most horrible hours of my life.” Thus James was forced to return to the less lucrative — albeit probably more comfortable — business of writing for print only (“thank heaven there is another art”), but it is clear that his failure in the theater left its mark.

It seems I didn’t want to get away from Henry James after the course was over because I continued to peruse his Life in Letters, brilliantly edited by Philip Horne, which has some really beautiful bits of writing in it. I also read The Master by Colm Tóibín, and I would like to end with a few words on this book. It walks the fine line between biography and novel, a tricky genre that Tóibín pulls off majestically. It proves an insightful way of writing and thinking about James, whose life and work are a complicated balance of fiction and reality.

Tóibín’s novel is a gripping, major work of literature, which I binge read with relish not because I had to, but because it offers a fascinating exploration of James as a character whose consciousness is revealed to be as complex and deeply moving as those of the characters he, in turn, created. Tóibín’s novel offers a prism through which many of James’ works are refracted, illuminating them with new meaning and a more directly human resonance. He also treats James’ probable homosexuality with subtlety and respect — no easy feat. The Master is a good read intrinsically, as well; intelligent, endearing, moving, and even funny at times (in a quiet, quaint, all too Jamesian way).

If you read nothing by Henry James or nothing else related to him, I urge you, at least, to read The Master. It seems almost disrespectful to the “master” in question to say so, but I am confident that if you do read Tóibín’s novel, you’ll be tempted to pick up one of James’ books afterward. I’m quite certain you won’t be disappointed by either.

On My Shelves

Behind my desk, in my bedroom, there is a large bookcase divided into 25 cubes. On the wall facing my desk there are three bookshelves. Instead of a table, there is also a shelf at my bedside. Beside my desk is an additional bookcase, the Billy model from Ikea, with six shelves. All this shelf space amounts to about 56 feet.

I have turned my attention to my bookshelves and not what stand on them because I am reorganizing my personal library. I need to know how much space I have for my books, in order to accommodate the existing space for a logical, efficacious, and personalized classification system for the books I own, which currently amount to just short of 500 volumes. My endeavor, of course, is not a very great one. I do have a considerable number of books, but by no means is my collection large or unwieldy. I’m only 20, and as such my library is not a lifetime’s library — it is only the nucleus of a true library, with burgeoning interests, mistakes, discoveries, a few treasures, and several shortcomings.

As for the organization of the books, well, I must say that in its current state the classification is far from optimal. Most of last semester’s books are still on the shelf above my desk and deserve integration with the rest of my collection, instead of groupings by course reading material. My French books are all together in the Billy bookcase, which results in separating the Penguin edition of Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 and Other Stories, 1892-1895 from the French translation of Chekhov’s (or, as it were, Tchekhov’s) plays, published by Folio in two paperback volumes.

Similarly, the current state of my books creates rifts between ideas and eras, or tensions where there shouldn’t be any. For instance my enormous paperback of Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems lies on a shelf above my desk because I was too lazy to make room for it in the cubes. Thus Ginsberg is a room apart from his friend Kerouac (if their belonging to the Beats shouldn’t be enough to bring them together, Ginsberg even took the pictures on the cover of On the Road, which I think calls for neighboring spots on my shelves). In the cubes there are other inconsistencies: Junot Díaz is between the single volume Chronicles of Narnia and Anne Michaels; Hemingway shares his shelf with Amitav Ghosh, Toni Morrison, and Nabokov — I can’t think of any reason why those authors should rub covers.

Likewise, when I see Eco’s The Name of the Rose on one shelf and his collection of essays On Literature on the opposite wall, I know it is time to take all the books out, dust off the shelves, and start again from scratch.

The first step in reorganizing my personal library is finding a system. Of this, there are many, some more improvised than others. In his bible of bibliomania, The Library at Night, Alberto Manguel explores the different facets of the library, and also the different ways to organize books. For his own collection of 30,000 books, which he keeps in his château in France, Manguel has chosen to divide his books by language, and then place them alphabetically. Rather drab for me, I think, considering the small size of my own book collection.

Some book collectors have been more original. Take Samuel Pepys for instance, the great 17th century diarist, who maintained a personal library (which still exists) of 3,000 books exactly, not a volume more. What is, perhaps, the most astounding feature of Pepys’ library is the way in which the books were organized: by size. All his volumes were numbered from 1 to 3,000, from smallest to biggest, and placed in that order in his bookcases, each volume bound in matching leather, and each book resting on a little wooden stilt matching the cover, to create unity in height — gentlemanly elegance.

What may be acknowledged about any organizational system is that they all have certain limitations. Even the Dewey Decimal System, used by the majority of public libraries in the world — which divides human knowledge into ten decimals, in turn subdivided into ten categories, and so on — is limited when it comes to books with split subjects (take the excellent Time Among the Maya, by Ronald Wright, which is part travel journal in Mesoamerica, part history book on the Mayas).

But I am looking for a more intuitive organizational system, something flexible and creative. An article in The Guardian’s online book section discussed “bookshelf etiquette,” organizational systems like grouping books by theme or color. One of the propositions was to place books together by potential for their authors to be friends. I choose a different path: all of an author’s books are together (no matter the language), authors that go well together go together, other books are placed by association of genre or style. I will start with that in mind, and see where it brings me.

I remove books from my shelves. I grab multiple spines between my thumb and fingers, slide out the volumes and pile them on my desk, on the floor — soon my room is like a messy cave of paper and multicolored covers and spines. The wall behind my desk is bland, covered in empty cubes, spacious and clean. I am reminded of a time, not so long ago, when my entire book collection did not even fit on the six shelves of a Billy bookcase.

As I take the books out of their bookcases, crack open a few to see if the words inside still have the same ring, and admire the beauty of some covers, I start to understand that there are some books I do no want anymore. There is a vital difference between books you do not need and books you no longer want to have. I would willingly keep a book I hated if it had a nice cover (and I do, like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes, a silly collection of short stories with a stunning, elegant cover). The books I am ready to give away are books I don’t care about: they are ugly, I have had them for too long, I have never read them and never will — they simply become a waste of space.

Take How to Read Novels Like a Professor, a paperback I bought a couple of years ago, in an attempt to uncover some of literature’s secrets before entering University. I drop the book with the other giveaways. A few days later I pick it up again and this passage catches my attention: “Books lead to books, ideas to ideas. You can wear out a hundred hammocks and never reach the end. And that’s the good news.” I certainly agree with that. No English major would be supposed to be caught dead with such a preposterously titled book in their library, and maybe that’s the reason why I wanted to give it away in the first place. I decide to keep it in my collection after all — for now.

In the end I’ve put aside two dozen books in the giveaway pile. By no means am I kidding myself that I’m actually getting rid of a large chunk of my library.  I admire people who are able to rid themselves of books they love, give books away selflessly so that others can enjoy them. I know I could never do such a thing.

I admit, with a hint of guilt, that I have not read all the books I own. Not even close. The majority of them, yes (I hope), but far from all of them. Despite the incredible amount of reading left for me to do before I really know my library, almost every week I buy more books.

Part of the problem lies in my appreciation for books as objects, as elegant collectibles. I like not only to read them, but to look at them, touch them. Larry McMurtry has phrased it rather elegantly in his memoir, titled simply, Books:

But there can be secondary and tertiary reasons for wanting a particular book. One is the pleasure of holding the physical book itself: savoring the type, the binding, the book’s feel and heft. All these things can be enjoyed apart from literature, which some, but not all, books contain.

While I have shelves full of books I have not read at home, I keep on thinking about which books I’m going to buy next. Although minor, this problem does create a fair amount of anxiety, essentially caused by the fact that I simply don’t read enough. Furthermore, as I reorganize my books I realize there are many I would like to reread soon. (At the top of my list: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows…) Sometimes I wish I were that man in the Twilight Zone episode who finds himself in the ruins of a public library, with lots of food and all the time in the world to read all the books he wants.

My library is also the most personal of filing systems, with countless mementos flattened between the covers of the books. There is a card from a blood-drive marking a page in Greenblatt’s biography of Shakespeare, reminding me of when I can give blood again. I slam away the congratulations card from the English department of my college which awarded me a prize in Shakespeare studies (oddly, the quote on the card is by Anaïs Nin) in the bard’s complete works (leatherbound, gold page edges). A business card from the Winding Staircase, a charming Dublin bookstore, falls out of De Niro’s Game, which I read in Ireland. Between my Oscar Wildes I find a touching card from my parents, given to me when I turned 18. I choose a better place for it: between the pages of a book on self-fashioning in the Renaissance they bought for me at Shakespeare and Company, in Paris, a place I have only been to in my dreams.

I have finally emptied all my shelves. It was long — and tedious. Not in the physical sense, but in one that is, of sorts, moral. Removing all those books was the undoing of something that was set, a collection which, it seems, had built itself up, slowly, purposefully, into a cohesive whole. The work of an oyster.

After the toil of the unmaking, now I have to rebuild my library up — restock the shelves that now stand cleared, poised, filled only with light and shadows. After some consideration, the first book I place back on the top left cube, is Beowulf, masterfully translated by Seamus Heaney, the beginning of literature in English. I have to rifle down the spines of a few piles before I finally locate it.

Next up goes Tolkien. I cannot resist — without him I’m not sure Beowulf would even be taught in schools at all. His translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, first, to soften the transition, and then The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Tree and Leaf, and The Children of Hurin. Then I place Herodotus, whom my girlfriend assures me thinks exactly like Tolkien. I am startled by my audacity. There is a jump from 10th century Anglo-Saxon manuscript to 20th Century fantasy writer to the father of history, a fifth-century Greek — my system is either creative or blasphemous.

My girlfriend came to help me. Her presence was motivating — I have done more work in half an hour than in the last week. The Canterbury Tales are inserted between Beowulf and Tolkien by her recommendation, I add Peter Ackroyd’s The Clerkenwell Tales beside it. A cube inspired by military history starts with Thucydides and ends with a biography on George Washington — yet George Orwell, Alan Moore, and Annie Proulx all end up on it by association. From the look in my girlfriend’s eyes I know she thinks this is starting to look like a madman’s library. Nothing new there, bibliomania is a psychological disorder, I am told.

Putting Sylvia Plath with her husband Ted Hughes feels wrong, so we try to find a new lover for her. I think of Byron as a joke, my girlfriend proposes Mary Shelley as a fellow tortured female writer. The offer is accepted and Plath serves as transition into gothic fiction. Ironically, Byron ends up just after Shelley anyway (they shared more than shelf-space in their lives, after all), and before Polidori and Stoker. Books start to place themselves on their own.

There is a cube for my books about books: Anne Fadiman and Manguel, Borges (which I can no longer dissociate from the latter), 501 Must-Read Books, A Gentle Madness, The Companionship of Books, and others go here. There is a cube, or half of it, at least, for Faber friends: Eliot, Hughes, Graham Swift, Kazuo Ishiguro. Edgy writers (Bukowski, Tony O’Neill, Mark SaFranco, Writing at the Edge) share their cube with erotic fiction (The Gates of Paradise, Delta of Venus, the Marquis de Sade, Wetlands by Charlotte Roche, La vie sexuelle de Catherine M.) — Neil Strauss buffers between them.

I go on like this, a few minutes every day. Slowly, surely, books leave my floor, my desk, my bed, my bathroom, and regain their place on the shelves in some kind of order. Some associations are obvious — others, not so much.

Finally the cubes are filled again. I can breathe a bit more in my bedroom. I enjoy looking at the neat rows of spines, follow the literary path of my own twisted organization system. Still, there are many flaws on my shelves, mainly caused by lack of room (or perhaps because the number of books is too great). Some books just don’t “fit” anywhere, others would go well in too many places. Ian McEwan, for instance, ends up sharing his shelf with female writers like Doris Lessing, Emily Brontë, and Virginia Woolf. I have to think of the shelves as a work in progress in order to live with their limitations.

Then, of course, there are also some things I love about the new shelf-arrangement: the various degrees of moral and social incorrectness in the cube that starts with Oscar Wilde, then moves to Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence; how A Moveable Feast rubs covers with John Glassco’s Memoirs of Montparnasse; and that His Dark Materials finally stands beside my three editions of Paradise Lost.

Over my desk I place essays on philosophy and literature. My heavy anthologies — costly books with a fair amount of repetition (parts of The Canterbury Tales appear in at least three of them) and some textbooks I keep as reference — go in the sturdy Billy. I also shelve my art books there, like my Janson’s History of Art, as well as some exhibition catalogues, which map out my travels: the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, the Ivan Mestrovic Gallery in Split.

Lastly, I put back my books in French. I keep them together, two compact shelves of ivory spines. I have always wondered at the uniformity of French covers, often white, usually bland. I start with Don Quixote, move down to Alexandre Dumas, the Arsène Lupins which belonged to my father, then Québecois literature. The next shelf is mostly from France: Sartre, Camus, Flaubert, and Littell (which I put beside the latter because of the masterful description in Les Bienveillantes of the narrator reading L’Éducation sentimentale as he walks through fields devastated by war), and contemporary authors like Makine, Folco, and Pennac.

Now my shelves are full again, or almost. I have given away enough books to leave two empty shelves — one in the Billy and the topmost shelf above my desk — waiting to be filled by new acquisitions (which certainly won’t be long in coming).

This adventure in bookshelf etiquette helped me take control of my library, rediscover what I have, solidify my appreciation for my books — the majority of which are probably going to follow me for the rest of my life. I have realized how many books I own but have not read (The Portrait of a Lady, Nicholas Nickleby, War and Peace, Beyond Black…), but I know that I am not quite ready for some of them, and they can wait a while longer. I dream of owning and reading all of Atwood, Munro, Updike. There are many books I should own but do not: I have nothing by J.M. Coetzee, or Ovid, or Paul Auster. I have Bolaño’s 2666, but not the Savage Detectives; Waugh’s Vile Bodies but not Brideshead Revisited; Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, but not Love in the Time of Cholera. My book collection is full of hopes and holes.

Thus I have a second library, in my mind, of which my real, physical book collection is only the tip (to use that famous iceberg metaphor). Underneath my shelves lie all the books I want, all the books I should have (dictated by the canon, or recommendations from friends and famous people), all the books I need, like Borges’ fabulous Library of Babel, extending out into book-lined room after book-lined room, infinitely.

Now, you will have to excuse me, but I have to stop this business — I have some reading to do.

[Image source: Stewart Butterfield]