Scars That Never Fade: On Colson Whitehead’s ‘The Underground Railroad’


Colson Whitehead’s novel John Henry Days opens with differing versions of the same story, told by witnesses and observers, all recounting John Henry’s famous battle with the steam-powered hammer. No story is the same. For men wagering on whether John Henry would defeat the machine, Whitehead writes, “[e]ach wager was a glimpse into the man who made it;” just the same, each story — the details remembered or who won the contest, for example — is a glimpse into the storyteller. The power of the folk hero, it becomes quickly evident, lies not in what actually happened; John Henry Days is not after the real story, but what it means that America keeps telling the story of the black steel-driving man.

With his new novel, Whitehead has picked another well-known story often retold: the secret transportation network of slaves before the Civil War. Frederick Douglass (who famously escaped via a literal railroad) and Harriet Jacobs both wrote popular accounts of their slavery. Slave escapes play a large part in the plot of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852, about the same time The Underground Railroad is set. Numerous accounts of slaves and escapes were later collected and preserved by the Works Progress Administration.

Whitehead has said that he relied upon many of these narratives, particularly the Works Progress Administration accounts, in writing The Underground Railroad, and many actual advertisements for catching runaway slaves preface the book’s chapters. But for this story — probably Whitehead’s finest — history is a stepping-stone.

The Underground Railroad’s prologue summarizes the life of Ajarry. Kidnapped from her home, she is transported across the Atlantic. Standing naked on a platform, her breasts are pinched by an agent, who acquires her for $226.00. She’s eventually sold and re-sold, from southern plantation to plantation, bondage to bondage, price rising with each transaction, “appraised and re-appraised, each day waking upon the pan of a new scale.” She births five children, one of whom, Mabel, survives into adulthood, and has a child of her own, Cora. Ajarry dies in bondage, “[a]s if it could have been anywhere else.”

The bulk of the novel then follows Cora, Ajarry’s granddaughter, a slave by birth on the Randall Plantation in Georgia, owned by the (respectively) cruel and distracted Randall Brothers. Mabel escaped the plantation when Cora was 10 or 11, only leaving her daughter a three-yard plot of okra and yams. As a result, Cora grows up bitter at having been left behind. But she also emerges as clever and conscientious, someone who “cursed herself for her smallmindedness.”

From her early days she suffers greatly, including as a victim of gang rape by her fellow slaves. When she is approached by Caesar, another slave on the plantation, to escape, she is at first reluctant (channeling her grandmother), eventually willing (channeling her mother). During their escape, they spar with and kill a white boy who tries to return them to the plantation, and are relentlessly tracked by Ridgeway, a slavecatcher who had never been able to successfully apprehend Mabel. They flee through South Carolina and beyond. Either outcome seems possible: that Cora will die a slave in the “ruthless mechanism of the world,” like Ajarry, or experience the “eddy of liberation,” like her mother.

By now, if you have read anything about this novel — perhaps that it was on President Obama’s Summer Reading List, or that it has been blessed by Oprah Winfrey, or that it has become a #1 New York Times Bestseller — you know its central conceit. For Cora’s escape, the Underground Railroad is an actual underground network of trains, schedules, handcars with pumps, and tunnels that gradually lead north. Some of the stations are elaborate constructions, with comfortable waiting areas and refreshments, and some are rundown holes with boxcars. The tunnels and conductors are under a repeat threat of discovery. For something fantastic (imagine the engineering feat), not a bit of it is lacking in verisimilitude; it possesses its own history and myth, spliced with just the right amount of mystery.

Whitehead’s brilliance is on constant display here. After five previous novels, each very different, this is the only thing we can count on. It’s hard to imagine a new novel farther from Whitehead’s last, the zombie thriller Zone One. The Underground Railroad shares some features with his debut work, The Intuitionist, and his second novel, John Henry Days; both novels confront issues of race and American history through less-than-straightforward methods — a Whitehead signature.

The Underground Railroad is a more frank confrontation, albeit with a dose of magical realism. As he did in John Henry Days, Whitehead has taken something emblematic of a period in American history and pulled a nifty trick: he has made it simultaneously real and ahistorical. In The Intuitionist, Whitehead freely played with elevators, which obtained the weight of metaphor but not the heft of a symbol. Every American schoolchild learns about the Underground Railroad. As Kathryn Schultz recently wrote, the story of the Underground Railroad that Americans know was “not quite wrong, but simplified; not quite a myth, but mythologized.” It assuages the national guilt; it reminds us of the noble struggle for freedom, and not the astounding moral failing that kept such an institution legal for more than a century. (In Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, slavery is often simply, and appropriately, talked of as “the law.”)

When, here, Whitehead revisits the greatest crime in American history, he thus also revisits its greatest attempt at commutation, the “mythologized” Underground Railroad, and all the compromises that made it necessary. As one character says, slavery produced “scars [that] will never fade.” America “[i]s a delusion, too, the grandest one of all,” built on “murder, theft and cruelty” — best personified by a slave boy on the Randall Plantation, who has been taught to memorize the Declaration of Independence but has no grasp of its meaning.

Toward the end of The Underground Railroad, Cora receives some advice. As she rides the railroad, she is instructed thusly: “Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.” Of course, there is nothing to see from an underground track — only the dim of the subterranean world. Whitehead’s book asks: How can a country ever put such a period behind it? Putting the famous Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill won’t change the fact that American money was used to purchase people. “This isn’t Mississippi in the fifties, J.,” one character in John Henry Days tells the protagonist. “It’s always Mississippi in the fifties,” J. answers.

Besides the underground locomotives, Whitehead has sprinkled other touches of magical realism, or anachronisms, throughout this book, including ghosts, a skyscraper in 1850s South Carolina, and the Museum of Natural Wonders, which, among its exhibits, re-creates anodyne living dioramas of the human trafficking trade. For a time, Cora, believing she has found her freedom in South Carolina, works in the museum, participating in the slave ship display. She quickly finds out that, even in her freedom, “[t]ruth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach.” These purposefully absurd sections are perhaps the closest thing to Whitehead’s older work, and his jocular tone; the rest of The Underground Railroad, rather, is sober and measured. “[I]t is a serious subject that didn’t seem to warrant my usual satire and joking,” Whitehead told Vulture.

The ironies are cruel ones, taken from life: the doctors who sterilize black people in South Carolina, where Cora first emerges after her travel on the railroad, and justify the procedure to black women as “a chance for you to take control over your own destiny.” In a one-off chapter, a grave robber reflects on stealing black bodies for the medical schools, observing, based on the obviously identical anatomy between whites and blacks: “In death the negro became a human being. Only then was he the white man’s equal.”

The plotting is deft and sure-handed. But the story slows for poignant moments, like Cora’s frisson when she finally puts on a soft cotton dress in South Carolina. There, she guiltily enjoys one of the keys product that drove the entire system of bondage.

The inventiveness that characterizes elements of his plot extends to his voice in this novel. In interviews he has said it emerged complete from just writing the first section on Ajarry, and the resulting omniscient narrator’s words prove lapidary, perhaps including some of the best writing Whitehead has done. The prose, in short, is spectacular. Few books have demanded so much tabbing, so many bookmarks, and so many marginal notes — so often do crystalline turns of phrase and aphorisms materialize. Take this: “Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close, but from outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits.” Or this: “In liberty or bondage, the African could not be separated from the American.”

The Underground Railroad is ultimately a story about a motherless girl searching for some kind of protection and love, but often finding only exploitation. It is ruthless in its depiction of the antebellum world, but threads of hope also emerge from the bravery of many characters, and from the feat of the railroad itself: “The up-top world must be so ordinary compared to the miracle beneath,” the book goes.

As for Cora, as for America, the scars of slavery won’t fade:
Once Mabel ran, Cora thought of her as little as possible…[S]he realized she banished her mother not from sadness, but rage. She hated her. Having tasted freedom’s bounty, it was incomprehensible to Cora that Mabel had abandoned her to that hell.
Even if she finds her way out of hell, it’s clear that freedom doesn’t mean heaven. “The Declaration [of Independence] is like a map,” one character tells Cora. “You trust that it’s right, but you only know by going out and testing it yourself.”

Haunting Us Still: W.G. Sebald’s A Place in the Country

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We tend to associate W.G. Sebald and his characters strongly with melancholy and sadness. “[T]he figures who populate Sebald’s world are lost souls,” Ruth Franklin has noted, “breaking beneath the burden of their own anguish.” Susan Sontag said that Sebald’s voice has a “passionate bleakness.” “W.G. Sebald’s books…have a posthumous quality to them,” Geoff Dyer stated. “He wrote — as was often remarked — like a ghost.” Others have written about Sebald’s “weary, melancholy wisdom” (Mark O’Connell) and his characters being “racked by conflict between a self-protective urge to block off a painful past and a blind groping for something, they know not what, that has been lost” (J.M. Coetzee).

No wonder, then, that most everything written about W.G. Sebald, at least in the last dozen years, begins with his death. In 2001, Sebald was driving not far from his home in Norwich, England, with his daughter, Anna. We now know he suffered a heart attack, and the car, as a result, swerved into oncoming traffic, where it collided with a truck head-on. Anna, badly injured, survived. Perhaps it is because we connect Sebald so strongly with the past—and that his sad, sudden death seems as tragic as anything in his books— that we cannot get over his own passing. At only 57, and during the prime of a literary career that didn’t bloom until he was in middle age, Sebald left too soon. As much as Sebald wrote about the past — he noted in an interview he was “hardly interested in the future” because there was “something terribly alluring” about the past — we are obsessed with the future that wasn’t, with the books that he didn’t live to write.

Posthumously, however, a few books have been trickling into English, including Across the Land and the Water, a collection of poems; Campo Santo, a collection of essays on Corsica; and now A Place in the Country, a series of six essays on artists Sebald found inspirational. Although this book was first published in German in 1998, it only arrives now in English, translated by Jo Catling; in a way, Sebald has not died quite yet — at least not for us English-language readers.

Reading A Place in the Country, then, marks that sad Rubicon.

“A Place in the Country” opens hauntingly enough, with a foreword written by the author, discussing his reasons for embarking on this work: “The unwavering affection for Hebel, Keller, and Walser,” Sebald writes, “was what gave me the idea that I should pay my respects to them before, perhaps, it may be too late.” (Even Sebald opens an essay with a oblique statement about his own death.) The bulk of the focus here is on German language writers — Eduard Mörike, Johann Peter Hebel, Gottfried Keller, Robert Walser — but the volume also includes a taut exploration of the hyperrealistic pictures of German painter and former Sebald classmate Jan Peter Tripp, and a masterful, long excursion (part travelogue, part biography) into the life of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

I suspect there may be two essential audiences for this type of book. The first are the Sebald enthusiasts, who have gobbled down everything he has written; and the second are those who are genuinely interested in the artists Sebald explores. While the book may have some revelations for the latter group, it seems more likely the Sebald devotees will find more to like.

Each of these essays’ subjects could have fit into Sebald’s fiction — perhaps most especially in The Rings of Saturn, which most closely resembles nonfiction — although here they receive as deep of a consideration as any historical figure in the novels. The deepest and most profound analysis, rightfully, is for Walser, a writer who, Sebald says, “was only ever connected with the world in the most fleeting of ways” and for whom there exists “no reliable answer” as to what he was. Born in Switzerland, Walser was a lonely young ascetic — a “clairvoyant of the small” in his own words — who, Sebald reports, probably died a virgin and didn’t even possess copies of his own books. He only ended up famous posthumously, thanks to the work of Carl Seelig, his champion, who secured the cryptic pencil writings Walser had been incessantly working on toward the end of his life. But despite Seelig, Walser “remains a singular, enigmatic figure.” Here Walser seems a prototypical, aloof Sebald protagonist, akin to the nameless narrator of The Rings of Saturn, who says he sets off on a walk of Suffolk “in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work.” Walser, perhaps the most famous literary walker after Sebald himself, may have been the model for this — and, to some extent, all the others. It is testament to Sebald’s command and distinctive imprint on our imaginations that Walser’s biography now seems utterly Sebaldian. Walser is almost as fine a Sebaldian character as Austerlitz, the eponymous protagonist of Sebald’s final novel.

Nearly equally impressive to the Walser essay — although for different reasons — is the piece on Rousseau, the famous promeneur solitaire. Part travelogue and part biography, Sebald frames the essay around the period the famous philosopher spent on the Swiss Île de St-Pierre. Sebald first sighted the island in September of 1965, some 200 hundred years to the day that Rousseau found refuge there. It takes Sebald another 31 years, however, before he visits the island in 1996.

The Île de St-Pierre was the last redoubt Rousseau possessed in his native Switzerland, and was, he would later report, the place where he was the happiest. Rousseau spent much of his time on the island botanizing, writing ceaseless letters, and drafting a constitution for Corsica. The philosopher’s room was fitted with a trapdoor, to allow Rousseau to escape from visitors’ constant calls, and Sebald provides a memorable imagining of what must have happened there:
When one considers the extent and diversity of this creative output, one can only assume that Rousseau must have spent the entire time hunched over his desk in an attempt to capture, in the endless sequences of lines and letters, the thoughts and feelings incessantly welling up within him.
As he so often does so well, Sebald takes the sins and the tragedy of Rousseau — a man who abandoned all of his children, and who has been the subject of endless character studies and biographical attention — and pulls out something fresh: “No one…recognized the pathological aspect of thought as acutely as Rousseau, who himself wished for nothing more than to be able to halt the wheels ceaselessly turning within his head.” He has much in common with the four exiles in The Emigrants.

While the other German-language writers Sebald focuses on may have made less of an impression on us English-language readers, they are no less important to Sebald. In Keller, Sebald writes, “no other literary work of the nineteenth century can the developments that have determined our lives even down to the present day be traced as clearly…” Like Rousseau — who was a huge influence on Keller’s Green Henry — Keller was a similar victim of thought: for many years, Keller subjected himself to writing, to the “attempt to contain the teeming black scrawl which everywhere threatens to gain the upper hand, in the interests of maintaining a halfway functional personality.” This is a bleak notion of one’s art, but then again, Keller seemed to live a fairly bleak personal life: “From the very beginning, despite a deep need of and evidently inexhaustible capacity for love, Keller’s life was marked by rejection and disappointment.”

Of the avuncular Hebel, Sebald paints a somewhat sunnier portrait, as he does with Eduard Morike, who lived surrounded by women. Yet all — including Walser — Sebald cites as having a certain “unluckiness in love,” which Sebald connects with the beauty of their writing. This notion only seems somewhat silly in retrospect. To be fair, Sebald also cites these artists’ “very long memor[ies],” but one imagines they didn’t hone such an “adeptness at their craft” because of a couple bad breakups. (Or, in Keller and Walser’s case, the lack of a break-up at all.) But, in Sebald’s essays, these fuzzy bits of logic are few and far between — what we are left with is a striking series of stories and feelings, all connected in surprising ways. Ruth Franklin has said that Sebald’s life project was a “a drawing-out of connections primarily through language and image rather than narrative or causality.” In that way, A Place in the Country is a rousing success.

If one was hoping for more insight into the author himself (as I admittedly was), this volume may disappoint. Instead of the mischievous narrators of his fiction — nearly always sharing significant details with Sebald, such as a similar hometown or profession, or through the use of photographs actually taken by Sebald himself — we receive only fleeting, if transparent, glimpses of the writer beneath. (The most interesting may be the importance of his grandfather in Sebald’s life.) But what the book may lack in personal revelations about the author, it makes up for with a better understanding of his process — “an oblique comment on his own style of writing,” as translator Jo Catling notes in her foreword. Much can be gleaned from Sebald’s careful analysis of Hebel and Walser.

Anything more direct and personal would probably have not been fitting, anyway. Sebald’s writing is as much about what is written on the page as what cannot be. (“What Sebald seems to be writing about, in other words,” Mark O’Connell astutely observed, “is frequently not what he wants us to be thinking about.”) It is elliptical, because, it seems, some things have to be; words cannot describe every feeling, every sensation — no matter how many we write — and of all multitudinous topics that would be tough to grasp, perhaps the complexities and depths of our own selves are the most difficult. Even the prodigious Rousseau, Keller, and Walser could not contain half of everything in their works. Walser claimed to be always writing the same book, a novel which could be described as “a much-chopped up or dismembered Book of Myself.” We can take much from the fact he was scribbling up until the very end.

The authors in this volume, Sebald writes, have given him “the persistent feeling of being beckoned from the other side.” Sebald has now become one of these ghosts, haunting us still. Writers “are expected to keep writing until the pen drops from their hand.” Even though the pen was taken from his grasp far too early, we are lucky that Sebald, for a time, held it firm.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

The Darkness is Deep Indeed: On Javier Marías’s The Infatuations

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Maria Dolz sees the same couple at the same café in the same city, Madrid, nearly every morning. “[T]he sight of them together” calmed her, and provided her “with a vision of an orderly or, if you prefer, harmonious world.” Maria works for a book publisher, where she often must deal with vain and pretentious authors — including one who is so infatuated with the Nobel Prize that he has already prepared an acceptance speech in Swedish. She is somewhere just south of 40, and has not married. To her, the couple was the ideal form of love, a couple who unselfconsciously enjoyed every second in each other’s presence. “[I] didn’t regard them with envy, not at all,” Maria says, “but with a feeling of relief that in the real world there could exist what I believed to be a perfect couple.”

But then the husband, Miguel Desvern, is murdered violently by a deranged homeless man, who raves about his daughters’ forced prostitution and wildly accuses Desvern of taking his inheritance. Thus ends the tranquil preprandial café moments — although the murder is less jarring (for Maria) than its aftermath. After another encounter with Miguel’s wife, Luisa, Maria strikes up a small friendship. Maria also begins seeing Javier Diaz-Verela, a friend of the couple’s; their relationship forms the core of Spanish author Javier Marías’s 12th novel, The Infatuations.

If you have been paying attention, you have noticed this is a book by a man named Javier Marías that features a complicated story of Javier and Maria. And if you knew Javier Marías’s work, this type of tongue-in-cheek wordplay would not be surprising: While The Infatuations contains strong elements of its author’s biography — Marías’s own life is often a motif in his fiction — it is not autobiographical. His novels “dare us — subtly here, grandly there — to mistake the narrator for the author himself,” Wyatt Mason has written. “Marías seems to be saying, what we believe — and what is believed about us — is where the trouble begins.”

As The Infatuations opens, Maria Dolz believes, it seems, in love — or “true love,” as the way we often refer to it — of a “perfect couple.” And that was precisely the start of a catastrophe.

Javier Marías may be the only significant working writer to also be a king. As the sovereign of Redonda (a small, rocky island north of Montserrat and west of Antigua), Marías is the honorary (“void of content,” in his words) monarch. His two-decade reign has nearly entirely consisted of bestowing titles on various artists — John Ashbery is the Duke of Convexo, for example — as part of an effort at tongue-in-cheek recognition.

Marías does not take it seriously, but the title of “king,” in some ways, feels apt. The cover of The Infatuations notes striking praise for the author from heavyweights J.M. Coetzee (“one of the best contemporary European writers”), Roberto Bolaño (“By far Spain’s best writer today”) and Orhan Pamuk (Marías “should get the Nobel Prize”). His books have sold more than 6.5 million copies throughout the world, and have been translated into 42 languages, yet neither my local libraries nor any hometown shop — independent bookstore or Barnes & Noble — carried any of his titles, and even the state university’s large library only had a handful of his books, mostly in Spanish. Marías may be royalty, but in the United States he remains nearly as obscure as Redonda.

Nearly the moment after Marías’s birth, his father, Julián, a philosopher, moved from Madrid to Massachusetts for a teaching job at Wellesley, while Marías, his mother, and his older brothers moved shortly thereafter. Marías would spend chunks of his childhood in the United States, where his first novel, completed before he turned 21, was set; but he eventually went on to study English at Complutense University in Madrid. After two novels, he turned to translation for a half-dozen years. His work — Spanish versions of Sir Thomas Browne, Laurence Sterne, and William Faulkner, for example — seems to be a guide to his subsequent fiction. For a period he taught translation theory at Oxford, where his novel All Souls takes place. It is difficult to understate how fundamental translation (as a concept) is to reading Marías, and that is perhaps one reason why reading him in English seems almost as fitting as the original Spanish; indeed, his work, in its original language, has been criticized as “sound[ing] like translations,” because, among other things, it lacks much distinct Spanish-ness, no (in Marias’s words) “bullfighting, no passionate women.” To Marias, sounding like a translation was praise, even if it was meant as an insult. “One of the things I didn’t want to be was what they call a ‘real Spanish writer.'”

A translator is a “privileged reader and a privileged writer,” Marías has said. “[I]f I ever had my own creative writing school I would only admit people who could translate, and I would make them do it over and over again.” The narrator of A Heart So White is a translator, for example; the narrator of Marías’s Your Face Tomorrow trilogy is an “interpreter of people,” who is asked to establish if a person would lie or kill in the future. Translation is, in typical Marías fashion, an allusion to his biography: the author’s own mother, in fact, was also a translator.

Marías’s other narrators are frequently interpreters by another name, who occupy themselves interpreting and translating, from Juan’s obsessive interpretations of his wife’s small gestures in A Heart So White, to Victor’s ghostwriting in Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, to Maria’s attempts at deciphering words not being said by feminine lips of Javier Diaz-Verela in The Infatuations. It is a fundamental human occupation, Marías seems to be conveying, prone to gaps and misses. “[A]ll the valuable information to which people imagine we translators and interpreters working in international organizations are privy,” Juan says, “in fact, escapes us completely, from beginning to end, from top to bottom, we haven’t a clue about what’s brewing or being plotted and planned in the world, not the slightest glimmer.”

As a regular columnist for El Pais, Marías has opined on a huge range of topics. Perhaps having to produce so much copy, and so often, has rendered him to strikingly straightforward and eloquent — in virtually any interview — about his process and his books, although one suspects that Marías possesses such grace naturally. He seems to understand his own writing — which often seems effortless, and never showy — better than anyone. He is a retort to Barthes: the author, in other words, is not dead, but a key to the entire process. “A novel is a more savage and wild thing in the sense that you can say anything, and your narrators or characters can say anything,” Marías has said. “Yet it still arrives at a kind of truth.”

The truth that The Infatuations arrives at, if it does, is a most uncomfortable and perplexing one.

Perhaps the only thing wrong with The Infatuations is its title. In Spanish, it is Los Enamoramientos, which could also be translated as “crushes,” but which is defined in the novel — in a long speech of Javier Diaz-Varela — as the “state of falling or being in love.” Of course, the title is one of the vagaries of translation — how fitting for a Marías novel — since “enamoramiento” cannot be easily translated into English. If, in English, there had been a noun form for “to be enamored with,” perhaps that would have worked best; still, “infatuation” manages well enough.

The book probes what defines the boundary between love and infatuation, and how often both can be on shaky ground. Our lives are “very limited in our choices of partner by location, class, history and who is willing to accept our advances,” Marías said, talking about the novel. “How many times are we not the first choice? Or even the second, or the third?”

This is rather a disturbing notion, after all; many hardened atheists still believe in love or perhaps a version of a soulmate, and most often it seems it’s the religiously devout who remain unmarried. The Infatuations purposefully attempts to suggest imperfect, impure love is more common than is ever spoken. Javier tells Maria that she is not in love with him, as she claims, and that “even the most transient and trivial of infatuations lack any real cause, and that’s even truer of feelings that go far deeper, infinitely deeper than that.” In this way, human affection seems tantamount to human hatred, such as the homeless man’s killing of Miguel: causeless, random, the product of inward self-obsessions instead of the outward direction of the self. (Perhaps that was hinted by “Maria” falling for “Javier,” as they are both just the creations of Javier Marías.)

But maybe this depressing suggestion is just Marias speaking out of both sides of his mouth — what he has called *pensamiento literario*, or “literary thinking,” a way of thinking that lets the writer contradict himself. In The Infatuations, we have the possibility that perhaps life, unlike the novel, is quite a different, more complicated thing, and the jaded notions of manipulations and cynicism apparent to Maria are simply products of her bitter worldview: “…no novel would ever dare give houseroom to the infinite number of chances and coincidences that can occur in a single lifetime,” Maria thinks at one point, “let alone those that have already occurred and continue to occur. It’s quite shameful the way reality imposes no limits on itself.” It’s shameful to Maria, but perhaps it is hopeful for the rest of us.

Beyond the interesting ideas his work draws on, Marías’s novels are simply a pleasure to read — they possess the sort of flat, hypnotic quality of the prose of W.G. Sebald, who, along with Marías, can make anything seem interesting. Marias’s sentences — like Sebald’s — are long, and feature lots of commas, where thoughts appear and pop up and then disappear, building and strengthening, and often the sentences contains strings of complex and compound ideas, much like this sentence, as the author burrows further and further into particular moments, stretching them out for pages. His novels contain what Marías calls “a system of echoes or resonances,” or ideas, motifs, details, which the story keeps revisiting. Sometimes these are literary touchstones — in The Infatuations, Maria keeps coming back to bits of Balzac and Dumas, while in A Heart So White it is Macbeth — and other times they are bits of distinct dialogue or details (such as Diaz-Verela’s feminine lips). Perhaps because Marias does not outline his novels, these important “reoccurrences” feel organic. If there is a Chekhov’s gun, it was in the first draft.

Throughout the course of The Infatuations, Maria learns too much about Javier Diaz-Verela, too much about Luisa, too much about Miguel. The love of Luisa and Miguel, that perfect couple, is replaced with another kind of love — to say more would spoil it — that seems no less dedicated, if significantly less pure. There hardly exists, at the end of the novel, a “perfect couple,” but perhaps that feels more real. It is precisely these quandaries, contradictions, and realities that makes Marías’s fiction so good; The Infatuations, containing the qualities of Marías’s best work, is an important addition to his oeuvre.

Literature, Marías has said, “doesn’t properly illuminate things, but like the match it lets you see how much darkness there is.” The Infatuations leaves us with the unsettling possibility that the darkness is deep indeed.

Rural Prisons: Hamlin Garland’s Stories of the American Midwest

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In 1887, Hamlin Garland, then a 27-year-old aspiring writer, traveled by train from Boston back to his family’s farm in Ordway, South Dakota. Having spent most of his life in the Midwest, and shuttling around the Dakotas, Iowa, and Wisconsin, Garland was familiar with agrarian life, but with his return, he had evolved: “The ugliness, the endless drudgery,” he later wrote, “and the loneliness of the farmer’s lot smote me with stern insistence.” Once he arrived at home, he was even more shocked. “I found my mother imprisoned in a small cabin on the enormous sunburnt, treeless plain, with no expectation of ever living anywhere else.” He continued: “Deserted by her sons and failing in health, she endured the discomforts of her life uncomplainingly…” This encounter would have a profound impact on his life. Garland worried that he was “without power to aid my mother in any substantial way” and didn’t know what to do about it. The answer, then, must have seemed obvious: he would write short stories.

Garland’s first effort was the story “Mrs. Ripley’s Trip,” which later became part of his first collection Main-Travelled Roads, published to acclaim in 1891, but now mostly forgotten. Garland wrote the stories under “the mood of bitterness.” Mrs. Ripley, probably based on Garland’s own mother, is described in the story as “pathetically little, wizened, and hopeless in her ill-fitting garments” and with “withered and shapeless lips.” (His mother was one of the first to read the story.) Stuck in her house for many years, Mrs. Ripley suggests to her husband Ethan that she travel across the country to visit her relatives, whom she hasn’t seen since before the couple moved west. Ethan is genuinely surprised when he finds out she has spent years ferreting away coins for the trip — but the reader isn’t; we’ve have grown accustomed to her sharp and smart tongue.

Downtrodden and oppressed women, in fact, resonate in Main-Travelled Roads. Mrs. Haskins, the homeless wife in “Under the Lion’s Paw,” “like the heroic woman that she was, bore also uncomplainingly the most terrible burdens.” Julia Peterson had been working the fields on her father’s farm — toiling “Among the Corn Rows” — and dreaming of a husband to take her away, when she instead receives a sudden proposal from a modest local farmer, Rob. He makes a telling comment after he finds her tiredly plowing: “‘You’re pretty well used up, eh?'” Mrs. Sanford, in another story, starts her own general store when her husband’s bank fails and convinces him not to skip town to avoid his debts. And then there is Agnes, perhaps the toughest of them all, who in “A Branch Road” is forced into a marriage with a violent man after she thinks her beau stood her up. In fact, most every story of Main-Travelled Roads has a heroic, burdened woman. “Cut off from human community,” wrote Joseph McCullough in his introduction to the volume, “[the farm wife] is destined to live in a depressing, lonely life, with little or no intellectual, sexual, or emotional fulfillment.”

Garland’s obvious concern for the plight of women in the late 19th century American Midwest was not just a product of concern for his mother, though — he was actively involved in the day’s politics. Generally, the criticism of his fiction has been for its obviously political overtones. Take, for example, “Under the Lion’s Paw,” which was written under the influence of politician and political economist Henry George, and with the express purpose of persuading voters to enact a land value tax, which Garland contended more fairly excised wealthy property owners. Garland supported Populist candidates (including, along with his contemporary Willa Cather, William Jennings Bryan during Bryan’s 1896 presidential run). Sometimes the stories of Main-Travelled Roads are distractingly political, but other times an emotional core reveals itself, as when the poor farmer Grant, angry at the return of his prodigal (and successful) brother in “Up the Coolly,” says: “A man like me is helpless… Just like a fly in a pan of molasses. There ain’t any escape for him. The more he tears around the more liable he is to rip his legs off.”

Eventually, though, Garland grew weary of writing fiction. Perhaps this was for the best, as the quality of his writing had been diminishing since Main-Travelled Roads; even the later stories (added to the volume after initial publication) find Garland drifting toward the sentimental. Instead of telling fictional stories of farmers like his family and friends, Garland focused on telling his own — and by extension his family’s — story.

Born in a farm near West Salem, Wisconsin in 1860, Garland had been christened Hannibal Hamlin Garland, after Abraham Lincoln’s then-presidential running mate. Garland’s father was strict, his mother stoic. Continually moving the family, Richard Garland never had much luck farming. But his travails, and his difficult relationship with Garland’s mother, Charlotte, would provide his son with a rich source of material. There are echoes in many of the early stories.

Garland moved to Boston in the fall of 1884, and became enthralled with its in-bloom literary scene, culminating in a meeting with William Dean Howells in 1887 (not long before he returned for his career-forming trip back west). Howells was perhaps the biggest influence on Garland’s career, both in its development and in its success: he reviewed Main-Travelled Roads in Harper’s, calling it “robust and serious.” Starting in Boston, Garland would have a lasting influence on Stephen Crane, mentoring Crane and reading his manuscripts.

Son of the Middle Border was the first significant result of Garland’s turn away from fiction — although in 1894 he had produced a work of realist literary theory, Crumbling Idols, which Crane read fervently. Son of the Middle Border appeared serially before arriving as a book in 1917. It received such acclaim that he wrote Daughter of the Middle Border, the story of his wife’s family — he had married Zulime Taft, the sister of the sculptor, Lorado Taft, in 1899 — which won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography. He continued on to Trail-Makers of the Middle Border and Back-Trailers of the Middle Border a few years later. The latter completed the series by depicting the return of several members of his family back east.

Although his production later in life probably stained his reputation — Garland had turned, in the late 1920s, to credulously investigating psychic phenomena — the stories of Main-Travelled Roads remain nuanced and enlightening, pioneering pieces of realist fiction. And despite much of the criticism it has received — essentially for being didactic and dreary — Garland always ensured that there were some lessons that could not be taught, and some bright spots in the most dreadful existence. Mrs. Ripley, after her vacation, finds her life on the farm to be bearable again. In “A Day’s Pleasure,” a distraught wife enjoys an afternoon respite with some genuinely kind, wealthy benefactors. Mrs. Sanford continues her store even after her husband’s investments rebound, deciding she’s a better mother for working, too. Even poor Agnes escapes her misogynist husband by running off with her childhood sweetheart, baby in her arms, searching out a life east. Howard and Grant make peace after Howard scrounges up his money to buy the family’s old farm back. There are no easy solutions for these characters, and certainly no political ones. With his fiction, Garland said he sought to “touch the deeper feelings of the nation.” It is a shame that more are not reading these stories, which reach out from a hardscrabble time, and which still mirror our own.