Helen Garner was born in Geelong, Australia, in 1942. She’s been a key figure in Australian letters since 1977, when she published Monkey Grip, a short novel that confronted readers with the grit and lyricism they’ve since accepted as Garner’s trademarks. It was an appropriately bold start -- Garner had reaped a whirlwind of controversy in the early ‘70s when she gave frank answers to high school students she taught when they asked questions on matters of sexuality. She lost that job and launched herself as a writer, though she’s said that even with the publication of her first book, there wasn’t some grand shift in her identity. She wrote, then as now, to figure things out, to probe and test her ideas and preconceptions. She’s kept at it through four novels and half a dozen books of nonfiction, through awards -- most recently the Nonfiction and Premier’s Awards at the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards -- and controversy, as in the aftermath of The First Stone, which so aggrieved “the academic feminists and the Women’s Studies people.” She writes before we meet to say I will know her, “by [her] unfashionable appearance.” It’s charming if unnecessary, this bit of self-deprecation, not least because she’s standing front and center on the cover of her most recent book, Everywhere I Look. I’d recognize her anywhere, I think, and sure enough, she’s dressed much the way she is in that cover photo when I find her in the hotel lobby. She’s small and neat, with a direct gaze and soft-set, intelligent eyes behind steel-rimmed glasses, her hair swept back from her face. There’s a moment just after I sit down across from her and introduce myself when she stiffens, as if to brace for the unpleasantness to come. I’ve maybe surprised her -- she’s on a sofa, reading and doesn’t see me approach -- and whether it’s for that reason or not, I can’t begrudge her the moment’s instinctive caution. I’ve read past interviews and profiles beforehand, as one does, and I’m prepared for the prospect that I’m entering the den of Helen Garner: Grouchy Literary Lioness. That prospect strikes me as vanishingly slim, based on her work. I think in particular of a moment’s reflection in “Suburbia,” when she writes of coming across a documentary about Barry Humphries, of Dame Edna Everage fame, on TV several years ago: It showed black and white footage from the 1950s: a man in tightly rolled up shirtsleeves polishing his new FJ Holden with exaggeratedly vigorous arm movements; a bunch of unsmiling middle-aged women in horn-rimmed spectacles and hats like meringues. These people were offered to us viewers for our mockery. But in the 1950s I was a provincial Australian schoolgirl. I lived back then, in a suburb in Geelong. In that documentary footage I saw nothing to sneer at. What struck me was the man’s cheerful pride and energy. I saw the woman’s shyness, their anxiety about being no longer young, their uncertainty about whether they would be considered fashionable or attractive; and my heart cracked. And so, I’m more expectant that I’ll meet Helen Garner from Geelong, a provincial girl who moved to the city, made a big name for herself, and has seen something of the world, all while searching for ways to afford the people she meets the same dignity she wants for herself. She doesn’t disappoint. The Millions: I saw that someone called you “a counterculture Joan Didion.” There’s another comparison I like better: Colette. Helen Garner: Colette! I’ve hardly ever read Colette, to tell the truth. I must’ve read some many, many years ago. I’ll try again. TM: The reason I say this is, you read Colette’s things and you think, maybe it’s an occasional piece, maybe it’s a short story, and you really can’t tell the difference a lot of the time. HG: That appeals to me greatly. It was funny, the other night in New Haven, we had a reading on the last night of the [Windham-Campbell] Festival. When I stood up to read, I read “The Insults of Age,” and I was the last one to read, and I stood up and I said, ‘I’m going to read an essay and it’s called--” and I thought, “Is this an essay?” And I had this moment of thinking, “Shouldn’t I have said ‘story?’” And I thought, ah, fuck it, I’ll just read it. And I read it, and everybody roared with laughter, so that was really nice. TM: Aleksandar Hemon says there are no words for fiction or nonfiction in Bosnian, Croation, and Serbian. He had to call [The Book of My Lives] “true stories.” But the takeaway seemed to be that the line [between fiction and nonfiction] is porous and not all that important. HG: It’s a strange thing to feel at ease in something that isn’t really a form and that you don’t know what it is. And so people say to me, ‘What do you write?’ People I haven’t met before, they say, ‘What sort of things do you write?’ And they just automatically assume that you write novels. And I say, ‘Oh, well, I used to write fiction, but now I write, um,’ and I go blank. If you say nonfiction to people who haven’t thought about all this, they don’t know what you’re talking about. TM: It’s fascinating, because the novel has such great cultural power imaginatively, I think, and the writer is a romantic figure to people, but as far as people reading a novel and being invested in who the specific writer is, and the arc of an individual’s career, I’m not sure that’s so anymore on such a broad basis. HG: I’m interested in this because I used to be married to a writer called Murray Bail. He was a kind of autodidact, and a very severe person, like autodidacts sometimes are. They apply strictures to things, and he thought that the novel was the absolutely preeminent form in literature, better than poetry, better than anything, and anything else was really kind of not worth doing. And so this caused difficulties between us, and it’s probably one reason why I shifted away from fiction, and I didn’t do this with conscious intent, but firstly I wrote The First Stone, which got me in a lot of trouble, but at that point I was thinking I was going to write a magazine article, but it kind of blew out into something bigger. And suddenly, bang, I was on the bestseller list week after week, and started making a lot of money, and people were coming up to me in the street, you know, some abusively and some favorably, but I think this wasn’t much fun for him, and there was some difficult stuff around there. But the thing was, I realized I was comfortable in that form, writing like that, and I’d always written between books, I’d always made a living by writing features, so it was just a matter of taking two extra steps and there I was. I sort of wish I didn’t have to argue, that I could just write a book, and say ‘This is a book by Helen Garner, and maybe you’ll enjoy it and this is what it’s about.’ But bookshops like to know if it’s fiction or not. TM: I was thinking about The Spare Room, and the Helen character, how people found her unlikable a lot of the time. There were a couple of things that came to mind. You I’m sure saw Claire Messud had written The Woman Upstairs, and this interviewer asked her about the character being so unlikable, and she said she felt like it filled a void in the sense that there are probably a shortage of unlikable woman characters, and often we expect women not to show anger. HG: That’s the exact point. That book, The Spare Room, it really interested me that a lot of men criticized the book for its anger. Not many women did. I think I know why, I mean here’s my guess, that women who are supposed to be looking after somebody, well obviously they just fall into a maternal archetype. And I think men, especially older men, younger men didn’t seem to have this problem with it, but for example, David Malouf reproached me for the amount of anger that was in the book. He said it was too angry. I do know him, I mean we’ve known each other for years, but he reproached me, and I was shocked. But I can’t help thinking there are men who still somewhere deep inside them have an unconscious fantasy that one day they’ll be helpless again. And they don’t want the person who’s going to be looking after them to be thinking, ‘Fuck you, I wish you’d die in the night.’ Nobody wants that, they don’t, but then, I was terribly taken aback by this. You know, the critics would say, this is great writing, it’s really wonderful, she’s at the peak of her powers and all that kind of shit, but there’s this awful anger and I hated it and it was ugly and how could she have been so cruel? But around this time, I was invited to speak at the annual general meeting of an organization called Carers Australia, and I don’t do much of that sort of speaking, but I got this letter from them saying, would I address their general meeting, and I thought, hey, there’d be people there who know what it’s like to look after somebody long term. I walked in and I thought, I don’t know what i’m going to say. I walked in and I just looked around, and in that room there were scores of people, most of them women but some men, who had the kind of look of weary endurance. And I’m talking about people who’d had, say, a [special needs child] who was now, like, 6’4”, and that was their life. And there were people there who had children in wheelchairs, anyway we’re talking long term care. People who’ve gone to hell and they haven’t come back. They’ve got to live there and they’ve got to make a life, and it’s terribly impressive. Anyway, so I thought in this company, I can talk about this. So I basically said that, and I said, I’ve been criticized for this book, for the anger in it, and they laughed. They didn’t laugh uproariously, but one of them came up to me at the end, and she said, ‘Helen, never be ashamed of the anger.’ She said, ‘We all feel it. We all feel it. Don’t ever be ashamed, and don’t feel guilty about it.’ TM: There seem to be a lot of women, readers and writers I mean, who are very invested in you. You’re someone’s Janet Malcolm, as it were. HG: Yeah. Well, there are also lot of women who are invested in hating my guts forever, and that’s what came out of The First Stone, when I kind of crossed the academic feminists and the Women’s Studies people. There were some people who never got over that, but that doesn’t worry me anymore, because I get quite a lot, well not a lot, but I have had letters from people who’ve said, I was a student when your book came out, and I put shit on you, and I refused to read the book because I knew what it was supposed to say, and now I’ve been out in the world, and I’m really sorry. They were really quite funny letters, saying, “What an idiot I was!” And one woman said, “We all ran around town blowing the shrill whistles of outrage.” And I thought, great, you just have to live a few more years for it to pan out. TM: What about the people who are a bit overawed, a bit too fervent? HG: That’s kind of embarrassing, but by the same token, every now and then people, especially this latest book, Everywhere I Look, I’ve had these really sweet letters from people. Not adoring, worshipping ones, but ones saying, “I’m sending you this little scarf that I knitted. I think you might like it.” This other woman sent me, after The Spare Room came out, I had a little parcel from this woman, and I open it up, and there’s a note in it that says, “Dear Helen, I read in The Spare Room that when your friend was sick, you gave her a hot water bottle and it was wrapped in a tea towel,” she said, “so I’m sending you two hot water bottle covers that I made,” and she said, “I made them out of old Japanese kimono material. These are things that I make.” She’s obviously an artist. These two glorious things, with little ribbons around their neck, but there was something kind of dry and funny about the way she did it. She didn’t say, “Aw, I adore you, and here, please use these.” TM: What have you been reading where contemporary writing’s concerned? How about Australian writers? HG: I’ve been reading Svetlana Alexievich. She’s fucking awesome. I spend a lot of time reading that kind of stuff, but I read novels from the ‘40s and ‘50s by English writers. I’ll tell you a terrific Australian novel that was published last year, by Joan London, it’s called The Golden Age. I loved it. It’s very, very good, but she’s a quiet person, she lives in Western Australia, which is a component of the story, and she’s a beautiful writer. TM: You’d written that David Malouf writes a paragraph and keeps it as a tuning fork for the tone of a piece. HG: That makes me think of a writer that I absolutely adore, Charles Portis. He was a journalist, and some of those novels of his, they’ve got this perfect voice. I’ve read True Grit about a hundred times. When he’s got that Mattie Ross talking, I read somewhere that he used to have to coordinate the stringers, people in the furthest flung parts of Arkansas or wherever they were, and a lot of them were women, and that’s where he must’ve gotten that voice from, that sort of rather strict voice but full of this kind of gutsy contempt for falseness. TM: I did want to ask you about your diary because you’ve published parts of it, and obviously if you’re keeping a diary every single day, which is what you’ve said, there’s a lot more. HG: Yeah, heaps. There’s crate after crate. TM: I had talked to James Salter, who did the same thing [kept a daily journal], toward the end of his life, and I said, “Are you thinking about doing anything with these?” And he looked back at them, and he said he couldn’t publish them yet because there were so many people’s names in there who are still alive, and the things he’d written about them weren’t meant for public consumption. And he said, the big thing he came away with is thinking how much life he wrote down and just didn’t use in fiction. HG: Same. There’s so much there that I don’t know what to do with it. But I’ll think about it. You know, it’s very tempting to do something super rational, like burning everything. I have had two big burnings. TM: You’re making me think of the Writers’ Pyre, which came up in one of your diaries, where a group of writers got together and read a piece they’d written and wanted to do away with for one reason or another. HG: They didn’t invite me to the Writers’ Pyre, but I wish they had. But I burnt all my diaries when I left home to go to university, when I was 18. I just burnt the lot, but there wasn’t very much, just a few exercise books, and I didn’t want my mother to read them. Then, about 10 years ago, I burnt a whole lot up to, well, what happened was, I was thinking about this particular political [event], the Labour government in what must’ve been 1975, and it was quite radical, and it did all sorts of fantastic things, but it was economically hopeless, and the other side got organized and basically, there was a double dissolution and they fired them, and it was called “The Dismissal,” and it was a great wound in the modern political la-di-da. So, I was just thinking about it, and I said, “I wonder what I wrote about that at the time.” I thought, I’ll go and get it out, so I dived into the pack, I found the date, and I hadn’t even mentioned it. And I thought, ‘Oh. This is worse than I thought.” And again I started reading all around, and the whole thing was just so whiny and adolescent, and you know, I was 30 or something. So it was like the worst sort of diary keeping that women and girls do, which was “He did me wrong, and I’m sick of it, and he’s wounding me,” and all this crap, so I just kept reading slightly forward in time, and I got to a part where there was a switch, and suddenly it was like I opened a door and the world came in. So I burnt all the bits up to then. I just kept a few things that my daughter had, little drawings she’d done and little stories and things like that, I kept all that in a folder. Also, Monkey Grip came out of that period, so I have never regretted this act, not for a single second, but now I wouldn’t. But it was almost like [the change in tone] was from one day to the next, and I don’t know what made it change, but suddenly there were dialogues written out, or there were descriptions of places and strangers that I’d met. TM: So suddenly it became sort of a writer’s diary. HG: I guess, yeah, that’s what it was. So you’ve put your finger on it, because maybe that was the turning point. That was after I’d published a book. TM: Well you’ve said that the first book happened and you still didn’t feel consciously like anything was different, or that it had set you on some path that you absolutely had to stick to. HG: Not consciously, no, I didn’t. But I think perhaps it did. Yeah, that’s interesting. I’m going to tell you something really shocking that happened the other day in New Haven. Do you know a woman called Amy Hungerford? Anyway, she was chairing this session, and there was me, Tessa Hadley and Hilton Als as part of this panel. We were talking about why you write certain books and how you don’t know why you’re writing them, and I said I don’t know why I chose to write a book about a man who chose to drive his kids into a dam and left them and ran away. And she said, but don’t you remember? In The Spare Room, she said, the narrator is driven so insane by her sick friend that she’s driving along the street and she has this fantasy that she’ll drive the car into a tree, the friend will die, and she’ll get out and run away? I was so shocked. But I kind of felt relieved, because strangely, when I look back on it, the two books kind of overlapped slightly in time, because I’d started going to the Farquharson trials when my friend came to stay. So anyway, there, that gave me a terrible shock, and there must be more of those traces that I’ve left behind. TM: Do you read other writers’ diaries? HG: The last one that I looked at was Witold Gombrowicz. Well I read about it, you know in the TLS, or, “What I Plan to Read This Summer.” I always like that better than the ones that say, “This is what I read this year.” This woman, whoever she was, said “I’m going to read Gombrowicz’s diary,” and she put a little quote from it, it said, “I felt hungry, so I went downstairs and I went to the shop and I bought myself a sandwich and I ate it,” and she said, “That’s why I’m going to read these diaries.” And I thought, “Yes!” and I rushed to the shop and I bought the book and of course it’s like a doorstopper of a thing, and I’d never read any of his work. I didn’t know anything about him, how he went to Argentina and lived there right during the war, and he was in torment all the time, but he’s very kind of like, The Angry Pole. I dip into them, but I don’t read straight through. And I’ve looked a million times over the years at Virginia Woolf’s diaries, of course. Who else have I read? Probably heaps but I can’t think of any right now. No, I don’t go looking for them, no. TM: I’d go letters, then diaries. HG: Oh, you read writers’ letters? TM: Yeah. Actually, I wish people still wrote letters. HG: My diary’s all handwritten, and I like to write letters. I’ve always loved writing letters, and I know that the landscape is thickly coated with letters from me, up until about 10 years ago, when i started to do email. But I really miss it. I love to get a letter. TM: There’s a different charge to that than an email. HG: Yeah, totally. The only person I correspond with, in letters -- no, there’s two -- is Tim Winton, he lives in WA [Western Australia], so we write to each other. He’s the sort of guy, though, who can write a 14-page letter without turning a hair, and the other is a painter friend of mine who lives in Sydney, a guy called Tom Carment, and we write to each other, too. He writes in pencil on little scraps of paper when he’s out. He’s the sort of artist that goes out and draws and paints outdoors, and he does quite small, lovely works, beautiful painter. I love his work and I love his way of seeing things. He likes to tell what’s happened with his kids, or he tells who just walked past. He’s a lovely letter writer. TM: Nobody does that anymore. It just doesn’t fit [emails] somehow. HG: No, it’s a great loss. It’s just very intimate. I think people don’t want that sort of intimacy. I’m shocked by how, oddly in New York it’s not like this -- people tend to greet you, strangers will give you eye contact and nod -- this is something that seems to be dying out in Australia. You find that people just act as if you’re not there, quite often, and that’s part of the insults of age factor, I think, if you’re outside that erotic part of life, erotic in the broader sense, it’s not like they trample you. It’s just like they walk past without giving you eye contact. TM: It seems a lot of people find those granular, day-to-day interactions are easier to skip over. HG: I think old people, that’s a privilege of getting older, is that you can actually strike up conversations and people aren’t threatened by you. You know, there’s something I love about where I work. I just have an office in a little office building in a suburb of Melbourne, and it’s right opposite the big central hospital, the Royal Melbourne Hospital, and in the basement, the ground floor of it, there’s a great big cafeteria, and I often go there at lunchtime just to get a sandwich. TM: People watching in the cafeteria? HG: Yeah, but not just watching them. You can strike up a conversation with anyone in a hospital, because everyone’s in extremis or they’re really worried or else they’ve got their arm in a sling, or they’ve got a drip in their arm and they’re sitting there. TM: It takes you out of regular life. HG: Yeah, and so you can say, Oh, what happened to your arm?’ ‘Ah, I come off my tractor,’ and then they tell you the whole story and I love it, I could spend hours in there. But I get the same feeling from that, being there, I recognize from being in the court. When I walk into a court, there’s this zing of adrenaline, because people around you are in a state. And when people talk to you, they don’t just bide the time. TM: Well, there are stakes attached to what they’re talking about. It’s a world unto itself. I’m trying to think of what other situations would be similar. HG: Those are the only two that I know. I must’ve experienced it, but restaurants, it’s not the same. It’s just that those are places of trauma, I suppose, where you can be a stranger there and not be in trauma yourself, and you can just be there. TM: It’s acceptable to be vulnerable there. HG: Maybe that’s what it is, yeah. I remember once having to go and get a mammogram, and there were a whole bunch of women, and we were all sitting around, and you’d go and get the mammogram, and then you’d wait for the results. So there was maybe six or seven women, and we’re all strangers to each other, and we’re sitting around this waiting room and we all got to, everyone was talking quite intimately. And I guess I was there for three quarters of an hour, and every now and then the nurse would come out and call your name, and you’d go and she’d say, ‘You’re okay, you’re clear,’ and you can go home. And so, when my name was called, I got up and she says to me, ‘All clear, you can go home.’ And I looked around to say goodbye to the women and they all looked and they all reached out and they all touched me. It was kind of like they wanted a piece of my luck? But it was so lovely, they smiled and said, ‘Oh, fantastic! That’s such good news.’ TM: That’s a gracious moment, what with you all also being so worried about yourselves. HG: Yeah, it was a moment of grace, exactly.
Alexander Maksik told Dwyer Murphy of Guernica in a recent interview, “I’m terrified of writing the same novels over and over again.” It’s an admirable sentiment given the reception critics afforded his first novel, You Deserve Nothing. He might easily have returned to the same furrow, made adjustments, perhaps even improvements, and savored another round of approval. Instead his new book, A Marker to Measure Drift, stands at a great remove from his debut and suggests Maksik’s stance on rewriting the same book repeatedly was more than an idle remark. In A Marker, Maksik gives us Jacqueline, a young woman who is the only survivor of a privileged Liberian family, now displaced by the country’s civil war. We encounter her on a Greek island, in need of food and shelter, and at pains to confront the terrible events not so far behind her. It’s a risky proposition for Maksik, an American writer whose first book centered on an affair between a teacher and a student at an international high school in Paris. He welcomes another layer of risk by opting for a pared-down prose, often far from the lyrical style he employed in You Deserve Nothing, a choice evident from the outset: Now it was night. Jacqueline hadn’t eaten since the flattened chocolate bar she’d found on the step outside the pharmacy. God’s will, her mother said. The fortune of finding food when it was most needed. Just when she didn’t think she could stay upright any longer, here was food. The writing is clear and economical, and to Maksik’s credit it never competes with Jacqueline’s ongoing plight. Add a plot so tightly focused on her immediate hardships and the unbreakable link to her mother, whose voice comes to her in memory with advice both wanted and unwanted, and Maksik seems to have set up an absolute gauntlet for himself. James Salter -- a writer Maksik admires and who at times seems to be one of his literary forbears -- has noted his love for short novels, “books which were brief but every page of which was exalted...It is like the middle distances for a runner. The pace is unforgiving and must be kept up to the end.” A Marker to Measure Drift aspires to inclusion in this rarefied category. In the same Guernica interview, Maksik mentions cutting 30,000 or 40,000 words about a French-American couple on the way to isolating Jacqueline as the heart of the novel. His initial hesitance to strip away this layer of narration is understandable: it leaves only a young refugee woman, isolated amid tourists. Improbable as it sounds, Maksik works within these strictures and emerges with something stark and essential. An effort to render the horrors of a civil war, moment by moment and page after page, could easily feel gratuitous and numbing to readers. A Marker to Measure Drift is built instead around the day-to-day realities of Jacqueline’s physical needs, a choice that at first glance appears ill-considered, but Maksik is playing the long game here. The intimacy with Jacqueline’s many small decisions, everything from where to sleep to how she might go about making even a pittance with no legal documentation, gradually pushes all other concerns to the margins. She begins giving foot massages to tourists on the beach -- a pound per five minutes at first, later two pounds per. It’s a skill she honed at her sister’s whim, over the span of their childhood together. A nearby cave is home for a time. Later she finds abandoned structures, unfinished construction, and claims them briefly. We remain aware that something awful happened to Jacqueline’s family in Liberia, but Maksik withholds the particulars, releasing hints and glimmers at well-timed intervals. He introduces a few carefully chosen incidents and images, some of them repeatedly. When Jacqueline is on her way out of the country, the car she’s traveling in is stopped by a group of rebels, a ragtag bunch of young men. The smell of their cologne stays with her in memory: “She thought of them passing the bottle around, shaking it onto their palms, slapping it onto the backs of their necks, smoothing it over their cheeks. Like boys preparing for a dance.” These same boys have stretched a man’s intestines across the road to block traffic. Much is revealed via Jacqueline’s imagined conversations with her mother. The episodes betray tension between the two of them, but her mother generally offers well-intentioned advice. When Jacqueline is studying in England, her mother makes her promise to never return home. When she graduates, her father arranges a job for her in the government, a tourist liaison role, and she accepts it, to her mother’s chagrin. Her father is charismatic and handsome but not, it transpires, such a benign figure. His work as a minister to then-President Charles Taylor and his denial of the seriousness of conditions in the country, of the implications of power changing hands, prove fatal to all in the family but Jacqueline. He maintains a rosy view of the situation even as danger draws near, joking with Jacqueline’s sister: They are listening to the news of their country in chaos. Government soldiers terrorizing Gbah. Executing men refusing conscription, raping girls as young as eleven, the BBC reports. The LURD rebels closer and closer to Monrovia. When the power goes out for the fourth time in an hour the sound vanishes and her mother says, “Plug it into Saifa.” Her father hands her the cord and Saifa fits the plugs into her nostrils. “Still doesn’t work,” he says. “Must be something wrong with the radio.” The civil war in Liberia spanned 14 years. It claimed something on the order of a quarter of a million lives. In the aftermath, Charles Taylor was charged with human rights violations by the International Criminal Court in the Hague and sentenced to 50 years in prison. A Marker to Measure Drift stays well clear of these particulars, perhaps because engaging too fully with them would overwhelm any one individual’s story. That is to say, paraphrasing the old saw, that the focus remains on a single tragedy and its consequences rather than a sterile body of statistics. In fact, Jacqueline’s family tragedy remains an untold story much of the way, to both the reader and the people around her in the novel. By suppressing the details of this one crushing narrative, Maksik foregrounds the power and purpose of storytelling. It’s this great repression that finally drives home how fully Jacqueline is cut off from other people. She’s marginalized due to her refugee status, and a number of interactions demonstrate how far removed her experiences are from those of the people she meets. The name Liberia often meets with blank looks. One couple believes it's in East Africa, and Jacqueline has to correct them. For a long while, she is wary and resentful of people she encounters, even those who might help her. She lies to them in an effort to save face and maintain distance, but eventually we see her halting progress toward some small familiarity with the waitress who serves her breakfast each day. It’s a poignant sequence, and it builds to a series of tense, startling moments in which Jacqueline bears witness to the horrors her family and her country endured, a retelling which feels harsher still for the fact she unfolds the tale in idyllic surroundings. To say more would be a disservice to Maksik and the reader alike. Recently Maksik has served as guest editor for Afterword in Canada’s National Post, a task for which he composed four short pieces about different places he lived on the way to establishing himself as a writer. Among his few hundred words about Paris, he points to the period when he first gained confidence in his work. “I discovered what it meant to believe deeply that I was capable of something,” he writes, “without ever once succeeding in doing that thing.” No doubt he still faces obstacles in his work, missteps and uncertainty from day to day. A book in print doesn’t cure all ills. With A Marker to Measure Drift, though, Alexander Maksik’s deep belief proves warranted: he has succeeded.
1. Iain Banks is dying. “I am officially Very Poorly,” he wrote in a statement on his condition, before addressing its particulars. The diagnosis is cancer, an advanced stage, initially targeting the gallbladder, but moving on to the liver, and likely the pancreas and lymph nodes. He is 59 and isn't expected to to live more than a year. It's sad news, even on the most basic level. Fifty-nine isn't very old, certainly not so old that all of his work is done. As a rule I'm ambivalent about Twitter, but watching the news of his diagnosis spread was remarkable. He had meant a great deal to many discerning readers. There was disbelief, and in more than one case, talk of tears. On a personal level, a feeling of sudden urgency surprised me. The only response that seemed appropriate was to read his work. Banks was born in Scotland in 1954. Perhaps his earliest claim to fame was working as an extra for a battle scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. He announced his arrival to the literary world with The Wasp Factory, his first, unforgettable book and has since shown a dozen times at least, and another dozen if we include his sci-fi work as Iain M. Banks, that the first flush of success was no fluke. Granta named him one of their best young British novelists in 1993. He wrote steadily, and had work adapted for TV and film. The Independent (UK) named The Wasp Factory one of the top 100 novels of the 20th century. Somehow he never caught the eye of the Booker Prize committee, not even enough to make the longlist, but that says more about the nature of literary prize-giving than the quality of his work. He remained outspoken politically, including a 2003 call for Tony Blair's impeachment for his conduct in the run-up to the Iraq War. Since 2010, he has boycotted Israel by refusing to allow his novels to be sold there, a stance founded on Israeli policy and action toward Palestine. Banks concluded that “especially in our instantly connected world, an injustice committed against one, or against one group of people, is an injustice against all, against every one of us; a collective injury.” An admirable stance, yet none of that told me quite what I wanted to know. I also couldn't say what was missing. I can only compare the impulse to learning all one can of a distant relative as time expires. Much is revealed, but much remains a mystery. In the case of Banks, I took the only logical step I could see to solving that mystery; I turned to his books. Banks's name wasn't new to me. He was among the stacks, the ever-shifting list of who to read now, next and eventually. There was no logical need to move him to the on-deck circle - he won't take the work he's already done with him when he goes – but I did. I tried to finish Pages from a Cold Island (apologies to the late Fred Exley) but couldn't stop thinking of Banks and feeling I was betraying him somehow. My shelves held The Wasp Factory, Walking on Glass, and The Steep Approach to Garbadale. I took up Garbadale first, if only out of fear that anything which followed The Wasp Factory might suffer by comparison. 2. There are moments when first encountering a writer's work that set the tone for the relationship a reader will have. Very early in Garbadale, Fielding Wopuld visits a Scottish housing estate, in search of his cousin Alban. Banks locates him quickly, with a mix of acid wit and highly particular detail. On Fielding's initial approach, he notes “long blocks of three- and four-storey flats covered in patchy pebble-dash spotted with poor quality graffiti. The tiny gardens at the front of the flats are just unkempt. He's used to kempt.” He goes on to characterize the estate as “a soul-destroying spot, what a place to basically get the hell out of as soon as you can.” Before he can leave, though, Fielding has to find the building where Alban is staying. This doesn't improve matters: The block's glass-and-metal door looks like people have thrown up on it and then tried to rinse the mess off by pissing all over it. This obviously didn't work because apparently then they tried setting it on fire. The button by the scarred plastic name-plate for flat E just sort of sinks into its housing. No buzzer sounds anywhere. The purpose of his visit is to invite Alban to a monumental gathering (it's actually called the Extraordinary General Meeting) at the family estate, Garbadale. There they will decide, as a group, whether to sell their controlling interest in a board-and-video game company to an American corporation. The novel is rich and untidy – should any family story be otherwise? - and Banks revels in that untidiness. He gives us Alban's teen entanglement with the love of his life, his first cousin Sophie, as well as the disclosures and bluffs leading up to the family's meeting with the potential buyers. I found myself reading more quickly than was ideal, taking the text in great gulps and leaving quick, provisional marks in the margins, promises to return later. 3. None of that prepared me for The Wasp Factory. At first blush I thought of Giorgos Lanthimos's film Dogtooth (Kyondontas) with its closed world and casual cruelty, but that lacked the charisma on display in Banks's debut. And however puzzling the film is at times, it fails to approach the depth of the mysteries and contradictions at work in The Wasp Factory. Banks makes irresistible use of dark humor in the book – see, for instance, anecdotes about the inglorious deaths of narrator Frank Cauldhaume's relatives – but he is also remarkably versatile. That is to say, he displays great authority on everything from elaborate scenes of animal cruelty and convoluted superstition, to unexpected moments of sensitivity. When a fire fails to catch after his rabbit massacre, Frank observes that, “the grass [is] too young and moist to catch. Not that I'd have cared if it had gone up. I considered setting the whin bushes alight, but the flowers always looked cheerful when they came out, and the bushes smelled better fresh than burned, so I didn't.” He punctuates this aside by kicking a rabbit carcass into the nearby stream. Banks also gives Frank a set of catechisms to repeat in fraught moments, a litany which includes “my confessions, my dreams and hopes, my fears and hates.” Intentionally or not, Frank's catechisms sound like the sort of withering self-criticism writers suffer at times: The catechisms also tell the truth about who I am, what I want and what I feel, and it can be unsettling to hear yourself described as you have thought of yourself in your most honest and abject moods, just as it is humbling to hear what you have thought about in your most hopeful and unrealistic moments. The Wasp Factory is a dark and troubling book, full of secrets and confusion. The faint of heart are advised away, and the stout of heart are advised to steel themselves before beginning. It is also a masterpiece, deeply creative and absolutely sui generis in its sensibility. On rare occasions, a book forces me to take a break, a day off, before reading something new. The Wasp Factory is that strong a presence, one so whole and unflinching that anything following it deserves a wide berth, lest it should be overwhelmed. 4. After two books by Banks in a week, I am gratified and relieved. I've done right by him in whatever nebulous way my mind required, and he didn't disappoint. He's a writer I'll recommend, one whose books will go in boxes during moves and back onto the shelf thereafter. Still, I had to put him away. Other tasks demanded attention. Walking on Glass will wait, as will The Crow Road, which I've since added, and the nearly two-dozen others, including his new book, The Quarry, due in June. I'm sure I haven't said enough to do him justice as a man or a writer, but I don't know him well enough as either to remedy that now. I do know that, upon learning the doctor's diagnosis, he married his girlfriend of several years. “I've asked my partner Adele if she will do me the honor of becoming my widow,” he wrote, “(sorry – but we find ghoulish humor helps).” He is also reading all the comments on his website, where readers can say thanks and wish him farewell. And I'm adding him to a new list, one I've stayed true to for years now, of writers whose work I parse out slowly, dreading the day there's no more, though the dread is unnecessary; I can simply start again when I reach the end. Nabokov is there, and Anita Brookner. J.M. Coetzee. Junichiro Tanizaki. Something tells me Banks will fit, that his work will add a missing element, something hard to define but, once it's familiar, also hard to do without.
André Aciman is, by training, a scholar of Comparative Literature. He is part of the Comparative Lit faculty at the City University of New York Graduate Center, and he assembled The Proust Project, a volume comprised of prominent writers’ insights on passages from In Search of Lost Time. But Aciman is perhaps better known as a novelist, memoirist, and essayist. Memory, its endurance and mutability, rank high among his running concerns, which is fitting given his affinity for Proust. And while memory can seem stale when taken up by a lesser writer, in Aciman’s hands it seems fresh and complex once again. Alibis follows one previous collection of essays by Aciman, False Papers, and a memoir, Out of Egypt. Early on in Alibis, he refers to himself as, “an exile from Alexandria, Egypt.” This exile began at fifteen, when his family emigrated to Italy, and continued one remove further at age nineteen, when they moved on to New York. On the occasion of Alibis, his project is ostensibly the result of his travels, and he does indeed treat readers to lengthy reflections on Rome, Barcelona, Paris, Tuscany, and New York, among other locales. But these are not simple city guides. They are personal, searching efforts, prompted by places which hold some mythic quality for the author, places which have figured prominently in his life. On traveling with his wife, Aciman writes, “I have no tolerance for monuments…I care nothing for small picturesque hill towns…The last thing she wants is to be reminded of home; I can’t wait to pick up remnants of mine.” In fact, Aciman views the places he visits not with the wondering, landmark-seeking eye of a tourist, but with the speculative, assessing eye of a potential resident. In “Place de Vosges,” he writes, “I come to the Place de Vosges to make believe that I belong, that this could easily become my home.” A similar impulse is revealed when he writes that the “peculiar spell” of “this dreamy Tuscan landscape” is “to make you think that it’s yours forever.” He examines this habit at length in “The Contrafactual Traveler,” and concludes that, “I ‘connect’ not by saying, ‘Isn’t this lovely, picturesque hill town beautiful?’ but ‘Do I see myself living here?’” Curiously, he steps outside himself when considering New York (“New York, Luminous”), where he has lived for many years, instead imagining the reactions Walter Benjamin might have had, if only he “hurried and crossed the Pyrenees before the Nazis closed in on him.” Place itself is a door to other concerns for Aciman – the role of memory in particular, as well as how we form our identities across years and experiences. If his concerns sound weighty, he balances them against a fluid, engaging style, one equally suited to handling painful memories and dear ones alike. He opens with “Lavender,” a memory piece organized around his relationship with scent. “Life begins somewhere with the scent of lavender,” he writes. “My father is standing in front of a mirror. He has just showered and shaved and is about to put on a shirt.” From there, Aciman traces his life through the scents he has worn. One fragrance recalls an evening when he met his mother downtown in Manhattan, while another is all he remembers of the woman who offered it as a gift, years earlier. Places return to him: Brattle Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts on a snowy evening; a tiny shop in Florence, where the walls are lined with tiny drawers, each holding a different scent. The fragrances also point up how far he has come and how much he remains unchanged. “Me at 16 and me at 32: twice the age and yet still nervous about calling a woman,” he writes, and later, “I had so much going for me at 34, why then was I longing to be who I’d been at 17?” Throughout Alibis, Aciman uses his chosen subject matter as a means to examine himself. He is not a famous man, but his treatment of his assets and shortcomings is never less than even-handed. At times it verges on the hyper-critical. The most remarkable outcome is that this course of deliberate reflection on how we form memory prompts the same impulse in the reader. Aciman determinedly unravels the thread of memory, questioning even the factual accuracy of his own previously published accounts. This course of questioning is perhaps the most curious, and initially the least felicitous, part of Alibis. Aciman refers to his own, previous work on several occasions, even quoting from it once, a choice which is initially jarring. In “Rue Delta,” he refers to an episode from Out of Egypt, his last walk in Cairo, which he had written previously as a time he shared with his brother. His retelling in the memoir casts him alone on the walk. This is not the first time Aciman has explored the dueling versions of the tale, but he goes a step further this time, teasing out the inventions common to each version. The snack he claims to have had? A fabrication, either as falafel sandwich or Ramadan pastry. His brother disappears from the latter version of the story, but a more significant revelation emerges – the walk so minutely examined, never occurred, alone or in company. But because Aciman’s control is so total, he manages to render irrelevant the question of whether he is lying in his first two accounts of the night; instead, the matter of how he fashioned his memories of Egypt ends up far more compelling. He recalls a return visit to Cairo in the mid-1990s, and a trip down Rue Delta, and finds himself unable to summon an image of the street at night without his brother in it. His “true” memories of the street are lost, and the fictionalized version now holds all the piquancy once contained by the storefronts and scenery which surrounded him daily in youth. Alibis is a slim volume, but this is testament to Aciman’s economy of language, and the preciseness of his observations. Whether exploring the limitations of his faith in “Barcelona” and “Reflections of an Uncertain Jew,” or reflecting on the changed circumstances after his sons have all left for college in “Empty Rooms,” Aciman’s work is consistently thoughtful and unsentimental. Maintaining that tone, particularly on a series of journeys to the past, is no small feat. But André Aciman is a writer in full command of his powers. He meets these demands deftly, without breaking stride. Alibis is a quiet, unassuming triumph. All that’s left is to wonder where Aciman will take us next.