Memorizing and Memory: A Writer’s Estranged Cousins

1. Memorizing
My lines disappeared. I was in 10th grade, dressed in a blue-checked gingham dress and white tights, playing the lead in Alice and Wonderland for an audience of children. I’d had memory lapses before—an embarrassing one in my piano teacher’s living room in fifth grade, the specific, awkward misery of having to begin the sonatina again. The assembled families either would or would not pretend it didn’t happen, both options mortifying.  I lost my lines in ninth grade as well, playing Lucy in You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown. I was mid-song when the words atomized, but I belted out something anyway; I don’t know what.  Whatever happened that time left me unscathed.

In general, however, no memory lapses.  Not at the sixth-grade safety assembly run by a cop who held up a license plate.  When he quizzed 500 of us seated on the gymnasium floor 10 minutes later, I was the only one who could recite the numbers. I’d memorized them from boredom.  No problems either when I played Eliza in My Fair Lady the summer after seventh grade.

Alice in Wonderland was different. I stopped trusting my memory.  Betrayed at age 14, I lost faith that anything would ever stick again.  I saw my inability to memorize as a terrible weakness, and it haunted me.

Years of viola study followed. I got to the point where I could identify most any piece on any classical radio station. It takes practice, but it’s not exactly memorizing; composers leave tracks as clearly as deer crossing a snowy field. You get to know a composer’s output—Johannes Brahms left us only four symphonies (he destroyed more); César Franck wrote one piano quintet. Composers’ nationalities become as recognizable as flags. If a piano quintet sounds French, and/or has phrases that mirror those in César Franck’s Symphony in D Minor, it’s not too hard to narrow it to the right piece. And once you’ve played or performed a composition, it stays with you as surely as remembering how to walk.

To me this is uninspiring; more akin to reciting the times tables than interrogating music’s mysteries. Much more meaningful are the memories that accompany first hearing or first playing:

I’m 16, on the edge of a metal folding chair, heart palpitating, listening to five students playing in a rehearsal room too small to contain the sound.  At a music camp in Orono, Maine, I’m hearing the Brahms Piano Quintet in F Minor for the first time.  I’m in an adrenaline-fueled high; I’m a jockey on a winning horse. 

I’m at my music stand in the living room of a math professor from M.I.T. with whom I played chamber music, weeping that I have lived in ignorance of the third movement to the Schumann Piano Quartet in E Flat Major. The sound covers me like a hot blanket of grief, first the violin and the cello and then my part!  The viola gets that heartbreaking melody, the one that sings to the world’s beauty slipping away, to the impermanence of love and life.

I don’t care if I sound hyperbolic; that’s what I felt. I’m not so different with books.  Ask me whether I’ve read a certain book or a certain author, what it’s about, when I read it, who recommended it to me, and I’ll answer.  But aren’t those memories somewhat meaningless?  I’d rather share the feeling I had—the breathtaking experience of reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse for the first time, of being unable to contain my excitement about Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, of rushing to complete Robertson Davies’s trilogies; the deep serenity of living with May Sarton for months on end, and the connection I felt with Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music.

For a career in classical music, recognizing any piece won’t cut it. Books, of course, are beside the point. To become a professional violist, you must memorize; you have to be able to take an audition without sheet music, an ability I lost at age 14.

And yet, I entered college with the aspiration of becoming a professional musician. For a year or two during that time, I studied with a viola teacher who tried to cure me of my memorizing deficit.  Our lessons were in his apartment on New York’s Upper West Side where he lived in an Old World space, dimly lit with lamps that must have come from Vienna in the 1930’s, walls lined with sheet music, and floors laid out in imported Persian rugs. He recommended I study the ads on New York City buses and memorize the numbers or words I found in them. Also, I should note and memorize the numbers on the rear of city buses.

Ultimately, I broke down and left music.  My departure was, to my mind, an epic failure; my inability to memorize one of the many reasons for my defeat.

2. Memory
My mother died when I was in my early 40s. Her death was sudden and shocking—a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer for a strong athletic woman who had never been sick. She was gone in the space of eight weeks.

In ways I don’t fully understand, her death unloosed my writing.  Granted, my relationship with mom was intimately tied up with books and the written word.  She worked as a copy editor and editor.  We shared a great interest in reading.  Granted too, that I had been writing all along, if writing means keeping a journal and sending snail mail after it went the way of the telegram.  Or writing memos at work.  And inhaling books.  But writing—the kind where you make a commitment and stick to it, where you attempt to take yourself seriously—didn’t come until after mom died.

It was then that I uncovered something altogether different from my memorized files of books and musical compositions.  I discovered a trove of personal memories that went back to at least age three.  Or more accurately, I found I could access those memories, which I began to appreciate as a generous gift from the writing gods. Memory is a writer’s nutrition and sustenance, her sine qua non.

The cabinets of memory I discovered after mom died were not remotely orderly.  Stashed with my memories were other people’s recollections, memories that others had forgotten but I retained.  Memories that were crammed into file folders, pieces torn off and gone missing, others like so many balled-up drafts.  There were minute details about my siblings, granular information about school lives, friends and frenemies, secrets and intimacies. Don’t ask me to recite a poem.  If, on the other hand, you want to know the name of my sister’s fifth grade teacher and what poems this terror of a teacher made her memorize, I’m on it.

I found myself mucking around in exhaustive details about my parents’ jobs; their friends’ careers, marriages, and children. Questions began arising in droves.  Why did my father talk more about work than his emotional life? Why did my mother shy away from friendships with women?  Random gossip from my early employment reared up and insisted on reinterpretation, indiscretions ranging from salacious to violent; memories that in the time of #MeToo would sink more than a few professional careers.

Writing, I quickly discovered, doesn’t thrive on memorization.  And memories that are free from doubt, anxiety, and pain are nearly useless.  Writing thrives on conflict and those  irreconcilable, problematic memories. Were my overstuffed memory files a cause or symptom of my efforts to write in earnest?  Perhaps both.

My father died last spring.  With his death, I find myself slogging through memories too large to manage.  They’re not so much painful, as awkward and uncomfortable.  They keep me up at night, in part because so many of those memories are not mine. I hear dad recounting stories about his friends and colleagues, but fewer about himself.

Like mom, my father was a creature of the written word, a highly skilled wordsmith, author of two books and countless articles on varied subjects both personal and professional (he was a trial lawyer).  He was the second of four children.  His mother lost most of her hearing during his birth. To that physical disability he credited his clear speaking voice, which became stentorian in the courtroom.  That does not, however, account for his vast vocabulary—an endless cache of words. Dad’s parents were extraordinarily intelligent, but his mother had a sixth-grade education and his father never finished high school.

Oh, but daddy could speak.  His words are emblazoned on my memory. They land on the pages I write—ubiquitous, textured, yet not easy to digest. Does anyone use the word obliterate anymore?  Does anyone ablute when entering the shower?  I doubt wifty is even a word.

Words came tumbling out of my father, huge ones, short ones, fat ones, skinny ones. He was a stickler for precision. He kept a huge dictionary behind his chair at the dining room table. If we weren’t sure of a word’s definition, he would dive into the book and demand, “Will you accept Webster’s Unabridged as a source?” He never read one of my junior high school social studies papers that he didn’t thoroughly mark up, because words matter and it’s always possible to be more precise.

Words are memories, but they are tools too, carving out bits of text from the lumpy rind of the past.  It’s a daily effort—often exhausting—to try to keep the commotion of family memories at bay while simultaneously holding onto those noisy recollections.

I see now that I’m lucky for my memory, however unruly and ill-behaved it is.  I mine it every time I put pen to paper.  It is brine for my writing, even if I’ll never fully understand it.  Wading through the chaos, I’ve learned that memory is more useful than memorizing.  I might even forgive myself that shortcoming.  I’m beginning to realize memorizing is too far removed from memory to qualify as even a distant relative.

Image credit: Unsplash/Siora Photography.

Discovering Ourselves: The Millions Interviews Well-Read Black Girl Glory Edim

Reading Well-Read Black Girl, an anthology of essays by Black women writers, is like finding your favorite books compiled in one place and then getting to see the radiance and sorrow and joy that went into their creation. Glory Edim’s book includes work by Jesmyn Ward, Marita Golden, Tayari Jones, Kaitlyn Greenidge, Dhonielle Clayton, Gabourey Sidibe, and Jacqueline Woodson, to name a few. Each contributor offers a personal account of her literary journey, how it felt growing up without Black characters on the page, and/or the joy of finding themselves mirrored in literature. They describe how their own reading and writing weaves into their larger community stories.

Before she published Well-Read Black Girl, Edim had developed an enthusiastic following of readers who eagerly lap up her book club recommendations and participate in her annual festival celebrating literature by Black women. I had the good fortune to catch up with her at Washington, D.C.’s Busboys and Poets. Glory had just come from visiting the elementary school where her brother teaches. The students there wanted to become writers, and sought her advice on finding literary agents (!).

Glory was appearing in conversation with acclaimed DC-based writer Marita Golden. Among a lifetime of marvelous literary contributions, Marita founded the Hurston Wright Foundation, which supports emerging and midcareer Black writers and preserves and disseminates the rich legacy of African American writing. Marita’s essay in Well-Read Black Girl, “Zora and Me,” is a poignant journey through her own literary maturation:

Like Zora I lost my mother at a young age and warred with a father I loved, it seemed, more than life. Like Zora I stepped over the ashes and debris of loss and struck out on my own, carrying grief and anger on my shoulders.Zora’s mother told her to jump at the sun. My mother told me that one day I would write a book.

Marita pointed out that book clubs are part of the Emancipation story. Following the Civil War, African-American women played a huge role in keeping books in print; books were an important social and economic force.

The Millions: Can you tell us how you got started reading and writing?

Glory Edim: My parents are Nigerian. They came here in search of a better life. I think about how life could have been completely different if they had taken a different path. I grew up in Washington, D.C., and being here is like a homecoming.

After my parents divorced, my father moved back to Nigeria, and we traveled back and forth every summer. Those travels are so much part of who I am.

My mother was a huge influence. She took us to the Smithsonian museums. She would ask us to find a painting that we would like to put on our living room wall and have us talk about it. She took us to all kinds of D.C. cultural events. D.C. was our playground. She read to me every night. Reading aloud is to witness ourselves.

I went to Howard University and was incredibly inspired to be around so much Black excellence in a space that was like love. A big part of my book is trying to recreate the feeling I had at Howard.

After Howard, I worked at the Lincoln Theatre in D.C., where I saw many wonderful plays, and began to think about dialogue in novels. That work made me think about what pulls a reader into a book. What generates an emotional response? I found that it’s important to think across art forms, and study great works of art for their structures.

TM: Tell us about the origin of Well-Read Black Girl, the persona.

GE: My partner gave me a tee shirt for my 31st birthday that said “Well-Read Black Girl.” By then I was living in New York. When I wore it, all kinds of people stopped me to talk about books they loved and ask for book recommendations. The level of interest inspired me to start a book club. More than anything, I wanted to make connections and foster relationships. I saw that people in New York were craving community.

I have a special interest in debut novels. I invited Naomi Jackson to our first book club to talk about her debut novel, The Star Side of Bird Hill. She brought along her friend Natalie Diaz, an incredible poet who just won a MacArthur Genius award. Things went from there.

I was lucky to have a job at Kickstarter, which is filled with techies who read and are engaged in other creative pursuits. I was able to use Kickstarter to launch the Well-Read Black Girl Festival in 2017, which is a cultural event, meant to promote community.

Timing is everything. My work coincided with the start of the Black Lives Matter movement, and online organizing was catching on quickly. Social media is an important part of what I do. Still, there is nothing like holding a real paper book in your hand; there’s nothing like reading a book from the library. One reason for this collection is to take the conversation offline and onto the pages of a book.

TM: Readers are always interested in process. Can you talk a little about that?

GE: I read widely and deeply. I’ve always been curious about the stories of writers. Who inspired them to write? When did they first declare themselves a writer? Beginnings have a significance. In the anthology, we discover how it began for each writer.

When I read for the book club, I read both as a facilitator and as an editor. These are two different roles. I am a lover of art; I study how people put things together.

TM: How did you decide to organize your collection?

GE: I organized it according to my personal taste. I considered my own literary memories and pulled from there. The essays are meant to feel like a conversation. As I prepared to invite contributors, I returned to the pivotal work of Toni Morrison, Cade Bambara, Zora Neale Hurston, and Audre Lorde. The essays I selected are heartfelt, precise, and genuine. Whether you are 16 or 65, I want the reader to be hit with a sense of nostalgia. My hope is that the collection encourages readers to share their own stories.

TM: How did you reach out to other writer/contributors and what was their response?

GE: I had a relationship with a majority of authors—as mentors, book club authors, or fans on social media. Each contributor was generous with their time.

TM: What’s next for you?

GE: You mean beyond growing our community?

I am working on a memoir with my mother. She was severely depressed while I was in college. The whole family came together to help her. Since this was a deeply private experience for her, she is the only one who can tell that story. But it is so much about my family’s legacy that I hope to get it on the page.

I’m always reading. Have you read Dr. Imani Perry’s Looking for Lorraine? It’s about author and playwright and activist Lorraine Hansberry. It’s a must read!

A Mysterious Respect for Lies: On Éric Vuillard’s ‘Order of the Day’

The sun is a cold star. It’s heart, spines of ice. Its light, unforgiving. In February, the trees are dead, the river petrified, as if the springs had stopped spewing water and the sea could swallow no more.
These ominous lines open Éric Vuillard’s The Order of the Day, which won France’s 2017 Prix Goncourt. Poetically translated by Mark Polizzotti, the book shines a light on the industrial titans and politicians behind Hitler’s might. With chilling precision and moral authority, Vuillard draws a straight line between the marching orders Hitler gave to Germany’s moguls, and the Anschluss.

Order of the Day opens in 1933 at a secret meeting in the Reichstag. Twenty-four scions of German industry attend, their names familiar from our washers, coffee makers, and elevators—Krupp, Siemens, Opel, to name a few. They are pillars of German society, fathers of German business:
They doffed twenty-four felt hats and covered twenty-four bald pates or crown of white hair …. The venerable patricians stood in the huge vestibule, exchanging casual, respectable banter, as if at the starch opening of a garden party.
The men trudge up the steps to wait in the palace of the President of the Assembly. They exchange smiles and “whispers between two sneezes …. nostrils honked in the silence.” Hermann Goering, President of the Reichstag, strides into the room. “The twenty-four lizards rose to their hind legs and stood stiffly,” nodding solemnly in agreement, as Goering announces that it’s “time to get rid of that wishy-washy regime once and for all.”

Hitler joins the assembly—affable and friendly. He clarifies the political situation. These men must pony up, which should be no problem since they are used to “kickbacks and backhanders”: “Corruption is an irreducible line item in the budget of large companies, and it goes by several names: lobbying fees, gifts, political contributions. Most of the guests immediately handed over hundreds of thousands of marks. Gustav Krupp gave a million.”

We are soon in 1937, following the annexation of the Saarland, the remilitarization of the Rhineland, and the bombing of Guernica by the Condor Legion. Vuillard probes the complicity of England’s elite:
Halifax, Lord President of the Council [England’s foreign minister], went privately to Germany at the behest of Hermann Goering, Reich Aviation Minister, Commander in Chief of the Luftwaffe, Minister of the Interior, resident of the defunct Reichstag, and creator of the Gestapo. That’s a mouthful, yet Halifax did not bat an eyelid: the truculent, operatic figure, the notorious anti-Semite with his chestload of decorations, did not strike him as odd.
Vuillard discloses that Neville Chamberlain, England’s conciliator-in-chief, owned a number of properties in London, one of which he rented to Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s ambassador to England until 1938: “From this anodyne fact … no one has drawn the slightest inference.” Vuillard cannot refrain from voicing such opinions; he’s compelled to judge the underlying facts.

Austria’s capitulation—its citizens warmly embracing the Nazis—was instrumental to the cataclysm. No matter that Hitler’s military equipment ran into massive mechanical failures lumbering into Austria. That same machine, well-greased and powerful, became the terror of Europe, financed and fueled by its capitalist backers.

Describing the Austrian leader Kurt Schuschnigg’s reactions to the Anschluss, Vuillard writes, “The border lay just ahead, and Schuschnigg was suddenly seized by apprehension. He felt as if the truth was just beyond his grasp.” (Schuschnigg was imprisoned as soon as the Nazis consolidated power in Austria, and interned for the rest of the war.)

With the insertion of his personal voice, Vuillard’s narration echoes his countryman, Laurent Binet. Binet won the 2006 Prix Goncourt for HHhH (translated into English by Sam Taylor), an account of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by Czech resistance fighters. Heydrich’s was the only assassination of a senior Nazi official during the war. Binet narrates historical events with meticulous attention to facts. But writing in first person, he frequently inserts himself, telling the reader what he is doing and why:
I’m now going to paint a portrait of the two heroes with much less hesitation than before, as all I need to do is quote directly from the British Army’s personnel reports.
Or:
I, too, am transfixed—because I’m reading Europe Central by William T. Vollmann, which has just appeared in French.
Whereas Binet’s personal asides are distracting and self-important, Vuillard’s glisten with righteous indignation. Vuillard’s language is beautifully and economically crafted; his judgments raise crucial questions. Commenting on the chaos and failure of German equipment at the Austrian border during the Anschluss, Vuillard offers this:
We have to remind ourselves that, at that moment, Blitzkrieg was nothing. It was just a bunch of stalled Panzers. Just a monstrous traffic jam on the Austrians highways, some furious men …. What’s astounding about this war is the remarkable triumph of bravado, from which we can infer one lesson: everyone is susceptible to a bluff.
Without a sense of hurry, Vuillard brings us to the Nuremberg trials, presenting a horrifying picture of two men once at the pinnacle of Nazi power:
At the memory of [an] overplayed exclamation, perhaps sensing how dissonant that stagey bit of dialogue was with History-capital-H, with its decency, the image it conveys of great events, Goering looked at Ribbentrop and guffawed. And Ribbentrop, too, was shaken by nervous laughter. Sitting opposite the international tribunal, opposite their judges, opposite journalists from the world over, amid the ruins, they could not help laughing.
Order of the Day is a stark examination of the price of silence, the cost of sticking to the rules to keep the peace, and the human toll when ruling elites not only go along to get along, but support the ravings of a violent and vengeful leader:
We shower History with abuse …. We never see the grimy hem, the yellowed tablecloth, the check stubs, the coffee ring. We only get to see events from their good side. And yet, if we look closely, on the photo showing Chamberlain and Daladier in Munich beside Hitler and Mussolini, just before signing the agreement, the English and French prime ministers do not look very pleased with themselves. Still, they signed.
Where are we now? Order of the Day demands that that question be asked. Wealth and power grow together. What are the risks when private capital is concentrated in quantities never before seen? The German industrial complex partnered with and profited handsomely from the Nazis. We buy our coffee makers and luxury cars and cameras and telephones and gasoline from companies that eagerly availed themselves of slave labor:
Bayer took laborers from Mauthausen. BMW hired in Dachau, Papenburg, Sachsenhasen, Natzwiler-Struhof, and Buchenwald. Daimler in Schirmeck. IG Farben recruited in Dora-Mittelbau, Gross-Rosen, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Ravensbrück, and Mauthausen, and operated a large factory inside the camp at Auschwitz, impudently listed as IG Auschwitz on the company’s org chart. Agfa recruited at Dachau. Shell in Neuengamme. Schneider in Buchenwald. Telefunken in Gross-Rosen, and Siemens in Buchenwald, Flossenbürg, Neuengamme, Ravensbrück, Sachsenhausen, Gross-Rosen, and Auschwitz. Everyone had jumped at the chance for such cheap labor.
Today, we are again experiencing a leader with complete contempt for the law. History is, unfortunately, riddled with them. Here’s Hitler’s reaction to the weakened Austrian leader meekly trying to cite the Austrian constitution:
But the strangest part was the reaction of Hitler, who stammered in turn, “So, you have the right…” as if he couldn’t quite grasp what was happening. Objections of constitutional law were beyond him.
Order of the Day looks back on a dark time for humankind, but it is also a clarion call to our current era. “Truth is scattered into many kinds of dust,” Vuillard writes. “This great jumble of misery, in which horrific events are already taking shape, is dominated by a mysterious respect for lies.”

What is the fallout from a leader whose sole means of communication is lying? Be forewarned, Vuillard cautions. Heads of state can be remarkably effective in bludgeoning perceived enemies and lying their way forward. It’s not too difficult to wreak havoc on your own people with the stroke of a pen. Vuillard suggests that if we are lucky enough to survive, it will be because the lessons of history have not been squandered on us.

Across Geography and History: On Esi Edugyan’s ‘Washington Black’

Washington Black is a terrific new narrative about enslavement, but that description fails to do it justice. Canadian writer Esi Edugyan’s third novel, long-listed for the Booker Prize, is a multi-faceted tale that travels across geography and history. In its rich details and finely tuned ear for language, the book creates a virtual world, immersing the reader in antebellum America and Canada as well as in Victorian England.

The novel opens in Barbados, 1830, where Washington Black, an orphaned and enslaved boy, lives in brutality. “I cleared the cane, only my sweat was of value. I was wielding a hoe at the age of two.” Washington, or “Wash,” relies on Big Kit to care for him. Big Kit infuses Wash with her dream: to kill them both so that in death they can return to their Dahomey roots.

Fate, however, has other plans. The master dies—“no one grieved him”—and his nephew, Titch, arrives from Britain to assess the estate. Titch, a scientist inventor, soon recognizes Wash’s talent for drawing, derived from his great powers of observation and insight.

Wash’s description of the master’s cousin Philip, newly arrived in Barbados, serves as exquisite foreshadowing:
Across from me Master Philip stared out at the distant tamarinds, their tops bowing in the dull wind. There were red fissures in the whites of his eyes, and under the mountain’s shadow his skin appeared grey. I noticed the flaking red knuckles, so strange on a man of leisure, the mesmerizing whiteness of his teeth; I saw the oddity of a body used for nothing but satisfying urges, bloated and ethereal as sea foam, as if it might break apart. He smelled of molasses and salted cod, and of the fine sweetness of mangoes in the hot season. I eyed him uneasily.
Titch convinces his brother, the new plantation master, to “loan” him Wash. Together Titch and Wash work on experiments and Titch begins to educate Wash. Titch builds a Cloud Cutter (flying machine), in which he and Wash are forced to escape following a suicide for which Wash is framed for murder.

Since Titch has not paid his brother for Wash, Wash is in jeopardy both as an alleged criminal and as “stolen property.” Wash travels—hunted and battered—through America and Canada. Here is Wash, escaped from America but still at peril in Nova Scotia:
I was everywhere uneasy in my skin, and this made me irritable and nervous and desperately melancholy, though I could not then have expressed it so. The fear, the fear was always with me. And not just of [the bounty hunter’s] agents—kidnappers generally roamed the coast, and in the rainy, grey dusk they would stun a freed man in the street and drag him half-conscious onto a ship bound for the Southern states, to make of him a slave again.
Spoilers prevent explaining why and how Wash and Titch end up in the Arctic, but the trek is fraught with danger and thoroughly engaging. Edugyan captures the Arctic so artfully, you want to reach for your parka to stay warm:
Ah, but the cold. I dreamed about that cold for years after. It had a colour, a taste—it wrapped itself around one like an unwelcome skin and began, ever so delicately, to squeeze…. 

I had been warned … that snow was white, and cold. But it was not white: it held the colours of the spectrum. It was blue and green and yellow and teal; there were delicate pink tintings in some of the cliffs as we passed. As the light shifted in the sky, so too did the snow around us deepen, find[ing] new hues, the way an ocean is never blue but some constantly changing colour. Nor was the cold simply cold—it was the devouring of heat, a complete sucking of warmth from the blood until what remained was the absence of heat. When the wind stirred, it would scythe through the skin as if we were the cane and the wind were our terrible reaping.
This isn’t just a novelist’s flight of fancy; only a few decades after the time period in Washington Black, Matthew Henson began accompanying Robert Peary on his arctic expeditions. For over two decades, Henson, a black man, proved pivotal to the missions. He mastered Inuit and served as an indispensable physical and intellectual guide, despite Peary’s efforts to obscure Henson’s role.

More important than travelogue, however, is Washington Black’s interrogation of human attachment. Now a man, Wash struggles over his relationship with Titch. Their connection is encumbered with race and class issues, as well as Titch’s emotional baggage. Wash raises questions that are a template for examining the insanity of slavery and its damaging aftermath, even when the players consider themselves well-intentioned. Is Titch trying to be Wash’s father? If so, he is a crushing letdown. With his own selfish cares, Titch turns out to be emotionally stunted. He fails as a protector, unable or unwilling to appreciate the threats to Wash’s life. This is Wash, assaulted as he arrives with Titch in slave-holding Virginia, following their escape from Barbados:
I was so frightened I closed my eyes…. I did not know where Titch had gone to, but I understood, in that moment, the terrible bottomless nature of the open world, when one belongs nowhere, to no one.
At great peril, Washington Black makes his way to England, where he struggles to survive. In an effort to recapture his scientific past, he returns to drawing and acquires a student, Tanna, the adored daughter of a foibled zoologist/marine explorer. Tanna is a young woman who defies the stereotypes of her class and sex, and is nothing if not forthright.
“You are like an interruption in a novel, Wash….”

“I do not read novels.”

“Do not let my endorsement dissuade you. They are not all as I describe.”
Wash may an exemplar of the rational man, but the love story between Tanna and Wash is refreshing in its oddities and unconventionalities.

Edugyan is a virtuosic writer. Her second novel, Half-Blood Blues, captures the racism and terror in 1939 Berlin and Paris through the lives of two jazz musicians. There too, she demonstrates an ear for dialogue and a facility for conjuring time and place. Along with creating an entire world in Washington Black, Edugyan satisfies the ultimate demand we make of novels: an intriguing examination of unanswerable, but essential, questions.

Working with What You’ve Got: An Interview with Lydia Kiesling

Readers of The Millions know Lydia Kiesling as its current editor, corralling an eclectic group of writers and readers into a daily book blog circulated to thousands of book lovers.  Lydia’s first novel, The Golden State, arrives today from Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s MCD imprint.  An unusually accomplished debut, the book has all the elements this interviewer reads for:  flow, language, ideas, surprises, humor, and a great big heart.  

The Golden State’s protagonist is a young mother named Daphne, separated from her Turkish husband through an immigration screw-up, struggling to support her family in San Francisco.  Overwhelmed with her situation, Daphne takes baby Honey and retreats to the family’s ancestral mobile home in rural California, the site of an enthusiastic separatist movement gunning for the new State of Jefferson.  As Daphne revisits memories from her family of origin, she faces a thousand small and large obstacles in raising Honey.  She follows a trail of longing through the fallout from America’s Kafkaesque immigration system so that she can create a family that coheres.  I was lucky enough to catch up with Lydia via email over the summer. 

Martha Anne Toll (MAT):  How did you first come to writing? 

Lydia Kiesling (LK):  I was always a reader. I had a corresponding, mostly submerged, urge to write, but I wasn’t sure how to start or what to write about. When I was 25, I decided to set up a Wordpress blog to write…something. Books seemed like the best entry point, so I started out writing short posts about books in a semi-facetious style. C. Max Magee, who founded The Millions as his personal blog and grew it into what it is today, read the posts (via emeritus staffer Ben Dooley), and kindly invited me to make the site a home for my writing.  For a long time I only wrote about books, but I was constitutionally unable to avoid bringing in personal elements—writing about my particular experience of reading—which didn’t always translate to the classic book review (there are many strong opinions about this!). I quickly started doing more writing in the category of personal essay, but I didn’t presume to give fiction a try until about six or seven years in.  

MAT:  Readers are always interested in process.  What is the genesis of your novel and how did it unfold? 

LK:  I started feeling that my available venues and structures for writing were limiting. I had a full-time job, so digging into deeply reported or researched pieces was not realistic.  I also found that some of what I wanted to explore didn’t fit neatly into an essay format—at least one that I knew how to write or sell. I saw that fiction was where you could range as far as you wanted with a particular theme, provided you put it into a story that made sense, and that’s where I started to focus my energies. I felt that the day-to-day experience of parenthood, and certain kinds of professional and political frustrations, were rich fodder for a novel, and that I might have the tools and material available to write about them in that format.   

MAT:  With your more than full time position at The Millions how do you fit your own writing in? 

LK:  I’m glad I give the illusion that The Millions is full-time, but it’s really extremely part-time! The reason I could write this book is that my increasingly urgent desire to try a long fiction project coincided with Max’s feeling that running every aspect of The Millions while doing his own full-time job and raising children was untenable—he had been doing it for more than a decade!  He offered me a position that worked out to about two hours per weekday, with a stipend that almost covered daycare for one kid (now I have two—whoops). My husband and I figured that we could make the arrangement work for a year, at the end of which I would have to either sell a book, or have a clear indication that it would happen soon. I’m incredibly fortunate that my husband had health insurance and a salary that covered our rent, and that I could mostly cover childcare with my stipend. I was writing against the clock, at a pace I’m sure I’ll never sustain again, and I made the deadline with a couple of months to spare.   

MAT:  One of your book’s most unusual aspects is Daphne’s experience with the Turkish language and her commentary about its joys and challenges.  Can you say more about that? 

LK:  I started learning Turkish in Turkey in 2005 when I was there teaching English to kindergarteners. I moved back to California after a year to be closer to my family, but I regretted not going further with Turkish, and I missed Turkey dearly. In 2009, when my now-husband and I were living in Pittsburgh while he went to graduate school, I decided that my job prospects were such that I was basically only qualified for miscellaneous admin jobs just outside what I wanted to do, so I went back to school to work on Turkish and get a Middle Eastern Studies degree.  The decision made no sense since our plan was to move back to California, but I have been able to use it in different ways.  Putting Turkish into the novel was both a form of domestic economy—working with what you’ve got—and also a way to live in a world where I used a language I sincerely love.  

MAT:  Turkish has everything to do with Daphne’s husband Engin, who is marooned in Turkey due to a green card calamity at the San Francisco airport.  How do you think of their relationship? Do you see it as a metaphor? 

LK:  I think Turkey and America have a lot in common as relatively young countries—the way our social currents affect governance, in particular—but realistically, it’s probably only a metaphor for my own sense of…regret isn’t quite the word, but melancholy that I can’t see a future when I’m going to live in Turkey or speak Turkish.  I’m losing my Turkish all the time, and I knew this as I was writing.  I was anxious not to make Engin too much of a fantasy boyfriend, life-not-lived kind of thing. That said, as someone who unwittingly followed the practice of “assortative mating”—my husband and I grew up in very different regional contexts, but our demographic and class backgrounds are similar—I am interested in other kinds of couples. Many people feel social pressure, either explicit or implicit, to marry someone from a similar background, but marriages happen every day between people who didn’t grow up speaking the same language, and where neither party will assimilate into the other’s culture—they build something new. I did hesitate about trying to portray an experience that I haven’t had. Then again, since we only have Daphne’s narration, we only hear her side. One reader was really incensed about Daphne, on Engin’s behalf. “Imagine being him, helplessly watching your child’s mother melt down on the other side of the world via Skype.”  She had a point! 

MAT: A central theme in The Golden State is new motherhood and childrearing.  Daphne’s relationship with her baby daughter Honey is at times laugh-out-loud funny, at times poignant, and always heartrending.  You were in the throes of new motherhood when you wrote this novel.  How did that affect your writing?  Was part of the challenge to protect your real-life child/ren from appearing on the pages of this book? 

LK:  I started sketching out vignettes when my eldest daughter was about six months old, and I started writing in earnest when she was 17 months old, about Honey’s age. The book owes everything to her; I simply wouldn’t have written it if I hadn’t had her and if she hadn’t transformed the way I experience time—both the huge anxiety of seeing her new-babyness turn into toddlerhood so quickly, and the slowness of individual moments with her.  I didn’t feel any angst about representing her; obviously individual parents know their individual children’s quirks, but babies and toddlers tend to operate within a spectrum of familiar behavior, so Honey is kind of an Every-baby. I was more interested in describing a particular parent’s psyche and behavior as she interacts with a toddler, not in imbuing a lot of specificity to the toddler herself. I now have a second baby, and it’s an experience I don’t seem to urgently need to translate to fiction the same way. I suppose I could worry that my babies will grow up and read the book and worry that I was miserable, but Daphne isn’t me, and her life is much harder than mine, and she isn’t totally miserable in any case. My children don’t make me miserable—the way American society fails parents of every background is much more immiserating. I love them, and I think and hope that will supersede whatever weirdness they feel if they ever read this book.    

MAT:  Novels are often about memory.  Daphne finds herself on that most personal of journeys—revisiting a critical place in her childhood.  Can you talk about Daphne’s encounters with memory, particularly memories of her mother and grandparents who are everywhere in the house to which she escapes? 

LK:  I grew up moving around a lot in a Foreign Service family, as well as visiting the same places over and over without living permanently in them, so memories of place are central to the book.  Along with the baby stuff, it was the nostalgia and love you can feel for particular places, both as the sites where you interacted with particular people, but also as their own, stand-alone forces—smells and sounds and sensations—that I wanted to get on the page.  

MAT:  Writers are admonished to be observant.  Can you talk about that admonition with regard to this heart stopping sentence:  “…observation is violence as any Orientalist knows.” 

LK:  I think about this all the time, particularly because I was in an “area studies” program both as a student and later as an employee, that has roots both in the discipline of Oriental Studies and in the Cold War-era belief that America would materially benefit from Americans learning about other languages and cultures. And my childhood in the Foreign Service was full of mythology that if you travel to a lot of places you will be more informed, more empathetic, more adaptable. There is truth to that, but the more saccharine and platitudinous version of this mythology ignores the fact that gaze is everything. Part of what has been breathtaking about adulthood, in ways good and painful, is seeing how my own gaze has been shaped by social and political forces, many of them malign. This is pertinent to area studies, but also to literature, as we see again and again in conversations that take place in the literary community. So yes, you have to be observant to be a novelist, but you also have to understand that what feels to you like objectivity or interest, or even love, can be ignorance, and can be violence. (Phrenologists considered themselves very observant!) Also, this may seem like a tangent, but women are socialized to be observant.  Observation in that sense is rarely neutral—trading observations is currency in female friendships, particularly among girls and young women, and wielding observation cruelly is part of that. I’m still not sure where the line is as far as fiction goes, but I try to keep it in mind. 

MAT:  The personal becomes political in The Golden State.  Daphne is confronted with a militant secessionist group fighting to break off from California and establish the State of Jefferson.  How did you come up with that idea?  How much did contemporary politics shape the plot of your novel? 

LK:  I started seeing the State of Jefferson signs on drives up north and east in the last few years and found them surprising, but it turns out this regional movement to create a 51st state out of part of northern California (and Oregon, in some iterations) has been around for a long time. The neo-Sagebrush Rebellion activities as characterized by the Bundys and their supporters are their own thing, but the rhetoric overlaps, and the ideological roots are similar.  So I conflated a few things in this book—I took a State of Jefferson action that took place in 1941 and gave it a kind of Malheur standoff spin. I didn’t devote a lot of the book to the State of Jefferson, but I wanted to show that something that seems to have nothing to do with you can brush up against your life in a variety of ways. I didn’t really see until recently how much Daphne’s feeling that if she can be alone with her child she can be safe, can manage her life, even though all signs point to the contrary, somewhat mirrors the belief that if people can break off and form a state that matches their politics perfectly things will just work out (again, all signs point to the contrary). 

MAT:  The Golden State begs the question:  What does this novel say about the virulent fight over immigration we are experiencing in Trump’s America? 

LK:  I wrote the novel during the Obama years and the immigration story is loosely based on that of people I know. One of many things that alarmed me then about our immigration system is that it often seems to come down to the individual frame of mind or set of prejudices of the border agent you come across. You have absolutely no power, regardless of whether you follow the law (such as it is) or not. Our immigration policy was exclusionary and difficult before Trump.  But now everything that was previously subtext is text.  It seems clear that the people in Trump’s coterie want to end birthright citizenship, and that is sickening. If they take that, they take any remaining pretense of American being the land of opportunity. The American Dream becomes Stephen Miller’s dream realized.

MAT:  What’s next for you?  Do you have another novel/book in the works, and if so can you tell us about it? 

LK:  I’m early in another book, about American efforts at soft power abroad!  But there’s no way I’ll be able to finish it before my daycare money runs out. I’ll need to rearrange, again. 

A Book for the Moment: On Helen Weinzweig’s ‘Basic Black with Pearls’

This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.

1.
In our current moment, a chorus of “nasty women” has flooded social media with grievances.

Unfortunately, these grievances recur with grim regularity. But even before modes of communication expanded and modernized, storytelling was the constant, the vehicle to voice oppression. Fiction has always been a means for coding muzzled, transgressive complaints.

Codes play both a literal and metaphoric role in Basic Black with Pearls, a brilliant midcentury novel by Canadian Helen Weinzweig. The book has just been reissued by New York Review Books, with an illuminating afterword by Sarah Weinman.

Born in 1915, Helen Weinzweig emigrated from Poland to Canada at age 9. She was raised in poverty by a single mother in Toronto. As a child she spent two years recovering from tuberculosis in a sanatorium—where books became her best companions—and at age 17 was reunited with her estranged father in Milan. Their meeting resulted in something close to a kidnapping, in which he didn’t allow her to leave for months, a trauma reflected in a strange interlude in Basic Black. She never saw her father again.

In 1940, Weinzweig married the most prominent Canadian composer of his day and spent her married life in service to his career. “At first Helen stuck to traditional roles of muse, helpmeet, mother of sons, housewife,” writes Sarah Weinman. Helen’s husband “was the creative force, the one whose art needed the space for nurturing. (‘Both John and I lived his career,’ she once said.)” Weinzweig published her first novel at age 58. Given her mastery of the form, it is tempting to speculate that in a different era, she might have been able to take her writing seriously at an earlier age.

Basic Black concerns a “traditional” Toronto woman, Shirley, married with two children, whose clandestine liaisons with a man code-named Coenraad take place around the world. Coenraad works for an American spy agency and divulges where Shirley can find him (Kyoto, Tikal, Montreal, Scandinavia, for example)—through a series of clues in National Geographic magazines that only Shirley can decipher.

The novel opens with Shirley’s first decoding failure. She has flown to Guatemala for an assignation, and Coenraad has not materialized. “Night comes as a surprise in the tropics,” she begins. “There is no twilight, no preparation for the disappearance of light.” She returns reluctantly to Toronto, her hometown, where she relives her stark childhood: “The city is mined, for me, with the explosive devices of memory.”

Shirley continues her quest for Coenraad in Toronto, testing the limits of her intuition. She recounts their trysts with specificity and longing, Coenraad’s elusiveness a persistent trope:
When he was in danger, he told himself, if I get out of this alive, I will never let her [Shirley] go. But of course he did. Over and over. Still, I have become accustomed to waiting. It’s not so bad: I always have something to look forward to.
2.
On one level, Basic Black is an exploration of relationships and their failures. Shirley’s early love for a boy named Max, for example, is broken up by his mother. Later, Shirley hears he has been injured diving and is confined to a wheelchair:
[If Max’s mother] had left us alone then Maximilian need not have broken his back and I need not have married a man who reminded me of him. Zbigniew. The fault is not his. …Zbigniew has done nothing wrong. He never breathes in my face. The fault is not his that I cannot look into his unclouded eyes, that I cannot meet the gaze that once commanded a squadron…Any agitation on my part brings to the bedroom two men in white.
Shirley considers Coenraad the perfect lover, but their relationship is not without its ups and downs:
I am forced to contrast our meetings in cold climates with those of warm zones. In countries around the equator our love is at its hottest. …Everything we eat is spiced with aphrodisiacs. We have never had a harsh word in São Paulo or Rangoon or Palermo. Nor do we speak about matters that might cast a shadow across our sun: about hungry men, dying women, disfigured children; about arrests at night and executions at dawn. …In the colder regions something goes wrong…we quarrel easily. …In Stockholm, he was so easily irked and I so quickly wounded, that he sent me to Edinburgh ahead of schedule.
Coenraad’s views on the relationship are more muted:
Coenraad said, Lucky for me I didn’t know you years ago. And I, weak-kneed and seated replied, Oh but I wish we had! My life would have been fulfilled! Exactly, he replied, you would have been fulfilled, but I would never have amounted to anything.
Shirley examines her encounters with Coenraad from multiple angles, as if she were selecting choice fruit from a market. She places her meetings with him within a broader canvas. Hearing Greek music, she wonders:
Did Theseus abandon Ariadne because he no longer loved her; or, as one legend claimed, because his ship was blown out to sea?

3.
On another level, Basic Black is a tour of loneliness with strong feminist overtones. She considers what happens to women who are prevented from reaching their educational and professional potential, who are forced by societal norms or economic necessity into loveless marriages and involuntary child rearing. The harsh loneliness in Basic Black resonates with Stoner’s isolation in the eponymous novel by John Williams, and with the brutal singlehood of Anita Brookner’s heroines, who lack the chance at love for which Shirley grasps.  Shirley finds herself surrounded by loneliness:
I began to notice that there were others like myself, as one with crutches is aware of those similarly crippled. I passed an old woman in a tweedless coat and galoshes with metal buckles; I passed a Chinese boy in a quilted black silk jacket; I passed a curly-haired teenager who, despite the cold, revealed nipples under a sheer blouse, I passed a man who must have just come off the boat. …There were more. We solitaries came towards one another, passed…
Basic Black also interrogates broader issues such as war, cultural displacement, fantasy versus reality, sanity versus insanity, light versus shadow. Weinzweig brings the full range of artistic tools to her writing, deploying a rich set of metaphors that resonate on multiple planes. Through metaphor she reflects the joys and heartache of human interaction, the impossibility of absorbing life’s challenges:
Music, it is said, is the perfect art. It, too, is an abstraction, at the very least, of vibrations, of wavelengths, of such and such frequencies, of so many overtones, of semitones and quarter tones; yet none of these components, as with fragrance for a wasp, accounted for the rising tension I felt as I listened to Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies…

…the music is sad, life is sad, the plight of all lovers is sad, but here we are, in the dance, the music urges us on, faster, faster, yet there is no hurry, we can dance our lives away.
In addition to these broad themes, Weinzweig layers her personal history beneath the narrative. She explores the world of her childhood—left behind—“In Yiddish a man who kills your feelings is the same as a murderer.” She considers the world of her adult, married life: “I have deduced from Coenraad’s indifference to certain domestic gestures that I have made from time to time that it goes against the grain of romantic love to bring to it the trappings of marriage. When we are together no stockings hang, no shirts drip; no water boils, no bread is buttered.” Finally, she explores the world she would have her heroine, and perhaps herself, inhabit: “After a while I felt I was walking in forbidden territory; I had a sense of danger that comes when one asks why is there no one here but me?”

4.
Basic Black with Pearls unfolds with the deliberate elegance of a budding flower. No spoilers here, but it’s fair to say that Weinzweig so fully immerses the reader in Shirley’s mind that it is too late by the end to question the veracity of what has come before. With this expert sleight of hand, Weinzweig delivers a masterpiece of compressed/repressed emotion. Her economy of expression is breathtaking. In less than one hundred and sixty pages, Weinzweig covers the world, while simultaneously remaining laser-focused on who and what Shirley is. Shirley, too, has a code name with Coenraad, which is Lola Montez. But as it turns out, she is far more complex and nuanced than her alter ego.

With its quiet, luminous intensity, its relentless questioning of how a woman should be, Basic Black with Pearls is a book for this moment.

Obsession Is Universal

Is there art without obsession? Obsession is endemic to the human condition.  It drives creation like sunlight nourishes plants. If artists are observers of human follies and failings, then depicting obsession comes with the terrain.  Three recently translated novels, ostensibly about music and musicians, use language to illustrate obsession.

Blue Self-Portrait, by Noémi Lefebvre, translated from French by Sophie Lewis, is narrated by a young woman flying between Berlin and Paris.  She sits with her sister, a violinist, and fixates on her love interest, a pianist-composer.  Lefebvre transmits the narrator’s obsessive nature through sentences that are pages long with scant punctuation, and cascades of spiraling, stream-of-consciousness thoughts.  The pianist-love interest spurs a mental whirligig through German intellectual and cultural history; Nazism; music, art, and language; and sex and relationships, including the narrator’s failed marriage and her overbearing former mother-in-law.  All this, in fewer than 150 pages.

Blue Self-Portrait is inventive and funny—as well as clever—cycling at breakneck speed through the atrocities of the 20th century while staying connected to the narrator’s primary obsession: the pianist.  It may not be a big leap to go from the Wannsee Conference (synonymous with “Final Solution”) to Reinhard Heydrich, who convened Wannsee and was the only senior Nazi official to be assassinated.  But segueing from there to the narrator’s pianist love requires a creative twist—
…you can’t play any of that romantic, so-called classical music as if the Heydrichs had not existed, he [the pianist] would say giving his angelic smile before launching into Beethoven, without letting up would explain in his polite and respectful manner to the Auditorium audience which was there to listen to classical music and not to hear a pianist saying that to play Beethoven you must know not only Beethoven but also the Heydrichs…
Lefebvre’s novel is layered with music.  It is inspirited with Arnold Schoenberg, the seminal 20th-century Viennese composer and sometime painter, whose self-portrait gives the book its title.  With his invention of 12-tone music, Schoenberg broke out of what he perceived to be the shackles of classicism.  He used serial patterns (“rows”) derived from the 12 chromatic notes of the scale—think white and black keys on a piano keyboard.  A victim of Nazism, Schoenberg was forced to emigrate to the United States in the 1930s, where for nearly two decades he trained a generation of prominent composers.

Blue Self-Portrait’s literary rendering of Schoenberg is one of the many pleasures of this book.  The translator notes that Lefebvre probes how we can remember the most shameful ideas of the last century by weaving “her text in approximation of a serialist piece.”

Yet against the 20th century’s sobering background, the narrator affects a seeming detachment.  Translator Sophie Lewis concludes this is the narrator’s means to hide an obsessive personality.
Funny that one of the keys to this novel should be not caring.  Our heroine is castigated repeatedly, and repeatedly berates herself, for the crime of “désinvolture.”  What is this elegant French notion?  Why, nonchalance, insouciance, of course.  Plain old frivolity, laidbackness, devilmaycareism, happy-go-lucky style; in the plainest English, it’s not caring.  But she does care—hence all the obsessing…[t]his term so often reiterated it counts more as a musical leitmotif than a point of prose argument.
This “not-caring” musical leitmotif, combined with sentences of prodigious length and a fixation on history’s ills, are Lefebvre’s tools to convey obsession.

Swiss writer Pascal Mercier, translated from German by Shaun Whiteside, uses pace and character to achieve similar ends.  Lea opens when Adrian Herzog, a physician, meets Martijn van Vliet, director of a laboratory, in a café in Saint Remy.  “I didn’t want to hear Martijn van Vliet’s story,” Herzog says, and then proceeds not only to hear it, but also to narrate it as the two men road trip toward Bern.

Lea is Martijn van Vliet’s (now adult) daughter.  A frisson of fear and foreboding surrounds her narrative.   Mourning her mother’s early passing, Lea became obsessed with learning the violin at age eight—
I can find no better words than these:  she picked it up and started to play.  Just as if she had been waiting all that time for someone to bring to her, at long last, the instrument for which she was born.
Martijn welcomes the violin as a means to wrest his daughter from grief.  Is there a better symbol for obsession than the quest to master such a difficult instrument? With the violin as a starting point, Lea and her widowed father spin into mania’s vortex.

Martijn plays the hapless but well-intentioned father, unable to read Lea accurately or provide the care she desperately needs.  In thrall to his daughter’s talent, he makes a series of terrible choices, including how to finance the purchase of Lea’s  instrument.  He fails to respond appropriately as Lea rotates through teachers and relationships with a destructive intensity that ends very badly.  Ultimately, she lands in a mental institution where her doctor forbids Martijn to visit.

As Martijn and Adrian stop along the way to Bern, Adrian’s story unfolds in parallel—his fear that he is getting too old to practice medicine, and his worries about his relationship with his own alienated, adult daughter.  Starting as strangers, Martijn and Adrian end up with intimate knowledge of each other’s private and public lives.  As the novel moves inexorably toward tragedy, Adrian says—
I felt myself slumping.  I didn’t want to hear anything more of this sorry tale.  I didn’t have the strength.
It is plot and metaphor, along with Martijn’s growing desperation that transmits obsession in Mercier’s Lea.

In both content and length, Compass, by Mathias Énard, translated from French by Charlotte Mandell, is the weightiest of these three books.  A novel of great complexity, Compass won France’s Prix Goncourt.  Musicologist Franz Ritter narrates Compass from his sickbed in Vienna as if he were in an opium haze (perhaps he is)—
We are two opium smokers each in his own cloud, seeing nothing outside, alone, never understanding each other we smoke, faces agonizing in a mirror, we are a frozen image to which time gives the illusion of movement, a snow crystal gliding over a ball of frost, the complexity of whose intertwinings no one can see, I am that drop of water condensed on the window of my living room, a rolling liquid pearl that knows nothing of the vapor that engendered it…
That sumptuous sentence opens the novel and runs to hundreds of words.  Facing a fatal illness, Ritter reviews his life and oeuvre in close to 450 pages that are part travelogue, part intellectual history, and part complex philosophical musings.  Threading through the book is a long sigh of remembrance for Sarah, a French scholar.  Sarah is a distant and unrequited love who symbolizes all that is lost, all that is no longer attainable, and all that likely never was attainable.  In other words, she is Ritter’s obsession.
“Dear Sarah, you should know that I am dying.”  A little too anodyne.  “Dear Sarah, I miss you,” too direct.  “Dearest Sarah, could old sufferings one day become joys?”  That’s good, old sufferings.  Had I cribbed from the poets, in my letters from Istanbul?  I hope she hasn’t kept them—a monument to boastfulness.
Ritter’s profession of musicologist is apt, since music by its nature is ephemeral, but also composed of time and experienced within time.
Life is a Mahler symphony, it never goes back, never retraces its steps.  This feeling of the passing of time is the definition of melancholy, an awareness of finitude from which there is no refuge, aside from opium and oblivion…
Compass is a literal compass, traveling the world like a 21st-century Marco Polo.  The musicologist’s inquiries spring from his experiences across Turkey, Syria, and Iran in his study of Orientalism and the European musical tradition.  He probes language and ancient history, plumbing a gigantic range of topics from Mongols to Mozart, Beethoven to Bedouins—
Karol Szymanowski [early 20th-century composer] to her was a part of the Polish soul, and meant nothing Oriental; she preferred the Mazurkas to the Muezzin, the dances of the Tatra Mountains to those of the Atlas.
It is gratifying to give in to the great sweep of this novel, to be immersed in Ritter’s adventures, and in his capacious imaginings. Here’s Franz, moving from Wagner to fundamentalism to Nietzsche.
The important thing is not to lose east…Why am I so wound up against Wagner tonight?  Maybe it’s the influence of Beethoven’s compass, the one that points east.  Wagner is the zahir, the apparent, the sinister dry West…Wagner closes everything.  Destroys opera.  Drowns it.  The total artwork becomes totalitarian.  What is there in his almond?  Everything…Wagner is the Islamic Republic.  Despite his interest in Buddhism, despite his passion for Schopenhauer, Wagner transforms everything into that Christian alterity in self…Nietzsche is the only one who was able to distance himself from that magnet.
By its very length and heft, this book cries obsession.  As in Blue Self-Portrait, the reader is privy to the narrator’s proliferating musings. Knocking on death’s door, Franz Ritter circles the earth.  He interrogates his life’s work—music—and paints a picture of longing and depth that make him not only sympathetic, but also lovable.

In this trio of novels, music mirrors and underscores obsession. Is it notable that two of the writers are French and one Swiss? Certainly the cultural references—sophisticated to obtuse—that saturate these books are not generally the stuff of American novels. Obsession, however, is universal.

Image Credit: Flickr/qthomasbower.

Three Odysseys

Odysseys come in all shapes and forms, from epic to personal.  Three recent odysseys range in time and theme from ancient to dystopian.  Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey launches from Homer’s epic, 2017 National Book Award-winner Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing road trips to the Mississippi State Penitentiary, and Jesús Carrasco’s Out in the Open follows a young boy’s harrowing escape from abuse across an unnamed landscape.  No matter their geography, these books share exceptional writing, mining vast expanses of the human experience.

Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey is, unsurprisingly, a roadmap to Homer’s Odyssey (which, incidentally, has just received a new translation by Emily Wilson).  It introduces relevant scholarship and translations, discusses how the epic shaped the Western canon, sprinkles in choice etymology as well as descriptions of Mendelsohn’s Classics training, and provides a multitude of other, arresting details.

And yet.  An Odyssey is really a braided memoir woven with three strands: the semester that Mendelsohn’s 81-year-old father, Jay, asked to audit Daniel’s Odyssey class at Bard, a subsequent cruise by father and son that retraced the Homeric voyage, and the roadmap of The Odyssey.  Jay Mendelsohn died shortly thereafter, framing not only his fatherhood and his life, but also An Odyssey.

The memoir’s architecture is remarkable.  Its structure presented Mendelsohn with a difficult challenge that he discussed in a recent interview with The Millions.  Mendelsohn chose to echo Homer’s “ring composition,” in which the narrator begins the story, then pauses and loops back to some earlier moment
… a bit of personal or family history, say—and afterward might even loop back to some earlier moment … that will help account for that slightly less early moment, thereafter gradually winding his way back to the present, the moment in the narrative that he left in order to provide all this background.
Mendelsohn loops back to early memories of his father and gradually fills in a man of fierce discipline and determination.  Dad was a passionate reader and do-it-your-selfer; the more difficult and unpleasant something was for him, “the more likely it was to possess…the hallmark of worthiness.”

Mendelsohn takes us from beginnings to endings.  In Dad’s first class, Daniel unfolds the “Homeric Question,” an ancient debate about how Homer’s epics came into being.  There was no single Homer, rather—
… the bards who performed the epics, itinerant singer-performers … at once reproduced material that earlier poets had composed while refining it and adding new material of their own…
The epic’s opening reflects that oral tradition—“Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twist and turns/driven time and again off course….” [Robert Fagles translation].

Initially, Daniel cringes at having his father in his classroom.  Proclamations from Jay—Odysseus is no hero because “he’s a liar and he cheated on his wife!”—call into question the wisdom of trying to teach Dad.  But the memoir gradually evolves into an interrogation of the Mendelsohn father-son dynamic.  Mendelsohn the son travels a road of discovery that is a crescendo of revelations about his father.  Daniel unearths secrets and inconsistencies that cause him to rewrite not only the received wisdom from Jay, but his own self-concept; just as much of Homer’s The Odyssey is “devoted to father-son relationships….”
“Who really knows his own begetting?” Telemachus [Odysseus’ son] bitterly asks early in the Odyssey.  Who indeed?  Our parents are mysterious to us in ways that we can never quite be mysteries to them.
Mendelsohn’s readers journey with Odysseus down to ghost-filled Hades and back up to the end of Homer’s poem, where Mendelsohn notices Homer’s continued ”preoccupation with the rites of burial.”  In The Odyssey’s final book, Homer summons Hades again, recounting a conversation between the ghosts of Achilles and Agamemnon.
It is hard not to feel, in this final book of the poem, that in its repeated climactic references to tombs and burials… [that] the Odyssey is “burying” the Iliad…
Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward’s most recent novel, is another kind of ghost-riddled odyssey, written in prose as lyrical and expressive as a bard’s singing.  Jojo, who anchors the book, is the son of a black mother, Leonie, and a white father, Michael, imprisoned upstate.  Jojo lives with his black grandparents—Mam, who is dying, and Pop, who serves as Jojo’s guiding light.  Leonie comes and goes, in thrall to addiction and to her longing for Michael.  At 13, Jojo takes responsibility for his toddler sister, Kayla (named Michaela for her absent father), and struggles to become a man.
I follow Pop out of the house, try to keep my back straight, my shoulders even as a hanger; that’s how Pop walks.  I try to look like this is normal and boring so Pop will think I’ve earned these thirteen years….
The voyage in Ward’s novel is the trip to pick up Michael, set for release from the Mississippi State Penitentiary—Parchman—where Pop did time decades ago.  Along the way, Leonie stops to buy gas—but doesn’t provide Jojo with enough money to buy food for him and Kayla—and at a sinister house to pick up Misty and Leonie’s next fix.  There, Jojo steals a pack of saltines and two bottles of juice—


I open my stolen bottle and drink the juice down, then pour half the other bottle into Kayla’s sippy cup.  I hand one cracker to Kayla and slide one into my mouth.  We eat like that:  one for me and one for her…. Neither of the women in the front seat pay us an attention.
It’s not hunger, or heat, or Kayla’s vomiting on Jojo, or Leonie and Misty getting high, or the blinding, torrential rain during the car trip.  It’s absence—Leonie’s from her children—as well as the ghosts of the dead—family and others—that thread this trip with adversity.  In a version of ring composition, Ward loops the dead in with the living, entangling brothers with sisters, fathers with sons.  As the car pushes on, Ward fills in hellish, heartbreaking details from the family’s past, details that are also congruent with our nation’s past.

There’s the ghost of Given, Leonie’s murdered brother, who haunts Leonie when she’s high.  There’s Richie, a dead boy, with whom Jojo is acquainted from hearing Pop’s Parchman stories—
Richie wasn’t built for work.  He wasn’t built for nothing, really, on account he was so young.  He ain’t know how to work a hoe, didn’t have enough years in his arms for muscle…
The four riders—Leonie, Misty, Jojo, and Kayla—arrive at Parchman, reunite with Michael and begin the return trip.  It turns out they’ve picked up Richie’s ghost as well—visible only to Jojo.  Richie recites vivid memories of Jojo’s absent, dead father, River, whom Richie loved.  Richie knows Jojo is River’s son—
… by the way he holds the little sick golden girl [Kayla]:  as if he thinks he could curl around her, make his skeleton and flesh into a building to protect her from the adults, from the great reach of the sky, the vast expanse of the grass-ridden earth, shallow with graves.

I want to tell the boy in the car this.  Want to tell him how his pop tried to save me again and again….

But I don’t tell the boy any of that.  I settle in the crumpled bits of paper and plastic that litter the bottom of the car.
The return trip is as emotionally harrowing as the trip to Parchman.  Michael has no interest in Jojo, and Leonie’s primary interest is in Michael.  Not until Leonie is stopped for “swerving,” and a cop handcuffs Leonie and points a gun to Jojo’s head does Leonie realize—
It’s easy to forget how young Jojo is until I see him standing next to the police officer.  It’s easy to look at him, his weedy height, the thick spread of this belly, and think he’s grown.  But he’s just a baby.
If the unburied are buried by the conclusion of Jesmyn Ward’s novel, it is in hearing their stories told, where dogs are not like Odysseus’s faithful old dog, Argos (who recognizes Odysseus after a 20-year absence, then dies in peace), but instead are vicious killers; where Mam’s agonizing death from cancer is less painful than the violence inflicted on her family members.  Where Jojo grows up, caring and grounded, without a mother or a father, because his grandfather loves and mentors him.

Jesús Carrasco’s debut novel, Out in the Open (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) presents a third odyssey.  An unnamed boy flees an unnamed village through a dry, merciless landscape that feels like Carrasco’s native Badajoz, Spain.
From inside his hole in the ground, [the boy] heard the sound of voices calling his name, and as if they were crickets he tried to pinpoint the precise location of each man within the bounds of the olive grove….Tensing his neck, he raised his head so as to hear better and, half closing his eyes, listened out for the voice that forced him to flee.
The boy is escaping the village bailiff’s sexual abuse, suborned by his father who himself uses a leather belt—
Afterward, the only witnesses would be the thick stone walls that supported the roof that kept the rooms cool.  A communal prelude to his father’s worn leather belt.  The swift copper-colored buckle slashing dully through the fetid kitchen air.
Hiding and moving only at night, the boy soon runs out of food and drink.  He spots an old goatherd who, with basic human decency and limited language, teaches the boy how to survive “out in the open.”  The deepening relationship between boy and man is built with deceptively simple encounters among the goats.  Over time, the boy ends up caring for the failing old man.
They woke before dawn and set off along the towpath.  The old man riding the donkey, his head drooping, and the boy leading the way, with a stick in one hand and the halter in the other.
Part dystopian allegory, part primer on the power of humanity, Out in the Open’s meticulous attention to detail affirms that a child damaged by trauma can forge a path forward with the right kind of mentor.

“Mentor,” Mendelsohn tells us, was what Athena named a so-called friend of Odysseus whom she conjures to provide Telemachus with “an experienced and trusted adviser.”  In giving the boy a substitute for his absent father, Athena connects him not only to Odysseus, but also to “all his ancestors, male and female.”  Jojo, too, has a mentor in the steady guiding presence of his grandfather, connecting Jojo across generations.

The word mentor stems from the Greek word menos, usually translated as “heroic strength.” “But really,” says Harvard Professor Gregory Nagy, “menos is not just strength of any kind—it is mental strength…a mentor is someone who gives mental strength to someone else.” And thus, Out in the Open’s old goatherd centers the fleeing boy so that he can free himself from his abusers.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

In Search of Lost Words: Novels on Dementia

André’s disintegrating mind stars in The Father, a play by Florian Zeller (translated from French by Christopher Hampton).  André’s dementia progresses rapidly through one short act.  By the time the curtain falls, he can no longer decode his environment, including his daughter and son-in-law.  The audience, too, is left befuddled, unable to distinguish André’s imagined family from his real one.  A recent production at Washington, D.C.’s Studio Theatre underscored André’s bewilderment by casting alternating black and white actors as the elusive, double sets of daughters and sons-in-law.

More often, we are privy to dementia’s impact on the people surrounding the patient.  Marita Golden plumbs both perspectives—that of victim and family. As she was researching her new novel, The Wide Circumference of Love, Golden stumbled over a disturbing question:  Why are older African-Americans almost “twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to develop the disease or other forms of dementia?”  Writing for The Washington Post, she spotlights medical studies that ignore people of color, resulting in a glaring knowledge gap.

Against the background of whites-only scientific inquiry (some of which is currently being remedied), Golden shows where love fits in.   She reports on a family in which the mother was stricken in her early 60s.  The husband is frank:  “To watch the slow deterioration of my wife, the loneliness and the isolation…. Sometimes I pray.  Sometimes I cry.”  Their police officer son, moving home to help, is stirred: “My mother and I were already close…but actually we got closer, as mother and son, and we got closer as a family.”

Golden reminds us that dementia disrupts “cognitive skills such as memory, judgment and language,” thus destroying the writer’s hammer and chisel.  “The words hurl through his lips with a familiar bad taste,” she writes at the opening of The Wide Circumference of Love.  “Words are that slimy, slippery, burn inside him like a house on fire.”

The novel tells the story of Gregory Tate, a beloved African-American architect in Washington, D.C.  Gregory’s wife, Diane, a family court judge, and two adult children have made the agonizing decision to place him in an Alzheimer’s facility named Somersby. Each family member must first cope with, and then adapt to, Gregory’s slide into confusion, violence, and finally, wordless silence.

Diane is particularly well drawn.  Without making light of her burden, she maintains her humanity and sense of humor, struggling to find joy.
…Diane had slowly wriggled into the skin of an unalterably new life…she would retire from the family court…. Howard University’s law school had offered her a professorship…. There was so much to look forward to, but the present she feared would never be past.
A loyal and devoted spouse, Diane feels that everything she does at Somersby is “sacred, an act of faith.”  She takes Gregory’s admission there as her cue to examine her past and move forward.  In their unique ways, her children do the same.  Even Gregory, through whatever fog he inhabits, begins again.

The Wide Circumference of Love supplies hope by interrogating love in all its permutations.  It explores marriage through sickness and health; love between parent and child, even when it is hidden or fraught; and romantic love, however unexpected or inconvenient.  Just as important, the book probes love’s favorite companion—forgiveness.  In Golden’s novel, forgiveness and love partner to open the future.

Erwin Mortier, the prize-winning Belgian author, deploys memory and language to brilliant effect in his memoir about his mother, Stammered Songbook:  A Mother’s Book of Hours (translated from Dutch by Paul Vincent).  Mortier is not a chronicler of hope, but of thorny, ruinous reality.  He equates mental failure with mortality:  “Death that sits at table here is called Mum.”

Mortier records his mother’s memory loss, and the family anxiously trying—and failing—to buttress that loss.  Here’s Mortier’s father:
He has become her memory.  More and more often she comes in uncertainly, a little closer to him…. If she can’t get any further than stammering, she looks at him wide-eyed.  If the answer doesn’t come quickly, there is a hail of approach.
It is words and language that Mortier seeks, lost not only to the patient, but to the family as well.
The disease is kicking her out of time and booting us out of language.  Words seem to me a kind of breakfast cereal at the moment:  undoubtedly healthy, but rather tasteless.

I chatter till [sic] I burst, chatter till I’m blue in the face and interrupt other people.  I just rattle and gabble on, spew out language, teeth chattering, with a mouth full of dry oats.  Where can I come ashore?  And if I’m not chattering, I’m crying.
In brief chapters composed of short, heartrending sentences, Mortier gives a stunning and raw portrayal of his experience—his childhood and childlike view of his mother; his siblings’ reaction to their failing parent; his father’s generous caretaking, defeated by his mother’s increasing need.  All of this is set against receding piles of words:
What strikes me most about her, what makes me saddest, is the double silence of her being. Language has packed her bags and jumped over the railing of the capsizing ship, but there is also another silence in her.  I can no longer hear the music of her soul; that whole vibrating fabric of symbols with which she wove herself into the world—or conversely, the world into her.
The fewer the words, the less the connection, so that by the memoir’s end, Mortier’s mother is a “glacial valley”:
…an ice field has scraped over her, and the earth has been scoured away by the masses of ice.  In the bare stone, wide furrows are legible.  Every relief has been smoothed out.
Marion Coutts’s memoir, The Iceberg, presents this battle for words even more starkly.  Her husband, Tom Lubbock, chief art critic for the Independent, is dying of a brain tumor.  He is losing his words (and livelihood) just as their toddler son, Ev, begins hungrily to acquire language.  Coutts, too, is a chronicler, documenting her husband’s disease with the precision of an investigative reporter (in fact, she is a filmmaker and visual artist).  Her reporting is anything but detached; Coutts’s sentences are awash with the love and passion she feels for the man slipping away from her, the man who is the father of her child.

Disappearing words mark the slippage:
There are these simple words that are starting to cause him trouble:  small, single, only, speak, one, tiny, all, short, sign, slow, same, few, lips, stop, sold, lone.  Tracking elusive words was always Tom’s pleasure but now it has added urgency.
This, while their son teems with language:
…his great unfurling slides of patter run alongside me from about hip level.  My mum made me an omelette and the omelette was tasty it was eggy and so I had an eat.  I wanted it in triangles.  Ham is my best friend.  Mum, look!  The sky looks like milk!  If a cow went on its back its milk would go up in the air.
Coutts struggles to keep up with her son, while staying as close as possible to her husband.  She is desperate to understand him as he loses ordinary communication:
My love is cryptic.  He speaks in mysteries.  He speaks a language that is singular.  Communication with Tom is nothing like speaking any other language.  It is at the same time known by heart and deeply foreign.

Late in the day (Why did they leave it so late, you cry) we are trying to elide language altogether and invent a communication that bypasses all known words.  We do not have a lot of time…. the language we are looking for must circumvent the brain.
Coutts wraps her friends into her family’s experience, leaning on them with an honesty that most caretakers would envy.  The book is spliced with her emails, updating their friends on Tom, detailing what she needs from them.
His spirits are very good.  He is thinking, talking, his language very tricky by seeming stable.  He wants above all to work on writing projects, and with friends to help he can.
The three members of Coutts’s family face what is before them, not only with courage but with an infectious zest for living.  They travel; they take walks and make picnics.  This affirmation of life is one of the great gifts of Coutts’s memoir.  If her experience is unbearably painful, her family’s zeal inspires.  They embrace life, whether at the end or the beginning.  Love is the mainstay of that embrace; love sustains them through to the end.

And yet. Grief is not something to be avoided.  The characters in these three books live in the fullness of their grief.  As Diane recalls in The Wide Circumference of Love:
A therapist friend told her once the process of grieving a spouse took seven years…. Who did the polling?… How could you tell when the grieving was done?  She still grieved her mother, her brother, and the father she had not known.  Had grieved them all her life.
It is through their access to both love and grief that these characters make their way in the world.  Astonishingly eloquent and present, Coutts summons the words to express these two emotions at the end:
It was snowing the day we buried you… Unplanned, we formed a circle as the words went up….  You have moved through us and now you are gone, leaving us standing.  And so are the living comforted.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Life-Long Obsessions: The Millions Interviews Claire Cameron

The focus of Millions staffer Claire Cameron’s forthcoming novel is the poignant journey of a dwindling family of Neanderthals, diminished by hardship, nature, social taboos, and finally, Darwinian reality.  The Last Neanderthal shines a mirror into our own humanity by featuring a family in peril, whose communication through rudimentary vocabulary is nevertheless sufficient to express the full range of human emotion.  Meeting basic survival needs is more than a full-time job for these Neanderthals — not so different, then, from the vast majority of families in today’s world.

Against this spare background, an ambitious young scientist feverishly toils to untangle the story of Neanderthal remains recently discovered in a French cave.  She works against the ticking clock of her advancing pregnancy and the shifting power dynamics in her professional field.  The time period in which she lives may be infinitely more complex than that of the Neanderthals, yet we are clearly meant to find parallels between her challenges and the subjects of her research.

Why and how did Cameron land on this topic?  What are we to take away from The Last Neanderthal?  The author’s insights into how she mined this subject will enhance the reading experience of this unusual book.

The Millions:  The Last Neanderthal is a book with a very unusual premise — the end of the Neanderthals.  How did you come up with it?

CC: I have life-long obsessions, like many people do, but I didn’t realize the consistency of my obsessions until I started keeping notebooks. The ideas in my notebooks are often visual; there is a lot of cutting and pasting involved. A page doesn’t make any sense and I often can’t articulate why I’m collecting certain things.

Pictured is an example of a page where I combined marks possibly made by Neanderthals in Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar with desert sand, feminism, and a domestic looking Will Oldham with a dog and a Volvo. All the big themes of my novel are there, though I didn’t know it at the time.

Evidence of Neanderthals in my notebooks traces way back, but my notes got more pointed in 2010 when a team of scientists found out that many modern humans carry genes from Neanderthals. People of European and Asian descent have between 1 percent to 4 percent Neanderthal DNA. This is a sign of interbreeding between modern humans and Neanderthals, something that had only been in the realm of speculation before then (though to be fair, the people who write Neanderthal porn on the Internet already knew). That was the premise that intrigued me, how did the two groups make contact?

TM:  How did you research/learn about the Neanderthals?

CC: A recent wave of research has helped to revise the scientific view of Neanderthals. Much of it, including the Neanderthal genome, shows they were more like us than we previously imagined. I wanted to write characters inspired by this research. I did a lot of study on my own, but the most important step I took was to work with John Shea, an archaeologist and paleoanthropologist at Stony Brook University in New York.

When I first talked to Dr. Shea, he told me about reading an older Neanderthal novel. As a scientist, the story frustrated him so much that he tossed the book over his shoulder, scoring an accidental perfect hit into the wastebasket. We agreed that he would look for wastebasket moments in my work.

There were many wastebasket moments but his notes gave me a framework. I started to think of the science like a creative constraint. When I read convincing research, I used it as a rule that I had to work within.

TM:  Although highly emotional, the Neanderthals’ story is told within a limited vocabulary, starting with their names — ‘Girl,’ ‘Him,’ etc. — presumably reflective of their brain capacity.  Is this how you think of it, and can you tell us about how this kind of simplicity affected your writing process?

CC:  When David Mitchell talked about writing in the future or past, he said he looks for what a character might take for granted. I want to see through the eyes of the main character. I develop a set of beliefs for her and, as part of that, imagine what she takes for granted. That is how I get immersed to the point where the story dominates my work—the character becomes big enough to crowd out the writer.

One of the things I decided is that my Neanderthals didn’t believe in talking all the time. They lived in a small family group and had intimate knowledge of each other. Every thought didn’t need to be said out loud. In fact, if they could hear me now, they might think I was a crowthroat — the crow being the worst offender when it comes to constant, mindless squawking. Also, I speculated that this was part of their culture because talking took more effort in the physical sense, they had to force out each word. So the cost of each word was considered carefully before it was spoken.

Once I shut up in my mind — or taking more silence for granted — I could hear all the thoughts I have that I don’t articulate. If you want to move a chair to a different part of the room, as one example, you do a silent calculation. It would be difficult to put into words what you are thinking. And if you practice keeping your trap shut, your senses wake up. You start to notice new things, like a bird that often calls when I step outside. I imagine she is an early warning system to let the other critters know, maybe, “Hey everybody, the squawking long pig is on the move!” So, I don’t see the Neanderthal language as a reflection of a simpler thought process, but as a sign of a different kind of strength.

TM:  There is a leopard that seems to have a similar level of cognition to the Neanderthals in the book.  Can you talk about that?

CC:   My story is told through the eyes of a Neanderthal. We see the world much as she does. One of the things she believes is that there is little distinction between herself and the land around her. There is a glossary of Neanderthal words at the beginning of the book. One of the words, deadwood, expresses this idea.
Deadwood: A body on the other side of the dirt; used as an equivalent to our idea of death, though it expressed a change of state rather than a permanent end.
I developed the glossary as way to get inside the head of this particular Neanderthal, another attempt to uncover what she took for granted. If she saw herself on a continuum with other animals, rather than distinct or special in some way, it followed that she didn’t see much of a physical difference between her body and the land. She might also blur her mental identity. If she is interested in hunting or tracking, she assumes that another animal thinks in much the same way.

TM:  Nature plays a critical role in your fiction.  Your last novel, The Bear, opens with a tragedy at a campsite — two parents killed by a bear — and their two young children left to fend for themselves in the wilderness.  We are outdoors for most of The Last Neanderthal as well.  How do you think of the role of nature affects your storytelling?

CC: I often write about the place I am not. I lived in London, U.K., for about eight years and one day I got out of the tube at Oxford Circus. It was busy and as I tried to exit, I got stuck in a human traffic jam. There were too many people squished into an underground corridor. It became a gridlock of hot bodies pressed against each other. My inner Canadian quietly panicked, but this was London. Everyone remained calm and reserved. A message passed along the corridor until enough people backed out at one end and there was room to move again. Shortly after I started to write my first novel, The Line Painter. It was about Canada and specifically the vast, empty-of-people north of Ontario. I wrote out of a longing to be there, like it might be the antidote to being stuck in a human traffic jam.

If I write from that place, of longing, then the place I am writing about becomes like an obsession. I feel intense homesickness and idealize it in the same way. The place is mine and I can imagine it as an intense version of itself. That also means that I use the setting to serve the story and forget any urge to create a faithful portrait.

Right now I live in an urban neighborhood in downtown Toronto. I miss the access to Europe that I used to have from my London base. I miss the mountains. Though I get outside as much as I can, the life that I used to live, the one where I spent months in the wilderness, now resides most predominantly in my imagination. That’s why I write about it.

TM:  In each of these novels, you are making keen observations about parents, even if they are absent.  Can you comment on that?

CC:   I love what Alexander Chee said, “you write to describe something you learn from your life but that is not described by describing your life.” My father died when I was young. I struggled with grief for many years. First I was locked in and couldn’t talk about it and after a while I got angry. I went through all the steps, but as I did, I held fast to the idea that I would eventually get over it. That’s how we talk about grief, that it is something to overcome.

I was surprised to find that when I had kids, I went through a stage of grief again. This time I grieved for my dad. I understood what it must have been like to know you are dying and to leave small children behind.

Grief doesn’t go away, it’s something you live with. And hopefully it becomes something that makes you stronger. I suppose that’s why it keeps coming up in my work, because I’m trying to figure it out.

TM:  The stark vocabulary of the Neanderthals is especially marked in contrast to the parts of the novel that takes place in the present when we are in the company of archeologist Rosamund Gale, or Rose.  What role does Rose play in the narrative, including her impending motherhood and her professional struggles?

CC:  In 1921, H.G. Wells wrote a short story about Neanderthals called, “The Grisly Folk.” He described them this way, “a repulsive strangeness in his appearance…his beetle brows, his ape neck, and his inferior stature.” This was very much the thinking of his day, that a Neanderthal was like the archetype for an ogre. Since then our view of them has evolved, but we’ve really used them as a foil to ask questions about ourselves: What makes humans special? Asking questions in a self-centered way hasn’t given us much insight into them.

I wanted to focus on Neanderthals. In some ways, Rose is a foil for the main Neanderthal character, Girl. While Rose’s experience are important, she is also a way to gain insight into what a Neanderthal might have been like. Girl is the star of the show.

TM:   Given today’s sense of — or lack of sense of — community, is there a message embedded in the relationships between and among members of “the Family” of last Neanderthals, and similarly, among the characters who live in the present time?

CC:  I think of a novel as a question that takes the length of a book to ask. I was not searching for a message so much as thinking through the implications of how our modern family structure works.

I got interested in this question when my neighbor, a private, quiet person, told me about growing up in Newfoundland without central heat. He slept piled in a bed with his brothers, the youngest a bed wetter. My neighbor remembers getting up in the morning with a wet leg. When he stood, his pajamas would freeze and crackle. As he is so private I assumed this must have driven him mad, but when I asked he looked at me like I was crazy. Without his brother’s body heat to keep him warm, it was his body that would have frozen.

So I started thinking about that, what if we thought about family like that — the people who literally keep you alive? Grocery stores, electric lights, and central heat change how we think of our physical needs. Do they also change how we think about families? And what do we need to survive, both physically and mentally, in modern life?

TM:  Rose is a scientist who seems to have an instinct to “go it alone,” even though she is close to nine months pregnant. In that sense, she relates to her subject of study — Girl.  How did your sense of female independence inform your development of these characters?

CC: Rose gets pregnant and assumes this is a fairly natural and ordinary thing to do. As baby starts to grow, the timeline for her project gets crunched. Her pregnancy gives her a sense of impending doom. When she becomes a mother she will be sidelined, whether by herself or by others, so she needs to get shit done.

There is a group of women scientists on Twitter, many with an interest in archeology, who are posting photos with the hashtag #pregnantinthefield. I love the photos because seeing the possibilities helps us all believe them. Polly Clark, author of Larchfield, wrote eloquently about this, “I wasn’t a reluctant mother at all. But I had no notion of being simply a vessel: I stubbornly continued to think that, as an individual, I still mattered.” The women in these photos matter.

But the other day I said a quiet apology to Rose for giving her a sense of urgency about her work — I know she is the kind of female character that might be criticized. I had to write about her though, specifically how her professional interests and personal ambition sits at odds with parenthood. This was my experience. This is the experience of so many parents.

TM:  What can we learn from the Neanderthals in thinking about our own humanity?

CC: We can fall into the trap of thinking that the way we do things now is normal, but it’s important to look back for context. As the always quotable Winston Churchill said, “The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward.” We are Homo Sapiens, a self-obsessed people who like to tell stories. I’m really writing about modern humans, aren’t I? A novel becomes a way of looking at history to think through our inheritance.

TM:  Do you have a new novel in process, and if so, can you tell us about it?

CC: My obsessions sometimes turn into novels and sometimes they don’t. Or sometimes they combine to become something I didn’t expect.

At the moment, I’m trying to understand the advances in physics, specifically how ideas about quantum gravity have completely changed our understanding of reality. I’m also comparing translations of Beowulf, what does the Irish poet Seamus Heaney do with an Old English poem, versus J.R.R. Tolkien’s handling of a similar passage? I can only hope that these two interests don’t combine.