I met Guy and Harriet Pringle in the winter of 1987. In those days, Turkish public television had a rather ingenious arrangement with public radio; they would show the dubbed series, and the radio would play the original soundtrack. I do not remember who had alerted me to the fact that a new series called Fortunes of War was to go on air that week, but there I was, placing the radio right under the TV set, turning down the volume of the latter, and shushing the whole family who had gathered in the one stove-heated living room for the winter evening.
I must have been learning English for a couple of months. Being a diligent student and wanting to get ahead in class—I was at the language prep year of a high school that had most of its curriculum in English—I did all I could to fill my head with English words. British Council Library (now defunct), BBC World, and BBC series on Turkish Television. I was doing this “for school” and so my family indulged me as I watched Guy and Harriet Pringle travel through the Balkans and the Middle East. It was a very strange feeling, traveling with them to places that I had been taught used to “belong to us.” What kind of connection could a British couple possibly have to lands where songs began with “aman” and the men played backgammon? This, to me, was the central mystery of the plot, and with its very delicate hands Fortunes of War would lead me through the history of the British and Ottoman Empires, in a language that I was only newly beginning to understand. The characters I got to know through its seven episodes have stayed with me, and I still come across their avatars both in England, and the places where the English like to travel. Guy Pringle, Prince Yakimov, Dubedat, Aidan Sheridan…Watching the series again to write this piece, I am once again struck as to how perfect and lean the production is—the acting, the dialogue. (Also, how sweet Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson playing the young Pringle couple are—I still resent their divorce).
Fortunes of War was adapted from a series of novels written by Olivia Manning under the titles The Balkan Trilogy (1960-65) and The Levant Trilogy (1977-80). The books were in many ways fictionalized accounts of her travels with her husband Reggie Smith, who worked in the British Council. The story starts with Guy Pringle, having just been married in London, returning with his wife, Harriet, to his English Literature post at the University of Bucharest in 1939, as Nazis are advancing in Europe. We first see a shot of a train traveling through Mitteleuropa, with a beautiful arrangement of a Romanian song in the background that becomes the series’ theme tune, a tune that has accompanied me on the pilgrimages I have made to the Pringles’ various posts. I don’t remember how much of Fortunes of War I understood back in 1987, but I know I absorbed the whole thing like a sponge, and to this day I have déjà vu moments when a place, a song, a bit of a conversation will take me back to the story of Pringles. This could of course mean two things: that Manning was a brilliant observer of character and situations, and/or I have actively been seeking the company of Pringles’ reincarnations and their milieu. In fact, I have managed to do almost all the legs of Pringles’ journey except for Bucharest, where it all begins.
After the shot of the train going through the Balkan countryside, the camera goes inside a compartment where Guy Pringle is sharing a German joke with another, elderly passenger, and Harriet Pringle looks on bemused, setting the tone of their relationship. The atmosphere of camaraderie dissolves when soldiers come into the compartment and ask for the passengers’ papers. The old man claims he has lost his, along with his wallet, and is forcibly removed from the train. Guy gives him all the money in his purse as Harriet looks on incredulously. When Guy explains that the old man is probably Jewish and without papers, Harriet asks what will become of him. Guy’s “What is to become of any of us?” now rings a bit “all lives matter” but I am constitutionally incapable of finding fault with Guy Pringle.
Fortunes of War is, at its heart, a story about people trying to find a safe place to live—only, in this story it is Europeans going eastwards, looking for a place where the war has not yet arrived. The Pringles are hounded by the Nazis through Bucharest, to Athens, to Cairo. But of course, they are among the lucky few who can actually leave. There is a scene that I had not thought about much in 1987 but that has come back to me in recent years. Europeans scrambling to get on a ship from Athens to Cairo to face a perilous journey across the Mediterranean, threatened by German submarines. The Nazis almost catch up with the Pringles towards the end, and the ship Harriet is supposed to have been on from Cairo is torpedoed while she is safely sightseeing in Damascus.
In Bucharest, the Pringles get a flat in one of those turn-of-the-century apartment buildings that haunt world literature like The Yacoubian Building and The Flea Palace. We are in ex-Ottoman territory after all—a fact that the book, but not the series, fleetingly touches upon—and the aesthetic stretches all the way to Bucharest. Like the Yacoubian Building, this Levantine apartment has a rooftop with a shed, which becomes the hiding place for Guy’s Jewish student Sasha, whom they manage to protect only for so long. It is also in Bucharest that we meet Dobson, head of the British Legation, played by the perfectly cast Charles Kay; the stiff upper and lower lip, forever the face of British Foreign Office for me. Guy spends most of his time with his students and rehearsing for Troilus and Cressida, and when we see the poster hanging from the National Theatre in Bucharest, I learn my first (and hitherto only) Rumanian word, “şi,” meaning “and.” After the performance, dressed as they are in togas, and in heavy stage makeup ready to party, the British contingent in Bucharest learn that Paris has just fallen to the Germans.
The foreigners are leaving Bucharest fast, and one of the more persistent among their number is Prince Yakimov, the embodiment of that class of people that get stranded after the collapse of Empire. A general worldliness of having seen better days, frayed at the edges, almost certainly with an alcohol problem (this will forever link him in my mind with Charles Stringham of A Dance to the Music of time and Geoffrey Firmin of Under the Volcano). It is, however, not quite certain which Empire once claimed Yakimov, rumored as he is to be of Russian and Irish extraction. Yakimov comes to represent “old Europe” and when he hears Paris is fallen looks wistfully and says “Such times we had in Paris,”as if he’s had one of Proust’s madeleines. You want an entire series based on his adventures as a young man. Yakimov, slow on the uptake when it comes to geopolitical awareness, asks all the questions we want to ask and becomes the vehicle for background information. While other Europeans are fleeing, he travels to the countryside to pay a visit to one of his old friends who now works for the Germans, pretending he has information he can sell him.
On his way back to Bucharest, a rich lady in a fur coat tells Yakimov “I go to Istanbul. In Bucharest they shoot you.” Yes, I once thought, here is my moment come, they will come to Istanbul, they will have to acknowledge that I live in the centre of the world. “Lush and Dubedat (two disreputable English teachers) have run away to East-anbul” we hear Pringle say, despairing. They’ve probably done a stint teaching at my high school, I fantasize. Even Yakimov leaves: “We had a letter from Turkey this morning. Yaki says he’s weighed down with loneliness and kebabs.” But Pringle will not let go of his castle. “We represent all that is left of western culture and democratic ideal,” he says—a remark my 11-year-old self would have taken as par for the course, but watching in 2018 tastes sour. Back then, I am only interested in seeing them come to Istanbul.
Instead they flee to Athens, and I am heartbroken. But then Harriet goes to the Acropolis and considers whether she can be unfaithful to Guy, who has repeatedly preferred other people’s company to hers through the first three episodes, and her melancholy communes with the Parthenon’s perfect columns. My 11-year-old self vowed to visit the Acropolis one day. And I do. In 2014, after I pay my respects at the Parthenon I look for the Zonar’s Café, and find it is under renovation. Another “site” that is etched in my memory—which I didn’t try to locate—from the Greece episodes is the villa of Gracey, the head of the British School. The Pringles visit this mysterious man in his villa to ask for a job for Guy. The building is perched on a promontory and seems to be populated by life-sized statues. So much of the furniture in my literary imagination has been laid there by Fortunes of War. This villa was the inalterable décor when I read The Magus many years later.
Guy does manage to get the job, but the Germans advance and so the Pringles leave. Surely to Istanbul this time. Or at least to Izmir, which is right across the water. The journey takes forever as Pringle reads John Donne on deck in the inviolable silence as everyone else is terrified about passing German U-boats. The fourth episode finishes. The fifth opens with the sound of the adhan, surely now we’re home, surely now I will see them walk the streets that I walk. But the minarets look wrong. The camera zooms out and we see camels. They have bypassed Istanbul and made straight for Cairo. I feel cheated. People are wearing fezzes, the street vendors are calling out “bordogal” but it gives me no joy.
Then, Rupert Graves appears, in uniform and with long vowels that seem to have several Rs in them. He is playing Simon Boulderstone, a young officer just posted to Cairo. Harriet explains the lie of the land to him when he protests that he is there for something akin to Kurtz’s redeeming idea:
Boulderstone: We’ve brought them justice, prosperity…
Harriet: Prosperity? Nothing’s changed for them for a thousand years.
Boulderstone: But we’re protecting them now
Harriet: We’re protecting the Suez Canal. The route to India. Clifford’s oil company.
All the discourse you need to know about the Middle East in a nutshell. The liberal position of understanding the political aims of Empire, but remaining blind to any local transformation that might have occurred between the time of the Pharaohs and the British protectorate. But I understand the impact of this much later. In 1987, I only admire the graceful way Harriet climbs the pyramids, making another promise to self to climb them just as she did. By the time I arrive in 2008, tourists are not allowed to climb them at all.
It wasn’t all geography, colonialism, and the erasure of the traces of the “receded Ottoman Empire,” as Manning puts it in the book, that I learned from Fortunes of War. It also taught me a lot about a certain kind of relationship, a certain kind of man. “When we first met, you made me feel I was the centre of the universe,” says Harriet as they are having a conversation about an affair Guy may or may not have had with a Rumanian woman. “And so you are,” replies Guy. “But you make everyone feel like that,” answers Harriet. This conversation has often come back to me in the intervening years, when I found myself in the company of a Guy. I think often, also, of the conversation between Harriet and one of Guy’s friends from Cambridge in a café in Alexandria, where Guy is teaching Finnegans Wake at the university, to the two remaining students. Finnegans Wake is a title that would’ve meant nothing to me at the time, but now I think, Alexandria is the perfect Levantine port to teach it, as Trieste was the perfect Levantine (okay, Balkan, if you insist) port that inspired it, with their Babel of languages.
Aidan: Are you waiting for Guy Pringle?
Harriet: Usually, yes.
Aidan: My name’s Aidan Pratt. I’m on leave from Damascus.
Harriet: Damascus? How do you know Guy?
Aidan: Last time I was here somebody told me a story. Two men were shipwrecked on a desert island. Neither knew the other but they both knew Guy Pringle
You know who he’s talking about. Yes, him. The one everyone’s besotted about. The one who organizes the parties and is great in a crowd. Also he whose magnanimity gets him or those around him into trouble. The two Palestinian Jews that Guy recruits to teach at the American University of Cairo turn out to be assassins. I wonder if I paid any attention to the identity of the assassins when I was watching in 1986, but now the subplot seems to be that they might have been related to the Irgun. This is how the Pringles discuss the event:
Guy: The whole thing’s ludicrous.
Dobson: This is the Levant after all.
Harriet: You used to say that about the Balkans.
Watching now, this conversation seems like the coda to the series, a sentiment that falls in line with my initial reaction to seeing these people that really belonged in a Merchant-Ivory production traipsing about in my lands. From Bucharest to Alexandria, I am or know every “native” they speak to. From the demurely made-up middle class women around the dinner table in a banker’s home in Bucharest (several aunties come to mind), to the wistful man in Damascus trying to explain to Harriet the meaning of hijab…When the latter happens, I am at the edge of my seat, thinking, “He’s botched it,” as I often do nowadays, not least when I am the one trying to explain. I was 11 when I watched the scene, and I would have years, a decade to think about it, to work out the perfect explanation, before I would be released upon the English speaking world:
Harriet: You can’t make men chaste by keeping women out of sight
Damascene Man: You are an unusual lady, you have a mind of your own
Harriet: Where I come from it’s not unusual
“But I have a mind of my own too,” my 11-year-old self shouts. “Just you give me time and I’ll come to England and talk to you about how it is not unusual where I come from, either.”
Everyone has their demons. Watching the series again I realize I have spent my entire life writing back to the Pringles.
My dad lives in Greece and this September we took the baby who is no longer a baby there for a visit. I was vaguely dreading the trip, even though I love Greece and miss it dearly when I’m not there, which is most of the time. I didn’t want to be so callous — or to appear to be so callous — as to go on vacation to a country experiencing a refugee crisis with the express intention of avoiding the crisis. “We are visiting family,” I told people preemptively.
When we arrived I was surprised to see that everything looked eerily normal in my old Athenian haunts and on the island where we spent most of the trip. But while we were there, this article came out, and I was reminded that if you are not seeing the bad thing it is because someone doesn’t want you to see it, whether that someone is yourself or a group of politicians and others with whom you willingly or unwillingly collude. So we colluded, and had a nice time, and sat on a beach watching Italian package tourists doing group calisthenics, and the men we saw selling plastic clips and doodads on the beach were not refugees, or not new ones — perhaps they were born elsewhere; now they spoke with one another in perfect Greek. During naptime I read Fates and Furies and Swing Time and Transit, and it felt like a sin to enjoy them all like I did.
Later I read Exit West, Mohsin Hamid’s forthcoming novel about the refugee crisis — a novel the surreal elements of which are only as surreal as the things people are facing in Syria and Iraq and Greece and points beyond. It’s a haunting yet spare and somehow efficient book that describes how quickly the conditions of ordinary people can change, and how few reasonable options those people have once events are in motion. I read the novel months after reading this unsparing article about the people who have been preparing for the (increasingly unlikely) day when Bashar al-Assad might be called to account. On Twitter, I see pictures of mortar-blasted infants and bloodied strollers on the ruined streets of Aleppo.
I have been thinking about collusion, and bubbles, and things seen and unseen. After Greece I read Negroland, in which Margo Jefferson describes upper-middle class black families whose class bubble was insufficient defense against the effects of whiteness:
Caucasian privilege lounged and sauntered, draped itself casually about, turned vigilant and commanding, then cunning and devious. We marveled at its tonal range, its variety, its largess in letting its humble share the pleasures of caste with its mighty.
I read about her relatives who took the course of abdicating and living as white people, functionally erasing whole parts of their lives: “When Uncle Lucious stopped being white, my parents invited him to dinner,” Jefferson writes.
After the election I read a series of astute tweets I wish I could find now about how liberal white Americans approach their lives with the same unfortunate tactics as illiberal ones; that is, they create their own enclaves and wall themselves off from elements they find unsavory. My deceased grandparents lived in a California county with a population of two people per square mile, and 71 percent of those people voted for Donald Trump. The last time we drove the hours and hours to get there I saw a huge “Kafir” flag on a lonely homestead, someone’s warning to would-be jihadists who might find themselves in the goddamned middle of nowhere, U.S.A. I try to picture life there now and experience a failure of imagination. I read Where I Was From, Joan Didion’s great California book on the “vexed issue” of “a birthright squandered, a paradise lost,” the illusion of which seems to animate so much of the white American psyche. (Even her investigation stops a few hundred miles short of that high-desert plain.)
Since coming aboard The Millions I feel like I know the titles of more books than ever before, while actually reading fewer books. I hate this. Partly it’s because I no longer have a commute with a daily designated hour for reading, but really it’s because I stare too long at my phone. Nonetheless, sometimes conditions and moods and books coincided to make memorable reading experiences. Before I quit my job I read Grief Is the Thing with Feathers over a single day’s commute and wept into my jacket on the train. Over Thanksgiving, while talking heads brayed horribly from the television in my in-laws’ kitchen, I read a new edition of The Haunting of Hill House with Laura Miller’s introduction. I have the best couch in the world; on it I read Here Comes the Sun and The Last Samurai and Queen Sugar and Housekeeping and Void Star and Gold Fame Citrus over the course of precious, orgiastic pig-in-a-blanket afternoons. My husband found me bawling as I read the final page of the latter — in addition to being a warning for the planet, I can’t think of a novel that better captures the bruising horror of loving small children.
Every year I seem to read about bereaved parents. I read this beautiful essay about a random, preventable disaster, and I read this article about an inevitable one. I’ve fixated cruelly on the family in the second piece. I tell myself Jesus doesn’t want me to politicize the death of a child, but everything is inflected by politics lately, and the rancor of a walled-off elite like myself for my non-elite white brethren is at its zenith. The rancor extends both ways, obviously; I read this heartbreaking article, and subsequently learned there are benighted people who believe it’s part of a vast liberal hoax. After watching Alton Sterling’s son weep next to his mother onscreen I read Citizen — its cover an homage to another dead child — aware that I was showing up late and unprepared, more colluding.
I felt late and unprepared again after the U.S. election, and I read this essay by Uday Jain, his reminder that “there is no single…story where if we just do this, this, and this, things will be fine.” I have been thinking about Jain’s lovely formulation:
When one gives up on being a Rawlsian, absolutely transparent to oneself, perfectly good in one’s own life, autonomous liberal subject — one gains the Platonic, the feminist, the Marxist sense of a self as constituted essentially by interdependence. I am not an individual. I am the voices and affects and legacies and bodies of everyone I’ve ever read, talked to, befriended, and loved; their parents and grandparents; the dead. Solidarity consists in this refusal of individuality — and simultaneously the maintenance of difference that makes interdependence possible.
I have wondered how to reconcile my interest in literature and my sense of it as a fundamentally bourgeois chronicle of individual concerns — my Of Human Bondage, my The Sea, the Sea — with the solidarity Jain describes. I don’t understand exactly how literature works with politics; perhaps the answer for now is simply that literature is one of the most pleasing and enduring ways of capturing those voices and affects and legacies. Currently I’m reading Yiyun Li’s Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life; I dog-eared the page where she writes “Every word one writes, every dream and fear and hope and despair one reveals to others and to oneself — they all end up like chicks refusing to be returned to the eggshell.” (The chicks she mentions are dead, so it’s not super-hopeful, but what a line.)
I can’t stop worrying all these things between my teeth. My mom says I have to log off and tune out and I snarl at her, as though everything is her fault. I feel calm when I reread A Dance to the Music of Time. In volume one I found a torn-out poem from The New Yorker by Adam Zagajewski — “Erinna from Telos.” (I like the Claire Cavanagh translation that ends with “grasshopper” and not the one on Google Books that ends with “cricket.”) The poem is about death and art and history; my mother, Miss Cheer-Up-Charlie, is the one who tore it out of the magazine (she, by the way, exclusively reads morose novels by Eastern-European intellectuals). But I wonder if she has a point when she chastises me: if there is any value in feeling sad, any point wallowing in rancor, if you are not going to be good. If you are going to know about those bloody strollers and continue to go about your business.
Because I am going about my business, in spite of reading all these miserable things. The day after the election, I saw the faintest of faint lines on a pregnancy test; it disappeared within a few days, as though the egg, while trying to settle in, had been warned off by troubled vibes. This was less demoralizing than it might have been if I didn’t have a small child to parent. She just turned two, and she says, “Mommy Mommy Mommy Mommy,” and I answer, “Yes Yes Yes Yes.” She loves our cats, and she pets them and kisses them until they scratch her, and she says “scratchoo” and begs me to put a “benden” on the wound. From her I learned about that thing that Zadie Smith calls “joy” in something else I read this year:
Occasionally the child, too, is a pleasure, though mostly she is a joy, which means in fact she gives us not much pleasure at all, but rather that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight that I have come to recognize as joy, and now must find some way to live with daily. This is a new problem.
Once you feel joy you can’t unfeel it; I’m fiending helplessly for more. The polar ice is melting, but I want to hold another baby. I feel like the grasshopper who sang all summer.
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Love and work are the subjects the British novelist Anthony Powell covers in O, How the Wheel Becomes It! and Venusberg two slim novels, recently reissued by University of Chicago Press, which bracket his monumental 12-volume Dance to the Music of Time, written over the course of almost 15 years, from 1957 to 1971. Still relatively lesser known in the United States, the Dance series is one of the great achievements of 20th-century literature, and perhaps the greatest portrayal of (mostly upper-class) British life from approximately the 1920s through the 1960s.
In his introduction to Venusberg, which Powell published in 1932 when he was only 27, Levi Stahl astutely notes the differences between Powell and the author whom he is often thought to resemble, Evelyn Waugh. Both wrote about the educated upper classes and had enormous skill at skewering their pretensions and obsessions. But where Waugh was highly self-conscious of his status as an outsider and desperately wanted to be included among his subjects even as he savaged them, Powell developed a different style. He writes more as an insider but one removed from the social whirl by almost incomprehensibly sensitive social antennae. “Waugh’s books are arguably funnier (though some sections of Dance hold their own), but they also have an angry, cruel, even nihilistic strain. Waugh’s satire is scorching, leaving little behind but blasted ground. Powell, on the other hand, while refusing novelistic happy endings, presents a more hopeful outlook: his early novels tend to include at least one character who yearns, if fitfully, to live a life with meaning.”
The Brit abroad novel in this era of Brick Lane and a multiethnic Britain may seem the most tiresome of tropes. Moreover in this era of YouTube, cell phones, and Snapchat, the possibility of real strangeness or feelings of isolation in foreign travel are almost impossible to recover, in addition to the sometimes unpleasant colonial overtones some such novels evoke. In Venusberg, however, the charm and humor of such a setting comes through, even as Powell searches after deeper themes. Venusberg is the name of a hapless Baltic town to which the main character, a writer named Lushington, goes purportedly on assignment. In fact, he is running from a woman, Lucy, whom he loves but who loves another. Lushington’s fellow travelers are refugees from their own sort of romance, homes, and countries they left or were forced to leave (or as is the case with a mother and daughter traveling together, a Habsburg Empire that is no more.)
The long boat trip gives Powell the opportunity to indulge his finely tuned sensibilities to differences in class, wealth, and station, and to develop what Stahl describes as “his remarkable talent for grotesquerie,” though one leavened by a humane sympathy. Thus his protagonist finds among the passengers a disaffected (and possibly fraudulent) count and others thrown about by the disaster of post-World War I Europe. Included among these is Ortrud Mavrin, a married Austrian woman with whom he begins an affair. Inevitably, Lushington befriends her husband, an older professor, with some comic results. Once in Venusberg, he becomes entangled with a member of the British diplomatic delegation, da Costa, who is his rival for his Lucy’s affections. Other figures include the valet Pope, possibly fake Russian aristocrats, and various nobles, soldiers, businessmen, and bureaucrats who operate in a semi-totalitarian political environment.
The love story that is the moving plot of the novel focuses on whether Lushington will continue to pursue his indifferent object of affection at home, or follow Mavrin, the European lady of mysterious background. This is perhaps a metaphor for British writers seduced by European modernism (which Powell by and large was not), or more generally the exoticism the Continent held for many British. Venusberg is, in legend, a place of seduction that captivates its admirers who must tear themselves away to return home, and the tension in the novel is how, or whether, Powell will have Lushington make the break.
Wheel, the first novel Powell published after completing Dance, has a decidedly smaller geographical ambit, but a much longer temporal one. Powell excels at the long arc; what makes Dance most compelling is the realistic way Powell describes aging and the passing of years, with all the sexual, professional, and social triumphs and disappointments those years offer. Powell makes us feel both weighted with the passage of time and also satisfaction at the unfolding of full adult lives, which I think is perhaps Powell’s real lasting literary gift.
Wheel follows a writer and critic named G.F.H. Shadbold and the petty and at times absurd world of literary culture. Powell knew this world well, and his send-up of literary pretension is classic. Shadbold is haunted and embarrassed by the memory of a half-forgotten novel of a dead man whom we would now term a “frenemy,” a schoolmate turned stockbroker named Cedric Winterwade. Shadbold has himself becomes something of a middling literary figure, with early promise but who chose instead a more certain if unimaginative career; after “the slimmest of slim volumes of verse,” and some indifferently-received novels, Shadbold settled into something like literary respectability.
Notwithstanding the comparative leanness of his output Shadbold was not to be dismissed as a lightweight, a mere hack. He has worked hard reviewing other people’s books up hill and down dale, tirelessly displayed himself on the media and elsewhere…[and] also always prepared to offer views on marginally political subjects for which he was less accredited by instinct.
Shadbold married a writer of potboiler detective novels, who is much more successful than he. However, Winterwade comes to dominate his thoughts. Shadbold learns Winterwade kept a diary in which it is revealed he was the more prodigious lover when they were younger men together, including having an affair with a woman Shadbold himself desired. This revelation raises old feelings of sexual jealousy, even after a remove of years, especially when the woman, Isolde, comes back late in Shadbold’s life; in the process, he learns Winterwade was in some respects a better man than he. Moreover, Winterwade’s literary fortunes are rising on the basis of that one novel, decades after his death. Winterwade retains the promise of young man cut down before his prime, while Shadbold must struggle with the realities of a writing life that has its share of grubbiness and self-promotion. Isolde pleads with Shadbold to help resuscitate Winterwade’s reputation.
Stahl is right that neither of these books is likely to eclipse the magnificent work that is Dance. However Venusberg is valuable because we see Powell working out perspectives that would later form the basis of Dance in the form of the novels’ narrator, Nick Jenkins. But it is the work of a young man and some of the dialogue and scenes, while surely sharp at the time, do not carry the same resonance today. But for those not yet ready to tackle Dance, Wheel is a work of the mature Powell, very sensitive to those unforeseen changes in fortune or circumstance that occur throughout life and which give the book its title.
I remember when I began to hate Patrick Modiano. It was in November, 1978. Lingering at the newsstand next to the old Arts Cinema in Cambridge, England, waiting to catch a matinée and leafing through the latest copy of the magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, I came across a photo that soured my entire day.
I’d begun to teach myself French some six months earlier, having had a useless three years of it in high school, and another wasted two semesters in college. I’d learned nothing. Rien. So looking through French news magazines was a bit of an ego boost. The articles and captions were as simple to follow as Monsieur le Président Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s very slow and deliberate delivery before he faded into obscurity.
There Modiano is, smiling at me, gloating over his newly-crowned Prix Goncourt novel Rue des Boutiques Obscures (Missing Person), seeming to say, “Mon ami, you are a loser,” while a bank of excited press photographers crouches to capture his image. He had good hair, he was young, I had good hair, I was young, but my career as a published author was still a few very long years away. I had travelled 3,000 miles to make a career for myself, and here I was, looking at the face of success. And so, privately, without any basis in reality, without having read a single word by him, I turned my wrath upon Patrick Modiano. What is it Gore Vidal used to say? Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies. I’d reached the stage in which total strangers were flaying me alive.
The damage wasn’t permanent. Having lingered far too long over Voltaire and Guy de Maupassant and Alphonse Daudet’s incredibly tedious Tartarin de Tarascon, I needed something contemporary to challenge me. At the time I’d been doing a good deal of research into the German Occupation of Paris for a novel that in fact became my first to see the light of publication, and Modiano’s work, being set during that period, was suddenly back on my radar screen. I picked up a copy of his first novel, La Place de l’Étoile, set during the Occupation of Paris and published when this wunderkind was barely into his 20s. It has just been issued in English in what the publisher calls The Occupation Trilogy: three titles, three different translators, each set during the time of the German Occupation: the ground zero of Modiano’s body of work, the foundation for everything that will come after, though after these three titles the Occupation will stand always at an angle to his novels, a shadow cast over the succeeding volumes of what is, even by his own estimation, really a single, long work. When he faces the Occupation head-on once again, it’s with Dora Bruder, his masterful nonfiction (and to some extent autobiographical) story of a missing Jewish girl and the author’s attempts to understand her fate and give her a second life.
Unlike Marcel Proust’s great novel, and unlike the romans fleuves of the last century, such as Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, Modiano’s work, including his most recent novel, Pour Que Tu Ne Te Perdes Pas Dans Le Quartier (So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood), released in France just before he was awarded the Nobel Prize, is more a series of incremental epiphanies on the past, on lost opportunities, on lost people, on the small gaps in memory that leave his narrators and protagonists in a world from which they are one step removed. The language in the later books is uncomplicated, and what the author leaves out is as important as what he puts on the page.
What readers find most audacious about La Place de l’Étoile is how intimate the writing is. To deal with a period in which one never lived, to make a leap of imagination and bring the voice of the past vividly and credibly to life, is very much a part of what being a novelist is. But the difference between the historical novelist — who, in adding facts and details and color in hoping to contextualize the fiction, inevitably distances the readers — and what Modiano does in this trilogy is to lend an immediacy and an intimacy to the muddy tide of those years, catching the language, the flow, the Zeitgeist of the period without once having to step back to situate us in the narrative. Since La Place de l’Étoile I haven’t stopped following Modiano, reading each new volume as it’s released, and celebrating his being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. My apologies, monsieur. My rancor was entirely misplaced.
The title, La Place de l’Étoile, the epigraph informs us, comes from a Jewish story:
In June 1942, a German officer approaches a young man and says, “Excuse me, monsieur, where is the Place de l’Étoile?” The young man gestures to the left side of his chest.
The Place de l’Étoile is both a famous square in central Paris and the place on the body where Jews under the German Occupation were required to wear the Yellow Star, the word juif sewn inside it, over their heart. Modiano had begun writing this in the summer of 1966, when he was 21, and the manuscript was handed to the redoubtable French publisher Gallimard by the great Raymond Queneau, who had been a friend of both the young author and his mother, the Belgian-born actress Louisa Colpeyn. (All autobiographical details are drawn from Denis Cosnard’s indispensable Dans la Peau de Patrick Modiano, published by Fayard in 2010 and not yet available in English translation.)
It was eventually published in 1968, when Modiano was 23 (though everyone believed he was only 21; for several years, out of homage to his late brother Rudy, he had claimed his year of birth as 1947) and it made of him an instant literary phenomenon. As with his second novel, Night Watch, the main character exists in the slippery surreal space of Occupied Paris, where identities shift with one’s loyalties, often vanishing behind several aliases. Modiano makes vividly clear what the German Occupation meant to the French: it was never an unambiguous us-versus-them situation; some openly collaborated with the Nazis, others courageously resisted. And then there was that cloudy intermediate no man’s land occupied by those who played both sides: serving their French masters one day, placating their German ones the next, and that’s where Modiano’s novel is situated. It’s an audacious, ambitious, risky work, especially for a young, first-time novelist, for he was writing in the voice of a Jew who is working with the French Gestapo. This is an author who launched a career by decidedly not playing safe.
Modiano did not come unprepared when he set out to write that first novel. It was in his genes from the start. As he relates in his sort-of-life (to borrow Graham Greene’s title), Pedigree, translated by Mark Polizzotti and just out from Yale University Press, his father, of Italian-Jewish parentage, had been enmeshed in the two worlds that Paris became after 1940, and because, like a virus, the Occupation and its hazy aftereffects had remained long after the last German had left the city, the young Patrick had been drawn into a life filled with colorfully disreputable characters who lingered on into postwar France: real people who drift in and out of his novels (from Night Watch: “I have invented nothing. All the people I have mentioned really existed”): phantoms from a lost world, the displaced many who had done their worst during the war only to find themselves surviving in a self-imposed purgatory, swinging between doomed love affairs, petty crime, the company of faded movie stars, smarmy bands of South-of-France gigolos, and the melancholic regret of Russian émigrés; the comforting oases of rose-tinted, cognac-softened memory. Like them, Modiano’s father had played both sides: dealing with the gangsters of the French Gestapo, endlessly cutting deals on the black market, and refusing to wear the yellow star required by German law. Albert Modiano was neither here nor there, neither one thing or another, a creature of the night forever on the make, a man of such intense self-regard that he could simply cast away his children like so many business deals gone sour.Albert, aka Aldo, Modiano
As he describes it in Pedigree, Modiano was essentially abandoned by both his parents, “like a mutt with no pedigree,” as he puts it: his mother was consumed with her life as an actress and treated her eldest child like an accessory, a thing that could be left wherever to be looked after by others, and his father showed him more or less open disdain. It was what bonded him to his brother Rudy, who died at 10 of leukemia, and of whose death he heard as a kind of casual aside: “On the road to Paris, my Uncle Ralph, who was driving, pulled over and stepped out of the car, leaving me alone with my father. In the car, my father told me my brother had died. I had spent the afternoon with him the previous Sunday in our room on Quai de Conti. We had worked on our stamp collection.” As he also writes in Pedigree, “Apart from my brother, Rudy, his death, I don’t believe that anything I’ll relate here truly matters to me.”
La Place de l’Étoile (translated by Frank Wynne) is as much a novel about language as it is about the narrator, a kind of EveryJew named Raphaël Schlemielovitch, “the Indispensable Jew,” “the official Jew of the Third Reich,” as he calls himself, who is identified with all the famous Jewish authors who preceded him, most notably the half-Jewish Marcel Proust. It’s a Céline-esque spew of a narrative, full of pastiche and alive with the bile and dark wit of a man who has sold his soul to the worst of his generation. It’s a journey to the end of a nightmare set in a time when trust becomes an item to be retailed, along with names and reputations, to the highest bidder, almost always someone with solid friends in the Occupationist hierarchy. It’s a world in which once-loyal French men and women are sucked into the gravitational pull of the collaborationist universe, like the young Lucien in Louis Malle’s film Lacombe, Lucien, with a script by Modiano, where the temptations of power and the ratatat of automatic weaponry are eerily close to what is happening today with young Westerners being drawn to the barbarism of ISIS.
This dreamlike narrative allows notorious anti-Semitic writers such as Louis-Ferdinand Céline to be identified as Jews, where Sigmund Freud gets to quote Jean-Paul Sartre, and Franz Kafka is the elder brother of Charlie Chaplin. At one point the narrator relates a little side story that is also firmly based in family lore:
His own father had also encountered Gérard the Gestapo. He had mentioned him during their time in Bordeaux. On 16 July 1942 Gérard had bundled Schlemilovitch père into a black truck: ‘What do you say to an identity check at the rue Lauriston and a little spell in Drancy?’ Schlemilovitch fils no longer remembered by what miracle Schlemilovitch père escaped the clutches of this good man.
In Pedigree the author writes of his father telling him about his arrests during the Occupation, and his sheer good fortune in escaping deportation to Auschwitz:
And he told me of a second arrest, in the winter of 1943, after “someone” had denounced him. He had been brought to the Depot, from where “someone” had freed him…He said only that the Black Marias had made the rounds of the police stations before reaching the lockup. At one of the stops, a young girl had got on and sat across from him. Much later, I tried, in vain, to pick up her trace, not knowing whether it was in the evening of 1942 or in 1943.
The “young girl” in question was Dora Bruder, the subject of one his most celebrated works. Albert Modiano managed to escape; her future was, of course, much more horrible.
La Place de l’Étoile is a journey into the mind of a man firmly screwed into the darkest period of 20th-century French history as told by the Marx Brothers. But it’s also a way for the author to attempt to come to grips with what his father did during those very dark times. Without some knowledge of the leading lights of collaborationist Paris some references will seem obscure, and the footnotes are either unhelpfully sketchy or simply wrong: the banker and embezzler Alexandre Stavisky, appears here as “Stavinsky.”
These three novels gathered into a single volume constitute the primal stew of all of Modiano’s books. Shifting loyalties, hidden identities, and missing people regularly appear in a body of work that is so remarkably consistent that, taken as a whole, they seem to be one long novel.
The narrator in Ring Roads, the third of this so-called trilogy — published in Caroline Hillier’s translation, but newly “revised” by Wynne — a hack writer named Serge Alexandre, is caught up in what he calls a “hopeless enterprise” in trying to track down his father. In doing so he has to descend into the dregs of society: “Pornographer, gigolo, confidant to an alcoholic and to a blackmailer…Would I have to sink even lower to drag you out of your cesspit?”
This novel sets the central theme of all of Modiano’s work: the search. In Ring Roads it’s for his father; for the amnesiac protagonist of the Goncourt-prize winning Rue des Boutiques Obscure (available in translation as Missing Person) it’s for himself; and this search, so different from that of Proust’s great novel, establishes the groundwork for all of the work that follows, though stylistically we won’t see another like La Place de l’Étoile again. After this, and the second title in the volume, Night Watch, to a degree an early version of his screenplay Lacombe, Lucien, his work grows increasingly more spare, achieving what the French call Modiano’s petite musique, this allusive, elusive approach to writing that has not only marked his novels, but also his speech. Watching filmed interviews with him (most notably with Bernard Pivot, host of Apostrophes), one hears him respond with maybe a few words, frequent ellipses, and sentences that simply trail off without conclusion. The unsayable is as powerful as the words surrounding it.
Though after Ring Roads the Occupation remains in the background, what follows are works of short fiction that examine not just the themes of loyalty and deception, but also the temperament of a series of young narrators who could be thought of as Modiano himself. Taken as a whole, and as a work-in-progress, his body of work is about perception, deception, disappointment, and discovery, borrowing from the conventions of the detective genre.
For those coming anew to Modiano, reading Pedigree first might be a wise choice. His life, such as he tells it here, is as extraordinary and as bizarre as the situations of his fiction. The fact that Pedigree was published 37 years after the publication of La Place de l’Étoile says much about Modiano’s famous reticence about his family and background, on which, until then, he had been notably elliptical. His childhood had been a remarkable one, and by today’s standards it would have been considered borderline abusive. The lack of parental involvement and even interest in Patrick’s well-being is astonishing, and his bitterness is understandable. But it also goes a long way to show what made him a writer.
As the writer Jenny Diski wrote in a recent essay for the London Review of Books, a memoir is “a form that in my mind plays hide and seek with the truth.” Such is the universe of Patrick Modiano.
I don’t know when this entry will run, but I am writing it on a Friday, and I’m supposed to have a baby on Tuesday. I’ve been home since Wednesday, prowling around the house — if a very pregnant person can be said to prowl — feeling lumpy and alert and expectant. It’s safe to say I’m weirding out a little. For weeks I have been in the grip of so-called nesting hormones, which are real, and which remind me of being in college and taking other people’s adderall to finish a term paper, except the term paper is cleaning baseboards, or finally buying a decent set of towels after reading a lot of information about what makes a towel nice, or creating tasteful yet affordable shared adult/baby bedroom decor out of an old calendar and 12 discount frames from Amazon. I’ve been reading a lot of Amazon reviews, so many that it doesn’t feel like I’ve read much of anything else.
But that’s not true — I read a book of essays by Nora Ephron. And I read this article in Harper’s, about squadrons of elderly people living in campers and humping merchandise through an Amazon warehouse. Nora Ephron feels bad about her neck; I feel bad about my ankles, and my strenuous participation in late capitalism. I feel bad about the number of huge cardboard boxes filled with tiny things I’ve gotten from Amazon. I don’t want to buy any more things from Amazon, but I don’t know how I will get my cat litter, or new hooks for my shower curtain, or a tiny dehumidifier that fits in a closet, or a ceramic space heater with automatic shutoff and remote control so the baby doesn’t freeze in our cold little house. I don’t know where I will read 400 earnest assessments of which Pack and Play is the best Pack and Play. Did I mention I’m weirding out a little?
Speaking of late capitalism, last week I read four children’s books by Beverly Cleary, because I have been thinking about what it means to have a family and to be middle class and the Ramona books feel like a portrait of a kind of family and life that is maybe on its way out in America. I read select passages from The Chronicles of Narnia to get in a more cheerful frame of mind, but not The Last Battle, because that’s the one where everyone dies. I read the first few pages of Renata Adler’s Speedboat because people are always talking about it on Twitter, but I didn’t understand what was happening and I took a break and then accidentally returned it to the library. I read some stories by Julie Hayden, and want to read more, but there aren’t very many to read. I read Rabbit, Run, which I had always assumed that I’d read and it turned out I hadn’t, and which I probably shouldn’t have read while nine months pregnant since it depressed and angered the hell out of me.
I read Invisible Man. I read Austerlitz. I read The Patrick Melrose Novels and was not as charmed as I had hoped to be. I read new things, The Good Lord Bird and Life After Life and The People in the Trees and Dept. of Speculation. I read Americanah over a blissful Easter Sunday, which I spent in bed eating popcorn in an empty house. I read Station Eleven over the course of a blissful regular Saturday, with my cats and my blanket. I read Thrown, which filled me with envy of people who are professional writers. I read Submergence. I re-read Dance to the Music of Time and The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Howards End and everything by Donald Antrim. I read small parts of a vast number of books about pregnancy and babies and felt overwhelmed with details regarding the cervix. I read all of Labor Day, because Edan is in it, and I found most of the entries frankly alarming, but less so than the comments on BabyCenter. I read a lot of studies about what the numbers on a nuchal translucency mean, and many opaque articles about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
As with every year, there were a lot of things I wanted to read and didn’t. I didn’t read anything by Norman Rush and I didn’t read anything by Ivan Turgenev or Katherine Mansfield or Karen Russell or Ben Lerner.
There were a lot of things I wanted to write and didn’t. I didn’t write an essay about my great-grandmother Vera. I didn’t write my Anita Brookner reader, or an essay about late capitalism, or a novel. Parenthood, as far as I know, is not a condition characterized by increased productivity, so I don’t know what will happen to these plans in the new year. I will say I have found pregnancy, for the most part, unexpectedly generative and wonderful. I mean, obviously, it’s generative, but I mean generative of things other than blastocysts and embryos, or of strong feelings regarding towels. I mean of thoughts about life and books and writing. The first real things I ever wrote I wrote after I met my husband and fell in love; maybe loving a new person will open other horizons. Maybe it won’t. It’s impossible to say. For now I’m just weirding, watchful.
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On July 17, I walked down the hill from my office to the train station at the end of the work day. It was one of those days when all of the news was bad. The airliner had been shot down with 298 people because some monstrous clown, some flak jacket-clad cretin with a weapon bigger than his brain, had picked the wrong dot on the radar screen. Israel had invaded Gaza; the preceding day’s New York Times showed the mangled doll’s body of a little boy on a beach. I am not normally a person who is unduly affected by the news, mostly because to date I have had the good fortune not to be the news. Events happen swiftly and far away and are immediately knitted into the infinite scarred and knobby human carpet, forgotten by people who are lucky enough not to get knitted up with them. But that was a day when the news was bad enough, and coming fast enough, and seemed so dictated by stupidity and malevolence and bad luck, that it occasioned one of those low, dark, what-is-the-fucking-point afternoons that even people who enjoy a supremely placid existence can sometimes experience.
It’s now hard to recapture the profound sense of dejection I had as I crossed over the moribund little creek that bounds the campus where I work. But I don’t think I will ever forget the moment, as I considered what shit things are–what everloving, unjust, miserable shit–when I had what I can only think of as a religious experience for the reading unbeliever. Instead of Mary or Jesus or anybody, I suddenly thought only of Anthony Powell, whose beautiful Dance to the Music of Time I was then rereading, and felt an overwhelming sense that this is really all we get–that if everything else is taken away, the beauty of someone’s vision of the world is our meager but abiding solace for being in the world.
Powell himself understood the feeling, I think, when he concluded his masterpiece with a passage from Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy:
I hear new news every day, and those ordinary rumours of war, plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, comets, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions, or towns taken, cities besieged, in France, Germany, Turkey, Persia, Poland, etc., daily musters and preparations, and suchlike, which these tempestuous times afford, battles fought, so many men slain, monomachies, shipwrecks, piracies, and sea-fights, peace, leagues, strategems, and fresh alarms.
What had I been feeling that day, but the fatigue of those ordinary rumors, those massacres and meteors and fresh alarms?
Days later I read the poet Edward Hirsch on the loss of his son, and found a solemn counter to my religious experience: “People are irreplaceable, and art, no matter how good, doesn’t replace them. It took this tragedy for me to feel that.” A revelation like mine is undoubtedly a luxury of unruffled circumstance, like not being the news. But after working my way through Dance to the Music of Time, and then through Michael Barber’s biography of Powell, I do feel that there was something appropriate about the vision of St. Anthony that visited me that dark afternoon.
The great Islamic historian Marshall Hodgson, who began the magisterial Venture of Islam and expired at 46 before he could complete it, inscribed a theory of humanity in an essay about his mentor, the Viennese Orientalist Gustave von Grunebaum. According to Hodgson, a fiercely devout Quaker, the beauty of whose ideas was often obscured somewhat by the thickets of his prose, people fell into three camps. There were the militaristic ones, “those who look to glory, to honor—to a noble death. Such will rather see Plataea destroyed altogether than yield to Thebes.” Then there was the “Party of Culture.” For these people, “a greater tragedy than the defeat of Athens at Syracuse was the powder explosion in the Parthenon.” Finally, there was the “Party of Justice,” the party which, “from Hebrew times on, has felt the community tainted by a single act of iniquity.” Hodgson believed that the Culture people were interested in justice and fairness only so much as those things were “the natural functions of a highly cultivated human being.” But the Justice people were the ones for whom “the essential is the citizen, the son of Israel, the individual soul—however stupid, however narrow-perspectived he may be.”
Although, like everything Hodgson wrote, it takes a few turns with the essay to understand what he’s talking about, I don’t think I’ve read a more apt division of the main strains of human temperament. I’ve never recognized myself so fully, at any rate; I’m the Party of Culture all the way–I like heritage preservation, elegant talkers, and people who stand to the right on escalators. The good guys, the ones who never turn away from a homeless person, the ones who get out the vote and speak truth to power and read the news and do something about it, those are the Justice guys. (The Military guys are the stand-your-ground types.) And for us Culture people, us shallow feelers, those for whom profound religious sentiment and unconditional love of fellow man are elusive, for whom exquisite artistic expression represents the pinnacle of human achievement, Anthony Powell is an ideal patron saint.
Powell, of whom one critic said there was “no pity and very little indignation,” is remembered by some for snobbishness and bloodlessness and conservatism–he “blamed the ‘tiresome Edwardian Liberalism'” of Forster and the Bloomsbury Group “for the sorry state, as he saw it, of the modern world.” In this he differed from his friend George Orwell, a Party of Justice man if ever one there was (artists are not always Party of Culture people–consider Dostoevsky, O’Connor, Gaudi). Powell’s unofficial biographer, Michael Barber, quoted Julian Symons in describing the way that Powell and the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge would lure Orwell into “wild flights of political fancy” over their regular lunches, goading him to express opinions they found absurd, e.g., that the Labour Government should “try to convert the British electorate to the idea that they should accept a lower standard of living in order to get rid of the evils of colonialism.”
Powell wasn’t a Culture man only because he married a wife with a title and lived in a house with a drive. While he was known as an unrepentant Tory who admired Margaret Thatcher and disdained reflexive bearded leftists, his books indicate that his artistic politics were always more deeply felt than his mundane ones–that people with humor and style and humanity would always be greater allies than anyone who simply occupied the same end of the political spectrum. And the novels of Dance are overwhelmed with evidence of his supreme reverence for art. The way his narrator Jenkins sees the Belgian allies with whom he works, in the context of a Flemish painting. Or his long, playful, intense, cherished conversations about books and music and paintings with his friends Barnby and Moreland and Maclintick. Powell’s deeply-felt devotion to the meaning and importance and self-fulfilling majesty of art was manifest in his lifelong interest in the written and visual art of yesteryear and, most of all, in his own gargantuan series of books. “Art is the true adjudicator,” he once wrote, “in its complicated relationship with taste.”
And Powell’s art, like his taste, was impeccable. There’s really no better company than these novels (Marjorie Hakala contributed a nice writeup of their virtues to The Millions a couple of years ago). Philip Toynbee accused Powell of “immense circumlocutory facetiousness,” but I think his sentences are perfect. Writing about Powell invites block quotes–like this one, Jenkins’s description of his wife’s enormous family:
There is something overpowering, even a trifle sinister about very large families, the individual members of which often possess in excess the characteristics commonly attributed to “only” children: misanthropy: neurasthenia: an inability to adapt themselves: all the traits held to be the result of a lonely upbringing. The corporate life of large families can be lived with severity, even barbarity, of a kind unknown in smaller related communities: these savageries and distillations of egoism often rendered even less tolerable if sentimentalised outside the family circle.
Even his short descriptions, the one-offs, are magnificent. Here’s Sunny Farebrother, one of the recurring characters in the books:
There was a suggestion of madness in the way he shot out his sentences; not the kind of madness that was raving, nor even, in the ordinary sense, dangerous; but a warning that no proper mechanism existed for operating normal controls.
The comic aspect of Powell’s novels is often emphasized; Evelyn Waugh famously blurbed Powell as a comedic Proust. And Powell is enormously funny, although in his books humor and profundity shared the same territory:
Another long silence fell, one of those protracted abstinences from all conversation so characteristic of army Messes–British ones, at least–during which, as every moment passes, you feel someone is on the point of giving voice to a startling utterance, yet, for no particular reason, that utterance is always left pending, for ever choked back, incapable, from inner necessity, of being finally brought to birth. An old tin alarm-clock ticked away noisily on the dresser, emphasising the speedy passing of mortal life.
Contemporary book culture roils with arguments about whether it is parochial or pointless to record only the narrow worlds occupied by a small group of homogeneous writers. A recent comment on an essay at this site asserted, “Any time an author seems more than willing to adorn his or her work with the trappings of a [modern] period piece, I begin to wonder just what kind of artistic ambition he or she has.” Reading Powell, you see the intrinsic possibilities of writing about a life that you are more or less living, even if to some people that life seems narrow and unsympathetic. In fairness, this is mostly because Powell was operating within an echelon of talent that renders arguments about parochialism totally irrelevant, and this is obviously an echelon to which very few people can aspire.
In Dance to the Music of Time, most people are privileged Etonians or wannabees, power-mad or at least ruthlessly pragmatic. The artists and leftists are delightful or zany, but not really sympathetic, and rarely good. But Powell makes all of these characters beautiful in his rendering; they, and the complicated dance they perform, assume a sanctified quality, like a leper cleansed by Jesus:
Afterwards, that dinner in the Grill seemed to partake of the nature of a ritual feast, a rite from which the four of us emerged to take up new positions in the formal dance with which human life is concerned. At the time, its charm seemed to reside in a difference from the usual run of things. Certainly the chief attraction of the projected visit would be absence of all previous plan. But, in a sense, nothing in life is planned–or everything is–because in the dance every step is ultimately the corollary of the step before; the consequence of being the kind of person one chances to be.
And yet Powell’s novels have been accused of a certain parochialism since their publication. As Terry Teachout put it, “Even his most ardent admirers have been known to suggest on occasion that Dance might be too closely tied to the facts of Powell’s own life to flourish as a fully independent work of art.” (Heaven knows what these admirers, among them Philip Larkin, would have made of Karl Ove Knausgaard.) But even when writing about highly specific milieux, Powell manages to touch upon the universal. Describing the inside-baseball world of mid-century London writing and publishing, he conveys an impression of some age-old aesthetes’ fraternity; you can imagine the Flemish painters sitting around the bar and shitting on one another using similar rhetorical codes.
“I expect you have heard of a writer called St John Clarke,” she said, almost as soon as she had sat down. This supposition, expressed by some of my friends, would have been a method of introducing St John Clarke’s name within a form of words intended to indicate that in their eyes, no doubt equally in my own, St John Clarke did not grade as a sufficiently eminent literary figure for serious persons like ourselves ever to have heard of him. The phrase would convey no sense of enquiry; merely a scarcely perceptible compliment, a very minor demonstration of mutual self-esteem.
(I especially like this one: “Shernmaker represented literary criticism in a more eminent form. Indeed one of his goals was to establish finally that the Critic, not the Author, was paramount. He tended to offer guarded encouragement, tempered with veiled threats, to young writers….”)
It’s a world that doesn’t seem so remote, in its backbiting and intrigue, from literary communities today, although I don’t want to overextend that comparison. Imagine if a new war was announced tomorrow–another new war, I should say, the kind that was called a war–and Keith Gessen and Chad Harbach and everyone else with a magazine or a book immediately signed up and began training in mobile laundry units and fighter planes, and about a quarter of them died. Imagine if the rockets started falling on Brooklyn, and the two halves of some couple about town were killed in one night, in two different dive bars:
As in musical chairs, the piano stops suddenly, someone is left without a seat, petrified for all time in their attitude of that particular moment. The balance-sheet is struck there and then, a matter of luck whether its calculations have much bearing, one way or the other, on the commerce conducted.
If the squabbles and anxieties of artistic types are timeless, the world that Powell describes–the particular texture of its massacres and meteors and fresh alarms–is specific to its historical moment, and his depictions the more valuable for it.
There are certain conditions, totally unique to themselves, that seem to last an eternity even while they have finite beginnings and ends. Pregnancy is one. Twelve-volume novels series are another. Both have the effect of coloring your whole sense of things and self for the time that you are in them. Who was I this summer? I was pregnant, and I was re-reading the twelve-volume masterpiece of Anthony Powell. I am still one of those things, although only for another seven weeks. I am sure that pregnancy contributed to my blue spell that July afternoon, when I felt sad that things were bad, and Anthony Powell appeared and told me I couldn’t do anything about it but read novels and count my blessings.
They say when you give birth you feel bereft, even lonely, as one stage ends and another begins. The taciturn but cherished companion you carried around for nine months becomes a separate, sometimes hostile being with complex demands. Finishing Dance to the Music of Time likewise required an adjustment; it left me feeling lonely. But at least I can always go back to the novels, make a pilgrimage the shrine of St. Anthony–succor of us who like things to be beautiful, even when they are not good.
What really begins in January, besides the calendar? Winter isn’t even close to ending, and nothing but the new year is being born. But we do, nevertheless, like to start things when the year starts. Maybe it’s that the quiet hibernation of the time, after the excess of the holidays, gives us the chance to reflect and resolve. Maybe, for those who believe, it’s that our “decayed world,” as Edmund Spenser introduced his Shepheardes Calender, has recently been refreshed by the birth of Christ. Or maybe it’s just the arbitrary placebo effect of a change of digit and a clear new calendar page. What will you resolve to read in January? A new diet book? Will you try, once again, to finish Getting Things Done? Or will this be the year you’ll read Proust, or Infinite Jest, or A Dance to the Music of Time? Or, might I humbly suggest, you could commence the healthful daily practice of reading a literary almanac.
In the 366 daily pages of A Reader’s Book of Days, I tell a thousand or two tales from the real lives of writers, as well as the lives they’ve invented. I also sum up each month with a short essay and a list of recommended reading, and that, I found, was the hardest part. Not that there wasn’t enough to say. Quite the opposite: there was too much. Talk about arbitrary! No 400 words or short stack of books could fully represent a 12th of the literary year. So it’s with a sense of incompletion that I offer my nine recommendations here for January, books and poems that begin, or hinge, or are contained in the year’s first month. Aside from almanacs like mine, surprisingly few books actually start in January, by the way; one of those that does may be the most appropriate January book of them all, though it’s not included below: Bridget Jones’s Diary, which opens the year not with hope but a hangover.
A Calendar of Wisdom by Leo Tolstoy (1909)
What did Tolstoy, in his last years, believe was the great work of his life? War and Peace? Anna Karenina? No, this anthology he spent 15 years gathering, which mixed his own aphorisms with those of the “best and wisest thinkers of the world,” organized by a theme for each day of the year.
At the Mountains of Madness by H. P. Lovecraft (1936)
As the southern summer opens up the South Pole for exploration, a scientific expedition led by professors Dyer and Lake discovers behind a range of unknown Antarctic mountains a vast, dead, and ancient city, one of the most evil and benighted of Lovecraft’s inhuman horrors.
“New Year Letter” by W. H. Auden (1940)
With hatreds convulsing the world “like a baffling crime,” Auden composed one of his great long poems as a letter to “dear friend Elizabeth,” whose hospitality in his adopted home of New York helped him toward this vision of order in art and life during a time of tyranny.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (1968)
You are far more likely to know Blade Runner than its source novel, set on a single January day in a post-nuclear 1992, which features, rather than Ridley Scott’s neon glamor, Dick’s equally thrilling and disturbing brand of stripped-down noir.
Airport by Arthur Hailey (1968)
Arthur Hailey wrote blockbusters like no one else, earnest and fact-filled dramas set in a series of massive industrial monoliths: banks, hotels, power plants, and, in this case, Lincoln International Airport in Illinois, during the worst winter storm of the decade, with one jetliner stuck at the end of a runway and another coming in fast with a bomb on board.
“In California: Morning, Evening, Late January” by Denise Levertov (1989)
Levertov’s pastoral is unseasonal in the temperate lushness of its California winter, and unsettling in its vision of the industrial forces invading and managing its beauty.
The Children of Men by P.D. James (1992)
Another novel overshadowed by its movie adaptation, The Children of Men, in a startling departure from James’s Adam Dalgliesh mysteries, uses the premise of a world in which human fertility has disappeared to examine the nature and lure of power.
White Teeth by Zadie Smith (2000)
Smith’s debut, which begins with Archie Jones’s failed January suicide, has too much life to begin with a death: it overflows with not only the variety of multi-ethnic London but the exuberance of Smith taking her brilliant talent for its first walk out on the stage.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan (2006)
One of the omnivore’s dilemmas is how to navigate a world whose technology and global trade have accustomed even New Englanders to unseasonal luxuries like sweet corn and asparagus in the middle of January.
Oh, what did I read this year. I read all the Dear Prudence columns and some of The New York Times Vows and 6,000 things on Wedding Bee and even more things on Facebook and a lot of Tweets I do not remember now. I read two-thirds of the things about the election and one-third of the Mormon mommy blogs. I read most of the Andrew Sullivan and some of the Ta-Nehisi Coates and half of The New Yorker, but not the thing about Hilary Mantel, because I didn’t read Wolf Hall, until this week when I read half of it on the train. In the airplane I read Esquire. In the bathroom I read The Economist that I got free with the miles I accrued reading Esquire in the airplane. In the living room I read the alumni magazine I got free with the expense I incurred on my education. I read the whole Jonah Lehrer scandal. My favorite thing I read on Jezebel was a video of a dog fetching a cat.
I read In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, and my word, was that good. I read The Appearance of a Hero, and wrote a whole review of it in my head called “Where the Bros Are” — or was it “For the Bros”? — but forgot to write it down (don’t get me started on the things I didn’t write this year). I read NW and couldn’t stop thinking about the scene with the tampon string like a mouse tail and got the taste of metal in my mouth, thank you very much Zadie Smith. I read We Need to Talk About Kevin and got the feel of bleach in my eye and hamster in my sink, thank you very much Lionel Shriver. I read The Snow Child which was like Crystal Light with extra Splenda (that is not a compliment, in case it’s not clear). I read The Silent House which gave me the willies (that is a compliment). I read the The Deptford Trilogy because every year I have to read something by Robertson Davies and like it and then forget what it was about. I read the Donald Antrim triple-decker (one, two, three), and those were the greatest old new things I read this year.
I re-read Good-bye to All That and Tender is the Night and Midnight’s Children. I did not re-read The Tin Drum or Middlemarch or The Chronicles of Narnia or any Sherlock Holmes stories, and I really feel it in my bones that I did not re-read these things. I did not re-read The Corrections or Cleveland’s History of the Modern Middle East, which I was going to re-read to remember what is the deal with Syria. I only re-read half of one movement of A Dance to the Music of Time (one-eighth, then).
I still did not read Witz or Swamplandia! or The Instructions or A Visit from the Goon Squad or Skippy Dies or The Art of Fielding, or How Should a Person Be? even though I spent $30 on it at a book thing to seem like a team player. More distressing, I still did not really read Don Quixote or Das Kapital or War and Peace, or a thing by Stendahl or Ulysses. I did not read one really hard book this year, except one by Buket Uzuner, and that was just hard for me, and I didn’t really read that either, just 20 pages.
As usual, to compose my Year in Reading is to confront my failures. Resolved for 2013: more paper, less screen. More reading, more revelation.
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A Word on Weddings
Like many people whose marriage impends, I have been initiated into the strange, febrile world of weddings — a world whose population is varied and ever-changing, a time-lapse version of the actual world. The wedding world is headquartered at sites like The Knot or Weddingbee, where the affianced and the “waiting” (for someone to put a ring on it) alike convene to commune in questionable spelling and reverent platitudes of surpassing banality: “marrying my best friend,” and “it’s not the wedding, it’s the marriage,” uttered in the course of a discussion about five-dollar chair covers.
Making fun of The Knot or Weddingbee is like shooting fish in a barrel, and most of the womens’ interest blogs of the sort I favor have taken aim. But Jezebel cannot tell me anything about tipping the caterer, while Weddingbee bristles with opinions on the subject. Moreover, long after I harvested the helpful hints I needed from Weddingbee, I return frequently to view the forums, which I have found absorbing to an almost debilitating degree.
It began with the unkind voyeuristic impulse behind something like The Hairpin’s Today’s Top Ten Wedding Bee Discussion Board Thread Titles. The Internet, more than travel, more than almost any other thing, gives you a glimpse of how other people live and what they care about. And with weddings being a widespread but mostly un-ideological phenomenon, a wedding website attracts a real slice of life. On Weddingbee there are the expected Marxian differences, as well as significant regional and hemispheric variations.
In spite of this, these boards are a friendly place. Women are frequently reminded by the world at large that they are catty and shrewish, but I am often struck by the fierce generosity demonstrated by groups of women unknown to one another (also by the speed with which a group of female strangers will turn to topics of contraception under the right circumstances). As in any community, some members are just assholes. But someone asks if she is too fat to see daylight, and everyone tells her no, no, no. Someone loses her job a week before her wedding, and the hive gathers round her in an online embrace.
Disdain for these sites is often of a parcel with another phenomenon the wedding-haver encounters — a sort of race-to-the-bottom humblebrag about the minimal expense of the interlocutor’s wedding, sometimes phrased so that the implication is that the success of a marriage is inversely proportionate to the cost of the shindig. “Had it in the backyard,” they say, and the Lord rained down gratis BBQ and compostable cutlery to reward their lack of pretension. Then there is Caitlin Flanagan, who characteristically manages to be right about a lot of things while sucking the joy right out of the world, reminding us that weddings are a colossal, farcical, tasteless, and needless expense representing a hollowed-out institution — just another example of our sick culture.
Everyone has their own line for what constitutes folly. I am not without my own strain of Flanaganism. But one thing I really like about weddings is that though they are a folly, they are to the best of my knowledge a relatively universal folly (and one of the few driven by some ostensibly joyful and optimistic instinct). Even in less libertine cultures than my own, they often represent a union in which not a shred of virginity, financial health, or, sometimes, likelihood of enduring love remains. Even so, we are going to get spruced up, create a festive atmosphere of one sort or another, and take photographs. In a thousand languages, people spend money, fight about the guest list, and try not to get any unsightly hives on the big day. Then, they try to stay married. We are unlikely to make ourselves less stupid than we collectively are, so we should have parties.
My own experience of wedding planning has been a very traditional cocktail shared with my beloved, composed of anxiety, guilt, and joyful anticipation. Like many people, I made a lot of lists of things and fretted too much about some things and not enough about others. I did things that were called “wedding planning” which were actually just mindless Internet trawling, looking at pictures of things that have no bearing on my life, and patting myself on the back for at least not being as x as the people who say y on Weddingbee.
What the wedding sites made clear to me about weddings generally and ours in particular is that they are inevitably one iteration of a thousand other weddings — a melange of logistical and aesthetic decisions dictated by social forces largely imperceptible to you. You find that choices you believed you had arrived at quite on your own are some current staple of Pinterest, totally characteristic of your particular station in life. My demographic, evidently, is very fond of the “rustic” and the “vintage.” And while I have grown to shudder at these terms (one wedding theme I read about: “vintage books”), part of it is the pain of realizing that you are part of a vast, rushing current, and your tastes are not your own.
I eventually resigned myself to rusticity and sameness, but one place where I thought I could assert my personality (without leaving my fiance totally by the wayside, or course), was the wedding reading. I was confident that Weddingbee could tell me nothing that I did not already know about a pithy piece of writing.
How Literature Failed Me in my Hour of Need
It is now customary in many weddings to write one’s own vows, tailored to fit the bride and groom’s individual quirks. Faced with this prospect, some dour inner Protestant stirred and grumbled. I could not picture us telling the assembled that we enjoy fattening food, Breaking Bad, and architectural boat tours. That when I mop the floor, I like to get drunk and listen to Groove Armada. When you sneeze, you sneeze five times. That I promise to always like the Redskins even when they are dismal. No, I am partial to “death do us part.” And brevity, ironically.
Thus the reading became the one place in the ceremony for a little customization and flair. My beloved also likes books, but I am bossier, and I took the reigns on this project. And since I find literature sufficient for expressing most of what there is to express about human life, the bar for this particular passage was very high.
As a bookish person, it felt like cheating to be searching for beautiful passages from the Internet. I preferred for it to happen more organically (so precious, so mistaken). I read books all the time, I thought to myself; surely I should have some interior commonplace book chock-full of beauty and inspiration to consult. But the only two poems I can recite in their entirety — Philip Larkin’s “High Windows” and “This be the Verse” — are so far from wedding-worthy it’s hard to imagine anything worse: “When I see a couple of kids/ And guess he’s fucking her and she’s/ Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,/ I know this is paradise.” (Or “They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” obviously.)
I love “The Whitsun Weddings,” which is technically a poem about weddings. But while, contra Christopher Hitchens, I think its last line is romantic, the romance is that of life, not of individual human relationships: “A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower/ Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.” “Broadcast” is love poem, but a more sneering and cringing love poem there never was: “…Then begins/ A snivel on the violins:/ I think of your face among all those faces,/ Beautiful and devout before/ Cascades of monumental slithering.” Most unsuitable for a wedding. And anyhow, Larkin — more on him later.
My favorite poem is probably T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes,” the last lines of which reveal the haunting ordered chaos of the universe, but hardly warm the cockles: “The worlds revolve like ancient women/ gathering fuel in vacant lots.” In a book shop pawing through the poetry, I sensed this was a theme, in poetry in general, and especially in the poetry I like. Tomas Tranströmer seemed promising for a minute in “The Couple,” if a touch erotic: “The movements of love have settled, and they sleep/but their most secret thoughts meet as when/ two colours meet and flow into each other/ on the wet paper of a schoolboy’s painting.” But that ending: “They stand packed and waiting very near,/ a mob of people with blank faces.” It leaves an impression of a lonely echo in a hallway, a little like “Preludes.”
Googling had seemed like cheating, but I started to Google, and found, predictably, that I was hardly the first person to have had this problem. Book snobs abound. I went to the library and took out several anthologies, including a book of readings specifically for weddings. There are things I have seen before — sonnets, for example — but I like free verse. There were many things I hadn’t seen. Margaret Atwood has a poem about marriage called “Habitation,” evidently used in some weddings. I liked it, stupidly, because it mentions eating popcorn, which happens to be something that my beloved and I do together on a shockingly regular basis. But it seemed a little fraught for a wedding. The last line, “We are learning to make fire,” hangs at the bottom of the page, lonely as early man: I pictured us shivering in our damp cave.
I liked an excerpt from Toni Morrison’s “Jazz” — “It’s nice when grown people whisper to each other under the covers” — but that’s so private, and then the poem invokes an off-stage “chippie” and “stud.” I checked out Love Letters of Great Men, but the problem, aside from the sort of ethical weirdness of reading someone’s mail, is that great men tended to write romantic letters to a number of different women, which is not really on-message for our marriage (this was not in the collection, but I remember Malcolm Lowry once wrote one of his wives that he wanted to use her toothbrush instead of his own). I looked to the eminently quotable Flaubert in the pages of Julian Barnes’ wonderful Flaubert’s Parrot. Here’s a good one: “You ask for love, you complain that I don’t send you flowers? Flowers, indeed! If that’s what you want, find yourself some wet-eared boy stuffed with fine manners and all the right ideas. I’m like the tiger, which has bristles of hair at the end of its cock, with which it lacerates the female.”
Rumi figures in anthologies of love poetry. I like Rumi, but for a wedding I feel that the Sufis are off-limits. As far as I know, which is not very much, the beloved of whom they speak is likely to be God, or the young man who brings you your wine. Context matters. Also, my favorite line from Rumi is fiercely individualistic: “I drip out of a spout drop by drop — But like the deluge I crush myriad palaces.” (Rappers have nothing on Rumi). I toyed with finding something in Turkish — but it seemed to me that this was a moment for my mother tongue. And my knowledge is limited, and my favorite Turkish poetry is in any case a line written by the twelfth century poet Yunus Emre, too defiant for a wedding unless it was one disapproved of by all relatives: “What should the ignorant know of us?/ Greetings to the ones who know.”
Context matters, and that’s really what takes Philip Larkin out of the question: he loved Monica Jones so much he helped Kingsley Amis turn her into one of literature’s great hysterics, a caricature of a pain-in-the-ass female (Lucky Jim’s Margaret Peel). When I think about literature I don’t typically dwell on the private life of the author, because it’s a slippery slope. But I found when looking for a wedding reading that I became more interested in whether the writer him or herself had been married and gave at least the appearance of contentment.
On love, Emily Dickinson basically sums it up: “That Love is all there is/ Is all we know of Love;/ It is enough, the freight should be/ Proportioned to the groove.” But love and marriage are not the same thing. Most unkindly, I wondered what the virginal shut-in would know of the long intimacy, the vaunted tedium of marriage. Bizarrely, I veered into some exclusionary policy regarding Auden and Forster, whose circumscribed personal lives were in the broad sense casualties of a bigoted and ignorant society. Nabokov was promising; he is known to have loved Vera, and wrote her poems. But the 1974 poem “To Vera” is just that, a poem to Vera, and seemed to have nothing to do with us. “How I Love You” is Nabokovian in a way that confounds a ceremonial reading: “…gnats:/ hanging up in an evening sunbeam, / their swarmlet ceaselessly jiggles…”
There is the religious angle — a friends’ wedding featured Isaiah 43:1-7, which I believe is a particularly badass selection from the Old Testament: “When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned.” But novels are my sacred texts, and we are in any case rather unclear in our feelings about the Lord. His brief invocation in Robert Louis Stevenson’s cheerful “Wedding Prayer” is enough: “Lord, behold our family here assembled” (which one could also read: “Oh Lord, they’re all here.”)
Poetry letting me down, I turned to the novels that I love. No passage suggested itself to me — unless you have a very certain kind of mind, you can’t survey the text of every book you’ve ever read all at the same time. And if it’s not cricket to go looking for a previously unencountered reading that somehow has meaning to you, it’s equally uncricket to read everything with an eye to appropriating some piece of it for your marriage ceremony. But I began to see that’s how I should have been reading for the entirety of the preceding year.
What had I read most recently? We Need to Talk About Kevin, for chrissakes, and a book about rabies. I reread Goodbye to All That, which Graves closes with “…marriage wore thin. New characters appeared on the stage. Nancy and I said unforgivable things to each other. We parted on May 6th, 1929. She, of course, insisted on keeping the children. And I went abroad, resolved never to make England my home again…” My fiance had most recently read Travels With Charlie, and suggested I look there. But Travels With Charlie is about a man and a poodle, and the poodle goes “ffft.”
I began to comb through my favorite novels, but from the outset it was clear that most would never do. There’s Burmese Days or Of Human Bondage, where goodish men are driven mad by worthless women, with differing outcomes. A Suitable Boy is a spectacularly romantic novel, weddings all over, but it portends falling in love with the man you can marry, in lieu of the one that you can’t. The Tin Drum, full of obscenity. Wodehouse, too facetious. The aforementioned Lucky Jim closes with a romance, but it is a revenge story, against all Welches and Margarets, rather than a love story about the well-formed Christine. Iris Murdoch’s novels are full of bizarre marriages and strange perversity. (The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, anyone?) Till We Have Faces, jealous sibling love and spinsters. I opened Possession, even Swann’s Way — they presented unyielding blocks of text. The closest I came was from A Dance to the Music of Time, and in fact explained why I was having so much trouble:
A future marriage, or a past one, may be investigated and explained in terms of writing by one of its parties, but it is doubtful whether an existing marriage can ever be described directly in the first person and convey a sense of reality. Even those writers who suggest some of the substance of married life best, stylise heavily, losing the subtlety of the relationship at the price of a few accurately recorded, but isolated, aspects…Its forms are at once so varied, yet so constant, providing a kaleidoscope, the colours of which are always changing, always the same. The moods of a love affair, the contradictions of friendship, the jealousy of business partners, the fellow feeling of opposed commanders in total war, these are all in their way to be charted. Marriage, partaking of such — and a thousand more — dual antagonisms and participations, finally defies definition.
It defies definition, and yet I wanted something romantic, weighty but not melancholy, in English, about marriage. It was finally Louis C. K. who drove it all home, how hard this is to do:
…Or you’ll meet the perfect person who you love infinitely and you even argue well and you grow together and you have children and then you get old together and then SHE’S GONNA DIE. That’s the BEST CASE SCENARIO, is that you’re gonna lose your best friend and then just walk home from D’Agostino’s with heavy bags every day and wait for your turn to be nothing also.
That is indeed the best case scenario, the lost best friend, that friend so abstract on the Weddingbee message boards, so real in practice. I listened to Donald Hall reading about the death of Jane Kenyon on This American Life and bawled my eyes out.
In the end, I stood again in a book shop, rifling through every poetry book they had. (In the course of the hunt I was descended upon by the proprietor, and because the last thing I wanted was someone’s advice on the matter, remained mute on the subject of the wedding and was thus compelled to read two suggested Bill Hickok poems while he stood watchfully at a remove.) Finally, I picked something, a poem by Billy Collins from his collection Nine Horses. I picked something, but what I thought was even better in that collection was something else, “Bermuda,” which is basically a poetic version of the Louis bit. A husband and wife lie together on a beach: “and the two of us so calm/ it seems that this is not our only life,/ just one in a series, charms on a bracelet,/ as if every day we were not running/ like the solitary runners on the beach/ toward a darkness without shape/ or waves, crosses or clouds,/as if one of us is not likely to get there first/ leaving the other behind,/ castaway on an island…”
It turns out that it was hard for me to find a good wedding reading because I’m a gloomy old bastard.
There, it would seem, is the rub. But I wasn’t going to put this foreboding stuff into the wedding ceremony. No, with several days remaining until the wedding I picked Collins’s “Litany” (“You are the bread and the knife,/ the crystal goblet and the wine”), which I thought was lovely and romantic and yet also conveyed the promised prosaic qualities of long relationships. It’s funny, but not too much. I find the long dashes of the last lines poignant: “You will always be the bread and the knife,/ not to mention the crystal goblet and — somehow –/ the wine.” There is an element of the sacramental which appeals to me, something that begins to approach the reverence I feel for my own beloved.
After all this, after the fretting and gnashing of teeth and weeping over sad poems and vases in empty rooms, I learned I could have found my reading on the Internet. It’s on a list of wedding readings compiled by Publisher’s Weekly, for one. I could even have found it on Weddingbee, where some fiercely unique soul, someone just like me, recommended it in a thread five years ago, lauded as a “a quirky expression of love, perfect for an English major who likes playing with metaphors.”
But I don’t care, I’ve got my love to keep me warm.
Image via camerakarrie/flickr
In the fall of 2009, I left the United States to spend a school year teaching English in China. There were many things to do before leaving, but one of the more pleasurable was choosing which books would see me through the year. When my friend Ellen suggested taking Anthony Powell’s series A Dance to the Music of Time, I felt a click, the sort you feel when someone suggests a thing and you realize that is exactly what you intended to do all along. I packed the whole series and spent the next nine months living in China but letting a great deal of my imaginative life take place in mid-20th-century England.
For those who haven’t heard about the series or seen its tantalizing spines lined up on some bookstore shelf, Dance is a sequence of 12 novels, generally published as four volumes of three novels each. The series takes its name from a 17th-century painting by the French artist Nicholas Poussin, which depicts the four seasons as nymphs dancing in a circle while a winged Father Time plays for them on the harp. (The American editions of the books, published by the University of Chicago Press, use Poussin’s artwork and put one of the nymphs on the spine of each volume, so that when lined up the four volumes create an eye-catching work of art on one’s shelf.) The books take place in England over the course of nearly 60 years, starting between the World Wars and ending in the 1970s.
Various people have claimed that Dance is the definitive work of the British 20th century. The whole series is one entry on the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best novels of the century, which is a bit of a cheat, although there’s no good way to select one novel from the set. Evelyn Waugh called the books “more realistic than A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, to which it is often compared, and much funnier.” (Surely, if Waugh had tried, he could have come up with a more ringing endorsement than “funnier than Proust.”)
In any case, the books were a great success in both Britain and America upon their publication, but heaps of praise from people like Evelyn Waugh do not always secure a devoted, continuing readership once a book is no longer new. And these books deserve a continuing readership. They are masterful, they are deeply artful — and they are also rather fun. They contain a wealth of comedy, closely observed as the best serious work but with an additional twist that makes for a startled laugh when you suddenly realize what’s going on. They deserve to be popular. They deserve to be widely read and loved. These are the first books I can recall reading as an adult that made me want to go join the official society of fans of the author. Those who love these books love them for a lifetime; they are so rich and so pleasurable that they bear revisiting over the years as the reader grows alongside the characters and finds new ways to understand the story. And yet, in point of fact, nobody I know has read them, though I know a couple people who have been meaning to get around to it. And so I am taking to the Internet to make my own case for Powell to anyone out there who is in search of a new reading project as I was, or who simply needs something to read on these winter days.
Without further ado, then, seven reasons why these books deserve to be read:
Reason #1: They are unique.
This series is really a comic epic, and a fictional memoir of a person’s social life. It is a British social novel scaled way, way up.
A quick setup before going further: These books are narrated by Nick Jenkins. He shares a remarkable number of biographical details with one Mr. Anthony Powell, but we’ll take him on his own terms. Nick starts by telling us about his school days (outside sources say the school is Eton, though the text never indicates this) and university life (outside sources, Oxford, ditto) in the late 1910s to early ’20s, and the story continues through marriage, career, military service in the Second World War, and subsequent middle to old age in and around the London literary scene.
Nick is the only person who appears in every novel in the series, but he is not very keen on telling us much about himself. What he recounts are stories about social interactions at school, in the military, and in a roughly defined community of London literati, rather than stories about himself going to school, being an officer, and working as a writer. Nick is more likely to tell us what someone else appeared to be thinking than what he himself was thinking. His own marriage is sketched in the lightest possible lines, his children only hinted at. “It is difficult to talk about one’s wife,” he says, and so he doesn’t do it. He turns his considerable powers of understanding on other people instead — on other people, and on books.
Reason #2: They’re playfully, livably literary.
Nick is the kind of narrator who behaves as if he is actually writing the books; he serves as our author, rather than a conversation partner or a character into whose head we are allowed access. This works particularly well because the character is a writer. He doesn’t tell us the titles of any of his novels, though; the only book of his we’re allowed to know about is a scholarly work on Robert Burton, the author of The Anatomy of Melancholy, and that is included because it plays into his pattern of relating life to books. Nick shares what lines or ideas from other writers are playing through his head but not what stories he’s thinking up himself, rather in the way he is much more likely to recount a conversation with someone else than a solitary train of thought.
For the bookish amongst us — a category that surely includes nearly everybody willing to pick up these books — this kind of thought process will look rather endearingly familiar. As such it’s a comforting way in to the bigger stuff in the novels, the Second World War chief among them. Nick has a handful of attempted conversations about literature while in the army, the bulk of which fail so spectacularly that I laughed out loud while reading. There’s a fellow soldier who has a book of Kipling secreted away but is barely able to say anything about it. At the opposite end of the spectrum there’s David Pennistone, who though “capable, even brilliant, at explaining philosophic niceties or the minutiae of official dialectic, was entirely unable to present a clear narrative of his own daily life, past or present.” That’s obviously a problem not shared by our fearless narrator, but Nick and Pennistone are a kind of kindred spirit nevertheless and their conversations, however brief, are a relief from the military absurdity surrounding them.
Nick himself introduces literature into a lot of conversations that have nothing to do with literature, and it seldom works — as he comments after one of these conversations, “I was impressed for the ten thousandth time by the fact that literature illuminates life only for those to whom books are a necessity. Books are unconvertible assets, to be passed on only to those who possess them already.” The last scene of The Military Philosophers (the ninth book) is an end-of-war service at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Nick spends the whole time thinking about the poetry and song lyrics used in the service. The older he gets, the more his reading informs what he tells us of his life, especially Burton. The last novel takes place in the late 1960s and early ’70s, but is suffused with concepts and stories from the 17th century.
Reason #3: Do you like England? These books are completely, uniquely, and ineluctably English.
Apart from a trip to France in the first book, some time in Ireland in the third volume, and an interlude in Venice in Temporary Kings (the 11th book), the entire series takes place in England. I think it’s fair to assume our narrator never crosses the Atlantic (though Powell himself traveled rather extensively). The foreigners in the novels, who include French, Polish, Swedish, Norwegian, American, and a prince from a never-named Balkan country are seen through English eyes, and there’s a lot to be perceived about the British characters in the way they think and talk about these foreigners. I suspect Powell understood America somewhat better than his narrator, who comes across as rather naive on the subject — there’s a charming conversation at one point about Americans who are descended from signers of the Declaration of Independence, and it makes American social strata sound as arcane as those of ancient Mesopotamia. As a boy who’s just finished school, Nick spends a short time in France, and he seems a little surprised that the Norwegian and the Swede he meets there don’t get along, being from such similar cultures. The novels are not parochial — Nick is educated and observant — but they come from a very definite cultural perspective.
I should not neglect to mention that Powell, though he spent his life in England, came from a very old Welsh family, whose name he preferred to pronounce in the traditional fashion (rhyming with “noel”). He gave Nick a Welsh name as well, but any influence of Wales in the text is so subtle as to be invisible to this American reader. England pervades every bit of the books, though perhaps most notably the humor:
Reason #4: They are wonderfully funny.
Dance is certainly a comedy, but it can’t afford to be a classical comedy with happy endings for all. In any work covering such a vast period of time, there will inevitably be many deaths to read about. As it happens, that time includes the Second World War, and there are some deaths that occur right out of the blue while the story is occupying itself with social matters. These are sometimes ridiculous, but never ridiculed; sometimes tragic, but never eulogized. There’s no denial of tragedy, in other words, but Nick manages to acknowledge it and then move on to tell us about the next social occasion.
He doesn’t laugh out loud at what he sees going on around him. He doesn’t tend to tell the reader that someone is funny, and no one ever says he’s funny either. But he is, terrifically so. The humor is dry, sidelong, sneaky.
The trick is to notice that Powell doesn’t take the social world he’s describing very seriously. It would be easier to notice this if the books didn’t look like they should themselves be taken very seriously indeed, if they were less hefty and classical — the Poussin nymphs on the American editions are beautiful but a little intimidating. If you can forget about them for a while and get into the small-paperback spirit of reading, you can appreciate the absurdity of this little exchange, where Nick and his former head of house from Eton are conversing in a library and a boy comes by to ask the teacher a question:
We were interrupted at this moment by a very small boy, who had come to stand close by where we were talking. It would be truer to say we were inhibited by his presence, because no direct interruption took place. Dispelling about him an aura of immense, if not wholly convincing goodness, his intention was evidently to accost Le Bas in short course, at the same time ostentatiously to avoid any implication that he could be so lacking in good manners as to break into a conversation or attempt to overhear it. . . .
‘What do you want?’
‘I can wait, sir.’
This assurance that his own hopes were wholly unimportant, that Youth was prepared to waste valuable time indefinitely while Age span out its senile conference, did not in the least impress Le Bas, too conversant with the ways of boys not to be for ever on his guard.
Is that too dry for an introduction? If so, perhaps I should mention that there is also a butler who gets attacked by a monkey.
Powell’s portrayal of servants is quite funny, actually. At the time when these books were being written, P.G. Wodehouse was already making virtuosic use of the comic possibilities of the English serving class, most famously in the form of the hyper-competent Jeeves. Powell cut against the Wodehouse grain by making his servant characters only middling in competence and by having them intrude in the life of the household at the most inconvenient times, highlighting the strangeness of two entirely different categories of person living in a house together. The aforementioned butler works for an upper-class Communist, who doesn’t want a butler or really believe in having butlers, but can’t manage his enormous house without one, and there’s a sadly droll tone to their interactions.
The funniest novels are those in Volume 3, the war volume, possibly from a need to counterbalance the effect of the war on the narrative, possibly because the military is just so rich in comic possibilities:
The General turned savagely on Gwatkin, who had fallen into a kind of trance, but now started agonisingly to life again.
“No porridge, sir.”
General Liddament pondered this assertion for some seconds in resentful silence. He seemed to be considering porridge in all its aspects, bad as well as good. At last he came out with an unequivocal moral judgment.
“There ought to be porridge,” he said.
Reason #5: There is a judicious amount of world history.
By this I mostly mean World War II. Nick is just old enough when the war starts that he’s more of a military bureaucrat than a soldier, so none of these books is a War Novel in the customary mold. That said, it made me feel more powerfully about the London Blitz than anything, fiction or nonfiction, has ever done before.
In the war volumes, the humor is a little broader, with fewer subtle verbal jabs at social gatherings and more caricatures of superior officers (such as the two colonels named Eric and Derrick). And, as one would expect, the bad things that happen are far more serious. Nick, being who and what he is, gives us these things — the party hit by a bomb, the deaths that come out of the blue — without very much comment. There’s a section in The Military Philosophers where he says, “I was briefly in tears,” and I found it the most poignant bit of fiction I’d read for a very long time. Mostly, though, he continues to portray his life by way of the people with whom he surrounds himself, and to cope with uncertainty, discomfort, and death by finding comfort in the literary and intellectual.
Others, of course, respond to the war in very different ways, for instance,
Reason #6: Widmerpool.
Kenneth Widmerpool is one of only two characters besides Nick who appear in both the first novel of the series and the last. When he is first introduced, he’s a boy at the same school as Nick, a little older than our narrator, and his defining attribute is “the wrong kind of overcoat,” which “was only remarkable in itself as a vehicle for the comment it aroused, insomuch that an element in Widmerpool himself had proved indigestible to the community.”
This indigestibility serves Widmerpool surprisingly well. Possessed of no virtues but ambition, he is almost always able to convince his superiors that he’s especially worth promoting, rather than especially repulsive. Throughout the 12 novels, he turns up like a bad apple, and nearly every time he does so, his social or professional or military status has increased. “It was Widmerpool” is the most frequently repeated line in the books. Widmerpool himself may be the most deeply realized shallow person in English writing. His sense of his own importance, and his ability to force others to treat him as important, propel him to stations he does not deserve and cannot capably fulfill, and he is just competent enough to keep rising up in the world. Nick is none too pleased to be thrown together with Widmerpool so often, but he maintains his characteristic detachment on the matter. A different writer might treat the contrast between the two men as a moral one, but in Dance it is almost entirely aesthetic, and it is all the richer for it. The two of them, writer and bureaucrat, meet and part and re-meet over the course of the dance with an inevitability that is somehow both wearying and wonderful.
Reason #7: The books are both discreet and entertainingly frank.
The romantic relationships in this series are an utter mess. Almost everyone who gets married gets divorced, usually sooner rather than later; there’s infidelity all over the place; there is voyeurism and necrophilia and people showing up in the nude at surprising times. But it’s not lurid, simply because of the manner of writing. Nick tells us about a few sexual encounters before his own marriage, and he does so in a way that leaves no real doubt what’s going on but that includes no description whatsoever. The love scenes divert their gaze away from physical details and instead are all about character, behavior, and the degree to which people’s emotions are engaged (and whether they’re engaged equally, which they almost never are).
Homosexuality, incidentally, gets a rather interesting treatment in these novels. Early on — this would be in the 1920s and ’30s — it’s hinted at much more subtly than the hints of what’s happening in those love scenes. As time goes on there are clearer hints, often in the form of rumors that turn out to be true perhaps half the time, though there are also a couple scenes where a walk-on character is casually identified as a lesbian. In the post-WWII novels, the word “queer” is introduced, apparently in the process of taking on its new meaning. (There’s a conversation in Temporary Kings that illustrates this very well, where someone asks Nick if a mutual acquaintance is “queer:” “Is he?” “Homosexual?” “Of course.” “I don’t think so. I don’t think he’s very normal either.”) The word and the concept then move into the mainstream of the narrative until there are, in Hearing Secret Harmonies (the final book), an acknowledged male couple, an occult community where everyone is expected to have sex with everyone else for ritual purposes, and a number of offhand references to off-screen gay characters that don’t seem to surprise anyone.
Overall, the effect is that of a narrator with a strong sense of personal privacy but a very mild sense of shame. Like Melville’s Ishmael, he may choose to look away but he never flinches.
If you are not convinced…
If none of this has persuaded you that you need to read 12 British novels right now, here is what I recommend. Get hold of Volume 2 or a copy of the last novel in it, The Kindly Ones. Read the first chapter. It takes place in 1914, earlier than the rest of the saga, and it is the most self-contained bit of the series. If you don’t have the time or the will to read all 12 novels, this one chapter gives you some of the best they have to offer; I can’t imagine a better account of the start of World War I from a domestic, English point of view. If you think you don’t have the time or the will, this chapter might convince you it’s really not such a daunting task, and that this is a story and a voice worth settling down with for the long haul.
In the house where I grew up, the child of English teachers, PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre connoted “classiness” in at least two senses. On one hand, its filmed adaptations of classic novels added a touch of literary refinement (and sometimes even of eat-your-vegetables self-improvement) to a television schedule larded with junk food. On the other, it offered a place for us churchmice to indulge our fascination with “class” in the baser sense: idle wealth and posh intrigues and butlers who ring for tea at three.
In America, I’ve lately come to feel, this latter is the love that dare not speak its name. We’re a nation whose hereditary upper class keeps insisting there’s no such thing (see gubernatorial scion and presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s tweets from Carl’s Jr.), and where even the concept of “class” is dismissed as taboo (see the suggestion, ibid., that income inequality is something best talked about “in quiet rooms”). But Masterpiece, safely couched in the past, and usually overseas, remains one of the public venues where the upper crust, albeit fictional, can exercise their privilege without scruple, and where the rest of us can go to gawk. Those houses! Those costumes! Those accents! (In this light, The Forsyte Saga, which launched the series 41 years ago, appears almost proto-Kardashian.)
The current Masterpiece feature, Downton Abbey, mashes both class buttons hard. In the economic sense, it centers on the Earl of Grantham and his fabulously wealthy family, and on the eighty-eleven-dozen servants who attend to their every whim. On the cultural front, it offers a whiz-bang pastiche of three centuries of English literature. Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess is a venerable type: part Trollope’s Mrs. Proudie, part Thackeray’s Miss Crawley, part Dickens’, Aunt Betsey Trotwood (likewise played by Smith in a Masterpiece adaptation)…maybe with a touch of Professor McGonagall thrown in to keep things lively. Carson the Butler surely owes some of his imperturbability to Wodehouse’s Reginald Jeeves. The central romance, between the earl’s eldest daughter and her cousin Matthew, hews closely to the Jane Austen playbook (though, two episodes into Season 2, it’s still not clear who’s Elizabeth and who’s Mr. Darcy). And Downton Abbey, the titular estate, is like a mash-up of Brideshead and Wuthering Heights.
I doubt any of this is accidental. Downton Abbey’s creator, Julian Fellowes, has adapted Twain and Thackeray for screens large and small, and has gone so far as to nick the Crawley surname for his own aristocrats. Nor is his erudition limited to English-language literature; this is the kind of show where, when a Turkish character appears, his name is an amalgam of two of the greatest living Turkish novelists: Kemal Pamuk. (I’m still waiting for the American character named Melville von Updike.)
Needless to say, Downton Abbey is also serious fun; it’s become a surprise successor to Friday Night Lights and Mad Men as TV’s current “must-watch” show. But when, in the dead days between finishing Season 1 on DVD and waiting for the premiere of Season 2, I rummaged through my Brit-Lit shelf looking for some upstairs-downstairs action to sustain me, I was shocked by how little of the actual aristocracy I found.
It turns out that my sense of the “classiness” of the English novel is like my sense of the monolithic “classiness” of English elocution — that I suffer from a kind of cognitive foreshortening, wherein important distinctions disappear. In fact, what the English novel is overwhelmingly about, in class terms, is not the hereditary nobility but the middle classes: the downwardly mobile landowners, the upwardly mobile bourgeoisie.
Granted, the English class terminology is hopelessly confusing (sort of the way over there “public school” means private school.) But consider the seminal novels of the 1700s. Richardson’s Clarissa may moon around a swell house, but she hails from a family of arrivistes. And though Fielding’s Tom Jones lives with Squire Allworthy — a member of the landed gentry, if I’ve got my terminology correct — he does so as “a foundling.”
Then there’s the 19th century. Mr. Darcy, with his £10,000 income, could probably give Allworthy a literal run for his money, but his Pemberley estate is more the Maguffin in Pride & Prejudice than its setting; Jane Austen’s eye keeps returning to the raffish Bennets. Or take the Bröntes. We experience the grandeur of Rochester’s Thornfield Hall only through the eyes of Jane Eyre, the governess. Class roles are more fluid in Wuthering Heights, but between Heathcliff and Catherine, one is always on the way up and the other on the way down. Even Thackeray’s Crawleys, with their titles, are really supporting characters. The main attractions in Vanity Fair are the upper-middle-class Amelia Sedley and the scheming Becky Sharp. And perhaps the very greatest of the 19th-century English novels, Middlemarch, declares its allegiances right there in the title.
It’s possible to account for the English canon’s emphasis on the middle purely as a matter of dramatic interest. Unlike earls and princes and duchesses, the gentry and the striving bourgeoisie are people with places to go, with something to gain…and to lose. Still, compare the English novel of this period with the Russian — all those counts! — or with Proust’s elaborate explication of the Guermantes line, and you remember that aristocrats have plenty to lose, too, starting with reputation. (Indeed, questions of reputation animate some of Downton Abbey’s key plotlines.) And surely readerly interest in lifestyles of the rich and fabulous isn’t a new phenomenon. In fact, I suspect that the overlay of aristocratic intrigue in a novel like Vanity Fair is an attempt to satisfy it.
But the rise of the English novel parallels historically the rise of the middle classes; these are the classes from which most of the great novelists hailed, and to whose upper reaches their profession would have limited them. Dickens, one of Karl Marx’s favorite writers, offers the archetype of Victorian social cartography. Sure, you’ve got your Lord and Lady Dedlock in Bleak House, but more often the aristocrats resemble the generic Oodle and Boodle and Noodle, who in Little Dorrit form a kind of choral backdrop to a foreground of slums and inventors’ workshops and banks and debtors’ prisons.
To really get your fill of the aristocracy in between visits to Downton, you might look to the second tier of the 19th-century canon. There’s Eliot’s brilliant but flawed Daniel Deronda; there are Trollope’s Palliser novels and some of the Barsetshire ones. (There are also glimmerings of nobility throughout the top-shelf corpus of that American interloper, Henry James.)
Or, interestingly, you could just move on to the 20th century, in whose early years Downton Abbey is set. For here and only here, with the aristocracy in decline, does it move to the center of the English novel. (I guess you don’t really miss something until it’s gone.) Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End are palpably influences on Downton Abbey. In each, a sense of nostalgia for the days of real privilege hang heavy; in each the shifting sands under the aristocracy’s castles are viewed through the prism of war. Portions of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music Of Time likewise concern the titled classes. I’ve not read At Lady Molly’s, but I might well be forced to turn to it a couple of months from now, when I’m once again going through Downton Withdrawal. Perhaps the single most Downton-y book I know of — I’d be shocked if Mr. Fellowes (er…Sir Julian) hadn’t read it — is Henry Green’s miraculous short novel Loving, from 1945. Green’s beautifully impacted idiom is short on exposition, and when I picked up Loving a few weeks ago, I found it enriched by the hours I’d spent in Fellowes’ world. That is, I suddenly understood the difference between a head housemaid and a lady’s maid.
The two most astute novelists of class currently working in England, I think, are Edward St. Aubyn and Alan Hollinghurst. St. Aubyn hails from the social stratosphere himself, and the terrific first three novels in his Patrick Melrose cycle — Never Mind, Bad News, and Some Hope — detail what’s happened to the Granthams of the world three or four generations on from Downton. Spoiler alert: the titles and the dough still linger, but the culture has moved on, leaving in its wake terrible boredom and worse behavior. Hollinghurst’s finest novel, The Line of Beauty, can’t properly be said to center on the aristocracy, but retains some of Waugh’s nostalgia (and much of the flavor of mid-to-late period James). Who has replaced the hereditary nobility, at the top of Margaret Thatcher’s England? Callow politicians and oil millionaires. Still, like a title and a castle, parliamentary clout and petro-pounds are not available to everyone, and so our protagonist, Nick Guest, occupies a familiar position: nose pressed to the glass.
In the end, this is the secret to Downton Abbey’s success, as well. The glamour of the earldom draws us in, but it’s the vividly realized characters who surround it — especially the servants below-stairs — that hold it in perspective, and so give it life. We live now in the Age of Austerity, and as a sometime practitioner of what Romney has called “the bitter politics of envy,” I feel a little weird being enthralled with this show. But then I look at what else my poor TV has to offer, and I find myself murmuring, Burgundy-style, “Stay classy, Downton!”
I read Middlesex in 2002 as a college sophomore. I read it again in 2004, and probably two or three times after that. In early 2007, I went into a bookstore and, looking helplessly at the stacks of new releases, asked when there was going to be another one from Jeffrey Eugenides. It was the first time in my life I felt impatient for a book I wasn’t sure had been written or was going to be.
Unlike childhood and adolescence, which are a sustained exercise in waiting — you count the hours till your TV show, the days till your sleepover, the years till you turn eleven — the adult self has a different relationship with anticipation. If you are not The Marriage Plot’s Leonard, for whom there is no baseline of normalcy, if you are not in flux and falling in love or out of love or into some tragedy, the pangs of anticipation lose their childhood acuity and become muddled with complexities. So it is a rare pleasure to wait for something with that pure and uncomplicated eagerness. I carried this book around in my bag all day, waiting for the moment to open it. I went to a meeting and as I half-listened I moved my hands over the smooth pages with near-erotic pleasure. Perhaps I was just channeling a zeitgeisty fetishization of the endangered physical book. But I think it is more the relief born of nine years of waiting. “Waiting is an enchantment,” writes Roland Barthes in The Lover’s Discourse, to which Eugenides’s heroine Madeleine transfers all of her anxieties about her aloof lover Leonard; “The Festivity is what is waited for.”
I waited for this book, Madeleine waits for Leonard, Leonard waits for his side effects to dissipate, Mitchell waits for Madeleine, and also for a variety of religious experience. Madeleine is pretty, and smart, and rich, and “slightly anxious.” Leonard is maybe smarter, definitely poorer, and worse, sick. The hangover of Madeleine and Leonard’s great Festivity is the grim reality of Leonard’s mental illness. Madeleine is with Leonard through his illness, ostensibly because she loves him, also because she didn’t get into grad school and she’s not sure what to do. Eugenides describes with convincing and heartrending detail a Leonard in thrall to his lithium, a prisoner whose act of liberation is the heroic and misguided recalibration of his meds leading to a spectacular crack-up. Meanwhile, Mitchell travels through Europe and India pining for Madeleine and the Lord.
In some respects, Madeleine is a surface upon which people project their respective wills. Everyone knows that Madeleine is bookish, but we only hear her discussing her actual books of interest with other young women at a conference. We don’t know why Mitchell and Leonard love her exactly, except that she is beautiful, with clean sheets, full of (mostly unspoken) bookish thoughts. Mitchell spends years mesmerized by the memory of a glimpse of her “pale, quiet, Episcopalian breast.”
Eugenides is kinder to Madeleine than I, out of envy, might be inclined. The year I read Middlesex was the year my boyfriend, a student at Brown University, broke up with me. During my weekend visits, Brown seemed to teem with beautiful women who exuded the possibility of “clean-sheet Wednesday,” and who didn’t bouy the spirit with intimations of their stupidity. This book could have been an act of vengeance on girls who are pretty and thin and rich and go to good schools and read novels and have sex, but not too much sex or too soon. But even I don’t hate Madeleine. Leonard is most blameless and deserving of sympathy in the novel — his illness is a real and perpetual problem, a horse on his chest. And yet I guiltily celebrated when Madeleine met her intellectual compatriots for a few short days at the conference, or when she kissed Mitchell on a French leave to New York.
The novel invites us to like Madeleine; the novel, like Mitchell, loves Madeleine in spite of her being, and probably because she is, a “Fortnum & Mason’s drinker, her favorite blend Earl Grey. She didn’t just dump a bag in a cup, either, but brewed loose leaves, using a strainer and a tea cozy.” Mitchell describes his problem of being subsumed in the Godhead thus: “it was hard to kill your self off when you liked so many things about it.” We might say the same thing about Madeleine. The liberally-distributed acidity and self-loathing of Jonathan Franzen — and I cannot fail to compare the two after reading Evan Hughes’s illuminating piece on the fraternity of contemporary heavy-hitters — is a contrast to the more benign treatment found here. (Of the primary characters, that is. The supporting cast — Larry, Claire, Thurston, Abby — are intensely unlikable).
The Marriage Plot is a nod to the humanity of sexy women who feel like lumpen embarrassments around the right kind of man. It’s a nod only, though; we hear about Madeleine’s bowel movements through their absence, revealed by the interrogation of Leonard. We do not see her sneak off to to take an anxious crap, the way we do Leonard. Madeleine’s WASP mystique largely endures.
That Madeleine is a WASP is put forth ad nauseam. When Madeleine takes Mitchell home for a fateful Thanksgiving, she brings volume 1 of A Dance to the Music of Time, which, like The Marriage Plot, is a both a witty society novel and a work whose great depth belies its light touch. Like a Powell character, Madeleine lives in rarefied air, with rarefied people like Pookie Ames surfacing here and there at Brown and in New York. Unlike in a Powell novel, the class markers occasionally jangle. Madeleine’s father, Alton, begins a graduation weekend hotel strategy session with “When your cousin graduated from Williams…” Alton’s “voice was surprisingly good; he’d been in an a capella singing group at Yale.” Madeleine comes to Mitchell’s guest room “dressed in a Lawrenceville T-shirt and nothing else.” Perhaps these last two are Mitchell’s Detroiter observations more than the novel’s, but they sometimes grate.
I can’t know anything about the author’s process, but The Marriage Plot must have been daunting to visualize and see through after Middlesex, which was built on the rock of historical adventure, unusual genitals, and the American dream. Eugenides has taken a risk with this novel, with his knowing tone and his aggressive syllabus. I found the first page repellent in its presentation of Madeleine’s shelf list — the “Colette novels she read on the sly” and “the first edition of Couples, belonging to her mother, which Madeleine had surreptitiously dipped into back in sixth grade and which she was using now to provide textual support in her English honors thesis…” I was happy when we got to the good stuff, like a hangover.
But Eugenides knows what he is doing. At first, the heavy reading list and ponderous references are pompous, like a student who has done her homework and is trying to drop some pithy stuff into the class discussion. On its face, The Marriage Plot appears to be a novel that mentions a lot of novels without talking about any of them. These facile, knowing references disguise the sly ways that this novel engages with its predecessors.
Eugenides layers his allusions in an exciting and well-concealed way so that viewed from one angle, the novel is a relatively old-fashioned love-triangle cum young adult drama. But the novel is full of parallels and inversions, using its sources on a number of levels. As the novel opens, we look at Madeleine’s shelves, upon which are arranged the novels of Wharton, Austen, Eliot, “and the redoubtable Brontë sisters.” But, it’s immediately clear, Madeleine is no Lily Bart, no Ellen Olenska. She’s May Welland, Emma Woodhouse. As The Marriage Plot continues, she becomes Dorothea Brooke or Jane Eyre.
At the end of her own novel, saintly Jane Eyre tells us that “my time and cares were now required by another — my husband needed them all,” a moment with clear echoes in Eugenides’s book. Jane looks after her maimed husband, but her narrative closes with St. John Rivers, gone to India where he
…clears their painful way to improvement: he hews down like a giant the prejudices of creed and caste that encumber it…His is the ambition of the high master-spirit, which aims to fill a place in the first rank of those who are redeemed from the earth — who stand without fault before the throne of God; who share the last mighty victories of the Lamb; who are called, and chosen, and faithful.
Mitchell’s Calcutta gross-outs, his religious yearnings, his bhang enthusiasms, are a new take on the monastic St. John.
This novel is a surface upon which we might project the other novels we have read; Eugenides invites us so to do. In Calcutta, all Mitchell sees of Mother Teresa are the yellow soles of her feet, and I thought of T.S. Eliot: “You curled the papers from your hair,/ Or clasped the yellow soles of feet/ In the palms of both soiled hands.” Mitchell and Madeleine return from Thanksgiving, “walked together up College Hill, hugged, and parted,” which conjures a vague jumble of 19th century and earlier works in my brain. Every fictional hangover past 1954 owes something to the ur-hangover of Jim Dixon in Lucky Jim. Like Jim, Madeleine has to perform a duty with a blinding hangover after a night of bad sexual decisions. Like Jim, she enlists a person whom she has wronged to help her. The echoes are so subtle I heard them only after I had finished the book. Maybe I’m reaching, but I think the novel encourages us to reach. Eugenides’s characters appear to have read everything; we assume that he has read everything, and more.
I initially wondered if, with this book, Eugenides will alienate readers who are not readers like the readers in his novel. I doubt it, because I’m not a reader like the readers in his novel, not by a long shot, and even without having read Thomas Merton or Deleuze & Guattari I can follow and enjoy a story about a pretty girl, a crazy boy, and a pining best friend.
Madeleine’s Semiotics 211 classmates like the theorists who “wanted a book, that hard-won, transcendent thing, to be a text, contingent, indeterminate, and open for suggestions. They wanted the reader to be the main thing. Because they were readers.” Even though her classmates are silly, they have a point. Like Madeleine, I think of myself as a reading traditionalist, a person who wants “a book to take her places she couldn’t go herself” and who additionally wants “something to happen” to its characters “in a place resembling the world.” As a reader, I make tea with leaves and tea cozies, and as that kind of reader, this book satisfies me. I have to say that for adventure, pizzazz and magic carpet rides, The Marriage Plot doesn’t do it for me like Middlesex. As a book snob, The Marriage Plot does more. I can guess at the references and congratulate myself on recognizing the novel’s technical complexity.
But my opinion is like, problematized, as the Semiotics 211 kids might say. I waited for this book. I waited nine years and I wanted it bad. I rubbed my hands and its pages and fondled it and felt a physical stirring. Getting what you wait for makes the awaited thing both better and worse than it is. Was it good for me, this book? Yeah, it was good. It surprised me; it got me thinking about the things that Eugenides can do as a writer. The poor man doesn’t even get to bask a moment in his achievement before his fans are impatient for the next thing. I begin the long wait anew.
Image credit: Bill Morris/[email protected].
I have been reading restlessly all day today. In bed, on the couch, at the restaurant, at the dining table. I woke up and I finished the last twenty pages of the first movement of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. Without once resorting to poetics or philosophizing, these three volumes managed to touch on so many true things about humans, through upturned sugar bowls, motor car accidents, and comical overcoats. It was magnificent to go to Mrs. Andriadis’s party, which I had to hurriedly leave before I was connected to the agitated Mr. Deacon, who dropped his armload of “War Never Pays!” pamphlets as he pursued Max Pilgrim down the stairs. But as that first movement came to a close, I felt some relief that I was temporarily cut off from Jenkins, Widmerpool, Templer, and Stringham – delicious, Britishy-British names, all of them – until I would be able to get the second movement. I needed a break from so thoroughly living other people’s lives.
I turned to The Archivist, by Martha Cooley. I bought it used at Kultura’s Books, near Dupont Circle, and I did not have high expectations because I had seen the book before, disliking the cover and for some unclear reason, the title. But it was the only book on my bookshelf that seemed an antidote to the hectic pace of the pre-WWII British society that had absorbed me for so many weeks. The Archivist was elegant and it shot me through with poetry.
No light under my fingers.
Where the grey light meets the green air.
Humility is endless.
The memory throws up high and dry
A crowd of twisted things
Most of the poetry Cooley quotes is T.S. Eliot, with sprinklings of LeRoi Jones (or as I know him: Amiri Baraka) and others. I read the book as I walked from lunch to another Washington, DC bookstore, “Second Story Books,” in order to buy a copy of Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” A friend once characterized his relationship with poetry as infrequent, intense, and somewhat involuntary; my relationship is the same. Its ignition is unexpected and, once commenced, frenetic – like the way my dog runs at top speed in tiny circles when I sometimes manage to sneak up on him and poke him in his haunches. This ignition occurs at odd moments: I might be sitting in an office or standing at a party, when I am seized with this need for words in sentences that I don’t have to analyze or fully understand. Cooley describes this feeling better:
For me, reading Eliot’s work is like trying to intercept a butterfly. It comes so close you can see its markings, the luminous wings, and then as you extend a hand it’s gone – hidden among other flickering objects of consciousness. There’s a pleasure in this approximation, I suppose, and even in the failure to apprehend. I don’t mind the obscurity of Eliot’s verse. (What good, after all, is an insect pinned on velvet, gorgeous but dead?)
Although a critic on the back cover calls it a “literary detective story,” the story of archivist Matthias, his relationship to a wife he has to commit to a mental institution, and his safeguarding of a collection of not-yet-public Eliot letters is more a poetic love story. The way Matthias describes meeting his wife, Judith, is irresistible to any romantic who loves words and fancies intellectuals. He meets her in a jazz bar, where she is reading a book of Auden poems. He asks her which poem she is reading and she hands him the open book to read where her finger points. I love this scene for its uncute meet-cute quality, for its spare but punchy dialogue.
At times the book, through Ondaatje-esque short sentences and heavy pauses, is too weighed down by Judith’s depression and Matthias’s detachment. They struggle to maintain their marriage as she becomes violent and obsessed with events following World War II. I grew fidgety in the middle, where the book became the diary that Judith kept while at the mental institution. Matthias and his post-Judith dealings, along with his narration, were more compelling to me. Still, each character is intelligent and lean enough that I forgave them for exploiting my weakness for those Ondaatje-esque short sentences and heavy pauses.
But the real value of the book is its ardent advocacy of poetry, and T.S. Eliot’s poetry in particular. If you were ever forced to read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in high school and you fell in love with those words, then The Archivist will compel you to read them again.
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
And after the all-absorbing society of Powell, after his truths distilled in teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor, I found a different kind of pleasure in Eliot’s painful, beautiful questions and contradictions. I end my day full, in quiet.
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
The “staff picks” shelf in any good independent bookstore is a treasure trove of book recommendations. Unmoored from media hype and even timeliness, these books are championed by trusted fellow readers. With many former (and current) booksellers in our ranks, we offer our own “Staff Picks” in a feature appearing irregularly.The Moves Make the Man by Bruce Brooks recommended by GarthIt’s been a long time since I read this 1984 coming-of-age novel, but its indelible images – the green glass of Mello Yello bottles, the soggy crackers used to make home-ec mock-apple pie, the railroad lantern by whose light the protagonists play night games of pickup basketball – remain seared into my memory. Author Bruce Brooks, a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, combines descriptive mastery with the kind of compassion that can’t be taught. His story of an unlikely friendship also complicates some of our cherished myths about race and privilege. Though The Moves Make the Man, a Newbery Honor winner, might be slotted into young adult and sportswriting and Southern lit categories, it is no more a niche work than The Bluest Eye, or A Fan’s Notes, or To Kill a Mockingbird, in whose illustrious company it belongs.Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler recommended by AndrewRichler’s final novel, Barney’s Version is a savagely funny piece of satire. It’s also quite moving as it sweeps you through one man’s life. Frank and cantankerous, Barney Panofsky lays bare his failed marriages, his work, and his possible crimes and misdemeanors. Somewhat unreliable as a narrator, Barney’s memories are annotated by his son Michael, who provides clarification and correction to his father’s version of events. Whenever I hear that a film adaptation of a beloved novel is in the works, I usually brace myself for disappointment, but with Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman signed on to play the principal roles, I’m actually looking forward to this one.The Strangers and Brothers series by C. P. Snow recommended by LydiaThis sequence of novels, beginning with A Time of Hope, takes place in England from World War One to the sixties. I haven’t actually finished the series; I’ve only gotten through four out of a possible eleven. I’m a finisher, though, with the exception of Moby Dick on tape, The Alexandria Quartet, and Ulysses (fucking Ulysses, actually), so I am hoping for a completion date sometime before the autumn of my years.I was overjoyed to learn of the existence of these books. I love novel series, and it is my dream to find another Dance to the Music of Time. Or at least a Forsyte Saga. Or at the absolute least, the one with the cave bears. As it happens, C. P. Snow sits somewhere on the spectrum between Powell and Auel. The books are not nearly so delightful as Dance to the Music of Time, but I am nevertheless enjoying them quite a bit. They relate the life of a middle-class man of limited means, who rises to great heights in several professions. It’s a good chronicle of several English epochs and the attitudes found therein. The subject matter is not always riveting, but the books are quite readable. I realize that this doesn’t exactly sound like a ringing endorsement, but most of the books I love have already been ringing-ly endorsed by someone else, and these are a step or two off the beaten path. So this is me, endorsing.The Posthuman Dada Guide by Andrei Codrescu recommended by AnneDada wisdom, divined by Andrei Codrescu and dispersed throughout this guide includes: take a pseudonym (or many); embrace spam email as a form of cut-up poetry; and remember that “the only viable Dada is the banished Dada.” Codrescu posits with wit that as creatures of the digital age, whose lives are beholden to IMs, email, iPhones, Google, and Facebook, we have entered a posthuman era where employing Dada’s nonsense actually makes sense. Beginning with an imagined chess game in 1916 Zurich between Dada founder and poet Tristan Tzara and revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, Codrescu traces Dada from its nascence to show how Tzara and his rabble-rousers usurped and altered the course of twentieth-century thought. Dada resists meaning and revels in absurdity, and Codrescu would be the first to acknowledge this book doesn’t provide a list of how-to’s but rather resembles a nautical map that charts the currents of our times. “It is not advisable, nor was it ever, to lead a Dada life,” Codrescu warns. And for that reason alone, you just might want to try it.The Magnificent Mrs. Tennant by David Waller recommended by EmilyHow delightful to find a learned book that wears its scholarliness lightly: David Waller’s lovely new biography of the Victorian grande dame and salonniere Gertrude Tennant is such a book. Because the magnificent subject of Waller’s book lived from the end of the age of Jane Austen through the First World War, and lived both in France and in England, her biography offers a sort of intimate history of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – its personalities and intellectual and cultural history. The famous and controversial explorer Henry Morton Stanley attended Mrs. Tennant’s salons (the horrors of his expeditions to Africa are thought to have been among Conrad’s models for Heart of Darkness), as did Labor Prime Minister William Gladstone, the famous Victorian painter John Everett Millais, and literary luminaries like Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Gustave Flaubert, Victor Hugo, Henry James, Robert Browning, and Ivan Turgenev.Her acquaintance was a motley of all the aesthetic and intellectual trends of the age: Imperialist explorers, socialists, anarchists, ex-emperors, Romantic and realist novelists, mediums and experts in telepathy all passed through Mrs. Tennant’s drawing room. Her allure as a biographical subject, however, is not limited to her extensive acquaintance: Tennant’s ability to balance her absolute commitments to her husband and children with her gifts for friendship and graciousness and her interest in social and cultural life reveal a more nuanced view of the age, and of the possibilities available to Victorian women. Tennant was a cosmopolitan, a woman of the world, and “an angel in the house” (as the Victorian ideal of wifely and motherly virtue came to be known). Waller trusts Tennant to express herself; he quotes extensively from her diaries and letters. Her voice is earnest, warm, unpretentious, intelligent, loving. You will be glad to have met her. And you will see, through her life, a more refined view of English nineteenth century social and intellectual history.
Arthur Phillips is the bestselling author of The Egyptologist and Prague, which was a New York Times Notable Book and winner of the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. His most recent novel, Angelica, comes out in paperback in February.I admit to having bought a book for its cover. For years I had seen the four spines of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time lined up on bookstore shelves and admired them, wished the spines – which together form a Poussin painting – were up on my own. And so I bought the first book, dove in for no reason except coveting the covering, without having any idea what I was about to read.I emerged from the fourth volume six months later, having read nothing but Powell in the intervening time, and having completed one of the great reading experiences of my life, truly distraught that it was over.Pretentious claim, for which I apologize, but here it is: a few years earlier, I read the whole damn In Search of Lost Time (or whatever you want to call it), and the payoff at its end, after all the toil and pleasure, is no more powerful than a similar payoff at the end of Powell. You finish both with the sensation of having spent a long lifetime at the side of the narrator. You have the same feeling of nostalgia, profundity, passing years, lives led and finished, the power of a master of letters guiding you to the illusion of lived experience.That said, Powell is also funny, really funny, which is a claim I do not think can be made for Proust without straining something – credulity or a groin muscle.More from A Year in Reading 2007