In “Hunger Was Good Discipline,” from A Moveable Feast, Hemingway writes about his short story “Out of Season”:
I had omitted the real ending of it which was that the old man hanged himself. This was omitted on my new theory that you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.
In a recent interview with Jennifer Egan at Guernica, the interviewer mentions a review of Egan’s 2006 novel The Keep in which the reviewer, Maureen McClarnon of Booklsut, declared the ending section unnecessary:
The Keep is easily the best book I’ve read all year. Actually, allow me one small qualification: it’s the best if one disregards the last section […] the book has this excellent ending, but what’s with all of those extra pages? What, an entire extra section? […] I don’t think it was necessary, or that it made the book stronger; the last section is there to tie up some loose narrative ends that could have been left dangling. If the reader has fully bought in to the whole willing suspension of disbelief package for the duration of the book, why burst the bubble?
The Guernica interviewer added that “most readers I’ve spoken with disagree.” Egan’s response to the review: “Whatever. To me, there was no question that it was the right thing to do. And it was probably the hardest part of the book to write.”
During the dark days of revising and seeking publication for my novel, Long for This World, a friend and veteran (former) literary editor read the manuscript and encouraged me with her praise. I remember in particular her saying, “The ending is one of the strongest and most memorable I’ve read,” which I was especially glad to hear, because the ending felt right to me as well. During the Q&A at a recent reading, I called on a woman sitting in the far back who shouted boldly: “I really enjoyed the book, but I hit the ending like a brick wall. It felt unfinished.” To which I replied, “Um, well, I… guess it’s always better to leave people wanting for more?”
Christopher Allen Walker wrote here at The Millions: “It is as if writers are compelled to sacrifice their characters to the reader’s need for catharsis and redemption, found in the resolution of the plot.” If there is such thing as an “average reader” – and I’m not sure there is – then perhaps, yes, a survey would show that resolution is preferred over open-endedness. And yet my examples above show that readers (and writers) are quite mixed on this. Even Hemingway has fans and detractors, particularly in regards to his stories, the endings of which do sometimes feel like an amputated limb whose corporal existence lingers as a ghost-like sensation.
It’s tempting to imagine a linear spectrum of ending “types,” with tied-up-in-a-bow on one end, chopped-off-with-a-blunt-ax on the other. But really, there are so many different kinds of literary endings. What constitutes “satisfying” for different readers? I wonder if a particular reader tends to enjoy one kind of ending across the board, or is there a more complex alchemy of writer and reader that happens, book by book? As readers, do writers prefer the same kinds of endings that they write?
Picasso said that a great work of art comes together “just barely.” I’ve always loved this quote, because it implies that a work of art is a whole thing, as opposed to an assemblage of component parts. I’m guessing Jennifer Egan did not think of her ending as modular; in other words, she didn’t consider it “an ending” at all, but rather “the last XX pages of the work.” Often, when advising writing students about endings, I suggest that if the ending isn’t quite working, the revision needs to be focused somewhere earlier on, not as much (and certainly not exclusively) on the last section, page, or paragraph.
That said, all this brings to mind an interesting example of an artist working toward an ending: the DVD of Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love includes outtake scenes, most of which are alternate versions of a particular middle section, and of the ending. Each of these scenes represents a drastically different ultimate emotional affect, and the mixing and matching of them does feel a bit like modular-furniture rearrangement (an apt metaphor for a filmmaker whose aesthetic is very designerly). Is the forbidden-love relationship between the main characters one of 1. (passionate) consummation or 2. (passionate) abstention? If the latter, does the tension/longing stay with 1. both characters long into the future, or 2. just with one of them? Do the characters 1. reunite or 2. never cross paths again? If the former, is it by chance or by design, and, either way, what is the emotional tenor / ultimate implication of that reunion? Wong shot many different possibilities; it seems he needed to play them out in order to decide. As much as I loved the film as is, watching all these possibilities and “doing the math” afterwards feels like the appropriate complete experience; it makes doubly clear that the final version — the most minimal and the most poignant — is the right one, the best one.
Here are some adjectives I often hear applied to endings:
surprise / twist
heartbreaking / tear-jerking
cheesy / sentimental
Following are a few of my own favorite kinds of endings and some examples:
Endings that make you go, HOW did the writer DO that? and thus make you want to re-read immediately:
“The Point” by Charles D’Ambrosio, “Safari” by Jennifer Egan, and Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates each does something at the end that feels like a stomach-turning shift, and yet it works; you are jarred, but just the right amount. In writing classes, these endings are sometimes described as “surprising but inevitable.” (This is perhaps the most common type of successful ending, so I’ll unpack it a bit.)
In “The Point,” an adolescent narrator whom you’ve been with for 15 pages reveals/confesses something shocking to you. The narrative tone also shifts abruptly, from wry/humorous/lyrical to unflinching and direct. You should feel strong-armed by the author, but you don’t; you realize this is just what you’ve been wanting to know, and in just this voice, all along.
In “Safari,” Egan’s omniscient narrator flashes forward from a present time in which the main characters are children, to a crystal-ball future. It’s disturbing, both in terms of what is revealed in the crystal ball, and also in terms of the reader’s stability; somebody is spinning the room on its horizontal axis, has switched your flat screen for a 3D Imax. When the narration returns to the present, you feel the buzz of the spin, but your feet re-plant on the ground; it works beautifully.
In Revolutionary Road, at the very end of the novel, we finally get the female protagonist’s (April Wheeler’s) narrative point of view. Just for a moment – and at just the right moment – we are right inside her head. As with “The Point,” we realize it’s what we’ve wanted all along, and we marvel that the writer has engendered that craving, over the previous 200-some pages, at a slow simmer, so skillfully.
Endings that leave you speechlessly marooned in emotion / sensation:
John Cheever’s “Goodbye, My Brother,” and James Salter’s “Last Night” jolt you out of intellect into something you can’t think your way through or out of. Cheever does this with that stunning final image:
I saw their uncovered heads, black and gold in the dark water. I saw them come out and I saw that they were naked, unshy, beautiful, and full of grace, and I watched the naked women walk out of the sea.
Salter does it with an ostensibly neat and tidy closing paragraph that creates so much dissonance vis-a-vis the emotional disturbances of the story thus far (an affair, an assisted-suicide gone wrong), you find yourself trapped in a kind of feeling-thinking purgatory, your response relegated (arguably elevated) to the realm of pure sense.
Endings that cannot be summed up in words:
Certainly there are literary examples of this, but Kelly Reichardt’s film Wendy and Lucy comes to mind first. Perhaps this is a dog owner’s thing, but I remember a friend describing to me the ending, trying to reassure me (since I have low tolerance for dead-dog movies). “You’ll be all right,” she said. “Lucy [the dog] comes out just fine.” This is correct, strictly speaking, but there is nothing “just fine” about the ending of this movie. It’s emotionally and narratively understated, but wrenchingly sad; nowhere near “just fine.”
Endings That Can Be Interpreted in More Than One Way:
When very different readings of an ending can be equally resonant, that’s what I call masterful. I am thinking of Walter Kirn’s story “Hoaxer,” a coming-of-age story in which a boy’s ambivalent relationship with his unstable father comes to a head. On an outing with his father, the boy commits a definitive act; the act could be interpreted as a door-closing rejection, or as a claim on intimacy/connection. Either reading is both moving and disturbing in light of the story’s intricate characterizations to that point. Amazing. The other example that comes to mind is Hemingway’s notorious six-word story, which, according to Peter Miller, came about in this way:
Ernest Hemingway was lunching at the Algonquin, sitting at the famous “round table” with several writers, claiming he could write a six-word-long short story. The other writers balked. Hemingway told them to ante up ten dollars each. If he was wrong, he would match it; if he was right, he would keep the pot. He quickly wrote six words on a napkin and passed it around. The words were: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
Of course, the question the reader is left with is, why were the shoes never worn? There are countless ways to read this “ending,” mostly tragic; and yet anything from miscarriage (tragedy) to mis-gendering (comedy) could explain it. As gimmicky and over-quoted as this story has become, it really is brilliant; inclusion and omission working together perfectly.
Endings you can’t even remember because the rest of the book/story was so good:
The unmemorable ending is sometimes a work’s strength. I feel this way about Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides (and I read this very recently), which is memorable for every gorgeous sentence and image, and for its dream-like, first-person-plural voice; decidedly not for its narrative Whodunnit or Whydunnit or even Howdunnit (a penultimate suicide scene). The novel doesn’t so much bring you to “an ending” as it does absorb you deeply all throughout, in an experience of language and longing, mystery and unknowing (reopening the book just now, though, I must admit that the last sentence is quite beautiful). I experienced Roberto Bolaño’s story collection Last Evenings on Earth, in a similar way. I would never describe a Bolaño story by saying, “This happens, then this, then it ends like this.” The stories seem to end for no other reason than that the story has now been told and there’s no more to tell; the “action” is in the story-telling itself, the rich emotional and psychological interplay between the Narrator and the Narrated.
How to end an essay about endings? Hmm… at this point, I take off my reader’s hat and don my writer’s (in this case, it’s a Chilean chupalla — a cheap imitation, of course). I suspect that writer and reader will often part ways when it comes to endings (even in the same person). As a writer, I tend to have more questions than answers with regard to my characters, my story, my subject. Will this satisfy the reader? The writer never knows, sometimes does not particularly care. In this case, my considerations have run their course. The End.
[Image credit: Tiago Ribeiro]
Behind my desk, in my bedroom, there is a large bookcase divided into 25 cubes. On the wall facing my desk there are three bookshelves. Instead of a table, there is also a shelf at my bedside. Beside my desk is an additional bookcase, the Billy model from Ikea, with six shelves. All this shelf space amounts to about 56 feet.
I have turned my attention to my bookshelves and not what stand on them because I am reorganizing my personal library. I need to know how much space I have for my books, in order to accommodate the existing space for a logical, efficacious, and personalized classification system for the books I own, which currently amount to just short of 500 volumes. My endeavor, of course, is not a very great one. I do have a considerable number of books, but by no means is my collection large or unwieldy. I’m only 20, and as such my library is not a lifetime’s library — it is only the nucleus of a true library, with burgeoning interests, mistakes, discoveries, a few treasures, and several shortcomings.
As for the organization of the books, well, I must say that in its current state the classification is far from optimal. Most of last semester’s books are still on the shelf above my desk and deserve integration with the rest of my collection, instead of groupings by course reading material. My French books are all together in the Billy bookcase, which results in separating the Penguin edition of Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 and Other Stories, 1892-1895 from the French translation of Chekhov’s (or, as it were, Tchekhov’s) plays, published by Folio in two paperback volumes.
Similarly, the current state of my books creates rifts between ideas and eras, or tensions where there shouldn’t be any. For instance my enormous paperback of Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems lies on a shelf above my desk because I was too lazy to make room for it in the cubes. Thus Ginsberg is a room apart from his friend Kerouac (if their belonging to the Beats shouldn’t be enough to bring them together, Ginsberg even took the pictures on the cover of On the Road, which I think calls for neighboring spots on my shelves). In the cubes there are other inconsistencies: Junot Díaz is between the single volume Chronicles of Narnia and Anne Michaels; Hemingway shares his shelf with Amitav Ghosh, Toni Morrison, and Nabokov — I can’t think of any reason why those authors should rub covers.
Likewise, when I see Eco’s The Name of the Rose on one shelf and his collection of essays On Literature on the opposite wall, I know it is time to take all the books out, dust off the shelves, and start again from scratch.
The first step in reorganizing my personal library is finding a system. Of this, there are many, some more improvised than others. In his bible of bibliomania, The Library at Night, Alberto Manguel explores the different facets of the library, and also the different ways to organize books. For his own collection of 30,000 books, which he keeps in his château in France, Manguel has chosen to divide his books by language, and then place them alphabetically. Rather drab for me, I think, considering the small size of my own book collection.
Some book collectors have been more original. Take Samuel Pepys for instance, the great 17th century diarist, who maintained a personal library (which still exists) of 3,000 books exactly, not a volume more. What is, perhaps, the most astounding feature of Pepys’ library is the way in which the books were organized: by size. All his volumes were numbered from 1 to 3,000, from smallest to biggest, and placed in that order in his bookcases, each volume bound in matching leather, and each book resting on a little wooden stilt matching the cover, to create unity in height — gentlemanly elegance.
What may be acknowledged about any organizational system is that they all have certain limitations. Even the Dewey Decimal System, used by the majority of public libraries in the world — which divides human knowledge into ten decimals, in turn subdivided into ten categories, and so on — is limited when it comes to books with split subjects (take the excellent Time Among the Maya, by Ronald Wright, which is part travel journal in Mesoamerica, part history book on the Mayas).
But I am looking for a more intuitive organizational system, something flexible and creative. An article in The Guardian’s online book section discussed “bookshelf etiquette,” organizational systems like grouping books by theme or color. One of the propositions was to place books together by potential for their authors to be friends. I choose a different path: all of an author’s books are together (no matter the language), authors that go well together go together, other books are placed by association of genre or style. I will start with that in mind, and see where it brings me.
I remove books from my shelves. I grab multiple spines between my thumb and fingers, slide out the volumes and pile them on my desk, on the floor — soon my room is like a messy cave of paper and multicolored covers and spines. The wall behind my desk is bland, covered in empty cubes, spacious and clean. I am reminded of a time, not so long ago, when my entire book collection did not even fit on the six shelves of a Billy bookcase.
As I take the books out of their bookcases, crack open a few to see if the words inside still have the same ring, and admire the beauty of some covers, I start to understand that there are some books I do no want anymore. There is a vital difference between books you do not need and books you no longer want to have. I would willingly keep a book I hated if it had a nice cover (and I do, like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes, a silly collection of short stories with a stunning, elegant cover). The books I am ready to give away are books I don’t care about: they are ugly, I have had them for too long, I have never read them and never will — they simply become a waste of space.
Take How to Read Novels Like a Professor, a paperback I bought a couple of years ago, in an attempt to uncover some of literature’s secrets before entering University. I drop the book with the other giveaways. A few days later I pick it up again and this passage catches my attention: “Books lead to books, ideas to ideas. You can wear out a hundred hammocks and never reach the end. And that’s the good news.” I certainly agree with that. No English major would be supposed to be caught dead with such a preposterously titled book in their library, and maybe that’s the reason why I wanted to give it away in the first place. I decide to keep it in my collection after all — for now.
In the end I’ve put aside two dozen books in the giveaway pile. By no means am I kidding myself that I’m actually getting rid of a large chunk of my library. I admire people who are able to rid themselves of books they love, give books away selflessly so that others can enjoy them. I know I could never do such a thing.
I admit, with a hint of guilt, that I have not read all the books I own. Not even close. The majority of them, yes (I hope), but far from all of them. Despite the incredible amount of reading left for me to do before I really know my library, almost every week I buy more books.
Part of the problem lies in my appreciation for books as objects, as elegant collectibles. I like not only to read them, but to look at them, touch them. Larry McMurtry has phrased it rather elegantly in his memoir, titled simply, Books:
But there can be secondary and tertiary reasons for wanting a particular book. One is the pleasure of holding the physical book itself: savoring the type, the binding, the book’s feel and heft. All these things can be enjoyed apart from literature, which some, but not all, books contain.
While I have shelves full of books I have not read at home, I keep on thinking about which books I’m going to buy next. Although minor, this problem does create a fair amount of anxiety, essentially caused by the fact that I simply don’t read enough. Furthermore, as I reorganize my books I realize there are many I would like to reread soon. (At the top of my list: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows…) Sometimes I wish I were that man in the Twilight Zone episode who finds himself in the ruins of a public library, with lots of food and all the time in the world to read all the books he wants.
My library is also the most personal of filing systems, with countless mementos flattened between the covers of the books. There is a card from a blood-drive marking a page in Greenblatt’s biography of Shakespeare, reminding me of when I can give blood again. I slam away the congratulations card from the English department of my college which awarded me a prize in Shakespeare studies (oddly, the quote on the card is by Anaïs Nin) in the bard’s complete works (leatherbound, gold page edges). A business card from the Winding Staircase, a charming Dublin bookstore, falls out of De Niro’s Game, which I read in Ireland. Between my Oscar Wildes I find a touching card from my parents, given to me when I turned 18. I choose a better place for it: between the pages of a book on self-fashioning in the Renaissance they bought for me at Shakespeare and Company, in Paris, a place I have only been to in my dreams.
I have finally emptied all my shelves. It was long — and tedious. Not in the physical sense, but in one that is, of sorts, moral. Removing all those books was the undoing of something that was set, a collection which, it seems, had built itself up, slowly, purposefully, into a cohesive whole. The work of an oyster.
After the toil of the unmaking, now I have to rebuild my library up — restock the shelves that now stand cleared, poised, filled only with light and shadows. After some consideration, the first book I place back on the top left cube, is Beowulf, masterfully translated by Seamus Heaney, the beginning of literature in English. I have to rifle down the spines of a few piles before I finally locate it.
Next up goes Tolkien. I cannot resist — without him I’m not sure Beowulf would even be taught in schools at all. His translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, first, to soften the transition, and then The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Tree and Leaf, and The Children of Hurin. Then I place Herodotus, whom my girlfriend assures me thinks exactly like Tolkien. I am startled by my audacity. There is a jump from 10th century Anglo-Saxon manuscript to 20th Century fantasy writer to the father of history, a fifth-century Greek — my system is either creative or blasphemous.
My girlfriend came to help me. Her presence was motivating — I have done more work in half an hour than in the last week. The Canterbury Tales are inserted between Beowulf and Tolkien by her recommendation, I add Peter Ackroyd’s The Clerkenwell Tales beside it. A cube inspired by military history starts with Thucydides and ends with a biography on George Washington — yet George Orwell, Alan Moore, and Annie Proulx all end up on it by association. From the look in my girlfriend’s eyes I know she thinks this is starting to look like a madman’s library. Nothing new there, bibliomania is a psychological disorder, I am told.
Putting Sylvia Plath with her husband Ted Hughes feels wrong, so we try to find a new lover for her. I think of Byron as a joke, my girlfriend proposes Mary Shelley as a fellow tortured female writer. The offer is accepted and Plath serves as transition into gothic fiction. Ironically, Byron ends up just after Shelley anyway (they shared more than shelf-space in their lives, after all), and before Polidori and Stoker. Books start to place themselves on their own.
There is a cube for my books about books: Anne Fadiman and Manguel, Borges (which I can no longer dissociate from the latter), 501 Must-Read Books, A Gentle Madness, The Companionship of Books, and others go here. There is a cube, or half of it, at least, for Faber friends: Eliot, Hughes, Graham Swift, Kazuo Ishiguro. Edgy writers (Bukowski, Tony O’Neill, Mark SaFranco, Writing at the Edge) share their cube with erotic fiction (The Gates of Paradise, Delta of Venus, the Marquis de Sade, Wetlands by Charlotte Roche, La vie sexuelle de Catherine M.) — Neil Strauss buffers between them.
I go on like this, a few minutes every day. Slowly, surely, books leave my floor, my desk, my bed, my bathroom, and regain their place on the shelves in some kind of order. Some associations are obvious — others, not so much.
Finally the cubes are filled again. I can breathe a bit more in my bedroom. I enjoy looking at the neat rows of spines, follow the literary path of my own twisted organization system. Still, there are many flaws on my shelves, mainly caused by lack of room (or perhaps because the number of books is too great). Some books just don’t “fit” anywhere, others would go well in too many places. Ian McEwan, for instance, ends up sharing his shelf with female writers like Doris Lessing, Emily Brontë, and Virginia Woolf. I have to think of the shelves as a work in progress in order to live with their limitations.
Then, of course, there are also some things I love about the new shelf-arrangement: the various degrees of moral and social incorrectness in the cube that starts with Oscar Wilde, then moves to Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence; how A Moveable Feast rubs covers with John Glassco’s Memoirs of Montparnasse; and that His Dark Materials finally stands beside my three editions of Paradise Lost.
Over my desk I place essays on philosophy and literature. My heavy anthologies — costly books with a fair amount of repetition (parts of The Canterbury Tales appear in at least three of them) and some textbooks I keep as reference — go in the sturdy Billy. I also shelve my art books there, like my Janson’s History of Art, as well as some exhibition catalogues, which map out my travels: the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, the Ivan Mestrovic Gallery in Split.
Lastly, I put back my books in French. I keep them together, two compact shelves of ivory spines. I have always wondered at the uniformity of French covers, often white, usually bland. I start with Don Quixote, move down to Alexandre Dumas, the Arsène Lupins which belonged to my father, then Québecois literature. The next shelf is mostly from France: Sartre, Camus, Flaubert, and Littell (which I put beside the latter because of the masterful description in Les Bienveillantes of the narrator reading L’Éducation sentimentale as he walks through fields devastated by war), and contemporary authors like Makine, Folco, and Pennac.
Now my shelves are full again, or almost. I have given away enough books to leave two empty shelves — one in the Billy and the topmost shelf above my desk — waiting to be filled by new acquisitions (which certainly won’t be long in coming).
This adventure in bookshelf etiquette helped me take control of my library, rediscover what I have, solidify my appreciation for my books — the majority of which are probably going to follow me for the rest of my life. I have realized how many books I own but have not read (The Portrait of a Lady, Nicholas Nickleby, War and Peace, Beyond Black…), but I know that I am not quite ready for some of them, and they can wait a while longer. I dream of owning and reading all of Atwood, Munro, Updike. There are many books I should own but do not: I have nothing by J.M. Coetzee, or Ovid, or Paul Auster. I have Bolaño’s 2666, but not the Savage Detectives; Waugh’s Vile Bodies but not Brideshead Revisited; Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, but not Love in the Time of Cholera. My book collection is full of hopes and holes.
Thus I have a second library, in my mind, of which my real, physical book collection is only the tip (to use that famous iceberg metaphor). Underneath my shelves lie all the books I want, all the books I should have (dictated by the canon, or recommendations from friends and famous people), all the books I need, like Borges’ fabulous Library of Babel, extending out into book-lined room after book-lined room, infinitely.
Now, you will have to excuse me, but I have to stop this business — I have some reading to do.
[Image source: Stewart Butterfield]
The most memorable book I read last summer was Yiyun Li’s visionary novel, The Vagrants. I had read and admired her story collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, but I was not prepared for the novel. It’s emotionally brutal—a novel of China’s post-Mao era that doesn’t squander its extraordinary authority on a falsely redemptive plot or a reportorial nod to the future. It reads as if the writer deliberately and strategically cast aside all human experience irrelevant to its dark and unrelenting vision.
My family and I spent two months this early autumn in France. During our time there, I read and reread books set in Paris, from Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon to Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. The book that most surprised me was The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen. I’ve read her essay on writing novels a million times, and I’d somehow assumed that the fiction itself would be less interesting. As it turns out, the novel is gorgeous, moving, and revelatory. The book tells the story of a love affair and its consequences in a time when such affairs were socially, physically, and emotionally perilous. Really, it’s about passion—and the consequences of passion in a world not long ago.
Right now I’m rereading The Brothers Karamazov for the fourth time. I highly recommend the Richard Pevear/Larissa Volokhonsky translation. This book is so long, and contains such startling characters, and explores its message in so many ways, that I don’t seem to be able to hold all of it in my head at the same time. So each time I reread it I actually do feel I’m rediscovering it, and each time I’m in awe of the work.
It starts out innocently. I recommend Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. “I think you’d like Johnson,” I say, after reading one of his short story drafts. “The violence and the tenderness together. ‘Emergency’ will knock you out.” He’s never read Johnson before. I know it will knock him out.
It does (of course). He can’t stop talking about it. I introduce him to some of Johnson’s poetry. What else? he asks. Meaning: more, more, I want to be knocked out again.
We’d talked about minimalism. I recommend Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. He is European, so I am sure he’s read it, but he hasn’t. Again, he loves it. What else? Now I have cred. Now we’re rolling.
He goes back to Europe. The email exchanges begin. He sends me “In Memory of My Feelings” by Frank O’Hara. I send him Galway Kinnell’s “The Bear.” Don’t be intimidated by Kierkegaard, he writes, start with the Diapsalmata. And Proust goes fast, once you get into it. Read Sherwood Anderson, I write. Winesburg, Ohio.
Then David Foster Wallace dies, and we both read Consider the Lobster before even mentioning it to one another. What a coincidence. The Dostoevsky essay. Yes, yes, the Dostoevsky essay.
Rilke creeps in (of course he does). He reads Letters to a Young Poet, I read On Love and Other Difficulties. It all comes together in Rilke, he writes. It crystallizes. Yes, I write, Rilke goes his own way, beauty and goodness are one – not sequential, not interdependent, but one.
More Hemingway. I find him unanalyzable, I write. The greatest work is like that, don’t you think? I read For Whom the Bell Tolls and quote this passage:
Then there was the smell of heather crushed and the roughness of the bent stalks under her head and the sun bright on her closed eyes and all his life he would remember the curve of her throat with her head pushed back into the heather roots and her lips that moved smally and by themselves and the fluttering of the lashes on the eyes tight closed against the sun and against everything, and for her everything was red, orange, gold-red from the sun on the closed eyes, and it all was that color, all of it, the filling, the possessing, the having, all of that color, all in a blindness of that color. For him it was a dark passage which led to nowhere, then to nowhere, then again to nowhere, once again to nowhere, always and forever to nowhere, heavy on the elbows in the earth to nowhere, dark, never any end to nowhere, hung on all time always to unknowing nowhere, this time and again for always to nowhere, now not to be borne once again always and to nowhere, now beyond all bearing up, up, up and into nowhere, suddenly, scaldingly, holdingly all nowhere gone and time absolutely still and they were both there, time having stopped and he felt the earth move out and away from under them.
My God, I write, what is there to say? Yes, he writes back, I could not have stated it better, the way pure language leaves you speechless; I feel exactly the same way.
For two months, neither of us writes. His father is ill, my manuscript is due. An awkward, quiet phase, during which I slog through The Brothers Karamazov (can’t seem to keep my head in the game – guilt, theology, melodrama. Too much, too much…). He writes again, responds to my last email in which I complained about the Twilight phenomenon in the US. There are so many other better guilty pleasures, I’d written – Edith Wharton, Balzac, Palahniuk and Pelecanos. Yes, he writes, recalling a particular page-turning summer of his youth: Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Borges’ A Universal History of Iniquity. All mind-blowing, all in one week.
Then, a small thing I notice – a reference to the Norwegian writer Erlend Loe, which he’d recommended some time before, maybe more than once. When you get to it… he writes. That book really changed my life. When I get to it. In the back of my mind – a tiny thought, barely perceptible – I think: when am I ever going to get to Erlend Loe, when I’ve got Jean Rhys, Bolaño, Toni Morrison, and Tolstoy on the nightstand? I think also about whether I’d ever say such a thing: That book changed my life.
He writes that The Name of the World – a minor Johnson novel I’d recommended as an alternative to Tree of Smoke – didn’t speak to him, but Douglas Coupland is wrecking him. I write that since it was the scene in The Name of the World where the narrator has an atheistic epiphany (he is sitting in church and realizes, ecstatically, that he doesn’t believe in God) that really got me, I’d be interested in Coupland’s Life After God. But really, I only half mean it. In the back of my mind, I think: I am too old for it.
I don’t know exactly how old he is, likely a few years younger than I; but now I begin to wonder just how many years.
He’s reading more David Foster Wallace, sings the cultic praises of Kerouac (I roll my eyes a little). He raves about Lars von Trier (ok, but Breaking the Waves made me literally vomit). I recommend In Bruges – Martin McDonagh is kind of a genius, I write – which he watches and then reports back as “odd” and “all falling apart at the end.” We both agree that “Sonny’s Blues” is indeed a masterpiece.
I don’t hear from him for over a month. I do google searches on Erlend Loe and read this at 3000 Books:
If Tao Lin is the self-referential, disaffected freak-pop on the literary twenty-something’s jukebox, then Erlend Loe is the guy sitting in the corner at the piano, picking out notes that eventually turn into a tune.
I add Life After God to my goodreads.com to-read list.
I think: what the hell am I doing?
He writes again, back from travels. I decide to throw in a curve ball, just to see what happens. Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living by the Australian novelist Carrie Tiffany is the best book no one’s ever heard of, I write. I happen to believe this, but I don’t imagine he’ll agree. For good measure, I add: Have you seen Superbad? I could watch that movie over and over again. (This, too, is true.)
I think: what the hell am I doing?
The next I hear from him the email is short. He has deadlines to meet. He is planning a trip to Berlin for work, then Venice with his girlfriend.
You must bring Death in Venice along for the trip, I write.
Ah, yes, it’s been years, he writes. I suspect it holds up over time.
I suspect it does, I write. One of the great literary endings. The decrepit Aschenbach, slumped over in a beach chair, that final reverie of youth and eros.
He asks me if I am on Facebook.
I write yes.
Let’s be Facebook friends.
Yes, let’s. (My mind flashes to all the profile photos of me and J. – grilling fish on the porch, gussied up for a film opening, canvassing for Obama.)
I read on about Erlend Loe: “Naive.Super is a tiny charmer, a ripe fig that falls out of a budget store Christmas cracker onto your toe. Sure, it’s 12 years old, but it remains a fresh antithesis to the meta-literary swagger of the 21st century, an antidote to superanalysis and overcomplexity.” I think: that sounds refreshing. And J. might like it, even though he generally prefers nonfiction. I click, moving it from my wish list into the shopping cart.
On the last Sunday in November, book critic Adam Begley scooped Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd for the top spot in the New York Times most emailed list. Not with a review though. Instead, he wrote an excellent piece about Florence for the travel section, in which he recommended E.M. Forster’s Room with a View as a kind of literary guidebook to the city. The Florence piece came several months after Begley employed the same tactic to tour Sicily, that time with Giuseppe de Lampedusa’s The Leopard in his pocket.Those two pieces inspired me to think about other novel-city pairings. Last June, The Millions ran a guest post from novelist Joan Silber, in which she detailed some of her favorite books for enriching a trip abroad. Here I have something slightly different in mind: novels that allow you to follow Forster’s advice to leave the guidebook at home (and instead replace it with a great work of fiction). So, without further ado:The American southwest: Try Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House for its stark descriptions of a New Mexico mesa.If you don’t know Boston already, let Henry James introduce you with The Bostonians, his story of love and politics in the 19th-century city.It feels cheap, I know, to make John Grisham your tour guide, but I devoured The Client on a boat trip up the Amazon and don’t regret it a bit. If, for some reason you’re looking to weigh down your trip to Brazil, go with Claude Levi-Strauss’ Tristes and TropiquesSee the Windy City through the eyes of Dreiser’s classic Sister Carrie, which renders a teeming, if not always hospitable portrait of Chicago.I like Graham Greene for Cuba, with Our Man in Havana. Greene recurs a lot in this list, so in order to get it out of the way all at once: London (The End of the Affair); Mexico (The Lawless Roads or The Power and the Glory); Switzerland (Doctor Fischer of Geneva); Vienna (The Third Man); Vietnam (The Quiet American)There’s still no better guide to Dublin than James Joyce (The Dubliners).Greece: Bring along The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller.E.M. Forster’s good for Florence. He’s also good for intrigue in colonial India: A Passage to India.It’s always a decision, do you want to see a place through the eyes of a perceptive foreigner or a local? In Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and The City you get both.Jerusalem: Mark Twain voyages to the ancient capital in The Innocents Abroad. How can you resist?London: OMG. Ready to party? Try and keep up with Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. A jaded post-colonial? Nick Hornby’s About a Boy. Prefer to delve into immigrant life? Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Or, if you take your London straight up, there’s no better pour than Bleak House by Dickens.Try Joan Didion’s Miami if you have half a mind not to come back.I can think of nothing finer than New York in the hands of E.B. White: Here is New York.Paris: Again, are you going for the expat experience or the genuine article? If the former, go with James’ Portrait of a Lady or Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. But for my money, see the city like a native. Stendahl’s The Red and the Black.The great Russian novels are like a trip abroad no matter where you read them. Try Crime and Punishment or Gogol’s “The Nose” and “The Overcoat” for St. Petersburg.Switzerland has inspired some great books in addition to the aforementioned Greene. There is Twain again with A Tramp Abroad and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.I conclude the list with wanderlust. Books and foreign places are a fitting pair. There will always be more of both than there is time. This is of course anything but an exhaustive list. I’d love to hear what books you recommend in lieu of a tour guide.
The first half of 2007 was a Dark Age of reading for me. Virtually every time I sat down with even the most promising book, my mind would float to the massive Redesign project headaches we were having at the newspaper. I couldn’t relax, I couldn’t get drawn in. I was in the wrong frame of mind to read. I was in the frame of mind to brood.And then, as things do, the darkness cleared, and a new age of enlightenment began. And I began to read and absorb as if I’d just regained my sight. I began with Michael Chabon, an author I’d only heard of at that point. Very quickly I devoured two collections of short stories and three of his novels. His first novel, Mysteries of Pittsburgh and the collection A Model World introduced me to his storytelling and Wonder Boys and, especially, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay showed me the full depth and breadth of his writing.Other highlights of the year include George Saunders’ Pastoralia, a fiction collection brimming with wit and insight, and A Field Guide To The North American Family, the illustrated novella from my Millions cohort Garth Risk Hallberg, whose intertwined tale of the Hungate and Harrison families, with its tight prose – somehow simultaneously economical and gloriously open, and its shifting point-of-view and tone, and thematically-linked photos, is nothing short of fascinating, both in concept and execution.And capping the year, on the heels of my Hemingwayesque sojourn in Paris, was a re-read of A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway’s memoir of his formative years in 1920s Paris. Each vignette reads as a precise, evocative short story, and the collection is not only my favorite memoir of that era, but also my favorite Hemingway book. And my top read of 2007.More from A Year in Reading 2007
There’s an old Woody Allen nightclub routine, dating back to his stand-up days in the mid-60s, that goes a little like this:”I was in Europe many years ago with Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway had just written his first novel, and Gertrude Stein and I read it, and we said that is was a good novel, but not a great one, and that it needed some work, but it could be a fine book. And we laughed over it. Hemingway punched me in the mouth.That winter Picasso lived on the Rue d’Barque, and he had just painted a picture of a naked dental hygienist in the middle of the Gobi Desert. Gertrude Stein said it was a good picture, but not a great one, and I said it could be a fine picture. We laughed over it and Hemingway punched me in the mouth.Francis Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald came home from their wild New Years Eve party. It was April. Scott had just written Great Expectations, and Gertrude Stein and I read it, and we said it was a good book, but there was no need to have written it, ’cause Charles Dickens had already written it. We laughed over it, and Hemingway punched me in the mouth.That winter we went to Spain to see Manolete fight, and he looked to be eighteen, and Gertrude Stein said no, he was nineteen, but that he only looked eighteen, and I said sometimes a boy of eighteen will look nineteen, whereas other times a nineteen year old can easily look eighteen… That’s the way it is with a true Spaniard. We laughed over that… and Gertrude Stein punched me in the mouth.”Alan Rudolph’s 1988 film The Moderns dips into the same well. Set in Paris, in 1926, the central story is a fictional love-triangle. Weaving in and out of the story, however, are Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, being oh so iconic and giving the film much of its historical flavor, and its humor.”Modern” is certainly a fluid term, and to flatly state that any one era permanently defines the term is, I suppose, arrogant. But Paris in the early part of last century, and in particular the 1920s was, indeed, a remarkable era of Modernism in which literature, visual arts, music and the theories behind all of these not only propelled themselves forward but bounced off of each other.And at the centre of it all was Gertrude Stein, mentor to such then-unknown writers as Ernest Hemingway, champion of unknown painters like Matisse and Picasso, writer and linguistic innovator who would herself be influenced by Picasso’s stylistic shifts to the point where her own writing was seen as cubist. Her Saturday night salons brought together the painters and writers who are now seen as being the stars of the modern era. She introduced the world to the Moderns.The best memoir of this remarkable era is Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. Written late in his life, these twenty short, masterfully crafted vignettes depict his life in Paris from 1921 to 1926, a period of tutelage, as it were, at the feet of Gertrude Stein, whose pronouncements on what was “important” and what was “modern,” were taken as gospel by the young writers and painters of Paris. Stein impressed upon Hemingway the necessity of choosing the exact words to convey the reality of the story, a lesson which informed everything he would write.A Moveable Feast is also a memoir of a place, specifically Montparnasse on Paris’ left bank. We see Hemingway at home with his wife Hadley and small child, braving cold Parisian winters. We see him in the cafes and bars of the quarter, surrounded by strangers, yet blocking them out and focusing on the writing at hand. We see his blossoming friendship with the troubled Fitzgerald, and his association with Ezra Pound. It’s a fascinating collection of stories, and remains my favorite Hemingway book. You feel like you’re reading a fine short-story collection. These tales easily match the clean, precise prose of his best short fiction. Except, I realize, for the “fiction” part. But that’s nitpicking.Another book that covers some of the same territory, and features many of the same players, is Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. This memoir, written by Stein in the 1930s, adopts the gossipy, conversational tone of her partner, Miss Toklas, recounting the story of her life, and centering on her relationship with Miss Stein, who effectively becomes the central character, the catalyst in this “autobiography.” So, despite the title, it’s really an autobiography of Gertrude Stein herself, who suspends her normally abstract literary style to assume the voice of Miss Toklas. Which I admit all seems very post-modern for a memoir by and of one of “the moderns.” The conceit – adopting Miss Toklas’s voice, spares the reader what might have been a head-scratchingly abstract memoir. On the other hand, Stein’s adoption of her partner’s flighty tone fills the memoir with an inordinate amount of frivolousness and gossip.Still, there’s enough meat in this memoir to make it a must-read for anyone interested in this era of literature and painting. Stein, through Toklas’s eyes, gives us glimpses into the formative years of the wonderful composer Erik Satie, and era-defining painters such as Picasso and Matisse, who were regulars at Stein’s salons, and whose early works were on display at the Montparnasse home shared by Stein and Toklas. And, not surprisingly, young Hemingway makes several appearances in Stein’s memoir. A favorite of hers (though, seemingly, less so of Alice’s) we see her intellectually doting on him with great affection. And, as in Hemingway’s memoir, Paris itself is a character, both Montparnasse on the left bank, and also the storied Montmartre further north.As it happens, I was in Paris in early September, having come up by train from southwestern France, and was met at the Gare d’Austerlitz by my friends Doug and Anna who had come down from London. Item one on the agenda: a lingering lunch, replete with champagne, wines, and spirits at the Closerie de Lilas, a favorite haunt of Hemingway’s, and a locale that figures prominently in A Moveable Feast. This set the tone for the next few days. If Hemingway ate or drank or wrote there, who are we to walk by without symbolically paying our respects.It’s all a romantic conceit, of course. Paris moved on after the “Modern” era ended, but for fans of Hemingway and the Moderns, why not let A Moveable Feast spread itself before us? Place Contrescarpe, rue Cardinal Lemoine, the Pantheon: there they are. There’s something to be said for sitting on a stoop across from the Pantheon at two in the morning, Doug and Anna poring over the map, me staring at the Pantheon, mesmerized by its grandeur, my stupor enhanced doubly by the two a.m. September stillness.The adventure continued the next day. Anna having returned to London, Doug and I decided to trek up through Montparnasse, across the river, through central Paris, up to Picasso’s digs. Up to Montmartre. Me hobbling, having fallen moments after stepping onto the sidewalk.I do this. I fall down a lot. A flight of recently polished stairs, I can careen down it in half a second. Stepping off my old back porch after a light snowfall? I become a gymnast, somersaulting down with expertise. And then there’s the now-legendary “incident” on the stairs leading down to London’s Leicester Square tube station a few years ago. I slipped on the rain-slicked top step and bounced down the remainder, with no one, NO ONE, seeming to notice.So there I was, limping my way from Montparnasse up to Montmartre, looking like a transplanted Ratzo Rizzo to my friend Doug’s Joe Buck, knowing that somehow, somewhere, Ernest Hemingway was shaking his head and Gertrude Stein was rolling her eyes. But what the hell, in our post-modern world, you’re only modern once.