Sadly, Denis Johnson is no longer my favorite living author. But he knew death was coming, and left us with his best work since Jesus’ Son—which spent a few decades as my favorite book in my lifetime*. That’s a lot to live up to, and I was a bit disappointed by the first two stories, which were good, but not classic. (Yes, an insane bar.) But “Strangler Bob” turned me around, and “Triumph Over the Grave” was extraordinary. The final lines of “Triumph”… I wrote in my copy, “What a send off. Who could ever top that?”
The closest thing to reading The Largesse of the Sea Maiden for me was listening to Warren Zevon’s The Wind album, recorded as he was dying of lung cancer. Both extraordinary works, weaving the artists’ final days, and their reflections about them, into timeless art. I will treasure both of them for as long as I’ve got down here, and I have a feeling I’ll be thinking about them as I kiss this place goodbye.
(A functional bonus for travelers: Largesse is slim and light. I spent much of the year chasing the Parkland kids, and packed this wherever I went. I also enjoyed it in small doses of wonder. There are magical moments in here. And about that title: I hated it until I reached the end of the title story. Now I smile every time I think of it.)
Now about that asterisk. Jesus’ Son was my uncontested favorite recent book until 2015, when Farrar, Straus and Giroux published a story collection by the obscure late author Lucia Berlin, A Manual for Cleaning Women. Lucia rocketed from unknown to legendary overlooked genius. I was lucky enough to know her well; we were thrown together by blind luck. Lucia taught me much of what I know about writing, both directly, and by example. I’ve been reading these stories over and over since grad school in the ’90s, but I keep hesitating to read new ones. They’re all that’s left of her, plus my slightly fading memories, and I can’t bear to run out of Lucia to discover.
FSG released another volume this November, Evening in Paradise. I had read about two-thirds of them, gobbled up a few more and made myself stop. They are too priceless to gobble; I want to savor each one. I went to a release event where Ruth Franklin read one of Lucia’s earlier stories, “Point of View.” I must have read it 20 times, but it’s been a while, and I was taken aback by how tight it was. A whole world unfurling each paragraph, fully formed, without a word to spare. I had taken a break from editing my book to run over to the reading—actually brought pages with me to edit—and felt the urge to shred them. I’m not prone to those feelings of unworthiness. I usually only get them after a dose of Nabokov or Tolstoy, or Denis Johnson, wondering how I will ever do that. Of course they are all doing something different that I’m driving at, but still. If someone can be that enthralling, in so few pages… well, that’s something to aspire to. Lucia fits comfortably in that extraordinary cast.
What is it about those Russians, by the way? The 19th-century Russian Empire seems like the last place I should go searching for a kindred spirit, yet I keep finding them there. I finally dove into Anna Karenina in 2016—the first half glacially, over the course of 18 months, then devouring the second 400 pages in three to four weeks. I kept going back to it this year, rereading vivid passages, mostly Levin’s immersions in serf life. Levin tended to annoy me as a character, but his serf-envy was endearing, and his moments among them glorious. (It’s pretty clear Tolstoy envied them as well, and illustrated why.)
I thought about diving into War and Peace next—which I aborted in my 20s, before Anna taught me I just needed to keep a character list to keep them all straight. (My translation of Anna comes with one in the front. I photocopied it to use as a bookmark, and added to it, liberally.) What I really wanted was another dose of Anna Karenina, though, and since my all-time favorite author is Nabokov, I spent early 2018 on his Lectures on Russian Literature. It covers 13 works, yet nearly a third of it is devoted to Anna. My fear was that Nabokov would contradict everything I thought, and I’d be irritated by both of them. Nope. Nabokov has no trouble both choosing it as the masterpiece of Russian literature and pointing out major flaws. Like the first half: way too long and repetitive. Thank you! (Why, Leo? No editor? Didn’t listen to him or her?) And way too much dialectic on both the philosophy and minutia of Russian collective farming. He really lost his focus there.
I find two things refreshing about that, as a reader and a writer: towering achievements can have gaping flaws. Same with humans. Same with everything. It doesn’t denigrate a treasure to acknowledge where it went astray. And it’s comforting to know that even the geniuses I aspire to get some of the big things wrong. Though I haven’t found any glaring flaws in Lucia’s work yet. Maybe I’m still too close.
Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.
Winner of the 2017 Dzanc Short Story Collection Prize, Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s White Dancing Elephants is a daring look at the power of imagination. Bhuvaneswar, a practicing psychiatrist on the East Coast, has created intricate characters who fight back against narratives that limit their existence, natural circumstances or human-made, from birth and death and disease to racism, classicism, and sexism, shuffling together ancient fables with realistic contemporary fiction and a dystopia with robots. (She’d also been previously kind to include my book in her list of novels to read on the way to a political protest.) I was excited and nervous about meeting Bhuvaneswar over email to talk about her debut collection.
The Millions: Let’s start off by talking about writers who have been a major influence. I saw in an interview that you mentioned Jesmyn Ward. Can you tell us why and which other writers and books had a lasting impact on you?
Chaya Bhuvaneswar: I loved A Small Revolution, so I’ll mention that first—psychologically gripping, real, and an important part of the larger canon on books about revolution. I like to think that in its own way, my book is also about revolution, about subversion, and I would say that there is likely a set of books, large and somewhat shifting but definite, that led me to be a writer, period, because of their astute and surprising way of depicting awareness, rebellion, determination. These are human qualities I truly believe in. So that has led me to a lot of very different books—from Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina to Sapphire’s Push (both of which I wrote about here). While these are very different books, they relate specifically to the collection in that I am not just writing about “survivorship” as a sort of condition, but as a form of internal resolution. As one decision or series of decisions. As a form of self-determination, often at great and unexpected cost. I think without consciously deciding it, several books, including The Handmaid’s Tale (before the Netflix series, but then also, thrillingly, during its rise), Tracks by Louise Erdrich, and individual stories, like “The Children Stay” (which is completely astonishing, an Alice Munro story mostly inside the head of a modern Anna Karenina-like character).
In terms of how much I’ve gained from Jesmyn Ward’s work, I think more than anything her quiet confidence and determination are a complete inspiration for women writers of color who have to cling to the belief that “anybody will care” about the characters we write about, dream about. Will anybody care about, for example, an Indian immigrant who becomes a spoken word poet, or (even more of a question) a retired, cranky man so choked with grief at being separated from his son that he is rageful and perhaps unforgivable to the daughter he lives with who has a disability? Does anybody care about these lives—a black woman psychoanalyst wealthy enough to be envied by others; a Korean-American lady doctor-slash-workaholic? So far the answer has been a resounding “yes” in nearly all cases—but I believe that would not be as true without the model of the thrilling success of Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied, Sing. She and others have opened doors for the stories of overlooked, ordinary people of color to be told and celebrated and sung.
TM: I felt that kind of confidence come through in your stories too, beginning with a narrator who whispers to her unborn child to the roar of the girls in captivity near the end of the book. How did you come up with the arrangement of this collection?
CB: One of my favorite short story writers, Maile Meloy (whose work I recommend reading here, especially; “Madame Lazarus” may be my favorite story of hers, ever) said once in an interview how she just sort of played with the order of the stories on the “back of a napkin” the way you’d shuffle a song playlist.
I think it was exactly like that. I was pushed up against a deadline, reading at AWP 2018 and having a blast generally, and I came back late one night and sat there shaping a response to the editor asking me to delineate the order, and this is just sort of what came out. I am incredibly grateful, as well, that our publisher and editor in chief at Dzanc, Michelle Dotter, really “went with” a lot of what I proposed as my instinctive responses to her questions. She had a lot of trust in me to shape the edits that in retrospect is so wonderful, really.
You try for the standard things—to vary POV, not have three stories told in the first person back to back. But I think as with a song list, there is a dreamy, playing quality and hopefully the main thing is that people enjoy it. To that end as well, I am thrilled to note that on the release date for White Dancing Elephants, Large Hearted Boy, that blog that posts “song playlists,” is going to post one I put together with the wonderful editor, David Gutkowski, and I guarantee—I KNOW—people will enjoy it.
TM: In your essay about being a writer and a psychiatrist, you say, “I write as a self-defining activity, without judging if what I write is any good. I write because I have seen people whose ability to write was taken away by illness. I write because I am mortal, and know it.” Tell us more about that because I feel it speaks so much to your characters in your stories too, about being keenly aware of their mortality.
CB: The daily routine of being a doctor in contemporary practice fundamentally changes your relationship to the physical act of writing. I mean, we just have to write SO MUCH. And all of it has to be written with a certain kind of care, because the medical record belongs to the patient, and so while there is a certain amount of productive “thinking out loud,” aimed at helping the medical professionals reading the record diagnose and treat various conditions, ultimately there can’t be anything in the medical record that doesn’t directly serve the patient. We have to be honest but at the same time as tactful as we can. It’s a constant goal we keep in mind.
So there’s this high wire you become accustomed to—writing a lot (thousands of words a day) but at the same time, writing with care and writing where there is so much at stake. And more than anything I think that has affected me as a writer. It helped make writing something I could own. Versus the publicly acclaimed and fraught and competitive position of “writer”—where, like, you read about Gary Shteyngart getting taken to a warehouse to sign thousands of his books, or you read about Terrance Hayes being “number two!” on the global list of contemporary poetry books selling on Amazon now, or whatever. I don’t know about all that. But I know that when I sit down at my desk, I can write, and as long as that’s true, I’m grateful. I have what I need.
TM: You explore the very edges of boundaries, particularly between life and death over and over in these stories—a woman grieving the loss of a child, kidnapping and sexual assault, sexual abuse by a parent, suffering from cancer, and connected to these the idea of switching places, roles—therapist and patient—playing constantly with societal expectations often with those with less power asserting themselves powerfully. I’m curious about your thoughts about the #MeToo movement?
CB: Mainly I have a few fragmentary thoughts to offer here (hoping of course that the shards will illuminate a little bit—that whole concept of “synecdoche” that I feel like I learned about from reading Forster but don’t even remember exactly how. Howards End, perhaps?).
First, the notion of “edges of boundaries”—I’m very influenced by the concept of “liminality,” from religious studies, which I first encountered when studying the poet A.K. Ramanujan’s really brilliant translations of medieval Hindu poetry. In these poems, mostly written by men but also by a few women, every definition was shifting and changing. Gender, sexuality, location, faith—all fluid, as fluid as language. I am interested in this fluidity as a source of resilience, and often I’m drawn to characters who don’t yet see the positive aspects of change, who deeply fear it.
Second, the responsibility of women to other women. I guess I still believe in an idea of “sisterhood,” but rather than prescribe it to anyone, I try to remember and celebrate those moments when women have shown me that solidarity. Whether in small ways—like sharing advice about how to care for a newborn—or other ways, like the woman administrator at my undergrad college, who actively encouraged me and other female students to come forward about a particularly egregious harasser.
I do feel like the way we find a path forward through the #MeToo movement is by remembering a common humanity. This is one reason I love the title of Roxane Gay’s anthology, Not That Bad, because it illustrates how utterly inadequate that type of label is for many of these experiences. Yes, you don’t literally lose a limb from being harassed. But you lose some part of your dignity and you end up having to fight to get that back. It is that bad, to suffer violence, especially when you’re in a space, as a working professional or student or any kind of occupational role, where you should just be allowed to perform, period, and not be given that extra burden, the extra barrier. I do think that #MeToo experiences constitute a form of resistance by the status quo, against the entry of women in equal numbers, and with equal or greater power, into professional and educational and financial spaces (including the entertainment industry) where male dominance had been the norm. Harassment is a way of making us uncomfortable. The movement is saying: We won’t stand for it. Amen.
In early July, I was able to sit down and interview Sergio De La Pava, the explosive, encyclopedic author who heralds a new era of the novel. A public defender in New York City, Sergio wrote his first novel on the commute to and from court cases, self-publishing the nearly 700-page A Naked Singularity in 2008. When it was republished by the University of Chicago Press, it received the PEN/Robert Bingham prize for Debut Novel. Since then, his second and third novel, Personae and Lost Empress, received similar acclaim from readers and critics alike. A writer on the periphery of the American literary scene, Sergio De La Pava’s response to art is electric, charged and ready to jolt complacency with the art form.
The Millions: What did literature mean to you before you began writing? In a public conversation with other authors, you explained that your interest in writing began at around seven or eight. In your latest novel, a young boy loses his father and, during that morbid transition from winter to spring, he discovers Emily Dickinson, titling a personal essay “Emily Dickinson is Saving My Life and I Can’t Even Thank Her,” and while I know that’s the intimate relation each reader has to literature, each of your novels contends with the moment an individual receives such profound experience with literature that they in turn become an artist. In A Naked Singularity, you’ve got the protagonist Casi working on an immense project; in Personae, we as readers discover the fragments of a man’s oeuvre after his death; in Lost Empress, it’s Nelson De Cervantes with Emily Dickinson and Dia Nouveau with Joni Mitchell. What was it for you?
Sergio De La Pava: I think initially, my relationship with literature was something similar to what Nelson De Cervantes experiences in the terms of, I don’t want to say initial experiences with literature, but ones the ones that persist and remain memorable, it feels like a life-raft, it feels in some sense like saving your life and allowing you to continue to navigate what has been to me a very confusing and ultimately frightening experience, meaning life. I think what I depicted, with respect to Nelson, is that means by which you find nothing so blatant as guidance, but almost consolation, such that x, y, and z may be true, but it’s also true that these poems or this novel or work of art was created.
When I refer to the seven or eight-year-old thing, I was referring to that age when I spent a summer in Colombia, and I remember kind of missing the English language above all things. I remember coming across Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea in English in my grandmother’s house. I devoured that, I distinctly remember that being the first time I made this leap between the fact that something like that exists and the realization that someone had to have created it, an individual behind this experience. It seems obvious now, but when you’re seven or eight it’s not, something like clouds, something you don’t question how it exists. But with this book, it was the first time I realized a guy like Hemingway is the reason this book exists, and it was probably the first time I remember thinking I wouldn’t terribly mind if I was the reason one of these books existed. That’s something that’s always stuck in my mind. It wasn’t so much about the artistic experience of the book, though for a 7-year-old it was intense, it was more about the realization there’s these people that identify as writers and they’re the ones responsible for books that exist or don’t exist. A lot of my novel Personae deals with that earliest question, of who gets to be called writer, who decides to dive into an activity in this more intense way than readers could experience.
TM: In the end of that public conversation I mentioned, you were asked to give a book that summarily defines the experience of being in New York, and you give Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, you described the novel as being able to “marry aesthetic concerns while still having a more revolutionary message to it… all [your] novels are trying to ferment nonviolent revolution.” Each artist, I believe, must engage in what that marriage means to produce. Whether they end up producing such as work as Invisible Man is not as important for that artist as their asking how they will use literature to advance aesthetic and cultural concerns. What works or authors became for you that marriage of aesthetic and political concerns you would place your work alongside?
SDLP: Do you think every novelist has political concerns? It would seem that—well, what book is popular right now?—it would seem that the author of The Marriage Plot did not have political concerns. But you are right that I pretty clearly do, right? I will say that all the aesthetic concerns that I have when I sit down to write a novel absolutely trump any political concerns. They are by far more paramount, more important. Because I am engaging in an activity where there is no reality, and nothing can exceed the aesthetic achievement. If my political concerns were paramount, then I would write an op-ed or a nonfiction book as many have done and very skillfully. In those situations, my concern would be those political realities I’m resisting in, what I’m agitating for, those options are open to everybody. When I’m functioning as a novelist, the demands of the novel have to be paramount. The reason I brought up Invisible Man is that it clearly has to me a political purpose but at no point do I feel that that political purpose overrides the aesthetic achievement of the novel. As somebody who has this whole other career that is almost all political purpose, I have to be more careful, maybe, than most, in writing the novel. I have to be more careful, that it doesn’t become a didactic piece of journalism because that’s a preexisting category I can feel free to engage in whenever I want to.
TM: And you have!
SDLP: The kind of concerns that build up and overflow in my mind, that cause me to write a novel, are rarely political. They feel more philosophical or poetic. Those feel to me the driving force of the novel. The politics of it, the radical agenda or whatever you want to call it, is quite often a function of the setting where the philosophy and poetry is happening.
TM: I think that act of achieving a political statement as a result of the aesthetic work connects well to what Ellison was about. I’m interested to know which American authors, like Ellison, might’ve provided a framework to search for truth, and who you eventually had to move past to develop your own work.
SDLP: Well I don’t necessarily identify with someone because they’re American. I go by language, I go by writing in English. To me a country is essentially an invented, if not meaningless, then low-meaning thing. I don’t take particular meaning from the fact I was born in the United States. English, now that’s a different story. English colors everything that happens in the work. The language colors everything. Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, to name writers who wrote in English. Certainly a lot of translated works have been important to me, but those were the seminal figures, always tempered by the thought that “great, they did what they did, but it’s time for an updating.” Those are all writers who stopped writing at least 80 years ago. In a lot of ways, I think the distance of time makes those influences more useful than looking to contemporaries or colleagues or doing the same thing you are and looking for inspiration there. It’s never worked that way for me.
TM: So it’s not necessarily the questions proposed in say, To the Lighthouse may not provoke today; it’s that enough time has passed that you feel them worth revisiting? Do they serve greater inspiration because of their distance?
SDLP: I suppose I don’t have a good grasp by what we mean when we say “inspiration.” Everything has “inspired” me to write but that’s not the same as saying I’ve found joy in or found profitable every single thing I’ve read. Often times, I receive negative inspiration, where I say “I don’t like that, I don’t think that’s what the novel is for, that that’s how you execute a novel.” And that can be more useful than sitting there and going “well, that novel’s as close to perfection.” When you think about it, in many ways, we as humans act out with dissatisfaction a lot more often than we do with satisfaction. A lot of the times when I’m reading, I receive this dissatisfaction, a wanting, and a highly critical response, and those serve as more useful than something that is masterful. When something’s masterful, to me, it’s done. There’s nothing left to say. There’s nothing left to do in response. I often wonder: If I were insanely impressed by the majority of novels I’ve read, would I even write? I probably wouldn’t. I think it’s the opposite. Part of the reason I write is because I find modern novels so lacking.
TM: It seems your latest novel, Lost Empress, was the attempt to bridge two very distinct styles of novel together. In a previous conversation, you used Invisible Man and Pride and Prejudice as examples of these two styles. I’m wondering, using this term of translation, how did you translate the experiences of previous novels into this work?
SDLP: The novel is limitless, there’s more than Invisible Man and Pride and Prejudice. I think what I meant was that I was inspired to take two conceptions of the novel that seemed like they will not mix and so Invisible Man and Pride and Prejudice are two seemingly different novels in a way no other two novels could seem as different. The challenge was this: If the novel has the ability to subsume any category into its form, can you prove that by marrying these two wildly different concepts, without the infrastructure showing? That challenge can excite you, make you go “yeah, I can do that,” and that excitement can carry you for the next four years. I have a lot more freedom with that challenge than, say, translation, because there’s a hardcap to how much I decide Anna Karenina is before it no longer fits into the idea of translation. When I do this, I’m doing it with my terms and nobody’s going to tell me it doesn’t fit.
TM: I would say that while each of your work contends with reality, Lost Empress questions what is real and how we define that. Not just translating experience but transcribing it. We have this character, Sharon, a CO for paramedics, who breaks down after decades of listening to calls in which children are maimed and assaulted. But her coworker doesn’t console her, she says “that’s as real as realism gets.” I’m wondering how you can talk about the act of writing as a series of freedoms but also have your characters confront and rebel against the tragic fictions you pit them against. Is this perhaps where you attempt to bridge the two conceptions of the novel, the fantastical reproduction of reality and reality’s strenuous subjugation?
SDLP: I’ve always had this weird sensation that the world depicted in the novel is as real as ours; it’s just a matter of perspective. I feel that the conclusions I draw from immersion in a fictious, well-done novel can easily be applied in this world, with a reality that hits us every day. I don’t make distinction, I get upset about things that happen in novels and I don’t find any consolation in being told they’re a fictitious character. When I would write Sharon’s narrative, it would upset me as much as if she were like any other person I knew in life. That’s probably not the healthiest attitude, but that’s part of the reason why I inject things that are uncontroversially true of our world, such as a Rikers Island inmate guidebook or Joni Mitchell or Salvador Dali, because the facts about them are verifiably true. Part of the reason I don’t draw distinction is because convention would have us place the fiction below reality. whereas I think that fiction should be placed alongside reality.
TM: When you say you have a visceral reaction, it’s well understood. In that public conversation, someone brought up the fate of the character Nuno in Lost Empress and you looked like you were sucker-punched, you said “well, I care a lot about him, and I’m sad that it ended.” It’s this character you spent a lot of time with, but even though you say you’re with this freedom to write the novel, your characters actively protest their existence within the novel, shouting “truth in everything!” On this idea that characters are aware of what’s happening, could you say something on where you think the novel heads in the 21st century? Throughout your work, you’re referencing pop culture and pop media such as TV, the novel Lost Empress begins with the decree “let us enter into peals of laughter,” and the opening scene is in the form of a sitcom script. Though the structure of the script disappears, the kinetic quips remain in stark contrast to the looming darkness that bridges the novel’s first and second act. I’m wondering if you did this in respect to new media that competes with the novel, or if this was an aesthetic concern.
SDLP: I don’t care about the new media, I really don’t. I don’t accept that television is the new novel, that’s silly. It’s just as dumb as it ever was. I’m not competing with that stuff because I will lose, I will lose in a first-round knockout. My novels are asking that you enter into a completely different space than the one you’re in when you binge-watch Breaking Bad. I mean I watched all of Breaking Bad and The Wire and I enjoyed that but it’s not the same as when I read Mrs. Dalloway or Moby Dick or The Confidence Man.
TM: And yet your novels interject that media constantly.
SDLP: My novels, I hope, attempt in some way that just because you’re in the world where you read The Confidence Man or Bartleby The Scrivener doesn’t mean you have to forsake all the pleasures of a quick one-liner like you said. The narrator at the beginning of Lost Empress says “we’re gonna keep this pretty light,” and then, clearly, he fails to keep it light. Sharon’s abused, people are kept in isolation by the Grand Jury. But the attempt was there in the beginning, like a screenplay for a screwball comedy, and then reality keeps interjecting to the point where it can’t sustain. And you see there’s this thing where privileged people can keep it light, but ultimately none of us can keep it light, because this commonality of experience of that desolating experience will win out, or simply time’s up. There’s a character in Lost Empress, the Theorist, who describes two timelines: that of the reader and that of the novel. You know he’s experienced our reality because he describes the David Tyree catch, and he’s the only one who’s been in our timeline that’s also in Nuno’s timeline, so he says “this timeline that we’re in is ending,” and that’s verifiably true by the fact the novel’s ending, but that’s also true for the reader’s timeline, regardless of the world you’re in. And that’s not necessarily the most salient fact of your life, I hope not, that’s not that productive. But it’s there and it colors the events of life, in Personae especially, the fact that life is so fragmentary and fast.
TM: As a reader of these narratives, we can pick and choose where and when we pick up and drop off, but then what does that do for the truths of your characters? Sharon decides to remain in an abusive relationship with her husband to ensure her son’s success, a quarterback decides to suffer terminal brain damage to win a football game, Nuno escapes prison only to realize his world is ending; what makes them matter? Not in the moralistic sense you object to, but what is the saving grace for theirs and our lives by the novel’s end?
SDLP: Nuno lays this out for us at the end of the novel rather explicitly. Despite the fact there is an ending, he finds merit in all things by the fact they happened. He lays it out for us, when people say “oh, humanity’s but a speck of dust in the history of the universe,” well that’s a dumb thing to say! It’s never been about how long we’ve been around or the value of an uninhabited planet. He tackles this sense of insignificance head on because that desire to be heard is the value. Not because what we’re going to say results in x, y, and z, but because we could manage to do something. And there are people who will disagree, who say that because life has an end renders everything meaningless. That’s a view. I don’t think that’s a logically impossible view, but I don’t share that view and I don’t think anyone in that novel shares that view. Sharon decides to create meaning from her life by ensuring her son’s survival, and she could be wrong of course, but that’s for everybody to decide for themselves. That’s what we do as human beings. Why did I put a suit on today and come into my office? Because I decided that helping someone within the machine of the criminal justice system has meaning. I could be wrong, I guess, because that seems unlikely. When you experience that meaning, such as when I’m raising my two-year-old, that doesn’t feel meaningless, it just doesn’t. It feels like meaning irrespective of the entire fate of humankind.
TM: It makes me wonder about the kind of person who is satisfied by meaninglessness, or whose fear of meaninglessness is correlated to a lack of morality. These people seem to lack the experience of meaning made by living a full life.
SDLP: Right. It’s like pessimistic authors who take these works where everyone is evil and wrong and the world is mean. That’s a weird proposition, that I think is done by infantilized writers who take on this worldview and get praised for their “honesty.” But those type of people ignore the other half of humanity, like that guy who volunteers on Sundays to bathe the elderly. You’re going to tell me that that person’s evil, that their actions are meaningless? Those writers who suffuse their work with meaninglessness have to categorize and ignore the others. I feel like it is just as intellectually dishonest to find everybody good as it is to find everybody bad. Neither one feels fair.
TM: So your fiction is an attempt at something more honest to life.
SDLP: I don’t think these are optimistic works, but I don’t think they’re pessimistic works either. I’m attempting to grapple with the fact that humanity is capable of terror and greatness.
The “seasons quartet” by Karl Ove Knausgaard comprises four books. In order of publication, their titles in English are: Autumn, Winter, Spring, Summer. Made of paper (unless they’re in electronic form), each book resembles a flat rectangular box with three sides open and hinged lids on top and bottom. Inside are sheets of paper, bound with glue and thread to the “closed” side of the box. The cover of the box …
Never mind all that Knausgaardian verbiage. What’s really inside each book? Autumn’s chapters—“September,” “October,” “November”—start with “Letter to an Unborn Child”; short personal essays follow. Winter follows the same scheme, with “Letter to a Newborn Daughter” heading each month. Spring steps out of the group with a novelly structure. Summer falls more or less back in step with essays followed by diary entries, per month.
I was able to read the four books over their publication schedule. Spring I read straight through. Autumn, Winter, and Summer I put down and picked up at leisure. This is the way to do it. A forced march through the essays is not recommended. Even avoiding surfeit by taking them three or four texts at a time, I pondered if these books would have been better, more honest, with the dreck trimmed out, published as a single, longish book.
I didn’t feel that way about Knausgaard’s autofiction opus My Struggle, the first five volumes of which I read twice in a row (the sixth is not yet available), or A Time for Everything, his mind-boggling novel which tells of biblical angels and retells a few Bible stories I’d assumed I knew pretty well.
Those earlier books formed my conviction, shared by many (but not all, for sure), that Karl Ove Knausgaard is one of the greats whose literary works will live. Even given the enthusiasm carried by conviction, though, it’s plain that the seasons quartet would not stand without Knausgaard’s name on them. Leaving aside commercial ploys—banking on the author’s fame to sell a four-book project—should the seasons books have been published as they are, entirely?
Yes, they should have been published as they are, entirely.
The seasons books—and the wonders within—show the process of a literary writer. Sometimes he blathers. Sometimes the writing feels forced; sometimes it’s cutesy. Sometimes … you fall under that old Knausgaard spell, and if you can mark when that happens, you get to see a writer in his “flow.” Through the best and the worst of the seasons quartet, Knausgaard’s well-known quest for authenticity, exercised in My Struggle, is more transparent than ever. Authenticity, or truth, if you will: It’s the quest of every literary writer, from the most cynical to the most idealistic.
The project was conceived as a series of messages to Knausgaard’s then-unborn fourth child. At the beginning of Autumn, he addresses the child directly: “I want to show you our world as it is now: the door, the floor, the water tap and the sink, the garden chair close to the wall beneath the kitchen window, the sun, the water, the trees.”
Clearly, the unborn child is muse, not reader. This disconnect makes the tone disingenuous. In “Chairs” (Winter), the description is made for someone who hasn’t the foggiest idea of what a chair is: “A chair is for sitting on. It consists of four legs on which rests a board.” Of course, by the time the child can read these books, or can read at all, hopefully she’ll have the hang of chairs, doors, floors, etc.
So why describe the chair? (And not even that well, in this case. If you’re so naive to furniture that you need a chair described, and someone says it has four legs, won’t you think of a dog’s or cat’s legs? Four legs and a board to sit on. Picture it and laugh!) Should the editor have persuaded the writer to trim out from the books all the “A chair is for sitting on” bits?
No. Even if the descriptions fail to give us a child’s-eye look at mundane objects, the build-out of tedium can be marvelous. The essay “Winter Sounds” (Winter) starts with the less-than-brilliant observation: “Walking in the forest in winter is quite different from walking there in summer.” And moves to: “The screech of a crow … which in summer is just one note in a greater tapestry of sound, in winter is allowed to fill the air alone, and every single nuance in its rasping, hoarse, seemingly consonant-filled caws stands out: how they rise aggressively at first, then descend mournfully towards the end, leaving behind a sometimes melancholy, sometimes eerie mood among the trees.” Then to a close with snow falling: “That sound, which is no sound, only a nuance of silence, a kind of intensifying or deepening of it, is the sonic expression of winter’s essence.”
The main problem with reading too many of the essays in one sitting is that they can be formulaic. Physical description of an everyday object: “A chair is for sitting on …” Ruminations on the object’s use/activity in everyday life. Digression into deep thoughts. Close with an insightful non sequitur. Bada bing! You almost cringe in anticipation.
At times, the thoughts are trite, better to have been laid to rest in the closed covers of a journal. At times, they can reach right into the heart of life. “A household of family … exists in the real and aspires towards the ideal. All tragedies arise out of this duality, but also all triumphs.”
Then he goes on, “And the feeling of triumph is what prevails in me now, when the kitchen in the house on the other side of the lawn, lit up like a train compartment in the darkness, where only a few hours ago I did the Christmas cleaning, is sparkling clean and bright.”
Should the last bit have been edited out? Wouldn’t the text be more powerful ending with “A household of family,” which beautifully evokes Tolstoy’s opening of Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”?
That wouldn’t be Knausgaard. He doesn’t “edit out.” Nor is he beginning a book about a tragic love affair in the glittering courts of imperial Russia. He’s writing about his family and about himself, a man taking a smoke on the lawn of a modest country house in early 21st-century Sweden.
Spring stands apart. It’s a novel—autofiction along the lines of My Struggle—following the time frame of the other seasons books: the period around the birth of the youngest daughter. It’s ripping, heartrending, and like My Struggle, it raises the ethical problem of family-centered memoir and autofiction. On one hand, it’s the author’s and his family’s business. On the other hand, published, it becomes the business of whoever reads it. The exposure the family takes in Spring is daunting.
In Summer, Knausgaard’s diary segues in and out of a fiction whose narrator is an old woman looking back on a disastrous love affair. It’s somewhat in the footsteps of Knausgaard’s college mentor Jon Fosse, though not nearly as perplexing as Fosse’s fiction (at least, what’s available in English). Each time Knausgaard announces the story, within his diary entries, it’s with a similar device: “While so far in this text ‘I’ have represented a forty-seven-year-old Norwegian man residing in Sweden with a wife and four children, ‘I’ will soon, as soon as this sentence ends, represent a seventy-three-year-old woman who is sitting at a writing desk in an apartment in Malmö on a summer evening.”
The old woman’s story never goes far; it’s like an abandoned novel whose ending I didn’t particularly regret missing, though I enjoyed reading what there was of it. The problem was, after the first entry, the transition began to seem gimmicky, a clever device—should the old woman story have been deleted? Or the transitions made in a more conventional, less self-conscious way, by a space in the text, for example? Should the story have been gathered up into one segment, rather than scattered throughout the diary?
No. Leave them in, just as they are. The story and the way it’s told share the writer’s process.
Knausgaard writes most compellingly in the seasons books not of objects like toilets and toothbrushes but of his family’s life. He gazes on the belly of his pregnant wife and sees the child move within “almost like the ripples in water when a sea creature moves just beneath the waves.” He watches his son “curled up in a way I have always been affected by, with one knee pulled up to his belly, his head resting against his arm.” He doesn’t stifle the futile, aching urge to protect his children, nor conceal the shameful urge to judge and disparage them over trifles. He lets out the sheer fun of being with his children, both inside and outside their sphere. He lets us in on the joy of family and the deep fear—the deepest kind there is—that comes with deep love. And then he’ll rattle on about something like coins or kitchen utensils.
The spirit of Knausgaard’s seasons quartet lies in its process and its flaws, its moments of physical loveliness, the hapless insights, emotions joyful and big-hearted, petty and bitter. Like My Struggle, but using a different method, they show us a man (with a more-than-ordinary talent for putting himself in words). You might not identify with him at all, but you feel him. At times you’ll be glad you don’t know him personally. At other times, he’s a given, like a friend you’ve known almost too long: a friend who can irritate the hell out of you, whose messes you more or less forgive, whose gifts win you over time and again.
There was extra time left at the end of the class and our Koran/Religious Studies teacher was allowing us to quietly do whatever we liked until break time. This was seventh grade and I’d never had a teacher remotely like her. She was young and pretty, unlike our other Divinity teachers who made it a point to dress badly and look bland. She had serene, generous eyes and her bright colored manteaus and overcoats were always tasteful and carefully ironed out. It took me a while to gather enough courage to go up to her desk, a crumpled piece of paper clammy from my sweaty palm in hand. Unfolding the balled-up note I asked nervously, “What does this mean?” It was a word I didn’t know how to pronounce, so I’d written it out – اگزیستانسیالیسم, existentialism. I caught the look of shock in our teacher’s face as her eyes darted back and forth between me and the piece of paper. Then in a cold tone she asked, “Where did you find this word?” I still hadn’t realized there might be something so terribly wrong and even believed that I’d managed to inspire her admiration over a difficult word. I told her that I’d found it in an article that the writer Jalal Al-e Ahmad had written about the novel The Blind Owl. The teacher’s face turned red. She was trying to keep her voice down but there was definite disapproval in her tone. “Who told you to read such a book? Where did you even get it? Do you know that its writer, Sadegh Hedayat, killed himself? Do you realize suicide is a great sacrilege? What else do you read? You shouldn’t be reading this sort of thing.”
As she spoke her voice became gradually less reproachful but also more desperate, as if she suspected it was already too late and there was no turning back for me from a fate similar to that of the writer of The Blind Owl. I stared at my shoes and said nothing about what other sorts of books one could find in our house, and that no matter where my older brother might hide his precious volumes I’d still find them. For a moment I even wondered if our teacher simply didn’t know what that word meant. I wasn’t feeling bad or guilty, just a sense that it was best I turn around now, go silently back to my seat, and keep my mouth shut. I was 12 years old at the time and already sure that books were my first and last love. This certainty, though, came with a price, a constant reminder that my love of books was not something I should cultivate or be glad about. In fact, in the world that I grew up, books — at least certain books — were seen as something dangerous, something to be wary of and keep at a distance if possible. Later in life I’d briefly wonder if there might not be some elemental truth to such fears. But at age 12, walking quietly back to that school desk, firm in my intention to never ask a teacher questions about literature again, I already knew that I’d go home and somehow unearth every book that was left to read in my brother’s bookshelf. No one could stop me.
There is the world before a person discovers books and there is the world after. It is a kind of matrimony. Dangerous, but necessary — especially for those of us for whom a life of not reading might seem simpler, but is also drab and ultimately colorless. I was determined; one day I’d marry a book.
The “book” that I wished to marry, the man of my dreams, had to be someone like my brother, Hossein, the person that most resembled a combination of fictional characters like Thomas Fowler of The Quiet American, Prince Bolkonsky of War and Peace, and Rochester of Jane Eyre. Men who were stubborn and hard to pin down, who were jaded and proud, and who even possessed more than a touch of arrogance.
Hossein was working on his Master’s thesis in Economics when he decided to drop it all. He was a poet at heart. But he was also a working journalist and a veteran who’d been at the Karbala 5 operations at the bitterly contested Faw Peninsula during the Iran-Iraq war. Later on, during the Afghan civil war, he would fight alongside his close friend, the legendary commander of the Northern Alliance, Ahmad Shah Masood, and later still he’d fall in the hands of their merciless enemy, the Taliban, for a time. Yet this was the same man who also loved the poetry of Rumi and Vladimir Mayakovsky, and often you’d see him tramping among his papers scattered in the middle of our living room reciting out loud from Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell’s personal account of the Spanish Civil War.
Hossein was unlike anyone I knew. And I was sure he was that way because of all the books he’d read. Save for a few volumes of The Koran that belonged to our father, all the other books in our house were Hossein’s. He was the owner of a magic treasure chest. He could open that chest and lend me a share of the magic inside.
Which he did. Partly.
But I was hungrier than he’d imagined and would not be satisfied with just what he doled out. I wanted more. Much more. Therefore my first rebellion in life turned out to be directed at my brother, the man I worshipped. He had separated his books between those which my sister and I could read and those that he didn’t want us to touch. His words: “Forget about these other books.” I suppose he felt two adolescent girls growing up in a provincial city in the northeast of Iran weren’t ready yet to read modernist Persian texts and translations of the works of Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, and Jean-Paul Sartre.
A lot of Hossein’s books weren’t even shelved. In a working class home on the poor side of the city of Mashhad, right after the long eight years of war with Iraq, owning enough bookshelves was beyond our means. Most of the books sat stacked in boxes, silent but pregnant with mysteries that our brother didn’t feel we were ready for. Except that he wasn’t there to watch us. Hossein was usually away lugging a camera to some troubled spot. I can’t recall how long it took before I gave in to the temptation and also made my sister a partner in crime. One day, inevitably, we quit just hovering around those boxes and dug in. We heaved, pushed and pulled, until our tiny hands had managed to undo all those gigantic cartons. I have no idea what prompted my sister to choose Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler first, while I chose W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. Nor could I tell you so many years later exactly how much I understood of what I read back then. But I do remember the hours upon hours spent in various corners of the house engulfed and dreaming. If there was a heaven at all, this had to be it. But when the inevitable happened and my brother returned from one of his trips to find out we had not listened to him and delved into the forbidden fruit, he locked the door to Eden. Stifling his natural compassion, Hossein banned us from reaching for any of the books in his library for the next few years.
The female librarian at University of Tehran’s central library takes the two-volume copy of Anna Karenina from me and asks, “You read the whole thing?” I nod yes. By now I’m a junior in college and it’s been just a little over two years since I left Mashhad and came to the capital to study and, hopefully, have my own share of adventures. The librarian puts the books down with distaste and says, “Some women are monsters!” Not knowing how to react, I offer an inane smile. To my understanding, the tragic woman in the novel is nothing like how the librarian describes her. She’s sincere and intelligent. I care about her. And this mindless smile that I offer as an answer is one that, in retrospect, I will go on to offer the world every time I’m faced with declarations and judgments from people who know nothing of the world of shadows, people for whom there is only certainty and no relative answers to difficult questions, people who are forever sure of what’s black and what’s white and who’s guilty and who is not. Books, the very act of reading, have stripped me of absolutes. I do not dislike Anna Karenina, and this is dangerous to our librarian. As I reach to take back my college ID, I see that she has noticed what I’m majoring in and is giving me a hard stare. “You’re actually studying to be a librarian?” Her look turns to one of pity and she continues, “There was nothing else for you to choose besides this? Are you serious? Tomorrow when you graduate what do you think you’ll do? There’s no money in what we do and no job. Take a good look; at most you’ll become someone like me. Is that what you really want?”
I have no answers. There’s no way I can explain that I came to Tehran to major in Library Science because, as absurd and laughable as it seems, I have always wanted to marry a book. There’s no describing that I am here because I could not stand the thought of ever being separated from books and I figured Library Science would guarantee me this marriage. I might in fact try to tell her all of this. But she would not understand. In her curious yet apathetic stare there’s not the slightest hint of the abandon that comes from a true love of books. And all the volumes in this great library have not made a dent in her reasoning. She does not suffer from the bug as I do. We each speak a different language.
The person who did speak my language, however, was an old man that I’d met almost 10 years earlier, just after my fall from grace with my brother. He was a retired school principal in our neighborhood who had turned one of the rooms in his house to a books-for-rent shop. He had a daughter about my own age who was in charge of running the store. For every 24 hours rental of a book they charged a negligible sum. What made the whole set-up even more odd was that it existed in a part of our town where just about every head of a family was a laborer, a place where there was so little interest in books that they were not even used as decoration, where speaking “high language” was considered effete and a sign of incompetence, and where there were at least five children to each household. To try to make a living here by peddling the gibberish of “unbelievers” from clear across the planet who, on top of everything else, had never done right by us and this country, was nothing short of lunacy. That old man, whom I saw only once in his “shop,” had to truly be mad to be doing this. Yet I understood his affliction. I understood that the bug had gotten to him just as it had gotten to me.
When I discovered the books-for-rent shop, nearly two years had passed since my brother’s punishment. Hossein’s library still remained forbidden. I would rent the books and take them home to breathlessly read right in front of our banned library so that Hossein would take notice. Wuthering Heights, Madame Bovary, Anton Chekhov’s The Lady with the Dog, The Thirsty Wall and the Stream by the Iranian writer Ebrahim Golestan, Heinrich Böll’s The Clown…
It was as if I had found my way back to Eden. My brother saw what was happening, but he stayed silent; not once did he ask me where I was getting those books from or reproach me for going against his mandate. So I kept on reading, right through the scorching summer when I was 15. I read, and Hossein remained silent. Then one week into autumn, he finally pointed to his shelf and to his boxes of books and bellowed, “Those books over there are not just for show!” He had finally surrendered. He was a man who had seen enough of the world to know when it was too late. Whatever calamity he’d believed might befall a teenage Iranian girl whose passion was books was already here. There was no going back for either one of us.
Image Credit: Flickr/San Jose Library.
After two years of college I dropped out because it was a waste of time and money. Since boyhood I had known I wanted to be a writer — a real writer, a novelist — and after 14 years inside classrooms I’d come to the conclusion that I needed to get out into the world and start harvesting the stuff novels are made of, a substance so vital and valuable that it became the title of a memoir by the great Martin Amis. I’m talking about experience.
By the time I left college I had worked any number of jobs, which are a form of experience in that they send us into the world and force us to figure out how to survive there. Beginning at an early age, I had delivered newspapers, caddied, worked as a bar boy, a dishwasher, a busboy, a bartender. But now I believed I needed something more daring, something more artistically remunerative. The way to have something worth writing about, I reasoned, was to have adventures. This meant two things: plunging into unfamiliar worlds and traveling.
I wasn’t the first aspiring writer to come to this conclusion. Surely Ernest Hemingway couldn’t have written his stories and novels if he hadn’t fished the rivers of northern Michigan, seen combat in the First World War, lived and loved in Paris, hunted big game in Africa, watched the running of the bulls in Pamplona, and battled marlins off the coast of Cuba. Hemingway’s fiction lives on the page because it’s grounded in physical worlds he knew intimately and was able to describe with spare beauty. Other writers I admired had pursued lives of action, from Herman Melville to Jack London, Joseph Conrad, and even Henry Miller, though his adventures were decidedly more seedy than swashbuckling.
Given all this, I was delighted to land a job as a farmhand in Vermont a week after dropping out of college. The place was a sort of nursery for broken-down thoroughbred racehorses from nearby Green Mountain Park, the last stop for many of these nags before they were turned into dog chow or glue. The huge, jittery horses terrified me, but I found I loved the manual labor — baling hay, digging post holes, cleaning stalls, putting a roof on a barn — and above all I was thrilled to be accepted into a raffish blue-collar crew that consisted of a ham-faced Vermont farmer, a hard-drinking cowboy with a broken leg, a petty-criminal greaser who had his eye on the foreman’s hottie teenage daughter, and a gifted old black trainer who nowadays would be called a horse whisperer. I knew I wouldn’t have met any of these people if I had stayed in school.
When the racing season ended I pocketed my $500 life savings and drove my wheezing ’54 Chevy pickup cross-country, then proceeded to work a string of odd jobs up and down the West Coast, in kitchens and vineyards, dairy farms and orchards. At night I worked on my apprentice novel — a murder story set on a Vermont racehorse farm. I threw the manuscript out, of course, but the experience wasn’t a waste. It taught me how far I had to go before I would be able to consider myself a beginner, and it led me to ask myself if I wanted to spend the rest of my life working minimum-wage jobs to support my writing. The answer was no.
It was at about this time that I discovered a remarkable non-fiction book by the short story master Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, which stunned me with this insight: “The fact is that anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. If you can’t make something out of a little experience, you probably won’t be able to make it out of a lot. The writer’s business is to contemplate experience, not be merged in it.”
This turned my world upside down. If I wanted to become a novelist, according to no less an authority than Flannery O’Connor, I didn’t need to wander the world harvesting experiences. I needed to figure out a way to get paid to contemplate experience and then write about it. The best way to do that, I guessed, would be to get a job as a newspaper reporter and serve my apprenticeship in the typhoon of a daily paper’s city room. My father had done this. So had Mark Twain, Hemingway, Ring Lardner, Tom Wolfe, and countless others. But this was the aftermath of Watergate, and I knew it would be impossible to land a coveted reporter’s job without a college degree. So I sold my ’54 pickup, took a bus back across the country, and returned to college to finish my final two years.
It ended up working out — eventually. After graduation I spent five months knocking on doors at newspapers until I got my first break, a cub reporter’s job on a Gannett daily in a Pennsylvania tank town, starting pay $140 a week. I was, just barely, a professional writer. More newspaper jobs followed, as a reporter and columnist at bigger papers. I kept writing fiction on the side, sometimes giving up the steady newspaper paycheck to travel and work as a magazine freelancer, a New York City bicycle messenger, a construction worker, a Nashville disc jockey. Once, when particularly hard up, I even worked as an “actor” in a porn movie. As justification for this dubious career move, I turned to Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer:
Then one day I fell in with a photographer; he was making a collection of the slimy joints of Paris for some degenerate in Munich.He wanted to know if I would pose for him with my pants down, and in other ways. I thought of those skinny little runts, who look like bellhops and messenger boys, that one sees on pornographic post cards in little bookshop windows occasionally, the mysterious phantoms who inhabit the Rue de la Lune and other malodorous quarters of the city. I didn’t like very much the idea of advertising my physiog in the company of these élite. But, since I was assured that the photographs were for a strictly private collection, and since it was destined for Munich, I gave my consent. When you’re not in your home town you can permit yourself little liberties, particularly for such a worthy motive as earning your daily bread.
My apprenticeship wound up lasting a lot longer than I’d expected: after my college graduation, 16 years passed before I finally published my first novel. When a second followed, I quit my last full-time newspaper job and supported my fiction writing with freelance assignments from anyone willing to pay me — daily newspapers, glossy magazines, college alumni magazines, this and other websites, the rich friends of a rich dead man in need of an upbeat obituary. It has been almost 20 years since I saw my last steady paycheck, and in that time I learned that no writer can afford to be choosy when it comes to earning his daily bread.
In those years I also published a third novel and finished several that haven’t found a buyer. Writing hasn’t made me rich or famous, but I’m still alive, I’m still paying the rent every month, and I’m still writing every day, which is the thing I most love to do.
My big mistakes, I now realize, were to equate adventure with experience and to believe that the writer’s job is to be merged in experience. There’s nothing wrong with adventure, for writers or anyone else, but as Flannery O’Connor taught me, it’s unnecessary for a writer. She rarely left her home in Milledgeville, Ga., and Marcel Proust rarely left his bedroom. They understood that the writer’s business is to contemplate experience, and, just as important, to realize that all experience, no matter how seemingly trivial, can be put to use. The experience of spending a day alone in a jail cell would hardly qualify as an adventure, for instance, but it’s an experience that could make for a rich short story or novel, in the hands of the right writer. The point is that action and adventure — harpooning a whale, say, or getting cut down by shrapnel — are not impediments to writing, but they aren’t prerequisites either.
And then there is what Martin Amis called “main-event experience” in his memoir Experience, the ones that put us through the emotional meat grinder. I have experienced my share of these, including the death of both parents, a sibling locked in a fight with addiction, lost friendships and loves. These are not uncommon experiences but they’re powerful, and they’re definitely worth contemplating, for writers and everybody else. The reverberations of main-event experience are the gold mine.
There’s also nothing wrong with including the experience of work in fiction. The wheat-threshing scene in Anna Karenina comes immediately to mind, as do the gorgeous horrors the poet Philip Levine found inside the Detroit auto factories where he worked as a young man. But as I look back at my checkered résumé, I see that the only job that directly fed my published fiction was my time as a bar boy in a suburban Detroit country club during the summer of 1968, a year after the city was ravaged by a vicious race riot. My experience of working amid rich, white auto executives and black waiters from the inner city made its way into my third novel, Motor City Burning. That’s not much of a return on an investment of so many years. All writing is in a sense autobiographical, but the point is that unless you’re writing baldly autobiographical fiction à la Henry Miller or Proust or Karl Ove Knausgaard — which I am not — you will probably not profit much from your work experience. Your job is to contemplate all of your experience, then set loose the dogs of your imagination.
Come to think of it, I wish my résumé wasn’t nearly as long as it is. Given how little I’ve been able to use my work experience in my fiction, I’ve come to see all those thousands of hours of working to pay the rent as time that could have been more profitably spent writing, or reading, or contemplating my experience. But few writers are born rich, and few people who are born rich become writers, so I realize I don’t have any right to lament my middle-class fate. It’s hardly unusual, and it could be so much worse.
All I can do, all any writer can do, is figure out a way to get someone to pay me to write. And keep contemplating my experience. And keep writing about it, every day.
Image Credit: Flickr/Kevan.
When I was 23, I returned to Korea for the first time since my adoption. For a month, I lived in a love motel, in a room paid for by the school at which I taught. I ate almost nothing but Frosted Flakes. I tried to gather the courage to give up and fly back to America. The only thing holding me there was the Korean woman who would become my wife, whom I met and began dating almost immediately.
I have been told by other writers that this story should be a book. Yet I have never felt like it has enough weight on its own. It is an interview anecdote: the 20 pounds I lost over two weeks with Tony the Tiger, the red lights ringing the ceiling over my round bed, the way my wife saved me, my denial over why I was really there. But something in the story has always been lacking.
Perhaps what is missing is a part I haven’t wanted to tell, a part other writers could see hidden in the whole, the same part that I have always struggled with confronting and have never known enough about: the two years I spent in Korea as a baby, before I was adopted as a sickly toddler who couldn’t toddle or talk.
Recently I designed a course on the novel for Grub Street, a writing center in Boston. The first thing I did was to get down from my shelves 10 novels I love, in search of scenes we might emulate. The goal for the course is to write six scenes, half of the 12 “major scenes” I heard it said once, in a workshop at Bread Loaf, that make up a typical contemporary novel. This “fact,” of course, made it into my sparse notes, though I didn’t know what to think about it. It provided a seductive kind of answer.
The first type of scene I went looking for was the “inciting incident,” the scene that starts the plot on its course. But what I noticed very quickly was that what starts the plot on its course is not usually what incites a novel, as we typically think of it. In other words, the scene that starts the plot isn’t usually the why of a novel’s existence in place and time, the situation of the story: think Nick moving to New York in The Great Gatsby, or the train going into the lake in Housekeeping. Those are incidents that might contribute to plot on a thematic and foundational level — nothing in those two great novels could have happened otherwise — but that don’t directly contribute to the string of causation E.M. Forster defined as plot (“The king died, and then the queen died of grief”).
About three months into my time in Korea, after I had changed jobs and decided to stay, my wife-to-be asked if I wanted her to help me find my birth mother. She could look into various Korean channels, search places I would never be able to search on my own. The offer she made was this: she would do everything and when she found a clue, we could travel together and she would translate for me. I thought about her offer for weeks, while she waited for me to make up my mind. I didn’t want to upset my family, but it was true that I didn’t have to tell them. I didn’t know how long my relationship would last, so I thought selfishly that this might be my best chance. On the other hand, I had been telling myself that I was not in Korea to find out anything about my birth family or my adoption, and this would change that. It would, I saw once I made up my mind, be admitting my denial.
I had my adoption information because I had needed it to get a new visa for former Korean citizens who had lost their citizenship (i.e. not by choice). Mainly, adoptees. The visa made it possible for me to do almost anything a citizen can do, except vote. My wife referred to the visa as an apology to adoptees when she told me about it and helped me to get my papers together.
She went ahead contacting whatever organizations she could find that still existed 21 years later. Eventually, she got a lead, and we made the trip to Seoul to meet with a person I thought would tell me about my birth mother, but who never would.
A scene that might start a plot of causation is Gatsby asking Nick to set him up with Daisy. Or rather, Gatsby asking Jordan to ask Nick to set him up with Daisy, which mirrors the convoluted arrangement of cars and drivers that results in Gatsby taking the blame for killing Myrtle and subsequently being killed by Wilson in what is probably the novel’s climax. Gatsby’s inciting incident happens mostly “off-screen,” during Nick’s first attendance at one of Gatsby’s famous parties. The plot that begins here will bring Gatsby and Daisy back together and part them after the accident.
A simpler example, in a way, is the arrival of Sylvie in Housekeeping, Sylvie who will represent one way of dealing with the past (running away from it, or, rather, not dealing with it). Her “parenting” of Ruth and Lucille will result in them taking sides. Ruth will follow Sylvie out of town and Lucille will stay.
I am using my own story as an example because I want to talk about what I believe these incitations are doing. Why they come slightly later in the novel, and what purpose they serve structurally, what in general they incite.Three years old, about six months after my adoption.
The offices of the adoption agency were in the basement of a concrete building which, from the outside, looked a lot like the sad little love motel I had recently vacated. My wife and I sat in a meeting room with a cheap couch, one chair that an agent would soon fill, and a coffee table on which my adoption file would appear. My memory goes in and out here, so I must leave the “truth” behind — such are the tools I am working with. It is likely that I have some sort of mental block regarding this trip, which makes me want to recreate it as better or worse than it actually was. I want to create a plot.
I opened a manila folder to find the application my parents had sent to adopt me. In it were shocking secrets about my father’s PTSD after Vietnam and my mother’s heartbreak over her inability to have a biological child. But, as my wife translated, there was nothing in the file about my birth mother. The agent said my birth mother had left me under a nearby bridge. I was found with a note that said, Give him to someone rich. A policeman gave me a name and took me to an orphanage, but the orphanage had recently burned down, so it, like my birth mother, was unrecoverable. My wife questioned none of this. I didn’t question it, either. I had new insight into my adoptive parents, which seemed itself a great treasure. What I wanted to know was whether I could photocopy the file. I was not allowed.
Later I would find out from other adoptees that they were told similar stories: of orphanages that no longer exist, of utter abandonment, and yet after going through a detective or lawyer or policeman, they were able to find much more, hidden or lost. I knew nothing about that then.
As the agent was gathering everything back up, though, absentmindedly, ready to put us behind her, I spotted a post-it note stuck to the folder. It had gone unseen, hidden against the table. As the folder lifted away, I snatched the note off of it and dropped it in my lap as if I was brushing away a fly, or as if I just wanted to touch my file one last time. The agent smiled at me as if she could understand this urge and had seen it before.
In thinking about the architecture of inciting incidents, it may be useful to work my way backward from the climax.
I have heard it said that modern novels don’t “resolve,” but I don’t believe it. What may give the impression that the modern novel does not “resolve” is Nick leaving New York in a similar physical and financial state (himself) as when he found it, or Ruth and Sylvie walking across the bridge to another life we barely hear about. These are not the definitive endings of Shakespearean plays — there is no marriage or sweeping death — or Greek plays — there is no intervention from a god or interpretation from a chorus. Neither are they the end of Jane Eyre, where Jane finds her way back to a diminished Rochester, or the end of Age of Innocence, where we skip ahead many years to see that Archer’s choice (of how to live) was indeed permanent, or the end of Anna Karenina, where Anna throws herself under a train and Levin comes to religion, one forever unhappy and one forever happy. But there is a death in Gatsby, and there is a decision about how to live in Housekeeping. What is interesting to note is that these points constitute not the endings of those books but their likely climaxes. They are not the final images — the final images are more mysterious, are more: images. The green light at the end of the dock, or walking over the lake in which Ruth’s ancestors perished.
So is there a resolution if it comes in the climax and not at the end of the book, and what exactly is being resolved there? I think the answer is in the question: what is being incited by the inciting incidents?
I met my birth mother on a cold January day in Seoul, with a wind full of coming snow. I hadn’t dressed warmly enough, and I have a problem with my ears where the wind makes them ache deep inside my head, so I was vibrating with pain and my wife was pressing my arm to keep me calm. I have never told anyone this. I never told my parents I even looked for my birth family. My birth mother was a short woman with a scar along her cheek-line, bright hurt eyes, a jutting chin, a wide, flat forehead. I wondered what the scar was from. I have mysterious scars on my legs and I wanted to ask her about them, whether they were from before she left me or whether, as I have always suspected, something happened to me in the orphanage, perhaps connected with my inability, at age two, to walk and talk. I didn’t ask. Instead, I did what seemed natural: shifted my feet awkwardly, tried to stay out of arms’ length, and cried.
My birth mother wanted to hug me, seemed sure about her feelings, whatever they were. But I wasn’t sure. I was still so damaged. I had hidden away any dream of this moment so far inside of me that it was a long, drawn-out process to pull my expectations, my fears and desires, back out into the open air. What I had for my birth mother was tears. I was glad my wife was there, and yet I wanted badly to be both alone with my birth mother and alone myself, so I could work out what I was feeling and let the feeling be more a reality than the person.
It doesn’t matter what we talked about, because we talked about nothing and everything, because we never talked, because what are words, really, what is real and what is made up?
In Gatsby and Housekeeping, the plot that starts with the inciting incident — will Gatsby and Daisy recover their love; will Ruth and Lucille keep to their house/family (essentially)? — comes to some conclusion in the climax. What, then, are the components of that plot? One can make the case that it is the intersection of the past and the present. Therein lies the main storylines of the books — and, I found, of all of the books in my stack.
In the diagram below, I am trying to get at what I think of as not one but three inciting “incidents” in a “traditional” contemporary novel, and at the way they interact with each other. I am calling these incidents: the inciting of plot, the inciting of theme, and the inciting of the past.
The inciting of plot refers to the moment the past intersects with the present. It is Gatsby asking Jordan to ask Nick to set him up with Daisy. It is Sylvie appearing with her baggage (the same but different baggage as Ruth and Lucille), to take care of the sisters and the house.
The inciting of theme refers to the situation that starts the book. It is Nick moving to New York and relaying his father’s advice and his opinion of himself as judgment-free. It is Housekeeping’s haunting moment in which the grandfather’s train falls into the lake and affects the fabric of the town and the family.
The third inciting “incident” is something that happens in the past (the past in relation to the main plot). I am referring to this past as “inciting” because I want it to carry the definition of “to incite” in Merriam Webster: to move to action. The inciting of the past has to do with the way we employ backstory. Often it does not occur at the beginning of the book. In Gatsby, it is learning about Gatsby’s history with Daisy after the inciting of the plot. Though in Housekeeping, the inciting of the past is conflated with the inciting of theme and does, in fact, begin the novel.
The inciting of the past has a lot to do with how a novel resonates. Ruth and Sylvie walking over the bridge — an image that stuck in my mind for years after I first read Housekeeping and couldn’t remember where the scene came from — is haunting on its own, yet is far more haunting and powerful combined with the context of what happened to Ruth’s grandfather. A Gatsby who pursues an affair with Daisy without any prior relationship never gets Nick to that famous line of “boats against the current.”
It was only after my birth mother had taken my wife and me back to her apartment that we understood what was written on that post-it note. I am making this up. My wife pressed my birth mother for more, as she had pressed the agency for more. Mother does not want reunion. Why had my birth mother told the agency that, or why had someone written it there and left it for me to find? Why was my birth mother acting the opposite now, as if she had always wanted to see me? I looked around the apartment as these two Korean women spoke the language of my birth, which I couldn’t understand. Their conversation, their lives, everything seemed so far away from me. It is a small room, and the clean, thin walls press close, but what those walls really are, borders between me and my past, are unbreachable still. I look up at the white florescent lights along the four edges of the ceiling, terrible lighting that makes everything seem as unreal as it is, as ugly as it could have been. It recalls the red lights in the love motel.
In the end, my birth mother told my wife that she had always been ashamed, and there were reasons, plenty of understandable reasons. She admitted that she was pretending and she would rather not do this, that she wasn’t ready for me yet. I let her, and will always let her, go.
As an aside: a writer friend recently brought up the idea that this focus on some past loss is a very American approach to the novel, and I wonder about this. But it is not necessarily a focus on loss that I am after, but a focus on the power of the present when it has the echo of the past, whether lost or, in the case of The Sun Also Rises or No-No Boy, two of the other books I was looking at, never able to be attained.
I don’t even think it necessarily has to be the past. The past here is just an easier go-to. In The Apothecary, another book on my list, it’s magic, an inherited imagination.What was under the bridge in Seoul?
When my wife and I were told at the adoption agency that my birth mother was unavailable, we went to the bridge where they said she had left me. It was an overpass. Cars went by overhead. We got out of our taxi and then walked down below. The road going under followed along a river or a stream, and seemed largely untraveled. I thought it would bring something back to me, or at least bring something up — but I felt nothing. There were two large water stains on the wall, and I thought, That was where she left me, though I had no proof or memory. Later I would question whether she left me there at all or whether that was only a convenient story. It might be said that I was lucky someone passed by and found me, and brought me to the police.
A lot of coincidence goes into creating a story without a plot.
Eventually we returned home and assessed our trip to Seoul. The evidence pointed to nothing for certain. I had come from a Korean woman, that was real. I could see in my own face always a little of her. In the mirror was still everything, all the nothing, that I knew about me. Yet at least I was really seeing myself, at last. I had fooled myself into thinking that I was in Korea to teach English to Korean kids, that I was only staying for my relationship, that I couldn’t eat anything but Frosted Flakes because I feared for my stomach and not for my identity.
I had an apartment now and not a room in a love motel. I looked up at the ceiling and there were no red lights. I had a girlfriend who had done everything to help me see myself. I still had my life to live, I mean. A change might have happened on that trip, past might have met present, but what I had to do next was keep living in Korea in the wake of something that had both ended and not ended.
I tell my students I believe in the rule of threes. There is a power that comes from two things coming together and resonating with a third. One thing does not a story make, but two or three things may. I want to get at what gives a novel a sense of depth, of meaningful action, a sense of propulsion and a sense of resolution and yet continuance. There’s a good case to be made that it begins with beginnings.
I made up a lot of the personal story that unfolds in this essay. A lot of it didn’t happen.
I was adopted when I was two. That much is true. I went back to Korea when I was 23. Whatever those first two years of my life were like does indeed always seem to be the missing link. But I had to make up some of the beginning in order to make up a middle and an end. Which has to do with inciting incidents.
That doesn’t matter, though. This story was, and is, real. The shame that I gave my imaginary birth mother is real. That shame is mine. And letting her go, I did that, I do that. Assessing all of the lacking evidence is a daily look in the mirror. Lately I worry that I missed my chance to find out one crucial incitation. Of course I have had to make up my beginnings before and will do so again. These are the things so important to the plot of who I am and to any plot of conviction and consequence — so important that they constantly draw us in: where the story starts, where the past and present meet, and what past is yet to come.
For the most part, Tolstoy is known as a realist, despite his work’s occasional dips into fancy. Yet the plotlines of his great novels featured long and important dream sequences. In The New York Review of Books, Janet Malcolm argued that Tolstoy was a master of dreams, using Anna Karenina as proof.
A letter appears before the text of The Comedians, the 1966 novel by Graham Greene. The author penned the letter to Alexander Stuart Frere, his longtime publisher who had recently retired. Greene debunks the common assumption that he is the first person narrator of his novels: “in my time I have been considered the murderer of a friend, the jealous lover of a civil servant’s wife, and an obsessive player at roulette. I don’t wish to add to my chameleon nature the characteristics belonging to the cuckolder of a South American diplomat, a possibly illegitimate birth and an education by the Jesuits. Ah, it may be said Brown is a Catholic and so, we know, is Greene…[all characters] are boiled up in the kitchen of the unconscious and emerge unrecognizable even to the cook in most cases.”
Frere, of course, would not need this explanation, so why address the letter to him? Does it instead exist for the edification, or perhaps entertainment, of the reader? Greene’s letter appears without label. Is it an introduction, a preface, a foreword, or something else?
The distinctions between prefaces, introductions, and forewords are tenuous. In the essay “Introductions: A Preface,” Michael Gorra offers a useful introduction to, well, introductions. “An introduction,” he writes, “tells you everything you need to sustain an initial conversation. It might include a bit of biography or a touch of critical history, and it should certainly establish the book in its own time and location, and perhaps place it in ours as well.” Introductions often postdate the original publication of a work. Introductions turn back to move forward a book’s appreciation. Although introductions are often written by someone other than the author, they need not be objective. Gorra thinks the best introductions are “acts of persuasion — ‘See this book my way’ — coherent arguments as learned as a scholarly article but as lightly footnoted as a review.” Although they share a “review’s assertive zest…unlike a review they assume the importance of the work in question.”
Gorra remembers reading introductory essays in used, 1950s-era Modern Library editions as an undergraduate. His understanding of literary criticism was molded by this prefatory form: Robert Penn Warren on Joseph Conrad, Irving Howe on The Bostonians, Angus Wilson on Great Expectations, Randal Jarrell on Rudyard Kipling, Malcolm Cowley on William Faulkner, and Lionel Trilling on Jane Austen. Gorra notes “many of Trilling’s finest essays — pieces on Keats and Dickens and Orwell, on Anna Karenina and The Princess Casamassima — got their start as introductions.”
Gorra moves beyond definition to explain the critic’s role within introductions. They need to know “how much or how little information a reader needs to make that book available; he must achieve a critical equipoise, at once accessible but not simplistic.” That care “puts a curb on eccentricity; however strongly voiced, an introduction shouldn’t be too idiosyncratic.” Introductions exist not for the critic, but for the reader. They should be “shrewd rather than clever.” Better to “address the work as a whole” than “approach it with a magic bullet or key or keyhole that claims to explain everything.” The introduction does not unlock the book for its readers; it takes a hand, leads them to the doorstep, and then leaves.
One of the few introductions written by the book’s own author is the unconventional opening to Lonesome Traveler, Jack Kerouac’s essay travelogue. Kerouac formats the essay as a questionnaire.
His response to “Please give a brief resume of your life” traces his childhood as the son of a printer in Lowell, Mass., to his “Final plans: hermitage in the woods, quiet writing of old age, mellow hopes of Paradise.” He shifts from family detail to statements of purpose and misreadings of critics: “Always considered writing my duty on earth. Also the preachment of universal kindness, which hysterical critics have failed to notice beneath frenetic activity of my true-story novels about the ‘beat’ generation. — Am actually not ‘beat’ but strange solitary crazy Catholic mystic.”
Kerouac ends his introduction by replying to the query “Please give a short description of the book, its scope and purpose as you see them” with a nice litany of subjects: “Railroad work, sea work, mysticism, mountain work, lasciviousness, solipsism, self-indulgence, bullfights, drugs, churches, art museums, streets of cities, a mishmash of life as lived by an independent educated penniless rake going anywhere.”
We know Kerouac’s essay is an introduction because he tells us so. It is not a foreword, which, according to The Chicago Manual of Style, is also typically written by someone other than the author. Some dictionary definitions identify a foreword as an introduction. They both introduce, in the sense that they both preface the work. But neither are prefaces — in the traditional sense.
Marjorie E. Skillin and Robert M. Gay’s Words into Type doesn’t differentiate between prefaces and forewords, noting that both consider the “genesis, purpose, limitations, and scope of the book and may include acknowledgments of indebtedness.” Forewords often feel promotional. Skillin and Gay also note that, in terms of numerical pagination, introductions are typically part of the text, while forewords and prefaces have Roman numerals.
My favorite foreword is Walker Percy’s comments on A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Percy was teaching at Loyola University in New Orleans in 1976 when “a lady unknown to me” started phoning him: “What she proposed was preposterous…her son, who was dead, had written an entire novel during the early sixties, a big novel, and she wanted me to read it.” Percy was understandably skeptical, but finally gave in, hoping “that I could read a few pages and that they would be bad enough for me, in good conscience, to read no farther.” Instead, he fell in love with the book, especially Ignatius Reilly, “slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one.” Percy essay arrives as a pitch; no one would mistake it for a contemplative preface.
That last comment admittedly comes from the hip, owing to seduction by sound. Introduction sounds clinical. Foreword sounds, well, you know. Preface massages the ear with that gentle f. Unlike introductions and forewords, prefaces are often written by the authors themselves, and are invaluable autobiographical documents. A preface is an ars poetica for a book, for a literary life. A preface often feels like the writer sitting across the table from the reader, and saying, listen, now I am going to tell you the truth.
In the preface to his second volume of Collected Stories, T.C. Boyle soon becomes contemplative: “To me, a story is an exercise of the imagination — or, as Flannery O’Connor has it, an act of discovery. I don’t know what a story will be until it begins to unfold, the whole coming to me in the act of composition as a kind of waking dream.” For Boyle, imagination and discovery means that he wants “to hear a single resonant bar of truth or mystery or what-if-ness, so I can hum it back and play a riff on it.” He includes memories of middle school, when “Darwin and earth science came tumbling into my consciousness…and I told my mother that I could no longer believe in the Roman Catholic doctrine that had propelled us to church on Sundays for as long as I could remember.” Boyle thinks “I’ve been looking for something to replace [faith] ever since. What have I found? Art and nature, the twin deities that sustained Wordsworth and Whitman and all the others whose experience became too complicated for received faith to contain it.”
By “received faith,” Boyle means a faith prescribed rather than practiced. He later found “the redeeming grace” of O’Connor; his “defining moment” was first reading “A Good Man Is Hard to Find:” “here was the sort of story that subverted expectations, that begin in one mode — situation comedy, familiar from TV — and ended wickedly and deliciously in another.” Boyle’s preface rolls and rolls — think of an acceptance speech that goes on a bit long, but we love the speaker so we shift in our seats and wait out of appreciation.
There are some gems. John Cheever, who taught Boyle at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, “was positively acidic on the subject of my academic pursuits,” but was otherwise “unfailingly kind and generous.” Cheever disliked Boyle’s self-identification as “experimental,” instead insisting “all good fiction was experimental…adducing his own ‘The Death of Justina’ as an example.”
He documents his early magazine submission attempts. He was quite successful, placing early stories in the likes of Esquire and Harper’s, but also had “plenty of rejection.” He covered his bedroom walls with the letters. He ends the preface with a return to first principles: “Money or no, a writer writes. The making of art — the making of stories — is a kind of addiction…You begin with nothing, open yourself up, sweat and worry and bleed, and finally you have something. And once you do, you want to have it all over again.” This act of writing fiction is the “privilege of reviewing the world as it comes to me and transforming it into another form altogether.”
Boyle has already elucidated some of these ideas in an essay, “This Monkey, My Back,” but for other fiction writers, prefaces are rare forays into autobiography. For jester-Catholic Thomas Pynchon, Slow Learner, his sole collection of stories, was his preferred confessional. The essay is labeled an introduction, but I think function trumps form. Pynchon’s essay is self-deprecating, contextual, and comprehensive. It is the closest he has ever come to being a teacher of writing.
The last story in the collection, “The Secret Integration,” was written in 1964. Pynchon admits “what a blow to the ego it can be to have to read over anything you wrote 20 years ago, even cancelled checks.” He hopes the stories are cautionary warnings “about some practices which younger writers might prefer to avoid.” Rather than presenting an abstract, sweeping declaration of his amateur past, Pynchon skewers each story in the collection. “The Small Rain,” his first published work, was written while “I was operating on the motto ‘Make it literary,’ a piece of bad advice I made up all by myself and then took.” One sin was his bad dialogue, including a “Louisiana girl talking in Tidewater diphthongs,” indicative of his desire “to show off my ear before I had one.” “Low-lands,” the second piece, “is more of a character sketch than a story,” the narrator of which was “a smart assed-jerk who didn’t know any better, and I apologize for it.” Next up is the infamous “Entropy,” fodder for his second novel, The Crying of Lot 49. Pynchon dismisses the tale as an attempt to force characters and events to conform to a theme. It was overwritten, “too conceptual, too cute and remote.” He looted a 19th-century guidebook to Egypt for “Under the Rose,” resulting in another “ass backwards” attempt to start with abstraction rather than plot and characters. The same “strategy of transfer” doomed “The Secret Integration,” as he culled details from a Federal Writers Project guidebook to the Berkshires.
Pynchon served in the Navy between 1955 and 1957, and notes that one positive of “peacetime service” is its “excellent introduction to the structure of society at large…One makes the amazing discovery that grown adults walking around with college educations, wearing khaki and brass and charged with heavy-duty responsibilities, can in fact be idiots.” His other influences were more literary: Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro.” On the Road by Kerouac. Helen Waddell’s The Wandering Scholars. Norbert Wiener’s The Human Use of Human Beings. To the Finland Station by Edmund Wilson. Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince. Hamlet. Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene. Early issues of the Evergreen Review. And jazz, jazz, jazz: “I spent a lot of time in jazz clubs, nursing the two-beer minimum. I put on hornrimmed sunglasses at night. I went to parties in lofts where girls wore strange attire.” The time was post-Beat; “the parade had gone by.”
The essay ends on a note of nostalgia “for the writer who seemed then to be emerging, with his bad habits, dumb theories and occasional moments of productive silence in which he may have begun to get a glimpse of how it was done.” A reader taken with Boyle will forgive his trademark bravado; a reader taken with Pynchon will forgive his self-parodic deprecation. Those who dislike the fiction of either writer won’t stay around for the end of his preface — or crack open the book in the first place.
More often than not, introductory materials are welcomed because we appreciate the fiction that follows. Such expectation can cause problems. The most notable examples are the forewords of Toni Morrison’s Vintage editions, which began with the 1999 version of The Bluest Eye. In “Lobbying the Reader,” Tessa Roynon casts a skeptical eye toward these prefatory remarks. She begins her critique with Morrison’s foreword for Beloved. “Without any apparent self-conscious irony,” Roynon notes, Morrison says she wants her reader “to be kidnapped, thrown ruthlessly into an alien environment as the first step into a shared experience with the book’s population — just as the characters were snatched from one place to another, from any place to any other, without preparation or defense.” This before the reader encounters the first sentence of the actual novel, “124 was spiteful,” which becomes neutered by Morrison’s prefatory, critical self-examination.
Roynon’s love for Morrison’s fiction is contrasted with her disappointment in the forewords. She considers the essays formulaic and rushed, containing “apparently indisputable interpretations of the text…among profoundly suggestive ambiguities,” as if Morrison is hoarding her own meanings. Roynon worries that Morrison’s goal is the “desire to ensure that readers appreciate the scope of her artistry and her vision to the full.” Shouldn’t that be the experience of her readers? Morrison almost gives them no choice. The essays “demand to be read before the novels they introduce, not least because they are positioned between the dedications/epigraphs and the work’s opening paragraphs.”
Morrison’s prefatory summary for Beloved is so sharp, so commanding that Roynon thinks it threatens to undermine the novel itself: “The heroine would represent the unapologetic acceptance of shame and terror; assume the consequences of choosing infanticide; claim her own freedom.” Morrison has articulated elsewhere her reasons for contributing to the discussion about her books, but the gravity of these forewords makes readers passive recipients. What if the reader experiences the novel slightly differently? Does Morrison’s foreword negate those other readings? As Roynon notes, Morrison’s earlier critical essays would elicit, rather than close, “controversy and discussion.” By focusing on the autobiographical and the contextual, rather than being self-analytical, Morrison’s best forewords treats her readers as participants in the artistic experience, rather than people who are waiting for lectures.
Roynon’s solution is both simple and eloquent:
Were I Morrison’s editor I would urge her to cut the most explicit of her interpretations, to bury the explanations at which we [readers] used to work so hard to arrive. And I would entreat her to move all of her accompanying observations from the beginning of her books to their ends. Turning all the forewords into afterwords would greatly reduce their problematic aspects. In metaphorical terms of which Morrison herself is so fond: we don’t need lobbies or front porches on the homes that she has so painstakingly built. But back gardens? They could work.
No matter whether it is called an introduction, foreword, or preface, the best front piece written by the book’s own author encourages a reader to turn the page and start, but respects her need to experience the work on her own. William Gass’s long preface to In the Heart of the Heart of the Country is an exemplary selection. Originally written in 1976 and revised in 1981, Gass’s preface works as a standalone essay, an inspiring speech for fellow writers, and a document of one artist’s continuing struggle.
Gass reminds us that most stories never get told: “Even when the voice is there, and the tongue is limber as if with liquor or with love, where is that sensitive, admiring, other pair of ears?” His “litters of language” have been called “tales without plot or people.” Received well or not, they are his stories, the words of a boy who moved from North Dakota to Ohio, the son of a bigoted father without “a faith to embrace or an ideology to spurn.” “I won’t be like that,” Gass thought, but “naturally I grew in special hidden ways to be more like that than anyone could possibly imagine, or myself admit.”
Gass turned inward, moved in the direction of words. Lines like “I was forced to form myself from sounds and syllables” sound a bit sentimental if one is somewhat familiar with Gass, but he has always been, in the words of John Gardner, “a sneaky moralist.” Gass began writing stories because “in some dim way I wanted, myself, to have a soul, a special speech, a style…to make a sheet of steel from a flimsy page — something that would not soon weary itself out of shape as everything else I had known.” His earliest stories failed because they were written in the shadow and sound of the canon, leading Gass to wonder “from whose grip was it easier to escape — the graceless hack’s or the artful great’s?”
He broke free “by telling a story to entertain a toothache,” a story with “lots of incident, some excitement, much menace.” That story, the subject of constant revision and reworking for years, would become The Pedersen Kid, his seminal novella. Gass shares his personal “instructions” for the story: “The physical representation must be flowing and a bit repetitious; the dialogue realistic but musical. A ritual effect is needed.” Here one might think Gass is making the same sin of explanation as Morrison, but these are plans, not an exegesis of his work. These thematic plans soon eroded, and “during the actual writing, the management of microsyllables, the alteration of short and long sentences, the emotional integrity of the paragraph, the elevation of the most ordinary diction into some semblance of poetry, became my fanatical concern.” Only years and many rejections later did Gardner publish the story in MSS.
A great preface is a guide for other writers. While the biographical and contextual minutia might be of most interest to aficionados and scholars, working writers who find a great preface are in for a treat. At their best, these introductory essays are the exhales of years of work: years of failure, doubt, and sometimes despair. Gass’s preface for In the Heart of the Heart of the Country contains a handful of gems worthy of being pinned to a cork board above one’s desk:
The material that makes up a story must be placed under terrible compression, but it cannot simply release its meaning like a joke does. It must be epiphanous, yet remain an enigma. Its shortness must have a formal function: the deepening of the understanding, the darkening of the design.
All stories ought to end unsatisfactorily.
Though time may appear to pass within a story, the story itself must seem to have leaked like a blot from a single shake of the pen.
To a reader unhappy with his fiction: “I know which of us will be the greater fool, for your few cents spent on this book are a little loss from a small mistake; think of me and smile: I misspent a life.”
Gass ends with a description of his dream reader. She is “skilled and generous…forgiving of every error.” She is “a lover of lists, a twiddler of lines;” someone “given occasionally to mouthing a word aloud or wanting to read to a companion in a piercing library whisper.” Her “heartbeat alters with the tenses of the verbs.” She “will be a kind of slowpoke on the page, a sipper of sentences, full of reflective pauses.” She will “shadow the page like a palm.” In fact, the reader will “sink into the paper…become the print,” and “blossom on the other side with pleasure and sensation…from the touch of mind, and the love that lasts in language. Yes. Let’s imagine such a being, then. And begin. And then begin.”
A preface might begin as a cathartic act for the writer, but it should end as a love letter to readers. Books are built from sweat and blood, but without the forgiving eyes and hands of readers, books will gather dust on shelves: never touched, never opened, never begun.
Reif Larsen’s first novel The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet was a frustrating narrative wrapped in a beautiful work of art. Parts of it, story-wise, worked wonderfully, but many sections dragged ponderously along, and then the confounding and ill-fitting finale was rushed, as if impatient to be over. But the imagination of the novel –– the lovely images annotating the text, T.S. himself –– is undeniable, as is the talent of its author. But one can always forgive a debut novel its ambition, so it was with much interest that I embarked upon Larsen’s second effort, I Am Radar, a measurably better novel than T.S. Spivet, both for its leanness and its grandness. It’s an epic page-turner filled with small, tender moments of wonder, beginning with its almost archetypally postmodern opening:
It was just after midnight in birthing room 4C and Dr. Sherman, the mustached obstetrician presiding over the delivery, was sweating slightly into his cotton underwear, holding out his hands like a beggar, ready to receive the imminent cranium.
Without warning, the room plunged into total darkness.
The “imminent cranium” belongs to Radar Radmanovic, the center, if not exactly the protagonist, of this tale, and when the lights come back on in the delivery room, Radar comes out a pitch black baby — was it the electrical event somehow? — with white parents. It’s 1975 in New Jersey and rumors spread, leading Radar’s mother, Charlene, to find every doctor she can to figure what happened to her son. Soon, the family lands in Norway so that Radar can undergo an experimental procedure involving a machine called a vircator, which can emit a large electromagnetic pulse and somehow rid Radar of his skin abnormality. It works, Radar’s skin lightens until it becomes “a slightly yellowish, flushed cream color,” but it also causes Radar to suffer epileptic seizures. The procedure is overseen by a group of artists/activists/puppeteers called Kirkenesferda, who are, as a group, the real protagonist of I Am Radar. After the first section, we’re launched into various histories surrounding Kirkenesferda. First we learn of the group’s master puppeteer, Miroslav Danilovic and his father, Danilo, both caught in the precursors to the Bosnian War. Miro’s creations seem impossible, puppets with no puppeteer. We get the history of a man named Raksmey Raksmey who, as a baby, was found floating on Cambodia’s Mekong River in a basket. There is also a man in the Congo who is attempting to collect every book in the world. And finally there is Kermin, Radar’s father, who may have inadvertently caused a giant rolling blackout in New Jersey.
If this all sounds eerily Pynchonian to you, that’s because it is. Deliberately. Charlene, Radar’s mother, is described reading The Crying of Lot 49, feeling “overcome with what we are able to accomplish with the simple constellation of words.” The phrase “gravity’s rainbow” appears. One sequence features the mysterious Tunguska Event from 1908, when, in the words of one character:
There was a huge explosion in Siberia. It blew out two thousand square meters of forest, something like this. Eighty million trees destroyed. Center of explosion was seventy kilometers from Vanavara, but people there, they still feel heat blast all across their skin. The shockwave broke windows, collapsed woodsheds. It blew men right off their horse. It was powerful, so powerful. Stronger than an atom bomb.
This perfectly Pynchonian (and perfectly true) historical event was also explored in Thomas Pynchon’s unjustly dismissed masterwork Against the Day, the novel to which I Am Radar is most closely aligned, in my eyes. But Larsen is doing more than simply riffing on one of his favorite author’s themes –– rather, he is riffing on many of his favorite authors’ themes. One can, while reading, pick up references to Herman Melville, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, and Nikolai Gogol (Akaky Akakievich, the protagonist from one of my very favorite short stories, “The Overcoat,” show ups) and you can sense –– in the structure, in the prose, in the language –– the influence of Salman Rushdie, Jorge Luis Borges, David Foster Wallace, Mark Z.Danielewski, and, of course, Pynchon. This is a novel steeped in its own influences.
Additionally, within this 653-page tome are fictional books, like, for instance, a book on the history of Kirkenesferda, which the narrator references throughout (replete with excerpts, images, and footnotes), and a novella on part of the life of Raksmey Raksmey. There is also Radar’s book, which, within the novel’s world, he hasn’t written yet. Is I Am Radar the book Radar will write? Well, yes and no. See, on page 621, there is an image taken, a note tells us, from “Radmanovic, R. (2013) I Am Radar, p. 621,” which would suggest that, indeed, the book we’re holding in our hands is this same book. Yet, just a little later, on page 641, another image credit refers to page 705. Radar, we are to assume, wrote his own version that extends beyond the story here and that we won’t get to read.
So real books and fake books –– but what’s the point? Why engage in such esoteric literary pastiche? The short answer is that, like Radar and the other sons here, Larsen wants to declare himself.
The primary emotional thread of I Am Radar is fathers and sons, of familial legacy and individual identity. Kermin and Radar. Miro and Danilo. Raksmey and his adopted father Jean-Baptiste de Broglie. Each son struggles with becoming their own person while still acknowledging (sometimes begrudgingly) their forebears. They are like their fathers, but they are different. Like father, like son…sort of.
Larsen makes a clear connection between these literal fathers and sons and literary fathers and sons. Near the end of the book, as Radar and companions head up the Congo toward a massive secret library created by the man hoping to collect all the world’s books, an almost Biblical passage appears. It lasts nearly two pages, and comes in the form of a speech by Professor Funes, the ambitious collector who also happens to have “perfect and complete memory.” Because he can remember everything in great detail, he’s able to list all of the authors he read throughout his life. Here is a short excerpt:
I read Defoe and Asturias and Sterne and Stendhal and Verga and Carducci and Blasco Ibáñez and Hugo and Verne and Balzac and Stendhal and Flaubert and Baudelaire and Sand and Verlaine and Paz and Maupassant and Ibsen and Wordsworth and Austen and Coleridge and Shelley and Keats and Blake and Scott and Carpentier and García Márquez and Puig and Cortázar and García Lorca.
And so on, until it more or less moves it way up to “DeLillo and Mailer and Salinger.” This is like a personal version of Genesis or Chronicles with all those endless begats. Larsen, as the finale shows, acknowledges the great authors who came before him, how their influence on him is undeniable, unavoidable, deep –– but that he is still his own writer, one with formidable gifts and looming ambition.
If not everything quite works in I Am Radar –– like, e.g., characters’ names sometimes change and are hard to keep track of, which lessens the emotional impact of some of their arcs; and sometimes it’s difficult to tell if we’re reading an omniscient narrator or borrowed information from one of the fictional books or some hybrid of the two –– it’s partly due to Larsen’s maximalist approach. How can any writer sustain perfection in such a large undertaking? It’s nearly impossible to do. Anna Karenina has parts that lag, that underwhelm (most notably Levin’s long diatribes on his serfs), as does Ulysses and The Brothers Karamozov and Infinite Jest. Novels like I Am Radar, which would technically fall under the “historiographic metafiction,” are especially prone to unwieldy excess and inscrutability. Pynchon’s books fall into that same category, and his novels are unquestionably flawed. And here is Larsen, continuing the legacy, in the same vein but in his own way. Like father, like son. Sort of.
I did something in 2014 that would throw a wrench into anyone’s reading: I bought a bookstore. Selling books, as I wasn’t surprised to find, doesn’t leave much time for reading them. Also, it meant I became — not for the first time, but never so publicly, on such a daily basis — a professional reader, as many of us are lucky to end up being in one way or another, as teachers or editors or researchers or some other line of work that corrals your attention from the luxury of polymorphous curiosity into something more traditionally productive, in my case trying to keep up with some of the new releases I might be able to share with my customers.
So, early in the year, my reading shifted back from personal to pro, but there were good books on both sides of the divide. And aside from a few favorites (see below), what I find myself remembering as vivid reading experiences are not consistently excellent books like Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, Ben Lerner’s 10:04, David Markson’s Reader’s Block, Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, Lawrence Wright’s Thirteen Days in September, Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book, Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, Edward Hirsch’s Gabriel, Brendan Koerner’s The Skies Belong to Us, and William Gibson’s The Peripheral — all very good books I’d happily put in your hands if you walked into my store — but the more jagged-edged books I might hand you with a caveat.
I remember, with delight, the first half of Anthony Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds — “Finally reading Trollope,” I told everyone, or, rather, tweeted. “What took me so long to sample this deliciousness?” — before his stamina started to outlast mine. I was delighted too with the first half of Joseph O’Neill’s The Dog and the voice he captured, as companionable as Netherland’s but more chilling (like P.G. Wodehouse telling a J.G. Ballard story), even if for me that voice never grew into a full book. I admired and enjoyed Farther and Wilder, Blake Bailey’s biography of Charles Jackson, but I wondered if his subject was worth his talents until the final third — usually the least interesting in any biography — when Jackson’s accumulated troubles, and his belated reckoning with them, made his life profoundly moving. And though Joel Selvin’s Here Comes the Night had for me a hole at its center == the interior life of its ostensible subject, unsung record man Bert Berns, remained a cipher — I loved Selvin’s hepcat riffs on Berns and his fellow “centurions of pop.”
And then there were the books I loved best, all novels, it turns out. The best book I read this year was Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which I hope I don’t need to say much about. In Manny Farber terms, it plays a white elephant game rather than a termite one: tackling a major national and personal subject head on and relying on the traditional methods of the novel to do it. It’s the kind of book that wins awards, and in this case deservedly so. I also loved Michael Winter’s Minister Without Portfolio, a much more termite-ish book after it gets beyond an early Big Event and settles into working out the everyday morality of rural life in a reticent romance I was startled to realize reminded me of Kitty and Levin’s in Anna Karenina.
Merritt Tierce’s debut, Love Me Back, more or less tore my scalp off. She tells the story of a single mom waitressing her way up the service-industry ladder to a high-end Dallas steakhouse, with disarming amounts of sex and drugs along the way, and strips it of any success — or redemption — story arcs. Desire and discipline and self-destruction are constant forces that ebb and flow and are by no means sated by the story’s end. Peter Mountford’s The Dismal Science is also about the always underserved topic of work: a high official at the World Bank decides to speak a few truths (which he’s not entirely certain are true) and thereby blow up his life. In part I loved it because it captured the culture of Red-Line-to-Shady-Grove D.C. and Maryland I grew up in like no other fiction I’ve read, and in part because it’s the kind of novel where a character walks into a room and you get the feeling that neither he, nor his creator, knows what he is going to do there until he does it. (Right afterwards I read Mountford’s previous novel, A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, a companion to this one, and liked it nearly as much.)
And lastly, the first book I read all year (if the January 2 train ticket still inside is to be believed) is the only one close to Flanagan’s in my mind: J.M. Ledgard’s Submergence. It’s both an excellent book and a jagged one. Its jaggedness — the resistance I felt when reading it, and the thing I feel obligated to warn about when I’m recommending it — is its almost perverse formality. To someone schooled in the hi-lo tendencies of our time, Ledgard’s elevated style is a provocation; I’m not sure there’s a contraction in the entire book, for instance, aside from a few in dialogue. And the characters in his dual storyline, who connect for a few days at a quietly luxurious hotel on the French coast, have an equal sense of exceptional cultivation. They think of life in terms of centuries: one a mathematician and ocean researcher who, as she prepares to descend to the floor of the Atlantic in a tiny submersible, is confident her name and her discoveries will live for hundreds of years, the other a British spy in Africa whose thoughts, as he is held hostage by Somali jihadists, keep returning to his English forebears and the utopias they imagined half a millennium before.
I find myself wanting to make fun of Submergence, to goof on its gravity (and on Ledgard himself, whose author bio describes him as “a thinker on risk and technology in emerging economies”), but the thing is, I can’t. He pulls it off, and earns every bit of profundity he claims. And it’s the thinking in centuries that does it: the awareness of the massive scales of biology and history, alongside the poignancy of individual existence. I often don’t care about the ends of novels, and I can’t tell you what finally happened in many of the ones I love most, but there are some endings that, in the process of tying things up, open up an abyss of meaning that’s almost unbearable. This is one of them.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Perhaps you have just ended a blistering affair. Perhaps you have just discovered your significant other’s blistering affair. Perhaps you are contemplating embarking on one – or ejecting from one. These three books will help.
If it is your own affair you are concerned with, consider turning to A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-First Century by Christina Nehring. Nehring looks at love in its myriad forms through the lives and creations of writers, poets, philosophers, and artists, many of whom were rather badly – or let us say unconventionally – behaved.
Start with the chapter “Love as Transgression,” which helps explain how and why love often arises “out of obstruction and illegitimacy.” Think Romeo and Juliet, the antagonists in Les liaisons dangereuses, Madame Bovary, and, of course, Anna Karenina. But “Love as Transgression” tells the story of the mythological 12th century lovers Tristan and Iseult. Kept apart by marriages to other people, imprisonment and self-imposed exile (Tristan was a knight after all) they kept finding ways to come together anyway – through disguises, secret trysts, an escape to a nearby forest, and, finally, a deathbed reunion. They knew that love “is about breaking boundaries between people and about breaking boundaries of propriety.” And that love “is always against something as ardently as it is for somebody.” But after all that passion, all that breakage, sometimes you are left with only wreckage. And that is the time to read the chapter “Love as Failure.”
You might also read “Love as Failure” if you find yourself on the losing end of an affair. “Most great passions, in some sense, are failures,” Nehring writes. Consider Dante, Petrarch, Madame Butterfly, Carmen. Or Abelard, the medieval scholar who made love with his student Heloise (“My hands strayed oftener to her bosom than to the pages; love drew our eyes to look on each other more than reading kept them on our texts … Our desires left no stage of lovemaking untried …”) until he is castrated by her enraged uncle, joins a monastery, and persuades Heloise to enter a convent. After twelve years of silence between them, Heloise writes him a letter, and a new chapter of their spectacularly failed love begins – “Abelard responds to her in a way he has never responded to another human being in his life … with intimate reflections and ambitious theories, hymns and precepts, prayers and sermons … [and] Abelard’s dying wish was to be buried near Heloise.” Who knows what will spring from catastrophe?
This question is nearly impossible to answer when the catastrophe is fresh. Emma Straub’s tart new novel, The Vacationers, is a very different sort of book – a potential beach-read as much as a primer on affairs and their recovery – where we learn on the very first page that Jim Post has transgressed. Packing for a two-week family vacation on the island of Mallorca, he wishes he could leave out “the last year of his life … the way Franny looked at him across the dinner table at night; the feeling of himself inside a new mouth for the first time in three decades … the emptiness waiting on the other side of the return flight, the blank days he would have to fill and fill and fill.” Details of his affair are revealed slowly, as are the affairs of nearly everyone else in the book: Jim’s son Bobby, Franny’s best friend Chuck, and Jim and Franny’s daughter Sylvia’s traitorous best friend.
There is temperance and understanding – “Marriage is hard. Relationships are hard … We’ve all done things.” – as well as raw anger and blunt perspective – “Yes, we’ve all done things. I’ve done things like put on thirty pounds. He’s done things like put his penis inside a twenty-three-year-old. Don’t you think one of those is significantly worse?” Read The Vacationers if you want your tragedy leavened with a bit of farce, your compassion enlivened with a bit of acid, your lack of forgiveness tempered with an abiding love. “The human heart [is] a complex organ at any age,” Straub reminds us, and then guides us through its chambers.
And then there is Anna Karenina. Of course there is Anna Karenina. There is also Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair or Robert James Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County (remember that craziness?). But if you really want to get over an affair, to see an affair clearly from start to finish, to see what wind fills its sails and what trash lies in its wake, surrender yourself to 817 pages of gorgeous, harrowing, revelatory Tolstoy.
We all know the shorthand version: girl meets boy, girl (thinks she) loses boy, girl meets train. But that is only one layer of this matrëška of love and loss. Before we meet Anna, before we meet Vronsky, on the very first page and in the very second sentence we are plunged into a family’s chaos because of an affair: “The wife had found out that the husband was having an affair with their former French governess …” And thus begins Anna’s sister-in-law Darya Alexandrovna Oblonskya’s story of anguish, disappointment, resignation, and transcendence. Anna’s story begins soon after, when she meets Vronsky, who provokes in her “a strange feeling of pleasure” as well as “a fear of something.” She is right to be both pleased and afraid, for she and Vronsky will embark on an affair that leaves more than a few casualties in its wake: an abandoned spouse, two abandoned children, a ruined career, a tarnished innocence, two suicide attempts (one of them successful); at least six hearts bruised, broken, shot at or run over. Orbiting around this dark sun are the lesser affairs of Anna’s brother Oblonsky, Levin’s brother’s relationship with a former prostitute, Levin’s own dalliances before his marriage to Kitty, the delicate dance that leads to Kitty’s friend Varenka’s almost-proposal, and various flirtations and trysts in their social circle.
What Tolstoy does so beautifully is show all the ups and down of an affair, from the childlike glee that illuminates a woman in love (“‘It’s late now, late, late,’ she whispered with a smile. She lay for a long time motionless, her eyes open, at it seemed to her that she herself could see them shining in the darkness.”) to the strange internal transformations obsessive love can bring (“What is that on the armrest – a fur coat or some animal? And what am I? Myself or someone else?”).
Whatever state of an affair you are in – the electrical beginning, the increasingly complicated middle, the bang or the whimper of the end, the terrible discovery of someone else’s affair or the arid time that comes before the next, the lovers in Anna Karenina will walk with you, teach you, warn you, encourage and console you. If you want to read how artists and their creations navigated these treacherous waters, try A Vindication of Love. But if a Spanish beach or private pool is more your speed, kick back with The Vacationers. For an acute case, read all three.
Image via rvoegtli/Flickr
“To start with, look at all the books.”
This is how Jeffrey Eugenides opens his novel The Marriage Plot, and it may as well be the opening of my life. I am surrounded by piles and piles (and, seriously, piles) of books. In my office, my bedroom, the bathroom. My girlfriend’s always annoyed with the stacks that appear as if by magic on our living room coffee table. She counts them, and then says, “Fourteen books? Really?”
Well, I want to say, yeah. Really. Fourteen books. What do you want from me?
So in the interest of proving the worth of all of these piles, recently I’ve been writing essays about them. Some of them I’ve published. My essay “The Art of the Epigraph,” published a few weeks ago right here on The Millions, came out of my desperate ploy. Now, I’m turning my attention to opening sentences. Why? Well, first, because I have a prodigious and unembarrassed passion for opening sentences. But also: Look at all the goddamn books.
I tend to prefer opening sentences that get right to the point, so I’m just going to state right off the bat that this essay intends to analyze a handful of opening sentences from classic to recent novels and examine their effects. Opening sentences have long fascinated me, so much so that I’ve even made a point to memorize the beginnings of most of the books I read. This is what I do with my time. If possible, I love opening sentences even more than epigraphs. If I were ever a contestant on Jeopardy!, and “Opening Sentences” popped up in one of the blue boxes, I would destroy that category.
Like any reader, when I pick up a book, I open it and check out the first words. I’m not looking for anything specific. Actually, what I love about opening sentences is the complete lack of rules, how each writer gets to decide how best to guide a reader into their narrative. A writer, after all, is the instructor for the experience of their own work, and the opening sentence––after the book design, title, and epigraph––is among the reader’s first impressions. Opening sentences are not to be written lightly.
But how do they work? What’s makes a good one effective? Is there a better way to do it? Or is it a creative free-for-all?
As a teen, I became enamored of the 19th-century standard: that of the Grand Declaration, a way of establishing the high themes of the work. We know these openings by heart: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice; and, of course, Dickens’s “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…” from A Tale of Two Cities. When I first came upon these novels, these declarations thrilled me, as they implied high-mindedness, a lofty ambition of subject, even if that subject was treated satirically, as in Austen’s case. The absolutist vibe they gave off made the work itself feel chiseled into rock, as if each word were crafted to unimpeachable perfection. As a fledgling novelist, I now see the malleability of fiction, its fluidity, how it is never as hard as stone, how, at most, it only appears that way. The Grand Declaration has, thankfully, mostly fallen out of fashion, though our reverence for these famous sentences persists. They’re great lines, to be sure, but readers know by now that a novel is a perfect place for moral, emotional, political, and spiritual investigation. We don’t need to be cued into the game so directly.
Later, writers offered increasingly subtle and idiosyncratic opening lines. Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself,” expressed a woman’s small claim of autonomy. Ken Kesey established the mood of paranoia of authority in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with, “They’re out there.” J.D. Salinger distinguished his novel’s famous protagonist from a particular famous protagonist of the past with the honesty of his voice and the statement contained in the opening:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
Contained in each of the above sentences is something crucial to the novel it opens, all without stating it outright. Much can be accomplished in seemingly straightforward prose.
It would be easy to think of opening sentences as somehow representative of the rest of the book, as exemplifying some quintessence of the novel’s aims, but this isn’t––and shouldn’t––always be so. Take D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which opens with, “Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically,” and goes on to describe the state of life after WWI. The pronouns here––the first-person-plurals “our” and “we”––are not used in the rest of the book, which stays firmly in third person. The line immediately following this section is: “This was more or less Constance Chatterley’s position.” The switch from first- to third-person places us squarely into the mind and story of Lady Chatterley, and makes us, because of their aberrance, remember those lines as we read on. Does the “tragic age” remain tragic? Or, as Doris Lessing puts it, will “England…be saved through warm-hearted fucking”?
Jumping ahead a number of decades, let’s examine another work in which the opening line is far from representative of the style to follow. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections starts with curiously ill-fitting grandness: “The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen.” Isolated, this is a wonderfully evocative opening, but once I read the rest of the book (which is utterly fantastic), I wondered about those first lines. They now seemed such a transparent attempt to elevate the book to classic status. On my second read, I came across this lit bit of dialogue from Chip, about his unsold and pretentious screenplay:
“My idea,” Chip said, “was to have this ‘hump’ that the moviegoer has to get over. Putting something offputting at the beginning, it’s a classic modernist strategy. There’s a lot of rich suspense toward the end.”
Is Franzen being meta here? Is he acknowledging the ill-fitting language of his opening when set against the “rich suspense” of the rest? It’s hard not to see Chip as the closest character resembling Franzen himself, who, before publishing The Corrections famously worried about the direction of the novel in his Harper’s essay “Why Bother?” He writes:
I resist, finally, the notion of literature as a noble higher calling, because elitism doesn’t sit well with my American nature, and because even if my belief in mystery didn’t incline me to distrust feelings of superiority, my belief in manners would make it difficult for me to explain to my brother, who is a fan of Michael Crichton, that the work I’m doing is simply better than Crichton’s.
Is The Corrections, which marked a significant shift in Franzen’s style, his way of leaving his past behind? Of declaring a new ambition for fiction? Maybe the following bit of dialogue captures how Franzen felt about his former fiction, and maybe about difficult social fiction in general: As Chip’s girlfriend (who couldn’t make it all the way through his script) leaves him, he tries to convince her of the opening’s value: “You see, though,” he says, “the entire story is prefigured in that monologue. Every single theme is there in capsule form––gender, power, identity, authenticity––and the thing is…Wait. Wait. Julia?” Though Chip’s argument is probably reasonably founded, no one really cares about prefiguring themes in capsule form. Readers aren’t necessarily looking for structural innovations or cerebral thematic overtures. More likely, they’re looking, as Franzen himself wrote, “for a way out of loneliness.”
I do not mean to suggest that great, classic novels can’t begin simply and straightforwardly, in a style that is illustrative of the novel it opens. In fact, it’s the more common practice. But that fact does not diminish the power or the greatness of any work. Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, for instance, gets right into the story, like the thriller it is: “Early one evening, during an exceptional heat wave in the beginning of July, a young man walked out into the street from the closetlike room he rented on Stoliarny Place.” From there, we are thrust into the mind of Raskolnikov and his murderous, immoral descent. Any other kind of opening would have been unnecessary.
A novelist teaches the reader how to read the novel, and along the way they express innumerable opinions about their view of literature in relation to this one work. Dostoyevsky didn’t believe that Crime and Punishment needed a conspicuous opening. (It needed a quotidian introduction with hints of aberrance. The “exceptional heat wave” (implying tension, heat, murkiness, anger) pops out of the routine, and so although Raskolnikov attempts to act naturally and arouse no suspicion, the reader knows––subtly, maybe inexpressibly––that something is amiss. (Regular life, this isn’t.) But Dostoyevsky did think his incredible short novel Notes from Underground ought to start ostentatiously: “I am a sick man…I am a spiteful man.” You do not get any grander than that.
In other words, a portion of our measurement of an opening line’s efficacy must be contextual. How does it set up what follows? From what perspective is it written? Where does it take us? And yet, it must also be judged completely on its own, for if a novel starts slowly, unpromisingly, no one will want to continue. Inserting something “offputting” at the beginning, despite what Chip thinks, is generally a really stupid idea.
Two of the best novels of last year open with sentences that are simple, straightforward and representative of the whole, and they both get right to the point. Meg Wolitzer’s beautiful and funny novel The Interestings begins like this: “On a warm night in early July of that long-evaporated year, the Interestings gathered for the very first time.” Simple, direct, yet enticing––suggestive of a history about to unfold. See, this is an opening aimed at both establishing the focus and the narrative. The Interestings are nothing more than a group of artists who meet at a summer camp in 1974 when they’re fifteen and sixteen years old. They named themselves The Interestings. Still, with this sentence Wolitzer imbues a sense of grandeur––a kind of historical importance––to the story of these friends as they age, as they wax and wane in their careers, and as they struggle to stay together. They all grow up, eventually, but when they first met, when they were teens, they believed they were important, destined for fame, fortune, critical respect––and the opening sentence reflects that.
Eleanor Catton’s whopper of a masterpiece, the Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries, is set in nineteenth-century New Zealand, and its language harkens back to those big Victorian novels. It is undoubtedly a tale––no other word for it––with rousing adventure and ridiculously complex intrigue and mystery. It also features an enormous cast and a narrative that moves through all of their points of view. How does one begin such a novel? How does a writer set the style, hint at its high population, and yet still retain the enigmatic air of a tale? Here’s how Catton answers those questions: “The twelve men congregated in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met.” Pretty perfect, right? In this short, direct sentence, you’ve got the large cast (twelve men), the period and atmosphere (smoking room), and the air of mystery: why have these men met? Do they know each other? Who are they? But Catton does one better with the next sentence:
From the variety of their comportment and dress––frock coats, tailcoats, Norfolk jackets with buttons of horn, yellow moleskin, cambric, and twill––they might have been twelve strangers on a railway car, each bound for a separate quarter of a city that possessed fog and tides enough to divide them; indeed, the studied isolation of each man as he pored over his paper, or leaned forward to tap his ashes into the grate, or placed the splay of his hand upon the baize to take his shot at billiards, conspired to form the very type of bodily silence that occurs, late in the evening, on a public railway––deadened here not by the slur and clunk of the coaches, but by the fat clatter of the rain.
Come on! How masterful is that stretch of writing? How evocative, how eloquent, how, how…inviting. As soon as I read those words, I knew I would read all 834 pages of The Luminaries, and quickly. And I did: I blazed through it at (at least) a hundred-and-fifty-page-a-day pace. Everything in the novel is, like Chip’s screenplay, “prefigured” in that opening. Except here, Catton’s work is so sly, so skillfully wrought you’d have to read the whole thing to even begin to understand how expertly Catton guided you as a reader.
Catton, by the way, is twenty-eight years old.
Both Wolitzer’s and Catton’s openings skirt grandness and express no overarching theme directly. They are elegant and direct, but that doesn’t mean they are only accomplishing one thing. Often the most artful way to communicate something is when it is couched within ostensible artlessness.
Then, of course, there are the allusive openings, the ones that, to use a crass verb, borrow from the work of their forebears. Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle references what is perhaps the most famous opening line ever, “Call me Ishmael,” from Melville’s Moby Dick. Melville’s line, more than simply being famous, is also one of the most complex (and economic, at three words). First, this narrator is talking to us, and in a friendly, almost conspiratorial way. Second, someone asking you to call them something usually means it’s not their real name, so “Ishmael” appears a tad suspicious. Third, the reference to the Biblical Ishmael (son of Abraham, half-brother of Isaac, ancestor of the Arab peoples) hints at our narrator’s exiled status.
Vonnegut plays a great joke on Melville’s line in Cat’s Cradle: “Call me Jonah. My parents did. Or nearly did. They called me John.” Again, the same direct, conversational tone toward the reader; again, the discrepancy between given name and chosen name (except here, we’re given his real name); and again, the Biblical reference. And that’s the great joke: the Book of Jonah tells the story of a man who is––you guessed it––swallowed by a whale. Vonnegut’s Jonah, through his adventures on the mysterious island of San Lorenzo, gets swallowed by much bigger whales––religion and politics.
Zadie Smith’s allusive opening of On Beauty isn’t nearly as cheeky as Vonnegut’s (after all, how many people in the world are as cheeky as Vonnegut?). Her novel begins: “One may as well begin with Jerome’s e-mails to his father,” and proceeds to do just that. This is an update of the opening of E.M. Forster’s Howards End, which goes: “One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sisters.” Smith’s is a respectful nod, a deferential ode to a writer “to whom,” she writes, “all my fiction is indebted.” But Smith goes one further: her protagonist is named after Forster’s titular house, and, considering what happens to Howard in On Beauty, Smith’s novel may have borrowed Forster’s title as well, with one addition: an apostrophe between the d and s in Howards. (Instead, Smith borrow her title from Elaine Scarry’s essay “On Beauty and Being Just.”)
Allusions are risky, as they can fall flat very easily. I’ve seen numerous stories that, for example, open with something similar to Kafka’s famous, “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect,” from The Metamorphosis. Most of these referential lines are just plain bad. Recently, Haruki Murakami showed that a writer could tackle Kafka’s famous sentence with wit and originally. His story “Samsa in Love” from The New Yorker takes this approach: “He woke to discover that he had undergone a metamorphosis and become Gregor Samsa.” Now that’s interesting. In Kafka’s time, the idea of changing into a bug was novel, terrifying, and confounding. We’re used to such a premise by this point. Now, our great terror would be becoming a Kafka character.
But, you know, that’s Murakami. Most writers aren’t as imaginative.
And last but not least are those openings that provoke, that immediately stun a reader with brutal frankness. Philip Roth’s Sabbath Theater is a dark, twisted novel, full of sexual explicitness and moral ambiguity, and Roth wastes no time letting a reader know this: “Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over.” This ultimatum comes from Mickey Sabbath’s mistress, and it aptly captures the strange, strict limitations sex and love can force upon us, even when they are “maddeningly improbable.” Roth really does his reader a favor––if you’re not comfortable with this level of candidness, this isn’t the novel for you. Because, oh yeah, it only goes down (or up, depending on your view) from there.
Toni Morrison’s Paradise famously provides immediate and heartbreaking shock: “They shot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.” The massacre at the Convent sets up the complex and tragic tale of Ruby, Oklahoma, an all-black community. We never learn who the “white girl” is; she joins the list of millions––billions, even––of the anonymous dead. Morrison, no stranger to frankness, is particularly good at opening her books. A Mercy: “Don’t be afraid.” Song of Solomon: “The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock.” And, of course, Beloved: “124 was spiteful.” Morrison’s prose style is one-of-a-kind, and her ambition––to, in part, “work credibly and, perhaps, elegantly with a discredited vocabulary”––has more than been met, surpassed, even stunned into submission. These opening lines are her first punches.
I probably fetishize opening lines because, well, I’m a reader and a writer. As a reader, a really wonderful opening line makes me giddy with excitement. I nestle myself as deeply into my couch as I can go, and I accept the deal the novel has offered me. Yes, I will read the rest of you. You’ve earned it. As a writer, the opening line is the purest, most unadulterated part of a work. Before it, the blank page. After it, the whole of a story, a novel, a book. It is the division between nothing and something, the bridge between emptiness and fullness, between something in your head and something on the page. The opening sentence is the first utterance of life, the initial gasp of air that birth forces out.
Perhaps this would be better expressed through what is perhaps my favorite opening line from a recent novel. Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin revolves around Philippe Petit’s incredible guerilla tight-rope walk between the World Trade Center towers in 1974, and this is how it starts: “Those who saw him hushed.” The image of Philippe Petit does not need to be described here, though a beautiful image it undoubtedly is. McCann wisely focuses our attention to the people on the pavement. Their hush is full of more beauty than any description ever could be. This accurately captures how I feel about a great opening––hell, about great literature in general: it’s amazing and unbelievable, and although there is so much you can say about it, sometimes all I can do is shut up and witness.
Image via Thunderchild7/Flickr
When it comes to this year’s Winter Olympics, it’s almost Biblical: in the beginning there was Twitter, and the tweets were about toilets. Whether as a result of poor planning and corruption — or whether as a call-back to the uniquely Soviet production quota issues that led to backwards high heels and sticky raincoats — the facilities in Sochi have been the butt of jokes across the internet since the first reporters touched down weeks ago. The issues are legion: there are missing pipes; there are innovative seat covers; and everywhere there are reminders that privacy is a lie.
(Of course, these superficial issues belie much more systemic and widespread problems, and I hope that the journalists decrying the last-minute paint jobs are going to be equally vocal about Russia’s deeply unsettling human rights issues.)
Yet and still, I’ll admit that my Millions colleague Janet Potter and I have indulged our affinity for Schadenfreude by cataloguing some of the more outrageous entries popping up on our Twitter timelines. (The best typically bear the hashtags #SochiProblems and #RatchetOlympics.) All the while, I’ve found myself subconsciously pairing the absurdities with their analogues from the canon of Russian literature. And as I’ve come to learn, the Russian masters saw the writing on the wall well before the Olympic torch made its way to the Black Sea’s coast. Below, I offer a brief compendium of classic quotations paired with some of the more incredible and regrettable sights that Sochi has to offer.
“Such complete, absolute ignorance of everyday reality was touching and somehow repulsive.” – Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot
Sochi menu. Not a joke. pic.twitter.com/OAnXN9h5rk
— Eugene Gourevitch (@gourev) February 5, 2014
“Death can only be profitable: there’s no need to eat.” – Anton Chekhov, “Rothschild’s Fiddle”
— Liz Clarke (@lizclarketweet) February 6, 2014
“There was no answer to any of these questions, except one, and that not a logical answer and not at all a reply to them. The answer was: ‘You’ll die and all will end. You’ll die and know all, or cease asking.’” – Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
— Wayne Drehs (@espnWD) February 6, 2014
“It is no use to blame the looking glass if your face is awry.” – Nikolai Gogol, The Inspector General
— Steph Stricklen (@StephStricklen) February 6, 2014
“By words a man transmits his thoughts to another, by means of art he transmits his feelings.” – Leo Tolstoy, What Is Art?
— The Straits Times (@STcom) February 6, 2014
“’No strangers allowed. Go away.’
‘I don’t understand…’
‘Understanding is strictly forbidden. Even dreams have the right to dream. Isn’t that so? Now go away.’” ― Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Memories of the Future
— The Atlantic Cities (@AtlanticCities) February 6, 2014
“Always to shine,
to shine everywhere,
to the very deeps of the last days,
and to hell with everything else!
That is my motto—
and the sun’s!” ― Vladimir Mayakovksy, “An Extraordinary Adventure…”
— U.S. Figure Skating (@USFigureSkating) February 7, 2014
“In fact, I’m beginning to fear that this confusion will go on for a long time. And all because he writes down what I said incorrectly.” – Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita
— Baiba Rubesa (@rubesita) January 25, 2014
“Your health is bound to be affected if, day after day, you say the opposite of what you feel.” – Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago
Russian deputy PM on Sochi (through a translator): "There are no jobless people here." Also said there will be a Russian Disneyland here.
— SeanFitz_Gerald (@SeanFitz_Gerald) February 6, 2014
“Are some less lucky, or do all escape?
A syllogism; other men die
But I am not another: therefore I’ll not die” – Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
I was taking a shower and the door got locked/jammed….
— Johnny Quinn (@JohnnyQuinnUSA) February 8, 2014
— Johnny Quinn (@JohnnyQuinnUSA) February 8, 2014
“And over the village slipped the days, passing into the nights; the weeks flowed by, the months crept on, the wind howled, and, glassified with an autumnal, translucent, greenish-azure, the Don flowed tranquilly down to the sea.” – Mikhail Sholokhov, And Quiet Flows the Don
— Sochi 2014 (@Sochi2014) January 29, 2014
“And everything that he saw before him / He despised or hated.” – Mikhail Lermontov, “The Demon” (Note: Russian)
— Mark Connolly (@MarkConnollyCBC) February 6, 2014
“—The point is Americans are always scared about something—frightened they’ll be kicked out of their job or their wife’s going to get raped or their car stolen…they’re scared stiff the whole time…
—Still, they don’t have these queues.
—No, they don’t have the queues, that’s true.” – Vladimir Sorokin, The Queue
Sochi residents standing in a line to enter live site where opening ceremony will be broadcast. Entry is free. pic.twitter.com/taLBCzibIW
— Артем Тихомиров (@tyomson1) February 7, 2014
“Respect was invented to cover the empty place where love should be.” – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
— Jeanessa Garcia (@JeanessaPR) February 10, 2014
“If you have pain in one tooth, rejoice that it is not all your teeth that are aching.” – Anton Chekhov, “Life is Wonderful” *
— The Verge (@verge) February 7, 2014
* Alternate: “The formula ‘two plus two equals five’ is not without its attractions.” ― Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground
“The illusion which exalts us is dearer to us than ten thousand truths.” – Alexander Pushkin, “The Hero” (as quoted in Chekhov’s “Gooseberries”)
— Aayush Sidd (@ayush_1901) February 7, 2014
“…as I was sifting through a heap of old and new ‘identity cards,’ I noticed that something was missing: my identity.” ― Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Autobiography of a Corpse
— Lisa LaFlamme (@LisaLaFlammeCTV) February 7, 2014
Twenty minutes into Ridley Scott’s most recent addition to the Alien franchise, the film’s female protagonist, played by Noomi Rapace, attempts to explain to her crew why the scientific vessel Prometheus has spent four years travelling to the faraway moon of LV-223. While expounding her theory of how life on planet Earth was begun by an ancient, enigmatic species dubbed “Engineers,” the vessel’s zoologist, played by Rafe Spell, is unable to contain his skepticism: “Do you have anything to back that up? I mean, look: if you’re willing to discount three centuries of Darwinism, that’s…[sardonic thumbs-up]…but how do you know?”
This scene aboard the Prometheus serves as a useful parallel to the debate which forms the backdrop to this essay. If we swap 2093 for the present, deep space for this planet’s university English departments, and the origin of humanity for the constitution of modern literary study, we have the basic features of the ongoing clash between literary Darwinism and the rest of the literary establishment. Because the accusation that literary Darwinists level at their colleagues is identical to that of Prometheus’s exasperated zoologist: one of discounting the whole of evolutionary theory, in exchange for their own inadequate and vacuous ideas.
Why should readers of The Millions care about a dispute occurring amidst the cloistered halls of English faculties? Aren’t most debates within literary academia so esoteric, so riddled with obscurantist jargon, that they bear very little relation to the actual reading of books?
Not in the case of literary Darwinism. On the contrary; this self-described “robust guerilla band” intend, eventually, to be able to tell us a number of very straightforward things: why we write, why we read, and why we write the things we write and read the things we read.
Defined simply, literary Darwinism is the practice of using the theory of evolution to understand books. Just as a Marxist critic would emphasize the appearance of class conflict, or the postcolonial critic would focus on the influence of a bygone empire, a literary Darwinist would pick up a novel and highlight the various ways in which they see evolution doing its thing. (And they invariably do see it.) Where another critic might discuss how Pride and Prejudice dramatises the search for self-understanding, or evokes the stultifying conformity of Victorian Britain, a literary Darwinist would stress the fact that all the women compete to marry high-status men, thereby complying with the Darwinian idea that females seek out mates who will assure the success of their genetic offspring.
Where a historicist critic might investigate Faust’s roots in Polish folkore, a literary Darwinist would focus on how it upholds the essential moral character of most literature. (And in turn, via its prescriptive morality, helps evolving societies to unify and thrive.)
This summarizes the two main strains of Literary Darwinism. At the crude end, is old-fashioned textual analysis, but through a Darwinian lens — as in the Pride and Prejudice example. This mostly takes the form of uncovering innate patterns of human behaviour: childbearing, the acquisition of resources, intergroup competition and cooperation, etc. Sometimes this is carried out with nuance and care, as in Jonathan Gottschall’s The Rape of Troy: Evolution, Violence and the World of Homer (2008). Other times, though, it can produce analysis which makes Sparknotes read like James Wood. Witness the following, from the pop-sciencey Madame Bovary’s Ovaries: “Females are egg makers; males, sperm squirters. The truly important thing about Othello wasn’t the color of his skin, his age or his war record. Rather, Othello was all about sperm; Desdemona, eggs.”
On the more interesting (and academic) end of things, the Literary Darwinists are interested in the adaptive function of literature; as in the Faust example. Their theories vary, from those who posit that storytelling is essentially a form of sexual display (à la Geoffrey Miller’s The Mating Mind) to those who see it as a way of constructing a shared social identity. A few of them entertain the idea that these imaginative abilities are evolutionary by-products (also known as “spandrels”); the offshoots of other, more obviously practical cognitive developments. Most of them, though, posit that the literary imagination is a specific, evolved trait, which — like the opposable thumb, or the neocortex — enabled our Pleistocene-era descendants to better survive their environment. Thus Jonathan Gottschall declares that “fiction is a powerful and ancient virtual reality technology that…allows our brains to practice reacting to the kinds of challenges that are, and always were, most crucial to our success as a species.” And Brian Boyd — whose On the Origin of Stories is probably the best single work of literary Darwinism — states that “by refining and strengthening our sociality, by making us readier to use the resources of the imagination, and by raising our confidence in shaping life on our own terms, [literature] fundamentally alters our relation to the world. The survival consequences may be difficult to tabulate, but they are profound.”
Throughout all forms of their analysis, though — from crude readings of Othello to more sensitive works of scholarship — the literary Darwinists are united in epistemological stance. All of them reject the so-called Standard Social Science Model, as famously castigated in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate. They are philosophical materialists, and they believe we are first and foremost biological beings hardwired for a number of behaviour patterns. Indeed, most of the literary Darwinists portray social constructionism and its intellectual products — Derridean deconstruction, Foucauldian social theory, psychoanalysis — as something akin to an intellectual tragedy, and there is nothing that many of them enjoy more than mocking lit crit’s most polarizing product: capital-T Theory. Because Theory, as they (not without justification) see it, is just endlessly rococo speculation. And what the literary Darwinists want is something they see as more often reserved to the other side of campus: what Gottschall is fond of referring to as “durable knowledge.”
And this is where literary Darwinism gets interesting. Because far from being a niche academic concern, the movement, small though it is, plays into a much wider cultural tension. Carroll, Gottschall and their companions are wedded to a narrative of empiricism, positivism, quantification, and progress. They are triumphant rationalists. One can be pretty certain, for example, that as well as casting out Freud and Marx, they have little time for conspiracy theories or alternative medicine. And their aspirations are nothing if not lofty. As literary Darwinism’s most high-profile advocate, the American biologist E.O. Wilson, wrote in his foreword to the 2005 collection The Literary Animal: “if not only human nature but its outermost literary productions can be solidly connected to biological roots, it will be one of the great events of intellectual history. Science and the humanities united!”
The problem, of course, is that all this comes off as an attempt to explain books. To reduce literature to sex, survival, and status. And understandably, this gets some people — particularly some book-lovers – a little riled. So we have a Guardian columnist declare that “literature is not an evolutionary join-the-dots…Such interpretations strip literature down to an impoverished universalism: a bland and neutral manuscript where ciphers of the same biological impulses and selfish genes can be repeated ad infinitum.” Similarly, writing a few weeks ago, the longtime critic of literary Darwinism William Deresiewicz rages that “Pride and Prejudice is about mate selection. Hamlet struggles to choose between personal and genetic self-interest…It isn’t even like using a chainsaw instead of a scalpel; it’s like using a chainsaw instead of a stethoscope.”
Such accusations are nothing new, of course. The idea that scientific explanation guts the aesthetic experience dates at least as far back as the Romantic poet John Keats’s remark that Isaac Newton destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by “reducing it to the prismatic colours.” And the entirety of continental philosophy from Hegel through to Derrida rejects the notion that the natural sciences have a monopoly on the comprehension of phenomena.
The problem, though, is that one finds it hard not to sympathize with both camps. (I’m somewhat cheapening the debate here by presenting it as a simple one-on-one, but still.) On the one hand, it really does feel reductive to talk about Jane Austen as simply complex competition for mates. Even Jonathan Gottschall himself recognizes that “fictions, fantasies, dreams…they are the last bastion of magic. They are the one place where science cannot — should not — penetrate, reducing ancient mysteries to electrochemical storms in the brain or timeless warfare among selfish genes.” And his counter — “But I disagree. Science adds to wonder, it doesn’t dissolve it.” — can’t help but feel defensive and somewhat grasping, reminding one of the way Richard Dawkins constantly appeals to “wonder” as a panacea for a world he himself admits, as in River Out of Eden, is underpinned by “nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” There’s no escaping it: to say that Anna Karenina is first and foremost about sperm and eggs feels…wrong. What’s more, the literary Darwinists can be guilty of massaging their data. In The Storytelling Animal, Gottschall points to the fact that Dostoyevsky didn’t have Raskolnikov “live happily ever after” as proof of the moralism inherent in literature, but Dostoevsky — a devout Orthodox Christian and fervent anti-nihilist — was an author unusually attached to ideas of moralism. How to account for Mikhail Artsybashev, who came to prominence shortly after Dostoevsky, and cited him as a great influence, but whose much-censored works celebrated hedonism, sexual licentiousness, and even group suicide?
Equally, though, literary Darwinists are honest scholars, and theirs is a genuine intellectual enquiry. An assistant professor of English writes with conviction that “the humanity yet transcendence in Dostoevsky — to attempt to explain such things solely in terms of the bare forces of evolutionary survival risks altogether explaining them away.” Maybe so: but does such a risk mean that one simply doesn’t bother at all? Assuming one accepts the premises of evolutionary theory, including the fact that the human mind is evolved, and is serious about understanding literature (a product of that mind), is it good intellectual practice to simply ignore Darwinism altogether? Once one delves into the various rebuttals to literary Darwinism, it’s hard not to notice how many of them end up being longwinded appeals to emotion. Accusations of scientism and reductionism may or may not be warranted, but the fact remains: the most fundamental discovery in all of biological science remains more-or-less completely un-talked about in English seminars.
The humble book-lover, perhaps, has to simply tread the line as best they can. In closing, it might be instructive to turn to the case of Ian McEwan. Within the context of this discussion, McEwan is an interesting quantity. Not only is he arguably the most famous living English novelist, with a 40-year career and a Booker Prize behind him — he is also the only literary author to feature in the aforementioned 2005 collection The Literary Animal. Within his essay — a meandering paean to biology — McEwan states that “if one reads accounts of the systematic nonintrusive observations of troops of bonobo…one sees rehearsed all the major themes of the English nineteenth-century novel.” Only a year or two earlier, he had told The Paris Review that he saw fiction as a way “to play out our fears within the safe confines of the imaginary, as a form of hopeful exorcism.”
How does McEwan reconcile these views, one starkly reductive, one loftily poetic? Can fiction still provide, when on some level one believes that all the characters are just talking bonobos?
A 2013 article which McEwan wrote for the Guardian provides answers, of a sort. Discussing phases “when faith in fiction falters,” McEwan writes that he finds himself wondering “am I really a believer? And then: was I ever?” Approaching novels, he finds that “I don’t know how or where to suspend my disbelief.” (Bear in mind that Darwinism requires no such suspension: it is simply true, believed-in or otherwise.) When “the god of fiction” deserts him, McEwan finds himself reaching for books on “how the Higgs boson confers mass on fundamental particles, or how morality evolved.” (These barren patches strike one as a uniquely modern sort of artist’s dilemma; it’s hard to imagine Milton taking a hiatus from Paradise Lost to read about the first pendulum clocks.)
Slowly though, in spite of all the compelling non-fiction available, something happens: “Months can go by, and then there comes a shift, a realignment. It starts with a nudge. A detail, a phrase or a sentence, can initiate the beginning of a return to the fold.” McEwan doesn’t tell us how — probably he doesn’t know — but somehow, for all of science’s explanatory power, literature can’t be explained away.
The atheist may lie down with the believer, the encyclopedia with the poem. Everything absorbed and wondered at in the faithless months — science, maths, history, law and all the rest — you can bring with you and put to use when you return yet again to the one true faith.
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.
In her review of Joe Wright’s cinematic adaptation for Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Amanda Shubert writes, “Anna Karenina (2012) is, in fact, a mess. But it’s the kind of mess probably only Wright could make.” She goes on to look at how Wright has adapted work by Jane Austen and Ian McEwan, and how he has continued to face the problem of representing literary style (and form) on the screen.
Tom Stoppard, recently tasked with writing the screenplays for the new Anna Karenina (six minutes of which can be watched here) and Parade’s End film and television adaptations, speaks at length with Victoria Glendinning about his life and work. At 75 years old, the playwright is hardly slowing down.
For the past month my almost-three-year-old son and I have shared a joke. In idle moments, sitting around the table or on the playroom floor, we’ll make eye contact and start to grin. Then one or the other of us will whisper quietly, “Stinking Lizaveta,” and we’ll laugh and say it again and again in happy singsong voices.
Stinking Lizaveta, if you don’t know, is a minor character in The Brothers Karamazov. She is a short girl with a “completely idiotic” look fixed to her face and hair that “was always dirty with earth and mud, and had little leaves, splinters, and shavings stuck to it, because she always slept on the ground and in the mud.” She’s not a wholesome character, and one very unwholesome thing happens to her, which makes it all the funnier to me that my son should take such joy in pronouncing her name. (Which really is a pleasure to say out loud. Try it. “Stiiiin-kin’ Liiizaveta!”).
A couple nights ago I finished The Brothers Karamazov. I was riveted by long sections of the book but in the end I concluded that my taste in fiction leans more towards Tolstoy. In the last few years I’ve read Anna Karenina, War and Peace, and Crime and Punishment; overall, Tolstoy’s ability to see the angles of everyday life was more revelatory to me than Dostoevsky’s taste for the manic edges of experience.
There were places in The Brothers Karamazov that left me enthralled. Last month I wrote on The Millions about how the famed “Grand Inquisitor” chapter made me consider the similarities between the power I hold over my kids and the power religion holds over the faithful. Overall, though, the novel’s provocations about religion never fully grabbed me. I admired the fever with which Ivan Karamazov tries to convince his brother Alyosha that God does not exist (“It’s not that I don’t accept God, Alyosha, I just most respectfully return him the ticket”), but for whatever unaccountable reasons, Ivan’s preoccupations landed like a relic in my own life.
Dmitri Karamazov did grab me, though. If you were to evaluate him just on his actions, he’s a fool, of course. He’s passionate and volatile and often acts immorally: He makes a craven offer to a desperate woman; He steals; He publically abuses a weak man, dragging him around the square by his beard. But Dmitri has integrity despite his licentiousness. At the turning point in the novel, he flies to his beloved and unattainable Grushenka and initiates an evening of unbridled revelry. When the party comes to a crashing stop he declares:
You see, gentlemen, you seem to be taking me for quite a different man from what I am. It is a noble man you are speaking with, a most noble person; above all — do not lose sight of this — a man who has done a world of mean things, but who always was and remained a most noble person.
I believed Dmitri’s claims that he is a noble person. I sympathized with the plight he’d gotten himself into and saw in his tragic position a reflection of the tragic position in which we all find ourselves from time to time: driven by emotion to places our rational selves would rather not go. And maybe I agree, too, with Dostoevsky, who might say that we lose something essential if we go too far in subjugating passion to reason or to social authority (like religion or bureaucracy).
There were other pleasures in The Brothers Karamazov. The courtroom drama at the end of the novel is so much better than anything Law and Order or John Grisham have ever produced that it demeans Dostoevsky to even mention them by comparison. In particular, the defense attorney’s closing argument is remarkable for its command of human psychology, as the hired gun from St. Petersburg shows that all the supposedly incriminating circumstances of the case can be understood differently if only you’re inclined to think that way.
(The closing argument also introduces an epistemological standard that I think I’m going to lean on more often and which might lead to a run on The Brothers Karamazov among global warming denialists. The defense attorney warns the jury to be skeptical in situations like the case at hand where, “the overwhelming totality of the facts is against the defendant, and at the same time there is not one fact that will stand up to criticism.”)
I’d be omitting one of the most rewarding parts of having read The Brothers Karamazov if I didn’t mention that it facilitated my introduction to a remarkable writer named Chris Huntington. Chris sent me an email after my first Brothers Karamazov essay was published in January. Since then we’ve exchanged several rounds of highly enjoyable correspondence about literature and raising kids and his life as a teacher in China. He shared an essay he’d written recently for The Rumpus on The Brothers Karamazov called “The Last Book I Loved” that left me breathless (as well as a funny cartoon of Lisa Simpson clutching a copy of the book). I would have linked to Chris’ essay much earlier in this post, but for the fact that after reading his there’s not much reason to return to reading mine.
In total, The Brothers Karamazov was not the profound reading experience that I’d hoped for when I started the book, but that’s probably too high a standard with which to begin any relationship. That said, I don’t consider the entire history of my involvement with The Brothers Karamazov to have been written. For, as the peerless defense attorney from St. Petersburg might note, there is one last thread that hasn’t been sewn up.
The six weeks I spent reading The Brothers Karamazov happened to coincide almost exactly with the time in his life when my son became aware of letters. He’s known how to sing the alphabet for a long time, but he’s only recently started to understand that letters are discrete things that populate his world in important ways. Now that he looks for them he finds them everywhere: Two “C”s on our license plate; a “J” on a cereal box; an “I” (“or maybe it’s an ‘F,’” he said to me this morning) on a Valentine that hangs on our fridge.
My son has a long way to go until he’s reading The Brothers Karamazov, but hopefully not so long that he forgets about Stinking Lizaveta before he gets there. I hope I’ll be near at hand, or only a phone call away, when he discovers that the funny name we used to whisper to each other is actually a very sad character in a great novel, and that the line between life and art is arbitrary, if it exists at all.
The following is excerpted from the collection of essays The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, co-edited by Jeff Martin and Millions founder C. Max Magee. The book includes inventive, thoughtful, and funny pieces in which Jonathan Lethem, Rivka Galchen, Benjamin Kunkel. Joe Meno, Deb Olin Unferth, and many others consider the landscape as the literary world faces a revolution, a sudden change in the way we buy, produce, and read books. The book is available now on Amazon and in all good bookstores.
There are certain divisions in the world that seem unnecessary to me. Consider, for a moment, the ebook/paperbook divide. On the one side, the traditionalists, with their—okay, our—love of the objects that we call books. The texture of the paper, the beautiful dust jackets. Being able to see how much of a book remains to be read, as pages stack up on the left and diminish on the right. The ability to see two pages at once and have a sense of what’s coming. Writing in the margins.
On the other side stand the gadgeteers with their cold slim readers, packing entire libraries into a volume the size of a novella, flipping pages on a touchscreen. I don’t own a digital reader, but I understand why other people do. Aside from the natural joy of owning a shiny new gadget, there’s an undeniable appeal from a purely minimalist standpoint—why agonize over which two books to cram into your suitcase, when you can bring your entire library with you?—and I have to imagine that ebook aficionados have a much easier time of moving than I do. When I move to a new apartment, it’s a Herculean task involving towering mountains of impossibly heavy small boxes with labels like Fiction: Ames – Bellow and Theatre Books: Box 1 of 10. It isn’t pretty.
Digital readers and paper books have little in common. But both objects have considerable merit, and this is why I think we should combine the two.
The future of the book that I imagine involves an object that looks, in every detail, like a high-quality hardcover. The difference is that there’s no title visible on either the cover or the spine. When you first open the book, all the pages are blank. Hundreds of pages of high-quality paper—a slight sheen might hint at the underlying circuitry—with nothing on them. The cover is blank too.
You might mistake the object for a blank notebook, except for the discreet touchscreen on the inside of the front cover. Here you scroll through your library, and select the book you want to read. For old time’s sake, let’s say The Catcher in the Rye. Once you’ve made your selection the pages remain blank for just a heartbeat—the process taking place in the heart of the book’s machinery is, after all, quite complex—but then the famous orange carousel horse of the first edition dust jacket rises slowly out of the blankness of the front cover, like an image rising out of Polaroid film. JD Salinger’s name appears on the spine above the publisher’s logo, and then all at once the pages begin to fill. The book is typesetting itself.
The first page is no longer blank. Beneath the Chapter One heading, the famous and incorrigible opener has appeared: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born…”
The object in your hands looks and feels like a book. The pages feel like paper. You flip through them, and all the words are there waiting for you; there’s no waiting for a screen to refresh. The object might even be made, with a judicious dash of library-scented accord from my favorite perfume shop, to smell like the books you grew up with. You can make notes on the pages if you wish, provided you use the special digital pen attached by means of a thin ribbon to the spine.
But suppose you get tired of reading Salinger after awhile, or you finish the book. You go back to your touchscreen just inside the front cover, and flip through your library until you find something that appeals to you. Select the new volume, and the process begins again. Just a moment of blankness, while Salinger’s carousel horse fades out. The notes you took in the margins have vanished, but they’ll be there again the next time you want to read The Catcher in the Rye.
And then, Leo Tolstoy’s name on the spine. Turn the first page and the text of Salinger’s book has dissolved. The first line of the novel now reads as follows: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
The book in your hands is now Anna Karenina.
It only sounds like magic. Electronic paper—flexible sheets of paper-like material, comprised in various versions of polymer, microcapsules of oil, arrays of electrodes—has been around since the ‘70s, when Nick Shelton at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center created the first sheet of the stuff. Research continued in the decades that followed, and in early 2010 LG debuted a new prototype: a sheet of electronic paper with the dimensions of a newspaper page, weighing only 130 grams.
In the photographs that accompanied the press release, the material holds a glassy patina; a man and a woman hold sheets of LG’s new paper in what looks like the Tokyo subway system, and the sheets hold the front page of a daily newspaper. It doesn’t quite look like paper, but it’s close. It’s so close.
Is there any reason why, a few years from now, when the technology’s become lighter and better and less expensive, we couldn’t make entire books out of this stuff? There are of course logistical problems to consider—how to manage the display of a 600-page novel on a device that only has 350 pages, for instance—but this sort of thing doesn’t strike me as being particularly insurmountable.
It seems to me that the failing of our digital readers to date is that the focus has been almost entirely on the content. Our earliest books were sublimely executed works of art, years and decades and entire lifetimes poured into the lettering and ornamentation of medieval manuscripts. The printing press changed all of this, of course, but the ghost of that early obsession with beauty has lingered. Beautiful books have remained with us, in ever-changing form, through all the seasons of publishing: gorgeous book jackets, impeccably designed interiors, gilt lettering on cloth. But digital readers have been focused solely on finding the best possible means of presenting the book’s words, of inventing the ideal flatscreen to display them on. I fear we’re nearing a point of forgetting the idea of books as objects, as works of art whose form, not just whose content, we might consider preserving.
The book in your hands has transformed itself into Anna Karenina, but why stop there? One of the major problems of reading is the difficulty of ignoring the chaotic world around you. We’ve all been stuck in airplanes with screaming small children. Because blocking out this sort of thing by sheer willpower alone can be impossible, I wonder if perhaps our books might be enlisted to help us out.
I read a fascinating article a few years back about directed-sound technology, and its potential for in use in museums. One of the aural problems of museums is that some patrons want to hear information about what they’re standing on front of, whereas others would vastly prefer to contemplate in silence. The idea with the directed-sound technology is that if you’d like to learn more about a particular display, you step into a specific location in the room—perhaps indicated by a circle of light projected onto the floor—and there, only there, at that particular point, in a projected column of ultrasonic sound, you hear a recorded voice explaining the nuances of 16th-century Chinese calligraphy or the finer details of the Battle of Brooklyn.
Directed-sound technology has advanced to the point where beams of sound can be directed at an individual in such a way that the people sitting on either side of them will hear nothing. All of this makes me think that the book, once the technology advances a little further and can be easily embedded without adding too much weight, should have a noise-canceling button. Click it and step into the circle of light; you’d be cast, all at once, into your own private aural landscape. Perhaps it might enable silence, or some sort of soothing ambient noise. Care would have to be taken not to zone out completely at, say, airport departure gates, but I think the concept has promise.
I was thinking the other day of sound-enabled picture books. It would be a strange and dazzling new form. Page upon page of gorgeous illustrations, with music, with text and spoken word that no one but the reader could hear. An interactive art project. Or imagine the more practical applications for travel books: on the page listing useful phrases for the country you’re traveling in, you could hear the pronunciation before you spoke, so as to avoid making a fool of yourself when you’re trying to order coffee in Slovakia.
For all my love of the electronic innovations of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, there are certain tactile experiences that I’m not willing to surrender. The experience of turning pages is one of them.
I love machines, but I want the book I hold in my hands fifty years from now to look like the books I remember from childhood. I want to be able to see two pages at a time, I want to take notes in the margins, I want to flip backward to see what I missed. Most importantly, I want the bookstores I love to still exist in the future.
The conveniences of the digital age are inarguable. I’ve never really liked grocery shopping; it’s nice that now I can do it online at midnight. I feel the same way about buying shoes. But books? That’s something else entirely.
I imagine the bookstores of the future. They’d look very much like the bookstores of now, except it’s possible that they might be a little smaller; if most people are downloading books to machines, they’d need much less stock. A few people might still want to buy the old kind of book, the kind made out of paper, especially at author events. Those of us with the new books, the ones made out of electronic paper that can transform into other books in our hands, will browse for a while and then perhaps, if we happen to be carrying our new books with us, pay for and download the volumes we want to buy. Or perhaps we’ll buy books on a volume the size of a flash drive, to be downloaded to our new books when we get home later.
And then we’ll sit in parks and subways and on sofas, the same as we have since the invention of the printing press, and we’ll flip through the pages of our beautiful machines.
The writing of good fiction requires, among many elusive talents, empathy and imagination. Put another way, the fiction writer must be like a trained actor, inhabiting the minds, emotions, and bodies of people whose essential makeup and experiences are quite different from his own. Write what you know has its limits, and many of us write to discover what we know, or to experience something of what we don’t know. Not to mention the fact that those empathic and imaginative muscles can get flabby; when we stretch them and work them, we stretch and work our whole intelligence.
Lately my reading life has delivered up some interesting examples of empathic leaps; specifically, of writers who dare to leap the imaginative chasm of gender. Are they successful? How does one measure?
Annie Proulx comes to mind immediately. More often than not, her main characters are male. And not just that, her fictional worlds – like the brutal Wyoming plains in her collection Close Range – are distinctly male worlds, where words are few and primal energies prevail. The Wyoming stories are gritty and violent; their central dramatic features include castration, rape, attic-torture, drunkenness, rodeo gore, murder by tire iron. The one “female” story – that is, where the narrator is a woman – ends in a shootout (another woman character shooting her philandering boyfriend and — possibly, we’re not sure — herself). One measure of these stories’ success, you could argue, is that the author’s identity, gender and otherwise, recedes as the characters and the place envelop us.
And yet: I’ll never forget reading “Brokeback Mountain” in the New Yorker back in 1997 (eight years before Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist were immortalized on screen by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhall). The reading experience was breathtaking; I thought, my God, Did I really just read a gay cowboy story, rough sex and all? Who can forget:
Ennis ran full throttle on all roads whether fence mending or money spending, and he wanted none of it when Jack seized his left hand and brought it to his erect cock. Ennis jerked his hand away as though he’d touched fire, got to his knees, unbuckled his belt, shoved his pants down, hauled Jack onto all fours, and, with the help of the clear slick and a little spit, entered him, nothing he’d done before but no instruction manual needed. They went at it in silence except for a few sharp intakes of breath and Jack’s choked, “Gun’s goin off,” then out, down, and asleep […] They never talked about the sex, let it happen, at first only in the tent at night, then in the full daylight, with the hot sun striking down, and at evening in the fire glow, quick, rough, laughing and snorting, no lack of noises, but saying not a goddam word except once Ennis said, “I’m not no queer,” and Jack jumped in with “Me neither. A one-shot thing. Nobody’s business but ours.”
At the time, “Brokeback” was as stunning as it was heartbreaking. Was it more stunning that it had been written by a woman? Or perhaps less? It seemed that the editors, or Proulx herself, wanted us to consider the question: in the center of the second page of the opening spread, we saw a cartoon portrait of Proulx, gender-ambiguous at first glance, with the following caption:
The author’s first stories, twenty years ago, were all about hunting and fishing – “hook-and-bullet material” – written for a men’s-magazine editor who thought he couldn’t publish a contributor called Annie. He suggested “something like Joe or Zack, retrievers’ names,” the author recalls. The compromise was initials: E.A. Proulx. The “E” somehow stuck. (The author won the Pulitzer Prize as E. Annie Proulx.) The author is now sixty-four, and “Brokeback Mountain” is the first story published by just Annie.
In the late 1970s, Proulx had to pretend to be a male author to publish stories for a male audience; in 1997, writing an erotic gay-male love story for the intellectual set, she came out, officially, as a woman. Was October 1997 a moment when we decided that a woman could write whatever she damn well pleased (because look how well she’s doing it)? Or was the revelation of Proulx’s gender a way of making a groundbreaking story (for the New Yorker, anyway) go down easier?
Do we ever really “forget” the author? Does she ever truly recede when we are reading gender-crossing works? Do we necessarily want her to?
There is the best-known example of Mary Ann Evans, aka George Eliot, the foremother of all women who’ve taken pen names in order to advance as an author. With her first fiction publication in 1858, Scenes of Clerical Life, she recorded in her journal speculations and letters she received regarding the secret (gender) identity of the author:
Jan 2 – “Mrs Nutt said to [George Henry Lewes] ‘I think you don’t know our curate. He says the author of Clerical Scenes is a High Churchman.”
Jan 17, letter from J.A Froude – “I can only thank you most sincerely for the delight which [your book] has given me, and both I myself and my wife trust that the acquaintance which we seem to have made with you through your writings may improve into something more tangible. I do not know whether I am addressing a young man or an old, a clergyman or a layman.”
Feb 16 – “[Mr. John Blackwood] told us Thackeray spoke highly of the ‘Scenes’ and said they were not written by a woman. Mrs. Blackwood is sure they are not written by a woman.”
Only a fellow writer by the name of Charles Dickens suspected:
“In addressing these few words of thankfulness […] I am (I presume) bound to adopt the name that it pleases that excellent writer to assume […] but I should have been strongly disposed, if I had been left to my own devices, to address the said writer as a woman. I have observed what seem to me such womanly touches in those moving fictions, that the assurance on the title-page is insufficient to satisfy me even now. If they originated with no woman, I believe that no man ever before had the art of making himself mentally so like a woman since the world began.”
With the publication, and popularity, of Adam Bede, published in 1859, Mary Ann Evans (Lewes) did finally step forward as the woman behind George Eliot.
What about Jean Rhys’s Mr. Rochester in Wide Sargasso Sea? He is a decidedly revised Rochester, less victim than Charlotte Bronte’s – proud, racist, ultimately vicious; misdirecting his emasculation rage (meant for his father) at Antoinette, Rhys’s woman in the attic. Is there a sense in which Rhys is always there, behind and inside Rochester? Look how a man can drive a woman to insanity, can destroy her life. Look at what goes through his mind, how he does it, let me show you. Rochester’s point-of-view – the majority of the book – is in this sense on some level Antoinette’s point-of-view; Woman’s point-of-view.
A random short list (from my bookshelf) of other notable females-writing-males:
Joan Silber, half the stories in Ideas of Heaven
Ann Patchett, Run
Susan Choi, A Person of Interest
Jennifer Egan, The Keep, stories in A Visit from the Good Squad
Flannery O’Connor, the majority of her work
Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake, a number of stories
Rachel Kushner, sections of Telex From Cuba
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
Mavis Gallant, the Steve Burnet stories
On the converse side of literary gender-crossing, there are a few exemplary stories by male writers I’d like to mention briefly.
In “Family Happiness,” a story about rising and falling romance from the point of view of a young woman who marries an older man, Tolstoy gets the female first-person narrator so right and so true – thought, feeling, and action – there is no doubt in my mind that his disappearance from the reader’s consciousness is the goal, poignantly achieved. (One wonders if Anna Karenina might have been written in the first person, to equal or greater effect!)
Daniel Mueenuddin’s linked collection, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, features two heartbreaking stories of the Pakistani servant class – “Saleema,” along with the title story – both told from the third-person point of view of women. The protagonists Saleema and Husna are at the mercy of male power, which, in this context, is the same as societal power; both meet tragic ends. What’s interesting to me about having knowledge of the author’s male gender in this case is that, while I wouldn’t cite anything particularly “male” in the telling, there is something in the fact of the male telling that dignifies the women in an important way. The stories are told truthfully, unhysterically; this is how it is, the (male) author posits. There is no guilt, no “message,” just the telling. I somehow have the urge to thank him.
Finally, a most interesting example: Colm Toibin’s “Silence,” from his new collection The Empty Family. The heroine is a fictionalized (though researched) Lady Gregory, an Irish dramatist – married to Sir William Henry Gregory, a former governor of Ceylon and 35 years her senior – who came into her own as a writer when she became widowed. Toibin portrays Lady Gregory as a good aristocratic wife – “She had made sure that she was silent without seeming shy, polite and reserved without seeming intimidated” – yet also sharply observant, quietly ambitious, more concerned with Beauty as a form than its earthly incarnations. In the story (and in real life), she has an affair with the poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, and is more stimulated by the idea of the affair than the passion itself. This intellectualized intensity results in the writing of a series of love sonnets, which she convinces Blunt to publish under his own name (this is also true to life). At the story’s end, she dines with Henry James and passes on an altered version of her affair as fodder for the great writer’s fiction.
How true to the real Lady Gregory Toibin’s characterization is, I don’t know, but I loved the way in which Toibin, the male writer, endowed the female character of a certain era with “inappropriately” male drives and talents, both confining and liberating her as a woman and artist. In other words, I felt a simultaneous intimacy with the male “frame” and with female intellectual desire within that frame, as observed/admired by a male writer. The layering is distinct from, say, Lizzie Bennett in Jane Austen’s world, where the world is itself seen through a female author’s gaze.
In literary gender-crossings, do we ever really forget the author? Do we necessarily want to? Predictably: yes, and no.
(Image: Male/Female – Jonathan Borofsky from _o_de_andrade_’s photostream)
Fifteen things about my year in reading:
1. My most immersive reading experience of the year took place in late January and February as I embarked upon Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo series, followed by the Lymond Chronicles. Twelve long and involved and completely transporting books later, I closed the cover of the final installment with a profound sense of loss.
3. The book I read this year that I most wish I had written myself: Elif Batuman’s The Possessed.
4. The book I read this year that I don’t understand why I hadn’t read sooner, it is so much exactly what I like: Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend.
5. Three excellent novels I read for the second or third or fourth time this year and found just as fantastically good as I had the last time: Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai, Cintra Wilson’s Colors Insulting to Nature, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty.
6. Another important reread: Mary Renault’s trio of novels about Alexander the Great. The influence Renault’s books had on me as a young teenager cannot be overstated.
7. The indispensable and fascinating nonfiction book that I think everyone should read: Randy Frost and Gail Steketee’s Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things.
8. The most intellectually stimulating nonfiction book I read this year: Pervasive Games: Theory and Design. The only other book I read this year that is likely to have such a pronounced effect on my next novel (The Bacchae excluded) is Andrew Dolkart’s architectural history of Morningside Heights.
9. The most intellectually stimulating book I reread this year: Genette’s Figures of Literary Discourse. In a similar vein, I also reimmersed myself in the writings of Victor Shklovsky and read Scott McCloud’s inspired Understanding Comics.)
10. I found Keith Richards’ Life incomparably more interesting (a better book!) than Patti Smith’s Just Kids. The latter also suffers in comparison to Kristin Hersh’s Rat Girl, which I highly recommend.
11. Some of the top-caliber crime writers whose books I read for the first time this year: Arnaldur Indridason, Liz Rigbey, Caroline Carver, Deon Meyer, Ake Edwardson, Asa Larsson, C. J. Sansom, Jo Nesbo.
12. Writers whose new books I devoured this year because I like their previous ones so much: Lee Child, Sigrid Nunez, Kate Atkinson, Robert Crais, Ken Bruen, Diana Wynne Jones, Terry Pratchett, Jilly Cooper, Joe Hill, Tana French, Jo Walton, Connie Willis, Joshilyn Jackson.
13. Top 2010 guilty pleasure reading, both in its guiltiness and in its pleasurability: Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books. (Richard Kadrey’s books are too well-written to count as a guilty pleasure, but they are immensely pleasurable.)
14. I found Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom excellent, but it did not have a deep effect on me.
15. In September, I got a Kindle. It has saved me a lot of neckache while traveling, some dollars that might have been spent on full-price hardbacks and the pain of reading poor-quality mass-market paperbacks when I can’t find anything better. The best value-for-money discovery: Lewis Shiner’s superb novel Black & White, available at his website as a free PDF.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions
Selected Stories by William Trevor: I often talk up the short story form as in some ways more demanding than the novel, but at core I’m still a novel reader. To get me through a 550-page collection, the stories must be very good indeed. These are.
I read William Trevor’s initial Collected Stories in the early 1990s just as I read his second volume this autumn: cover to cover. Ordinarily, if I invest in a book that fat, I expect nothing less than Anna Karenina. But Trevor packs so much into a single tale that each one reads like a tiny novel. His stories are the literary equivalent of those intensely caloric, high-protein biscuits that aid agencies distribute during famines.
I’m a big admirer of Trevor’s seemingly unassuming style. He’s a master of the disappearing author. I always read with a pen in hand, and commonly when I don’t underscore any lines in fiction the prose is mediocre. By contrast, with Trevor I’m never drawn to marking particular passages because every line is perfect. In fact, Trevor’s writing is so perfect that you don’t even notice it’s perfect. He mainlines pure narrative directly into your veins. The words never get in the way; the words, like their author, disappear. His language is translucent: you see straight through the sentences to the characters they conjure. Naturally modest, quiet, in the background, Trevor is a genius, but he never seems bent on getting his reader to reflect, “Trevor is a genius.”
Trevor has enormous sympathy for small people—the obscure, the overlooked, the aging, the disappointed. He tenderly records their quiet tragedies, their unspoken longings, their failed romances. His work is shot full of a mournfulness, and if he had a theme song it should surely be “Eleanor Rigby”: all the lonely people. Where do they all come from?
The real marvel is how all those lonely people come from Trevor’s head. That is, my greatest amazement is at his existential stamina. He never seems to run dry of empathy; he never appears to weary of the human race, engaged instead with the infinite variety of its sorrows. I often worry that my own empathy is finite. My own impatience with other people sometimes slips to outright misanthropy. Trevor always calls me back to kindness. His second volume of collected stories was a tonic of compassion.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions
My appetite for fiction comes and goes and recently it’s been hard to find. It’s no coincidence that during this period in which my bookmark has not moved from page 87 of Emma I’ve been feeling a little like Ishmael at the beginning of Moby-Dick, possessed of the urge to step into the street and begin knocking people’s top hats off. I have a hard time enjoying fictional characters when I’m feeling dreary towards the people who inhabit my real life. When I think about these recent months, and other times in my life when fiction has held less appeal, it occurs to me that a yen for fiction is something like my canary in the coal mine, an early indication, when it’s ebbs, that something else is wrong.
Over dinner the other night I asked my wife Caroline to describe what moods, for her, correlate with a desire to read fiction. After a moment she said, “When I’m feeling stimulated, I like to read fiction, and when my life feels sterile, I don’t.” This rang true to me and I think it captures one of the essential paradoxes of fiction and art more generally: that to engage it requires a withdrawal from life, but to appreciate it requires a deep immersion in that very same thing.
I was feeling sterile last week on a night when I spent hours working at the very tedious task of formatting a long outline on the computer. It was the type of mind-numbing process we’re all familiar with, and by the end of it I felt like a very thin man with a very narrow outlook on the world. As I tried to fall asleep that night, I found that my whole life felt like one large unimaginative outline: Bullet points for the errands I needed to do the next day, bold 14-point headings for the things I hoped to accomplish over the next five years. In this limited state of mind, the idea of reading fiction was not just unappealing—it was completely incomprehensible—in the same way that aspiration must make very little sense to a cat.
All forms of desire have their natural enemies and I find that nothing saps my desire to read fiction like the Internet does. This is partly physiological—too much time at the computer withers my brain—but it’s partly dispositional, too. After the last round of primaries a couple Tuesdays ago, I spent an hour reading articles about the Tea Party. When I came up for air I was in an explicitly present-tense state of mind where anything written more than an hour ago seemed to be based on a world that had already been subsumed. Novels, which require a willingness to attend to more enduring themes, don’t hold up very well by this perspective.
Politics as a whole has a fairly degrading effect on my fiction drive. It’s not just that it’s depressing to watch the way Congress operates—it’s that it’s depressing in such an unredeemable way. Fiction can be depressing too, of course, but there’s something intrinsically optimistic about the process by which tragedy and frailty are turned into art.
There’s no similar silver lining when reform legislation gets gutted by special interests, (even writing the term “special interests” I can feel a requisite vigor drain from my body), or the country slides deeper into another foreign quagmire. One friend I talked to about this said that he had the opposite impulse, that he inclines towards fiction when he can’t bear to look at the world anymore. I get this, but I also think that the impulse to create fiction, and to read it, derives from a fundamentally hopeful place—in which life is interesting enough to write about and meaningful encounters remain possible. If it is ever known that the world is sliding irretrievably into ruin, I don’t think I’ll be reading a novel on the way down.
The more I’m engaged with life—and particularly with other people—the more I want to read fiction. At the peak of a wedding reception or in the throes of a night out when the crowd has given itself over to celebration, I often want to sneak off and read a novel. It’s a contradictory impulse, to want to retreat into a book at the precise moment I am most enthralled with life, but such are the circumstances we live by. What I’m after, I think, is a kind of synergy that can only happen when I approach a novel while my body is still charged with the feeling of being present and alive.
At the same time, several of my most memorable encounters with fiction have taken place when I’ve been my most alone. In January 2008 I spent a month in Florence, South Carolina volunteering on a presidential campaign. The days were long and tiring, but it was exhilarating to feel like I was midstream in history. Late at night I’d return to the attic bedroom where I was staying in the home of a local resident and I’d read Anna Karenina until I couldn’t stay awake any longer. I’ve rarely had so clear a view of the outline of my own skin as I did then, reading about Anna’s fall and Lenin’s angst in a house where everyone else was asleep, in a town where I didn’t know anyone’s last name.
Oh, what a vileness human beauty is,
Corroding, corrupting everything it touches.
-Euripides, Orestes, 126-7
With such painstaking awe is the beauty of The Red and The Black’s Julien Sorel detailed that one might think Stendhal was describing a woman. We are treated to countless descriptions of Julien’s “fine complexion, his great black eyes, and his lovely hair, which was curlier than most men’s…” We learn that his eyes sparkle with hatred when he is angry, and indicate thought and passion when he is at peace. “Among the innumerable varieties of the human face, there may well be none more striking,” Stendhal suggests, almost matter-of-factly.
In The Greater Hippias, Plato argues that beauty is good and the good is beautiful: the two are identical. Superficial though the ancient Greeks might have been, even later Christian philosophers like Castiglione held that only rarely does an evil soul dwell in a beautiful body, and so outward beauty is a true sign of inner goodness.
Stendhal would have agreed. With Julien’s high Napoleonic ideals and his violent, even physiological, reactions to all things base or hypocritical, he has “a soul fashioned for the love of beauty.” But life does not turn out so well for this young romantic because, predictably, Julien “was barely a year old when his beautiful face began to make friends for him, among the little girls…”
Fictional characters enjoy exaggerated attributes, but few have the sort of beauty that marks Julien Sorel, where the beauty is not only essential to his character, elevating his soul, but outside of it, dictating his destiny. If beauty can be distilled from its specific fictional forms, does it have a cogent power of its own in literature?
1. The Most Beautiful Woman in Fiction
If there were ever a fictional beauty contest of sorts, the stand-out winner might very well be Remedios the Beauty from 100 Years of Solitude. Naive to the point of saintliness, Remedios the Beauty unintentionally causes the deaths of several men who lust over her. But despite being entirely uninterested in feminine wiles, dressing in course cassocks, and shaving her head:
…the more she did away with fashion in a search for comfort and the more she passed over conventions as she obeyed spontaneity, the more disturbing her incredible beauty became…
Under the Platonic model there is a “scale of perfection ranging from individual, physical beauty up the heavenly ladder to absolute beauty.” And in that lofty vein, Garcia Marquez describes Remedios the Beauty as though she were beauty manifest, in too pure a form for this Earth, and she leaves her novel by mysteriously ascending to the sky, like a spirit.
What exactly was it that made Remedios the Beauty so “disturbingly” beautiful? For one, it had very little to do with the worldly practice of seduction. Writes Neal Stephenson (about another beautiful character) in The System of the World:
Faces could beguile, enchant, and flirt. But clearly this woman was inflicting major spinal injuries on men wherever she went, and only a body had the power to do that. Hence the need for a lot of Classical allusions… Her idolaters were reaching back to something pre-Christian, trying to express a bit of what they felt when they gazed upon Greek statues of nude goddesses.
Still, the ascending beauty of Remedios the Beauty struck me as close to paradoxical. She might have been beauty in essence, but her absolute beauty was something she achieved, namely, by renouncing her beauty through eschewing feminine clothing and, more vividly, shaving her head.
There is a curious relationship between hair and destiny in literature. Chaucer, like Hollywood, is known for casting women by their hair color, but he is far from the exception. In keeping with the practices of Remedios the Beauty, the most reputable beautiful women in fiction part ways with their hair altogether at some point, such as Maria “the cropped headed one” in For Whom The Bell Tolls (whose name is an arguable allusion to the Virgin Mary by Hemingway), or Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God, who hides her hair under a rag for much of her life (and is reputable to her readers, if not always to the townsfolk of Eatonville). Even fictional literary scholar Maud Bailey from A.S. Byatt’s Possession picked up on the strange connection between hair and destiny for beautiful women: she kept her head nearly shaved in her early teaching days, recounting Yeats’ “For Anne Gregory”:
Never shall a young man
Thrown into despair
By those great honey-coloured
Ramparts at your ear
Love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow hair.
But Julien Sorel never made such sacrifices. It would be most remiss to compare him to the saintly Remedios the Beauty, as he dabbles in vanity, employs manipulative mind-games, and continuously – though not malevolently – makes full use of his preternatural sex appeal in pursuit of his romantic ambitions. Rather, Julien is far better suited to a category of characters with a starkly different literary reputation…
2. The Second Most Beautiful Woman in Fiction
Notable beautiful women with such a lust for life include Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, who “had that indefinable beauty that results from joy, from enthusiasm, from success” and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, with her “mysterious, poetic, charming beauty, overflowing with life and gayety…” But the most beautiful of all is The Return of the Native’s Eustacia Vye:
Eustacia Vye was the raw material of a divinity… Her presence brought memories of such things as Bourbon roses, rubies, and tropical midnights; her moods recalled lotus-eaters… her motions, the ebb and flow of the sea; her voice, the viola. In a dim light… her figure might have stood for one of the higher female deities…
Eustacia’s textual description is not exactly an exercise in restraint. On Hardy goes for two pages, describing the curve of her lips, her “pagan” eyes, the weight of her figure – and two paragraphs alone devoted to the sheer bounty of her dark hair, of which “a whole winter did not contain darkness enough to form its shadow.”
Like Julien Sorel, Eustacia Vye is naive, egotistical, self-serving, and obsessed with the idea of Paris, “the centre and vortex of the fashionable world.” She is far too human to achieve the Platonic ideal of beauty, “transcending sex, sensuality and ‘mere’ physical beauty” to “the region where gods dwell.” Nevertheless, Hardy gives a nod to “the fantastic nature of her passion, which lowered her as an intellect, raised her as a soul.”
And like Julien Sorel, Anna Karenina, and Emma Bovary, Eustacia – mired by the societal constraints on her free will – ponders:
But do I desire unreasonably much in wanting what is called life – music, poetry, passion, war, and all the beating and pulsing that is going on in the great arteries of the world?
3. The Curse of Beauty
The short answer: Yes. Without question. All four romantic leads bring about varying degrees of generalized suffering and to some degree their own demise, whether in gruesome and painful detail, like Emma Bovary, or only in critical speculation, like Eustacia. In literature, as it turns out, it is dangerous to be ambitious just as it is dangerous to be beautiful, but to be both ambitious and beautiful is fatal.
Helen of Troy is the prototypical example that ancient aesthetic philosophy ascribed a darker tone to female beauty than it (generally speaking) did to male beauty. Historian Bettany Hughes writes, “Rather than positioning Helen’s beauty as a worthy gift of the gods – ancient authors… saw her peerless face and form as a curse.” And yet, the power of Julien’s beauty proves to be as inevitably corrosive in The Red and The Black as it does in the respective novels of our beautiful female characters.
In fact, that sheer absence of a double standard to a great extent saves The Red and The Black from losing its modern flavor. As P. Walcot acknowledges the ancient Greek belief in “the male’s inability to resist… the immense power that the female wields through her sexuality,” so, too, are Julien’s female admirers Madame de Rênal (despite being married!) and Mathilde de La Mole (despite being solely motivated by boredom!) judged equally helpless in succumbing to their desire for him.
In part this arises from an amount of sympathy that Stendhal clearly harbored for women (he apparently had a beloved sister), even wealthy, spoiled, bored young women like Mathilde: in reference to her, he quotes from the Memoirs of the Duke d’Angouleme, “The need of staking something was the key to the character of this charming princess… Now, what can a young girl stake? The most precious thing she has: her reputation.”
Julien Sorel, conversely, escapes Stendhal’s goodwill far longer. From Diane Johnson’s introduction to The Red and the Black:
This accounts for the side of Julien that is calculating, flattering, insincere, and inwardly hostile even to people who intend to help and love him – indeed, he is an early example of an anti-hero of whom, at first, even Stendhal cannot approve. (emphasis added)
4. The Cure of Youth
But The Red and The Black has an unexpected twist: Julien gets to die like a martyr. There is hardly a consensus on this interpretation, but I read his death as something akin to a happy ending. Julien somehow manages to give everyone what they want from him – in particular, his most affected conquests. He returns the pious Madame de Rênal’s love and fulfills the passionate Mathilde’s Gothic fantasies while (outwardly) rejecting neither of them. But more amazingly: he reaches a sort of inner peace. He listens to his own heart which – unbelievably – instructs him to be truthful, sincere, to love the woman who most deserves it, and to carry the sole blame and make the entirety of amends for all the misfortune his (prior) self-indulgent, romantic nature hath wrought. Rather than marking a fundamental lack of character, Julien’s selfishness can be dismissed as mere youthful indiscretion.
Having sought the mystery behind the divergent destinies of Julien and his beautiful female counterparts in terms of the role of beauty in fiction, I come to find that it resolves itself in another, altogether more disconcerting thesis: that perhaps the nature of the young romantic hero in literature is eventually malleable, whereas the nature of the young romantic heroine in literature is essentially fixed.
Towards the end of her life, it occurs to Anna Karenina, “I am not jealous, but unsatisfied…” Emma Bovary and Eustacia Vye have similar exits: their earthly desires resist satiation, but congeal and turn ever more destructive. Their three fates recall the following canto from Dante’s Inferno, which warns of a female beast:
And has a nature so malign and ruthless,
That never doth she glut her greedy will,
And after food is hungrier than before.
And so beautiful women in literature are brought to ultimately ugly ends.
It has come to my attention that a favorite interview question for authors, especially debut authors, is what you did before you were a published. There is the vague compulsion when answering that the more outlandish, the better. The idea is that the reader, and aspiring authors out there, are interested in a Susan Boyle-like rags-to-riches story. Cab driver to Best Seller? Yes! Grocery clerk to Nobel Prize winner? Cool! As if literary success — and that’s a flexible definition that would require its own essay — were akin to winning the lottery, or better yet, being struck by lightning. These lists give one the impression that deciding to write came more as a whim, that one day while cutting someone’s hair, the idea for scribbling down Anna Karenina occurred. Or while working as a short-order cook, one decided on the plot of Babette’s Feast. What is behind the fascination of such lists and what are the realities?
Which brings me to Susan Boyle. My husband dragged me to the computer to watch a YouTube video of her singing, which I frankly didn’t want to watch, and yet, I, along with 60 million other people quickly felt my heart in my throat. Why? Because, to quote the movie Jerry Maguire, we live in a cynical world, because most of us are like the snickering girl in the audience — one look at Susan, and we know lightning isn’t going to strike there. And yet, deep down, we all want the playing field to be level, for the underdog — those not well connected, pedigreed, likely — to succeed. We root for Rocky Balboa, the self-published grandmother, and the short-order cook to pen a masterpiece. These profiles feed into that fantasy as much as those commercials that promise you thin thighs in two weeks. So what happens when the writer achieves that holy grail of a published book?
What the profiles fail to reveal is that the literary apprenticeship is a lengthy one for the majority, that getting published at all is difficult, and to get paid enough to not do anything else but write is virtually a dream. The supposed average money earned by a novelist is $10,000, but if that novel takes two years to write, then cut that in half, $5,000. As one online article trenchantly stated: “Most novelists and story writers would make more money if they worked full-time at McDonald’s.” Ouch! Susan Boyle got beat by a silly dance troupe, but went on to make a bestselling CD sold round the globe. Those of us with a new book coming out? Not so much.
In fact, those jobs that are so intriguing are precisely the reason books aren’t getting written. During my own apprenticeship, I wrote in the park while working on remodeling houses, wrote in the afternoon while trading stocks in the morning, worked in an art studio doing bookkeeping, writing at night, but all through that I considered myself a writer, although I didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t make my living that way. When the technology market crashed, I found myself with more time on my hands to write.
Writing as a paying profession has always been an insecure proposition. Tolstoy, born into the aristocracy, flunked out of college and lived a playboy existence running up gambling debts, escaping them by running off to join the army. All of these experiences are in his books. Later he ran his estate and wrote. Tolstoy, in short, had a trust fund. Are there any nascent epics being written in the service area of McDonald’s, I wonder?
Honoré de Balzac is a writer more of us can empathize with. According to the Wikipedia entry for him, “he turned his back on law after wearying of its inhumanity and banal routine.” Hear you there, Honoré. A key fact of Balzac’s career — he wrote 100 novels and plays, all the while trying his hand at a bunch of different jobs in order to earn his living. He failed at all these money-making pursuits. His end was particularly troubling for me: According to the favored, possibly apocryphal story, while writing to the point of exhaustion in order to pay bills, he supposedly overdosed on countless cups of very strong coffee!
The truth for most writers, then and now, is that the majority of those jobs both fuel our fiction and keep us from writing it. Richard Ford famously wrote two novels that didn’t sell well, and he gave up fiction for sports writing. When the magazine he was writing for folded and Sports Illustrated didn’t hire him, Ford had some time on his hands. Then came his breakthrough novel, The Sportswriter. The rest is history.
James Ellroy kept working as a caddie through six novels, and used his advance on the seventh to do his own promotion. Richard Russo, Michael Ondaatje, and many others kept teaching until they reached a level of readership through several books where it made more sense to write than teach. Of course, these are the success stories, authors whose names we recognize.
There are writers who shall remain nameless who gave up lucrative careers in law to go get an MFA, who are now languishing at community colleges teaching English composition. Still no big book contract. I know, I know, Honoré hated the law. Then there are the ones who failed to earn out, the chilly story of “Jane Austen Doe” in Salon and her tale of diminishing book advances. Others who wrote one book and never a second one, who gave up and went back to regular careers, or who went to graduate school. Is it Darwinian survival of the most talented, or has writing now more than ever become an avocation rather than a career? Does society owe you a living if you make a product no one is buying? Has fiction writing turned into a hobby?
Perhaps a writer like Jacob Appel is the future. With both law and medical degrees, as well as an MFA (as well as being licensed as a New York City sightseeing guide so he’s the quirky arc all ready), Jacob, while practicing medicine, has also managed to publish over one hundred short stories in almost every literary journal out there, as well as win many short story prizes. And he writes plays.
Jacob said that a windfall in writing might cause him to curtail his hours practicing medicine, but he would never quit it. “… if one spends enough time away from the world where people have to go to work every morning, one risks losing touch with the life one wants to capture on the page. Waking up at noon and writing in one’s pajamas may have worked for Samuel Johnson, but it’s a dangerous recipe for most of us.” In the interests of full disclosure, I will report that I emailed Jacob at four in the morning, and he answered within five minutes. I don’t think the guy sleeps. And I’m typing this right now at noon. In my pajamas.
The majority of writers I know have a complicated mosaic of various jobs, juggling writing, teaching, freelancing, family. It is difficult, and it is a necessity, and most of us who keep doing it can’t imagine doing anything else. When I asked Jacob about the even greater financial difficulty of being a short story writer, he said: “The people who love short fiction, I believe, are writing already, even without financial incentives.” I believe the same can be said for most novelists out there. Will some of the magic leave the author profile when it goes something like this:
student, short-order cook at McDonald’s, lawyer, novelist, teacher, short-order cook at McDonald’s
I am very grateful to have a novel coming out this year. I still work part-time with my husband, take on freelance projects when I can get them, still teach part-time. I have hopes that I might be lucky enough to sell my second novel. I will keep the want-ads close.
Bonus Link: Working the Double Shift
A recent Millions essay by Michelle Huneven got us thinking: much hay has been made of how various print and digital platforms affect reading practices, but what about setting? Where you do your reading, and how much unbroken time you can give to it, will arguably shape your experience far more than does the difference between screen and page. And as cable and the web colonize our homes, it seems to us that the best reading is increasingly done in transit – for better and for worse. We’ve read pieces of War and Peace on the DC Metro (tough) and half of Anna Karenina in a single gulp on a night train through Tuscany (sublime).
By way of starting a conversation about the ideal marriage of text and transportation, we’ve asked our contributors and our Facebook group to make recommendations for three modes of transportation: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. “Planes” should be self-explanatory; “Trains” comprises commuter rail (and buses) as well as longer distance trips; and “Automobiles,” perforce, centers on audiobooks, podcasts, and works read out loud by those not behind the wheel. Contributor responses appear first, followed by selections from the Facebook response. We invite you to add your own in the comments section or via twitter (using the hashtag #roadbooks). Bon voyage!
Sonya: While traveling far from home, I like to give myself over fully to a changed perspective, leaving my customary myopia behind as much as possible; The Economist is my preferred reading. The robust “World” and “Business” sections in particular knock me off my precious literary perch, which can be awfully refreshing.
Kevin: My criteria for a plane book are two: I want it to be fast-paced, and I want to be able to finish it, if not by the time I touch down, then at least during the return flight home. I’ve never had a better plane reading experience than Boston to Los Angeles, 1994, The Hunt for Red October.
Edan: When flying, I always want something short enough to read cover-to-cover (in addition to a novel, a fashion magazine or gossip rag, and a book of jumbles, crosswords, or soduku). On my last few flights, I’ve brought a volume from Melville House’s Art of the Novella series. I’ve written about Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra here. I can also recommend Customer Service by Benoît Duteutre, about a man with cell phone issues who just wants help from a goddamned human being. It’s an appropriate read for when you’re flying through the air in a magical bullet, and you’ve just been forced to pay for a bag of peanut m&ms (a.k.a., dinner) with your credit card because cash is no longer accepted.
Garth: Last summer, en route to Hawaii, I read most of Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife. If I say that I wasn’t even tempted to look at The Real Housewives of New Jersey (on a continuous loop on my back-of-seat TV), it’s not to slight Jacqueline or Dina, but to indicate how engrossing and provocative I found Talese’s exploration of sex in America.
Anne: For the nervous flyer (like myself), who wants to forget they’re in a fuselage for the duration of the flight, Lucy Grealy’s memoir Autobiography of a Face offers a gripping and unsentimental account of her childhood bone cancer and living with the consequent facial disfiguration. The book can captivate for the time it takes to cross an ocean – even, in my case, the Pacific.
Emily W: My fear of flying makes reading when skybound a rare pleasure. For me, it’s usually the iPod, cocktails, and a Vogue or a Harper’s Bazaar. The one book that managed to suppress my fear of death in the sky for five hours was J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, which I read from cover-to-cover on a red-eye from San Francisco to DC.
Max: Plane rides are perfect for magazines, especially the New Yorker. The freedom to work through an entire issue in one sitting feels like a luxury, even if the leg room is lacking.
Anne: Amy Hempel’s Collected Stories offer enchantments brief enough for daily a commute, but the collection provides a cornucopia of word play and eclectic tales to occupy a longer haul. Plus, Hempel’s story, “To Those of You Who Missed Your Connecting Flights Out of O’Hare,” is a sure endorsement of the soothing lull of a long train ride.
Sonya: I like the Russians for train travel. When you’re watching the natural landscape – the largely uninhabited regions – of a country fly by in flashes, it just feels right to be reading stories that take place over the great land mass of Mother Russia. For a long trip, Dr. Zhivago; for, say, the DC-New York Metroliner, Chekhov’s “The Steppe” – in both cases, the land journey is also the journey of the soul.
Garth: The subway is feast or famine for me. The right book, and I’ll miss my stop; the wrong one, and I’ll read for half an hour without registering a single word. When I don’t have a New Yorker handy, Joan Didion – say, Play it as it Lays or Salvador – is perfect subway reading: lucid enough to let me in quickly; sophisticated enough to hold my attention; and discretely structured, for ease of exit.
Kevin: Typically before boarding at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, I stop at a news kiosk and pick up the NYT and the WSJ. I enjoy having the time to read each front to back, and I like being able to change from news to business to sports and then back again. There’s also no doubt that I like the romance of a newspaper on the train: the economy fold, the crinkle of the pages mixed with the sound of the clattering tracks.
Emily W: On trains, I’m usually one for gazing out the window or striking up a conversation with a stranger, but this winter on the Northeast Direct from DC to Boston, I found Poets and Writers’ January/February 2010 issue quite absorbing, particularly their “Literary Life” essays. I’m a bit of skeptic when it comes to writing about writing but P&W convinced me otherwise.
Edan: I never travel by train, but the next time – or, really, the first time – I get the opportunity to ride one across the country, or even state lines, I plan to bring along my copy of Selected Stories by Alice Munro. I will flip immediately to “Wild Swans,” a startling, discomfiting, and accurate account of an encounter with a stranger on a train. Munro writes: “Victim and accomplice she was borne past Glasco’s jams and Marmalades, past the big pulsating pipes of oil refineries.” I’d like to read that sentence as another landscape glides by my own train car window.
Max: There’s something about taking a longer train ride that puts one in the mood for adventure. When I was younger, I read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas on a train ride from Washington D.C. to New York and emerged from Penn Station feeling pleasantly addled and ready for a night on the town.
Amir Hother Yishay: I finished the last 200 hundred pages of A Storm of Swords, by George R.R. Martin, on a subway ride
Jane Weichert: Nothing Like It in the World by Stephen Ambrose is an very readable story of the building of the first transcontinental railroad. It was built by the immigrant Chinese and Irish and gives an understanding of the brutal conditions under which they worked. Last Train to Paradise by Les Standiford is a spell-binding tale of the last of the privately financed infrastructure projects undertaken by larger-than-life 19th century businessmen. Here Henry Flagler races against his own mortality to complete a railroad from Jacksonville to Key West, with the final run south from Miami requiring herculean engineering, management, and financial resources.
Becky Donahue: Short stories are wonderful…just finished reading Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro. Podcasts…Slate does a great job and lots of content to choose from. My new favorites are Spilled Milk and The Moth.
Sonya: Once weekly, I drive two hours each way – prime audiobook time. “As read by the author” is often a great way to go when choosing nonfiction in particular. I recommend Elizabeth Gilbert reading Eat, Pray, Love; Anne Lamott reading any of her memoirs; Helene Cooper reading The House at Sugar Beach; and, my favorite among these, Dreams From My Father. The author was allowed much more range of expression back in 2005 when he recorded it, and it’s a rare experience hearing a future president do Kenyan accents and urban “Negro dialect” (ahem) and using the f- and n-words. [Ed.’s note: for the latter, we also recommend the Lyndon Johnson tapes.]
Anne: It’s rare that I travel by car these days, and even rarer that I find myself behind the wheel, but when I do, I like to listen to In Their Own Voices: A Century of Recorded Poetry. Listening to poems, like songs, lets me internalize their rhythms and cadences. This collection features a wide range of twentieth-century poets reciting their own poems, from Sylvia Plath’s contemptuous “Daddy” to Gertrude Stein’s playfully repetitive “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso.”
Emily W: With audiobooks, it’s all about the reader; audio samples are essential to choosing a good recording. On recent car trips, my husband and I have found Huckleberry Finn and The Da Vinci Code particularly entertaining (in the latter case, guffaw-inducing) because the readers were so excellent at accents, genders, and dialects. And I have extremely fond memories of listening to Larry McMurtry’s Anything for Billy with my parents and sisters on a childhood drive from Virginia to Massachusetts.
Kevin: Audiobooks are not foolproof. A couple years ago I tried to listen to Cold Mountain on a road trip; between changing lanes, counting out toll money, and generally trying to stay alert, I found Charles Frazier’s slow, somnolent reading impossible to follow. These days my voices of choice are David Sedaris (yes, please, Santaland Diaries one more time) and Garrison Keillor, or anyone else working in short-form comedy.
Garth: Though my wife and I like to read aloud to each other on long trips, The Lannan Literary Foundation podcasts are a recent discovery I’m pretty enthusiastic about: lengthy readings by writers like Deborah Eisenberg and Samuel R. Delany, followed by intelligent discussion with peers like Ben Marcus and Junot Díaz. We parcel them out like rest stops.
Max: A good travel audiobook can make even a drive from Chicago to New York seem something more than just endless fields and turnpikes. Most memorable was Paul Theroux’s account of his train trip from Cairo to Johannesburg, Dark Star Safari. The library is great for these.
Amir Hother Yishay: I always read on car rides, never having been a fan of audio books myself. One of my greatest car reading experiences would probably be reading One Hundred Years of Solitude over a two week trip from Toronto to St. Johns.
Miriam Parker: One of my most enjoyable long car rides included listening to Born Standing Up by Steve Martin. He reads it and is fantastic. I actually had to stop the car once to write down something brilliant he had said or else I would have caused a huge accident on I-40.
Christine Magee: Commuting in and out of the city on a regular basis last year was made palatable by listening to Carson McCullers, The Heart is a lonely Hunter. The fact that the narrative transported me to a different place and time made it the perfect choice. It got to the point where I was looking forward to sitting in traffic so I could hear more! This wonderful book full of tension and struggle made my daily commute seem like a breeze!
My winter reading project this year is War and Peace. On an average night I make it through 15-20 pages before I become too tired to follow the story anymore. At this rate I should be done by Easter.
I have read Anna Karenina and The Death Ivan Illych so I am well-acquainted with the pleasures of Tolstoy. A 2007 NYRB article on a new translation of War and Peace described those pleasures well: “No other writer,” wrote Orlando Figes, “can recreate emotions and experience with such precision and economy.”
Reading War and Peace, there is the sense of beginning one of the great experiences one might have in a lifetime. It is an enervating feeling, but also a melancholy one. I imagine I will feel a step closer to death 1,300 pages from now.
But before that happens, I’d like to annotate the most beautiful, strange, penetrating and sublime moments from the book. This desire owes in part to the natural inclination to want to share something as good as Tolstoy. But there are selfish motives at work, too. I hope that I might, by sharing the experience of reading War and Peace, be able to hold onto it a little longer.
First, A few of my favorite passages from the first third of the book:
I found his description of obligatory and irreproachable idleness to capture an unexpected pleasure of parenthood: that even something as lazy as a late-morning nap feels purposeful, even dutiful, when taken alongside a sleeping child.
The Bible legend tells us that the absence of labor—idleness—was a condition of the first man’s blessedness before the Fall. Fallen man has retained a love of idleness, but the curse weighs on the race not only because we have to seek our bread in the sweat of our brows, but because our moral nature is such that we cannot be both idle and at ease. An inner voice tells us we are in the wrong if we are idle. If man could find a state in which he felt that though idle he was fulfilling his duty, he would have found one of the conditions of man’s primitive blessedness. And such a state of obligatory and irreproachable idleness is the lot of a whole class- the military. The chief attraction of military service has consisted and will consist in this compulsory and irreproachable idleness.
It’s astounding how often in War and Peace Tolstoy is able to write about overwhelming elements of human experience as easily as if he were observing a rock in his front yard:
After dinner Natasha, at Prince Andre’s request, went to the clavichord and began singing. Prince Andre stood by a window talking to the ladies and listened to her. In the midst of a phrase he ceased speaking and suddenly felt tears choking him, a thing he had thought impossible for him. He looked at Natasha as she sang, and something new and joyful stirred in his soul. He felt happy and at the same time sad. He had absolutely nothing to weep about yet he was ready to weep. What about? His former love? The little princess? His disillusionments?…His hopes for the future?…Yes and no. The chief reason was a sudden, vivid sense of the terrible contrast between something infinitely great and illimitable within him and that limited and material something that he, and even she, was. This contrast weighed on and yet cheered him while she sang.
I often wonder whether the elements of our lives—the Internet, chain stores, abundance, self-consciousness—influence a conscious experience that is unique to our time. Tolstoy’s answer is that they don’t:
“Yes, that is true, Prince. In our days,” continued Vera—mentioning “our days” as people of limited intelligence are fond of doing, imagining that they have discovered and appraised the peculiarities of “our days” and that human characteristics change with the time.
The Russian language is the real hero of Tolstoy’s masterpiece; it is his voice of truth. The English-speaking world is indebted to these two magnificent translators, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, for revealing more of its hidden riches than any who have tried to translate the book before. — Orlando Figes
After reading their 2007 translation of War and Peace, Orlando Figes, the eminent Russian historian, did not mince words about Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. And so, neither will I: When I found out that I had the opportunity to interview the translators, I was giddy as a girlish Beatles fan circa 1964.
As the bestselling and award-winning translators of sixteen great works of Russian literature, Pevear and Volokhonsky are something of a rock star duo in the literary world. The fluency of their translations, grounded in a nuanced understanding of the time and place that the source texts were written, have given cause for many of us to fall more deeply in love with The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Notes from Underground, The Master and Margarita, Dead Souls, and the fiction of Anton Chekhov, among many others. The pair have been working together since 1986; Pevear has also published individual translations from French and Italian. As a duo, they were twice awarded the PEN Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize. Their 2004 translation of Anna Karenina was an Oprah’s Book Club pick.
The couple, who are married and live in Paris, added a new title to their oeuvre just last month: The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories, by Leo Tolstoy. The collection includes eleven glittering and strange tales, among them “The Kreutzer Sonata,” “Master and Man,” “The Prisoner of the Caucasus,” and the novella Hadji Murat, which was Tolstoy’s final work. While Pevear and Volokhonsky have previously translated the short fiction of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anton Chekhov, and Nikolai Gogol, this is their first turn at the stories of Tolstoy. The ones they’ve chosen are largely from Tolstoy’s later years; together, the stories wrestle with questions of war, honor, death, sex, obsession, resentment, redemption, crime, and innocence. Seven of the stories collected were never published in Tolstoy’s lifetime.
So how do they do it? Pevear and Volokhonsky are candid about their tag-team approach to translation. Volokhonsky, a native speaker of Russian, pores over the original text first and creates a transliterated draft marked with her comments about the author’s literary style. Pevear, who does not read Russian, works from that draft to polish the English text, discussing pressing questions that emerge along the way with Volokhonsky. Should any disagreements emerge, Pevear makes the call. As Volokhonsky recently told Jeffrey Tractenberg in the Wall Street Journal:
Richard is a native speaker of English. I’m a native speaker of Russian. My task is to explain to Richard what is happening in the Russian text. Then it is up to him to do what he can. The final word is always his. I can say this is not quite what the Russian says. Either he finds something that satisfies me or he says no, this is how we’re going to do it. We discuss endlessly and sometimes it becomes a nuisance because we return to it again and again even after the manuscript goes off. But we really don’t quarrel. It would be much more interesting if we did.
Pevear and Volokhonsky do agree, however, to refrain from using contemporary expressions in their translations, choosing to remain faithful to the style of the novel’s time. Their current project? A translation of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago.
In kind with their team approach, Pevear and Volokhonsky approached this email interview for The Millions as a pair.
The Millions: Your newest translation together is The Death of Ivan Ilyich & Other Stories. Why did you choose to do this particular book?
Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky: Quite simply because these later stories are among Tolstoy’s greatest works. In fact, the short novel Hadji Murat is perhaps the finest thing he wrote, and he seems to have known it. After all his storming against the notion of beauty, he could not help himself, being a born artist, and “in secret from himself” (as he put it) wrote his most perfectly beautiful work – “beautiful” in the way that The Iliad is beautiful. “Master and Man” is also a perfect work of a very different sort, vividly told and deeply moving. But even the opening story of the collection, “The Prisoner of the Caucasus,” which he wrote for a children’s reading book in the simplest style possible, is gripping and unforgettable. How could we not want to translate them?
TM: Having also translated War and Peace and Anna Karenina, what have you found to be unique about how Leo Tolstoy worked in short fiction, compared to his novels?
RP and LV: Tolstoy’s two big novels, like almost all of his work before 1880, portrayed people of his own class, the landed aristocracy, and their social milieu. Most often his heroes were self-conscious men, seekers of the meaning of life – in other words, self-portraits to one degree or another. In his later stories, there is much more variety: one hero is a narrow-minded bureaucrat, another is a well-to-do peasant, still another is a sort of holy fool, and finally there is the Chechen chief Hadji Murat. “The Forged Coupon” portrays people from all levels of Russian society, from the tsar to the lowest criminal. And there is a corresponding variety of “worlds.” That’s one thing. Another is the effort Tolstoy made to rid his art of what he considered the “superfluous detail” of the novels. His compositions became tighter, more formal, without losing any of the sensual immediacy that was the essence of his art.
TM: What are the greatest misconceptions about Tolstoy?
RP and LV: The greatest misconception might come from believing what Tolstoy said about his artistic work after his “conversion to true Christianity,” as he called it; that is, from believing what he preached in the series of tracts and polemical works he wrote after 1880. He was never able to practice what he preached. He remained a deeply divided and contradictory man all his life. And that nourished his artistic work. We took a phrase from W. B. Yeats as the epigraph for our introduction to Anna Karenina: “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” That is even more true of Tolstoy in his later works, because his inner quarrel was more intense. “The Kreutzer Sonata” was meant to teach a lesson about the evils of modern marriage, but it does something quite different and humanly much more complex. Another misconception is that Tolstoy only wrote those two huge, unreadable novels.
TM: Together, you’ve worked your way through some of the greatest fiction ever written. What are the unique pressures you have as translators of fiction that is both beloved and so highly regarded?
RP and LV: The pressure comes more from the quality of the writing itself. There are two questions that it might seem quite proper for a translator to keep in mind, but that in fact will spoil the translation. The first is, “What will the reader think?” And the second is, “How do we say that in English?” A good writer does what he or she has to do in the writing so that it “goes right,” as Robert Frost put it. There is at least as much intuition as intention in the process. A good translator has to follow that process far more consciously than the writer and yet come as close as possible in the new language to the instinctive “rightness” of the original. The greater the writer, the closer you want to come. That is both the challenge and the joy of it. But exactly what that “rightness” is remains undefinable, which is why there is no such thing as a definitive translation.
TM: Only about three percent of books published in the U. S. are in translation; the rate is even lower for translated fiction. What do you make of these numbers?
RP and LV: There are a number of things that might be made of them. The percentages are much higher in Europe, of course – 12% in Germany, 15% in France, 24% in Spain. We might say that that’s because Europe is small, a sort of family of countries, despite all past wars and present rivalries. And so translation comes naturally, like overhearing a conversation in the next room. But the analogy doesn’t quite work, because Europeans also translate a great deal of American writing and writing from all over the world. And Russia, which is a rather large country, has always given great importance to literary translation and has produced many superb translators. Is it American insularity, then? A lack of curiosity about what happens elsewhere? But what about the statistics for Great Britain? Surprisingly, they are about the same as for the U. S. Which suggests a linguistic insularity specific to English itself: if you speak the language of the hegemony, why notice the babble going on around you? It might also be a question of the market and marketing. Americans read an enormous amount of junk, which is dutifully supplied to them by publishers – unless it is actually the publishers who create the taste for junk. In either case, publishers are not likely to pay for the rights to translate junk and turn over a good percentage of the book’s earnings to the original publisher. They tend to pick up the small number of books that win the major European prizes, hoping that the momentary notoriety will create a market among more discerning readers with a minimum of advertising. But, on the positive side, we do have publishers who have consistently gone against the market statistics and made a point of publishing translations: Dalkey Archive Press, for instance, and first of all New Directions. Among major publishers, Knopf, Vintage, and Everyman’s Library, who publish most of our translations, are the exception that proves the rule.
TM: Your translations have achieved immense acclaim and success. Particularly in context of the low numbers of translations in the U. S., as well as the many other versions available of some of the books you work on, what is it about your translations that resonates with readers?
RP and LV: We’re the last people who can answer that question.
TM: Russian or otherwise, who are the writers you’d most love to see translated into English? What books are U. S. publishers and readers lacking?
RP and LV: There are three fine Italian writers of the twentieth century who should be translated into English: Alberto Savinio, Cristina Campo, and Guido Ceronetti. A very few of Savinio’s many books have been translated and gone out of print. One book by Ceronetti (who is still living) was published by Farrar, Straus in 1993. No English translations of Campo have been published as far as we know. Then there is the French poet Jacques Darras, who is incidentally a major translator from English. Some of his more scholarly books have been translated, but not his remarkable poetry and artistic prose. And there is the fine essayist and “culturologist” Sergei Averintsev, one of the most important Russian thinkers of recent times, a brilliant and witty writer. A few of his essays have been translated into English, but nothing like the substantial collections available in Italian, German, and French (the French publisher Cerf has recently commissioned a translation of Averintsev’s complete works).
TM: What books have you decided not to translate, and why?
RP and LV: We have decided not to translate Turgenev, because not everyone can be Mrs. [Constance] Garnett.
TM: Does contemporary literature lack the deep engagement the Russians had with the mysteries of life, like the existence of God and the meaning of death? If so, why do you think this is and what is lost?
RP and LV: These questions are very difficult to talk about or even to formulate correctly. They lead to glittering generalities that are almost certain to be wrong. But we might say tentatively that the qualities we find in nineteenth century Russian literature came in part from the late maturing of Russian culture, which reached its “golden age” not in the time of Shakespeare or Molière or Cervantes, but in the age of Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy. These writers belonged fully to the nineteenth century, with all its social and spiritual conflicts, but at the same time they were creating the language and the forms of their literature, and posing these “accursed questions,” as Dostoevsky called them, for the first time. There is a primary energy in their work. As for what may have been lost, writers themselves have little choice about these things; they are determined by forces much larger than the individual will. Besides, what is lost here is found there.
TM: What is the social resonance of Tolstoy’s ideas today? Why do we keep turning back to him?
RP and LV: There are people all over the world who are still taken with Tolstoy’s social ideas – that is, with “Tolstoyism,” as he and his followers defined it: the radical simplification of life, egalitarianism, non-violent opposition to the state, pacifism, vegetarianism, post-marital chastity. But that’s probably not what you mean by “Tolstoy’s ideas.” We turn back to him, we keep reading him, because in his artistic work he deals with universal conditions and almost never with topical issues, and because he has such an extraordinary gift for concrete realization.
TM: Judging by your output, you both seem to work so much and so efficiently. Do you have time to read for pure enjoyment? If so, what have you read recently that you have loved?
RP and LV: Dorothy Sayers’ mystery novels, Don Quixote in Liubimov’s Russian translation, The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, the essays of Eliot Weinberger (Oranges and Peanuts for Sale and An Elemental Thing), the journals of Kornei Chukovsky, Guido Ceronetti’s La Pazienza dell’arrostito (The Patience of the Roasted), Martin Chuzzlewit…
Elizabeth wrote in with this question:
This upcoming semester I will be teaching a literature class at an East Coast college. The reading list includes several poems, stories, and essays as well as two plays, and just one novel. The English chair explained that because the school is heavy on business majors, for many students the novel they read in this course may the only novel they read for the rest of their college experience, and in some cases, for the rest of their lives. To be charged with selecting the “one novel of a person’s life” seems like both an impossible burden and a precious gift. I don’t know if I should choose something relatively accessible that might induce a love of reading (Lolita, The Remains of the Day, White Teeth) or a classic that might give them a greater perspective on the history and traditions of storytelling (Don Quixote, Madame Bovary, To the Lighthouse.) My question, then, is really this: if you could read just one novel, what would it be?
Several of us pitched in on this one. Some of us took Elizabeth’s question literally, wondering what “one novel” we would choose in the (terrifying) event that we would be allowed just one for the rest of our lives. While others put themselves in Elizabeth’s shoes, trying to figure out how to wield the awesome responsibility of determining the entirety of another person’s reading experience. Here are our answers:
Garth: The hypothetical here – if you could read just one novel – strikes fear into my heart. Certainly, the book should be long, if there’s only going to be one. I’m tempted to say A Remembrance of Things Past on those grounds alone. On the other hand, the Marcel-Albertine romance never stoked my fires as much as the other relationships in the book, and I’ve got the feeling that this one, singular book should be a love story. In the same way that, if you only had one great narrative of your own life, you’d want it to be a love story. So: how about Anna Karenina? Writing about happiness is the hardest thing to do, and, in a book which most people remember for the sad parts, Tolstoy does it better than anyone.
Edan: My suggestion – Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – may be an obvious one, but it makes sense as a syllabus pick for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s highly readable. It’s important that the assigned book be entertaining, since someone who doesn’t read much won’t tolerate a slow or dense novel (just as someone who isn’t a movie buff (read: me) won’t sit through a John Cassavetes film). Secondly, there’s a lot in the book to discuss as a class. I read it two years ago, and found it to be structurally fascinating, as well as funny, playful, and damn moving. For instance, I was interested in how the phrase “So it goes” repeated throughout the novel, changing with each use: first the casualness jarred me, and then I was surprised to see it, and then I expected to see it, and then I was exhausted by it, and the cycle went round and round again, a little different each time. I’d love to talk about this process as a group, and I think others – book worms or not – would, too. And, lastly, Kurt Vonnegut is a great writer to like, as he has so many other books, and his influence in American literature is just enormous. If you love his books, there are others to discover. Get someone hooked on Vonnegut, and he or she will be a reader for life.
Andrew: If I could only pick one novel, I’d pick one that will magically smash through curriculum limits and lead the reader head-first to others – a gateway novel, if you will. I have a hierarchy of favorites – modern and classic – but strategically I’ll pick the one that, looking back, opened up the world to me. I first read Slaughterhouse-Five when I was about nineteen years old. I was discovering Kurt Vonnegut and was drawn to his darkly comic way of writing – playful, with big chunks of sci-fi thrown in to satisfy the geek in me. Slaughterhouse-Five has all of the Vonnegut tropes, but digs deep. Billy Pilgrim, our mid-century, middle-aged, middle-class hero, has become “unstuck in time” and we follow him forward to the planet Tralfamadore, and backwards to 1945 where Billy and his fellow soldiers – kids, really – are POWs in Dresden. Though Vonnegut’s playful, ironic fatalism gives the story its rhythm, and the time-shifting gives it its structure, the horrific firebombing of Dresden gives the novel its depth. This is a war story like no other.
Emily: In the words of Gabriel Betteredge, taken from Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone: “You are not to take it, if you please, as the saying of an ignorant man, when I express my opinion that such a book as Robinson Crusoe never was written, and never will be written again. I have tried that book for years–generally in combination with a pipe of tobacco–and I have found it my friend in need on all the necessities of this mortal life. When my spirits are bad–Robinson Crusoe. When I want advice–Robinson Crusoe. In times past when my wife plagued me; in present times when I have had a drop too many–Robinson Crusoe. I have worn out six stout Robinson Crusoes with hard work in my service. On my lady’s last birthday she gave me a seventh. I took a drop too much on the strength of it; and Robinson Crusoe put me right again. Price four shillings and sixpence, bound in blue, with a picture into the bargain.” And if you object to Crusoe, then The Moonstone, the finest (and first, some would say) detective novel ever written.
Noah: Are we in a primordial state, untouched by letters save for one sacred tome (The Complete Works of Shakespeare, perhaps)? Or simply naming our favorite book (A Fan’s Notes). This exercise is like picking a “desert island book,” the book you’d want to have to read by the yellow flickering of a driftwood fire while the palm fronds sway in the moonlight and the ocean crashes below. In this situation I might opt for something long and beloved, an Infinite Jest or Underworld, say. Maybe a classic that I haven’t read would be better (even on a deserted island it’s important to be well-read). The Count of Monte Cristo could work well. I’ve heard good things. But no, we are talking about choosing a book to teach. A book to teach to business majors who may not read another word the rest of their lives. I think The Great Gatsby fits the bill.
Lydia: This question has made my week a little less enjoyable, because every time I sat down to lounge, I remembered that I had to pick the only book that a group of people will read, maybe ever. Their lives were in my hands. I thought about it a lot, and I have decided that I would assign David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. It is intensely readable, so they will actually read it. Some things I had to read in college English classes, like the wretched Pamela, were so unfun to read that I did not, in fact, read them. Never underestimate a college student’s unwillingness to do his or her homework, especially if it is boring. Also, Cloud Atlas centers around a neat narrative trick, so you can talk about novels and the different ways people make them. Since it adopts a series of voices, you can tell the students that if they liked the Frobisher part, they can try Isherwood, and Martin Amis if they liked the Cavendish part, and so on. Ideally this will trick them into reading more novels. Finally, Cloud Atlas even has A Message, slightly simplistic though it may be, and will provide gentle moral instruction to your flock (I think it’s “Make love not war, save the planet”).
Max: It was fascinating to me that both Edan and Andrew picked Slaughterhouse-Five (and for the same reasons!) It’s true that this novel (or, in a somewhat similar vein Catch-22) will serve to entertainingly blow up any preconceived notion that an intelligent non-reader may have had about the boring old novel. I also found interesting Noah’s and Garth’s idea (reading the question as looking for a “desert island book”) that length is critical. With that as my consideration, I would choose Alvaro Mutis’ The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, an adventure novel that could be plumbed again and again, or East of Eden, the best of the multi-generational epics of the last 100 years. Or better yet, if you read just one novel, why not read the “first” and, in the sense that all novels since are just repeating its tricks again and again, the only novel, Don Quixote. But thinking again about this as a novel to be read in this unique and specific circumstance, and thinking again that something contemporary might best fit the bill, why not – bear with me here – The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen? Even though the characters might seem like typical boring novel characters, Franzen does things with them that you wouldn’t expect, the book is incredibly readable, and you can get into the whole meta-argument surrounding the book and Oprah and whether good literature must be in opposition to popular culture or should be a part of it.
Thanks for your great question, Elizabeth. Millions readers, help us inaugurate the first Book Question on the new site by sharing your answers to Elizabeth’s question on your own site or in the comments below.
So that you may get to know us better, it’s The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life that like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments or on your own blogs.Today’s Question: What is the biggest, most glaring gap in your lifetime of reading?Edan: There are so many gaping holes in my reading! I haven’t read Proust (saving him for my white-haired years) and, beyond Chekhov, not many Russians (I’ll be reading Anna Karenina next month and I’m looking forward to it). I haven’t read Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow, or Infinite Jest – I tend to avoid big books. I’m too embarrassed to name one very famous Shakespeare play I know next to nothing about. I never read mysteries or horror, mostly because I’m a scared wimp, but I’m thinking of reading a Patricia Highsmith novel this year. Recently, I’ve started to read more books in translation, and since graduating from college I’ve made a point of reading all the classics I missed, like To the Lighthouse and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, both of which I loved. I’m also making myself read more nonfiction, since I never would otherwise. I haven’t even read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood! Writing this reminds me of all the writers I haven’t read: Homer, Norman Mailer, John Irving, Gertrude Stein, John McPhee, J.K. Rowling. That’s right, I haven’t read Harry Potter!Why am I wasting my time writing this? I must go read. Now.Andrew: As I do a quick mental survey of my life of reading, I notice a number of gaping holes. Some beckon; others continue to keep me at bay.Chronologically, then: The Classics. Aside from some excerpts of the ancient Greeks in high school English, I’ve never delved into classical literature. I have seen a number of theatrical adaptations of classical Greek plays, but that’s about it. Aside from excerpts, I’ve never even read Homer.I’ll jump ahead to the 1800s only because I’m not exactly sure what I’m missing from the intervening centuries. Lets assume EVERYTHING. (except Don Quixote – I’ve actually read that). So, on to the 1800s: I’ve never read Moby Dick or Middlemarch. I’ve done quite well re: Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, and the Russians. I’ve also done quite well in early-mid 20th century fiction – that was always (and remains) my favorite literary era.More recently, I’ve done quite well with modern British fiction, and I’ve also been quite good at Latin American fiction from the past 50 years (Mutis, Marquez, Borges, Bolano). But still some gaps remain in 20th century fiction: Thomas Pynchon and Margaret Atwood (I should be stripped of my Canadian citizenship for that).Before the Millions, contemporary American fiction had been a giant hole. But over the past 6 years I’ve delved deeply into Lethem, Chabon, Franzen, and once I can successfully wrap my puny brain around David Foster Wallace’s encyclopedic prose, I’ll actually finish Infinite Jest. It’s mesmerizing, but exhausting.Emily: When it comes to playing readerly “I Never,” there are rather a lot of burly man-authors, chiefly twentieth-century man-authors, whose work I’ve never read. Hemingway (other than the 4 page story “Hills Like White Elephants”), Kerouac (a bit of his poetry; enough of On the Road), Roth, Updike, Kesey, Heller, Burroughs, Cormac McCarthy, Vonnegut, Pynchon, Moody, and Foster Wallace all fall into the category of authors I haven’t read. Many of them fall also into the category of authors I have no interest in reading. Perhaps it is that I intuit (or imagine – not having read them, it is hard to say) a masculinist, vaguely misogynist aura that has put me off; Or, as in the cases of Pynchon and Foster Wallace, a virtuousic formal complexity or grandiose heft, that I also associate with the masculine artistic mind. There is, I am aware, no way to justify my philistine (and perhaps sexist) distrust of these authors – my sense that I would find their depictions of violence and apocalypse, aimless wandering, women conquered, uninteresting; that I think I would find their self-conscious cleverness, their feats of stylistic and structural brilliance somewhat tedious; that in reading B.R. Meyer’s “A Reader’s Manifesto” at The Atlantic some years ago, I decided that Meyers’ extended pull quotes designed to illustrate McCarthy’s “muscular” style were as much (more) than I’d ever need of McCarthy’s much lauded prose:While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who’s will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of who’s will and the stout thighbones and knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations of who’s will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned. (All the Pretty Horses, 1992)No thank you. Well-founded, my prejudices certainly are not, but I do not apologize for them or intend to renounce them. Cormac McCarthy may keep his pretty horses – give me clarity, proportion, precision; give me Austen and Burney, Defoe, Iris Murdoch, P.G. Woodhouse, Willa Cather, Evelyn Waugh, Mary McCarthy, Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis. If one must be a philistine, it is best to be an unrepentant one.Garth: What is the biggest hole in my lifetime of reading? The question should probably be phrased in the plural: holes. I’ve never read Kundera; never read Saramago; never read Robinson Crusoe, or Wuthering Heights, or Clarissa; William James, Slavoj Zizek, Henderson the Rain King… Then again, these are kind of scattershot: smallish holes, with some space in between them.Where I feel a huge constellation of holes, threatening to make one giant hole large enough to swallow me, is in Classics. Especially the Greeks. I would like to take a year and just read Plato and Aristotle and the Greek dramas. Or go back to school… So much is built on a basic corpus of Hellenistic knowledge that I somehow never acquired in school. We did The Iliad, The Odyssey, Oedipus… and that’s pretty much it.Kevin: The holes are too numerous to count and the biggest are likely ones I’m not even aware of. I have tried over the last couple years to close some of the most gaping omissions in my reading – secondary Shakespeare plays and the big books of Russian literature being two areas of particularly concerted effort. What remains? Well, a lot. Two that seem particularly important are the British romantic poets and the modernist. The former feels like washing the dishes, to be done of necessity but without any great joy. I think I’ll save Lord Byron and his court for later life, when the years will hopefully have afforded me the wisdom to enjoy their work more. I feel a greater urgency with the modernists, in part because I’ve had enough false starts that I worry I lack the concentration to extract the good stuff from their difficult prose. For about three years I’ve been thirty pages into Mrs. Dalloway and likewise with Ulysses. When it’s the time of day when I typically turn to fiction, I find I lack the appetite to pick them up to begin the fight anew. So, the hole remains, and seems even to grow deeper by the day.Max: This turns out to be a rather liberating exercise. The largest missing piece in my reading experience has been Faulkner, I think. I’ve never read any of his books, though I made a poor and ultimately unsuccessful attempt at The Sound and the Fury in college. I’ve long felt that I should have gotten started on the Russians sooner. So far, I’ve only got Crime and Punishment under my belt. I think I’d like to try Anna Karenina next. I’ve also never read Lolita. Updike’s passing this week reminded me that I’ve never read any of his books. The same is true of DeLillo’s books and Foster Wallace’s. By Philip Roth, I’ve read only Portnoy’s Complaint, which I know leaves out many, many good books. I really need to read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, Tree of Smoke and Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and The Echo Maker by Richard Powers. There are likely many more that I can’t even recall that I haven’t read, but I’ll leave it with Virginia Woolf, whose To the Lighthouse I started not long ago but ended up setting aside when it failed to grab me (or rather, I failed to be grabbed by it).So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: What is the biggest, most glaring gap in your lifetime of reading?
Kevin Hartnett is a regular contributor to The Millions.2008 was a year in which the country was looking for a story, and the same impulse directed my reading. On the campaign trail “narrative” was the analytic frame of choice. Hillary Clinton’s candidacy failed because she could never establish one. John McCain’s failed in part because the story that lent itself most directly to his biography – war hero, country-first corruption buster – was not what America was looking for. In Barack Obama, though, voters found the perfect confluence of his biographic arc and our hopes for our own national narrative arc. We wanted to be the country that matched his story, and by electing him president we established a momentous symbiosis between the rise of a man and the resurrection of a country.The Bush years were depressing in many ways. Worse though for me, than the acute pain of any specific policy, or the sense of alienation from half the country, was the feeling of narrative disruption. The themes we’d always held to be true about our country – that we are meritocratic, virtuous, and ascendant – fell apart like loose nuts and bolts dropping from a moving car. We were not who we thought we were, or at least we were not that country anymore, and in place of a strong narrative direction, a cynical equivalence took hold. If we were not virtuous, at least we would not be duped. I found that I was often as disoriented personally as the country was as a whole.My favorite book of 2008 was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. It was not necessarily the best book I read this year but it was, start to finish, the most moving ride. The novel begins in the gentile tranquility of post-colonial Nigeria and ends amidst the barren wasteland of a civil war. Adichie loses touch with her characters somewhat along the way, but for its depiction of the precariousness of human life, her book is among the most vivid I have ever read.Its failure to establish a convincing narrative was the main reason that I dissented from 2008 favorite Netherland. The novel is about the post-9/11 dislocation of cosmopolitan Dutch banker Hans van der Broek, suddenly alone in New York after his wife decamps to London with their young son. Hans floats through an ethereally drawn New York and at one point a woman who creates photo albums for a living says to him, “People want a story. They like a story,” to which he replies, “A story. Yes. That’s what I need.” It is a pregnant point, but also one that leads to the ultimate limitations of Joseph O’Neill’s novel. A metaphor, no matter how lushly and beautifully drawn, is no substitute for the real thing.My other favorite books of 2008 are all from the canon. I revisited Rabbit, Run and found that the book had improved considerably since I first read it in high school. Even then I could not help but notice Updike’s virtuosity with words, but this time around I took the most joy in the many, sparkling moments when Rabbit’s character, so perfectly rendered, seems almost to poke through the page. Elsewhere, Levin’s angst in Anna Karenina, which I read back in February, is still with me, and I don’t expect to soon forget the dramatic reckoning in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych.My only reading regret for 2008 is that there was not more of it, which leads me into the new year excited to read more and with a list that is already longer than the hours I know I’ll have. I take such optimism, particularly as it concerns the book, to be a good thing.More from A Year in Reading 2008
David Heatley is a cartoonist and musician living in Queens, NY. His work has appeared on the cover of The New Yorker, in The New York Times, and in numerous anthologies, including McSweeney’s, Kramer’s Ergot and Best American Comics. His graphic memoir My Brain is Hanging Upside Down from Pantheon Books is available now from Pantheon and Jonathan Cape. A 6-song mini-LP soundtrack to the book, produced by Grammy award-winner Peter Wade is available on iTunes. More info at davidheatley.com.Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky. I read Brothers throughout last year while reading mostly non-fiction books. It’s become one of my favorite novel of all time, tied for now with Anna Karenina. These books knock my socks off. Maybe it’s the Christian thing I’m drawn to. Both Doestoevsky and Tolstoy believe that every character is worthy of loving attention, generous description and true understanding. It’s refreshing in an age of hate and fear politics, and in a culture full of genre heroes and villains. I also just love the form of these classic Russian novels. I can’t seem to read any contemporary fiction lately. I’m allergic to all those adjectives. I feel smothered by the language. But Tolstoy and Doestevsky, with their short chapters made for serializing in a newspaper, their unabashed moral center, their razor sharp insight into human emotion, their gripping tabloid-worthy dramas, that’s the stuff for me.Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert & A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle. I’m really into mass culture and have been since I was a little kid. In my teens and early twenties I tried to make myself forget that I love big, dumb, flashy, optimistic American music and art. I tried to convince myself I liked sad, depressive, nihilistic fringe art. The more difficult and narrow the better. But in the last few years, I started to remember what I really love. I hope I don’t forget again. It blows my mind that these two books could have such a huge place in pop culture. Gilbert’s book was the best page-turner I’ve read in years, but it was talking about indelible spiritual matters, like selfless service, unconditional love, prayer and meditation. How did she pull that off? I don’t have a lot of words for what Tolle’s books mean to me. His work has been nothing short of life-altering. He’s given me a clear direction towards which to grow. I need voices like his, speaking to the part of me that resides deeper than the incessant chatter in my head or the surface layer of communication which passes for intimacy in most of my relationships.New Engineering by Yuichi Yokoyama. Published by Brooklyn-based Picture Box (arguably the most exciting comics publisher in operation today), this first book by Japanese cartoonist Yuichi Yokoyama is a revelation. Yokoyama has worked in relative obscurity for most of his career. He seems to regard himself as primarily a conceptual artist who happens to make comic books, citing Sol LeWitt as a primary influence. From reading the interview at the back of the book, I gleaned that his stated purpose is to make stories devoid of emotion or personality. I think that’s impossible, since I believe everything is either conscious or unconscious autobiography. But the product of this experiment of his is utterly fascinating. What appears to be a chase scene straight out of a manga book, complete with samurai swords drawn, quickly becomes a meditation on physical objects and space. The man running from the pursuers winds up in a library and begins hurling books to defend himself. What follows is panel after panel of books being sliced, pages falling through the air in graceful arcs. He seems to explore every permutation of what form a falling, shredded book might take. At the end of the story, the last page floats to the floor and the chase continues off the page. What exactly did we just witness? Who was the protagonist? The books? Other stories are just a series of silent panels showing things being built: rocks crushed, astroturf rolled out, canals dug, water poured. No human interaction with the environment until the last page. Suddenly, characters wearing bizarre, other-worldly costumes celebrate their accomplishment with ridiculously flat dialogue as the fluorescent lights are flicked on. There are no traditional story arcs to any of these works. These stories, despite themselves, are very funny and still work on me at an emotional level. What’s so exciting is that I can’t quite identify what the emotion is or begin to articulate it.Paul Goes Fishing by Michael Rabagliati. Michael Rabagliati is a wonderful cartoonist from Canada who has been publishing his series of “Paul” books with Drawn and Quarterly over the last decade. This latest one is also his best. The artwork, which has always been soothing, consistent and classic without resorting to nostalgia, has been dialed up a notch. His renderings of campsites surrounded by trees, reflective surfaces of lakes, the musty cabins themselves are nothing short of masterful. His work has achieved a perfect balance between realistic detail and cartoon abstraction, which leaves enough room for the reader to inhabit the space and make it his own. The story itself is a complete surprise. It starts off as a pitch perfect ode to the period just following marriage but before parenthood. He captures the friendship and almost brother-sister bond of the newlyweds, complete with in-jokes, teasing, and sweet affection. He also renders perfectly the passage of time on vacation: languid blissful days on a boat, long conversations between friends, the curious and sometimes mischievous games children invent, and the maddeningly long days spent indoors, searching for a relief from boredom during a thunderstorm. There’s little in the way of dramatic emotion, lust or sex here, which is rare but welcome in an “adult” comic book. Slowly it begins to dawn on us that the couple are in fact getting ready to have their own baby. Tragically, the trip is cut short as the couple faces the first in a series of miscarriages. We are shown the horrible details of the D&C procedure. It is shocking to be here after spending more than half of the book in the idyllic woods. Only a page or two are devoted to Paul’s attempt at praying, but it’s enough and it’s terribly moving. By the third time, the pregnancy is a success and we feel all the relief and joy that the author must have at the arrival of his own baby. Rabagliati ends the book with Paul’s trip to the church to give thanks in case it really was his prayer that made the difference. I hope more people spread the word about this heartfelt, understated and rich book. I know I’ll be reading it several more times and studying all its wonderful contours and complexities.More from A Year in Reading 2008
It has been said, though by whom I can’t remember, that the Great New York Novel is as elusive a creature as the Great American One. Because this city (the argument goes) concatenates the fictional challenges of other urban settings – the scale of Tokyo, the insularity and cinematic overfamiliarity of Paris, the mutability and lunatic vitality of Bombay – no novelist can own it the way Dreiser and Wright and Farrell own Chicago or Dickens owns London. And so Ishmael pushes out to sea, Isabel Archer steams for England, and Gatsby is left standing at West Egg, chasing the green light. The world’s most expensive real estate beggars the literary imagination.Of course this is more truism than truth. Melville, James, Fitzgerald, Wharton, Ellison, and, more recently, Doctorow and DeLillo and Auster have done the city justice. Three great novels by Saul Bellow – Seize the Day, Herzog, and Mr. Sammler’s Planet – constitute their own kind of New York Trilogy, rendering midcentury Manhattan indelible for all time. (Bellow, of course, cut his teeth on Chicago). But it speaks to the size of Joseph O’Neill’s ambitions – and the sublimity his accomplishments – that his third work of fiction, Netherland, merits comparison with these authors. Indeed, in its extraordinary literariness, it invites such comparison. It is, for long stretches, a Great New York Novel.The book is deceptively slim, and concerns a Dutch-born investment banker named Hans van der Broek who becomes estranged from his family and from himself in the wake of (though not because of) the September 11 attacks. Exiled in a haunted Chelsea Hotel and a benumbed city, Hans finds a measure of belonging in a cricket league populated largely by working-class immigrants.Hans’ narration has a Proustian sensitivity – and, more strikingly, a Proustian elasticity. Making scant use of page- and chapter-breaks, Netherland travels backward and forward in time, arranging events by emotional, rather than chronological, logic – and, in the process, creating suspense. We learn in the first few pages that by the end of his story, Hans will have settled back into bourgeois stolidity, in London. But how will he have gotten there? we wonder. And will he have learned anything in the process?The answer to the latter question is, of course yes; Netherland, which starts as a murder mystery, is really a novel of awakening. The vehicle for that awakening is O’Neill’s finest creation, a dynamo named Chuck Ramkissoon who will, by 2006, end up face down in the Gowanus Canal. Chuck is an operator, a calculator, and a charmer, but he takes the American dream quite earnestly. “‘Think fantastic,'” he tells Hans. “‘My motto is, Think fantastic.'” He has interests in a kosher sushi business, a numbers game, and real estate. His most ambitious project, however, is to convert a little-used airfield in outermost Brooklyn into Bald Eagle Field:”I’m talking about an arena. A sports arena for the greatest teams in the world. Twelve exhibition matches every summer, watched by eight thousand spectators at fifty dollars a pop. I’m talking about advertising, I’m talking about year-round consumption of food and drink in the bar-restaurant.”Or rather, I should say, Chuck’s most ambitious project is Hans. Initially a cricket buddy, he becomes a kind of mentor for Hans, Quixote to Hans’ Sancho Panza, West Indian Gatsby to his Continental Carraway, shuttling him through insalubrious outer-borough locales and slowly pulling him out of his deep freeze. “He was going to fascinate me,” Hans says, describing both the trajectory of the book and Chuck’s strategy for drawing Hans into the tangled business of “Chuck Cricket, Inc.”As James Wood noted in his New Yorker review, O’Neill finds in cricket a beautiful controlling metaphor; it comes to stand variously for upward aspiration; for camaraderie; for innocence; for fragile, ridiculous, sublime democracy – for all the things Hans feels he lost in the fall of 2001. Beautiful, too, is the way O’Neill puts the metaphor to work, letting his diction suggest, rather than insist (just as he does with the novel’s other preoccupation, the aftermath of September 11). In a scene that recalls Levin among the mowers in Anna Karenina, Hans trims the grass of the wicket-to-be:We took turns driving a lightweight fairway mower with an eighty-inch cut and fast eleven-blade reels. Chuck liked to stripe the grass with dark green and pale green rings. You started with a perimeter run and then, looping back, made circle after circle, each one smaller than the last, each one with a common center. They would soon be gone, but no matter. What was important was the rhythm of the cutting, and the smell of the cutting, and the satisfaction of time passed fruitfully on the field with a gargling diesel engine, and the glory and suspensefulness of the enterprise. […] For all of its apparent artificiality, cricket is a sport in nature. Which may be why it calls almost for a naturalist’s attentiveness: the ability to locate, in a mostly static herd of white-clothed men, the significant action. It’s a question of lookingO’Neill’s writing is this luminous, this precise, this cadenced, and this understated throughout the novel. It creates, in Henry James’ formulation, the present palpable-intimate: Even as the above passage evokes a world, its aphoristic intelligence evokes a worldview, and in the modulation from hesitation (“it calls almost for…attentiveness”) to penetrating insight (It’s a question of looking), it embodies Hans’ weaknesses and capacities. Perhaps even more deft, because less exquisite, is the way O’Neill gives us Chuck Ramkissoon, almost entirely through gesture and dialogue. Along with The Emperor’s Children and The Line of Beauty, Netherland contains some of the most immaculately written English prose of the new century.When O’Neill is using his miraculous instrument to capture the underrepresented precincts of Eastern Parkway and the Herald Square DMV and the Chelsea Hotel and Floyd Bennett Field, it takes on a moral majesty. With the great hole of the World Trade Center smoldering in the background, to record is to memorialize; and apprehending the world as clearly as Hans does becomes a kind of metaphysics, as in the novels of Bellow. It is not a question of looking, but one of seeing.That said, although Netherland moves like a great book, it is, like The Emperor’s Children, sometimes merely a good one. Which is to say that sometimes, Hans merely looks. The stakes of the novel, the things we’re led to believe matter most to him – his wife, Rachel, and his child, Jake – never fully matter to us, because they never assert their independence from Hans’ literary imperatives. A lovely description of Jake’s “train-infested underpants” makes a statement about Hans (what an eye!), rather than one about Jake; whereas Keith Neudecker playing catch with his son in DeLillo’s Falling Man actually, if laconically, sees the boy. Of Keith, James Wood wrote, “He had never been, perhaps, an easy husband – uncommunicative, driven, adulterous, tediously male,” but when it comes to relationships with other people, is there really so much difference between DeLillo’s protagonist and O’Neill’s?Even at the end of the narrative, Hans doesn’t quite seem to see Rachel or Jake as real people, nor is his failure in this regard presented ironically. And because of the novel’s chronological structure and its insistence on the importance of seeing, this threatens to become a serious flaw beneath the novel’s manicured surface. If Hans has been vouchsafed some kind of revelation, there in the green fields of Brooklyn, why are his feelings for his wife so much less convincing than his feelings for Chuck Ramkissoon? And how are we to feel about his return to the IKEA’d embrace of bourgeois “lifestyle” from the dicier terrain of actual life? Is this growth or surrender?This being a novel, style provides the answer, or at least begs the question. O’Neill’s, ultimately, is elegiac, and so, like the tide Fitzgerald’s boats beat against, it keeps tugging Hans toward the past, which is the book’s, and Hans’, center of gravity. The point is not that Hans’ suffering clears the way to redemption, but that for a few moments, it seemed it could have. As the book nears its conclusion, Hans circles back and back to the moments when he came closest to grace, seeing them with ever fiercer clarity. The paragraphs take on the surging rhythms of Hans van der Broek’s wounded heart. Which is a rather too literary way of saying that, in Netherland Joseph O’Neill has accomplished something even more impressive than the Great New York novel. He has brought – has restored – Hans van der Broek to life. We see him.See also: Kevin’s take on Netherland
Reese wrote in with this question:I’m a student at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA focusing mostly on literature. Over the summer I’m attempting to do an independent study of suicide in art and literature. The only thing is, I’m having trouble formulating a reading list. While I can certainly think of a lot of novels that feature a suicide or two in them, I’m really looking for books that focus prominently on the subject. So far all I’ve got is John Barth’s The Floating Opera and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, in addition to A. Alvarez’s study of suicide, The Savage God. Any suggestions? I’d be much obliged.One of my favorite short poems is Langston Hughes’ “Suicide’s Note”:The calm,Cool face of the riverAsked me for a kiss.And I offer it as an epigraph to our reader in search of literary works that take suicide as a central theme or plot event. Here, with a few notes, is a (by no means comprehensive) list in roughly chronological order.Sophocles’ Oedipus and AntigoneVirgil’s Aeneid (Dido’s suicide in the fourth book)Shakespeare’s Othello, Hamlet (Ophelia’s suicide), and Romeo and JulietFanny Burney’s late eighteenth century novel Cecilia has a striking public suicide in one of London’s pleasure gardensAnna Karenina, which pairs nicely with James Joyce’s micro-Anna Karenina “A Painful Case” in DublinersWilkie Collins’ The Moonstone has a suicide involving a quicksand pit called “The Shivering Sands”The Suicide Club, Robert Louis Stevenson (three short stories)The Awakening and “Desirée’s Baby,” Kate ChopinVirginia Woolf’s Mrs. DallowayVladimir Nabokov’s Pale FireAlice Munro’s “Comfort”Sylvia Plath is the patron saint of suicide lit: The Bell Jar and, among her poetry, particularly “Lady Lazarus” (But you might also check out Anne Sexton’s work and that of Ted Hughes’ second poetess-wife to die by her own hand, Assia Wevill)”A Perfect Day for Banana Fish” J.D. SalingerAh, yes, and Dorothy Parker’s “Resumé” – as beloved as the Hughes and almost as short:Razors pain you;Rivers are damp;Acids stain you;And drugs cause cramp.Guns aren’t lawful;Nooses give;Gas smells awful;You might as well live.Happy Reading![Ed note: got more suggestions? Leave a comment]
At the Happy Booker, Wendi points to a New York Daily News article which mentions that Oprah has been recommending Edward P. Jones’ 2003 novel The Known World to book clubs, leading to speculation that her own book club will return to contemporary fiction, and Jones’ book will be her choice.Great news for Jones, but I see no reason why Oprah can’t have both contemporary and classic picks at the same time. She only selects three or four books a year, so double that wouldn’t be a big deal, and getting millions of people to read books like East of Eden and Anna Karenina isn’t a bad thing.
Joan writes in with this question:I loved the regular Oprah Book Club and her Classics selections have made wonderful new or re-reading. The last Oprah Classic I know of is Anna Karenina, last summer. Can you tell me if there have been more recent Oprah Classics? Thanks so much.Much as I am tempted, I’ll spare my readership another discussion on the pros and cons of Oprah’s Book Club. (The short answer is that I think it’s good. You can read why here.) Oprah relaunched her famed book club in the summer of 2003 with John Steinbeck’s East of Eden and since then has recommended six books to her viewers. Oprah selected Alan Paton’s somewhat forgotten novel about South Africa, Cry, the Beloved Country in September 2003. She opened 2004 by recommending Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece of magical realism, One Hundred Years of Solitude followed by The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers in April 2004. In June of 2004 Oprah recommended Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. I remember being struck by Oprah’s bookselling power when I saw dozens of copies of Anna Karenina for sale at New Jersey Turnpike rest stops that summer next to John Grisham and Sue Grafton novels. Oprah has made only one pick since then: Pearl S. Buck’s epic about China, The Good Earth. She hasn’t made a selection in a while so you may want to look out for a new Oprah pick soon. You can bookmark this page to keep track of all her selections. Thanks for the question!
Dubliners and James Joyce fans are celebrating Bloomsday in the town that Leopold Bloom wandered through on that epic day exactly 100 years ago. Revelers, among other things, ate “Gorgonzola sandwiches and sipped Burgundy wine in the sunshine in honour of the lunch enjoyed by the novel’s hero Leopold Bloom, midway through his momentous day.” The novel of course is Ulysses. and you can read more about this remarkable literary festival here.Ray Charles died last weekend. He made such soulful and happy music. Driving from New York to DC, we encountered several radio stations playing his music, some of them continuously, side after side of classic records. Now the tributes are over, and the radio stations are back to their regular rotations, so I was annoyed when I realized that I left my fantastic 5 cd set in storage in LA.Spencer Reece and his book The Clerk’s Tale got a sizeable write up on the front page of the Washington Post Sunday Style section. Not bad for poetry.BookspottingHow powerful is Oprah? I spotted Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina mixed in with a couple of romance novels in the rest stops along the New Jersey Turnpike. Also spotted: On the Washington DC subway: The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman, Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz, and The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom; and in the back seat of my little brother’s car: Our Posthuman Future by Francis FukuyamaFinally, check out the trilogy of Alice Munroe stories in the New Yorker fiction issue. It’s worth a look if only to read the stories that the New Yorker deemed worthy of such prominent placement. You’ll have to pick up the magazine to read all three. Only the first story is online.