There’s a moment in Shawna Yang Ryan’s soaring new novel, Green Island, where the narrator is about to break away from the life she’s always known; she will shortly be leaving Taiwan behind — emigrating across the Pacific Ocean to California. Her father comes into her bedroom as she’s packing. He has a gift, of sorts, for her. He’s brought a jar of soil from the family garden.
“I want you to remember.” He set the jar atop my heaped clothing. “Don’t forget.”
Don’t forget. His words were both an order and a plea.
It is February 1972. Richard Nixon is on his trip to China. Visiting Hangzhou, he’s completing the diplomatic mission that will open formal relations with the PRC. Taiwan, of course, watches with concern; China is a hostile power; with the recognition of the People’s Republic by the United States, Taiwan’s sovereignty might soon be at risk.
These, then, are the twin concerns of Green Island: the political and the personal. Indeed, just a few pages earlier, Nixon’s visit has been relayed by the novel’s narrative voice:
Nixon stands against a metal rail and tosses food into the water with concentration and joy. He drops into a grinning reverie as if he has forgotten the entire world is watching.
“Dr. Kissinger,” the translator says, “you can have a package if you want to feed the fish.”
“Denmark, Denmark,” says the Secret Service. “President feeding fish.”
They stand here at this moment, three of them the most important people to the fate of Taiwan — Richard Nixon, Chou En-lai, and Henry Kissinger — on an overcast day in Hangchow, feeding fish.
Walter Benjamin wrote that it is, “more arduous to honor the memory of the nameless than that of the renowned.” And there are a number of novels, right now, that are balancing these antipodes — that take significant, well-known historical moments, and show them through the lens of nearly powerless, “nameless” protagonists. Through individuals buffeted by the afflictions of their age.
Of course, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See — with over two million copies sold, in hardback — is an example of this. Doerr’s novel follows two deeply-menaced protagonists — Marie-Laure LeBlanc and Werner Pfennig — as they move within the world of German-occupied France. Though Werner has enlisted in the Nazi army, he has done it from necessity, and his efforts to retain his decency in the face of war, in a way, end up causing his death. Marie-Laure is blind; the conflict threatens her in a bodily way; she feels wholly apart from the big geopolitical forces that are — with generalized malice — trying to kill her. She is a suffering witness to history.
Many of the successful literary novels of the past 30 years have negotiated a similar territory, pairing small characters and big circumstances. Girl with a Pearl Earring (Griet, the fictional household servant, and Johannes Vermeer), Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (fictional Saleem Sinai, balanced against the political and social figures of the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan), Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (W.P. Inman, the wounded Confederate deserter, and the army he’s just left), Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace (the fictional doctor Simon Jordan, and the 19th-century murderer Grace Marks) even Toni Morrison’s Beloved (Sethe and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850), have all paired erstwhile anonymous, imaginary characters with unquestionably “real” circumstances. These books do not ignore history; they don’t neglect the geopolitical events that shape the societies in which their characters have “lived.” Rather they thread their characters through these times, using the novel as an opportunity to show the impact of world-historical events on individual lives.
In “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” John Locke says that, “the pictures drawn in our mind are laid in fading colors.” The project of the historical novel, then, is fashioned as an assault on this very fade. We, as human beings, struggle to remember, to retain a sense of the past. It has — surprise! surprise! — passed. But by inserting ordinary people into its great events, novelists can once again vivify and free the emotions of departed times. In a way, this is a gesture of resurrection. The text as Lazarus, stumbling — bandaged by covers — out of its dark cave. If the struggle of man against power is, indeed, the struggle of memory against forgetting, then the historical novel is — imaginatively, at least — a part of that struggle.
As for the marketplace — its appetite for this type of book is not surprising. Since the early 1990s, when publishers started calling it “upmarket historical fiction,” many successful literary novels have been set in a time — or place — other than our contemporary world. But the willingness of literary tastemakers to accept a work of historical fiction as “important” does feel like something new. Whether it’s Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings — or two of the most anticipated novels of 2016: Alison Anderson’s The Summer Guest and Mark Beauregard’s The Whale: A Love Story — it feels like there is a vast new space opening up in the fiction world, one that has the potential for both critical acclaim and strong sales.
Writing last month in The New Republic, the novelist Alexander Chee touched on some of these issues. Chee, of course, has just published the historical novel, The Queen of the Night — a book that has, as its central axis, a fictional 19th-century coloratura soprano, Lillet Berne. The book has been well-received, with positive reviews in nearly every major periodical, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, NPR’s Weekend Edition, Time, Vogue, The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle. It also went through multiple printings before its publication.
Still, Chee was worried about the reaction his fellow writers had whenever he told them he was working on a novel set in the past. Writing last month in The New Republic, Chee said that it was, “as if I’d announced that I was giving up years of hard work writing literary fiction to sell out and become a hack. I had inadvertently hit on a literary taboo.”
Yet both Alexander Chee and Shawna Yang Ryan took nearly 15 years to complete their novels. Labor on this scale is almost unthinkable. It is perhaps the exact antithesis of the genre model of fiction writing — with the rapacious, regular demands of the marketplace. The bruising deadlines, the concept-driven, pre-packaged product. Clearly, these two historical novels — with their robust intellectual projects, their deeply imagined settings — are of a different order. The hours-per-page, per-sentence, per-word — for both The Queen of the Night and Green Island — would discourage any beginning novelist.
In an interview with Slate, Chee said, “The longer the novel was unfinished, the more it endangered my ability to keep teaching, which was a large part of my income. It endangered my ability to get further grants. It endangered my relationship, because I had been working on the novel so obsessively for so long that my partner felt widowed by the project.”
Ryan’s experience was similar. “It kind of took over my life for the last decade and a half,” she said. Building her book’s foundation was an arduous process. In a conversation with The New York Times, she described the work of structuring the novel. Her dedication to craft — and her ceaseless evaluation and reevaluation of the project’s success — was built on a twinning of imagination and historical exploration. “I often thought of my research as similar to unraveling a sweater,” she said. “I’d tug at one thread, and a whole sleeve would come undone.”
Two days before Christmas of 2011, my father died of a heart attack; he was 77 years old. He and my mother had watched an episode of Jeopardy! a few minutes before it happened. This detail, passed on during her tearful phone call later that night, seemed insignificant at the time; I had, of course, other things to consider. More than four years later, though, it’s one of the first things I think of when I recall that night. My parents didn’t do many things together, and had almost nothing in common, but for a half-hour each evening, they did have Alex Trebek.
Throughout my life, I struggled, as my mother did, to understand my dad. He was frustratingly aloof, and rarely made the proper associations in conversation, inevitably damming up what could have been pleasantly-flowing creeks. My wife, upon studying autism in graduate school, gave him a dime-store diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, and she may have been correct. But we’ll never know for sure, because we were too sensitive, or cowardly, to bring it up with him. So it was up to each of us to figure out how to forge connections with him, Asperger’s or not. For my mother, there were things like Jeopardy! and nature photography. For me, there were books.
In my childhood home, my father’s bedroom was lined with sagging shelves, filled with slipcased, hardcover editions of classic novels: Main Street, Omoo, The Last of the Mohicans. He was always in the middle of one book or another, and when I came of reading age, sometime in my early 20s, books became something, like baseball or the weather, that we could always talk about. He had never known what to give me for my birthday or on Christmas; now, suddenly, he did: Ethan Canin’s America America, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. He bought me a book of Mark Helprin short stories and implored me to read “Perfection,” about a Hasidic teenager who pulls the New York Yankees out of a slump. “The other stories are also good,” my father said, but you have to read ‘Perfection.’” I did, and found it wonderful. I was nearly as surprised by its narrative potency as by the fact that my dad had known what I might like.
Our newfound relationship as readers and sharers of books — and his unexpected death — came at a moment when books were losing their importance, being swept aside, with seemingly everything else, by a riot of digitization. In recent years, the Kindle, Nook, and others have been rightly hailed for their function and utility, their ease of use and simplicity of acquisition. These qualities are inarguable; it’s why tens of millions of Kindles (Amazon doesn’t release sales numbers for the device) have been sold. Yet there is nothing I want less than to read from a tablet — the thought of doing so irritates me irrationally — and I’ve begun to wonder if my attachment to the physical book has anything to do with an attachment to my father, or at least my memory of him.
In the eight years since the first Kindle was introduced, the tactile pleasures of books — oh, the feel of a just-flipped page…the smell of binding glue! — have been exhaustively, and often absurdly, chronicled. Those of us who refuse to give up the printed book — a population that seems, surprisingly, to have stabilized — do so for largely similar reasons: books bring a unique mental quiet, offer respite from our screens, are a habit we have no interest in breaking. These reasons are universal and specific to no one. The bond that books helped my father and I establish, however, was ours and ours alone. And that bond was so personal, so giving, that I wish I could somehow thank those books for everything that they did.
America America and the rest of them, up there on their shelves, are now as representative of my dad as the photograph of him that hangs by my bedroom door. And now that I’m a father myself, this concept of objects, imbued with memory, has taken hold in my mind — and my books are as worthy an expression of who I am as anything I can imagine. Though there’s every possibility that, after I die — whenever that may be — my son might frown at my old paperbacks and lug them to the curb, he might also cherish them, or at least pick out a few. E-readers’ branded, dark-gray impersonality strikes me as anathema to such emotion, to such a passing-down. There is little warmth in them; beyond the files stored within, there is no you or me. And while this isn’t the only reason I’ve resisted the devices, it’s been a subconscious one. To say that I “just like books better” now seems insufficient; there are reasons for everything. Some inscrutable logic tells me that if I were to abandon books, I would abandon my dad. It looks ridiculous up there on the screen, now that I’ve written it, but it feels true all the same.
Why do some of us stick with old things as the rest of the world hums by? Is it because we’re a bunch of musty Luddites, fearful of losing what we know? Or is it because we’ve lost enough already?
Image Credit: Pixabay.
I recently attended a talk in Boston given by Adm. James Stavridis, the dean of the Fletcher School — Tufts University’s graduate school of Law and Diplomacy — his alma mater (and mine). The subject was global security, and during the course of his very sobering talk, he gave a fascinating sidebar on the importance of reading novels — of stories. Among the books he mentioned were The Orphan Master’s Son, The Circle, Matterhorn, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, and Station Eleven.
Stavridis has had an illustrious, globe-spanning career in the U.S. Military including three years leading U.S. Southern Command and four years (2009-2013) as the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. When we met before dinner, we quickly launched into a rapid-fire chat about books we had recently read. It seemed to me, he had read everything. Through military ventures in Haiti, Bosnia, the Persian Gulf, and Libya (among other operations Stavridis commanded was the 2011 NATO intervention that led to the downfall of the Muammar Gaddafi regime) on aircraft carriers and battleships, while serving at the Pentagon and on Navy destroyers, one thing has been consistent: his love of reading, and his need for books to help make sense of this increasingly complicated world. His exuberance for the written word inspired me to return to Boston and finish our conversation.
Marcia DeSanctis: When I met you last month, you told me you had just put down My Life in France and it had you in tears. That surprised me.
James Stavridis: Why?
MD: I suppose because you’re a four-star admiral.
JS: Well, even four-star admirals read quirky books and this is an incredibly quirky, wonderful book about discovering yourself and discovering your life. Julia Child comes to France, kind of searched around for what to do with her life, essentially. Newly married and falls in love not only with her husband but with France and with its cuisine and with its culture. The voice in the book is so authentic and so beautiful, so wonderfully rendered. And the part that really had me in tears — because everything I said to you is actually quite joyous and upbeat — is the end of the book where she recognizes that, as she hits her 80s, she cannot continue to go independently to the small home in the south of France where she had centered so much of her life. And you can feel her untethering from something that has meant everything to her.
MD: You also mentioned you like books about chefs.
JS: Oh, I love books about chefs. Who doesn’t? I love, particularly, chef memoirs. Anthony Bourdain is just fantastic, Kitchen Confidential. Or The Devil in the Kitchen (Marco Pierre White) is just fabulous.
MD: So the reason I asked to interview you was because I recently attended a lecture you gave in Boston, which was a frank assessment of the crises that are facing our planet now and the people on it. You covered it all — climate change, ISIS, epidemics, poverty, inequality, cyber risks. And then you posted a slide about novels. Can you tell me why you inserted a slide about novels and why you chose the ones that you did?
JS: Well, first of all, because reading is integral to my life. And I think, in the end, we solve global problems not by launching missiles, it’s by launching ideas. So as a tool for understanding the world and for understanding how you can change the world, I find fiction incredibly important. One that I put up pretty frequently is The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, which is a superb book about North Korea. And North Korea’s an almost impenetrable country. But through a decade of meticulous research and endless interviews and then, an understanding of the human sensibility in an extraordinarily dystopian world, Adam Johnson gives us a portrait of life in North Korea. It’s not a burlesque, it’s not satire. It is, in every sense, life in a world where everything is a half a beat off the music. It’s a gorgeous novel.
I think a second book I had there was The Circle by David Eggers, which is a world in which all of the social networks kind of merge into one. So picture Google, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, everything merged in one huge social network where the motto is “Privacy is Theft.” And the idea is that by complete transparency, we can transform the world. Overlaid on it is a coming of age story of a young woman who has her first job at the Circle. In the largest sense, by one of our most creative contemporary writers, David Eggers, it is a story about what we hold to ourselves, what is privacy, and what transparency can provide but take away from each of us. I think that is an enormous debate that spans the distance from Edward Snowden to Julian Assange to Chelsea Manning. It’s a profoundly important novel that helps us deal with this collision between privacy and transparency.
MD: And you think a novel has the power to help deal with it?
JS: I do, I do absolutely. In the most prosaic way, novels are stories. So recognizing there are differences in how people learn and what people want to read, for me — and I think for the vast majority of people — stories are the best way to learn.
MD: You also discussed Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.
JS: Dystopian literature is very interesting. Most of it is unspeakably bleak. But some dystopian literature really is about how you come back; it’s about resilience, so I love that novel.
Station Eleven is about the world after a brutal pandemic that kills 99.9 percent of the population. And it’s a novel about choices that people make in crisis. And so the protagonist chooses — and I love this part — to become part of a wandering troupe of Shakespearean actors with a kind of ragtag orchestra attached to it, that wanders around this devastated countryside putting on plays and concerts. And think about that for a minute and what that implies about the resilience of the human spirit, about the importance of art, the importance of music, the importance of drama — all those things are powerful in this. It’s such a wonderful construct. And, at the end of the novel, they got to an airport where another band of outcasts have managed to find a way. And in the distance, they see a light on a hilltop — not a bonfire but an electric light. It’s a symbol that we can recover, we can come back. It’s a very hopeful novel.
I was just testifying with Bill Gates on the Hill yesterday, not to namedrop, but we were talking about global health and pandemics and the importance of speed and alacrity in response. Part of what can help us prepare for a pandemic is imagining how horrible the outcome would be. Thus, a book like Station Eleven helps us do that.
MD: Interesting. So in your talk, you confirmed what most of us know, that in a world gone mad or potentially gone mad, novels are these kinds of islands of sanity and escape, even ones that are difficult to read like A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.
JS: Yeah, oh, that’s an absolutely wonderful book.
MD: I agree. So explain to me, why reading matters and the importance of books, particularly fiction, in your life.
JS: Well, first of all, I developed a reading habit very early. My parents moved to Greece when I was eight years old. In those days, in the 1960s, Greece effectively didn’t have television. Certainly no English language television. So my mom would take me down to the embassy library on the weekends and I’d pick out books. And then, it became a lifelong habit and I’ve always had a book in my hand. I read constantly. I read probably 80 percent fiction, 20 percent nonfiction. And I have found through reading fiction, I understand the human condition better.
You said a moment ago that a novel is a sanctuary in the middle of this violent world. Let’s remember that occasionally, novels are also moments of violence in an otherwise very peaceful life. It can be the opposite. And so if you can think of a novel as a kind of simulator where you imagine what you would do in a stressful, dangerous situation, it becomes, I think, a very helpful learning tool about ourselves.
And, helpful to understand other places and cultures. I’ve recommended on occasion a novel about Afghanistan called The Afghan Campaign by Steven Pressfield, which is not about the current NATO campaign, it’s not about the Russian campaign, it’s not about the British campaign. It’s about the first campaign, which is that of Alexander the Great and the Greeks’ attempt to conquer Afghanistan, which turned out roughly the same as all the other ones. And the reason is because you can drop a line — a plumb line — from 2,500 years ago to the present day in terms of the toughness of Pashtuns and their culture. And so to read a novel like that, even set in an ancient time, could help you understand Afghanistan and its place in history.
Lastly, I think novels are a way that we can explore the unimaginable. So here, I’m thinking of science fiction and fantasy even, which I think are not only entertaining but powerful in terms of how they open our minds. I’ll give you an example. Ender’s Game, which is a classic science fiction novel about a cyber force defending its world. It makes me think, “Should we have a cyber force today?” Today we have an Army, a Navy, an Air Force, and a Marine Corps. We don’t have a cyber force. But when I read a science fiction novel about the future, I think, “Boy, we’re going to need one pretty quick.” I have a lot of pragmatic, real world reasons for that, as well. But fiction can reinforce that and open up what’s often unimaginable to us.
MD: Do you believe that there is a single most important novel about conflict — or let’s say two, an old one and a new one, a classic and a contemporary — that really encapsulates the bad and the ugly about war?
JS: Yeah, I’ll give you a modern one, Matterhorn, which is by Karl Marlantes. It’s about Vietnam and combat at the micro level. It’s about a young Princeton graduate who becomes a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps and his first 60 days in combat. It won the National Book Award. It’s magnificent.
I’ll give you one from the middle period. Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane, about the psychology of war, is quite terrific. All Quiet on the Western Front, a World War I novel by Erich Maria Remarque, is incredible.
For contemporary historical fiction written about a battle 2,500 years ago, I’d recommend Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield, which is about the Battle of Thermopylae. And there’s a powerful line in that book, which I think is very true, which is that the opposite of fear is not courage. The opposite of fear on a battlefield is love. Because warriors in combat fight for the love of those with whom they are in combat. That’s a powerful idea. Actually, I have to give you one other.
JS: Because I’m an Admiral, I get to give you a nautical book.
MD: That was one of my questions, actually.
JS: So the best seagoing books about combat, in my opinion, are by a writer called Patrick O’Brian. He wrote a series of believe it or not, 20 novels and they’re all set from about 1800 through 1815. They follow the life and times of a British sea captain, Jack Aubrey. They are terrific. Picture Jane Austen going to sea and writing about maritime combat. They are that good. I think they may be the best writing of the late-20th century. The reason they’re not more widely celebrated is because they’re perceived as maritime warfare genre. But these are big, chewy, fascinating books about life, relationships. About a third of them are set ashore in early 1800s Great Britain, two-thirds set at sea. The combat scenes are incredibly realistic.
MD: Do you have a favorite book about the sea?
JS: I think it’s hard to argue with Moby-Dick. It’s the greatest sea novel of all.
JS: I like Don DeLillo, I liked Falling Man. I don’t lean to 9/11 books as a general proposition. I had a near death experience at 9/11. I was in the Pentagon and my office was right on the side of the building that was hit by the airplane.
MD: You spent your career up until now with the military. Do you read books that are critical of U.S. policy and the wars themselves?
JS: Of course.
MD: There are many.
JS: Oh, sure.
MD: Shattering depictions of the war, soldiers’ reality, and the aftermath.
JS: Oh, gosh, yes. Both fiction and nonfiction. I’ll give you a couple that I loved. I like Green on Blue by Elliot Ackerman, just came out. I like Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. I like Yellow Birds (Kevin Powers), I like The Book of Jonas (Stephen Dau).
In terms of nonfiction, critical, I think is Fiasco by Tom Ricks — it’s harsh, but, in many ways, accurate. It’s about Iraq. Most of the really harsh books are more about Iraq, less about Afghanistan, I think because Afghanistan’s probably going to come out okay.
MD: Yes. What about Dexter Filkins?
JS: I love Dexter Filkins. The Forever War I think is a masterpiece. And you know, I signed 2,700 letters of condolence to young men and women who died under my command. And when I’m in Washington, I often go to Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery and visit with them and that will be with me forever. So I read those books partly to honor them, partly because it’s a big part of my life, partly because I feel it’s my responsibility.
MD: How do you have time to do all this reading?
JS: I stay up late at night, do it on airplanes, use technology to make it easy.
MD: I was going to ask — Kindle or hard copy?
MD: Books on tape? Do you do Audible?
JS: No, I don’t. What I do now, as opposed to going out and buying a stack of books, is I’ll read on the Kindle and then say okay, that’s a terrific book, and buy it. Like I just read Into the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides, which is a book about a polar expedition and it’s fantastic. It’s nonfiction but it reads like a novel. It’s kind of in Eric Larson style if you know his work.
MD: I do.
JS: I’m reading currently his new book, Dead Wake, about the sinking of the Lusitania. It’s just fantastic. Oh, gosh. Fabulous, fabulous writer. So if I think a book will stand up to it, I’ll own a copy of it. I own about 5,000 books and I’m trying to not own 10,000 books.
JS: Yeah, it’s a beautiful novel.
MD: I wrote my senior thesis on him, by the way.
JS: Stop it.
MD: Yes, about Aksyonov.
JS: Is he still alive, by the way?
MD: No, he died a few years ago. He’s not one of the better known Soviet-era writers. Why do you think this is an important book?
JS: Because it raises issues of ethics in command. It’s also, I think, a portrait of a really interesting period in Russian society that transitioned from the World War II generation and how they were effectively betrayed. And I think it’s also a novel about civilian control of the military. I just think it’s a very clever, haunting novel and the characters are beautifully developed.
Is it as good as [Fyodor] Dostoevsky or [Leo] Tolstoy or [Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn, [Nikolai] Gogol? No. But…
MD: You have a lot of Russians on that list.
JS: Oh, yeah. I love Russian literature.
MD: If you met Vladimir Putin, what would you suggest he read?
JS: I’d start — and I’m sure he’s read a lot of the — well, actually, no, he was a KGB Colonel, so maybe not. He’s certainly not from the intelligentsia, he’s from the thugocracy.
JS: Thugocracy, absolutely. I think I’d start him on Dead Souls by Gogol because it’s such an absurdist novel and it’s about trying to grasp power and watching it slip through your fingers. I’d probably force him to read The Brothers Karamazov and focus on the Grand Inquisitor scene. But you know what he’d say back to me? He’d say, “Okay, I’ll read those, but, Stavridis, if you want to understand how tough Russians are and why your sanctions aren’t going to work, read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Solzhenitsyn. And so I think we could have a lively conversation about the motifs of Russian literature.
MD: Fair enough. You also included one of my favorites, The Good Soldier Svejk. What does that book teach you about command? Not much, right?
JS: No, not much at all. Another terrific novel — I forget if it was on my list, I think it was, is called One Soldier’s War by Arkady Babchenko. You should stop everything you’re doing and read this book.
MD: Really? Why?
JS: If you like Russia and you’re interested in this topic, it’s about a Russian conscript fighting in Chechnya in the 1980s. It’s an inside look at the Russian military and its extraordinary dysfunctionality and the cruelty of its counter-insurgency technique, which led, obviously, to the complete disasters there. I mean, it makes the U.S. performance in Vietnam look like an Olympic gold medal by comparison. It’s a powerful, powerful book.
MD: I noticed you had Anne Applebaum’s book on the list, which I thought was really a masterpiece. I mean…
MD: Gulag: A History, yes.
JS: Yeah, it’s a brilliant book.
MD: Of all the global concerns now — and there are many — what do you think is the most fertile ground for future literature?
JS: Of what’s happening now, I think it’s the Arab Spring, which the term itself has become this sort of grand irony. But I think what’s happening in the Arab world today is a lot like the Reformation, which ripped apart the Christian faith, created the wars between Protestants and Catholics, destroyed a third of the population of Europe. It led to, among other things, William Shakespeare’s plays, Martin Luther’s writing. So I think the big muscle movement is in the Arab world and I think those novels are being written. They’ll have to be translated. They’ll start to come out, though. But the searing quality of what’s happening in that part of the world, I think, will unfortunately lend itself to a dark vein of fiction going forward. I think another place is India, and I love contemporary Indian fiction.
MD: Name a few that you love.
JS: The Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga, and even better is White Tiger. I like Salman Rushdie. He’s a little dense and somewhat impenetrable. I like — I forget his name. Sea of Poppies is his best book. It’s fantastic. It’s historical fiction set, oh, probably 200 years ago. Hang on, let’s see. [Looks it up on iPad] Yeah, Amitav Ghosh. Sea of Poppies. So there’s a few. But I think Indian literature will lend itself to big, big novels coming out.
The United States will continue to produce, I think, terrific novels from young novelists and from old novelists. Can there be a better writer alive today than Cormac McCarthy, who’s 80-plus years old and keeps writing these masterpieces one after the other? It’s unbelievable.
MD: It is.
JS: And we have brilliant, brilliant young writers, certainly in the English speaking world — this novel, The Luminaries (Eleanor Catton) She’s a New Zealander, youngest person to ever win the Man-Booker Prize. And the book is just — oh, my God, it’s magnificent. It’s just unstoppable.
MD: Tell me what you like about it.
JS: I love it because it’s so complicated and the fit and finish of it are just extraordinary as a technical accomplishment. Secondly, it is about a fascinating period in the Gold Rush in New Zealand in the 1850s. And thirdly, the characters in it are so both crisply drawn but feel like they’re just from contemporary life. They feel like they have walked in from people you know. It’s really good. I’ll tell you, it’s like Cold Mountain, which I know you’ve read, by Charles Frazier. It’s that good.
MD: That’s a good war book.
JS: It is a good war book a book that shows both sides of it, with the coming home piece, too.
MD: I wanted to get some final thoughts about some of the books you highlighted in your talk in Boston (Matterhorn, The Orphan Master’s Son, Station Eleven, The Circle). Is this the literature of hope or is it the literature of despair about the world we live in now?
JS: What we hope from our writers is that they give us both. Despair’s part of the human condition as is joy and hope and love. And there are wonderful novels on both sides. And as I look back at literature over the ages, I think that’s largely been the case. I think you go back to Voltaire writing in the midst of the French Revolution, the world’s collapsing. I mean, the world is on fire. It’s really falling apart. We like to act like the world’s falling apart. It’s actually not. It’s actually going to hold together and it’s getting better. And that’s hard to see in the thicket of the day-to-day anguish over — justifiably — over Syria and the Ukraine and people flying airplanes into the side of mountains. But if you really rise your head above it and you look at violence in the world, levels of war, we’re better than we’ve ever been. Fewer people are killed in war, fewer people die of pestilence. We’re getting better by really any conceivable metric.
So back to Voltaire. He’s writing in a world that really is on fire. What’s the novel he writes? Candide. You know? “I must tend my garden.” It’s pretty terrific. And that’s a book I read once every year or two. And you know, there are those who say, “Oh, it was all a big satire and you know, he’s actually debunking the theory of optimism.” I don’t think so. I think Candide is a book of optimism and a book of hope from a guy who was very cynical. But I think in his heart, he felt like the outcome of this revolution and everything that was falling apart would eventually be a better world, and I think we’re getting there.
MD: Anything you’re looking forward to?
JS: Well, I wake up every morning hoping that this will be the day that Hilary Mantel’s third volume comes out after Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. I love Hilary Mantel because she’s a brilliant writer. But what I love about the trilogy is the reversal of character in which Thomas Cromwell, always portrayed as the villain, is suddenly the hero. And Sir Thomas More, the saintly Thomas More, is the insufferable prig. And I find it a to be a powerful piece of fiction because it reimagines the world. Because no one knows. No one knows. I mean, that was 400 years ago and no one knows.
MD: Last question. Do you have a favorite movie about the Navy?
JS: The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial by a country mile.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
After Cold Mountain, his critically and commercially beloved 1997 debut, Charles Frazier tried to conjure the same historical magic in his follow-up, Thirteen Moons. But, the second time around, written not as a first-time novelist but as a National Book Award winner with an eight million dollar advance, Frazier’s lush, swooning style failed to enchant readers the way it once did. Now, in Nightwoods, his third novel, he leaves the 19th century behind, and compresses his vision into a brutal, gorgeously cinematic 260-page thriller, set in small-town North Carolina in the 1960s, amidst bootleggers, raccoon hunters, drug-addled police officers, and divinely-inspired, knife-wielding madmen. In the midst of all this, one woman struggles to admit love into her life, and, at the same time, to keep evil from eating her alive.
In every regard, Nightwoods is Frazier’s fiercest and darkest work. The violence is less glamorous and more sickening than in Cold Mountain’s sweeping battle scenes and stylized shootouts, with suffering now far outweighing glory. Nightwoods is so much shorter than Frazier’s previous novels not only because it’s tighter and more intimate, forgoing the epic grandeur that he once dredged so fruitfully from the Civil War, but also because some elemental force, an incarnation of death, perhaps, or simply silence, refuses to let it go on any longer than it does. The pressures not only within but somehow on the novel feel incredibly intense, like something malignant is crushing it down.
The story begins with Luce, a young woman who’s all too happy to earn a modest stipend as caretaker of a disused Lodge on the far edge of a lake outside of town. Living here alone, with only late night radio (“Prayers pitched into the air from Nashville”) and a few elderly neighbors for company, she cultivates a hard resistance to human closeness as carefully as the few hearty vegetables that sustain her.
These years of guarded tranquility, which began after she was casually raped by her high school teacher, come to an abrupt end when her murdered sister’s twin children appear on her doorstep. Mute, sullen, and prone to killing roosters and starting fires, the boy and girl usher a gust of ghostly wind into the Lodge, as if the door, once opened to admit them, can never again be closed. It’s clear, from the moment they arrive, that Luce will have to journey through some version of hell in order to save them, even as she reminds herself that her duty is only to provide shelter, not love. We never know for certain if the children are victims of evil, or agents of it, and the way that Frazier follows through the implications of this dangerous uncertainty is one of his greatest novelistic feats. Much more than helpless orphans, on the one hand, and more than stock horror story demon-children on the other, the twins, taken together as a unit, are a distinctly uncanny presence. They are capable of fighting like snakes, “real cold, like they were not even very angry at each other, just acting under some shared compulsion,” and yet they also share moments of true tenderness and vulnerability, when they cannot disguise how desperate for mothering they are, and Luce begins to waver in her resolve not to love them.
When their father (and their mother’s killer) shows up in town, chasing money that he believes they have, the novel jolts even further from its hushed opening, flaring up into a showdown thriller, more than a little reminiscent of the film The Night of the Hunter. Indeed, the father, Bud, “a handsome man, at least in the retrograde style of the expired southern fifties,” is a campy, gleefully rendered stand-in for Hunter’s Robert Mitchum. Obsessed with “Christ’s wounds and Christ’s blood… the dark artery offering that covered the globe,” Bud perfectly embodies the same union of religious mania and compulsive sadism that made Mitchum’s Gospel-preaching hunter such an indelible bogeyman. The one difference, of course, is that the hunted children here are not the helpless innocents they were in the film: Frazier gets us to fear for the children, but also to fear them, never letting us forget that they are the progeny of the very murderer who has come to hunt them down. This extra variable only compounds the intensity of the hunt.
Despite Nightwoods’ markedly grimmer tone, however, Frazier retains his giant crowd-pleasing appeal, and this works both for and against him. There is an undeniable greatness to his prose and the way he carves terror and romance out of the magisterial Carolina landscape, building toward an intentionally unsubtle climax, and yet some saccharine aftertaste lurks even in the novel’s roughest patches: there is always the suspicion that he’s gone too far out of his way to please, crafting a sort of backwoods-bloodbath-lite for urbanites who know nothing of this world except a few tired clichés, and are game only for a brief guided tour. As such, the prose veers too often into a nostalgic, aphoristic tone, seemingly meant to convey hard-earned country wisdom, like “ …violence is best accomplished spur-of-the-moment. Let it happen out of nowhere… like there’s no past and no future, nothing but the red right now…” These lines are always beautiful, and often ring true, but, over time, they start to seem either demeaning toward the rural reality they come from, or else condescending toward the urban readership they will doubtlessly reach. In short, Nightwoods is not only grippingly cinematic, it’s also unabashedly movie-ready, no less so than Cold Mountain was.
But none of this obscures the pleasure of reading such a scary and handsomely pared-down novel. At the very center of the woods is a “black hole filled with black water,” which “pulled at you. You stand up to it, or you go down.” As the action hurdles along toward its inevitable bloody conclusion, the magnetic attraction of this black hole grows so strong that it overwhelms or simply devours any lingering suspicions of the confectionary hollowness under Frazier’s perfectly dressed scenes. After this, I could do nothing but enjoy the accelerating ride into and finally through the dark. Almost as much, I’m sure, as I’ll enjoy the movie when it comes out.
In the era of O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Cold Mountain, it is puzzling that more attention has not been paid to the extensive parallels to The Odyssey in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The most celebrated novel by America’s most recent Nobel laureate, Beloved has itself been turned into a feature film, in addition to being heavily scrutinized by the academy. Yet little has been written about how Beloved makes use of Homer’s epic poem—more sneakily than Joyce does in Ulysses or the Coen brothers do in O Brother, but arguably more profoundly than other texts that have received more notice for doing so.
Perhaps the interpretive omission can be attributed to the apparent absence, in Beloved, of a central Odysseus figure—a journeying hero in the mold of Ulysses Everett McGill, W. P. Inman, or even Leopold Bloom. Nevertheless, from its opening chapter Morrison’s novel makes clear that its story ought to be placed next to Homer’s. Like the Odyssey, Beloved begins in a haunted house. Penelope and Telemachus are haunted by parasitic suitors who lay waste their home in jealous pursuit of the woman of the house, who languishes in torment up in her chambers. Sethe and Denver’s house, similarly, is tormented by a jealous ghost driven by a parasitic desire for Sethe. Sethe has been cut off from her community and eventually falls into a despair as deep if not deeper than Penelope’s. Denver, like Telemachus, lives a lonely existence in this troubled household, waiting with uncertain hope for the return of a father she has never met and who may in fact be dead. Both works begin in media res—after the father’s mother (Anticleia in the Odyssey, Baby Suggs in Beloved) has already died of grief—and, in fact, chronologically near the end of the period of time that their stories will cover.
So is Halle Suggs the Odysseus of Beloved—a father and hero who, unlike Odysseus, never returns home? Or is it one of the other “Sweet Home Men,” Paul D, who shows up at 124 Bluestone Road in the first chapter of Beloved? Like Odysseus, Paul D enters a troubled home and does battle with the troubling forces. “God damn it! Hush up! … Leave the place alone! Get the hell out!” he yells, engaging in his own slaughter in the hall as he smashes the ghost into retreat with a table. Like Odysseus reuniting with his long-lost wife after dispatching the suitors, Paul D goes to bed with Sethe (who has a chokecherry tree of scars on her back instead of Penelope’s olive-tree-rooted bed) after winning the battle with the ghost of 124.
Unlike Odysseus, however, Paul D has indeed won only a battle, not the war. The suitors troop down to the underworld, apparently never to trouble Odysseus and his family again, but in Beloved the ghost is back, in stronger form, just a few chapters later. Paul D himself is not quite sure that he is Odysseus—whether he adequately fills out the form of heroic manhood embodied by other Sweet Home men like Halle or Sixo. “Now there was a man,” Paul D reflects post-coitally next to Sethe, thinking of Sixo; “Himself lying in the bed … didn’t compare.” Shattered by his own Odyssean wanderings and trials, Paul D lacks the arrogant self-assurance (and, one might add, the ready supernatural assistance of Athena) that underlies Odysseus’ “spirit tempered to endure” (all Odyssey quotations are from Robert Fagles’s 1996 translation). Paul D compares himself constantly and invidiously to Halle and Sixo: “[I]t was always clear to Paul D that those two were men whether Garner said so or not. It troubled him that, concerning his own manhood, he could not satisfy himself on that point.”
If readers have often failed to see Paul D as a version of Odysseus, that may be because Paul D himself fails to do so.
As in Homer, the suitors cannot be vanquished without the maturation and heroism of Telemachus, so in Beloved a crucial turn occurs when Denver takes action. Nearly the same age as Telemachus and, like him, on the cusp of adulthood but stunted in an artificially prolonged childhood, Denver must leave home in order to bring about a change. Just as Telemachus, guided by Athena, must leave the confines of Ithaca to seek the assistance of Nestor and Menelaus, so Denver, guided by the spirit of Baby Suggs, holy, must “leave the yard; step off the edge of the world, leave the two behind and go ask somebody for help.”
Telemachus visits his father’s old war comrades; Denver visits the people of Cincinnati who used to know her grandmother and mother before the catastrophe that Stamp Paid refers to as “the Misery.” During their travels, both Telemachus and Denver are recognized by their resemblance to their forebears. Helen notes of Telemachus, “To the life he’s like the son of the great Odysseus, ”and Lady Jones quickly asks Denver, “You Baby Suggs’ kin, ain’t you?”
For both characters, the journeys and the encounters lead not only to an improvement in their home lives but also to personal maturity. Telemachus tells his mother, upon his return, “the boy you knew is gone.” He is right, as we see when he demonstrates the ability to string his father’s bow (as well as the self-restraint to avoid doing so, for the good of their plan). For Denver, too, her trip outside the yard “inaugurate[s] her life in the world as a woman.” Her increasing connections with her community give her a new sense of “a self to look out for and preserve,” and ultimately she emerges as an independent and motivated young woman, holding down a job, planning to attend Oberlin College, and even catching the eyes of young men.
The community that Denver reconnects with brings about the final slaughter in the hall at 124 Bluestone Road. A group of women, convinced “that rescue was in order,” triumphs in the climactic confrontation with the ghost. They come together in song that takes them back to the powerful spiritual services Baby Suggs used to give in the Clearing, and their music is “a wave of sound wide enough to sound deep water and knock the pods off chestnut trees,” and powerful enough to drive away the malevolent spirit of Beloved.
One must remember that Odysseus does not rout the suitors alone, either—the assistance of his son, his swineherd, his cowherd, and of course Athena, is essential. In any case, what this African American community needs, the novel suggests, is not a solitary hero driven by vengeance, but cooperation driven by empathy and love.
Does that mean that this is an Odyssey that has no need of an Odysseus? No. In fact, after the defeat of Beloved, Paul D re-emerges as a necessary and worthy male hero. The penultimate chapter of the novel recapitulates Paul D’s Odyssean struggles to escape the South: “In five tries he had not had one permanent success. Every one of his escapes … had been frustrated…. he never stayed uncaught.” Of whose travels is this long and winding road reminiscent if not Odysseus’? “Now his coming is the reverse of his going,” and Paul D makes his way back to 124 and the woman he was interrupted in the midst of forging a loving relationship with. As Athena tells Zeus, “the exile must return!”
Paul D’s return saves Sethe’s life. He finds her exhausted and hopeless on Baby Suggs’ deathbed, nearly dead of grief like Anticleia, and promises her a new life as he takes her hand in his: “Sethe … me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.” Yet Paul D needs Sethe as much as she needs him. Sethe redeems Paul D’s past humiliations because she was there for some of them, tenderly looking away from him “so he did not have to feel the shame of being collared like a beast. Only this woman Sethe could have left him his manhood like that.” Sethe, Paul D discovers, has the power to restore his sense of manhood, even heroism. In other words, she gives him the possibility of being the Odysseus that he himself doubted he could be.
As a result, Paul D “wants to put his story next to hers,” a notion that directly parallels the reunion of Odysseus and Penelope, when “the royal couple, once they’d reveled in all/the longed-for joys of love, reveled in each other’s stories.” The potential strength of a conjugal relationship such as this one is confirmed for Paul D by his memory of Sixo’s remarks about his own mate, the Thirty-Mile Woman: “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.” Sixo’s paean to sexual love recalls Odysseus’ own paean to marriage:
No finer, greater gift in the world than that…
when man and woman possess their home, two minds,
two hearts that work as one. Despair to their enemies,
a joy to all their friends. Their own best claim to glory.
Another possible reason that the extensive parallels between the Odyssey and Beloved have gone mostly unremarked is that the novel’s richness allows multiple interpretive frames to be placed usefully over the text. Beloved certainly does not wear its Odyssey on its sleeve as brazenly as do O Brother or Ulysses, and, perhaps unlike those works, it can be read insightfully without reference to Homer. On the other hand, the connections between the Odyssey and Beloved in no way diminish Morrison’s novel. Instead, the similarities and differences between the works accomplish something important. By making Beloved a reworking of the Odyssey, Toni Morrison puts her story next to Homer’s—placing the lives and struggles of African Americans past and present into an epic context. She places these experiences alongside a story that is central to Western civilization, thereby asserting their own worthiness and importance in that tradition.
In E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, a young man finds himself in the presence of Evelyn Nesbitt, the famous “It Girl” of the 1920s, and falls into a room “clutching in his hands, as if trying to choke it, a rampant penis which, scornful of his intentions, whipped him about the floor, launching to his cries of ecstasy or despair, great filamented spurts of jism that traced the air like bullets and then settled slowly over Evelyn in her bed like falling ticker tape.” In Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, the madams of New Orleans are categorized by their staffs of various racial mix. “Ann Jackson featured mulatto, Maud Wilson featured high browns, so forth and so on. And them different stables was different colors. Just like a bouquet.” In Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Joe Kavalier first meets Rosa Saks, whom he will later marry, as she sleeps naked on a bed, a scene he draws in Conte crayon on an overdue notice from the New York Public Library. “Fifty-three years later . . . the drawing of Rosa Saks naked and asleep was found . . . in a Barracini’s candy box, with a souvenir yarmulke . . . and a Norman Thomas button.” In Bruce Olds’ Bucking the Tiger, Doc Holiday describes sex as “crest after crest of the most coilsprung and soaring carnality, shanks asplay, thighs agape, cunt akimbo, slicker than a skyful of starglide.” All of the details in these references—the jism falling through the air like ticker tape, a Barracini’s candy box, a skyful of starglide, the dated but somehow lovely phrase “high browns”—lead to one conclusion. History is a whore.
Ron Hansen has made a career of pimping history for its details. Although his best novel, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, dealt explicitly with real historical figures, Hansen has scattershot most of his fiction with just-as-real historical settings. Each of them is made real, in the sense of authenticity, in the sense of perception, by the well-researched minutiae of everyday life, the ambrotype photographs, the cuspidors, the bootjacks, the coal-oil lanterns, all of them specific to each story’s particular time period. Mariette in Ecstasy takes place primarily at a monastery in upstate New York during the early part of the 20th century. “Wickedness,” an excellent short story from Hansen’s collection Nebraska, centers a series of vignettes around the infamous Midwestern blizzard of 1888. Desperadoes recounts the life and times of the Dalton gang in the Old West during the late part of the 19th century. Even Hansen’s novels with contemporary settings, Isn’t It Romantic? and Atticus, borrow either their storylines or their stylistic voice from works of yesteryear, the former modeled after Preston Sturges’s comedies and the latter a modern take on the Biblical story of the prodigal son.
In his most recent work, Exiles , Hansen sets his eye, with its historian’s acuity for the factual tempered by its novelist’s astigmatism to the fictional, on Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. (1844-1889), a Jesuit priest, Roman Catholic convert, and English poet who has posthumously become known as one of the best innovators of traditional verse. The first of the novel’s dual narratives depicts Hopkins throughout the different stages of his life. Initially, he is shown as a young seminarian, “a gregarious loner, an entertaining observer, a weather watcher,” who at first denies but later accepts his love of poetry. The few poems he writes over the years are consistently rejected by publishers. Finally, Hopkins is portrayed as a middle-aged man, dying of typhoid but keeping the faith, “steadied, poised, and paned as water in a well,” who would not live to see his poetry canonized decades later as one of the most significant forebears of modernism. The second of the dual narratives dramatizes the true story of a shipwreck. Five Franciscan nuns, exiled by Bismarck’s Falk Laws against Catholic religious orders, forced to seek sanctuary in the distant state of Missouri, die tragically when their steamship runs aground near England. Hansen includes Hopkins’ poetic ode to the event, “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” a literal and figurative union of the two narratives, in the appendix to Exiles.
The novel begins with the two narratives, that of Hopkins and that of the nuns, occurring at the same time but in different locations, Hopkins a theological student in Wales and the five nuns fellow members of a German convent. Throughout the rest of the book, however, the narratives diverge in time and place, one spanning the many years that encompass the failures and rejections of Hopkins’ life, the other focusing on the few nights leading up to and including the wreck of the Deutchsland. Hansen fully understands the advantages of coupling two storylines. The narrative involving the nuns serves as a sort of superheroic origin story for Hopkins, rekindling his love of poetry and inspiring some of his best work. The narrative involving the nuns also serves as a stereophonic counterpart to the tragedies suffered throughout Hopkins’ life, paralleling the “wreckage” of his being denied priesthood and publication for so many years. According to those conditions, generally and apparently and ideally, the combination of each narrative is meant to create a single story not only as enlightening and seamless as the flashbacks to Dr. Jonathan Osterman’s fateful laboratory accident in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, but also as harmonious, dulcet, quiet, and melodic as the duet of Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton on “Islands in the Stream.”
Exiles’s dual narratives, unfortunately, don’t work that well. Despite his reputation as a masculine writer, given his two best-known books are westerns, given also his prose tends to venerate hardware and toolkits, Hansen is remarkably adept at creating believable, unique, impressive characters that are female, particularly Mariette in Ecstasy’s titular, monastic protagonist. The five nuns in Exiles are no different. Within just half of an already short novel, each of them, not unlike the pupils of Jean Brodie in her prime, becomes a distinct person, made particular through abstraction. One sister, for example, who is known most commonly as “the pretty one,” is vividly described as having been “ill so often at age ten that Mastholte’s doctor told her mother to have Lisette lie on a seaweed mattress, but Frau Dammhorst soon found underneath the seaweed Dutch elm branches that her strange, pretty daughter had put there to disturb her sleep so she could ‘ease the pain of the souls in Purgatory.’” Within the other half of the novel, Hopkins, the focus of the book in as much as Miss Brodie is of her own, remains an obscure entity, made abstract through particularization. One scene, for example, which showcases the complexities of his psyche, ends with the reductive line, “Hopkins accused himself of a snorting, sour, unspiritual tone to some of his conversations, prayed for those who’d died, were injured, or lost loved ones in the shipwreck, but thanked God for the beauties and contrarities of nature, the tonic of outdoor exercise, and the cheer and solace of his Jesuit brothers.”
Another problem concerns the novel’s layout. In the first, less successful half, the passages for each of the narratives are longer and slower, less scene-based, and include fewer shifts back and forth between them, while in the second, more successful half, the passages are shorter and quicker, more immediate, one cutting to the other in better illustration of their subtextual connections. It should be noted these issues are only minor. Hansen’s strengths as a writer have never been for the broader components of narrative structure—Desperadoes, his exquisite, violent, beautiful debut, underutilizes its framing device; Atticus, his tender portrait of a father’s love, awkwardly shifts its point of view—but rather, he excels at using phrases, words, and sentences, those details of language, to make his fiction into a kind of poetry. Exiles has a hell of a fitting subject.
Since the posthumous publication of his collected works in 1918, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ stature has grown steadily within the literary establishment, so much so that today he is credited with several poetic neologisms, including “inscape,” the distinctive and essential quality unique to any given thing, “sprung rhythm,” a use of stressed and unstressed syllables in poetry that mimics the natural rhythm of human speech, and “instress,” the force by which the essential quality of a thing creates an external impression. Hopkins’ poetry was intimately connected to his spirituality. Hopkins’ poetry was a way for him to speak with God. So, to do justice to the poet that British literary critic F.R. Leavis said “is likely to prove, for our time and the future, the only influential poet of the Victorian age, and he seems to me the greatest,” an author would need a generous understanding of religious faith and a sizeable if not commensurate poetic sensibility.
Ron Hansen, the “Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.” Professor of Arts and Sciences at Santa Clara University as well as a Catholic Deacon in ministry for the Diocese of San Jose, California, is up to the task. His authorial voice, by inclination and by disposition, is an authoritative voice, as though spoken from behind a lectern, and his writing style, pious as it is poetic, shows a reverence for God equaled only by its reverence for language. “He had long had haunting his ear the echo of a new rhythm,” Hansen writes in Exiles, paraphrasing a letter written by Hopkins, “that would re-create the native and natural stresses of speech.” The most interesting aspect of such a sentence is that Hansen describes how Hopkins mimicked others’ use of language and, more importantly, that Hansen does so by mimicking Hopkins’ own use of language.
Elsewhere, the novel’s prose bears the stigmata of Hopkins’ poetry. Images such as, “The knuckling flames consumed the wicks of the votive candles,” “Gold, Teutonic calligraphy,” and, “Their eyes silvering with tears of bliss,” are beautiful examples of poetic inscape. A description like, “The swell’s comb morseling into fine string and tassel before bursting on the rocky spurs of the cove and breaking into white bushes of foam,” utilizes sprung rhythm. Phrases such as, “Language his bloody knife,” “Wakening gaslights,” and, “Boats sliding with satiny, Elysian motion,” are lovely examples of poetic instress. Throughout Exiles, Hansen uses Hopkins’ poetic techniques not only to recreate the historical setting but also to explore the workings of a poet’s mind. It is at that juncture between language and consciousness that the thick, industrial shellac of caricature dissolves into the fine, vivid oil paint of characterization. Consider this passage describing one of the rectors who taught Hopkins:
“Father Rector,” as he was called, was a manly, rattling, genial, ever-courteous man from County Slip, Ireland, a shrewd, scientific professor of moral theology who’d studied at the English College in Rome, served as a Superior in British Guiana and Jamaica, and published two scholarly books on the Athanasian creed, yet welcomed contradiction in class and the nickname of “the Governor,” delighted in jokes and singing, and so worried about the seminarians’ health that he stayed at their bedsides when they were ill, tipping into their mouths his mother’s cure-all of hot milk, brandy, and a beaten egg.
In such a simple description, the broad, dull, and usual tapers to the specific, the memorable, the unusual. Trivial characteristics like “manly” and “ever-courteous” and “shrewd” shift to more precise, albeit dryer biographical details like “served as a Superior in British Guiana” and “published two scholarly books on Athanasian creed,” all of which are concluded by the wonderful, telling, intimate, gorgeous bit about the rector tipping a “cure-all of hot milk, brandy, and a beaten egg” into the mouths of ill students. Such mobilization in the degree of details sets apart Hansen’s writing from the source material of Hopkins’ poetry and the framework of historical fiction. Exiles is not simply an imitation of poetry. Exiles is not simply a recreation of history. In reference to historical fact, George Santayana’s saying goes, “Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it,” but in reference to historical fiction, a better saying would be, “Those who don’t add something new to the past are simply repeating it.”
Among the many characteristics of historical fiction, one of the most noteworthy is the tendency to assimilate, digest, and transfigure the various tropes of other genres. What are Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Oakley Hall’s Warlock, Charles Portis’s True Grit, and Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man if not westerns elevated by fine literary craftsmanship? Andrew Sean Greer’s The Confessions of Max Tivoli and Frazier’s Cold Mountain are romances as much as they are historical novels. Samantha Hunt’s The Invention of Everything Else, Steven Milhauser’s Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, and Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle are fantasies. Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon and Umbarto Eco’s The Name of the Rose are at once postmodern and historical works of fiction. What are Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, E.L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate, Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution, and Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 if not crime novels provided with scope and novelty by meticulous research?
These examples are a testament not only to historical fiction’s malleability but also its inherent advantages and disadvantages: Historical fiction can be adapted readily to other genres because its advantages can resolve other genres’ limitations and its disadvantages can be resolved by other genres’ attributes. Hansen’s Exiles, a religious romance as well as a historical novel, exemplifies those abilities.
One feature of historical fiction is the flash-forward, a technique used recently and amply in Edward P. Jones’ The Known World, as well as in much of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s work, particularly the famous first line of One Hundred Years of Solitude. The auxiliary verb “would” and its variations play a crucial part in the flash-forward. “Thirty-three years later,” Hansen writes of a minor character in Exiles, “Frederick would become the Bishop of Honduras, and he would drown in 1923, at age eighty-nine, when the overloaded paddleboat he was on sank in eighteen feet of water. But now the doctor said in his soothing voice, ‘Well, the sea can be very wild.’” The passage’s narrative leap into the future creates a thematic link, that of fate, that of irony, connecting two disparate episodes of a person’s life. “In a hundred years,” Hansen writes of one of the five nuns on the Deutschland, “no less than two of Catharina Fassbender’s relatives would become international opera stars, and the harbinger of that singing talent was heard in her lovely contralto.” Again, by mentioning the future continuance of the nun’s lineage and by mentioning it in a scene aboard a ship the reader knows will sink, the author allows the machinations of fate and irony to limn the inevitable tragedy of a character’s death. In Exiles as well as in other historical fiction, the use of flash-forwards lends the narrative a sense of omniscience and authority. It also helps the narrative avoid one of the genre’s most common mistakes, the trompe l’oeil effect, a tendency to make the reader aware of a book’s artificiality by way of its blatant immersion in a past time. Think vinyl-like scratches added to a cover of some 19th-century Irish ballad. Think portraits of upper-crust families painted in the style of a Dutch master. With flash-forwards the reader is shown the past but also told they are being shown the past, thereby, incongruously but effectively, making the past they are being shown seem less artificial.
Another characteristic of historical fiction is the use of different found documentation, including correspondence, radio transcripts, court records, newspaper articles, brochures, medical tests, receipts, interviews, grocery lists, and personal diary entries. The very diversity of such a list attests to the convention’s expediency in conveying breadth—of time and of place, of emotion and of experience, of people and of things—not only within a fictional world but also in terms of the larger context of reality. In Exiles, Hansen writes how one of the seaman on the sinking ship “looked up . . . in pining silence and with a ‘helpless expression that gave me a chill all through, for I knew it meant nothing else but that death was coming.’” Note how the shift to first-person creates greater immediacy. The addition of the seaman’s own words, with his antiquated syntax, with his resignation to death, reminds the reader, expeditiously, palpably, excitingly, that this really happened to someone. Despite the benefits of found documentation, however, it can often lead an author to the Merchant-Ivory recidivism of letting attention to historical accuracy obstruct, overwhelm, or obscure the goals of a fictional narrative. One of the reasons the five nuns seem more dynamic than Hopkins may be that, because so little is known of the five women and because so much is known of the one man, Hansen is less constrained in the former case by strict adherence to the facts. On the whole, though, Hansen avoids the pitfall of excessive accuracy by never making the entire book an assemblage of research, by exploring the interiority of his characters, by imagining what might have happened, by never letting his reportage commandeer his artistic intentions.
Still another feature of historical fiction is the technique of making common objects into dramatic artifacts. Specificity is the trick. The same way AMC’s Mad Men revels in gender inequality and skinny ties, the same way HBO’s Deadwood rejects Latinate words and the authority of law, Exiles is packed with common objects made into dramatic artifacts through specificity, such as a morning paper: “The front page, as always, was filled with three- and four-line advertisements for Newcastle, Silkstone, or Wall’s-End coal, Bailey’s elastic stockings, ladies’ abdominal belts, Pulvermacher’s Patent Galvanic Chain Bands, Antakos corn plasters, Iceland Liniment for chilblains, and ‘Want Places’ appeals from wet nurses, scullery maids, and cooks, each wanting to supply testimonials about their skills and finer qualities.” The book contains “Staffordshire pitchers” and a “lucifer match” next to “Turkish towels” and “the pine and fir planks” commonly known as “deal.” Even the modest steamship Deutschland has “a grand saloon paneled with bird’s-eye maple and buttressed by oak pilasters inlaid with rosewood, and with leafy, gilt capitals. Hanging between brass gaslights were eight oil paintings by Franz Hunten, each a mediocre seascape of shipping and fishing vessels in full sail. Empire sofas and thirty armchairs were matched with Biedermeier tables and hand-painted cabinets.” Although such “fetishistic” details can at times become overwhelming, the previous passage being a good example, most of the time they don’t merely give the writer an opportunity to flaunt his research and bore the reader with inconsequential esoterica. They recreate the world of a historical period, and they create a whole world unto themselves. Such “fetishistic” details allow both writer and reader to suck each other’s pinkie toes, throw on a bit of leather, and, within the high-class brothel of fact and fiction, get their respective nut.
In the preface to Stay Against Confusion, a collection of essays that includes his first assessment of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry, Ron Hansen writes of religion presenting a narrative “helping the faithful to not only remember the past but to make it present here and now.” In the same preface, Hansen quotes Robert Frost on how a poem “begins in delight and ends in wisdom, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life—not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.” Historical fiction could be said to be a stay against the confusion of time. How does it do so? Historical fiction, like history itself, like God, like any good story, is all in the details. Ron Hansen knows that real history is the jism flying through the air like ticker tape. It’s a Barracini’s candy box. It’s the phrase “high browns.” Even when his subject is a 19th-century celibate priest, Ron Hansen knows that real history is a skyful of starglide, beautiful for its language, damn sexy, and limitless with potential.