Max Porter’s second novel, Lanny, begins with an awakening. The semi-mythical village spirit “Dead Papa Toothwart,” known to children through cautionary rhyme, wakes from his centuries-long sleep and at once begins to shapeshift:
He splits and wobbles, divides and reassembles […] He slips through one grim costume after another as he rustles and trickles and cusses his way between trees. He walks a few paces as an engineer in a Day-Glo vest. He takes a step in a dinner suit, then an Anderson shelter, then a tracksuit, then a rusted jeep bonnet, then a leather skirt. […] [He] wanders off, chuckling, jangling in his various skins.
This isn’t just a fitting introduction to Porter’s style, but an accurate description of it. His 2015 debut, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, was a genre- and form-bending work, sitting somewhere on the border between novella and narrative-poem. Beyond formal concerns, it is stylistically shapeshifting, riffing on ideas from Ted Hughes’s The Crow, and full of heavy allusion, reference, and wordplay. The publication of Porter’s debut was both a major publishing event and a commercial success, despite its avant-garde leanings, and he gained a deserved reputation as a literary heavyweight.
It is therefore no surprise that Lanny, published in the U.K. by Faber, opens in language that owes as much to poetry as to the contemporary English novel. Every word is chosen not just for its meaning but for its feel and its sound.
But in Lanny, the most striking formal choice is its typographical quirks. As he approaches the village, Dead Papa Toothwart listens for the sounds of human conversation, and what he hears is conveyed to the reader by the words spreading themselves across the page as though floating through the air. Banal snippets of conversation wind in and out of each other, overlap, and run backwards or upside down between other paragraphs in a way that’s impossible to faithfully quote. It’s the kind of innovation that could be called a gimmick. But it’s also substantive. It helps us imagine how Dead Papa Toothwart experiences “his listening.” As readers, the shape of the words affects how we read them, and somehow influences the way it sounds. Of course, it doesn’t sound like anything, unless read aloud. But in doing so, Porter reminds us that our language is not primarily a written form of communication. Language is, above all, spoken. In these sections, words mimic the way they would travel toward the ear, the way the various villagers pronounce them, their country accents. They stretch out in the middle, or gracefully fall down the page like a descending scale. We feel as much audience to their everyday conversation as the enigmatic Dead Papa Toothwart does:
He swims in it, he gobbles it up and wraps himself in it, he rubs it all over himself, he pushes it into his holes, he gargles, plays, punctuates and grazes.
This focus on character as conveyed to the reader through narrative voice is a central concern of the novel. Porter uses language and form as a means to convey the spirit of the village, as faithfully as possible, in text. Following our introduction to Dead Papa Toothwart, the novel splits into several first-person narrative strands, taking on the voices and thoughts of “Mad” Pete, an octogenarian and retired artist; “Lanny’s Mum,” Jolie; and “Lanny’s Dad,” Robert.
The eponymous Lanny, seen by adults around him as an unusually inquisitive, maybe even gifted child, isn’t given his own sections, though he is central to the events of the novel, and to the thoughts and words of its characters. He is, of course, the main concern of his parents. Lanny’s dad, commuting every day from this small village into the center of London, thinks about his son all day, but often finds his playfulness, his sense of wonder, and his strange profundity a frustrating contrast to the supposedly sensible, practical concerns of everyday life. Lanny’s mum works from home—writing her crime novel—where Lanny continually interrupts with his comings-and-goings, “stinking of pine tree and other nice things” like a woodland sprite. And Pete, their eccentric neighbour, is tasked with giving the child art lessons, though they are as much conversations as they are lessons.
And Lanny is what Dead Papa Toothwart is most interested in, too—perhaps the reason he’s awoken after centuries of sleep. Out of all the voices in “his English symphony,” Lanny’s is the most delicious: “he wants to chop the village open and pull the child out. Extract him. Young and ancient all at once, a mirror and a key.”
In a novel made up of first-person voices, sometimes all streaming in at once, overflowing across the page, Lanny is never given a voice of his own. His character and his thoughts are always mediated through the words of others. To them, Lanny often feels less like a person and more like a thing that happens to them. Pete even notes that “[At] times like this Lanny seems almost possessed.” Rather than a fully-fleshed out character that we have direct access to as readers, Lanny is instead the thread that winds all the other characters and the overall structure of the book together. Like most children, he is implicitly patronised in this way: often more spoken about, and spoken for, than he is listened to.
The narrative pace speeds up in the novel’s second act. The once clearly distinct strands are replaced by long, unadorned sections. Character’s voices become brief vignettes without clear signposts as to who is speaking. We learn to infer from their idioms, their habits of speech, accents and turns-of-phrase. Here the whole village comes into play as a chorus of voices which butt in on the main characters with casual conversation, speculation, thoughts, and insults surrounding a dramatic event. Without knowing who’s speaking, we get the same sense of familiarity. In the most powerful passages, from the perspective of Mad Pete, there is no separation at all between voices, and events take place as one long stream: What’s thought, what’s said, and what’s heard by Mad Pete are distinguished only by tone and content.
It’s unsurprising how well-suited Porter’s work has become for theater. Lanny’s launch at London’s Southbank Centre will feature a dramatized reading. Grief Is the Thing with Feathers’s most recent iteration is a stage-play starring Cillian Murphy. Lanny in particular has plenty in common with George Saunder’s Man Booker-winning Lincoln in the Bardo, which reads as much like a script as it does a novel, featuring a cast of more than 100 characters with almost no third-person exposition. Similarly, both of Porter’s novels lack an authoritative third-person perspective and are instead mediated through the voices of their characters alone. In doing so, Porter highlights the importance of character in his work. For him, it is the way in which these voices are realised, rather than the content of what is said, that is most relevant.
Lanny, more than Grief, takes this idea of narrative voice as its subject and problematizes it. When the world of the novel is mediated through its characters, it fundamentally affects the nature of that world. There’s a moment midway through the novel that really draws this out. Lanny’s mum goes to her neighbour Mrs. Larton in a moment of emergency. Their confrontation is conveyed to the reader twice. The paragraphs alternate between Mrs. Larton’s voice and Jolie’s, both of whom see themselves as the more virtuous and innocent victim of the other’s rudeness. Even the specific wording of their conversation is contradictory. And afterward, they each reduce the wider problems of society to the small differences between them:
Oh god, you horrible crone, you are the worst thing about living here, you are the worst thing about this English village. You are the worst thing about England. And villages. I wish you would die so somebody nice could move in here.
I’d like to tell her about the real community around here, a community that is dead and gone thanks to people like her, buying up the houses and putting in ridiculous open kitchens and glass walls […] she may as well be a bloody foreigner. I worry about the impact on the community. I worry about the standards slipping. I worry about this country. I wish she would get bored and let somebody decent move in.
If language is an unfaithful lens into reality, Lanny and Dead Papa Toothwart, two characters who aren’t given their own unmediated first-person voice, are best understood by the reader as manifestations of, or reflections of, the people who describe them. The way Lanny is seen by the reader isn’t necessarily the way he actually is. Instead, he’s as much a reflection of the essential nature of the village as Toothwart is. Mad Pete, early in the novel, says of Toothwart:
He’s real if people believe in him. So yes. Just as mermaids or Springheeled Jack or the Green Children of Woolpit are real if people have thought about them, told stories about them. He’s part of this village and has been for hundreds of years, whether he’s real or not.
Both Toothwart and Lanny come to us as embodiments of the village itself—Toothwart because the villagers invented his legend; Lanny because their version of him is the only version we get. Lanny and Toothwart reflect the village’s essential, timeless character that is ultimately ambivalent to the temporary concerns of the humans that live in it. Both Lanny and Toothwart have an innocence and an ambivalence to them that reminds me of Miyazaki’s Forest Spirits in Princess Mononoke. Somehow ancient, and yet at the same time, they are an amalgamation of the villagers themselves, with all their contingent, messy humanity.
At one point, Jolie sees this: “and she realises their life at home, his time at school, what she thought of as his real existence, was only a place he visited.”
It’s a line that could only have been written by a parent: that realization that something you thought of as entirely yours is an independent being. That your children exist when you’re not there. That they have a life beyond you. That for them, as for everyone, they are the absolute center of their own experience.
Porter extends this idea to the village at large but conveys it in the exact opposite way. He presents it to us, in Dead Papa Toothwart’s all-hearing, typographically experimental prose, as “A tapestry of small abuses, fights and littering, lake-loads of unready chemicals piped into my water bed, green and decline, preaching teaching crying dying and walking the fucking dogs, breeding and needing and working.”
By giving us this stream of unfiltered human self-involvement, Porter show us the nature of a village as a microcosm of human society, and he shows how difficult it is for people to live with one other. The existence of characters—such as Lanny and Dead Papa Toothwart—who seem more attuned to the world, suggests that there might be a way out. Lanny’s character in particular implies that while self-centredness is intrinsically human, it’s not an inescapable part of the human condition—maybe something learned rather than innate. Early in the novel, Mad Pete gestures towards it: “Maybe it’s just Lanny taking things from wherever he’s been listening, soaking up the sounds of this world and spinning out threads of another.”
Max Porter’s Lanny is an attempt to capture a village, entirely, in language, and it does so by trying to represent the village’s breadth of narrative voices. It’s an ultimately empathetic, even humanist project. But its representation isn’t always positive. People are human. They’re unsympathetic, rude, racist, ungenerous, speculative. They beat up pensioners and make false accusations and invite hysteria and sensationalism. They can be judgemental neighhors or maybe self-aggrandizing, polluters or gardeners. But in the act of reading, we’re made a mute witness to them. Like Lanny and Dead Papa Toothwart, or Porter himself, we are made active, careful listeners. In doing so, we give them space to speak.
We can’t live each other’s experience. But we can start by listening to them.
I don’t mind saying it: reading Ted Hughes frightens me. Has for years. At first it was just the idea of reading his poetry that frightened me — the poetry that had, in my disarrayed young mind, killed Sylvia Plath’s. The stuff had lethal properties. It took several years, but at last I got around to actually reading his work, in an ugly New Selected Poems. That was when I realized the truth of the matter, past the pat mythology and instinctual aversion: Ted Hughes was about the most frightening poet imaginable. His work invests every corner of existence with menace and unmanageable intensity. I remember reading a few of the early ones — “Otter,” maybe “Pike,” definitely “Hawk Roosting” — and actually having to put the book down. Poetry is not supposed to make you put the book down.
So it came as a bit of a shock to find out that Ted Hughes was, in addition to everything else, a marvelous poet for young people. The Collected Poems for Children draws from no less than eight separate collections across his immense and shambolic publishing career. The book is 249 pages long (illustrated, no less!), and could fit on the most risk-averse nursery bookshelf. There are titles like “Bess My Badger” and “The Fox is a Jolly Farmer.” How did this happen?
It’s an interesting mystery. One thing is for certain: Hughes for Kids and Hughes for Adults are very much the same poet. It’s all here. We get the same bestiaries, the same zookeeper’s menagerie of animal otherness barely kept in its cages, the same repetitious insistence (50 poems about the moon, from Moon Whales and other Moon Poems). It’s hypnotic stuff, and crosses and recrosses the line between comforting and disturbing. Presumably there’s no problem for the intended audience, who are innocent of the harsher Hughes — schoolchildren who haven’t read, say, “Crow Hill” will feel no twinge during “The Mermaid’s Purse.” But determining his intended audience is in fact very difficult. Hughes described some of this work as having been written “within the hearing of children.” It was not solely for either group. This does not mean it was written for some tweener middleground; this is not what we could grotesquely call YA Poetry. It just had a deeper ambidexterity, it could pitch both ways. Hence the gorgeous Season Songs is included in his big Collected Poems: a few dozen pieces about calf-birth and calf-death, standing knock-kneed but impressive among the other work.
Comparing a couple of poems on a single subject may illuminate the differences. “Esther’s Tomcat” is Adult Hughes, much-anthologized, from Lupercal. It describes the tom as a brutal “bundle of old rope and iron” laying inert all day, “no mouth and no eyes,” until it awakens at dusk. It becomes a figure of legend: the tomcat
Is unkillable. From the dog’s fury,
From gunshot fired point blank he brings
His skin whole, and whole
From owlish moons of bekittenings
Among ashcans. He leaps and lightly
Walks upon sleep, his mind on the moon.
Nightly over the red round world of men,
Over the roofs go his eyes and outcry.
Now the poem “Cat,” from the children’s book The Cat and the Cuckoo. It begins:
You need your Cat.
When you slump down
All tired and flat
With too much town
With too many lifts
Too many doors
Too many neon-lit
The cat will help you, the poem concludes:
For into your hands
Will flow the powers
Of the beasts who ignore
This world of ours
And you’ll be refreshed
Through the Cat on your lap
With a Leopard’s yawn
And a Tiger’s nap.
Neither poem is feigned. Neither one is less or more true to Hughes’s vision. They both propose the otherness of even domesticated animals as a necessary, powerful counterforce to a totalized human environment. But the differences are also clear. First, the tone: we would say that “Cat” is somehow too prescriptive, too didactic to work for adults; we don’t quite like being talked to in this manner. Next, the rhythm and rhyme: a little too heavy, a little too rounded-off and lolloping, too sweet. It’s actually inappropriate for adults. In this case, it’s the grown-ups who need to be dealt with gingerly. They need their message delivered with great delicacy, the needed obliquity — too much all at once and they’ll bolt. “Cat,” then, no matter how successful it is in its aims, doesn’t work by our mature rubric. It doesn’t give us what we want, or maybe gives us too much.
But there are places in Hughes’s work where the difference is finer. Season Songs in particular raises fascinating, perplexing questions. It is collected in the kids’ book. The poems are pastoral, lovely, with a vitality that is specifically youthful. But they are also lyrically complex and deeply sad. There’s a description of a doomed newborn lamb:
He could not stand. It was not
That he could not thrive, he was born
With everything but the will—
That can be deformed, just like a limb.
Death was more interesting to him.
Life could not get his attention.
So he died, with the yellow birth-mucus
Still in his cardigan.
He did not survive a warm summer night.
Now his mother has started crying again.
The wind is oceanic in the elms
And the blossom is all set.
Not a nursery-rhyme, exactly. Elsewhere there are moments of rejoicing that balance this bleakness — “The grass is happy / To run like the sea, to be glossed like a mink’s fur / By the polishing wind.” Day begins “[w]hen the swallow snips the string that holds the world in.” In other words, the poems contain both joy and pain, in huge concentrations. And the joys and pains that they take on feel particularly original and close to the bone: a rehashing of our earliest awarenesses. The runty lamb will not make it; summer will come again and be beautiful; the injured swift in the yard will undergo “the inevitable balsa death.” These are the basic facts into which children must be guided. We adults, on the other hand, have processed these feelings long ago and put them safely aside. Although the experience of reading Season Songs shows that maybe it wasn’t as clean a job as we thought.
The Collected Poems for Children helps you put a finger on one of Hughes’s main traits: all through his career he was, in a sense, the most boylike of poets. (Set that superlative in his trophy case, next to “Most Frightening Poet Imaginable,” “Most Handsome,” and (according to poet-critic Michael Hofmann) “Greatest English Poet Since Shakespeare.”) Calling him boylike may sound like an insult, but it is not at all. It indicates a real feat. Maintaining some kind of childlikeness is needful work for any poet, any person: it means being unacculturated to the world’s murderous norms, undimmed by its darkness, unwithered by its onslaught, not ironicized, ironed flat, or inured — while remaining, everywhere and in all things, absolutely adult and responsible. It’s no mean task. (Become as little children, Jesus said, and if Jesus said it, it isn’t easy.) Hughes carried out this imperative to remain childlike — or rather boylike, to make it gendered for this highly gendered poet. He remained forever the small-game trapper, the hill-stalker, the game-warden’s younger brother, the tobacconists’ son wandering around the shop and reading all of the comic books (of course!). “My first six years shaped everything,” Hughes said, pointing especially to those hunts in the Pennines with older brother Gerald. Indeed he viewed his entire poetic enterprise as an outgrowth of that practice of trapping, catching, bagging. This new method would not kill or disturb the creature, but rather preserve it warm and breathing forever. Hughes gave advice to young writers (he was touchingly concerned with the practical, curricular aspects of creative writing in schools) that invoked these processes. “The main thing is to imagine what you are writing about. See it and live it. Do not think it up laboriously, as if you were working out mental arithmetic. Just look at it, touch it, smell it, listen to it, turn yourself into it…You will read back through what you have written and you will get a shock. You will have captured a spirit, a creature.”
It is hard to imagine any writer besides Hughes who could retain such intense connection to what children find fascinating and express it in such superb craft. But it was his secret to work the other way also, to invest his mature writing with the child’s vision, that vast imagination and lidless fixity. In doing so, he became a danger to our safe boundaries of poetics. It’s unsettling to watch in Hughes the gentle unbroken slope upward from the whimsy of the early children’s work to the black horrors of books like Crow — especially with volumes like Season Songs bridging any supposed lacuna. It’s all of a piece, whether he’s writing about the mouse in his brother’s pocket or a talking bird feeding on corpses. More unnerving yet is the sense that I get, after reading enough of the Collected Poems for Children, of a strange inversion. Suddenly it begins to feel like the real thing. The adult poetry takes on a stench of the put-on, the worked-up, the elliptical, the evasive. The adulterated. Meanwhile the children’s work stands hawk-eyed and unblinking. It’s an illusion, surely; in a moment the view returns to normal. Only maybe a little changed.
As if to mark the new year, or as if preemptively depressed by the brutal lows and snows of the months to come, our thermostat suffered a nervous breakdown in the first weeks of 2015. The new normal was 63 degrees Fahrenheit. I’d wake before dawn, put on long johns, pants, fleece, and hat, and sit down at my desk, between north-facing windows, trying to start something new. The phrase “rough draft” took on a new meaning. As did the phrase “starting cold.” By noon — an interval during which I’d moved only to shower and take the kids to school and re-wrap myself in a horse blanket — my fingers and nose were phantom appendages. Looking back on this now, though, I feel a surge of warmth. Why? Because every afternoon, after a late lunch, I’d fire up the space heater in the living room and sprawl in a patch of sun and return to an imagined Italy.
I’d begun Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels with a rationing plan: one volume for each season of the year, to culminate with the publication of the fourth and final installment in September. But a week after I finished Volume 1, that plan went all to hell. More than Lila and Lenù (heroines, antagonists, entangled particles), I missed the volcanic energy they generated together. Nothing else I tried to read seemed quite as vivid. So I dipped into Volume 2 — just a few pages, I told myself. And then when I reached the end, I didn’t even pretend to wait to begin Volume 3. At various times, in the empty house, I caught myself talking back to the page. “Wake up, Lenù!” “Don’t open that door!” “Oh, no, she didn’t!” Oh, yes, she did.
The only not-fun part of binge-reading the Neapolitan series was running out of pages before the end — which, by mid-February, I had. I felt like Wile E. Coyote, having raced out over a canyon, legs still churning, but with nothing left beneath. Eventually, I found a different kind of escape: Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov, a dreamy 19th-century Russian novel where, basically, nothing happens. Rather than distract me from my snowbound state, this novel seemed to mirror it. For the first 100 pages, Oblomov, our hero, can’t even get out of bed. He’s an archetype of inanition, a Slavic Bartleby, but with a gentleness of spirit that’s closer to The Big Lebowski. He falls in love, screws it up, gets rooked by friends and enemies…and hardly has to change his dressing gown.
Sufficiently cooled from Ferrante fever, I moved on to Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, from 1979. I’ve taught (and admired) Hardwick’s essays, but was somehow unprepared for this novel. Fans often mention it in the company of Renata Adler’s Speedboat and Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays, with which it shares a jagged, elliptical construction and a quality of nervy restraint. But where the fragments of Adler and Didion suggest (for me, anyway), a kind of schizoid present-tense, Hardwick’s novel is as swinging and stately as a song by her beloved Billie Holiday, ringing “glittering, somber, and solitary” changes from remembered joy and pain.
As the glaciers beyond my windows melted to something more shovel-ready, I began to fantasize about a piece called “In Praise of Small Things.” At the top of the list, along with the Hardwick, would go Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, the story of a Western railroad worker around the turn of the last century. I’m still a sucker for full, Ferrante-style immersion (favorite Westerns include The Border Trilogy, Lonesome Dove, and A Fistful of Dollars), but to deliver an entire life in a single sitting, as Johnson does, seems closer to magic than to art. Train Dreams is just about perfect, in the way only a short novel can be.
Then again, I also (finally) tackled The Satanic Verses this year, and caught myself thinking that perfection would have marred it. The book is loose, ample, brimful — at times bubbling over with passion. Another way of saying this is that it’s Salman Rushdie’s most generous novel. The language is often amazing. And frankly, that the fatwa now overshadows the work it meant to rub out is a compound injustice; many of the novel’s most nuanced moments, its most real and human moments, involve precisely those issues of belief and politics and belonging Rushdie was accused of caricaturing. Also: the shaving scene made me cry.
Though by that point spring had my blood up. Maybe that’s why I was so ready for Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard. Or maybe it was the return to Italy. Either way, this turned out to be one of the most beautiful novels I’ve ever read. As with Hardwick, the mode is elegy, but here all is expansion, sumptuousness, texture: the fading way of life of an endearingly self-regarding 19th-century aristocrat, ambered in slow, rich prose (in Archibald Colquhoun’s translation): “In a corner the gold of an acacia tree introduced a sudden note of gaiety. Every sod seemed to exude a yearning for beauty soon muted by languor.” And by the time I finished, gardens were blooming and buzzing around me, too.
I woke the morning after our Fourth of July party to find that a guest had left a gift: Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, Mary Norris’s memoir of life in the copy department of The New Yorker. We headed to the beach, on the theory that saltwater is an antidote to hangover. But I ended up spending most of the afternoon on a towel, baking, giggling, geeking out over grammar and New Yorker trivia. What kind of magazine keeps a writer this engaging in the copy department? I wondered. On the other hand: what are the odds that a grammarian this scrupulous would be such a freewheeling confidante?
I don’t think of myself as a memoir guy, but (appetite whetted by the Comma Queen), I ran out a few weeks later to buy a brand new copy of William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days — a book I’d been waiting to read since first encountering an excerpt a decade ago. Finnegan is a brilliant reporter, and the core material here — his life of peripatetic adventuring in the 1970s — seems, as material goes, unimprovable. Around it, he builds a narrative that is at once meticulously concrete and wonderfully, elusively metaphorical. Even if you don’t know or care about surfing, the whole thing starts to seem like some kind of parable. Which may be true of most good sports writing…
And speaking of brilliant reporting: in early August, I plucked a copy of David Simon and Ed Burns’s The Corner from the giveaway pile on someone’s stoop. It’s exhaustive — almost 600 pages, and none of the broad strokes, in 2015, should come as news. Yet its account of individual struggle and systemic failure in a poor neighborhood in Baltimore is nonetheless enraging, because so little seems to have changed since the book’s publication in 1997. I found myself wanting to send a copy to every newsroom in the country. Here on the page are causes; there in the paper years later, effects.
It would take a week of vacation and newspaper-avoidance in Maine to remind me of how urgent fiction can be, too — or of the value of the different kind of news it brings. I read A Sport and a Pastime. I read Double Indemnity. I read The House of Mirth. And I fell into — utterly into — Javier Marías’s A Heart So White. This novel has some similarities with The Infatuations, which I wrote about last year; Marías works from a recipe (one part Hitchcock-y suspense, one part Sebaldian fugue, one part sly humor) that sounds, on paper, like a doomed thought experiment. Yet somehow every time I read one of his novels, I feel lit up, viscerally transfixed. And A Heart So White is, I think, a masterpiece.
This October, I published a novel. And I came to suspect that prepub jitters had been shaping both my reading and my writing all year, from those cold dark starts in January to my lean toward nonfiction in the summer. Anyway, some admixture of vacation and publication (the phrase “release date” takes on a whole new meaning) seemed to cleanse the windows of perception, because I spent most of the fall catching up on — and enjoying — recent books I’d missed. Preparation for the Next Life, for example, was love at fist page; if you’d told me Atticus Lish was another of Don DeLillo’s pseudonyms, like Cleo Birdwell, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelash. Yet an eccentric and (one feels) highly personal sense of the particular and the universal colors the prose, and Lish doesn’t let sentimentalism scare him away from sentiment. His milieu of hardscrabble immigrants and natives jostling in Flushing, Queens, feels both up-to-the-minute and likely to endure. Someone should Secret-Santa a copy to Donald Trump.
Another contemporary novel I loved this fall was actually more of a novella — another small, good thing. Called Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, it’s the first published work of fiction by a young Englishman named Max Porter. It follows a father of two through the year after the death of his wife. The chapters are compressed, poetic vignettes that evoke the chimera of grief through suggestion and indirection. And then, more evocative still: the arrival of a giant, metempsychotic raven straight out of Ted Hughes’s Crow. You quickly forget that the book is weird as hell, because it is also beautiful as hell, moving as hell, and funny as hell.
In late October, I got to spend a week in the U.K., and decided to pack London Fields. A boring choice, I know, but I’d been shuttling from here to there for a few weeks, and needed to be pinned down in some specific, preferably Technicolor, place. London Fields didn’t let me down. The metafictional schema shouldn’t work, but does. And more importantly, a quarter century after its publication (and 15 years on from the pre-millennial tension it depicts), the prose still bristles, jostles, offends freely, shoots off sparks. The picture of the world on offer is bleak, yes. Yet in surprise, in pleasure, in truthfulness, almost every sentence surpasses the last. This book is now my favorite Martin Amis. I wouldn’t trade it for love or Money.
As synchronicity goes, M Train on a plane may not quite match London Fields in London, but Patti Smith’s new book remains one of the best reading experiences I had this year. Like Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, it is elliptical and fragmentary, weird and beautiful, and, at its core, a reckoning with loss. Much has been made of the book’s seeming spontaneity, its diaristic drift. But as the echoes among its discrete episodes pile up, it starts to resonate like a poem. At one point, Smith writes about W.G. Sebald, and there are affinities with The Emigrants in the way M Train circles around a tragedy, or constellation of tragedies, pointing rather than naming. It is formally a riskier book than the comparatively straight-ahead Just Kids, but a worthy companion piece. And that Patti Smith is still taking on these big artistic dares in 2015 should inspire anyone who longs to make art. In this way, and because it is partly a book about reading other books — how a life is made of volumes— it seems like a fitting way to turn the page on one year in reading, and to welcome in another.
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Long before its publication, Jonathan Bate’s new biography of the English poet Ted Hughes was being circled by crows. This is fitting, since the crow was one of Hughes’s favorite animals and most recurrent images. In his 1971 collection Crow, written after the suicide of his first wife, Sylvia Plath, the bird-protagonist is questioned at the gates of Hell: “…who is stronger than death?” Crow replies, “me, evidently,” and is allowed to pass. Hughes’s story is so calcified with rumour and controversy that any biographer, even one of Jonathan Bate’s caliber, was doomed to wade through a mire. The monumental book he has given us, Ted Hughes: The Unauthorized Life, is at the very least the story of a man who was stronger than death, capable of turning death into startling and important art. Whether his biographer has such strength is a critical question.
Bate certainly spent his time in the mud: almost as soon as The Unauthorized Life hit the shelves, Hughes’s widow publically defamed the book via a solicitor as “inaccurate” and “offensive,” going so far as to comment that “[t]he number of errors found in just a very few pages examined from this book are hard to excuse, since any serious biographer has an obligation to check his facts,” and demanding a public apology for insinuating that on the way to his burial, casket in tow, Hughes’s family stopped for “a good meal.”
But the relationship between Bate and the Hughes estate, controlled almost solely by Hughes’s widow Carol, was not always so strained. As Bate reported to The Guardian last year, Carol Hughes began as an “enthusiastic” supporter of the project, providing the Oxford professor and Shakespeare scholar with unprecedented access to the seemingly limitless Hughes archives, held in substantial private collections as well as at Atlanta’s Emory University and the British Library. But after four years of digging, Bate reportedly received a letter from the estate, terminating the offer of an authorized biography with “no reason” given.
Bate determined to go on with the work, and his guess about the reasoning behind the estate’s abrupt renunciation was that his project was becoming too biographical: what had started out as a “literary life” was developing into a more invasive, and potentially damaging, wholesale examination of a man as famous for his promiscuity as he was for his power with a poetic line. In his preface to the biography, perhaps anticipating the storm to come, Bate goes out of his way to keep things civil. He writes that “[t]he cardinal rule” he will apply to the project is that “…the work and how it came into being is what is worth writing about, what is to be respected.” In other words, the literature, not the life, will be his primary concern.
But even in the short distance it has already traversed by this passage, Bate’s biography has gone a long way toward proving that such a distinction is impossible to maintain. Though Ted Hughes was famously allergic to biographers (who could blame someone who spent so much time protecting his children from the vendetta-mongering paparazzi that haunted him, as the executor of Sylvia Plath’s estate?), Bate summarizes “[t]he argument of this biography” as the assertion “that Ted Hughes’s poetic self was constantly torn between a mythic or symbolic and an elegiac or confessional tendency…” “The tragedy of his career,” Bate adds, “is that it took so long for his elegiac voice to be unlocked.”
By the elegiac, Bate means the confessional. The argument here is that Hughes’s greatest poems were written when he allowed his biography to fully penetrate his art. The explicitly autobiographical collection Birthday Letters is the iconic example of this style from Hughes’s career, but as his published legacy expands, collections like Capriccio (a series of elegies to the woman for whom he left Plath) and even the much less erotic River take on clear biographical overtones in retrospect.
In his exquisite interview for The Paris Review, Hughes once answered a question about the confessional element in poetry by asserting that “Maybe all poetry, insofar as it moves us and connects with us, is a revealing of something that the writer doesn’t actually want to say but desperately needs to communicate, to be delivered of. Perhaps it’s the need to keep it hidden that makes it poetic—makes it poetry.” By this stage in his life, looking back on a volume of output that even the most prolific competitor would find intimidating, Hughes was willing to label it all “confessional,” to guess that an element of biography is what gives all poetry its vitality. Though during the exhausting legal battle surrounding her novel The Bell Jar, Hughes tried to escape ridicule from Plath’s admirers by insisting that hers was the work of “a symbolic artist” — in the open air he felt free to observe that what a true poet always works into symbols are the passions and events of his or her own life.
Why, then, Bate’s insistence on the lifelong tension between Hughes’s “symbolic” and “confessional” sides? None of his readings of Hughes’s poems hinge on this polarity. In fact, the most energized sections of The Unauthorized Life are those that cover the two poets’ life together. In these, Bate is able to intersperse lines from Birthday Letters to illuminate biographical details. His scan of Hughes’s signature poem “The Thought Fox” similarly treats the piece exclusively for its autobiographical significance, barely quoting the poem itself, and giving extensive space to Hughes’s reflective commentary about it. As often as Bate insists that his book is about Hughes’s “work and how it came into being,” he rarely pauses for detailed analysis of that work. Few lines are dissected for their technical elements. It is the story of Hughes’s life, not the content of his poetry, that dominates the narrative.
And as Bate delves again and again into Hughes’s tangled and often abusive sexual relationships — these sections are certainly his most electrifying and detailed — an uncomfortable, though understandable, reason for his lingering insistence that Hughes was “torn between the symbolic and the confessional” presents itself: Bate felt the need to keep things civilized. With an archive of blistering personal data at his disposal, but Hughes’s very human survivors more or less at his mercy, Bate faced a crushing ethical dilemma. The work that followed seems perpetually caught between the thrill of scandal and compulsion to soften the blow by selectively presenting Hughes’s most incendiary work as “symbolic.”
This compulsion blunts Bate’s criticism especially when he describes Hughes’s volatility towards women: the shadow of a living wife and family understandably makes him waiver. In his chapter about Hughes’s infidelity to Plath, he reflects that one of the poet’s “most tasteless lines” falls in his Birthday Letters poem about Assia Wevill, where he describes his mistress as “Slightly filthy with erotic mystery.” Yet any serious reader knows that in the Hughes canon, this line is nowhere close to the most tasteless. My personal pick would be the line from his poem “Crow’s First Lesson,” where Crow, asked by God to pronounce the word “love,” instead regurgitates a “woman’s vulva” which drops “over man’s neck” and “tightens.”
In fact, almost any passage from Crow more than equals Bate’s choice for “tastelessness.” We can infer that the problem with this line was not its imagery, but how it showcased Hughes’s potential for vitriol against the women he most loved, some of whom are still living. This sense of hesitation between analysis of the writing and emphasis on its biographical implications snags Bate’s scholarship at almost every crucial juncture. The lesson here is that no line, especially from an openly confessional poet, can be totally isolated from the life from which it sprung. Neither can it be analyzed only in terms of that life. The poet’s life and work are two branches derived from a single root, and Bate’s attempt to uncouple them only results in hindered growth.
But there were other methods available to him — precedents already set by great biographers. Beyond their shared surname, Jonathan Bate’s work on a poet so frequently compared to John Keats invites comparison between The Unauthorized Life and another heavy-hitter: the Harvard scholar W. Jackson Bate’s 1963 biography John Keats.
A look at the two texts side by side makes for a striking contrast. W.J. Bate’s prose is muscular and unsentimental, and though he captures Keats’s personal struggles with sympathy, his scholarship of the poetry is just as excellent. His work on Keats’s vowel interplay in “The Eve of St. Agnes” and “Hyperion” remains groundbreaking, and is conveyed with crisp clarity: The frequency of Keats’s complex assonance, W.J. Bate writes, “far exceeds that in any other major poet,” and is not found anywhere in English poetry except in “poets whom we should assume to have other pressing concerns in mind: Shakespeare…and Milton.” His conclusion is that genius in form and content reinforce each other; an observation that could just as easily apply to Hughes, though Jonathan Bate seldom ventures deep enough into his versification to resurface with such conclusions.
Instead, his commentary keeps a strange distance from mechanical analysis of the lines, though his syntax sometimes gives in to the temptation to mimic the staccato voice of his subject, with strained results: “The words of [Hughes’s] poems — which he obsessively refined, revised, rewrote — are complicated, freighted with meaning, sometimes darkly opaque, sometimes cut like jewels of crystal clarity.” A “jewel of clarity” sounds almost Hughesian, but only almost: converting nouns to verbs was one of the poet’s habitual gestures, but to end lines with an abstracted noun phrase like “crystal clarity” was something he got beyond early in his writing life, knowing that abstractions make weak images.
Still, to hold Bate’s Unauthorized Life of Hughes in your hand is to experience something as hefty and monumental as a good Hughes poem. Hughes’s enormous Collected Poems has been compared to “a hunk of Stonehenge” for both its magical overtones and its sheer physical weight. Bate’s book is undeniably important, just as hefty, and often movingly written. His last passages about Sylvia Plath’s undying importance to Hughes are instantly memorable; his last flourish like poetry itself: “Before him stands yesterday.”
If only every line of it were so good. But Bate was torn between his own rival muses: the personal and the symbolic strains of Hughes’s work, which he pitted against each other in the preface, turn out to be two sides of the same coin, the same monolith viewed from two angles. The intriguing rivalry he suggests between them turns out to be a false one. They were the same stone goddess that ruled all of Hughes’s work. Better to affirm, with the poet himself, that all poetry “is a revealing of something that the writer doesn’t actually want to say.” That to write is to confess in symbols. That the poetry is the biography. To have tracked this line of thinking directly through Hughes’s work would have made for a true “literary life.” Instead, Bate has given us a life informed by literature, where the most scandalizing moments are diffused by claims that they are important to a deep analysis that never occurs. Yet if what Bate gave us is not what it could have been, it is a riveting book nonetheless. Perhaps the best literary life of Hughes will have to wait until there is no one living left to hurt. In the meantime, the page is printed.