Once a conversation with an Australian friend surprised me; she told me that Haruki Murakami, the world-famous Japanese novelist, struck her as “very Japanese.” “But why?” I puzzled, thinking of the Western pop culture references sprinkled throughout his works and his Englishized prose style.
“Many of his stories don’t have a real conflict,” she said. “Like in 1Q84, you feel all those surreal elements are built up for something, but in the end, nothing really happens. Even the romance between Tengo and Aomame ends up half-baked.”
That day, we were talking about story structure. I told her that very often my workshop friends comment that my stories don’t contain conflict. Their critique reminds me of the East Asian story-telling convention—at the risk of generalization, we tend to generate a plot without using conflict. As opposed to the West’s five-act or three-act, the term Kishōtenketsu is often used to describe the development of a classic East Asian narrative. It includes four different acts: introduction (ki), development (shō), twist (ten), and conclusion (ketsu). Introduction and development are comparable, though only slightly, to exposition and rising action, and conclusion to denouement. There’s not a climax that determines the character’s fate one way or the other in this setup. In fact, the present story in many East Asian narrative remains largely unaffected by the turbulent emotions roiling inside the characters.
Then, you may wonder, what’s the point of storytelling? Isn’t that boring?
It’s still intriguing. Take the great Japanese writer, Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Key. Written in diary form, the novel grapples with the sexual fantasies an elderly man harbors towards his wife, 11 years his junior, and his wife’s towards their daughter’s boyfriend. Both the husband and the wife lock their diaries in drawers, leaving the keys out purposefully—they hope the other will peek. The story is saturated with the couples’ intense suspicions of one another. Reading the book for a third time, I still found myself hooked till the very last page. However, Tanizaki’s work doesn’t involve a conflict in the Western sense.
The disconnection between the couple doesn’t escalate into a separation or a divorce. Even though the wife admits she hates her husband, she still succumbs to his lust and even takes an active part occasionally. The husband eventually suffers a stroke and dies, not because he learns about his wife’s adultery, but because of his own long-time debaucheries. Therefore, the husband’s death functions more as a twist than a climax leading to a falling action. The story has no confrontation. For example, when the daughter moves out, she does so under the guise of wanting a quiet place to study. The mother suspects the real reason but the family never discusses it overtly. The family remains unbroken, at least in appearance.
A similar use of alternating narrations divulging the miscommunication in a relationship can be found in quite a few Anglo-American novels: Evan S. Connell’s Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge, Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, and, most recently, Margot Livesey’s Mercury. But, unlike Tanizaki’s work, these stories tend to create a dramatic build that invites a self-revelation. Take Mercury. Donald, the husband, gradually realizes that he and his wife, Viv, have grown so apart that she needs a gun to protect her real love, a horse. Their disconnection, the core conflict, is slowly revealed and climbs to an irrevocable moment, the climax—Viv fires the gun and shoots Donald’s friend. The relationship is thus damaged: Viv goes to the jail, leaving Donald unsure about his feelings. All those inner emotions breed the characters’ actions, which in turn transform the family dynamic. The narrative is thus an analytical search for the reason why their intimacy falls apart—since when did they stop listening to each other? Fates and Furies, set in a more traditional matrimony in which the wife assumes a domestic role while the husband works to support the family, also dedicates itself to uncovering the hidden face of a relationship. The wife’s side of the story wrenches apart the husband’s golden boy formula and indicates that she’s the real puppeteer of the “happy marriage.” Both novels are seeking the “truth.”
In The Key, by contrast, the disconnection between the couple is established as a premise rather than a conclusion:
Ikuko, my beloved wife! I don’t know whether or not you will read this. There is no use asking, since you would surely say that you don’t do such things. But if you should, please believe that this is no fabrication, that every word of it is sincere. I won’t insist any further—that would seem all the more suspicious. The diary itself will bear witness to its own truth.
This is from the husband’s first letter. It’s clear the couple lack mutual trust at the beginning of the story. In that regard, Tanizaki has no interest in discovering an underrepresented or repressed voice or exploring a mystery within the relationship. He cares more about the dark psychology of human beings: the pleasure we take from jealousy and infidelity, and our sadistic tendencies. Unlike his Western counterparts, Tanizaki isn’t using the case of a problematic marriage to teach a lesson. The dark side of humanity is what all of us are born with; a mishandled past trauma or a long-time subjugation are both oversimplifying the complications of relationship.
In Tiger Writing, Gish Jen uses the word “interdependent” to describe the East Asian mode of self-conception, as opposed to the “independent,” the West’s mode:
The first—the “independent,” individualistic self-stresses uniqueness, defines itself via inherent attributes such as its traits, abilities, values, and preferences, and tends to see things in isolation. The second—the “interdependent,” collectivist self-stresses commonality, defines itself via its place, roles, loyalties, and duties, and tends to see things in context.
As a Chinese woman, I am surprised to see Alicia Florrick in The Good Wife dare say to her in-law, “Next time you want to see your grandchildren, you give me a call.” Likewise, American audiences may consider those East Asian women who are obedient to their in-laws’ unreasonable commands weak and cowardly. At the danger of stereotyping, according to our conventions, those women are strong and mature because they embrace a holistic picture of family and understand that humility is the key to a harmonious life.
Gish Jen also talks about her father’s distinct memoir-writing mode. After describing the Chinese traditional morning-greeting rituals, she concludes:
This is not a modern, linear world of conflict and rising action, but rather one of harmony and eternal, cyclical action, in which order, ritual, and peace are beauty, and events spell, not excitement or progress, but disruption.
Stormy as the relationship in The Key is, the marriage remains stable—the couple copes with the commotions of life within an orderly framework. A peaceful, present story—like the rituals in East Asian everyday life—is thought beautiful.
The plot difference in these modes of writing also brews structure variance. Very often, the wandering quality of East Asian stories confuses and bothers readers from outside this context. Matteo Pericoli, viewing The Key through the lens of architecture, compares its structure to “two buildings made of huge fin walls whose cantilevering floor slabs slide into the other’s like the pages of two books.” According to him:
The floors of the “double” building therefore alternate, as though one of the buildings has even numbered floors and the other only odd. To go from one level to the next—say, from the fifth to the sixth floor—we’d have to go downstairs, exit one building, enter the other, and go back upstairs.
To Pericoli, this is a “huge” and also “meaningless” effort. I can see his point, but again I notice the structure difference roots from our distinct ways of thinking.
But what if Ikuko reads this, what will she be likely to do? Will she worry about me, and try to control her sexual instinct? I hardly think so. Even if her reason demanded it, her insatiable body would refuse to comply. Short of my collapse, she will never stop insisting on gratification.
Doubtless she will ask herself why I am writing this. “He seemed to be doing so well lately,” she will think; “but he’s been forced to give in, hasn’t he? I suppose he means to frighten me, so that I’ll be less demanding.”
The Key is full of similar fantasies where the narrator projects his thoughts onto his wife and even presumes her response in order to modify his imaginative behaviors. Paranoid though it may seem, this psychology is very typical in East Asian culture as I experience it—we tend to make conjectures about others’ reactions to the extent that we can be trapped in our endless imaginations, rarely taking action.
Last year when I came to the U.S. for the first time, I struggled to ask American friends for a ride, even though they expressed their willingness to help—“Just give me a call.” But I didn’t dare ask, afraid that my need would inconvenience them. In China, the car owner would ask me each time she goes out—“Jianan, I’ll go get groceries from Walmart this afternoon. Would you like to come along?” As you can see, it’s the car owner who foresees my reluctance to bother her and thus makes a further move to anticipate my need.
In the fabulous Japanese film director, Shunji Iwai’s 1995 movie, Love Letter: it is only after the main character passes away that his dream girl finally discovers he loved her, when she finds her name written on numerous library cards in their high school. Recently a story went viral in China and Japan; it tells of a Japanese programmer who coded the name of his love into a video game he’d invented. But he never confessed his love, remaining single in his entire life. “But why?” I remembered my American peers widening their eyes when I told such stories. It’s not the humiliation we may suffer if being turned down, but the concern that passions might upset the loved ones’ harmonious life—we don’t want our personal happiness or sadness to become their psychological burden. We prefer doing “small, good things” (Raymond Carver) to brighten up their days without asking for anything in return. This one-sided caring, or so-called “pure love,” is considered the highest form of romance in East Asian culture. Jun’ai, the Japanese word for “pure love,” means “genuine, dedicated love” according to the Japanese dictionary.
Turning to Tanizaki’s work, readers are urged to journey back and forth between the husband’s and wife’s respective projections and even paranoias; how many of them are true remains a mystery. Again, Tanizaki has no interest in diagnosing the marriage; he embraces a larger scope: because our ways of communication can never do justice to the chaotic, ambivalent, and ever-changing human mind, mutual understanding becomes a luxury we can ill afford.
Apart from the recursive quality of narrative that may read as repetition or lack of focus to Western readers, the profusion of objects and details in East Asian texts may also seem unnecessary and baffling.
One critique I often receive from my workshop is that I need to trim down certain details in my writing, particularly in the beginning. I didn’t understand why the slow pace bothered my American peers until, again, I stumbled upon a very similar narrative mode used by Gish Jen’s father. “Written over the period of a month and totaling thirty-two pages, it does not begin à la David Copperfield with ‘I was born’; in what we will come to recognize as true interdependent style, my father does not, in fact, mention his birth at all.” (Gish Jen, Tiger Writing.) Instead, Gish’s father opens with an elaborate family history and a comprehensive depiction of their household—another example of an interdependent mind. Different from Western stories that value the personal, concrete textures of life, a successful East Asian fiction must relate to a larger social-historical picture.
I enjoyed reading Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” in The New Yorker recently, but it also struck me that if the same story was written by a Chinese writer, it probably wouldn’t receive the same amount of attention. Right from the beginning, it is clear that the story would focus on a woman’s personal dating experience:
Margot met Robert on a Wednesday night toward the end of her fall semester. She was working behind the concession stand at the artsy movie theatre downtown when he came in and bought a large popcorn and a box of Red Vines.
In her 1943 story titled “Sealed off,” Eileen Chang, a then emerging Chinese writer, dealt with a very similar subject matter—romance as a game between narcissism and self-pity and women’s one-sided creation of the object of their love. By contrast, Chang’s story opens with almost a panorama of the people living in that moment, which may seem clunky next to the concise opening of “Cat Person:”
The tramcar driver drove his tram. The tramcar tracks, in the blazing sun, shimmered like two shiny worms oozing out from water: stretch, then shrink, stretch, then shrink. Soft and slippery, long old worms, slinking on and on and on…the driver stared at the wriggling rails, and did not go mad. The tramcar would have gone on forever, if the city hadn’t been shut down. It was. The streets were sealed off. “Ding-ding-ding-ding” rang the bell. Each “ding” was a small, cold dot: dot after dot, they formed a line that cut through space and time.
The tramcar stopped, but the people on the street started rushing around: those on the left rushed over to the right, those on the right rushed over to the left. The metal shop gates came rattling down, all in a single sweep. Matrons tugged madly at the bars. “Let us in!” they cried. “At least for a little while! There are children here, and old people too!” But the gates stayed tightly shut. The two sides glared at one another through the bars, feeding off each other’s fear. On the tram, people were fairly calm. They had somewhere to sit, and though the tram interior was shabby, it was still quite a bit better, for most passengers, than their rooms at home.
Chang goes on and on to portray almost every passenger in the tramcar; in fact, the main characters, Wu Cuiyuan and Lu Zongzhen don’t appear until seven paragraphs later. These seemingly redundant descriptions extend the themes. The story is set in Japanese Occupied Shanghai, when Japanese authorities often blocked the road to search and arrest underground resistance fighters—thereby “Sealed Off.” It is in this very short time and on this temporarily stopped tramcar, two strangers, out of pure boredom, begin to flirt and even think they are in love. Chang doesn’t only show women’s particular anxieties when embarking upon a romance, but also the general selfishness and indifference of people—even war fails to make them compassionate. Without this elaborate opening and an echoing ending, the story would be too narrow to hold standing in modern Chinese literature.
One famous anecdote of Sōseki Natsume, an outstanding Japanese novelist in the Meiji period, follows that he taught his students the appropriate Japanese translation for “I love you” should be “The moon is beautiful tonight, isn’t it?” East Asian stories lay great emphasis on the richness of themes, which, too, may derive from our unique ways of communication, where “beating around the bush” is common, to avoid any possible conflict and embarrassment. Similar cultural implications are embedded in our stories to channel our emotions, but it is often the case that Western readers fail to decipher them and are thus bewildered and even bored.
A striking example is the translation of the 1968 Nobel Prize laureate Yasunari Kawabata’s early masterpiece, “The Izu Dancer.” Shockingly, the English translation appeared at first in an abridged form; Edward Seidensticker, the translator, streamlined the plot by cutting the parts which he thought irrelevant to the center theme.
“The Izu Dancer” mixes elegant reminiscences with lyrical fiction, telling a high school boy’s first romantic encounter with a young traveling performer. Again, it may hardly fit in the West’s category of “love story,” because nothing dramatic ever takes place. The two closest points towards intimacy are perhaps when the Izu dancer addresses the protagonist as “a very nice person” and when she comes to see him off at the port. No kiss, no hug, not even a vocal goodbye; they just keep gazing and waving at each other. After a close study of the curtailed version, I am very sad to find the most scintillating details of this story were all “pruned.”
In the opening chapter of the original, the narrator runs into an elderly man in a teahouse. A horrible scene: the man, suffering a stroke years ago, is bruised and swollen all over, as if he was drowned. Beside him stand piles of yellowish letters and moldy medicine bags—he asks every traveler for any potential prescription to cure his illness. The narrator, in a indifferent tone, describes the elderly man as “a monster in the mountain” and says he can’t believe the man is still alive.
In the ending chapter, there is an echoing scene cropped in the English. When the narrator boards the return ship, a stranger who looks like a miner asks him to escort an old woman to her destination. After the accidental death of her son and daughter-in-law, she is left with three little grandchildren; she holds a girl with either hand, a baby on her back, “her eyes look empty and miserable.” The narrator agrees to help.
In Chinese, we have a particular term to refer to those seemingly unrelated details, Casual Touches (闲笔). We believe the best writers are not those who show a refined mastery of a self-contained story, but who can add beautiful touches here and there effortlessly to stretch and strengthen a story’s meanings. In Kawabata’s case, the two vignettes are crucial to the narrator’s self-awareness. In the beginning, though born into a privileged family in Tokyo, the protagonist loses his parents at an early age. Taking the tragedy personally, he grows cynical and apathetic. (He calls himself a “misanthrope.”) We feel no empathy in his observation of the old sick man. But the love toward the Izu dancer gradually connects him to the lower-class people and to anyone who might previously have seemed unrelated to his life. From the dancer’s family, he realized that most people had suffered, were suffering, and would suffer much more hardship than he had. (Eikichi, the dancer’s elder brother, lost his second child on his performance trip; the Izu Dancer probably wouldn’t avoid entering into prostitution later on.) Therefore, he understands human woes are universal and inevitable. Also, the cheerfulness and kindness of Eikichi’s family moves him, affects him, and revives his capacity to give and love.
I did not know when evening came, but there were lights on when we passed Atami. I was hungry and a little chilly. The boy opened his lunch and I ate as though it were mine. Afterwards I covered myself with part of his cape. I floated in a beautiful emptiness, and it seemed natural that I should take advantage of his kindness. Everything sank into an enfolding harmony.
In the original, the old woman is mentioned again—she functions like a test for the narrator’s compassions, and thus confirms his maturity. This eventual self-reflection is also trimmed and modified in English.
[…] I was immersed in a beautiful emptiness. Now I felt free to accept people’s kindness. I imagined taking the elderly woman to get her ticket at Ueno Station. Of course I’d do that. Everything blended into a harmony.
In his book review “Orphans,” Mark Morris points out “The Izu Dancer” is about cleansing, purification: “A narrative vision that generates impulses of release, near jouissance, by means of an effacement of adult female sexuality and its replacement by an impossible white void of virginity.” But without those seemingly unessential details, Western readers may take it for granted that Japanese culture—or East Asian culture—worships female virginity in an obsessive, if not morbid, fashion. But Kawabata has carefully built the links between the dancer’s innocence and human kindness and empathy, the protagonist’s personal romantic feelings and his connections to life in a general sense. Sexuality, in this regard, is not the West’s notion to mark a teenager’s independence, to mark the time that he needs to leave his parents and start his own life—Kawabata means quite the opposite, sexuality lifts an individual out of his self-absorption and engages him in a larger social landscape, with his people and country. In East Asian context, the notion of pure love teaches us to give and care with no intention to win or take.
“The moon is beautiful tonight, isn’t it?” The line conveys genuine feelings not only because the one who says it is shy, but also because they want to express gratitude to the loved one, as if to say, “you’ve opened my eyes/heart to the beauty of life.” The conventional love in East Asian context doesn’t necessarily culminate in the union of a small family, but in the contribution of harmony of society.
Sadly, it is often the case when Westerners find themselves unable to translate our subtleties and inferences, they may tag those as distracting and, if not having the liberty to cut them, would probably skip them altogether.
Image Credit: Pexels.
“I did not really know where I was going, so, when anyone asked me, I said to Russia,” says Evelyn Waugh in his account of his travels along the Mediterranean coast. During my graduate studies at Oxford, I became friends with a group of people of Waughian tendencies, Russophiles to whom admitting that you spoke no Russian and had not ridden the Trans-Siberian Railway made you a pariah (though they did make allowances for those who had not gone to public school).
Last summer, when I was home in Turkey, some of my Oxford friends asked me to join them on a hiking trip to Georgia. I was excited about visiting an ex-Soviet country, and even started learning the alphabet. But then the Turkish coup attempt happened on July 15, and I had to cancel the trip. When one’s travel plans are thwarted, one naturally gravitates towards bookshelves, and there, in the upper reaches, I saw John Massey Stewart’s Across the Russias, with onion domes of Orthodox and Muslim extraction on the cover, bought in a second hand bookshop in North Carolina during a particularly acute streak of compulsive travel-book purchases. A quick check revealed that “the Russias” in this 1969 book included Georgia, and I started reading.
Stewart and his friend David set off in a Mini lent to them by the British Motor Corporation, with hundreds of rolls of film and 200 model BMC cars in tow. Both items feature heavily in the story: the model cars win hearts and minds in Tbilisi, and the book is generous with photos, which are uncannily crisp for a book of more than 40 years.
In his prologue, Stewart gives a pedigree of his Russophilia: his father had been a tutor to a Russian family in Tsarist times and had written two books about the country, and he himself wrangled a job with the British Trade Fair in Moscow in order to secure the permits required for this trip. Try and out-Russian that, I thought, of my Oxford friends. And, oh, he is a Cambridge man.
The whole text is written in excellent humor; Stewart comes across as the sort of travel companion that no hardship will sour and who will always find something to appreciate in the places he visits. Still, now and then a “Western” condescension comes through, as in when one of their guides in Moscow asks why the Americans want war: “I was horrified that this intelligent woman who had spent years in the States should believe such a thing.” In a way, such outbursts on the part of Stewart make the text endearing, as they are counteracted by precious moments when the anthropologist’s or “world-traveler” lens is turned back upon himself. Nowhere is this as delicious as when, in Kiev, they are forced to have a theological conversation where, as opposed to contemporary travel accounts, it is the “locals” who are surprised at the tourists’ gullibility on matters of faith:
The conversation turned to religion, and Leonid asked if we believed in God, obviously wondering if we could possibly say yes; when we both did, he looked incredulous.
As Stewart travels trying to access “the soul” of the “Russias,” there are many such through-the-looking-glass moments, and he is constantly humbled by the friendliness and the curiosity of the people he encounters. The Mini draws crowds wherever they go, and they try to diffuse political questions—ordinary people praise communism and pity them for living in a capitalist country—by showing pictures of the Royal Family and Prince Philip’s hobnailed soles.
In Kiev, just as their cruise boat on the Dnieper is about to leave one of the landing stations, Stewart watches a peasant woman running for the landing, calling out “Dyadya Volodya!” [“Uncle Volodya!”] to the ticket officer who makes the boat wait for her, like a scene from a romantic novel. Stewart’s narrative covers long stretches of road and airspace where we take in the scenery, but it is punctuated with these moments when times compresses and people have to rush to things. In Odessa, he tries to deliver a coat he has brought from London from a Russian emigrée for her elderly mother. This is where the story gets a bit John Le Carré, as he runs late trying to lose the secret police car tailing him, responds as politely as he can to the mother’s protestations of hospitality, and makes it just in time to catch the boat to Yalta.
“Of all the places we had visited,” he says, when he makes it to Tbilisi “Moscow’s heavy hand seemed to fall lightest on Georgia.” He talks about the town as the “Paris of Russia,” but also speaks of “a transfusion of oriental blood,” the “Georgian beauties rated highly by Persian and Turkish harems.” It is in the Caucasus that, for him, the two “easts,” Muslim and Soviet, seem to meet. Accordingly, Stewart is drawn to the famous hammams of Tblisi and there, with the masseur, has the sort of conversation that every Englishman fantasizes about once he has travelled beyond the Suez and/or the Urals:
Did he have many people from England? “Not since the Revolution.” I was the first Englishman since the Revolution? “Yes” and uninterestedly motioned me to turn over.
However, conversation with another visitor who can actually speak English reveals that Stewart is not the first, and dispels his illusions about having been massaged by a man who has massaged Alexander Pushkin and Joseph Stalin. Stewart punctuates his text with incidents detailing how he is disabused of several notions about communism, and of his own place in the grander scheme of things, giving the narrative a light touch of the picaresque. Mirroring the motions of the woman who called back the ferry in Kiev, Stewart—having left his friend David to take the Mini back to England—is late for his flight to Tashkent and hails the plane from the tarmac. The plane duly halts and the flights of steps are put out a second time, for him.
Then we’re off “to the East,” as I, with Stewart, push on towards Vladivostok, leaving my hiking friends in Caucasian mountain passes. After the usual orientalist descriptions of women drawing their veils over their faces in order not to be photographed, Stewart is astonished to find, along with other European paintings “a Poussin and collections of Wedgwood” in Tashkent’s art museum, just when he had thought he had accessed the real East. In Samarkand he wonders how the Soviet regime has managed to reduce the number of the faithful to a few old men who still go to Friday prayers. As he marches east, “eastern” features seem to become even more elusive: “Alma Ata seemed to have no oriental flavor whatsoever—apart from donkeys pulling carts and the high cheekbones of the native Kazakh population.” There, he encounters a girl who has read Jane Eyre and David Copperfield in class, and who is reading The Forsyte Saga at home for pleasure. In Turkmenistan, the adjective he uses for local color changes from “oriental” to “picturesque” when he talks about people keeping to more specific aspects of Turkic custom, like eating on the floor and wearing brass filigree “helmets,” rather than adhering to some diffuse image of the “East.”
Everywhere, the inhabitants of the Russias confront Stewart with their own version of the stiff upper lip; a being content with one’s lot, thoroughly seasoned with “the love of Russia,” a kind of patriotism, he says, that is difficult to find in any other people. In Irkutsk, a Siberian says, “It’s easy cold here. There is no wind and no damp. But Leningrad’s winter is only fifteen degrees below zero, and it’s so damp that it’s much worse than here.” Stewart speaks of the free spirit of the Siberian, a place where people, already exiled, have little fear of the authorities in Moscow. The cold is so sturdy, in fact, he tells us, that before 1906, the Trans-Siberian used to run on Lake Baikal in the winter. We learn that “one train, risking the melting ice during the Russo-Japanese war, plunged through.”
Earlier in the book Stewart explains how he decided not to “do the Trans-Siberian Railway” (he himself uses quotations to alert us to the importance of this item of coolness) in order to take in Ashkabad, Baku, and Yerevan. In Khabarovsk he tells us ceremoniously that he will board the train for his last lap of the journey:
But the forth-coming twenty-four hours would, I felt, be a wonderful opportunity for heart-to-heart conversations with the three Soviet occupants of a fourth-berth compartment, and the most famous train in the world, I knew, would be a splendid climax to my journey.
However, he enters his coach to see that it is filled with Japanese tourists he’s encountered earlier on his travels, and the obligatory German. Not only that, a conversation with a guard reveals that the train is not the Trans-Siberian at all, but the local from Khabarovsk to Nakhodka. “The bottom fell out of my world,” he says, as it does a bit from mine, for I feel that the experience is barred equally to me. As we are prepared to end our journey on this anticlimax, Stewart makes his way to the restaurant car and makes friends, visits the officers’ carriage, gives them picture postcards of London, becomes emotional, and tells the carriage that though he may not agree with their system he is won over by these open-hearted people (it must be contagious). In turn, the captain, unable to find something to give to Stewart rummages his pockets and gives him a key: “Here is a key, I will not lock my heart to you.” Stewart is duly overwhelmed by this gesture, and as an epilogue, reconsiders the moments when people he met questioned him about his life in the West. “Would I be converted to communism as Leonid had predicted in Irkutsk? I hoped so in that it would mean that communism had become better than my own system” he says, unlocking his own heart.
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At 28, Fyodor Dostoevsky was about to die.
The nightmare started when the police burst into his apartment and dragged him away in the middle of the night, along with the rest of the Petrashevsky Circle. This was a group made up of artists and thinkers who discussed radical ideas together, such as equality and justice, and occasionally read books. Madmen, clearly. To be fair, the tsar, Nicholas I, had a right to be worried about revolution. The Decembrist Revolt of 1825 was still fresh in everyone’s mind, and it was obvious throughout the world that something was happening. In addition to earlier revolutions in America and France, revolutionary ideas were spreading like a virus around the world through art, literature, philosophy, science, and more. To the younger generation and Russians who suffered most under the current regime, it was exhilarating. For those like Nicholas I, whose power depended on the established order, it was terrifying.
So these revolutionaries, most barely in their 20s, were hauled off to the Peter and Paul Fortress, a prison that contained some of Russia’s most vicious criminals. After months of isolation broken up by the occasional interrogation, Dostoevsky and the rest were condemned to death by firing squad.
They were marched into the cold. A priest allowed each man to kiss a cross. Then shrouds were draped over their heads, which did nothing to drown out the soul-crushing sound of soldiers raising their rifles as their commander cried out ONE!…TWO!…
WAIT! someone cried. The tsar had changed his mind — the prisoners would be spared!
Dostoevsky and the rest had been victims of a hilarious prank Nicholas I sometimes played on prisoners, staging mock-executions before sending them off to Siberia. When the condemned men heard they had been “saved” by their benevolent tsar, some immediately lost their minds. But not Dostoevsky. He held on and endured two brutal years in a Siberian prison, before enduring another two brutal years in the army. His life wasn’t exactly easy after that. But in large part because of all that suffering, he would grow into the author of such classics as Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and more.
Plenty of readers know about the later, mature Dostoevsky, but far fewer know about the young man he once was, the one who thought he was moments away from execution. His presence in front of a firing squad may come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Dostoevsky’s later writing, in which he was a ferocious opponent of the young generation’s revolutionary ideas, and an equally ferocious defender of the tsar’s authority and the Russian Orthodox Church. It’s no exaggeration to say that Dostoevsky felt the very soul of Russia was at stake. Ivan Turgenev, in his short novel Fathers and Sons, coined the word “nihilists” for these young radicals, who seemed hell bent on smashing the existing society and replacing it with one founded on values inimical to people like Dostoevsky. They were an existential threat to the nation and they are presented as such throughout all of Dostoevsky’s later works. Sometimes their ideas are the focus of his attacks, like in Notes from Underground, which is essentially a rebuttal to the socialist arguments made in What Is to Be Done? by Nikolai Chernyshevsky, (a book that, more than any other, inspired those who would later instigate the Russian Revolution). Other times, the youth of Russia are the explicit enemy. The plot of Demons was directly inspired by the murder of a Russian at the hands of a group not all that different from the Petrashevsky Circle. In fact, Dostoevsky later acknowledged in his Diary of a Writer that, as a young man, he himself might have been swayed to commit such a horrible act.
Clearly, the post-Siberia Dostoevsky was a different man than the one who faced down that firing squad, to put it mildly. So how do we understand this abrupt transformation? Perhaps the best way is by exploring Dostoevsky’s early major works — Poor Folk, The Double, and Netochka Nezvanova — which offer invaluable insights into just how Dostoevsky became Dostoevsky.
Poor Folk, Dostoevsky’s first novel, is in some ways the most atypical novel of his career. First, it is his only epistolary novel, composed of letters between a poor old man, Makar Devushkin, and Varvara Dobroselova, a poor young woman he helps support financially (to the extent that he can). They live humble lives, and struggle with daily life rather than colossal questions about existence or morality. Compared with a book like Crime and Punishment, Poor Folk feels small. The author’s focus is on meticulously outlining the dreary existence that those on the outskirts of society quietly endure every single day. When Varvara receives a flower Makar has bought her, she is overwhelmed with gratitude, and when a father is able to help pay for a birthday gift for his son, he is equally ecstatic. A flower and a birthday gift — these are important not as symbols but for what they are, tiny tokens of the love that make life bearable. Of course, there are tragedies, too. Friends and family are lost, and the devastation is all the more profound because Dostoevsky’s poor folk have so little to lose.
The persistent need for money is always on characters’ minds. Given the extraordinary sympathy Dostoevsky shows his characters and the sometimes subtle, sometimes not-so-subtle, criticism of society throughout, it’s easy to see why Vissarion Belinsky, the most important Russian critic at the time, deemed it the first “social novel.” It was emblematic of the kind of literature many involved in revolutionary circles thought was the way of the future — the novel as a cry for social justice, a working-class weapon.
Poor Folk is a fine novel, and Dostoevsky demonstrates the kind of negative capability, to use John Keats’s phrase, that would allow him to create characters like Raskolnikov and Ivan Karamazov, who are discussed by scholars to this day as if they were real people. But it’s absurd to think Poor Folk would have become the national sensation it did and launch the 23-year-old Dostoevsky to literary superstardom had it not been the right kind of book at the right time. Dostoevsky likely didn’t set out to upend the capitalist system with Poor Folk, but it certainly fit in well with a growing trend in literature that focused on the downtrodden and weak, along with the shameful indifference of a society that allowed such suffering to persist. Nikolai Gogol’s short story, “The Overcoat,” also caused a sensation in Russia (and is actually read and written about by Makar in Poor Folk). It also highlighted the indignities that the poor had to endure every day, but like many of Gogol’s stories, there is a supernatural element, in this case involving a ghost. Poor Folk has no such supernatural element. It is painfully, unflinchingly realistic. Consequently, Belinsky and others praised it and predicted nothing but great things for the newly-arrived genius.
You’re in your early 20s, your first book is a major national success, and the most influential literary critic in the country has literally declared you are a genius. How would you react?
Maybe you’d take the fame and flattery in stride and stay level-headed. But Dostoevsky didn’t, and by all accounts, he became an insufferable jerk. Worse, he was an incredibly sensitive insufferable jerk, unable to handle any criticism. And that was all he got after Poor Folk. Everything he wrote was one commercial disappointment after another. At first people like Belinsky thought it was a temporary slump, and Dostoevsky would bounce back with another great social novel. But Dostoevsky continued to experiment with different kinds of stories, none of which suited the political climate of Russia at the time or the taste of the very critics who had made Dostoevsky a star. In the eyes of most literary circles, Dostoevsky was just a one-hit wonder.
One of these “disappointments” was his second major work, The Double. From the very first page, it’s clear that this is not another Poor Folk. It feels like a different species of literature altogether. For one thing, whereas his first book focused on two characters and a community of other people in their lives, The Double is all about Goliadkin, a nobody who finds merely existing a difficult task. He is nervous, jumpy, paranoid, awkward, and incapable of a sane conversation. At multiple points, people interrupt his jumbled, meandering monologues to confess they have no idea what the hell he’s talking about. And this is before his exact double, also named Goliadkin, gets hired at his office. But the similarities are only skin-deep. This Goliadkin is a success in every way that the first Goliadkin is a miserable failure, and the new version gradually begins displacing the original from his own life. The story becomes increasingly bizarre until it ends the only way the life of someone like Goliadkin ever could — total insanity.
There are many things to admire about the hallucinatory world of this novella. The surreal nature of Goliadkin’s double anticipates the dialogue between Ivan Karamazov and the Devil in The Brothers Karamazov. Second, the inner monologue of Goliadkin shows Dostoevsky already toying with the idea of excessive-consciousness as sickness that will become a hallmark of his greatest novels. The plot is almost secondary to the maze-without-an-exit that is Goliadkin’s mind. And third, just writing this novella was brave. Dostoevsky could have stuck with what worked and cranked out another Poor Folk, but he chose to stretch himself beyond the social novel, to not write in the service of any ideology.
Belinsky and others didn’t see it this way, and the flops kept on coming right up to the point when Dostoevsky was arrested in the middle of the night. However, he was at work just then on his first full-length novel, which he believed would redeem his literary reputation. We’ll never know what the public’s reaction would have been to the full novel because it was never finished. Only the beginning chapters were completed and, by the time he got back to writing many years later, he had moved on to other projects.
However, fragment or not, the parts of Netochka Nezvanoza that do exist are worth our attention because, compared to Poor Folk and The Double, this is the closet the young Dostoevsky gets to becoming the Dostoevsky we all know today.
This story is also another outlier in terms of structure — while Poor Folk was an epistolary novel, Netochka Nezvanova was meant to be a kind of Dickensian story that would cover the life of its protagonist from childhood to adulthood. Think of it as David Copperfield, only with more mental breakdowns and sadomasochistic relationships.
Dostoevsky can’t help injecting the story with the kind of increasingly-acute psychological realism he does so well. This is perhaps nowhere more obvious than in the fact that, for nearly half of the existing text, Netochka, the little Dickensian soon-to-be orphan, is completely overshadowed by her explosive stepfather, Efimov. Efimov is a clear precursor to the Underground Man, whose life is a stark warning that we need to live our lives, not dream our way through them. Efimov’s dream is to be a great violinist, but alcoholism and his petty nature drive him to poverty, along with Netochka and her poor mother, who sadly fell for Efimov’s self-narrative that he was a genius destined for glory.
If Efimov’s story ended there, his degradation would just be a compelling portrait of a man’s gradual ruination. But this is Dostoevsky, so it’s only the beginning. Although Efimov knows on some level he will never be an internationally famous violinist, he clings to the idea that he is the best violinist in the world. It doesn’t matter if no one else knows it — he knows it, and that self-delusion becomes the foundation for his life. His whole psyche becomes nothing but a jumble of rationalizations he comes to define himself by. If he isn’t the world’s greatest violinist, he’s nothing. And when he hears a violinist who is undeniably greater than he ever was or could be, we see what happens when a man wakes up from a dream he’s been living for far, far too long.
There are other shades of the later, great Dostoevsky to be found in this unfinished novel, but Efimov alone testifies to his development as a writer whose understanding of the human condition would become infinitely richer than anything that could have been explored within the predetermined confines of a social novel.
Each of these works hints at the kind of writer Dostoevsky could have become. Had he followed Poor Folk with another social novel, stuck with the surrealism of The Double, or written more Dickensian bildungsromans like Netochka Nezvanova, we would be talking about a very different Dostoevsky today, if we talked about him at all. But instead he synthesized the best elements of all these works and enhanced them with the profound understanding of human nature he began to develop in Siberia.
Of course, it’s not necessary to read any of these early works to appreciate Dostoevsky, one of the few writers who can scream in print. But the arc of his literary life becomes all the more fascinating when we consider Dostoevsky’s early career, when he was still figuring out what to scream about, and had his hardest days, and greatest works, still ahead of him.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Charles Dickens didn’t exactly have a dirty pen. This, after all, was the man who promised his delicate Victorian readers that he would “banish from the lips” of all his characters “any expression that could by possibility offend.”
Not the easiest of promises to make because, let’s face it, the Victorians were easily offended.
Case in point: These were the people who cringed over the word “trousers,” because men’s pants were worn a little too close to a certain tabooed male appendage for comfort. But, by and large, Dickens kept his promise like a classy gent, never using outright profanity in any of his 15 novels. But Dickens was obsessed with capturing reality in all of his writings. It just took a bit of cleverness to pull it off, to politely wiggle his way out of that very tight corset of Victorian censorship, and here are a few examples of how he did it:
[Mr. Peggotty] swore a dreadful oath that he would be “Gormed” if…[his generosity] was ever mentioned again. — David Copperfield
It’s the most famous and talked-about curse word in Dickens’s oeuvre. In the Dickensian universe, this is as profane as profanity gets — despite the fact that no one in that universe seems to know what this “dreadful oath” actually signifies. The long-standing theory, popularized by the OED, is that Dickens invented the word “gormed” as an even milder substitute for “gosh-darned.” Yes, they do share the same first and last letter, but Dickens played his delicate game with profanity even safer than that. Rather than inventing the word (and thus having to later defend it), Dickens built “gormed” on an actual, though obscure, English word. The verb “to gorm” once meant to “to stare blankly, vacantly” at something, likely related to the Irish gom, “a stupid-looking person.” Dickens’s “gormed” thus could be safely translated as something more like “confounded, stupefied” — hardly a swear word at all — and bearing no trace of any attack on the Almighty.
2. What the Deuce!
If the Victorians were squeamish about taking God’s name in vain, they had an equal dread of mentioning the devil’s. Sort of an awkward prohibition for them, as swearing by the devil tripped way too easily off most Victorian tongues. Their one acceptable remedy — euphemisms.
Almost every questionable word, circa 19th century, had its polite substitute (one of the acceptable euphemisms for “trousers” was, in fact, “inexpressibles”). And most convenient of all, the devil had his own choice euphemism — namely the word “deuce” — nonchalantly inserted into popular period phrases such as “What the deuce!” and “The deuce and all!” — expressions that Dickens used freely and frequently in his writing. There’s a lot of speculation on how “deuce” acquired its devilish reputation and, moreover, why it was acceptable to Victorian sensibilities. Simple answer, no one really knows.
3. I’ll be De’ed
If Dickens had a favorite indecent oath, it would have been the oh-so-versatile D-word. That’s, more or less, exactly how Dickens referred to it in his writing, as “D” something or other. That might seem cute and childish to us today, but even by dropping three letters of a four-letter word, Dickens was dangerously skirting the fringes of Victorian decency. Everyone knew what he meant and he probably lost a few of his more prudish fans over momentary lapses of censorship like these:
He flung out in his violent way, and said, with a D, “Then do as you like.”
— Great Expectations
“Capital D her!” burst out Caroline…“I’ll give her a touch of the temper that I keep!”
— “Mrs. Lirriper’s Lodgings”
He says…that he’ll be de’ed if he doesn’t think he looks younger than he did ten years ago.
— “The Old Couple”
4. Oh, Merdle!
Dickens’s character names are among the most brilliant and quirky creations in English literature.
Fantastically conceptualized names such as Scrooge, Pecksniff, and Bumble read and sound like perfect incarnations of who and what these characters are at their core. And sometimes it isn’t pretty. Nowhere more so than with the ignominious Dickensian duo with a swear word hidden in both their names — Mr. Merdle from Little Dorrit and Mr. Murdstone from David Copperfield.
Didn’t catch the dirty pun? Perhaps it will help by explaining that Dickens was a Francophile for most of his life, reveling in all things French, especially the language, which he gushingly described as “Celestial.” But even celestial tongues have their crudities and Dickens would have known one of its most popular: merde, literally “excrement,” the French equivalent of our s-word. And boy did that word came in handy for Dickens! Nothing sums up Mr. Merdle’s character better than saying that he is, well, full of merde. He’s one of literature’s biggest financial fakes, erecting the Victorian equivalent of a massive Ponzi scheme that ends up ruining countless investors. The same goes for Mr. Murdstone, though his poop-fullness is of a different sort. Namely, Murdstone is convinced that “all children” are “a swarm of little vipers” needing to be relentlessly beaten into submission.
5. Bleepin’ Grammar
Avid readers of Dickens often get the feeling that Boz routinely got bored with having to perform this prim circumlocution with profanity. It’s obvious that sometimes he simply didn’t want to invent a curse word, swap in a euphemism, or use a clever pun, sometimes he just wanted to let his seedier characters say exactly what they mean — to let that loose old language rip. And actually, on occasion, he did exactly that by doing what TV producers do today. He bleeped out bad words (but kept in the bleeps, of course, so we wouldn’t be robbed of all the fun). Dickens’s “bleeps” are actually quite funny indeed, relying on innocuous grammatical terminology to delicately remind his readership that not everybody spoke with such polite decorum, that some Victorian characters’ “parts of speech are of an awful sort.” Here comically recorded in Dickens’s article on crime, “On Duty with Inspector Field:”
I won’t, says Bark, have no adjective police and adjective strangers in my adjective premises! I won’t, by adjective and substantive! Give me my trousers, and I’ll send the whole adjective police to adjective and substantive!
Notice Dickens’s rare slip-up with the use of “trousers.” A double indecency!
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
I’ve been breastfeeding my second child for more than seven months. She eats solids now — preferring pizza crust to all else — but those foods are consumed primarily for flavor and fun, and the development of fine motor skills, not nutrition. Until she’s got teeth, my child is kept alive with breast milk, and so she and I spend a lot of time together on the glider in the living room, a glass of water within my reach, a burp cloth on my shoulder, her perfect chubby body resting on The Boppy, which, to the uninitiated, is a nursing pillow that looks like a neck-rest for a giant.
(That word, Boppy! It’s so silly as to be demeaning. At least it’s not as bad as its competitor, My Breast Friend. Like I’m just over here, stringing beads onto a necklace or something, gabbing to no one. But nursing is kind of like that: mindless action punctuated by occasional admiration at your own handiwork.)
For the first months of my daughter’s life, when I was nursing a lot more often and for longer sessions, I depended on TV and books to keep me sane. (Now I worry the TV will rot her brain, and she often grabs what I’m reading; she straight-up ripped a page of Modern Lovers by Emma Straub!) I’m saddened by this turn of events because a couple of times the culture I was consuming reflected my own experience and it felt magical, like an old friend lighting up your cell phone a moment or two after they were in your thoughts. For instance, I was nursing while reading this description of Mrs. Micawber in David Copperfield: “a thin and faded lady, not at all young, who was sitting in the parlour…with a baby at her breast.” I remember thinking: Well, that’s me all right. I feel about as threadbare as an old pajama shirt. Copperfield goes on to say:
This baby was one of the twins; and I may remark here that I hardly ever, in all my experience of the family, saw both twins detached from Mrs. Micawber at the same time. One of them was always taking refreshment.
“Taking refreshment” — my daughter, who is honestly quite elegant for her age, loved that line! The next few times we see Mrs. Micawber, she is indeed a human buffet. It’s funny, I’ll give Dickens that. It’s also from the point of view of a young bachelor, far from a mother’s perspective as just about anyone.
It was with great delight, then, to watch season two of the very bawdy and funny television series Catastrophe. In the third episode, Sharon and Rob go to Paris to try to reconnect after having their second child. In the hotel room Sharon reports that her “tits ballooned with milk” after seeing a French baby in the lobby downstairs. I love that she calls her breasts “tits” here — they remain sexualized, and Sharon hasn’t traded her racy vocab for stodgy parenthood. When she realizes she’s forgotten her breast pump at home, I felt as anxious as she did. For the breastfeeding mother, engorgement is uncomfortable, sometimes painful, and the specter of Mastitis, an infection caused by blocked ducts, can make even the calmest mom panic. (At this year’s AWP my boobs grew so rock hard with unexpressed milk that, in the interest of education, I let a few female writers feel me up.) In this episode of Catastrophe, Robs tries, and fails, to explain to the Parisian pharmacists that his wife needs a breast pump; they think he wants to purchase breast milk itself. Hilarity ensues. Sharon tries to help her husband, but she took German in school, not French, and she’s freaking out about Mastitis. She asks them in a panic, “Do you know what’s gonna come out next time I breastfeed? Not milk.” Here she combines German and English, with a French accent: “Blood und puss!” I laughed and laughed, and I also felt grateful that writers are making such honest and tonally sharp art about an occasionally harrowing, not to mention isolating, female experience.
This got me thinking about other meaningful depictions of breastfeeding in fiction. The mother — pun intended — of all nursing scenes is, of course, in The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. In the final scene, Rose of Sharon breastfeeds a starving man, echoing the Ancient Roman story about a woman who nurses her imprisoned father, sentenced to death-by-starvation. If the memory of my junior year AP English class serves me well, this last scene further proves the Joads’ selflessness: the man Rose of Sharon feeds isn’t a friend or family member, but a mere stranger. The scene provides a moment of tenderness and connection after so much despair. These two characters are helping each other; the man needs sustenance, and Rose of Sharon, who has lost her baby, needs to connect to and nurture another human being. Or her body does.
In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the maternal needs of female slaves are denied, again and again, as their children are treated as commodities. Sethe’s own mother had to work in the fields and was unable to mother Sethe, and Sethe remembers being fed by the wet nurse only after the white babies had been sated, remarking, “There was no nursing milk to call my own. I know what it is to be without the milk that belongs to you; to have to fight and holler for it, and to have so little left.” She thus places much importance on nursing her own children. One of the central precipitating traumas of the book is Sethe’s assault by white teenage boys who drink her milk. (Read this and this for more on Morrison’s novel and this part in particular.) Under slavery, Sethe’s body, no part of it, not even her milk, belongs to her. Or to her child. To deny a mother this right — it’s painful to even imagine. That Sethe chooses to kill her children can be understood as an act of maternal kindness, a kindness that’s been deranged by the horrors of slavery.
My Education by Susan Choi, like The Grapes of Wrath and Beloved, also includes a scene of a breastfeeding adult. This time, it’s a sex scene between a young graduate student named Regina, and Martha, who is married to Regina’s professor. Martha also teaches at the university, but she’s on maternity leave. The reader is led to believe that Regina will begin an affair with Martha’s husband, but when the two women meet the attraction is immediate, their romance inevitable. In the scene in question, Martha’s breasts are heavy with milk and when Regina puts her mouth to one of her nipples and sucks, Martha experiences a spasm of relief. It’s sexy, for sure. But not only. It’s also a nod to the age difference between the two lovers (more than a decade), with the younger Regina playing the infant, dependent on this life-giving figure to sustain her. Martha, who is ambivalent about the affair from the get-go, experiences the shock of the Let Down. As any nursing mother knows, pent-up milk doesn’t flow without consequence. At first, it stings a little — as the baby drinks and drinks, carefree now that her needs are met.
One of the fiercest books about motherhood to come out in recent years is After Birth by Elisa Albert, and it’s got plenty of depictions of nursing — babies nursing, that is. Ari gave birth a year ago and she’s still traumatized by her unplanned C-section. Her identity has been turned upside down by motherhood.
“I get it: I’m over. I no longer exist. This is why there’s that ancient stipulation about the childless being ineligible for the study of religious mysticism. This is why there’s all that talk about kid having as express train to enlightenment. You can meditate, you can medicate, you can take peyote in the desert at sunrise, you can self-immolate, or you can have a baby and disappear.”
When Mina, former rock star and poet, moves to town nine-months pregnant, Ari feels hopeful. A friend! Mina had a home birth, but she’s having trouble nursing. She tells Ari, “I had no ideas my nipples could hurt this much! And I used to enjoy light S&M! When he latches I can feel it in my eyeballs!” Even though both my children nursed well from the get-go, there was definitely a learning curve, and Mina’s complaints are funny because they’re so familiar. This was the first time I’d seen the experience recognized in fiction and it felt like a victory. In the scene, Ari tries to give her new mother-friend pointers, and after cooking her a bowl of pasta, Ari nurses Mina’s baby for her. It’s not played for shock. Ari says: “He’s not choosy; he’s goddamn hungry.” The scene is perfectly cast as mundane (Mina, like any tired mother, inhales pasta as Ari feeds her baby) and beautiful. Like nursing itself.
He pulls off for a second, the abundance of surprise, and right away he’s searching for me again, mouth ajar, panting. Open wide. Gulp, gulp. Relaxes into me, eyes closed. The whole room goes all melty. Problem solved. All peaceful and blossomy, like after a good first kiss. Unfold. Bask. I remember this. I can do this. Nothing for her to do but watch.
This is a moment of purpose and peace for Albert’s narrator. For a parent of a baby, there is perhaps no sentence more powerful than “problem solved.”
It seems as though I keep coming upon depictions of breastfeeding in fiction. Anna Solomon’s beautiful and expansive (forthcoming) Prohibition-era novel Leaving Lucy Pear opens with an unwed mother, Bea, abandoning her baby beneath a pear tree. Before Bea does so, though, she unbuttons her dress and feeds her child for the last time. “She gasped as the mouth clamped onto her nipple,” Solomon writes, “but the pain was a distraction, too, welcome in its own way.” Bea dislodges the child from her body before the baby is finished eating, and I found that difficult to read, considering the circumstances. Later, the baby, Lucy, is nursed by her adoptive mother. As Emma feeds the child, it feels to her as though Lucy is opening “a new bloody tunnel through her heart.” The connection between these two mothers, Bea and Emma, is profound and particular. And, yet, from their separate vantage points, they cannot even fathom it.
And here’s another example: Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran. By the time it’s published next January, my tenure as a nursing mother might already be over. Sekaran’s novel is about a woman named Solimar who’s come to America from Mexico illegally. She gets caught and is sent to a detention center. She has no idea where she is, or how long she will have to stay there. Her young son has been taken from her. She waits in a cell by herself, and as her breasts get more and more engorged, she grows more upset and scared. And hungry. She does not know when she will eat, or how her child will eat. As in the other scenes I’ve described, the physical experience of nursing isn’t denied. Everything emotional about it is also corporeal. But here it isn’t comic, or sensual, or suspenseful. It’s despairing. Her son’s absence is felt in the body. Without any other choice, Soli bends over and nurses herself. Unlike in The Grapes of Wrath, she is alone. For an undocumented mother, there is no help.
When I read that scene, my own daughter was, in Dickens’s words, “taking refreshment.” I had to put the book down, and hold her closer.
Writers who are also mothers are depicting what it’s like to care for a child, and that body of literature gets richer with every season. There are so many elements to parenting that I want to see more of on the page, but nursing, at this specific juncture in my life, seems particularly dramatic. Or maybe, at 3 a.m., alone with my child in the dark living room, I want to believe that’s true.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Despite my best intentions, 2015 went and happened before I even opened the copy of David Copperfield I’d purchased months earlier. I wanted to better acquaint myself with the genius of Charles Dickens — or so I had told myself. Thankfully, my friend Meaghan O’Connell, author of the forthcoming essay collection And Now We Have Everything, had told herself the same thing. And she’d been just as delinquent. So we decided to read the book at the same time, in a two-person book club, reveling in our shared ignorance and eventual education. What follows is part one of our email correspondence about the novel.
Edan Lepucki: I realized, before I began reading David Copperfield with you, that it’s been more than four years since I’ve read a ye olden classic. I spent a lot of my 20s tearing through famous books I’d failed to read as an English major in college: Wuthering Heights; Anna Karenina; Tess of the d’Urbervilles; Middlemarch. But when I turned 30 and had a baby, I stopped. I’ve basically read nothing but contemporary fiction for the last four and a half years. Why? I primarily blame sleeplessness — when you haven’t slept, your brain doesn’t want unfamiliar syntax! Also, maybe because I never go out anymore, reading the latest greatest novel is my way of being social with people? (God that is dorky.) All I know is, on my book tour I went alone to a bar with a Henry James novel. I ordered a glass of sparkling wine. I took a sip. I opened the book. I took another sip of wine. Then I closed the book. The James remains on my bookshelf, unread.
But now that I’m 11 chapters into David Copperfield, I recall how wonderful it is to read lit-er-a-ture. For one, a 19th-century novel is dramatic and juicy. The book is appealing to the part of me that needs plot (what is going to happen to Davy next?!), as well as the part of me that needs to be moved. Leave it to Dickens to make me worry about a poor little British boy — who would’ve guessed? The language, too, has been inspiring me. For instance, the series of questions early on, regarding Copperfield’s mother:
Can I say of her face — altered as I have reason to remember it, perished as I know it is — that it is gone, when here it comes before me at this instant, distinct as any face that I may choose to look on in a crowded street? Can I say of her innocence and girlish beauty, that it faded, and was no more, when its breath falls on my cheek now, as it fell that night?
He goes on with this, “Can I say…” motif for another line or two and it kills me — the present narrator negotiating memory with present day objectivity and the demands of storytelling! What a feat!
Meaghan O’Connell: Right! Like, hey, who knew? Charles Dickens is a really great writer! The voice of the narrator — David Copperfield, looking back on his life — is so charming and funny and in my opinion effectively makes the case that people CAN speak in parentheses.
The fact that he was being paid by the word, that the book was published in monthly installments, is definitely laughably clear when you hold the 850-page book in your hands (D.F.W., what’s your excuse?), and clearer still when you read a few chapters a night and realize this was how it was meant to be read. Ideal reading experience: have a friend force you to read two chapters of this book every night in February.
And yes, I did need to be forced. Or, okay, cajoled. I knew that if I could just get into it, get over that initial hump, it would be such a great book, and not just in a “get it under my belt so I don’t have to vaguely nod and change the subject at parties” way. It’s not a difficult book at all; Dickens, when he wrote this, was a really famous, popular writer. It’s really, really entertaining. But my god, I opened the first page and my eyes crossed.
Is it just expectations, and the hugeness of the book? That we associate reading the classics with undergraduate reading assignments? The last time I read Dickens was eighth grade, Great Expectations. I’m sure it was some textbook abridged thing and I remember it feeling like a slog despite enjoying all sorts of jokes about Miss Havisham.
I think you’re right, a lot of what I read is in an effort to participate in something. I really do like reading a just-published book and enthusing about it publicly or shit-talking it privately. I like the conversation, and discovery, and following a thread of my own interest. Rarely do I read a book that leads me to Charles Dickens, especially considering I tend to read either autobiographical fiction or semi-experimental nonfiction written by women. So who is gonna fave my David Copperfield tweets, I guess is my point?!
Plus, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that if literature generally has not improved as a whole, it has improved, if nothing else, at opening chapters. Novelists, now, know how to HOOK you. Charles Dickens is a master of many things but not a master of an opening chapter. Yes, fine, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” is, I’ll grant you, a great line. Though I do humbly submit that this line would be better felt as say, the last line of the first chapter? We don’t know our narrator yet! We aren’t invested! The line is lost! We only notice it because we’ve seen it posted on Tumblrs the world over.
(I am interested in what you think, as a novelist, about the challenges of writing a book that is literally like, chapter one, I was born, and goes from there — doesn’t that mean the most spotty recollections and boring things happen in the beginning?)
Edan: Honestly, I have been down on Dickens since the ninth grade, when my English teacher divided us into groups and assigned a different novel of his to each. Of course mine got the biggest book, Bleak House. I was the only person in the group to read it and I did all the work so that we didn’t collectively fail the class. Before now, Dickens has always — to no fault of his own — made me feel resentful, like I’m just a goody-goody the cool kids can take advantage of. Sort of like Copperfield himself, who is so tenderhearted that he will stay up late retelling Tom Jones to the popular boy at school, or give away his money to a waiter, and so on.
But I digress.
I too have been thinking about the paid-by-the-word aspect of Dickens and how he clearly planned these prolonged comic “bits” that in his day must’ve had people laughing uproariously and discussing with friends; it’s the 19th-century equivalent of sharing clips and .GIFS from our favorite shows. (Dickens = Dick in a Box!) Right now I’m interested in how many of these comedic parts are concerned with class. Dickens loves to parody various British accents, and I wonder how intriguing Davy was to his readers; he’s this boy who is able to (or is required to) skip from one social class to another, and thus belonged nowhere.
As for the opening, I actually really liked it! Once I figured out what the hell “who was already welcomed by some grosses of prophetic pins in a drawer upstairs” meant, I was intrigued. I love a semi-omniscient first person narrator. It’s impossible and the conceit recognizes that, and moves ahead with it anyway. It reminds me of the Alice Munro story “My Mother’s Dream,” wherein the narrator talks about life and her mother’s life (and subconscious life!) when the narrator was but a wee infant. It’s such a magical device.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the fictional autobiography as I read this, and what I’d do, were I to write a contemporary one. I think the drama actually lies in the spotty recollections and the double vision of retrospection. I like, too, how David’s narration becomes more mature as he gets older. Can you think of any modern day versions of this form?
Here’s another question: Are you reading this in public — and if so, has anyone approached you? I haven’t read Infinite Jest yet (gah, I know, I know) because I don’t want to read it in public and suffer feedback from Wallace superfans (gah again). This is such a silly reason not to read a book. And yet…
Meaghan:Ha! I haven’t read it in public but am embarrassed just at the thought of slamming it onto the table of some coffee shop. I’ve been reading it every night before bed and really enjoying breaking the spine and measuring how far along I am and whether I’m halfway yet. This is usually not a good sign for me, when I start counting pages and viewing reading as a sort of endurance challenge. You know, when you sort of see how many pages are left in a chapter and weigh how tired you are? “You can do it!!!” Which is to say, THIS BOOK HAS A HIT A SLUMP.
You texted me today asking if I had given up but I haven’t. I do cheat on it sometimes with other faster-paced contemporary novels (Novels By People I Follow on Twitter, a large-looming genre of my nightstand), and sort of feel like I’m betraying you. I think Dickens has timed his little slump well, though, because it slowed down a bit right when I started feeling so IN IT, so invested in old Davey/Daisy that there’s no way I’d give up and not find out what’s gonna happen. I mean, it’s fucking David Copperfield, I trust some good shit will go down. But right now he is like, deciding about whether to be a lawyer? And checking out apartments with his aunt? And yeah I feel I miss the subtlety of a lot of these bits, so when it drags it’s like, come on, man.
And I will say the inevitable: it reminds me of Karl Ove Knausgaard in this way. I have read so many damned My Struggle books, the next book could be themed like, Shits I Took in the ’80s and I would feel compelled read it. (Okay obviously that would be an amazing book, but you get what I mean.) I need to know what Karl Ove does! It’s like watching a TV show that gets bad the last few seasons but my god, you’ve sunk so much time into it already, why not see it through? Also it’s just familiar. I’m invested. I’m in, I’ll follow you anywhere.
D-Copp is this sweet little boy, still nine years old in my head though I think now he is a teen, and I need to know who he ends up with. I pray to god there is some sex in this book though I imagine it’s the coy kind. I’m already annoyed.
Edan: I doubt there will be sex, alas. I’ve been pretty bored by the book as well. But even through my boredom I have literally gasped aloud at the power and genius of Chapter XVIII “A Retrospect,” which introduces — in summary! — David as a sexual adolescent, compressing time through the lens of the crushes he gets. I loved it. I also love the writhing, disgusting Uriah Heep (again with the class issues!), the obviously duplicitous Steerforth, and the fact that David’s aunt mourns David’s nonexistent twin sister. My pretend dissertation will be about the unreal yet ever present and performed females in Dickens’s David Copperfield. Um, right, Daisy?
Will we finish the book? Will we be able to define Dickensian? Find out next time, in part two of our discussion!
Every new year, my husband and I quit drinking for the month. Sober January is a healthy and smug time, filled with sparkling water and peppermint tea and discussions about what kind of red wine would have gone well with the lamb shanks. This year, we’ve also given up sugar for the month. We joke that we should also take away bread, dairy, meat, salt. Anything with flavor, anything that makes us happy. Next year we will consume only paper towels soaked in water for 31 days.
A more pleasurable new year’s resolution is one that adds to your life rather than subtracts from it. One year, for instance, I vowed to wear more dresses. I did, and it was a fabulous (and feminine) year. Reading resolutions, if they aren’t too onerous, also fall under this category. For example, vowing to read a poem a week isn’t a huge challenge and, wow, how it can render a Saturday morning more ponderous and magical! A couple of years back I devoted a summer to E.M. Forster, and, aside from the splendor of reading Howards End and Maurice, I loved saying, in my best mid-Atlantic, Gore Vidal-inspired accent, “I find myself on a Forster kick lately.”
This year, I resolve to read James Baldwin’s nonfiction, in particular The Fire Next Time. The desire to read Baldwin emerged from discussions, both in-person and online, about Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which I own but haven’t yet read. Beyond the obvious similarities between the two books (the letter writing device and race in America as subject matter), I’m interested in other ways these two texts interact, and where and how they diverge.
I also resolve to read David Copperfield. I’d already planned to read it this year after spending 2015 with one contemporary novel or another, and then I read Meaghan O’Connell’s Year in Reading, wherein she not only recommended many of the same books I had read and loved in 2015, but also mentioned that she was waiting for the Charles Dickens to arrive in the mail. This seemed fated. We have agreed to tackle the book together, in a kind of two-lady book club, this February.
In figuring out my own reading resolutions, I realized how much fun it is to hear about what others plan to read this year. In this spirit, I asked some people I admire to share their 2016 bookish resolutions.
David Ulin, former critic for the Los Angeles Times and the author of Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, always writes about books with such perspicacity and grace. He told me he generally doesn’t believe in resolutions since he almost never follows through with them. He went on:
But when it comes to reading in 2016, my main goal is to relax. To step back from the treadmill, and to read in a more integrated way. In part, this will mean as a critic, since I plan to continue writing about books; in part, as a writer, reading books that connect to, or address, various projects; and (perhaps most importantly) in part, as a reader, reading for no agenda other than my own. I’ve long believed that reading as a writer (and certainly as a critic) condemns one never to read for pure pleasure again. What I mean is that we are reading, inevitably, from within our own processes, with an eye toward how the sausage is made. I don’t imagine that will change for me, but I want to read recklessly this year, to put books down in the middle, to start and stop and start again. I want to read old books, new books, books by friends and books by strangers, books from all across the globe. Next to my bed, where I am writing at this moment, there are two piles of books, each about a foot and a half high. I’d like to read down those stacks, which include memoir, poetry, short story collections, detective fiction, books I wasn’t able to get to until now. Will I be able to read all of them, or even most of them, this year? Unlikely. And yet, they perch there like a promise or a dare.
My friend Tess Taylor, who is the poetry critic for NPR’s All Things Considered, and who will publish her second collection Work & Days this April, also plans to follow her bookish desires, wherever they may take her:
My biggest goals in 2016 are to read deeply, to read works as a whole, and to read off the grid. I think in the whole buzzy Facebook news-cycle thing, we get caught in a book-of-the-moment phenomenon. That is totally fine for the engine of selling books but maybe not as great for the part of us that makes us hungry to write them. Wearing my book reviewer hat, I am often reading for deadline or for money. I’m glad I get the to write things, truly, but this can be far from the wayward, unplugged feeling that made me a bookworm as a kid. So this year I want to get lost more. It can be very sustaining to engage one artist deeply, for pleasure, to get the measure of the craft and the life. Right now I’m reading all of Ted Hughes. I admit that this started out of a journalistic assignment, but the poems and the letters and the mind caught my attention and suddenly I’ve been ploughing through them almost obsessively. It’s a big private enterprise, and I mostly do it late at night or first thing in the morning. For now it’s not for sale. It feels really dreamy, like it feeds the writer in me. I want to do more of that.
The Debut Novelist
Would this desire to “get lost more,” as Tess puts it, extend to someone just stepping into the publication game? The year I published my first novel, I bought and read so many other recently released first novels because I was curious about what my colleagues were writing, and because I wanted to feel like I was in solidarity with my fellow debut novelists. (Class of 2014 in the house!) I asked fellow staff writer Hannah Gersen if the impending publication of her first novel, Home Field (out in July, y’all!), was affecting her reading resolutions. Yes, she said, but in a different way. She told me she’s planning to read Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time:
Or maybe it’s better to say I’m planning to finally read the whole thing from start to finish without skipping sections. I’m not sure how much this impulse is related to being a debut novelist, but Proust is definitely comfort reading for me because I’ve read and reread certain passages at different points in my life. The idea of reading the entire novel, knitting together all those favorite scenes, a little each day, feels very grounding. Maybe I also need a break from thinking about contemporary literature, to have a kind of cork-lined reading experience.
The Book Editor
I envy Hannah’s plan and the break she will get from the now-now-now! of our contemporary book-making machine (even as she gets to be a part of it.) It also made me wonder about those working within the industry. Do you make reading resolutions if you read and edit manuscripts for a living? Turns out, you do — or at least Laura Tisdel, executive editor at Viking, does. Every year, she told me, she attempts such a resolution.
Three years ago I read nonfiction titles to bone up on an area of reading, and general knowledge, I was woefully uneducated about (I tackled mostly history stuff, including Operation Jedburgh by Colin Beavan and The American Revolution by Gordon Wood). Two years ago, I focused on classics I hadn’t read as a student (Middlemarch and Giovanni’s Room? Check and check!). Last year, I had a baby (*crickets*). As a relatively new mother, one with just enough sleep to begin regaining some self-awareness, I’ve found myself missing the conversations I used to have with my friends catching up over a beer or even just disappearing down the rabbit hole of a text message thread. So this year, I’m going to read books that my friends recommend to me. I know darn well I don’t have the time in my schedule or the capacity to be a book club participant, but I’m going to make a sort of book club of one: I’m going to ask the people I care about and respect to recommend a book they loved, and then I’m going to read that book and write to them about it. I’m starting the year with Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object by Laurie Colwin, which a dear friend recommended to me just before the holidays when we grabbed a long overdue coffee date together. I’m thinking of this project as a way to commune with my friends, and to discover stories and writers that might never have surfaced in my nightstand pile otherwise.
(I now have strong motivation to start texting recommendations to her!)
I get the sense that Tisdel, like the others I asked, wants to step back from the machine. Not with a beloved classic, like Gersen, and not by reading “recklessly” as Ulin suggests, or associatively, like Taylor. But by reading a particular book for, and with, and because of, a particular person. It’s reading, and talking about reading, as intimacy.
Mary Williams, the general manager of Skylight Books in Los Angeles, is another integral member of the book-making machine, and her resolution echoes those of the others:
Free books are one of the perks of being a bookseller. But they are also a curse; there are just so many of them. I have never been able to keep up with all the books coming out each season that I want to read. Cue desperate feelings of inadequacy. Also, the world is full of great books that came out before I became a bookseller and my professional obligation to stay current began. So my resolution is to forgive myself for the new books I can’t get to (wish me luck), and to make some time for the aging heroes lodged in the middles of stacks of unread books in my apartment. Already Dead by Denis Johnson. Stoner by John Williams. More short stories: especially Lorrie Moore and George Saunders and Lydia Davis. Basically, more reading without deadlines.
While Mary is tossing off the shackles of professional obligation to read Stoner in the break room (Oh, how I envy her! I’d love to read that for the first time all over again!), Dana Spiotta’s next book, Innocent and Others, will be released. It comes out in March, which is motivation for me to finish that stupid Dickens as fast as I can — and for Mary to put those shackles back on. While every smart person is reading her novel, what books will Spiotta herself turn to? She told me, “When I was in my teens, I loved to read any kind of novel about growing up. he Bildungsroman(s), the sentimental educations, the coming-of-age/loss-of-innocence stories. It was the job at hand, and I needed help.” She continued:
This year, since I am reaching the milestone of what is optimistically referred to as “middle age,” I want to return to those books that I read so long ago. From The Red and the Black and Jane Eyre to Manchild in the Promised Land and The Basketball Diaries. And many more books that I remember loving. Will I still love them? They are the same of course, but maybe it will be a measure of how much I have changed. What I now think is engaging and moving and beautiful. What I think is funny. What I think is true (with all my experience as a person and a reader). Or maybe not, maybe my connection to these books of my youth will be exactly the same. I wonder if my young self will be in those pages, waiting for me.
Spiotta, too, is stepping away from the publishing hoopla. She will re-read; she will look backward as a way, perhaps, to look forward.
I’m sure that all of us will succumb to diving into the latest hot new book, because it’s fun to join those conversations, and because who doesn’t want to experience what promises to amaze and rearrange us? But I hope we also fulfill our personal reading goals, too, even if it’s to not have a goal: to read for pleasure, for comfort, for connection, for knowledge about the world and ourselves.
What’s your reading resolution for 2016?
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
This year I didn’t read anything obscure and I didn’t read any beloved classics either (Sorry, David Copperfield, let’s try for 2016). I read what everyone else was reading or had recently read because I kept getting seduced by everyone else’s enthusiasm. Not that I minded. I don’t care about your Hamilton (that’s a musical, right?), or your Gilmore Girls reboot (that’s a TV show, right?), but I can get down with some passionate book-love.
At the beginning of the year I read The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer, which was a 2013 National Book Award winner. It’s a big, serious nonfiction book, and I try to read at least one big, serious nonfiction book a year so that I can perform better at dinner parties and also win arguments with people’s dads. I’ve always enjoyed Packer’s writing for The New Yorker, but I wasn’t prepared for how moving and informative his book would be. It follows a diverse cross-section of Americans, from a lobbyist in Washington D.C. to a community organizer in Youngstown, Ohio, to crazy-ass Peter Thiel of Twitter (guys, he wants to live forever and is seriously researching his options!) Packer synthesizes these personal, particular narratives into a larger story about our changing, wounded country in the wake of the 2008 recession, and traces how we got here, beholden to lobbyists, big money, and Wall Street. This book slew me. Despite that fact that it’s nearly all narrative, with little analysis, for a few weeks after finishing it, I had a hard time returning to fiction — oh silly dialogue! oh fake people! (I remember the same thing happened after I finished Behind The Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo a couple of years earlier.)
And then I got pregnant, which brought me back to the indelible fact of my body: its hormones, its capacity to feel nauseated and tired and to cry through every interview on Fresh Air. I needed certain books (specifically novels) for this state of affairs. Such as: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. This wasn’t my favorite book of the year, but it did me in like no other. It made me sob next to my husband and son on a cross country flight until I had a headache, and it reminded me that fiction devastates in a way that nonfiction does not, because it’s only the imagined world that’s able to get inside an inner life. And burrow there.
A Little Life is also the only novel in recent memory that I both loved and hated; I agree with everyone who calls it a masterpiece, and I also agree with fellow staff writer Lydia Kiesling, who in her review calls it a “self-important sort of melodrama.” Regarding the novel’s structure, Lydia remarks: “Moments and decades pass with these disorienting leaps, in a way that, like much about this novel, hovered right on the border between something that felt deliberate and interesting, and something that felt bungling.” I concur. And yet. A novel that puzzles me this much is truly worthy.
In my second trimester, I read and reviewed Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. I have read all of Groff’s novels, and each one is better than the last, which gives me vicarious hope for my own puny literary pursuits. I get the sense that Groff is always looking for new ways to tell stories, to show time passing, to express human longing, shame, desire, need, all without succumbing to the same-old conventions of scenic conflict and cause-and-effect. Plus, her prose is so shining and unexpected she could describe getting her license renewed at the DMV and I’d find it compelling.
In my third trimester, I read and loved The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante, the last (and, in my mind, the strongest) of her Neopolitan novels. Midway through the book, I thought, These books are so…female. I feel like…I’m sucking on a tampon. I realize this probably isn’t the most enticing endorsement, but it’s true: never before have I read a series of books that captures so vividly the lived experience of being a woman. Ferrante writes fiction that feels as real as the body I’m in, as real as my family who needs me, as real as my ambitions and my failures. It’s passionate and messy and necessary.
In the final days of my pregnancy, I struggled to find books that complemented my scattered state of mind. The Folded Clock, Heidi Julavits’s deceptively artful diary, the entries of which are rearranged so as not to be chronological, reflected and validated my days of anticipation and boredom. The diary’s breezy tone belies the craft of each entry; a few reminded me of Lydia Davis’s best stories, where the profundity sneaks up on you in the final line, having secretly gathered energy by a series of previous associations and matter-of-fact details. One entry, for instance, ends with Julavits recounting what she calls an “irksome” situation where she had to soothe her crying son when she’d rather be doing something else:
I must remember to do this when I am seventy. I must remember to find a rock that feels exactly like my son’s four-year-old back. I must remember to close my eyes and imagine that I am me again, a tired mother trying to teach herself how to miss what is not gone.
My son is also four. I’ve had this same thought. I was so grateful to have it articulated here, by a talented writer. Sometimes that’s all we require: to see ourselves reflected on the page.
The day after I finished this book, I gave birth to my daughter. May my next year bring as many gifts as this year has.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
The first book I remember reading this year was an advance copy of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, handed to me by my friend Amanda. I had a six-month-old baby, and Amanda and I had both, coincidentally, just moved from New York to Portland. I am sure I’d read things in the first six months of my son’s life, but I don’t remember any of them. I think mostly I tweeted and Googled paranoid things late at night. She pressed this book to me and I read it on a car ride out to the Oregon coast, baby napping in his car seat. At first it made me mad, all the theory getting in the way of what I really wanted, THE LIFE OF MAGGIE. She is one of those people for me, writers who I want to cross all boundaries with, writers from whom I ask too much. She makes me want more than, as a reader, I deserve. She already gives us more than we deserve. It isn’t fair. I read about how she put a laminated copy of her Guggenheim fellowship announcement (given to her by her mother) under her son’s high chair to catch everything he tossed, and my heart soared. I got used to the theory, came to love it. I read the book a few times over. Then I read Bluets again. Then I ordered The Art of Cruelty, and was told we already owned a copy. Actually I put it on the stoop before we left New York. It was a galley, I rationalized. But really, that book makes me mad. It’s hard to get into and it isn’t Bluets — this is how unfair I am to Maggie. I always call her Maggie in my mind. Anyway, in my newly regained readerly flush I paid for this book and it’s still on my nightstand. I haven’t been able to get through the first few pages. I am an apostate, I know it. Still, though, I think of this as the year of Maggie Nelson, for the world and, more specifically, for me. She brought me back into loving reading.
I read Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness soon after, the Graywolf one-two punch of 2015, but it just made me want to reread Manguso’s book The Two Kinds of Decay, which is such a mean thing to say, I know. Anyway I did reread it, in the mornings before settling into writing for a few weeks. Reading someone else’s book during the work day feels like the ultimate indulgence to me. It makes me anxious, but then the words, the voice, the confidence (if it’s the right book) soothe it, too. I’m not sure it serves as anything more than a more virtuous, exciting way to procrastinate. Even still: Grace Paley, Nora Ephron, Manguso, they all put the voice back in my head, helped settle the whirling panic and reform it into something more confident and at ease. I felt like they were the band playing me in.
When a certain ferocity was needed, I listened to Sylvia Plath read her own work on Spotify. Afterward, I started reading parts of her journal. Her mundane anxiety about publishing her work, applying to residencies, and walking to the mailbox looking for checks is what made me put it down. Not today, Sylvia. Not today. Same goes for Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born. And Paula Bomer’s Baby & Other Stories. I recommend these in a certain state of mind, when you can handle them. It’s important to know when you can’t. This is a skill I’ve yet to master.
If it was the year of Maggie Nelson, for me, it was also the year of Heidi Julavits. She’s “Heidi J” to me and my writer-reader friends, because we refer to her constantly. Her book The Folded Clock came out in earlyish spring and this book and iced coffee were about all I saw on Instagram, and all I cared to see. At first I thought it was the Leanne Shapton cover, but it goes deeper. It’s a book that seems effortless, which means it was brilliantly engineered. The kind of book that makes you happy to have to wait somewhere, because you have it in your totebag; happy to go to bed early so you can sit up reading it. I saw Heidi J read one night at Powell’s and my friend and I left immediately to get a drink. She was so funny, so charming, so effortlessly beautiful (like her writing!), we sat in the car sighing. “Her kids are older right?” Right. She makes me excited to be a decade older, to be more settled into life, to work my ass off and to know myself. This, and the hidden work of the book, is its power.
On the occasion of Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City being published, and a friend texting me photos of random pages of Gornick’s backlist, I said, Fine, and ordered a bunch of her books from Powell’s. I’d read her best book, Fierce Attachments on a road trip a few years ago; I was 30 weeks pregnant and the bookstore owner confessed she was pregnant, too. When she sighed and proclaimed her love for the book as she rung up my purchase, I knew it was brought to me by fate. We became friends and I sent her a box full of baby clothes. I read the rest of Gornick’s books this year like they were the key to something, though none of them touches Fierce Attachments. The End of The Novel of Love felt a lot like a brilliant incisive woman writing on Tumblr, full of the sort of projection and assumption and familiarity that is absent from more traditional criticism. In other words, I loved it. The Situation and the Story was that kind of clarifying reading experience where the clarity might be a delusion but at least you have the confidence, the reassurance, of clarity. Months later I couldn’t tell you what I took from The Situation and The Story aside from that mental cheering and gratitude for a book coming into your life at the exact right time you think you need it (for me, I was finishing a nonfiction book proposal). The Odd Woman And The City itself seemed sharp and funny and a little sad. Did it ever really cohere? Transcend? I’m not sure, but I am grateful to have spent time inside her head.
After that, propelled forward by fate, the final Neapolitan novel from Elena Ferrante was coming out, so I finally GAVE IN and bought the first two books, My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name. My initial reaction was something like, “What is this shit, enough with these dolls!” But then I got sucked into what was one of the most satisfying reading experiences of my life. I finished these books in the course of a few days, stopping only to drive to the bookstore one late afternoon, cursing myself for not buying all of them at once. When I finished all four I was bereft. I was mad at Ferrante. I thought she screwed up the ending. Really, I was mad it was over.
I didn’t read anything for awhile, or nothing memorable. How do you follow Ferrante? After a few weeks of false starts and Googling furiously to try and figure out Ferrante’s secret identity, I found my cure: Barbara Comyns. I knew of her from an Emily Books pick: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, brilliantly reissued by The Dorothy Project, and still unread by me. I have learned in my time as a reader that the writers Emily Books publishes will always be the ones people come to be obsessed with, even if it takes, regrettably, a few years. Elena Ferrante! Eve Babitz! Ellen Willis. Eileen Myles. Those are just the people whose names start with E, for fuck’s sake. Renata Adler! Nell Zink! I could go on. Resistance is foolish.
All this to say Barbara Comyns’s Our Spoons Came From Woolworths got me out of my own head and onto the couch for three hours, reading this in one setting after my son went to bed. Her voice is sui generis and I goddamn love her. She reminded me of a thing that Emily Gould — who along with Ruth Curry started Emily Books, and who also not coincidentally wrote the introduction to the edition of the book I was reading — told me once when I was having a crisis of confidence. Okay, a crisis of jealousy. She said something like, with regard to writing, it’s useless to be jealous because, “No one can ever be better than you are at being you.” No one else can be better than Comyns is at being Comyns, that is no one can write like Comyns, so I ordered her book The Vet’s Daughter and inhaled that one, too. I need more.
As the year comes to an end, this is all I want, to read books that aren’t the key to anything except themselves. Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare made me sad and anxious. I am waiting for David Copperfield to come in the mail.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
“Yes, sir, 45 boxes over the original moving estimate.”
“How much is that going to cost?”
“Well, the revised estimate adds another 1,000 pounds, so $450.”
“But that’s just a weight estimate. It could be a lot less depending on what’s in them. They could be filled with pillows for instance. What is in them?”
Many were filled with books, hundreds of them. And if the mover was to believed, they weighed about half a ton: the approximate weight of my knowledge.
I had packed all of the books into two types of freely acquired boxes: those labeled “Adult Brief for Incontinence (Moderate Absorbency),” which my wife brought home from a hospital; and a colorful array picked up at our local liquor store, everything from Ciroc Red Berry to Kinky Blue Liqueur, a versatile concoction which doubles as an aphrodisiac and a window cleaner.
I thought about packing thematically, sorting my volumes by intoxicant. The Russians would go with the vodkas, the Irish with the whiskeys, Germans with the beers, the French with the cognacs, and those few authors whom I knew personally, along with William Faulkner, with the beloved bourbons.
It would be trickier to decide whom to put in the adult diaper boxes. Definitely the Victorians, fussy as they are, but also those darkly comic authors who would appreciate their absurd fate — Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, and Philip Roth. I’d toss Jonathan Franzen in too, just for fun.
In the end, laziness prevailed and I freely mixed nationalities and genres in whatever booze or diaper box had room. Looking at the stacked assortment waiting to be hauled north, I wondered how I had backslid so spectacularly.
Before my last big move, from California to North Carolina about five years ago, I had unloaded most of my book-hoard — I prefer this Old English construction to “library” or “collection,” both of which don’t quite capture the thrilling chaos of that word-treasure spread over my shelves, coffee tables, floors, bathrooms, and car.
Lined up for inspection as I was deciding which volumes to sell, the books stood tall, proudly baring their spines even as their pages must have trembled. My decisions were swift and pitiless; one must be heartless to enter an era of biblio-austerity. But I take heart that of all the books I eventually sold back then, I can remember, and thus regret, only one: C.S. Lewis’s Studies in Words. For a person who loved books, I was actually relieved to have unburdened myself of them.
After the purge, my book-hoard was whittled down to a few boxes to be shipped via media mail.
“Now to get the media mail rate there can only be books in here,” explained the suspicious postal clerk as she watched me hoist the boxes onto the counter.
“If we open it up and find even a toothbrush, we’ll charge you the full rate.”
(Had she divined my scheme to defraud the post office by cheaply shipping dental supplies, or was she bluffing?)
“Got it,” I replied, despite the realization that I had actually thrown a non-media mail object in with my Norton anthologies — not a toothbrush but an armless Hideki Matsui bobblehead doll. (It made it through undetected.)
Those several dozen books transported from the West Coast multiplied over the years to fill 45 some-odd boxes, proving that the greatest fiction is that book lovers can reform.
I had tried to downsize before this latest move as well. Sure, I granted a reprieve to all my old favorites and recently received Christmas gifts, as well as those books I hadn’t yet cracked open and had no immediate plans to. As recounted by Walter Benjamin, Anatole France was once asked whether he had read all the books in his library. He responded, “Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sèvres china every day?” No indeed, and I won’t take my illustrated copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey out of its cover until I’m good and ready.
But many books did go into the “sell pile.” First were Finding the Right Words, 101 Ways to Say Thank You and Great Letters for Every Occasion, which my college roommate had sent me as a joke after I admitted that I enjoyed penning “Thank You” notes. Next in were a few Peter Carey paperbacks, John Banville’s Benjamin Black mysteries and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which made the cut five years ago, but not this time, and plenty more. On a roll, I even tried to throw in my wife’s pristine and eminently resalable copy of Wild — twice. She made it clear that if it happened again, Stevenson’s donkey might wander off as well.
I took the carful to a used book store, where the clerk instructed me to wait as he sorted the books into two piles — one he wouldn’t buy and the other he’d buy for a pittance. For a bibliophile, this period is especially dangerous, akin to an alcoholic trying to dry out in a Kinky Blue Liqueur distillery. If you must browse to pass the time, I recommend confining yourself to the least tempting section, for me “Spirituality” or “Business.” Then plug your ears when the clerk offers you a figure for store credit, which can be twice as high as the cash offer. Always take the cash.
The most desirable stuff having been picked clean, I went to another store in the area, selling some of my remaining wares to a less discriminating buyer for $24 in trade. (I know what I just said, but what’s one more hardcover?)
I still had a box of unwanted books left, including a copy of David Copperfield with increasingly embarrassing marginalia from the times I had read it in high school, college, and graduate school; some tattered mysteries; a comedic romance with a moose on the cover; Anatomy flashcards; and those three indispensable treatises on writing the perfect “Thank You” note. Over the next couple days I distributed these among a local coffee shop, the library donation bin, and my apartment complex clubhouse, disposing of the dismembered corpus of rejected texts so as to leave no trace of its owner.
However, as the moving estimate made clear, I hadn’t really made a dent. And thus, here I am in a new home, resolving once more to reform my book-hoarding ways. Unlikely, especially with Politics & Prose, Kramerbooks, and Capitol Hill Books nearby. Luckily, my movers made my task a little easier. As if sensing that I was a recidivist, they took it upon themselves to smash one of my bookshelves to pieces in transit. Message received.
They also blithely informed me that they had broken my writing desk as well, which I chose to take as a sign of their carelessness rather than a pointed criticism of my work.
The books, all 45 boxes of them, naturally survived the move unscathed.
Image Credit: pixshark.
It’s a tricky thing, success. How do you write a book to follow your own breakout novel, a title that leapt off shelves and became a phenomenon? That’s a good problem to have, but a challenge nonetheless.
It was the challenge for Christos Tsiolkas after his fourth book, The Slap. It came out in 2008 (2010 in the U.S.), a doorstopper of a novel that told of the fallout from a backyard barbecue where a man slaps someone else’s child. Winning critical acclaim, it sold 1.2 million copies worldwide and made the author a household name in his own country, Australia. Asked if he saw that coming, Tsiolkas has said, “Fuck no…I’d have been happy if it had been 10,000 copies.”
Tsiolkas’s answer to his quandary was to confront the potential for failure head-on. He did that by making it the theme of his fifth and latest novel. Thus we get Barracuda, released this month in the U.S. It’s the story of Danny Kelly, the son of working class Scots-Irish and Greek parents and a promising swimmer at a public school in Melbourne. His talent gets him a free ride at a school he dubs “Cunts College” (it’s all prefects, grand stone buildings, and kids from leafy suburbs). And his talent could take him much further, to golden boy status and the Olympic Games. Except things don’t go according to plan, and failure in the pool is only the beginning of a spectacular fall from grace.
This is a truly fine novel, for reasons I’ll come to shortly. It’s also a great page-turner, drawing a reader in as it alternates between the schoolboy Danny and his older self, an ex-con who lives with the shame of unspeakable past acts. Older Danny (now “Dan”) doesn’t like to swim; he won’t even tell his lover, a Glaswegian named Clyde, that he was a swimmer once. Exactly what has happened Tsiolkas withholds, although he scatters clues like crumbs: “How the very word — swimmer — could lacerate, could remind him of how far he had fallen.”
Young Danny trains like mad and asserts himself by winning. He becomes inseparable from Martin, his waspy rival-come-friend. After winning at nationals (in the under-16s freestyle), he gets a standing ovation from the same schoolboys who initially despised him. Then it’s on to victory in the men’s butterfly. Next up, it’s the Pan Pacific Games in Fukuoka, Japan. Danny is there revealed as an Icarus figure: unaware of his own hubris, he crashes and burns. Later he sinks to the savage act that is the fulcrum of the story and only afterward perceives that his task is to become — quoting David Copperfield, a novel he reads in prison — “the hero of my own life”.
Tsiolkas has crafted a faultless voice for Danny. It’s tersely unpretentious but not without flights of beauty. This makes for taut, sensuous prose, as when Danny disregards his coach’s advice to focus on butterfly, not freestyle: “He knew he could conquer both strokes, it was inside him, it was a revelation written inside him, inked over his muscles, imprinted in his brain, etched into his soul.”
Where The Slap had an ensemble cast and Tolstoy-esque ambitions — it sought to render the whole milieu of the multiethnic, suburban Melbourne that is Tsiolkas’s heartland — Barracuda trains its sights firmly on Danny Kelly. Even so, all the characters are vividly drawn. Especially so Danny’s parents, the rockabilly hairdresser mother who shaves her son’s body hair and the truck-driver father with a social conscience. (“This fucking country,” he says. “There’s no money for health and education, nothing for the arts, but we shovel a shitload to sports.”) The set pieces sparkle with a dangerous brilliance: the weekend at Martin’s Portsea beach house where Danny faces off against a tyrannous, rich grandmother; the opening night of the Sydney Olympics when he tries to avoid the broadcast and the jingoistic hype but ends up glued to the window of a television store.
It’s worth mentioning the sex as there’s a fair dose in the book — Danny’s awakening in prison, then his relationship with Clyde. This is nothing new for Tsiolkas; a passage of Dead Europe, his third novel, was once shortlisted for The Guardian’s bad sex award. Actually, in Barracuda, the sex is worlds better than it was in The Slap, which had a racy tone that at times felt almost lewd, rather like the pervy bits in a Jonathan Franzen novel. (To give an example, Aisha’s dalliance at a conference abroad was as confected as anything in a bodice-ripper.) Barracuda feels truer and, well, tenderer, even when Danny philosophizes on “getting fucked up the arse.” Witness his description of his lover’s skin as being like “the tint of the last days of a leaf in autumn, the dark of ground just touched by rain.”
In the end, it’s not sex but class that gives Danny the greater trouble. Sexuality matters here, but Tsiolkas doesn’t spell out how. That he largely leaves aside questions of coming out is a mark of self-assurance in how he tells this story (he has said that in writing Barracuda he was coming to terms with his own class treachery). This confidence and ease is evident everywhere in the novel; Tsiolkas does not over-explain. We might or might not know that the “stinky TWU t-shirt” worn by Danny’s dad marks him as a member of the transport workers’ union. It might or might not register that the extravagant birthday gift for Martin’s grandmother is a painting by Joy Hester, an Australian modernist. It won’t matter because we feel we know these people.
Of course, Tsiolkas has made this book intensely Australian. The fact that he puts Danny at the Pan Pacifics — the games that mark the peak of his swimming career — brings to mind those different Pan Pacifics once conjured by Baz Luhrmann, in his first film, Strictly Ballroom (1992). There, the sport was ballroom dancing and working class Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio) shook things up by dancing the pasodoble with a girl from a Spanish family. Tsiolkas’s Pan Pacific reference could be a nod to Luhrmann or it could be no such thing, but, like the film, Barracuda combines sharp social portraiture with that rare ingredient, a story that speaks to the human condition.
In writing this review, I read the book a second time. I had first read it at Christmas, tearing through it in two days; the novel came out late last year in Australia. Precisely because it is so gripping, it is possible on first reading not to notice just how skillful it is, how intricate the plot and the successive revelations, how deft the handling of point of view and tense.
I am glad I read it again and noticed all these things and more. The experience convinced me of what I had felt initially: this is not only Tsiolkas’s best novel so far, it is the work of a writer at the top of his game. That’s no small success for a book about failure.
In an 1883 article from Popular Science, Dr. Felix Oswald expounds on the remedies of nature. Mingled with imperatives about taking cold baths before dinner and opening bedroom windows at night is this pearl: “At the first symptoms of indigestion, book-keepers, entry-clerks, authors, and editors should get a telescope-desk. Literary occupations need not necessarily involve sedentary habits, though, as the alternative of a standing-desk, I should prefer a Turkish writing-tablet and a square yard of carpet-cloth to squat upon.”
The Turkish writing tablet never quite took off, but the standing desk, over a century later, has entered its heyday. It’s changing the cubicle skyline of corporate America, the open-plan shared workspaces of the startup world, and the studios and work nooks of thousands of writers across the country.
Facebook reportedly has about 350 standing desks, with another 10-15 requests coming in each week from employees. The desk manufacturer Steelcase began selling height-adjustable desks in 2004. Since then, sales have increased fivefold. Its clients include Apple, Google, Intel, Boeing, and Allstate.
As a novelist with a day job in the high-tech world, I see standing desks popping up all around me. They range from jerrybuilt towers of books with balanced flat-screen monitors to ergonomic masterpieces with whisper-quiet hydraulic systems. A friend of mine who writes for Rolling Stone stacks several reams of paper on his conventional desk and perches his laptop there. My boss, a digital marketing director who’s a little under five feet tall and comes to work in heels, has a sleek model from Varidesk and an inch of cushioning foam at her feet. She spends most of her days sitting in meetings, so she relishes the forays back to her desk to check emails. She claims that standing helps her concentrate and sleep better at night.
According to recent studies, the health risks of sitting for prolonged periods of time are significant. After an hour of sitting, the production of enzymes that burn fat in the body decline by as much as 90 percent, thereby slowing overall metabolism. Interestingly, while the scientific data around the perils of sitting is better today than it was in 1883, the year of the Popular Science article, the reason people stand to work are largely the same — they feel more energized and compelled by the task in front of them, whether it’s editing a novel or a spreadsheet.Winston Churchill at his standing desk.
For writers, the standing desk has a long and prestigious lineage. It’s often seen as a workhorse of productivity and inspiration. Great novels and speeches, treaties and philosophical tracts, have all been written at the height of the sternum. Kierkegard, Dickens, Hemingway, Woolf, Nabokov, Churchill, and Thomas Jefferson all used them. Though, to be fair, they weren’t always faithful to their tall desks. Churchill sometimes liked to lie in bed, propped up on pillows, when he was working on a speech or manuscript. And Jefferson liked to use a lap desk on occasion. But it’s hard to imagine either politician producing their most muscular prose while reclining. Surely “We shall fight on the beaches” and the original draft of the Declaration of Independence were written from behind slanting, adjustable desktops. Jefferson’s standing desk even had two extra legs to keep him anchored during his mental heights.
Mrs. Dalloway was written at a standing desk. So was David Copperfield. The 19th-century novelist Elizabeth Gaskell noted the layout of Dickens’s study: “…books all round, up to the ceiling and down to the ground; a standing-desk at which he writes; and all manner of comfortable easy chairs.” In the 20th century, Quentin Bell, Woolf’s nephew and biographer, wrote that she “had a desk standing about three feet six inches high with a sloping top; it was so high that she had to stand at her work.” It’s often said that Woolf treated an emerging manuscript like a painter’s canvas, that she liked to step away from the work to consider it from new angles.Hemingway at his improvised standing desk in Cuba.
Hemingway’s standing desk was perhaps the crudest of them all — a set of bookshelves with a typewriter perched on top.
In a 1954 Paris Review interview with Hemingway, George Plimpton begins by describing the writer’s workspace in Cuba:
“He has a special workroom prepared for him in a square tower at the southwest corner of the house, but prefers to work in his bedroom, climbing to the tower room only when “characters” drive him up there…The room is divided into two alcoves by a pair of chest-high bookcases that stand out into the room at right angles from opposite walls…It is on the top of one of these cluttered bookcases — the one against the wall by the east window and three feet or so from his bed — that Hemingway has his “work desk”—a square foot of cramped area hemmed in by books on one side and on the other by a newspaper-covered heap of papers, manuscripts, and pamphlets.”
Nabokov, like Churchill and Jefferson, knew the value of standing to write, but he also knew when to sit down. In Brian Boyd’s Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years the famous writer’s afternoon routine is delineated:
“Nabokov would be back at his desk by one-thirty and work steadily until six-thirty. Normally he would have started the day in ‘the vertical position of vertebrate thought,’ standing ‘at a lovely old-fashioned lectern I have in my study. Later on, when I feel gravity nibbling at my calves, I settle down in a comfortable armchair alongside an ordinary writing desk; and finally, when gravity begins climbing up my spin, I lie down on a couch in a corner of my small study.”
Philip Roth also uses a lectern, at least he did until he publically announced that he was retiring from writing. In the documentary Philip Roth: Unmasked, we see the writer at his standing desk — one at his Connecticut hideaway in the woods and another in his Upper West Side work studio. The lectern is kept at right angles to the view, presumably to avoid distraction. Roth has said that he paces about half a mile for every page he writes.Philip Roth at his lectern. Credit: Nancy Crampton
Despite the undeniable health benefits and the pedigree of the standing desk, there’s something about the seated desk that’s hard to give up. For one thing, it has deeper drawers and recesses for hoarding stationery and curios. The Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, has collected a number of famous desks over the years, including ones that belonged to Edgar Allan Poe, Compton MacKenzie, and John Fowles. In 2008, when John Fowles’s widow shipped her husband’s archive and desk to the Ransom Center, she left the entire contents of the desk intact. For sheer variety, it’s hard to beat what’s tucked inside the Fowles’s much-loved desk, its left drawer marked with scrawled addresses and phone numbers in the author’s hand.
A set of blue labels with white string ties
A box of staples
A Richards Sheffield pocketknife
Four pairs of eyeglasses
An envelope of dried seeds
Two canisters containing typewriter ribbons
A tin of pastels
A paper fan
Swedish and Greek coins
A leather dice shaker
A pair of medical scissors
A set of brass knuckles
The list goes on. For every five practical items, like a box of staples, there is something enigmatic, like the set of brass knuckles. Given that fiction involves the careful selection of details that are concrete, sensory, and significant, Fowles’s desk is a microcosm of the writing enterprise itself. It contains worlds.
The standing desk, on the other hand, is less capacious and sentimental. There’s very little room to store abandoned manuscripts, rejection letters, or knickknacks. Distractions are kept to a minimum. It’s taller, sleeker, and less hospitable than its slouchier cousin. In the way that it mimics a lectern, a podium, or a drafting table, it reminds the writer that this activity requires blood, enzymes, and exertion. Here is your novel, spread out like a map or a campaign speech. Here are your poems, arranged like blueprints. Pace, stamp your feet, fold your arms, but stay upright. Stand there like it’s the prow of a ship.
Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.
“Oh, March, come right upstairs with me,” beckoned Emily Dickinson. “I have so much to tell.” She liked March: it brings, she wrote, a light like no other time of the year, a color “that science cannot overtake / But human nature feels.” But she also knew the dangers of the life that March’s thaw awakens: when the “snows come hurrying in from the hills” they can flood the banks of that “Brook in your heart” that “nobody knows.”
We don’t know quite what to do with March. We’re excited and frightened by its power and variability. Do we really think that the lion it comes in as can lie down with the lamb it becomes? It seems appropriate that halfway between the month’s two ends, where the lion and lamb meet, are the ides of March, full of Shakespeare’s storms and portents. Julius Caesar, set in middle March, even contains one of each of the month’s mascots: a “surly” lion, strolling unnaturally through Rome, and Brutus, who describes himself as a “lamb / That carries anger as the flint bears fire.”
Oddly, the best-known novels with “March” in their titles have nothing to do with the month: Middlemarch, though it sounds like a synonym for the day of Caesar’s death, refers to a town, not a time. (It’s really a fall book more than anything.) And in 2006, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction went to Geraldine Brooks’s March, about the March girls’ absent father in Little Women, while one of the finalists it beat out, E. L. Doctorow’s The March, already the winner of the NBCC and PEN/Faulkner prizes, is the story of Sherman’s sweep through the South, which took place in the fall, not the spring of 1864.
Here is a selection of recommended reading for a moody month:
Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare (1599)
There may be no literary character more famously forewarned than this would-be emperor, who, in his own play, is spoken of far more than he speaks himself and dies halfway through the action, on March 15.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1847)
In the early morning of March 20, a “puny, seven months’ child” named Catherine is born; later that morning her sickly mother, Catherine, dies, and her true love, Heathcliff, dashes his savage brow against a tree in fury and sorrow. Sixteen years later, young Cathy celebrates her birthday with a ramble on the moors, where she meets that same Heathcliff and Brontë’s tightly wound drama turns inward once again.
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (1850)
On a Friday in March at the stroke of midnight, the widow Copperfield bears a son into “a world not at all excited about his arrival,” thereby beginning — with “all that David Copperfield kind of crap” — Dickens’s favorite of his novels, and his most personal.
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (1870)
Celebrate the Southern Hemisphere’s autumnal equinox with Captain Nemo, who unfurls a black flag bearing a golden N and claims the Antarctic continent in his name before resuming the undersea peregrinations that are his fate: “Disappear, O radiant orb! Retire beneath this open sea, and let six months of night spread their shadows over my new domains!”
“A Scandal in Bohemia” by Arthur Conan Doyle (1891)
The first Sherlock Holmes story published in The Strand contains perhaps the most memorable day in Holmes’s career, a certain March 21 in which the detective finds himself outwitted by a diminutive opera singer and would-be blackmailer named Irene Adler, or, rather, as she becomes during the day, Mrs. Irene Norton, or, as Holmes begins to refer to her, “the woman.”
The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson (1941-45)
With the first stirrings of spring, set sail from Scandia in search of plunder with Red Orm and his restless Vikings on their yearly raids in Bengtsson’s epic, based on the Icelandic sagas but fully modern in its detached good humor.
Rabbit, Run by John Updike (1960)
Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom novels grew, a book at a time, into an unplanned epic with each book tied to a season. The first one begins, appropriately, in spring, with Rabbit still young enough to feel the aches of age for the first time.
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy (1961)
Binx Bolling’s story is set in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, which comes late that year, in March, but Binx does his best to avoid the hoo-ha, distracting himself instead by driving along the Gulf Coast with his secretaries and going to the movies, whose “peculiar reality” contrasts with the potent sense of unreality he’s burdened with.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume (1970)
Margaret Ann Simon’s twelfth birthday, on March 8, starts out perfect but ends up rotten. Sixth grade (or at least books about sixth grade) would never be the same.
Flight to Canada by Ishmael Reed (1976)
The novel’s final page claims it was finished a minute after midnight on Fat Tuesday in New Orleans, and it is certainly a book made for Carnival, upending history while never forgetting it in a gleefully anachronistic plot that puts Lincoln and Stowe alongside fugitive slave and poet Raven Quickskill and grant-funded “ethnic dancer” Princess Quaw Quaw Tralaralara.
The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt (2000)
To the classic March fictional birthdays above add that of six-year-old Ludo Newman, the precocious hero of DeWitt’s brilliant debut, an intellectual and emotional adventure worthy of comparison with Ludo and his mom’s favorite Kurosawa film, The Seven Samurai.
What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman (2007)
“The Bethany girls. Easter weekend. 1975.” Two sisters, one fifteen and one nearly twelve, took the bus to Security Square Mall in suburban Baltimore and never came back. Until thirty years later, when one returns in a twisty and character-rich mystery that holds a solution few of its survivors thought they’d live to see.
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver (2007)
The Kingsolver family chose to begin their “food sabbatical” — a year of living only on what they grew, or close to it — in late March, with the arrival of the first Virginia asparagus. By the following March they were looking forward to reclaiming a few imported luxuries in their diet but were otherwise well fed and gratifyingly educated by the acre that had sustained them.
Image via iowa_spirit_walker/Flickr
One such famously mischievous writer, J.M. Coetzee, does just that in his new novel, The Childhood of Jesus. After acclimating to Novilla, the hellishly placid utopia in which he has landed, Simón asks his friend and sometimes sexual companion, Elena, if, “hypothetically,” she would ever consider someone like him as a husband. Elena’s reply makes it clear that good citizens of Novilla are not prone to idle conjecture: “If that is your way of asking whether I would marry you, then the answer is yes, I would…When would you want to do it? Because the registry office is open only on weekdays. Can you get time off?”
In stripping the marriage proposal of any trace of romance, seduction, and emotion, The Childhood of Jesus spurred me to think about similarly uninspired literary declarations of love. These offers, always disappointing and often unacceptable, dispel the excitement implicit in the expression, “to pop the question,” which conveys how asking for someone’s hand in marriage is tied to a sense of surprise, and by extension, a narrative surrounding that surprise: an engagement story. If all proposers pale in comparison to Christopher Marlowe’s passionate shepherd, who tells his prospective bride quite the tale about the pleasures of Arcadian life, we nonetheless hope for something more memorable than Simón and Elena’s coolly rational courtship.
Then again, some proposals are perhaps better forgotten. The following unromantic, bizarre, poorly delivered or conceived proposals elicit reactions less like Molly Bloom’s orgasmically affirmative “yes I said yes I will Yes!” and more like this underwhelmed response to a lackluster offer in David Stacton’s A Fox Inside: “You might at least pretend…that I’m a person. After all, I move and talk like one the best way I can.”
Uriah Heep, the scheming, writhing, oleaginous villain of David Copperfield, demonstrates why asking a potential bride’s father for permission is risky. Heep has already wriggled his way into Mr. Wickfield’s house and business, partly by encouraging the latter’s dipsomaniac tendencies, when he decides to go after Wickfield’s daughter: “I’ve an ambition to make your Agnes my Agnes.” The dissolute father doesn’t take the news particularly well: “He was mad for the moment; tearing out his hair, beating his head…not answering a word, not looking at or seeing any one; blindly striving for he knew not what, his face all staring and distorted — a frightful spectacle.” Heep’s ambitions — marital and professional — go unfulfilled, but not before Wickfield has voiced what many a prospective father-in-law might wish to: “But look at him!…Look at my torturer.”
While the variously insulting, ridiculous, and romantic marriage proposals directed towards Elizabeth Bennett are well known, Jane Austen’s Persuasion boasts of its own, subtler failed bid. Anne Elliot, despite the “early loss of bloom and spirits,” receives a sly proposal in the midst of a party from her cousin, the dashing but unscrupulous Mr. Elliot: “The name of Anne Elliot…has long had an interesting sound to me. Very long has it possessed a charm over my fancy; and if I dared, I would breathe my wishes that the name might never change.” Pretty smooth as far as cousin-to-cousin proposals go, but to his misfortune Anne gets distracted by hearing someone utter the name of her true love, Wentworth, “which rendered every thing else trivial.” Unlike other characters in this novel of second chances, Mr. Elliot misses his only shot, and his ignored avowal raises an interesting philosophical question: if a proposal falls on deaf ears, is it still a proposal?
Tom Sharpe’s The Great Pursuit treats us to a proposal scene considerably raunchier than a Regency tea party. A literary agent, Frensic, is hunting down the anonymous author of Pause O Men for the Virgin, an “odyssey of lust” that goes into “exquisitely nauseating detail” about the affair between a teenage boy and an octogenarian woman. Frensic eventually locates the manuscript’s typist, Cynthia, whom he must seduce in order to get vital information about her secret client. The problem is that Frensic isn’t in great shape: “Driven frantic by Cynthia’s omnivorous sexuality he had proposed to the woman. It had seemed in his whisky-sodden state the only defense against a fatal coronary and a means of getting her to tell him who had sent her Pause.” Frensic’s quick-thinking proposal proves yet again that the heart wants what the heart wants, which is first and foremost to avoid a myocardial infarction.
Alcohol can hurt or hinder a swain’s cause. Whisky spurs Frensic to action, but in William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, overindulging in punch disables Becky Sharp’s suitor and gives rise to one baggy monster of a novel. Or as Thackeray puts it: “That bowl of rack punch was the cause of all this history.” Becky has devoted all of her considerable charms in her attempt to get Jos Sedley, the longwinded “ex-collector of Boggley Wollah” to propose. A Vauxhall party provides a propitious setting to settle the matter, until Jos singlehandedly gulps down an entire bowl of rack punch. The effects are initially stimulating to Jos’s connubial urge, as the “fat gourmand” drunkenly resolves to wake up the Archbishop of Canterbury the next morning and marry Becky, but as the world-wise Thackeray informs us: “Oh, ignorant young creatures! How little do you know the effect of rack punch! What is the rack in the punch, at night, to the rack in the head of a morning?” Mortified by his orgiastic outburst, Jos decamps and leaves Becky to make her way through Vanity Fair unescorted.
Yet another English satirist, Evelyn Waugh, sets his black comedy, The Loved One, in Los Angeles, the “quiet limit of the world.” The slim novel presents a classic “Jamesian problem” of American innocence and European experience. In Waugh’s hands, however, there are distinctly un-Jamesian touches: an open-casket funeral of a parrot, a crapulous advice columnist named Guru Brahmin, and an acrid perfume, Jungle Venom, extracted “from the depths of the fever-ridden swamp.” Denis Barlow, a cash-strapped British poet, learns that his memorably named paramour, Aimée Thanatogenos, receives a promotion to become the new female embalmer at Whispering Glades, a funeral parlor featuring mausoleums that are replicas of European edifices. To a European man with no American prejudices about living off his wife, Aimee’s promotion means one thing: “Fifty [dollars a week] is pretty good. We could get married on that.” When Aimee rightly asks why she should marry him, he responds with English aplomb: “Why, my dear girl, it’s only money that has been holding me back. Now you can keep me, there’s nothing to stop us.” Not exactly “Come live with me and be my love,” but amidst the ersatz structures at the “mecca of replicates” that is Whispering Glades, honesty counts for something.
How best to goad one’s partner into proposing is an open debate, but as far as blunt ultimatums go, it’s hard to beat Emma Bovary’s from “The Kugelmass Episode.” In Woody Allen’s classic New Yorker story, a magical box can transfer characters in and out of fictional worlds. Just throw an old paperback in and a reader is free to disport with a character of his or her choice. Kugelmass, an unhappily married humanities professor on the lookout for a discreet affair, shrewdly chooses a pre-Rodolphe Emma Bovary to seduce. He eventually brings her back with him to New York and installs her in the Plaza, but when transporter breaks, Emma voices her expectations with Flaubertian precision: “Get me back into the novel or marry me…”
For those seeking to exploit the romantic potential of rodents, Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm is an invaluable guide. In this classic comic novel about yokel relatives, Flora Poste travels from London to stay with the Starkadder clan, among them Urk, a “little, red, hard-bitten man with foxy ears” who once pushed his cousin down a well, and Elfine, a “shy dryad” with a love of poetry and a hatred of houses. Flora grooms Elfine to catch the eye of the local squire, which infuriates Urk, who has long ago, and indelibly, marked her as his: “I put a cross in water-vole’s blood on her feedin’-bottle when she was an hour old, to mark her for mine, and held her up so’s she might see it and know she was mine.” Given this gruesome engagement, it is safe to say that the matriarch Ada Doom saw something nasty in the nursery as well as in the woodshed.
We move from water-voles to “The Monkey,” Isak Dinesen’s story about the aversion of humans and animals to literal and figurative cages (matrimony included). To say that Dinesen’s gothic tale is a marriage plot orchestrated by a demonic chimp only captures some of its lurid weirdness. Briefly, an urbane prioress plots to marry her homosexual nephew to a local nobleman’s daughter, Athena, “a strong young woman of eighteen, six feet high and broad in proportion, with a pair of shoulders which could lift and carry a sack of wheat.” After Athena rejects the proposal, the Prioress hatches a brutal plan to compromise the young lady and force her into submission, which proves to be beyond her nephew’s sexual and combative powers (and costs him his two front teeth). Nonetheless, the Prioress eventually compels Athena to accept, but with one minor qualification: “I promise you I shall marry him. But, Madame my Aunt, when we are married, and whenever I can do so, I shall kill him. I came near to killing him last night, and he can tell you that.” One can only hope that Athena is allowed to write her own vows.
To conclude, a non-traditional proposal for a marriage of minds, or rather, of follies. In the first cliché in a book that feeds on them, Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet experience “love at first sight.” Meeting on a park bench, the two copy clerks cement their friendship over lengthy intellectual and political discussions, visits to Paris’s museums, and by sneaking into an Arabic class at the College de France, where the bemused professor notices “two strangers struggling to take notes.” After coming into some money, Bouvard unexpectedly proposes, or rather asserts, a new plan for the pair: “‘We are going to retire to the country!’ And this statement, which included his friend in his good fortune, struck Pécuchet as beautiful in its simplicity. For the union of these two men was deep and absolute.” Deep and absolute it better be, given the setbacks, frustrations, explosions, disasters, and disloyal servants that will strain that union as the two men pursue their unending studies and experiments.
For anyone mulling over whether to ask the big question via Jumbatron announcement, by conscripting a flash mob, or by reenacting my own clumsy efforts (turtle, horticultural maze), consider the proposal aesthetic espoused by Flaubert: It should be beautiful in its simplicity.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
What was Charles Dickens’s best novel? It depends whom you ask of course. G.K. Chesterton thought Bleak House represented the mature peak of Dickens’s skill as a novelist, although he went on to remark, “We can say more or less when a human being has come to his full mental growth, even if we go so far as to wish that he had never come to it.” This past February, on the occasion of Dickens’s 200th birthday, The Guardian put together this mesmerizing chart ranking 12 of Dickens’s 16 novels on a scale of most to least Dickensian. Bleak House came out first, Great Expectations was last, yet those two titles occupied the top two spots when Time issued its own Top-10 Dickens List for the Dickens bicentennial.
Searching for clarity, I decided to pose the question to a handful of leading Victorianists. In June, I sent out emails to select scholars asking them if they’d be interested in choosing a novel and making their case. I noted that of course there is no such thing as a singular best, and that really the exercise was meant to be fun. Just about everyone I reached out to was game. And, in recognition of how obsessive many Victorianists are about Dickens, one added that after debating his best novel, perhaps I’d be interested in curating a more esoteric discussion: Best Dickens character for a one night stand, or maybe which Dickens character you’d most like to have as your own child.
Saving those conversations for another day, here then are six impassioned, knowledgeable opinions on the topic of the best Dickens novel. I hope you’ll enjoy reading them, and that when you’re through, you’ll share your own views in the comments section.
1. Bleak House
Kelly Hager, Associate Professor of English and Women’s and Gender Studies, Simmons College
“Not to put too fine a point upon it,” as meek Mr. Snagsby is wont to say, Dickens’s best novel is Bleak House. It might not be everyone’s favorite (that honor might go to Dickens’s own “favourite child,” David Copperfield, or to the newly-relevant tale of a Victorian Bernie Madoff, Little Dorrit, or to that classic of 10th grade English, Great Expectations), but Bleak House is absolutely his best: in terms of plot, characters, pacing, social relevance, readability, and its possibilities for adaptation, just to cite some of its virtues.
The BBC’s 2005 version brought to the fore the pathos of the heroine Esther Summerson’s plight and the hypocrisy of the world that produced that plight. Brought up by a guardian (actually her aunt) who led her sister to believe that her (illegitimate) baby was born dead, Esther does not learn who her mother is, or even that she is alive, until she has been so disfigured by smallpox that she no longer poses the danger of incriminating her (now married and ennobled) mother by their resemblance. The scene of their first (and only) meeting is heart-rending but not maudlin, revealing just how far Dickens has moved beyond the sentimental portrayal of Little Nell’s deathbed (in The Old Curiosity Shop) and his precious depiction of the orphaned Oliver Twist. The emotions the scene calls up are honest, earned, poignant.
Similarly, the anger John Jarndyce feels at the Chancery suit that occupies the novel is not the self-righteous ire of those who uncover the educational abuses of Dotheboys Hall (in Nicholas Nickleby) or rail against the inequities of the law of divorce (in Hard Times), but the heartfelt anguish of a man who has seen friends and relatives destroyed by the red tape and bureaucracy of the Court of Chancery (a court that relies not on common law statutes but solely on precedents and was abolished in 1875). Dickens mounts a comparable attack on the aptly named Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit, where the important thing is to learn “how not to do it,” but there, the depiction is comic. He does the more difficult and subtle thing in Bleak House, relying not on humor but on sad case after sad case to reveal the evils of the system. He writes with empathy; he doesn’t poke easy fun. In Bleak House, written between two national epidemics of cholera, in 1849 and 1854, Dickens also draws attention to the need for sanitary reform (specifically for a regulated, clean supply of water for the public); Bleak House is, in fact, one of the earliest fictional engagements with the field of public health.
Engaged in social issues, moving, and full of characters we love (the unflappable army wife, Mrs. Bagnet; Jo, the crossing sweeper; Sir Leicester, Lady Dedlock’s loyal husband) and characters we love to hate (the selfish parents Mrs. Jellyby and Mr. Turveydrop; Vholes, the vampiric solicitor), Bleak House is Dickens at his very best.
2. Bleak House
Anna Henchman, Assistant Professor of English, Boston University, and author of The Starry Sky Within: Astronomy and the Reach of the Mind in Victorian Literature
Bleak House begins in sooty obscurity: swirls of fog, snowflakes black with grime, indistinguishable masses. Movement is circular — “slipping and sliding,” — without progress. The laws of this world are quickly established: There is rigid separation between classes. Characters are moving parts in a system that consumes them. Separate realms coexist with little contact with one another.
But then the novel explodes when gauche Mr. Guppy presumes to call on the cold Lady Dedlock. She agrees to see him, and even more strangely, betrays in his presence a quivering vulnerability, a longing to know that echoes our own perplexity as readers of this novel. “What connexion can there be between the place in Lincolnshire, the house in town, the Mercury with the powder, and the whereabout of Jo the outlaw with the broom…?” After Mr. Guppy’s visit, a new sequence of events unfolds, and Lady Dedlock’s life rearranges itself before our eyes. Later, on the open grass, another extraordinary meeting brings us even more closely into her consciousness.
Like us, Mr. Guppy has been playing detective, putting together the pieces of the book, and at this point he’s doing it better than we are. Bleak House is a novel full of detectives with whom we sit in uneasy intimacy because their inquisitive state of mind mirrors our own.Their “calling is the acquisition of secrets.”
Two distinct narrators take us through this increasingly comprehensible world. The omniscient narrator can enter anywhere, taking us from foggy London to Lincolnshire. He floats through walls, moving from the airless chambers of one house in town to the greasy interior of another that stinks of burnt flesh. Esther, by contrast, is a timid outsider, for whom everything is new and strange. Some of the greatest effects of the novel occur when Esther takes us through spaces we’ve visited many times and thought we knew. Right after Esther talks with Lady Dedlock, for instance, she walks through the fragrant gardens of Chesney Wold. “Grostesque monsters bristle” as she thinks about the lives they lead inside, and for the first time we feel attached to the stately home.
The great pleasure of this novel is the pleasure of plot — of retroactively putting events into sequence. Like detectives, novelists construct patterns out of disparate fragments. This novel more than any other Dickens novel feels both ordered and dynamic. Characters who flash past us — a man from Shropshire, a crossing sweeper — resolve into detail, acquire names, and fill out in time and space. As the lines between networks of characters thicken, the world gets smaller, more recognizable, but also more dangerous for the ones we love most.
3. David Copperfield
Maia McAleavey, Assistant Professor of English, Boston College
“Of course I was in love with little Em’ly,” David Copperfield assures the reader of his childhood love. “I am sure I loved that baby quite as truly, quite as tenderly, with greater purity and more disinterestedness, than can enter into the best love of a later time of life.” Loving a person or a book (and “David Copperfield” conveniently appears to be both) may have nothing at all to do with bestness. The kind of judicious weighing that superlative requires lies quite apart from the easy way the reader falls in love with David Copperfield.
To my mind, David is far more loveable than Pip (Great Expectations’ fictional autobiographer), and better realized than Esther (Bleak House’s partial narrator). And it does help to have a first-person guide on Dickens’s exuberantly sprawling journeys. David, like Dickens, is a writer, and steers the reader through the novel as an unearthly blend of character, narrator, and author. This is not always a comforting effect. “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show,” David announces in his unsettling opening sentence.
Here he is, at once a young man thoroughly soused after a night of boozing and a comically estranging narrative voice: “Owing to some confusion in the dark, the door was gone. I was feeling for it in the window-curtains…We went down-stairs, one behind another. Near the bottom, somebody fell, and rolled down. Somebody else said it was Copperfield. I was angry at that false report, until, finding myself on my back in the passage, I began to think there might be some foundation for it.”
Is the novel nostalgic, sexist, and long? Yes, yes, and yes. But in its pages, Dickens also frames each of these qualities as problems. He meditates on the production, reproduction, and preservation of memories; he surrounds his typically perfect female characters, the child-bride Dora and the Angel-in-the-House Agnes, with the indomitable matriarch Betsey Trotwood and the sexlessly maternal nurse Peggotty; and he lampoons the melodramatically longwinded Micawber while devising thousands of ways to keep the reader hooked. If you haven’t yet found your Dickensian first love, David’s your man.
4. David Copperfield
Leah Price, Professor of English, Harvard University
“Of all my books,” confessed Dickens in the preface, “I like this the best. It will be easily believed that I am a fond parent to every child of my fancy, and that no one can ever love that family as dearly as I love them. But, like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is DAVID COPPERFIELD.”
David Copperfield fits the bill for a “best of” contest because it’s all about who’s first, who’s favorite, who’s primary. It’s one of Dickens’s few novels to be narrated entirely in the first person; it’s the only one whose narrator’s initials reverse Charles Dickens’s, and whose plot resembles the story that Dickens told friends about his own family and his own career. (But Dickens takes the novelist’s privilege of improving on the facts, notably by killing off David’s father before the novel opens in order to prevent him from racking up as many debts as Dickens senior did over the course of his inconveniently long life.)
That means that it’s also one of the few Dickens novels dominated by one character’s story and one character’s voice (This stands in contrast to Bleak House, say, which shuttles back and forth between two alternating narrators, one first-person and past-tense, the other third-person and couched in the present). As a result David Copperfield is less structurally complex, but also more concentrated, with an intensity of focus that can sometimes feel claustrophobic or monomaniacal but never loses its grip on a reader’s brain and heart. Its single-mindedness makes it more readable than a novel like Pickwick Papers, where the title character is little more than a human clothesline on which a welter of equally vivid minor characters are hung. Yet at the same time, it’s a novel about how hard it is to be first: Can you come first in your mother’s heart after she marries a wicked stepfather? And can your own second wife come first for you after her predecessor dies?
On David’s birthday, he tells us, “I went into the bar of a public-house, and said to the landlord: ‘What is your best — your very best — ale a glass?’ ‘Twopence-halfpenny,’ says the landlord, ‘is the price of the Genuine Stunning ale.'” David Copperfield is the genuine stunning: there’s nothing quite like it, in Dickens’s work or out.
5. Little Dorrit
Deb Gettelman, Assistant Professor of English, College of the Holy Cross
There’s a different best Dickens novel for every purpose. Even though Dickens’s peculiar characters with their tic phrases sometimes appear interchangeable, his novels as a whole are surprisingly different from each other in their focus of interest, narrative structure, and in some cases, length. The best Dickens novel to read? Bleak House. To teach? Oliver Twist. To boast that I’ve read? Martin Chuzzlewit (really, I have). To understand Dickens’s consciousness as a writer? Little Dorrit.
I’d like to think a writer’s best novel is the one that, if it had never been written, would cause the greatest difference in how much we think we understand about that writer’s overall work. It might be predictable, but for me the later, darker, reflective books often suit this purpose best: Persuasion, Villette, The Wings of the Dove. For Dickens’s readers it is Little Dorrit, his deeply personal novel of middle age that reveals the author’s consciousness as an artist at its most mature, reflective, and darkest stage
Little Dorrit is Dickens’s moodiest novel, and comparatively little happens in it. There are the usual plot complications — and what Dickens called the novel’s “various threads” often seem to hang together by a thread — but at its heart is the stasis of a debtor’s prison, where Amy, or Little Dorrit, has grown up tending to her self-deluding father. The novel’s many psychologically imprisoned characters mostly sit around brooding about their thwarted lives, especially the hero, Arthur Clennam, who is older and more anguished than Dickens’s other heroes and heroines. Elements familiar from Dickens’s other novels — satiric portrayals of bureaucrats and aristocrats, the self-sacrificing young woman, even a murderous Frenchman — seem more sinister in this novel because they are the cause of so much melancholy.
At one point Dickens summarizes Clennam’s thoughts in a way that seems emblematic of the novel: “Little Dorrit, Little Dorrit. Again, for hours. Always Little Dorrit!” As Lionel Trilling observed, Little Dorrit is the most interiorized of Dickens’s novels. Shortly after writing it Dickens made a spectacle of breaking up his family, and characters in the novel torture, contort, misrepresent, and stifle one another’s feelings in spectacularly awful ways. In a game of word association, ‘Dickens’ would readily call to mind words like ‘comedy,’ ‘caricature,’ and ‘satire.’ ‘Little Dorrit’ would yield ‘interiority,’ ‘psychological depth,’ ‘angst,’ and all the inventive strategies Dickens uses to achieve these qualities. It enables us to see the fullest possible psychological and artistic spectrum of his work.
Our Mutual Friend was my Dickens gateway drug. The opening sequence plays like a Scorsese tracking shot on steroids. A body fished out of the Thames becomes gossip at a nouveau riche banquet, from which two lawyers slip out to a dockside police station, where they meet a mysterious man who runs off to take lodgings with a clerk, whose daughter becomes the ward of a dustman, who hires a peg-legged balladeer to read him The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And I haven’t even mentioned the taxidermist.
It’s the Facebook fantasy: everyone is connected — though in the darkly satiric world of late Dickens, this is less an accomplishment than an indictment. The surprise comes from how much fun it is to navigate his corrupt social network. Conventional wisdom asks you to choose Dickens savory or sweet: the ineluctable fog of Bleak House or the bibulous conviviality of The Pickwick Papers. Our Mutual Friend, his last completed novel, gives you both an intricate web of plots and a cast of delightfully scurrilous plotters.
Its particular tickle comes from the recognition that everyone’s an impostor, and a gleeful one at that. People who dismiss Dickensian eccentrics as fanciful caricatures miss how much the fancies are the characters’ own insistent projections. As the narrator says of the self-important balladeer: “His gravity was unusual, portentous, and immeasurable, not because he admitted any doubt of himself, but because he perceived it necessary to forestall any doubt of himself in others.” The self we perform is the self we become.
And everyone’s performing in Our Mutual Friend. A lawyer pretends to be a lime merchant for an undercover job in pub, and after the sleuthing concludes, he’s so enamored of the role that he offers the potboy a job in his fictional “lime-kiln.” When the orphan Sloppy reads the newspaper, “he do the police in different voices” — a line that T.S. Eliot pinched as his working title for the The Waste Land.
This literary legacy, along with the novel’s sustained imagery, have led some critics to call it proto-modernist. Dickens shows us as well that the insights we call post-modern (personality as performance, fiction as artifice) have Victorian roots. The creators of The Wire declared their debt to the 19th-century master of serial narration, and it’s no surprise that a season finale of Lost revolved around a copy of Our Mutual Friend. This is the book you want on a desert island.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
There once was a little girl named Jenny, who lived in Chicago and went to nursery school with a little girl named Sally. Sally’s family moved into the apartment below Jenny’s family, and Jenny’s mother and Sally’s mother were pregnant with the girls’ little brothers at the same time. Sally’s little brother was named Paul, but Jenny always thought of him as “Sally’s little brother,” even after she moved to San Francisco, and grew up, and moved to New York, and became a writer. One evening in the not-so-distant past, Jenny, now the author of many well-regarded books of fiction, turned on the television, and who did she see on the screen but Sally’s little brother! He was an actor, and he was on a television show, and this television show had brought him to Jenny’s living room. Just like that.
Meanwhile, a girl grew up in Los Angeles, reading a lot of books, wanting to be a writer. Okay, okay, it’s me. After graduate school, I moved back to Los Angeles and kept writing. I went to Ohio for a semester to teach, and as the snow fell (and kept falling), I discovered and fell in love with the work of Jennifer Egan. I even wrote Ms. Egan a fan email, something I’d never done before. She actually wrote back. She signed her name “Jenny” and I felt a geeky thrill. Jenny!
On a recent Saturday, back in Los Angeles, I held a writing class, and one of the students looked familiar to me, but I couldn’t place him–had I seen him at Skylight? On my coffee table was an advance copy of A Visit from the Goon Squad. “Is this out yet?” the student asked, and I explained it wasn’t yet, not until June. “But I’m interviewing her,” I said–bragged, probably. “I am so excited!” I said. “Jennifer Egan is one of my favorite writers.” The student smiled and just then I realized, Hey, he’s on that TV show. “Jenny’s my sister’s oldest friend,” he said. This was Paul, of course, Sally’s little brother. Just like that, Paul, Jenny and I were connected, and it felt like a tiny miracle.
It also felt like a page from A Visit from the Goon Squad, where characters move in and out of one another’s lives, and where a minor character in one chapter becomes the protagonist in the next. When I met Egan for our aforementioned interview, she told me the story of how she knew Paul, saying that seeing him on TV was “the kind of odd surprise that I was trying to capture here,”–she pointed to her book–“the completely unexpected ways that people encounter and see each other over many years.” We were sitting at a round picnic table outside Diesel Bookstore in Brentwood, where she would be reading that afternoon. I was born and raised in L.A., but I’d never been here before.
A Visit from the Goon Squad has been called a novel-in-stories by many critics, including our very own Sonya Chung, whose perspicacious review describes the book as being “populated by has-beens, suicidals, idealists, divorcees (aka serial monogamists), romantics, and ex-prisoners, many of whom have been chewed up and spit out by the soul-less music and film industries, or the PR machine that fuels them.” It’s the best description of the book’s content one might come by, but I’m not sure about the novel-in-stories label. Although each chapter can stand on its own, and though each differs in tone and form, the book still coalesced whole in my mind, its world burrowing into my imagination, as only novels can do. It was also readable like a novel, even with all of its formal shifts. It’s a novel-of-the-future, maybe, and not just because one chapter is written in PowerPoint.
When I asked Egan about the book’s genre, she said, “It’s so decentralized that it doesn’t quite fit what I think we think of as novels being right now. And I don’t really care about the term. It doesn’t fit into a category comfortably…I didn’t really worry about an arc, because again, that feels more like traditional fiction.” She wanted to put together a book whose principal was diversity, as opposed to unity. “I wanted to see how many tones and moods and technical choices I could get away with.” (For instance: though ultimately unsuccessful, she tried to write a chapter in epic poetry.) Egan’s goal, she said, was to make the book “a big cornucopia of craziness, and yet, have it all fit together into one story. I asked myself: Since the principal was one of surprise and revelation, and intimacy versus distance, my basic question was, Who is the person we see from a distance that we want to have revealed to us?”
This decision to follow various characters at different points was inspired in part by Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and, also, The Sopranos. Of the HBO show, she said, “I loved the way there were all these different narratives that intertwined over a long period, and different characters were the main characters at different times. I wanted to play with that, and I felt like I hadn’t seen that very much in novels. I didn’t want the centrality of a conventional novel.” She continued:
Also, one thing that is particular to The Sopranos, is that it’s so much about the chasm between public and private life…there’s a cliché about mob shows, and Tony Soprano is totally a clichéd character in certain ways. And yet, the fun of the show is being thrust into his private life and feeling the weird contrast between those two. That was a lot of what I wanted to do with this book: take people who seem to be clichéd from a distance and break them open, and show all of their nuances and secrets.
Bennie Salazar is definitely one such character: a teenage punk rocker in San Francisco who becomes a successful–and thus jaded–music executive, nursing past humiliations as he sprinkles flakes of pure gold into his coffee. As a consumer of culture, I’ve seen his type before, and yet, drawn by Egan, his history, pain and desires become specific and complex.
I asked her how the Sopranos-approach to storytelling echoed or contrasted with Proust’s, and she told me they were more alike than I might realize, partially because both are such long narratives. There’s a similar “braiding of lives,” she said.
Everyone called The Sopranos novelistic and I really do understand why, because with Proust, similarly, there are people you see at a distance and then suddenly know closely, but then you just see in passing years later, and there’s something very surprising about them that you weren’t expecting. Proust plays with the way in which time itself creates and reveals surprise. That change is surprising, even though it’s so steady, so constant.
If narrative itself is a depiction of time passing (“and then this happened; and then this happened”), one would assume that a narrative about the passage of time would consider the subject through the very mechanism its existence depends upon. Egan does just that. For instance, in “Safari” (and in the final passages of “Goodbye, My Love”), she employs an omniscient third-person point of view that pulls out of the present story to compress time and speed forward. This narrator can tell us about a character’s future–an entire marriage, for instance, or the long term effects of someone’s death on a family–in just a few sentences. The compression of time is heartbreaking in its efficiency, and it’s a formal reflection of the thematic motif of the book. Wow, one thinks, life does pass in a blink of an eye. Egan said she’d always felt “tremendous excitement” when other authors used this point of view. She was also inspired to try it after one afternoon at the library, where she was doing research for another book, about the Brooklyn Navy Yard in the 1940s. She was reading letters by a woman who had worked there, written to her new husband. “Reading someone’s letters you’re just deeply inside someone’s mind,” she told me.
I thought, “Gosh, I wonder if she’s still alive?” So I went over to the computer…and I sat down and Googled her, and within a second I was reading her obituary. It was so eerie to be sitting there, reading these letters by a woman who didn’t even have children yet, didn’t know what her life would be, full of hopes and plans, and then to read the end, in this kind of cool, news-writing voice. And then I went on, reading her letters, but I had this terrible sense of knowing the end when she didn’t know it. And I think that also interested me. I was interested in how the present feels when you keep pulling someone out of it.
This notion of being pulled out of the present reminded me immediately of internet culture, and the ways in which we require constant connection with the world, even as it yanks from us direct, unmediated experience. (Nowadays, for instance, you can’t go to a concert without someone in front of you taking photos of the band, probably to post on Facebook later that night–maybe you are that someone?) Like Don DeLillo before her, Egan explores the role and power of technology in our lives, but from a more humanistic, character-driven perspective. In Look At Me, fashion model Charlotte, whose face and career are ruined after a car accident, becomes a character-of-herself on a website called Ordinary People, a fictional progenitor of Facebook and Twitter. In The Keep, Danny drags a satellite dish to a Eastern European castle because he must be able to call everyone he knows back in New York City; otherwise, he might be forgotten. In her latest book, Egan imagines a future world where the young tell stories in a narrative genre more befitting their era (“Great Rock and Roll Pauses”–the aforementioned PowerPoint chapter), and where toddlers use hand-held devices with such dexterity that they become the most important and sought-after consumers.
In his review of A Visit from the Goon Squad in the Washington Post, Ron Charles wrote that the this world was “corroded by technology.” I asked Egan if that was the description she would use. “I don’t think so,” she said. “I have concerns about technology—I think we all do—but I’m mostly just interested in it. As a user, I’m less interested in it as I am as a writer. The fetishization of connection itself is something that really fascinates me. Connection in itself essentially means you’re opening yourself up to whatever people want from you. All the time.”
She doesn’t see her vision of the future as a dystopian one, and despite the warnings and concerns in the book, the humanity of her characters persists. It’s telling that these chapters set in the future are so poignant. People can still feel, even if those feelings must be texted: if thr r childrn, thr mst b a fUtr, rt?
This is where Egan’s genius lies. She engages with philosophical questions and is formally daring, and yet, and yet!, her work is emotionally moving, the stories and characters always compelling. In his review of The Keep, Madison Smartt Bell said that Egan, “deploys most of the arsenal developed by the metafiction writers of the 1960’s and refined by more recent authors like William T. Vollmann and David Foster Wallace — but she can’t exactly be counted as one of them.” His reason? Her “…unusually vivid and convincing realism. Egan sustains an awareness that the text is being manipulated by its author, while at the same time delivering character and story with perfect and passionate conviction.” Perhaps this is what makes Egan a darling among critics and a bestseller.
I asked Egan about her approach to storytelling. How important, I wondered, was emotional engagement?
Without the emotional resonance and some sense of an interesting story, you got nothin’. Really. All the formal experimentation in the world will get you nowhere without that…Ideally, the formal experimentation should not be something you’re imposing on the material but it should grow out of the story you’re telling. And if it doesn’t, the question is, why are you doing it?
The people and what they do and how it feels to the reader are the beginning and the end. I really feel that. Unfortunately, there seems to be an idea that you have to choose one or the other [experimentation or readability]. I don’t quite understand where that came from. If you look at the history of literature, it doesn’t bear out that dichotomy at all.
As time has gone on, I have become interested in telling stories that are more complicated and less streamlined, and so I’m looking for more ways to do that as efficiently and powerfully as I can.
Egan is currently reading 19th-century novels like David Copperfield. She recently read Middlemarch and was “electrified” by the narrative voice. She’s excited by how unconventional these older novels are. “I feel like everyone has amnesia,” she said. “Or maybe we read these books too young and all we remember are the stories and not how they’re told.” She grinned. “But I just love these intervening, busy body, first person-third person 19th century narrators. I feel like I need to think about that for my next book.”
Did she just say, next book? omg. woot.
I can’t wait to read it, Jenny.