Raul Brandão debuted in English a month ago without a murmur. We should welcome him with the joyful thrill of discovering a late, great Portuguese novelist heretofore unknown to the Anglo-American world. However the recent publication of The Poor also exemplifies one accidental way of hampering a foreign writer. Although the usual method involves a bad translation, Karen Sotelino gets an A from me for navigating syntactically and lexically close to the original. But what can you do with inaccurate translation of context? According to Dalkey Archive Press, this is “a powerful tribute to the underclasses” and an exposé of the “economic situation in Portugal.”
How unexciting: Portugal’s first Modernist novelist downgraded to a turn-of-the-century social realist fiction pamphleteer. DAP could have found more suitable candidates among his contemporaries. Now, bad translations can’t be salvaged, only scraped and rewritten, but let’s see if we can correct Brandão’s haphazard labeling.
In the first chapter, the unnamed narrator introduces several people living in a derelict tenement building: a group of prostitutes and thieves; Senhor José, a pallbearer; the unemployed Gebo, his wife and daughter, Sofia; and Gabiru, “a solitary philosopher, slender, as sad as a funeral, and armed with the most formidable and strangest of wisdom in God’s creation.” After this general introduction the plotless narrative dissolve into a series of vignettes about pain, abjection, futility, and hope. Beyond this it’s risky to make strong claims about the novel’s point since Brandão was a very undisciplined, contradictory thinker who wrote from intuition.
When he published The Poor in 1906, Portugal had surrendered to Naturalism since José Maria de Eça de Queirós had introduced it in 1874 with The Crime of Father Amaro. In the 1890s, the nation experienced constant political turmoil due to a faltering economy and the rise of the Republican Party, which was hellbent on overthrowing the monarchy, through revolutionary means if necessary (as it happened in 1910). Novelists moved away from excoriating the bourgeois like Eça to depicting the squalid conditions the poor and working classes lived in. Animated by a pamphleteering militancy Eça had always wisely avoided, these propaganda-minded novelists, the majority safely forgotten nowadays, turned literature into a weapon against the crown. In Brandão’s novel we catch glimpses of this shift away from the bourgeoisie to the lumpens in the way he chronicles Gebo’s job-searching daily routine, his wife’s death, his debilitating disease, and Sofia prostituting herself as the household’s breadwinner. Even Brandão’s prominent and compassionate use of prostitutes, a topic Portuguese literature had barely addressed before him, sprang from these circumstances.
This, however, is as far as Brandão goes in paying his dues to his time’s littérature engagée. As a journalist, Brandão certainly followed with interest “the economic situation in Portugal,” but this means little to his characters. Too busy taking beatings to read their Karl Marx, the prostitutes, with typical Portuguese passiveness, blame their condition on that blameless entity known as fate; as the morose prostitute Mouca declares, “It’s all over! We’ve all got to suffer!” Gebo is ideal material to join a union and start distributing leaflets, perhaps speak at rallies, but parties are as remote from him as he is from securing a decent pension, and he doesn’t have the leisure to form a political consciousness because he devotes every second to looking for work. Afraid that Sofia will starve, he is goaded by his wife who shouts at him, “Just go out and steal! Steal!”, while regretting to himself, “I’ve been so honest.” As for Gabiru, this “tragic figure, laughing daily along with thieves and soldiers,” is the only one with studies and time to reflect about his own condition, but he’s a useless, inconsistent Dostoyevskian intellectual devising a slipshod philosophical system not even he probably understands in full:
He was born to dream. He sighs with relief as he locks himself away in the garret, crying out, “I’m going to think…!” He knows words and theories and has read huge old tomes, yet he’s never seen the rivers and mountains before his very eyes, nor the trees. He delves into profound ideas and has never known reality.
Although Brandão, the son of poor fishermen, showed enormous tenderness in his fiction and non-fiction for the downtrodden, he goes beyond poverty as a socio-political cause and uses it to sketch a diffuse theory of suffering as a redemptive virtue and the engine of beauty, creativity, and meaning. “Why were these outcasts born? They wake up defeated, to scrounge, to cry out for scraps of bread, to rest again only in their graves. A dreamless road, that’s their bitter lot: fatigue, humiliation, and hunger,” says the narrator. Lines later he asks, “Why does God create them?” This question obsessed Brandão from 1906 until his death in 1930. Dialogues, allegories, and ruminations lead to a constant refinement of why pain exists and what justifies existence. His prostitutes may resign themselves to fatality, but Brandão saw certainty as an adversary. The novel whirls around the same questions repeatedly like a paleographer trying to decipher hieroglyphs in the hopes of finding valuable knowledge from beyond. Thus, instead of acting like a novelist who builds a plot organically, he carefully constructed his vignettes like a lab scientist devises experiments to validate a hypothesis. This runs the risk of making the narrative monotonous, but it’s also this monomaniac forcefulness that opens up new regions in humanness like an earthquake revealing priceless ruins.
Instead of self-analyzing themselves, the characters live beholden to what in Brandão’s oeuvre is ambiguously called the “Dream,” an unsystematised idea that can be likened to the hope that keeps one going, a belief in improvement. “For dregs,” we’re told, “Dreams are the sole form of reality.”
Only Gabiru, long considered the author’s alter ego, puts forth an explanation for the existence of pain. He lacks the restful mind conducive to the routine of acceptance the prostitutes and Gebo dull their doubts with. Gabiru thinks like a poet for whom the “splendor of nature” remains a daily novelty: “I cannot get used to it. Every morning it’s as if I were to find myself before monstrous nature for the first time — gold, green, and blue like her rivers, forests, and roaring ocean.” In this pantheistic worldview, humans are one with the universe and their atoms spin in a cosmic dance of rearrangements. By retaining this gift to allow the world to surprise him, he seems to put up with the burden of existence better. But even if the works of nature resonate with “the words of Him who preaches into the infinite,” at times God also seems like a mere excuse, like the whores’ fatalism. As the narrator says of the poor: “Throughout infinity, it is on their pain that God thrives.”
Furthermore, Gabiru’s sense of wonder at the universe comes with the price of constant anxiety; if everything amazes him, he can never convert reality into the ordinary sustenance that allows one to function in society. Even though he thinks he’s found answers, his inquisitiveness smacks of despair. Some chapters contain nothing but his writings’ loose scraps exalting pain: “In order for something radiant to burst forth from matter, what is needed? An ocean of tears.” For him only “suffering creatures are worthy of life, and in reality they are the only ones that live.” Brandão did not accept Arthur Schopenhauer’s claim that suffering was useless but turned it into the catalyst that propels development, especially in the arts:
To create, one must suffer. It has always been true and remains so, only pain gives life to inanimate things. With a chisel and an inert tree trunk, wondrous works are created, if the sculptor has suffered. Furthermore, with words and lost sounds, with immaterial objects another miracle is possible: to make laughter and dreams, to cause the shedding of tears among other creatures. With the simple, dry letters of the alphabet, some miserable person of genius, immersed in hidden water, builds something eternal, more beautiful and solid than if materials were wrenched from the heart of mountains.
Unsurprisingly, love here is equated with self-abnegation and meek endurance: Gebo only ceases to seek a job, to feed his daughter, when his body breaks down; Sofia in turn prostitutes herself to support him through his ailment; Mouca, after slapping Sofia for envying her, asks her to slap her back “so I’ll know you’re my friend;” and Gabiru, in love with Mouca, who does not reciprocate, puts up with the other tenants’ just to be with her. Still, the narrator’s cynical asides always sully this picture of virtue. Of the tenants he says, with a subtle dark humor that runs through the book, “Stray dogs are happier, and trees, incomparably so.”
If the metaphysical aspects of the novel should captivate anyone looking for a serious meditation about the human condition, how about knowing that Brandão is also renowned in Portugal for opening up new novelistic possibilities? In the 20th century, he’s to the Portuguese novel what Fernando Pessoa is to its poetry. José Saramago counted him amongst his favorite writers. He’s been lauded as precursor of everything, from Existentialism to the nouveau roman. Although it sounds improbable that in 2016 there are still great Modernist writers left to discover, Brandão has the same importance Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, and James Joyce have in their respective languages.
Beginning with his first novel, he started imploding the Naturalist novel, inventing a personal form that, though largely ignored in his lifetime, would posthumously influence future generations. For instance, he had little regard for rounded characterization. Practically no character has a backstory or a full personality; they’re almost mere voices, or puppets moaning on stages in front of crowds. “Nary a one talks about her past,” says the narrator about the prostitutes, “in fear of scorn, but they hold it inside, never forgetting.” But then again it’s “always the same story, eternal humus kneaded with tears. They know they were born to suffer and are resigned to it: dregs are necessary.” Childhood, in the novel’s logic, shows up only as a conduit of pain.
The Poor also shattered the uniform perspective of the novels of its time. Using short chapters, Brandão shifts from third to first person, sometimes even within paragraphs. Some chapters don’t have clear narrators, demanding that the reader identify the speaker. Not to mention there’s a narrator who seems to simultaneously live inside and outside the narrative, sometimes a tenant, at other times omniscient.
He also got rid of plot, and by extension of time. It’s not really a matter of time being fragmentary, like in Virginia Woolf or William Faulkner, but of time barely existing since the characters, like insects in amber, are immobile. The action does not progress in a straight arrow but grows, like a wall of bricks, by the accretion of identical layers of humiliation and anguish one upon the other, until it’s big and wide enough to block all sunshine.
And even if Dalkey has linked the author’s time and place to the themes he dealt with, nothing in the novel really screams Portugal. Thirty years before him, Eça busied himself putting in his pages a Lisbon nowadays still intact for tourists to selfie it. But Brandão’s novel takes place in an opaque limbo of torment, in wherever people withstand futile martyrdom. References to a shared external reality are so rare as to be grating when come across: Baron Rothschild; François de La Rochefoucauld; Hamlet; Sir John Falstaff; the Portuguese currency at the time, the real; the poet Manuel Maria Barbosa du Bocage; the Republican Party; Don Quixote; and Brazil. By my count that’s all that identifies the book’s world as possibly ours. It’s a far cry from Alfred Döblin’s Berlin and John dos Passos’s New York. The only contemporary with a higher disregard for a sense of place was Kafka.
Brandão’s Modernism, however, was more instinctive than planned, an inner necessity rather than a deliberate intention to shack up with the zeitgeist. He had no axes to grind with the past. Pessoa burst in 1915 with a loud magazine called Orpheu thundering his alignment with several avant-garde movements burning through Europe, basking in his own cosmopolitism, and judging his predecessors inferior. Brandão, 20 years older, stayed in his corner, minding himself, provincially averse to manifestos and doctrines. In 1921, his friend and poet Augusto Casimiro noted down his indifference to his contemporaries. Only “Stavrogin’s Confession,” the unpublished chapter from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed, discovered in November of that year, galvanized him. He shared with him the psychological intensity, the philosophical skirmishes, the reduction of characters into living ideas, the absurd, and the pity for the downtrodden. (Crime and Punishment had been serialized in Portugal in 1897.) But Brandão couldn’t abhor another writer’s language and structure, and so he gradually divested himself of what he saw as artificial in literature in order to allow himself to communicate without rhetorical distortions. In effect his novels became less dramatic and more monological, in order perhaps, as Gabiru writes, “To allow my whole universe to speak, allow all that is inside me preach in its hoarse voice.” Elsewhere our unhinged philosopher writes that there is no inanimate thing “that does not have a voice and that does not make its confession.”
The sermon and the confession: one-way modes of speech, centered upon the self and, one presumes, more authentic. Brandão wanted his own system to externalize what existed only inside him. Since literariness, for him, obfuscated the self, his search for individualistic expression implied paring his language down to a slapdash style. This is most obvious in his use of repetition, in particular the repetition of a vocabulary consistent from novel to novel: tree, river, pain, cry, ludicrous, humus, root, water, scream, dream. The word “moonlight” shows up seven times on page 119. Before reading Sotelino’s translation, I worried about this; too often translators confuse repetition with sloppiness, and their urge is to prettify the prose. Milan Kundera once complained about the translators who had made Kafka’s prose more literary because they couldn’t accept simplicity in such a great writer. But repetition is one of Brandão’s trademarks, the consequence of his obsessively inhabiting one theme during a lifetime; and so Sotelino is to be commended for having kept the oftentimes tedious lexicon instead of succumbing to synonyms. You can tell she paid attention when you can find whole sentences repeated: “The sister would kiss and caress me…”, “He stirs the embers of his ideas and he’s never looked life in the face.” The Pallbearer’s “hoarse, raspy chest” shows up twice, as does Gebo’s daily search for some “measly spare change.” Not even chapter titles are spared (“Gebo’s Story” and “Gabiru’s Philosophy” appear each in four chapters).
But the book’s most notorious repetition is in its use of natural imagery. For instance there’s a gigantic river metaphor that engulfs the novel from the opening paragraph on:
Like a mysterious wave rolling in from some unknown ocean, it begins to rain. A sweet sound, that of the rain. Recalling so many things, lost and sad! At first the soaked earth swells, and when it bursts there’s a rush so torrential, the rocks are left glistening. It plows through the earth, exposing roots, dragging humus through the deluge along with dried leaves, dead animals, rocky dregs all swirling together, then dissolving, stirring into the foamy water, headed to the unknown.
Such is life. A river of moaning, tears, and mystery. A murky wave exposes the deepest roots, as a torrential rush engulfs all disgrace and laughter, relentlessly dragging this human humus up to some shore, where the filthy hands of the suffering finally find another helping hand; where their exhausted, tearful eyes are amazed before an eternal dawn, and where dreams are made real…
This metaphor then breaks up into tributaries that flow into the narrative. We see water as life, “Life for you was like clear running water through the hands of one of those statues you see in the fountains.” But its flux is also a symbol of death, mixing decayed matter, “Leaves from trees, things rotting in the shadows wanted to join the eternal flood.” Likewise, we read that this “question of death, although present since time immemorial, terrifies us like a huge river bringing ideas, explanations, and theories to the surface.” Water sates but it’s also the aforementioned “ocean of tears.” People drown in envy, “The others, sensing he was still happy, dragged him down, like the drowning do to those trying to save them.” Finally, the river is the duality of life itself that can’t be resolved: “All rivers, like all lives, eventually flow into the great ocean of beauty. The existence of humble, simple creatures is like a current — of water or tears, but always clear. Anger, ambition, self-interest make life murky, like swirling dirt makes water dirty.” That this extended metaphor cascades so crystalline down the novel is a testament to Sotelino’s craftsmanship.
Although he lacks the pyrotechnics of António Lobo Antunes, Brandão’s simple sentences, especially Gabiru’s aphorisms — “If nature creates monsters, it is because they are necessary, like a cleansing abscess.” — first startle me with their unexpected strangeness, then enthrall me with their conviction of truthfulness.
Brandão’s demand for precision reflects itself in the characters’ struggle with language itself. Several remark upon how words hinder them. “Up in a garret, the Pallbearer wants to say, ‘I love you!’ but he has always been so crude he does not know how to say what he feels.” One character says of another, “She barely knows how to express herself. Their talk is like stones communicating, two beings rolling together along in the same huge wave of life, by chance.” And an unnamed voice blurts at one point: “I don’t know how to tell the story, what words can narrate an existence that is like a discarded rag, soaked in tears.”
“All words seem worn and withered” to Gabiru, as incapable of connecting with others as of “coming up with a new language, a language like that of the springs, that of the trees at the onset of March, to tell you how I feel,” which in theory will let him attain a clearer order of closeness above ordinary speech. For him this language is nature itself and man was just “born so that everything may have a mouth.” The problem, of course, is that when men speak, the expression comes out muddled.
Gabiru is no wiser than anyone else. A refrain in the novel denounces everybody’s ignorance. “Gebo did not understand life,” the narrator says; later he adds, “As it was, Sofia knew nothing about life.” According to Gabiru, Mouca, “who knows nothing, tumbling along like a rock in a deluge, will discover the extraordinary dream.” But then, “Gabiru does not understand existence” either. Even the unnamed narrator confesses in the first pages, “I’m poor and wary, and know nothing of life, but I’m a prince.” Not understanding life, real life, is akin to not living, which is why Gabiru wants to awake “the emotion inside, so that you can say, ‘I have lived!’” The greatest danger, to the characters, more than physical violence and penury, is the realization of a misused life.
Meaninglessness is Gabiru’s and the author’s terror. Brandão’s repetition stemmed from his loyalty to disharmony. He never found an answer to his existentialist crisis that could satisfy him, so he kept asking the same question, hoping that in one of the many variations of his lifelong enquiry he’d find one explanation that soothed him. His reasoning never walked straight lines; instead it made detours through doubt and returned to the starting point. Having read nearly all his fiction, I can’t hide the suspicion that he wrote himself into a philosophical cul-de-sac. But watching him try to decipher the invisible is still a grand spectacle for the many moments when he pulls the words’ nerves with pliers to hear them scream notes the human soul seldom likes to make audible.
“All that he doth write / Is pure his own.” So a 17th-century poet praised William Shakespeare. This is not actually true.
Shakespeare was a reteller. Cardenio, also known as The Double Falsehood, which I’ve written about before for The Millions, was a retelling of the Cardenio episode in Don Quixote. As You Like It retold Thomas Lodge’s romance Rosalynde, The Two Noble Kinsmen comes from the Knight’s Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Cressida from Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. The Comedy of Errors is Plautus’s Menaechmi with an extra set of twins. The Winter’s Tale retold Robert Greene’s novella Pandosto without the incest. Much Ado About Nothing is Orlando Furioso, although Beatrice and Benedick are original. King Lear, Hamlet, and The Taming of the Shrew may be simple rewrites of earlier plays. In fact the only of Shakespeare’s plays to have original plots were The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. What makes Shakespeare, well — Shakespeare, is not his plots, but his language.
This month, Hogarth Press published the first entry — The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson — in a new collection of novels by today’s major practitioners that each rewrite one of Shakespeare’s plays. Tracy Chevalier will be retelling Othello; Margaret Atwood The Tempest; Gillian Flynn Hamlet; Edward St. Aubyn King Lear; Anne Tyler The Taming of the Shrew; Jo Nesbø Macbeth; and Howard Jacobson The Merchant of Venice. This is not a new endeavor, although it does seem to be a uniquely 20th- and 21st-century phenomenon. (The Romantics preferred to think of Shakespeare as an artless genius working under pure inspiration.) But as scholars have begun to recognize the extent of Shakespeare’s own retellings — and collaborations — modern writers have taken a page out of his book by rewriting his plays. (I’ll mention here the newly announced project by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to “translate” Shakespeare’s plays into contemporary English, but that seems to stem from a different impulse.)
Perhaps this narrative is too simple. It is not as if, after all, writers in the last century suddenly discovered Shakespeare as a source and influence. For the past 400 years, Shakespeare’s poetry and plays have become as much a part of the common language and mythology as the King James Bible. In a sense, Noah’s flood is as much a foundational myth of our culture as the Seven Ages of Man. Like Marianne Dashwood and John Willoughby, we use Shakespeare as a way to understand and connect with each other. There is so much of Shakespeare woven into Moby-Dick, for instance, that the allusions and the words and the quotations feel like the warp and woof of the novel. The same could be said for just about anything by Milton, Dickens, Austen, Woolf, Frost, Eliot — in fact I could name most of the writers in the English and American canons, and, indeed, abroad. Borges, to name just one example, found in Shakespeare a kindred spirit in his exploration of magical realism; and Salman Rushdie’s definition of magical realism as “the commingling of the improbable with the mundane” is a pretty good description of some of Shakespeare’s plays — A Midsummer Night’s Dream comes to mind.
Let’s take, for an example, Woolf’s Between the Acts, her last novel. It is a book seemingly made entirely of fragments — scraps of literature spoken and overheard; parts of the village pageant, around which the novel centers, either omitted or the voices of the actors blown away by the wind; characters speaking to each other but failing to understand, or only managing to half-articulate their thoughts. In the midst of all this, Shakespeare is ever-present, a source for the poetry on everyone’s lips, inspiration for part of the pageant, and a symbol of what ought to be valued, not just in literature and art, but in life.
One of these piecemeal phrases that becomes a refrain in the book and in the consciousness of the characters is “books are the mirrors of the soul.” Woolf turns it around from meaning that books reflect the souls of their creators to meaning that the books we read reflect what value there might be in our souls. The person who is drawn to reading about Henry V must have that same heroism somewhere in him; the woman who feels the anguish of Queen Katherine also has some of her nobility. The younger generation of Between the Acts reads only newspapers, or “shilling shockers.” No one reads Shakespeare, although they try to quote him all the time. Shakespeare becomes a substitute for what they cannot put into words themselves, their “groanings too deep for words.” The worth of Shakespeare that emerges in Between the Acts is as a tap for the hidden spring in each of the characters that contains the things they wish they could say, the thoughts that otherwise they would have no way to communicate — instead of mirrors, books are the mouthpieces of the soul.
Shakespeare’s plays are a touchstone, and the way we react to them, the way we retell them, says more about us than about him. For example, Mary Cowden Clarke in 1850 created biographies for Shakespeare’s female characters in The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines. Each are made paragons of virtue and modesty, reflecting Victorian morals and values. But Clarke was also coopting Shakespeare for her own interest in women’s rights, using his stories of women with agency and power, and clothing them in Victorian modesty in order to provide an example and a way forward for herself and her female readers.
To take another example, Mark Twain retold Julius Caesar (actually, just Act III, Scene i) in “The Killing of Julius Caesar ‘Localized,’” but he used it to address the bully politics of his day. Shakespeare’s play becomes a news squib from the “Roman Daily Evening Fasces” and the title character becomes “Mr. J. Caesar, the Emperor-elect.” Twain’s Caesar successfully fends off each would-be assassin, “[stretching] the three miscreants at his feet with as many blows of his powerful fist.” The story also makes a claim about Twain’s status as a writer compared to Shakespeare: by mentioning Shakespeare as a supposed citizen of Rome who witnessed “the beginning and the end of the unfortunate affray,” Twain mocks the popular reverence for Shakespeare; he ceases to be a poetic genius and becomes merely a talented transcriber. But by doing so, Twain mocks himself as well; he is, after all, transcribing Shakespeare.
To turn to novels, I could mention Woolf’s Night and Day, Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, Robert Nye’s Falstaff, John Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius, Rushie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh, and a long list of others. In a way these are their own type; rather than appropriating Shakespeare, or quoting or alluding to Shakespeare, they purport to re-imagine his plays. Jane Smiley’s retelling of King Lear is probably the most well-known. A Thousand Acres manages to capture the horror of Lear. It is modern in that there is no ultimately virtuous character. Cordelia, or Caroline, becomes naive and blind and prejudiced as any other character in the play, and Larry Cook’s strange relationship to his daughters and the way it blows up says less about power and pride and love and aging than about abuse and bitterness. It is both horribly familiar and also fits surprisingly well into Shakespeare’s play. It becomes part of the lens through which we now must view Lear. It enriches our reading of Shakespeare while also giving us a new view of ourselves. And oh is it a cold hard view.
For her entry into the Hogarth series, Winterson had first pick, and chose The Winter’s Tale, which she says has always been a talismanic text for her. In The Gap of Time, Winterson has written what she calls a “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale. It’s a jazzy, news-y retelling, set insistently in a realistic world. Whereas Shakespeare takes pains to remind us that his play is just a play, Winterson’s emphatically tries to set the action in our own world. Hermione, for example, an actor and singer, has a Wikipedia page. Her acting debut was in Deborah Warner’s adaptation of Winterson’s novel The PowerBook, and she has performed at the Roundhouse Theatre in London. Leontes lives in London, where he is a successful businessman with a company called Sicilia, and Polixenes, a video game designer, lives in New Bohemia, which is recognizable as New Orleans. The characters are renamed with short, jazzy nicknames: Leontes becomes Leo; Polixenes is Zeno; Hermione is Mimi; the shepherd and clown who discover the lost Perdita become Shep and Clo. Only Perdita and Autolycus retain their full names. (Autolycus is the best translation of the book: he becomes a used car salesman trying to offload a lemon of a Delorean onto the clown.)
Shakespeare’s play is focused almost equally on the parent’s story and then the children’s, but Winterson’s focuses almost exclusively on the love triangle between Zeno, Leo, and Mimi. Whereas Shakespeare leaves open the possibility that Leontes may have some grounds for jealousy (though if we believe the oracle of Apollo, no room for the possibility of Hermione being guilty of adultery), Winterson is explicit that a love triangle does exist, but she inverts it. It is Leo who loves both Mimi and Zeno, Leo who has slept with both. And it’s clear that though Mimi chose Leo, there was a distinct connection between her and Zeno. Winterson even takes a hint from Shakespeare’s source in Pandosto and makes Leo consider romancing Perdita when he meets her. “As someone who was given away and is a foundling, I’ve always worked with the idea of the lost child,” Winterson has said. The part of Shakespeare’s tale that spoke to Winterson was the origin story, why the child was lost.
Shakespeare’s play, because it doesn’t insist upon existing in a realistic world, is full of wonder and mystery. It’s that magic that happens when you hear the words “Once upon a time.” The closest Winterson’s version gets to that place is in the scenes that take place inside of Zeno’s video game, when Zeno and Leo and Mimi play themselves but also become something a little grander, a little wilder, a little more numinous. But there is little of Shakespeare’s language present. Winterson’s The Winter’s Tale is as much a retelling of Pandosto as Shakespeare.
Why do we return again and again to Shakespeare’s plays, why do we keep rewriting them? Is it in hope that some of his genius will rub off? Are we searching for new possibilities for interpretation, hoping to mine new ore out of well covered ground? Or are we going toe-to-toe, trying our strength against the acknowledged genius of English literature? Perhaps it is simply that creativity is contagious. When a piece of art inspires you, it literally in-spires, breaths into you. It makes us want to create new art. Or, maybe it’s a more basic instinct. From the beginning of our lives, when we hear a good story, a story that as Winterson says becomes “talismanic” for us, what do we say? “Tell it again.”
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
Growing up, Judy Bolton-Fasman watched her mother study Don Quixote, propping the book up on their kitchen counter while studying for her Master’s in Spanish literature. Her mother was a native speaker, but Cervantes was still a tough writer to figure out, especially if you were reading his work while trying to cook dinner in the background. The author looks back on her mother’s education in a Saturday Essay for The Rumpus.
Christopher Lee, perhaps best known to American audiences as the man who played Count Dooku (Star Wars) and Saruman (Lord of the Rings), is also an accomplished singer and musician. Evidently, he’s also quite literary, as his most recent project — The Metal Knight — demonstrates. To wit: the album was inspired by Don Quixote. (Trailer here.)
Visual Editions wants to send photographer Jacob Robinson to La Mancha… by way of camper van. Along the way, he’ll be tasked with “captur[ing] the spirit of Don Quixote” on film and combining his shots with text from Miguel de Cervantes’s novel in order to create a re-imagined, “faithful and contemporary” edition. You can find out more on the effort’s Kickstarter page.
“There is no change of death in paradise.”
– Wallace Stevens
Pitch dirt onto a parent’s dead body and in that second understand that bits of dirt just became as much part of the parent as any other bit you might hold onto: a snapshot, a clock with bent hands, shoes still bearing the imprint of feet, ties scented with stale aspiration. We mortals grasp. In my father’s last minute as a living, breathing, incorporated entity, he was on the phone with me – or rather a nurse I’ll call Bob held the phone up to my father’s ear.
Before my last conversation with my father last September, the first of many unilateral discussions ever since, I had fallen asleep next to my three-year-old, helping her go to sleep, a custom probably far too common in our house with its tilt toward entropy.
This house: it is situated in the kind of town for which Manhattanites leave the grid. Faces radiant, they come to trip over our uneven sidewalks, aquiver with the possibility of serendipity and rustication. Obedient to hebdomadal divisions, they rise for their upstate sabbath fully pagan, rousting in ancient corporeal nostalgia: antiques and wine, jam, farmers’ markets, holiday festivals, round bread, any ritual useful in making sense of time, not to mention the oddity of toting around a body bearing desire and all its malfunctions.
My father, a geophysicist, would have remarked less on the Manhattan tourists and more on the old granite of upstate New York, its igneous intrusive so different from the endless metamorphic slop and shift of soft Californian plates in which sections of oceanside cliff change overnight, where if a tsunami won’t get you, a shark will.
This same scientist once stood in his office, an old, almost condemned Art Deco building in an Oakland not yet refurbished by Jerry Brown’s idealism. Under and around him the great earthquake of 1989 terrorized the earth. In a building not up to code in its seismic retrofitting, there my father stood under an antique chandelier and not under a doorframe as all Californian schoolchildren learn early in primary school, nor under a desk or table, but keeping his balance on the rolling earth.
From timing the swings of that potentially lethal lamp, my father factored the P and S waves on the surface of the land and in this way estimated the geographic navel of the earthquake, its epicenter. Later he was pleased not so much to have survived without a scratch, given that the quake figured 6.9 on the Richter scale and caused scads of devastation, but rather more tickled that his knowledge of California fault lines and mathematics had positioned the epicenter accurately, some fifty-six miles away on the coast of Santa Cruz.
The night of his death, while half-sleeping in New York, the night that started a period of not just unilateral conversation but unknowable maps, I heard my husband say: I got a call. Your father’s dying. This time it’s real.
For years this father, half bon vivant and half scientist, had been creeping farther and farther out onto an isthmus of abstraction. I found it easiest to understand the clouds that increasingly populated his watery blue eyes and his similarly aqueous mind as some brilliant philtre the body seeped into one’s brain as a way to soften the fear of dying.
My father loved to put on a brave show. Despite his early years in Israel that had made him a chalutznik, yet another pioneer taught that men should sport only fur but no sensitivity, like all of us he had his favorite talismans against fear and the frequency of their apparition could show even a casual observer how afraid he really was. His military posture, for one, with its rigid grace, which made his bearded self look at, say, a party – this was a man who loved parties – like a blue-eyed Lincoln reconfigured as your average broad-shouldered lieutenant. He would sit smiling and upright as if to say: I am here, I claim this spot on the mobile earth, nothing threatens me, I am ready for pleasure.
Another talisman against fear would be one of his favorite morning songs, a kabbalistic melody whose words, translated from Hebrew, told him that all the world is a narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to fear (the passage from life to death). In his long, stretched-out dying, he showed a survivor’s tenacity, his final talisman: if theoretically he wanted to die, in reality he found it hard to leave the party.
We the living become quick adepts in our trafficking in the jargon of meds which, in our modern-day business of dying, act as a professional undertaker, fake in their helpfulness, the words that slither and whisper and prompt us alongside our slow processionals toward a funeral.
Or you could say we become a kind of snake swallowing the elephant of death, à la the illustration in the early pages of The Little Prince which shows the elephant bulging inside the boa constrictor.
Therefore, to use the jargon our family so obediently swallowed: for months prior to the flash and siren of the last ambulance taking him to the last hospital, my father could be found in a “skilled nursing facility”, an infelicitous phrase which always made me wonder, what, as opposed to that other facility known for its staff so judiciously unskilled?
In his non-home, attended to by those with skills, he had been lying in bed or in a wheelchair, playing pioneer tunes on his harmonica in desultory fashion near the nurses’ station, positioned on an island which was a decommissioned naval base out in northern California. Could it have been more perfect that the name of his home, dedicated to liminal states, was Water’s Edge?
What I tried to understand that mapless last night of his life was that this time his dying was real. From our entropic New York aerie, this was the totality of what I could divine.
I sat in our tiny dining room next to my husband who was dialing the hospital and using his best Brooklyn-bred diplomacy to get through the telephone lines into the exact right artery that would lead into the ER and whatever last bit of listening might be left in my father’s ear.
I should say that I sat like a penitent schoolgirl, fists clenched between tight knees, waiting in a room that had just lost its circulation. I chilled, for once the phrase right, since the temperature of the world had just dropped. While my mate tried getting through, it seemed everyone else in my family also tried the lines, this being a family not known for its lack of words. Of course at this second the lines would be getting clogged, heart to head, family flocking to its cerebral patriarch, and in seconds I would lose the chance to – to do what? Use words to sustain a last moment? Did the urgency of needing to talk to him have to do with affirming our connection? To say life and all its recent indignities had mattered? To show that despite being geographically challenged I would care and then care always, memory conjugated out over the rest of my lifetime? I cared, I care, I will care, those who don’t know you will care, you have a legacy.
Before those crucial seven ounces of consciousness left his body, I had to tell him he mattered, that all of the suffering and aspiration of his life had been worthwhile, that we mattered, that he would continue to matter within the context of the living.
Since the dawn of the answering machine, I have been a phone-phobe, voice seeming such a poor substitute for presence. This unfortunate sensibility makes me lack the grace of friends who sound ready and delighted to answer a ring, those with the talent of making time expand accordionlike in their affinity with Graham Bell’s invention. Instead, and this serves as no apologia, I seem always to hang up first, cavemanlike, unrefined and coarse: there should be a twelve-step program for those like me. Hi, I’m Edie and I do bad phone. While email redeemed most of my social life, which it did, my aversion to the phone stood as one of many traits which my father, with his take-all-comers attitude but his unfamiliarity with computerized letters, accepted as a quirk.
Simply, therefore what I was awaiting in that pendulous minute before my minute to talk with my father arrived was this: make of the phone a friend. It was all I had.
My husband handed me the receiver and Bob the nurse came on to say: You want to say your goodbyes.
Right, I thought in that nanosecond, brilliant, that’s the name for it, I’m going to say my goodbyes.
The plural fit for a man of my father’s complexity, suspended in a metaphysical state of so many parts, within a state of so many pluralities.
And until that moment I had not realized that every person has stored within some finite amount of goodbyes for each person who matters and that right now, despite all brink moments and prior goodbyes, I was about to use up the last goodbye, tagged for him alone. This time the goodbye reverted to a greater status. I was about to spend my last goodbye as if some Maximum Leader had just declared the currency of goodbye not debased by all its manifold apparitions. This time the currency would count.
For five years, all my father’s near-deaths had summoned me from New York back to what will forever feel like home: California. Each death seemed realer than the one that came before. Each time my father’s Egyptian lady doctor said to me if it were my dad I’d come now. Westward I flew, often with a baby on my lap, and the babies grew. The youngest especially became a fan of firetrucks, given the coincidence of their hectic arrival, coming to oxygenate her grandfather every second day after we arrived for a visit to California.
There he would be, in his medically outfitted room off the kitchen on the lower level of my parents’ house, his heart exalted by the nearness of family but his lungs drowning in the fluid that kept wanting to fill that aqueous spirit, and once again we would be summoning empirical data and conventional logic in order to persuade the scientist, the traveler who now wanted to stay home, that this was something of an emergency. There I would be, fingers robotic in dialing 911 for the firemen to come again – I got to know them — up the fifty-one stairs to the house in order to put yet another oxygen mask on him and spirit him away and me into the plethora of questions that came in his wake, all from the young truck-lover (who now every night, her choice, her subliminal Yahrzeit, sleeps in a plastic replica of all those firetrucks):
Where do the firemen take him? Why does Saba wear that mask? Will they fix Saba so he can walk again?
And my own questions, all mainly circulating around this question: did he not once get me to promise that his life’s coda would have the dignity of freedom he had found in his adopted state?
But who was not to say that in his travels, bedbound, he was not fulfilling the imaginative promise of California?
Consider the name. Unlike other states drawn from Spanish – Colorado (“red”), Florida (“flowered”), Nevada (“snowy”) – the name California itself is a made-up place, drawn from a fantasy land mentioned in Don Quixote. Which suggests how readily you, too, can project on a land made up of such shifting plates. It is a shock to encounter, say, a tenth-generation Californian – though they do exist, great-grandchildren of dusty legacy and agricultural ingenuity, usually the great-grandsons of early ranchers with some Mexican or Spanish romance thrown in.
Consider that whenever America encountered problems with coexistence, which sounds better in Spanish, convivencia, it expanded its territories westward, so that a slow seep of individualism spread from the tight eastern harbors out toward the hyper-individualism of California, which may go a long way toward explaining why people from the middle states tend to be so other-directed and polite, a legacy of making do enough to declare, as in the license plates of Oklahoma, hey, this state is okay.
While people in California must perform elaborate yogic or Buddhist tricks to come out feeling their state is okay. They come to California to go beyond the quais, to find their big dreams, seeing it as Don Quixote might have: the state will be a kindly queen, allowing them to realize in large acres and billboards their fantasies.
This was how my father, a resourceful, adaptable person, well-suited in psyche and profession to the state, used it. An ambitious restless geophysicist, he was dedicated to, as one of his company’s business cards had it, the evaluation and exploration of natural resources.
Part of the liberty of the state, of course, has to do with the weather: it rarely constrains you, and when it does, the constraint has the dimensions of a Greek tragedy, as only the biggest ecological disasters take foot here: earthquakes, tsunamis, mudslides, fires, geological capstones fitting the dimensions of the state, the heroic flaws and grand destinies of those drawn to it. If every state has a psychological age appropriate to it, California is forever an adolescent, dreaming in bright colors and assuming suicidal proportions at its misfortunes.
Which may be one of the reasons, right before we moved into its take-all-comers embrace, the state assumed leadership in that youngest of decades, the sixties: the civil rights movement, the free speech movement, the rollicking music and the rocking hills of Haight-Ashbury all fit the national demographic bulge of youth. Accordingly, the majority of my friends’ parents came from the following range, one drawn from the disappointed dreams of youth: drifters, horse-race gamblers, Vietnam vets, café chess players, social agitators, drug users, therapists, famous musicians, polyamorists or ex-psych ward types.
Many were divorced, or separated, or lived in alternative arrangements. By contrast my family seemed solid and well-endowed, conventional, with two working parents, their indiscretions unknowable. California and the times may not have made much of a dent in my parents’ Old World creamed herring and Mediterranean tomato-cucumber-lemon-onion diet, but it did allow them to wear peasant shirts from my father’s many travels at all the many parties they hosted, parties in which my mother, an engineer at the public transit system, would invariably at some point don her green jeweled bellydance outfit to shimmy before the guests, ululating as she had taught many of them to do, often accompanied by the happy jiggling students she also taught in a swirl of cloths on Sunday mornings, all before she invited my father up to do a sort of loose-hipped sheikh host imitation with her before all of them: California at its multiethnic apotheosis.
Come to the party and we’ll dance for you!
The one common social denominator in any setting was this: the body, its hopes, its staving off of decay.
My response to this awareness of social disparity – all that we seemed to have in relation to all others seemed to lack – was to try to bring people in to what seemed the potluck bounty of our house, and even without my intervention, an uncountable many came and lived with us. A lost mother of a friend with her daughter; the daughter of a pot-smoking vet who later became something of a celebrity murderer; a German exchange student; a therapist; a secretary; a massage therapist; a lost philosopher; a friend with stepmother troubles; a friend with stepfather troubles. The list goes on. We had a succession of housekeepers who lived in the basement apartment, and one had an ex-boyfriend who came by, parking his red-painted former milk truck on our cul-de-sac for a week. I would bring him treats until I finally asked my parents if he too could not live in the house, one that had been bought for $25,000 back when that area of South Berkeley, not far from the invisible but real border with Oakland, was considered too close to racial troubles. In our basement kitchen, this latest of our inhabitants penned for his dented guitar a song that ricochets around my head sometimes, a Californian anthem with one of those strident melodies of childhood:
I’m a drifter and I drift this world around
And I know who I want to be and just where I’ve been
To be free to flow with the wind (2x)
And despite or because of all its disappointed dreaming drifters, the town seemed to function, believing itself a microcosm of the world, the best of the best to be found there, believing itself potent on the world stage. Alice Waters was starting Chez Panisse, the gourmet ghetto mentality of the town was radiating out, the town was claiming its position as the only American city to have its own foreign policy and my father’s grandiosity linked with the town’s.
Just as, after an early rise and fall in sheep husbandry, my father had gotten involved with geothermal energy, because geophysics seemed a concrete, practical way to help Israel and also, somehow, to save the world, just as every family trip we ever took had to do, inevitably, less with pleasure and more with a visit to sulfurous, spitting sections of the earth where you would be dwarfed by the grandeur of nature and its machinations, even after the fog of his dementia started to cloud in, my father never proved lazy.
As he started his long slow dying, I would, as ever, try to make of the phone a friend and call him. If I asked how he was doing, he might say: well, some medieval colleagues and I were trying to figure out all the names of god and the colleagues were really quite congenial. Or: someone handed me a capsule containing a worm that could destroy humanity and I was just figuring out the best way to save everyone.
He had, like the small liberal town he had chosen, long had a utopian mission to save the world. He had started an Israeli cultural circle and would invite prominent Bedouins, Palestinians, and Arabs to come speak to that volatile group of talkers. He supported causes, soup kitchens, candidates. The Department of Energy named him, with great ceremony and a placard, an energy pioneer. He did what he could in his way, writing a poem that appeared in a millennial anthology Prayers for a Thousand Years that had a last line that went something like this
May I in my small way do the best I can, knowing that for my time I did the best I could for others
And for all his love of trafficking with high and mighty causes, people, places, he remained a socialist, a person who wore the same holey plaid shirts, who would say, if a vase broke: it’s just a thing. He never went out without a roll of quarters in one of his threadbare pockets, ready to dispense change to people in need. He was unafraid of homeless people found sleeping in his car and would give them a ride wherever they needed. When at age fourteen I was caught stealing sunglasses for my brother’s birthday, from a drugstore on Telegraph Avenue, the open-air post-hippie emporium street that hosted so many lost denizens, under the influence of all those friends the product of those broken post-sixties Californian homes, my father did not scold me. Instead he merely shook his head, hours after my release from a scary graffiti’d cell, and said: Look, Edie, it’s never the thing that counts when you give a gift, it is the thought. Thought is everything.
In later life, accordingly, he also inhabited his body as if it were an uneasy, stolen perch, an afterthought, a car in which his homeless self happened to find itself. Once, on a business trip while I was living on the Upper West Side, he visited me and said goodbye to me on Broadway. I watched him walk away, his back disappearing into the sidewalk masses. A father barely skimming the earth, he carried not even a briefcase, a stick-skinny man whose movement radiated out from a loose central axis, his wrists flopping out a bit as if the wind could spirit him and his untailored suit away.
Sometimes, during my father’s long dying, our upstate-New York family flew west to spend some summer month in one housesitting situation or another, caring for this canary or that dog, my daughters delighted to be in the ease of extended family and the weather that surrounded them. Their sociable grandfather, who had always had a bipolar way of saying goodbye – either expert in the gooey and endless Jewish art of goodbye, or Israeli in the way he could say, for example, to someone he was chauffeuring I love you, now get out! – would be equally delighted by the multiplication of family.
His party never ended, the goodbyes never stopped, and meanwhile the meds worked their damage, fighting a war in his liver, the meds that said to his corporeal being, essentially, the opposite of I love you, now get out!
I destroy you; now you must stay in life!
A few months after my father’s death, the attending doctor described Bob, the last person in that last room, as a kind and dedicated representative of the art of nursing, a practice for which I only gain respect each passing year of my own life as a two-time mother and mortal.
There Bob was, on the phone in that expanse of time, his voice so dry and tight it almost sounded sarcastic, conveying over the unclotted line the atmosphere of the emergency room, thick with death, telling me: You want to say your goodbyes.
Yes? I said.
You can talk, he can hear you, he said.
He could hear but could he listen? Back to the character of this father of mine. In the same way that I was living in exile, out in New York, forever hankering for the calm skies of my northern Californian childhood, the freedom of being able to go outdoors with your children any time you darn well chose, my father had lived his whole life in exile. We grew up in a little Israel of the imagination, set, provisionally, in the liberal airs of Berkeley. My father’s Israel had begun in 1933, where he had moved when he was three. Prior to that, his family had lived in the small Polish town of Przmsl where his father, Joshua, had been a woodsman and a community leader. When anti-Semitism roved their town like some fanged beast, Joshua scented survival and took his family to Haifa. Soon after, all the family — the uncles and grandfathers and cousins who remained in Poland — were killed.
Survival instinct, therefore, lived deep in the nature or nurture of the family.
Someone who married into the Meidavs traced our geneology back point by diasporic point through the Maharal of Prague, the Baal Shem Tov and Rashi, through Lucca, Italy, through the house of David and all the way back to some humble Palestinian second-century BC sandalmaker named Yohanan, and something about this millennial-long connection to the land paradoxically provided succor to my increasingly leftist father who loved the ideation of the Palestinian thinker Sari Nusseibeh. To his death, this American exile remained an exponent of the two-state solution, clearly a “yored”, a person who had “come down from” Israel, a distant survivor of an era and not, as our Israeli cousins liked to point out, a person on the ground, like his more rightist brother who had remained in Haifa.
Part of my father’s lofty idealism – so well suited to both California and his Israel, the Israel of the 1950s, before a moral conscience started riddling certain sectors — meant that a favorite book among the many antique books in his collections was a set of lithographs done by David Roberts, Travels to the Holy Land, in which the Englishman had penned lovely romanticizing images of Bedouins hunkered down by a well, little aquarelle-like images of the land and its peoples coexisting, and for copies of books such as these, preserving the memory of a time before strife, my father would travel to book fairs seeking out unfoxed copies of the early Holy Land.
In this way and in so many others, my father was ideally suited to California. Because California seems to listen but insists on rose-colored landscapes. It has the compelling charisma of a narcissist, one which lures emigrants out to fulfill internal, narcissistic dictates. In its royal beneficence it makes lifestyle urges, ethical or sybaritic, holy, the body its temple.
Stay simple, a handwritten imperative on the cover of a notebook of one of our Berkeley house’s many inmates dictated. Stay simple, an idea perplexing my child’s mind. Was it better to stay simple so one could feel the world and all its categories better, anew, as if one were truly an innocent? Or was it better to gain in the intricacies of the world, cultural or natural, so that one could better understand its phenomena? Is it better to know the name of a leaf or does knowing the name mask appreciation of the leaf?
If you could, hypothetically, wash yourself clean of culture, would you then live the life of the body more purely? Our California had all the romantic-savage idealism of Truffaut’s Wild Child, in which the wolf-boy loses the inner truth of his body once he is civilized, yet our California also had the gourmet jadedness of your average American international food court: sample the best of everywhere else, become a multiplied citizen, and why ever leave? Motion could become stasis in the perfect microcosm of Berkeley.
We came to the zion of California, and specifically Berkeley, after my family had already tried out Saint Louis, Haifa, Toronto, Westbury. We came the year the sixties truly ended, that is, in 1974, when the whole city was entering what I would later realize was one prolonged hangover, the buzzkill that included Reagan, the Charles Manson years, the various propositions announcing that people did not want to pay taxes to support anyone other than themselves. Vietnam veterans smoked their only pleasant artifacts of the war, their tiny pinched hoardables, sitting on the curbs along Telegraph Avenue, the main drag toward the university, steeping the whole area in sickly sweet fumes. Open-air sellers sold hippie jewelry – and what did ever happen to macramé, which seemed such an important art to my young self, as important as basket-weaving or the making of incense-holders? – underneath a mural depicting the people’s struggle to save People’s Park from the pigs, the police. There was a sense of revolution mutely dimmed. Now the bourgeoisie got to eat their massive alfalfa-sprout salads while kids growing up during that time in that place got to see what happened if you went the way of drugs, a massive cautionary display on every corner.
So in the end the body became the path of improvement
California’s adolescent desire to make a better world, once nipped, became the realpolitik of someone entering their late twenties and early thirties, the more mature evaluation made by someone who realizes their own risks and mortality and who then makes adjustments.
In the buzzkill years, seeded by a genealogy beginning with the Jack LaLannes and continued by the Jane Fondas, what the state’s citizens were left with was the body. In the state I grew up in, the body was everything. You could retreat into the body and its nurturance and rejuvenation, its vitamin protocol or cryogenic suspension. Retreat into a fanfold of body therapies because the body would not betray, or if it did, it was your fault. You could control your health, as well as your fate, and any illness was a sign of poor internal combustion. Every adult I knew was dedicated toward some form of self-development, and these forms usually radiated from and toward the body.
From northern California all these body therapies – what we could see from another vantage as focused outcomes of the gold rush — were introduced, refined, reified, consolidated. Trager points, polarity, dance continuum, Rolfing, tai chi. Because, finally, when you had renounced your birthright, when politics had betrayed you, when you could not believe in your dreams, in community or connection or culture, you would always have the body, its urges, and the sophrosyne of the state writ upon it. You could endlessly self-improve, climb fire trails, eat more phytonutrients, meditate for hours a day and thus insure your own longevity or at least your survival when the great cataclysms would come, and bet your earthquake insurance come they would.
On the east coast and perhaps everywhere else, when people find a body therapy they like, they cling to it as if it is a splintered board after a shipwreck, singular and intense in their devotion to it, truly zealous acolytes in crowded corridors in Manhattan or in meetings in little hard-to-find restaurants. But on the west coast, people slip in and out of the ever-present therapies – because to survive in a place that doesn’t squeeze your contours with a social contract as, say, with New England’s lawns and flags, you need to have some kind of pressure around your corporeal self – with an ease and blending akin to all the state’s experiments with pineapple and pimiento: California Pizza Kitchen indeed.
My parents were not wholly immune to these new-fangled body therapies but also, interestingly, managed to remain in a prior century. My mother used olive oil on her face; my father used hair grease, part of a storm-cloud gathering of intention prior to any important business meeting. Of course he had other icons, all bespeaking the dream of ultimate mobility: the cologne of departure, the briefcase, the traveler’s Dopp kit with its tweezers, band-aids, scissors, shoe polish, an open briefcase. Most of my father’s life was spent in movement. When I was young, he would travel for months at a time for the United Nations to develop sustainable energy projects in Ethiopia, Honduras, Kenya, the Philippines and who knows where else.
My favorite memory of him from my kindergarten years is of a card he sent to me in his careful, floral immigrant cursive, a bird’s African feathers tufted on the front. In his absence, like our last phone call, the token became everything, a talisman of presence.
After his brief stint for the U.N., where he couldn’t stand being a company man, out in California, the land of possibility and future attainment, he started two companies. Over his career, he traveled the world and it was only after his death, as I took the plane westward that chilly middle of the night, that I realized that on planes, trains, boats, in any movement whatsoever, I had always been closest to him.
A few months after his death, I went on an already planned research trip to Nicaragua and realized, as the plane began its touch-down in Managua, the local women around me busily applying eye-makeup against the backdrop of volcanos, how so many moments of his life were spent in true California sybaritic fashion, enjoying and appreciating the artistry of the people around him.
Of, say, the chef at the Hotel Cesar in Managua.
I knew how much he loved this hotel because he had taken me to it once, on a business trip where I would serve, nominally, as his interpreter. For him, as with any Californian doing tai chi in the sun, any pleasure could be justified if it could somehow be categorized as being in the service of utopian work. Since he was forever a man confident about his children’s capacities and blithe about risk, being the kind of person who had fallen many times in his life – once down an elevator shaft in Haifa, once into a geothermal hot spring in Greece — he decided to send me, on this first trip to Nicaragua, packing with a team of boys on laden burros up the volcano of Momotombo so that, using machetes ahead of the burros as we rode, we could place antiquated seismic monitors in strategic locales.
He wanted me to know the liberals’ favorite fantasy, the pleasure of being one with the people; he thought I would want this experience and in this he was not wholly wrong. While he certainly liked knowing fancy people, he was also wholly unpretentious in how he tried to connect with anyone he met, whether parking attendant or fellow passenger, and was always filled with stories of strangers he had met on a trip, humble or grand, this woman whose charity in Nicaragua he had decided to support or some Oakland Baptist evangelist whose family needed succor.
In his desire to give me this common touch, that first trip to Nicaragua, of course he could not have predicted that perhaps it formed part of the strategy of this team of Nicaraguan brothers to lose me and the youngest brother in the endless jungle so that the youngest could entertain half a hope of losing his virginity, and that this meant that the brother and I ended up truly lost, with no water or food, clinging to trees above the nighttime cobras. Nor could my father have predicted that in the morning we would magically manage to pull the reluctant burros on circular paths toward, finally, an exit from those miles of wilderness.
After the slow return back to the safety of his Hotel Cesar, his home, after this life-or-death jungle experience, I was perplexed by the way my father sighed, relieved: I am just glad I did not know it was happening. I would have sent helicopters to try to rescue you.
Perhaps this meant that he would rather remain in hopeful ignorance than have to admit to friction. This possibly Israeli trait was another that suited him well to California, where people prefer to pursue the specificities of lifestyle, each one facing the ocean, rather than being aware of the particularities of all who rub shoulders next to them.
During that first visit to Nicaragua, after the life-or-death experience in the jungle, he and I stayed a few more days at Hotel Cesar where he chatted often with the chef, a bit like Hemingway in Cuba if without the drink. He was apparently happy to sit poolside, speaking an intelligible if slow Spanish to one after another person in endlessly futile business meetings.
His Nicaraguan ventures, motivated by a typically idealistic desire to provide a sustainable clean energy source to poor people, never quite got off the ground. Part of this failure, as one associate later told me, had to do with his refusal to adhere to important local customs, bribery paramount among them. And clinging to some self-spun philosophy, his fortunes went down, as they often did, like those of your average 1849 gold miner.
When I came for the second time to Nicaragua, I was glad to be in a space not demarcated by him, a tatty little inn and not his Hotel Cesar, though I, nonetheless, like him, relied hugely on the kindness of strangers. On this trip, soon after his death, I felt especially close to him, a father who easily made of random new acquaintances a mobile family, much like the energies of his chosen profession and our California. What he had bequeathed me: to be in exile, making only of the body and one’s immediate acquaintances a home.
His most religious custom was to check into a hotel in some foreign city and then to call home, call my mother, call any one of us to tell us he had gotten in and what his latest geographical coordinates were: the purpose had arrived at its goal, and in this, my parents accorded each other great latitude. In movement – the dream shared by Zion and California – one could find meaning, purpose, belonging.
Say your goodbyes then, said Bob the unflappable nurse.
In other words, make a cord to a man of so many moveable parts.
In that one last second I had to talk to him – fittingly exiled — the trumpet-blast of a lifetime together came out of me:
Dad, I said, never having really known what name fit a man of so many origins, you are responsible for so much of anything that is good in me and your children and grandchildren love you and we’ll do what we can to honor your memory and legacy and all the good you’ve sown and you’ve been holding on so long and now it might be your time to let go and do you remember that song you loved about all the world being a narrow bridge, the important thing being not to fear and –
I got to hang up now, said Bob the knowledgeable, sixty seconds into my swan song.
Thirty seconds later, according to later reportage, my father, who allegedly smiled and nodded lightly as I spoke, was dead.
No one gives you a user’s manual to how such moments proceed. Somewhere inside I had signed a contract that I would be by my father’s side when he died, a kind of fellow traveler, as if my childhood in Berkeley – that made-up Californian confection, a pastiche of a bardo, made up of everyone else’s in-between spaces, a kind of tunnel — meant I had to be with him in this final threshold zone.
That we had that last moment could have relieved me, just as my father was relieved not to have sent helicopters to rescue me from near-death in that Nicaraguan jungle. To be close but not to have to feel the pain of potential separation.
I could have said: jeez, at least I got to talk to my dad in his last second. He heard me, he smiled.
Instead, when a minute later the doctor called us in New York to tell us what we already knew, I felt I had betrayed my father’s legacy. I had not been by his side. I had taken his California Zion lesson too deeply. I was a person too much in movement, too much a traveler, exiled, too far away, following dreams of my own.
And still that doctor’s call released me from a deep freeze. I ran through our house as if on amphetamines, middle of the night on tiptoes, unable not to rush, as if it would change anything if I were speedy in booking a ticket from Albany, the nearest airport, so I could fly toward California. We the living scurry while our dead have all the time in the world. History sleeps and we hurry toward our ends. Plus I did not want to wake my kids to say I was going. Their relative innocence, lips fluttering over crucial dream-words, seemed crucial, almost more important than whatever had just happened. This was how my psyche compartmentalized its loss, organizing its metaphysical sock drawer. If you don’t orphan the details, you won’t have to see your own orphaning.
In a cold car in a parking lot in the middle of the night at that Albany airport, I pretended to sleep before my flight, enjoying the physical discomfort. No bed of nails could have been spiky enough. Already in movement I was closer to him but I still needed a physical correlate to the metaphysical dislodging death performs, some way to show my father I understood what his body might have known, despite its hyper-sedation, in all its recent injustices.
When I got to California, it was somehow fitting that the religious mandates around his burial kept me from seeing his body on that first day. My siblings and I sat outside the back door of the locked, squat suburban building within which a guard sat praying over his body. We looked past native wildflowers into a valley half river-rift and half tectonic shift, with a large silver aqueduct lacking, in typical drought fashion, its water that could spill down into the canyon, exactly the kind of landscape my father would have appreciated: the grandeur of nature with a small token of failed human intervention, your archetypal Californian scene.
The next day, I sat in a room in that squat building alone with his body, so oddly still and yet alive, his huge bony head looking peaceful, the love that he radiated out to so many chillingly present in the room.
My youngest daughter, the firetruck lover, the three-year-old who has something of my father’s brow, had told me that morning she had glimpsed Saba walking in the house again and that, scared, she had hidden from him. The night of his death, before we knew he was dying, before I had put her to sleep in that upstate house with its tilt toward entropic custom, she had been trying to tell me, with strange insistence, that sometimes people go to hospitals and then they die.
I had chalked this up to, merely, her metabolism of some talk she’d heard about a month prior.
Earlier that same day of his death, I had been teaching two classes. In the first, after hearing a particular student story, I’d had an uncanny urge to tell my students the story of the death of one of my father’s closest relatives, but had suppressed the urge, as it had no obvious correlation with any pedagogical point. In the next class, I had been struck with the urge to laugh uncontrollably, much as had happened at the exact moment of death of a best friend of mine, many cities away from me, years ago and soon after the shoplifting incident, while I had been sitting in a class in a troubled Jerusalem.
Perhaps these occurrences – my daughter’s insistence on the suddenness of death, the odd telegraphs I wanted to convey to my students but did not — were nothing or perhaps they are as strong as the telephone cord. What ties the living to the dead, after a while, has mostly to do with the cord of belief, while the soul of writing will always be elegy: one uses words to create a trail back to some missing source, the platonic home you hope for but can never quite reach. Like the hundreds of unfinished highways you find in California, founded in big dreams and crashing in reality, all the roads that begin, continue, and never reach its end, this bit of writing is, perhaps necessarily, unilateral, incapable of neat conclusion.
I write this now from the lobby of a Cuban hotel under a statue of the one omnipresent heroic American you find here, Lincoln, the emaciated liberator, almost as ubiquitous as Che or Fidel, Bolivar, Allende, Maceo, Martí. My family, daughters and all, have been living in this country in an apartment owned by a slumlord on a street spilling over occasionally with rivers of sewage. For days at a time, we will have no water; on other days, the gas or electricity goes. To live here you live inside a national body, the scent of cologne and urinals and sugar everywhere, sugar being a useful substance for keeping a population somewhat peppy. It seems that only on certain government-decreed days, the chickens lay and you find hundreds of people gleeful as they carry gray open trays of eggs home for safekeeping. At scheduled hours, bread appears in the bakeries and every passerby hoists a triumphant loaf of fifty grams, no more and no less. Every restaurant’s menu lists tantalizing items that will never be obtained by anyone.
As legend would have it, the people, however, are mostly a constant party.
In this travel, its deprivations and pleasures, I seem still to be performing some kind of wake for my father, a man who always managed, in his way, to find gold in dirt.
This hotel from where I write is a sybarite’s enclave in an uneasy socialist utopia. As if I have just crawled out of some gasless, waterless outback, I deeply appreciate its café con leche. The months here have made it easy to recognize travelers from Berkeley, flocked here in disproportionate number: they talk out of the corners of their mouths as if their next restless thought tugs for flight. If they are older, they are fit and wear practical many-pocketed vests and floppy hats, their gestures loose and expressive. If younger, they are tattooed, hefty in calf muscle and committed to years of travel, either as foreign guides in Latin America or still fighting the good fight for Che’s idea of the new man motivated by moral profit and not financial gain.
On this early Sunday morning in the spring, over the loudspeaker comes, on endlessly hopeful loop, a Muzak version, replete with Andean pipes and a rumba swing, of the one American song ubiquitous in Cuba, The Eagles’ “Hotel California”.
There she stood in the doorway
I heard the mission bells ring
I was thinking to myself
This could be heaven or this could be hell
In a purgatory of exile, movement, and endless hope, having carried no more than the government-mandated forty-five pounds of luggage into this country, light-handed and skimming the earth, I recognize: right now I am probably as close as I could possibly be to my father’s California, that rosy future and its impossible state, the one I’m pointed toward, the one that can never be.
All photos courtesy the author
I used to be the kind of reader who gives short shrift to long novels. I used to take a wan pleasure in telling friends who had returned from a tour of duty with War and Peace or The Man Without Qualities with that I’ve-seen-some-things look in their eyes—the thousand-page stare—that they had been wasting their time. In the months it had taken them to plough through one book by some logorrheic modernist or world-encircling Russian, I had read a good eight to ten volumes of svelter dimensions. While they were bench-pressing, say, Infinite Jest for four months solid, I had squared away most of the major Nouveau Romanciers, a fistful of Thomas Bernhards, every goddamned novel Albert Camus ever wrote, and still had time to read some stuff I actually enjoyed.
I was a big believer, in other words, in the Slim Prestige Volume. Nothing over 400 pages. Why commit yourself to one gigantic classic when you can read a whole lot of small classics in the same period of time, racking up at least as much intellectual cachet while you were at it? I took Hippocrates’ famous dictum about ars being longa and vita being brevis as a warning against starting a book in your twenties that might wind up lying still unfinished on the nightstand of your deathbed. Aside from the occasional long novel––one every twelve to eighteen months––I was a Slim Prestige Volume man, and that seemed to be that.
Even when I went back to college in my mid-twenties to do a PhD in English literature, I still relied on a kind of intellectual cost-benefit analysis that persuaded me that my time was better spent broadening than deepening—or, as it were, thickening—my reading. Had I read Dostoevsky? Sure I had: I’d spent a couple of rainy evenings with Notes From Underground, and found it highly agreeable. Much better than The Double, in fact, which I’d also read. So yeah, I knew my Dostoevsky. Next question, please. Ah yes, Tolstoy! Who could ever recover from reading The Death of Ivan Illych, that thrilling (and thrillingly brief) exploration of mortality and futility?
There’s a memorable moment in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 where Amalfitano, the unhinged Catalan professor of literature, encounters a pharmacist working the night shift at his local drug store whom he discovers is reading his way diligently through the minor works of the major novelists. The young pharmacist, we are told, “chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pécuchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers.” This causes Amalfitano to reflect on the “sad paradox” that “now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.”
Apart from being a powerful vindication of Bolaño’s own staggering ambition, and of his novel’s vast and unyielding darkness, I found that this passage reflected something of my own slightly faint-hearted reading practices (practices from which, by the time I had got around to reading the 900-page 2666, I had obviously started to deviate). A bit of a bookish pharmacist myself, I was content with netting minnows like Bartleby, while leaving the great Moby-Dick-sized leviathans largely unharpooned. I was fond of Borges’ famous remark about its being “a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books,” and tended to extrapolate from it a dismissal of reading them too—as though Borges, the great wanderer and mythologizer of labyrinths, would ever have approved of such readerly timidity.
And then, three or four years ago, something changed. For some reason I can’t recall (probably a longish lapse in productivity on my thesis) I set myself the task of reading a Great Big Important Novel. For another reason I can’t recall (probably the fact that it had been sitting on a shelf for years, its pages turning the sullen yellow of neglected great books), I settled on Gravity’s Rainbow. I can’t say that I enjoyed every minute of it, or even that I enjoyed all that much of it at all, but I can say that by the time I got to the end of it I was glad to have read it. Not just glad that I had finally finished it, but that I had started it and seen it through. I felt as though I had been through something major, as though I had not merely experienced something but done something, and that the doing and the experiencing were inseparable in the way that is peculiar to the act of reading. And I’ve had that same feeling, I realize, with almost every very long novel I’ve read before or since.
You finish the last page of a book like Gravity’s Rainbow and—even if you’ve spent much of it in a state of bewilderment or frustration or irritation—you think to yourself, “that was monumental.” But it strikes me that this sense of monumentality, this gratified speechlessness that we tend to feel at such moments of closure and valediction, has at least as much to do with our own sense of achievement in having read the thing as it does with a sense of the author’s achievement in having written it. When you read the kind of novel that promises to increase the strength of your upper-body as much as the height of your brow—a Ulysses or a Brothers Karamazov or a Gravity’s Rainbow—there’s an awe about the scale of the work which, rightly, informs your response to it but which, more problematically, is often difficult to separate from an awe at the fact of your own surmounting of it.
The upshot of this, I think, is that the greatness of a novel in the mind of its readers is often alloyed with those readers’ sense of their own greatness (as readers) for having conquered it. I don’t think William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, for instance, is nearly as fantastic a novel as people often claim it is. But it is one of the most memorable and monumental experiences of my reading life. And these are the reasons why: because the thing was just so long; because I had such a hard time with it; and because I eventually finished it. (I read it as part of an academic reading group devoted to long and difficult American novels, and I’m not sure I would have got to the end of it otherwise). Reading a novel of punishing difficulty and length is a version of climbing Everest for people who prefer not to leave the house. And people who climb Everest don’t howl with exhilaration at the summit because the mountain was a good or a well made or an interesting mountain per se, but because they’re overawed at themselves for having done such a fantastically difficult thing. (I’m willing to concede that they may not howl with exhilaration at all, what with the tiredness, the lack of oxygen and very possibly the frostbite. I’ll admit to being on shaky ground here, as I’ve never met anyone who’s climbed Everest, nor am I likely to if I continue not going out of the house.)
And there is, connected with this phenomenon, what I think of as Long Novel Stockholm syndrome. My own first experience of it—or at least my first conscious experience of it—was, again, with The Recognitions. With any novel of that difficulty and length (976 pages in my prestigiously scuffed and battered Penguin edition), the reader’s aggregate experience is bound to be composed of a mixture of frustrations and pleasures. But what I found with Gaddis’s gigantic exploration of fraudulence and creativity was that, though they were greatly outnumbered by the frustrations, the pleasures seemed to register much more firmly. If I were fully honest with myself, I would have had to admit that I was finding the novel gruelingly, unsparingly tedious. But I wasn’t prepared to be fully honest with myself. Because every couple of hundred pages or so, Gaddis would take pity on me and throw me a bone in the form of an engaging, genuinely compelling set piece. Like the wonderful episode in which one of the characters, under the impression that he is being given a gift of $5,000 by his long-lost father whom he has arranged to meet at a hotel, is in fact mistakenly being given a suitcase full of counterfeit cash by a failed confidence man. And then Gaddis would roll up his sleeves again and get back to the real business of boring me insensible with endless pages of direct-dialogue bluster about art, theology and the shallowness of post-war American culture.
I kept at it, doughtily ploughing my way through this seemingly inexhaustible stuff, holding out for another interlude of clemency from an author I knew was capable of entertaining and provoking me. At some point towards the end of the book it occurred to me that what I was experiencing could be looked at as a kind of literary variant of the Stockholm syndrome phenomenon, whereby hostages experience a perverse devotion to their captors, interpreting any abstention from violence and cruelty, however brief or arbitrary, as acts of kindness and even love. Psychologically, this is understood as a defense mechanism in which the victim fabricates a “good” side of the aggressor in order to avoid confronting the overwhelming terror of his or her situation. Perhaps I’m stretching the bonds of credulity by implicitly comparing William Gaddis to a FARC guerilla commander, but I’m convinced there’s something that happens when we get into a captive situation with a long and difficult book that is roughly analogous to the Stockholm syndrome scenario. For a start, the book’s very length lays out (for a certain kind of reader, at least) its own special form of imperative—part challenge, part command. The thousand-pager is something you measure yourself against, something you psyche yourself up for and tell yourself you’re going to endure and/or conquer. And this does, I think, amount to a kind of captivity: once you’ve got to Everest base camp, you really don’t want to pack up your stuff and turn back. I think it’s this principle that explains, for example, the fact that I’ve read Gravity’s Rainbow but gave up halfway through The Crying of Lot 49, when the latter could be used as a handy little bookmark for the former. When you combine this (admittedly self-imposed) captivity with a novel’s formidable reputation for greatness, you’ve got a perfect set of conditions for the literary Stockholm syndrome to kick in.
In order for a very long novel to get away with long, cruel sessions of boredom-torture, it has to commit, every so often, an act of kindness such as the counterfeit cash set piece in The Recognitions. This is why Ulysses is so deeply loved by so many readers—as well it should be—while Finnegans Wake has been read almost exclusively by Joyce scholars (of whom I’m tempted to think as the Patty Hearsts of literature). After the grueling ordeal of the “Scylla and Charybdis” episode, in which Stephen stands around in the National Library for dozens of pages boring everyone to damn-near-literal tears with his theories about the provenance of Hamlet, we are given the unrestrained pleasure of the “Wandering Rocks” episode. Ulysses might treat us like crap for seemingly interminable stretches of time, but it extends just enough in the way of writerly benevolence to keep us onside. And this kindness is the key to Stockholm syndrome. You don’t know when it’s going to come, or what form it’s going to take, but you get enough of it to keep you from despising your captor, or mounting a brave escape attempt by flinging the wretched thing across the room. According to an article called “Understanding Stockholm Syndrome” published in the FBI Law Enforcement Bullettin:
Kindness serves as the cornerstone of Stockholm syndrome; the condition will not develop unless the captor exhibits it in some form toward the hostage. However, captives often mistake a lack of abuse as kindness and may develop feelings of appreciation for this perceived benevolence. If the captor is purely evil and abusive, the hostage will respond with hatred. But if perpetrators show some kindness, victims will submerge the anger they feel in response to the terror and concentrate on the captors “good side” to protect themselves.
If you’re the kind of reader who doesn’t intend to give up on a Great Big Important Novel no matter how inhumanely it treats you, then there’s a sense in which Joyce or Pynchon or Gaddis (or whoever your captor happens to be) owns you for the duration of that captivity. In order to maintain your sanity, you may end up being disproportionately grateful for the parts where they don’t threaten to bore you to death, where there seems to be some genuine empathic connection between reader and writer. Machiavelli understood this truth long before a Swedish bank robbery turned into a hostage crisis and gave the world the name for a psychological condition. “Men who receive good when they expect evil,” Machiavelli wrote, “commit themselves all the more to their benefactor.” When he wrote that line in the early sixteenth century, the novel, of course, did not yet exist as a genre. I’m inclined to imagine, though, that if he’d been born a century later, he might well have said the same thing about Don Quixote.
Despite all the changes in literary fashions over the past 150 years, Gustave Flaubert remains an essential influence on how novelists approach their work, and Madame Bovary remains the key book in his career. Given Flaubert’s obsession with style and craft, any translation of Madame Bovary into English requires not merely competence but a touch of full-on windmill-charging madness. Lydia Davis has this madness, tempered by a Flaubertian fastidiousness and dedication to language. The results are exhilarating: an English Bovary that is in forceful, energetic tension with the original French. Sentence by sentence, Davis takes up the same quixotic struggle between idealism and pragmatism that Flaubert has set at the core of his writing.
The sense of the quixotic was always strong in Flaubert. Don Quixote was one of his favorite books, and Madame Bovary consciously reaches for many of the effects that Cervantes achieved in a less methodical fashion.
One of the surprises in reading Don Quixote is discovering how, especially in its early chapters, the characters are more cartoonish than human. Don Quixote is a madman, a delusional fool. His devotion to his book-fed vision of knighthood exposes him to incessant mockery and attack, not only from other people but from the author. Sancho Panza, even more surprisingly, is less a voice of reason than a dull-witted clown. His proverbs aren’t presented as insights—they’re the lazy observations of someone who is down-to-earth mainly in the sense that he lacks imagination. For much of the first half of Don Quixote, we’re reading something that’s close to a vaudeville routine: Sancho plays the sluggish straight man to his master’s flamboyant, hyperactive idiocy.
Gradually, though, Cervantes begins to probe some of his characters’ larger possibilities. I think most of us go into Don Quixote expecting the story of a noble dreamer and a levelheaded realist, but Cervantes only allows us to find this story by first working our way through his constant ridicule. Eventually, and particularly in the second half of the novel, Cervantes adds more subtlety to the satire, and rescues his characters from their puppet-show crudeness. He isn’t always consistent about this, however, and Don Quixote is one of those books where the changeability of the writing invites us to make endless interpretations of what its author is trying to accomplish.
Flaubert first read Don Quixote in 1832, when he was eleven years old, and he had heard tales from the book when he was even younger. By the time Madame Bovary was published, in 1857, he had already been thinking about Cervantes for at least a quarter of a century. Moreover, he had created in Emma Bovary a character who would renew and deepen the meaning of Don Quixote for the future.
Emma embodies, in one person, the conflict between idealism and pragmatism that Cervantes divides between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. The argument between the knight and the squire is Emma’s argument with herself: she touches both of their extremes at once, as well as many points in between those extremes. This is why so much of the novel takes place inside her head. Her marriage to Charles and her adulteries with Rodolphe and Léon matter less than her fluctuating attitudes towards the world.
It’s traditional for English-speaking readers to think of Emma mainly as a deluded romantic, but this is a serious distortion of her complexity. Fortunately, the new Davis translation allows us a fresh chance to consider the harsh, observant aspects of Emma’s personality. The various strains of her sentimentality are always doing battle with the various strains of her cynicism. When Flaubert said “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” he didn’t just mean that Emma expressed his secret yearnings. He also meant that she expressed all the different temperatures of coldness and despair in his many degrees of pessimism.
Even before her marriage, as an inexperienced young woman who knows little of the world beyond her father’s farm and the convent where she was educated, Emma “considered herself to be thoroughly disillusioned, with nothing more to learn, nothing more to feel.” Throughout the novel, she can’t help comparing her abstract hopes against her keen eye for everything that is discouraging and ugly. Within ten pages of the start of her affair with the well-to-do landowner Rodolphe, she realizes that he has become depressingly sensible and brisk towards her. Devastated by his detachment, she again mourns the loss of all her dreams. She feels she has spent her illusions “in all those successive stages she had gone through, in her virginity, her marriage, and her love…like a traveler who leaves some part of his wealth at every inn along the road.”
Her feelings for Rodolphe revive, of course, but he leaves her at precisely the time he has promised to take her away with him forever. Later she goes to the opera, and convinces herself that nothing in the performance could possibly move her, since she now knows “how paltry were the passions exaggerated by art.” At this same opera she meets Léon, a young law student. They start an affair, but she soon cools towards him, and her bitterness becomes all-encompassing:
Why was life so inadequate, why did the things she depended on turn immediately to dust?…Every smile hid a yawn of boredom, every joy a malediction, every pleasure its own disgust, and the sweetest kisses left on your lips no more than a vain longing for a more sublime pleasure.
Emma’s cynicism and pessimism are critical to our understanding of her. Yet if they were all she had to offer us, Madame Bovary would be as narrow and harsh as some of Flaubert’s later novels. I admire Sentimental Education and Bouvard and Pécuchet—it’s hard not to enjoy Flaubert’s exacting technical skills—but the melancholy resignation of those books feels a bit mechanical to me. All action is doomed to failure and absurdity, all emotion is ghostly and pale, and nothing matters very much, either to the characters or to us as readers. I have friends who love the later Flaubert precisely for his refusal to hide his conviction that everything tastes bitter and stale. Still, on most days I want more than this from a novelist. I want a fuller sense of our possibilities: the heightened alertness to everything and everyone around us that Tolstoy and Woolf and Shakespeare provide at their best.
Emma is full of this alertness, a heady combination of physical, emotional, and intellectual responsiveness that makes her unique in Flaubert’s writing. Though it’s common for critics to ignore her intelligence, she is by a wide margin the smartest and most perceptive of the novel’s main characters. The world gives Don Quixote a beating for his romanticism, but he is usually in the honorable position of standing up for his convictions against external circumstances—circumstances that he amusingly chooses to reinterpret to his advantage. Emma, in contrast, gives most of her beatings to herself. She faces the difficult task of finding something to believe in when she must constantly fight her own mixed feelings. She is far too fierce for the tame choices available to her, and far too wise to find fulfillment in the limits of her socially allotted slots as either a contented wife or a secret adulteress.
Often in the novel we join her at the window as she looks outside and struggles with the subtleties of her dissatisfaction. She wonders how to “express an uneasiness so intangible, one that changes shape like a cloud, that changes direction like the wind…” At times she works towards a tentative feminist critique, and ponders how much more freedom her hoped-for son might someday enjoy compared to her. She sees quite clearly that much of her sense of confinement comes from the restraints placed on her as a woman, “always some desire luring her on, some convention holding her back.” Soon the gap between what she actually thinks and what she can openly admit grows intolerable:
She was sometimes surprised at the shocking conjectures that entered her mind; and yet she had to keep smiling, hear herself say again and again that she was happy, pretend to be happy, let everyone believe it…
When Emma receives the letter in which Rodolphe admits he is abandoning her, she runs up to her room “as if an inferno were blazing behind her.” In a sense, she carries this inferno with her everywhere she goes, and moves through the book with an intensity that none of the other characters comes close to attaining.
Flaubert continually brings out her restless energy. Thinking about her marriage, she “would hold the tongs in the fire till they turned red.” She sits down on the grass at one point, and quickly starts “digging into it with little thrusts of the tip of her parasol.” Later, as she listens to someone during a stroll, she begins “stirring the wood chips on the ground with the heel of her boot.” She talks to Léon before she sleeps with him for the first time, and we find her “contemplating the bows on her slippers and making little movements in the satin, now and then, with her toes.” She overflows with so much dynamism that she can’t even pass through a church without dipping her finger in the holy water.
Her tragedy is that her vitality has been diverted into channels which can’t possibly satisfy her. Like Don Quixote, she has let the fantasies of second-rate writers imprison her dreams. In her case, she is infected not with the ideal of knighthood but with the ideal of a perfect mate, as found in the novels and stories she read as a girl. Since this ideal is absurdly distant from the more difficult rewards of any actual relationship, it guarantees that she will always be unhappy.
Her love affairs can momentarily appease her frustration, but in the end they always take her in a false direction, away from the more mysterious passions that drive her at a level neither she nor anyone else in the novel can quite understand. When she begins her relationship with Rodolphe, she experiences for an instant this obscure desire, which is less for a lover than for transformation and escape:
But catching sight of herself in the mirror, she was surprised by her face. Her eyes had never been so large, so dark, or so deep. Something subtle had spread through her body and was transfiguring her.
Ultimately, it’s this promise of transfiguration that Emma seeks. She wants to break away from the confines of her life and undergo a metamorphosis into something better than the petty existence that surrounds her. Yet the only way she has been taught that she can attain any kind of transcendence—through the love of a man—repeatedly ends by making her feel cheated and unfulfilled. It’s appropriate that, by the novel’s climax, when she decides to kill herself, her rage against men takes on a magnificent ferocity, the flipside of Hamlet’s rage against women when he attacks Ophelia:
She longed to strike out at all men, spit in their faces, crush every one of them; and she walked rapidly straight on, pale, trembling, enraged, searching the empty horizon with her tearful eyes, as though reveling in the hatred that was suffocating her.
Madame Bovary is about a world where people’s highest aspirations are turned against them—are cheapened into standardized, prepackaged dreams that others can pillage and control. We’ll never know how Emma’s ambitions might have developed if she hadn’t become addicted to the romantic fantasies she read at the convent. She understands that those fantasies have failed her, but the novel prepares an even crueler recognition for her—one that’s as current for us today as the rows of foreclosures and bankruptcies along our streets.
Behind the story of Emma’s marriage and affairs, Flaubert quietly builds a hidden theme: the manipulations of Homais and Lheureux. After their introduction at the start of Part Two, their presence grows bit by bit until they finally replace Emma altogether and lead us to one of the most coolly nightmarish endings in literature.
For much of the novel we barely notice them, and we wonder why Homais, that absurd apothecary obsessed with prestige, keeps returning to the story. His mind consists entirely of received ideas: prejudices that parrot the hand-me-down Enlightenment notions of his favorite newspapers. Since he has no outstanding personal qualities to prop up his megalomania, he spends all his time trying to manipulate others and invent a public reputation that defies the extent of his ineptitude.
Emma is intelligent enough and independent enough to fight back against her fantasies at least as often as she indulges them. Homais, on the other hand, revels in the fatuousness of his ideas. He needs all thought to be secondhand and simplistic, needs all beliefs to fit strict rules of banality, because only in a society of the borrowed and the rote can he flourish.
At first he seems harmless. So does Lheureux, the merchant who loans money to Emma so she can buy the little luxury items that accompany her adulteries. As the novel goes on, however, we find that Homais and Lheureux work their way forward by exploiting and damaging the people around them.
Lheureux’s method is more obvious, and more immediately effective. He draws Emma into taking higher loans than she can realistically repay, and he keeps extending her credit in what she finally sees is an effort to ruin her. By selling her the romantic clothes and props that she thinks will spike her affairs with greater potency, he ends up winning the right to take all of her family’s possessions. This, for Emma, is the final disillusionment, the one that tips her towards her suicide. She is forced to understand that not only have her dreams failed to satisfy her—they’ve been twisted, through her own foolishness, to lead her into financial ruin.
Homais, in turn, accidentally provides the arsenic that Emma uses to poison herself. He also fails to purge her of the poison in time to perhaps save her life. His incompetence here mirrors his earlier incompetence in the novel’s famous clubfoot episode, where a young man’s leg has to be amputated after an unnecessary operation. (Interestingly, in both situations, Homais is less negligent than Emma’s husband, a medical practitioner who should know better.)
Moreover, in addition to the pain that Homais inflicts unintentionally, he becomes steadily more aggressive in mistreating anyone he perceives as a nuisance or a rival. He has a habit of practicing medicine without a license, and has always feared that Emma’s husband, the hapless Charles, will expose his misconduct. Because of this, Homais has done his best to undermine Charles in constant small ways while pretending to be his friend. Then Emma dies, leaving Charles plagued with debts, and Homais completely abandons him as soon as it becomes clear that Charles no longer has the social standing to interfere with anyone’s ambitions.
This is when Homais largely takes over the narrative. He tries to cure a blind man with a salve, fails,and then keeps the failure from harming his reputation by attacking the man in a series of newspaper articles. The success of his articles emboldens him, and he decides that he is an expert on government affairs and major social issues. He starts to crave awards and honors, and uses his public position to discredit and drive out of town three doctors in a row. The novel’s stark final lines tell us that he is protected by the authorities and local opinion, and has just won the cross of the Legion of Honor.
His conquest is complete. He has replaced conscientious medical practice with irresponsible quackery, and has successfully made over reality in his own image. Public recognition is all, and the manipulation of appearances not only hides his banality but enshrines that banality as the mark of superior skill. In the light of his grotesque victory, we see more clearly the confused splendor of Emma’s struggles, which have at least the nobility of her outsized passion. People like Homais and Lheureux, Flaubert suggests, are the source of much of the fraudulence that ensnares Emma and the rest of us throughout our lives. With our enthusiastic cooperation, they build mazes of debased aspirations and desiccated dreams, traps in which we lose our sense of direction, wasting our strength as we search for a way out.
Lydia Davis, already a formidable translator and short story writer, has now presented us with an English Bovary that powerfully recreates the different elements of Flaubert’s style.
Flaubert is often as hard on Emma as Cervantes was on Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, and Davis brings a tart, astringent tone to much of the writing. Some reviewers have complained about this, but it seems to me that Davis is usually just following Flaubert more closely than, say, the overly placid Francis Steegmuller version does. I love the Steegmuller version, and he deserves permanent recognition not only for his Bovary translation but for Flaubert in Egypt and his two-volume edition of Flaubert’s correspondence. Still, Davis provides a necessary corrective to Steegmuller, similar to the corrective she provided to Scott Moncrieff’s florid Proust.
It’s an essential virtue of this Bovary that Davis conveys the full force of Flaubert’s harshness. After all, the novel’s constant mockery of Emma is part of Flaubert’s overall plan, and I suspect it was Don Quixote’s scornful prose he had in mind when he wrote passages like these, ridiculing the way that Emma uses her mother’s death as an excuse for indulging in self-conscious displays of grief:
Elle se laissa donc glisser dans les méandres lamartiniens, écouta les harpes sur les lacs, tous les chants de cygnes mourants, toutes les chutes de feuilles, les vierges pures qui montent au ciel, et la voix de l’Éternel discourant dans les vallons. Elle s’en ennuya, n’en voulut point convenir, continua par habitude, ensuite par vanité, et fut enfin surprise de se sentir apaisée, et sans plus de tristesse au cœur que de rides sur son front.
With characteristic sharpness, Davis reproduces Flaubert’s air of fast-moving amusement at Emma’s stylized mourning:
And so she allowed herself to slip into Lamartinean meanderings, listened to harps on lakes, to the song of every dying swan, to the falling of every leaf, to pure virgins rising to heaven, and to the voice of the Eternal speaking in the valleys. She became bored with this, did not want to admit it, continued out of habit, then out of vanity, and was at last surprised to find that she was at peace, and that there was no more sadness in her heart than there were wrinkles on her forehead.
“Lamartinean meanderings” captures the rhythmic elegance of “méandres lamartiniens” and is much more concise than Steegmuller’s typically relaxed “meander along Lamartinian paths.” It’s also a bit less flat-footed than the “Lamartine meanderings” in the old Eleanor Marx-Aveling translation. More crucially, the second sentence shows the skill with which Davis renders the bounce and pace of the novel’s French. Flaubert rushes through Emma’s psychological changes with the comic deftness of a sped-up film clip, and Davis keeps the speed without losing the sense.
On page after page, Davis succeeds in conveying Flaubert’s invigorating bravado whenever he’s treating Emma’s foibles with unrestrained contempt. Part of what Flaubert learned from Cervantes is that you could make merciless fun of your characters without destroying them. Both Emma and Don Quixote emerge from their authors’ derision battered yet triumphant, oddly purified and preserved by the very attacks that superficially seem to discredit them.
For the most part, Davis sticks tightly both to the meaning of Flaubert’s text and to its constant changes of tone. She is especially good at following the different rhythms of the original and making them work in English, a difficult task with Flaubert. He is a hard writer to imitate. He approaches each sentence as a separate problem, and painstakingly fits each of those problems into the larger problem of the paragraph, the episode, the novel as a whole. Stylistically, you never quite know what the next sentence is going to be like—long or short, stoic or humorous, rich with description or sparse with subtle pathos. A key source of Flaubert’s greatness is that he manages to contain such variety within a voice that is still distinctive and strong. Davis has done a wonderful job of catching both the main voice—the rigorous, lucid tone that dominates the novel—and the wide range of other styles that wrestle with this voice throughout the story. Flaubert’s French practically seethes with all the moods and emotions that it includes. You have the sense, crucial to the novel’s impact, that powerful feeling is being conducted under powerful control.
Davis recognizes this. She knows that Flaubert’s style depends not merely on his renowned chill but on the heat that is constantly threatening to melt through the ice—the passion that the style needs to save while purging the words of sentimentality or sensationalism. Flaubert is celebrated for his irony, but we wouldn’t care about his irony if he weren’t equally good at moments like the one when Emma first considers killing herself in the wake of Rodolphe’s rejection. Upstairs in her home, she leans against the window and looks down at the paving stones while she listens to the whirring of a nearby lathe:
Le rayon lumineux qui montait d’en bas directement tirait vers l’abîme le poids de son corps. Il lui semblait que le sol de la place oscillant s’élevait le long des murs, et que le plancher s’inclinait par le bout, à la manière d’un vaisseau qui tangue. Elle se tenait tout au bord, presque suspendue, entourée d’un grand espace. Le bleu du ciel l’envahissait, l’air circulait dans sa tête creuse, elle n’avait qu’à céder, qu’à se laisser prendre; et le ronflement du tour ne discontinuait pas, comme une voix furieuse qui l’appelait.
Without doing anything especially tricky or spectacular, Davis gives this passage its full measure of life, the force of Emma’s despair mingled with the lathe’s turning:
The ray of light that rose directly up to her from below was pulling the weight of her body down toward the abyss. It seemed to her that the ground in the village square was swaying back and forth and rising along the walls, and that the floor was tipping down at the end, like a vessel pitching. She was standing right at the edge, almost suspended, surrounded by a great empty space. The blue of the sky was coming into her, the air circulating inside her hollow skull, she had only to give in, to let herself be taken; and the whirring of the lathe never stopped, like a furious voice calling to her.
Flaubert presses his translators into a nearly impossible position. They must balance fidelity to his meticulously chosen words against the desire to communicate his awesome stylistic achievement—must sway, as his characters do, between the earthbound and the ideal. Lydia Davis, stronger than Emma Bovary, sustains this balance from start to finish. The time is always right for a Flaubert revival. Davis has now given us the best possible reason to start one.
We don’t have to read much of Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism?, a measured and accessible polemic against (primarily English and American) contemporary culture, to realize that “Modernism” is perhaps not the best term for what he is describing. A reader looking for a neat history of early twentieth century literature, or an analysis of the usual Modernist suspects, will be either disappointed or pleasantly surprised. What we have instead is a richer, broader and more exciting book than is signaled by the title.
Josipovici’s book is not bound by time. To him, a literary form like the novel is inherently “modernist,” and from its origins it has always “pretended or pretended to pretend to be something else.” Cervantes knew that “the novel is precisely the form that emerges when genres no longer seem viable” and because of this, Josipovici argues, Don Quixote is a more cutting edge novel than, say, the latest Booker or Pulitzer prize-winner. This seems like a bold claim, but it is well argued. His analysis of Don Quixote does what the best criticism should: it produces an itch to read the chosen novel or poem.
Contrary to the more comfortable notion of progress through the ages, Josipovici’s argument states that since the sixteenth century, secularism and revolution have eroded authority and undermined tradition, so that the artist is left only with his or her imagination and individuality to fall back on. To our ears this may sound like a blessing — a liberation — but it is apparently a curse, and not just in Josipovici’s mind. Samuel Beckett is quoted as saying that art is reduced to “The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.” Spontaneous creation is drained, the Muse is vanquished, and the soul is absent. Art now has everything to explain, just when the tools and the desire to do so have disappeared.
One doesn’t have to take on Beckett’s bleak philosophy entirely, but its kernel of truth remains. Josipovici presents the example of Hadyn and Beethoven; the former composed a hundred symphonies, yet Beethoven, “no less gifted, no less industrious… could only write nine.” Why is this? “The answer, quite simply, is that Hadyn didn’t feel he needed to start from scratch every time” [my italics]. This is important, and the central point of the book. How many authors do we read who really seem to start from scratch every time, to wrench the book from within, ignorant of the market, uninfluenced by the clichés of contemporary literature? Where we used to have the comfort of tradition and the “sacramental universe,” we now have the ephemeral trends of popular culture, which could also be defined as a devious evasion of the difficult questions with which Modernism has left us.
Philip Roth, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan — they are all avoiding the responsibility of their art, its functions and its implications. To Josipovici, novels are “machines that secrete spurious meaning into the world,” not reflective mirrors or objects designed for middlebrow comfort. To confront this idea and take it seriously is all that is needed to dramatically affect the art. Josipovici gives us many examples of artists who have realized precisely that: from Beethoven to Picasso, Duchamp to Kafka. He finds modernism in unexpected places: especially striking is his reading of Wordsworth, which sits alongside the more predictable, and marginally less interesting, readings of T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens. Wordsworth helps us to get away from the “clichés that everywhere impede a proper understanding of modernism.”
To write a book about this subject at this particular time takes a certain amount of bravery. England is the inheritor of Larkin’s and Waugh’s cynicism in the face of what they saw as artistic pretension. America, while perhaps more comfortable with its experimental side, still contains a climate of literary confidence, rather than self-doubt; certainty and realist narrative, instead of ambiguity.
A long time ago Philip Roth said that there are around 60,000 serious readers in the United States. That is 60,000 who would buy a Philip Roth book, maybe, but realistically there are much fewer serious readers. The kind of readers who sit up late with Ulysses, or who consider Kierkegaard’s Either/Or to be beach reading. What’s more, of these readers I would guess that a significant percentage of them have a go at writing fiction or poetry. Even if they were all lucky enough to be published, a single popular novel would be enough to sap all the media attention away from them (even in the age of the internet, which, by the way, is conspicuously absent as a force in this book. I’m not complaining; it was actually a serene delight to read a new non-fiction book that did not pour on the dreaded “e” prefix remorselessly.) The fault is not with the authors, as such, but with the culture and the criticism surrounding them. It is this that Josipovici wants to change.
And it is a gargantuan task. If contemporary culture has taught us anything it’s that a worldwide web, a few dragging steps towards equality, and a more inclusive attitude in general have almost no impact on public taste. Most people just don’t care enough about the arts to do anything other than lie supine and wait to be entertained, and one wonders if this book can have any traction in a culture that resists elitism so stubbornly. And yet I can’t help but feel that this book is so alive because the world is turned the other way. Even with insurmountable resistance, What Ever Happened to Modernism? is an inspiring, sometimes electrifying, call to arms; a serious book for serious readers.
I come to review Elif Batuman’s The Possessed via a compellingly circuitous route.
It is the divine right of interns to make mistakes, or so I keep trying to convince The Millions editor and my boss, the despotic C. Max Magee. Nonetheless, whenever I chance upon a fresh way to humiliate myself, two events occur in rapid succession: first, I wail “No one must know!” and second, I proceed in a frenzy to tell absolutely everyone.
Case in point – the following:
Dear MS. Batuman,
I’m currently interning at the literary website The Millions, for which I occasionally post “Curiosities”… and I recently posted the following:
“At the Paris Review Daily, Elif Batuman walks us through part one of HIS 12-hour blind date with Dostoevsky…” (emphasis added)
Shortly afterwards, “Alison” posted the following comment: “Elif Batuman is a woman.”
Doom, I thought, for several reasons. First and foremost, I myself do not possess an anglo-sounding name, so to me such mistakes are personal… As waves of shame from cultural insensitivity washed over me, I comforted myself with the fact that I did not make the heteronormative assumption that just because you were on a blind date with a male in your piece, you must obviously be female. So there! I will tell THAT to my detractors…
But doom I thought again, after I spent the better part of the morning trying to gauge the approximate level of your fame and influence online (and thus the approximate size of my gaffe). My research reveals that your level of fame and influence is, in short, high…
Please accept my apologies. I will make amends by reading The Possessed, and by correcting all those who confuse your gender in my presence, forever.
Think this is a hysterical, maladaptive strategy, perhaps? I beg to differ:
Thanks for your kind and entertaining note, and for reposting on The Millions. I do get the gender mistake a lot, and actually find it kind of flattering, since I interpret it to mean that I don’t have a girly style. You must have mistaken me for one of these hard-hitting gay theater writers who are carrying on the tradition of Hemingway and Dos Passos. Re: your unawareness of my tremendous fame and influence, I will forgive you completely if you purchase The Possessed.
Through my ecstasy at this new found relationship with someone from the higher literary echelons, and subsequent rapid-fire scheming as to what I might do with this unexpected influx of power, it did not escape my attention that Elif had quietly taken my offer to “read” The Possessed and raised it to a “purchase” The Possessed. Nor could this subtle revision be dismissed as mere oversight on her part through force of habit. Her email actually linked the words “purchase The Possessed” to its Amazon page. She wasn’t playing coy.
Purchase, eh? It is the divine right of interns to be broke, or so I keep trying to tell my friends when I insist they pick up the tab after expensive dinners. But a few days later, after I posted the above exchange on my blog, Elif Batuman linked to my post on her own blog, with some additional commentary:
[…] Naturally, I was delighted by this testament to the virility of my authorial voice, which is evidently such that young people would sooner believe me to be a gay man than entertain the possibility of my not having a penis at all.
Far be it for me to skive off my part in what was now clearly a swiftly escalating literary collaboration. “You drive a hard bargain, Batuman,” I muttered to myself. My condolences to Junot Diaz, whose esteemed book was until then the leading contender in that particular paperback bracket. Counteroffer accepted.
At first I couldn’t find The Possessed in the Barnes and Noble on 6th Avenue where I sought it, but the salesperson at the information desk, his eyes lighting up in recognition, walked me purposefully to its spot.
“It’s pretty popular for a book on Russian literature,” he remarked good-naturedly.
“Well, she’s very funny,” I agreed, possibly with an excess of familiarity.
“Oh, do you know her?”
“Well… you know… we’ve corresponded!” I trilled demurely, in a manner suggesting we’d been hand-writing deeply personal letters to each other for years and were practically the best of friends, instead of having emailed exactly once.
I had high hopes that my new purchase would be funny, so I waited until I was on the subway to begin reading. I have a penchant for bursting out in fits of raucous laughter while reading on the subway. It confuses people, but it’s something of a hobby of mine. I also hoped the author (whom I gathered is a smoker from her Paris Review piece) would frequently mention smoking, my other hobby. It is a particular pleasure to light a cigarette (though not on the subway, of course) while reading about someone else lighting a cigarette, sort of like watching the food network while eating.
The humor, as it turns out, did not disappoint. But it could have used a bit more smoking.
The Possessed, drawn from Elif Batuman’s articles for the New Yorker, Harper’s, and n+1, recounts her adventures during the seven years she spent in graduate school studying Russian literature. I have always felt a fondness for academia, and, in fact, so consuming was my desire to get a PhD in every available subject that, rather than pick just one, I opted to go to law school, effectively using up my quota of degree acquisition for at least another decade. But Batuman had far less enthusiasm, at first:
It was a received idea in those days that “theory” was bad for writers, infecting them with a hostility toward language and making them turn out postmodern; and what did it have to offer, anyway… Why all that trouble to prove things that nobody would ever dispute in the first place…?
Studying literature, as she describes it, was something that happened to her, rather than the other way around. A series of chance encounters — a linguistics professor with a deep concern for Martians, a group of writers huddled in a trailer in a New England artists’ colony, an adolescent boys’ “best legs” contest in Hungary, to name but a few — gently pulled her away from creative writing and toward literary criticism.
Like Batuman, I’ve had some harrowing experiences with contemporary American fiction – particularly short fiction. I can be pretty wary of it. Well-meaning friends who question why I dither endlessly before committing to their book recommendations in this genre are finally treated to a vague “Well, I don’t know if it will be any good…” This does not go over well with the person vouching for the work: “But I’m telling you it’s good,” they seethe, and animosity crackles between us.
If I could pinpoint one moment as the genesis of this (mostly irrational) trepidation, it would be somewhere between 2004 and 2005, when I read The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing. (This is not to imply that that collection was considered a shining example, or any sort of example, of the fiction of its time by anyone other than myself). But my disenchantment had been quietly building, and like the proverbial straw, when I read the following few sentences, something inside me just broke:
One wall is covered with taped-up cartoons in black ink and watercolor…
He hands me my wine. And I tell him that his cartoons are beautiful and funny and sad and true.
The description of a thing as “beautiful and funny and sad and true” filled me with such indescribable gloom that it took me years to shake. I was reminded of that feeling as Batuman related the profound “emptiness” she felt upon reading the “Best American Short Stories” of 2004 and 2005 (apparently an epiphanic couple of years for the both of us):
I thought it was the dictate of craft that had pared many of the Best American stories to a nearly unreadable core of brisk verbs and vivid nouns – like entries in a contest to identify as many concrete entities as possible, in the fewest possible words. The first sentences were crammed with so many specificities, exceptions, subverted expectations, and minor collisions that one half expected to learn they were acrostics, or had been written without using the letter e.
But very little of The Possessed is devoted to critique of fiction. Quite the opposite. It’s pure love of Russian literature that fuels Batuman’s adventures that comprise the bulk of the novel. Really, only a mad sort of love could have prompted her to attend a Tolstoy conference in flip-flops and sweatpants while quietly investigating the author’s death, to fabricate a wedding in Uzbekistan, to ask about doorknobs in a St. Petersburg ice castle, to sleep with a diabolically charismatic classmate who transforms her social circle into the cast of Dostoevsky’s The Demons.
The love of literature crystallizes for many readers when they first encounter a novel they so adore that they think: I wish I could just live inside of it. The Possessed has this desire at heart. Granted, it might be more obvious why Don Quixote felt this impulse for his beloved chivalric romances than why Batuman felt it for the works of Babel, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky. But their fantasy is one and the same.
Is seven years of graduate school a more effective means of living inside literature than Don Quixote’s donning an old suit of armor and setting off for adventures with his “squire”? Another question: is it saner?
It’s easy to set these questions aside when drawn into Batuman’s anecdotes, which are told with such deadpan so as to magnify the absurd, or when consuming the literary theory that’s conveyed with such engaging naturalness that one starts believing she is bandying about popular culture. Batuman has the sort of non-fiction voice that not only indicates humor and intelligence but channels it: the reader feels funnier and smarter herself while reading.
But these questions acutely matter to The Possessed, and they in turn transform it from a series of essays and adventures into a novel, into a story, about love and the quest to actualize one’s passions – whether they be Russian literature, chivalric romances, or anything else – through uncompensated devotion. Which is the divine right of all interns and academics.
A few years ago, a woman I hardly know and whose name I’ve now forgotten invited me to become her friend on Goodreads, a social-networking site on which users log the books they’re reading (or have read, or intend to read), and in some cases write casual reviews of these books and rate them on a scale of one to five stars. I thanked the woman but told her I didn’t participate in social-networking websites. Because, I didn’t elaborate, I found them more estranging than connecting, or suspected I would, and because I didn’t want to turn myself into some kind of product (not true: in my huffing, protracted climb from anonymity to obscurity, I’ve attempted quite a lot of that), and because I was very tired, and finally because I couldn’t afford another distraction from my writing or from checking my email forty times a day. I’ve since softened my position on all this and now have an impressive though not obscene number of friends on Facebook. Sometimes these nominal friendships bring into depressing relief my paucity of substantive friendships, but on the whole I’d say I’m slightly less lonely and no less productive (which is to say: not terribly productive) than I was before I joined Facebook. But this essay, if that’s what it is, isn’t about Facebook (boring), it’s about Goodreads (sort of).
So some night this past winter—it was very late; I’d been having trouble sleeping—I found myself Googling a minor figure in the publishing industry, and in doing so came across his Goodreads page, which he allows to be viewed by friends and non-friends alike. His tastes were impeccable and strikingly similar to my own, which is odd because my tastes aren’t impeccable. I studied this man’s picture; he seemed elegant, loyal, athletic. I imagined him as my literal, that is, non-internet friend, and also as my champion, my Colonel Tom, imagined our spandexed bike rides together, our shared energy bars, our semicolon debates. I joined Goodreads but didn’t send this man a friend request, not wanting to seem like some scheming gnat, nor did I elect to follow him (as one follows a Twitter feed), not wanting to seem like some mousy sycophant. I spent another hour or so snooping around the site, but didn’t do anything with my own just-established Goodreads page, mostly because I was very tired. Then I avoided the site for about six months, during which period I was mainly dealing with a bat infestation in our old and porous house.
Recently some other internet research of dubious value led me back to Goodreads, where I discovered that, during my absence, I’d received three friend requests. That seemed flattering, three is more than two after all, and in the embrace of my small public I finally put some information on my Goodreads page. First I noted the book I was currently reading, which I won’t note here, and then I considered adding my picture to the page, though in the end that seemed like too much work. Satisfied, I turned off the computer and read more of the book I’d just advertised while advertising myself on Goodreads. As I was reading, I sometimes paused to think of a pithy, even poetic comment I might post on Goodreads after finishing the book. I sometimes review books professionally, and in fact have a few books I should be reviewing now, so I didn’t want to write anything on Goodreads that might resemble a book review; I don’t mind procrastinating on writing book reviews, it’s one of my specialties, but it seemed foolish to put off writing a paying (barely remunerative) book review in order to write a volunteer one. But as I said, I thought I could come up with commentary of a different stripe, something terse and poetic—more and more I was thinking of something poetic. Such as: But I couldn’t come up with anything, or nothing good, even after I’d actually finished the book. I wrote and revised, took a walk, revised further. All junk. And even if I were to come up with something good, I thought, it might set an overhigh standard, and then, driven to routinely meet or exceed that standard, I’d devote altogether too much time to my Goodreads poems, distracting me from more serious writing as well as from checking my email and humanely (all in all) removing bats. The bats were just one of the things keeping me up at night; I blamed fatigue, in part, for my failure to write even one presentable Goodreads poem. I decided to ignore the comments box and just give the book a star rating.
All my favorite books are four-star books: great (or very good) books that here and there bore, vex, or disgust me. “Might I confess to finding that it is exquisite to be of two minds regarding works or art?” Robert Walser wrote in a four-star short story. “To find fault with something that I welcome on the whole, how nice I find it is!” Exactly, and I suppose there was no avoiding that frothy exclamation point. Although no artwork is perfect, some are perfecter than others, and whenever a book offers too few opportunities for fault-finding, flirts too brazenly with perfection, with five-starness, I lose interest. For me to give a book five stars would be to insult it, would be more or less the same as giving it three stars. Still, it would look sophomoric to give a close-but-no-cigar four stars to, say, Don Quixote, a book I love, even though parts of it bore, vex, or disgust me. Especially because at some point, for instance when a friend publishes a book, I’m going to trot out all five of those stars. I don’t have many writer friends, or many non-writer friends, my Facebook account notwithstanding, but I have a few, and the next time one of them publishes a book, I’d be inclined to give that book the maximum rating on Goodreads, even though none of my friends—I can just tell—are capable of writing a five-star book (which by my lights is a good thing), and no doubt some of them will write two-star books. And to those two-star books, fair books, neither good nor bad, I’d happily fill in five stars on Goodreads and hope that my friends would do the same for me if and when my two-star book quietly hits tens or even dozens of shelves. But that would make the four stars I gave Don Quixote look even dumber, and then everyone—all my friends, my three Goodreads friends—would know that either my judgment is unreliable or my rating system is a sham. I could refuse to treat my friends’ books on Goodreads, and inform them, my friends, of this policy so they wouldn’t wonder why I was neglecting their books, their mostly as-yet-unpublished books. But I fear my Goodreads friend numbers, already low, might suffer as a result. The whole pursuit seemed doomed. Better, I decided, to skip the star rating along with the commentary, simply let the book speak for itself.
This would be my clean, disinterested procedure: no clever (yet moving) poetic fragments, no reductive star ratings, just a log of the books I’ve read, or skimmed. Many people, including Art Garfunkel, keep such records. If you go to Garfunkel’s website, as I sometimes do, you can see every book he’s read since 1968. In April of ’72 he read Alan Watts’ The Wisdom of Insecurity; in June of that year, when he and Simon reunited for a McGovern fundraiser at Madison Square Garden, he read no books (or finished up the Watts); last July he read Cicero’s On the Good Life, followed by Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. He was On. Of course I’m not famous and interesting like Art Garfunkel is, nor can I sing harmony, but my book log, I thought, might nonetheless be of interest to my three Goodreads friends, one of whom I’ve never actually met, or might at least be of interest to a future version of myself. Twenty years from now I would know that in June of 2010 I reread (skimmed) a book about insomnia, among others.
Having worked through these dilemmas, I needed to start a new book. This is one of my favorite things to do, to choose and start a new book. I try to really concentrate on my emotional conditions and intellectual acuity at that moment, and consider what plans I have over the next few days or weeks, and then home in on the one book, of all the books I know, or that I happen to find in my bat-ridden home or at the nearest bookstore (where I believe I’ve also seen bat droppings), that I most want, most need, to read, so that I won’t put the book at a disadvantage by reading it at the wrong time. These pains notwithstanding, I often choose the wrong book. It may be that I like to choose and start books more than I like to finish them. Probably I abandon sixty percent of the books I start. Sometimes I fail the book (and set it aside with some shame); sometimes the book fails me (and I hurl it away with some relish). As it happens, the book I was thinking about reading next was one I’d left unfinished several years ago, too many years ago to start from where I’d marked page 122 with the business card of a sleep therapist, it may have been, or a bus transfer (I threw out the bookmark without studying it). But starting again at page one is fine, since, as I just explained, I love to start books. As it also happens, I’d once, over ice cream with a friend I’m almost certain, claimed to have read and enjoyed this book—not entirely false, I’d read and enjoyed part of the book, and I’d read three other books by the same writer, so perhaps I had the right to fudge. Besides, I’d read all the books years ago—not twenty years ago, granted, but six, seven, or eight—long enough for memory to do its destructive, distorting work, to the point where the three wholly read books were about as hazy to me as the mostly unread one. Still, I didn’t want to indicate to my Goodreads friends that I was currently reading the book as if it were brand new to me, since after all I’d had the sense to start the book ages or at least seven years ago, when its author was a bit less fashionable, and furthermore I didn’t want my ice-cream buddy to discover and friend me on the site (I would have to accept), then call my bluff, humiliating me in front of the others, and yet I didn’t want to heap lies on lies in the comments section: “What a delight to revisit this longtime favorite,” or the like. I would have to start some other book, I decided. And probably it would be best, as long as I was on Goodreads, not to read any book I had earlier started but not finished, or any book I’d ever directly or obliquely but either way falsely claimed to have read in its entirety, or any book that I feel I should have read long ago, but didn’t, partly because I was so tired.
The next book I wanted to read was a famously difficult work of philosophy that, to judge from my previous experience with the same book, I would understand only sporadically and almost certainly not finish. Undoubtedly it would look pretentious to list this book on Goodreads; perhaps it would even be pretentious. But I might, I thought, be able to clear the air of some pomposity by reading the philosophy book in tandem with something breezy, even utilitarian (in the non-philosophical sense)—Psyching Up for Tennis or something like that. But I wasn’t about to read Psyching Up for Tennis or tell more lies. I decided to look for another book, but each one I settled on was wrong for Goodreads: too fancy, too populist, too hip, too square, too predictable, too self-consciously curve bally. I would have to give up Goodreads or give up reading.
I deleted my account, but felt no relief. Last night, disturbed by anxieties only tangentially related to Goodreads, I had trouble falling asleep again, and eventually got up at three-thirty, ate a bowl of cereal, and started a new book, a smart, soulful little book of poetry, a book that might, I thought, cast a becoming light on its public readers and even in some small way boost the poet’s career. I thought I could give Goodreads another go, and that this time I would relax and let the site link me to kindred spirits, let it give me fizzy blips of communitarian joy, let it alert me to overlooked books that I too might come to cherish. And it was these optimistic thoughts, and the book of poetry, which started to drag, that finally allowed me to close my eyes, make heavy my limbs, and settle into what I believe were the most restful three hours of non-postcoital adult sleep I have ever known.
[Image credit: pachakku]
I’ll do you the favor of summarizing all the major plot points of the second volume of The Dream of the Red Chamber. Jia Bao-yu, the eccentric adolescent heir of the phenomenally wealthy Jia family, has a crush on his cousin, Lin Dai-yu, and she has a crush on him. He unintentionally slights her, and they have a fight, which is quickly resolved. Bao-yu’s flirtation with a maid inadvertently leads to her suicide; as the result of the maid’s suicide and his friendship with an escaped slave of the Imperial household, his father beats Bao-yu brutally, leaving him bed-ridden. However, he eventually recovers, and starts a poetry club with his sisters and cousins. They have a poetry contest. At the matriarch’s insistence, the family throws an extravagant birthday party for her granddaughter-in-law, Wang Xi-feng. The party ends poorly when Wang Xi-feng catches her husband cheating on her with a maid. More cousins come to visit, and to honor them, Bao-yu’s sister invites them to the poetry club, which holds another meeting. The family celebrates the New Year festival. That’s more or less all that really happens, and that story takes some 560 pages of tiny, dense text to tell. It’s also only the second volume of five, each about the same length.
At the beginning of the summer, I set out to read the entirety of the David Hawkes translation of The Dream of the Red Chamber. Its author, Cao Xueqin, was the scion of one of the wealthiest families of early Qing China. He was also unfortunate enough, as a child, to be a witness to its dramatic downfall–a result of political purges and property confiscations. Cao spent most of his life in dire poverty, writing and re-writing the semi-autobiographical Dream of the Red Chamber continuously until his death in 1764. Dream of the Red Chamber–circulated in coveted hand-copied manuscripts until the first print edition in 1792–was an almost instant success. The novel has had a profound impact on the Chinese literary tradition; scholarly studies of Red Chamber are so numerous that there is a minor field of study dedicated to the novel – hongxue, literally, “redology.” Red Chamber serves as an invaluable record of the lifestyle of a wealthy Chinese family at the beginning of the eighteenth century, faithfully portraying the Neo-Confucian conservatism of the newly established Qing dynasty and the anxieties that preoccupied its governing scholar bureaucracy. Its doomed lovers, Jia Bao-yu and Lin Dai-yu, are as iconic in China as Romeo and Juliet are in the West. It’s also notable for its staggering length. At about twenty-eight hundred pages, Dream of the Red Chamber is about twice as long as my copy of War and Peace.
What is most striking to me about the experience of reading this book, however, is not the length. It is the vast distance between The Dream of the Red Chamber and the modern sensibility. In the post-Lish verbal economics of the contemporary novel, where every word has to count, the dramatic waste of words in Red Chamber is astoundingly alien. I am aware, of course, that not every novel is plot-driven, but most novels do tend to have some sort of force propelling them forward, some sort of urgency, whether that urgency is derived from the events, the character, or themes alluded to by the work. Dream of the Red Chamber, on the other hand, is unbelievably comfortable with its own languor. It is often content to bring the story to a complete standstill while it explains the minutiae of household management. The novel often seems to proceed only with a great reluctance.
I won’t tell you it isn’t occasionally boring to read this novel. I also won’t tell you that it isn’t maddening. Or that, after reading every excruciating detail of the umpteenth drinking game, I didn’t want to angrily trample it, like an apostate stomping on the cross. But the extravagant waste of the prose is also part of the overall design of the novel. The low signal-to-noise ratio causes the mind to actively search for the tiny anomalies that reveal the profundity behind the endless series of parties. I love this single sentence, for example:
It was customary in the Jia household to treat the older generation of servants – those who had served the parents of the present masters – with even greater respect than the younger generation of masters, so that in this instance it was not thought at all surprising that You-shi, Xi-feng and Li Wan should remain standing while old Mrs. Lai and three or four other old nannies (though not without first apologizing for the liberty) seated themselves on the stools.
I cannot remember where I last saw the relationships between servants and their masters so concisely described. This sentence (particularly the parenthetical) perfectly captures the way a master’s gesture of apparent humility and gratitude can end up as nothing more than the ultimate expression of power.
The novel is filled with these diamonds in the rough. In fact, the overall technique of the novel is that of an elaborate shell game, as if the narrator were attempting to hide something behind every description of a meal. Surrounded by reams and reams of meaningless detail, the sudden dismissal of a maid jars us as an unconscionable cruelty. We come to understand the magnitude of the Jia family matriarch’s vanity and selfishness by carefully reading between the lines. And only by trudging through each and every poetry contest can the reader absorb the tremendous depth of the regret that suffuses the novel; with each innocent poem written about transience, with each second idly wasted, the young residents of the Jia family mansions unknowingly signal their own doom.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the novel is dead. Heck, forget the novel; the short story is dead. It’s all about flash fiction now. Not only is this a foregone conclusion, everyone knows how it happened, too. Television, or video games, or the internet, or Twitter destroyed our attention spans. For one thing, nobody reads anymore (a sentiment expressed exclusively, it should be noted, by people who read a great deal). And besides, nobody’s interested in fiction anymore (again, a statement that is only ever written by people who love literary fiction).
Myriad and ever-emerging like cockroaches, those essays that would pronounce a final sentence on the novel rely on a gross misperception of how culture works. The logic behind most of these arguments is that readers are only willing to read works that reflect their direct experience; thus, a faster paced world demands shorter stories, or an image-obsessed world eschews text altogether. “Death of the novel” essayists would condemn the art form to the dustbin of history like the telegraph, the typewriter or some other piece of outdated machinery. Theirs is a brutally determinist view of the world; they seem to believe that culture can only reflect–and never influence–the societies and people that produce it.
However, that’s never been my experience. I have continually been shaped by books. To Kill A Mockingbird taught me what courage is. Beowulf taught me about death. Swann’s Way taught me how to let go of love. And I hope that Dream of the Red Chamber will teach me to pay attention. For as much as life is made out of Joycean epiphanies, it seems that a great deal more of it is composed of lunches and dinners, awful parties, boring family get-togethers, and countless, idly-watched episodes of Law and Order. There seems to be a great deal of value in learning how to find the beauty that lies in this “wasted” time. Not to say that we can’t also have quick beach reads. But we don’t only read to consume; we also read in order to learn and maybe even in order to change and to grow.
Since the beginning of time, there have been long novels and there have been flash fiction–though, back then, flash fiction pieces were called epigrams. I’d argue that the first post-modern novel was Don Quixote. I’d argue that the first anti-novel was Tristam Shandy. The same modes of expression have always been around, albeit with different names and different styles. Their use has only been limited by the mind, which has generally proved flexible enough to find new meaning in the old forms and come up with new forms to talk about those same old universal human experiences.
Through books–both sweepingly long ones and dramatic short ones–we’ve come to terms with the staggering impact of science, the economic traumas of capitalism, the dislocations of globalization, and the unique nightmare of modern war. I think we’ll figure out a way to deal with Twitter, too.
Some of the chiefest pleasures in a lifetime of reading fiction are those moments when you stumble upon a gem of a book you somehow missed. This happens more often than we might care to admit because reading fiction is a lot like its distant cousin, the acquisition of knowledge: the more you do it, the less of it you seem to have done. There’s no shame in this. Lacunae are inevitable for even the most voracious and catholic of readers. The consolation is that the deeper you go into your life and your reading, the more precious the long-overlooked gems become once you finally unearth them.
All this came to mind recently when I picked up a novel I’d been meaning to read for many years, John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor. Reading the opening words was like touching a live wire: “In the last years of the Seventeenth Century there was to be found among the fops and fools of the London coffee-houses one rangy, gangling flitch called Ebenezer Cooke…”
I was instantly transported to another time and place, as much by the music of Barth’s language – fops, fools, flitch – as by his characters and story, which were at once fantastical, venal, ribald, preposterous, plausible and flat-out hilarious. Usually a slow reader, I galloped through the 755 pages, mystified by the criticism I’d heard over the years that Barth was a difficult and needlessly long-winded writer. Here was a masterly act of authorial ventriloquism, a vivid recreation of the cadences and vocabulary, the mind-set and mores (or lack thereof) of English colonists in America’s mid-Atlantic region in the late 1600’s, when tobacco was known as sot-weed and those who sold it were known as factors. One such man is Barth’s protagonist, Ebenezer Cooke, a feckless London poet in love with his own virginity and virtue, a dewy-eyed innocent who is sent to the cut-throat Eastern Shore of Maryland to tend to his father’s tobacco holdings and, in the bargain, write an epic poem about the place. Ebenezer describes himself as “a morsel for the wide world’s lions.” What a gorgeous set-up for a satire.
It was only after finishing the novel that I went back and read Barth’s foreword, which he wrote in 1987 for the release of a new, slightly shortened Anchor Books edition. From the foreword I learned that The Sot-Weed Factor was originally published in the summer of 1960, when Barth was just 30, exactly 50 years before I finally came to it. I also learned that the novel sprang from an actual satirical poem of the same title published in 1706 by an actual man named Ebenezer Cooke. Much more interesting, I learned that this was Barth’s third novel, and he originally envisioned it as the final piece of a “nihilist trilogy.” But the act of writing the novel taught the novelist something: “I came to understand that innocence, not nihilism, was my real theme, and had been all along, though I’d been too innocent myself to realize that fact.”
This realization led Barth to a far richer one: “I came better to appreciate what I have called the ‘tragic view’ of innocence: that it is, or can become, dangerous, even culpable; that where it is prolonged or artificially sustained, it becomes arrested development, potentially disastrous to the innocent himself and to bystanders innocent and otherwise; that what is to be valued, in nations as well as in individuals, is not innocence but wise experience.”
The dangers of innocence versus the value of wise experience. Here, surely, is a rich theme for any American novelist trying to capture the impulses and foibles and follies of a nation convinced of its own righteousness – in love with its own virtue and virginity, if you will – a nation that historically has had little use for history and therefore has spent several centuries blundering its way, usually uninvited and ill-informed, into the affairs of other nations, beginning with the settlements of native Americans and moving on to the Philippines, Mexico, Guatemala, Iran, Cuba, Chile, Vietnam, Cambodia and, now, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Perhaps no other novelist has explored Barth’s theme more surgically than Graham Greene did in The Quiet American. Published at that fateful moment in the mid-1950s when the French disaster in Indo-China was giving way to the blooming American nightmare in Vietnam, Greene’s novel tells the story of a world-weary British war correspondent named Thomas Fowler who can’t hide his loathing for all the noisy, idealistic Americans suddenly popping up in Saigon. He reserves special contempt for an American innocent named Alden Pyle, some sort of foreign-aid operative who shows up on Rue Catinat with a head full of half-baked theories and a heart full of good intentions. Fowler, despite himself, begins to feel protective toward Pyle. He muses, too late, that he should have known better: “Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”
And therefore, of course, causing all natures of harm to himself and to bystanders, innocent and otherwise. Alden Pyle is the title character of the novel, and a perfect title it is – because you can’t get any more quiet than dead.
While Greene set out to illuminate the dangers of innocence in The Quiet American, Barth chose to mine its comic potential in The Sot-Weed Factor. And so innocent Ebenezer gets captured by rapacious pirates (twice) and murderous Indians, swindled, stripped of his clothing and his name and his estate – only to wind up with his virtue, if not his virginity, intact. His epic poem even becomes a hit. It’s one of the funniest, raunchiest, wisest books I’ve ever read.
While I believe it’s best to let fiction speak for itself, just as I doubt that an understanding of a writer’s life sheds useful light on his work, I itched to know more about Ebenezer Cooke’s creator and his methods. A little digging taught me that John Barth grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where much of the action in The Sot-Weed Factor takes place, and as a young man he switched from studying jazz at Julliard to studying journalism at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. It was there, while working in the library, that he discovered Don Quixote, Boccaccio’s Decameron, Petronius’s Satyricon and, most tellingly, One Thousand and One Nights. Barth became intrigued with the literary device known as the frame tale, in which a character in a story narrates the story. For Barth, then, the telling of the story is the story. This explains why he has called Scheherazade, the character who narrates One Thousand and One Nights, “my favorite navigation star.” She, like every writer, will survive only as long as she keeps coming up with good stories.
And Barth’s musical background helps explain why he channeled Fielding, Sterne, Smollett, Cervantes, Rabelais, Voltaire and other masters of the picaresque novel to arrive at the narrative voice for The Sot-Weed Factor. “At heart I’m still an arranger,” Barth once told an interviewer. “My chiefest literary pleasure is to take a received melody” – a classical myth, a Biblical scrap, a worn-out literary convention or style – “and, improvising like a jazz musician within its constraints, re-orchestrate it to present purpose.”
This got me thinking about my other belated fictional discoveries. A few stand out, including James Joyce’s magisterial Ulysses, which I’d dipped into many times but never read wire to wire until a few years ago. (What was I thinking to wait so long?) Another was James Crumley’s crime novel, The Last Good Kiss. I broke down and read it after I got tired of hearing fawning references to its immortal opening sentence – “When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.” For once, the fawners nailed it.
And then there was Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, which was once, according to Richard Ford, a sort of “secret handshake” among its small but devoted band of acolytes. For better and for worse, the novel forfeited its cult status not long after I discovered it, when Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were horrifically miscast as the disgruntled suburbanites Frank and April Wheeler in the big-budget movie version of Yates’s masterpiece. The movie, for all its many flaws, worked in concert with Blake Bailey’s biography of Yates to bring his work to a far larger audience than he ever enjoyed in his 66 years of life. Even bad movies sometimes do good things for books. It’s a pity Richard Yates wasn’t around to enjoy his revival.
And finally there was the curious case of Flann O’Brien, an Irish writer who, like Yates, was obscure in his lifetime and will soon receive the posthumous big-screen treatment. I first heard of Flann O’Brien (the pen name for Brian O’Nolan) when I read that Graham Greene had reacted to the humor of O’Brien’s novel At Swim-Two-Birds with “the kind of glee one experiences when people smash china on the stage.” That sounded promising. So did the discovery that Anthony Burgess, Samuel Beckett and James Joyce were also O’Brien fans. While browsing in my neighborhood bookstore soon after making those discoveries, I happened upon the handsome Everyman’s Library collection of all five O’Brien novels. Books find us as often as we find them. I bought the volume and swallowed it whole, each short novel more hilariously disorienting than the last. “A very queer affair,” as the author himself admitted of his life’s fictional output. “Unbearably queer perhaps.”
Or perhaps not. In the forthcoming movie version of At Swim-Two-Birds, Colin Farrell has been cast as the unnamed hero, a dissolute young Irishman who is writing a novel about a man writing a novel full of characters who come to life when he’s asleep (including one he conceived with one of his own female characters). Frustrated by their maker’s iron authority, they set out to destroy him and win their freedom. On paper this might sound un-filmable, but I thought the same thing about William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, and the director-writer David Cronenberg worked cinematic magic with it. We can only hope that Brendan Gleeson, the director of At Swim-Two-Birds, is a sharper interpreter of O’Brien’s weird proto-postmodernism than Sam Mendes was of Richard Yates’s blackly unblinking realism.
In the end, these belated discoveries did what all good fiction does: they illuminated the world I live in, enriched its colors, deepened its music. None moreso than The Sot-Weed Factor, because in addition to its purely literary virtues it helped me see just how different today’s world is from the world that greeted the novel 50 summers ago. Today Americans who write “serious” fiction face what the Dublin-born, New York-based novelist Colum McCann has called “the prospect of irrelevance.” When John Barth was hitting his prime in the 1960s, “serious” American writers faced no such worries. (I place the word serious between quotation marks because no one seems to know quite what it means as a modifier of writer, unless it means someone who is after something above and beyond the most basic and necessary thing, which is, of course, money.)
Among the discoveries during my brief background check on Barth was an essay by a man named John Guzlowski, who, as a grad student in the early 1970s, was drunk on then-current American fiction – not only the mainstream realism of Updike, Bellow and Roth, but all the untamed, unnamed new writing by the likes of Barth and Pynchon, John Hawkes and William Gaddis and Robert Coover, very different writers who eventually got lumped together under a vague and porous umbrella called Postmodernism. Guzlowski went on to teach at Eastern Illinois University, where he taught a course in Postmodern Fiction half a dozen times over the course of 20 years. “Every time I teach the class,” Guzlowski writes in his essay, “there is just a little less interest in looking at Postmodern novels.”
He might as well have said serious novels or literary novels or novels that seek to do more than titillate or entertain. Those things, as Colum McCann knows, are becoming harder and harder to sell to American book buyers, and the people who write them are edging closer and closer to the brink of irrelevance, which is a gentle way of saying extinction.
John Barth and John Guzlowski have reminded me that this wasn’t always the case. There was a time, not so very long ago, when serious – and funny, challenging, mind-bending – fiction was passionately read and discussed, a vibrant part of our national life. It was a time, in Updike’s phrase, when “books were a common currency of an enlightened citizenry.” Those days may be gone, and gone forever, but novels like The Sot-Weed Factor will always be with us. And as I was happily reminded this summer, it’s never too late to discover them.
William Shakespeare hasn’t had a new play since 1612. But last month in the UK and this month in the US, Arden—one of the most respected publishers of scholarly editions of Shakespeare’s plays—published a “new” play by Shakespeare, edited by Brean Hammond: Double Falsehood, a play that has been lost and found and lost again.
Two of Shakespeare’s plays are lost, never printed or else destroyed by either fire or time: Love’s Labor’s Won and Cardenio. Almost nothing is known about Love’s Labor’s Won, though presumably it was a sequel to Love’s Labor’s Lost. But there are records of payments to Shakespeare and his fellow actors for two performances of Cardenio during the summer of 1613 for the court of James I. 1613 was at the end of Shakespeare’s career; he would soon retire to Stratford-upon-Avon, then a two-day journey by horseback from London, where he would die three years later in April 1616. In 1613 he was writing his last plays, including Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen, in collaboration with John Fletcher, who was being groomed to replace Shakespeare as the main dramatist for the King’s Men.
Cardenio is the name of a character from an inset novella in Don Quixote by Cervantes, the first part of which was translated into English by Thomas Shelton in 1612. The story was possibly familiar to Londoners as early as 1605, when Spanish culture and literature came into vogue following James’s Treaty of London, which ended Elizabeth I’s Spanish wars. Cardenio is in love with Luscinda, but before he can get her father’s permission to marry her, the nobleman Don Fernando orders him away to court as a ruse so he can marry Luscinda himself. Luscinda writes to Cardenio about the scheme, but Cardenio arrives, he thinks, too late. He goes mad and runs into the Sierra Morena, where he meets Dorotea, a woman who had been raped by Don Fernando after a fraudulent marriage ceremony. The two of them travel to an inn, where they find Luscinda and Don Fernando and each couple is paired up correctly.
This is likely the story Shakespeare used for the 1613 play written in collaboration with Fletcher, but it was never printed. The manuscript still existed in 1653, when the printer Humphrey Moseley recorded his ownership of the copyright. But Moseley did not publish it either, and Cardenio disappeared.
Then in 1727, the lawyer and playwright Lewis Theobald announced that he had found not just one, but three manuscript copies of a previously unknown play by Shakespeare, which he promised to adapt for the stage. His play is remarkably similar to the Cardenio story in Don Quixote. The names are different, but Julio is recognizable as Cardenio, Leonora as Luscinda, Henriquez as Don Fernando, and Violante as Dorotea.
But Theobald’s reputation was not pristine. In 1716 he had been accused of plagiarism by a watchmaker named Henry Meysteyer, who had given Theobald an early draft of a play, looking for advice. After four months of work rewriting the play, Theobald considered it to be entirely his own work. The practice of adapting old plays and claiming sole credit for the result was not unusual at the time, though other playwrights sensibly chose dead dramatists to steal from.
Theobald’s adaptation of the lost Shakespeare play, which he called Double Falsehood, premiered at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, on December 13, 1727. To ensure its success, Theobald persuaded the age’s great actor, Barton Booth, then in failing health, to come out of retirement to play the lead. It was Booth’s last role before his health was permanently ruined, and Theobald was blamed for hastening Booth’s death. But it worked: the play was a huge success.
Theobald published his adaptation the next year, with a preface in which he explained the provenance of one of his three manuscripts:
one of the Manuscript Copies, which I have, is of above Sixty Years Standing, in the Handwriting of Mr. Downes, the famous Old Prompter; and, as I am credibly inform’d, was early in the Possession of the celebrated Mr. Betterton, and by Him design’d to have been usher’d into the World… There is a Tradition (which I have from the Noble Person, who supply’d me with One of my Copies) that this Play was given by our Author, as a Present of Value, to a Natural Daughter of his, for whose Sake he wrote it, in the Time of his Retirement from the Stage.
For the past two centuries Theobald’s play, along with the provenance he gave it, has largely been considered a hoax. Was it a coincidence, then, that Theobald picked the same plot as a lost Shakespeare play for a clever attempt at forgery, or could it be possible that a manuscript of Cardenio lies behind Double Falsehood?
Parliamentary edict forbade the performance of plays from 1642, on the eve of the Civil Wars, until the restoration of Charles II in 1660. By then the outdoor playhouses had been pulled down and most actors from before the edict were aging or had died. Two new theatre companies formed, each under the management of a Royalist courtier-playwright: the King’s Men, under Thomas Killigrew, and the Duke’s Men under Sir William Davenant. Killigrew’s King’s Men recruited most of the experienced actors and claimed ownership of all the old plays that Shakespeare’s company, the former King’s Men, had owned, leaving Davenant with no plays and no actors.
Davenant trained a group of recruits—including the Thomas Betterton Theobald’s preface mentions, who would be compared with Shakespeare’s own star actor, Richard Burbage—and, for the first time, actresses, but he had to beg Killigrew for a few plays. Killigrew gave him the worthless ones, by a playwright who was already considered old-fashioned: Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s younger contemporaries, Beaumont and Fletcher, the Gilbert and Sullivan of the Jacobean stage, were widely considered to be more modern, more fashionable, and more gentlemanly. Killigrew didn’t expect he could make much money by performing Shakespeare. Among the second-string plays Davenant was given were Macbeth, The Tempest, Hamlet,and Henry VIII.
William Davenant was the son of a wine tavern owner in Oxford, John Davenant, who was a lover of plays and a friend of Shakespeare’s. Shakespeare stayed with the Davenants as their guest whenever he passed through Oxford on his way between London and Stratford. William was Shakespeare’s godson. In his later years, Davenant was happy to let others think he was Shakespeare’s illegitimate son. Though the rumor was probably nothing more than a marketing ploy, Davenant did successfully make himself and his company into Shakespeare’s theatrical heirs, adapting and updating many of Shakespeare’s plays for the changed tastes of the Restoration audience.
Theobald’s claim that one of his manuscripts, “above sixty years standing” and in the handwriting of Davenant’s prompter, John Downes, puts the creation of this manuscript squarely in a period when Davenant might indeed have been interested in adapting an old play of Shakespeare’s to add to his thin repertoire. Davenant never produced Cardenio, but his adaptation would have stayed in his theatre’s library. Thus Theobald’s odd story that Shakespeare wrote the play for his “Natural Daughter” might have some truth behind it—in Theobald’s time Davenant’s claim to be Shakespeare’s illegitimate son was still generally believed, so Davenant’s third wife Henrietta Maria, who succeeded him as theatre manager, might by association—however strange this sounds today—have been called Shakespeare’s “Natural Daughter.” Thomas Betterton, Davenant’s star actor, whom Theobald says later owned the manuscript, succeeded Henrietta Maria as theatre manager. Manuscripts from Betterton’s library were purchased from his estate sale by Charles Gildon, who in 1710 used them to publish a Life of Mr. Thomas Betterton and in 1719, published The Post-Man Robb’d of his Mail, which contained a letter written to The Tatler magazine complaining about ignorant theatre managers who rejected good plays, using as example a play written by Beaumont, Fletcher, and Shakespeare a few years before the latter died and never printed. It sounds suspiciously like Cardenio. Gildon and Theobald both were patronized by Charles Boyle, fourth Earl of Orrery, and both knew that family well, making it possible that Gildon’s Shakespeare manuscript, purchased from Betterton’s estate, made it to Theobald by way of Boyle, the “Noble Person” he mentions in his preface.
Brean Hammond relates this history in the new Arden edition, with more research than has ever been afforded to a play previously considered merely an “agreeable cheat.” But the real worth of his research lies in accounting for the afterlife of Theobald’s adaptation, why it was labeled a forgery and forgotten so soon after publication. To do this, Hammond takes care to situate the play in the literary climate of the time, especially in the battle between Pope and Theobald over the right to edit Shakespeare.
In the early eighteenth century the copyright—and thus monopoly—of Shakespeare’s plays belonged to the printer Jacob Tonson. In 1709 a copyright act was passed by Parliament to end eternal copyrights; all new copyrights would expire after fourteen years. To protect their monopoly, the Tonson family issued a continuous succession of editions prepared by new editors, claiming that the new editorial apparatus of each—the introductions and commentary—conferred a fourteen-year copyright not just on the new material but to the original plays as well. The Tonson family were responsible for all the great eighteenth century editions of Shakespeare’s plays: Rowe’s, Pope’s, Theobald’s, Warburton’s, Johnson’s, and Capell’s. They held onto their Shakespeare monopoly until 1772, when their direct line died out.
In 1727, Theobald was in the midst of a bid to be the Tonsons’ next Shakespeare editor, a lucrative job to have. Alexander Pope, the famous poet, satirist, and translator, had published his Shakespeare edition in 1725, one of a line of poets who claimed the authority and privilege to interpret Shakespeare’s plays. Pope’s edition is famous for demoting lines he didn’t like to small print at the bottom of the page. In 1726, Theobald had earned Pope’s eternal enmity by publishing Shakespeare Restor’d, exposing the many errors in Pope’s Hamlet. Theobald, with access to early editions of the plays and knowledge of secretary hand, the style of handwriting used by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, was the first to bring standards of classical and biblical scholarship to the study of Shakespeare. Shakespeare Restor’d was Theobald’s application for his own chance to edit Shakespeare’s plays. Hammond considers Theobald’s adaptation of Double Falsehood in 1727 to be part of this campaign. It worked: Theobald’s own edition—which did not include Double Falsehood, since the Tonsons controlled the table of contents to preserve their copyright—appeared in 1733.
But in the meantime Pope had censured Theobald as the mock-hero of The Dunciad—Pope’s famous satire celebrating Dullness, published in 1728—and had suggested that Double Falsehood might be a forgery. In the end, though Theobald replaced him as editor, Pope emerged as the real winner: later generations remembered the “piddling Tibbald” of The Dunciad and not the accomplished editor of Shakespeare’s plays. Pope’s claim that Double Falsehood was little more than an interesting forgery has been long unchallenged.
Theobald’s three Cardenio manuscripts disappeared. They were rumored to be held by the Covent Garden Theatre—perhaps purchased for the revival of Double Falsehood by David Garrick in 1770—but that theater burned down in 1808. Or they might have been purchased from Theobald’s estate sale by the critic William Warburton, who left a pile of manuscripts sitting on his kitchen table. His cook assumed they were garbage and used the paper to line pie tins. But Theobald’s adaptation went through three editions in quick order, and many copies of Double Falsehood have survived to the present day.
Finding Cardenio has been something of a cottage industry among Shakespeare scholars recently, with both Stephen Greenblatt and Gary Taylor “writing” Cardenio again, Taylor attempting something like facilitated communication to do so. But unless a manuscript of Cardenio—not baked into a pie after all—is found, Hammond’s edition is the closest we can get to a new Shakespeare play. If Double Falsehood is Cardenio—and Hammond shows almost beyond doubt that it is—it is Cardenio as adapted by Davenant as adapted by Theobald, a play lost and yet, tantalizingly, not.
Bonus Link: Ron Rosenbaum dissents at Slate.
PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR, Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance.
(The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain)
The best prologue I ever read was an epigraph. The book in question was from my early reading days, before I had come to understand that epigraphs were a common thing. The quote was a prelude to a ripping fantasy yarn by Raymond Feist and was from the pen of Shakespeare:
We were, fair queen,
Two lads that thought there was no more behind
But such a day to-morrow as to-day,
And to be boy eternal.
The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare
I would never hold that book up to any critical scrutiny today, but Feist’s talent for setting off an epic coming-of-age story with quotes about how great it was to be young—and to imagine anything was possible—had a kind of perfect intonation.
Having taken up the mantle “writer,” epigraphs have taken on a significance of another sort. Just what purpose epigraphs serve, where they come from, and how the source from which they were drawn affects the story in which they are embedded have all bubbled to the surface. Among the most pressing questions for me: should epigraphs be thought of as part of the text, a sort of pre-modern, post-modern device, like tossing a newspaper clipping into the body narrative? Or are they actually a direct invitation by the author, perhaps saying, “Look here, for from this inspiration came this tale?”
Put another way, are they part of the book or part of the author, or both, or neither?
People love to call epigraphs a bundle of things, an “apposite quote that sets the mood for a story and to give an idea of what’s coming” or “a quote to set the tone like a prelude in music” or as a “foreshadowing mechanism” or “like little appetizers of the great entrée of a story” meant to illuminate “important aspects of the story [and] get us headed in the right direction.”
Humbug, say I. Humbug.
Epigraphs have a long history. As early as 1726, one can find in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels the cousin of the epigraph, a fictitious “note from the publisher” explaining that Gulliver is in fact a real person and these his true papers. Yes, Lolita got that from somewhere. But even Gulliver’s fictionalized note, that cousin to the epigraph, can be traced to Cervantes and Don Quixote (published in 1605) wherein the author assures us that:
My wish would be simply to present it to thee plain and unadorned, without any embellishment of preface or uncountable muster of customary sonnets, epigrams, and eulogies, such as are commonly put at the beginning of books.
Author’s Preface to Don Quixote (following, one should note, several sonnets, epigrams, and eulogies)
And so it is certain that even in the time predating the texts which we now call the canon, and some would assert Don Quixote the first “novel,” the epigraph and its ilk were widely entrenched into the formula for literature.
The point is, of course, that epigraphs have been around for a long time.
So to the question of how we are to read epigraphs, one must first decide whether there are ‘bad’ epigraphs and ‘good’ epigraphs, and if so, how these categories might arise.
I have already described something which many would characterize as an example of a good kind of epigraph, that quote which seems to connect in a fundamental way with the text. Like, perhaps, “Vengeance is mine, I shall repay.” Yet, of course, epigraphs cannot be too explicit, too clear or too thematic or it ruins the whole endeavor. If the author gets up on a soapbox and declares “this is an important novel” well then the ship’s sailed. That’s why William Styron starts Sophie’s Choice with this quote from André Malraux: “…I seek that essential region of the soul where absolute evil confronts brotherhood.”
Clearly these are not the only types of epigraphs that succeed. Nabokov hit a home run with his epigraph for The Gift with this quote from a Russian school-book: “An oak is a tree. A rose is a flower. A deer is an animal. A sparrow is a bird. Russia is our fatherland. Death is inevitable.” Which reveals that sometimes it is enough to be clever. Ander Monson’s Neck Deep and other Predicaments has an epigraph from the Chicago Manual of Style: “A dedication intended to be humorous will very likely lose its humor with time and so is inappropriate for a serious book destined to take a permanent place in the literature.” Again, very clever. So clever epigraphs work.
However, two kinds of epigraphs do not work. The first is any serious literary epigraph to a Harry Potter book, like for instance, this one from The Deathly Hallows
Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas; they live in one another still. For they must needs be present, that love and live in that which is omnipresent. In this divine glass they see face to face; and their converse is free, as well as pure. This is the comfort of friends, that though they may be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever present, because immortal.
William Penn, More Fruits of Solitude
Perhaps one will call me hypocritical for allowing a quote from Shakespeare to grace a munchy fantasy novel and then to turn around and say that the epigraph to a Harry Potter book falls flat. I would simply note that the fantasy novel in question actually took itself seriously whereas Harry Potter tried to have it both ways—and the William Penn quote is about life and death, which would have been inappropriate to any book that wasn’t. Rowling should have selected something on the theme of love and friendship to be true to the work she published.
Another sort of epigraphical failure is in Blood Meridian. McCarthy uses one of those triple-epigraphs which I’ll address in a moment, and the third epigraph, after two highfalutin contemplations on darkness and death he adds this:
Clark, who led last year’s expedition to the Afar region of northern Ethiopia, and UC Berkeley colleague Tim D. White, also said that a re-examination of a 300,000-year-old fossil skull found in the same region earlier shows evidence of having been scalped.
THE YUMA DAILY SUN
McCarthy has an important point here, which is that people have been scalping each other since forever. Unfortunately, it would have come out more candidly through the mouth of one of his characters. The big problem is that in a semi-biblical masterwork, the only part of the entire overarching text that ever makes any reference to normal-sounding speech is this tiny bit of a 3-part epigraph.
So this sets out an objective standard. Epigraphs must count as part of the text because they affect the way the text is read, and therefore are tied more to the text than to the author. They belong to the text, regardless of the way the author feels. Also, as these epigraphs make clear, they are clearly not sources of inspiration for the story. Quite often they are tacked on.
So epigraphs abide by certain principles, and they do not always work. Quite often they come across like throat clearing, sort of a “here it goes” before the author gets into the work. Especially when an author has more than one epigraph, which seems to have become only more common. So when searching for an epigraph, the most important part of the endeavor should be how the quote integrates with the novel as a whole. Does it fit the tone, and does it take on a deeper meaning, or lend a deeper meaning, because it’s there?
(As a quick aside, I would like to say that overt references to Dover Beach should be restricted to epigraphs. In a striking number of novels, the poem is actually a plot point giving rise to a significant epiphany. I’m looking at you Fahrenheit 451 and most especially Saturday.)
But the question remains: How does one determine precisely the tone an epigraph should take? Herman Melville in Moby-Dick has probably one of the longest and most interesting (and most tonally consistent) epigraphs ever. He spends several pages just talking about Whales. But again, isn’t it just—too much? Would it not have been a better epigraph if he had simply included only this one from among all his myriad quotations:
October 13. “There she blows,” was sung out from the mast-head.
“Where away?” demanded the captain.
“Three points off the lee bow, sir.”
“Raise up your wheel. Steady!” “Steady, sir.”
“Mast-head ahoy! Do you see that whale now?”
“Ay ay, sir! A shoal of Sperm Whales! There she blows! There she breaches!”
“Sing out! sing out every time!”
“Ay Ay, sir! There she blows! there–there–THAR she blows–bowes–bo-o-os!”
“How far off?”
“Two miles and a half.”
“Thunder and lightning! so near! Call all hands.”
–J. ROSS BROWNE’S ETCHINGS OF A WHALING CRUIZE. 1846.
A similar question of “too much” arises in Sophie’s Choice and other texts in which the author seeks to use an epigraph in another language. Given the fact that most readers will not be speakers and therefore cannot see the intricacies in tone and the shades of meaning in that other language’s words, one wonders whether the author is writing the epigraph to himself or to the reader. If we are to think of epigraphs as part of the main text, then this foreign-language snippet needs to stand on its own, it can’t just be authorial vanity, right? Although, since his editor let him plant it there in the original German or French, one wonders if this means that epigraphs are thought to be more like dedications in the publishing world than the main text.
Finally, one wonders why epigraphs are always at the beginning of the book. Some stories end and make you want to hold the book to your chest and absorb it directly into your very soul. How moving it would be to me to finish a book and turn the page, sad that it’s all over and read an epigraph that reflects on all that’s come before.
Elizabeth wrote in with this question:
This upcoming semester I will be teaching a literature class at an East Coast college. The reading list includes several poems, stories, and essays as well as two plays, and just one novel. The English chair explained that because the school is heavy on business majors, for many students the novel they read in this course may the only novel they read for the rest of their college experience, and in some cases, for the rest of their lives. To be charged with selecting the “one novel of a person’s life” seems like both an impossible burden and a precious gift. I don’t know if I should choose something relatively accessible that might induce a love of reading (Lolita, The Remains of the Day, White Teeth) or a classic that might give them a greater perspective on the history and traditions of storytelling (Don Quixote, Madame Bovary, To the Lighthouse.) My question, then, is really this: if you could read just one novel, what would it be?
Several of us pitched in on this one. Some of us took Elizabeth’s question literally, wondering what “one novel” we would choose in the (terrifying) event that we would be allowed just one for the rest of our lives. While others put themselves in Elizabeth’s shoes, trying to figure out how to wield the awesome responsibility of determining the entirety of another person’s reading experience. Here are our answers:
Garth: The hypothetical here – if you could read just one novel – strikes fear into my heart. Certainly, the book should be long, if there’s only going to be one. I’m tempted to say A Remembrance of Things Past on those grounds alone. On the other hand, the Marcel-Albertine romance never stoked my fires as much as the other relationships in the book, and I’ve got the feeling that this one, singular book should be a love story. In the same way that, if you only had one great narrative of your own life, you’d want it to be a love story. So: how about Anna Karenina? Writing about happiness is the hardest thing to do, and, in a book which most people remember for the sad parts, Tolstoy does it better than anyone.
Edan: My suggestion – Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – may be an obvious one, but it makes sense as a syllabus pick for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s highly readable. It’s important that the assigned book be entertaining, since someone who doesn’t read much won’t tolerate a slow or dense novel (just as someone who isn’t a movie buff (read: me) won’t sit through a John Cassavetes film). Secondly, there’s a lot in the book to discuss as a class. I read it two years ago, and found it to be structurally fascinating, as well as funny, playful, and damn moving. For instance, I was interested in how the phrase “So it goes” repeated throughout the novel, changing with each use: first the casualness jarred me, and then I was surprised to see it, and then I expected to see it, and then I was exhausted by it, and the cycle went round and round again, a little different each time. I’d love to talk about this process as a group, and I think others – book worms or not – would, too. And, lastly, Kurt Vonnegut is a great writer to like, as he has so many other books, and his influence in American literature is just enormous. If you love his books, there are others to discover. Get someone hooked on Vonnegut, and he or she will be a reader for life.
Andrew: If I could only pick one novel, I’d pick one that will magically smash through curriculum limits and lead the reader head-first to others – a gateway novel, if you will. I have a hierarchy of favorites – modern and classic – but strategically I’ll pick the one that, looking back, opened up the world to me. I first read Slaughterhouse-Five when I was about nineteen years old. I was discovering Kurt Vonnegut and was drawn to his darkly comic way of writing – playful, with big chunks of sci-fi thrown in to satisfy the geek in me. Slaughterhouse-Five has all of the Vonnegut tropes, but digs deep. Billy Pilgrim, our mid-century, middle-aged, middle-class hero, has become “unstuck in time” and we follow him forward to the planet Tralfamadore, and backwards to 1945 where Billy and his fellow soldiers – kids, really – are POWs in Dresden. Though Vonnegut’s playful, ironic fatalism gives the story its rhythm, and the time-shifting gives it its structure, the horrific firebombing of Dresden gives the novel its depth. This is a war story like no other.
Emily: In the words of Gabriel Betteredge, taken from Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone: “You are not to take it, if you please, as the saying of an ignorant man, when I express my opinion that such a book as Robinson Crusoe never was written, and never will be written again. I have tried that book for years–generally in combination with a pipe of tobacco–and I have found it my friend in need on all the necessities of this mortal life. When my spirits are bad–Robinson Crusoe. When I want advice–Robinson Crusoe. In times past when my wife plagued me; in present times when I have had a drop too many–Robinson Crusoe. I have worn out six stout Robinson Crusoes with hard work in my service. On my lady’s last birthday she gave me a seventh. I took a drop too much on the strength of it; and Robinson Crusoe put me right again. Price four shillings and sixpence, bound in blue, with a picture into the bargain.” And if you object to Crusoe, then The Moonstone, the finest (and first, some would say) detective novel ever written.
Noah: Are we in a primordial state, untouched by letters save for one sacred tome (The Complete Works of Shakespeare, perhaps)? Or simply naming our favorite book (A Fan’s Notes). This exercise is like picking a “desert island book,” the book you’d want to have to read by the yellow flickering of a driftwood fire while the palm fronds sway in the moonlight and the ocean crashes below. In this situation I might opt for something long and beloved, an Infinite Jest or Underworld, say. Maybe a classic that I haven’t read would be better (even on a deserted island it’s important to be well-read). The Count of Monte Cristo could work well. I’ve heard good things. But no, we are talking about choosing a book to teach. A book to teach to business majors who may not read another word the rest of their lives. I think The Great Gatsby fits the bill.
Lydia: This question has made my week a little less enjoyable, because every time I sat down to lounge, I remembered that I had to pick the only book that a group of people will read, maybe ever. Their lives were in my hands. I thought about it a lot, and I have decided that I would assign David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. It is intensely readable, so they will actually read it. Some things I had to read in college English classes, like the wretched Pamela, were so unfun to read that I did not, in fact, read them. Never underestimate a college student’s unwillingness to do his or her homework, especially if it is boring. Also, Cloud Atlas centers around a neat narrative trick, so you can talk about novels and the different ways people make them. Since it adopts a series of voices, you can tell the students that if they liked the Frobisher part, they can try Isherwood, and Martin Amis if they liked the Cavendish part, and so on. Ideally this will trick them into reading more novels. Finally, Cloud Atlas even has A Message, slightly simplistic though it may be, and will provide gentle moral instruction to your flock (I think it’s “Make love not war, save the planet”).
Max: It was fascinating to me that both Edan and Andrew picked Slaughterhouse-Five (and for the same reasons!) It’s true that this novel (or, in a somewhat similar vein Catch-22) will serve to entertainingly blow up any preconceived notion that an intelligent non-reader may have had about the boring old novel. I also found interesting Noah’s and Garth’s idea (reading the question as looking for a “desert island book”) that length is critical. With that as my consideration, I would choose Alvaro Mutis’ The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, an adventure novel that could be plumbed again and again, or East of Eden, the best of the multi-generational epics of the last 100 years. Or better yet, if you read just one novel, why not read the “first” and, in the sense that all novels since are just repeating its tricks again and again, the only novel, Don Quixote. But thinking again about this as a novel to be read in this unique and specific circumstance, and thinking again that something contemporary might best fit the bill, why not – bear with me here – The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen? Even though the characters might seem like typical boring novel characters, Franzen does things with them that you wouldn’t expect, the book is incredibly readable, and you can get into the whole meta-argument surrounding the book and Oprah and whether good literature must be in opposition to popular culture or should be a part of it.
Thanks for your great question, Elizabeth. Millions readers, help us inaugurate the first Book Question on the new site by sharing your answers to Elizabeth’s question on your own site or in the comments below.
It was a battle between an evangelizing visionary and a sage defender of the past, perhaps the first big tussle in the great sorting out of publishing’s new look in the digital age.This was 2006, when Wired Magazine technology evangelist Kevin Kelly wrote about the helter skelter future of books in the digital age. In the New York Times Magazine, Kelly looked at then still nascent book scanning efforts, and extrapolated a future that sent a shiver through writers, editors, publishers, and many readers:Turning inked letters into electronic dots that can be read on a screen is simply the first essential step in creating this new library. The real magic will come in the second act, as each word in each book is cross-linked, clustered, cited, extracted, indexed, analyzed, annotated, remixed, reassembled and woven deeper into the culture than ever before. In the new world of books, every bit informs another; every page reads all the other pages.Later he added:[Authors] can sell performances, access to the creator, personalization, add-on information, the scarcity of attention (via ads), sponsorship, periodic subscriptions – in short, all the many values that cannot be copied. The cheap copy becomes the “discovery tool” that markets these other intangible valuables.At the annual Book Expo, keynote speaker John Updike responded, heaping scorn: The economic repercussions of this paradise of freely flowing snippets are touched on with a beguiling offhandedness, as a matter of course, a matter of an inexorable Marxist unfolding.Everyone reveled in the literary throwdown at the time (Gawker called it a Crossover Nerdfight). There was no “winner,” however, and neither Kelly nor Updike was proven right, but there are some interesting new developments to contemplate.When Kelly wrote of “remixed” books, many were aghast, envisioning zombified, soulless collages, based on the desecrated works that had been co-opted for profit. They may have been right about the zombie part: At least one book remix has caused quite a stir this year. According to Publishers Weekly, there are “more than 600,000 copies in print of… Jane Austen mashup, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” A graphic novel version is in the works, as is a sequel, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Even though this recent example looms large, when you start thinking about it there is a rich history of literary remixes. At the Vromans Bookstore Blog, Patrick Brown recently compiled a thorough exploration of the topic in response to J.D. Salinger’s lawsuit over an unauthorized sequel to his novel The Catcher in the Rye. Though that remix is not looking particularly auspicious, Patrick notes the many venerable and successful remixes that have come before it, from James Joyce’s Ulysses to Gregory Maguire’s Wicked to a pair of recent books by Maile Meloy. Brown doesn’t mention it, but you can even go all the way back to the “first” novel, and look at Don Quixote’s second part as an inspired calling out of unauthorized “copycat” versions of the book. It’s entirely plausible to make the case that literary history is in many ways a history of literary “remixes,” and, as Kelly has suggested, current, ever-stricter copyright regimes are an artificial impediment to this free flow of ideas.Returning to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, silly as it may be, one wonders if the book’s success doesn’t prove there is an appetite – in our heavily remixed, mashed up culture – for freer rein to be afforded writers who want to experiment in this vein. It’s also clear that the public domain offers an unending font of material for those inclined to use it (for a more highbrow example, think of the relationship between Tom Stoppard and Shakespeare). Meanwhile, the Salinger case would seem to indicate that when it comes to books under copyright and the cross-linking, clustering, and reassembling that Kelly prophesied, we are still very much at the whim of the copyright holder.Kelly’s other point – that of a new business model for writers that relies not on selling the book but on using the book to sell “access” to the writer, has been taken up enthusiastically by another Wired guy, Chris Anderson, who has written an entire book on this topic, Free. Anderson is “selling” (read: giving away) the book under this model and his ideas have caused media types quite a bit of heartburn.Interestingly, the backlash to Anderson’s book seems to be resonating (to me, anyway) much more than the book itself. The unfortunate revelation that Anderson had lifted substantial passages for the book from Wikipedia suggests that in a world where writers don’t get paid for writing and information wants to be free, the writing itself is almost beside the point as compared to the ancillary, profit-making schemes that can surround the “author as brand” idea. This criticism would only seem to be confirmed by Anderson’s explanation that there was an oversight in citing the copied passages properly.With a new novel coming soon from our greatest literary recluse, I wonder too whether a flourishing of the idea that authors make money from selling “access” and not books would mean that we could never have another Pynchon or McCarthy or DeLillo whose works alone tower above any notion that they might experiment with alternative revenue models.In the end, there are some elements out of the Kelly/Anderson view of the future of publishing that remain compelling. The remixed book is an important idea that need not be villainized or trivialized, particularly as digitization provides new opportunities for experimentation. The notion of “free,” meanwhile, seems far more potentially damaging in that whole swathes of literary culture are not particularly compatible with the “authors selling access” model. However, if you believe that good writing is always worth something to somebody, you don’t have much to worry about.
So that you may get to know us better, it’s The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life that like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments or on your own blogs.Today’s Question: What is the biggest, most glaring gap in your lifetime of reading?Edan: There are so many gaping holes in my reading! I haven’t read Proust (saving him for my white-haired years) and, beyond Chekhov, not many Russians (I’ll be reading Anna Karenina next month and I’m looking forward to it). I haven’t read Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow, or Infinite Jest – I tend to avoid big books. I’m too embarrassed to name one very famous Shakespeare play I know next to nothing about. I never read mysteries or horror, mostly because I’m a scared wimp, but I’m thinking of reading a Patricia Highsmith novel this year. Recently, I’ve started to read more books in translation, and since graduating from college I’ve made a point of reading all the classics I missed, like To the Lighthouse and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, both of which I loved. I’m also making myself read more nonfiction, since I never would otherwise. I haven’t even read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood! Writing this reminds me of all the writers I haven’t read: Homer, Norman Mailer, John Irving, Gertrude Stein, John McPhee, J.K. Rowling. That’s right, I haven’t read Harry Potter!Why am I wasting my time writing this? I must go read. Now.Andrew: As I do a quick mental survey of my life of reading, I notice a number of gaping holes. Some beckon; others continue to keep me at bay.Chronologically, then: The Classics. Aside from some excerpts of the ancient Greeks in high school English, I’ve never delved into classical literature. I have seen a number of theatrical adaptations of classical Greek plays, but that’s about it. Aside from excerpts, I’ve never even read Homer.I’ll jump ahead to the 1800s only because I’m not exactly sure what I’m missing from the intervening centuries. Lets assume EVERYTHING. (except Don Quixote – I’ve actually read that). So, on to the 1800s: I’ve never read Moby Dick or Middlemarch. I’ve done quite well re: Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, and the Russians. I’ve also done quite well in early-mid 20th century fiction – that was always (and remains) my favorite literary era.More recently, I’ve done quite well with modern British fiction, and I’ve also been quite good at Latin American fiction from the past 50 years (Mutis, Marquez, Borges, Bolano). But still some gaps remain in 20th century fiction: Thomas Pynchon and Margaret Atwood (I should be stripped of my Canadian citizenship for that).Before the Millions, contemporary American fiction had been a giant hole. But over the past 6 years I’ve delved deeply into Lethem, Chabon, Franzen, and once I can successfully wrap my puny brain around David Foster Wallace’s encyclopedic prose, I’ll actually finish Infinite Jest. It’s mesmerizing, but exhausting.Emily: When it comes to playing readerly “I Never,” there are rather a lot of burly man-authors, chiefly twentieth-century man-authors, whose work I’ve never read. Hemingway (other than the 4 page story “Hills Like White Elephants”), Kerouac (a bit of his poetry; enough of On the Road), Roth, Updike, Kesey, Heller, Burroughs, Cormac McCarthy, Vonnegut, Pynchon, Moody, and Foster Wallace all fall into the category of authors I haven’t read. Many of them fall also into the category of authors I have no interest in reading. Perhaps it is that I intuit (or imagine – not having read them, it is hard to say) a masculinist, vaguely misogynist aura that has put me off; Or, as in the cases of Pynchon and Foster Wallace, a virtuousic formal complexity or grandiose heft, that I also associate with the masculine artistic mind. There is, I am aware, no way to justify my philistine (and perhaps sexist) distrust of these authors – my sense that I would find their depictions of violence and apocalypse, aimless wandering, women conquered, uninteresting; that I think I would find their self-conscious cleverness, their feats of stylistic and structural brilliance somewhat tedious; that in reading B.R. Meyer’s “A Reader’s Manifesto” at The Atlantic some years ago, I decided that Meyers’ extended pull quotes designed to illustrate McCarthy’s “muscular” style were as much (more) than I’d ever need of McCarthy’s much lauded prose:While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who’s will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of who’s will and the stout thighbones and knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations of who’s will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned. (All the Pretty Horses, 1992)No thank you. Well-founded, my prejudices certainly are not, but I do not apologize for them or intend to renounce them. Cormac McCarthy may keep his pretty horses – give me clarity, proportion, precision; give me Austen and Burney, Defoe, Iris Murdoch, P.G. Woodhouse, Willa Cather, Evelyn Waugh, Mary McCarthy, Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis. If one must be a philistine, it is best to be an unrepentant one.Garth: What is the biggest hole in my lifetime of reading? The question should probably be phrased in the plural: holes. I’ve never read Kundera; never read Saramago; never read Robinson Crusoe, or Wuthering Heights, or Clarissa; William James, Slavoj Zizek, Henderson the Rain King… Then again, these are kind of scattershot: smallish holes, with some space in between them.Where I feel a huge constellation of holes, threatening to make one giant hole large enough to swallow me, is in Classics. Especially the Greeks. I would like to take a year and just read Plato and Aristotle and the Greek dramas. Or go back to school… So much is built on a basic corpus of Hellenistic knowledge that I somehow never acquired in school. We did The Iliad, The Odyssey, Oedipus… and that’s pretty much it.Kevin: The holes are too numerous to count and the biggest are likely ones I’m not even aware of. I have tried over the last couple years to close some of the most gaping omissions in my reading – secondary Shakespeare plays and the big books of Russian literature being two areas of particularly concerted effort. What remains? Well, a lot. Two that seem particularly important are the British romantic poets and the modernist. The former feels like washing the dishes, to be done of necessity but without any great joy. I think I’ll save Lord Byron and his court for later life, when the years will hopefully have afforded me the wisdom to enjoy their work more. I feel a greater urgency with the modernists, in part because I’ve had enough false starts that I worry I lack the concentration to extract the good stuff from their difficult prose. For about three years I’ve been thirty pages into Mrs. Dalloway and likewise with Ulysses. When it’s the time of day when I typically turn to fiction, I find I lack the appetite to pick them up to begin the fight anew. So, the hole remains, and seems even to grow deeper by the day.Max: This turns out to be a rather liberating exercise. The largest missing piece in my reading experience has been Faulkner, I think. I’ve never read any of his books, though I made a poor and ultimately unsuccessful attempt at The Sound and the Fury in college. I’ve long felt that I should have gotten started on the Russians sooner. So far, I’ve only got Crime and Punishment under my belt. I think I’d like to try Anna Karenina next. I’ve also never read Lolita. Updike’s passing this week reminded me that I’ve never read any of his books. The same is true of DeLillo’s books and Foster Wallace’s. By Philip Roth, I’ve read only Portnoy’s Complaint, which I know leaves out many, many good books. I really need to read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, Tree of Smoke and Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and The Echo Maker by Richard Powers. There are likely many more that I can’t even recall that I haven’t read, but I’ll leave it with Virginia Woolf, whose To the Lighthouse I started not long ago but ended up setting aside when it failed to grab me (or rather, I failed to be grabbed by it).So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: What is the biggest, most glaring gap in your lifetime of reading?
In the first wave of articles on Governor Sarah Palin at The New York Times, I came across a reader-comment that Ms. Palin looked like Geena Davis in the TV show Commander-in-Chief. In this short-lived 2005 drama, Davis played the first woman Vice President, who ascends to the presidency after the death of the President. The Times reader’s comment also reminded me of another fictional first president, 24’s President David Palmer (played by Dennis Haysburt). Had this wildly popular (and very long running – Haysburt played the president from 2001-2005) imaginary depiction of a black president helped acclimate Americans to the idea? I found myself wondering if shows like Commander-in-Chief and 24, which offer fictional visions of scenarios that have not yet come to pass, give history a nudge. Can art/entertainment (the distinction between these two being a debatable one) help us as a culture imagine historical changes – and so help to bring them into being?It would not be the first time in our history that art has given life – and particularly public opinion and national politics – a little push. There is the famous (and quite possibly apocryphal) story of Abraham Lincoln meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Or, Life Among the Lowly, in 1861, and greeting her with words, “So this is the little lady who started this Great War.” Apocryphal stories aside, Stowe’s novel from 1852, sometimes considered a direct response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 but more likely the result of Stowe’s lifelong belief that slavery was a sin in the eyes of God, sold 300,000 copies in the US in its first year and went on to be the first international American bestseller, and the best-selling book of the century, after the Bible. While the novel’s sentimentality and deeply Christian worldview can be alienating to some modern readers, its vivid narrative – by turns realist, gothic, and melodramtic – is undeniably haunting (though its perpetuation of black stereotypes has become proverbial). Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been credited with capturing the national imagination, raising national consciousness, and giving the issues of slavery and emancipation a national urgency that precipitated the Civil War.Stowe’s work – not that of the freed slave turned orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass – is more often assigned the role of cultural catalyst in the American move toward abolition. Douglass’ work, both for its status as a first-hand account of life as a slave, and for the power and intelligence of Douglass’ narrative voice, is far superior to Stowe’s, but it is Stowe’s – the more melodramatic, the more imaginative, the more comparable to television drama – that sold 10,000 copies in its first week, while Douglass’ best-selling 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave had 11,000 copies in circulation only after three years in print. Also suggestive of a television-esque quality, Stowe’s Uncle Tom was originally published serially in a magazine – in episodes. If popularity in fiction is any indication of a country’s readiness for a historical change in fact, it would seem that America is ready for a black president but perhaps not quite ready for a female running mate who stands a decent chance of ascending to the presidency (given McCain’s age and history of skin cancer). It’s all much more complicated than this, of course, but I find the idea that the imaginary can give shape to the real (in a non-Don Quixote-ish way) quite captivating.
It began at the start of the year with Huck Finn, and Gulliver put in an appearance this week. Along the way, Gatsby and Don Quixote stood on the pedestal and took a bow, their tales championed, their authors heralded.The Globe and Mail, that venerable institution which, not incidentally, happens to pay my salary, has summoned a panel of experts (not, repeat, NOT including yours truly) to choose 50 books – the finest fifty in literary history – drawn from fiction and non-fiction, and including tomes both classic and modern.But this isn’t just your garden variety list. No sir. For each book chosen, an essay is written by a noteworthy scribe (Alberto Manguel makes a case for Dante’s Divine Comedy; Michael Ignatieff for Machiavelli’s The Prince).Each week, one essay is published. There is no order to the publication of the fifty.We’ll check back at the end of the year when the project comes to a close, but in the meantime, here’s the latest essay, Victoria Glendinning’s case for Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. From there, scroll down and look on the left for individual links to each of the other essays published so far.
Longtime Millions reader Laurie sent in her reaction to all these “top ten” book lists that have been floating around in recent months, while also, of course, sharing her own:In the wake of the release of The Top Ten, [there is also a Web site] a collection of top ten books chosen by 125 British and American writers, the Washington Post is soliciting readers’ top ten picks.These exercises are fun, but I hope no one takes them seriously. The lists they receive (like mine) will lean toward American/British books, with a smattering of European titles, partly because American schools emphasize Western literature. Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber should be as well known as War and Peace, but most Americans have never heard of it. Even when we have read the non-Western classics, we tend to favor the familiar — my list included The Old Man & the Sea and To Kill A Mockingbird, but Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji and Abolqasem Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh are probably greater works.What do you want to bet, though, that like the Modern Library a few years ago, they get inundated with a lot of lists that include Battlefield Earth?!My top ten (not set in stone, except for Heart of Darkness):The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark TwainThe Old Man and the Sea – Ernest HemingwayHeart of Darkness – Joseph ConradPortrait of the Artist As a Young Man – James JoyceTo Kill A Mockingbird – Harper LeeDon Quixote – CervantesThe Iliad & The Odyssey – HomerThe Dream of the Red Chamber – Cao XueqinWar & Peace – Leo TolstoyOedipus the King – SophoclesThanks Laurie!
Skimming through the CS Monitor book section I came upon a capsule review describing Because She Can by Bridie Clark as the latest example of “assistant lit.” I assume that this trend hit the big time with the success of The Devil Wears Prada, and the subsequent movie version. But just as some see Jane Austen as a precursor to so-called “chick lit,” I wonder if “assistant lit” has some historical antecedents.One fairly obvious example that comes to mind is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, perhaps the ur-assitant lit, in which the sympathetic Bob Cratchit is put upon by his terrible boss Ebenezer Scrooge, who has become something of a model for penny-pinching bosses ever since. But in that case, the action focuses on the boss, and we don’t get much of Cratchit being forced to do Scrooge’s laundry.Another, much more recent example – which actually came out after Prada – might be Rick Moody’s ambitious novel The Diviners, which offers a bleak (and not altogether successful) take on the humiliating plight of the assistant, while also, more or less, attempting to chronicle the downfall of our vacuous, celebrity-obsessed civilization.Then again, it might just be that the book that many consider to be the father of the novel, Don Quixote, also happens to be the very first example of “assistant lit.” Sancho Panza fits the bill as he is endlessly put upon by a boss who manages to both domineering and moronic. For those who have been assistants, as I once was, Don Quixote and his maddening whims will likely call up memories of capricious bosses.But certainly there must be other examples of assistant lit that long predate the current trend, or like The Diviners turn it on its head. Can anyone think of some other good examples? Share in the comments.
A new issue of The Quarterly Conversation has arrived, featuring an essay on Wizard of the Crow by QC creator Scott and a review of William T. Vollmann’s Poor People from Dave Munger. Lots of other good reviews in there too.Also via Scott, Political Theory Daily Review, a dense and daily collection of linksIn a Newsweek sidebar accompanying an excerpt of his book The American Religion, Harold Bloom names his “five most important books.” The most recent one to appear on the list? A tie, more or less, between Don Quixote and the complete works of Shakespeare. Bloom was also asked to admit to an important book he hadn’t read. His answer: “I cannot think of a major work I have not ingested.” That’s a lot of pages to store in one’s belly. (via Stephen)Good week for Mark Sarvas, first he announces that he’s sold his novel and now he’s off on his honeymoon. Filling in at TEV is Joshua Ferris, author of the much praised Then We Came to the End.And finally, a Baltimore Sun review had me intrigued by a new squirm-inducing non-fiction book by a former crime scene investigator for the Baltimore County police. Dana Kollmann’s book Never Suck a Dead Man’s Hand: Curious Adventures of a CSI gives a real-life look at a profession recently glamorized by TV show “CSI” and its many offshoots. Krall, however, describes a job both more boring and more odious than the one described on TV, but she does so with “dark humor,” which I’d imagine the job requires. The book’s title, for example, “comes from a story that involves a dead man, his hand and her attempts to get fingerprints on a freezing cold day.” Yikes.
The Guardian has a story in which some notable writers suggest what they think kids should be reading. While I don’t agree with British poet Laureate Andrew Motion who proffers Don Quixote, Ulysses and The Wasteland, I love that lots of more appropriate classics are suggested. I’ve long thought that young readers, perhaps having read all the Harry Potters and Lemony Snickets, should be pointed in the direction of classic books which often do not reside in “young adult” sections and thus are not always offered to young readers. Robinson Crusoe (suggested by JK Rowling), The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (suggested by Philip Pullman) and Great Expectations (suggested by Motion) are all great suggestions. Nick Hornby, meanwhile, declined to make any suggestions saying:I used to teach in a comprehensive school, and I know from experience that many children are not capable of reading the books that I wanted them to read. If I choose 10 books that I think would be possible for all, it wouldn’t actually be a list that I would want to endorse. I think any kind of prescription of this kind is extremely problematic.
Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote has been on my reading list for a long time. Upon Max Magee’s suggestion I picked up the recent translation by Edith Grossman sometime in January 2004. It took me a good 11 months to work up the appetite, desire and guts to indulge in this phenomenal piece of writing. Described by many as the beginning of modern novel, Don Quixote relates a crazed Alonso Quixano’s sallies from his native La Mancha to various provinces of Spain. Beyond the usual adventures of the windmills, freeing of the slaves, and fair Dulcinea – all of which are a part of every child’s introduction to fairy tales and literature – lies the second part of the novel. Cervantes published two Don Quixote novels, and whereas the first one colors our imaginations as children, the Part II – published ten years after Part I, in 1615 – brings forth Cervantes as a witty author who employs Don Quixote’s insanity to illustrate the genius of his loyal servant Sanco Panza; the trivial entertainments of the Duke and the Duchess, whose cunning knowledge of the first novel, which is referred to numerous times in Part II, provide for the creative and chivalric plots that the nobles employ to ridicule Don Quixote; and a grand finale of sobriety that settles for once and all the history of Don Quixote. Cervantes ends the illustrious misadventures of Don Quixote to prevent new issues of fake Don Quixote novels from appearing. Cervantes’ answer to authors who attempted to profit on the first Don Quixote’s success, one Alonso Fernandez de Avellaneda in particular, is derisive and rash – bordering on self flattery through his diatribe on other authors. Don Quixote opened a new window in my mind with its accessible language – thanks mostly to Grossman’s spectacular translation – and cunning use of word plays, romantic approach to the bygone days of knight errantry, mockery of social dogmas, integration of tangent plots – oh yes, you read at least 3 unrelated short stories in the novel – and eternally modern style. The novel’s mix of fantasy and reflections on society definitely place it in the pile of books the are must re-reads, albeit not in the short term – it will certainly take me a while to put aside another chunk of time for the second serving.I was distracted at times from reading Don Quixote by Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Other Writings. Matt Clare, a close friend and literary fiend, was kind enough to present me with this magnificent work that captures a unique time period in British society. Clare’s inscription on the cover reads “no Baron [on the Trees, by Italo Calvino, which I had presented to him earlier] to be sure, [but] the Lord may still have something to teach us.” Indeed, Lord Henry Wotton quickly became a new idol of mine, decadent and lost, with no particular interest in anything that the London high society of the 1880s held dear, nor any high aspirations that provided for the chatter at tea parties. The Jekyll and Hyde nature of The Picture of Dorian Gray presents vain struggles and trivial issues in an intentionally serious tone, which mocks the core of British culture at the time. There is much to be said about the twists and turns of The Picture of Dorian Gray, which keep the reader on his toes and makes the story an amazing, insightful and philosophical page turner. What follows in the 4 plays and final ballad also collected under the same volume (Lady Windermere’s Fan, Salome, An Ideal Husband, The Importance of Being Ernest, and The Ballad of Reading Gaol) is not as intense as the opener, but nevertheless very entertaining and universal. Oscar Wilde’s only drawback is the limited nature of his subjects, but he does a phenomenal job in conveying the stuck up nature of the crowd that he once was a part of.Related: Max’s thoughts on Don Quixote
Wow, the Venezuelan government has printed one million free copies of Don Quixote to celebrate the book’s 400th anniversary. That sure beats the “one book one city” thing we have in the states. Read about it at the BBC. (via bookglutton). Also, anyone who has endured the long wait for the Edith Grossman edition of Quixote to come out in paperback, take heart, it arrives on May 1. See also 400 Windmills.