I used to watch to a lot of DVDs with the audio turned to the commentary track. And not just the monumental works of cinematic wonder the every frame of which is worth analyzing and puzzling over. I worked at a video store — Sneak Reviews in Charlottesville, Va., one of those great labyrinthine stores stocked like an archive — and, bringing home DVDs indiscriminately, I found that even a terrible movie could be saved by simply flipping over and listening to the director, writer, or cast, chat away. Though some have taken great pains to push the commentary track to new heights of performance (see the one for the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple, in which the possibly fictional artistic director “Kenneth Loring” claims scenes were shot upside-down and in reverse), I was more struck by the commentary tracks that are compelling accidentally: people going on tangents, revealing things obliquely they might later regret. Stallone may be dull as a dial-tone for most of his commentary on Cliffhanger, but the end, when he sounds apologetic and genuinely depressed about his life and career, turns out to be the only engaging and human moment on that disk.
A friend once even showed me a porno with a commentary track. While the director offers her insights into the filming process, along with increasingly belligerent rants about her colleagues, she gets completely shit-faced. After about 30 minutes, she passes out, and for the rest of the movie, you can hear her snoring breezily in the background. It’s bizarrely compelling, and if I could remember the title, I’d recommend it heartily. It was around this time that I considered writing a short story in the form of a commentary track for an imaginary movie. I never did write that story (it was probably a terrible idea), but it did get me thinking about all the ways that texts supplementary to larger stories — or “paratexts,” as they’re officially known — can themselves become stories.
Now, years later, I’m publishing my first novel, Any Resemblance to Actual Persons, which takes the form of one long cease-and-desist letter. Paul McWeeney’s sister is about to publish a nonfiction book in which she accuses their late father of being the Black Dahlia murderer, so in order to save their father’s name, Paul writes a letter to the publishers trying to refute his sister’s claims. As the novel started to take shape, and I realized that Paul’s story would become a discursive commentary on his sister’s story — which itself is a discursive commentary on their father’s story — I began revisiting other books with similar configurations. Pretty soon, I imagined these books forming a loose genre, the Paratext Novel, stories that take the form of — or at least have the pretense of being — explicit exegeses of other stories, real or imagined.
But perhaps “genre” is not the right word, since these books are not concerned with establishing and enforcing conventions. They are interested in exploring how commentary mediates our lives, how we are so steeped in supplementary material that we rarely directly experiencing whatever it is that material supplements: a phenomenon that these books respond to by making “commentary tracks” more human sites of engagement. Like a lot of people, I still haven’t gotten around to watching Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, but I found Geoff Dyer’s book Zona — in which he offers a commentary/summary (which he argues is an “expansion”) of the film — fascinating, in part for how Dyer’s parallel self-revelation reminds us how we understand our own stories by encountering others.
Now, when we pick up a novel, chances are we’ve already seen not just others’ commentary, but also the novelist’s self-commentary in the form of interviews and even articles like this. Whenever a writer comments on his or her own work, there’s inevitably an attempt — futile and foolish — to control how readers engage with that work. But, in these books, attempts at controlling the (ostensibly central) story spin wonderfully into their own stories, illustrating and celebrating the impossibility of narrative intervention and the chaos beneath the illusion of control.
Since listicles have become the new popular form of supplementary text, here are the top five paratext novels that have been buzzfeeding around my brain.
1. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov: The paratext urtext, or at least the best known, Charles Kinbote’s deranged commentary on John Shade’s 999-line poem features, on its first page, this non-sequitur: “[John Shade] preserved the date of actual creation rather than that of second or third thoughts. There is a very loud amusement park right in front of my present lodgings.” Kinbote’s first interjection here is absurd, hilarious, and even violent in how it forces himself into someone else’s story. As with Lolita, the narrative hinges on control. In that earlier novel, Humbert Humbert not only controls Dolores Haze physically but narratively as well, since he is the one allowed a voice. In Pale Fire, Nabokov more explicitly curates, but also balances, this dynamic, revealing John Shade’s story — the tragic loss of his daughter that is the impetus for the poem — before Kinbote tries to absorb it into, and suppresses it with, his own story. It wasn’t until I read Claire Messud’s reminiscent The Woman Upstairs — about a schoolteacher who becomes obsessed with her student’s family — that I realized Kinbote is not just infiltrating Shade’s art; he’s infiltrating Shade’s family.
2. U and I by Nicholson Baker: True, this is not technically a novel, but Nicholson Baker’s “closed book examination” of John Updike’s work reads like no other work of nonfiction I’ve read. Though I would never encourage anyone to not read Updike, ignorance of his oeuvre should not keep you from reading U and I. After all, occasional ignorance certainly doesn’t stop Baker himself, as he misremembers and misunderstands, corrects himself and confesses lapses. That is partly why this book is so strange and so funny, but also because it’s the most honest portrayal of a reader’s relationship with a writer I’ve ever come across: one-sided, heavily mediated, existing entirely in his imagination. In Baker’s literary hero-worship, we begin to realize what we probably knew all along, that it uncomfortably echoes a bastard kid striving for legitimacy, and for simple fatherly validation.
3. Edwin Mullhouse by Stephen Millhauser: The full title, Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 by Jeffrey Cartwright, hints at Millhauser’s interest in complicating the commentary track’s implicit attempt at narrative control and usurpation. This novel takes the form of a biography of Edwin Mullhouse, a supposed literary genius, who wrote a novel called Cartoons before dying mysteriously at age 11. His biographer and friend, Jeffery Cartwright, also a small child, is an insanely precocious Boswell whose relationship with his subject grows increasingly unsettling. Whereas in Pale Fire, John Shade has his brief moment at the microphone before Kinbote rushes the stage, in Mullhouse we have no unmediated access to Edwin — and no unmediated access to the ostensible cause for Edwin’s celebration, his novel Cartoons — which makes for a more disorienting reading experience. In the fictional introduction, the fictional Walter Logan White writes, “I myself have sternly resisted the temptation to read Cartoons, knowing full well that the real book, however much a work of genius, can no more match the shape of my expectations that the real Jeffrey could.” In creating a commentary track that seems to have supplanted Edwin’s novel, Jeffery seems to have supplanted Edwin, a figurative death equally resonant to Edwin’s literal death that illuminates the entire friendship we see develop between the two.
4. The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips: If we close Edwin Mullhouse wondering how much of Edwin’s genius is imagined and manipulated by his biographer-cum-creator Jeffery, in The Tragedy of Arthur, Arthur Phillips — both author and character — relocates this distrust to the familiar battle between Stratfordians and anti-Stratfordians. In the 250-page introduction to a recently recovered Shakespeare play, which might actually be a forgery by his father, the character of Arthur Phillips lays out a childhood fraught with questions of trust and veracity. After the introduction, Phillips presents us with the play in question, and it’s a stunning act of impersonation. Seeing the son’s introduction followed by (what might be) the father’s work reminds us how familial this narrative hijacking really is, just as all of these works ultimately boil down to simple family arguments, an interruption around the dinner table: No, let me finish this story.
5. Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes: Though published in 1985, this novel, featuring narrator Geoffrey Braithwaite’s discursive commentary on Flaubert’s life and work, is my most recent addition to this genre. I borrowed it from my dad after a recent trip to France, where my girlfriend and I visited the Musée Flaubert et d’Histoire de la Medecine. Flaubert’s childhood house in Rouen is now a museum dedicated to both his work as a writer and his father’s work as a surgeon. Although the museum’s marriage of literary and medical does at first feel incongruous, it does form a kind of commentary track, inviting us to see the work of father in son in concert. For example, a sly curator has throughout displayed passages from Gustave’s Dictionary of Received Ideas, and the son’s quote that “all men of letters are constipated” is displayed not far from the father’s very invasive-looking devices to unblock reticent colons — both of which, consolation and cure, would be resonant to anyone suffering the effects of a French diet. Mostly, though, it’s the areas of seeming discord that are most striking. The room featuring Gustave’s childhood scribbles is right next to the room featuring the embalmed cadavers that good ol’ Dad tinkered with two centuries ago. And it’s not just human bodies that are preserved there; you can also see Flaubert’s actual parrot, taxidermied and propped on a bench in a closet. In the lobby, adjacent to an uncomfortable exhibit on Napoleonic-era gyno exams, they sell copies of Flaubert’s novels alongside Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, which is “possibly the wittiest anti-novel since Nabokov’s Pale Fire.” Or at least that is how The Boston Globe describes it in the blurb printed on the back. Which is to say: I haven’t read the actual book yet — it’s still sitting patiently on my coffee table — but according to the paratextual commentary on the novel, the blurbs and reviews that I have read, it seems entirely appropriate.
Julian Barnes accepted an invitation to the Hay Festival in Cartagena last month, but said no interviews. There’s no point trying, said the press person. So of course I felt compelled to. That evening, I hustled him at the opening party on the Spanish ramparts of the Old City. There was salsa on the speakers and everywhere men and women in white linen were drinking dark rum. Barnes was strolling around, alone, with his hands in the pockets of his dark trousers, as if determined to let the Caribbean breeze have its way with his silver hair.
“No interviews,” he said promptly, smiling broadly down at me. And then, with a weary politeness: “Oh, all right then, just one question.”
I promptly chose the most random question in my head. “Do you like Ted Hughes?” I asked. “You mention him in The Sense of an Ending.”
I was referring to an early scene in the novel where a young English teacher puts his head “at a donnish slant” and says to the class, “Of course, we’re all wondering what will happen when he [Hughes] runs out of animals.” I had thought it very funny, and was rather irritated when the narrator’s superior girlfriend Veronica Mary Elizabeth Ford, didn’t. I knew from Barnes’ Paris Review interview that this was a joke his own schoolteacher had liked to make. Evidently, it had played in his head for years, before finally finding release here, in a novel about memory and nostalgia, written in his sixties.
Clearly amused at the question, Barnes replied, “I like the early Ted Hughes. You know, before he got all oracular.” And he made big Botero curves with his pale fingers to show what he meant.
“Hughes is taught quite a lot in India,” I chattered on to buy time. “As are Auden and Larkin.”
And, miraculously, with the mention of Larkin, the one-question guillotine was stayed. Barnes is a great admirer of this bitter English poet, whom he knew, and who is everywhere in his new novel, but anonymously, in the form of what Barnes calls “hidden quotes” that are attributed to “the poet.” Indeed, if Flaubert’s Parrot offers up a full-throated tribute to Barnes’s literary hero Gustave Flaubert, The Sense of an Ending does the opposite for Philip Larkin. But, said Barnes ruefully, the hidden quotes have all been spotted and laid out by Colm Toibin in the New York Review of Books – “making me wonder if I’d put too many in.” Of the quotes, the most pivotal to the plot is the one that says, “Damage a long way back.” It’s repeated several times in different contexts, and by the end of the story, each word in that short line is transfigured with remorse.
“I really liked the book,” I said. “But it left me very disturbed.”
“I’m so glad to hear that,” said Barnes, and wished me goodnight.
The next morning, to my delight, he sent word through a photographer that if I wanted a quarter of an hour, he’d be willing to chat. We met at the Santa Clara Hotel, one of the venues of the Hay Festival. The hotel is housed in what was once the spectral Santa Clara Convent, where Gabriel Garcia Marquez set Of Love and Other Demons, his novel on love and exorcism during the Spanish Inquisition. There is a thin chill in the hotel’s cavernous halls that has nothing to do with the aggressive air-conditioning. Happily, then, the conversation took place on a sunlit balcony overlooking a palm-lashed courtyard. The courtyard had an enormous black Botero nude that would have terrified the nuns.
When The Sense of an Ending won the Booker Prize in 2011, Salman Rushdie tweeted: “Congratulations to #JulianBarnes on winning the #Booker. Long overdue, my friend, Bravo.” Barnes has been a Booker bridesmaid three times, so Rushdie’s sentiment was amply shared by all those who have enjoyed Barnes’s cool and erudite prose and been unsettled by it. Over the last three decades he has written steadily, producing twenty books of novels, non-fiction, essays, short stories, and translation. The forms may have varied but the themes have remained constant: sex, death, and memory. These are potentially wild themes, but Barnes embeds them in bourgeois settings and allows the “great unrest” that sparks to vitalize his stories. He has the very English ability to dramatize the bland with understatement. Bland on bland action, but always on a bed of irony.
He also enjoys being funny. Flaubert’s Parrot has a line that says if Emma Bovary had violet eyes she would belong “in a Raymond Chandler novel.” “Funny is good,” said Barnes, laughing a little. “I like funny. But I was always called wry, or witty, or sometimes ironic. And clever.” Clever is spat out with slow, twinkling contempt. “Clever is not very nice. Not if you’re in England. And then I went on Desert Island Discs and the introduction went, ‘Julian Barnes was a clever schoolboy…’ There’s no getting away from it. So I kept saying to my publicist, when are they going to call me wise. I want to be called wise. And I’m only clever.”
“Wise” is word that could be applied to The Sense of an Ending, but devious or cunning is perhaps more apt. At first, the 163-page novella seems like an easy read with an inbuilt mystery that keeps you turning the pages. But once you finish it, it continues to eat away at you, forcing you to re-read it. And then, to uneasily re-examine your own past. What difficult parts have been slyly edited out? What careless deed has led to what terrible consequence? Has any of us, no matter how protected, escaped damage?
It’s hard to discuss the novel completely without revealing the secret on which it turns. But here’s a no-spoiler summary: The narrator is typically Barnesian. A retired Englishman whose life can be summed up in one word: average. Tony Webster says, “Average, that’s what I’ve been, ever since I left school. Average at the university and work; average in friendship, loyalty, love; average, no doubt at sex.” Tony loves control and hates risk. And then, one day, he gets a letter from a lawyer telling him that the diary of an old school friend who had slit his wrists forty years ago has been left to him. This friend, Adrian, a brilliant Cambridge student, was someone Tony had hero-worshipped – until Adrian decided to take up with Veronica Ford, by then Tony’s ex-girlfriend. A furious Tony had written to Adrian advising him to be careful because “Veronica had suffered some kind of damage a long way back” – even though this was pure conjecture on his part. The allegedly damaged Veronica, with her “quick but withholding smile” and rigid views on culture, is the most interesting character in the novel. She bristles with integrity and rage, mostly directed at Tony, whom she repeatedly says “just doesn’t get it.” But what is it that he “just doesn’t get?” And why has Adrian’s diary been left to him? Suddenly, Average Tony is obsessed with these questions and begins to dig up his past. The only tool he has – his memory – is a defective one, but it will have to do. In the last brutal pages, he finally gets it.
“The argument in both the beginning and end of the book,” said Barnes, “is about where responsibility lies. And to what extent something like a suicide is entirely the responsibility of the person who has done it, or is there a whole chain of responsibility. And there usually is.”
Barnes dramatizes this chain of responsibility against a backdrop of class difference. One of the best chapters has Tony describing a miserable weekend spent at Veronica’s family home in Kent. “I was so ill at ease that I spent the entire weekend constipated: that is my principal factual memory.” He accuses Veronica of being as detached as her red brick house. Barnes has a good ear for the snobbery of country homes – the posh putdown in heartily addressing the guest as “young feller-me-lad,” the careless wink thrown across the dinner table, the morning walk from which the guest is excluded. He also makes Tony constantly question his own paranoia and complexes. When Tony goes home, he gets a coarse satisfaction from having a “bloody good long shit” – and telling us about it.
Surprisingly, however, Barnes claimed “not to consciously write about class.” “I think I write about Englishness,” he said. “On the whole, I write about a certain sort of middleclass English person who has those habits of indirection and irony and under-expressiveness of emotion. A friend of mine once said to me, why are so many of the characters in your novels so sort of wimpy and passive? And I said, I can’t really explain it except that I get more fictional traction with an inexpressive, rather passive male. It sort of brings the action onto him. And I suppose it’s also that I’m less interested in the typical hero who goes out and does things. My heroes don’t do things. Sometimes things are done to them. Also, a passive male character brings on female rage…Which of course means you can then ask the question, what about damage to him? Is there some sort of damage to Tony that makes him not want to engage with the world? Not want to risk damage with the world.”
Damage-phobic Tony Webster, I said, reminded me of “super-ordinary Swede,” the tragic protagonist in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. Swede Levov desperately wants to live the perfect, tidy American life but learns in a horrific way that he can’t protect himself or his family from damage – or from inflicting it. In the end, Levov’s perfect life turns out to be “reprehensible.” “That’s an interesting connection but I haven’t read American Pastoral,” said Barnes. “The Roth I like is the early to middle Roth. What is supposedly the great late period of Roth I find less interesting. Sabbath’s Theatre I couldn’t finish. But I like the early and middle ones. The Counterlife is a wonderful novel. I think that’s his best novel.”
However, he continued, damage reminded him of the book he was currently reading – Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady. “I’m a third of the way in,” he said. “Isabel Archer has been proposed to by an English lord and the rich American businessman, the cotton chap, and the arguments that are put to her are that it’s really much safer if you get married, and she says, no, I want to rub up against life, something like that. I don’t know if ‘rub up’ is James (‘affront my destiny,’ is what Isabel Archer wants to do), but that’s what she means. And they say to her, you must be careful you don’t get damaged. And I was struck, since we were talking about my book, about the Jamesian analogy. And don’t tell me what happens because I’ve never read it before. She’s just got to Florence and she’s just met the man whom Madame Merle has picked out for her, so I expect something bad is going to happen, but I’m not sure what.”
The conversation veered off into Henry James. By some coincidence I had only just read The Portrait myself and so it was fresh in my head. I asked if he agreed with the literary critic James Wood about Henry James’s superb use of narrative framing in the novel’s opening scene in which three bored men are taking tea on the lawns of a country house by the Thames, minutes before Isabel makes her entrance – and changes everything. “It’s good,” said Barnes, meditatively. “It’s a good opening scene.” But the mention of Wood is a distraction. The hugely influential Wood, who writes for The New Yorker, has not exactly savaged Barnes with praise. He has called his stories “wan” and “cozily fenced” and “addicted to fact,” making him sound like a writerly Tony Webster. Barnes, on his part, is known for his acidic views on the quality of criticism in general.
“I know of James Wood,” he said, emphasizing the of. “He’s been on my case for a very long time. I’m almost weary of displeasing James Wood…But I don’t really keep up with my reviews anymore. I stopped dead about the time of England, England because I always found that the good ones, when you re-read them, weren’t as good as you thought they were first time round, and the bad ones were just as bad as you thought they were. So I thought, why am I reading these reviews except for looking for praise about my books, and I felt that was sort of ignominious, you know, ignoble. And I thought, the book’s written and the review’s written, why bother to get into an emotional state about it. But then there was a wonderful review of England, England in The Sunday Times by John Carey – and I thought to myself, he completely understands the book. So you do want those nice adjectives but you also want the book to be accurately described in terms of its texture, its feeling, its weight, its tone. So much reviewing is just about inadequate description and that’s depressing. So I stopped completely in 1998…I read the French reviews because they are completely different from any other reviews.”
“And the French love you,” I interjected.
“I know. They do love me. But it’s nice to read reviews of your book in a different language. And the French are very imaginative. They often pretend to interview you when they haven’t. And no, I don’t mind at all.” (Later that evening, during his session with Mario Vargas Llosa on Flaubert and modernism, Barnes would reply sharply to a provocative comment about France being ”a nation without ideas.“ “I think that’s a gross libel on my favorite country,” he said. “The idea that the French don’t create ideas is incredibly stupid, an absurdity. I come from the country that doesn’t issue ideas. England is known as the country without music, as it should be.”)
He returned once more to Henry James. “My favorite moment in the whole opening scene is that the father has a very large cup. Do you remember? He’s having his tea out of a very large cup. And then it’s mentioned again once or twice, and then you think it’s absolutely brilliant of James not to explain it. He just doesn’t. And you think, is it because he warms his hands with it? Is it because it’s easier for an old man to pick up a big cup rather than a little cup? Is it just an eccentricity? Is it a sign that he is a man who has held great power and who therefore has a large cup? Does he like a lot of tea? Is it an example of the fact that he’s not English? It’s absolutely brilliant that we don’t know why that cup is so big.”
As he walked me to the lift he said, “Thank you for not asking if The Sense of an Ending is autobiographical. I’m so tired of that question.”
“It couldn’t have been,” I replied politely. “Tony Webster is bald.”
“That settles it then,” he said, and the lift arrived.
I’d enjoyed the meeting. And if I had to sum it up in one image, it would be that of the languid Barnes sitting forward in his chair with a sudden zest to obsess about the size of a teacup. You can’t get more English, English if you tried.
Image credit: FNPI – Joaquin Sarmiento
Through the Window, Julian Barnes’s sparkling new collection of essays, is a veritable treasure house of letters on novels and their authors. His subjects span the Anglo and French traditions within which Barnes work is rooted – Flaubert’s Parrot and England, England highlight in his own fictional oeuvre the interplay between the two – from Orwell and Kipling on the one hand to Mérimée and Houellebecq on the other.
This is not to say that the American pantheon is neglected. Far from it. Barnes is not immune, for example, to the work of John Updike. “Any historian wanting to understand the texture, smell, feel and meaning of bluey-white collar life in ordinary America between the 1950s and 1990s will need little more than the Rabbit Quartet,” Barnes concludes, labeling Updike’s Angstrom sequence “the greatest postwar American novel”:
It’s rare for a work of this length to get even better as it goes on, with Rabbit at Rest the strongest and richest of the four books. In the last hundred pages or so, I found myself slowing deliberately, not so much because I didn’t want the book to end, as because I didn’t want Rabbit to die.
The collection concludes with an essay of searing clarity on Joyce Carol Oates’s memoir A Widow’s Story. Barnes is somewhat kind to the book in general terms, labeling it “novelistic and expansive” and arguing that in focusing in the main on “the dark interiors, the psycho-chaos of grief,” Oates plays to her strengths. Moreover, he goes some way to defending the lax character of her prose, arguing that if it appears repetitive, obsessive, or incoherent, well, “so is grief.” Barnes is critical, and oddly so, of Oates’s failure to disclose her decision to remarry following the death of her first husband:
This isn’t a moral comment: Oates may quote Marianne Moore’s line that “the cure for loneliness is solitude,” but many people need to be married, and therefore, at times, remarried. However, some readers will feel they have good case for breach of narrative promise. Was not Ray “the first man in my life, the last man, the only man”? And what about all those perennials she planted?
In the main, however, Barnes appears drawn towards a certain type of trans-Channel writer. His take on Rudyard Kipling is at once jarring and refreshing in the way in which it seeks to highlight the bond between Kipling and France. “He seems to us such an English writer, such a British imperialist, such a pungent purveyor of the lore and language of his tribe,” Barnes writes, “that it comes as a surprise to find how well known and widely read he was in France.”
Such was his fame in fact that when Kipling’s family would tour the country by automobile after the war, they found that “three days was the maximum they could stay in one place without his identity being discovered,” without being invited into the local church by the priest or accosted in the street by grateful soldiers. In terms of the latter, Barnes notes how on a tour of the front lines in 1915 in his role as a war correspondent, Kipling discovered to his astonishment how well read his stories and poems were in the trenches.
Indeed, the bond between Kipling and France was “made lifelong – and sealed with blood – by the Great War.” Kipling spent a good deal of his postwar life there, working with the War Graves Commission, advising that Ecclesiasticus 44:14 – “Their name liveth for evermore” – be chiseled into the Stones of Remembrances. Kipling came to admire in France “what he thought his own country could do with more of,” qualities of “work ethic, thrift, simplicity.” Enforced military service, Kipling believed, “promoted not only civic virtue but also a fundamental seriousness of mind which he felt his compatriots lacked.”
But Barnes goes further, attempting to assert that France would influence his literature, too. “Direct literary influence is small,” Barnes concedes, yet he sees in his work an inspiration “of a more diffuse kind.” Kipling was criticized for being “democratic in personnel and truthful in theme and detail. An early exposure to French literature,” Barnes concludes, citing Rabelais, Balzac, and Maupassant, “would have endorsed this aesthetic.”
Barnes also sees a converse influence, of Kipling on France, though this appears to be minimal, too. In a second essay on Kipling, Barnes analyses Jérôme and Jean Tharaud’s 1902 roman à clef, Dingley, l’illustre écrivain, perceiving the protagonist to be unmistakably Kipling – “his energy, his ceaseless curiosity are all acknowledged; what is questioned is the use to which the famous imagination and the public fame are put.” In this vein, the novel emerges as a “critique of British imperialism and a warning against literary populism.”
Barnes’s efforts to impress the link between Kipling and France feel clean and are indeed intriguing. It is evident that Kipling, like many Englishmen, had Francophile tendencies, with a feeling for the landscape and the people. But Barnes is less persuasive when attempting to expound literary influence. Not so with his take on Ford Madox Ford novel of the First World War, The Good Soldier. “France certainly provided The Good Soldier’s point of emulative origin,” Barnes states, noting Ford’s ambition to do for the English novel what Maupassant’s Fort comme la mort did for the French form.
Ford sought to imitate the “violently transgressive passion” of Maupassant, applying the “tropes of torments” of Fort comme la mort to “a very English set of characters.” Barnes concludes that while The Good Soldier is “much less of a social novel” than Maupassant’s, it is “in terms of emotional heat even Frencher than Fort comme la mort.” Whereas Maupassant “turns up the burners only towards the end of his novel,” Ford goes all in, raising the stakes of “madness and terror,” audaciously starting “at the highest emotional pitch” and only continuing to elevate it thereafter.
The result, Barnes believes, is “Ford’s masterpiece,” noteworthy for its “immaculate use of an unreliable narrator, its sophisticated disguise of true narrative behind a false facade of apparent narrative, its self-reflectingness, its deep duality about human motive, intention and experience, and its sheer boldness as a project.” It is a novel which “constantly asks how to tell a story, which pretends to fail at narrative while richly succeeding.” Yet for all its qualities, The Good Soldier and also Ford himself was derided by his contemporaries. Barnes proposes why:
He presents no usefully crisp literary profile; he wrote far too much, and in too many genres; he fails to fit easily into university courses. He seems to fall down a hole between late Victorianism and modernism. He also presented himself as an elderly party fading out before this new generation which was probably a bad tactical move.
It might be a bit much (and I dare say a little rude) to venture that like Ford, Barnes as a novelist remains under-appreciated, or at least under-read, when compared to his contemporaries. But it bears mentioning because, due to the personal nature of the format, Barnes’s examinations of these authors can’t help but say a little something about the essayist. In both Kipling and Ford, he strives to unearth the ties and sentiments which he holds most dear, which most impact upon his novels, those of an Anglo inexorably bound to France. Through the Window confirms not only this love of England and of France, but of language and literature as well.
A Word on Weddings
Like many people whose marriage impends, I have been initiated into the strange, febrile world of weddings — a world whose population is varied and ever-changing, a time-lapse version of the actual world. The wedding world is headquartered at sites like The Knot or Weddingbee, where the affianced and the “waiting” (for someone to put a ring on it) alike convene to commune in questionable spelling and reverent platitudes of surpassing banality: “marrying my best friend,” and “it’s not the wedding, it’s the marriage,” uttered in the course of a discussion about five-dollar chair covers.
Making fun of The Knot or Weddingbee is like shooting fish in a barrel, and most of the womens’ interest blogs of the sort I favor have taken aim. But Jezebel cannot tell me anything about tipping the caterer, while Weddingbee bristles with opinions on the subject. Moreover, long after I harvested the helpful hints I needed from Weddingbee, I return frequently to view the forums, which I have found absorbing to an almost debilitating degree.
It began with the unkind voyeuristic impulse behind something like The Hairpin’s Today’s Top Ten Wedding Bee Discussion Board Thread Titles. The Internet, more than travel, more than almost any other thing, gives you a glimpse of how other people live and what they care about. And with weddings being a widespread but mostly un-ideological phenomenon, a wedding website attracts a real slice of life. On Weddingbee there are the expected Marxian differences, as well as significant regional and hemispheric variations.
In spite of this, these boards are a friendly place. Women are frequently reminded by the world at large that they are catty and shrewish, but I am often struck by the fierce generosity demonstrated by groups of women unknown to one another (also by the speed with which a group of female strangers will turn to topics of contraception under the right circumstances). As in any community, some members are just assholes. But someone asks if she is too fat to see daylight, and everyone tells her no, no, no. Someone loses her job a week before her wedding, and the hive gathers round her in an online embrace.
Disdain for these sites is often of a parcel with another phenomenon the wedding-haver encounters — a sort of race-to-the-bottom humblebrag about the minimal expense of the interlocutor’s wedding, sometimes phrased so that the implication is that the success of a marriage is inversely proportionate to the cost of the shindig. “Had it in the backyard,” they say, and the Lord rained down gratis BBQ and compostable cutlery to reward their lack of pretension. Then there is Caitlin Flanagan, who characteristically manages to be right about a lot of things while sucking the joy right out of the world, reminding us that weddings are a colossal, farcical, tasteless, and needless expense representing a hollowed-out institution — just another example of our sick culture.
Everyone has their own line for what constitutes folly. I am not without my own strain of Flanaganism. But one thing I really like about weddings is that though they are a folly, they are to the best of my knowledge a relatively universal folly (and one of the few driven by some ostensibly joyful and optimistic instinct). Even in less libertine cultures than my own, they often represent a union in which not a shred of virginity, financial health, or, sometimes, likelihood of enduring love remains. Even so, we are going to get spruced up, create a festive atmosphere of one sort or another, and take photographs. In a thousand languages, people spend money, fight about the guest list, and try not to get any unsightly hives on the big day. Then, they try to stay married. We are unlikely to make ourselves less stupid than we collectively are, so we should have parties.
My own experience of wedding planning has been a very traditional cocktail shared with my beloved, composed of anxiety, guilt, and joyful anticipation. Like many people, I made a lot of lists of things and fretted too much about some things and not enough about others. I did things that were called “wedding planning” which were actually just mindless Internet trawling, looking at pictures of things that have no bearing on my life, and patting myself on the back for at least not being as x as the people who say y on Weddingbee.
What the wedding sites made clear to me about weddings generally and ours in particular is that they are inevitably one iteration of a thousand other weddings — a melange of logistical and aesthetic decisions dictated by social forces largely imperceptible to you. You find that choices you believed you had arrived at quite on your own are some current staple of Pinterest, totally characteristic of your particular station in life. My demographic, evidently, is very fond of the “rustic” and the “vintage.” And while I have grown to shudder at these terms (one wedding theme I read about: “vintage books”), part of it is the pain of realizing that you are part of a vast, rushing current, and your tastes are not your own.
I eventually resigned myself to rusticity and sameness, but one place where I thought I could assert my personality (without leaving my fiance totally by the wayside, or course), was the wedding reading. I was confident that Weddingbee could tell me nothing that I did not already know about a pithy piece of writing.
How Literature Failed Me in my Hour of Need
It is now customary in many weddings to write one’s own vows, tailored to fit the bride and groom’s individual quirks. Faced with this prospect, some dour inner Protestant stirred and grumbled. I could not picture us telling the assembled that we enjoy fattening food, Breaking Bad, and architectural boat tours. That when I mop the floor, I like to get drunk and listen to Groove Armada. When you sneeze, you sneeze five times. That I promise to always like the Redskins even when they are dismal. No, I am partial to “death do us part.” And brevity, ironically.
Thus the reading became the one place in the ceremony for a little customization and flair. My beloved also likes books, but I am bossier, and I took the reigns on this project. And since I find literature sufficient for expressing most of what there is to express about human life, the bar for this particular passage was very high.
As a bookish person, it felt like cheating to be searching for beautiful passages from the Internet. I preferred for it to happen more organically (so precious, so mistaken). I read books all the time, I thought to myself; surely I should have some interior commonplace book chock-full of beauty and inspiration to consult. But the only two poems I can recite in their entirety — Philip Larkin’s “High Windows” and “This be the Verse” — are so far from wedding-worthy it’s hard to imagine anything worse: “When I see a couple of kids/ And guess he’s fucking her and she’s/ Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,/ I know this is paradise.” (Or “They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” obviously.)
I love “The Whitsun Weddings,” which is technically a poem about weddings. But while, contra Christopher Hitchens, I think its last line is romantic, the romance is that of life, not of individual human relationships: “A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower/ Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.” “Broadcast” is love poem, but a more sneering and cringing love poem there never was: “…Then begins/ A snivel on the violins:/ I think of your face among all those faces,/ Beautiful and devout before/ Cascades of monumental slithering.” Most unsuitable for a wedding. And anyhow, Larkin — more on him later.
My favorite poem is probably T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes,” the last lines of which reveal the haunting ordered chaos of the universe, but hardly warm the cockles: “The worlds revolve like ancient women/ gathering fuel in vacant lots.” In a book shop pawing through the poetry, I sensed this was a theme, in poetry in general, and especially in the poetry I like. Tomas Tranströmer seemed promising for a minute in “The Couple,” if a touch erotic: “The movements of love have settled, and they sleep/but their most secret thoughts meet as when/ two colours meet and flow into each other/ on the wet paper of a schoolboy’s painting.” But that ending: “They stand packed and waiting very near,/ a mob of people with blank faces.” It leaves an impression of a lonely echo in a hallway, a little like “Preludes.”
Googling had seemed like cheating, but I started to Google, and found, predictably, that I was hardly the first person to have had this problem. Book snobs abound. I went to the library and took out several anthologies, including a book of readings specifically for weddings. There are things I have seen before — sonnets, for example — but I like free verse. There were many things I hadn’t seen. Margaret Atwood has a poem about marriage called “Habitation,” evidently used in some weddings. I liked it, stupidly, because it mentions eating popcorn, which happens to be something that my beloved and I do together on a shockingly regular basis. But it seemed a little fraught for a wedding. The last line, “We are learning to make fire,” hangs at the bottom of the page, lonely as early man: I pictured us shivering in our damp cave.
I liked an excerpt from Toni Morrison’s “Jazz” — “It’s nice when grown people whisper to each other under the covers” — but that’s so private, and then the poem invokes an off-stage “chippie” and “stud.” I checked out Love Letters of Great Men, but the problem, aside from the sort of ethical weirdness of reading someone’s mail, is that great men tended to write romantic letters to a number of different women, which is not really on-message for our marriage (this was not in the collection, but I remember Malcolm Lowry once wrote one of his wives that he wanted to use her toothbrush instead of his own). I looked to the eminently quotable Flaubert in the pages of Julian Barnes’ wonderful Flaubert’s Parrot. Here’s a good one: “You ask for love, you complain that I don’t send you flowers? Flowers, indeed! If that’s what you want, find yourself some wet-eared boy stuffed with fine manners and all the right ideas. I’m like the tiger, which has bristles of hair at the end of its cock, with which it lacerates the female.”
Rumi figures in anthologies of love poetry. I like Rumi, but for a wedding I feel that the Sufis are off-limits. As far as I know, which is not very much, the beloved of whom they speak is likely to be God, or the young man who brings you your wine. Context matters. Also, my favorite line from Rumi is fiercely individualistic: “I drip out of a spout drop by drop — But like the deluge I crush myriad palaces.” (Rappers have nothing on Rumi). I toyed with finding something in Turkish — but it seemed to me that this was a moment for my mother tongue. And my knowledge is limited, and my favorite Turkish poetry is in any case a line written by the twelfth century poet Yunus Emre, too defiant for a wedding unless it was one disapproved of by all relatives: “What should the ignorant know of us?/ Greetings to the ones who know.”
Context matters, and that’s really what takes Philip Larkin out of the question: he loved Monica Jones so much he helped Kingsley Amis turn her into one of literature’s great hysterics, a caricature of a pain-in-the-ass female (Lucky Jim‘s Margaret Peel). When I think about literature I don’t typically dwell on the private life of the author, because it’s a slippery slope. But I found when looking for a wedding reading that I became more interested in whether the writer him or herself had been married and gave at least the appearance of contentment.
On love, Emily Dickinson basically sums it up: “That Love is all there is/ Is all we know of Love;/ It is enough, the freight should be/ Proportioned to the groove.” But love and marriage are not the same thing. Most unkindly, I wondered what the virginal shut-in would know of the long intimacy, the vaunted tedium of marriage. Bizarrely, I veered into some exclusionary policy regarding Auden and Forster, whose circumscribed personal lives were in the broad sense casualties of a bigoted and ignorant society. Nabokov was promising; he is known to have loved Vera, and wrote her poems. But the 1974 poem “To Vera” is just that, a poem to Vera, and seemed to have nothing to do with us. “How I Love You” is Nabokovian in a way that confounds a ceremonial reading: “…gnats:/ hanging up in an evening sunbeam, / their swarmlet ceaselessly jiggles…”
There is the religious angle — a friends’ wedding featured Isaiah 43:1-7, which I believe is a particularly badass selection from the Old Testament: “When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned.” But novels are my sacred texts, and we are in any case rather unclear in our feelings about the Lord. His brief invocation in Robert Louis Stevenson’s cheerful “Wedding Prayer” is enough: “Lord, behold our family here assembled” (which one could also read: “Oh Lord, they’re all here.”)
Poetry letting me down, I turned to the novels that I love. No passage suggested itself to me — unless you have a very certain kind of mind, you can’t survey the text of every book you’ve ever read all at the same time. And if it’s not cricket to go looking for a previously unencountered reading that somehow has meaning to you, it’s equally uncricket to read everything with an eye to appropriating some piece of it for your marriage ceremony. But I began to see that’s how I should have been reading for the entirety of the preceding year.
What had I read most recently? We Need to Talk About Kevin, for chrissakes, and a book about rabies. I reread Goodbye to All That, which Graves closes with “…marriage wore thin. New characters appeared on the stage. Nancy and I said unforgivable things to each other. We parted on May 6th, 1929. She, of course, insisted on keeping the children. And I went abroad, resolved never to make England my home again…” My fiance had most recently read Travels With Charley, and suggested I look there. But Travels With Charley is about a man and a poodle, and the poodle goes “ffft.”
I began to comb through my favorite novels, but from the outset it was clear that most would never do. There’s Burmese Days or Of Human Bondage, where goodish men are driven mad by worthless women, with differing outcomes. A Suitable Boy is a spectacularly romantic novel, weddings all over, but it portends falling in love with the man you can marry, in lieu of the one that you can’t. The Tin Drum, full of obscenity. Wodehouse, too facetious. The aforementioned Lucky Jim closes with a romance, but it is a revenge story, against all Welches and Margarets, rather than a love story about the well-formed Christine. Iris Murdoch’s novels are full of bizarre marriages and strange perversity. (The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, anyone?) Till We Have Faces, jealous sibling love and spinsters. I opened Possession, even Swann’s Way — they presented unyielding blocks of text. The closest I came was from A Dance to the Music of Time, and in fact explained why I was having so much trouble:
A future marriage, or a past one, may be investigated and explained in terms of writing by one of its parties, but it is doubtful whether an existing marriage can ever be described directly in the first person and convey a sense of reality. Even those writers who suggest some of the substance of married life best, stylise heavily, losing the subtlety of the relationship at the price of a few accurately recorded, but isolated, aspects…Its forms are at once so varied, yet so constant, providing a kaleidoscope, the colours of which are always changing, always the same. The moods of a love affair, the contradictions of friendship, the jealousy of business partners, the fellow feeling of opposed commanders in total war, these are all in their way to be charted. Marriage, partaking of such — and a thousand more — dual antagonisms and participations, finally defies definition.
It defies definition, and yet I wanted something romantic, weighty but not melancholy, in English, about marriage. It was finally Louis C. K. who drove it all home, how hard this is to do:
…Or you’ll meet the perfect person who you love infinitely and you even argue well and you grow together and you have children and then you get old together and then SHE’S GONNA DIE. That’s the BEST CASE SCENARIO, is that you’re gonna lose your best friend and then just walk home from D’Agostino’s with heavy bags every day and wait for your turn to be nothing also.
That is indeed the best case scenario, the lost best friend, that friend so abstract on the Weddingbee message boards, so real in practice. I listened to Donald Hall reading about the death of Jane Kenyon on This American Life and bawled my eyes out.
In the end, I stood again in a book shop, rifling through every poetry book they had. (In the course of the hunt I was descended upon by the proprietor, and because the last thing I wanted was someone’s advice on the matter, remained mute on the subject of the wedding and was thus compelled to read two suggested Bill Hickok poems while he stood watchfully at a remove.) Finally, I picked something, a poem by Billy Collins from his collection Nine Horses. I picked something, but what I thought was even better in that collection was something else, “Bermuda,” which is basically a poetic version of the Louis bit. A husband and wife lie together on a beach: “and the two of us so calm/ it seems that this is not our only life,/ just one in a series, charms on a bracelet,/ as if every day we were not running/ like the solitary runners on the beach/ toward a darkness without shape/ or waves, crosses or clouds,/as if one of us is not likely to get there first/ leaving the other behind,/ castaway on an island…”
It turns out that it was hard for me to find a good wedding reading because I’m a gloomy old bastard.
There, it would seem, is the rub. But I wasn’t going to put this foreboding stuff into the wedding ceremony. No, with several days remaining until the wedding I picked Collins’s “Litany” (“You are the bread and the knife,/ the crystal goblet and the wine”), which I thought was lovely and romantic and yet also conveyed the promised prosaic qualities of long relationships. It’s funny, but not too much. I find the long dashes of the last lines poignant: “You will always be the bread and the knife,/ not to mention the crystal goblet and — somehow —/ the wine.” There is an element of the sacramental which appeals to me, something that begins to approach the reverence I feel for my own beloved.
After all this, after the fretting and gnashing of teeth and weeping over sad poems and vases in empty rooms, I learned I could have found my reading on the Internet. It’s on a list of wedding readings compiled by Publisher’s Weekly, for one. I could even have found it on Weddingbee, where some fiercely unique soul, someone just like me, recommended it in a thread five years ago, lauded as a “a quirky expression of love, perfect for an English major who likes playing with metaphors.”
But I don’t care, I’ve got my love to keep me warm.
Image: Pexels/Caio Resende.
A friend who has long since gotten out of the literary scholarship racket was once, briefly, quite intent on writing a dissertation entitled “Parrots, Pirates, and Prostheses.” I have a vague recollection that the argument was to involve something about how pirates seem often to lose hands, legs, and eyes, and that along with their inanimate prosthetics (wooden legs, hooks, eye patches – if, indeed, eye patches count), they also have animate ones like parrots and monkeys. I am not quite sure where this argument was going. There was, however, an excellent plan to, at the defense of this unwritten dissertation, have a parrot, on the shoulder of the writer, declaim the defense.Though this dissertation (sadly) remains unwritten, it did generate a list of parrot books. Everyone’s favorite genre! Behold:Flaubert’s A Simple HeartKate Chopin’s The AwakeningRobinson Crusoe by Daniel DefoeCharles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (Scrooge recalls Crusoe’s Poll in the first stave)Flaubert’s Parrot, by Julian BarnesVirgina Woolf’s The Widow and the Parrot (this fable-like tale has been published as an illustrated children’s book)Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (Cap’n Flint)20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne (parrot hunting!)Little Women, Louisa May Alcott (Aunt March has a parrot who tells Laurie, “Go Away. No boys allowed here.”)Gertrude Stein’s “The Good Anna” in Three Lives briefly features a parrot.Saki’s story “The Remoulding of Groby Lington”Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (which features a haunting scene of a parrot on fire)Willa Cather’s beautiful Shadows on the Rock (Captain Pondaven’s African parrot Coco, who sings songs and drinks brandy in warm water)Cather’s Death Comes to the Archbishop (at least, I remember vaguely)
As the “A Year in Reading” series continues, I asked Scott, who runs one of my favorite blogs Conversational Reading, to share the best book he read all year. Not his favorite thing to do, but he indulged us nonetheless.I hate picking my favorite of anything. I always feel like it’s so arbitrary, that the reasons I like certain things are so various that it’s difficult to compare and say one’s better than the other. With that huge caveat, I’ll say that my favorite read of the year is Yukio Mishima’s Runaway Horses. It has a killer plot (I read the last 200 pages in one day) and brilliantly drawn characters, and it’s the best examination of passion that I can remember reading. For those reasons, I feel like the book will never feel old, but it also happens to explore a society (Japan in the 1930s) that speaks very much to our own.Runners-Up:River of Shadows by Rebecca SolnitThe Windup Bird Chronicle by Haruki MurakamiLike a Fiery Elephant by Jonathan CoeBoredom by Alberto MoraviaHunger by Knut HamsunFlaubert’s Parrot by Julian BarnesNever Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro