Winner of the 2017 Dzanc Short Story Collection Prize, Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s White Dancing Elephants is a daring look at the power of imagination. Bhuvaneswar, a practicing psychiatrist on the East Coast, has created intricate characters who fight back against narratives that limit their existence, natural circumstances or human-made, from birth and death and disease to racism, classicism, and sexism, shuffling together ancient fables with realistic contemporary fiction and a dystopia with robots. (She’d also been previously kind to include my book in her list of novels to read on the way to a political protest.) I was excited and nervous about meeting Bhuvaneswar over email to talk about her debut collection.
The Millions: Let’s start off by talking about writers who have been a major influence. I saw in an interview that you mentioned Jesmyn Ward. Can you tell us why and which other writers and books had a lasting impact on you?
Chaya Bhuvaneswar: I loved A Small Revolution, so I’ll mention that first—psychologically gripping, real, and an important part of the larger canon on books about revolution. I like to think that in its own way, my book is also about revolution, about subversion, and I would say that there is likely a set of books, large and somewhat shifting but definite, that led me to be a writer, period, because of their astute and surprising way of depicting awareness, rebellion, determination. These are human qualities I truly believe in. So that has led me to a lot of very different books—from Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina to Sapphire’s Push (both of which I wrote about here). While these are very different books, they relate specifically to the collection in that I am not just writing about “survivorship” as a sort of condition, but as a form of internal resolution. As one decision or series of decisions. As a form of self-determination, often at great and unexpected cost. I think without consciously deciding it, several books, including The Handmaid’s Tale (before the Netflix series, but then also, thrillingly, during its rise), Tracks by Louise Erdrich, and individual stories, like “The Children Stay” (which is completely astonishing, an Alice Munro story mostly inside the head of a modern Anna Karenina-like character).
In terms of how much I’ve gained from Jesmyn Ward’s work, I think more than anything her quiet confidence and determination are a complete inspiration for women writers of color who have to cling to the belief that “anybody will care” about the characters we write about, dream about. Will anybody care about, for example, an Indian immigrant who becomes a spoken word poet, or (even more of a question) a retired, cranky man so choked with grief at being separated from his son that he is rageful and perhaps unforgivable to the daughter he lives with who has a disability? Does anybody care about these lives—a black woman psychoanalyst wealthy enough to be envied by others; a Korean-American lady doctor-slash-workaholic? So far the answer has been a resounding “yes” in nearly all cases—but I believe that would not be as true without the model of the thrilling success of Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied, Sing. She and others have opened doors for the stories of overlooked, ordinary people of color to be told and celebrated and sung.
TM: I felt that kind of confidence come through in your stories too, beginning with a narrator who whispers to her unborn child to the roar of the girls in captivity near the end of the book. How did you come up with the arrangement of this collection?
CB: One of my favorite short story writers, Maile Meloy (whose work I recommend reading here, especially; “Madame Lazarus” may be my favorite story of hers, ever) said once in an interview how she just sort of played with the order of the stories on the “back of a napkin” the way you’d shuffle a song playlist.
I think it was exactly like that. I was pushed up against a deadline, reading at AWP 2018 and having a blast generally, and I came back late one night and sat there shaping a response to the editor asking me to delineate the order, and this is just sort of what came out. I am incredibly grateful, as well, that our publisher and editor in chief at Dzanc, Michelle Dotter, really “went with” a lot of what I proposed as my instinctive responses to her questions. She had a lot of trust in me to shape the edits that in retrospect is so wonderful, really.
You try for the standard things—to vary POV, not have three stories told in the first person back to back. But I think as with a song list, there is a dreamy, playing quality and hopefully the main thing is that people enjoy it. To that end as well, I am thrilled to note that on the release date for White Dancing Elephants, Large Hearted Boy, that blog that posts “song playlists,” is going to post one I put together with the wonderful editor, David Gutkowski, and I guarantee—I KNOW—people will enjoy it.
TM: In your essay about being a writer and a psychiatrist, you say, “I write as a self-defining activity, without judging if what I write is any good. I write because I have seen people whose ability to write was taken away by illness. I write because I am mortal, and know it.” Tell us more about that because I feel it speaks so much to your characters in your stories too, about being keenly aware of their mortality.
CB: The daily routine of being a doctor in contemporary practice fundamentally changes your relationship to the physical act of writing. I mean, we just have to write SO MUCH. And all of it has to be written with a certain kind of care, because the medical record belongs to the patient, and so while there is a certain amount of productive “thinking out loud,” aimed at helping the medical professionals reading the record diagnose and treat various conditions, ultimately there can’t be anything in the medical record that doesn’t directly serve the patient. We have to be honest but at the same time as tactful as we can. It’s a constant goal we keep in mind.
So there’s this high wire you become accustomed to—writing a lot (thousands of words a day) but at the same time, writing with care and writing where there is so much at stake. And more than anything I think that has affected me as a writer. It helped make writing something I could own. Versus the publicly acclaimed and fraught and competitive position of “writer”—where, like, you read about Gary Shteyngart getting taken to a warehouse to sign thousands of his books, or you read about Terrance Hayes being “number two!” on the global list of contemporary poetry books selling on Amazon now, or whatever. I don’t know about all that. But I know that when I sit down at my desk, I can write, and as long as that’s true, I’m grateful. I have what I need.
TM: You explore the very edges of boundaries, particularly between life and death over and over in these stories—a woman grieving the loss of a child, kidnapping and sexual assault, sexual abuse by a parent, suffering from cancer, and connected to these the idea of switching places, roles—therapist and patient—playing constantly with societal expectations often with those with less power asserting themselves powerfully. I’m curious about your thoughts about the #MeToo movement?
CB: Mainly I have a few fragmentary thoughts to offer here (hoping of course that the shards will illuminate a little bit—that whole concept of “synecdoche” that I feel like I learned about from reading Forster but don’t even remember exactly how. Howards End, perhaps?).
First, the notion of “edges of boundaries”—I’m very influenced by the concept of “liminality,” from religious studies, which I first encountered when studying the poet A.K. Ramanujan’s really brilliant translations of medieval Hindu poetry. In these poems, mostly written by men but also by a few women, every definition was shifting and changing. Gender, sexuality, location, faith—all fluid, as fluid as language. I am interested in this fluidity as a source of resilience, and often I’m drawn to characters who don’t yet see the positive aspects of change, who deeply fear it.
Second, the responsibility of women to other women. I guess I still believe in an idea of “sisterhood,” but rather than prescribe it to anyone, I try to remember and celebrate those moments when women have shown me that solidarity. Whether in small ways—like sharing advice about how to care for a newborn—or other ways, like the woman administrator at my undergrad college, who actively encouraged me and other female students to come forward about a particularly egregious harasser.
I do feel like the way we find a path forward through the #MeToo movement is by remembering a common humanity. This is one reason I love the title of Roxane Gay’s anthology, Not That Bad, because it illustrates how utterly inadequate that type of label is for many of these experiences. Yes, you don’t literally lose a limb from being harassed. But you lose some part of your dignity and you end up having to fight to get that back. It is that bad, to suffer violence, especially when you’re in a space, as a working professional or student or any kind of occupational role, where you should just be allowed to perform, period, and not be given that extra burden, the extra barrier. I do think that #MeToo experiences constitute a form of resistance by the status quo, against the entry of women in equal numbers, and with equal or greater power, into professional and educational and financial spaces (including the entertainment industry) where male dominance had been the norm. Harassment is a way of making us uncomfortable. The movement is saying: We won’t stand for it. Amen.
Michel De Montaigne owned 900 books, which he kept on shelves arranged in a semi-circle. Immanuel Kant owned about 400 books. Virginia Woolf: 4,000.
Qin Shi Huang, the Chinese emperor who built the Great Wall, ordered the destruction of all books written before his reign. According to the Han-era historian Sima Qian, the Qin burned only those works held in private libraries, while the court erudites and government archives were permitted to retain and expand their collections. During the Qin era, anyone caught discussing The Classic of Poetry in public would be executed. Under Qin Shi Huang it was a capital offence to discuss the past as being preferable to the present.
Many of those books spared by the emperor were destroyed when the warlord Xiang Yu entered the city of Xiangyang, four years after Qin Shi Huang’s death, and razed the Qin palace and its library to the ground.
John Dee, mathematician, astrologer, and adviser to Elizabeth I, kept a collection of 2,337 books and 378 manuscripts in his house on Mortlake-on-Thames. When he died, in 1608, the land around his home was bought by the antiquarian Robert Cotton, who suspected — correctly — that Dee had buried a cache of valuable manuscripts in a nearby field.
Gustave Flaubert possessed more books by George Sand than any other author.
Emily Dickinson owned a copy of Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë. F. Scott Fitzgerald owned the 1926 edition of The Paris That’s Not in the Guidebooks by Basil Woon. James Joyce owned the guidebook In and About Paris by Sisley Huddleston. Joseph Roth, it appears, possessed very few books.
Franz Kafka owned all of Max Brod’s books. In a diary entry from 1911, Kafka writes: “November 11. All afternoon at Max’s. Decided on the sequence of the essays for (Brod’s latest collection) On the Beauty of Ugly Pictures. Not good feeling.”
Every few years, Willa Cather re-read her favourite novels. By 1945 she had read Huckleberry Finn 20 times, and Flaubert’s Salammbo 13 times.
Socrates said the written word represented “no true wisdom.” He preferred a dialogue. He claimed written words “seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you the same thing for ever.”
In her copy of Emmanuel Mounier’s The Character of Man, Flannery O’Connor underlined the following sentences: “When we say that thought is dialogue, we mean this quite strictly. We never think alone. The unspoken thought is a dialogue with someone who questions, contradicts, or spurs one on.”
In chapter seven of Eugene Onegin, the heroine Tatiana visits the country estate of Onegin, where she is let in by the housekeeper. The chapter is framed as a digression by the narrator: Tatiana does not meet Onegin at the villa, instead she encounters his collection of books, and reads his marginalia, and the scrapbook into which he copied his favorite passages. For the first time, Tatiana encounters what she considers to be the real Onegin — in the marginal notations his mind “declares itself in ways unwitting.” Then what is the true Onegin like? Tatiana begins to see him as a composite of fictional characters from his favorite books.
On a page of Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the HMS Beagle Round the World, Mark Twain wrote: “Can any plausible excuse be furnished for the crime of creating the human race?”
In the margins of Howards End, Penelope Fitzgerald complains of the author: “He is lecturing us”. Fitzgerald’s biographer, Hermione Lee, finds this observation about Lady Russell in a copy of Persuasion: “A right-feeling but wrong-judging parent, who does as much harm as an unfeeling one.” About Fanny’s mother in Mansfield Park, Fitzgerald writes: “We see relentlessly what a difference some money makes.” About Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice: “She punishes herself too much.” In a copy of Waiting for Godot: “An attempt to show how man bears his own company.” In her copy of The Good Soldier, Fitzgerald writes: “A short enough book to contain 2 suicides, 2 ruined lives, a death, a girl driven insane — it may seem odd to find that the key note of the book is restraint.”
Among Djuna Barnes’s personal library, now kept at the University of Maryland, is the 1963 edition of Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews. As a young writer, on commission for magazines, Barnes interviewed other novelists, including James Joyce. She herself was never interviewed by The Paris Review.
Katherine Anne Porter’s library comprised 4,000 books — rounded up by librarians — now preserved at the University of Maryland. Doris Lessing donated her collection of 3,000 titles to Harare City Library, Zimbabwe.
Five years after her death, Iris Murdoch’s books were sold to the Kingston University Library, London, for the sum of £120,000. Her husband John Bayley said: “Her mind seemed to work independently of her precious library, but at the same time she depended for inspiration on the presence of her books, a silent living presence whose company sustained and reassured her.”
Late in his career, David Markson wrote novels that he constructed, for the most part, out of hundreds of anecdotes and factoids about writers and other artists. Nested amid these catalogues of biographical facts are brief statements by an unnamed narrator, which relate his or her circumstances or distressed frame of mind. All these components are united by two themes: the life of an artist and death. At a reading of his final novel, titled The Last Novel, Markson introduced the work by stating that his book featured no dramatic scenes, no incidents, no chapters, but was “98.5 per cent — and that’s not really a guess” composed of anecdotes and quotes sourced from other books. Markson’s novels are enormous collages full of fragments from his private library. After his death in 2010, his collection was donated to The Strand in New York, where, presumably, he bought most of the books that contained the anecdotes and quotes and facts that comprised his novels. As if completing a perfect ritual, Markson’s library was sorted and integrated into the Strand’s floor stock, and sold and dispersed again.
Image Credit: Flickr/Michael D Beckwith.
Every new year, my husband and I quit drinking for the month. Sober January is a healthy and smug time, filled with sparkling water and peppermint tea and discussions about what kind of red wine would have gone well with the lamb shanks. This year, we’ve also given up sugar for the month. We joke that we should also take away bread, dairy, meat, salt. Anything with flavor, anything that makes us happy. Next year we will consume only paper towels soaked in water for 31 days.
A more pleasurable new year’s resolution is one that adds to your life rather than subtracts from it. One year, for instance, I vowed to wear more dresses. I did, and it was a fabulous (and feminine) year. Reading resolutions, if they aren’t too onerous, also fall under this category. For example, vowing to read a poem a week isn’t a huge challenge and, wow, how it can render a Saturday morning more ponderous and magical! A couple of years back I devoted a summer to E.M. Forster, and, aside from the splendor of reading Howards End and Maurice, I loved saying, in my best mid-Atlantic, Gore Vidal-inspired accent, “I find myself on a Forster kick lately.”
This year, I resolve to read James Baldwin’s nonfiction, in particular The Fire Next Time. The desire to read Baldwin emerged from discussions, both in-person and online, about Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which I own but haven’t yet read. Beyond the obvious similarities between the two books (the letter writing device and race in America as subject matter), I’m interested in other ways these two texts interact, and where and how they diverge.
I also resolve to read David Copperfield. I’d already planned to read it this year after spending 2015 with one contemporary novel or another, and then I read Meaghan O’Connell’s Year in Reading, wherein she not only recommended many of the same books I had read and loved in 2015, but also mentioned that she was waiting for the Charles Dickens to arrive in the mail. This seemed fated. We have agreed to tackle the book together, in a kind of two-lady book club, this February.
In figuring out my own reading resolutions, I realized how much fun it is to hear about what others plan to read this year. In this spirit, I asked some people I admire to share their 2016 bookish resolutions.
David Ulin, former critic for the Los Angeles Times and the author of Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, always writes about books with such perspicacity and grace. He told me he generally doesn’t believe in resolutions since he almost never follows through with them. He went on:
But when it comes to reading in 2016, my main goal is to relax. To step back from the treadmill, and to read in a more integrated way. In part, this will mean as a critic, since I plan to continue writing about books; in part, as a writer, reading books that connect to, or address, various projects; and (perhaps most importantly) in part, as a reader, reading for no agenda other than my own. I’ve long believed that reading as a writer (and certainly as a critic) condemns one never to read for pure pleasure again. What I mean is that we are reading, inevitably, from within our own processes, with an eye toward how the sausage is made. I don’t imagine that will change for me, but I want to read recklessly this year, to put books down in the middle, to start and stop and start again. I want to read old books, new books, books by friends and books by strangers, books from all across the globe. Next to my bed, where I am writing at this moment, there are two piles of books, each about a foot and a half high. I’d like to read down those stacks, which include memoir, poetry, short story collections, detective fiction, books I wasn’t able to get to until now. Will I be able to read all of them, or even most of them, this year? Unlikely. And yet, they perch there like a promise or a dare.
My friend Tess Taylor, who is the poetry critic for NPR’s All Things Considered, and who will publish her second collection Work & Days this April, also plans to follow her bookish desires, wherever they may take her:
My biggest goals in 2016 are to read deeply, to read works as a whole, and to read off the grid. I think in the whole buzzy Facebook news-cycle thing, we get caught in a book-of-the-moment phenomenon. That is totally fine for the engine of selling books but maybe not as great for the part of us that makes us hungry to write them. Wearing my book reviewer hat, I am often reading for deadline or for money. I’m glad I get the to write things, truly, but this can be far from the wayward, unplugged feeling that made me a bookworm as a kid. So this year I want to get lost more. It can be very sustaining to engage one artist deeply, for pleasure, to get the measure of the craft and the life. Right now I’m reading all of Ted Hughes. I admit that this started out of a journalistic assignment, but the poems and the letters and the mind caught my attention and suddenly I’ve been ploughing through them almost obsessively. It’s a big private enterprise, and I mostly do it late at night or first thing in the morning. For now it’s not for sale. It feels really dreamy, like it feeds the writer in me. I want to do more of that.
The Debut Novelist
Would this desire to “get lost more,” as Tess puts it, extend to someone just stepping into the publication game? The year I published my first novel, I bought and read so many other recently released first novels because I was curious about what my colleagues were writing, and because I wanted to feel like I was in solidarity with my fellow debut novelists. (Class of 2014 in the house!) I asked fellow staff writer Hannah Gersen if the impending publication of her first novel, Home Field (out in July, y’all!), was affecting her reading resolutions. Yes, she said, but in a different way. She told me she’s planning to read Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time:
Or maybe it’s better to say I’m planning to finally read the whole thing from start to finish without skipping sections. I’m not sure how much this impulse is related to being a debut novelist, but Proust is definitely comfort reading for me because I’ve read and reread certain passages at different points in my life. The idea of reading the entire novel, knitting together all those favorite scenes, a little each day, feels very grounding. Maybe I also need a break from thinking about contemporary literature, to have a kind of cork-lined reading experience.
The Book Editor
I envy Hannah’s plan and the break she will get from the now-now-now! of our contemporary book-making machine (even as she gets to be a part of it.) It also made me wonder about those working within the industry. Do you make reading resolutions if you read and edit manuscripts for a living? Turns out, you do — or at least Laura Tisdel, executive editor at Viking, does. Every year, she told me, she attempts such a resolution.
Three years ago I read nonfiction titles to bone up on an area of reading, and general knowledge, I was woefully uneducated about (I tackled mostly history stuff, including Operation Jedburgh by Colin Beavan and The American Revolution by Gordon Wood). Two years ago, I focused on classics I hadn’t read as a student (Middlemarch and Giovanni’s Room? Check and check!). Last year, I had a baby (*crickets*). As a relatively new mother, one with just enough sleep to begin regaining some self-awareness, I’ve found myself missing the conversations I used to have with my friends catching up over a beer or even just disappearing down the rabbit hole of a text message thread. So this year, I’m going to read books that my friends recommend to me. I know darn well I don’t have the time in my schedule or the capacity to be a book club participant, but I’m going to make a sort of book club of one: I’m going to ask the people I care about and respect to recommend a book they loved, and then I’m going to read that book and write to them about it. I’m starting the year with Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object by Laurie Colwin, which a dear friend recommended to me just before the holidays when we grabbed a long overdue coffee date together. I’m thinking of this project as a way to commune with my friends, and to discover stories and writers that might never have surfaced in my nightstand pile otherwise.
(I now have strong motivation to start texting recommendations to her!)
I get the sense that Tisdel, like the others I asked, wants to step back from the machine. Not with a beloved classic, like Gersen, and not by reading “recklessly” as Ulin suggests, or associatively, like Taylor. But by reading a particular book for, and with, and because of, a particular person. It’s reading, and talking about reading, as intimacy.
Mary Williams, the general manager of Skylight Books in Los Angeles, is another integral member of the book-making machine, and her resolution echoes those of the others:
Free books are one of the perks of being a bookseller. But they are also a curse; there are just so many of them. I have never been able to keep up with all the books coming out each season that I want to read. Cue desperate feelings of inadequacy. Also, the world is full of great books that came out before I became a bookseller and my professional obligation to stay current began. So my resolution is to forgive myself for the new books I can’t get to (wish me luck), and to make some time for the aging heroes lodged in the middles of stacks of unread books in my apartment. Already Dead by Denis Johnson. Stoner by John Williams. More short stories: especially Lorrie Moore and George Saunders and Lydia Davis. Basically, more reading without deadlines.
While Mary is tossing off the shackles of professional obligation to read Stoner in the break room (Oh, how I envy her! I’d love to read that for the first time all over again!), Dana Spiotta’s next book, Innocent and Others, will be released. It comes out in March, which is motivation for me to finish that stupid Dickens as fast as I can — and for Mary to put those shackles back on. While every smart person is reading her novel, what books will Spiotta herself turn to? She told me, “When I was in my teens, I loved to read any kind of novel about growing up. he Bildungsroman(s), the sentimental educations, the coming-of-age/loss-of-innocence stories. It was the job at hand, and I needed help.” She continued:
This year, since I am reaching the milestone of what is optimistically referred to as “middle age,” I want to return to those books that I read so long ago. From The Red and the Black and Jane Eyre to Manchild in the Promised Land and The Basketball Diaries. And many more books that I remember loving. Will I still love them? They are the same of course, but maybe it will be a measure of how much I have changed. What I now think is engaging and moving and beautiful. What I think is funny. What I think is true (with all my experience as a person and a reader). Or maybe not, maybe my connection to these books of my youth will be exactly the same. I wonder if my young self will be in those pages, waiting for me.
Spiotta, too, is stepping away from the publishing hoopla. She will re-read; she will look backward as a way, perhaps, to look forward.
I’m sure that all of us will succumb to diving into the latest hot new book, because it’s fun to join those conversations, and because who doesn’t want to experience what promises to amaze and rearrange us? But I hope we also fulfill our personal reading goals, too, even if it’s to not have a goal: to read for pleasure, for comfort, for connection, for knowledge about the world and ourselves.
What’s your reading resolution for 2016?
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Like a lot of the people I know these days who grew up wanting to be writers, I learned how to write by reading the Internet. I graduated from college with a degree in capital-L Literature, but by the time I was 23, my major sources of inspiration were blogs and online fiction magazines. I found my voice (or at least a voice) by imitating bloggers no one had ever heard of, and publishing on websites few people would ever read. This suited me — I liked the isolated weirdness of writing into the infinite void of the web. It didn’t matter to me that no one answered back.
Some time between then and now, businesses with real money caught on to writing on the Internet, discovered it could be made scaleable, and everything changed. For many of my writer friends, this change was a net positive. Suddenly there was money in writing; in some cases, lots of it. The possibility of a “piece” going viral also meant the possibility of a job for pay at a real publication, or a book deal, or a mention in The New York Times, or any number of other writerly blessings. At the same time, wanting to make a career in letters and not being on Twitter and Facebook — that is, not wanting to share your work constantly with the strangers you met on airplanes and in restaurants and people you hadn’t seen since seventh grade — became the equivalent of not actually wanting to be a writer at all. For extroverts and writers with surplus self-assurance this didn’t pose a problem. For those of us drawn to writing because it was the one job that wouldn’t require us to talk to people regularly, it was a nightmare.
“Aside from issues of life and death, there is no more urgent task for American intellectuals and writers than to think critically about the salience, even the tyranny, of technology in individual and collective life,” wrote Leon Wieseltier last month in his call to arms against the threat technology poses to humanism. “Among the Disrupted” sparked a heated debate among its readers, or at least, as heated as can reasonably be expected in the letters section of the New York Times Book Review. As one critic pointed out, there are plenty of more urgent issues for all of us to ponder, child poverty and the pay gap among them. What struck me, though, wasn’t the essay’s hyperbole, but the inaccuracy of its target.
The problem facing writers now isn’t the growing prominence of tech, but the question of how deeply the two fields are intertwined, and what that relationship means. Most of the notable works of fiction published in recent years (Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven spring immediately to mind) present thoughtful considerations of the evolving relationship between the self and technology, and a lot of the people who read these books probably read them on the Kindle app. The same people who subscribe to Harpers read work published by the Atavist and curated by Longform. I’m writing right now in the notepad app on my iPhone, and you’re reading on your computer or your iPad or your own phone. How many writers do you know at this point who don’t have their own websites, Tumblrs, or blogs? For that matter, how many do you know who aren’t on Twitter?
Still, it’s true that while the Internet augmented journalism, creating jobs for newcomers and inventing new forms for them to occupy, it didn’t do the same for fiction. Atavist Books confirmed last fall that it would no longer be taking new submissions, and Byliner was folded into Vook last September. Amazon’s e-books are popular, but more innovative forms of digital literature don’t seem to be. Meanwhile, more and more often, walking into library near the office building where I work in Los Angeles feels like walking into a museum. Untouched contemporary novels line the shelves, positions unchanged. The few people in the reading room are, to a person, on laptops or on their phones.
“Only connect,” E.M. Forster wrote in Howards End. We’ve taken his directive and run with it, to the point where we talk about disconnecting — going off Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Venmo, whatever — in the same wistful tones we once used to talk about going on vacation. Social media, like literary fiction, allows us briefly, to inhabit a consciousness outside our own: on Facebook, we experience the highs and lows of strangers in real time through the same lens of authenticity that marks work by writers like Ben Lerner and Sheila Heti. If these platforms give every one of us both an audience and a show on demand, at any given moment, and for free, then what is there left for fiction to do?
Curious about how all of this was affecting those most likely to suffer from its consequences, I reached out to novelists in my Twitter timeline to find out what they thought about the role of social media — specifically Twitter — in their own writing lives. I expected all three of them to share my own anxieties — my view of the world has more in common with Wieseltier’s than I am, perhaps, ready to accept — and I was surprised when not one of them did.
Roxane Gay contributes reviews and cultural criticism to high-profile outlets regularly, edits multiple literary journals, and works as a professor at Purdue. She tweets prolifically to her 54,000 and counting followers, and engages with many of them directly. Last year, her essay collection, Bad Feminist, and her novel, An Untamed State, both dropped at the same time, to widespread acclaim.
“Many of my essays begin as conversations on Twitter, where I am thinking through something that’s happening in our culture,” Gay wrote me, adding that she uses Twitter “to be alone while feeling less lonely.”
“Ninety percent of the time,” Gay wrote, “I’m having delightful conversations and interactions on Twitter. There’s little to dislike.”
Amelia Gray, author of Threats and the forthcoming Gutshot, responded that Twitter “has been more beneficial to my creativity than most theory,” adding, “It’s a little corner of the world that is a pure ball-pit.” She went on, “My tweets and my fiction ideally share the same precision. They share a sense of character too, though rarely the same character. I use different social media towards different ends, and in that way I have different Internet personas and also a real persona which is different here and there.”
Porochista Khakpour is an essayist and fiction writer and the author of, most recently, The Last Illusion. Last year one of her tweets caught the attention of Slate, landing her timeline a mention in The New York Times Book Review. She often writes, more or less jokingly (I think?), about being enslaved to Twitter, but when I wrote to ask her about the relationship between the site and her work, she wrote back, “I think I am beneficial and destructive to my own creativity and ability to be productive. I am the problem!” She described her relationship to Twitter as, “Love/hate, but tbh mostly love. And we all know love hurts, love bleeds, love kills, love is a battlefield, etc.”
A blogger friend of mine once called social media a loneliness eliminator and I have to admit that definition makes me uneasy. What about those of us who like being lonely? What if loneliness is, in some ways, necessary? It’s true though, that, soon enough, this conversation will likely be irrelevant. Twitter and Facebook will dissolve into the digital slurry, only to be replaced by some other technology as incomprehensible to us as texting once was to our grandparents. Consider Vine, currently churning out new waves of celebrities that no one over 27 has ever heard of. Maybe six-second videos will become the new Twitter, which is the new Facebook, which was the new books. Or maybe, by this time next year, we’ll be having this same conversation about yet another new technology we can never remember how we lived without. Meanwhile, as these writers make clear, fiction writers will continue to adapt, and books, while they may be still hanging on by a thread, will hang on nonetheless.
Something I’m starting to suspect is that it’s everything I worry will make books obsolete — their slowness, the investment of time they require, and their inability to do anything other than the singular purpose for which they’ve been created — that has allowed them to survive for this long. Social media lends itself best to chronicling discrete instances: bursts of anger, flashes of surprise. Built on the notion, even on a micro scale, of constant disruption, our feeds and streams can’t cohere for long enough to bleed seamlessly into one another the way actual sentences do. Twitter and Facebook are great for quick blasts of dopamine or adrenaline, but not for creating sustained waves of happiness or fear or maintaining the kind of cumulative tension upon which good stories rely.
“Only connect!” Forster wrote, but he also wrote, “Live in fragments no longer.” Human experience is like a Georges Seurat in that it only comes into focus the further away you get from it. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram regurgitate the present back to us in easily manageable pieces that delight, spark envy, disdain, boredom, revulsion, or inspiration. What they can’t do, however, is take a wider scope. Its novels we depend on to reorganize those scattered fragments into something whole.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
I don’t know when this entry will run, but I am writing it on a Friday, and I’m supposed to have a baby on Tuesday. I’ve been home since Wednesday, prowling around the house — if a very pregnant person can be said to prowl — feeling lumpy and alert and expectant. It’s safe to say I’m weirding out a little. For weeks I have been in the grip of so-called nesting hormones, which are real, and which remind me of being in college and taking other people’s adderall to finish a term paper, except the term paper is cleaning baseboards, or finally buying a decent set of towels after reading a lot of information about what makes a towel nice, or creating tasteful yet affordable shared adult/baby bedroom decor out of an old calendar and 12 discount frames from Amazon. I’ve been reading a lot of Amazon reviews, so many that it doesn’t feel like I’ve read much of anything else.
But that’s not true — I read a book of essays by Nora Ephron. And I read this article in Harper’s, about squadrons of elderly people living in campers and humping merchandise through an Amazon warehouse. Nora Ephron feels bad about her neck; I feel bad about my ankles, and my strenuous participation in late capitalism. I feel bad about the number of huge cardboard boxes filled with tiny things I’ve gotten from Amazon. I don’t want to buy any more things from Amazon, but I don’t know how I will get my cat litter, or new hooks for my shower curtain, or a tiny dehumidifier that fits in a closet, or a ceramic space heater with automatic shutoff and remote control so the baby doesn’t freeze in our cold little house. I don’t know where I will read 400 earnest assessments of which Pack and Play is the best Pack and Play. Did I mention I’m weirding out a little?
Speaking of late capitalism, last week I read four children’s books by Beverly Cleary, because I have been thinking about what it means to have a family and to be middle class and the Ramona books feel like a portrait of a kind of family and life that is maybe on its way out in America. I read select passages from The Chronicles of Narnia to get in a more cheerful frame of mind, but not The Last Battle, because that’s the one where everyone dies. I read the first few pages of Renata Adler’s Speedboat because people are always talking about it on Twitter, but I didn’t understand what was happening and I took a break and then accidentally returned it to the library. I read some stories by Julie Hayden, and want to read more, but there aren’t very many to read. I read Rabbit, Run, which I had always assumed that I’d read and it turned out I hadn’t, and which I probably shouldn’t have read while nine months pregnant since it depressed and angered the hell out of me.
I read Invisible Man. I read Austerlitz. I read The Patrick Melrose Novels and was not as charmed as I had hoped to be. I read new things, The Good Lord Bird and Life After Life and The People in the Trees and Dept. of Speculation. I read Americanah over a blissful Easter Sunday, which I spent in bed eating popcorn in an empty house. I read Station Eleven over the course of a blissful regular Saturday, with my cats and my blanket. I read Thrown, which filled me with envy of people who are professional writers. I read Submergence. I re-read Dance to the Music of Time and The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Howards End and everything by Donald Antrim. I read small parts of a vast number of books about pregnancy and babies and felt overwhelmed with details regarding the cervix. I read all of Labor Day, because Edan is in it, and I found most of the entries frankly alarming, but less so than the comments on BabyCenter. I read a lot of studies about what the numbers on a nuchal translucency mean, and many opaque articles about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
As with every year, there were a lot of things I wanted to read and didn’t. I didn’t read anything by Norman Rush and I didn’t read anything by Ivan Turgenev or Katherine Mansfield or Karen Russell or Ben Lerner.
There were a lot of things I wanted to write and didn’t. I didn’t write an essay about my great-grandmother Vera. I didn’t write my Anita Brookner reader, or an essay about late capitalism, or a novel. Parenthood, as far as I know, is not a condition characterized by increased productivity, so I don’t know what will happen to these plans in the new year. I will say I have found pregnancy, for the most part, unexpectedly generative and wonderful. I mean, obviously, it’s generative, but I mean generative of things other than blastocysts and embryos, or of strong feelings regarding towels. I mean of thoughts about life and books and writing. The first real things I ever wrote I wrote after I met my husband and fell in love; maybe loving a new person will open other horizons. Maybe it won’t. It’s impossible to say. For now I’m just weirding, watchful.
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I respond to sun, but then I come from Minnesota and had years of being disappointed by northern California with its indeterminate weather and freezing surf. I’m overdetermined for life in Africa. I love the sun bursting up every day of your life like some broken mechanism.
—from Mating, by Norman Rush
In her introduction to Stephen Twilley’s new translation of short works by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, recently released by New York Review of Books Classics, Marina Warner writes of the “sensuous plenitude…encrusted and sumptuous” in Il Gattopardo — Lampedusa’s only novel, and the masterpiece for which he is best known. Of “The Professor and the Siren,” the title story of the new collection, Warner writes:
Lampedusa is placing himself as the heir of an imaginative literary legacy running back to the pagan past, when Christian repression and hypocrisy did not exercise their hold but instead life was bathed in a luminous intensity and heightened by guilt-free passion.
I wrote about Il Gattopardo a few years ago and considered what it was that drew me to it — the story of an aging Sicilian nobleman, a dying breed caught between old and new worlds. At that time, I attributed my affinity for both the novel and Luchino Visconti’s well-known film version to the Prince of Salina’s independence of soul — a “certain energy with a tendency toward abstraction, a disposition to seek a shape for life from within himself and not what he could wrest from others.” After reading “The Professor and the Siren,” I see now that it was also the Prince’s lust for life — sensual pleasures, feminine splendor, the sweltering sloth of his wild and rugged Sicily — and his sense of loss with the coming of more pragmatic times that captivated me.
Like the narrator ofNorman Rush’s Mating, who was “overdetermined” for life in Africa, you could say that I — product of an evangelical Christian upbringing and Korean heritage of stoic endurance — was overdetermined for Lampedusa. His elevation of natural appetite as an ideal, and his vision for unity between body and spirit in their fullest expressions, radiate from the page. When I read Lampedusa the sun bursts up indeed, thawing all of that deeply seeded “puritanical horror,” as Warner puts it, and reconciling life forces that, as Lampedusa attempts to show us, were never meant to be opposed.
The tragedy of his literary late blooming is now the stuff of legend: Lampedusa, himself the last prince of a noble Sicilian family (Il Gattopardo is based on his great-grandfather), began writing in his later 50s and died of lung cancer at age 60 before Il Gattopardo’s publication. The novel had been rejected by publishers while he was still alive, and thus Lampedusa died under the impression that his art was mere trifling, the failed scribblings of a dilettante.
An earlier translation of “The Professor and the Siren,” entitled “The Professor and the Mermaid” and collected with a short memoir and the opening chapter of a second novel (a sequel to Il Gattopardo that he did not live to write), was published by Pantheon in 1962. The memoir, Places of My Infancy, was written at the prompting of his wife, a psychotherapist; she suggested the project as a way of mourning the loss of his treasured childhood home, which had been destroyed during the 1943 bombing of Palermo.
In his introduction to the 1962 collection, E.M. Forster called “Places of My Infancy” exquisite — perhaps not surprising coming from the author of Howards End. I admit that I found the piece initially off-putting: it puts so much distance between the author and the common reader as we get young Giuseppe’s impressionistic vision of his idyllic, rarefied kingdom:
On the veranda, which was protected from the sun by great curtains of orange cloth swelling and flapping like sails in the sea breeze…my mother, Signora Florio (the “divinely lovely” Franca), and others were sitting in cane chairs. In the center of the group sat a very old, very bent lady with an aquiline nose, enwrapped in widow’s weeds which were waving wildly about in the wind. I was brought before her; she said a few words which I did not understand and, bending down even farther, gave me a kiss on the forehead…After this I was taken back to my room, stripped of my finery, re-dressed in more modest garments, and led onto the beach to join the Florio children and others; with them I bathed and we stayed for a long time under a broiling sun playing our favorite game, which was searching in the sand for the pieces of deep red coral occasionally to be found there.
That afternoon it was revealed that the old lady had been Eugénie, ex-Empress of the French, whose yacht was anchored off Favignana.
But to be fair, Lampedusa wrote these reflections for himself only; they were never revised, and he did not intend them for publication. He felt free to recall the fullness of his privilege: “For me childhood is a lost paradise. Everyone was good to me — I was king of the home.” Beginning with the sensory richness and extravagant security of childhood was his way of exploring love and loss, the two most universal experiences.
For some though, it may be hard to resist lacing Lampedusa’s biography with light mockery: “[W]hat on earth was he doing with his life anyway, and why didn’t he get down to writing earlier?” Julian Barnes’s imagined interlocutor posits in a 2010 article in The Guardian. “The non-literary answer: not very much.” What Barnes means by “not very much,” however, is that Lampedusa spent most of his adult life (aside from strolling to Pasticceria del Massimo for breakfast in his tailored English suits then stopping in at Flaccovio booksellers before finally settling in for the day at Café Mazzara) immersing himself in literature — reading, studying, discussing with friends, teaching. By one account he made over 1,000 pages in notes to prepare a year-long English literature course for his nephew and a friend.
Lampedusa’s eventual success at portraying a layered, multi-caste society at a time of great social upheaval is testament to the power of literature to shape the imaginative and emotional capacity of a devoted reader, no matter how sheltered his daily life. Much like Chekhov — who, unlike Lampedusa, did have direct experience of various social strata — Lampedusa’s narrative eye is both convincing and impressive as it roves among each segment of Sicilian society, from royalty to upstart revolutionaries to the new-moneyed precursors of the Mafiosi.
The short story “Joy and the Law,” for example, is a taut gem of a tale, the effects of which echo Chekhov’s best stories about peasants and functionaries (Gogol’s “The Overcoat” also comes to mind): in the days leading up to Christmas, an unnamed accountant brings home to his family an enormous, fancy loaf of sweet bread, bestowed upon him by his employer. Ramping up to epic proportion the acuteness of aspirational want, Lampedusa portrays the accountant’s fog of self-deceit as a necessity for survival:
[E]uphoria now welling up inside him, rosy and bright…What joy for Maria! What a thrill for the children…His personal joy was something else entirely, a spiritual joy mixed with pride and tenderness…And nothing could have dampened that invigorating sensation…nothing, not even the abrupt realization deep in his consciousness that it had come down to a moment of scornful pity for the neediest among the employees. He truly was too poor to permit the weed of pride to sprout where it could not survive.
It is the wife, Maria, who matter-of-factly bursts the accountant’s bubble: she states the obvious, that the pannetone is “nothing but charity,” and deems that it must be sent to a lawyer to whom they owe a token of gratitude. The man must now spend additional money to courier the sweet bread to the lawyer, and on top of that, the package becomes lost. The reader grows as desperate as the accountant, filled with the anguish of futility and injustice. Will the universe so cruelly dash the protagonist’s hopes? the reader wonders. Then, the last lines of the story:
After Epiphany, however, a visiting card arrived: “With warmest thanks and holiday wishes.”
Honor had been preserved.
The reader exhales momentarily, only to realize the bait-and-switch that Lampedusa has so skillfully performed: Honor? When did the story become about honor? When The Law entered, that’s when — in the form of proper social commerce. The cost of this honor was joy, and the story conveys beautifully and tragically the universal right of the human soul to “spiritual happiness mixed with pride and tenderness,” not to mention “a respite from anguish.” Despite his privileged life, Lampedusa did not, it would seem, take such simple joys for granted.
Thus the decision on the part of NYRB Classics editor Edwin Frank to collect “Joy and the Law,” but not “Places of My Infancy” in this volume results in a different impression of the author from the earlier volume. The new collection effectively counters what Archibald Colquhoun, translator of both the original English-language version of The Leopard and the 1962 Pantheon collection, described as a less-than-full embrace of Lampedusa’s success in its time —
On the members of the new Italian literary establishment the book has had a different impact; it has become a bogey, for the success of Il Gattopardo, so different in outlook from most Italian postwar literature, seems to them a sign of decadence —
as well as a 1998 article in The Economist:
Italian Marxists saw his aristocrat heroes as evidence that the novel was right-wing and its author a man with no sense of progress. Much of the literary Left condemned the novel as worthless because it was neither progressive nor avant-garde.
(I posed the question of curatorial selection to Frank in an email, and he revealed that his intention was simply to collect all of Lampedusa’s short fiction, which meant excluding the memoir.)
Whether or not literary readers today are as concerned with an author’s socio-political outlook as they were in the early 1960’s, there will surely be much in Lampedusa’s short work that appeals to the contemporary reader — for example the way his voracious literary autodidacticism is reflected in the “mashup” quality of “The Professor and the Siren,” which, Warner points out, brings together elements of Greek myth, the poetry of Keats and Dante, Sicilian folklore, and perhaps too Boccaccio and One Thousand and One Nights.
The eponymous professor of the NYRB collection’s centerpiece story is Rosario La Ciura, world-renowned scholar of Greek literature, longtime Sicilian senator, and author of Men and Gods, “recognized as a work of not only great erudition but of authentic poetry.” The narrator is Corbera di Salina, a journalist and, incidentally, sole surviving descendant of Lampedusa’s lusty Prince, il gattopardo. When the professor and the journalist meet, La Ciura is 75 years old and Corbera a young man. The seedy café in Turin that the two misanthropes frequent sets the stage for Lampedusa’s otherworldly tale:
It was a sort of Hades filled with the wan shades of lieutenant colonels, magistrates, and retired professors…submerged in a light that was dimmed during the day by the clouds and the arcade outside, during the evenings by the enormous green shades on the chandeliers…It was, in short, a most satisfactory Limbo.
Corbera is the pre-formed, peripheral first-person narrator that readers will recognize — the Nick Carraway, the unnamed narrators of Bolaño’s “Sensini” or Sherwood Anderson’s “The Other Woman.” Over a period of months, the two develop a friendship of sorts — La Ciura rails on subjects ranging from the “rubbish I happen to be reading” to the “squalid aspirations” of young men like Corbera vis-à-vis the female sex; Corbera attempts to speak his mind while also suspecting the great man’s profound unhappiness. One day, the professor summons the younger man to his home, where Corbera sees a photograph of the professor in his youth — “with a bold expression and features of rare beauty…The broken-down senator in a dressing gown had been a young god.” Corbera then invites La Ciura to his own apartment, where he serves the old man fresh sea urchins, about which La Ciura had previously ranted:
They are the most beautiful thing you have down there [in Sicily], bloody and cartilaginous, the very image of the female sex, fragrant with salt and seaweed…They’re dangerous as all gifts from the sea are; the sea offers death as well as immortality.
The professor prepares to depart for a conference in Portugal and summons Corbera for a final visit; here we begin our ascent to Lampedusa’s allegorical summit. “I’ll have to speak in a low voice,” La Ciura says, and we appreciate his — and Lampedusa’s — theatricality, as the young journalist and the reader are drawn deeper into both comprehension and mystery. “Important words cannot be bellowed.”
The peak — of La Ciura’s earthly existence, of the story, of all spiritual incarnation, Lampedusa proposes — is one of pure eros: purely sensual, youthful, uncivilized. The professor’s beloved is Lighea, a siren, as much animal as human and monstrously beautiful, serene, insatiably loving. She comes to him one summer in his youth from the Sicilian sea. Their consummation lasts three weeks, and during that time the professor becomes enlightened to true pleasure, “devoid of social resonance, the same that our solitary mountain shepherds experience when they couple with their goats.” La Ciura dares Corbera to be put off by the comparison, such repulsion revealing only that “you’re not capable of performing the necessary transposition from the bestial to the superhuman plane.” Lighea is all body and all spirit, powerfully attuned:
From her immortal limbs flowed such life force that any loss of energy was immediately compensated, increased, in fact…She ate nothing that was not alive. I often saw her rise out of the sea, delicate torso sparkling in the sun, teeth tearing into a still-quivering silver fish, blood running down her chin…
Not only did she display in the carnal act a cheerfulness and a delicacy altogether contrary to wretched animal lust, but her speech was of a powerful immediacy, the likes of which I have only ever found in a few great poets.
As Marina Warner points out, Lampedusa is not interested in supplanting reason with passion, but rather reclaiming a native unity. “Lampedusa aims to fashion a coincidentia oppositorium at many levels,” she writes. “[S]upernatural and natural, unreal and material, monstrosity and beauty, animal and human, ideal love and lubricious delight.” And this is evident throughout the story in his language: beauty and blood, “insolence” and “detachment,” the professor’s gnarled hands which caress with “regal delicacy” a page in a magazine that bears the image of a Greek statue. When Corbera serves the sea urchins, the professor “consumed them avidly but…with a meditative, almost sorrowful air.”
The story’s interests are thus transparent, its purposes straightforward — though, to my mind, no less affecting for it. Lampedusa’s passion for unity of soul and body startles and moves us; in hearing the professor’s tale, Corbera in part lives it and is changed, as are we.
But will the general reader agree? Perhaps it depends on one’s pre-determinations. The narrator of Mating in the above epigraph likens the African sun to a “broken mechanism.” But as they say, one person’s junk is another person’s treasure: “broken” if four distinct seasons is your norm, perfectly functional if you’ve come from extreme cold and gray.
In Lampedusa’s case, we can deduce that his own deepest longings were for what he had known and lost — the magic of his childhood — as well as for what, as he wrote this last story, he had not achieved: transcendence via entry into the pantheon of literary artists. The result, in “The Professor and the Siren,” is a tale at once pessimistic and optimistic: La Ciura can find no worthy pleasure or meaning in earthly life after his experience with Lighea, and yet in the end he joins her, answering her call to the underwater world deep below, “where all is silent calm…in the blind, mute palace of formless, eternal waters.”
Light and darkness seem also to color Lampedusa’s literary stature: Il Gattopardo won Italy’s Strega Prize in 1959, two years after his death, and has sold well over 3 million copies worldwide; but we’ll never know what the second novel, Il Gattopardo’s sequel, might have been. The fragment published in both the 1962 and current NYRB collections under the title “The Blind Kittens” does reveal that Lampedusa’s eye continued to focus on Sicilian society and the epic desires of common men. Colquhoun opined on the possibility that Il Gattopardo itself was a kind of lesser preview of the real novel Lampedusa meant to write — would have written — had he started sooner: “Is the novel peaks, in a more or less continuous range, of a vast submerged book that was never completed?”
Broken or functional, incomplete or fully realized, decadent or democratic…I am glad for Lampedusa’s sumptuous, if scant, work, so nearly kept from us by both Lampedusa’s late start and publishers’ tastes. And while the professor’s vast book collection “slowly rots” in a university archive following his descent into the sea, Lampedusa’s small body of work bursts up like the sun, reviving those of us primed to respond.
Click here to read an interview with NYRB Classics editor Edwin Frank and translator Stephen Twilley.
I borrowed Howards End from my local university library, an early edition in a sturdy and narrow-margined library binding. Pages from these kinds of books don’t tear — over half centuries and quarter centuries of tugging and smoothing and creasing by grubby fingers, they achieve a fine cloth-like texture that no e-reader can hope to replicate. I think that libraries are worth our patronage for the feeling of these pages alone. They are the impressions worn by feet on the path to the Parthenon. They are the pig’s teeth wedged in a wych-elm by superstitious peasants.
People who love books are always telling high school students that reading opens doors, that old books will surprise you with their sudden relevance, the startling light they can cast onto your own life. This is such a true thing about reading that it feels stupid to say of one or another book that it reminded you of a feeling you’ve had, or that its themes resonate in the present day. On this front, Howards End should have lots to say to me. Like its Miss Schlegels, I am a bookish, opinionated lady with claims to progressive values. Like that of the Schlegels, my imperial nation is rife with inequality, class division, and economic precarity for the Leonard Bast class of people with aspirations but no advantages. Even the search for a suitable lodging is familiar: “We are reverting to the civilisation of luggage, and historians of the future will note how the middle classes accreted possessions without taking root in the earth, and may find in this the secret of their imaginative poverty.” There is much to which I can relate. But Howards End makes me think instead about things that are different and gone — farmland and buildings and ideals and ways of thinking and kinds of conversation and styles of beautiful writing.
There is a painful, almost superfluously beautiful quality to Forster’s writing that attracts me to this book even while I find that Forster’s class sensibility, fine as it is and perfect in Passage to India (revued here), ultimately can’t do the necessary and make Leonard Bast a real person. He dies, as he lived, a silly, pitiful, and unprepossessing little man. (This may be a failure of imagination on my end, but it is difficult to see how Helen Schlegel could be so susceptible to his obscure charm as to succumb utterly to it in a hotel sitting-room.) But if Passage to India showed Forster at his most pointed about people, Howards End is his ode to places (and not only the place for which it is named):
Shropshire had not the reticence of Hertfordshire. Though robbed of half its magic by swift movement, it still conveyed the sense of hills…Having picked up another guest, they turned southward, avoiding the greater mountains, but conscious of an occasional summit, rounded and mild, whose colouring differed in quality from that of the lower earth, and whose contours altered more slowly. Quiet mysteries were in progress behind those tossing horizons: the West, as ever, was retreating with some secret which may not be worth the discovery, but which no practical man will ever discover.
Forster’s writing mixes poetry and aphorism in a way that makes whatever he writes sound totally convincing and meaningful, even if, for all I know, it is nonsense. Of Margaret Schlegel’s gradual retiring from society, he writes, “It was doubtless a pity not to keep up with Wedekind or John, but some closing of the gates is inevitable after thirty, if the mind itself is to become a creative power.” Of life he writes, “It is indeed unmanageable, but the essence of it is not a battle. It is unmanageable because it is a romance, and its essence is romantic beauty.” People write in all kinds of good ways, but it is a tragedy that nobody writes like this anymore.
Howards End, published 1910, is technically a pre-war novel in the WWI sense, and it frequently invites you to think of it on those terms (“the remark, ‘England and Germany are bound to fight,’ renders war a little more likely each time that it is made, and is therefore made the more readily by the gutter press of either nation”). A few years later, the stolid Wilcox men who form the upstanding backbone of British society in Margaret’s perception would be largely unavailable for theoretical debates with liberated young women; they would likely be dead, along with nearly a million of their compatriots, or maimed, along with the rest.
That said, another book in my pile this spring had me thinking about a different war. Just after Howards End I read W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, a book whose construction around a portentous negative space has the effect of drawing all neighboring books into its central darkness, like a dying star. Everything becomes tinged with this darkness. (I have also been working through the novels of Anita Brookner, many of which feature Jews so thoroughly English that their eastern European origins signify only as a piece of ponderous furniture or a grandmother’s accent, and I began to wonder if these novels, too — if all novels — are actually about the Holocaust.)
And yet Austerlitz and the second World War seemed to form a fitting complement to Howards End — the latter’s interest in civilization and the built environment and the natural world and material culture slotting into Sebald’s voids in the same realms. The character Austerlitz has spent in his life in “investigations into the history of architecture and civilization,” and the novel Austerlitz is full of symbolic architectural monstrosities — “the accumulation of stone blocks” — and spaces stuffed with meaning. The novel’s narrator describes London, its “districts…crisscrossed by innumerable streets and railway lines, crowding ever more closely together as they marched east and north, one reef of buildings above the next and then the next, and so on, far beyond Holloway and Highbury…” I was reminded of Margaret Schlegel’s similar impression of London as she puzzles through her sister Helen’s disappearance: “The mask fell off the city, and she saw it for what it really is — a caricature of infinity…” She searches in St. Paul’s, “whose dome stands out of the welter so bravely, as if preaching the gospel. But within, St. Paul’s is as its surroundings — echoes and whispers, inaudible songs, invisible mosaics, wet footmarks crossing and recrossing the floor. Si monumentum requiris, circumspice: it points us back to London.”
I didn’t see clearly what a tender and hopeful book Howards End is until I read Austerlitz. And a sad one. It’s a prelapsarian mirror image. How devastating Forster’s observation about the “civilisation of luggage” becomes when you consider the eventual mounds of plundered luggage sitting in warehouses around Europe. Or Mrs. Wilcox’s lament: “Can what they call civilisation be right, if people mayn’t die in the room where they were born?” How poignant half-German Margaret is, with her belief in the “salvation that was latent…in the soul of every man.” How sad to contemplate her mantra, “Only connect,” in the context of Austerlitz’s dead mama and papa and his abrupt transformation to a little Welsh boy. How sentimental Forster seems when he writes that:
London was but a foretaste of this nomadic civilisation which is altering human nature so profoundly, and throws upon personal relations a stress greater than they have ever borne before. Under cosmopolitanism, if it comes, we shall receive no help from the earth. Trees and meadows and mountains will only be a spectacle, and the binding force that they once exercised on character must be entrusted to Love alone. May Love be equal to the task!
I have always found there to be something lumpy and friendly and comforting about Howards End — it’s like a big, old sweater. But I see that there is something a little weird about that. I yank it away from Austerlitz’s gravitational pull, and I don’t quite see now why it should feel like such a hopeful, tender, happy novel, when it leaves a dead man and an imprisoned man and a crumpled man in its wake. Perhaps because it’s sort of a feminine triumphal. Fighting for her right to spend the night with her pregnant sister in Howards End, Margaret Schlegel delivers the most just and crushing indictment of misogyny and the double standard ever written. And she gets her way, and the dead Mrs. Wilcox gets her way, and the men die or are locked up or have a nervous breakdown, each condition divesting its victim of all former imperiousness and other unsavory qualities. The women win, and they get their beautifully cozy pastoral unwed mothers’ commune, an easy distance from London. They found a Home, and they will “create new sanctities” in it. It does sound nice.
In my sturdy library copy, generations of readers have penciled their notes and little stars. I tip my hat to the analytical one, a Marxist no doubt, who helped me to see that Leonard Bast’s ignorance of the Sunday paper signified “commodifying, economizing knowledge at every turn!” I raise a glass to the one who wrote of Leonard’s meager dwelling that it is “projected fake, shallow, comme moi!” I applaud the one who pointed out succinctly on the penultimate page that Margaret’s husband “becomes a pussy.” We are all more alike than we are different.
Only connect, and all that.
In 2013 we lost two Nobel laureates, a revered editor and teacher, plus writers of crime fiction, literary fiction, poetry, history, essays, biographies, screenplays, mega-bestsellers, movie criticism, and memoirs. Here is a highly selective compendium:
Evan S. Connell
While it may not be accurate to pin Evan S. Connell with that grimmest of labels, “a writer’s writer,” it is probably fair to say that his restless intelligence and refusal to settle into a niche prevented him from attracting as large an audience as he deserved. Connell, who died on Jan. 10 at 88, produced novels, short stories, poetry, essays, and biographies. He wrote about repressed WASPS, a Navy pilot, a rapist, alchemists and Crusaders, cowboys and Indians, and he was equally at ease writing about art, religion, science, and history. He didn’t enjoy his first commercial success until he was 60, with 1984’s Son of the Morning Star, a non-fiction exploration of Custer’s Last Stand. Until then, due to his books’ modest sales, he had supported himself with some not-very-odd jobs, such as reading meters and delivering packages.
For many readers, Connell’s most indelible novels are Mrs. Bridge (1958) and Mr. Bridge (1969), about the airless world of the country club set in his native Kansas City, Mo. Wells Tower has noted that the short story that presaged the novels, “The Beau Monde of Mrs. Bridge,” is a series of “mosaic tile vignettes” rather than a conventional narrative. The vignettes accumulate force until they quietly outdo all the screaming and plate-smashing, the drunkenness and infidelity and angst of so much suburban fiction. In the Bridges’ world, as Tower noted, “the wisdom of Emily Post seems to operate as Newtonian law.” Furthermore, “In the vacuum of Kansas City, no one can hear you scream.”
Mrs. Bridge tried to do everything the way it should be done. Mrs. Bridge did not like to hurt anyone’s feelings by making them feel inferior. Mrs. Bridge had always voted the way her husband told her to vote, but one day she starts reading books about political issues and since she believes in equality she decides she must persuade Mr. Bridge to vote liberal. Here’s what happens at the end of the story when she prepares to confront her husband:
She really intended to force a discussion on election eve. She was going to quote from the book of Zokoloff. But he came home so late, so tired, that she had not the heart to upset him. She concluded it would be best to let him vote the way he always had, and she would do as she herself wished; still upon getting to the polls, which were conveniently located in the country club shopping district, she became doubtful and a little uneasy. And when the moment finally came she pulled the lever recording her wish for the world to remain as it was.
Connell never married, never owned a computer, never sought notoriety. In the cheesy parlance of our age, he declined to become a brand. It’s downright un-American, and quite possibly heroic. “I hate to be recognized,” he once said. “I want to be anonymous.”
Chinua Achebe exploded on the world literary scene with the 1958 publication of his first novel, Things Fall Apart, which invoked Ibo voices from his native Nigeria, boldly challenged European concepts of Africans, and in a single stroke anointed Achebe the father of African fiction. Published during the twilight of British colonial rule, the novel set out to show, as Achebe put it, “that African peoples did not hear of civilization for the first time from Europeans.”
Achebe, who died on March 21 at 82, produced five novels and many short stories over the next three decades. He did not let his fellow Africans off lightly. His satirical fourth novel, A Man of the People, exposed the corruption and irresponsibility of many post-colonial politicians, and it ends with a coup much like the one in 1966 that plunged Nigeria into a devastating civil war. Despite a period of writer’s block brought on by the war, Achebe went on to produce essays, poems, and memoirs, and he oversaw the publication of more than 100 texts that made other African writers’ work available to a worldwide audience. A car accident in 1990 left him paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair, yet he continued to write, travel, teach, and lecture. Perhaps his most appropriate epitaph came from Nelson Mandela, who died on Dec. 5. “There was a writer named Chinua Achebe,” Mandela wrote, “in whose company the prison walls fell down.”
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
I suspect I was not alone in assuming that Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who had an Indian name and wrote so knowingly about India, was a native of India. She was not. She war a German Jew, born in Cologne and educated in England, who married an Indian architect in 1951 and moved with him to Delhi, where they raised three daughters and she began writing fiction about her adopted homeland.
Jhabvala, who died on April 3 at 85, started by writing fiction that trained a satirical, Jane Austen-ish eye on the modernizing Indian middle class, its struggles to balance old and new ways, what E.M. Forster called “the unlovely chaos that lies between obedience and freedom.” In time her gaze grew more acid, especially when she was describing sham gurus, Western seekers, and anyone who tried to deceive themselves and others. Her eighth novel, Heat and Dust, won the Booker Prize in 1975, and in all she published a dozen novels and eight collections of short stories.
But it was her screenwriting, particularly her collaborations with the filmmaking team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, that brought her widespread fame. Their first project was an adaptation of her own 1960 novel, The Householder, and many of her other two dozen screenplays sprang from literary sources, including the novels of Henry James, Peter Cameron, Diane Johnson, Kazuo Ishiguro, Jean Rhys, and Evan S. Connell (she conflated Connell’s novels Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge into Mr. and Mrs. Bridge in 1990, starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward). Jhabvala won two Oscars, for her adaptations of Forster’s Howards End and A Room With a View.
Though the headline on her obituary in The New York Times read “Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Screenwriter, Dies at 85,” she made no secret that she regarded screenwriting as secondary to the writing of fiction. In her Who’s Who entry, the “recreation” category says “writing film scripts.” And as she once wrote to a friend, “I live so much more in and for the books.”
When I heard that Elmore Leonard had died on Aug. 20 at 87, I salved my sorrow by re-reading one of his Motor City masterpieces, City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit. It opens with a dry description of a juicily corrupt judge that resonates on several levels. Goes like this:
In the matter of Alvin B. Guy, Judge of Recorder’s Court, City of Detroit:
The investigation of the Judicial Tenure Commission found the respondent guilty of misconduct in office and conduct clearly prejudicial to the administration of justice. The allegations set forth in the formal complaint were that Judge Guy:
1.) Was discourteous and abusive to counsel, litigants, witnesses, court personnel, spectators and news reporters.
2.) Used threats of imprisonment or promises of probation to induce pleas of guilty.
3.) Abused the power of contempt.
4.) Used his office to benefit friends and acquaintances.
5.) Bragged of his sexual prowess openly.
6.) Was continually guilty of judicial misconduct that was not only prejudicial to the administration of justice but destroyed respect of the office he holds.
I read those opening lines, originally published in 1980, as a thinly veiled portrait of the man then serving as mayor of Detroit, Coleman Young, who was every bit as profane, nasty, and corrupt as the fictional Judge Alvin B. Guy. But another Detroit writer, my pen pal Loren D. Estleman, set me straight on this, informing me that Leonard’s Judge Alvin Guy was actually inspired by a notorious Detroit judge named James Del Rio, who packed a pistol under his judicial robes and once presided over a shootout in his courtroom that left a defense attorney dead. No matter. The important thing is that those opening lines of City Primeval, like so much of Leonard’s fiction, were not only timely, they were timeless: they illuminated the eternal venality of the human soul, which was Leonard’s inexhaustible subject.
To wit: Two months after Leonard died, another corrupt former Detroit mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, was sentenced to 28 years in prison for an array of misdeeds that would have made Alvin Guy, James Del Rio, and Coleman Young proud, including racketeering, extortion, bribery, fraud, income tax evasion, and putting friends and family on the city payroll. Elmore Leonard always nailed it, whether he was writing about crooks in his primeval hometown of Detroit, or crooks in Miami, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, or Djibouti. R.I.P., Dutch. You are missed.
In 1995 Seamus Heaney became the fourth Irish writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, following in the outsized footsteps of his countrymen William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, and Samuel Beckett. The fact that neither Flann O’Brien nor James Joyce made the cut speaks to the magnitude of Heaney’s achievement. (Oscar Wilde died a year before the first Nobel Prize was awarded to Sully Prudhomme.)
Seamus Heaney (pronounced HEE-nee) was born in rural County Derry in Northern Ireland to a Catholic family, and his poetry was forever veined with the physical world of his childhood — he could remember interiors without electric lights, farmers plowing with horses, women churning butter until their hands bloomed with blisters. But Heaney, who died on Aug. 30 at 74, was no pastoral nostalgist. Beneath his rural tableaux runs a river of sex and violence, even in poems written before the Troubles washed his homeland in blood. He carried contradictions with a velvety ease that echoed the sound of his velvety voice: he was a Romantic realist, a rural cosmopolitan, an archaic modernist, an atheist who welcomed miracles. He regarded words as “bearers of history and mystery.” What could be felt (and done) with the hands was every bit as important to him as what could be seen with the eyes. His poetry was pungent, physical, earthy.
In the poem “Seed Cutters,” he makes explicit that the people of his childhood linked him to worlds past:
They seem hundreds of years away. Breughel,
You’ll know them if I can get them true.
In the poem “Digging,” from his debut 1966 collection Death of a Naturalist, Heaney revealed how his poetry sprang from the soil:
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging, I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through drills
Where he was digging…
By God, the old man could handle a spade
Just like his old man…
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
Heaney’s translation of Beowulf became a bestseller, and in 2002 he brought out Finders Keepers, a collection of previously published essays and lectures. He described the book’s entries this way: “They are testimonies to the fact that poets themselves are finders and keepers, that their vocation is to look after art and life by being discoverers and custodians of the unlooked for.”
The Beats were basically a boys’ club, their moveable frat party open to few females. One who made it past the bouncers was Carolyn Cassady, the second wife of Neal Cassady, that “western kinsman of the sun” who became Jack Kerouac’s muse and the kinetic character Dean Moriarty in On the Road. Carolyn Cassady, who died on Sept. 20 at 90, became the character Camille in the novel, by turns a thrill-killing shrew and a dedicated wife, the woman who dutifully stayed home to raise Neal/Dean’s children whenever he and Kerouac/Sal Paradise hit the road in pursuit of a fresh dose of enlightenment, girls and kicks. At her husband’s urging, Carolyn also became Kerouac’s lover.
Carolyn Cassady produced two memoirs, Heart Beat: My Life with Jack and Neal (1976) and Off the Road: My Years with Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg (1990). She said she wrote the books as correctives to the notion, so widespread among young people after the 1957 publication of On the Road, that the holy troika of the Beat generation led lives of unfettered bliss. “I kept thinking that the imitators never knew and don’t know how miserable these men were,” she once said. “They think they were having marvelous times — joy, joy, joy — and they weren’t at all.”
Neal and Carolyn were married in 1947, when she was several months pregnant with their first of three children. Being married to Neal Cassady — street kid, jailbird, car thief, serial philanderer, aspiring writer, and irresistible volcano of energy — cannot have been a day at the beach. Here’s how Kerouac describes a typical Neal Cassady eruption in On the Road:
I learned that Dean had lived happily with Camille in San Francisco ever since that fall of 1947; he got a job on the railroad and made a lot of money. He became the father of a cute little girl, Amy Moriarty. Then suddenly he blew his top while walking down the street one day. He saw a ’49 Hudson for sale and rushed to the bank for his entire roll. He bought the car on the spot. Ed Dunkel was with him. Now they were broke. Dean calmed Camille’s fears and told her he’d be back in a month. “I’m going to New York and bring Sal back.” She wasn’t too pleased at this prospect.
“But what is the purpose of all this? Why are you doing this to me?”
“It’s nothing, it’s nothing, darling — ah — hem — Sal has pleaded and begged with me to come and get him, it is absolutely necessary for me to — but we won’t go into all these explanations — and I’ll tell you why…No, listen, I’ll tell you why.” And he told her why, and of course it made no sense.
Carolyn believed Neal had a split personality — a hard-working family man at war with “a wild nature driven by sexual desire.” She divorced him in 1963 and five years later he was dead at 41, his body sprawled beside a Mexican railroad track, full of alcohol and drugs, dehydrated, flat worn out. Kerouac, bloated and alcoholic, followed him a year later. But Carolyn, the product of a conventional upper-middle class family, lived on, designing theater costumes, painting portraits, writing her memoirs, and observing the indefatigable juggernaut of the Beat Industry with a jaundiced eye, even though her two books were inarguably a part of the juggernaut.
During the 1978 filming of Heart Beat, starring Sissy Spacek as Carolyn and Nick Nolte as Neal, Carolyn told The Washington Post, “Sissy’s got me all cleaned up, I’m the most wonderful heroine. I go through everything and come out unscathed. I saw the dailies the other day and I cracked up. Everything was so romantic, I was crying. It could have been like that, but it wasn’t at all.”
And she didn’t even try to hide her disdain when director Walter Salles brought On the Road to the screen in 2012. She dismissed the actors cast to play Jack and Neal, Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund, as “wimps.” To make matters worse, chirpy Kirsten Dunst played the role of Carolyn/Camille. Carolyn Cassady did herself one last favor and declined to see the movie.
Tom Clancy created his very own genre, the “techno-thriller,” and loaded it with high-tech military hardware, virtuous Americans, cardboard villains, and stories that never stopped galloping. Clancy’s was a chiaroscuro world of vivid blacks and whites: capitalism is good, communism is bad, the C.I.A. wears shining armor, and the world would be better off without politicians, liberals, terrorists, drug cartels, reporters, and Hollywood. While working unhappily as an insurance salesman, Clancy sold the manuscript of his first novel, The Hunt for Red October, for $5,000 in 1984. It became a bestseller after winning the endorsement of President Ronald Reagan, who called it “my kind of yarn.”
Clancy, who died on Oct. 1 at 66, was rarely accused of being a masterful prose stylist — one reviewer dismissed his writing as “the verbal equivalent of a high-tech video game” — but there’s no arguing that Clancy knew how to connect with an audience. More than 100 million copies of his books are in print, 17 reached #1 on The New York Times bestseller list, and an A-list of Hollywood actors (Ben Affleck, Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford) have played Clancy’s hero, Jack Ryan, in assorted blockbuster movies. And perhaps as a retort to that sniffy critic of his prose, Clancy happily arranged for his thrillers to be turned into video games.
Clancy made a silo full of money off his writing and he knew how to enjoy it. He bought a piece of the Baltimore Orioles baseball team and he lived in a 24-room mansion on the Chesapeake Bay with an indoor pool, a gun range in the basement, and a World War II-vintage M1A1 tank parked on the lawn. A reporter once asked Clancy if he ever drove the tank.
Too dangerous, Clancy replied. “It’s essentially a lawn ornament.”
Oscar Hijuelos’s greatest hit, his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1989 novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, unspools like an extended, ecstatic song, full of horn blasts, the patter of congas and bongos, the whirl of frenzied dancers. It is narrated by the broken-down Cuban bandleader Cesar Castillo, as he sits in a shabby Harlem hotel room drinking whisky and remembering “those glorious nights of love so long ago.” He also remembers life’s sensual pleasures — the food, the cars, the music, the streets, women’s hats, women’s underclothes, and, above all, the many women he loved. Much as he’d like to, he can’t forget his life’s many missed opportunities. The novel is a sad sexy dream.
Hijuelos, who was born in New York City to Cuban parents, suffered a heart attack while playing tennis on Oct. 12 and died at age 62. He grew up speaking Spanish at the family’s home in the Washington Heights section of upper Manhattan, and acquired English during a long hospital stay when he was three years old. He wrote in English, producing eight works of fiction and a memoir, all of it a way of wrestling with the immigrant experience and his feeling that he was an outsider in his own culture. He was more American-Cuban than Cuban-American, and the sensation of feeling stranded between cultures caused him no small amount of pain. “I eventually came to the point that, when I heard Spanish, I found my heart warming,” he wrote late in life. “And that was the moment when I began to look through another window, not out onto 118th Street, but into myself — through my writing, the process by which, for all my earlier alienation, I had finally returned home.”
Hijeulos was working at an advertising agency in 1983 when he sold his first novel, Our House in the Last World, but success, including a 1992 movie of Mambo Kings starring Antonio Banderas and Armand Assante, eventually allowed him to write full time. In 2008, after being “gainfully unemployed” for 20 years, he started teaching at Duke University and discovered, to is surprise, that he enjoyed the job. “I have to say, I love the kids,” he said. “It’s a joyful thing to see the future sitting before you.”
Before his death on Nov. 16 at 89, Louis Rubin may have done more than anyone to prove that New York City does not own a monopoly on quality book publishing in America. Rubin, a revered teacher and prolific author, co-founded Algonquin Press in Chapel Hill, N.C., in 1983 as a springboard for writers, especially young writers of the Southern persuasion who’d gotten the cold shoulder from the insular New York publishing world. Rubin’s students included John Barth, Annie Dillard, and Kaye Gibbons, and Algonquin published a small army of celebrated Southerners, including Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle, and Clyde Edgerton, as well as one native of Canada, Sara Gruen, whose third novel, Water for Elephants, was turned down by her New York publisher. After Algonquin published the novel in 2011, it sold millions of copies, became a #1 bestseller, and was made into a major motion picture. It was not the only time Louis Rubin had the last laugh at New York’s expense.
Doris Lessing, who died on Nov. 17 at 94, will be best remembered as the author of The Golden Notebook, a novel as free-wheeling and unconventional as the woman who wrote it. She produced a staggering body of work in her long life, including novels, science fiction, memoirs, essays, poems, even a libretto for an opera adapted from two of her books, with music by Philip Glass.
Born in Persia (now Iran) to British parents, she grew up in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), married young, had two children, divorced, had another child, then left for England to pursue her literary dreams. She was an iconoclast who railed against racism and sexism, a Catholic who became a Communist, then an anti-Communist, and finally an atheist. Eventually she abandoned all -isms, never apologizing or looking back. It was a life both chilly and inspiring.
In this age of literary careerists panting for praise and prizes, the thing I’ll remember about the free-spirited Lessing was the way she greeted the news that she had been awarded the Nobel Prize in 2007. When she climbed out of a taxi in front of her London home and got the big news from a squadron of reporters camped on her front stoop, she said, “Oh, Christ! I couldn’t care less.” Then she added, “The whole thing is so graceless and stupid and bad mannered.”
Oh, Christ, how refreshing!
This list is, by design, selective, but I want to mention a few other noteworthy writers who died in 2013. In alphabetical order they are: the renegade preacher and novelist Will D. Campbell, the biographer and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Richard Ben Cramer, the art critic Arthur C. Danto, the film critics Roger Ebert and Stanley Kauffmann, the historian Stanley Karnow, and the author of young-adult novels Ned Vizzini.
Through your words you will all live on.
Images courtesy of Bill Morris.
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. It’s a writer’s rite of passage and also her curse. Gabriel Garcia Marquez admitted to copping from Kafka when he began writing short stories. Zadie Smith borrowed the structure of On Beauty from Forster’s Howard’s End. Most writers try on the voices of writers they admire, at least until they carve out their own. William Faulkner famously said that a novelist “is completely amoral in that he will rob, borrow, beg, or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done.” While it seems that Faulkner was speaking of a writer’s resources, this also applies to the work on the page — stealing material from other sources, be it books, writers, lives.
This year, as I embarked on a novel, I became a kind of kleptomaniac, with all of the ghosts and voices and ideas from the books I’d just read haunting my attempts to put words on the page. Adoring a book meant that some aspect of it either influenced or turned up in my own writing, often catabolized and not in flattering ways. And I learned that while I’m good at stealing, I’m not very good at covering my tracks.
That being said, what follows is a list of the books that occupied my mental space this year, a list that I borrowed from mindfully or unconsciously, and a few that I’d still like to steal from (but will try to withhold from), a list beginning with books by two Brazilian female authors who were also friends, Clarice Lispector and Hilda Hilst. Both Lispector’s Passion According to G.H. and Hilst’s The Obscene Madame D are intense, sprawling fictions whose action, paradoxically, is extremely limited. In Lispector’s book, G.H. crosses the room to kill a cockroach and in Hilst’s, a dead husband sits atop the stairs while speaking with his wife, hidden below. This physical stillness opens an intimacy and interiority that lets them transcend time, and leads to an interrogation of the nature of the big questions, identity, existence, language, death, and life.
I reread and recommend Kelly Link’s collection Magic For Beginners, and I specifically adore one story, “The Faery Handbag.” It’s an incredible mash-up of fairytale and conventional story of love and loss, with a speculative element and other disparate items jammed in, too, including and most importantly, a grandmother’s lost handbag that literally contains a village. Herta Müller’s The Passport sits on this list for its haunting imagery and simple beauty that builds an ominous village landscape, with flies buzzing and a tree that eats its own apples. Even cutting a melon is a menacing act. Dodie Bellamy’s Cunt-Ups is all sex and sharp edges. She borrowed from William Burroughs’s cut-up method, taking scissors to her erotic poetry and laying them out in lusty and violent (re)configurations Joanna Ruocco’s stories in Man’s Companions are concise gems, playful and linguistically surprising, evoking a synesthesia of ideas. Veronica Gonzalez Peña’s The Sad Passions is told in six distinct voices that reveal facets of a shared family history — a mother’s mental illness, a sister sent away, and another born very late. Blood connects the characters but the cities they inhabit are also organisms, spaces where each person becomes “a cell within its system.” Heidi Julavits’s The Vanishers won me over with its intricate plotting, exquisite language, and fantastical premise (its protagonist Julia Severn is enrolled at an institute for parapsychology). I would likely be smitten with any book that connects elements of parapsychology, experimental French film, performance art, and characters who wear the guise of another. The stories in Amina Cain’s Creatures are intricate structures, with sentences like lattice work that create open spaces that breathe and become like living organisms themselves. Beatriz Preciado’s Testo Junkie is a mélange of manifesto, memoir, novel, and social critique — a book that actively attacks divisions of genre and gender as the genderhacking author documents her experiments with testosterone gel. Matias Viegener reappropriates the status update in his 2500 Random Things About Me Too. Originally published piecemeal on Facebook, the collected lists tuck online voyeurism into a book that’s just as addictive and binge-worthy and beautiful. It’s also charming, gossipy, thoughtful, and intelligent — a memoir distilled to its essence. Agnes Denes’s Book of Dust is another book of lists that ends this list. Denes is a land artist with a poetic sensibility. In Book of Dust she uses dust as a metaphor for human life in order to explore the scope of the universe, including the powders that give life and the ones that kill (meteoric, radioactive, and happy dusts included); it begins with the birth of the universe and stretches to speculate on potential catastrophic futures that seem relevant today, despite having been written over 40 years ago. Denes said of an earlier artwork, a time capsule that she made and buried, “It was about communication with the earth and communicating with the future.” The same intent and preoccupation applies here.
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In 1826, the philosopher John Stuart Mill had a nervous breakdown, and one of its causes was pretty odd. “I was seriously tormented by the thought of the exhaustibility of musical combinations,” he wrote in his autobiography.
The octave consists only of five tones and two semi-tones, which can be put together in only a limited number of ways, of which but a small proportion are beautiful: most of these, it seemed to me, must have been already discovered, and there could not be room for a long succession of Mozarts and Webers, to strike out, as these had done, entirely new and surpassingly rich veins of musical beauty.
In a way, Mill was being prescient: within a hundred years, serialist composers would forge onward, like the Vikings colonizing Greenland, to combinations of semi-tones that were not conventionally beautiful. But in another way, Mill was being ridiculous: no, a contemporary composer can’t use a tune that Mozart also used, unless it’s a deliberate allusion, but she can certainly use a tune that Weber also used, because no one listens to Weber any more. Mill’s nightmare of permutational famine would only be a real danger if any motif that any composer invented was registered permanently in some sort of giant musical database. Perhaps such a database does now exist, but no composer would be silly enough to check it. I only wish the same were true for narrative art.
Discovering that the website TV Tropes began as a Buffy the Vampire Slayer messageboard is like discovering that Borges’s “Library of Babel” began as a one-volume cricketer’s almanac. Since 2004, TV Tropes has swollen into a frighteningly comprehensive taxonomy of all known plot devices across all known media. Every story that’s ever thrilled you is there in microscopic cross section. In some respects it resembles books like Georges Polti’s The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations or Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots, but it’s not nearly so reductive: it’s maximalist not minimalist, always delighted to add new categories. Really, its closest cousin is the Aarne–Thompson classification system, which attempts to anatomize all the world’s folklore into about 2,500 elements. And as a writer, I find it impossible to browse TV Tropes without feeling like Mill: how will anyone ever come up with anything new?
This fear isn’t abstract. Recently, I was on the point of starting my second screenplay when I thought I might as well check at the patent office for any prior art. On the TV Tropes page for Double Reverse Quadruple Agent, I came across a listing for Cypher, a 2002 film I’d never seen by Vincenzo Natali, director of the terrific Cube. The best twist in my outline was sitting there in Cypher. Dejected, I gave up on the screenplay. TV Tropes may have saved me from wasting my time on an idea that had already been wrung dry, but it may also have prevented me from developing that idea far enough that I could find something in it that was uniquely my own. So far, the same thing hasn’t happened with my prose fiction, but perhaps it’s only a matter of time.
Of course, this is only a problem because my writing happens to be so preoccupied with plot. Most literary fiction is inoculated against TV Tropes. When Zadie Smith updates Howard’s End in On Beauty or Cynthia Ozick updates The Ambassadors in Foreign Bodies, they are assuming that the storylines are not by any means the most gripping things about those novels. I once interviewed the critic James Wood, and he told me that in his reviews he deliberately describes the entire book because he likes “destroying the tyranny of plot.” In other words, if TV Tropes gives you writer’s block, then maybe you’re not much of a writer.
And you can even make that same argument starting from the other side of the field. I recently asked the author China Miéville about TV Tropes, on which he has his own lengthy entry; because his work wallows in plot, I thought he might find the website as lethal as I do. In fact, he told me that he loves TV Tropes but he doesn’t worry about it. You don’t need a database, he said, to prove that it’s almost impossible to come up with anything truly original – just riffling through the canon will do that. Your task is just to force new tricks on old dogs. (After all, both Cypher and my abandoned screenplay were basically variations on Philip K Dick. TV Tropes itself has an entry for this called Older Than They Think.) And I agree with Miéville up to a point. But a lot of the joy of his novel The City and the City, for instance, arises from its ingenious premise. If he’d read on TV Tropes that The Twilight Zone had used the same plot in 1961, he would probably still have written his book, but I find it hard to believe he wouldn’t have been disappointed.
And the horrible thing is, it doesn’t stop there. There’s a remark somewhere by (I think) Martin Amis about how all young writers have to confront the fact that there just aren’t many new ways left to describe an autumn sky or a pretty girl. It’s like peak oil for lyricism. And in the age of Google Books and Amazon Search Inside, we have to confront this even more brutally. Every time I come up with a simile that feels like it might be too obvious, I can put it into the search box and find that a dozen romance novelists have used it before me.
The answer, I think, is to think more about your audience. The average reader just isn’t as obsessive about precedent as the average writer. She is less likely to notice an echo, and if she does notice, she is less likely to mind. In other words, she is saner. To invent some contorted new plot twist because your previous one was already on TV Tropes, or some cumbersome new metaphor because your previous one was already on Google Books, is just self-indulgence: you like your book a bit more, but everyone else likes it a bit less. It’s best to spend just enough time on TV Tropes that you’re anxious to do something original, but not so long that you’re paralyzed. That’s easier advice to give than to follow, however, and whether or not I succeed, there is one pretty humbling circumstance I have no choice but to acknowledge: that the biggest existential challenge that I currently face as a novelist comes from a website that started life as a place for people to talk about whether Buffy should really have got together with Spike.
Previously: Trope is the New Meme
Image credit: Pexels/ana-clara-de-castro.
If Boarding House Fiction isn’t a genre yet, it should be. I have a thing for stories about young women from a bygone era, sharing the bathroom and dining room, and occasionally, a bedroom, in a big old house: the pantyhose hanging in the shower; the prettier girls—in their lipstick and fashionable dresses—sticking together; the stern landlady and her rules; the constraint of that phase of life. Brooklyn by Colm Toibin is an excellent example of the form. Eilis Lacey, born and raised in Ireland, emigrates as a young woman to Brooklyn in the years after World War Two. Toibin’s prose is unadorned and clean, and I fell into Eilis’s story as I might have been swept away by an L.M. Montgomery novel in elementary school. What sets this book apart from those of my youth is its dark and unexpected ending. It all hinges on a choice, one that will change Eilis’s life for good. It’s an absorbing, moving read.
This summer I embarked on an E.M. Forster kick. I’ve never plowed through an author’s oeuvre like that (and truth be told, I didn’t get all the way through because I felt the tug of so many contemporary novels…), but I found the practice to be illuminating, exhausting and exhilarating. My favorite of the Forster novels I did read was Howards End. I forgive Forster’s cartoonish characterization of poor Leonard Bast because sisters Margaret and Helen were so complex and alive on the page: their differences, and that which unites them. I love the pigs’ teeth lodged into the tree trunk at Howards End, and the descriptions of this home and other living spaces: their objects, their power. And it’s impossible not to love a book that begins a chapter like this: “Evie heard of her father’s engagement when she was in for a tennis tournament, and her play went simply to pot.” I hope someday that my narrators have half the authority and grace of Forster’s.
I’m a little afraid to mention Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad yet again, for fear of being accused of having read only one book this year. But I must. I loved it. It’s an unclassifiable, risky book that delves deeply into the lives of its characters. It’s also crazy fun to read. If you haven’t read it yet, well, I feel sorry for you and your bookish soul, starved as it must be. A Visit from the Goon Squad confirms Jennifer Egan’s brilliance; she is one of the best American fiction writers working today.
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“Ask her if she still keeps all her kings in the back row.” When I was sixteen, I think I would have been completely and sublimely happy if that were what a boy loved about me. After J.D. Salinger died a few months ago, I thought about this line from Catcher in the Rye, and began to feel the spectre of Holden Caulfield wandering through my life here in Windhoek, Namibia.
At the risk of sounding like a clueless college sophomore trying to piece together a pathetic seminar thesis, I saw an unlikely connection between Catcher in the Rye and a book I recently finished: George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Complete with phonies, small things that men love about women, and the mid-1800s equivalent of bathroom graffiti, Middlemarch is a book that I think Holden would have grudgingly found acceptable. The book is about people who get it and people who don’t; about the tiny, grey decisions that become vast, dark parts of a person; and about people who do and do not fill out the image they have of themselves.
I loved the Brooke sisters: the naïve and lovely Dorothea, who dreams of building affordable housing for serfs and marrying a dour clergyman, along with the practical and pretty Celia, who doesn’t mind asking for her mother’s jewels and marrying her sister’s rejected suitor, Sir James Chettam. I am a sucker for sisters in classics: the Schlegels in Howard’s End, the Brangwens in Women in Love, Delphine and Anastasie in Le Père Goriot, and of course the Bennetts in Pride and Prejudice. But I digress.
Middlemarch bled in to my next book: A Trip to the Stars by Nicholas Christopher. These two books got me through an expat funk that was inevitable as the glow of being abroad has begun to fade. A crop of NGO workers have come and gone, I no longer marvel at the baboons playing with my house alarm, my clients don’t always tell me the truth, and I think I’m getting a beer gut. It’s times like this when books can twist me, turn me, hit me– even more than usual. I feel them deep inside and when I finish the last words on the last page, it feels tragic. I can’t get away from that terrible sadness of finishing a book.
“…sadness of domesticated birds; sadness of finishing a book; sadness of remembering…” — list of sadnesses (Jonathan Safran Foer)
In A Trip to the Stars, all the characters are striking. They are knowledgeable in grand subjects like Latin, spiders, horticulture, constellations, and Atlantis. Mala Revell, the heroine, is lost for years to her lover, Geza Cassiel, while she travels on quiet islands, performs as a telepath, and searches for her lost boy-nephew. Her journey begins when she is working for a New Orleans arachnologist who collects rare spiders. Mala entices one of the spiders to bite her finger after the arachnologist tells her its venom has the effect of “reducing the human soul to its rarest elements, stripping away all that is false, illusory, or fearful.” It is a sometimes corny, mostly lovely book that inspires a desire to be tall, honorable, and fearless.
Especially in Africa, I often long for just such a spider bite, to prompt those of us who don’t belong to engage in an occasional Holden-esque inquiry. To ask why we are here, to strip away all that is false, illusory, or fearful. What am I doing? Why did I come? What happens when I leave?
Again, the current issue of The New York Review of Books features one splendid fiction writer’s meditations on another brilliant fiction writer Last his time, it was Eisenberg on Nádas; this time it’s Zadie Smith considering the critical legacy of E.M. Forster, who provided the inspiration for On Beauty.As a novelist, Forster has suffered by comparison to his more conspicuously innovative contemporaries (for my money, Howards End is as much a technical achievement as that other Bloomsbury monument, Mrs. Dalloway); Smith suggests that Forster is underrated as a critic, as well.Perhaps his critical medium – BBC radio – made it easy to overlook Forster’s seriousness; perhaps his characteristic modesty did as well. Still, we can learn much from Forster, and from Smith’s appreciation of him:He could sit in his own literary corner without claiming its superiority to any other. Stubbornly he defends Joyce, though he doesn’t much like him, and Woolf, though she bemuses him, and Eliot, though he fears him […] Forster was not Valéry, but he defended Valéry’s right to be Valéry. He understood the beauty of complexity and saluted it where he saw it.
A recent post at Pinky’s Paperhaus entitled “The backwards academic,” muses critically on the backward-looking focus of the GRE subject exam in English literature, required for applicants to English department Ph.D. programs, and, in Pinky’s case, Ph.D. programs in Creative Writing.Having cited the breakdown of the GRE subject exam in English Literature (pasted in below from the post):- Continental, Classical, and Comparative Literature through 1925 – 5-10%- British Literature to 1660 (including Milton) – 25-30%- British Literature 1660-1925 – 25-35%- American Literature through 1925 – 15-25%- American, British, and World Literatures after 1925 – 20-30%Pinky expresses some concerns – both personal and philosophical:To sum this up, 70-80% of the exam focuses on work before 1925. 25-30% of the entire exam will be on BRITISH LIT BEFORE 1600. What concerns me isn’t that I can’t possibly do well on the test (I can’t. I was terrible at recognizing poets from excerpts when I learned them more than a decade ago, and I don’t know a caesura from a sestina) but what this focus indicates. The discipline, as it appears through the lens of this exam, is inherently colonial, still trying to prove to big bad monarch daddy that we deserve his love, we do, we really really do, because we can appreciate him and study his dirty bards and his pious poets and his sarcastic essayists and his metaphysical poets and his beowulf, thank you very much, and since we’ve been so good, may we please have some more moors, please?The essence of Pinky’s concern, is the exam’s historical focus – What about, she wonders, contemporary fiction, blogs, the effect of the internet on reading? All of these, she suggests, seem the relevant questions – not Milton, sestinas, and Beowulf.I have a few thoughts on these questions, both practically and philosophically speaking, as someone whose taken this exam, and is now entrenched in the academy. Practically speaking, the only way to do well is to spend a few months studying Norton anthologies: No one, even with a freshly minted B.A. in English, is ready for this exam without putting in some time. Also, it’s a multiple choice exam: How, realistically, could they ask questions about the amorphous world of the blogosphere (Name the contributors of certain blogs? Pick traits of a blog essay?) or the yet to be determined effects of things like Google Books and Project Gutenberg on reading practices? Exams have genres too and multiple choice exams cannot help us explore abstract and emergent fields.Philosophically speaking, it seems to me that the desire to get a Ph.D. implies a desire for a deep understanding of a field, and a deep understanding means history. If you just want to contemplate the effects of the internet on literature and read contemporary novels, blogging and book-reviewing will certainly suit you. The doctorate in literature (and, I presume, Creative Writing, since faculty in CW do end up teaching literature quite often), for better or for worse, means theory, the history of forms, the evolution of genres, methodical consideration of allusion and borrowing.Someone with an interest in the internet’s effects on literature and the rise of the blogosphere might naturally appreciate the 18th century English pioneers of the newspaper and essay (Addison and Steel’s The Spectator, for one) and maybe read a little bit of Jurgen Habermas’ Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, which resemble nothing so much as the ultimate fulfillment of quintessentially 18th century ideas about the periodical press as a virtual space for rational debate on subjects of public interest, a space in which all who desired to participate, regardless of class, were allowed. The rise of the periodical press and its role in facilitating writing as a profession for middle-class people was revolutionary – and we’re still enjoying it today as we write our blog posts. Again, to read examples of the early “essai” as practiced by Montaigne – coiner of the genre’s name – (or by Sir Thomas Browne or Francis Bacon) is to be delighted to discover that the rambling, loose essay format that blogging allows and sometimes seems to encourage is nothing so much as a return to the essay’s generic origins. In sum, feelings about how a new technology impacts literature are only broadened by knowledge of literature’s history.And a final philosophical point: The best modern and contemporary writers draw from the literature of the past. Joyce and Pound’s titanic knowledge of the history of forms, T.S. Eliot’s profound reliance on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Antony and Cleopatra and Tourneur’s The Revenger’s Tragedy in The Waste Land, Virginia Woolf’s delightful literary critical essays, and her respectful appreciation of Aphra Behn and Jane Austen in A Room of One’s Own for the help they’d inevitably given her as a woman writer. More recently, I offer J.M. Coetzee’s Foe as a re-reading of Robinson Crusoe, his Disgrace as a reading of Clarissa (this reading is Blakey Vermeule’s), Zadie Smith’s On Beauty as a reading of Howard’s End. Frank Miller’s 300 as a rereading of Herodotus.I am also generally horrified by how little I know, how little my peers know, how little my students know or care about history. And I find myself thinking about the affable but fraudulent academic hero of Don Delillo’s White Noise, a professor of Hitler studies who doesn’t know German. Shortchanging history when studying literature inevitably leaves a similarly gaping hole.
A very cursory beginning!”Lillubulero,” in Lawerence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy“La ci darem la mano,” from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, in James Joyce’s UlyssesThe “Hoffmann Barcarolle” of Jacques Offenbach “played” by Sherlock Holmes on the violin in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Mazarin Stone” (the piece itself comes from Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann”, a musical rendering of some of the German Romantic writer, painter, and musical composer E.T.A Hoffmann’s tales)Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch becomes “Venus in Furs,” by the Velvet UndergroundBeethoven’s 5th Symphony features prominently in E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End (&, on a more scholarly note, Forster’s use of “the rainbow bridge” imagery, in the furtherance of the “only connect” theme, is taken from Richard Wagner’s Das Reingold, wherein the rainbow bridge appearing at the end conveys the gods to their paradisical new home Walhalla, see John Louis DiGaetani’s Richard Wagner and the Modern British Novel)The Beggars’ Opera by John Gay becomes “Mac the Knife” by Bobby Darrin, et al.”Norwegian Wood” by the Beatles becomes Norwegian Wood by Haruki MurakamiE.T.A. Hoffman’s The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr, the fantastical autobiography of a literate cat interspersed with the autobiography of his musician owner, Kapellmeister Kreisler (a fictionalized self-portrait of Hoffmann, himself a musical composer (as above); Tomcat Murr was the name of Hoffmann’s own tabby cat – and performs some katzenmusik himself in the novel)Alexandre Dumas (fils)’s novel La Dame aux Camelias becomes Giuseppi Verdi’s opera La TraviataAnd finally – though I come by this disingenuously because I haven’t read it – Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho: I hear tell that it’s got some very funny discussions of pop music, including the assertion that Genesis was the greatest British band of 80’s…
Ashok writes in with this question about a pair of “magical realists:”I heard that Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Memories of My Melancholy Whores can be read as a continuation of a Yasunari Kawabata novel. Can you tell me which is that novel?Kawabata was the first Japanese Nobel Laureate in literature (1968), and while not considered a “magical realist” like Garcia Marquez, Kawabata was known for the surreal quality of his writing. A brief bio is available here. For several critics, Garcia Marquez’s latest novel echoes Kawabata’s 1961 book House of the Sleeping Beauties, though nobody that I saw described Garcia Marquez’s book as a “continuation” of Kawabata’s. The pre-pub review in Library Journal describes a “situational resemblance” between the two books, while a review in the Washington Times calls Whores “something less” than Beauties. In a chat with Michael Dirda of the Washington Post (scroll way down), an anonymous reader even went so far as to suggest that Garcia Marquez plagiarized Kawabata, an idea that Dirda dismisses:Anonymous: I have read all the praise for Garca Marquez’s “Memoires of my sad whores” in the Books Section of the Post, in particular the review by Marie Arana. Nowhere I have seen the reference to Yasunari Kawabata’s “The House of the Sleeping Beauties.” Garca Marquez himself said that that would be a novel he would like to have written.Question: Being the two stories so close to each other, Kawabata’s obviously preceding Garca Marquez’s, when a homage turns into plagiarism? ThanksMichael Dirda: Writers always borrow or steal from each other. G-M acknowledges Kawabata’s work, just as Zadie Smith in On Beauty acknowledges E.M. Forster’s Howards End. But the books are still their own. I suspect that Kawabata’s book will outlast G-M’s.So, clearly there is some relationship between the two books, and hopefully some Garcia Marquez fans have been introduced to Kawabata as a result.
On Zadie Smith in the Guardian: The new novel arrived fully-formed: Zadie Smith woke up one morning, and On Beauty was all there, in her head. She wanted to write a long marriage – she’d just got married herself, was curious what 30 years of it would be like – and she had a plot. When she described it to her new husband, poet and novelist Nick Laird, however, he pointed out she was simply rewriting Howards End. But she has never been afraid of tribute, and [E.M.] Forster was a “first love”; she had a couple of serious wobbles but this did not put her off.The Guardian also gives the book a good review. On Beauty comes out September 13.Every once in a while I spot an interesting looking item in those ads at the top of the page. Today I saw one for Out of Eden: Odyssey of Ecological Invasion by Alan Burdick. It looks like the sort of book you’d like if you like Jared Diamond’s books. It describes how different invasive species have managed to relocate to new parts of the globe.Tattoos and literature are becoming ever more enmeshed, it seems. Recent novels by Jill Ciment and John Irving dwell on tattoos, and now a Brooklyn writer, Shelley Jackson, “has been having volunteers tattooed with individual words of her 2,095-word short story (“Skin”) since 2003. Only 700 words remain to be tattooed.” Read about it here.Another online book-tracking and tagging application: Reader2