I interviewed André Aciman in his Upper West Side apartment on a bright July morning. His book Call Me by Your Name has recently been adapted in a film directed by Luca Guadagnino, which is already a hit. His last novel, Enigma Variations, has been praised by The New York Times as a Proustian tale of conflicted desires.
Aciman is also Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center of City University of New York where he teaches the history of literary theory and the works of Marcel Proust.
This interview has been adapted from a documentary, American Journey, directed by Lucia Senesi and produced by Abuelita Film. All Rights Reserved
Lucia Senesi: You said that young people interested in writing should do two things. First, understand that writing is not only a career, sometimes it’s a mission. And second, read the classics.
André Aciman: Yes, you have to absolutely read the classics. Most people nowadays do not read the classics or they don’t consider the classic writers who have written in 1940, 1950, 1960, and which is not the way to go. You should really go back, a long long time, and familiarize yourself with all the great writers and some of them are anonymous, as in The Bible, for example. And you should really read all these. As for the mission, it’s not just a vocation, it’s that you are really trying to capture something that is essential about yourself, and you hope that by getting it about yourself correctly that you’re touching other people, and that is the job. It’s not just to write and publish and publish and publish.
LS: Do you think that there is some difference between the generations, for example is the younger generation more taken with the fashionable aspect of writing?
AA: Well, there’s definitely a sense that one writes a lot, very fast, especially very fast and quite voluminously and the idea that you should work on a sentence for half a day would never occur to any young writer today. And so the price for this is that a lot of young writers, who are talented essentially, are writing the same way each of them, so that you can’t tell them apart. You really have to try, very very hard to tell one from the other.
LS: Do you think that maybe it’s about our society? I mean, today with social media, a lot of people just write on Facebook or Twitter. Before we had to spend time to reflect on what we really wanted to express, now we think something and we can express it immediately.
AA: Not only it is expressed immediately and very fast, but you press the return button and it’s out, whereas even when I send an email normally I will write the email and then I will read it and maybe read it twice or three times just to make sure that the ideas concretize well enough. And then with a lot of hesitation I would press the send button. Most people will immediately text their reply. And it’s because it’s an exchange of information and information is fundamentally cheap. What you want to convey from one e-mail to another is also a whole gamut of emotions, reflections, hesitations, irony, all these sort of superficial things, considered superficial, take time.
LS: When you were young, how did you approach the classics? And when did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
AA: Oh, I always knew I was going to be a writer. When I was, I think, 10 or even 9 years old. I knew that I liked writing poetry and I liked the fact that I was putting on paper my emotions. That was very important. But I didn’t know that I could become a writer. My first published piece came out when I was in my late 30s. So all these years were a process of long incubation. But I read the classics because there was nothing else. My father was also very devoted to the classics, so he told me to read X, Y and Z. There was no censorship. In other words, if it was a bad dirty book or a clean book, it didn’t matter, it had to be well written. And so I was always reading, I was reading classics all the time. And I have written about this, but when I was living in the Alberone district in Rome I hated it so much that all I did was stay home, especially in the summer, with the blinds drawn, because I didn’t like the lighting and I would read all the time and my mother couldn’t understand and nobody could understand. What is this boy doing? Let’s go to the beach. I said the beach is too far. I didn’t want to go to the beach. So I read everything I consumed. I think all the Russians, the French classics, and the English classics as well.
LS: That reminds me Proust because he basically writes that for his parents and his family the time he spent reading was a sort of waste.
AA: I think that he himself considered it. I mean he loved it, but he was not sure that it was the way to be and therefore there was always a touch of dysfunctionality in being a reader. But he loved it and I loved it too. I loved reading, but I was considered that I am hiding from life because my father says you should read, but at the same time you should go and have fun and have friends and do all those things. Except that I couldn’t do those because they were not mutually exclusive. It was just said the reader in me didn’t know what to do with other people. I mean I desired other people but I didn’t know how to how to meet them.
LS: Do you think that for Proust this dysfunctionality was also about being a writer? I mean, in the Recherche he wonders if he actually could be a writer and then says that all the first part of his life was a waste because he spent it in society whereas he should have work.
AA: Work was very important for him and the idea that he had a vocation was also very important. The whole book is the story of this vocation. But I think that the beginning of his life was not wasted. But at the same time he was sheltered, it was so sheltered that you had a feeling that this boy’s reading in order not to go out and live. But I don’t think in my case it was the same thing. I didn’t know how to go out and live. But as soon as I went to graduate school then I began to socialize, aggressively, because I hadn’t done anything before that and I loved social life and I still do.
LS: You said that Proust’s book is one of the few books that changes who you are because when you read him you read things you already know.
AA: I teach Proust to graduate students. In other words, they’re writing the dissertations, so they’re all in their mid to late 20s. I teach Proust to college students and I’ve taught Proust to high school students, in the jail. And what happens is that everybody understands Proust because he is simple, he’s transparent. Once you accept the terms of the reading experience. Everything he says about our behavior, our emotions, the way we think of other people, is totally true and we accept it right away. Now when you read his book, the whole sort of epic, once you’ve been absorbing all this, you cannot be the person you were before.
LS: It’s true.
AA: In other words, if you read Dostoyevsky, which I read when I was very young, you begin to understand that Dostoyevsky thinks that everybody lies. I had never thought of that but it didn’t surprise me that Dostoyevsky said that people lie all the time and that people are guilty. And at the same time all these combinations of contradictions made perfect sense to me. Once you’ve accepted, you’ve been absorbing it by osmosis, it begins to color your way of seeing life. As a writer, once you realize that human beings are not consistent, but they are constantly paradoxical and contradictory, then at that point you begin to reproduce that emotion with your own signature as a degree.
LS: Indeed, even Camus took that way.
AA: He was ambivalent. And I think an entirely intelligent person is always ambivalent. There’s no such thing as having a point of view. You have to be ambivalent because you can always see the two sides of the same thing. And if you see one and you hear somebody seeing one, you necessarily must contradict them out of intellectual spite.
LS: Then we have Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, who are a contradiction themselves.
AA: They are contradictory. I think she’s more important. He has become totally obfuscated, there’s nothing really going on there anymore. I never liked him. And now I feel justified. I knew that there was nothing there to begin with, but that’s me.
LS: You know, they are a difficult couple.
AA: He was ugly and he knew it. And that is a very important fact.
LS: I love him as a writer, but for sure I would never have him as a boyfriend!
AA: [Laughs.] I believe you!
LS: But to come back to Proust, you said that present doesn’t exist for Proust. He is always in the past or in the future, right?
AA: This is a new idea. We’ll see if you like this idea.
LS: [Laughs.] Okay.
AA: Time does not exist.
LS: For him or in general?
AA: I think it does not exist at all. There’s no such thing as Time. And Proust is a genius. Precisely, I mean, he believes that there is time and there is wasted time and wasted space. But fundamentally he’s always shuttling. He’s constantly shuttling between one temporal zone to another temporal zone, and he’s very comfortable doing that, from the past to the present, to the anticipated past, because it hasn’t happened yet. It’s in the future, back and forth, and he’s constantly doing this game because he’s really not comfortable in one time zone.
LS: I think it’s time to talk about the style and how he uses the verbs in French.
AA: Everybody knows that he does something that’s totally un-Orthodox when he begins his novel in the “passé compose.”
LS: Indeed the problem with the translation. Last year I read Melville, Moby-Dick. Basically we have this situation: “Call me Ishmael,” in Italian can be “Chiamami Ismaele” or “Chiamatemi Ismaele” [in the first person or in the third person].
AA: Yes! I wrote a lot about translation. Proust is difficult to translate.
LS: I guess especially in English.
AA: It’s very difficult to translate in English. French is extremely supple and extremely forgiving. Just to give you an example of the terrible things that can happen in English is that after the third relative pronoun, the sentence is dead. So you cannot have three relative pronouns, or four, or five, because the reader will loose you, especially modern readers, so you try to work around this. But if you work around this, you’re changing the rhythm of the sentence and therefore the rhythm of meaning, because Proust’s sentences have a meaning that is implicit to the style.
LS: Let’s talk about the style, because again, when I read Moby-Dick and Dracula—
AA: Bram Stoker?
LS: Yes, Bram Stoker. I thought that Proust took something here and there, in term of style.
AA: It’s difficult to say. I don’t think that there is anything similar to Proust and he knew it. I mean, it’s a complicated thing. I teach the style, usually that’s all I teach when I do Proust because the style is in fact semantically constructed in such a way that it means something. I think that, just to give you an example, Proust’s sentences always begin with a yearning, a call. Let’s begin with the beginning: “Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure.” He’s already in the rhythm, he’s summoning us into emotions. But that was how Proust wrote at the beginning of his career. And then suddenly something happened, I think in his mind, some genius thing happened to Proust and he realized that he had a sense of humor and that he liked humor.
LS: [Laughs.] Of course.
AA: So what happens is the sentence that begins with this kind of summoning this sort of, the Yiddish word is “descry.” It’s like a yell for help for inspiration. It’s like Wordsworth, you begin with this “oh, as a boy, blah blah blah blah blah,” and then suddenly the sense of humor comes and closes the sentence. And both work together beautifully. Now, Melville did not quite have that, and the person who has it even less, and therefore is not really a stylist is Henry James, who is a writer who has a style simply because his sentences are all over the place. But the wit that is so typically French and has been retained from classical times onto Proust is there. The French call it “la pointe.” It’s that moment when suddenly something happens at the very end of the sentence that closes. Now the only other author who did that with some degree of difference, and Proust knew it, is Saint-Simon. Long sentences, investigating, in excavating personality. And at the very end, damning them totally or totally forgiving them. And I think that’s the genius of Proust, there’s nobody can write like Proust. Now it’s a hundred years. And guess what. We still haven’t come up with that yet.
LS: You said something that could be very controversial, but I feel I totally agree with that: “Proust is about possession. He doesn’t know what love is, he doesn’t believe in love. He just wants someone immediately because he needs.”
AA: Yes. I think he does not understand love. I don’t even know what love is in any novel, but in Proust what we have a sense is that what really animates and feeds the emotional life is a desire to have someone else. And I’ve made the point in my own book, Enigma Variations. That is never love or it could be love, but it’s not really love and love is of no interest. What we are interested in Proust especially is that he wants someone. He wants somebody to possess them or he wants to have them in his house. He wants to have a nearby. Whether he loves the person that he wants is irrelevant.
LS: Marcel doesn’t even like Albertine. But he wants her because she’s not available.
AA: Exactly. What he can’t have is what he wants.
LS: You know that I live in Los Angeles. I actually live between Santa Monica and Venice, so I often go to the beach and I read Proust to California surfers. Unfortunately, I have the sensation that they don’t get the point.
AA: [Laughs.] That’s California, isn’t it? Well, [Proust] has no special effects. I mean, the whole sensibility of the young people today is very much guided not by complexity and characters. A lot of it has to be, I want to say special effects. I was exaggerating of course, but Hollywood and the industry of Hollywood has re-sensitized a huge contingent of the population, to the point where the only access they have to what maybe the ideal situation is given to them from television and films.
LS: And we come back to the beginning of our conversation: the new generation.
AA: If you think of Madame Bovary, it’s a very good point. Madame Bovary was herself a stupid woman. Why? Because all she did was look what she had seen, not in movies of course, but in books. She had read cheap romances and she wanted the same things in real life. And of course Flaubert is making fun of her. I think a lot of people in California…I don’t know. I like Santa Monica because it reminds me of other places like Naples and Cannes. And I like it not because of what it is, but of what it can be, in my imagination.
LS: How do you use the sense of humor in your novels?
AA: I think the one where I have most of the fun is when I revisit my family and because they were all regular individuals. But what I realized is that they were old extravagance in every conceivable way, not just money. They were absolute constructions of the imagination. They were monsters. And yet at the same time to be ordinary with ordinary passions. My uncle for example, the one I start the book with [CMBYN], was a man who was essentially a salesman but he didn’t think of himself as the salesman. He thought he was an aristocrat. And so he surrounded himself with all the accoutrements of an aristocrat when in fact he was just the salesman. He was not even a salesman, he was an auctioneer which is even lower than a salesman. But he knew how to make money and he made money. And at the same time, he had certain points of view that suggest that he was aware that human beings needed to be manipulated. And so in examining a character like this you have to realize that he is a salesman, he has a career, he has had a very checkered life. At the same time he is ridiculous. And how do you get this character whom you have to, at the very end, you have to salvage them because it’s easy to make fun of a character. You have to also give them back their dignity after you’ve demolished and made fun of them. And I think the movie was precisely that, to always rehabilitate what you just made fun of. And this you learn from Proust, is that whatever it is that you’re doing to make fun of someone, because you desire them, then you realize they’re stupid and arrogant and flatfooted and at the same time you really have to admit to yourself that you may not like them but that they have a dignity and a life of their own and you have to give them that back and that whole sort of circuit is important.
LS: I consider the incipit of Call Me by Your Name perfect. A lesson on how to write an incipit. In terms of style, rhythm, sound.
AA: I think it came to me later.
LS: [Laughs.] “Later.” I love your incipit. I love the sound. Maybe it’s because I’m Italian. For example, when I read Cesare Pavese—
AA: Oh, Cesare Pavese, great writer!
LS: La Bella Estate.
AA: I love that book! That is a wonderful book! It was given to me by my ex roommate.
LS: “A quei tempi era sempre festa,” a perfect incipit. Pavese is a poet, so he’s interested in sound. And when he writes novels, he pays a lot of attention to it.
AA: He does, and that’s why he’s also a good stylist. My theory has always been that a very good prose writer is always the product of having been a failed poet. Now I think James Joyce was a case and so was Proust. Proust and Joyce started their lives as poets. They were mediocre poets, totally. But of course they realized that they imported the gift for poetry, the love of poetry, into prose whereas I think a lot of writers who come to prose, particularly in this country, come to it from journalism. And so the ear is attuned to the necessities of journalism. And what I call information, as opposed to what poetry does.
Kathleen Hill is the author of two novels, Still Waters in Niger and Who Occupies This House. Her memoir, She Read to Us in the Late Afternoons: A Life in Novels will appear in late October and is the subject of the interview that follows. She teaches in the MFA Program at Sarah Lawrence. In conversation with Margot Livesey, her writing friend of many years, Hill reflects on the relationship between life and reading, travel and reading, and the difficulties of writing about family and friends.
The Millions: Thank you for the profound pleasure of She Read to Us in the Late Afternoon: A Life in Novels. I love how this book combines the autobiographical and the literary, and how each informs, and interrogates, the other. From the moment I read the opening pages, about the child standing on her head, studying the house supported by its chimney pots, I knew this narrative was going to speak to me, and to many others, at the deepest level. You write about several wonderful novels. Was one of them in particular the inspiration for She Read to Us? Was it hard, after many decades of reading, to choose which novels to focus on?
Kathleen Hill: It’s odd, but I don’t think that I actually chose the novels I would write about. It was more that I was visited and revisited by memories of certain times in my life and there, circling in and out of any one of them, was a novel I happened to be reading at the time. For example, when I thought about being 12, I thought of a music teacher and a gifted boy whose life was already marked by tragedy, and all mixed up in that memory was Willa Cather’s Lucy Gayheart. I couldn’t understand why this should be and wrote the story to find out. So I think of this memoir as first of all a story of a life, about certain moments in the narrator’s life, and how that life is shaped and sometimes altered and even transformed by the novel she’s reading during those moments. I suspect that many readers have memories of this kind.
TM: I know I do. Your narrative has several presiding geniuses. One who emerges early, and who accompanies us throughout the memoir, is Miss Hughes, your charismatic music teacher. Were you surprised to discover how her words resonate throughout the book?
KH: I was indeed! I think one of the reasons her words affect the narrator so powerfully is that art and the struggle to lead a worthy life are for Miss Hughes all but inseparable. She listens to Mozart’s requiem when trying to make an excruciatingly painful moral decision. At another time, she leaves behind an absorbing fantasy of her own to turn her attention to the gifted boy who she knows is suffering in terrible isolation. By example, she instructs the other children on how they are to respond by asking aloud if there’s anything they can do for him. “Because we want you to know that you are sitting in the company of friends.” And she makes a point of telling her students “so that they may not forget it” that for someone else’s suffering they must reserve their deepest bow. For the narrator, at least, her words leave long vibrations.
TM: The epigraph for “Things Fall Apart” is a quotation from Chinua Achebe: “The world is like a Mask, dancing. If you want to see it well you do not stand in one place.” Much of She Reads To Us is set outside the United States, first in Nigeria, then in Northern France. Can you tell us about the connection, for you, between travel and reading?
KH: I think travel—when you are not simply passing through a place but are there for awhile—leaves you very vulnerable, as if you’re a child suddenly going to a new school in a language you don’t understand. Without your familiar props you begin to wonder who you are, how to live from day to day. And sometimes if a book falls into your hands that book becomes a companion during this vulnerable journey. It may reflect the new world you’re living in that you don’t understand and need to. As, for instance, when the narrator is living in northern France and she reads Madame Bovary not only as a beautifully written novel but as a cautionary tale she means to avoid retelling in her own life. On the other hand, The Diary of a Country Priest, also a novel set in northern France, opens her eyes to the lives of the people she passes everyday on the street, to the students she meets in her classroom, gives her a glimpse of their inner lives. In fact, I think it’s sometimes when we’re most at sea, even desperate, that novels speak to us most strongly, as if our lives depend on learning something from them essential to our own survival. In a novel we actually see and understand people from the inside, as we don’t ever in real life. But it’s sometimes that encounter with a character whose inner life is laid out before us, much like an encounter with a stranger we meet in our travels who tells us their story, that confirms a common humanity, that gives us hope.
TM: One of the significant pleasures of She Read to Us is your reticence about other people; for me it makes them more real. We glimpse your husband, your family, your pupils and fellow teachers, your neighbors, but only in the case of Diana Trilling does another person occupy center stage. Did you ever worry about trespassing in the lives of people you love? Was it hard after writing fiction—your beautiful novel Still Waters in Niger is one of my all-time favorites—to be writing as yourself.
KH: Well, this is another strange thing. Still Waters in Niger was just as closely based on my own life as this one and it’s called a novel. And I was then, just as much as now, writing as myself. I worried in that case about trespassing on my daughter’s life who figures as a character in it. In this book, I worried about trespassing on the narrator’s husband, C. I try to console myself by remembering that as soon as you write the word “I” you’ve begun to construct a narrator who is different from the self you carry into the world. And so, too, in memoir as well as in fiction, to some degree you make up the characters, the people who appear in your pages. You choose some characteristics of theirs and not others, you find them speaking in ways not entirely natural to them. But that queasiness remains, whether in fiction or memoir, of using the people you know to construct characters.
I guess the way you think about all this depends on what you understand by fiction. The Anglo/American literary world, for instance, makes sharper distinctions between fiction and memoir than the European. Think of French writers, Proust, Colette, Duras, and others like them who might not have been published as fiction writers if they were writing for English-speaking readers. Or else changes would have been asked of them. Or think of the German writers: Sebald or Handke who again play close to the line. Or for that matter Joyce in his Portrait of the Artist.
TM: Throughout the memoir you describe the act of reading, what it’s like to fall into a book, to be taken both out of yourself and deeper into yourself. All of those descriptions come together in the last section when you describe reading Remembrance of Things Past to, and with, Diana Trilling as her eyesight fails. It’s exhilarating to hear your account of embarking on this great project and to see you, after several years, reach the end of it. For me reading has always been connected to my relationship with time. I wonder if you would agree? And what would Diana say about this?
KH: Yes, I think Diana would certainly agree with you! And so would I! When we began together to read aloud Remembrance of Things Past the great unspoken question between us was whether Diana would live long enough for us to complete our project. After all, she was already in her 80s. With the arrogance of youth—I was still in my 40s—I didn’t ask myself the same question. But the great drama playing out in our lives, Diana’s and mine—as we read Proust’s novel in which Time figures so dramatically—was the subject of the novel itself, the furious rush of time. There was Diana’s own struggle with increasing years and the reckoning she was making with her past as she moved closer and closer toward death. And my own struggle, one that I hope is felt in this section, but that I took care not to address directly, was with the imminent loss of a beloved friend.
TM: In our secular age it often seems that one of the worst four letter words is “soul,” but I mean it as the highest praise when I say that your memoir embodies Proust’s claim that “Reading is at the threshold of the spiritual life.”
KH: I’m deeply pleased that you think so. But Proust is very demanding! I’m guessing that what he meant by the spiritual life is the unmediated inner life where as solitary creatures we strive to rescue our lost selves—or “souls”—from oblivion, to reclaim the past by paying closest attention to hints and intimations. He believed no book could do that for us. We must do it for ourselves. A particular book breaks in and—to use Kafka’s phrase—“serves as an axe to break the frozen sea within.” It disrupts our life, goes against it in some profound way. We’re left thinking: then who am I? how do I connect with other people and their suffering? With my own? How do I live? How do I love? All these questions rise up and our life is changed. It’s different from what it was before.
I once knew a Holocaust survivor, a Russian non-native English speaker with a thirst for learning, who kept a wonderful book: a logbook of obsessive reading with highly particular summaries. “War and Peace,” the survivor notated, “a bunch of people, war, and countries — can’t anyone get along?” “Madame Bovary,” she wrote, “a fancy lady spends a lot of time dreaming until all is lost for love.”
We are deep into a moment in which authors write of lives, often their own, through the habit of reading. Hearing of the trend from afar, a person could ask: does the practice signify a retreat to a self-reflexive cave? A recherché activity, a hall-of-mirrors exercise, a willed innocence? And yet, these last 15 years, books on reading have proliferated at the same time that newspaper space for discussing the magic of reading has shrunk. Consider Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book, a hundred others.
Such authors share the same gleam you find in the self-portrait of Diego Velázquez in “Las Meninas” in which the artist depicts himself as the aware but lowly court servant painting the aristocratic family. The artist supersedes his content, eyes leaping out of the frame at us, becoming our proxy for understanding a given milieu. With similar esprit, in many of these books, the authors gaze back at us reading them, showing how at a crucial point in life, a book or series swayed them unalterably. Reader, I was never the same, these books whisper, confidingly. The earth moved. These books on reading often also move earth, however subtly, achieving what Aristotle demanded for drama: both recognition and catharsis.
In Pamela Paul’s fifth book, My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues, she takes us traveling through a landscape of childhood aspiration and adolescently blind romanticism, the accruals and loss of adulthood, all told from a temperament with a fierce, passionate allegiance to principle. Her Bob is a logbook of reading and also a rueful, joyful autobiography of interests and selves, an elegy fond and bittersweet. Bob in its physical form — even when a mate, soon to be ex, actually writes in it himself — survives courtships, marriages, and the most Aristotelian of reversals.
On first reading, I felt the book created a new genre, the polemic picaresque, in which readers get to wander happily with a Michel de Montaigne-like narrator through varied realms while picking up bits of advice as buried treasure. Imagine a guide who seems at first to speak only of her small village and family while showing the reader a local tower, who meanwhile, subtly, persuades us of the greatness of the parish. On my second reading, Paul’s book seemed to be in conversation with Boswell’s travels with Johnson, Sei Shōnagon, or The Canterbury Tales, in which we roam aesthetic terrain with a hapless and memorable group of individuals, the world rich with surfaces while belying the deeper moral conviction and instruction to be had.
The journey is as good as the guide, and one of My Life with Bob’s pleasures is the humorous and affectionate light cast on the narrator’s strong convictions. As a young girl, Paul begins with reading as a quirky hagiography, finding lives to learn and emulate, the horizon of her worldliness as wide as her last book read. Older, she shows great, impulsive agency in making book-inspired choices while becoming increasingly nostalgic for an earlier temporal freedom, leaving her reader to understand that a life too far from books is not just unexamined, but unfelt, unknown, unarticulated.
From the joy-filled vantage of someone illuminated, and even dominated, by books she has read, Paul inspires her reader to revisit works canonical and unsung. As the best memoir writers do, the witty persona Paul creates for her narrator is not so much heroine but more in the spirit of Paul Klee’s “Hero with a Broken Wing”: gifted and burdened by aspiration, she lives the paradox of being the obedient rebel and contrarian student who delights in having a mind with a thousand pockets. If August Wilson says everyone should wake to see the face of our own god in the mirror, in this case, for a very singular reader, the mirror itself is literature.
Below, Paul speaks of seeing her recollection of Bob emerge.
The Millions: You were a reader with a great understanding of privacy. What is your experience of My Life with Bob, an exegesis of such an important relic of the self, traveling out in the world?
Pamela Paul: A certain amount of trepidation. I never thought I would write a memoir, and in fact, didn’t think of this book as a memoir until Publishers Weekly announced the deal and called it one. My first thought was, “Oh, no — but they’re right! I guess it is a memoir.”
To my mind, it was to be a book about books, a book about travels, a book about storytelling. But of course, it’s not really about those things. It’s about the intersection of books and life, and about how what we read infiltrates, influences, reflects, expands on, and colors everything else. When we read, even when the book is temporarily put down with a bookmark firmly in place, the stories from inside the book don’t entirely recede from our consciousness. They become part of us. My stories are part of me, and therefore a lot more “me” had to be in this book that I am used to putting. My previous books were all journalistic investigations that had one or two first-person sentences in the introductions before firmly leaving that voice behind. This book is not only about me — it’s about (I hope) all readers and the way all of us experience stories. But it’s obviously quite personal.
TM: What are you reading — or hoping to read — now?
PP: I choose my books on a gut level, to match a strong mood or an urge or even a need. But it’s not a one-step or simple process. That’s one of the reasons I ask what books people have on their nightstand in my By the Book interviews: I’m curious about how people narrow down and make their choices among all the possibilities. Personally, I keep a large pile on my nightstand — on the wide edge of my platform bed, actually — and then a few other piles across from the bed on a room-length wall of built-in bookshelves. Like all readers, I have so many books that I’d like to read, that I intend to read, that I feel I must read, but I never truly know what I’ll read next until the moment I finish the previous book.
This doesn’t mean I don’t plan. I do all kinds of planning! And then I cast those plans aside. Right now, for example, I was planning to be reading Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena because the reviews were strong and so many people I respect have recommended it. The glowing praise for his follow-up collection of short stories pushed that book further to the top of the list. So it was on my shortlist. Then I did something I’ve never done before: I enlisted my two older children to help me decide between reading the Marra, Émile Zola’s The Belly of Paris or Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop next. I read the back covers and inside jackets aloud to them. My daughter voted for Marra and my son for Zola. I read the Zola first, and so had turned to the Marra next to be fair. But a few chapters in, I found that it wasn’t quite matching my mood. This isn’t to say I didn’t like it — thus far, I like it very much and I plan to go back to it. But it just wasn’t what I needed at the moment.
What I needed, I realized, and this is what had drawn me to all three of those books, was a book that was engrossing and serious and relevant to my life right now, but also an escape. And that was accompanied by an urge to read about an earlier era in journalism. Scoop wasn’t quite the right book because I didn’t want humor (I’ve kind of been adverse to comedy, overall, since the fall — read into that what you will, though I hope it means I haven’t permanently lost my sense of humor). “Scoop will be read one day…I do love Waugh.
Then, on a shelf I keep devoted to books about writing and about journalism, I noticed Ben Bradlee’s memoir, A Good Life: Newspaper and Other Adventures. I’ve been wanting to read this book since it was published, which to my embarrassment was in 1995, therefore making it a book I’ve meant to read for 22 years now. I adored Katharine Graham’s Personal History, which I’d read as soon as it came out. I picked up the Bradlee and it fits every need I have at this moment: Serious, yet also entertaining. Relevant to my life (journalism), yet also a departure (journalism back when it was strictly about print). Plus, Bradlee is a terrific narrator. You can hear his distinctive voice, his infectious personality. And the part I’m up to now is very much a different world: His experiences in the Navy in World War II, his early days at a startup weekly newspaper in New Hampshire, his experience as a press attaché in Paris. I’m just now getting back to Washington and his Newsweek years. It’s a delight on every level.
Do other readers go through a version of this elaborate mood-matching process when considering what to read next? I suspect many do. To me, it’s one of the great decisions we get to make in life, and we get to make it again and again: What to Read Next.
TM: What is the relation of risk to your practice of writing? And what was your process in sequencing and editing this book, and did it differ from your others?
PP: This book was completely different from any other book I’ve written. My previous books were essentially argument books: journalistic investigations that set out to explore a subject through research and reporting, marshal the evidence, and make a case. My first book, The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony, came out of personal experience — an early marriage and divorce — but I quite adamantly didn’t want the book to be about me, so after the first paragraph, the first person dropped out. That book still felt personal. I discovered and learned through other people’s answers and lessons that I was seeking to help make sense of my own experience. What did these other young divorced people know that I didn’t yet know myself? What had they learned two or five years after their marriages ended that they didn’t know at the point of rupture? The next two books came out of reported stories that I wrote for Time magazine and expanded on issues around consumer culture that I thought worth further exploration. For all of those books, the driving goal was to prove a point.
By contrast, I had nothing to prove with this book. I am not trying to persuade anyone of anything. So the underlying motivation is altogether different, and that fundamentally changes the writing process. This book isn’t probably not going to change anyone’s mind about anything (except perhaps about the wisdom of writing down what you read). So it has to want to be read for other reasons.
If I had a driving sense of purpose with this book in terms of its relationship to readers, it was to write something that was a pleasure to read. Because I get so much pleasure from books, and from my Book of Books. When people have told me they’ve read my previous books, my knee-jerk response has always been, “I’m sorry.” That may sound ridiculous and self-defeating, but I don’t think my earlier books were particularly fun to read. Enlightening, in certain ways, perhaps. But not enjoyable. I wanted to write a book that might be an actual enjoyable reading experience. And that made the book an actual pleasure to write — even when I was writing about embarrassing or frightening or upsetting experiences, like the end of my first marriage or my father’s death.
But I like that you compare it to a journey because that’s how it feels to me. Like a journey through life with books as constant companion. With little discoveries made, both within and outside of books, along the way.
TM: Having also encountered Thalia Zepatos’s book of advice for the independent woman traveler at a young age, to my detriment or advantage, I was nonetheless happy to see her mentioned. Yet what makes your suitcase so singular is the manner in which your narrator, like a lover or devotee, brings books as an offering to beautiful environments, most notably in an outdoor scene in China. Similarly, a landscape can be ruined for your narrator by the errancy of the particular author you happen to be reading, your mind infected by a particular voice. Books similarly permeate the courtships with men you end up marrying. In such moments, you do a great deal to erase the binary of life versus art, the dichotomy that Cynthia Ozick felt she misunderstood as a dictum from Henry James: “Life! Life, not art!” Was there something not mentioned in your book, whether in early environ or temperament, that may have led to this happy erasure, a habit of convergence? The curiosity the reader has — having traveled with you through travel, jobs, marriages, divorces, children — is whether your narrator would say her highest self, her best part, was formed by reading rather than life?
PP: For me, reading Thalia Zepatos was inspiring in the most concrete sense of the word: It inspired me to something I didn’t feel capable of or well-suited for. I read her book and then did something that was highly unlikely given the cautious, ambitious, responsible, fearful person I was at that time. I threw aside all my life and career goals and set out to do something that I knew I might hate. Something that terrified me. Something that nobody like me would do. As I put it in the book, it was as if 5 percent of me made a decision and dragged along the other 95 percent. It ended up being the best decision I’ve ever made.
TM: Your narrator is similarly remarkable in the complexity of being a success-driven rebel: she is both the child who early on learns not to procrastinate, getting her work done first so she can with easier mind enjoy the poking of her pencil into the carpet, and the principle-driven rebel. Within aspirational milieus, in equal measure, she passionately protests and excels within received dictates. One of the abiding sub rosa questions in the book has to do with the quirkiness of free will and self-determination against given legacies: your narrator finds herself shooting out of a particular set of birthright assumptions. How does this complexity inform your relation to your life in writing and reading these days?
PP: I just wrote a piece adapted from the book called “The Joy of Hate Reading” in the Sunday Review section of The New York Times that describes one of the key ways I’ve come to read and write, which is to challenge myself through words. It’s a way to remind myself of how little I actually know. As a writer, with this book, I set out to write the kind of book I never thought I’d write — a memoir. And as a reader, I am always pushing myself to try out books I don’t think I’ll enjoy. I have a kind of perverse urge to constantly test my own assumptions. To a certain extent this has always been there. I was a supremely unathletic child, always picked second-to-last for sports teams in elementary school (an excruciating experience that I wrote about in my college application essay). But when I got to college, I ended up joining the rugby team. It was an entirely absurd decision to make — I have never once hit a ball with a baseball bat in my life. But I joined the rugby team and I loved it. I still have near-zero interest in sports, but I recently read The Throwback Special because it’s about football. (I loved that too.)
TM: “Without imagination of another’s mind there can be no understanding of that other and hence no love,” Sherwin Nuland writes in relation to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “A Defence of Poetry,” a quotation you cite in your book when talking of a first love. How would you relate BOB to that very same imagination?
PP: Reading is ultimately about empathy — about experiencing another person’s story, his version of events, his voice, his way of viewing the world. To me one of the beauties of literature is that two different people from very different worlds can read the same book, and share that experience, even as if in different variations. You can have a 16-year-old girl in India read The Underground Railroad and a 45-year-old stay-at-home mother in Indiana read that same book. They will read it in different ways, but also, in similar ways, sharing a version of the characters’ experience, both with each other, and with the author. That’s connection.
TM: Everyone who has ever worked in publishing or known anyone with a foot near the industry knows something about towering piles of books that have arrived over the transom. Does your delighted, curatorial rapture about books remain intact or has it shifted emphasis? You speak movingly about your almost physical pain as, in an early bookstore job, you had to tear covers off books to be remaindered. Has the status of books as beloved fetish objects begun to alter or have you become just more focused in your pursuit?
PP: I feel like I live in a castle of riches at The New York Times Book Review. Not a day goes by when I don’t feel giddy by the unopened cartons of books awaiting me, eager to see the contents inside, excited by the galleys on the shelves and delighted and slightly stunned that I get to take finished copies home with me. Books to me are still treasures. I’m still greedy and I’m extremely grateful. I am not nearly as focused in my acquisitiveness as I should be and have towering shelves of books at home to attest to that weakness.
Image Credit: Marcia Ciriello.
There was extra time left at the end of the class and our Koran/Religious Studies teacher was allowing us to quietly do whatever we liked until break time. This was seventh grade and I’d never had a teacher remotely like her. She was young and pretty, unlike our other Divinity teachers who made it a point to dress badly and look bland. She had serene, generous eyes and her bright colored manteaus and overcoats were always tasteful and carefully ironed out. It took me a while to gather enough courage to go up to her desk, a crumpled piece of paper clammy from my sweaty palm in hand. Unfolding the balled-up note I asked nervously, “What does this mean?” It was a word I didn’t know how to pronounce, so I’d written it out – اگزیستانسیالیسم, existentialism. I caught the look of shock in our teacher’s face as her eyes darted back and forth between me and the piece of paper. Then in a cold tone she asked, “Where did you find this word?” I still hadn’t realized there might be something so terribly wrong and even believed that I’d managed to inspire her admiration over a difficult word. I told her that I’d found it in an article that the writer Jalal Al-e Ahmad had written about the novel The Blind Owl. The teacher’s face turned red. She was trying to keep her voice down but there was definite disapproval in her tone. “Who told you to read such a book? Where did you even get it? Do you know that its writer, Sadegh Hedayat, killed himself? Do you realize suicide is a great sacrilege? What else do you read? You shouldn’t be reading this sort of thing.”
As she spoke her voice became gradually less reproachful but also more desperate, as if she suspected it was already too late and there was no turning back for me from a fate similar to that of the writer of The Blind Owl. I stared at my shoes and said nothing about what other sorts of books one could find in our house, and that no matter where my older brother might hide his precious volumes I’d still find them. For a moment I even wondered if our teacher simply didn’t know what that word meant. I wasn’t feeling bad or guilty, just a sense that it was best I turn around now, go silently back to my seat, and keep my mouth shut. I was 12 years old at the time and already sure that books were my first and last love. This certainty, though, came with a price, a constant reminder that my love of books was not something I should cultivate or be glad about. In fact, in the world that I grew up, books — at least certain books — were seen as something dangerous, something to be wary of and keep at a distance if possible. Later in life I’d briefly wonder if there might not be some elemental truth to such fears. But at age 12, walking quietly back to that school desk, firm in my intention to never ask a teacher questions about literature again, I already knew that I’d go home and somehow unearth every book that was left to read in my brother’s bookshelf. No one could stop me.
There is the world before a person discovers books and there is the world after. It is a kind of matrimony. Dangerous, but necessary — especially for those of us for whom a life of not reading might seem simpler, but is also drab and ultimately colorless. I was determined; one day I’d marry a book.
The “book” that I wished to marry, the man of my dreams, had to be someone like my brother, Hossein, the person that most resembled a combination of fictional characters like Thomas Fowler of The Quiet American, Prince Bolkonsky of War and Peace, and Rochester of Jane Eyre. Men who were stubborn and hard to pin down, who were jaded and proud, and who even possessed more than a touch of arrogance.
Hossein was working on his Master’s thesis in Economics when he decided to drop it all. He was a poet at heart. But he was also a working journalist and a veteran who’d been at the Karbala 5 operations at the bitterly contested Faw Peninsula during the Iran-Iraq war. Later on, during the Afghan civil war, he would fight alongside his close friend, the legendary commander of the Northern Alliance, Ahmad Shah Masood, and later still he’d fall in the hands of their merciless enemy, the Taliban, for a time. Yet this was the same man who also loved the poetry of Rumi and Vladimir Mayakovsky, and often you’d see him tramping among his papers scattered in the middle of our living room reciting out loud from Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell’s personal account of the Spanish Civil War.
Hossein was unlike anyone I knew. And I was sure he was that way because of all the books he’d read. Save for a few volumes of The Koran that belonged to our father, all the other books in our house were Hossein’s. He was the owner of a magic treasure chest. He could open that chest and lend me a share of the magic inside.
Which he did. Partly.
But I was hungrier than he’d imagined and would not be satisfied with just what he doled out. I wanted more. Much more. Therefore my first rebellion in life turned out to be directed at my brother, the man I worshipped. He had separated his books between those which my sister and I could read and those that he didn’t want us to touch. His words: “Forget about these other books.” I suppose he felt two adolescent girls growing up in a provincial city in the northeast of Iran weren’t ready yet to read modernist Persian texts and translations of the works of Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, and Jean-Paul Sartre.
A lot of Hossein’s books weren’t even shelved. In a working class home on the poor side of the city of Mashhad, right after the long eight years of war with Iraq, owning enough bookshelves was beyond our means. Most of the books sat stacked in boxes, silent but pregnant with mysteries that our brother didn’t feel we were ready for. Except that he wasn’t there to watch us. Hossein was usually away lugging a camera to some troubled spot. I can’t recall how long it took before I gave in to the temptation and also made my sister a partner in crime. One day, inevitably, we quit just hovering around those boxes and dug in. We heaved, pushed and pulled, until our tiny hands had managed to undo all those gigantic cartons. I have no idea what prompted my sister to choose Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler first, while I chose W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. Nor could I tell you so many years later exactly how much I understood of what I read back then. But I do remember the hours upon hours spent in various corners of the house engulfed and dreaming. If there was a heaven at all, this had to be it. But when the inevitable happened and my brother returned from one of his trips to find out we had not listened to him and delved into the forbidden fruit, he locked the door to Eden. Stifling his natural compassion, Hossein banned us from reaching for any of the books in his library for the next few years.
The female librarian at University of Tehran’s central library takes the two-volume copy of Anna Karenina from me and asks, “You read the whole thing?” I nod yes. By now I’m a junior in college and it’s been just a little over two years since I left Mashhad and came to the capital to study and, hopefully, have my own share of adventures. The librarian puts the books down with distaste and says, “Some women are monsters!” Not knowing how to react, I offer an inane smile. To my understanding, the tragic woman in the novel is nothing like how the librarian describes her. She’s sincere and intelligent. I care about her. And this mindless smile that I offer as an answer is one that, in retrospect, I will go on to offer the world every time I’m faced with declarations and judgments from people who know nothing of the world of shadows, people for whom there is only certainty and no relative answers to difficult questions, people who are forever sure of what’s black and what’s white and who’s guilty and who is not. Books, the very act of reading, have stripped me of absolutes. I do not dislike Anna Karenina, and this is dangerous to our librarian. As I reach to take back my college ID, I see that she has noticed what I’m majoring in and is giving me a hard stare. “You’re actually studying to be a librarian?” Her look turns to one of pity and she continues, “There was nothing else for you to choose besides this? Are you serious? Tomorrow when you graduate what do you think you’ll do? There’s no money in what we do and no job. Take a good look; at most you’ll become someone like me. Is that what you really want?”
I have no answers. There’s no way I can explain that I came to Tehran to major in Library Science because, as absurd and laughable as it seems, I have always wanted to marry a book. There’s no describing that I am here because I could not stand the thought of ever being separated from books and I figured Library Science would guarantee me this marriage. I might in fact try to tell her all of this. But she would not understand. In her curious yet apathetic stare there’s not the slightest hint of the abandon that comes from a true love of books. And all the volumes in this great library have not made a dent in her reasoning. She does not suffer from the bug as I do. We each speak a different language.
The person who did speak my language, however, was an old man that I’d met almost 10 years earlier, just after my fall from grace with my brother. He was a retired school principal in our neighborhood who had turned one of the rooms in his house to a books-for-rent shop. He had a daughter about my own age who was in charge of running the store. For every 24 hours rental of a book they charged a negligible sum. What made the whole set-up even more odd was that it existed in a part of our town where just about every head of a family was a laborer, a place where there was so little interest in books that they were not even used as decoration, where speaking “high language” was considered effete and a sign of incompetence, and where there were at least five children to each household. To try to make a living here by peddling the gibberish of “unbelievers” from clear across the planet who, on top of everything else, had never done right by us and this country, was nothing short of lunacy. That old man, whom I saw only once in his “shop,” had to truly be mad to be doing this. Yet I understood his affliction. I understood that the bug had gotten to him just as it had gotten to me.
When I discovered the books-for-rent shop, nearly two years had passed since my brother’s punishment. Hossein’s library still remained forbidden. I would rent the books and take them home to breathlessly read right in front of our banned library so that Hossein would take notice. Wuthering Heights, Madame Bovary, Anton Chekhov’s The Lady with the Dog, The Thirsty Wall and the Stream by the Iranian writer Ebrahim Golestan, Heinrich Böll’s The Clown…
It was as if I had found my way back to Eden. My brother saw what was happening, but he stayed silent; not once did he ask me where I was getting those books from or reproach me for going against his mandate. So I kept on reading, right through the scorching summer when I was 15. I read, and Hossein remained silent. Then one week into autumn, he finally pointed to his shelf and to his boxes of books and bellowed, “Those books over there are not just for show!” He had finally surrendered. He was a man who had seen enough of the world to know when it was too late. Whatever calamity he’d believed might befall a teenage Iranian girl whose passion was books was already here. There was no going back for either one of us.
Image Credit: Flickr/San Jose Library.
1. American Graffiti Abroad
My wife and I started watching Gilmore Girls in Helsinki when our first daughter was a toddler. My wife is Finnish, and the show has been with us through the childhoods of all four of our kids.
For better or worse, American high school is now an international experience, shared around the world. My three daughters and one son are all in Finnish grade school or preschool, but many of the rituals of teen America have already entered their imagination, just as they entered mine when I was a boy in Seattle and D.C. Helsinki mean girls operate differently from Hollywood’s Mean Girls, yet the movie helps frame the concept of teen cruelty here, just as Heathers and The Virgin Suicides help frame international views of why teens kill themselves. My own kids, from their distant Nordic nook, love Ferris Bueller and Willow Rosenberg, and they’re primed for American-flavored teen adventures they might never have.
Out of all the teenagers Hollywood has launched overseas, Rory Gilmore — the main character of Gilmore Girls — is the one I like best, at least in her high school years. It’s not just that she’s smart and fiercely dedicated to literature and learning. The teenage Rory has her weak points: her mistreatment of Dean, her self-absorption, her cluelessness about some of her impulses. In general, though, she maintains a core of common decency and fair play while facing off against a series of narcissistic little tyrants. The show’s central joke is the comedy of the bookish and reasonable Rory holding her own against people who bully everyone around them.
2. The Dorothy Parker Reader
Across the Internet you can find lists of all the books Rory read or talked about over the series’ seven seasons, which originally ran between 2000 and 2006. The lists conjure up not so much the millennial preferences of Rory’s generation as the Baby Boomer preferences of the series’ talented creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino. The novels are almost all safe, traditional choices, from Madame Bovary and Moby Dick to The Metamorphosis and Ulysses.
If Rory’s literary leanings tend to be old-fashioned, they reflect a larger retrograde bent in the series. As Rahawa Haile has deftly documented, the show reserves almost all its speaking roles for white actors, and compounds the problem by casting actors of color mainly as silent tokens. The town of Stars Hollow has less cultural variety than the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, and Rory’s classics-oriented reading choices can’t even make room for, say, The Tale of Genji or The Blind Owl. While Finland doesn’t have quite the same culture wars as the U.S., it faces similar problems with the rise of rightwing hate groups, and the overwhelming whiteness of Stars Hollow — like the whiteness of the casts in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dawson’s Creek — now looks more obtuse and offensive with each passing year. When I watch Gilmore Girls these days, Rory’s fixation on famous old novels by famous old authors feels less quaint and more ominous — more like a reinforcement of Europe’s new line of bigoted and belligerent reactionary nationalists.
Still, I’m wary of generalizing about the ways Europeans absorb U.S. films and TV shows, because America’s influence cuts in so many different and contradictory directions here. From a Nordic perspective, for instance, it’s obvious that Rory would join most Finns in opposing the EU’s current assortment of jingoist demagogues, and would fight back against the attempts of those demagogues to use her favorite authors for their narrow political purposes. Also, Gilmore Girls is popular in Finland in part because this is a nation of readers, and I know two young Helsinki journalists who — despite their anger at America for our military and economic activities — found Rory’s love for books an inspiration when they were growing up.
After all, how many other TV teenagers can convince you they’ve not only read Anna Karenina and Swann’s Way but have made their reading a part of their decisions and their personality? Rory’s books aren’t just fashion accessories, as they are with most TV characters. Her relationship with Jess turns on him filching her copy of Howl and then proving he can catch the Charles Dickens reference she makes (“Dodger”). At the same time, we see some of the limits of her connection with Dean when she tries to teach him how to read Leo Tolstoy.
More broadly, her devotion to the writing of Dorothy Parker sharpens Rory’s natural ear for snappy dialogue — and this isn’t simply an aesthetic preference but the key to her entire approach to life. She values good talk because she values the ability to connect with other people and to have them connect with her. The contrast between Rory’s sleepy-eyed manner and her Parker-like flair for keeping a conversation in play is a major part of the show’s appeal. Her closest friendships — with Lorelai, Lane and Paris — are built on quick, casual banter. The jokes aren’t laboriously set up for a punchline in the old sitcom style. They dart along, one after another, easy and light and always moving on. Trying a video game with Lane, Rory says: “So this is what teenage boys are doing instead of watching television? Seems like a lateral move.” When Rory reacts to a comment from Lane by saying, “Sarcasm does not become you,” Lane answers, “No, but it does sustain me,” and keeps talking. In season three, Lorelai tries to suss out the degree of Rory’s interest in Jess: “Okay, now let’s say he’s in the house and there’s a fire, and you can save either him or your shoes — which is it?” Rory hedges, saying: “That depends. Did he start the fire?” Rory and Lorelai can’t stand together at a checkout line without slipping into their usual patter:
Lorelai: I hate crossword puzzles. They make me feel stupid.
Rory: Then don’t do them.
Lorelai: But if you don’t do them, you’re not only stupid—you’re also a coward.
Rory: Or you’ve got better things to do with your time.
Lorelai: You think people buy that?
Rory: The people who line up on a daily basis and ask you if you do crossword puzzles and then when you say no, challenge you as to why? Yes, I think they will buy it.
Lorelai and Rory are, famously, best friends as well as mother and daughter. Their friendship has its problems, but at its heart is the pleasure of their conversations. They’re bound to each other by language, their feel for the rhythms of each other’s phrases. Gilmore Girls belongs to the tradition of the great screwball comedies, films like Bringing Up Baby and Talk of the Town: the skill of the writing is largely in the lightness of the touch.
3. Early Rory
Lauren Graham plays Rory’s mother to perfection: she makes Lorelai wickedly charismatic. Driven and resourceful and a bit devilish, Lorelai typically sports a big knowing grin that’s up for all kinds of mischief. She takes command of the series 30 seconds into the first episode, when she looks at diner owner Luke Danes with the profound desire of someone who needs her next cup of coffee and will stop at nothing to get it. She’s a treat, and she brings a delirious energy both to her work as an innkeeper and to her love for Rory.
Yet she’s also a bit of a monster. She insists that Rory tell her everything, and places practical and emotional demands on her daughter that would break many children. Pregnant at 16, Lorelai ran away from her rich parents and rich boyfriend to raise Rory on her own. Lorelai envisions Rory’s future as a rebuke to the privileged Gilmore background — though another of the show’s nice comic touches is its recognition of how much this background defines Lorelai and Rory, and how heavily they still rely on it. Lorelai has encouraged Rory’s childhood dream of going to Harvard, and together they’ve built Rory’s life around reaching that dream.
It’s a potentially ugly situation for Rory, especially since Lorelai has a habit of bending others to her will. As Rory, Alexis Bledel lacks Lauren Graham’s I-can-do-anything-I-want-with-a-line acting chops, but her unnervingly serene demeanor brings something original to the mix. She’s quietly compelling when she spars with her mother, and usually acts like the adult in the relationship. Lorelai, with her playful eat-the-world smile, is like an insanely cheerful cartoon character turning the barrels of a Gatling gun, shooting out swirls of rapid-fire sentences and mowing down anyone in her path. Rory is less overwhelming, but she knows how to put forward her opinions. In her low-key fashion, she refuses to let her voice get lost in the onslaught of Lorelai’s presence. She’s much tougher than people assume, and this makes listening to her a constant pleasure.
Rory prefers to work things out, to understand the other person’s position and find a shared solution. Lorelai’s nature is simply to push and push until she gets what she wants, even if it often turns out she doesn’t want what she gets. During the first three seasons of the show, when Rory is a student at the pricey private school Chilton, Lorelai and she bring out the best in each other. If Lorelai is a great mother — one of the most complex and intriguing parents on television — she owes part of her success to Rory’s strength of character. Not every child would’ve prospered under the Lorelai Gilmore regime.
4. Occupying Paris
In high school, as Rory goes from bewildered outsider to top student, we see her at her best. Standing up to her mother has taught her how to stand up to the other megalomaniacs she meets: most notably, the immortal Paris Geller.
My kids are wild about Paris, and they’ve got a point. Paris is so mercurial—and Liza Weil inhabits the role with such virtuosity—that the character delivers comic bliss. Paris alternates between self-aggrandizement and self-hatred, between feeling superior to everyone and feeling crushed by her own inadequacy. She has a dazzlingly unhinged compulsion to scold people, and to control their every thought and deed.
As editor of the Chilton newspaper, Paris tries to sabotage Rory by giving her a lame assignment, a piece on repaving the school parking lot. Rory buckles down and does a good job on the article, and then confronts Paris directly. With calm force she explains that nothing Paris does will make her quit the paper. It’s the turning point in their relationship. Able to strike sensible compromises and work well in hostile circumstances, Rory also shows she can fight back when Paris is malicious or unreasonable. Bit by bit, Paris is impressed, and eventually becomes one of Rory’s best friends.
Rory’s success with Paris mirrors her success with the other little dictators in the series, like her charming but domineering grandparents Emily and Richard, and the pompous Stars Hollow autocrat Taylor Doose. (It’s easy for Europeans to imagine that if Taylor were French he’d be a Marine Le Pen supporter, and if he were Danish he’d vote DPP.) In situation after situation, Rory demonstrates the strength behind her decency, the ability to defend herself and assert her viewpoint while winning over those who at first want to control or hurt her. She lives out a fantasy of good faith—of a world where understanding beats aggression, and where intelligence and compassion defeat unfairness and cruelty.
5. The Corleone Connection
Gilmore Girls is full of references to The Godfather, and Lorelai and Rory quote from the film repeatedly. The first three seasons of the show set up the possibilities for Rory’s future so we can watch her, in seasons four through six, grow increasingly unbalanced and misguided. She’s the Stars Hollow version of Michael Corleone: she changes from a fresh and appealing college student to someone who has lost her way, becoming a dark and negative image of her former self. In season five she drops out of Yale, cuts off contact with Lorelai, and devotes her time to Emily’s social circles and a relationship with the rich and creepy Logan. The change is nightmarish to watch, because we can see our own bad decisions in her, and our own fears about what we might become. Even after she returns to Yale, she keeps dating Logan, and it’s clear she still hasn’t fully come out of the crisis that started when Logan’s father told her she doesn’t have what it takes to be a journalist.
Because of a contract dispute, Sherman-Palladino left the series before its seventh and final season, and she was never able to finish Rory’s story. Now, thanks to the show’s popularity on Netflix, Sherman-Palladino has had the chance to make Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, a revival in four 90-minute parts. She’s gone back to her original conception, and to her old plans for Rory. The revival is ambitious, and compared to the series, it places the emphasis much more on drama than on comedy.
The Rory we now find, 10 years after we last saw her, is slowly disintegrating, and we follow her as she falls apart. Her journalism career has stalled, and she seems to have lost the ability to finish an article or even pitch an idea. Some reviewers have blasted Rory for her lack of professionalism, but we know from her years on the Yale Daily News that the mistakes she’s making aren’t due to ignorance or stupidity. She’s sabotaging herself, and part of her knows it while part of her denies it.
At the same time, she’s carrying on a degrading affair with Logan, who’s engaged to someone else. The revival takes pains to show that Rory’s view of Logan is a fantasy, a damaging illusion. The long party sequence with Logan and his friends is a dream: at the start, a sign magically changes from the word “Flowers” to the word “Tonight,” and the sequence closes with Rory caught in a burlesque of Dorothy’s farewells in The Wizard of Oz. This is the Logan she wants to believe in, a Gatsby/Kennedy hybrid who would care enough to give her a final night of Jazz Age entertainment. The real Logan is much colder: he lets Rory break things off with him over the phone and simply goes on with his life. Always polite, always superficially concerned, he can’t be bothered to make much of an effort with her.
The revival’s last four words, which Sherman-Palladino always planned to use for the final scene of the series, turn out to be chilling. Rory says she’s pregnant, and since the baby is probably Logan’s, the effect is grim. Rory’s transformation is complete. The girl who planned to leave Stars Hollow and become an overseas correspondent is gone, replaced by this eerie ghost-Rory who might never find her way forward again.
The ending isn’t hopeless. Rory has started writing a book about her relationship with her mother, Chilton has proposed a job for her as a teacher, and her connection with Lorelai is strong. You can picture a happy future for Rory, if you want. Still, the overall mood of the revival is bleak, and the darkness that always hovered behind the comedy of Gilmore Girls has now swallowed everything else.
This makes the revival very much a show for our time. We’ve all sensed it, of course, these past few years: the feeling of disaster in the air, of violence and anger and a rampant, all-devouring bad faith. This isn’t an era when people like Rory flourish. Instead, they tend to fall into self-doubt and self-destruction, and to become as narcissistic and manipulative as the culture around them. Rory has always carried her share of flaws. We all do. If we don’t like what we see in her these days, it’s because Sherman-Palladino has been pitiless about showing what can happen to us when we go bad. The Gilmore Girls revival is an odd, somber way to end a series that built its reputation on quick-witted comic brio. Sherman-Palladino has shifted us from the realm of Dorothy Parker to the scarier and more disorienting realm of Jean Rhys — and the revival makes Rory’s teen years now look heartbreaking in their wasted promise.
As an advocate for both books and therapy, I determined, upon first hearing the word “bibliotherapy,” that this might be my bespoke profession. I go to group therapy. I read a lot of novels. I’m constantly recommending novels to my group. Members struggling with various problems typically don’t count on me to empathize through personal experience. They count on me for book recommendations. Your adult son is an expat in Europe and is exploring his sexuality? See Caleb Crain’s Necessary Errors. You feel alienated from your wealthy family but drawn to nagging spiritual questions about existence? Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer is for you. Gutted by the loss of a loved one? You could do worse than James Agee’s A Death in the Family (Men’s therapy group, by the way).
The concept of bibliotherapy — a word coined in 1916 — long teetered on the edge of trendiness. But lately it has tilted toward truth. The highbrow media has weighed in favorably — consider Ceridwen Dovey’s much discussed New Yorker profile on The School of Life’s bibliotherapy team. And then the books: Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously, William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education and, perhaps most notably, The Novel Cure by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin. Each book, to varying degrees, suggests connections between reading and happiness. A Google Scholar’s worth of criticism — my obscure favorite being Keith Oatley’s “Why Fiction May Be Twice as True as Fact: Fiction as Cognitive and Emotional Simulation” (pdf) — has lent the idea scholarly heft. To be clear: nobody is arguing that reading books is a substitute for the medication required to treat acute mental illness. But the notion that novels might have a genuine therapeutic benefit for certain kinds of spiritual ailments seems legit.
If we concede that books can be therapeutic, then it seems appropriate to explore the potential pitfalls of asking literature to serve that cause. Of initial concern is the inherent presumptuousness of the endeavor. When I advise my fellow group therapy members — whom I know as intimately as I know anyone, if intimacy is defined by the sharing of anxiety, fear, and grief — what they should read, the assumption is that I’m able to divine how my interpretation of a novel will intersect with their predicted interpretations of the same novel. If reception theory tells us anything, it’s that this kind of interpretive foretelling, especially when refracted through the radically subjectivity of a novel, is a matter of great uncertainty, and maybe even an implicit form of lit bullying (“What? You didn’t pick up on that theme? What’s the matter with you?).
Plus, novels don’t work this way. They aren’t narrative prescriptions. Even when done badly, novels are artistic expressions necessarily unmoored from reality, expressions that ultimately depend on idiosyncratic characters who act, think, and feel, thereby becoming emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, and even physically embodied — quite differently — in every reader’s mind. Yes, The Great Gatsby has universal appeal. But there’s a unique Gatsby for every reader who has passed eyes over the book. (Maybe even Donald Trump has one: “not great, not great; an overrated loser.”) Given the tenuousness and variability of this personal act of translation, it’s hard not to wonder: How could anyone expect to intuit how anyone else might react to certain characters in certain settings under certain circumstances?
In The Novel Cure, Berthoud and Elderkin aren’t hampered by this question. They match personal contemporary ailments with common literary themes as if they were complementary puzzle pieces. They do so under the assumption that the mere presence of a literary counterpart to a contemporary dilemma automatically imbues a novel with therapeutic agency. They advise that a person dealing with adultery in real life might want to read Madame Bovary. Or that someone who struggles to reach orgasm should read Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Does this kind of advice make any sense?
Consider the adultery example. How can Berthoud and Elderkin assess exactly how novelistic adultery will be translated into thoughts and feelings about something as deeply contextualized as real life adultery? How can they assess if it will be translated at all? Think of all the possible reactions. Use your imagination. A contemporary cuckold could go off the rails at any juncture in the Bovary narrative. He could become so immensely interested in Gustave Flaubert’s intimately detailed portrait of 19th-century provincial life, and the people in it, that he eventually finds the cuckolding theme a distraction, finishes the novel, quits his high paying job, and commits himself to a graduate program in French social history. Books have driven people to do stranger things. Sure it’s unlikely, but my point is this: Telling someone precisely what to take from a novel, based on the superficiality of a shared event, isn’t therapeutic. It’s fascist. A repression of a more genuine response.
More interesting would be to reverse the bibliotherapeutic premise altogether. Instead of asking “what’s wrong with you?” and assigning a book, assign a book and ask “what’s wrong with you?” When I lend books to friends outside of therapy, this strategy (upon reflection) is basically what I’m testing. I’m not trying to solve a person’s problem. I’m trying, in a way, to create one. I want to shake someone out of complacency. Great novels (and sometimes not so great ones) jar us, often unexpectedly. Ever have a novel sneak upon you and kick you in the gut, leaving you staring into space, dazed by an epiphany? Yes. Novels do this. They present obstacles that elicit the catharsis (from katharo, which means clearing obstacles) we didn’t think we needed. We should allow books to cause more trouble in our lives.
But the sanguine bibliotherapeutic mission will have none of that. Its premise is to take down obstacles and march us towards happiness. Proof is how easily this genre of therapy veers into self-help territory. The New York Public Library’s “Bibliotherapy” page suggests that readers check out David Brooks’s The Road to Character, Cheryl Strayed’s Brave Enough, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. These books are assuredly smart books by smart writers, all of whom I admire. But the goal of this type of book is to help readers find some kind of stability. There’s obviously nothing wrong with that. But the problem from the perspective of literary fiction is that such “self-improvement” books seek to tamp down the very human emotions that literature dines out on: fear, insecurity, vulnerability, and the willingness to take strange paths to strange places. Imagine reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment without being at least little off kilter. You’d shut the book the moment Raskolnikov committed his murder. Being moved by fiction means being willing to be led astray a little. It helps if your rules are not ordinary.
It also seems prudent to wonder how the bibliotherapeutic pharmacy would bottle up the work of certain writers. Would it do so in a way that excludes literary genius? Almost assuredly it would. Cormac McCarthy, whom many critics consider one of the greatest writers ever — appears three times in The Novel Cure. Predictably, The Road is mentioned as a way to (a) gain insight into fatherhood and (b) achieve brevity of expression. That’s it — all talk of apocalypse and the survival instinct as integral influences on human morality is brushed aside. Inexplicably, Blood Meridian is listed as a book that sheds light on the challenge of going cold turkey. I have no idea here. None. But I do know that if you are a reader who grasps the totality of McCarthy’s work, your literary soul, as Cormac might put it, is drowning in a cesspool of roiling bile.
Because here is what bibliotherapy, as it’s now defined, has no use for: darkness. Real darkness. McCarthy’s greatest literary accomplishment is arguably Suttree, the culmination of a series of “Tennessee novels” that dealt in chilling forms of deviance — incest, necrophilia, self-imposed social alienation — that, on every page, sully the reader’s sense of decency. McCarthy’s greatest narrative accomplishment was likely No Country for Old Men, a blood splattered thriller that features a psychopath who kills random innocent people with a captive bolt pistol. These works, much like the work of Henry Miller (none of whose sex-fueled books get mentioned in The Novel Cure), aestheticize evil — in this case violence and misogynistic sex — into brilliant forms of literary beauty. They are tremendously important and profoundly gorgeous books, albeit in very disturbing ways. They are more likely to send you into therapy than practice it.
The good news for bibliotherapy is that there are too many hardcore fiction readers who know all too well that concerted reading enhances the quality of their lives. A single book might destabilize, tottering you into emotional turmoil. But books — collectively consumed through the steady focus of serious reading — undoubtedly have for many readers a comforting, even therapeutic, effect. This brand of bibliotherapy, a brand born of ongoing submission to great literature — not unlike traditional therapy — does not necessarily seek to solve specific problems. (In my group therapy, members have been dealing with the same unresolved issues for years. We define each other by them.) Instead, what evolves through both consistent reading and therapy is a deep, even profound, understanding of the dramas that underscore the challenges of being human in the modern world.
So, despite my concerns, I remain a believer in bibliotherapy. But its goal should not necessarily be to make us feel better. It should be to make us feel more, to feel deeper, to feel more honestly. In this respect, quality literature, no matter what the subject matter, slows the world down for us, gives us time to place a microscope over its defining events, and urges us to ask, what’s going on here, what does it mean, why do I care, and how do I feel? That might not qualify as formal therapy, but it’s a good place to start.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
I am a jealous person — jealous of the vacations I see on Instagram, of my sister’s perfect hair, of the latte the man next to me just ordered — but it took me a long time to realize I was a jealous reader and writer. In fact, I didn’t know that literature was something I could be envious of until I read Marina Keegan’s The Opposite of Loneliness. There, in the last essay of the collection, a piece titled “Song for the Special,” Keegan addresses her “unthinkable jealousies.” “Why didn’t I think to rewrite Mrs. Dalloway? I should have thought to chronicle a schizophrenic ballerina,” she writes. “It’s inexcusable.”
Like Keegan, I was angry that Michael Cunningham thought to rewrite Mrs. Dalloway first — The Hours should have been mine! Come to think of it, “Song for the Special” should have been mine! And it spread from there.
I’m jealous of ridiculous things: of Little Women, and of the original Mrs. Dalloway, if it comes down to it, and of Alice in Wonderland and of Walden. I’m jealous of Atonement and of Housekeeping. I’m jealous of every writer who’s written a feature for The Atlantic and of every Paris memoir that’s ever been published, especially the ones that involve a lot of food. I am full of unthinkable jealousies.
When I described this to a friend he corrected me. “You’re not jealous,” he said. “You’re envious. You want to have written these books, sure, but it’s not like you feel you rightfully should have.”
He’s wrong, though. I do.
My strongest jealousies have a certain logic to them. The books I’m most jealous of aren’t necessarily the ones I most admire. I love The Brothers Karamazov and I love the Oresteia, but I can’t say either inspires jealousy or envy or anything else, really, aside from a kind of awe. They exist outside me, and I can’t conceive of any alternate reality in which I might have written them. But Meghan Daum’s Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House? I’m jealous of that, just as I’m jealous of her first collection, My Misspent Youth. Truthfully, I’m jealous of most literary essayists, especially those who write about their homes or homely yearnings. Why? The through line is just me, that I want to have written their work. And sometimes, late at night, I allow myself to think that maybe I could have, if only they hadn’t gotten there first.
As an earnest undergraduate, I used to write obsessively about houses and their connection to identity; my scraped-together thesis covered A Room of One’s Own and Fun Home, two more books I envy. Life Would Be Perfect tackles the same questions I struggled to answer with more grace, insight, and humor then I could have ever hoped to muster at 22, if ever. When I found Daum’s memoir, too late to use it for my paper, I was unimaginably jealous. I could have written that book, or at least one very like it! All I needed was more time (and maybe an MFA)! But Daum had beaten me to it, and my handful of essays looked punier than ever. The problem wasn’t really that someone had written about refinished floors with the same zeal I felt, of course. My jealousy was largely just a cover for my terror. How could I ever write something original when someone had already explored, written, and published all of my ideas and interests?
The grand irony is that Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House is very much a book about envy. It’s a memoir about obsession, insecurity, and identity creation, but the source of all this trouble is “a shabby yet elegant prewar apartment in Manhattan,” not a memoir published by a talented stranger. Daum’s admission that she “sometimes found it difficult to read the Sunday paper without writhing in envy” at the luxury real estate listings and that simply “walking by certain edifices…without feeling the ache of rejection” became impossible works pretty well as a description of literary jealousy. Just replace “luxury real estate listings” with “bestseller list” and “edifices” with “the shelves of the local Barnes & Noble.”
Life Would Be Perfect charts a struggle with identity and jealousy, but here the relationship between the two isn’t necessarily destructive. Daum’s real estate envy drives her to move from Manhattan to Nebraska to L.A., creating a livable and even enjoyable life as she goes. Her jealousy ultimately incites action, not paralysis. She is not erased. The envied apartment and life are still attainable, and Daum goes after them. This time there’s a way out of the seemingly infinite jealousy loop, and she takes it.
Not all jealousy is so easily converted into action, however. Like any explosive material, it has its dangers as well as its uses, as art and history tell us again and again. Why did Cain kill Abel? Why did Medea murder not only Jason’s new bride but her own children? And why does Antonino Salieri, a passionate but mediocre Austrian court composer and the focus of Miloš Forman’s stylish film Amadeus, break down once he recognizes the overwhelming talent of a young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart?
“From now on we are enemies, You and I,” Salieri spits, not at Mozart but at a crucifix, in a scene at the heart of the film. He isn’t angry at the prodigy; here it’s God who’s the enemy. “You chose for Your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy, and gave me for award only the ability to recognize the incarnation,” Salieri complains. “Because You are unjust, unfair, unkind, I will block You, I swear it.” And he does, eventually killing Mozart with sheer overwork and nervous exhaustion. God gave Salieri “only the ability to recognize the incarnation” of ability, the desire for brilliance but none of the brilliance itself. What could be worse? What could be more relatable for a reader and aspiring writer?
In “An Ode to Envy,” a TED Talk, senior editor at the New York Review of Books and remarkable essayist Parul Sehgal points out that without jealousy there wouldn’t be much literature to speak of. No William Shakespeare, no Anna Karenina, no Brothers Karamazov, no Madame Bovary, no Marcel Proust. One of the wonders of fiction, she argues, is its ability to accurately capture and reflect our jealousy. The power and dark appeal of envy, so often blurred in real life, are fully revealed in our greatest novels. Sehgal adds that jealousy itself is creative work. “When we feel jealous we tell ourselves a story,” she explains. “We tell ourselves a story about other people’s lives, and these stories make us feel terrible because they’re designed to make us feel terrible. As the teller of the tale and the audience we know just what details to include…Jealousy makes us all amateur novelists.”
But what about those of us who deal in nonfiction? What does essayistic jealousy look like? Is it possible that our jealousy is simultaneously less creative and more painful then its fictional counterpart? Is it possible that it’s less jealousy and more insecurity? Less Sehgal and more Salieri?
When we say, “all of my ideas have already been had,” what we’re expressing isn’t jealousy, it’s doubt in our own creativity, in our worthiness to write about anything at all. Never mind that originality in the broadest sense is hardly possible, and never mind that the beauty of most good essayistic writing lies in the writer’s ability to both make the specific feel universal and, paradoxically, turn the commonplace into something momentarily extraordinary. When we say “I should have written that,” what we mean is “How unjust, unfair, unkind that you were faster, smarter, and more fortunate than I. How terrible that I have nothing more to offer.” We’re not amateur novelists at all, just whiners.
Sehgal has a suggestion, drawn from “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons,” a Sherlock Holmes story in which the bumbling detective Lestrade finally allows himself to admire Holmes’s incredible abilities rather than resenting his genius. “What if jealousy really is just a matter of geometry, just a matter of where we allow ourselves to stand?” Sehgal wonders. “What if we don’t have to resent somebody’s excellence, [but instead] we can align ourselves with it?”
Easier said then done, sure, but as an idealistic goal it’s better than nothing, and certainly far better than Salieri’s murderous vision. It works particularly well when one is wrestling with awe in the face of true talent and real brilliance. It works considerably less well if one is frustrated by more possible comparisons, by mere issues of timing and semi-plausible “if onlys.”
For this second, more practical problem of jealousy, Meghan Daum again offers a solution. In the foreword to the 2015 edition of My Misspent Youth, the essay collection that made her career, Daum tells a story about the title essay. Immediately after finishing a first draft “in a two-week fury,” Daum came across a strikingly similar essay by Vince Passaro in Harper’s. “Reading his story,” she writes, “I felt even more certain I was on to something…I was also certain that no one would ever publish my essay now because it had effectively already been published.”
It is at this point that many writers’ basest instincts would kick in, but Daum gets to work. There’s no sense of frustration or injustice, no hint of insecurity. She isn’t jealous; she is a writer. So, she “rewrote [the essay] several times,” changing the focus to something more unique to her experience, separating it from the more general essay that preceded it. An easy solution? No, but a simple one.
Daum’s approach is infinitely more practical than my own patented sulking, but I don’t think it will ever totally replace it. Four million Google results on writerly jealousy say this is a plague without cure, though it does have the benefit of giving us all something to commiserate about. So long as we’re human and flawed, we’ll be jealous. So long as there are writers in every coffee shop and on the staff of every magazine and behind the cover of every one of the thousands of fresh books printed each year, there will be people for us to envy. Just, please, nobody else write about their homes for a while, okay? I think it’s my turn.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
Mother’s Day is just around the corner, and there’s no better way to prepare yourself than by taking a look at this list of ten fictional mothers who will have you thanking God for yours. From Emma Bovary of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary to Mrs. Lisbon of The Virgin Suicides, these mothers will remind you that it could always be worse.
“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” — Mark Twain
We humans love to swap vocabularies. Spend a day with someone hot on quintessential and it’s likely that in the following days or weeks quintessential will crop up in your own speech or writing.
Is this problematic? Not especially. Quintessential is a fantastic word. However, it’s good to be mindful of this phenomenon when you sit down to write, lest the words of other writers end up on your page. As the editor of Slush Pile Magazine and the long-time senior reader of unsolicited fiction at Harvard Review, I am consistently up to my elbows in slush pile. Here are a handful of words and phrases that I see all too often:
Remember in The Princess Bride how the Sicilian keeps calling everything “inconceivable” and at some point Inigo is like, yeah, all of that stuff that you keep calling “inconceivable” is actually — you know — conceivable? This is the basic situation with “impossibly.”
When used as an adverb, “impossibly” means absolutely nothing and in zero cases does it make the sentiment better, stronger, or more precise.
Here are just a few examples from the slush pile, the Internet, and the novel of a woman sitting next to me on a plane:
“Sitting at the desk is an impossibly perky woman.”
“In such a short time, I’d fallen impossibly in love.”
“The sun was even higher, impossibly high”
“Lindsay was so impossibly fashionable, so together”
“They dry themselves out on the beach, using towels that are impossibly soft.”
“I used to shun migrant traditions, but now I find them impossibly moving.”
But the highest frequency with which I encounter “impossibly” is in sentences like, “He was impossibly tall.” Or, “His eyes were impossibly blue.” Or, “she had impossibly long legs.”
None of those things are impossible. They might be remarkable, extraordinary, unfathomable, fantastic, or mind-boggling, but they are not impossible.
If you catch yourself using “impossibly,” just take a moment to think about what you are trying to say and whether or not it is true that her legs were impossibly long. Were they coiled beneath her like so many yards of spaghetti pasta? No? In that case, impossibly is not the word you need.
In terms of contemporary usage, “ridiculously” is just another version of “impossibly:”
“Girls from Indiana are ridiculously sexy.”
“DeLorenzo’s didn’t accept reservations so I got us there ridiculously early.”
However, in the case of “ridiculously” there is a caveat — it is great to use when something is actually ridiculous:
“It was over. Everyone had gotten what they wanted. Ridiculously, I felt like crying.”
skit·ter ˈskidər/ verb
move lightly and quickly or hurriedly. “the girls skittered up the stairs”
draw (bait) jerkily across the surface of the water as a technique in fishing.
It is easy to understand how and why “skitter” gained popularity. It has a nice element of onomatopoeia, for starters. Unfortunately, all of our writing peers now put it to use any time something or someone goes scampering, scuttling, scurrying, skipping, bounding, tumbling, scooting or even blowing:
“The prairie grasses swayed in the breeze and little clouds skittered across the sky.”
“Another blast made Jack dive beneath the bed and the phone skittered across the floor.”
“Each season the trail south would be blockaded by ice strata the mules skittered over.”
“Lightning illuminated her face as it skittered across the darkening sky.”
“She tried to straighten her hair as she skittered across the wide-planked floor.”
As the shortlist above illustrates, while “skitter” is certainly the mot du jour, there are many other ways to capture the action. Why limit yourself?
This sentence was written in 1856 by Gustave Flaubert (Madame Bovary) but this conceit has been used too many times — probably before, and definitely since — to count.
5. Shocks of Hair
“He was a tall distinguished looking young man with a shock of red hair.”
“His handsome head with its shock of black hair, roughly cropped.”
“The little hero of this tale has a shock of blond hair.”
“I’ll never forget the first time I saw him — the wild shock of black hair.”
“He was a long, loose-framed man with a shock of red hair and vivid green eyes.”
“Penelope was born with eyes the color of midnight stars and a shock of black hair.”
“She was an angel with midnight blue eyes and a shock of blond hair.”
“To an immense shock of black hair, he united a bushy beard of the same color.”
And my personal favorite:
“He was tall and exceptionally attractive, with piercing eyes, and a shock of white hair.”
If you Google “shock of ____ hair” and “Google books” you will find thousands more of these.
6. “…All Sharp Angles and Jutting Limbs…”
Who was the first person to use “sharp angles” and “jutting limbs?” I don’t know, but I defy you to find a contemporary piece of writing without at least one sharp-angled limb-jutting character. It’s over, everyone — done. Just delete, delete, delete and think of some other way to describe your graceless adolescent characters.
7. Slumping Shoulders, Furrowed Brows, & Flashing Eyes
These three expressions seem to come readily to writers in need of conveying defeat, trouble, and anger. It’s like they’re always on deck and begging the coach (that’s you) to put them in cold. I got this one, coach, they whisper in your ear while you’re writing. But keep these babies benched. They need to sit out a few innings:
““What did you tell her about me?” he said, eyes flashing with suspicion.”
“Cold drops of sweat stand on his furrowed brow. His hands are clenched.”
“The boy’s shoulders slumped and he began to groan.”
“I can see it in their shoulders — slumped and weighty.”
“She bowed her head and shuffled out with her shoulders slumped.”
“He found Adam leaning against the wall, his hat low over his eyes and his shoulders slumped.”
That last line is from East of Eden by John Steinbeck. The novel is a particular favorite of mine. I’ve included it here to point out that these expressions (unlike “impossibly”) are not inherently useless, just common. And their commonness risks making your writing seem less than fresh.
Consider, on the other hand, how delightful “slumped” is when divorced from “shoulders”:
“On some of the graves there were pale, transparent little national flags slumped in the windless air under the evergreens.” (Vladimir Nabokov, from Lolita)
So evocative! So refreshing!
8. In Conclusion
All of us are susceptible to these Trojan Word-Horses, and none of us will escape them entirely. However, for the sake of your writing — and for the patience of editorial staffs everywhere — keep one eye on what’s trending.
If it sounds familiar, you’ve probably read it somewhere before. And, believe you me, so have we.
Image Credit: Flickr/Ervins Strauhmanis.
Literature –– no, the world –– needs more people like Azar Nafisi. A strident proponent of fiction, Nafisi has done much more than simply write about literature and its vital role in our lives, she’s taught it –– in America, England, Iran, and in lecture halls all over the world, in which she advocates for literature as an antidote to ideology. In her bestselling Reading Lolita in Tehran, she tells how she quit the university where she was teaching because of the potential intrusion of the totalitarian government. Then, she invited her students into her home, which one could be tempted to describe as Nafisi putting her money where her mouth is, if the mention of money in such a context weren’t so gratuitously irrelevant.
In that book, Nafisi brought the power of American fiction into the world of Iran. In her latest book, The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books, she brings lessons from Iran to America. In Tehran, her students valued the freedom to read in a profound and immediate way, since such activities were often forbidden, especially for women. In America, reading isn’t cherished in the same way; it’s old hat to us. Or, at least, so said an Iranian man named Ramin who came to one of Nafisi’s readings in Seattle. “It’s useless,” he tells her, “your talk about books. These people are different from us –– they’re from another world. They don’t care about books and such things. It’s not like Iran, where we were crazy enough to Xerox hundreds of pages of Madame Bovary and A Farewell to Arms.”
Is he right? Nafisi doesn’t think so, but her resulting project doesn’t end up explaining why Ramin isn’t right so much as passionately explain why he shouldn’t be right. Having become an American citizen in 2008, Nafisi has a real stake in the answer to Ramin’s question, and so much to contribute to a possible answer. Her book, then, tries valiantly, if not always successfully, to cover a lot of ground. In these pages we find discussions of the three books of the subtitle –– Huck Finn, Babbitt, and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, but also many others, including a long epilogue focused on James Baldwin and J.D. Salinger –– as well as the founding fathers, conservatives, Common Core, the Iranian Revolution in 1979, her long-time friend Farrah, college friends Mike and Joanna, and numerous other personal anecdotes of life in America and Iran. It’s a testament to Nafisi’s considerable skill that she’s able to wrangle all this into a mostly cohesive unit. But wholeness actually seems a little beside the point, here, since what makes The Republic of Imagination so wonderful is Nafisi’s irrepressible conviction in the power of fiction to show us who we are.
But it’s more than that, too. Underneath her literary analysis and her personal reflections, Nafisi’s book carries an implicit argument about American values. For her, an American not by birth but by choice, the country she loves was both formed and created by its literature, the myths that both reflect us and instruct us. That’s where we belong, she says. And that’s what we should look to for guidance and difficult truths. Instead, she sees an America steeped in religiosity and jingoism. She quotes Mark Twain, “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.” In other words, a true republic must be malleable, open to constant scrutiny and endless revision, and we as citizens must reciprocate by criticizing in the hopes of change and making the necessary changes in ourselves as well. Religion and fervent, uncritical patriotism simplify things. Or, as Nafisi puts it:
Ideology eliminates paradox and seeks to destroy contradiction and ambiguity. While it is generally ruthless to outsiders, it can be consoling when you are in the group that always wears the white hat no matter what.
In her long chapter on Huck Finn, Nafisi celebrates Huck’s “subversive character” and how Jim “questions the system of beliefs sanctioned by religious and social authorities.” (She even valiantly defends the book’s notoriously unsatisfying ending, or, as George Saunders put it, “The ending, oh my god, the ending.”) In Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, Nafisi sees the “iconically American” character of “lonely, dissatisfied career men, family men yearning to escape the seemingly desirable entrapments of their mundane lives.” The “standardized” Babbitt, in his desire to please, to be liked, to be successful, is contrasted with the figures in Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, who are “solitary misfits who cannot create a bond.” They represent “a new kind of urban loneliness that will cast a long shadow over American fiction.” Huck and the characters of McCullers’s first novel stand on one side of American values, Babbitt on the other. Nafisi asks, “What if we let Babbitt win?”
Letting Babbitt win amounts to succumbing to ideology, to allowing the comforting sway of conformism, of strict allegiance, to win out over critical individualism. Literature, with all its complexity and nuance, its ambiguities and contradictions, is not a replacement for these ideas but rather an antidote to them. Literature is not an ideology; it is not a religion. It is something grander, more human and humane. For literature asks nothing of you. It doesn’t tell you how to live or who to love. It doesn’t tell you that you aren’t good enough or that you were born wrong. It doesn’t promise punishment for lack of adherence, and it doesn’t condemn those who don’t follow it. And the best part? Literature acknowledges its fiction, its artifice, its ultimate inability to express the capital-T Truth. Literature only promises an attempt, over and over from endless artists, to see the world as their author sees it, to add if only one speck of useful insight, of meaningful observation, to the great tradition of the written word. Literature doesn’t just invite criticism and contribution, it demands it –– the basis of literature is a kind of call and response. Each new author is in some way responding to all who came before them, before they even write one word. Ideally, literature is complete freedom, and as such it’s a messy world –– cheaters and philanderers run rampant as evil characters get away with evil deeds and good people’s values are compromised and deep-seated values are not only questioned but irreverently tossed out the window. If you’re looking for an easy road map to human ethics, literature ain’t the place for you. But this is Nafisi’s point. We shouldn’t look for the easy instructions, for unambiguous demands; we need to challenge every belief we have, to test them, strengthen them, or replace them if need be.
Growing up in Ohio, religion was a normal part of everyday life. As an atheist from a young age, I clung to literature for its confrontational attitude toward accepted values, but I always disagreed when people would say to me, “Well, books are your religion.” Because literature is not a synonym for religion; it’s not a replacement. It’s another territory altogether. In fact, it is as Nafisi describes it, a country. “So much of who we are,” she writes, “no matter where we live, depends on how we imagine ourselves to be.” She goes on to say:
Stories endure –– they have been with us since the dawn of history –– but they need to be refreshed and retold in every generation through the eyes and experiences of new readers sharing a common space that knows no boundaries of politics or religion, ethnicity or gender –– a Republic of Imagination, that most democratic republic of all.
And like a true republic, citizenship here requires work and thought and an open mind, because literature isn’t easy –– it can still offend, provoke, or cause controversy. Even then, we must engage and not simplistically condemn. As Philip Pullman once put it when I saw him speak at the Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford University, in response to a question about the “offensive” title of his book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ:
Yes, it was shocking thing to say, and I knew it was a shocking thing to say. Uh, but no one has the right to live without being shocked. No one has the right to spend their life without being offended. Nobody has to read this book. Nobody has to pick it up. Nobody has to open it. And if they open it and read it they don’t have to like it. And if you read it and dislike it you don’t have to remain silent about it. You can write to me. You can complain about it. You can write to the publisher. You can write to the papers. You can write your own book. You can do all those things, but there your rights stop. No one has the right to stop me writing this book. No one has the right to stop it being published or sold or bought or read. And that’s all I have to say on that subject.
Literature always gives you choices –– to act, to respond, to criticize, to protest –– and, more than that, it actually thrives on this process. Whereas ideology, religion, and jingoism flourish in rigidity, in adherence. As Salman Rushdie put it in The Satanic Verses, “unbendingess can also be monomania, he wanted to say, it can be tyranny, and also it can be brittle, whereas what is flexible can also be humane, and strong enough to last.”
I’m deeply appreciative of Azar Nafisi and her project of promoting fiction throughout the world. But more I’m grateful for her Republic of Imagination. My whole life I’ve been a citizen of a complex moral landscape, a rich world created by some of the greatest minds humanity has had to offer, peopled by every type of person from every type of culture –– I’ve always lived here, but now, thanks to Nafisi, I have a name for my adopted home.
I confess: I am a late-night reality TV binger. After a day of writing black and white words on a computer screen, wading into deep, quiet page pools, and capturing fantasy scenes as quick as my fingers can follow, my brain is pickled come nightfall. While my husband unwinds with epic movies, intricate crime dramas, and complicated plots, I lean toward one-hour forays into reality’s peccadilloes. Judge as you may. And rightfully so.
At a particular hour, my mind goes flat as a penny, ready to be dropped in the candy turnstile for bubblegum reward. It isn’t hard to find fodder for my bender. Years ago, Survivor was the only “reality show” on prime time. Now, however, they’ve become the mainstay of network programming.
Just when I’d pronounced myself lost to empty, mindless indulgence, I invented a game: matching reality programs with classic literature. After playing a few times on the couch (flat screen to my left, library shelf to my right), I’m now unable to watch reality shows without asking, “So, what book is this like?” Inevitably, I discover one lesson on how to live and another on how to write.
Here are some of the cards on my DVR deck:
1) Hoarders by A&E/Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Life Lesson: There’s a fine line between wanting to possess all the best and madness.
Writing Lesson: Beware of overwriting. That collection of French lace doilies on the piano, drawers of prized pewter spoons, and shelves of antique Dresden figurines might make you proud, but if they don’t serve a plot purpose, they’re no better than Emma’s house of debt. Box up the expensive word clutter and give it to the story Goodwill. The prose will be finer for it, and you won’t have to eat arsenic to get out of bankruptcy with readers.
2) The Bachelor by ABC and The Voice by NBC/”The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen
Life Lesson: A pretty face will only get you so far. Never underestimate the power of your unique voice.
Writing Lesson: Describing a story’s landscape, clothing, food, room objects, etcetera is excellent to immerse the reader in your fictional world, but the voices of the characters are the true lifeblood of the narrative. You lose those and all the rest is flotsam on the sea.
3) American Pickers by The History Channel/“Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp” in The Arabian Nights by Antoine Galland
Life Lesson: That corroded oil lamp might be worth something…extraordinary. But if you leave it buried in the garage, it’s just a forgotten thing.
Writing Lesson: Don’t be afraid to take your time and dig through the top layer of your story idea, to research and explore the possibilities of seemingly grimy, old secrets. Those usually prove the most valuable to the makeup of your characters and plot. A diamond isn’t glittering bright in the mine. It’s hidden, dirty, and in need of someone with the patience to give it a good scrub and believe in its splendor.
4) Duck Dynasty by A&E/A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Life Lesson: At the end of your best or worst day, gathering round the table with your family for blessing and home cooking feels good.
Writing Lesson: As writers, we often neglect our realities for the prose. We invest so much of ourselves in our craft that how the writing goes is how we go. A good writing day and we are Pollyannas. A bad writing day and we grump around the house, annoyed that the dog dared step in our path. I’ve learned that after a long stretch of writing — good or bad — I need dinnertime. I gather ingredients, chop, sauté, simmer, and cook a solid meal, then I sit with my family and reconnect. It never fails to ground me and rejuvenate my creativity.
5) The Real Housewives by Bravo/Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Life Lesson: Whenever you make your world a remote island, there’s bound to be a tribe gang-up, a broken shell of decorum, and people listening to pig-headed voices. Savage.
Writing Lesson: Enclosed scenes are dramatic. Lock your characters together in a room (be it a gated community or an island). It’s bound to produce conflict and conflict is story fuel.
6) Breaking Amish by TLC/The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
Life Lesson: “Often, the less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it.” From Tom himself.
Writing Lesson: Everyone wants the bylaws to writing prosperity. That’s why nearly every published author interview includes the question: “What’s your daily routine like?” We want to know how they did it so, perhaps, we can mimic to similar results. But the truth is, there is no set of commandments. One of my M.F.A. mentors wisely counseled me that yes, creative workshops and studying great literary masterpieces would strengthen my writing muscles. My shiny diploma would be a reminder that I exercised with experts and tested well. But…so what? In the end, she said true success would only come when I threw the traditions out the window and journeyed on my own. That pretty much terrified me. Now, I realize how right she was.
7) Love It or List It by HGTV/The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Life Lesson: If you’ve re-envisioned, demolished walls, rebuilt, replanted and repainted, sweat, cried, and exhausted yourself in the creative process but the results don’t make you marvel, it may be time to move on.
Writing Lesson: Never be afraid to shelf a project or even (gasp!) toss it in the never-to-be-seen-again drawer. I have two entire novels in that garbage drawer and one novel on the maybe-another-day shelf. I had to write these books to be able to move on to better story ideas. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, one might argue it’s far healthier than sitting on a mush of an overworked book that you find tired and dreary. I’m not an advocate of book burning or anything dramatic. Keep the pages under lock and key. Stroll through them from time to time if you like and maybe, one day, their season of bloom will come round…or maybe not. And that’s okay, too.
8) Family S.O.S. by TLC/Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Life Lesson: A dysfunctional household begets progeny that may end up poisoning the whole lot. The Brits get it. S.O.S., Kenneth Branagh and Jo Frost.
Writing Lesson: Stop and examine your writing motives. Be real with yourself: ask why you want to write and answer truthfully. It’s between you and you. If your aim has anything to do with money, power, fame, revenge, or recreating the death of your father to shame your mother, well, you got trouble in your household. All of these are toxic to your book and the writing community. If your answer has to do with being devoted to a story and so blitzed in love with the characters that you feel a physical ache whenever you aren’t actively engaged with them, then you’ve got a wholesome foundation to build on.
9) Giving You The Business by the Food Network/The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Life Lesson: To whom much is given, much is expected.
Writing Lesson: We don’t bequeath our treasured stories to just anybody. As writers, we need to remember it’s vitally important to be readers and cheerleaders of each other. We’ve been given much and we must give in equal abundance. I don’t understand anyone who wants the world to sing his/her written praises, yet remains mum about courageous colleagues. We need the “Fellowship of the Book” for all to succeed.
10) Keeping up with the Kardashians by E!/Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Life Lesson: They may drive you crazy, destroy your prized possessions, steal your best friend, and break your heart, but when it comes down to the brass tacks, your family will fight the paparazzi for you.
Writing Lesson: Your characters might make you crazy, keep you up all hours chatting your ear off, and cause you to wonder if you’re clinically diagnosable, but they are your people — as much a part of you as your kin. In some ways, they might even be more you than flesh and blood. So forget everything else and fight for them. No matter what happens in the story or with the manuscript, that’s one thing you won’t ever regret.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
My reading year was spent moving between old favorites — Brideshead Revisited, The Great Gatsby, Madame Bovary, The Kill — and then for new novels alone, it felt like it was a storm of almost impossible dimensions, like all I had to do was open a window in Hell’s Kitchen and a new book would fly in. I’ll be reading from 2012 well into 2013 and perhaps beyond, I think, and you will be too.
Still on my TBR, for example, are new books from Junot Diaz, A. M. Homes, Zadie Smith, Jami Attenberg, Benjamin Anastas, Antoine Wilson, Emily St. John Mandel, Victor LaValle and Carol Rifka Brunt. I’m currently reading Emma Straub’s delicious Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures and the new Ian McEwan, Sweet Tooth.
But my memory of what I read last year collects mostly around the summer, when I had the most time to read, as I waited for edits on my novel. I began with a novel to blurb, Shani Boianjiu’s The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, which I will never forget. Then came Don Lee’s The Collective, a strange mirror to another amazing book, Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians. August was spent with Lauren Groff’s Arcadia and Patrick Somerville’s This Bright River, both of which I loved, and both of which are really brilliant, as well as getting caught up in my Emily Books book club reading — the profound and profane Maidenhead, by Tamara Faith Berger, a sly Muriel Spark novel, Loitering with Intent, and Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods, which I loved so much, it led me to read her masterpiece, The Last Samurai.
And this last was the one that probably rules the year for me. Every now and then, you find a book that feels like it was keyed to your DNA. This was like that for me. I’d heard about it for a long time. As I am a member at the Center for Fiction, and they have generous summer checkout times, I went looking for it there and found it (sorry to the person who tried to call it back midsummer). For me, reading The Last Samurai felt like holding a slowly exploding bomb in my hands, but say, if a bomb could make something more than a hole after it exploded — something incredible, that you’d never seen before. Even writing about it now makes me feel the urge to go back in. It’s about a woman from a family of failed prodigies, who one day has a one night stand with a brilliant, hateful man that she cannot respect. This description of that night is when I knew I loved the book. Oh, yes, she gives him the codename ‘Liberace’:
No sooner were Liberace and I in his bed without our clothes than I realized how stupid I had been. At this distance I can naturally not remember every little detail, but if there is one musical form that I hate more than any other, it is the medley. One minute the musician, or more likely aged band, is playing an overorchestrated version of The Impossible Dream; all of a sudden, mid-verse, for no reason, there’s a stomach-turning swerve into another key and you’re in the middle of Over the Rainbow; swerve, Climb Every Mountain, swerve, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, swerve, swerve, swerve. Well then, you have only to imagine Liberace, hands, mouth, penis now here, now there, no sooner here than there, no sooner there than here again, starting something only to stop and start something else instead, and you will have a pretty accurate picture of the Drunken Medley.
The Medley at last came to an end and Liberace fell into a deep sleep.
She sneaks away while he’s asleep, becomes pregnant from this episode, and soon is raising her child prodigy son on her own, who eventually wants to find his father, and she initially declines to reveal his identity; she has done everything she can to hide him from her son, at least until her son has the critical faculties to understand why his father is not intellectually respectable. To ensure this, she sets a challenge for him to meet as the condition of knowing who he is. The narration moves between them, and even incorporates the way a child interrupts a mother into the forward motion of the novel.
What I loved about it, aside from the hilarity, the language, the tone and the structure was that it felt so incredibly free. And reading it, so did I.
You won’t go wrong with any of these books. For best results, read them all.
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When I first read a plot summary of Joshua Henkin’s newest novel, The World Without You, my second thought — after, this sounds like a great story — was: this sounds like women’s fiction! As a woman who writes fiction and bristles against such categories, brandishing the latest VIDA stats to anyone who will listen, I was a bit horrified by my own reaction. If I think like that, how can I expect others not to? I was curious to know what male authors — or one male author, at least — make of such labels. And since I’m lucky enough to know Henkin — an acclaimed short story writer, director of the MFA program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College, and author of the novels Matrimony, a New York Times Notable Book, and Swimming Across The Hudson, a Los Angeles Times Notable Book — I decided to ask.
Anna Solomon: The catalyst for The World Without You is a public one — journalist Leo Frankel is killed in Iraq — yet the story itself is remarkably private. It takes place in and around the Frankel family’s old summer house, on the one year anniversary of Leo’s death, and for all the outer conflict that drives the plot — Leo’s parents are separating, his three sisters are struggling with their own relationships and marriages, his widow comes bearing her own secret — I think the book’s greatest strength lies in the quiet, patient unspooling of these characters’ inner lives. These categories — public v. private, outer v. inner — how conscious of them were you as you conceived of and wrote this book?
Joshua Henkin: When I write, I’m not conscious of much, as least for the first draft. You need to cede control and see where the book takes you. Flannery O’Connor once said that a fiction writer needs a certain measure of stupidity, and I agree. In terms of public versus private, the characters in The World Without You are deeply engaged with the outside world and with politics, so the public sphere certainly plays a role in the book, but it’s an indirect role, through character, which is how it should be. I’m suspicious of fiction writers who are driven by big ideas. I see it in my graduate students’ stories, and I see it, too, in published work — fiction too obviously driven by grand ideas, where the characters feel like mouthpieces for the writer and the book ends up being a lie. Here, too, I agree with O’Connor, who said that if you want to truck in grand ideas then fiction writing is too humble for you. Go be a sociologist, or a politician, or a rabbi, or a priest. It’s not that there aren’t ideas in good novels, but ideas aren’t principally what a good novel is about. For me, it’s fairly straightforward, though of course very difficult to achieve. I aim to tell a story. I try to plumb the depths of my characters’ inner lives because that’s what good fiction can do in a way that nothing else can. I strive to make characters so real the reader will feel that she knows them as well as or better than she knows the people in her own life. That’s what fiction writing is to me — no more and no less.
AS: I love these Flannery O’Connor quotes. I also experience writing fiction as a very humbling act; it puts what one notices, feels, imagines, above what one knows. So where do you think the “grand idea” impulse comes from? Are the writers you’re talking about truly meant to be sociologists and politicians? Or are they responding to some pressure — an idea they have about what constitutes Literature, or what kind of Literature sells?
JH: I think the issue may be more fundamental than that. A friend of mine wrote her undergraduate psychology thesis on how adults group objects versus how kids group objects. The adults group the apple with the banana, whereas the kids group the monkey with the banana. This is another way of saying that children are more natural storytellers than adults are. In fact, I’d go further and say that the process of becoming an adult, of functioning in the adult world, involves having our innate storytelling ability leached out of us. Adults think in terms of category, in terms of concept. In order to buy dessert for my family in the most efficient way possible I need to understand that apples and bananas are generally housed together. But what makes for a good dessert purchaser doesn’t make for a good fiction writer. Adults think in abstractions, and abstractions are the death of a fiction writer. Kids, on the other hand, don’t think in abstractions. Consider a toddler learning to talk. She speaks almost exclusively in concrete nouns and verbs. Although she doesn’t realize it, she’s following Isaac Babel’s dictum to eschew adjectives and adverbs and rely on nouns and verbs. I’m always telling my graduate students to think monkey-banana, not apple-banana — so much so that the last night of class one semester they showed up to workshop wearing t-shirts they had made with a monkey and a banana emblazoned across the front.
Are there people trying to be novelists who are really meant to be sociologists or politicians or theologians? Absolutely. The world is filled with extremely intelligent people who want to be novelists but whose intelligence doesn’t help them in that regard. In fact, it often hurts them. Lionel Trilling, arguably the greatest literary critic of the 20th century, famously wanted to be a novelist, but he just wasn’t good at it. This is not to say that there aren’t good critics who are also good novelists, nor is it to say that critical skills don’t help a writer (I think they’re very important for revision), but the two skill sets are quite different and there are many absolutely brilliant people who wouldn’t begin to know how to write a novel.
I do think we’ve been living in a time when certain kinds of “big-idea” writing are in vogue. When I was starting to write fiction, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, traditional realist fiction reigned. Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Ann Beattie, Tobias Wolff — those were the writers who were hugely influential for my graduate school classmates and me. Ten years later the pendulum swung, and now it may be swinging back. That’s just how it is. Fashions come and fashions go, but what doesn’t change is good writing.
I think there’s also something psychologically complicated at work here, which has to do with the anxiety of influence. Someone once said that there are only two kinds of stories, Stranger Comes to Town and Person Goes on a Trip — which is really just one kind of story, since Stranger Comes to Town is simply Person Goes on a Trip from a different point of view. I don’t find this particularly perturbing. Yes, every story has been told, but it’s the way of telling — the how — that makes every writer unique, and if you have a distinct voice, if there’s emotional truth to your characters, if you use language in service of this voice and these characters, then your book will be distinct. I mean, look at the world around us. We don’t say, Why fall in love, why have a job, that’s been done already by billions of people. We don’t not get married just because everyone’s been doing that forever. But I think this feeling that every story has been told does concern a lot of writers, often to their detriment. They’re insufficiently confident that the story they’re telling is worth telling, and so they dress it up with a lot of grandiosity and big ideas; they deck it out in pyrotechnics. You read a lot of novels that smack of, I’m John, hear me roar, I’m Jane, hear me roar. Reading these writers, I find myself thinking, Would you please just chill? There’s an underconfidence at work that comes in the guise of overconfidence. Whatever it is, it does bad things to the fiction — it makes it a lie.
One of the paradoxes is that novels that try to be big often end up being small, whereas novels that, on the surface, seem more curtailed in their ambitions, end up being bigger. Take Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which to my mind is one of the great novels of the last 30 years. Now, you could say that the book is about the Vietnam War, and I suppose on some level it is, but you can be sure that O’Brien didn’t sit down to write a book about the Vietnam War. He sat down to write a book about his characters, and the war filtered in because that’s who his characters are — they’re soldiers, grunts. And because his characters are so real, so complex, so true, because the language, while never showing off, is so lovely, O’Brien touches our souls and we have a much richer and deeper sense of the war than we would if he were making big pronouncements. Good fiction is fundamentally about the particular, not about the general. Put another way, it is through the particular that the novelist gets at the general. In other words, if you do the particular sufficiently well, the book will feel general in the best sense — that is, universal.
AS: Big/small, abstract/concrete, public/private — these terms are often correlated with the masculine/feminine dichotomy, too. I’m curious what role gender played as you wrote The World Without You. Not on a “grand idea” level but in the particular choices you made about character and point-of-view. Of the six main characters in the book (I’m defining “main” as those whose points-of-view you regularly visit) five are female, while only one — the father — is male. Do you remember how you decided on this cast of characters? Were you at all wary, as a male writer, of writing a novel that not only could be described as “domestic,” but that’s dominated by women, too?
JH: I’m afraid this answer may not be very satisfying, but I really don’t think about such things. My characters simply come to me as they are. Their gender, their dispositions, their hair color, their allergies, do they sleep on their backs or their stomachs or their sides — it’s all extremely important, but none of it is a conscious decision. I follow my characters to where they take me. I’m not saying gender isn’t important. I come from a family of three boys, and now I’m a father of two girls, so I think about gender a lot. But it’s not like I sat down to write about a family of women any more than I sat down to write about a family of redheads, which is something else the Frankels are.
Wary? Wary of what? Of being a man writing from a female point of view? Flaubert did it pretty well if you ask me. And women write successfully from a male point of view all the time. If you don’t want to descend into solipsism, you’re always going to write about people different from yourself. Shy people write about gregarious people, young people write about old people. Why should gender be any different? Wary of writing domestic drama? What’s Madame Bovary if not domestic drama? What’s Anna Karenina, ultimately? I’ll probably get some disagreement here, but I think “The Dead” is Joyce’s greatest work. Whether or not it is, it’s important to remember that the same person who wrote Ulysses also wrote Dubliners. Much of the world’s greatest literature (most of it, I would argue) is domestic drama. It makes sense. We are born into families, and the majority of us eventually start families of our own. We live public lives, certainly, but for most of us our private lives are what make us who we are, and it’s the plumbing of these private lives, the exploration of what’s internal, that fiction is uniquely suited to do. It’s what makes it sui generis.
AS: I ask if you’re wary because I think a lot of women writers today are wary of writing books that can easily be summed up — perhaps dismissed — as domestic drama. If not wary, then aware. Maybe not as they write but certainly as they work toward publication and watch how their book is presented to the world and received. In a recent New York Times essay, Meg Wolitzer asks if Jeffrey Eugenides’ latest, The Marriage Plot, if written by a woman, “would…have been relegated to ‘Women’s Fiction,’ that close-quartered lower shelf where books emphasizing relationships and the interior lives of women are often relegated?” So maybe I should be asking you this: after all the writing and revising, did you consider how your book might be categorized, packaged, marketed? Did the term “Women’s Fiction” ever cross your mind?
JH: That’s a reasonable question, and in my case it’s not an academic one. My last novel was called Matrimony, and title aside, it had some significant similarities to Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot. It’s about a love triangle, much of it takes place on college campuses, and it’s a domestic drama. One key difference was that I was relatively unknown at the time of its publication (I’d published just one novel at the time, 10 years before), so I didn’t have Eugenides’s reputation to protect me. But the book was treated seriously by the literary world. Would that have been the case if I’d been a woman? I hope so, but you never know. Might it have been consigned to “women’s fiction”? I suppose it’s possible. On the other hand, I was published by Pantheon, a very literary house, and that would have given me some protection, just as FSG’s name protects Eugenides.
Would The Marriage Plot have been consigned to “women’s fiction” if it had been written by a woman? It depends on the woman. If Lorrie Moore had written it, she would have been taken as seriously as Eugenides is. The same goes for Alice Munro, who writes nothing but domestic fiction and is considered by some of the people I respect most to be the best living writer in English. Look at the titles of Munro’s books. Lives of Girls and Women. The Progress of Love. The Love of a Good Woman. Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. This is not exactly Infinite Jest. And if you look at the paperback covers for Munro’s The View from Castle Rock and Runaway, it appears as if they’re being marketed as “women’s fiction” (whatever else, “women’s fiction” sells more than literary fiction), and none of this has hurt Munro in the slightest. On the other hand, she’s Munro, and she’s developed a reputation over many years.
What I’d say is this. There are a number of things that can protect a writer. If you’re already established in the literary world, that helps a lot. If you write short stories, that helps, too, because short stories tend to be the territory of literary fiction. If you teach in or are otherwise associated with a good MFA program, that’s also helpful. And if you have an edgier sensibility (here Lorrie Moore is a good example), that, too, is protective.
Are there female writers of domestic fiction who would never get consigned to the “women’s fiction” shelf? Absolutely. Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer for a book of domestic fiction, as did Jhumpa Lahiri, Carol Shields, Jane Smiley,and Anne Tyler. Julia Glass and Alice McDermott won the National Book Award. And just to be clear, there’s plenty of domestic fiction written by women that just isn’t any good. There are women writing novels that have scant literary merit just as there are men writing novels that have scant literary merit. Neither gender has a monopoly on good or bad writing.
But is the bar set higher for women? I believe it is. In fact, it would be strange if it weren’t. There are biases, conscious and unconscious, against women doctors, lawyers, scientists, and CEOs; why wouldn’t it also be true for writers? We’ve come a long way since George Eliot had to call herself George Eliot, but you’d have to be blind to think we live in an equal world.
AS: One complaint from women writers (and I’m talking about writers of literary fiction, not schlock) is that while women readers are interested in reading about men’s lives, men aren’t as interested in reading about women’s lives. Do you think men will be as drawn to your book as women are? Should they be? What about for you, as a reader? Do you ever find yourself (consciously or not) choosing which books you want to read based on whether their protagonists are male or female?
JH: Every writer wants as many readers as possible, so of course I hope that men will read my novel as much as women do. But the fact is — and this has nothing to do with my book — women are much bigger readers of literary fiction than men are. Any publisher will tell you that. There’s even a reference to this in The World Without You. David, more of a fiction reader than most men (he recently retired as a high school English teacher), nonetheless is reading a biography of Ulysses S. Grant, and when Noelle comes into the room and catches him he says, self-derisively, “…women read fiction and men read biographies of Civil War heroes.” As for which books I choose to read, I don’t think I have the tendency you’re referring to, though it’s hard for me, of course, to know what I do subconsciously. But I just looked over the novels and stories I’ve read recently, and I don’t see a bias toward fiction with male protagonists. I’d also say that, as someone who reads 500 MFA applications a year, I find the women are generally better than the men. That’s a huge generalization, of course, and there are certainly exceptions, but when someone on the committee once said said, “Jesus, we’re going to have to institute some affirmative action for these men,” I understood what they were saying.
AS: You mention covers — let’s talk about covers. It doesn’t take long to see that a lot of fiction by women is adorned with a nameless girl or woman. She’s headless, or we see her from the back, staring off at a house or the ocean or (gasp) the endless prairie. The picture overwhelms the title, certainly the author’s name. You mentioned to me a while back that your publisher tried about 30 covers for The World Without You before settling on the final one — black, with big serif font letters. Can you tell me a bit about some of those other covers, and what factors you think went into picking the final one?
JH: Everyone tells you not to judge a book by its cover, but the fact is the cover is the first thing a potential reader sees, so it’s tremendously important, and now, because books are so often bought online, the cover has to work online too. I can’t say enough good things about the art department at Pantheon. They came up with many, many possibilities, most of which I didn’t even see (my editor only passed on the ones that seemed possible), and although some of them were clearly wrong for the book, they were all incredibly well done and looked very professional. Toward the end of the process we were focused on a very type-driven cover, with both my name and the name of the book in bold. There was a cover whose type both my editor and I loved, and there was something beautiful about the image too — it was a watercolor painting on a matte background, but the image was of a bare tree, which felt too forlorn even for a book about someone who has died, and the book takes place over the summer and the image screamed fall or winter. My agent and I liked the idea of fireworks — both because the book takes place over July 4th and because fireworks evoke, among other things, violence and explosions, which is how Leo was killed. So the artist went back and did a fireworks image with the type that we loved, and while this image, too, was beautiful, it didn’t seem sufficiently clear that it was fireworks. I mean, it could have been fireworks, but it just as easily could have been flowers or a Jack-in-the-box popping out or a really interesting acid trip. So the art department went back and tried to get the artist to make the image be more clearly fireworks, but it didn’t work out in the end, and so they scrapped the oil painting idea and went with a photograph of fireworks against a black background. It took a long time to get there, but it was the right cover for the book — I’m thrilled with it.
AS: The World Without You is your third novel. As you kick off your tour, how are the highs and lows of your previous launches figuring into your approach now? What has all this book-wrangling taught you, or is it like starting from scratch each time?
JH: This is my third tour, and I’m keenly aware that with rare exceptions book tours are a thing of the past, so I’m grateful for the faith my publisher has placed in me. Anyone who thinks that a book tour is the literary equivalent of a rock tour doesn’t have a clue. That’s so 1989, and it wasn’t even true in 1989. It’s never been — and certainly isn’t now — roll out the expense account and invite your friends out for sushi and cocaine. It’s a job and I’m keenly aware of it as one. My goal is to spend my time and my publisher’s money wisely. In most ways it’s gotten harder—there are fewer local media outlets for fiction, less local radio, fewer book review pages. On the other hand, since Matrimony did pretty well I’m positioned better than I was last time. But you never know what will happen. You write your book, then you go out into the world and try to help it however you can, and then you go back home and start your next one.
Image Credit: Flickr/Tilemahos Efthimiadis
In August, I went to my local bookstore and asked one of the owners, Land Arnold, to recommend a book. I said I was traveling for the next two weeks and needed something to sustain me. He pulled down Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, the 25th anniversary edition from Simon & Schuster. “It’s got everything,” Land said. “It’s a love story. It’s a Western. It’s an adventure. You’ll love it.”
Off the bat I liked the cover. I often buy books based on covers. It didn’t even mention winning the Pulitzer Prize. The edition was a large paperback, 858 pages. On the front was a prairie under a sunset of reddish pumpernickel, with stars embedded in the cover, little dots of embossed reflective silver. On the back was a picture of Larry McMurtry looking like Carl Sagan, Texas Ranger. I thought, Now that is an author.
You know how wine critics say a certain bottle has good mouth feel — literally causes pleasure the way it rolls on the tongue and coats your cheeks? Well, Larry McMurtry felt good on the back cover of that book. It felt good in my hand. Hefty. The paper stock was uncoated, pebbly like an expensive handbag; it suggested it would improve with age and use. In the business, I believe this is called feltweave. I bought the book, broke the spine at the register, and smelled it — nothing in the world smells like that. Makes you want to say with sincerity, Golly. Reminds you that the pleasures of reading are bigger than reading. There’s smell and touch. Note-taking and page-tearing. Most importantly, what the book does to your insides. Let’s just say it: Reading a novel should not be an accomplishment unless you’re illiterate. But we all have other options these days for entertainment. Reading for many — most, I bet — is something more often felt by its absence than presence in daily life.
In any case, I didn’t take to Lonesome Dove straight away. It put me to bed: I started it on a flight from RDU to Philadelphia International and fell asleep. But I could fall asleep to fireworks; it doesn’t say much. And I don’t mind a novel that’s slow to start — though I hate them when they die in the middle. I chuck them into the garbage — and that feels great. Maybe I take books too personally, but isn’t that the point? When your intimate trust is betrayed, isn’t that the moment when we’ve all agreed it’s OK to throw things? Anyway, my Philly connection to New Hampshire went to hell, so for the next 11 hours I ran back and forth to the ticket counter, trying to get on a flight. It was not ideal reading time. Though I did manage to squeeze in a George R. R. Martin book — good dwarf scenes is about all I remember — two meals and five Bud Lights, until finally I got a seat on the one plane that departed that day for Manchester, opened Lonesome Dove, and fell asleep.
That quickly changed. For the next two weeks, I only allowed myself an hour a day with Lonesome Dove, to prolong the satisfaction of reading it. The novel is excellent, sustained with constant style, and its dramatic excellence increases, withholding and rewarding, as the cowboys move their cattle north. Even the ending fits together. One night I slept with it under my pillow. I scratched up the margins and read bits aloud. It’s not incredibly deep. But it’s deep enough. And I couldn’t remember the last time I was similarly floored by a long, dramatic, entertaining literary novel. It had been a while . The ones that come to mind from the past decade are Michael Chabon’s Kavalier & Clay; Ian McEwan’s Atonement; Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai…and that’s about it.
Most days I prefer novels that are compact, smart, and acidic — Falconer; House of Meetings; One D.O.A., One on the Way — all the children of Bovary. But no entertainment for me is more rewarding than a great big book. Just imagine if Penelope Fitzgerald had written a 900-pager.
Earlier this year, a book publicist confessed to me while giggling behind her hand, “You know what, I do all of my book shopping on Amazon, isn’t that terrible?” At the time, I didn’t say anything, but, Yes. It is terrible. Amazon’s perks are many, its prices hard to beat, and the Kindle is a great way to sample the latest Michael Connelly. But no human being is going to materialize through your laptop and hand you a book that’s been thoughtfully selected to rock your boat.
I loved Lonesome Dove. I look forward to reading it again. Thank you, Land.
 For big hoary beasts of recent social realism, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Plot Against America by Philip Roth, and Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson were all great in my book, but they weren’t exactly Great Expectations-level entertainment.
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Oh how horrendous it was. Last year I did that thing: I bought and sold a house. As everyone warned, it was a dreadful double-whammy – I’d rather stand up in front of 500 people and share the secrets of my life. When preparing my humble home for sale, a place in which I’d lived for over a decade so it was starting to come undone at the edges, my real-estate agent told me that the two most important rooms in a house are the kitchen and the bathroom. Where I live now, an 1890s worker’s cottage in a regional town in the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales, it’s not the kitchen and bathroom that means the most to me, no, it’s a small room immediately inside from the front door.
It really is a small room. You could fit a double bed but there wouldn’t be much room to walk around. And there’s only one window, a timber-sash ensemble, which looks into what’s officially the tiniest front garden in the district. And the walls are painted a color that’s a cross between clay and mud, so it feels cave-like, as more than one visitor has commented.
Why is this room my favorite? Because it’s where – at last – I have a library.
On each side of the old Hordern and Son coal-burning fire (I burn wood in it, and despite its age it’s surprisingly efficient, pumping out a sharp, dry heat) are floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. The bookshelves aren’t old, though they look as if they’d like to be. Also in the room is an upright piano, one from my teenage years. Sometimes, when I’m having a break from working words I sit there and make up simple minor-key tunes that only I and passers-by hear, except I’m sure the passers-by wish they hadn’t. Against the window is a dark green tartan-esque couch that I bought from Vinnies in town for $60. It’s in a surprisingly good condition, although the dog has designs on it.
What’s missing is technology. When I moved in a year ago I decided that the little room at the front of the house would be gadget-free: no PC, no laptop, no phone, no stereo, although the modem does live in the library, because it’s the only option. It wouldn’t be a place to check emails or scroll through Facebook updates, that soulless activity that’s somehow entrapped even a good person like me. There’s no technology in this room because I want it to be about the books on the shelves.
In this day and age it seems almost prehistoric to want to establish a library. It’s as though I’m admitting that I’ve become a fan of riding a donkey down to the shops, or that I’ve discovered how and why things fall to the ground. But I don’t care. How good the books look on their shelves: all those people I’ve met, all those adventures I’ve had. What dangerous situations I’ve been in: birth, hard living, love, loss, betrayal, and, yes, even death.
I like order – to be honest, I’m obsessed with it – so I’ve divided up the library as if expecting the public to visit. To the left of the fire is fiction, and by fiction I mean primarily novels. To the right of the fire is my collection of literary journals I’ve built up over the last two decades, though I did have to do a cull when I moved house, which seemed sacrilegious, but it was simply something I had to do because they’d gotten out of hand, they’d proliferated. Also on this side of the fire is poetry, short-story collections, and writing “how to” books. Amongst this is a handful of my own publications; I’m not sure what I make of those two inches of book spines. Is that really all I’ve produced? Yes, that’s really all I’ve produced.
Back on the left-hand side I’ve divided things up even further. On the top shelf, almost out of reach, are the books I must risk life and limb for if the house is burning down. There’s Eminence by Morris West, Be Near Me by Andrew O’Hagan, the first volume in Manning Clark’s memoir, The Quest for Grace, Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay, How Fiction Works by James Wood (recently I concluded this book was so good that it didn’t deserve to wallow on the right-hand side), Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Flann O’Brian’s The Third Policeman, The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea by Randolph Stow, which was the first grown-up novel I’d loved, and, of course, Madam Bovary. These books have moved me; the lives between the covers are as real as those of my family and friends. Like the coal-burner fire they radiate with intensity. They will be read again and again.
Beneath the top-shelf stories are books I’ve enjoyed, sometimes very much, but they don’t seem to possess the profundity – life’s sheer heartbreak – of those up high; if there’s a fire and I have a spare arm I’ll grab some of these, but I won’t fret. Further down again are books that haven’t meant much to me, or perhaps I’ve hated them, or I’ve simply not understood, or I’ve understood them but they haven’t stayed with me, they’ve neither lingered nor haunted. Even so I can’t stand to chuck them away; in terms of novels I get rid of next to nothing, it seems inhumane. On the bottom shelves are books that are waiting to be picked up and loved, I hope I’ll love them, and I’m sure they do, too.
What started this library? How did it come into being? In 1994, when against my better judgement I decided to have a crack at writing fiction, a well-read friend came over to my place; he and I had committed to doing a night course in creative writing and he’d offered to give me a lift. He looked around my flat and said, “Where are your books?” I pointed to the one and only shelf in the place, the one above the television. “There,” I said, “I’ve got Cloudstreet.” As if this single Winton tome could offer absolution! I did have some books on biology and ecology and place and landscape, because I’d started my professional life as a landscape architect, but in terms of novels I was up shit-creek.
“Really?” said my friend. “Is that it?”
Yes, that was it. He shook his head. He was incredulous.
And he was right: I wanted to write but I’d not read much, at least not as a young adult – I was too busy navigating the minefield of late-surging hormones and the appalling mess of sexuality that goes along with that. Back in primary and high school I’d read, though I was slow at it, but I had enjoyed the task very much. These days, courtesy of my mother, I’ve re-collected most of the books I’d loved as a kid, such as My Side of the Mountain by Jean George, Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave, and The Dingo Summer by Australia’s Ivy Baker (which, according to the inscription, I was awarded for the neatest book in Science, Term Two, 1982; these days my handwriting is so appalling it looks like I’ve had a stroke). I loved The Dingo Summer for its exploration of landscape and loneliness, which are two themes I’ll take to the grave, whether I keep writing about them or not.
There’s no doubt in my mind that the morning after my friend made his painful, embarrassing judgement I resolved to read as much as I wrote, to slowly but surely fill my shelves with books. Novels, short-story collections, poetry even. I’m not a good reader of poetry, but sometimes I do like to try unpicking a few lines before I turn out the light at night, a kind of surreptitious literary dessert. It’s probably taken me longer than most readers and writers to build up a library. I remain frustratingly slow at getting through a book, and these days I’m regularly exhausted – trying to get words in the right order really is an exacting job – so I’m forever falling asleep with pages face down on my chest.
But now I have it, my library, at least a library in the making.
I’m also an avid – read: fanatical – collector of music, so I have shelves and shelves of CDs and vinyl records, even some tapes, but I keep all this in a different room to the library, the one the previous owners used as a nursery, which, I think, is rather fitting for a childless man like me. However, even though a day doesn’t go by when I don’t listen to music, listen intensely, more than often I’m moved (I’m not immune to doing air guitar to Sonic Youth or lying in the bath imagining my demise to the miserable strains of The Smiths), it’s my collection of books that means the most to me.
All that ink and paper and cardboard has enriched me in ways that I don’t really understand, not yet, and perhaps I never will – I almost failed the High School Certificate, English was my only reliable subject, and thank Christ for that. All I know is reading has challenged me, it’s changed me, sometimes it’s angered me; sometimes I’ve been so caught up in the text that years later I can still remember the events, minute details. For example, that unexpectedly sensual moment in the water-tank between the boy and the older man in The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea. Or in The Quest for Grace when Manning Clark as a child visits a cemetery, feels the terrible weight of his existence, his meaninglessness, so he runs home where he is thankful for the warmth and comfort of a roast dinner.
Part of the allure of reading is finding fictional worlds more interesting than the predictable day-to-day of real life. But books haven’t simply offered escape. They have given me depth, they have given me perspective, the sense that my days and nights have expanded, opened out. The aimless meanderings of my white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, middle-class life have more pulse because I’ve read, because I’ve given Tolstoy a go (The Death of Ivan Ilych is on the top shelf), and Chekhov too (he’s also up there with the best of them, obviously). For the completeness of this record, I should declare that there’s no Shakespeare on my shelves. I could lie and say that I love the guy, but I don’t, I’m with Tolstoy on that front – it just seems so, well, much ado about nothing.
But that’s all by-the-by, isn’t it.
The fact is that at the age of forty-three years and twenty-eight days I have a room that can rightly, justifiably be called a library. It’s a physical thing as much as a brain and heart thing; it’s a space, a place, a room all of my own, in every possible way. It is without question my favorite room in the house, the most important room, as archaic as that sounds, as archaic as it probably is, but I really don’t care. My library is my anchor, it’s my look-out, it’s my lighthouse. And I’m eternally grateful that if ever I’m burgled my books will be safe, because these days no one in their right mind would bother stealing the things. Everything will be alright. As long as there’s no fire.
Image credit: Pexels/Dorran.
Last winter, I wore the same snow boots every time I left my house for almost seven months. Minnesota, in the grip of a historically severe winter, was shellacked in several feet of snow from November to April—the kind of snow that doesn’t melt, but rather petrifies, growing yellow with the urine of dogs and drunks and sprouting a crust of cigarette butts and aluminum pull tabs. The kind of snow that requires not just snow boots, but a certain kind of Lutheran forbearance, to endure. I had finished graduate school the previous spring and was staying in the Midwest and trying to write, but mostly failing. Instead of writing, I was watching television. Sometimes I took breaks from the television to Google Reporting neighbors for not shoveling sidewalks—Minneapolis. For weeks on end I passed the same puddle of frozen vomit on the sidewalk, walking to the co-op in my neighborhood to buy hothouse vegetables and peaches of a baseball’s firmness that would never soften, flown in from some place where they’ve never heard of microwavable socks and only use rock salt for the making of ice cream.
I was, you might say, in a bad way.
In April, I went out to San Francisco for five days, my first real vacation in several years. I flew to the west coast to visit a few friends, with the idea in the back of my head that if I liked it, I’d think about making a move. Let me pause here to say that I am not sure what it is in my past that has convinced me I’m a levelheaded and methodical person, not prone to following impulse. It’s one of the bigger of my self-delusions. I should have guessed what would happen when I got to California—I didn’t think about money or employment or the kind of support system I might have if I moved to a state after spending less than a week there. I didn’t make a budget or research apartment rentals or neighborhoods. I just walked out of the baggage claim at the San Francisco airport and thought, without hesitation, Yes. By the time my friend arrived in a ‘94 Toyota Corolla with a sheet of Plexiglass welded over the top (a reveler had stomped through her sunroof after the Giants won the World Series), I was deep in the kind of mental acrobatics necessary to consider lifting up my life and resettling it, 2,000 miles away.
If there’s ever a time in your life to read early Joan Didion, it’s when you’re young and thoroughly disenchanted with a place. As it happens, I brought Slouching Towards Bethlehem with me on my trip to California, and I read “Goodbye to All That” on the flight. The essay—which is a good deal about New York, but a greater deal about how it feels to become so thoroughly sick of the circumstances of your life that you lose all ability to imagine something better, something easier, any change at all—did not make any lasting impression on me as I crossed the continent. I had a deep appreciation of certain sentences, but that was all. I didn’t yet recognize myself in Didion’s rueful description of her own younger self; I was too caught up in the excitement of a trip and long-missed friends and warm(ish) weather. It was only later, when I had handed my heart over to fog and tiers of cheerfully mismatched houses and the dumplings at a certain restaurant not far from the ocean, and was back in my cold and spare Midwestern apartment, that Didion’s prose began to seem like a beacon.
It’s funny how, if you’re a reader of any degree, you sometimes come across the exact right text at the exact right time. It has happened for me once or twice before—Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation at a moment when I could not understand why no place seemed to feel like home any longer; Lydia Davis’s The End of the Story in the middle of a breakup that wouldn’t take. Of all the books I could have picked up for my San Francisco trip (the unread story collection I was meant to review for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the perpetually half-read Madame Bovary), I chose Bethlehem on a kind of premonition, seeing it on the shelf in a neighbor’s apartment. Wasn’t Didion Californian? was all the thought I gave it. As easily as that, I had a thing I hadn’t known I needed. There Didion was in my ear, telling the story of how New York had ended for her, and showing me, with the gentle brutality of a certain kind of mother, how Minneapolis had ended for me as well.
For the next few months, Didion’s images lingered: gold silk curtains, the scent of crab boil, a cockroach on the tiled floor of a bar during the moon landing. I thought of those scenes as I packed my books and linens into boxes. I thought of how I would think about the Midwest, once I had gotten out of it.
I loved Minneapolis, at first, in the way Didion describes loving New York:
I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again. I remember walking across 62nd Street one twilight that first spring, or the second spring, they were all alike for a while. I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and knew that I had come out of the West and reached the mirage.
I knew that mirage. I encountered it first when I arrived in the Minnesota, on a crisp and clear late summer day (the kind I know, now, that there are only three or four of per year), and saw my new neighborhood, with its rows of cottages and little bungalows all shivering when the train passed through. I loved my house, my walk to campus, the old grain elevator overlooking the park on the corner and the generally bygone feel of the whole region. In winter I loved watching children ice skate and the sound of snow plows late at night passing my bedroom window. Later, when I moved to a seedier part of town, I loved that too: the dive bars and the buckled sidewalks and the charm of my 1930s apartment with its old Murphy bed and clawfoot tub.
Didion writes that she is not sure of the moment New York began to sour for her. I can say almost certainly that only my first year in the Midwest was unqualifiedly good, untouched by the long, slow decline that characterized the later seasons. There were bright moments always: I spent weekends in idyllic cabins and made pickles and played bocce near city lakes. I, too, had historic experiences in bars—I watched the 2008 election results come in in a bar on Lyndale Avenue, watched young people flood out into the streets and felt for a moment that the world was significant and somehow more real than it had been only minutes before. I didn’t cry in laundromats and I avoided parties almost as a rule, but for a long time, like Didion, I “cherished the loneliness of it, the sense that at any given time no one need know where I was or what I was doing.” I suppose the solitude ought to have been a sign.
And slowly, it became one. People I cared about began to move away from the Midwest, moved on to New York, San Francisco, Washington D.C.—places I visited and found intoxicating in their pace and vibrancy. People in those cities didn’t watch as much television or read as many books; they were really living life! Meanwhile the intolerable Minnesota winters grew even more intolerable, and the summers somehow worse, brutally hot and plagued with unspeakable numbers of insects (and the particularly Midwestern pressure to always be enjoying the summer). I wrote to friends in other cities and began to find Minneapolis’s charm slipping, its provincial face showing. I could no longer write, Come out, and we’ll go to the state fair. I didn’t want to go to the fair. A mirage vanishes, is the thing; the way you imagine a place and the story you tell yourself about your life there slowly give way to the drudgery of everyday perception.
In July, my final month in Minnesota, it was so humid that mushrooms began growing in a corner of my bathroom, and none of the doors of my apartment would open or shut properly, they were so bloated with the moisture in the air. I came home one oppressive afternoon and found two men drunk on Listerine passed out on the front lawn. I saw someone on the bus using needle-nosed pliers to remove his nostril hair. None of it was out of the ordinary, but my view of it was. Minneapolis hadn’t changed, but the ugliness had become all I saw of the city.
It’s an act of great ego to write an echo of someone else’s work—or maybe it’s the humblest act of all. Didion herself was writing an echo, of Robert Graves’s autobiography on the topic of his postwar “bitter leave-taking of England,” where he had “ceased to care what anyone thought about [him].” Didion’s material feels both particular and universal because of this fact of tribute—no one could have written the piece but her, except that someone already did. She leaves this fact to the reader to know or uncover. Does that omission mean a reader should compare (or can’t avoid comparing) the parallel pieces? To me, the act of unacknowledged echoing suggests both equivalence and abasement: I am the equal; I will never be the equal. I’ve taken the coward’s way out by writing about Didion directly, here. If I were braver—and oh, if I were braver!—I would have let the reference go unmentioned.
I’ll end true to form. See how Didion begins her final paragraph: “it was three years ago [my husband] told me that, and we have lived in Los Angeles since.” There’s an abruptness here—there’s the barest suggestion of that false hope, that you can escape what hounds you by running away fast enough, or cleverly enough, or suddenly enough. Never mind what comes next; never mind what a little research will actually tell us about Didion’s later years. Never mind all that. Instead, look at the now. There is a complex power to this type of ending, this fleeting perpetuity. Now: I am writing this in a café not far from Dolores Park, in San Francisco. Now: I’ve lived in California for two months. The wonder of everything isn’t lost on me yet; a palm tree, for example, is a very good thing. As a friend explained, “It means you’re somewhere new.” I did do one brave thing. I’m somewhere new.
Cultural anxieties are currently running high about the future of the book as a physical object, and about the immediate prospects for survival of actual brick and mortar booksellers. When most people think about the (by now very real) possibility of the retail side of the book business disappearing entirely into the online ether, they mostly tend to focus on the idea of their favorite bookshops shutting their doors for the last time. Sub-Borgesian bibliomaniac that I am (or, if you prefer, pathetic nerd), I have a mental image of the perfect bookshop that I hold in my mind. It’s a sort of Platonic ideal of the retail environment, a perfect confluence of impeccable curation and expansive selection, artfully cluttered and with the kind of quietly hospitable ambiance that makes the passage of time seem irrelevant once you start in on browsing the shelves. For me, the actual place that comes closest to embodying this ideal is the London Review Bookshop in Bloomsbury, run by the people behind the London Review of Books. It’s a beautifully laid-out space in a beautiful building, and its selection of books makes it feel less like an actual shop than the personal library of some extremely wealthy and exceptionally well-read individual. It’s the kind of place, in other words, where you don’t so much want to buy half the books in the shop as buy the shop itself, move in straight away and start living in it. The notion that places like this might no longer exist in a decade or so is depressing beyond measure.
But I don’t live in Bloomsbury, or anywhere near it. I live in a suburb of Dublin where the only bookshop within any kind of plausible walking distance is a small and frankly feeble set-up on the second floor of a grim 1970s-era shopping center, above a large supermarket. It’s flanked by two equally moribund concerns, a small record store and a travel agent, thereby forming the centerpiece of a sad triptych of retail obsolescence. It’s one of those places that makes you wonder how it manages to survive at all. It has a rack of greeting cards, carries a small selection of stationery sundries, and its “Mind, Body and Soul” section — mostly books on stuff like dream interpretation and angel husbandry — is slightly larger than its Classics section, which is really just a couple of desultory shelves with a few Dickenses and Austens and maybe a Brontë or two. It’s not a good bookshop, in other words. It is, in fact, a pretty terrible bookshop.
But I have an odd fondness for it anyway, and I’ll occasionally just wander up there in order to get out of the apartment, or to see whether, through some fluke convergence of whim and circumstance, they have something I might actually want to buy. I’ve often bought books there that I would never have thought to pick up in a better bookshop, gravitating toward them purely by virtue of the fact that there’s nothing else remotely interesting to be had. I bought a copy of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel there, for instance, a book I would probably not have thought to look for in a larger, more lavishly stocked place. I also found, in the aforementioned “Mind, Body and Soul” section a few years ago, a copy of the philosopher Mary Midgley’s Beast and Man, slotted between How to Hear Your Angels and How to See Your Angels. I bought it because it was a work of serious philosophy on an interesting topic, surrounded on all sides by dewy-eyed spiritualist nonsense and self-help snake oil. I think I may have felt a little sorry for it, having to keep such poor company, and felt morally obligated to give it a proper home. It’s a fascinating book which has had a lasting influence on the way I think about the relationship between humanity and nature, and chances are I wouldn’t have read it if I lived within walking distance of Bloomsbury. I’ve also bought a few novels there which, being classics that pretty much every bookshop in the world has copies of, probably would not have caught my eye elsewhere. If you’re a compulsive book buyer, in other words, and there’s nothing worth looking at except a ropey-looking paperback of Madame Bovary, you might end up realizing that it’s completely unacceptable that you’ve never read it, and you might then take it with you to the counter and onward toward a future in which you’re slightly better read.
And this brings me to the point I want to make about bad bookshops, which is that they’re rarely actually as bad as they seem. In a narrow and counterintuitive sense, they’re sometimes better than good bookshops. The way I see it, there are three basic categories of retail bookseller. There’s the vast warehouse that has absolutely everything you could possibly think of (Strand Bookstore in New York’s East Village, for instance, is a fairly extreme representative of this group, or at least it was the last time I was there ten years ago). Then there’s the “boutique” bookshop, where you get a sense of a strong curatorial presence behind the scenes, and which seems to cater for some aspirational ideal of your better intellectual self. The London Review Bookshop is, for me at least, the ultimate instance of this. And then there’s the third — and by far the largest — category, which is the rubbish bookshop. There are lots of subgenii to this grouping. The suburban shopping center fiasco, as discussed above. The chain outlet crammed with celebrity biographies and supernatural teen romances. The opportunistic fly-by-night operation that takes advantage of some short-term lease opening to sell off a random selection of remaindered titles at low prices before shutting down and moving elsewhere. And, of course, the airport bookshop of last resort.
I have a slightly perverse fondness for these sub-par emporia, because they have often been the places where I have been forced to stray furthest outside of my usual buying patterns. Sometimes the situation in which our options are most narrowed is the one which ends up most widening our horizons. As great as it is to be able to choose whatever you want on Amazon, sometimes what you really want is to have no choice at all. Which is another way of saying, perhaps, that maybe there is really no such thing as a bad bookshop.
Image Credit: Suzy Hazelwood.
As much as I enjoyed Michael Cunningham’s sylphlike new novel By Nightfall, my enjoyment was diminished by one writerly tic: the over-insertion of literary talismans into the text. Cunningham bestows on his narrator a present-tense awareness of mid-life obsession that would approach a tour-de-force of contemporary voice if it weren’t so frequently bedazzled by literary fragments and character name-checks from the Greats. Cunningham’s hyper-referencing didn’t stop me from finishing By Nightfall — in fact the story’s inventive premise and fearless examination of a flawed, desirous consciousness made me read it more greedily than most novels I’ve picked up lately — but too often my immersion in Peter Harris’ life was interrupted by a distracting nod to Proust or James or Eliot or Hawthorne or Cheever, or by a silly mention of “the eyes of Dr. T. J. Ecklesbury” from The Great Gatsby, or by the willy-nilly name-checking of Isabel Archer and Dorothea Brooke and Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina and Raskolnikov, or by an unnecessarily meet-cute approach to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice via The Magic Mountain, when it’s clear that the former contains the resonant parallels to By Nightfall.
Homage and reinvention are not my quarrel here. While there are scenes and themes in By Nightfall that echo Death in Venice, the action of Cunningham’s novel is new, and portrays more time, commerce, and interpersonal connection than the Mann novella, and also raises its own questions about love, youth, death, family, and the professional pursuit of art. If Cunningham had trusted his solo ability to create those portrayals and questions without rubbing so many literary good-luck charms, or repeating a singular line from Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, or cadging some poignant dénouement weather from James Joyce’s “The Dead,” By Nightfall would be a more elegant book.
There’s the obvious issue of how much literary knowledge a traditionally-educated dealer in contemporary art would have running through his brain. Even if we suspend disbelief on this, a novel of 238 pages cannot carry that many literary precursors without sacrificing some momentum. It’s like pinning a plethora of antique brooches onto a starlet’s chiffon slip dress — the delicate fabric will droop, distort, and even rip under the weight of the anachronistic jewels. Better to leave the elegant, modern dress unadorned and unweighted, free to suggest the beautiful form that moves inside its charming habiliment, a creature and a consciousness unique to this place and this moment.
It’s a small shame, because the first chapter of By Nightfall executes a sinuous mise-en-scène of the novel’s themes and characters, beginning with the genius first line: “The Mistake is coming to stay for a while.” An original, intriguing, and pre-coiled opening that is quickly cinched tighter by the wife’s spoken question: “’Are you mad about Mizzy?’” Unfortunately, the insertion of fusty literary forbears begins almost immediately, when Cunningham stitches a heavy, uncredited phrase from the first line of James Joyce’s Ulysses into a perfectly serviceable line of Manhattan description:
An elderly bearded man in a soiled, full-length down coat, grand in his way (stately, plump Buck Mulligan?), pushes a grocery cart full of various somethings in various trash bags, going faster than any of the cars.
I prefer the sentence with the Mulligan deleted. Once the interrogative interruption is removed, the sentence maintains a trundling rhythm that more closely mimics the man’s determined pace:
An elderly bearded man in a soiled, full-length down coat, grand in his way, pushes a grocery cart full of various somethings in various trash bags, going faster than any of the cars.
The de-Joyced sentence keeps the reader right there with Peter Harris in his taxi on his way to a cocktail party in Manhattan, ready for the next present action. The sentence with the literary fragment risks forcing the reader into a detour from the always fragile novel-acclimation phase in order to half-remember the college class that made Ulysses so accessible (thank you, Professor Chace), or to muse pointlessly on the family tradition of allowing mulligans at minigolf. A persnickety Joyce-lover (qui, moi?) might stall out of By Nightfall while puzzling over the reference’s nonsensicalities: in Ulysses Buck Mulligan is a medical student (not elderly) who emerges from his panoramic tower (not homeless) in the morning (not the evening) with shaving implements (no beard). Yes, he wears an open robe, which is reminiscent of the long down coat, but that seems a paltry reverberation for such a freighted and famous allusion, especially when it lands on a character whose situation is pitiable and whose role in the novel is momentary. Yes, it’s a lovely hunk of language, but why include it at this delicate stage in a novel, and why include it at all if you don’t need it? In the next paragraph Cunningham writes, “Inside the cab, the air is full of drowsily potent air freshener. . .” The writer who can evoke the atmosphere in present-day New York cabs with the words “drowsily potent air freshener” doesn’t need to reach backward for “stately, plump.”
And would a guy like Peter Harris plausibly recall that phrase from Ulysses? It seems unlikely, as he reads mostly emails and the newspaper throughout the novel, and spends more time discussing films than books. The inclusion of a snippet of Joyce in his consciousness so early in the novel misdirects the reader’s attempt to get acquainted with the narrator: it does nothing to characterize the perspective of a man whose essential struggle in By Nightfall will be with beauty of the 3-D variety, and not with the overburnished bibelots of the Western canon. If Peter Harris were a teacher of literature or writing, we might buy it, but he’s not, and I’m glad of it — the world doesn’t need more novelist-narrators. Two pages later Cunningham allows Peter Harris to describe his cab driver with this far more art-dealerish view: “His bald head sits solemnly on the brown plinth of his neck.” Cunningham maintains Peter Harris’ innate aesthetic point-of-view for the majority of the novel, and devotes a good amount of text to inventing and describing the art he loves and the art he wants to sell, which is all much more satisfying and diverting than the dropped-in literary references.
The reason I’m so worked up about these insertions is because Cunningham both doesn’t need them and doesn’t seem to see how they encumber his novel and pull it away from its central perspective. At their most benign, they function as distractions to the text; at their most malign they are intimidations. Brush-up visits to Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia (though I adore it) and hasty skims of Wikipedia are unlikely to enhance a reader’s experience of a novel. I can imagine how literary talismans might clamor for attention in a writer’s mind, and that including them might have been irresistible in the act of composition, but they should have been deleted before publication, by the editor if the author couldn’t bring himself to do it.
Here, from the end of the first chapter of By Nightfall, is an example of the art dealer’s insomniac stream-of-consciousness, as written by Cunningham and free of literary talismans:
. . . with time ticking through you and your own ghost already wandering among your rooms.
The trouble is. . .
He can feel something, roiling at the edges of the world. Some skittery attentiveness, a dark gold nimbus studded with living lights like fish in the deep black ocean; a hybrid galaxy and sultan’s treasure and chaotic, inscrutable deity. Although he isn’t religious, he adores those pre-Renaissance icons, those gilded saints and jeweled reliquaries, not to mention Bellini’s milky Madonnas and Michelangelo’s hottie angels.
This is all the writing the novel needs. It evokes the narrator’s existential angst and characterizes his high/low lust for aesthetic gratification in language that is consistent with a 44-year-old art dealer living in Manhattan in the early 21st century.
Of course Cunningham in not the only contemporary author with this lit-a-brac tendency. I’m still annoyed with Ian McEwan for hanging a climactic plot point in Saturday on borrowed lines from Mathew Arnold’s 1885 poem “On Dover Beach.” The scene would have been much braver, and the outcome much more plausible, if the daughter-poet had given the thug what he was asking for: a recitation of her own original smutty verse, composed on the spot if necessary. I recently heard Ann Beattie say in an interview with Robin Young for WBUR’s “Here and Now” that she had one of her characters say a couple of lines about The Great Gatsby in her recent novella Walks With Men, as a “wink” to the reader who recognizes that her writing in that section sounds a little bit like Fitzgerald’s, to signal that it’s a deliberate echo on Beattie’s part and to encourage that reader to conflate the two texts, while also hoping that scene would still work “in its own way” for the reader who isn’t interested. Just as Oprah gets celebrities to sign contracts saying they won’t use cell phones behind the wheel, I’d like to get my favorite authors to sign contracts renouncing all sly echoes of Fitzgerald, Proust, James, Woolf, Joyce, Flaubert, ad nauseum while at the keyboard.
There should be an absolute prohibition against repeating a repeat. In the final, transformative, and satisfyingly plot-twisted chapter of By Nightfall, Cunningham inserts a famous line from Madame Bovary – “Banging on a tub to make a bear dance when we would move the stars to pity,” – twice (!) within five pages, both times unattributed and set off in its own little echo-chamber paragraph. How I wish he hadn’t. A few pages later Cunningham evokes Peter Harris’ self-reckoning with this new language:
Oh, little man. You have brought down your house not through passion but through neglect. You who dared to think of yourself as dangerous. You are guilty not of the epic transgressions but the tiny crimes.
Cunningham’s text is truer to the thrust of the novel, and it moved me much more than the by-now mangy line from Flaubert.
I picked on By Nightfall in this review because I feel its excess of literary cameos and references proves the rule: evoke, don’t invoke. What truly thrills me as a reader is prose and character made new, out of nothing I’ve seen before. I wish that I could read By Nightfall for the first time without the anachronistic freight — I suspect that I would love it, and not just like it a lot.
Oh, what a vileness human beauty is,
Corroding, corrupting everything it touches.
-Euripides, Orestes, 126-7
With such painstaking awe is the beauty of The Red and The Black’s Julien Sorel detailed that one might think Stendhal was describing a woman. We are treated to countless descriptions of Julien’s “fine complexion, his great black eyes, and his lovely hair, which was curlier than most men’s…” We learn that his eyes sparkle with hatred when he is angry, and indicate thought and passion when he is at peace. “Among the innumerable varieties of the human face, there may well be none more striking,” Stendhal suggests, almost matter-of-factly.
In The Greater Hippias, Plato argues that beauty is good and the good is beautiful: the two are identical. Superficial though the ancient Greeks might have been, even later Christian philosophers like Castiglione held that only rarely does an evil soul dwell in a beautiful body, and so outward beauty is a true sign of inner goodness.
Stendhal would have agreed. With Julien’s high Napoleonic ideals and his violent, even physiological, reactions to all things base or hypocritical, he has “a soul fashioned for the love of beauty.” But life does not turn out so well for this young romantic because, predictably, Julien “was barely a year old when his beautiful face began to make friends for him, among the little girls…”
Fictional characters enjoy exaggerated attributes, but few have the sort of beauty that marks Julien Sorel, where the beauty is not only essential to his character, elevating his soul, but outside of it, dictating his destiny. If beauty can be distilled from its specific fictional forms, does it have a cogent power of its own in literature?
1. The Most Beautiful Woman in Fiction
If there were ever a fictional beauty contest of sorts, the stand-out winner might very well be Remedios the Beauty from 100 Years of Solitude. Naive to the point of saintliness, Remedios the Beauty unintentionally causes the deaths of several men who lust over her. But despite being entirely uninterested in feminine wiles, dressing in course cassocks, and shaving her head:
…the more she did away with fashion in a search for comfort and the more she passed over conventions as she obeyed spontaneity, the more disturbing her incredible beauty became…
Under the Platonic model there is a “scale of perfection ranging from individual, physical beauty up the heavenly ladder to absolute beauty.” And in that lofty vein, Garcia Marquez describes Remedios the Beauty as though she were beauty manifest, in too pure a form for this Earth, and she leaves her novel by mysteriously ascending to the sky, like a spirit.
What exactly was it that made Remedios the Beauty so “disturbingly” beautiful? For one, it had very little to do with the worldly practice of seduction. Writes Neal Stephenson (about another beautiful character) in The System of the World:
Faces could beguile, enchant, and flirt. But clearly this woman was inflicting major spinal injuries on men wherever she went, and only a body had the power to do that. Hence the need for a lot of Classical allusions… Her idolaters were reaching back to something pre-Christian, trying to express a bit of what they felt when they gazed upon Greek statues of nude goddesses.
Still, the ascending beauty of Remedios the Beauty struck me as close to paradoxical. She might have been beauty in essence, but her absolute beauty was something she achieved, namely, by renouncing her beauty through eschewing feminine clothing and, more vividly, shaving her head.
There is a curious relationship between hair and destiny in literature. Chaucer, like Hollywood, is known for casting women by their hair color, but he is far from the exception. In keeping with the practices of Remedios the Beauty, the most reputable beautiful women in fiction part ways with their hair altogether at some point, such as Maria “the cropped headed one” in For Whom The Bell Tolls (whose name is an arguable allusion to the Virgin Mary by Hemingway), or Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God, who hides her hair under a rag for much of her life (and is reputable to her readers, if not always to the townsfolk of Eatonville). Even fictional literary scholar Maud Bailey from A.S. Byatt’s Possession picked up on the strange connection between hair and destiny for beautiful women: she kept her head nearly shaved in her early teaching days, recounting Yeats’ “For Anne Gregory”:
Never shall a young man
Thrown into despair
By those great honey-coloured
Ramparts at your ear
Love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow hair.
But Julien Sorel never made such sacrifices. It would be most remiss to compare him to the saintly Remedios the Beauty, as he dabbles in vanity, employs manipulative mind-games, and continuously – though not malevolently – makes full use of his preternatural sex appeal in pursuit of his romantic ambitions. Rather, Julien is far better suited to a category of characters with a starkly different literary reputation…
2. The Second Most Beautiful Woman in Fiction
Notable beautiful women with such a lust for life include Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, who “had that indefinable beauty that results from joy, from enthusiasm, from success” and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, with her “mysterious, poetic, charming beauty, overflowing with life and gayety…” But the most beautiful of all is The Return of the Native’s Eustacia Vye:
Eustacia Vye was the raw material of a divinity… Her presence brought memories of such things as Bourbon roses, rubies, and tropical midnights; her moods recalled lotus-eaters… her motions, the ebb and flow of the sea; her voice, the viola. In a dim light… her figure might have stood for one of the higher female deities…
Eustacia’s textual description is not exactly an exercise in restraint. On Hardy goes for two pages, describing the curve of her lips, her “pagan” eyes, the weight of her figure – and two paragraphs alone devoted to the sheer bounty of her dark hair, of which “a whole winter did not contain darkness enough to form its shadow.”
Like Julien Sorel, Eustacia Vye is naive, egotistical, self-serving, and obsessed with the idea of Paris, “the centre and vortex of the fashionable world.” She is far too human to achieve the Platonic ideal of beauty, “transcending sex, sensuality and ‘mere’ physical beauty” to “the region where gods dwell.” Nevertheless, Hardy gives a nod to “the fantastic nature of her passion, which lowered her as an intellect, raised her as a soul.”
And like Julien Sorel, Anna Karenina, and Emma Bovary, Eustacia – mired by the societal constraints on her free will – ponders:
But do I desire unreasonably much in wanting what is called life – music, poetry, passion, war, and all the beating and pulsing that is going on in the great arteries of the world?
3. The Curse of Beauty
The short answer: Yes. Without question. All four romantic leads bring about varying degrees of generalized suffering and to some degree their own demise, whether in gruesome and painful detail, like Emma Bovary, or only in critical speculation, like Eustacia. In literature, as it turns out, it is dangerous to be ambitious just as it is dangerous to be beautiful, but to be both ambitious and beautiful is fatal.
Helen of Troy is the prototypical example that ancient aesthetic philosophy ascribed a darker tone to female beauty than it (generally speaking) did to male beauty. Historian Bettany Hughes writes, “Rather than positioning Helen’s beauty as a worthy gift of the gods – ancient authors… saw her peerless face and form as a curse.” And yet, the power of Julien’s beauty proves to be as inevitably corrosive in The Red and The Black as it does in the respective novels of our beautiful female characters.
In fact, that sheer absence of a double standard to a great extent saves The Red and The Black from losing its modern flavor. As P. Walcot acknowledges the ancient Greek belief in “the male’s inability to resist… the immense power that the female wields through her sexuality,” so, too, are Julien’s female admirers Madame de Rênal (despite being married!) and Mathilde de La Mole (despite being solely motivated by boredom!) judged equally helpless in succumbing to their desire for him.
In part this arises from an amount of sympathy that Stendhal clearly harbored for women (he apparently had a beloved sister), even wealthy, spoiled, bored young women like Mathilde: in reference to her, he quotes from the Memoirs of the Duke d’Angouleme, “The need of staking something was the key to the character of this charming princess… Now, what can a young girl stake? The most precious thing she has: her reputation.”
Julien Sorel, conversely, escapes Stendhal’s goodwill far longer. From Diane Johnson’s introduction to The Red and the Black:
This accounts for the side of Julien that is calculating, flattering, insincere, and inwardly hostile even to people who intend to help and love him – indeed, he is an early example of an anti-hero of whom, at first, even Stendhal cannot approve. (emphasis added)
4. The Cure of Youth
But The Red and The Black has an unexpected twist: Julien gets to die like a martyr. There is hardly a consensus on this interpretation, but I read his death as something akin to a happy ending. Julien somehow manages to give everyone what they want from him – in particular, his most affected conquests. He returns the pious Madame de Rênal’s love and fulfills the passionate Mathilde’s Gothic fantasies while (outwardly) rejecting neither of them. But more amazingly: he reaches a sort of inner peace. He listens to his own heart which – unbelievably – instructs him to be truthful, sincere, to love the woman who most deserves it, and to carry the sole blame and make the entirety of amends for all the misfortune his (prior) self-indulgent, romantic nature hath wrought. Rather than marking a fundamental lack of character, Julien’s selfishness can be dismissed as mere youthful indiscretion.
Having sought the mystery behind the divergent destinies of Julien and his beautiful female counterparts in terms of the role of beauty in fiction, I come to find that it resolves itself in another, altogether more disconcerting thesis: that perhaps the nature of the young romantic hero in literature is eventually malleable, whereas the nature of the young romantic heroine in literature is essentially fixed.
Towards the end of her life, it occurs to Anna Karenina, “I am not jealous, but unsatisfied…” Emma Bovary and Eustacia Vye have similar exits: their earthly desires resist satiation, but congeal and turn ever more destructive. Their three fates recall the following canto from Dante’s Inferno, which warns of a female beast:
And has a nature so malign and ruthless,
That never doth she glut her greedy will,
And after food is hungrier than before.
And so beautiful women in literature are brought to ultimately ugly ends.
Elizabeth wrote in with this question:
This upcoming semester I will be teaching a literature class at an East Coast college. The reading list includes several poems, stories, and essays as well as two plays, and just one novel. The English chair explained that because the school is heavy on business majors, for many students the novel they read in this course may the only novel they read for the rest of their college experience, and in some cases, for the rest of their lives. To be charged with selecting the “one novel of a person’s life” seems like both an impossible burden and a precious gift. I don’t know if I should choose something relatively accessible that might induce a love of reading (Lolita, The Remains of the Day, White Teeth) or a classic that might give them a greater perspective on the history and traditions of storytelling (Don Quixote, Madame Bovary, To the Lighthouse.) My question, then, is really this: if you could read just one novel, what would it be?
Several of us pitched in on this one. Some of us took Elizabeth’s question literally, wondering what “one novel” we would choose in the (terrifying) event that we would be allowed just one for the rest of our lives. While others put themselves in Elizabeth’s shoes, trying to figure out how to wield the awesome responsibility of determining the entirety of another person’s reading experience. Here are our answers:
Garth: The hypothetical here – if you could read just one novel – strikes fear into my heart. Certainly, the book should be long, if there’s only going to be one. I’m tempted to say A Remembrance of Things Past on those grounds alone. On the other hand, the Marcel-Albertine romance never stoked my fires as much as the other relationships in the book, and I’ve got the feeling that this one, singular book should be a love story. In the same way that, if you only had one great narrative of your own life, you’d want it to be a love story. So: how about Anna Karenina? Writing about happiness is the hardest thing to do, and, in a book which most people remember for the sad parts, Tolstoy does it better than anyone.
Edan: My suggestion – Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – may be an obvious one, but it makes sense as a syllabus pick for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s highly readable. It’s important that the assigned book be entertaining, since someone who doesn’t read much won’t tolerate a slow or dense novel (just as someone who isn’t a movie buff (read: me) won’t sit through a John Cassavetes film). Secondly, there’s a lot in the book to discuss as a class. I read it two years ago, and found it to be structurally fascinating, as well as funny, playful, and damn moving. For instance, I was interested in how the phrase “So it goes” repeated throughout the novel, changing with each use: first the casualness jarred me, and then I was surprised to see it, and then I expected to see it, and then I was exhausted by it, and the cycle went round and round again, a little different each time. I’d love to talk about this process as a group, and I think others – book worms or not – would, too. And, lastly, Kurt Vonnegut is a great writer to like, as he has so many other books, and his influence in American literature is just enormous. If you love his books, there are others to discover. Get someone hooked on Vonnegut, and he or she will be a reader for life.
Andrew: If I could only pick one novel, I’d pick one that will magically smash through curriculum limits and lead the reader head-first to others – a gateway novel, if you will. I have a hierarchy of favorites – modern and classic – but strategically I’ll pick the one that, looking back, opened up the world to me. I first read Slaughterhouse-Five when I was about nineteen years old. I was discovering Kurt Vonnegut and was drawn to his darkly comic way of writing – playful, with big chunks of sci-fi thrown in to satisfy the geek in me. Slaughterhouse-Five has all of the Vonnegut tropes, but digs deep. Billy Pilgrim, our mid-century, middle-aged, middle-class hero, has become “unstuck in time” and we follow him forward to the planet Tralfamadore, and backwards to 1945 where Billy and his fellow soldiers – kids, really – are POWs in Dresden. Though Vonnegut’s playful, ironic fatalism gives the story its rhythm, and the time-shifting gives it its structure, the horrific firebombing of Dresden gives the novel its depth. This is a war story like no other.
Emily: In the words of Gabriel Betteredge, taken from Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone: “You are not to take it, if you please, as the saying of an ignorant man, when I express my opinion that such a book as Robinson Crusoe never was written, and never will be written again. I have tried that book for years–generally in combination with a pipe of tobacco–and I have found it my friend in need on all the necessities of this mortal life. When my spirits are bad–Robinson Crusoe. When I want advice–Robinson Crusoe. In times past when my wife plagued me; in present times when I have had a drop too many–Robinson Crusoe. I have worn out six stout Robinson Crusoes with hard work in my service. On my lady’s last birthday she gave me a seventh. I took a drop too much on the strength of it; and Robinson Crusoe put me right again. Price four shillings and sixpence, bound in blue, with a picture into the bargain.” And if you object to Crusoe, then The Moonstone, the finest (and first, some would say) detective novel ever written.
Noah: Are we in a primordial state, untouched by letters save for one sacred tome (The Complete Works of Shakespeare, perhaps)? Or simply naming our favorite book (A Fan’s Notes). This exercise is like picking a “desert island book,” the book you’d want to have to read by the yellow flickering of a driftwood fire while the palm fronds sway in the moonlight and the ocean crashes below. In this situation I might opt for something long and beloved, an Infinite Jest or Underworld, say. Maybe a classic that I haven’t read would be better (even on a deserted island it’s important to be well-read). The Count of Monte Cristo could work well. I’ve heard good things. But no, we are talking about choosing a book to teach. A book to teach to business majors who may not read another word the rest of their lives. I think The Great Gatsby fits the bill.
Lydia: This question has made my week a little less enjoyable, because every time I sat down to lounge, I remembered that I had to pick the only book that a group of people will read, maybe ever. Their lives were in my hands. I thought about it a lot, and I have decided that I would assign David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. It is intensely readable, so they will actually read it. Some things I had to read in college English classes, like the wretched Pamela, were so unfun to read that I did not, in fact, read them. Never underestimate a college student’s unwillingness to do his or her homework, especially if it is boring. Also, Cloud Atlas centers around a neat narrative trick, so you can talk about novels and the different ways people make them. Since it adopts a series of voices, you can tell the students that if they liked the Frobisher part, they can try Isherwood, and Martin Amis if they liked the Cavendish part, and so on. Ideally this will trick them into reading more novels. Finally, Cloud Atlas even has A Message, slightly simplistic though it may be, and will provide gentle moral instruction to your flock (I think it’s “Make love not war, save the planet”).
Max: It was fascinating to me that both Edan and Andrew picked Slaughterhouse-Five (and for the same reasons!) It’s true that this novel (or, in a somewhat similar vein Catch-22) will serve to entertainingly blow up any preconceived notion that an intelligent non-reader may have had about the boring old novel. I also found interesting Noah’s and Garth’s idea (reading the question as looking for a “desert island book”) that length is critical. With that as my consideration, I would choose Alvaro Mutis’ The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, an adventure novel that could be plumbed again and again, or East of Eden, the best of the multi-generational epics of the last 100 years. Or better yet, if you read just one novel, why not read the “first” and, in the sense that all novels since are just repeating its tricks again and again, the only novel, Don Quixote. But thinking again about this as a novel to be read in this unique and specific circumstance, and thinking again that something contemporary might best fit the bill, why not – bear with me here – The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen? Even though the characters might seem like typical boring novel characters, Franzen does things with them that you wouldn’t expect, the book is incredibly readable, and you can get into the whole meta-argument surrounding the book and Oprah and whether good literature must be in opposition to popular culture or should be a part of it.
Thanks for your great question, Elizabeth. Millions readers, help us inaugurate the first Book Question on the new site by sharing your answers to Elizabeth’s question on your own site or in the comments below.
Kathy wrote in with this question:Our book club is focusing on books made into movies. We read fiction, no murder mysteries. I would like to keep either the book or the movie fairly current. Beloved is as far back as I would like to go. I thought about Wonder Boys and then heard The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is now a movie. We read Homecoming so we will probably do The Reader. My idea about books to movies is to compare the two mediums so I suppose the movie adaptation would not have to be topnotch.Three of our contributors had some recommendations for Cathy. We’ll start with Emily, who covers both fiction and memoir:The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: This beautiful, lyrical movie, directed by American painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel, was based on a 1995 memoir written by the French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby. Bauby was 43 and the editor-in-chief of Elle magazine when he suffered a massive stroke and fell into a coma. When Bauby awoke from the coma, he could only move was his left eyelid. His memoir, from which Schnabel’s movie takes its name, was written using the French language frequency-ordered alphabet. An assistant slowly recited the special alphabet (the letters ordered by frequency of use in French) over and over again, and Bauby blinked when the assistant reached the correct letter. He wrote his book letter by letter, blink by blink, composing the whole in his head. The memoir recounts both the anguish of being locked inside a corpse (the diving bell of the title), and the liberating pleasures of the imagination (the butterfly) that allowed Bauby to escape the confines of his prison-like body. Schnabel’s movie is breathtaking – one of the most visually lush, visceral film experiences I’ve had in a long time. It is also a testament to the power of the imagination.Oscar and Lucinda (1988 novel by the Australian novelist Peter Carey, also the winner of the Booker Prize for that year; 1997 film adaptation by Gillian Armstrong with Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchette): This is another beautiful movie, and though I haven’t read this novel of Carey’s, I loved Jack Maggs and The True History of the Kelly Gang. Oscar and Lucinda is the story of Oscar Hopkins (Fiennes), a young Anglican priest, and Lucinda Leplastrier (Blanchette), a young Australian heiress who buys a glass factory. These two lonely eccentrics meet sailing to Australia and discover that they are both obsessive and gifted gamblers. The crux of the story concerns the transportation of a glass church made in Lucinda’s factory in Sydney to a remote settlement in New South Wales. Carey’s novel was influenced by the 1907 memoir Father and Son by the literary critic and poet Edmund Gosse. Gosse’s book recounts his painful relationship with his father, the self-taught naturalist and fundamentalist minister, Philip Henry Gosse. Gosse Sr. is the model for Oscar’s father.This Boy’s Life (1989 novel/autobiography by Tobias Wolff; 1993 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Barkin, and Robert De Niro). Wolff’s memoir of his growing up is by turns funny and horrifying and very much in the tradition of Gatsby-esque self-reinvention. The book follows the wanderings of adolescent narrator and main character, Toby Wolff (who, inspired by Jack London, changes his name to Jack) and his hapless mother (who has a thing for abusive, damaged men). After an itinerant existence driving around the country (usually fleeing or in search of one of his mother’s bad-news boyfriends), Jack and his mother settle in Chinook, Washington where Jack’s mother marries Dwight. Dwight (De Niro in the film) turns out to be a vicious, tyrannical bastard once Jack and his mother are settled into his household. Wolff’s prose is strong, lean, and unsparing and De Niro, Barkin, and DiCaprio all give impressive performances in the adaptation.For another excellent film/novel pair also in the dysfunctional family vein (and also starring Leonardo DiCaprio), check out Peter Hedges’ 1991 novel What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? Hedges wrote a screenplay version of the novel for Lasse Hallstrom’s 1993 adaptation, starring Johnny Depp and Juliette Lewis. The cinematography by the legendary Sven Nykvist is spectacular, as is Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as the mentally challenged Arnie (he earned an Oscar nod for it). For a third paring in this vein, consider Augusten Burroughs’ memoir Running With Scissors, and the excellent film version of the same name (with Brian Cox, Annette Bening, Alec Baldwin, Gwenyth Paltrow, and Evan Rachel Wood). Finally, for an English book/movie take on the eccentric/dysfunctional family, there’s Dodie Smith’s novel I Capture the Castle and the film version of the same name (with Bill Nighy and the lovely Romola Garai, who is also in the film version of Atonement).If you’re in the mood for American Beauty-esque lambasting of the American dream, consider Revolutionary Road (movie) or Little Children (movie). Both film versions star the gifted Kate Winslet, and both tell the tales of the sadness and frustration hidden away in grand colonial homes surrounded by green lawns and picket fences. Little Children also features a smashing book group discussion scene. The book under discussion is Madame Bovary and if one wanted a primary and a secondary text to read alongside the movie, Flaubert’s novel might make a nice complement. For a third slightly different take on the deceptions of American family life, consider David Cronenberg’s deeply disturbing and violent (but masterful) A History of Violence (2005), based on the 1997 graphic novel of the same name by John Wagner and Vince Locke. The movie stars Maria Bello, Viggo Mortensen, and Ed Harris.Possibly my favorite adaptation of a novel is the late Anthony Mingella’s 1999 The Talented Mr. Ripley, based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel. Its ensemble cast – Cate Blanchette, Jude Law, Gwenyth Paltrow, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Matt Damon – is one of the finest ever assembled, and the tale is a darker version of Gatsby myth: Tom Ripley, played by Matt Damon in the movie, decides that he wants the leisured life of his rich friend Dickie Greenleaf, no matter what the cost. Tom’s worshipful longing for well-made clothes and objects, travel, culture – a charmed, leisured life – is a kind of strange love story, and one of the most affecting and infectious depictions of desire I know. You want Tom to win even as he reveals himself to be utterly amoral and self-interested. Mingella’s reading of his source text gives Highsmith’s book a more tragic cast than I found the novel to have, and it also draws out homosexual undercurrents that I think Highsmith was more subtle about, but his version is just as captivating as the original. The movie is also a gorgeous period piece – necessary for a story about the irresistible power of material beauty and comfort.Don’t be put off by the title of this last one: Wristcutters: A Love Story. This 2007 movie directed by Goran Dukic is based on a short story called “Kneller’s Happy Campers” by the Israeli writer Etgar Keret (available in translation in the collection The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God and Other Stories). Basically, it’s about where you go after you commit suicide. But it’s not gothic or heavy-handed or overdone. The place that you go is pretty much like our world, only slightly cruddier and more run down – kinda how I imagine things were in Soviet states (scarcity, disrepair). After committing suicide, Zia (Patrick Fugit) finds himself in this world and befriends fellow suicide and former Russian punk band member Eugene (played by Shea Whigham), whose character is modeled on Gogol Bordello front man Eugene Hutz. Zia hears a rumor that his former girlfriend has also committed suicide and so is now in their alternate world, and Zia sets out to find her, accompanied by Eugene. Their adventures include an encounter with a self-proclaimed messiah (played by Will Arnett, GOB from “Arrested Development”) and another with a quasi-magical camp leader (played by Tom Waits). There’s a touch of Beckett about this movie, but there’s also something quietly humane and understated about it. It’s refreshing to see the afterlife imagined in such mundane terms.Lydia offers three movies she prefers over the books they were based on and two books she believes were done disservice by the movies made about them:
The English Patient – It is not Michael Ondaatje’s fault that Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas are basically the dreamiest couple possible. Maybe it’s because I saw the movie first, but I wasn’t as thrilled about the book. I know a number of people who completely freak out over Michael Ondaatje, but I completely freak out over tans and taciturnity.I have read that people take issue with the movie version of Schindler’s List because it, in its Spielberg way, glamorizes The Holocaust. I get this, because I think he made, in a weird way, such an intensely watchable film; it does follow a traditional Hollywood arc, and sometimes I find myself thinking, “Oh hey, I’d like to watch Schindler’s List,” just as I might think, “It’s been a while since I watched High Fidelity.” That’s kind of weird. But it is an incredible story, and I think that the performances of Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, and Ben Kingsley (if you want to see range, by the way, watch this, then Gandhi, then Sexy Beast), are absolutely magnificent. The book is not particularly well-written, but it got the job done.Speaking of poorly written books that make great films, did you read The Godfather? Remember the tasteful subplot wherein the lady is always on the hunt for well-endowed gentleman because of a rather startling aspect of her physiology? How surprising that Francis Ford Coppola chose not to include that pivotal plot point. Jesus.Possession – This movie is a joke, which was disappointing because the novel is so wonderful. Whatever it is that is between Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart is the opposite of chemistry. It’s like giblets removed from a chicken, sitting coldly in their bag.Brideshead Revisited – Why someone would think it necessary to improve upon Waugh, and then Jeremy Irons, is beyond me. Everyone is very pretty in this movie. That is all that can be said on the matter.And Edan rounds things out with a pair of picks:Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson – I love this collection of loosely-linked short stories because it manages to be simultaneously masterful and raw, and because the drug use in the book doesn’t feel cliched, but instead weird and terrible and sometimes wonderful. The narrator of these stories is known as Fuckhead (played in the film by Billy Crudup), and all of these stories pay witness to moments of lucidity and beauty in a world that is otherwise incoherent and uncaring. The movie, I think, does the same. It also highlights the humor of the book: for instance, Jack Black takes Georgie, the pill-popping hospital orderly from “Emergency,” to a whole other level. Other cast members include Samantha Morton, Helen Hunt, Dennis Hopper, and even a cameo by Miranda July! It would be fun to discuss how the film takes on the adaptation of an entire collection, rather than a single story, which is a more common practice.Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller – This novel is darkly funny and disturbing, and the story is told in a series of diary entries by dowdy high school teacher Barbara Covett (played in the film by Dame Judi Dench), who befriends colleague Sheba Hart (played by Cate Blanchett), and becomes privy to Sheba’s extramarital affair with one of her students. I absolutely loved this novel, but felt ambivalent about the movie, which has a much more serious tone – probably because it loses Barbara’s wicked commentary on the world around her. It also focuses heavily on Barbara’s lesbian obsession with Sheba – in a way that screams obvious, even campy. Still, the film has been lauded by many, and the upsetting aspects of the book are even more so when watched on screen rather than imagined. (And, plus, Cate Blanchett’s cheekbones alone are worth watching for 2 hours.)If you have any suggestions, let us know in the comments. Thanks for the question Kathy!
It’s not every day that a callow, romantic writer transforms into a trailblazing, acute, realistic observer, right in front of your very eyes.In autumn 1849, Gustave Flaubert, 27 and full of poetic longing, left northern France for Egypt. Accompanied by his compatriot Max and with a servant or two in tow, Flaubert would spend that winter and most of the following year traveling the Nile from the Mediterranean to the Sudanese border, then up again pausing for a quick jaunt through the desert to the Red Sea.Journals were diligently kept, both by Flaubert and Max; letters were written – guarded, wistful ones to Flaubert’s mother, and more exuberantly bawdy ones to his friends.Flaubert In Egypt pulls together these various strands and stands at once as 19th century Egyptian travelogue, youthful memoir, geopolitical Middle Eastern history, and literary artifact – the nexus of Flaubert the youthful romantic and Flaubert the keen-eyed realist. His journal writing honed his critical eye. Madame Bovary and Sentimental Education were still years ahead of him, but their seeds were sown here.It was a romantic Gustave who hesitantly left the family cocoon. So reluctant was he to embark on this epic journey that, on the train from Rouen to Paris, he contemplated canceling all his plans and returning home. He envisioned the look on his mother’s face, her surprise and joy. Fortunately for us, he resisted this temptation.Once in Egypt, his romantic imagination was put to the test, challenged by the reality around him. In a letter home, he claimed to be little impressed by Egypt’s sun and sand, but greatly impressed by its cities and people. And why? Because Flaubert had previously given more thought to nature. Consequently, this wound up being more of a rediscovery, and it didn’t particularly surpass what had been in his head. However, he’d given no prior thought to people and cities – so this was new, an awakening. And above all, he was fascinated by what he called “the grotesque.” This he hadn’t counted on at all – slaves, thieves, pimps, hawkers and whores. These fascinated him. Egypt, he wrote, “is a great place for contrasts: splendid things gleam in the dust.”In a letter to his mother, he poses the question whether Egypt is what he imagined it to be? Yes, and more, he responds. It extends beyond his narrow presumptions. Facts have taken the place of suppositions. There’s a passage written four years before the trip, written entirely from his imagination, about climbing a pyramid. This is juxtaposed with an excerpt from his Egyptian journals. The realistic on-the-spot description stands in stark contrast with the romantic poetry of the early passage.We also get a glimpse of Gustave the son, when in a letter home he broaches the subject of getting a job, something his mother has long lobbied for. Then he launches into a lengthy response detailing precisely why this would be inadvisable, why he was ill-suited to anything that would likely please his family. It’s a marvelous piece of argumentative prose. If I had read this when I was in college, I would likely have cribbed it and sent it off to every adult member of my family.In addition to reading this as personal memoir, travelogue, and history – both geopolitical and literary, as if that wasn’t enough, there is yet another level of reality that hits you when you read this. At one point, in mentioning the Sudan, Flaubert mentions Darfur. Immediately, I was thrown out of the 19th century narrative and into Sudan’s modern hell. Curious, this. A writer does his best to tightly weave his narrative to keep his faithful reader in his clutches. He knows there will be various layers of subtext. He must also know that, especially for future readers, something written might unintentionally trigger this momentary escape from the writer’s narrative to the reader’s reality. I suppose all he can do is make damn sure his writing is gripping enough to lure him back. And fast.Flaubert In Egypt also contains some of the earliest photos I’ve ever seen. Flaubert’s friend Max traveled with a “photographic apparatus,” to the amusement and amazement of Flaubert, and a half-dozen shots from 1850 are included in the book.One quibble: there is no map, at least not in the Penguin edition that I have. And for an obsessive map-aholic such as myself, this oversight borders on the criminal. Fortunately, one of my trusty atlases allowed me to chart Flaubert’s course, chapter for chapter. But I mean really… no map? What were the editors thinking?Still, for a book that I didn’t even know existed, that I stumbled on and unearthed in a second-hand book shop, Flaubert In Egypt is a hell of a find. Splendid things gleaming in the dust, indeed.
In 2001, the New Yorker treated faithful readers to Fierce Pajamas, a comprehensive survey of humor culled from the 75-year history of the magazine. When I heard about this, my well-honed cat-like reflexes snapped into action and, three years later, I bought the book. These short pieces, known as “casuals,” include parodies, absurdities and flights of fancy. They showcase the wit of some of the giants in American humor – from E.B. White, through S.J. Perelman and George S. Kaufman, on up to Steve Martin. And along the way, two of my favorites – Woody Allen and James Thurber.As is often the case with anthologies, I wind up seeking out more complete works from specific writers. In this instance I was led back to my own bookshelves, to the dusty ‘A’ section in the top-left corner of my wall, for my small but complete trio of Woody Allen books. This necessitates the use of a stepladder because in addition to being obsessively organized – fiction alphabetized by author, then chronological within each. I won’t even get into what I do to my non-fiction – I’m also quite short and can’t actually reach the top shelf of anything in my apartment.Getting Even, Without Feathers, and Side Effects collect Woody Allen’s written humor from the mid 60s through to the late 70s, in 5-year chunks. I think you can get them all in one volume now, but I’m quite partial to my pocket-sized second-hand paperbacks – perfect for explosive bursts of laughter on the subway. There’s hardly a page without some jaw-droppingly hysterical absurdist musing, non-sequitur, or parody of some philosophical tract or of a psychological case-study. Even a few one-act plays for good measure.Getting Even contains “The Metterling Lists” – essentially a collection of Herr Metterling’s laundry lists, spun-out Woody-style into a psychological and biographical profile. And “The Gossage-Vardebedian Papers” – a succession of correspondence-chess letters, each one more politely sarcastic and seethingly hostile than the last.Without Feathers includes “God” – a now-classic one-act play in which an actor and a writer are on stage bemoaning the lack of an ending to their Greek play. “Audience members” join in the scenario and eventually the melee includes cameos by a wayward Blanche Dubois, and one Mr. Woody Allen, the Creator himself. Reality is turned on its head, then rolled up in a ball and shot through a hoop in this Pirandello-esque comedy.Side Effects has “The Kugelmass Episode” – a hilarious story in which our hero, with the help of a magician, escapes his humdrum world and retreats into the lusty pages of Madame Bovary for a succession of romantic encounters with Emma, confounding Flaubert’s readers and scholars with the sudden presence of a balding 1970s New Yorker in Emma Bovary’s boudoir.Fierce Pajamas also led me to the “Ts,” to my somewhat haphazard collection of James Thurber books. Many years ago, my good friend Doug Holland, always a step or two ahead of me, introduced me to the world of Thurber. Humorist, cartoonist, editor, James Thurber was a mainstay of the New Yorker for decades.Out of the half-dozen books I have, my pick would be My Life and Hard Times, a humorous memoir written by Thurber in the 1930s, replete with illustrations by the author, looking back on his youth in turn-of-the-century Columbus. Deceptively gentle and low-key, his stories often build to a frenetic climax. A common theme is how misunderstanding leads to rumor leads to panic. Seems simple. Yet no one does it quite like him.A few weeks ago, as I was thinking of what to say about Thurber, fortune shone as my fellow Millions-contributor Patrick posted a great piece about the Paris Review, and in particular “The DNA of Literature“, a treasure trove of archived interviews that you can read on their website. I’ve been exploring this site in the weeks since then, and one of the first things I came across was a great interview (pdf) from 1955 with James Thurber himself!In it he speaks of his astounding memory and how he can juggle hundreds of details in his mind. And of how he never knows until he’s typing away exactly how his stories will develop. He talks about the “New Yorker style” of humor in which you take your initial gleeful idea, your hilarious impulse, and then rewrite it, playing it down. Thurber also reflects on Harold Ross, the great Editor of the New Yorker, an unread man with bloodhound instincts who demanded clarity of his writers, and, to a man, kept them from being sloppy. Thurber also talks about his wife, his sounding-board, who it seems prefaces everything she says to James with “Goddammit Thurber…”Always writing, always crafting the perfect phrase, always keeping it concise and clear, Thurber was the consummate New Yorker humorist. His humor took over his body. So much so that when turning a phrase over in his head, his daughter grew so concerned with the look on his face that she asked her mother: “Is he sick?” to which Thurber’s wife reassured her: “No, he’s writing something.”