One of the most celebrated and terrifying poems of the second half of the 20th century — and one of poetry’s great treatments of insomnia — is Philip Larkin’s “Aubade.” The 1977 poem describes an experience all of us have at some point, that of waking up much earlier than we’d intended and, unable to get back to sleep, lying in a hazy torment in which all our life’s anxieties are amplified tenfold. The anxiety that hounds Larkin turns out to be the prospect of his own death:
I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
Larkin wants us to see that these states prefigure death itself: death too will be an affair of “soundless dark” in which “all thought [is] impossible” and the individual — supine, rigid, gaping at nothing in particular — is quite alone. We are all speeding toward the endless acreage of death, and it’s a paradox of life that we only fully glimpse that fact against the clarifying backdrop of night and darkness. Insomniac poets glimpse it with particular sharpness, and often seem proud of this: afflicted by a crippling illness, they yet occupy a place of lonely, privileged insight, gazing out from an observatory of solitude and sleeplessness at a misguided humanity, lost in a hypnosis of daily tasks that divert it from its destiny.
If the rest of his oeuvre is any indication, Larkin had a devilish time with sleep. Poems like “Sad Steps” (which begins, “Groping back to bed after a piss”) testify to the woes he encountered falling and remaining asleep; another, “Love Again,” which starts off, “Wanking at ten past three,” provides a glimpse into one of his time-tested remedies. But in this he is hardly an anomaly: poets are notoriously wretched sleepers, hopeless insomniacs who’ve developed bizarre rituals around bedtime and sleep. The Internet loves a good story about the sleeping habits of geniuses, particularly great writers — witness the BrainPickings article, “Famous Writers’ Sleep Habits vs. Literary Productivity, Visualized,” which probably wafted across your Facebook feed back in 2013 when it was published. Of the 37 writers featured in that piece, though, only around three were poets.
And yet poets occupy the most special relationship to sleep. Partly this is because poetry is itself a form of sleep: it beckons readers — aloud into altered breathing patterns, and its rhythms, as W.B. Yeats once observed, serve “to keep us in that state of perhaps real trance in which the mind liberated from the pressure of the will is unfolded in symbols.” In other words, poetry’s repeated beats can exert a narcoleptic force that seduces the mind into a state of heightened receptivity, an openness to the dreamlike succession of images the poem initiates.
But it’s also because poets have historically developed so many sleep-related idiosyncrasies, so many WTF-caliber bedtime tics, that one begins to wonder whether nighttime anxieties are part and parcel with the trade. Take Lord Byron, who went to bed at dawn and rose at 2 p.m. Prior to sleep, Byron punctually swallowed a single egg yolk whole while standing, then retired to his chambers, where he slept with two loaded pistols at his bedside and a dagger under his pillow. The weaponry served two purposes: to arm him against cuckolded husbands who might invade his bedroom in search of revenge (we’re talking about someone who, during his first two years living in Venice, slept with around 200 women, to say nothing of men and boys); and to offer him a shortcut to oblivion in case he decided to off himself while in bed. An aggressive teeth-grinder during sleep, Byron habitually awoke from nightmares that left him awash in suicidal gloom. “I awoke from a dream!” he recorded in his journal in November 1813, “but she” — his dead mother, we think — “did not overtake me. I wish the dead would rest, however. Ugh! how my blood chilled,–and I could not wake—and—and—heigho!” An animal-lover and vegetarian, Byron also kept a pet bear, Bruin, while a student at Cambridge, and according to some accounts the bear lived with him in his lodgings, a sentry while he slept.
Vita Sackville-West — a friend and lover of Virginia Woolf and a poet herself — combated her insomnia by collecting as many dogs as possible and inviting them into bed with her. Amy Lowell, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1926, would check into a hotel and rent out her own room as well as those above, below, and on either side of it. William Wordsworth had younger sister Dorothy read aloud to him; Dante Alighieri, his contemporary Giovanni Boccaccio tells us, kept “vigils” late into the night, frustrating for his wife and children, during which he read, and may have suffered from narcolepsy. Sylvia Plath, during the febrile, end-of-life stretch of creativity that yielded the poems in Ariel (including “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus”), began her nightly routine by swallowing one sleeping pill after another, lying back and waiting for them to take hold. Then, “Every morning, when my sleeping pills wear off,” she wrote her mother, “I am up about five, in my study with coffee, writing like mad — have managed a poem a day before breakfast.”
Other poets have turned to nocturnal walking: Emily Brontë walked around and around her dining room table for hours until sleepiness overtook her; Walt Whitman, in “Hours Continuing Long,” tells of a sickening unrequited love that brings him “Hours sleepless, deep in the night, when I go forth, speeding swiftly the country roads, or through the city streets, or pacing miles and miles, stifling plaintive cries.”
Still others have used drugs. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Wordsworth’s friend and collaborator, suffered nightmares as a child so frightful and overmastering he woke entire households with his screaming. He attempted to stave these off by repeating a rhyming prayer before sleep: “Four Angels round me spread, Two at my foot & two at my head.” As an adult, notoriously, he used opium, initially to ease the pain from various physical ailments, and later simply as a nighttime relaxant. This fueled additional nightmares that still have the power to harrow, certain of which bear an uncanny resemblance to Byron’s nightmare mentioned above. His notebooks relate one of these, which reads today like a thinly veiled drama of castration anxiety: “A most frightful Dream of a Woman whose features were blended with darkness catching hold of my right eye & attempting to pull it out — I caught hold of her arm fast — a horrid feel — Wordsworth cried out aloud to me hearing my scream — [ . . . ] When I awoke, my right eyelid swelled.”
Whatever the nature of their sleep hang-ups, their poems have furnished these writers with spaces in which to record their nocturnal trials. Quite literally: stanza is Italian for room, station, stopping-place — and many of the most formally masterful poems possess the structural elegance of floor plans. “Language,” wrote the modernist poet Hart Crane, “has built towers and bridges, but itself is inevitably as fluid as always.” He might’ve added that it builds houses, too, complete with rooms we readers traverse, stanzaic stations we might think of as thought-progressions, sequences of emotion, attics of memories, spatially realized. We dwell for a time in this stanza and then that, breathing the air it stores through its particular respiratory patterns, thinking and feeling in time with the poet.
Poets plot paths through these dwelling spaces, and the paths often lead us to, or at least through, bedrooms. John Donne’s 1633 poem “The Sun Rising,” spoken from within a bedroom, indeed under the covers, is an extended complaint addressed to the sun, which Donne chides for interrupting his all-night lovemaking with its intrusive beams. In the end he brags to the sun that its journey round the earth is redundant, since his own bedroom, rightly seen, is a microcosm in which all the truth and goodness and riches in the world are concentrated: “Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere; / This bed thy center is, these walls thy sphere.” Our love nest, he insists, is the real sun, that other one the merest satellite in its orbit.
In “The Canonization,” Donne explicitly plays on the conceit of stanzas as rooms, imagining his own poetry as a verbal mausoleum replete with chambers that house — immortalize — the memories of his relationship with his lover. “And if unfit for chronicle we prove,” he writes — he and his love are no conventional saints, after all, and so aren’t fit for hagiography — “we’ll build in sonnets pretty rooms.” These are the chambers through which we wander as readers, marveling at relics of a love shared by two people long since claimed by death and granting them, in reading the poem aloud, a secular sainthood: through their bedroom ecstasies they’ve martyred themselves to Eros.
Over the top? Absolutely. But then, a penchant for the dramatic gesture does come with the poetic territory. Thomas Hardy, who wrote novels such as Tess of the D’Urbervilles but considered himself foremost a poet, lost his long-estranged wife to heart failure and impacted gallstones in 1912, and had her body placed in a coffin at the foot of his bed for the three days and nights leading up to the funeral. “I shall traverse old love’s domain / Never again,” he vowed in “At Castle Boterel” some months later. (He remarried the following year.) Hardy’s work may be the quintessential example of poetry as an architectural construct. A trained architect, Hardy brought a formal rigor to poetic making that drew heavily on the Gothic aesthetic he’d been taught as an apprentice draftsman. In the hewn angularity and symmetry of his stanzas one sees the imprint of an obsessive designer; here are verse-rooms adorned with complexly irregular stress patterns that embellish like molding, tracery, or cornice — meticulous masonry.
Hardy’s morbid, beyond-emo vigils with his wife’s freshly coffined body reinforce how, again and again, poets’ imaginations return to a vision of the bedroom as a sepulcher, a prefiguration of endings — and of sleep as a forerunner of that vaster slumber toward which we’re all hurtling. Larkin lying in bed at 4 a.m. broods on eternity; Mark Strand writes in Dark Harbor, “The end / Is enacted again and again. And we feel it / In the temptations of sleep”; Edgar Allan Poe is said to have remarked, “Sleep, those little slices of death — how I abhor them.” Poe’s comment makes explicit a darkly fascinating possibility: that the desperate, thwarted desire of insomniacs to fall asleep is really a cover for a deep-down fear of sleep, itself at bottom a fear of death. “Perhaps my insomnia only conceals a great fear of death,” Franz Kafka (not a poet but a kindred spirit to these other writers) once speculated. “Perhaps I am afraid that the soul — which in sleep leaves me — will never return.”
Insomniacs, in other words, may harbor a fear of sleep that amounts to a fear of self-loss and an abandonment of control — a resistance against self-unraveling, both the one that will eventually happen for keeps, and the one that nightly happens and asks each of us at bedtime to do a dry run for death. What if you aren’t quite the same when you wake? And to what alien terrains, what modes of being and desiring that run counter to whoever you thought you were, will sleep waft you? Resisting such self-dissolution, such loss of control, the insomniac hangs on, clinging to consciousness that is the binding agent of identity and our way of retaining our hold on the world.
It may be true that, as Greg Johnson has suggested, this holding fast to consciousness — a clutching at cognizance that fends off self-loss — is most pronounced in writers. Insomnia for Johnson is the very symbol of the writer’s condition, the “image of his unblinking consciousness, his stubborn refusal to conclude, however briefly, his voracious scrutiny of the world and of his own mental processes.” Johnson points to Emily Dickinson as his prime example of an insomniac poet whose stoical resistance to sleep stemmed from her unwillingness to relinquish consciousness. In one poem Johnson spotlights, Dickinson muses on a gift “given to me by the Gods” — her poetic genius — and remarks that she refuses even to sleep “for fear it would be gone.” So she stayed awake (“I would not stop for night,” she boasts in one poem) writing late into the night, the very icon, with Kafka maybe, of nocturnal industry among writers, in a bedroom where she lived a sort of death-in-life — she seldom left it — and a burial place where she interred her (largely unpublished) poems, her sole progeny: here, after her death, Dickinson’s family discovered some 1,800 poems written on the backs of envelopes and edges of newspapers, and collected in hand-sewn books she herself had made.
What insomniac poets like Dickinson have held onto, though, isn’t just a vigilant watch over reality but a coherence of self. They’ve jealously safeguarded the intactness of their identities — and in this they are proxies for the rest of us abysmal sleepers. I suspect it’s not coincidental that Coleridge — that great romantic evangelist of the imagination who defined poetry — writing as “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM” — had such a horrendous time with sleep. During creativity, Coleridge thought, the poet ascends to godlike stature, refashioning reality so that it accords with his own unique vision — a brash imposition of ego onto the surrounding world that mimics God’s creation of the cosmos in Genesis. But proximity to sleep carries us to the brink of our own psychic disintegration, and, contrary to Coleridge’s formulation, forces us to look forward to a moment in the future when we aren’t.
Of course, beds aren’t simply sites of sleep; they’re sites of sex. That numerous poets have approached the business of sex with a trepidation to match their fear of sleep is practically proverbial. John Ruskin, the Victorian art critic who doubled as a poet during his youth and struggled with insomnia, legendarily refused to consummate his marriage to Effie Gray because, as she wrote in a letter, “he was disgusted with my person” — a comment historians have interpreted to mean that she had body odor, or was menstruating, or, most interestingly, that he was scandalized to discover she had pubic hair. Yeats and T.S. Eliot remained virgins till 30 and 26, respectively; Christina Rossetti, gorgeous and much sought-after as a young woman, never married, and in Goblin Market imagines fleshly pleasure as an addictive, otherworldly fruit capable of depleting and devouring the soul.
It’s hard not to speculate that the two anxieties are intertwined. Sleep is an occasion for self-loss, but so is sex. It’s well known that during the Renaissance people began referring to orgasm as a “death” of sorts; to ejaculate was to “expen[d]” a portion of one’s “spirit,” as William Shakespeare memorably phrases it in his Sonnet 129 — a figure that elegantly gets at the notion of sexual climax as self-departure, an instant in which some of the pith of one’s inner being flees one. To reach bodily bliss was to “expire,” according to one way of reading Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73; orgasm was “death’s second self,” an interval of perfect oblivion wherein pleasure eclipsed the exigencies of the here and now, blotted out self and world.
Here then is the crux of the matter: beds drive home an abstract coupling — of which many of us are at least dimly aware, whether we can articulate it or not — of death and sex. Beds are where we go to lose ourselves. Most of us will die in a bed — the phase just prior to dying is, of course, called one’s deathbed — and sleep, as so many poets have recognized, is a nightly rehearsal for death. But sex too entails a kind of dying: as one of the surest ways to break the boundaries that normally delineate you, sex like sleep can bring out anti-selves, identities, and impulses you may not have known you harbored. And it can lead to intervals of self-annihilation and a communing with otherness that few other pastimes can.
But this might be a thing to embrace rather than fear. The capacity of sleep and sex both to catalyze a death-like self-abandonment has been, historically, what certain poets have most cherished about these phenomena. “Each night, when I go to sleep, I die,” said Mahatma Gandhi, himself an unsung poet. “And the next morning, when I wake up, I am reborn.” Sleep for Gandhi represented a welcome interment from which he might rise at daylight, transfigured if only slightly. For John Keats, meanwhile, the bedroom came to seem, as it had for Larkin and Hardy, a “sepulchre” into which he retired each evening — yet it was precisely the sepulchral aspect of the bedroom and the deathlike dimension of what happened there that Keats excitedly seized on. “I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks,” he wrote fiancée Fanny Brawne, “your loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute.” Keats dreamed of a concentrated instant that joined mortality and sexual activity, the twin components of human experience that promised to liberate one from the constraints of individual identity.
The perspective of Keats and Gandhi — which looks enthusiastically on the nightly metamorphoses of self that happen under the covers — may be an altogether healthier one than dread. It may be, too, a perspective consistent with recent advances in microbiology. That is, those who dread self-loss would do well to ask themselves what it is they are holding onto, and whether their endeavor to retain it might not have been doomed from the get-go. We now know, as microbiologist Ed Yong has shown in his gripping I Contain Multitudes, that our bodies play host to trillions of immigrant microbes and quadrillions of viruses that momently multiply on our faces, hands, and in our guts, making up roughly half our being and forcing us to reconsider what we even think of as a self. For that matter, the majority of our own bodies’ cells have a lifespan of just seven to 10 years, and though you might like to think of yours as a permanent construct, the better part of it exists in a state of constant flux. Most of what you think of as “you” gets completely renewed as often as your passport.
Yet insomniac writers have been grappling with how to make sense of this fact since at least the Victorian era. Walter Pater, like Ruskin a Victorian essayist who wrote poetry as a young man — and, when struggling to write, suffered “grey hours of lassitude and insomnia” — brooded over the prospect that human beings were merely confluences of particles in time and space, continuously in motion. “Such thoughts,” wrote Pater, “seem desolate at first; at times all the bitterness of life seems concentrated in them. They bring the image of one washed out beyond the bar in a sea at an ebb, losing even his personality, as the elements of which he is composed pass into new combinations. Struggling, as he must, to save himself, it is himself that he loses at every moment.”
If for Pater this thought was desolate at first, in the most famous paragraphs he wrote — the “Conclusion” to his Studies in the History of the Renaissance — he imagined a new perspective, one that likewise looked on life as a billion discrete instants in which the physical world and human identity itself were in ceaseless unrest; where individuals were subject to a “strange, perpetual weaving and unweaving of ourselves” — but saw this condition as liberating and galvanizing. Only by recognizing the uniqueness and immediate decay of each moment could we position ourselves to relish it, make it gravid with effort and enjoyment, and so attain “a quickened sense of life.”
Death is a moment-to-moment phenomenon; the self shivers with all the ephemerality of a drop of dew, shifting and altering with each instant. Lying awake at night and contemplating our eventual demise, we fret over an event that is already behind us, that has played out unendingly since we came into being and will repeat itself innumerable times in the future. Accepting this, we might more cheerfully brave the windows of self-loss that lie in wait for us in bedrooms: the manifold deaths, the transfigurations these make possible.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
The arrival of a new Geoff Dyer book is an occasion for which I drop everything. He’s known for the variety of his work — he’s written about jazz, photography, World War I, an aircraft carrier, Venice, and film — and for never really letting on when he’s taking liberties (some of his books are purely fiction and some are purely non-fiction, but many of them live somewhere in the middle.) His agility at handling diverse subject matter is masterful, and the appeal of his work — to me — is being in the company of Geoff Dyer. Whether he’s touring an aircraft carrier, imagining a mid-century jazz club in New York, or having a boring time in Tahiti, he’s witty, insightful, casually brilliant, and frequently profound.
White Sands is a collection of travel writing, in which Dyer visits the Forbidden City in Beijing, the Lightning Field in New Mexico, the Watts Towers in Los Angeles, the northern lights in Svalbard, the Spiral Jetty in Utah, a philosopher’s house, and Tahiti. We recently spoke on the phone about the shifting meaning of a place, how expectations affect travel, and, perhaps inevitably, D.H. Lawrence.
The Millions: How would you describe the common theme of the pieces in this book?
Geoff Dyer: I think there are several ongoing concerns. The way that disappointment gives way to its opposite, perhaps. The way that places have some kind of almost special energy to them. And I guess the relationship between places that don’t change, that have stayed the same for a while, and the stuff that’s sort of changing in and around them — and what that tends to be is the people, the various human dramas that are enacted within certain spaces or arenas.
TM: Your earlier book, Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It, was also a travel memoir, but a self-deprecating one, in which you frequently highlight that you’re not a model tourist. In this book you seem to be more focused on the sites you’re visiting. Do you think you have loftier expectations for travel than you used to?
GD: I’m glad I’m capable of disappointment because that shows I still have high hopes for the world. This book recalls a whole load of excited, optimistic feelings about going to places. I’ve always found certain aspects of traveling a bit of a bore, as everybody does. But I would hope that in both books that it’s not just me moaning and groaning and being disappointed. I would hope that in different ways nearly every pieces in this new book ends with me affirming that I’m glad I came, even if the thing that made the trip worthwhile isn’t necessarily the thing I went thinking was going to be great. That’s why the Gauguin piece goes first [“Where? What? Where?”, in which Dyer visits Tahiti, a place that inspired Gauguin, and is unimpressed]. It really was a worthwhile trip even though Gauguin-wise it really didn’t deliver at all.
TM: Do you think there’s a different kind of value in visiting a place and not having the feeling you’re supposed to feel?
GD: What I do feel absolutely is that you can’t fake it. You go to a place and you either have the great experience or you don’t. And I’ve been to a number of places where it just didn’t happen for me, and it’s very difficult to write convincingly about the experience of a place if you really haven’t had it.
I guess the single most disappointing place was Svalbard, where we were hoping to see the Northern Lights, and that just doesn’t happen [“Northern Dark”]. That’s probably the most purely comic piece. So that would be a piece where the only redeeming quality the trip had was that it generated a piece of writing.
TM: Both Yoga and White Sands explore both sides of travel — some experiences are transcendent, others deeply unsatisfying. What do you think the tipping point is? What is it that can make or break an experience like that. Is it completely unpredictable?
GD: Stonehenge is a place that seems so great, but the reality of it has been so consistently disappointing for so many people, compared with the great scenes that happen there in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, for example, or the painting by Turner. That’s partly the fault of the English tourism board, the way they’ve built a road sort of right next to it, and have done everything they can to shrink the place, dilute it of the great primal power it should have. So some places have a lengthy history of disappointment, other times it can be subjective. But I think that’s one of the interesting things about the best travel writing — it’s that intersection of the sensibility of the person with the place. You get it over and over again in Lawrence, who’s such a big figure for me. Sometimes Lawrence is offering you an account of a place and it almost seems to have no objective value as an assessment of that place, it’s so obviously a projection of whatever Lawrence has going on in his head at the time. Other times he seems to just really intuit something that is going on there in the place, in the landscape, like the amazing essay called “A Letter from Germany” from the early 1920s. You can feel he gets this premonition, this feeling, of what would be the eventual rise of Nazism. He just feels it, not through any political observation at the time, just through something like the trembling of the leaves of the black forest. The key is the relationship between an entirely unreliable subjective response, a response which might actually be a projection, and something which is more susceptible to what the place has actually got going on — I think that’s the fertile area, that meeting between a sensibility and a place.
TM: A lot of the places you visit in this book have been built in the last 100 years. Do you think places like that are more likely to produce a spontaneous response because they don’t have as many centuries as connotation attached to them?
GD: I guess the ultimate example of that would be Venice. Mary McCarthy famously said of Venice, “It’s impossible to say anything about Venice that’s not been said before…including this remark.” Venice is so steeped in its own history. You don’t just see the place, you see it through the accretion of various layers of response to it, but then that also gives you something to write about. You can talk about how the image of Venice is mediated. I wouldn’t say that I’d come down on either the utterly familiar or utterly unfamiliar side of things, it’s just that individuals respond to certain places powerfully, others not, but I don’t feel it’s determined by how well known they are.
TM: Whereas when you visited Gauguin’s Tahiti, it seems like it had lost layers, it was a less interesting and magical place than it had been for him.
GD: At various stages of their development, place acquire and lose a kind of magic. Of course it would have been great to be with Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda on the French riviera back in the day, but now it’s been finished, I can’t imagine having a great experience there. Places are subject to history, they can lose their power.
TM: As a writer, your life’s work has been creative, but I can’t go visit it. Do you think that’s part of what attracts you to these singular, physical works?
GD: Not really. I just like the idea of site-specific art, of going to a place and having an experience that is unique to a certain place, as opposed to works of art that you can see in various museums around the world.
I think it certainly interests me about places when people have these designs for it be one thing and then it becomes another, and I’m particularly interested in places that fall into ruin and how it is that they maintain or acquire a different charge than the one they originally had, the way that, for example, a Christian church when it falls into ruin seems to have its air of detachment extended in some ways.
TM: That reminds me of what you wrote about the Watts Towers in “The Ballad of Jimmy Garrison,” that their “capacity to create legends about themselves was self-generating and inexhaustible.”
GD: Right. I think in that particular case I was referring to [the Towers’] status as not being quite respectable art pieces, and there’s so much potentially unreliable information on them. I think it’s because they weren’t properly catalogued and studied in a way that serous art pieces were, they were so ripe for myths to grow up around them. But they certainly lend themselves very well to all sorts of large readings. I guess they’re emblematic in another way that we’re not quite sure how to read them. For me it’s always been an important that part of the fun of my books is that there’s some uncertainty as to what they are and how they are to be read, because what exactly are they? What kind of books are they?
Despite my best intentions, 2015 went and happened before I even opened the copy of David Copperfield I’d purchased months earlier. I wanted to better acquaint myself with the genius of Charles Dickens — or so I had told myself. Thankfully, my friend Meaghan O’Connell, author of the forthcoming essay collection And Now We Have Everything, had told herself the same thing. And she’d been just as delinquent. So we decided to read the book at the same time, in a two-person book club, reveling in our shared ignorance and eventual education. What follows is part one of our email correspondence about the novel.
Edan Lepucki: I realized, before I began reading David Copperfield with you, that it’s been more than four years since I’ve read a ye olden classic. I spent a lot of my 20s tearing through famous books I’d failed to read as an English major in college: Wuthering Heights; Anna Karenina; Tess of the d’Urbervilles; Middlemarch. But when I turned 30 and had a baby, I stopped. I’ve basically read nothing but contemporary fiction for the last four and a half years. Why? I primarily blame sleeplessness — when you haven’t slept, your brain doesn’t want unfamiliar syntax! Also, maybe because I never go out anymore, reading the latest greatest novel is my way of being social with people? (God that is dorky.) All I know is, on my book tour I went alone to a bar with a Henry James novel. I ordered a glass of sparkling wine. I took a sip. I opened the book. I took another sip of wine. Then I closed the book. The James remains on my bookshelf, unread.
But now that I’m 11 chapters into David Copperfield, I recall how wonderful it is to read lit-er-a-ture. For one, a 19th-century novel is dramatic and juicy. The book is appealing to the part of me that needs plot (what is going to happen to Davy next?!), as well as the part of me that needs to be moved. Leave it to Dickens to make me worry about a poor little British boy — who would’ve guessed? The language, too, has been inspiring me. For instance, the series of questions early on, regarding Copperfield’s mother:
Can I say of her face — altered as I have reason to remember it, perished as I know it is — that it is gone, when here it comes before me at this instant, distinct as any face that I may choose to look on in a crowded street? Can I say of her innocence and girlish beauty, that it faded, and was no more, when its breath falls on my cheek now, as it fell that night?
He goes on with this, “Can I say…” motif for another line or two and it kills me — the present narrator negotiating memory with present day objectivity and the demands of storytelling! What a feat!
Meaghan O’Connell: Right! Like, hey, who knew? Charles Dickens is a really great writer! The voice of the narrator — David Copperfield, looking back on his life — is so charming and funny and in my opinion effectively makes the case that people CAN speak in parentheses.
The fact that he was being paid by the word, that the book was published in monthly installments, is definitely laughably clear when you hold the 850-page book in your hands (D.F.W., what’s your excuse?), and clearer still when you read a few chapters a night and realize this was how it was meant to be read. Ideal reading experience: have a friend force you to read two chapters of this book every night in February.
And yes, I did need to be forced. Or, okay, cajoled. I knew that if I could just get into it, get over that initial hump, it would be such a great book, and not just in a “get it under my belt so I don’t have to vaguely nod and change the subject at parties” way. It’s not a difficult book at all; Dickens, when he wrote this, was a really famous, popular writer. It’s really, really entertaining. But my god, I opened the first page and my eyes crossed.
Is it just expectations, and the hugeness of the book? That we associate reading the classics with undergraduate reading assignments? The last time I read Dickens was eighth grade, Great Expectations. I’m sure it was some textbook abridged thing and I remember it feeling like a slog despite enjoying all sorts of jokes about Miss Havisham.
I think you’re right, a lot of what I read is in an effort to participate in something. I really do like reading a just-published book and enthusing about it publicly or shit-talking it privately. I like the conversation, and discovery, and following a thread of my own interest. Rarely do I read a book that leads me to Charles Dickens, especially considering I tend to read either autobiographical fiction or semi-experimental nonfiction written by women. So who is gonna fave my David Copperfield tweets, I guess is my point?!
Plus, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that if literature generally has not improved as a whole, it has improved, if nothing else, at opening chapters. Novelists, now, know how to HOOK you. Charles Dickens is a master of many things but not a master of an opening chapter. Yes, fine, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” is, I’ll grant you, a great line. Though I do humbly submit that this line would be better felt as say, the last line of the first chapter? We don’t know our narrator yet! We aren’t invested! The line is lost! We only notice it because we’ve seen it posted on Tumblrs the world over.
(I am interested in what you think, as a novelist, about the challenges of writing a book that is literally like, chapter one, I was born, and goes from there — doesn’t that mean the most spotty recollections and boring things happen in the beginning?)
Edan: Honestly, I have been down on Dickens since the ninth grade, when my English teacher divided us into groups and assigned a different novel of his to each. Of course mine got the biggest book, Bleak House. I was the only person in the group to read it and I did all the work so that we didn’t collectively fail the class. Before now, Dickens has always — to no fault of his own — made me feel resentful, like I’m just a goody-goody the cool kids can take advantage of. Sort of like Copperfield himself, who is so tenderhearted that he will stay up late retelling Tom Jones to the popular boy at school, or give away his money to a waiter, and so on.
But I digress.
I too have been thinking about the paid-by-the-word aspect of Dickens and how he clearly planned these prolonged comic “bits” that in his day must’ve had people laughing uproariously and discussing with friends; it’s the 19th-century equivalent of sharing clips and .GIFS from our favorite shows. (Dickens = Dick in a Box!) Right now I’m interested in how many of these comedic parts are concerned with class. Dickens loves to parody various British accents, and I wonder how intriguing Davy was to his readers; he’s this boy who is able to (or is required to) skip from one social class to another, and thus belonged nowhere.
As for the opening, I actually really liked it! Once I figured out what the hell “who was already welcomed by some grosses of prophetic pins in a drawer upstairs” meant, I was intrigued. I love a semi-omniscient first person narrator. It’s impossible and the conceit recognizes that, and moves ahead with it anyway. It reminds me of the Alice Munro story “My Mother’s Dream,” wherein the narrator talks about life and her mother’s life (and subconscious life!) when the narrator was but a wee infant. It’s such a magical device.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the fictional autobiography as I read this, and what I’d do, were I to write a contemporary one. I think the drama actually lies in the spotty recollections and the double vision of retrospection. I like, too, how David’s narration becomes more mature as he gets older. Can you think of any modern day versions of this form?
Here’s another question: Are you reading this in public — and if so, has anyone approached you? I haven’t read Infinite Jest yet (gah, I know, I know) because I don’t want to read it in public and suffer feedback from Wallace superfans (gah again). This is such a silly reason not to read a book. And yet…
Meaghan:Ha! I haven’t read it in public but am embarrassed just at the thought of slamming it onto the table of some coffee shop. I’ve been reading it every night before bed and really enjoying breaking the spine and measuring how far along I am and whether I’m halfway yet. This is usually not a good sign for me, when I start counting pages and viewing reading as a sort of endurance challenge. You know, when you sort of see how many pages are left in a chapter and weigh how tired you are? “You can do it!!!” Which is to say, THIS BOOK HAS A HIT A SLUMP.
You texted me today asking if I had given up but I haven’t. I do cheat on it sometimes with other faster-paced contemporary novels (Novels By People I Follow on Twitter, a large-looming genre of my nightstand), and sort of feel like I’m betraying you. I think Dickens has timed his little slump well, though, because it slowed down a bit right when I started feeling so IN IT, so invested in old Davey/Daisy that there’s no way I’d give up and not find out what’s gonna happen. I mean, it’s fucking David Copperfield, I trust some good shit will go down. But right now he is like, deciding about whether to be a lawyer? And checking out apartments with his aunt? And yeah I feel I miss the subtlety of a lot of these bits, so when it drags it’s like, come on, man.
And I will say the inevitable: it reminds me of Karl Ove Knausgaard in this way. I have read so many damned My Struggle books, the next book could be themed like, Shits I Took in the ’80s and I would feel compelled read it. (Okay obviously that would be an amazing book, but you get what I mean.) I need to know what Karl Ove does! It’s like watching a TV show that gets bad the last few seasons but my god, you’ve sunk so much time into it already, why not see it through? Also it’s just familiar. I’m invested. I’m in, I’ll follow you anywhere.
D-Copp is this sweet little boy, still nine years old in my head though I think now he is a teen, and I need to know who he ends up with. I pray to god there is some sex in this book though I imagine it’s the coy kind. I’m already annoyed.
Edan: I doubt there will be sex, alas. I’ve been pretty bored by the book as well. But even through my boredom I have literally gasped aloud at the power and genius of Chapter XVIII “A Retrospect,” which introduces — in summary! — David as a sexual adolescent, compressing time through the lens of the crushes he gets. I loved it. I also love the writhing, disgusting Uriah Heep (again with the class issues!), the obviously duplicitous Steerforth, and the fact that David’s aunt mourns David’s nonexistent twin sister. My pretend dissertation will be about the unreal yet ever present and performed females in Dickens’s David Copperfield. Um, right, Daisy?
Will we finish the book? Will we be able to define Dickensian? Find out next time, in part two of our discussion!
During my first Christmas break as a high school English teacher in Florida, I sat down with the curriculum, a hand-written list of books Xeroxed so many times that the edges of the letters had become blurry. I had choices with the “Modern Novel,” the next unit of the year. The department head — an ardent, tough teacher of three decades, who had parents protest her teaching of Marquez, who taught Their Eyes Were Watching God to freshmen — reminded me, “If you care for it, you can make the kids care about it.”
When I saw that Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge was a “Modern Novel” on the senior year curriculum, I felt a great space open in my chest. I read Hardy’s poetry, Far From the Madding Crowd, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles in college. I didn’t know novels could so unflinching and unblinking. In Hardy, life doesn’t “work out” for everyone. Good people suffer and they die and the world does not ripple at their death. Survival, happiness even, demands compromise, eschewal, and tragedy.
Yes, I was making the choice to ask my students to read what I had. I allowed the kismet of the Hardy option to meet my impulse. His Wessex, the fictional Southwest England setting of his novels, had the same cycles of boom-bust Florida: nature razed for shaky industries, gray metal creeping across green fields. Men, always men, catching feelings about the money to be made, then deciding that the slow rituals of the past can be tossed away.
The Mayor of Casterbridge’s narrative is largely aftermath. In the first chapter, a 20-something hay trusser named Michael Henchard gets catastrophically drunk at a country fair and auctions off his young wife and infant daughter in a fit of self-pitying rage. Hardy’s narrator summarizes Henchard’s beta-male wallowing in the moments before the sale: “The conversation took a high turn…the ruin of good men by bad wives, and, more particularly, the frustration of many a promising youth’s high aims and hopes, and the extinction of his energies, by an early imprudent marriage.” Henchard awakes the next morning, takes a public pledge to abstain from liquor for 20 years, leaves the fair ground, and heads down the south coast of England to the regional hub of Casterbridge.
Almost 20 years later, Henchard has made himself into an agricultural plutocrat. But his white-hot rage and self-loathing burns on. He abuses his employees, fires them on a whim, and white-knuckles his sobriety. When we first see him in middle-age, he’s at the head of a table in Casterbridge’s upmarket inn, surrounded by subordinates, drinking “from his tumbler of water as if to calm himself or to gain time.”
The eyes through which we see this updated but unchanged vision of Henchard? A beautiful, naïve 20-something girl new to town: Henchard’s long-lost daughter, Elizabeth-Jane. The plot unfurls from there in a way that only serialized novels of the Victorian era can. Ancillary characters relay information under the drooping eaves of a shack, the narrator lingers on the symbolism of a bridge’s materials (Hardy himself was trained as an architect), lovers appear suddenly and die accidently, and a bright and decent young Scotsman named Farfrae with new devices for increasing grain production and eyes for Elizabeth-Jane becomes Henchard’s protégé.
In that first year, before asking the students to write a critical essay on the novel, I asked the seniors to “reboot” The Mayor of Casterbridge by writing five-page treatments set in 21-century south Florida.
The results astonished me. Students transformed the grain industry to the hotel business, peopled their stories with car salesmen, and even managed to work in the cocaine trade (thanks, lax bros!). The tumult of Hardy’s take on family and paternity became multi-ethnic families, hidden religious conversions, and addictions to pills or gambling. A right-wing Cuban patriarch (a Henchard) sells his wife and daughter not out of a corn-whiskey abyss but out of a shame for his Caribbean wife and child’s blackness. The end of the agrarian way of life in Hardy’s eyes became, in the eyes of a young woman whose family works on the boats and yachts in Palm Beach County, the transformation of a sleepy, humble fishing village into a glossy, anonymous eco-resort by a young, well-intentioned real estate developer (a Farfrae).
I had read their college essays in the fall. Adolescents, no matter how savvy or guarded, cannot help but disclose. Many of their Hardy-founded creative writings overlapped with their personal essays. Things that they had written in the fall, episodes from their young lives, came back again in their fiction: addiction, the working class, parents, how we live in the natural world, their stories in their towns in Florida, the unforgivable acts that only those close to you can commit, the things about yourself that you will never be able to change. They had shown me, in those college essays, glimpses of themselves at their most vulnerable.
My students conjured Floridian visions of Casterbridge that reflected the state. What would happen when the economy went cadaverous again and the boats and hotel guests disappeared, and Governor Rick Scott decided that fracking the Everglades was the future? How will my students react when the state tries to drug test SNAP recipients? What about when a private prison company tries to sponsor FAU’s football stadium? What about when another black child is killed by the police? To live in Florida in 2015 is to distrust beauty, to suspect relief.
The alchemy of book, classroom setting, geography, cultural moment, and motivated students had produced the godhead of the English classroom: Authentic connections across time, space, and between individual and group. Students were learning that literature’s “equipment for living,” to borrow Kenneth Burke’s phrase, could live inside a 19th-century novel, and that this equipment was honed by suffering resembling their own.
I wondered if I had done anything particularly special. Yes, I love Hardy. Yes, the book came late enough in the term for students to deploy their training in close reading and in claim making. Yes, I did well in setting up the novel, showing slides from the Lake District before showing an image of Picasso’s “Guernica” and asking the students to think about Hardy as the bridge between eras of thinking, ages of belief.
What I could never say, what a teacher should never say, is that I saw myself in one the characters: Michael Henchard. I drank fiercely in my 20s. I alienated peers; lost weekends; spoilt relationships with potential mentors; twisted quiet gatherings into loud, repulsive stand-up; said needlessly provocative things. I did not apologize. Living with shame felt like enough. When I read Henchard’s dialogue to the class, I felt the desperation. I felt how each stupid, instinctual decision he makes in the novel is an attempt to claw back the past, to scrub the quintessential, unnamable weaknesses out of his soul. When I made cases to my students for why Henchard could not be written off as “the worst” or “evil,” I rooted around for how I might defend the worst corners of myself. Sure, I played devil’s advocate for Henchard to present the pithy idea of “human frailty.” But I also played that part to uncover, label, and put away a version of myself.
Did I speak with particular power on Henchard? Did my voice rise in urgency? Did I offer the students a glimpse of the unexpected — digging for identification in a destructive character? What other doors had Casterbridge propped open? Was Henchard a glimpse of their mother? Their brother struggling with pills outside Tampa? How many Elizabeth-Janes did I have in my classroom? Had I made enough space for her story and the stories of my students who saw themselves in her?
In my second year teaching Casterbridge, I omitted the creative assignment. Instead, I asked the students to write an in-class essay about a symbol from the final chapters. Hardy wrote two endings for the novel, and I hesitate to spoil either of them. Both devastate. I foregrounded Casterbridge on our final exam, making the students juxtapose Henchard against other protagonists we read that year: Beowulf, Macbeth, and others. This time the student work was more clinical. Instead of mining their own lives, they examined, like astute literary surgeons, how exactly Henchard’s weaknesses and Elizabeth-Jane’s resilience circle each other in ways that recall Macbeth’s weaknesses and Banquo’s stoicism. One student — an international student, far from home, writing in her second language — wrote a brilliant in-class essay on how Henchard and Macbeth destroy their social and familial networks because their shared “unchecked” ambition confuses destruction with the desire to change. Her essay’s title: “Defeated By Life.”
I’ve just re-read her essay for at least the fifth time, and I wonder about what happened among Hardy, my students, Florida, 2015, and me. If the teenage years are hard enough, what business did I have adding to the misery? In Philip Larkin’s essay on Hardy, “Wanted: A Good Hardy Critic,” he makes the case that Hardy’s chief subject is “suffering.” Larkin argues that inaccurate readers see Hardy’s central characters as a “galleries of ‘losers’ against whom is ranged a contrasting gallery of winners.” We should instead, Larkin writes, see that suffering is “both the truest and the most important element in life, most important in the sense of most necessary to spiritual development.”
Moments of our Florida seemed comfortable: the blistering, pre-lapsarian beauty of seeing parchment-white ibises strolling between the school buildings and hearing students yelling happily as they run out of the school, the daily afternoon rain pausing overhead.
But high school English teachers know two things: adolescence is hard, and the literature you teach should reflect your students’ lives. Therefore, teenagers deserve literature that supplies suffering. For the students living through suffering, Hardy, and writers like him, can locate a student’s suffering and reflect it. That reflection can be a step toward recovery and development. The students living a life of comfort require the shaking alarm bell that survival is hard, people are deeply fallible, and life comprehensively unfair.
You, the teacher, have to dive into yourself to find the books that touch upon your suffering. You’ll teach them with greater urgency and match them to the sufferings of your students. They’ll engage with them — critically, imaginatively — with greater desire. In 2015, text complexity — the degree to which a book challenges, to the point of productive discomfort, a student with its vocabulary, syntax, rhetoric, and structure — is coin of the realm of the English classroom. Take that a step further. At the highest level, the deepest mode of text complexity should foster the deepest kinds of emotional engagements from the teacher and the students. If the book doesn’t affect and afflict everyone in the room, what’s the point? The prevailing winds of education theory seem to advocate for the opaque, “guide on the side” teacher who makes her or his stakes in the text mysterious at best.
Oddly enough, this desire reminds me of Henchard’s final act in Casterbridge: his writing of a will that demands that he be forgotten, that “no sexton be asked to toll the bell. & that nobody is wished to see my dead body. & that no murners walk behind me at my funeral. & that no flours be planted on my grave. & that no man remember me.”
But life, like the classroom, doesn’t work that way. Here, among teenagers and rough drafts, there is no place where the story cannot not see us. We, the students and the teacher, have to stand together under the discomforting light of what we might call suffering, what we might call literature.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
When it comes to adapting serious fiction for the screen, John Huston has few peers. But the English director Michael Winterbottom continues to burnish his reputation as a master of this maddeningly slippery art at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which is featuring the American premiere of Trishna, Winterbottom’s daring re-imagining of the Thomas Hardy novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Today, by way of exploring the difficulty of transporting stories from page to screen, we’ll look at three Winterbottom adaptations of three very different novels from three different centuries.
Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Trishna is not Winterbottom’s first foray into Hardy’s fiction, nor the first time he has lifted Hardy’s characters from fictional Wessex and plunked them down in a faraway place. Winterbottom adapted Hardy’s most controversial novel, Jude the Obscure, in 1996, and followed it four years later with The Claim, a retelling of The Mayor of Casterbridge set in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains during the gold rush.
But Trishna, set in contemporary India, is by far Winterbottom’s most daring – and successful – adaptation of Hardy. The conventional reading of Hardy is that he was a forward-thinker who railed against the two most confining straitjackets of life in Victorian England: the pressure to conform to social conventions and the stark boundaries imposed by class and gender. Winterbottom offers a much subtler reading. As he told The Guardian recently by way of explaining his decision to set Trishna (and, he might have added, The Claim) far from England: “Hardy’s novels are often about modernity and speed and energy. But it’s hard to get that sense of a dynamically changing world if you set one in this country [England]. Here the problems are more to do with a lack of mobility rather than an excess of it.”
That’s smart, but it carries a risk. While contemporary India offers an abundance of photogenic modernity, speed, and energy, it is also a gargantuan cliche: the gaudy colors, the cows, the slums and traffic and noise and dirt, those nearly visible smells. It’s worth remembering that two of the biggest international hits to come out of India recently, Slumdog Millionaire and Darjeeling Limited, were avalanches of these very cliches.
Winterbottom, who also wrote the screenplay, avoids this trap by streamlining Hardy’s story and using the frenzied urbanization and changing class structure of contemporary India as tools to tell his story, never as mere eye candy. The title character is played by Freida Pinto (who had her breakout in Slumdog Millionaire), a poor girl in the rural northwestern state of Rajasthan who catches the eye of a wealthy hotel owner named Jay (Riz Ahmed) when he passes through her town with a freewheeling gang of rich tourists. Smitten, Jay offers Trishna a job at his hotel in the capital city of Jaipur, which her family pushes her to accept. Inevitably, a romance will bloom.
A composite of the novel’s two love interests, Alec d’Urberville and Angel Clare, Jay spirals from seduction to genuine love to fatal cruelty after the lovers move to Mumbai. There are other deft echoes of the novel. Instead of giving birth to her illegitimate child and losing it to illness, as happened to Tess, Trishna deals with an unwanted pregnancy by having an abortion. And in a moment of extreme need, Trishna goes to work in a dehumanizing food-packaging factory, just as Tess was nearly crushed by a ravenous new invention called the threshing machine. Hardy’s fiction, as Winterbottom noted, was suffused with the tension in an urbanizing society – the seduction of modern inventions even as they brutally obliterate old ways. A rural English train depot perfectly captures this tension. It is, Hardy writes, a place where “a fitful white streak of steam at intervals upon the dark-green background denoted intermittent moments of contact between their secluded world and modern life. Modern life stretched out its steam feeler to this point three or four times a day, touched the native existences, and quickly withdrew its feeler again, as if what it touched had been uncongenial.”
By bringing this tension to life in contemporary India, Winterbottom has captured the spirit of Hardy’s novel without being slavish to its letter. As a result, the movie manages the difficult trick of being both faithful and new, less a reproduction than a rich act of re-imagining.
Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy
If ever a work of literature deserved to be called “unfilmable,” The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is surely it. Laurence Sterne’s great bawdy romp of a novel – a man named Tristram Shandy is talking to the reader about the story of his life he is trying to write as he writes it – is so disheveled, so plotless, so self-referential, so sprawling and messy and repetitive and hilarious that it almost dares a filmmaker to take a whack at it.
For his 2005 adaptation, which he called Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, Winterbottom worked from a screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce, who also wrote the scripts for Winterbottom’s The Claim, 24 Hour Party People, and Code 46. This time out, Boyce cleverly solves the conundrum of the source material by turning it on its head: if Sterne wrote a book about writing a book, then let’s make a movie about making a movie about that book. The cast is led by two more Winterbottom regulars – Steve Coogan playing himself playing Tristram Shandy and Rob Brydon playing himself playing Tristram’s uncle Toby.
The movie they’re fitfully making is at times surprisingly faithful to Sterne’s novel. We get Tristram’s botched conception, his botched birth, his botched nose, his botched, nearly disastrous circumcision. Also, as in the novel, we get countless throwaway lines, such as when Coogan tries to gently fend off the advances of a horny crew member with this left-handed compliment: “Your knowledge of German cinema is second to none.” There are snide swipes at Kevin Costner’s interpretation of Robin Hood and a moment when Coogan looks at a copy of Sterne’s novel and marvels, “Can you believe that a book as thick as that doesn’t have an index?” But the best of the lot is when Coogan, who knows how movie stars act and who obviously hasn’t read the novel, describes it to an interviewer as “a post-modern classic written way before there was any modern to be ‘post’ about.” Sterne surely would have approved. After all, he offers this defense of his tendency to digress, to talk to the reader, to leave pages blank, to write chapters out of chronological order and otherwise break every rule of conventional novel-writing: “All I wish is, that it may be a lesson to the world, ‘to let people tell their stories their own way.'”
While spoken in jest, Coogan’s remark about “post-modern classic” backs up my beliefs that this 18th-century novel is indeed one of the earliest exercises in post-modernism, that Don Quixote was the first, and that Flann O’Brien, not Joyce or Beckett, was the 20th century’s first practitioner of the form. In other words, the novelist’s willingness to expose the creative process, play structural tricks and be shamelessly self-aware was not an invention of the 20th century. Virginia Woolf believed Sterne “is singularly of our own age” and “the forerunner of the moderns,” while Italo Calvino anointed Tristram Shandy as “undoubtedly the progenitor of all avant-garde novels of our century.”
Along with the David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Naked Lunch and Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, I say Winterbottom’s brilliant Tristram Shandy is final proof that the overused word “unfilmable” should be banished from the lexicon.
Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me
Jim Thompson’s noir novels and stories have been turned into more than a dozen movies. Most filmmakers have latched onto the obvious cinematic allures of Thompson’s fiction – the intricate plots, the stunning double-crosses, the lavish violence – while shying away from what goes on in the dark recesses of the human mind, which is where Thompson did his real work. Maybe this is to be expected since fiction has an unfair advantage over film in this regard. It isn’t forced to rely so heavily on images; it’s freer to explore interiority; it is, in a word, more psychological. Just the sort of material for a filmmaker as smart and literary as Michael Winterbottom. And yet, this time he stumbles.
In 2010 Winterbottom directed a second version of Thompson’s breakthrough 1952 novel, The Killer Inside Me. The first version, a half-baked disaster directed by Burt Kennedy and starring Stacey Keach, came out in 1976. While Kennedy and his screenwriters, Edward Mann and Robert Chamblee, blithely butchered Thompson’s novel, Winterbottom and his screenwriter, John Curran, remain almost slavishly faithful to the text. It’s a lesser sin, but still a sin and not at all characteristic of Winterbottom, as we have seen. It’s hard to tell if he was suffering from a surfeit of reverence or a rare failure of imagination and will. But what’s on the screen is far too literal – more transcript than interpretation, more homage than distinctive work of art. As a result, the movie feels frozen in amber, oddly lifeless considering what the characters are doing to each other on the screen.
As the story unfolds, we learn that a small-town Texas deputy sheriff named Lou Ford is fighting not to have a relapse of “the sickness,” an adolescent sexual fascination with little girls that morphed into a scandalous, violent liaison with a much older woman. Lou’s step-brother took the fall for Lou years ago and ended up getting murdered for it. Lou has waited six years to get back at the killer, the construction tycoon Chester Conway, because he understands that revenge is a dish best served cold. He’ll exact his by murdering his prostitute lover, then luring Conway’s son to the scene and shooting him, making the mess look like a double murder between illicit lovers. The Conway family name will be ruined. We’re deep in Jim Thompson country here: the novel is less a straight crime yarn than an unflinching tour of a sick mind.
Lou Ford himself serves as tour guide, speaking in the first person to the reader in a voice that gives new meaning to the word unreliable. Sometimes he stands in for Thompson, who enjoyed his first big success with this novel but never apologized for his lack of highbrow aspirations. Here’s Lou Ford delivering a very Thompson-esque piece of literary theory:
In a lot of books I read, the writer seems to go haywire every time he reaches a high point. He’ll start leaving out punctuation and running his words together and babble about stars flashing and sinking into a deep dreamless sea. And you can’t figure out whether the hero’s laying his girl or a cornerstone. I guess that kind of crap is supposed to be pretty deep stuff – a lot of book reviewers eat it up, I notice. But the way I see it, the writer is just too goddam lazy to do his job. And I’m not lazy, whatever else I am. I’ll tell you everything.
Atmosphere is critical in any noir, and Winterbottom tries to capture the novel’s moral aridity through verbatim dialog and voice-overs from the novel, but it never quite gels. Much more successful at capturing atmosphere is the movie’s cinematography – those bleached colors, stark stretches of desert, and brooding mountains. It’s an extreme place where extreme things seem almost destined to happen. Another strong point is a killer soundtrack that includes works ranging from Enrico Caruso and Gustav Mahler to Hank Williams, Charlie Feathers, and the Western swing fiddler Spade Cooley. (Cooley, in an apt twist for these surroundings, was convicted of beating his wife to death in 1961.)
Best of all is the cast. Elias Koteas, who always looks like he was just dipped in dirty motor oil, plays a deliciously smarmy union boss. Ned Beatty is serviceable as the porcine tycoon. Bill Pullman has a nice little cameo as an unhinged defense attorney. Jessica Alba as the doomed hooker and Kate Hudson as Lou’s doomed fiancee both do fine jobs of living hot and dying (or appearing to die) hard. But the key gear in the works is Casey Affleck’s deadpan portrayal of Lou Ford. His smooth cheeks, lidded eyes, monotone drawl. and correct manners are a mask, his way of convincing the world he’s decent and a little slow, no threat to anyone. Affleck is not capturing the banality of evil; he’s uncovering the evil that can hide behind blandness. He did the same thing in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. This is true creepiness, and true art.
So creepy that Lou is capable of beating two women to death with his bare hands while murmuring, “I’m real sorry…I love you…goodbye.” Many viewers and critics had a hard time watching this graphic violence, which begs the question: Is domestic violence supposed to look pretty? Only if you’re in the fetishistically stylized world of a Guy Ritchie or Quentin Tarantino movie, where getting your head blown off can look so cool. Thompson – and Winterbottom – are making the point that such violence is both horrible and horrible to look at, and, what’s way worse and way more important, there’s a bit of Lou Ford inside every one of us. The only person who doesn’t get this is Lou Ford. He believes, rightly, that he’s sick, but he also believes, wrongly, that this sets him apart from the rest of humanity, that he’s one of the evil “us” who live in the midst of the sane and good “them.” As Lou puts it, “If the Good Lord made a mistake in us people it was in making us want to live when we’ve got the least excuse for it.” Later he adds, “Our kind. Us people. All of us that started the game with a crooked cue, that wanted so much and got so little, that meant so good and did so bad.”
Winterbottom’s portrayals of violence in this movie have been called everything from “misogynistic” to “feminist.” They’re neither. They’re valid artistic representations of an abiding fact of human life, especially when the humans are damaged goods. Thompson and Winterbottom never exalt Lou Ford or other monstrous characters, the way, say, Oliver Stone did in the execrable Natural Born Killers. I watched The Killer Inside Me with a friend who is a staunch opponent of the Guantanamo Bay prison and the death penalty. Unable to watch Lou Ford beat a second woman’s face into hamburger, my friend muttered, “I’d like to torture that sonofabitch to a slow death.” Then she stormed out, halfway through the movie. I took her revulsion to be a barometer of Thompson’s and Winterbottom’s success. They loosed my friend’s monstrous yearning to torture and kill the monstrous Lou Ford. In doing so they proved that there is, indeed, a bit of Lou Ford in all of us.
It wasn’t until I’d re-read all three novels and watched Winterbottom’s adaptations that I came to understand what ties these three movies together and what sets them apart. First, of course, they were all directed by a man with a high literary sensibility who is a master at casting actors and drawing quality performances out of them. Production values are uniformly high. Marcel Zyskind served as cinematographer on all three films, giving each a look appropriate to the story’s mood and message.
Then came the realization why these movies are so uneven: each had a different screenwriter. In Trishna, Winterbottom’s script shrewdly updates a story about a rural society’s traumatic urbanization; Boyce’s script of Tristram Shandy perfectly captures the antic, self-referential spirit of its source material; and The Killer Inside Me falls flat because Curran’s script treats Thompson’s novel as a blueprint rather than a springboard.
In other words, the hardware of a movie – its direction, acting, cinematography, editing, makeup, music. and wardrobe – can carry it only so far. It turns out that in movies just as much as in books, the writing is, always and forever, the thing.
One is tempted to attach the pop-cultural sobriquet “overnight sensation” to writer Edith Pearlman’s current moment in the sun. (She quotes comedian Danny Kaye when I used the phrase). As it is, Ann Patchett’s introduction to Binocular Vision (Lookout Books), Pearlman’s award-winning story collection and any number of reviews ask the question, “Why have I not heard of this fine writer before?”
Why indeed? Pearlman has published over 250 short fictions and works of non-fiction in all the usual (and some unusual) places, and has been anthologized in Best American Short Stories, New Stories from the South, The Pushcart Prize Collection,and The O. Henry Prize Stories Collection.
My own take on Ms. Pearlman’s fair-weather fame has something to do with the limited attention paid to the practitioners of short fiction — when I grouped her in the company of much heralded short story maestros Alice Munro and William Trevor, Edith blushed (though she did not demur, false modesty is not an attribute she has).
As is the case with my author colloquium, Edith Pearlman and I talked about many things – Tales From Shakespeare, Hermes typewriters, Penelope Fitzgerald, reading Dickens, the task of literature, Aunt Jemima cookie jars, and more.
Robert Birnbaum: What was the first book you remember reading?
RB: How old were you?
EP: I don’t know – eight. You asked about the first book I remember reading — I am sure there were books I read before then. My aunt taught me to read at four. I think we read [Lamb] together.
RB: How did she teach you?
EP: Some kids are ready to read. I don’t think they need much teaching and I was one of those. My grandson is the same way.
RB: Your reading career started in earnest when, at age six?
EP: I suppose so. There were plenty of children’s books around — maybe I read Five Little Peppers and How They Grew or–
RB: After reading Lamb were you a fully engaged reader?
EP: Then I read the plays in order. (Both laugh). No, I think I went back to Mary Poppins. I read Lamb with my aunt.
RB: And when did your writing career start?
EP: It started even earlier. I started a book, I think, at the age of three. And it was called All About Jews.
RB: I have recently come across three writers who began writing really young – Gary Shteyngart wrote a novel when he was six or seven. And Ben Katchor, he started early.
EP: I started to write the book at three, but I didn’t get any further than the title.
RB: Really – writer’s block? (Both laugh).
EP: I think so.
RB: Will you ever revisit that story?
EP: I have revisited it often in interviews.
RB: I mean All About Jews.
EP: Probably not.
RB: Are there generalizations with which one can describe short form fiction writers? For instance, many novelists write short fiction, but it seems that short fiction practitioners don’t often write novels.
EP: It is something that clings to you and that you fall in love with. And though I love to read novels and so do my colleagues, I have no wish to write in the long form. It’s my destiny.
RB: Have you ever tried?
EP: I started to write — actually I finished writing a mystery story with a friend but it wasn’t very good. And no — I don’t think I ever have.
RB: How do you know it wasn’t any good?
EP: Well, nobody took it.
RB: (Laughs). Alright. Writing came to you as an avocation, hobby, and obsession–
EP: It came to me as an occupation. I was making my living as computer programmer, so writing was in those days confined to letters. But my letters were rather long.
RB: Do you still write letters?
EP: I do still.
RB: Hand write?
EP: No, but a typewriter. I write my stories on a typewriter too.
RB: It seems there is a renaissance of interest in typewriters
EP: Yes, somebody told me that.
RB: Well, at least if you pay attention to The New York Times. I have a few — one is a [portable] Hermes 3000, which reportedly was the typewriter of choice for journalists.
EP: I used to use a Hermes. I don’t remember what model it was. It was pretty old.
RB: For some reason, the 3200 comes up in a few stories.
EP: It was a very good typewriter. I used it for years.
RB: Did you study writing anywhere?
EP: I took a course in college and a course or two in my 30s. I did not get an MFA — I took a total of three courses.
RB: In the course of your writing career I read that you had written over 250 stories.
EP: I have written 250 short pieces, not all fiction.
RB: Is there a group of people you talk with about writing?
EP: I have particular friend and colleague whom I meet with every month who is also a writer and we exchange manuscripts. That’s been going on for 25 years.
RB: Any fights?
EP: We have had and we are ruthless with each other. I also have a non-fiction group of four and we meet once a month too.
RB: Which writers do you like to read?
EP: Well, I like best to read Dickens and I read him over and over again. I have been doing that for a long time. So I have probably read each book five or seven times.
RB: Rereading is a great thing. I feel compelled to keep digging in to the newly published. Although I reread 100 Years of Solitude three or four times. The last time I didn’t feel I got anything new and it made me wonder about past judgments about the book.
EP: Well, in Dickens, each time I find something, some turn of phrase, a manipulation of plot or a character I hadn’t appreciated. I read them in order to live in them. My purpose is not to find new things. My purpose is to sink into them.
EP: That was a riff on Magwitch in Great Expectations. I don’t think Dickens appears.
EP: There is a story by Evelyn Waugh, a novel I can’t remember which one it is. The end of it is a about young people and explorers and takes place in Africa — Black Mischief? The hero alone is captured by a crazy, fanatic ex-preacher who lives alone. And is held captive in order that the young man can read over and over and over the novels of Dickens until the old man dies. It’s supposed to be a tragic ending. To me it sounded like a wonderful life.
RB: Is that the extent of your reading, you just read Dickens? (Both laugh).
EP: I thought you asked who I read most or my favorite — at any rate.
RB: You gave me the impression that you aren’t required to read any particular writer.
EP: Right. I don’t feel I have to read anybody. At this point I feel like I’ve probably read enough. Not enough to educate myself — if I stopped reading, which would be a horror, I would probably not be a different person. People are made by the books they read and I think I am finished. That is to say, my making is finished.
RB: Do you think the task of literature is to instruct and entertain?
EP: Exactly. How did you know?
EP: I would put entertain first.
RB: Richard Russo introduced the volume of Best American Stories he guest edited with an amusing anecdote about Isaac Bashevis Singer visiting the campus where Russo was teaching and answering a graduate student’s inquiry with the “task of literature is to instruct and entertain.” Apparently the gathering wanted a more elaborate answer. I think that view is actually taken from Horace.
EP: Oh really?
RB: Is writing short fiction important?
EP: Because literature is important. The project is important.
RB: Do you have any sense that it’s being drowned out?
EP: It is being attacked so to speak. Drowned out isn’t the word I would use. It’s being narrowed by all sorts of things. But it probably always was. We notice the Internet, television, and all these electronic things, but 100 years ago it was affected by farm work. Only the very rich could read.
RB: That was probably the case for most of history — that only a small fraction could benefit from reading and writing.
EP: I don’t know that the percentage is any different now.
RB: The percentage may not be the different but the cause may be and thus the hold it has on our civilization may be different — more tenuous. I work with people who don’t read — 35 year olds who play video games.
EP: Well some time ago they might have been plowing the fields.
RB: There is this meme of the educated working class guy who finishes his shift on the assembly line and goes home and picks up William Faulkner. In fact, that is the story of Southern writers like Larry Brown and William Gay. I don’t think that obtains any more — especially because I don’t think one can be poor with dignity in the 21st century.
EP: People do come home and read no matter what their occupation is.
RB: Working class people have to work hard — frequently taking on second jobs
EP: Why don’t they have that luxury in their off hours?
RB: Besides fatigue, there aren’t a lot of cultural prompts.
EP: Where did people get it before?
RB: This belabors the obvious, but this a world that is far different than what we were raised in.
EP: My husband plays early music — he plays the viola de gamba as an amateur. The early music crowd is eccentric and a world unto itself. And passionate and they don’t write early music — it’s already been written, but they play it and adapt it. It is their overwhelming hobby. I think that’s what reading may become. A small group of people who love it and don’t care if they are thought of as crazy.
RB: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 has seemed prescient to me.
EP: It is. It is.
RB: People who collect guns or Aunt Jemima cookie jars are passionate also. Today it would seem passion — people who like reading and literature passionately began to champion the independent bookstore. That’s okay. I mean, who likes cookie cutter retailers? On the other hand, booksellers were beatified as if they weren’t merchants and capitalists. C’mon! Maybe a few were/are heroic — Truman Metzel of the late Great Expectations in Evanston Ill., or Sylvia Beach in Paris, Vincent McCaffrey in Boston.
EP: And now they have readings. Those of us who want to sell books are delighted.
RB: I understand. Do you go to the annual BEA?
EP: Tell me what it stands for?
RB: It’s a big booksellers trade show.
EP: In Frankfurt?
RB: That’s the Frankfurt Book Fair. This is the big American convocation of the book industry.
EP: Obviously, I don’t go to it since I don’t know what it is.
RB: So, do you go to book related events?
EP: I go to literary events — mostly at colleges. I go to bookstores. I go to festivals. I go where I am asked. If the BEA invited me, I would go.
RB: That does speak to the assumption that writers should help their publishers promote and sell their books.
EP: Yes, right. I do it for my publisher.
RB: Your publisher is blessed to be located in a civilized place like North Carolina (laughs). Wilmington? Chapel Hill?
EP: Wilmington. Do you know him?
RB: Ben? No.
EP: I thought he introduced us.
RB: Oh yeah, by email.
EP: He knows you, knows of you.
RB: I don’t remember the chain of events that brought us together — it must be because you are an overnight sensation (laughs). I must have read about you in Variety.
EP: No you didn’t. I am an overnight sensation of a sort. I have been writing for 40 years and this is my fourth book. And I always had a small following. And I never expected to have any bigger following. I would go to my grave with a small collection, happy. So this somehow happened.
RB: You knew about Ann Patchett’s intro to [Binocular Vision]? [She writes:“My only challenge was to keep from interrupting myself as I read. So often I wanted to stop and say to the audience, ‘Did you hear that? Do you understand how good this is?’”]
EP: That certainly helped.
RB: And there was a review in the LA Times that took the same tone. As did Roxana Robinson. I am happy for you, but that’s a bit of journalistic gimmickry. There are many artists that one can say that about.
EP: Absolutely. I had the luck to be plucked. It was luck. There are writers absolutely as good as I am or better who write their books and don’t get noticed.
RB: I am disturbed by that — I am reluctantly drawn into thinking about the business part of book publishing. Success frequently is serendipitous. I am certain you know the stories of writers who have submitted their books to many publishers and were rejected.
EP: Absolutely. Or 30 rejection letters for a story.
RB: Tibor Fischer’s story is particularly amazing. Of the almost 50 publishers in Britain he was rejected by all except the last one he approached. How do these decisions get made?
EP: By human beings. By fallible human beings.
RB: It would be okay if there were some humility attached to the gate keeping of publishing. Don’t you think?
EP: Yes. And the prize givers ought to be more humble and certainly the writers. In general the writers are — they know how lucky they are.
RB: You start out with a sense that there is a civilizing effect of thinking and writing and telling stories. It made life somehow better. And looking around today, it may be true but the contemplative life seems to be losing the battle.
EP: It improves the individual life, I think. People who read, people who write–
RB: Wouldn’t it be nice if they were to be salvation for all of us? (Laughs).
EP: I would, but I am not a proselytizer.
RB: All right, I scratch that line of thought. I have three favorite stories in Binocular Vision. “The Ministry of Restraint,” in part because I didn’t know what was going to happen — how well do you remember your stories — pretty well?
EP: I think so.
RB: A guy takes a trip to some backwater town, and takes a train back to the capitol and meets a woman. The train is blocked at a tunnel and the passengers have to get off and return to the starting point — as man and the woman walk side by side, their hands come close to touching but do not. And then over the years they meet. In final pages, you learn explicitly that they were lovers once. I was charmed by their initial close proximity which was brought to some fruition much later.
EP: I’m glad you liked it.
RB: And then the heart wrenching tale of a damaged infant. Why did you name her Tess?
EP: I don’t remember. I don’t remember. It has a slightly angelic appeal to me.
RB: Any connection to Thomas Hardy?
EP: No. She wasn’t named after Tess of the D’Ubervilles.
RB: How many Tesses do you know?
EP: Probably none.
RB: It’s an unusual name
EP: Yes, it’s taken from the nickname for Theresa.
RB: Was it a hard story to write?
EP: Yes. I wrote it in pieces. And, of course, it’s told in pieces. And I didn’t write it in the order of its final form.
RB: You chose to have a number of people tell the story.
EP: Only one person speaks in her own voice — that’s the mother. There are probably a half of dozen people who see the child — each of them has a thought that you know about. But it’s the mother who speaks in the first person.
RB: And it was hard to write because?
EP: It dealt with such sad things.
RB: Do you have enough time to emotionally identify with the characters?
EP: Yes, I think I do. I have enough intensity to get involved.
RB: I wonder about the aftermath of writing a novel, which requires a writer to inhabit lives for a period of time. How long does it take to write a story — a year?
EP: No, no. A few months. I suppose in a hardhearted way I forget the sadness of the story I have written. Life goes on and I write the next story.
RB: Are you tempted to write what seems to be a current trend–
EP: Linked stories? Well I have several stories that take place in the same place — in soup kitchen. The stories about the woman who works for the joint distribution committee — there are four about her. It’s not a temptation so much as I am not through with that character, so I want to write another story about them.
RB: Is there one thing that moves you in taking up or developing a story — a name, an image, feeling, a memory?
EP: All of those things. It’s not one — something I dream–
RB: When you begin, do you know what is going to happen?
EP: When I start out, it’s a lot of improvising and I write many pages of improvisation and then I begin to see what story I want to write. I start all over again with the knowledge that I have gotten from the improvisation.
RB: Do you think the piece is finished when the story is written?
EP: Well, I take them to my friend, whom I meet every month, who is ruthless with me and I with her.
RB: Does she use any instruments in her ruthlessness (laughs)?
EP: No, no. It’s all an abuse of the mind. And she either says, “This is almost done” or “Go back.” And I do.
RB: One writer told me that she submits the draft — her editor sends a back a few notes, which enrage her. She writes back to her editor expressing her anger. The editor doesn’t respond. And a few weeks later, the writer decides the editor was right (laughs).
EP: She had to get over her rage and humiliation first.
RB: Really! Where was I?
EP: You were going to tell me the third story you liked.
RB: Right. It was the one entitled “Chance.” It had a Torah study group card game. I enjoyed the Hassidic slant, but I really like that it went somewhere I didn’t see coming. I lost track of why the card game devolved to the temple and presentation ceremony.
EP: It begins with the Torah being delivered, and so I had hoped that the Torah would always be somewhere in the back of the reader’s mind.
RB: Yes, it’s mentioned in the middle of the story. I was distracted by the card game interlude.
EP: Well, the title of the story is “Chance.” That’s what poker is about–
RB: And what the Torah is about (laughs)?
EP: No, that’s what the destruction of Jewry was about. That is to say it was chance that some Jews lived and some died.
RB: The story’s last two lines were quite powerful. Story collections are a delight because despite what is usually a deliberate sequence you can go through and begin with titles that you find appealing. I would never skip around in a novel.
EP: My daughter used to read novels that way. A piece here and a piece there. And I read somewhere that Nabokov wrote his novels that way on 5×8 cards. There is a writer who found or could have found his ideal reader.
RB: Movies are made that way — out of narrative sequence.
EP: When I was a girl, I‘d go to a double feature in the middle and go around for the part I missed. They don’t let you do that now. I tried and was told that the director did mean for you to see it that way.
RB: In the last few years, I have relaxed my personal rule about finishing books that I begin–
EP: Many of my friends have said that [same] thing to me: “Now, if I don’t like it out it goes.”
RB: It means I have shifted more responsibility to the writer. It’s always an issue, the immediacy of our reaction — you may hate a book one day and find it quite readable the next.
EP: Yes. And the things we believe today, we can expect not to believe tomorrow.
RB: (Laughs) If we can remember them.
RB: Do you go back to your work?
EP: Well, I do when I make a collection. Because it’s a chance to improve them. So I go back — when a story is accepted by a magazine, it’s an opportunity to correct things.
RB: You see that as a correction?
EP: Improve? If it then goes into an anthology like Best American, I take an opportunity to correct or revise there — but not much. Not wholesale revision. And then, for a collection of my own, I certainly have an opportunity to change or review.
RB: Where does that impulse come from? At one point you felt the story was finished. Not perfect but done.
EP: I thought it was done to the best of my ability at the time.
RB: And then you got better since you wrote it? (Laughs).
EP: I don’t know that I got better — I got different. I was in an event in which three short stories were read by three actresses which was a lot of fun. I was watching one writer listening to her own story — she said later all she could hear were the infelicities. So I am sure if that story gets re-collected she’ll change some things.
RB: There is also the matter that the creator has expectations of the audience to grasp their creation in a certain way.
EP: No, I don’t feel that way. I agree with the statement, “Trust the tale, not the teller.” My attitude about a story I have written may well be different from a reader’s. And I don’t mind that.
RB: Would you say it should be different?
EP: No, I don’t say that. It can be appreciated in many ways. Or not appreciated.
RB: This recent collection was a collection of stories that already existed?
EP: Thirteen new stories that had not been in a book. They had previously been published in magazines. There were 16 stories that had never been collected.
RB: They had all been previously published somewhere?
EP: Except for one. I can’t remember which one.
RB: Some writers say they will write stories specifically for a book.
EP: No, I don’t do that. I write hoping that a magazine will take it. And I don’t think about a collection until I have quite a few stories.
RB: Why are writers like Alice Munro, William Trevor, and yourself admired in a way that seems different than many writers?
EP: Thank you very much for putting me in that threesome. I was so dazzled by that that I didn’t hear the rest of the question.
RB: (Laughs) I took your breath away. Does it strike you that there’s a craftsmanship assigned to the writers I mentioned. That short fiction writers are looked as artisans?
EP: Yes, we have to have our end not only in mind, but pointed towards, within the story. Like the ones you mentioned.
RB: You seem to travel a lot.
EP: I’m traveling now because–
RB: You’re an overnight sensation?
EP: Did you ever hear Danny Kaye’s comment when he became a success and somebody said he was an overnight sensation? He responded, “Yes, after 20 years in the Borscht Belt.” I’m not an overnight sensation, but at the moment I’m in demand. It won’t last forever, so I am responding to it.
RB: How do you know? Mostly there is a six-week window of attention for books and then goodbye. Your “15 minutes” has lasted since the Spring.
EP: It’s been three months.
RB: That’s a long time.
EP: Yes, yes. It received these very good reviews. But other books are coming along with good reviews.
RB: What’s come out that has really excited reviewers?
EP: The Tiger Wife. I’m trying to think of fiction — I am sure there are others.
RB: I think not. Except for David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King.
EP: What about David Mitchell’s book?
RB: That was a while ago — it just came out in paper.
EP: I bought it in hardcover.
RB: Did you like it?
EP: I haven’t read it.
RB: (Chuckles) You bought the book and haven’t read it.
EP: I have a lot of books I haven’t read.
RB: What are you reading now?
EP: The Worst Journey in the World, which is about Scott’s last expedition. It’s a nice alternative to fiction.
RB: Do you know Andrea Barrett’s The Voyage of the Narwhal? It’s about an Arctic expedition.
EP: I’ll bet its good — I like her short stories. Anthony Doerr got very good reviews.
RB: Sure, but within the usual window of attention. And not a widespread choice. So what’s next? Any polar expeditions?
EP: No, no. I have a grandchild I walk every day. I have lots of friends whom I meet for coffee. Love to go to the movies.
RB: What was the last movie you saw you liked?
EP: I liked The King’s Speech. I usually like movies when I see them. There are very few movies I don’t like.
RB: Meaning you choose carefully?
EP: No, I have a general love of movies. I love the experience.
RB: Do you watch TV?
EP: (Shakes her head).
EP: I don’t have one.
RB: Wow. Isn’t there a whole bunch of culture you are missing?
EP: I am. Yes there is. I do lead a somewhat insulated life without television.
RB: Well, you have missed one of the great TV series — The Wire.
EP: Oh yeah? What’s that about?
RB: Big city life in Baltimore — drugs, unions, corruption, public schools, politics, media. There were five seasons and every season had a different focus. It was a Tolstoyan tale.
EP: I am sure I am missing things that are good. I have a feeling that I’d become addicted if I started watching. And I also have a very good radio.
RB: What do you listen to?
EP: Music mostly. I listen to interesting interviews
RB: What’s it like to be on book tour? Especially when a small amount of people show up for an event — has that happened to you?
EP: It certainly has. This [current] book seems to get a crowd. I read for my other three books a lot and seven people would be there. You do as well as you can for those seven people. I once was on a lineup that included David Sedaris and I was the first reader and he was the second. I had the experience of standing before 500 people reading my story — all of 499 had come for him. It was fun.
RB: That’s show business.
EP: Thank you.
I first heard about Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd about twenty years ago, when I was in seventh or eighth grade. My classmates and I were all reading Stephen King and Dean R. Koontz, and our English teacher attempted to guide our reading choices to higher-brow material.”I think it’s great that you’re all reading so much,” she said. “But when you’re choosing books to read, try to read classics.” She mentioned, for example, that she had recently read Far From the Madding Crowd while recovering from surgery.I had no intention of abandoning King or Koontz, but I did check out a copy of Hardy’s novel from the public library. I tried to read it but didn’t get far. The first two paragraphs had enough unfamiliar vocabulary and tonal foreignness to repel me as a thirteen-year-old:When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.His Christian name was Gabriel, and on working days he was a young man of sound judgment, easy motions, proper dress, and general good character. On Sundays he was a man of misty views, rather given to postponing, and hampered by his best clothes and umbrella: upon the whole, one who felt himself to occupy morally that vast middle space of Laodicean neutrality which lay between the Communion people and the drunken section.It took me ten years to try another Hardy novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which I read and loved after my first year as an English teacher myself. The pleasures afforded by Hardy’s fiction, I realized, require patience, a more mature appreciation of language, wider knowledge of the adult world, and a sense of the past. (Google is helpful, too, in deciphering Hardy’s obscure mythological and Biblical references.)This summer, as I picked up Far From the Madding Crowd for another go, I was better equipped to appreciate Hardy’s wryly delicate humor in passages like the following: “It may have been observed that there is no regular path for getting out of love as there is for getting in. Some people look upon marriage as a short cut that way, but it has been known to fail.”Funny – and, indeed, as in Tess and The Return of the Native, in this novel Hardy concerns himself with love’s entanglements. Bathsheba Everdene, a young and imperious beauty, named for the woman who occasioned King David’s sinful plotting, finds herself involved not in a romantic triangle, but a romantic quadrilateral, as three men vie for her affections. Their names, like hers, are evocative of their identities: Oak, the solid shepherd; Boldwood, the increasingly audacious farmer; and the Troy, the scoundrel as fallen as the citadel that is his namesake.There’s a reason that the romantic triangle is such a commonly-used fictional device: it has a geometric elegance, a pointedness that keeps a story moving. The romantic quadrilateral is harder to make work. Hardy does it well enough that 135 years later people are still reading the book. Compared to later works like Tess and Native, though, this one – the earliest of Hardy’s best – known novels – is a bit of a disappointment.For one thing, it lacks a narrative center. This romantic quadrilateral is nothing so neat as a square or a rectangle. It’s more ungainly – an irregular trapezoid, perhaps. It’s difficult work to set up three suitors in a reasonably rounded way, and while Hardy’s developing one, the other two tend to fade to the background. In the end, the male characters come perilously close to being as wooden as their names or, in Troy’s case, a bit too starkly villainous.At times the plot’s contrivances seem arbitrary, meant to force the narrative (originally published serially in a magazine) in its intended direction without especial regard for plausibility: Oak lies down in an apparently abandoned wagon, whose owners return and just so happen to be heading to Bathsheba’s farm; Troy nearly drowns and, believed dead, runs off to America to join the circus for a convenient span of time, returning just when his presence will cause the most upheaval.Bathsheba herself, vain, proud, described by one of the men who marries her as “this haughty goddess, dashing piece of womanhood, Juno-wife of mine,” seems to be a rough draft for Eustacia Vye, the more famous heroine of Hardy’s Return of the Native. Eustacia (a favorite of Holden Caulfield’s, you may recall) is, in Hardy’s description, “the raw material of a divinity. On Olympus she would have done well,” he writes, for “she had the passions and instincts which make a model goddess, that is, those which make not quite a model woman.” In comparison to Eustacia, Bathsheba is too kind, too mortal, and less vivid.In other ways, too, Madding seems a rough draft of Native, which arranges its characters not in a triangle or quadrilateral, but in overlapping Venn diagrams of desire. In both novels, some characters come to tragic ends, some are seared by their experiences but survive, chastened but wiser. Return of the Native was published in 1878, four years after Far From the Madding Crowd, and in most ways it’s a better book. It has a sharper sense of place; a more forceful narrative arc; more emotionally weighty and realistic plot turns; and, despite a rather tedious beginning in which backstory is provided by the gossip of eccentric country folk, less of such stock characters, whose humorousness has not aged well.I guess you could say that my eighth grade teacher gave me a bad recommendation. After all these years, finally reading this novel was a bit anticlimactic. But in the larger sense, she was right: King and Koontz may have been fine for my adolescence, but ultimately they were bridges to more ambitious reading projects. My teacher’s offhanded remark about Hardy stuck with me, giving me a sense of the rewarding places to which those bridges might lead. Though I might have skipped this particular novel without much of a loss, Hardy’s best work is definitely worth the journey.
So that you may get to know us better, it’s The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life that like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments or on your own blogs.Today’s Question: What is the biggest, most glaring gap in your lifetime of reading?Edan: There are so many gaping holes in my reading! I haven’t read Proust (saving him for my white-haired years) and, beyond Chekhov, not many Russians (I’ll be reading Anna Karenina next month and I’m looking forward to it). I haven’t read Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow, or Infinite Jest – I tend to avoid big books. I’m too embarrassed to name one very famous Shakespeare play I know next to nothing about. I never read mysteries or horror, mostly because I’m a scared wimp, but I’m thinking of reading a Patricia Highsmith novel this year. Recently, I’ve started to read more books in translation, and since graduating from college I’ve made a point of reading all the classics I missed, like To the Lighthouse and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, both of which I loved. I’m also making myself read more nonfiction, since I never would otherwise. I haven’t even read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood! Writing this reminds me of all the writers I haven’t read: Homer, Norman Mailer, John Irving, Gertrude Stein, John McPhee, J.K. Rowling. That’s right, I haven’t read Harry Potter!Why am I wasting my time writing this? I must go read. Now.Andrew: As I do a quick mental survey of my life of reading, I notice a number of gaping holes. Some beckon; others continue to keep me at bay.Chronologically, then: The Classics. Aside from some excerpts of the ancient Greeks in high school English, I’ve never delved into classical literature. I have seen a number of theatrical adaptations of classical Greek plays, but that’s about it. Aside from excerpts, I’ve never even read Homer.I’ll jump ahead to the 1800s only because I’m not exactly sure what I’m missing from the intervening centuries. Lets assume EVERYTHING. (except Don Quixote – I’ve actually read that). So, on to the 1800s: I’ve never read Moby Dick or Middlemarch. I’ve done quite well re: Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, and the Russians. I’ve also done quite well in early-mid 20th century fiction – that was always (and remains) my favorite literary era.More recently, I’ve done quite well with modern British fiction, and I’ve also been quite good at Latin American fiction from the past 50 years (Mutis, Marquez, Borges, Bolano). But still some gaps remain in 20th century fiction: Thomas Pynchon and Margaret Atwood (I should be stripped of my Canadian citizenship for that).Before the Millions, contemporary American fiction had been a giant hole. But over the past 6 years I’ve delved deeply into Lethem, Chabon, Franzen, and once I can successfully wrap my puny brain around David Foster Wallace’s encyclopedic prose, I’ll actually finish Infinite Jest. It’s mesmerizing, but exhausting.Emily: When it comes to playing readerly “I Never,” there are rather a lot of burly man-authors, chiefly twentieth-century man-authors, whose work I’ve never read. Hemingway (other than the 4 page story “Hills Like White Elephants”), Kerouac (a bit of his poetry; enough of On the Road), Roth, Updike, Kesey, Heller, Burroughs, Cormac McCarthy, Vonnegut, Pynchon, Moody, and Foster Wallace all fall into the category of authors I haven’t read. Many of them fall also into the category of authors I have no interest in reading. Perhaps it is that I intuit (or imagine – not having read them, it is hard to say) a masculinist, vaguely misogynist aura that has put me off; Or, as in the cases of Pynchon and Foster Wallace, a virtuousic formal complexity or grandiose heft, that I also associate with the masculine artistic mind. There is, I am aware, no way to justify my philistine (and perhaps sexist) distrust of these authors – my sense that I would find their depictions of violence and apocalypse, aimless wandering, women conquered, uninteresting; that I think I would find their self-conscious cleverness, their feats of stylistic and structural brilliance somewhat tedious; that in reading B.R. Meyer’s “A Reader’s Manifesto” at The Atlantic some years ago, I decided that Meyers’ extended pull quotes designed to illustrate McCarthy’s “muscular” style were as much (more) than I’d ever need of McCarthy’s much lauded prose:While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who’s will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of who’s will and the stout thighbones and knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations of who’s will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned. (All the Pretty Horses, 1992)No thank you. Well-founded, my prejudices certainly are not, but I do not apologize for them or intend to renounce them. Cormac McCarthy may keep his pretty horses – give me clarity, proportion, precision; give me Austen and Burney, Defoe, Iris Murdoch, P.G. Woodhouse, Willa Cather, Evelyn Waugh, Mary McCarthy, Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis. If one must be a philistine, it is best to be an unrepentant one.Garth: What is the biggest hole in my lifetime of reading? The question should probably be phrased in the plural: holes. I’ve never read Kundera; never read Saramago; never read Robinson Crusoe, or Wuthering Heights, or Clarissa; William James, Slavoj Zizek, Henderson the Rain King… Then again, these are kind of scattershot: smallish holes, with some space in between them.Where I feel a huge constellation of holes, threatening to make one giant hole large enough to swallow me, is in Classics. Especially the Greeks. I would like to take a year and just read Plato and Aristotle and the Greek dramas. Or go back to school… So much is built on a basic corpus of Hellenistic knowledge that I somehow never acquired in school. We did The Iliad, The Odyssey, Oedipus… and that’s pretty much it.Kevin: The holes are too numerous to count and the biggest are likely ones I’m not even aware of. I have tried over the last couple years to close some of the most gaping omissions in my reading – secondary Shakespeare plays and the big books of Russian literature being two areas of particularly concerted effort. What remains? Well, a lot. Two that seem particularly important are the British romantic poets and the modernist. The former feels like washing the dishes, to be done of necessity but without any great joy. I think I’ll save Lord Byron and his court for later life, when the years will hopefully have afforded me the wisdom to enjoy their work more. I feel a greater urgency with the modernists, in part because I’ve had enough false starts that I worry I lack the concentration to extract the good stuff from their difficult prose. For about three years I’ve been thirty pages into Mrs. Dalloway and likewise with Ulysses. When it’s the time of day when I typically turn to fiction, I find I lack the appetite to pick them up to begin the fight anew. So, the hole remains, and seems even to grow deeper by the day.Max: This turns out to be a rather liberating exercise. The largest missing piece in my reading experience has been Faulkner, I think. I’ve never read any of his books, though I made a poor and ultimately unsuccessful attempt at The Sound and the Fury in college. I’ve long felt that I should have gotten started on the Russians sooner. So far, I’ve only got Crime and Punishment under my belt. I think I’d like to try Anna Karenina next. I’ve also never read Lolita. Updike’s passing this week reminded me that I’ve never read any of his books. The same is true of DeLillo’s books and Foster Wallace’s. By Philip Roth, I’ve read only Portnoy’s Complaint, which I know leaves out many, many good books. I really need to read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, Tree of Smoke and Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and The Echo Maker by Richard Powers. There are likely many more that I can’t even recall that I haven’t read, but I’ll leave it with Virginia Woolf, whose To the Lighthouse I started not long ago but ended up setting aside when it failed to grab me (or rather, I failed to be grabbed by it).So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: What is the biggest, most glaring gap in your lifetime of reading?
The Thin Place by Kathryn Davis was the first book I read in 2007, mainly because more than one Millions contributors had celebrated it in 2006. This lovely novel, about the residents of a small New England town, opens with three girls coming across a dead man on the beach. One of the girls, Mees Kipp, uses her powers to coax him back to life. Davis writes this moment beautifully: Like reaching your arm into a box you can’t see inside of except – guess what? – you’re already there. Like the man who put his arm in a jar of mosquitoes in the filmstrip about yellow fever to test his hypothesis, even though he knew he would die. So easy to die here, squashed under a landslide of fat and blood. Quick. Quick. Ship in a bottle. Harp strings.A more traditional novelist might have centered the story on Mees’s powers, but not Davis, whose narrative eye follows many residents of the town, including a few dogs. Everyone’s consciousness is rich and distinct, even those of the animals, and the wisdom of this omniscient narrator is a thing to marvel. Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy should not be read in high school. From my unscientific poll, I’ve learned that anyone who tried this book as a teenager found it unbearably boring. Thankfully, I read this novel as an adult (or, okay, as a twenty-six year old), and loved the story of Tess, a “pure woman” as the original subtitle asserts. It was not only deliciously tragic, it was also readable – I devoured this in less than a week, and mourned its end for twice that long. The narrator’s unrelenting compassion for Tess, his assertion that she is pure and moral, despite her society’s view of her as a “fallen woman,” felt quite bold, and the descriptions of nature, “…the seasons in their moods, mornings and evenings, night and noon, winds in their different tempers, waters and mists, shades and silences, and the voices of inanimate things,” made me want to go milk some cows in the English countryside. The End of Vandalism, which depicts the lives of Midwesterners in fictional Grouse County, was one of three books by Tom Drury that I read this year. It was certainly the best of the three, although all were stunning in their comic yet compassionate treatment of their characters, and their crisp prose, not an extraneous word anywhere. Drury doesn’t write for plot, but it doesn’t matter – these characters’ lives are strange and mundane, hilarious and tragic. This was a book that made me slap my knee with laughter (really), and then, an hour later, weep. I’m so glad I discovered Tom Drury this year. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz is a glorious, hilarious, heart-wrenching, and sometimes even terrifying novel, and Diaz’s exuberant prose, packed with Spanish and nerd-cult jargon and lines like “the sexy isthmus of her waist,” thrilled me again and again. I love the risky point of view here: the great authorial omniscience of a narrator who’s simply a guy who knew Oscar and his family, these chapters interspersed with sections narrated by Oscar’s sister. I loved the ranting footnotes about the Dominican Republic, the unflinching accounts of Trujillo’s cruelties, and the book’s focus on the corporeal – titties everywhere, and Oscar’s fatness never forgotten. What a novel! More from A Year in Reading 2007