Working in a bookshop every day, seeing much-anticipated new releases being freshly unpacked and incredible vintage paperbacks that have wound their ways onto our shelves, it’s almost impossible not to slip a book into my pocket on the way out each evening.
Once home, the competition begins. Do I continue with last night’s novel, Feeding Time by fellow Parisian Adam Biles, a dazzling work on the dismal decay, and humour, of old age? “Everyone lied, and everyone knew they were being lied to, and yet lying and being lied to was preferable to the truth.” Or shall it be Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm, an engrossing exploration of neuroscience? “That memories, dreams, and reflections should consist of jelly is simply too strange to understand.” Marsh’s book was recommended to me by the featured writer at last night’s shop event, the charming Philippe Sands, author of East West Street, a compelling journey into the origins of the terms “crimes against humanity” and “genocide,” all told alongside his own fascinating family history.
There’s a pile next to my bed of the books I’ve recently finished and been recommending to friends. Animal by Sara Pascoe is a hilarious, enlightening account on what it is to be a woman today. Jo Marchant’s Cure explores the use of hypnosis to avoid pain — I was especially intrigued to learn we’re now relying more than ever on medical pain relievers that are, reportedly, starting to work less effectively on us. I gave a copy to my doctor who often seems amused by my recommendations. Tribe by Sebastian Junger, a timely exploration, convincingly argues for unison rather than division in society, underscoring our shared humanity: “Our fundamental desire, as human beings, is to be close to others, and our society does not allow for that” and yet “Intact communities are far more likely to survive than fragmented ones.” Janine Di Giovanni’s The Morning They Came for Us is also essential reading for this tumultuous time, offering important insight into Syria: “What you yearn for more than anything is for the ordinary to return. The simple pleasure of going to a shop to buy apples.”
A day without poetry is a sad one so, in the morning, I pick a page at random from the rather erotic Dirty Pretty Things by Michael Faudet, which a friend told me had marked her significantly: “two drowning lovers lost at sea, my lips adrift in yours.” One of the booksellers I work with is a huge Elena Ferrante fan (who isn’t, really?) and lent me the slim and shocking The Lost Daughter. Just seeing its spine here on the shelf reminds me of the story’s cold ending, a slap in the face. It sits next to Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, in a lovely vintage edition, which I thought wouldn’t keep me up all night, but did. It haunts me still.
I finish the last pages of Flâneuse before leaving to flâne around Paris with its author, Lauren Elkin, hats slid down over our foreheads Jean Rhys-style: “Traces of the past city are, somehow, traces of the selves we might once have been.” I’m looking forward also to finishing Zadie Smith’s addictive Swing Time and Ali Smith’s Autumn, which sits on my dresser, a leaf stuck between its pages: “How many worlds can you hold in a hand. In a handful of sand.” After, I plan to reread a chapter from Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, an engrossing book on artists and loneliness: ”What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast.”
My continual search for intelligent writing on motherhood was most recently satisfied by Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors:
I had imagined that I was going to meet, at birth, a very sophisticated form of plant life, a form that I would daily deliver to an offsite greenhouse; I would look forward to getting to know the life-form properly later, when she had moved into a sentient kingdom, maybe around age three. But instead, within hours of being born, the being—perhaps through chemicals the emotional-vision equivalent of smoke machines — appeared to me not like a plant at all, but instead like something much more powerfully moving than just another human being, she had appeared as an animal, a previously undiscovered old-world monkey, but one with whom I could communicate deeply: it was an unsettling, intoxicating, against-nature feeling. A feeling that felt like black magic.
In the evening, the chill from the walk home still on my fingertips, I smell the mulled wine brewing in the kitchen as I prepare to nestle in with Jeanette Winterson’s Christmas Days: 12 Stories and 12 Feasts for 12 Days. “Stories round the fire at Christmas, or told with frosty breath on a wintry walk, have a magic and a mystery that is part of the season.”
Tomorrow there will be more titles in which to indulge my curiosity, to expand into other worlds, to seek for answers, to delve into the imagination.
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This year, like many before it, my year in reading was largely a record of my year in teaching, as a majority of the books I read were books I assigned in classes taught during spring semester, a summer session, and fall semester. This means that I was either rereading books I admire or, in some cases, reading for the first time books that I hoped and expected to admire. (Industry secret: Professors, on occasion, have not previously read the books they assign.)
This year I had roughly 30 books on my syllabi, 20 of which I had read before. I very happily reread Alice McDermott’s That Night and Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters, for perhaps the eighth time each. It was a painful pleasure to revisit Bartleby and Ivan Ilyich, James Welch’s magnificent Winter in the Blood, Toni Morrison’s elusive Love, Glenway Wescott’s underappreciated The Pilgrim Hawk, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and Lorrie Moore’s Anagrams, which has held up nicely indeed.
The books I had not read previously are almost all books I will eagerly read again, including Mavis Gallant’s Paris Stories, Lucia Berlin’s Where I Live Now, Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck. I was completely bowled over by Rebecca Lee’s collection Bobcat and Other Stories.
And then there’s always the “busman’s holiday” books, the ones I sneak in during breaks in teaching. This year I enjoyed the novellas in Dorthe Nors’s So Much for that Winter and the exhilarating stories in Jensen Beach’s Swallowed by the Cold. Rachel Cusk’s novel Outline was published nearly two years ago and has been thoroughly celebrated at this point, but I just got to it over the summer. Everyone was right: Outline is indeed thrilling in its form and point of view, and it’s a genuinely innovative book. I haven’t been as excited about a novel in a long time. It will no doubt make its way onto a syllabus soon.
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For most of her career, Cynthia Ozick has written challenging and brilliant fictions that examine the metaphysical aspects of Jewish culture, examining fabled belief systems, gender dynamics, and the walls culture might build with even-handedness and cautious interest. Novels and short stories like The Puttermesser Papers and “The Shawl” engage with cultural values and history in unique and dark ways, while several nonfiction books, including the forthcoming Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays, examine the value of criticism and the state of the literary novel today. Erudite, intellectually rigorous, and brimming with generous insight, Ozick’s work as a critic and thinker demands a kind of attention from the reader, requires the reader to think along for the promise of revelation.
We corresponded about the new book via email. What follows is a conversation with someone just as interested in and excited about literature as they were when they first put pen to paper.
The Millions: In a Paris Review chat you did in 1985, you talked about having your routine consist of rising in the late afternoon and working through the night. Has anything changed since then in terms of how you approach the work?
Cynthia Ozick: Much blood has gone under the bridge since then. In the last half-dozen years, I’ve turned into a Snatcher: I read in desperate snatches in the interstices of the Quotidian, and dream of finding three uninterrupted quiet hours to think, moon, mentally maunder, and, above all, write. I am pursued by an anti-Muse; her name is Life. Her homely multisyllabic surname is often left unenunciated, but to certain initiates it may be whispered: Exigency.
TM: What’s your reading life like? Are you reading for, say, an hour or so, and then drafting/editing for a while? Is there urgency to write every day?
CO: Unlike in earlier years, I nowadays consume public information voluminously. I read both The New York Times and Wall Street Journal (one is the poison, the other the antidote, and make of that what you will!), and also many magazines, both the traditional kind and the digital. In terms of living wholly in one’s own allotted time, the world is not too much with us. Decades ago, though, it would have been inconceivable for me to acknowledge this. Whatever counted as “politics” was of no interest; nothing mattered but capital-L Literature and its inevitable sibling, History.
Still, writing, whether fiction or essays, is something apart from “information,” and rises out of the well of intuition: every human mind has its individuated “tone.” So when you ask about “the editing process,” and speak of “drafting/editing” — I find these reparative procedures foreign to me. I will not move on to the next sentence until the previous one is fully satisfactory. Perhaps there are two species of writers: those who complete an entire manuscript provisionally, with permission to go back to “polish the verbal surface,” as one such writer once described it, and those who endlessly and obstinately fiddle in place. (As for writing every day, see above.)
TM: You’re a writer who develops both formative essays and novels and short stories in nearly equal measure. Since part of drafting fiction involves investigating certain aspects of life, I wonder what you see as being the overlap between scrutiny in your essays and scrutiny in your plot lines, or if they’re completely separate.
CO: The difference is crucial: it’s between knowing and unknowing (rather than not knowing). If you are going to write an essay on, say, twilight in Sweden, or on Henry James, you know that much: you have your subject already in hand. But if you set out to write a story, whether long or short, you begin with less than a glimpse: a shred of idea that once moved you, or the wisp of memory of a mother and daughter you encountered for seconds as you passed them in a train, or simply an inchoate feeling. Plotting, though, can be intellectual or serendipitous, a deliberate plan or a revelation or an insight, and this can apply also to the “plot” of an essay; but overall an essay is an assessment, or rearrangement, of given materials, while a story must discover what it is made of in the very course of its own making.
TM: I’m interested in how this differentiates from writing an essay or a piece of creative nonfiction.
CO: In writing fiction, one creates a character, but very often it’s the character who influences the trajectory of events and ultimately creates the story. This wouldn’t necessarily apply to certain types of genre fiction, such as the detective novel, where the writer is in full control and follows the design of a prepared plot. But when the imagination is untethered and free, the writer may lose control of the character, and the character may stubbornly decide against the writer’s initial wish; or else the character reveals a motive that the writer never anticipated. This can hardly happen with what’s called “creative nonfiction,” despite the permissive adjective. The subject matter of non-fiction is fixed, chosen, unalterable. A nonfiction piece on the Civil War, say, can’t change the nature of the battles; both action and outcome remain today what they were then. The writer may play around a bit with the personalities of Grant or Lee, but the spine of the narrative is immovable. As for the “personal” essay, the writer, like a character in fiction, can assert whatever she desires; as in fiction, she is immune to the fact-checker.
TM: What do you think it might take in order for a writer to produce a “great American novel” in today’s literary landscape, or even one that has relevance and power beyond what it achieves in the insular writing community?
CO: How vast is the invisible infrastructure of this proposal! It puts in question an entire culture, and how a civilization expresses itself. Some say that the Great American Novel has already come into being, in The Great Gatsby, or in Moby-Dick, and a good case can be made for each of these. Dreiser’s Sister Carrie might be another candidate, or The Scarlet Letter, or The Adventures of Augie March. Your query, though, speaks of the current literary landscape, confirming that “what it might take” still isn’t clear. One answer might be that the day is young — but can we see any inkling of a presumptive heir to Bellow or Updike or Nabokov, or to so many others of the previous generation (the list would be long and impressive) who have left a formative mark on American experience? One sign, or omen, would be the presence of a writer of formidable language power, willing to use all the sources and resources of American prose; instead, we swim in a welter of the slipshod easy vernacular. Also absent, so far, is some overriding feeling or idea, or, at the least, something larger than pipsqueak cynicism. Finally, given that the country is roiling and boiling toward some unknown new dispensation grounded in narrow competing triumphalist claims, where is the bold and necessary ironist who will write our Death of Ivan Ilyich?
Or else, and why not? Maybe what we are waiting for will be the Great American Comic Novel! And a final caveat: the lineaments of a sublime work of the imagination can’t, after all, be prescribed, and one is guilty (mea culpa!) of tendentious theorizing if one dares to do it.
TM: Is technology perhaps counterintuitive to to serious literary debate, analysis, and scholarship, or do you feel that it marks a sort of natural progression and provides a platform to showcase what writing has come to in the age of the iPhone?
CO: Last year I finally surrendered my pen. I could not conceive of writing seriously on a keyboard facing an illuminated rectangle, and used the computer mainly as a means of transcribing a completed work (as was the typewriter in the past). The keyboard and the monitor struck me as enemies of the freedom of language, since it seemed that the words could come only through the pressure of one’s fingers on the narrow neck of a pen. Or to say it otherwise, the ink flowed directly out of the hand; and what was ink if not language? Yet now, as you see, I’ve learned (to my amazement) that one can actually think on a computer!
TM: In a culture of writers that either embrace the concept of direct narrative or a fractured storytelling structure, would the middle ground between the two extremes be something new to emerge, and if so, where does it lie?
CO: Either-or has never been storytelling’s only available way; from early on, there has always been that “middle ground.” Mostly it has been a companionship between fiction and an interpolated essay, side by side in the same novel. We see this in George Eliot and in E.M. Forster, where we hear the author’s reflecting voice; it might be called the “intelligence” of the novel: intelligence in both senses, the writer spying on her characters, and the writer’s mind exposed. The “fractured” novel (Ulysses is the great modernist instance, but think also of Zadie Smith’s NW and Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers) has so far not permitted amalgamation with any other form. Accretion, fragment by fragment, replaces logical chronology Yet despite its jagged unexpectedness, what fragmentation has in common with direct narrative is a paradoxical coherence: we know and feel what we are meant to know and feel. And if there is no middle ground between fragment and form, so be it: why should fiction, the ultimate territory of genuine freedom, eschew extremes? In life we are rightly persuaded to pursue the middle way. But in literature (three cheers for extremes!), what we want is what Kafka relentlessly demanded: A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.
TM: David Foster Wallace was an ardent fan of your work, citing The Puttermesser Papers as one of his favorite books. As a critic, writer, and cultural anthropologist, I wanted to know if you’ve considered the relevance of his work, and whether or not he shifted the direction of post-modern fiction yet again.
CO: It was an astonishment to be told not long ago that David Foster Wallace was even aware of my work, let alone had read any small part of it. It was even more startling to see a photo of the flyeaf of his copy of The Puttermesser Papers, on which appears a long list of words transcribed from the book, ostensibly because they were new to him. How could this be? If I hadn’t with my own eyes seen that list, I would have thought the rumor of his affinity was no more than a hoax. After all, Infinite Jest is a free-wheeling and exuberantly abundant novel with a fervently reverent and always growing readership, and not only is my own experience as a writer lightyears from his, but in subject matter and in literary temperament Wallace and I have nothing in common. His mind is encyclopedic and digressive; my scope is far more limited and my reach into the world definitively tamer. His novels are termed postmodern, and so they are, but in their appetite for overflowing tangential inclusiveness they also resemble the all-devouring 18th-century novel (Richardson, Fielding, Sterne). And finally: Wallace’s most original gesture is the art of the note — footnote and endnote, but especially footnote. Whether this alone (the seductive power of the asterisk) will “shift the direction of postmodern fiction” is doubtful. Once it has been done, and done so lavishly, it may seem superfluous to do it again.
TM: It seems that [The Puttermesser Papers] has a certain staying power, particularly among men. What do you think it is about the work that stands out, be it the brutality of the plot or the force of the prose?
CO: I’m afraid that I am unable to address this generous assessment of “staying power.” Time will, as they say, tell; and in some cases — though certainly not in mine — Time has already told. (See David Foster Wallace above.) Most writers and their books quickly fall into posthumous eclipse, and I don’t doubt that I will be among them.
TM: You said that fiction is the ultimate territory for genuine freedom, but is fiction not without rules? The novel can take many shapes, as can short stories, but there’s still something familiar within each mutation. Would you argue that genuine freedom works best with some sort of familiarity to constrain or guide its line of thinking?
CO: I agree that familiarity of form is most conducive to the reader’s comfort, and that feeling at home with its “rules” increases readerly enjoyment. Joyce’s Ulysses, which (after, say, Dickens and George Eliot and Trollope) seemed to have no rules at all, was hard going for its earliest readers, though certainly not nowadays, when stream of consciousness has become commonplace. Eliot’s The Waste Land was once dauntingly impenetrable; today its technique is ho-hum. The very concept of “rules” means familiarity, knowing what to expect; but even revolutions eventually evolve into the humdrum. As for constraining or guiding a line of thinking, isn’t that for sermons and tracts?
TM: A large part of your fiction writing has involved chronicling the Jewish-American experience…
CO: Here I hope you will allow me to demur. This is certainly true of other Jewish writers, at least those who are inclined to contemplate their heritage; call it, though without denigrating its art, sociological fiction. I am altogether without interest in the Jewish-American “experience,” if this term is intended, as you phrase it, to scrutinize and investigate the meaning of that identity, both how it plays out in conventional society and [the writers’] own personal heartbreak over legacy and fractured tradition. Again, all that is sociology, particularly the concern with identity and the deeper roots of the self. I am drawn elsewhere: to the Jewish metaphysic and its long and steadfast history. It is these grains of perception, I believe, that sustain my thinking and kindle imagination. (A recent story in this mode is “A Hebrew Sibyl,” which appeared in Granta.)
As for the sociological: Irving Howe, a stellar critic who was part of the group of literary luminaries who came to be known as The New York Intellectuals (all of them now nearly forgotten), once commented that after the generation of the immigrants, the American Jewish novel would die of lack of subject matter. And then — beware definitive declarations! — came the influx of those remarkable young writers who as children fled both the Soviet Union and Iran. For such embattled lives, having endured restriction and calumny in their earliest years, personal heartbreaks over legacy and fractured tradition may be vitally pertinent themes; or may not. But for American Jews, who for the first time in two millennia have the inconceivable good fortune of living freely and without overt fear, and who have rarely known an ounce of oppression or indignity, and who for the most part are now four or five generations distant from the immigrant period…for these, the identity question is simply another floating particle in the egalitarian multicultural movement. (Recall Irving Kristol’s quip: “They used to want to kill us, now they want to marry us.” And they have: 70 percent of American Jews are intermarried.) Those deeper roots of the self are more superficial than felt. When roots are genuinely deep, they are not scrutinized or investigated; they are as intrinsic and unremarked on as breathing. Self-knowledge in the Socratic sense is indifferent to roots, and Jewish self-knowledge can only mean knowledge, and what is knowledge in the absence of historical and textual and linguistic awareness? Which is why most novels by American Jewish writers are a branch of social studies. Nor would I quarrel with this: stories are free to be whatever they are.
TM: Writers who are conscious of coming from rich national and historical backgrounds tend to have their work characterized as being “haunted” by those important works of national or cultural identity that came before….Do you think it’s appropriate to draw those comparisons on the basis of legacy and cultural background, or do you think there should be a distinction between what a writer of a certain background is looking to achieve, and how a critic or academic might group them based on previous works of a certain genre?”
CO: Well, we know what Saul Bellow thought of how critics and academics grouped him! He retorted with his famous quip — Hart, Schaffner & Marx, mocking how he and Roth and Malamud were, in effect, regarded as a kind of Jewish-owned haberdashery. But your question is serious and important, and we’ve had two elegant answers from two significant Jewish writers. Isaac Bashevis Singer: “Every writer needs to have an address.” Harold Bloom: “The anxiety of influence.” Both these succinct insights acknowledge that origins not only count, but continue to carry their force. (The term “haunted” confused and misled me because of its baleful resonances.) Criticism would be blind and deaf if it failed to recognize affinities and legacies, as it always has: in America, Transcendentalism, the Harlem Renaissance, naturalism, and so many other literary movements and groupings, whether conscious and voluntary or critically observed. But this doesn’t make writers into pawns! Or turn Hawthorne and Melville, with their similar Anglo heritage, into Siamese twins! Or Bellow, Roth, and Malamud into Jewish clothiers. It’s a sublime paradox, sublime because the seeming contradiction fortifies rather than diminishes: every writer is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; and yet, contra Donne, every writer is at the same time an island entire of itself. The continent is humanity; but every continent contains someone’s own home address.
TM: At this point in your career…do you feel any differently about your work, either the work you’re developing or the work you’ve done? Do you feel that your role as a writer has taken on any sort of prominence?
CO: My diary with its innate depression contains the felt truth of any answer I might give. I have been driven to write — to be a writer — from a very early age, but have never been able to think of it as a “career,” a schemer’s word that suggests aggrandizing hot pursuit. And for a very long time I was unpublished, a failure in my own literary generation: a circumstance that has left its mark. I am always surprised to discover a reader, and when I do, it is usually in the context of “I never heard of her before.” As for what I feel about past work, I wish I had done more. And I begin to wonder whether reviewers who have found my novels unsympathetic may be right. I still hope to write a story made purely of feeling.
TM: Are you working on anything now that you’re hoping to release?
CO: Yes. On a story made purely of feeling.
TM: Can you elaborate on what you mean by this?
CO: This brings us instantly back to Tolstoy, though I am thinking here not of a novel, but rather of a story: The Death of Ivan Ilych, wherein ultimate aloneness in the face of imminent dying leads to a kind of catharsis, and revelation overcomes dread. Or the haying scene in Anna Karenina, which envelops the reader in bodily joy and the intense companionship of laborious achievement. On second thought, an entire novel can’t be made purely of feeling, since such sublime moments are exactly that: moments. Pure feeling mostly occurs at the extremes of life: terror and joy.
A few years ago, at a publishing conclave in Manhattan, someone handed me a slim unlovely galley called The Riddle of Life and Death. It consisted of a pair of novellas: Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Tell Me A Riddle, by Tillie Olsen. I’m always in the market for Tolstoy — even Tolstoy I already own. But who, I wondered, was this Tillie Olsen? And aside from a certain anagrammatic plausibility, what had she done to deserve the unenviable role of Count Leo’s undercard, the “Under Assistant West Coast Promo Man” to his “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction?” Before I could be bothered to find out, a move to a new apartment landed the book in a giveaway box on the stoop.
Well, praise be to the gods of books on stoops, who apparently make allowances for callowness. Walking through my neighborhood one day last December, I stumbled across a hideous Delta Trade Paperback of Tell Me A Riddle. If the Gift-like circularity hadn’t caught my attention (give an Olsen, get an Olsen) the promise of an introduction from John Leonard would have:
See how it’s done: First what Cynthia Ozick once called “a certain corona of moral purpose.” And then the prose that lashes like a whip, that cracks and stings. And then the judgment coming down like a terrible swift sword. And then a forgiving grace note, like haiku or pascal. memory, history, poetry, and prophecy converge. Reading her again, and again, and again, I find that when you love a book, it loves you back.
Jesus, does it ever. I actually postponed reading Leonard’s introduction until I’d finished the book, but by the second page of the first piece, “I Stand Here Ironing,” I, too, was feeling the love: palpable, unflinching, almost parental. By the twelfth and last page, I was in tears. “I Stand Here Ironing” is a story about a working mother, but to call it that — even to call it the best story ever written about a working mother — feels reductive. Work-life balance may now be the stuff of Atlantic cover stories and Lean In, but in 1961, exploring it in fiction was a downright radical act.
The middle two of these four stories more obviously connect to Olsen’s reputation as a feminist and Paleyesque working-class heroine. But the political virtues that helped to land them in anthologies and on syllabi in the ’60s and ’70s may also have contributed to Olsen’s relative obscurity among readers of my generation, for whom the canon wars are settled history. (The fact that she never published another collection of fiction after Tell Me A Riddle can’t have helped. Nor, come to think of it, can the spectacular disservice book-cover designers have done to it.) Oddly, then, the partial eclipse of her politics might be a good and a timely thing: it gives us room to see her art.
The novella that concludes Tell Me A Riddle tells the story of a long marriage, and is one of the great pieces of writing about death. As the wife grows sick, the couple haul themselves around the country, visiting their far-flung progeny. And in the nearness of its approach to their worries, it approaches poetry:
In the airplane, cunningly designed to encase from motion (no wind, no feel of flight), she had sat severely and still, her face turned to the sky through which they cleaved and left no scar.
So this was how it looked, the determining, the crucial sky, and this was how man moved through it, remote above the dwindled earth, the concealed human life. Vulnerable life, that could scar.
There was a steerage ship of memory that shook across a great, circular sea: clustered, ill human beings; and through the thick-stained air, tiny fretting waters in a window round like the airplane’s — sun round, moon round. (The round thatched roofs of Olshana.) Eye round — like the smaller window that framed distance the solitary year of exile when only her eyes could travel, and no voice spoke. And the polar winds hurled themselves across snows trackless and endless and white – like the clouds which had closed together below and hidden the earth.
“Tiny fretting waters…” “Clustered, ill human beings…” “Vulnerable life, that could scar…” I’ve been carrying these lines around with me for months now, waiting for a chance to share them. Normally, the fact that someone beat me to the punch here at The Millions would be a source of regret, but I’m happy to find myself in Alice Mattison’s amen corner. Tell Me a Riddle really does deserve a place next to Ivan Ilyich, it turns out — not because Tillie Olsen’s a progressive and a humanist (though more power to her), but because she’s a master, and this story, this book, is her masterpiece.
Kevin Hartnett is a regular contributor to The Millions.2008 was a year in which the country was looking for a story, and the same impulse directed my reading. On the campaign trail “narrative” was the analytic frame of choice. Hillary Clinton’s candidacy failed because she could never establish one. John McCain’s failed in part because the story that lent itself most directly to his biography – war hero, country-first corruption buster – was not what America was looking for. In Barack Obama, though, voters found the perfect confluence of his biographic arc and our hopes for our own national narrative arc. We wanted to be the country that matched his story, and by electing him president we established a momentous symbiosis between the rise of a man and the resurrection of a country.The Bush years were depressing in many ways. Worse though for me, than the acute pain of any specific policy, or the sense of alienation from half the country, was the feeling of narrative disruption. The themes we’d always held to be true about our country – that we are meritocratic, virtuous, and ascendant – fell apart like loose nuts and bolts dropping from a moving car. We were not who we thought we were, or at least we were not that country anymore, and in place of a strong narrative direction, a cynical equivalence took hold. If we were not virtuous, at least we would not be duped. I found that I was often as disoriented personally as the country was as a whole.My favorite book of 2008 was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. It was not necessarily the best book I read this year but it was, start to finish, the most moving ride. The novel begins in the gentile tranquility of post-colonial Nigeria and ends amidst the barren wasteland of a civil war. Adichie loses touch with her characters somewhat along the way, but for its depiction of the precariousness of human life, her book is among the most vivid I have ever read.Its failure to establish a convincing narrative was the main reason that I dissented from 2008 favorite Netherland. The novel is about the post-9/11 dislocation of cosmopolitan Dutch banker Hans van der Broek, suddenly alone in New York after his wife decamps to London with their young son. Hans floats through an ethereally drawn New York and at one point a woman who creates photo albums for a living says to him, “People want a story. They like a story,” to which he replies, “A story. Yes. That’s what I need.” It is a pregnant point, but also one that leads to the ultimate limitations of Joseph O’Neill’s novel. A metaphor, no matter how lushly and beautifully drawn, is no substitute for the real thing.My other favorite books of 2008 are all from the canon. I revisited Rabbit, Run and found that the book had improved considerably since I first read it in high school. Even then I could not help but notice Updike’s virtuosity with words, but this time around I took the most joy in the many, sparkling moments when Rabbit’s character, so perfectly rendered, seems almost to poke through the page. Elsewhere, Levin’s angst in Anna Karenina, which I read back in February, is still with me, and I don’t expect to soon forget the dramatic reckoning in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych.My only reading regret for 2008 is that there was not more of it, which leads me into the new year excited to read more and with a list that is already longer than the hours I know I’ll have. I take such optimism, particularly as it concerns the book, to be a good thing.More from A Year in Reading 2008
The next time you have an hour to read, devote it to Leo Tolstoy’s novella, The Death of Ivan Ilych. It is a brisk and deeply subversive critique of 19th-century Russian society, and Tolstoy states his case with an elegant sensitivity to the theatrics of social life and a breathtaking sweep of moral judgment.Ivan is a mid-level Russian bureaucrat in a bitter marriage and, like many other great characters of Russian fiction, sliding into debt. But for a moment, things are looking up. He has just wrangled a new position with a higher salary (5,000 rubles a year), and sets out cheerfully to appoint a residence befitting a man of his income. He purchases antiques on the cheap to give the house an aristocratic air, and he busies himself with every detail of the domestic display, from the china pattern to the color of the drapes. Tolstoy is plain about the delusional nature of Ivan’s satisfaction. While Ivan considers his house to be uniquely glamorous, “In reality it was just what is usually seen in the houses of people of moderate means who want to appear rich, and therefore succeed only in resembling others like themselves.”Ivan might have gone on living with these delusions, but an accident intercedes. He slips on a step-ladder and “knock[s] his side against the knob of the window frame.” He appears unhurt at first, but over time the pain grows. His is a long slow death which provides ample time to reflect on the choices he made in life and to observe the constipated way his friends and family respond to his decline. Tolstoy presents Russian society as a world of trifling appearances, ordered to deny the basic facts of living and dying. In one perfectly rendered scene, Ivan’s daughter and wife come to see him, just before heading out for a night at the opera. Their visit is a matter of pure convention. It would look bad to enjoy themselves without at least a nod to Ivan’s plight, but really they regard him as a burden and a buzzkill. They can only muster nervous conversation about the upcoming performance and then leave in haste. “When they had gone,” Tolstoy writes, “it seemed to Ivan Ilych that he felt better; the falsity had gone with them.”Tolstoy’s critique of materialism and appearance is a familiar one to us. But underneath the social satire, there is a bracing moral judgment that, oddly enough, seems more foreign to us than any of the peculiarities of Russian culture. While Cheever and Fitzgerald looked at American culture in something of the same way that Tolstoy regards feudal Russia, their stories lack the same sense of a defined alternative that might be reached if the falsity could be swept away. Ivan Ilych reads like a Christian parable, and Tolstoy, who converted to Christianity late in life, suggests that there is truth to be had for those who can shake free of appearances.