I’ve tried to come up with so many different themes for this year and the way I read my way through it. The year I read all the Russians! The year I read all the sad white woman poetry! The year I tried and failed to read all the books I’ve been hoarding under my sofa! And all of those are true, but none of them are all the truth. For me, reading comes in waves; these are the ones I’ll remember from 2017.
There was the week I spent in March reading The Master and Margarita on a river bank while my family kayaked in circles. My surprise when I discovered the book was infinitely more fixated on Pontius Pilate than on tequila is both embarrassing and, I maintain, not wholly unreasonable. My surprise when I found myself silently rooting for a demon cat on rampage in Soviet Moscow was just fun. Mikhail Bulgakov’s satire is biting, his characters insane, and his story strangely and deeply moving. I recommended the book to everyone I talked to for months, and I recommend it now. And as a kind of bonus, The Master and Margarita somehow, eventually, led me to Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, now one of my all-time favorite essay collections.
Later, over the long Texas summer, I filled the days and nights with women writers and what must have been gallons and gallons of sparkling water. Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony and God felt like a miracle to me—why hadn’t anyone recommended it before?—and I fell through Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Jane: A Murder, The Argonauts, and The Art of Cruelty in a matter of days. I read Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends, a sharp and challenging look at how we’re failing to respond to the migration crisis striking Central America and the U.S. Then I picked up the collected poems of H.D. for a cooling dose of classicism and a biography (or three) of Joan of Arc, who reminded me how to fight.
It was also over the summer that I looked around my apartment and realized (not for the first time) that I own far too many books I’ve never read and keep accumulating more. I spent the next few months trying to read through all the books stacked around and under and over all my furniture. That meant a lot of Graham Greene—The End of the Affair and The Power and the Glory, both immeasurably powerful books I’ve already stacked in my reread pile—and finally finishing Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, which I resisted and resisted until it undid me completely. It also meant trying to force my way through a tattered old copy of the Essays of Elia, for some reason, which made me abandon the whole project.
There’s one book, though, that I’m thinking about more than any other as we all collapse towards the end of 2017: Eula Biss’s On Immunity: An Inoculation. Though first released in 2014, when the national conversation about vaccination was much bigger than, say, any talk of an immigration ban, I’m willing to argue this book has grown more significant over the years, not less. Biss’s elegant explanation of our interconnected fates, her careful consideration of what we owe one another and her gentle (and not-so-gentle) unraveling of our isolating, protectionist instincts is a powerful reminder that we don’t—and can’t—move through this world alone.
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Reviewing John Irving’s Avenue of Mysteries (2015) for an Irish newspaper a couple of years ago, I found myself wondering: why are the titles of novels by fictional novelists always so mysteriously unconvincing? The protagonist of Avenue of Mysteries is Juan Diego, a globetrotting writer of Irvingesque stature; his most famous book is called A Story Set in Motion by the Virgin Mary. Encountering this, I thought: No commercial publisher would ever append so clunky a title to a popular book. My suspension of disbelief was shaken. Why, I wondered, couldn’t Irving—the man responsible for titles as instantly memorable as The World According to Garp (1978) and The Hotel New Hampshire (1981)—come up with something better?
It was a feeling I’d had before. Novels by fictional novelists (and there is, as we know, no shortage of fictional novelists) always seem to be saddled with ersatz, implausible titles—so much so that I find myself doubting whether such unhappily-titled books could ever actually exist. Frequently—to compound matters—we are supposed to accept that these books have been bestsellers, or that they have become cultural touchstones, despite their awful titles. Take the case of Nathan Zuckerman: in Philip Roth’s great trilogy (The Ghost Writer , Zuckerman Unbound , and The Anatomy Lesson ), we are asked to believe that Zuckerman has published successful books entitled Mixed Emotions and Reversed Intentions. Reversed Intentions! What a terrible title!
You find similar clunkers popping up all over the literary map. In Martin Amis’s The Information (1995), the narcissistic litterateur Gwyn Barry has achieved bestsellerdom with a book unconvincingly entitled Amelior (and his rival, Richard Tull, has published novels with equally shaky titles: Aforethought and Dreams Don’t Mean Anything). In Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair (1951), the fictional novelist Maurice Bendrix is supposed to have published novels called The Ambitious Host, The Crowned Image, and The Grave on the Water-Front: all of which sound like the titles of Graham Greene novels that didn’t quite make it out of a notebook. In Claire Kilroy’s All Names Have Been Changed (2009), the legendary Irish writer P.J. Glynn has published a novel with the discouraging appellation of Apophthegm. In Stephen King’s The Dark Half (1989), the haunted writer Thad Beaumont is the author of The Sudden Dancers, a title so prissily literary that you can imagine finding it on the contents page of an anthology of work by earnest high-school students (but not, surely, on the cover of a book from a major publisher).
King, in fact, is a repeat offender: Ben Mears, in ‘Salem’s Lot (1975), is allegedly the author of a novel called Billy Said Keep Going; Mike Noonan, in Bag of Bones (1998), has given the world The Red-Shirt Man and Threatening Behaviour; and Bobbi Anderson, in The Tommyknockers (1987), has produced a Western entitled Rimfire Christmas, which is my personal nomination for worst fictional title of all time—although another close contender must surely be Daisy Perowne’s imaginary collection of poetry in Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005), which is called (oh dear!) My Saucy Bark.
Even the imaginary writers created by Vladimir Nabokov are not immune to the terrible-title virus. Sebastian Knight, the elusive protagonist of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), is responsible for books entitled The Prismatic Bezel and The Doubtful Asphodel (although Success, the title of another of Knight’s fictional books, is so good that Martin Amis stole it for one of his own actual books). The bibliography of Clare Quilty, in Lolita (1955), boasts, beside The Enchanted Hunters, an unappetizingly-titled play called The Strange Mushroom. And in Look at the Harlequins! (1974), the Nabokov-avatar narrator counts among his backlist Esmerelda and her Parandrus and Plenilune—titles that a real-life publisher would surely blue-pencil the instant the manuscripts landed on her desk.
There are, of course, honourable exceptions: fictional writers whose fictional books are so convincingly titled that you can imagine chancing upon tattered mass-market paperback copies of them in the dusty corner of a used bookstore. Take Henry Bech, the self-tormented writer-protagonist of John Updike’s wonderful Bech stories. Bech’s first novel, a ’50s motorcycle epic, is called Travel Light. His second is called Brother Pig (“which is,” Bech tells a Bulgarian poet in “The Bulgarian Poetess,” “St. Bernard’s expression for the body”). And Bech’s blockbuster bestseller (Updike’s alliterative Bs are contagious) is called Think Big—a title so punchy it’s practically Presidential. In the Bech books, Updike, characteristically, pays scrupulous attention to recreating the textures of the real. The appendix to Bech: A Book (1970) supplies a complete bibliography of Bech’s published work, including such echt-realistic entries as “”Lay off, Norman,” New Republic, CXL.3 (19 January 1959), 22-3.”
In general, though, it seems as if the titles of imaginary novels will inevitably tend towards the offputtingly cheesy (Billy Said Keep Going), the ludicrously recherche (The Prismatic Bezel), or the embarrassingly portentous (like the novel embarked upon, and abandoned, by Anna Wulf in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook , which bears the dubious moniker The Shadow of the Third). It sometimes feels as if all of these novelists are writing stories set in the same alternate universe, the distinguishing feature of which is that all novels have terrible titles. What is it with this world of imaginary writers and publishers? Why can’t its inhabitants come up with better titles for their books?
Perhaps it’s simply the case that novelists greedily reserve their most inspired titles for their own actual, real-life books—which are, after all, far more important than any works ascribable to fictional characters within them. Why go for The Grave on the Water-Front when you can have The Heart of the Matter, or, indeed, The End of the Affair? Why call your book Dreams Don’t Mean Anything when you can muster a title as good as The Information? Why settle for The Shadow of the Third when you’ve got The Golden Notebook? A successful title—and all novelists know this instinctively—does much more than simply name the finished product. A successful title seduces. It creates a mood. It stakes a claim. A great title (Pride and Prejudice; A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; A Clockwork Orange) will seem to have been around forever. No novelist, I suspect, would happily waste a great title on a book by an imaginary writer—even if they’ve dreamed that writer up themselves, along with all the ghostly volumes on her nonexistent shelf.
Or perhaps a certain ironic distancing is at work, when it comes to imaginary novels. In many cases, I think, we are given to understand that a fictional novelist may be perceptive, responsive, and strong-willed–but not quite as lavishly gifted as his or her creator. Clare Quilty, for instance, is hardly meant to be a genius on the Nabokovian scale (although he does collaborate with his creator’s anagrammatic alter ego, Vivian Darkbloom, on a play called The Lady Who Loved Lightning—and look at that! Another lamentable title!). Poor old Maurice Bendrix, in The End of the Affair, is certainly meant to be a second-rate novelist, and his dud titles confirm it (you can easily envision finding a copy of The Crowned Image, falling out of its old-fashioned binding, in a charity shop or hospital library: unreprinted, unread, invisible to posterity). And Thad Beaumont, in The Dark Half, doesn’t begin to tap the wellspring of his talent until he forsakes the bland lit-fic of The Sudden Dancers and gets his hands dirty writing the Stephen-King-like Machine’s Way (now that’s a title). There is also, of course, the limitation adduced by Norman Mailer, in his marvelous book on writing, The Spooky Art (2003): “Jean Malaquais [Mailer’s mentor] once remarked that you can write about any character but one. ‘Who is that?’ ‘A novelist more talented than yourself.'”
But none of these theories really offers a satisfactory explanation for the badness of so many imaginary titles. Looking more closely at some of these spectral designations, I think we can often discern a profoundly literary reason for their terribleness. The titles of Nathan Zuckerman’s early novels—Mixed Emotions and Reversed Intentions—not only camouflage Philip Roth’s own early books (respectively, Letting Go  and When She Was Good ); they also summarize a recurring theme of the Zuckerman novels themselves. Writing out of mixed emotions, Zuckerman frequently reverses his intentions—although by the time he does, of course, it’s generally too late to undo the damage his fiction has caused. Similarly, in Look at the Harlequins!, each appalling title parodies an actually existing Nabokov novel: Plenilune (i.e. a full moon) conceals The Defense (1930), and Esmerelda and her Parandrus (a parandrus being, in medieval bestiaries, a shapeshifting beast with cloven hooves) surely encodes Lolita. (Perhaps the wittiest of these parody-titles is The Red Top-Hat, which mocks Invitation to a Beheading ). These titles, in all their awfulness, alert us to fictional strategies. They invite us to examine more attentively the texts in which they appear.
Comparably, in The Golden Notebook, the title of Anna’s novel, The Shadow of the Third, points us towards one of Lessing’s central thematic concerns—the hidden ethical quandaries that bedevil any monogamous sexual relationship between a man and a woman. The titles of Richard Tull’s novels, in The Information, offer clues to his revenger’s nature, and to his eventual fate: Richard plots the destruction of Gwyn Barry with aforethought, and by the end of the novel, he has come to believe that dreams, in the sense of hopes, don’t mean anything. And the phrase “a story set in motion by the Virgin Mary” exactly describes the plot of Irving’s Avenue of Mysteries: in the form of Juan Diego’s imaginary title, this phrase lurks inside the primary text, as if to remind us, periodically, of precisely what sort of novel we are reading.
Titles of imaginary novels, then, aren’t called upon to perform the same tasks as titles of real novels. They aren’t intended to seduce, or to stake a claim. Nor are they designed, generally speaking, to be “realistic” (in the sense that Henry Bech’s book titles, in Updike’s stories, are designed to be realistic). Imaginary titles, more often than not, are items of fictional furniture, like characters or leitmotivs or symbols. They do double-duty: they name the works of a fictional writer, and they illuminate the narrative in which that fictional writer appears. For a novelist, the chance to create an imaginary title is another chance to be witty, or inventive, or amusing; more importantly, it’s another chance to enrich the texture of the work at hand.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take a moment, every now and then, to be grateful that we don’t live in a world—the world of Thad Beaumont, the world of Nathan Zuckerman—in which everyone seems to think that The Sudden Dancers, or Reversed Intentions, is a perfectly acceptable title for a novel. Now—has anyone seen my copy of Rimfire Christmas?
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
Jean-Philippe Blondel’s novel, 6h41, was published in 2013. French readers, who use a 24-hour clock, weren’t confused by the title, but I suspect Americans, reading in translation, will be. The 6:41 to Paris, after all, sounds like it might be a work of noir, the train on its way to the lurid night. But it is a morning train, the 6:41. That’s the reader’s first indication that the novel is a work of literary inversion. Shadowy evening is bright morning. Hatred might be the seed of love. A distant end could very well trigger a new beginning.
Cécile Duffaut owns a successful organic beauty product corporation. A plain girl from an undistinguished town, Troyes, in middle age, Cécile has become stylish and attractive. She’s spent an emotionally draining weekend with her aging parents; now, 6:41 Monday morning, she’s heading in to work. The seat next to her is blissfully empty — until moments before the train leaves. Cécile gazes out her window. When a middle-aged man asks if the seat is taken, she sighs. She looks him over: “Wrinkled. Flabby. With sagging shoulders. A definite paunch. A scraggly beard.” This is Philippe Leduc. Twenty-seven years earlier, Cécile and Philippe, a heartthrob, had had an affair. He ended it, without explanation, without a precipitating fight, during a weekend away in London.
Blondel switches between Cécile and Philippe’s inner monologues as they become aware of each other on the train. Blondel acknowledges the engineered nature of the plot. “This is ridiculous,” thinks Philippe, and the reader will surely agree. Cécile channels her inner teen: “Oh. My. God,” a stock phrase she later repeats. In purposely overplaying disbelief, the phrase “Oh. My. God.” contains it’s own irony. Blondel uses it to signal to the reader: all novels are false, why fake it?
Blondel’s wink begs the reader to recall Graham Greene’s 1951 The End of the Affair, which opens ponderously, “A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” Green’s book has the quality of a long, high-walled canal; you can’t see side to side, only front to back, future to past. As the book opens, the narrator is Maurice Bendrix; as in The 6:41 to Paris, the first person voice will switch between Maurice and his former lover Sarah Miles.
Like Greene himself, the character Maurice is a novelist of renowned “technical ability.” The closeness between Greene and his protagonist allows him likewise to signal the reader: this story is a construct meant to heighten feeling. “It is convenient, it is correct according to the rules of my craft to begin just there,” winks Greene, speaking for himself and for Maurice, still in the opening paragraph. The novelist is talking about constructing the story as he’s writing it.
Blondel places his protagonists next to each other on the train. Greene places his on either side of Clapham Common, in London. Maurice gazes out his window when he spots Sarah’s husband Henry tromping across the common through slashing rain. This is the arbitrary moment. But why should he go out to speak to him? Two years earlier, Sarah had left Maurice without explanation. Hatred for her and for Henry won’t relent.
Blondel inverts Maurice’s hatred and assigns it to Cécile: “a voracious feeling inside, the likes of which I had never known. A desire to tear everything to shreds.” This is how she felt on the train from London 27 years before. Now the hatred has returned. It combines with pity. Time has manhandled Philippe Leduc. Divorced, he spends his weekends with his old friend Mathieu, who is dying of cancer.
But what might happen after a chance encounter?
In London, 1946, after the chance encounter with Henry, Maurice reconnects with Sarah. They have lunch. He wants to kiss her and she pushes him away. He hires a private detective to follow her and he delivers Sarah’s diary. Maurice learns that she had left him because she couldn’t handle the intensity of her love. And that love has delivered Sarah to God; it propels a conversion to Catholicism. She’s lost interest in the here and now. Maurice is left drained, susceptible himself to signs of God.
Blondel writes with a similar near-sightedness. People up against a wall will always think in clipped terms, as if always half-injured. Blondel inherits this, too (without needing to invert it) from Greene, but the simplicity of his language, in Alison Anderson’s translation, allies his work with contemporary French writers like Dominique Fabre and Patrick Modiano. The gift of this French contemporary voice is the way it confronts the everyday, without pandering, without fear of the quotidian. This is ultimately how Blondel evades falseness.
The voice fails at times, however. Blondel too often privileges realistic speech (but doesn’t he realize we’ve acknowledged his wink?); he fails to exercise language. Cécile’s feeling of separateness is like “a thick layer of plastic.” Philippe’s mother is one of “the baby boomers who never really knew any hardship.”
I can forget the flaccid prose when Cécile and Philippe push deep into the emptiness of middle age. At 47, Cécile is only now coming into her own, but who around her is worth her time? Philippe in his own head wanders through the bloated mortgage, the distant kids, the dying friend. “The verb ‘to have,’” he thinks.
It’s a troublesome one. It’s not a verb I’m familiar with. The more time goes by, the more I lose. The more I lose, the freer I am. The freer I am the more I wish I weren’t so free. What am I supposed to do with all this freedom?
In London, after the end of their affair, Cécile had seized the opening given her by Philippe. The break-up awakened her. Even as she paced the foreign streets, leaving, alone, she took on power, hurling herself toward school and career. But she had already begun to possess power over him, and this had frightened him.
Blondel plunges gently into psyche. His prose slows as the train nears Paris. It gains its own confidence and quiet. It glimmers between them. It becomes possibility. Separately they pass over the night in London, remembering; the two novels pass each other here, perhaps somewhere along the south bank of the Thames. Reading Sarah’s diary, Maurice learns she still loves him. But he’s helpless to act. Her love negates possibility because it negates the worldly. Sarah is abandoning life in favor of eternal love. The End of the Affair is one of Greene’s Catholic novels; the characters struggle with God and faith. Sarah’s death indeed produces miracles; the miracles begin to play for Maurice. If he turns to God, will he have Sarah forever?
The space between Cécile and Philippe seems to shorten as the alternating passages converge on the London night 27 years ago, on the unsaid, on the unfulfilled now. Blondel isn’t interested in the eternal. Cécile and Philippe seek only verve, a speck of frisson. Such is middle age. Philippe hasn’t prayed for 27 years, when he wanted Cécile to leave London, leave him alone. But the miracle happens anyway, a predictable glitch for regular travelers on the SNCF. The train jilts and stops, knocking loose, at least, rather spare and hesitant words. It’s not yet nine; Cécile and Philippe tumble through conversation, caught in the undertow of a relentless wave of commuters. Another day begins.
I probably shouldn’t admit that I keep an Excel spreadsheet to track what books I’ve read in a given year. The file spans seventeen years, a book lover’s rap sheet, for sure; at my best, I was reading just under 50 books a year, a rate that I felt proud of. Unfortunately, I’ve been reading steadily fewer books over the years. I’m sure Excel could generate an instructive and depressing chart to illustrate this. After the birth of my daughter, I fell from tallies in the forties to the thirties. My son’s arrival in 2011 bumped me down to the twenties. Last year I was grazing the treetops just a few dozen feet above rock bottom.
I was once more casual about books, and I expected far less of myself as a reader. I read whatever was at hand, and I rarely tracked what I was reading. This changed—predictably—in college, when I joined a freshman class where I felt like everyone else had read everything important, while I had read nothing worthwhile. One boy in my Latin class seemed to have read Julius Caesar while in the cradle. Nietzsche was invoked often in late-night bull sessions at the dorm, and I knew the name, but could do little more than nod along. In one class, the professor and the students agreed The Great Gatsby was the solid-gold standard of all modern lit—tossing off references to the high-hatted lover, the ash heap, and West Egg, as if these were people and places they all knew personally as kids.
Looking back now, I can see how some of the people I thought knew everything had in fact just gathered enough knowledge to sound impressive. Such a nuanced understanding eluded me at the time, although such an insight even then would not have really made me feel better. I was a young man of no pedigree coming from the backwaters of Kalamazoo, Michigan, and I was contending with the ex-pats of the East Coast and the better-bred urbanites of the Midwest’s larger cities; all that mattered was what it felt like I had not done, had not read, did not know.
Being prone to rash vows, I swore then that I would henceforth read everything that mattered. That I would embark upon the reading journey of all reading journeys. I’d just have to read everything. Fair enough: except I didn’t really know where to begin. And I didn’t really have time to get started in between integral calculus and seeking out new friends. I made no real progress until the arrival of summer vacation, when I returned home to work as a messenger in a law firm.
For weeks I stumbled blindly through books by William Blake and Carl Sandberg, but nothing really clicked till I opened a copy of the ever-controversial Lolita. Before then, I often said that I wanted to a writer but that I’d probably be a lawyer because it was more practical. After reading Nabokov, I had an epiphany on the order of anything out of Dubliners: I cared more about art than legal arguments. And I admired Nabokov more than any learned attorney. Nabokov was a perfect specimen of art made man. His voice and tone were pitch perfect; he was deeply learned and sophisticated, and he had the charm to make a deeply disturbing story into a thing of terrible beauty.
That summer I put Lolita in the hands of everyone I knew. I urged it onto a girl I was trying to impress. I gushed to the point of self-abasement with strangers at Barnes & Noble. I even convinced my 85-year-old grandmother to read it. She surprised me by diving in so deeply that she read with a copy of a French-English dictionary at hand, the better to unlock the meaning of each filigreed phrase.
I was startled by her deep engagement with the text. Here was a woman who had not finished her last year of high school, and yet she could settle into Nabokov’s wordplay with a verve all her own. The night that I fetched the book from her, after she had finished, we sat in her kitchen in the dim light of a hanging pendulum lamp; we were surrounded by tall piles she had made of newspapers that she intended to read. She lived alone, as my grandfather had died the year previous. We spoke until well after dark, something that had never happened before. The world was full of new surprises.
After that summer, I would never again pretend to care about a career in law: I was mesmerized by the idea of finding, reading, and maybe even writing consequential books. I didn’t have a future path for gainful employment, but I did have The List, and that, at the time, felt like enough.
I call it the List, but its full name is The List of Every Book I Need to Read before I Die. The rules of The List are simple. Rule 1: the List is never written down. It can only be kept in one’s head because only thought can hold the list of everything worth knowing, because the entire universe is worth knowing, and the universe is infinite. Rule 2: you cannot remove a book from the List until you’ve read it entirely—because until the last paragraph, anything can happen.
I have not bothered with any more rules because those two have proved trouble enough.
Those first years of exploring the books of The List were like the beginning stages of love; when you and your beloved discover a shared appreciation for lazy afternoons on a blanket in Central Park, forgetting everything else exists; when you are startled and overjoyed at the simplest coincidences; when it feels like the entire world is made for you to discover its hidden connections and contradictions.
I remember in particular when I fell for the work of William Faulkner in March of 1998. We’d been introduced before, but always at the wrong time and place. This time, I was particularly weak and needy: my graduation was nearing, and having abandoned law school, there were many legitimate questions about where I’d live and how I’d afford living. I was also physically ill with a late winter cold. Into this ailing world, there arrived a Modern Library double-edition of As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury.
Faulkner was brash, confident, and utterly unconventional in all the ways that I was vulnerable to. He was not proper and neat, like Nabokov. He broke things. He seethed. I did nothing for two days but lie in bed and power through both novels. Once I could stand again, I became the evangelist of yet another Great Book. You have to read Faulkner, I kept saying. Have you read this guy? You have to read this. The man has no limits!
One evening at a small party on the patio deck of a nearby apartment, I was introduced to another graduating senior, a woman who had just completed her honors thesis. I inquired about the topic. She said, simply: “Faulkner.” I am not lying when I tell you thunder rumbled in the distance: it had just finished raining. I put my hand on the railing to steady myself.
“Explain something to me,” I said, eager to dive in, “Why does Faulkner put a tiny picture of an eye in the text of The Sound and the Fury? Why is there a tiny coffin hidden in the lines of As I Lay Dying? What’s it all mean?”
This woman glanced at the cloudy skies, as if hopeful for rain but quick. “I don’t know,” she said. I think in retrospect that perhaps she thought I was in the opening stages of a come on. Maybe I was, in a manner. We were all drinking and we were all young and I was desperate to find a way forward that could join the world of reading to the real world of adulthood and being.
My way forward, eventually, led to New York for an MFA program that fall. And while there I began to meet more people tunneling through books, working their own Lists. To my great joy, among these people I could actually talk about what I was reading, and what I thought of Great and Important Books. Yet we were all also very busy and protective of our writing time, as we were all supposed to be composing Important Novels of our own. Also, I was still a laggard. I was reading fistfuls of Hemingway and Dostoevsky, but I still hadn’t read Moby-Dick, and whenever Jane Austen came up, I’d pretend to hear someone calling in another room.
Around that time I returned home again for the holidays and visited my grandmother. She was not living in her house any longer during the winters. Instead, her children prevailed on her to occupy a small cottage on a plot that my uncle owned near a deep pond called Gun Lake. The rooms where she lived were sparsely furnished; she brought little more than her clothes, a television, and dozens of books, which she stacked on the floor near a portable heater.
On a snowy Christmas Day, she and I sat on the divan near the windows where outside my uncle was shoveling snow and we talked about New York City, and what my life was like, and what I was reading there, what new authors I had to tell her about. I found these dialogues somehow more affecting than most of the ones that I had in New York because they were the most honest and true; neither my grandmother nor I had read everything we wanted to read, and we were both serious about fixing the score on that point.
This new relationship surprised me, but it was not without precedent. As a boy, after raking leaves or performing the prerequisite chores to help out, I would sit at my grandmother’s kitchen table with a finger to a page in her 2,128-page unabridged Webster’s dictionary, quizzing her on words while she baked. Pie-eyed; melancholy; puny—these were words we laughed over. This connection had matured into a kind of partnership when I was an adult, and we could speak honestly and like fellow travelers who met up from time to time.
After I finished graduate school, I kept up the tradition of the List; despite stepping away from a community of fellow readers, I did not find myself reading less. If anything, I began to read more. I crossed names off the List and added names on to replace the ones that have passed. I met and became smitten with the likes of Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster and Yukio Mishima.
Around the time that I got married, I fell hard for Graham Greene’s serious novels. During the settling in period of my first home, I binged on John O’Hara. The joy of those books is intermingled with the joy of those periods of my life. Sometimes, I wish just as much that I could forget all the Graham Greene novels and begin The End of the Affair again for the first time. I wish I could read with unspoiled eyes the startling first chapter of BUtterfield 8. But you can’t go back.
I was eating dinner with friends on the Upper West Side in January 2010 when my father called and told me that my grandmother, Valerie Cote, had died. Like a character from countless novels or plays, I was to return home. And home I went, packed up with heavy feelings and the sense that a long, winding conversation had been interrupted—and would never resume again.
At the time, I was reading a book by Nam Le called The Boat. The Boat is a collection of stories, about which I can now remember almost nothing. I carried the book in a knapsack on the 11-hour drive home; and during the three days that I spent in Michigan, I know that I took the book out a few times, but I never really read it with any comprehension or joy.
Instead, while home I helped my parents empty out the apartment where my grandmother lived her final days. We threw out tattered clothes and sun-bleached furniture. There was very little worth keeping. She did not really seem to care about possessions. Except for her small horde of books. She was alone but not alone. In the collection of books near where she died, I recognized many books that she had carried unfinished around for ages, such as Thomas Mann’s Joseph novels. She had neglected the real world at the end and lived in the world of the book, and yet she still did not finish her List.
If it stimulated her, the reading, if it propped her up at the end, as her body failed her, as the light went out, I can’t say for sure. I can, however, say for certain that standing in her apartment while my mother vacuumed and my father packed up boxes, I felt no trace of her presence. It was as if she’d already been gone for ages. I suspect I would feel the same if I stood in Borges’s tiny flat or Proust’s bedroom. It is possible to stop living in the world long before you stop living.
So, then, what is it all worth, all this reading? Is it all just a delusion, a way of killing time, before time kills you?
I don’t think so, and my proof comes—ironically—via one last list. This list is a partial one, a mere sampling from the titles of the books that I took from my grandmother’s apartment and added to my own library on the shelves of my home in New York. This is the list of the place where my List, the list of a boy born in 1976 and still alive, overlaps with my grandmother’s List, the list of a girl born in 1915 and who died in 2010; despite our differences, we share a set of books that neither of us have ever read but both of us feel like we should and hope that we will read someday, somehow:
The last book in this partial list, This Side of Paradise, belongs to a set of hardcover F. Scott Fitzgerald novels which includes The Great Gatsby. And mention of Gatsby returns me—borne back ceaselessly on the tide of nostalgia—to the period in my life when I finally tasted of that great book, the golden apple of American literature, or so I’d been told to expect. I was almost twenty-three, and I read the book all at once over the course of an evening; from the start, Gatsby’s story sent a frisson of recognition through me, like when you approach a murky portrait in a dark room and discover that you are looking at a dusty mirror.
As every reader of Fitzgerald’s finest novel knows, Jay Gatsby fashions a new life out of the void of his past. Born in the Midwest, he rejects his birthright, changes his name, and moves to New York. He pursues an impossible dream. He remains slightly lost, ever in love with an ideal. He comes East to start fresh, but how do you escape the lonely heart you carry within you? Short answer: you don’t.
My grandmother was eleven when The Great Gatsby was published. Like a Jazz Age bon vivant, for a brief period in her teenage years she wore her hair short and danced the Charleston at a trendy club in downtown Kalamazoo. Her name at the time was Ruby Herrick. Years later, after marrying my grandfather, she took his last name—Cote—but she also did something unusual. She began to go by a new first name: Valerie. This was the only name I knew her by. I was a teenager before I learned that she’d once been known as Ruby.
She never left Kalamazoo, despite her name change. She never had to run, or never could. In contrast, I did not change my name, but I did flee to the East. And I do have my own ridiculous ambitions, especially when it comes to The List. I have fashioned a new life in a new city in the quest of an ideal, although I would be hard pressed to sum up all I am after in words. Jay Gatsby probably wouldn’t have been able to say precisely what he wanted, either. He also was a lover of books, by the way—as the owl-eyed man at a party at his house points out in the novel. Except none of the pages in Gatsby’s books are cut. Unlike my grandmother, he never read a single page. He had a different kind of List.
So, now, here I am, after seventeen years of reading my way through my List, and I am reading still, but not as often; and why is that? Perhaps I am too busy. Perhaps I am entering into a period when I can’t fit in time for reading, and so I am deferring much of it for later—as my grandmother began reading with a vengeance after her children were grown and her husband was away at the club with his semiretired friends.
Or, perhaps, the number of books I read has dropped to a low now because after years of accumulation, I have gathered up enough stories and views and perspectives that I can at last wade through life with some confidence. I am no longer that 18-year old cub so cowed by what all the others around him have done. I see ways into the world other those of the milieu that I was born into; certainly there are countless more ways of seeing, but for now I can ease off the throttle.
I’ll never quit, of course. For me, reading is an act of personal tradition, something that belongs to me as deeply as a genetic signature; it is a kind of ongoing, hereditary faith. The images, characters and stories that I have gathered up are the templates for the stories, narratives, and analogies that help me interpret the world—like an ivy using a trellis to catch and claw its way to the light. I am not any more trying to gain admission to a mandarin club or rise up in standing against my rivals. I am going to read, and read, and the reading itself is and will have to be enough.
Reading is solitary and personal, but you aren’t necessarily alone in it. In some ways, we are all reading together; even if we are also reading alone. The List is infinite. My life is finite. I don’t need to finish everything. Finishing isn’t even the point.
Image via Longborough University Library/Flickr
Perhaps you have just ended a blistering affair. Perhaps you have just discovered your significant other’s blistering affair. Perhaps you are contemplating embarking on one – or ejecting from one. These three books will help.
If it is your own affair you are concerned with, consider turning to A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-First Century by Christina Nehring. Nehring looks at love in its myriad forms through the lives and creations of writers, poets, philosophers, and artists, many of whom were rather badly – or let us say unconventionally – behaved.
Start with the chapter “Love as Transgression,” which helps explain how and why love often arises “out of obstruction and illegitimacy.” Think Romeo and Juliet, the antagonists in Les liaisons dangereuses, Madame Bovary, and, of course, Anna Karenina. But “Love as Transgression” tells the story of the mythological 12th century lovers Tristan and Iseult. Kept apart by marriages to other people, imprisonment and self-imposed exile (Tristan was a knight after all) they kept finding ways to come together anyway – through disguises, secret trysts, an escape to a nearby forest, and, finally, a deathbed reunion. They knew that love “is about breaking boundaries between people and about breaking boundaries of propriety.” And that love “is always against something as ardently as it is for somebody.” But after all that passion, all that breakage, sometimes you are left with only wreckage. And that is the time to read the chapter “Love as Failure.”
You might also read “Love as Failure” if you find yourself on the losing end of an affair. “Most great passions, in some sense, are failures,” Nehring writes. Consider Dante, Petrarch, Madame Butterfly, Carmen. Or Abelard, the medieval scholar who made love with his student Heloise (“My hands strayed oftener to her bosom than to the pages; love drew our eyes to look on each other more than reading kept them on our texts … Our desires left no stage of lovemaking untried …”) until he is castrated by her enraged uncle, joins a monastery, and persuades Heloise to enter a convent. After twelve years of silence between them, Heloise writes him a letter, and a new chapter of their spectacularly failed love begins – “Abelard responds to her in a way he has never responded to another human being in his life … with intimate reflections and ambitious theories, hymns and precepts, prayers and sermons … [and] Abelard’s dying wish was to be buried near Heloise.” Who knows what will spring from catastrophe?
This question is nearly impossible to answer when the catastrophe is fresh. Emma Straub’s tart new novel, The Vacationers, is a very different sort of book – a potential beach-read as much as a primer on affairs and their recovery – where we learn on the very first page that Jim Post has transgressed. Packing for a two-week family vacation on the island of Mallorca, he wishes he could leave out “the last year of his life … the way Franny looked at him across the dinner table at night; the feeling of himself inside a new mouth for the first time in three decades … the emptiness waiting on the other side of the return flight, the blank days he would have to fill and fill and fill.” Details of his affair are revealed slowly, as are the affairs of nearly everyone else in the book: Jim’s son Bobby, Franny’s best friend Chuck, and Jim and Franny’s daughter Sylvia’s traitorous best friend.
There is temperance and understanding – “Marriage is hard. Relationships are hard … We’ve all done things.” – as well as raw anger and blunt perspective – “Yes, we’ve all done things. I’ve done things like put on thirty pounds. He’s done things like put his penis inside a twenty-three-year-old. Don’t you think one of those is significantly worse?” Read The Vacationers if you want your tragedy leavened with a bit of farce, your compassion enlivened with a bit of acid, your lack of forgiveness tempered with an abiding love. “The human heart [is] a complex organ at any age,” Straub reminds us, and then guides us through its chambers.
And then there is Anna Karenina. Of course there is Anna Karenina. There is also Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair or Robert James Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County (remember that craziness?). But if you really want to get over an affair, to see an affair clearly from start to finish, to see what wind fills its sails and what trash lies in its wake, surrender yourself to 817 pages of gorgeous, harrowing, revelatory Tolstoy.
We all know the shorthand version: girl meets boy, girl (thinks she) loses boy, girl meets train. But that is only one layer of this matrëška of love and loss. Before we meet Anna, before we meet Vronsky, on the very first page and in the very second sentence we are plunged into a family’s chaos because of an affair: “The wife had found out that the husband was having an affair with their former French governess …” And thus begins Anna’s sister-in-law Darya Alexandrovna Oblonskya’s story of anguish, disappointment, resignation, and transcendence. Anna’s story begins soon after, when she meets Vronsky, who provokes in her “a strange feeling of pleasure” as well as “a fear of something.” She is right to be both pleased and afraid, for she and Vronsky will embark on an affair that leaves more than a few casualties in its wake: an abandoned spouse, two abandoned children, a ruined career, a tarnished innocence, two suicide attempts (one of them successful); at least six hearts bruised, broken, shot at or run over. Orbiting around this dark sun are the lesser affairs of Anna’s brother Oblonsky, Levin’s brother’s relationship with a former prostitute, Levin’s own dalliances before his marriage to Kitty, the delicate dance that leads to Kitty’s friend Varenka’s almost-proposal, and various flirtations and trysts in their social circle.
What Tolstoy does so beautifully is show all the ups and down of an affair, from the childlike glee that illuminates a woman in love (“‘It’s late now, late, late,’ she whispered with a smile. She lay for a long time motionless, her eyes open, at it seemed to her that she herself could see them shining in the darkness.”) to the strange internal transformations obsessive love can bring (“What is that on the armrest – a fur coat or some animal? And what am I? Myself or someone else?”).
Whatever state of an affair you are in – the electrical beginning, the increasingly complicated middle, the bang or the whimper of the end, the terrible discovery of someone else’s affair or the arid time that comes before the next, the lovers in Anna Karenina will walk with you, teach you, warn you, encourage and console you. If you want to read how artists and their creations navigated these treacherous waters, try A Vindication of Love. But if a Spanish beach or private pool is more your speed, kick back with The Vacationers. For an acute case, read all three.
Image via rvoegtli/Flickr
In High Fidelity, Nick Hornby’s pop music-obsessed narrator Rob Fleming asks, following his most recent in a spate of romantic failures, while slumped in his apartment feeling desperately sorry for himself: “What came first – the music or the misery? Did I listen to music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to music? Do all those records turn you into a melancholy person?”
Having recounted a list of his “desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups,” Rob becomes increasingly revolted by his decidedly unmanly tendency to completely disintegrate following each new failed love affair. It’s romantic to believe that pop music supplied a language through which he could identify and express his angst and longing. But what if that “language” had started to supplant his feelings altogether? Without pop music, were things really that bad?
Literature, like pop music, can be dangerous, to those who love it best, and who therefore take it the most seriously. And just as tragic love songs are often the most beloved in pop music, tragic love stories are often the most beloved in literature. But what happens if feeling miserable becomes your way of getting closer to the books you love, rather than the books you love enabling you to get closer to your feelings? This is the scenario I’m describing: when you find yourself storming about, banging your head against a tree and bellowing in rage like Heathcliff for Cathy, and a feeling of hideous familiarity overtakes you. “I’ve felt this way before,” you think. Possibly even several times. And that you can’t remember who inspired this, or when, or why, is the most worrisome part of the altogether worrisome situation. Do you love… (what was his name again)? Or do you just love Wuthering Heights?
Young people (or so it is comforting to think) are particularly susceptible to this phenomenon. As a teenager, I read The End of the Affair, or more accurately, I fell for The End of the Affair. The prose is gorgeous, but the intensity is searing. The story covers a short time span, only a smattering of events that occur after Henri Bendix’s affair with Sarah has already ended, but so intense are Bendix’s emotions that in scope it felt comparable to The Divine Comedy: we’re in the depths of hell, then we’re up in the clouds, and then we’ve plunged deeper than ever before.
By no means is Greene encouraging you to want to be Henri Bendix. He is not an enviable character. The man has a private detective follow around his married ex-lover. He lives in a black hole of misery. He mostly loathes himself. But his love for Sarah enables him to routinely run the gamut of all existing human emotions. He was one of first characters I read outside of the science fiction genre capable of effectively taking trips around the world in a matter of seconds, without applying any sort of effort. What teenager could help but envy that?
So ardently did I love The End of the Affair that it wasn’t nearly enough to read it; I had to embody it. And if its extreme philosophy on love was a virus, I was more than happy to play host, spreading its insidious gospel to many of my unfortunate friends. During one late night phone call with a friend in boarding school, we quoted from the novel to each other while mourning recent romantic failures. But did we quote from The End of the Affair because of our romantic failures, or were we failing romantically because we could quote from The End of the Affair?
“I keep thinking of this line in particular,” my friend whispered fervently, “after Sarah dies, when Henri says, ‘I recognized my work for what it was – as unimportant a drug as cigarettes to get one through the weeks and years…’”
“There’s just no more point in going to class,” I said heavily.
Resigned, she could only agree.
But declaring like Bendix, “I’m too tired and old to learn to love, leave me alone forever” seventeen times by the age of twenty is only part of the problem. It’s one thing to repeat yourself; it’s quite another when people catch you in the act. In this matter, I think I’m entitled to throw a little frustration toward Andre Gide’s Strait is the Gate as well. Like The End of the Affair, Strait is the Gate is the story of young love sacrificed for religious dedication, of man losing out to God. But Strait is the Gate might win over The End of the Affair, and perhaps even The Age of Innocence, for documenting the most maddeningly unsuccessful of love affairs. Hamlet has nothing on the main character, Jerome, for sheer ability to endlessly dither while doing absolutely nothing. Thus the most agonizing scene in the novel occurs when Jerome finally, mercifully, is presented with the chance to declare himself to his love Alissa, the closest he gets to doing so in years. But as Alissa shuts the door behind her, “her eyes filled with an unspeakable love,” he does nothing. He could have knocked on the door, he admits. But instead he chooses to just stand there, “weeping and sobbing in the night.”
It is a credit to Gide that he dares let his narrator make such an aggravating decision: only a great novelist would risk the reader washing her hands of him entirely at that point, trusting that his creation is so fully-realized so as to withstand the subsequent censure. And so Jerome defends himself:
But to have kept her, to have forced the door, to have entered by any means whatever into the house, which yet would not have been shut against me – no, even today, when I look back into the past and live it over again – no, it was not possible to me, and whoever does not understand me here, has understood nothing of me up till now. (emphasis mine)
Fantastic line, isn’t it? It could win any argument. It could compellingly justify even the most erratic of actions. The moment I read it, I knew I had to use it. I committed it to memory. It would be my line, the same way Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Pulp Fiction memorizes Ezekiel 25:17, because he “thought it was just a cold-blooded thing to say to a motherfucker.”
So once, during what may have been either an unprecedented blow-out or a fairly innocuous skirmish with a significant other, I declared in ringing tones: “And whoever does not understand me here… has understood nothing of me up till now!”
A beat. A furrowed brow.
“That’s that quote from that book, right?” he said.
“Yeah, you’ve mentioned it before.”
“Oh.” Extended, humiliated silence. “I usually only use it once per person,” I finally offered, miserably.
“That’s all right,” he said, with encouragement. “I’ve a really poor memory of quotes. It was almost like hearing it for the first time.”
A cold-blooded thing to say to a motherfucker, indeed.
So what came first – the literature or the love? I blame literature. Literature, no doubt, blames me. It might not be possible to tell. But just be careful which books you fall for: some of them might get you into trouble.
Many of my favorite books – Dracula, The Rings of Saturn, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – came to me as assigned reading. Even more than specific titles, I inherited my favorite authors from professors: Nicholson Baker, Harryette Mullen, Turgenev, George Saunders.
This literary bestowal carries on into adulthood as I seek my favorite authors’ favorite authors. At HTMLGIANT, Blake Butler started a broad compendium of David Foster Wallace’s favorite works, encompassing books he blurbed, books assigned on his syllabus, books mentioned in interviews and in passing. It is a nourishing list, a place to turn when I think about what I should read next.
But my road with the recommendations of my favorite authors has been unpaved and rocky.
I devoured U and I, Nicholson Baker’s endearing, humorous volume on John Updike. I loved that he read the copyright page of each Updike book, tracing where essays or excerpts had been previously published. U and I is about Updike, yes, but it is more about Baker wrestling with Updike’s impact on a personal level. Early in the book he lays it out: “I was not writing an obituary or a traditional critical study, I was trying to record how one increasingly famous writer and his books, read and unread, really functioned in the fifteen or so years of my life since I had first become aware of his existence…”
Because the book is about Baker not about Updike, I found it easy to like. Baker recounts the 125th anniversary party for The Atlantic where Tim O’Brien tells him that he and Updike golf together: “I was of course very hurt that out of all the youngish writers in the Boston area, Updike had chosen Tim O’Brien and not me as his golfing partner. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t written a book that had won a National Book Award, hadn’t written a book of any kind, and didn’t know how to golf.”
And so, under Baker’s tutelage, I read John Updike. More accurately, I tried to read Updike, tried and tried. Rabbit, Run. Pigeon Feathers. The Poorhouse Fair. I didn’t finish any of them, I barely started them. I would have scoured Couples for the passage where Updike compares a vagina to a ballet slipper – which Baker mentions – if I could have gotten through the second chapter.
After quoting his own mother and Nabokov, Baker tells me, “There is no aphoristic consensus to deflect and distort the trembly idiosyncratic paths each of us may trace in the wake of the route that the idea of Updike takes through our consciousness.” Updike is not an idea that is tracing its way – neither trembling nor idiosyncratic – through my consciousness. There is no Updike boat leaving a wake in the waves of my mind like a yacht leaving Cape Cod for the Vineyard.
Rather than accept that Baker and I – being of different eras and different genders – have different taste, I concluded that I must be intellectually and creatively deficient; I am a bad reader. I was disappointed in myself for disappointing the Nicholson Baker in my mind, shaking his bearded head, tut-tutting at me: Poor girl, she’ll never understand.
A few months ago I picked up The Anthologist and started it, in the midst of other selections. (When the book came out last September, I actually drove twenty miles to Marin to see Baker read. I was the youngest member of the audience by thirty years. But I am afraid to buy a book at a reading, and petrified of the prospect of having an author sign the book. I could make a fool of myself as Baker did when asking Updike to sign a book in the early 80s.)
Then a couple weeks ago I received a mass email from a writer I know about how he was reading The Anthologist, and I felt the urge to pick it up again. He even said, “I’m really loving The Anthologist.”
I haven’t read everything by Baker, but I’ve read a bunch and enjoyed it on my own; yet, his authoritative praise weighs more than my own evaluation.
Recently in Maine in a used bookstore (that was also the bookseller’s refurbished garage), I stumbled on three of Carson McCullers’ books for $1 each. (In case you are wondering, and you should be wondering, I was not close to Nicholson Baker’s home in Maine, but further up the coast near E.B. White’s former home, near the county fair where Fern bought Wilbur.) The cover of the tattered McCullers paperback proclaimed “One of the finest writers of our time” from The New York Times. I couldn’t recall exactly where I’d heard her name, but it was vaguely familiar. I bought all three.
I started The Ballad of the Sad Café and she drew me into her vivid, textured Southern world. Her descriptions are precise ideas: “The hearts of small children are delicate organs. A cruel beginning in this world can twist them into curious shapes.”
She commands the reader and directs me what to do: “See the hunchback marching in Miss Amelia’s footsteps when on a red winter morning they set out for the pinewoods to hunt… See them working on her properties… So compose from such flashes an image of these years as a whole. And for a moment let it rest.” This second-person imperative jumped out of the smooth, poetic narrative, but it fit like a nest on a tree. McCullers is unafraid to acknowledge you and make you do what she thinks you should. Yet she maintains authorial distance and control by refraining from the first person while directing your attention like a gentle guide: “Now some explanation is due for all this behavior,” she opens an aside on the nature of love. She then elides authority by saying, “It has been mentioned before that Miss Amelia was once married.”
Even before I’d finished the novella, though, I dug around online to verify my delight. Didn’t I read somewhere that David Foster Wallace liked her? Did I remember a retrospective on her in the TLS? No, I didn’t, I was mistaken. Try as I may, the highest compliment I found was from Graham Greene who said, “Miss McCullers and perhaps Mr. Faulkner are the only writers since the death of D. H. Lawrence with an original poetic sensibility.” Now, don’t get me wrong. Graham Greene is fine, but I didn’t even finish The End of the Affair, and he is nowhere near my top ten. From whom did I inherit McCullers?
My Internet searching revealed some critical acclaim (in the Modern Library Revue column on The Millions, for one) and she is mentioned in the same breath as Saul Bellow, Flannery O’Connor, W.H. Auden, and Tennessee Williams, each time with a different, equally flattering comparison.
But I was disappointed. In myself? In McCullers? In other authors who did not love her as I am growing to?
I suppose if I can find an author and grow to love them outside of a direct inheritance, maybe, too, I could reject select elements of my more obvious literary heritage. Hesitantly, I have begun to dismiss other favorites’ favorites. When a former student of his published David Foster Wallace’s syllabus, I promptly downloaded the PDF. As I read the list, I was very self-assured: I’d been meaning to read Waiting for the Barbarians! I loved the Flannery O’Connor story he assigned (“A Good Man is Hard to Find”). He boldly included young contemporary writers like Aimee Bender and Sam Lipsyte. But Silence of the Lambs. Really? I would not follow him there. Maybe I am only disadvantaging myself. Silence of the Lambs may be the literary masterwork that could forever change my outlook on literature and fiction, just like Updike was supposed to.
Where I formerly swallowed recommendations whole, I now cull through them – not exactly on my own but in a more independent fashion. I find books, I do not just receive them. Or, I try to.
I am not a bad reader nor am I intellectually and creatively deficient, or, if I am, it is not because I do not like John Updike but for entirely different reasons.
Jonathan Franzen occupies the cover of this week’s Time, and, as the magazine will happily point out, he’s the first novelist to do so in “more than a decade.” The Franzen cover—and the Franzen headline: “Great American Novelist”—is a pretty transparent bit of attention-mongering. After all, Franzen’s predecessor, Stephen King, got only one paragraph in his cover story, and Time profiled Franzen only four years ago. (Both Franzen stories include lots of bird watching and Lev Grossman.)
Still, Time could use a boost as much as literature, and it’s hard to fault the magazine. In fact, its choice of Franzen provides an opportunity to look back at Time’s long history as literary arbiter and evangelist.
In The Powers That Be, David Halberstam writes that Time impresario Henry Luce
had a powerful sense of what people should read, what was good for them to read, and an essential belief worthy of the best journalist, that any subject of importance could be made interesting. Thus the cover story, the personalizing of issues so that a lay reader could become more interested and more involved in serious reading matter.
This same impulse seems to be at work in Time’s Franzen cover. (Under the headline it reads: “His characters don’t solve mysteries, have magical powers or live in the future.”) Franzen himself has remarked on it. In his famous Harper’s essay “Perchance to Dream,” he writes that “my father, who was not a reader, nevertheless had some acquaintance with James Baldwin and John Cheever, because Time magazine put them on its cover.”
Franzen ends up arguing that a shift in Time’s cover choices—from James Joyce to Scott Turow—offers more proof of America’s cultural decline. But just about every interaction between Time and a literary type has been characterized by a waffling between reaching out and selling out that, today, we’d describe as Franzean. Two favorite examples: When Bennett Cerf tried to convince William Faulkner to do a second Time cover, 15 years after his first, Faulkner asked for an estimate on how much it would add to Random House’s bottom line so that he could simply reimburse the publisher. In The Prisoner of Sex, Norman Mailer—who seems to have married Jeanne Campbell, Luce’s former mistress, for revenge as much as for love—recalls Time’s offer of “a cover story on the author’s reactions to the most prominent phenomenon of the summer season: the extraordinary surge of interest in Women’s Liberation.” Despite having a movie to promote, Mailer decides that “only a fool would throw serious remarks into the hopper at Time.”
In 1923, Joseph Conrad appeared on Time’s first bookish cover and its sixth overall. The story began:
Joseph Conrad, rover of the seven seas, has never set foot in the United States. Now he is coming. At about the end of this month the man who holds probably the most exalted position in contemporary English letters is to arrive here for a visit which it is hoped will last through May.
And that’s about it. Conrad’s entire cover story ran only 425 words, a standard length for early Time articles, and this first batch of literary covers were mostly linked to reviews. Thanks to the magazine’s short and punchy house style, these reviews always managed to include some biographical information. (The section on “The Author” came right after the one on “The Significance.”)
By the 1930s, though, you could see a formula beginning to set — a personalized opening, a capsule biography, some detailed description (Willa Cather “looks and talks like a kindly, sensible Middle-Western housewife, stout, low-heeled, good at marketing and mending“), and, above all, a few kind words about the author’s latest. Given Time’s practice of deploying multiple reporters, these profiles were often the most thorough or invasive of their time. (The J. D. Salinger cover story is a good example of this.) Given Time’s goal of reaching the broadest possible audience, these profiles also turned their subjects into rather flat characters: Cather the housewife, Hemingway the hunter, and so on.
The other thing to say about Time’s audience is that, from the beginning, the magazine has paid attention to lowbrow lit. Its cover story on E. Phillips Oppenheim praises his “light fiction” and opens with a mutually flattering comparison to Henry Ford, and this is one of many such examples. In fact, after surveying its literary history, I’m more surprised that Time hasn’t put Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyer on its cover than that Jonathan Franzen made the cut. (Time did put Harry Potter on its cover for what was essentially a profile of J. K. Rowling.)
Below, you too can survey this history through links to the covers and cover stories for each of Time’s literary stars. Read them to chuckle at the magazine’s weakness for hype (Robinson Jeffers is someone “a considerable public now considers the most impressive poet the U. S. has yet produced“). Read them to get a contemporary perspective on some historical figures (though don’t expect the best and the brightest: Lillian Ross’s New Yorker profile of Hemingway, for example, is much better than Time’s). Read them to marvel at Time’s uncanny ability to feature the best writers’ worst books. Most of all, read them to watch how this red-bordered cultural institution ferries between the high and the low. The Virginia Woolf cover story is especially good at this, but all of them do it to one degree or another. Even Jonathan Franzen’s.
Time put 14 authors on its cover in the 1920s, 23 in the 1930s, seven in the 1940s, 11 in the 1950s, 10 in the 1960s, eight in the 1970s, four in the 1980s, four in the 1990s, one in the 2000s, and, now, Franzen in 2010. That adds up to an objective-sounding 83, but I should explain my principles in compiling this list. While Time also likes to revive dead authors—Faulkner, for example, submitted to that second cover in 1964, two years after his death—I included only living authors who wrote primarily imaginative work: novels, plays, or poetry. These criteria still left room for some judgment calls—William Allen White did not make the list because he’s better known for his politics and his newspapering (and because White’s cover story focuses on his Kansas gubernatorial campaign), but I kept Upton Sinclair and the cover story on his California gubernatorial campaign. Feel free to dispute my choices or to add anyone I missed in the comments.
Each entry includes the author’s name and, where applicable, the name of the work that prompted the profile. There are also links to a print-friendly version of the cover story and to an image of the cover itself. In fact, thanks to Time’s new paywall, the Franzen cover story is the only one you can’t read online.
Israel Zangwill. “Imaginary Interviews: Israel Zangwill, Englishman of Letters.” September 17, 1923. Cover image.
Amy Lowell / John Keats. “Miss Lowell Eulogizes, Analyzes, Forgives the Poet.” March 2, 1925. Cover image.
On the last Sunday in November, book critic Adam Begley scooped Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd for the top spot in the New York Times most emailed list. Not with a review though. Instead, he wrote an excellent piece about Florence for the travel section, in which he recommended E.M. Forster’s Room with a View as a kind of literary guidebook to the city. The Florence piece came several months after Begley employed the same tactic to tour Sicily, that time with Giuseppe de Lampedusa’s The Leopard in his pocket.Those two pieces inspired me to think about other novel-city pairings. Last June, The Millions ran a guest post from novelist Joan Silber, in which she detailed some of her favorite books for enriching a trip abroad. Here I have something slightly different in mind: novels that allow you to follow Forster’s advice to leave the guidebook at home (and instead replace it with a great work of fiction). So, without further ado:The American southwest: Try Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House for its stark descriptions of a New Mexico mesa.If you don’t know Boston already, let Henry James introduce you with The Bostonians, his story of love and politics in the 19th-century city.It feels cheap, I know, to make John Grisham your tour guide, but I devoured The Client on a boat trip up the Amazon and don’t regret it a bit. If, for some reason you’re looking to weigh down your trip to Brazil, go with Claude Levi-Strauss’ Tristes and TropiquesSee the Windy City through the eyes of Dreiser’s classic Sister Carrie, which renders a teeming, if not always hospitable portrait of Chicago.I like Graham Greene for Cuba, with Our Man in Havana. Greene recurs a lot in this list, so in order to get it out of the way all at once: London (The End of the Affair); Mexico (The Lawless Roads or The Power and the Glory); Switzerland (Doctor Fischer of Geneva); Vienna (The Third Man); Vietnam (The Quiet American)There’s still no better guide to Dublin than James Joyce (The Dubliners).Greece: Bring along The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller.E.M. Forster’s good for Florence. He’s also good for intrigue in colonial India: A Passage to India.It’s always a decision, do you want to see a place through the eyes of a perceptive foreigner or a local? In Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and The City you get both.Jerusalem: Mark Twain voyages to the ancient capital in The Innocents Abroad. How can you resist?London: OMG. Ready to party? Try and keep up with Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. A jaded post-colonial? Nick Hornby’s About a Boy. Prefer to delve into immigrant life? Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Or, if you take your London straight up, there’s no better pour than Bleak House by Dickens.Try Joan Didion’s Miami if you have half a mind not to come back.I can think of nothing finer than New York in the hands of E.B. White: Here is New York.Paris: Again, are you going for the expat experience or the genuine article? If the former, go with James’ Portrait of a Lady or Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. But for my money, see the city like a native. Stendahl’s The Red and the Black.The great Russian novels are like a trip abroad no matter where you read them. Try Crime and Punishment or Gogol’s “The Nose” and “The Overcoat” for St. Petersburg.Switzerland has inspired some great books in addition to the aforementioned Greene. There is Twain again with A Tramp Abroad and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.I conclude the list with wanderlust. Books and foreign places are a fitting pair. There will always be more of both than there is time. This is of course anything but an exhaustive list. I’d love to hear what books you recommend in lieu of a tour guide.
Brian from Los Angeles, one of the most prolific readers I have ever known, sent along his to favorites for 2004 (as we continue The Millions End of Year Extravaganza)Non-Fiction: The Fall Of Baghdad (excerpt) — It is to our great benefit that Jon Lee Anderson was one of the very few journalists to remain in Baghdad throughout (and after) the attack. Anderson remains (mostly) apolitical, to record, with ferocious accuracy and color, what he saw, heard, smelt and felt throughout those turbulent weeks. All those self-important and partisan-hack talking heads and politicians who profess to know what’s best for iraq and america are infants next to Anderson. Fiction: Elizabeth Costello (excerpt) – J.M. Coetzee is primarily known for one of his weaker books (Disgrace“) as opposed to one of his masterpieces (Waiting for the Barbarians, Life and Times of Michael K) — Elizabeth Costello falls somewhere in between. And, Coetzee knows this, even seems to integrate this into the book itself. Elizabeth Costello perfectly captures, through a series of an old woman’s digressions and lectures, the confusion inherent in existence. Proceeding through life with the knowledge that all information has a flip side, that every belief has a counter-belief, that everything one does is both super-charged with meaning and also meaningless, one must… proceed. As does Elizabeth Costello (and Coetzee). A book that intentionally wallows in human fallibility, confusion, flawed logic, and shortcomings, but elevated way beyond most ‘perfect works’ — Coetzee is one of our best contemporary prose stylists, novelists, and essayists.–and a shout-out to the new centennial edition Graham Greenes with cooler covers than the Penguin editions and introductions by the likes of Coetzee, Christopher Hitchens, etc… The Heart Of The Matter and The End Of The Affair must be read by all! Look for more great end of year reviews as the Extravaganza continues.