During my last two years of college in Chicago, I rode downtown by commuter train a few times each week. The trip took about 40 minutes, and I always brought a book to pass the time.
I read most of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain on the tracks between the Loop and the Davis Street stop. I paged through The Satanic Verses that way too. These were strange book choices, but I was a strange reader. I never felt like I had read the right books. Everyone else seemed to have read everything. I was so far behind I had no idea where to start. I had hunger, but no sense of taste.
I certainly got no guidance from what other people on the train were reading. My fellow riders seemed to subsist on the Trib or Wall Street Journal alone. No novels other than the occasional Scott Turow or John Grisham. This was the golden age of the courtroom potboiler. I didn’t understand the priorities of these people whose lives were swarmed with mortgages, kids, and 401(k)s.
In 1998, I came to New York for graduate school, and at once I felt as if I’d found my people at last. I loved how so many people read books on the subway. Not just bestsellers, either. Novels, biographies, poetry collections. Books for people who loved reading.
To pay my bills, I got a job downtown at the Seaport. Once again, I was riding a train for most of an hour a few times a week. Nearly every day I would see a person reading a book that I had on a class syllabus, or a title from my own personal reading to-do list. New York felt like a place I knew, even though I didn’t really know it yet. The covers of books I recognized would stand out like friendly faces—well, hello, Gabo! What’s up, Woolfie? I see you’re a thing they carried, too, Mr. O’Brien!
Because I wanted so much to be a writer in those days, I spent many hours every week at the many bookstores of Manhattan. I bought used books because I couldn’t afford brand new ones. I was always waiting for a new release that I really wanted to show up as a remainder or as someone else’s cast off. If you want something that you cannot afford badly enough, then the packaging itself becomes an object of desire, and I began to be able to identify a book that I wanted after just the barest glimpse of its cover.
My favorite book covers were Vintage International paperbacks; their stately design, metallic hues, and dark tones were so lovely and pure. I would pick up a new author just because of the Vintage colophon. This was how I met Julian Barnes and William Maxwell. They had the right kind of references.
As it so happens, on a crosstown bus many years later, I fell into conversation with a woman who was the purchasing editor for Vintage International. I couldn’t find the words to express my gratitude to her; later, when she got off at her stop, I resisted the urge to ask for her email address. I didn’t want to give her the wrong idea.
Even after I finished graduate school, I still carried a book to the office each day. (In this way, I told myself I was different from those commuter train riders in Chicago years earlier.) Sometimes, at work I’d put the book face down on my desk, but usually I’d leave it out in the open: not to parade what I was reading but as a kind of invitation to anyone who wanted to talk books.
One winter, a colleague stopped by every few days to see how far along I’d gotten in War and Peace. Eventually, he began to offer up his own daily updates on his journey through books like The Count of Monte Cristo and The Killer Angels. I learned that he was a one-time history major who got swallowed up by the corporate world and was trying to find his way out.
Shortly before I got married, I was transferred from the office at the Seaport to the corporate headquarters out in Newark. Once again, I found myself on a commuter train each day. My friends would grimace when I told them about my daily commute. To reassure them that it wasn’t terrible, I pointed out that I had time to read.
Smartphones and e-readers made their debut while I was commuting to Newark. I tried this out one evening when I downloaded The Time Machine onto a first-generation iPad. At the time, I was sitting in bed while my wife slept, and I needed no lamplight because the screen was illuminated. This pleased me at first. But as I read, I realized that the tablet weighed just a fraction too much; it pulled gently at my fingertips, tugging me back to the real world more than a physical book.
The technology for e-readers has improved greatly since then. I read more digital books than physical ones now. I don’t feel quite right about it. But I love the convenience and simplicity of reading via Kindle. I opted for a digital copy of Ian McEwan’s
OK, Mr. Field—the debut novel from the South African-born, London-based writer Katharine Kilalea—is the story of a man and a house. Mr. Field, a concert pianist who lives in London, suffers a wrist injury after a performance of Chopin’s “Raindrop Prelude.” With the payout he receives, he buys a house in Cape Town that he had read about on the train before the accident occurred and moves there with his wife, to her mild dismay. The house, known as the House for the Study of Water, is no ordinary structure. It’s one of a number of replicas of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, a modernist building that stands outside Paris.
As Mr. Field and his wife begin their new life in the House for the Study of Water, their home’s alienating architecture begins to take a toll—first on their relationship, and ultimately on Mr. Field’s grip on reality. Take, for instance, this passage, in which he gazes out a window after a gust of wind blows out the glass:
Everything was exactly the same as it always had been, of course it was, but there was something vague about the way my eyes registered the world. Whereas previously I could see things clearly—the trees, even their individual leaves—now when I looked out the low-flying gulls were almost indistinguishable from the white specks that came off the tops of the waves. Things were on the cusp of not being themselves. I had the idea that it wasn’t my vision deteriorating but the very glue which held the objects of the world together growing old and weak.
Kilalea’s lucid prose absorbs the reader into Mr. Field’s increasingly uncanny experience of his surroundings and himself. This slow, steady unhinging reveals the strangeness of his world—and ours—anew.
Kilalea was kind enough to answer my questions about the novel over email.
The Millions: What was the initial impulse behind writing OK, Mr. Field? How did that first idea develop into what the novel became?
Katharine Kilalea: Some time ago I visited the Villa Savoye, which most people seem to love, and hated it. I’d already spent over a year writing a dissertation on the perversity of the building—the unnaturally narrow shape of its windows, the coyly hidden position of its entrance—without seeing it in its actuality, so I was surprised to discover that the building, which in my imagination had been something wonderful, was in fact very ordinary. And so unsexy! The stud walls were so porous that I could hear people in other rooms, talking, going to the toilet—presumably, if you lived there, having sex. It reminded me of the overexposed feeling I’d get when writing (or publishing) poetry. I was working for Farshid Moussavi, the architect, at the time. “Why are you writing a book about a building that you hate?” she said. Sometimes it occurred to me that if I could work out why I hated the Villa Savoye I might understand what I hated about writing poetry. Sometimes it seemed like I was using the Villa Savoye to write about a feeling, a kind of desire I suppose, which I was reluctant to write about directly because (in the same way as one ought not to take too much pleasure in an ice cream, say, or a dog, or a question) there’s an element of perversity in it. The building stood in front of that feeling, or stood in for it, as if substituting the words “feeling close” with “being close.”
TM: OK, Mr. Field is concerned, in part, with the interplay between outward order and internal disarray. I see that conflict as embodied in the House for the Study of Water, which is this impeccably designed living space that becomes the site for its occupant’s unraveling. It’s a feature, too, of the way you’ve designed the novel itself: Its motion is careful and its prose restrained as the world of its protagonist comes apart. Do you see that tension between order and disorder as an animating force in the novel? Is it a feature of the act of writing?
KK: The idea of order in a novel is, I think, quite literally the ordering of events. That’s what animates a novel, the knowledge I have from the moment I open it that something is going to happen, the business of waiting, trusting that one thing will lead to another to some climax or conclusion. It’s interesting; in poetry, “order”—rhythm, especially—guards against disorder, whereas in a novel, order stands against dullness. Which differentiates fiction from life—makes it more sexlike than lifelike—because in life, of course, there’s the possibility that nothing will change, nothing will happen. The tension, for me, is the wedge which this idea of progress drives between fiction and life. Is what makes a novel worth going on reading so different from what makes a life going on living? (What makes me go on living? Nothing. I just do!) I paid attention to climaxes while I was reading. The climaxes of some of my favorite books, instead of being moments of clarity or revelation, seemed to be points of disappearing or dissolving. They had a vague, misty quality. In The Magic Mountain, having spent hundreds of pages waiting for Hans Castorp to finally speak to Claudia Chauchat, their conversation is in French so I can’t understand it. Having spent weeks reading about K.’s quest to reach the Castle, Burghel’s offer to help is met with a smile, not because the object of K.’s desire is finally within reach but because he’s about to fall asleep.
TM: Another contradiction that seems to lie at the heart of the novel is the way that structures meant to foster intimacy can instead inspire isolation. As a definition we encounter in the novel has it, a house is “a machine for living in together,” yet it’s the House for the Study of Water that drives Mr. Field and his wife irrevocably apart. Music, too, often functions as a way of bringing people together, but in the novel it works in the opposite way: Mr. Field’s performance of Chopin’s “Raindrop Prelude” early in the novel alienates him from his audience, and when he plays it again later, alone, it carries him further into himself. What is it about those structures for connecting us—homes, songs—that can instead cut us off from one another? What makes that an interesting subject to you?
KK: I’m fascinated by the difference between loneliness and too much intimacy. The Villa Savoye seemed to think of intimacy as a kind of heightened proximity to other people—seeing each other and hearing each other and being with each other constantly. That much “togetherness” would drive me mad. In fact, Le Corbusier’s descriptions of how his buildings bring their inhabitants closer to nature reminds me of Daniel Schreber (famously analyzed by Freud), whose psychosis took the form of an overly intimate relationship with the outside world: The sun spoke to him, birds read his thoughts. Schreber tried to drown out the voices by reciting poems and playing the piano. So he used music as a way of keeping things out, shutting himself in. That’s my experience of music: The more I’m carried away by it, the more I find myself thinking about myself.
TM: This is your first novel but your second book. Your first was a book of poetry. How was writing this book different from writing poetry? In what ways, if any, do you see the novel as continuous with your poetic project?
KK: Somewhere between writing my book of poetry and this novel, I wrote a long poem which I think of as the hinge between the two. The poem is the opposite of prosaic—the images don’t make sense, the syntax doesn’t make sense, some of the words are nonsense. It was written at a time when, for reasons that were never clear, I had great difficulty in expressing myself. I was unable to speak properly; I couldn’t finish sentences and often couldn’t find the right word at the right time. Perhaps the music of the poem supplemented those unfinished thoughts and made sense of them, because I couldn’t write poems after that. Then, after a while, sentences started to appear. I miss poetry, but it’s a great relief to be able say something rather than having to convey it intravenously, as is the way of poetry.
TM: Many of my favorite recent novels were written by writers who began their careers as poets—Ben Lerner, Garth Greenwell, Anna Moschovakis, and you. Would it make sense to you to think of the contemporary English “poet’s novel” as a form with certain specific characteristics? What might those be?
KK: I’m not at all confident about this, but here goes … I wonder whether Ben Lerner and Garth Greenwell’s novels (I’m looking forward to reading Anna Moschovakis) share a cynicism about instinct, or the naturalness of feelings. There is a sense of feelings behind feelings, thoughts beneath thoughts; you settle on something only to discover, a moment later, something different buried beneath it. It makes it impossible to land anywhere, which is something I recognize from poetry, the sense that everything must be unsettled, that you think of a thing one way, but really …
TM: One of the features of OK, Mr. Field I found most compelling is the subtle prominence of animal life, from the sea or sea-adjacent creatures (seals, squid, seagulls) discussed when Mr. Field goes to the restaurant to the spider that he sets on fire to the dog that becomes his companion. What role do you see animals as playing in the novel?
KK: It’s not easy to describe feelings. You can only describe what caused them or what it looks like when a person is smiling, crying, etc. The thing about animals is that, since they can’t speak, perhaps, their bodies are very articulate—they seem to register feelings with their whole bodies through tail wagging, head cocking, etc. Also, although animals seem to experience roughly the same feelings as we do—guilt, affection, enjoyment, being left out, etc.—they’re not expected to be moral. For example, whereas people are expected to experience attraction to other people, preferably ones of a similar age, background, and so on, dogs are allowed to hump table legs or handbags.
TM: In an early scene, when Mr. Field meets Hannah Kallenbach, he notices a shelf filled with “big books, the kind of grand European novels which concern themselves with the human condition.” I thought of this as a winking way in which the novel both acknowledges the tradition of which it is a part (it’s also a novel that explicitly concerns itself with the human condition) and differentiates itself (it’s not a big book). Elsewhere, you’ve mentioned The Magic Mountain as an influence. What other books do you consider OK, Mr. Field in conversation with?
KK: I do miss the modernist project’s ambition to tackle death, love, the meaning of life. I’m still anxious about the meaning of life! There were a few books which were—are—always on my desk while writing: The Magic Mountain, Correction, The Castle, and Peter Sloterdijk’s Bubbles, all of which I treat as odd love stories: for death, a castle, a soap bubble, a foetus, a placenta … Bernhard’s Correction and The Loser were too thematically similar to OK, Mr. Field to ignore, though anyone trying to write while reading Bernhard knows how terribly infectious his style can be.
TM: In the novel, Mr. Field moves from England to South Africa, which is the reverse of the path of your own life. What, if anything, do you see as distinctly English or South African about the novel, or even distinctive of the interchange between the two?
KK: OK, Mr. Field was initially set in the Alps—as an homage to The Magic Mountain, I think—but I’d only been there once, so halfway through, I transposed it into South Africa, which I knew better. I realized, then, how dominating a presence South Africa can be, because suddenly I felt the need to write in great detail about its sunsets, the seaweed, etc. (which felt wrong: too much looking out, not enough looking in). There is a perverse pleasure in withholding that visual description, because the landscape is beautiful, yet that restraint seems common among South African novelists: Their books have an arid quality; they don’t sing. The changing of countries at the last moment was also willfully contrary, a corrective to the unspoken regulation that a South African writer should concern themselves primarily with South Africa and things associated with South Africa.
TM: What are you reading and working on now?
KK: I’m about to re-read Lolita. It’s not my favorite Nabokov, but I’d like to write about, and think about, sexuality, in an amoral way.
Once, I had to go to the hospital. There was no reason to be afraid. The procedure was, at least for the doctors, routine. The chance of death was slim to none. Driving on the highway, for instance, just to arrive at the medical complex, had incurred about the same risk of serious injury. It was a pretty, sunny day in July. The doors were massive glass, revolving at a slow speed. I approached them willingly, but right before crossing through, I hesitated, overcome by sudden fear: I had the feeling that once I went into the hospital, I wouldn’t come out again.
I did—happily. Though it’s likely others who entered that day never would. That isn’t surprising. It’s very common to die in a hospital, so much so that the place has absorbed into itself the roles and artistic possibilities of the death-bed room, the graveyard, the pastoral house of worship. The religious leaders who once stood at the threshold between life and death are often replaced by a nurse, a doctor—caring, attentive, or sardonic, who knows?—hovering over a solitary patient and presiding over the mystery.
When the narrator of Ahmed Bouanani’s incantatory novel reaches the gates of the unnamed hospital, he experiences no immediate sense of foreboding, though the unforgettable and haunting first lines make it clear that he has strolled into the end of his life:
When I walked through the large iron gate of the hospital, I must have still been alive. At least that’s what I believed since I could smell on my skin the scents of a city that I would never see again.
Casually, he adds his name to a “yellow sheet already covered with flyspecks” and says “thank you four or five times to heads nodding behind screens in tiny, enclosed spaces where decades of paperwork and x-ray films were piling up on dusty shelves.” He follows a nurse deeper through the halls to C Wing, a place where time has seemingly come to a standstill, where the outside world ceases to matter, and where illness is a perpetual state, with no instances of or real hope for recovery.
The patient—suffering from an unnamed illness—becomes trapped in a bewildering twilight between life and death. The hospital is a haunted shadow world where memory struggles for a breath of air, where the grotesque facts of the outside country are gone over at leisure. Indignities and past sufferings (long-ago familial deaths, a childhood friend left asleep under a streetlamp, the violent and petty offenses of self-proclaimed criminals) are felt again, perhaps made worse by the removal: the ability to sit and think over events with no further possibility of investigation, action, or intervention.
Stasis is the rule here—for character and reader both. In The Hospital, there is no emphasis on the “and then…” of traditional narrative. There is no real story—which might sound like a critique but in fact is a kind of writing that can be just as cogent and enjoyable as the other, more plot-based or emotionally arcing sort, when the bursts of dialogue, bits of mordant wisdom, and small occurrences are done as well as they are done here. (Praise must go in part to Lara Vergnaud’s eloquent translation.) Take, for instance, the shadows of hunched patients like Easter Island giants, the mind like a “wild horse imprisoned in a serene body,” or this portrayal of pervasive mortality:
I rub shoulders with death every day now, that’s why I no longer fear him. I see him in my companions’ eyes, dressed like them in squalid blue pajamas, smoking crappy tobacco like everyone else, shooting the shit while waiting for dusk. He doesn’t hide in the dark corners, behind low walls, under beds, in humid, stinking latrines, he joins us at the dinner table, he laughs when we laugh, he shares our madness, then he leads us to our beds the same way you’d lead a mischievous child who refuses to go to sleep.
In some respects, Bouanani’s character is not unlike Thomas Mann’s Hans Castorp (who, in The Magic Mountain, enters a sanatorium intending a three-week visit and stays for seven years) for the slow and imagistic ways he lives beside his own death, and in a place where health is the ostensible but seemingly impossible aim. The character also shares with Castorp a richness in metaphoric layering, for he, Bouanani’s patient, is not only an accentuation of the mortal human but also a specific representative of his country at a very particular moment. As Anna Della Subin’s introduction helpfully describes, Bouanani (who died in 2011) was writing during a politically fraught time in Morocco, when, in an overzealous attempt to erase a legacy of colonization, artists like Bouanani were subjected to extreme censorship and threats. He was criticized for writing in French, forced to work under the watchful eye of the government, and fated to make films that were often immediately banned. As if that wasn’t enough, he also composed while struggling against an international culture that, in his view, demeaned the history of Arabic storytelling.
The hospital, then, becomes not only a state of mortal purgatory but also the intellectual and economic purgatory of a stuck generation. “Are we really a people?” asks one withered patient, known only by his nickname, Fartface. “Think about it. We were born with our right hands outstretched, begging in our blood…Too much servitude has made us forget what dignity, generosity, and tolerance truly are.” Another character’s self-description sounds doubly of metaphysical plight, and the shared providence of Morocco’s lost age of artists and thinkers:
I’m in between jobs, sir. Like everyone. My life is temporary, my hopes are temporary, my sleep and my dreams are temporary. I am temporarily counting a lot on the future, and here, look, sir, I have a temporary work certificate for when I’ll be temporarily well.
Not everything in Bouanani’s novel is so strikingly clear. There are flights of fancy and symbolic reaches in The Hospital (for instance, the hospital’s lush interior garden, the characters living and not living who haunt the patient, one with an axe) that carry vague and fairly muted meanings. Still, the central conceit of Bouanani’s novel is powerful and lucid, and the trim novel leaves a lasting impression. You enter the hospital; you lose yourself in its labyrinth, its rhythms, its silence like “the silence of a jar.” Sometimes you re-emerge and sometimes you don’t (“The world doesn’t care,” writes Bouanani, with bite, “but your mother does”). In the end, though, the difference was always overpronounced: You were just as mortal outside the hospital as inside, just as trapped. The mysteries that exist in the hospital—that peculiar factory where the living often become the dead—exist just as much beyond the iron gates. All true. All seemingly obvious. But often it takes an author like Bouanani to tap our arm and lead the way into an intense reminder.
A riddle: a woman and a man get to know one another in the 21st century. They flirt, go on long walks, exchange poetic emails, and stay up all night in his apartment. This goes on for months. But they never so much as kiss. Why?
It’s a state of affairs that makes us suspicious. At a time when sex is the starting point rather than the goal of most romantic relationships, we don’t have a rich phrasebook for understanding why two seemingly interested people fail at step one. Our explanations tend to be base: one of the two must be ugly, or in the closet, or unfashionably religious, or simply not interested in sex. If they wanted to, we reassure ourselves, they would.
Elif Batuman is skeptical of these reassurances. Her first novel, The Idiot, is a love story about two people who can’t bring themselves to kiss. The book has been praised for its humor, style, and linguistic observations, less so for what it has to say about the problem of sex. The few reviews that have mentioned sex at all have largely complained about its absence. But it’s precisely that absence that animates The Idiot and allows Batuman to present a more nuanced answer to the riddle: two people might fail to sleep together because they either can’t or won’t negotiate the power dynamic that physical intimacy inevitably requires.
Selin Karadağ, the novel’s narrator, is a newly arrived freshman at Harvard in the early days of electronic mail, a teenager who’s spent more time wondering on what day she’ll die than to whom she’ll lose her virginity. She’s cynically funny, with a keen eye for the absurd, but also possessed of an unsentimental idealism: she isn’t afraid to say she wants “a life unmarred by laziness, cowardice, and conformity.” She’s drawn to these sorts of confident, precise expressions, finding an almost existential comfort in the descriptive capacity of language, and feeling unmoored whenever she’s at a loss for words.
In her introductory Russian course she meets Ivan. He’s a senior, a looming Hungarian mathematician with the rarified aura that mathematicians have for laypeople. Selin’s interest grows as she watches him move through space, as she hears him speak, and as they find themselves cast as dialogue partners performing “Nina in Siberia,” a bizarre, elliptical love story made for teaching Russian grammar. One day, after overhearing his last name, she finds his email and writes him an impulsive letter, a playful sequel to their Nina dialogue, the sort of note that demands either an earnest reply or none at all. Ivan replies.
Their relationship graduates from email to long walks around Cambridge and finally to sitting up all night in his apartment, talking about nothing. They lurch through cycles of heartbreak and reconciliation. Ivan disappears, Selin writes to him that she’s in love with him, Ivan writes her that she’s the most special person he knows, Ivan mentions a girlfriend who quickly becomes an ex-girlfriend, Selin calls him the worst insult she can think of, Ivan takes her to Walden on his motorcycle, etc.
Like all young lovers, they struggle with voicing their expectations and feelings to each other but, at least to herself, Selin is able to articulate a clear idea of what constitutes true love. At one point, discussing Ivan with a therapist, she says: “Most people, the minute they met you, were sizing you up for some competition for resources…They’re always separating people into two groups, allies and dispensable people.” Ivan, she says, no matter how complicated he is, genuinely seems to care more about understanding her than about figuring out if she’s dispensable. This, to her, means he loves her.
Nothing very tangible comes out of this love. The summer after her freshman year, Selin travels to Hungary as a volunteer English teacher, largely because Ivan will be there, and the cycle repeats. In the end they have a climactic heart-to-heart that resolves nothing, and he leaves for Stanford to begin his PhD. It’s unlikely they’ll see each other again.
In what amounts to almost a year of knowing each other, the closest they come to physical intimacy is when he playfully touches her ear.
Reviewers have found this fact — by far the most unusual fact about the story — hard to account for. Some have dismissed it as an unfortunate flaw, or else, by glossing over it, implied that if sex is lacking it’s because sex isn’t what the book is about. Others have blamed the characters: either Selin is too much of a brain for physical intimacy (obviously contradicted by the text) or Ivan is, variously, not into her, emotionally unavailable, or a bad boy whose advances Selin wisely rejects. We don’t have access to Ivan’s thoughts, and there’s plenty of evidence for a cynical reading of his character, but these explanations feel forced. He never makes a move on her. He always calls her first (when they agree once that she’ll call first, he later admits he couldn’t focus on his work, so wrapped up was he in waiting). He’s not a paragon of vulnerability, but he’s available in ways that matter to Selin: “All I had to do was write him an email, and then he walked around with me all day long. Who else in the world would do that?”
Still, they don’t manage to move beyond walking. Once in a while Ivan makes superficially enigmatic statements about how much “easier things would be” if they were intoxicated:
[Ivan said,] “I’m not saying we have to get hammered…You just bypass the suffering…Something breaks down. I don’t know what to call it — those blocks, that obstruct a connection in your mind.”
“Inhibitions,” I said.
“Yes, exactly,” he said. I felt my face flush. “I don’t mean,” he added, “that you never talk about sex, and then you get drunk and suddenly you can talk about sex.”
“Right,” I said.
Time passed. I was thinking about how much time we had, and how little, at the same time. At some point, Ivan ask if I liked doughnuts.
If your sexual initiation didn’t take place in a John Irving novel, perhaps this scene is familiar. You sit around with your love interest, talking in suggestive generalities, trying to bait them into making the first move. We usually call this shyness, a little-respected emotion, because we think of it as the fear of committing to an action that we’re sure is totally fine and normal. We tell shy people: “Get on with it!”
This seems to be the frustration that many reviewers circle around. But I don’t think Selin’s inhibitions are mere shyness. She seems, at least in those moments, certain of Ivan’s interest. What she unconsciously fears, I believe, is that introducing the demands of physical desire into their relationship would compromise the notion of love that she has articulated, according to which Ivan loves her because he lets no worldly concerns get in the way of trying to understand her.
One of two books that Selin reads in Hungary is Thomas Mann’s 1924 bildungsroman The Magic Mountain. The book’s protagonist, Hans Castorp, is a kind of proto-millennial: he visits his cousin in a sanatorium and ends up staying there for seven years, living off his trust fund, cultivating hobbies and becoming an unpaid DJ. Selin says she sympathizes with much in the book, especially how they always eat two breakfasts, but as I read The Idiot, I kept wondering what she thought about one of The Magic Mountain’s more objectionable scenes.
Midway through the story, Castorp sleeps with a very ill Russian girl named Clavdia Chauchat, who he’s been making eyes at for 250 pages. She promptly leaves the sanatorium, and he waits for her, feigning illness. When she returns, however, it’s as the “traveling companion” of a Dutch colonialist, Pieter Peeperkorn, who, despite his advanced age, radiates a charisma that’s both Dionysian and Christ-like. Castorp is disappointed but, amiable as he is, he develops a friendship with the Dutchman.
At one point the pair spend a drunk morning theorizing about the nature of female desire. They arrive at the conclusion that it’s essentially passive: “Desire intoxicates the male,” Peeperkorn sums up. “The female demands and expects to be intoxicated by his desire.” Castorp is then able to confess his liaison with Chauchat, because, as he assures his friend, this liaison was entirely the result of his desire, and so shouldn’t reflect on the girl. The Dutchman more or less accepts this, saying, in short, if I were younger we might have to duel, but since I’m old, let’s make a bond of brotherhood instead. They drink to it.
Not exactly edifying reading, but it states shamelessly the algebra of desire that was assumed to be true for centuries and which, though it has largely passed from our discourse, still governs, often against our wills, sexual dynamics between men and women. In this algebra, desire is not fulfilled by a man learning what a woman wants. What she wants is obvious — she wants to be overwhelmed. The man’s challenge is to rise to the occasion, not to speak the right words but merely to speak, as loudly and shamelessly as he can.
Desire, then, is inseparable from power. What we desire is either to overpower or to be overpowered, and pleasure stems not from some combination of physical stimuli, not from being understood, but from how purely we’re able to play one of those two roles. And you don’t need to be a dyed in leather BDSMer or under-informed about consent to admit, with however heavy a heart, that this dynamic remains for many people an aspect of sexual pursuit and fulfillment, and that the concept of “intoxicating male desire” remains embedded in customs of who makes the first move, who pursues and who encourages pursuit, who emulates strength and who emulates weakness.
These notions of desire disquiet Selin, and not because she worries about consent. To the possibility that Ivan is trying to “push” her in “the scenario known to us both in which boys pushed girls,” she says that was “so obviously not what was going on.” Rather, it’s the thought that power might in any way have anything to do with love that makes her anxious. This is most apparent in moments when Selin feels unexpectedly hurt, because it’s almost always when Ivan suggests, even in a trivial way, that he’s aware of a power dynamic in their relationship. In one scene, he gives her a box of cookies to hold, and a dog that he’d been teasing with the cookies jumps on Selin, ruining her dress. Ivan jokes that he didn’t do it on purpose. “The sense of hurt,” she says, “took my breath away. It would never have occurred to me that he had done it on purpose.” In their climactic heart-to-heart, when Ivan admits one of his hurtful emails was “a power thing”, her breath catches in her throat: “It had never occurred to me that power was something he would actually use, on me of all people.”
For Selin, power seems inseparable from the competition for resources that she sees as antithetical to love. Power, she suspects, is always used for extraction. She sees it in The Beatles, whose “harmoniously innocent warbling” hides for her a “calculating cynical worldview” where they’re “keeping tally, resenting [their girl] for making them show her the way, waiting to be pleased in return.” As in most Beatles songs (except “Run For Your Life”), power and sex are not explicitly linked in The Idiot, but the hints are clear. After their first long night together, when he walks her home, she pre-empts any possibility of a kiss by leaving suddenly, and thinks she’s “won.” By extension, if she’d lingered, and shown that she expected something from him, he would have won, by giving her what she wanted, by showing her the way. It’s their first moment of sexual tension, and one of the few times she uses such explicit language about winning and losing.
Ivan is caught in a similar bind. On the one hand, as the more sexually experienced man, the aesthetics of his situation are less ugly, because in any power dynamic he would be the stronger, the “winner.” On the other hand, he can’t bring himself to make the first move, because if he genuinely loves her he doesn’t want to see her in a weaker position. The best he can do is hint at the sort of role he could play, and see how she reacts (not well). In Hungary they walk by a river and Ivan says that he wants to throw a stray dog into it. She asks why he’d want to do such a thing. He says rivers make him want to throw things into them, and jokes that he can’t throw her in. She knows this is “meant to sound playful,” but feels “insulted and humiliated.” Ivan reads her mood correctly: “I think you don’t like to throw the dog into the river.” I don’t think Ivan would throw a dog into a river, and I don’t think they’re talking about dogs.
As the story progresses there are hints that Selin might be, if not coming to terms with power dynamics, then at least becoming more aware of their pleasures. She starts enjoying The Beatles. Even as she’s ashamed of it, she admits how much she likes following Ivan’s instructions. The most revealing moment comes during their heart-to-heart. At one point he asks her about one of her letters, and Selin feels “a shock, like when he had mentioned power, but this time the feeling was intoxicating. I felt it, his power — but like he was going to use it delicately —
but not like he wasn’t going to use it.” Batuman is a crystalline stylist. Whenever her sentence constructions feel awkward, a character is trying to express something that language has trouble expressing. Here, Selin glimpses, however hazily, a power dynamic redeemed, and immediately undoes her hair clip, letting her hair down. But the hair covers her face, her self, and within the same sentence, she clips it back up again. They talk for a while longer, and make some important admissions, but in the end nothing they say bridges the physical distance between them, not even when Selin consents to Ivan killing a moth that’s buzzing around her room. He doesn’t kill it. With her help, he lets it out the window.
The next morning Selin ponders the prescience of Dr. Seuss: “We would not, could not, here or there. We would not, could not, anywhere.”
The sermonic version of The Idiot might conclude with this: if power compromises love, and sex involves power, then sex always compromises love. To be intoxicated by someone’s power is to allow your love for them to be compromised. True love will not save you: the truer the love the deeper the compromise.
I don’t think Selin sees a way out of this predicament. After her big talk with Ivan, she has a dream. She’s in a bathhouse, and Ivan walks in, except in the dream he’s also her brother. He is followed by a deluge of water. They hold one another. They say I love you. The water will drown them. Coldness and wetness, throughout the novel, are associated with death. If sex is a debasement of love, only one option remains to stay true to that love — confess it and die, chastely in the arms of your brother.
I found something admirable about Selin’s stubborn skepticism, perhaps because it’s grounded in her faith in language. She’s not skeptical of what she’s able to articulate, like her notion of love or her dislike of The Beatles. But when she arrives at something she can’t justify or explain, like why power dynamics must exist between two people in love, or why we drink so much, she refuses to go forward, no matter how much convention nudges at her back. She’ll believe in something, but not before it is made legible.
Her insistence on an explanation stands in contrast to two ways in which the rest of us make do with our compromises (three if you count alcohol). The first is by not talking about them. Many of us have internalized some vague idea that sex, whatever its myriad pleasures, is symbiotic with love, and that the two together represent the highest interpersonal fulfilment we can reasonably expect to achieve. When this assumption almost inevitably fails to hold, we think, well, desire is a strange thing that can’t be put into words anyway. This idea may seem obvious, because it’s so pervasive, but I think Selin would call it willful ignorance.
The second, more subtle way is by labelling the power dynamics involved in sexuality and seduction as “performative” and “arbitrary,” as if anything as basic as sex could ever be purely performative. Even if it were, it’s not obvious that what we perform on a regular basis doesn’t change us or how we’re perceived. If we perform weakness for our partner enough times, they may begin to believe we are weak, or dispensable, no matter how much they love us. It’s the fear of this, I think, that keeps many people from expressing their desires precisely to the partners they love most. How can you really ask someone, whom you love and respect as an equal, to put either you or themselves in a position of desirable weakness?
In the absence of physical intimacy, there’s a limit to how deeply The Idiot can explore these questions. Batuman has said that this novel is the first of a series, and I suspect she’ll go farther in its sequels (about one of which she said, “I want to write more about sex in this one; I think sex is a really big problem that people don’t acknowledge enough.”). Still, if The Idiot only describes the tip of the problem, it nonetheless points out both the problem and how much our language, so at ease with describing linguistic theory and croissants, struggles to articulate it. At the same time, Batuman presents this struggle not as the product of a fundamental rift between what can and can’t be articulated, but as a basic tension in our development as people. What Selin, in her grasping attempts to say how she feels about Ivan’s power, comes to understand is that we will always be pressing up against a reality that we cannot yet put into words. We will always, at the margins of our experience, be struggling with a new language.
As the lone mental hospital in The Magic Mountain referred to by its real name, the Hotel Schatzalp is a holy site for many Thomas Mann scholars and fans. At Page-Turner, Sally McGrane writes about the modern hotel, which employs a staff trained to deal with the occasional “literary fanatic.” (It also might be a good time to read Matthew Gallaway on Death in Venice.)
Snow is story. Snow can be an interruption and annoyance, but it is difficult to not appreciate a child’s awe for the white flakes. Snow clogs and closes roads, but it also turns lonely hills into slopes for sledding. Snow is the possibility of a new landscape, if only until for an hour, a day, or a week.
I was born during an Ash Wednesday snowstorm. My father rushed my mother to Morristown Memorial Hospital while white cloaked the streets. Growing up in suburban New Jersey, I scoped side roads for hills and banks. The best routes had speed and a smooth finish, and though I would drift to a stop, I would stare into the sky, and not care that I was cold. I listened for school closings on a Sansui, my face lit by the dial. Now I refresh the National Weather Service website as watches become warnings, and still pine for storms.
That white world has influenced my writing: my novella, This Darksome Burn, begins during an Oregon storm, and one of my poems, “The Mailman,” laments undelivered mail. Snow has also become a refrain in my reading. Snow fractures storylines and complicates characters. Snow forces writers to capture atmosphere and mood, and to uniquely describe a common event. Although we may experience many snowstorms in our lifetimes, each fall must be prepared for, dealt with, and, possibly, appreciated. I’ve noticed that writers often raise their descriptive bar when representing this winter world. What follows is a list of snow in poetry, fiction, and film. The usual suspects are mentioned, but my focus is on lesser-known gems. There’s enough reading and watching to keep you busy during the next polar vortex, blizzard, or even onion snow.
I. Snow in Poetry
“Antarctica” by James Hoch (2007)
Friends kneel on the dirt floor of a baseball dugout. They pop nitrous canisters “into the communion shapes / of our mouths, slipped inside where / everything seemed to be falling snow.” The poem continues with that steel-like chill, as some boys drift toward further abuse, and even death. Hoch never glorifies drug use, but, like the blur of side-falling snow, he muddies the space between regret and nostalgia. The grown narrator sees kids “running in the heat of a taillight / swirling behind them,” and recalls his own youth, when he and his friends “wanted only to quiet our bodies, their / unnatural hum, a vague pull inward, / some thin furrows gliding over the snow.” Hoch’s poem appeared in an issue of Painted Bride Quarterly, but I prefer the version that was included in his second book, Miscreants.
“A Winter’s Tale” by D.H. Lawrence (1916)
Snow and love are commonly intertwined, but Lawrence begins this poem in the “grey” past, where the woman’s footsteps document her existence. She is gone: “I cannot see her, since the mist’s white scarf / obscures the dark wood and the dull orange sky; / but she’s waiting, I know, impatient and cold, half / sobs struggling into her frosty sigh.” Yesterday, she had rushed to meet the narrator for their “inevitable farewell; / the hill is steep, on the snow my steps are slow– / why does she come, when she knows what I have to tell?” No warmth in this storm.
“Invocation” by Denise Levertov (1969)
In 1994, Levertov wrote “Swan in Falling Snow,” based on the photography of her friend, Mary Randlett. Although the title sounds pleasant, the poem is not: the swan is nearly dead, a “barrel-sized, heart-shaped snowball.” Levertov uses commas as knives: “splayed feet, balanced, / weary, immobile.” Yet Levertov had long been interested in snow’s ability to turn a narrative. “Invocation” is a sparer piece, resembling patches of dirt on a snowed page. The collective narrator is about to leave home, and each line in the first stanza is its own sentence, building the anticipation. Here, snow is not worried over, but wished for: “Deep snow shall block all entrances / and oppress the roof and darken / the windows.” Only snow can shutter a home and prevent entry. And that is fine, because the narrator hopes Lares will “guard” the “profound dreams” between the walls, so “that it return to us when we return.” It also contains my most favorite line in all of poetry: “The house yawns like a bear.”
“Early October Snow” by Robert Haight (2013)
A nor’easter slammed New Jersey the day before Halloween, 2011. Trees snapped power lines as some counties saw nearly 20 inches of accumulation. Haight’s poem brought me back to that moment: “this morning we wake to pale muslin / stretched across the grass.” The narrator knows the snow will not stay, but the blanched landscape still fascinates him. I love a poem that isn’t supposed to happen. Snow should wait its turn, but Haight makes this early fall so believable, from the pumpkins that look like “planets / shrouded by clouds” to “leaves, still soldered to their branches / by a frozen drop of dew, splash / apple and pear paint along the roadsides.”
“Ash-boughs” by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1885)
Hopkins’s final sonnet, “To R.B.,” is a lament about the narrator’s inability to experience “the fine delight that fathers thought:” inspiration to write poetry. “R.B.” is Robert Bridges, poet laureate of England, but more importantly, Hopkins’s friend and posthumous publisher. The pair met at Oxford, and agnostic Bridges was the perfect contrast to Hopkins, a Catholic convert who became a Jesuit priest. Bridges named this fragment “Ash-boughs” when he published Hopkins’s Collected Poems in 1918. A curtal sonnet, one of Hopkins’s idiosyncratic 12 line variations of the form, the poem begins with a narrator’s wonder at “a milk to the mind:” the branches of ash trees. He enjoys their shapes, reach, and color: “ May / mells blue and snowwhite through them, a fringe and fray / of greenery.” The tree reaches through the memory of snow to the promise of spring and light.
Hopkins had always connected snow and ash trees, and used their intersection to present his central poetic theory, inscape. Hopkins once explained to Bridges that “no doubt my poetry errs on the side of oddness.” His theory of inscape is equally unusual: “the essential and only lasting thing…species or individually-distinctive beauty of style.” The theory became the core paradox of Hopkins’s poetry and life, which Bridges observed as “the naked encounter of sensualism and asceticism,” and what W.H. Gardner calls the “tension between the inborn creative personality of the artist and the acquired religious character of the Jesuit priest.”
That one of our most inventive poets synthesized his poetic and personal theories using snow brings me joy. From his notebook, in February and April, 1873: “In the snow flat-topped hillocks and shoulders outline with wavy edges, ridge below ridge, very like the grain of wood in line and in projection like relief maps…All the world is full of inscape and chance left free to act falls into an order as well as purpose: looking out of my window I caught it in the random clods and broken heaps of snow made by the cast of a broom…[in April] the ashtree growing in the corner of the garden was felled. It was lopped first. I heard the sound and looking out and seeing it maimed there came at that moment a great pang and I wished to die and not to see the inscapes of the world destroyed any more.”
A great list of snow poems appears in the essay “Turning Up the Gravity” by Floyd Skloot. After a bad storm, Skloot heads inside and envelopes himself in winter verse: “Snow-Bound” by John Greenleaf Whittier, “Snowflakes” by Howard Nemerov, “Snow Light” by May Sarton, “SNO” by e.e. cummings, “The Snow on Saddle Mountain” by Gary Snyder, “Snow” by Charles Wright, “Driving to Town Late to Mail a Letter” by Robert Bly, “Snow” by Philip Levine, “Winter Poem” by Frederick Morgan, “Snow” by Louis MacNeice, and “Desert Places” by Robert Frost: “A blanker whiteness of benighted snow / With no expression, nothing to express.” I would also add “Snow” by Mary Ruefle, “A Winter Without Snow” by J.D. McClatchey, “[Like brooms of steel]” by Emily Dickinson, “February Snow” by Francisco Aragón, “The Snow-Storm” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Letter from the Ice Field, December” by Sara Eliza Johnson, and, of course, “The Snow Man” by Wallace Stevens, which ends: “For the listener, who listens in the snow, / And, nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”
II. Snow in Fiction
The Pedersen Kid by William Gass (1961)
Gass wrote his novella “to entertain a toothache;” I first read it while sitting in the waiting room at the dentist. Within his plans for the story’s draft, he explains his goal to “present evil as a visitation –sudden, mysterious, violent, inexplicable,” bringing to life a line spoken in the text: “nobody’s ever ready for snow.” Gass’s cast is full of effective caricatures: drunken Pa, confused Ma, conniving farm-hand Big Hans, and young Jorge, the first person narrator. Snow appears in the second sentence: in the midst of a North Dakota blizzard, Big Hans discovers a child, the Pedersen kid. The child is resuscitated but delirious, and the family attempts to discover why he is there. Armed with shotguns, sandwiches, and coffee, the men of the home cross snow to hunt the man with mysterious “yellow gloves:” assumedly, someone who has killed the rest of the Pedersen family.
In a story that both parodies and praises the adventure genre, the men experience horse troubles and shudder from cold. Pa loses his whiskey bottle in the snow, and Gass spends several pages on Pa’s obsessive search, leading to Jorge’s conclusion: “It was frightening — the endless white space.” The horse ultimately shatters the bottle, and the “brown stain spread,” the “snow bubbling and sagging.” Big Hans laughs, and Jorge thought they “could melt and drink the snow.” Jorge hates Big Hans; would hate him “forever — as long as there was snow.” A Beckett-style scene unfolds. Snow and storm create a maniacal world that is equal parts caricature and deadly real. The men reach the Pedersen barn, and Jorge hears gunshots. In the novella’s final psychotropic pages, Jorge feels reborn in the abandoned Pedersen home, though the killer might near: “More and more, while we’d been coming, I’d been slipping out of myself, pushed out by the cold maybe.” His thoughts drift toward “a movie where the months had blown from the calendar like leaves. Girls in red peek-a-book BVDs were skiing out of sight.” He sees his motionless father being buried under new snowfall, and realizes there is nothing he can do until spring: “There was no need for me to grieve…The snow would keep me.” He accepts that the “winter time had finally got them all.”
“Wickedness” by Ron Hansen (1988)
From the introduction to Ted Kooser’s book of poems, The Blizzard Voices: “[these poems were] snagged…from actual reminiscences, recorded in old age, of people who survived the most talked about storm in American history, the Blizzard of 1888, also known as the Schoolchildren’s Blizzard because of the many children and their teachers who were trapped in rural schools on the bitterly cold days of January 12 and 13.” Hansen’s fictional dramatization of the blizzard is frightening. “Weather in Nebraska could be the wickedest thing she ever saw:” wicked suggests snowfall as sentient villain. The storm took most by surprise: “Weeds were being uprooted, sapling trees were bullwhipping, and the top inches of snow and prairie soil were being sucked up and stirred like the dirty flour that was called red dog.”
Animals are thrown about: “Cats died, dogs died, pigeons died.” Humans appear to lose their minds. “Ainslie Classen” (Hansen’s usage of proper names lends a dated census-like feel to the narrative) “work[ed] his hands into the pigs’ hot wastes, and smeared some onto his skin.” Mathias Aachen’s house is in disarray: “When a jar of apricots burst open that night and the iced orange syrup did not ooze out” the father of the house promises that “every one of us will be dying of cold before morning.” Aachen doesn’t wait for the storm: “he tilted hot candle wax into his right ear and then his left, until he could only hear his body drumming blood. And then Aachen got his Navy Colt and kissed his wife and killed her. And then walked under the green tent cloth and killed his seven children, stopping twice to capture a scuttling boy and stopping once more to reload.”
The wicked storm kills “a Harrington woman,” “an Omaha cigar maker,” “a cattle inspector,” “a Chicago boy,” “a forty year-old wife,” and many more. This is certainly no ordinary storm based on volume alone, but Hansen redoubles the almost mythical convention of snow through description: “Everything she knew was no longer there. She was in a book without descriptions. She could put her hand out and her hand would disappear.” Hansen makes snow a legend.
“Time and Again” by Breece Pancake (1977)
Although she deemed the story “relatively weak” and having a “sort of comic book Gothicism” in her 1983 review, Joyce Carol Oates anthologized Pancake’s morbid story in American Gothic Tales. I assume her appreciation increased with subsequent readings. I was sold on my first reading. Pancake’s story begins indoors: “Mr. Weeks called me out again tonight, and I look back down the hall of my house. I left the kitchen light burning. This is an empty old house since the old lady died.” The sentences lean forward; they are blinks of an eye, individual shots, appended with heavy periods.
The narrator’s son has been gone for years. This lonely man keeps hogs, “old hogs. Not good for anything,” but makes his money driving the plow for Mr. Weeks. Besides a loud clue — “the lug wrench is where it has always been beside my seat” — the narrator first seems more cantankerous than murderous: “The snow piles in a wall against the berm. No cars move. They are stranded at the side, and as I plow past them, a line falls in behind me, but they always drop back. They don’t know how long it takes the salt to work. They are common fools. They rush around in such weather and end up dead.” He soon picks up a hitchhiker, “a polite boy,” who reminds the narrator of his son. The talk reaches the man’s hogs, and he says they die hard, much harder than men in war. Death remains the topic of discussion: they talk of a serial killer who prays on local hitchhikers. The narrator then talks of snapping the necks of German soldiers in a French farmhouse during a World War II snowstorm. “People die so easy,” he thinks; unspoken words, but heard by the reader. He grips the lug wrench, and asks the boy to look under the seat for his flashlight. But the killing strike never comes. He spares the boy, and drives up the mountain. He tries to think about all the men he killed in France, but can’t think past that night in the storm. He returns home, and Pancake hints at what the narrator usually feeds the hogs. This time, they are unhappy.
“How to Talk to a Hunter” (pdf) by Pam Houston (1990)
Besides “Forever Overhead” by David Foster Wallace, I haven’t found better usage of second person narration. The unnamed main character has fallen for the hunter, who “won’t play back his messages while [she is] in the room.” She is attracted to him, but also to the comfort of a warm body in bed during the winter. She imagines that it will snow for “thirteen straight days,” and that they will spend the hours together.
She soon learns that those unchecked messages are from another woman. Houston’s second person narrator outlines a hypothetical storyline: the other woman will bridge the distance from Montana and bring heavy snow with her. Closed highways will snowbound them, and the main character will realize that this man is like all the others: he is his needs and wants, and nothing more. Although not a drop of this storm actually falls, Houston absolutely convinces the reader that this character can worry herself frozen. In fact, by the end of the story there is little discernment between past, present, and possibility, except the realization that the “nights are getting shorter now,” but no less painful.
“A Change of Season” by James Bond (1984)
Bond’s story was anthologized in Best American Short Stories, and he also published fiction in Willow Springs (“Whiskey Sunday Refusal” and “Fools Fall”), but has disappeared from the literary radar. This is both surprising and not. The story torques its authentic tension through a rotating first person narration, yet it feels somewhat provincial on a first read. Two logging families, the Yanceys and Davazs, are in the midst of a competition for timber and pride. Both think the other clan is unfit for this work, but both agree “if a man can last the winter here he’s got a chance; if he can beat the winter here, he’s somebody.” Buck Davaz claims the Yanceys are “scared of snow:” the second they see fall, they “grab up everything and run, axes, tractors, trucks, saws, and what they can’t carry they throw ahead of them.” Randall Yancey, one of the sons, says Buck “didn’t know winter.”
But Buck needs Bill Yancey’s help. His Snowcat is stuck up on the mountain, and he’s got forty to sixty thousand feet of timber that he’s willing to “pay a pretty penny for help hauling.” Yancey hates scaling the mountain during a fall, but money talks, so he agrees to help. Buck needs the help but revels in Bill’s poor driving in the snow. They load and chain the Snowcat to a truck, but Bill’s towing truck slides before getting stuck. The narrative shifts perspective but never relents, as each man criticizes the other, before Buck ultimately gets his own ride stuck. Angry and frustrated, Buck smashes the windshield with a maul, and strides toward the Yanceys, wielding an axe in his other hand. Each time I read this story, I expect the worst possible ending, but Buck only walks past them, echoing a maxim he speaks earlier in the story: “Knowing when to stop fighting, that’s a side of strength most never learn.”
“The Hermit’s Story” by Rick Bass (as well as his non-fiction, Winter: Notes from Montana), the haunting conclusion of “Master and Man” by Leo Tolstoy, the “Snow” chapter in The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, The Grace That Keeps This World by Tom Bailey; Snow by Orhan Pamuk, The Call of the Wild by Jack London, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg, “Hunters in the Snow” by Tobias Wolff, and, of course, “The Dead” by James Joyce (“And he [wrote the story] when he was twenty-five. The bastard.” — Mary Gordon).
III. Snow in Film
A horror movie about linguistics, radio stations, and snow? It exists, and begins with a riddle that includes Norman Mailer, the JFK assassination, and how “physical details spasm for a moment” after a tragic event. Shock-jock Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) is unhappy with his new assignment in a small Ontario town: “These late winters I feel like I’m living in the basement of the world.” On his way to work on Valentine’s Day morning, Mazzy encounters a distraught woman who smacks against his window, says the word “blood,” and then disappears into the snow. And that fall is only beginning: the storm is about to last all day. Local news reports of a hostage situation and gunfire flame into a zombie attack. Their virus is language. The film’s director, Bruce McDonald, calls them “conversationalists.” Cult followers of the film (and its novel basis, by Tony Burgess) point to an essay by William S. Burroughs, “Ten Years and a Billion Dollars:” “the Word clearly bears the single identifying feature of virus: it is an organism with no internal function other than to replicate itself.”
This virus begins as a repetition of a word, like a broken record. The album is love: this is Valentine’s Day, so those infected repeat terms of endearment. The repetition devolves into fracture, and words break down. During the final stage, the medium swallows the message: “you become so distraught at your condition that the only way out of the situation you feel, as an infected person, is to try and chew your way through the mouth of another person.” Soon the entire town of Pontypool is placed under quarantine. Mazzy steps outside into the blizzard, but the snow pushes inside, just as the infected pound against doors and windows. Mazzy shifts from sarcastic to serious as he recounts obituaries for those killed and who kill each other, shown in a snow-white and black interlude that recalls Wisconsin Death Trip. Soon the infected smash their way into the studio, and the snow follows, blown like wavering lines of stereo sound.
The Shining (1980)
Disciples of Stanley Kubrick have been mining this film long before Room 237 (2013) made basement theories mainstream, but its depiction of snow also deserves mention. My first viewing was a version recorded from WPIX in the late 1980’s. There was no audio during the opening sequence (the Torrance family driving to the interview at the Overlook Hotel, with scrolling, aqua-colored credits breaking beautiful scenery), but the sound kicked-in like a shock. The film is suffused with snow. When Jack (Jack Nicholson) is being interviewed for the caretaker position, the window behind the manager beams light, as if the sun is burning off snow. The manager explains that the hotel closes until May, since the cost to plow the collected 20 feet of winter snow is prohibitive. A former schoolteacher and hopeful novelist, he longs for the isolation afforded by this job. He lives in Boulder, but is from Vermont, a place of snow, and claims his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), will love the change. He also claims that his wife will be entertained, not frightened, by the manager’s revelation that a former caretaker murdered his family before committing suicide. The eccentricities of the Torrance family are nothing compared to Danny’s psychic powers.
Jack gets the job, and the snowfall doesn’t disappoint. Phone lines are down during a storm early in the film, so Wendy contacts the forest service on a radio. The ranger says it is one of the worst storms they’ve had in years. A shot of the heavy fall precedes Danny’s wandering into the forbidden room 237. The hotel’s cook, Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) shares Danny’s psychic powers, and realizes that Jack’s eccentricities have descended into violence. Dick flies from Miami to Colorado, and then drives along a highway littered with overturned trucks and spun-out cars, a white graveyard. He is on the way to the hotel, but his well-intentioned help is not enough.
During the climactic scenes, Wendy has locked herself and Danny in the bedroom to hide from Jack’s wrath. She is only able to open the window halfway. She lifts Danny through, and he slides down a gentle hill of snow to the ground. Wendy can’t fit, so, knife in hand, she waits for Jack to reach her. He axes through one panel of the door, but stops when he hears Dick’s Snowcat nearing the hotel.
The film’s infamous final sequence occurs in the hedge maze, where Danny knows snow holds the key to his survival. The curious photograph at the film’s conclusion hints that, like snow, evil always returns.
Snow’s power as a visual backdrop makes it ubiquitous in film, but here are some particularly notable whiteouts: The Ice Storm (1997), based on the 1994 novel by Rick Moody; Ang Lee’s representation is beautiful, but Moody’s prose is tough to top: “The ice had built up on every surface, on roofs and shrubs and avenues and cars and waterways. It formed a glittering and immense cocoon on tree limbs and power lines, a cocoon of impossible mass. The sound of tree limbs giving out under this weight was like the crackling of gunfire. Mike Williams, who was wandering around in the earliest part of dawn, heard these explosions in the stillness and laughed giddily at them. He was up really late. The threat of heavy weather impelled him out into the elements. To watch.”); Fargo (1996), where snow is present in the first and climactic scenes, and almost everywhere in-between; The Thing (1982), Antarctica is the perfect place to have a showdown with shape-shifting aliens; The Virgin Spring (1960), where a soft snowfall pierces the viewer’s already wounded heart; Black Christmas (1974), watch it for Keir Dullea’s maniacal destruction of a piano, Olivia Hussey’s authentic screams, and Margot Kidder’s dirty-mouthed sarcasm, but snow completes this precedent for John Carpenter’s Halloween; Road to Perdition (2002), Sam Mendes’s dramatization of a former mafia hitman’s (Tom Hanks) revenge was renowned cinematographer Conrad Hall’s final film, and is marked by rain and snow; A Simple Plan (1998), an unusual film in Sam Raimi’s catalog, where friends discover a small plane that had crashed into a snowy forest, with 4 million dollars in tow; Antichrist (2009), the appeal of snow brings a child to an open window, leading to tragedy in the film’s opening minutes; Snow Angels (2007), based on the Stewart O’Nan novel, is an incredibly moving drama about a fractured family that cannot escape pain, and a girl’s wayward walk in snow; Frosty the Snowman (1969), because cinematic snow does not always need to equal sadness.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
The plan was to have an orderly Year in Reading. To finally fill the gaps, dammit, to scale The Magic Mountain and read Hollinghurst properly instead of flipping around for the filthy bits. To read sitting up for a change — like a human adult — rather than burrowing in bedclothes like a vole.
But it was comfort I craved, reliable pleasures: Anne Carson and Elizabeth Hardwick, Sarah Waters’s novels, Virginia Woolf’s diaries, Zadie Smith’s essays, Martin Amis’s reviews (on Malcolm Lowry: “To make a real success of being an alcoholic, to go all the way with it, you need to be other things too: shifty, unfastidious, solipsistic, insecure and indefatigable. Lowry was additionally equipped with an extra-small penis, which really seemed to help.”). I read so much Larkin I worried I’d start sprouting anti-Indian attitudes myself.
I emerged from the burrow in spring to discover a crop of terrific new books — Mary Ruefle’s collected lectures, Madness, Rack, and Honey; Sonali Deraniyagala’s lacerating memoir, Wave; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s sublime novel, Americanah. Most of my favorites of the year can be found here and here. And despite my indifference toward Victorians and marriage (although I do have a soft spot for wayward Bloomsberries), I fell madly in love with a book called Parallel Lives by the literary critic Phyllis Rose, a study of five Victorian marriages first published in 1984. It fit perfectly in my pocket and went everywhere with me; its proximity soothed me, made me feel very sensible and worldly.
Taking as her starting point John Stuart Mill’s idea of marriage as “the primary political experience in which most of us engage as adults,” Rose examines the relationships of writers and their spouses including George Eliot and George Henry Llewes, John and Effie Ruskin, Charles Dickens and tragic Catherine Hogarth. She tracks the flow of power over decades — how Thomas Caryle waxed as his once fiery wife waned (until she got her posthumous revenge), how John Stuart Mill exulted at submitting to Harriet Taylor — and how Victorians might have permitted a flexibility in marital arrangements that Americans today can only dream about. It’s gossip of the highest, most instructive caliber, a tart, affectionate treatment of this flimsiest of human inventions.
I’ve gone vole again for the winter. But hope springs, etc. Even Larkin agrees; from “The Trees”: “Yet still the unresting castles thresh / In fullgrown thickness every May. / Last year is dead, they seem to say, / Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.”
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Grief, all of a sudden, is hot. Books by authors who have lost a loved one are becoming so common they’re now a classifiable snowflake in the unending blizzard of memoirs. They’re feeding “the increasingly lucrative loss-of-spouse market,” as Janet Maslin put it recently in the New York Times. Writers who have lately mined their grief include Joyce Carol Oates, Anne Roiphe, Kate Braestrup and Joan Didion. New grief memoirs are coming soon from Meghan O’Rourke and Francisco Goldman. “In a way,” says Ruth Davis Konigsberg, author of a new non-fiction book called The Truth About Grief: The Myth of Its Five Stages and the New Science of Loss, “we have become spectators and kind of consumers of other people’s grief.”
So what’s wrong with that? Absolutely nothing – provided the writer, in laying bare this rawest of emotions, doesn’t withhold salient facts from the spectators. But another question remains: Why are readers drawn to naked displays of suffering? Is it mere voyeurism, or schadenfreude? Or is something closer to empathy – a way of preparing ourselves for the unthinkable by witnessing the suffering of another?
To find answers, I decided to look at three literary couples in which one partner died unexpectedly and the other lived to tell about the experience and its aftermath. Two of the writers withheld important facts and wound up producing inferior books; the writer who held nothing back produced a masterpiece.
Grief, it turns out, is not only a cruel muse. She’s a fickle one as well.
A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates: The editor Raymond Smith and the writer Joyce Carol Oates had been married for more than 47 years when he came down with a severe case of pneumonia and checked into a Princeton hospital, where he contracted a secondary infection and died on Feb. 18, 2008, at the age of 77. Oates has just produced a memoir about events leading up to and following her husband’s death, a 417-page book that manages to feel both bloated and undernourished.
The bloat comes from several sources. The book is simply too long, full of windy digressions and verbatim transcriptions of unenlightening emails. (O, whatever happened to editors who know how to use a blue pencil?) Worse, the writing is sloppy, and there’s no room for sloppiness in memoirs of this kind, which demand a scrupulous recreation of an extreme emotional state. It’s little things – it’s always the little things – that reveal Oates’s sloppiness, then her lack of candor, and finally, fatally, her dishonesty.
She uses “ravished” instead of “ravaged,” for instance, and she reports that she and Ray once lived in Windsor, Ontario, where there was a “frigid wind blowing from the Detroit River, the massive lake beyond – Lake Michigan.” As a matter of fact, the Detroit River connects Lake St. Clair to Lake Erie; Lake Michigan is some 200 miles to the west. Do such trifles matter? Yes, they do.
Then there are two seemingly small but ultimately telling moments that reveal just how unscrupulous and incurious Oates can be. The first comes when doctors refine their original diagnosis and determine that Ray has contracted bacterial Escherichia coli – E. coli – pneumonia. Oates, like many people, had been under the erroneous impression that E. coli bacteria come only from such sources as sewage-tainted water or fecal matter in food, and that they attack the gastro-intestinal system. But such bacteria are found everywhere, a doctor tells her – “even in the interior of your mouth.” Upon learning this, many people with a severely ill spouse would feel compelled to learn more about this surprising new enemy. Not Oates. She writes about herself in the third person: “In denial that her husband is seriously ill the Widow-to-Be will not, when she returns home that evening, research E. coli on the Internet. Not for nearly eighteen months after her husband’s death will she look up this common bacterial strain to discover the blunt statement she’d instinctively feared at the time and could not have risked discovering: pneumonia due to Escherichia coli has a reported mortality rate of up to 70 percent.” It’s hard for me to decide if such a lack of curiosity is touching, forgivable, or just monstrously self-absorbed.
The second telling moment comes after her husband has died and Oates, who has already exhibited a lack of interest in unpleasant truths, declines to have an autopsy performed. She writes:
I think I remember having been asked at the medical center if I wanted Ray’s body autopsied. In whatever haze of confusion at the time quickly I’d said no.
Could not bear it. The thought of Ray’s body being mutilated.
I know! – the body is not the man. Not “Ray.”
And yet – where else had “Ray” resided, except in that body?
It was a body I knew intimately, and loved. And so I did not want it mutilated.
Now, I will never know if these “causes” of his death are accurate, or complete. I will never know with certainty.
This passage reveals two more of the book’s flaws – the shallow insights and the choppy writing, strewn with random quotation marks and exclamation points.
Yet A Widow’s Story is not without virtues. Oates can be very amusing, as when she expresses her loathing for “sympathy gift baskets” stuffed with “peach butter, Russian caviar and pates of the most lurid kinds.” She can be poignant when describing her battles with insomnia and a growing dependence on prescription drugs, a severe case of shingles, her recurring thoughts of suicide, her nagging fear that she never knew her husband. And finally there’s a beautiful moment when Ray’s cardiologist, who was not the attending physician in the hospital, glosses over the distinct possibility that the staff’s poor performance might be grounds for a malpractice suit. “Maybe – Ray was just tired,” the cardiologist speculates. “Maybe he just gave up…” Oates, justifiably, flies into a rage at this suggestion that her husband’s death was somehow his own fault. Anyone who has ever been confronted with the incompetence and arrogance of the medical profession will cheer the widow’s fury.
But the inclusion of such raw moments can’t make up for the book’s major – and fatal – omission. While Oates mentions that it took her a year and a half to erase her husband’s voice from their telephone answering machine, she neglects to mention that within 11 months of his death she was engaged to a neuroscientist named Dr. Charles Gross, and they were married in 2009. Once you know this, the distance between Lake Michigan and Windsor, Ontario, and the difference between “ravished” and “ravaged” no longer seem like trifles. Oates, in other words, has written the most dishonest kind of book there is – one that purports to serve up raw emotions but doesn’t have the discipline to stick to the facts or the honesty to reveal the most basic of truths.
Even Oates seems to know this. “As the memoir is the most seductive of literary genres, so the memoir is the most dangerous of genres,” she writes. “For the memoir is a repository of truths, as each discrete truth is uttered, but the memoir can’t be the repository of Truth which is the very breadth of the sky, too vast to be perceived in a single gaze.”
Only someone capable of writing such muzzy sentences could produce such a deeply dishonest book. Or maybe it’s simpler than that. Maybe the word machine Oates refers to as “JCO” was shrewdly hoarding this fresh material. Maybe she’s already at work on a new memoir called A Newlywed’s Story. And why not? A Widow’s Story hit the New York Times best-seller as soon as it was published.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion: The celebrated writers John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion had been married for almost 40 years when they sat down to dinner in their New York apartment on the evening of Dec. 30, 2003. In mid-sentence Dunne slumped in his chair and tumbled to the floor, dead from a massive heart attack. At the time the couple’s only daughter, Quintana, was unconscious in the intensive care unit of a nearby hospital, suffering from flu that had exploded into pneumonia, then septic shock. The first words Didion wrote after her husband’s death would become the opening lines of her 2005 memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking:
Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self-pity.
“If you want to write about yourself,” Didion once said, “you have to give them something.” In The White Album, her 1979 essay collection, she gave us the story of how she went blind for six weeks from multiple sclerosis. She gave us the story of checking herself into a psychiatric clinic. She even gave us the doctor’s diagnosis: “Patient’s thematic productions emphasize her fundamentally pessimistic, fatalistic and depressive view of the world around her…”
After Dunne’s death, Didion insisted on an autopsy, which, as Joyce Carol Oates demonstrated, is not a universal demand of the bereaved. My father also decided against an autopsy when my mother died, apparently from a heart attack, alone at home at the age of 57. “What good will an autopsy do?” my father asked. “She’ll still be dead.” I was working as a newspaper reporter at the time, and I believed I had a high regard for the truth. “Yes,” I argued, “but at least we’ll know for sure why she died.” Was her death a suicide, an accidental overdose, the result of a drunken fall? There was no autopsy. I’m convinced I’ll go to my own grave angry that I’ll never know for sure what put my mother in hers.
Didion understands this anger and she knows how to avoid it. “I actively wanted an autopsy,” she writes, “even though I had seen some, in the course of doing research. I knew exactly what occurs, the chest open like a chicken in a butcher’s case, the face peeled down, the scale in which the organs are weighed. I had seen homicide detectives avert their eyes from an autopsy in progress. I still wanted one. I needed to know how and why and when it had happened.” Small wonder that an attendant in the hospital where Dunne was pronounced dead described his widow as “a pretty cool customer.”
A friend once likened Dunne and Didion to another literary couple, the famously stoic Leonard Woolf and his brilliant, troubled wife Virginia – but with a twist. (More on the Woolfs in a moment.) “John does not play Leonard Woolf to (Didion’s) Virginia,” the friend said. “John may seem strident and tough, but what you see in John you get in Joan. She is every bit as tough as he is.” Another friend described Didion as “a fragile, little stainless-steel machine.”
One aspect of her grief that bedeviled Didion was how ordinary the events were that led up to her husband’s death, which prevented her from believing it had happened and, in turn, made it maddeningly difficult for her to get past it. “I recognize now,” she writes, “that there was nothing unusual in this: confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the swings where the children were playing as usual when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy.”
Some people might find all this – the falling plane, the burning car, the lunging rattlesnake – melodramatic, overly pessimistic and fatalistic, even laughable. Based on what I’ve seen of the world, I find it wise. What I’ve seen includes looking out my livingroom window on a clear blue September morning and seeing an orange fireball as United Airlines Flight 175 slashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center. Then I watched the two burning towers fall. These events interrupted my reading of the newspaper.
To deal with her grief, Didion did what she had been trained to do since childhood, what most writers do in times of duress: she went to the literature because “information is power.” She found the literature on grief surprisingly sparse. There was C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, a passage from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, some poetry, some unhelpful self-help books. So Didion, the relentless reporter, turned more fruitfully to the medical literature – Freud, Melanie Klein, the Merck Manual, the British Medical Journal. Then she made the belated discovery that Dunne’s 1982 novel Dutch Shea, Jr. was actually about the kind of grief she was experiencing, the “complicated” kind. She finally found some solace, implausibly, in Emily Post’s 1922 book on etiquette, which includes pointers on how to treat the newly bereaved.
Didion then does something almost unthinkable. She dives deeper, chronicling the harrowing ups and downs of her daughter’s illness, which culminate in emergency neurosurgery after Quintana collapses and her pupils become fixed and dilated. Didion researches the significance of fixed and dilated pupils, or “FDPs,” and learns that they’re almost always a harbinger of death. She even does the math and learns that her daughter has a two percent chance of making a full recovery.
This last act – getting the facts, doing the math – strikes me as the perfect way to distinguish between a writer like Joan Didion, the cool customer, the fragile little stainless-steel machine, and a writer like Joyce Carol Oates, the word machine who couldn’t abide to see her dead husband’s body “mutilated,” who couldn’t be bothered to learn the mortality rate of E. coli pneumonia, and who didn’t, for whatever reason, bother to mention that she had fallen in love with another man.
Once her daughter’s condition begins to improve, Didion is able to move beyond the paralysis of her grief over John’s death, which is to say she begins to mourn, then heal. After seven dreamless months she begins to dream again. She stops believing John will come back. She stops believing she was in some way responsible for his death, or that she could have averted it. By October she has begun to write The Year of Magical Thinking, and though she’s usually a slow writer she finishes it in just 88 days, a year and a day after her husband died.
“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it,” she concludes. “Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.”
When the book was nearing publication the following summer, Didion told an interviewer, “What I want to do as soon as I get through this…all of this…is basically to be too busy. Take too much work. I figure that will get me through.”
A month later Didion’s daughter, her immune system worn out from fighting infections, died from pancreatitis at the age of 39. The Year of Magical Thinking became an immediate best-seller and won the National Book Award.
The Journey Not the Arrival Matters by Leonard Woolf: It would be difficult to imagine a book more unlike Didion’s than The Journey Not the Arrival Matters, the fifth and final volume of Leonard Woolf’s autobiography. It covers the years from 1939, when the Second World War engulfed Europe, to 1969, when the author died at the age of 88. The first half of the book is called “Virginia’s Death,” and it does flit around the events leading up to March 28, 1941, the day Woolf’s mad genius of a wife filled her pockets with rocks and walked into the River Ouse.
But the title “Virginia’s Death,” like so much of this book, is misleading and disingenuous. This long chapter dwells less on Virginia’s suicide than on the coming madness of the war and the ways it altered the Woolfs’ long and mostly happy marriage. One change, surprisingly, was that when the couple was forced to retreat to their rural Sussex home, Monks House, after their London apartment was shattered by a German bomb, their lives slipped into a pleasing, productive, almost dreamy rhythm. Away from the epicenter of the blitz, rid of servants and a social life, they were free to work and garden and simply be. Leonard called it “pleasant monotony,” and the effect on Virginia, who suffered from periodic bouts of depression and had twice attempted suicide, was salutary.
On Oct. 12, 1940, she wrote in her diary: “How free, how peaceful we are. No one coming. No servants. Dine when we like. Living near to the bone. I think we’ve mastered life pretty competently.” Two days later she added, “If it were not treasonable to say so, a day like this is almost too – I won’t say happy; but amenable… And one thing’s ‘pleasant’ after another: breakfast, writing, walking, tea, bowls, reading, sweets, bed.” Such a regimen is, for any serious writer, a definition of heaven. Five months later, after leaving Leonard a note that concluded with “I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been,” Virginia walked into the river.
Any writer of autobiography who has lived through such a trauma should – must – explore the ensuing grief and how he dealt with it, or didn’t. Woolf does this, fitfully, in the book’s second half, claiming that two things saw him through the aftermath of his wife’s suicide. The first was “the inveterate, the immemorial fatalism of the Jew.” The second was something familiar to both Oates and Didion. “Work,” he writes, “is the most efficient anodyne – after death, sleep, or chloroform – for pain, whether the pain be in your great toe, your tooth, your head, or your heart.”
So Leonard Woolf got busy. But instead of exploring the contours of his grief, he gives us tedious digressions about his work with the Fabian Society and the Labour Party, the Political Quarterly, the Nation and the New Statesman, the running of Hogarth Press, including lists of titles published. He makes only passing mention of two new Sussex neighbors, a business partner named Ian Parsons and his attractive wife Trekkie, an artist and book jacket designer: “In the last three years of the war we had become intimate friends…. In the last year of the war, when Ian was in the Air Force in France, Trekkie stayed with me (at Monks House), and I had helped to negotiate the lease of a house for them in (nearby) Iford into which they moved as soon as Ian was demobilized.”
What Woolf fails to mention is that within months of Virginia’s suicide he and Trekkie had embarked on an affair that would endure through the remaining 28 years of his life. They spent weekdays together, then Trekkie went home to her husband on weekends. Ian and Trekkie were still in love and they danced beautifully together and threw lively parties, at which he played the banjo. Under Trekkie’s influence, Leonard started drinking more than he had when Virginia was alive. He gave Trekkie gifts – a Constable sketch, a Rembrandt etching, jewelry. Leonard’s relationship with Trekkie, like his marriage to Virginia, was apparently sexless. Yet in their letters Trekkie was Leonard’s “dearest tiger” and he was her “greedy sparrow.” A year after Virginia’s suicide, Leonard wrote to Trekkie, “To know and love you has been the best thing in my life.”
You’ll find none of the above in Woolf’s autobiography. It comes from Victoria Glendinning’s balanced and well received Leonard Woolf: A Biography, published in 2006, and from Love Letters: Leonard Woolf and Trekkie Ritchie Parsons, 1941-1968, published in 2001.
Is this reticence, this pretense at probity, an English thing – stiff upper lip and all that rot? Or is it something simpler and more venal – dishonesty masquerading as discretion? Whatever it is, or is not, Woolf is guilty of the autobiographer’s cardinal sin: a killing lack of the candor that readers of such books have come to expect, and which they deserve. Certainly Woolf was entitled to his happiness after the suffering he had endured in his marriage, just as Oates was entitled to fall in love and remarry less than a year after her husband’s death. But to omit such central facts from a memoir of grief strikes me as the worst kind of failure, a breach of the writer’s contract with the reader. It is, in short, a lie.
All three of these memoirs, as different as they are, share a common thread. Voyeurs looking to revel in another’s agony will be disappointed because these three memoirists demonstrate that, yes, there is plenty of agony after the death of a loved one, but we possess remarkable tools for dealing with it. Loss may be permanent, but grief, it turns out, is not. The unthinkable is not invincible.
If there is indeed an “increasingly lucrative loss-of-spouse market” out there today – and the evidence suggests that there is – we should be grateful we have writers like Joan Didion who possess the courage and the talent to feed it. She, unlike Joyce Carol Oates and Leonard Woolf, understands that if you want to write about yourself, you have to give them something. Actually, Didion understands a far larger and deeper and darker truth. She understands that if you want to write about your grief, you have to give them everything.
(Image: 106/365 The soul that sees beauty may sometimes walk alone from myklroventine’s photostream)
Last summer, several sheets to the wind, a novelist friend of mine and I found ourselves waxing nostalgic about 1997 – the year when Underworld, American Pastoral, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Mason & Dixon came out. (It was also probably the year both of us finished working our way through Infinite Jest, which had been published a year earlier.) Ah, sweet 1997. I was tempted to say that times like those wouldn’t come around again.
This year, however, Pisces must have been in Aquarius, or vice versa, or something. The number of novelists with a plausible claim to having published major work forms a kind of alphabet: Aira, Amis, Bolaño, Boyd, Carey, Cohen, Cunningam, Donoghue, Flaubert (by way of Davis), Grossman, Krauss, Krilanovich, Lee, Lipsyte, Marlantes, McCarthy, Mitchell, Moody, Ozick, Shriver, Shteyngart, Udall, Valtat, Yamashita… A career-defining omnibus appeared from Deborah Eisenberg, and also from Ann Beattie. Philip Roth, if the reviews are to believed, got his groove back. It even feels like I’m forgetting someone. Oh, well, it will come to me, I’m sure. In the meantime, you get the point. 2010 was a really good year for fiction.
Among the most enjoyable new novels I read were a couple that had affinities: Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies and Adam Levin’s The Instructions. (Disclosure: Adam Levin once rewired a ceiling fan for me. (Disclosure: not really.)) Each of these huge and hugely ambitious books has some notable flaws, and I wanted to resist them both, having developed an allergy to hyperintelligent junior high students. But each finds a way to reconnect the hermetic world of the ‘tween with the wider world our hopes eventually run up against. Murray and Levin are writers of great promise, and, more importantly, deep feeling, and their average age is something like 34, which means there’s likely more good stuff to come.
Another book I admired this year was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, but since everybody else did, too, you can read about it elsewhere in this series. Let me instead direct your attention to Matthew Sharpe’s more modestly pyrotechnic You Were Wrong. Here Sharpe trains his considerable narrative brio on the most mundane of worlds – Long Island – with illuminating, and disconcerting, results. You Were Wrong, unlike The Instructions et al, also has the virtue of being short. As does Bolaño’s incendiary Antwerp (or any of the several great stories in The Return). Or Cesar Aira’s wonderful Ghosts, which I finally got around to. Hey, maybe 2010 was actually the year of the short novel, I began to think, right after I finished a piece arguing exactly the opposite.
Then, late in the year, when I thought I had my reading nailed down, the translation of Mathias Énard’s Zone arrived like a bomb in my mailbox. The synopsis makes it sounds like rough sledding – a 500-page run-on sentence about a guy on a train – but don’t be fooled. Zone turns out to be vital and moving and vast in its scope, like W.G. Sebald at his most anxious, or Graham Greene at his most urgent, or (why not) James Joyce at his most earthy, only all at the same time.
When it came to nonfiction, three books stood out for me, each of them a bit older. The first was Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, an utterly unclassifiable, conspicuously brilliant, and criminally entertaining magnum opus about consciousness, brains, and formal systems that has been blowing minds for several generations now. The second was Alberto Manguel’s 2008 essay collection, The Library at Night. No better argument for the book qua book exists, not so much because of what Manguel says here, but because the manner in which he says it – ruminative, learned, patient, just – embodies its greatest virtues. And the third was The Magician’s Doubts, a searching look at Nabokov by Michael Wood, who is surely one of our best critics.
Speaking of Nabokov: as great a year as 2010 was for new fiction, it was also the year in which I read Ada, and so a year when the best books I read were classics. In this, it was like any other year. I loved Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children for its language. I loved Andrey Platonov’s Soul for its intimate comedy and its tragic sensibility. I loved that Chekhov’s story “The Duel” was secretly a novel. I loved the Pevear/Volokhonsky production The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories for making a third fat Tolstoy masterpiece to lose myself in. About A House for Mr. Biswas, I loved Mr. Biswas.
And then there were my three favorite reading experiences of the year: Péter Esterházy’s Celestial Harmonies, a book about the chains of history and paternity and politics that reads like pure freedom; Dr. Faustus, which I loved less than I did The Magic Mountain, but admired more, if that’s even possible; and The Age of Innocence. Our own Lydia Kiesling has said pretty much everything I want to say about the latter, but let me just add that it’s about as close to perfection as you’d want that imperfect beast, the novel, to come. She was wild in her way, Edith Wharton, a secret sensualist, and still as scrupulous as her great friend Henry James. Like his, her understanding of what makes people tick remains utterly up-to-the-minute, and is likely to remain so in 2015, and 2035… by which time we may know about which of the many fine books that came out this year we can say the same thing. Ah, sweet 2010, we hardly knew ye.
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As much as I enjoyed Michael Cunningham’s sylphlike new novel By Nightfall, my enjoyment was diminished by one writerly tic: the over-insertion of literary talismans into the text. Cunningham bestows on his narrator a present-tense awareness of mid-life obsession that would approach a tour-de-force of contemporary voice if it weren’t so frequently bedazzled by literary fragments and character name-checks from the Greats. Cunningham’s hyper-referencing didn’t stop me from finishing By Nightfall — in fact the story’s inventive premise and fearless examination of a flawed, desirous consciousness made me read it more greedily than most novels I’ve picked up lately — but too often my immersion in Peter Harris’ life was interrupted by a distracting nod to Proust or James or Eliot or Hawthorne or Cheever, or by a silly mention of “the eyes of Dr. T. J. Ecklesbury” from The Great Gatsby, or by the willy-nilly name-checking of Isabel Archer and Dorothea Brooke and Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina and Raskolnikov, or by an unnecessarily meet-cute approach to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice via The Magic Mountain, when it’s clear that the former contains the resonant parallels to By Nightfall.
Homage and reinvention are not my quarrel here. While there are scenes and themes in By Nightfall that echo Death in Venice, the action of Cunningham’s novel is new, and portrays more time, commerce, and interpersonal connection than the Mann novella, and also raises its own questions about love, youth, death, family, and the professional pursuit of art. If Cunningham had trusted his solo ability to create those portrayals and questions without rubbing so many literary good-luck charms, or repeating a singular line from Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, or cadging some poignant dénouement weather from James Joyce’s “The Dead,” By Nightfall would be a more elegant book.
There’s the obvious issue of how much literary knowledge a traditionally-educated dealer in contemporary art would have running through his brain. Even if we suspend disbelief on this, a novel of 238 pages cannot carry that many literary precursors without sacrificing some momentum. It’s like pinning a plethora of antique brooches onto a starlet’s chiffon slip dress — the delicate fabric will droop, distort, and even rip under the weight of the anachronistic jewels. Better to leave the elegant, modern dress unadorned and unweighted, free to suggest the beautiful form that moves inside its charming habiliment, a creature and a consciousness unique to this place and this moment.
It’s a small shame, because the first chapter of By Nightfall executes a sinuous mise-en-scène of the novel’s themes and characters, beginning with the genius first line: “The Mistake is coming to stay for a while.” An original, intriguing, and pre-coiled opening that is quickly cinched tighter by the wife’s spoken question: “’Are you mad about Mizzy?’” Unfortunately, the insertion of fusty literary forbears begins almost immediately, when Cunningham stitches a heavy, uncredited phrase from the first line of James Joyce’s Ulysses into a perfectly serviceable line of Manhattan description:
An elderly bearded man in a soiled, full-length down coat, grand in his way (stately, plump Buck Mulligan?), pushes a grocery cart full of various somethings in various trash bags, going faster than any of the cars.
I prefer the sentence with the Mulligan deleted. Once the interrogative interruption is removed, the sentence maintains a trundling rhythm that more closely mimics the man’s determined pace:
An elderly bearded man in a soiled, full-length down coat, grand in his way, pushes a grocery cart full of various somethings in various trash bags, going faster than any of the cars.
The de-Joyced sentence keeps the reader right there with Peter Harris in his taxi on his way to a cocktail party in Manhattan, ready for the next present action. The sentence with the literary fragment risks forcing the reader into a detour from the always fragile novel-acclimation phase in order to half-remember the college class that made Ulysses so accessible (thank you, Professor Chace), or to muse pointlessly on the family tradition of allowing mulligans at minigolf. A persnickety Joyce-lover (qui, moi?) might stall out of By Nightfall while puzzling over the reference’s nonsensicalities: in Ulysses Buck Mulligan is a medical student (not elderly) who emerges from his panoramic tower (not homeless) in the morning (not the evening) with shaving implements (no beard). Yes, he wears an open robe, which is reminiscent of the long down coat, but that seems a paltry reverberation for such a freighted and famous allusion, especially when it lands on a character whose situation is pitiable and whose role in the novel is momentary. Yes, it’s a lovely hunk of language, but why include it at this delicate stage in a novel, and why include it at all if you don’t need it? In the next paragraph Cunningham writes, “Inside the cab, the air is full of drowsily potent air freshener. . .” The writer who can evoke the atmosphere in present-day New York cabs with the words “drowsily potent air freshener” doesn’t need to reach backward for “stately, plump.”
And would a guy like Peter Harris plausibly recall that phrase from Ulysses? It seems unlikely, as he reads mostly emails and the newspaper throughout the novel, and spends more time discussing films than books. The inclusion of a snippet of Joyce in his consciousness so early in the novel misdirects the reader’s attempt to get acquainted with the narrator: it does nothing to characterize the perspective of a man whose essential struggle in By Nightfall will be with beauty of the 3-D variety, and not with the overburnished bibelots of the Western canon. If Peter Harris were a teacher of literature or writing, we might buy it, but he’s not, and I’m glad of it — the world doesn’t need more novelist-narrators. Two pages later Cunningham allows Peter Harris to describe his cab driver with this far more art-dealerish view: “His bald head sits solemnly on the brown plinth of his neck.” Cunningham maintains Peter Harris’ innate aesthetic point-of-view for the majority of the novel, and devotes a good amount of text to inventing and describing the art he loves and the art he wants to sell, which is all much more satisfying and diverting than the dropped-in literary references.
The reason I’m so worked up about these insertions is because Cunningham both doesn’t need them and doesn’t seem to see how they encumber his novel and pull it away from its central perspective. At their most benign, they function as distractions to the text; at their most malign they are intimidations. Brush-up visits to Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia (though I adore it) and hasty skims of Wikipedia are unlikely to enhance a reader’s experience of a novel. I can imagine how literary talismans might clamor for attention in a writer’s mind, and that including them might have been irresistible in the act of composition, but they should have been deleted before publication, by the editor if the author couldn’t bring himself to do it.
Here, from the end of the first chapter of By Nightfall, is an example of the art dealer’s insomniac stream-of-consciousness, as written by Cunningham and free of literary talismans:
. . . with time ticking through you and your own ghost already wandering among your rooms.
The trouble is. . .
He can feel something, roiling at the edges of the world. Some skittery attentiveness, a dark gold nimbus studded with living lights like fish in the deep black ocean; a hybrid galaxy and sultan’s treasure and chaotic, inscrutable deity. Although he isn’t religious, he adores those pre-Renaissance icons, those gilded saints and jeweled reliquaries, not to mention Bellini’s milky Madonnas and Michelangelo’s hottie angels.
This is all the writing the novel needs. It evokes the narrator’s existential angst and characterizes his high/low lust for aesthetic gratification in language that is consistent with a 44-year-old art dealer living in Manhattan in the early 21st century.
Of course Cunningham in not the only contemporary author with this lit-a-brac tendency. I’m still annoyed with Ian McEwan for hanging a climactic plot point in Saturday on borrowed lines from Mathew Arnold’s 1885 poem “On Dover Beach.” The scene would have been much braver, and the outcome much more plausible, if the daughter-poet had given the thug what he was asking for: a recitation of her own original smutty verse, composed on the spot if necessary. I recently heard Ann Beattie say in an interview with Robin Young for WBUR’s “Here and Now” that she had one of her characters say a couple of lines about The Great Gatsby in her recent novella Walks With Men, as a “wink” to the reader who recognizes that her writing in that section sounds a little bit like Fitzgerald’s, to signal that it’s a deliberate echo on Beattie’s part and to encourage that reader to conflate the two texts, while also hoping that scene would still work “in its own way” for the reader who isn’t interested. Just as Oprah gets celebrities to sign contracts saying they won’t use cell phones behind the wheel, I’d like to get my favorite authors to sign contracts renouncing all sly echoes of Fitzgerald, Proust, James, Woolf, Joyce, Flaubert, ad nauseum while at the keyboard.
There should be an absolute prohibition against repeating a repeat. In the final, transformative, and satisfyingly plot-twisted chapter of By Nightfall, Cunningham inserts a famous line from Madame Bovary – “Banging on a tub to make a bear dance when we would move the stars to pity,” – twice (!) within five pages, both times unattributed and set off in its own little echo-chamber paragraph. How I wish he hadn’t. A few pages later Cunningham evokes Peter Harris’ self-reckoning with this new language:
Oh, little man. You have brought down your house not through passion but through neglect. You who dared to think of yourself as dangerous. You are guilty not of the epic transgressions but the tiny crimes.
Cunningham’s text is truer to the thrust of the novel, and it moved me much more than the by-now mangy line from Flaubert.
I picked on By Nightfall in this review because I feel its excess of literary cameos and references proves the rule: evoke, don’t invoke. What truly thrills me as a reader is prose and character made new, out of nothing I’ve seen before. I wish that I could read By Nightfall for the first time without the anachronistic freight — I suspect that I would love it, and not just like it a lot.
Once upon a time, I would not even consider quitting a book mid-read. Reading a book was not unlike a monogamous human relationship in that sense; it involved conscious commitment, and fidelity: Book, I’m going to read you.
Over the years, this has changed. Recently it struck me that the list of books I’ve started and not finished has grown quite formidable. I ask myself what this “means,” if it reflects some kind of moral devolution. It’s interesting how there does seem to be a kind of morality of reading, and people express their reading values quite passionately.
One of my favorite Millions Quizzes was “The Glaring Gap,” a post in which regular contributors confessed which Great Books / Great Authors they’ve never read. One contributor shared that she consciously chose not to read a certain category of male writers, and the comments came a-flying: oh, but you “should” read those! Should should should. Even the word “confess” implies sheepishness, shame and guilt. I know, I know, I should read (and love) Proust! And Dickens! And Virginia Woolf! And (these days) Bolaño!
My commitment to finishing books in the past was probably related to the above – fear of ensuing guilt and shame. Failure, too, I suppose. And perhaps at this point in my reading life, I’ve finished (and more than that, really ingested into my mind and emotions) enough books so that I feel a little freer in exercising the right to choose how to invest my reading time and energy; to veer from the Canonical Path – if such a thing actually exists anymore – and forge my own highly specific map of literary experience and influence. I’m not getting any younger, after all. Fifteen hours – the average it takes to read a book (and I tend to be on the slow side of this average) – is an increasingly precious chunk of time. Professional book reviewers, you have my sympathies.
My list of Unfinished Books breaks down into a few categories.
Perusing my list – from the last 3 or 4 years – reminds me that the convergence between book and reader is so specific; of-the-moment; contextual. For me, abandoning a book often has little to do with the book’s “objective quality,” and much more to do with the nature of my reading appetite at that moment. As a writer, there are books that you need during certain seasons of your own work, and others that must be held at bay, for the time being, or perhaps, but hopefully not, forever (oh, how the Bitch Goddess Time precludes so many returns to books we’d like to try again):
Books I Did Not Finish But Very Much Want to Try Again
The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt
2666 by Roberto Bolano
Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (out of reverence for Susan Sontag)
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
The Essential Kierkegaard
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
Eugene Onegin by Pushkin
Then there are the books that you feel you “should” like — you’ve adored this writer’s other books, your most trusted reader-friend recommended it, etc. – and you can’t figure out what the disconnect is. You’ve tried and tried again, 50 pages, 75 pages, 120 pages, but for whatever reason… it’s like the blind date that looks perfect “on paper,” but the chemistry never happens:
Books That I’ve Already Tried More Than Once But Couldn’t Engage With, I Don’t Know Why
Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
The Book of Daniel and City of God by E.L. Doctorow (I am a Doctorow acolyte, these were particularly painful to abandon)
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence (I loved Women in Love so much)
It’s not that often that I really toss a book away and wipe my hands of it. And I know the following books are critically acclaimed and/or beloved by many. What can I say…
Books That I Found Mostly Painful and Likely Will Not Revisit
The following category speaks for itself:
Books Written By Friends/Acquaintances That I May Have Been Destined Not to Like in the First Place, But Gave Them a Try For Friendship’s Sake
I won’t be listing these, for obvious reasons. There aren’t many, but it’s an awkward thing for all of us; and I never imagine that a person who knows and supports me will necessarily like my fiction.
Now, onto books that I’ve nearly abandoned or considered abandoning, but actually finished.
“Should” is generally a battle between instinct and logic, id and superego. An allegory of sorts: when I was in high school, I was moderately athletic, but in a limited way; I ended up as a quintessential starting JV player on all my teams, never quite attaining to Varsity level. But one year, my senior year, I thought that I really “should” push myself, to get to that next level, to pursue some kind of fullness of achievement; even though I was enjoying perfectly all the playing time I was getting and never considered athleticism a central part of my identity. So I went out for Varsity, just barely made the team, and spent the rest of the season miserably subjecting myself to the coach’s masochistic training drills and sitting on the bench during games. I had thought that if I pushed myself, it would be “worth it” in some spiritual-existential way. It absolutely was not. I think about that experience often, and the metaphor pertains to the following list:
Shlogged Through and Almost Abandoned, But Kept On; No Pay-off, I Felt, In the End
The Accidental by Ali Smith
Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner
Sweetwater by Roxana Robinson
Enduring Love by Ian McEwan
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro
Run by Ann Patchett
This final list is perhaps most significant, in terms of our moral quandary. This list keeps me from indulging appetite exclusively, from missing out on the pleasures of a difficult, not-immediately-or-obviously-gratifying read. I can’t imagine not having read these books; abandoning any one of them permanently really would have been a crying shame.
In particular, Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods was an odd, and revelatory experience. I found the first 40 pages brilliant and alive and ground-shifting in that all-cylinders-firing way; then I found the next almost-150 pages tedious, repetitive, gimmicky; almost unbearable. Book, I’m going to quit you, I remember consciously thinking. But something made me pick it up again – all the acclaim, the voices of smart reader-friends in my head, my long-standing admiration of The Things They Carried; and also, I like to think, something more mysterious, my personal book fairy, who nudges me from category 3 above to this one, guiding and protecting me from tragically missed literary connections. So then, my God, those last 75 pages or so of In the Lake of the Woods – how it all comes together and wrecks you, shows you all the work that the previous 150 pages was doing. This is the novel that always pokes into my consciousness when I am considering quitting a book; but maybe this one will be another O’Brien miracle.
Struggled Through, Maybe Put Down For a While, But Finished and Am Very Glad I Did
In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
The Names by Don Delillo
A Defense of Ardor: Essays by Adam Zagajewksi
The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
I can imagine a day when the proportions of these lists begin to shift. If you’re like me – neither young nor old – you feel a pressure, like every reading minute counts, in a way that you don’t feel as much when you’re younger, and perhaps I won’t feel in quite the same way when I am older. I have no way of knowing, really, if category 3 (or even category 4), past, present or future, actually contains The One That Got Away, the book that may have changed my life. To the books and writers that I’ve broken up with, I truly am sorry it didn’t work out; it is always at least a little bit true that it’s not you, it’s me.
For me, 2009 was the year of Europe Central – not so much because I would wind up reading, in late November, William T. Vollmann’s large novel of that name, but because a couple of chance encounters back in January (Bohumil Hrabal’s I Served the King of England and Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (reviewed here)) set me on a path toward it. In the intervening months, I found myself traipsing back and forth between literary Berlin and literary Moscow and losing myself in the territories in between.
My very favorite of the books I encountered during these peregrinations – indeed, the best book I read all year – was A Book of Memories, by the Hungarian master Péter Nádas. A glib way of describing this indescribable novel would be to say that it is to postmodernism what The Magic Mountain is to modernism – rigorous, comprehensive…a classic. However, the author who kept coming to mind as I read was Harold Brodkey. Nádas’ psychological and phenomenological insights are, like those of Brodkey’s stories, microscopically acute. Formally, however, A Book of Memories offers more excitement. The novel unfolds like a game of three-card monte, giving us several narrators whose gradual convergence seems to encompass the entire aesthetic and political history of Central Europe in the 20th Century.
A close second would have to be The Foundation Pit, by the early-Soviet-era writer Andrey Platonov. This slim novel reckons the cost of the Stalinist industrial program, but in the process reveals an ecstatic vision of the human soul. I agree with Edwin Frank of NYRB Classics: Platonov’s voice is as arresting as Kafka’s. It is also tender, and weirdly touching. And Platonov inspired me to read (finally) Life and Fate, the sweeping World War II saga by his good friend Vasily Grossman. This novel, like some of Platonov’s work, was suppressed by Soviet censors, and as a consequence was never properly edited. That shows, I think, in the sketchiness of some of the book’s secondary characters and plots. But at its frequent best – in its depiction of German death camps; in its attention to the trials of Viktor Shtrum and his family; and in an early, haunting letter from Viktor’s mother – Life and Fate approaches the depth of its models, Tolstoy and Chekhov.
The two finest works of nonfiction I read this year, by contrast, had a distinctly American flavor: Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife and Edie, a riveting oral history of Edie Sedgwick, edited by Jean Stein. Each is in the neighborhood of 500 pages, but reads with the propulsion of an intellectual whodunit. Taken together, they create a panorama of the transformative years between World War II and Vietnam, whose upheavals we’re still living down today. Come for the titillation; stay for the education.
Amid these longer works, it was a relief to have poetry collections to dip into. My favorites were Frederick Seidel’s Ooga-Booga and John Berryman’s The Dream Songs, both of which I wrote about here. (On second thought, where these two poets are concerned, maybe relief isn’t quite the right word.) Similarly, a couple of coffeetable books offered piecemeal inspiration. Air : 24 Hours, a remarkable monograph on/interview with the painter Jennifer Bartlett, is freshly minted MacArthur Genius Deborah Eisenberg’s My Dinner With Andre. I also heartily recommend Up is Up, But So is Down, an anthology of Downtown New York literature from the 1970s and 1980s. Reproductions of flyers and zines adorn this volume, expertly compiled by Brandon Stosuy. Come for the images; stay for the writing.
A couple of other novels I loved this year were Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift and Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Each, in my read, unraveled at the end, and so didn’t quite stand with Nádas (or Herzog, or Mrs. Dalloway). But each reached rare pinnacles of perception and beauty, and I’m always pleased to spend time in the company of these writers.
The best new books I read were Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City and Ingo Schulze’s New Lives. One of the first things people notice about Lethem is his skylarking prose, but in this most recent novel, a note of deeper irony (the kind born of pain; one wants to call it European, or maybe Bellovian) disciplines the sentences. I look forward to seeing where Lethem goes next. The East German setting of New Lives, and its uroboric epistolary structure – starting late in the story, slowly filling in the background – made for slow going at first, but the ethical intensity of its restaging of Faust has haunted me since I read it.
And then there was Europe Central, about which more anon. I’m not sure I can recommend it, anymore than I was sure I could recommend Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men last year. I haven’t even decided if I think Europe Central is a good book. But it swallowed me by slow degrees, and hasn’t quite let go.
There are many, many more amazing books I’d like to write about here: Janet Malcolm’s book on Chekhov; McElroy’s Lookout Cartridge; Rabbit Redux, Running Dog, Dog Soldiers; The Book of Daniel, Daniel Deronda… In fact, looking forward to “A Year in Reading” has begun to exert a formal pressure on my reading list, encouraging me to bypass the ephemeral in search of books I might passionately recommend. Fully half of what I read this year blew my mind, and I look forward to some future “Year in Reading” entry when I have 52 masterpieces to endorse. Imagine: one great book a week. For now, though, mindful that your hunger to read a 10,000 word post about what I read is probably even less keen than mine is to write it, I’ll leave you with these titles, and wishes for great reading in 2010.
Today represented some kind of personal tipping point. As if by prearrangement – or super-stealthy guerilla marketing plan? – the Kindle was everywhere I went.
First: a faculty meeting. More than one colleague praising the seductions of the e-Reader, as opposed to the good old book. Except who am I kidding? They didn’t use the term e-Reader. They used the term Kindle.
Then: the subway. I fell into the pleasurable habit of scanning the titles being read by my fellow travelers.
The New Yorker.
Last Evenings on Earth.
Something in Chinese.
The Raw Shark Texts.
Something by Donna Leon.
Something by Daniel Silva.
Something by Stephen L. Carter.
Yup: Kindle #3.
(The woman reading Bolaño switched halfway through my ride to a Kindle, on which she may or may not have continued reading Bolaño . I’m not making this up.)
Finally: Bryant Park. Right behind the New York Public Library. Summer Associates getting their drink on. Kindle. Abandoned newspaper. Coddled Kindle. Homeless man with obscenity scrawled on jacket. Kindle in handy Kindle carrier. Outdoor library. Outdoor Kindle.
I began to imagine a day where outdoor libraries won’t exist. Nor will my beloved newsstands (already struggling with cigarettes at $10 a pack). Indoor libraries will struggle even harder than they already do to justify their existence; everyone will be carrying her own. Well, everyone but the guy with the obscenity scrawled on his jacket. And Nosy Parkers such as myself will be unable to tell what anyone’s reading on mass transit. Except that they’re all reading on e-Readers.
This day is doubtless drawing ever closer, but as a lover of newsstands, libraries, and ubiquitous dustjackets (remember, MTA riders, the month when everyone was reading Absurdistan? Remember the autumn of Oscar Wao?), I realized today that I’m not looking forward to it. Nor do I believe my life will be improved when putting down The Magic Mountain to check TMZ.com is as simple as clicking a button. Which is to say: I won’t make it past page 2 of The Magic Mountain. And also: I believe reading The Magic Mountain will improve my life. But the Kindle is just a tool! my colleagues insist. I want to remind them: when you’re carrying a hammer, everything starts to look like a Kindle. Er…nail.
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.
Let’s say you’re slightly to the left of the Bell Curve: you read, on average, a book a week. And let’s say you’re also slightly leftward-listing in your survival prospects: that, due to the marvels of future medicine (and no thanks to the blunders of contemporary foreign policy) you’ll live to the fine old age of 90. Let’s furthermore presuppose that you’re one of those people, the precocious ones who were reading Kesey and King and Kingsolver and Kipling at 15. How many great books will you get to read in a lifetime? Assuming you’ve already answered the adjunct question (why?) for yourself, the prospect of having to choose only three thousand books from among the many Millions may sound daunting. My Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of World Literature contains some entries on authors alone, and is hardly comprehensive. Balzac alone could eat up almost one percent of your lifetime reading. On the other hand, as usual, limitation shades into wonder… because in an infinite reading universe, we would be deprived of one of the supreme literary pleasures: discovery. Half of my favorite works of fiction of the year were by authors (women, natch) I’d never read, had barely heard of: Kathryn Davis’ The Thin Place, Lynne Tillman’s American Genius: A Comedy, and Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica.And if I had gone my whole life without discovering Deborah Eisenberg, I would have missed something like a literary soulmate. The beguiling, bewildered quality of Eisenberg’s Twilight of the Superheroes – the sentences whose endings seem to surprise even their writer – is so close to the texture of life as I experience it as to be almost hallucinatory. On the other hand, Eisenberg’s world is much, much funnier and more profound than mine. She’s single-handedly rejuvenated my relationship with the short story… and just in time for the remarkable new Edward P. Jones collection, All Aunt Hagar’s Children. I’ve already expressed my suspicion that Jones has been a positive influence on Dave Eggers, as evidenced by What is the What. So I’ll just round out my survey of new fiction by mentioning Marshall N. Klimasewiski’s overlooked first novel, The Cottagers – a dazzlingly written thriller.In between forays into the contemporary landscape, I’ve been trying to bone up on the classics. I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t read Pride and Prejudice until this year; it’s about the most romantic damn thing I’ve ever encountered, and I’m a sucker for romance. Pricklier and more ironic, which is to say more Teutonic, was Mann’s The Magic Mountain – a great book for when you’ve got nothing to do for two months. Saul Bellow’s Herzog completely blew my doors off, suggesting that stream-of-consciousness (and the perfect evocation of a summer day) did not end with Mrs. Dalloway. Herzog is such a wonderful book, so sad, so funny, so New York. So real. I can’t say the same thing about Kafka’s The Castle, but it is to my mind the most appealing of his novels. As in The Magic Mountain, futility comes to seem almost charming. E.L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate was another wonderful discovery – a rip-roaring read that’s written under some kind of divine inspiration: Let there be Comma Splices! Similarly, I was surprised by how well page-turning pacing and peel-slowly sentences worked in Franzen’s first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City. Ultimately, it’s sort of a ridiculous story, but it’s hard to begrudge something this rich and addictive. Think of it as a dessert. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the rip-roar of that most sweeping of summer beach books, Lonesome Dove. And if the last three titles make you feel self-indulgent, because you’re having too much fun, cleanse the palate the way I did, with the grim and depressing and still somehow beautiful. Namely, Samuel Beckett’s Texts for Nothing or W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn. (What is it with those Germans?)Nonfiction-wise, I managed to slip away from journalism a bit, but did read James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men while I was in Honduras… sort of like reading Melville at sea. I made it most of the way through Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (God knows why, half of me adds. The other half insists, You know why.) Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of the Enlightenment lightened things up… Not! But I will never read Cosmo Girl the same way again. Come to think of it, pretty much all the nonfiction I loved this year was a downer, about the impure things we can’t get away from: Susan Sontag’s On Photography, Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces, David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity, and especially the late George W.S. Trow’s astonishing, devastating Within the Context of No Context. Lit-crit offered a little bit of a silver lining, as William H. Gass’ A Temple of Text and James Wood’s The Irresponsible Self. Wood’s essays on Tolstoy and Bellow remind me that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God”… which is, I guess, why I’ll keep reading in 2007.
There were a few readers among the sleepyheads on the train this morning. I have to say, I’m impressed with my fellow readers this morning for the caliber of the books they were reading. Here’s what I spotted:Black Boy by Richard Wright (I read this book in high school. Still one of my favorites.)Sabbath’s Theatre by Philip Roth (One of the books that made The Prizewinners list I put together last month.)The Magic Mountain by Thomas MannThe Way of the Flesh by Samuel Butler (V.S. Pritchett called it “one of the time-bombs of literature.”)Granta 91: Wish You Were Here (I love Granta. This issue includes Ismail Kadare, Margaret Atwood, Thomas Keneally and James Lasdun.)Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician by Anthony Everitt (For all the classicists out there.)Three Junes by Julia GlassAnd a couple of bestsellers:Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. DubnerHarry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling