It is sometimes hard to remember — in our enlightened Internet era — that the line between writer and critic was once very sharp, and that there was no love lost between the camps. “There are hardly five critics in America,” Herman Melville once wrote, “and several of them are asleep.”
Not that you can blame the man, considering the drubbing he took at the hands of the critical establishment, but the quote gives a good sense of the bad blood brewing between writer and commentator all the way back in the 1850s. We don’t lack for contemporary examples, either; in 1991 Norman Mailer called critic John Simon “a man whose brain is being demented by the bile rising from his bowels,” after Simon panned Mailer’s novel Harlot’s Ghost.
But surely it’s not all bile and bellowing; there have to be other, more civilized examples of the writer playing nice in the critical sphere. Henry James, for example, had a prolific side gig as a writer of judicious criticism, and his essay “The Art of Fiction” is one of the most well-considered and fair-minded examinations of novelistic purpose you could ever hope to read. But even James, in the middle of his reasonable defense of novelistic art, couldn’t help giving a swift kick to an unnamed “writer in the Pall Mall” who opposes “certain tales in which ‘Bostonian nymphs’ appear to have ‘rejected English dukes for psychological reasons’” – Portrait of a Lady, I presume? It seems that, no matter their composure, writers look to draw a little blood when they enter the critical ring. Maybe it has something to do with accepting blows in silence all those years.
Which brings us to the latest example of a writer stepping into the ring to defend his work against a rapacious critic: award-winning author Jonathan Lethem v. award-winning critic James Wood, literary heavyweight bout par excellence. The first round of this fight happened recently, when the Los Angeles Review of Books published an essay by Lethem entitled “My Disappointment Critic,” in which Lethem discussed his anger at Wood for panning his novel The Fortress of Solitude eight years ago.
Lethem is not some cranky author we can write off lightly and go about our business. He is himself a thoughtful critic, and, as if to remind us of this fact, the title of “My Disappointment Critic” (and some of its content) alludes to his book The Disappointment Artist, a series of excellent essays about growing up in Brooklyn, the pleasures and perils of being an autodidact, and Westerns – among other things. His essay on the way to escape a subway train when you fear being pursued by other passengers is one of the best evocations of frightened childhood and how it shapes (urban) consciousness I have ever read.
All this is to say that Lethem is more than familiar with a critic’s responsibilities. Even when you’re an author/critic with fame hanging heavy on your shoulders — especially when you’re stepping into the ring to defend your own work — you’re held to the sort of standard all criticism is held to: you have to marshal evidence and portray your viewpoint convincingly. One might even argue that writer/critic dealing with his own work has a higher bar to vault, because if he fails at any of these aims he looks worse than a reviewer writing a poorly-argued review. He looks like a whiner.
So what are we to make of Lethem’s new essay, in which he steps into the ring to defend his eight-year-old novel The Fortress of Solitude from James Wood, critical heavyweight of the age? Is he merely grousing? Or is he making serious critical claims?
Lethem understands our concerns. He wants us to know right away that he knows what he’s doing.
“Why,” Lethem writes, “violate every contract of dignity and decency, why embarrass us and yourself, sulking over an eight-year-old mixed review? Conversely, why not, if I’d wished to flog Wood’s shortcomings, pick a review of someone else, make respectable defense of a fallen comrade? The answer is simple: In no other instance could I grasp so completely what Wood was doing.”
And later: “Was this how Rushdie or DeLillo felt — not savaged, in fact, but harassed, by a knight only they could tell was armorless?”
This is Lethem’s stated purpose: instead of taking the opportunity to complain about his own disappointment, Lethem is going to give his own disappointment greater cultural relevance. He is going to use his own experience to show us what James Wood looks like without the armor. He is going to accomplish something far more serious than simple griping: a true critical takedown.
The critical takedown is well-known cultural corrective with a long and glorious history. Renata Adler attempted something similar in her New York Review of Books article on Pauline Kael 31 years ago. James Wood himself performed similar treatment on Harold Bloom; it’s no surprise that Lethem quotes both of these projects above his essay.
The fellow critic providing cultural corrective to someone who has gotten too big for his or her britches — it’s practically a public service, if you do it right. In our current literary discourse critics can easily become unimpeachable. Wood gets the lofty heights of The New Yorker’s book section whenever he feels like it, and if he’s fudging his responsibilities, chances are a lot of people won’t notice. It’s more or less exactly the argument Adler makes in her takedown of Kael: most critics get sloppy on their soapbox. Their ingrained prejudices take over.
So there’s a precedent for the fellow critic accomplishing such a takedown, but rarely does the author being criticized make the attempt. Maybe this is because the burden of proof is uncommonly high when personal interest is involved. And Lethem’s criticisms, for all of their higher purpose, do spring from personal concerns: Wood failed to see what Lethem was getting at in The Fortress of Solitude.
“James Wood,” he writes, “in 4,200 painstaking words, couldn’t bring himself to mention that my characters found a magic ring that allowed them flight and invisibility. This, the sole distinguishing feature that put the book aside from those you’d otherwise compare it to (Henry Roth, say). The brute component of audacity, whether you felt it sank the book or exalted it or only made it odd.”
This comment is, at its heart, disingenuous. Is the magic ring really the “sole distinguishing feature” that separates the Fortress of Solitude from Henry Roth? Wood would never make such a simplistic statement, nor would any other critic with a professional reputation to uphold. The act of criticism, in large part, is to figure out what distinguishes books from each other, and such distinctions never come down to one detail, whether it be a magic ring or a madeleine.
But let’s set this aside for now, and continue to Lethem’s critical conclusion about Wood’s review.
“Perhaps Wood’s agenda edged him into bad faith on the particulars of the pages before him. A critic ostensibly concerned with formal matters, Wood failed to register the formal discontinuity I’d presented him, that of a book which wrenches its own “realism”– mimeticism is the word I prefer– into crisis by insisting on uncanny events. The result, it seemed to me, was a review that was erudite, descriptively meticulous, jive. I doubt Wood’s ever glanced back at the piece. But I’d like to think that if he did, he’d be embarrassed.”
I read Fortress of Solitude several years ago. I remember that magic ring. I remember it having the shaky status of a symbol, and that the boys who used it were themselves unsure of whether it represented real invisibility or some sort of wish fulfillment: imagination grounded firmly in realism (or whatever less offensive word Lethem wants to use). I certainly don’t remember it ever “wrenching” the book’s realism out of whack — it was one thread in the greater fabric of a mimetic narrative.
But let’s set that aside too — maybe Wood was wrong about the magic ring, and its singular symbolism within Fortress of Solitude. What we’re really dealing with here is a takedown of Wood, after all, not a defense of Lethem’s novel. That’s why Lethem proclaims his larger purpose early in the essay. That’s why he includes the paragraphs from Adler and from Wood himself, that’s why he tells us Wood is “armorless” as a critic. What we’re concerned with here is Lethem’s critical judgment of Wood as a critic: “The result, it seemed to me, was a review that was erudite, descriptively meticulous, jive.”
Read that line again, substituting the word “book” for the word “review.” Now imagine that this sentence appeared in a book review. I assume your critical alarm bells are ringing.
Are we as readers expected to believe Lethem when he says that Wood was “erudite” and “descriptively meticulous,” (not to mention “jive”) without evidence?
Lethem obliges us. He drops a Wood quote at the start of the next paragraph.
“Wood complained of the book’s protagonist: “We never see him thinking an abstract thought, or reading a book … or thinking about God and the meaning of life, or growing up in any of the conventional mental ways of the teenage Bildungsroman.” …My huffy, bruised, two-page letter to Wood detailed the fifteen or twenty most obvious, most unmissable instances of my primary character’s reading: Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, Lewis Carroll, Tolkien, Robert Heinlein, Mad magazine, as well as endless scenes of looking at comic books. Never mind the obsessive parsing of LP liner notes, or first-person narration which included moments like: “I read Peter Guralnick and Charlie Gillett and Greg Shaw…” That my novel took as one of its key subjects the seduction, and risk, of reading the lives around you as if they were an epic cartoon or frieze, not something in which you were yourself implicated, I couldn’t demand Wood observe. But not reading? This enraged me.”
This is the only quote from Wood that Lethem uses in his essay, and he buries it within a full paragraph of editorialization. This on its own would give the average critical reader pause for thought. But when you look closer, when you read Wood in the original, you notice that there is a more fundamental disconnect at work. Lethem has fundamentally misunderstood what Wood was saying.
Here is the Wood quote in the original, concerning the main character from Fortress of Solitude:
“We never see [Dylan] thinking an abstract thought, or reading a book (there is a canonical mention of Steppenwolf, which is just more cultural anthropology, and just about it for literature in Dylan’s life), or encountering music that is not the street’s music, (italics mine) or thinking about God and the meaning of life, or growing up in any of the conventional mental ways of the teenage Bildungsroman. There is no need for Lethem to be conventional, of course; but there is a need for Dylan to have outline, to have mental personality.”
Wood’s point in his review of Fortress is that Lethem is a fabulous cultural chronicler of childhood, but that he fails when it comes to describing adulthood’s particular individual consciousness. There is something beautiful in Wood’s phrase “music that is not the street’s music” — maybe this is why Lethem chose to elide it in his quote. It reinforces how much Dylan Ebdus’s character is informed by group consciousness.
But all Lethem can see is Wood’s snobbery. “Wood is too committed a reader,” Lethem writes, “not to have registered what he (apparently) can’t bear to credit: the growth of a sensibility through literacy in visual culture, in vernacular and commercial culture, in the culture of music writing and children’s lit, in graffiti and street lore.”
But this is precisely what Wood is talking about. He is pointing out that Dylan, for all his theoretical interest in Sendak and Heinlein, is not very interesting as an individual; far from ignoring street culture, Wood points out that street culture is what makes Dylan who he is. When Dylan grows up and loses sight of the street, Dylan becomes boring. Wood’s snobbery is beside the point here; the critic admits that Dylan doesn’t need conventional interiority, a world of high-brow books or high-brow music — he just needs interiority, period. We’re reminded once again of Henry James, the snobby fussbudget who occasionally got it right — “the only obligation to which we may hold a novel is that it be interesting.” Dylan, in Lethem’s later pages, is no longer interesting, and Wood, as a critic, wants to try and explain why.
Maybe a close examination of Lethem’s article will shed light on the reasons why so many authors attack their critics, and why literary fights can seem so personal. Because authors, at heart, are much more interested in the verdict a critic renders than the evidence they display. And why wouldn’t they be? Authors understand that good reviews sell books and that bad reviews don’t — they are the most consumer-minded of all cultural observers, because they know as well as anyone how hard the literary marketplace can be. This isn’t even considering the personal aspect of having one’s work attacked in public, the feeling, as Edith Wharton put it, that “one knows one’s weak points so well… it’s rather bewildering to have the critics overlook them and invent others.”
Lethem, despite his own critical experience, isn’t immune to this view. “The review,” he writes, “wasn’t the worst I’d had. Wasn’t horrible. (As my uncle Fred would have said, ‘I know from horrible.’)”
Lethem looks at Wood’s review in a familiar cultural context — is it good, or is it bad? Will it sell my book or will it turn people away? Does it make me look foolish or paint me as a genius? What’s the judgment here?
But what if the purpose of a review is not just to render judgment, but to explicate the way literature works? One can’t fault Lethem for disliking having his own work on the operating table, but certainly he’s been on the cutting end before.
The pain of the writer is that he has to sit still while the critic pokes through the vitals of his work and shows them to the audience. When the critical work is at its finest, the audience is like a crew of medical students standing around a doctor at work — even when we disagree with the way things are being handled, we can still see the body of evidence and draw our own conclusions. The process itself helps us learn; it adds to our understanding of literature as a whole. That is, if the body on the table would only stop complaining.
This is extreme, I know. The body of work on the operating table has its own concerns. Staying alive, for example. An irresponsible critic, like an irresponsible doctor, runs the risk of killing the work — we don’t call it a “hit piece” for nothing. And if Lethem is right, and Wood is not doing high-level criticism anymore — if, like Adler’s vision of Pauline Kael, he has gone “shrill,” “stale,” has fallen prey to the tendency “to inflate” — then we have legitimate cause to worry for other books, other authors.
Where do we go to find if a critic — or an author — is being irresponsible, is failing at their literary mission? We go to the text, naturally — we render the evidence as best we can. This is the burden of proof, the burden the critic takes on when making judgments. This is the burden Lethem must assume if he is to be a critic of Wood’s own critical project.
“When Wood praises,” says Lethem, “he mentions a writer’s higher education, and their overt high-literary influences, a lot. He likes things with certain provenances; I suppose that liking, which makes some people uneasy, is exactly what made me enraged. When he pans, his tone is often passive-aggressive, couched in weariness, even woundedness. Just beneath lies a ferocity which seems to wish to restore order to a disordered world.”
Leaving aside the question of whether or not all critics (and readers) like things of certain provenances, we find ourselves again with the verdict but no facts. If Wood is passive-aggressive, why not show it? And what are we to make of Wood’s supposed ferocity, his drive to correct the world? Are we supposed to take Lethem’s word on Wood’s intellectual makeup?
Lethem gives Wood some credit: he points out that Wood wrote “4,200 painstaking words” about Fortress of Solitude. I would highlight another salient point: of these words, eight hundred (or nearly a fifth of the article) are direct quotations. Say what you will about the subjectivity inherent in what a critic chooses to quote, Wood uses ample evidence from Lethem’s own text to make his points — and nearly 600 quoted words come in blocks, without any editorializing from Wood at all; the critical equivalent of a primary source.
This is not just a feature of Wood’s review of Fortress — it is a feature of his critical style. Wood may be blinkered, he may be a high-culture pedant, but he quotes with vicious abandon: great block quotes of prose that give the reader a decent sense of how the writers he picks use language, so that no matter what verdict Wood renders the reader is capable of viewing the evidence on its own merits.
Take Wood’s review of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, for example. As readers, we are quite justified in our anger when Wood attempts to parody Hollinghurst’s style with his own prose; critics, whether they are also writers or not, are supposed to keep their own prose out of the critical game, lest we realize just how disingenuous they are. Or, as Hollinghurst himself put it, “it exposes your own fear of the charge that you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
But we can’t fault the rest of the review of Stranger’s Child for anything other than having an extremely intense, well-considered, and well-supported opinion, because we have the tools to respectfully disagree with the opinion if we like — Wood gives us reams of quotation on which to draw our own conclusions. I happen to disagree with Wood’s conclusions about Hollinghurst, as I do with many of Wood’s conclusions, but I do not make the mistake of thinking that my disagreement with Wood’s verdict means his article is a failure. I am interested in his ideas, I am interested in his evidence. Then again, it’s not my book under the scalpel — if I were Hollinghurst, I imagine I would be furious. Not being Hollinghurst, however — a fact I share with the vast majority of the readership of The New Yorker — I am free to enjoy the article on the merits.
Quibble how you will with the verdict Wood renders on The Stranger’s Child, just as Lethem does with the verdict he renders on Fortress of Solitude in 4,200 painstaking words, but it’s difficult to fault his methods — considerable quotation, much of it in blocks, and statements based on these quotations. This is why Wood remains a sometimes inspiring, sometimes infuriating, consistently debatable literary critic.
(A critic, mind you, who saw fit to send Lethem a postcard in return to the angry letter Lethem sent him when this review was published — and here, perhaps, we can allow ourselves a little incredulity — eight years ago. A postcard pointing out that he had actually liked a lot about Fortress of Solitude — maybe it’s Lethem, not Wood, who ought to be embarrassed upon re-reading the review, so many years later.)
Lethem has now written 1,700 words attacking, not just Wood’s article, but his entire approach to book reviewing, his “bad faith” — and he supports his argument with 47 of Wood’s own words. Whether or not you would like to see Wood exiled from his favored perch atop The New Yorker’s book section — and many do — this is not a ratio to inspire particular confidence.
It is very difficult to analyze anyone’s bad faith. Lethem himself points this out at the end of his essay; that he goes ahead and attacks Wood’s bad faith despite his own assertions is evidence of his critical perspective. Lethem has every right to be angry at Wood, for criticizing a work which he held dearly, for rendering a verdict that might hurt the work in the marketplace. But those of us who care about criticism are more interested in the evidence than the verdict, and in the case of Lethem v. Wood, the evidence is skimpy indeed.
Alan Hollinghurst’s work combines the joys of the traditional tropes of the 19th-century novel with a contemporary sensibility unencumbered by the 19th century’s social strictures. The Line of Beauty, his 2004 Booker winner, employed the strategies of a “Jamesian procedure,” he says, in which one writes about a large period of time from the point of view of one person. The result is a series of “social events” that are all filtered through a singular main conscience. But unlike a Henry James novel, The Line of Beauty, a story set in the upper class milieu of Thatcher’s England, includes among these “social events” lyrical descriptions of gay sex. What is suggested by James’ strange use of the word “perverse” in his late story “The Beast in the Jungle” is here made explicit and definitive. There is an argument that the golden age of the novel died with the rise of divorce. A Portrait of a Lady cannot emerge from a society in which an upper-class woman can happily remain single. Hollinghurst’s examinations of gay culture in differing periods may suggest otherwise.
The first third of The Stranger’s Child, Hollinghurst’s fifth novel, indulges a pleasure common to recent historical fiction. The book opens in 1913, when Cecil Valance enjoys a day at a fellow Cambridge sodomite’s family estate, where he scratches off a poem in a 16-year-old girl’s album. That poem, thanks to a Churchill speech, becomes a national elegy for England’s World War I dead, of which Cecil becomes a member. In the third and fourth sections of the novel, set respectively in 1967 and 1980, an enterprising writer, Paul Bryant, sets out to write Cecil Valance’s biography in an attempt to uncover the contours of the poet’s sexual lilt. If the early sections of the novel excite our desire to read between the lines of the codes of the past, adopting a style not unlike Evelyn Waugh, but with fewer double entendres, the latter sections call that very desire into question.
I met Hollinghurst at his room at the Grand Hotel on October 27 in Minneapolis, where he was on book tour. The hotel was a hilariously ugly Vegas-like concoction in the city’s downtown. I sat down on an armchair next to a strange coffee table shaped like a silver tree stump. He sat on an office chair at a desk in front of his laptop. We started by chatting about James Wood’s unflattering review of The Stranger’s Child in The New Yorker and I turned my digital recorder on. What follows is a pared-down version of a one-hour conversation.
The Millions: Do you read reviews?
Alan Hollinghurst: I do, unless very strongly warned off them by some kind person. There’s no point in upsetting oneself unnecessarily.
TM: So did you read the James Wood review up to the very end?
AH: I did. But actually, when he got to the bit when he was imagining how I might write something, it just seemed so pathetic that I stopped taking it seriously.
TM: When he did the parody of you?
AH: Yes, it’s very ill-advised to do something like that, I think. It exposes your own fear of the charge that you don’t know what you’re talking about.
TM: I know you lived a very social life during your time at the Times Literary Supplement. But when you’re in the process of writing novels, you don’t seem to be living a very social life, as far as I can tell. All these profiles describe you as somewhat reclusive.
AH: I do rather play that up for profile writers. (laughs) I’m actually very lazy, and put off doing anything for as long as possible. But a combination of reasons will bring me to my desk. And then when I get on with it, I do get on with it. It is, after all, how I make my living, what I feel I’m supposed to be doing in this life. So I’m then very disciplined. But I have quite a social life in the periods when I’m not writing a novel. This book took me four years to write, but there were quite a few periods during those four years when I wasn’t at my desk.
I love society. And it’s true I used to live a more social life before. Working at the TLS threw me into the whole world of literary parties and book launches, which I used to go to all the time. Like any professional world, the behavior is extremely repetitive in nature. I described in The Stranger’s Child, Paul Bryant having this experience, of going to a party and staggering out at a quarter to nine, drunk, hoping to find someone to have something to eat with. And then having a horrible blur of that night after night. (laughs) So that was a kind of socializing I really quit quite happily. I think as one gets older one just wants to see the people one really likes and not be bothered by all sorts of mere social obligations.
TM: I’m trying to get at the machinery of writing. Joseph Conrad takes a trip around the world and finally settles down to his desk and writes about Africa and Latin America. My assumption had been that you had lived your youth and then decided to sit down and write about what life is like in society.
AH: One has reserves of memory, which is obviously a writer’s main resource, really. It’s not really a problem. I think the way I write I tend to have periods of exposure to life, as it were, where particularly dramatic, thought-provoking or stimulating things might happen. Then there are periods where I withdraw and reflect on them. But it’s not as if I did everything in my youth and then retired to write about it for the rest of my life. Writing is a constantly growing, alternating process. It’s reassuring to know that one still has pockets, areas of one’s life that can still be explored.
TM: There are a lot of holes at the end of this book. There are lingering questions about all sorts of things we realize won’t be answered. When you leave those holes, do you, as the novelist, have them filled in for yourself?
AH: No, I don’t actually. I really want the reader to be left in as great a state of speculation as a lot of the other characters are both [in the earlier sections] and those who weren’t there but were trying to work it out later on [in the later sections].
What to leave out is so important. I like the fun of withholding information, the trickle of disclosure, the distance that might create in the reader.
TM: But does not knowing those things make it harder for you to do your work as a novelist?
AH: Yes, it was very hard. (laughs) But you’re right, if I had written a more substantial outline of all the stuff it might have felt different. But actually being in uncertainties seemed to be somehow part of it. Perhaps it was a mistake. Perhaps I could have written it much more quickly if I had outlined it all.
TM: But did you consciously decide that there were things that you yourself wouldn’t know when you started the book?
AH: Yes, I suppose so. It’s so peculiar talking about unknown things in stuff that is fiction. In a way, I feel I don’t know anything about my books except what’s on the page. It’s not completely true, because in the process of writing there are projected scenes that don’t get written and scenes that do get written that get cut out. So there’s a slight blurring of that idea. People often come up and ask what happened to characters in The Folding Star and it’s not just me being tediously teasing when I say, “I don’t know.”
TM: So there’s Paul Bryant in The Stranger’s Child and Nick Guest in The Line of Beauty. They’re similar characters in that they’re likable as we see them. We read them from their point of view. Nick is something of a moral coward. Paul is covered in moral turpitude. In both novels, I’ve heard you say before you don’t like to tip your cards, you don’t like to make moral judgments. And yet there’s a moment at the end of both novels where you snap the reader awake to the point where they realize these characters may be worse than they have been presented as being.
AH: But there’s a complicated moral thing going on. I don’t like to seem as a novelist to be rewarding and punishing. I hope the reader is led on these complicated processes of identifying with the character instead. I deprived Paul of all sorts of things which Nick has. That came from a determination not to keep writing characters who shared all my own enthusiasms and experiences. He has no understanding or appreciation of music at all.
I hoped that in the long confrontation with Daphne in the end, we would have two characters the reader had an inward relationship with and now were head-to-head with each other. Neither behaves terribly well. The reader might not know where their sympathies lie.
TM: But there’s a trigger in both. Why do you wait to the end to give us this little knock?
AH: I guess it seemed to me quite effective. I’m trying to get away from certain novelistic stereotypes not to write books where the last minute revelation of a secret explains everything else. But nonetheless it’s hard to resist putting it in.
TM: I didn’t much care for the television adaptation of The Line of Beauty. I thought the book was very funny, but when I saw the adaptation I saw moment after moment that seemed to suck the comedy dry from the book.
AH: Well it was different in a lot of ways. I did sometimes feel that even the characters who more or less had the lines in the original book didn’t quite seem to get them. It would be a bit invidious to pick out people who don’t live up to my expectation. I think I hear the tone of things in my head and I’m gratified when readers do. But I don’t think they do necessarily. And the shooting script is such an exiguous thing. It’s this tiny little column. The dialogue is so pared-back. I think it worked best in the things that weren’t funny at all. My feeling was it got better after a rather clunky start. I was actually quite moved by the third episode. It’s a very constrictive sort of medium, the TV.
TM: I interviewed Colm Tóibín a few years ago and he went on a rant a bit about John Updike’s infamous review of The Spell. He said that it just showed that Updike had a “super-developed heterosexuality” that just “eats” into his work. I thought I would just let you respond to the review yourself.
AH: Well, it was deplorable in various ways, but I also remember being very amused by it. There was this person who had gone to rather extraordinary lengths in his details of heterosexual sex and for whom the analysis of sexual behavior seemed to be so fundamental to his work as a novelist. But who was giving the impression in this review that everything he knew about homosexuality he gleaned from my novels, like he had never come across it in real life at all. I thought it was absolutely extraordinary, therefore so absurd, the old way he put it about the animating chirp of the female presence or something that he so missed in my books. It was terribly silly. It showed that he had chosen to emphasize his own failure with this large and interesting aspect of human behavior.
TM: You have a lot of very good-looking characters who seem to enjoy this aristocratic privilege of their good looks. I know so many gay men, who no matter how good-looking they are, are extremely uncomfortable with their looks, simply because they are subject to the interests of other men. So why do you keep returning to this character who I don’t believe exists in real life?
AH: (laughs) Yes, well, I suppose vanity is a form of insecurity isn’t it. It’s true. Nick is uncertain about his looks. He looks in a mirror when he’s going on his first date. And he’s seeing what could be attractive to someone else. That’s the fundamental thing that’s happening at that point. But really he is magnetized by what seem to be the greater attractions of other men. Perhaps people rather lose themselves in the worship of beautiful people. You think these characters should be more neurotic? (laughs)
TM: Well, maybe it’s again what I like about your books. There’s a certain indulgence of fantasy and then a deconstruction of it. You have these characters for whom the obtaining of and the act of sex is so easy.
AH: Well, I’ll certainly ponder it when I write my next book. There’s a yearning for a world of superb sex and beauty, but there’s often quite a lot of anxiety and comedy about the failure to attain that. Will’s adventures in The Swimming-Pool Library are quite farcical
TM: In your profiles you say you don’t want to be seen as a gay writer. I guess the best defense of that is that you don’t wish to be seen as a herald of your people.
AH: Yes, I don’t feel able or have any desire to take on any representative role or take on anyone else’s agenda. I always wanted to write my own books about rather odd people. This came up again recently in an interview in The Guardian with someone who didn’t really understand what I meant. I was so hoping that we could get beyond the whole gay writer thing now, which I feel stuck in. It’s a very changed sexual world in which we live now. It’s changed a lot from when I started writing. [Being gay] just wasn’t such a significant thing anymore. But I’m afraid the interviewer adhered to the type of broad-minded straight bloke who had come to interview this demon of perversity and that was the story. There’s a strong desire in the media to maintain these types. I believe that article was entitled “Sex on the Brain.” And there was nothing in it about sex. [It was] the idea that gay books have to be dangerously and obsessively sexual.
TM: But being dangerous is part of what has made being gay a rich and interesting literary subject for so long. So if it ceases to be dangerous can an interesting novel still be written about homosexuality?
AH: I see your point absolutely. I think that’s why I keep going back to write about periods in which being gay was more challenging, more emphatically critical of the status quo. That thing E.M. Forster said about Maurice that being gay is what saved him because it turned him into a critic of his own society. That’s always been rather fundamental to me actually.
But I was bored with the association of gayness and licentiousness in the straight imagination. I feel a certain thinness in the social subject of gayness at the present moment.
TM: Do you laugh at your own jokes when you write?
AH: Yes. But not absurdly…Wit is a quality which I really appreciate in novelists. I don’t mean telling jokes. You get it in James. You get it in George Eliot. This wonderful play of intelligence which I really prize, which often finds things funny in something more serious. That’s something I admire and strive to maintain.
During a recent semester spent studying abroad in the UK, I had the opportunity to take an undergraduate course on Henry James. I seized the chance, having never taken a class devoted to a single author before. Previously, Henry James had existed in my mind as a hazy legend in Anglo-American letters who wrote hefty novels and dense stories in an ominously opaque prose. The only thing I had ever read of his was “The Middle Years”, a short story about an aging writer resting in Bournemouth, who befriends a doctor who also happens to be a fervent admirer of his work. It sounds awfully boring but I was impressed by the story, which reveals a great deal about reader-writer relations, although of course I found the writing itself a little impenetrable at times (the number of commas in the first sentence alone would send a good number of readers packing). It’s easy to lose your way in a James story if you’re not careful. Your eyes keep scanning the words, but your thoughts tend to wander off. Often what’s literally happening is buried beneath endless looping sentences, words that lap like waves, eddies of thoughts and counter-thoughts. It all sounds beautiful, but the reader is left wondering: what does it actually mean?
It’s obvious that Henry James is ill suited for a text-heavy undergraduate course, which requires extensive reading in a very short time. It’s not so bad when you’re studying earlier James, which tends to be more straightforward (although with the novels the length can sometimes get to you) — but things get an awful lot worse with later James. The prose becomes denser, the metaphors extend into page-long emotional parables, the grammar is impossibly convoluted, and numerous adverbs cling to and clutter the sentences.
James’ prose is notorious for becoming more elusive and complex and he grew older (it may be in part due to the fact that he started dictating to a typist in 1897, just before the advent of his “late phase”). In a letter to the Duchess of Sutherland, dated 1903, James gave his correspondent a few tips on how to read one of his novels:
Take, meanwhile, pray The Ambassadors very easily & gently: read five pages a day — be even as deliberate as that — but don’t break the thread. The thread is really stretched quite scientifically tight. Keep along with it step by step — & the full charm will come out.
It may have been that the Duchess was a particularly obtuse reader, but I do think it’s true that James is much better appreciated with lots of time to take him in slowly, a few pages at a time, to let his magic quietly come through. But James’ own recommendations, of course, are impossible to follow when you have to rifle through a whole novel in a few days for a seminar.
The reading list for the class in question included:
A selection of tales: “Daisy Miller”, “The Aspern Papers”, “The Pupil”, “The Real Thing”, “The Figure in the Carpet”, and “The Lesson of the Master”
What Maisie Knew
The Portrait of a Lady
The Princess Casamassima
The Golden Bowl
The Wings of the Dove
I ended up quite liking most of the tales, especially “The Lesson of the Master”, about the relationship between a young, promising writer and an older one whose art is in decline. It has a certain ironic bite, which I found enjoyable — the “lesson” in question being that novelists shouldn’t marry, in order to concentrate on their art (James remained a bachelor all his life). It is apparent that there are quite a few gems in the tales of Henry James, which are often in the vein of the French nouvelles (Maupassant often comes to mind). Although writing many of these short stories was bread-and-butter work for James, they offer much insight into art and human expression.
Among the novels, I never finished The Wings of the Dove, What Maisie Knew, or The Princess Casamassima, one of James’ forays into more traditional social realism (with The Bostonians), which I found read like a bad imitation of Dickens. The Portrait of a Lady was by far the most readable and engaging of his novels, and Isabel Archer remains one of his most sympathetic characters — despite the famously unsatisfactory ending. The two later novels I read, The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl — especially the latter, where so little happens for so long — initially put me off. They are demanding books, but in the end they proved more interesting to think and write about. The Ambassadors, for instance, through some intricate literary trick, manages to charm the reader into embracing the middle-aged protagonist’s point of view. Strether’s fascination for Paris, for Chad (whom he comes to Paris to save) and for Madame de Vionnet (with whom Chad is having an affair) becomes the fascination of the reader, while James masterfully pulls the strings behind the scenes. It’s a rewarding, beautiful reading experience; and there really is a kind of taut, charming thread running through it.
A certain reputation precedes Henry James, I think — and it’s not a very good one. Another preconception I had about him was that he was rather passé, in both style and content. He already seemed outdated in his own time (at the turn of the century, who else was writing novels about adultery among the rich and beautiful in such wordy prose?), so how could he possibly be relevant today?
I was wrong, of course. Although James was never read by the masses, he still generates a fair deal of critical attention and admiration. Many authors today use James’ life and work to inspire their own fiction: Colm Tóibín’s Booker short-listed The Master is a fictionalized account of a part of James’ life (more on that later), while David Lodge’s Author, Author (published six months after Tóibín’s novel) does something similar. Joyce Carol Oates’ recent collection of stories Wild Nights! includes a moving story about James visiting a wounded soldier in a London hospital during World War I, and Cynthia Ozick’s 2010 novel Foreign Bodies is a retelling of The Ambassadors. In the last decade, Penguin Classics has reedited most of James’ novels and stories in a new series under the general editorship of one of the most prominent Jamesian critics, Philip Horne. NYRB Classics has also included many of James’ little known titles in their series, while Cambridge University Press is planning a new, multi-volume critical edition of James’ works, to be published by 2016 for the centenary of his death.
It is clear that James is not passé, and never was. He is, in fact, perhaps more relevant than ever; but his works lie in a strange place outside of time, and they were written that way. James was and remains a demanding author because he found something intensely true about the complexity of human nature and felt compelled to communicate this truth in the stories that took hold of his imagination. He was a careful writer, true to his art and craft, and a meticulous revisionist. His works are deep, long, airless dives into the complexities and multiplicities of the self. It’s not an easy subject to write about. His stories, lacking in plot, are simple accounts: mere turning points in the lives of characters or revelations of social organizations. Yet in their self-consciousness and ambiguities, and even in the circumlocutions of James’ language — which in truth is closer to the fragmented consciousness of modernism than to Victorian verbosity — they reveal something irresistibly true about life.
It’s easy, of course, to call binge reading Henry James a joy when the term is over and the essay is handed in and corrected. For most of the duration of the course, I would’ve probably called the process “Henry James and the Woes of Binge Reading”. Often times it felt like I was out of breath as I jumped from one work to the next, trying to catch up on my reading just before class, and then having to move on to the next book down the list without having finished the previous one.
But, as anyone who has taken a class like this (or anyone who has ever binge read from a single author in a short period of time) will know, this type of reading can also be highly rewarding. One passes from one book to the next almost seamlessly, without having to adapt to a new style, witnessing (if the works are read more or less chronologically) the progression of the writer’s art over time, the evolution of his concerns, and the development of his authorial voice.
James’ themes become richer and more multi-faceted when looked at across his entire oeuvre: things like the so-called international theme, problematic endings, his obsession with art and reality (or realism v. romance), and the self-consciousness of his fiction. For instance, I noticed that in nearly all of his novels, whenever fate intervenes in a way that seems exaggerated, a character usually declares something along the lines of: “I feel like we’re in a novel!”
The binge reader also starts to notice stock characters as they crop up from story to story. One of the most common, in James, is the young, empowered American heiress: for example the eponymous heroine of “Daisy Miller”, James’ first successful story; Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady, who struggles between her freedom and her duty; and Maggie Verver (aka The Princess) in The Golden Bowl, who starts off as a meek wife and manages to get rid of her husband’s lover (also married to her father) by the end of the novel through the most skillful, subtle social maneuvering.
Theater is another recurring (although not always explicit) theme in Jamesian fiction. James uses a great deal of theatrical metaphor throughout his stories to describe the shifting nature of his characters and the multiplicity of their personalities, which they project out into the world like carefully constructed roles. Thus the adulterous women in his novels — another stock character — like Madame de Vionnet in The Ambassadors or Madame Merle in The Portrait of a Lady, are often described as actresses. They put on masks, makeup, and costumes and bury their identities beneath layers of constructed characteristics to manipulate their audiences.
Perhaps the great number of theatrical metaphors relates to James’ involvement with the theatre, which more or less ended with the failure of his play Guy Domville in 1895 (again, shortly before his “late phase” began). It was a deeply traumatic experience for James (both Tóibín and Lodge make it a central element in their novels). He described the humiliating premier in a letter to Henrietta Rendell as “the most horrible hours of my life.” Thus James was forced to return to the less lucrative — albeit probably more comfortable — business of writing for print only (“thank heaven there is another art”), but it is clear that his failure in the theater left its mark.
It seems I didn’t want to get away from Henry James after the course was over because I continued to peruse his Life in Letters, brilliantly edited by Philip Horne, which has some really beautiful bits of writing in it. I also read The Master by Colm Tóibín, and I would like to end with a few words on this book. It walks the fine line between biography and novel, a tricky genre that Tóibín pulls off majestically. It proves an insightful way of writing and thinking about James, whose life and work are a complicated balance of fiction and reality.
Tóibín’s novel is a gripping, major work of literature, which I binge read with relish not because I had to, but because it offers a fascinating exploration of James as a character whose consciousness is revealed to be as complex and deeply moving as those of the characters he, in turn, created. Tóibín’s novel offers a prism through which many of James’ works are refracted, illuminating them with new meaning and a more directly human resonance. He also treats James’ probable homosexuality with subtlety and respect — no easy feat. The Master is a good read intrinsically, as well; intelligent, endearing, moving, and even funny at times (in a quiet, quaint, all too Jamesian way).
If you read nothing by Henry James or nothing else related to him, I urge you, at least, to read The Master. It seems almost disrespectful to the “master” in question to say so, but I am confident that if you do read Tóibín’s novel, you’ll be tempted to pick up one of James’ books afterward. I’m quite certain you won’t be disappointed by either.
If there was ever a rule that an American writer should do his boldest, most experimental work first and then retreat to safe ground, no one ever bothered to tell Henry James. He went the opposite direction, from the reader-friendly storyteller behind Washington Square and the serious modern novelist of The Portrait of a Lady to the remote, forbidding, hard to read “late James.” The major works of this period, The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl – written in the amazingly inspired years from 1900 to 1904, when this “steady producer” was in his late 50s — must have struck readers at the time as familiar yet strange.
First, they are set in the same cosmopolitan high society of so many James novels, where rich Americans traipse across Europe, the new world mixing it up with the old, leading to love affairs that sooner or later involve money and class. Also, they pursued a favorite Jamesian theme: determining just what’s genuine, what’s the “real thing,” both in art and life. But these novels are, also, more cerebral and analytical, with a style more convoluted, more cart before the horse, aiming less for the right word than the flood of words that would get to that elusive thing, whether it’s the real deal or just a gilt-covered bowl.
Readers wanted the old Henry back, brother William James among them. “The method of narration by interminable elaboration of suggestive reference (I don’t know what to call it, but you know what I mean) goes agin the grain of all my own impulses in writing,” he told Henry in a letter, after reading The Golden Bowl. Couldn’t you, he asked, “just to please Brother, sit down and write a new book, with no twilight or mustiness in the plot, with great vigor and decisiveness in the action, no fencing in the dialogue, no psychological commentaries, and absolute straightness in the style?”
Critics continue to yearn for these virtues in the face of any writer who challenges them. As far as Henry James was concerned, at least two of the novels included in this latest volume from the Library of America — also in the volume are the comic novel,The Outcry, and a chapter from a joint novel – were his best. (The books were published out of order of composition, and Wings is in a previous Library of America volume.) The Ambassadors is “The best, `all around,’ of my productions,” and The Golden Bowl is “distinctly the most done of all my productions – the most composed and constructed and completed … the solidest, as yet, of all my fictions.”
He was right. Over the past month, I found them to be intense experiences, intellectual and emotional, both during reading and after. They deepen on reflection and call you back for another look. They are dense in the best and most daunting sense of the word. There’s a lot to them.
No doubt, the prose can be thorny. James isn’t direct. He over-elaborates the ordinary. He never takes the shortest route. Once you find your footing you can still lose it when he takes off on a deep psychological excursion or drags the reader along on some endless back-story. The dialogue can be either a joy or a torment, depending on whether his characters are having a lively discussion or talking in circles. Metaphors – often involving boating, setting sail on the sea of life and so forth – drag on exhaustively. There’s a bit of the abstract poet in James, too, always reaching for the odd word or the obscure thought, and you can hit a snag (or is that a sandbar?) when you come across such phrases as “the despair of felicity,” or such thorny passages as “a pretext for innocent perversities in respect to which philosophic time were at last to reduce all groans to gentleness.” The sentence construction can be unwieldy and awkward, as James tries to rope several thoughts together. Sometimes I found the prose made more sense when read aloud, but not always; the rhythm that was going on in James’ head while dictating to his secretary can be elusive.
These detriments do not deter. Something more important is at work. You’re in the company of a writer who sees and imagines in depth. I occasionally thought “Where is he going with this?” but I also thought “I can’t wait to see where he goes with this.” There’s a purpose behind those metaphors – he wants you to see, to visualize the inner life of his characters. He knows how people think, and he has a superb sense of how they reveal themselves, the way looks give away clues, the way people may not even know their own mind until they see another person’s reaction. These novels are set against great geographical backdrops and big fancy homes, but all the action is inside, where people plot, conceal, and create. These novels are broad French comedies and existential mysteries, stories you understand piece-meal, along with the characters, who are feeling and (quite often) thinking their way through.
Take, for example, Lambert Strether in The Ambassadors, one of James’ great characters: a middle-aged man from the small town of Woollett, Massachusetts, where he publishes an unread literary magazine. Strether is sent to Paris, by way of England, by Mrs. Newsome, his wealthy, widowed benefactress, on a mission to rescue her son, Chad, from the clutches of an apparently fallen woman. The family’s goal is for Chad to come home, settle down, marry and assume his proper place in the family business. Strether’s goal, pending his success, is to marry Mrs. Newsome, thus securing his future.
Strether is joined by his friend Waymarsh, who carries all the provincial distrust of any country that isn’t his own. (“Oh I don’t say but what there are plenty of pretty places and remarkable old things, but the trouble is that I don’t seem to feel anywhere in tune.”) Strether himself is different: a widower whose dreams in life have been compromised, he’s open to the experience ahead of him, and he’s helped out on several levels by Maria Gostrey, a fetching tour guide he meets in England. She becomes his fellow investigator in what seems at first a wild goose chase. Once they arrive in Paris, he can’t find Chad, or figure out just what it going on with him and this married lady, Madame du Vionnet. Are they having an affair, or is it a “virtuous attachment”? Is she planning on divorcing her absent husband? Is Chad actually romancing her young daughter, Jeanne?
Like many an ambassador to a foreign country, Strether soon finds that what looks simple enough over here can get very complicated over there. Once he discovers Chad, he quickly comes to realize that he doesn’t need saving. Far from the immature youth he remembered, Chad has blossomed under the apparent tutelage of the beautiful and appealing Madame into an intelligent young man who has found his place in the world. He’s everything Strether isn’t, giving the older man pause to consider who he has become, this “perfectly-equipped failure” at the age of 55, a lackey to Chad’s mother, a would-be self-made man who has been made by others. Life has passed him by – an epiphany beautifully rendered when he attends a Sunday party hosted by a famous sculptor. Strether feels completely outclassed by everyone, and finds himself offering some painful advice to Chad’s friend Bilham: “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven’t had that what have you had?”
When Chad begins to knuckle under to family pressure, Strether reverses his own mission: not to save Chad from Madame du Vionnet, but to save him from his family and the stifling work-a-day world of Woollett. The man who has lived at the behest of his employer finds a moral spine he didn’t know he had. With the occasional help of Maria – a bit of a seer, who from the start knows Strether better than he knows himself, and can speak to the better part of his nature – he goes from being an ambassador to a negotiator, working things out so everyone wins. Alas, that’s not the game everyone is playing. The Newsome family orders Strether home and sends in special forces to take over: Chad’s hefty, no-nonsense sister, Sarah Pocock, her lunk-headed husband Jim, and Jim’s adorable little sister, Mamie – the prize that awaits Chad if he’ll just follow their wishes.
We never, in the course of the novel, actually meet Mrs. Newsome, and the family business is a famous literary mystery (although a 2007 Slate article offered a persuasive guess.) In Sarah, however, we get a full sense of the force of the Newsome personality and of a certain kind of “ugly American” type: strident, arrogant, my-way-or-no-way. (She later teams up with Waymarsh, a true meeting of like minds.) Two ambassadors, Strether and Sarah, working at cross purposes with Chad’s future hanging in the balance, which is only partly the novel’s concern. Actually, it’s about the way people discover who they are, and it’s a process James takes to the bitter end, skirting a conventionally happy ending for one more ambiguous and dramatic, and true to the character of a man whose future is very much up for grabs.
The first thing to say about The Golden Bowl is that it’s a great novel about marriage. The second is that I have this sneaking suspicion that if I read it several more times I’d say it is a structural masterpiece. “Solidest” is not a bad description. It delves extensively into the lives of five characters, and it has the feel of deep planning to it. Set on the English estate of a wealthy American industrialist and his daughter, both of whom enter ill-fated marriages of convenience, it’s about the illusions that bring people together and the willful deceptions that hold them there, and the way faith can be another word for denial. The title object, a crystal bowl covered in gilt to conceal a flaw, becomes, like Hester’s scarlet letter, an all-purpose symbol for anything deceptive or fake.
Amerigo, a penniless Italian prince, lucks into an engagement with the heiress Maggie Verver, thanks to the influence of Fanny Assingham, a suitably-named matchmaker who butts in to other lives. What Maggie doesn’t know (and Fanny hides) is that Amerigo has a past with her old friend Charlotte Stant, a love affair which ended because neither could provide for the other.
Maggie has a prior relationship of her own, and a rather weird one: a childish, just this side of Freudian attachment to her doting widowed father, Adam. A self-styled art expert, Adam has devoted his middle age to buying paintings, avoiding gold-diggers and making his little girl happy, which is the main reason he tolerates Amerigo. Once Maggie’s marriage is underway, she seeks out a wife for Adam – which turns out to be Charlotte. As far as Adam is concerned, his marriage is basically just another favor for Maggie, a way of keeping her old friend close by.
A disaster is effectively set in motion. Maggie and Adam, still oblivious to all others, continue to spend their time together, leaving their lonely spouses with the opportunity for an affair. Maggie takes an eternity to suspect anything, but once she does, all the characters (as well as the reader) are in a whirlwind of confusion. Does Maggie actually know? Does Adam? Is Maggie protecting Adam from knowing? Fanny, who brought the couples together, fears for her own social position. The plot becomes a game of five-card stud where everyone is bluffing. There’s another game-like aspect to it, too, in that James, having constructed a five-character drama that could go several ways, had to focus the resolution on one character, which is Maggie. In her, the novel finds its heart. She takes a winding path from innocence to experience, reaching a kind of forced understanding of what it means to be Charlotte, to have “been loved and broken with.” Just as he did in The Ambassadors, James takes the story well beyond where you think it will go.
This volume is the last in the Library of America’s series of James, which keeps virtually all of the author’s published work in print, not including letters and diaries. In the interest of completeness, it ends with some desk-cleaning ephemera. James’ last novel, The Outcry, is a mildly entertaining comedy of manners that reads a little too much like what it is: the salvage job of a failed play. The cruel Lord Theign is hoping to virtually sell one daughter, Grace, into marriage with the odious Lord John in hopes of paying off the gambling debts of another daughter, Kitty. Grace has other plans, as she is interested in a bright young art student and critic, Hugh Crimble, who discovers that one of Theign’s paintings may actually be worth more than was thought. While Theign stands to make a fortune from a potential buyer, the American plutocrat Breckenridge Bender, his hand is stayed by both the mystery of the painting and the public outcry against Americans plundering the country’s art – an issue at the time of publication.
There’s also “The Married Son,” James fascinating contribution to a 1908 joint novel, The Whole Family, written with William Dean Howells, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman and a number of now-forgotten writers. According to the notes, the novel is about how a proposed wedding affects the Talbert family, with every writer focusing on a single family member. James’ chapter is the bitter first-person internal monologue of an unhappily married man whose life is fraught with pettiness and jealousy, and it has a sour disdain for conventional modern life that suggests Sinclair Lewis.
This whole volume, in fact, brings to mind the great generation of writers who were already mapping out the modernist universe: Proust, Woolf, and Joyce, with Faulkner and others to follow. Henry James was a 19th Century man who developed a 20th Century sensibility. He stretched the novel, and raised the stakes.
Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever was my book of 2010. It was an exhilarating discovery: a short, upsetting, foxy novel published way back in 2001. A writer friend mentioned it in a passionate way one evening in the spring, and I bought it the next morning. By the time I’d finished, my head had rotated backward.
Other candidates were Down By the River by Charles Bowden, The Bathroom by Jean-Philippe Toussaint, The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George Higgins, Zulu by Caryl Ferey, A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel, and Pandora in the Congo by Albert Sánchez Piñol. All of them I sat or stood or walked around reading in enchantment. But only Robison’s novel was so stirring and mind-pickling, after I finished it, I sat down at my computer and looked up her email address.
Robison is stuck with the minimalist badge. Why Did I Ever should not be. The novel possesses abundant character—not style, not whimsy, not the popular flatulence, but a substantial idea of itself. The plot is about a screenwriter and her work, her boyfriends and her family, and a horrible event in her son’s life. It’s written in short, diary-like entries, some titled, some numbered—some hard-hearted, some tender. But the thing hums while it files its clips. Best, it makes the reader fill in gaps, but doesn’t leave him hanging. And it’s so, so funny, smart, and fun. It’s a book that brightens darkness. Robison’s narration and dialogue open wormholes to revelation. It’s a book that creates in itself an incredible amount of space and time.
After I finished it, I thought of two stipulations. One: the world must, but cannot, be taken seriously. Two: books should be, but are not, taken seriously. Between these two, Why Did I Ever made me a bargain. It takes so little seriously—and so much—it made me care deeply for its world and then, again, my own.
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Behind my desk, in my bedroom, there is a large bookcase divided into 25 cubes. On the wall facing my desk there are three bookshelves. Instead of a table, there is also a shelf at my bedside. Beside my desk is an additional bookcase, the Billy model from Ikea, with six shelves. All this shelf space amounts to about 56 feet.
I have turned my attention to my bookshelves and not what stand on them because I am reorganizing my personal library. I need to know how much space I have for my books, in order to accommodate the existing space for a logical, efficacious, and personalized classification system for the books I own, which currently amount to just short of 500 volumes. My endeavor, of course, is not a very great one. I do have a considerable number of books, but by no means is my collection large or unwieldy. I’m only 20, and as such my library is not a lifetime’s library — it is only the nucleus of a true library, with burgeoning interests, mistakes, discoveries, a few treasures, and several shortcomings.
As for the organization of the books, well, I must say that in its current state the classification is far from optimal. Most of last semester’s books are still on the shelf above my desk and deserve integration with the rest of my collection, instead of groupings by course reading material. My French books are all together in the Billy bookcase, which results in separating the Penguin edition of Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 and Other Stories, 1892-1895 from the French translation of Chekhov’s (or, as it were, Tchekhov’s) plays, published by Folio in two paperback volumes.
Similarly, the current state of my books creates rifts between ideas and eras, or tensions where there shouldn’t be any. For instance my enormous paperback of Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems lies on a shelf above my desk because I was too lazy to make room for it in the cubes. Thus Ginsberg is a room apart from his friend Kerouac (if their belonging to the Beats shouldn’t be enough to bring them together, Ginsberg even took the pictures on the cover of On the Road, which I think calls for neighboring spots on my shelves). In the cubes there are other inconsistencies: Junot Díaz is between the single volume Chronicles of Narnia and Anne Michaels; Hemingway shares his shelf with Amitav Ghosh, Toni Morrison, and Nabokov — I can’t think of any reason why those authors should rub covers.
Likewise, when I see Eco’s The Name of the Rose on one shelf and his collection of essays On Literature on the opposite wall, I know it is time to take all the books out, dust off the shelves, and start again from scratch.
The first step in reorganizing my personal library is finding a system. Of this, there are many, some more improvised than others. In his bible of bibliomania, The Library at Night, Alberto Manguel explores the different facets of the library, and also the different ways to organize books. For his own collection of 30,000 books, which he keeps in his château in France, Manguel has chosen to divide his books by language, and then place them alphabetically. Rather drab for me, I think, considering the small size of my own book collection.
Some book collectors have been more original. Take Samuel Pepys for instance, the great 17th century diarist, who maintained a personal library (which still exists) of 3,000 books exactly, not a volume more. What is, perhaps, the most astounding feature of Pepys’ library is the way in which the books were organized: by size. All his volumes were numbered from 1 to 3,000, from smallest to biggest, and placed in that order in his bookcases, each volume bound in matching leather, and each book resting on a little wooden stilt matching the cover, to create unity in height — gentlemanly elegance.
What may be acknowledged about any organizational system is that they all have certain limitations. Even the Dewey Decimal System, used by the majority of public libraries in the world — which divides human knowledge into ten decimals, in turn subdivided into ten categories, and so on — is limited when it comes to books with split subjects (take the excellent Time Among the Maya, by Ronald Wright, which is part travel journal in Mesoamerica, part history book on the Mayas).
But I am looking for a more intuitive organizational system, something flexible and creative. An article in The Guardian’s online book section discussed “bookshelf etiquette,” organizational systems like grouping books by theme or color. One of the propositions was to place books together by potential for their authors to be friends. I choose a different path: all of an author’s books are together (no matter the language), authors that go well together go together, other books are placed by association of genre or style. I will start with that in mind, and see where it brings me.
I remove books from my shelves. I grab multiple spines between my thumb and fingers, slide out the volumes and pile them on my desk, on the floor — soon my room is like a messy cave of paper and multicolored covers and spines. The wall behind my desk is bland, covered in empty cubes, spacious and clean. I am reminded of a time, not so long ago, when my entire book collection did not even fit on the six shelves of a Billy bookcase.
As I take the books out of their bookcases, crack open a few to see if the words inside still have the same ring, and admire the beauty of some covers, I start to understand that there are some books I do no want anymore. There is a vital difference between books you do not need and books you no longer want to have. I would willingly keep a book I hated if it had a nice cover (and I do, like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes, a silly collection of short stories with a stunning, elegant cover). The books I am ready to give away are books I don’t care about: they are ugly, I have had them for too long, I have never read them and never will — they simply become a waste of space.
Take How to Read Novels Like a Professor, a paperback I bought a couple of years ago, in an attempt to uncover some of literature’s secrets before entering University. I drop the book with the other giveaways. A few days later I pick it up again and this passage catches my attention: “Books lead to books, ideas to ideas. You can wear out a hundred hammocks and never reach the end. And that’s the good news.” I certainly agree with that. No English major would be supposed to be caught dead with such a preposterously titled book in their library, and maybe that’s the reason why I wanted to give it away in the first place. I decide to keep it in my collection after all — for now.
In the end I’ve put aside two dozen books in the giveaway pile. By no means am I kidding myself that I’m actually getting rid of a large chunk of my library. I admire people who are able to rid themselves of books they love, give books away selflessly so that others can enjoy them. I know I could never do such a thing.
I admit, with a hint of guilt, that I have not read all the books I own. Not even close. The majority of them, yes (I hope), but far from all of them. Despite the incredible amount of reading left for me to do before I really know my library, almost every week I buy more books.
Part of the problem lies in my appreciation for books as objects, as elegant collectibles. I like not only to read them, but to look at them, touch them. Larry McMurtry has phrased it rather elegantly in his memoir, titled simply, Books:
But there can be secondary and tertiary reasons for wanting a particular book. One is the pleasure of holding the physical book itself: savoring the type, the binding, the book’s feel and heft. All these things can be enjoyed apart from literature, which some, but not all, books contain.
While I have shelves full of books I have not read at home, I keep on thinking about which books I’m going to buy next. Although minor, this problem does create a fair amount of anxiety, essentially caused by the fact that I simply don’t read enough. Furthermore, as I reorganize my books I realize there are many I would like to reread soon. (At the top of my list: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows…) Sometimes I wish I were that man in the Twilight Zone episode who finds himself in the ruins of a public library, with lots of food and all the time in the world to read all the books he wants.
My library is also the most personal of filing systems, with countless mementos flattened between the covers of the books. There is a card from a blood-drive marking a page in Greenblatt’s biography of Shakespeare, reminding me of when I can give blood again. I slam away the congratulations card from the English department of my college which awarded me a prize in Shakespeare studies (oddly, the quote on the card is by Anaïs Nin) in the bard’s complete works (leatherbound, gold page edges). A business card from the Winding Staircase, a charming Dublin bookstore, falls out of De Niro’s Game, which I read in Ireland. Between my Oscar Wildes I find a touching card from my parents, given to me when I turned 18. I choose a better place for it: between the pages of a book on self-fashioning in the Renaissance they bought for me at Shakespeare and Company, in Paris, a place I have only been to in my dreams.
I have finally emptied all my shelves. It was long — and tedious. Not in the physical sense, but in one that is, of sorts, moral. Removing all those books was the undoing of something that was set, a collection which, it seems, had built itself up, slowly, purposefully, into a cohesive whole. The work of an oyster.
After the toil of the unmaking, now I have to rebuild my library up — restock the shelves that now stand cleared, poised, filled only with light and shadows. After some consideration, the first book I place back on the top left cube, is Beowulf, masterfully translated by Seamus Heaney, the beginning of literature in English. I have to rifle down the spines of a few piles before I finally locate it.
Next up goes Tolkien. I cannot resist — without him I’m not sure Beowulf would even be taught in schools at all. His translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, first, to soften the transition, and then The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Tree and Leaf, and The Children of Hurin. Then I place Herodotus, whom my girlfriend assures me thinks exactly like Tolkien. I am startled by my audacity. There is a jump from 10th century Anglo-Saxon manuscript to 20th Century fantasy writer to the father of history, a fifth-century Greek — my system is either creative or blasphemous.
My girlfriend came to help me. Her presence was motivating — I have done more work in half an hour than in the last week. The Canterbury Tales are inserted between Beowulf and Tolkien by her recommendation, I add Peter Ackroyd’s The Clerkenwell Tales beside it. A cube inspired by military history starts with Thucydides and ends with a biography on George Washington — yet George Orwell, Alan Moore, and Annie Proulx all end up on it by association. From the look in my girlfriend’s eyes I know she thinks this is starting to look like a madman’s library. Nothing new there, bibliomania is a psychological disorder, I am told.
Putting Sylvia Plath with her husband Ted Hughes feels wrong, so we try to find a new lover for her. I think of Byron as a joke, my girlfriend proposes Mary Shelley as a fellow tortured female writer. The offer is accepted and Plath serves as transition into gothic fiction. Ironically, Byron ends up just after Shelley anyway (they shared more than shelf-space in their lives, after all), and before Polidori and Stoker. Books start to place themselves on their own.
There is a cube for my books about books: Anne Fadiman and Manguel, Borges (which I can no longer dissociate from the latter), 501 Must-Read Books, A Gentle Madness, The Companionship of Books, and others go here. There is a cube, or half of it, at least, for Faber friends: Eliot, Hughes, Graham Swift, Kazuo Ishiguro. Edgy writers (Bukowski, Tony O’Neill, Mark SaFranco, Writing at the Edge) share their cube with erotic fiction (The Gates of Paradise, Delta of Venus, the Marquis de Sade, Wetlands by Charlotte Roche, La vie sexuelle de Catherine M.) — Neil Strauss buffers between them.
I go on like this, a few minutes every day. Slowly, surely, books leave my floor, my desk, my bed, my bathroom, and regain their place on the shelves in some kind of order. Some associations are obvious — others, not so much.
Finally the cubes are filled again. I can breathe a bit more in my bedroom. I enjoy looking at the neat rows of spines, follow the literary path of my own twisted organization system. Still, there are many flaws on my shelves, mainly caused by lack of room (or perhaps because the number of books is too great). Some books just don’t “fit” anywhere, others would go well in too many places. Ian McEwan, for instance, ends up sharing his shelf with female writers like Doris Lessing, Emily Brontë, and Virginia Woolf. I have to think of the shelves as a work in progress in order to live with their limitations.
Then, of course, there are also some things I love about the new shelf-arrangement: the various degrees of moral and social incorrectness in the cube that starts with Oscar Wilde, then moves to Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence; how A Moveable Feast rubs covers with John Glassco’s Memoirs of Montparnasse; and that His Dark Materials finally stands beside my three editions of Paradise Lost.
Over my desk I place essays on philosophy and literature. My heavy anthologies — costly books with a fair amount of repetition (parts of The Canterbury Tales appear in at least three of them) and some textbooks I keep as reference — go in the sturdy Billy. I also shelve my art books there, like my Janson’s History of Art, as well as some exhibition catalogues, which map out my travels: the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, the Ivan Mestrovic Gallery in Split.
Lastly, I put back my books in French. I keep them together, two compact shelves of ivory spines. I have always wondered at the uniformity of French covers, often white, usually bland. I start with Don Quixote, move down to Alexandre Dumas, the Arsène Lupins which belonged to my father, then Québecois literature. The next shelf is mostly from France: Sartre, Camus, Flaubert, and Littell (which I put beside the latter because of the masterful description in Les Bienveillantes of the narrator reading L’Éducation sentimentale as he walks through fields devastated by war), and contemporary authors like Makine, Folco, and Pennac.
Now my shelves are full again, or almost. I have given away enough books to leave two empty shelves — one in the Billy and the topmost shelf above my desk — waiting to be filled by new acquisitions (which certainly won’t be long in coming).
This adventure in bookshelf etiquette helped me take control of my library, rediscover what I have, solidify my appreciation for my books — the majority of which are probably going to follow me for the rest of my life. I have realized how many books I own but have not read (The Portrait of a Lady, Nicholas Nickleby, War and Peace, Beyond Black…), but I know that I am not quite ready for some of them, and they can wait a while longer. I dream of owning and reading all of Atwood, Munro, Updike. There are many books I should own but do not: I have nothing by J.M. Coetzee, or Ovid, or Paul Auster. I have Bolaño’s 2666, but not the Savage Detectives; Waugh’s Vile Bodies but not Brideshead Revisited; Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, but not Love in the Time of Cholera. My book collection is full of hopes and holes.
Thus I have a second library, in my mind, of which my real, physical book collection is only the tip (to use that famous iceberg metaphor). Underneath my shelves lie all the books I want, all the books I should have (dictated by the canon, or recommendations from friends and famous people), all the books I need, like Borges’ fabulous Library of Babel, extending out into book-lined room after book-lined room, infinitely.
Now, you will have to excuse me, but I have to stop this business — I have some reading to do.
[Image source: Stewart Butterfield]
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.