late spring, my wife and I enrolled in a childbirth class. During the first
meeting, we had to go around the room and talk about our favorite birthing
books. I had not read any birthing books—not because I didn’t want to, but
because I know that given the smallest unstructured bit of information, I
immediately fall into the trap of endless Googling for this and that. I’ve done
this exactly once since my daughter was born. I ended up reading about infant
dementia for an hour. I don’t recommend that article to anyone.
When it was my turn to discuss my favorite book, I sheepishly mentioned Leslie Jamison’s essay at the Paris Review, “Reading While Nursing.” Jamison’s essay beautifully recollected the experience of her changing (physical and emotional) life in relation to care and the act of reading. As she put it, her daughter, “taught me how to read with one arm, in stolen chunks of time, in half-delirium, in the long hormonal soup of the fourth trimester.”
my daughter was born, I remember holding her in the recovery room and feeling
that first burst of physical love. I couldn’t focus upon anything but her small,
warm weight pressed up against my chest. From that weight came a tingling that
radiated outwards through every nerve ending, as if my fingertips were pointed
up to the sky bringing the lightning right through me.
had warned me that I would be up at all hours with a newborn, but I had no idea
how much she would sleep, dozing off with twitches, smiles, and open, shifting eyes.
She was always a good sleeper, but she especially loved to sleep on my chest,
giving me two or three hour chunks of time where I, as a good bed, had to
remain perfectly still.
perfect chance to read.
I began with Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, gripped by Isabel’s travails across Europe. From there, I couldn’t stop. Perhaps because I was so anchored to whatever position I was in when she fell asleep, I was drawn to books with a sense of place, family, and movement. I read, one after another (sometimes all in one sitting), Hala Alyan’s Salt Houses, Sharon Bala’s The Boat People, Madhuri Vijay’s The Far Field, Fatima Farheen Mirza’s A Place for Us, Dina Nayeri’s Refuge, Xhenet Aliu’s Brass, and Irina Reyn’s Mother Country, before finally returning to Henry James once again with The Turn of the Screw.
And then, without warning—at around eight weeks—she didn’t like to sleep on my chest anymore. It probably began to feel too much like tummy time, which as any parent knows is hard work for a newborn. Sleep experts always say that one should never work on their bed.
She’s six months old now and loves riding on my shoulders, cackles with joy when I hold her in the air. I’ve found that the joy of children can be mired in cruelty: she keeps growing and each step takes her away from me. She moves, into her own life, when all I want is to hold her close, feel that warm weight, pass my time with a book in my hand, turning each page with a finger alive with that electric arc of love.
I have a hard time remembering the books I have read without also remembering who I have read them with or where. Increasingly, since so much of my reading is done out loud to my children, it seems natural to me that all reading should be shared reading of one sort or another. Sifting through text messages, chats, emails, and the letters and envelopes scattered around my office, I have pieced together a calendar of the books I have read and the people who made them matter.
January, February: The Collected Stories of Diane Williams, “stories that show how the momentary convergence of yearning and surrender can make time hang still,” I shout first at Stephanie, then at the bartender serving us, before putting the thought in an essay on Williams; Helen Garner’s The Spare Room, Monkey Grip, and The Children’s Bach (“one of the best novels of the twentieth century,” Len writes to me after reading a draft of my essay on Garner)—novels built out of beautifully Brechtian tableaux. My calendar reminds me that most of February was spent at festivals and talks, reading on freezing trains. On a train to Harrogate: Dasa Drndić’s Doppelganger, which features an old lady giving an old man a hand job beat out to a Nazi alphabet primer. On a train to Cambridge: Lydia Davis’s The End of the Story, the best anatomization of how one person can colonize another’s thought after a break up. During a long weekend in New York: Drndić’s Belladonna, EEG, and Trieste for an essay about Drndić’s novels of unsuccessful self-annihilation. On a flight to Glasgow, Brigid Brophy’s Flesh, about an inexperienced, neurotic, young man seduced by a wry, charismatic, older woman.
March, April: Nightwood, The Sound and the Fury, Lolita, Giovanni’s Room, Housekeeping, Beloved, novels I re-read during the term with my students. (“Is modernism inherently depressing or do you just like depressing modernist novels?” one asks.); Siri Hustvedt’s fine and predictable Memories of the Future for a review. Obsessed with telescopes and other instruments of sight after scientists release the first image of a black hole, I read Margaret Cavendish’s mind-blowing The Blazing World and Poems and Fancies and Danielle Dutton’s enchanting novelization of Cavendish’s life, Margaret the First. I chase down some seventeenth century scholars, all of them named Katharine (why?), so I can learn how old telescopes work.
In mid-April, my friend Sarah comes to visit Oxford. A sense of civility and calm descends on my loud, disordered home. She airs out the cottage, opens a bottle of wine, roasts a chicken, and makes a salad, the likes of which my children have never seen before because I feed them only frozen peas, still frozen. We read together. The kids—The Jolly Postman, Each Peach Pear Plum, Julián Is a Mermaid, Tiny T-Rex and the Impossible Hug. She—Sally Rooney’s Normal People, interrupting her reading every ten minutes to groan at me. (I prefer Conversations with Friends.) Me—The Last Samurai, the pages of which have stiffened into little waves after I laughed so hard at DeWitt’s mad, philological genius that I dropped the book into the tub. To make Sarah happy again, I take her to Blackwell’s and make her buy her own copy of The Last Samurai, which has a nicer cover than mine because it’s the U.K. edition. She reads it in a single sitting the next day, draped over the couch in my office, and complains that Jonathan Safran Foer ripped off Helen DeWitt when he wrote Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. “Only his version was squishier,” she says.
At the very end of April, someone—I wish I could remember who, but I can’t—recommends Olive Moore’s Spleen, a forgotten modernist novel, painterly and queer, about the fearful eroticism of maternity. In Paris for work, I do an interview with British Vogue about “serious erotic fiction,” trying hard to convince the wide-eyed editor that Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons is full of practical sex tips. On the flight to Guernsey for a festival, I read the first half of my friend Rachel’s forthcoming book On Compromise: Essays on Art and Democracy, which is bracing and sensitive and funny.
May: a month consumed by gradually escalating illnesses. A sniffle, a cold, a sinus infection, bronchitis. I am bravely preparing to die of tuberculosis in a garret somewhere when I receive a copy of Guy de Maupassant’s Like Death from Nicholas at the New York Review of Books. How does he know nothing heals me like a novel about French aristocrats and artists behaving badly? Convalescing, I blow through Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head at the urging of Sarah, who is convinced that my life is always one punch in the face away from a Murdoch novel. The recommendation is seconded by our friend Gloria. “When I gave this book to my roommate when we were twenty-two, she said she felt like bread that just discovered butter,” Gloria writes. “I have never forgotten that.” On the train to Cardiff for a talk, I read Adam Sach’s debut novel The Organs of Sense, which is extremely funny on seventeenth-century telescopes, blind astronomers, and the temporary luminosity of love.
June: Fleur Jaeggy’s novella Sweet Days of Discipline (cold, gleaming), then to Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina (eddying, frantic), poolside at Cliveden House where I burn badly, convinced that the English sun is too puny to warrant sun screen; Fran Ross’s Oreo after swimming the Thames, flanked by unarousable cows; Leah Price’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Books, one of only three non-fiction books I will read this year and the inspiration for the bookish tattoo I get at the end of the month.
July: Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End, before a flight to Turkey to drop the kids off with my mother at her summer house on the coast. On the flight there, I read them the animal books they love: Just So Stories, Where the Wild Things Are, The Elephant and the Bad Baby. My last night at my mother’s, I stay up too late reading Kafka’s Letters to Milena, which I find on the shelf of the guest bedroom. I am mesmerized by how Frank—Milena calls him Frank; I will too—burdens this woman with his torment, yet how real and irreducible that torment seems. I am sad that Milena’s side of the correspondence has not survived. I like her voice as I encounter it in the appendix to the book, in a letter to Max Brod. It’s a voice that seeks reality and clarity and, glimpsing both, bends toward compassion. There’s an excellent description of how annoying it is to accompany Frank to the post office. I reread Lydia Davis’s short story “Kafka Cooks Dinner” in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis to hear the echoes of that voice, mined for its comic potential: “I am so filled with despair as the time grows near when she will come and I have not even begun to make a decision about what I will offer her. I am so afraid I will fall back on the Kartoffel Surprise, and it’s no surprise to her anymore. I mustn’t, I mustn’t.” On a flight to New York, I read over a dozen applications for the Whiting Non-Fiction Grant, though the one that I remember best, because it feels fated somehow, is a haunting new translation of Kafka’s diaries by Ross Benjamin.
August, back in the U.K., reunited with the kids: Claire Louise-Bennett’s Pond, because I have decided to include a chapter in this book I’m trying to finish writing on the short story and close reading; Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School, because it’s “the new Ben Lerner” and because I used to be a high school debater. In the passenger seat on a drive to Cornwall, I pivot to read backwards to the kids—Ludwig Bemelman’s Madeleine, Ogden Nash’s Custard the Dragon, Julia Donaldson’s Tabby McTat, all of which I have memorized, so I can recite instead of reading—until I start to feel car sick. While they nap, I finish Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater and begin Nicholas Mosley’s Accident, recommended by Claire, who describes Mosely as a “bloodless D.H. Lawrence”—lots of shadowy evil, too little golden sex. On the ride home, I write a short, exorcising essay on Natalia Ginzburg’s The Dry Heart, a grim, anti-Romantic novella about a woman who murders her cheating husband. The week after in Paris, everyone gets a 24-hour stomach bug, only no one gets it in the same 24 hours. The trip becomes a relay race of illness. The kids are listless, filthy. I read them their favorites: Lost and Found, Up and Down, How to Catch a Star, Stuck, The Incredible Book Eating Boy, all by the magnificent children’s author and illustrator Oliver Jeffers. I read chapter 42 of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady on my phone about a dozen times because his sentences stave off nausea.
September: On a trip to Boston and New York: Deborah Levy’s calm, aphoristic The Cost of Living—Sarah’s copy, a re-read from last December; Fleur Jaeggy’s S.S. Proleterka. Three Lives, and I Am the Brother of XX and Rachel Ingalls’s Mrs. Caliban, all courtesy of Mieke who invites me to raid her bookshelf at New Directions; the proofs for The Ferrante Letters with Kat, Jill, and Sarah, which I read aloud to us around Sarah’s kitchen table because I always read proofs aloud, though it is slow and excruciating. At a conference in South Bend, Nan recommends Susan Choi’s My Education, about a graduate student who sleeps with her literature professor’s wife, a literature professor too but also—shocking and confusing to all involved—a young mother. I read it on the plane home, and find that, like most relationships, the novel is fun and full of possibility in the first half, turns stale and falls apart in the second.
October: Len, who is on a one-man crusade against what he calls the “New Piety” in literary criticism, convinces me to read Philip Roth’s The Professor of Desire. It starts out funny—Roth is trying hard to retool Chekhov’s short story “The Lady with the Dog” as a comic novel—but Roth makes compulsive sexual desire into such a sad, annihilating thing that my laughter runs out quickly. In an afternoon, I read Isabel Waidner’s propulsive We Are Made of Diamond Stuff, a Brexit novel that manages to write about the present without making the present feel dated; in a night, Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan’s Correspondence, which, though not as intense or agonized as Letters to Milena, still crackles with Celan’s despair and Bachmann’s self-possession. On a flight to Stockholm at the end of the month: Niklas Luhmann’s Love: A Sketch, for a talk I’m supposed to give preemptively titled “Critical Love Studies.” (What does this mean? I don’t know yet.)
November is frantic with reading to crowd out the holidays, which leave me bored and melancholy. There is Hermione Lee’s engrossing biography of Virginia Woolf and Volumes 2 and 3 of Woolf’s diaries for the new edition of Mrs. Dalloway I am annotating and introducing; John Berger’s sexy, phenomenologically attentive G., on Len’s recommendation, and Alison Light’s compassionate memoir about marriage and communism, A Radical Romance, on Pam’s; The Complete Gary Lutz for an essay on the un-erotics of art and sad literary men; all of Benjamin Chaud’s gorgeously illustrated Bear books to my children and the new Oliver Jeffers book The Fate of Fausto, a parable about an angry, possessive man for whom nothing in the world is enough. “What is enough?” my younger son asks. I do not know how to answer.
In mid-November, Diane Williams, who I have dinner and drinks with after a reading she gives in London, tells me to read John Cheever’s “The Season of Divorce.” I do, ending the year more or less where it started. Though by the time this piece goes up, I may finally finish Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport, which I have been reading at a disciplined snail’s pace of 20 pages a night for the past several months.
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This year felt like a year in which I read poorly. Or at least my reading felt inconsistent, and punctuated by long passages in which I was unable to read at all. But now that I have drawn up a list, I seem to have read exactly 50 books, which isn’t too bad.
I read Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg this summer inside a hot, nearly uninhabitable farmhouse on a couch frequented by ants, while everyone else was sitting outside being sociable and eating melon. Ginzburg narrates the rise of fascism in Italy with a dry simplicity that I found extraordinary and very affecting. Perhaps predictably, the book also made me reflect on some of the bizarre sayings that have remained current in my own family over the years. I read Ginzburg’s The Little Virtues a few weeks ago. This one came into my hands with perfect timing, particularly the essay “Human Relationships.”
I inhaled Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise when ill with flu one weekend this spring, mostly while lying on my pink sofa. (Apparently I do a lot of reading on sofas.) Enthralling plot, delicious prose, marked by surprising, instinctual metaphors. Also delicious prose: Penelope Fitzgerald’s At Freddie’s. Both Trust Exercise and At Freddie’s follow a theatrical theme. Trust Exercise (which just won the National Book Award) is set, at least first, at an American performing arts high school. At Freddie’s follows a children’s theatre school running into financial difficulties, although like all Fitzgerald novels its plot winds whimsically out of your hands so that when you reach the end you feel a little uncertain about what just happened, while the afterimages of the characters are so strong they stay with you for ages. I’ll have to start spacing my Fitzgerald novels out every two years or I will run through them too quickly. At Freddie’s is also hysterically funny. I read it in Spain.
I read three Etel Adnan books in quick succession: In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country, Sitt Marie Rose, and Of Cities & Women. She is a wonderful person to spend time with, writing with great wisdom of war, womanhood, exile, wandering, the weather.
I read three Etel Adnan books in quick succession: In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country, Sitt Marie Rose, and Of Cities & Women. She is a wonderful person to spend time with, writing with great wisdom of war, womanhood, exile, wandering, the weather.
I started José Saramago’s A Year of the Death of Ricardo Reís in Madrid and finished it on a series of hallucinatory morning bus journeys to the British Library in London. I read Raja Shehadeh’s Going Home while in Palestine, in Ramallah, which is the main subject of his ruminations as he walks the city’s streets, recounting its inhabitants, insurgencies, and repressions with vividness and insight. This is also where I read The Years by Annie Ernaux, a memoir mostly in the third person and a masterpiece of granular history-telling, mingling the large and the small, the private and the public, with great beauty. I thought her descriptions of consumerism were amazing. My only regret was that I didn’t have my own copy, so I couldn’t underline everything. Two people in the space of a week mentioned they had just read it, and I somehow ended up with both copies on loan, one of which had a couple of bougainvillea flowers pressed separately inside; I asked the friend who lent that copy if the location of the flowers signified anything, but they did not, disappointingly.
In London, I reread Beloved by Toni Morrison, which made me cry like I cried when I was 16. It reminded me of another rereading, of a very different book—Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. Only when I returned to Portrait a few years ago did I realize how formative it must have been when I first read it as a teenager: it seemed to have left a permanent imprint on my brain which, reread, it slotted into. I felt the same way about Beloved.
Some other memorable reads this year: Passing by Nella Larsen, The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell, Soul by Andrey Platonov, Your Duck Is My Duck by Deborah Eisenberg, All The Battles by Maan Abu Taleb, Children of the Ghetto by Elias Khoury, The Twenty-Ninth Year by Hala Alyan, The Body Artist by Don DeLillo, The Art of Cruelty by Maggie Nelson, The Sand Child by Tahar Ben Jelloun.
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The audiobook community audibly mourns the passing of one of its giants, Anthony Hollander, or “One-Take Tony” as he was known in the business. Whether narrating an epic, farce, or cozy mystery, his recordings all started the same: a clearing of the throat, a deep breath, and then the gruff-but-good-natured command to Scop, his dog, to vacate the studio. Hollander would then set to work reading, without interruption, one of the thousands of books he recorded over his career.
“I’ve been reading since I was four years old. So why would
I need multiple takes?” he told an interviewer in 2010.
The sound of his gravelly baritone has transported readers from
Hardy’s Wessex to Garcia-Marquez’s Macando. A more controversial figure than
Flo Gibson, his longtime rival (and, some rumored, lover), he will be
remembered not only for his recordings—including the definitive version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—but also
for the narratorial intrusions that delighted and frustrated audiences in equal
measure. There was a Rabelaisian energy to Hollander’s recordings, and indeed
his eructations (frequent), flatulence (intermittent) and snores (rare) were as
recognizable to devoted fans as his voice.
Hollander was an unpredictable reader, a narrator-as-critic. He grunted upon reading overwrought sentences, paused to deride mixed metaphors, and, in one particularly infamous episode, launched ad hominem attacks: “Who wrote this crap?” he could be heard on the recording of [redacted]’s latest novel. “Look at this author photo. Figures.”
He permanently alienated David Foster Wallace fans by interrupting Infinite Jest to take a phone call. “Hello? No I haven’t thought about solar panels. Oh? I can sell my excess electricity back to the power company? That’s interesting. Look, I’m narrating a book right now but can I get back to you? OK, send along the info. Now where I was? Oh yes…”
Hollander once claimed that, had audiobook fame not been thrust upon him, he would have been a detective. Mystery fans did not appreciate his tendency to breezily dismiss clues (“Obvious red herring”) and to identify, often accurately, the killers before they were revealed (“Murderer written all over him”). The Crime Writers’ Association, incensed after Hollander had ruined one too many P.D. James plot twists, sponsored a short-story contest in his (dis)honor: the prize going to the most ingenious mystery imagining his murder.
In Hollander’s defense, he offended across genres. Henry James scholars bristled at his vulgar commentary on Isabel Archer and Caspar Goodwood, “Just fuck him already,” which earned his recording of The Portrait of a Lady a rare NC-17 rating.
According to his autobiography, Sounding Myself, Hollander discovered the transfixing power of his voice during grade-school reading exercises. “My stentorian delivery put the other toddlers to shame, their snotty fingers inching along the page as they hazarded one quavering syllable at a time,” he wrote in his memoirs, the audio version of which was read by Jeremy Irons. (“The one mortal whose voice I envy.”)
An audiobook talent scout discovered Hollander after hearing him summon a waiter for the check in his local North Carolina diner. His first taping was of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, during which he got up and said, “I’ve got to take a piss” about 10 pages in. The director, feeling the interruption jibed with Wolfe’s freewheeling gonzo journalism, kept the tape rolling, thus ingraining in One-take Tony his lifelong habit.
Hollander was an autodidact, and some critics held it against him. They snottily observed that it was all well and good to record a book in one take, provided one could actually pronounce the words. Though many an author, editor, and listener attempted to correct him, Hollander never could quite master pronouncing “bough” or “draught” in the heat of the moment, and consistently mangled all French words—emboinpoint and décolletage causing him particular consternation. And yet these flubs endeared him to listeners, who saw in Hollander a relatable everyman: “Ama-nu-ensis? What the hell is an amanuensis? I know I’ve seen that word somewhere.”
Hollander’s vocal range could accommodate several character
types—dainty, dangerous, homespun—but differentiation wasn’t his strong suit. Minor
characters confused him. “Wait, who is that guy again? Is that the cousin or
the friend from college? No, the cousin died. Or was he the gardener?”
In a controversy that threatened to derail his career, Hollander could be heard pleasuring himself while reading Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater. (Thankfully he was alone in the studio, having long served as his own producer, director, and sound engineer.) The stigma lingered for years. During negotiations to narrate 50 Shades of Grey, he was forced to agree to the humiliating stipulation that he record the erotic thriller with his hands tied behind his back. (“All the kinkier,” he would write in Sounding.)
Certain authors refused to have their novel read by Hollander, especially during his later years, when, having “become allergic to nature scenes,” he started derisively glossing over descriptive passages: “Sky, weather, pathetic fallacy, yada yada yada.”
Hollander died where he belonged, in the recording studio,
narrating a debut novel that, judging from the absence of naps, bathroom breaks,
and crusty asides, he seemed to thoroughly enjoy. Perhaps too thoroughly. On
his final recording, the fatal heart attack—a disturbing, yet still mellifluous,
groan—can be heard in the middle of Chapter 5, right before Jeremy Irons
graciously takes over.
Image credit: Unsplash/Claus Grünstäudl.
Well, what did I read? Epictetus’s Discourses. I read Samuel Pepys’s diary entries for 1660 and 1665. I read William Tyndale’s translation of the Gospel of Matthew. I read a bunch of Jonathan Edwards, in the Yale Reader and the old American Writers Selections. I read the first few delicious cantos of Lord Byron’s Don Juan. I read Samuel Johnson’s life of Dryden.
Like everyone else, I read Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle (just Book One). I reread Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. I read five preposterously good genre novels: David Shafer’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot; Tana French’s The Secret Place; Stephen L. Carter’s Back Channel; Megan Abbott’s Dare Me; and Andy Weir’s The Martian. I also liked Marisha Pessl’s Night Film, but the writing isn’t up to the story. (Shafer will slip a Hopkins line into his narrative without explaining it, but Pessl writes, “Did they think I’d been exiled to Saint Helena, like Napoleon after Waterloo?” Oh, that Saint Helena!) And I read a few of Philip Kerr’s fucking marvelous Bernie Gunther novels.
People keep writing poems, so I read some. I liked Rachel Zucker’s The Pedestrians and Dorothea Lasky’s Rome and some poems by Anthony Madrid and Patricia Lockwood and Jessica Laser and Adrienne Raphel and Sarah Trudgeon. And I read some Archie Ammons and some of C.K. Williams’s Flesh and Blood (couldn’t finish it; he reminds me of someone’s dad, and the paean to his new car still makes me angry).
I read James K.A. Smith’s How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, a very useful précis (although it can’t replace a reading of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, which I think is the most important book published in the last decade). Too bad it’s nearly ruined by pandering quotations from absolutely terrible bands and movies. In Stanley Hauerwas’s With the Grain of the Universe I discovered the definitive answer to the idiocy of certain know-nothing pop-science writers: “If we could have the kind of evidence of God the evidentialist desires, then we would have evidence that the God Christians worship does not exist.”
Oh, I finally read Henry Green’s Loving! It’s like if Downton Abbey were good. And funny. One of the best English novels ever. I read David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress. I’m embarrassed to say I only this year got round to Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. I loved it, but I still prefer The Wings of the Dove and The Ambassadors. Maybe that’s only because I read them first, when I was young. Splendor in the grass!
I read a bunch of other things, too.
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Consider that phrase, “domestic fiction.” So close to “domesticated,” it carries the connotation of a house-broken pet: eager to please, discreet, companionable, sulky but essentially submissive. It’s a usefully misleading cover for a mode that is more often fraught and claustrophobic. When Anthony Lane describes Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady as a “disturbance of the peace” and a “horror story,” he could be talking about domestic fiction generally.
Reissued this month as a NYRB Classic, Joan Chase’s During the Reign of the Queen of Persia won the PEN/Hemingway Prize for First Fiction in 1983, two years after Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and one year after Bobbie Ann Mason’s Shiloh and Other Stories. Upon publication, those three novels were individually considered as feminist reworkings of domestic fiction — as political statements — though each author had ambitions that extended into questions of the self against the demands of community.
The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas once answered the question “What does it mean to be Jewish?” by saying:
To be Jewish is not a particularity; it is a modality. Everyone is a little bit Jewish, and if there are men on Mars, one will find Jews among them. Moreover, Jews are people who doubt themselves, who in a certain sense, belong to a religion of unbelievers. God says to Joshua, “I will not abandon you nor will I let you escape.”
In, Housekeeping and Chase’s first novel, as well as Paula Fox’s The Widow’s Children and Hilary Mantel’s Every Day is Mother’s Day, the Family is a kind of Lévinasian paradox: its members will not abandoned nor will they be allowed to escape. These fragile communities are knitted together by doubt, intimidation, suspicion, timidity, and egotism.
To better understand why they stay in co-dependent relationships, Fox, Mantel, and Chase anatomize their protagonists’ intellectual contradictions and follies stoically, without a hint of sentimentality. If there is an arch-theme to the genre, it would be the way each of us can become ensnared by our own solipsism. In The Widow’s Children, one character stays in an impoverished, acrimonious marriage because she has convinced herself of her own superiority over her condition, “that they were only ‘broke,’ that rescue was on the way — always on the way.”
The “Queen of Persia” is a grandmother in a small Ohio farming town. She has four daughters. Her four granddaughters are all born within two years of each other to mismatched parents. The male characters — the malevolent grandfather, one hapless trumpet-playing uncle, and another enigmatic uncle who is a failed writer — are palpably uneasy around their daughters and wives. The women assume the responsibility of preparing the young girls for the austere life they will inherit.
Chase’s novel is narrated by the four young granddaughters, “we.” This unorthodox conceit works subtly, but it also leads to a telling choice. There is no reference to “Mom” or “Dad,” only to Aunt Libby and Uncle Dan, insisting on a tone of estrangement between the children and their parents. When their individual anonymity is disrupted, one of the girls is lifted out of the group and treated like an outsider. Occasionally, the narrators skip over subjects that perhaps are not comprehensible for pre-teen girls. (They have a sexual encounter with a cousin that is obliquely depicted.)
The tone is cautiously wistful, as if this past still has a grip on its survivors. A signal choice in this novel is the manipulation of time. During the Reign of the Queen of Persia and Toni Morrison’s Sula (1977) cover the same territory, well, literally. Sula opens with a landscape of rural Ohio:
In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood. It stood in the hills above the valley town of Medallion and spread all the way to the river. It is called the suburbs now, but when black people lived there it was called the Bottom. One road, shaded by beeches, oaks, maples, and chestnuts, connected it to the valley.
This is the beginning of Chase’s novel:
In northern Ohio there is a county of some hundred thousand arable acres which breaks with the lake region flatland and begins to roll and climb, and to change into rural settings: roadside clusters of houses, small settlements that repose on the edge of nowhere […] These traces of human habitation recede, balanced by the luxuriant curving hills, cliffs like lounging flanks, water shoots that rapidly lose themselves in gladed ravines.
As opposed to Morrison’s description, the present doesn’t dominate the memory of 1950s Ohio; the past has been carefully circumscribed. Morrison’s historical landscape is besieged by real-estate developers and social forces of change. Chase’s landscape doesn’t register the present. It appears elemental, hardly concerned with human beings at all.
The first chapter of During the Reign is set in motion when the oldest granddaughter, Celia, experiences puberty, “a miracle and a calamity.” Sexuality shuffles the motives of everyone around the young girls, who only dimly seem to understand why. Her mother, Aunt Libby, becomes fiercely devoted to making sure she doesn’t ruin her chances for marriage. A half dozen men woo her. Her fiancé later betrays her. In what feels like 10 pages, Celia’s adolescent beauty and verve quietly shrink: “[Her mother] still fretted over Celia, a set habit, focusing now on her health, for rather quickly the bloom of Celia’s face and figure was gone. She looked wilted by misfortune.” Celia marries the quietly pining boy she wasn’t interested in and moves to Texas.
When the father of two of the girls visits the farm, a large “country-style” breakfast sparks memories of his own childhood. After breakfast, the girls wait for him in the barn. Their private ritual the narrators describe is a re-enactment of his childhood. He performs the role of a Mr. Higgenbottom, a teacher “as mean as Silas Marner, as severe as God, and as relentless as the devil.” He gives each girl a word to spell. Eventually, the girls misspell “symbol” and “conscience” and he whips them with a stick. They rationalize that he hits them less hard than he hits his own hand.
The father, Neil, eventually let them go:
We are released then, forget again, and begin to descend the levels of the barn, down through the shafts of sunlight, and then we run off down the pasture lane into the woods, walking by the stony shallow stream until it is deeper and it runs clean. We slide into the water; our dresses fill and float about us as though we have been altered into water lilies.
Neil, though, follows them to the stream, where they tackle him and pile onto him. Restless and mysterious, he seems to vanish into the air, and the girls call his name. The narrators then say, “Then we forget again, dreaming.”
This odd father-daughter set piece is echoed in a later Chase novel, The Evening Wolves (1990). The father in that novel imitates the big bad wolf. Drawn to the dangerous wolf, the daughters are unable to resist approaching and being mauled by the wolf. Both scenes, with the apologetic victim and the physically violent adult, are unsettling.
The father-uncle and the girls are caught in a pantomime of private history that they can’t seem to extricate themselves from. Like the abusive grandfather lurking in the background, Neil allows the grief of his own past to impinge on his own daughters’ youth. Their childhood isn’t innocent and it isn’t painless, Chase suggests, but he shouldn’t add to their suffering.
The novel then spools backward, to the marriage of the grandmother and grandfather, a man hardened by his Depression-era struggles. He is an abusive drunk who slowly recedes to a bench in the barn, among the cows that he is dedicated to. He sells off the cows silently and dies, un-mourned.
For the first three-fourths of the novel, the girls have only touched on the trauma that has shaped their young lives, as if their consciousness has ricocheted off it. The reader learns that Grace, mother to two of the girls, has already died from cancer by the time Celia is married in the first chapter.
The novel tests an old cliché — that the dying can teach us how better to live — before the narrators discard it. They also reject the faith-based consolations of their Aunt, a Christian Scientist.
None of us sang, our sorrow accomplished. We heard the footsteps of the men who carried the coffin and the closing of the car doors. We went outside with the others, blinking our eyes as if we’d walked into first light. Without a comprehensible past or imaginable expectations, we had entered into another lifetime. We held hands.
That fragile and incomprehensible past looms in this story, a centripetal force in the narrative of their lives. The painful recollection of her slow death resonates throughout the house. The gurgling sound that Grace makes during one of her last nights, as she tries to breathe, is the same sound the sink drain makes.
Amy Hungerford has argued that Robinson’s Housekeeping is preoccupied with how grief paradoxically enlarges the memory of the dead and starves the self’s presence. Alternately, the group chorus of During the Reign of the Queen of Persia seem untethered by time, reordering events and maintaining the inscrutability of their own motives. Unbound from a linear construction of time, this group of agnostics are connected by the tenuous thread of Lévinasian doubt and by grief.
One reason that Chase has slipped into obscurity, while her rough contemporaries Robinson, Mason, and Mantel have ascended, is the relative infrequency with which she publishes. Seven years elapsed between During the Reign of the Queen of Persia and The Evening Wolves. It has been 23 years since her short-story collection Bonneville Blue.
“The success of Persia was part of what made it difficult for me to begin a second novel,” she told Contemporary Authors Online. “But I think just being published was equally constraining. For the first time I was aware of an audience as an integral part of the process which makes a book a book. After that it was harder for me to focus on my material and fictional intentions without hearing other voices and responses.”
I also suspect that her lack of productivity owes something to her lapidary style and unhurried structure. Near the end of the novel, the Queen makes arrangements concerning the house, which she keeps secret from the entire family: “We were as separated from her,” the narrators say, “as always, living on there, awaiting her decisions, with everything that happened heightened with the poignancy and solemnity of an old tale.” That poignancy and solemnity is the effect of deliberate, patient craftsmanship. Moreover, the craftsmanship here is consummate.
This piece was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.
The novels of Norman Rush are full of sharp-eyed, straight-talking men and women who are fearless in the pursuit of ideas, but who don’t forget to have fun. And though they love arguing most of all, they’re also passionate about sex and adventure.
Rush, now 80, is the author of four masterly, unique works of fiction. The first, Whites, a collection of taut, voice-driven stories published in 1986 when Rush was 53, was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize. Five years later, Rush emerged with his debut novel, Mating, which won the 1991 National Book Award, and his novel Mortals followed in 2003. Just shy of 500 and 800 pages, respectively, these two novels are expansive, exuberant narratives set in Botswana (also the setting for Whites), where Rush and his wife of 56 years, Elsa, co-directed the country’s Peace Corps program from 1978-1983. Thick with meditations on matters scholarly and literary, political and psychological, these books feature delightful wordplay.
Rush’s most recent novel Subtle Bodies was released in September. It’s his first work set entirely in America, and it’s a mere 230 pages. While much more compact than his previous novels, this fiction has lost none of Rush’s signature style nor his deep interest in human relationships — particularly marriages — and political ideals. These qualities, along with the ambition of his narrative structures and the penetrating elegance of intellectual thought woven into characters’ talk and action, have made critics swoon and generations of younger writers dive into his dense works as if they were barrels of jellybeans. In 2006, a body of more than one hundred writers and critics polled by the New York Times Book Review declared Mating one of the best American novels of the past quarter-century.
Particularly striking in Rush’s books is the rich development of both action and thought. His stories are stuffed with what the author calls “thought episodes.” Norman Rush’s idiosyncratic, strong-willed people act and think for themselves — an independence of mind scarce in contemporary literature.
By combining our two most powerful forms of explanation, narrative, and argument, Rush has successfully created that rare and most valuable art form, the novel of ideas.
Rush excels at two forms of hard-to-achieve novelistic thought. The first consists of the rich mental description we might call Jamesian, most evident in works like The Portrait of a Lady. James Wood titled his review of Mortals, “Thinking,” for the book whose “central achievement has to be the fidelity with which it represents consciousness, the way in which it tracks the mind’s own language.” Consider the opening paragraph:
At least whatever was wrong was recent, Ray kept telling himself, he realized. Because he’d just done it again, turning in to Kgari Close, seeing his house ahead of him, their house. Whatever was going on with Iris was different from what had gone on in earlier episodes, minor episodes coming under the heading of adjusting to Africa. This was worse because what was going on was so hard to read. He needed to keep in mind that knowing something was going wrong at an early point was always half the battle. And he knew how to stop things in their tracks. In fact that was his field, or one of them. Anyway, he was home. He loved this house.
This passage shows Ray thinking, in wonderfully penetrating detail, about thinking. He’s both trying to identify an elusive problem and reflecting on the ways in which one comes to know something. He realizes that, because he has noticed that something is wrong, he’ll come to the knowledge of the wrong thing sooner. Ray is trained to notice; he is a spy. He is also a most uxorious husband. This passage invests the reader in learning what the problem is with Iris — we want Ray to stay with Iris in the house that he loves — and in tracking precisely how he discovers it.
Though Rush wrote stories from an early age, from self-publishing at age 11 to completing a “non-violent thriller” during the nine months he was imprisoned for conscientiously objecting to the Korean War, it took him years to master Mortal’s acute, free, indirect style. For a long time he wrote abstract pieces populated with inactive talking heads. When his first critical success came in 1971 — his short story “In Late Youth” was anthologized in Best American Short Stories — Rush was consciously working to write simpler tales and, as he said in a Paris Review interview, “to sync thought more closely to a character’s actions.”
Mortals demonstrates how supremely Rush has accomplished this. Yet while Ray’s recursive self-examination adds depth, comedy, and poignancy, it also slows down the story. Wood doesn’t see this as a detriment — “a high level of analysis never insults the hospitality of storytelling” — but not all critics agree. John Updike wrote that Ray, “a control freak, a fussbudget, a tireless ruminator, and annoyance-nurser [most of whose] overflowing mental energy goes into an anxious gloating over his happy marriage,” is “perhaps the most annoying hero this reviewer has ever spent seven hundred pages with.”
While I don’t share Updike’s level of irritation, I do find considerably more compelling the inner life and intellectual urgency of the unnamed female narrator of Mating. A nutritional anthropology grad student, she falls hard and fast for a “Serious Man” named Nelson Denoon, an intelligent do-gooder who has established a feminist utopian village in the desert. After abandoning her dissertation and dating several minimally desirable men, she takes off, solo, across the Kalahari to throw herself at the feet of Denoon and the sui generis village of Tsau.
The anthropologist’s barrel-scraping, yet somehow joyful, journey toward love and self-knowledge is propulsive from the novel’s early pages. Her attractiveness stems in part from her peculiar diction, which combines high-register Latin, French, and academic phrases with vulgar formulations. Here she explains her fierce desire to visit Victoria Falls:
I not only wanted to go to Victoria Falls but to stay there in splendor at the Vic Falls Hotel, the way the colonial exploiters had. This was less greed per se than it was wanting to visit or inhabit a particularly gorgeous and egregious consummation of it. I was convinced that under Mugabe accommodations would be democratized and establishments like the Vic Falls Hotel would cease to exist, which of course was only one of a number of things that didn’t happen under Mugabe. I had a fixation on seeing the greatest natural feature in Africa and seeing it at the maximal time of year, which was just then, when the Zambezi was still in spate. I might be going back home to exile in the academic tundra, but I wanted to have seen the world’s greatest waterfall from the windows of an establishment amounting to a wet dream of doomed white settler amour propre.
We’re eager to follow our anthropologist — and her piercing thoughts — wherever they go. Unlike worrywart Ray, her introspection and argumentation are infused with a contagious joie de vivre.
A novel of ideas is driven by both story and thought. The kind of fictional thinking illustrated above is crucial, but it’s not enough.
A true novel of ideas must also have arguments, the second kind of novelistic thought at which Rush excels. Ideas, just like places and people, create a vibrant fictional world and fuel its stakes: what do the people in this world believe and why? What do they want to understand, and what do they ignore at their peril?
A contemporary novel of ideas must not only investigate topics of intrinsic interest, but must also render flesh-and-blood characters who vigorously and clearly express these ideas — who care about and challenge them.
How does one integrate argument into narrative? It would seem the two forms of explanation are at odds. Though both require precision, argument is pegged only to logic, not to time. Narrative, on the other hand, depends absolutely on chronology and can be bogged down by too much explanation. When Rush would show to Elsa, his first reader and most rigorous editor, early pages too thick with explanations, she’d respond: “Consider maybe that there are some extremely smart people out there who are not interested in stories that require a seminar.” His tendency is to be exhaustive, he explains in the same Paris Review interview — “to show the human project of trying to reshape the world, in all its particular guises and methods.”
One technique Rush exploits well is argumentative dialogue occurring at high-stakes moments. In Subtle Bodies, male college friends gather for the funeral of their former ringleader Douglas. Ned, a respected activist in the Fair Trade movement, tries to convince each jaded friend to sign his petition protesting America’s impending war against Iraq. Their jousting is energized by knowing how much it means to Ned that his friends support him and that he prove himself able to convince them on both pragmatic and idealistic grounds — thereby escaping, finally, Douglas’s shadow.
But surely argument can happily exist outside heightened moments of battle. In life, arguments are sustained over time. “I like to discern an unstated, but illustrated, argument in a novel,” Rush says. “I mean, I like to become aware of an embodied view of a particular moral-slash-philosophical problem or circumstance. With my novels, I want readers to argue about my argument, at least in their heads. While writing I am very conscious of it.” Mating exemplifies how argument can be embodied throughout a novel’s entire arc. Our anthropologist is desperate to know if equality in a male-female romance is possible, given all the cultural and biological factors working against it. Her desire to understand something abstract is converted into her real-time relationship with the exalted Denoon. Tsau, a community built from scratch upon feminist and socialist ideologies, is also put under the microscope. The whole action of the novel tests whether either of these utopias is viable.
While Rush beautifully embodies arguments in circumstance, he does even more than that, as a true novel of ideas should. Real people think about more than what’s immediately in front of them. They argue about free trade and two-party political systems; the virtues of television versus reading. Arguments that examine, broadly, how we should understand and reshape the world are just as much the necessary and joyful and fascinating stuff of life as the things that happen to us directly.
Rush therefore also imbues his novels with abstract arguments that extend to the larger world. At the dinner party where the narrator of Mating first meets Denoon, he gives a long lecture on development in Africa, which includes five reasons why socialism will not succeed there. The whole novel is told in hindsight, and this lecture, too, is related after the fact. The lecture reads like a play. The narrator’s interpretive notes are interspersed in italics. This may sound cumbersome, but it works cleanly. We get Denoon’s arguments in his own words, as presented to his live audience. For example:
Let us say you want to clear away private ownership of productive property and put everything under the state. Well and good, but then you must be prepared to pay five surcharges, very heavy surcharges. These are permanent recurrent costs that never go away. They are intrinsic to your system.
At other points, the narrator summarizes Denoon, often because she’s impatient or dissatisfied with the way he puts things:
[Point] Five was a mess. He couldn’t get it schematic enough, and during it some people got bored to the hilt. My notes, which I made when I went home that night, say that there are two ways to extract the social surplus–…
Additionally, as Denoon speaks, the narrator speculates about how and why he’s arrived at various formulations. She explains a particularly circuitous set of remarks thus:
This is intellectual loneliness showing, I thought. …I had no idea who he had with him out in the bush, but this scene suggested that they left something to be desired as discussants. The same sort of hysteria was familiar to me.
Naturally, she has a solution: she should become his mate.
Rush’s Knopf editor, Ann Close, was worried this long exchange would bore readers, but Rush felt it was crucial “to prove to the reader that Denoon was an intellectual of a certain caliber.” Indeed, we have to see for ourselves that Denoon is not a charlatan. We’re to experience through our anthropologist’s eyes and intelligence, for another four hundred pages, people and places we’ve never or rarely encountered and ideas we perhaps haven’t thought much about. It’s also imperative that we trust the intelligence of our narrator. We must know she’s not been hoodwinked by Denoon’s status, charisma, or beauty — all of which he has in spades.
Among Rush’s three novels of ideas, Mating is the most successful. Although it does occasionally give us too much of a good thing, by piling on more argument than can be absorbed, ideas are given life by a torrentially passionate narrator for whom it’s clear how deeply ideas matter. Developing her unusual, entertaining language was important to Rush not only in order to create a fully realized, never-before-seen character, but also because her linguistic prowess empowers her.
The narrator, in her vocabulary and her attitude toward language, is like several people I have known who considered themselves underclass and at a disadvantage socially, but who were smart and discovered that knowing how to use language better than the people oppressing them was a form of power.
Ned’s wife Nina in Subtle Bodies has fewer years of education than Mating’s anthropologist (who is in fact closely modeled on Elsa Rush), but Nina is similarly bold, innovative, and articulate in her use of language.
When asked in a recent interview in Tin House, “Will your next project find you returning to a longer form?” Rush said, “Dude, I’m 80.” He hopes to write more short stories, though he recognizes that despite Elsa’s “extraordinary forbearance” during his long-gestating novels, it may be time for the couple to spend more time on pursuits other than writing. These days Rush also worries about the value of fiction writing in a world that would benefit more from advocacy and political action than another novel. In an August 2013 profile in the New York Times Magazine, Rush dispiritedly admits to himself: “You’re an artist. You’re not a nuclear engineer, you’re not a statesman, you’re not the head of the World Bank, you’re nothing, really, in terms of who pulls the strings of the world. …None of your acts are designed to change things.”
But Rush’s argumentative impulse clearly hasn’t subsided, so one hopes for another opportunity for adventuresome intellectual love, which our anthropologist describes like this:
the feeling of observing a mental searchlight lazily turning here and there and lighting up certain parts of the landscape you thought might be dubious or fraudulent but lacked the time or energy to investigate or the inner authority to dismiss tout court.
It’s a description that could be aptly applied to the experience of reading Norman Rush’s body of work — with the exception of the word “lazily.” His scouring mental searchlight prompts questioning and reflection and, most of all, it makes you want to argue.
A confession: I haven’t read much Henry James. I read Daisy Miller in college, along with a few of James’s better-known short stories. Later, maybe in grad school, I took a run at one of his novels, though I can’t say I remember which one, or really much else about it except that the sentences seemed to go on for days and I gave up after only a few pages. Reading James made me feel dumb, and while I recognize that feeling dumb is a necessary part of learning new things, there’s only so much time I’m willing to spend struggling to read a book that makes me feel like an idiot. As a consequence, I have lived a James-free existence for the last twenty years.
Given that, I would have figured I would be the last person on earth to enjoy Colm Tóibín’s 2004 novel The Master, a fictionalized account of Henry James’s life from 1895 to 1899, which sounded to me like a highbrow Behind the Music-style wallow in the fields of Jamesiana. But I was wrong. While I’m sure a serious Henry James head would get more out of The Master than an ignoramus like me, I found myself both riveted and deeply moved by Tóibín’s novel despite, and perhaps even because of, my lack of knowledge about Tóibín’s subject.
For me, and for I suspect a lot of contemporary readers, Henry James is something of a blank slate, a cardboard cutout of a nineteenth century Dead White Male Author, essentially interchangeable with any number of DWMAs of the period, from William Dean Howells to Anthony Trollope, whose work I feel slightly embarrassed about not having read. Oddly, this turns out to be a perfect starting place for an author creating a fictional character. Because Tóibín is writing about a real historical figure whose significance is a given, he can skip all the boring expositional scenes that would persuade you that his main character is, despite his limitations, worthy of your interest.
But because he is writing fiction, Tóibín can also dispense with the narrative distance of biography and bring you directly inside that powerhouse of a mind as James tries to make emotional and moral sense of himself. That James fails, and ends the book unable to love anyone outside the pages of his own fiction is his tragedy, but the fact that you care about him anyway, that you spend more than 300 pages hoping James will break free from what Tóibín calls “the locked room of himself,” is Tóibín’s triumph. I have never cared so much about a character I liked so little.
One of the few things I knew about Henry James going in was that he is widely perceived as being the poster boy for the closeted gay Victorian, and because Tóibín is openly gay and because I have no imagination, I assumed The Master would drag poor Henry kicking and screaming out of the closet. Indeed, Tóibín’s James is powerfully attracted to men, and spends one deliciously ambiguous night cuddling naked in bed with a boyhood friend, the future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. But as masterfully as Tóibín handles James’s struggles to keep his homosexuality latent, the central relationships in the book are with women – first with James’s cousin Minny Temple, who died young, and later with fellow novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson, who committed suicide at least in part because James could not return her love for him.
In these cases, we watch the usually imperious Henry James get positively tiddly with puppy love, and later, when these women need him, we watch in horror as he coldly cuts them off, leading, perhaps indirectly, perhaps not, to their deaths. Then, a bit ghoulishly, he begins to write them into his books. In Minny’s case, he calls her Daisy Miller and has her die in Rome. A few years later, he calls her Isabel Archer and marries her off to a caddish snob named Gilbert Osmond, with whom she lives unhappily in Italy. Tóibín writes:
He wanted to take this penniless American girl and offer her a solid old universe in which to breathe. He gave her money, suitors, villas and palaces, new friends and new sensations. He had never felt as powerful and dutiful. … There were scenes he wrote in which, having imagined everything and set it down, he was, at moments, unsure whether it had genuinely happened or whether his imagined world had finally come to replace the real.
Thus, the problem for Tóibín’s Henry James is not that he is a closeted homosexual, or that he is incapable of feeling love. He feels love profoundly, for women and men alike, but he can’t act on it in any way that might compromise his freedom as an artist, and instead he pours out his love for them in his novels after they’re dead. That, in this case, his love for Minny Temple gave us The Portrait of a Lady may be enough for some. It isn’t for me. As much as I care about books, I think people matter more in the end.
But what makes The Master such a compelling read is that Tóibín has a subtler mind than I do and can see both sides of the question with equal sensitivity. He doesn’t shy away from the human destruction James leaves in his wake, but he also brings James alive on the page, not as a monster or emotional cripple, but as one of the great minds of his age expressing love the only way he knows how.
Julian Barnes accepted an invitation to the Hay Festival in Cartagena last month, but said no interviews. There’s no point trying, said the press person. So of course I felt compelled to. That evening, I hustled him at the opening party on the Spanish ramparts of the Old City. There was salsa on the speakers and everywhere men and women in white linen were drinking dark rum. Barnes was strolling around, alone, with his hands in the pockets of his dark trousers, as if determined to let the Caribbean breeze have its way with his silver hair.
“No interviews,” he said promptly, smiling broadly down at me. And then, with a weary politeness: “Oh, all right then, just one question.”
I promptly chose the most random question in my head. “Do you like Ted Hughes?” I asked. “You mention him in The Sense of an Ending.”
I was referring to an early scene in the novel where a young English teacher puts his head “at a donnish slant” and says to the class, “Of course, we’re all wondering what will happen when he [Hughes] runs out of animals.” I had thought it very funny, and was rather irritated when the narrator’s superior girlfriend Veronica Mary Elizabeth Ford, didn’t. I knew from Barnes’ Paris Review interview that this was a joke his own schoolteacher had liked to make. Evidently, it had played in his head for years, before finally finding release here, in a novel about memory and nostalgia, written in his sixties.
Clearly amused at the question, Barnes replied, “I like the early Ted Hughes. You know, before he got all oracular.” And he made big Botero curves with his pale fingers to show what he meant.
“Hughes is taught quite a lot in India,” I chattered on to buy time. “As are Auden and Larkin.”
And, miraculously, with the mention of Larkin, the one-question guillotine was stayed. Barnes is a great admirer of this bitter English poet, whom he knew, and who is everywhere in his new novel, but anonymously, in the form of what Barnes calls “hidden quotes” that are attributed to “the poet.” Indeed, if Flaubert’s Parrot offers up a full-throated tribute to Barnes’s literary hero Gustave Flaubert, The Sense of an Ending does the opposite for Philip Larkin. But, said Barnes ruefully, the hidden quotes have all been spotted and laid out by Colm Toibin in the New York Review of Books – “making me wonder if I’d put too many in.” Of the quotes, the most pivotal to the plot is the one that says, “Damage a long way back.” It’s repeated several times in different contexts, and by the end of the story, each word in that short line is transfigured with remorse.
“I really liked the book,” I said. “But it left me very disturbed.”
“I’m so glad to hear that,” said Barnes, and wished me goodnight.
The next morning, to my delight, he sent word through a photographer that if I wanted a quarter of an hour, he’d be willing to chat. We met at the Santa Clara Hotel, one of the venues of the Hay Festival. The hotel is housed in what was once the spectral Santa Clara Convent, where Gabriel Garcia Marquez set Of Love and Other Demons, his novel on love and exorcism during the Spanish Inquisition. There is a thin chill in the hotel’s cavernous halls that has nothing to do with the aggressive air-conditioning. Happily, then, the conversation took place on a sunlit balcony overlooking a palm-lashed courtyard. The courtyard had an enormous black Botero nude that would have terrified the nuns.
When The Sense of an Ending won the Booker Prize in 2011, Salman Rushdie tweeted: “Congratulations to #JulianBarnes on winning the #Booker. Long overdue, my friend, Bravo.” Barnes has been a Booker bridesmaid three times, so Rushdie’s sentiment was amply shared by all those who have enjoyed Barnes’s cool and erudite prose and been unsettled by it. Over the last three decades he has written steadily, producing twenty books of novels, non-fiction, essays, short stories, and translation. The forms may have varied but the themes have remained constant: sex, death, and memory. These are potentially wild themes, but Barnes embeds them in bourgeois settings and allows the “great unrest” that sparks to vitalize his stories. He has the very English ability to dramatize the bland with understatement. Bland on bland action, but always on a bed of irony.
He also enjoys being funny. Flaubert’s Parrot has a line that says if Emma Bovary had violet eyes she would belong “in a Raymond Chandler novel.” “Funny is good,” said Barnes, laughing a little. “I like funny. But I was always called wry, or witty, or sometimes ironic. And clever.” Clever is spat out with slow, twinkling contempt. “Clever is not very nice. Not if you’re in England. And then I went on Desert Island Discs and the introduction went, ‘Julian Barnes was a clever schoolboy…’ There’s no getting away from it. So I kept saying to my publicist, when are they going to call me wise. I want to be called wise. And I’m only clever.”
“Wise” is word that could be applied to The Sense of an Ending, but devious or cunning is perhaps more apt. At first, the 163-page novella seems like an easy read with an inbuilt mystery that keeps you turning the pages. But once you finish it, it continues to eat away at you, forcing you to re-read it. And then, to uneasily re-examine your own past. What difficult parts have been slyly edited out? What careless deed has led to what terrible consequence? Has any of us, no matter how protected, escaped damage?
It’s hard to discuss the novel completely without revealing the secret on which it turns. But here’s a no-spoiler summary: The narrator is typically Barnesian. A retired Englishman whose life can be summed up in one word: average. Tony Webster says, “Average, that’s what I’ve been, ever since I left school. Average at the university and work; average in friendship, loyalty, love; average, no doubt at sex.” Tony loves control and hates risk. And then, one day, he gets a letter from a lawyer telling him that the diary of an old school friend who had slit his wrists forty years ago has been left to him. This friend, Adrian, a brilliant Cambridge student, was someone Tony had hero-worshipped – until Adrian decided to take up with Veronica Ford, by then Tony’s ex-girlfriend. A furious Tony had written to Adrian advising him to be careful because “Veronica had suffered some kind of damage a long way back” – even though this was pure conjecture on his part. The allegedly damaged Veronica, with her “quick but withholding smile” and rigid views on culture, is the most interesting character in the novel. She bristles with integrity and rage, mostly directed at Tony, whom she repeatedly says “just doesn’t get it.” But what is it that he “just doesn’t get?” And why has Adrian’s diary been left to him? Suddenly, Average Tony is obsessed with these questions and begins to dig up his past. The only tool he has – his memory – is a defective one, but it will have to do. In the last brutal pages, he finally gets it.
“The argument in both the beginning and end of the book,” said Barnes, “is about where responsibility lies. And to what extent something like a suicide is entirely the responsibility of the person who has done it, or is there a whole chain of responsibility. And there usually is.”
Barnes dramatizes this chain of responsibility against a backdrop of class difference. One of the best chapters has Tony describing a miserable weekend spent at Veronica’s family home in Kent. “I was so ill at ease that I spent the entire weekend constipated: that is my principal factual memory.” He accuses Veronica of being as detached as her red brick house. Barnes has a good ear for the snobbery of country homes – the posh putdown in heartily addressing the guest as “young feller-me-lad,” the careless wink thrown across the dinner table, the morning walk from which the guest is excluded. He also makes Tony constantly question his own paranoia and complexes. When Tony goes home, he gets a coarse satisfaction from having a “bloody good long shit” – and telling us about it.
Surprisingly, however, Barnes claimed “not to consciously write about class.” “I think I write about Englishness,” he said. “On the whole, I write about a certain sort of middleclass English person who has those habits of indirection and irony and under-expressiveness of emotion. A friend of mine once said to me, why are so many of the characters in your novels so sort of wimpy and passive? And I said, I can’t really explain it except that I get more fictional traction with an inexpressive, rather passive male. It sort of brings the action onto him. And I suppose it’s also that I’m less interested in the typical hero who goes out and does things. My heroes don’t do things. Sometimes things are done to them. Also, a passive male character brings on female rage…Which of course means you can then ask the question, what about damage to him? Is there some sort of damage to Tony that makes him not want to engage with the world? Not want to risk damage with the world.”
Damage-phobic Tony Webster, I said, reminded me of “super-ordinary Swede,” the tragic protagonist in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. Swede Levov desperately wants to live the perfect, tidy American life but learns in a horrific way that he can’t protect himself or his family from damage – or from inflicting it. In the end, Levov’s perfect life turns out to be “reprehensible.” “That’s an interesting connection but I haven’t read American Pastoral,” said Barnes. “The Roth I like is the early to middle Roth. What is supposedly the great late period of Roth I find less interesting. Sabbath’s Theatre I couldn’t finish. But I like the early and middle ones. The Counterlife is a wonderful novel. I think that’s his best novel.”
However, he continued, damage reminded him of the book he was currently reading – Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady. “I’m a third of the way in,” he said. “Isabel Archer has been proposed to by an English lord and the rich American businessman, the cotton chap, and the arguments that are put to her are that it’s really much safer if you get married, and she says, no, I want to rub up against life, something like that. I don’t know if ‘rub up’ is James (‘affront my destiny,’ is what Isabel Archer wants to do), but that’s what she means. And they say to her, you must be careful you don’t get damaged. And I was struck, since we were talking about my book, about the Jamesian analogy. And don’t tell me what happens because I’ve never read it before. She’s just got to Florence and she’s just met the man whom Madame Merle has picked out for her, so I expect something bad is going to happen, but I’m not sure what.”
The conversation veered off into Henry James. By some coincidence I had only just read The Portrait myself and so it was fresh in my head. I asked if he agreed with the literary critic James Wood about Henry James’s superb use of narrative framing in the novel’s opening scene in which three bored men are taking tea on the lawns of a country house by the Thames, minutes before Isabel makes her entrance – and changes everything. “It’s good,” said Barnes, meditatively. “It’s a good opening scene.” But the mention of Wood is a distraction. The hugely influential Wood, who writes for The New Yorker, has not exactly savaged Barnes with praise. He has called his stories “wan” and “cozily fenced” and “addicted to fact,” making him sound like a writerly Tony Webster. Barnes, on his part, is known for his acidic views on the quality of criticism in general.
“I know of James Wood,” he said, emphasizing the of. “He’s been on my case for a very long time. I’m almost weary of displeasing James Wood…But I don’t really keep up with my reviews anymore. I stopped dead about the time of England, England because I always found that the good ones, when you re-read them, weren’t as good as you thought they were first time round, and the bad ones were just as bad as you thought they were. So I thought, why am I reading these reviews except for looking for praise about my books, and I felt that was sort of ignominious, you know, ignoble. And I thought, the book’s written and the review’s written, why bother to get into an emotional state about it. But then there was a wonderful review of England, England in The Sunday Times by John Carey – and I thought to myself, he completely understands the book. So you do want those nice adjectives but you also want the book to be accurately described in terms of its texture, its feeling, its weight, its tone. So much reviewing is just about inadequate description and that’s depressing. So I stopped completely in 1998…I read the French reviews because they are completely different from any other reviews.”
“And the French love you,” I interjected.
“I know. They do love me. But it’s nice to read reviews of your book in a different language. And the French are very imaginative. They often pretend to interview you when they haven’t. And no, I don’t mind at all.” (Later that evening, during his session with Mario Vargas Llosa on Flaubert and modernism, Barnes would reply sharply to a provocative comment about France being ”a nation without ideas.“ “I think that’s a gross libel on my favorite country,” he said. “The idea that the French don’t create ideas is incredibly stupid, an absurdity. I come from the country that doesn’t issue ideas. England is known as the country without music, as it should be.”)
He returned once more to Henry James. “My favorite moment in the whole opening scene is that the father has a very large cup. Do you remember? He’s having his tea out of a very large cup. And then it’s mentioned again once or twice, and then you think it’s absolutely brilliant of James not to explain it. He just doesn’t. And you think, is it because he warms his hands with it? Is it because it’s easier for an old man to pick up a big cup rather than a little cup? Is it just an eccentricity? Is it a sign that he is a man who has held great power and who therefore has a large cup? Does he like a lot of tea? Is it an example of the fact that he’s not English? It’s absolutely brilliant that we don’t know why that cup is so big.”
As he walked me to the lift he said, “Thank you for not asking if The Sense of an Ending is autobiographical. I’m so tired of that question.”
“It couldn’t have been,” I replied politely. “Tony Webster is bald.”
“That settles it then,” he said, and the lift arrived.
I’d enjoyed the meeting. And if I had to sum it up in one image, it would be that of the languid Barnes sitting forward in his chair with a sudden zest to obsess about the size of a teacup. You can’t get more English, English if you tried.
Image credit: FNPI – Joaquin Sarmiento