Many—maybe even most—of my favorite books are novels narrated by an observer who does not consider themselves the main actor in the story. Think Nick Carraway, Jay Gatsby’s sort-of friend, the perfect mournfully sardonic narrator for one of American literature’s most enduring novels. I love stories told by the supposedly innocent bystander; the less charismatic best friend; the hapless fan or scholar whose own life recedes in the shadow of their subject of adoration.
I especially love books like this because they are honest in two ways other narrative forms are often not. First, a non-protagonist narrator acknowledges the fact that storytelling is always, always about perspective. In the same way history is dictated by the victors, stories are dictated by the people with the ability and inclination to write them down, and the meta-fiction created by a self-aware narrator telling someone else’s story can be beautifully tense, disarmingly frank, and entertainingly specious. Second, the non-protagonist narrator acknowledges obsession—an obsession with another person that inspired the character to take the time to set down this story in writing at all. They seethe with charisma, jealousy, and longing of one form or another. This is why I chose this narrative form for my own novel, The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna.
I’m not the only one who loves to read this mode of storytelling; many of the traditional candidates for Great American Novel follow the format: besides The Great Gatsby, there is Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, in which reporter Jack Burden tells the story of politician Willie Stark; or John Knowles’s A Separate Peace, in which jealous introvert prep schooler Gene obsesses over his outgoing and talented roommate, Phineas. But the list of relevant masterpieces is long and absolutely need not adhere to the reading we did in high school back before “the canon” was including much besides white men. Here are a few of my favorites.
1. The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu
Let’s go ahead and go all the way back to the beginning, to what is argued to be the first-ever novel, composed around the year 1010 AD. The story is related by an unnamed female speaking to a social superior, as is evident in the form of verb conjugation used. It describes the love affairs and misadventures of Genji, a minor son of the Emperor. The identity of the narrator is never revealed, but some believe the text hints that she might be one of Genji’s (rather many) lovers.
2. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
Detective fiction has a long tradition of an average Joe narrator who relates the adventures of a whimsical genius investigator—a tradition that goes all the way back to the mystery genre’s inception with Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin stories and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. With The Name of the Rose (1980), Eco offers a hyper-intellectual pastiche of that archetype with a murder mystery set in a 14th-century Italian convent in which a bumbling Benedictine novice, Adso, describes the crime-solving antics of his master, a monk named William of Baskerville.
3. Passing by Nella Larsen
This 1929 novel is narrated by Irene Redfield, a light-skinned black woman who learns a friend from her Chicago childhood, Clare Kendry, has been living as a white woman, married to a virulently racist white man and completely cut off from her roots. Irene’s obsession with Clare’s choice—and the light it sheds on her own choices—cause her to spin back into the woman’s orbit no matter how much she tells herself she’s done with Clare.
4. The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
The narrator of this 1945 novel is Fanny, an upper-class English girl who is abandoned by her parents to live with wealthy relatives. Fanny is relating the life and exploits of Linda Radlett, her cousin and best friend, whose love affairs and impetuous adventures wholly distract the reader from Fanny’s absence in her own story.
5. Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat
This 1994 novel is the story of Sophie Caco, who is 12 years old when she emigrates from Haiti to join her mother in New York, but really it is the story of Sophie’s enigmatic mother, Martine, whose traumatic history inflicts itself not only on her relationship with Sophie but also, viscerally, on Sophie herself.
6. The Chosen by Chaim Potok
Set in the New York City Orthodox Jewish community at the end of World War II, this 1967 novel is narrated by Reuven, a Modern Orthodox boy from a Zionist family, who is deeply committed to and fascinated by his sometimes controversial friendship with Danny, the genius son of a Hassidic rabbi.
7. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Another favorite of mine that highlights the emotional intensity of a platonic friendship. In this 2012 novel, Elena, the narrator, builds her life around and in relief against her unpredictable and addictive best friend, Lila, a thwarted and moody genius who causes steadfast Elena to underestimate herself.
8. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
Quentin Compson, the troubled Harvard student we saw commit suicide in The Sound and the Fury, narrates the life story of Thomas Sutpen, a larger-than-life slave-holding plantation owner from Quentin’s native Mississippi in this 1936 novel. The narrative framework, a conversation between Quentin and his roommate, incorporates historical fact and conjecture and highly personalized interpretation—one of my favorite allegories for the way it shows how history is preserved.
9. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
This 2005 novel hits heavy on one of my favorite themes: remorse. Its 80-year-old narrator, Lily, reveals how the story of her own long life has been framed by that of her long-lost best friend, Snow Flower, and how she let her obsession with their friendship ruin both their lives.
10. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
A bit of a cheat selection, because the narrator of this 1961 novel is a third person omniscient, but it connects the reader to a group of six Scottish school girls who are all equally obsessed with their vivacious, unconventional, and fascist teacher, Miss Brodie, whom they adore, obey, and betray.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.
Image credit: Design Ecologist.
This year I have been keeping a list. The first book I read was The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. A friend recommended it and she was right. This slim novel is very funny. I went on to read more books by Muriel Spark, like The Finishing School and The Driver’s Seat. I remember trying to read Memento Mori at a café with a woman I had a crush on, and I couldn’t read it. I stared down at the same page for an hour. I’m sure it’s a good book!
By the summer, I was living in a sublet in Brooklyn. In that shabby room crowded with mood boards and Zen trinkets, I read The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean, Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh, a grotesque, startling vision of contemporary life on this planet, and The Answers by Catherine Lacey, a gorgeous and incisive account of people struggling to answer impossible questions about what it means to be a flawed human in relation to other flawed humans.
A couple months ago, I moved from a sublet in Brooklyn to a place in Ditmas Park. I read Taipei by Tao Lin, which is one of the most uncomfortable and awkward books I’ve ever encountered. It moved me. I adore it.
My friend Brandon Shimoda, a poet, sent me his journal. He printed it out and mailed it to me in a priority envelope. He writes about dreams, walking, his impressions of people on the bus, etc. Sample entry: “Couldn’t care less about poetry or its mind, I just want to make things out of trash and give it all away.”
And finally: Sunshine State by Sarah Gerard. Sarah Gerard is a writer who also happens to be a detective, an intellectual, and a hobo. Her collection of essays about Florida, religion, friendship, sex, and eccentric people and their questionable activities made me perceive the world in a different way. I fell in love with her, so I might be kind of biased.
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This year, for the first time since I was 18, I suffered a bout of what you might call Reader’s Block. It hit me in the spring and lasted about six weeks. The proximate cause was an excess of work, hunched hours in front of a computer that left me feeling like a jeweler’s loupe was lodged in each eye. I’d turn to the door of my study — Oh, God! An axe-wielding giant! No, wait: that’s just my two year old, offering a mauled bagel. And because the only prose that doesn’t look comparably distorted at that level of magnification belongs to E.B. White, Gertrude Stein, and whoever wrote the King James Bible, I mostly confined myself to the newspaper, when I read anything at all.
This hiatus from literature gave me a new compassion for people who glance up from smartphones to tell me they’re too busy to read, and for those writers (students, mostly) who claim to avoid other people’s work when they’re working. Yet I found that for me, at least, the old programmer’s maxim applies: Garbage In, Garbage Out. I mean this not just as someone with aesthetic aspirations, or pretensions, or whatever, but also as a human being.
The deeper cause of my reader’s block, I can admit now, was my father’s death at the end of May, after several years of illness. He was a writer, too; he’d published a novel when he was about the age I am now, and subsequently a travelogue. And maybe I had absorbed, over the years, some of his misapprehensions about what good writing might accomplish, vis-a-vis mortality; maybe I was now rebelling against the futility of the whole enterprise. I don’t know. I do know that in the last weeks before he died, those weeks of no reading, I felt anxious, adrift, locked inside my grief.
Then in June, on some instinct to steer into the skid, I reached for Henderson the Rain King. It was the last of the major Bellows I hadn’t read. I’d shied away partly for fear of its African setting, but mostly because it was the Saul Bellow book my father would always recommend. I’d say I was reading Humboldt’s Gift, and he’d say, “But have you read Henderson the Rain King?” Or I’d say I was reading Middlemarch, and he’d say “Sure, but have you read Henderson the Rain King?” I’d say I was heavily into early Sonic Youth. “Okay, but there’s this wonderful book…” There were times when I wondered if he’d actually read Henderson the Rain King, or if, having established that I hadn’t read it, he saw it as a safe way to short-circuit any invitation into my inner life. And I suppose I was afraid that if I finally read Henderson and was unmoved, or worse, it would either confirm the hypothesis or demolish for all time my sense of my dad as a person of taste.
But of course the novel’s mise-en-scène is a ruse (as Bellow well knew, never having been to Africa). Or if that still sounds imperialist, a dreamscape. Really, the whole thing is set at the center of a battered, lonely, yearning, and comical human heart. A heart that says, “I want, I want, I want.” A heart that could have been my father’s. Or my own. And though that heart doesn’t get what it wants — that’s not its nature — it gets something perhaps more durable. Midway through the novel, King Dahfu of the Wariri tries to talk a woebegone Henderson into hanging out with a lion:
“What can she do for you? Many things. First she is unavoidable. Test it, and you will find she is unavoidable. And this is what you need, as you are an avoider. Oh, you have accomplished momentous avoidances. But she will change that. She will make consciousness to shine. She will burnish you. She will force the present moment upon you. Second, lions are experiences. But not in haste. They experience with deliberate luxury…Then there are more subtle things, as how she leaves hints, or elicits caresses. But I cannot expect you to see this at first. She has much to teach you.”
To which Henderson replies: “‘Teach? You really mean that she might change me.’”
“‘Excellent,'” the king says:
“Precisely. Change. You fled what you were. You did not believe you had to perish. Once more, and a last time, you tried the world. With a hope of alteration. Oh, do not be surprised by such a recognition.”
The lion stuff in Henderson, like the tennis stuff in Infinite Jest, inclines pretty nakedly toward ars poetica. Deliberate luxury, burnished consciousness, a sense of inevitability — aren’t these a reader’s hopes, too? And then: the deep recognition, the resulting change. Henderson the Rain King gave me all that, at the time when I needed it most. Then again, such a recognition is always surprising, because it’s damn hard to come by. And so, though I’m already at 800 words here, I’d like to list some of my other best reading experiences of 2014 (the back half of which amounted to a long, post-Henderson binge). Maybe one of them will do for you what that lion did for me.
Light Years, by James Salter
Despite the eloquent advocacy of my Millions colleague Sonya Chung, I’d always had this idea of James Salter as some kind of Mandarin, a writer for other writers. But I read Light Years over two days in August, and found it a masterpiece. The beauty of Salter’s prose — and it is beautiful — isn’t the kind that comes from fussing endlessly over clauses, but the kind that comes from looking up from the page, listening hard to whatever’s beyond. And what Light Years hears, as the title suggests, is time passing, the arrival and inevitable departure of everything dear to us. It is music like ice cracking, a river in the spring.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark
I’ve long known I should read Muriel Spark, but it took the republication of some of her backlist (by New Directions) to get me off the fence. Spark shares with Salter a sublime detachment, an almost Olympian view of the passage of time. This latter seems to be her real subject in Miss Jean Brodie, inscribed even in the dazzling structure of the novel. But unlike Salter, Spark is funny. Really funny. Her reputation for mercilessness is not unearned, but the comedy here is deeper, I think. As in Jonathan Franzen’s novels, it issues less from the exposure of flawed and unlikeable characters than from the author’s warring impulses: to see them clearly, vs. to love them. Ultimately, in most good fiction, these amount to the same thing.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera
This was a popular novel among grown-ups when I was a kid, and so I was pleasantly surprised to discover how stubborn and weird a work it is. And lovable for all that. Kundera keeps us at a peculiar distance from his protagonists, almost as if telling a fairy tale. Description is sparing. Plot is mostly sex. Also travel. At times, I had to remind myself which character was which. In a short story, this might be a liability. Yet somehow, over the length of the novel, through nuances of juxtaposition and patterning, Kundera manages to evoke states of feeling I’ve never seen on the page before. Political sadness. Emotional philosophy. The unbearable lightness of the title. All of this would seem to be as relevant in the U.S. in 2015 as in 1970s Prague.
The Infatuations, by Javier Marías
Hari Kunzru has captured, in a previous Year in Reading entry, how forbidding Javier Marías’s novels can seem from a distance. (Though maybe this is true of all great stylists. Lolita, anyone?) Marías is a formidably cerebral writer, whose long sentences are like fugues: a theme is introduced, toyed with, pursued to another theme, put down, taken up again. None of this screams pleasure. But neither would a purely formal description of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. The tremendous pleasure of The Infatuations, Marías’s most recent novel to appear in English, arrives from those most uncerebral places: plot, suspense, character. It’s like a literary version of Strangers on a Train, cool formal mastery put to exquisitely visceral effect. “Don’t open that door, Maria!” The Infatuations is the best new novel I read all year; I knew within the first few pages that I would be reading every book Mariás has written.
All the Birds, Singing, by Evie Wyld
This haunting, poetic novel manages to convey in a short space a great deal about compulsion and memory and the human capacity for good and evil. Wyld’s narrator, Jake, is one of the most distinctive and sympathetic heroines in recent literature, a kind of Down Under Huck Finn. Her descriptions of the Australian outback are indelible. And the novel’s backward-and-forward form manages a beautiful trick: it simultaneously dramatizes the effects of trauma and attends to our more literary hungers: for form, for style. It reminded me forcefully of another fine book that came out of the U.K. this year, Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.
Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel
I’d be embarrassed at my lateness to the Thomas Cromwell saga, were I not so glad to have finally made it. Mantel’s a serious enough historical novelist not to shy away from those conventions of the genre that usually turn me off; the deliberate pacing of her trilogy-in-progress requires some getting used to. But more than a chronicler, Mantel is a novelist, full-stop. She excels at pretty much everything, and plays the long game brilliantly. By the time you get into the intrigues of Bring Up the Bodies, you’re flying so fast you hardly notice the beautiful calibration of the prose, or the steady deepening of the psychology, or the big thoughts the novel is thinking about pragmatism and Englishness and gender and the mystery of personality.
Dispatches, by Michael Herr
If you took the horrific public-burning scene from Wolf Hall, multiplied that by 100, put those pages in a hot-boxed Tomahawk piloted by Dr. Strangelove, and attempted to read them over the blare of the Jefferson Airplane, you’d end up with something like Dispatches. It is simultaneously one of the greatest pieces of New Journalism I’ve ever read and one of the greatest pieces of war writing. Indeed, each achievement enables the other. The putatively embedded journalism of our own wars already looks dated by comparison. Since the publication of Dispatches in 1977, Herr’s output has been slender, but I’d gladly read anything he wrote.
White Girls, by Hilton Als
This nonfiction collection casts its gaze all over the cultural map, from Flannery O’Connor to Michael Jackson, yet even more than most criticism, it adds up to a kind of diffracted autobiography. The longest piece in the book is devastating, the second-longest tough to penetrate, but this unevenness speaks to Als’s virtues as an essayist. His sentences have a quality most magazine writing suffocates beneath a veneer of glibness: the quality of thinking. That is, he seems at once to have a definite point-of-view, passionately held, and to be very much a work in progress. It’s hard to think of higher praise for a critic.
Utopia or Bust, by Benjamin Kunkel
This collection of sterling essays (many of them from the London Review of Books) covers work by David Graeber, Robert Brenner, Slavoj Zizek, and others, offering a state-of-the-union look at what used to be called political economy — a nice complement to the research findings of Thomas Piketty. Kunkel is admirably unembarrassed by politics as such, and is equally admirable as an autodidact in the field of macroeconomics. He synthesizes from his subjects one of the more persuasive accounts you’ll read about how we got into the mess we’re in. And his writing has lucidity and wit. Of Fredric Jameson, for example, he remarks: “Not often in American writing since Henry James can there have been a mind displaying at once such tentativeness and force.”
The Origin of the Brunists, by Robert Coover
The publication this spring of a gargantuan sequel, The Brunist Day of Wrath, gave me an excuse to go back and read Coover’s first novel, from 48 years ago. As a fan of his midcareer highlights, The Public Burning and Pricksongs and Descants, I was expecting postmodern glitter. Instead I got something closer to William Faulkner: tradition and modernity collide in a mining town beset by religious fanaticism. Yet with the attenuation of formal daring comes an increased access to Coover’s capacity for beauty, in which he excels many of his well-known peers. Despite its (inspired) misanthropy, this is a terrific novel. I couldn’t help wishing, as I did with much of what I read this year, that my old man was still around, that I might recommend it to him, and so repay the debt.
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Early on in her career, the poet Muriel Spark decided that Mary Shelley was criminally underrated as a writer. In bringing the Frankenstein author the fame she deserved, Spark wrote a biography, distanced Shelley from her famed poet husband and labeled her “the founder of science fiction.” (Related: our own Lydia Kiesling on Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.) (h/t Arts & Letters Daily)
I first read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie very rapidly and while reading made quiet moos of concern and befuddlement. There was a Miss Brodie in her prime! Her girls were the crème de la crème! Rose Stanley was famous for sex! When I finished I put the novel down and took a moment to contemplate. “What a weird little book,” I said to no one in particular, and closed the file on Miss Brodie. Later, thinking this analysis unsatisfactory and contrary to the spirit of the Modern Library Revue, I decided to have another look. As this novel does have the advantage of being a little book, I read it twice more. Today I can say confidently that it is, indeed, a weird little book. Now, though, my use of “weird” incorporates more of the word’s bewitching and macabre aspects, and fewer of its heeggh-I-don’t-get-it ones.
Brief books are dangerous for me, because I am a swift reader and not always a careful one. Big books, when they are not too patently formal experiments, seem better suited to my taste and temperament. I have something of the philistine in me and short important novels, for no really good reason, threaten artsiness and unfulfillment. They seem as though they are harder to write, and I worry their authors have more to prove. How will you make your novel memorable when it it looks so diminutive, sitting there on the shelf? They require an economy that is against my nature.
I had been meandering through A Suitable Boy, which is familiar and soothes my soul, and I had to forcibly change gears to appreciate Muriel Spark. This novel is not something huge and engrossing to help you forget the common round of day. It is over quickly, and you have to pay attention all the way through. It is a dark and lovely poem, written by the possessor of a sinister wit. It is a deep pool in an enchanted forest.
Muriel Spark wrote a very nice piece for The New Yorker in which she described her years at James Gillespie’s High School for Girls in Edinburgh, the inspiration for the Marcia Blaine School of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. What I like about the piece, and what I find remarkable in contrast with this sort of creepy novel, is the lightheartedness, warmth, and happiness with which Spark remembers this bygone epoch of young ladies’ education. This is an education which seems in small ways rather gruesome to me. Most of the young men are gone, for example, because they died in the Great War, and if they didn’t die they were maimed. The science teacher tells the girls “Poor little Tommy Jones/ We’ll see him no more,/ For what he thought was H2O/ Was H2SO4.” And there’s Mr. Gordon, the history teacher, in connection with whom Spark writes, “The innocence of our minds and the universal decency of our schoolteachers’ comportment can be gathered from the fact that he used to make me sit at the front of the class so that he could stroke my hair while teaching, without anyone thinking at all ill of him.”
And yet this time, which seems prime with the makings of a dark novel, inspired Spark’s childhood friend to write, “we had the best life.” Spark concurs: “In spite of the fact that we had no television, that in my home at least we had no electricity all during the thirties (only beautiful gaslight), that there were no antibiotics and no Pill, I incline to think that [she] is right.”
Then Ms. Kay, the inspiration for Jean Brodie herself: “In a sense, Ms. Kay was nothing like Ms. Brodie. In another sense, she was far above and beyond her Brodie counterpart.” Ms. Kay was immediately recognizable to all her former students in Spark’s novel, and remembered fondly by the same. Spark records Ms. Kay’s position on rain gear:
Why make a wet day more dreary than it is? We should wear bright coats, and carry blue umbrellas, or green…I would like to see a gray coat and skirt for the spring, girls, worn with a citron beret. ‘Citron’ means ‘lemon’; it is a yellow with a sixteenth or so of blue. One would wear a citron beret in Paris with a gray suit.
How heavenly to come under the tutelage of Ms. Kay! Reading the happiness with which Spark described her childhood, I vacillated between thinking I had perhaps read too much grotesquery into the novel, and admiring the artistry which turns a picturesque figure of memory and the interwar spunkiness of the youth into the dubious heroines of an unsettling book. Because I was unsettled by this book. What I read into it is the particular weirdness and villainy of women; both the author and her subjects have that hint of the stuff for which they used to burn ladies at the stake. The recurring sentences become incantations, some of them biblical, like an inverted cross. And how else to take the death of stupid Mary Macgregor who, we are reminded with cruel repetition, “ran hither and thither till she died”?
Poor Mary! Miss Brodie tells the girls that silence is golden and calls on Mary to repeat:
Mary Macgregor, lumpy, with merely two eyes, a nose and a mouth like a snowman who was later famous for being stupid and always to blame and who, at the age of twenty-three, lost her life in a hotel fire, ventured, ‘Golden.’
‘What did I say was golden?’
Mary cast her eyes around her and up above. Sandy whispered, ‘The falling leaves.’
‘The falling leaves,’ said Mary.
‘Plainly,’ said Miss Brodie, ‘you were not listening to me. If only you small girls would listen to me I would make of you the crème de la crème.’
The novel is cruel, and often comic in its cruelty. A man exposes himself to Jenny, one of the Brodie set, as she walks by the Water of Leith. After the initial shock and the subsequent parental hindrance of Jenny’s movements, the event “brought nothing but good. The subject fell under two headings: first, the man himself and the nature of what he had exposed to view, and secondly the policewoman” for whom the girls form an intense passion (the Brodie set in their sex talk sound very like the Mitford sisters in theirs).
Spark, who wrote in her memoir of school that she was “destined to poetry by all my mentors,” in her novel uses the tools of poetry to change the sense and meaning of prose in an unnerving way:
That spring she monopolised with her class the benches under the elm from which could be seen an endless avenue of dark pink May trees, and heard the trotting of horses in time to the turning wheels of light carts returning home empty by a hidden lane from their early morning rounds.
There is a rhythm to her writing, even apart from the periodic repetitions.
Sandy, the saboteur of the Brodie set, the betrayer of Brodie, converts to Catholicism, joins a convent and attracts a following by writing a treatise on “the nature of moral perception” called “The Transfiguration of the Commonplace.” Spark, with her incantations and her twisty prose and her new words like “unbrainfully,” in her own way transfigures the commonplace on both the spiritual and literal planes: the sunset is “streaked with blood and puffed with avenging purple and gold as if the end of the world had come without intruding on every-day life.” The girls of the Brodie set compete with each other on the “windswept hockey fields which lay like the graves of the martyrs exposed to the weather in an outer suburb.” And then one pretender to the Brodie set is actually martyred–the nonentical Joyce Emily, urged by Miss Brodie the fascist to venture off in aid of unspeakable Franco.
The novel is not wholly sinister; it has something of the piquant flavor of Spark’s happy school days. I think it is a fine place novel too, with Edinburgh (which, as Sandy finds when she enters the convent, is actually a multiplicity of Edinburghs) making itself felt as the backdrop to the book’s action. The hills that surround them are the Pentland hills, the writers in the girls’ cosmos are Stevenson, Burns, Walter Scott. There is Scottish pride here.
This novel is like Sandy’s eyes–famous for being small, but photographic, and containing manifold secrets. It is a weird little book. I didn’t quite like it first, but now I reckon it among the crème de la crème.