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Skylight Addicts and Private Wonderlands: On the Garret Novel

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Albert Parry’s Garrets and Pretenders, the best and most colorful cultural history of Bohemian artists and their “skylight-addicts,” was first published in 1933. Over the intervening 80 years, the coffee shop seems to have displaced the garret as the prime source of real or imagined literary production, but caffeine is no match for the afflatus that drafty garrets provide. As affordable real estate becomes increasingly scarce — and as a new breed of “micro-units” are cropping up in cities — we should pause to reflect back on the enduring appeal of an imperiled genre: the garret novel.

The two classic 19th century examples are Henri Murger’s Scenes from the Life of Bohemia and George du Maurier’s Trilby, which sings of the “happy times of careless impecuniosity” and of artists “with Paris for a playground, and its dear old unregenerate Latin quarter for a workshop and a home!” Ever since, the increasingly fraught search for an ideal room of one’s own has produced surprising variations on the garret novel.

Despite the garret’s military roots as a watchtower from which “to defend, preserve” (from the Old French, garir), our cultural imagination has long associated those cramped quarters less with archers than with easels. And yet the connection between watchtowers and workshops holds. All good art is obsessive, driven by a compulsion to express and shape, and to be obsessed, etymologically, is to be watched closely, occupied, besieged; Samuel Beckett would describe his postwar burst of writing as the “siege in the room.” Both the observant artist and the watchful sentry, then, are each under attack in their garrets, the latter from without and the former from within.

The following garret novels introduce memorably reclusive protagonists, skylight addicts who, in their zealous guarding of their charmed rooms, stay true to the fortifying history of garrets.

We begin at the last outpost of the garret novel, Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, the romanticizing, embattled heroine of which, likeable or not, galvanizes the genre.

Two female artists, Sirena and Nora, the former internationally renowned and constructing a sprawling installation entitled “Wonderland,” the latter a schoolteacher and artist manqué building dioramas of Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Alice Neel, and Edie Sedgwick in their own “habitats,” agree to share a workshop in a converted Somerville warehouse. The studio is enclosed by a “high chicken-wire fence, in which fluttered the tattered remnants of plastic bags, like flags of the apocalypse.” The insides are of a “bleakness unimagined,” and next door is a factory producing “millions of tiny Styrofoam beads, a particularly noxious undertaking that seemed designed to cause horrible cancers in those who worked there.” There is a mephitic whiff of the demonic about the place that renders the women’s artistic Eden as ripe for corruption as was Adam and Eve’s.

The workshop, at once pestilent and beatific, ultimately teaches Nora a painful but productive lesson: creation and “fouling” are intertwined. Indeed, each woman’s project is an attempt to recreate private worlds even as it exposes them to view. If the studio is a retreat from the world — Sirena’s husband likens it to an elves’ workshop — it finally launches Nora into it, no longer as “the woman upstairs” but as a “murderously furious” artist intent to “fucking well live.”

In Danilo Kiš’s The Attic, we encounter the garret novel in its purest, uncorrupted form:

Hic tandem stetimus nobis ubi defuit orbis. (“Here we finally stand, a place that has fled our earth.”)

So reads the maxim carved into a wall of the titular attic in this enchanting Serbian work. Kiš’s first novel, an English translation of which appeared last year from Dalkey Archive Press, is about a young writer, Orpheus, who is “bound to [his] attic by an unusual, sick passion.” Orpheus devises a site-specific cocktail, “Brandy à la Mansarde,” tames the garret’s legion cockroaches with his lute playing, and sees on its damp walls “wondrous designs of the flora and fauna that bloom and thrive only in dreams.” Who needs an interior decorator amidst such fecund rot?

Among the Belgrade garret’s other advantages, for example a “proximity to the stars,” Kiš stresses its inviolability: “Lord, I’ve been living in that attic as if on another planet!” the protagonist realizes at novel’s end. The Attic is a parody of both the bildungsroman and the classic Bohemian novels of the 19th century, dramatizing as it does the protagonist’s growing awareness of the need to descend from his empyrean heights. For him and his art to mature, he must lower himself, literally, into the world and observe his fellow apartment dwellers rather than the stars.

Orpheus’s dilemma — whether to reign hermetically in his aerie or participate in the “colorful jumble of life” — demonstrates a crucial tension in all novels between a reclusive and an expansive drive; between a retreat into a world of private obsessions and a headlong rush into the great wide world.

Nowhere is this tension more amusingly expressed than with the misadventures of Murphy, Samuel Beckett’s doomed garretphile. Murphy, itself a parodic bildungsroman, chronicles one man’s doomed quest to separate himself from the “big blooming buzzing confusion” around him, a quest that is thwarted — comically and tragically — by the decidedly un-Murphy-like characters around him. That quest is bound up with the anti-hero’s search for the ideal garret. Ever since residing in a Hanover garret as a student, Murphy has been searching for similarly charmed living quarters. However, “what passed for a garret in Great Britain and Ireland was really nothing more than an attic. An attic! How was it possible for such a confusion to arise?” When he stumbles into a job at the Magdalen Mental Mercy seat asylum in London, he is less excited about the prospects of steady employment than his new living quarters: not an “attic, nor yet a mansard, but a genuine garret.”

Paradise at last, it seems, but this is Beckett we’re talking about. The protagonist’s inevitable and explosive demise arises from a faulty gas pipe extending into his garret, a noxious violation of his Edenic space (or the fouling of his Wonderland, to put it in Messud’s terms), the perfect garret he had long sought and finally found. For Beckett, the possibility of establishing such an inviolate cell within the “mercantile Gehenna” of London proves as illusory as Godot’s arrival.

The protagonist of John Cowper Powys’s Maiden Castle, Dud No-man seems as immune to the demands of social life as Murphy. Maiden Castle opens as No-man, a “nameless bastard” and widowed historical novelist, looks up from his bed in his new Dorchester garret and finds that the beams “took the shape…of an elongated and distorted cross.” The rest of the furnishings are similarly charged with its owner’s intensely cerebral, masochistic eroticism and diabolical grotesquerie — martyrs, condemnatory wraiths, and monstrous heraldic carvings. As most Powys heroes do, No-man thrives on such daemonic energies. His garret, with its view of a “region charged with so many layers of suggestive antiquity,” stimulates his historical, psychological, and elemental senses as he writes the erotically charged tale of Mary Channing, the adulteress hanged in 1705 in the nearby Maumbury Rings amphitheatre for allegedly poisoning her husband.

The novel’s conflict derives not from within the spiritually magnetic garret but from without. Maiden Castle is about a man with an intense attachment to solitary enjoyment — sexual, oneiric, imaginative, ambulatory, and masochistic — who is drawn into the very set of social, filial, and romantic relationships from which his intense egotism had so long protected him. But again, the developmental narrative can’t gain traction within the psychically saturated world of the novel’s protagonist. No-man, who describes himself as a “Bronze Age invader” with the soul of a “neurotic nun,” proves ultimately too bizarre, too attached to his garret and environs, to become anything other than what he is.

It would be quite the feat to out-cathect Dud No-man, but Godfrey St. Peter comes close in his attachment to his garret study in Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House. Throughout the novel, St. Peter is exhausted by the professional and familial responsibilities he is too moral to shirk. His malaise obliquely stems from his memories of the “richly germinating” Tom Outland, the deceased student, amateur archeologist, and inventor who had appeared at the Professor’s house years earlier with tales of excavating an Ancestral Puebloan settlement, Cliff City, perched atop the Blue Mesa (a fictionalized Mesa Verde).

The Professor’s House opens as St. Peter is reluctant to move into a new and garret-less house. Despite being “the most inconvenient study a man could have,” it is not without its charms. The attic has a distant view of “a long, blue, hazy smear—Lake Michigan, the inland sea of his childhood,” an idyllic framing that blends into Tom Outland’s similarly hued Blue Mesa. As the Professor lets Outland into his study (to the jealous disapproval of his wife), so does Outland admit the Professor to his elevated sanctuary and shares with him that “glorious feeling…of being on the mesa, in a world above the world.”

If The Professor’s House is dominated by these elevations — Cliff City and the less sublime attic — it is also about the pain of being expelled from them. Both the mesa and the attic are prone to contamination, by a disillusioning commercialization or by (yet another) noxious gas leak. Of all the works, Cather’s is the most elegiac in tone. It best captures the vulnerability of such precious spaces, the pathos of sacrificing them and learning to “live without delight.”

The previous garret novels have staged a struggle between isolation and inclusion, but Thomas Bernhard’s Correction boldly and unequivocally asserts a reclusive vision. As his protagonist, Roithamer, epigrammatically explains: “What we do secretly, succeeds.” A scientist, Roithamer embarks on an architectural project whose audacity would make Howard Roark blanche: a giant Cone in the exact center of the Kobernausser forest (supposedly designed to ensure the perfect happiness of his sister). Roithamer secretly plans the construction from within the garret of an equally audacious project, a house built by his friend Hoeller in “the most impenetrable and so the darkest possible” section of the Aurach gorge. The builder takes possession of Hoeller’s garret so completely that it soon becomes Roithamer’s garret and infused with his thoughts. After the Cone’s completion and Roithamer’s suicide, the unnamed narrator himself takes possession of the garret and undergoes a kind of siege himself, possessed by its Hoeller-garret-thoughts, a Germanic compound noun so mellifluous that it is a small wonder it hasn’t yet gone viral.

At one point, Roithamer calls humans “chronic deserters of original ideas,” a definition of mankind as elegant as it is rueful. The Cone, monstrous in its perfection, is one such original idea, and as such demands a kind of desertion from life. Roithamer wholeheartedly embraces the terror and splendor of isolation, the dreadful necessity to “be absolutely alone in our room” in order to experience the supreme, if awful, majesty of inhabiting a world of one’s own making.

If I have focused too much on the obsessive aspects of garret-thoughts (there’s that Germanic construction again), let me remedy that with a brief demonstration of their conjuring power. In Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan, Gormenghast Castle’s forbidding stone walls virtually seal its inhabitants into a world of “iron ritual.” However, Fuchsia, the reclusive daughter of the castle’s lord, manages to carve out her own “attic kingdom” from within the stony realm, a “world undesecrate” that she fills with imaginary characters:

This was the loft which was for Fuchsia a very secret place, a kind of pagan chapel, an eyrie, a citadel, a kingdom never mentioned, for that would have been a breach of faith — a kind of blasphemy.

It is this wondrous element — secretive, reverential, mythic — that best explains why the garret is so treasured and fiercely guarded by their visionary inhabitants, who devise dreamscapes from within the elevated confines that rival the awesome landscapes without: private Wonderlands, the mystical Dorchester ruins, the sublime darkness of the Aurach gorge, and the richly “germinating” intimations of Cliff City.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

The Silence Artist: On The Selected Letters of Willa Cather

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Willa Cather did not want her letters published, ever. She could not have been clearer or more emphatic on this point. There is, then, a respectable argument that Selected Letters should not be in the world, inasmuch as its publication does violence to the wishes of the very author whose legacy this book’s editors purport to serve. I am inclined to disagree with that argument, but I find it impossible to state the affirmative case for posthumous publication of letters and unfinished texts in terms I would care to defend. The facts of each case are so stubbornly different. To the publication of Fitzgerald’s The Love of the Last Tycoon one is inclined to say “Yes;” to the publication of Hemingway’s True at First Light one is inclined to say “No.” Critical scruples are likely beside the point, in any event. Where there is a market for publication, publication will eventually occur; that is the inexorable commercial logic. One simply wishes it to be done well rather than ill.

The Willa Cather Trust is unusual among such bodies in that its decisions regarding the disposition of Cather’s remnants are made with substantial scholarly input. Here the trustees chose their editors well. Janis Stout is the author of perhaps the best conventional Cather biography (Willa Cather: The Writer and Her World), and Andrew Jewell is the keeper of the substantial Cather Archive at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Stout and Jewell undertook a considerable task of selection, and they seem to have been content to let the letters that survived their winnowing process stand largely on their own. Perhaps they could have done more to place the letters in relief against Cather’s contemporaneous work and the signal events of her life. But they could also have done more harm, through either persistent intrusion or stubborn over-reading of the letters. Their understated approach mitigates any insult to Cather’s privacy done by the choice to publish.

This volume comes 18 years after Joan Acocella’s lacerating New Yorker essay, “Cather and the Academy” (later published in book form as Willa Cather & the Politics of Criticism, which resolved certain conflicts within Cather studies the same way the atomic bomb ended World War II: by destroying one side’s ability to fight. Acocella, herself a feminist and critic of strong conviction, took on the feminist and queer critics in the Cather field, accusing them of shrillness, tone deafness, and ultimately bad faith. These charges stuck, and subsequent readings of Cather have returned to core principles of literary criticism — which is to say they have returned to the texts.

Cather was one of nature’s miracles, possessed from an early age of an unaccountable conviction that she was meant for something. Yes, she was female, and she lived in Nebraska. The world of letters was a long way away in every sense. Cather could not have been unaware of these facts. But as Acocella puts it, Cather simply opened the door to artistic freedom and walked through it. Seeing that there was a door was Cather’s first and greatest feat of imagination. For several centuries of women that had preceded her, there had only been a brick wall, extending in either direction as far as the eye could see. But at the same time that Virginia Woolf labored heroically to give expression to a female artist’s entitlement, Cather simply assumed it.

Another striking thing about Cather as a social being is how little anxiety she appears to have had about status and class, even while rising vertiginously from rural obscurity to warm correspondences with H.L. Mencken, Alfred Knopf, and Sinclair Lewis. She wrote to these “great men” (and some great women, too; Sarah Orne Jewett, for example, was a frequent correspondent) without anxiety, in her own voice, without wheedling or special pleading, displaying an intelligent ease, and her correspondents replied in kind. One is tempted to say that as a woman from Red Cloud, Nebraska, she was so much an outsider as to be free of the more complex and intractable concerns about status from which another young writer, at least mildly acquainted with the “literary” world, might have suffered. But Red Cloud, like any other place, had its hierarchy of name, wealth, and manners, and Cather’s early correspondence demonstrates that she was both attuned to it and respectful of it. Cather was a radical, but she remained a bourgeois radical, keeping the good manners with which she was brought up.

The form and meaning of Cather’s radicalism have been a source of scholarly debate, even discomfort. In style she was avant-garde, but her relation to American modernism was complex and at times even fraught. She claimed enormous personal freedom for herself, and in her writing she depicted the achievement of that freedom for women artists and what it cost them. But her cotton shirtwaist pressed against no barricades. For Cather, freedom was fundamentally an individual rather than a collective project. This stance has been unsatisfactory to some contemporary critics who would prefer to make of her a martyr-activist.

Cather’s letters of 1922 shed light on a difficult episode in her career, which came with the publication of her World War I novel, One of Ours, in which a Nebraska farm boy dies in the fields of France feeling that he has given his life “for an idea.” Cather’s rare anxiety about what she had written is confirmed here in a letter to H.L. Mencken, whose opinion she knew would be pivotal to the book’s reception. The novel, she told Mencken, was one young man’s story, and only that, and should not be read as standing for the experience of an entire generation that went to the trenches. Cather well knew that the prevailing narrative of the war among writers who saw action at the front was otherwise. Mencken, Hemingway, and others savaged One of Ours as the work of a genteel lady novelist, and the book remains one of Cather’s least admired, defended only for its early scenes set in her familiar Nebraska.

From the beginning Cather conceived of her artistic project as that of recording the history of a vanishing way of life, a life that once gone would be gone forever. She set herself up very early as a spiritual archivist of sorts, and her work is full of omens of decline and obsolescence. Even a spiritually resolute novel like Death Comes For The Archbishop is suffused with sadness for something lost.

Yet Cather is the least sentimental of artists.

One of her most striking scenes comes in My Antonia when a hobo commits suicide by throwing himself into a grain thresher. The thresher, a potent symbol of the coming machine society, makes of the hobo what the values of that society would do to the Bohemian farmers of Cather’s youth. If the crucial inflection point of modernity for the next generation of writers was the war, for Cather that point came somewhat earlier, as the farmer’s relation to the land was changed by mechanization and commercialization in the 1890s.

Reading these letters is satisfying in that they tend to confirm our basic sense of Cather as an artist and a consciousness. The “Aunt Willie” of later years is the same woman who wrote O Pioneers!  and The Professor’s House. An integrated and abundantly healthy personality is at hand. This is not say, of course, that Cather lived an entirely happy life. The end for her was lonely, as it is for most people. She perhaps felt that she had received somewhat less than her due, as most of us feel at one time or another. But she had her life, as many of us never do, and against considerable odds.

Cather was not a modest woman. She knew very well what she was and saw no reason to dissemble. But she was also content to let her work speak for itself. This is another sense in which she speaks to us across a large cultural divide. She preceded the age of publicity, and the idea that the personal is political would have seemed to her both foolish and naïve. She died a New Yorker and a devotee of the Metropolitan Opera, but her values were always those of yeomanry, of Red Cloud. Like well-made furniture, her novels strengthen with age, taking on the character of their absent maker. Her reputation is not the largest in American letters, but at this moment it appears to be one of the sturdiest.

Coffee With James Franco

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James Franco walked into the classroom and took the seat next to mine.  No introductions were made: Just a guy in a raggedy hoodie and crisp leather jacket, one of four prospective students ushered in by the director of the Brooklyn College fiction program.  He wore a disaffected manner punctuated with spates of kinetic restlessness.  His hair was dyed orange.  How likely that a movie star would have nowhere better to be on a Thursday night than there with us, fiction-addled freaks?  Wasn’t there something happening at, like, The Viper Room?

We were discussing a story that novelist and workshop leader Joshua Henkin had assigned, “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien (really the story MFA programs assign).  “Desire in fiction” was the ostensible topic.  The guy who seemed to be James Franco focused intently on Henkin, leaning forward now and again so that his leather jacket creaked.  He began to dine on a package of vending machine snacks after tearing the plastic open with his teeth and pouring a few morsels into a cupped hand.

I looked from the page in front of me and up at James Franco and back to the page in front of me where Lt. Jimmy Cross was shifting a pebble around in his mouth while dreaming of his unrequited love for a faraway girl.  A few of my classmates were smiling aimlessly in my general direction (read: James Franco’s general direction).  On the table in front of him was a book: The Professor’s House by Willa Cather.  And, there it was, confirmation in words, a manila folder at his feet whose label read “Franco – NY Schedule.” The urge to smile was now almost overpowering.  I fought it back.

James Franco spoke up, the second prospective student to do so, addressing the point of view of Lt. Jimmy Cross and his comrades in Vietnam: “These are guys who’ve seen things we’ve never seen and hopefully will never see.”

I rose out of silence to make my own comment.  Joshua Henkin said: “That’s a really great point, Jeff.”  Without looking his way again, I thought: James Franco now knows that I made a really great point.  Then: how embarrassing to be patronized in front of James Franco.

When the fifteen-minute break arrived, I asked James Franco about the book he was carrying.  “It’s for… class,” he said, turning to smile on the last word before asking if I knew of anywhere nearby to get coffee.  His manner was bemused, a Jonathan Lethem cartoon man.  He was in his own synch, the pleasure of recognition trailing every gesture, consciousness of that pleasure gleaming in his eyes.  It was part and parcel to the thrill of his being there, the spectacle of someone who had believed in the love of an imagined audience, the romance of possibility.  There was just one thing: I didn’t drink coffee.

When I tell the story to friends, their faces invariably darken.  And I could have saved them that look by simply saying “Sure.” But then I would have been walking across campus in tow to James Franco to get a coffee I didn’t actually drink with James Franco for the sake of telling the story of how I got a coffee with James Franco.  So I pointed him in the direction of another student who was going to get coffee and James Franco turned away.  Then, just as quickly, turned back.  “Thank you,” he said, clasping two hands together, gesture performed as if in a vacuum, no eye contact, beatifically gracious.

Among his brief remarks this past Monday night prior to the Lincoln Center screening of Howl starring James Franco as Allen Ginsberg, the poet Lou Asekoff, retired director of the Brooklyn College poetry program recalled how Ginsberg once burst into his office to say, “I just blew the guy who knew a guy who blew a guy who knew the rough-hewn tradesman who as a boy lay all night in Whitman’s lap.”

Ginsberg considered Walt Whitman a mentor, “Howl,” his expansive “Song of Myself.” For those expecting a character study of the Beats, the new film isn’t it.  It is, instead, a passionate homage to the poem.

The visuals skip between three different fields of reference: an outlaw fantasia animated by Erik Drooker; Ginsberg as played by James Franco in an unshaven interview doing things like sitting on a couch and lighting a stove while talking about his work and again, clean-shaven, in the San Francisco Six Gallery where the poem debuted two years before (1955), actors as Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady in silent tow; and a courtroom drama with Jon Hamm as defense attorney Jake Ehrlich arguing against the poem’s obscenity, David Strathairn as the D.A. Ralph McIntosh arguing to condemn it, in a sort of Humbert Humbert Ladies-and-Gentlemen-of-the-Jury type treatise on literature’s angels and devils.

Each section has high points.  Consider David Strathairn’s delivery of the line, prosecutor Ralph McIntosh’s inadvertent poetry of frustration with Ehrlich’s defense: “I don’t want to box with him, he’s disturbing me.  I open my mouth and out fly fists.”

Regarding creative ferment, Franco as Ginsberg recalls the conversation he had with his therapist on whether or not to leave the buttoned-down life behind, having shunted away feelings of his own desires in favor of a desk job.  How can he possibly part with that order, Ginsberg recalls asking his therapist, when if he does so he may well end up wretched and white-haired and alone?  His therapist, he says, told him to go for it, adding, “You are very charming and lovable and people will always love you.” A gasp of laughter escaped from the movie theater audience.

In the Q&A session that followed the screening, with directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman seated up front alongside their star, an audience member asked BC (and Columbia and NYU) MFA alum James Franco, what he made of his role as a cultural icon, or one rapidly in the making?  Answered Franco, “I hope to bring attention to some areas being passed over, or dying, lost in the shuffle—you know, poetry is something that doesn’t get a lot of attention, so if I can help bring it some attention, that’s not a bad thing.”

The evening ended and almost everyone took to their feet, a crowd of admirers clotting the exit lane around the movie star, writer and artistic frontiersman James Franco.  I couldn’t help it—I was smiling.  Okay, I had passed up on coffee.  Perhaps, in a life not without its stupid moves, it was the stupidest of all: my friends’ faces say as much.  Fame is voracious, and who hasn’t hungered for it?  But alone on my row, looking to the front of the theater, I saw—I know that I was seeing—in some literary way, through the fever of my belief in the immortal word, the image of a different kind of friend: one I could trust to carry a dream forward.

Literature in Lieu of the Tour Guide: Fiction (and Non) to Take on Vacation

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On the last Sunday in November, book critic Adam Begley scooped Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd for the top spot in the New York Times most emailed list. Not with a review though. Instead, he wrote an excellent piece about Florence for the travel section, in which he recommended E.M. Forster’s Room with a View as a kind of literary guidebook to the city. The Florence piece came several months after Begley employed the same tactic to tour Sicily, that time with Giuseppe de Lampedusa’s The Leopard in his pocket.Those two pieces inspired me to think about other novel-city pairings. Last June, The Millions ran a guest post from novelist Joan Silber, in which she detailed some of her favorite books for enriching a trip abroad. Here I have something slightly different in mind: novels that allow you to follow Forster’s advice to leave the guidebook at home (and instead replace it with a great work of fiction). So, without further ado:The American southwest: Try Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House for its stark descriptions of a New Mexico mesa.If you don’t know Boston already, let Henry James introduce you with The Bostonians, his story of love and politics in the 19th-century city.It feels cheap, I know, to make John Grisham your tour guide, but I devoured The Client on a boat trip up the Amazon and don’t regret it a bit. If, for some reason you’re looking to weigh down your trip to Brazil, go with Claude Levi-Strauss’ Tristes and TropiquesSee the Windy City through the eyes of Dreiser’s classic Sister Carrie, which renders a teeming, if not always hospitable portrait of Chicago.I like Graham Greene for Cuba, with Our Man in Havana. Greene recurs a lot in this list, so in order to get it out of the way all at once: London (The End of the Affair); Mexico (The Lawless Roads or The Power and the Glory); Switzerland (Doctor Fischer of Geneva); Vienna (The Third Man); Vietnam (The Quiet American)There’s still no better guide to Dublin than James Joyce (The Dubliners).Greece: Bring along The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller.E.M. Forster’s good for Florence. He’s also good for intrigue in colonial India: A Passage to India.It’s always a decision, do you want to see a place through the eyes of a perceptive foreigner or a local? In Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and The City you get both.Jerusalem: Mark Twain voyages to the ancient capital in The Innocents Abroad. How can you resist?London: OMG. Ready to party? Try and keep up with Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. A jaded post-colonial? Nick Hornby’s About a Boy. Prefer to delve into immigrant life? Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Or, if you take your London straight up, there’s no better pour than Bleak House by Dickens.Try Joan Didion’s Miami if you have half a mind not to come back.I can think of nothing finer than New York in the hands of E.B. White: Here is New York.Paris: Again, are you going for the expat experience or the genuine article? If the former, go with James’ Portrait of a Lady or Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. But for my money, see the city like a native. Stendahl’s The Red and the Black.The great Russian novels are like a trip abroad no matter where you read them. Try Crime and Punishment or Gogol’s “The Nose” and “The Overcoat” for St. Petersburg.Switzerland has inspired some great books in addition to the aforementioned Greene. There is Twain again with A Tramp Abroad and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.I conclude the list with wanderlust. Books and foreign places are a fitting pair. There will always be more of both than there is time. This is of course anything but an exhaustive list. I’d love to hear what books you recommend in lieu of a tour guide.

Willa Cather, the Greatest American Novelist?

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I’ve sampled Willa Cather recently after a knowledgeable friend suggested she might be a sleeper candidate for the greatest American novelist. Well, after reading My Antonia and The Professor’s House I have to say, I don’t see it. There are particular things about both books that did not grab me, but to sum up my reaction, I’ll borrow a concept from Harold Bloom, who wrote in his introduction to The Western Canon that one quality shared by all canonical texts is their fundamental strangeness, their unlikeness to anything that came before them. I just did not find there to be much at all strange about either Cather novel.I did, though, find her writing to be affecting and original when depicting the landscapes of her stories – the American southwest in The Professor’s House and the Nebraska plains in My Antonia. She has a talent for melding her characters with their surroundings, so that their lives appear as consequential, and as fleeting, as a summer’s growth of corn. From My Antonia:The windy springs and the blazing summers, one after another, had enriched and mellowed that flat tableland; all the human effort that had gone into it was coming back in long, sweeping lines of fertility. The changes seemed beautiful and harmonious to me; it was like watching the growth of a great man or a great idea. I recognized every tree and sandbank and rugged draw. I found that I remembered the conformation of the land as one remembers the modeling of human faces.

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