I took Purity in one long gallop, reading it over four days at my friend’s house. Sarah had already read it, and was desperate for me to hurry up and finish so we could talk about it. The minute I put it down, I went to go find her. She was wearing clean white shorts and a miraculously uncreased blue linen shirt. I was wearing a regretted purchase from H&M — a white cotton dress with little roses on it that looked fine in the shop, but depressing on me. I told Sarah that I’d finished and she said, “Have you noticed,” she asked, “the clothes thing?”
Yes, the clothes thing. The whole point of Jonathan Franzen is the richness of his description, his eye for a telling detail. Where are all the clothes, then? Why are there almost no descriptions of what anyone is wearing? It seems like the most amazing oversight. How is it possible that two characters can have an extremely detailed conversation about a third character being “jealous of the internet”, or that we are subjected to a long and over-vivid description of Pip’s boring job, or the smells of different kinds of soil, and yet we are given almost nothing in the way of clothing? They all might as well be walking around naked. The only detailed description of an outfit in the first section, for instance, is the following: “she saw Stephen sitting on the front steps, wearing his little-boy clothes, his secondhand Keds and secondhand seersucker shirt.” The word “seersucker” is latched onto and used twice more (“she whispered into the seersucker of his shirt”; “she said, nuzzling the seersucker”). It gets slightly better as the novel progresses, but not by much. The first time Pip sees Andreas Wolf, for instance, his “glow of charged fame particles” are vividly described, but his clothes? No. Even Tom’s mother’s significant sundress is described only as being “of Western cut.” It’s unsettling.
I know this to be a petty criticism, but there are all kinds of nerds who write long, aggrieved blog posts about how some novelist got a car wrong, or misdated the death of an actress. Clothes have always been important to me, and while their fictional depiction might be beneath some people’s notice, it is always one of the first things I see. Clothes aren’t just something one puts on a character to stop her from being naked. Done right, clothes are everything — a way of describing class, affluence, taste, self-presentation, mental health, body image. Clothes matter. Besides all that, clothes are fun. Descriptions of dresses got me through War and Peace. I think about Dolores Haze’s outfits on a near-daily basis (“check weaves, bright cottons, frills, puffed-out short sleeves, snug-fitting bodices and generously full skirts!”) I think about her cotton pyjamas in the popular butcher-boy style. Holden Caulfield’s hounds-tooth jacket, and Franny Glass’s coat, the lapel of which is kissed by Lane as a perfectly desirable extension of herself. Sara Crewe’s black velvet dress in A Little Princess, and the matching one made for her favourite doll. The green dress in Atonement (“dark green bias-cut backless evening gown with a halter neck.”) Anna Karenina’s entire wardrobe, obviously, but also Nicola Six’s clothes in London Fields. Nicola Six’s clothes are fantastic.
Aviva Rossner’s angora sweaters and “socks with little pom-poms at the heels” in The Virgins. Pnin’s “sloppy socks of scarlet wool with lilac lozenges”, his “conservative black Oxfords [which] had cost him about as much as all the rest of his clothing (flamboyant goon tie included).” May Welland at the August meeting of the Newport Archery Club, in her white dress with the pale green ribbon. I quite often get dressed with Maria Wyeth from Play It As It Lays in mind (“cotton skirt, a jersey, sandals she could kick off when she wanted the touch of the accelerator”). I think about unfortunate clothes, as well. I think about Zora’s terrible party dress in On Beauty, and about how badly she wanted it to be right. The meanest thing Kingsley Amis ever did to a woman was to put Margaret Peele in that green paisley dress and “quasi-velvet” shoes in Lucky Jim. Vanity Fair’s Jos Sedley in his buckskins and Hessian boots, his “several immense neckcloths” and “apple green coat with steel buttons almost as large as crown pieces.”
This list changes all the time, but my current favorite fictional clothes are the ones in A Good Man is Hard to Find. There is no one quite like Flannery O’Connor for creeping out the reader via dress. Bailey’s “yellow sport shirt with bright blue parrots designed on it” contrasts in the most sinister way with the The Misfit’s too tight blue jeans, the fact that he “didn’t have on any shirt or undershirt.” I’d also like to make a plug for one of The Misfit’s companions, “a fat boy in black trousers and a red sweat shirt with a silver stallion embossed on the front of it.” Any Flannery O’Connor story will contain something similar, because she used clothes as exposition, as dialogue, as mood. Anyone to who clothes matter will have their own highlight reel, and will argue strenuously for the inclusion of Topaz’s dresses in I Capture the Castle, or Gatsby’s shirts, or Dorothea Brooke’s ugly crepe dress. They will point out, for instance, that I have neglected to mention Donna Tartt, top five fluent speaker of the language of dress. What of Judge Holden’s kid boots, in Blood Meridian? What about Ayn Rand, who, as Mallory Ortberg has noted, is just about unparalleled?
The point is, we do not lack for excellent and illuminating descriptions of clothes in literature. Given such riches, it is perhaps churlish to object to the times when people get it wrong. Haven’t we been given enough? Apparently not. Just as I can think of hundreds of times when a writer knocked it out of the park, attire-wise, (Phlox’s stupid clothes in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, all those layers and scarves and hideous cuffs), I can just as easily recall the failures. There are a variety of ways for an author to get clothes wrong, but I will stick to just two categories of offense here.
1. Outfits that don’t sound real
Purity again, and Andreas’s “good narrow jeans and a close-fitting polo shirt.” This is wrong. Andreas is a charismatic weirdo, a maniac, and I struggle to believe that he would be slinking around in such tight, nerdy clothes. Another jarring example is Princess Margaret’s dress, in Edward St. Aubyn’s Some Hope: “the ambassador raised his fork with such an extravagant gesture of appreciation that he flicked glistening brown globules over the front of the Princess’s blue tulle dress.” The Princess here is supposed to be in her sixties. Would a post-menopausal aristocrat really be wearing a blue tulle dress? Is the whole thing made out of tulle? Wouldn’t that make it more the kind of thing a small girl at a ballet recital would choose? St. Aubyn’s novels are largely autobiographical, and he has mentioned in interviews that he met the allegedly blue-tulle-dress-wearing Princess on a number of occasions. Maybe that really is what she was wearing. It doesn’t sound right, though, or not to me.
One last example, from The Rings of Saturn: “One of them, a bridal gown made of hundreds of scraps of silk embroidered with silken thread, or rather woven over cobweb-fashion, which hung on a headless tailor’s dummy, was a work of art so colourful and of such intricacy and perfection that it seemed almost to have come to life, and at the time I could no more believe my eyes than now I can trust my memory.” One believes the narrator, when he says that he cannot trust his memory, because this actually doesn’t sound like a dress, or not a very nice one. It sounds like a dress a person might buy from a stall at a psytrance party. The word “colourful” here is a dead giveaway that the narrator does not necessarily have a particular dress in mind: what kind of colours, exactly? “Intricate” is also no good — it seeks to give the impression of specificity, but is in fact very vague.
2. Outfits that make too much of a point
Many people are suspicious of fashion. They do not trust it or like it, and, while they see that it serves a purpose, they wish it was somehow enforceable to make everyone wear a uniform at all times. Deep down, they also believe that anyone who does take pleasure in it is lying to themselves, or doing it for the wrong reasons. I argue with such people in my head all the time, because this is not what clothes are about for me, at all. I argue with the books they have written as well. To be fair to Jeffrey Eugenides, he is mostly excellent on the subject of dress. The Lisbon girls’ prom dresses and the Obscure Object’s High Wasp style are in my own personal highlight reel. The Marriage Plot is different, though. It is deeply cynical on the subject of dress. Clothes in that novel are always an affectation or a disguise, a way for a character to control the way others see her.
Here is Madeline, getting Leonard back “Madeleine … put on her first spring dress: an apple-green baby-doll dress with a bib collar and a high hem.” Here is Madeline, trying to seem like the kind of girl who is at home in a semiotics class: “She took out her diamond studs, leaving her ears bare. She stood in front of the mirror wondering if her Annie Hall glasses might possibly project a New Wave look…She unearthed a pair of Beatle boots … She put up her collar, and wore more black.” And here is Madeline, failed Bohemian, despondent semiotician, after she has gone back to reading novels: “The next Thursday, “Madeleine came to class wearing a Norwegian sweater with a snowflake design.” After college, she realizes that she can dress the way she has always, in her haute-bourgeois heart, wanted to dress: like a Kennedy girlfriend on holiday. Another costume, for a girl who doesn’t know who she really is. The problem with these clothes is not that they don’t sound real, or that they are badly described. It’s that Madeline only ever wears clothes to make a point, to manipulate or to persuade her audience that she is someone other than she really is. Worse, there is the implication that she has no real identity outside from what she projects. It’s exact opposite approach to O’Connor’s wardrobe choices in A Good Man is Hard to Find. The guy in the red sweat shirt, with the silver stallion? He is not wearing those clothes for anyone but himself. Same with The Misfit and his frightening jeans.
Those who are suspicious of fashion tend to believe that people (especially women) only ever wear clothes as a form of armor, a costume, and never because they get pleasure out of it. Madeline, in other words, doesn’t wear clothes because she likes them, but because she likes what they do. I find this line of thinking very depressing.
There are other categories (clothes that I think sound ugly, clothes in over-researched historical novels where the writer takes too much relish in describing jerkins and the smell of wet leather etc.), but these two stand out. I’m not asking for anything too excessive — just a few more details, a bit more effort when getting a character dressed. Clothes matter, to some of us, and we need to see them done right.
Image: John Singer Sargent, Wikipedia
In the author’s note to the 2004 National Book Award-winning novel The News From Paraguay, Lily Tuck points out that many of the 19th-century events that take place in the book are both little known and complicated, and as a result the need to explain and the need to dramatize are in conflict. “What then, the reader may wonder, is fact and what is fiction?”
We find ourselves up against the same conundrum while reading Tuck’s latest book, The Double Life of Liliane. The press blurb calls it her most autobiographical book to date, and yet on the back cover it is marketed as fiction. This time there is no author’s note to acknowledge that liberties have been taken, that some characters are based on real people and some are invented. Instead, we resort back to the author’s note in The News From Paraguay and assume that the same principle applies: “My general rule of thumb is whatever seems most improbable is probably true.”
The Double Life of Liliane combines pick-and-mix tropes and themes of Tuck’s earlier work. Like I Married You For Happiness (2011), the book charts the course of a life over a specific period, plays out partly in Paris, and eschews the simple past for the simple present. There is an appended creative writing sample which will later be worked into Siam: Or the Woman Who Shot a Man (1999), and two separate episodes — a professor of linguistics falling off a moving train and a French family fleeing Europe for Lima in the 1940s — are reprised from (and are possibly source material for) two stories from the collection The House at Belle Fontaine (2013). And then there is a heroine who is magicked by the novels of the Italian writer Elsa Morante – not unlike Lily Tuck who wrote Woman of Rome: A Life of Elsa Morante (2008).
Tuck has said in interviews that with The News From Paraguay she did not want to write a traditional historical novel. By the same token, The Double Life of Liliane is neither a traditional autobiography nor a conventional novel — and is all the better for that. The book opens with Liliane flying alone from New York to Rome, shuttling from one parent to another. We are given only scraps about her: she is young and pretty and she speaks English at home with her mother and French with her father in Rome. Shortly after landing, instead of building her up and fleshing her out, Tuck screens Liliane off and tells her father’s story.
Rudy is a German assimilated Jew who, in 1933, left his native country for Paris where he got married, had a child, and founded a film production company. When Adolf Hitler invaded Poland, Rudy was wrenched from wife Irène and daughter Liliane and first put in an internment camp and later drafted into the Foreign Legion. After the war, despite becoming a naturalized French citizen, Rudy moved to Rome and made his name in cinema. When Tuck returns to the present — that is, somewhere in the early 1950s — it is to show Liliane on her Roman holiday, reveling in her father’s glamorous world: being driven around in his silver Lancia, lounging in his expensive apartment, lunching in fashionable restaurants, and rubbing shoulders with movie stars.
Before Liliane’s double life can truly unfold, Tuck has another parent to introduce and a second set of origins to explore. Irène’s background is more detailed because Tuck expands to cover her two older sisters. All three enjoy a childhood in Berlin until bombs fall and blitz their roomy Charlottenburg family apartment. Oldest sister Uli runs away from home and lives on a sisal estate in Tanganyika, while Barbara, the aunt of whom Liliane is particularly fond, cavorts with American soldiers in Innsbruck and goes on to establish a medical practice in Rhode Island. Irène, the most reserved of the three and also “the loveliest,” is shown fending for herself during her husband’s detainment. One day in 1940 she becomes tired of waiting — waiting for her husband to come home and “waiting for the German troops to march into Belgium, into the Netherlands and Luxembourg” — and flees Paris with Liliane for Portugal. In another jump-cut to the present, Tuck reveals that Irène now lives in New York City with second husband Gaby. She paints with oils and goes to an exercise studio, yet for Gaby she is exotic, mysterious: a “German-French divorcée, with a past and with an eight-year-old child.”
From here, Tuck brings Liliane to the fore, all the while keeping her relatives in sharp relief. Liliane’s story proceeds, for the most part, chronologically — from that eight-year-old child to a Harvard student — but Tuck enlivens her narrative by regularly breaking off and changing tack, using tangents, flashbacks, fast-forwards, and stories within stories to give us a fuller, more complex but also more interesting picture. In addition to regular flits between New York and Rome, we accompany Liliane on trips to Peru and Maine. In Capri she looks for Elsa Morante but instead meets her husband Alberto Moravia. Over the years she learns horse-riding and ballet, begins a novel about Heathcliff’s years away from Wuthering Heights, is afflicted by nightly terrors and her stepfather’s nocturnal visits, and spends days with school friends, grandmothers, besotted older men, and her father’s mistresses. Interlarding episodes or milestones in Liliane’s life is an account of Rudy’s perilous escape from occupied France and Irène’s wartime affair with “romantic, dashing, impetuous, lucky, sexy Claude.” Blanketing the whole proceedings is a conspicuously loud silence from both parents about the family’s Jewish heritage. “Is it a cover-up or a form of anti-Semitism?” Tuck asks. “More likely — and more generously — Liliane thinks her parents were blocking out the horror of the Holocaust by not discussing their past.”
Liliane’s “life” is diverting, and at times intriguing, but in no way can it be termed remarkable. Tuck lingers only long enough over each event to give it credence; otherwise Liliane’s experiences are thin, lean, relatively weightless. The people she mingles with are typical Tuck characters: recognizable but hardly memorable; guarded, aloof, parsimonious with their feelings; vague outlines rather than striking page presences. All of which of course constitutes not an artistic shortcoming but a deliberate stylistic ploy, one that compels the reader to appreciate bare-bones storytelling and minimalist scenes over warts-and-all portraiture and barnstorming set-pieces. Thoughts and deeds matter to Tuck, only the former are stunted and the latter elliptical, and it is up to us to make sense of them. “I hope my readers will read my work with imagination,” Tuck said in a recent New York Times piece. For her work to pay dividends, there is no other way to read her.
Tuck has confessed to being a pruner of adjectives and an enemy of adverbs, but what she avoids more often here is mention of Liliane’s age and era. In this book, Tuck’s priority seems to be not sparseness but elusiveness. Liliane is suspended in a kind of temporal limbo. “How old is she then?” Tuck asks at the outset, feigning authorial uncertainty. “Nine? Ten?” Later, in Capri, Alberto Moravia asks the same question — “Seventeen, eighteen?” — and again, nothing is pinpointed, we have to make do with approximations. A similar evasiveness is at work when Irène is reunited with Uli: “The two sisters have not seen each other in how many years? Fifteen? Twenty? Not since before the war!” Irène’s age is also undisclosed. We are told that she was born in Berlin but that “she does not like to give out the year.” Time flows stealthily throughout this chronicle, with dates largely going unmarked. The reader can only gauge junctures by extrapolating from what Liliane does and what goes on around her: fashions, songs, exams; lecherous men and gradually infirm parents; youthful follies and adolescent vices.
As if to counterbalance hazy characters and half-told adventures, Tuck sprinkles her narrative with hard, ascertained historical fact. There are potted biographies of famous deads, some of whom are distant offshoots in Liliane’s family tree (Mary, Queen of Scots, Moses Mendelssohn), plus synopses and production details of Italian films her father works on. When Liliane’s Aunt Uli worries about violence in neighboring Kenya spilling over into Tanganyika, Tuck seizes the opportunity to expound on the brutalities inflicted by the Mau Mau and under British colonial rule. Liliane’s grandmother’s back-story incorporates a crash-course on interwar Germany, covering hyperinflation, Hitler’s rise to power, and Jewish persecution.
Writers frequently become unstuck when integrating such external material. When facts resemble research then readers are alert to the crude joins, the unleavened mix. Tuck delves boldly into history but appropriates with care, blending in relevant segments rather than grafting on incongruous chunks. She has strategies for conveying historical facts seamlessly — a tour guide’s speech, a grandmother’s yarns, a professor’s lecture — and ensures that each tidbit is purposeful, there either to edify or embellish.
However, on occasion her historical detours feel contrived, relying too much on tenuous hypotheses. Liliane’s plane flies over Roman aqueduct ruins — “And had she been a little older and studied Roman history at school, she might have known how by the fourth century BC, due to rapid growth of the population and thus the need for a greater water supply, the Romans had begun to build aqueducts that carried water all the way from springs in the Apennine Mountains.” Elsewhere, Tuck’s riffs and meditations prove counterproductive and stall narrative momentum. Characters don’t arrive promptly at their destinations because Tuck stops to recount the history of a street; they check into hotels and attend universities, but can’t proceed further until Tuck has rattled off a roll-call of illustrious guests and alumni.
But these amount to minor infelicities which only fleetingly frustrate. In the main, Tuck expertly fuses world history and four-generation family history, fact and fiction. She utilizes photographs, letters, and poetry and engages with and reflects on war, memory, and humanity. In all of this, W.G. Sebald looms large over the page. Here is a writer whose books also resist orderly classification, with Vertigo designated “fiction” but The Emigrants curiously categorized as “fiction/history.” One special technique shared by both writers is the deft movement from one topic or historical aspect to another. At the beginning of The Rings of Saturn (“memoir/travel/history”), Sebald skips artfully from a description of his Suffolk walk to his spell in hospital one year previously, and then from a recollection of a dead friend to the mystery of Thomas Browne’s skull, with peripheral musings on Franz Kafka and Gustave Flaubert along the way. Tuck performs a similar trick by hopping from Liliane’s grandmother in Ithaca to her Uncle Fritz’s academic life to the death of a Luftwaffe gunner, alighting at intervals on Vladimir Nabokov and the city of Karlsruhe, and inserting a photograph of a German death certificate and an excerpt from the text of a Thomas Tallis hymn. What could have been a messy hodgepodge is instead a graceful ripple-effect, like watching a skimmed stone spawn one neat circle after another, only without any diminishment in size or force.
Unlike Sebald, Tuck distrusts her readers’ ability with languages and feels obliged to translate every foreign word she cites. “Mon dieu, les allemands!” goes one urgent cry. Tuck is immediately at hand to rescue baffled readers: “My god, the Germans!” Later, Irène criticizes the converted troopship that carries her and Liliane and hundreds of displaced Eastern Europeans across the Atlantic. “‘A floating flophouse,’” she says. ‘Un bordel’ — a brothel, she adds in French.”
Towards the end of the book, Liliane’s professor Paul de Man tells his seminar students that Marcel Proust’s great work is meant to be autobiographical and yet “it is impossible to tell what is fact and what is fiction.” Tuck may well have heeded those words and set out, decades later, to blur boundaries and genres in a literary treatment of her early life. Maybe Tuck’s father was bailed out by Josephine Baker when he was stranded in France. Maybe Tuck did have a medical Aunt Barbara who was summoned to the White House to look at the blemishes on the First Lady’s face. And maybe Tuck did turn heads and break hearts and fly out to meet a pining boyfriend in Bangkok. After a fashion we stop questioning how much of what we are reading is memoir and how much of it isn’t, and simply surrender to the elegant, limpid prose of this, the most beguiling work of Lily Tuck’s career.
At the end of May 2015, during the first stirrings of the summer, I drove out to Bromley with my son, Dylan, in search of something to read. For some five miles, the road runs through the grey monotony of London’s southernmost suburbs, past stone-clad, semi-detached family homes, beneath drooping silver elms planted kerbside generations ago, past The Crooked Billet, now a Harvester family restaurant, once the site of wartime disaster. The large structure stands in a car park that is never more than half-full of hatchbacks, and, on a sandwich board perched half-on and half-off the path leading up the front door, the all-you-can-eat salad buffet is celebrated in garish lettering. On November 19th, 1944, the original Crooked Billet pub was destroyed when a V2 rocket struck. 27 drinkers died. I imagine them as elderly men in drab colours, leaning against the bar, knocking spent tobacco from their pipes, finishing off the dregs of Kentish pints, blinking obliviously as the silver rocket explodes. The Harvester restaurant, taking its name from its destroyed predecessor, now hosts families attracted by the promise of cheap burgers and the surf ‘n’ turf special, all sure to hold their faces above the sneeze screen at the salad bar, the Perspex roof sheltering the tired lettuce and dumb-cut onion. I once asked a teenage waiter, whose purple acne rose above his collar and across his Adam’s apple, if he knew any detail of the rocket attack. He narrowed his eyes as if I were mocking him. He cleared his throat, shook his head, took my drinks order.
W.G. Sebald was born in the same year that the V2 rocket struck this South London pub. In 1929, his father joined the Reichswehr. It was Ernest Röhm’s desire to merge his Sturmabteilung (SA) with the smaller Reichswehr, its troop numbers limited by the Treaty of Versailles, that provoked the Night of the Long Knives (1934), during which the Nazi regime murdered Röhm, the leadership of the SA, and many other political figures considered a threat to Adolf Hitler’s newly gained power. Arriving in Bromley, I parked the car, a silver Ford Escort, in the South Street car park. A row of tired trees screened the lot from the adjoining road. Having forgotten to bring change, I attempted to pay for the parking ticket using my mobile phone. A bright poster, stuck to the side of the silver parking meter, promised easy electronic payment through a variety of online media. I attempted to download the iOS app, but forgot my password. I was given three chances before my account was locked. There is an absence of technology in Sebald’s work. He wrote in a world coming to terms with the Internet. His first “novel,” After Nature, was published in 1988. His last, Austerlitz, in 2001, the year of his death. Sebald described the impact of dogs on his writing:
But I never liked doing things systematically. Not even my Ph.D. research was done systematically. It was done in a random, haphazard fashion. The more I got on, the more I felt that, really, one can find something only in that way — in the same way in which, say, a dog runs through a field. If you look at a dog following the advice of his nose, he traverses a patch of land in a completely unplottable manner. And he invariably finds what he is looking for. I think that, as I’ve always had dogs, I’ve learned from them how to do this.
His books are as strange as his analogy, as charming too. Ostensibly, they are a mixture of fiction, recollection, anecdote, and factual writing. Can we trust Sebald’s words? It doesn’t matter. The fragmented motifs, repeated images, are scattered throughout the texts and sweep you along to a conclusion, at which there magically appears sense to the whole. Verily, the field has been thoroughly sniffed out. I imagine it’s something like listening to a piece of classical music, if I were to listen to classical music. I didn’t sniff my way to Bromley Waterstones, one of the few bookshops in this, the largest of London boroughs. I used Google Maps. From the car park, we walked up South Street and turned right at the larger Tweedy Road. I thought of the album released the previous year by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and his son. It’s an album written for Tweedy’s wife, suffering from lymphoma. I can only listen to it when happy. I don’t want my three year old to ask why Daddy is crying, not least because I would struggle to answer the question. On Tweedy Road is the old council building, a cut-price version of Wren’s Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich. There is a stone cupola over the entrance porch. The brickwork, stone quoins and window dressings stick like a fishbone in Bromley’s throat. Its appearance is out of keeping with the corporate iron and glass of the town centre’s commercial units. I try to corral Dylan to stand on the stone steps, thinking of taking a picture. He refuses, pointing to the black grill tight and padlocked across the front doors. This was once the town hall, opened in 1906. It is derelict now, put up for sale 10 years ago. Its listing states that it could be easily converted into a conference centre or split into a series of apartment units. It was Dylan who pointed out Sebald’s name in the fiction section of Bromley Waterstones. That morning, I’d seen Sebald’s name in a review of The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century.
Thomas Browne is a figure that appears in Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. He was a rural doctor and essayist in the 17th century. He invented the words “medical,” “precarious,” “insecurity,” and “hallucination.” In his writing, Browne asks questions such as ‘Did Jesus laugh?’ I’d mistakenly thought Sebald to be spelt ‘Sibald.’ I’m unsure why. Perhaps I had in mind the character Siward from Macbeth. Unable to find any of Sibald’s books, I was inured to the inevitability of disappointment. Dylan, thick hands full with his Peep Inside The Zoo not yet paid for but quickly granted as it meant ignoring books with rockets or rifles on their covers, said,
I traced my finger across book spines. Definitely no Sibald.
Dylan nodded to a book that sat facing forward, at his eye-level, positioned above a “bookseller’s selection” index card. Sebald’s books are full of such happy coincidences. This one was Austerlitz, the winner of many literary prizes, and, as with all of the man’s books, difficult to describe in a single sentence. I pulled out The Rings of Saturn and ushered my son away. Wikipedia describes this 1995 novel as “the account by a nameless narrator…on a walking tour of Suffolk.” And, when insisting friends read it, I compare its structure to clicking through a series of Wikipedia links. Sebald discusses the cultivation of silkworm, he discusses the Boxer Rebellion, he discusses Thomas Browne, he describes searching for Thomas Browne’s skull. He describes eating fish and chips in an empty coastal hotel. It’s compelling in a way that clicking through Wikipedia hyperlinks is not. It’s literary in a way that most “serious” novels aren’t, for Sebald feels no obligation to impress upon the reader his literary ability. Robert McCrum calls Sebald “a wonderful vindication of literary culture in all its subtle and entrancing complexity.” “JimtheRim,” on Amazon, gives the book a one star review, stating “I’ve never read such self-important words. It’s for pseuds. The bok is an intangible mess of nonsense.” Whatever anyone else thinks, I enjoy the time spent with Sebald, a man who insisted upon being called Max because he worried that “Winfried” sounded too much like a woman’s name.
My son fell asleep as I drove us home from Bromley. Peep Inside the Zoo fell from his fingers. Its heavy cardboard banged into the footwell and the sound made me start. It began to rain, the drops drumming against the car’s roof. It wasn’t until I’d finished reading The Rings of Saturn, a couple of days later, that I Googled Sebald and read of his life. He died aged 57. His car, a Peugeot 306, collided with a lorry while negotiating a left-hand bend. His daughter, Anna, was a passenger. She survived the crash with minor injuries. Her father did not. The Norfolk coroner reported that Sebald probably died from an aneurysm before his car struck the oncoming lorry. I felt a strange dissonance on reading all this. Did I remember his death being reported? Had I read of it subsequently? I think the reason for the almost uncanny (unheimlich in German, meaning “un-homely”) sensation is that I’d never read a book so full of life as The Rings of Saturn. It felt a cosmic injustice that a writer who’d invested so much soul in his writing should die so young. Thomas Browne, living in the 17th century, when doctors (such as Browne himself) were as likely to kill you as heal you, lived until 77. I am reminded of Abraham Lincoln, whose death, some say, was aided by the unsterilized fingers of “surgeons” attempting to extract the assassin’s bullet from the president’s brain. I clicked from Wikipedia to Amazon and I bought the rest of W.G. Sebald’s novels. Much as when Netflix releases an entire series of episodes at once, I am resisting the temptation to read Sebald’s books all the way through, pausing only to eat, sleep, and visit the toilet. As long as there remains a sentence, a word, unread Sebald must remain alive. To me, at least. In The Rings of Saturn, Sebald describes how the reader of Browne “is overcome by a sense of levitation.” The same can be said of the reader of Sebald.
August is the only month the name of which is an adjective. But is August august? There’s nothing majestic or venerable about it. It’s sultry and lazy. It’s the height of the dog days, over which the dog star, Sirius, was said to reign with a malignity that brought on lassitude, disease, and madness. “These are strange and breathless days, the dog days,” promises the opening of Tuck Everlasting, “when people are led to do things they are sure to be sorry for after.”
It’s not only the heat that can drive you mad; it’s the idleness. Without something to keep you occupied, there’s a danger your thoughts and actions will fall out of order. It was during the dog days of August that W.G. Sebald set out on a walking tour in the east of England in The Rings of Saturn, “in the hopes of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work.” He couldn’t just enjoy his freedom; he became preoccupied by it, and by the “paralyzing horror” of the “traces of destruction” his leisured observation opened his eyes to. It strikes him as no coincidence at all that the following August he checked into a local hospital “in a state of almost total immobility.”
What evil can restlessness gin up in August? “Wars begin in August,” Benny Profane declares in Pynchon’s V. The First World War, one of modernity’s more thorough examples of the human instinct for destruction, was kicked off in late June with two shots in Sarajevo, but it was only after a month of failed diplomacy that, as the title of Barbara Tuchman’s definitive history of the war’s beginning described them, The Guns of August began to fire. “In the month of August, 1914,” she wrote, “there was something looming, inescapable, universal that involved us all. Something in that awful gulf between perfect plans and fallible men.” In some editions, The Guns of August was called August 1914, the same title Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn used for his own book on the beginning of the war, a novel about the calamitous Battle of Tannenberg that exposed the rot under the tsar and helped bring on the years of Russian revolution.
Not everyone is idle or evil in August. Many stay behind as the cities empty out in the heat, as Barbara Pym reminds us in Excellent Women, the best known of her witty and modestly willful novels of spinsters and others left out of the plots novelists usually concern themselves with. “‘Thank goodness some of one’s friends are unfashionable enough to be in town in August,’” William Caldicote says to Mildred Lathbury when he sees her on the street toward the end of the month. “‘No, I think there are a good many people who have to stay in London in August,’” she replies, “remembering the bus queues and the patient line of people moving with their trays in the great cafeteria.”
Put your idleness, if you’re fortunate enough to have some, to good use with these suggested August readings:
The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons by John Wesley Powell (1875)
What better use for idleness than an appreciation of someone else’s industry? In this case, the laconic record of the dramatic first expedition through the unknown dangers of the Grand Canyon by the one-armed geology professor who led it in the summer of 1869.
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford (1915)
Among the threads in Ford’s intricately woven “saddest story” is the date August 4, which runs through the doomed life of Frances Dowell like a line of fate, or of self-destructive determination: it’s the date, among other things, of her birth, her marriage, and her suicide.
Light in August by William Faulkner (1932)
Faulkner planned to call his tale of uncertain parentage “Dark House” until he was inspired, by those “few days somewhere about the middle of the month when suddenly there’s a foretaste of fall” and “a luminous quality to the light,” to name it instead after the month in which most of its tragedy is set.
All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (1946)
Embedded in Warren’s tale of compromises and betrayals is a summer interlude between Jack Burden and Anne Stanton, the kind of young romance during which, as Jack recalls, “even though the calendar said it was August I had not been able to believe that the summer, and the world, would ever end.”
The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers (1946)
It’s the last Friday of August in that “green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old,” and on Sunday her brother is going to be married. In the two days between, Frankie does her best to do a lot of growing up and, by misdirection, she does.
Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (1952)
It’s hard to state how thrilling it is to see the expectations and supposed rules of the novel broken so quietly and confidently: not through style or structure but through one character’s intelligent self-sufficiency, and through her creator’s willingness to pay attention to her.
The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman (1962)
It only added to the aura surrounding Tuchman’s breakthrough history of the first, error-filled month of the First World War that soon after it was published John F. Kennedy gave copies of the book to his aides and told his brother Bobby, “I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time [called] The Missiles of October.”
Letters to Felice by Franz Kafka (1967)
One of literature’s most notoriously failed (and best documented) courtships was sparked by Kafka’s August 1912 encounter with Felice Bauer. By the end of the evening, despite — or because of — what he describes as her “bony, empty face,” he reported he was “completely under the influence of the girl.”
The Family by Ed Sanders (1971) and Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi (1974)
The terrible events at the Tate and LaBianca households on the night of August 8, 1969, were recounted in these two pop-culture tombstones for the 60s, one by Beat poet Sanders, writing from within the counterculture that had curdled into evil in Charles Manson’s hands, and one by Manson’s prosecutor that’s part Warren Report and part In Cold Blood.
The Chaneysville Incident by David Bradley (1981)
Bradley’s nearly forgotten modern classic concerns two incidents in Chaneysville, Pa: the shooting — self-inflicted, the legends say — of 13 escaped slaves about to be captured, and the mysterious August death, a century later, of a black moonshiner of local wealth and power, whose son, in attempting to connect the two, pulls together a web of personal and national history.
“The Fall River Axe Murders” by Angela Carter
Carter’s fictional retelling of the August 1892 murders of which Lizzie Borden was acquitted by a jury but convicted by popular opinion is a fever dream of New England humidity and repression that will cause you to feel the squeeze of a corset, the jaw-clench of parsimony, and the hovering presence of the angel of death.
The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald (1995)
A book — call it a memoir or a travelogue or a novel — grounded in an August walk through Suffolk, although Sebald could hardly go a sentence without being diverted by his restless curiosity into the echoes of personal and national history he heard wherever he went.
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain (2000)
In August, in a seaside village in southwest France, Bourdain tasted his first oyster, pulled straight from the ocean, and everything changed: “I’d not only survived — I’d enjoyed.”
Image Credit: Flickr/Paulo Otávio
We tend to associate W.G. Sebald and his characters strongly with melancholy and sadness. “[T]he figures who populate Sebald’s world are lost souls,” Ruth Franklin has noted, “breaking beneath the burden of their own anguish.” Susan Sontag said that Sebald’s voice has a “passionate bleakness.” “W.G. Sebald’s books…have a posthumous quality to them,” Geoff Dyer stated. “He wrote — as was often remarked — like a ghost.” Others have written about Sebald’s “weary, melancholy wisdom” (Mark O’Connell) and his characters being “racked by conflict between a self-protective urge to block off a painful past and a blind groping for something, they know not what, that has been lost” (J.M. Coetzee).
No wonder, then, that most everything written about W.G. Sebald, at least in the last dozen years, begins with his death. In 2001, Sebald was driving not far from his home in Norwich, England, with his daughter, Anna. We now know he suffered a heart attack, and the car, as a result, swerved into oncoming traffic, where it collided with a truck head-on. Anna, badly injured, survived. Perhaps it is because we connect Sebald so strongly with the past—and that his sad, sudden death seems as tragic as anything in his books— that we cannot get over his own passing. At only 57, and during the prime of a literary career that didn’t bloom until he was in middle age, Sebald left too soon. As much as Sebald wrote about the past — he noted in an interview he was “hardly interested in the future” because there was “something terribly alluring” about the past — we are obsessed with the future that wasn’t, with the books that he didn’t live to write.
Posthumously, however, a few books have been trickling into English, including Across the Land and the Water, a collection of poems; Campo Santo, a collection of essays on Corsica; and now A Place in the Country, a series of six essays on artists Sebald found inspirational. Although this book was first published in German in 1998, it only arrives now in English, translated by Jo Catling; in a way, Sebald has not died quite yet — at least not for us English-language readers.
Reading A Place in the Country, then, marks that sad Rubicon.
“A Place in the Country” opens hauntingly enough, with a foreword written by the author, discussing his reasons for embarking on this work: “The unwavering affection for Hebel, Keller, and Walser,” Sebald writes, “was what gave me the idea that I should pay my respects to them before, perhaps, it may be too late.” (Even Sebald opens an essay with a oblique statement about his own death.) The bulk of the focus here is on German language writers — Eduard Mörike, Johann Peter Hebel, Gottfried Keller, Robert Walser — but the volume also includes a taut exploration of the hyperrealistic pictures of German painter and former Sebald classmate Jan Peter Tripp, and a masterful, long excursion (part travelogue, part biography) into the life of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
I suspect there may be two essential audiences for this type of book. The first are the Sebald enthusiasts, who have gobbled down everything he has written; and the second are those who are genuinely interested in the artists Sebald explores. While the book may have some revelations for the latter group, it seems more likely the Sebald devotees will find more to like.
Each of these essays’ subjects could have fit into Sebald’s fiction — perhaps most especially in The Rings of Saturn, which most closely resembles nonfiction — although here they receive as deep of a consideration as any historical figure in the novels. The deepest and most profound analysis, rightfully, is for Walser, a writer who, Sebald says, “was only ever connected with the world in the most fleeting of ways” and for whom there exists “no reliable answer” as to what he was. Born in Switzerland, Walser was a lonely young ascetic — a “clairvoyant of the small” in his own words — who, Sebald reports, probably died a virgin and didn’t even possess copies of his own books. He only ended up famous posthumously, thanks to the work of Carl Seelig, his champion, who secured the cryptic pencil writings Walser had been incessantly working on toward the end of his life. But despite Seelig, Walser “remains a singular, enigmatic figure.” Here Walser seems a prototypical, aloof Sebald protagonist, akin to the nameless narrator of The Rings of Saturn, who says he sets off on a walk of Suffolk “in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work.” Walser, perhaps the most famous literary walker after Sebald himself, may have been the model for this — and, to some extent, all the others. It is testament to Sebald’s command and distinctive imprint on our imaginations that Walser’s biography now seems utterly Sebaldian. Walser is almost as fine a Sebaldian character as Austerlitz, the eponymous protagonist of Sebald’s final novel.
Nearly equally impressive to the Walser essay — although for different reasons — is the piece on Rousseau, the famous promeneur solitaire. Part travelogue and part biography, Sebald frames the essay around the period the famous philosopher spent on the Swiss Île de St-Pierre. Sebald first sighted the island in September of 1965, some 200 hundred years to the day that Rousseau found refuge there. It takes Sebald another 31 years, however, before he visits the island in 1996.
The Île de St-Pierre was the last redoubt Rousseau possessed in his native Switzerland, and was, he would later report, the place where he was the happiest. Rousseau spent much of his time on the island botanizing, writing ceaseless letters, and drafting a constitution for Corsica. The philosopher’s room was fitted with a trapdoor, to allow Rousseau to escape from visitors’ constant calls, and Sebald provides a memorable imagining of what must have happened there:
When one considers the extent and diversity of this creative output, one can only assume that Rousseau must have spent the entire time hunched over his desk in an attempt to capture, in the endless sequences of lines and letters, the thoughts and feelings incessantly welling up within him.
As he so often does so well, Sebald takes the sins and the tragedy of Rousseau — a man who abandoned all of his children, and who has been the subject of endless character studies and biographical attention — and pulls out something fresh: “No one…recognized the pathological aspect of thought as acutely as Rousseau, who himself wished for nothing more than to be able to halt the wheels ceaselessly turning within his head.” He has much in common with the four exiles in The Emigrants.
While the other German-language writers Sebald focuses on may have made less of an impression on us English-language readers, they are no less important to Sebald. In Keller, Sebald writes, “no other literary work of the nineteenth century can the developments that have determined our lives even down to the present day be traced as clearly…” Like Rousseau — who was a huge influence on Keller’s Green Henry — Keller was a similar victim of thought: for many years, Keller subjected himself to writing, to the “attempt to contain the teeming black scrawl which everywhere threatens to gain the upper hand, in the interests of maintaining a halfway functional personality.” This is a bleak notion of one’s art, but then again, Keller seemed to live a fairly bleak personal life: “From the very beginning, despite a deep need of and evidently inexhaustible capacity for love, Keller’s life was marked by rejection and disappointment.”
Of the avuncular Hebel, Sebald paints a somewhat sunnier portrait, as he does with Eduard Morike, who lived surrounded by women. Yet all — including Walser — Sebald cites as having a certain “unluckiness in love,” which Sebald connects with the beauty of their writing. This notion only seems somewhat silly in retrospect. To be fair, Sebald also cites these artists’ “very long memor[ies],” but one imagines they didn’t hone such an “adeptness at their craft” because of a couple bad breakups. (Or, in Keller and Walser’s case, the lack of a break-up at all.) But, in Sebald’s essays, these fuzzy bits of logic are few and far between — what we are left with is a striking series of stories and feelings, all connected in surprising ways. Ruth Franklin has said that Sebald’s life project was a “a drawing-out of connections primarily through language and image rather than narrative or causality.” In that way, A Place in the Country is a rousing success.
If one was hoping for more insight into the author himself (as I admittedly was), this volume may disappoint. Instead of the mischievous narrators of his fiction — nearly always sharing significant details with Sebald, such as a similar hometown or profession, or through the use of photographs actually taken by Sebald himself — we receive only fleeting, if transparent, glimpses of the writer beneath. (The most interesting may be the importance of his grandfather in Sebald’s life.) But what the book may lack in personal revelations about the author, it makes up for with a better understanding of his process — “an oblique comment on his own style of writing,” as translator Jo Catling notes in her foreword. Much can be gleaned from Sebald’s careful analysis of Hebel and Walser.
Anything more direct and personal would probably have not been fitting, anyway. Sebald’s writing is as much about what is written on the page as what cannot be. (“What Sebald seems to be writing about, in other words,” Mark O’Connell astutely observed, “is frequently not what he wants us to be thinking about.”) It is elliptical, because, it seems, some things have to be; words cannot describe every feeling, every sensation — no matter how many we write — and of all multitudinous topics that would be tough to grasp, perhaps the complexities and depths of our own selves are the most difficult. Even the prodigious Rousseau, Keller, and Walser could not contain half of everything in their works. Walser claimed to be always writing the same book, a novel which could be described as “a much-chopped up or dismembered Book of Myself.” We can take much from the fact he was scribbling up until the very end.
The authors in this volume, Sebald writes, have given him “the persistent feeling of being beckoned from the other side.” Sebald has now become one of these ghosts, haunting us still. Writers “are expected to keep writing until the pen drops from their hand.” Even though the pen was taken from his grasp far too early, we are lucky that Sebald, for a time, held it firm.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Before we get to the pratfalls, some edifying poetry. Seldom do we walk in beauty, “like the night / Of cloudless climes and starry skies,” or move as fluidly as Robert Herrick’s Julia: “Whenas in silks my Julia goes, / Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows / That liquefaction of her clothes.” (Should Don Draper land a women’s fashion line in Mad Men’s final season, he’ll have his pitch.) We are too ungainly for such elegance and more like Maxwell, one of a hundred siblings in Donald Antrim’s The Hundred Brothers, who stumbles into and breaks things “at a rate of about one electrical fixture, decorative serving dish, potted plant, or item of statuary every three days.” And we are too harried and with limbs too extended for the virtuous compression, contractility, and “absence of feet” lauded by Marianne Moore in “To a Snail.” By contrast, our walking is a kind of Carrollian galumphing, which, however silly, can have its own comic grace: Charlie Chaplin’s iconic shuffle or the springy jaunts of Jacques Tati, slightly hunched over like a detective hunting for clues to the strange modern world whose machinery he so often fouls up.
Film and television are best suited to exploit walking’s comic potential, and the flexible comedian best suited to perform the “mechanical inelasticity” Henri Bergson identified as a central feature of the comic. For example, in the famed Monty Python sketch “Ministry of Silly Walks” there is a certain regularity even in John Cleese’s most spastic contortions, his body transformed into a series of independently operating parts instead of an organic whole. Or take Seinfeld’s Cosmo Kramer, whose jerky rhythms make him a walking illustration of “something mechanical encrusted onto the living;” he bursts through doors as if powered by a nitrous boost. But what of funny gaits in literature? If there is something mechanical in comic walks, can novelistic descriptions capture their magic, or will they merely read like operator manuals?
Our literary ramble will not include docented tours through Thomas Hardy’s Wessex and Charles Dickens’s London; nor the strolls in Jane Austen novels during which much is usually decided; nor the flâneur, whose beguiling circumflex and suggestive treatment by Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin prove him too alluring a figure to resist constant theorization; nor the memory-inducing peregrinations in Teju Cole’s Open City, Will Self’s Psychogeography or W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. Rather, our route will include those walks that are less picturesque, less momentous, less worthy of remembrance, those that in their sheer absurdity inspire derision rather than aesthetic revelation. While they can never equal the sublime physical comedy of the Monty Python sketch, these walks still complicate the relatively simple task of putting one foot in front of the other, which is after all what poetry and rhapsodic prose are about: “Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”
Some genealogical background is perhaps necessary at the outset. The greatest comic writer of the Greek tradition, Aristophanes, envisioned our ancestors as four-legged creatures capable of some dazzling acrobatics. Speaking in Plato’s Symposium, he explains that:
They walked upright as now, in whichever direction they liked; and when they wanted to run fast, they rolled over and over on the ends of the eight limbs they had in those days, as our tumblers tumble now with their legs straight out.
A wrathful Zeus eventually cleaves humans in two, leaving us with half our original balance to pursue our romantic search for our missing halves. Aristophanes’s myth also goes a long way towards explaining the limitations of our two-legged gymnasts, who, because of their woefully inadequate anatomy, must pad their floor routines with pointless writhing in between tumbling passes.
If we are literally half the men we used to be, we are also fallen walkers, as our greatest epic poet, John Milton, made clear in his poem about our fall. Satan was a bold walker. Only he answers the call of the fallen angel Beelzebub: “…who shall tempt with wandering feet / The dark unbottomed infinite abyss/ and through the palpable obscure find out/ His uncouth way…?” Find his way — and tempt — Satan does; as a result, the poem famously ends as Adam and Eve “with wandering steps and slow, through Eden took their solitary way.” Fallen man has stumbled across the globe in various undignified strides ever since, from E.E. Cummings’s drunken “big wobbly foot-steps,” to Prufrock scuttling across the silent seas or doddering along the beach with his trousers rolled, to Malvolio, “a rare turkey-cock” in yellow stockings and cross garters who “jets under his advanced plumes,” to Samuel Beckett’s Watt, who, in a clear Miltonic echo, experiences a “manifest repugnancy” each time his feet leave the ground for the “air’s uncharted ways.”
Jonathan Swift’s Laputans best them all with a method so ridiculous that it requires two people to execute. In Gulliver’s Travels, Swift satirizes the head-in-the-clouds quality (literally, given that the island floats above ground) of a race overly devoted to speculative thought. They are a “clumsy, awkward and unhandy people,” at least when it comes to practical considerations and anything not involving astronomical calculations. The frequently cuckholded men are so absorbed in their intellectual pursuits that if presented with a suitably absorbing scientific treatise, they will pay no attention to their wives carrying on with their sublunary lovers in the very same room (providing an explanation for the island’s name that Gulliver’s etymological investigations overlook.) But faithless wives are the least of their problems; the men can’t even walk straight without a servant called a flapper (a climenole in Laputan) walking next to them with a stone-filled bladder tied to the end of a stick. To what end?
This flapper is likewise employed diligently to attend his master in his walks, and upon occasion to give him a soft flap on his eyes, because he is always so wrapped up in cogitation, that he is in manifest danger of falling down every precipice, and bouncing his head against every post, and in the streets, of jostling others or being jostled himself.
On whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to be swatted in the face or to trip over a bush, the Laputans have made their choice. To compare these absent-minded Laputans to the phone-toting distracted drivers of today is less facile than it might seem given that Swift’s robed philosophers are steering not a car but an entire island, which they are only too happy to transform into a weapon should any of their terrestrial colonies rebel.
On the subject of eccentric husbands, I’ve always been struck by the masterful comic portrait of To the Lighthouse’s Mr. Ramsay and his “firm military tread,” a comedy that could get lost amidst Mrs. Ramsay’s — and the novel’s — “delicious fecundity.” Before his wife’s flashing needles give him a much needed “spray” of confidence, Ramsay, variously described as a tyrannical, pathetic, and magisterial figure, is most likely to be found marching on the front lawn and loudly declaiming Tennyson. At one point he almost barges into the painter Lily Briscoe’s work station:
Indeed, he almost knocked her easel over, coming down upon her with his hands waving shouting out, “Boldly we rode and well,” but, mercifully, he turned sharp, and rode off, to die gloriously she supposed upon the heights of Balaclava. Never was anybody at once so ridiculous and so alarming. But so long as he kept like that, waving, shouting, she was safe; he would not stand still and look at her picture.
Were he not tilting at easels on a sparsely populated island in the Hebrides, Mr. Ramsay could be institutionalized for such behavior, eminent philosopher or not. After Mrs. Ramsay’s death, a flustered Lily, now more cognizant of Mr. Ramsay’s pathos, can only think to praise his beloved boots when he comes to her so that she might “solace his soul.” She praises them so effectively — and Mr. Ramsay responds with such longwinded vigor — that “they had reached, she felt, a sunny island where peace dwelt, sanity reigned and the sun for ever shone, the blessed island of good boots.” Perhaps this blessed island is some version of the lighthouse rock reached by Mr. Ramsay and his children at novel’s end. After sailing over with his legs curled up underneath him like an invalid, Mr. Ramsay springs vigorously ashore, a distinctly non-comic version of the heroic stride that was so ridiculous earlier.
The protagonist of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces is less lucky than Mr. Ramsay with his footware. The “lumbering, elephantine” Ignatius J. Reilly is “ready to burst from his swollen suede desert boots” as the novel begins, proving Mr. Ramsay’s contention that bootmakers “make it their business…to cripple and torture the human foot.” Reilly’s being is “not without its Proustian elements,” perhaps because he didn’t learn to walk in “an almost normal” manner until he was five years old. The obese waddle is a comic staple, but Reilly’s particular locomotive delay is key to understanding his “strange medieval mind,” his belief that touring is for degenerates and his reactionary desire for a “strong monarchy with a decent and tasteful king.” He espouses the concept of Fortuna’s Wheel, not so much because it best explains the vicissitudes of fate but because of its circular rather than linear movement. Here is Reilly walking with his mother down the wet flagstones of Bourbon Street:
Outside, Mrs. Reilly took her son’s arm for support, but, as much as they tried, they moved forward very slowly, although they seemed to move sideward more easily. Their walking had developed a pattern: three quick steps to the left, pause, three quick steps to the right, pause.
This method does give Reilly ample time to make his case for stopping at a hot dog cart, but it is also emblematic of the retarding effects of the humorous walk, the aim of which is not so much progress but rather a desultory exploration of a place’s comic possibilities — in his case, an exhaustive one, as he has only left the city confines once (disastrously, on a bus to Baton Rouge).
Lurking in Reilly’s aversion to degenerate touring is a pathological attachment to place that is positively Beckettian. Vladimir and Estragon (who has his own problems with boots) panic each time they contemplate leaving their rendezvous spot with Godot, and the protagonist in Company has “covered…some 25,000 leagues or roughly thrice the girdle [of the Earth] and never once overstepped a radius of one from home.” Given that Beckett’s characters are variously buried up to their heads in dirt, stuck in trash cans, mired in the mud, or confined to a jar on the Rue Brançion, we may forget that despite his circumscribed fictional worlds, Beckett is a great comic chronicler of human motion.
Consider Watt, which recounts the eponymous character’s employ in the house of a shadowy figure, Mr. Knott, who may be even more enigmatic than Godot. The novel begins as Watt journeys to Knott’s house in a “funambulistic stagger” that is both literally and figuratively diverting:
Watt’s way of advancing due east, for example, was to turn his bust as far as possible towards the north and at the same time to fling out his right leg as far as possible towards the south, and then to turn his bust as far as possible towards the south and at same time to fling out his left leg as far as possible towards the north…and so on, over and over again, many many times, until he reached his destination, and could sit down. So, standing first on one leg, and then on the other, he moved forward, a headlong tardigrade, in straight line. The knees, on these occasions, did not bend. They could have, but they did not…
Not the most efficient method, but given that the novel’s most notable event is the arrival of a pair of piano tuners who pronounce the instrument “doomed,” there is no need to rush. Watt’s odd preference for walking “with his back to his destination” is certainly eccentric, but it also displays a certain blind optimism, a faint ember of hope that he will find “the right place, at last.”
To add one final example to our menagerie of walkers, we lurch into an H.P. Lovecraft horror tale and find a stride so inhumanly macabre that it becomes almost comic (as most B-movie adaptations of the Dagon or Cthulhu mythos make clear). “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” betrays a pathological fear of “biological degeneration” that manifests itself in the narrator’s loathing of the Innsmouth natives, those “blasphemous fish-frogs of the nameless design” who hop irregularly through abandoned streets. The tale is partly about an abiding embarrassment over the clumsiness of our ancestors as they crawled forth from the ocean and were literally fish out of water. Aristophanic gymnasts these Innsmouth creatures are not. Fish-like though they may be, their motion at times seems “positively simian.” Particularly noteworthy is their “alien-rhythmed footfalls,” the “dog-like sub-humanness of their crouching gait,” as they surge “inhumanly through the spectral moonlight in a grotesque, malignant saraband of fantastic nightmare.” The narrator feels a growing and uncanny connection to the natives, and thus in a nice touch, he manages to escape partly by imitating their shambling hop. The walk, though feigned, nonetheless reveals a certain truth about his origins. By the end of the tale, and after some timely physiological changes, the narrator becomes a Prufrock with gills who can more than merely fantasize about cavorting with underwater sirens.
And thus we end the walking tour, fittingly, in the “unknown sea-deeps” whence our tetrapod ancestors first emerged to take their uncouth way.
Several years ago, I attended a screening of Kiss Me Deadly at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. Introducing the film, the critic David Thomson remarked of the peacocking protagonist, private detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker), that you can always tell a fascist by his walk. Thanks to Thomson, I was primed for that strut, at once menacing and ridiculous, which so defines the film’s unsavory hero. Thomson’s comment alerts us to the way the human gait expresses who or what we are. In our tour, which to avoid excessive fatigue has necessarily excluded many a worthy ambler, the silly literary walk has proven to produce more than a good laugh. It can resonate allegorically, produce pathos, reveal character, mirror the world’s absurdity, reflect back on the work that contains it, betray an anxiety of our origins, and even indicate a political affiliation. Regardless, no matter how eccentric the walker, each is welcome on the blessed island of boots, where one can do worse than to emulate this concise description from the “Calypso” chapter of James Joyce’s comic masterpiece: “Dander along all day.”
Image Credit: Flickr/southtyrolean
The Englishman Sir Thomas Browne lived in an era rich in destruction, including constant European wars, plagues, fires and the regicide of Charles the First, as Browne himself witnessed. It is no wonder death and the processes of burial should be the subject of his most celebrated work, Urn Burial—a sometimes archeological, sometimes metaphysical treatise on not only burial customs but what the human race hopes to gain from living regardless of what it leaves behind when dying. Now in our era of natural and financial disaster, where death is often exploited but also hidden more and more, Urn Burial has been reissued as part of the New Directions Pearl Series, which celebrates favorite authors in affordable, easy to carry pocket editions. Their minimalist covers progressively show a rhombus expanding in shape and growing in color—perhaps a nod to the company’s rich catalogue.
His life spanning three-quarters of the 17th Century, Browne, a physician, but also a scientist of sorts with his fingers in philosophy and spirituality, filled his writings with rigorous erudition, footnotes in many languages and references to classical literature and the historical leanings of such peoples as the Chaldeans, the Persians and the Scythians. These referents are sprinkled in the sentences of a stylist whose ornamental language and prose rhythms have caused such literary titans as Emerson, Melville, Woolf, Joyce, Borges, Gass and Sebald to praise him enthusiastically. Of the contents of the Roman urns found in Norfolk, England, Browne says:
In sundry Graves and Sepulchres, we meet with Rings, Coynes, and Chalices; Ancient frugality was so severe, that they allowed no gold to attend the Corps, but only that which served to fasten their teeth. Whether the Opaline stone in this Urne were burnt upon the finger of the dead, or cast into the fire by some affectionate friend, it will consist with either custome. But other incinerable substances were found so fresh, that they could feel no sindge from fire.
The consonance of the c- and f-sounds in the last two sentences sends the stirring suppositions of how the ancients might have acted in light of what was left in the urns careening into the reader’s mind. No archeologist ever took such care to construct such luxurious lines for his readership. Browne, on the level of language as well as inquiry, is not that strict, exacting, stereotypically staunch fusspot of science. With wonderment at the last resting place of the Opaline before its reappearance eons later, this excerpt is a poetic pull at assembling history, not a scientific one. Whether his poetic language rubbed his thought less astringent or not, Browne presents himself as more an interlocutor, a foil reflecting the given light of the sun so others many feel a little less dark in their darkness.
Browne’s inquiries at first range around the text without hope of answer, as his reports on the findings are often terminated with the knowledge of no certain knowledge: “…we hold but a wavering conjecture” and “we hold no authentick account.” Yet from this uncertainty Browne is able to later anchor his treatise with an extravagant philosophy of carpe diem:
It is the heaviest stone that melancholy can throw at a man, to tell him he is at the end of his nature; or that there is no further state to come, unto which this seems progressionall, and otherwise made in vaine; Without this accomplishment the naturall expectation and desire of such a state, were but a fallacy in nature.
As Browne details the expedition and the history of our forebears he also steams his looking glass with his own breath. As he curiously contemplates death, more thoughts on death are produced. And yet after asking is there “no further state to come?” Browne finds there is something for the living. His charting of a feeling deep and rich in himself reaches full flavor in the infamous fifth chapter, where the prose bounds and jostles with rhythms, inversions and alliteration. The seer fuels his thought with a faintly Buddhist fatefulness:
Darknesse and light divide the course of time, and oblivion snares with memory, a great part even of our living beings; we slightly remember our felicities, and the smartest stroaks of affliction leave but short smart upon us. Sense endureth no extremities, and sorrows destroy us or themselves. To weep into stones are fables. Afflictions induce callosities, miseries are slippery, or fall like snow upon us, which notwithstanding is no unhappy stupidity. To be ignorant of evils to come, and forgetfull of evils past, is a mercifull provision in nature, whereby we digest the mixture of our few and evil days, and our delivered senses not relapsing into cutting rememberances, our sorrows are not kept raw by the edge of repetitions.
We can’t know what is coming but if we can forget what misery may have accompanied our past we can fly into our future a little lighter with only a slight sorrow at time weighing us down. In contrast to the earlier questioning, Browne is very sure-voiced, speaking as the god who might have created the whole enterprise called “existence” that so troubles and entertains indiscriminately. No matter the custom, no matter the “Coynes” stowed in the urns for the ferryman Charon to give them safe passage across the rivers separating living from the dead, the “precious pyres” for the recently departed bodies—Browne seems to say it is what comes before the last breath that holds the most meaning as the words, “Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible Sun within us. A small fire sufficeth for life, great flames seemed too little after death,” seem to subscribe to.
As the sentences accumulate in the fifth chapter, (George Saintsbury in A History of English Prose Rhythm called it “the longest piece, perhaps, of absolutely sublime rhetoric to be found in the prose literature of the world” and W.G. Sebald in his introduction from his own notable novel The Rings of Saturn, described the sentences as “resembl[ing] processions or a funeral cortege in their sheer ceremonial lavishness”) one can feel how Browne himself lived or burned “always with this hard gem-like flame,” as Walter Pater, in his book The Renaissance, would write as an echo of Browne’s fiery phrase above two hundred years later.
The unearthing of the Roman urns fanned those flames for Browne and sent him to construct a response to his bloody era in a style later called “baroque.” If life ends with death and that is all we know and all we can ever know, Browne knew to breathe in life fully and in the breathing to make it beautiful.
Many of my favorite books – Dracula, The Rings of Saturn, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – came to me as assigned reading. Even more than specific titles, I inherited my favorite authors from professors: Nicholson Baker, Harryette Mullen, Turgenev, George Saunders.
This literary bestowal carries on into adulthood as I seek my favorite authors’ favorite authors. At HTMLGIANT, Blake Butler started a broad compendium of David Foster Wallace’s favorite works, encompassing books he blurbed, books assigned on his syllabus, books mentioned in interviews and in passing. It is a nourishing list, a place to turn when I think about what I should read next.
But my road with the recommendations of my favorite authors has been unpaved and rocky.
I devoured U and I, Nicholson Baker’s endearing, humorous volume on John Updike. I loved that he read the copyright page of each Updike book, tracing where essays or excerpts had been previously published. U and I is about Updike, yes, but it is more about Baker wrestling with Updike’s impact on a personal level. Early in the book he lays it out: “I was not writing an obituary or a traditional critical study, I was trying to record how one increasingly famous writer and his books, read and unread, really functioned in the fifteen or so years of my life since I had first become aware of his existence…”
Because the book is about Baker not about Updike, I found it easy to like. Baker recounts the 125th anniversary party for The Atlantic where Tim O’Brien tells him that he and Updike golf together: “I was of course very hurt that out of all the youngish writers in the Boston area, Updike had chosen Tim O’Brien and not me as his golfing partner. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t written a book that had won a National Book Award, hadn’t written a book of any kind, and didn’t know how to golf.”
And so, under Baker’s tutelage, I read John Updike. More accurately, I tried to read Updike, tried and tried. Rabbit, Run. Pigeon Feathers. The Poorhouse Fair. I didn’t finish any of them, I barely started them. I would have scoured Couples for the passage where Updike compares a vagina to a ballet slipper – which Baker mentions – if I could have gotten through the second chapter.
After quoting his own mother and Nabokov, Baker tells me, “There is no aphoristic consensus to deflect and distort the trembly idiosyncratic paths each of us may trace in the wake of the route that the idea of Updike takes through our consciousness.” Updike is not an idea that is tracing its way – neither trembling nor idiosyncratic – through my consciousness. There is no Updike boat leaving a wake in the waves of my mind like a yacht leaving Cape Cod for the Vineyard.
Rather than accept that Baker and I – being of different eras and different genders – have different taste, I concluded that I must be intellectually and creatively deficient; I am a bad reader. I was disappointed in myself for disappointing the Nicholson Baker in my mind, shaking his bearded head, tut-tutting at me: Poor girl, she’ll never understand.
A few months ago I picked up The Anthologist and started it, in the midst of other selections. (When the book came out last September, I actually drove twenty miles to Marin to see Baker read. I was the youngest member of the audience by thirty years. But I am afraid to buy a book at a reading, and petrified of the prospect of having an author sign the book. I could make a fool of myself as Baker did when asking Updike to sign a book in the early 80s.)
Then a couple weeks ago I received a mass email from a writer I know about how he was reading The Anthologist, and I felt the urge to pick it up again. He even said, “I’m really loving The Anthologist.”
I haven’t read everything by Baker, but I’ve read a bunch and enjoyed it on my own; yet, his authoritative praise weighs more than my own evaluation.
Recently in Maine in a used bookstore (that was also the bookseller’s refurbished garage), I stumbled on three of Carson McCullers’ books for $1 each. (In case you are wondering, and you should be wondering, I was not close to Nicholson Baker’s home in Maine, but further up the coast near E.B. White’s former home, near the county fair where Fern bought Wilbur.) The cover of the tattered McCullers paperback proclaimed “One of the finest writers of our time” from The New York Times. I couldn’t recall exactly where I’d heard her name, but it was vaguely familiar. I bought all three.
I started The Ballad of the Sad Café and she drew me into her vivid, textured Southern world. Her descriptions are precise ideas: “The hearts of small children are delicate organs. A cruel beginning in this world can twist them into curious shapes.”
She commands the reader and directs me what to do: “See the hunchback marching in Miss Amelia’s footsteps when on a red winter morning they set out for the pinewoods to hunt… See them working on her properties… So compose from such flashes an image of these years as a whole. And for a moment let it rest.” This second-person imperative jumped out of the smooth, poetic narrative, but it fit like a nest on a tree. McCullers is unafraid to acknowledge you and make you do what she thinks you should. Yet she maintains authorial distance and control by refraining from the first person while directing your attention like a gentle guide: “Now some explanation is due for all this behavior,” she opens an aside on the nature of love. She then elides authority by saying, “It has been mentioned before that Miss Amelia was once married.”
Even before I’d finished the novella, though, I dug around online to verify my delight. Didn’t I read somewhere that David Foster Wallace liked her? Did I remember a retrospective on her in the TLS? No, I didn’t, I was mistaken. Try as I may, the highest compliment I found was from Graham Greene who said, “Miss McCullers and perhaps Mr. Faulkner are the only writers since the death of D. H. Lawrence with an original poetic sensibility.” Now, don’t get me wrong. Graham Greene is fine, but I didn’t even finish The End of the Affair, and he is nowhere near my top ten. From whom did I inherit McCullers?
My Internet searching revealed some critical acclaim (in the Modern Library Revue column on The Millions, for one) and she is mentioned in the same breath as Saul Bellow, Flannery O’Connor, W.H. Auden, and Tennessee Williams, each time with a different, equally flattering comparison.
But I was disappointed. In myself? In McCullers? In other authors who did not love her as I am growing to?
I suppose if I can find an author and grow to love them outside of a direct inheritance, maybe, too, I could reject select elements of my more obvious literary heritage. Hesitantly, I have begun to dismiss other favorites’ favorites. When a former student of his published David Foster Wallace’s syllabus, I promptly downloaded the PDF. As I read the list, I was very self-assured: I’d been meaning to read Waiting for the Barbarians! I loved the Flannery O’Connor story he assigned (“A Good Man is Hard to Find”). He boldly included young contemporary writers like Aimee Bender and Sam Lipsyte. But Silence of the Lambs. Really? I would not follow him there. Maybe I am only disadvantaging myself. Silence of the Lambs may be the literary masterwork that could forever change my outlook on literature and fiction, just like Updike was supposed to.
Where I formerly swallowed recommendations whole, I now cull through them – not exactly on my own but in a more independent fashion. I find books, I do not just receive them. Or, I try to.
I am not a bad reader nor am I intellectually and creatively deficient, or, if I am, it is not because I do not like John Updike but for entirely different reasons.
When I discovered W.G. Sebald, I read Vertigo first, and then The Emigrants and The Rings of Saturn. Minutes after I read the final page of The Rings of Saturn, I flipped it over and began again. I read that book six times, maybe seven, and taught it once. Still I avoided Austerlitz. Maybe I was saving the finest chocolate for last or maybe it was fear: fear of the subject matter, fear that the book would fail my expectations, fear that it would be so good that I would never write again. When finally I read it (nearly straight through, though its complicating visual interruptions give less relief than its scanty paragraph breaks), I understood it to be Sebald’s greatest work of art. My description implies that the novel is breathless but in fact it is calm and wise, its terror subtle, creeping, accumulative.
In its layered explorations of the limitations and possibilities of the narrative I and the narrative eye, Austerlitz changed how I read and how I think. The novel offers evidence that silence not the only decent response to atrocity, that art can carry a fiery, gentle intelligence to our hardest questions, that the human heart can be reached—broken—through the intellect.
Gerrard Winstanley’s 1649 “The True Levellers Standard Advanced.” The True Levellers were a radical Protestant sect that founded a commune in Surrey during the English Civil War. In this rather astonishing and neglected declaration, Winstanley argues that God intended the earth to be a common treasury for all and that disparities in property and power between the rich and the poor are unholy and need to be abolished. (Billy Bragg has a song on Back to Basics called “The World Turned Upside Down” that’s based on the Diggers’ Song, also written by Winstanley.)Bookride documents the surprising desirability of W.G. Sebald books among collectors. “At one point his books were making exceptional sums on Ebay and people wanted ephemera, posters, recordings and anything to do with his legendary walk from Lowestoft to Boulge.” The Rings of Saturn is coveted in particular. Only a few hundred copies of the English first edition were printed and they mostly turn up in East Anglia.Many a freelance journalist has pondered the idea of an online marketplace for writing in recent years, one that might ease the inefficiencies and frustration of pitching articles. Attempting to fill that gap is Reporterist, a journalism marketplace. One of the founders offers up details of the project in an interview with the Online Journalism Review.
Let’s say you’re slightly to the left of the Bell Curve: you read, on average, a book a week. And let’s say you’re also slightly leftward-listing in your survival prospects: that, due to the marvels of future medicine (and no thanks to the blunders of contemporary foreign policy) you’ll live to the fine old age of 90. Let’s furthermore presuppose that you’re one of those people, the precocious ones who were reading Kesey and King and Kingsolver and Kipling at 15. How many great books will you get to read in a lifetime? Assuming you’ve already answered the adjunct question (why?) for yourself, the prospect of having to choose only three thousand books from among the many Millions may sound daunting. My Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of World Literature contains some entries on authors alone, and is hardly comprehensive. Balzac alone could eat up almost one percent of your lifetime reading. On the other hand, as usual, limitation shades into wonder… because in an infinite reading universe, we would be deprived of one of the supreme literary pleasures: discovery. Half of my favorite works of fiction of the year were by authors (women, natch) I’d never read, had barely heard of: Kathryn Davis’ The Thin Place, Lynne Tillman’s American Genius: A Comedy, and Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica.And if I had gone my whole life without discovering Deborah Eisenberg, I would have missed something like a literary soulmate. The beguiling, bewildered quality of Eisenberg’s Twilight of the Superheroes – the sentences whose endings seem to surprise even their writer – is so close to the texture of life as I experience it as to be almost hallucinatory. On the other hand, Eisenberg’s world is much, much funnier and more profound than mine. She’s single-handedly rejuvenated my relationship with the short story… and just in time for the remarkable new Edward P. Jones collection, All Aunt Hagar’s Children. I’ve already expressed my suspicion that Jones has been a positive influence on Dave Eggers, as evidenced by What is the What. So I’ll just round out my survey of new fiction by mentioning Marshall N. Klimasewiski’s overlooked first novel, The Cottagers – a dazzlingly written thriller.In between forays into the contemporary landscape, I’ve been trying to bone up on the classics. I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t read Pride and Prejudice until this year; it’s about the most romantic damn thing I’ve ever encountered, and I’m a sucker for romance. Pricklier and more ironic, which is to say more Teutonic, was Mann’s The Magic Mountain – a great book for when you’ve got nothing to do for two months. Saul Bellow’s Herzog completely blew my doors off, suggesting that stream-of-consciousness (and the perfect evocation of a summer day) did not end with Mrs. Dalloway. Herzog is such a wonderful book, so sad, so funny, so New York. So real. I can’t say the same thing about Kafka’s The Castle, but it is to my mind the most appealing of his novels. As in The Magic Mountain, futility comes to seem almost charming. E.L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate was another wonderful discovery – a rip-roaring read that’s written under some kind of divine inspiration: Let there be Comma Splices! Similarly, I was surprised by how well page-turning pacing and peel-slowly sentences worked in Franzen’s first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City. Ultimately, it’s sort of a ridiculous story, but it’s hard to begrudge something this rich and addictive. Think of it as a dessert. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the rip-roar of that most sweeping of summer beach books, Lonesome Dove. And if the last three titles make you feel self-indulgent, because you’re having too much fun, cleanse the palate the way I did, with the grim and depressing and still somehow beautiful. Namely, Samuel Beckett’s Texts for Nothing or W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn. (What is it with those Germans?)Nonfiction-wise, I managed to slip away from journalism a bit, but did read James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men while I was in Honduras… sort of like reading Melville at sea. I made it most of the way through Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (God knows why, half of me adds. The other half insists, You know why.) Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of the Enlightenment lightened things up… Not! But I will never read Cosmo Girl the same way again. Come to think of it, pretty much all the nonfiction I loved this year was a downer, about the impure things we can’t get away from: Susan Sontag’s On Photography, Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces, David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity, and especially the late George W.S. Trow’s astonishing, devastating Within the Context of No Context. Lit-crit offered a little bit of a silver lining, as William H. Gass’ A Temple of Text and James Wood’s The Irresponsible Self. Wood’s essays on Tolstoy and Bellow remind me that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God”… which is, I guess, why I’ll keep reading in 2007.
Scott Esposito’s excellent literature and culture blog Conversational Reading likely needs no introduction here (don’t forget his Quarterly Conversation either). Lucky for us, Scott has kindly pitched in with his best reads of 2006 for our year end extravaganza at The Millions:Looking over the books I read in 2006, it seems like a banner year. I see a lot of novels that amazed me, and many that have expanded my view of what literature is and what it can be in the future.Still, one novel towers above all the rest: Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar. This is a book that is experimental is the very best ways while also providing more traditional literary pleasures like well-defined characters and beautiful prose. Anyone who hasn’t read it should make an effort to tackle this masterpiece.A very close second (and it’s very difficult to choose which of these two I enjoyed more) is Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry.Other books:Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David MarksonBouvard And Pecuchet by Gustave FlaubertAtomik Aztex by Sesshu FosterSuite Francaise by Irene NemirovskyThe Rings of Saturn by WG SebaldThe Blue Guide to Indiana by Michael MartoneMulligan Stew by Gilbert SorrentinoThe Moviegoer by Walker PercyThe Gold Bug Variations by Richard PowersCatch-22 by Joseph HellerPale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne PorterThanks Scott!
It creeps up on me in the middle of a Friday, like the gnawing sensation of possibly having left the oven on: I haven’t been reading enough Lynne Tillman. Thus I don’t know if there’s a precedent for this charming, maddening, brilliant, painstaking, and utterly mesmeric book. Certainly, there are shades of Hemingway and Stein and Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance here, passages on textiles reminiscent of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, Jamesian syntactical snarls. But the voice of Tillman’s fifth novel, American Genius, A Comedy, strikes me as sui generis. And it is the voice, gradually and then suddenly, that gives this novel its form, its heft, its suspense, and its unique quality of beguilement.Along the way, American Genius offers an effulgent answer to the question Benjamin Kunkel posed in N+1’s recent symposium on American writing: Whither the psychological novel? The opening pages throw us into the mind of an as-yet-unnamed narrator who muses on food, farts, Eames chairs, the Manson family, her own family, and skin, among other things. In fact, this woman’s consciousness acts not like a brain but like a skin – “the body’s largest organ,” she points out. That is, her genius is not for solving problems, but for registering them. She is, as she puts it, “sensitive.” Which is another way of saying clinically neurotic. She has trouble living in her own skin, and retreats to the life of the mind.Eavesdropping on her quotidian obsessions, we slowly gather that she is middle-aged, that she has studied and taught American history, and that she has endured the loss of many loved ones. And, importantly, we learn that she has checked in to an enigmatic New England retreat for scholars, all of whom seem to be in crisis somehow – Chataqua via The Magic Mountain. An eccentric cast of characters – a man who, like my college roommate, lives nocturnally; a woman longing to commune with Kafka’s dead lover, a man who lugs his laptop to breakfast – seems to promise drama, or, like the title, comedy. The precise nature of this scholarly colony, and the narrator’s precise reasons for being there, hover at the periphery of her consciousness, and thus at the periphery of the novel. But, in the absence of a traditional plot, our questions – Why did the narrator’s brother run away from home? What is the nature of her crisis? Why this obsession with dermatology? – serve as hooks, drawing us deep into the fabric of the prose.And what prose it is. Unlike some other experimental novels, American Genius unfolds in sentences so clear as to be pellucid. Like a sensitive skin, Tillman’s language registers every flicker of doubt, every shift in the book’s emotional weather. Simple clauses, phrased perfectly and spliced with Kafkan commas, double back to bite their own tails, or to measure the tension between past and present, or to erupt, via figures of speech, into fullness of feeling. Here, for example, is the narrator – Helen, it turns out (surely not the Helen of Tillman’s earlier novel Cast in Doubt?)- ruminating on therapeutic massage:When I’m in the place I call home, where I have a young wild cat and an old, frail mother who may or may not miss me, I see a Japanese therapeutic masseuse, whose attitude toward the body is vastly different from the Polish cosmetician’s, who twice has massaged me with gentle strength and kneaded my body respectfully, though she may not respect it or me. The Japanese masseuse acts against my body, she forces it to comply, as if trouncing a truculent enemy, and I can see her wringing her hands and canvassing my legs before moving toward them, to exact revenge.And here is Helen remembering her father:I watched my father charcoal broil while sitting on the grass or on the poured concrete steps that led from the blue and gray slate patio to the storm door to the back of the house, where my mother pushed her arm through the glass, and he was happy broiling steak over a fire, which he composed of briquettes and newspaper but never doused with fuel, which would, he explain, ignite it quickly but ruin its taste.The cumulative effect of these quiet surfaces, punctured by the abrupt humor of the masseuse’s imaginary adversary or the horror of the mother pushing her arm through the glass door, is at once soothing and hair-raising. The reader is charmed and made anxious, as Helen is. Her sentences, apparently evenhanded, turn out to be deeply subjective, and in the spaces between periods, much is repressed, withheld, or held for later. Ultimately, we come to know her not as we know characters in novels, but as we know others, or ourselves… which is to say deeply and incompletely, intimately and mysteriously.But American Genius does not merely aspire to the level of character study or prose experiment. By juxtaposing Helen’s personal concerns with her scholarly ones – or, more aptly, razing the distinction between the two – Tillman is concerned to craft a national novel. “I wanted to go for it,” she tells Geoffrey O’Brien in a Bomb Magazine interview, “[to] fully write about who and where we are – or, even, how to think about being an American now.” There is a feminist daring in the way Tillman goes about her work, eschewing battle scenes or historical pastiche in favor of awkward encounters in the colony’s dining hall, private memories of watching the Kennedys on TV. Still, as in Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica – a book whose form and mission complement this one’s – a vivid sense of the Zeitgeist emerges. Tillman reaches the apogee of her powers in bravura passages where world-historical events and painful memories and wry observational comedy are all braided together, shot through with Helen’s obliquely sad sensibility. And when events in the residents conspire, as they must, to goad Helen out of her inertial rut, the smallest action feels charged with the weight of centuries.In case I haven’t made this clear already: Lynne Tillman is a writer in full command of her effects. I am reminded of my recent and belated discovery of the short-story writer Deborah Eisenberg Twilight of the Superheroes, who also made me want to kick myself for having overlooked her work for so long. These writers’ mastery is so evident (and so hard-won), that to critique either feels almost like arguing with her sensibility.Nonetheless, I’m contractually obligated to record my quibbles (that is, Max has me chained in the basement here at The Millions and is withholding my gruel). The first – really more of an open question – concerns the deployment of Helen’s considerable erudition. Usually, her factual disquisitions seem to spring organically from her private fixations – that is, from her character. Nonetheless, I found some of the more undigested chunks of learning, particularly those explaining various medical conditions, to be slack places in the novel. At times, I felt the hand of the writer directing her narrator’s consciousness to areas of thematic fertility. Is Tillman researching this? I thought. Or is Helen thinking it spontaneously? Given the generally seamless illusion of life created here, calling attention to its status as a composed artifact felt like a mistake, however interesting. These bumpy passages generally smoothed themselves out after page 100, and perhaps it’s a case of the book teaching one how to read it. Nonetheless, in a novel as deserving of broad readership as this one is, the dips into the encyclopedic may present barriers to entry.Another initial hurdle arises from the setting. As a present-tense peg on which to hang the narrator’s past, the constrained environment of the intellectual colony at first seems to limit the book’s dramatic possibilities. As in a campus novel, there’s a faint plumminess to the surroundings, and one wonders how Tillman will reconcile the ambitions of the title – American Genius – with a setting so socially attenuated… so uppercrust. That she does is a testament to her immense gifts. The novel took possession of me about a third of the way through, when Helen decided to explore beyond the confines of the colony. And it didn’t let go until the end. Even afterward, at night, in bed, I’ve found myself missing the cadences of Helen’s sentences, the surprising and bewildering turns of her mind.Unlike some other ambitious novels I can think of, American Genius doesn’t require that the reader be a genius, too. It doesn’t try to overwhelm its audience – at least not with shock and awe tactics. Nor does it condescend to us. What it does require is patience. Readers eager for plot, dialogue, characters delivered in a single stroke… the sturdy appurtenances of conventional fiction, will have to open themselves to American Genius, to surrender to its magic, to trust. But they will be richly rewarded. And perhaps even changed.Sidebar: Recent “American” Novels:American Purgatorio by John Haskell (2004)American Desert (2004) by Percival EverettAmerican Skin (2000) by Don De GraziaIn America (2000) by Susan SontagPurple America (1997) by Rick MoodyAmerican Pastoral (1997) by Philip Roth