Ice—the last novel Anna Kavan wrote before she was discovered dead with a syringe in her arm and her head resting on the case in which she kept her heroin—is a gem of speculative fiction. It is uncanny, hallucinatory, apocalyptic, a book crowded with glaciers and starlight. The novel’s popularity has grown steadily since its first publication in 1967 and Penguin Classics 50th Anniversary reissue of Ice, with a fine introduction by Jonathan Lethem, gives Kavan’s valedictory effort the platform it deserves.
The plot is deceptively simple. In the aftermath of a major atomic event, a monomaniacal man searches for a fragile, silver-haired girl from his past as the vise of a new ice age clinches the planet. He searches for her through the chaotic territory of memories, dreams, and half-real war zones. At all costs, he must locate “the glass girl” before the world darkens and human life is over. In a game of cat and mouse, he sails to foreign shores on the last overcrowded ships, gleaning clues to her whereabouts, yet when he finds her—and he always manages to—she flees from him as from a tyrant. The warden of an unnamed northern country is the narrator’s erotic rival and has the power and savvy to preempt the narrator’s every move. Kavan makes ample suggestions that the two adversaries are in fact doubles, mirror-images, the Superego and Id of the author’s avowedly psychoanalytical nightmare (Kavan’s best friend and sometime creative collaborator, Karl Theodor Bluth, was a psychoanalyst who treated her depression and supplied her with legal heroin).
In addition to being a prolific writer and inveterate drug addict, Kavan was a serious painter, producing startling artworks in a series of modernist styles, from cubism and expressionism to surrealism. Her wartime traumas (she lost her only son in WWII) and confinement in asylums (much like another oft-neglected English painter and writer, Leonora Carrington) add to Ice’s strange alchemy of glittering, visionary detail and psychological dishevelment. Considering Kavan’s earlier works, such as the story collections Asylum Piece and I Am Lazarus, one can’t help but read the glass girl in Ice as, in part, a self-portrait of the protean, charismatic, and psychologically bruised author who never recovered from a childhood of maternal neglect.
The novel’s dystopian world is hermetically sealed. Geographical information is withheld and we are never quite able to get our bearings in this landscape of snow and ruins, illuminated by the ever-changing lights of the aura borealis. The glass girl slips through the pages, tantalizingly out of reach, seen through the filter of the male narrator’s objectifying, sadistic, chimerical gaze. Her hair is “bright as spun glass” and “shimmers like silver fire;” her face “cracks to pieces and tumbles into the dark;” the narrator fantasizes about “the circular marks of teeth [standing] out clearly” on her “white flesh;” he sees “the dead moon dance over the icebergs, as it would at the end of our world, while she watches from the tent of her glittering hair;” “mountainous walls of ice surround” the girl and “huge ice-battlements fill…the sky, lit from within by frigid mineral fires.” One never tires of Kavan’s poetry. She has a gift for elemental and atavistic language.
The science fiction writer Brian Aldiss has dubbed Kavan “Kafka’s sister” for good reason. Not only did she absorb and creatively imitate many of Franz Kafka’s short stories in the 1930s and 1940s, but she carried his enthusiasm for the frustrated quest, the skeptical fantasy, and the allegory without a key into her mature work. It’s hard not to see reflections of Kafka’s The Castle and The Trial in Ice. As in those novels, the mysteries of the invisible and all-powerful authorities are never penetrated or understood. Kavan even changed her name from Helen Ferguson in 1939 as a phonetic gesture to Kafka, whose own Czech surname was originally spelled “Kavka.”
Some critics read the “ice” as a metaphor for Kavan’s desperate struggle with heroin and the cold, suffocating experience of addiction. Others view the novel as a veiled autobiography of Kavan’s relationships with abusive men that eventually led to romantic abstention. Given that the narrator, the glass girl, and the warden are sometimes conflated through slippages in point of view, one could see the various character dynamics as a kind of alchemical yearning for the androgyne, for the union of psychological, emotional, and sexual opposites (a major preoccupation of surrealists like Max Ernst, whose technical innovations Kavan appropriated in her own paintings). To a certain degree, it’s useful to interpret the book as a critique of totalitarianism, the ecological crimes of the Anthropocene, or a protest against the Cold War. A few have pointed out its proto-feminist verve, though the satire of patriarchal thought-control is never entirely satisfying or aboveboard, as it is, say, in the works of her contemporaries Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath. Kavan’s first critic, Brian Aldiss, saw Ice as a pure science fiction novel. Faced with such a multidimensional work, the reviewer is happy to allow all these interpretative planes to coexist.
Even 50 years after its publication, this is still a relevant book. It’s not perfect. The author, after all, was in and out of the hospital during the process of composition and her editor, Peter Lang, demanded dramatic revisions before agreeing to publish the novel (characterized by one manuscript reader as a “mixture of Kafka and the Avengers,” a description Kavan found delightful). The narrative repetition of chase and escape can be tiresome and the prose can occasionally slip from its usual sterling quality. Nevertheless, Ice is ambitious, unforgettable, and one of a kind. It demands to be experienced. During a time of environmental crisis, when totalitarian-inflected administrations are brazenly withdrawing from climate accords, when ice caps are melting and the world’s magnificent glaciers are disappearing, Ice provides a photographic negative of the present moment—a world overshadowed by atomic threat and nearly devoid of ice.
On April 10, 1917, Dr. Siegfried Wolff of Berlin-Charlottenburg wrote to an unprolific but well-connected author about his recently republished story. The story had been originally rushed to publication under difficult wartime circumstances, but its author did have the opportunity to edit the galleys for a subsequent stand-alone volume. Anyway, Dr. Wolff was not interested in airy questions of prose style. He was unhappy:
You have made me unhappy.
I bought your “Metamorphosis” as a present for my cousin, but she doesn’t know what to make of this story. My cousin gave it to her mother, who doesn’t know what to make of it either. Her mother gave the book to my other cousin, and she doesn’t know what to make of it either. Now they’ve written to me. They want me to explain the story to them because I am the one with a doctorate in the family. But I am baffled.
Sir! I spent months fighting it out with the Russians in the trenches without flinching, but if my reputation among my cousins went to hell, I would not be able to bear it.
Only you can help me. You have to, because you are the one who landed me in this situation. So please tell me what my cousin ought to make of “The Metamorphosis.”
Dr. Siegfried Wolff
Though we have no record of Franz Kafka’s response, his biographer Reiner Stach points out that Dr. Wolff’s letter would be “a harmless harbringer of the enormous discursive surge that would descend upon [Kafka’s] posthumous writings a generation later.”
Several generations later, every student assigned to read “The Metamorphosis” is introduced to the myth: the quest to write a book that would serve as “an axe to break the frozen sea within us,” his unrecognized genius, the overbearing father, and the friend who refused to carry out his wish to have the unfinished work burned. Scholars and biographers have complicated that image without really challenging the myth. Kafka and friend and literary executor Max Brod, understandably, haven’t made their work easy. When he prepared Kafka’s work for publication, Brod excised passages from Kafka’s work that contained anti-Semitic material or details about brothel visits.
Even 40 years after Max Brod’s death, papers important to Kafka’s biographers were still mired in a long, complicated legal case. Towards the end of his life, Brod entrusted documents to his longtime lover Esther Hoffe. Instead of making them publicly available, she held onto almost all of the material until her death in 2008. Hoffe’s daughters inherited them and stated their intention to sell them to the German Literature Archive, which had bought The Trial from Esther Hoffe in 1988, rather than the National Library of Israel, to which Brod had ambiguously promised to donate them. The public debate about the papers has touched on Nazi history, Brod and Hoffe’s possible sexual debauchery, the “best interests of the scholars,” and the Hoffe daughters’ cat-lady reputations. Which is all to say, the Kafka trial was improbably Dickensian.
In 2012, the lawsuit was resolved, with the National Library of Israel being awarded the Kafka archives. Quoted in The New York Times, the Israeli writer Etgar Keret put it nicely, “The next best thing to having your stuff burned, if you’re ambivalent, is giving it to some guy who gives it to some lady who gives it to her daughters who keep it in an apartment full of cats, right?”
Biographer Reiner Stach held off on writing the first volume covering Kafka’s childhood until the lawsuit was resolved. That volume will draw on letters from Kafka’s childhood friends and Brod’s notebooks and diary that were held by the Hoffes. What Stach has given us so far are two-thirds of a brilliant, authoritative portrait: translated into English by Shelley Frisch, Reiner Stach’s Kafka: The Decisive Years and Kafka: The Years of Insight begin in 1910 and end with Kafka’s death in 1924.
Stach’s Kafka belonged to his contemporary world and stood estranged from it. In many of his stories, he masterfully reworked the Symbolist and Expressionist tropes that featured in his contemporaries’ writings — surreal transformations, enigmatic dialogue, alienated protagonists — as well as those of Jewish myth, Enlightenment philosophy, and the picaresque novel. Aside from the influence of Franz Grillparzer, Knut Hamsun, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (whom Kafka explicitly cited as influences), Stach also draws attention to the non-literary influences on Kafka’s work. He was an early cinephile.
Consider the Chaplin-esque sections in “Lawyer, Manufacturer, Painter,” (usually published as the seventh chapter of The Trial), in which lawyers charge up a flight of stairs only to be thrown down by a bouncer-like official:
On the other hand, any day not spent in court is a day lost for them and it was a matter of some importance to force their way inside. In the end, they agreed that they would try to tire the old man out. One lawyer after another was sent out to run up the steps and let himself be thrown down again, offering what resistance he could as long as it was passive resistance, and his colleagues would catch him at the bottom of the steps. That went on for about an hour until the old gentleman, who was already exhausted from working all night, was very tired and went back to his office.
His satire belies his own genius for legal work. Professionally, he was a diligent, detail-oriented bureaucrat. He spoke convincingly to groups of hostile entrepreneurs about the importance of insuring their employees at a time when the idea was exotic and strange. When he did choose to write prose that baffled Dr. Wolff, he did so with the same precision as he prepared legal memos.
Kafka’s interest in Yiddish theater also nourished his writing. He gave a successful speech before a performance by a group of “Eastern” Jewish theater troupes, pointing out the historical and literary significance of what amounted to “cultural exotica” for Jewish audiences in Prague. His performance, as a reporter described it, was remarkable: At the same time, he grew bored with or disenchanted with Yitzhak Löwy, a writer-actor who tried to bring artistic credibility to Yiddish theater.
Doubtlessly, his own personal mythology was an important source for his fiction. The biography is, of course, an exhausted corner of the vast Kafka industry. We know: in addition to being a zealous bureaucrat and an active member of Prague’s logrolling literati, Franz Kafka was an unusually fastidious craftsman of German prose. To wit, when he was near death, he demanded that his friend and literary executor Max Brod burn unfinished work, including The Trial, that did not meet his impossibly high standards.
But he had worked hard and felt “The Metamorphosis” had fulfilled its potential, if it still was not quite on par with “The Judgment.” Among all the myths surrounding Kafka, perhaps his own self-mythology is the most misleading and misled. Few readers would rate “The Judgment,” a frantic, claustrophobic, and humorless story, better than “The Metamorphosis.” Kafka though considered “The Judgment” a moment of transcendent creation. He wrote it in a single night, in the midst of an anxious, awkward courtship. Contrastingly, on January 19, 1914, he disparaged “The Metamorphosis,” the greater story of the two, which he had written in spurts, in his diary: “Great aversion. Unreadable ending. Imperfect almost to its core.”
Perhaps he was turning away from what his friends clearly recognized as autobiography. Or he was feinting. About “The Judgment,” he resisted the claim on technical grounds, saying “Then our father would have to be living in the toilet.” His Hebrew teacher recounts how, when speaking with someone who had read “The Metamorphosis,” Kafka “took a step back” and said “as though he were discussing a real occurrence, ‘That was a dreadful thing.’”
One of the successes of Stach’s biography is how well-drawn his friends and family are. Max Brod was a loyal friend and selfless promoter of others’ work. When Brod engaged in an ill-advised public dispute with Karl Kraus, though, you can sense his frustration at his standing in the larger republic of letters — a power-broker in a cultural outpost like Prague is considered a hack in Berlin.
His father, Hermann, who owned a luxury-goods store on Aldstader Ring, is also thoughtfully sketched. Clearly, he was a man who recognized the vulnerability of his social standing; in his lifetime, he was required to maintain his reputation in the community, overcome the financial imprudence of one son-in-law, distinguish himself at a time when anti-Semitism erupted regularly, and navigate the slow decline of the Austrian-Hungarian empire and the sudden emergence of Czech nationalism. To him, his son’s indifference to the family’s financial solvency and his own career advancement seemed like fatal dilettantism.
Kafka’s fiance, Felice Bauer, was a middle-class Berliner, sometimes dismissed by his biographers as unworthy of his devotions. She emerges as a complex figure in The Decisive Years. She was an accomplished office worker, comfortable with the sudden mechanization of the workplace. As Stach puts it, “Pragmatic, straightforward, and always grounded in reality, she oscillated daily between the pressure cooker of her family and the cold rationality of her office with no apparent ill effects. She seems to have adapted well to a professional world in which both maternal behavior and daintiness were scorned.”
She was pragmatic, even mercenary, in romance too. In the correspondence with Kafka, she also kept secrets to maintain an image of bourgeois propriety. From a private detective agency hired by Franz’s parents, she impressively managed to hide both an unstable brother and an unmarried, pregnant sister.
The clubby literary world of early-20th-century Prague, the anxious and unfulfilled courtship, the grinding filial obligations — none of it seems to promise an extraordinary literary career. What distinguished the Prague novelist and short-story writer from his contemporaries, the largely-forgotten Symbolist and Expressionist writers that he shared stage and page with?
He remains singular because his choices are not inevitable. There are no clear lines between his work and his aesthetics, history, biography, and philosophy. His literature is defiant, organic, and idiosyncratic. The ending of “The Metamorphosis” that he disliked so much is one of those singular moments that distilled the difference between Kafka and his peers: the Samsas, having rid themselves of Gregor, enjoy an idyll outside of their cramped apartment. Similarly, in “The Stoker,” the first chapter of Amerika, Kafka re-imagines the Statue of Liberty with a sword in its hand.
Despite setting his fiction in the U.S. or imperial colonies (neither of which he ever saw firsthand), it was Prague that he belonged to. Though Stach amply demonstrates how Kafka fully inhabited the city, its fringe theaters and its literary salons, Prague has had an uneasy relationship with its native son. He was Jewish and wrote highly personal fragments in German, which has not necessarily endeared him to later generations of nationalists. Yet there has been a reconciliation of sorts. Today, the Kafka Museum in Prague displays some of the seminal mementos of his life, including the unposted “Letter to His Father,” and scores of travel-visa requests when he was frantically trying to visit Germany during the war. It is located not far from the Charles Bridge, from which Kafka probably had Georg Bendemann leap to his doom.
That semblance of proximity is illusory though. As Stach points out in his epilogue, in the next 20 years,
The fate of many people he was close to was sealed, and countless traces of Kafka’s life that were left behind in the collective memory were wiped out. Letters, photographs, literary estates, even entire archives were destroyed. The violence that gripped the era often made it impossible to identify what was lost, and even to ascertain that it was lost. […] He would not have recognized anything left after the end of this catastrophic blow to civilization. His world no longer exists. Only his language lives.
Expats are prone to occasional spells of low-level anxiety and paranoia. If it’s not the young French woman in London who tries to iron out her R’s, it’s the Mexican in Barcelona attuned to disdain from Spaniards, or else the unhappy Turkish immigrant who fears the ire of native Germans. The expat is likely to see hazards where none exist, or at least to worry about the specter of prejudice in the air. It’s hard, before you visit a country for the first time, to forecast just how your nationality will define you, but it’s a given that it will somehow, and in ways you won’t be able to predict. Before I head off on a trip or a long stay in Europe, I know a few people will jab me about the U.S. military, but until last year I didn’t know that if you enter an Irish convenience store, ask for a box of matches, stick those matches in your pocket and blithely try to exit the store, your shopkeeper will snap that matches cost money in this country. I know I’ll find a Starbucks in half the cities on Earth, but until recently I didn’t know that I’d find, as I did one day in Dublin, a laundromat that claims to be “American-style.” Their windows are colored red, white, and blue, and their typesets are straight out of Vegas.
If, over time, you manage to get used to living in a foreign culture, you start to revise your thoughts on the quirks of your own country. You see with a distance that can feel like sentimentality at first what it has that no one else can lay claim to, as well as what idiocies place it in the world’s Hall of Shame. You learn, at least if you’re marginally self-aware, how much your own anxieties color your attitude toward home. As a rule, expats project their own feelings onto conflicts, because it can often seem, when daily life is marked by dislocation, that every social misfire is a comment on your place in the world. In part this explains why, for instance, Americans who take pride in their educations get upset when Europeans crack jokes, either in jest or in malice, that touch on their intelligence or the brainpower of their countrymen. They find themselves defending those things about America they like, regardless of how barn-burning their own rhetoric may be at home. The experience teaches them what they love and what they hate, which has the nice effect of honing their sense of themselves. In my case, at least, I can’t study in Europe without getting misty-eyed for my alma mater.
I live in Dublin now. Over here the influence of literature is about as palpable as the weather. Since I arrived, two years ago, I’ve grown more interested in works about American expats, especially those in which the characters are not quite comfortable in their settings. I wanted to see what this literature said about the ways in which expat life in Europe evolved over the course of American history. I also wanted to find works that reveal, intentionally or not, how their authors constructed their own identities as Americans. (In looking for things to read, I stayed away from works about expats who weren’t from the States, in light of a quote by Colum McCann, who once said that when he reads a novel by a non-Irish author that takes place in Ireland, his instinct is to nitpick the novel into the ground. I don’t feel qualified, in short, to analyze non-Americans well, nor do I feel qualified to stray outside Europe, where I’ve lived for many years.) Beyond reading fiction that met my criteria, I read snippets of authors’ biographies, as a way of better understanding how their own views emerge in the text.
I picked out a selection of stories that illustrate three time periods. The first period is the 1840s, when America was still for the most part an agrarian backwater. The second is the 1950s, when Bretton Woods, the Cold War and the rise of our pop culture marked the country’s growth as a hegemon. The third is the 1980s, when Vietnam, Watergate and other calamities still loomed large in the national psyche. I set out to draw a (very) rough sketch of what it meant to be an American in those years. It’s impossible, of course, to sum up the vast breadth of expat literature, but I believe we can still make out, in these stories, how we and a great deal of Europe have interpreted our character as a nation.
At least in my high school, The Scarlet Letter had a maddening ability to bring “Puritan” to the tongues of students who didn’t understand what the term entailed in full. The novel’s ubiquity on reading lists, combined with our generally poor knowledge of British history, led us all to use “Puritan” as a byword for moral stringency. I can’t say this for certain, but I suspect that if your average American student knows one thing about Hawthorne, it’s the extent to which colonial New England haunted him, much like the way in which the Old South held a spectral importance to Faulkner. If you were to read only the books I was assigned in my English classes, you’d likely crown Hawthorne the bard of buttoned-up America, and from there go on to conclude that if he sent his characters abroad, he’d probably saddle them with homegrown guilt and unhappiness. You’d be ready, in other words, to read The Marble Faun, in which Hawthorne sends a group of Americans to Rome, with predictable results.
Three of the four main characters are Americans. All three are sculptors and painters. Miriam, the central figure, suffers from guilt over a crime, one which may or may not have led to her exile from New England. Her baggage attains a physical presence in the form of a mysterious stalker. In four hundred pages, Hawthorne never gives us any details about her crime, and his narrator admits at one point that she may never have committed a crime at all. We’re expected, in the mold of Kafka, to see her guilt not as culpability for an act or a series of acts but instead as an ex post facto justification for her misery. Unlike The Trial, however, The Marble Faun puts the blame for this guilt on the culture in which its protagonist grew up. When Kenyon, one of the Americans, draws a comparison between New England and Rome, he suggests that Rome is a freer place, because although Rome in those days was run by a papal despot, New England forced its residents to get permission for everything they did. It subjected its natives to a bone-deep fear of censure. When Donatello, a young Italian, gets sucked into Miriam’s downfall, we see how degrading this mindset can be. As Miriam is falling apart, Donatello vows to shield her from her stalker, which eventually leads him to kill the stalker in the streets of Rome late at night. Afterwards, Donatello is destroyed, in part because he felt, in the moment before he raised his knife, that Miriam told him to commit murder with a “silent command.” In effect, she transfers her guilt onto Donatello, who subsequently justifies it after the fact. The message isn’t hard to suss out here—this culture is a toxic export.
Despite the overall negativity of this portrayal, the book also presents evidence of singular American virtues. When the narrator describes Hilda, an American painter, he calls her “pretty in our native New England style,” implying that her beauty is a consequence of prudent living. The Americans who form the nucleus of the book include Donatello in their circle because they possess a “republican and artistic simplicity of intercourse.” In one passage, the narrator suggests that Americans, in their failure to preserve the past, indicate an unusual awareness of death and its permanence:
The brief duration of our families, as a hereditary household, renders it next to a certainty that the great-grandchildren will not know their father’s grandfather, and that half a century hence at furthest, the hammer of the auctioneer will thump its knock-down blow against his blockhead, sold at so much for the pound of stone! And it ought to make us shiver, the idea of leaving our features to be a dusty-white ghost among strangers of another generation, who will take our nose between their thumb and fingers (as we have seen men do by Caesar’s, and infallibly break it off if they can do so without detection! “Yes,” said Miriam, who had been revolving some such thoughts as to the above, “it is a good state of mind for mortal man, when he is content to leave no more definite memorial than the grass, which will sprout kindly and speedily over his grave, if we do not make the spot barren with marble.”
In his journals, notes, and letters, Hawthorne echoed these knotty views of his homeland. He wrote in a journal entry about a thirty-five-year-old man, raised on a farm, who gave up the agricultural life to study at a ministry, explaining that, in his ambitions, this man is typical of his country, as he reveals both an urge to improve himself and a strange naiveté in his belief that a farmer has use for an education. In an entry on styles of architecture, Hawthorne writes that American buildings all trace their lineage to the log cabin. He vents about the failure of Americans to buy his novels, arguing with ample misogyny that popular women’s fiction is to blame. Yet though he despaired of his country at times, he also believed its people were plainspoken and honest. In a sketch of a French wine-merchant who came to New England from Denmark, he says the merchant didn’t have the good manners of Americans in the same line of work. In an entry that foreshadows a Hollywood cliché, he paints a visiting Englishman, distinguished by his rudeness, as oblivious to the ease with which he trashes the people around him. Echoing Miriam’s ode to transience in another passage, he describes a large house, one built by a rich man with an eye toward crafting his legacy, that fell apart and collapsed a half-century after it was built. It’s telling that Hawthorne cast his vote for Andrew Jackson in his youth. His gripes never outweighed the force of his populist leanings.
It’s not easy to imagine a writer coming to this conclusion today without at least a hint of irony. Back then, America was a lot more isolationist than its European forebears, which partly explains the innocence Hawthorne perceived. American hegemony was still just a fanciful theory. To someone like Hawthorne, the country retained a particular dewy-eyed purity, no matter the racism and violence of life within its borders. For him, it was still possible to see America as an untested land.
John Cheever’s Collected Stories is one of those books that became so common in the decades after it was released that a lot of people will know what you mean if you simply call it the big orange book. Originally published as a hardcover of Biblical dimensions, the book contains all the stories that made Cheever the Chekhov of the Suburbs: “The Swimmer,” “The Enormous Radio,” “Goodbye, My Brother” and the sad, pessimistic “The Brigadier and the Golf Widow.” They cemented Westchester as the stomping grounds of Cheever’s imagination. Yet when I read through the book in its entirety a few months ago, I couldn’t maintain my view of the author as parochial. The reason for this is simple: nearly half of his stories are set in Italy, mainly Rome.
Like Hawthorne, Cheever went to Europe in the middle of his career, embarking on a year-long stay in Rome with his family in 1956. Unlike Hawthorne, however, Cheever didn’t get much writing done while abroad. Hawthorne put all his projects on hiatus and kept a series of notebooks about English life; Cheever, in contrast, wrote a total of one story in Rome. The length of his stay, combined with a weariness encapsulated by his remark “Is this all there is?” upon seeing the Tomb of Augustus, suggests that Cheever didn’t get much out of his time in the Eternal City. So it’s odd that he went on to publish a corpus of expat fiction. In the wake of his trip, American expats joined middle-aged couples, fractious rich families, and hopeless alcoholics in the gallery of Cheever archetypes. They let him to play out his upset over the changes of postwar America. To read him now is to sense a bitterness about modern life, coupled with a nostalgia for the country in which he grew up.
Out of all the stories in the big orange book, “The Golden Age” puts Cheever’s Luddite self-loathing most prominently on display. The plot follows a family—a mother, a father and two young boys—on sabbatical in Italy. The father, Seton, is a television writer, one of the first to make his fortunes when the medium took off in the fifties. The locals think he is a poet and refer to him as il poeta. His family is happy and secure. Yet his wealth has made him miserable, because he thinks that television, all in all, is a threat to civilization. As he walks through a village, he spots a television playing inside a bar, inspiring him to dream of the blue glow of the screen transforming Italians into gangsters and juvenile delinquents. He considers apologizing on behalf of America for stocking their restaurants with Coke. In a rowboat with his family, he worries that people on the shore can see how evil he is, alleging that all of them know that he is an “aesthetic criminal.” He admits to lying about his profession to ingratiate himself with the locals. But when a little Italian girl finds out he’s the man behind a famous, international sitcom, she tells him in an offhand way: “We thought, signore, that you were merely a poet.” It seems their disdain is in his head, and the contempt Seton feels is not a reflection of genuine anger but instead a projection of his own rage at the American Century.
Cheever made clear in his own remarks that he cast his lot with Seton. According to his son Benjamin, the author had little good to say about America in the late twentieth-century. While writing Bullet Park and The Wapshot Scandal in the sixties, Malcolm Cowley reportedly warned him: “You’re getting angrier and angrier.” At a symposium run by Esquire in Berkeley, he trashed the coarsening effects of modern American life, even going so far as to declare that “life in the United States in 1960 is Hell.” He thought the decency Hawthorne cherished was dead, imperiled by the twin scourges of the supermarket and TV Guide. In his later stories, the highway, that ubiquitous symbol of free movement, became, as Scott Donaldson argued in an old essay in the VQR, a symbol of industry laying waste to all it touched.
Which isn’t to say that he held a rose-tinted view of the past. Although it’s true that, in the 20s and 30s, America didn’t have quite the level of consumerism he found so offensive, it was also a far more judgmental place. Folded in with the kinder aspects of his youth was a bent towards harsh morality that Hawthorne would have found familiar. In “The Bella Lingua,” a story which first appeared in The New Yorker in 1958, this pops up in subtle, unsettling ways. The protagonist, an American in Rome named Wilson Streeter, signs up for Italian lessons with a fellow American, Kate Dresser, who grew up in Iowa at a time which evokes Norman Rockwell. Yet Kate remembers her childhood mainly for the cruelty with which her peers mocked her upturned nose. She has a son, a teenager whose wardrobe consists of leather jackets and Levi’s, who tells her every day that he wants to “go home” to America. Kate informs him testily that his home is in Italy. When her brother, a hardheaded man she calls Uncle George, pays a visit to their Roman villa, he demonstrates unintentionally why Krasbie is not the place for her. The statues around the city, many of which are nude, offend him, as he feels they indicate a people steeped in hopeless decadence and sin.
It’s remarkable how directly this comment ties Cheever back to Hawthorne. Uncle George inadvertently summarizes the worst of American rigidity: the allergy to pleasure, the prejudice, the moral code which banishes people from society for piddling reasons. Uncle George would have tied the stakes if he’d been a colonist in Salem. In part, his outlook explains why, in small towns across America, lone faults to your reputation could doom you for the rest of your life. It’s no coincidence that Cheever hailed from Massachusetts. Like his forebear, he knew how to weaponize the burden of omnipresent shame.
“A Woman Without a Country” aims this knowledge at the cruelty and power of mass media. Revolving around Anne, the heiress to a lumber mill fortune, the story begins a few years after a tabloid mired her in a scandal. After trusting a neighbor who offers to give her a ride home, she gets assaulted by her neighbor in her foyer, at which point her husband comes home and resolves to divorce her for infidelity. On trial for custody of her children, she claims the humidity impaired her senses, setting off a firestorm of ridicule in tabloids across the country. She gets away from the mockery by leaving America for Europe. Ensconced on the continent, she decides that her homeland is a miserable, savage place. But when she meets a businessman from Philly whose impeccable manners appear to absolve her country, she grows so homesick that she books a flight to New York. When she gets there, however, she immediately hears a janitor in the terminal singing “Humid Isabella,” a song written by a tabloid reporter years before to capitalize on her notoriety. It’s proof to her that America is tainted, and that as long her peers have functioning memories, it will never again be home. She books a flight to Rome and resumes her status as an exile.
Is it even necessary to compare her to Hester Prynne? The parallels are too eerie to ignore. Over three centuries after The Scarlet Letter was set, and a hundred years after it was published, “A Woman Without a Country” establishes in poignant fashion that yes, that harshness is still there. In spite of the changes wrought by shopping malls, highways and TV shows, our own breed of strictness lived on, and Cheever wouldn’t let us forget it.
It’s not hard to see why writer who lived through the Cold War might think the US was a kinder place when he was young. But for readers today, the majority of whom have spent their whole lives in the world he detested, Cheever comes off as a crank. You don’t have to classify him as one of David Foster Wallace’s Great Narcissists to think a person who railed against the evils of the supermarket didn’t have the strongest grasp of the ways in which things had improved. His biases, which only multiplied as he aged, impaired his ability to see the world he painted so well.
The same can’t be said of the novelist Lynne Tillman, whose fiction reveals a clear fluency with modern life. In Motion Sickness, a novel which follows a conspicuously unnamed narrator on a long trip through Europe, her characters are savvy to the world as they see it, unlike the harried everymen of Cheever’s catalogues of horrors. Her protagonist makes scores of friends as she moves from country to country. Her circles, which include people from all over the world, talk politics as easily as they talk about the weather. Since the novel was published in 1989, the setting is the lead-up to the Soviet collapse, though none of the characters could have known it at the time. The book has an atmosphere of controlled anomie, in which most people are resigned to the permanence of a capitalist world order.
It’s in Motion Sickness that I saw the most vivid reflections of what I’ve felt when I go abroad. In cities across Europe, the narrator finds herself hungry for American media, which provides her with a surrogate comfort zone. In a coffee shop in the Netherlands, she reads a novel about Hollywood and finds herself wishing a television was playing in the background. She tells us that “almost anything” sparks an urge to go to the movies. Every day, she reads the Times or the Herald Tribune, though she admits that once in a while, she buys a local paper, “simply to appear to be trying.” She resorts to monosyllabic terms to describe herself while reading Mickey Spillane. She compares the glass in which she drinks tea to Dolly Parton or Mae West, noting simply that her Dutch hotel manager wasn’t likely to make this analogy. For her, the saturation of media is a fact of life, one neither to fear nor to view as much of a blessing. It is, instead, a state of being to observe, without feeling.
The narrator also runs into a character who all expats meet at some point. In London, she befriends a fellow American, Jessica, who neatly fits a stereotype I call the bourgeois exile. Jessica left the States during the Vietnam War as a form of political protest. She preaches the value of Buddhism and speaks in a torrent of aphorisms. In the States, she had a comfortable life—her parents can trace their ancestry back to the revolution—and it’s obvious she has enough money to live wherever she wants. Her unmistakable privilege lends her a campy quality. When she speaks, you get the impression that London is part of her style, that it exists in her view mainly to prove her wealth and considerable good taste.
Jessica takes pains to distance herself from America. Yet when the narrator talks with her about the details of her past, she picks up a peculiar and distinctly American mindset. Jessica grew up in the Midwest, in tiny towns isolated from much of the world, and her family developed their own breed of cloistered weirdness. The gigantic skies, combined with the religious bent in her community, inculcated “a certain kind of American psychosis” in Jessica. This manifests in her dual belief in Buddhism and Christian angels. Her oddness is akin to the madness that plagues Hawthorne’s New England. At one point, Jessica says that, in her youth, she even went through her own Protestant awakening.
Wherever she goes, the narrator suspects that her own psychosis is evident. She worries that a man who fails to introduce himself to her does so because she is American and thus will invariably make the first move. In a cafe in London, she enunciates her order and sees half of the patrons glare at her, their faces mirroring their deep-rooted antipathy to Americans. She braces for the possibility of being attacked for her nationality. Yet when she meets a person who actually does have harsh things to say about her country, she barely reacts. In Barcelona, her lover informs her that his neighborhood is being modernized—but in a good way, not like what you see in New York, where unscrupulous landlords toss the poor and the infirm onto the streets. The narrator, upon hearing this, says nothing, instead pondering whether she can impress him with her scant knowledge of German and French.
I felt a great kinship with the narrator while reading this scene. Regardless of what else may define him or her, the expat is a canvas of hopes, prejudices and hatreds, on which world citizens of all stripes project their ideas about foreign cultures. The narrator of Motion Sickness is aware that she is always an emissary. To some extent, the rest of the world will always see you as they see your country, and you will see yourself, in a way you never did at home, as a child of the land that raised you. There isn’t a place on Earth where you won’t stand for a set of values.
I remember a story a friend told me about a semester he spent in Kenya. On the way home, he saw a billboard for a new Bourne movie looming over the freeway in Nairobi. In Paris, he saw the exact same billboard while making his connection, and when he finally got back to San Francisco a day later, he saw it again in the baggage claim. We talked about how strange it was to know our country had made that happen. “Hollywood gets around, doesn’t it?,” he said.
Image credit: Pexels/Francesco Ungaro.
Samuel Richardson’s 1747 novel Clarissa is a famously long book. At 1,499 pages, My Penguin Classics edition resembles the phone book of a medium-sized city. Next to it, War and Peace looks positively spry. Moreover, War and Peace has Napoleon and the siege of Moscow, to say nothing of Prince Andrei and Pierre and Natasha. Clarissa’s plot covers exactly four points: “How Clarissa, in resisting parental pressure to marry a loathsome man for his money, falls prey to Lovelace, is raped and dies…” reads the text on the back jacket.
I was in my early twenties when I read the book for the first time. It was the late 1990s, and I had moved to New York after college. I worked as a reporter for a financial newsletter and lived in a tiny, purple-painted studio in the East Village. I don’t remember how many evenings and weekends I spent devouring the book, but my memory is that I was in a state of absorption the whole time, going through the motions of my job, but alive mostly when I was at home or on the subway with the book in my hands. While reading, I turned again and again to that paltry, unpromising jacket synopsis, certain that the person who wrote it must be not only something of a killjoy but also an exceedingly poor reader, confused about the very events of the book. Lovelace, with all his good qualities, with all his charisma, wouldn’t really rape Clarissa, would he? And Clarissa couldn’t actually die at the end. No way.
I was seduced not only by the novel’s plot (which could easily have devolved into melodrama) but by the intelligence of Richardson’s voice — the relentless, dialectical thoroughness with which it plumbs the characters’ shifting psychological states. Watching Clarissa and Lovelace come together and pull apart, misread, disappoint, under- and overestimate each other is fascinating. Clarissa is perhaps the first great psychological novel, in any language. It is also deeply moral. Clarissa, like various Austen and Eliot heroines, embodies Kant’s dictum that to be truly good, one must be not warm-hearted but rational. She assiduously evaluates her actions by the light of the imperative to do only what is justifiable from the perspective of an impartial third party. Her virtue, much heralded within the novel, is not of the narrow-minded or sanctimonious sort. It’s far more impressive, even to a skeptical modern reader.
I was so impressed that for years after I read the book, I identified as a Richardsonian. This was no small thing for me. I was at a point in my life where my job seemed completely separate from who I really was or wanted to be. I had aspirations of writing a novel, but my attempts to do so had all inspired the opposite of confidence (a trend that would persist for many more years). For me, reading novels was not only a central preoccupation but the primary way I exercised my intelligence. Matters of taste meant a lot; to a large degree, I defined myself by them.
In practice, becoming a Richardsonian boiled down to a couple of things: searching for a copy of his then out-of-print Sir Charles Grandison and looking slightingly on those who preferred the picaresque comedies of Henry Fielding. Fielding was Richardson’s contemporary and his rival. In 1741, Fielding wrote a parody of Richardson’s Pamela. In Richardson’s novel, Pamela is a paragon of virtue, a young maid lustily pursued by her employer who heroically resists his immoral advances. In Fielding’s book — called Shamela — she’s a scheming social climber who declines to become her employer’s mistress because she hopes holding out will win her the brass ring (as it were): marriage to a wealthy man.
There was little love between Richardson and Fielding in their day, and there remains today a divide between their fans. Nor is this debate quite as arcane as it may at first sound to those who aren’t actively interested in 18th-Century British male novelists. The Richardson vs. Fielding question is commonly used as a shorthand to talk about two distinct and ostensibly competing types of novels. Richardson represents the traditional realist novel with its emphasis on characters’ inner lives; Fielding’s exuberant, wide-ranging yarns are often seen as a precursor of the more formally inventive Modernist and post-Modernist novels. Richardsonians tend to see novels in the Fielding tradition as juvenile — full of showy gamesmanship but lacking in deeper meaning or seriousness, especially about character. Fielding’s devotees meanwhile see Richardson as long-winded and humorless, a moralizing, didactic prig; the novels in his line are complacent and limited, implicitly (or explicitly) bourgeois.
For years, this schema sounded pretty much right to me. I’d read Fielding’s masterpiece, Tom Jones. I’d even enjoyed it. The book tells the story of Jones, an infant foundling taken in and lovingly raised by a rich man, named (in the allegorical manner of the age) Mr. Allworthy. A jealous rival contrives to ruin Jones in Mr. Allworthy’s eyes and separate him from his one true love, the beautiful Sophia Western. Cast out, Jones goes traipsing across England, precipitating a series of baldly comic misadventures among robbers, recluses, revolutionaries, and — yes — gypsies. Along the way, Jones consoles himself for the loss of Sophia by engaging an assortment of ladies in various farcical sexcapades. Finally, the villain’s treachery is revealed, Jones and Mr. Allworthy are reconciled, and he and Sophia are married. And lest you hate me for the spoiler, I can assure you that from the first few pages of Tom Jones, you just know — from Fielding’s tone — that this is a book in which all will end well, the way you knew when watching Three’s Company that the misunderstanding would be cleared up by the end of the episode. In other words, Tom Jones is a comedy.
I appreciated comedy — in theory. Just as I appreciated the novel’s vitality and color and its aphoristic observations (e.g., “fellows who excel in some little low contemptible art are always certain to despise those who are unacquainted with that art”). I was in principle willing to overlook its contrivance-laden plot and mechanistic love story, in which the libidinous but big-hearted Tom and the angelic Sophia are kept from living perfectly happily together only because of the viciousness, greed, and lust of others.
But on another level I relished Tom Jones’s weaknesses of plot and character development: they were ammunition. And as a Richardsonian, I felt defensive. To be a Richardson person is to be on the side of the squares: the cool kids seem to be off reading Delillo or Pynchon. And whatever one might say about Tom Jones’s flaws, it’s nothing compared to what an ill-intentioned Fielding acolyte can do with Clarissa’s page count, its squeamishness about sex, its didacticism and painstaking, sometimes plodding earnestness. Even Clarissa’s strengths — attention to psychology and to individual consciousnesses, highmindedness, and moral sensitivity — seem not especially literary, at least not to a certain type of reader. The book’s selling points aren’t purely aesthetic. Clarissa is full of observations whose power depends less on their linguistic virtuosity than on their truth — that is, their accuracy in capturing something about the human condition. (This does not exactly impress the kind of readers for whom the word “truth” must only ever be flagged by scare quotes.) Nor is Clarissa in any way political; it touches neither on systems nor on economics. Which means: there goes one way a novel can assert its importance.
There is, of course, a gendered component to this. It’s not that Delillo or Pynchon and other writers said to be in the Fielding vein are exclusively male tastes — I was introduced to Delillo in college by a female friend — but back then it felt to me that the readers who had the most assurance, who took for granted that they were the most sophisticated, the best arbiters, were almost all stringy-haired guys with French cigarettes dangling from their mouths and dog-eared copies of Gravity’s Rainbow on their bedside tables. They were the Angry Young Men that Jonathan Franzen described in his New Yorker essay “Mr. Difficult,” and they had not worried themselves for weeks about Clarissa and Lovelace’s romantic troubles. If they had read Clarissa at all, they were more likely to discourse pompously about its old-fashioned technique — Clarissa is an epistolary novel — or its historical significance (Clarissa was one of the first mega-bestsellers, a huge hit, particularly with women). About the actual content, they seemed dismissive.
In retrospect, I can see that these young men had their own reasons to feel insecure: If the realist psychological novel is the less avant-garde taste, it is also the culturally and commercially dominant mode. But because at the time I felt vulnerable, like the besieged party, I took a keen and in retrospect unseemly pleasure in blows struck against Fielding and his ilk. There was Samuel Johnson, who famously despised Fielding’s work, arguing (the critic Allen Michie tells us) that he created “characters of manners” while Richardson wrote “characters of nature.” (Lest there be any doubt as to which Johnson preferred, this statement clears it up: “Characters of manners are very entertaining; but they are to be understood by a more superficial observer, than characters of nature must divine the rescesses of the human heart.”) I could also feel smug in pointing to contemporary allies, like Franzen, who in “Mr. Difficult” also recounts his move away from post-Modernist indifference, or even hostility, to the pleasures of the traditional realist novel. ([P]ostmodern fiction wasn’t supposed to be about sympathetic characters,” he wrote. “Characters, properly speaking, weren’t even supposed to exist. “[C]haracters were feeble, suspect constructs, like the author himself, like the human soul. Nevertheless, to my shame, I seemed to need them.”) Even the critic James Wood appeared to be on my side, criticizing various post-Modern novels and favorably contrasting Richardson’s “seriousness about human activity” with Fielding’s “rapid, farce-like, overlit simplicity.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.
Several months ago, I re-read Tom Jones. That is to say, several months ago, I walked around for a couple weeks in a state of rapture, pushing the book on anyone who’d listen.
The merits I’d once granted so patronizingly this time hit me with astounding force. That color! That vitality! Here, for example, is Tom eating dinner: “Three pounds at least of that flesh which formerly had contributed to the composition of an ox was now honoured with becoming part of the individual Mr. Jones.”
One of the characteristics of a great novel is that it is dense with the kind of fresh thought and observation that give the reader pleasure. Whether the pleasure is of the “haha” sort or the “aha” sort is less significant than the sense that the book is packed, that it seems to brim with ideas. (If you doubt this, just take a look at the first several pages of The Great Gatsby and notice how many fresh, smart and varied ideas are contained in those elegant sentences.) In lesser novels, the writer seems almost arrogant, as if he had a few ideas he was so impressed with that he thought they could carry an entire book.
Fielding delivers delightfully pointed observations in abundance. Here he is gleefully pointing up a bit of pompousness. The virtuous Sophia is being lectured by a self-satisfied aunt. Sophia declines to argue. Fielding writes,
“Argue with me, child!” replied the [aunt]. “I do not indeed expect it. I should have seen the world to very little purpose truly if I am to argue with one of your years. I have taken this trouble in order to instruct you. The ancient philosophers, such as Socrates, Alcibiades, and others did not use to argue with their scholars. You are to consider me, child, as Socrates, not asking your opinion, but only informing you mine.” From which last words the reader may possibly imagine that this lady had read no more of the philosophy of Socrates than she had of that of Alcibiades.
When Sophia decides to run away from her father’s house because he and her aunt threaten to make her marry a man who is not Jones, she enlists the help of her maid, a woman named Honour. Sophia and Honour plan to sneak out in the middle of the night with only what they can carry. But as the moment of their elopement nears, “a very stubborn difficulty occurred”–namely, Honour has second thoughts:
When a lady hath once taken a resolution to run to a lover, or to run from him, all obstacles are considered as trifles. But Honour was inspired by no such motives; she had no raptures to expect, nor any terrors to shun; and besides the real value of her clothes, in which consisted a great part of her fortune, she had a capricious fondness for several gowns, and other things; either because they became her, or because they were given to her by such a particular person; because she had bought them lately, or because she had had them long.
This is the kind of detail we expect in a novel that pays close attention to character. It is also smarter than it may seem at first, less of a throwaway. It tells the reader something about Honour, about the tack of her mind, something we won’t forget, and it does so not by sneering at her but simply by listening in on her.
What it tells us is central to Fielding’s project. Where the beautiful and noble Clarissa inspires selfless devotion from all but the most hard-hearted of her servants, the beautiful and noble Sophia has to make do with more ordinary levels of commitment. Not that Honour doesn’t appreciate Sophia’s gentle disposition and generosity. She does—inasmuch as those qualities make Sophia an easier and more pleasant boss. Honour is not hard-hearted, but she is busily going about her own life; in her mind, she isn’t playing a supporting role in Sophia’s story but starring in her own.
Honour isn’t exactly complex — none of the characters in Tom Jones is. Yet the book as a whole feels richly and abundantly peopled in large part because Fielding is so very clear-eyed. For all the gags (girl fights, damsels tied to trees and rescued in the nick of time, intercepted letters, pocketbooks accidentally dropped and luckily found by just the right person), Fielding has a keen eye for social life, for the social organism. Consider an innkeeper, whom everyone in the village believes to be a “very sagacious fellow… [who is] thought to see farther and deeper into things than man in the parish.” Is this because the man’s neighbors are uniquely capable of ferreting out true merit? Probably not, according to the bemused narrator:
[The innkeeper’s] look had contributed not a little to procure him this reputation; for there was in this something wonderfully wise and significant, especially when he had a pipe in his mouth — which, indeed, he seldom was without. His behavior likewise greatly assisted in promoting the opinion of his wisdom. In his deportment, he was solemn, if not sullen and when he spoke, which was seldom, he always delivered himself in a slow voice.
This lack of sentimentality toward the common people makes for humor, yes — but it is no more farcical than George Eliot’s salty observation, in the first chapter of Middlemarch, that “the great safeguard of society and of domestic life was, that opinions were not acted on. Sane people did what their neighbors did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.”
Fielding gets a lot of mileage from the human tendency to misread — to, say, mistake external trappings for intelligence or principled decisions to act against self-interest for weakness or stupidity. Time and again, Tom and Sophia are misunderstood by people less noble-minded than they are. Sophia, in particular, is accused of liking Tom only for his handsomeness — she is told that there are other, better men out there, that she has a shot of attracting even a titled suitor. Tom is likewise told that there are equally beautiful, equally wealthy women who might not give him so much trouble in the catching as Sophia does. The people who advise Tom and Sophia, who see themselves as wise (and who are often older than the young lovers) generally lack the moral capacity to understand them. These counselors imagine that Tom and Sophia’s claims of great and disinterested love are as hollow as such claims would be if they themselves made them. Watching Tom and Sophia get lectured at by a parade of self-satisfied boobs makes for good comedy — but it’s not slapstick. It is a way of acknowledging absurdity, laughter as a sardonic response to life’s inevitable humiliations and iniquities.
Nor is this passage slapstick. It comes fairly early on, when Tom, not yet sent away, is wandering drunkenly around Mr. Allworthy’s grounds. He runs into an old flame, a woman he recently found in bed with his tutor. But on this particular evening, she and Jones banter for a few minutes and then, as Fielding daintily puts it, “retire to the thickest part of the grove.” At which this point, Fielding launches into cheerful commentary:
Some of my readers may be inclined to think this event unnatural. However, the fact is true and perhaps may be sufficiently accounted for by suggesting, that Jones probably thought one woman better than none, and Molly as probably imagined two men to be better than one. Besides the before-mentioned motive assigned to the present behavior of Jones, the reader will be likewise pleased to recollect in his favor, that he was not at this time perfect master of that wonderful power of reason, which so well enables grave and wise men to subdue their unruly passions, and to decline any of those prohibited amusements. Wine now had totally subdued that power in Jones…To say the truth, in a court of justice drunkenness must not be an excuse, yet in a court of conscience it is greatly so; and therefore Aristotle who commends the laws of Pittacus, by which drunken men receive double punishment for their crimes, allows there is more of policy than justice in that law. Now, if there are any transgressions pardonable from drunkenness, they are certainly such as Mr. Jones was at present guilty of; on which head I could pour forth a vast profusion of learning, if I imagined it would either entertain my reader or teach him anything more than he knows already.
It’s hard to resist Fielding’s affable urbanity, his drollery and air of bemusement, not to mention his light touch with the classical reference. Yet Fielding is also admonishing us not to condemn reflexively, to be more truly just — more commonsensical.
For all his levity and playfulness, his love of “amours” (the more ribald the better), Fielding is, like Richardson, a writer whose moral consciousness is almost always in evidence. Apart from the exhortations to be better judges — more discriminating, less likely to be deceived by appearances—the book is packed with old-fashioned life lessons, delivered in the form of sermonettes, like this one:
The wise man gratifies every pleasure and every passion [in moderation], while the fool sacrifices all the rest to pall and satiate one. It may be objected that very wise men have been notoriously avaricious. I answer, not wise in that instance. It may likewise be said, That the wisest men have been in their youth immoderately fond of pleasure. I answer, They were not wise then.
Of course, there are things that Richardson does well that Fielding doesn’t come near. When we read Clarissa, we come to believe in Clarissa and Lovelace far more than we ever believe in Tom or Sophia; we don’t merely root for them the way we root for Cary Elwes and Robin Wright to beat the bad guys and reunite in The Princess Bride. That’s in spite of the fact that Clarissa is excessively — almost impossibly — scrupulous, and Lovelace is, ultimately, a villain. Clarissa and Lovelace come to feel real in large part because the inner workings of their minds are so ingeniously, so convincingly delineated: Clarissa’s complicated machinations, for example, as she balances her attraction to good-looking, intelligent and gallant Lovelace against her aversion for what she correctly suspects is also part of his character (untempered vanity, a capacity for deception that is, in fact, revolting). Or Lovelace’s vacillation between his spontaneous admiration for Clarissa and his twisted, doomed desire to win her love without actually treating her very well. (He wants her to love him so much that she will relax her standards — even though the reader can’t help but suspect that if she did he would immediately lose respect for her.) We watch, riveted, as the two of them parry. There are so many moments when it seems that, with all their intelligence and charm and self-possession, they may yet prevent things from going completely awry, but alas…they’re fucked. Fits of pique and pride cause each to do that which brings out the worst in the other. And then there’s the end. The end! I won’t say much beyond what’s on the back jacket. All I’ll say is that it’s haunting.
I don’t think anyone has ever been haunted by Tom Jones. Delighted, for sure, but not haunted. Does that mean that Clarissa is a better book? I’m surprised to find that I’m not sure anymore.
What doesn’t surprise me is that I much preferred Richardson when I was in my early 20s. If guys like Franzen, with their early love of difficult texts, were angry young men, I was what might be called a melancholic young woman. As much time as I spent reading and thinking about novels, I also spent a lot of time brooding about my personal life, specifically about boyfriends and ex-boyfriends and would-be boyfriends. I devoted as much ingenuity as I had at my disposal to the project of figuring out these slippery characters, trying to get a handle on who they were and make sense of their behavior. How could this one be so sensitive about art and politics and such a dick to women? How could that one have fallen for someone so vacuous? I also scrutinized myself — wondering where my overriding concern with relationships came from, what it meant, if it was something I should try to overcome in the name of becoming a better, more fully realized human being. If I turned to novels in part to distract me from these questions, I also turned to them for insight. I hoped they would shed light on what I grappled with. And because certain types of questions, about relationships and psychology and personal ethics, dominated my mental life, they seemed to me like the essential questions, the deepest ones.
These days, when I re-read books I read back and notice the notes I made in the margins, I am often struck by how humorless a reader I was. Rarely did I put a check by a joke — but if an author ever let drop an observation about the nature of love or the effect of solitude on the soul, rest assured that I double underlined it. An alarmingly high number of sentences I singled out for special approbation were proclamations that included the phrase “the human heart.” The truth was that I was so focused on amassing a certain kind of insight that I had very little time or energy to spare for anything else. A book like Tom Jones would naturally have seemed to me to be merely “fun” — by which I meant it was for shallow people who didn’t care so much about what was Really Important.
The reading I did in those years was incredibly meaningful. I don’t know that I will ever read so intensely, so hungrily again, and I did indeed learn a few things from those pronouncements about the human heart. But over the years, something has shifted in the way I read and respond to fiction. Humor has become a higher priority. I’ve become more sensitive to pleasures that are “merely” aesthetic — a well-turned phrase or an apt observation that sheds light into a particular character, even it isn’t of profound or generalizable import, even if it only gets something right about how a young servant would feel about leaving behind her gowns. And apparently I’ve become someone who can’t stop talking about how great Tom Jones is.
But I’m not the only one who has changed, moved toward a more catholic middle ground. Those lovers of Pynchon and Delillo, the angry young men whose sense of their own sophistication so aggravated (and intimidated) me? It turns out that a fair number of them have also moved away from their earlier positions. I don’t just mean Franzen and the re-assessment he described in “Mr. Difficult.” I can think of several men I know who have come to embrace some of the more psychological novels they once eschewed as “domestic” and “trivial” — and “feminine.” The critic William Deresiewicz describes just such a shift in A Jane Austen Education.
I’m in no position to say I told you so. How could I be, when I too have come to see my former position as smug and narrow in its dismissiveness toward books that weren’t exactly the type of books I liked best? My old approach, I see now, meant I undervalued not only Tom Jones, but also a wide range of books that don’t happen to foreground romantic relationships, from Billy Budd to The Trial.
I can no longer call myself a Richardsonian, except in the most promiscuous, non-exclusive sense. But maybe it’s time to stop reveling in this particular distinction. Tom Jones and Clarissa are both excellent books. For this particular reader at least, it’s going to be Richardson and Fielding instead of Richardson or Fielding. And who knows? Maybe one of these days, I’ll even give Gravity’s Rainbow another shot.
“Joseph K., that icon of single-lettered anonymity from Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial,” writes Tom Engelhardt for Guernica, “would undoubtedly have felt right at home in [James] Clapper’s Washington.”
Brandon of The Bibliosphere weighed in with the best book he read during a year in which he got around to catching up on a bunch of classics, new and old:I couldn’t resist joining in on the fun of all the best-of lists making the rounds: the New York Times Book Review printed its own list, as did Publisher’s Weekly. My reading is pretty varied, but I always seem to be a few years behind: the most recent books I read this year were published in 2004.2006 was more of a year for me to play catch-up – Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Albert Camus’ The Stranger were among my favorite books this year. They exemplified everything I love about literature; they were thought-provoking, obsessive, and deeply unsettling. Franz Kafka’s The Trial disturbed me on a level no horror novel can reach. Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, while treading a fine line between pretentiousness and genius, obliterated the very idea of what a novel is supposed to be. And Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time gave me one of the freshest and most sympathetic heroes I’ve come across in a long time.But Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is, without a doubt, the best book I read this year. It’s funny, infuriating, tragic, and beautifully-written. Neither too long nor too short, this book is, in a word, perfect.Thanks Brandon!