Bill Goldstein and I met in the spring of 2014 at Ucross, an artists’ retreat in Wyoming. Our studios were actually quite far from each other but we became fast friends in part because we shared the same work schedule: every morning we’d meet in the quiet kitchen for a pre-dawn breakfast, both of us eager to get to our desks before procrastination could claim the day. A lot of the time we joked around; my coffee was always sludgy with grounds, Bill said, and I would remark on his debonair bathrobe-and-pajamas combo. Other times we talked novels. Bill not only hosts a segment about books on NBC’s Weekend Today in New York, he also went back to school a few years ago to get a PhD in literature, and we’d often sit for longer than planned chatting about Edith Wharton or a contemporary novel we loved. Sometimes we would discuss our works in progress. While I was wrestling with my second novel, Bill was writing a literary history of 1922, specifically, the creative and personal lives of Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, and E.M. Forster. His studio was filled with books about these figures, and I knew that before coming to Ucross he had dug into primary sources at many libraries and archival centers; his book struck me as so much more expansive than mine, and I enjoyed hearing about it. Sometimes one of us would have a breakthrough with our writing. Other days, we were made miserable by a bad paragraph or uncooperative chapter. I distinctly remember Bill worrying he’d never complete what he had begun.
Well, he didn’t have to worry: The World Broke in Two: Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, and the Year that Changed Literature was published last month, receiving praise from such varied publications as The Times Literary Supplement, People, and The New York Times Book Review. I myself tore through the book in just a few days. I loved it. Bill renders this history vivid, compelling, and even dishy. It made me want to re-read The Waste Land and seek out D.H. Lawrence’s novel Kangaroo. It inspired me to return to my (lately neglected) third novel.
It also made me grateful for my own literary friendship with Bill. All of our sprawling, funny, and thought-provoking conversations in Wyoming informed my work and helped me to clarify my aesthetic intentions; I’d like to think that in some minuscule way I was involved in the making of The World Broke in Two. Bill was kind enough to continue our conversation here for The Millions; he answered these questions via email.
The Millions: As someone who only writes fiction and the occasional personal essay, I’m interested in the process of writing biography. It strikes me as such a daunting and mysterious task! How do you shape all this history into a compelling—and, perhaps more importantly, intimate—narrative? Tell me about your process. How did you go about researching this material, and then organizing it?
Bill Goldstein: I wouldn’t say I was aware that it was going to be either or both of those things while I was working, or even that I was consciously shaping it to be that. The editing process is so different from the writing and the researching (and the researching, at least for me, was so much easier than the writing). I think, at least from the evidence of what my own main subjects were dealing with in 1922, that one thing writers of fiction and nonfiction have in common is the difficulty and anxiety of writing. Poets, too—because I think T.S. Eliot said it most succinctly, when he wrote to a friend in December 1921, just before The Waste Land began to take its final shape, “I do not know whether it will work.” (Being Eliot, he wrote it in French—“Je ne sais pas si ça tient.” I think he turned to French for that one sentence in the letter because it was too frightening to say it in English, and yet he had to confide it to someone.) This was just before he went to Paris, in January 1922, and began to edit, with Ezra Pound’s help, what had been nearly 1,000 lines of poetry into the poem half that length that was published at the year’s end. At almost the same time, Virginia Woolf was editing Jacob’s Room, her first unadulteratedly modern novel, into its final form, and was worried that it was only “sterile acrobatics.”
So much of my book is about my main subjects’ insecurity about what they are working on, and their absolute despair that they will be able to do the work they want to do. Whether they will achieve their artistic goals—or whether, physically, they will be able to finish the work. I loved that Virginia Woolf, just before her 40th birthday in January 1922, wrote to E.M. Forster that writing was like heaving bricks over a wall—she had a severe case of influenza—but also cautioned him that even though she was about to turn 40, he must count her only 35 because she had spent so much time sick in bed.
But finding lines like that is why the research is the best part of biography. Also because the process is comparatively straightforward, as opposed to the writing or editing. I spent a lot of time in libraries and archives, and it is just wonderful to be able to go through original letters, diaries, manuscripts—you’re actually holding them, and that’s thrilling in and of itself —but then you always convince yourself (and you’re right) that you must look at more. My focus is pretty specifically 1922, but I found so many important things looking in later and earlier archival material. So much depended on how much time you had in any one place. I was lucky enough to have a fellowship at the Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, where I researched for two months. You don’t have to do the same kind of triage as when you are in a place for only a few days or a week. The New York Public Library was a similarly endless resource, and luckily I live here. You gather this enormous amount of stuff, and then you have to cut most of it.
In terms of writing and editing, I found that the thing I most resisted, but in the end most depended on, was simply chronology. You’d think that in the story of a year that would be obvious! But that is somewhat alien to my digressive mind, and I learned I had to keep the story as chronologically clear as possible, and that involved, in the editing, sometimes working paragraph by paragraph. If one paragraph did not follow logically from the previous one, and I was spending too much time working on a transition that inevitably became too baroque or abstract—I gave up, basically, and cut it. It only took me several years, and imminent deadlines, to sharpen my mind that way.
I think one thing nonfiction writers can do that is perhaps harder for novelists is that whole chapters can move around—they are much more discrete than chapters in a novel, I would imagine. I don’t know that novelists write in order—I certainly didn’t—but then once I got back to the chronology, I could find the place for things I had drafted, or I could cut. The chapters fit into place because of the time period they covered. Though I remember once many years ago interviewing Ann Beattie, who said that in writing her novel Love Always she didn’t want to “tell a story chronologically.” She wrote the novel in pieces, and when she had finished all the chapters, she spread them on the floor of her living room and re-assembled them “like pieces in a puzzle.” What “foiled” her, she said, was “having to fix it technically, to go back and revise the chronology.”
Talk about losing myself in research—I just went back and looked up the interview.
TM: Was there any sweet little piece of history that you couldn’t fit into the book?
BG: Do you know the phrase l’esprit d’escalier? Literally, the spirit of the staircase? What you think of saying to someone only after the conversation has ended, some caustic or brilliant reply that only comes to you when you’re on your way out—dramatically—down the stairs? When I do my TV segment, I almost always think more of what I should have said, what I wanted to say, than I do of what I did say. So, in terms of the book—most of what I wanted to get in I had to leave out. I feel almost as much despair now about all that I couldn’t use as I did when I was trying to organize all my research notes into a draft. But there are two quotes I tried to fit in, moving them from place to place, and they just never fit. One was a line of Clive Bell’s to his mistress Mary Hutchinson. Clive Bell was married to Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister. He admired T. S. Eliot’s poetry but did not warm to him as a person. Mary, on the other hand, was close to Eliot, was very sympathetic to him in the many financial and marital struggles that in 1922, as at other times, consumed his life (and which made their way into The Waste Land). I think Clive liked to tease her with his barbs about Eliot, a kind of literary foreplay, almost. Eliot published The Waste Land in late 1922, but also spent a lot of time that year working on the first issue of The Criterion, a literary magazine he inaugurated that year (and which he edited in one form or another until 1939). Eliot wrote the prospectus for the magazine in the summer, and Clive, as he often was, was dubious of Eliot’s efforts. When the prospectus arrived, he wrote to Mary that the morning post brought many letters, “all, except yours, very dull—bills for the most part.” One of the very dull things she had likely seen herself: “the prospectus of The Criterion on which most unluckily, though perhaps prophetically, a swallow shat before I had time to read it. You will lend me your copy I dare say.”
The other quote was one of E.M. Forster’s. He read Woolf’s Jacob’s Room in late 1922, and wrote her a beautiful letter about how ecstatically he read it, and what a profound an effect it had on him and, he thought, on the work (A Passage to India) that he was trying then to do. I quote the letter at length. It just didn’t fit to have the wonderful kind of P.S. that he offered to a friend, more traditional than he was, to whom he recommended it highly, but with a caution: “Good. Very very very very very very very—modern.”
TM: You rely on diaries and personal letters to provide insight into these writers’ careers and domestic situations. There are some real gems here. For instance, D.H. Lawrence remarks that the people in Ceylon would be as “beshitten” there as anywhere else on “this slippery ball of quick-silver of a dissolving world.” In her diary, Virginia Woolf describes an evening spent with T.S. Eliot; he was, “sardonic, guarded, precise, & slightly malevolent, as usual.” Can you describe what it was like to interact with these personal papers? Did reading correspondence or private writings alter your understanding of these writers, or even change the course of the book as you might have first imagined it?
BG: Yes, and yes. When you write a nonfiction book, you usually write a proposal first, for your agent and prospective publishers. That, of course, takes years of work (or at least it did for me). You have to do a lot of research, but in researching that, I relied on published material—Virginia Woolf’s complete letters and diaries are published, and Lawrence’s letters too. But when I began working most of Eliot’s letters of the period were still unpublished, and most of Forster’s letters (and his diaries) were also unpublished. You don’t know, of course, what you don’t have, or even whether you will find it or if it still exists. I knew the story of 1922 I wanted to tell, and knew that there was a story in these people’s lives that I could tell by focusing on one narrow bit of time in which they did important work. A story that by necessity the definitive biographies of all of these people could not tell because they had whole lives to encompass. Each of them had a little about 1922, of course.
I knew the story, then—of Woolf, for example, writing “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street” in the spring of 1922, the story that by the end of the year gives rise to Mrs. Dalloway; of Forster’s picking up his “Indian fragment” (which becomes A Passage to India) after nearly a decade. In the same way, I knew where Eliot and Lawrence began and ended the year. In the book, the story is the same—the stories, I suppose I should say—but the details are almost completely different from what I’d planned. What I hadn’t counted on was the range of unpublished material by them and about them. The fact that Woolf’s diaries and letters, and Lawrence’s letters, for example, have been published in complete editions obscures the other salient fact—that so much private writing by and about my subjects is available in archives and libraries and has not been published. There’s so much of Eliot’s correspondence and Forster’s that hasn’t been collected yet, and it was all a revelation to me, including much that they wrote later that revealed essential aspects of 1922, and their work—and their private lives—in that period. Even more thrilling for me—because finding it all was completely unexpected—were the diaries and letters of the people who knew my main subjects extremely well, and either loved or loathed them or both. That was a perspective I never thought to have, and discovering them provided me with some of the most juicy and insightful and bitchy and jaundiced raw material (see Clive Bell’s letters to Mary Hutchinson; and there are hundreds of them at the Ransom Center). The trouble, then, was that I had more than I could ever use—which brings us back to the editing paragraph by paragraph. My editor, Gillian Blake, had a very help suggestion (really, directive)—quotations should be ornaments. Perhaps that’s something every editor says—but it related very specifically to a dilemma my drafts posed to both of us, and that advice helped me enormously.
One other thing about working in these archives is the thrill of holding the original letters. You’re looking for particular things, of course, and you get so used to moving quickly through the papers. Sometimes I would have to scan letters looking only for capital letters—to see if any of my subjects were mentioned. And then every so often you just stop yourself in awe and realize, these are Virginia Woolf’s letters! This is her paper, her ink, she wrote this—it’s not a facsimile. The same thing with drafts. You are holding Eliot’s typescript. You are holding D.H. Lawrence’s notebooks. At the Ransom Center they have Virginia Woolf’s copy of A Passage to India inscribed to her by Forster. And Ezra Pound’s copy of The Waste Land, in which he made not one single pencil notation, unfortunately.
The challenge, I think, is to convey some of the excitement in the book.
TM: I read The World Broke in Two on vacation, far from my writing desk, and by the time I was done, I was thinking a lot about my new book, eager to get back to it. Part of that is due to reading about these brilliant writers and their artistic processes, challenges, and goals. I loved learning about Woolf’s interests in depicting human consciousness, and how inspired she was by Marcel Proust. I’ve read a lot of Forster but didn’t know much about what was happening in his personal life as he returned to the book that would become A Passage to India. And then there’s Eliot, struggling to finish The Waste Land, take care of his ailing wife, and go to work as a banker, a job that demoralized him and caused him great anxiety. Last, we’ve got D.H. Lawrence, giving himself the challenge to start and finish a draft of a novel in six weeks. These could be writers I know personally, in 2017! I felt a connection between their artistic struggles and passions and my own, which was exhilarating. Was that your intention, or was that simply an intriguing part of these writers’ lives that you couldn’t help but focus on, being a fellow writer yourself? Did their processes echo your own, as you worked on your book?
BG: I struggled for a long time with the book, as we’ve discussed. It took me over six years to finish it. And practically every day as I wrote I was immersed in these writers’ despair (which eventually becomes triumph in one way or another by the end of 1922). And I kept thinking of my own difficulties, “But they are Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence and E. M. Forster! Who am I?” It was comforting on the one hand and intimidating on the other. I mean, what right did I have to struggle? The end result was not going to Mrs. Dalloway or The Waste Land. But at least I had a much smaller goal!
I was talking to a friend just after I was finished with the book. He works in politics but admits he is really a struggling screenwriter. When he said something about how hard it was to do it, and even to find the time, I told him about what Woolf, et al were going through in 1922. He said, “Most people think great art just happens—but it doesn’t.” I think that’s what my book is about. It helps goad you forward, at least a little, to know that whatever struggle you are having with your writing doesn’t indicate, by itself, that you are doing bad work or aren’t a good writer. You can recognize you are not Woolf, Forster, Eliot or Lawrence, and still try to do your work.
TM: You have a PhD in English and you’ve written this literary history of 1922. But you’re also very much part of today’s book culture: you host “Bill’s Books” where you review contemporary work, and you were the founding editor of The New York Times books website. I’m curious how it felt, to be immersed in two literary worlds, past and present. What feels different? What feels similar? Do we have modern day counterparts to these brilliant minds? (And who is our modern-day James Joyce—arrogant, uncouth, genius?)
BG: It was a relief to move between the past and the present. I mean, each was an escape from the other, though of course having to do so much work in the real world leaves you less time for writing. But if you don’t earn money, you can’t write. It’s not a new dilemma. Forster put it wonderfully (and sadly) about his own journalism, which he was doing in part to distract himself from his failure at his novel: “How fatuous!…Always working never creating.” So much is the same, or at least we seem to feel the same way about some things as the writers in my book felt then—overwhelmed by their own work (of course), but also, as Woolf, who was also a publisher of the Hogarth Press, felt, simply by the number of books published. She made fun of the sheer number of books published, and the hype about them (that’s not the word they used then, but she describes the same machinery for it, both from the publisher’s side, creating it, or trying to, and the public’s side, the press’s side, trying to make sense of it). She wrote an article in 1922 decrying this very thing, part of which was trying to understand what her own place was in that universe, not only as a publisher, but as a writer—where would her own work fit in? How would Jacob’s Room make its way in that world? It was the start of her trying to figure out what role the “common reader” plays in making an audience for a writer—but also a posterity for a writer? Would she be read in later years? She could barely see her way to finishing the work she was doing—but still she was anxious about whether she and it would have a posterity. She and Leonard Woolf conducted a mock debate for the BBC in 1927 about whether too many books were being published. The text survives, but not a recording, unfortunately.
As for who is like Joyce—two things. One, I love that you’re quoting Clive Bell’s reaction to him when they met in Paris in 1921, which is from one of his letters to Mary Hutchinson, and which I think he also shared with Virginia Woolf and which influenced her own sense of him as a person (she and Joyce never met) and more vitally as the writer of Ulysses. And two—I think I know too few writers well enough to answer your question. I only know the nicest ones.
TM: Since this is The Millions, I must ask you, what’s the last great book you read?
BG: You mean other than Woman No. 17? I recently read and liked Pachinko by Min Jin Lee; Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout; and My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent (in alphabetical and chronological order, conveniently enough). The last great book I reread is Mrs. Dalloway.
Lent is an annual search, which might explain the popularity of this post. I continue to hear from writers — Christians and non-Christians alike — who are curious about the meaning and significance of Lent. The season is all about the appeal of story; the dramatic power of the Passion narrative. We’ve decided to re-publish this post with updated dates in hopes that it can be a literary companion for the next few weeks — and that it might demonstrate the diversity and range of ways that writers have imagined the season.
“Lent,” wrote Thomas Merton, “is not just a time for squaring conscious accounts: but for realizing what we had perhaps not seen before.” Lent is the most literary season of the liturgical year. The Lenten narrative is marked by violence, suffering, anticipation, and finally, joy. Jesus Christ’s 40 days of fasting in the desert are the spiritual and dramatic origin for the season that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday.
While Advent is a time of giving, Lent is a time of reflection, penance, and reconciliation, all revealed through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Holy Week is a solemn sequence of days leading to the grace of Easter. It is a different form of joy than Christmas; Easter joy is cathartic and transformational. Lent, then, is a time of complex and contrasting emotions. Highs and lows. A time to be shaken and surprised.
Jamie Quatro, whose collection I Want To Show You More arrived like a literary revelation, says that reading is like “the mystery of the Lord’s Supper…a form of communion: author, text, and reader rapt in an intimate yet paradoxically isolated collusion of spirits.” Here is a literary reader for Lent: 40 stories, poems, essays, and books for the 40 days of this season. (Sundays have never been part of the Lenten calendar). Some pieces are inspired by feast days and Gospel readings, while others capture the discernment of the season. Some works are written by believers, while others are crafted by writers who choose the literary word over any Word. This reader is intended to be literary, not theological; contemplative rather than devotional. Bookmark this page and come back each day. Save it for upcoming years. The dates will change, but the sequence of readings and reflections will stay the same: a small offering of communion that might transcend our isolation.
Day 1: Wednesday March 1
Reading: “Ash Wednesday” by T.S. Eliot
Lent begins with dust and darkness. Black-crossed foreheads are the rare time when true ritual bleeds into public view. As Lent is a time of change, it is appropriate to start with Eliot’s famous conversion text. Eliot said “skepticism is the preface to conversion;” The Wasteland and “The Hollow Men,” however desolate, capture the impersonal sense of art Eliot would associate with his new faith. “Ash Wednesday” is the start of a labor. When he writes “suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood,” he knows belief is not easy.
Day 2: Thursday March 2
Reading: Townie by Andre Dubus III
In Luke 9:22-25, Jesus warns his disciples that following him will be a struggle. Self-denial must be followed by a willingness to suffer “daily.” The disciples act on the hope of salvation, much like children following a father. In Townie, Andre Dubus III writes of his father, a man he both loved and hated. Dubus père dies in the final chapters of the memoir, and Andre and his brother Jeb build their father’s coffin, “a simple pine box.” It was a promise, the final chapter of reconciliation to heal a broken family.
Day 3: Friday March 3
Reading: “The Habit of Perfection” by Gerard Manley Hopkins
This Friday is the first real test of fasting for most (Ash Wednesday services make for strength in numbers). William G. Storey writes that fasting “help[s] the body share in the sufferings of Jesus and of the poor.” Hopkins, a 19th-century British Jesuit who has influenced as many secular poets as he has religious ones, dramatizes the ascetic life in his verse. His poems press against the borders of his forms; he wrings multiple meanings out of his language. “The Habit of Perfection” is an acceptance of denial: “Palate, the hutch of tasty lust, / Desire not to be rinsed with wine: / The can must be so sweet, the crust / So fresh that come in fasts divine!” What others think sour, Hopkins turns sweet.
Day 4: Saturday March 4
Reading: “Why I’m Still a Catholic” by Nicole Soojung Callahan
If I could suggest one single essay that dramatizes the difficulty of faith, the struggle of this season, it would be Callahan’s heartfelt essay. She sometimes feels like a “bad Catholic” in the same way as her adoptive parents, who were “lapsed old-school Cleveland Catholics brought back into the fold by a firecracker of a nun in Seattle.” Callahan notes that as “a child, my faith was almost the only thing in my life that made me feel that I was part of something larger —– the only thing that constructed a kind of bridge between my own little island and the larger continents on which other families and clans and communities seemed to reside. Letting it go would mean jettisoning a huge part of who I am, severing that long-cherished connection to a kind of universal family.” Like so many, Callahan is sometimes frustrated with the institution of the Church, and yet this Catholic identity formed by her youth — “annual May crownings, years of lectoring and serving at Mass, First Communion and Confirmation parties, and that dusty bottle of holy water on our bookshelf that my mother never allowed to run dry. I had a catalog of prayers I knew by heart; ancient hymns paired with terrible folk-Mass songs written in the 1970s; the familiar rhythm and beauty of the liturgical seasons” — is something she will always be grateful for, and that she has passed on to her own children. The final section of her essay is lyric, poetic, and worthy of being read aloud: as fine a credo of measured faith as I can imagine.
Day 5: Monday March 6
Reading: “The Tree” by Dylan Thomas
The feast day of Saint Polycarp, who, according to John J. Delaney’s Dictionary of Saints, “was ordered burned to death at the stake…[but] when the flames failed to consume him, he was speared to death.” Polycarp’s martyrdom is one of the oldest, and helps usher the peculiar Catholic genre of saint tales. Polycarp’s fantastical narrative is matched by “The Tree,” a story by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. Although a “holy maker” who became “tipsy on salvation’s bottle” as a child, Thomas was no fan of Catholicism (his friend William York Tindall said Thomas was “essentially Protestant without being Christian”). “The Tree” is no devotional tale. Surreal and imagistic, it is the story of an inquisitive but easily misguided boy who crucifies a transient to a tree on a hill in Wales.
Day 6: Tuesday March 7
Reading: “Disgraceland” by Mary Karr
A week into Lent, one’s patience might begin to wear thin with all of this suffering (few human endeavors go awry as quickly as devotion). Mary Karr is the antidote to complacency. In “Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer,” Karr outed herself as a Catholic convert, “not victim but volunteer…after a lifetime of undiluted agnosticism.” “Disgraceland,” from her 2006 collection Sinners Welcome, begins with an account of her birth, whirled into this world to “sulk around” while “Christ always stood / to one side with a glass of water.” She ends on a gorgeous note: “You are loved, someone said. Take that / and eat it.”
Day 7: Wednesday March 8
Reading: “The Teaching of Literature” by Flannery O’Connor
Today’s reading from Luke 11:29 sounds rather harsh: “This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah.” This sign will be revealed in the death and resurrection of Christ, which makes this indictment of a crowd feel particularly heavy. While it might be heretical to wait seven days to introduce the work of Flannery O’Connor into a Lenten reader, this is the moment she becomes appropriate. Her fiction will appear later in the reading list, but today is in the spirit of her essay, “The Teaching of Literature,” most often collected in Mystery and Manners. O’Connor laments how fiction is taught to students, particularly when fiction is used as mere symbol: “I have found that if you are astute and energetic, you can integrate English literature with geography, biology, home economics, basketball, or fire prevention — with anything at all that will put off a little longer the evil day when the story or novel must be examined simply as a story or novel.” Pity the generation that sparks O’Connor’s ire.
Day 8: Thursday March 9
Reading: Radical Reinvention by Kaya Oakes
Christ tells his disciples “seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Secular criticism of religion offers the refrain that faith — as practiced by those who claim to be religious — often sounds like certainty, and certainty leads to judgment. (Most believers would benefit from conversations and friendships with atheists). Kaya Oakes’s memoir of rediscovery, Radical Reinvention, traces her search from skeptic to measured believer to reinvented believer. Oakes is funny and thoughtful, and shares the wisdom of her spiritual directors, including a Father Mellow, who says “The Church is both sinner and holy. So are all of us.” She is still undergoing her search, but one thing she’s discovered is that “living a life of faith is not about following marching orders. It’s about finding God in other people, feeling the movement of the Spirit, living the compassion of Christ as best we can.”
Day 9: Friday March 10
Reading: Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen
Saint Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows died from tuberculosis at 24. Gabriel’s popularity in America is marginal, based on his supposed patronage of handgun users (an absurdly apocryphal tale where Gabriel shoots a lizard to scare off Giuseppe Garibaldi’s soldiers). A more likely tale is that his devotion to the Virgin Mary and the Passion were a correction to the extreme vanity of his youth. Gabriel reflects the titular character of Ron Hansen’s novel, Mariette in Ecstasy, a 17-year-old novitiate at a convent in upstate New York. She is first introduced in the novel while standing naked in front of a floor mirror, aware of her beauty, and thinks “Even this I give You.” Hansen’s novel is what would happen if James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime converted. Now a deacon in a Cupertino, California parish, Hansen continues to write powerful fiction.
Day 10: Saturday March 11
Reading: “You Are Not Christ” by Rickey Laurentiis
In today’s Gospel selection from Matthew, Christ tells his disciples to “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” He ends his exhortation with a call to be “perfect,” a sharp expectation, an impossible goal. I often think of Laurentiis’s title in relation to that call. It arrives, first, as a phrase of forgiveness, but Laurentiis’s verse is unforgiving: “For the drowning, yes, there is always panic. / Or peace.” Only nine lines, the poem unfolds and exits like a deep breath, and, like much of Laurentiis’s poetry, weds the sensual with the spiritual. Lent is nothing if not the most physical of seasons.
Day 11: Monday March 13
Reading: “Idiot Psalms” by Scott Cairns
March begins with a scene from Capernaum: Jesus drives an “unclean spirit” from a man. Exorcisms are the perfect fodder for Hollywood — black-clad heroes chant Latin while they struggle with demons — but have a less theatrical role in Lent. Unclean is not a permanent condition. The narrator of “Idiot Psalms” “find[s] my face against the floor, and yet again / my plea escapes from unclean lips.” He seeks forgiveness, which is not as dramatic as Max Von Sydow and Jason Miller performing the Roman rite, but his desire “to manage at least one late season sinlessly, / to bow before you yet one time without chagrin” is palpable.
Day 12: Tuesday March 14
Reading: “The Didache” by Paul Lisicky
Lisicky’s short piece appears in his book Unbuilt Projects. The title is a reference to an apocryphal, anonymous document of early Jewish-Christians, although Lisicky’s narrative is focused on his relationship with his mother. “The Didache” begins with a question: “What were you like the last time I saw you whole?” The piece follows with more questions and considerations, while noting “It’s funny how we end up where we do.” The language of the final sentences becomes comfortably Biblical: “As the broken bread was scattered on the hillsides, and so was gathered and made one, so may the many of you be gathered and find favor with one another.” The lines are a lyrical refiguring of a Didache hymn, and lead toward the conclusion of Lisicky’s piece: “Take. Eat, says the mother, given up and broken, and pushes the sandwich into the lunch bag, and sends me on my way.” A nice reminder that our present, prosaic world is capable of being legendary and graceful.
Day 13: Wednesday March 15
Reading: The Grace That Keeps This World by Tom Bailey
Variations of faith sustain the characters of Bailey’s novel in the face of despair. The novel contains several first-person narratives, beginning with Susan Hazen, who says her parish priest “plants the wafer that leavens hope in my palm.” Susan’s faith is tested, along with that of her husband, Gary David (an act of violence cleaves their family). The book ends with Gary’s narrative section: “The pines have reawakened me to something that as a forester I’ve long known by heart: The work we live to do is work we’ll never see completed. The snow will continue to fall. The geese will come back, just as they will continue to go. I have my faith. The strength of belief. But this is the truth in our story the pines need to relate. This, they whisper, this is the grace that keeps this world. Honor it.”
Day 14: Thursday March 16
Reading: “The Our Father” by Franz Wright
“The Our Father” appears in Wheeling Motel, Wright’s 10th collection of poems. The poem’s relative brevity is inversely related to its power. To title a poem after such an iconic prayer is to locate the work as both ritual and rhythm. The first stanza reads: “I am holding cirrhosis / with one hand and AIDS / with the other, in a circle.” Wright’s poetry is so pared, having the feeling of being wrung through the emotion of being and distilled into the truest possible language. This first stanza establishes the sense of community: this is truly a collective father. As is often true with those suffering from addition or disease, that which causes the pain overwhelms the self. Wright’s lines break from those diseases toward the shape, “a circle,” that leads to comfort and forgiveness (Wright has written about how his own conversion has helped lift his life from addiction). “The Our Father” moves forward from this first stanza to the actual prayer, which is “simple” and “august,” though Wright compares and connects the bareness of the phrasing to the profound nature of Christ’s life: “you briefly took on tortured / human form to teach / us here, below–” The poem’s honesty continues, though, because the final lines speak to an awareness of the ephemera of existence: “What final catastrophe sent / to wean me from this world.”
Day 15: Friday March 17
Reading: “After Cornell” by Joe Bonomo
Bonomo’s essay, which appears in his collection This Must Be Where My Obsession with Infinity Began, reflects on the darkness and silence of the traditional confessional box: “To intellectually comprehend moral and ethical transgressions—regardless of how domestically petty they might feel to the confessor (last night I bit my little brother) — the confessor must shed anatomy’s garment and step in unencumbered. The fragmented reminder that we are always flesh filtered through the shadowy screen between priest and penitent, and such a reminder could not have been allowed to distract.” Bonomo laments the shift to face-to-face confessions, though he has prepared himself for the change, and the previous box felt “akin to stepping into the Old Age, of black, black, black.” Bonomo’s words bring me back to the confessions of my past: I made the same shift from darkness to (uncomfortable) light. Now my parish opts for the face-to-sheet-to-face confession in a lighted room, and we are given printed Acts of Contrition, columned in the center on a pink sheet. I agree with Bonomo, that something has been lost, or at least transferred, in this coming to light.
Day 16: Saturday March 18
Reading: “Second Avenue” by Frank O’Hara
Critic Micah Mattix writes that “O’Hara believed that poetry was a ‘testament’ of the self and that love was real. Drawing from his Catholic schooling and James Joyce’s aesthetics, in some poems he expressed the view that the artist was as a sort of Christ-figure who suffers to renew our experience of the world.” Mattix notes that O’Hara’s long poem, “Second Avenue,” although a “sprawling amalgam of absurd images, disconnected phrases and quotation, newspaper clippings, short dramatic scenes, anecdotes, gossip, and literary artistic references,” also reinforces this idea of “the image of the artist as God,” and “reverses…the biblical trope of God as light.” Mattix’s reading has altered my perception of O’Hara’s verse, which I have always thought as being more interested in play than profundities. Lent truly is the season of change, as long as one’s eyes are open.
Day 17: Monday March 20
Reading: “The Heart, Like a Bocce Ball” by Luke Johnson
Johnson’s poem begins with the characters “dead drunk,” “cannonballing across the lawn, gouging / handful divots, each of us still nursing / a tumbler of scotch brought home from the wake.” Although temporarily wasted, these “sons and brothers and cousins” aren’t wasting away: they are players, certainly, in this simple game of bocce, but there’s a real sense of connection here. The poem ends with the lines “The heart, like a bocce ball, is fist-sized / and firm; ours clunk together, then divide.” If there were ever a poetic form made for brief devotions meant to stretch throughout a day, it would be the sonnet.
Day 18: Tuesday March 21
Reading: “Their Bodies, Their Selves” by Andrew McNabb
Dray and Sarah Maguire “had lived a clothed life,” but “An accident had changed that.” The center of McNabb’s tight story unfolds in less than an hour, but stretches across the years of this elderly couple’s relationship. One Saturday afternoon, while using the bathroom, Dray falls, smacking his skull on the porcelain. Sarah, “scarred from shingles, melanoma, three ungrateful children and an undiagnosed depression,” fears blood, but instead sees her husband nearly bare (he’d gotten used to taking off his pants when using the bathroom “so he wouldn’t get caught up when he stood”). Sensing her husband’s embarrassment, Sarah undresses herself. Their bodies are in the open; “That is just you, and this is just me.” What starts as a moment of communion becomes a daily act, a presentation of bodies as a means of preservation.
Day 19: Wednesday March 22
Reading: Love & Salt by Amy Andrews and Jessica Mesman Griffith
Andrews and Griffith met in a graduate school creative writing workshop, and their shared literary interest in God soon became personal searches. Love & Salt is their collected correspondence, as well as letters that remained, unsent, as notes. Their epistles are layered and lyric, documents of friendship that are as intimate as they are inviting. In Griffith’s first letter, she longs to finally get Lent right, to live up to the words of Saint Ephraim’s prayer: “How many times have I promised, / Yet every time I failed to keep my word. / But disregard this according to Thy Grace.” The collection will make you long to find as worthy a correspondent as Andrews and Griffith (each of their letters could serve as daily devotions, bringing to life the statement they share from Vivian Gornick: “The letter, written in absorbed silence, is an act of faith.”).
Day 20: Thursday March 23
Reading: “From a Window” by Christian Wiman
Halfway through Lent, the heart can harden. Reflection leads to regret. Christian Wiman, the former editor of Poetry magazine, is the perfect poet for this time. Wiman’s verse has the uncanny ability to swiftly and believably transition from melancholy to joy. His memoir, My Bright Abyss, documents his unlikely journey back to Christian belief after being diagnosed with incurable cancer. Speaking about his return to belief, Wiman says “I have no illusions about adding to sophisticated theological thinking. But I think there are a ton of people out there who are what you might call unbelieving believers, people whose consciousness is completely modern and yet who have this strong spiritual hunger in them. I would like to say something helpful to those people.” “From a Window,” written during an admitted time of despair, says something. “Incurable and unbelieving / in any truth but the truth of grieving,” Wiman watches a flock of birds rise from a tree, “as if the leaves had livelier ghosts.” He presses his face against the window and wonders if the birds were “a single being undefined / or countless beings of one mind,” and admits that their “strange cohesion / [is] beyond the limits of my vision.” He pulls back, his skeptic’s mind reassured that the tree he is watching with a shaken heart is no different now save for the observer, and yet that same independence of existence — the fact that this beautiful, simple moment did not need him to observe it, and that recognition “is where the joy came in.”
Day 21: Friday March 24
Reading: “I Was Never Able to Pray” by Edward Hirsch
Gabriel, Hirsch’s book-length poem about the life and death of his adopted son, contains an unbeliever’s admonition: “I will not forgive you / Indifferent God / Until you give me back my son.” “I Was Never Able to Pray” predates his loss, but presents a similar song. Why would an unbeliever care about God? Designations of believer and atheist, pious and heretic are only useful as generalizations. Hirsch’s critical interests have always dealt with God-wounded writers (including James Joyce and W.B. Yeats), so it is not surprising to see that language extend to his own narrators. In this poem, the speaker wishes to be taken to the shore, where the “moon tolls in the rafters” and he can “hear the wind paging through the trees.” His lines of unbelief arrive on the tongue of faith: “I was never able to pray, / but let me inscribe my name / in the book of waves” as he looks up to the “sky that never ends.”
Day 22: Saturday March 25
Reading: “The Widow of Naim” by Thomas Merton
The non-fiction meditations of Thomas Merton could fill an entire Lenten reading schedule, but his poetic considerations of faith and Scripture are also worthy. Merton studied poetry at Columbia, and was “turned on like a pinball machine by Blake, Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Meister Eckhart, Coomaraswamy, Traherne, Hopkins, Maritain, and the sacraments of the Catholic Church.” Yet like Hopkins, Merton lamented his more creative self, “this shadow, this double, this writer who had followed me into the cloister.” Although less than half of Merton’s verse was specifically religious, he did enjoy recasting Scripture into poetry (in pieces like “The Evening of the Visitation,” “An Argument: of the Passion of Christ,” “The Sponge Full of Vinegar,” “The House of Caiaphas,” “Aubade — The Annunciation,” and “Cana”). The Naim sequence only lasts seven verses, and is often lost between the Capernaum centurion and Christ’s reflection on John the Baptist. In Luke’s version, Christ arrives at Naim along with his disciples at the same time a man “who had died was being carried out.” Christ tells the mother of the man, the titular widow, to not weep. He touches the bier, a support for the coffin, and the “bearers stood still.” Christ tells the dead man to arise, and he does. Merton’s poetic recasting begins by moving the initial focus from the arrival of Christ to “the gravediggers and the mourners of the town, who, ‘White as the wall…follow / to the new tomb a widow’s sorrow.’” The mourners meet a crowd of strangers who “smell of harvests…[and] nets,” and who question the mourners: “Why go you down to graves, with eyes like winters / And your cold faces clean as cliffs? / See how we come, our brows are full of sun.” These strangers allude to the “wonder” of the miracle to come. Yet Merton’s twist arrives as an address to the reader that the “widow’s son, after the marvel of his miracle: / He did not rise for long, and sleeps forever.” The man was resuscitated, not resurrected; his gift of life was an ephemeral one. This allows Merton to place the miracle along a continuum, to place the weight of an ancient tale on the shoulder of modern humanity, the crowd.
Day 23: Monday March 27
Reading: “Girls” by Andre Dubus
Dubus contemplates the altar girl at Mass, she being the “only altar girl I have ever seen.” That observation opens to a short reflection about Mary, the “first priest.” He catalogues her potential fears, which begin with her encounter with the angel Gabriel, continue with her need to find shelter to have the child, and then the knowledge “she would lose Him because he was God.” He thinks about how he and this girl at Mass see the “cross as a sign of love,” but for Mary it was “wood and a dying son and grief.” I’ve written a few appreciations of Dubus, but in brief: pair “Girls” with his fiction, particularly “A Father’s Story,” and you have a portrait of a writer, a father, for whom faith is essential.
Day 24: Tuesday March 28
Reading: “Back in Ireland” by Thomas McGuane
St. Patrick would be proud of McGuane’s prose, as close to an American Joyce as possible (particularly his earlier, more sardonic novels like The Sporting Club). His more recent content has moved out West, capturing the spirit of breeding and raising cutting horses in Montana, but his prose retains its Celtic rhythms. “Back in Ireland” is the memory of a long-ago “meandering trip” to fish in southern Ireland: “I was at that blissful stage in my life when my services were sought by no one. I didn’t know how good I had it.” He is thankful for the guidance of a local angler, the type of person “who could never recall when they began fishing, so undivided was it from the thread of their lives.” McGuane notices that the entire town blessed themselves nearly constantly, “a rakish bit of muscle memory that I found myself imitating.” Church might have been a bit too much of a commitment, but the shadow of devotion “seemed to help before a difficult presentation…[of] the listless slob of a brown trout, curd fattened at the outlet of a small creamery on the Loobagh River.” McGuane’s sentences slather as heavy as fellow lapsed Irish-Catholic Joyce: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”
Day 25: Wednesday March 29
Reading: “Prophecy” by Dana Gioia
Gioia’s poetry, essays, and arts advocacy have long made him an essential writer. His recent, spirited essay, “The Catholic Writer Today,” has reignited the debate about the role of writing of faith within secular literary culture. Gioia’s own poems never proselytize. “Prophecy” contains a few direct questions, but is all wonder. What does a child staring out of a window think about? “For what is prophecy but the first inkling / of what we ourselves must call into being?” The prophetic sense can’t be prayed or willed into existence, there is “No voice in thunder.” The necessary “gift is listening / and hearing what is only meant for you.” “O Lord of indirection and ellipses,” the speaker says, “ignore our prayers. Deliver us from distraction…And grant us only what we fear.”
Day 26: Thursday March 30
Reading: “Life of Sundays” by Rodney Jones
Years ago, Jones visited my first undergraduate poetry workshop, and was given a packet of student work. My poem about fishing was in the bunch. Jones read the poem aloud to the class, and then went on to praise my lines. I don’t think they were worthy of his good words, but he wasn’t there to criticize. I might think that he was merely playing a part, but Jones’s poetry tends to be rather forgiving and observant. “Life of Sundays” is no different. Although the speaker doesn’t go to church anymore, “I want to at times, to hear the diction / And the tone.” What happens at the service “is devotion, which wouldn’t change if I heard / The polished sermon, the upright’s arpeggios of vacant notes.” He wonders: “What else could unite widows, bankers, children, and ghosts?” Although his belief has passed, he feels “the abundance of calm” from this ritual of Sundays, a day when the “syntax of prayers is so often reversed, / Aimed toward the dead who clearly have not gone ahead.” “And though I had no prayer,” the speaker says, “I wanted to offer something / Or ask for something, perhaps out of habit.”
Day 27: Friday March 31
Reading: “First Day of Winter” by Breece Pancake
It is difficult to not write about Breece Pancake in elegiac terms. Even one of his closest mentors, the great James Alan McPherson, said “there was a mystery about [him] that I will not claim to have penetrated.” His friend John Casey felt the same way, saying Pancake, who converted in his 20s, “took faith with intensity, almost as if he had a different, deeper measure of time.” Pancake’s fiction does arrive with an almost overwhelming sense of inevitability, from “The Way It Has To Be” to “Time and Again.” “First Day of Winter” is equally unsparing, although Pancake wrings a drop of hope from these characters. “Hollis sat by his window all night, staring at the ghost in glass, looking for some way out of the tomb Jake had built for him.” That tomb is his parents’ farm. His mother’s “mind half gone from blood too thick in her veins,” his father blind. Jake would not take in his parents at his own home. Hollis wrestles with a car that won’t start, its “grinding echoed through the hollows, across the hills.” His knuckles bloodied from the cold, he tells his father about Jake’s rejection, but Jake is the prodigal son. Hollis’s plan is no better: he intends to take his parents to the state nursing home. As often occurs in Pancake’s stories, there seems no way out, particularly not for Hollis, whose jealousy of his brother is clear (he has to watch his mother fawn over a photo of Jake and his family). Hollis snaps and tells his mother of Jake’s rejection, and that breaks his father’s spirit. They leave the room, and Hollis goes outside, where their “land lay brittle, open, and dead.” Back inside, Hollis hears “the cattle lowing to be fed, heard the soft rasp of his father’s crying breath, heard his mother’s humming of a hymn.” Like that, in the span of a sentence, Pancake breaths light, however faint, into this world: “The sun was blackened with snow, and the valley closed in quietly with humming, quietly as an hour of prayer.”
Day 28: Saturday April 1
Reading: The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Gustave Flaubert
Echoing the language he used to describe his writing of Emma Bovary, Flaubert said “I was in Saint Anthony as Saint Anthony himself.” Flaubert began the novel in 1848 but it was not published until 1874. An early audience of friends said he should burn the book and never speak of it. Flaubert, undeterred, said “It is my whole life’s work.” That work is a novel in the form of a play, a dramatization of St. Anthony’s tempestuous night in the desert. Michel Foucault called Flaubert’s phantasmagoric masterpiece “the book of books.”
Day 29: Monday April 3
Reading: Resuscitation of a Hanged Man by Denis Johnson
Johnson was once asked how he would “characterize the theological questions you ask about religion or to God in your work,” and responded in turn: “Ah, now — this is a question I’ve learned to run from, and it’s the chief reason I avoid giving interviews. If I’ve discussed these things in the past, I shouldn’t have. I’m not qualified. I don’t know who God is, or any of that. People concerned with those questions turn up in my stories, but I can’t explain why they do. Sometimes I wish they wouldn’t.” He owes the question to Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, a novel the main character of which fails at the action of the title, and then replaces despair with drugs and work as a radio DJ. Leonard English “didn’t kneel in prayer each night out of habit, but fell to his knees on rare occasions and in a darkness of dread, as if he were letting go of a branch. To his mind, God was a rushing river, God was an alligator, God was to be chosen over self-murder and over nothing else.” He prays to sleep with a woman he likes, but he doesn’t “pray anymore for faith, because he’d found that a growing certainty of the Presence was accompanied by a terrifying absence of any sign or feeling or manifestation of it. He was afraid that what he prayed to was nothing, only this limitless absence. I’ll grow until I’ve found you, and you won’t be there.”
Day 30: Tuesday April 4
Reading: “The Lord’s Day” by J.F. Powers
Although Powers won the National Book Award in 1963 for his novel Morte D’Urban, critic Denis Donoghue writes “I think Powers knew that his native breath was that of the short story.” Powers was the poet laureate of the Midwestern priesthood. His “priests are shown in the world, quarreling with their colleagues and pastors, grubbing for money, angling for promotion, playing golf, drinking beer, passing the time. If they have an intense spiritual life, we are not shown it…[and yet] no matter how commonplace or compromised the priest there is still are relation between him and the Christian vision he has acknowledged.” The daily life of a priest is not a sequence of miraculous highs and ecstatic visions. It is hard, slow work. A priest is a counselor, writer, politician. Powers capture this splendid service like no other writer. “The Lord’s Day” is the best introduction to his work, a slice of clerical domesticity. An unnamed priest has been stung twice by bees attracted to a mulberry tree near the rectory porch. Despite the pleading of a nun, he takes an axe to the tree. His body, “a fat vision in black,” is a contrast to the 12 women of the house, “the apostles” (“It was the kind of joke they could appreciate, but not to be carried too far, for then one of them must be Judas, which was not funny.”). Their shared home is not quite the picture of joy. The house is “sagging” and “daily surpassed itself in gloominess and was only too clean and crowded not to seem haunted.” The sisters sit around a table to count the collection from Mass. The parish has bills to pay. One nun says “Come on, you money-changers, dig in!” Another: “Money, money, money.” Powers smirks his way through his tales (my own experience with nuns is that they are the most hilarious and pious people I have ever met, their Baltimore Catechism shadows long since replaced with light). Not all the sisters find humor in this work; some wish Sundays were days of rest. It is a day of rest for the priest — he is off to a round of golf. The lead sister, “determined to make up for the afternoon, to show them that she knew, perhaps, what she was doing,” creates a ruse to hold-up the priest. She asks him to inspect the stove, which has been smoking. Annoyed, he says the problem is not the stove, but the only remaining mulberry tree, the one he’d spared. “If you want your stove to work properly, it’ll have to come down.” Rather than end the story with grace, Powers leaves the reader with the nun’s curt thanks. Frustrated, she leaves the priest, “only wanting to get upstairs and wash the money off her hands.”
Day 31: Wednesday April 5
Reading: “Annunciation Overheard from the Kitchen” by Mary Szybist
Szybist’s Marian poems appear in Incarnadine, which won the National Book Award. Szybist’s epigraph for the collection is from Simone Weil: “The mysteries of faith are degraded if they are made into an object of affirmation and negation, when in reality they should be an object of contemplation.” Szybist’s entire book is concerned with the Annunciation. As a young Catholic, Szybist “reached a point where I found myself unable to pray. I was devastated by it. I missed being able to say words in my head that I believed could be heard by a being, a consciousness outside me. That is when I turned to poetry.” In “Annunciation Overheard from the Kitchen,” the narrator is “washing the pears in cool water,” listening. This might not be the annunciation, but it is an annunciation. That leveling of experience is not meant to devalue the precedent — Szybist might be lapsed, but she is certainly not spiteful — but to rather raise the contemporary moment. The speaker more than simply listens, she is open to sound as “Windows around me everywhere half-open– / My skin alive with the pitch.”
Day 32: Thursday April 6
Reading: “Blessing the Animals” by R.A. Villanueva
Villanueva crafts quite the scene to begin this poem from his debut, Reliquaria: “In a parking lot beside the church, cleared / save for bales of hay and traffic horses,” are goats, llamas, border collies, and terriers. Someone “will garland parakeets with rosaries.” Cats are held like children as the priest crosses himself “beside the flagpole where I learned to pledge allegiance.” The narrator’s daily ritual is to fold the flag into triangles and bring it to the headmaster. Villanueva’s poems contain two planes: the devoted, lyric representations of faith and tradition, and the mischievous human impulse to break free. However responsible the narrator might be, he is still a young man who would dare a friend to “throw a bottle of Wite-Out” at the statue of Jesus in that same parking lot, who would taunt God one moment while kneeling to pray to him the next.
Day 33: Friday April 7
Reading: “Quid Pro Quo” by Paul Mariani
Mariani’s poem is set in an empty university classroom, where a colleague asks the narrator “what I thought now / of God’s ways toward man” after his wife’s miscarriage. The colleague merely expects a downward gaze, a smirk. Instead, the narrator raises his middle finger “up to heaven,” taunting God. Later, the narrator and his wife have a successful birth; it’s no small feat, this miracle, and the narrator is aware, leading to his wonder: “How does one bargain / with a God like this, who, quid pro quo, ups / the ante each time He answers one sign with another?”
Day 34: Saturday April 8
Reading: “The Road to Emmaus” by Spencer Reece
Reece, an Episcopal priest, has found inspiration in the “spiritual journey” of T.S. Eliot, often feeling “in conversation with him.” Although “The Road to Emmaus” alludes to a resurrection appearance of Christ, Reece’s verse, like so much poetry in the spirit of Lent, brings the ancient world to our seemingly mundane present. His first line, “The chair from Goodwill smelled of mildew,” sets the atmosphere for a conversation the narrator has with Sister Ann, a Franciscan nun. “Above her gray head, / a garish postcard of the Emmaus scene…askew in its golden drugstore frame.” Cleopas and an unnamed disciple, while speaking about the disappearance of Christ, are joined by the “resurrected Christ masquerading as a stranger.” The narrator of the poem has lost a love, and Sister Ann comforts him as he reflects on the past, including an AA meeting in a Lutheran church basement, when they “ate salads out of Tupperware,” but felt “like first-century Christians — /a strident, hidden throng, electrified by a message.” The poem moves in many directions, not least of all Sister Ann’s grace when she tells him “Listening…is a memorable form of love.”
Day 35: Monday April 10
Reading: “Gilding the Lily” by Lisa Ampleman
If we think of Lent as a season of re-naming, of reconsidering who we are and how we are, then Lisa Ampleman’s prose poem, “Gilding the Lily,” is a perfect representation of the season. “To keep anxiety at bay, my friend called chemo dragonfly love.” Ampleman’s poem is like a work of pastoral care; her narrator shows how we may weather grief and suffering by transforming them. Her friend “called nausea erotica. Just the same, we name our storms to lessen them — not a tropical cyclone, but Arabella, with ballet shoes and bun…Not hair loss, but deep conditioning.” The poem’s final line is terminal: “At the funeral I learned she was born Passalacqua: to cross the river, to pass a glass of water.” Our contemporary idea of the religious sense is hampered by the criticism that religion or belief feels like a whitewashing, or worse, an opiate. This is to misunderstand and neuter the power of faith. Poems like “Gilding the Lily” remind us that poems, like prayers, can be small salves. Sometimes they are enough.
Day 36: Tuesday April 11
Reading: “Saint Monica Wishes on the Wrong Star” by Mary Biddinger
Biddinger’s Saint Monica chapbook places St. Augustine’s pious mother in a Midwestern present. Young, modern Monica is imperfect. She fails. She even gives incorrect “details / outside the psychic’s booth at the fair.” Monica, like Walker Percy’s Binx Bolling, is transfixed by film. She has always wanted to be different, but “Who could blame / her, though? They lived in Michigan, / where nothing ever changed.” While working at a local pub, Monica wonders what would happen if she breaks a pint glass while washing it: “Would she have to wait for the flush / of blood, or would the transformation / be instantaneous?” Biddinger’s poetry makes any transfiguration seem possible.
Day 37: Wednesday April 12
“The River” (pdf) by Flannery O’Connor
Although “Greenleaf” (pdf) has been considered her “Lent” story, O’Connor’s entire canon is fodder for the season. “The River” is the story of Harry Ashfield, a boy of “four or five” years, who spends the day with a sitter, Mrs. Connin. She is the prototypical O’Connor character: stern, judgmental, witty, and closer to God that anybody else she knows. She decides to take the boy to the river, where a preacher has been healing believers. The boy smirks his way through the story, and takes on the name of the preacher — Bevel — before the sitter learns his real name. She feels it is her Christian duty to right the wrongs of his upbringing. O’Connor tells the story filtered through his voice, and his day with Mrs. Connin is illuminating: “He had found out already this morning that he had been made by a carpenter named Jesus Christ. Before he had thought it had been a doctor named Sladewall, a fat man with a yellow mustache who gave him shots and thought his name was Herbert.” Later, Mrs. Connin presents Harry to the preacher for baptism in the river, and also says “He wants you to pray for his mamma. She’s sick.” The preacher asks the boy for explanation, and it is simple: “She hasn’t got up yet…She has a hangover.” O’Connor’s next line — “The air was so quiet he could hear the broken pieces of the sun knocking the water” — captures the atmosphere of her fiction. O’Connor’s Catholic sense was a skeptical sense. Her skepticism can easily be misread as cynicism. The boy is baptized, but, like so many of O’Connor’s stories, “The River” ends on a solemn note. Yet that is not why she is appropriate to Lent. O’Connor belongs to this season because she offers no easy paths toward God. In fact, those who think they know the route — who might even deny it from others in word or deed — are due the severest rebuke.
Day 38: Thursday April 13
Reading: The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
If there ever were a writer willing to dine with “tax collectors and sinners,” it was Greene. If I ever get too sentimental about faith, reading Greene keeps me in check. He was the first to admit he was no saint (he would probably admit to being the antithesis), but novels like The Power and the Glory capture the tension between belief and sin. Greene’s novel plays it serious, but his essays and letters about his conversion are predictably wry. He once received useful advice from a Father Trollope: “See the danger of going too far. Be very careful. Keep well within your depth.” Greene’s novel about an atheist lieutenant chasing a “whiskey priest” across Mexico is part thriller, part theological treatise, all Lenten document. Take off work on Holy Thursday, get this book, and read it cover to cover.
Day 39: Friday April 14
Reading: “Today is Friday” by Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway claimed to receive “extreme unction” from a priest while on an Italian battlefield in July 1918. A decade later, he would claim to be a “very dumb Catholic,” and planned to not speak about his Catholic conversion because he knew “the importance of setting an example.” Matthew Nickel, one of the few critics to resurrect Hemingway’s found faith, explains what while Hemingway was not publically “comfortable being known as a Catholic writer,” he was no nominal believer, having “performed the rituals of Catholicism for forty years: attending Mass, eating fish on Fridays, having Masses said for friends and family, donating thousands of dollars to the churches in Key West and Idaho, celebrating saints days, and visiting and revisiting important pilgrimage sites and cathedrals.” The Old Man and the Sea, The Sun Also Rises, and “Hills like White Elephants” hit loud and soft religious notes, but “Today is Friday” has always unsettled me in a particularly Lenten fashion. Only hours after Christ is crucified, three Romans soldiers are drinking at a bar with a “Hebrew wine-seller” named George. Add Hemingway’s oddly contemporary speech (“Lootenant”), and “Today is Friday” is an odd play. Two soldiers banter about the wine while one feels sick; his pain is “Jesus Christ.” The first soldier says “He didn’t want to come down off the cross. That’s not his play.” The second soldier wonders “What became of his gang?” The first soldier, who “slip[ed] the old spear into him…because it “was the least I could do,” says Christ’s disciples “faded out. Just the women stuck by him.” “Today is Friday” sounds like how Hemingway would have explained the Passion while seated at a bar. The uncomfortably comedic play ends with a sting. The soldiers leave the bar and the third, uneasy soldier speaks truth: “I feel like hell tonight.”
Day 40: Saturday April 15
“Christ’s Elbows” by Brian Doyle
Novelist, essayist, and poet Doyle is the literary antidote to cynicism. I’ve never seen a writer so good be so positive, and do so without lapsing into sentimentality. Doyle’s Mink River is a gem of a novel, but his shorter pieces make for effective reflection. His essay “Joyas Voladores” is a personal favorite, and “What do poems do?” shows how Doyle turns every narrative moment into an opportunity for revelation and epiphany. The narrator visits a kindergarten, where children ask ridiculous questions before arriving at the eternal query of the poem’s title. Doyle delivers, starting with the observation that poems “swirl / Leaves along sidewalks suddenly when there is no wind.” The next 10 lines are the best appreciation I’ve ever seen of the power of poetry. Doyle’s poem should be required reading for all teachers. “Christ’s Elbows,” an essay from his collection Leaping: Revelations & Epiphanies, is the perfect end to a season of change. Doyle asks us to think about the physicality of Christ, a man who died at his physical peak. He admits that scriptural “accounts of [Christ’s] body in action are few and far between,” so Doyle wants us to act on faith, imagining a young man serving as a carpenter’s apprentice or running in fields. Doyle wonders: “Did his hand swallow the hand of the girl he raised from the dead?” Christ, an itinerant preacher, likely had a form much like a marathon runner. Doyle considers the one moment — other than as he hung on the cross — when Christ’s physicality was in full view: “when he lets himself go and flings over the first moneychanger’s table in the temple at Jerusalem.” Like a good priest, Doyle pauses his discussion, and says “think of the man for a second, not the eternal Son of Light.” Think of a man charged and ready. A man who, after the drama of the moment, “would resume the life and work that rivet us to this day.” A life and work that “upends our world, over and over.” The glory and the grace of tomorrow will come soon enough, but for now, Doyle suggests, “Perhaps the chaos of our plans is the shadow of his smile.”
Image Credit: Flickr/echiner1
Every day, hours of streamed sound — from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky to Dr. Dre to Arctic Monkeys — flow through dirty earbuds and into my scattered brain. The Swedish music service is nearly as important to me as red blood cells, especially when deadlines loom. However, I’ve come to realize Spotify doesn’t exist just to crank out pop songs and other traditional forms of music — it’s a mine of audiobook gems.
Several playlists floating throughout this eighth and 16th note galaxy boast obscure books, crackly poems from the 1920s, and a surprising mix of French and German audiobooks. The easiest way to access this archived library is under “browse” and then “genre & moods” category. Scroll down the tiles, past “Christian” and “Travel” until there, at the very bottom right tile, you find “Word,” a digital funhouse for bookish nerds. A few of the playlists have hilarious names like “A Hipster’s Guide to Poetry” or “Stories for Your Inner Child;” I half expect “Nietzsche’s Existential Crises” and “Sex Books for Basic Girls” to appear soon. To have the world of Audible hidden within the chic confines of Spotify (with student pricing)!
The sexy repartee of Darcy delivered straight to my ears? The transatlantic, resounding voice of Sylvia Plath reading her own multilayered poetry? An entire playlist of William Shakespeare’s sonnets is there to delight, along with biographies of classical composers and Anton Chekhov short stories (“A Tragic Actor,” anyone?) A few book listings were only excerpts or the abridged versions of the full novel, but you can find The Jungle Book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and The Call of the Wild, among others, in their full-length glory. I’m fast abandoning my playlists of The Beatles, Cage the Elephant, and The Notorious B.I.G. for the sinuous diction of 19th-century English authors and Shakespeare.
It’s not just audiobook publishers offering their wares to the Internet — voice actors listed as independent artists present narrated works, mostly poetry or short story collections. There’s also an extensive body of work narrated by the authors themselves. The rich tones of Sylvia Plath! The lulling drawl of T.S. Eliot reading The Wasteland, or “Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock,” or Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (“With Cats, some say, one rule is true: Don’t speak till you are spoken to”).
(There’s one glaring oddity about Spotify books. Most of the audiobooks are classics the copyrights of which have expired (which is, obviously, what allows them to be published). However, a large number of current audiobooks are floating in the netherworld of Spotify — in German! Stephen King’s The Stand, Antoine Laurain’s The President’s Hat (originally published in French), Dan Brown’s Inferno…all are sketchily encoded in German and broken down into one-minute long segments.)
Audible is great — for passionate book lovers willing to slice $15 from their paycheck. ITunes was tailored for fancy pants, each song and audiobook sold separately (excluding Apple Music, which I won’t go into here). But Spotify? It’s the hot-button music player for students. Several of my friends do not read (*tear*), but with the smirking face of Shakespeare next to the tattoos of Adam Levine, they’re more likely to hear the bard out. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” with “Your sugar, Yes, please, Won’t you come and put it down on me” — what a beautiful mess of sine and cosine waves!
Here is a playlist, for your summer listening pleasure.
For most of her career, Cynthia Ozick has written challenging and brilliant fictions that examine the metaphysical aspects of Jewish culture, examining fabled belief systems, gender dynamics, and the walls culture might build with even-handedness and cautious interest. Novels and short stories like The Puttermesser Papers and “The Shawl” engage with cultural values and history in unique and dark ways, while several nonfiction books, including the forthcoming Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays, examine the value of criticism and the state of the literary novel today. Erudite, intellectually rigorous, and brimming with generous insight, Ozick’s work as a critic and thinker demands a kind of attention from the reader, requires the reader to think along for the promise of revelation.
We corresponded about the new book via email. What follows is a conversation with someone just as interested in and excited about literature as they were when they first put pen to paper.
The Millions: In a Paris Review chat you did in 1985, you talked about having your routine consist of rising in the late afternoon and working through the night. Has anything changed since then in terms of how you approach the work?
Cynthia Ozick: Much blood has gone under the bridge since then. In the last half-dozen years, I’ve turned into a Snatcher: I read in desperate snatches in the interstices of the Quotidian, and dream of finding three uninterrupted quiet hours to think, moon, mentally maunder, and, above all, write. I am pursued by an anti-Muse; her name is Life. Her homely multisyllabic surname is often left unenunciated, but to certain initiates it may be whispered: Exigency.
TM: What’s your reading life like? Are you reading for, say, an hour or so, and then drafting/editing for a while? Is there urgency to write every day?
CO: Unlike in earlier years, I nowadays consume public information voluminously. I read both The New York Times and Wall Street Journal (one is the poison, the other the antidote, and make of that what you will!), and also many magazines, both the traditional kind and the digital. In terms of living wholly in one’s own allotted time, the world is not too much with us. Decades ago, though, it would have been inconceivable for me to acknowledge this. Whatever counted as “politics” was of no interest; nothing mattered but capital-L Literature and its inevitable sibling, History.
Still, writing, whether fiction or essays, is something apart from “information,” and rises out of the well of intuition: every human mind has its individuated “tone.” So when you ask about “the editing process,” and speak of “drafting/editing” — I find these reparative procedures foreign to me. I will not move on to the next sentence until the previous one is fully satisfactory. Perhaps there are two species of writers: those who complete an entire manuscript provisionally, with permission to go back to “polish the verbal surface,” as one such writer once described it, and those who endlessly and obstinately fiddle in place. (As for writing every day, see above.)
TM: You’re a writer who develops both formative essays and novels and short stories in nearly equal measure. Since part of drafting fiction involves investigating certain aspects of life, I wonder what you see as being the overlap between scrutiny in your essays and scrutiny in your plot lines, or if they’re completely separate.
CO: The difference is crucial: it’s between knowing and unknowing (rather than not knowing). If you are going to write an essay on, say, twilight in Sweden, or on Henry James, you know that much: you have your subject already in hand. But if you set out to write a story, whether long or short, you begin with less than a glimpse: a shred of idea that once moved you, or the wisp of memory of a mother and daughter you encountered for seconds as you passed them in a train, or simply an inchoate feeling. Plotting, though, can be intellectual or serendipitous, a deliberate plan or a revelation or an insight, and this can apply also to the “plot” of an essay; but overall an essay is an assessment, or rearrangement, of given materials, while a story must discover what it is made of in the very course of its own making.
TM: I’m interested in how this differentiates from writing an essay or a piece of creative nonfiction.
CO: In writing fiction, one creates a character, but very often it’s the character who influences the trajectory of events and ultimately creates the story. This wouldn’t necessarily apply to certain types of genre fiction, such as the detective novel, where the writer is in full control and follows the design of a prepared plot. But when the imagination is untethered and free, the writer may lose control of the character, and the character may stubbornly decide against the writer’s initial wish; or else the character reveals a motive that the writer never anticipated. This can hardly happen with what’s called “creative nonfiction,” despite the permissive adjective. The subject matter of non-fiction is fixed, chosen, unalterable. A nonfiction piece on the Civil War, say, can’t change the nature of the battles; both action and outcome remain today what they were then. The writer may play around a bit with the personalities of Grant or Lee, but the spine of the narrative is immovable. As for the “personal” essay, the writer, like a character in fiction, can assert whatever she desires; as in fiction, she is immune to the fact-checker.
TM: What do you think it might take in order for a writer to produce a “great American novel” in today’s literary landscape, or even one that has relevance and power beyond what it achieves in the insular writing community?
CO: How vast is the invisible infrastructure of this proposal! It puts in question an entire culture, and how a civilization expresses itself. Some say that the Great American Novel has already come into being, in The Great Gatsby, or in Moby-Dick, and a good case can be made for each of these. Dreiser’s Sister Carrie might be another candidate, or The Scarlet Letter, or The Adventures of Augie March. Your query, though, speaks of the current literary landscape, confirming that “what it might take” still isn’t clear. One answer might be that the day is young — but can we see any inkling of a presumptive heir to Bellow or Updike or Nabokov, or to so many others of the previous generation (the list would be long and impressive) who have left a formative mark on American experience? One sign, or omen, would be the presence of a writer of formidable language power, willing to use all the sources and resources of American prose; instead, we swim in a welter of the slipshod easy vernacular. Also absent, so far, is some overriding feeling or idea, or, at the least, something larger than pipsqueak cynicism. Finally, given that the country is roiling and boiling toward some unknown new dispensation grounded in narrow competing triumphalist claims, where is the bold and necessary ironist who will write our Death of Ivan Ilyich?
Or else, and why not? Maybe what we are waiting for will be the Great American Comic Novel! And a final caveat: the lineaments of a sublime work of the imagination can’t, after all, be prescribed, and one is guilty (mea culpa!) of tendentious theorizing if one dares to do it.
TM: Is technology perhaps counterintuitive to to serious literary debate, analysis, and scholarship, or do you feel that it marks a sort of natural progression and provides a platform to showcase what writing has come to in the age of the iPhone?
CO: Last year I finally surrendered my pen. I could not conceive of writing seriously on a keyboard facing an illuminated rectangle, and used the computer mainly as a means of transcribing a completed work (as was the typewriter in the past). The keyboard and the monitor struck me as enemies of the freedom of language, since it seemed that the words could come only through the pressure of one’s fingers on the narrow neck of a pen. Or to say it otherwise, the ink flowed directly out of the hand; and what was ink if not language? Yet now, as you see, I’ve learned (to my amazement) that one can actually think on a computer!
TM: In a culture of writers that either embrace the concept of direct narrative or a fractured storytelling structure, would the middle ground between the two extremes be something new to emerge, and if so, where does it lie?
CO: Either-or has never been storytelling’s only available way; from early on, there has always been that “middle ground.” Mostly it has been a companionship between fiction and an interpolated essay, side by side in the same novel. We see this in George Eliot and in E.M. Forster, where we hear the author’s reflecting voice; it might be called the “intelligence” of the novel: intelligence in both senses, the writer spying on her characters, and the writer’s mind exposed. The “fractured” novel (Ulysses is the great modernist instance, but think also of Zadie Smith’s NW and Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers) has so far not permitted amalgamation with any other form. Accretion, fragment by fragment, replaces logical chronology Yet despite its jagged unexpectedness, what fragmentation has in common with direct narrative is a paradoxical coherence: we know and feel what we are meant to know and feel. And if there is no middle ground between fragment and form, so be it: why should fiction, the ultimate territory of genuine freedom, eschew extremes? In life we are rightly persuaded to pursue the middle way. But in literature (three cheers for extremes!), what we want is what Kafka relentlessly demanded: A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.
TM: David Foster Wallace was an ardent fan of your work, citing The Puttermesser Papers as one of his favorite books. As a critic, writer, and cultural anthropologist, I wanted to know if you’ve considered the relevance of his work, and whether or not he shifted the direction of post-modern fiction yet again.
CO: It was an astonishment to be told not long ago that David Foster Wallace was even aware of my work, let alone had read any small part of it. It was even more startling to see a photo of the flyeaf of his copy of The Puttermesser Papers, on which appears a long list of words transcribed from the book, ostensibly because they were new to him. How could this be? If I hadn’t with my own eyes seen that list, I would have thought the rumor of his affinity was no more than a hoax. After all, Infinite Jest is a free-wheeling and exuberantly abundant novel with a fervently reverent and always growing readership, and not only is my own experience as a writer lightyears from his, but in subject matter and in literary temperament Wallace and I have nothing in common. His mind is encyclopedic and digressive; my scope is far more limited and my reach into the world definitively tamer. His novels are termed postmodern, and so they are, but in their appetite for overflowing tangential inclusiveness they also resemble the all-devouring 18th-century novel (Richardson, Fielding, Sterne). And finally: Wallace’s most original gesture is the art of the note — footnote and endnote, but especially footnote. Whether this alone (the seductive power of the asterisk) will “shift the direction of postmodern fiction” is doubtful. Once it has been done, and done so lavishly, it may seem superfluous to do it again.
TM: It seems that [The Puttermesser Papers] has a certain staying power, particularly among men. What do you think it is about the work that stands out, be it the brutality of the plot or the force of the prose?
CO: I’m afraid that I am unable to address this generous assessment of “staying power.” Time will, as they say, tell; and in some cases — though certainly not in mine — Time has already told. (See David Foster Wallace above.) Most writers and their books quickly fall into posthumous eclipse, and I don’t doubt that I will be among them.
TM: You said that fiction is the ultimate territory for genuine freedom, but is fiction not without rules? The novel can take many shapes, as can short stories, but there’s still something familiar within each mutation. Would you argue that genuine freedom works best with some sort of familiarity to constrain or guide its line of thinking?
CO: I agree that familiarity of form is most conducive to the reader’s comfort, and that feeling at home with its “rules” increases readerly enjoyment. Joyce’s Ulysses, which (after, say, Dickens and George Eliot and Trollope) seemed to have no rules at all, was hard going for its earliest readers, though certainly not nowadays, when stream of consciousness has become commonplace. Eliot’s The Waste Land was once dauntingly impenetrable; today its technique is ho-hum. The very concept of “rules” means familiarity, knowing what to expect; but even revolutions eventually evolve into the humdrum. As for constraining or guiding a line of thinking, isn’t that for sermons and tracts?
TM: A large part of your fiction writing has involved chronicling the Jewish-American experience…
CO: Here I hope you will allow me to demur. This is certainly true of other Jewish writers, at least those who are inclined to contemplate their heritage; call it, though without denigrating its art, sociological fiction. I am altogether without interest in the Jewish-American “experience,” if this term is intended, as you phrase it, to scrutinize and investigate the meaning of that identity, both how it plays out in conventional society and [the writers’] own personal heartbreak over legacy and fractured tradition. Again, all that is sociology, particularly the concern with identity and the deeper roots of the self. I am drawn elsewhere: to the Jewish metaphysic and its long and steadfast history. It is these grains of perception, I believe, that sustain my thinking and kindle imagination. (A recent story in this mode is “A Hebrew Sibyl,” which appeared in Granta.)
As for the sociological: Irving Howe, a stellar critic who was part of the group of literary luminaries who came to be known as The New York Intellectuals (all of them now nearly forgotten), once commented that after the generation of the immigrants, the American Jewish novel would die of lack of subject matter. And then — beware definitive declarations! — came the influx of those remarkable young writers who as children fled both the Soviet Union and Iran. For such embattled lives, having endured restriction and calumny in their earliest years, personal heartbreaks over legacy and fractured tradition may be vitally pertinent themes; or may not. But for American Jews, who for the first time in two millennia have the inconceivable good fortune of living freely and without overt fear, and who have rarely known an ounce of oppression or indignity, and who for the most part are now four or five generations distant from the immigrant period…for these, the identity question is simply another floating particle in the egalitarian multicultural movement. (Recall Irving Kristol’s quip: “They used to want to kill us, now they want to marry us.” And they have: 70 percent of American Jews are intermarried.) Those deeper roots of the self are more superficial than felt. When roots are genuinely deep, they are not scrutinized or investigated; they are as intrinsic and unremarked on as breathing. Self-knowledge in the Socratic sense is indifferent to roots, and Jewish self-knowledge can only mean knowledge, and what is knowledge in the absence of historical and textual and linguistic awareness? Which is why most novels by American Jewish writers are a branch of social studies. Nor would I quarrel with this: stories are free to be whatever they are.
TM: Writers who are conscious of coming from rich national and historical backgrounds tend to have their work characterized as being “haunted” by those important works of national or cultural identity that came before….Do you think it’s appropriate to draw those comparisons on the basis of legacy and cultural background, or do you think there should be a distinction between what a writer of a certain background is looking to achieve, and how a critic or academic might group them based on previous works of a certain genre?”
CO: Well, we know what Saul Bellow thought of how critics and academics grouped him! He retorted with his famous quip — Hart, Schaffner & Marx, mocking how he and Roth and Malamud were, in effect, regarded as a kind of Jewish-owned haberdashery. But your question is serious and important, and we’ve had two elegant answers from two significant Jewish writers. Isaac Bashevis Singer: “Every writer needs to have an address.” Harold Bloom: “The anxiety of influence.” Both these succinct insights acknowledge that origins not only count, but continue to carry their force. (The term “haunted” confused and misled me because of its baleful resonances.) Criticism would be blind and deaf if it failed to recognize affinities and legacies, as it always has: in America, Transcendentalism, the Harlem Renaissance, naturalism, and so many other literary movements and groupings, whether conscious and voluntary or critically observed. But this doesn’t make writers into pawns! Or turn Hawthorne and Melville, with their similar Anglo heritage, into Siamese twins! Or Bellow, Roth, and Malamud into Jewish clothiers. It’s a sublime paradox, sublime because the seeming contradiction fortifies rather than diminishes: every writer is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; and yet, contra Donne, every writer is at the same time an island entire of itself. The continent is humanity; but every continent contains someone’s own home address.
TM: At this point in your career…do you feel any differently about your work, either the work you’re developing or the work you’ve done? Do you feel that your role as a writer has taken on any sort of prominence?
CO: My diary with its innate depression contains the felt truth of any answer I might give. I have been driven to write — to be a writer — from a very early age, but have never been able to think of it as a “career,” a schemer’s word that suggests aggrandizing hot pursuit. And for a very long time I was unpublished, a failure in my own literary generation: a circumstance that has left its mark. I am always surprised to discover a reader, and when I do, it is usually in the context of “I never heard of her before.” As for what I feel about past work, I wish I had done more. And I begin to wonder whether reviewers who have found my novels unsympathetic may be right. I still hope to write a story made purely of feeling.
TM: Are you working on anything now that you’re hoping to release?
CO: Yes. On a story made purely of feeling.
TM: Can you elaborate on what you mean by this?
CO: This brings us instantly back to Tolstoy, though I am thinking here not of a novel, but rather of a story: The Death of Ivan Ilych, wherein ultimate aloneness in the face of imminent dying leads to a kind of catharsis, and revelation overcomes dread. Or the haying scene in Anna Karenina, which envelops the reader in bodily joy and the intense companionship of laborious achievement. On second thought, an entire novel can’t be made purely of feeling, since such sublime moments are exactly that: moments. Pure feeling mostly occurs at the extremes of life: terror and joy.
The god of reading, a manipulative daemon who imposes a pattern on the seemingly random succession of books we get through each year, works in mysterious ways. This year’s unifying theme for me was “teeth,” or maybe it just seemed that way because, thanks entirely to my wife, I finally got on a dental insurance plan.
My reading daemon first directed me to Lucia Berlin’s selected stories, A Manual for Cleaning Women, which contains a tooth extraction scene as memorable as the one from Marathon Man. Berlin won me over from the opening tale, in which the narrator, whose “first cigarette was lit by a prince,” now finds herself washing diapers in a seedy New York laundromat alongside an old woman:
She said that if I didn’t see her on Thursdays it meant she was dead and would I please go find her body. That was a terrible thing to ask of someone; also then I had to do my laundry on Thursdays.
Similarly grim humor appears throughout the wonderful collection, along with a lot of dirt, grit, booze, romance, and glimpses of beauty in everything from macadam roads (“When fresh it looks like caviar, sounds like broken glass, like someone chewing ice”) to the “wonderful” X-rays of jockeys, whose “skeletons looks like trees, like reconstructed brontosaurs.”
In one of the most memorable, gruesome stories, “Doctor H.A. Moynihan,” a girl accompanies her grandfather, a drunken bigot who happens to be the best dentist in Texas, to his office on a Sunday afternoon. There he tells her to pull out all his teeth so he can put in a set of his handmade dentures: his “masterpiece.” This she does, cramming tea bags in his mouth to stop the bleeding and making her grandfather looks like a “scary monster, a teapot come alive, yellow and black Lipton tags dangling like parade decorations.” That image captures the peculiar charm of the story, which is at once horrifying and perversely joyous.
I was also steered by my reading daemon to Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, the “dental autobiography” of a charlatan auctioneer who has devised an “allegoric method” to hawk his wares. That is, he literally and figuratively lies through his teeth. He invents a provenance for 10 teeth, claiming each belonged to a different illustrious writer (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Petrarch, Michel de Montaigne, etc.) and describing each as if it were a work of art: “Note the curve; it is like a wing in ascent.” The “novel-essay” has some grating moments, and its afterword, in which Luiselli explains why her project is “a reverse Duchampian procedure,” shuts off the heady flow of nitrous oxide. But the auction scene stays with me as a marvel of erudition and whimsy.
Another dental comedy, this one with broader humor, came my way from Folded Word Press: Garrett Socol’s Tooth Decay. The coffee-abstaining protagonists — white teeth come at a cost — work in a thriving dental practice in a small town in Wisconsin. The sexual tension between the married dentist, Calvin, and his toothsome hygienist boils over one day after she sees him in all his white-coated glory:
Eyes ablaze, forehead damp with sweat, the face of a Greek god on the chiseled body of an American dentist, Calvin ripped the bad tooth out of June’s mouth with raw, barbaric animal energy.
When Calvin’s wife finds out about the affair, she rather pathetically asks if his mistress’s teeth are “white as a fresh blanket of snow.” A man of honor despite his infidelity, he cannot but confirm his wife’s worst fears. Blackmail, betrayal, murder, and a villainous office manager darken the tongue-in-cheek comedy, demonstrating that oral hygiene is no defense against moral rot.
Finally — and just to spite Bill Morris — I read several literary biographies this year. One of these was Robert Crawford’s Young Eliot. This volume, which concludes in 1922 with T.S. Eliot opening the newly printed American edition of The Waste Land, chronicles the youth of a poet who always felt himself old. But why did my reading daemon compel me to devour this particular biography as opposed to the other doorstoppers I routinely return to the library unfinished? Surely it couldn’t just be because Eliot’s oft-ailing first wife, Vivien, was “ever fearful of dentists” and needed extensive, painful work: “I scream the whole time!” she writes in a letter.
No, I didn’t find the answer until Crawford’s excellent study made me revisit The Waste Land, where I came across this bit of pub chatter about dentures:
When Lil’s husband got demobbed, I said—
I didn’t mince my words, I said to her myself,
HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME
Now Albert’s coming back, make yourself a bit smart.
He’ll want to know what you done with that money he gave you
To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there.
You have them all out, Lil, and get a nice set,
He said, I swear, I can’t bear to look at you.
And no more can’t I, I said, and think of poor Albert,
He’s been in the army four years, he wants a good time,
And if you don’t give it him, there’s others will, I said.
Coincidence? Perhaps, but as Socol puts it in Tooth Decay, “…don’t you love the way the word coincidental contains the word dental?” As I said earlier, the god of reading works in mysterious ways.
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Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.
Even before it became officially so in the United States, April has long been the poet’s month. “April” (or “Aprill”) is the third word of one of the first great poems in the English language, The Canterbury Tales, and the first word in The Waste Land, which does its best to feel like the last great English poem. April — “spungy,” “proud-pied,” and “well-apparel’d” April — is also the most-mentioned month in Shakespeare, along with its springtime neighbor May, and it has given a poetic subject to Dickinson, Larkin, Plath, Glück, and countless others. Why? Do we like its promise of rebirth, its green and messy fecundity? Its hopefulness is easy to celebrate — and easy to cruelly undercut, if you’re T.S. Eliot rooting his lilies in the wasteland of death.
Eliot wasn’t the only one a little tired of the ease of April’s imagery. In 1936 Tennessee Williams received a note from a poetic acquaintance, a high school student named Mary Louise Lange who had recently won “third honorable mention” in a local literary contest. “Yes, I think April is a fine month to write poetry,” she mused. “All the little spear-points of green pricking up, all the little beginnings of new poetic thoughts, all the shafts of thoughts that will grow to future loveliness.” A few days later, Williams, oppressed by the springtime St. Louis heat, despairing of his own youthful literary prospects, and perhaps distracted by all those “spear-points” and “shafts,” confessed to his diary that he was bored and lonely enough to consider calling on her: “Maybe I’ll visit that little girl poet but her latest letter sounded a little trite and affectatious — ‘little spear points of green’ — It might be impossible.”
In our man-made calendars we often celebrate Easter and baseball’s Opening Day this month, but the April date most prominent in our lives now is April 15, the American tax day since 1955. Lincoln, who died on that day, had Whitman to mourn him, but Tax Day found few literary chroniclers until David Foster Wallace’s last, unfinished novel, The Pale King, which turns the traditional, eternal rhythm of the seasons into the flat, mechanical repetition of bureaucratic boredom. In the IRS’s Peoria Regional Examination Center where Wallace’s characters toil, the year has no natural center, just a deadline imposed by federal fiat and a daily in-box of Sisyphean tasks, a calendar that in its very featureless tedium provides at least the opportunity to test the human capacity for endurance and even quiet heroism.
Here is a selection of recommended April reading, heavy on birth, death, and rebirth, and a little boredom:
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (late 14th century)
When you feel the tender shoots and buds of April quickening again, set out in the company of Chaucer’s nine and 20 very worldly devouts, in what has always been the most bawdily approachable of English literature’s founding classics.
The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville (1857)
It’s no coincidence that the steamboat in Melville’s great, late novel begins its journey down the Mississippi on April Fool’s Day: The Confidence-Man is the darkest vision of foolishness and imposture — and one of the funniest extended jokes — in American literature.
“When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d” by Walt Whitman (1865) and The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot (1922)
Whitman’s elegy, composed soon after Lincoln’s murder and the end of the Civil War, heaps bouquets onto his coffin, and a livelier, more joyful vision of death you’re not likely to find. You certainly won’t in The Waste Land, written after a war equally bloody and seemingly barren of everything but allusions (to Whitman’s funeral lilacs among many others).
On the Road: The Original Scroll by Jack Kerouac (1951)
The legend of On the Road’s frenzied composition is partly true: Kerouac worked on the novel for years, but he really did type a complete, 125,000-word draft on a 120-foot roll of paper in three frenzied weeks in April 1951, a version finally published in 2007.
“Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King (1963) and At Canaan’s Edge by Taylor Branch (2006)
April is both the month that King, jailed in Alabama in 1963, scribbled in the margins of newspapers an open letter to the white moderates of Birmingham who counseled patience toward segregation, and the month of his murder in Memphis five years later, a scene whose seven solemn pages close the final volume of Taylor Branch’s 3,000-page trilogy, America in the King Years.
Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey (1968)
Outfitted with trailer, truck, ranger shirt, tin badge, and 500 gallons of water, Abbey began his first workday, April 1, watching the sun rise over the canyonlands of Arches National Monument, the first moment recorded in this cantankerous appreciation of the wild inhumanity of nature.
Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion
In the “cold late spring of 1967,” Didion took her notebook and her eye for entropy to meet some of the young people gathering in San Francisco, where she diagnosed the end of the Summer of Love before it had even begun.
Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
April in Erdrich’s North Dakota is cold enough for the sudden blizzard that opens Love Medicine and buries June Kashpaw, who had stepped out into the snow in search of a man who could be different from all the rest.
The Sportswriter by Richard Ford (1986)
Beginning with a Good Friday reunion with his ex-wife on the anniversary of their son’s death, Ford’s indelible ex-sportswriter Frank Bascombe reckons with balancing the small, heart-lifting pleasures of everydayness with the possibilities of disappointment and tragedy that gape underneath them.
The Age of Grief by Jane Smiley (1987)
Smiley’s early novella is still her masterpiece, a story of a family laid out by flu and a young marriage struggling to survive the end of its springtime that’s as close to an American version of “The Dead” as anyone has written.
My Garden (Book) by Jamaica Kincaid (1999)
“How vexed I often am when I am in the garden, and how happy I am to be so vexed.” Midway through life, Kincaid started planting in her yard in most “ungardenlike” ways, and her garden book is willful and lovely, made of notes in which she cultivates her hatreds as passionately as her affections.
The Likeness by Tana French (2008)
Ireland’s French crafted an intrigue with equal elements of the Troubles and The Secret History in her second novel, in which Detective Cassie Maddox is seduced by the mid-April murder of a student who had been playing with an identity disturbingly close to her own.
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace (2011)
Don’t expect a novel when you open up The Pale King, culled from manuscripts Wallace left behind at his suicide. Read it as a series of experiments in growing human stories out of the dry soil of bureaucratic tedium, and marvel when real life, out of this wasteland, suddenly breaks through.
Image Credit: Flickr/Roger Sadler
1. A Portrait of What Was In the Air
Haven’t enough trees been felled, enough ink spilled, enough careers devoted to praising, panning and parsing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s greatest creation? Surely the answer is yes. And yet Sarah Churchwell has done something almost unimaginable: She has discovered something new and she has written something fresh and revealing about the most chewed-over piece of fiction in the American canon.
Churchwell’s new book is called Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby. As the subtitle implies, the book is not straight history; rather, it sets out to explore how fiction gets made, what sources novelists plumb, and how the events of an age shape the fiction that springs from it, and vice-versa. Churchwell tells the story of Gatsby’s creation in tandem with the story of a bizarre double murder that dominated American newspapers beginning in late 1922, lurid tabloid fodder that, in Churchwell’s view, seeped into the bloodstream of Gatsby. The victims of this unsolved double murder were Edward Hall, an upstanding Episcopal minister in New Brunswick, N.J., and Eleanor Mills, his married lover who sang in the church choir. They were both shot in the head and their bodies were discovered under a crab apple tree on a local lover’s lane, surrounded by their love letters.
“The Hall-Mills case has, until now, been considered in relation to The Great Gatsby only by a handful of scholars in brief articles, and in a few footnotes,” Churchwell writes, “but it is my contention that this remarkable story amplifies and enriches the context of Gatsby in many more ways than have yet been appreciated.” She goes on, “Careless People began as a species of biography — the biography of a book — seeking the origins of Gatsby, especially in relation to 1922 and to the role these notorious murders may have played in its inception. But along the way it became about something more: it also reconstructs a remarkable moment in America’s history, at the dizzying center of which stood Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, trying to navigate their unsteady way through it.”
That remarkable moment was the year 1922, which began with the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses and ended with the publication of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. That fall, Fitzgerald, a newly minted literary star and media darling, moved with Zelda to Great Neck, N.Y. It was in that year and in that place that he would set Gatsby, turning Great Neck into West Egg, where the arriviste Jay Gatsby’s “huge incoherent failure of a house” faced across Manhasset Bay toward old-money East Egg, where Tom and Daisy Buchanan lived in carefree splendor, unaware that Daisy — and the green light at the end of their dock — were the magnets that would soon draw Gatsby to his doom.
Churchwell’s book is handsomely illustrated and her research into the existing source material is prodigious — there are 20 pages of end notes and 13 pages of bibliography, including newspaper and magazine articles, the Fitzgeralds’ scrapbooks, essays, letters, scholarly articles, biographies, novels, and other books. A literary journalist and author of The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, Churchwell even unearthed a few morsels than no Fitzgerald scholars were aware of — most notably a letter by Fitzgerald about his intentions in Gatsby that was quoted in a lost review of the novel by Burton Rascoe. Churchwell, clearly thrilled by her spadework, calls Fitzgerald’s letter “a tiny, heart-stopping treasure.”
So Careless People is a portrait of “what was in the air” as Fitzgerald conceived his masterpiece, including the drama in New Brunswick that contained every major element of the novel — “a remarkable tale of murder, adultery, class resentment, mistaken identity and the invention of romantic pasts.”
2. A Killing Regret
Considering what was in the air in the 18 months the Fitzgeralds lived in Great Neck, and in the ensuing months when he finished writing Gatsby in France, it’s not surprising that Careless People is a delightful blaze of a book. The air was full of music and laughter and parties, illicit booze and ill-gotten money and flashy cars, and characters from the worlds of show business, Wall Street, journalism, literature, and organized crime, all of whom seemed to share Fitzgerald’s mortal terror of “conventionality, dullness, sameness, predictability.” Such orgies tend to make good copy.
One of the chief virtues of Careless People is the way it leads the reader back to its source material. Churchwell quotes extensively from The Twenties, Edmund Wilson’s sublime journalistic sketch of the Jazz Age. Here is an entry from 1924, when Fitzgerald was planning to leave behind the dissolution of Long Island and move to France to complete his novel:
Great Neck, mid-April. Fitz said he was going abroad because his reputation was diminishing in America, and he wanted to stay away till he had accomplished something important and then come back and have people give him dinners. There was great talk on (Ring) Lardner’s part of going to the Red Lion or some other roadhouse, but when we did leave — all the liquor now gone — we simply went on to Lardner’s, where we drank Grand Marnier — he insisted on presenting us each with a little bottle — and more Scotch…Zelda had gone to sleep in an armchair and covered herself with a shawl – she was bored by Scott’s chart of the Middle Ages and made herself very disagreeable about it…Then we went back to the Fitzgeralds’. Lardner and I started talking about the oil scandal and Fitz fell asleep in his chair…
Such boozathons were the rule, not the exception, during the Fitzgeralds’ time at Great Neck. Small wonder that he got little writing done there and yearned to get away. This passage also hints at the cracks in Scott and Zelda’s marriage, and it presages another of Churchwell’s sources, The Crack-Up, Fitzgerald’s autobiographical writings from the 1930s, collected and edited by Wilson.
That book’s title essay, which appeared as a three-part serial in Esquire magazine in 1936, is a brutally frank account of what it’s like to fall from a dizzy height. As the echoes of the Jazz Age faded, Fitzgerald likened himself to a cracked plate: “Sometimes, though, the cracked plate has to be retained in the pantry, has to be kept in service as a household necessity. It can never again be warmed on the stove nor shuffled with the other plates in the dishpan; it will not be brought out for company, but it will do to hold crackers late at night or to go into the ice box under left-overs…” And then there is the harrowing loss of self that accompanies a crack-up: “It was strange to have no self — to be like a little boy left alone in a big house, who knew that now he could do anything he wanted to do, but found that there was nothing that he wanted to do — ”
Sad as this is, it’s not as sad as re-reading The Great Gatsby and coming back into intimate contact with genius at its fragile peak, just before the crash. The greatness of the book points straight to the true sadness of Fitzgerald, something Churchwell addresses with an admirably cold eye: His failure to live up to his enormous talent.
In addition to being an alcoholic who was devoted to a mad wife, Fitzgerald was lazy, a squanderer, a man who drank until he passed out in hundreds of chairs, then woke up and kept drinking until he was in the grave at the age of 44. In “The Crack-Up,” he confesses to any writer’s most killing regret: “I had been only a mediocre care-taker of most of things left in my hands, even of my talent.”
In a telling observation about Lardner, his friend and neighbor in Great Neck, Fitzgerald wrote, “Whatever Ring’s achievement was, it fell short of the achievement he was capable of, and this because of a cynical attitude toward his work.” This is most likely true, and I think it absolves Lardner, much as it absolved Nathanael West, another genius who had no capacity for evaluating the worth of his own work. That, it seems to me, is a far less grievous sin than the one Fitzgerald and a handful of other American writers have committed — Truman Capote and Jack Kerouac come immediately to mind — the sin of squandering an outlandish gift.
3. A Story of Our Moment
Churchwell’s title is derived from the penultimate page of The Great Gatsby. Nick Carraway, the novel’s narrator, has just overseen Gatsby’s sparsely attended, rain-drenched, and thoroughly depressing funeral (an end that eerily foreshadows what awaits Fitzgerald). One day shortly after the funeral, as he’s getting ready to leave haunted New York and return home to the Midwest, Nick spots Tom Buchanan striding purposefully down Fifth Avenue. They stop to talk, and Nick’s suspicion is confirmed that it was Tom who directed the pistol-wielding cuckold George Wilson to Gatsby’s house, in the mistaken belief that it was Gatsby, not Daisy, who was the hit-and-run driver behind the wheel of the car that killed Wilson’s wife, Myrtle. Tom neglected to tell Wilson that it was he, not Gatsby, who was having an affair with Myrtle.
“It was all very careless and confused,” Nick muses. “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money and their vast carelessness, and let other people clean up the mess they had made….”
Sad as it was, re-reading this sharp little gem of a novel was also uplifting, a reminder that Jay Gatsby’s story is timeless. It is, as Churchwell writes, “so much a story of its moment and yet so much a story of ours.” In his essay “Echoes of the Jazz Age,” Fitzgerald looked back on the wild party from the vantage of 1931, two years after the crash. He could have been talking about himself and he could have been talking about our world today when he wrote, “It was borrowed time anyhow — the whole upper tenth of a nation living with the insouciance of grand ducs and the casualness of chorus girls.”
The upper 10 percent has become the upper one percent and class resentment grows deeper and more bitter by the day, but otherwise not much has changed. The Great Gatsby will continue to inspire re-reading, re-thinking, and sad rejoicing. This is so because Fitzgerald was a genius who understood that we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Image Credit: Bill Morris
Whenever I work on a piece of writing more than a few days, I create a “dump file” where I can store my many false starts, failed scenes, and tin-eared snatches of dialogue in case I change my mind and decide to use them anyway. On longer projects, I also create a fresh file each month so I can track the progress of the project and raid old drafts for bits I wrote better the first time. This digital version of the overstuffed file cabinet has saved me more times than I care to count, but it is increasingly clear to me that if I ever have the misfortune to get famous, I will need to delete all these old files and throw my hard drive in a lake somewhere. If I don’t, and a work of mine achieves lasting value, then my children and grandchildren, abetted by scholars and editors with dollar signs in their eyes, may well spend the decades after my death boring the hell out of my readers with all my failed early drafts.
Something like this has recently happened to Ernest Hemingway, whose only living son, Patrick, and his grandson, Seán, have collaborated on a new edition of A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway’s great novel of World War I, that includes some of Hemingway’s early drafts as well as 47 versions of the book’s ending. This “Hemingway Library Edition” is, as these sorts of things go, relatively respectful and old-school. For one thing, unlike recent “book apps” of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, this edition has been published in an old-fashioned hardcover format. It also presents the full, original novel without intrusive footnotes or in-text commentary, leaving the variant versions for a series of appendices at the end of the book.
Thus, in of itself, this new edition, while not especially illuminating, is in no real way pernicious except perhaps in that it represents yet another effort to cash in on the Hemingway name, which has already given us three (lousy) posthumous novels, two (somewhat better) non-fiction books, and shelves full of lame compendia of Hemingwayiana with titles like Dateline: Toronto and Hemingway on Fishing. Papa himself said in a Paris Review interview, “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.” Hemingway, for all his faults, possessed a first-rate shit detector, and one wishes he had passed the apparatus on to his progeny.
What is a little disturbing about this new edition is how neatly it dovetails with the proliferation of literary ephemera now attached to almost any modern publishing enterprise. Look inside the original edition of most novels published before, say, World War II, and you will find a title page, some information on the publisher, perhaps a brief inscription or dedication, and a novel. Today, novels are sandwiched between pages of disingenuous blurbs, excerpted reviews, extended author bios, author interviews, reading group guides, lists of further reading, and, in some cases, whole chapters of the author’s next book. Acknowledgements pages, once brisk, business-like paragraphs noting some genuine debt of scholarship or financial assistance, have expanded to essay-length Oscar Night speeches listing everyone remotely associated with the book from the agent’s receptionist to the author’s childhood buddies and companion animals. This doesn’t even touch on the extra-literary ephemera of author webpages, book trailers, online Q&As, Facebook posts, how-I-wrote-that-book craft essays, radio appearances, book-group appearances, and reading tours.
There’s nothing truly new in all this – authors have been shilling for their own work since the early days of type – but as readers’ appetite for extended chunks of uninterrupted gray print declines, writers and publishers seem compelled to add ever noisier bells and whistles. For living writers this can mean anything from investing in a cool-looking website and writing mindless what-was-on-my-iPod-while-I-wrote-my-novel pieces for magazines to dressing up a back-cover bio with references to every quirky-sounding job they’ve ever held. For dead authors, this means remaking an old classic, either by asking some famous living person to write a new introduction arguing for the classic’s continued relevance or by providing “new” material to entice readers such as lists of rejected titles or rough drafts of well-known passages. Either way, the novel itself, the thing all the other stuff is supposed to be talking about, can get lost in all the salesmanship and curatorial noise.
Of course, the noise isn’t always incidental to the work itself. For a writing course I taught in the mid-1990s, I assigned two versions of a Raymond Carver story, one called “The Bath,” published in an early book of stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and the second, a much longer rewrite of the same story called “A Small Good Thing,” published years later in Cathedral. In both versions, a little boy is killed in a traffic accident just after his mother has ordered him a birthday cake, and the baker, enraged when the woman never picks up the cake, makes menacing calls to the mother about her son. The first story, however, ends with the baker’s last menacing call, while in the later, longer version the boy’s parents confront the baker, who comforts them with an offer of warm bread straight from the oven.
In class, I posited that the first version, written while Carver was still an active alcoholic, represented his bleak vision of a world of senseless evil while the later version represented his vision as a recovered alcoholic of a world in which one could confront evil, make sense of it, and even draw sustenance from it. I was pretty pleased with my critical acumen until a few years later when D.T. Max revealed in the New York Times Magazine that, in fact, “A Small Good Thing” was Carver’s original version of the story, which his editor Gordon Lish had radically revised and retitled, cutting the story by more than a third and eliminating entirely the redemptive confrontation with the baker.
Not only was my analysis of the two stories wrong, it represented a fundamental misunderstanding of Carver’s life and work. In 2007, when The New Yorker published online a version of Carver’s story “Beginners,” showing how Lish had bludgeoned it down to the much shorter story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” that wasn’t literary ephemera at all. The edited version of “Beginners,” with its strike-throughs and expurgated passages, was a heartbreaking work of art in of itself, giving voice not only to Carver’s artistry but to his poignant reliance on a powerful editor who, against Carver’s will, forcibly remade a great writer’s work into his own.
Though both men may have been depressive alcoholics, Ernest Hemingway was no Raymond Carver, and his editor, Max Perkins, thankfully suffered no Lish-like delusions of grandeur. Thus, while the Hemingway Library Edition of A Farewell to Arms offers an occasionally charming glance at the private scratch pad of a great writer as well as some mildly informative insight into how the book came into being, its revelations are several ticks on the Richter scale below earth-shaking. It is fun, for instance, to know that Hemingway, who thought about titles only after he finished a book, considered so many truly godawful ones in this case. Would you want to read a war novel called Love Is One Fervent Fire? Or Death Once Dead? Or, God forbid, One Event Happeneth to Them All? Evidently, Hemingway considered all these and many more even worse ones before making a note to himself, “Shitty titles,” and going with A Farewell to Arms.
In the case of the novel’s famously problematic ending, after plowing through all 47 fragments, I found myself preferring a slightly longer ending Hemingway used in the first published version, which was serialized in Scribner’s Magazine. That ending, which fills the reader in on the later lives of several of the main characters, struck me as being more in keeping with the elegiac poeticism of some of the book’s finest passages. But in the final analysis, who really cares? A Farewell to Arms, which I hadn’t read in years, is such a marvelous, eye-opening book about daring to love and be loved in the midst of senseless slaughter that it renders such critical quibbles pointless.
That’s the problem with all this literary ephemera, the websites and the “P.S.” sections, the critical editions and scholarly footnotes: they divert attention from the work itself. When the work isn’t very good, when it’s just so-so, the diversions can be welcome. For instance, a few years back, I enjoyed Sloane Crosley’s book of essays, I Was Told There Would Be Cake, but when things got slow, as they did for me a few times, it was fun to zip over to her website and check out the insanely great book trailer, featuring a man’s trousered fingers walking around a miniature apartment while a voice-over warbles, “Your fingers are just fingers, my fingers wear pants. They walk and they talk and they poop and they dance.” But when a book is as good as A Farewell to Arms, a wise editor should know when to get out of the way and let the work stand on its own.
So, do yourself a favor: skip the Hemingway Library Edition and find a cheap paperback of A Farewell to Arms. If you need some historical context, you can read John Keegan’s excellent history, The First World War, or Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory. There are a bunch of Hemingway biographies out there, but you can start with Carlos Baker’s classic Hemingway. Or, you could just skip all that and read the book.
In April 1951, when Jack Kerouac fed the first pieces of what would become a 120-foot scroll of paper into his Underwood portable to write the famous first draft of his novel, On the Road, he was, in one sense, blowing up the typewriter to make his own primitive homemade word processor. Sixty years later, Kerouac’s publisher, Penguin Books, is, in its own quiet way, blowing up the book to make – what, exactly? For now, they are calling it a book app, and even to my mildly technophobic eyes, the results offer a glimpse onto a potentially brave new world of publishing.
I’ll admit I was suspicious when I first heard about a “book app” for On the Road, assuming I would be subjected to some tech geek’s notion of what the book of the future should look like – that is, that it would be all future and no book. So you can imagine my relief when I took the app, now for sale on iTunes, for a test drive on a borrowed iPad, and found it to be an informative, even tasteful, accessory to Kerouac’s book, not an attempt to bury the text under a blaring, technophiliac mess of gadgetry and special effects. That said, the real star of the show is the technology itself, which promises not just a slew of new apps for beloved classic texts, but also, it seems to me, a new, richer way to make books.
By now, of course, e-books are old hat, and even book apps have been around at least since the advent of the iPhone, but this most recent riff on the book app takes the technology in a new, intriguing direction. Publishers have designed apps around comic books and children’s texts, and have even built a few original book apps for nonfiction takes on the periodic table and the solar system, but On the Road is among the first wave of apps designed for the adult trade fiction and poetry markets, following on the heels of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, the app for which recently startled the digerati when it knocked Marvel Comics from the #1 spot on the list of top-grossing book apps on iTunes.
It isn’t hard to see why Penguin is using On the Road to launch its adult trade fiction apps category. For one, it is a canonical classic appealing to everyone from nostalgic Boomers getting their first iPad for Father’s Day to tech-savvy teenage boys who love their digital devices almost as much as they love smoking “tea” and driving fast cars. At the same time, Kerouac’s book has a long and involved back story that begins with that famous 120-foot scroll and extends to the incestuous pack of Columbia grads and assorted hangers-on who made up the Beat Generation.
It is here, in providing the clef for the real-life figures behind the characters in Kerouac’s roman à clef and in drawing a detailed map of Kerouac’s long road to writing On the Road, that this app shines. Chris Russell, editorial director for the project at Penguin, calls the app “a virtual museum” of the book, but to my eyes it comes closer to being a refreshing take on the standard critical edition, with primary sources replacing scholarly essays. The central feature of the app is a digital copy of the published version of the book that comes with tabs readers can tap to see bios of the main characters as well background on some of the people and places Kerouac visited on his travels. Zipping around the app, one can also find maps detailing Kerouac’s travel itinerary, Kerouac’s own maps and writing notes, as well as photos of the major players and original documents from the publisher’s archives showing the book’s tortured road to publication.
Much of this added content is either pedestrian, as in the potted bios of the characters, or familiar to anyone who has ever picked up a biography of Kerouac or a history of the Beats. Some elements, though, such as the maps, do add real texture to the experience of reading the book. I read On the Road the first time twenty-some years ago when I was taking the first of several long road trips around the U.S. and I would have loved to have the graphical aid of the map of his journey to compare to my own. The app allows you to tap a location on the map and go directly to the page in the novel when Kerouac’s alter ego Sal Paradise arrives there. I also enjoyed the audio clips of Kerouac reading from On the Road, which, for me, were like seeing the Grateful Dead in concert for the first time after listening only to their studio albums: a cult phenomenon that had never really clicked for me suddenly made a new kind of sense as I listened to Kerouac’s husky, sensual voice make music of prose.
Thus, while the concept is exciting, in this case the execution isn’t always as strong as it could be, especially given the app’s $16.99 retail price ($12.99 for the first two weeks). So it’s a good thing the app can be expanded at no new cost to the buyer. At the least, Penguin needs to make the experience more genuinely interactive by adding a talk-back or comment feature so fans can compare reactions to the novel and offer analyses of favorite passages. Even better would be a wiki-like feature to let readers add to the commentary provided by the publishers. For instance, one of the maps in the app shows “Mill City,” just north of San Francisco, as one of Kerouac’s stops on his journey. I happen to be from Mill Valley, Calif., which is next door to Marin City, where Kerouac briefly lived in barracks built for the World War II-era Marinship plant in Sausalito. It adds little to one’s reading of the book to know that Kerouac combined the two city names, but given his obsession with African-American culture, it does add context to know that, when he lived in Marin City, those barracks – now public housing, famous for being the home of rapper Tupac Shakur – were among the only truly racially integrated housing in the United States.
But even with added interactivity, there is little here you couldn’t find on a well curated website devoted to On the Road, and cynics will suggest that Penguin is only trying to push sales of a popular backlist title by forcing fans to buy a new digital edition just to see a few cool bits of memorabilia from the archives. And, of course, the cynics would have a point. That is no doubt part of what is driving this sudden interest in putting out “enhanced” digital editions of titles like On the Road and The Waste Land, and if these new iPad apps do no more than draw in a few old Kerouac and Eliot heads, this will prove to be a pointless exercise. If, on the other hand, it draws in new readers, wired iKids who love wriggling down the hypertextual wormholes of the web, then book apps of classic texts will serve a valuable, if somewhat limited, purpose. As I dipped into On the Road’s digital archives, I couldn’t help thinking of other classics that would benefit from similar treatment. Wouldn’t you love to peek into the files that famous pack rat, Hunter S. Thompson, kept on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas? (See my recent essay on Fear and Loathing here.) Or what about a book app for Tim O’Brien’s metafictional Vietnam novel, The Things They Carried, with maps and photos and bios of the real people behind O’Brien’s characters?
But, again, if the book app phenomenon ends there, as virtual attics for the houses of a few great books, then I doubt the book app will draw many iPad users away from their treasured GarageBand and iMovie apps. The real promise here, as I see it, is the underlying technology, which, with any luck, will some day allow a kid now sitting in his eighth-grade English class playing Spider-Man: Total Mayhem HD to write an original literary app: a truly interactive novel that not only combines text with hypertext, but also with sound and images and reader responses, all at the swipe of a finger. This notion has been the holy grail of a certain school of digitally avant garde writers since the days of dial-up connections, but the technology has always been clunky, and the stories, at least in my own admittedly limited experience, damnably dull.
Two factors suggest the lackluster track record of the interactive novel may be due for a change. First, it takes only a few minutes on an iPad to see that this sleek hand-held device, with its gleaming touch screen and seemingly bottomless array of multi-media features, is a quantum leap forward in terms of flexibility and user friendliness. Second, until very recently, the minds of the people creating interactive novels have been as old school as their equipment. If the central building block of most interactive novels has until now been the codex text – otherwise known as the book – that’s because most of the people making them were raised on codex texts. Every day, as more toddlers read The Little Engine That Could on their parents’ iPads and Skype their grandparents on their smart phones, this is becoming less true, and soon a young writer whose brain is more supple than mine may well take this technology and bend it to uses that my mind, hopelessly mired in the linear, cannot even imagine.
In the meantime, old fogies like me can happily potter around in the virtual attics of classic novels like On the Road and recall a day when blowing up a venerable piece of technology took only a big stack of paper and some tape.