Post-40 Bloomers

Agnes Martin’s Perfection: Now and Not Yet

This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 1. I come back to Agnes Martin again and again. This time, I did not anticipate how difficult -- how disturbing -- it would be to re-engage with her work. I thought I knew something about Martin’s art and life, her ideas and philosophies; I thought perhaps I could write a short appreciation piece, especially now that I have the “bloomer” angle: Martin painted for 20 years, into her mid 40s, before showing or selling the work she is known for today. But the beauty Martin finally came to express presents a difficult pleasure. One must wrestle a bit with Martin -- the inspiring, paradoxical, disturbing whole of her -- which lives in the work she left behind. 2. I’d seen some of Martin’s paintings in my early 20s, but it wasn’t until 2005, a year after she died at the age of 92, that I took more notice. It was a short personal essay -- a “Lives” piece in The New York Times Magazine by artist Susan York -- that caught my attention. In it, York described a visit to Martin’s compound in New Mexico that occurred in 1983, when Martin was 71 and York in her 20s: As in her books, she spoke in absolutes. "Never have children. Do not live the middle-class life. Never do anything that will take away from your work." Martin by then had achieved success, by art world standards; twice, in fact. In 1967, at the height of a first wave of recognition, she had disappeared—from New York, where she’d been living and working among the rising stars of Abstract Expressionism, including Ellsworth Kelley, Robert Indiana, Jack Youngerman, and James Rosenquist -- and more importantly, from painting. Some conjecture that she had had a nervous breakdown, others that she was fleeing a failed relationship, or that it had something do with the death of her friend Ad Reinhardt that year. In any case, seven years later, emerging from a crucible of soul-searching, Martin resurfaced -- her work did, that is, via Arne Glimcher's Pace Gallery. By then, she was living a reclusive life on a mesa in New Mexico, where she lived and worked in much the same way for the next 30 years -- producing paintings based on the penciled grid form that she’d come upon prior to her first coming out in the '60s. In her own words, [F]inally, I got the grid, and it was what I wanted. Completely abstract. Absolutely no hint of any cause in this world. It was York’s account of Martin’s directness and dogmatism, those “absolutes,” that struck me. I was myself recently divorced, and embarking on a late-blooming artist’s life. At the time, her directives registered with me as invigorating truth. I was in my early 30s, and just such decisions about how I would spend my time and energy, how I would make money and live, how these books I hoped to write would get written were all front and center. I had always preferred solitude, to such an extreme that I worried it was a neurosis. Most people reading the essay would likely hear Martin as a kook, an outlier’s voice crying in the wilderness; but to me she was cutting through noise and confusion straight to wisdom. "Untitled" 1963 Over the next few years, I saw Martin’s paintings whenever I could. I would have described the paintings back then -- the grid paintings I mean primarily -- as “quiet” and “spiritual.” I sought them out for emotional centering. But even as I “liked” the paintings, what kept me going back was a nagging feeling that something more was happening in them; of not quite perceiving them fully. They evoked both nervous tension and wide openness; with my eye I saw the hand-penciled lines and watery bands of color expressing orderliness and infinity, control and vulnerability. Sometimes the opposing sensations would layer confusingly, sometimes they would cancel each other out and leave me feeling flat. Later I would read that Martin worked on the 6' by 6' canvass because it was “the full size of the human body” -- a person could step into it, could be swallowed, and absorbed. 3. My first encounter with Martin herself, and her verbal conception of her work (other than York’s brief account) was through Mary Lance's documentary, Agnes Martin: With My Back to the World. Martin was in her late 80s during the years Lance shot the film -- lumbering and weathered and short of breath -- yet apparently working as habitually and single-mindedly as ever: the steadiness of Martin’s massive 86-year-old hand as she paints, even as she sometimes labors to speak, is a wonder. An in-person encounter with Martin for those not brave enough to pick up the phone and call, then show up, as Susan York did (as Mary Lance also did) -- even mediated through film -- may have been timely. Her gallerists and curators have generally reiterated Martin’s own insistence that her personality, her life history, are irrelevant to her work: Arne Glimcher wrote: “...she was extremely self-effacing and separated her persona from her art. She believed she was the locus where her art happened rather than its creator.” And yet critics, and the public, are generally not so easily satisfied: who was this reclusive Agnes Martin, and from where do these so-called “inspired” paintings come from? Who is the person generating these canvasses of quiet beauty? The average person finds comfort in narrative; in comprehensible cause and effect. With My Back to the World, however, provides little new insight or access, especially for those already familiar with Martin’s writings. In my recent rewatching of the film, and through corresponding with Lance, it is evident that Lance approached her subject with reverence, allowing Martin to dictate the process. That reverence translates into the film’s mode and aesthetic: if Agnes says her art is about purely abstract emotions, not personal experience or history, then the film will enact that same vessel-like receptivity; it too will be a locus, a transparent vehicle. Much of what Martin says on camera are close versions of what she has written or said before; periodically she reads directly from her writings. “I think all aggressive behavior is wrong -- where you go out and do, and attack things, like an army. That’s aggression.” “I’m just going forward. I’ve been working on the same theme for 10 years.” “The intellect is a struggle with facts...you’re certainly never going to find out the truth about life guessing about facts...I gave up facts in order to have an empty mind. I gave up the intellectual entirely.” “Beauty is the mystery of life. Beauty illustrates happiness.” The film is thus a spare and loving introduction to Martin’s work and to her verbal accounts of what the work is about; it is, I think, a better introduction than the writings alone, which, in their imperative, aphoristic, disembodied form, can come off as rigid and bloodless (she uses the word “obedience” quite frequently, for example). On screen, we see Martin’s ruddy cheeks, her deeply lined and sun-weathered face, round blue eyes, mussed pageboy; and we hear her frequent chuckle: “I made a movie about happiness, beauty, and innocence,” she says about Gabriel, her one foray into filmmaking, “to see if it would be responded to” (chuckle). Referring to her absolutist attitude (frustrating to curators and collectors) toward her earlier work, all of which she made efforts to track down and destroy, she says, “At the end of every year, I had a big fire, burned them all” (chuckle). The chuckles are both nervous and knowing. They convey at once, I guess folks think that’s pretty silly and I know better. The Martin we meet on screen, in her natural habitat, calls to mind a wry bit from York’s essay that escaped me, all those years ago: Opening the door to her studio, she said, "Never let anyone in your studio." (Surely Martin chuckled as she said this.) Lance’s film is one Martin would have approved of. And yet the virtue of unmediated presentation -- scripted as it sometimes feels -- is that Lance also gives us Martin in her self-contradictions. “I would rather think of humility than anything else,” she reads from one of her published writings, while earlier, she’d said, “Lots of painters paint about painting. But my painting is about meaning.” She resists being thought of as a mystic -- “I’m not any different from anybody. You’re not a mystic when you respond to beauty.” -- but also describes her clear memory of being born: “I thought I was quite a small figure with a little sword, and I was very happy.” She says, “It doesn’t matter where I work, it’s all the same. The environment doesn’t have any impact on my work because I don’t paint nature,” but also, “I saw the plain driving out of New Mexico, and I thought the plain had it; just the plain...When I draw horizontals you see this big plain, and you have certain feelings like you’re expanding over the plain.” 4. The contemporary culturati, however, are not satisfied. Martin’s pure abstraction and Zen-ish spiritualism negate too much of the humanist tradition, not to mention a century of psychotherapeutic theory and practice. In 2004, writing about an exhibit at Pace, Peter Schjeldahl expressed marked impatience with Martin’s as yet uninterrogated legacy of “ascetic abstractionism” and “dedicated idealism”: Her rather blowsy theories, invoking nature in strictly heady ways and harping on “perfection,” consort oddly with her pragmatic, unsentimental practice. He does grant a dynamic experience in beholding her paintings: As with Tantric diagrams, you see exactly what the work is, even as, with patient looking, you may undergo a gradual, and then sudden, soft detonation of beauty...Edge and shape, figure and ground, and matter and atmosphere are reversible, bringing about, for me, a sense of oscillation in the optic nerve...a conceptual traffic jam: sheer undecidability. My analytical faculties, after trying to conclude that what I’m looking at is one thing or another, give up, and my mind collapses into a momentary engulfing state that is either “spiritual” or nameless. Ultimately, though, he is skeptical of such experience as spiritually meaningful: When unrelated to a particular belief, might transcendence be no more than a neurological burp, soothing the mind as the alimentary kind does the stomach?...This may be the upward limit of what liberal culture can provide for the common soul. Perhaps it’s enough. Jonathan D. Katz, in “Agnes Martin and the Sexuality of Abstraction,” collected in a 2009 book published by Dia, goes further -- arguing that Martin has been too often shielded from identity-based analysis, and that she herself has conjured a “trap,” a game, disingenuously manipulating the discourse: Martin’s critics have too often been satisfied with accounts of the work’s formal operations, rarely putting even its most sophisticated analyses of structures of meaning making...into broader social-historical frames...When critics...recuse the artist in favor of the artist’s means, they unwittingly fall into Martin’s well-made trap: she has already mediated that response, not only in her paintings but through her copious statements and parables, her eremitic self-sufficiency, her Zen-inflected paeans to humility -- all of which serve to underscore that there is nothing individuated, nothing “encoded,” in her art. But what if, instead of playing along, we were to try to see beyond this authorial transparency and ask why, in the first place, an artist would strive to erect a Trojan horse of signification, seeking to elevate the operations of meaning-making ahead of the maker of meaning herself? Why. The question is about psychology, about cause and effect. Where there is a person, surely there must be an interpretable narrative. Artist Zoe Leonard, in another essay in the Dia book, expresses something similar: I can’t help but wonder what role gender played in Martin’s art making. Whether it was a factor in the choices she made regarding society and isolation...Somewhere in the work, informing the work, is a biography of a person. A person who lived, as we all do, with the specifics and complications of her own desire. A person who lived within a certain time, surrounded by society. A person who was a woman, in America, at a specific moment in history. You can see the heads butting in conflict: Martin’s moment of salvation is the social historian’s very sticking point. Finally, I got the grid, and it was what I wanted. Completely abstract. Absolutely no hint of any cause in this world. The “aggressiveness” of Katz’s investigation alone would surely have elicited Martin’s disapproval (or, perhaps she would merely chuckle and go back to work): You’re hiding something, Agnes Martin. You are evading, repressing. Your “insistently prescriptive aesthetic absolutism,” is driven by latent, unacknowledged personal experience (homosexual experience, in Katz’s analyses). Katz draws attention to Martin’s emotional instability -- by her own account and others -- along with Ann Wilson's claim that she relied on “psychopharmacological medication” for most of her adult life. He also quotes sculptor Mary Fuller (McChesney) from a 1994 interview: Talk about a manipulator. Agnes Martin was like that...she said, “I’m going to make it. I am going to make it. And I don’t care who I have to fuck or how I have to do it. And now all these things of New York are totally, totally different from the stories Aggie told us about her background...She’s re-writing this whole history. [laughs] Why not? Innocence is a great theme of Martin’s work, and at this point I find myself nostalgic for my first experience of her paintings (and increasingly grateful for Mary Lance’s unintrusive approach); for Martin is right about the perils of intellect: you can know too much as you stand before a painting, you can find yourself in a mental “traffic jam.” Are paintings with titles like “Happiness,” “Contentment,” “Innocent Love,” and “Perfect Happiness” really about those things? Can those things be experienced so purely and simply, in life or in art? And if so, can they be expressed by someone so isolated from regular, messy human connection, and potentially isolated from her very own emotional reality? Can an artist let go all emotional contradiction, and can she truly disappear from her art? 5. Sitting in the MoMA research library recently, books on Martin piled high and my head throbbing -- I wonder if I will ever experience that quietness, that centering, before an Agnes Martin painting again. I wonder if I’ll ever step inside and be absorbed. I am not buying Katz’s assault on Martin as a repressed con artist; but I am weary from the contradictions, how Agnes Martin As Presented By Agnes Martin is not computing. She said things to Arne Glimcher like, To realize yourself is great art and to do that you need absolute faith that life is perfect. Louise [Nevelson] and I have it and that’s why we’re at the top. I am the best painter in the world today. and wrote to him in a letter, I have only one worry in the world! It’s that my paintings will show downtown and fail there. They will fail because they are non-aggressive...in a competitive environment, with big displays of aggressive artwork...With the dark paintings it was not bad because they do have some ‘force.’ I did not get one compliment on that show, however! Here she seems vain and a little manic, more narcissist than Obi Wan of the desert. There is substantial evidence that she experienced mental imbalance -- in Jack Youngerman’s words, “extremity of distress,” and in her own, “unheard of torment” -- but the tight lid she kept on those parts of her life undermines the trust I might otherwise put in a concretely evolved quietude. The sun has set and the library will close shortly. My appreciation piece has gone nowhere. I reach into my pile and begin flipping through a thin catalog from 2000 -- 11” by 11”, unpaginated -- published by Pace. Martin’s paintings reproduce poorly in general, but here they are printed on vellum, in color, overlaid on white linen. There is nothing else in the catalog -- no text, no essays -- but these prints. Unexpectedly, a wave of emotion comes over me as I slowly turn each page. The throbbing in my head quiets, and I feel something gathering, pulsing, in my chest. Maybe it’s the stress of all the reading I’ve done, but I have the distinct urge to weep -- to release something. I feel happy and sad, that’s the best I can describe it. The next day I make a trip to Dia: Beacon. I spend most of my time with Martin’s “Innocence” series, initially standing in the center of the gallery and slowly turning to each of eight paintings one by one. Lines, rectangles, symmetry. Pale radiant color swathed wetly inside hand-rendered depictions of absolute form. Again, emotion wells up: I feel sorrow, and gratitude, and pity. I don’t know what I am sorrowful about, for what I am grateful, or for whom I feel pity. But I feel these things, teeming and indistinguishable. Exercising my eye now, I step closer to each painting: glowing bands of red, yellow, blue, fade or thicken at random on either ends of the canvass; wavering graphite lines dive under and reemerge over top layers of paint and stop short, inexactly, of the canvass’s edge; broad swift brush strokes wash a monochromatic canvass in ambivalent gray textures; bright white gesso gleams like artificial moonlight against the mundane white of the gallery walls; blue and yellow make green in just a few places where rectangles bleed together. My hand comes to my mouth and the emotions brim and pulse, like whiskey in the blood; like warm sun on the skin; like happiness. All this speaks to me of the paradox of perfection. Of imperfection reaching for perfection -- for truth, happiness, innocence. The artist’s received awareness of the existence of that perfection is everywhere in the work; it is the work’s “voice.” The emotion I feel could be described as the tragedy of beauty, of perceiving and expressing impossibly pure emotions. When Agnes Martin makes commands of the artist -- insisting, prescribing, “harping” -- I believe she is directing the imperatives, first and foremost, consciously -- unconsciously, to herself -- who is both the locus of art that is genuinely about “perfect happiness and innocence” and a finely cracked vessel. She is the little figure wielding her paintbrush-sword; but the paint will not stay within the lines. Unlike MoMA curator Leah Dickerman, who sees the “tension between the regularity of the grid and the handmade quality of the lines” as a calculated message on Martin’s part -- “what she gets you to focus on are the subtle variations in making the grid” -- I believe that Martin was focused on perfection, her awareness of perfection, and on heightening the viewer’s experience of life. That her own imperfections -- of her hand and her life -- live also in the paintings may not have pleased Martin, but in this sense she truly was a vessel, then: the inspirations she “obeyed” illustrate poignancy as much as perfection. Pure abstraction, perhaps not; but moving and transformative still. For a few minutes, standing in the Innocence galleries, I really do forget what was on my mind that day, the worries of the week past and coming. The holidays, with all its materialism, revealed to me anew that the physical clutter of my middle-class life is cluttering my mind. I am en route to a brief solitude retreat, and was anxious about leaving home, partner, appointments, dog. Departing the museum, as intellect kicks back in, I think of a phrase that modern Christians have used -- The Now and the Not Yet -- to describe the Kingdom of God as both fully realized, via the resurrection, and still in process, by good works. I’ve always liked the phrase. It is at once proclamatory and replete with longing, exultant and heartbreaking. * Click here to read a Q&A with filmmaker Mary Lance. Agnes Martin photo credit: Mildred Tolbert, 1954. Homepage portrait via Phaidon.
Post-40 Bloomers

Joan Chase: Our Childhood Edens and Lost Orchards of Memory

This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 1. Every year I teach Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein to first-year college students, who can’t quite believe it was written by a girl their age. How could someone so young create a work so furiously complex, alive with the energies of need, anger, love, and alienation? But then, who would have known freakishness so well as a bookish girl in a male-dominated world, secretly convinced she’d killed the mother she never knew? “When I looked around I saw and heard of none like me,” the Creature tells his creator, Victor Frankenstein. “Was I, then, a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled and whom all men disowned?” Yet the Creature’s own consciousness makes avoiding this pain impossible, and, like any writer, he is drawn to examine it: “[O]f what a strange nature is knowledge!” he tells Victor. “It clings to the mind, when it has once seized on it, like a lichen on the rock.” Knowledge brings pain. But knowledge -- and its exploration, in stories -- is irresistible. The sorrowing rage of a precocious daughter who felt spurned by her father and responsible for her mother’s death certainly drives the novel. But its origins aren’t quite that simple. Frankenstein was a book Mary Shelley had to write, for reasons she might never have been able to explain. That inward pressure is part of the alchemy that makes any novel an even bigger and stranger experience for its writer (and its reader) than the writer knows. While we may sometimes connect the real Mary Shelley with her brooding Creature, Frankenstein's enduring allure comes from a much more mysterious place -- an imaginative energy born of transgression, memory, fear, and desire, which may spring from real life but isn’t ever fully bound by it. That energy communicates itself to us, elevating the idea of the novel itself -- to a heightened sensory tour of a recognizable human reality, fundamentally not responsible to any laws but its own. Joan Chase, whose first novel was published when she was 47, is a writer whose work demonstrates this energy. She’s won many awards (including a Guggenheim, a Whiting Writers’ Award, the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, and PEN America’s Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award), and, according to one online source, is “still writing.” Yet she’s a shy, little-known presence in the modern literary world, with no webpage or Twitter feed. When confronted with so specific a fictional realm as Chase’s, readers accustomed to copious author bios and Internet availability will find themselves baffled. Yet her fiction demonstrates just how little “authorial intent” or “biography” can matter. Chase teaches us what it means for a writer to submit herself to the story, letting fiction and fact alchemize according to the needs of the created world on the page and following wherever that world’s logic leads, regardless of literal “truth.” 2. Recently reissued by NYRB Classics, Chase’s first novel, During the Reign of the Queen of Persia (1983), is narrated by a collective “we,” a group of sisters and cousins living in a matriarchal farm household in northern Ohio in the 1950s. “For as long as we could remember,” they tell us, “we had been together in the house which established the center of the known world.” Celia, Jenny, Anne, and Katie are cousins and sisters, “like our mothers, who were sisters” and who are all living in the house together at one time or another. “Sometimes we watched each other, knew differences,” they say. “But most of the time it was as though the four of us were one and we lived in days that gathered into one stream of time, undifferentiated and communal.” The girls’ days are marked by farm-kid pleasures (kittens under the porch, playing in the hayloft with a hidden deck of cards) and violence (fighting with each other and their boy cousin, the sinister Rossie) and family crises that descend like weather: cancer, marital discord, courtship and impending marriage, abuse and making-up again. Family members come and go and come again until three generations -- parents and their daughters, and the daughters’ husbands and children -- have settled into the house. At every turn the girls feel knit deeper into the place: Peaceable, we waited on the porch in the dappling noontime. In the Mason jars stacked up dusty and fly-specked on the side shelves, in the broken-webbed snowshoes hung there, the heap of rusty hinged traps waiting this long time to be oiled and set to catch something in the night, was the visible imprint of the past we were rooted in. The girls’ world is presided over by a fierce, dominating goddess -- their grandmother Lil. Nicknamed the eponymous “Queen of Persia,” Lil has been working her entire life, starting as a scrawny 11-year-old nanny for a neighbor with tuberculosis. Even an inheritance from a rich uncle, which enables her to buy a farm for herself, doesn’t soften her sense of grievance at the world. “She vowed it was peculiar,” say the girls, “her father spent his life in the West, searching for oil, when all along it was right out back under the corn crib. Now wasn’t that just like a man? Like life.” Focused in old age on her own self-protection, Lil widens her angry judgment of the world to include her daughters and granddaughters. Sometimes she condemns them, but sometimes she protects them. When her oldest daughter Grace dies of cancer, Gram squares off against Grace’s feckless husband, Neil. Yet at the novel’s end -- after making a decision that shocks the reader -- Gram snorts, “What did we ever have around here but dying and fighting? Work and craziness.” For the girls, Gram models womanhood as sheer cussedness and endurance, a “soiled and faded apron and her exhausted face, marked like an old barn siding that had withstood blasts and abuse of all kinds, beyond any expression other than resignation and self-regard.” The man for whom Gram reserves most of her fury is her husband, Jacob, a stern Amish outcast who “was bigger than all the other men we saw who came around the farm...it was a bigness of bone, as though he were solid calcium with only skin stretched over him.” Cursing at the cows, backhanding Rossie into the barn wall for smashing eggs, and changing his long underwear only a few times a year, Grandad is a dark force of nature whose inability to interpret or express his own emotions makes him terrifying but, initially to Gram as a young woman, alluring: Every night his eyes were watching, wanting her and letting her see it in him; but he wouldn’t touch her…though when she would pass close beside him she would hear his breathing, harsh and quick. It nearly drove her wild and her mind came to dwell on him nearly every second. Sometimes, when she lifted up the handle of the stove to stir the wood, the glutted, ashy coals crumbled at the slight touch and something inside her seemed to fragment in the same way. Eventually, marriage -- marked by furtive, rape-like sex and Jacob’s long absences -- bends Gram’s desire into a thick club of anger, aggression, and dark humor with which she attacks everyone around her, and herself: I seen more damned men than you would believe drinking themselves crazy, killing each other over nothing. And their women dying with babies or something else unnecessary. But you can’t tell them. I’m through trying. You can’t tell a young gal nothing, nor an older one neither. Not anything she don’t want to hear. 3. Watching Gram hang on to her life exactly as it is -- remaining married to a man she hates, stashing her money under the floorboards, and shaking up her family with daily small cruelties -- makes the reader wonder: in a world that thwarts women, what makes a woman also thwart herself, surrendering to meanness and pushing against a hard life in a way that only makes it harder? What’s the source of that particularly Midwestern passive aggression, self-sabotage, and buried rage? And why hate the one who gets away from it all -- in this case Aunt Elinor, a successful New York career woman whose efforts to care for her dying sister are mocked even as they are relied upon? “Aunt Elinor looked patient, as one who had seen a wider world,” the girls observe, “one she constantly made visible to the rest of us -- accepting the fact that a wider world might mean a weaker place in the old one.” Why love a place where the ordinary marvels of life -- “The wet orchard grass and briers gleamed like washed planking, while above, the branches held green sails to the wind” -- are braided with such pain? When you are immersed in Joan Chase’s writing, that love seems wholly inevitable. In her review of During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, Margaret Atwood described the girls’ connection to this place: Will the ‘we,’ having known a childhood so all-enveloping, so histrionic and so collective, ever be able to resolve itself successfully into four separate ‘I’s? For despite the horror of some of the events they witness, the children’s life at Gram’s is fascinating and addictive, and they live with an intensity and gusto that prevent their final vision from being a bleak one. Indeed, something in the girls cleaves to their “flamboyantly, joylessly unpredictable” grandmother, no matter what: When we are grown up and have been through everything, we’ll be like that. We’ll order kittens drowned by the bagful. Then at night we’ll dress in our silken best, pile on jewels and whiz off to parties, bring home prizes for the family. We’ll bet on horses. This thread of resilience brightens the otherwise dark weather of this novel, which nevertheless isn’t forced or melodramatic -- it’s only doing what it must, only being what it is. Lacking answers to the questions we might ordinarily ask the author -- Is this your family? Are you saying something about women and passive-aggression here? -- we fall back on the novel itself and on our own reactions, delving deeper into the territory of self-investigation. Which is to say, into literature. Like Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, which was published three years earlier, During the Reign of the Queen of Persia is poised on the border between strict realism and something like a dream. If the governing element of Robinson’s novel is water -- the frozen lake, the drowned train -- Chase’s novel is of the soil. Rooted in landlocked northern Ohio, it is replete with cluttered farmhouses and barns and deer stealing windfall apples from the orchard. Yet its effects are never showy or awkward, never just rural Gothic cliché. Like William Faulkner, whom Chase admires, this is novelistic imagination with no elaborate scaffolding between reader and author -- just direct immersion in a stream of subjectivity and life we come to know through that immersion itself. In this, the novel echoes its subjects: terrifying, marvelous, and memorable things happen here, and that’s just how it is -- here in this dark Midwestern Eden, with its gnarled and faithful apple trees. 4. Chase found an early center of gravity in a large family homestead in rural Ohio like the one in Queen of Persia. “[I]t was wonderful,” she has said, “to have so much family around me.” On an “Ohioana Authors” radio program, she said, “When I began to write what became During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, I didn’t decide on Ohio as the setting, Ohio was just there, my imaginative heartland. It was the land of my childhood and from my perspective the most lovely and thrilling place in the world.” These biographical statements (among the few Chase has made) don’t account for the elements of Queen of Persia that are less than “lovely.” But they don’t really need to; we all know that what is “true” doesn’t always make the best story. A writer must let the emotional qualities and images on the page shape the story according to her own emerging logic. This means that tracing a writer’s “biography” in a novel can be difficult. Particularly for the writer herself. And that, too, is perhaps as it should be. Chase’s later works return to themes similar to Queen of Persia, although in more diffuse, experimental ways. Her second novel, The Evening Wolves (1989) explores how a feckless, wandering father warps his daughters’ lives. Francis Clemmons is charming and fierce, self-centered and often irresistible. The first-person narration (traded among his three children and second wife) is precise and pithy, rooting us in particular bodies and subjectivities: “My hair is straight, quiet hair,” young daughter Ruthann declares, “and my head feels peaceful, at least where it shows.” Elsewhere she tells how a boy “started rubbing my bones, their stone hearts luminous in the dark, binding me like stays.” Unlike Persia, the novel feels inconclusive, with an open-endedness that is employed to better effect in Chase’s short fiction. Gathered in Bonneville Blue (1991), Chase’s stories are strange and shapely, centered around striking images from down-at-heel rural worlds reminiscent of Persia’s barns and backroads. Sally in “Crowing” accompanies a cranky old man around his barn: “People say farm animals know when the hog butcher is coming. Somehow. Even the day before, they will be restive, off their feed, as though word of the appointment has reached them.” Here, too, women are yearning yet uncertain how to act. In the lyrical “The Harrier,” an unhappily married woman dreams of a younger man: I didn’t go with him up into that bed in the forest, not in the end, although as I said, in that winter of cold and driving spikes of ice he seemed to slam against my bedroom window all night like some night bird wanting in. But I chose to lie on, hugging the curve of my husband’s unyielding back, dreaming the smell that is feverish and rank, the distillation of roots and vines newly turned over. 5. Like Elena Ferrante, whose novels of growing up in midcentury Naples have drawn fresh attention this fall -- and who writes from behind an inviolable pseudonym -- Joan Chase disrupts the links we seek between a writer’s life and her art to let her work stand alone in the public eye. Of course, Joan Chase is her real name. But her relative silence, while thwarting readers’ curiosity, serves us as Ferrante’s pseudonymity does by sending us back to the work, which stands on its own -- enigmatic, dark, and gorgeous. Reading Chase, Ferrante, and Mary Shelley all together reignites my curiosity about women, writing, and boldness. What interior permissions, or exterior disguises, or at-long-last states of peace and determination must a woman attain to in order to speak the story that wants to take shape, whatever that shape may be? I’m wondering, too, about the relationship between personal privacy and the kind of boldness we need to do our work. In the Internet age, Ferrante’s pseudonym and Chase’s quietness both suggest strategies to address that issue: if you want to avoid complaining family members, or earnest reviewers asking you about “which parts are autobiographical,” or random readers’ emails, short-circuiting the link between you and the public might help. Maintaining privacy might also quiet interior voices that insist a good daughter would never write this. Seeking recognition is just not what we do in this family. If you get the wrong kind of attention, it’s your own fault. During the Reign of the Queen of Persia does make me wonder about Chase’s family’s reaction: whether they recognized themselves, whether they objected, whether they half-resented the one whose success they also envied. But ultimately, it’s not our business. It is enough that Joan Chase brought into the world a novel so vivid, risky, and beautiful, and that from it we can learn to trust our stories -- to finger the jagged grain of those trees in our childhood Edens, those lost orchards of memory -- and let them take us where they need to go.
Post-40 Bloomers

Ruthless, Beautiful, Dangerous, Comforting: How It Is in the World of Tove Jansson  

This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 1. I am sometimes tempted to create and claim an alternate childhood: sepia memories featuring fantastical lands, imaginary friends and foes, brilliant DIY costumes and dwellings; and, of course, books upon books from which such storytelling genius sprung. I am a writer, after all, and what is a writer if not a card-carrying lonely bookworm from birth? But in my real childhood, we didn’t have books; my parents weren’t readers. In any case they would not have read to us, because English was not their first language, and, looking back, I recognize that they were too troubled and exhausted for bedtime rituals like storytime. My sad childhood story, then, is that, without the solace of books, I was simply lonely. In pre-adolescence I became a romantic with low self-esteem, fixating on boys to sweeten the bitter sadness. Then, as a teenager, I stumbled from depression into organized religion: God would fill all that loneliness with his unconditional and all-powerful love. It was an irresistible idea at the time; it was what there was. Books didn’t save me until I was an adult. They are still saving me. Another way of saying this is that, literarily, I am about 11 years old -- falling in love over and again with that secret understanding, the deep solace that odd, lonely children typically find in books about odd, lonely children. I am consoled by beautiful, strange, truthful books quite as if I were still that achey-hearted, depressed young girl: I prefer these books to humans as true friends, and even seem to believe that they were written for me. This is my best explanation for why the adult stories and novels of Tove Jansson (pronounced TOO-vuh YAHN-sun) have captivated me so fully. For some 25 years, Jansson wrote and illustrated the beloved Moomintroll books for children -- 15 books that made her Finland’s best-known author abroad. In 1968, at age 54, she published Sculptor's Daughter, a collection of short childhood memoirs, and from then on wrote almost exclusively adult fiction -- 11 books over the next 30 years. But the Moomin books, and the years she spent writing them, evidently stayed with her; the result was a stirring art, both light and dark, consoling and disturbing, spare and intricate. A simplicity of expression belies the mystery of Jansson’s art -- ostensibly plain, teeming with profound delights and worries -- all of which this reader’s stunted, sad-girl soul is grateful to have discovered. Hopefully many more will soon share in the bounty: in honor of Jansson’s centenary (she died at 86), New York Review Books is releasing this fall an extensive collection of Jansson’s stories, The Woman Who Borrowed Memories. Drawing from five previously translated collections, the new book will join three of Jansson’s adult novels -- The Summer Book, The True Deceiver, and Fair Play -- in the NYRB Classics series. 2. Jansson’s transition from writing for children to writing for adults strikes one as rather seamless; as if, like the boats and icebergs that populate her Nordic setting, she floated slowly but fatefully, propelled by gentle undercurrents and the occasional potent storm -- from dawn, to dusk, to dark and starry night. Earlier this year at The Millions, Alix Ohlin wrote: Childhood, as I knew it, was rife with secrecy and weirdness, with actions that made sense to you but not anybody else. It’s no wonder that I fell in love with Moomin...Tove Jansson understood that secrecy and strangeness are endemic to childhood. What Jansson understood too was that the same secrecy and strangeness permeate all human experience; and that much of what we fear, want, and love remains unchanged, from beginning to end. Sculptor's Daughter is the book that straddled Jansson’s two literary careers, both temporally and substantively: the vignettes written in present tense, especially, read like a child speaking to another child, even as the insights and observations resonate hauntingly for the adult reader. In “Parties,” for example, Jansson invites us into the raucous evenings hosted by her artist parents, and we understand that we are encountering both the child in real time and the author in retrospect: I love Daddy’s parties. They could go on for many nights of waking up and going to sleep again and being rocked by smoke and the music and then suddenly a bellow would strike a chill right down to my toes... The table is the most beautiful thing. Sometimes I sit up and look over the railing and screw up my eyes and then the glasses and the candles and all the things on the table shimmer and make a whole as they do in a painting. Making a whole is very important. Some people just paint things and forget the whole. I know. I know a lot that I don’t talk about. All men have parties and are pals who never let each other down. A pal can say terrible things which are forgotten the next day. A pal never forgives, he just forgets and a woman forgives but never forgets. That’s how it is. That’s why women aren’t allowed to have parties. Being forgiven is very unpleasant. Family photographs are interspersed with text, as if a book without visuals was not yet conceivable for Jansson; and the images, like the memoirs themselves, evoke the range of emotions -- from silliness (her father’s pet monkey Poppolino) to melancholy (a lone boat, the endless horizon) to danger (white water crashing beneath a black sky) to perfect safety (smiling, towheaded Tove at Christmastime). The Summer Book (1972), Jansson’s first adult novel, features a six-year-old girl and an octogenarian grandmother as co-protagonists. “That The Summer Book feels simultaneously idyllic and sad,” Ohlin wrote, observing too the seamlessness in Jansson’s oeuvre, “—that it has moments of earthy humor...renders it very much a piece with the Moomin books.” Sophia and her ailing but plucky grandmother (both wonderfully complex characters) spend the summer on a tiny island-among-islands in the Gulf of Finland in the wake of Sophia’s mother’s death. The mother is barely mentioned, the father distracted and solitary; their absence is an absolute tragic presence at the same time it is irrelevant to the games, explorations, and battles between Sophia and Grandmother -- rendered in Janssonian prose that is at once austere and rich, and in vignettes with titles like “The Cat,” “The Cave,” “The Neighbor,” and “The Enormous Plastic Sausage.” Along with idyll, sadness, and humor, there is fury, terror, art, philosophy, religion, science, and -- perhaps most importantly in the universe that is Jansson’s child-adult continuum -- play. For Jansson, play is all, and eternal -- it is work, love, conflict, and art. In “The Magic Forest,” Grandmother sits on the forest floor and whittles “outlandish animals” from “wood that had already found its form...that expressed what she wanted to say,” and she collects bones. Sophia asks what she is doing, and she says, “I’m playing.” Sophia joins in the game, and when she finds “a perfect skull of some large animal” to add to the collection, they bring it to the magic forest, where it “gleamed with all its teeth.” Suddenly, Sophia screams, “Take it away! Take it away!” There is little narration accompanying this moment, but the reader recognizes the raw panic of a six year old whose mother has abruptly disappeared from her life. Death has entered the game, has overwhelmed both art and play, and Jansson’s restraint is powerful: henceforth, “Grandmother often went to the magic forest when the sun went down,” that is, without Sophia, on her own. Sophia and Grandmother are playmates, partners in crime, and arch nemeses: together they create adventures, console each other, and argue. Their companionship is as genuine and complex as any between adult peers, perhaps more so. A testament to the fineness of the novel’s art -- its authentic gaze into life’s beauty and pain -- is that, when we discuss the book as a text in one of my undergraduate classes, I can choose -- depending on the arc of the discussion and my sense of the students’ emotional maturity -- whether or not to bring out the implication, in the final moments of the final vignette (“August,” the end of summer), of Grandmother’s impending death; and thus Sophia’s double abandonment at such a young age. The complexity of the relationship stands on its own, and the students have generally not seen that sorrowful ending without prompting; perhaps they can’t bear to. 3. The responsibility of that decision is one that I believe Jansson herself would appreciate. A theme that tracks from The Summer Book into Jansson’s stories, and most notably into The True Deceiver, is that of “pure” honesty. It seems clear that during her many years as a famous children’s book author, Jansson struggled with the question of whether children need protecting from the hard truths of life, or if, like the child of “Parties” -- little Tove herself -- it was better to understand, from an early age, “That’s how it is.” In The Summer Book, when Sophia and Grandmother find a dead sea bird, Sophia becomes angry and insists on a good story to explain it; despite herself, Grandmother concedes and tells her that he died when he was singing, “right when he was happier than he’d ever been before.” Later, when Sophia prays to God to “make something happen” because she is bored, a great storm comes, and she is frightened for having caused it; Grandmother again calms her by telling her that she herself prayed for the storm first. But in a story called “The Cartoonist,” and then later in The True Deceiver, Jansson -- through the characters Samuel Stein, an upstart cartoonist, and the helplessly kind children’s book author Anna Amelein -- takes up this question directly, vis-a-vis the letters that illustrators receive from children. Stein is learning the ropes of the cartoon business, and to his elder colleague Carter, who never opens the letters he receives, he says, “You can’t do that. You’re famous, they admire you. Those letters are from children, and they need to be answered.” To which Carter replies: “You’re too young. It’s better for them to get used to it right from the start, you know, used to the fact that things don’t turn out the way you imagined and that it doesn’t matter that much.” Similarly, Anna’s newly arrived roommate and nemesis Katri Kling, an orphaned outcast in a small Finnish village defined by her cold rationalism and terrible honesty, says, “suddenly vehement” -- “But how long can they rely on what’s not reliable? For how many years do we fool these children into believing in something they shouldn’t believe in? They have to learn early, or they’ll never manage on their own.” Jansson renders a worthy battle between the always-nice, mushy-minded Anna and the ruthlessly effectual Katri, challenging the reader to see just what’s at stake on both sides of the argument. “And what about this one?” Anna went on. “Where’s the chitchat? He’s tried to draw a rabbit -- obviously no talent at all -- so here you could write something like ‘I’ve hung your picture above my desk’...You can fill nearly a whole page with the skating and the cat if you write big enough.” “Miss Amelin,” said Katri, “you’re actually quite cynical. How have you managed to hide that?”… “That doesn’t matter. The whole point is to give them a nice letter. You have to learn how it’s done. But I wonder if you can. I almost think you don’t like them.” Katri shrugged her shoulders and smiled her quick wolfish smile. “Neither do you,” she said. Time and again, Jansson took up this question, pitting blunt frankness against hand-wringing nicety. Mari and Jonna, the two women artists who live and work together in Jansson’s final, autobiographical novel Fair Play, embody yet more shades of this conflict. Jonna is matter-of-fact and unsentimental; Mari is more self-doubting and emotional. One day, Jonna shoots a seagull that has been devouring eider chicks; Mari gets upset: “You just love guns! You just can’t stop!” When she calms down, she begins to philosophize, passive-aggressively, about the temperament of the natural hunter: “He’s considered to be bold and a little dangerous. You know, a person who plays for high stakes, who can be ruthless and take chances that other people don’t dare take.” Jonna reminds Mari of a wounded gull that Mari once tried to nurse back to health, but it was “full of worms. You can’t mend what’s totally broken,” and so Jonna killed it with a hammer. “There are times,” Jonna went on without listening, “there are times when a healthy ruthlessness is the right thing.” A near-exact episode, between young Tove and her friend Albert, occurs in Sculptor’s Daughter, after which Tove thinks, “[I]t was lovely to be able to cry. Everything was over and everything was all right. Albert always put things right.” 4. The ongoing, necessary struggle between compassion and candidness -- the need for “healthy ruthlessness” in the midst of conventional politesse -- permeates all of Jansson’s work and seems to me central to her sense of what it meant to be a “woman artist.” It’s women -- weak and pathetic women -- who are dogged by what her characters often refer to as a “bad conscience.” There seems always to be one such troublesome (female) soul in Jansson’s fiction: in Sun City, her dark comedy about a retirement community in St. Petersburg, Florida, it’s Evelyn Peabody, about whom the more sensible and aesthetically-minded Mrs. Morris observes: [T]he woman stood there and rambled on about how of course he was an unpleasant old man but she had to do her best to comfort him because after all there was some good in every human being...she thought fleetingly of how often it seems to be the case that compassion derives from guilt and gives rise to contempt. Ready-made virtues struck her as being common, and she didn’t like Miss Peabody. Nobody at the Berkeley Arms home really does; even the “unpleasant old man” Mr. Thompson rejects her so-called compassion. At the annual spring ball, the mayor drops dead in the middle of the dance floor, and Miss Peabody promptly goes to pieces: Peabody just went on crying, from tension and exhaustion, for all the people who died from dancing and for all the people who never got to dance... “Peabody,” said Thompson sternly, “now that’s enough. Did you really care about the Mayor?” “No! Not about him, not about anybody! But people’s lives are so sad!”... “Bullshit,” said Thompson. “Peabody, there’s something wrong with you. If you’ll stop and think about it you’ll discover you don’t feel sorry for anyone in the whole world, but you don’t dare stop and think.” But as clear as Jansson is about the follies of guilt and abstract compassion, she never holds her characters in contempt. She gives Peabody her due, which is to say she allows her as much of an interior life as every other character (the novel employs roving narrative omniscience with great skill). In a deft shift from third person to first person, a fascinating and somewhat frequent feature in Jansson’s fiction, we get this insight into Peabody's emotional backstory: The smell of wet grass and the sigh of the rain carried her far back in time and she could remember without pain. As always, she thought about her father. She loved him. He took them on a picnic every Sunday...There were too many of us, Peabody thought, and we were too little, and Mama worried all the time—there might be snakes and ticks and it might rain. Papa would run around setting things up. One time when it was cold and windy, he found us a barn. And one time he tried to build us a hut out of pine boughs. But it was too much for him...And then it started to rain, and he gathered us under a huge tree and Mama said if there was lightning, a big tree was the most dangerous place to be. And once I tried to tell her that we liked danger, but I don’t think she heard what I said. Jansson shifts not only into subjective first-person consciousness, but into the territory of -- what else -- childhood. When Peabody remembers her parents, she remembers their anxiety and over-protectiveness, and at the same time, as an old woman, she misses being taken care of by them. She has become helpless and pitiable without them. “She should have remembered that it was always better to leave decisions to other people and not let yourself be misled by compassion. Once again, Peabody had made herself miserable, and there was no one to talk her out of it.” Contrast with Jansson, whose father was a confident, free-spirited sculptor: he kept a pet monkey and all manner of animals in the house, and in the story “The Monkey” (clearly based on her father, for the character is a sculptor), he watches his monkey dash out from under the warmth of his coat and up into a tree in the freezing cold: “[H]e thought, you poor little bastard. You’re freezing, but you’ve got to climb.”  Danger, cold, what have you: you've got to climb. 5. “We say the phrase ‘a happy childhood’ as if it’s a given,” Ohlin wrote, “as if we understand it to be the most desirable thing. But the richly varied experiences of childhood, even at their most positive, must be more complicated than happiness.” In her memoir, Jansson never says, outright, “My childhood was very happy,” or perfect, or ideal, and I wouldn’t guess she thought that. But what we feel, in her descriptions of what it was to be a child, is a stunning directness: unmediated, unprotected, unadulterated by “bad conscience” or anything other than pure life itself. It’s that full range of experience that brings comfort and safety, not being shielded from darkness or ugliness. Jansson respected the fine tuning of a child’s sensibilities: children know better than anyone -- better than they do as adults -- that the world is a dangerous, beautiful, terribly alive place. And a place -- as in stories like “The Storm” and “The Squirrel,” featuring female characters whose conflicts are waged within their own minds -- where one must work things out for oneself, often in pained solitude. I knew all this as a lonely child, and when I finally found literature, those truths were reflected back to me, and I found comfort. Am still finding it. And very much so in Jansson. Thankfully, art may be slow, but never too late. In a rare moment of lyricism, Jansson wrote of storytime with her mother: Through endless forest dark and drear no comfort near a little girl alone did roam so far from home the way was long the night was cold the thunder rolled the girl did weep no more I’ll find my mother kind for in this lonely haunted spot my awful lot will be beneath this tree to lie and slowly die. Very satisfying. That’s how it was when we shut the danger out. That’s how it was.
Post-40 Bloomers

Everything Changes: An Interview With Ronna Wineberg

This interview was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. The Jewish immigrant tale has become a popular American creation myth, especially for readers who came of age in the second half of the last century. It comes fully imbued with hope, bravery, and a retrospective level of assimilative success, not to mention its own handsome national monument -- Ellis Island. The story is well established from a New York perspective. Thanks to a rich written history, from Henry Roth to Chaim Potok to Isaac Bashevis Singer to Betty Smith, most people know at least a portion of the Ellis Island/Lower East Side narrative. But Jews settled in other parts of the country as well: Massachusetts, California, and the Midwest, with a particularly vibrant community forming in Chicago. Yet this piece of the story is still underrepresented in American arts and letters. The names of so many New York born-and-bred Jewish writers are canonical by now: Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, E.L. Doctorow, Cynthia Ozick come to mind without much thought at all; given another minute I could name two dozen more. Coming up with the names of literary Jews who identify their stories of origin with the rest of the United States -- particularly the Midwest -- isn't so easy. Even Chicago's favorite maggid, Saul Bellow, was born in Canada. Ronna Wineberg's recent debut novel, On Bittersweet Place (Relegation Books, 2014), which was excerpted at Bloom this past Monday, takes a familiar narrative -- a large Jewish family flees post-October Revolution Russia to make a better life in America -- and roots it firmly in 1920s Chicago. The story of the Czernitski family, as seen through the eyes of teenage narrator Lena, is both recognizable and slightly strange. There is no Lower East Side, no Garment District. Rather Lena, her brother, Simon, her parents, and her numerous aunts and uncles play out their stories against the backdrop of Michigan Avenue, Independence Boulevard, Bittersweet Place (a real street in the heart of Chicago), the Art Institute of Chicago, the shores of Lake Michigan. Their world is subtly -- but importantly -- different from the one many of us have encountered before in literature. It gives us fresh eyes on a story we think we may have seen before. On Bittersweet Place is as much the coming-of-age story of the Midwest as a diverse and thriving urban center as it is Lena’s. I caught up with Ronna Wineberg to talk about the novel, the history behind it, and, of course, Chicago. Lisa Peet: Aside from having lived there as a child yourself, why did you set Lena’s story in Chicago? Are you familiar with the actual street, Bittersweet Place, or did you pick it for the name? Ronna Wineberg: Most fiction about Jewish immigrants takes place in New York. I wanted to explore a different setting. The Midwest has a specific sensibility, softer than that of New York. I imagined Chicago would be a less harsh place for Lena and her family. And Chicago is a beautiful city. Lake Michigan and the beach are easy to access; I thought they could become part of the story. Also, my mother’s family came to Chicago from Russia. She was the first child born in America. Her parents, older siblings, aunts, and uncles arrived at Ellis Island and made their way to the Midwest. Because of this, it seemed natural to set an immigrant novel in Chicago. An aunt and uncle of mine lived on Bittersweet Place before I was born. I’d heard the name of the street many times and I’d been there; the image stayed with me. When I began writing the novel, I immediately thought of Bittersweet Place as the street where Lena and her family could live. LP: Is there actually a Belilovka, the Russian town Lena’s family escapes from? RW: Belilovka is a real place. My grandfather was born there. However, the events in my family’s history didn’t happen there. I chose Belilovka because of the rhythmic sound of the name. LP: What do you know about your own family’s history? How did it influence or inform On Bittersweet Place? RW: The house where I grew up was filled with visitors, relatives who spoke with thick accents. Although I’m a second-generation American, I felt as if I had a foot in each world. I wasn’t quite comfortable with my family’s immigrant past, and I didn’t quite belong in the world of my American friends either. I knew I wanted to write about this, and once I found Lena’s voice, she led the way. For years, I didn’t know much about my family’s background. When I was in college, some of my cousins and I talked with my mother’s family about Russia. We sat in the living room of my parents’ house and asked questions of our grandparents, aunts, and uncles. We were riveted by their stories and decided to record the conversations on cassette tapes. We interviewed relatives on other occasions, too. The discussions were lively; people disagreed about what had happened in the past. My great-grandfather had been murdered in Russia. My great uncle, a man in his late 60s, described the murder to us and as he did, he cried. That moment stayed with me. The family did flee from Russia, and my grandparents were separated for years because of World War I. I never learned the details of their relationship, but I was struck by the circumstances. The Russian portions of On Bittersweet Place are loosely based on family history. LP: How is the Jewish immigrant story different in the Midwest, and Chicago in particular? How did regional differences shape the trajectory of assimilation? RW: In 1927, over a million and a half Jews lived in New York City. In contrast, the Jewish population of Chicago was 300,000 in 1933, nine percent of the total population. And by 1930, Russian immigrants made up 80 percent of Chicago’s Jewish residents. I imagine that Chicago was an easier place to live than New York, a less aggressive and less overwhelming city. People traveled there, like the characters in On Bittersweet Place, because friends or relatives lived in the city and because economic opportunities were considered good. There were neighborhoods in Chicago with a high concentration of Jewish immigrants, but nothing as densely populated as the Lower East Side. In New York, immigrants lived in many areas, including the Bronx and Brooklyn. There were fewer choices in Chicago. But I imagine impoverished immigrants faced similar challenges in both places -- learning the language, finding work, dealing with prejudice. Established, economically comfortable Jews in Chicago (like those in New York) created institutions to help: Michael Reese Hospital, an old age home, The Society for the Burial of the Dead. Chicago had a thriving community, regional newspapers, theaters, synagogues, and an institute with classrooms, gyms, a library, a synagogue, and a clubroom, where immigrants could learn English. LP: I didn't know that about Michael Reese Hospital, and I was born there! Writing the Jewish immigrant story has such a strong New York tradition as well. Who are some of the writers who inspired or instructed you? Anyone particular to Chicago or the Midwest? RW: Many of the writers who inspired me set their fiction in New York. I was inspired by Anzia Yezierska’s novel Bread Givers. Also by Bernard Malamud’s wonderful short stories. Isaac Bashevis Singer’s work inspired me, especially Shadows on the Hudson, a novel about immigrants who come to New York after the Holocaust, and also his short stories. I admire Grace Paley and Tillie Olsen, their focus on women and ordinary experiences. David Milofsky’s Eternal People influenced me, too. His novel about Jewish immigrants who settle in Wisconsin gave me a sense of the scope of relocation and ways people tried to assimilate or not LP: Lena’s art is a strong vehicle carrying her through her adolescence -- were there any particular artists you had in mind while writing the novel? Or artists’ narratives? (My Name Is Asher Lev comes to mind for me, a huge favorite of mine as a teenager.) RW: My Name is Asher Lev was a favorite of mine, too. I didn’t have a particular artist or narrative in mind while writing On Bittersweet Place. I admire visual artists and have a kind of wonder at what they create. I loved to draw as a child. I wanted to be an artist then, to take art classes on weekends or after school, but this wasn’t possible. I took drawing classes in college and oil painting classes later as an adult. I draw cartoons now and would like to paint again. My interest in art rose to the surface as I wrote the book. Lena’s connection to art deepened with each draft, became an important part of her character, and a vehicle to save her from the difficulties she faced. LP: You started writing when you were working as a legal defender, and now you’re an editor at Bellevue Literary Review. Aside from the knowledge that comes with time and experience, how has that career shift changed the way you feel about your own writing? RW: I’ve become more serious about writing. Law is an unforgiving profession in terms of time. When I was a public defender, I didn’t have time to write in a consistent way. The work was demanding (and very interesting). I couldn’t steal time from a case to write; I couldn’t shortchange a client. My work at the Bellevue Literary Review has helped me become more committed to writing, too. The work has broadened my awareness of the subjects people write and care about and broadened the type of fiction I’ve read. I’ve learned from editing at the journal that writing is truly re-writing and revision shapes a story. And working with the other editors, who are also writers, has encouraged me to think more deeply about the importance of the written word. LP: Bellevue Literary Review is interested in the intersection of medicine and literary language. There is a lot of pathology in On Bittersweet Place—mental and physical illness, cancer, the grandmother’s gradual wasting away, an uncle’s mysterious (but definitely not unearned) death, but the family is very much outside the orbit of modern medicine. Can you comment a bit on that, and do you feel that your work with has BLR influenced the way you look at illness/medicine as a writer? RW: [Lena’s mother] Reesa views doctors with distrust. She doesn’t want her niece to consult a doctor. The family is superstitious: if you don’t go to a doctor, you won’t need one. So much of the characters’ energy goes into surviving and learning about the new culture; medicine and doctors are peripheral unless there’s a crisis. There is pathology in the book, but I view that as the stuff of life, events a child may encounter and try to understand. The BLR has influenced how I look at illness and medicine as a writer. I’ve read lots of stories about the medical world. I’m more aware now of medicine’s triumphs, limitations, and disappointments, of the randomness of life. And I’ve learned that a medical experience or illness in itself isn’t enough to drive a piece of fiction. LP: Do any of the characters from your short fiction collection, Second Language, make an appearance in On Bittersweet Place (disguised or otherwise)? RW: That’s an interesting question. There is a connection between characters in Second Language and On Bittersweet Place. Saul Chernoff, from “The Coin Collector,” was born in Russia. He would have been a friend of Simon’s and played basketball with him. He might even, disguised, be Simon (they both have auburn/reddish hair), but Simon wouldn’t have Saul’s harshness. In the story, “Second Language,” Fay Minskacoff and her husband, Max -- not the same as [Lena’s boyfriend] Max from the novel -- were friends with Lena and Simon when they were young. The story, “The Doctor” has overlap as well. When Mel Hempill was a boy, he and his family struggled and lived in a boarding house. I imagine he grew up in Chicago, possibly near Lena’s family. LP: The novel left me with so many questions about the characters’ futures -- I found I was really invested in them. Where do Lena and Max go from here? What will her family do with their slightly-tainted-but-very-much-needed insurance money? How will her father wrestle with his conscience? What will become of her uncle and aunt, Abie and Ida, who move to Poland at the novel’s end? (This last one breaks my heart a little.) When you finished, were you glad to say goodbye to this family, or do you still think about what will happen to them outside the covers of the book? RW: I’m happy you were invested in the characters. When I finished the novel, I was very sorry to say goodbye to them. Originally, I wrote an epilogue for the book, but decided not to include it. Unfortunately, you are right about Abie and Ida and the two children they will have in Poland. I still think of what will happen to all the characters outside the covers of the book. I imagine dialogue and scenes. For example, Max would have given Lena more of a musical education and told her with exuberance: “Chicago is the jazz capital of America.” I imagine what happens to the characters as the years pass -- where people end up, who dies when -- and also what happens to the city of Chicago. Everything changes. Click here to read an excerpt from Ronna Wineberg's On Bittersweet Place.
Post-40 Bloomers

This Could Be Your Story: On Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves

This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 1. We are a storytelling species, we humans, circled around our archetypal fire, backs to the impenetrable dark and lurking beasts. Before there was fiction as we know it, there were metaphors and myths to help explain where we come from and where we go. Storytelling has always been an antidote to the fear of what we don’t know or understand. Our litany of fears hasn’t changed much over the last 50,000 years or so. We fear death, illness, pain, infirmity. Now that we live into our 80s and 90s, we can add to that list the fear of losing our faculties. On the upside, without this innate horror of death and decline there would be very little art, and surely not much literature. It’s human nature to want to defang the beast, but also to poke it -- to see what our fears are made of. And people want stories -- need them -- more than ever, it seems. Popular storytelling programs like The Moth and This American Life, for example, reassure us that we’re in this together. We’re all going to die; let’s go from there. There is a shadowy twin to that bit of reality: most of us will also find ourselves bearing witness to someone else’s final days -- days that in fact often turn out to be weeks, months, years. Parents, partners, relatives, friends: someday you will watch a person you care about suffer. It’s not so much that last shovelful of dirt on the grave that should terrify us, but emptying all those bedpans. 2. Eileen Tumulty, the central character in Matthew Thomas's debut novel We Are Not Ourselves (Simon and Schuster), has no time for worrying about what she does or doesn’t fear. Born in 1941, to Irish immigrant parents in Queens, Eileen is a clear-eyed striver. Wary of the ways drink and habitual sorrow encumbered her own parents, and confident that she alone is responsible for the life she wants to lead, she concentrates on moving out and up. She works and saves, goes to nursing school, and refuses to succumb to the charms of the local boys, until a friend fixes her up with Ed Leary, a serious young man with a promising career in neuroscience. Within the year they’re engaged. They move from drab Woodside to Forest Hills -- in 1967, a diverse and thriving neighborhood -- and have a son, whom Eileen impulsively names Connell after a visiting friend leaves a copy of Evan S. Connell's Mrs Bridge on the hospital nightstand: “[I]t sounded more like a last name than a first name, like one of those patrician monikers the doctors she worked with often bore, and she wanted to give the boy a head start on the concerns of life.” Eileen understands how the American Dream works: You leave as little as possible to chance. You save your money, educate your children, and take every opportunity that presents itself. Ed, on the other hand, turns down a tenure-track job at NYU because he’d rather teach low- and middle-income students at Bronx Community College, and prefers to keep teaching rather than move up as assistant dean. He’s content in their Queens neighborhood, even as it becomes rougher around the edges, while she wants a home in Bronxville, an upscale Westchester suburb. Ed keeps doing the work he loves, but Eileen eventually gets her house, overspending on a rundown fixer-upper. Around the time of their move, however, Ed begins to act erratically, lashing out at Connell for imagined infractions, mixing up his students’ grades, abandoning home repairs in frustration. Eileen does her best to help him, but eventually decorum and denial can’t compensate for Ed’s inability to function. She takes him for a neurological workup -- even at the doctor’s office swinging between protecting the man she loves and desperate disbelief: "Tell me something. Do you know who the current president is?" If he wanted to insult him, this was a perfect way to do it. She almost wanted Ed to answer sarcastically or deliberately incorrectly, but she didn't want the doctor to have the satisfaction of writing it down on that little pad of his. Ed sat with it; maybe he was coming up with a witty riposte. "I know it's a Republican," he said, "I know that." The diagnosis is early-onset Alzheimer’s; Ed is 51. And so the game changes for the Learys. The American Dream will only take you so far, Thomas proposes, underscoring the novel’s unmistakable subtext: this could be your story. It could be mine. 3. A few days before Christmas 2006, my mother slipped on an icy step and hit her head. She had just finished giving an English lesson to a young Japanese couple; they saw her fall, called 911, and waited outside with her for the ambulance. She blacked out only briefly, and the damage was minimal: a small skull fracture with no cranial bleeding, some spinal trauma but nothing broken. She received immediate and excellent care, and her prognosis was good. Mom was already what I thought of as ditzy -- a little absentminded, sometimes silly, but nothing you wouldn’t expect from someone just short of her 79th birthday. Until a few of years before, she had been commuting into Manhattan daily, working as a bank president’s assistant, and, once she retired, she began teaching English at the local chapter of Berlitz. She read widely and critically, painted and drew, cooked adventurously, and loved going to galleries. But some bad convergence of side effects began to take its toll almost immediately after the accident. The head injury, the inactivity, and who knows what else, slowly shut her down. Her deterioration was typical of all types of dementia: Periods of no change punctuated by small disasters that would reshuffle the deck, forcing us to scramble for solutions. There was no predictable pattern, except for my own near-miraculous capacity to be shocked and dismayed every single time. It wasn’t that I expected her to get better. I just didn’t imagine she’d get so much worse so quickly. It took me years before I could stop thinking, If she would just pay more attention... Though there are countless books, websites, and support groups available, I’ve turned to friends and family -- or rather, we’ve turned to each other. According to the 2014 Alzheimer’s Association Facts and Figures report, one in nine people age 65 or older has some form of dementia; for those over 85 it’s closer to one third. Those numbers translate into a lot of us trying to make sense out of something so senseless. And what we do, for the most part, is tell each other stories. We allow flares of black humor, we invent our own metaphors. This is, I say, like trying to fix a leaky boat in the middle of the ocean. This is, my friend says, like making pencil lines lower and lower on the doorframe. This is, another friend writes, a process of mourning by degrees. Canceling the Netflix account because my detailed DVD-player instructions are no longer enough; taking away the car keys; removing the knobs from the stove. A housekeeper, part-time help, a live-in aide. Each new development is like entries in the world’s worst baby book. 4. Thomas’s portrait of how the disease cuts through lives is on the mark and sensitive; he gets it all right, and anyone who has lived those cycles of denials and acceptance will recognize herself, or someone else. In the period before Ed’s diagnosis, when both he and Eileen are convinced that they just need to try a little harder (If she would just pay more attention), Eileen tells herself, He would listen to her. He had always been good at listening to her. As he got older and more fixed in his fears and habits, she had to shout a little louder to be heard, but once he heard her, if he could stomach what she was asking for, he did what she asked...He needed to regroup, to see new possibilities, to think bigger than ever. If there was anything she could help him with, it was thinking big. Ed’s own resolution, whether for her benefit or his own -- Thomas never approaches the story from his viewpoint -- is that “I've been meaning to spend more time attending to my needs...I've had a cloudy head for a while. I'm trying to get back to basics.” Eileen keeps him at home as long as she can, though a life of careful planning can’t help her here: She spent all morning [at work] worrying about him screwing it up. He needed perfect accuracy to pull it off. If he hit any button other than start, he ended up gnawing on frozen manicotti or choking down cold beef stew. She came home to the time unchanged on the microwave, half the meal on the floor, a broken plate under the table, the Times intact in its sleeve. Even when he is eventually moved to a care facility, she keeps tight control of her own vision -- all that’s left to her: She wasn't visiting. What she was doing was seeing her husband after work. It was simply a part of her day. She was showing them that Ed might be there with them instead of home where he belonged, but nothing else had changed...They had no clue what kind of man had fallen into their lap, but she wasn't going to explain it to them, because they didn't deserve to hear it. It’s a shape-shifter of a disease; as soon as you understand what you’re dealing with, everything changes again. Who can begrudge Eileen her excuses and her bargaining? It’s hard to hit a moving target. 5. People tell me what a good daughter I am, how attentive and patient. I am not, I want to say. I lean too much on my older sister, whine about losing my weekends, dread changing my mother’s Depends in restaurant bathrooms. But I love her enormously, and I show up. Still, I’m not a natural caregiver. I was a good mother, but that was all animal instinct. Otherwise it’s not part of my makeup. I was, frankly, spoiled rotten as a child, never really encouraged to look outward. This was partly because it was the '70s -- awful as the nickname is, the “Me Generation” isn’t too far off the mark -- but also because of the way our family worked. My mother compensated for her own hardships -- she grew up during the Depression with an ill and often absent mother, her first marriage failed, and her second, to my father, was difficult as well -- by throwing herself into mothering me, the much-adored late-in-life baby. I wasn’t literally an only child, but I was raised like one. “Make sure you take care of yourself first,” she always advised me. And I did. My father’s health began to fail when I was barely into my 20s, probably the result of a series of mini-strokes that, coupled with diabetes, progressively disabled him and killed him at age 69. I say probably because I don’t know and didn’t push for more information; I was just out of college, with a new husband, a new baby, and, soon, a new divorce; I had troubles of my own. My dad and I had butted heads when I was an adolescent, especially after my parents divorced, and a whiff of that still clung -- which is to say I was mostly self-involved and selfish. Fortunately my presence wasn’t needed. My father’s partner quit her job and cared for him cheerfully, tirelessly. She was -- and is -- unfailingly kind to me, effectively letting me off the hook for all my deficiencies. But years later, the work of caring for my mother would bring everything rushing in: how emotionally absent I was in my dad’s last years, how thoroughly I failed him. I carry that with me always. 6. And this is what I found deeply admirable about We Are Not Ourselves. Even more than the novel’s scrupulous depiction of Alzheimer’s, I appreciated the fact that neither Eileen nor Connell is a natural caretaker. They stumble through Ed’s first symptoms, his diagnosis, and the long-term management of his illness in very human, recognizable ways. They’re never saints; never martyrs. They have no choice but to play out the hand they’ve been dealt, and they’re not always graceful about it. For all Eileen’s experience in caring for others, she has never quite mastered the art of compassion -- the luxury, she would say. Having been scornful, as a teenager, of her mother’s late-in-life immersion in AA -- “the down-and-outers...who'd wrecked their lives and slipped into a spiral of regret” -- Eileen believes the issue “wasn't negative thinking, it was too little positive thinking on the part of everyone around her.” Ed’s illness forces her into something resembling a Twelve-Step program of her own, with its requisite admissions of powerlessness. But she never quite loses her hard edges; they’re what’s kept her going all these years. And poor Connell is a mess, his protracted middle-class adolescence in constant opposition to his father’s needs. He stays out late or doesn’t come home at all, leaves a barely functioning Ed home alone so he can go out with friends. He’s not callous, just conflicted and a bit spoiled. Eventually he rises to the task, but we wince -- in my case, in sympathy -- at how long it takes. I didn’t know enough, when my dad became ill, to fear my own selfishness. These days, though, the worry follows me around. I’m a good daughter now, while my mother still recognizes me, while she’s still at home and we can sit on her couch and look at pictures of the great-grandbabies on my phone. But what about the next phase, and the ones after that? Will I do the right things? Will I still be able to resurrect my love for the person she’ll become, and will I honestly feel it? It would be reductive to call We Are Not Ourselves an “Alzheimer’s novel.” Among other things, it’s an elegy for the middle class in urban America, and for the social mobility we insist on believing in. And it offers a lively portrait of a changing New York. Still, Matthew Thomas does his readers a great kindness in giving us Eileen and Connell’s complicated love for Ed, their good intentions and their mistakes: he offers up benevolence in the form of a story. Sometimes you just go through the motions. Sometimes you just show up. We Are Not Ourselves isn’t literary group therapy. But it spotlights a dark place that most of us can count on visiting at some point -- and shining that light on our collective fear is what a novelist, often, does better than anyone. Click here to read Bloom's Q&A with Matthew Thomas.
Post-40 Bloomers

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s Burst of Sicilian Sun

This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. I respond to sun, but then I come from Minnesota and had years of being disappointed by northern California with its indeterminate weather and freezing surf. I’m overdetermined for life in Africa. I love the sun bursting up every day of your life like some broken mechanism. —from Mating, by Norman Rush 1. In her introduction to Stephen Twilley's new translation of short works by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, recently released by New York Review of Books Classics, Marina Warner writes of the “sensuous plenitude...encrusted and sumptuous” in Il Gattopardo -- Lampedusa’s only novel, and the masterpiece for which he is best known. Of “The Professor and the Siren,” the title story of the new collection, Warner writes: Lampedusa is placing himself as the heir of an imaginative literary legacy running back to the pagan past, when Christian repression and hypocrisy did not exercise their hold but instead life was bathed in a luminous intensity and heightened by guilt-free passion. I wrote about Il Gattopardo a few years ago and considered what it was that drew me to it -- the story of an aging Sicilian nobleman, a dying breed caught between old and new worlds. At that time, I attributed my affinity for both the novel and Luchino Visconti's well-known film version to the Prince of Salina’s independence of soul -- a “certain energy with a tendency toward abstraction, a disposition to seek a shape for life from within himself and not what he could wrest from others.” After reading “The Professor and the Siren,” I see now that it was also the Prince’s lust for life -- sensual pleasures, feminine splendor, the sweltering sloth of his wild and rugged Sicily -- and his sense of loss with the coming of more pragmatic times that captivated me. Like the narrator ofNorman Rush's Mating, who was “overdetermined” for life in Africa, you could say that I -- product of an evangelical Christian upbringing and Korean heritage of stoic endurance -- was overdetermined for Lampedusa. His elevation of natural appetite as an ideal, and his vision for unity between body and spirit in their fullest expressions, radiate from the page. When I read Lampedusa the sun bursts up indeed, thawing all of that deeply seeded “puritanical horror,” as Warner puts it, and reconciling life forces that, as Lampedusa attempts to show us, were never meant to be opposed. 2. The tragedy of his literary late blooming is now the stuff of legend: Lampedusa, himself the last prince of a noble Sicilian family (Il Gattopardo is based on his great-grandfather), began writing in his later 50s and died of lung cancer at age 60 before Il Gattopardo's publication. The novel had been rejected by publishers while he was still alive, and thus Lampedusa died under the impression that his art was mere trifling, the failed scribblings of a dilettante. An earlier translation of “The Professor and the Siren,” entitled “The Professor and the Mermaid” and collected with a short memoir and the opening chapter of a second novel (a sequel to Il Gattopardo that he did not live to write), was published by Pantheon in 1962. The memoir, Places of My Infancy, was written at the prompting of his wife, a psychotherapist; she suggested the project as a way of mourning the loss of his treasured childhood home, which had been destroyed during the 1943 bombing of Palermo. In his introduction to the 1962 collection, E.M. Forster called “Places of My Infancy” exquisite -- perhaps not surprising coming from the author of Howards End. I admit that I found the piece initially off-putting: it puts so much distance between the author and the common reader as we get young Giuseppe’s impressionistic vision of his idyllic, rarefied kingdom: On the veranda, which was protected from the sun by great curtains of orange cloth swelling and flapping like sails in the sea breeze...my mother, Signora Florio (the “divinely lovely” Franca), and others were sitting in cane chairs. In the center of the group sat a very old, very bent lady with an aquiline nose, enwrapped in widow’s weeds which were waving wildly about in the wind. I was brought before her; she said a few words which I did not understand and, bending down even farther, gave me a kiss on the forehead...After this I was taken back to my room, stripped of my finery, re-dressed in more modest garments, and led onto the beach to join the Florio children and others; with them I bathed and we stayed for a long time under a broiling sun playing our favorite game, which was searching in the sand for the pieces of deep red coral occasionally to be found there. That afternoon it was revealed that the old lady had been Eugénie, ex-Empress of the French, whose yacht was anchored off Favignana. But to be fair, Lampedusa wrote these reflections for himself only; they were never revised, and he did not intend them for publication. He felt free to recall the fullness of his privilege: “For me childhood is a lost paradise. Everyone was good to me -- I was king of the home.” Beginning with the sensory richness and extravagant security of childhood was his way of exploring love and loss, the two most universal experiences. For some though, it may be hard to resist lacing Lampedusa’s biography with light mockery: “[W]hat on earth was he doing with his life anyway, and why didn't he get down to writing earlier?” Julian Barnes's imagined interlocutor posits in a 2010 article in The Guardian. “The non-literary answer: not very much.” What Barnes means by “not very much,” however, is that Lampedusa spent most of his adult life (aside from strolling to Pasticceria del Massimo for breakfast in his tailored English suits then stopping in at Flaccovio booksellers before finally settling in for the day at Café Mazzara) immersing himself in literature -- reading, studying, discussing with friends, teaching. By one account he made over 1,000 pages in notes to prepare a year-long English literature course for his nephew and a friend. Lampedusa’s eventual success at portraying a layered, multi-caste society at a time of great social upheaval is testament to the power of literature to shape the imaginative and emotional capacity of a devoted reader, no matter how sheltered his daily life. Much like Chekhov -- who, unlike Lampedusa, did have direct experience of various social strata -- Lampedusa’s narrative eye is both convincing and impressive as it roves among each segment of Sicilian society, from royalty to upstart revolutionaries to the new-moneyed precursors of the Mafiosi. 3. The short story “Joy and the Law,” for example, is a taut gem of a tale, the effects of which echo Chekhov’s best stories about peasants and functionaries (Gogol's “The Overcoat” also comes to mind): in the days leading up to Christmas, an unnamed accountant brings home to his family an enormous, fancy loaf of sweet bread, bestowed upon him by his employer. Ramping up to epic proportion the acuteness of aspirational want, Lampedusa portrays the accountant’s fog of self-deceit as a necessity for survival: [E]uphoria now welling up inside him, rosy and bright...What joy for Maria! What a thrill for the children...His personal joy was something else entirely, a spiritual joy mixed with pride and tenderness...And nothing could have dampened that invigorating sensation...nothing, not even the abrupt realization deep in his consciousness that it had come down to a moment of scornful pity for the neediest among the employees. He truly was too poor to permit the weed of pride to sprout where it could not survive. It is the wife, Maria, who matter-of-factly bursts the accountant’s bubble: she states the obvious, that the pannetone is “nothing but charity,” and deems that it must be sent to a lawyer to whom they owe a token of gratitude. The man must now spend additional money to courier the sweet bread to the lawyer, and on top of that, the package becomes lost. The reader grows as desperate as the accountant, filled with the anguish of futility and injustice. Will the universe so cruelly dash the protagonist’s hopes? the reader wonders. Then, the last lines of the story: After Epiphany, however, a visiting card arrived: “With warmest thanks and holiday wishes.” Honor had been preserved. The reader exhales momentarily, only to realize the bait-and-switch that Lampedusa has so skillfully performed: Honor? When did the story become about honor? When The Law entered, that’s when -- in the form of proper social commerce. The cost of this honor was joy, and the story conveys beautifully and tragically the universal right of the human soul to “spiritual happiness mixed with pride and tenderness,” not to mention “a respite from anguish.” Despite his privileged life, Lampedusa did not, it would seem, take such simple joys for granted. Thus the decision on the part of NYRB Classics editor Edwin Frank to collect “Joy and the Law,” but not “Places of My Infancy” in this volume results in a different impression of the author from the earlier volume. The new collection effectively counters what Archibald Colquhoun, translator of both the original English-language version of The Leopard and the 1962 Pantheon collection, described as a less-than-full embrace of Lampedusa’s success in its time -- On the members of the new Italian literary establishment the book has had a different impact; it has become a bogey, for the success of Il Gattopardo, so different in outlook from most Italian postwar literature, seems to them a sign of decadence -- as well as a 1998 article in The Economist: Italian Marxists saw his aristocrat heroes as evidence that the novel was right-wing and its author a man with no sense of progress. Much of the literary Left condemned the novel as worthless because it was neither progressive nor avant-garde. (I posed the question of curatorial selection to Frank in an email, and he revealed that his intention was simply to collect all of Lampedusa’s short fiction, which meant excluding the memoir.) Whether or not literary readers today are as concerned with an author’s socio-political outlook as they were in the early 1960’s, there will surely be much in Lampedusa’s short work that appeals to the contemporary reader -- for example the way his voracious literary autodidacticism is reflected in the “mashup” quality of “The Professor and the Siren,” which, Warner points out, brings together elements of Greek myth, the poetry of Keats and Dante, Sicilian folklore, and perhaps too Boccaccio and One Thousand and One Nights. 4. The eponymous professor of the NYRB collection’s centerpiece story is Rosario La Ciura, world-renowned scholar of Greek literature, longtime Sicilian senator, and author of Men and Gods, “recognized as a work of not only great erudition but of authentic poetry.” The narrator is Corbera di Salina, a journalist and, incidentally, sole surviving descendant of Lampedusa’s lusty Prince, il gattopardo. When the professor and the journalist meet, La Ciura is 75 years old and Corbera a young man. The seedy café in Turin that the two misanthropes frequent sets the stage for Lampedusa’s otherworldly tale: It was a sort of Hades filled with the wan shades of lieutenant colonels, magistrates, and retired professors...submerged in a light that was dimmed during the day by the clouds and the arcade outside, during the evenings by the enormous green shades on the chandeliers...It was, in short, a most satisfactory Limbo. Corbera is the pre-formed, peripheral first-person narrator that readers will recognize -- the Nick Carraway, the unnamed narrators of Bolaño's “Sensini” or Sherwood Anderson's “The Other Woman.” Over a period of months, the two develop a friendship of sorts -- La Ciura rails on subjects ranging from the “rubbish I happen to be reading” to the “squalid aspirations” of young men like Corbera vis-à-vis the female sex; Corbera attempts to speak his mind while also suspecting the great man’s profound unhappiness. One day, the professor summons the younger man to his home, where Corbera sees a photograph of the professor in his youth -- “with a bold expression and features of rare beauty...The broken-down senator in a dressing gown had been a young god.” Corbera then invites La Ciura to his own apartment, where he serves the old man fresh sea urchins, about which La Ciura had previously ranted: They are the most beautiful thing you have down there [in Sicily], bloody and cartilaginous, the very image of the female sex, fragrant with salt and seaweed...They’re dangerous as all gifts from the sea are; the sea offers death as well as immortality. The professor prepares to depart for a conference in Portugal and summons Corbera for a final visit; here we begin our ascent to Lampedusa’s allegorical summit. “I’ll have to speak in a low voice,” La Ciura says, and we appreciate his -- and Lampedusa’s -- theatricality, as the young journalist and the reader are drawn deeper into both comprehension and mystery. “Important words cannot be bellowed.” 5. The peak -- of La Ciura’s earthly existence, of the story, of all spiritual incarnation, Lampedusa proposes -- is one of pure eros: purely sensual, youthful, uncivilized. The professor’s beloved is Lighea, a siren, as much animal as human and monstrously beautiful, serene, insatiably loving. She comes to him one summer in his youth from the Sicilian sea. Their consummation lasts three weeks, and during that time the professor becomes enlightened to true pleasure, “devoid of social resonance, the same that our solitary mountain shepherds experience when they couple with their goats.” La Ciura dares Corbera to be put off by the comparison, such repulsion revealing only that “you’re not capable of performing the necessary transposition from the bestial to the superhuman plane.” Lighea is all body and all spirit, powerfully attuned: From her immortal limbs flowed such life force that any loss of energy was immediately compensated, increased, in fact...She ate nothing that was not alive. I often saw her rise out of the sea, delicate torso sparkling in the sun, teeth tearing into a still-quivering silver fish, blood running down her chin... Not only did she display in the carnal act a cheerfulness and a delicacy altogether contrary to wretched animal lust, but her speech was of a powerful immediacy, the likes of which I have only ever found in a few great poets. As Marina Warner points out, Lampedusa is not interested in supplanting reason with passion, but rather reclaiming a native unity. “Lampedusa aims to fashion a coincidentia oppositorium at many levels,” she writes. “[S]upernatural and natural, unreal and material, monstrosity and beauty, animal and human, ideal love and lubricious delight.” And this is evident throughout the story in his language: beauty and blood, “insolence” and “detachment,” the professor’s gnarled hands which caress with “regal delicacy” a page in a magazine that bears the image of a Greek statue. When Corbera serves the sea urchins, the professor “consumed them avidly but...with a meditative, almost sorrowful air.” The story’s interests are thus transparent, its purposes straightforward -- though, to my mind, no less affecting for it. Lampedusa’s passion for unity of soul and body startles and moves us; in hearing the professor’s tale, Corbera in part lives it and is changed, as are we. 6. But will the general reader agree? Perhaps it depends on one’s pre-determinations. The narrator of Mating in the above epigraph likens the African sun to a “broken mechanism.” But as they say, one person’s junk is another person’s treasure: “broken” if four distinct seasons is your norm, perfectly functional if you’ve come from extreme cold and gray. In Lampedusa’s case, we can deduce that his own deepest longings were for what he had known and lost -- the magic of his childhood -- as well as for what, as he wrote this last story, he had not achieved: transcendence via entry into the pantheon of literary artists. The result, in “The Professor and the Siren,” is a tale at once pessimistic and optimistic: La Ciura can find no worthy pleasure or meaning in earthly life after his experience with Lighea, and yet in the end he joins her, answering her call to the underwater world deep below, “where all is silent calm...in the blind, mute palace of formless, eternal waters.” Light and darkness seem also to color Lampedusa’s literary stature: Il Gattopardo won Italy’s Strega Prize in 1959, two years after his death, and has sold well over 3 million copies worldwide; but we’ll never know what the second novel, Il Gattopardo's sequel, might have been. The fragment published in both the 1962 and current NYRB collections under the title “The Blind Kittens” does reveal that Lampedusa’s eye continued to focus on Sicilian society and the epic desires of common men. Colquhoun opined on the possibility that Il Gattopardo itself was a kind of lesser preview of the real novel Lampedusa meant to write -- would have written -- had he started sooner: “Is the novel peaks, in a more or less continuous range, of a vast submerged book that was never completed?” Broken or functional, incomplete or fully realized, decadent or democratic...I am glad for Lampedusa’s sumptuous, if scant, work, so nearly kept from us by both Lampedusa’s late start and publishers’ tastes. And while the professor’s vast book collection “slowly rots” in a university archive following his descent into the sea, Lampedusa’s small body of work bursts up like the sun, reviving those of us primed to respond. Click here to read an interview with NYRB Classics editor Edwin Frank and translator Stephen Twilley.
Post-40 Bloomers

Kiran Nagarkar: Language, Lore, and Lack of Sales

This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 1. Indelible reading experiences are thrilling but rare; in the summer of 1997, I was lucky to have two. An arts foundation in Maine had given me a tiny grant that allowed me to return to India, where I’d been a Fulbright scholar a few years earlier. My official purpose was to do follow-up work on my Fulbright project interviewing Indian women writers. Unofficially, I spent a lot of time reading. Arundhati Roy was not yet one of India’s best-known authors, although that would change by the year’s end once she was awarded the Man Booker Prize. The God of Small Things had just been published, and I read it in half a day, lying on my bed in Pune as afternoon turned to evening, not even pausing to turn on the light. When I finished, I felt it would surely be the most transporting book I read that summer. A month or so later, I arrived in the eastern state of Orissa, visiting a generous writer who had invited me to stay for nearly a week. This turned out to be a bit long for both of us, and I found myself sent frequently to my room to rest. I didn’t mind. Kiran Nagarkar's 600-page historical novel Cuckold had also come out that summer, and it was my boon companion that week. The initial plan was to read 100 pages a day, which seemed reasonable until I actually started. The first day went well. On day two, however, I had to force myself to put the book down after another 200 pages. On day three, I abandoned my plan entirely and finished it in a gulp. I can no longer remember what I read over the rest of that summer. What I do know is that Cuckold remains one of the most satisfying reading experiences of my life. In the years since, I’ve revisited both books. With The God of Small Things, the emotional power diminished on second read; Cuckold, on the other hand, was as satisfying the third time as the first. If Roy’s novel is finely wrought and tragic, Nagarkar’s is bold and bawdy. But hardly anyone has heard of it. It’s not that Cuckold has gone completely unrecognized -- it won the 2000 Sahitya Akademi Award for the best novel in English, one of India’s most prestigious literary prizes. But it was never published outside of India, and even there didn’t draw the critical reception Nagarkar hoped for -- not poor reviews, but rather hardly any at all. To its loyal fans, Cuckold will always be a brilliant novel that didn’t receive its due. There may be hope, however. In the past year, The New York Review of Books has republished Nagarkar’s first English-language novel, Ravan and Eddie, as part of its NYRB Lit e-book series (Sonya Chung wrote about them for Bloom in February). And I write this, at least in part, as a fervent plea that Cuckold will be next. 2. Born in 1942 into a westernized liberal family in Bombay, Nagarkar grew up speaking both English and Marathi, the language of the state of Maharashtra, where Bombay is located. Except for his first four years of primary school, his education was entirely in English, and he studied English literature in college. The surprise, then, is not that he chose to write in English, but that he’s written fiction in Marathi at all, which he calls “perhaps one of the happiest accidents of my life.” The “accident” presented itself when Dilip Chitre, a friend and fellow writer, was recruiting work for his father’s Marathi journal, Abhiruchi. Nagarkar submitted a brief story, which was published. He went on to write his first novel, which came out in 1974, in Marathi as well. Saat Sakkam Trechalis (translated in English as Seven Sixes Are Forty-Three) was a partly autobiographical story about a young writer making his way in the world. With its unconventional narrative style, Saat Sakkam Trechalis brought Nagarkar early acclaim and was pronounced a landmark work in Marathi literature. Nagarkar followed his novel with the play Bedtime Story in 1978. Based on several stories from The Mahabharata, it addressed the question of modern responsibility in an era of political crises, including the Vietnam War and the Indian Emergency. The play was savaged by the censors -- 78 cuts in a 74-page play -- and protested by various right-wing Hindu groups; Bedtime Story wasn’t staged in India until 1995. He went on to work as a professor, a journalist, a playwright, screenwriter; and, primarily, in advertising. He did not, however, publish another book until 1994, and when he did, it was written in English. This was not his original intention: Ravan and Eddie began as a Marathi novel, morphed into a screenplay for a movie that never got made, and eventually became Nagarkar’s first English-language work. The Marathi critics who had hailed his first book took this as a betrayal. Nagarkar addressed this openly in his Sahitya Akademi award speech, explaining that when Ravan and Eddie was first published, The publisher sent 36 review copies to various Marathi newspapers and journals. Not a single review of the book has appeared...It slowly became clear to me that I must have committed an unmentionable crime, a crime that was beyond forgiveness...for if you don’t acknowledge an author’s work, it ceases to exist. Tensions between Indian authors writing in English (which, among other things, grants them access to Western audiences and advances) and those writing in regional languages are perpetual and understandable in a country with 23 official languages and many more unofficial ones. In an essay entitled “A Suitable Text for a Vegetarian Audience: Questions of Authenticity and the Politics of Translation,” anthropologist Rashmi Sadana raises some of the key issues that Nagarkar’s bilingual writing career creates: Nagarkar’s predicament, and his forefronting of it at the Akademi, is a fairly straightforward example of the way literary writing in English is seen not only as being less authentic than vernacular, or bhasha literature, but also, more specifically, as a betrayal of a particular linguistic community by one of its own...[F]rom the purview of most bhasha literary communities, to write in English is to reject willingly (and perhaps willfully) part of one’s Indianness. Nagarkar himself has little patience with those who criticize him for writing in English, which he calls his “second mother tongue”: “The critics always made me feel like I did something I was not supposed to do.” He has not published fiction in Marathi since. His Anglophone career has now spanned 20 years. After Ravan and Eddie came Cuckold in 1997, God's Little Soldier in 2006, and The Extras in 2012 (a sequel to Ravan and Eddie, published after an 18-year interval). No one can say that Nagarkar doesn’t do things on his own terms. 3. On the surface, Nagarkar’s first two English novels don’t have much in common. Ravan and Eddie is set in the Bombay of the 1940s and '50s, and its two eponymous main characters are sworn enemies -- who clearly should be friends -- growing up in the same chawl (a Mumbai tenement). Cuckold, on the other hand, is set in 16th-century Mewar, now part of the state of Rajasthan but once an independent and powerful kingdom. What both books share is Nagarkar’s joyous use of language, as well as his humor -- and the ability to shift between comedy and tragedy in short order. He is also particularly adept at managing large casts of characters. In a wonderful piece in The Caravan, Anjum Hasan writes of Nagarkar’s “ability to create those voluminous and self-contained universes that we are familiar with from 19th-century novels but rarely encounter today. A striking aspect of those Tolstoyan and Dickensian worlds is that there is always more in them than is strictly needed for the purposes of keeping a story going.” In Ravan and Eddie, the narrative shifts between their viewpoints, but the reader is also introduced to other families living in the chawl, as well as various neighborhood characters. And throughout the novel, Nagarkar steps back to include brief essays on subjects of interest. There is “A Harangue on Poverty,” “A Short Digression on Snow,” (by which he means Afghan Snow fairness cream) and “A Not So Short and Utterly Unnecessary History of Romantic Comedies in Hindi Films in the 1950s and 60s” on the occasion of Ravan selling his school books and stealing his mother’s jewelry in order to go see the Shammi Kapoor film Dil Deke Dekho 17 times. There is no question that Ravan and Eddie is an accomplished, entertaining novel, but Cuckold is more ambitious in both size and scope. It’s a love story, a war story, and a family story, whose origins come from centuries of lore and a bit of known history: in the early 16th century, a princess from the kingdom of Merta was married to the eldest son of the Rana of Mewar. In the early years of her marriage, she scandalized her in-laws -- and made herself beloved to the public -- by declaring her love for the god Krishna in the most passionate and earthly terms. For Krishna she sang and danced, composing poems and songs known and loved to this day. The princess -- Mirabai -- is considered one of the most significant poets and saints in the bhakti (devotional) tradition. At the true center of Nagarkar’s tale, though, is the prince she married, the Maharaj Kumar, about whom hardly anything is known. Told by his wife on their wedding night that she is promised to another, he is the cuckold of the title, in love with his wife who is in love with Krishna. But that is only part of the story. He is also the eldest son of a one-armed, one-eyed aging king, with multiple younger brothers vying for the throne, and is a wonderfully sympathetic character - a testament to Nagarkar’s skill, since in addition to his civic interests he is also leader of the Mewar army, specializing in brutal guerilla warfare. The scene where his men lead thousands of Gujarati soldiers -- and their horses -- to their deaths in a quick-sinking bog is particularly gruesome. The novel is mostly narrated by the Maharaj Kumar himself, interspersed with occasional third-person sections about his relationship with his wife, who is never called by her name but only the Princess, the Little Saint, Greeneyes. Some of Nagarkar’s loveliest prose comes in these passages. Here, the Princess is back in her own home for the last time after her wedding: She knew what she had to do on this visit. She must brand in her memory the images of her village, of her house, of her horse, of her favourite people, of the well, of her father and grandfather and aunts, of the god in the temple, of the sands and the trees and the kumatiya, khajri and kair of the desert. And the sound of the school bell and the sound of a sandstorm and of rain hissing into the sand, her aunt beating the water out of her hair with a thin towel, the bucket at the well hitting the water some hundred feet below. And the smell of the sun burning the sand, of dry kachra frying in oil and spices, the powdery, bleached smell of her father’s armpit when he came back from a long day of surveying their lands, the fierce smell of the kevda leaves in their garden. All these she must etch on her memory. They would have to last her a lifetime. This green-eyed princess is not a simple saint. She may go into ecstatic trances while singing to her beloved Krishna, but she is politically savvy, devoted to her earthly husband in her own way, and a terrible cheat at cards. While it might sound like a quintessential “boy book” (battles, strategy, infighting among brothers over the crown), one of Cuckold's strengths is its complex female characters (just as in Ravan and Eddie, where the mothers of the title characters are as memorable as their sons): the princess, of course, but also Kausalya, the prince’s first lover and trusted advisor; and Leelawati, granddaughter of the Jain finance minister, the woman who is the prince’s most fitting match and one he can never marry. As in the best historical novels, Nagarkar creates an engulfing, vividly peopled world, entirely convincing in its multitude of details. And he does it in modern language, which he announces in his preface: “One of the premises underlying this novel is that an easy colloquial currency of language will make the concerns, dilemmas and predicaments of the Maharaj Kumar, Rana Sanga, and the others as real as we ourselves are caught in.” The story may be taking place long ago and far away, but Nagarkar makes sure that we are right there with him and with his characters, and he doesn’t let us go. 4. Reading Nagarkar, it’s hard not to notice two things -- the exuberance of his language and the patience of his storytelling. Cuckold, at 600 pages, is a hefty work, but he also spends more than 800 pages over two books chronicling the lives of Ravan and Eddie. Small wonder, then, that in more than 40 years he has only published five novels. Nagarkar has said in multiple interviews that he doesn’t want to do the same thing twice. And in challenging himself as a writer, he is challenging his readers as well, tackling religion, history, and current events no matter who might take offense. Ravan and Eddie, with its portraits of Catholics and Hindus living (literally) on top of each other in multicultural Mumbai, was criticized as being both anti-Catholic and anti-Hindu. Nagarkar is fatalistic about the success of his writing career, joking that he is in the “Guinness Book of [World] Records for the worst sales of a book ever,” but he also holds himself -- and other writers -- up to high standards and doesn’t believe in resting on his laurels. “You are only as good as your next book,” he told an interviewer in 2006. So far, he has not disappointed.
Post-40 Bloomers

Paolo Sorrentino: Old is Young, and Late is Late

This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 1. “Most atrocious words; most beautiful words,” says Aloise Lang, a former Nazi prison guard, in Paolo Sorrentino's 2011 film This Must Be the Place.  Lang is referring to the letters that a survivor of the prison camp wrote to him for years and years -- a fixated expression of rage in response to a particularly demeaning incident involving Lang.  “I hated your father,” the nonagenarian Lang says to Cheyenne, the has-been rockstar protagonist of the film, “because his obsession with me made my life impossible.  But I have to say that he completely won me over: the unrelenting beauty of revenge; an entire life dedicated to avenging a humiliation.  That’s what I call perseverance.  Greatness, even.” Greatness and beauty. Sorrentino -- a Naples-born university drop-out who made his first feature film when he was 31, and who at 43 won last year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar -- is himself obsessed with these two driving forces of life: his most recent film is in fact called The Great Beauty.  And, as Lang’s words imply, Sorrentino is interested in churning up the strange and unexpected ways that beauty and greatness are achieved, discovered, expressed.  His films are filled, for example, with close-ups of faces—sagging, leathery faces, often caked on with makeup and lit brightly -- aging, lumpy bodies, baldness and bifocals, bad teeth and stubby hands.  For Americans, Sorrentino’s images work like reverse brainwashing, antidotes to Halle Berry-esque perfection.  Even youth (e.g. a fat kid singing The Talking Heads’s “This Must Be the Place” painfully off-key) is portrayed as “ugly,” or, in Sorrentino’s vernacular, strangely epic and beautiful. I mention Sorrentino’s age -- his relative youth, for an artist so accomplished -- because what I have found most intriguing in his work is the character vehicle he’s chosen, time and again, for his explorations: the aging male in his unlovely twilight.  There is the washed-up pop singer Antonio Pisapia in Sorrentino’s debut feature One Man Up; the apparently imperturbable, heroin-addicted exile Titta di Girolamo of The Consequences of Love; the reptilian usurer Geremia in The Family Friend; the compellingly creepy politician Giulio Andreotti -- aka Il Divo -- in his final act after 20 years in power; goth rocker Cheyenne (played by Sean Penn in red lipstick, black-kohl eyes, and Elvira hair), estranged from family, self-exiled in Dublin; and finally Jep Gambardella, the 65-year-old bachelor journalist from The Great Beauty who published one acclaimed novel in his 20s but then never wrote fiction again.  All of these protagonists (three of whom are played by the inimitable Tony Servillo) are in danger of withering or sputtering out, and none too gracefully.  In most cases, hard and ugly living has caught up with them, one way or another, and melancholia is setting in. It may be worthwhile at this point to consider Sorrentino’s sense of tragic irony: there is a scene in This Must Be the Place where Cheyenne tells the granddaughter of Aloise Lang -- a pretty waitress who has just informed him that his burger is overcooked and that, well, That’s life -- You know what the problem is, Rachel?  Without realizing it, we go from an age where we say, “My life will be that” to an age where we say, “That’s life.” Inherent in Sorrentino’s fixation on old age -- from the perch of his own comparative young age -- is a fundamental irony, cruel and comical: if you can figure out how to grow old, how to face your deterioration and eventual death, then you will have figured out how to live.  The irony being, of course, that by then it’s too late.  “Better late than never,” says Rachel to Cheyenne, after he shares the revelation that his recently deceased father probably did love him after all. “That’s not true!” he shouts in response (one of the few moments in the film when the depressive, whispery Cheyenne raises his voice).  “Late is LATE!” 2. But it wasn’t too late for Sorrentino, at age 40 and on the heels of his breakout international success Il Divo, to publish his first novel.  Hanno tutti region -- published in 2010 and translated, in 2011, as Everybody's Right once again features an aging male musician, Tony Pagoda, at its center.  The novel opens in 1979: Tony, 44 years old, lounge singer extraordinaire, is performing with his band at Radio City Music Hall.  Frank Sinatra himself is in the audience and comes backstage. The meeting is anticlimactic and mildly humiliating, and Tony, already on the road to drug-addled disillusionment, goes on a particularly bad bender, which leads to a full-on mid-life crisis and much high-octane philosophizing.  And off we go along with him. Fans of Sorrentino’s films know them for their stylish visual density and inventiveness.  It seemed unlikely that such technicolor exuberance would translate verbally, but ultimately it does -- like in this description, which precedes Tony’s wife Maria asking for a divorce: This is a fantastic period in terms of work, I’ve just made it back onto the long wave of positivity, success is snuggling around my hips like a hula hoop that just won’t stop spinning, I feel like a Texas majorette, radiant with a gleaming smile, an epitome of vivacious well being, the cupola of my cathedral, the central nave running broad and straight to the main altar of joy and before long the big tour’s going to kick off and I’ll be seeing even less of this little house of terror than I do right now. Or this one, which I quote in small part (it continues for two full pages): I have made love underwater with at least sixteen female creatures, I’ve gone at it hot and furious in a rubber dinghy in Force 6 seas, I’ve enjoyed kept women, shopgirls, whores, second-rate novelists, lesbians, swarms of coeds studying accounting, a few students from classical high school, red armies of hotel chambermaids, a Czechoslovakian gymnast, more than one Danish farm girl, mothers on unemployment unencumbered by any interests amidst their vast boredom, pharmacists with an unhealthy enthusiasm for cocaine, and vegetarians who came close to unnerving my erection with vaporous clouds of incense scattered throughout the apartment, I’ve fucked the wives of everyone I know and even a stunningly vulgar helicopter pilotess, as well as two nursery-school teachers at the same time during playground time... Throughout the novel, Sorrentino indulges in similar over-the-top maximalism -- in some ways surprising for a filmmaker whose scripts lean toward laconic and aphoristic, but not so much when considering the ways visual energy might morph into verbal. Tony’s story is excessive and vulgar and violent and often funny, and, at surprising moments, profoundly moving.  We meet Tony when he is jaded and knowing; everything is familiar, and fake, and cliché: Now they’re talking about why a calzone is better than the classic Margherita pizza...You work like a mule to transport your music outside of a certain narrow parochial regional context, and then it’s the Neapolitans themselves who are the first to roll around on the floor wrapped like fashion models from the seventies in a transparent veil of the worst stereotypes. It’s the ability to be surprised -- to perceive and experience the unexpected—that Tony can’t afford to lose, lest his life become utterly predictable and meaningless. Whether it’s the delightfully shocking way that a prostitute positions herself, or the gentle way in which a drug kingpin rescues him from crossfire, or a glimpse of his own ability to feel compassion and tenderness, Tony needs to be regularly knocked off of his ironic, been-there-done-that perch.  These small moments throughout the novel keep both Tony and the reader hopeful, the narrative energy fueled by bits of subversion that Tony doesn’t see coming. And in this way, Sorrentino continues to play with his theme of life’s cruelty: in middle age, Tony often thinks he’s experienced and wise, but in fact it’s this confidence in the ironic perspective that betrays his youthful foolishness.  The ability to change, to doubt oneself and see things anew -- an idea that risks sentimentality -- is something Sorrentino cares about: “When you’re a kid,” Cheyenne muses thoughtfully in This Must Be the Place, “it’s very hard to back off of your decisions.” It’s this tug-of-war between the ironic and the sentimental -- style and emotion, expression and moral imagination -- that characterizes all of Sorrentino’s work.  Sorrentino wants it both ways, and I personally love that about his vision: young and old, feeling and knowing -- we want the whole human experience, all the time, don’t we?  In his response to a bit of speechifying from Gegè, an elderly friend, Tony says: You just have to know how to say things...You have to know how to say them, either to scare people, or to move them to emotion.  That, to my mind, is the gift that Gegè had given us: fear and emotion, without distinction. Through his visual and verbal styles alike, Sorrentino works hard at both scaring his viewers and readers -- with ugly living and old age, melancholia and violence and death—and at making them feel something.   In an authorial wink to the reader, Tony says: I never go to the movies.  When the show is over, outside the theater the fragility of normal existence awaits you.  This brutal, violent acceleration makes me suffer like a poor man among poor men.  It makes me feel as if I’m outside of the life I’d like to belong to for good.  The life you see in the movies. Outside, it’s all just one huge rape. Scary, indeed.  If the movies, if a novel, can scare you this much, then perhaps they can awaken you from the safe slumber of know-it-all irony and encourage you toward living, feeling, being open to wonderment and change. “There are at least three lives, maybe four,” Tony says to his wife.  “It’s the only concept that’s going to help both you and me stay alive.” 3. In an essay on Sorrentino’s oeuvre at The London Magazine blog, George Hull argues that Sorrentino’s otherwise accomplished films are marred by the filmmaker’s “persistent failure of nerve.”  In Il Divo, Hull argues, “Sorrentino seems to capitulate to conventional wisdom at the last moment, falling in with the dismissive attitude to Andreotti which the rest of the film shows is too simplistic.” In The Family Friend, he “plucks a hideous but fascinating truth from the undercurrents of moral awareness” but then “his hand falters, and he throws it back.”  And the final scene of This Must Be the Place, according to Hull, is “emblematic only of Sorrentino’s last-minute capitulations to conventional wisdom.”   In other words, Sorrentino is not afraid of moral ambiguities and existential darkness; but he seems to delve in already determined to find his way out.  The question, I suppose, is whether Sorrentino -- via his characters -- earns his way out, or whether, as Hull implies, there is too much of the artist imposing his will upon the works’ final minutes. In the case of Il Divo, I think Hull has it exactly wrong: the fact that “the last words are given to Aldo Moro...a striking phrase describing Andreotti [as] ‘indifferent, leaden, absent, cocooned in his dark dream of glory,’” does not negate the fascinating portrait, rendered in Sorrentino’s densely exuberant signature style, over the course of the previous 100 minutes.  It seems to me that it is not Sorrentino, but the viewer, who may choose to walk away from the film interpreting the ending as a simple either/or position—either Andreotti was a good man, or a bad one -- as opposed to the extravagantly destabilizing both/and experience that Sorrentino has crafted.  As A.O. Scott wrote in The New York Times, Sorrentino has specialized in “character studies of specifically Italian dysfunction, in which surrealism becomes a form of verisimilitude in its own right...hyperbolic, garishly theatrical and rigorously faithful to the historical record -- completely unbelievable and pretty much all true.” With regard to This Must Be the Place, on the other hand, Hull may have a point: in Sorrentino’s English-language debut (produced by the Weinstein Company), there is a disappointing feeling at the very end of the film that he has made an American movie, about an American rock star, going on an American road trip, and in the end having a good old-fashioned epiphany demonstrated via hair cut and costume change.  (As for The Family Friend, I regret that I have not yet seen it: pre-2008 Sorrentino films have yet to be released, in any watchable form, in the US.) But in the novel, Sorrentino returns to his mode of hyperbolic verisimilitude: having fled Italy and his life of debauchery for Brazil, Tony passes 20 years in a kind of cartoonish fast-forward. By some absurdist Rip Van Winkle-esque quirk, when he returns, Tony literally has no idea what’s happened in Italy over the past two decades. His former bandmates fill him in on what’s happened to Rita, an acquaintance with whom he had shared a complex and authentic moment, years before: That pokered-up rummy playing friend of yours, Rita Formisano, one day she opened the window and threw herself out of the fifth-floor window in her housedress.  The awning of the fruit vendor downstairs broke her fall, so it didn’t kill her, but now she’s a paraplegic, confined to a wheelchair for life...Her son, Alberto, isn’t even thirty years old and he’s been arrested three times: pandering and procurement of prostitution. And, when he goes to visit the last truly beautiful woman he knew and loved, Antonella, he finds her: deranged and delirious, bucking and tossing the words she speaks in a rodeo of some new and incomprehensible grammar, scattered headlong by psychopharmaceuticals, swollen like a weather balloon, ravaged by irregular corpulence, humiliated by varicose veins and stretch marks that look like stab wounds... Rita, Alberto, and Antonella meant something to Tony, and the reader has come to care about them; the delivery of their brutal fates feels perfectly nervy.  There is beauty, and there is sorrow, vitality and deterioration.  There is really no such thing as better or worse, no use in being sentimental. Late is not better than never, late is late. And, as it turns out, youth and age -- like beauty and ugliness, greatness and relentlessness --have a lot in common. I discover in the night that old age and youth possess extraordinary, unexpected points of contact.  Like all great pains and sorrows.  Old age and youth focus relentlessly on sorrow and melancholy.  With the same intensity.  With blind vigor. Through Tony, and through all his unlovely aging males, Sorrentino seems to suggest that no matter where we are in life’s journey, there is the extraordinary, the intense, the relentless, the unexpected: for the old and for the young, greatness awaits us.
Post-40 Bloomers

Sergei Dovlatov: Gravity, Levity, and Love

This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 1. In response to being dubbed “troubadour of honed banality,” Sergei Dovlatov wrote, in 1982, to his friend and publisher Igor Yefimov: “I am not offended.  For truisms are in unusually short supply these days.”  Of his childhood, he claimed, “I didn’t collect stamps, didn’t operate on earthworms and didn’t build model airplanes.  What’s more, I didn’t even particularly like to read.  I liked going to the movies and loafing.”  On the relationship between body and soul, he wrote: “It seems to me that it is precisely the physically healthy who are most often spiritually blind...I myself was a very healthy person, and don’t I know about spiritual weakness!” It is typical of Dovlatov to riff on his all-around underachievement. In a chapter in his novel The Suitcase called “The Finnish Crêpe Socks,” about his student years in Leningrad, he wrote, “The university campus was in the old part of town.  The combination of water and stone creates a special, majestic atmosphere there.  It’s hard to be a slacker under those circumstances, but I managed.”  In relation to Soviet bureaucracy, he affected a remedial disconnect from reality: “No point in arguing.  But of course I argued.’’  Time and again throughout his nonfictional fiction, Dovlatov’s stand-ins deprecate the writer’s path: “As for me, it’s never been clear, exactly, just what my occupation is”; “I gave [my books] out to my friends, along with my so-called archives”; “Generally speaking one should avoid the artistic professions.” And in the family-life realm, he describes his relationship with his wife thus: “We were both chronic failures, both at odds with reality” and “We didn’t raise our daughter, we merely loved her.” This last comment is perhaps most revealing of Dovlatov’s modus operandi: the “merely” is both superciliously ironic and earnestly regretful. A few years ago, when I first starting reading and writing about Dovlatov, I focused on the wickedly humorous side of Dovlatov’s deadpan -- “a Russian David Sedaris,” as David Bezmozgis put it.  But a few years later, and a few more books into his body of work, I find myself more interested in that earnestness and regret -- in Dovlatov the evolving man and artist, who crafted and, yes, honed a version of himself in his fiction that was just distorted enough to be true.  And truth -- moral, spiritual, artistic -- was in the end for Dovlatov no laughing matter. As easily as he mocked the writer’s profession, for example, writing for him was both a matter of compulsion and survival, born -- as we learn in The Zone, his autobiographical novel about working as a prison guard in a Soviet camp -- out of near-despair: Awful things happened around me.  People reverted to an animal state. We lost our human aspect -- being hungry, humiliated, tortured by fear. My physical constitution became weak.  But my consciousness remained undisturbed.  This was evidently a defence mechanism.  Otherwise I would have died of fright. When a camp thief was strangled before my eyes outside of Ropcha, my consciousness did not fail to record every detail... If I faced a cruel ordeal, my consciousness quietly rejoiced.  New material would now be at its disposal... In fact, I was already writing.  My writing became a complement to life.  A complement without which life would have been completely obscene. 2. With the release this month of the first English translation of Dovlatov’s 1983 novel Pushkin Hills, it seems especially important to have read The Zone -- to retain a sense of Dovlatov’s more direct tone, uninflected by irony or absurdism, in one’s “consciousness,” to use his own word.  “Like everything Dovlatov wrote,” James Wood writes in the Afterword to the new translation, “Pushkin Hills is funny on every page.”  This is certainly true of Pushkin Hills, but The Zone, I would argue, is an exception.  The absurdity of life in a Soviet prison camp is reported via Dovlatov’s signature sharp eye and ear but is markedly absent the levity.  Constructed as a metafiction in which Dovlatov the author, now an émigré in New York City, delivers the novel to the publisher Igor Yefimov piecemeal, as a result of censorship (“a few courageous French women...were able to smuggle my work through customs borders”) -- The Zone alternates between camp narratives and personal letters to Igor; and in it, we find a level of existential seriousness unmatched in his other work.  In a letter to Igor about halfway through the book, he declares: I am sure now that evil and good are arbitrary.  The same people can display an equal ability for virtue or villainy... For this reason, any categorical moral position seems ridiculous to me... Man is to man -- how shall I put it best? -- a tabula rasa To put it another way -- anything you please, depending on the conjunction of circumstances. For this reason, may God give us steadfastness and courage and, even better -- circumstances of time and place that are disposed to the good. In the most chilling, and in my opinion most personally revealing of the narratives in The Zone, or any of his work for that matter, Dovlatov (the character is called “Bob” by the other guards) encounters a prisoner named Kuptsov, a tough-guy drifter. Dovlatov is both enraged by and drawn to Kuptsov: “You’re going to work, or you’ll perish in the isolator.  You’re going to work, I give you my word.  Otherwise, you’ll croak.” The zek looked at me as though I were a thing, a foreign car parked across from the Hermitage.  He followed the line from the radiator to the exhaust pipe.  Then he said distinctly, “I like to please myself.” And that instant: a mirage of a ship’s bridge above the waves. Then later: “You’re one man against everyone.  Which means you’re wrong.” Kuptsov said slowly, distinctly and severely: “One is always right.” And suddenly I understood that this zek who wanted to kill me made me glad, that I was constantly thinking of him, that I couldn’t live without Kuptsov...that he was dear and necessary to me, that he was dearer to me than the camaraderies of the soldiers which had swallowed the last pitiful crumbs of my idealism, that we were one.  Because the only person you could hate that much was yourself. And I also felt how tired he was. The story ends with Dovlatov encountering an emaciated Kuptsov yet again, squatting by a campfire, not working.  By then, Kuptsov has been in extended solitary confinement.  Dovlatov browbeats him again about working, then forces him to hold an axe and swing at a tree trunk.  Instead: Kuptsov stepped to the side.  Then he slowly got down on his knees beside a tree stump, set his left hand on the rough, gleaming yellow cut wood, then raised the axe and let it fall in one swift blow. The story ends with a prisoner shouting at Dovlatov: “What are you standing there for, you dickwad?  You win -- call the medic!”  Dovlatov is stunned by his own capacity for sadism as well as Kuptsov’s purity of conviction, “one man against everyone.” Who is prisoner, who is guard?  Who is protector, who is criminal?  In a letter to Igor, he writes, “Anyhow, I don’t write about prison and zeks.  What I wanted to write about was life and people.” Ridiculous things do happen in prison camp, but in The Zone, Dovlatov is more interested in the poignancy of that absurdity than the humor. 3. All this is crucial background to Dovlatov’s more humorous work.  In the story “The Driving Gloves,” Dovlatov is recruited by a second-rate Swedish journalist to perform the role of Tsar Peter the Great in a satirical underground film.  At the film studio, the props guy turns out to be someone who remembers Dovlatov from the camps. “Remember the isolation cell in Ropcha?” “Yeah.” “Remember the convict who strung himself up on his belt?” “Vaguely.” “That was me.  They pumped me for two hours, the bastards. “ The former prisoner furnishes Dovlatov with a kitschy Tsar outfit, and then as they part ways, he says, “When I was inside, I wanted out.  But now, if I have a few drinks, I start missing the camp. What people!  Lefty, One-Eye, Diesel!” Out of context, it’s a quirky one-liner delivered by a ridiculous minor character, but as readers of The Zone, we feel the chilly implications:  what is freedom, anyway?  The film intends to take up the same question, its climax showing Peter the Great melodramatically dismayed by modern Leningrad: “What have I done?...Why did I ever build this whorish city?”  And Dovlatov himself is contending with his own post-prison imprisonment: his agreeing to the role in the first place has to do with his aimless ways, his alcoholism, and his wife’s perpetual disapproval. Dovlatov’s darker experiences and depths also help us to understand his “bloomer” journey. If his comfortable childhood made him a loafer, and his years as a prison guard woke him up to his writer’s call, then the years following unfolded as a period of delays and false starts as he struggled to make good on that calling.  These were years characterized by heavy drinking and lack of money, piles of unpublished writing, and eventually “intense harassment” by Soviet authorities.  Finally, at age 40, reunited in Queens, N.Y., with his wife and daughter who had emigrated without him, The Compromise was published in the U.S., by a small Russian émigré press. In the mid-1980s, The New Yorker ran several of his stories in English, and English translations of his books began appearing, including A Foreign WomanOurs: A Russian Family Album, and The Suitcase.  None of his work was published in Russia until after his death in 1990 (after the fall of the Soviet Union). 4. But I don’t mean to be a killjoy.  The “sparkling” humor that Wood references, “jokes, repartee, and this writer’s special savage levity,” are what excited me about Dovlatov’s work in the first place. Indeed, hilarity -- in the form of both drunken and sober dialogue, along with deadpan one-liners -- splashes every scene in Pushkin Hills.  I only want to alert readers to the additional dimensions of Dovlatov’s oeuvre, numerous and equally rewarding.  There are, for example, his powers of physical description -- most often in the form of short, clipped sentences, wry and sharp. But then every so often we get a feast of Dovlatovian observation: He had taken a seat in the way police officers, provocateurs and midnight guests do, with his side to the table. The lad looked strong. A brick-brown face towered over a wall of shoulders.  Its dome was crowned with a brittle and dusty patch of last year’s grass.  The stucco arches of his ears were swallowed up by the semi-darkness.  The bastion of his wide solid forehead was missing embrasures.  The gaping lips gloomed like a ravine.  The flickering small swamps of his eyes, veiled by an icy cloud, questioned.  The bottomless, cavernous mouth nurtured a threat. The cousin got up and extended his left hand like a battleship. There is also his fine attention to the natural world -- the ways in which nature both enacts and reflects human fate, simply, directly -- which I noticed especially in Pushkin Hills: Morning.  Milk with a bluish skin.  Dogs barking, buckets jangling... and Jackdaws flew through the clear skies. Fog spread over the marsh, at the foot of the mountain.  Sheep reposed in grey clumps on the green grass...Yellow sand stuck to my boots, wet from the morning dew.  The air from the grove carried chill and smoke. Last but not least: the more you read Dovlatov, the more you appreciate his particular romanticism -- most frequently expressed in his obsession with his wife, Lena (pronounced “Yenna”).  In Pushkin Hills, the Dovlatov persona, Boris Alikhanov, has become confused about both his family life and his writer’s vocation. He drinks too much and his debts have piled up, so he escapes to the Pushkin Hills Preserve, where he works as a tour guide, paying (humorously false) homage to the great poet Alexander Pushkin for the benefit of pilgrimaging tourists.  The place is a sort of island of misfits, replete with memorably eccentric characters (including a depressive tour guide whose storytelling is so robust that “tourists fainted from the strain”), and Boris begins to settle in nicely. But just as he begins to return to his writing, own up to his creditors, and detox from vodka, his wife (technically former wife, but it matters little), named Tatyana in this version of events, shows up. By “this version of events,” I refer to Dovlatov’s notable revisiting and revising, through his metafictions, of the story of how he met his wife; how they came to be married; and the ways in which her almost supernaturally unflappable temperament, and their life together, perplex him utterly.  Pushkin Hills offers yet another version of their relationship -- two others appear in “The Colonel Says I Love You” (from Ours) and “A Poplin Shirt” (from The Suitcase) -- in which they meet at an artist’s party.  Here’s how Boris tells it: Tatyana rose over my life like the dawn’s morning light.  That is, calmly, beautifully, without encouraging excessive emotions.  Excessive was only her indifference.  Her limitless indifference was comparable to a natural phenomenon. They leave the party together, she invites him up to her apartment, they talk, she serves wine. There was a pause, which in a situation like this could be fatal... As strange as it may seem, I was feeling something like love. Where did it come from?  From what pile of garbage?  From what depths of this wretched, miserable life?  In what empty, barren soil do these exotic flowers bloom?  Under the rays of which sun? Some art studios full of junk, vulgarly dressed young ladies… Guitar, vodka, pathetic dissidence...And suddenly -- dear God! -- love. Tatyana suggests they “just talk.”  Boris says, “In theory, it’s possible.  In practice -- not really.”  And then, we get: Then it was cramped, and there were words that were painful to think about in the morning...And that’s how it all began. And lasted ten years. In “A Poplin Shirt,” Lena appears on his doorstep as an election canvasser.  He invites her in for tea, then they go to the movies (neither feels like voting), and then off to meet some writers and eat dinner. Elena Borisovna astonished me by her docility.  Or not docility, exactly -- more a kind of indifference to the realities of life...Deciding that Mother was asleep by now, I turned home.  I didn’t even say, “Come with me,” to Elena Borisovna.  I didn’t even take her by the hand.  We simply found ourselves at home.  That was twenty years ago. And finally, in “The Colonel Says I Love You,” Lena appears in his life almost magically.  He wakes up in the middle of the night after a drunken evening and finds someone sleeping on his couch: “Who’s there?" “Suppose it’s Lena.” As it turns out, one of Dovlatov’s buddies had brought her to the communal apartment and then forgot about her.  Dovlatov showers, Lena gets dressed, they have breakfast.  Lena leaves, but first she says, “I’ll be here around six.”  She returns that evening; and she never leaves. In all three versions, his wife’s “limitless indifference” (also referred to as “extreme imperturbability”) puzzles him to the point of exasperation and sometimes rage.  But then there are moments, mysterious and ecstatic, like the “dear God!” revelation above, or in “A Poplin Shirt,” when he finds a picture of himself in her photo album: I suddenly realized the seriousness of everything.  If I was only now feeling this for the first time, then how much love had been lost over the long years? I didn’t have the strength to think it through.  I never knew that love could be so strong and so sharp. There is just one instance, a real-life event that is also repeatedly revisited in Dovlatov’s work, when his wife sheds her indifference: she decides that she and their daughter must emigrate to America.  In Pushkin Hills, when Tanya announces this to Boris, it undoes him. Boris drinks alone in his locked room for 11 days.  He begins to hallucinate; then runs out of money and booze; then pulls the blankets up over his head.  Finally Lena calls, from Austria, saying they are fine.  Boris asks if they will see each other again, to which she replies, “Yes...if you love us...” Dovlatov ended “The Colonel Says I Love You” with essentially the same exchange. And in both endings, both stories, the same rejoinder from Dovlatov:  “What has love got to do with it?  Love is for the young...It’s beyond love.  It’s fate...” Lena remains mysterious to both Dovlatov and to the reader. And yet the reiterations and re-explorations of her presence in his life speak to something as real as a jackdaw in the sky, an exotic flower, or even yellow sand stuck to a boot.  Lena keeps Dovlatov both honest and on his toes: “You can’t be an artist at the expense of another human being...These are just words. Never-ending, beautiful words...I’ve had enough.” (Pushkin Hills) Lena was not interested in my stories. I’m not even sure she had a clear idea of where I worked...My wife would just pick up the nearest book and read from wherever it opened.  That used to anger me.  Then I realized that she always ended up reading good book...(“A Poplin Shirt”) “To love publicly is obscene!” Dovlatov shouts at his colleague on the Preserve, who is needling him to explain why he loves Pushkin. And while Dovlatov does not attempt to “explain” love, his efforts to understand it -- not to mention the novel’s epigraph, To my wife, who was right -- evidence a singular and permanent homage to Lena. 5. Comparisons to Hemingway are not unfounded: Dovlatov was a big, burly man, dark-haired and mustachioed.  He was physically driven (a boxer in his younger years), a heavy drinker, a journalist.  Both served in the army and saw unimaginable violence.  “With your vices you should be a Hemingway at the very least…,” Tanya says to Boris in their last argument before he heads for Pushkin Hills.  Boris claims to disdain Hemingway’s writing, and yet, among his very few possessions is “a picture of Hemingway.” [caption id="" align="alignright" width="98"] Hemingway.[/caption] [caption id="" align="alignright" width="102"] Dovlatov.[/caption] But the differences are marked: to my mind, those years in the prison camp -- where he confronted (and eventually recorded) the humanity he found in the darkest corners of existence, including his own -- along with his lifelong union with the imperturbable Lena, set him apart from the more unmoored Hemingway.  By the time he produced the work that brought him critical acclaim, Dovlatov’s moral center -- that is, his way of seeing and rendering human failure -- was fully developed: he knew what he was capable of, and he knew his limitations. He had a closeknit community in Russian American New York, and a family he did love.  Perhaps, like Boris, he wrestled with spectres of “unrecognized genius,” but he was also able to poke fun at the idea of genius itself, along with the rest of life’s disappointments and absurdities.  Hemingway grew darker and more tormented in later life; Dovlatov died young, of heart failure, but he wrote 12 books in the last 12 years of his life. A more apt comparison would be Chekhov, from whom some critics say the clarity and detachment of his narrative voice was descended. If Chekhov believed that “Man will become better when you show him what he is like,” Dovlatov was perhaps murkier on what “better” meant or looked like. Yet still he observed and rendered his fellow man with the same unflinching equanimity: whoever you are, whatever you’ve done or will do, you are worth my attention, my consciousness, on the deepest spiritual level. And what has love got to do with it? In an interview at the Paris Review with Dovlatov’s daughter Katherine -- “Katya,” who beautifully translated Pushkin Hills -- she reveals: It had to be perfect. And my English is nowhere near my father’s use of the Russian. He honed his craft. He wrote slowly and painstakingly...It was a huge responsibility. I did not want to let Dad down. As for Lena, her mystique remains intact.  When asked what her mother thought of the translation, Katherine says: “She tells me she liked it. She thought it read well and was funny.”  You can just see Lena’s face: in Dovlatov’s words,  “untroubled as a dam,” serenely holding back the flood of lives lived.
Post-40 Bloomers

Deadlines, Word Counts, and Magnificent Lies: On Hesh Kestin

This piece was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 1. Just as an artist needs to identify his light source before beginning a painting, a writer looks for a narrative power source -- what sets the story in motion, or what obstructs it.  Perhaps no writer is as concerned with the minutiae of power and motivation, its shifts and upheavals, as a journalist -- someone who has covered politics, wars, and uprisings here and abroad. Not to mention a journalist who was successful in his field for years, who always met his deadlines and word counts, and who ultimately decided to leave the profession entirely in order write his own truths. Thus it’s tempting, but not entirely correct, to ascribe Hesh Kestin's literary sensibilities to habits he picked up during his 20 years as a correspondent for Newsday, The International Herald Tribune, and Forbes. In fact, even as a youngster he was the kind of kid who paid close attention: to his neighborhood dynamics, people on the street, the books he read. It no doubt behooved a boy growing up across the street from the headquarters of Murder, Inc. -- the Brooklyn Mafia’s Jewish enforcement arm -- to keep his eyes open. Kestin’s father, a devoted reader in half a dozen languages (though not English) would take Hesh along on weekly sojourns to the Brooklyn Public Library and its large collection of Yiddish books. This wasn’t purely paternal on his father’s part; adults were allowed six books a week, but with the boy’s card he could check out four more. Nevertheless, Hesh became a book lover himself before long. He reclaimed his library card and immersed himself in worlds far from his own mean streets: the Midwest of Homer Price, wisecracking Freddy the Pig in his barnyard, the romance of Walter Farley's Black Stallion novels, and Giovanni Guareschi's Don Camillo books, set in Italy. His father would quiz him on what he was reading -- characters, plots, what the authors were trying to say -- and as he told Three Guys One Book: By the time I was nine we were deep into literary criticism, a cross-generational, cross-cultural approach that can best be understood by my father’s throwaway remark that “In literature a horse is never merely a horse.” By then I had managed to convince the librarians that I “needed” more than four books a week, and so back and forth we marched, every Saturday, in sun, rain and snow, each of us carrying our six-book limit, both of us arguing structure, character and nuance as though the noisy urban streets around us were not only silent but hardly seemed to exist. 2. Kestin gave college a try, but it didn’t take. Instead he bounced around from coast to coast, taking work in newspapers when he could get it -- he was writing obituaries for The New York Herald Tribune at 20 -- and hanging loose in Mexico in between. In 1967, at the age of 23, he was the youngest reporter on staff at Newsday. He was tapped to cover the civil rights movement as it morphed into Black Power, thanks at least in part to his growing up in East New York -- “all the other reporters were actually physically afraid of ‘Negroes’; me, I was afraid of the suburbs”: This was the period of the Harlem riots, on the second day of which my editors presented me with a white motorcycle helmet, just the thing to wear to a civil insurrection. I told them they should have painted a bull's-eye on it...On another occasion when I had set up a meeting with the leadership of the local Black Panthers my bosses insisted I take along a bodyguard, a young Irishman who weighed in at 280.  When we got to the address, a rundown house on a dark street in a dark neighborhood, he wouldn't get out of the car. Kestin was itching to escape Newsday, and that May, realizing that the Middle East was on the brink of war, he decided he ought to be reporting from Israel when it broke out. He applied for a passport immediately, but when the Six-Day War ignited on June 5, he was still waiting. Adding insult to injury, Newsday sent him into local neighborhoods to report on the Jewish reaction: “A color story...All I could think as these people voiced their pride was: What the fuck are you so proud of? You’re ready to fight to the last Israeli. People are dying.” He visited Israel the following year. “People ate in the streets, had bad table manners, and as a matter of course spoke loudly and repeatedly -- and [I] felt: these are my people.” By 1970 he was married, and he and his wife moved to Israel, to a small village a few miles inland from the Mediterranean. Kestin joined the Israel Defense Forces, tended the orange grove on his property, raised five children, and wrote novels. He had finished his first, Small Change, when he was 23, and it was bought and slated for publication until he balked at changing the title to Season of Lust. The book was never published, nor were the next three. Eventually, as he puts it, “the noise of the hungry bellies of my kids used to keep me up at night.” So he got a real job, this time as a war correspondent -- for, as it turned out, Newsday. He went on to hone his journalist’s craft at Forbes. While his three published books -- two novels and a collection of novellas -- are vastly different in style, plot, and setting, reviewers consistently praise Kestin’s economy of language, and it’s easy to see where the habit came from: Forbes never heard about long-form journalism: A typical story might be 500 words, a single magazine page with room for headline and illustration. A writer might approach the incomparable Sheldon Zalaznick, then managing editor, with an absolutely factual exclusive proving the world would end next Thursday, and after selling him the story (over a couple of martinis), Shelley might say, “OK, give me 750.” Shelley’s mantra was as brief and pure as its meaning: “Just gimme the cream.” Kestin trotted the globe as a foreign correspondent for another 20 years. When the opportunity presented itself, he started his own daily paper, The Nation (no relation to the American journal), which was eventually sold out from under him and merged with its competitor, The Jerusalem Post. Rather than return to work as a foreign correspondent -- he suspected that his foray into publishing had rendered him persona non grata in Jerusalem -- he went to Paris, as a consultant for The International Herald Tribune. But consulting work moved too slowly for his tastes, and he ended up back in New York, publishing a weekly English language paper, The American, for expats abroad. When that folded, he was offered a plum job at the helm of a new daily. And then, 10 years ago, he walked away from the business entirely. As he puts it, “Hell, I was approaching 60. Wasn’t it time to do some real work?” 3. Kestin’s first work of fiction, Based on a True Story, is a collection of three novellas that take place in vastly different locations -- Mombasa, Polynesia, and Hollywood -- through the eyes of very different characters: a young female codebreaker from London’s Bletchley Park, an itinerant Russian Marxist, and a gay black screenwriter. Their tales couldn’t be more divergent either. What they have in common, however, is that they all take place in the early months of World War II. Kestin follows his own advice here: “Write from what you know, but not about what you know...when I write I am acutely aware of the tactile memory of places I have been: permeated by the recollection of sounds and scents peculiar to one spot or another, and knowledge of its light and weather, it all comes back.” So when he offers up the observations of Sgt. Joan Ferrin of the Royal Canadian Airforce on her accommodations in Mombasa, set in a year when he hadn’t yet been born, I believe them wholeheartedly: Our duty room was full of flying creatures, from gnats and mosquitoes to a dependency of bats that lived in the rafters and preyed on a madrassa of praying mantises, each as long as a hand. For variety, the occasional snake slithered in to escape the heat, and a troupe of spider monkeys infested the grounds outside. Boredom was endemic. And likewise, when the very British Lord Braithwaite asks Ferrin, “What do your people do?” her confusion as to whether he means her father’s profession or her dietary habits as a Jew needs no exposition: “Was he talking of my people or my people? Never mind. I was to answer.” Kestin’s dialogue is consistently spot-on, and he doesn’t pad the action. In the title piece, Based on a True Story, when the B-movie Hollywood mogul EZ Shelupsky tells his scriptwriter, “Either tell me what’s on the boat or get the fuck personally out of my office,” the man’s speech tells us pretty much all we need to know about him. And the transgressions of Grisha Zabrodny, who has been hurriedly exiled to Tahiti in The Man Who Kissed Stalin’s Wife, need not be called out explicitly; the title takes care of that. What the three stories do share is their concern with power and how it’s instituted and wielded, all against the backdrop of the darkening global situation. History does a lot of the heavy lifting here, but Kestin does the rest, and together they tell a larger story: that while we can now look back on the Second World War and the events leading up to it, in 1939 the big picture was still made up of fragments. Everyone was a blind man with only his or her portion of the elephant to navigate by. Based on a True Story was published by Dzanc Books in 2008, and the following year, Dzanc brought out Kestin’s novel The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats -- a terrifically genre-bending noir coming-of-age tale of Jewish gangsters in 1963 New York, all set against John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Its narrator, 20-year-old Russell Newhouse, has clearly borrowed a few pages from the life of young Hesh Kestin -- the photo on the cover is in fact Kestin at 20 -- but it diverges into a wonderfully complicated series of plots and subplots involving the eponymous Shoeshine, whose given name is actually Shushan, and a host of supporting characters. Cats is one of the great protagonists of contemporary fiction: A thug off the Brooklyn streets who is also an autodidact, quoting de la Rochefoucauld to a couple of hapless policemen and attributing lines of F. Scott Fitzgerald's to his late mother. In one exchange, Shushan explains to Russell, “[P]ulling a trigger, that’s a whole different dimension. That’s why I vote for Wystan Hugh Auden as head of the joint chiefs. Ginsberg, he’d make a great leader of the Corps. These are guys they don’t back down in the face of bad news. Although, let me tell you, Wystan is not the kind of guy who’ll let on what he thinks. Should be in the Mafia.” “You can tell that from reading him? How do you know what he thinks other than what’s in his--” I stopped. “Wystan?” “You want to meet him? Miserable son of a bitch, but like I say, he’d make a fine general...A general and a poet are exactly the same in one thing. What they do they have to do with critical efficiency. Not a word or action wasted. And the action has to be more important than the man who creates it. You know Yeats?” “You knew Yeats too?” “Of course not. Yeats died fucking I don’t know forty years ago. I know Auden because he plays poker.” The dialogue ranges from hard-boiled to whimsical, but through it all run Kestin’s musings on strength and influence: who has it, who gains it, who gets to keep it. As enjoyable as the novel is, it’s also dead serious. Kestin grew up around Jewish gangsters who, in the wake of long-term, institutionalized discrimination and the machinations in Europe, took back their power where they could. Kestin’s most recent novel, The Lie (2014), veers in an entirely new direction. It’s a fast-moving, tense thriller, set in contemporary Israel. Kestin kept busy—and presumably employed—as a freelancer writing screenplay treatments between novels, and he uses that to his advantage here. But calling the book cinematic takes nothing away from its literary muscle. For a man who says he prefers to let his characters surprise him, he’s written a tightly plotted story, a political game of nerve with some seriously charismatic special ops for good measure. The Lie is really a series of lies, ranging in scope from national to small and deeply personal. His protagonist, Dahlia Barr, is an Israeli Jewish human rights attorney who has made it her business to represent Palestinians. When she is persuaded to work for the Israeli Police force arbitrating the use of “extraordinary means,” she finds herself caught between extreme political factions and family tensions. Kestin brings the action alive through details both mundane and exotic; we learn, for example, that Israelis refer to the Arabs disparagingly as “cousins,” in reference to their common ancestors, and that cockroaches aren’t kosher. He also paints a vivid picture of life in an everyday war zone: In the commercial street below, the chaotic stream of Beirut traffic plunges ahead like a river flowing down from the Litani mountains, now a rapids, now obstructed, now a broad pool...Shop owners stand still as monuments outside open-fronted stores that will soon be sealed with roll-down steel grates from two to four p.m. and then for the night after seven -- none of the shops is fronted with glass. Glass has not worked all that well in central Beirut. As in all thrillers, there is a payoff; to say more would be unfair to future readers. But Kestin is clearly having fun here. 4. In fact, he’s enjoying himself with all his books. His decision to walk away from a stable career in order to write fiction may not have been a simple one, but it’s obviously been rewarding for Kestin and his audience alike. And all those years of writing copy -- when he needed to size up a situation at a glance, to communicate a complex hierarchy without spelling it out, and to let the reader in on his source of light in 500 words -- were surely well spent. Yeah, sometimes I miss being able to pick up a phone and get some prime minister or other miscreant on the other end of the line, sometimes I miss walking out of chaos with a compelling story, and sometimes I hate sitting in a little room compelled to make stuff up, even with the hope other people might one day read what I write with joy, sadness or just plain excitement. But nothing beats writing magnificent lies, one after the next, about people who up to that moment do not exist.  At its best, journalism is craft.  But fiction is art. Or should be. In Kestin’s case, it is.