The city was blackened, burned to completion. No sign of life. Not a hobo nor trollop, tourist nor knishvendor. Cars swimbled with ash, heavy with parkingtickets. Never to be paid nor contested, no weary fist shaken at the judge’s vacant robes.
"All war literature, across the centuries, bears witness to certain eternal truths: the death and chaos encountered, minute by minute; the bonds of love and loyalty among soldiers; the bad dreams and worse anxieties that afflict many of those lucky enough to return home." In an omnibus review for The New York Times Michiko Kakutani looks at the fiction and journalism being written about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including recent Year in Reading alum and National Book Award winner Phil Klay's Redeployment and Dexter Filkins’s The Forever War, "the one book that most fluently and kaleidoscopically captures both the micro and the macro of Iraq." She also wonders, and attempts to explain, "why has there been no big, symphonic Iraq or Afghanistan novel?"
Halfway through Howards End, E.M. Forster describes a certain elm tree as a living symbol of that elusive quality called Englishness. "It was neither warrior, nor lover, nor god," Forster writes:In none of these roles do the English excel. It was a comrade, bending over the house, strength and adventure in its roots, but in its utmost fingers tenderness. To compare either house or tree to man, to woman, always dwarfed the vision. Yet they kept within limits of the human. Their message was not of eternity, but of hope on this side of the grave.The British novelist Philip Hensher's expansive new book, The Northern Clemency, seems at first to be steering by a quite different set of literary lights. Its coal-country setting (Sheffield: "the city that had made fire out of water") recalls D.H. Lawrence, while a whiff of moorish bleakness harkens back to Hardy. Beneath these provincial trappings, however, Hensher has undertaken project as sophisticated - and, in its essential conservatism, as stealthily radical - as Forster's. Tracing the lives of two families through a quarter century of recent history, The Northern Clemency aims for nothing less than an old-fashioned anatomy of regional and national character.Hensher's formidable technical gifts are on full display in the novel's opening section. The plot alternates between the Glovers, who are hosting a party for their Yorkshire neighbors, and the Sellerses, late of London and soon to take up residence in the house opposite. Meanwhile, at the level of point-of-view, Hensher works a more rapid set of changes. As the party lurches toward its inglorious end, and as the Sellerses drive north, his "free indirect" third person narration flits gracefully among a host of family members and assorted hangers-on.This canny layering of exterior and interior achieves the effect of an architectural cutaway, illuminating both solid surfaces and buried complexities. On one hand, both the Glovers and the Sellerses are typical, even representative, of their time and place. The party is "a good party, like other parties," where the men talk "about their jobs, their cars, about the election even; the women about their children's schools, about the cost of living, and about each other." On the other hand, Katharine Glover and her three children, like both of the young Sellerses, hide secretive inner worlds. Timothy Glover, for example, will spend the entire party concealed behind the couch. And his sister Jane knew all about Mrs. Arbuthnot. Under no circumstances would she tell any of these people that she, Jane, was writing a novel. Already she hated the girl, over the road, fourteen. Hensher's deep feeling for workaday Northern diction and syntax ("over the road") subtly underscores the subjectivity of these private moments:"He'll break some hearts," someone was saying, in another part of the room. It was Daniel Glover they were talking about. He was sixteen, lounging over the edge of the sofa, his long legs spread... He was thinking about sex, and he counted the women. Then he eliminated the unattractive ones, the ones over thirty-five, his mother and sister, no, he brought his sister back in just for the hell of it. Leitmotifs of flowers and snakes underscore the implication: sex is at the center of our private worlds, and will soon cost these characters their gardens. Or, as a nosy neighbor puts it on the book's first page, "There'll be trouble with both of those boys."The problem with The Northern Clemency is that the promised trouble fails, by and large, to materialize. To be sure, the climax of this first section, and Katharine Glover's fall from grace in the second, are rich with potential. But the novel is too well-tempered to let its plot complications ramify. Instead, it solves them, and in so doing, clears away the tensions that have sustained the characters' vivid inner lives.By the time the children reach maturity, the characters, outwardly ordinary, have become inwardly ordinary, too. Only the Glover parents and their son Daniel, the aging Don Juan, retain a spark of life, perhaps because only they properly develop. By contrast, Sonia and Francis Sellers and Jane Glover are so alike in their solitude that the connection between their individual fates and the secret injuries of their childhoods come to seem arbitrary. (Why not Jane in Australia and Sonia in London? one wonders. Why not Francis in advertising and Jane with cats?) Perhaps this arbitrariness is meant to read as philosophical fatalism, but as novelistic practice, it's merely fatal.As The Northern Clemency enters the Thatcher era, Hensher attempts to rally his fading characters by enlivening the novel's social dimension. In various ways, the Glover men and the Sellers parents become entangled - or perhaps the more neutral "involved" is the right word - in the labor strikes that will lead to the privatization of the British coal industry.But the novelist's negative capability should extend to history, and Hensher can't sustain his. The supporting characters who hover at the periphery of the picket-lines are virtuous or vicious in precise proportion to their support for the unions. Thus Daniel's girlfriend's father, a collier who doesn't hold much truck with organized labor, is salt-of-the-earth, a secret sweetheart, while Daniel's brother Tim, who has become a teenage activist, collapses into a shrill caricature of the pimply leftist. (His convictions arise from perceived personal slights and inadequacies. Naturally, he will grow up to become an academic.) And at this point, Hensher's willingness to throw his characters under the ideological bus calls attention to, and starts to undermine, the classicism of his aesthetics. As a clinic on realist technique, The Northern Clemency is impressive - impressive enough, apparently, to earn a spot on the Booker shortlist and a designation as Amazon.com's best book of 2008 - but is there anything of much urgency here?One may wish to object, in defense of The Northern Clemency, that urgency is not the point. Like Forster, from whom he takes his epigraph, Philip Hensher understands the Englishman not as a warrior or god, but as a creature of moderation, and of limitation. To write a 600-page novel of such a comradely temperament, never straying from "the limits of the human," is undeniably an accomplishment. Forster did temperate well, too. Still, Howards End never lost sight of its own epigraph - "Only connect..." - and beneath its every meticulous surface a deep ardor still burns. The Northern Clemency, too clement by half, rarely permits such ardor. At the risk of sounding glib, it offers too much prose, and not enough passion.
It is the summer of 1970, a “hot, endless, and erotically decisive summer," and Keith Nearing—twenty-year-old University-of-London-student (English Literature), occupying “that much disputed territory between five foot six and five foot seven”—takes up residence in an Italian castle, accompanied by his girlfriend Lily—“5’5”, 34-25-34," also a fellow student (law), on-again after a brief but fraught respite initiated by Lily’s desire to “act like a boy”—and Lily’s best friend, the nobly-born and enticingly-named Scheherazade—“5’10”, 37-23-33," only very recently transformed from an unremarkable, bespectacled do-gooder into a swan-necked, amply-bosomed goddess. And because vital statistics, as Keith well knows, are destiny, his own fate seems already determined: he will feel bound to Lily, bound by gratitude and compatibility and history; he will desire Scheherazade, desire her madly, greedily, recklessly. This is the basic premise of Martin Amis’s The Pregnant Widow, and it is a simple premise really: a love triangle powered by youthful lust and a suitably exotic locale. Then again, maybe not so simple, for Keith is, of course, “a K in a castle," which lends the proceedings an air of ominous possibility. And there is the matter too of the time, the historical context, the summer of 1970, portentous beginning of the Age of Narcissus, the self-reflective, self-absorbed, seemingly endless “All and Now” follow-up to the Age of Aquarius, whose tentative stirrings have given way to full-on revolution. (You know how sexual intercourse began in 1963, sometime around the release of The Beatles’ first LP? Well, by the time we get to our castle in Montale, The Beatles have broken up.) And revolutions, well, revolutions are…complicated, cutting a swath of collateral damage, and The Pregnant Widow—subtitle: “Inside History”—chronicles the sublime chasm between world orders new and old, the “long night of chaos and desolation” that must pass “between the death of the one and the birth of the other.” (This vision of destruction comes courtesy of the philosopher Alexander Herzen, whose observation that “the departing world leaves behind it, not an heir, but a pregnant widow” also lends the novel its title.) Here then are the clauses of the Revolutionary Manifesto, as documented after-the-fact (though the bulk of the book focuses on the crucial summer, the narrative reaches into the present-day): “There will be sex before marriage.” “Women, also, have carnal appetites.” “Surface will start tending to supersede essence." Sex will be separated from feeling, much like feeling was long ago detached from thought, and sex will also be separated from thought. How Keith will navigate the new normal, find his footing on terrain much longed for but little understood, furnishes the narrative’s true interest. This is not so say that The Pregnant Widow is preoccupied with Big Ideas at the expense of development and action; there is, in fact, much by way of plot. The castle—property of Scheherazade’s thirty-year-old uncle, Jorquil (“it was that kind of family”)—is equipped with wings and turrets and a pool, where the newly beautiful, newly liberated Scheherazade sunbathes topless and learns to love her own reflection, but it quickly grows crowded. As the summer gets underway, Keith, Lily, and Scheherazade are intermittently joined by Whitaker and Amen, an older English expat and his eighteen-year-old Libyan boyfriend; by the Scheherazade-admiring Adriano, a dashing aristocrat, who also happens to be 4’10”; by the Dakotan divorcee Prentiss, who has in tow her recently adopted twelve-year-old Mexican daughter, Conchita, and her grossly obese helpmate, Dodo; by the Sphinx-like Gloria Beautyman—“5’5”, 33-22-37”— whose riddle is concealed behind a body joining a dancer’s upper half with a bottom that earns her the nickname “Junglebum;” by Timmy, Scheherazade’s erstwhile boyfriend, returning from a stint in Jerusalem, where he had gone to convert the Jews; by Rita, known as “the Dog” (because “she reminds you of a dog”), a proud warrior of the Sexual Revolution. These interlopers lend the novel a Dickensian texture, an impression further abetted by their tendency towards resonant if improbable names (though this is of course also quite consistent with Amis’s typical style) and memorable quirks. They take in the sights and the swimming, the splendid dinners and the lovely grounds, and, in return, they full-heartedly immerse themselves in castle life, sometimes aiding, sometimes impeding Keith’s schemes to seduce Scheherazade without hurting the suspicious Lily. Will Keith succeed? Perhaps the more pertinent question is, will Keith survive? Will Keith—literally the orphaned son of a pregnant widow, his father having died in a car accident on his way to the hospital, his bereaved mother quickly following in childbirth—emerge intact, integrated in thought and feeling? Will he master and navigate and accept the new ideology, the new world order his moment in history makes him heir to? Armed with nothing more than the English literary canon, Keith at first seems to stand little chance. Clarissa, he surmises, is boring, with its “one fuck in two thousand pages," its heroine who must die of shame. But Keith’s reading and Keith’s experiences finally prove that revolutions in sex, like revolutions in literature, change only the surface, the wording, not the import, and though The Pregnant Widow could never be confused for, say, an Austen novel, there is something old-fashioned about it. Perhaps it is its sincerity, a real attempt to tell some essential truth, a truth at once of its time and timeless. Perhaps it is its investment in its characters and its worldview. Or its quiet humor, funny and cutting and sly. Or its intelligence, its knowingness, which never seems pretentious or irrelevant. Which is a long way to say that there is much to recommend it. A great deal has been said, in recent reviews of The Pregnant Widow, about Amis’s return to form, his artistic success after a series of disappointments. (Indeed, there was some surprise when the book was conspicuously left off the Man Booker Prize longlist.) Like Philip Roth, to whom he has been compared since the beginning of his career, Amis seems to be initiating his sixties by embarking on an ambitious, historically-minded project with keen insight and masterly sentences. But this is, of course, speculation. Something more definitive then: The Pregnant Widow is a stunning book; it contains within it all that is best in the English novel.
Whether or not you believe that Oxford University Press is “the largest, most diverse and most respected university press in the world,” you’ll appreciate this review of a new history of the company, which goes through OUP's origins, its relationship with its namesake and the opening of its New York office in 1896.
Most people in the literary world are now aware that the New Yorker has selected the “best” 20 writers under age 40. This is a follow-up to the magazine's 1999 list, which was fairly prescient in spotting some soon-to-be superstars in the book universe. There are some wonderful writers on the new list. The ages range from the early 20’s to right on the cusp of the big 4-0. The list is evenly split between men and women. From the names alone you get a much more international flair this time, reflecting how the world has changed in the past decade. But when you look at the 1999 list and the 2010 list side by side, one must wonder if the predictions will play out in a similar fashion. There is no doubt that within this group there will be some Pulitzers and National Book Awards to throw around. But I do worry if the world had changed so much that these young authors, despite talent or skill, won’t be able to reach the same level as their predecessors. The majority of these writers are in their mid-to-late 30’s and are just now at the start of what we hope will be a long and fruitful career. But if you look back 40 years to the year 1970, there were many more established, award-winning authors under the age of 40. They were often times both critical and commercial successes. If the New Yorker had released a “20 under 40” list 40 years ago, it might have looked something like this… 1970 Philip Roth Joyce Carol Oates Raymond Carver Donald Barthelme John Updike Shirley Hazzard John Barth Thomas Pynchon Susan Sontag Toni Morrison Frank Conroy Ken Kesey Don Delillo E.L. Doctorow Jerzy Kozinski Hunter S. Thompson Alice Walker Michael Crichton Tom Wolfe Cormac McCarthy 2010 Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Chris Adrian Daniel Alarcón David Bezmozgis Sarah Shun-lien Bynum Joshua Ferris Jonathan Safran Foer Nell Freudenberger Rivka Galchen Nicole Krauss Yiyun Li Dinaw Mengestu Philipp Meyer C. E. Morgan Téa Obreht Z Z Packer Karen Russell Salvatore Scibona Gary Shteyngart Wells Tower 1999 George Saunders David Foster Wallace Sherman Alexie Rick Moody A.M. Homes Allegra Goodman William T. Vollmann Antonya Nelson Chang-rae Lee Michael Chabon Ethan Canin Donld Antrim Tony Earley Jeffrey Eugenides Junot Diaz Jonathan Franzen Edwidge Danticat Jhumpa Lahiri Nathan Englander Matthew Klam Bonus Link: The Risks of Fiction: On The New Yorker Writers Under 40 List