December 3, 2013
John Williams’s 1965 novel Stoner was the sleeper hit of 2013. A groundswell of word-of-mouth success in some European countries early this year coincided with the reissue of the book in the UK by Vintage Classics in December 2012 (having previously been published by NYRB Classics in 2006), and soon every UK newspaper wanted a piece of the action too. Attention is now beginning to turn to his other novels. This one was brought to us again by NYRB Classics in 2007, and next year it will be reissued, unappealingly emblazoned, in the UK.
Butcher’s Crossing (1960) was Williams’s second novel, though he disowned the first, Nothing But the Night (1948), written in his mid-20s, so we might consider this to be his first mature work. It is written in a similar quiet style to Stoner, slips down just as delightfully, and has a likeminded lack of consolation. In subject, it is I suppose a western – check out that Panther Books edition from 1963, below – though I’m unsure exactly how to define that. It has men in battle: against the landscape, against animals and against one another.
Will Andrews is the reader’s eyes. He’s a 23-year-old Harvard dropout who has come west to find “his unalterable self”, and something related that he struggles to define: a “wildness”, or “a freedom and a goodness”, and in reality his quest may be more about evading than finding. It’s the 1870s, and he comes to Butcher’s Crossing in Kansas, not much more than “six rough frame buildings bisected by a narrow dirt street.” Encouraged by news of the burgeoning buffalo hide economy, and of one resident’s confident prediction that “this town’s going to be something two, three years from now,” he smooth-talks – and pays – his way onto a team of buffalo hunters, led by the experienced Miller.
What follows is pretty gripping, even as it takes its time. Miller takes on the role of a Captain Ahab, a driven, possibly demented figure who is determined to complete his quest whatever the outcome, and who drives the fate of the other, weaker, characters. The story is full of strong and immersive physical descriptions – a snowstorm, the skinning of buffalo, a journey across a treacherous river. At these times, Williams manages to enter some primitive part of the reader’s brain, to bypass reason, to grasp the reader by the tailbone and shake. This is impressive because the quietness of Williams’s style means that his story, horrifying though it is in places, lacks the sort of apocalyptic feel that Cormac McCarthy can whistle up. But it has a restrained power of its own.
During the journey, Andrews finds himself changing – “he thought at times that he was moving into a new body” – and the men on the hunt generally find that “rather than being brought closer together by their isolation, they were thrust apart.” The struggles through the journey are thrown cleverly into relief when the men discover near the story’s end that weather and landscape are not the only elements they cannot control, but larger challenges created by the mass of mankind – forces we are all prey to – may be even more difficult to surmount.
Along with Stoner, Butcher’s Crossing might cement Williams’s reputation as a man who wrote mostly about men. You could say the same about James Salter or William Golding, but when reading Butcher’s Crossing, I kept thinking about the accusations of misogyny laid against Stoner by writers and critics such as Elaine Showalter, Linda Grant and David Baddiel. Does Butcher’s Crossing fare any better? It’s not a good start to see that there are only two female characters in the book and both are, in the language of the men, “whores”. We don’t expect satisfaction of the Bechdel test from a western, any more than we would from Melville’s sea stories, but it’s more disappointing that the main female character (it’s a stretch to call her that) is not much more than a convenient vessel for Will Andrews, with uninspiring dialogue to match. (“I wanted you the first time I saw you. Without you even touching me, or talking to me.”) Williams does put some well-intentioned but clunky words in Andrews’s head – “He saw her as a poor, ignorant victim of her time and place” – which hardly helps. No real defence to those charges here, then. There is, it is true, one scene where women are discussed other than as an adjunct to men. High in the mountains, the crew discusses that the best way to draw the stiffness out of the buffalo hide is to pour urine on it. “Woman piss is best,” says one. “But we’ll have to make do with what we got.”
March 21, 2012
About a year into this blog – which recently passed its fifth birthday, but like all in middle age, doesn’t like to draw attention to the fact – I wrote about Robert Walser’s novel The Assistant. It attracted a surprisingly high number of page views and comments, though perhaps not so surprising when you consider that Walser is one of those badly kept secrets of literature, admired by Kafka then and Coetzee now. (And Hesse too: “If he had a hundred thousand readers, the world would be a better place.”) It was the response to my blog post more than any appreciation I had for The Assistant that made me get this selection of his short prose shortly afterwards. And now, four years later, I have finally read it. (I’ve just had a shudder-inducing thought about what this means for the five hundred or so unread books I have at home. Let’s move on.)
I bow to no one – and it’s a crowded field – in my admiration for NYRB Classics, but even by that imprint’s exalted standards, Walser’s Selected Stories must be a high point. Ditto by their exalted design standards: look at that cover, the delicate green and purple like colorizing effects on a black-and-white film. And the composition, or cropping, of the photograph itself: the subject – the author – to one side, as though standing proudly (or tentatively?) by his title; or, not quite in the middle of the road; or, just about to go for a walk.
Walser loved to walk, or it might be more accurate to say he walked a lot, like Mr Sommer in Patrick Süskind’s story. He died walking, in the snow on Christmas Day 1956, a short distance from the sanatorium (“for people who were mentally not altogether at their best”, as he described such a place in one story) where he spent the last 23 years of his life, having given up writing. “I am not here to write, but to be mad.” (If I squeezed in the word ‘microscripts’, then the preceding sentences would contain all the keywords you’ll see in any potted biography of Walser.)
His contradictions are retained in the title of this volume, which more accurately would be called Selected – what? – Things. But who can blame NYRB? Just as novels are more saleable than stories, so too must stories be more saleable than things. (Robert Walser’s Things. I’d buy it.) The author referred to them as sketches: “For me the sketches I produce now and then are shortish or longish chapters of a novel. The novel I am constantly writing is always the same one, and it might be described as a variously sliced-up or torn-apart book of myself.” That description accounts for the vertiginous feeling the new reader has on encountering what is apparently the author himself talking casually as he assembles the narrative of each sketch. He ponders to himself, reflects, wavers and settles. “I think he must have walked across a tiny bridge…” “As I believe I have been able to stress…” “Thun had a trade fair, I cannot say exactly but I think four years ago.” The ‘I’ in the sketches is always there, just out of sight and then appearing briefly with a disarming charm:
I am thrilled to be writing a report on such a delicate subject as trousers, and thus to be licensed to plunge into meditation on them; even as I write, a desirous grin, I can feel it, is spreading over my entire face.
It has a similar effect on the reader. The impression is of a writer with nothing to hide, guileless and at once hyperconscious and unaffected. Unlike many writers, he lays his uncertainties before the reader. (Thomas Mann: “A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”) This is sympathetic to the kind of character – or the aspects of himself – Walser presents in several of the pieces here. One narrator describes himself as “a dreamer rather than a thinker, a zero rather than a force”, without ambition. “The passion to go far in the world is unknown to me.” Another, Helbling, is “a small, pale, timid, weak, elegant, silly little fellow, full of unworldly feelings, and would not be able to endure the rigor of life if things ever went against me.” He is “not of coarse enough cut for this life.” These characters are observers, patients rather than agents, and it’s no surprise to have Walser himself as narrator take a similar line. “We don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much.” When he writes about Cézanne, he imbues him too with similar unworldly qualities.
This is not to say that the writing is either fey or insubstantial. The longest piece here, ‘The Walk’, has sharp satire and a Pythonesque absurdity as the narrator enters a bookshop and asks to be provided with the most popular and critically acclaimed volume, which the bookseller does.
I considered the book, and asked: “Could you swear that this is the most widely distributed book of the year?”
“Without a doubt!”
“Could you insist that this is the book which one has to have read?”
“Is this book also definitely good?”
“What an utterly superfluous and inadmissible question.”
The story, as its title indicates, is a long walk, full of similar encounters. “On a lovely and far-wandering walk a thousand useful and usable thoughts occur to me.” But for Walser’s walkers, not too much action is desired. When, in ‘The Street (1)’, a man finds himself pulled along in a crowd, he finds that “in the midst of the unrelenting forward thrust I felt the urge to stand still. The muchness and the motion were too much and too fast.” This pace distresses him: in ‘A Contribution’ he refers to “the civilized world, which one might also call the impatient or rushing world.” Susan Sontag in her introduction calls Walser a “heartbreaking” writer, and we can see why: for his charm and innocence, his seeming struggle to fit, his determination to make the best of it regardless.
Walser and his various alter egos are unsure of their place, not just in the world, but in literature. “I have written books,” he writes in ‘The Walk’, “which the public unfortunately does not like, and the consequences of this oppress my heart.” Indeed, as Coetzee reports in his excellent essay on Walser (published in Inner Workings), what little income he was able to earn from his writing dwindled almost to nothing after the first world war, when the public appetite for Walser’s writing, “easily dismissed as whimsical and belletristic,” declined. His mental health became more precarious, and he attempted suicide. “I couldn’t even make a proper noose.” There is a desperation chiming with this under the surface of Walser’s stories, but it’s certainly tempting to accentuate a more cheerful reading of his books. And the portion of the public that fortunately does like his writing still persists, and shows no sign of disappearing. My own reaction to these odd, quixotic little pieces, satisfying and disarming, is in keeping with Walser’s more optimistic aspirations expressed elsewhere in ‘The Walk': “I hope that this sentence pleases all and sundry, inspires satisfaction, and meets with warm applause.”
December 30, 2010
I’ve found myself reading more translated literature recently. (Four out of the last six books reviewed here.) This isn’t the result of a conscious policy, but I suppose there must be some underlying process at work in my choices. Perhaps it’s the notion that with foreign fiction, you’re getting the best of what’s on offer from other countries: the stuff has to pass through two selection processes rather than one. On the other hand, a fellow blogger has accused me of “over-celebrating marginal central European works.” Could this be true? Am I valuing foreignness as a quality in itself? These are questions which sprang to mind as I read Andrey Platonov’s recently re-translated novel.
The Foundation Pit has a complex publishing history. Written in 1929-30, it remained unpublished in Platonov’s Russian homeland until 1987 – 26 years after his death – but had previously been published (in Russian) in the USA in 1973. It was translated into English in 1996 by Robert Chandler for the redoubtable Harvill Press. However, the Russian publication on which that translation was based was heavily bowdlerised, and so when definitive texts became available, Chandler re-translated the book in collaboration with Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Meerson. This is the version which now appears in NYRB Classics (in the US) and Vintage Classics (in the UK).
Those two imprints of course are recommendations to me in themselves, so I approached The Foundation Pit with high expectations. Robert Chandler in his substantial appendices observes that this is a book and author that give us vital information on Stalin’s collectivisation policy, which led to the systematic liquidation (dekulakisation) of the wealthy peasant class in the Russian countryside. “Platonov and his friend Vasily Grossman were the only two members of their generation to write about Total Collectivization—and about the still more devastating Terror Famine—both truthfully and in depth.” The question therefore is how can a book be, at the same time, hugely important and virtually unreadable?
Such a bald comment is of course the result of a subjective reading experience. Did a succession of early rises leave me too tired to get the most out of The Foundation Pit? Has Twitter ruined my powers of concentration? Am I suffering from foreign-lit fatigue? Whatever the reason, this short book (150 pages plus appendices) evaded my comprehension at every page turn. The cover blurb told me more than I got out of the text itself: “A group of Soviet workers believe they are laying the foundations for a radiant future. As they work harder and dig deeper, their optimism turns to violence and it becomes clear that what is being dug is not a foundation pit but an immense grave.”
The Irish Times describes the book as comparable to Godot and Lewis Carroll, and the absurd comedy suggested thereby is present from the first paragraph, where we learn that one of the lead characters Voshchev has been made redundant from a machine factory “on account of weakening strength in him and thoughtfulness amid the general tempo of labour.” (“What if we all get lost in thought?” he is asked. “Who’ll be left to act?”) Without work, Voshchev feels himself not to be at a loose end, but to be a loose end, without purpose. “He did not know whether he was of use to the world or whether everything would get along fine without him.” Anyway, “happiness is a bourgeois business. Happiness will lead only to shame.” And so Voshchev joins the workers building the foundation pit.
The language is key to the strengths – and, for me, weaknesses – of the book. There are passages which get the feel just right:
Out in nature a devastated summer’s day was departing into evening: everything, near and far, was gradually ending; birds were hiding away; people were lying down to sleep, smoke was wafting up meekly from remote field huts, and there a tired and unknown man was sitting by his pot and waiting for supper, resolved to endure his life to the end.
Elsewhere, however, the tone is bizarre, either incomprehensible or ostentatiously clumsy. When one character calls another “You class superfluity!”, it may be faithful to the Russian, but it clangs in English, and it’s a worryingly common experience. “Oh, Olya, Olly, you darling dolly,” coos the character Pashkin to his wife, “your feel for the masses is simply gigantic! For that, let me organize myself close to you!” If the use of ‘organize’ is a joke, it’s one that works in only one register and deadens its own impact. These clumsy effects seem to be conscious, and indeed at times they communicated the desired effect to me – doublespeak, dictatorial cant – as when two characters die and are described not as being dead but “in eternal condition”. Such moments make me regret that the fault elsewhere was doubtless mine. Yet the Irish Times, this time in a review of the new translation, provides some helpful comparisons between the 1996 translation and this one:
“down cast eyes” becomes “down bent”; “an automobile that had been driven across open countryside was being repaired” becomes “an automobile was being repaired there from going without roads”; “our sense of conviction” becomes “our convinced feeling”; a brass band that had been “droning” is now “pining”; “a youthful march” is now “the music of a young march.”
The automobile quote is one of many phrases in the book which had me scratching my head: now at least I’ve had a translation of the translation and know what it really meant. I found myself rereading paragraphs just to get a sense of what was happening on the surface (not perhaps unreasonable, as Platonov deliberately “deforms language”, Chandler tells us – which should be joyous news to me – and brings in characters, such as a bear, without introducing them so that the reader is left wondering whether they missed the first appearance). What makes this particularly frustrating is the fact that even in crystal clear English, The Foundation Pit is a book which requires knowledge of the historical and political background to get the most from it (to get, I would say, anything significant from it at all). The afterword and copious notes are very helpful, but would be better as introduction, with the notes numbered through the text: as it is, there is no indication in the body of the book that there are any notes at all. Properly forewarned, I might have spotted any of the subtexts or references – to Dante, to the biblical Elisha, to Pushkin – and found the book more tantalising than frustrating. As it is I can only say that this is a book I found impossible to review, and so – with an irony worthy of etc. etc.! – I leave you with one thousand words explaining why I am unable to do so.
June 17, 2010
I make no secret on this blog of my fetish for the NYRB Classics series. But with more or less every title in their range exuding varieties of temptation, the decision on which ones to buy is always difficult: I mean, you can’t get them all. (Actually, you can.) It was in the LRB Shop, where more or less everything on their fiction shelves pushes my buttons, where this title caught my eye. How could it not? The cover seemed to be one of the campest things I’d ever seen: it turns out to be an installation by Salvador Dali (“Dream of Venus“) at the 1939 World’s Fair. These are the seemingly random influences which determine the books we read.
1. Manhattan (New York, N.Y.)—Fiction. 2. Suburban life—Fiction. 3. Intellectuals—Fiction. 4. Middle class—Fiction. 5. Sex customs—Fiction.
My appetite for reading about the suburban life (and, well, sex customs) of middle-class New York intellectuals is not what it once was, though I retain a fair tolerance for it. In fact this offputting breakdown doesn’t really summarise the book’s most interesting aspects at all. It is a collection of six stories, linked by their narrator, a Wilson-like writer and critic who begins by reporting the idiosyncracies of his fellow Hecate County residents in a patrician manner, and ends up being the story himself.
The opening story, ‘The Man Who Shot Snapping Turtles’, is a little piece of perfection, from its sneaky title to its classical ending, which seems to have Wilson flexing his fictional muscle to show the objects of his literary criticism how it should be done. I will say no more about it because the assumptions which the reader brings to the story from knowing only the title are part of the quality of the experience. It seems to deserve a place among the best American short stories of the 20th century (and probably already has it, as it’s been widely anthologised).
Perfection is easy in the short form, however – easyish – and the remaining stories in Memoirs of Hecate County are longer. ‘Ellen Terhune’, about “the first woman composer who had ever contributed anything to music of authentic value,” brings in unexpected elements which may be an attempt by Wilson to show H.P. Lovecraft (whose writing he called ‘hackwork’) how it’s done. But what strikes the reader is not the clever conceit, but Wilson’s insistence on having the narrator explain the purpose of the story in the closing pages, as though this literary critic cannot bear to his own fiction second-guessed.
Throughout, the setting is not really ‘middle-class’ at all, but of the moneyed, of society’s movers and shakers. In ‘Ellen Terhune’, our narrator looks forward to “one of those gatherings where great quantities of tan-backed girls and scarlet-faced men, with highballs fizzing in their hands, lift laughing and strident voices among glass-topped cocktail tables and lamps that give indirect lighting.” In the third story, ‘Glimpses of Wilbur Flick’, the title character is the heir to “a big baking-powder fortune” who “had really no notion of the existence of anyone but himself.” The story describes the narrator’s occasional encounters with Wilbur, from school to later life as an arch-conservative and capitalist (“that’s the trouble with all you liberals: you think that people ought to be kept alive just because they happen to exist”). Naturally, it’s simple for Wilson to set Wilbur up as a straw man in order to defeat his snobbery with snobbery of his own, as when he describes his collection of ostentatious glassware:
I thought it was characteristic of Wilbur that, in aiming to become a connoisseur, he should have gone for a kind of rarity which is not easily distinguishable from rubbish.
Yet even among the cheap shots (Wilbur thinks fascism “perfectly sound”), the writing and detail are always lovely (“he looked very smooth and soft, as if he had been bathed in milk and always kept at the right temperature”) and there is something like backhanded sympathy toward the character. Wilbur’s father
was the son, as I afterwards learned, of a well-to-do Methodist minister; and poor Wilbur had behind him, I fear, no tradition of reckless adventure: his real heritage was a vague bourgeois feeling that he ought to be busy about something – an impulse which nobody had ever done anything to encourage or train him to satisfy.
This brings us to the central story (in fact, at 200 pages, a novel), ‘The Princess with the Golden Hair’, a story of erotic obsession. “I had found, in the course of the summer, that I was watching Imogen Loomis at parties.” I said above that Memoirs of Hecate County was published in 1946, but it was prosecuted shortly afterwards for obscenity because of the content of ‘The Princess’, and unavailable until Wilson reissued it himself in 1959. It’s easy to see why, when a central scene sees the narrator describe in exquisite detail his lover’s genitalia, and elsewhere the language is pretty frank for the times (“She is now so responsive to my kissing her breasts that I can make her have a climax in that way”). Louis Menand, in his introduction, tells us that the characters and lovers (our busy narrator has more than one) were based on real figures in Wilson’s life, and indeed that Wilson in his diaries recorded his own “amorous encounters in passages that no reader has ever thought insufficiently detailed”. Perhaps it is the story’s self-indulgence that led to disappointment for me, or its meandering length, or just the claims made for it on the back cover (“one of the great lost works of twentieth-century American literature”). It is filled with reliably fine writing, and even when describing post-crash 1930s New York, the prose is gluttonous and luxuriant. With its length, the story works like the tease the narrator himself experiences with his beloved, wanting her but not wanting to sully her (“I idealised her now as a wife; but she was actually the wife of Ralph Loomis; and if she had been unfaithful to Ralph, she would no longer have been the ideal wife”). The presence in the story of his other lover, Anna, enables the inclusion of a vivid portrait of immigrant America in the 1920s and 30s.
The difficulty for any collection with a major central story is how to follow it. (See David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide for a recent example.) This is an issue for the reader too; after reading a novel-length story within a collection, the most I want after that is a coda. But here we get another two stories totalling 140 pages. ‘The Princess with the Golden Hair’ seems to have softened Wilson up for making himself the centre of the remaining stories. They are set in the literary and publishing world, though with a devilish twist or two. One short passage describes a publisher being prosecuted for obscenity, which I took to be one of the ‘additions’ Wilson made to the book when he revised it for publication after its own legal wrangles. In ‘The Milhollands and their Damned Soul’, about a family hierarchy of publishers, we get an enticing glimpse at how things were, when our narrator suffers from the dumbing-down of mass culture:
when I proposed a new life of Thomas Eakins, they had asked me to do, instead, a short survey of American painting that could be disposed of more easily in the drug stores, the cigar stores and the railroad stations.
A short survey of American painting? Now, presumably, it would be a short survey of American Idol. Elsewhere, in the final story, ‘Mr and Mrs Blackburn at Home’, we are reminded of evergreen themes when one character speaks of “the iniquities of investment banking.” In this story, Wilson gives us twelve pages of untranslated French, which (albeit a sort of joke) at least made the process of getting through those last two stories a little briefer. One of ‘Wilson’s’ friends tells him:
The trouble is that in literature, just as in anything else that’s serious, nothing’s really any good at all that isn’t based on the recognition of the very best that’s ever been possible. … The most immoral and disgraceful and dangerous thing that anybody can do in the arts is knowingly to feed back to the public its own ignorance and cheap tastes.
Memoirs of Hecate County, erudite, scintillating, overlong and self-indulging, combines the best and worst of this advice.
December 10, 2009
It’s always heartening to see a publisher get behind an overlooked writer, particularly when they’re helping us (re)discover writers outside our usual English language limits. Pushkin Press, for example, have done admirable work in resuscitating the literary corpse of Stefan Zweig. In the UK, Sort Of Books have been reissuing – or in some cases commissioning first translations – of the adult fiction of Tove Jansson, best known for the Finn Family Moomintroll series of children’s books. Two of the titles have also been picked up in the US by NYRB Classics, who use Jansson’s original cover illustrations.
The True Deceiver (1982, tr. by Thomas Teal, 2009) drops the reader in the middle of a Finnish winter, where in the village of Västerby, “it had been snowing along the coast for a month … never stopping for even an hour. … The continuous snowfall carried with it an imprecise darkness that was neither dusk nor dawn.” Ideal conditions, then, to introduce the character of Katri Kling, a young woman who lives with her brother. Katri is trusted by all in the village (largely for her numerical skills), but is cold and unclubbable. When she offers to take the mail up to the home of reclusive writer Anna Aemelin, her exchange with the village postman is illuminating:
“Don’t you trust me?” she said. “I can take the mail up to Miss Aemelin. It’s important to me.”
“Are you trying to help?”
“You know I’m not,” Katri said. “I’m doing it entirely for my own sake. Do you trust me or don’t you?”
Katri’s purpose, stated in the opening pages of the book, is to work her way into Miss Aemelin’s life, and for her and her brother Mats ultimately to live in her home, a lighthouse known as “the rabbit house” after Miss Aemelin’s celebrated books for children. (She “could render the ground in a forest so faithfully and in such minute detail that she missed not the tiniest needle.”)
The trouble with Katri is that she doesn’t seem to know when to rein in her ‘honesty’. When once she brokered a deal between feuding families, she “helped both save face, but she also articulated their hostility and so fixed it in place for all time.” As one villager puts it to another, “Why do you go to her? Yes, she puts your business to rights, but you no longer trust anyone when you come back.” Miss Aemelin objects to Katri pointing out how the storekeeper has ripped her off for a few pennies: and anyway, Katri has a grudge against the storekeeper, which may be clouding her judgement.
The beauty of The True Deceiver is how it fits so much into 180 pages, without making any of the elements seem discordant. Katri is paired with her brother Mats: he is as “undisturbed in his clean, simplified world” as she is troubled by her mistrust of others. He reads boys’ adventure stories, while she urges him to read what she considers to be literature: “I read them, I do,” he tells her, “but I don’t get anything out of them. Nothing much happens. I understand they’re very good, but they just make me sad. They’re almost always about people with problems.”
For this Mats has an ally in Anna Aemelin, whose children’s books are considered charming by some, and ‘”stereotyped” by others. She shares his love of escapist books, seafaring adventures mainly, and Jansson sets her in opposition to Katri in a power struggle for control of Anna’s house, trust in the villagers, even the loyalty of Katri’s dog. The assistance which Katri offers Anna, such as with her finances, is primarily for her own benefit, or at least satisfaction (“Every time she wrote a captured sum of money into her notebook, she felt the collector’s deep satisfaction at finally owning a rare and expensive specimen”).
It’s not difficult to see Anna Aemelin and Katri Kling as representations of the warring instincts in Jansson (who lived in solitude): a successful children’s writer who nonetheless spent the last thirty years of her life writing darker adult books (like this one); the two characters’ respective approaches to the fan letters Anna receives from her readers are illuminating and even amusing (“Politeness can almost be a kind of deceit”). What unites Anna and Katri is that they are both isolated, one by her fame and success, and the other by her distrust of people.
The True Deceiver is as oxymoronic as its title: calm and clear in its prose, but turbulent in the emotions depicted; a seemingly simple story which resists bashing the reader over the head with obvious conclusions. It is a perfectly brittle, crystalline tale for the cold winter months ahead.
October 26, 2009
The cover design of the NYRB Classics edition of John Williams’ novel Stoner might have been expressly chosen to emphasise that, even though the book was published in 1965, this is not a sort of literary Cheech and Chong. It is a sober study of one man’s slow journey to finding out who he is, and it is quietly magnificent.
Williams hits the reader straight away with a devastating summation of William Stoner’s career in the University of Missouri:
Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.
This is a tease, because the next 278 pages explain why such a dismissal is unwarranted. It gives us a chronological account of a life, and of a man, who grew up on a farm, with a father “stooped by labour” and a mother who “regarded her life patiently, as if it were a long moment that she had to endure.” The anticipation of a life with little expectation and fewer rewards is withdrawn from Stoner when, in the year 1910 aged 19, he attends the University to study agriculture at his father’s suggestion. Standing on the campus for the first time, “he had a sudden sense of security and serenity he had never felt before.”
Stoner switches from agriculture to English, and realises that he will never return to the farm. This is a ‘talky’ book, with a good deal of the development coming through dialogue – a difficult and welcome achievement. First is when Stoner’s tutor, Archer Sloane, takes him aside for a conversation.
“But don’t you know, Mr Stoner? Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher.”
Stoner felt himself suspended in the wide air, and he heard his voice ask, “Are you sure?”
“I’m sure,” said Sloane softly.
“How can you tell? How can you be sure?”
“It’s love, Mr Stoner,” Sloane said cheerfully. “You are in love. It’s as simple as that.”
Already we see a pattern developing, of Stoner following the direction of another. However he does often branch out from these directions and make his own decision in the end. He comes to see the future as “a territory ahead that awaited his exploration.” When the First World War breaks out and the US becomes involved, his colleagues sign up to fight, with one saying, “I suppose I’m doing it because it doesn’t matter whether I do it or not.” Not for Stoner such a spirit: he remains in Missouri and courts, and then marries, a girl called Edith.
His marriage starts out as lukewarm and follows the laws of thermodynamics, and so it is through his work that he finds it “possible to live, and even be happy, now and then.” At home, his refuge is his study. “It was himself that he was attempting to define as he worked on his study … it was himself that he was slowly shaping, it was himself that he was putting into a kind of order, it was himself that he was making possible.”
Work means the university, and if you thought that ‘electrifying scenes of campus politics’ was an oxymoron, then you need to read Stoner. It is a book which is structurally unadventurous but emotionally and intellectually engaging. We see a man struggling to be allowed to do the one thing he has learned to do well, and to find the dignity in labour (“I think he’s a real hero,” said Williams of his creation), and to exercise love in the only way he can.
The love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and the heart showing themselves in the minute, strange and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print – the love which had to be hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous, he began to display, at first tentatively, and then boldly, and then proudly.
October 9, 2009
Back in the mid-1990s, when novella trumpeters such as Pushkin Press and Melville House were not yet born, the grandaddy of cheap paperbacks Penguin quietly issued a series called Syrens. (So quietly, alas, that they quickly disappeared without trace.) These were slim paperbacks with plain covers in contrasting colours, covering a wide range of fiction, poetry and essays such as Kafka’s Aphorisms, Beckett’s Modern Love First Love, Hardy’s Poems 1912-13, and less well known titles by writers including Proust, Wilde, Voltaire and Perec. I noticed recently that two titles have now been issued by NYRB Classics: Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Lord Chandos Letter, and this book. My acquisitive nature meant that I picked up most of the Syrens titles at the time, but still haven’t read many of them. Fourteen years from purchase to reading must be a record even for me.
No Tomorrow (Point de lendemain, 1777) was first published anonymously, though its author, born Francois Dominique Vivant de Non, was no self-effacing recluse. The introduction to the Syrens edition tells me that, with interests in art, antiquities and the theatre, he became a favourite of Louis XV and travelled on official service to Russia and Italy as Baron Denon. Returning to revolutionary France, he astutely dropped his title and, before ingratiating himself into Napoleon’s service, survived by his engravings of official uniforms and obscene etchings. This combination of interests in social status and the erotic arts are perfectly preserved in this, his only work of fiction. (Its skimpy length – 38 small pages in the Syrens edition – makes it hard even for a novella publisher to justify as a standalone work. NYRB get around this by presenting a dual language edition.)
Denon was 30 when he wrote No Tomorrow, but his narrator is a mere boy of 20. Nonetheless, the qualities that made one academic sum up Denon in the phrase “hedonist and scholar” are clearly present in the fiction. It opens with what Milan Kundera praised as “the playful elegance of repetition in the first paragraph of one of the loveliest pieces of French prose.”
I doted on the Countess ______; I was twenty, and I was naive; she deceived me, I was incensed; she deserted me. I was naive, I missed her; I was twenty, she forgave me; and because I was twenty, was naive, and, though still deceived, no longer deserted, I believed that lover was never more loved than I and I was therefore the happiest man alive.
But this dizzying opening – I had to reread it a couple of times – is deceptive. The Countess does not feature in the story. Instead, our hero’s journey begins when he encounters her friend, Madame de T____, in the theatre. “‘I see,’ she said, ‘that I shall have to rescue you from your solitary splendour. You look quite ridiculous all alone. Like patience upon a monument!'”
Through subtlety and sleight of hand, Madame de T_____ persuades the young man to accompany her home, where she is to meet with her estranged husband. “I was afraid that I should be dreadfully bored alone in his company.” Finally, left alone, they fall to the inevitable:
Now, kisses are like secrets. One leads to another, they quicken, they grow more heated by the process of accumulation. And so it proved now. The first had scarcely been given when a second followed, then a third, each crowding closely on the heels of the one before, interrupting our talk and then replacing it entirely, until at last they hardly left any path for our sighs to escape by.
The story proceeds by further passion and subterfuge, a slinky, cynical treat. Hedonism and libertinage are the order of the day: no tomorrow! (Though an earlier English edition translated the title, oddly, as Never again!) Madame urges her boy to believe in “the power of pleasure, our sole guide and only excuse!”, while he seeks an emotional crutch for this new love affair, fearing that “unbridled passion murders niceness of feeling. We run toward pleasure and ride roughshod over the delights which precede it. A ribbon is snapped, a bodice is ripped: desire leaves its mark in its wake and soon the idol of our heart looks uncommonly like its victim.” However he, by cuckolding his own mistress, is a player here as much as a victim.
It is only later, when he is permitted to enter into her highly symbolic “secret chamber”, that our young man learns just how ruthless Madame can be. At one point, as she initiates him in the rituals of cynical love, he “felt that a blindfold had been removed from my eyes, but failed to observe that a new one had been put in its place.” Blindfolds and masks are worn by all the players in this society, so concerned with surface that they decline to acknowledge their own feelings. David Coward, in an introduction to his translation in this Syrens edition, calls it “a masterpiece, as clear and self-confident as a line etched on glass with a very sharp diamond.” With its beautiful prose, seductive eroticism, precociously mannered methods, and clever ending, No Tomorrow itself resembles its central femme fatale, about whom another of her lovers cheerfully tells the hero: “She provokes, she arouses, but she feels nothing herself: that woman is a block of marble.”
July 7, 2009
What a pleasure it is to write about a book that I loved without complication. For those academics even now preparing studies on whether or not the new social media can actually sell books, chalk one up for me. Already an admirer of NYRB Classics, I bought this book when they mentioned it on Twitter or Facebook or, you know, one of those sites. We owe a debt of gratitude to novelist Jonathan Lethem, who lobbied for its reissue, and to NYRB Classics editor Edwin Frank, who listened.
A Meaningful Life was first – and last – published in 1971, and until now had not even reached a paperback edition. Says Davis in this fascinating piece about the background to the book and its rediscovery, “It came out and nothing happened.” (Hugo Wilcken, take heart.) There really is no excuse for this, as it’s the most miserably funny book I’ve read all year.
The meaningful life of the title is sought by Lowell Lake, who one day shortly after his 30th birthday, wakes up with “the sudden realization that his job was not temporary.”
He’d found his level, and here he was, on it. He was the managing editor of a second-rate plumbing-trade weekly, a job he did adequately if not with much snap. It was, he realized with a dull kind of shock, just the sort of job for a man like him. Someday he might rise to the editorship, either of the plumbing trade monthly or of something exactly like it. Big deal. But it was all he was good for, and he was stuck with it.
Here we are then, in the territory previously occupied by any number of dissatisfied suburban workers: Frank Wheeler in Revolutionary Road; Sinclair Lewis’s George Babbitt; Bob Slocum in Something Happened; Tom Rath in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. The ease with which I can recall examples indicates how much I’ve enjoyed these books; but do we need another? Did we in 1971?
Well, it didn’t hurt. Davis executes his tale with much more open wit than the others: Something Happened is a very funny novel but is “black humour … with the humour removed”, in Kurt Vonnegut’s words, as the author “cripples his own jokes intentionally.” A Meaningful Life is more straightforward, more seductive than that, and in that sense all the more impressive for allowing no light at the end of the tunnel for its ‘hero’. It is different from Something Happened in that there, the narrator makes his own miserable comedy; here, the jokes are all on Lowell Lake. But like Heller’s book – like the best comic writing – it comes unsweetened, tempered by an undertow – an overflow – of despair.
Lowell, an inadequate man, is surrounded by inadequates, such as his boss, Crawford, the editor of the plumbing trade monthly, who fears an office coup, “that someday they would contrive to get him no matter what he did to stop them.” Or his father-in-law, Leo, whose relentlessly droning smalltalk drives Lowell to distraction (“Lowell was afraid to open his mouth for fear of screaming in the little man’s face”). It even, in a nicely astute moment, begins to infect Lowell’s perception of his wife:
“Great”, said Lowell, noticing with a sinking feeling that her last sentence had been spoken with her father’s inflection and ended with her father’s phrase. He’d never noticed a thing like that in her voice before. He began to listen for it, and shortly his fears were confirmed. It was there all right, coming and going like the odor of burning tires in a rose garden.
This is how he got here. Lowell, frustrated in his job, silently bored by his marriage, decided to do a Frank Wheeler and move to a new life: not to Europe but to New York from his western home. Unlike Frank Wheeler, he never got around to putting it off:
There was no getting out of it. Afloat on a tide of events and furiously propelled by his wife, he gave notice at the library, renouncing his scholarship at the Berkeley, and told everyone in sight that he’d decided to go to New York, desperately hoping that someone would give him some smart-sounding and compelling reason for doing no such blame-fool thing, but no one did. On the contrary, the more people he told about it, the more it seemed like he was actually going to go.
As Lowell brings himself with him, the new life feels very much like the old life: and not a very meaningful one at that. What he does to try to overturn this is the central plot of the book: he buys a Brooklyn brownstone “of such surpassing opulent hideousness that Lowell could scarcely believe that someone was actually offering to sell it to him. It was just the kind of place he’d always really wanted with a powerful subconscious craving that defied analysis.” His project to refurbish the building is undertaken on the very good grounds that busy fingers are happy fingers; but it never occurs to Lowell that the question “How can I have a meaningful life?” is one which, once asked, cannot be satisfactorily answered.
The chapter which shows Lowell meeting the existing tenants of the building, who will need to be evicted, is the weakest section of the book. Davis is by far at his best when trapping Lowell in the crucibles of family and work. There are some brilliant set pieces, masterclasses in comic writing, including one where Lowell tries to bribe a city man during the planning process, and another where he is accidentally anti-semitic during an argument with his mother-in-law. Davis excels in taking the comedy of discomfort and stretching it further than it should go.
The prose in A Meaningful Life is fast on its feet and often surprising. You can read the first chapter here; if you like it, this is a book for you. In a book where the central character’s “concrete desires” seem to him to be “almost facts”, it’s a relief when hopes and expectations for a book are more than fulfilled in reality.
June 8, 2009
I read – consecutively – three books recently which didn’t thrill me enough to devote a whole post to each, but I wanted to cover them briefly nonetheless.
Nigel Balchin: The Small Back Room
The Small Back Room (1943) is best known as the source of a film by the great Powell & Pressburger, though one of their minor works. I picked up a cheap copy of the recently reissued (and even more recently remaindered) Cassell Military Paperbacks edition, the cover of which is less handsome than that shown above. It is not as good in my opinion as Darkness Falls from the Air, which I enjoyed last year. The narrator, Sammy Rice, has the same sort of brittle wit as Bill Sarratt in Darkness, and there’s a cracking opening line:
In 1928 my foot was hurting all the time, so they took it off and gave me an aluminium one that only hurt about three-quarters of the time.
What’s interesting is that this is rarely mentioned in the rest of the book, other than an occasional reference to Sammy’s limping gait. Similarly, his alcoholism, a major thread in the film (there is an – unintentionally, I think – hilarious visual metaphor of him being crushed against the wall by a giant whisky bottle), is only explicitly addressed once or twice. This is thoroughly admirable, as someone with ongoing problems doesn’t necessarily dwell on them all the time, though it did leave the book with a lopsided feel for those, like me, who saw the film first.
The content of the book is mostly Sammy’s struggles with the bureaucracy of the government department he works for, developing scientific ideas which might help in the war effort. There’s a good deal of office politics and the trouble with politicians (as there was in Darkness). This has the ambiguous effect of faithfully representing the nausea-inducing boredom of committees, demarcation and internal power struggles while being occasionally boring itself.
The book ends with a tense bomb-defusing scene, which is less tense than the filmed version, and the story thereafter sort of peters out. The thing that The Small Back Room brought home to me is that, while a book composed mainly of dialogue might seem an easy option, it can actually make for a tougher read than a more narrative novel. Balchin does well to progress the story largely through dialogue, but the end result is only moderately interesting.
Elizabeth Hardwick: Sleepless Nights
I bought Sleepless Nights some time ago after seeing it recommended by Colm Tóibín in one of those end-of-year roundups. It’s a quite singular book in that I ‘enjoyed’ it hardly at all, yet think it so fascinating and full of good things that it should be more widely known. First published in 1979, it’s not hard to see why it had fallen out of print until NYRB Classics reissued it: it’s a difficult book, and a tricky one too which by its brevity leads the reader to expect plain sailing. (In fact it reads something like a 300-page book compressed to 128 pages.) Difficulty, in this context, means nothing more than that the reader should pay attention – hardly an arduous challenge – but also that we should admit there may be structure in apparent chaos (and not be too hung up if we can’t find it). The prose, certainly, is beautiful:
More or less settled in this handsome house. Flowered curtains made to measure, rugs cut for the stairs, bookshelves, wood for the fireplace. Climbing up and down the four floors gives you a sense of ownership – perhaps. It may be yours, but the house, the furniture, strain toward the universal and it will soon read like a stage direction: Setting—Boston. The law will be obeyed. Chests, tables, dishes, domestic habits fall into line.
Sleepless Nights is a book of “transformed and even distorted memory”: but “if only one knew what to remember or pretend to remember.” What the narrator does remember is a series of splinters from a life, often very like the life of Elizabeth Hardwick (whose name she shares too). That is, the reader is encouraged to confuse the book with a fractured memoir. In his introduction, Geoffrey O’Brien observes that
Sleepless Nights might be taken as an exploration of the problem of genre, the problem of distinguishing fiction from what is so coarsely described as ‘nonfiction’, except that the book is more like a demonstration that the problem is illusory.
The spot-memories which the book explores are intense through brevity. Real figures, such as Billie Holiday, come and go along with old flatmates such as ‘J.’, who barely appeared on the page before he died in a traffic accident, when a car “rushed into an ecstatic terrorism against J.’s neat, clerkly life at the curb.” Time passes and repasses, back and forward, “a decade falling like snow on top of another, soundless.” It is a bold, admirable work which I found quite impossible to appreciate fully – or to write about adequately. To redress the balance, I offer you a helpful contemporary review of Sleepless Nights, which compares it with Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.
Gerard Woodward: August
If, as Alan Bennett says, “all families have a secret: they’re not like other families,” then Gerard Woodward’s Joneses top the table for idiosyncratic individuality, with a glue-sniffing mother and a psychopathic pianist son, and everyone else (and those two as well) an alcoholic. Ever since reading, and loving, I’ll Go to Bed at Noon a couple of years ago, I’ve been eager to read August (2001), the first volume in the trilogy. Eager but reluctant, for fear that it might disappoint.
It disappointed. It didn’t strike me as being near the high standard of I’ll Go to Bed at Noon – but then, what is? Indeed, if I had read August first, as intended by Woodward, I don’t know that I would have gone on to read the second volume.
This is not to say that it’s bad. It’s well-written, with the peculiar and seductive mixture of compassion and wit that Woodward does so well. Perhaps part of the problem was the structure, which loosely describes the family’s camping holiday in Wales each summer during the 1960s. Really, however, the meat of each section is in the flashbacks, which means there’s a lot of dense rehearsing rather than getting on with it: not something I object to in itself, but it did slow the reading down a lot for me.
As with I’ll Go to Bed at Noon, the central characters for me were Colette, the glue-sniffing mum, and her son Janus, a fascinating and frightening figure whose great giftedness for music we are never really given much evidence for. It’s horrible to read his taunting of the other family members, but impossible to tear yourself away.
‘I’d like to know why you did it.’
‘I’d like to know,’ Janus lowered his binoculars, the eyepieces having left a pair of red pince-nez on his nose, ‘why you were intimate with my father.’
Janus’s eyes looked stupidly small. Colette bent forward with incredulous laughter and repeated the word ‘intimate’ to rehear its quaintness.
‘Am I embarrassing you?’ said Janus.
‘You’re embarrassing yourself.’
‘Am I causing you pain?’
‘Only of laughter.’
‘Sometimes I feel it is my vocation to cause you pain to counterbalance the pleasure you had in conceiving me.’
It’s all downhill from here, and knowing where the story is leading probably did not help. My fault perhaps, as much as Woodward’s. I will certainly read A Curious Earth, the third volume of the trilogy, but with a lot less urgency and excitement than that with which I approached August.
April 24, 2009
It’s typical of my wrongheaded priorities that the only time I’ve been inclined to read a book by Daphne du Maurier – author of Rebecca! Creator of The Birds! – was when I saw a book of her stories issued in Penguin Modern Classics. That volume – Don’t Look Now and other stories – was a collection published in her lifetime (original UK title: Not After Midnight). Other than the title story, I had mixed feelings about it. Now the du Maurier estate have clearly decided to have another crack at my defences, with a double whammy of a selection of her stories chosen by Patrick McGrath, and published by NYRB Classics.
I felt the stories here – nine of them, filling 360 pages – to be of better quality than the Penguin book – which they well might be, as a sort of best-of. Having read the title story, I can see why the film it inspired – which I haven’t seen – is so famous (and not because of the realistic sex: none of that between these covers): it’s brilliantly creepy and sinister, wonderfully reducing Venice from city of romance to a tawdry, soiled backdrop for cruelty and paranoia. I knew the vague bones of the story – dead child, couple go on hols to recuperate, spooky goings-on, child in red cloak omnipresent, lots of water – and that’s all you need to know too if you’re a newcomer like me. The opening line is good:
“Don’t look now,” John said to his wife, “but there are a couple of old girls two tables away who are trying to hypnotise me.”
- and, cleverly, is actually a joke and not a sinister opening … only for it to become sinister very quickly. The only weak point is the very last sentence, which risks reducing the whole thing to bathos – it’s very badly judged and should have been removed, leaving the penultimate sentence to do its unsettling work.
Du Maurier’s other most famous story, ‘The Birds’, comes next. It’s a story that’s hard to come to fresh, so famous has the Hitchcock adaptation become (achieving the sort of cultural osmosis so that even people who haven’t seen the film know what it’s about). This doesn’t matter, as it’s quite different, and better, in written form. The build-up of atmosphere is superb, and it ends up a Wyndhamesque thing, bleak, apocalyptic and really quite frightening. And English. As with Wyndham, too, du Maurier’s characters tend to be stout, hearty types, everymen to whom strange things happen. McGrath in his intro calls ‘The Birds’ “a starting point in the popularisation of an entire genre of environmental-catastrophe narratives” – or perhaps not quite the starting point, as it was published a year after The Day of the Triffids. (‘The Birds’ in fact exceeds Day of the Triffids as a concept – where Wyndham had to blind everyone to make plants threatening, flying creatures with sharp beaks need no such assistance.)
Endings are one of the strengths of du Maurier’s stories, particularly when they open the story up further rather than closing it down. This is exhibited well in ‘Blue Lenses’ which, like many of the stories here, could be summed up in a single sentence, a high-concept pitch. The one where the birds start attacking people. The one where the woman gets her sight back but... This simplicity in summary risks making them seem one-dimensional, and some of the time I couldn’t help thinking that critics were right when they “dismissed with a sneer” her work, as du Maurier unhappily put it. Like Nevil Shute, she is a popular writer with just enough critical kudos to drift in and out of print. But there is more here too. ‘Blue Lenses’ has a faintly silly premise, but it succeeds where others do not because it offers not only an indication of life extending beyond the story (the last lines are deliciously suggestive) but beneath the story too.
‘Split Second’, by contrast, spends most of its 55 pages treading water so that the characters can gradually catch up to what the reader had worked out early on (in fact they never do quite catch up). The same goes for ‘Escort’, a moment of crisis on a wartime ship. In a way this playing for time is a necessary motif of suspense stories – the slow building of atmosphere is an essential element of such work, and in that sense requires a little length to get going – but the problem is expectations. The sort of supernatural or sci-fi elements that arise here might be surprising in a story read out of the blue, here we know that in a du Maurier story that sort of thing is de rigueur, and so I just kept thinking, ‘Get on with it!’
Some of the stories resemble Roald Dahl’s adult fiction – his ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ – though lack his skittish charm. Du Maurier wrote her short works throughout her writing life, between the 1920s and the 1980s, but all have a period feel, slightly fusty and formal. Weakest of all are a couple of early works, a dozen pages or less each and pretty unmemorable.
However the last story, and longest at 80 pages, ‘Monte Verita’ is every bit the equal of ‘Don’t Look Now’ and ‘The Birds’ – and even, with its novella length, has the scope to dig a little deeper than those, and be more unusual still. Instead of Roald Dahl I was reminded of Stefan Zweig – story of two obsessions, one we can see the workings of and one we can’t. Like the others, it is best discovered page by page, so I will say nothing more of it, or of the book, except that now I’ve covered a selection of du Maurier’s short fiction, all I need now is to find a way into her novels. Any recommendations?