Month: October 2008

Hjalmar Söderberg: Doctor Glas

I saw Hjalmar Söderberg’s novel Doctor Glas on display as a staff recommendation in a provincial bookstore – the sort of shop where otherwise it’s wall-to-wall 3-for-2s – and I was so surprised that I bought it, just to encourage them. Here in the UK, it remains available only in hardback, which seems a shame; then again, as it’s been reprinted five times in five years in this pricey format, the publishers (the redoubtable Harvill) must know what they’re doing. The cover suggests an imminent screen adaptation starring Kirsten Dunst.

Doctor Glas is over a century old – published in Sweden in 1905 – but shows no signs of its age. What it does show is perfect attention to detail and judgement by its author, beginning with the structure: the story spans a long summer into autumn, opening with oppressive sun (“A sultry heat-wave since mid-May. All day a thick cloud of dust hangs unmoving over streets and market-places”) and closing with the relief of imminent snow (“It will be welcome. Let it come. Let it fall”).

In between, our eponymous narrator, a Stockholm physician, creates a stifling atmosphere from the outpourings of his feverish mind. It demands release. The object of his passion is the wife of the local clergyman, Gregorius; but what, we wonder, does he really know about such things?

I feel as if at this moment no one in the world is lonelier than I – I, Tyko Gabriel Glas, doctor of medicine, who at times help others, but have never been able to help myself, and who, at past thirty years of age, have never been near a woman.

The problem is that “not till late did my senses awaken and by then my will was already a man’s,” suggesting a developmental disturbance in Glas’s emotional maturity. This passion born of ignorance becomes an obsession with Glas, so that as early as page 5, he is declaring that “if, by pressing a button in the wall, I could kill that clergyman, I do believe I should do it.” Even so, he has enough self-awareness to see that what really drives him (and, he believes, almost everything else in the world) “isn’t love. It’s the dream of love.”

As he struggles with his own desires, Glas is exercising a godly power over his patients (“human life, it swarms around us on every hand”), such as when refusing a local woman an abortion. In fact Doctor Glas was initially controversial on publication one hundred years ago, viewed as promoting abortion and euthanasia, probably through passages like this:

The day will come, must come, when the right to die is recognised as far more important and inalienable a human right than the right to drop a voting ticket into a ballot box. And when that time is ripe, every incurably sick person – and every “criminal” also – shall have the right to the doctor’s help, if he wishes to be set free.

In fact it seems to me that here, Glas is both expressing his own interest in that right, and indulging in a little projection in order to justify his murderous feelings toward Gregorius. The clergyman’s wife has secured Dr Glas’s complicity in telling her husband that he must not exercise his conjugal rights (he diagnoses separate bedrooms for at least six months), but Glas is horrified and envious to discover that she has a young lover. “Life, I do not understand you,” is his refrain.

Glas is a tremendous creation, primed full of angst and misanthropy, and then set running by his torrid feelings of hatred, envy and lust. Just as he struggles to distinguish duty from desire, his moral responses are so muddled that he revels in any heightened emotion, not distinguishing good from bad. When he carries out a terrible act,

I feel light, empty, like a blown egg. … And I had to ask myself: What you’ve done today – is that all there has been inside you, is nothing left? … I felt no guilt. There is no guilt. The shiver I felt was the same as I sometimes feel from great and serious music, or very solitary and elevated thoughts.

Thoughts are what drive Dr Glas, for good or ill. “Thought is an acid, eating us away,” he observes, as his long summer nears its end. Then again, if there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so, we must wonder why all Dr Glas’s thoughts turn in one direction, and to what extent he is in control of his thoughts and desires, and to what extent they control him. If all thought is corrosive, just as all heightened sensation justifies itself, then there is a pattern of absolutism in Dr Glas’s thinking, which leads only to tragedy for him and those whose trust he holds.

We want to be loved; failing that, admired; failing that, feared; failing that, hated and despised. At all costs we want to stir up some sort of feeling in others. Our soul abhors a vacuum. At all costs it longs for contact.

Doctor Glas, regarded as Söderberg’s masterpiece, has inspired two other novels that I know of. Bengt Ohlsson’s novel Gregorius (2004) was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Award and tells the ‘backstory’ of Glas’s rival. Dannie Abse’s novel The Strange Case of Dr Simmonds and Dr Glas (longlisted for the Booker Prize, 2002) has a protagonist in a similar situation to Dr Glas, who is inspired by Söderberg’s book. I hope to read the latter soon.

James Salter: Solo Faces

James Salter was my biggest revelation of last year, when I read his novel Light Years in March and immediately knew that nothing else would touch it for the next nine months (a self-fulfilling prophecy). His is a sparse output, and I was happy to wait until now to read his last novel, Solo Faces, just reissued by Penguin in their Modern Classics range. By ‘last’ I mean most recent, though that’s misleading as the book was published in 1979. Salter says he has another novel on the way – “it’s going to be terrific. Maybe. It could be” – but at 83, and averaging one book a decade, ‘last’ could also mean last.

Solo Faces continues Salter’s practice of writing about peculiarly male occupations: flying fighter planes, mountaineering, adultery. However this is the polar opposite of lad lit, and his prose, although spare, is too exquisite to invite comparisons with Hemingway. We see from the opening paragraph that he is a master of rhythm:

They were at work on the roof of the church. All day from above, from a sea of light where two white crosses crowned twin domes, voices came floating down as well as occasional pieces of wood, nails, and once in the dreamlike air a coin that seemed to flash, disappear, and then shine again for an endless moment before it met the ground.

So here we are: man’s work, roofing a church, at a precarious height. Among the workers is Rand, his solid, blunt, mildly suggestive name summing him up in a syllable. As he saves a colleague’s life in the opening chapter (“Just at that moment the world gave way – his foot slipped off the cleat. Instantly he was falling”), the scene is set.

Rand, feeling trapped in America (“he had stood at society’s edge envying its light and warmth, wanting to be part of it, determined not to be”), in and out of casual relationships (“he hadn’t yet learned that something always comes to save you”), travels to Europe to be alone and to enter into unarmed combat with the great mountains of France. They are described with awestruck glory: “a great dome of rock, its shoulders gleaming in the sun … so immense that it cannot be seen” – and then there is Mont Blanc:

It seemed to drown him, to rise with an infinite slowness like a wave above his head. There was nothing that could stand against it, nothing that could survive. Through crowded terminals, cities, rain, he had carried certain hopes and expectations, vague but thrilling. He was dozing on them like baggage, numbed by the journey, and then, at a certain moment, the clouds had parted to reveal in brilliant light the symbol of it all. His heart was beating in a strange, insistent way, as if he were fleeing, as if he had committed a crime.

Salter does not compromise just as Rand does not compromise. He presents his hero mythically (“he looked like a figure in medieval battle, lost in the metal din, in glinting planes of sunshine, dust that rose like smoke”) and – to coin a phrase – asympathetically. Rand, like the book he fills corner to corner, can be maddening, full of himself, but also admirable for his lack of compromise and his willingness to engage in battle with the world and himself. He quotes Colette – “il faut payer” – and Rand does pay for his obsession, by sacrificing stability. One lover puts it succinctly:

“Going from woman to woman, from place to place, like a dog in the street, that fulfils you?”

Well, we know what fulfils Rand (“when he climbed, life welled up, overflowed in him”), but in time he must face not only other people who share his passion, but the consequences of greatness: renown, attention, even immortality.

Salter writes so well that during the many climbing scenes in Solo Faces, the very air seems to chill and thin. Yet it is Rand’s inscrutability which drives the book and the reader. In literary fiction it is unusual to read a character so defined by masculinity, so that Rand can seem less a presence than an absence, defined most clearly in others’ reactions to him. His self-involvement might seem like a particular type of maleness itself. When he does experience a connection – with another as solitary as him – it is epiphanic, and it derives from the place – the top of a mountain – as much as the person.

There was an understanding between them, the kind that has its roots at the very source of life. There were days they would always remember: immense, heart-breaking effort and at the top, what rapture, they had shaken each other’s hand with glowing faces, their very being confirmed.

John Fante: Wait Until Spring, Bandini

John Fante is one of those writers I thought I didn’t need to read, so easily summarised is he by those who have never opened one of his books. Perm three from poverty; Italian-American; slacker; Bukowksi; Los Angeles. Then I read his most famous novel Ask the Dust, and was shamed by my prejudices. Even so, one of the abiding characteristics I remembered was that it was a breeze to read, and so it was to Fante that I returned recently when my head was filled with non-literary concerns and I wanted something digestible to get down.

Wait Until Spring, Bandini [1938] was Fante’s first novel, and was – as they didn’t say in those days – the prequel to Ask the Dust, which was published a year later. The speedy production of the books, and their fluent readability, might fool the reader into thinking them lightweight or disposable. In fact their durability and longevity is simply proved by the fact that they are still being read and written about 70 years later.

(Even that is a half-truth. The books are still in print and being read now, but they weren’t for most of Fante’s life until shortly before his death in 1983, when his work was rediscovered with the help of Charles Bukowski. His son Dan Fante, in an introduction to this edition, attributes the initial failure of Ask the Dust to the fact that Fante’s publisher was penniless from being sued by Adolf Hitler around the same time.)

The book brings us into the bosom of the Bandini family, Italian-Americans eking their way through the Depression in California. They run up credit with their neighbourhood grocer, who “pitied [them] with that cold pity small businessmen show to the poor as a class.” Fante concentrates on father and son, Svevo and Arturo Bandini. Svevo is a chancer, dodging obligations legal, social and holy:

Svevo said, if God is everywhere, why do I have to go to church on Sunday? Why can’t I go down to the Imperial Poolhall? Isn’t God down there, too?

He struggles to make ends meet for his family, and “his only escape lay in a streak of good luck.” Well, he has luck of a sort with the Widow Hildegarde, for whom he does well-paid odd jobs (“Eight o’clock, and he was at the Widow’s again. In a blue dressing gown he found her, fresh and smiling her good morning”). He still finds time to pay attention to his wife, Maria.

The big bubble they chased toward the sun exploded between them, and he groaned with joyous release, groaned like a man glad he had been able to forget for a little while so many things, and Maria, very quiet in her little half of the bed, listened to the pounding of her heart and wondered how much he had lost at the Imperial Poolhall.

Meanwhile son Arturo has an obsession, a girl named Rosa, for whom “he felt a streak of electricity in his stomach. He caught his breath in ecstatic fright.” Anyway

she hated him. He was an altar boy, but he was a devil and hated altar boys. He wanted to be a good boy, but he was afraid to be a good boy because he was afraid all his friends would call him a good boy.

And he is conflicted between his Catholic upbringing and his worldly thoughts for Rosa (“he was gasping not only at the horror of his soul in the sight of God, but at the startling ecstasy of that new thought”).

What all this makes clear is that even when the subject matter is well-trodden ground – coming-of-age, grinding poverty, domestic blitz – Fante invests it with a simplicity and force which is invigorating. It’s an unfair comparison, and I know I’m slaughtering a sacred cow here, but as tales of the Depression go, I found it a lot less stodgy and sentimental than The Grapes of Wrath. From miserable subject matter, Fante makes cheering reading.  The plain beauty of his language for most of the book makes the occasional fine phrase stand out all the more vividly, as when Arturo laments his “face spotted with freckles like ten thousand pennies poured over a rug.”

Gert Hofmann: Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl

Poet and translator Michael Hofmann has been cited before on this blog as a reliable source of reading – he wouldn’t waste his time, so I won’t be wasting mine – but I wondered if his judgement might be clouded when it comes to his father. Gert Hofmann has had his final three novels translated by his son: this, published in 1994 following Hofmann’s early death at the age of 62, was the last. Until now we’ve had to rely on an (admittedly handsome) US edition from New Directions. This month, the book is finally published in the UK by CB Editions. Its cover is elegant if plain, but might have an austere 1950s charm appropriate to these credit-crunched times.

The book itself is a fancy and a beauty. We are prepared for – or forewarned of – what to expect from the opening paragraph.

Once, many many years ago, Professor Lichtenberg pulled on his lecture coat and headed out. He wanted to see what the weather was doing. Because he was a vain fellow, he had silver buttons on his lecture coat. From time to time, he would lose one. Then he would go crawling around his apartment in the wing of the house on the Gotmarstrasse, crying: Where has it got to now? As he scrabbled around among the chair legs, one thing became clear: he had a hunchback! Quick, let’s write about it!

The hunchback was enormous!

At once we are in a conspiracy where the narrator shares the skittish, disarming charm of the character of Lichtenberg, and the boundaries between author and character – and even reader – are blurred. And why not, since Lichtenberg was a real person (though the only place I had seen his name before was in the catalogue of NYRB Classics): an 18th century polymath who is depicted by Hofmann as having the childish curiosity of great genius. Around him the world is flooded with Enlightenment discoveries:

How quickly progress was being made all over the world! In England they were assessing the effect of electricity on the growth of plants and animals. How it made everything shoot up! Only cats failed to thrive and shrivelled up!

Lichtenberg himself investigates: “He made some extraordinary discoveries that later all turned out to be wrong.” Yet for all his interest in the outside world, it is Lichtenberg’s ability to look in on himself which gives the book balance. He has self-awareness enough to know his physical limitations: four feet nine inches, hunchbacked, with “awful teeth,” lying about his age (“My poor spirit happens to have been poured into a miserable vessel”). However he lacks understanding of social mores and falls in love with a thirteen-year-old flower seller (22 years his junior): “a girl had ‘crawled into him, and was spreading out’.”

Hofmann’s task here is to prevent Lichtenberg from seeming like a sexual predator, to maintain the reader’s compact with this charming man. This is as significant an achievement as Nabokov’s ability to gain sympathy for Humbert in the closing chapters of Lolita. In fact it is more significant: Hofmann has balanced the tone of the story delicately so far largely through a wild overuse of exclamation marks, which results in an inversion of the usual rules. Now a full stop, relatively rare, seems to be making a dramatic point, and when Lichtenberg’s lover, ‘the Stechardess’, makes a plain plea as they consummate their relationship –

Don’t hurt me, she said.

– it brings back Isaac Babel’s dictum that “No iron can stab the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place.” Thereafter, in this exceptional central scene, even the formerly charming exclamation marks have a chilly, seductive horror to them:

When she was finally naked, and he pulled her to him, he saw she was still a child. She got quite beside herself, throwing her little head from side to side and and crying: No! No! He said: Wait! and blew out the last candle.

What happened next was the laborious, brutal and bloody business!

And then? as the Stechardess would say, to drive Lichtenberg to tell her more of his life. Then we have an acute understanding of the contradictory impulses of the human heart and brain. “Ideas are … the backdrop to the world. Everything takes place in front of a prospect of ideas.” But Lichtenberg finds that, once admired for the beauty of his lover, “there wasn’t much left of the sympathy he had once enjoyed as a cripple.”

When comic novels are rarely done, and even more rarely done well, Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl is a breath of air, a carefully chaotic representation of real life through the prism of a fictionalised historical character, complete with cheeky bracketed birth and death dates for its secondary characters. “The times were, like all times, extraordinary,” observes Hofmann. And his book, unlike many others, is too. The only problem lies in the question you ask when you want to find something else to read that’s as lively, charming and cheering.

And then?

Cynthia Ozick: The Puttermesser Papers

I so admired Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl earlier this year that I picked up several of her other books: Collected Stories, her last novel The Bear Boy (Heir to the Glimmering World in the US), and this book. Recent discussion of Philip Roth on my blog, and an attempt to identify great American female writers on another, inspired me finally to start working my way through them.

I should explain why Roth makes me think of Ozick (and vice versa). They are perhaps superficial reasons: the two are rough contemporaries (in fact Ozick, born in 1928, is five years Roth’s senior); they are American Jewish writers who frequently address what it means to be Jewish and American; but there is something else too. There is a vigour and pulse in their prose which seems to me alike: not least, their ability to use exclamation marks in serious, funny writing a way that doesn’t appal. As well as that, Ozick is an admirer of Roth’s. She singles out a passage in American Pastoral for praise:

The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we are alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that – well, lucky you.

And Roth is an admirer of Ozick’s. OK: I’ve never read that he is. But I’m safely assuming. If he’s not, he must be nuts.

Further commonality with Roth lies in the clear intelligence and vim in Ozick’s writing which seems like wit even when it’s not being funny. She can turn it up apparently without effort, whether writing about mother-daughter relations, office politics, golems, anti-semitism or the decline of traditional Jewish life:

The shul was not torn down, neither was it abandoned. It disintegrated. Crumb by crumb it vanished. Stones took some of the windows. There were no pews, only wooden folding chairs. Little by little these turned into sticks. The prayer books began to flake: the bindings flaked, the glue came unstuck in small brown flakes, the leaves grew brittle and flaked into confetti. The congregation too began to flake off – the women first, wife after wife after wife, each one a pearl and a consolation, until there they stand, the widowers, frail, gazing, palsy-struck. Alone and in terror. Golden Agers, Senior Citizens! And finally they too flake away, the shammes among them. The shul becomes a wisp, a straw, a feather, a hair.

But The Puttermesser Papers is primarily a comic novel, if it’s a novel at all. The five long stories here were published independently, but give us slices of the life of Ruth Puttermesser (the name means ‘butter-knife’, hence the hideous UK paperback cover which I have not shown here out of plain decency), in her 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s (“All things fallen, elasticity gone. Age had turned Puttermesser on its terrible hinge”) and, finally, “one moment before her death.”

Puttermesser is cerebral, unclubbable, idealistic. She gets people wrong and cannot just “go along for the ride.” (“Her teachers told her mother she was “highly motivated,” “achievement oriented.” Also she had “scholastic drive.” Her mother wrote all these things down in a notebook, kept it always, and took it with her to Florida in case she should die there.”) She struggles in the world of work (“Brilliant students make good aides”) and at parties (with “babble battering at the ceiling”) and she has not been favoured with physical beauty. Her “hair came in bouncing scallops, layered waves from scalp to tip, like imbricated roofing tile.” Then again, she doesn’t do herself any favours even when she does find love – or something like it. She loses her lover Rappoport for her love of Plato:

“If you know I have a plane to catch, how come you want to read in bed?”

“It’s more comfortable than the kitchen table.”

“Ruth, I came to make love to you!”

“All I wanted was to finish the Theaetetus first.”

She loses her job too. Working for lawyers, “she loved the law and its language. She caressed its meticulousness,” but she doesn’t fit in, with her dislike of the inequities of capitalism (“Page after page of cars, delicately imprinted chocolates, necklaces, golden whiskey. Affluence while the poor lurked and mugged … in covert pools of blackness released the springs of their bright-flanked switchblades”) and her dreams of

an ideal Civil Service: devotion to polity, the citizen’s sweet love of the citizenry, the light rule of reason and common sense, the City as a miniature country crowded with patriots – not fools and jingoists, but patriots true and serene; humorous affection for the idiosyncracies of one’s distinctive little homeland, each borough itself another homeland, joy in the Bronx, elation in Queens, O happy Richmond!

My greatest recommendation for this book is that, as you can see, all I want to do is pull quotes from it: and we’re only up to page 30. There is plenty of event in the subsequent 200 pages, when Puttermesser creates a golem which helps her become Mayor of New York, though a brief investigation of the traditional golem story will alert the reader – but not the bookish Puttermesser – to the dangers. She falls in love again, and dreams (we are never sure what is really happening, and what is in Puttermesser’s head) her own experience as a parallel to George Eliot’s romance with George Lewes, their “clarified lives, without tumble or blur.” Not bad for a woman who, a few pages earlier, was rejecting personal ads in the New York Review of Books (“Must be brilliant, unpretentious, passionate, creative. Prefer Ph.D. in Milton, Shakespeare, or Beowulf”).

The Puttermesser Papers is a joy and a wonder, a multi-faceted toy and an intelligent entertainment, but not without its serious intent. The last chapter brings a gruesome end for Puttermesser, which will turn some stomachs but which also beautifully puts the tin hat on her uneasy relationship with reality and fantasy, and severs the story from its chronological underpinning. It works finally to reassure us, just about, that even for a misfit like Ruth Puttermesser, all the trouble and pain, confusion and disappointment is validated by the great gift and luck of life itself, of what Larkin called “the million-petalled flower / Of being here.”

Brian Moore: The Revolution Script

One thing which may have escaped anyone who started reading my blog recently is that I embarked last year on what it pleased me to call a Mooreathon, that is, a chronological work-through of the novels of Belfast-born, Canadian-citizen, US-resident Brian Moore. Moore was shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times, was Graham Greene’s favourite living novelist (at least during one interview), was sometime pals with Richard Yates (who envied Moore’s success), and wrote the script for Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain (which was neither Moore’s nor Hitch’s finest hour, but led to Moore’s final settlement in Malibu, where he died in 1999). So if, as they say, you’ve just joined us, go here for the earlier instalments.

I invite you to do that because The Revolution Script (1971) is a bad place to start. It’s unrepresentative of Moore’s novels, far from his best work (he subsequently disowned it, considering it ‘journalism’), and it has never been reprinted since its initial publication. Nonetheless, it is well worth investigating for the seasoned Moore fan.

Five years after the publication of In Cold Blood, The Revolution Script is Moore’s own attempt at a ‘non-fiction novel’, concerning events – entirely news to me, almost four decades later – in October 1970 in Canada (“America, yet not America. Canada, but not Canada. Québec”), when separatist movement the Front du Libération de Québec (FLQ) kidnapped a British commissioner and a government minister. The outcome is detailed in large part in the blurb (and completely in the Wiki link back there) but for the uninitiated there are some surprises.

The biggest one is that Moore before now had produced seven novels intensely examining one person’s life in a moment of crisis: the best of these, in my view, being Judith Hearne, Ginger Coffey, and The Emperor of Ice-Cream. Here, however, he breaks that form dramatically and paves the way for his late period thrillers (which accounted for two of his Booker listings: The Colour of Blood (1987) and Lies of Silence (1990)). The writing is not yet pared down as it would become, and the relinquishing of control on one character means that Moore spreads his characterisation a little thin.

To some extent this is inevitable. Although he gives some convincing portrayals of the public figures – such as the “media-created character, the swinging Prime Minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau” – the members of FLQ remain an unknown quantity. Moore in his foreword tells us that he interviewed friends of the kidnappers, and listened to their taped discussions, but the slightness of their characterisation suggests that Moore recognised what the kidnappers and Trudeau did:

The truth was, the kidnappers’ Marxist rhetoric could not comprehend the complexities of the situation: they could no more have imagined the bargaining, the manoeuvring, the jawboning necessary to secure the extraordinary measures now afoot than could Trudeau understand what it was like to be young, enraged, impotent. They would never understand him: he would never think to comprehend them.

This failure of communication and understanding runs through the story. When the kidnappers – whom Moore presents not unsympathetically – are ready to drop most of their demands and release their hostage, another group kidnaps a government minister and takes a much harder line. They adopt the FLQ label, muddying the outside perception of the group and threatening their indirect negotiations with the government. Then again, Moore’s representation of the kidnappers as raving kids playing revolutionaries may simply be accurate, if the “sour Mao dough of revolutionary cliché” in their sombre and pompous press releases – “communiqués” – is to be believed.

Certainly from what I can tell having now read a little around the subject, Moore presents the facts faithfully and all the documents and public pronouncements by the parties involved are on record. This includes what seems to be Prime Minister Trudeau’s most famous statement on the crisis, when asked how far he would go to stop the kidnappers: “Just watch me.” The world did watch, and Trudeau (“the tough in the back alley, his blood up, eager to fight”) invoked the War Measures Act, which the blurb helpfully defines as “the most repressive laws ever invoked in a democracy in peacetime.” The FLQ as presented in the book numbered about half a dozen people, but under the War Measures Act hundreds of innocent individuals are rounded up at the PM’s pleasure – which cannot but bring to mind parallels with the ‘War on Terror’.

As a novel, it all just about works, particularly when the pace picks up after the halfway point, and gives us some surprising developments along the way: we can guess the Canadian government didn’t have much experience of dealing with terrorists, and they are late in recognising the power of the oxygen of publicity. For a Moore reader, The Revolution Script is not of major interest in itself, but it is an interesting development and precursor to what he would later do (and had done before, as he began his career writing thrillers under assumed names). It may well have shaken him away from the habit of his earlier novels – his next book, Catholics, would be another departure. For those new to Moore, start here. Or elsewhere, if you see what I mean.

Jhumpa Lahiri: Unaccustomed Earth

I’ve heard so much about Jhumpa Lahiri in recent years, from praise for her debut (Pulitzer Prize-winning) collection of stories, Interpreter of Maladies, to the film adaptation of her novel The Namesake, that it was only a matter of time before I took the plunge. The publication of a new collection of stories in a fine edition and praise by trusted commenters on this blog, was the kick in the backside I needed.

The epigraph, and title, of Unaccustomed Earth comes from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘The Custom-House’:

Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.

It’s perfect for the book: here are eight stories of people who struck their roots into unaccustomed earth, either themselves or by their parents: typically Indian roots in America, sometimes via England (as in the case of Lahiri’s own parents). Contrary to Hawthorne’s prescription, not all of them are thriving.

All this is beautifully illustrated in the title story, the longest in the book at almost 60 pages. Here Ruma, in her late 30s, struggles to balance independence and family loyalty when her widowed father comes to visit.

“You’re always welcome here, Baba,” she’d told her father on the phone. “You know you don’t have to ask.” Her mother would not have asked. “We’re coming to see you in July,” she would have informed Ruma, the plane tickets already in hand. There had been a time in her life when such presumptuousness would have angered Ruma. She missed it now.

What Lahiri does so well in the story ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ is present people who are perfectly individual yet utterly recognisable, particular to their culture but universal in their character. She really does have families down pat. She knows how a father is never quite the same as a mother: “[Ruma] had never been able to confront her father freely, the way she used to fight with her mother. Somehow, she feared that any difference of opinion would chip away at the already frail bond that existed between them.” She understands the greatest unrequited love of all, that of parents for their children, when she expertly slips into the mind of Ruma’s father (who has a few surprises in store for his daughter too in the course of the story), who remembers how “tormented” he had been by his growing children’s appetite for independence:

That loss was in store for Ruma, too; her children would become strangers, avoiding her. And because she was his child he wanted to protect her from that, as he had tried throughout his life to protect her from so many things. He wanted to shield her from the deterioration that inevitably took place in the course of a marriage, and from the conclusion that he sometimes feared was true: that the entire enterprise of having a family, of putting children on this earth, as gratifying as it sometimes felt, was flawed from the start.

(In a later story, another parent is “plagued by his daughters’ vulnerability,” without seeing his own.) Loss and frustration takes a more familiar form in ‘Hell-Heaven’, a contender with ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ for strongest in the book. Here we have not only a tale of unspoken love which keeps its powder dry right up to the last page – and then catches fire – but the recurring question of belonging. Just as Ruma in the opening story cannot understand her father’s handwritten postcards (“her own Bengali was slipping from her”), here the daughter-narrator protests when her parents make her wear a shalwar kameez, making her American friends “assume … that I had more in common with other Bengalis than with them,” whereas she feels herself to be not only her mother’s daughter “but a child of America as well.”

If I had a criticism of these early stories, all of which are superb, it’s that I would have liked some balance of emphasis on the older generation, those who feel less attached to America and more of a pull with their homeland.  We get this only a little, with Ruma’s father in the title story.

The later stories delighted me less. ‘Nobody’s Business’ seems too glib and clever with its tale of housemates, dodgy boyfriends and mysterious callers (though it’s a measure of how well Lahiri executes her effects elsewhere that this story would have pride of place in many other authors’ collections). The three linked stories which close the book, under the umbrella title ‘Hema and Kaushik,’ somehow failed to engage me at all, putting me off partly I suspect with the first story’s curious use of first/second person narrative. This may have been a simple case of story fatigue on my part – 330 pages of stories is somehow more demanding than a novel the same length – and I did wonder if some of the stories should have been shorter. The stories in Unaccustomed Earth average 40 to 50 pages each, which for me makes it a struggle to read each in a sitting (surely the means for getting the best out of any story). I see that Lahiri’s previous collection managed to fit nine stories into 200 pages, so the stories were half the length of these. One commenter did recommend reading the closing trilogy first, and that might have helped. Meanwhile, I’ll be grateful for the considerable – the unaccustomed – pleasure I had from it, and try that reverse order next time around.