This Week In My Sabbatical: Bits and Pieces

escher12The most important bits and pieces at issue this week, sabbatical-wise, are those I’ve been breaking off from the large chunk of writing I worked on through January, February, and March. At 18,000+ words it was unwieldy for any purpose, including a potential book chapter, and it was always going to need pruning, but the more I stared at it the more it seemed to me that in putting everything I could think of into it, I had smothered rather than revealing its purpose. There were always some smaller parts that in my mind were the really key ones, so over the past week or so I experimentally cut them out and patched them together into something much smaller and more focused. Now I’m cautiously adding material to this new micro-version, trying to find the sweet spot at which the main idea is sufficiently amplified without being either tediously repetitive or blurry from extraneous details.

I have no idea if, strategically, it is right to be working on refining smaller pieces right now rather than churning out more messy rough material. It has certainly helped my day-to-day motivation and focus, but of course that might be relief at turning away from something more difficult (because more inchoate) rather than a sign that I’ve found my way. On the other hand, it is easier to build something larger out of good small pieces that (cross your fingers) have already been published than to go the other way. Also, as I’ve talked about here before, I’ve had ongoing doubts about whether my approach really lends itself to a book-length project, and this feeling had only been growing as I tried to work out my ideas in book-sized forms. I’m not abandoning a book as a possible outcome down the road, but right now it feels important that I just keep writing, and it turns out I feel much more comfortable doing that on a smaller scale. So I’ll keep doing that for a while and then take stock of the results.

todolistI’ve also been adding bits and pieces to my fall syllabi. I had vowed not to turn my attention to class prep until my sabbatical was over at the end of June (with the exception of book orders, which were due April 1). The temptation is very strong, though, because the tasks are so definite, and it’s a relief to do something so familiar. I also really enjoy preparing syllabi! It’s such an optimistic thing to do. My other justification for poking away a little at teaching stuff now is that neither of my fall classes exactly reiterates a previous offering. It’s true that I have taught them both before (I’m doing a section of one of our intro classes and a graduate seminar on George Eliot) — but the intro section is going to be the largest version I’ve ever done (it’s capped at 90), while I want to integrate some different ideas and materials into the graduate seminar. So both are going to take some careful planning, and, for the grad seminar, some advance reading. That’s a good excuse for drawing up some tentative schedules, at least, just to see what the options and challenges are going to be.

Untitled-2Finally, I’ve been reading in bits and pieces too. After I finished Station Eleven, I relaxed with some Julie James, whose romances usually amuse me — they are like reading romantic comedies. My favorite is Practice Makes Perfect (which should really be a movie already), but this time I picked up Just the Sexiest Man Alive, an early one that I hadn’t read before. It was just OK — I guess she got better with practice. Two things do bother me about her books, though, that were definitely problems in this case. One is that I think they are badly edited: there are recurrent errors, particularly confusing “lay” and “lie,” and there are also lots of examples of awkward exposition, as if nobody could think of a graceful way to give us relevant facts except to add “he said, referring to X” after a bit of dialogue. The other is that her people are just too good-looking: the men are always “tall, dark, and smoldering” (or, in a variation, “tall, dark, and glowering”) with great physiques, while her women are all stereotypically gorgeous, with long wavy hair, perfect skin, and dream bodies. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Or, actually, yes there is, because people who aren’t beautiful do in fact fall in love, and there’s something boring about perfection.

Then I decided it was time I try some of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse books, which (shockingly, I know) I haven’t read any of. This didn’t go well: I started at the beginning, as I usually do, with Last Bus to Woodstock, and I disliked Morse so intensely I had to stop. Is he always such a sexist pig, or does Dexter outgrow that?

HildNow I’m reading Nicola Griffith’s Hild and really enjoying it. It is giving me much the same trouble that King Hereafter did, as it is full of names I can’t pronounce* or remember, so I’m frequently confused about who is doing what to whom and why, but Hild herself is a brilliantly realized character, and the larger arc of the story is quite gripping. The prose, too, is really wonderful. The overall effect is kind of Dunnett-like, with the lavish details that sensually evoke a strange time and place, but the language is more poetic, with lighter exposition and more reliance on striking moments or images. At this point (about half way through) I’m particularly interested in the emphasis on reading as something that makes new kinds of communication possible, across distances but also between women, who are often separated from friends and family because of their roles as “peaceweavers,” used to create and sustain strategic alliances. The reading is going quite slowly, but now that I’m well into the book and have a sense of how it works, I think it will move faster for me. I’m looking forward to writing about it in more detail when I’m done.

*Updated: I have belatedly discovered a note on pronunciation at the end of the book — and a glossary! Very helpful. That will teach me not to read through the whole table of contents before starting the novel itself.

Between Two Worlds: Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

cover-station-elevenI surprised myself when I picked Station Eleven to read next — and in fact there’s a pretty close possible world in which I don’t read it because it has two big knocks against it: it’s post-apocalyptic fiction, which is not a genre I’m usually drawn to, and it’s a recent book by a hip young writer and has been getting a lot of hype, which tends to make me suspicious. “Time will tell,” says my inner curmudgeon; “read the book if people are still talking about it after the initial buzz dies down.”

Two things overcame these prejudices. One of them was remembering my experience reading (and then teaching) The Road. Clearly my initial recoil against the genre can be overcome — and if once, why not twice? And the other is that I happened to catch some of Shelagh Rogers’s interview with Emily St. John Mandel on CBC’s “The Next Chapter” and between them they made the book sound pretty interesting. Also, I am still not getting along very well with The World Before Us (which on the face if it is just the kind of book I usually do enjoy!) so when Station Eleven turned up as Kobo’s ‘deal of the day,’ the timing was perfect.

Station Eleven actually (inevitably, I guess) has a lot in common with The Road. Everybody in it is on the road, basically, or was, after what is commonly referred to as “the collapse,” until settling somewhere. There are abandoned cars, ransacked stores, and empty houses that are like ghostly remnants of the lost world. There are “feral” gangs and violent desperadoes. But everybody’s moving in a much less hostile landscape in Station Eleven, because the catastrophe was a flu virus that wiped out most of the world’s population but left the natural habitat unharmed (if mostly untended). There are forests and butterflies, cows and chickens, sunsets and clean lakes and rivers for washing and drinking. It’s a kinder, gentler dystopia! As a result there’s a hopeful strain running through the novel alongside the grief, terror, and nostalgia: civilization has collapsed, but there’s a chance it can be built up again, and the creativity and cooperation among at least some of the survivors is proof of that promise.

It’s still a pretty grim novel. How could it not be, with a death rate in the general population of something like 90%? The premise itself is plenty terrifying, more so in a way than McCarthy’s rather vague flash-and-bang disaster simply because its horror is more intimate and familiar: there have been flu pandemics before, and in today’s incessantly mobile world a truly deadly one could hardly be contained. Mandel effectively conjures up the disbelief, confusion, horror, and then gradual adaptation that follows the pandemic, as the assumption that eventually help (the Red Cross, the military) will show up — as it always has before — yields to the realization that this time it won’t, that everything has changed, that the old world really has given way to a new one. Her story includes people who remember both worlds, because they were adults when the collapse occurred; people who recall only fragments that they struggle to reconcile with their new lives; and then the new generation, those who have never used electricity or the internet or a phone or antibiotics, who know airplanes only as places to camp and cars only as obstacles. Which is better, her characters often wonder: to have known that other world, with all its wonders, and to have lost it? or to take the new stunted life for granted?

Like The RoadStation Eleven provokes fundamental questions about meaning, value, and identity. If you have lost everyone who once knew you, and can no longer do the work that once defined you, who are you? If you survive, what will you need to know, and what will you want to do? The novel’s main characters belong to The Symphony, a group of traveling actors and musicians who perform Beethoven and Shakespeare; their motto (taken from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager) is “Because Survival Is Insufficient,” which struck me at first as too pat but which ends up illuminating the range of things people do in this new, devastated world, not just to fill their time but to motivate and define themselves: starting a newspaper, creating a museum, putting on plays. Both the instinct to create and the desire to preserve take on fresh urgency in this context of loss and erasure: an awareness that other things were possible supports the belief that the terrible present too is not forever: “if there are symphonies and newspapers, then what else might this awakening world contain?”

Station Eleven turned out to be, then, a really engrossing read. And yet I actually found the general situation  of the novel — its big questions — more interesting than its specific plot, which by the end I found too contrived, too full of coincidences and connections that seemed unnecessarily clever, as if Mandel distrusted the simple humanity of her people to support the novel. She shouldn’t have: they are well drawn, and I wanted to know their stories and their fates. If the plot occasionally turned melodramatic, I suppose that comes with the post-apocalyptic territory (though did we really need a messianic cult, or a final confrontation at gunpoint?). There were some moments in the prose that struck me as lazy: phrases like “survived against unspeakable odds,” for instance. I also thought that, since everyone knows the novel’s premise going in, we could have done without heavy-handed proleptic announcements of impending doom, or painstaking enumerations of what’s lost (“No more cities. No more films … No more pharmaceuticals. . . No more countries … No more fire departments, no more police…”).

Or maybe I’m wrong about that last complaint, as both the vastness and the fragility of everything we could lose is truly hard to comprehend. Perhaps the most surprising thing about Station Eleven is that it celebrates, rather than excoriates, the way we live now, with its “taken-for-granted miracles that had persisted all around.” Ironically, it may be only in imagining “the end of the world as we know it” that we can understand how astonishing, even magical, that world really is.

Weekend Miscellany: Reading, Writing, Renos, and Buffy

IMG_0332Why does it seem as if my days are more miscellaneous than usual lately? I suppose one cause is the relative lack of routine that comes with being on sabbatical. This week was also another busy one in the kitchen make-over that we began in April: we finally got the countertop installed on Monday, which meant that the final plumbing and electrical work could get done on Tuesday. Hooray for having a proper sink again! All that remains to be done is the wall tile and then some touch-up painting, so I’ve been moving our plates and cups and pots and pans into the cabinets and getting back to cooking regular meals. The whole project was a lot of work, especially for my husband (who basically did all the work of a general contractor, plus a remarkable amount of research into fixtures and appliances), and also quite a bit of disruption, but we managed better than we’d feared with our temporary kitchen set-up and somewhat ad hoc menus including several casseroles that I made and froze ahead of time. It is nice to be putting things to rights again — and especially to have everything in the kitchen all shiny and new and in perfect working order!

I didn’t get a lot of really focused work done this week as a result of the commotion and distractions. But I did finish up and submit one writing project, and that means I’ve cleared the deck for another one with an early June deadline. (As that’s a book review for a book I haven’t actually received yet, I’m getting a bit anxious about the timing — I read (and reread, and write) pretty slowly when I’m doing a formal review. On the other hand, there’s nothing more motivating than a looming due date!) I had a work-related meeting to go to on Thursday and used the rest of my time on campus to do some administrative chores, like completing my Annual Report. This is actually a good stock-taking exercise, and it’s interesting to look back at earlier ones to see not just what I’ve accomplished but how the nature of my accomplishments has changed over time. I’m an examiner for a PhD comprehensive exam that’s taking place next week, so the committee has also been finalizing exam questions.

As for my reading, well, it has mostly been quite desultory since I finished Unbroken. I started Aislinn Hunter’s The World Before Us and was liking it fine until it turned out to be inhabited by some kind of ghosts or spirits — I guess by the time I finish it I will be better able to grasp why they seemed like something the novel needed, but at this point they just seem a rather twee distraction.

conradI put that book aside to concentrate on my book club reading for Monday, Conrad’s The Secret Agent (which we chose as a good follow-up to Lessing’s The Good Terrorist. It’s funny: there are markings in my copy that suggest I read it once before (presumably for an undergraduate course, as it has my unmarried name on the flyleaf and) but I have absolutely no recollection of doing so, or of any of its details. Once I got going I found it quite engrossing. I was also pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Conrad’s style, which struck me as conspicuously Dickensian here, in its flourishes and its imagery as well as in its evocation of London’s crowded streets and peculiar characters. It seems much clearer here than in Lessing that there’s no sympathy to be had for those who plot destruction. I found myself wondering if it would even be possible to write a novel that takes the other point of view. Generalizing about “the novel” is always risky, of course, and I’m sure someone will set me straight (Tom, probably) with examples that make nonsense of this suggestion, but the novel seems so directed towards individuals — and certainly both Lessing and Conrad emphasize that terrorism requires thinking instead about abstractions. The same is true (isn’t it?) about war: its requirements are dehumanizing, which is precisely the tendency great war novels such as All Quiet on the Western Front resist. I can imagine a novel that makes a much stronger case for political revolution or violence than either The Good Terrorist or The Secret Agent, but it certainly would need radicals who don’t speak in empty slogans, or appear either ridiculous (as both Michaelis or Ossipon, in their own ways, do) or flat out terrifying, like the Professor.

buffyFinally, I’ve been giving Buffy the Vampire Slayer another try, as I needed another TV show to distract me on the treadmill. (As it has warmed up — somewhat, some days — I’m almost ready to start running outside again, though I’m a bit wary because I’m still struggling with leg and foot pain, diagnosed in the fall as a variety of tendinitis, and the switch to running on pavement last summer seems to have been one cause.) This is my third attempt at Buffy, and it’s motivated by knowing how many of my friends think the show is just great. I’m about 5 episodes into Season 1, which is three further than I’ve ever made it before, but I’m still really turned off by how cheesy the vampires (and other supernatural beings) are, by the hokey melodramatic plots about them, by the cliched dialogue (I realize some of it is tongue-in-cheek), and by the rest of the show basically seeming like a low-grade teen drama. I guess my question for Buffy fans is: does it change? or is this what it’s like, and I either have to get in the groove or go back to watching The West Wing for the fourth time? Maybe I’m just too earnest for its arch style, or too literal for its blood-sucking, shape-shifting gimmickry.

“He had survived”: Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken

unbrokenI finished Unbroken last night in a good long stretch of reading — it’s a testament to the inherent drama of the story and the pace, if not necessarily the style, of its telling that I wasn’t tempted away from it by the myriad distractions that are always lurking. And this is in spite of knowing more or less how it turns out, since it’s no secret that Louis Zamperini survived his many ordeals. The title itself is kind of a spoiler too, isn’t it? But it’s also a key to Hillenbrand’s theme, and probably to the book’s commercial success: Unbroken seems somehow such an archetypal American success story, with its athlete-turned-soldier hero facing both physical and spiritual hardships, refusing to bow down to tyranny, and ultimately triumphing while learning to give thanks to God. It would be a string of clichés if it weren’t all true!

Even knowing the story was true didn’t keep me from sometimes feeling its details were just a bit too pat, and I ended up feeling that there was something overdetermined, not about Zamperini’s experience (which wouldn’t make any sense) but about his story being the one Hillenbrand tells. I was glad when, late in the book, she alludes to a feature of the book that is at once inevitable and problematic: talking about Allen Phillips, who also survived the crash of their B-24, who drifted across the ocean and into captivity along with Louie, and who then lived through an equally hellish captivity, Hillenbrand says,

He never returned to Japan, and he seemed, outwardly, free of resentment. The closest thing to it was the flicker of irritation that people thought they saw in him when he was, almost invariably, treated as a trivial footnote in what was celebrated as Louie’s story.

There’s nothing wrong in principle, of course, with focusing on one man among many, and the celebrity sparkle of Louie’s Olympic history makes him a natural choice, but even in Unbroken we meet a lot of other soldiers whose stories sound like they deserve their own books, and many of their stories are in fact literally condensed into footnotes, and after a while the spotlight on Louie started to seem pretty arbitrary to me. I don’t mean in any way to diminish his courage, but I wasn’t convinced that his story really was as extraordinary as all that, given the company he clearly kept.

I realize this isn’t really a fair criticism: Hillenbrand’s book simply is about Louie — he’s her protagonist, and why not? Focusing on him also lets her do things that a historical, rather than biographical, approach could not: although she does tell us quite a bit about the larger numbers and broader contexts, zooming in on the harrowing experience of one individual keeps things personal. It’s precisely the strategy often heralded in historical novels — it’s exactly what, to pick a non-random example, The Narrow Road to the Deep North does. Or Waverley, which Carlyle praised for teaching us that “the by-gone ages of the world were actually filled by living men, not by protocols, state-papers, and abstractions of men.” Or, for that matter, All Quiet on the Western Front. Instead of soldiers, we get one particular soldier, and that helps us grasp just what the war was like. (To be fair to Hillenbrand, too, she does try to do justice, if only in passing, to the other men whose stories are incidental to her main narrative, especially Phillips.)

thelostEven granting that it’s perfectly legitimate to single out one person, one story, though, I think Hillenbrand could have made something more — something greater — out of her materials if she’d made that selectivity a more self-conscious part of her book. Unbroken is a really competent account of Zamperini’s war-time experiences, but that’s all it is. Given the research and other labor involved in putting it together, that’s still an accomplishment. But once I started thinking about the stories not told, I couldn’t help comparing Hillenbrand’s fairly pedestrian result (philosophically, intellectually) with Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost, which also focuses on one story at the expense of many, many others, but which is always aware, even haunted, by its own exclusions. Here’s what I said in my post on The Lost,

Early in the book Mendelsohn points out that “it is naturally more appealing to readers to absorb the meaning of a vast historical event through the story of a single family.” Such, clearly, is the strategy of this book. And yet we are often reminded, because Mendelsohn too is often reminded (sometimes, deservedly, harshly), that in focusing so exclusively on six of six million, others whose lives were equally “specific” are being sidelined, turned into secondary characters. He interviews Jack Greene, “born Grunschlag,” who once dated Ruchele:

I can tell you, he began, that Ruchele perished on the twenty-ninth of October 1941.

I was startled, and immediately afterward moved, by the specificity of this memory.

I said, Now let me just ask you, why–because you remember the date so specifically–why do you remember the date?

As I wrote down Ruchele–>Oct 29 1941, I thought to myself, He must have really loved her.

Jack said, Because my mother and older brother perished on the same day.

I said nothing. We are each of us, I realized, myopic; always at the center of our own stories.

There is no way, of course, to include every story, but Mendelsohn’s strategy of frequently spiralling away from the “main” narrative, following memories and anecdotes as they come into his mind or come from those he is interviewing, is a constant reminder that each story we do hear is one branch on a vast spreading tree. The sheer scope of the horror and loss would be overwhelming even if it were possible to represent it all, so instead we get glimpses, again and again, so that like Mendelsohn himself, though we are focusing on the Jagers, we can never forget that there were many, many others.

The Lost is a very different book from Unbroken — in many ways, but especially in its attempt to do more than simply reconstruct a series of events. Instead, it uses those events, and Mendelsohn’s own attempts to find out about them, as opportunities for deeper explorations into questions of memory, loss, and meaning. I think The Lost is a truly great book; Unbroken just tells a good (gripping, sometimes shocking, neatly uplifting) story. I don’t think Hillenbrand tried and failed to do more — rather than faulting her for her straightforward journalistic approach, I’m really expressing my renewed appreciation for what else nonfiction can do.

The Past Couple of Weeks In My Sabbatical: Various!

How’s that for a vague title for a blog post? But it is accurate, really: for the past couple of weeks my attention and energy have been focused on a range of different things. I  haven’t felt inspired to write a sabbatical update for a while precisely because my activities seemed so miscellaneous, and not that variable, either, from week to week. But it seems like time to round things up.

First, some good news! One of the questions Jo asks us at each ‘Meeting With Your Writing‘ session is how we’d like to feel while we’re working. At the top of each new entry in my MWYW notebook is my answer, which has become a kind of mantra for me this term: “engaged, optimistic, productive.” It’s optimism that has given me the most trouble, what with winter and all, but sometimes it has also been hard to tell if I’m being productive because I haven’t been quite clear on my goals. The past week has been a particularly good one in all these respects, though, because I decided on a concrete task I wanted to accomplish that turned out to be really fun to work on. Imagine that: I have been enjoying writing! In fact, it came so (relatively) easily and has caused, so far, so little hair-tearing and second-guessing that I’m starting to think I must have gone horribly astray. It’s a subset of the larger plans I have been following for the George Eliot book project, something I thought would work well at essay-length. It’s now in a reasonably clean draft awaiting a final round of editing and revision. We’ll see what becomes of it, but right now I’m just happy and energized by the experience of pulling it together.

In other good news, the May issue of Open Letters Monthly went up on schedule; if you haven’t already checked it out, I hope you will! As always, the pieces range very widely — more widely, we think, than in most other literary journals. Books reviewed include Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, Ian Bostridge’s Schubert’s Winter Journey, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, and Helen Vendler’s The Ocean, The Bird, and the Scholar; John Cotter contributed a thought-provoking essay on the possibility that the gigantic glass atrium at Boston’s MFA is a symptom of our changing relationship with art; Steve Donoghue tests (as only he can) the claims of a new translation of the Iliad to be “declaimable”; and I offer a “Second Glance” at Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret. I thought about Open Letters today when I read this piece on the effects of Britain’s REF: “Taking on a journal editorship? That means you’ll be helping other scholars publish their REF research, but what about yours? Can you spare that kind of time?” I realize that Open Letters is not necessarily the kind of journal editorship she has in mind (though I have had British scholars tell me that writing for it is something that they think works in their favor), but I have often felt particularly pleased that one thing I’ve been able to do there is show off how smart and interesting my academic colleagues and connections are. I don’t know if that kind of editorial role will count in my favor if I ever go up for promotion, but I think (I hope) that we are still clinging to more generous and collegial models of scholarship on our side of the pond — for now, and maybe just barely, as that piece emphasizes.

unbrokenThe other writing I’ve done has already shown up here, in my posts on my recent reading. I’m currently completing my “war in the Pacific” unit with Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, which I gave my husband for Christmas. I rarely risk buying him books, but he likes good nonfiction, and this one seemed ready-made for him, as he’s a long-time track and field enthusiast and his father piloted a B-24 during WWII. He really enjoyed it, and I’m enjoying it too — though “enjoy” probably isn’t quite the right word for either of us, since it’s rather a grim story! A lot of it is, naturally, very reminiscent of elements of both The Narrow Road to the Deep North (particularly the treatment of the Allied POWs in the Japanese camps) and Shame and the Captives (especially the context and commentary Hillenbrand provides on the aspects of Japanese culture that contributed to the extreme brutality of the camps). I find Hillenbrand’s narrative a bit clunky or heavy-handed at times: it has that “one damn thing after another” rhythm that is perhaps inevitable when you’re putting together a lot of material into a fairly straightforward chronological account. I suspect that images from the novels will stick with me longer than anything from her book except the outline of Zamperini’s undeniably astonishing story.

Once I’m done with Unbroken I think I’ll be happy to read something that doesn’t involve beatings, excrement, or hungry sharks. I picked out Nicola Griffith’s Hild and Sybille Bedford’s A Legacy with my birthday gift card to Bookmark, so one of them will likely be next, though I also got Aislinn Hunter’s The World Before Us from the library today because a friend highly recommended it. I’m starting to be more aware of the luxury it is to be choosing my reading material this freely: it won’t be long before my sabbatical is officially over (June 30 suddenly doesn’t seem so far away!), and I’ve already started thinking a bit about fall classes, as book orders were already due. I’m second reader on an MA thesis that should get to me in early June, and I’m also participating in a PhD comprehensive exam coming up in just a couple of weeks, for which I’ve been having semi-regular meetings with the student. A sabbatical is not, in fact, ever a period of complete isolation or exemption from one’s regular duties! But come September I’ll be doing required reading again.

“A Burden of Mortification”: Thomas Keneally, Shame and the Captives

shameAnyone who’s ever graded essays has probably struggled to balance execution and aspiration in their evaluations. For me, a paper that’s ambitious and original but doesn’t quite succeed often ends up with the same grade as one that’s better written or argued but takes a safer or more conventional approach: the interest and challenge of the task you undertake affects the credit you get for accomplishing it well.*

I was thinking about this as I finished Thomas Keneally’s Shame and the Captives, which inevitably provoked comparisons to Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North. If (for some strange reason) I had to give both novels a letter grade, they’d both get an A-, but they miss out on the top grade for opposite reasons. I already wrote in some detail about Flanagan’s book: overall, it struck me as uneven, largely because it was straining after a level of profundity and artistry that it couldn’t quite reach. Its language and structure were both imperfect, and it never really leads us to a particular insight about the harrowing experiences the book covers. Still, I was gripped by its story and impressed not just by its ambition but also (if only intermittently) by its literary qualities. Shame and the Captives, on the other hand, is as competent as Narrow Road is hit-or-miss: its design is clear from early on and it proceeds with level-headed determination through to its conclusion. That in the end it’s also disappointing is due to the predictability of that design, and the flatness — even dullness — of its treatment.

It’s not that Flanagan and Keneally were trying to write the same book, of course. But the novels have a lot in common: both focus primarily on Australians and Japanese interacting as prisoners and guards during the Second World War. But in Shame and the Captives the POW camp is in Australia and the POWs are mostly Japanese and Italian. Keneally’s preface tells us that the book is a fictionalized version of a real event: “an outbreak of Japanese prisoners from a camp on the edge of the New South Wales Central West town of Cowra.” We know from the outset, then, what the main plot event is going to be. But the novel is a very slow burn — so slow that I was actually bored at first. Everything about Shame and the Captives is in a lower key than Narrow Road: the prose is unremarkable as Keneally recounts with a minimum of emotion and no melodrama the stories of a range of characters with different roles in the community in and around the prison.

These include Alice Herman, who lives and works on her father-in-law’s farm while her husband is a POW in Austria; prison commander Colonel Ewan Abercare, who knows “that he was one of those men of limited gifts who might be asked to make a stand somewhere” but will never rise to military preeminence, and who “rules the camp with a light hand as instructed”; Major Suttor, commander of Compound C where the Japanese prisoners are confined, who writes popular radio dramas which allow him “to visit a more kindly planet with a better climate,” and which are declared valuable to national morale; the pilot known as Tengan, a “man of martial purpose” who is embarrassed by his captivity and determined to redeem his honor; the female impersonator Sakura, who is protected from her antagonists by his (her) own strength and popularity among the prisoners, who love her theatrical performances and ballads; and the young Italian prisoner Giancarlo Molisano, who is assigned to work on the Hermans’ farm.

That this is only a partial list of Keneally’s cast of characters, and that he divides our attention almost equally among them, reveals his intent, which is close to what I suggested I would have preferred for Flanagan’s novel: he spends most of the novel building our relationships with characters on all sides of what becomes an explosive conflict. Thus when it takes place our interest and sympathy is also dispersed: it’s not a case of good guys and bad guys, heroes and villains, but a story of the convergence of very different ways of living in the world which have been only provisionally held in balance by the artifice and coercion of the prison camp. The title tells us about Keneally’s chief interest: the effect of the captives’ shame at their moral failure (which is how most of them view their failure to die in combat) on their behavior, and also the inability of the captors to understand well enough how shame motivates their prisoners. “There is a new world coming,” says the translator to the prisoners when they arrive at the camp, “and those extreme warrior codes are now obsolete and do not serve as a useful guide.” But they are the guide by which the majority of the prisoners still live, under their “burden of mortification.”

shame2Keneally works harder than Flanagan to make this point of view something more than a caricature: however foreign it might be to us as well as to the other characters (“an entire ocean and all its archipelagos had been captured by a cult of death,” thinks the one Christian in their ranks), it’s a code to which most residents of Compound C are sincerely committed. Still, it’s not until the actual uprising that most of the Australians realize quite what this death wish means — not just ruthlessness against others, but a deliberate effort to bring death on themselves which makes real victory during violent confrontation almost impossible. When your enemy wants you to kill them, and will pursue you with deadly force to ensure you do, what use is your own code, which values life? When your deadly weapons are opportunities rather than deterrents, too, how do you prevent or protect yourself against insurrection?

Keneally takes his time setting up his pieces and then patiently plays out the game, the nature and outcome of which seems, in retrospect, inevitable, though there are certainly surprises in the specifics. All the time we spend with the various characters creates real suspense, or at least curiosity, about what part they will have in the impending catastrophe. But in the end he doesn’t make a great novel out of these promising elements — just a good one. I’ve already mentioned the unexciting prose and flat tone: to me, the writing sounded like someone getting the job done. (You’ll notice I haven’t been tempted to include any longer quotations: that’s because I don’t think they would add much except more words.) I know that self-conscious minimalism is a thing these days (Exhibit A: Colm Toibin). But even for people who like that kind of thing, I don’t think Shame and the Captives is quite the sort of thing they’d like: Keneally’s is not a particularly elegant or literary style, just a straightforward, almost plodding one, one statement following on another. The only other novel of his that I’ve read is Schindler’s List and that was a long time ago: I remember being moved and impressed at the time by what struck me as remarkable understatement given the story he was telling. Saying too little seemed much preferable, in that case, to saying too much, getting too ornate and drawing undue attention to the writing rather than its subject. Now I wonder if it wasn’t deliberate but is just how Keneally writes. Which is fine — but not exciting.

Shame and the Captives also seemed perfunctory in other ways, though. It doesn’t offer us anything beyond what the characters themselves see and experience: there’s no commentary, no sense that the disparate elements in the novel might add up to an idea about the world, or about violence, or death, or honor. I couldn’t figure out the thematic unity of Narrow Road, but at least it gestured towards bigger ideas: Flanagan clearly sees the novel as something potentially transcendent. Keneally’s vision is more mundane, and that limits him. I thought Shame and the Captives could have used a harder-working narrator, one who would come between us and the characters and offer more understanding or insight about their situation than they individually are capable of. Perhaps the absence of that kind of unifying perspective is itself a kind of comment, a rejection of the idea that events mean much. Since I tend to side with David Masson that “the desirable arrangement might be either that our novelists were philosophers, or that philosophers were our novelists,” I find that an unsatisfying result!

Still, once I adapted to its pace I read Shame and the Captives with interest. The very normalcy of the many lives it follows, with their loves and lies and failures and mistakes, becomes a useful reminder that historical events are not abstractions, and that there are always as many aspects to them as there are people involved. He clearly had his concept, and he carried it out capably: A-!


*In case this doesn’t go without saying, it’s important, obviously, to explain this from the start, and to give students guidance in developing a thesis that has a good chance of making their work as interesting as it is articulate! I include essay-writing workshops in all of my classes now in which this is a central focus. This is also why detailed feedback on essays (along the way and at the end) is so much more important than the letter grade itself, which is necessarily a very reductive shorthand.

“Something Worth Reading”: Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North

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His tone, he felt, was at once too obvious and too personal; somehow it brought to his mind the questions he had failed to resolve all his life. His head was full of so many things, and somehow he had failed to realise any of them on the page. So many things, so many names, so many dead, and yet one name he could not write. He had sketched at the beginning of his foreword a description of Guy Hendricks and something of an outline of the events of the day he died, including the story of Darky Gardiner.

But of that day’s most important detail he had written nothing. He looked at his foreword … with the simple, if guilty, hope that in the abyss that lay between his dreams and his failure there might be something worth reading in which the truth could be felt.

How far do the hopes of Dorrigo Evans, the protagonist (perhaps the hero) of The Narrow Road to the Deep North, reflect Richard Flanagan’s for his novel? The Narrow Road to the Deep North is an ambitious book, almost palpably so, in its subject as well as in its form and style: it tries to give a meaningful shape to experiences that hardly bear thinking about, and perhaps  to discover in them something like truth, even something like beauty — not in the violence itself (not like, for instance, Cormac McCarthy) but in what it reveals. Flanagan throws every literary tool he’s got at this problem: romance, heroism, brutality, camaraderie among the characters, metaphor, symbolism, allusion in the language. The novel is often grim but sometimes lyrical; dramatic, but also introspective. What can Dorrigo — what can we — learn from this story of “the Line” and the POWs who built it at such horrendous cost? Is that quest for meaning itself an effort as pointless, in its own way, as the construction of the Death Railway?

Flanagan never entirely resolves that question. Dorrigo himself has some revelations during his time on the Line that he believes (in the moment, at least) stand as “the truth of a terrifying world”:

It was as if man existed only to transmit violence to ensure its domain is eternal. For the world did not change, this violence had always existed and would never be eradicated, men would die under the boot and fists and horror of other men until the end of time, and all human history was a history of violence.

It’s no wonder this feels true to him as he watches “three hundred men watching three men destroying a man whom they knew.” That beating — one among many but also unique among them — is a defining moment for Dorrigo and also, in some ways for the novel, which keeps bringing us back to it, as if violence is the only reality that matters. Yet after the war Dorrigo feels his entire existence is “bogus”; the falseness of it arises from the pretense that there is life outside of horror and crime:

He thought of how the world organises its affairs so that civilisation every day commits crimes for which any invidual would be imprisoned for life. And how people accept this either by ignoring it and calling it current affairs or politics or wars, or by making a space that has nothing to do with civilisation and calling that space their private life. And the more in that private life they break with civilisation, the more that private life becomes a secret life, the freer they feel. But it is not so. You are never free of the world; to share life is to share guilt.

 Is this hard-won insight, knowledge freed from sentiment? Or is Dorrigo’s condemnation of private life as artifice a war wound, a scar on his perception? When he reaches the end of his life we’re told that he already “no longer lived,” as if in giving up hope and love he has cut himself off, not from civilisation, but from humanity.

flanagan2The Narrow Road to the Deep North does gesture towards the value of the private life that Dorrigo has lost faith in. But of all its many parts, the novel’s romance seemed to me the weakest: the story of star-crossed lovers doomed to separation because of a petty deception felt forced, too overt a gesture of the novelist himself, as if he thought we needed that kind of idyllic star to follow through his otherwise unrelentingly dismal narrative. I’m not sure the love story works this way in any case: there’s a suggestion at the very end of the novel that the beauty of love is a “small miracle” worth cherishing even “in the midst of the overwhelming darkness,” but is this the real truth of the novel, or is it an illusion that is beautiful but unsustainable? It isn’t love that sustains Dorrigo in the camp but his own characteristic determination to “charge the windmill”: not to turn back or be daunted by the next hard task, or the next, or the next. What good are dreams of love when you are literally wading through shit? Or, what is the point of wading through shit, unless you believe in love?

This inconclusiveness is the source of some of my reservations about The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Another problem for me is the representation of the Japanese officers and guards, who seem for at least the first two-thirds of the novel to be little more than caricatures, embodiments of every negative stereotype imaginable: they callously starve, beat, and dehumanize the POWs, with occasional time-outs from the action to meditate on their service to the emperor. Whereas Dorrigo’s fixation on Tennyson’s “Ulysses” is set up as a symptom of his yearning humanity, the reverence of the Japanese officers for Issa and Basho is deployed ironically, at their expense, to highlight their failures of humanity along with their self-deception:

They recited to each other more of their favourite haiku, and they were deeply moved not so much by the poetry as by their sensitivity to the poetry; not so much by the genius of the poem as by their wisdom in understanding the poem; not in knowing the poem but in knowing the poem demonstrated the higher side of themselves and of the Japanese spirit — that Japanese spirit that was soon to daily travel along their railway all the way to Burma, the Japanese spirit that from Burma would find its way to India, the Japanese spirit that would from there conquer the world.

In this way, thought Nakamura, the Japanese spirit is now itself the railway, and the railway the Japanese spirit, our narrow road to the deep north, helping to take the beauty and wisdom of Basho to the larger world.

That their implacable cruelty makes perfect sense to them only demonizes them here. But later in the novel Flanagan starts providing back stories, contexts that elaborate on (though they don’t necessarily justify) their indifference to the suffering around them. Why, I wonder, didn’t  Flanagan structure the book differently so that we knew who these men were before we saw them at their worst — or, doing their worst? It seems like a missed opportunity. The Narrow Road to the Deep North could have started from both sides and then brought together the full range of people we come to know so that their time together in the camp stood as a fateful convergence, a clash of opposing ideas about authority, valor, heroism, self, and survival. The cruelty of the camp, it is belatedly suggested, is in many ways an extension of a culture in which  (at least for these men) violence is inconsequential and expected. And, as Nakamura points out to Dorrigo, the Japanese by no means have a monopoly on coercion: “Your British Empire . . . You think it did not need non-freedom, Colonel? It was built sleeper by sleeper of non-freedom, bridge by bridge of non-freedom.” In a novel that also includes the bombing of Hiroshima, what means justify what ends? How do we stand in judgment: is victory the only measure that ultimately counts? Flanagan’s novel raises these questions, but its treatment of them seems indecisive, or unfocused, as if Flanagan could summon up marvelous parts but not quite orchestrate the whole.

And I did think that, in parts, The Narrow Road to the Deep North was pretty marvelous. I was certainly engrossed from the beginning — which is not, of course, a definitive measure of merit, but it’s also inarguable as a starting point. I was particularly gripped by the saga of the men on the Line, who were not idealized but individualized as the absolutes of their characters were bit by bit exposed by the extremity of their ordeal. Dorrigo himself, too, seemed to me a powerful creation, strong without false heroics, thoughtful but only reaching for, not achieving, wisdom. I’m not convinced the book is the “masterpiece” it’s called on the cover of my edition: if it were in a Tournament of Books match against The Orphan Master’s Son, which has some similar elements and aspirations, Johnson’s novel would win handily; so too, though for different reasons, would In Sunlight and In Shadow, which is closer to it in style and tone. I can’t disagree with those who have pointed out weak spots in Flanagan’s prose, but overall I didn’t find it affected or manipulative. It struck me, again, as ambitious, and that’s not a bad thing — “a man’s reach must exceed his grasp” etc., and one result of that reaching higher is writing that I sometimes found really evocative and even beautiful:

Around him, behind him, beyond him were people, moving every which way. Wild flying particles in the light, lost long ago, as he knew everything now was lost, in the steel and the stone, in the sea and the sun and the heat rising and falling in the cloudless blue sky, lost in the ochre cranes and the thundering expressway.

Ecstatic blurbish hyperbole or hysterical hatchet jobs aside — and don’t most books actually deserve something in between? — I think The Narrow Road to the Deep North is at a minimum “something worth reading.” That’s not everything — but it’s quite a lot.

Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation

offillMany of the fragments that make up Dept. of Speculation read like perfect, self-contained microfictions:

When we first saw the apartment, we were excited that it had a yard but disappointed that the yard was filled by a large jungle gym that we didn’t need. Later, when we signed the lease, we were happy about the jungle gym because I’d learned that I was pregnant and we could imagine its uses. but by the time we moved in, we had found out that the baby’s heart had stopped and now it just made us sad to look out the window at it.

They were in the coffee shop that day he asked her. When were you the happiest? Something she should have seen then, something about the look on his face, the way the air changed in that moment.

The Yoga People always travel in pairs, their mats under their arms, their hair severely shorn in that new mother way. But what if someone sucker punched them and took their mats away? How long until they’d knuckle under?

The fragments are beaded together by a thin, almost transparent thread of narrative: they meet, they marry, they have a child, things get tough, he has an affair, they work through it.

This story in itself is commonplace, predictable, even trite — one way or another, it has been told over and over. Each time we revisit it, the interest has to arise from how it is told this time, about these people. For instance, they and their marriage, their child, their affairs, could be made rich with interest and significance, taking us deep into an experience we have not understood in this way, in this place. Contexts could be explained, characters attentively developed, personal stories woven into complex histories. The single thread could become part of an elaborate tapestry.

Or there’s Jenny Offill’s strategy, which is to tell us less, rather than more, to leave the thread exposed, unsupported, and hope that the colors and textures of the pieces strung along it will be enough for her readers. Suggestion or implication, not explanation; parts, not wholes; moments, not meaning. No explication, no context, no names. What happens, in between one paragraph, or one chapter, and the next? Figure it out — and you will, but that’s not the point, that’s the plot, and instead what matters is the writing. What there is of it.

I don’t make the mistake of thinking that because Dept. of Speculation has so few words it is facile or lazy.  We all know the old line about apologizing for a long letter because of not having time to write a shorter one: brevity means thinking hard about what to omit. A novel like this puts a lot more strain on each individual word than a novel like, say, He Knew He Was Right (also the story of a marriage). The elegance of the excerpts that make up Dept. of Speculation testifies to Offill’s care over them. They are touching and funny, painful and precise. They often have the resonant quality of poetry:

Fall comes early here. And it is unnerving to see so many stars. At night, the wife lies awake worrying about bears and chimney fires. About the army of spiders that live within. The husband wants goats. The daughter cries for Brooklyn.

But my own word “excerpt” gives away my frequent impatience with Dept. of Speculation, my resistance to its tricks. It is also a mistake, after all, to assume that because something is elliptical, it is profound. And it’s hard work to write the whole novel, at least as hard as it is to polish up its most beautiful or memorable shards and lay them out just so. A novel that sustained the kind of shimmering intensity of the best bits of Dept. of Speculation would be spectacular — and it would be one organic thing, instead of a collection of self-conscious impressions, a construction that’s always calling my attention back to its own artfulness. Look at me, going here and then there, alluding, gesturing, refusing to fill in the blanks — but did you notice (yes, I did) that it shifts from first-person plural to third person and then back again, as the relationship falters and then repairs?

It’s very good on the sleep-deprived hysteria of early motherhood, though. And bedbugs.

“Some Pattern That I Could Not Unravel”: Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond

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Then, between sleeping and waking, there rose before me a vision of Trebizond: not Trebizond as I had seen it, but the Trebizond of the world’s dreams, of my own dreams, shining towers and domes shimmering on a far horizon, yet close at hand, luminously enspelled in the most fantastic unreality, yet the only reality, a walled and gated city, magic and mystical, standing beyond my reach yet I had to be inside, an alien wanderer yet at home, held in the magical enchantment; and at its heart, at the secret heart of the city and the legend and the glory in which I was caught and held, there was some pattern that I could not unravel, some hard core that I could not make my own, and, seeing the pattern and the hard core enshrined within the walls, I turned back from the city and stood outside it, expelled in mortal grief.

The Towers of Trebizond interested and entertained me so much that it seems hardly fair to describe it as a disastrous hodgepodge of a novel — and yet, despite the apparently widely held view that it is some kind of a masterpiece — despite Jan Morris’s confidence that it is a “permanent work of art” or Joanna Trollope’s identifying it as the “book of her life,” to give just two examples of prominent people raving about it — I just can’t get past how strange, uneven, and miscellaneous it is. I notice, too, that these enthusiasts don’t really try to explain why all the parts of the novel fit together, how they add up convincingly to one impressive thing. Maybe unity, for them, is not a particular virtue. I wouldn’t necessarily have identified it as a requirement for literary greatness myself: I don’t demand that every element of a novel be strictly and obviously essential to one fundamental idea or purpose. I don’t, for instance, object to the rather baroque excesses of many of Dickens’s novels, which often digress or effloresce in extraneous ways. But including things you (arguably) didn’t have to isn’t the same as throwing together things that don’t belong together, at least not according to any principle I could discern. Hence my title, which in context is not meant as a criticism but as an embrace of mystery. Much as I loved that transcendent passage and the many others like it in the novel, I could not make The Towers of Trebizond “my own.”

And yet … I can’t entirely disagree with the critic who called it “a little treasure,” or the one who noted that it is both remarkably erudite and very funny. I would have loved the book if it were all in one vein or the other: either a spiritual quest or a farce; either philosophical depth, or social satire. I could have loved the novel with all of these disparate qualities — because Macaulay does them all so well — but I didn’t think she assembled them  into a coherent whole. The deranged camel provides much whimsical hilarity — but why is it the vehicle for Aunt Dot’s and then Laurie’s journey – not so much literally (though it’s a reasonable question, too, why they should ride a camel at all) as symbolically?* Aunt Dot’s ultimately fruitless mission to convert the women of Turkey to Anglicanism (and thus, she believes, liberate them from patriarchal injustice) is both entertaining and thought-provoking: “we emancipated Turkish women … must do this from within,” explains a one-time ally, who by the end of the novel has converted back to Islam;

we must speak to them as Moslems, we must tell them that our religion and theirs allows these things that they think they may not do, and this way we shall wake them to ambition and to progress, and make their men ashamed to keep them down.

But what does this rebuke to missionary zeal (both religious and feminist) have to do with the overabundance of literary types all keen to write their “Turkey books,” or with Laurie the narrator’s adulterous affair? What does the ape Laurie adopts and teaches to drive and play chess have to do with anything at all? Why is the travel writing so lyrical when the plot is so farcical? What’s with all the spies — real, imagined, pretend? Why are the religious ruminations sometimes so profound and sometimes so painstakingly literal — several pages on the 39 Articles? really?

towers2I exaggerate my interpretive confusion slightly — but only slightly. If pressed, I would say that the novel’s central concern is the nature of religious faith: a great many of the novel’s other concerns, including gender roles, cultural and national identities, and problems of morality, spiral outward from that, and the travelogue covers geographical territory with historical layers that further highlight the contingency but also the continuity of belief in its many forms.  Going abroad always reveals the arbitrariness of values and behaviors that we take for granted, so what counts as “strange” or “exotic” is a good index of our own oddities, and the same, here, is often suggested or even stated about religion: “Other clergyman are so odd,” Aunt Dot says, “compared with ours,” which prompts Laurie to think,

I could see that she was remembering the whole strange world of clergymen; mullahs, Buddhists, Orthodox, Copts, Romans, Old Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Rabbis, and of course they are all odd, for they uphold strange creeds and rites, and that is what they are for, but Aunt Dot may have been right to think Anglicans the least odd, or perhaps it is only that they are the ones we are most used to.

Laurie is an agnostic, but she (probably she, though I was glad to find another reader who thought there was some ambiguity there) is most drawn to Anglicanism (following Macaulay herself, apparently, who returned to the church around the time the novel was written). Laurie’s reasons are not so much theological as pragmatic and emotional, however: she likes that its prayers are “dignified and beautiful and in fine English and not abject or sentimentally pious, or hearty and pally and common, or in Latin,” and that as a faith it has proven amenable to “new light and development” rather than doctrinal rigidity and resistance to change. It’s only the (unforeseen, inexplicable) catastrophe at the novel’s conclusion that makes her really yearn to be inside as a believer, rather than outside as a spectator: if the spiritual journey she is (possibly) on is really just one for comfort, not for truth, that seems an anticlimax, but that’s really no more puzzling than anything else in this literary olla podrida.

There are lots of wonderfully quotable bits from the novel, from the unforgettable first sentence (“‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass”) to the many evocative descriptions of the Levantine landscape, in which classical, Biblical, and historical references make it resonate with meaning. Here’s a little bit that captures that quality but also hints at the bathos into which (until the very end) even the novel’s loveliest moments seem inevitably to collapse:

Now we were among the rhododendrons and the azaleas which had supplied the maddening honey to the Ten Thousand, and the May breezes blew about, sweet with the tangs of lemon trees and fig trees and aromatic shrubs; and pomegranates and cucumbers and tobacco plants and gourds and all the fruits you would expect flourished in the woods we went through, and I thought the Garden of Eden had possibly been situated here. When we stopped for lunch in a wood, I asked Father Chantry-Pigg about this but he said no, that garden had been in Mesopotamia.


* “The importance of the camel in The Towers of Trebizond is difficult to define,” says Wikipedia helpfully. But unlike most reviews I looked at, at least they tried!

“History is True”: Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger

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“When the times are out of joint it is brought uncomfortably home to you that history is true and that unfortunately you are a part of it. One has this tendency to think oneself immune.”

I have often mentioned Moon Tiger as one of my favorite novels, but I haven’t read it through for at least 10 years, maybe more. The last time I’m sure I read it is when I assigned it in a seminar on “Women and Historical Writing,” in one of my first years teaching at Dalhousie. I was fresh from my dissertation research on gender, genre, and historiography, and Moon Tiger, which is preoccupied with who writes history and how, and with what authority, played right into my hands. Its protagonist, Claudia Hampton, is a historian, but a popular one, not a professional one: her career has been defined by a kind of belligerent celebration of her outsider status as she is dismissed by academic historians who see her as unserious. Yet she herself derides her lover, Jasper, for the historical epics he produces for television, which Claudia thinks “diminished the past, turned history into entertainment”: “I held forth about the difference between history as reasoned analysis and history as spectacle.”

Moon Tiger itself experiments with different approaches to history. In particular, it prods us to consider the insoluble problem that history is at once personal and general, that the particular which matters so much, so intensely, to each of us in the moment is always part of something much larger in which it can easily be lost. How can history, as a narrative, accommodate both these levels of attention? The novel’s vacillation between first-person and third-person narration is a formal gesture towards the desired balance. But even the third-person narration focuses mostly on Claudia, whose personality dominates the novel just as she has always commanded every room she enters: “always,” thinks her sort-of adopted son Laszlo, “Claudia has seemed brighter cleverer more entertaining than other people, . . . always when you leave Claudia you go flat a little.” It’s through Claudia that we are directed out into the world of impersonal history: we are shown its events through her eyes and through her ideas about it, as if to remind us that objectivity is always already compromised, that nothing means anything until it is seen, considered, narrated — all of which requires a point of view, a story.

moontigerSo Moon Tiger is Claudia’s story, but it is also a historical story. In particular, it is the story of her years as a correspondent in Egypt during the Second World War, when she had the experiences which still, at the end of her life, are “its core, its centre.” The section about the war in the desert, and the heartfelt love story of Claudia — the usually impervious, arrogant, brilliant Claudia — and Tom Southern (“oh God, thinks Claudia, may it have a happy ending”), comprise the novel’s stunning centerpiece, but embedded as it is in Claudia’s wide-ranging reflections on history and mortality, and in her memories of her family, it doesn’t define Moon Tiger as either a war novel or a romance. Instead, it provides the most fully realized example in the novel of the ways we are all, as Tom says to her, part of history, not exempt from it. We can’t always tell what that truth means: it’s cataclysms like war that break open our illusion of immunity, revealing that most of us are not writing history but living it — that we are not really the authors of our own lives.

As she lies in her hospital bed waiting for death, Claudia dreams of writing another book, this time “a history of the world.” It’s an absurd project, of course: no book could be so comprehensive. But as she reflects, there’s a way in which she herself already embodies just such a history:

My body . . . remembers Java Man and Australopithicus and the first mammals and strange creatures that flapped and crawled and swam. Its ancestries account, perhaps, for my passion for climbing trees when I was ten and my predilection for floating in warm seas. It has memories I share but cannot apprehend. It links me to the earthworm, to the lobster, to dogs and horses and lemurs and gibbons and the chimpanzee; there, but for the grace of God, went I. Being the raging agnostic that I am, of course, I consider that God had nothing to do with it.

Claudia is fascinated by fossils, those physical traces of the past in the present, reminders of the enormous changes but also continuities of the earth. On her deathbed, she feels at once the totality and the singularity of it all, the simultaneity of the big stories (“Rommel was pushed out of Africa … we won the war”) and the personal experiences. Against the overarching narrative of the war she has Tom’s diaries, “louder now than the narrative I know”:

This dispassionate sequence explains — or purports to explain — why the war happened and how it evolved and what its effects have been. Your experience — raw and untreated — does not seem to contribute to any of that. It is on a different plane. I cannot analyse and dissect it, draw conclusions, construct arguments. You tell me about gazelles and dead men, guns and stars, a boy who is afraid; it is all clearer to me than any chronicle of events but I cannot make sense of it, perhaps because there is none to be made. . . . All I can think, when I hear your voice, is that the past is true, which both appalls and uplifts me. I need it. . . . And I can only explain this need by extravagance: my history and the world’s. Because unless I am a part of everything I am nothing.

1987 Penelope Lively Moon TigerEverything, nothing; a history of the world, a history of one woman — there’s something vertiginous in the novel’s movements between these extremes, but holding the ideas and the experiences together is always Claudia, because that, after all, is our own way of being in the world and in history:

In the beginning there was myself; my own body set the frontiers, physical and emotional, there was simply me and not-me; the egotism of infancy has grandeur. And when I became a child there was Claudia, who was the centre of all things, and there was what pertained to Claudia, out at which I looked, the world of others, observed by not apprehended, a Berkeleyan landscape which existed only at my whim — when it ceased to interest me it no longer existed. And eventually, or so I am claiming, I grew up and saw myself in the awful context of time and place: everything and nothing.

Like Oleander, JacarandaMoon Tiger is wonderfully evocative about setting — especially about Egypt, where Lively grew up. They also share an interest in the difference between seeing and apprehending, in the uncertainty but also the inescapability of memory, and in the fragmentation of our identities, particularly as we age:

if I am to be cast as the matriarch, she thinks, I may as well do the thing properly. And somewhere beyond or within, another Claudia looks on with amusement. And regret. And disbelief. Is this true? This strident bossy old woman; these blotched veined hands opening a napkin; and these companions — who are they?

These are strains I have noticed in her other novels, too, especially Cleopatra’s SisterWhere Moon Tiger differs, or perhaps just excels, is in the poignancy which bathes the whole. If that makes the novel sound saccharine, it shouldn’t: “poignant,” after all, means not just sad but sharp, piercing, painful. Above all Moon Tiger is about loss, which is always the end of every story. How can so much presence leave the present and become the past? “How can a man be sitting in a tank with you one day,” asks Tom, “and nowhere at all the next? How?” It’s not war, or not only war, that presses that unanswerable question on us all, but death is not the end of history: “The world moves on. And beside the bed the radio gives the time signal and a voice starts to read the six o’clock news.”

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