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.”

This Week in My Sabbatical: Out of Sync

thedanceToday is the last day of classes in Dal’s winter term. Usually, that would mean I am feeling elated, relieved, deflated — and a bit panicked at the looming prospect of grading final papers and exams. But because I’m on sabbatical, it’s just another day, which brings on its own feelings, including some disorientation. The thing about academic life is that it has such strong rhythms, such intense recurring cycles of highs and lows, from the optimistic frazzle of the first day of classes through the mid-term slump and slog to the year-end celebration. Everyone goes through these phases, teachers and students alike, and the result is a strong, if occasionally fraught, camaraderie as we go up and down together.

I’m not sorry, of course, to be out of that rhythm for a while, though as my sabbatical goes along one of its beneficent effects is that I’m thinking positively about teaching again (which was not so much the case late last December) and I’m almost (almost) ready to enter wholeheartedly back into conversations about graduate student funding, curriculum reform, class scheduling, and all the other topics that draw us together even as they drive us apart (academics are nothing if not fractious!). It’s nice not to be on that erratic hamster wheel and to pace myself according to my own priorities, and also to follow my own energy as it rises and falls instead of forcing myself to meet a steady stream of external demands. When you’ve been “in school” one way or another as long as I have, though, it is odd to have time passing in this steadier, more self-reflective way, especially when you are working on campus and everyone around you is caught up in the familiar pattern.

WP_20150409_002My own sabbatical rhythm — which has never quite settled into a regular beat thanks to the nightmarish winter we’ve had — has been more disrupted than usual this week, first by the Easter weekend and then yet another snowstorm Tuesday morning, and then by the beginning of a long-anticipated kitchen make-over. We are finally saying goodbye to our aging laminate cupboards and vintage 80’s appliances, which were failing bit by bit and thus ultimately forced our hand: there comes a point where it seems like throwing good money after bad to keep them running. We aren’t doing anything structural — just taking the old stuff out and replacing it with new stuff — but even so there’s a lot of domestic disruption (something they rather downplay in those TV shows where a top-to-bottom renovation appears to happen in 60 minutes less commercials). To my surprise, the thing I find most frustrating is not having a proper sink. Even filling a kettle becomes a logistical challenge in a shallow bathroom sink, and you know how important my morning tea is to me!

I did manage a Meeting With Your Writing session on Thursday, and I’m puttering away at my George Eliot stuff. I think I have reached some tentative conclusions about the book vs. essay question, but I’m still turning things around in my head. While it’s true I don’t have to decide now, I think I will work better if I have a better understanding of my goals (short term and long term), so it’s useful brooding provided I can keep the neuroses under control. I haven’t gotten much concentrated reading done since I finished The Good Terrorist (which we discussed energetically at my book club meeting last night): inspired by Oleander, JacarandaI have begun rereading Moon Tiger, and I’m dipping into Ellis Peters‘s One Corpse Too Many in the interstices of the day. I also read, or really skimmed, Nora Roberts’s The Next Always. I kind of liked the ones I read from her Bride Quartet, because I liked the insider look at the different expertise each heroine had. But they were like literary jello: smooth, sweet, but nothing at all to sink your teeth into! The Next Always is about the same except it has a ghost and a stalker plot that seemed like a cheap way to provide the crisis and resolution required to come to the HEA.

And that’s where I am as this week in my sabbatical wraps up! Work on the kitchen continues next week and then there’s a lull before the final stages can be done; now that the planning and packing and reorganizing is done and the project is actually underway, it should be easier (in between specific events) to get back into a writing rhythm. I hope so! One thing about witnessing the end-of-term rush is that it reminds me that this time to work on my own terms is both precious and fleeting.

Comrades or Hooligans? Doris Lessing, The Good Terrorist

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There was nothing there about their exploit! Not a word. They were furious. At last Faye found a little paragraph in the Guardian that said some hooligans had blown up the corner of a street in West Rowan Road, Bilstead.

“Hooligans,” said Jocelin, cold and deadly and punishing, her eyes glinting. And she did not say — and there was no need, for it was in all their minds — We’ll show them.

Like the subtitle Hardy chose for Tess of the d’Urbervilles, the title of this book promises challenges to readers’ moral assumptions: if Tess is a “pure woman,” then female purity must not be defined by sexual innocence; if Alice is a “good terrorist,” then there must be a way to reconcile goodness with terrorism — either terrorism itself is sometimes a good thing, or being a terrorist doesn’t necessarily make you a bad person, even if you commit an evil act. Unless, of course, the title is ironic, or descriptive of competence, not virtue, as it is applied, in fact, to one of Alice’s co-conspirators, who “was studying handbooks on how to be a good terrorist.”

I spent most of my time reading The Good Terrorist trying to orient myself in these possibilities. Is the novel at any level about the necessity, the justice, the virtue of terrorism? It certainly does not paint an encouraging picture of modern England: “The relentlessness of it,” Alice thinks, “the fucking shitty awfulness of it.” But though we see plenty of ways in which the “system” is failing, it’s hard to take the “comrades” seriously, with their ideological vagaries, their bumbling incompetence, and their high-flown rhetoric, indistinguishable from parody:

All over the country were these people — networks, to use Comrade Andrew’s word. . . . Unsuspected by the petits bourgeois who were in the thrall of the mental superstructure of fascist-imperialistic Britain, the poor slaves of propaganda, were these watchers, the observers, the people who held all the strings in their hands.

It’s also impossible to take Alice as she would like to be taken: as a revolutionary. Her commitment to the cause is hard to distinguish from her feelings for Jasper, who is not exactly her boyfriend, certainly not her lover, but whom she idolizes and yearns for, whose approval she craves but who actually seems to depend almost entirely on her for money and all domestic arrangements. Her revolutionary zeal is also constantly challenged by her nostalgia for the home and family of her childhood (though one of the novel’s more interesting developments is her realization that maybe things never really were the way she remembered them). How good a terrorist can someone be who steals her mother’s brocade drapes to make her “squat” more cozy, who runs home hoping to make off with the really big soup pot, who can’t bear it when her mother comes down in the world (thanks in large part to her, Alice’s, interference) and ends up in a sad little flat with no one to talk to about books?

So is The Good Terrorist a satire about people who imagine themselves to be both good and terrorists but are really just playing at revolution, for whom épater le bourgeois is more the goal than real political transformation? Is the novel told at Alice’s expense, to expose her as what her mother calls her, a spoiled child? Alice loves to shock her parents, to steal from them and throw rocks at their middle-class suburban windows, but she also runs to them for money (and soup pots) and expects them to stand as references when she applies for permits and loans. She loves to demonstrate and run from the police, but more often she stays behind, transforming the “squat” into as close an approximation as she can of a respectable home. It’s necessary camouflage, she argues to her comrades: keeping up appearances keeps the inspectors and the cops at bay. She’s right, but it’s not easy to tell which goal is, ultimately, the pretense for her.

The house itself is tempting to read symbolically, but of what? Does it stand for England, with its solid foundation but shameful state of disrepair, its squandered capacity to welcome and shelter, its rotting beams at the top that need replacing by stalwart workers? Or is it more specific to the revolution, with its shared spaces regressing into private territories, its pretense of civility barely concealing its buried sewage, its susceptibility to external attack as well as internal rot? Or maybe it’s just the site on which the novel’s conflict between the desire to build up and the forces that tear down is rendered most literally — with a deliberate ambiguity about which side the comrades are on.

I did get mildly interested, by the end, in what kind of terrorist Alice would turn out to be. (I would say that she’s not in fact a “good” one in either sense of the word.) But I didn’t find her a very consistent or believable character: she fluctuates too wildly between cool self-control when dealing with bureaucrats and wild emotional ups and downs in other contexts. I couldn’t piece together, either, a coherent idea about how she ended up where she is when the book begins — not in terms of plot and events, but in terms of motivation. That was one of many things I ultimately found dissatisfying about The Good Terrorist. It seems like a book that could have done something much deeper and more interesting about modern values and political violence. Instead of probing, though, it skipped along the surface, describing in painstaking detail and what sometimes felt like real time what is happening, but not why, not itself entering into the problems its characters are, however superficially or solipsistically, going on (and on) about — and trying, however wrongheadedly and ineffectually, to do something about. I didn’t enjoy Lessing’s writing style, either, which is more an absence of style combined with a failure of selectivity: I really couldn’t see why the book had to include quite what, or quite as much, as it did.

theterroristsThe book I found myself comparing it with is Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s The Terrorists. To my mind, the advantage is all with Sjöwall and Wahlöö. They tell a much tighter story that does a much better job at making us think about what it means to be a “terrorist,” or who we label “terrorists.” Rather than being a book about (wannabe) socialists, it’s a book that is, itself, socialist in its reading of society and especially its analysis of the operations of state power, class, and gender. In Rebecka Lind Sjöwall and Wahlöö also offer us someone who really deserves the label “good terrorist,” and in doing so they draw us effectively into the moral paradoxes that label provokes. If we sympathize with her — if we concede that her act of political violence is understandable in the circumstances, though not necessarily excusable — we have come a lot closer to revolution than is entirely comfortable. Lessing clearly did not have that kind of political goal for her novel,* but what exactly The Good Terrorist offers us instead has not only eluded me but also doesn’t much interest me.


*I don’t believe authors are necessarily authoritative on what their books do or are about, but after mulling over The Good Terrorist for a while on my own I poked around online a bit and came across Lessing’s Paris Review interview, in which she says she thinks it’s “quite a funny book” and that she wanted to “write a story about a group who drifted into bombing, who were incompetent and amateur.” The humor was pretty much lost on me. Would I have read the novel differently if I’d known it was supposed to be funny? Shouldn’t I have been able to tell it was funny?

“A bourgeois tragedy”: Honoré de Balzac, Eugénie Grandet

balzacUsing the hashtag #IHaveNeverRead, Penguin UK recently urged people on Twitter to “confess” their “shocking literary shortcomings” — an exercise in weirdly inverted snobbery that inevitably recalls David Lodge’s game ‘Humiliation‘. I’m actually less and less humiliated by the vast array of titles (classic or otherwise) that I haven’t read: there are just so many books, after all, and it only takes a moment to figure out for sure that I’ll only ever read a tiny fraction of them. And what counts as a “shortcoming” in someone’s reading depends so much on what purpose we think that reading is supposed to serve. Since I’m supposed to be something of an expert in a particular subcategory of literature, it’s easy enough to point to books that in some sense I should have read by now (Dombey and Son, say, or Pendennis). But even within those parameters, is it “shocking” that I haven’t read, say, Impressions of Theophrastus Such, or anything by Disraeli? What about Charlotte Yonge? And in the larger context, while I regret not having read Moby-Dick (yet) or Crime and Punishment (again, yet!), I hardly see this as something I need to be ashamed of.

You can probably guess where I’m going with this. Until now, I hadn’t read anything by Balzac: Eugénie Grandet (which is the latest selection of the Slaves of Golconda reading group) is my first. I have read about Balzac, here and there and especially at Wuthering Expectations, where, I realize, exploring the archives, Tom called Eugénie Grandet “Balzac’s best book” and his own favorite. I’m actually glad I hadn’t remembered that as I read through the novel myself. It might have discouraged me, as I found Eugenie Grandet pretty hard going. On the other hand, knowing why Tom rated it so high might have helped me appreciate it more as I plugged along. If Eugénie Grandet is indeed the best of Balzac, then perhaps I am not (yet) very good at Balzac. That’s OK: you have to start somewhere!

Because it’s what the library had, the edition of Eugénie Grandet that I actually read is the 1950 Modern Library College Edition, translated by E. K. Brown, Dorothea Walker, and John Watkins. It doesn’t have any notes: when I read more Balzac, I think I would benefit from them. It does have a brief introduction, which I looked over before reading the novel (I skipped any parts that looked like they’d spoil the plot). The most helpful bit for me was its explanation of the unprecedented importance Balzac placed on characters’ “material circumstances” — and the passing editorial remark that this is what accounts for his “characteristic openings,” which are “such fatiguing obstacles to most modern readers who prefer a more insinuating exposition.” Knowing that this info-dumping was a Balzac thing, I persevered through the opening of Eugénie Grandet, which is indeed dense with details which (to my newcomer’s eye) never really took on a great deal more than descriptive significance: did we really need to know that much about the streets, houses, trade, and residents of Saumur to appreciate the moral and personal implications of Monsieur Grandet’s miserly ways?

This is thin ice for a lover of George Eliot, obviously; more than once I have made the case to bored students (following Eliot herself) that the action of Middlemarch  can’t be rightly understood without her long sections of exposition, and my favorite chapter of The Mill on the Floss is “A Variation of Protestantism Unknown to Bossuet.” I’m a fan of telling! Showing can’t do everything. But I couldn’t discern any way in which the crux of Eugénie Grandet depended on the contexts so meticulously established: the tyrannical Monsieur Grandet didn’t seem in any particular way a creature of his time and place, any more than did his daughter, the almost-insufferably patient and virtuous Eugénie. She does, however, exemplify a specific ideal of femininity: “Women have this in common with the angels,” intones our narrator; “– suffering humanity belongs to them.” “To feel, to love, to suffer, to sacrifice will always be woman’s fate,” we’re told; “Eugénie was to be in all things a woman.” So on the one hand we have painstaking specificity, while on the other we have transcendent, platitudinous universals.

eugenie-grandet-honore-de-balzac-001That’s not quite fair, though. Grandet isn’t altogether a caricature, and Eugénie has some surprises in store for us, as does Balzac, as he throws a elegant but tragically impoverished cousin into the plot to help Eugénie find her spine and then cheats us of either obvious ending: we get neither the tragic “daughter sacrificed on the altar of forbidden love” nor the comic “true love triumphs over bad dad.” Instead, things go in weird directions in this “bourgeois tragedy”: the cousin is morally degraded by making his fortune in the slave trade; disappointed in the lover whose memory (and “dressing case”) she has cherished against all odds, Eugénie nonetheless enables his marriage to someone else and then marries herself — after insisting her husband-to-be accept her terms, which include preserving her virginity. Left a rich widow, she continues the penny-pinching ways learned from her father in her own life but puts her wealth to good use otherwise: “pious and charitable institutions, a home for the aged, and Christian schools for children, a richly endowed public library.”

I enjoyed being surprised by the story in this way. I wonder if rereading the novel would help me see what it means: is it singular, for instance, a simple slice of imagined life, or is there a larger idea at work here, about money or marriage or virtue or love? There are definitely ideas floating around in the book: the other aspect of it that I especially liked, in fact, was the intrusive narration, which seemed a bit haphazard but provided many quotable bits: “Isn’t this the only god in which we believe today,” he asks, “money, in all its power, symbolized in a single human image?” “How terrible is man’s estate!” he continues; “there is not one of his joys which does not spring out of some form of ignorance.” “Misers do not believe an a life hereafter,” he tells us later on, in the passage that I thought probably came closest to telling us the moral of the story:

 the present is everything for them. This thought throws a horrible light on the present day, when, more than at any other time, money controls the law, politics, and morals. Institutions, books, men, and doctrine, all conspire to undermine belief in a future life — a belief on which the social edifice has rested for eighteen hundred years. . . . To attain per fas et nefas to a terrestrial paradise of luxury and empty pleasures, to harden the heart and macerate the body for the sake of fleeting possessions, as people once suffered the martyrdom of life in return for eternal joys, is now the universal thought — moreover a thought inscribed everywhere, even in the laws which ask the legislater: What do you pay? instead of asking him: What do you think? When this doctrine has passed down from the middle class to the populace, what will become of the country?

Against that dystopian vision, he puts the angelic figure of Eugénie — except that her sacrifice is made for love, not God (and an unworthy love, at that), while her “noble heart,” tender as it is, has been irrevocably tainted by her father’s example, “always to be subject to the calculations of human selfishness.” So where does that leave her — or us? Maybe when I read more Balzac, I will know better.

“A Medley of Allusions”: Penelope Lively, Oleander, Jacaranda

oleanderPenelope Lively’s Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived turned out to be an apt book to be reading on my birthday, which is a day that inevitably recalls memories of its earlier childhood iterations. Lively’s book is a memoir, but it’s a markedly impressionist one, composed of anecdotes and recollections held together with a light stitching of context and retrospection. She doesn’t try to create a coherent narrative out of her materials or even to situate them definitively: instead, she’s interested in recapturing the intense but incomplete, even confused, quality of childhood when much is “perceived” (as per her title) but much less is understood, or at least not as adults understand it. Pictures come to her mind, moments complete in themselves yet unmoored from certainty: did that happen? can he have said that? why were we there? Places and relationships are recalled as they were once taken for granted, with the child’s acceptance that this way, and no other way, is how they are ordered — but now also seen with the eyes of greater experience as symptomatic of complex and contingent patterns, of class, of race, of national identity, of history.

What fascinates Lively most is “the young child’s ability to focus entirely on the moment”:

to direct attention upon the here and now, without the intrusion of reflection or of anticipation. . . . A way of seeing that is almost lost in adult life. You can stare, you can observe — but within the head there is now the unstoppable obscuring onward rush of things. It is no longer possible simply to see, without the accompanying internal din of meditation.

She doesn’t really idealize this “child’s eye view” or lament the inevitable adult blurring of that clarity. She acknowledges, and her book amply illustrates, how limiting and solipsistic it is. Living in Egypt during World War II, for instance, she has only the vaguest sense of the world-historical event unfolding around her, her own preoccupations entirely (and entirely naturally) wholly personal:

The bombing of Alexandria was concentrated on the harbour region, some distance from the residential area in which my mother would rent a villa for the summer. Indeed, for me the air raids simply added to the festive atmosphere of the place and gave it a further esoteric dimension. The sky was suffused with fireworks. If the raid was bad you were got out of bed and tucked up in a rug under the dining-room table, and there was always the possibility of picking up shrapnel in the garden next morning.

Later, when she is living with her grandmothers in England and struggling to adjust to “this stupefying environment” (“the inconceivable cold, the perpetually leaking sky, that grass”), “the war ended — and I hardly noticed, immersed in becoming someone else.”

oleander2That same self-absorption, however, is also what enables the peculiar clarity and vividness of her childhood observations: not already knowing what anything is or means, children have to puzzle it out on their own terms, and much of Oleander, Jacaranda simply describes the Egypt of Lively’s childhood as she saw it:

We are in the desert, somewhere outside Cairo. My mother has driven us to see what some archaeologists are doing, who are working out here in the middle of nowhere. The archaeologist to whom my mother talks is French. He is offering explanations, to which I do not listen. I see, simply.

I see a shallow scrape in the sand, a bowl in which lies in delicate relief a crouched skeletal outline. It is so faint that it seems to melt into the sand, or to be a pattern blown by the wind. There is the curve of the skull, the fan of ribs, the folded limbs. The trace of a hand. Perhaps I do listen to the explanation, with half an ear, because it comes to me as I stare that this is a person. Long, long ago, this was a person. It too saw, and felt, and thought. I stand there enthralled, glimpsing time, and death. I do not know what it is that I have seen, but I understand that it is of significance.

Now, looking back, she thinks she must have been looking at a “pre-Dynastic burial,” as the details she recalls with such distinctness match what she has learned about these remains. But she  can’t be sure where she was when she saw them, or when:

My reactions do not seem to have been those of a very young child, but it would seem odd for archaeological activity of this kind to have been going on in the desert once the war had got going — I feel it cannot have been much later than 1940. So I was six or seven, and able to grasp the idea of immensities of time.

The haziness of her commentary, the fog of uncertainty in which even the most precise details of her memories are bathed, might easily have doomed Oleander, Jacaranda. As a memoir, in fact, I might even say that it is not particularly successful. But Lively is not aiming at a conventional memoir: the book is more about the process of memory, and about the differences between childhood and adult perceptions. By the end of the book she realizes that she is moving from one to the other. While being shown around “the bomb-flattened area around St. Paul’s” by a family friend, “someone who had developed an intense interest in the topographical history of the area and had discovered the way in which the bombs had stripped away the layers of time.” As he points out what the bombs have revealed — bits of the medieval boundary wall, fragments of a Roman bastion — Penelope “caught a glimpse of what it is like to have adult concerns,” what it is like to know the stories that connect things and surround them with meaning beyond the immediate and personal:

Romans were to do with me because I had heard of them, but they were also to do with the significant and hitherto impenetrable mystique of grown-up preoccupations. It was as though the exposure of that chunk of wall had also shown up concealed possibilities. I sniffed the liberations of maturity, and grew up a little more, there amid the wreckage of London and the seething spires of willowherb.

Oleander, Jacaranda doesn’t give us an orderly account of Lively’s young life, but it gives a remarkably vivid sense of what it’s like to remember a life, as we all do, in chaotic and imperfect snatches.

moontigerIt also shows, though it only occasionally tells, a lot about the direction of that life: Lively became a novelist, of course, and it’s hard not to see in the kinds of memories she has the observant, inquiring mind it takes to write the kind of fiction she does. The language of Oleander, Jacaranda, too, has the sure touch of someone who lives through words:

The Alexandria of the 1930s and 1940s survives now only in my mind, and in the minds of others. Most of whom knew it a great deal better than I did. For I did not know it at all, I realize, any more than I knew Cairo in any real sense. Much of it I never even saw — the densely populate slum quarters to the west of the city, the labyrinthine streets of downtown Alexandria, tucked behind the boulevards and shops. It was not one city but half a dozen, in which people moved on different planes, segregated by class and culture. And for me there was the further segregation of childhood. My Alexandria was a sybaritic dream. Peanuts in a paper cone, eaten on the Corniche. The suck and whoosh of the sea at the Spouting Rock. The milky-green curve of a surfing wave. The cool grip of a chameleon. Pistachio ice-cream. Macaroons. A medley of allusions, which add up now to a place which no longer exists in any sense at all.

Lively has long been one of my favorite novelists. I especially admire Moon Tiger, which I have assigned once or twice in seminars on historiography because, like Oleander, Jacaranda, it is preoccupied with the interplay of personal and historical, of memory and fact and imagination, in constructing stories about the past. Oleander, Jacaranda is more meandering than Moon Tiger, and possibly less artful, but it’s still another fascinating excursion into the places of Lively’s mind.

This Week In My Sabbatical: Writing and Brooding

OxfordIt has been kind of a stuttering week for me. My “Meeting With Your Writing” session on Monday helped me work up some positive energy about the next part of the George Eliot project I want to work on — this was good, as I had been getting kind of fed up with the other piece I’ve been working on since January. That piece is at about 18,000 words right now and it’s definitely still a messy early draft, which is one reason I’d become frustrated with it. But I realized that trying to “finish” it, or even polish it, when I’m not quite sure about my overall direction would be unproductive, so starting the next section made both practical and psychological sense.

Soon after, though, I found myself in the writing doldrums, mostly because the new bit seemed so disconnected from the first part and that started a whole mental chain reaction of questions about what exactly I was trying to do. This kind of metacriticism of my own work-in-progress is something I’ve been deliberately avoiding this term: my plan was just to write as much as I could while I have the time to dedicate to it, and then contemplate the results in July, when my sabbatical is officially over. Who knows, by that point, I might have accidentally provided myself with answers about what exactly I was trying to do! And I wouldn’t any longer be trying to answer questions about it in the abstract — what kind of thing might this be? what would it look like? what would it say? — but would know, and could revise and reconsider and repackage from there.

Because I am prone to both brooding and self-doubt (they go together so awfully well, don’t they?), this plan was basically a good one. It has proved harder to follow than I’d hoped, though. I am steeped in self-consciousness by both nature and training, after all; falling off the wagon as I did this week was probably an inevitability. I got myself back together by Thursday, partly by doing an extra session of MWYW during which (in service of the writing, I promise!) I got to spend a lot of time surfing around in Middlemarch choosing examples to discuss. That was truly restorative! Jo always advises us to start, if we can, with an aspect of the writing project that we really want to do — something that we think will be fun. I’ve made a note to remind myself that when I feel stuck, I should go back — if only for a little while — to one of the novels and just read for a bit. After all, they are the reason I’m doing any of this in the first place!

I’m back on track now, ready for a better, steadier time next week. I don’t think the time I spent in the doldrums was necessarily wasted, though. Though Jo rightly pointed out to me on Twitter that I don’t need to decide this question now, what I found myself mostly brooding about was whether I was wrong to be thinking about this project as a book (recall the trigger, that the two sections didn’t seem connected, except by method) — or, to approach it from the other direction, why I wasn’t satisfied thinking about it as related but distinct essay projects. I’ve honestly never been sure I had a sufficiently motivating and unifying book-sized idea, so in fact the book plan (as far as it has gotten at this point) has always been for a carefully framed and integrated series of essay-like chapters that remain primarily exercises in expansive close reading — I know, I know, not a marketable idea, at least for a literary nobody — don’t knock me off the wagon again! But any book is a struggle to get published, and Tom isn’t the only person who has pointed me to venues like the Hudson Review that already do publish literary pieces of the sort I have been writing (and of which my current material is really just a larger and messier version).

Obviously, I can’t simply assume my work would be accepted at places like that, but what if essay-writing actually suited me and my work best — what would be wrong with making that kind of publishing my ambition? After all, even the critical books I’ve liked best in recent years have in fact been made up of … you guessed it, essays (I’m thinking of Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind, for instance, or James Wood’s The Broken Estate). Why, then, have I become fixated on somehow producing a book?

During my brooding period, I finally admitted to myself that, in part at least, it’s for the wrong reasons, that is, it’s not because I have something to say that can’t be said properly in any other format but because I imagine it would bring me (in addition to what I hope would be some genuine personal and intellectual satisfactions) some professional validation. “Look!” I could say (to the kind of person, for example, who waved a dismissive hand at my list of essays and reviews and said they didn’t “add up to anything in particular”). “It’s not quite your kind of book, but it is at least a book, the kind of thing you can display at your book fairs!” That’s not the only reason, but recognizing that it was definitely one reason was at first depressing, and then strangely liberating. I routinely give presentations in which I bring up the MLA’s proposal that we “decenter” the monograph: I strongly believe that books (as I also discuss here) aren’t always the best form, though they have become the professionally essential form. Loving books as I do, it’s not surprising that I love the idea of producing (another) one, and I’m not 100% sure that what I’m working on now won’t eventually prove to be a book. But the next time I get fretful, I’m going to remind myself that (by principles I myself have argued for repeatedly), it’s okay if it doesn’t.

So that’s where I end up another week of my sabbatical! In the moment, it didn’t feel like a very productive week, but in retrospect I think both the writing and the brooding I’ve done actually were productive in their own ways.

Weekend Reading: Julie Schumacher, Tana French

dear-committee-membersAs the latest in a seemingly relentless series of winter storms bore down on us last week, I plucked The Forsyte Saga off my shelf (where it has been ripening for a couple of years now): it seemed like the perfect time had come for something so long and (I hoped) absorbing. Bad call, as it turns out, not because anything’s wrong with The Forsyte Saga (I very much enjoyed the 30 or so pages I managed to read) but because between one thing and another I had difficulty settling down to it. It’s re-shelved for now: maybe the really perfect time for it will be a long lazy summer day, when my nerves aren’t jangling — or my muscles aching from shoveling yet another mess of snow.

A couple of other books kept me happily distracted this weekend, though. The first of them was Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members, which I signed out on impulse when it popped up on the library’s list of recent e-book acquisitions. I’d heard a bit about it here and there when it was newer, and people seemed to like it a lot, but it sounded pretty gimmicky (a whole novel written as letters of recommendation? really?) so I hadn’t chased it down. Well, it is gimmicky, I suppose, but it’s also painfully funny — I can’t remember the last time I laughed out loud so often reading anything. The narrator, Jason Fitger, is a bitter, dispirited professor of English and Creative Writing. There’s a layer of the novel that is straight-up snark of the kind all academics will recognize and many (shamefacedly or not) have participated in:

This letter recommends Melanie deRueda for admission to the law school on the well-heeled side of this campus. I’ve known Ms. deRueda for eleven minutes, ten of which were spent in a fruitless attempt to explain to her that I write letters of recommendation only for students who have signed up for and completed one of my classes. This young woman is certainly tenacious, if that’s what you’re looking for.

There are some hilarious send-ups, also, of fads in creative writing:

This letter is intended to bolster the application to Wexler Foods of my former student John Leszczynski, who completed the Junion/Senior Creative Writing Workshop three months ago. Mr. Leszczynski received a final grade of B, primarily on the basis of an eleven-page short story about an inebriated man who tumbles into a cave and surfaces from an alcoholic stupor to find that a tentacled monster … is gnawing through the flesh of his lower legs, the monster’s spittle burbling ever closer to the victim’s groin. . . . Whether punctuality and an enthusiasm for flesh-eating cephalopods are the main attributes of the ideal Wexler employee I have no idea. . . You might start him off in produce, rather than seafood or meats.

Fitger is not a nice man, and in some respects he’s even quite creepy. But his acidity is in part a symptom of the failings of the system he works in; underlying and giving depth to the novel’s humor is an indictment of tendencies in contemporary academia that, again, all academics will recognize, from the devaluation of the university’s intellectual mission to the exploitation of part-time faculty and the demoralization of the rapidly diminishing number of their tenured colleagues. Asked by his new department chair to nominate someone for the position of director of graduate studies, Fitger explains why pickings will be slim:

Why? First, because more than a third of our faculty now consists of temporary (adjunct) instructors who creep into the building under cover of darkness to teach their graveyard shifts of freshman comp; they are not eligible to vote or to serve. Second, because the remaining two-thirds of the faculty, bearing the scars of disenfranchisement and long-term abuse, are busy tending to personal grudges like scraps of carrion on which they gnaw in the gloom of their offices.

Unsympathetic curmudgeon as Fitger mostly is, too, in his own way he’s fighting for the right and the good, especially in his relentless (if spectacularly undiplomatic and ineffective) championing of the one student he truly believes deserves every good opportunity. In a way Dear Committee Members is quite a grim book, and it doesn’t end with any false notes of redemption, but by the end I thought it was something more and better than simply cynical.

The_Secret_PlaceI also read Tana French’s The Secret Place, the latest in her Dublin Murder Squad series. I think French is really good, though I noted with Broken Harbour that I had become a bit tired of “the melodrama and the self-consciously brooding interiority, [and] the heavy-handed revelations.” I also got a bit impatient with The Secret Place, which seemed to me to be overwritten, not so much with melodrama but with metaphor: intangibles are always swirling, radiating, crystallizing, shimmering, around the four teenaged girls who are at the heart of the mystery. I appreciated that French wanted the novel to be more than a whodunit, that she’s interested in the way the teenage years are times of intense self-consciousness but also self-fashioning, that the girls’ identities are in flux as they try to figure out who they are, or, more to the point, who they are going to be. I just got a bit irritable with passages insisting on it: “They lie still and feel the world change shape around them and inside them, feel the boundaries set solid; feel the wild left outside, to prowl perimeters till it thins into something imagined, something forgotten.”

I found the novel’s emphasis on a particularly gendered kind of menace very interesting: one of the crucial elements of the crime is a pact of resistance the girls make — a resolution to keep “guys” at a distance, thus setting themselves apart from many of the emotional and social pressures of their boarding school. The novel alternates between their experience and the investigation, and there too we see the difficulty of sexual politics, especially through the character of Antoinette Conway, who has alienated her murder squad colleagues by turning on one of them when he “smacks her arse.” “If she’d just made this much effort to fit in,” says another male cop, warning off (he thinks) our narrator, who is working the new case with Conway; “But she didn’t, and now the rest of the squad thinks she’s an uppity ball-breaking humorless bitch.” Refusing to fit in is exactly the hallmark of the four girls at the center of the case too.

I ended up uncomfortable, though, with the way French develops this premise. The popular girls sneer at the others for being “weird,” even calling them “witches”: at first, this seems like an indictment of the speakers, and there’s no doubt that the members popular clique are worse than the ones they mistrust: shallow, judgmental, cruel, manipulative. But French actually plays with the witchcraft possibility, giving the outsiders uncanny powers that seem entirely real to them, though one of them eventually reflects that “someday she’ll believe — one hundred percent believe, take for granted — that it was all their imagination.” A lot of the imagery around these four also turns their close friendship into something uncanny: what are we to make of that? Is this just French’s way of exploring the total immersion of friendship at a time when individual identities are porous enough to allow the group to take on its own character?  It’s certainly not a nostalgic vision of youth, though: if anything, the teenage world the novel gives us is dystopian, a seething morass of hormones and resentments and lies and anxieties. That atmosphere, too, ended up making me uncomfortable: I thought the motif of resistance would take us in a feminist direction, but at times I thought the opposite was true, that the novel was perpetuating and even relying on, for its own purposes of suspense, the worst misogynistic clichés about teenaged girls. I’d love to know if anyone else had the same slightly queasy response.

 

“A Solitary Woman on the Threshold of Winter”: Miral al-Tahawy, Brooklyn Heights

brooklynheights

The notebook meanwhile remained innocent of writing. She sketched one self-portrait after another in charcoal on the white pages, images of a woman with hollow cheeks and a long nose and curly black hair, hands clasped to her withered breast — a solitary woman on the threshold of winter.

That description is not actually of Hend, the protagonist of Miral al-Tahawy’s Brooklyn Heights: it’s of Lilith, one of the women we meet as we follow Hend in her wanderings around Brooklyn, where she has emigrated to from Egypt with her young son. Later, though, when Hend rifles through the books and papers Lilith leaves behind after her death, “a feeling of déjà vu sweeps over her”:

‘Emilia, I know these papers. . . .’ And I know that I’ve written every word in them myself, she thinks. This is my handwriting, they belong to me. . . . ‘I feel like I’ve lived all this before, that these letters are mine, these words are mine.’

Her friend Emilia is unmoved: “When you get to be my age,” she tells Hend, “you’ll realize that everything starts to look and feel the same when you’re old.” It’s not, in other words, a clever meta-fictional moment in which we are sent back to the beginning of Hend’s story to reconsider it as Lilith’s: it’s an acknowledgment of kinship across stories and lives.

The whole novel, which is both beautiful and melancholy, both bitter and touching, is made up of moments like that: encounters that awaken memories or evoke connections. There’s little plot in Brooklyn Heights, but that’s not to say nothing happens as we follow Hend around; it’s just that the happenings are more often in her past than her present, and as likely to be in the Egypt she has left as in the America where she has settled. People she meets remind her of those she used to know; places she visits take her back, in her mind, to where she used to be. Her wanderings through Brooklyn come to seem metaphorical, not just for Hend’s own journey through life but for all of ours, as the various elements that make up our histories and identities come and go.

Hend’s loneliness is profound, individual to her unique experience but also familiar; she is haunted by “a feeling of emptiness and futility and a yearning to share her loneliness with another human being.” But the new friendships she makes are fraught and impermanent, while her old relationships have simply “vanished from her life without a trace,” like the unfaithful husband who “walked out the door and never came back.” She lives a strange, sad, fragmented life that is nonetheless full of intensity:

Here in Brooklyn, she waits for the phone to ring or for a strange women to smile at her on the street. She doesn’t see Fatima any more either. “Everybody in this city is running around after something. Everybody is busy,” she would say to make herself feel better. She walks alone towards Atlantic Avenue. The winter rain falls steadily and the homeless people hide in the subway station or make a quick dash for the Dunkin’ Donuts. They sit alone and glance longingly at strangers with whom they hope to exchange a smile or a few words. The rain falls on the glass windows of the coffee shop and she watches the solitary drops and thinks how closely she fits in with the wretchedness around her. As she walks down the long avenue she passes the halal butchers, the Islamic Center, and the stores that sell fragrant oils and religious books about the torments of hell, pilgrimage clothes and velvet Meccan prayer rugs and short white Pakistani jalabas and so many different kinds of headscarves. Sometimes she rides the bus from Atlantic Avenue in the north of Brooklyn to Coney Island or Brighton Beach in the south. She sits next to the window and remembers how she used to love watching the world go by from the window of the old Cadillac. She stays on the bus till the end of the line and then rides back again, without getting off.

Her experience is highly specific, from the stories of her childhood in a Bedouin village to the dance class she takes in Brooklyn at the urging of a neighbor whose friendship subsides once Hend refuses his sexual overtures:

He had tried to convince her of the truth that love and hate mean nothing in the dance as in life, and that all she had to do was relax the muscles of her mind and give her body a chance to express itself, but Hend wasn’t convinced. The fragile spell cast by the wine and the circle of dancers was broken and Charlie went back to being a clay frog of a man she didn’t love.

Somehow the meticulous details do not restrict the novel’s meaning to Hend, though: without ever overtly pushing us towards universality, al-Tahawy seems to me to reveal it, in Hend’s yearning for companionship, in her puzzlement over her own unstable identity, her difficulty recognizing her self in her thoughts, or in her mirror. The other stories in the novel — of Lilith, of Hend’s family, of the retired bakery owner Naguib al-Khalili and his nephew, Ziyad, who “come to America to study film-making, but the real world got the better of him and he began to work full time in the bakery with his uncle” — are all also highly individualized, and yet they also play variations on Hend’s themes of displacement, memory, and identity, so that the book as a whole feels unified despite its episodic structure.

Brooklyn Heights has an elegaic quality: Hend is not old, but she is aging and unwell, and there is no sense in the novel of a new life unfolding in the new land she has come to. She believes herself born under an unlucky star: “it happens,” she thinks,

that you’re born on a summer night and suddenly find that you’ve been taken hostage by a star: always moving in the wrong direction, always pretending to be strong when in reality you quake in mortal fear, always wanting things but never reaching out for them, never knowing the difference between truth and illusion.

“The patterns traced by the stars gave some measure of meaning to her life,” but not any hope or confidence: Hend is constantly in motion but she’s not on a quest, not going anywhere except to return. She dreamed of being an actress; she thought, too, that she would be a writer: “all she wanted to do was write, so much so that she felt she would die if the bitter mountain of words stayed trapped inside her.” But she finds “writing is intractable, like a wounded woman, and at some point she realized that, after all was said and done, she was incapable of healing those wounds.” It’s not hard to imagine a different version of Brooklyn Heights that takes the hint from that moment and turns the novel into her novel. I was glad, though, that al-Tahawy does not offer us that facile reassurance that sorrow transmutes into art. There’s something beautiful about the bleakness of Hend’s meandering, and it seems fitting to be left with her on that cold threshold.

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