“What I Am Is What I Do”: Robert B. Parker, Promised Land


“The kind of man I am is not a suitable topic, you know. It’s not what one talks about.”


“Because it’s not.”

“The code? A man doesn’t succumb to self-analysis? It’s weak? It’s womanish?”

“It’s pointless. What I am is what I do. Finding the right words for it is no improvement. It isn’t important whether I’m scared or excited. It’s important whether or not I do it.”

I came across Robert B. Parker’s Promised Land in the library the other day and puzzled over it: was it possible I had never read this early volume in the Spenser series? Promised Land, which is the fourth Spenser novel, dates from 1976 and won an Edgar in 1977. But though I have been reading and rereading these books since some time in the 1980s, it didn’t look at all familiar, and now that I’ve read it, I feel pretty certain this was my first time.

The reason I think so is that though Promised Land is not a great Spenser novel — by which I mean, it is not much like the Spenser novels I like best — it does some really important work for the series, particularly in terms of Spenser and Susan’s relationship. It also introduces us to Hawk. So surely if I’d read it before, I would have remembered it! But maybe not.

In any case, I’ve read it (or possibly reread it) now, and though I didn’t really like it that much, I was fascinated by it. One way in which it differs from the later Spensers I am more familiar with is that it is way more wordy. I don’t really mean the exposition, though this too I think gets more spare as Parker’s formula develops. But by the last dozen or so titles, Parker’s characters are so well-defined they barely need to speak to each other in full sentences. Their cryptic utterances sometimes border on self-parody, but at other times there’s a beautiful ease to it: you know these people already, so you know what they mean and what they stand for — even, to some extent, what they will do — without their needing to explain it, to each other or to you. Thus Parker is liberated from the expository burden dialogue in novels sometimes carries and can just serve up the situation and let them volley words back and forth, witty and bracing and in some strange way pure.

promisedland1It’s an aesthetic effect that, when it works, perfectly suits the kind of man Spenser is: a man whose actions, as he says to Susan in Promised Land, speak for themselves. This doesn’t mean he isn’t introspective or capable of nuanced insight. He’d just rather act on what he discerns than spell it out. It’s primarily Susan who encourages him to articulate his life, which I’ve always thought was her primary role in the series — that and providing psychological and emotional support to people caught up in Spenser’s cases who aren’t well served, or sufficiently served, by his decisive but often unconsoling minimalism.

Even with Susan, though, there’s often not a lot of talking, or at least not that’s reproduced for us, which is why Promised Land is so interesting, because it’s early enough in their relationship that its terms haven’t yet been established. In fact (and this is the main bit I think I’d have remembered, if I’d read it before) in this novel they go through a crisis precipitated by the cliched scenario of her telling him she loves him and him shying away from what he thinks are the implications:

“Are you saying we should get married?”

“At the moment I’m saying I love you and I’m waiting for a response.”

“It’s not that simple, Suze.”

“And I believe I’ve gotten the response.” She got up from the bar and walked out.

If you know Susan and Spenser from the later novels, you’ll know them as one of literature’s most rock-solid couples, thoroughly devoted to each other but also leading lives of scrupulous independence, with their own homes, for example, without marriage, and only eventually with a shared dependent (Pearl the Wonder Dog!). Though I know some people can’t abide Susan, and I admit I sometimes find her too impeccable to bear (especially her oft-remarked habit of eating and drinking only the most microscopic portions at a time), I have always thought their partnership was exemplary for its balance of love and autonomy. They are two people who have somehow, miraculously (unrealistically?) learned simply to accept each other the way they are. Susan in particular has come to terms with the man Spenser is, from his unyielding (if largely unarticulated) code of honor to his capacity for violence. He reciprocates with unstinting admiration and respect for her. Once in a while the unusual form of their commitment is tested, but they always pass the test, in defiance of the literary and social norms it upsets. (It’s worth knowing that Parker and his wife Joan also had a somewhat unconventional union.)

What’s so interesting (well, to me — sorry if this is just so much insider baseball to you non-Spenser-fans out there) is that it turns out to be in Promised Land that Spenser and Susan first hammer out the terms that will define their relationship for the rest of the series. Not completely, but pretty clearly. The context in which they do this is also interesting, because it sheds some light on the way Parker was trying to sort out the ideology of the series, which can probably be summed up — a bit paradoxically — as a highly progressive form of rugged individualism.

promisedland3The case Spenser is involved with here involves a woman, Pamela Sheppard, who leaves her husband for no stronger reason than general dissatisfaction with her marriage. (There turns out to be more awry with her husband than that he doesn’t really see her for who she is, but that’s where she starts.) She ends up falling in with a group of women keen to start a revolution against the patriarchy, and as a result she ends up an unwilling participant in a bank robbery that goes horribly wrong. Spenser is entirely unmoved by her distress:

“You want me to bring you flowers for being a goddamn thief and a murderer? Sweets for the sweet, my love. Hope the old guy didn’t have an old wife who can’t get along without him. Once you all get guns you can liberate her too.”

Susan said, “Spenser,” quite sharply. “She feels bad enough.”

“No she doesn’t,” I said. “She doesn’t feel anywhere near bad enough. Neither do you. You’re so goddamned empathetic you’ve jumped into her frame. ‘And you felt you had to stand by them. Anyone would.’ Balls. Anyone wouldn’t. You wouldn’t.”

I didn’t like Spenser here at all (even though I don’t disagree with him about the poor bank guard). For one thing, he’s not helping — either Pamela personally, or his own work. More generally, he’s unmoved by arguments in the abstract or in principle, including, in this book, feminist arguments. When Pamela suggests he probably believes in “the sanctity of marriage,” he replies “Sanctity of marriage is an abstraction. . . . I don’t deal in those. I deal in what it is fashionable to call people. Bodies. Your basic human being.” He is impatient throughout the book with what today we would call “systemic” analyses, which is not to say he denies that women are positioned differently and often disadvantageously in society, but that he insists on addressing only the particulars he sees right in front of him.

This is what I mean when I say you can tell, if you’ve read the later books, that Promised Land shows the series was still, politically, a work in progress, or perhaps the right way to put it is that Parker himself was still figuring out how to define, or demonstrate, his own feminist politics. Because I would say, based on the other books I’ve read, that the Spenser series is quite emphatically a feminist series, or at least that it becomes so, and that one sign of that is how often Spenser actually talks about systemic problems — about gender and also, not at all incidentally, about race, though that’s not what Promised Land particularly highlights. Still, throughout the books there is always some tension between understanding that there are problems that exceed individual agency, on the one hand, and Spenser’s highly individualistic code of honor and principle, on the other. Maybe it’s a tension that’s inevitable to the form of the hard-boiled detective novel: Spenser is one man committed to doing everything he can for a particular case; it does him no good as a detective or a modernized knight errant to fixate on systemic injustices — the effect might be paralyzing. I think Parker is also just a bit too much in love with some tendencies of the hard-boiled genre (objectifying beautiful women, for instance) to entirely counteract his more deliberate investment in creating women characters who don’t need any rescuing at all, thank you very much.

At any rate, Promised Land made me uneasy in its resistance to feminism in a way that later books don’t. At the same time I appreciated that Parker makes this unease an explicit part of the book. Spenser wants Mrs. Sheppard to go back to her husband and try again, not because he believes in “the sanctity of marriage” as an absolute but because he thinks maybe if they both let go of their defined roles (his as provider and protector, hers as help-meet and accessory) they might be able to redefine their relationship. Spenser’s conversations with Susan about marriage are clearly affected by their dual (but not identical) concerns about how male and female roles are defined and are changing. When he does eventually propose, Susan, in her turn, backs away: now she isn’t sure what they should do, only that “it’s the kind of thing we need to think on.” That, I do like.

“All of a Doo-Dah”: Dorothy L. Sayers, Have His Carcase


“Well, really, don’t you know.” Wimsey screwed his monocle more firmly into his eye. “Really, old fellow, you make me feel all of a doo-dah, what?”

Do you have books you reach for when you’re feeling low, books you just know will cheer you up? For me, Have His Carcase is a sure thing when I need a reading tonic — even though (or is it, possibly, precisely because?) it is a completely ridiculous book.

Not everything about it is ridiculous, of course. Still, its plot is unlikely and convoluted enough to deserve the kind of scorn Raymond Chandler heaped on Busman’s Honeymoon:

There is one of Dorothy Sayers’ in which a man is murdered alone at night in his house by a mechanically released weight which works because he always turns the radio on at just such a moment, always stands in just such a position in front of it, and always bends over just so far. A couple of inches either way and the customers would get a rain check. This is what is vulgarly known as having God sit in your lap; a murderer who needs that much help from Providence must be in the wrong business.

Busman’s Honeymoon (which, as I’ve said here at length, I both adore and kind of despise) is just one of many examples Chandler is using to debunk what today we might call the Golden Age puzzle mystery or cozy. He isn’t altogether wrong that this is a subgenre of crime fiction that puts clever conundrums ahead of either believable characters or social realism, never mind more probing philosophical themes. For that reason, they aren’t the kind of mysteries I like best. I hardly even read them. I’ve read maybe four Agatha Christie novels all the way through. They just don’t engage me. I’ve read quite a bit about them, as prep for my mystery fiction class, but my own taste runs more to Ian Rankin or Tana French or Arnaldur Indriðason.

I have always made an exception for Sayers, though — or, more accurately, for the Harriet Vane novels (Strong PoisonHave His CarcaseGaudy Night, and Busman’s Honeymoon). I also admire The NineTailors and find Murder Must Advertise fascinating, but the Harriet Quartet is special. Sayers herself said that once she’d invented Harriet, she needed to transform Peter from a caricature into a man worthy of her. He’s a long way off in Strong Poison; he’s fully evolved in Gaudy Night. He’s about half way there, as you’d expect from the sequence, in Have His Carcase. And that, for me, is where the joy of the novel lies: reading it is like tuning in half way through a championship to root for your favorite, who’s in the lead. Now, when I reread it, I skip, or at least skip around in, a lot of the development of the case itself, focusing in only on the scenes between Peter and Harriet.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. I do absolutely delight in sequences such as their search for clues along the beach (presented as a play, for no reason except why not, I suppose):

PETER: I just wanted to ask whether you’d given any further thought to that suggestion about marrying me.

HARRIET (sarcastically): I suppose you were thinking how delightful it would be to go through life like this together?

PETER: Well, not quite like this. Hand in hand was more my idea.

HARRIET: What is that in your hand?

PETER: A dead starfish.

HARRIET: Poor fish!

PETER: No ill-feeling, I trust.

HARRIET: Oh, dear no.

carcase3And it is fascinating to watch Sayers build layers into their relationship in order to move it out of the awkward spot she’d started it in in Strong Poison. By the end of the novel they are speaking quite differently to each other than they were at the beginning. All of that is great (and so much more interesting, to me at least, than the timetables and tides and encrypted letters on which the actual murder mystery turns). It’s not just Harriet with Peter that’s such a happy feature of the novel, though. Peter shows up in the book, but from the very beginning it is Harriet’s story overall. So we’re always approaching both the case and the relationship from her perspective, with a focus on what events mean to her. The novel even opens with one of the great literary declarations of female independence:

The best remedy for a bruised heart is not, as so many people seem to think, repose upon a manly bosom. Much more efficacious are honest work, physical activity, and the sudden acquisition of wealth. After being acquitted of murdering her lover and, indeed, in consequence of that acquittal, Harriet Vane found all three specifics abundantly at her disposal; and although Lord Peter Wimsey, with a touching faith in tradition, persisted day in and day out in presenting the bosom for her approval, she showed no inclination to recline upon it.

Fond as I am of Lord Peter, I am always just a bit sorry, on every reread, when Harriet’s walking tour is so rudely interrupted by Paul Alexis’s body, so that instead of being a novel about a happy, self-sufficient career woman on a well-earned solo vacation, Have His Carcase gets coopted by both murder and romance.

But then I come around, because the two of them are so much crackling, prickly fun together, and I admire Sayers so much for fighting with the conventions of romantic stories and making both her hero and her heroine wrestle with them too, until by the end of Gaudy Night they have achieved the miraculous: love with neither subordination or compromise. That could never happen without the process ongoing in Have His Carcase, by which the Lord Peter who really is an aristocratic stock figure becomes one who plays that role with theatrical flourish. It makes me feel all of a doo-dah, what? :-) Just writing about it cheers me up all over again.

“A Mighty Theme”: Moby-Dick Is About Whales


Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.

We all probably know the Woody Allen joke about speed-reading War and Peace: “It’s about Russia.” It seems just as comical to say that Moby-Dick is about whales. Obviously, it’s about so much more than that: the whales themselves, especially the White Whale, are wrapped in as much symbolism as blubber, and Ahab’s quest, along with the whole voyage of the Pequod from Nantucket to its final moments, is subject to probably illimitable interpretations.

But! As I was reading the second half of the novel over the last couple of days, what I found most astonishing about it was not so much those metaphorical layers but the sheer inexhaustible virtuosity of its literal content. It really is about whales, after all, and about whaling, and many, many chapters of the novel are pretty spectacular just taken at face value. Take the chapters that describe how something is done, for instance — Chapter 78, for example, “Cistern and Buckets.” It’s not easy (or so I imagine, never having tried it myself) to explain a technical process — one likely to be unfamiliar to most of your readers in every respect — in a way that is at once accurate and artful, but sequences of that kind abound in Moby-Dick and they are all splendid. If you’re reading for plot, of course, they won’t seem to add much, but then, if you’re reading Moby-Dick for the plot, you’ve probably given up long before Chapter 78! In fact, while the writing itself is often memorable in these sections, what I especially like about them is what they implicitly presume about the novel’s readers — that we are capable of being interested, that we can get caught up in Melville’s own delight in digging right in to the nitty-gritty of every process, every routine, every role on board the Pequod.


And the chapters minutely dissecting and describing the whales: how fantastic are they! Sure, nothing happens in most of them, but isn’t that actually a kind of category mistake? They are what happens, the descriptions themselves are what happens, the attention they insist we give to every inch of these gargantuan creatures is what happens. There’s just something so breathtakingly daring and unlikely about them all. Here’s the beginning of Chapter 80, “The Nut,” for example:

If the Sperm Whale be physiognomically a Sphinx, to the phrenologist his brain seems that geometrical circle which it is impossible to square.

In the full-grown creature the skull will measure at least twenty feet in length. Unhinge the lower jaw, and the side view of this skull is as the side view of a moderately inclined plane resting throughout on a level base. But in life–as we have elsewhere seen–this inclined plane is angularly filled up, and almost squared by the enormous superincumbent mass of the junk and sperm. At the high end the skull forms a crater to bed that part of the mass; while under the long floor of this crater–in another cavity seldom exceeding ten inches in length and as many in depth–reposes the mere handful of this monster’s brain. The brain is at least twenty feet from his apparent forehead in life; it is hidden away behind its vast outworks, like the innermost citadel within the amplified fortifications of Quebec.

There’s really no genre of fiction in which this degree of detail about a whale skull is really justified, is there? It serves no purpose whatsoever except to tell us about the whale. There’s a whole chapter — one of my favorites from this second half — about the sperm whale’s tail:

The entire member seems a dense webbed bed of welded sinews; but cut into it, and you find that three distinct strata compose it:–upper, middle, and lower. The fibres in the upper and lower layers, are long and horizontal; those of the middle one, very short, and running crosswise between the outside layers. This triune structure, as much as anything else, imparts power to the tail. To the student of old Roman walls, the middle layer will furnish a curious parallel to the thin course of tiles always alternating with the stone in those wonderful relics of the antique, and which undoubtedly contribute so much to the great strength of the masonry.

It goes on for four more pages! Again, there’s really no excuse — except that it tells us about the whale.

moby-dick-penguin-2That’s not right, though. The excuse (as if any is needed) for all of this stuff about whales is the writing. The fortifications of Quebec! Old Roman walls! The alliteration in “a dense webbed bed of welded sinews”! In my first post about Moby-Dick I talked about how much I was enjoying its prophetic style, so reminiscent of Carlyle. I continued to relish the many passages that leap from the literal to the metaphorical or philosophical:

Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. Like the great dome of St. Peter’s, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own.

Even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve around me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.

Oh! my friends, but this is man-killing! Yet this is life. For hardly have we mortals by long toilings extracted from this world’s vast bulk its small but valuable sperm; and then, with weary patience, cleansed ourselves from its defilements, and learned to live here in clean tabernacles of the soul; hardly is this done, when–There she blows!–the ghost is spouted up, and away we sail to fight some other world, and go through young life’s old routine again.

I love all of that: it too is daring and inspiring and really quite inexcusable. There’s just as much pleasure to be had in how Melville just writes about actual whales, though. And maybe even Melville wouldn’t be able to get away with so much rhetorical flamboyance if so much of Moby-Dick weren’t really, quite literally, about actual whales, so that his wildest flights of fancy, his deepest dives for profundity, remain anchored in reality.

My book club meets Monday night to talk about the second half of the novel. Once again I look forward to all the different perspectives I’ll hear.

From the Archives: T. H. White, The Once and Future King

the-once-and-future-kingIt comes back to the geese, in the end. I hoped it would, because of all the marvellous episodes in Wart’s education (the tyrannical pike, the totalitarian ants, the philosophical badger), his time with the geese is the most sublime. It’s beautifully written, for one thing, detailed and evocative, freely fanciful:

The sun, as it rose, tinged the quick-silver of the creeks and the gleaming slime itself with flame. The curlew, who had been piping their mournful plaints since long before the light, flew now from weed-bank to weed-bank. The widgeon, who had slept on water, came whistling their double notes, like whistles from a Christmas cracker. The mallard toiled from land, against the wind. The redshanks scuttled and prodded like mice. A cloud of tiny dunlin, more compact than starlings, turned in the air with the noise of a train. The black-guard of crows rose from the pine trees on the dune with merry cheers. Shore birds of every sort populated the tide line, filling it with business and beauty.

The dawn, the sea-dawn and the mastery of ordered flight, were of such intense beauty that the boy was moved to sing. He wanted to cry a chorus to life, and, since a thousand geese were on the wing about him, he had not long to wait. The lines of these creatures, wavering like smoke upon the sky as they breasted the sunrise, were all at once in music and in laughter. Each squadron of them was in different voice, some larking, some triumphant, some in sentiment or glee.

Like the lengthy excursus on the Middle Ages much later on in the book, these expeditions into natural history speak above all of the writer’s joy in his subject–and what writing is more delightful, more uplifting, to read than joyful writing?

But the flight of the geese is not just natural history: it’s also, like Merlyn’s other lessons (like the whole novel), an embodied class in political theory. “Are we at war,” asks Wart. The goose Lyo-lyok does not understand the question. “There are no boundaries among the geese,” she eventually explains to him. “How can you have boundaries if you fly? Those ants of yours–and the humans too–would have to stop fighting in the end, if they took to the air.” “I like fighting,” replies Wart. “It is knightly.” “Because you are a baby,” replies Lyo-Lyok.

At the end of The Once and Future King, Wart is no longer a baby. Now he’s an old, exhausted king staring in near despair on the failure of his experiment to reconcile might and right. Why do men fight, he wonders? “Suspicion and fear: possessiveness and greed: resentment for ancestral wrong: all these seemed to be a part of it”:

Yet they were not the solution. He could not see the real solution. He was too old and tired and miserable to think constructively. He was only a man who had meant well, who had been spurred along that course of thinking by an eccentric necromancer with a weakness for humanity. Justice had been his last attempt–to do nothing which was not just. But it had ended in failure. To do at all had proved too difficult. He was done himself.

But he isn’t quite done: there’s a bit of thinking in him yet, not to mention “something invincible in his heart, a tincture of grandness in simplicity,” and he uses his last bit of hope and strength to tell his story to young Tom (“his surcoat, with the Malory bearings, looking absurdly new”), and then “to think again,” and what he thinks of is Lyo-lyok–and there it is, “the problem before him as plain as a map”:

The fantastic thing about war was that it was fought about nothing–literally nothing. Frontiers were imaginary lines. There was no visible line between Scotland and England, although Flodden and Bannockburn had been fought about it. It was geography which was the cause, political geography. It was nothing else. . . . The imaginary lines on the earth’s surface only needed to be unimagined. The airborne birds skipped them by nature. How mad the frontiers had seemed to Lyo-lyok, and would to Man if he could learn to fly.

Imagine there’s no countries…it isn’t hard to imagine it. But to realize it? The Once and Future King isn’t that kind of fantasy. Ideas are only as good, as strong, as tenable as principles, as the people who try to live up to them, or to subvert or destroy them. And people, the novel shows over and over, are mixed, complicated, contradictory, creatures.

There’s Arthur himself, for instance. He’s such an ordinary fellow for a legendary hero! As the Orkneys gather to force Arthur’s hand with an open accusation against Lancelot and Guenever, Gareth sees him “as he was … a plain man who had done his best–not a leader of chivalry, but the pupil who had tried to be faithful to his curious master, the magician, by thinking all the time–not Arthur of England, but a lonely old gentleman who had worn his crown for half a lifetime in the teeth of fate.” Because we first meet him as Wart, we carry with us throughout the novel a sense of his childish innocence and his simple desire to do his best. “He was sadly unfitted for hating his best friend or for torturing his wife,” says the narrator; “He had been given too much love and trust to be good at these things.” Such innocence and simplicity should surely be strengths, but for Arthur they are weaknesses. If he were more suspicious, more wily, less scrupulously loyal and just, he would not have been there in that room, “hoist,” as the vengeful Agravaine exults, “with his own petard”–“trapped by his enemies into crushing his friends,” as Steve Donoghue nicely puts it, “using the very structure of law and order he worked so hard to champion.”  But “it seems, in tragedy, that innocence is not enough.”

Lancelot and Guenever, too, are painfully ordinary, which is not to say that they are dull or commonplace but that they are flawed and mistaken and loving and loyal and treacherous all at the same time. If they were worse people than they are, they could have simplified the situation, as we would handle it today “when everybody is so free from superstitions and prejudice that it is only necessary for all of us to do as we please.” But they have other values, and they love Arthur as well as each other. Their love (the love of all three of them for the others) is a beautiful, fragile thing, more so as they get older and become “seasoned people, who knew what they were about.” Here they are late in the story, poised on the very threshold of disaster:

The room glowed into colour round the lovers, who had released each other quickly. It began to show the splendour of its hangings as the boy put fire to the wicks. The flower meads and bird-fruitful spinneys of the Arras teemed and rippled over the four walls. The door curtain lifted again, and the King was in the room.

He looked old, older than either of them. But it was the noble oldness of self-respect. Sometimes even nowadays you can meet a man of sixty or more who holds himself as straight as a rush, and whose hair is black. They were in that class. Lancelot, now that you could see him clearly, was an erect refinement of humanity–a fanatic for human responsibility. Guenever, and this might have been surprising to a person who had known her in her days of tempest, looked sweet and pretty. You could almost have protected her. But Arthur was the touching one of the three. He was so plainly dressed, so gentle and patient of his simple things. Often, when the Queen was entertaining distinguished company under the flambeaux of the Great Hall, Lancelot had found him sitting by himself in a small room, mending stockings. Now, in his homely blue gown…he paused on the threshold of the gleaming room, and smiled.

‘Well, Lance. Well, Gwen.’

Such a homely greeting, from this simple man to the two people he loves most in the world. Doesn’t this scene make you yearn for their safety? It’s terrible watching the calamity descend on them that you know all along is coming–for inevitably, the novel is governed by dramatic irony, not just for us, who can’t help but know the story already, but for Arthur too, who is warned at the outset by Merlyn. If only, if only, if only… but there’s no way out for any of us: “before she was quite certain of what had happened, Guenever was laughing or weeping, unfaithful to her husband, as she had always known she would be.” And the rest, after that, is as foreseen and foretold.

For such a tragic story, the telling is surprisingly lighthearted–or light, at least. I was equal parts enchanted and puzzled by the novel’s tone. How can something so sad also be so funny? How can something so elevated also be so colloquial? If it’s not that serious, why am I crying? In the end, though, what I came to see was that the sadness lay precisely in the lightness of it all, in the way the joyousness I already remarked–the bursting excitement about nature and creativity, about “the age of fullness, the age of wading into everything up to the neck”–is undermined so steadily by the awareness of its eventual destructionThe story would not be so sad, also, if it were kept at more of a distance from us. The novel’s most ridiculous, delicious flights of fancy (the thwarted romance of the Questing Beast, for instance) are narrated in the same down-to-earth way as the most extreme moments of betrayal or grief or psychic torment (“Do you think it would be fine to be the best knight in the world? Think, then, also, how you would have to defend the title. Think of the tests, such repeated, remorseless, scandal-breathing tests, which day after day would be applied to you–until the last and certain day, when you would fail.”) and so we experience them both as part of the same world of people who may transform into animals, trap unicorns, and perform miracles, but are somehow, bizarrely, wonderfully, just like us. White’s casual references to Malory and Tennyson, rather than making his version seem coolly metafictional or presciently postmodern, make it seem natural, real, sincere: “Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites would have found it difficult to recognize this rather sullen and unsatisfactory child, with the ugly face,” he says of Lancelot; “An observer of the present day, who knew the Arthurian legend only from Tennyson and people of that sort, would have been startled to see that the famous lovers were past their prime.”

It’s sad because even though it’s a myth, it’s also a true story, one that ought to be told in as direct and simple a way as possible so that we’ll understand it. It’s a sad story because it’s the story of our failure, of our inability to solve King Arthur’s dilemma: to build a just world in which such joy can flourish. Merlyn’s lessons were based on the premise “that man was perfectible: that he was on the whole more decent than beastly.” At the end of his reign, Arthur finds this “central tenet of his heart” undone, “ravaged.” If anything, man is worse than beastly–Mordred’s scheming, the blood feuds, the fatal seductions are all calculated and so beyond the capacity of animals. “What creature could be so low,” wonders Lyo-lyok, “as to go about in bands, to murder others of its own blood?” Taught by Merlyn, Arthur had dreamed of a world in which these evils could come to an end. To read The Once and Future King is both to participate in his dream (just as he hopes young Tom will “tell everybody who would listen about this ancient idea, which both of them had once thought good”) and to experience its failure. Can we, perhaps, create the future he dreams of, a day ready for his return? “The hope of making it would lie in culture,” he thinks:

If people could be persuaded to read and write, not just to eat and make love, there was still a chance that they might come to reason.

That must have seemed like a pretty slim chance when the novel was first published in 1939. It still seems like something only a dreamer would imagine.

Sometimes I like to highlight a favorite post from my blog archives, both to share it with readers who might have missed it the first time and, as in this case, to remind myself of the pleasure I have found in writing here about my reading. This post was originally published June 27, 2012.

“Talking in the Dark”: Kent Haruf, Our Souls at Night

haruf_coverOur Souls at Night is the last of Kent Haruf’s Holt novels — he died not long before its publication. It seems fitting then, I suppose, that it is a bit bleaker than the other two I’ve read, a bit less optimistic about sustaining the kind of quiet humanity that it too holds out as our best hope of comfort in a sometimes inhospitable world.

The premise and story of Our Souls at Night is supremely simple. Addie, a widow, approaches her neighbor Louis, a widower, with an unexpected proposal: “I wonder if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me.” She means it literally: she finds the nights lonely and she misses “lying warm in bed, companionably, with someone else,” having someone to talk to in the dark. Louis accepts. The first night is a bit awkward, as they get used to each other, but soon these nights together, talking and then sleeping, become welcome rituals from which a deeper friendship grows.

They live in a small town, though, and the sight of Louis leaving Addie’s house in the morning starts people gossiping. Addie and Louis decide to brazen it out — to “go downtown in the middle of broad daylight and have lunch at the Holt Cafe, and walk right down Main Street and take our time and enjoy ourselves.” As Addie says, they are too old to live in fear of other people’s foolish judgments, and they aren’t doing anything to hurt anyone, just finding some comfort and companionship when they both need it. The outing goes fine, but the town’s talk foreshadows a later complication that won’t be so easily resolved.

The next development — still so simple it hardly feels like one — is Addie’s grandson, Jamie, coming to stay with her. At first Louis stops coming at night, but as the three of them work together to make Jamie feel at home, this precaution starts to seem pointless, and soon Louis is spending the night again. They get Jamie a dog, they go camping, they go to a softball game. Haruf’s prose throughout is as understated as his plot, but he has the gift of letting the significance of these very small things shimmer across the page: it’s hard not to be moved by his quiet message about how much we can do for each other if we’re just willing to be there, together.

But across this strange commonplace idyll comes a destructive shadow: Addie’s son can’t accept his mother’s new friendship, finding the idea of a man in her bed disgusting and interpreting Louis’s motives in coarsely suspicious ways. Instead of rescue or salvation, then (the promise of which dominates both Plainsong and Benediction), Our Souls at Night highlights the possibility of ruin — again, on a very small scale, but in a way that feels larger, more significant, as if Gene’s small-mindedness represents in miniature the threat to all forms of grace. Happiness is made of such fragile things — trust, tolerance, affection, moments of talk and laughter — that it’s always vulnerable to blight. And as Addie and Louis find, resisting may in itself damage the very thing you hoped to protect.

The small scale of all three of these novels is at once literal and deceptive. Haruf focuses on familiar relationships and everyday activities that hardly seem profound or philosophical. But then he shows us the effects of small changes, good and bad, and through their reverberations encourages us to think more abstractly about the human condition — which sounds pretentious in a way that these novels never do. Our Souls at Night is about two people who decide it would be nice to have someone to talk to in the dark. That seems like so little to ask — but Haruf makes it seem like a very precious thing to have.

“The Perfect Gift”: Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air


As a doctor, I had had some sense of what patients with life-changing illnesses faced–and it was exactly these moments I had wanted to explore with them. Shouldn’t terminal illness, then, be the perfect gift to that young man who had wanted to understand death? What better way to understand it than to live it?

I wanted to read When Breath Becomes Air almost as much as I hadn’t wanted to read Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. In both cases it was about me more than about the books–about my fear of death, my preference for not facing it. “Most lives are lived with passivity towards death,” Kalanithi points out; “it’s something that happens to you and those around you.” I have no urge to do as he did, “to actively engage with death, to grapple with it.” While Gawande’s book prompted avoidance, though, because it sounded (and is) so pragmatic and thus confrontational about the realities of death, Kalanithi’s sounded like (and, to some extent, is) a book that looks past death, showing by its very existence but also through Kalanithi’s own insights that there are ways to mitigate its finality. Being Mortal is ultimately a very prosaic book about death: When Breath Becomes Air promises even in its title to find the poetry in it.

When I say that I did not, in the end, find When Breath Becomes Air particularly transcendent, I don’t mean to depreciate its power or poignancy as a memoir. It is smart and gripping, told with tremendous and highly affecting sincerity as well as urgency. Its brevity speaks implicitly to the race Kalanithi was in against time; the speed and compression with which he chronicles his many years of education and training take on unexpected pathos precisely because the narrative sometimes seems so rushed. He is clear about the deep questions he longs to find answers to: in his earlier years, about the connections between mind and brain, between who we are and what we’re literally made of; after his diagnosis, about what it means for life that death is its inevitable end. Who should we be, knowing (as we must know but usually pretend we don’t) that one day we won’t be?

These are, indeed, the ultimate questions, and as Kalanithi eloquently argues as he traces his own educational path through literary studies to medicine and neuroscience, neither science nor literature can, on its own, answer them fully–though it was interesting to find him, as his illness progressed, “finding no traction in the reams of scientific studies, intracellular molecular pathways, and endless curves of survival statistics”:

I began reading literature again: Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, B. S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, Woolf, Kafka, Montaigne, Frost, Greville, memoirs of cancer patients–anything by anyone who had ever written about mortality. I was searching for a vocabulary with which to make sense of death, to find a way to begin defining myself and inching forward again.

kalanithi2The choices he finally makes reflect–perfect, maybe–the choices he had made throughout his life. He returns to work for as long as he can, finding purpose in his “calling,” and he wrote this book, which his wife tells us in her Epilogue he “wrote relentlessly,” committed to “help[ing] people understand death and face their mortality” in a different way than he had done so often as a surgeon.

I think When Breath Becomes Air achieves that goal, but not because Kalanithi ultimately has anything astonishing to say about death, or the meaning of life. If you want philosophical revelations, or profound human insights, you’re probably better off reading Woolf and Montaigne and Tolstoy for yourself. More than showing what it means to live or to die, for me Kalanithi’s book conveys what it is like to live and to die–to live, in particular, an examined life, in which choices are significant because they have moral as well as practical consequences; to strive to make whatever time you have as valuable as possible, to yourself, to the people you love, and to the wider community you inhabit; to feel, as he does, your imagined future “evaporate”; to suffer; to persist. He finds strength in quoting Beckett: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

Kalanithi writes with wonderful, tactile specificity about his life. The many anecdotes of surgery, in particular, are equal parts inspiring and terrifying to someone who has never had that kind of awesome responsibility, or that level of life-giving skill. It’s very beautiful, too, to read about the decision he and his wife make to have a child, and about the joy he gets from the all too brief months he has with his daughter. For me, though, the book faltered when it wandered into metaphysics, when Kalanithi tried to explain the gap he perceives between scientific theory and whatever it is exactly that, for him, religion represents. “If you believe that science provides no basis for God,” he proposes, “then you are almost obligated to conclude that science provides no basis for meaning and, therefore, life itself doesn’t have any.” There are some skipped steps in there, not least of which is the one that takes us from the presumed metaphysical neutrality of science to the meaninglessness of life. Though here too he is unimpeachably sincere, his belated invocation of some kind of inaccessible capital-T “Truth” both seemed a bit intellectually fuzzy and struck a false note for me. His whole memoir, I think, is a testament to the ways that our own actions, choices, and relationships imbue life with meaning.

The book actually has a cover blurb from Atul Gawande: “Dr. Kalanithi’s memoir,” it says in part, “is proof that the dying are the ones who have the most to teach us about life.” When Breath Becomes Air is a moving and thought-provoking memoir–it is indeed “heartbreaking,” as Gawande says, because Kalanithi was young and kind and brilliant, full of promise he wasn’t able to fulfill. We can certainly learn from his experience and his example. Understandably enough, though, Kalanithi can hardly provide transcendent, universal answers to the big questions he asks. His life doesn’t (and probably shouldn’t) tell us how to live our own, except that we should do so consciously, aware of the words of the poem that gave him his epigraph:

Reader! then make time, while you be,

But steps to your eternity.

Innovation and the Eye of the Beholder

Untitled-1On university campuses we hear a lot about innovation these days, from hype about the latest ed-tech fad to proclamations by institutions like my own about fostering a “culture of innovation.” This has got me reflecting on how we define or recognize innovation — something that is not as obvious, I think, as its champions, or as those who insist on it as a measure of academic success, typically seem to assume. In some fields, of course, it’s easy enough to tell when something is new, if it shifts or breaks a paradigm. But in others, context makes all the difference, as my own chequered career as a “thought leader” demonstrates.

Exhibit A: my undergraduate degree. When I first started at UBC in 1986, I intended to major in history. I was an avid reader, but it had never occurred to me to study reading. I changed my mind, obviously, thanks in large part to my first-year English professor, Don Stephens. (This is one reason I try never to underestimate the importance of our own first-year classes. They can literally change lives.) I didn’t want to give up history, though, and so I asked if it would be possible for me to do my Honors degree in both departments. It turned out that until then, nobody had done a combined English-History Honors degree, so the logistics all had to be specially worked out. (This was ultimately done by the simple method of adding up the key requirements, so that, for instance, instead of the 3-credit English Honors essay or the 6-credit History Honors essay, I did a 9-credit essay, with double the usual number of supervisors, readers, and examiners. I ultimately defended it to a panel of 7 professors.) Administratively, this was innovative, then — but intellectually, the work I did was very much in line with current trends in both disciplines.

UBClogoToday, of course, an interdisciplinary degree is wholly unremarkable; Dalhousie even has an entire Interdisciplinary Ph.D. program (for which I have done one supervision myself). Even by the time I got to Cornell to pursue my own Ph.D. in English, though, nobody raised an eyebrow at my interest in historiography. In retrospect, I think my role as an innovator actually reflected less on me than on the somewhat fusty assumptions governing UBC’s degree requirements at the time — particularly in History, where I met the most skepticism about my proposal, but also in English, where the Honors program still required one course each in Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton.

Exhibit B: my feminism. In my undergraduate history seminars, I was something of a feminist agitator. I particularly remember the efforts my friend Helen and I made to get some scholarship about gender onto the reading lists. We were unsuccessful in our mandatory historiography seminar — I remember one male student pushing his chair back from the table and exclaiming in disgust “But you’re trying to change something in your culture!!” Well, yes, we were: in our wider culture and in our immediate academic culture, in which the male students thought it was pretty funny to see if they could get us (“the feminists”!) riled up. But we were successful in our Renaissance history seminar: I still recall with admiration (and some self-satisfaction) the professor’s comments to the class at the end of the term that he was glad we had pushed for readings like Joan Kelly’s “Did Women Have a Renaissance?” because they had prompted him to reconsider some of his own working assumptions. That’s integrity! And our interventions were clearly innovative: we were very cutting edge!

06-vintage_cornell_souvenir_penantBut when I got to Cornell, I discovered that far from being a radical, I was actually a conservative! It turned out that there were some kinds of questions you couldn’t safely ask there, arguments you couldn’t seriously entertain, without undermining your feminist credentials. My first big mistake was giving a seminar paper called “The Madwoman in the Closet”: it queried some then-dominant trends in feminist criticism, particularly in 19th-century studies, and tried (perhaps crudely, but I was a beginner at all of this — and frankly, my somewhat old-fashioned training at UBC had not prepared me well for it) to figure out how politics and aesthetics were getting balanced (unbalanced, I thought, maybe, possibly) in the debates. My professor was keen to have these discussions, but said to me quite frankly that he felt that as a male professor, he couldn’t raise these questions. So I blundered in, and paid the price. I also wrote a more or less positive review of Christina Hoff Sommers’ Who Stole Feminism — I strongly doubt I would write the same review today, but I distinctly remember how scrupulous I tried to be, looking up the statistics and studies she cited and trying to think my way through the arguments she made. As I recall, this review (the first one I ever published!) was far from a cheerleading piece — it was more in the spirit of “these seem like questions worth asking” — but it can’t have done my developing reputation as an ideological throwback any good.

Yet at Dalhousie, gender issues have always been central to my teaching (as they have been to my scholarship) — I’ve even had at least one student complain that I was “pushing feminism down our throats.” More positively, I have had many appreciative comments from students, including one this year who said mine was the first class she’d taken in which “social justice” issues including feminism were simply integrated into the curriculum, even though the course itself wasn’t labelled as a class in “women’s studies.” It’s impossible not to wonder how much I have actually changed, and how much it’s just the shifting contexts around me that make me look different.

TLS-soganExhibit C: my critical writing. There are many possible angles to consider here, but I’ll focus on my recent work outside of academic publishing, because its status has been much on my mind lately. In a way, the kind of criticism I’ve been doing recently — from book reviews to literary essays — is not innovative at all: it’s the same kind of work everyone else is doing who also writes for newspapers and magazines and literary journals. But from an academic perspective, to be writing for those venues instead of for academic journals is itself innovative: it’s the kind of thing that gets called “knowledge mobilization” or “knowledge dissemination” or “public humanities.” Except that some of these publishing ventures resemble (in style, not necessarily in content) an older kind of literary criticism — a kind some might call belles lettres — which is now considered passé in academic circles. So my recent work could be considered retrograde, not innovative. Except that to break from the conventions of academic writing and try to replicate the best qualities of belles lettres (fine, smart, accessible writing, with its own literary elegance) while still doing criticism informed by decades of academic scholarship … couldn’t that combination of new insights and old forms itself be innovative? Then, what about the content of the reviews and essays? Every new interpretation of a literary text is a critical innovation, isn’t it? So every review of a new book, representing a new intellectual encounter, is intrinsically ground-breaking, even if book reviewing as a form is the oldest kind of literary criticism. What if you make a new critical argument, based on original research, but in an essay outside the norms of academic publishing — if that argument falls in the forest, can anybody hear the innovation? Or what if the argument of an essay is new to one audience but not to another? What is going on then?? Am I doing original work or not???

Oops. That last part possibly got away from me a little! But I think you get my point: determining whether something — an interpretation, an argument, a curriculum, a research project, a work of criticism — is innovative, new, original is not always straightforward. It depends on definitions, expectations, and above all, on contexts. The “flipped classroom” is nothing new to English professors who for years have been assigning texts to be read outside of class and using class time for discussion. “Student-centered learning” is no great revelation in disciplines that have always been based on Socratic exchanges, held seminar classes, and taught students to develop their own essay ideas into original arguments based on their own research. But that these are old practices in some contexts does not mean they aren’t valuable ones, or that people shouldn’t try them in other contexts, if they seem promising there. What matters should not be innovation for its own sake: we should stop fetishizing it as an end in itself, as if either its definition or its importance is self-evident. I’m not against innovation — of course not! And we should certainly encourage and support people who risk doing something outside their immediate limiting norms because they think it will serve the university’s mission — because we shouldn’t want what is now to be mistaken for what should  always be, or always was, in any context. It’s just strange to me how absolutely the term “innovation” is used, how confidently it gets invoked — and how, ironically, it can actually be used to reinforce orthodoxies if we never double-check our assumptions about it.

Waifs and Strays: Emma Claire Sweeney, Owl Song at Dawn

owl-song-coverI’m so glad Emma Claire Sweeney put me on the list to receive a review copy of her new novel Owl Song at Dawn. A heartfelt story about love and acceptance, it is also an evocative look at a time and place — northern England in the 1950s — in which, for families like those Sweeney focuses on, these feelings had to be fought for and protected, not just against the callous or prejudiced but against earnest but wrongheaded well-wishers.

The narrator and protagonist of Owl Song at Dawn, Maeve Maloney, is near 80 when the novel begins. She is the proprietor of Sea View Lodge in Morecambe, a bed and breakfast which was her parents’ business before her but has taken new form during her reign, now specializing in accommodations for “disabled holidaymakers”:

We used to take all sorts: the Deaf Choir of Greater Manchester, a wheelchair basketball team, paraplegic windsurfers. But the deaf conductor had been terribly rude to Steph on one occasion and the sports teams never joined in our sing-alongs or attended my craft sessions.

Now their guests are more typically groups like the Aspy Fella A Cappella singers — people who need some extra attention or special arrangements, who sometimes travel with their carers. Maeve’s staff includes Steph and Len, both with Down Syndrome. When talking about them, Maeve still sometimes reverts to the old term “Mongoloid,” which to her is “a lovely word – full of horses journeying across the steppes”: “I couldn’t think why the likes of [Steph’s parents] preferred to lumber their child with a syndrome; why they preferred to honour Doctor Down, who shut people away in an asylum.”

Maeve’s vocabulary may be old-fashioned, but that’s because it comes from her own life-long experience loving someone others believed should have been shut away — her twin sister Edie. Their family does not know exactly what went wrong with Edie, but at birth she was diagnosed with (in the insensitive clinical language of the time) “spasticity and severe mental subnormality, combined with related grand mal epilepsy.” In the face of strong pressure from the medical establishment to put Edie in an institution and focus on their “normal” child, the Maloneys instead stood up for both their daughters — their two “waifs and strays,” as their father fondly calls them — raising them together and giving Edie all the love and care they can for as long as they can.

Being Edie’s sister complicates Maeve’s life in many ways, from the literal effort of tending to her physically to the social challenges of having her along on walks, at church, at dances. Sweeney does not minimize the effort it takes to keep Edie safe, well, and happy, and Maeve is no saint, but she also never betrays any resentment at what her sister’s presence might have meant for her, or cost her. Indeed, when Maeve looks back, her only regrets are linked to failures to give Edie everything she needed — particularly one moment of inattention that had near-catastrophic consequences. Maeve’s parents, too, are not idealized, but their commitment to their “subnormal” daughter never flags. In post-war Britain, their advocacy is shadowed by knowledge of Nazi eugenics, and by the persistence of medical and judicial attitudes that see children like Edie as genetic failures who can only be a burden on their families. But to the Maloneys, Edie is just their other daughter, every bit as deserving of their unconditional love as her “normal” sister.

Owl Song at Dawn tells us Maeve and Edie’s story through flashbacks precipitated by the incursion into Maeve’s present life of Vincent Roper, a friend from their past Maeve has long kept at a distance. His arrival at Sea View Lodge prompts Maeve, unwillingly at first, to open up to difficult memories and choices she has tried to shut away. She has shut herself off emotionally too, as she gradually acknowledges, and underestimated the strength and value of the ties she now has. Sweeney elegantly interweaves the process of Maeve’s gradual re-awakening with pieces of her earlier life. The developing romance between Steph and Len provides a further strand, emphasizing the capacity of love to confound assumptions about what, or who, is normal and how far those assumptions should be permitted to limit people’s lives. Though in some basic ways Len and Steph do have “special needs”, it’s too easy, even for Maeve, to ignore how much we all need each other. After all, aren’t we all, in our own ways, waifs and strays?

There’s a lot of pain and even tragedy in Owl Song at Dawn, but it ends on a note of optimism, even joy, based on the simple premise that differences can bind the human family together rather than divide it. All it takes is patience, generosity, and willingness to understand. In her author’s note, Sweeney talks about her own sister Lou, who “might well look broken” to outsiders. When Lou was born, her doctor recommended that she be institutionalized, but she wasn’t, and now she leads the way “onto the dance floor, throwing back her head in laughter.” “So which of us is really broken,” Sweeney asks: “Lou, who elbows her way between couples, getting the men to dance with her; or me, who looks on, half in apology, half in admiration?” Owl Song at Dawn is a smart, tender, moving exploration of the same question.

“Riding Backwards”: Wallace Stegner, The Spectator Bird

spectator1Is there a name for books structured as backward explorations — books like Moon Tiger, say, or Old Filth, or Stegner’s Angle of Repose or The Spectator Bird, framed by aged protagonists’ desire (part nostalgic, part existential) to understand the story of their own lives? It’s a simple enough device, and at least in the examples I can think of right now, there’s a similarity of tone, a blend of introspection and acerbity, as if the past chafes a bit uncomfortably, a bit ironically, against the present. “Put it down to historical queasiness,” says Joe Allston in The Spectator Bird: “I always did get a little seasick riding backwards.”

The Spectator Bird begins with Joe and Ruth retired, living a version of the good life but beset, as Joe is increasingly aware, by both the physical and the psychological effects of aging. Joe suffers from arthritis, for example, that  pains and partially immobilizes him — and one side effect of his grating joints is a grating temper, a desire to assert his will in the face of changes he can’t control. A former literary agent, he has left the intensity of mid-town Manhattan for the more pastoral pleasures of California, which Stegner evokes with his characteristic sympathetic artistry:

Fat towhees sidle up to one another, pinheaded doves forage in the grass, the field next door is suddenly full of robins who arrive like blown leaves, picnic awhile, and depart all together as if summoned. From my study I can watch wrens and bush tits in the live oak outside. The wrens are nesting in a hole for the fifth straight year and are very busy: tilted tails going in, sharp heads with the white eyebrow stripe coming out. They are surly and aggressive, and I wonder idly why I, who seem to be as testy as the wrens, much prefer the sociable bush tits. Maybe because the bush tits are doing what I thought we would be doing out here, just messing around, paying no attention to time or duty, kicking up leaves and playing hide-and-sek up and down the oak trunks and generally enjoying themselves.

Instead of being carefree, Joe is “irritable and depressed,” and it doesn’t help to learn that yet another of their close friends is dying, or to be visited by a flamboyant Italian novelist, a vestige of the old literary scene, who can’t comprehend how they are living now: “You don’t want to sit in this imitation Umbria and dig in the mud and struggle against uncivilized nature. That is the way to grow old.” “By working our heads off,” Joe says acidly, “we managed to give Césare the dullest two and a half hours he has had since arriving in America.”

spectator2Still, Ruth and Joe seem likely to putter on, if not in perfect amity, at least in stolid companionship, without any new crises, until a postcard arrives from an old friend that prompts Joe to dig up his decades-old journals, which Ruth then encourages him to read aloud. They both know, it turns out, that the journals tell the story of a trip to Denmark that became a turning point in their relationship, one that has long gone unacknowledged but that has been a small irritation in their consciousness for decades. “You wanted the pebble out of the shoe,” says Joe to Ruth after she has forced a long-deferred confession; “I suppose,” she replies.

The Spectator Bird alternates between Joe and Ruth in the present and Joe’s journals. The Danish adventure the journals record begins as an escape from their own family drama — their son has died and Joe has just recovered from a serious illness — but takes them into one that’s even more fraught and complicated: an elegant Countess whose mysterious isolation turns out to be the result of her husband’s collaboration with the Nazis, and whose family’s past, intertwined, it turns out, with Joe’s, has secrets that make it, as Joe and Ruth observe, the stuff of Gothic novels.

Though I enjoyed the Danish segments a lot, I was a bit puzzled by the nature of those secrets, by why this kind of story provided the counterpoint Stegner wanted to the rest of Joe’s narrative. Its details seemed extreme and somewhat perverse, with no necessary thematic links to the life Joe is living now. But then I thought that maybe the contrast is deliberate: the Countess’s world is precisely not Joe’s, and though it’s enticing to imagine himself living in a Gothic romance, in the end — as he says — “there never was any real choice.” He doesn’t even feel any real regret. That’s not to say he doesn’t look back on those heady, confusing days and think about what might have been, but “jump[ing] into the Baltic, all for love and the world well lost” is not his way.

spectator3It’s tempting, perhaps, to look back with regret on a life that hasn’t turned out to be particularly memorable to anyone but the person who lived it. Early in the novel, Joe casts himself as a secondary character, a kind of Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, someone who watched other people live instead of really living himself:

As for Joe Allston, he has been a wisecracking fellow traveler in the lives of other people, and a tourist in his own. There has not been one significant event in his life that he planned. He has gone downstream like a stick, getting hung up in eddies and getting flushed out again, only half understanding what he floated past, and understanding less with every year. He knows nothing that posterity needs to be told about.

The Spectator Bird does not end on a note of regret, though. Instead, thinking back on his past, revisiting the road not taken, brings Joe to a form of acceptance that is better, more forgiving, more insightful than simple resignation:

The truest vision of life I know is that bird in the Venerable Bede that flutters from the dark into a lighted hall, and after a while flutters out again into the dark. But Ruth is right. It is something — it can be everything — to have found a fellow bird with whom you can sit among the rafters while the drinking and boasting and reciting and fighting go on below; a fellow bird whom you can look after and find bugs and seeds for; one who will patch your bruises and straighten your ruffled feathers and mourn over your hurts when you accidentally fly into something you can’t handle.

I’ve always liked books of this kind, but now as I approach 50 I feel them taking on new significance. While it’s true that things could still take an unexpected turn in my own life, that different possibilities of one kind or another could certainly (presumably) open up, this feels like a time when, for me, I am living out the consequences of my earlier choices more than I am making new ones. Like Joe, I have journals recording some of what I now understand as my formative years, some of my own decisive (if probably inevitable) choices, and I also have memories that cover many more years, and many more nuances, than those sparse volumes ever can. I think there’s value in recollection — in hanging on to and trying to understand the evidence of our own pasts — but retrospection can too quickly become brooding for me. The Spectator Bird is hardly a consoling picture (“in every choice,” Joe thinks, “there is a component, maybe a big component, of pain”), but I found something bracing in his refusal to consider himself a failure because he opted to do what he thought was, as far as he could figure out, right:

It has seemed to me that my commitments are often more important than my impulses or my pleasures, and that even when my pleasures or desires are the principal issue, there are choices to be made between better and worse, bad and better, good and good.

It may make a better novel to choose what’s impulsive, dramatic, romantic — but The Spectator Bird proposes that it won’t necessarily, even probably, make a better life.

“Where You Are”: Kent Haruf, Plainsong

plainsong1“The crib scene kills me,” Mark Athitakis said on Twitter when I remarked that I was half-way through Plainsong and loving it. At that time I hadn’t reached the crib scene yet, but when I did, I knew what he meant. It epitomizes the novel’s perfect balance of sweet and strong, tough (even, sometimes, brutal) and tender. It’s faintly comical, but also deeply touching.

The title and epigraph of Plainsong direct us to music: “plainsong,” we’re told, is “the unisonous vocal music used in the Christian church from the earliest times” and also “any simple and unadorned melody.” I looked up “unisonous” myself to be sure I was making the right sense of that definition: it means “identical in pitch.” The implicit contrast, then, I suppose, is with harmony and counterpoint — with musical arrangements built on difference and complexity, rather than similarity and simplicity.

I find that interesting, because Plainsong itself seemed to me built on very different notes, one for each story: the little brothers, so close together in their apartness from their mother; their father the teacher, shaping life and meaning as best he can on the farm, in the school, or in the privacy of his own loneliness; the young girl, crossing too soon into the risks and responsibilities of motherhood; the old brothers, my favorites, staunch and generous in their clumsy humanity. Haruf’s genius is the blunt delicacy with which he brings out each of these elements, so seemingly singular, then creates something resonant out of their combination.

Maybe that’s what the title means: that the novel finds the commonality in these differences, showing them to belong together — to one chord, if I can keep up the musical metaphor a bit longer. Or maybe it alludes less to the stories and more to the novel’s style, which is certainly “simple and unadorned,” though eloquent in its austere precision:

Afterward, when she was calm again, after the doctor had left, she went into the air outside the Holt County Clinic next to the hospital, and the light in the street seemed sharp to her and hard-edged, definite, as if it were no longer merely a late fall afternoon in the hour before dusk, but instead as if it were the first moment of noon in the exact meridian of summer and she was standing precisely under the full illumination of the sun.

Here and throughout, Haruf’s imagery is wonderfully concrete. He’s especially good with the landscape, which is rarely hospitable but somehow feels bracingly supportive of these lives eking themselves against its wintry contours:

They set out in the cold bright day . . . driving north toward Holt, passing through town and under the new water tower and carrying on north, the country flat and whitepatched with snow and the wheat stubble and the cornstalks sticking up blackly out of the frozen ground and the winter wheat showing in the fall-planted fields as green as jewelry. Once they saw a lone coyote in the open, running, a steady distance-covering lope, its long tail floating out behind like a trail of smoke.

plainsong2Nature is not romanticized in this world: the McPheron brothers, for instance, are cattle farmers, and there’s too much birth, blood, and slaughter in their daily routine to make them sentimental. Haruf connects his characters to nature’s harsh realities, emphasizing their common cycles of life and hunger and survival. “I started thinking about it the other day,” Harold McPheron says to his brother Raymond, as they fret over Victoria’s pregnancy: “the similarities amongst em.” “I don’t appreciate you saying she’s a heifer,” says Raymond, horrified, but later, after they deliver a calf, with difficulty, from a heifer in distress, they both move seamlessly into discussing, not the heifer’s health, but Victoria’s:

You think she’s going to be all right? Raymond said.

She’s young. She’s strong and healthy. But you don’t ever know what might could happen. You can’t tell.

There’s great compassion for animals in the novel, but their care requires a pragmatic brutality that doesn’t transfer exactly to people. The crib scene shows the McPheron brothers, hardly used to human conversation, let alone more elaborate forms of interaction, first finding then expressing the grace that lifts Haruf’s simple stories into something approaching sublimity. It’s a perfectly mundane activity, of course, shopping for a crib, but it’s joyous to see these rough men discover Victoria’s needs — not for the crib, or not just, but for belonging — and act on their insight. Through their act of practical grace, they show her she is not alone, and that ultimately gives her the courage to take up the place they have offered her in their lives.

Maybe that’s really the unisonous aspect of Plainsong: each story in its own way follows this same path, from disconnection and loss to unity. I appreciated that Haruf does not make the process seem easy, or ignore how painful even love can be. He leaves us, though, with an uplifting image of community — again, something simple, just a dinner, but everyone has taken a pilgrimage of sorts to get there. “Honey,” Maggie Jones said earlier to Victoria as the girl imagines being, going, somewhere else. “Victoria. Listen to me. You’re here now. This is where you are.” Early on, for every character, to stay where they are seems like a struggle. By the end, together, through unadorned acts of kindness and principle, they have all made “this” a good place to be.

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