Posts from July 2012

July 29th, 2012

The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous!

Our book today is The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous, a 1993 addition to the “Rutshire” chronicles written by the inimitable soap operator Jilly Cooper. American readers may not have heard of Rutshire, and that’s OK – it’s a creation of Cooper’s, meticulously planned and mischievously named. American readers may also not have heard of Jilly Cooper, and that’s far less OK. Her books have never been nearly as popular in the US as they’ve always been in the UK, but American readers who’ve been making do with the likes of Jackie Collins and Jacqueline Susann owe it to themselves to rectify the omission and seek out Cooper’s masterpieces – including Riders, Rivals, Polo and our current work. In this as in so many other literary fields, the British, as Cooper herself might put it, simply do it better. The island that gave the world Moll Flanders needs no instruction, after all – and although it’s not currently fashionable to say so, Daniel Defoe would instantly have recognized Jilly Cooper as a kindred spirit (and tupped her if she gave him the slightest encouragement, but that’s a whole ‘nother post).

In the “Rutshire” series of novels, the settings are swanky – polo clubs, riding clubs, country clubs, elaborate River Fleet mansions with names like Angel’s Reach, Valhalla, and Paradise Grange – and the men are swanky too – multi-millionaires, jet-setting doctors, world-class symphony conductors, pop stars. And then there are the women! World-class sopranos, dowdy barflies, brittle charity doyennes, brainless trophy-acquisitions, and, of course, “polo groupies.” The world of polo – of riding (wild horses couldn’t have kept Cooper away from the double entendres) – is central to the goings-on of these novels, central to the plot of The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous because this book stars the gorgeous groom Lysander Hawkley. Cooper can’t wait to introduce us to him, so he gets her typically over-the-top opener:

Lysander Hawkley appeared to have everything. At twenty-two, he was tall, broad-shouldered, heart-stoppingly handsome, wildly affectionate, with a wall-to-wall smile that withered women. In January 1990 at the finals of a Palm Beach polo tournament, this hero of our time was lying slumped on a Prussian-blue rug in the pony lines sleeping off the excesses of the night before.

He doesn’t sleep off those excesses for long – without a steady, virtually uninterrupted stream of excesses, Cooper would have been reduced to writing Booker Prize-winners. Instead, she serves up a frothy mix of brutally over-monied boy-men, manipulative witches, towering you-know-whats, and a scheming rat-bastard of a paste-board Italian villain in the form of rapacious conductor Roberto Rannaldini, into whose twisted orbit handsome young Lysander falls when he and his friends Tiny, Arthur, and Jack decide to rent Magpie Cottage in Rutshire’s Valley of Paradise, well within shagging distance of every local bored wife and slumming socialite. Lysander is technically there to help the ladies train for their, er, riding:

Lysander, Arthur, Tiny, Jack and a red Ferrari with a top speed of 200 m.p.h. moved into a charming cottage seven miles from Paradise, and Lysander lost no time in getting Marigold into training. As they both jogged in track suits along punishingly steep footpaths, watching the first celandine and coltsfoot pushing their way through the leaf mould and the winter barley slowly turning the brown fields pale green, Lysander wished it was Arthur he was getting fit for the Rutminster Gold Cup rather than Marigold, but they made terrific progress.

A glance at that paragraph will reveal why Cooper’s books were so roundly condemned in certain precincts of the literary establishment – the Ferrari doesn’t move into the charming cottage, etc. – but that same glance, if it’s honest, will see what an effective line of prose she can generate when she puts her mind to it. There are passages of equally simple-but-effective scene-setting all throughout the “Rutshire” novels (indeed, there are a couple of scenes in Riders that are actually – shudder – well-written), and this should have nudged at least some of those early critics to remember that purist condescension was the reaction most often doled out to Anthony Trollope in his day. In her rather crass social observations, her neat little descriptive details, and especially her marvellously sprawling and intricate plotting, Cooper is every inch a Trollope.

And let’s not forget the best part: the dialogue! In her long and varied career, Cooper has been both a journalist and a dramatist, and the old skills shine forth whenever she’s got a group of her principals in a room together

‘Lully, lully, breast is best, lully, lully, baby rest,’ sang Hermione, flashing a blue-veined boob at her sleeping Harrods doll.

‘I still think Kitty should be in it,’ said Georgie stubbornly.

‘Kitty is needed at home,’ hissed Rannaldini, who was trying on a totally anachronistic purple velvet doublet. ‘Theengs are getting slack ‘ere. There are lights on everywhere, plants go unwatered.’ He pressed the earth of a huge ficus. ‘The second post hasn’t even been opened and I hardly think my study is the right place for a roll of lavatory paper.’

Lysander’s face tightened with anger.

‘As you talk so much shit, sir, I would have thought it was very appropriate.’

Rannaldini looked at Lysander in amazement as though the manger had spoken.

‘Particularly lavatory paper,’ he went on. ‘I told you not to buy white any more, Keety. You known bleach pollutes the rivers.’

Hearing Rachel-speak coming straight out of his mouth, everyone exchanged uneasy glances. Kitty had gone puce with mortification.

There are pages and pages of this kind of grand stuff (and yes, in case you were suspecting typos, that was indeed a hammy stage-Italian accent you read; Cooper doesn’t believe in subtlety – as if you couldn’t tell that from the ‘breast is best’ lullaby) in The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous – it’ll surely be the fastest 700-page novel you read all year.

Critics have had their way with Jilly Cooper, and in another twenty years she and the glittering Dynasty-style worlds she so exuberantly created will likely be entirely forgotten. But there’s a very bawdy, knowing Nell Gwyn magic in these pages just the same. You’ll smile while you’re reading this book, and if by some chance you spot another fat Cooper tome at some church sale or flea market, you’ll snap it up without hesitation. Most of her early-90s competitors could only wish for such an effect.

 

July 3rd, 2012

… and Ladies of the Club!

Our book today is that 1433-page beacon of hope to procrastinators and late bloomers everywhere, Helen Hooven Santmyer’s 1984 runaway bestselling novel … and Ladies of the Club, written over a lifetime and finally published when its author was 88 years old. The book stayed on the New York Times Bestseller List for years (the rest of its author’s life, as it turned out) and baffled American book-critics, who found themselves groping for telling euphemisms to simultaneously describe and deride what happens when the quotidian is pursued with such unswerving concentration over such vast page-lengths that the end result alchemizes into gold. The common motif in these reviews was that of surrender; critics talked of ‘giving yourself over’ to Santmyer’s endless pages, of ‘yielding’ to the book’s jasmine and hyacinth charms. The New York Daily News reviewer promised that those who “abandoned themselves” to its spell would be amply rewarded; the canny book-stringer for UPI declared that it shared the same magic as the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder (a point that was said to have delighted Santmyer, rightly so); even the bombastic critic for the old Boston Herald implied that damning this book would be the moral equivalent of damning your mother’s corned beef and cabbage (they use such standards in Southie, or they used to).

It will be discerned at once that none of this exactly constitutes fair praise, but Santmyer must surely be acquitted of the kind of arch playing on sentimental heart-strings for which she’d be convicted – and lauded (and Oprah’d) today. Our author led a long and varied life, an upright life (study, teaching, mentoring), an engaged and thinking life. She was born in 1895 and died in 1986, and she spent most of those years in the relatively small town of Xenia, Ohio, teaching its young girls to think and question and laugh. And it’s impossible to avoid the suspicion that Santmyer was also absorbing all the atmospheric details around her that whole time, observing everybody, steeping herself in the unspoken complexities of small-town living – as though Miss Marple came equipped with a manual typewriter and an Oxford degree. Very slowly, an enormous novel came into existence.

The book tells the story of the Waynesboro Woman’s Club, which is founded in 1868 as a kind of working literary society (members being expected not only to do the required reading but to present papers on literary subjects). In masterly, leisurely fashion, we very slowly have unfolded for us the lives of the various Waynesboro women who come together to create the club; each chapter begins with the year in big bold letters followed by the current roster of the Club – so we see new names gradually become familiar and then one year fail to appear, although more new names do. In the 21st Century, book clubs are continuing to experience something of a minor renaissance, but in general they’re feeble echoes of the great clubs of the 19th and early 20th centuries, which usually did more than simply offer a bit of genial book-discussion to accompany the wine and cheesy bits and off-topic gossip. Those earlier clubs had ambition – their members held carefully-monitored debates on great topics, commissioned detailed papers on authors and ideas from their members, and often poured large amounts of time and energy into amateur theatricals, as Santmyer’s ladies do:

Unfortunately, Mrs. Ballard proved incapable of memorizing, and the first act threatened to lose its force, since the king’s fiercest speeches had to be read through a lorgnette, from slips of paper clasped in hands so drawn and stiffened by rheumatism that the pages were fumbled, sometimes confused, and the place lost. But Mrs. Ballard was so amazingly humble in her desire not to ruin everything for “you young people” that they forgave her, with growing affection. Mrs. Deming, on the other hand, was coldly perfect in her part, but she was too plainly enjoying herself, and forebore to criticize, so that fun was not altogether subdued in her presence.

It’s true that this sort of thing lends itself both to the gentle satire of a Helen Hokinson and more savage appraisals from less forgiving quarters, but the key to the success of … and Ladies of the Club is that Santmyer takes these women very seriously even while she’s very clear-headed about the narrowness of their world. She herself considered this gigantic book to be almost entirely about politics – not Woman’s Club politics and not Waynesboro politics but national and even international politics. Time and again, our ladies chat at great, detailed length about the upheavals convulsing the larger world beyond their trellised porches, the world being experienced directly by their husbands, brothers, and eventually sons.

But like many authors of gigantic books, Santmyer could be mistaken about which notes readers will hear clearest (M. M. Kaye had the same problem in assessing her own gigantic book, The Far Pavilions). Despite all the news of the outside world that makes its way to Waynesboro over the course of these pages, the main concern of the book is always the Club – and the sometimes byzantine strategies of care with which its self-assured matriarchs administer it:

Mrs. Maxwell spent some time in deliberating on whether to include so light-minded an author as Froissart, but by midsummer it was fairly certain Mrs. Jessamine Stevens would be elected to Club membership in the fall; Froissart would be a suitable subject for her: a frivolous historian and a frivolous woman; besides, hadn’t southerners always been fascinated by the days of chivalry? But since Mrs. Stevens could hardly be asked to do a paper almost immediately after becoming a Club member, Froissart must be taken out of chronological order.

As that passage makes clear, in every chapter – almost on every page – there are glimpses and hints of the sharp, understated, teasing humor Santmyer’s friends treasured in her. By the time she was polishing the final manuscript of this book, our author was the most wonderful of all creatures, a sharp old bird, the kind of old lady who’s neither addled by piety nor blunted by timidity. She carves quick scenes with a knowing wink at the audience even when her Ladies of the Club are in complete earnest:

The Woman’s Club met as usual. Lavinia Stevens brought a guest to one fall meeting: young Mrs. Dr. Warren. She was an attractive girl, charmed the members, and, most importantly, Sally Rausch; and before the fall was over, she had been invited to become a member. “At least,” as Sally said, “no clerical taint.” Having had her way so far as one member was concerned, she did not oppose the election of the Methodist minister’s wife for the other vacancy – a Mrs. Harrington. “Methodist ministers aren’t allowed to say long, anyway,” she said to Anne.

In fact, Santmyer is such effervescent company throughout this book that the reader easily forgets how exceptionally old she was when she was revising these chapters. The only major hint (aside from the sheer amount of small-town wisdom packed into some very small spaces throughout) comes in the many offhand reminders that death at the turn of the 20th Century was a far more ubiquitous and powerful enemy to suburban American women than it’s ever been since. Our ladies are healthy one year and gone the next, and sickness – including serious illness – is a constant, if minor, refrain. You aren’t more than two or three hundred pages in before you slowly realize that a young person simply couldn’t have written this book.

Young people can certainly read it, however – anybody can, and with great pleasure. Most enormous novels require at least some element of that surrender all those original critics were carping about, after all – more so than shorter works, they not only elicit a world but demand that we inhabit it fully. If they’re good enormous novels, we won’t want to leave their world, no matter what the page-count is. This is certainly true with … and Ladies of the Club: you’ll want that intense and welcoming little world of Waynesboro to stay the same forever. And thanks to Helen Hooven Santmyer, it will.

June 13th, 2012

The Squire!

Our book today is Enid Bagnold’s best novel, 1938’s The Squire – a claim to which some of you will respond “Surely not!” and very much more of you will respond “Who the hell is Enid Bagnold when she’s at home?” The “Surely not!” crowd will be bewailing the fact that I’d single out The Squire for that top honor rather than the one Bagnold book you might actually know, National Velvet – but it’s true: National Velvet is a catch-pan full of room-temperature treacle, just about the most insufferably cutesy-poo ‘girls’ book this side of Fifty Shades of Grey (the first volume of which I finally got around to reading and about which I can only say: the fifty billion of you who’ve bought this thing and raved about it, made it into a cultural game-changer? You all need to get out more). The “Who the hell” crowd will be much larger and perhaps thus more justified, since Bagnold has vanished into the mists of obscurity from which – once upon a time – there was little chance of rescue. Two 21st century factors have come into play to change that.

The first, of course, is Stevereads! Here, no book is too obscure for me to find, read, perhaps love, and if love, rave about. The second is e-books: because any book roughly 70 years or older is out of copyright, many such books are available in free, carefully-curated electronic editions for download to your handy-dandy iPad. In fact, sites like Project Gutenberg have become rather thriving intellectual hubs, giving a broad range of forgotten or obscure authors a potential second chance at a readership they’d never get if their only chance was catching somebody’s eye on the dusty stack-shelves of an old library. I’m sure you’ll find Enid Bagnold there, although perhaps not everything she wrote.

I hope you’ll find The Squire, because it’s well worth your reading time (of course if you don’t I’d be happy to send you a copy…). The story is set in a stately English country house whose lord and master has left for a three-month business trip to Bombay. Ruling the village green, the servants, and the household in his stead is his wife (never called anything but “the Squire” in the course of the book), an imperious woman firmly entered on middle age, mother of four little children and heavily pregnant with her fifth. Her advanced pregnancy has made her somewhat listless around the house, a state of mind that Bagnold expertly contrasts with the often frenzied thoughts of the various servants around her, none more so than the butler, Pratt, whose thoughts are always jagged and dark:

Drink, no, he would not drink. For two years, as first-footman in a situation in London, he had belonged to one of those west-end clubs where stately men in soft hats, silk scarves and indoor shoes come silently to the side door when the day’s work is done. Men like Raeburn pictures, impressive English faces, long-jawed, faces like actors and bishops, set mouths and well-groomed heads; there behind a quiet door some could drink a bottle and a quarter in an evening. Always whiskey; a bottle and a quarter of whiskey; whiskey drinkers; able miraculously to return on duty at eight next morning, steady-headed, foul-tempered and ritualistic. He had known these men, seen how they held out to the last lap, and what was their collapse. How they dropped, ruined through the rings of service, each ring holding them awhile, till down they went to that hell of penniless men who have been indoor servants and cannot do a hand’s turn at a manual job.

The masterfully-done syncopation there – “always whiskey; a bottle and a quarter of whiskey; whiskey drinkers” – can be found throughout this novel, which mostly concerns itself with intensely feminine world of the Squire and her female friends, servants – and of course midwife:

“I have in my time,” said the midwife, “questioned the value of motherhood. I have seen so many bad mothers, poor, indifferent mothers. Yet often the babies do well with them. Often, when I have left a mother, the baby has prospered without me; though the mother was terrified at being left, and the milk gone down with her anxiety at my departure. There is something between the mother and the baby. Not only love, not only milk. Some sort of closeness. A baby when it has been so close to her needs to be close again after it is born.”

The time-frame of the book is set entirely in the husband’s absence – the point is to make our Squire the anchor of the novel’s world. And yet three of her children are boys, and one of them, obsessive-compulsive little Boniface, is (ironically? I can never tell with this author) the most memorable character in the book:

Boniface upstairs could not sleep. He was murmuring big words in the dark, well-applied but mispronounced. In the peace of night his veiled speech cleared, the eager horses of his mind galloped as they should, with beautiful hooves, driven at speed. Lucy heard him. Lying on her side in bed in the room next door she listened to the voice soar and drop and mouth its words, despotically lecturing in the dark. He who could not in the light conclude his sentences, left out his nouns, let go his half-voiced thoughts so that they wandered away, never to be caught again, he, when dark fell, defeated sleep and talked aloud in his room with a droning, steady clarity.

On page after page of The Squire, there breathes a remarkable sense of hard-won wisdom, of quietly confident insight into the most tender, indescribable aspects of motherhood and the bond between mother and young children. My favorite moment happens late in the book, when the Squire’s little girl finds her mother in the library working over a pile of bills and papers:

Back in the library the letters and bills were strewn, half-sorted, but Lucy came in and hung over the writing-table.

“What are you doing?” said the squire, dipping her pen in the ink.

“Nothing.”

“Why are you here?”

“To talk to you.”

“What about?”

“Nothing.”

They smiled at each other.

Enid Bagnold wrote a few other books over a long lifetime, from her superbly moving 1917 book A Diary without Dates (which was about her experiences as an army nurse during the First World War, and the harsh honesty of which got her summarily fired) to her brusque and at times quite beautiful 1969 Autobiography, which cost her almost all of the few surviving friends she had. But The Squire took her longer to write than any of her other books, and the careful preparation shows. Whether you stumble across it at a library sale or download it in a spiffy electronic version, you won’t be disappointed. This kind of book is exactly why some of us believe so strongly in the odd and obscure.

December 14th, 2011

Stevereads 2011 Worst Books of the Year: Fiction!

It’s perhaps inevitable that as attention spans continue to fritter away all across the educated West, the capacity to take things seriously should wither too – after all, deliberation and estimation are twins. Still, a decade along in the 21st century, it amazes me to find people failing to take seriously their own livelihoods – that seems like Millennial boneheaded anomie taken to absolutely annihilatory lengths. And yet, new powerhouse chanteuse Adele had to cancel tour dates and refund large amounts of money rather than quit chain-smoking; Texas governor Rick Perry spent vast amounts of money and effort to secure his spot at Republican Party presidential candidate debates to which he then seemed largely indifferent – and worst of all (from a Stevereads perspective), any number of authors this year seemed to think all they needed to do in order to merit the attention of the present and posterity was show up and riff for a few pages. They displayed a complacency toward the written word that amounts to insolence – and that is certainly an insult to their readers. Those readers have never had a greater number of published authors from which to choose than they do now, and established authors who arrogantly ignore that fact do so at peril of the mortgage on their pretentious co-ops in Brooklyn. This year’s worst offenders:

10. 11.22.63 by Stephen King – Despite what he himself appears to think in this wretched book, Stephen King is neither more interesting nor more important that the JFK assassination.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9. Every Third Thought by John Barth – The biggest, most regrettable example this year of writers apparently thinking all they need to do is show up to justify their place at the table is the once-great John Barth. Long ago, before he acted like he believed this (or before he took his postmodern hijinks past the point of diminishing returns), he was one of America’s best writers. Drivel like Every Third Thought makes me think we’ll never see a glimmer of that again, which is sad and angering at the same time. If Barth had retained his faith in the power of narrative (and his respect for the intelligence of his readers), he’d be on the other fiction list this time around.

 

 

 

 

8. The Submission by Amy Waldman – Yes, yes, it’s something every little boy and girl dreams while they’re furtively reading by flashlight under the covers: ‘Someday, I wanna write a 9/11 novel!’ Or perhaps it’s one of the darkest forms of laziness, gene-splicing the ‘debut novel’ strand with the ‘have to take it seriously strand’ in hopes of creating a super-pheromone for critics! The Submission concerns a Muslim architect who wins a contest to design a memorial to victims of a Muslim terrorist attack on Manhattan, and if the whole dog-and-pony show had been set further back in the past and centered around the sinking of the Lusitania, its rather substantial shortcomings would have been glaringly obvious, instead of swathed in sentimentality.

 

 

 

7. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes – This bored and boring pastiche of third-rate Updike starts nowhere particular, goes nowhere particular, and then just stops, perhaps unable to stand the weight of its own droning anymore. The thing is barely longer than a short story, and yet Barnes can’t be bothered to weld the two pieces together in any kind of way. Instead, the main character, a blank template of the stock-fictional author stand-in doing the whole ‘gee, I’m not as young as I once was’ shtick, bears no resemblance to the younger version we see in his memories, and those memories have no importance to the ginned-up ‘unexpected inheritance’ half-plot that comes wandering in like Brown’s cows and hangs around until the author gets tired of it (or just plain tired) and drops it. The end of the book (as in the final page, since it has gives us no other kind of ending) comes as a mercy and an indictment: if this is the kind of lazy, self-indulgent crap that gets book contracts from major publishing houses, there’s something seriously wrong with the whole industry.

6. The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje – To call this endlessly meandering tale of two boys cavorting their way through all the decks (i.e. the levels of society – geddit? geddit?) of a ship at sea a left-handed exercise would be an insult to southpaws everywhere. Ondaatje has always been a monstrously overrated author, but this laughable little squib takes the proverbial cake; every narrative choice in it is easy and predictable, there is no plot, and the herky-jerky little what-happened-next twists the plot takes from time to time wouldn’t strike Ondaatje’s listening grandchildren as convincing (those children would very likely also notice the gaping plot-hole two-thirds of the way through the book – it’s a pity Ondaatje didn’t run his manuscript past anybody who was paying attention). Like so many other novels on our list this time around, the prevailing sin here is an overweening sense of entitlement, a belief that simply showing up and mucking about with dialogue will be sufficient to satisfy your slavering fans.

5. Cain by Jose Saramago – Saramago is almost as prolific as Roberto Bolano, and, in this novel about Cain, the brother and murderer of Abel, he’s very nearly as bad. I’m a fan of Biblical fiction (Petru Popescu’s wonderful Girl Mary appeared here in 2009, for example) when it’s done right, and it could scarcely be done worse than this horrible mess of a novel, which can’t decide whether Cain is Hermann Goering or Jerry Seinfeld, which can’t lay any of its wooden dialogue at the feet of its excellent translator, and which can’t bear to stop mugging for the camera for even a moment.

 

 

 

 

 

4. House of Holes by Nicholson Baker – A third-rate British septuagenarian shares his porn with us! Sign me up!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. The Third Reich by Roberto Bolano – Rumors of the author’s poor health (there are even rumors that he might have died, but he’s published twenty books in the last two years, each more ghastly than the last – nobody who’s dead has that kind of nerve) cannot excuse this little faucet-drip of a novel, with its easy plot, its predictable ‘war games’ metaphor, its lack of fleshed-out characters, and its pat formulations. I’ve heard it opined that Bolano is a master of atmosphere, and I agree: provided the atmosphere in question is the murk of narcissism and a cult of personality so thick you could cut it with a knife. The author should postpone his next four novels and take a vacation someplace warm.

 

 

 

 

2. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern – The challenge of contemporary fiction isn’t to steer clear of gimmicks – in one way or another, that’s scarcely possible anymore. No, the challenge is to master those gimmicks, to rise above them in the service of higher, better gimmicks. And when it comes to gimmicks, surely none is lazier and more thoughtless than the circus? It comes ready-packed with its own plots, characters, and conflicts, so of course it will tempt authors arrogant enough to think they created all of those things. The circus-gimmick spares those authors the trouble of creating much at all – the gimmick is both exotic and familiar, and lazy readers find it instantly inviting despite its underlying seediness, like a zoo. This was bad enough when the circus in question was the ordinary sawdust-and-felons version plodders could find in, say, Water for Elephants – but it’s ever so much worse in Morgenstern’s hands, because her circus seems magical, but she has neither the wit nor the craft of author she’s ripping off to tell her story. Call this Something Tedious This Way Comes.

1. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides – I suppose in the breviary of authorial indifferences, uninformed cynicism isn’t the worst species – it requires a bit of effort, at least, even if it’s entirely misguided and harmful effort. Uninformed cynicism suffuses this wretched book by Eugenides (why are we venerating this guy with gigantic billboards, again? Isn’t this only his third book?), in which the conventions of 19th century authors whose hems he’s unworthy to touch are both gently mocked and violently misunderstood. For every student or teacher stereotype that’s skewered perfectly (I counted one), there are four or five skewered poorly, which makes for quite a few wounded and angry stereotypes rampaging around the ficto-sphere, possibly jostling Elmore Leonard’s writing-elbow or trampling lost little waifs like Nell Freudenberger and Jonathan Safran Foer. If Eugenides’ piece of skata is meant to be a knowing wink at the wisdom of writers like George Eliot and Jane Austen, a knowing nod to the fact that their concerns are still our concerns, then it needs to stop winking at ladies who’d be embarrassed by its puppyish lunging about (can you even imagine our current Eliots and Austens – many of whom are tight-plotting mystery authors – producing a sloppy farrago like The Marriage Plot? Barbara Pym wrote better stuff looped half off her rocker on ‘pep pills’). And if, as seems to me far more likely, the book is meant to be a wink to us, about how tired and quaint those old novels are in our post-modern age, then arrogance, as is so often the case, becomes a product of ignorance, since any good reader will tell Eugenides that these novels quite easily hold their own against anything the louche denizens of this list are ever likely to produce. No matter which of these readings is right, The Marriage Plot is consummately wrong – and our Worst Fiction Book of 2011.

September 6th, 2011

All Passion Spent!

Our book today is Vita Sackville-West’s brilliant, problematic 1931 novel All Passion Spent, which she published in the unexpected critical and financial afterglow of her brilliant, not-at-all-problematic novel The Edwardians. The two books were a formidable announcement of assured powers, the type of shot across the literary bow that customarily changes both the landscape and the shooter (as indeed famously happened with another one-two punch of novels written by a very different author in 1930 and ’31). And yet, nobody reads Vita Sackville-West anymore, and any presence she has on college syllabi is more to prove some splinter-studies point than to celebrate her literary worth. Her posthumous fate has been the reverse of her friend Virginia Woolf’s, and the explanation has always eluded me. It’s simply insufficient to say Woolf is the better writer and leave it at that; Sackville-West wrote a third again more novels than Woolf, but if they’re across-the-board lesser quality as a species, it’s only by a whisker (especially if we recall that, pace Woolf, it takes more than a recondite style to make a good book) – and I don’t even agree to that.

No, I think it boils down to the Edwardians – not the novel, but the ‘long’ version of the era, and all the artistic types who got their labyrinthine genesis during those years. The ‘long’ Edwardian era has always seemed to me to be characterized not by action but by an almost craven re-action, in which so many things from Victorian times were not only rejected but inverted – in this case, the prolific-author paradigm associated with Dickens and Trollope. Suddenly, the literary reaction was a conception of author-as-sufferer that tended to convey an aura of extra legitimacy to smaller bodies of work. Anthony Burgess quips somewhere that it was Forster who ruined things for prolific authors by making ‘serious author’ synonymous with eking out eight novels and then dying. I think Woolf benefits from that new paradigm in ways that have nothing to do with the quality of her work, and if I’m right, that same paradigm has worked against Vita Sackville-West, who, in addition to these two great novels, wrote some obviously tossed-off novels, some utterly delightful gardening-books, and at least one truly great travel-memoir, all while conducting an active and public social life. That clearly goes against the grain of the whole bogus writing-as-agony pose pioneered by those pesky Edwardians and perfected (if that’s the right word) in the present day by frauds like Jonathan Franzen, and it may account for the odd eclipse covering authors like Sackville-West (or, for that matter, Burgess). The idea that they somehow weren’t serious dies hard.

This novel, All Passion Spent (thought I’d forgotten, didn’t you?) should dispense with that idea. It opens with the death of ninety-four-year-old Henry, first Earl of Slane, and it immediately gives Sackville-West occasion to indulge in the character-cutting that was her signature strength as a writer:

It was difficult to get a yes or a no out of the man. The more important a question was, the more flippantly he dealt with it. “Yes,” he would write at the bottom of a memorandum setting forth the advantages of two opposite lines of policy; and his myrmidons passed their hands over their brows, distraught. He was destroyed as a statesman, they said, because he always saw both sides of the case; but even as they said it with exasperation, they did not mean it, for they knew that on occasion, when finally pushed into a corner, he would be more incisive, more deadly, than any man seated four-square and full of importance at a government desk. He could cast his eye over a report, and pick out its heart and its weakness before another man had had time to read it through. In his exquisitely courteous way, he would annihilate alike the optimism and the myopia of his correspondent. Courteous always, and civilised, he left his competitors dead.

Once Lord Slane himself is dead at last, a quiet emancipation unfolds inside the heart of his elderly wife Edith, Lady Slane. She finds herself surrounded by her appalling children (themselves all in their sixties) and immediately caught up in their obtuse, stuffy assumptions about her. But she’s done every conceivable social duty and finds she has no desire to do more – her courteous defiance hits her children like an affront:

“About the house, Mother,” began Carrie. “Would to-morrow suit you to see it? I think I have a free afternoon,” and she began to consult a small diary taken from her bag.

“Thank you, Carrie,” said Lady Slane, setting the crown upon the surprises she had already given them, “but I have made an appointment to see the house to-morrow. And although it is very nice of you to offer, I think I will go there alone.”

She leaves the family home and takes a small house in Hampstead, and there she muses not only on the physical vagaries of old age itself (something our author evokes throughout with extremely thoughtful skill):

This consciousness, this sensation, of age was curious and interesting. The mind was as alert as ever, perhaps more alert, sharpened by the sense of imminent final interruption, spurred by the necessity of making the most of remaining time; only the body was a little shaky, not very certain of its reliability, not quite certain of its sense of direction, afraid of stumbling over a step, of spilling a cup of tea; nervous, tremulous; aware that it must not be jostled, or hurried, for fear of betraying its frail inadequacy.

… but also on the nature of a long life full of memories:

Sitting there in the sun at Hampstead, in the late summer, under the south wall and the ripened peaches, doing nothing with her hands, she remembered the day she had become engaged to Henry. She had plenty of leisure now, day in, day out, to survey her life as a tract of country traversed, and at last become a landscape instead of separate fields or separate years and days, so that it became a unity and she could see the whole view, and could even pick out a particular field and wander round it again in spirit, though seeing it all the while as it were from a height, fallen into its proper place, with the exact pattern drawn round it by the hedge, and the next field into which the gap in the hedge would lead.

For a book with such a deceptively simple premise, there’s quite a bit more than this going on in All Passion Spent (indeed, the book’s title gets more ironic with every passing page) – there are dramas, and suitors past and present, and the whole thing is so assuredly autumnal that the reader is constantly surprised that Vita Sackville-West was forty, not eighty, when she wrote it. The quirks the author imports to Lady Slane can be irritating at times, but no more so than the quirks of a great many Woolf characters who are much better known to the intelligent reading public. Sic transit gloria mundi, I suppose, but in this case – as in so many cases here at Stevereads – I could wish it weren’t so.

 

June 30th, 2011

Judge on Trial!

Our book today – in honor of Translation Thursday! – is Ivan Klima’s bleak, masterful 1986 novel Soudce z milosti, translated into English in 1991 by A. G. Brain with the title Judge on Trial. Klima has the writing compunction and has been generating all kinds of prose for his entire adult, but to my mind this is his finest achievement. It’s the story of Judge Adam Kindl, who once dreamed youthful dreams of perfecting society and administering justice, but who’s now faced with the petty corruptions and subversions of the rigged legal system he serves in postwar Prague. Kindl still keeps the company of idealists like his friend Matej (whose story-line is one of the book’s most effectively done), but his inner life has become so wary and co-opted that even his own beliefs are often a source of pain and frustration to him. When we first meet him, he’s a classic hangdog Prague muddler, cleaving to the middle way with desperate consistency, trying not to give his life cause to crush him.

That cause comes in the form of a trial given him by his Presiding Judge – an open-and-shut murder trial in the state’s kangaroo courts, a trial that’s only supposed to take Adam a few days … and that will in the process test his party loyalty to the city’s Communist overlords. Adam sees his choices clearly: do as he’s bidden even though his poor defendant (another very satisfyingly complex character) might be innocent, or ruin his career – and jeopardize his safety and his wife’s safety – by adhering to his hidden principles. “The two are incompatible,” he says at one point, “power and a sense of disgrace.”

It would be a bit misleading to call Judge on Trial a comic novel, although – it being so thoroughly Czech – many parts of it are very funny. The comic zingers are here, but not the underlying gaiety. Rather, this is an almost unbearably wry novel, one in which even routine scene-setting is sharpened until all its edges cut, as when Adam is assigned a workplace roommate:

Adam had never had an office of his own, but this was the first time he had ever shared one with a woman. Dr. Alice Richterova might have been young and single (why would a woman rush into wedlock who so early in her career as a judge had already dissolved hundreds of marriages, and had heard so much evidence proving that married life is composed of deceptions, infidelities, backbiting and fakery, sexual nastiness and disputes over the washing-up and the car?) but she was definitely neither beautiful nor likeable.

Neither our main character nor most of the supporting figures around him are particularly likeable people (Adam in fact is a bit of a dull prig, intoning at one point “People who rushed to drown their senses at moments of affliction struck him as weak-willed”). It’s Klima’s great skill to make us care about what they do all the same, to hope that somehow the gloom all around them will spare them. This hope is made all the more forlorn by the fact that most of them are their own worst enemy, as in the case of Adam’s garrulous brother Hanus, who at one point writes him a long, indiscreet letter from England:

What, in fact, is essential to a feeling of freedom? People will always lack something and have to make do with what they’ve got. Who knows the right scale of values? It struck me not long ago that freedom is in fact an infinite set. If I try and compare your freedom with my freedom, for example, I am comparing two infinite sets. Or if I try and compare the limits of my freedom here with the limits of my freedom back home: I call the original factor of my limits here LF, then the limits of my freedom back home start at about LF + 20, or some such figure. Do you see what I mean?

Needless to say, such a letter is bound to make its recipient a bit uneasy in Communist Prague, although Klima’s ear for deadpan sarcasm usually cuts the tension a bit, as in Adam’s grumbly reactions to his brother’s letter:

He didn’t particularly see. He hoped that it would be no less mystifying to any possible censor and didn’t feel that the letter’s importance justified his seeking out an expert on set theory to explain it to him.

Judge on Trial is a dark and mesmerizing performance (at least if A Good Brain’s translation is to be believed! I’m guessing it is), and although it’s full of period details (the long sections – powerfully autobiographical on our author’s part – recounting the horrors Adam and his family experienced during the Second World War are beautifully harrowing), it’s really that most elusive of beasts: a universal story. What options are open to a good man when the forces of his society dictate that he do evil? Also, what temptations face such a man? Freedom may be an infinite set, but the number of novels about it that are this good is extremely limited.

 

 

June 27th, 2011

Before the Dawn!

Our book today is Shimazaki Toson’s magnum opus, Before the Dawn, which he published in serial instalments from 1929 to 1935 and which stands in my mind as the second-greatest Japanese novel of the 20th century (first of you to correctly guess #1 gets a free copy of it!). It’s a gigantic historical novel set in the years 1853 through 1886, and it follows a big cast of characters through the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the flowering of the Meiji Restoration. The main figure in the narrative is Aoyama Hanzo, the headman of the village of Magome on the ancient road that twines its way through the Kiso valley, a remote and roughly beautiful corner of Japan tucked away in the mountains. True to the form of Japanese naturalism, Shimazaki Toson makes certain to paint the broad landscape of his story’s tapestry before he begins the finer brush-strokes of individual characters – the first lines of the book’s prologue (in the English of the brilliant and only slightly pedantic William Naff, whose translation remains the only one readily available in English)(perhaps the only one in English, period? I haven’t researched, but it wouldn’t surprise me): “The Kiso road lies entire in the mountains. In some places it cuts across the face of a precipice. In others it follows the banks of the Kiso river, far above the stream” – were at one point as iconic in Japan (and especially in the Kiso district, which became a tourist attraction on the strength of this novel) as the opening of War and Peace once was in Russia (I say “was” only because I assume here that the educated, reading classes in both Japan and Russia have been overwhelmed and all but annihilated by zombie-like hordes of Zelda-players and iPod-people, same as in the United States)(if I said to any randomly-chosen group of ten Americans “I am vast, I contain multitudes,” the only response I’d get would be “Dude, you’re totally not that fat”)(Sigh).

Aoyama Hanzo’s job as headsman of his village is to make sense of the various policies and edicts of the shogunate, transmit them to the villagers under his care, and then work with those villagers to mitigate those edicts, side-step them, somehow make them livable. He’s a passionate, idealistic man (the author patterned him on his own father), and it’s through the prism of his personality, more so than any of the book’s other characters, that we see and really experience the sweeping cultural changes brought about by the Meiji Restoration. Again like Tolstoy, Shimazaki Toson studiously imports truckloads of history into his historical fiction, and like Tolstoy, he’s sometimes uneven in how well he integrates all that research into his story. Readers will frequently encounter blocks of straightforward, undigested historical recitation:

The elimination of alternate attendance was a consequence of the reforms that had been carried out in the Bunkyu era. It had earlier been considered by the daimyo and their officials who noted the trend of the times and had decided to adopt a position favoring shogunal reforms. When their voice became the majority, asserting that it was essential to bring some enlightenment into political life and to let fresh air into the politics of the nation, many of the shogunal functions that properly belonged to Kyoto were eliminated, including the posting of guards at the nine gates of the imperial palace.

Naff makes the same outspoken protestations in his Foreward that all translators from the Japanese make – mainly that it can’t be done, that whole worlds of meaning and implication get left back in the original language. Shimazaki Toson himself tried to curtail the baroque effusions of the fiction of his day – he constantly revised his exposition and especially the speech of his characters in order to make it simpler and clearer, and even in Naff’s translation, it’s easy to see that he mostly succeeded. There’s just enough stiffness (and unglossed cultural references) to retain the sense of an alien culture, but the people speaking in that culture almost always feel undramatically real:

“It’s just been too warm this year right from the start. I kept thinking something was strange.”

As Kichizaemon spoke, Kimbei nodded in agreement.

“That’s right. Starting the year’s work in straw sandals just doesn’t happen in Kiso. And then, when the camelias on the other side of the temple road were coming into bloom and it was time to make the third-day cakes, the artemesia was already in full leaf. All that must have been telling us an earthquake was coming. Anyway, Kichizaemon, we had just finished Senjuro’s initiation and, thanks to you, he’s become an assistant headman. I can now face my ancestors. I was putting away the things from the celebration when the earthquake hit.”

“They say the earthquake at Zenkoji in the year of the monkey was big, but I don’t think it was anything like this. Not even the earthquake in the sixth month of the year of the tiger was this bad.”

“No, this earthquake is unprecedented. Absolutely.”

It’s a bit surprising that Before the Dawn hasn’t become a staple of translated Japanese literature in the West; you have to haunt used bookstores or Alibris to find a copy of the Naff edition, and that’s a shame. The book is perfectly immersive in the way all first-rate historical fiction is, weaving the reader into the picture it’s painting. Long as it is, you won’t want it to end, and that’s a testament to its author’s warmly inviting tone. We can live in hope that there’s a Penguin Classic in the works.