From the Archives: Summer Reading 2011 Goes On
Rohan Maitzen, Senior Editor and host of Novel Readings:
I’m a fan of summer time travel: I like to escape the mundane realities of my life through immersion in some robust, detailed historical fiction. A great book for this kind of armchair (or deck chair) adventure is Pauline Gedge’s The Eagle and the Raven. Set in ancient Britain, the novel follows the struggle of the tribes to withstand a Roman Empire determined to conquer Albion once and for all. Most of the novel follows the story of Caradoc, a chieftain who eventually unites the disparate tribes—as their king or ‘arviragus’ he leads a nearly successful campaign to drive out the invaders—but the novel also tells the tale of the legendary queen Boudicca.
Gedge has the historical novelist’s gift of making the estranging details of the past feel intimately familiar and her own imaginings wholly believable: she evokes a world of dark forests and misty mountains, Druidic rituals and human sacrifices, a world in which women fight side by side with men and the most cherished value of all is freedom. Gedge’s characters are distinct, individual, and complex, from Caradoc himself—charismatic, driven, fierce yet loving—to his warrior sister Gladys, whose evolving relationship with the Roman general Aulus Plautius prefigures the inexorable direction of history. It also valuably complicates the novel’s central conflict: Gedge understands that genuine tragedy arises from the conflict of competing goods, not from the simplistic clash of unmixed good and evil. Her Romans are as human as her chieftains and warriors, the beauty, sophistication, and order of the civilization they spread as significant as the ruthless discipline of the legions that expand and defend its borders. For all that the novel mourns the dying light of freedom in Albion, it does not indulge in empty nostalgia: like the founder of modern historical fiction, Sir Walter Scott, Gedge focuses on the contexts that shape her people’s actions and motives, but emphasizes that as these contexts change—as they always, inevitably, do—it becomes not just pointless but destructive to fight to preserve the old ways. Heroic as Boudicca’s last stand is, there’s no more place for her in the world of the Caesars than there is for Waverley’s Fergus MacIvor in Hanoverian England.
The Eagle and the Raven exemplifies what we sometimes call ‘old-fashioned story-telling.’ My other recommendation, WIlkie Collins’s 1860 thriller The Woman in White, is over a century older, but in its gleeful accumulation of narrators and other metafictional tricks it gives the lie to knee-jerk assumptions
about ‘conventional’ Victorian ‘realism.’ The Woman in White inaugurated the subgenre of Victorian fiction that became known as ‘sensation fiction’—a label invoking not just the sensationally dramatic ingredients typically found in such novels (such as fraud, identity theft, seduction, adultery, bigamy, and murder) but also the ways they played on their readers’ sensations with their thrilling plots and voyeuristic style. Collins’s friend Charles Dickens considered the eerie sequence in which our hero, Walter Hartright, first meets the uncanny woman in white one of the two greatest moments in 19th-century English literature: “in one moment, every drop of blood in my body was brought to a stop by the touch of a hand laid lightly and suddenly on my shoulder from behind me.”
Collins’s idea was that the form of the novel—which is told in turns by the various characters, including through their letters and diaries—would mimic the effect of a legal trial, with its accumulation of witnesses and evidence. (He would use the same strategy in his equally brilliant novel The Moonstone, which T. S. Eliot famously called ‘the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels.’) Clearly revelling in the opportunity this gives him to play with different voices, Collins spins a splendidly convoluted and entertaining story of innocence besieged: the lovely but insipid heiress Laura Fairlie is wooed by Sir Percival Glyde, who—with his ally, the ebulliently villainous Count Fosco, who wears florid embroidered waistcoats and loves to play with his pet white mice—schemes to take control of her fortune. The names show how much fun Collins is having: Walter is, indeed, true of heart, Laura is never treated fairly, and Sir Percival’s smooth manners are attractive but deceptive.
I looked from the table to the window farthest from me, and saw a lady standing at it, with her back turned towards me. The instant my eyes rested on her, I was struck by the rare beauty of her form, and by the unaffected grace of her attitude. Her figure was tall, yet not too tall; comely and well-developed, yet not fat; her head set on her shoulders with an easy, pliant firmness; her waist, perfection in the eyes of a man, for it occupied its natural place, it filled out its natural circle, it was visibly and delightfully undeformed by stays. She had not heard my entrance into the room; and I allowed myself the luxury of admiring her for a few moments, before I moved one of the chairs near me, as the least embarrassing means of attracting her attention. She turned towards me immediately. The easy elegance of every movement of her limbs and body as soon as she began to advance from the far end of the room, set me in a flutter of expectation to see her face clearly. She left the window —and I said to myself, The lady is dark. She moved forward a few steps —and I said to myself, The lady is young. She approached nearer —and I said to myself (with a sense of surprise which words fail me to express), The lady is ugly!
Tell me that doesn’t make you want to keep reading! Resolute, intelligent Marian—who sports “dark down” on her lip that is “almost a moustache”—defies every Victorian ideal of femininity, yet her character so captivated Collins’s readers that he received numerous letters demanding to know her original, in order to make her offers of marriage.
Walter and Marian must use all their wit and resourcefulness to save Laura from Glyde and Fosco, and to uncover the truth about the mysterious woman in white. To say any more is to risk spoilers!
Greg Waldmann, Senior Editor:
Bring more books than you could possibly read when you take a vacation, and bring different kinds, too. Vacation is for leisure and if a book doesn’t pull you right in, or if it makes you work too hard, it has no business being in your hands; save The Wealth of Nations for another season. Some people will tell you to take old favorites along, but that’s a mistake, too: there’s no reason you can’t return home, sun-burnt and jet-lagged, with another notch in your literary belt. You need only bring enough along to make sure you hit on something ideal.
Two years ago, roasting on an idyllic beach near St. Petersburg, Florida and pawing about for the perfect book, I was lucky enough to find it. I pulled out a collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short stories from my bag, a selection put together by Malcolm Cowley. Despite turning sixty this year, it’s still the one to have. Matthew Bruccoli, the current dean of all things Fitzgerald, has edited a larger, more recent collection, but Cowley’s still runs to 500 pages, and his twenty-page introduction alone is worth the cover price. He knew Fitzgerald and the writers of his generation, and there’s an immediacy to his prose that can only be conveyed by someone who lived through the age with his own dreams of literary greatness. He is a wonderful guide.
“The handle by which he took hold of his characters,” Cowley writes of his friend, “was their dreams.” Like all dreamers Fitzgerald’s mind was always racing over the horizon (in his youth he kept an ledger of his accomplishments), but for every hypothetical success, he anticipated, even predicted, a failure, and when they came he often had difficulty moving on. It’s this inner drama that propels his stories and moves his characters, and if Fitzgerald’s autobiographical tendencies sometimes blur them together, we’re repaid in full by the sensitivity and verisimilitude of his creations; we know their hopes and fears well.
The twenty-eight stories span his career and can be read as a kind of emotional autobiography. If the failed, suicidal Gordon Sterrett of “May Day” – “comatose, drugged, his eyes wide, his mind clicking wildly like an unoiled machine” – is Fitzgerald at his most despondent, then Dexter in “Winter Dreams,” pitched to ecstasy by “the sound of a piano over a stretch of water,” is the youthful author at his most tranquil, fallen into “a mood of intense appreciation, a sense that, for once, he was magnificently attuned to life and that everything about him was radiating a brightness and a glamour he might never know again.”
The stories also, as Cowley says, “compose an informal history of two decades in American life, or rather one decade with it’s long aftermath,” from the flappers in “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” through the toils of the young and wealthy in “The Rich Boy,” to the disillusionment of the eponymous screenwriter in the “Pat Hobby” stories. “Babylon Revisited,” the perfect coda, is set in 1930′s Paris, a quieter city denuded of rich, questing Americans. It is the story of a man waking up from a drunk decade, only a modest success but his priorities finally straight, trying to secure the custody of his daughter, the only thing that matters to him anymore.
The anthology format is also a second insurance against boredom: if the shimmering fantasy of “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” doesn’t strike your fancy, you might prefer the quieter drama of “Absolution.” But there isn’t a clunker in the book, and you’ll finish wanting more. Fitzgerald wrote a hundred others (even his worst contain lines you’ll wish you’d written), and there are, of course, his wonderful novels. Start here, though. It’s a sturdy little mass market, and it’s available used for a pittance, so even if you’re short on money and you can’t bring a dozen books with you, there’s no excuse.
Jeff Eaton, Editor-at-Large:
For a quality summer read I look for a book that is both fully engrossing and a little meandering—summers are made for a wandering pace and that’s when my tolerance for digressions is at its yearly high. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, a historical fantasia of magic and the Napoleonic Wars, comfortably fulfills both requirements.
Clarke’s ability to fully engross comes from her cleverness at keeping the fanciful aspects of a story about the resurgence of magic deep in the background. For much of the book, an overall sense of Britishness, from class customs to suitable matches, takes precedence over sorcery and faeries. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell has the heft and literary chops of a ‘serious read,’ building interest around its quirky characters and their semi-comedic interactions long before all magical hell breaks loose.
The style overtly apes the formality of Jane Austen, and Clarke’s maxim appears to be that if it’s worth saying it’s worth saying deliberately and precisely, no matter how long it takes. She even goes so far as to augment her precision with elaborately contrived footnotes, a trend that appeared to be on a meteoric upswing a few years ago but seems to have leveled off lately. If you can tolerate a bit of circumlocution, these stylistic facets can be quite charming–at the least, they remind you that, hey, it’s summer: you weren’t supposed to be in a hurry anyway.
Joanna Scutts, Editor:
Summer is usually a time for ambitious projects abandoned like stray flip-flops in favor of lightweight books that are easier to carry to the beach or the park. Writing about Patrick Leigh Fermor for this month’s issue made me realize what perfect summer reads his books are—small and densely packed, they’re like sneaking off on an adventure with an unassuming genius. Start with A Time of Gifts and keep exploring from there.
Still in 1930s Germany (not an obvious summer destination, but bear with me): The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun is a flickering melodrama of a novel, following its glamorous, self-deluding heroine through increasingly shabby and desperate Weimar-era Berlin. She sets out to ‘write like a movie’ and her pitch might be Goodbye to Berlin meets Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The novel was banned and destroyed by the Nazis in 1933, and has just been reissued in a new translation by Other Press.
If material girls and wandering polymaths aren’t your thing, but you still want summer reading you can brag about, now’s a great time to go back to Ivo Andrić ’s The Bridge on the Drina, a dizzying history of Balkan life from the middle ages to the First World War told through the building, life and destruction of the titular bridge. It’s just been announced that a new town in Bosnia, ‘Andrićgrad,’ is being built in honor of the writer, who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1961. As literary accolades go, a 17,000 square meter memorial to your life and work might just beat them all.
Lisa Peet, host of Like Fire:
I’m a firm believer in Paul Theroux’s Essential Travel Tip #8: Read a novel that has no relation to the place you’re in. I also think the precept should be extended to seasonal reading, and that nothing keeps you cooler in the summer than a tale of ice and snow. Even better if it throws in a good scary chill as well. The Terror, Dan Simmons’ story of polar exploration gone very, very wrong, is just about perfect on all counts—plus it’s large enough to last through a few long weekends, and to keep the napkins from blowing away.
HMS Terror, along with its sister ship Erebus, comprised the Franklin Expedition, which left England in 1845 in search of the fabled Northwest Passage. Both ships became trapped in the ice floes of the Arctic Circle and were lost along with all 126 men; that much is history. Simmons has taken the basics of Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated mission and pieced together a horror story of epic proportions, weaving elements of the physical world and a more abstract kind of fear into a gripping tale that will inject a goodly amount of ice water into your veins. It’s the combination of the two, the natural and the supernatural, that make this such a wonderfully gothic thrill. The facts alone would be scary enough: ten months of hard winter and 20-hour polar nights, a dwindling (and partially rotten) food supply, and the encroaching, crushing, creaking ice that slowly breaks apart steel-hulled ships and men’s spirits. But there’s another terror that gradually makes itself known, some malevolent entity lurking out on the ice—or is it somewhere in the depths of the ship?—killing them off in horrible fashion.
The expedition’s second-in-command, Francis Crozier, is at the heart of the story, doing his best to keep his crew alive, his ship whole, and his sanity intact. He reads Hobbes’ Leviathan to his crew at Sunday services, rather than the Bible—The Terror has satisfyingly literary undertones, including an epigraph from Moby Dick and a memorably weird homage to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.” There is snow-blindness, Northern Lights, a mysterious silent Inuit woman who attaches herself to the ship—everything you need to make you shiver even in the August sunshine. But best of all is the thing tormenting Crozier and his crew, one of the scariest creations I’ve come across in a while. We spend most of the novel not knowing whether it’s a rogue polar bear, a malevolent demon, an Inuit spirit, a collective hallucination, or the psychic manifestation of privation and fear. And Simmons manages to tease the suspense out over 700-odd pages without the story—or the mounting tension—becoming icebound itself. The Terror is a big fat eerie book, suitable for beaches of both the sand and tar variety, and it’ll make you appreciate whatever heat we have coming to us.
Janet Potter, Assistant Editor:
Give me a big biography and I guarantee I will fall in love—not with the book, with the subject. It’s inevitable once I’ve read 500+ pages about someone. Then, in casual conversation when, say, Charles Lindbergh comes up, I can shout, “I love Charles Lindbergh!” Everyone will think I’m being hyperbolic until I relate the anecdote about Lindy in the Paris hotel, and they’ll see my love is genuine.
Summers often find me in the throes of one of these infatuations. The summer of 2005 belonged to Lindbergh by A. Scott Berg, an exceptional book about the famous aviator’s life and worldwide fame. Berg finds the elusive balance between ticking off the facts of Lindbergh’s life and being his psychiatrist, sketching a portrait of an essentially shy and talented man onto whom a country projected its hopes and disappointments. It also helps that his wife was fabulous.
The summer of 2003 I took up with the not-at-all shy tsar of Russia, Peter the Great. Robert K. Massie’s biography of this enormous, headstrong, occasionally affectionate and possibly insane man reads like historical adventure. His (second) wife was also fabulous, and a peasant! If you have the chance to read this book on a train ride, you must absolutely do so.