Always the tradeoff: If I’m reading copiously, I have less time to write. In lieu of a proper post, here is a rundown on what I’ve been reading, and a teaser for the posts I hope it will produce.
1. In April Toni Morrison’s new novel, God Help the Child, will be released. In anticipation, I’ve begun a chronological read-through of her work. This past month I’ve revisited her three early novels: The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1973), and Song of Solomon (1977). Coming to them again after many years, I find I can read them without the distraction of bedazzlement. I already know that, at her best – of which these three are solid representatives – she is among the greatest of American writers. I have also read enough of her over the years to know that she is not always at her best. A Mercy, for example, was stunning, while its successor, Home, was thin. I’m now reading Tar Baby, a novel which I disliked when I read it something like twenty years ago. I’m eager to see how my reading of it has changed over time. After this comes Beloved, among the handful of novels that changed my understanding of what a novel could do to the heart and mind of a reader. Look for further accounts of my survey of her work.
2. One of my favorite authors, Saul Bellow, has his centenary coming up on June 10th. In December I read Herzog for the first time and realized that a first reading of this book is a bit like a first coat of paint on an unprimed wall, no way for one mind to cover what is to be covered here, not in one go. Mr. Sammler’s Planet is next up for me and I can’t wait. I am currently reading his collection of essays, It All Adds Up, and feeling myself in the presence of one of the great, loving, advocates for the modern mind; he wraps a strong and affirming arm around around my intellectual shoulders and says, “You can so go at the world like this.” I’ve read the opening essay on Mozart several times before and every time find its defense of the idea of transcendence positively joyous. More about him for sure!
3. I have long known of the Uruguayan novelist Juan Carlos Onetti, but until this month, I had never read him. For Christmas I gave my friend Nathan a copy (in Spanish of course) of his novel El Astillero (The Shipyard) and told him to let me know when he was ready to read it so I could find an English translation and read it with him. Early in February he gave the word. It’s a fairly short book whose pages, I found, seem to multiply as each one is turned. Slow, dense, deeply melancholy, brilliant, handily outstripping the more famous European existentialists in existential sorrow. A few days ago, Nathan texted me from the used bookstore where he works to tell me he had found a copy of another Onetti book, Bodysnatcher, and should he hold it for me. It now sits atop the pile by my bed. From the one book I’ve read so far, and the feel of this next book, I am persuaded that he is one of the great, neglected writers of the the 20th century, fully deserving of a Nobel prize that never arrived for him. He should not be missed.
4. In December I read Naked Masks, a collection of five plays by Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello, a genius who has never achieved quite the securely canonical standing of, say, Strindberg, Ibsen, Shaw, or Synge. They are grim, funny, brainy, unnerving dramas, which, even after nearly a century show the fringes of the experimental cloth from which they were cut. The most famous is Six Characters In Search of an Author. My favorite is Henry IV. After reading them I found myself wishing with all my heart that I lived in a time and a place where these plays would be performed.
5. I’m hoping this will be the year I complete a reading of the novels of Patrick White. I spent most of January reading his huge, bitter, writhing The Vivisector. It will take me another month or two to catch my breath before moving on to The Eye of the Storm. I’m terribly curious to see the 2011 movie made from this novel by Australian director Fred Schepisi. It stars Geoffrey Rush, Charlotte Rampling, and Judy Davis. Twitchy, grisly fun, I expect.
I hope this update persuades you that 2015 promises to be a rich year here at The Stockholm Shelf. Check back soon!
I try to imagine them meeting in Paris: the young Pär Lagerkvist and Gertrude Stein. He, a Swede of peasant stock, shock of blond hair, taciturn not even the word for his humming inwardness. She, agate-eyed, operatic in force and figure, Alice in tow, compelling him to come furrow his Nordic brow at the three Juan Gris paintings she’s just purchased. What an awakening it must have been for him – this woman, this modern art – comparable, perhaps, to his discovery of the work of Charles Darwin while at the gymnasium not so many years earlier. That prior awakening had precipitated, or at least correlated with, a radical turn from the pietistic religion of his parents to an ardent, agnostic socialism. He and a small group of likeminded students would meet on Sunday mornings, as the church bell tolled in the little town of Växjö, in southern Sweden, where he’d grown up, to discuss Thomas Huxley, Flammarion, and Kropotkin. In Paris, he sees, there would have been no need for such statement making. Paris. And this woman! These paintings!
However I try, I can’t quite imagine this meeting, at least not without it coming off as a kind of mental cartoon in need of a caption. Stein, fundamentally large, the Empress of the avant guard, the quintessential American in Paris, seems formed of such different material from the bony young Scandinavian, practically born with intimations of mortality, looking like the mold from which any number of Bergman characters would later be cast. And yet, however unlikely, this meeting apparently happened, or so I read in the introduction to Evening Land, a volume of Lagerkvist’s late poems. I read that the art to which she exposed him – expressionism, cubism, naivism – influenced his early breakthrough in style far more than anything in literature.
Pär Lagerkvist’s life seems to have been haunted by two enormities: God and Death. In his autobiographical novel, Guest of Reality, the principal character is a boy named Anders. Anders is born into a fiercely protestant family in which the Bible is one of the few books in the house. He becomes so obsessed with his fear of death that on a rainy day he takes himself to a flat stone in the forest to pray for the life of each member of his family. After a terrifying vision of a ghost locomotive rushing into the night in a spray of sparks, he comes to believe that the world of his father, in which all things were secure and certain under the certainty of God, was not real, and not his. Instead, “It just hurtled, blazing into the darkness that had no end.”
It would prove to be an irrevocable divide for Pär, this longing for God while watching the very idea of God recede beyond possibility.
If you believe in god and no god exists then your belief is an even greater wonder Then it is really something inconceivably great.
Why should a being lie down there in the darkness crying to someone who does not exist?
Why should that be? There is no one who hears when someone cries in the darkness. But why does that cry exist?
Some of his very first writings were explorations of this divide. In 1912, before Paris, Stein, cubism, he wrote a piece for a Socialist magazine in which he envisioned a young hunter who catches sight of a woman by a spring. The hunter’s feelings are divided: He both yearns for her and wants to withdraw from her. He follows her, keeping himself hidden. When she reappears at the spring, he decides to kiss her, only to discover that, like Narcissus, he has kissed nothing but his own image in the water. He is completely alone. Lagerkvist called this Gudstanken: the idea of God.
The woman, the hunter, and the spring, would reappear four and a half decades later in his novel The Sybil. This time the story is told by the woman. She is the chosen mouthpiece of a mysterious and powerful god. On feast days, pilgrims arrive by the hundreds at the temple with requests for prophecy. She enters a drug-induced trance during which the voice of the god erupts from her in inchoate shrieks and groans, which the priests then interpret. It becomes evident to her that they interpret in such a way as will benefit themselves and the economy of the town. She becomes a prophetess without faith. One day, walking through the woods, she arrives at a spring. She finds there a beautiful young man. Instead of a hunter, he is a one-armed soldier, and this time they meet, and fall in love. Their love becomes a god in which she can believe. When she becomes pregnant, she is expelled from the temple and banished forever from the town. The soldier, who had ceased loving her after witnessing her orgiastic convulsions at the temple, is discovered dead in a nearby stream. The child she bears grows up to be helpless and mute, forever an infant. In the end, he too leaves her, vanishing into the snowy peaks. And so she looses, at the same time, both a god of power and a god of love, and is left with what, at best, could be called a god of absence, and at worst, malevolence. But the god she longs for —that god does not exist.
For Lagerkvist, this divide, this longing for a nonexistent god, would itself become a kind of faith, if one accepts Paul Tillich’s term for faith as ultimate concern. “I am a believer without a faith,” he wrote, “a religious atheist. I understand Gethsemane, but not the jubilation over the victory.” But his work would show that he did have a kind of faith, a faith in the longing itself, as indicated by that subtly ecstatic final question of his poem, “But why, does that cry exist?” The asking belies a love that it does.
Recently, I re-read Barabbas, the novel by which, if by any, Lagerkvist is generally known to readers in English. It is his imagining of the life of the world’s most famous bailed criminal. Beginning with his uncomprehending witness of the crucifixion, it traces his journey, not to faith, but near it, and into the ultimate, inscrutable dark. I found myself perplexed by Lagerkvist’s simple, almost naive, approach to the writing of this tale, wondering how he achieved such formidable drama. I think it is because of his love for that cry. It is the cry of one divided. In Lagerkvist’s vision, Barabbas, the man who cannot believe, burns with the greatest passion of all for God, or an idea of God to sustain him. That he never finds it is, paradoxically, his final grace; what would he have become if he had become, at last, peaceful? His eventual death at the hands of the Romans would, in the end, have had no more significance than that of any of the assured believers around him. Instead, he pays, by choice, the ultimate price for a God in whom he longs to believe but doesn’t, with no one to hear his “cries in the darkness.”
May my heart’s disquiet never vanish. May I never be at peace. May I never be reconciled to life, nor to death either. May my path be unending, with death its unknowable goal.
Fascinated, I read in quick succession The Sybil and The Dwarf, and found in each, as in Barabbas, a captivating protagonist, each different from the others in every way, save for an un-ironic seriousness through which they engage their ironic worlds. Each longs for God, or a stand-in for God, and fails to find either.
I wanted to know more. I had not known that Lagerkvist was a playwright, apparently a great one, considered the successor of Ibsen and Strindberg. Nor that he was one of a small handful of poets to bring Swedish poetry into the modern era. For a little over a week now I’ve had by my side Evening Land (Aftonland), his final collection of poems, published in 1953, and happily translated by W. H. Auden. I find in them a voice so potent I am amazed to have never come across his poetry before. He appears in none of my anthologies. Surely, he is no Tranströmer, lacking the later poet’s power of image and, what? levitation? But I now understand how Tranströmer would not have been Tranströmer without Lagerkvist.
One poem stopped me cold. It may be among the greatest statements of faith I have read by a modern poet:
I wanted to know but was only allowed to ask, I wanted light but was only allowed to burn I demanded the ineffable but was only allowed to live.
I complained, but nobody understood what I meant.
To ask. To burn. To live. This, in the end is all one is permitted. It is not, as it nearly sounds, an Eastern approach to enlightenment, for the payoff is patently not equanimity. The revelation here is that one must do these things with or without one to accompany.
I think that for Pär Lagerkvist, turning from God to Darwin, then to Picasso and Braque, was never really a turn from God in the first place, but rather a turning towards his own longing. I have no idea what kind of encounter he had with Gertrude Stein, or if there was any ensuing connection between them. But he must have seen in her another who, though she may never have said so, was, like him, longing for God. For what is the thirst for art and the far reaches of language if not a demand for the ineffable?
The American composer and voluminous diarist, Ned Rorem, made the following entry in his Nantucket Diary, dated 17 October, 1985:
“When it comes to prizes there is no right choice, although with hindsight every choice can seem inevitable. Most witnesses are uncomfortable, especially the losers, and even the Nobel Prize is a raffle. In honoring Claude Simon the Nobelists now show themselves to admire the trend of form over content which has been festering in all French art for three decades, and which at its most extreme becomes the very definition of decadence. It makes me sad. If they had to choose a Frenchman, why not Simenon?”
In the previous entry Rorem recounts a discussion with a friend about the pleasures of the prolific Georges Simenon, known for his hugely popular detective novels. Positing Simenon (who, for the record, was Belgian) as a Nobel contender is clearly intended to be cute. Simple fun, perhaps, with the closeness of the names. But Rorem’s real subject here is the commonplace that institutions which bestow awards have biases which can make their choices perplexing to those who don’t share them. The Nobel Committee has been coy about a wide range of them over its 113 years. Certainly this year’s award, to Patrick Modiano, another Frenchman, raises again this by now rather tired problem which, any more, is good for an easy, if not terribly interesting, diary entry. But when Rorem blithely tosses an author like Claude Simon onto the apparent trash heap of the whole post-World War Two French artistic enterprise, it smacks of posing.
First of all, I’m not exactly sure who he’s lumping Simon with. Perhaps he had in mind the painter Yves Klein, who instructed beautiful nude women to cover themselves in blue paint and roll around on his canvases. As a composer, he could be thinking of Pierre Boulez whose Le marteau sans maître (The hammer without a master) pits hyper-serialization against improvisation, at the expense of the uninitiated listener. Writer and mathematician Raymond Queneau, founder of the influential literary movement Oulipo, and Modiano’s acknowledged mentor, was at work in “all of French art” at the time; his Exercices de Style tells one story – a man runs into a stranger twice on the same day – in 99 different ways. And then there is cinema. The Nouvelle Vague. Really, Mr. Rorem?
No one could argue that form wasn’t a primary concern for these French artists. But, on that account, to dismiss them and their work out of hand, and a rather high one at that, is careless. It ignores the water in which these fish were swimming. In a world new to the idea of total annihilation by human initiative, a world forever to be haunted by Auschwitz, and a country which, “for the sake of form”, had been cravenly complicit with real and evident evil, and which, as if in response to its own shame, was narcotizing on the vestiges of empire (Algeria), a broken capitalism, and an increasingly indulgent consumerism, form was of the essence. As the students of May, 1968, knew, the forms were broken. Fervid formal experimentation, far from being a sign of decay, was the only morally viable artistic response. Form was the content. To a certain extent, it always had been, but never before had this been so widely understood. Unless it be, perhaps, in the Soviet Union of the 1930’s, in which case Mr. Rorem might wish to be mindful of which side of the argument he pursues.
If formal experimentation in art were a crime, Claude Simon would certainly have been charged, convicted and sentenced. He is usually associated with a group of French novelists writing in the decades after the Second World War known as the nouveaux romanciers. Alain Robbe-Grillet, Natalie Sarraute, and especially Margurite Duras are more familiar names to readers in English, even though Simon was the only one of this loose fellowship to garner a Nobel. There are more differences than similarities among them, but they shared the common cause of attempting to transcend the received nineteenth century parameters of fiction, such as the centrality of plot, setting, character, and motivation. As with Boulez’s music, their books can seem difficult to the uninitiated. At its best, their writing can be starkly, startlingly beautiful, if, unavoidably, cerebral.
Claude Simon’s gorgeous final novel, The Trolley (2001), published when he was eighty eight, is all of these, and something more —it is haunting. To open this book is to find time splintering. On one page we read the impressions, or memories of impressions, of a young boy growing up in a coastal town in France, just after the First World War. On the next, an old man, presumably the same boy now in a stare-down with the end of his life, gives a somber, almost hallucinatory account of time spent in a modern hospital. A beginning and an ending, between which yawns an immense lacuna —the life lived. The novel is slim, where we feel it should, by rights, be long.
To speak of its form: The Trolley belongs to a sub-species of novel which doesn’t seem to be a novel at all. Memoir, meditation, travelogue, history, essay — these can seem more apt designations. It is in good company. W. G. Sebald, for example, in The Rings of Saturn, his grand investigation of entropy and loss, casts a wide net, gathering into his narrative hull the writings of the 17th century doctor Thomas Browne, the silk worms of the Chinese imperial court, and the personal lives of historical figures such as Roger Casement and Charles Algernon Swindburne. The narrator seems to be the author himself, and what he shares of himself has the ring of of autobiography. The photographs, grainy, melancholy, distributed throughout the pages contribute to the impression of a documentary, rather than fictive reality. But this itself is it’s fiction. J. M. Coetzee’s Summer Time is written as a biography of a writer named John Coetzee, whose salient distinction from the author himself is that he is deceased. Among the strangest and most brilliant recent examples of this kind of un-novel is Australian novelist Gerald Murnane’s Barley Patch, in which a subtle and poignant portrait of the artist emerges from a close examination of the unwritten lives of characters from his life in reading, and even from his own books.
In The Trolley, objects, scenes, episodes, and characters are observed, often at dauntingly close range, but are never manipulated through a plot. Which is not to say there is no story, but it is a story the reader constructs. For example, we are shown a garden with an iris border. It is an old, established garden with full-grown trees. It belongs to the narrator’s aunt and uncle on his father’s side, the family to whom he and his mother came after his father was, we infer, killed in the War. We are shown his mother lying on a chaise longue in this garden. She is sick. Later, we are shown the same garden, the same chaise longue, minus his mother. No plot here, but, most assuredly, a story. Even a cursory perusal of Claude Simon’s biography makes it apparent that this story is, or in every important way seems to be, his own.
Contrary to Simon’s reputation as a “difficult” writer, the writing here is not difficult. True, one has need of a healthy attention span to track with his immense, drifting sentences, but the language with which he fills these sentences attains a luminous, sometimes distressing, clarity. For example, we might almost wish for a filter through which to read his memory of the dour maid who tended his dying mother:
That same long Erinye’s face permanently stamped with an expression of outrage which she seemed never to leave off, whether caring for Maman with a sort of fierce tenderness or (suddenly appearing in the dim kitchen, leaning over the flickering glow of the flames) contemplating the torments of those rats she was burning alive (which, reported by the children, was strictly forbidden — despite which (but without witnesses) she doubtless continued doing), or again, still outraged and inflexible for all our pleading and tears, killing one after the other the kittens of her cat’s incessant litters, flinging them violently against the courtyard wall, picking up the tiny sticky balls of bloody hair if they still moved, flinging them against the wall again and then dumping them on the compost heap out of a basket which she then rinsed several times until there was no trace of blood left in it.
For all the violence here, it is that rinsing of the basket that most horrifies. Her tidying up, washing away all traces of the act, renders banal the preceding brutality, something brutality should never be. And it has the added effect of making this intimate horror echo against the great monuments of horror rising from a horrific century.
It is this kind of detail, banal on the surface, with which the book abounds. The novel’s opening paragraph, for example, begins with a close observation of the streetcar which the narrator road, as a boy, between school and the seaside community of tawdry mansions where his aunt and uncle lived. So close is this observation, in fact, that what we actually see first, without knowing quite what we’re looking at, is the dial in the streetcar’s cab. The “lens” pulls back to reveal the accelerator lever to which the needle corresponds, then further to encompass, not the hand, but the palm of the hand of the conductor managing the lever. Toward the end of the paragraph we are told that most of the varnish has worn off the handle of this lever, leaving the wood unprotected, and we begin to wonder how long this can go on. In the hands of a lesser writer, such grinding accumulation could quickly sink to indulgence. But the effect here is more akin to looking through a kind of personal Hubble telescope, not into the knowable universe, but the author’s own “deep field”. The image of the galaxies in that now famous dime-sized patch of sky confronts us with the sober knowledge that what we can directly experience of the universe approaches a statistical zero, and even that zero is revoked at death. This is the sensibility with which Simon presents the streetcar lever and its varnishless handle. “This existed”, he’s telling us – his urgency shimmers – as if trying to make a record of everything, knowing that, even late in his ninth decade, “everything” won’t, finally, be very much.
Death is a constant in this book, the rats and kittens being a stand-in for death on a larger scale, rarely seen but always in the offing. His father’s death precedes the narrative, and, though barely mentioned, is generative of all that follows. There are the physically and psychically decimated survivors of the War who, besides aimlessly pedaling go-carts around a stone monument at the town center, intensify the loss of those, perhaps luckier, who, like Simon’s father, didn’t survive. His mother’s death, alluded to rather than recounted, changes everything again.
But it is his proximity to his own death that provides the most salient structural element in the novel. The perpetual incursion of one time frame into another is a characteristic feature in all of Simon’s writing. In this case, his hospitalization late in life continually interrupts the narrative of his childhood. These incursions make up for what drama is lost by his eschewal of the more traditional buildup of tension through plot. For example, a memory from his boyhood, in which he is running to catch the trolley after school, follows on the heals of an episode in the modern emergency room to which he has been transported by ambulance, “a sort of coffin”; so when we see him breathlessly watching the missed trolley disappear around a corner, we already know that, in something like seven decades, there will be one very important ride he will not miss, and both scenes acquire a luminosity they would not otherwise achieve, and the metaphor of the trolley, carrying its passengers across the length of its finite line, comes into its own without ever a moment of underlining. The weight of this slim book owes, not to novelistic expansiveness, but to this kind of juxtaposition.
Another of Simon’s favorite techniques is the recurring image. In The Flander’s Road it is the half buried carcass of a horse. In The Grass it is a T of light cast through half-closed shutters onto an interior wall of a dying woman’s room. In The Trolley it is a woman on a hospital bed whom the narrator glimpses lying in the room opposite his. These images often hold a paradox. The horse, for example, is in an advanced stage of decomposition and buried in mud in spite of the fact that it can only have been dead about three, completely rainless, days. The paradox presented by the hospitalized woman is that her thick, well-kept blond hair, rosy complexion, and comparative youth don’t square with her lifeless, mask-like face. Not one to look for meaning, the narrator must, nonetheless, look for something, and so he looks for parallels. In her final appearance, she is on a bed designed to transport patients being wheeled away by two male nurses while the other patients on the ward look on. He sees in this somber procession a parallel to the parading of a saint’s effigy on a litter during a religious holiday. Then, at more length, he recalls witnessing a funeral procession in Benares, in which the cadaver, laid out on a litter, was borne, above a crowd of mourners, on the shoulders of two muscular men to the banks of the Ganges to be burned. He makes these parallels more or less explicit simply by their proximity to the image of the blond woman. More subtle is the parallel to his own mother’s face as she lies, slowly dying, on the chaise longue in his aunt and uncle’s garden. The two images, which never touch within the pages of the novel, call to each other, drawing the novel’s two dominant time frames into association. They orbit one another.
Reading The Trolley, one is aware of reading, not so much a novel, as an approach to the novel. This, in Rorem’s view, is what makes Simon, or artists like him, decadent. He clearly has in mind the word’s common implication of moral decline. But, as an aesthetic, all it really means is a preference for artifice over nature. In other words, the artist is happy to let you know he or she is up to something. There is a widespread, righteous criticism that praises the “artless”, the work in which the artist brilliantly hides or disguises all his scaffolding, so that the one receiving the work forgets that he or she is in the presence of a work of art at all. There are many pleasures in this approach. Marilynne Robinson writes like this, never calling attention to the weapon with which she quietly slays her readers. But there are equally great pleasures in the works of artists who want you to know that what they are making is art. Imagine a crestfallen Virginia Woolf whose readers never recognized that To The Lighthouse had significantly extended the reach of the form. I remember, as a twenty-year-old, reading Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, then saying to a friend, my age but wiser, “But people don’t really talk like that to one another.” To which he replied, “But, perhaps they should.”
Simon’s artifice laid bare the artifice readers had been accepting, unchallenged, for more than a century (Simon himself pointed out that such readers had apparently missed Proust, Joyce, and Faulkner). In The Trolley, the shifting time frames, the fragmentary presentation of memories and impressions, the protracted sentences, all make off with the reader’s habitual question, “what happens next?”. With causality out of the picture, the reader is invited to consider how else the presented elements of the narrator’s life might be related. This amounts to a deeper way of reading. One pauses at the spaces where, like in poetry, the frisson happens. This is not a matter of form over content. It’s a different kind of content.
Almost as good as when those crazy Swedes choose to honor one of my cherished writers is when they choose to honor someone I’ve never heard of. Ignorance becomes a virtue, or nearly, just to have that moment when it gets broken. There is, to be sure, that brief feeling of letdown. No Philip Roth (surprise surprise). No Péter Nádas or Salman Rushdie. But now, Patrick Modiano. A French author honored so soon on the heals of J. M. G. Le Clézio (2008) and while the great Michel Tournier is still living. Interesting. Why him?
Americans will get a lot of mileage out of this one. Our favorite cultural pass time is getting grass stains sliding around on the triumph/resentment field: When one of us is acknowledged we give a fist pump of arrival, masking with bravado our secret surprise that we indeed have what it takes, while when someone from the wider world – which over and over turns out to be much wider – is acknowledged, we feel snubbed, and fall to denigrating the institution giving the honor. Our favorite epithet for the Swedish Academy and their Nobel Committee is that they are “snobbish”. As if they’ve cornered the market on snobbishness. One way or another, they clearly have it in for us, or so we whine, seeing as how the last of our eight Nobel Prizes (not counting those won by emigres) was awarded clear back in 1992 (Go Toni Morrison!). It’s hard to imagine the same foul-calling going on in, say, Spain, which has only won five Nobels and none since 1989, where 83-year-old Juan Goytisolo and 63-year-old Javier Marias have for decades been card-carrying members of the literary giant’s club.
There was, of course, Horace Engdahl’s famous dismissal of American literature in 2008, in which he pronounced it “too isolated, too insular,” and said, rather priggishly, that Europe was “the centre of the literary world.” But I’m not convinced that his archly supercilious comment, which, in the end, he resigned over, points to quite the entrenched anti-American conspiracy that commentators made out. Is the significance of Patrick Modiano, Alice Munro, Herta Müller, and José Saramago really only that they are chess pieces for blocking the American drama queen, Philip Roth? And let’s say it’s true – and it certainly could be – that the Swedish Academy has a bias against American literature and literary taste, isn’t it still just a wee bit grandiose of us to think that this is a worse bias than any other they might have?
I, for one, am looking forward to discovering Patrick Modiano’s books. Peter Englund says I could easily read one of them in the afternoon, have dinner, and read another in the evening.
A few years ago I mentioned to a good friend of mine who is a writer that I have never read Midnight’s Children. He didn’t say anything, but it was the kind of not-saying-anything with beats to it. I would say a full eight bars. “I’ve been meaning read it,” I assured him, as his silence began a second phrase, “I just haven’t gotten to it yet.”
Like most readers, I hold in mind a list of books I’ve been meaning to read. It’s a list which includes books I almost certainly will actually read, but also others, many others, which, to the end, I will only ever mean to read. Which is to say, my list is a hedge against mortality. Such lists always are. It is defensive in other ways too: to say I mean to read a certain book – Emma, for instance – salves the moral sting of not having read it. That it is an ever-expanding list paradoxically marks the rise in my sins of omission while shoring up my sense of rectitude; surely knowing what I lack mitigates the lacking.
Though equally unread, not all books I mean to read are equal; some glower from a higher shelf – it seems correct to say that my not having read Don Quixote is a more serious omission than not having read Midnight’s Children – while others have partisans. For example, I distinctly hear Harold Bloom Jewish mothering me for allowing my Shakespeare read-through to stall after Richard III. (“If you can bear living without the poetry of Romeo and Juliet, well then go right ahead. Who am I to say? Clearly nobody ‘t all.” “But Harold. I read it in high school. And I’ve seen the Zeffirelli, and even Leonardo DiCaprio.” “I’m just saying.”) Susan Sontag has been hectoring me from beyond the grave to read The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas by Machado de Assis. You know, the 19th century Brazilian novelist. My friend Nathan is concerned that I haven’t read more of the daftly brilliant little novels of César Aira. I, absolutely, mean to read them all. Pax, everyone.
In the wake of Nadine Gordimer’s death, my failure to have read Midnight’s Children began to afflict me, like a cramp, or hunger. As I sifted through material about her, Rushdie’s name kept popping up. As would be expected, she had been among his defenders during the years of the fatwa. In her Nobel lecture, she asserted that “he has done for the postcolonial consciousness in Europe what Günter Grass did for the post-Nazi one with The Tin Drum and Dog Years, perhaps even has tried to approach what Beckett did for our existential anguish in Waiting For Godot[.]” (Who doesn’t love a healthy flirtation with hyperbole, especially when it may prove to be (a) not a flirtation, or (b) not hyperbole.) In 2005, novels by both Gordimer and Rushdie were among the six nominees for the “Best of the Booker”, a one-time award given for the single best novel to have been awarded a Booker Prize in the award’s forty-year history. Gordimer was represented by The Conservationist, Rushdie by Midnight’s Children. Rushdie won.
Enough. It was time to leave off meaning to read Midnight’s Children and actually crack the cover. At the time of this writing, I’m about a third of the way through, and can say, unequivocally, it is one of the best thirds of a novel I’ve ever read. I recognize this species of delight; it attended my reading of One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. The Adventures of Augie March also, and, oh yes, A House for Mr. Biswas. The sheer vigor and complexity of this third-of-a-novel disposes me to make a chain of assumptions: 1. that the second two thirds will match the first, 2. that, as expert testimony has it, The Satanic Verses at the very least equals it, and, 3. that the rest of Rushdie’s oeuvre, if not, perhaps, on the same Parnassian level, bears similar markings of genius. All of which leads me to wonder about the hold-up in Stockholm.
There is, to be sure, a logjam of great writers waiting to be laureled. But, as time slips by and Rushdie remains uninvited to Stockholm’s annual highbrow powwow, the Swedish Academy comes ever closer to committing another of its stinkers. There will be much to answer for if they allow him to go the way of Carlos Fuentes, W. G. Sebald, Vladimir Nabokov and Virginia Woolf. Perhaps he is on their own list –of writers they are meaning to honor.
In addition to Salman Rushdie, my 2014 shortlist of Nobelable writers includes three other novelists and a poet. A more stunning group of writers you will never find. Read these experts. Listen, as you read, to how the grief and splendor of living rushes from their words in a spiritual torrent which would wash most of us away if channeled through our own faculties. Listen to how Algerian novelist Assia Djebar evokes the inner life of a “woman of the veil” who has just learned that her husband, a rebel in the Algerian War for Independence, is in grave danger, and chooses to surmount all the prohibitions of her society in order to find and warn him. Australian poet Les Murray is famously querulous, but listen to how in “A Dog’s Elegy” he grows tender, wittily mystical, disarming with image and verbal delight his reader’s defenses against the enormity of death. Listen carefully to Péter Nádas‘s narrator – young, bisexual, Hungarian, hyper-aware – and you’ll hear, in his account of learning to communicate with a young German poet with whom he is in love, the catastrophe of modern Hungary. Listen to Philip Roth, the American perennial, in one of his sublime rants which, as always with him, transcends that descriptor by saying something so heartbreakingly true about human nature that, for all it’s clattering expansiveness, it comes off like Shakespeare. And Salman Rushdie. Listen to him. Am I wrong?
1. Assia Djebar (Algeria)
She’d forgotten the danger itself. In truth, it’s perhaps not that which drove her, but rather a gnawing desire to suddenly know whether she could really spend her life waiting in her room, in patience and love. That’s why she crossed the entire town, bared her presence to so many hostile eyes, and at the end of her trek discovered that she was not only a prey for the curiosity of men — a passing shape, the mystery of the veil accosted by the first glance, a fascinating weakness that ends up being hated and spat upon — no, she now knows that she existed. She’s been inhabited by one inflexible thought that has made her untouchable. “Get to Youssef! He’s in danger,” she had repeated. “But is he, really?” she ended up wondering when she found herself alone on the curb surrendering to, or even beyond, the same fruitless waiting. “Won’t he first of all be shocked to see me here, out in the street?” No, the danger is real.
(Children of the New World)
2. Les Murray (Australia)
A Dog’s Elegy
The civil white-pawed dog who’d strain
to make speech-like sounds to his humans
lies buried in the soil of a slope
that he’d tear down on his barking runs.
He hated thunder and gunshot
and would charge off to restrain them.
A city dog too alive for backyards,
we took him from the pound’s Green Dream
but now his human name melts off him;
he’ll rise to chase fruit bats and bees;
the coral tree and the African tulip
will take him up, and the prickly tea trees.
Our longhaired cat who mistook him
for an Alsatian flew up there full tilt
and teetered in top twigs for eight days
as a cloud, distilling water with its pelt.
The cattle suspect the Dog lives
but three kangaroos stood in our pasture
this daybreak, for the first time in memory,
eared gazing wigwams of fur.
(Conscious and Verbal)
3. Péter Nádas (Hungary)
But as he listened to me, a radically different process was also taking place in him: as usual, he kept correcting my grammatically faulty sentences, he did this almost unawares, it had become an unconscious habit between us; in fact, he was the one who shaped my sentences, gave them the proper structure, incorporated them into the neat order of his native language, I had to rely on his expropriated sentences to work my way through my linguistic rubble, had to use his sentences to tell my story, and didn’t even notice that some of these jointly produced sentences were repeated two or three times, their place and value reshuffled, before reaching intelligible form.
It was as if I had to use my own past to coax the story of his past out of him. I didn’t think of it then, but now I believe we needed these evening walks not just for the exercise but to relate to the world around us — which we both felt, though for different reasons, to be cheerless and alien — and to do it in a way that this same world would not be aware of what we were doing.
(A Book of Memories)
4. Philip Roth (United States)
You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home and tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on instead a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we all to envision one another’s interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people we mangle with our ignorance every day? The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that — well, lucky you.
5. Salman Rushdie (Great Britain)
Why had she married him?—For solace, for children, But at first the insomnia coating her brain got in the way of her first aim; and children don’t always come at once. So Amina had found herself dreaming about an undreamable poet’s face and waking with an unspeakable name on her lips. You ask: what did she do about it? I answer: she gritted her teeth and set about putting herself straight. This is what she told herself: “You big ungrateful goof, can’t you see who is your husband now? Don’t you know what a husband deserves?” To avoid fruitless controversy about the answers to these questions, let me say that, in my mother’s opinion, a husband deserved unquestioning loyalty, and unreserved, full-hearted love. But there was a difficulty: Amina, her mind clogged up with Nadir Khan and his insomnia, found she couldn’t naturally provide Ahmed Sinai with these things. And so, bringing her gift of assiduity to bear, she began to train herself to love him. To do this she divided him, mentally, into every single one of his component parts, physical as well as behavioral, compartmentalizing him into lips and verbal tics and prejudices and likes…in short, she fell under the spell of the perforated sheet of her own parents, because she resolved to fall in love with her husband bit by bit.
The 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature will be awarded soon. Share with us, here at The Shelf: Who do you think will win? (My bets are on Assia Djebar this year.) Who do you think should win?