Most important in all of life to honor what we’re drawn to. To honor the being drawn. Food, books, sex, a hermit’s life, whatever it might be, we can measure the shriveling of our spirits against the scope of our self-denials. And so, because I’ve never been able to stop picking at the plate of Christianity served to me at birth, even as my taste for belief has waned, I went on pilgrimage.
I spent the last two weeks of May in the UK, stalking Christianity from the island of Iona in the Inner Hebrides to the tidal island of Lindisfarne off the coast of Northumbria, then turning south to Jarrow, and finally arriving at Durham. St. Columba, St. Aiden, St. Hild, St. Wilfred and St. Cuthbert had all been unknown to me before. Now these shadowy figures, who lived roughly between the years 521 and 687, have staked a claim to my imagination – territory I’m happy to cede.
But it was a place rather than a person which drew me first and undid me at last. Above a bend in the river Wear rises Durham Cathedral. Several years ago, for reasons now lost to me, I became fascinated by the great English cathedrals, and Durham in particular. The images I saw of it’s immense nave flanked by massive Norman piers gouged with chevrons, spirals and diamonds, its twin west towers, more fortress-like than holy, and more believably hewn from the promontory above the river than built on it, compelled a love wanting consummation. Now, having consummated, I can say, without fear of overstatement, that it is the most extraordinary building I have ever set foot in.
Because reading is my way, I spent the month and a half before leaving and the month since my return immersed in the literature of this time and place. I read several extended essays about Durham Cathedral, including an extraordinary one from 1887 by Mariana Griswold (Mrs. Schuyler) Van Rensselaer, America’s first female architecture critic. I read a history of Holy Island (as Lindisfarne is sometimes called) and a gorgeous and scholarly book on the Lindisfarne Gospels, an illuminated Gospel book from the early 700’s, second in renown only to the the Book of Kells. I read Bede’s The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written in 731, which, scintillating title aside, reads like a sequence of fairy tales. I read a collection called The Age of Bede, which features the Lives of St. Cuthbert and St. Wilfred, and the fanciful “Voyage of St. Brendan”. I read John Philip Newell’s Listening for the Heartbeat of God, which contrasts the Christianity of the Celts with the competing, and ultimately dominating, Roman version. I read two novels by the great Fredrick Buechner, Godric, and Brendan, about two relatively obscure saints whose lives nonetheless encapsulate the earthiness and earnestness which seemed to characterize the religious fervor of that time and place. I’m currently reading Adomnán of Iona’s Life of St. Columba. Perhaps this will sate me. At least for now.
If calling the come-to-Jesus moment I had with my own bookshelves around the time I began preparations for traveling to the UK a “parallel pilgrimage” is rather too precious, it nonetheless came from a similar place: the need for a shift in perspective. In my February post, “On the Meaning of Books” (http://thestockholmshelf.com/2014/02/on-the-meaning-of-books/) I wrote that each of the thousand plus books in my collection carries “a condensation of emotion” unrelated to its specific content. I also wrote that a large portion of these books belonged to my partner Sam who passed away a year ago in May, and that holding on to them was, in the land of magical thinking, a way of holding on to him. “There are books in the house I will never read,” I wrote, “a great many of which I don’t even want to. But I part with them at a cost.” Conversely, sometimes honoring what one is drawn to entails the release of excess. Having too much of anything inevitably becomes about the having, obscuring the beauty of the thing itself, the thing which draws. I said I had over a thousand books. In retrospect, it was more in the neighborhood of three thousand. Somewhere between a third and a half of them had to go.
Many books turned out to be obvious deportees. How we managed to accumulate no less than seven books on English usage, eight French textbooks, four copies of Invisible Man and two complete copies of Remembrance of Things Past in the Moncrieff translation I’ll never know. I didn’t need both the collected and selected poems of Auden. And really, will my life ever be long enough to read Sacajawea, no matter how good a read people say it is?
Others required harder choices. Which of the ten anthologies of American poetry should I keep? How many Chinese cookbooks does one need, or which of the eight Julia Childs? Hard indeed was the choice to let go of Jane Smiley’s early novel The Greenlanders. It was one of the first gifts I gave to Sam and I had written an inscription to him on the fly leaf. I knew that I would likely never read this probably very good book. But what would it mean to send it on? After much going back and forth about it, I realized that there was nothing that it could be a record of that hadn’t already left more indelible traces in my heart than I could ever count.
My friend Nathan came over several times during this process to nominate some titles for the used book store where he works, but my collection was so idiosyncratic that this amounted to a relatively small portion. So I threw a book give-away party. I invited friends who I knew were readers, prepared a feast, then told them they couldn’t eat until they had each claimed a healthy stack. Whatever was left would be donated. Bittersweet at first, but ultimately a joy to see my friend Richard carry away Sam’s Le Rouge et Le Noir (my French will never be up for that) and my old Maud translation of War and Peace.
In the early monastic life of the British Isles there was a tradition of sacrifice known as the peregrinatio, or “Pilgrims of Christ”. It was one of the holiest callings a monk could receive, requiring that he give away his few belongings and set off from the monastery which had nurtured and sustained him, leaving his kin and his country, often never to return, and go only where Christ led him. Adomnán, I read, believed this was St. Columba’s purpose in sailing from Ireland to found the monastic community on Iona which was to have untold influence on the religious life of Britain for centuries to come. Without subtracting from the weight of this great call as received by certain remarkable people, it is, in some obvious ways, the most ordinary of all callings, heard by each of us at the dawn of consciousness. From the moment we are able to make the choice to extend ourselves toward what draws us or pull back in fear, or prudence, we are learning how to respond. Our past, our security, country and kin, it all gets left one way or another, whether grasped after or risen from, and the best way to make God laugh is to tell God your plans. And perhaps the call is less difficult than we fear. I’m not sad I gave those books away.
Here ends my explanation as to why I haven’t posted anything for the past two months. I expect that in July things will settle down a bit and I’ll get back on track. Look for a review of Claude Simon’s luminous The Trolley.
A Facebook friend recently posted a picture contrasting a formidably stocked bookshelf with a Kindle. The caption read “This (meaning the books) will always be more impressive to own than this (the Kindle)”. My reptilian brain threw off a little biochemical spark and before I could be even a pretender to consciousness I’d tapped the screen of my iPad to produce that laziest of communications, the Facebook “like”. Not so different, really, from one of Skinner’s pigeons pecking at a bell. My reward, instead of birdseed, was a highly ephemeral self-congratulatory glow. I could imagine myself, for a few seconds now forever lost to me, as having put in my oar on the right side of a minor cultural debate. But, like most such shallow gratifications – depressing, really, in the ease of obtaining – this one appealed to a baser need than I pretended. This piece of Pinterest candy had tapped my endless, often unconscious pursuit of personal impressiveness. In this case, impressiveness of the most illusory kind –arrived at by owning stuff. Books, qua books, had been stripped of meaning.
This is always so. I own over a thousand books. Every one of them means something to me quite beyond itself as a book. The Illiad, The Interpretation of Dreams, One Hundred Years of Solitude and Fear of Flying each carry a condensation of emotion which has little to do with the battles, the theories, the fabulist flights or crashed societal boundaries contained between it’s covers. Each attends a memory – of how and when it arrived in the collection, where it was purchased, who gave it to me – which in turn presides over a small court of other memories. In the case of most of my books – the ones I’ve read – I remember where I was when I read them, the state, the city, where the airplane was heading, the hotel room. The Agony and the Ecstasy was my reading material to and from Florida back in 1995. Between alligators in the Everglades and Hemingway’s three-toed cats in Key West, I was in thrall to Michelangelo’s weathering of hurricane Medici-Savanarola-Pope Julius II to produce his supreme art. Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus will always recall to me the improbable little used book shop in Door County, Wisconsin, where I was traveling with Sam, my soon-to-be partner, during Fall break of my Junior year of college. He was wooing me at the time, and the book, with its austere black cover and faded gold lettering on the spine, was a token. André Gide’s The Counterfeiters I will always associate with the little park a block from our house where, over twenty years ago, I sat in dappled shade at the one splintery wooden picnic table, turning its subversive pages, marveling at young Bernard, on the lam from his bourgeois parents, in bed with Olivier and naked save for his short day-shirt.
The most valuable memories my books hold, if also the most elusive, are of the person I was when I first read them. Who I hoped to be, who I feared I was, my loves, joys, angers, sexual fantasies, knowledge of people and the world, my spiritual life, all have shifted over time, and my books are like markers – bookmarks – indicating passages of my unwritten life. A couple of years ago I reread Wedding Song, by Naguib Mahfouz, and found it to be a very slight book. But with the merest mental effort I’m back sitting on the bed at a Super 8 in Sioux City, having just survived my Sophomore year at college, finishing that novel for the first time. My grandparents, who had come to fetch me home, had the foresight to reserve separate rooms, so I had space to feel my youthfully ardent sense of loss in private. As they slept on the other side of the wall, oblivious to the rapidly morphing creature they remembered as their grandson, I turned the last page and burst into the most spontaneous tears I can remember having shed. More than having read that book, I felt the book had read me. I don’t expect to ever read it again. Neither will I ever be parted from it.
The vast majority of my collection I still must clear my throat before calling mine. They are the books that came with Sam. Not a dowry precisely, more like a sprawling, cantankerous, and rather brilliant family. When I first knew him, his copies of the complete works of Sigmund Freud were already laced with yellow highlights, underlines and marginalia. His intellect was a yawning chasm into which fell books on psychoanalysis and metaphysical remedies, R. D. Laing tumbling in with books on flower essences and chakra healing. He swallowed, Python-like, biographies of Stravinsky, Haydn, Freud, the memoirs of Liv Ullman and Elias Cannetti, and huge swaths of twentieth century French literature, not only Sartre, Camus and Proust, but Jean Genet, Jean Anouilh, Colette and Alain Fournier. I remember well several of his reading projects –all of Virginia Woolf, for example, and all of Nabokov. He never got around to all of the great Russian novels, only the dozen or so largest. He read War and Peace while traveling one summer, keeping a mason jar of vodka near by, believing, whimsically, that one should have vodka at hand when reading Tolstoy. His mind floated effortlessly between Shakespeare plays and the poetic little books on relationships by Merle Shain. From Courage, My Love, to Love’s Labors Lost. He nurtured a layman’s passion for neuroscience, acquiring dozens of books on the human brain, many of them graduate textbooks. A few he read cover to cover, but a preponderance were valued as symbols, a kind of externalization of his enthusiasm. All this is to say nothing of his rather obsessive collection of cookbooks.
Since Sam’s death in May of 2013, I’ve tried, in fits and starts, to bring some order to this profligate and proliferated family and it’s occasionally warring factions. The steady accrual of books over so many years, first double-shelved, then stacked, then piled, turned our personal library into the bibliographic equivalent of Rio’s favela. My hope is that someday it can resemble, say, Zurich. But this requires pruning. And pruning is difficult when each book carries a surfeit of meaning. In this case, owning overflowing shelves of books represents, not personal impressiveness, but a person, held against hope of holding, himself once overflowing. There are books in the house I will never read, a great many of which I don’t even want to. But I part with them at a cost.
A month or so after Sam died, my friend Nathan texted me from the used bookstore where he works and which has, itself, a bit of the favela look. “We just got in a children’s book by Mauriac. Are you interested?” The question was rhetorical. François Mauriac was among the first novelists Sam introduced me to, and he has remained one of my great favorites. Until Nathan’s text, I hadn’t been aware that he’d written children’s books. One would not have guessed; in one high-strung, melancholy novel after another spiritually shattered men and women turn from a deeply Catholic idea of grace, opting instead to claw or crawl their way through their terminal sentences in a Bordeaux suffocating under sour grapes. Hardly suggestive of a creative temperament edifying to delicate young minds. I wondered at first if Nathan was being cute; he might as easily have texted “we’ve got this book here on cake decorating by Idi Amin. Interested?”
The book turned out to be a strange little jewel called The Holy Terror, about a spoiled little boy who meets his match in a canny governess. P. L. Travers and Christianna Brand traversed similar ground more whimsically in Mary Poppins and Nurse Matilda (Nanny McPhee in the film adaptation), but this one bears Mauriac’s singular spiritual stamp. In all the best books of this ilk the reader quickly deduces that the child’s wretched behavior is symptomatic rather than essential and that the devil is really in the variously failed representatives of adulthood. No different here. Earnest, the eponymous “Terror”, is a dreary little bully with a whole town wrapped around his finger. He elicits sympathy rather than abhorrence because the grown-ups in his life are really children themselves, victims of the small-mindedness endemic to the provincial wealthy. His father and maternal grandmother, for example, have not spoken to each other for over two years except through the intermediary of the old nurse, all because the grandmother once refused to heed the father’s order to cease chattering in deference to his pleasure in eating a meal of ortolans. The nurse’s childishness is that she thinks nothing of this. Earnest’s mother died when he was born, and one can speculate that this blinkered and blithering little group never regained their bearings. So, when Madamoiselle Thibaud arrives, the eighteenth governess in three years, she conspires to free herself of the children she can do nothing about and focus her energy on the one she can.
This is where Mauriac’s particular genius starts turning. The townspeople wonder how this young woman could so quickly convince Earnest’s caretakers to go on holiday and leave the boy in her clutches. Her apparent lack of a past indicates to them that she clearly has one, and her eventual success in helping Earnest reform only serves to confirm them in their prejudices. The situation devolves, as it so often does, to a matter of economics. The town butcher reflects, “It does me no good to have the Chevalier house shut up and the Terror starved, when he used to eat enough meat for four because he can’t stand vegetables. There aren’t very many houses in Millasse where they eat meat twice a day. Yes, the more I think about it…. I hadn’t reckoned on being out of pocket. So if she thinks we’ll stand by and make a martyr out of the Terror…. After all, we’re all very fond of him at heart. He’s one of the curiosities of Millasse!”
One could wish for a bit more fantasy in Mauriac’s morality tale, not necessarily of the magic parasol variety, but playfulness of some kind. Still, he manages to transcend the genre by demonstrating, not just the virtue of personal efficacy, not just adult culpability, but how a society comes to depend on its own malaise.
As I read, I found myself identifying with Madam Thibaud, the outsider coming into town, bewildered by the absurdity of those who would be her betters, but whose native self-possession kicks in, enabling her to see what is needed and to act, even through her own self-doubts. The petty crabbiness of the gossips only increases her aura of compassion and rectitude. Her bookshelves, you could be sure, would resemble Zurich. I have been just like her, I’m sure, though I can’t for the life of me remember when. Which leads me to the conclusion that, once again, my hunger for personal impressiveness, aka vanity, dictated my response.
How much more like Earnest, the “Terror”, I felt, at loose ends as to how to behave in a world bereft of Sam, where no one knew how to adequately respond to my needs, because my needs had grown chaotic and contradictory. Like Earnest, I felt out of control, without boundaries, and bullying, certainly to my own psyche. God forbid I would be so to others, who only knew how to do their best for me in the face of my loss, and, in many cases, their own. I was grieving, as it seems clear now that Earnest was. His name itself is a repudiation of the saving irony that so often gets us through our tough stretches, the irony which I longed for but could not find in the loss of Sam, whole and entire.
One afternoon I took my book to a coffee house. Café Max is a place I go occasionally, but only occasionally, in part because it’s not convenient to where I mostly pursue my life, and partly because Max likes to talk. Max and his partner Yuki have created a space which reaches for Euro-Asian chic. Furniture, not notably uncomfortable, from the various eras of modernism post 1950’s is arranged in clean lines and tasteful groups. Low black bookshelves and end tables are neatly appointed with books and magazines on art and fashion. Coffee is served in simple glass mugs on small lacquered trays complete with miniature cream pitchers and lumps of sugar. His gently over-priced menu includes items featuring arugula, fig preserves and chèvre, and he gets his excellent pastries from a respected local purveyor. Black and white Nouvelle Vague experiments, like Last Year at Marienbad, are occasionally projected silently high on one of the white walls which would likely discolor in protest should typical coffeehouse art be hung. In fact, Max bitterly resents his store being called a coffeehouse. “We’re a café,” he whines, “not a coffeehouse. If you want a coffeehouse, go to Starbucks.”
Max is a fiery little extrovert of Puerto Rican decent. Less delicate than worrisomely thin, his dress – expensive casual – belies his fashion designer past. He has taken a liking to me, and during slow stretches will pull up a chair and start talking, mostly about his shop, the often benighted customers, the importance of having eye-candy behind the counter, and the apparently unrelated difficulty in finding baristas who will work as he wants. He has grand visions for Café Max. “I want it to be a nationally known destination for people in search of higher vibrations. Intellectuals. Artists.” He’s asked me to refer a harpist who might come and play on Thursday evenings, and whether I would serve as a Charlie Rose-style interviewer for a series on people doing interesting things in the community, to be held in the café’s basement space. “Interesting, Max. Why not?”
When he saw The Holy Terror on my table, he was overcome with excitement. “This is a very special book!” As he flipped through the pages, cooing over the ink drawings illustrating several of the books moments, I asked him, unbelieving, if he had read it. “Oh, I don’t have to. I can just see this is a very special book. You don’t see this kind of thing. I’ve got to get one for here!” I told him I thought he’d have a hard time finding a copy. “I’ll find one,” he assured me. “Its perfect for Café Max.”
Who was I to contradict? Books, qua books after all –no such thing.
On October 10, 2013, the very day Alice Munro was busy winning the Nobel Prize, an altogether different kind of author was busy accruing general obscurity. Eight years after his death, in spite of being one of world literature’s dark giants, in spite of a Nobel of his own, and in spite of it being his centenary, readers of literary fiction everywhere were, quite vigorously, not talking about Claude Simon.
What notice might have come to him on the occasion of his 100th was thwarted by the day’s main event; Canadian letters and the modern short story were finally getting their dues. Hard to say what Claude Simon would have made of Munro’s short, elusive epics. The frailties and vanities we sling against our mortality leap into her narrative net like fish on the far side of Peter’s boat. By contrast, Simon set himself the task of evoking the net of time itself, which holds our mortality, and against which it becomes as piffling a thing as our frailties and vanities. In Munro, the effect is one of piercing intimacy (not to be mistaken for warmth), as if the reader himself had been caught in flagrante delicto, and, rather than being either judged or forgiven, is delivered a parable. In Simon the effect is one of distance and grandeur (often mistaken for coldness), which we read in the way one might take in the paintings on the walls of the caves at Altamira, uncomprehending, yet alerted by rising neck hairs that something approaching the elemental has been uttered.
Munro’s popularity has been like a long-held, well maintained financial portfolio, a steadily rising line over time, weathering the dips and flights of the literary marketplace. No modernist repudiations of the medium for her, nor post-modern repudiations of the reader. She writes as if words can and and do mean something, provided you write about what can be said, which turns out to be quite a lot. This is not to disregard her remarkable innovations of form and her starkly modern view of men and women. But she is the great exponent of the transparent surface. No sentence is either notably long or dryly clipped. No one would call her an adjective whore, but neither are her sentences self-consciously barren. A Munro story is written so that as you’re reading it you have only a shadowy awareness that you are doing so.
By contrast, reading is often all you can be said to be doing with a text by Claude Simon. This is because he was a writer whose aim was to extend the parameters of writing itself, a dubious undertaking for those who hold to a certain literary prudery. His sentences, elastic with parenthesis and parenthesis within parenthesis, can stretch across many pages, and if you allow your attention to be held, you will be frequently baffled to discover where he’s lead you, and if, rather than being put off, you are fascinated then you may be compelled to backtrack down the narrow path you’ve just cut through the wilderness of often lyric prose in a search for the origins of the narrative present. If you find yourself doing so, in spite of how bewildered you might feel, then you have understood Simon perfectly; his great subject, more than the constants of aging and death, more than the gross and subtitle impact of war, more than the eternal return, is the question: from whence arrives the present?
If, if, and if. It’s no surprise, really, that Simon’s popularity has, from the get go, been a non-starter. When he won the 1985 Nobel Prize, journalists were hard pressed to find any information about him. Calvin Trillin cagily noted, “Susan Sontag better have heard of this guy or there’ll be trouble.” Those few who did know his work were divided as to its merit. Even in his native France, one prominent critic speculated, half in jest and full earnest, whether the Nobel committee, by honoring Simon, had moved “to confirm that the novel has definitely died,” (an arrow Simon himself unfeathered by quoting in his Nobel lecture).
Simon is most commonly linked with a group of mid-20th century French writers known as the nouveaux romanciers, a group which included, most prominently, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, and Michel Butor. Marguerite Duras is also sometimes included, though she resisted the label. The aim of these experimental writers was to evolve a “new novel” which would subverted most of the tenets of the form as it had been received via the 19th century, including plot, character, motivation, and setting, aspects which, to most writers and readers, seemed no less fundamental than the paper on which a book is printed. Simon, like Duras, protested the association, feeling the term itself was misleading. In a rare interview for the Paris Review, he clarified his position: “Since the majority of professional critics do not read the books of which they speak, mountains of nonsense have been spoken and written about the nouveau roman. The name refers to a group of several French writers who find the conventional and academic forms of the novel insupportable, just as Proust and Joyce did long before them. Apart from this common refusal, each of us has worked through his own voice; the voices are very different, but this does not prevent us from having mutual esteem and a feeling of solidarity with one another.”
Simon’s reservations notwithstanding, his literary experiments are consistent with the nouveau roman movement. Take, for example, his refusal to analyze causality. His novels are not plotless, as some have suggested, but neither are they linear. Rather than events birthing subsequent events, what happens in a Simon novel emerges, like the constellations, from collections of closely observed tableaux, or from repetitions of an image. For example, in La Routes des Flandres, the image of a horse recurs in many settings. There are the horses mounted by a small unit soldiers, fatally anachronistic in the mechanized theater of the Second World War. There are racehorses, one in particular ridden by Colonel de Reixach, the officer who would later lead this doomed unit and whose young wife is having an affair, or had one, with a jockey who works in his stables and who will later accompany him into battle, riding a horse just behind him. There is a dying horse in the stable where three of the soldiers wait out the night. Most abstractly, there is the recurring image of a dead horse, paradoxically covered in mud despite dry whether. Its first appearance, early in the novel, provides Simon with an opportunity to articulate his whole approach to the novel. The following passage I necessarily quote at some length:
and that must have been where I saw it for the first time, a little before or a little after we stopped to drink, discovering it, staring at it through that kind of half-sleep, that kind of brownish mud in which I was somehow caught, and maybe we had to make a detour to avoid it, and actually sensing it more than seeing it: I mean (like everything lying along the road: the trucks, the cars, the suitcases, the corpses) something unexpected, unreal, hybrid, so that what had been a horse (that is, what you knew, what you could recognize as having been a horse) was no longer anything now but a vague heap of limbs, of dead meat, of skin and sticky hair, three-quarters-covered with mud — Georges wondering without exactly finding an answer, in other words realizing with that kind of calm rather deadened astonishment, exhausted and even almost completely atrophied by these last ten days during which he had gradually stopped being surprised, had abandoned once and for all the posture of the mind which consists of seeking a cause or logical explanation for what you see or for what happens to you: so not wondering how, merely realizing that although it hadn’t rained for a long time — at least so far as he knew — the horse or rather what had been a horse was almost completely covered — as if it had been dipped in café au lait and then taken out — with a liquid grey-brown mud already half absorbed apparently by the earth, as though the latter had stealthily begun to take back what had come from it,
By “not wondering how, merely realizing that”, Simon refuses the softening effect of analysis, leaving this grisly vision hard, relentlessly material. And as the vision repeats throughout the book, we begin to see, glinting off its surface, Simon’s true subject — war. More, the cosmology of one who has survived it: we are all on our way to a vague heap of limbs, dead meat, skin and sticky hair, something like, but inexplicably other than what we are, and nailing down whether an object as incidental as a horse’s corpse, or as universal, was discovered a little before stopping to drink or a little after makes not one wit of difference. In fact one’s wits are notable only for their uselessness, at least when directed toward understanding. One senses rather than sees. The reader’s own wits are further beggared by the change from first person to third midway through this passage. So quickly are we shunted out of Georges’s consciousness and into the author’s that we, like Wily Coyote chasing Road Runner several feet beyond the edge of the cliff, may read along for several lines without quite realizing what has happened. This is Simon’s mimesis; life entails nothing so much as moments just like this. Don’t look down.
The three novels I have so far read by Simon, The Trolley, The Flanders Road, and The Grass, are either about war or indelibly touched by war. War touched Simon early. World War I had been grinding up the young men of Europe for over two months when he was born on October 10, 1913 in Tananarive (now Antananarivo), Madagascar, and before he was a year old his father, a career cavalry officer, became one of them. His mother brought the family to the home of a relative in Perpignan, a city not far from the Spanish border near the Mediterranean Sea. He was eleven when his mother died of cancer, leaving him in the care of his aunt. He credited the strict Catholic boarding school in Paris to which she sent him with definitively destroying his belief in God. Memories of those earliest years reemerged eight decades later in his final novel Le Tramway (The Trolley).
And it was the same the following summer, except that Maman was no longer there and during the month of October I no longer had to run to catch that four o’clock trolley, having already returned to my school in Paris, which freed me from participating in the traditional autumn move which brought my family to town and from having to listen to the traditional lamentations of my aunt whom this annual return plunged into an ostentatious collapse renewed each year when after four months in the country she found herself back in what she called her “tomb,” i.e. the huge apartment which, though overlooking spacious courtyards and a spacious garden, was, it is true, darkened by the branches of a huge acacia tree;
His first direct involvement with armed conflict came in 1936 when his sympathies with the Spanish Republicans drew him into the Spanish Civil War. But it was with the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 that he had his most dramatic experience of war’s absurdity. Like his father, he was drafted into a cavalry regiment, the 31st Dragoons. In a further mirroring of the past, the regiment was sent to the exact same area of the front where his father had been killed twenty six years earlier. One can only speculate that the resonance between his father’s experience and his own launched in young Claude a search for meaning which he finally had to abandon in favor of “not wondering how, merely realizing that”. This kind of repetition, of scene and circumstance across generations, was to become a hallmark of his writing. These recurrences cannot properly be called coincidences, at least not in the Dickensian sense of expediting the plot. But neither are they spiritualized “synchronicities”. Rather, they are treated more in the manner of a painterly motif, the way, say, expanding orders of triangles recur in a painting by Paul Klee. Often he allows a measure of ambiguity as to which iteration of a repeated event is under discussion.
Simon got the starkest imaginable lesson, not only in life’s extreme fragility, but it’s sheer improbability when, at the River Meuse, the 31st Dragoons, picturesquely armed with sabers and rifles and mounted on horseback, were charged with trying to stop German tanks. That his unit would be decimated was a foregone conclusion. That he would survive was not. That he did netted him a formidable, decidedly 20th century vision –of war, of human suffering, of love, and the impossibility of knowing much of anything for certain. Twenty years later he would draw directly from his wartime experience to produce La Routes des Flandres, which would become his most famous novel.
A professor friend once told me, with a campy sneer, that “no one bothers with F. Scott Fitzgerald anymore.” I didn’t believe him then any more than I do now, but his surety (and his unwarranted happiness in delivering it) did raise the problem that, when trying to account for the changing positions of writers in the literary firmament, our logic remains hopelessly Ptolemaic. The eclipse of certain writers – Patrick White, for example – baffles me and I’d love to have someone patiently lay out for me the physical laws, the cycles and epicycles, behind it. On the other hand, that Alice Munro has remained sun-side for so many years seems easy to explain, almost Copernican; she’s a great writer who addresses head on the pain felt in a world whose understanding of gender has undergone major upheavals which the family unit, comprised of the gendered, has often failed to weather. She’s nothing if not perennially relevant.
Claude Simon’s eclipse is perhaps equally understandable, if undeserved. For one thing, the whole nouveau roman project feels dated to us now. Like Schoenberg’s twelve-tone row, it constituted a brilliant, necessary, perhaps even inevitable departure from the way things had been done before, but, while its influence has been widespread and long-lasting, the movement itself was unsustainable. Just as Pierrot Lunaire, glorious listening to the initiated, is unhearable to most, so very few find Robbe-Grillet worth the effort. Simon is a difficult writer, slippery to anyone white-knuckled to the so-called virtue of clarity. But this is no reason not to read him. Difficult, yes, but never unintelligible, and readers who are up on their Faulkner will find nothing in him to deter them. Like Schoenberg, he was an uncompromising artist with an encompassing mind. A careful reading of him not only yields a potent, austere beauty, but, as with the greatest writers, expands forever one’s understanding of just what the art can do.
Portland. Walking west across the Burnside Bridge at dusk can bring you to your senses. Your legs tighten against the wind of passing cars and the lewd buzz of a motorbike fleet. Your vision grows fat on the baroque skyline glowing before you. Unlike other cities whose profiles front the sky, Portland’s is cradled by wooded hills to the southwest, rendering it, against its own extroversion, intimate, offered. You can’t refuse. Momentarily glutted, you look to your right for relief from the Willamette, and see in the waning light the illuminated windows of the light rail rolling through the trusses of the North Steel Bridge, and your memory skirts the peripheries of Bladerunner, Metropolis, Miyazaki. On the descent, you look over the guard into a waterside park deep in the city’s shadow, where youth trade joints and important thoughts. As you leave the bridge, you meet a contingent of the homeless gathered about the walls of the Portland Rescue Mission. A drunk man in pajama bottoms wends between parked cars, barking. At the base of a sidewalk tree you catch a whiff, not of urine, of life for once not your own.
If you read books and know Portland, you know where this is heading. Ten blocks up from the bridge a large unprepossessing sign presides over the intersection –“Powell’s”. Because you are, at base, a romantic, you were half expecting this famous million-volume bookstore to be housed in something a bit lovelier than this particular building, this industrial rectangle with less architectural romance than a laundromat. Yet as you approach, as you take in the glass storefront, you feel expanded, as at that first sight of the ocean which had countered and held your sense of loss.
I went to the Oregon Coast to see wave-bashed basalt, miles of sand, lighthouses, and to feel my tiny life threaded back into the large and varied world. Now I was in Portland, at Powell’s, looking for books, those cultural artifacts which more than any others address that very threading.
Of the hundreds of books that beguiled from the kilometers of shelves, I came away with just six, an act of will helped along by the knowledge that whatever I bought had to fit in my carry on. Looking at this little pile now, I’m bemused. If not entirely arcane, its certainly idiosyncratic:
OMEROS (Derek Walcott) Once again I was holding this book and looking at Walcott’s cover art, that yellow skiff scudding green surf, carrying four figures under a stormy sky. The skiff rides from right to left. In film theory, when a camera pans from right to left, the effect is of moving back in time, towards memory. I’ve always felt Walcott’s skiff is carrying its people home rather than to unknown shores. This is the aim of the epic as a form, to carry a culture across its own history back to itself. I have a recording of Walcott reciting a passage near its end: “I sang of quiet Achilles, Afolabe’s son,/ who never ascended in an elevator,/ who had no passport, since the horizon needs none…” Time to finally own a copy. A first edition, no less.
FREDDY NEPTUNE (Les Murray) A few years back, Dan Chiasson, writing for the New Yorker, described Australian poet Les Murray as “routinely mentioned among the three or four leading English-language poets.” In whose routine? Apparently Walcott and Heaney had company about whom I knew nothing. I found and read a couple of volumes and discovered a cranky, captivating voice, brilliantly subversive, even of its own heartbreak. Chiasson wrote that Murray’s 1998 verse novel, Fredy Neptune, about a German-Australian sailor who, during the First World War, witnesses something so horrific it causes him to lose all sense of feeling in his body, has “little competition…for the claim to being the best verse novel of our time.” I have never seen it in a bookstore, so when I saw it at Powell’s my impulse was to honor it for being there by buying it.
THE END OF THE AFFAIR (Graham Greene) When I asked my friend Anna Pendleton what her favorite book was, without a moment’s hesitation she said The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene. “I love that book!” were she a gusher, she would have gushed. Anna is young, fiercely bright, lovely in all ways, a middle school English teacher, and a self-proclaimed introvert who nevertheless projects terrific energy. She will, I suspect, be single for a much shorter time than she imagines, though she will probably always be mildly chagrined by whomever she finds sitting intimately across from her. When I saw her literary love at Powell’s I opened it and began to read:
A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead. I say ‘one chooses’ with the inaccurate pride of a professional writer who – when he has been seriously noted at all – has been praised for his technical ability, but do I in fact own my will to choose that black wet January night on the Common, in 1946, the sight of Henry Miles slanting across the wide river of rain, or did these images choose me?
Oh Anna, I thought, you like this? Are there no men like you?
THE LOVED AND THE UNLOVED (Francois Mauriac) After Patrick White, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and William Faulkner, François Mauriac may be my favorite novelist on the Nobel roster. I say “may be” because on any given day he would be elbowing in somewhere between Saul Bellow, Thomas Mann, and José Saramago. Like Patrick White, Mauriac is not talked about much these days. I suspect it is because, as a flinty and ardent Catholic, the existentialists sautéed his reputation and ate it with a glass of Pinot. Too bad for those who read only for confirmation of the rightness of twentieth century malaise. Mauriac’s Catholic malaise, démodé though it is, can attain gruesome heights which leave even malaisophiles gasping for air. I had not heard of this book, a late one in his oeuvre.
THE TROLLEY (Claude Simon) I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of novels I’ve begun and failed to finish. Conducting Bodies, by Claude Simon is one. It was the spoils of one of my undergrad expeditions into the library stacks. Willing I was, but simply not prepared for the nouveau roman’s daunting repudiations. Of plot, for example, and a meaningful sense of time. I’m a different reader now, and with Simon’s centenary coming up in October, it seems time give him another go. This book was his last, written at the age of 88.
TWO LEGENDS: OEDIPUS AND THESEUS (André Gide) I love modern versions of classic literature. Milosz’s “Orpheus and Eurydice”, for example, is one of my favorite poems. A few years back I wrote what I believed to be a brilliant poem on the subject of Theseus. I imagined him in old age, living in a ratty urban apartment, and returning to Hades to liberate Persephone who he and his friend Pirithous had once tried, and catastrophically failed, to abduct. The pathos I evoked, the intellectual rigor and linguistic flights, the adroit iambic pentameter – move over Derek! When I re-read it last year I was appalled by its pompous rigidity. The language certainly took flight –from clarity at every opportunity. I had come across this late work by André Gide in Santa Fe awhile back, and failed to buy it. I wanted to learn; no author’s pen runs more fleetly over maters of greater moral import.
Like a one-night stand who in the morning you realize you’d actually like to get to know, I brought my purchases from the night before to a coffee shop south of the Burnside Bridge on the east side of the river to have a look at them in sober daylight. The Frenchies had won, I saw, and a point each for the Brits, the Aussies, and the Caribbean expats. Two were poets, four novelists. One had lived openly gay. Four had won a Nobel Prize, one probably should have, one still might. I felt happy. I knew that Sam, whom I had loved and lost, and whom I was missing terribly, would never have let me leave Portland without a stack of books just like this one.
What was Chinua Achebe thinking? It was his only manuscript, and handwritten.
I picture him as a young man living in Lagos, carefully stashing in his suitcase the manuscript for the novel he has begun. It is 1956, and the BBC has given him a scholarship to study in London. The first non-Nigerian soil he will have ever set foot on will afford him a glimpse of the world from which had come his beloved Dickens, Shakespeare, Tennyson, as well as the captivating colonial pablum of Sir Henry Rider Haggard, whose tribal African characters, malign brutes driven by bestial cunning, had filled Achebe with a distressing loathing for his own. It had also given him Joseph Conrad, a writer of greatness, himself an immigrant, who, ironically, may have shaped his destiny as a writer more than any other because there came a moment when he realized he was not numbered among the noble race on Marlow’s boat steaming up the Congo in Heart of Darkness, “rather, I was one of those unattractive beings jumping up and down on the riverbank, making horrid faces.” Conrad’s famous book set up a fortuitous dissonance between his reading and the eloquence of the Christian ministers and Igbo elders who formed him as a child, one which made the manuscript he had so carefully tucked under his few clothes in that suitcase a fierce necessity.
London. Dickens’ hotbed: I imagine the twenty-six year old Chinua Achebe, furrow-browed, and, on account of the latitude, just a little chilly, taking in his new surroundings, running all the novel sensory input coming at him against all he knows of life in Nigeria, learning as much about his homeland as about London. Less color here. Fewer flies. Post-war scarring notwithstanding, it is clear where power lies. Things fall apart here too, but no one lets on.
He meets a man named Gilbert Phelps, a novelist and, incredibly, a critic of African literature. Phelps introduces this intense young African to the English way of drinking pints, over which they discuss the work of Achebe’s compatriot, Amos Tutuola, whose novel, Palm-Wine Drinkard, had finally been published in England in 1952, and about why it had taken six years. They go back and forth about the work of Achebe’s other compatriot, Cyprian Ekwensi, whose novel, People of the City, had come out just two years earlier to become the first book by a Nigerian to have made it onto international shelves. How amazed they both must be to be talking about these things. Achebe goes back to his quarters, spends a sleepless night, by the end of which he has reached a decision. He gathers up his manuscript and brings it to Phelps. His novel, set in the late nineteenth century, about a local Igbo (or “Ibo”) wrestling champion and yam farmer, whose people suffer the influence of British colonialism and Christian missionaries, is now in the hands of one of the race of colonizers. One of those on the riverbank has handed over the product of his mind to one on deck.
Phelps loves what he reads. He tells Achebe that he has produced a great book which must be published. But Marlow’s world has left him changed. There is so much more that must be said than he had realized. Back in Lagos he finds that his manuscript has, quite unbeknownst to him, divided in two. He takes up what has become the first part, in which his former wrestler, Okonkwo, rises out of poverty to become a wealthy landowner, then a murderer, and finally a suicide, and shapes it into a tragedy worthy of Aeschylus. The pages burn so bright with counter-Conradian fire that he can work well into the heavy nights without a light. One morning, he wakes, steps out into the sub-Saharan sun, blinks, rubs his nose once, and realizes he has finished.
Now, what’s an African writer to do? He knows he has something powerful on his hands, a fiction different from that of Tutuola, different from Ekwensi, whom he admires. But he knows, too, that the world into which he wants to introduce it, like a firebrand onto the deck of a Congo-trolling steamboat, will snuff it like a cigarette butt unless it has the right look. And so he gathers up the pages and like a parent sending off a child he sends them, along with 22£, back across the continents, to a typing service in London. He has done the right thing. Surely.
And I’m left wondering what he was thinking. Upon what reserves of faith did he draw, tapping what vein of idealism, or was it plain naiveté, to conceive that he could entrust the one and only copy of his manuscript to the transcontinental post, bound, unheralded, for the crowded desks and files of a typing service in London, without imagining that it could be lost along the way, or, assuming it arrived as intended, that those who received it would not regard it – a novel apparently, from Africa? – as some kind of joke? I find it moving beyond words that he was already living, mentally, in the kind of world he hoped his novel would be, in some small way, an agent of.
And it seems for a moment he will be vindicated. How quickly he tears open the envelope with the agency’s reply. It says that for two typed copies they require 32£, which he promptly sends, then settles in to wait out the weeks. Then the months. A season or two. Those around him begin to note to each other how emaciated Chinua is becoming. After many months, it seems clear that his manuscript is lost – to him, and to the world. Late in life he will acknowledge that the fate of his own character, Okonkwo, could have been his as well.
To those among us not destined to be artists, let us hope will fall the role of advocate. Angela Beattie, an Englishwoman abroad, could choose not to bother with her brainy and ever more apparently troubled employee, Chinua. Surely she has enough on her mind unpacking how she has come to hold this position with the Nigerian Broadcasting Service here in swarming Lagos. But she does bother. She finds out what has left Chinua so reduced, and when next she travels home to London, she seeks out the delinquent agency and unleashes a righteous furry. “And when they saw a real person come out of the vague mess of the British colonies,” Achebe will later write, “they knew it was no longer a joke.” He got his copy – one copy, never the paid-for second.
He sends it to a British agent, recommend by his friend Phelps, who gets it to the desk of a publishing house called Heinemann. Once again it meets with skepticism. A novel apparently, from Africa? They seek an informed opinion. A London professor by the name of Donald McRae, the imprint of travel in West Africa still reddening his mind, gives them seven words, all they need, calling it, “The best first novel since the war.” And so Heinemann, the publishing house which sixty years earlier had published Joseph Conrad’s The Nigger of the Narcissus, introduces Chinua Achebe to the world with Things Fall Apart.
And so began one of the century’s great literary careers. As early as 1973 his name began to be mentioned in connection with The Nobel Prize. But when, in 1986, the Nobel committee was finally ready to touch its scepter to the shoulders of an African, the honor fell to Achebe’s compatriot Wole Soyinka. Over the years, three more Africans won, each having stepped through the door Achebe opened. Nadine Gordimer called him “the father of modern African literature.” American laureate Toni Morrison, who wrote an essay on Achebe back in the 1960’s, found his work “liberating in a way nothing had been before.” Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who has been increasingly in the sights of Nobel hounds, owes his emergence onto the world stage directly to Achebe’s championing of his first novel. “Achebe bestrides generations and geographies,” he has said. “Every country in Africa claims him as their own. Some sayings in his novels are quoted frequently as proverbs that contain universal wisdom.”
Still, no Nobel. Reconciling Achebe’s worldwide eminence, which The New York Times has noted “was rivaled only by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison and a handful of others,” with his apparent inability to be sufficiently interesting to Stockholm, has for decades been a mental exercise among his admirers. Arguments coalesce, rather thinly I think, around the Conrad issue. Achebe’s lifelong criticism of this sacred cow of the modern Western canon must, they think, have inoculated him against a Nobel. As if, having gained the respect of those on board that Congo steamer, he should have had the grace to ascend the gangway they had lowered for him. Well, perhaps. Then there is the language question. Even as Things Fall Apart was blazing the trail that over the next few decades would widen into a highway, Achebe was lambasted for writing in the language of the colonizers. With the steady depreciation of the idea of colonialism, attention has begun to fall, quite rightly, on the endangerment of native languages. Achebe may have made Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s career possible, but writing in Gikuyu has made the Kenyan the more ascendant Nobel contender.
Achebe himself didn’t worry much about the Nobel. He had much greater ambitions: “I would be quite satisfied,” he said, “if my novels did no more than teach [African] readers that their past was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans, acting on God’s behalf, delivered them.”
Last year Carlos Fuentes deprived the Nobel committee the honor of making him a laureate. Last month it fell to Achebe to do the same.