The Fifth Queen and How She Came to Court by Ford Madox Ford

September 27, 2011

The court of King Henry VIII provides a fascinating framework on which a master stylist such as Ford Madox Ford (or Hilary Mantel) may hang their art. There is intrigue enough for a thriller, marriages enough for romance, and high ideas enough in the politics, religion, and literature of the time to supply, and possibly overwhelm, even the most gifted writers. Mantel focused on Thomas Cromwell, bucking the historical trend of villainizing the man, investing him with a noble, even democratic, constitution. The man, in Hilary’s telling, pulled himself from nothing to be the maker of kings on an unbendable will and almost limitless talents:

He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and he spends it. He will take a bet on anything. (Wolf Hall)

Mantel’s Wolf Hall is, reputedly, the first of a planned trilogy. My hunch is that she took more than a little inspiration from The Fifth Queen, also a trilogy.

Where Mantel gives us Cromwell’s perspective, Ford Madox Ford chose Katharine Howard for his lead. Like Mantel, Ford lists the considerable talents of his star:

She had some Greek, more than a little French, she could judge a good song, she could turn a verse in Latin or the vulgar tongue. She professed to be able to ride well, to be converseant with the terms of venery, to shoot with the bow, and to have studied the Fathers of the Church.

The resonance between the passages is but one example of many where Ford’s version is amplified in Mantel’s rendering. Mantel made Cromwell her hero, but Ford held him in some regard as well. In his non-fiction, Ford approvingly cited a scholar who described Cromwell as “a mighty minister & a consummate diplomatist, skilfully [sic] balancing the Powers one against another & crushing out seditions with a strong but necessary & beneficient hand.” (“Creative History and the Historic Sense”, p. 7) The essay excoriates Professor Goldwin Smith for, among other things, condemning Cromwell on no better evidence than “the accusations of his enemies, for Cromwell was not even tried.” (p. 7). The implication is that Cromwell was, at least, no worse than other men.

Ford says about Henry that he “was a man very much of his age.” (p. 8.) Ford’s characters take a very similar view of Cromwell, such as when Katharine Howard expresses distain for him:

“Men are not such villains.”

“They are as occasion makes them,” [Throckmorton] answered with his voice of a philosopher. “What manner of men these times breed you should know if you be not a fool.”

Mantel’s Cromwell was ruthless when circumstances demanded it and Ford’s characters have a similar view. I like this particular admonishment of Katharine for her idealism.

“It is folly to be too proud to fight the world with the world’s weapons.”

Mantel’s minute focus on Cromwell is matched by Ford’s examination of his fictional Katharine Howard. Katharine arrives at Henry VIII’s court idealistically naïve. The spy Throckmorton tries to disabuse her of simplistic notions of good and evil:

”But your eyes are so clear,” he sighed. “They see the black andwhite of a man. The grey they miss. And you are slow to learn. Nevertheless, already you have learned that here we have no yea-nay world of evil and good…”

“No,” she said, “that I have not learned, nor never shall.”

“Oh, aye,” he mocked at her. “You have learned that the Bishop of Winchester, who is on the side of your hosts of heaven, is a knave and a fool. You have learned that I, whom you have accounted a villain, am for you, and a very wise man. You have learned that Privy Seal, for whose fall you have prayed these ten years, is, his deeds apart, the only good man in this quaking place.”

The conflict in this first installment of the trilogy is between Katharine’s uncompromising views on good and evil and the realities of English politics. One gets the sense that she will be every bit as tragic a figure as Mantel’s Cromwell. Katherine’s are good and laudable principles, but either she or they must be ground down between the stones of national and religious politics.

Ford’s style is impeccable. The above quotes capture his ability to put passably 16th Century language into the mouths of his characters without sounding either ridiculous or counterfeit. The dialogue is simply beautiful.

Likewise, his treatment of minor characters adds depth and flavor to these high level intrigues. An old man is angry with Cromwell for building a wall through his garden and gives vent to his son and a printer. The scene feels intimate and real.

“A wall,” [the printer] muttered; “my Lord Privy Seal hath set up a wall against priestcraft all round these kingdoms—”

“Therefore you would have him welcome to forty feet of my garden?” the old man drawled. “He pulls down other folks’ crucifixes and sets up his own walls with other folks’ blood for mortar.”

The printer said darkly:

“Papists’ blood.”

The old man pulled his nose and glanced down.

“We were all Papists in my day.”

Early vignettes like this one acclimate the reader to time and place sufficiently that the novel feels dark and dank. However accurate the history presented is, it becomes a lived history and, for better or worse, all the more real because of that. Ford would say this as it should be:

For in their really higher manifestations History & Fiction are one: they are documented, tolerant, vivid; their characters live & answer & react one upon another each after his own sort. Fiction indeed, so long as it is not written with a purpose, is Contemporary History & History is the same thing as the Historic Novel, as long as it is inspired with the Historic Sense…the Historic Novel with a wide outlook upon peoples & upon kings. (“Creative History and the Historic Sense”, p. 13)

The Fifth Queen is, certainly, a Historic Novel. I would recommend it to anyone awaiting Mantel’s next installment. As proof of my sincerity, I plan to read the remainder of the two trilogies in tandem.


Ghosts (The New York Trilogy, Volume 2) by Paul Auster

September 14, 2010

I have been slightly delayed in posting about this second volume in Auster’s The New York Trilogy for no entirely discernible reason. I could say that the fact that I was on the wait list for the third volume, The Locked Room, at the library and, then, for no apparent reason, The Locked Room has disappeared from the library’s catalogue, dampened my enthusiasm. What to say about a trilogy when you only have the first two books? Then I have a dilemma. Do I buy the whole trilogy? My library has done this to me before. It has two of the three books in Coetzee’s semi-autobiography “trilogy”. I did buy the missing one that time. It’s Coetzee, after all. But Auster? I have not been blown away, though I probably should have been. Is Auster shelf-worthy?

Ghosts is a very interesting book. It was Sasha’s least favorite of the three. Perhaps that will ultimately prove to be so with me, but I sort of liked it. It felt less ephemeral than the last. The pages did not crumble to nothingness like a library hold. And, yet, it is weird.

First of all there is Blue. Later there is White, and then there is Black, and before the beginning there is Brown.

These are the characters. Blue is our guy, the one over whose shoulder and through whose eyes we peek. White hires Blue to watch Black. So, the second in the trilogy again has a private eye (this time a real detective) following and watching a subject. In the first book, it was not clear whether our man, Daniel Quinn, had followed the right man out of the train station. He could have spent most of the book watching a man unrelated to “the case”. Blue, though, is watching the right person we know. Only, we know less about why he is watching Black than we knew why Quinn was watching the elder Stillman. Blue watches Black and writes reports to White, hoping that he is focusing on the most relevant information.

The problem for Blue is that Black simply reads and writes and, occasionally, goes to get something to eat. Black’s routine is predictable and, seemingly, interminable.

For to watch someone read and write is in effect to do nothing. The only way for Blue to have a sense of what is happening is to be inside Black’s mind, to see what he is thinking, and that of course is impossible.

Blue had always been a man of action, so doing nothing is difficult for him.

He has never given much thought to the world inside him, and though he always knew it was there, it has remained an unknown quantity, unexplored and therefore dark, even to himself. He has moved rapidly along the surface of things for as long as he can remember, fixing his attention on these surfaces only in order to perceive them, sizing up one and then passing on the the next, and he has always taken pleasure in the world as such, asking no more of things than that they be there.

Blue has plenty of time, however, so he does start examining the world inside him. He discovers, among other things, stories.

More than just helping to pass the time, he discovers that making up stories can be a pleasure in itself…Murder plots, for instance, and kidnapping schemes for giant ransoms. As the days go on, Blue realizes there is no end to the stories he can tell. For Black is no more than a kind of blankness, a hole in the texture of things, and one story can fill this hole as well as any other.

Blue’s discovery of stories distracts him from his mission. He becomes more intrigued by the stories he imagines for Black than the activities of Black himself. Blue often pulls himself back from fantasy to the reality of his mission, but it becomes more and more difficult for him to separate the false from the true. His stories, he realizes, are more about him than they are about Black.

This isn’t the story of my life, after all, he says, I’m supposed to be writing about him, not myself.

This realization does not make things easier for him. He still struggles, discovers that he inserts himself into the story even when he does not mean to do so. Blue then becomes meticulous about writing down only facts, facts about Black, so that his reports become very difficult for him to write. His earlier surety in the world around him has been shaken, so he grasps on, again to the surface of the world, naming objects in his room in an attempt to tether himself to reality. But he has a problem, once you dive below the surface of things, you can swim as deep as you like without reaching the bottom.

Auster is writing, on the one hand, about storytelling and writing. On the other, he is writing about life. He does an excellent job weaving together the intersection of life and writing and how the one, in many ways, interferes with the other. One can either live or write about living. And, also, there is the problem of understanding another person, writer or otherwise. You can see what the person does, but to have true understanding, you need to know what they think. This is impossible, because, when you begin speculating what is in another’s mind, you cannot help but creep into the story you write for them.

We are not where we are, he finds, but in a false position. Through an infirmity of our natures, we suppose a case, and put ourselves into it, and hence are in two cases at the same time, and it is doubly difficult to get out.

This is an excellently philosophical work. The story, too, is intriguing as fables and allegories should be. I have not doubt that writers will pass this book along to other writers for generations. And, too, will readers. Readers, after all, are haunted by the ghosts of writers. Readers, when they attempt to delve below the surface of a novel, into the mind of the author, they insert themselves and become hopelessly confused regarding what parts belong to the author and what parts are their own. Auster has made a beautifully postmodern statement and I look forward to the last of the series, whereever I find it. Sasha enjoyed it most, and I have heard the same from others.

Perhaps I have made no sense at all. Merely doubling myself as Auster’s characters do so frequently. I can only say with certainty that there is more to this installment of the trilogy than I can convey and, to be fair, more than it would be possible to convey. All the same, I’ve undoubtedly made a hash of it, so I encourage you to read it yourself and come back to explain the big and little things I have missed.


The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

August 18, 2010

In Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell tended to focus on characters who were disestablishmentarians. Robert Frobisher, Luisa Rey, Timothy Cavendish, and Somni-451, at least, were all standing or fighting against the entrenched order. Cloud Atlas was also suffused with change, both cultural and scientific. Of course, characters in fiction must suffer at least “modest calamity” to keep the reader interested. In Cloud Atlas, the themes explored in each of the sections generally revolved around power and so-called progress. Mitchell is neither a lone pioneer nor the first explorer of these ideas, of course, but he is something of a present day virtuoso. He weaves grand stories that turn and sparkle the truth so that we see facets of the world that are newly impressive.

BEWARE SPOILERS

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet follows that tradition. Some reviewers have called Jacob de Zoet a step back for Mitchell. There is some validity in that position. The middle section contains a number of echoes of “An Orison of Sonmi-451” and, in that sense, is a return of sorts.

The nuns on Mount Shiranui are forcibly impregnated and their newborns killed. They are fed “solace”, an addictive substance that may turn to poison if discontinued. The mothers receive fabricated letters of their babies’ wonderful lives as they purportedly grow to adulthood outside the nunnery. The mothers are promised that they will eventually be reunited with their children and will be provided a comfortable pension while they live out their days in familial bliss. The nuns are similar to the womb tanks of “An Orison of Sonmi-451”. Fabricants are fed “soap” which makes them more pliable and prevents escape by killing them if they do not continue to ingest it. Further, the fake letters from the nun’s children are strikingly similar to the fake promotion ceremonies for the “Twelvestarred” in Cloud Atlas. Fabricants are promised a life of leisure after years of service when, in fact, the fabricants are slaughtered. The corporation perpetrating this fraud produces testimonials and videos of Twelvestarred fabricants purportedly living out the dream. The parallels are obvious and must have been intentional.

Or, maybe they were not. David Mitchell states on The Bat Segundo Show that he had not thought about the symmetry between the baby farm on Mount Shiranui and the womb tanks in Cloud Atlas. This makes me question whether my entire take on the novel is a bit off. Damn authorial intention. It’s the words that count.

Even if I was wrong about the connections between womb tanks and nuns, there are many connections between the novels. Mitchell explicitly refers to Cloud Atlas at least once:

West to east, the sky unrolls and rolls its atlas of clouds.

And there are more subtle allusions to that and other works (of both his and other authors) as well. Adam Ewing sails aboard the Prophetess in Cloud Atlas; Jacob sails out of Dejima on a ship named Profetes in Thousand Autumns. A character mentions “some Yankees from Connecticut”. That last one could be my own imagination again.

But none of this really answers the question of whether this is a good novel or what its strengths might be. Mitchell has stated that he tries always to write in a new way, to avoid writing in a distinctly Mitchellian style. For this, people sometimes criticize him as a mimic or ventriloquist rather than an accomplished stylist in his own right. I am not sure either the criticisms or Mitchell’s stated goals are entirely valid. His efforts to forge new stylistic ground leads him, in this novel, to tell his story in what, to some readers, is annoying prose. As an example, I give you this scene, in which Uzaemon, an interpreter, asks Shuzai, a swordsman, what it was like to kill a man:

”Afterward,” says Shuzai, “in marketplaces, cities, hamlets . . .”

The icy water strikes Uzaemon’s jawbone like a Dutch tuning fork.

“. . . I thought, I am in this world, but no longer of this world.”

A wildcat paces along the bough of a fallen elm, brdiging the path.

“This lack of belonging, it marks us” – Shuzai frowns – “around the eyes.”

The wildcat looks at the men, unafraid, and yawns.

It leaps down to a rock, laps water, and disappears.

“Some nights,” Shuzai says, “I wake to find his fingers choking me.”

I did not find the sentence long paragraphs and the interjection of descriptive prose into what would normally be unbroken dialogue to be disruptive. But I did not find it particularly effective either. I understand how it pulled some readers out of the story more than it enhanced the atmosphere for them. For me, it occasionally worked, occasionally did not. Whether the prose was pleasing or annoying seems to be a major dividing line between those who think the novel was very good and those who do not.

The other reason I pulled this quote is because of the prominence of religious references. The idea of being in the world but not of the world is, if not pulled from, then synchronous with John 17:11 and 16 of the New Testament. Likewise, Shuzai’s feeling that he has been marked in some way is reminiscent of Cain after he killed Abel. Mitchell’s examination of religion and weaving of religious themes into his novelistic tapestry is almost required given the times and the prominent role the conflict of cultures plays in Thousand Autumns, but Mitchell was after something more than satisfying necessity. Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas both have sections that are heavily focused on religion and belief. Mitchell has returned for a third time to the topic.

I have not seen many reviews talk about the importance of religion and metaphysical beliefs in this work. I think reviewers are remiss in ignoring the centrality of belief, rationality, and how humans are to reconcile the two.

James Wood, writing in The New Yorker, recalled Henry James’s argument that “the novel should press down on ‘the present palpable intimate’” and argued that Thousand Autumns is “only palpable”. He compares it to a fairy tale, as a book that could have been set “in fifteenth-century Spain or eighth-century Britain” with no real change in result or accomplishment. James Wood is wrong.

Henry James alsoEdith Wharton in discussing James said that “every great novel must first of all be based on a profound sense of moral values”. I have stolen this quote from A Commonplace Blog. That blog’s proprietor, D.G. Meyers, has advocated argued the idea that “an ingenious plot…serves the same purpose in fiction that argument serves in philosophy.

The plot of Thousand Autumns is too long and convoluted for me to summarize effectively and, I will assume, that those reading this post beyond the spoiler warning already have some familiarity with the plot. The argument that David Mitchell is putting forward in Thousand Autumns has to do not so much with power and subjugation, but more specifically with belief, faith, and reason. The domination of some humans by others is certainly a major theme, but I think the more focused point of argument is the intersection of religion and rationality. On this view, Dr. Marinus is central to the book, though not to the plot. The plot could merrily clip along without Marinus or without ever giving Marinus a speaking role. But he provides important premises for the plot as argument to work and may well be its conclusion.

Abbot Enomoto is much more central to the plot and, perhaps unwittingly, provides a key premise to the argument when examining silvered European mirrors.

”Silver is more truth,” remaks the abbot, “than copper mirrors of Japan. But truth is easy to break.”

Jacob learns the fragility of truth when he forges a signature, putting himself in a precarious position when he later tries to stand on principle. The plot argues and Jacob comes to a new understanding of the naivete of certainty. Meanwhile, Dr. Marinus stands largely outside the plot and, yet, is a central character because he shares what I believe to be Mitchell’s primary concern. Marinus exposes Jacob to ideas that profoundly affect the course of Jacob’s maturation and, in that indirect way, influences the argumentative plot of the novel.

Jacob contemplates the details, and the devil plants a seed.

What if this engine of bones – the seed germinates – is a man’s entirety . . .

Wind wallops the walls like a dozen tree trunks tumbling.

. . . and divine love is a mere means of extracting baby engines of bones?

Jacob thinks about Abbot Enomoto’s questions at their one meeting. “Doctor, do you believe in the soul’s existence?”

Marinus prepares, the clerk expects, an erudite and arcane reply. “Yes.”

“Then where” – Jacob indicates the pious, profane skeleton – “is it?”

“The soul is a verb.” He impales a lit candle on a spike. “Not a noun.”

The important thing in life is not belief, not Jacob’s pious Christianity nor Abbot Enomoto’s potentially true but horrifying cult nor any other character’s particular metaphysical commitments. In fact, those sorts of commitments are impediments to true soul rather than nourishments for it. The seed has been planted in Jacob that his orthodox Christianity misses the point of life, but the full realization does not hit until later, through Dr. Marinus.

[Jacob:] ”I know what you don’t believe in, Doctor: what do you believe?”

“Oh, Descartes’s methodology, Domenico Scarlatti’s sonatas, the efficacy of Jesuits’ bark . . . So little is actually worthy of either belief or disbelief. Better to strive to coexist than seek to disprove . . .”

This is why James Wood missed the point. Enlightenment is central to the book and, crucially, central to Mitchell’s thesis. While Mitchell demonstrates and argues for the best of Enlightenment values, he makes clear that science and the scientific method will not lead to paradise. One only has to look at “The Orison of Sonmi-451” to see that. And Dr. Marinus will tell you that too:

“Please ask Dr. Marinus this, Interpreter: if science is sentient, what are its ultimate desires? Or, to phrase this question another way, when the doctor’s imagined sleeper awakens in the year 1899, shall the world most closely resemble paradise or the inferno?”

Goto’s fluency is slower in the Japanese-to-Dutch headwind, but Marinus is pleased by the question. He rocks gently to and fro. “I shan’t know until I see it, Mr. Yoshida.”

The argument put forward here is similar to ideas put forward in Cloud Atlas, the world, science, man, history, has no directional arrow. The world spins, history repeats, and man regresses as often as progresses. The duty of the individual is to other individuals rather than to ideas, beliefs, or metaphysical commitments.

Contrary to Wood, this argument could not have been made as effectively in pre-enlightenment Spain or England. A Dr. Marinus would not make as much sense there, could not have the same centrality. The setting here is a clash of cultures, but a clash unlike those in fifteenth century Spain and eigth century England. Those clashes had winners and losers; those clashes support the thesis of progress. While Mitchell has stated that he thought that the history of Dejima provided an excellent setting for a story, it would be error to suppose that any number of other dramatic settings would serve Mitchell’s purposes equally. This is not simply an entertaining historical novel. Mitchell is carrying his argument further and Japan at the turn of the eighteenth century is an ideal setting for that argument. Newton, Kant, and other Enlightenment thinkers are necessary to the argument, but so too, I think, is a violent clash of cultures which is not aimed at conquest or conversion. This is a clash possibly unique to Dejima and uniquely useful for building on and deepening the arguments so masterfully presented in Cloud Atlas. The Japanese and Dutch strove to coexist rather than to conquer or convert.

Whatever flaws there may be in the prose or storylines or entertainment value of Thousand Autumns, the book is more than a fairy tale. There are serious arguments made here and the plot does push forward those arguments with some force. This is a book that can bear a re-reading, this is a book that “is based on a profound sense of moral values”, this novel does exert “a kind of moral or metaphysical pressure”. I am not prepared to say that this is a great novel, but I believe it is being misread and underread by many, including, specifically, James Wood.


Numbers in the Dark and Other Stories by Italo Calvino

December 19, 2009

Some writers earn my respect. Other writers I merely enjoy. There are writers with whom I become intimate over the course of a long relationship. Some I read and abandon forever. But there are some writers who grab me and promise me a lifetime of reading pleasure and I believe them.

Italo Calvino is that last sort of writer. As soon as I started his collection of short stories, months and months ago, I believed his promises. I still do.

I like reading collections of short stories slowly. Generally, I read no more than a story a day, sometimes only a story a week. This both prolongs the experience, if it is good, and gives me time to digest a story before moving to the next. Of course, at first, I gulped this one. The first stories are so short. Not until the fourth does a story need more than one page, front and back, to finish.

These short shorts are grippingly original. The first section is subtitled “Fables and Stories, 1943-1958” and the stories do read as fables. The very first story is “The Man Who Shouted Teresa“:

I stepped off the pavement, walked backwards a few paces looking up, and, from the middle of the street, broght my hands to my mouth to make a megaphone and shouted towards the top stories of the block: “Teresa!”

My shadow took fright at the moon and huddled between my feet.

Someone walked by. Again I shouted: “Teresa!” The man came up to me and said: “if you don’t shout louder she won’t hear you. Let’s both try. So: count to three, on three we shout together.” And he said: “One, two, three.” And we both yelled, “Tereeeesaaa!”

Before long, there is a large crowd helping the narrator, the man who shouted Teresa. They organize, squabble, and are “beginning to get it right” before someone finally starts asking why they are shouting. The narrator explains he doesn’t even know who lives in the apartment to which they are shouting:

“As far as I’m concerned,” I said, “we can call another name, or try somewhere else. It’s no big deal.”

The others were a bit annoyed.

But everyone is too embarrassed to be angry or to simply go away. They decide to call one last time and then leave.

So we did it again. “One two three Teresa!” but it didn’t come out very well. Then people headed off home, some one way, some the other.

I’d already turned into the square, when I thought I heard a voice still calling: “Tee-reee-sa!”

Someone must have stayed on to shout. Someone stubborn.

I found the story hilarious. I was hooked. In the next story, the narrator has a moment when he understands nothing, the next is about a town where everything was forbidden. They are too short to be tedious, too well written to be dismissed. Most of these early works are apolitical.

The stories become slightly less fantastical and more political deeper into the book. At first, their target is primarily the military, such as in “The Lost Regiment” where “[a] regiment in a powerful army was supposed to be parading through the city streets” but gets lost and in “The General in the Library” involving a general sent to examine the books in a library after “a suspicion crpet into the minds of top officials: that books contained opinions hostile to military prestige.” But soon Calvino’s flirtation with communism and socialism become quite evident.

Like Dos Passos, Calvino has a fascination with and compassion for working people. His more political stories are often concerned with issues of class and power. In fact, it was the abuse of power, the Soviet invasion of Hungary, that ended Calvino’s association with communism. Many of his stories lampoon the bureacracies and resulting oppressions that spring up under communism and socialism. In other words, Calvino’s primary concern is with respect for the average human, not with an explicitly political goal. In this way, even his explicitly political stories maintain some vitality, though politics have largely passed them by.

The second half of the book is subtitled “Tales and Dialogues 1968-84”. Some of these stories are sci-fi in nature, such as “World Memory” in which every fact in the world is being fed into a computer. This is not a humorous story, but a suspenseful one with an excellent payoff. “Beheading the Heads” is quite political and, perhaps, reveals the anarchism to which Calvino was exposed as a child in addition to his frustrations with political systems generally.

The preface to the book provides some interesting background. For instance, “The Burning of the Abominable House”, a murder mystery in short form, was written in response to “a somewhat vague request from IBM: how far was it possible to write a story using the computer?” The 1973 story is excellent and reveals Calvino’s logical and mathematical rigor.

Finally, late in the collection, Calvino’s fascination with physics and science comes to the fore. Calvino’s parents were scientists and Calvino himself studied the ideas of Einstein, Heisenberg, and Planck. The final two stories are each inspired by scientific articles. One about black holes and the other about the beginning of the universe. These stories both manage to relate abstruse scientific concepts to intensely personal struggles. “Implosion” is concerned with time and everyone’s inability to truly escape its ravages. Even implosion, the narrator finds, does not provide a sanctuary. “Nothing and Not Much” examines the void and dealing with the void. The story was inspired by a Washington Post article discussing a scientists calculations which “suggest[ed] that the universe was created literally from nothing”. It is a very existential piece.

While Numbers in the Dark and Other Stories is only one short story collection, and not Italo Calvino’s most highly regarded, I am infatuated. I want more. I am going to read a novel next, probably If on a winter’s night a traveler. I highly recommend this collection. I cannot say whether it is the best entry point to Calvino’s work, but it was, for me, a thoroughly seductive introduction.

*To dip before jumping in, you can find links to Italo Calvino stories available on the web and other information about the writer at the Italo Calvino website.


A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert

December 14, 2009

I picked this book up because it made the New York Times list of “The Ten Best Books of 2009“. Ordinarily, that would hardly be enough to move me, but I am hoping to read the sixteen contenders for The Rooster. Last year, being on the NYT list of ten was almost a guaranteed ticket into the tournament. The seeds are not announced until January, so I was playing the odds, hoping this book would make it into the always entertaining Tournament of Books.

As the title suggests, this is a book steeped in feminism. For that reason, I am probably the wrong person to review this book. I am sympathetic to the aims of feminism as a synonym for equality among/between the sexes, but I am not well-versed in feminist literature, theory, or history. I assume there are references and inside jokes and other delights that, through my ignorance, I completely missed. I cannot tell you about or even hint at any such hidden delicacies. What I can do is tell you my own reaction to the book as literature.

The book opens with a genealogical diagram of the women descended from Dorothy Trevor Townsend (1880-1914). This is somewhat helpful because a number of her descendants are also named Dorothy. Don’t worry, this is not a retelling of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Or, maybe it is.

The overriding theme in the book, aside from feminism, is solitude. Not unlike the Jose/Arcadio/Buendias in One Hundred Years, each of the Dorothys (and Caroline and Elizabeth and Evelyn) is isolated in some way from the larger world. They do not share the same small isolated town as did the Jose/Arcadio/Buendias, but they share the fact of XX chromosomes and the consequences that go with that. The consequences change over time, of course, but womanhood has consequences.

The narrative hook is Dorothy Trevor Townsend, a scholar and then a women’s suffragette who starved herself to death in England in 1914. Her inspiration was Florence Nightingale, a woman who reappears throughout the work as a role model for the Dorothys. She leaves behind a thirteen year old daughter, Evelyn, and a crippled, ten year old son, Thomas. This book recounts the legacy of Dorothy Trevor Townsend.

Evelyn and Thomas are split up, with Thomas sent to America and Evelyn to her grandmother’s. Grandmother sends Evelyn to Madame Lane’s, “an educational establishment out of harm’s way”. The Great War is raging, after all. There, Evelyn nurses and feeds battered and broken soldiers before finding her own way to America via a scholarship. Evelyn becomes a chemistry professor of minor distinction. She has no children.

Dorothy Trevor Townsend’s legacy continues through Thomas Francis Townsend, father to one daughter: Dorothy Townsend Barrett. Dorothy Townsend Barrett, like her mother and namesake, is an activist. Her impetus is the death of her son, James, in 2001. She is intent on doing something, making a difference, but pursues this rather vague goal in a way that is as self-destructive as her grandmother’s starvation. Specifically, she trespasses on government property to take pictures of military coffins, which ends in a confrontation with military police.

These events are told in short snippets disbursed non-chronologically through the first three-quarters of the book. The following generation, the children of Dorothy Townsend Barrett, next take center stage. Caroline, the eldest after James, is embarrassed by her mother’s antics. She is a conformist, a rule-follower. Her mother’s later turn to blogging is as disconcerting to Caroline as her mother’s anti-war activism. Her discomfort is likely only to grow with her own daughter, Dorothy Louise Barrett-Deel, a self-described “Revolutionary”.

Elizabeth is less concerned with either attempt by Dorothy Townsend Barrett to escape the solitude of her womanhood. Elizabeth is an artist, a wife, a mother, and lonely. A nanny raises her twins, perhaps starting a new cycle of abandonment, while Elizabeth barely manages the social schedule of her oldest Suzanne in between her art and other responsibilities. Elizabeth’s struggles lend themselves to those small domestic humors parents love to share:

It’s a playdate; Suzanne duly apprised of the plan this morning as she and Liz waited for the school bus on Lafayette. Around them, Cooper Union students bunched up like black flies, bluebottles in window corners, at every “Don’t Walk.”

“Who?” Suzanne says.

“Matilda. She’s in your class. You know. She wears striped shirts.”

“Does she have a cat?” Suzanne asks.

“I have no idea.”

“Does she want to play My Little Ponies?”

Liz looks down at her daughter. “Who doesn’t?” she says.

Suzanne shoves her hands in her pockets and swings one leg. She leans against a filthy meter tattooed with stickers advertising things: 800 numbers for important advice; someone staying positive with HIV.

“I’ll go,” Suzanne says, as if going were a question.

“Great!” says Liz. “Here comes the bus!”

The overall effect is of snapshots of the problems that confront women at different points in time. Dorothy Trevor Townsend starves for the vote, effectively choosing between self-expression and her children. Evelyn chooses her own form of expression at the expense of having children at all. Each of the others are also trapped, in some way, between the life to which they aspire and their children. Dorothy Townsend Barrett must bear the isolating grief of losing a child, while her daughters are caught between careers and families.

The book is quite short and, therefore, cannot capture the full experience of being a woman in any of the times covered, much less all of them. My own view is that the novel is not entirely a success. The relationships between mothers and daughters is explored with more psychological force, and more literary flair, in Ghost Dance for instance. Both Brooklyn and Love and Summer more fully captured the difficult choices forced on women in earlier times. (Yes, these latter were written by men, but that makes it all the more striking that the subjective experience of the female leads is so much more emotionally compelling in those works than in this one.)

The book was enjoyable, but it is not a book I would press on anyone. There are interesting parallels with some great works (i.e. One Hundred Years of Solitude), but I doubt this is a book I will revisit. The book is well-written, but is neither particularly startling nor particularly engaging. The New York Times and I are not getting along.


Boyhood: Scenes from a Provincial Life by J.M. Coetzee

November 28, 2009

Two of my all-time favorite books are autobiographies. Of course, The Autobiography of Malcolm X has the contradictory subtitle: “As Told to Alex Haley”. Regardless, it is a powerful work. The insights into the arc of Malcolm’s life, the way his beliefs were formed, and the reasons those beliefs changed over the course of his too-short existence, are fascinating. As the best such works, it uncovers the making of a man, flawed, intelligent, and reflective.

Speak, Memory is even better. Nabokov is undoubtedly one of the most brilliant artists ever to work in the English language. The book is less revealing of the man than his artistry. But this, in itself, is another demonstration of his genius. Even in autobiography, Nabokov is uniquely inventive. And the prose smiles.

Boyhood fits nicely between these two works. Coetzee, like Malcolm (via Alex Haley), tells his story chronologically, but does not write a hagiography. Coetzee, again like Malcolm, discloses in almost frightening frankness some of his formative flaws. We see, as in the Malcolm X work, a progression of character overtime. There is growth, but sometimes it is a twisting, deforming growth.

Boyhood is not a conventional telling. Coetzee writes of himself in the third person. Brilliantly, I think. As intimate as this work is, the third person provides distance, a remove from the subject. We are not shown the author, but a boy the author once was. The effect is to free the reader to judge, to empathize, and to evaluate. And, like Nabokov’s work, the prose of the master is displayed in full. The work is not only the story of the author, but an independent work of art.

What has emerged, both man and book, is something beautiful. Terribly beautiful.

J.M. Coetzee is unflinching in his self-portrait. Always first in his class, the young Coetzee is a brilliant little misfit. The class, caste, and social systems of South Africa parse up the boys until Coetzee is left alone. He has an Afrikaaner surname, an English upbringing, no religion, a bookish disposition, and no interest in the male bonding rituals of youth. When his family moves, he is further isolated in the provincial town of Worcester, not least by the division of school boys according to religion during assembly. As a new student, he and several other boys are taken aside and asked their religion. The young Coetzee is at a loss, so the teacher gives him three choices: Christian, Roman Catholic, or Jew. Amusingly in Coetzee’s telling, he chooses Roman Catholicism.

He chose to be a Roman Catholic, that fateful morning, because of Rome, because of Horatius and his two comrades, swords in their hands, crested helmets on their heads, indomitable courage in their glance, defending the bridge over the Tiber against the Etruscan hordes. [Later], he discovers from the other Catholic boys what a Roman Catholic really is. A Roman Catholic has nothing to do with Rome. Roman Catholics have not even heard of Horatius.

The young Coetzee becomes the target of the Christian boys for being a Catholic and the Catholic boys for being an imposter. Still, he is ultimately satisfied with his choice. Coetzee the man provides this brilliant glimpse into the boy’s mind:

If being a Christian means singing hymns and listening to sermons and then coming out to torment the Jews, he has no wish to be a Christian. The fault is not his if the Catholics of Worcester are Catholic without being Roman, if they know nothing about Horatius and his comrades holding the bridge over the Tiber (‘Tiber, Father Tiber, to whom we Romans pray’), about Leonidas and his Spartans holding the pass at Thermopylae, about Roland holding the pass against the Saracens. He can think of nothing more heroic than holding a pass, nothing nobler than giving up one’s life to save other people, who will afterwards weep over one’s corpse. That is what he would like to be: a hero. That is what proper Roman Catholicism should be about.

The young Coetzee is oblivious to the irony so skillfully deployed by the author Coetzee. I find the quote hilarious and profound. Coetzee manages to unveil the hypocrisy within and the emotional foundation for the sacrificial religions in one breezy memory.

The more frequent target of Coetzee’s penetrating insight is the young Coetzee. The boy can be petulant and cold. His treatment of his mother is atrocious. He covets her love, wants it all for himself:

He wants her to behave toward him as she does toward his brother. But he wants this as a sign, a proof, no more. He knows that he will fly into a rage if she ever begins hovering over him.

At the same time, he returns no affection to her:

His rages against his mother are one of the things he has to keep a careful secret from the world outside. Only the four of them know what torrents of scorn he pours upon her, how much like an inferior he treats her. ‘If you teachers and your friends knew how you spoke to your mother…,’ says his father, wagging a finger meaningfully. He hates his father for seeing so clearly the chink in his armour.

This quality is not endearing. Coetzee has a purpose in showing us this aspect. He is not simply showing us his flaws. His relationship with his mother is borne of his essential character, not only the author suffers for his art:

He is a liar and he is cold-hearted too: a liar to the world in general, cold-hearted toward his mother. It pains his mother, he can see, that he is steadily growing away from her. Nevertheless he hardens his heart and will not relent. His only excuse is that he is merciless to himself too. He lies but he does not lie to himself.

There is much more, and exquisitely written. Coetzee’s dissection of his childhood manages simultaneously to be coldly clinical and warmly touching. We see both the boy and the beast. The reader is shown every facet of the boy who grew into the author Coetzee.

I picked this book up so that I could read Coetzee’s biographical trilogy (Boyhood, Youth, and Summertime) in order. I already admired Coetzee as a writer, but my experience with Boyhood pushes him up my literary rankings. I was already eager to get my hands on Summertime, now I am feverish with booklust. But Youth first.


One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

July 20, 2009

I was debating whether to post my thoughts on this book, which I was glad I read but which I did not like very much. After reading the “Fired from the Canon” piece, I thought I may as well. I agree that ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE can safely be jettisoned from “the canon” or, at least, not be foisted upon unsuspecting readers.

OneHundredYearsThis go at Marquez’s masterpiece was my second attempt. The first time, I quit after having lost track of whether Jose Arcadio Buendia, Auereliano Buendia, Jose Arcadio, Aureliano Jose, Arcadio, Aureliano Segundo, Jose Arcadio Segundo, the other Jose Arcadio, or one of the other two Aurelianos…what was I saying? Anyway, these are the main male cast members. There is a little more variety among the principal women: three named Remedios (Moscote, the Beauty, Renata), an Amaranta, an Ursala, an Amaranta Ursala, a Rebecca, a Pilar, and a Sofia. The key is to sort them by generation and jiggle the handle.

So, Marquez pulled off the delightful feat of naming all his characters while only using a total of about five names. This does wonders for the environment, but it is extremely annoying. Combined with the rampant familial love, and I mean that in the unfortunate biblical sense rather than the “Little House on the Prairie” sense, I suppose it is some sort of political commentary. I get it, but it still is wearingly tiresome remembering which Jose Arcadio (or was it one of the Aureliano boys?) touched the ice. The redundant naming goes in the list of things that do not work for me. I will remember the device, but not fondly.

Nomenclature aside, I had already, before cracking this book, unfairly predetermined that magical realism is not my bag. Why even read this book then? The author won a Nobel, the book is considered a masterpiece…by people, I once thought I “should” read it. All I can say is that you ought to have better reasons than I did.

There are a few. This book does create its own world. I am not knowledgeable enough to say whether South America feels like this or to get all the inside South American references that I am sure were tucked in there, but the world inside ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE is a fully realized, if magical, world. Marquez made legendary the moment he came upon the voice for the novel. The voice incorporates his grandmother’s storytelling technique which, he explained, was to relate even the most fantastic and unbelievable events the same way she related facts. The book is fairly unique among my reading experiences. When a book can do that for you, it has achieved something.

There are also some gems in the book that I enjoyed. At one point, gypsies have come to Macondo and are putting on a circus. Jose Arca….A father has taken his children to see the wonders the gypsies have brought. His children coax him to pay their entrance into a tent where a giant guards a pirate chest. The contents of the pirate chest are the attraction:

When it was opened by the giant, the chest gave off a glacial exhalation. Inside there was only an enormous, transparent block with infinite internal needles in which the light of the sunset was broken up into colored stars. Disconcerted, knowing that the children were waiting for an immediate explanation, Jose Arcadio Buendia ventured a murmur:

“It’s the largest diamond in the world.”

“No,” the gypsy countered. “It’s ice.”

Jose Arcadio Buendia, without understanding, stretched out his hand toward the cake, but the giant moved it away. “Five reales more to touch it,” he said. Jose Arcadio paid them and put his hand on the ice and held it there for several minutes as his heart filled with fear and jubilation at the contact with mystery. Without knowing what to say, he paid ten reales more so that his sons could have that prodigious experience. Little Jose Arcadio refused to touch it. Aureliano, on the other hand, took a step forward and put his hand on it, withdrawing it immediately. “It’s boiling,” he exclaimed, startled. But his father paid no attention to him…[The father] paid another five reales and with his hand on the cake, as if giving testimony on the holy scriptures, he exclaimed:

“This is the great invention of our time.”

It’s a good scene. Apparently, it is largely autobiographical. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s father took him to a traveling circus where the little Gabriel saw and touched ice for the first time. I would have liked more of these. Of course, even here, Marquez puts in a little of the ridiculous. Here the ridiculous is kind of funny. Vonnegut and Heller did great things with the ridiculous. Marquez’s ridiculous is more often merely ridiculous rather than ridiculously funny. Or maybe it is my sense of humor. Such things are very much matters of personal taste.

Some of the more magical scenes work too. There is a strike at a local factory, many people are shot and killed, the whole thing is completely covered up, and only one of our Jose Arcadio Aureliano Buendia/Segundo characters seems to know it ever happened. At least, no one else will acknowledge it or believe him when he tells the story. The magic works because many people were “disappeared” in South America, though rarely en masse. The magical works to enhance in some sense the realism. The ability of politically and economically powerful to disappear so many was (is) almost magical, particularly when their power also enabled them to rewrite history as if the disappeared never existed in the first place, and for those with firsthand knowledge to acquiesce to the re-written history. Perhaps, only magical realism can get at this particular political history or, if not the history, then certain truths within that history.

Other times, the magical overwhelms the realism. Perhaps the intended audience is more susceptible to magical thinking or is more imaginative than I am, but with magic, like, say, a name, too much of it can suffocate a story.

This is a political book. His targets are often capitalists and despots and career generals. He has good points. South America has had, if not its share, then more than enough dictators, corrupt leaders, and exploitation of the many by the few. Marquez explores this rich history and, I think, has something to say about it. Something important. Wars are fought for money, for power, and, importantly, sometimes only for the sake of warring because the combatants know little else. Opposition becomes opposition for the sake of opposition. The people fighting continue to fight because they are good at it and they are somebody while warring. End of war, end of stature. Marquez does address big topics and, more, does capture the tiresomeness of continual fighting, particularly to the commoners who have no say and generally suffer the most.

OneHundredYears2In addition to the big issues, the book also delves into one family’s life in one, small, backwater town, Macondo. I had trouble becoming engaged in the characters’ lives. Some were chained to trees for many years. Others lived in a single room for many years. Sure, they did not have pigs’ tails, but disbelief can only be suspended so far. I simply tired of the whole thing.

My complaint is not about characters who are not likeable, it is about characters to whom it is difficult to relate. They do not act believably. They do the impossible. Not always, but often enough that the story loses pull, my interest in the outcomes of their dilemmas flagged.

The same goes for the town. Most of the events were simply too outrageous to have much interest for me. The town felt more like a manufactured setting than a town. As a manufactured setting, it does have some value as allegorical/metaphorical device, but Marquez tried to have his allegory do too much. Or, perhaps, it was simply too much for me. That’s always possible.

I think this book is important. Perhaps not for what it is, but for what it has become. It has obviously influenced a number of other important writers and, for that reason alone, undoubtedly has a place in literary history. Whether it is great, I am undecided. I know I am very unlikely to ever re-read it. Of course, I am allergic to magical realism.

Having said that, I did enjoy Bulgakov’s THE MASTER AND MARGARITA with its own magic. I may have been more open to it because I had already fallen for Bulgakov and his WHITE GUARD. But too, Bulgakov’s magical masterpiece works in a way that ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE did not. Bulgakov’s magic is not simply a gee-whiz device, but truly serves to irradiate a dark and deep subject. Perhaps there is more to ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE, but I am unashamed to say I missed it.

I am glad I read it, but I did not enjoy it. Your result may vary. For those who have not read it yet, do not blame me if you choose to give it a try. I am with The Second Pass on this: Fire it from the canon.