2014 National Book Award Poetry longlist: Louise Glück, Faithful and Virtuous Night (2014)

September 13th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

First divesting ourselves of worldly goods, as St. Francis teaches,
in order that our souls not be distracted
by gain and loss, and in order also
that our bodies be free to move
easily at the mountain passes, we had then to discuss
whither or where we might travel, with the second question being
should we have a purpose, against which
many of us argued fiercely that such purpose
corresponded to worldly goods, meaning a limitation or constriction,
whereas others said it was by this word we were consecrated
pilgrims rather than wanderers:

– From “Parable,” p. 6 iPad iBooks e-edition

There is a silencing quality to night that dims the day’s bright nights and muffles its outlandish roars.  The night is for lovers, or for the inconsolable, or those feverish saints and melancholy sinners.  It is where we lose ourselves and find ourselves again.  In Louise Glück’s newest collection, Faithful and Virtuous Night, all of these nocturnal attributes and more are explored in wry, sometimes detached, poems that combine to form a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

In the opening poem, “Parable,” the narrator muses on the Franciscan call to “divest[ing] ourselves of worldly goods.”  As we meditate on this, she goes on, the “word” becomes “translated as a dream,” something desired and yet not quite obtainable, while through it all, the weather shifts, with snow (and its blanketing quality) and rain (with its purifying quality) washes over these erstwhile pilgrims, changing them, making for them a purpose they had sought after, albeit one they had not expected.

This mingling of the natural and the mental, of image and desire, continues in the next poem, an adventure, where the night takes on yet another quality, that of passions and of death:

I was, you will understand, entering the kingdom of death,
thought why this landscape was so conventional
I could not say.

– from “An Adventure,” (p. 7)

The visions of this poem, with flesh evaporating into mist, of objects fading into insubstantial shadows, are haunting, yet here, like in other poems in Faithful and Virtuous Night, it is a sense of things lurking on the edges of our personal horizons rather than anything that can be perceived directly.  Silence lies at the heart of Glück’s poems, and at the end of the eponymous “Faithful and Virtuous Night,” she lays out one of the principal themes of this collection:

I think here I will leave you.  It has come to seem
there is no perfect ending.
Indeed, there are infinite endings.
Or perhaps, once one begins,
there are only endings. (p. 16)

This theme of indefinite, perhaps infinite, endings to stories is played out over and over again in various iterations.  In one, it is likened to a religious ceremony in which the congregation’s standing about waiting is the entire point of the ceremony, that beholding is the key, not any of the ancillary activities surrounding this.  In another, through the guise of a writer whose many lauded novels were much alike each other, the complacency that surrounds disguised suffering is the key to understanding the reflection of nature in art, of suffering encapsulated in formalized artifice.  And so it goes until this chilling question is raised in “The Story of a Day”:

But if the essence of time is change,
how can anything become nothing?
This was the question I asked myself. (p. 54)

The overall effect of these images, carefully embedded throughout the collection, is to create a sense of space, where answers die and contemplation of inscrutable life begins.  Night is the perfect metaphor for this and Faithful and Virtuous Night shows Glück in full mastery of image and metaphor.  It certainly is a poetry well worth reading for any who have any love at all for the poetic genre.

2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction winner: Eimear McBride, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (2013 UK; 2014 US release)

September 12th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Picture how she comes.  Our Lady in white, when you’re not looking.  She beckons you to Christ.  Pray to be chosen.  To bear her secrets for the world.  A dying world.  Please don’t to me or catch her floating on the stairway.  Reaching out.  Howabout stigmata instead?  Worse though you’d never go to school again or look at my hands in case I see it.  The Holy Spirit’s in me.  Not a punishment.  It’s a gift.  No not like the violin.  Any eejit can do that.  I feel it aching in my palm but when will the blood burst?  Now please Jesus or not at all.  Lickety lips of the praying wouldn’t mind if I was one.  But they’d all like it for their children.  A visionary born from me?  You’ll only be able to tell the seasons by the trees Malachi prophesied or Colmcille.  And they say the last secret of Fatima is destruction of the church.  The Vatican won’t say either way because that’ll be the end of days.  Gulp this.  But we’ll know anyway from Medjugorje the day before.  Shiver I purple terror high in my throat.  The dead will knock your window.  Deadly bony spirit hands.  They’ll beg for you to save their souls.  Open the latch they cry.  You will not.  Can not.  You must turn from them.  Away.  Shut the curtains.  Light a candle and pray for your salvation while the apocalypse blows your door.  And if they plead they love you, so much the worse for their souls.  Those poor souls howling.  Sucked into the forever night.  Will you save us Mammy?  I’ll say easy children close your eyes for this world is coming to an end.  But Mammy it scares me.  Well better behave yourself then. (p. 24 iPad iBooks e-edition)

Some stories are not meant to be told in “easy” language.  Some tales deserve, no, need, a more “challenging” narrative structure in order to contain the necessary depth of character, plot, and theme.  In Eimear McBride’s debut novel, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, which recently won the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, her prose is not “easy,” it is very “challenging” indeed.  But what sort of challenges does it entail for the reader?

The basic contours of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing are relatively straightforward and familiar to readers:  a young Irish girl dealing with multiple family issues, ranging from her brother’s losing battle against brain cancer to her mother’s perhaps too-staunch Catholicism to her creepy uncle.  Yet what McBride does with this basic setup is what differentiates it from most contemporary Irish family fictions.  The nameless narrator’s use of “broken” grammar, where the comma disappears in favor of the full-stop, punctuates the fissures and fault lines in this narrative.

At first glance, paragraphs like the one quoted above might be difficult to parse.  But listen to the rhythms that develops within these staccato bursts.  “Open the latch they cry.  You will not.  Can not.”  In this comes a call and non-response, an urge and a resistance.  The narrator, addressing her now-dead brother throughout as “you,” she is constantly battling, fighting to establish some semblance of self amongst the tugs and pulls of others.  She wants to be good, she wants to be herself, but she is degraded by those around her.  This is what comes through in this carefully-crafted prose, where the images and sounds of anguished indecision are codified within this non-conventional prose style.

For some, style is an afterthought, a mere window dressing that could cover up somehow “the story.”  This is certainly far from the case here, as the style is integral to the unfolding story.  McBride’s narrator is a girl who has entered puberty and has suffered from an incestuous, sometimes non-consensual relationship with an uncle.  This affects her views of sex.  It becomes not an enjoyable act or a positive part of the girl’s self-identity, but instead a weapon, a means of self-annihilation through non-loving relationships that reinforce the sense of self-loathing rising within the girl’s narrative.  And through it all, the language of this suffering, this cry for release, is seen in passages such as this:

These journeys.  These train journeys they are always going on.  What I.  Am I doing?  Rolling over the country.  I’ll give up going soon.  Where?  Here or back or.  Enough.  Thankless pointless things I’ll learn.  To.  But.  Like it matters now who inspired who and who.  Fuck that I don’t.  Care.  I.  And your other one.  Stupid cow out running friend.  Drive my head round the bend with all the oh my life has troubles too.  But I better do, have got to.  Just stop see and cut the cord the thread with this life and I’ll be alright.  Give it up, uncle up, that’s the way.  No.  And it sounds easy.  It sounds not.  But what I want.  Not to be this.  Ripped.  Ah I see.  Not.  To.  Do.  This.  Any.  More.  What.  Nothing I don’t do a thing.

Few fucks here and then and who’s that to do with?  No one but myself.  See.  See.  In the future I’ll decide.  If I must go home.  For good.  If I.  But now.  But now.  I’m doing fine.  Like you.  I’m.  Doing.  Fine.  (p. 97)

There is a primeval quality to this, this fractured stream of consciousness.  It is not something we may readily wish to dip into to experience, but it is still there, seething.  McBride’s story works so well because of how easily she taps into this raging maelstrom, allowing readers who are willing enough to “lose” themselves in the narrative to experience the narrator’s emotional conflicts on a deeper, less verbalized level than what a more “traditional” narrative might have accomplished.  McBride breaks syntax and, by extension, word context in order to create new lexical shades of meanings.  In doing so, her work resembles in this particular fashion those of Joyce’s Ulysses and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and Absalom! Absalom!.  Like them, McBride’s story works not just only on the surface level of plot and character, but also on the level of word/signifer contextual relationships.  It may not always be “easy” to follow, but as far as it being a “challenge” for readers, it certainly does force readers to evaluate the story in fashions they might not have been prepared to do.  That the result is a moving, poignant tale of an identity being forged is a bonus that makes A Girl is a Half-formed Thing worthy of the awards that it has already won.

2014 Booker Prize finalist: Neel Mukherjee, The Lives of Others

September 8th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

He has begged all morning outside the landlord’s house for one cup of rice.  His three children haven’t eaten for five days.  Their last meal had been a handful of hay stolen from the landlord’s cowshed and boiled in the cloudy yellow water from the well.  Even the well is running dry.  For the past three years they have been eating once every five or six or seven days.  The last few times he had gone to beg had yielded nothing, except abuse and forcible ejection from the grounds of the landlord’s house.  In the beginning, when he had first started to beg for food, they shut and bolted all the doors and windows against him while he sat outside the house, for hours and hours, day rolling into evening into night, until they discovered his resilience and changed that tactic.  Today they had set their guards on him.  One of them had brought his stick down on Nitai’s back, his shoulders, his legs, while the other one had joked, ‘Where are you going to hit this dog?  He is nothing but bones, we don’t even have to hit him.  Blow on him and he’ll fall back.’ (pp. 1-2)

Neel Mukherjee’s second novel, the Booker-longlisted The Lives of Others, is not a typical family/state drama.  From its opening prologue, from whence the quote above comes, Mukherjee makes it quite clear that he is going to explore, sometimes in graphic, violent detail, the inequalities in mid-20th century Calcuttan/Kolkatan society.  It certainly is a bold choice, as the story gains much from this unflinching portrayal of the hypocrisies and sufferings of Bengalis in this region of India.

The Lives of Others (a title derived from an epigraph taken from James Salter’s Light Years) opens with an explicit depiction of suffering and casual cruelty, as a starving tenant farmer, Nitai, after being denied the food necessary to keep his family alive, goes home and decapitates his wife and son, strangles his daughters, before committing suicide by drinking pesticide.  Mukhejee displays the farmer’s human frailty in this last, violent act of desperation and it is that sense of gross injustice, of people starving and committing mercy murders, that carries over into the main narrative as a lingering ghost, reminding readers that behind the depictions of the various lives of the well-to-do Ghosh family there lurks a specter of famine and deprivation much worse than what these family members manage to do to one another.

However, this is not to downplay the intricate relationships that Mukherjee explores within the Ghosh family.  On the contrary, this fictitious family encapsulates well many of the divisions present in Indian (and in particular, Bengali) society in the first generation after independence.  While the character types might be of stock appearance (the self-made wealthy patriarch, the divisions among sons, the favored and ill-favored daughters, the black sheep revolutionary), he manages to enliven them with personalities that are vivid and which serve to draw the reader closer to the unfolding narrative.

The novel’s structure supports Mukherjee’s exploration of societal injustices.  In addition to traditional chapters detailing the lives of the Ghosh children living in their Kolkata compound, there are short commentaries, presented in a different font, that we later learn were composed by the rebellious son, Supratik, who has renounced his social station and has become a Maoist rebel.  Mukherjee utilizes these different narrative threads to great effect, as he shows through each Ghosh son and daughter the intricate web of responsibilities and privileges, of petty power struggles and denials of affection due to differences in appearance and social grace.  These characters, including the waspish Chhaya, whose stinging spiteful remarks serve as a goad to drive others away (or toward what she desires), drive the action of The Lives of Others and make for quick page turning.

The prose for the most part is striking for its simple yet vivid quality.  Mukherjee describes his characters and scenes in such a fashion that it is easy to imagine certain sights, sounds, and smells.  There is little wasted space; the descriptions are lashed to the plot so tightly that everything seems to be subordinate to outlining just what is happening to the Ghosh family during the time of famine and social upheaval in West Bengal.  This results in a novel that manages to create a series of contrasts between characters and their social counterparts without feeling either too spartan or too lush with extraneous detail.  In addition, these clashes are set up in such a fashion that Mukherjee is able to make several pointed comments on contemporary socio-political issues (mostly through Supratik’s changes in perspective during his years as a rebel) through the Ghosh family dynamics without reducing their conflicts to mere analogies for the greater conflict.

If there were a difficulty to point out, it would be a very minor one:  an Anglo-American reader might find herself needing to rely more on the helpful family chart at the beginning of the book and the glossary at the end, due to the different nature of Bengali familial relationships.  Yet this was no real hindrance to enjoying the novel, which might be one of the best Indian family/societal dramas that I’ve read in years.  The Lives of Others certainly is worthy of consideration for the Booker Prize and it wouldn’t surprise me one bit to see it make the shortlist later this week.

1965 Premio Alfaguara winner: Jesus Torbado, Las corrupciones

September 7th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

It is now a trite and often misleading thing to label an artist “the voice of a generation.”  Too frequently, this praise thrusts the artist and his/her work into a glaring spotlight that happens to accentuate any imperfections there might be in the work.  Yet sometimes, despite the ridiculousness of such encomiums, there are those works and those writers, even if it is only a singular work that does not affect subsequent generations as much, that do capture much of the essence of the espirit du temps in which the work was conceived.  For those born after the Spanish Civil War and who grew up in Franco’s Spain, the gradual liberalization of the 1960s was a memorable time, in some ways comparable to other 1960s movements yet with some key differences.  In the inaugural Premio Alfaguara, awarded in late 1965 for his debut novel Las corrupciones, Jesus Torbado eloquently tells a tripartite corruption of a seminarian, as he loses faith in God, others, and ultimately himself.

In telling José Antonio’s story, Torbado does not resort to tried and moldy-true moralistic panderings.  Instead, as the reader witnesses these changes in his life, we come to see that his experiences are typical, expressions of the Zeitgeist then in which the pillars of Spanish society, most notably the Church, have come under closer scrutiny for failing to provide comfort for the rising generation that knew of no other ruler but General Franco and no other faith but that of the conservative Church.  These “corruptions,” are in some sense ironic, in that pleasure and comfort is found beyond the abandonment of old principles and faith.  As José Antonio goes on his prodigal tour from the seminary to the wine bottles and women of Paris, Torbado provides great insight into José Antonio’s character and how his new experiences are a liberating one for him.

This story largely succeeds because Torbado’s prose is to the point and yet has a hidden grandness to it.  The characterizations are fleshed out very well and the changes in José Antonio’s life are plausible not just in detail and description, but also in how they are reflected in his own mental state.  Divided into three parts in order to accentuate the three main “corruptions,” Las corrupciones‘s detailed focus on each of these three (loss of faith in God, others, self) works because developments that occur in one part are manifested in a subsequent part, without there being a sense of abruptness or lack of transition.

Yet if there were a weakness to the novel, it might be that its themes, so fresh and vibrant in the 1960s, have been played out in the following half-century.  While Torbado does a good job in developing character and scene, both the character type and setting felt a bit dated, at least to this reader who wasn’t born until nearly a decade after the book was published.  This is not a criticism of the book as much as it is a passing commentary on how readers and their own life experiences can affect the enjoyment of a story.  Despite this sense that the story was a bit “historical” due to the lapse of time between publication and personal reading, Las corrupciones is still a very strong novel that was worthy of being the inaugural Premio Alfaguara winner.

1957 Premio Strega winner: Elsa Morante, L’isola di Arturo (Arturo’s Island, 1959 English translation)

September 1st, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Quite apart from endearments, I lived entirely without kisses and caresses, and out of pride, I had to approve of this.  But sometimes, especially in the evening, when I was alone in a room and started to miss my mother, mother came to mean precisely caresses.  I longed for her large, her holy body, for her small silken hands, for her breath.  In winter my bed was freezing cold, but to warm me there was only Immacolatella to sleep with, cuddled close.

As I didn’t believe in God or in religion, I didn’t even believe in a future life and in the spirits of the dead.  If I listened to reason, I knew that all that remained of my mother was shut underground in the cemetery.  But reason retreated before her, and without realizing it, I actually believed in heaven, because of her.  What else was that kind of Oriental tent floating on air between the sky and the earth, where she dwelled alone, idly contemplating the sky with upturned eyes like one transfigured?  There, every time I thought of her, my mother came quite naturally to mind.  Later, the day came when I no longer looked for her; she had vanished.  Someone had folded up the rich Oriental tent and taken it away. (p. 41)

Elsa Morante’s 1957 Premio Strega-winning novel, L’isola di Arturo (released in English in 1959 as Arturo’s Island, translated by Isabel Quigly), differs in many regards from her 1974 opus, History, which I reviewed earlier today.  It is a tauter, less sprawling novel, but this relatively slightness in page numbers does not mean that it is a lighter or less substantial novel.  It is a story of a feral youth, left to fend for himself on an island in the Bay of Naples that housed criminals in its old castle complex while his father, a prison official, spent ten months of the year away.  It’s an interesting take on the nurture vs. nature argument, but it is also much more than just simply a tale of an abandoned youth raised without any women in his life.

Arturo’s Island is set sometime during the mid-20th century.  Arturo, the first-person narrator, is a young teen who lost his mother when she died giving birth to him.  His father largely abandoned him to the all-male island staff, only seeing him in brief spells.  These meetings, which fill Arturo with a mixture of hope and dread, typically ended with another abrupt departure, with little sentimentality getting in the way of his father.  Then one day, as Arturo is nearing sixteen, his father brings a girl scarcely older than him to the island, declaring that she, Nunziata, is his new wife.  This event, taking place roughly a quarter into the novel, shifts the focus away from Arturo’s developing personality (in particular the giant holes in his life caused by the absence of women) toward a more typical Oedipus father/lover/son triangle.

This shift, while understandable, does throw Arturo’s narrative out of kilter for several pages, as it takes time for the reader to reconcile the rather naïve Arturo’s worldviews with the more lust-centered youth of the middle sections.  However, Morante does largely manage to integrate this new development and its attendant action (attempted seduction, regretful rejection, proxy seduction to make a larger point) does serve to reinforce Morante’s earlier arguments regarding the deleterious effect Arturo’s neglected upbringing has had on his personality and his ability to relate to women.

But it is in the final sections where the plot turns in a surprising and yet fitting fashion.  Arturo witnesses a clandestine meeting, one that reveals to him for once and for all that things he had felt he had in common with someone close to him were in fact yet another level of subterfuge, one that was designed to keep Arturo in the dark.  This event encapsulates many of the conflicted emotions and bitter cynicism that Arturo had developed and it causes the novel to end on a rather dark yet not completely hopeless concluding note.

Although the paragraphs above might seem to give away much of the novel’s plot, there are many levels to Arturo’s Island for readers to enjoy.  Morante’s prose is wonderful here (I read it first in Italian, but Quigly’s translation captures much of the original’s spirit), as Arturo’s personality is revealed through his introspective, sometimes self-damning monologues.  In the passage quoted above, his conflicted emotions are revealed with such a clarity as to make subsequent passages all the more revealing.  The plotting is well-done, as the love triangle (complicated by the birth of Arturo’s half-brother) develops at a steady pace, never feeling extraneous or tedious.  The themes are also well-developed, especially Morante’s exploration of how nurture and nature both might come to shape a person’s world-views, especially male attitudes toward women.  It is not a perfect novel, as sometimes these themes are not as subtle as they could have been, but on the whole, Arturo’s Island was a deep yet very enjoyable read.

Elsa Morante, La Storia (1974; translated as History in 1977)

September 1st, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

It is known that such a feeling gnaws at its victims with the ferocity of a tireless rodent, and often compensates them with dreams.  Mussolini and Hitler, in their way, were two dreamers; but here is where their inherent difference lies.  The dream-vision of the Italian Duce (corresponding to his physical desire for life) was a histrionic festival, where among banners and triumphs, he, a scheming vassal, would play the part of certain beatified ancient vassals (Caesars, Augustuses, and so on…) before a living crowd humbled to the rank of puppets.  Whereas the other (tainted by a monotonous, vicious necrophilia and horrid terrors) was the half-conscious minion of a still formless dream.  In it, every living creature (including himself) was the object of torment, to be degraded even to putrefaction.  And at the end – in the Grand Finale – all the peoples of the earth (including the Germans) would rot in unseemly piles of corpses.

We know that our dream factory often has its foundations in debris of our waking hours or our past.  But in the case of Mussolini, the product was fairly obvious in its superficiality; whereas in the case of Hitler, it was a teeming of infections, clustered around who knows what roots of his disturbed memory.  Searching his biography, that of an envious little philistine, one could unearth some of these roots without much difficulty…But this is enough for now.  Perhaps the Fascist Mussolini didn’t realize at the time of the Ethiopian venture, supported by Hitler the Nazi (and then followed immediately by another common venture in Spain), that he had irrevocably yoked his own carnival chariot to the other’s funeral hearse.  One of the first effects of his servitude was that the national slogan, Romanity, of his own coinage, had to be replaced with a foreign one, of another’s coinage:  race.  And so it was that in the first months of 1938, in Italy too, the newspapers, the local clubs, the radio, began the preparatory campaign against the Jews. (pp. 39-40)

La Storia, the original Italian title for Elsa Morante’s 1974 work, can mean two things.  It can be “The Story,” the singular narration of a tale, or it can be “The History,” which in English connotes something different, something supposedly “more true” than just mere story.  Regrettably, this ambiguity is lost in English translation, yet within this “history” of Rome during the 1940s is buried the “story” of a woman, Ida, and her two sons, Nino and Useppe.

History is a sprawling novel, covering largely the 1941-1947 wartime and immediate post-war years in Rome.  Morante opens each year section with a chronology of that particular year’s notable events.  The litany of death and suffering, of hatreds acted out and little moments of generosity snuffed out, is, as she wrote in the preface to the 1977 Franklin Library “First Edition,” ‘A scandal that has lasted for ten thousand years.’  This “scandal” is key to understanding the novel and how expertly Morante weaves in the universal with the tragic family history that forms the core of this novel.

Ida, a widowed teacher who is left to care for her two young sons, including one (Useppe) who suffers from epilepsy.  Soon we learn that Useppe is the product of rape and that it was a German soldier who performed the rape.  Through much of the novel, Ida struggles to deal with the consequences of these two violent acts, the death of her husband and her continual reminder of her rape when she cares for her son.  Morante presents Ida’s struggles with some sympathy, but her focus is more on the symbolic connections between Ida and her sons’ lives and Italy’s socio-political condition during these years.

As seen in the passage quoted above, Morante often utilizes vivid, dreamlike images to establish atmosphere.  The Italy that Ida experiences is one that is starting to awake from a terrible, horrific dream of violence and hatred spawned by Mussolini’s shackling his Fascist wagon to the back of Hitler’s crazy train.  Throughout the novel, death and madness lurk behind a lot of the scenes, including Useppe’s struggles to survive his bouts of grand mal seizures.  As the war progresses and Mussolini’s government collapses in 1943, the privations Ida and others suffer grows.  We are witnesses to their search for shelter after a bombing, their near-continual hunger and the changes this causes in their relations with others and the world.  It is a somber tale, yet it is effective because of how integrated it is with the other “scandals” of the war.  Tens of thousands of years later, after all, we humans still try to hope against hope, even as we repeat all of our old mistakes of avarice and distrust.

Morante’s story, however, falters a bit toward the end, as we shift away from Ida and more toward her two sons and another character, who like Ida, managed to hide his Jewish ancestry during the last years of German occupation of Rome.  While Morante tries to explore the effects of racism through these new PoVs, there isn’t as strong of a connection between the personal and the historical as there was with Ida’s struggles.  Ultimately, however, History manages to regain much of its lost momentum and while the conclusion is far from what one would call “happy,” it is still a profound one that leaves the reader pondering this momentary wake in the crashing historical wave.

Ludmila Ulitskaya, Daniel Stein, Interpreter (2006; English translation 2011)

September 1st, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

4.  January 1946, Wroclaw 


Dear Avigdor,

Did you know I managed to find Dieter back in August last year?  He is alive, but stuck in a monastery!  When I heard he had become a monk I could not believe it.  We were in Akiva together, we were Zionists, we were going to go to Israel, and suddenly this!  A monk!  After the war there are not that many of us still around.  He is one of the lucky few, and all just to become a monk?  When someone said he was in Kraków I went straight there.  I was sure, and I still haven’t changed my mind completely, he must have been tricked.  To tell the truth, I took a pistol along just in case.  I captured a good Walther a while back. (p. 36)

Russian writer Ludmila Ulitskaya’s 2006 novel, translated ably by Arch Tait in 2011 as Daniel Stein, Interpreter, is not a true novel in the sense of a unified narrative.  Instead, it is an epistolary narrative, told through dozens of real and fictitious letters that narrate the life and beliefs of an extraordinary man, Oswald Rufeisen, the model for the titular Daniel Stein.  In these various letters, excerpts of speeches and even brochures, the broad parameters of his life and his conversion from Judaism to becoming a controversial Barefoot Carmelite monk living in Israel after the Holocaust are established.  It is a challenging work, one that can excite and frustrate even the most curious and cautious readers.

Daniel Stein, Interpreter is divided into five parts, yet these are not as much chronological divisions as they are thematic ones.  In them, real and fictitious characters based on actual people narrate in their letters to others (which in turn engender other conversations with still other readers, until each section concludes with a letter written by the author herself) their experiences in the past war, the Holocaust, their issues and crises of faith, and, sometimes in passing, their memories of this Jewish boy, Dieter/Daniel, who became a monk and who tried to re-create the Jewish Christianity of St. James of Jerusalem.  It is a fascinating tale, but one that requires quite a bit of parsing as to determine what is being said and what is being withheld.

Daniel’s character is one of the few things that are established solidly.  He is a smart, sensitive soul, yet one who manages to act as a mediator between intransigent groups.  He manages to survive the Holocaust by convincing the local Gestapo leaders that he is a Pole who is fluent in German and Yiddish and he uses this position of trust to shield over 300 refugees who have fled from their local ghetto to the surrounding forest, where they somehow manage to survive.  This ability to communicate across linguistic, cultural, and religious divides serves him well later in life, as he tries to reconcile the various branches of Christianity with Judaic practices.  For this, he becomes a thorn in the side of both the State of Israel, who granted him residency but refused to recognize him as a Jew, and the Catholic Church, whose leadership questioned in the 1980s if this monk preaching a return to Jewish Christianity should be muzzled.  Daniel’s efforts, quixotic as they may seem, are shown to have had a tremendous influence on the lives of several, including those who only came to know of him through the written and oral testimonies of others.

However, the other narrative threads, especially those related to how people choose their faiths or non-beliefs in moments of crisis, are more difficult to follow, as they are often not developed further.  There were several, at least three, sub-narratives that in their own right could have made for intriguing, if not outstanding, novels.  Yet here there are so many disparate elements suborned into the greater narrative of one man’s transforming faith and ability to interpret the various languages of desire spoken by his congregants.  It would have been nice to have seen more of this, as there are spaces of several letters where Daniel largely disappears into the background without much in the way of payoff later.

Yet despite these flaws, Daniel Stein, Interpreter is a powerfully constructed epistolary novel that largely works.  Although some character/letter sets are more poignant than others, for the majority of them, the effects that this largely historical convert/monk had on their lives are palpable.  The result is a story that promises to reveal new facets upon a re-read and is one well-worth visiting regardless of one’s creed or belief system.

Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist (2014)

August 27th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

In many ways, likability is a very elaborate lie, a performance, a code of conduct dictating the proper way to be.  Characters who don’t follow this code become unlikeable.  Critics who criticize a character’s unlikeability cannot necessarily be faulted.  They are merely expressing a wider cultural malaise with all things unpleasant, all things that dare to breach the norm of social acceptability.

Why is likability even a question?  Why are we so concerned with whether, in fact or fiction, someone is likable?  Unlikable is a fluid designation that can be applied to any character who doesn’t behave in a way the reader finds palatable.  Lionel Shriver notes, in an essay for the Financial Times, that “this ‘liking’ business has two components:  moral approval and affection.”  We need characters to be lovable while they do right. (“Not Here to Make Friends,” p. 70, iPad iBooks e-edition)

I have been following Roxane Gay on Twitter ever since I read and reviewed her debut novel, An Untamed State, back in June.  It is a different experience witnessing a writer and cultural critic holding forth on a variety of issues “in real time” before sitting down and reading her debut collection of thirty-eight essays, Bad Feminist.  Many of the issues raised in her essays I first experienced in truncated form on Twitter, but in both media, what immediately becomes apparent is Gay’s wit and honesty.

The essays that appear in Bad Feminist are culled from columns that have appeared in the past few years at places such as The Rumpus, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Salon, among others.  Grouped into five categories (“Me,” “Gender & Sexuality,” “Race & Entertainment,” “Politics, Gender & Race,” and “Back to Me”), Bad Feminist‘s essays explore a variety of topics, ranging from the personal to cultural flash points such as the depiction of blacks in American cinema (“Surviving Django” and “Beyond the Struggle Narrative”).  In these essays, Gay is not a polished, aloof critic.  Instead, she allows her virtues and flaws to be on full display, showing an individual who is deeply engaged with her subject matter, sometimes to the point of self-conscious subjectivity.  This, however, is not a flaw but a feature in her essays, one that makes Bad Feminist an absorbing read.

One shining example can be found in “What We Hunger For.”  Starting as an admission that she cannot critique The Hunger Games effectively due to her fannish attachment to it, Gay proceeds to write a passionate essay that touches upon a traumatic time in her life (a gang rape in middle school) before proceeding to tie this in to the question of “darkness” in contemporary YA fiction:

In June 2011, Meghan Cox wrote, in the Wall Street Journal, about how Young Adult fiction has taken too dark a turn, has unnecessarily exposed young readers to complex, difficult situations before they are mature enough to make sense of those situations.  She wrote,

If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is.  There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader – or one who seeks out depravity – will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds. 

She is correct in noting that there is darkness in some Young Adult fiction, but she largely ignores the diversity of the genre and the countless titles that aren’t grounded in damage, brutality, or loss.  More troubling, though, is the suggestion that somehow reality should be sanitized for teen readers. (p. 115)

The remainder of “What We Hunger For” discusses this desire for sanitizing YA literature, making it somehow “safer” for readers and how it is a misleading goal in light of those young readers, much more than what one might presume, who find solace and strength in these accounts of others battling difficulties and horrendous moments in order to come out on the other side.  Gay argues her point persuasively, using personal experience to flesh out her points without ever denigrating those who believe otherwise.  This ties in directly to the next essay, “The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion,” in which Gay explores her unease about the notions that lie behind the usage of the label “Trigger Warning.”  She is compassionate toward those who have suffered traumatic flashbacks, but she nonetheless sees an issue of not feeling protected, not feeling safe, when such warnings are issued.  It is a view with which I have a deep sympathy for, as what she says on it jibes with my experiences:

This is the truth of my trouble with trigger warnings:  there is nothing words on the screen can do that has not already been done.  A visceral reaction to a trigger is nothing compared to the actual experience that created the trigger.

I don’t know how to see beyond this belief to truly get why trigger warnings are necessary.  When I see trigger warnings, I don’t feel safe.  I don’t feel protected.  Instead, I am surprised there are still people who believe in safety and protection despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. (p. 122)

An interesting feature of Gay’s essays is that while she sets up interesting discussion matters, she rarely, if ever, concludes them with strong, assertive stances.  Instead, these pieces feel like conversation starters, presenting a topic through a deeply personal lens (albeit one that is informed with critical theory as well as knowledge of pop kitsch), but leaving enough “space” for the reader to leave his or her comment as an appendix.  Several times, I felt like I wanted to write a response, to ask a question or inquire about the source material, and this sucked me further into Gay’s essays than if they had been polished, academic affairs.  Their structure betrays their original purpose as columns, many of which would have been online and have featured a Comments section.  Some might not like this, but for myself, this works wonderfully because it allows the reader space to draw her own conclusions about the topics raised.

The breezy nature of these essays might not appeal to everyone, but for the most part, Gay displays a sharp, introspective mind that is constantly asking questions about the world and its peoples.  The topics are engaging and while there might be a perceived dearth of firm conclusions, this actually ties into her opening and concluding sections, in which Gay explains why she has labeled herself as a “bad feminist.”  If Montaigne’s Essais were the foundation for the essay genre, Bad Feminist is an excellent example of the early 21st permutation of that form.

Lily King, Euphoria (2014)

August 25th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

She rolled a pencil beneath her palm on the table and then she looked up at me.  ‘Helen and I were lovers,’ she said.

‘Ah.’  This explained a few things.

She laughed at my ‘ah’ and told me they had met during Nell’s first anthropology class with Boas.  Helen, a decade older, was his graduate assistant.  Their connection was instant and though Helen was married with a house in White Plains, she stayed in the city many nights a week.  She had encouraged Nell to go and study the Kirakira, but wrote her angry letters accusing Nell of abandoning her.  They she surprised her by meeting the boat in Marseille with the news that she had left her husband.

‘But you had met Fen.’

‘I had met Men.  And it was awful.  Before Helen, I would have said that the desire to possess others is more male than female in our culture, but I think temperament comes into it.’  She tapped the pencil on our Grid.

‘Was she bread to you?’

She shook her head slowly.  ‘People are always wine to me, never bread.’

‘Maybe that’s why you don’t want to possess them.’ (pp. 159-160, iPad iBooks e-edition)

When I began classes at the University of Tennessee in the early 1990s, I had the vague notion that I might complete a minor in Anthropology.  Although I lacked a couple of classes of completing that by the time I graduated in 1996, I did enjoy the three classes that I did take in the field, especially the Cultural Anthropology class.  Of particular interest to me as a cultural historian trainee was the value and perils of ethnologies, or the studies of particular cultural groups.  One name that was repeatedly brought up was Margaret Mead and her pioneering work in New Guinea.  Even then, she was a very controversial character.  Her monographs on sexuality in New Guinea caused a firestorm of debate in early 20th century Anglo-American culture, where birth control could not be sent in the mail and the Comstock Laws were in full effect.  What is known of her own life, her loves and passions, were also equally the stuff of legend and disdain, even into the present time.

In her first historical novel, acclaimed novelist Lily King takes a pivotal time in Mead’s personal and professional lives, an expedition in early 1930s New Guinea with her second and future third husbands, Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson (Fen and Bankson in the novel), and she fictionalizes accounts of that fateful expedition in order to highlight not just the tensions between the characters, but also between the three’s Western perspectives and the cultural practices of the villagers they have been observing.  Mead/Nell’s interactions are the driving force of King’s narrative and the convoluted dynamics of their relationships makes for an intriguing, sometimes fascinating read, even for those who are somewhat familiar with Mead’s personal life.

Euphoria is told via Bankson’s PoV, punctuated with entries from Nell’s journals.  It is an effective storytelling mode, as it allows for a contrast of the deeply personal with the more antiseptic, clinical approach associated with observation journals.  As the story shifts between these two poles, the reader manages to get a clearer impression of what is truly transpiring than if either one of the two narrative modes had dominated.  Yet there are times where there is a bit of a bleed-over, as Bankson’s account of Nell’s initial pregnancy during the expedition takes on an odd mixture of theoretical views of sex with personal disappointment of the lack of fruitfulness in his own relations with her:

I walked down the men’s road.  A cluster of pigs were muscling each other for a scrap of food beneath one of the houses and making a racket.  There was very little light in the sky, but whether it was sunrise or dusk, I wasn’t sure anymore.  I had been spun around by them.  I was seven hours away from my work, and had been for who knew how many days.  Nell was pregnant.  She and Fen had made a baby.  When I was with them it was easy to convince myself that she hadn’t fully made her choice yet.  She played her part in that.  Her eyes burned into mine when I had an idea she liked.  She followed every word I said; she referred back.  When I had written down Martin’s name on the graph she’d passed her finger over the letters.  I felt in some ways we’d had some sort of sex, sex of the mind, sex of ideas, sex of words, hundreds and thousands of words, while Fen slept or shat or disappeared.  But his kind of sex with her produced a baby.  Mine was useless. (p. 161)

The plot depends more upon character interactions than upon external events to drive the narrative.  The tension between the three anthropologists simmers before threatening to explode, making for a quick read for the majority of the time.  Yet there is more than just character tension developing within the narrative.  Nell’s journals, focused more on the people through which the three move, refers back to the historical Mead’s accounts of her time in New Guinea, replete with the then-shocking revelations about sexual relations and family-kinship connections.  Those brief entries serve as a counterpoint to Bankson’s narrative, creating a multi-layered tale that works equally as a fictionalization of a key moment in a historical figure’s life and as a social commentary on how Mead’s views themselves perhaps have been superseded by subsequent ethnological research.  Although there are a few places where Euphoria perhaps plays up the romantic tensions a bit too much, weakening the overall narrative in the process, on the whole it is a very solid effort, one that will encourage its readers to learn just a little bit more about the extraordinary anthropologist who inspired it.

2014 Booker Prize longlist: Niall Williams, History of the Rain

August 24th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

I know what that’s like too, when the last thing you feel is the pinch in your arm and this might hurt just a little and you’re off into the wherever depending on the length and breadth of your imagination.  My father has a whole section of his library just for this.  Here’s Thomas Traherne (1637-74), poet, mystic, entering Paradise (Book 1,569, The Faber Book of Utopias, John Carey, Faber & Faber, London):  “The corn was orient and immortal wheat which never should be reaped nor was ever sown…the dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold.  The Gates were at first the end of the world.  The green trees, when I saw them first through the gates, transported and ravished me… The men!  O what venerable and reverend creatures did the aged seem!  Immortal Cherubims!  And the young men glittering and sparkling angels; and maids, strange and seraphic pieces of life and beauty!  Boys and girls tumbling in the street and playing were moving jewels.’

Paradise has actual gates? (pp. 31-32)

Forget Marx’s observation that religion was the opiate of the masses.  For bibliophiles, the act of reading serves as a pallative, giving voice to our pains and providing, sometimes, a numbing agent for those pinpricks of the soul.  In Niall Williams’ 2014 Man Booker Prize-longlisted novel, History of the Rain, he explores the ways in which literature, both composed and collected, can communicate those awful little family secrets that mere conversations fail to do.  It is an interesting approach to the staid family history genre, albeit one that depends in part upon the reader’s familiarity with the books referenced.

Nineteen-year-old Ruthie Swain is an invalid, confined now to her family’s County Clare home, replete with thatched roof and lack of certain modern amenities.  Desperate to understand her family’s history, especially that of her late father, a poet, Ruthie turns to his vast library of books in a search to understand not just the man her father was, but just how these thousands of volumes shaped him.  As she reads and narrates her thoughts on her family and their literary influences, the diary-like tone of certain passages gives way to amusing anecdotes grounded in the literature she is perusing:

That’s how I see it anyway.  That’s how I see it when I ask Mam ‘How did you first meet Dad?’ and each time she tells me the story of Not Meeting, of Passing by, and how it seems to me God was giving them every chance not to meet, and the singular nature of their characters will mean their stories will run parallel and never do a Flannery O’Connor.  Never converge. (p. 180)

Over the course of a few hundred pages, Ruthie discusses the known facts of her parents’ lives, of her father’s existence as a failed poet and even worse farmer; of her mother’s exasperation in dealing with him; of the impossibly high standards that her father, Virgil, holds himself to; of how her twin brother Aeney drowns and how that affected her father and his attempts to write publishable poetry.  But most importantly, there is within the family notes and the scribbled margins of her father’s books a reference to a poem, “History of the Rain,” that might hold clues to understanding just how Ruthie’s father came to be the enigma that he was for her.

Williams rarely tells the Swain family’s history in linear fashion.  Instead, he favors a more elliptical approach, in which the volumes that Ruthie mentions contains clues to not just what happened in her parents’ lives and why they were reluctant to share those moments with her, but also why her father tried his level best to become a poet.  This quest to understand familial past is not original, far from it, but Williams’ use of literary references to a wide range of authors spanning the globe imbues the narrative with a secondary layer that enlivens it, making it feel fresher for its more universal approach to discussing the personal.

However, there are times where the dependence upon the literary perhaps goes too deep into the well.  Ruthie’s copious references to literary works at times felt a bit too much, as though she were not a fully-fleshed human but instead a literary quote generator that could spout a phrase suitable for any and all emotional moods.  However, these moments thankfully are few in number and on the whole, Williams manages to integrate well the personal family history narrative with the use of literary references as a means of exploring the human condition.  As the narrative unfolds, Ruthie arrives at the conclusion that there is a price to becoming different from others, a toll exacted for those poetic souls who seek to go so deep into this earth that they are transformed by this search for understanding.  It is perhaps a little trite, but in light of the journey that Ruthie has narrated, it is a fitting one.  History of the Rain works best if viewed as a bibliophile’s relation of human thought to the real world, connecting our sorrows with those narrated by others.  It may not be a perfect novel, but it is a very human tale, one that I enjoyed reading.