“A Whole World Drowned in Fat”: Émile Zola’s The Belly of Paris

A long time ago now, fifteen years anyway, I went through a bit of a Zola phase. I remember reading Nana and L’assomoir and my favourite, Au Bonheur des Dames. (Although my very favourite Zola is Thérèse Raquin, which isn’t part of the big Rougnon-Macquart cycle, and as dark as anything written by Simenon or Jim Thomson.) I’ve always wanted to return to Zola, and in the meantime a number of his books have found their way to my shelves. So when my friend Keith (a specialist in modern French art and culture) and I started talking about reading something together, Zola seemed a natural fit. We settled on The Belly of Paris (1873) the third in the cycle, which I read in a recent (2007) and, it seems to me, admirable translation by Brian Nelson.

If you haven’t already done so, you should read Keith’s post. Not only is it excellent, but it also offers a concise summary of the novel’s plot, freeing me to be more impressionistic in my comments.

Like most readers of this novel, I was most taken by its extraordinary descriptions. In fact, this tendency seemed even more excessive than in the other, later works I’d read. Tom wrote a few years ago that Belly is really just an excuse for extended descriptions, and that seems exactly right. The plot isn’t up to much; it’s not suspenseful; there’s a good joke at the end, admittedly, but there’s not much reason to read the book just for what happens.

It’s when nothing is happening, and the narrator is simply describing stuff, food mostly, or things that could become food, the whole Leviathan that makes up the food market of Les Halles, that the novel dazzles.

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Here, for example, a character dozes at his poultry and game stall:

Above his head, fat geese were hanging from spiked bars, the hooks sunk into bleeding wounds in their long, stiff necks, while their huge bellies, reddish beneath a fine down, ballooned out obscenely between their linen-white tails and wings. Also hanging from the bar were grey rabbits, their legs parted as though in readiness for some gigantic leap, their ears flying flat, with a tuft of white tail, and their heads, with sharp teeth and dim eyes, grinning with the grin of death. On the counter plucked chickens displayed their fleshy breasts, stretched taut on the spit; pigeons, packed tightly together on wicker trays, seemed to have the soft skin of newborn babies; ducks, with rougher skin, splayed out their webbed feet; and three magnificent turkeys, shadowed with blue like a clean-shaven face, their throats sewn up, slept on their backs in the broad black fans of their tails. On plates close by were giblets, livers, gizzards, necks, feet, and wings; while in an oval dish was a skinned and cleaned-out rabbit, its four legs wide apart, its head bespattered with blood and its belly slit to reveal its kidneys; a trickle of blood, running down to its tail, had fallen drop by drop, staining the white dish. Marjolin [the man at the stall] had not even bothered to wipe the carving board, next to which the rabbit’s paws were still lying. His eyes were half closed, and he was surrounded, on the three shelves at the back of the stall, by further piles of dead birds, birds in paper wrappers like bouquets, such a regular pattern of folded legs and rounded breasts that they confused the eye. Amid all this food, with his large frame, his cheeks and hands and powerful neck seemed as soft as the flesh of the turkeys and as plump as the breasts of the geese.

Now, this might not be an appetizing passage (not like the one with the fruit stand Keith quotes in his post) but it’s pretty amazing. There’s just so much muchness here, especially the brute facticity/physicality of the animals’ bodies. Although I introduced the quote by referring to a character’s action (that is, his sleeping), most of the passage has nothing to do with human qualities. Marjolin’s half-consciousness here moves him closer to the inanimacy of the corpses that engulf him. Indeed, the final sentence compares him to those foodstuffs (his body as soft as the flesh of the turkeys, as plump as the breasts of the geese), just as the descriptions of the slaughtered animals reference human physiognomy (the pigeons that have the “soft skin of newborn babies” or the turkeys that are “blue like a clean-shaven face”). The boundary between the human and the non-human—those that eat and those that are eaten—is blurred.
But the main point of the passage isn’t to proffer that equivocation. Instead, it’s to gape at the commodities on display. (And display, even more than their being for sale, is what matters.) The “regular pattern” of the bodies is so dazzling that it “confuses the eye.” You’re supposed to look at the overwhelming displays of Les Halles, but the more you look, the more confused you get. I find these scenes hard to envision, and also hard to read. The sentences cascade onward, clause after clause, adjective after adjective. I’m tempted to compare these passages to an aria in an opera: a place to pause, to revel in beauty, to ignore the on-rushing, self-consuming demands of plot, except that arias are more legible than Zolan description.

I can’t resist quoting one more moment of description. This time of a person, though here too food is omnipresent. Florent, who passes for the novel’s protagonist, is looking at his sister-in-law, Lisa, the proprietor of a charcuterie. What begins ordinarily enough disintegrates into a confused, phantasmagoric, even repellent vision:

She looked beautifully fresh that afternoon. The whiteness of all the dishes heightened the whiteness of her apron and sleeves, and set off her plump neck and rosy cheeks, which had the same soft tones as the hams and the same transparent pallor as the fats. As Florent continued to gaze at her he began to feel intimidated, disturbed by the dignity of her carriage; and instead of openly looking at her he glanced furtively in the mirrors around the shop which reflected her from the back, the front, and the side; and the mirror on the ceiling reflected the top of her head, with its tightly drawn bun and the little bands over her temples. The shop seemed to fill with a crowd of Lisas, showing off their broad shoulders, powerful arms, and large breasts so smooth and passionless that they aroused no greater desire than the sight of a belly would. At last Florent’s gaze came to rest on a particularly pleasing side view of Lisa which appeared in a mirror between two sides of pork. All down the marble of the walls, and all down the mirrors, sides of pork and strips of larding at hung from hooks; and Lisa, with her thick neck, rounded hips, and swelling bosom, looked like the queen of all this dangling fat and meat.

The passage is about objectification, but it’s not sexual, unless meat turns you on. (That explains what could otherwise be puzzling—the narrator’s claim that bellies aren’t enticing.) The detail that most gets me here, though, more than the vision of Lisa as Queen of the Fats, more than the disorienting crowd of Lisas, their reflections composed of so many chopped-up body parts, is the passing reference to a mirror on the ceiling. On the ceiling! That place must be creepy as hell to shop in!

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Zola is famously a naturalist and naturalism famously says that insides (people’s character, desires, psychology, etc) are determined by outsides (environment, surroundings, genes/heredity, etc). So the places people inhabit, the trades they practice, the atmosphere they breathe are the engines of meaning. This tactility has practical consequences. From reading Belly you can learn a lot about how to make sausages and the like—this novel exemplifies that pleasure of realist fiction that Philip Roth talked about wanting to bring into those scenes of the glove factory in American Pastoral.

Zola even solves the “info dump” problem by transferring the tendency on to his characters, as in a scene in which Marjolin, the young man last seen sleeping in his stall, sublimates his sexual attraction to Lisa, Queen of the Fats, by “rapidly explaining the business of slaughtering,” forcing her “to feel the feathers lying in heaps on the blocks” (adding the exact price the highest quality feathers receive after being sorted and weighed), urging her “to sink her arms into the big baskets of down,” and making her stoop over “the drain which carries everything away” (there’s so much blood cleaners have to come every two hours to scrub the place down). “There was no end to the information he gave,” the narrator deadpans. Indeed. It’s a neat trick, to legitimate your own obsession by giving it to another: a meta-info-dump. It’s as though Zola is taking the narrate/describe distinction and reversing it. Here narration is the digression from description rather than the other way round.

And yet description is certainly doing something in the novel. It is there both for its own sake—to be admired, reveled in, exclaimed at (the aria idea again)—and to make a point. Reading the novel I wasn’t really sure what the point was, couldn’t figure out how to put it in words, anyway. Then I read Keith’s observation about how little eating there is in the book. No feasts, that’s for sure. The pleasures of bourgeois life—if they are pleasures: mostly Zola presents them as seductions that are ultimately gross, in both the historical and current sense: they are coarse, and fat, and yucky; has any novel ever had so much grease in it?—are connected to plenitude, no question, but having so much to eat so ready to hand doesn’t seem to make anyone happy, the way even the simplest meals can in Dickens, say.

Food in this novel is primarily for smelling and, especially, for seeing, but only secondarily for eating. Which leads Keith to argue, brilliantly, that the book uses food as a cover for its real interest in order. The petit bourgeois denizens of Les Halles value order above all (above liberty, equality, and fraternity, that’s for sure; there’s little in the way of social justice in the novel). And Zola is skeptical of this ordering mania, finding it conservative, even deadening, though he also has no time for what passes in the novel for political radicals. Florent’s arrest in the protests against Louis-Napoleon in 1851—the act that leads him to be imprisoned in a penal colony from which he returns, more than half dead, on the novel’s first page—comes about from bad luck and mistaken identity instead of anything he does (the police find him covered in the blood of a woman who was shot next to him and mistake this happenstance as evidence of murderous violence). And the would-be radicals Florent spends his evenings with are so hapless (the ones who aren’t on the take, that is) they make the anarchists of Conrad’s The Secret Agent look organized.

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So where are the novels sympathies? Only in description, I would argue. But description is a kind of ordering. At least, I think it is. Maybe when it becomes the main event it starts to become disorderly? It certainly disorders plot.

Perhaps an answer can be found in the character of Madame François, the only wholeheartedly sympathetic person in the book, in fact the only person with a heart. (In the book’s fantastic opening pages—a hypnotic description of the convoys of wagons, laden with produce, that slide silently, through the night towards the markets in Paris—Madame François rescues the starving Florent, who has passed out on his way back to the capital; yet even her affection is brusque: she throws him on her cart with the vegetables.) Three quarters of the way through the book, Florent and his artist friend, Claude Lantier, apparently modeled on Zola’s boyhood friend Cézanne, join the old lady for the day at her farm near Nanterre.

Together the men help Madame François with the manuring, Lantier reflecting with satisfaction that “vegetable peelings, the mud of Les Halles, the refuse that had fallen from that giant table” would nourish new vegetables “Paris,” he reflects, “made everything rot and returned everything to the earth, which never wearied of repairing the ravages of death.”

Florent is more pessimistic: “Les Halles now seemed to him like a he ossuary, a place of death, littered with the remains of things that had once been alive, a charnel house reeking with foul smells and putrefaction.”

The idyll at Madame François’s offers the most conventionally uplifting and neat description. Her garden offers “a pleasant atmosphere of drowsiness and fertility,” in which lettuces, onions, leeks, and celery are planted in rows “like little regiments of solders on parade” and “not a single weed could be seen.” Here is food as it should be, Florent concludes: instead of being bruised by the jolting of the carts that take them to market, the cabbages “shine with well-being,” the carrots look “bright and cheerful,” and the lettuces “lounge[ ] with an air of carefree indolence.”

Can this scene of obedient plenitude offer a key to understanding both what the book values about its society and about the kind of literature that should depict that society? For the order of this scene feels so different from the order of the descriptions of Les Halles (think of the game arrayed in Marjolin’s stall, for example). Does this moment of modest delight that the book seems so in sympathy with offer a vision of the world the novel can get behind? Could it be an allegory for the “new form of art” Lantier knows is on its way but that, to his great frustration, he feels he cannot describe? Can the right kind of description be the basis of an organic criticism? Can it organize without ordering?

But if this the world of Madame François’s farm is a vision of a better world, how come this moment is so brief, and how come its descriptions, charming as they are, have none of the force of the extended set pieces set in that ossuary of Les Halles? The lounging lettuces are lovely; the manuring feels healthy. But those carcasses (and the stinking cheeses, oozing fruits, and gleaming fish I could have cited but didn’t), well, they dominate the book.

What, in other words, are the novel’s politics? Is Zola an heir to the Flaubert of Sentimental Education, valuing nothing but the excoriation of value? Is there anything here to hold on to? Nothing, it would seem, less slippery than the grease that drips over every surface, down to very nails, in the Quenus’s charcuterie, “a whole world,” Zola disgustingly and hypnotically renders it, “drowned in fat.”

 

 

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“Political Fanatics Get Nothing to Eat”: Émile Zola’s The Belly of Paris (Guest Post by Keith Bresnahan)

Keith Bresnahan is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences at OCAD University in Toronto, where he also directs the Graduate program in Contemporary Art, Design and New Media Art Histories. He is also an all-around good human being and a friend of mine from way back. At the end of last year, we talked about reading something together, with the idea of each writing about it for the blog. We settled on Émile Zola’s The Belly of Paris, and I’m pleased to share Keith’s wonderful essay below. I’ll offer some thoughts of my own in a day or two.

Émile Zola, Belly of Paris [Le Ventre de Paris] (1873)

Translated by Mark Kurlansky (Modern Library, 2009)

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‘What bastards respectable people are!’

This seems like as good a place as any to start, at the very end of Zola’s book, with the painter Claude Lantier’s exasperated cri de coeur at the good health and happiness of the bourgeois denizens of the Parisian district of Les Halles —their round bellies, ample breasts, and well-fed smiles.

The novel tells the story of Florent Quenu, who has escaped to Paris after some seven years of wrongful imprisonment in French Guiana, for his presumed participation in street riots of 1851. When the book opens, we see him lying in the road, emaciated and exhausted, his body blocking the passage of a midnight train of farm-carts and wagons loaded with produce destined for the central market of Les Halles. Rescued by the widowed farmer Mme François (she throws him in back, on top of the vegetables, in the first of the novel’s equations of bodies with food), Florent makes his way into the city and into the lives of his half-brother Quenu and sister-in-law the ‘Beautiful Lisa’, who run a bustling charcuterie near Les Halles.

Embroiling himself both in neighborhood spats and a disastrous radical politics, by the novel’s end Florent has once more been arrested and deported back to Guiana in what is essentially a death sentence. The novel’s final scene, providing the context for Lantier’s declamation, shows us the morning after Florent’s deportation; it is late summer, and Les Halles is bustling with happy activity, a return to order after this temporary shake-up:

The day had risen like a white fountain from the depth of rue Rambuteau. The sun was spreading its rosy light above the rooftops, bright expanses washing the pavement even at this early hour. And Claude sensed a cheerful mood awakening in these vast echoing marketplaces filled with their piles of food. It was like the pleasure of recovered health, the brightening sound of people at last relieved of a heavy burden weighing on their stomachs… All around him he could see nothing but Fats, growing, bursting with health, saluting a new day of lovely digestion.

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The Belly of Paris is the third novel in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series, and incidentally the third I’ve read (after La Bête humaine and Au bonheur des dames). It was my favorite to date, maybe the first in which the characters felt less like ciphers of some Second Empire social type, and more like people in whose lives I could immerse myself.

Its historical setting, like those of the other Rougon-Macquart novels, is the Second Empire (1852-70), as played out through the lives of a few generations of the Rougon-Macquart family (here, Lisa is née Macquart). The temporal distance between the novel’s setting in 1858 and Zola’s writing of it in 1872 feels significant; he’s writing from the other side of the Empire, which concluded with the abdication of Napoleon III during the Franco-Prussian war, but also of the 1871 Commune and its brutal repression by Versaillais forces. While these more recent historical events come after the events depicted in the novel, of course, I couldn’t help but see echoes of them here, in Florent’s fantasies of a people’s revolution and his deportation to a penal colony (in 1871, it was New Caledonia), and in smaller details peppered throughout the novel: cabbages piled like cannonballs, vegetables and market-carts forming ‘barricades,’ and so on.

The book is, of course, centered on food: its transport, display, production, and sale; the sights and smells and sounds of Paris’s central market; the overflowing displays of food in shop windows; and, somewhat hidden behind all this, hunger and privation. Zola always tells us whether a character is fat, or thin: Mme François’ donkey, Balthazar (shades of Bresson?) is ‘an overweight beast’, while Mme François herself has ‘thick arms’; Florent is thin, a beanpole (a fact that makes him immediately suspicious in the eyes of Lisa and others in the market). Lisa and Quenu’s charcuterie window, which displays “a world of good things, mouthwatering things, rich things,” is reflected in Quenu’s clean-shaven ‘pig-like’ face and Lisa’s ‘ample bosom’, her “wonderful freshness…her plump neck and rosy cheeks…echoing the pastel of the hams,” and when the childlike orphan Marjolin covets Lisa, he imagines himself taking her into his arms “as though plunging his hands into an olive barrel or a cask of dried apples.”

And then there are Zola’s lapidary descriptions of fish, meats, vegetables, fruits, and cheeses, which are one of the great pleasures of the novel: fins of skates, “cinnabar red striped with Florentine bronze, in the somber palette of toads and poisonous flowers,” salmon “gleaming like well-buffed silver…etched by a burin on a polished metal plate,” “shiny carp from the Rhine, all bronzed in beautiful rust-colored metallic, each scale like a piece of cloisonné enamel,” not to mention the Roquefort cheeses like aristocratic faces marred by disgraceful disease, or the frankly sensual description of La Sarriette’s fruit-stand, her wares and her person merging in a singular, heady sensuality:

The strawberries exhaled a scent of youth…while the baskets of grapes in weighty bunches, heavy with drunkenness, swooned over the edge of the trellis, their colors deepening in spots where they were touched by the sun’s voluptuous warmth. This was where La Sarriette lived, in an orchard of intoxicating perfumes. The less expensive fruits—cherries, plums, strawberries—were piled in a flat, paper-lined basket in front of her. They bruised one another, staining the stand with juice, a strong juice that vaporized in the heat. On those sweltering July afternoons her head would spin with the powerful, musky odor of the melons. Then, slightly inebriated and showing some more flesh under her shawl, barely ripe and still fresh from springtime, her lips pouted: many had the urge to plunder those lips.

If Zola’s novel provides an encomium to the visual and olfactory pleasures of food, the pure sensuality of ripe fruit or jewel-like fish, the book strangely has almost nothing to say about taste, or eating. I’ve tried, and failed, to remember a single extended description of taste in the whole of the book; we see people eating, but that’s all. A starving Florent muses that it had not occurred to Lantier “that all those beautiful objects were there for people to eat. He loved them for their colors.” It’s hard not to think of Zola himself. Or, indeed, of our own ‘foodie’ age, where Instagrammable plates and an obsession with artisanal production so often seems to displace the actual pleasures of eating.

In this sense, I think food is not so much the theme, but the alibi for Zola’s real interest in order (and its opposite): the characters mostly yearn for it, in the form of good profits, stable politics, marriages and family, while Zola seems to harbor a clear affection for disorder, in the overwhelming mountains of food in Les Halles, the noise of the fish auction, the innocent pleasures of the market-urchin Muche, who fills Lisa and Quenu’s daughter’s pockets with dirt and soaks himself in fountains, or the free sensuality of the orphaned lovers Marjolin and Cadine.

Zola doesn’t seem to side with Florent’s radicalism, exactly (his revolution remains a delusional adolescent fantasy) but he also turns a critical eye onto the bourgeois obsession with order and calm that manifests itself in the speech and behavior of the denizens of Les Halles. As Lisa puts it, ‘I support a government that’s good for business. If they commit acts of evil, I don’t want to know.’ When she goes to the prefecture of police to turn in her brother-in-law, she finds that half the neighborhood has beat her to the punch, assuaging whatever guilt she might have had. And when Marjolin attempts to rape Lisa, what might have been the basis for melodrama (she strikes him, causing him to hit his head on a stone table and reducing him to a permanent state of idiocy) is defused, all simply seems to be for the best: Marjolin has entirely forgotten what happened, and if anything is happier than before.

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There’s a message here: the comfortable morality of the bourgeois shop-keepers, their support for whatever is ‘good for business’, is equated with the ready availability of food, which acts as a political soporific. And it’s seductive: in one of the novel’s best passages, when Florent accepts (at Lisa’s urging) a job as inspector of the fish market, he feels himself giving in not only to this single request, but to a great wave of contentment:

It was as though he were permeated by the smell of the kitchen, the nourishment of all the food that had been loaded into the air. He slid into the happy lethargy that is brought on by eating well and living in fat…He felt a tingling on his skin, the seduction of fat slowly invading his entire being, rendering him soft and easy like a contented shopkeeper. At this late hour of night, in this overheated room, all his bitterness and determination melted away… he found himself wishing for more, for an endless succession of such evenings, slowly fattening him.

It is above all Les Halles, that ‘gluttonous beast’, the beating heart of a Paris wallowing in fat, which props up a grotesque Empire by rendering all, like fat itself, soft and easy: “it was the belly of shopkeepers, the belly of ordinary people puffing themselves up, celebrating in the sunshine, declaring that everything was for the best, since passive people had never been so well fattened.” Those who are full, forget their complaints. And political fanatics, Lisa notes, get nothing to eat.

 

 

 

 

Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau is 4!

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WordPress sent me a message last week telling me it’s been four years since I started Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau. Blog years being, I suspect, like dog years, this puts the blog well into its adult years. And these days, when some of the book blogs I love best (though thankfully not all of them) have gone away or fallen into, one hopes, temporary dormancy, I think there’s value in my still being here. Not that I’m especially persistent. My number one regret is that I don’t blog nearly as much as I’d liked to. (My number two regret is that my blog causes me so many regrets.) Unfortunately, barring an unexpected change in career or life fortune I don’t think that’s going to change in the coming year.

But I have a few ideas in the works. Last year I inveigled a couple of friends into guest posting—see here, here, and here—and I enjoyed that dialogue. I’ll be continuing that experiment this year, starting with a smart post from a smart friend on Émile Zola any day now. (If you’d like to contribute a guest post, drop me a line in the comments.) In the past I’ve had fun co-organizing reading groups (I seem to do better with those than with ones I blithely agree to participate in on Twitter: those invariably defeat me), and I’m always up for more of those.

As well as adding other contributors to the blog, I’d also like to broaden the kinds of things I write for it. I recently learned I’ve been awarded a three-year grant from my institution to design experiential learning projects for students on the topic of Holocaust Literature and Education. I plan to incorporate the blog into that process, starting in the fall.

And looking even further ahead, I want to organize a series of events (readalongs, online reference posts, reviews, who knows what else) to celebrate the centenary in 2019 of the chemist, writer, and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi. Levi is one of my intellectual heroes; I’d love to organize something analogous to Heavenali’s Muriel Spark centenary. (In fact, her celebration seems so well organized, I may just have to steal her format).

Along the way, I’ll keep writing reviews as I’m able. I’ll keep melding memoir and analysis when it seems relevant. And I’ll keep writing the occasional post about a writer’s work more generally. (I have something in mind about Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series and why I love it so.)

I can’t say I’ll write to order— I’m so slow, I wouldn’t last a day as a proper working writer—but I would certainly like to know what you want to read. More of the same? Something new? Please share your thoughts.

Most importantly, I want to thank everyone who’s visited, nosed around a little, read a post or two, maybe even left a comment. (And apologies again to everyone who lands here because they want to hike the Swiss Alps.) I’m especially grateful to those who follow me and/or are regular readers. Becoming part of the online community of readers and writers has been one of the best things that’s happened to me in the last few years. Your interest and support means a lot. I promise I’ll keep plugging away as best I can.

Back to climbing the book mountain…

Manuele Fior, The Interview (Review)

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A quick update to this earlier post about Manuele Fior’s 5,000 km per Second. The other day I read his new book, The Interview. It’s a strange work, not quite as good as the earlier one, perhaps, but still worth reading. Like its predecessor, it’s gorgeously drawn and illustrated, although the strong yet somewhat sickly palette of the previous book is replaced her by a brown-tinted black-and-white (it looks almost sepia, which makes sense inasmuch as the events we are reading about, although set in our future, are in fact in the past of the time of the book’s telling). As befits its title The Interview contains more dialogue than 5,000 but it also has long, striking wordless sections.

For example:

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The Interview is set in 2048 in a devolved Italy (the specific location is Udine and environs) after some never-explained dramatic political events. Raniero is a psychologist with a failing marriage, a cantankerous and mostly unlikeable friend who despairs about the new world they’re all living in (Fior is very good at unpleasant male characters), and a penchant for old-fashioned gasoline-engine cars. (Pretty much no one drives them anymore and he can only get the gas for them on the black market.) The car is important because the book begins with an accident: driving home late one night, Raniero sees strange triangular flashing lights in the sky and is so compelled by them that he drives into a ditch. But instead of being traumatized by the accident, he’s filled with a strange hilarity.

He’s also concussed, which opens up the possibility that everything that comes after is some kind of hallucination, but the point really seems to be that alternative or deranged mental states are worth paying attention to. Shortly thereafter he begins treating a new patient, Dora, whose parents—like the parents of the Dora in Freud’s pioneering case study—have brought her in for treatment, in this case because of hallucinations. Fior’s Dora claims to have seen aliens and to be able to communicate with them. Dora and Raniero eventually become involved—a terrible ethical violation, as his friend Walter reminds him—which was a state only implied as a fantasy (explicitly on Dora’s part, according to Freud, but surely on his as well) in Freud’s text. But as in Freud’s text, this Dora ends up being the one in control. Although she does not abandon the therapy, peremptorily giving the doctor two weeks notice, like any common servant, the way Freud woundedly realizes his patient has done, this Dora goes on to become the central figure of the book.

Fior’s Dora is a member of the New Convention, a group professing liberation of all sorts, especially sexual, loosely modeled, presumably, on various 60s and 70s counter-cultural movements. (There may be more specific Italian antecedents I’m missing here.) The book gets stranger when it becomes clear that what Dora says is true—there really are aliens, and Raniero can see them too. In fact, before long, everyone can see them. Interestingly, the aliens have nothing to say to humanity: they are meaningless or, perhaps more accurately, beyond our ideas of meaning. Indeed, their function in the book is to precipitate a new world order, in which telepathy amongst people becomes regular and routine. The book never explains how this happens, instead skipping forward in its final pages many years, where we finally get the interview of the title. (Though of course we have seen the initial intake interview between Dora and Raniero earlier on.) Dora, now 130 years old, is interviewed at a university or institute of some kind where she tries to explain to the students states of being that no longer exist, especially the state of being in love. Being in love was a function, she explains, of a world without telepathy, a world in which it was difficult, basically impossible, for one person to understand another, even though people spent their lives trying to do so. The compensation, if that is the right word, for that isolation was love, a mixture of joy and pain that Dora cannot explain to the students.

In the end, The Interview reminds me of 5,000 km per Second in that both are about missed or failed encounters, except that what’s missed here isn’t just an individual relationship, as in the previous book, but of the ability of different generations to understand each other. Although the book implies that humanity is suddenly transformed for the better by the recognition that it isn’t alone in the universe, the ending suggests that the new world that arises after that moment is just as full of incomprehensibility as earlier times. Dora’s experiences as a young person, no matter how radical she felt herself to have been, are as incomprehensible to the youth of the 22nd century as she was to her elders in 2048. I can’t decide what Fior wants us to make of this fact. Should we be consoled that things never change, and yet that we bumble on just the same? Should we despair that the same problems keep coming up?

The Interview is a puzzling, stimulating, moving, and visually beautiful book of interest even to those readers who don’t think comics or science fiction are their thing. Jamie Richards translated it, a fact I am glad to see the publishers have acknowledged a bit more prominently than last time. Maybe next time on the cover?

 

 

2017 Year in Reading

Although traumatic and anxious-making in so many ways, 2017 was a good year for reading. I read more books last year than in any year since I started keeping a list in 2014. I was freed of an onerous work responsibility halfway through the year, which helped, as did my decision to switch to audio books on my commute, once I realized that even my beloved NPR was raising my stress levels. (I don’t mind audio books, it turns out, though I learned what most of you probably already knew: the narrator matters a lot.)

Of the 115 books I completed, 50% were by women and 50% by men (one was co-authored). 37% were translated and 63% were originally written in English. (I read one book in German.) Only 13% were non-fiction. The glib explanation might be that reality is bad enough right now without reading about it; the better one is that we need fiction to understand reality.

I wrote about my books of the year in the final issue of Open Letters Monthly. If you don’t want to click the link, I’ll repeat what I said at the beginning of my reflection:

The books that meant the most to me this year recount the rise of—and resistance to—fascism in 1930s and 40s. These might be books from the past, but they feel all too timely.

Mihail Sebastian, For Two Thousand Years. Trans. Philip Ó Ceallaigh. My god, this book is good! I had a lot to say about it at OLM.

Hans Keilson, 1944 Diary. Trans. Damion Searls. Keilson was a mensch. I wrote about him for Numéro Cinq.

Girogio Bassani, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. Trans. William Weaver. Together with Scott and Nat, I enjoyed this wistful but definitely not precious remembrance of pre-war Jewish life in Ferrara.

And best of all, the highlight of my reading year:

Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate. Trans. Robert Chandler. For several weeks I was consumed by this extraordinary book about the pivotal months of late 1942 and early 1943 in the Soviet Union. At OLM I said, “But Life and Fate isn’t just a work to respect. It’s also a book to love. What Life and Fate has in spades is flow, momentum, energy. It has life. Combining the warmth of Chekhov with the scope of Tolstoy, Grossman’s magnum opus is that paradoxical thing, an intimate epic.” I wrote several posts about it, too.

Other highlights:

Carl Seelig, Walks with Robert Walser. Trans. Anne Posten. I wrote about it here. This is a joyous book. Couldn’t you use some joy right about now?

Roger Lewinter, The Attraction of Things and Story of Love and Solitude. Trans. Rachel Careau. Thanks to Scott Esposito for giving me the chance to write about these enigmatic but indelible syntax-destroying books.

Liana Millu, Smoke Over Birkenau. Trans. Lynne Sharon Schwartz. This memoir of Holocaust survivor Millu was a revelation to me. We don’t hear enough about women’s experiences in the Shoah. So impressed that I added it to my course this coming semester.

Nathan Englander, Dinner at the Center of the Earth. Is it the lousy title that’s kept people from talking about this book? Or is it that Englander has written a smart, balanced, non-polemical/non-hysterical novel about Israel likely to alienate readers with entrenched opinions about the situation there? The best review I’ve read is shigekuni’s. Englander’s second novel is short and deceptively simple. I bet it took him ages to write. I’m looking forward to re-reading it soon.

Nina Allan, The Race and The Rift. Speaking of shigekuni, he turned me on to these wonderful SF novels. Both brilliant; I liked The Race best. For fans of Doris Lessing and David Mitchell, and especially people who think they don’t like SF.

Joseph Roth, The Emperor’s Tomb. Trans. Michael Hofmann. A nominal sequel to Roth’s famous Radetzky March (which I read so long ago that I can’t remember a thing about it), this is a fascinating example of that rare species, the modernist historical novel. I planned to write about it for German Literature Month but I left it too late and then I got the stomach flu… This book is amazing, though: it tempts us to wallow in Hapsburg nostalgia before pulling the rug out from under us, as it details first the hardscrabble aftermath of WWI and then finally taking an unexpected swerve into the even worse depredations of an incipient WWII. The philosophers Deleuze and Guattari were fond of the enigmatic term “line of flight.” I never understood what they meant, but Roth’s novel embodies what I think it might. The Emperor’s Tomb is a book on the run from itself, jumping forward temporally and stylistically in unexpected ways; it is a late work by an author who refuses to give readers what they have come to expect from him.

Daphne du Maurier, The Scapegoat, Rule Britannia and My Cousin Rachel. I wrote about these here and here. All wonderful, especially The Scapegoat.

Willa Cather, My Antonia. Late to that party! It’s amazing! More here.

Some bests:

Best comic with disagreeable characters: A surprisingly competitive field, including the first two volumes of Riad Sattouf’s The Arab of the Future, the first two volumes of Jason Lutes’s Berlin serial, and the winner, Manuele Fior’s 5,000 km per Second, which I wrote about here in what is surely the least-visited post in the history of this blog.

Best non-apocalyptic SF: Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2140. It’s too long and some of the characters are flat/embarrassing, but I was fascinated by Robinson’s carefully detailed vision of New York after a huge rise in sea levels. Maybe not plausible when it comes to climate (though I sure want it to be) but definitely when it comes to capitalism. “Wherever there’s a commons there’s enclosure. And enclosure always wins.”

Series that most kept my spirits up: Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs. I listened to or read the first eight this year, and I’m starting to worry what I’ll do when I’ve finished them all (at least she’s still writing them). Maisie calls herself a psychological investigator: she’s a former WWI nurse who is trained by a philosophical/medical/psychological/political éminence grise and social reformer to do PI work and, as the series develops, a whole lot more. (That sounds preposterous and it is a little preposterous, but not that much, or not enough to bother me, anyway.) The books aren’t particularly suspenseful, and sometimes Maisie is a little too good, but I love the period details, I’m willing to believe in the centrality of trauma (maybe the books’ abiding belief), and most of all I’m captivated by the way Maisie wrestles with the combination of ability, work, and good fortune that let her succeed at a time when so many equally deserving people did not.

Best unpretentious essayistic biography: Marie Darrieussecq, Being There: The Life of Paula Modersohn-Becker. I blogged about this terrific book here.

Book I most regret not posting about: Anita Brookner, A Start in Life. Seems like a lot of people are (re)discovering Brookner’s charms. And why wouldn’t readers be in love with a writer whose first book begins: “Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature”? Maybe many of those readers share my fascination with the late 70s/early 80s, a period that still seems to me at least to be relatively recent but is actually closer to WWII than the present. Brookner has an old-fashioned gravitas and authorial certainty, yet she doesn’t read like a mid-century author. I plan to read more of her this year.

Best use of modernist literary style to tell a Victorian story: Sarah Moss, Bodies of Light. Read this early in the year: it stayed with me, and I look forward to reading the sequel.

Best first half of a book: Philip Pullman, The Book of Dust Volume I: La Belle Sauvage. I agree 100% with Michael Orthofer: the brilliant, insidious first half devolves into an overly long chase/pilgrimage sequence (I don’t care if it’s modeled on Spenser: still fundamentally boring). I’ll read the next one eagerly, though.

Best WWII spy story no one seems to know about: William Christie, A Single Spy. Double agents. Soviets and Nazis. Dramatic escapes. Strong writing. Perfect light reading.

Best romance novel: Jennifer Crusie, Bet Me. Admittedly, the only one I read, but Rohan steered me right here. Like Laurie Colwin, but hot. I’ll read more.

Funniest book of the year: Elif Batuman, The Idiot. Hoping to post about this before my copy is due back at the library. I laughed to the point of tears many times: “We learned about people who had lost the ability to combine morphemes, after having their brains perforated by iron poles. Apparently there were several such people, who got iron poles stuck in their heads and lived to tell the tale—albeit without morphemes.” If you went to college in the 90s, this book is for you. Don’t worry, it’s not really a college novel.

Reliable pleasures: The Cadfael series continues to delight; the Montalbano books are back in form after some mediocre episodes; three books by Maurizo de Giovanni impressed me (would have read a lot more if only my library carried them). I finally read the first three Bernie Guenther books by Philip Kerr: fantastic!

Not-so reliable pleasures: The latest Lahlum disappointed—the bloat that crept into the last one is in full force here; I read my first book by John Lawton, in the Inspector Troy series: unpleasant; the new Indridason series: the jury is still out.

Good but maybe overrated: Jane Harper, The Dry (I’ll read the next, but it faded fast in memory); Don Winslow, The Force (part of me adored this Richard Price/George Pelecanos/David Simon novel of New York corruption, but part of me thought it was getting away with validating the homophobia, misogyny, and racism of its main characters in the guise of being cool/anthropological).

*

I published a number of pieces in 2017, and I look forward to doing so again this year. (Apologies to any editors reading this—I am working on your piece, I promise.) Sadly, though, the two venues I have written for the most, Numéro Cinq and Open Letters Monthly shut down this year. Together with Tom’s change of pace at Wuthering Expectations, my reading and writing year ended up feeling somber and end-of-an-era-ish.

But I’ll end on a happy note: I was lucky to share reading and writing experiences with several friends. Jacqui and I read Elizabeth Bowen’s The Hotel. Scott and Nat and I read Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (as mentioned above). Marat helped me out with Grossman. Nat and I read L. P. Hartley’s The Boat, which was fun even if we didn’t much like it. Thanks to them, and to everyone who read what I had to say at this space, however erratically, especially those who commented either here or on social media. You make doing this worthwhile. Best wishes in 2018.

My plans for the year are to make very few plans. But if you want to read something with me, just drop me a note in the comments or on Twitter. And if you want to see my reflections on the last few years, you can read about 2014, 2015 & 2016.

“As Long as We Both Should Live”: Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel (Review)

This year I read three novels by Daphne Du Maurier. They’re all terrific. The Scapegoat, which I wrote briefly about, is the best of the lot—a completely satisfying book likely to feature in my year-end list. I also enjoyed her final novel, Rule Britannia (1972), a strange and compelling little book that I suspect was greeted with bemusement or even hostility at the time but that is uncannily prescient now: England has left the EEC and is on the brink of financial ruin (sound familiar?) and is taken over by the US. A once-famous actress features prominently; she turns out to have one more great role in her. Rule Britannia is a late work, with more than a touch of The Tempest in it. A bit ramshackle, no question, no one’s going to say it’s her best, but it’s absolutely worth reading.

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Anyway, I recently spent a few pleasant evenings reading My Cousin Rachel, an earlier novel (1951) that is often reckoned as one of her best. The narrator is Philip Ashley, who at the beginning of the novel lives alone on the Cornish coast on the estate of his guardian Ambrose. Some twenty years earlier, Ambrose had taken the orphaned Philip in and raised him in his idiosyncratic fashion. But now he has left the young man, who is recently down from Oxford, to his own devices, in order to travel in Italy in search of relief from his rheumatism.

In Florence Ambrose meets a cousin of theirs, a young widow. Some months later he writes Philip to say they have married and have no plans to return to England. But the idyll doesn’t last: Ambrose’s increasingly scarce letters are filled with complaints of poor health and grievances with the Italy he had previously extolled. Eventually Philip is alarmed enough to travel to Italy himself, but he finds only a grave: Ambrose has died, his wife has closed up their villa and gone away, and no one seems to want to tell him anything. An otherwise unsatisfactory meeting with her lawyer reveals that Ambrose never changed his will: Philip remains heir to the estate.

Shortly after returning to England, Philip learns that Rachel has arrived in Cornwall for a visit, and here the novel really begins. An intricate dance between the two follows. Philip, who has learned that Ambrose believed he was being poisoned, is initially suspicious and hostile to Rachel. But Rachel is charming and his attitude to her changes so much that he eventually decides to sign over the estate to her, even to marry her. A lot happens in the last third of the book, as Du Maurier forces us to wonder whether Rachel is a murderer who has insinuated herself into an inheritance that should never have been hers or a victim of two generations of the Ashley family’s misogyny and paranoia.

It’s been a couple of weeks since I read the novel, and I’m trying to keep these posts shorter, so I encourage you to read Rohan’s review; she articulates many of my feelings about the novel clearly and elegantly.

Like her, I was ensnared by Du Maurier’s clever narration: not until late in the novel did I realize how adroitly she had controlled my responses, from my initial disparagement of Rachel, through rising frustration at what I took to be the novel’s misogyny, to my final realization that I had taken aligned myself much too closely with Philip’s perspective. For even as I struggled with the novel’s portrayal of Rachel—it seemed so vindictive towards her—I was still assuming that she was in fact up to no good, a real femme fatale. I was, in other words, far too beholden to Philip’s point of view. At the end we are left unsure less about who did what to whom but about our own complacency as readers. Philip is no obviously untrustworthy narrator—he’s no Humbert Humbert, no Stevens—but he ends up being more disturbing for that.

Every time we think we’re ahead of the book we’re made to learn the error of our thinking. Apparent deficiencies reveal themselves to be carefully constructed traps. For example, if we find ourselves frustrated by the lengthy scenes in which Philip falls for Rachel without realizing it—why is it taking him so long to figure out what’s happening to him?—we are only thinking what the novel wants us to think. We have to feel superior to the narrator so that our later realization that we’ve been blind to his delusion and violence is that much more painful and powerful.

So we get a passage like this one, typical of the novel’s play with tone:

I went indoors and up to my room, and dragging a chair beside the open window sat down in it, and looked towards the sea. My mind was empty, without thought. My body calm and still. No problems came swimming to the surface, no anxieties itched their way through from the hidden depths to ruffle the blessed peace. It was as though everything in life was now resolved, and the way before me plain. The years behind me counted for nothing. The years to come were no more than a continuation of all I now knew and held, possessing; it would be so, forever and ever, like the amen to a litany. In the future only this: Rachel and I. A man and his wife living within themselves, the house containing us, the world outside our doors passing unheeded. Day after day, night after night, as long as we both should live. That much I remembered from the prayer-book.

Ostensibly a moment of calm and happy anticipation, this passage in fact reveals the narrator to be deluded, and more than that, creepy in his unearned confidence. (Look at the way he equates his present state of knowing and holding with “possessing”: recall the title, My Cousin Rachel.) Instead of seeming relieved and at rest, the narrator is empty, almost vacuous. This is a passage not just about the surfaces it references but also about superficiality. I simply don’t buy the narrator’s description of “blessed peace.” His responses seem to be governed by the half-remembered phrases of the Anglican wedding service; he’s a kind of automaton, and so it’s fitting that a few pages later he finds himself putting his hands around her throat without a clear sense of how he got there. We can take him at his words, but what do those words actually mean? And how is it that we could have been so sympathetic to him for so long?

 

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It’s quite a trick Du Maurier pulls off here in forcing us to ask questions of this sort. (And I don’t mean that disparagingly: the trick’s magic, not dirty.) But even her masterful manipulation of our response isn’t the best part of that book. That would have to be the portrayal of Louise, the daughter of Philip’s godfather, a woman everyone, even sometimes she herself, seems to think is destined for Philip. Louise is unexpectedly steely and resourceful. I loved that Du Maurier didn’t feel the need to pair her with Philip at the end. She suffers at his hands, but she’s no victim. I wouldn’t have minded a novel all about her.

In the end, though, as in all Du Maurier novels, as best I can tell, the real love affair isn’t with a person but with a property. No one loves anyone in this book as much as the book itself loves the estate. (Surprisingly, it is unnamed. No Manderley here. Or maybe that’s the point: we’re supposed to think of Du Maurier’s most famous novel and lay it over this one. Could this lack of definition be connected to the novel’s refusal to tell us when it is set? It’s presumably Regency, but it would have been so easy to make clear. Why didn’t Du Maurier do so?) Philip even acknowledges the power of houses—he tells Rachel soon after he meets her, “If it’s warmth and comfort a man wants, and something beautiful to look upon, he can get all that from his own house, if he loves it well”—but where he is mocking the novel is serious: it loves the house and its demesne well indeed. No real estate porn here, though. Rather, a completely unsentimental belief—which, based on my limited sample size, is one that Du Maurier held dear—that places are better than the people who merely pass through them.

 

“I Told You Not to Look at Me”: Comic Books by Liana Finck and Manuele Fior

Earlier this fall I read two wonderful comic books in close succession, Liana Finck’s A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York (2014) and Manuele Fior’s 5,000 km per Second (2009, translated 2016 by Jamie Richards, though the publisher does its best to bury this credit, hiding it in tiny print on the last page).

Artistically, they’re as different as could be, but they’re both beautiful. Thematically they didn’t at first seem to have anything in common, but paging through them again I start to see connections. Both are about dislocation and uncertainty, but one is much more confident than the other that these melancholy states can be overcome.

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Finck’s book is named after a popular feature in the Yiddish newspaper Der Forverts (The Forward)—“bintel brief” means “a bunch of letters”—in which readers wrote in with their personal problems and ethical dilemmas. This early advice column became a mainstay of the paper, which began publishing from the late nineteenth century and continues today (though in much-reduced form). By the late 1920s, its daily circulation was 275,000, though its influence dwindled as Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe (shamefully) ground to a halt in the 1930s. Even without these government restrictions, however, the paper would have declined. For its task was paradoxical: the more it addressed the concerns of Jewish immigrants to America—the more it helped them work through the difficult process of assimilation in a new world—the more it prepared its own obsolescence.

Yet contrary to the story of Yiddish disappearance that’s been dominant for fifty years (leading to a contrary narrative that’s rapidly becoming just as clichéd, namely, that Yiddish isn’t dying), A Bintel Brief is an energizing, even joyful book. Which is amazing, because it’s filled with stories of despair, uncertainty, and pain.

At the beginning of the book, the narrator’s grandmother sends her a notebook, one the narrator had often noticed in her grandparents’ apartment when she visited as a kid. It’s a scrapbook of pages clipped from old newspapers. When she opens it, out steps a man (“old-fashioned,” “otherwordly”) who introduces himself as Abraham Cahan.

In real life, Cahan was a novelist and journalist who edited The Forward from 1903 to 1946. In the book he is an impish, wise, and excitable figure who rapidly falls in love with modern life. (After he gets a haircut, some new outfits, and a sharp pair of glasses he looks like any other Brooklyn hipster.) Eventually, after making the point about his own obsolescence as the editor of a paper written in a language most of its readers are learning to give up, Cahan disappears from the narrator’s life. But this turn of events doesn’t feel sad, since the book is about giving up the past—not heedlessly, but hopefully. It’s about being honest with yourself about who you are. And it’s about rejecting the guilt that comes from leaving anything behind.

The story of Cahan and the narrator frames the heart of book, which consists of sample letters sent to The Forward. Finck has condensed and edited them to fit the form of a comic book, but she’s been faithful to the spirit of the original. The letters are remarkable—heartfelt, passionate, disturbing, upsetting. Cahan’s responses are measured, firm, almost terse. A recently married woman complains about the many duplicate wedding gifts she and her husband have received (pillow after pillow, lamp after lamp), then worries that she is ungrateful. A barber dreams of slitting a customer’s throat after being insulted and then becomes so obsessed he’ll follow suit in real life that he can’t go to work. A cantor loses his belief in God and wonders whether he can continue in his profession—after all, he knows no other. A childless couple is offered a baby—the mother is penniless and young and can’t keep him—and can’t decide whether to adopt it, imagining all the things that could go wrong, even though they want a child more than anything.

Cahan agrees with the woman that a gift registry (though of course he doesn’t call it that) is entirely sensible and anything but rude: “Your ‘dream’ of having a decent life in America would be better classified as a ‘reasonable expectation.’” He exhorts the barber to “simply laugh off the dream and drive the whole matter out of his head.” He reminds the cantor that freethinkers and believers alike agree that “only a pious Jew may be a cantor” and for a nonbeliever to continue in the role would be “a shameful hypocrisy.” Yet he adds that many cantors have gone on to find work in the theater: “There may be other opportunities for you to make use of and honor your voice.” And he chides the couple for their “Hamletism”: “You should stop asking ‘to be, or not to be,’ and adopt the child immediately.”

Throughout, Cahan’s sympathy for the plight of new immigrants, all of whom are poor and oftentimes exploited, is apparent. To a woman who writes that she is convinced her friend and neighbour has stolen her watch, a precious gift from her son, which keeps the family from going hungry because she pawns it whenever they run out of money, Cahan writes, “What a picture of the wretchedness of the worker’s lot is to be found in this letter!”

These personal conflicts become even more powerful by being told through Finck’s arresting illustrations. The black and white drawings (interspersed with the occasional illustration in the pale blue of old airmail envelopes) express the past without being mannered or old-timey. Finck’s lines are often wispy (an artistic objective correlative for the Yiddish luftmensch, maybe?), but more powerful moments are usually rendered in a thicker, expressionist style. I’m not much good at describing drawings. Take a look at these examples instead:

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Although intelligently and carefully illustrated, words, as its title suggests, matter a lot in A Bintel Brief. That’s not true of 5,000 km per Second, which contains very few words, most of them from conversations that remain unfinished or at cross-purposes. The story is a love triangle, sort of. Piero is a shy, smart teenager with a garrulous, outlandish, confident, not very nice friend, Nicola, who makes fun of him in the guise of looking out for him. Yet Piero isn’t that nice. We see this in his relationship with Lucia, a girl who moves with her mother into Piero’s apartment building at the beginning of the book, and who he falls for. The not nice part doesn’t come until much later, though. At first he seems hard done by. For as soon as they get together, it seems, they separate. (I say “seems” because of Fior’s narrative structure and editing: each section of the book jumps forward in time without any exposition.) Piero travels to Egypt and Lucia to Norway. She writes him a letter breaking off their relationship—“without you I can breathe again”—and ends up with the son of her host family. Years later, pregnant with her first child, she reads about Piero’s work as part of an archaeological team in Egypt and calls him. (Their initially awkward but increasingly intimate conversation, pursued across a continent and despite the one-second lag in the phone call, gives the book its title.) Later, they meet up again back in Italy and get together for a drink. That evening, at first joyful and heartfelt, then increasingly maudlin and rueful, eventually becomes upsetting, even sinister. In a riveting scene, he follows her to the bathroom of the bar and locks the door. Their sex is consensual, probably, but a failure. Fior captures the indignity of middle-aged intimacy without disparaging that desire. In fact, since we see it as a product of all the ways that life seems to make choices for us, all the ways we become people we couldn’t have expected to become, we sympathize with it deeply—but we don’t romanticize it either.

Piero can’t get it up; Lucia tells him to take her home. In a central panel she repeats what she said at the beginning of their fumbling: “I told you not to look at me.” We can read this as her shame at herself, at the body she’s become. But we can also read it as a demand, almost a snarled rejection: leave me alone. After all, Piero is married with a child. His desire for Lucia after all this time seems driven more by anger and insecurity (he’s convinced things didn’t work out with Lucia because Nicola was always getting in the way) than by constancy and star-crossed love. In a final turn of events, our sympathy for Lucia is challenged. We’re left unsure whether there’s anyone to admire in the book, but a coda set in the early days of their teenage courtship reminds us of the joyful start of even relationships that turn bad for reasons that are too complicated to parse.

Fior’s drawings are sumptuous without being lovely (nothing twee about this book). Even when vibrant the colours have a sickly hue. Greenish yellows, browns and purples predominate. See what I mean?

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I learned about this book from Shigekuni; be sure to read his compelling review.

It’s strange: although at first I liked Bintel a lot more than 5,000, the latter has stayed with me longer. Warmth is probably the quality that’s most important to me—definitely in people, and often in books. Finck’s book—so sympathetic to both those who need advice and those who give it—has warmth in spades. Fior’s book is not warm—not cold, exactly, but definitely unsparing, sometimes just this side of tawdry, though also keenly aware of what time does to people—but I keep thinking about it. That doesn’t mean it’s better. It just rattled me a little more.

Fortunately, reading isn’t a zero-sum game, so no need to choose. They can be read in an hour, but they’ll stay with you a lot longer. The best news is that Fink and Fior each have a new book out in English in 2018. I’ll be getting to them as soon as I can.

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“Wonderful, Cheerful”: Marie Darrieussecq’s Life of Paula Modersohn-Becker

Now this is the kind of thing I like. The French novelist Marie Darrieussecq has written a wonderful short book, an essay really, on the early 20th-century painter Paula Modersohn-Becker. It’s not a volume of art criticism. It’s not a biography. (In principle, I should love biographies. I love the bits and pieces of people’s lives. But anything that starts with parents and grandparents, or, God forbid, a family tree, ugh I just can’t do it.) You’ll learn a lot about Modersohn-Becker from this book, and about the circle of painters and writers she lived among, including, most famously, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, but you’ll learn it causally, almost offhandedly. Darrieussecq says she is not writing “Paula M. Becker’s life as she lived it, but my sense of it a century later. A trace.”

Before discovering Darrieussecq’s trace I knew nothing of Modersohn-Becker, and I can’t even remember how I came across this book, but I’m glad I did because both the artist and this book about her are wonderful. I’m tempted just to fill this post with examples of Modersohn-Becker’s work. Take a look at these:

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A word about names: Darrieussecq calls Modersohn-Becker by her first name. Normally, I can’t stand that kind of thing in biographies, etc. The familiarity feels unearned, presumptuous. Darrieussecq has her reasons, though. She won’t call her Paula Becker, her maiden name. Nor Modersohn-Becker, the name she took after marrying the painter Otto Modersohn. Nor even Becker-Modersohn, as the museum of her work in Bremen has it. As Darrieussecq explains:

Women do not have a surname. They have a first name. Their surname is ephemeral, a temporary loan, an unreliable indicator. They find their bearings elsewhere and this is what determines their affirmation in the world, their “being there,” their creative work, their signature. They invent themselves in a man’s world, by breaking and entering.

I like this passage. It begins conventionally enough, almost doctrinaire. But Darrieussecq isn’t bemoaning women’s victimhood. Women do find their bearings, they affirm themselves in the world. But it’s not easy. And so then comes the passage’s sting, a lovely little image of how this self-invention happens in a patriarchal world: women break and enter. Not to steal but to make a place for themselves, a task that is creative (they “invent”). If they won’t be invited they will enter however they can.

So I’ll follow Darrieussecq’s lead and call her Paula. Does Paula break into a man’s world? I’m not actually sure she does. But she does something more important: she becomes the person she wants to be. Paula has a marvelous insistence. For example, in May 1900, she writes from Paris, where she has gone to study, to her acquaintances Otto and Hélène Modersohn back at home in the artist colony of Worpswede near Bremen, telling them what she is doing and seeing in Paris. They must both come to visit, she urges. But especially he must come:

Dear Frau Modersohn, I know you are not well, what with all these flus and colds this winter, but if you are not up to the trip, do send your husband. Of course, he will say no; he won’t want to leave without you, but be firm, don’t give in to him. A week will suffice. He will return to you full of vivid impressions.

Modersohn says he cannot come. Then he sends a telegram: he is coming. He arrives on June 10th. Four days later, he returns in haste to Worpswede. Hélène is dead. Paula returns too and gives up Paris. The next year she and Otto marry.

But it’s unclear that Paula set out to pursue Otto. And as it turns out, their marriage is not really a success. Otto’s painting is not as good as Paula’s. He is not as imaginative and sensitive as his friend, Rilke. Otto admires his wife’s painting, but Darrieussecq thinks he misunderstands it, praising it as naïve and simple when it is neither. In general Darrieussecq presents Otto as a problem for Paula, not so much an oppressive patriarch but rather something like an oaf who has the power of the patriarchy behind him. (Though, to be fair, he will take care of the two small girls he has been left by each wife; he will tend Paula’s legacy assiduously.) Eventually Paula leaves him. Later they reconcile, briefly. After years of not wanting a child she gets pregnant, probably by her husband. The birth is difficult, and Paula is sentenced to bed rest. When she gets up, eighteen days later, she immediately collapses and “dies of an embolism, from lying down too long. As she collapses, she says ‘Schade.’ Her last word. ‘A pity.’” It is November 1907. Paula is 31 years old.

Always, throughout this short life, Paula is insistent. She is driven to create. She writes to her mother that something in her cries for air, and won’t be silenced. Her soul “hungers for something profound,” she tells her husband. And she satisfies that hunger. She works hard, painting all day, almost every day. Striking, beautiful paintings.

Being Here is beautiful too, but it’s not especially elegant. The prose doesn’t feel as freighted, as poetic, as portentous as some of the great essayists I love even though that style can grate (John Berger, or Annie Dillard, say). I don’t mean that Darrieussecq is a bad writer. Far from it. But elegance isn’t what she’s after. Maybe that’s one reason she is so drawn to Paula, whose figures (especially their hands) are often misshapen or bent.

Darrieussecq has a way with pithy, paradoxical observations (she is French, after all): “There is no sounder basis for a relationship than misunderstanding.” She also writes sentences that don’t seem fancy or clever but that strike a chord: “She must love her mother to write her such wonderful, cheerful letters”; “A sitting takes a long time. ‘My bum has gone blind,’ one of her models, an old man, told her.”

The book is episodic, filled with fragments. About a holiday she takes in the summer of 1904 with Otto and some friends in a nearby village, Darrieussecq offers “two highlights”: “Paula’s bed collapses; Paula and Heinrich Vogeler have a violent argument. That’s all I know about it.” The abruptness of the prose and the jaggedness of the short sections the book is divided into create the sense of the past as foreign and unknowable.I found myself trusting Darrieussecq all the more because of the fragmentary and partial nature of her representation.

Despite having been surrounded by other artists, indeed of having spent most of her life in an artist colony, Paula is in Darrieussecq’s portrait fundamentally solitary. Darrieussecq describes her as “a woman who paints, alone, whose paintings are not seen.”

Those paintings aren’t seen in this book, at least not literally. (In all the most important ways, Darrieussecq absolutely sees her, and helps us to see her too.) It’s strange that the book contains no reproductions, a fact probably explained by cost and copyright and similar practical concerns. But I think it’s also a choice on Darrieussecq’s part. Late in the book she writes:

The paintings exist. They are sufficient unto themselves. She does not say much about them. She rarely speaks about her art. … And anyway: how do you write paintings? You can describe their features, their shapes, their contrasting colours. You can express an opinion, criticize them. You can provide an historical perspective and put them into context. But write them? There is a huge gap between the words and the images. Dreams and projections arise from the faultline.

(Typical Darrieussecq: she complicates her own claim in that last sentence. The gap between painting and writing isn’t just an absence. It describes possibility as much impossibility.)

Darrieussecq doesn’t say much about the features, shapes, or contrasting colours of the paintings. She gives us some context, but no grand historical overview. Instead as I’ve tried to show she gives us bits of Paula’s daily life.

But Darrieussecq does have something like an argument to make, especially when it comes to telling us how Paula paints the female body:

In Paula’s work there are real women. I want to say women who are naked at long last: stripped of the masculine gaze. Women who are not posing in front of a man, who are not seen through the lens of men’s desire, frustration, possessiveness, domination, aggravation.

These women aren’t coquettish or exotic or provocative or any of the other qualities that Darrieussecq, in a bravura passage, associates with one after another of the great male painters of the European tradition.

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And her paintings don’t just feature real women: they show real babies, too. Darrieussecq is especially struck by a painting of a woman breastfeeding. It is “not sentimental, or pious, or erotic: another sort of sensuality. Boundless. Another sort of power.” Seeing this painting makes Darrieussecq wonder why she had never heard of Paula Modersohn-Becker before. And in that moment comes the impetus for the book: “I had to write the life of this artist and help to make her work known.”

Paula doesn’t just paint other women. She paints herself too. The book’s cover reproduces one of the now famous self-portraits painted while she was pregnant. Thinking about Paula’s paintings of her pregnant body brings Darrieussecq to one of the few times she inserts herself and her own experience into the text. (I actually don’t mind that sort of thing, but books in which the writing “I” is at least as much a part of the work as whatever thing or place or artwork it’s observing have become so commonplace that Darrieussecq’s reticence is striking.) After reflecting on facticity of Paula’s pregnant self-portraits (they show the reality of what they show; they are not allegorical, like, for example, a contemporary painting by Klimt’s called “Hope”), Darrieussecq explains that the only photograph of her in her home is a portrait taken when she was six months pregnant:

At the time, I often offered it to journalists when they asked me for an author photo. It was rejected every time. The answer was always the same: ‘We’d like a normal photo.’

For Paula, pregnancy, like everything else that met her gaze, whether birch trees or chickens or old men, was normal. Ordinary not in the sense of unimportant but rather in the sense of being worthy of being recognized.

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When we think of modernist artists preoccupied by thing-ness or objectivity (and then with metaphorical or symbolist rejections of objectivity) we might think of Rilke. Another appealing thing about this book is that Rilke doesn’t steal the show. (Hard to avoid—he was pretty much a show-stealer, as best I can tell.) He is important—a phrase from The Duino Elegies, “Being here is wondrous,” gives Darrieussecq her title—but he’s not the star. Darrieussecq likes him more than Otto. I think she’s glad, impressed almost, that he and Paula never became romantically or sexually entangled. They were kindred spirits: the best artists of their circle; they respected each other. There was something like equality between them. Indeed, if anything Paula was the one person who could make him do things for her. (There’s a nice bit about some furniture left over from her Paris studio that she makes the eminently impractical Rilke dispose of. The whole business really flummoxes him.) But in the end Rilke fails Paula, saying of her to an interviewer in 1924: “The last time I saw Paula Modersohn was in Paris in 1906. I didn’t know her work very well at the time, or afterwards, and I still don’t know it.”

In the end, though, Rilke’s self-serving and disappointing dismissal of Paula doesn’t matter. Paula’s life was too short, but it was a good life. When Darrieussecq falls in love with Paula’s work she is struck by the feeling that she misses Paula. She regrets not only not having known her work before, but, more dramatically, not having been able to know her. The lovely thing about Being Here is the way it overcomes that gap, repairs that impossibility. It makes us feel Paula’s being; it allows us to be with her. It’s a happy book, it made me happy anyway. And can’t we all use more happiness these days?

Louise Penny’s Crime Fantasies

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Louise Penny is the best bad writer I know.

A couple of months ago, I read Glass Houses, the most recent installment of the Inspector Gamache mysteries. It’s by no means the best in the series but it helped me think about what’s particular to Penny’s work.

If you have any interest in crime fiction, you probably know about Louise Penny. (If you haven’t read her and you think you might, beware that there are a few, though not too many, spoilers in what follows.) She is famous for her lead detective, Armand Gamache: impossibly decent, intellectual, large-spirited, and psychologically well adjusted. (He isn’t tormented or self-destructive or alcoholic or divorced, which makes him a welcome change from many fictional detectives.) But for me, anyway, more appealing than her protagonist is her setting, specifically her enticing depiction of the Eastern Townships between Montreal and the US border, especially her fictional village of Three Pines. When I say fictional, I don’t just mean that Penny’s made Three Pines up. I mean that even in the world of the novels it doesn’t really exist—it’s not on any maps, no one’s ever heard of it, people only stumble upon it (and once they do they never want to leave), it’s out of cell, GPS, and internet range. In short, it’s more a fantasy than an actual place.

Specifically, it’s a fantasy about the healing power of community. Those who come to Three Pines are usually hurting, and the place nurses them back to health. It’s a place where people work only at the things they love, a place where they take walks, eat plenty of delicious food, drink plenty of delicious drinks, and somehow seem to have all the money they need.

But Penny has the good sense to emphasize the sting hidden in every paradise. For one thing, the murder rate is alarmingly high (hazard of any small-town crime setting: think Murder, She Wrote’s Cabot Cove). More interestingly, the healing or peace promised by Three Pines doesn’t come easily, maybe doesn’t come at all. People have their demons, most of which are convincingly ordinary (insecurity, jealousy, anxiety). Penny is excellent at showing how such seemingly minor problems can lead to terrible outcomes.

*

I’ve been following Penny from the beginning, thanks to my wife, who picked up her first novel, Still Life, from the (now apparently shuttered) bookstore in the Halifax airport over ten years ago, back when Penny only had a UK publisher. I’ve always been terribly shallow when it comes to book covers, and I didn’t think the book could be any good because it was so ugly. I’d have never picked it up on my own. (I’ve also never been much for Canadian crime fiction—have at me in the comments, tell me what’s good.) Fortunately, my wife is much more broad-minded than I am. She prodded me to read it, and I liked it quite a bit. In general, the first few novels were quite good. And I especially liked the idea that Penny was writing a quartet—one book for each season. That seemed to be the idea, initially. But then they became a phenomenon, and the series took off.

As the books went on, the things I didn’t like became harder to overlook. I gritted my teeth at the lame banter among the Gamaches and their friends (the gay couple Gabri and Olivier, owners of the village’s B & B and bistro, are particularly egregious examples: they’re supposed to be arch, but they just come across as tragic). I rolled my eyes at Penny’s weakness for puns and long-running jokes (there’s one with a pet duck that says “fuck fuck fuck”—the less said the better). And I even got tired of the luscious descriptions of food and drink, though no one can beat Penny when it comes to describing how lovely it is to escape Canadian weather for a cozy fire and a bowl of warm nuts.

Most of all I was bothered by the prose, which is workmanlike at the best of times. All writers have their tics: one of the Penny’s that’s particularly annoying is her fatal attraction for sentence fragments. (I don’t actually have any of her books to hand, so I can’t quote an example. But they are the kind of sentence fragments that are supposed to add suspense or emphasis, but which just end up being clunky.)

After the seventh book, A Trick of the Light, a particularly uninspired outing, I gave up on the series for several years. But earlier this year I picked up where I left off, largely because I started listening to audio books on my commute, and the library had recordings of the whole series. Listening instead of reading made a huge difference, especially because Ralph Cosham was a brilliant narrator. His Gamache was so compelling: even now, when I’m once again reading the books, I still hear his voice in my head. I suspect he eased over those sentence fragments (smoothing the chopped up pieces into complete sentences). For whatever reason, Penny’s prose bothered me much less in Cosham’s narration. It was a shock to learn that Cosham died suddenly after recording the tenth book, The Long Way Home. The new guy, , Robert Bathurst, had an unenviable task. But even allowing for the fact that the first voice you hear is probably the one you’ll like best, I don’t think Bathurst is a good fit for the series (hectic rather than ruminative, sage-like). After listening to the first of Bathurst’s readings recordings—it didn’t help that it was the preposterous The Nature of the Beast—I went back to paper.

And at this point, I’m so invested in the series that not even Penny’s mediocre prose can stop me. Especially because Penny does some things extremely well. Her books are varied in style: some are classic remote location-fixed set of character mysteries (what I think of as country house murder mysteries a la Poirot (The Beautiful Mystery, a personal favourite), some are spy stories (The Nature of the Beast), some are missing person investigations (The Long Way Home). Some focus on Gamache’s friends; some take him far afield.

With its commitment to the real, crime fiction is good at teaching us about places. And you can learn a fair bit about Quebec history and culture from Penny’s books. Admittedly, some volumes are more successful than others in this regard. Hits include the references to the painter Clarence Gagnon in The Long Way Home or the fictionalized Dionne Quintuplets in How the Light Gets In. Misses include a backstory involving the real-life engineer and ballistic missile developer Gerald Bull in The Nature of the Beast and the references to the Spanish tradition of the cobrador, a debt collector, in the new book, Glass Houses.

 

 

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Like many long-running crime series, the relationships between the main characters have become more important than the crimes. That’s especially true of the one between Gamache and his second-in-command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir. Penny, herself a recovering alcoholic, does a particularly good job with the story of Jean-Guy’s addiction to prescription medication (played out over several volumes and frighteningly dark without ever being melodramatic).

But where Penny is at her best is in presenting epic struggles between good and evil. From the beginning of the series, Penny presents Gamache as struggling against corruption in the Sûreté du Quebec. Initially, this malevolence is a backdrop to the cases Gamache investigates, a kind of whispered possibility of something larger out there. But as the series goes on that battle takes center stage. The canvas of characters gets bigger; we get a better sense of the history that’s led to the current state of affairs. But Penny isn’t a sociological crime writer, the way someone like Jean-Claude Izzo or Leonardo Sciascia were. The more you read her works, the more you see that realism isn’t really her game. (The depiction of the fentanyl crisis in the new book is a case in point—it’s presented as an existential crisis, a canker on the soul of the province rather than a function of specific socio-political forces.) How the Light Gets In is probably the pinnacle of the series so far. It’s genuinely exciting. Suspenseful, yes, but more edge-of-your-seat-will-the-little-band-of-warriors-defeat-the-forces-of-evil than whodunit.

Penny, in other words, is a fantasy writer who happens to write about crime, more Tolkien than Christie. What makes Penny of her moment is the way she applies popular psychology to those epic battles of good versus evil. Penny’s books are full of what some readers might call psychobabble. I actually find Penny quite compelling on the importance of admitting our vulnerability, and devastating in her portrayal of how everyday emotions like insecurity can cause so much hurt to the ones we say we love. The juxtaposition of this language of therapy with a genre (fantasy) that I don’t associate with psychological acuity is weird and often clunky but a large part of what gives Penny her distinctive flavour and, I suspect, her staying power.

Most of the books after How the Light Gets In have detailed the aftermath of Gamache’s victory over the forces that sought to undermine the Sûreté. It’s nice to see Penny taking so long with this task: rot can’t be easily eradicated. I’ve no idea where this will all go. I thought Penny had written herself into a corner already a few times in the series, and she’s always got out of it. So I’ll stick around to see what she does next.

Does anyone know any other crime writers who write in this way? Who are really more like fantasy or science fiction writers? Is this a thing and I’d just never come across it before?

 

 

 

 

“Once Fertile Lands”: Roland Buti’s Year of the Drought

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Although both of my parents are Swiss—they immigrated to Canada in the late 1960s, where I was born a few years later—I always sensed, even as a child, that their families didn’t have much in common. You could tell how different they were by the way they cut bread. At my mother’s parents’ house in the suburb of a small city on the beautiful Aare river, bread was cut the same way it was at ours: on a cutting board situated firmly, and safely, on the table. At my father’s parents’ house in a village about 15 kilometers upstream, bread was cut, bewilderingly, and to my childhood self frighteningly, in the crook of the arm. You’d nestle the loaf against your side and hack a chunk off with a knife that always threatened to cut your fingers or lodge in your ribs.

I say “you” as if it was something I did all the time, but in fact I never trusted myself enough to learn how to do it—nor did my mother, who looked on at this state of affairs with a mixture of bemusement and disdain. Although we didn’t visit Switzerland often—only every four or five years—those extended summertime visits provided many of my strongest memories. Although I couldn’t have put it that way at the time, my father’s family was at once richer and less sophisticated than my mother’s. My mother’s father was a machinist, a trade unionist, a Marxist, a small dapper man who loved Charlie Chaplin but whose sternness frightened me. My father’s father was an architect (really more a combination of a builder and a technical draughtsman, I think), a lover of wine, a sportsman, an inveterate teaser, a big lion of a man whose flashing gold fillings fascinated me. My father’s family had a car and a television; my mother’s family had neither. My father’s family skied or crammed in the car to vacation on the Dalmation coast; my mother’s rented rooms in boarding houses in the Alps where they hiked every day.

But no matter what luxury goods they had or where they vacationed, my father’s parents and relatives were peasants. When years later I discovered John Berger’s Into Their Labours trilogy, his brilliant tales of peasant life in the French alps in the middle part of the 20th century, I recognized its world immediately. The village where my father’s parents lived—a place that, when I lived for a time in Switzerland in my early 20s, I thought of as the most soul-crushingly boring place I had ever lived, even worse than the Canadian prairie I was trying to escape, the same prairie I now think of as the most beautiful place in the world—was set in the middle of farmland. In fact, there was a small farm right next to their house, with fly-spattered cows and a farmhouse with attached stables that stood right on the main road through town, puzzling to my Canadian sensibility, where farms where huge and far from anywhere people might live. And my grandfather’s nephew was a farmer in an even smaller town about 20 minutes away—we’d visit sometimes and I’d peer cautiously at the cows in their stalls, wrinkling my nose at the smell. The nephew lived with his mother, my great-Aunt, who seemed wizened and ancient but always served us pie, the same kind of delicious pies my grandmother would make, in a kitchen that, although better apportioned, was also filled with flies.

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I thought of those flies, and these relatives, all now lost, and that inchoate sense I had that my father’s family was close to the land in a way that alarmed me, when I read Roland Buti’s Year of the Drought, awarded the 2014 Swiss Literature Prize, and now available in a lovely translation by Charlotte Mandell.

The year of the title is 1976, when a terrible heat wave brought drought to Switzerland. The setting is a farm in canton Vaud, in the French-speaking part of the country. The narrator is Gus, short for Auguste, who is thirteen years old and at loose ends during the summer holidays. He helps his father and the farmhand, Rudi, son of a distant cousin, who has Down’s syndrome. In an effort to improve the family’s financial situation, the father has borrowed heavily to invest in chickens, convinced, not without reason, that the expanding middle classes won’t be able to live without regular meals of roast chicken. But the punishing heat turns their newly installed metal-roofed coop into an oven. The fans are no match for the heat; every morning there are more carcasses to clear away. When his chores are done, Gus visits his grandfather, a spritely character who tries to escape the temperature by sleeping in the stall of his beloved ancient horse. He sketches the countryside around the farm, tames an injured dove, stays out of the way of his older sister, a temperamental and self-absorbed classical musician-in-training, devours comic books and, “in the hope that something astounding might happen… acquire[s] the habit of remaining still for very long periods of time.”

In a way, something astounding does happen. A woman enters the family’s life. Cécile works at the post office, hardly glamorous, but she has a certain quality, something that extends beyond her perfume and colourful dresses and little orange Renault. At first we imagine she’s going to seduce the narrator, introduce him to the ways of the flesh. Or maybe that she’ll distract the father from his single-minded devotion to scratching a living from the land. But in fact it’s Gus’s mother who excites her: What is first flagged by her tendency to absentmindedly brush against his mother’s arm, noted only in passing by the narrator, leads to upheaval in the household: the father moves into the guest-room, where he stays even when the mother moves out with her new lover.

The weather gets worse, even the dog faints in the heat. The narrator is angry, unsure, bored, bewildered. He loses his virginity to a local girl he’s not very nice to. Crops wither and burn up. The army is called in to irrigate the fields, but it’s too late. The horse dies, its corpse stinking in the heat, a death the boy’s father responds to by “remain[ing] stoic in the midst of the flies, which flew in every more frenzied acrobatic formations though the vapours that, for them, must have been what we humans call an earthly paradise.”

This is one of the book’s few reflective moments, though the upshot of the reflection is unclear. An ironic commentary about a world that will never, no matter how hard the father works to convince himself and his family otherwise, be an earthly paradise? Or a rueful recognition that one creature’s shit is another’s delight?

Eventually a violent storm breaks the heat; afterwards, at the end of the summer, nothing’s the same, although the book’s tone matches the family at its center. Just as they stoically get on with things—even though the distance that was always along them is now revealed for what it is and will never be repaired—so too does the novel take a measured approach to the change it depicts.

From what I’ve read online, many readers like the father, finding him a sympathetic character, maybe not noble but certainly admirable in his persistence and put-upon-ness. I was less convinced. He’s not entirely clichéd: not completely brutal and coarse. He values Rudi as a person rather than as cheap, untiring labour. He doesn’t womanize or drink (much). He even has a philosophy, a theory of the power of the land. But he is violent; he lashes out against his wife and eventually everyone who comes near him. Maybe it’s just my unease with the whole way of life represented for me by my father’s family, but I refused to sympathize with him. In that regard, I might be like Gus—his ambivalence towards his father is most clearly present in the book’s last lines, when as an adult remembering the father’s response to the death of the horse he reflects on his father’s stoicism:

I thought then that he would have liked at that very moment to be absorbed by the earth, swallowed gently into the depths, in order, at last, to merge with the relics of all the men and women who had been nourished by these once fertile lands.

On the face of it, this sounds like an acceptance if not an endorsement of the father’s belief that “all humanity’s progress… had been made possible thanks to the perseverance of the early farmers,” who had cultivated the idea of liberty and eventually, in Switzerland no less, “had one day risen up from their pastures… to slough off tyranny and plant the seeds of a democracy that would change the fact of the world.” But the description of “once fertile lands,” which seems much more grandiosely intended than a simple reference to the drought, intimates loss or failure, and might be read as the son’s distancing himself from the father’s worldview.

Actually, I think there is something valuable about the little farms that the father and my grandfather’s nephew tilled, beginning with their very scale and inefficiency. (Insofar as this way of life still exists—and even in the 80s it was clearly on the way out, many of the farming villages turning into bedroom communities for the cities of Bern, Basel, and Zurich—it’s only because of heavy government subsidies.) I can get on board with that resistance to capitalism, but in the end I didn’t find Buti’s novel that interested in—and thus not very compelling about—the material and economic aspects of its milieu. (Berger is miles more sophisticated in that regard, plus he’s even more lyrical.)

Although I was glad the mother was given the chance to escape to a new life—it seemed a big deal that the novel was even able to imagine that—I wanted more of her, even though the end of the book makes clear that it’s about the ones who stay behind not the ones who fly the coop. Too bad, because even in her brief appearances her very restraint makes her a vivid character. The narrator’s wish for more affection from her shows us how strongly she has retreated into herself:

I would have liked her to set down her towel and dry her hands, to come over and kiss me, stroke my hair, tickle my neck with the tips of her fingers. When I left for school, she would give me a dry peck on the cheek, a kiss from the very tip of her lips that echoed in the cool morning. Lingering on my skin for less than a millisecond, her mouth imparted no sense of its moistness. She never gave me a tender pat of encouragement to send me on my way. Handling me my lunch-box, she would wish me a good day. As I walked past our big elm tree in the garden, I knew without needing to check that she was not watching me go, but had already returned to her chores.

I notice I’ve scarcely mentioned my grandmothers in my memories of my relatives, not because they weren’t interesting—they were a hundred times more important in my life than my grandfathers—but because Buti’s novel is mostly about men. Maybe that’s one reason it didn’t move me to much more than appreciation.

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The book’s original title is Le milieu de l’horizon, which I think (though my French isn’t good enough to say for sure, so please correct me if I’m wrong) can mean either the middle of the horizon or the world of the horizon. If horizons suggest departures or possibility or even promised lands, then either of these titles could refer to the desire (however impossible) for a different life. In German, the book is called Das Flirren am Horizont, which means The Shimmer on the Horizon, which refers more directly to the heat of the summer. The English title is at once more matter of fact and more hopeless. No horizon, only drought.

Whatever its title, Buti’s novel pleasingly combines reticence with lyricism. We get striking descriptions, as in this scene describing the army’s failed attempt to revive the scorched crops by spraying them with water pumped in from a nearby lake:

The field was in ruins. The water had done nothing but slide in little streams over the black earth, as hard as a reptile’s skin. It had accumulated in dirty, dust-covered puddles in the hollows, from where it would evaporate without ever penetrating the earth to work its magic. The long stems of the plants were still crackling. It sounded as if a fire were slowly consuming them from inside. The desiccated leaves and the beard around the corn husks looked like oakum on the verge of spontaneously combusting. The ground was strewn with little white fish, some of them still flapping their tales. They had been sucked from their habitat, to be tossed about in an immense, dark aquarium, before ending their lives with their bellies in the air, floundering in despair on the bare earth.

Even more than the flailing fish, the water that perversely brings fire highlights the hopelessness of the situation. (It’s not really apocalyptic, though: I think, however, that readers can’t help but think of the scenario as a sign of inescapable climate change rather than the once-in-a-lifetime event that the characters experience.) Even here, though, the imagery isn’t entirely fresh. I remember reading another novel (though I can’t remember which one—it would have been twenty years ago: maybe something Canadian?) in which fish get dropped inland after a water-bomber scoops them out of a lake in the course of fighting a forest fire.

Not everything needs to be new, of course, and Buti plays his low-key hand nicely. He’s given us an enjoyable read, though not one, I suspect, that will stay with me. What I will remember, however, is Charlotte Mandell’s translation. Without having read the original it’s hard to say, of course, but she seems to me to bring a delicate, sensitive touch to her work. I especially appreciated that she left the book’s bits of Swiss German in the original (they’re translated in footnotes)—it might not be evident to non-Swiss readers, but Buti seems to be making an argument for something like Swissness, that a quality of attachment persists across the so called Röstigraben, the divide between French and German Switzerland, as demarcated by whether people eat Rösti, a fried grated potato dish. The narrator’s family has lived across the Sarine for three generations yet they still eat potatoes for breakfast instead of buttered bread and jam.

In the end what I liked best in this novel was entirely idiosyncratic to me, the way it brushed against my own family history. Little moments resonated with me, like the Rösti (a staple of my childhood), or the passing reference to Aarberg, the town where Rudi was born, home, I suddenly remembered when I came across this moment in the text, to a sugar factory (a fact that struck me forcibly as a child—a factory where they made sugar!) and the site of a family reunion where, as a ten-year-old, only six years after the events of Buti’s novel, I played on a team with my father and grandfather. The older I get, the more nourishing such memories become.

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Grant at 1st Reading alerted me to this book. Melissa at Bookbinder’s Daughter has reviewed it too. They both liked it more than I did and you should read them for proper reviews rather than the memoir manqué.