“The Life We Knew Here Is Gone”: Philip Marsden’s The Bronski House

In the years after the fall of communism, Zofia Illinska, an elegant, erudite Polish woman, an émigré who at that point had lived in England for fifty years, returned to the estate she and her mother fled in 1939 when the Soviets and the Germans divided Poland. Zofia was accompanied by an Englishman half her age, the author of this remarkable book; having befriended him when, as a boy he stayed with his family in her hotel in Cornwall, the two stayed in contact ever since. The Bronski House A Return to the Borderlands (1995) is a story about home and exile amid the violence of the 20th century. It is a meditation on the idea of return. And it is a portrait of a sweet and moving friendship that crosses generations, sexes, and cultures.

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Few of the places that mattered in Zofia’s life exist anymore. She was born in 1921 in Polish Wilno, today Vilnius in Lithuania, and grew up at a house called Mantuski, in modern-day Belarus. Her story, like that of so many people in the past century (and in our own), is one of enforced change, driven by the violent dreams of others. The results of those dreams, more often than not, are sickness, death, and misery. As Marsden puts it, describing Minsk in the fall of 1917:

Stooped figures shuffled about, collecting water from puddles. Illness hung over that place like the thunder-clouds. Everyone was ill—ill from dysentery, ill from typhus, ill and widowed from other people’s war, other people’s ideas, other people’s revolutions.

Although the words are Marsden’s, it’s unclear whose sentiments these are. I’ve been speaking of Zofia, but the book is not only or even primarily hers; it’s at least as much the story of her mother, Helena. Helena is the one who experienced Minsk at the end of the First World War; Zofia, undreamed of by her mother, wasn’t yet born. The bulk of the book is based on diaries, letters, and notebooks Helena kept over the years, but for the most part Marsden is telling the story. (We are given excerpts from the diaries, allowing us to see that Helena was a gifted, if somewhat exuberant writer; little surprise that her daughter became a poet.) Marsden hews closely to Helena’s viewpoint—he tells us what she experienced and what she felt—but at times we sense his perspective.

In the Minsk passage, for example, the terrible, indelible image of the stooped figures and the puddles must come from Helena. The simile of illness hanging over the city like thunder-clouds is likely hers as well. (It fits with the language we find in her diaries.) But the final sentence, with its anaphora and its ringing condemnation of the harm done to blameless victims by ideologies and governments, feels like Marsden’s.

Indeed, if Marsden has a philosophy, a take on the material he is describing, this is probably it. There is nothing as damaging as an idea: ideologies are experienced by those who live under them primarily as violence and deprivation. To be sure, the 20th century gave us more than enough evidence to support this idea. I’m reminded of Primo Levi, who, describing Hans Biebow, the Nazi in control of the Lodz ghetto—“a small jackal too cynical to take seriously the demonizing of the race”—concluded that a pragmatist is always preferable to a theorist.

Marsden’s humanism has a lot to recommend it, though it skirts sententiousness. As I read the book—utter catnip to me; I swallowed it in a single day, and loved every minute of it—I wondered a little uneasily what is at stake when we read about vanished worlds, and about the suffering of others. It’s easy to romanticize lost worlds. They have a pathos and a dignity that our own seems to lack. (Here’s hoping someone eventually says that about us—though God only knows what that will mean for the present they are feeling bludgeoned and degraded by.) But we oughtn’t to forget that these lost worlds weren’t just the victims of history. They contained, even perpetrated, suffering too. (Zofia’s parents’ families were landowners on both sides, not tremendously wealthy, but privileged. On her mother’s side, she was an O’Breifne, descended from an Irish Catholic who came to fight for the Czars in the 17th century.) The Bronski House gives us a few indications of that inequality. One such moment is a brief standoff in 1926, when the local peasants refuse to allow the Bronskis’ timber carts to pass through the village, claiming that the wood belongs to them. The situation almost turns violent, before Zofia’s father exerts his landowning privilege and the villagers back down, for the moment anyway. In general, though, the book hews to the landowners’ perspective, which doesn’t so much disdain or disparage the peasantry as ignore them.

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Marsden, however, is too smart a writer not to have thought about these questions. Early on, he describes two photographs of Helena, one a studio portrait from 1919, taken in Warsaw, showing an almost twenty-year-old young woman in “a white high-collared dress,” and the other a candid from 1936, taken on the estate of Mantuski. (Curiously, there are no photos or other images in this book, other than a helpful map on the endpapers. Unlikely that would be true in a book released today. I’m puzzled by the omission; likely Zofia wanted them kept out. Whatever the reason, the absence of images increases the mystery of the lives retold here.)

Marsden wonders why these photos cast such a hold on him:

It was the way this woman, Helena O’Breifne, had crossed the steepest contours of our age; that for me, living in flatter decades, in a quieter corner of Europe, her world represented everything that had been lost, a place of slow villages, muddy livestock and unfenced fields, of time passing with only the backdrop of the seasons, of lives exaggerated—exaggerated in wealth, in poverty, in suffering—lives buffeted by a history no one seemed to control: Helena’s was a bigger world, a crueler world, a world of half-mad nobles living on borrowed time, of noble peasants living outside time, another Europe, an older Europe.

This is beautifully—but also slyly—put: as the sentence amasses its clauses it veers into cliché (the half-mad nobles, the noble peasants), and knowingly so. For as Marsden goes on to admit, the truth is simpler: Helena is beautiful and he has fallen a little in love with her, as so many men will do in this book. (Helena’s lack of interest in men, until she wanders haphazardly into a marriage that to her own surprise brings her much joy, is interesting, and more might have been made of Helena as a desiring (or, often, non-desiring) being, though that would have meant speculating in a way Marsden typically refrains from. This is no psycho-biography.)

Marsden’s love for Helena is of course connected to his love for Zofia. It is refreshing to see how much respect he has for this much older woman. Zofia can occasionally be eccentric—she loves to sail, though she doesn’t know how, and often needs to be rescued—but primarily she is characterized by intelligence, mildness, and remarkable good sense. The trip she and Marsden undertake is quite fraught, especially given what she finds in a newly-independent and terribly impoverished Belarus: Mantuski, her childhood home is gone, burned to ground in the early days of the war; Klepawicze, her husband’s childhood home, has become a communal farm, complete with an alarming Geiger counter that continually tests the air for radiation (Chernobyl happened not long before and not far away); worst of all, the Bronski chapel, containing her father’s grave (Adam died of complications of scarlet fever in 1936), has been ransacked and looted.

But Zofia is never bitter; she never displays rancor to those who chased her family away. (Yes, the past is past, but some of the people she meets were alive at that time, making her forbearance all the more impressive.) After returning to England, Zofia begins raising money to repair and reconsecrate the chapel. Two years later she and Philip return to dedicate it. At the ceremony, Zofia makes a speech extolling her father’s love of the land he spent working and fighting for. Then she adds:

‘But there is one thing you must understand. For more than half a century now, no Bronski has lived here. Once this was our home, but not any more. The family is scattered around the world and the life we knew here is gone. The restoration of the chapel is not for us; it is not for my family, but for you, for all of you—Belorussian and Pole, Orthodox and Catholic. You must look after it as your own home. You must use it. Come here and pray whenever you want, whenever you can—even if there is no priest to officiate; you must say the rosary and in the spring cut back the forest around the building.

‘And be warned,’ she smiled, ‘that if the chapel again falls into disrepair, it will be my ghost that comes back to haunt you.’

It’s a generous gesture, a superb acknowledgement of the inevitability of change and all that is lost. It doesn’t dig up old grudges or wounds. Yet it also ends with a sting—a gentle one, but a sting nonetheless. The past never does fully go away; it always threatens to haunt us.

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Before I end, a few scattered observations:

Marsden makes himself scarce in the book, and it’s all the better for his restraint. He is a translator, a Sherpa, sometimes a dogsbody; he is not the main attraction. There’s a lovely scene in which he and Zofia visit an old woman, Pani Wala Dobralowicz, Zofia and her mother’s former dressmaker, who lives with her chickens in a small cabin near the place where the great house once stood. The three have lunch—there are plates of potatoes and kielbasa and herring, and a bottle of vodka. Afterwards, the three sleep off the lunch “in the close heat of the afternoon—the two widows on beds behind a screen, me on an old sofa next to the stove.” Later he “hears the two women talking behind their screen long into the night.” A sweet moment, from which we, like Marsden, are quite properly barred. Their conversation is private.

So sweetness and gentleness, yes, but that isn’t the whole tone of the book. I’m not sure I’ve made it clear how dramatic, even exciting it is. The family’s escape from Poland at the beginning of the war, across the border into Lithuania and eventually to England, is the stuff of a spy novel. And the book is shrewd enough to admit that traumatic upheaval can be the making of a person. Here is Marsden’s description of Helena’s escape eastwards to Minsk and eventually Saint Petersburg with her mother and their servants and livestock during the First World War:

The forest banished all thoughts of war. Helena felt happy, exhilarated. Each day was different. Her mother withdrew the barbed constraints that normally surrounded her. She relaxed; the progress of the convoy imposed its own loose authority and, in years to come, Helena looked back on those weeks in the forest, seeing the horses’ twitching ears, the arc of the wooden hames, hearing the creak of carts, and knew that this was the closest she ever came to any sort of freedom.

It’s a melancholy conclusion (which is belied by the contentment she finds later in life at Mantuski—though of course contentment isn’t the same as freedom), which captures just how confined life could be for a gifted young woman in that time and place.

I noted earlier that Marsden helps us consider the risks of romanticizing the past. His point well taken, but I am a sucker for this particular past, and The Bronski House is filled with swoony period details, like this one that seems super Slavic and wintry and almost nineteenth century novelistic: in defiance of everything that has just happened, Helena’s aunt holds a ball on a December evening in Wilno at the end of the war. There are no horses in the city; they have all died in the war. So there are no sledges, no carriages; the guests arrive on foot. Marsden gives us this grace note: “In the portico of Aunt Marynia’s home, a great puddle spread out around the rows of felt boots.” (It’s the kind of detail you’d find in a Penelope Fitzgerald novel. No accident that hers is the only blurb on my edition.)

One last thing—and quite a different note: I found it extraordinary to read a book about this time & place that has almost nothing to say about Jews. (They are referred to once or twice, but only in passing, it’s really minimal.) I’m not sure how I feel about this. On one hand, it’s a relief to have a break from those particular terrors, especially given my academic work on the Holocaust. On the other hand, it feels like a huge effacement. Notice that Zofia doesn’t mention Jews in her speech at the chapel. Even she wanted to, she couldn’t. Not because they couldn’t pray there, but because there aren’t any of them around to address. Even in a story filled with loss, then, there are even further layers of despair, even more ghosts who don’t get their due. In the end, I prefer to think of this as a sign of the book’s modesty on the part of the book (Jews simply didn’t factor much into Zofia’s daily life—but could this be true?—and of course the worst atrocities against Jews happened after she and her family fled) rather than a sign of its values.

Too bad The Bronski House is out of print. Some enterprising publisher should reissue it. It would pair terrifically well with the NYRB Classics edition of Eleanor Perenyi’s More Was Lost (hint, hint). I’ll even volunteer to write the introduction. In the meantime, search your library or AbeBooks. This one’s a keeper.

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A Risky Game: Émile Zola’s The Fortune of the Rougons (Guest Post, Keith Bresnahan)

Keith & I are making our way through Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle. My take on the first book is here. Keith’s follows below:

Beginnings. They’re difficult. On the one hand, total freedom to establish characters, contexts, motivations; on the other — and particularly in the first of a projected series of works building on the same characters (or family) — there’s the burden of having to establish all these things, loading the origin with the necessary elements for everything yet to come. So, first installments can often feel weighed down by the historical heavy-lifting they have to do, establishing not just a particular context but a legacy framing the importance of the origin for future developments (if you don’t believe me, watch any of the recent spate of superhero films and see if you don’t agree).

For a project like Zola’s, which seeks “to discover and trace the thread that leads mathematically from one person to another,” to show the ‘laws’ of heredity that bind members of a family together through generations, this origin is especially important. Physiologically, Zola tells us in his famous Preface, the Rougon-Macquarts:

illustrate the gradual sequence of nervous and sanguine accidents that befall a race after a first organic lesion and, according to environment, determine in each individual member of the race those feeling, desires, and passions — in sum, all the natural and instinctive manifestations of humanity – whose outcomes are conventionally described in terms of ‘virtue’ or ‘vice’.

Moreover, these accidents will, over a series of 20 novels, tell the story of the Second Empire — that “strange period of human folly and shame,” in which the “ravenous appetites” of this family matches “the great upsurge of our age as it rushes to satisfy those appetites.”

In the Fortune of the Rougons (1871), the first novel in this monumental social and family saga, Zola takes on not one but two ‘tainted’ origins — that of the Rougon-Macquart family, and that of the Second Empire itself, in the coup d’état of Louis-Napoléon on 2 December 1851. Both the family and the historical era they embody are marked by this origin, and by the taint that follows them through decades. The action of the novel concerns the brief period following the coup, as it plays out among the members of this family in the fictional southern town of Plassans and its environs.

Pierre Rougon and his wife Félicité, frustrated and envious, take the opportunity provided by the coup to improve their social and economic standing in the town, while Pierre’s half-brother Antoine Macquart means to use the coup to get back at Pierre and Félicité for past slights against him. The matriarch Adélaïde Fouque, crippled and isolated by a nervous disorder, and pained by confused memories of the past, dies during these same few days, distraught at the fate of her grandson Silvère, who’s taken up arms (specifically, the gun owned by Adélaïde’s former lover Macquart) against the coup.

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Like Dorian, I didn’t love this book, and found it difficult to write about, especially at a distance of a couple months. As Dorian notes, it’s got a convoluted plot, and is surprisingly staid for Zola — one really misses those intense descriptive passages that, in Dorian’s great phrase, “wriggle free” of authorial intent. I’d agree that if you’re thinking of getting into Zola, you should definitely not start with this one. The good news, is that things do get almost immediately better: The Kill, also next on our list, is an absorbing (if imperfect) book, and in just the next book in the series Zola gives it its first bona fide masterpiece: Belly of Paris, which we wrote about here and here.

Fortune would seem to have it all: family drama, insanity, young love, revolution, death. But I found it all a little too airless, insubstantial even. It never really felt dangerous, or surprising, as everything moved to its inexorable conclusions. The weird trajectories I look for in Zola, where the narrative escapes its bounds and gets twisted in its own descriptive convolutions, or characters are consumed by their inner compulsions, were never as weird or sustained as I wanted. They’re not totally absent – Dorian’s already noted Vuillet’s perverse diddling of the mail-bags, and the Rougons’ bloody dream. I just wanted more of them.

I want to try to address some of the very interesting points Dorian made in his post, about realism vs. naturalism. On the one hand, I think it’s true that the determinism Zola wants to assert here, i.e. the ways in which characters are conditioned by these dual forces of heredity and environment, doesn’t really work – those moments where he inserts observations about this inheritance feel pretty strained (he works this out in the later novels). As Dorian notes, Pierre and Félicité scheme, manipulate, and act, in ways that don’t seem particularly determined by either hereditary or environmental factors.

In some ways, it’s their self-directed activities that bring out most clearly where conditioning and determinism do and don’t reside in this book. At bottom, Zola asserts, “all the members of the family had the same brutish appetites” (all, perhaps, save ­ Pascal Rougon, an oddity seemingly free of any genetic inheritance from either his mother or his father). The Rougons are greedy, frustrated, and envious, scheming to capitalize on opportunity; Macquart is indolent, alcoholic, envious, and greedy, with a self-serving sense of social injustice (It’s his descendants, via the fearsome Josephine ‘Fine’ Gavaudan – of whom we see all-too little here – who furnish the series with its best-known novels: Belly, Germinal, L’Assommoir, Nana, La bête humaine)

Ok, so if this is true, if these appetites are inherited and handed-out through all parts of this ‘wolf-litter’ of a family (the description is Adélaïde’s), then what’s surely important are the differences in how these appetites are worked out, the objects they take, and so on. And here, I would suggest, it’s class, not heredity, that makes the difference. Antoine, every bit the lumpenproletariat, seeks immediate satisfaction of his desires; Pierre, who is just as greedy, and more callous, wants to feel his appetites satisfied within a framework of cultivated taste and social respectability—which is to say, he is bourgeois. And even the objects of his desire are different: not wine, or sex, or even money as such, but a provincial government post: receiver of taxes. I guess my argument would be that these characters, and the narrative as a whole, are still naturalist, in that ways-in-which-people-are-conditioned-to-experience-things way, but that the powerful determinants of character and action here, rather than heredity and environment, are history and class.

Which brings us, I suppose, to Marx. After I first read Fortune a couple months ago, it occurred to me to go back to Marx’s well-known 1852 essay on the coup, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis-Napoléon (I granted Dorian a reprieve from this particular reading assignment!). I hadn’t looked at it since my grad-school days, and was hoping that it might give me a better purchase on the context of the coup as background to the novel; but I was surprised to see how much of it resonated with the rest of Fortune, as well.

(I don’t know whether Zola knew this text first-hand, or any Marx for that matter, despite an apparent acquaintance with his ideas – which this article from the Guardian gives some sense of.)

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The title of Marx’s pamphlet already throws considerable shade on Louis-Napoléon; as every French schoolchild would know, the Eighteenth Brumaire was the date of the coup that brought the first Napoléon to power in November 1799— an event whose conjunction here with the name of his nephew’s less-than-heroic coup sets the slightly mocking tone. And introduces Marx’s great theme here: the 1851 coup d’état, and the Empire it ushers in, are so many reiterations of earlier historical events, which become farce in the replaying. Both Marx and Zola share a sense, I think, not only of the farcical aspect of this political power-play-cum-historical theatre, but also of the way that this moment is overdetermined by a particular relationship to history. As Marx writes at the outset of this text,

Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.

Louis-Napoléon is clearly no Napoléon I, but it’s his more famous uncle, and the dream of restoring the Empire, that conditions the fantasies and actions of the characters here — even as they also rehearse other by now well-established revolutionary roles. As Marx sees it, the old names, the old figures, the old dates, the old chronology, all the tropes of a ‘defunct epoch’ rise up again in the midst of revolutions, and it makes for bad theatre.

 Fortune is similarly rife with images of history coming to haunt the present moment: there’s the old cemetery, where the young lovers Silvère and Miette meet, where bodies used to feed twisted and monstrous pear-trees, and today, though the skeletal remains have long-since been exhumed, the ‘warm breath’ of the dead continues to fuel their incipient passions (creepy!). “Nowadays, nobody thinks of the bodies that once lay there,” Zola says, but by the novel’s end there will be at least one more body stretched out on these stones: Silvère, executed for his part in the failed rebellion against the far-away coup.

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Or consider the Napoleonic prints adorning the Rougon’s yellow drawing-room, center of the town’s Bonapartist reaction; it is the old dream of empire, of Napoléon I, which feeds its impoverished repetition in 1851. And when Pierre and his ramshackle troops spend a panicked night in a nobleman’s garden, on the lookout for rebel armies and their campfires across the landscape, we might hear echoes of the ‘Grande Peur’ of 1789, when rumor and panic of noble plots swept across France. But the most pointed similarities between Zola’s and Marx’s accounts come in the farcical repetitions of historical drama enacted by the figures of Louis-Napoléon and Pierre, his Plassans counterpart.

Marx’s concern, he explained, was to present the “circumstances and relationships that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity [i.e., Louis-Napoléon] to play a hero’s part.” And here’s Zola, on the middle-aged olive-oil salesman Pierre Rougon: “this grotesque individual, this pale, portly bourgeois, [who] became, in one night, a fearsome gentleman whom nobody dared to ridicule anymore.” Pierre’s new status rests on his having saved the town of Plassans twice in as many days: first, during a minor skirmish with the peasant rebels crossing through the Var, during which he places his half-brother Macquart under house arrest, and then (to cement his reputation amid doubts about this first act of heroism) during a second attack on the town hall orchestrated and directed by Félicité and starring Macquart, whom she has freed and promised payment.

Pierre is no great leader, his ‘troops’ a “band of reactionaries” in whom “cowardice and brutality were mingled with stupidity.” His sought-after prize? A coveted small-town sinecure. Such are the origins of the family’s fortune – and they are also, as Marx and Zola both show us, the origins of the Second Empire. The coup, Zola tells us, “laid the foundations of the Rougons’ fortune. After being mixed up with various phases of the crisis, they rose to eminence on the ruins of liberty. Like bandits, they lay in wait to rob the Republic; as soon as its throat was cut, they helped to plunder it.” With a few modifications, this could be Marx, writing of Louis-Napoléon, and the clergy, nobility, and haute-bourgeois citizens who invest little hope in this Bonaparte — but whom, once the coup takes place, heartily accept him as the hero they’ve got, if not the one they wanted.

In the same vein, Zola gives us their counterparts in Plassans, gathered in the Rougons’ yellow drawing-room, happy to let the uninspiring Pierre suffer potential repercussions for being the face of opposition to the Republic:

The game was too risky. There was no one among the bourgeoisie of Plassans who would play it except the Rougons, whose unsatisfied appetites drove them to extreme measures.

When the game comes off, Zola makes sure we don’t miss the connection between this farcical small-town figure and that of his doppelgänger in Paris: alone in the mayor’s office the morning after the first skirmish, “leaning back in the mayor’s armchair, steeped in the atmosphere of officialdom that pervaded the room, he bowed to right and left, like a pretender to the throne whom a coup d’état is about to transform into an emperor.”

The Rougons are opportunists, taking any chance to move up in the world; this is not about political commitment, but about playing the game well, making the right moves, capitalizing on situations, even if a little fraud or subterfuge is required, and a few bodies pile up along the way. This is the story, for both Marx and Zola, of the Second Empire: it is a revolution made for capital and speculation, for bourgeois striving, for those who can take advantage, to do so. Félicité upbraids her son Pascal for his naïveté, his failure to capitalize on his opportunities, as a particular moral failing. It’s a lesson not needed for Aristide Rougon, who in The Kill embodies precisely the kind of ruthless opportunism encouraged by the Second Empire (when being cuckolded by one’s own son is just one more chance to make a deal). When a noble friend tells Félicité that ‘blood makes good manure’ for a family fortune, or an Empire, she shudders. But does not reject it. And, in her dreams, fueled by petty resentment and a desire to bring the entire town under her heel, blood becomes gold.

One of the things the novel does really well, I think, is depict the inertia of life in a small city, and the smallness of political ambition among its residents. Plassans may sleep while Paris fights, as Zola writes; but its intrigues take place in the drawing-rooms rather than the streets, and the point of all the revolt and counter-reaction here, which parallel the larger events playing out in the capital, ultimately only serve to secure the petty bourgeois ambitions of Pierre and Félicité for themselves and their sons. This doesn’t seem to make the Parisian events or their subsequent legacy grand history, though: for Zola, as for Marx, it’s farce—and tragedy—all the way down.

 

 

 

 

Reeking of Crime: Émile Zola’s The Fortune of the Rougons

Several weeks ago now, flush from the success of reading Belly of Paris, Keith and I read the first volume in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series, The Fortune of the Rougons (1871), in Brian Nelson’s recent translation. I promised Keith I would write something about the novel, which he could respond to if he wanted. And ever since I’ve been avoiding doing it.

I didn’t dislike Fortune, but I didn’t love it either. Books that leave me ambivalent are the hardest to write about. In fact, the only thing I loved unreservedly about the first novel of Zola’s vast cycle was the family tree at the beginning of the excellent Oxford World’s Classics edition. I appreciated it as a practical feature (an invaluable guide to the novel’s many characters). But I loved it as a spur to daydreaming about future reading. All of those names had at least one, sometimes more novels attached to them! How amazing was that?

Dreaming of the future was, as it so often is, easier than responding to the present. Fortune left me stymied. No part of it grabbed hold of me the way those incredible descriptions of Les Halles did in Belly (or of the department store in Au Bonheur des Dames, which I read many years ago, but still think about regularly, and look forward to revisiting). Worse, the more I procrastinated, the less I remembered about the book. (Its plot is complicated, requiring readers to know something about the origins of the Second Empire with the coup of Louis-Napoléon in 1851. This is an excellent plot summary.) To write this post came to seem ever more daunting.

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Then I read one of those interesting pieces at Five Books, this one about the political novel, as chosen by the novelist Joshua Cohen. (His selections are interesting and unexpected.) Cohen makes a helpful distinction:

What I am interested in, when it comes to the politics of the novel, is the revival of that old debate, realism v. naturalism, which I always took to mean the distinction between writing about the-ways-in-which-a-character-experiences-something and writing about the-ways-in-which-a-character-has-been-conditioned-to-experience-something. I find the tension between those two approaches enlivening.

That certainly spoke to the way that I’d been taught to think about naturalism (though I’d never seen its difference from realism explained so clearly before). More to the point, it made me wonder about Fortune. Is it even naturalist? Crazy question, right? After all, Zola introduces not just the novel but also the entire Rougon-Macquart cycle with these now famous paragraphs:

My aim is the explain how a family, a small group of human beings, behaves in a given society after blossoming forth and giving birth to ten or twenty individuals who, though they may seem at first glance totally dissimilar from each other, are, as analysis shows, linked together in the most profound ways. Heredity, like gravity, has its laws.

By solving the dual problem of temperament and environment, I shall attempt to discover and trace the thread that leads mathematically from one person to another. When I am in possession of every thread, and hold in my hands an entire social group, I shall describe the behaviour of this group as it plays its part in an historical period; I shall show it in action, with all its varied energies; and I shall analyse the aims and ambitions of its individual members along with the general tendency of the whole.

(An aside: the confidence, not to say bald ambition, of late 19th century writers is breathtaking and in its way quite appealing. Zola’s unabashed statement of the writer-thinker as scientist reminds me of certain tendencies in Freud.)

The Rougon-Macquardts descend from a woman named Adélaide Fouque. Eve, not Adam, or perhaps more accurately Sara, not Abraham, is the progenitor of this people. (Unclear that this makes the family a matriarchy, though.) Adélaide married a man named Rougon; they had a son named Pierre. But suddenly Rougon died. And not long after that, to the scandal of everyone in Plassans (a fictional town in the Var department of Provence, but apparently modeled on the Aix-en-Provence of Zola’s own upbringing), Adélaide took a lover, one Macquart, a poacher, smuggler, alcoholic, and general ne’er-do-well. With Macquart, Adélaide had two more children, Ursule and Antoine.

This family history takes up much of the first third of the novel. By the time of its present-day events—that is, the coup of 1851—Ursule has died. One of her sons, Silvère, is taken in by Adélaide. Silvère, an idealistic young man, spurred to Reublicanism by some half-digested readings of Rousseau, plays an important part in the novel, but in the end he is less important than his uncles, who are engaged in a power struggle between legitimate and illegitimate sons. Pierre Rougon, incensed at the idea of having to share his patrimony with his half-sibling, schemes to deny Antoine not just his share of the inheritance but also any material success from the societal upheaval brought about by the coup.

This scheming is rather convoluted and pretty ironic, inasmuch as much of it works out only by accident, and the parts that come about by design are the brainchild of Pierre’s formidable wife, Félicité. (It’s fascinating to see how this character, introduced as petty and grasping, develops into a formidable and ruthless figure. I wanted more of her.) But regardless of where it comes from and how effective it is, the scheming is still scheming. That is, it’s the result of characters conspiring to do things. And in that sense, it seems contrary to the conditioning vaunted by naturalism.

Because Plassans is so far from Paris, it takes a long time for people to know what’s happening to the government, and to shape their responses accordingly. History, if only in the farcical version proposed by Marx in his famous depiction of Louis-Napoléon’s coup, might be the ultimate driver of events, but Zola never shows us those events directly. We only get rumours and reports, especially from the Rougon’s eldest son, Eugène, who, having trained as a lawyer, lit out for the capital years before and, long having seemed to his family almost totally unaccomplished, now reveals himself as a key mover and shaker in the plot to bring Bonaparte to power. Although we don’t ever see any of that orchestration directly, his reports to his parents about when and how they should act in order to get on the Bonapartist bandwagon early enough to set themselves up for the plum political appointment that is all they want out of life present Eugène as a shadowy mastermind, and his parents, especially his mother, as the initially suspicious but ultimately shocked and grateful beneficiaries of that knowledge.

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Why am I going on about this? Because even if Eugène is telling them what to do, Pierre and Félicité still make a lot of decisions, admittedly often in response to events beyond their control. This sort of political action doesn’t seem like the “heredity is destiny” stuff Zola is on about in his preface. To be sure, the novel has its share of such material. The girl Miette, who together with her lover Silvère dies for the failed Republican cause, feels herself to be “living under a curse” because of the actions of her father, a murderer. Similarly, the original Macquart is described as the product of his lifestyle: he has “the furtive, melancholic look of a man of tramp-like instincts, gone to the bad because of wine and the life of an outcast.” Eugène, the Parisian politician, is said to look just like his father but to have the temperament of his mother: “By one of those alleged quirks of nature, of which science is now beginning to discover the laws, if Eugène’s physical resemblance to Pierre was total, Félicité seemed to have provided him with his brains.” But such moments are asserted by the narrator rather than expressed through the text. Most of the novel is instead made up of what Cohen calls realism: ways in which the characters experience something.

There’s nothing wrong with the novel’s surprising realist tendencies, and besides I doubt it’s possible definitely to separate realism from naturalism. But I was a little disappointed by how little the novel emphasized determinism. On reflection, I think that’s not because I think determinism explains the world but because what I like most in Zola is when the naturalist stuff—the ways in which characters are conditioned to experience things—comes out indirectly in the text rather than being baldly asserted by it, as if they were mere instructions for an experiment set by the writer.

Mostly what I missed here in comparison to other Zola novels I’ve read is the weird, fantastical stuff, like those extended descriptions of fruits and vegetables in Belly that seem to wriggle free from their creator’s intentions.

Happily, there are a few such moments here. In his admirable introduction, the translator Nelson gives one: an almost Gothic little scene suggesting Pierre and Félicité will never escape the bloodthirstiness of their actions, no matter how rich it’s made them. Here they are, having consoled each other before bed that their troubles will soon be over and fallen into the sleep of the sanctimonious, watched over only by the reflection of the night lamp:

They kissed each other again and fell asleep. The patch of light on the ceiling now seemed to be assuming the shape of a terrified eye, staring unblinking at the pale slumbering couple, who now reeked of crime under their sheets, and were dreaming that they could see blood raining down in big drops and turning into gold coins as they landed on the floor.

Only the narrator sees the “terrified” eye; the couple sees only the perverse transubstantiation of bloody deeds into filthy lucre. It tells you everything you need to know about them that this vision comes to them in dreams rather than nightmares.

A less sanguinary, more coolly ironic detail is the mirror in the city hall, which is shot to pieces by accident but becomes a synecdoche for the blood-thirstiness of the revolutionaries that the good burghers of Plassans must put down at all costs.

Or how about this description of a creep named Vuillet, a bookseller and newspaper publisher, who for purely pigheaded reasons takes the opposing line to Rougon (but is eventually brought to heel by Félicité). In the tumult of the hour, when it is unclear whether the Republicans will take the town, Vuillet sneaks into the post office and gorges himself on secrets:

Never had Vuillet felt so happy. Since he had been able to slip his little fingers into the mailbag he had tasted the most exquisite pleasures, the pleasures of a prurient priest about to relish the confessions of his penitents. [He’s like someone logging on to Facebook.] All the sly indiscretions, all the vague chatter of sacristies resounded in his ears. He poked his long, pale nose into the letters, gazed amorously at the addresses with his suspicious eyes, felt the envelopes just as young abbes feel the souls of young virgins. He experienced endless enjoyment, he was titillated by endless temptations. The thousand secrets of Plassans lay there. … Vuillet was one of those terribly bitter, cold-blooded gossips who know everything, worm out everything, but never repeat what they know except to deal somebody a mortal blow. He had often longed to plunge his arms into the public letter-box. Since the previous evening the little postmaster’s office had become a big confessional full of shadows and religious mystery, in which he nearly fainted in rapture as he sniffed the letters which exhaled vague longings and trembling confessions.

You can see from the description of Vuillet as molester and the Rougons as murderous profiteers that Zola has no affection for the counter-revolutionaries. But he’s ambivalent about the Republicans, too. Here he is describing their naivety at thinking the rest of the country shares in their ideals:

Intoxicated by their belief in the general insurrection of which they had dreamed, they fancied that France was following their example; they imagined that, on the other side of the Viorne, in that vast ocean of diffuse light, there were endless columns of men rushing like themselves to the defense of the Republic. In their naivety and self-delusion, so characteristic of crowds, their simple minds imagined that victory would be easy.

The only people Zola seems to have any affection for are the young lovers Miette and Silvère; when he makes fun of them it is in a teasing, affectionate, kind-hearted way. Here he is describing their nightly parting in a walled-off patch of waste ground called the Aire Saint-Mittre:

Of all the sounds that reached them only one made them feel uneasy, that of the clocks striking slowly in the darkness. At times, when the hour struck they pretended not to hear, at other moments they stopped short as if in protest. But they could not go on forever giving themselves ten minutes grace, and so the time came when they were at last obliged to say goodnight. They would have played and chattered away until dawn, arm in arm, in order to enjoy that strange feeling of breathless excitement that never failed to surprise them. Then Miette reluctantly climbed up on the wall again. But that was not the end, for they would linger over their leave-taking for a good quarter of an hour. When the girl had climbed up on the wall she remained there with her elbows on the coping and her feet supported by the branches of the mulberry tree which she used as a ladder. Silvère, standing on the tombstone, was able to take her hands again, and continue their whispered conversation. They repeated “See you tomorrow!” a dozen times, and yet still found something more to say.

No matter how sweet this young love, it seems ominous that the site of these assignations—so interestingly described in the first chapter (the best in the book)—is a former graveyard. (There’s a ghoulish description of the way, thirty years before, the bodies were dug up and transported, slowly and in full view of the townspeople, with “fragments of bone and handfuls of black soil” scattered at every jolt of the carts to their resting place in the new cemetery.) At such moments, the novel makes us feel the taint or curse that elsewhere it simply asserts.

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Maybe the reason the novel is ultimately always more critical than affectionate is that to be otherwise would get in the way of the attitude it values most of all: dispassionate diagnosis. Pierre and Félicité’s second son, after Eugène, is Pascal, who becomes a doctor. During the insurrection, Pascal treats the wounded, no matter what side they are on. In the aftermath of the fray he runs into his cousin Silvère, whipped up into revolutionary fever:

Pascal listened with a smile, and watched the youth’s features and vigorous facial expressions with great interest, as if he were studying a patient or analyzing a passion, to ascertain what might lie behind this fever of excitement.

The climax of this dispassionateness comes when Pascal observes his dying and now mad grandmother, the family matriarch/progenitor, though here reduced, in his observations, to something like an insect or plant or tree, something to be studied, at any rate:

Pascal looked intently at the madwoman, then at his father and uncle; his professional instincts were getting the better of him; he studied the mother and the sons, with the fascination of a naturalist observing the metamorphosis of an insect. He pondered over the growth of the family, with its different branches springing from one parent stock, whose sap carried the same seeds to the furthest twigs, which bent in different directions according to the ambient sunshine or shade. For a moment he thought he could see, in a flash, the future of the Rougon-Macquart family, a pack of wild, satiated appetites in the midst of a blaze of gold and blood.

Here character merges with author (this passage could have come from Zola’s preface). Zola is less contemptuous than his near-contemporary Flaubert, but I wouldn’t call him warm. I’m curious to read the book about Pascal, to see whether Zola will eventually deign to admire someone unreservedly, and what such admiration would look like, but I gather that’s the last one of the series, so it looks like I’ll be waiting a while.

In sum: If you’re new to Zola, I wouldn’t recommend starting with this book. Maybe I should have waited even longer to read it, got a few more of the series under my belt, but I can already tell there’s no perfect place to start with the Rougon-Macquart cycle. You just have to plunge into it, with the understanding that you’ll miss some things at first but knowing that you’ll be able to revisit bits of it in the light of the discoveries to come. Next stop: The Kill.

 

On Teaching Anna Kavan’s Ice

Like all teachers, I’m always tinkering with my syllabi. Sometimes I’ll add texts I haven’t taught before. More rarely I’ll do something even more outrageous (exciting, foolish: choose your adjective): I’ll assign something I’ve never even read.

Before you get too excited (is he crazy? What a charlatan!), know that when I say I’ve never read it I’m not saying I’ve simply plucked the book off a shelf at random. It’s possible to know quite a bit about books we haven’t read—maybe we’ve glanced at them, paged through them, read snippets and summaries of. But I still couldn’t say in any meaningful sense of the term that I’ve read the book.

(Why do such a thing? Setting aside laziness or chronic over-commitment—academic summers are pretty full and it’s not easy to get to everything you mean to read—the main reason is to mimic students’ experience: it’s never a bad idea to remember what it’s like at the other side of the seminar table. (Answer: hard and stressful.) Teaching something for the first time, although always kind of a cluster, can be exciting and an excellent way to reckon with a book in a pretty intense way.)

This past semester I taught one book I’d never read before: Anna Kavan’s Ice, first published in 1967 and recently reissued by Penguin Classics. I assigned it in Experimental 20th Century British Fiction, a class I’ve taught many times (this was probably its sixth or seventh iteration). As I said, I don’t pull this trick of teaching something brand new too often, but whenever I do I choose something I am pretty sure I am going to like. Well, there’s a first time for everything. I did not like Ice. But my struggles teaching it taught me some things, especially about I value in a book, and, not unrelatedly, about what kind of book is easiest for me to teach.

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First a few words about the course. My idea is that in Britain in the last century, at least, the idea of experimental literature is best understood in terms of Freud’s definition of the uncanny. Writing in the wake of his experience with shell-socked soldiers in WWI and on the cusp of the dramatic revision of his thinking that was first developed in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), the essay “The Uncanny” (1919) is part of Freud’s increasing fascination with unpleasant and traumatic experiences. In that sense it fits in with the trajectory of his thinking. In another respect, though, it is quite unusual: it is Freud’s most sustained act of literary criticism.

Reading E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Romantic/Gothic story “The Sandman” (1817), Freud comes to understand the uncanny—in German, das Unheimliche—as “that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar.” The inextricable relationship between comfort and discomfort inheres in the very etymology of the word: unheimlich contains within it Heimlich, which, Freud notes, means both cozy/comforting and secret/stealthy. Only that which we think we know can truly disturb us. What most has the power to terrify us—to freak us out, even, as in the case of the Hoffmann story, to drive us insane—is the revelation that something or someone close to us is not what we take them to be. The strangest things don’t, at first glance, look that strange. But when we look at them more closely we see how strange they are. And that is unsettling.

I think this idea of strangeness helps us understand 20th Century British literature, which, especially in its post-war manifestations, is often taken to be conventional, formally unadventurous and pedestrian in its subject matter. (The exciting, experimental stuff is thought to be happening elsewhere: France, America, anywhere but at home.) But this is a misreading. After all, the “experimental” only makes sense in relation to the “conventional.” The strangest textual effects, the riskiest narrative strategies, the most disquieting subject matter—these indicators of the experimental might be all the more pronounced when they appear in seemingly straightforward guise.

Having taught the course many times, I have a few fixed points on the itinerary. I start with D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1920) and end with J. G. Ballard’s Crash (1973). (Yes, mine is a short century—I’ve added more recent texts into the mix before, but this arc seems to work best.) I always teach Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. And Beckett’s Molloy (I know, not British). And either Henry Green’s Loving or Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day. (It was Green this year, and I think I’ve really finally figured out how to teach him: went very well.) The past couple of times I’ve taught Barbara Comyns’s The Vet’s Daughter and often I include Jean Rhys’s Voyage in the Dark, as I did this year. Doris Lessing is usually in there too, though this year I took a break. That’s what opened up the slot for Kavan.

I knew Ballard admired Kavan, and I thought Ice might work nicely with Crash. But I’m not sure we made much of the pairing. Both are about violence, and oblique about how they understand that violence. But the books didn’t have as much in common as I’d suspected.

Ice is set in some ill-defined apocalyptic landscape. (Some say it is modeled on New Zealand, where Kavan spent part of WWII. But it feels like nowhere.) The narrator is a former soldier and explorer. Now he is “home,” driving through an isolated landscape in an ice storm to visit the girl he had once planned to marry and her husband, a painter. In some complicated fashion that is probably metaphorical, the girl is abducted by a sinister figure known only as the Warden, with whom the narrator is also infatuated, though he professes to despise him. It is even possible that the Warden is just another aspect of himself—after all, the narrator admits on the second page, “Reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me.”

The book is an extended chase scene (if you can imagine a chase in which the setting is inconclusive and the mechanisms of the chase unexplained—it is not, in other words, an exciting chase scene): the narrator searches for the girl, who doesn’t want to be found by him (until, perhaps, at the end, though the narrator’s description of their final reunion is so self-serving I’m unconvinced), and no wonder, since most of his fantasies about her involve her violation. (The Warden is equally violent towards her; more so, since his fantasies actually seem to be realized. It is hard to tell for sure.) At the same time, the planet is threatened by an encroaching ice age; the breakdown of civilization engenders further violence. Although climate change as we know it today couldn’t have been on Kavan’s radar, the way the narrator talks about the coming apocalypse mirrors some of the rhetoric you might hear today: “The ultimate achievement of mankind would be, not just self-destruction, but the destruction of all life; the transformation of the living world into a dead planet.”

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Ice is short: straightforward prose, less than 200 pages. So I allocated only two class periods for our conversation. I was scrambling to prepare for our first meeting: it was three-quarters of the way through the semester, pressures mounting on every side, plus I was having trouble staying motivated to teach this group. Lots of smart students, but reticent, and, what’s worse, afraid. They worried a lot about saying the right thing, I could tell, and that sort of attitude is terrible in a discussion-based class. I’d tried all semester to loosen the atmosphere, but nothing had worked and by this point I’d mostly given up. Worse, their tenseness had affected me, which made me a less effective teacher. I didn’t particularly enjoy meeting with them, even though all the interactions I had with students one-on-one were absolutely fine.

So the situation was not ripe for success. And I was down to the last minute preparing for that first class. We had the first third or so of the novel to consider. I was wary of both my own uncertainty about the book and mindful that the first day on any novel is usually a bit halting. So I offered a few remarks on Kavan’s remarkable life—most of which I pilfered from this fine New Yorker profile, along with the information that her life-long heroin habit began when she was introduced to it by a tennis pro on the French Riviera, who thought it would be good for her serve!—and then passed around a handout with questions I’d prepared. I split the class into groups and assigned each a question. (I thought about including them, but decided that was overkill. Leave a comment if you want me to send them to you.)

The exercise worked okay: we got at some of the novel’s concerns, but I found it hard to get students to point to specific passages in their answers. It’s always hard to get students to do this—they’re always happier with generalities. But the problem seemed more intransigent this time. The reason, I realized, concerned the nature of the book itself. Ice doesn’t lend itself to close reading. The style is flat, with little texture, grain, weirdness. Even the narrator, so problematic, seemed less complex than I’d hoped. Certainly, he is untrustworthy, but he isn’t seductive in the way of Nabokov or Ishiguro’s narrators, for example. Class discussion felt aimless: we didn’t know what to do with this book.

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As I was preparing for the next class I realized I was bored. I resented Ice, hated having to read it. I found my attention even more fragmented than usual: my thoughts wandered away from the page; I was checking Twitter and hockey scores even more than usual. The last hundred pages were killing me. Now, it is true that sometimes I am resentful of having to re-read books for teaching because doing so takes me away from reading other things, things I’ve never read before, but I’m never bored or resentful. I leave that to the students! I like the books assign. Most of them I even love. So what was going on? And why was I the only one (outside my classroom, I mean) who seemed to feel that way?

I’d decided to assign Ice in the first place on the basis of conversations with readers I trust, all of whom were enthusiastic about the book. And as I prepared to teach, I read what Grant and Max and John Self and others had written about the book (I think Jacqui likes it too but I can’t find her review). They all loved it. But I just couldn’t see what they saw.

Finally, I had an insight that offered, I hoped, a way to think more productively about my resistance. I was reading a passage in which the narrator, who has, for reasons too obscure to go into here, joined a group of mercenaries ultimately in the pay of his nemesis the Warden, decides he needs to meet him face to face. But his immediate superior, the only person in the unit with even occasional direct dealings with the Warden, refuses, fearing that his own privilege will thereby be undermined. So the narrator comes up with a scheme:

For days we had been attacking a strongly defended building said to contain secret papers. He [the leader of the narrator’s unit] would not ask for reinforcements, determined to get the credit for taking the place unaided. By a simple trick, I enabled him to capture the building and send the documents to headquarters, for which I was highly praised.

My mind snagged on that “by a simple trick.” Quite possibly we are to take that as another sign of the narrator’s unpleasant character—look how boastful he—but in that case wouldn’t he want to tell us all about the trick so that we could see just how clever he is? It seems more likely that this is an example of everything Ice isn’t interested in. I imagined the kind of novel that would make much of that offhanded phrase. In that novel, a thriller, say, the mechanics of the trick would matter a lot. But Ice doesn’t care about plot, or plausibility, or cause and effect (its logic, if it can be said to have one, is dreamlike). It also doesn’t care about character, at least not as an expression of a complicated psychology or interiority.

So what does it care about?

I still don’t know the answer to that, which is why my attempt to teach it failed. Pressed, though, I would say it cares about the repetition and re-arrangement of certain images and motifs. But if so, its interest in repetition is totally different than Lawrence’s. We’d spent a long time at the beginning of the semester looking at how Lawrence repeats himself—the most noticeable, and, to his critics, most annoying aspect of his style. But in Lawrence, repetition always leads to difference. When he repeats himself, he seldom uses exactly the same word; he offers slight variations (adjectives become adverbs, for example). When repetition leads to difference, the prose becomes propulsive, befitting his fascination with change. Kavan’s repetition didn’t inhere in her style (she doesn’t repeat the same words); it inheres in her structure (the girl is trapped in one way, then another, then still another).

Thinking about that difference helped me—if not my students—clarify my own values. I care way more about experiments at the sentence-level rather than at the book-level. The flatness of Kavan’s prose offered me no handholds. If, to return to the passage that snagged my attention, the prose could be likened to a strongly defended building, it is one whose slippery surfaces repel me. I cannot grapple with them. The prose offers me no traction, nothing to grab hold of by resisting. At the sentence level, it’s just not weird enough. The book’s weird as hell, don’t get me wrong, but at any given moment it feels so ordinary. In this sense, Ice is the opposite of the books we’d been reading all semester, perhaps exemplified by Loving and The Vet’s Daughter, books that seem straightforward at first glance, but get stranger and stranger the more we look at them, specifically because of their deceptive style. With these texts, we think we know what we are getting (“ordinary” realism—keeping in mind that realism actually ordinary at all, that’s just the straw position it’s held for many 20th century writers and readers) but once we get into them we find ourselves in a stranger place than we’d expected.

Having had us look at that phrase “by a simple trick,” and having broached the question of what Kavan’s novel values, I asked the class: Is this novel boring? The students were reluctant to answer, sensing some kind of trap, but I wasn’t having them on. I told them I found it very boring. But what was boring about it? Was boredom a flaw or a tactic?

One way to recuperate this boredom, I suggested, might be to read Ice as a novel about the violence men perpetrate on women. Such violence is boring. Not unimportant. Nor excusable. Something that ought to be combated (though I don’t think the book has any ideas about how to do so, or if it even can be). It is boring because, no matter how many forms violence takes, no matter what lurid and dismal fantasies give rise to it, it is always the same. In other words, in boring us the book is performing the boredom of misogyny and patriarchy.

Does this reading work? I’m not sure. I am sure, though, that the novel refuses to glamourize violence. On the contrary, it shows that part of violence’s power comes from its resolutely static nature.

In this regard, Ice is quite different from Crash, a novel which also presents violence in an affectless manner but which is also thrilled by it. (It is also so much richer in its prose). Ballard’s world-view—though also quite mad—is less stultifying than Kavan’s, because in Crash violence is equal opportunity (it’s not only men who enact it), and, more importantly, not the point. The point is that violence combined with sex begets fantasies that are transformative and therefore generative, even if in ways that make us uncomfortable. (It’s a book about people who get off on car crashes; it’s about people fascinated by the way bodies can be transfigured through violent collisions with machines. It’s insane, but you should read it.)

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On the course feedback form I asked students whether they thought I should teach Ice again. I’ll be curious to see their answers. My guess is they’ll say no, because none of them chose to write about it for their final papers. And I’m pretty much ready never to read it again. And yet it’s almost always rough the first time one teaches anything. I bet I’d do a better job next time. But I don’t think I’m interested enough to try. Teaching Ice turned out to be a failed experiment. Of course, those are the ones you learn the most from.

On Counterpoint in the Classroom

It often happens that I ask students to work together in pairs or small groups for a few minutes during class. We usually do “think-pair-share”: students write on a prompt for a few minutes, they debrief with a partner, and then, once the class as a whole has reconvened, they share what they learned from talking with their partner. I have the pairs work together for two or three minutes, sometimes five, depending on how engaged they seem.

Sometimes I prepare a series of more involved questions about the day’s text, divide the class into five or six groups, and assign each of them a question, telling them that they will share their response with the group as a whole. In this case they spend longer together, at least five minutes, maybe ten.

This time, when the students are busily working together, is what I want to talk about today.

I find such moments equally satisfying and unsettling. They have a particular texture that, I suspect, is very different for me than for the students. What is happening at such moments? When they are bent over their writing or chatting with a classmate, what am I doing? Am I teaching?

I remember once walking down the hallway of one of the busiest buildings on campus. It was the middle of a class period, and as I passed six or seven classrooms I heard over and over the voices of professors. Some of these classes were lectures, some were discussions, some, no doubt, a hybrid. But regardless of type I didn’t hear a lot of students talking. I’m always conscious that I too am the person who talks the most in my classes. There are good reasons for this (I know more than my students do about most of the things I teach). I’d say I talk more now than I did when I started, for reasons that are both good (I’m more confident; I’ve perfected a spiel that works) and bad (I’ve gotten lazier; it’s easier to talk than to engage in other ways). But my ideal is still a class in which students talk at least as much and preferably more than I do. (I still remember a session on Virginia Woolf many years ago when I only spoke a single sentence for the first hour of class. It was amazing.)

Small-group work has many benefits. It allows people who are shy about speaking in front of the whole class to contribute to class conversation. It helps the ones who need a little time to formulate an answer and who otherwise might be drowned out by students who find it easy to give immediate answers to my questions. And it integrates writing with talking—important because for most people writing is the best way to improve thinking.

When students talk with each other, they wake up, they feed off the changed atmosphere, they gulp down the oxygen that comes into the room. At least, they do when things are going well. Like most teachers, I’ll use impromptu small group work if the atmosphere is particularly leaden (if it’s a particularly rainy or gloomy day I’ll usually come prepared with a small group exercise). Sometimes it doesn’t shake things up. Who knows why. Could be the time of the semester, the day of the week, the weather outside and inside, the intransigence or shyness or fearfulness of a particular group dynamic.

But mostly it works. Things always start quietly; students are shy about breaking the silence. They begin by murmuring, but as they warm to the task they get louder. Soon there is a pleasant hubbub, almost a roar. That’s what I love best. I can feel the class loosening up. There’s more laughter, a kind of ease comes into the room.

I’m not an idiot: I know students aren’t always talking about the thing I asked them to talk about. (Though knowing I might ask them to summarize the conversation usually keeps them honest.) That’s not even the worst thing in the world. If I hear a few groups talking about their weekends or a chemistry exam they just took then I know—though the presence of longer pauses has usually already clued me in—that it’s time to bring them back together as a class. If one group finishes their task too quickly, I’ll go over and check in, ask someone to tell me what they’ve been talking about, prod them to think further, maybe give them another question to think about.

But mostly I stay out of their conversations. Instead I walk, and I listen. Unless I’m teaching a seminar where we can all fit around a table, I always move around the room a lot. Partly because I am nervous and fidgety, but also because I think it keeps them engaged, a little off-balance, in a good way. When I’m asking questions and expanding on their responses—in other words, when I’ve conducting the discussions that make up 90% of my class time—I want to be close to the students: looking in their faces to see what’s happening (are they getting what I’m saying, do they seem confused or bored?) and bringing my presence to different parts of the room. But when they’re doing group work I want to be out of their way. So I’ll wander the perimeter of the room, maybe looking at what’s hanging on the walls (maps of foreign countries, posters listing tutoring times, cheap reproductions of art works hung by God knows who God knows when) or, better still, out the window, if I can. I’ll cast myself outside the space of the classroom, watching the trees rustle in the wind or people hurrying or sauntering along the campus’s walkways or the groundskeepers with their inevitable leaf-blowers. Part of me will be out there, in that space where I don’t have to perform, where no one needs to have something to say about the day’s text. But part of me will be inside the room, roaming.

But this walking is much less important than listening. I’ve always liked to eavesdrop—as a kid I rode the bus a lot, especially when I got to be a teenager, since I took the city bus to school and to work; that’s where I honed my skills of listening in on people’s lives—and these small group sessions are a chance for me to get a (more or less unfiltered) sense of what students are thinking. As I’m wandering the room I’m getting bits and pieces of conversations; I’ll listen for ideas that are repeated from group to group, or for passages that particular groups seize upon. When I can I’ll reference these ideas in our discussions, whether overtly (“I noticed many of you were drawn to the scene at the swimming pool”) or covertly, as a way to structure the rest of the day’s conversation. Eavesdropping is a good way for me to get a handle on misconceptions or just generally take the temperature of the class’s familiarity with the day’s text (if people haven’t read it the small group conversation will be halting; it’s always a tell when students are desperately scanning the pages in the hopes of figuring out what the hell the thing’s about).

As the voices of the students rise and fall, as I make my way around the room, casting an eye outside it and an ear within it, I’ll find myself feeling calmer, even soothed. I’m getting a little break: for a few minutes I don’t have to be the one doing the heavy lifting of making something (a meaningful conversation) out of a room-full of people with their books. I don’t have to worry about time. (When class is going well, time flies by; when it’s not, it’s an enemy, a leaden lump I am forced to try to mould.) And I’m always heartened by the surge of the students’ voices: it makes me feel that something is being achieved in this room—paradoxically, it’s when the class splits up that I am mostly likely to feel the group working together—to feel that it is, in fact, a group, rather than a bunch of individuals who happen to occupy the same space at the same time.

At such times I often recall a scene from the Canadian director François Girard’s film 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould (1993). Canadians of a certain disposition and generation probably know it, but I’m not sure it ever got much traction anywhere else. The film mixes documentary footage and interviews with people who knew Gould and adds re-enactments of important moments in his life. In these, Colm Feore plays Gould, presenting him as gentle and sweet and wise but also strange and demanding and prey to various compulsions, panics, and paranoias. (Much, it seems, like the real Gould.) It’s a good film, and worth your time, regardless of how much you know or care about Gould.

One of the vignettes is called Truck Stop:

As he waits for his eggs and orange juice, Gould, in sun glasses, black beret and wool overcoat, dials into the various conversations around him: a man tells a story about picking up a hitchhiker, a story that seems as though it will be salacious and dispiriting but swerves into a different register altogether; a waitress breaks off her affair with a regular, a long-distance trucker; two men talk sports (the woefulness of the Leafs a topic of almost perennial relevance). We see Gould marking time on his fingers, as if the conversations were a composition by Bach. Girard overlays the different conversations–we’re hearing all the stories at once–but, because he brings up first one and then another, we concentrate on different bits of the general hubbub at different times. This diner fugue is book-ended by Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” which plays on the radio both in Gould’s car and in the restaurant: a more simple musical form, but no less appealing, and important, for that.

Wandering my classroom, I fancy myself as Gould, dialing into first this snippet and then that, but weaving them together into a pedagogical counterpoint that offers an image of what I hope the class a whole will be: a set of independent voices that are nonetheless harmonically interdependent. (Am I understanding “counterpoint” correctly? Help me, musical people.)

At the best of these moments, I feel more than satisfied. I feel exultant. But I’m also uncertain, beset by questions. What exactly am I doing just now? Am I teaching or have I abdicated my responsibilities? Shouldn’t I be taking control and running the show? Similarly, I wonder about Gould’s relationship to the diner’s patrons. He’s with the people but he’d not of them. We get a sense of that distance when the waitress, excitedly, a little flushed, asks “Mr. Gould” if he wants his usual. Is Gould slumming? What is his role here, anyway? Is he composer? Performer? Conductor? Maker of found art? Is he responding to what he finds? Or is he, out of his genius, making something out of nothing, music out of noise? Do the conversations mean anything without his assessing ear?

I’m always worried I’ll let the group exercise go on too long. My worry is in part pedagogical: I don’t want the energy to peter out; I don’t want students to lose focus. But in part it’s more obscure, more personal: am I doing my job if I’m not taking a more active role? Of course, I set the task, I arranged the groups, I’m keeping an ear out for who is staying on task, and I’m the one who will turn this moment into what with luck will be a productive conversation about the text. So I’m doing a lot. Am I being an artist of sorts—is that the best way to describe a good teacher? Or am I imposing order and structure and form on something that might, admittedly, be more chaotic but maybe more valuable, more organic without me? Worse, am I using these exercises as a kind of distraction, whether for myself or for the students or for us all? After all, Clark’s “Downtown,” which is just as important to Girard’s scene as the inaudible Bach that underlies it, is a song about distraction, presented not only as a way to help us get outside ourselves but also, more troublingly, as a way to let us hide from ourselves. “You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares,” sings Clark on the tinny radio. Is that a good thing or not?

Sometimes in these moments that now don’t seem quite as peaceful, these moments when I’m watching and listening and the students are working, I’ll fixate on the close-up of Gould’s fingers and I’ll feel my own twitching. What are those fingers doing? What kinds of cares are they forgetting?

On the Opening Scene of Birth (2004)

Before we see anything, we hear a man’s voice: “Okay, let me say this.” He sighs, then repeats himself. It turns out he is answering a question at a talk he has been giving. We don’t hear the question, but it must have been about reincarnation. He thinks about what would happen if his wife died—though he doesn’t say this, what he actually says is more revealing: he imagines having “lost” her: this movie will ask whether anything or anyone can ever be lost. The man imagines an outlandish scenario in which a bird comes to tell him, “’Sean, it’s me Anna, I’m back.’” In that case, what could he say? He’d believe the bird, or he’d want to. He’d be stuck with the bird, he adds, a little superciliously. (He’s cocky, this guy.) A ripple of laughter alerts us to the presence of the audience. But other than that, other than this extraordinary or preposterous imaginary situation, no, he’s a man of science, he doesn’t believe that mumbo jumbo. That will have to be the last question, he adds. He has to go for a run before he heads home.

It’s hard to imagine anyone ending a lecture this way, but we need the information because the screen, which has been blank, offering only the name of the production company, cuts to the film’s first image, a long shot of a figure, dressed in black and shown from behind, running through a snowy landscape. We put the image together with what we just heard: the runner must be the man we heard speaking. We might have figured that out anyway, but it doesn’t matter if the transition is abrupt, even clunky. This film is about how hard it to make a transition. It’s about implausibilities, too. What happens, it asks, when we take implausible scenarios seriously?

The opening speech is connected to the image of the running man in another way, too. As soon as the man mentions Anna, music rises softly in the background. Flutes, delicate, repetitive, are soon joined by strings and some kind of bell. (I’m reminded of Mahler’s 4th.) After that opening bit of dialogue, the only sound in this opening scene is this music, which swells and fades and swells again, mesmerizing us. (It’s a shame I can’t talk intelligently about music; it’s so important to this film.)

The man is running along a snow-covered road or path, with trees and fields lined with rickety fences put up to stop the drifts. Eventually we see some other people and a road with cars, but only in the background. The man is alone in this magical winter space, which might be a function of the time of day or perhaps more likely a symptom of the privilege enjoyed by the film’s main characters. Anyone who has been there will know: this is Central Park.

It can’t be too cold; the snow on the path is pretty slushy. It’s covered in footprints, though interestingly the man doesn’t seem to leave any. The temperature is probably just a few degrees below zero. Perfect for running, especially if you’re dressed for it, which the man is, though come to think of it his outfit is a bit weird. Who dresses all in back to go for a run? Is he a thief? There’s something ominous about him, an impression furthered by our inability to see his face.

This beautiful, almost stately tracking shot has so far been a single long take. The film critic André Bazin said that long takes give us the sense that we are seeing the world entire, complete, as it is. Whatever is outside the frame exists in continuity with whatever is inside it. All of a sudden we get a demonstration of this principle. In what might be my favourite moment in a film I love to pieces, four dogs run into the image and cross the path ahead of the runner before disappearing offscreen as quickly as they appeared. The runner doesn’t slow down, the dogs don’t return. They aren’t accompanied by anyone. Where do they come from, these dogs? Where are they going? I love this moment because it is an intrusion that doesn’t intrude. It has nothing to do with the story we are about to watch other than that it is a bit of magic, a spell to use a word one of the film’s characters will later use. The dogs are living out a different story than the one we are pursuing, maybe a happier one, since their effortless, satisfying lope contrasts with the more effortful—I was going to say “dogged”—exertions of the man.

He’s running fast, though, making good time through the snow. We can’t catch up with him and as he begins to run down a gentle slope the strings become more prominent in the soundtrack, taking up a waltz tune that will reappear throughout the film. The music is elegant, sophisticated, swoony—but accompanied by enough ominous themes to keep us wondering just how to understand what we are seeing, especially when the brass instruments introduce the sort of hunting themes you’d hear in Brahms or Mahler just as the man runs into the darkness of an underpass.

We almost lost sight of him but then he reappears on the other side and at that moment we have our first cut, to another shot of the park, but somewhere other than the path we’ve been following. The man isn’t in the frame, but we have something else to look at: a word, written in curlicued, somehow old-fashioned script, is superimposed over an image of snowy trees. Finally we learn the title of the film, Birth. (The direction is by Jonathan Glazer, the music by Alexandre Desplat, the cinematography by Harris Savides.) Then, a surprise: the music that has been so important to our sense of the film abruptly stops—well, almost anyway. A triangle keeps the time and, as the title fades, the music rises again. Just then we see the man entering the screen, still running. He disappears behind a rise and the camera tracks backwards slowly, moving us, as we can tell from the curve of an archway that fills the top part of the frame, into another underpass. As we move into that darkness—once we’ve seen the film we might think of it as a kind of womb, or maybe as the passageway from which Orpheus loses Euridice—the score becomes more urgent and unsettling, dominated by loud kettledrums. The man, running if possible even faster, comes back into the frame and runs towards us into the darkness.

And now something terrible happens. The man slows, lurches, leans forward with his hands braced on his knees. And then he keels over, first on all fours and then on his side. Another edit, this time a dissolve to a close-up of the man. We see his face for the first time, but the darkness and his hoodie shroud his features. The man does not move. The music stops. Another cut. Now we are on the other side of the underpass, looking at the silent landscape of the park. There’s still no one around, no one to help the man, only us to witness his fall, though even that opportunity or obligation has been taken from us. It is snowing lightly, wet snow, fall or springtime snow. The camera tracks slowly away from the underpass with its body. The soundtrack, as if out of respect, is silent. Then, quietly, quietly, the music starts up again. We cut to something that is hard to make out. The image is quivering, almost out of focus. But soon we recognize it as a newborn baby, a water birth, being lifted out of the water in someone’s arms. The screen is filled with the baby’s mouth, gaping in what is presumably a howl, and its chest, bursting with a first breath.

This is the Prologue to Birth. Before long we will be asked to wonder whether the baby we have just seen is the reincarnation of the man who died in the park. The film is about magical thinking, and surely one of the reasons I love it so much is that I am so susceptible—or receptive, depending on your inclination—to magical thinking. To this day, I think about this movie every morning on my run, convinced, as I am, that one day, perhaps today, I will similarly collapse.

On Roger Lewinter’s An Approach

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The original project was to write a story in a single sentence without a period. The first draft was completed in ten days in 1989, but finding this first version “too simplistic, discursive, linear,” Lewinter sought to break out of what he saw as the constraining matrices of language in order “to have access to a state situated in another space-time, where everything can appear simultaneously.” Formally, this entailed a “disarticulation” of the sentence by means of interpolated clauses set off with dashes. … Lewinter’s functional innovation—the asymmetrically spaced dash—“allows the horizontal prose ‘sentence’ to be excavated vertically,” and ultimately diagonally, restoring to language its “other dimensions: even the space of the word.”

Last year I wrote a review essay of two works by the French writer Roger Lewinter. Not long ago, the translator of these books, Rachel Careau, told me about a new translation that had just been published at BOMB Magazine.

As much as I liked The Attraction of Things and Story of Love in Solitude—and I liked them a lot—I like this new piece even more. An Approach consists of four iterations, numbered one through four, of a single sentence—if it even is a sentence: there is no full stop—that readers must decide how to read. (We can follow the same number all the way through, or jump between them.) As in the works published last year, An Approach references literary translation (Lewinter has made his living as a translator from German to French), filial devotion, an encounter with a difficult lover, and the banalities of life in a city like Geneva, where Lewinter has long lived. But the text isn’t about those things: rather, it’s about nearly encountering them, brushing past them. For me, Lewinter’s texts are literary cruisings.

Careau offers an even better explanation of what ’s Lewinter is after in his literary experiments in her short introduction, which I have excerpted above.

You can read An Approach here.

English language readers should be grateful to Careau for her beautiful translations of these enigmatic and fascinating works. I gather more Lewinter might be forthcoming in English translation. I very much hope so.

A Note on David Downing’s Spy Novels

David Downing writes pretty good historical spy thrillers. The Dark Clouds Shining concludes the Jack McColl series, set at the edges of WWI and in its aftermath, particularly Russia in the years after the Revolution. Downing takes readers to some unusual places—the Western Front is barely mentioned. Instead, his hero McColl finds himself in the Kiautschou Bay concession (home of the Tsingtao brewery), the Dublin of the Easter Uprising, the border between Finland and Russia, and Tashkent and Samrkand in the early 1920s, where Soviet and Uzbeki cultures abut uneasily. Downing is great at subordinating his historical material to his story. We learn a lot, and quite effortlessly, too.

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Unlike a lot of books set during WWI, especially those involving Britain, the emphasis here isn’t on the betrayal of innocent lives by those who want to cling to power, but rather the new ways of life that arise from the war: a world that begins to imagine decolonization, gender equality, and the liberation and equality promised by socialism and communism. Of course the books also emphasize the failures of these promises, in part by the excesses of the liberatory movements themselves and in part by reactionary forces in the not-quite-former Great Powers.

McColl finds himself working for a country and, especially, an ideology he no longer believes in; his on-again off-again girlfriend, an Irish American journalist—finds herself caught up in the exhilaration of the Russian revolution and then quickly in the disappointing, even murderous reality of what the revolution quickly becomes.

Unable to resolve its socio-political conundrums, The Dark Clouds Shining saves its tidying-up for the relationship between the two leads: a satisfying but also much less ambitious ending. But then again I’m not sure thrillers are ever able to tackle the big questions they circle around, constrained as they are to emphasize individual character rather than societal, structural, or communal concerns.

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If you haven’t read Downing before, I recommend starting with his six-book John Russell series, set before, during, and after WWII and named after the train stations of Berlin (and Prague). Downing feels more in command of that material than he does in the new series, and Russell is more fully realized than McColl (although there’s not really that much to choose between them: they are good guys who sometimes have to make hard decisions and who treat women well—a fact the novels are a little too self-satisfied about). One of the best parts of the earlier series is that Russell’s one-time girlfriend and eventual wife, Effie, grows from a bit part to a central character. In the McColl series, Caitlin is even more important—the last few books are split equally between her and Jack, and she is at the center of their most interesting scenes.

Recently I wrote about two masters of the spy genre. Downing isn’t at their level. But he’s pretty good: absolutely reliable light reading, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

 

Through the Looking-Glass: Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry

Asymmetry is Lisa Halliday’s debut novel and she is clearly a writer to watch.

The novel begins with a meet cute. Alice is a recent college graduate who works in publishing in New York. She is reading in the park when a man, much older, sits down beside her with an ice cream cone from the Mister Softee truck. Alice knows immediately who he is: Ezra Blazer, Pulitzer-but-not-yet-Nobel-prize winning writer of a series of famous and influential books. (Blazer is clearly modeled on Philip Roth, with whom Halliday was at one time apparently involved. The most preposterous thing in the book is that people whose lives his books have changed keep recognizing him; surely that doesn’t happen even to Roth.)

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Blazer tells her a middlingly funny joke and invites her over. In no time at all they are having just-a-little-bit-disappointing sex (gingerly because of his back), and watching baseball (it is 2004 and Alice is a Red Sox fan, much to Ezra’s disgust). Alice is something between personal assistant and girlfriend, running by Zabar’s to get Ezra’s favourite brand of preserves. He gives her things, some little (a sheet of stamps with the portraits of the Tin Pan Alley songwriters he introduces her to, various CDs, a wallet), some not (he pays off her student loans). He invents a persona for her (complete with fake business cards), passing her off as Samantha Bargeman, his research assistant, so that she can join him at his summer place. He gives her books to read.

It’s a May-December romance. Well, not really. She is part caretaker, part lover. He is on the verge of failing health, all colonoscopies and forgetfulness. It’s a bit tender and a bit not. It’s a Pygmalion story. Alice is lucky. Alice is put upon. Alice is being used. Alice is some kind of man’s fantasy:

Sweetheart,” he said. “I can’t wear a condom. Nobody can.”

“Okay.”

“So what are we going to do about diseases?”

“Well, I trust you, if you—“

“You shouldn’t trust anyone. What if you become pregnant?”

“Oh don’t worry about that. I’d have an abortion.”

Before too long, in other words, readers are likely to feel disquieted, indignant, uncomfortable, or worse about the relationship. Ezra is kind of funny and kind of wise but he’s also kind of insufferable. In the hospital after being beset by chest pains, Ezra watches spellbound as a couple across the cubicle lay hands on each other and pray to Jesus: “he could never get enough of humanity, so long as it slept in another room.”

This tart observation is Alice’s—the first third of the book is focalized through her. Clearly, Alice isn’t just a push-over. In fact, the book is more complicated and stranger than I’ve made it out to be. Take the opening. I said Alice was sitting on a park bench, reading. Here’s how it actually begins:

Alice was beginning to get very tired of all this sitting by herself with nothing to do: every so often she tried again to read the book in her lap, but it was made up almost exclusively of long paragraphs, and no quotation marks whatsoever, and what is the point of a book, thought Alice, that does not have any quotation marks.

That opening clause carries the suggestion that Alice is restless, ready for something to happen. Is she waiting for someone like Ezra? Has she conjured him? The preciousness of Alice’s impatience with literary pretension sounds like something from a beloved, twee, almost certainly English children’s book. If Alice’s name weren’t clue enough, the epigraph to the first section—revealingly entitled “Folly—is from Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Alice. (Her last name is Dodge, too, pretty close to Dodgson.) From the beginning, Halliday is taking us down a rabbit hole. But it takes a long time to figure out just how intricate are its twists.

I can’t talk about the book anymore without revealing some secrets. They aren’t crime-fiction-whodunit secrets, but they explain what makes the book unusual and interesting. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

When Ezra plumps down beside her, she is wondering—“somewhat foolishly, for she was not very good at finishing things”—“whether one day she might even write a book herself.” And Alice does.

But we don’t know that until the end of the book, in a short section that is a transcript of Blazer’s appearance on the BBC radio program Desert Island Discs. Asked whether he has ever suffered from depression, Blazer starts riffing on how nations and economies can suffer depression, finding his way into a screed about the complacency of American power. Then he says:

A young friend of mine has written a rather surprising little novel about this, in its way. About the extent to which we’re able to penetrate the looking-glass [WHAT DID I SAY ABOUT ALICE?] and imagine a life, indeed a consciousness, that goes some way to reduce the blind spots in our own. It’s a novel that on the surface would seem to have nothing to do with its author, but in fact is as kind of veiled portrait of someone determined to transcend her provenance, her privilege, her naiveté.

This information is slipped into a section that serves to amplify whatever reservations we have may had about Ezra. With increasing desperation and lack of self-consciousness he attempts to seduce the radio host, and his chutzpah sheds itself of the last vestiges of any charm. But readers of the book—as opposed to listeners to the program—will seize on the information, because it explains the second part of the book, titled “Madness”, which seems to have nothing to do with what’s come before and what comes after. “Madness” tells the story of Amar Jafaari, an Iraqi American, an economist, who is held by immigration officials at Heathrow on his way to visit his brother, a doctor, in Kurdistan. Amar reflects on his childhood visits to family in Iraq, in the schism in the family caused by his brother’s decision to return to Iraq, and his despairing feelings, shared by everyone in his extended family, of how much worse and less safe American intervention has made life. Halliday works brilliantly on our latent prejudices. The authorities refuse to allow Amar to enter the UK, and we keep wondering, despite all the evidence to the contrary, whether they know something we don’t. Could this intelligent, polite, and thoughtful young man be a threat? Is he part of some kind of terror plot?

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The answer is no (though that doesn’t stop British officials have detaining him in airport immigration limbo until he can get on a flight to Turkey), but the point is that we’ve wondered. The epistemological uncertainty of this moment is encapsulated in a bizarre scene in which Amar is forced to undergo a medical examination even though there is nothing wrong with him. Everything in the immigration scenes feels threatening, deadening boredom adding to rising indignation. Even more amazing than these scenes in the airport are those set in Iraq and Kurdistan, in which Halliday shows the increasing despair of Iraqis, the way they begin to take precautions like never taking the same route home or to work; to this she adds the surreal parallel life of foreign reporters and NGO officials, where drunken pool parties manifest the heartbreak and cynicism that comes from reporting on others’ suffering.

Amar’s section—which resonates with Alice’s in all kinds of small ways: remember that exchange between Ezra and Alice about what would happen if she got pregnant? Well, Amar remembers accompanying a college friend to get an abortion—feels vivid, relevant, and plain old interesting. I feel like I know Ezra’s history (he explains it to the BBC radio host). And I feel like I know Alice’s world, and can imagine it intersecting with Ezra’s. But I don’t know much of anything about Amar’s (though I understand, in a much milder, safer, and more privileged way, Amar’s frightening and frustrating experiences with immigration officials).

Because Ezra and Alice’s worlds were familiar to me, I was able to note something a little destabilizing in Halliday’s portrayals of them—the way we were meant to see how Alice wasn’t only undermined or oppressed by Ezra, for example. But I don’t have a comparable seismograph for reading Amar’s story. Which is part of the point. My readiness to find Amar’s story not exotic—Halliday is too sophisticated for that—but fascinating because foreign is built into the novel. Maybe I find Amar’s story so fascinating and plausible because it fits with little snippets of things I’ve heard on NPR or read in the New York Times. Maybe I’m just congratulating myself on encountering foreignness, on expanding my readerly horizons.

Literature is good at introducing us to foreign worlds. But I think what Halliday is doing here is asking us to think about what we mean when we say that. In that sense, her book can be taken as an intelligent contribution to the anxious debate about cultural appropriation: as Ezra puts it, it suggests we can “penetrate the looking-glass and imagine a life, indeed a consciousness, that goes some way to reduce the blind spots in our own.” (The specific looking-glass here is the one-way mirror Amar knows is there in the immigration holding area but which he cannot see.) Ezra goes on to add that this portrait of the other, no matter how convincing and flattering to our liberal sensibilities, is really a disguised portrait of the self, such that any encounter with otherness might be deemed impossible.

That’s a compelling reading, but Ezra is shown to be such a fraud, or at least, such a pain in the ass, that I don’t think we should take it at face value. I think Halliday believes we can learn something from the stories of others as long as we don’t start congratulating ourselves for it, as long as we don’t forget that what we are seeing as the other might just be a version of what we’ve been told to see (which isn’t quite the same as seeing only ourselves).

In this way we come to see the justness of Halliday’s title. She isn’t just referencing the odd, unbalanced, only tangentially connected structure of her narrative. Asymmetry inheres not just in art but also in life. The relationship between the west and the rest, and between those who have and those who don’t is anything but balanced. The connection between art and life arises, for this novel, in the idea of storytelling. Whose story gets to be told? Whose stories are finished and whose are left hanging?

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The other asymmetrical relationship important to the book is the one between men and women. If anything is clear in this slippery book it is its indictment of white male privilege. Ezra isn’t as charming as thinks: his avuncularity is a mask for a pretty ruthless narcissism that requires that he fascinate women all out of proportion to the quality of his character. Halliday deftly makes us turn against Ezra.

But even as I admired her skill here—she never casts aspersions on his work, for example; too many people are doing that these days with Roth—I was troubled by her example of insufferable male privilege. Ezra doesn’t just happen to be Jewish; his Jewishness is at times part of what the book finds irritating about him. It’s true that a disproportionate number of the most prominent abusers who have come to light in the past year or so are Jewish. And in my opinion Jewish men need to have a reckoning about their masculinity and how it’s tied to some dangerous ideas about authority. But I don’t think this book is enabling that conversation. I don’t think it’s interesting enough about Jewishness, except to tie it in a careless way to Ezra’s (and by extension, through his friends and acquaintances and the cultural institutions they are shown to have built, to his generation’s) carelessness and entitlement.

That aspect of the novel disturbed me. But I liked how it kept evading my grasp. When we say a book is slippery we often mean it is confusing or that it is cutely self-referential. But this slipperiness is as thorough going as it is thought provoking. I’ll read her next book with interest.