Reading Style: A Life in Stentences–Jenny Davidson (2014)

The cover of Jenny Davidson’s engaging and inspiring Reading Style: A Life in Sentences features a drawing of a box of chocolates. In the book itself she refers to that box in considering personal aesthetic preferences, which might differ from generally agreed-upon excellence. (If she were buying for someone else, she says, she would choose dark chocolate for its “clear gastronomic superiority,” but if she were buying for herself, she would choose milk chocolate because she happens to like it better. (“Truth is debatable,” she quotes Hume, “but taste is not.”) The box of chocolates might also serve as a metaphor for the structure of her book, an idea suggested by one of Davidson’s most interesting insights.

Prose is Davidson’s preferred genre; thus, as her subtitle suggests, sentences are at the heart of the book. And sentences perform a double function. On the one hand, they are freestanding entities, as we see most clearly in the example of the aphorism. But on the other they are what Davidson calls “load-bearing” structures, connected to the sentences that proceed and follow them. Sentences can be a vector, always leading on to the next, and therefore subordinate to a larger whole. Or they can be an aria, a self-contained unit of meaning the demands that we linger over them, playing them again and again.

Although most works offer both tendencies—and Davidson is often interested here in untangling their effects, as in her marvelous reading of the opening of Emma—it is the aphoristic, aria-like aspect of sentences, what she also calls “sentences of acoustical elegance,” that most preoccupies Davidson. In terms of the metaphor suggested by the cover illustration, then, the individual bonbons matter more than the box as a whole. Even as I write this, though, I think the opposition I’ve made is too neat. Because what Davidson really likes, as she explains in her discussion of taste, is neither the individual chocolate nor the box as a whole but instead the piece of paper her family used to call “the suggester,” the textual explanation of what awaited within each chocolate.

How could it be otherwise for a critic? Her book is itself a kind of suggester, a description that is ultimately an interpretation of the delights that await readers in the box of what Borges called the universal library. All these metaphors threaten to run away from me: I’ll move on, but only after noting that “suggester” seems a strange and wonderful term, an acknowledgement that the interpretation is never quite fully commensurate to the object it describes, but also that there is no failure in that fact, only generosity. After all, what could be kinder than a suggestion? Indeed, Davidson is a kind and generous critic (which doesn’t mean naïve or indiscriminate). Her governing principle seems to be delight and fascination. She’s at her best in showing how the texts she likes do the things they do.

Fittingly, then, the sugester’s book is suggestive. Another way to put it is that the book doesn’t have an argument as such. (Davidson seems a little defensive about this, apologizing for it when she doesn’t have to. I take this to be an occupational hazard of being an academic, where the idea of argument still reigns supreme.) Instead it’s more a list of jottings, a kind of field book of observations as she puts it at one point. Davidson’s close readings do just what they should: they make we want to read or re-read the thing she’s talking about. They help me slow down, they teach attentiveness, they make me see what I hadn’t noticed before, couldn’t have noticed on my own. But even more impressive, to me, are the ideas that Davidson keeps coming out with, some of which are central, we might say structural, and some of which are casual. Here’s an example of the first sort: Davidson contrasts W. G. Sebald with Alan Hollinghurst as exemplary contemporary inheritors of two great literary traditions, the first centered on first person narration and culminating in Proust and the second centered on third person narration and culminating in James. (Her reading of The Line of Beauty is especially fine and has made me keen to read it as soon as possible.) And here’s an example of the second: in a discussion of the limitations of the contemporary Anglo-American short story (exemplified, interestingly, maybe fittingly, by a Canadian, Alice Munro), we get this terrific digression on literary modernism and Davidson’s lack of interest in literary representations of sensation (as opposed to thought or emotion): “it seems to me that the challenge the modernists imposed on themselves, of radically extending what sentences could do vis-à-vis the physiological moment to moment intensity of lived experience, was not in the end a really fruitful one.” That struck a cord with me (and explained the surprising absence in the book of Woolf, surely an important figure to reckon with if we are thinking about sentences). Even though I’m trained in the study of modernism, I’ve always had an ambivalent attitude towards it, drawn to its outliers or problematic figures. In my book about sentences, for example, no one would loom larger than Lawrence, who, I think (although I know this is a minority opinion), is best read closely at the level of the individual sentence.

At any rate, the point isn’t whether one agrees with Davidson here or elsewhere. (Though, as I’ve said, she’s in general awfully convincing.) Instead the point, and the pleasure, is to see a mind at work. So even when Davidson doesn’t convince (she likes Perec and Koestenbaum a lot more than I do) or feels hasty (as in her too-brief discussion of the great Peter Temple—in general, her references to genre literature aren’t developed enough) there’s more than enough here to admire. It’s a book to dip into, to return to once one’s own reading catches up with Davidson’s.

 

In this sense, Reading Style is a bit like Anthony Burgess’s 99 Novels: The Best in English since 1939, a book I thought no one but me knew, but clearly a touchstone for Davidson, and a key reference point in the autobiography of her reading life offered in the first chapter. As it happens, this book was important to me too as a teenager. From grade 9-12, so from the age of about 14-18, I had a job shelving books at the neighbourhood branch of the public library. (I was a Page: a delightful metonymy.) I got the job the second time round. The first time I failed the test—to order a shelf of books—because I got the Macs and Mcs all mixed up. This failure was all the more embarrassing because the head librarian, my future boss, was a delightfully astringent Scot of the kind you used to find so often in Canada. (I remember her telling me once, many years earlier, as I checked out a copy of Ivanhoe, “That’s a good book by a good Scot.” I was too nervous and unformed to get the joke.) This failure hurt me a lot (and I think it surprised her too; she’d asked me to apply for the job). Happily, about a year after the debacle, she needed more staff and gave me another try. This was just one of many instances in which it took me a long time to follow the natural and inevitable path of my life.

The job wasn’t always exciting, in fact, it was often pretty boring. (Even now the thought of an entire cart full of fiendishly thin Juvenile Nonfiction—inevitably the most disorganized section of the library—fills me with despair.) But there is no pleasure like wandering the stacks and happening upon things, and that’s basically what the job allowed, two hours at a time, three times a week. One day I stumbled across Burgess’s idiosyncratic little book. Although I would eventually check it out dozens of times and read its suggestions avidly, unlike Davidson I never actually went out and read any of the books he suggested, though I certainly planned to. I can’t remember his suggestions clearly—part of me doesn’t want to go back and look; I’d rather keep it as a muzzy memory—but I’m pretty sure Henry Green was in there, and I like to think Burgess’s choice unconsciously motivated my decision, many years later, to write about him in my dissertation. I think Gravity’s Rainbow was, too. And I do remember checking that out from the library. (I had to go downtown to the central branch to get it. Serious stuff.) I remember that I even started to read it and that I was fascinated by the idea of it and dearly wanted to love it. But it was too hard for me, too out of any context I’d had in my readerly or actual life. (That one had to wait for graduate school, where, happily, I adored it.)

Davidson, by contrast, read those books and a whole lot more besides. Her long-running blog fascinates me in part because it’s a repository of her really extraordinary reading life. It’s not just that she reads a lot; it’s that she does it without being off-putting or pretentious. In fact, it kind of freaks me out how fast she must read. By “freaks me out” I mean it amazes me and it makes me jealous too. There doesn’t seem anything aspirational about her when it comes to reading. All the things I mean to/want to/promise myself that one day I will read she simply has—or so it seems, anyway. (And I’m not just talking about “classics” or “literary fiction”—she reads heaps of things.) Her prodigious intake is matched by a similar output. As someone who for many years found writing to be a burden, a real psychological difficulty, I am awestruck and envious of this apparent facility. (I recognize there’s nothing healthy in either response.)

In the end, then, perhaps the best thing Reading Style did for me was help me reflect on the double meaning of its title. Davidson is reading instances of style. But she is also suggesting a style of reading, a disposition or way of being towards one’s reading life. My own reading life, I’ve realized, has been divided between what might be called, in a therapeutic vocabulary I’ve found helpful, the critical parent and the nurturing parent. The critical parent is the voice that reduces me to tears, the one that is so compelled by ideas of mastery, of filling holes in one’s education, in reading the things one should have read, that it makes reading, the thing I like to do best, no fun any more. (One name for this parent is “graduate school.”) The nurturing parent, by contrast, which I’m glad to say I’ve been able to hold on to, even if not as effortlessly as I’d like, is the voice that fills me with joy, the one that blesses my decision to read whatever I want for whatever reasons, and not necessarily to any particular end.

I suppose the thing I liked best about Davidson’s book, the thing I’m most proud of myself for in my response to it, is that it didn’t make me envious at all. I didn’t berate myself for not writing it (or any other book). I took what I could from it and continued on with what Davidson in her final sentence calls “our real lives of reading and writing.” That’s an utterly personal conclusion, to be sure, and unlikely to resonate for any of you. But it’s fitting for a book that feels so personal to its author too.

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Summer Reading

I don’t really believe in this as a way to categorize books, but I definitely cherish it as a way to name experience. “Summer reading” means, for me, the time of the activity rather than its content. For in summer, thanks to the academic schedule, the schedule I’ve lived for almost all of my life, the schedule that is at once the best and worst thing about my life, I have the luxury of time to really read.

When it comes to reading I am governed by opposed, almost equally powerful imperatives: on the one hand, the felt need to catch up with some author or period or genre for a writing project or class I’ll be teaching and, on the other, the desire to be led down whatever wayward readerly paths fancy and happenstance take me. The latter usually wins out, but not without the guilty throbs of the former. (Actually, it’s more complicated than that, because the things I feel I should read are also things I want to read, just maybe not right now.)

So here are some things I plan to read this summer, even though of course I won’t:

Something by Victor Serge

More Israeli fiction

Parade’s End (had to put on hold 100 pp in due to vacation and deadlines)

The Long Ships (Frans Bengtsson)

Madame Bovary (definitely happening, because my Proust reading group is transforming into a 19th century French literature group)

The rest of the Martin Beck series (only read volumes 1-4)

Those new Kafka biographies

Pawel’s biography of Herzl

The Levant Trilogy (Olivia Manning) (Read the first volume last summer; excited to finish, especially after now having been to Jerusalem)

The Odd Women (George Gissing)

Esther Waters (George Moore)

Jenny Davidson’s new book on sentences

Elizabeth George (stevereads made me curious)

Dance to the Music of Time (Anthony Powell)

Stay tuned to find out what I actually read!

And you? What’s on your list?

Neuland–Eshkol Nevo (2011) English translation by Sondra Silverston, 2014

I didn’t know until after I’d finished Eshkol Nevo’s engrossing and frustrating novel Neuland that Nevo (b. 1971—the older I get the more I want to know writers’ ages) is the grandson of Israel’s third Prime Minister. I can imagine readers for whom this biographical fact accounts for certain qualities of the book, what we might call its status as a “condition of Israel” novel. But what matters for me about this information is the light it sheds on my position as a reader of this book, namely, one of ignorance.

Consider the title. I knew, going in, that it references a book I haven’t read, Theodor Herzl’s utopian novel and founding text of Zionism Altneuland (1902), Old New Land, or, in the words of its first Hebrew translator, the Zionist leader Nahum Sokolow, Tel Aviv. (One of my fascinations with Israel is the way a literary and intellectual tradition has so clearly and powerfully incorporated itself into the political and material fabric of the emerging state: so, for example, its self-created metropolis takes its name from a novel.) I knew, in other words, what I didn’t know, and I can only wonder what it would be like to read Nevo’s book knowing Herzl’s.

Nor did I know anything about Nevo himself. Cursory online research tells me he’s an important Israeli writer, translated into many languages, a mentor to many younger writers, the recipient of various prestigious prizes. Where he fits in relation to other Israeli writers, or the Israeli literary scene as a whole, however, is a mystery to me. (Does anyone have ideas about that, or suggestions for what Israeli literature I should read next, beyond Appelfeld, Oz, Grossman & Yehoshua, with whom I have at least glancing familiarity? Names of women writers would be especially welcome.)

But even though I read this book somewhat in the dark, I took a lot from it. Neuland is a mixed bag, to be sure: it attempts too much, its various strands don’t work equally well, hidden inside it is a different, maybe more interesting book, it’s at once too long and too short. But it’s well worth reading: ambitious, thought-provoking, engaging.

 

In 2006, in the weeks before and during the Second Lebanon War, Dori Peleg travels to South America to search for his father, Manny, who has disappeared after leaving increasingly erratic and enigmatic email messages to his children. Manny, a hero of the Yom Kippur war and successful management consultant, has taken this unusual journey—he is known, to his family, his colleagues, and indeed to all of Israel, where he is a public personality, as a master of controlled rationality—following the death of his wife.

Dori, escaping difficulties of his own (a wife he feels disrespected by and whom he no longer understands, a small child about whose developmental peculiarities he is overly protective), hires an Ecuadoran who specializes in tracking down Westerners (usually young adults) who have gone off the rails, in one way or another, in Central and South America.

Don Alfonso is one of the book’s missteps, more a way to comment on the foibles of Israelis than a fully developed character, and the back-story introduced late in the text to explain his particular interest in Dori’s search is unconvincing, just as his sexism, fatalism, and scorn for Western rectitude are uncomfortably clichéd.

A much stronger character is Inbar Benbenisti, an Israeli who has fled to South America after an unsuccessful visit to her mother, Hana, who, to Inbar’s dismay, even fury, lives in Berlin with a German. At the airport awaiting her flight back to Israel, Inbar impulsively changes her ticket to the next available flight, to Peru. The sudden flight to the Andes has its roots in traumas both professional (a caller to the therapy talk radio show she produces is shot by her son after the on-air psychologist has urged her to cut ties with the boy) and personal (her younger brother killed himself in murky circumstances during his Army service). Inbar lives with Eitan, a loving soul who designs lighting fixtures. (It says something about the novel’s preference for the irrational over the rational that the man who sheds light for a living should have such a small role.) Dori and Inbar meet cute in Peru; she joins him in his search, and the two enter into a protracted (and smoldering) not-quite-relationship.

The novel’s narrative form fuels our desire that they get together, even as it keeps us sympathetic to the partners and families they’ve left behind, by switching perspective amongst these and the other characters in separate sections. The same event is focalized, for example, first through Dori, then Inbar, and then Alfonso. A separate narrative strand is centered on Inbar’s grandmother, Lily, an early Zionist who arrives by boat in Palestine in 1939 just as the Germans overrun her native Poland.

Lily’s sections, sensitively and vividly written (a whole book could have been made of them, a good book, though maybe a less visionary one, almost certainly the book an Anglo-American writer would have written these days, with the current mania for historical fiction) provide the historical context for the idea of homeland that is Nevo’s real subject, one he both extols and chafes against. That is, even as Nevo seems to think that what has become of the Zionist experiment is problematic and flawed, he never repudiates the experiment itself, he neither devalues the experience of the early pioneers nor upholds them as heroes.

The journey to Palestine and the creation of a new Zion is the historical road taken (yes, the characters discuss Frost’s poem—subtlety isn’t really Nevo’s thing) to the one not taken, at least by the characters in this book, the road proposed by the nineteenth-century philanthropist Baron Maurice von Hirsch who founded the Jewish Colonization Association in 1891 to enable mass emigration of Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe, by creating agricultural cooperatives in the Americas, particularly Argentina. (At one point, 200,000 Jews lived on such cooperatives in Argentina alone.) Nevo reminds us, but wisely does not recreate, the famous meeting between Herzl and Hirsch in 1895, when the former attempted to convince the latter that the Jewish question required a political solution, that is, a Jewish homeland; Hirsch dismissed him out of hand.

Manny, overwhelmed by his wartime traumas in the absence of his wife’s soothing presence, decides to fuse the two men’s dreams after himself having a hallucinatory-induced vision. On the place where Hirsch’s emigrants first made a life for themselves, he will found a new community that will soothe the psychic wounds of Herzl’s descendents. This is the Neuland of the title, at which Dori and Inbar arrive after a journey that owes much to Heart of Darkness, with Manny as Kurtz. Manny’s utopian community is at once the most interesting and most disappointing part of the book. It takes us many hundreds of pages to reach Neuland’s gates (which are inscribed in Hebrew, Spanish, and English with the words “Man, You are my brother.”) But then we spend only a short time there; we’re never sure what the place is all about. Manny defines it as “a communal therapeutic space based on the principles of Benjamin Ze’ev Herzl” and the idea that there is a psychic dimension to the Zionist experience that its ‘actual,” that is, socio-political unfolding has repeatedly neglected is compelling and timely. (A more sophisticated version of this claim can be found in the work of Jacqueline Rose.)

Too bad Nevo doesn’t develop the workings and contradictions of the utopian community. (Reading Neuland I was seized by a strong desire to reread Norman Rush’s Mating, the best novel about utopias that I know, one of the best novels period.) Is Manny a charlatan? The business guru in him hasn’t been entirely displaced by the spiritual one: he’s capitalizing on the so-called Hummus Trail, the journeys made by young Israelis after their army service all over the world, especially South America. For Manny, these young people, who are the primary settlers/inhabitants of Neuland, are damaged in a way that a trek in the Andes cannot repair. He argues that for the “source land” (the name Neulanders use to refer to Israel) to be remade, for Zion to be psychologically healed, the work of redefining how to live in community must happen in an entirely different place.

The novel, then, is a dialogue about the differences between Zionism and diasporism as ways of thinking about Jewish identity. This is of course a discussion, even dispute with a long history: to take only the most recent, disappointing instance, consider the recent accusations made by the Israeli writer A. B. Yehoshua to the Jewish American writer Nicole Krauss that there can be no authentic Jewish life in the diaspora, an affront that matched a comment made that very same week to me by our Israeli tour guide. It’s interesting that Nevo’s novel doesn’t seem to countenance the possibility of the diaspora. Herzl still trumps Hirsch in that the project of Neuland is a project that renovates rather than dismantles Zionism. You might even get a sense from the novel that Hirsch’s plan was a failure. His cooperatives no longer exist, to be sure, but Jewish life remains robust in Argentina (though admittedly less so since the years of the junta in the 1970s and 80s.) I’ve no idea what Nevo’s personal ideas on Jewish life in the diaspora might be, and I can’t imagine he’d be hectoring and bullying the way Yehoshua was, but the absence of diasporic life in the novel is only the more strongly felt by the presence of a particularly weak and confusing plot strand, about the idea of the Wandering Jew (the subject of Inbar’s mother’s dissertation) who is momentarily incarnated in one of the young people at Neuland.

The point of Neuland is neither to give up on Zionism nor to export it elsewhere nor to imagine other alternatives to it. The point is to create a para-Zionism to revitalize the existing one. That’s Manny’s dream, at any rate. I can’t quite tell if it’s Nevo’s. Manny is appealing but also faintly ridiculous. Dori, for one, is clear in his response: his father has gone off the deep end and abandoned him, even though that abandonment paradoxically takes the form of recognition in a way it never did in Dori’s childhood. Dori is disgusted when, with the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War, Manny refuses to leave the children of Neuland for his children in Israel. The novel seems to share that disgust—it never returns to Neuland, nor do Dori and Inbar comment or reflect on it in the novel’s brief denouement, back in Israel. They are too preoccupied with whether they will leave their families for each other.

I can’t decide how much of the cursoriness of the novel’s treatment of Neuland is a flaw of the novel’s construction or a critique of the place itself, and perhaps Israel, too. We learn, for example, that some Lebanese have arrived at Neuland, and the community has yet to decide whether to allow them to stay. (Neither has it ruled yet on the request by some of its religious members that the dining hall be koshered.) These dilemmas of course reflect tensions in the existing state of Israel as it struggles to reconcile its multi-ethnic aspects with its desire to be a Jewish homeland. Nevo might be criticizing Israel for failing to resolve these tensions. But in practice it feels more like something he just doesn’t want to get into.

What does he want to get into? The story of Inbar and Dori’s relationship, I think. But of course that is a political story, too. Inbar’s grandmother, Lily, the Zionist, had a lover on the ship to Palestine. Her lover, a klezmer musician named Pima, turns out to be Manny’s father and Dori’s grandfather (though the characters haven’t figured that out yet). Inbar and Dori could have been siblings. Instead they seem fated to take the road their grandparents never did and become a couple. It makes no sense, in the world of this book especially, to separate the personal from the political. But sometimes I think Neuland is seduced not by the idea of political utopias, but by the idea of personal ones: the idea that people can start all over again, and that Israeli people, in particular, can relate to others without the burdensome, even damaging vicissitudes their history has submitted them to.

 

Neuland has given me a lot to think about. In a way, it’s followed me about. I bought it in the gift shop at Yad Vashem. Then, a day after we’d stumbled across the balcony of the hotel in Basel where the famous photo of a brooding and bearded Herzl was taken at the Fifth International Zioist Congress in 1901, a photo displayed prominently at Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, I opened up a Swiss newspaper to find this perceptive review. The reviewer criticizes the novel’s tone, its inability to clearly reconcile fantastical elements with realistic ones. (I haven’t even mentioned Nessia, a character created by Inbar in her diary but who intervenes in the world of the novel.) I agree with the criticism, but I think the difficulty is more instructive than it is a sign of inability. Perhaps the failure to integrate fantasy and reality, dream and actuality, without simply subordinating the first to the second, is the tragedy of Israel.