Bagful of Books

The Friends of the Library had their sale last week. Here’s what I found:

Peter Lovesey, The Last Detective & The Detective Wore Silk Drawers

Robertson Davies, The Deptford Trilogy (Nice Penguin omnibus edition. Bad Canadian, never read them. Put off by all things Jungian, so might not be a success. But.)

The Autobiography of Arthur Ransome (Probably self-serving, because I gather he was a pretty lousy human being. But he gave me some of the happiest reading hours of my childhood, so I owe him a chance.)

Nahum N Glatzer, The Loves of Franz Kafka

Elizabeth Bowen, Eva Trout, or Changing Scenes (Lovely US First Edition)

Henry James, The Princess Casamassima

Laurie R. King, A Letter of Mary

E. F. Benson, Queen Lucia Part I: Make Way for Lucia (If I love this I will kick myself for leaving the other five volumes behind, but it seemed like a lot of pages to take a flutter on. Isn’t Sarah Waters’s new novel based on one of Benson’s?)

Alain de Botton, How Proust can Change your Life (Skeptical about the book, but not the idea—he changed mine.)

May Sarton, Journal of Solitude (My sabbatical has made me appreciate how much I need solitude.)

Dorothy Dunnett, Queen’s Play (Because I have the first in the series and am apparently convinced I will love them.)

Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim (Perfect. How about this one:

The rabbi of Lublin once asked the rabbi of Apt, who was a guest in his house: “Do you know the old rabbi of Neshkizh?” “I do not know him,” he replied. “But tell me: what is there so special about him that you asked me this?”
“The minute you make his acquaintance, you would know,” said the rabbi of Lublin. “With him everything: teaching and prayers, eating and sleeping, is all in one piece, and he can elevate his soul to its origin.”
Then the rabbi of Apt decided to go to Neshkizh. His carriage was at the door, when he heard that he had been denounced to the authorities and found it necessary to go to the official magistrate of the district. By the time he returned, it was two weeks before Passover and he again postponed his journey. After the holidays, he was told that the rabbi of Neshkizh had died in the week before Passover.

It’s a straight line to Kafka!)

Total: $5.50

Then I walked across the street to the Friends of the Library bookstore and found:

Connie Willis, Blackout

Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (recently possessed by burning desire to read this book.)

Thomas Berger, Little Big Man (RIP)

Those 1800-odd pages brought my day’s total to $20.25. Take that, Amazon!

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Madame Bovary–Gustave Flaubert (1857, English translation Lydia Davis, 2010)

For the past eight years, my wife and I have met with a mutual friend each summer for several days to discuss a novel. For the first seven years of this cherished exercise, we read Proust. But having finished the Recherche last year—undoubtedly the greatest reading experience of my life—we needed to look elsewhere. (Although we briefly considered starting Proust all over again.) After deciding to continue with French literature, precisely because none of us has any particular special knowledge of it, we chose Madame Bovary. In what follows I’ll be assuming you know what happens in Flaubert’s book, so be careful if you’re worried about finding out what happens. Much of what does is quite dramatic, but suspense isn’t the point. What matters is the novel’s way of telling. In brief, though: Emma Bovary is married to a doctor, Charles, whose talent for medicine is as middling as his affection for her is devoted. By temperament and through experience she yearns for more than what provincial Normandy offers her. A desire for passion and intensity leads her to commit two affairs, rush headlong to financial ruin, and experience desperation so intense it can only be stilled by suicide.

At the end of our discussion we agreed that we might enjoy teaching the novel more than we did reading it. It’s not that teaching has nothing to do with liking. In fact, it’s easier, for me at least, to teach things I like. But sharing my tastes with others is not what teaching is mostly about. (Though it’s not insignificant.) Helping students to see how literature works—how a novel or poem or play does what it does—is what teaching is about. I often like a book more once I understand what it’s up to, and I hope my students do too, but the two experiences don’t have to go together.

As my wife put it, teaching the book would require us to be devils’ advocates, championing or at least reconsidering some of the things we found difficult about it. Because make no mistake, Madame Bovary is difficult. Not in its syntax, which is at once perfectly clear and surprisingly abrupt, with little regard for sonority, parallelism, and extended metaphor. (The opposite of Proust, basically.) But in its approach to characterization, its use of irony, and its particular narrative voice, the book sharply challenges readers’ expectations.

Over and over again in our conversations we came back to the question of which of the characters, if any, we could sympathize with. It’s a bit surprising that we did. After all, a book named after a character prompts us to expect our identification—the energy we invest in attaching ourselves to another—to be both straightforward and intense.

But it isn’t. Neither Emma nor any of the other characters in the book’s milieu of bourgeois and petit-bourgeois provincial society in the years of the French Restoration is particularly likeable. For Madame Bovary is a cruel book. (Here the contrast to Proust is striking: Proust casts a sharp eye on cruelty—cruelty could even be said to be his great subject—but his book never seems cruel, for we are asked to understand as much as to judge.) What is said of one character, a famous doctor who makes a brief appearance to tend to the dying heroine, might be said of the book itself, particularly its narrative voice:

His gaze, keener than his lancet, would descend straight into your soul, past your excuses and your reticence, and disarticulate your every lie.

Lest we think the novel approves of Doctor Larivière, I should note that he abandons what he immediately realizes is a hopeless case for fear of being associated with a medical failure. And lest we think this description is a disguised idealization of the task of the writer, as I initially did, I should note, as my friends did, that every instance of writing in the book is an exercise in the (usually willful) misrepresentation of reality. But that “disarticulate” is wonderfully appropriate, since it alludes both to speech, or rather its failure or undoing, and to anatomy. In the latter sense, we can’t help but think of one of the book’s many terrible incidents, when Charles Bovary is convinced to operate on the clubfoot of the groom Hippolyte, botching the job so badly that the leg must be amputated.

But I was talking about the book’s keen, sharp narrative voice. It spends most of its time criticizing things, through the irony and bathos that drive its unwillingness to shrink from, to the point of even seeming to delight in, sordidness (of behaviour, bodily functions, disease, etc). A lengthy description of Emma’s outfit for a ball is followed by this sentence: “Charles’s pants were tight around his stomach.” The brunt of that critique, as this example suggests, is born by the habits, beliefs, and expectations of the bourgeoisie. Emma herself bemoans their stupidity and crudity—and here the novel seems to agree with its heroine—yet fails to realize that she is indisputably one of them. Her tragedy isn’t that she flouts bourgeois morality but that she adheres to it. She cares what people think of her. Admittedly, as a woman it’s hard for her to ignores their opinions. She suffers from being a woman in a man’s world. Gender oppression is one way to explain Emma’s behaviour sympathetically (the stakes are much higher for her in having an affair than they are for a man, as the example of the roué Rodolphe clearly suggests), yet readings of this sort don’t get us very far. The novel is as uninterested in women as Emma is herself. After all, there are no other substantial female characters in the book. Even her own mother appears only fleetingly, in the (perhaps unreliable) memories of her father.

But for all Emma’s interest in men, they don’t come off much better. The ones she’s involved with are mediocre: Lèon is timid, Rodolphe a second-rate Casanova. Even the ones immune to her charms are unsympathetic, from the sententious and ultimately rather diabolical pharmacist Homais to the mediocre priest Bournisien; the former’s reductive materialism is as tendentious as the latter’s belief. Perhaps only the minor character of Binet—a tax collector obsessed by duck hunting and woodworking—comes across well. The villagers disdain his hobby as useless (he doesn’t sell his carved figures), but the book seems to value it.

But Binet is a minor character. Of the major ones only Emma’s father, Père Rouault, is at all sympathetic, although he seems to care more about marrying her off than in assuring her well being. He is shrewd enough to know that she is bound to have been dissatisfied had she stayed on his farm, but not enough to realize she is bound to be dissatisfied no matter where she ends up. That leaves Charles, Emma’s husband, a man so enamored with his wife that he connives at his own cuckolding. Charles is utterly clueless, and as such poses an intriguing test case for readers. Can we sympathize with someone so out of his depth all the time, who misses the signs that his wife is cheating on him and consigning him to financial ruin, and who hasn’t the awareness to be self-deprecating? If we can, it is only because is kind, although his kindness extends only to Emma (and perhaps their daughter, Berthe). He doesn’t bear a grudge—even when he comes face to face with one of his wife’s lovers he refuses to blame him, or her. But is this response laudable, or insipid? My friends and I considered the possibility that Charles is the happiest person in the book, yet we were unable to overlook, since the book never lets us, the delusory nature of that happiness.

The ambivalence we felt towards Charles was only heightened when it came to Emma. Her faults are numerous. She lies, cheats, swindles, ignores her child. She is unable to live in the present, preferring a romanticized past or a fantasized future. She models her actions and desires on others’. She thinks she is much more special than she is. And yet we would have to be unbearably sanctimonious or unreflective to condemn her too quickly. Don’t we think ourselves special? Don’t we model our actions and desires on other people’s, even or especially fictional ones? Flaubert’s most sophisticated move, the final turn of his authorial screw, is to have created an unsympathetic heroine with whom we must nevertheless at least in part identify. We will not find our vanity flattered here.

Susan Sontag once described irony as a force so destabilizing and endlessly undermining of itself that it must end either in despair or a laughter that leaves one without any breath at all. Despair may be more appropriate than breathless laughter in describing the effects of Flaubert’s narrative voice. The only thing that seems to escape this coruscating fate in Madame Bovary is the landscape of Normandy. The newly wed Emma, already bored, takes to wandering the countryside:

Sometimes, sudden squalls would blow up, winds that rolled in from the sea over the entire plateau of the Caux region, carrying a salty freshness far into the fields. The rushes would whistle close to the ground, and the leaves of the beeches would rustle, shivering rapidly while the tops of the trees, still swaying, continued their loud murmur. Emma would pull her shawl tight around her shoulders and stand up.

As the last sentence suggests, Emma is not smitten by this landscape—having grown up on a farm “she knew the country too well; she knew the bleating flocks, the milking, the plows”—and it might be too much to say that the narrator is. But I can’t help but think the narrator prefers the murmurs of trees to those of people. It seems to tip its hand, regarding what it values, in its commentary on Emma’s response to the landscape she does like: storms, tempests, greenery that grows over ruins:

She needed to derive from things a sort of personal gain; and she rejected as useless everything that did not contribute to the immediate gratification of her heart, —being by temperament more sentimental than artistic, in search of emotions and not landscapes.

In its own search for landscapes, the narrator, describing the country near the village of Yonville, is moved to a rare metaphor:

The grassland extends under a fold of low hills to join at the far end the pastures of the Bray country, while to the east, the plain, rising gently, broadens out and extends its blond wheat fields as far as the eye can see. The water that runs along the edge of the grass divides with its line of white the color of the meadows from the color of the furrows, so that the countryside resembles a great mantle, unfolded, its green velvet collar edged with silver braid.

But even descriptions like these are soon ironized. A few lines after this last example, the great mantle is forgotten for decidedly prosaic conclusions: “It is here that they make the worst Neufchâtel cheeses in the whole district, while farming is costly, because a good deal of manure is needed to enrich this crumbly soil full of sand and stones.”

And what about the people who live amongst this land? Is there no hope for them, especially as they become less tangibly connected to it? (I was struck by the relative gentleness of the description of Emma and Charles’s country wedding, in comparison to later scenes, similarly crowded, at a ball, an exposition, and the opera.) In the end, the thing that bothered me most about Madame Bovary was its inability or refusal to imagine fantasy as anything other than a dupe or (narrowly conceived) ideology. Which might be another way of saying I wish the novel were more Freudian. (I recognize the anachronism.) Freud showed us that some of our fantasies are rigid, blinkered, disfiguring. But he also showed us that we need fantasy, and that a healthy person is one who seeks to make her fantasies as enabling as possible. (One name he gave to good fantasy was sublimation.) We can’t take Emma as a warning of how fantasy goes wrong, because there are no other examples in the novel that oppose her way of being. It’s important to be able to be carried away from our lives, especially when they are boring or sordid or cramped, because that’s the first step in changing those lives. In this sense, Madame Bovary doesn’t just diagnose rigidity. It is itself rigid.

A few other thoughts:

• The novel seems tailor made to support the scholar Mark Seltzer’s contention that free indirect discourse in fact distances us from characters rather than, as is usually assumed, drawing us closer to them. This effect fits with the novel’s repeated reference to the opposition of intimacy and distance. Distance—and the critique that accompanies it—is certainly what results from the novel’s use of italicized phrases to indicate clichés, received wisdom, banalities the narrator can’t bear to be associated with. A simple example, chosen at random: “Homais suspected it [the reason Lèon goes to Rouen each week] was some young man’s business, an intrigue.” But it’s equally true of more conventionally expressed free indirect discourse. For example, “Her trip to [a ball at] La Vaubyesssard had made a great hole in her life, like those great chasms that a storm, in a single night, will sometimes open in the mountains.” These sentiments, that language of storm and chasm, are Emma’s more than they are the narrators, even if she doesn’t express them directly. My friends and I spent a long time talking about less clear cut examples of narrative voice. For example, when Charles meets Rodolphe after Emma’s death, and makes an unusually grandiose pronouncement: “ ‘Fate is to blame!’”, the text continues:

Rodolphe, who had determined the course of that fate, found him very compliant for a man in his situation, comical even, and rather low.

Who speaks that appositional phrase? Is the narrator just pronouncing that Rodolphe did determine Emma’s fate? Or is it (as I ‘m inclined to think) Rodolphe who thinks this, thereby expressing his pompous ego? Being able to talk at length over textual intricacies like this is one of the reasons we all make the effort to continue this annual exercise.

• One of the pleasures of the book is that it is clearly rooted in a particular time and place. Thus attempts to make it relevant—to call it the first novel of shopping and fucking, as I believe Julian Barnes has done, or Emma the first desperate housewife—are as misguided as they are trite. Lydia Davis’s version seemed the best of the three we consulted (the others were the Francis Steegmuller and the Paul de Man revision of the Eleanor Marx Aveling). She never tries to smooth over the novel’s abruptness or awkwardness, and she spends a lot of time, in unobtrusive notes, filling us in on the particulars of the material objects—and perforce the ways of life embedded in them—that fill the book.

• I became fascinated by a series of motifs: of open mouths (from Charles Bovary’s bawling of his name when he arrives at school to his posture in death), of tempestuous seas (used as a sign of passion throughout and, fittingly, utterly conventional and thus contemptible in a novel where the sea is nearby but never directly present), and, especially, of a particular mode of comportment, namely, leaning on one’s elbows. So many of the characters—Emma and Charles, of course, but Rodolphe and Lèon as well, really I’m not sure anyone is spared—are described in this posture. So much so that what I had at first taken as an indication of melancholy and the saturnine, in homage, perhaps, to Dürer’s engraving of Melancholia, came to seem pointed, yet another criticism of the bourgeoisie, as if its members hadn’t the integrity, even the backbone to stand up on their own.

• Famously this novel is about a woman, the bits that have stayed with me most involve girls. I can’t shake the memory of Emma and Charles’s daughter, Berthe, taken up by an aunt after the death of her parents and sent to work in a cotton mill (however contemptible the bourgeoisie, leaving it in this way seems worse) and of the serving girl Félicité, only 14 when Emma takes her on, and at first so lonely and afraid that each night she creeps to the sideboard where “she would help herself to a small supply of sugar and eat it alone, in bed, after saying her prayers.” This meager theft foreshadows a larger one at the end of the novel, when Félicité absconds with her deceased mistress’s wardrobe. It surely says more about my own readerly need for pathos than anything about the novel itself that I remember this as a scene of a lonely girl rather than an incipient thief. Félicité can look after herself; poor Berthe’s future is much less assured. Surprisingly, the very astringency of Flaubert’s method allows pathos its full due.

Miscellany (2)

Catching up on some recent reading:

The Singing Sands – Josephine Tey (1953)

I think the book that has stayed with me most so far this year is Tey’s The Franchise Affair (1948), which I read just before starting this blog and about which I can say nothing as interesting as Rohan does. I’d read a couple of Tey’s earlier books before, and they’re pretty vivid, too: a mouth-watering breakfast scene from A Shilling for Candles (1936) has stayed with me for years. The other night, needing a break from a long Kafka biography I’m making my way through, I picked this, Tey’s final novel, off my shelf and sank into it with relief.

Tey became a better plotter over the years (her first book, The Main in the Queue (1929) is a notorious failure in that regard) but plots aren’t really her thing. Solving the mystery isn’t what this book is about. What we get instead is an interesting (and ever-more pertinent) portrayal of a psychological infirmity that afflicts her protagonist, Inspector Alan Grant, specifically a pretty debilitating case of claustrophobia caused from overwork. Interestingly, that very same work, his desire to solve crimes, is paradoxically shown to be the most enlivening part of his life.

Grant, on forced sick leave, takes the night mail to Scotland to recuperate with friends. Leaving the train he finds a dead body and even though the case is nothing to him, and in fact not even a case, since it is ruled an accidental death, he can’t stop thinking about it. The time in Scotland, especially on a side-trip to the Hebrides where the wind scrapes some of his tension away, is indeed restorative, and there is even the possibility of a romance, which the novel surprisingly does away with, by having Grant return a week early from his leave to complete the investigation on his own. The ending feels rushed, not quite a part of the rest of the book, but I can’t help but feel that the artificiality of the conclusion is a comment about the cost, however necessary, of seeking to impose order on the world. It’s as if Tey were saying: all right, then, I’ll resolve this plot for you, but not the other.

Tey writes thrillingly of “the uncanny feeling that is born of unlimited space, the feeling of human diminution,” as she puts it, and evokes the pleasures of the Scottish countryside without being cloying or patronizing.

The Singing Sands left me sad that Tey wrote so few books, curious to think more carefully about her work, particularly her politics, and eager to read the rest of her books.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice – Laurie R. King (1994)

Strikingly good Holmes pastiche, in which Holmes, in apiary retirement on the Sussex Downs, meets Mary Russell, a teenage, orphaned heiress and, more importantly, genius that he trains to be his apprentice and eventually partner. I appreciated the structure of the book, which takes its time, passing through an early episodic phase before reaching the main story line, which itself is split into two substantial parts (with, in between, a fascinating excursus to Palestine in the early years of the Mandate). Holmes really is the character that keeps on giving, and King handles him with aplomb. Russell’s wonderful, too. Is the rest of the series as good? I plan to find out.

Natural Causes – James Owald (2013)

Reasonably competent but utterly forgettable Scottish procedural. Inevitable Rankin comparisons do Oswald no favours. Though, true, even Rankin started small. It’s Oswald’s first book. Maybe the others are better. But I don’t much care to find out.

Transit
– Anna Seghers (1951, English translation Margot Bettauer Dembo, 2013)

I read this as background material for something else I’m working on, and because I never need an excuse to see what the NYRB Classics people have been up to. Without having looked at the original, I can say that the translation seems excellent, and I note it’s been shortlisted for one or two awards recently. I must admit, though, that I was a lot more excited about this book before I read it than after.

Seghers brilliantly portrays the nightmarish bureaucratic snare that refugees from Hitler faced in leaving Europe, the whole series of exit, transit, and entrance visas that had to be obtained from largely indifferent foreign consulates, in the right order, always at the risk that one of them would expire before the next could be processed. (The US Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem have copies of the flow chart prepared by Adolf Eichmann depicting the stages Jews needed to pass through before they could leave Germany in the 1930s, stripped of assets and dignity—assuming of course that they could find somewhere that would take them. It’s chilling in its meticulousness, like some demonic school project.) And she vividly conveys the atmosphere of louche desperation that characterizes the exiled masses in Marseilles. Their lives are so different than the everyday ones of the locals, who are partly contemptuous, partly ignorant, and partly amused by them.

But I became impatient with the existentialist philosophy that underpins the novel, the various references to suicide, the acte gratuit, the tension between fate and will, etc. And I didn’t care for the irritating love affair, if that’s the right word, that the narrator has for a woman who ceaselessly awaits the arrival in Marseilles of her husband, a well-known writer who, unbeknownst to her, has committed suicide in Paris and been reincarnated in the person of none other than the narrator, who happened to find the body and took his papers. Part of my frustration might be with the narrator’s inaction, his apparent will to abandonment. And yet one of my very favourite writers is Jean Rhys, whose books are filled with characters that cannot and will not act.

Whatever the reason, Transit left a bad taste in my mouth.

Seghers’s own story seems fascinating—she made her way from Marseilles to Mexico on a ship that also carried Victor Serge, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Andre Breton—and I’m curious about her other work, particularly the one she set in Mexico, Excursion of the Dead Girls. But my experience of Transit was such that I’m in no hurry to hunt it down.

Ice Moon – Jan Costin Wagner (2003, English translation John Brownjohn, 2005)

Risible German police procedural set in Finland. The protagonist’s wife dies of a long illness in the first pages, and the description of survivor’s grief is the most interesting part of the book. Far less interesting is the actual investigation, and the book seems hardly interested in its purported genre.

Annihilation (Book 1 of the Southern Reach Trilogy) – Jeff Vendermeer (2014)

I used to read a lot of science fiction. But that was a long time ago and I seem to have lost the trick of it. I thought I should expand my genre horizons and see what’s new. I’ve no idea where Vandermeer fits into things (I came across the title in a Facebook thread on good books for long train rides), and I’m hoping others can point me in better directions. I finished the book, but only by gritting my teeth. (And it’s barely 200 pages.)

Annihilation
is about an expedition into the mysterious Area X, a borderland area that’s encroaching upon civilization and which previous expeditions have failed to return from. The narrator is the group’s biologist; she is quickly its only surviving member. I think the book is about sentience and language, maybe about what it means to resist authority. But I don’t really know. I thought the mystery element—what the hell’s going on in Area X? what happened to the other expeditions?—would help me return to the genre. But maybe that’s exactly the problem. Maybe it’s neither fish nor fowl genre wise. I don’t know. It just didn’t do it for me. But I want to read more science fiction. Can anyone help me decide what to read next?

Purgatory – Ken Bruen (2013)

Latest Jack Taylor novel. These are worth reading, especially the early ones. This one is perhaps somewhat less dark than previous iterations—though I’m not sure there is a darker series than this one—but Bruen’s signature style, the almost demented aping of speech rhythms in the prose, has become mannered to the point of near parody. I always enjoy Bruen’s shout outs to other crime fiction, though.

Jack of Spies — David Downing (2014)

New series for Downing (after the brilliant Jack Russell books), this one set before around the time of WWI. I really like Downing. His history lessons—for example, about the Kiautschou Bay Concession (German leased territory from 1898-1914 in China), where the book begins before making it’s way across the Pacific to the US and eventually across the Atlantic to the UK—never feel gratuitous, clunky, or potted. I’m already keen for the next book.

Two Books by Jo Walton

Hope to write a separate post about these—partly because I want to share how much I like them and partly because I wonder how they complicate what I’ve said about my experience with science fiction above: are they in fact even science fiction?—but for now, this is just a note to say that Among Others and My Real Children are really worth your time, especially the latter.

Least Favourite Book by Your Favourite Writer

What is your least favourite book by your favourite writer? I came across this question at Jonathan Gibbs’s blog the other day and it’s stayed with me. As Gibbs notes, this exercise (however artificial—can you really have just one favourite writer?) is quite revealing. In explaining what we don’t like, we see more clearly what we do.

I have many favourite writers (and I don’t care if this vitiates the proper meaning of favourite). But there are hardly any of whom I can say I have read all, or even most, of their books. There are a few more if I include writers who have (so far) only written one or two books. But the wording of this question seems to favour writers who have written a lot.

The writer who best fits these parameters for me is D. H. Lawrence. Some people would say that all his books are their least favourite. He’s certainly hard to be dispassionate about; that’s one of things I like about him. And by dint of predilection and circumstance, his work is of unusually variable quality. A few of his books are pretty generally recognized as bad, that is, as books that might well be suited to being a least favourite. (But least favourite isn’t the same as bad.) I’m thinking about books like Kangaroo or The Plumed Serpent.

As it happens, I’ve not read either of those books. But I’ve read a fair number of the others. And even when Lawrence is bad, he is always interesting. And when he is good, there are few better. It is hard to top that miraculous string of novels from Sons & Lovers (1913) through The Rainbow (1915) and Women in Love (1920) to The Fox (1923)

Any one of these could be my favourite. If forced to choose, I’d settle on The Rainbow, which everyone should read, especially if you care about the great tradition of 19th century English literary realism.

For my least favourite, though, I’d have to look just a little bit later in Lawrence’s career, right after those novels I love so much. As I was thinking about the question, I first hit upon his two books on psychoanalysis and the idea of the unconscious. Psychoanalysis of the Unconscious (1921) and Fantasia of the Unconscious (1922) are pretty nutty. (A little of Lawrence’s quasi-physiological explanations of the source of the life force—all that talk of the solar plexus and the loins—goes a long way.) But ultimately they aren’t my least favourite, even though they’re not much fun to read, because they’re saved by an incisive question about whether it is possible to understand the unconscious, as Freud seeks to do, without robbing it of its power.

So I abandoned those candidates and looked elsewhere. And then the choice was obvious: The Captain’s Doll (1923), a shrill novella that rewrites the glorious Women in Love as reductively and schematically as possible. The Lawrence I love is generous, kind, stirring. The Lawrence I’m bored by is petty, small-minded, point-scoring. Whenever Lawrence tries to be funny, things go badly. His jokes take the form of weak satire. He turns straightforwardly reactionary. (In my favourite works, which some readers have also taken to be reactionary, he’s revolutionary in a way that transcends the conservative-progressive distinction.) Another way to say what I mean is that for Lawrence to be good he has to take himself utterly seriously, with all the risks inherent to that way of being.

In my favourite works, Lawrence marries ideas with intense sensual description of the known world better than any other English-language writer. In my least favourite ones, The Captain’s Doll in particular, he loses interest in the description, resorts to shorthand, so that there’s nothing for the ideas (about, in this case, how men and women ought to relate to each other) to grow out of and be challenged by.

And you? How do you answer the question? What’s your least favourite book by a favourite writer? And what does your choice tell us about why he or she is your favourite?

Open City–Teju Cole (2011)

On the admittedly stringent criterion of Walter Benjamin—“All great literature either founds a genre or dissolves one”—Teju Cole’s Open City is not great. That distinction would have to go to the works of W. G. Sebald, the writer to whom Cole is so obviously indebted. But even if Cole’s book isn’t great on Benjamin’s terms it is really good. It even does some things Sebald’s do not, even though, to Cole’s own dismay—he has said that he isn’t particularly interested in novels—those things have to do with bringing a certain novelistic idea of character to Sebald’s model.

If you don’t know Sebald’s work, I recommend it to you wholeheartedly. But I bet you do, especially if your first language is English. Even though Sebald wrote in German (despite living most of his life in England), he has been championed by the English speaking literary world, which has almost universally taken his work to be something entirely new and compelling. Personally, I think interest in him has been a little overstated (he flatters critics by seeming so open to interpretation and thus has received more attention than other, less accommodating writers might) but he’s certainly pretty terrific. His influence on younger writers, even though his untimely death left his corpus smaller than it should have been, only continues to grow. One of the things that makes him so influential, and so open to critical canonization, is that his work is characterized by a series of distinctive elements: solitary, old-fashioned, even courtly first-person narrators, all of whom seem to be versions of Sebald himself, rather as the narrator of the Recherche seems to be a version of Proust; a digressive yet highly patterned style composed of complex, sinuous sentences; a melancholy fascination with the various crimes of the Western modernity.

We find these qualities in Open City. Its narrator, Julius, who is completing his residency in psychiatry at a hospital in New York after coming to the US from his native Nigeria as a teenager, takes long walks through his adopted city (the walk as an analogue for a certain idea of style being the conceit of Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn). These walks enable extended meditations on an array of erudite, even recondite subject matter, the various strands of which can all be grouped under the concept of change: changes of light, of seasons, of the almost physiological ebb and flow of the city, of the history of the city and the socio-material system of which (through immigration and trade, for example) it is a part. The narrator doesn’t simply bemoan those changes, but he does dwell at length upon the loss that accompanies them, especially in its most painful and even traumatic instances (also true of The Rings of Saturn and The Emigrants.) In so dong, he reveals himself as a cultured sophisticate, a modern-day flaneur, fond of Mahler and Peter Altenberg.

Yet Open City is more straightforwardly fictional than anything by Sebald; it gestures, not always convincingly, at something approaching a plot: in addition to walking around New York, the narrator completes his studies and begins to work in his field, pays infrequent visits to an old professor from college, takes a vacation to Brussels, survives a mugging. One other important thing happens, about which more in a moment; the implications of this events have everything to do with Cole’s particular use of first person narration.

I really can’t think about what Cole is up to in this book without thinking about what Sebald sought to do in his. In fact, I think that’s what Cole wants me to do. He’s so overt in acknowledging his source that he is saved from being merely derivative. Sometimes I had the sense that Cole was messing about with me, so faithfully did he seem to allude to Sebald. So, for example, the narrator’s meditations about subways, underground cities, the Egyptian Heliopolis, in which we find the line “I thought too, about the numberless dead, in forgotten cities, necropoli, catacombs” offer a pitch-perfect parody of Sebaldian concerns. (He’s thinking these things as his plane circles Brussels; isn’t there a similar scene in Saturn in which the narrator’s plane can’t land due to fog or something?) His description of “the dead returning” echoes the famous line in The Emigrants, “And so they are ever returning to us, the dead.”

Less overt, but more important, both in terms of the homage to Sebald and to the concerns of the book itself, is an extended scene from the middle of the book set in a quiet but overflowing shop in Chinatown. Gazing at the tschotchkes crowding the shelves, the narrator experiences a curious doubling that conflates different times and places:

Standing there in that quiet, mote-filled shop, with the ceiling fans creaking overhead, and the wood-paneled walls disclosing nothing of our century, I felt as if I had stumbled into a kink in time and place, that I could easily have been in any one of the many countries to which Chinese merchants had traveled and, for as long trade had been global, set up their goods for sale.

I think your feelings about Cole can be calibrated by your reaction to that “mote-filled.” If it seems precious or stilted to you, you’re probably going to be put off by this book. But if it seems elegant or atmospheric, you’re probably going to admire it. Either way, this passage offers the book’s narrative and structural modus operandi in miniature. Julian’s peregrinations around New York invariably lead him to just such “kinks,” forgotten, abandoned, even fenced-off spaces (sometimes even within otherwise bustling areas like Wall Street and Battery Park) in which he is vouchsafed glimpses into the city’s past. These spaces are usually prompted by memorials of the kind most city-goers pass by (forgotten statues, plaques and the like which paradoxically allow us to forget what they memorialize), but sometimes they are summoned by memories of things he’s read or studied. Frequently these places and moments are connected to the city’s painful relation to globalization: encounters between Europeans and Native Americans, slavers and slaves, settlers and the nonhuman animal world they encroached upon.

The book thus reveals a pervasive substrate of pain under New York’s glittering, cultured, and moneyed façade; perhaps in keeping with the narrator’s profession of psychiatry this latent-manifest opposition abruptly turns personal and psychological at the end of the book. Despite all this unacknowledged pain, these unexamined traumas, the book isn’t depressing or despairing. Walking helps the narrator, responds to some need inside him; it’s as existential and even instinctive as the migrations of the birds he tracks throughout the book. And he’s always stumbling upon extraordinary things: a silent gallery full of paintings by the deaf painter John Brewster in the American Folk Art Museum (isn’t that the one that’s about to be torn down?), a woman davening in the apartment across the way, a secluded fire escape at Carnegie Hall.

The scene in Chinatown offers another such moment of surprising discovery. As the narrator muses amongst its wares, his attention is caught by the sight and sound of a Chinese brass marching band coming down the street. The narrator is immediately reminded of the songs he used to sing at his boarding school in Nigeria. He reflects:

Whether [the music] expressed some civic pride or solemnized a funeral I could not tell, but so closely did the melody match my memory of those boyhood morning assemblies that I experienced the sudden disorientation and bliss of one who, in a stately old house and at a great distance from its mirrored wall, could clearly see the world doubled in on itself. I could no longer tell where the tangible universe ended and the reflected one began. This point-for-point imitation, of each porcelain vase, of each dull spot of shine on each stained teak chair, extended as far as where my reversed self had, as I had, halted itself in midturn. And this double of mine had, at that precise moment, began to tussle with the same problem as its equally confused original. To be alive, it seemed to me, as I stood there in all kinds of sorrow, was to be both original and reflection, and to be dead was to be split off, to be reflection alone. (My emphasis)

An immediate reference here (alluded to directly elsewhere in the book) is Borges’s lovely and sinister parable about the cartographers of the realm, those overweening researchers who make a map of the kingdom so commensurate to its dimensions that it suffocates everyone who lives there. The point of this little tale isn’t to follow the King’s example in the conclusion and banish representation. Instead, it’s to suggest that copies oughtn’t to pretend to be more than what they are. What’s valuable about a copy (or model, any representation at all) is that it is at once like the thing it copies and not like it. In the difference lies the possibility of understanding something about the thing itself.

I think the narrator comes to a similar conclusion in the passage’s final sentence, though it’s hard to be sure. This passage is confusing—it is, after all, about the vertigo of the mise-en-abime. (And the use of the word “reflection,” primed by the mirrored wall but of course also naming the mental activity which the narrator is always performing, combined with the suggestion that “reflection alone” equals death, would seem to trouble our feelings about the narrator.) The strangest moment for me in this passage is the unmotivated comparison of the narrator’s blissful disorientation to the doubling experienced by a person “in a stately old house and at a great distance from its mirrored wall.” (I’ve italicized it in the quotation.) Where on earth does this metaphor come from? Whose experience is it to routinely wander around stately old houses? (If anything, it sounds like something that would happen in a book by Sebald.) And what sort of peculiar mirrored wall would such houses regularly have? The metaphor is so strange that it lingers on, infecting the rest of the passage. It seems as tough the narrator returns to his current location—the store in Chinatown—in his next sentence, where he describes the porcelain vases and the teak chairs, but it’s hard not to furnish that imagined old house with these objects. Yet why would the narrator insert himself (“I”) in the generalized metaphor (“one”)? I honestly don’t know what’s gong on here.

At the risk of unduly domesticating the wildness of this textual moment I do wonder if the function of this moment is to suggest that the narrator might be a bit mad. The more we pursue this thought, the more we find to support it. Indeed, there seems to be something troubling wrong with Julius. To be sure, plenty of things might license his despair: ominous changes in the climate, the whole almost-buried history of violence and oppression that New York is built upon, the aftermath of 9/11, not to mention events from his personal life, like the recent break of up of his relationship with his girlfriend, the casual forms of racism he encounters in daily life, the death of a mentor from college, the unexpected suicide of a patient. But these events pale in relation to the most shocking thing that happens in the book, more shocking even than his being mugged, or his visits to a detention facility in Queens where would-be immigrants are held and “processed” for deportation.

If you haven’t read Open City and think that you might (and I hope it’s clear by now that I think you should) maybe you’ll want to stop reading here.

Two thirds of the way through the book, Julius runs into the sister of an old classmate of his from Nigeria who is now an investor on Wall Street. Moji is introduced as a ghost from the past (“apparition” is the narrator’s word), and that seems sinister in light of later revelations: in this book in which so much that happens is generated via what Proust called involuntary memory there are some very important things, it seems, that the narrator does not want to remember. At first it seems that Moji will disappear from the book: the meeting is desultory, for the narrator seemingly inconsequential, another tedious daily interaction to be navigated and then forgotten. But later we see her with the narrator and some friends having a picnic in Central Park. The two walk to the subway station; the atmosphere between them is uncomfortable. Is the narrator attracted to her? Why is she so irritable? Still later, she invites him to a party at her boyfriend’s apartment. The narrator is one of several guests who, we learn very near the end of the book, several pages after the description of the party itself, spend the night at the apartment. In the morning, the narrator and Moji are briefly alone, and she tells or reminds him that many years earlier, eighteen to be precise, when she was fifteen and he fourteen, he raped her at a party and then acted as if nothing had happened, to the point of pretending not to recognize her when they met all these years later.

The narrator tells us that Moji continues speaking for “six or seven minutes,” describing the details of what happened at that long-ago party, and of the hurtful aftereffects of his actions on her life. She concludes:

I don’t think you’ve changed at all, Julius. Things don’t go away just because you choose to forget them. You forced yourself on me eighteen years ago because you could get away with it, and I suppose you did get away with it. But not in my heart, you didn’t. I have cursed you too many times to count. And maybe it is not something you would do today, but then again, I didn’t think it was something you would do back then either. It only needs to happen once. But will you say something now? Will you say something?

Julius will not. He gets up to leave, but not before telling us what he thought of in that moment: a story told by Camus about something that the young Nietzsche did, namely, mimicking the action of the Roman hero Scaevola, who put his hand in a fire rather than give up his accomplices to a crime. (This material is presented as convolutedly as I have here.) He adds that a few days later he looked up the story and found he hadn’t remembered it quite right.

And that’s it, even though there are another ten or fifteen pages in the book. He never returns to the incident. He neither denies it nor explains it nor admits to it. We could take his reaction—his silence, his rather preposterous, complicated memory—as a sign that the book wants to condemn him. And the “facts” of the anecdote from Camus, and the more important fact of misremembering them could be taken as a suggestion that our relation to the past (whether as individuals or as nations) can only be untrustworthy and self-serving.

But Cole’s bombshell (that is, Moji’s accusation) is so serious, so enormous, and, in its introduction of the personal and psychological history of the narrator, so apparently out of keeping with the predominantly public emphases of the story that it threatens to fracture his book irreparably. Which I suppose is part of the point. But I’m not sure what Cole is going for here. Is he aiming to be less like Sebald than I thought and more like, say, Nabokov or Ishiguro? Is his aim to make us reassess the narrator we have been led to identify with on the basis of a sophisticated and cultured exterior that only papers over the heart of darkness beating beneath the skin?

It sure made me rethink Julius. (And reading some other critics who claim to have found him bombastic and self-serving from the start it made me question what unpleasant parts of me were responding so warmly to him.) As I did, I started to think more carefully about some of his otherwise harmless or understandable actions: the narrator’s brusque dismissal of a man who he suspects is trying to pick him up; his exhaustion at other Africans and even African Americans who seek some kind of solidarity with him based on some shared relation to an imagined motherland, a response that comes to a head at the post office when a clerk asks him if he will meet to talk about his negritude-inspired poetry, a scenario that ends with the narrator agreeing to do so yet silently resolving never to visit that post office again; and, perhaps most pertinently, his experience in Brussels of picking up a woman for what seems like a mutually satisfying one-night stand but, in the light of the later accusation, is perhaps really only an ominous self-serving delusion. I began to indict him in my mind, and asked myself, if he’s not sinister, if he’s not guilty, why doesn’t he say anything, either to Moji or to us? It occurred to me that the book’s otherwise puzzling title, which I’d previously taken to refer to his encounters with New York, Brussels, and Lagos, might refer to his personality. For an open city, I learn from Wikipedia, is one that its leaders have given up defending. Is Julius’s silence a capitulation, an expression of defeat?

There is something ingenious in the way the ending demands we return to the beginning, re-reading for clues that might cast some light, if nothing so consoling as an answer, on Moji’s claims. But there is also something manipulative and unearned about it, too, as if Cole hadn’t played by the rules of novels. It’s fine to cast doubt on a character we’ve been forced to identify with, even on the very qualities of identification itself. But shouldn’t we have a sense earlier on that this is coming? I don’t know why I feel this way. Maybe I’m just upset and embarrassed at having been caught out liking a rapist. Is there any way we can read the book and think he didn’t do it? Wouldn’t thinking he didn’t put us in the position of blaming the victim? Of course, it is only too true that perfectly good people do get accused of things they haven’t done, do get caught in the crossfire of other people’s ignorance or need for attention or what have you. But if the book wants to be about false accusations, it needs to reflect on that possibility more clearly than it has. (Maybe there are examples of false accusations in the book that I hadn’t thought of. Even as I write this I’m reminded of the experience of Julius’s college mentor, Professor Saito, during the war, when he and his family were interned by the US government simply by virtue of their Japanese heritage.)

After all, Open City is so carefully constructed that it would make sense that this revelation has in fact been prepared for. But I wasn’t prepared; I was genuinely shocked. It makes we wonder about the relation between literary form and shocking events. Can a shocking event that isn’t prepared for be experienced by readers as anything other than a misstep, or, worse, a violation of the contract between reader and writer? (Woolf explored similar questions in the “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse.) Or are we to read these shock as a mimesis of the effect of trauma itself—in other words, is Cole trying traumatize readers, by making them go through an overwhelming experience that by definition cannot be prepared for?

If you have thoughts about the ending, please share. The problems, like the passage describing the narrator’s experience in Chinatown, only get more complex the longer I consider them. The greatness of Open City might not be Benjamin’s greatness. But there’s clearly a lot to think about in this book, alongside a lot of gorgeous writing.

The day after I finished Open City I swung by the library (have I already told you how much I love the Central Arkansas Library System?) to pick up Teju’s new book, Every Day is for the Thief. (It’s both new and old: written before Open City but published in Nigeria it has been revised (though how extensively is unclear) and published in the US.) Thief is a much slighter book, in all ways: I read in two short sittings and enjoyed its insights into contemporary Nigeria and the emigrant’s dilemma, but I found the book too uncertain of its own aims. Is it reportage, an indictment of Nigerian corruption? Is it autobiography, of a fractured and multi-racial family? It’s never clear, but the muddled quality of the book works best when it mirrors the uncertainty, even guilty conscience of the person who has returned to a home he no longer belongs in. In The New York Review of Books, Gideon Lewis-Kraus, who liked it more than I did, interestingly described the relation between Cole’s two books as “two very different experiments with the same character, run in parallel rather than in a series.” Note the importance to this reading of character. Again, this seems a grafting of a different kind of literary mode on to a Sebaldian one. For the most part, the Sebald influence is less apparent here, but the book does include photos, as Sebald’s famously do, though in Cole’s case they are his own. (I didn’t find they added much to the text.)

I read somewhere that Cole wrote these two books as ways of avoiding writing the art history dissertation he had embarked upon. All I can say about that is that if my own dissertation procrastination had been even a tenth as productive I would have been extraordinarily pleased with myself. Given the greater scope and sophistication of Open City the only question, to which I eagerly await an answer, is what Cole has in him next. In the meantime, his enjoyable twitter feed will have to tide me over.