2015 Year in Reading

2015 was a good year in reading. Better than 2014, though nowhere near the annus mirabilis of 2013 (pre-blog, alas). I read 80+ books. Here are the ones that most stayed with me:

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A Little Life—Hanya Yanigahara

The reading event of the year for me. Everyone has an opinion about it, and they’re mostly strong opinions. I understand the main objections—it’s too long, it’s indulgent, it gets off on abusing its main character and even maybe its readers, its prose is sometimes clunky, even embarrassing—but I don’t feel them. These days I struggle to keep my attention away from my phone, social media, hockey scores, you name it. Sometimes I worry I don’t have the reading stamina I used to. In this regard, A Little Life was a gift: an intense, immersive reading experience that captivated me not just for the week of the reading but throughout the whole year. I wrote about it here.

Married Life—David Vogel

Written in Hebrew and published in Vienna in 1930, this is an extraordinary book that expands our sense of what European modernism was all about.

If I read Hebrew, I would write Vogel’s biography. Born in the Pale of Settlement, Vogel made his way via Vilnius and a brief stint as a yeshiva student to Vienna just in time to be interned as a Russian citizen during WWI. After the war he loafed, nearly penniless, in Vienna’s cafes, finding a little translation work and writing his first poems and novellas. He immigrated briefly to Palestine in the late 20s but Zionism never held much appeal for him and he returned to Europe, eventually finding his way to Paris in the early 30s. Tragically he was interned in the next war, this time as an Austrian citizen, and was deported via the infamous transit camp at Drancy to Auschwitz where he was murdered in 1944.

In Married Life the poor but promising writer Rudolph Gurweil meets the impoverished and rapacious aristocrat Thea von Takov and falls immediately under her spell even though he’s not sure he likes her very much. The two marry after only kowing each other for a few weeks and things go badly from the start. Thea converts to Judaism to marry Gurweil but among other things she’s a terrible anti-Semite. The novel is a drawn-out depiction of a disastrous marriage, but it’s also a glorious depiction of shabby Jewish Vienna.

I started a review and got sidetracked. I’d really like to finish it. If it got this book even one more reader it would be worth it.

Heartfelt thanks to heroic translator Dalya Bilu and to Australian-based Scribe for publishing this masterpiece, not least in such a gorgeous edition.

The Vet’s Daughter—Barbara Comyns

Wonderful, heartbreaking novel about a young woman who levitates. I wrote about it at length here and my appreciation only increased when I taught it this fall. Happily, my students loved it too; I received several excellent papers about it. I’m about to write more about Comyns myself. More on that soon, I hope.

The Heat of the Day—Elizabeth Bowen

The same students who enjoyed Comyns did magnificently with this marvelous novel of the Blitz and its aftermath. The course is on Experimental 20th-Century British Fiction, and I hadn’t taught Bowen for a while (six years, in fact), after my previous attempt at teaching her failed spectacularly. I finally worked up the courage to try Heat again, and am so glad I did. It helped, of course, that this was a particularly strong group of students. It was really fun helping them work through Bowen’s famously thorny sentences. To the North might still be my favourite Bowen, but this novel about lying to one’s self and to others is one of her best. I often grumble about how teaching gets in the way of reading. But sometimes the chance to return to the same set of books is a joy. As Roland Barthes once said, those who don’t re-read are doomed to read the same text over and over again.

Bernard Malamud

Another one from the teaching files, at least in part. I taught an introductory level course on short fiction this fall. (For a while I blogged about it regularly—the first installment is here, if you’re interested—but eventually I capitulated to the semester’s demands and gave up.) The touchstone text was Malamud’s first collection, The Magic Barrel. I’d taught these marvelous stories before but it had been a while and found I liked them even more this time.

I’ve always loved their enigmatic qualities, and had long been curious whether his novels were like that too. So I read The Assistant over Thanksgiving (I started a post on that too which I also failed to complete). It tells the story of Morris Bober’s struggle to eke out a living from his small grocery store in a poor part of New York, a struggle that only deepens when he takes on a drifter as a de facto assistant. It is also one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read, with a scene that genuinely shocked me. Malamud’s stories are hardly heartwarming, but they have a lightness missing from this novel. Absolutely worth reading, though.

Various short stories

The Penguin Book of the British Short Story—Philip Hensher, Ed.

As I said, I taught a lot of short stories this fall, and in the process I remembered how much I love the form. Edith Pearlman, Katherine Mansfield, and D. H. Lawrence were particular favourites. I also want to tip my hat to this wonderful two-volume edition of short stories edited by Philip Hensher. I’ve got volume 2 (they’re only available in the UK and a bit pricey but the production values are amazing) and I’ve only read a handful of the stories. But the roster is exciting; not just the usual suspects. Hensher plowed through a ton of late-19th and early-20th century magazines and has found some amazing stuff. I especially like one by “Malachi” (Marjorie) Whitaker, called “Courage”: it’s going straight on to the Spring syllabus. Hensher’s introduction makes a fascinating case for why Britain produced such good short fiction in the years 1890-1940 and why economic and structural conditions make it unlikely for the form to flourish in the same way again (which isn’t the same as saying there are no good instances of the form today: volume 2 goes from P. G. Wodehouse to Zadie Smith). Please Penguin, bring this out in the US.

The Book of Aron—Jim Shepard
A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz—Göran Rosenberg

Holocaust literature is central to my teaching, and so also to my reading. These two books impressed me this year, the first a novel of the Warsaw Ghetto that I wrote about at Open Letters Monthly and the second a second-generation memoir that I reviewed at Words without Borders.

Death of a Man—Kay Boyle

Thanks to Tyler Malone of The Scofield I learned a lot about Kay Boyle this year. The best thing I read by her was a heartbreaking early story about failed pedagogy called “Life Being the Best” (read it!), but the book I spent the most time with was this 1936 novel about an American heiress who falls in with fascist sympathizers in pre-Anschluss Austria. I can’t say I liked the book all that much, but I was utterly fascinated by it and I enjoyed wrestling with its slippery politics. You can read my essay, along with many other wonderful pieces, here.

A Wreath of Roses and Blaming—Elizabeth Taylor

These are two of the best books I read this year, but they’re wrapped up in guilt for me because I promised someone a piece about them and never delivered. (Not yet, anyway…. I still want to, though!) I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Taylor, but these are the best of the bunch. Blaming (1976), her last book, is about what happens to a middle-aged woman after the unexpected death of her husband. It manages to be both rueful and acerbic. A Wreath of Roses (1949) is a masterpiece and if it were in print in the US I would have taught it this semester for sure. Less histrionic than Bowen’s Heat of the Day but similarly a novel of what the war did to England, it’s also a story of female friendship that earns its epigraph from Woolf’s The Waves. Genuinely haunting: I read it in June and still think about it regularly.

The Secret Place—Tana French

French doesn’t need me to sing her praises. Everyone already knows she’s the best crime writer today. Some thought this latest book—for some unaccountable reason I held off reading it for almost a year—in the Dublin Murder Squad series a falling off, but I adored it. I especially loved the echoes of Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes. French is such a genius because she writes super suspenseful books that are ultimately about something quite different: they are fascinated to the point of obsession with the idea of friendship—interestingly, romance or sex features hardly at all—especially how friendship intersects with the partnership between detectives. Yet again French proves she writes vulnerable men better than anyone.

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Other good things: Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City is a brilliant essay-memoir and I would have written more about it here but it’s late and I’m tired (the Open Letters piece is good, though); The Hare with Amber Eyes (again, everyone already knows it’s amazing—I most liked a surprising Arkansas connection!); Emma (enjoyed re-reading this and wrote about the experience here and here); bits of Balzac (the last 100 pp of Pere Goriot, which practically had me in tears; the scene in Eugenie Grandet when Eugenie wakes at night to see her father and his servant taking his gold downstairs: hallucinatory); Wilkie Collins (I liked both The Dead Secret and The Law and the Lady). Also, good light reading: Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London (urban fantasy—smart and funny: read the first two this year and mean to finish the series in 2016); Hans Olav Lahlum’s K2 books (engaging Norwegian homage to Golden Age crimes, locked room mysteries and the like); Ellis Peter’s Cadfael books (read the first: surely the beginning of a beautiful friendship).

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Reading is a passionately solitary experience, but also a joyously communal one. That’s true (mostly) in my classroom and, increasingly, on social media and the Internet more generally. Sometimes I find the constant stream of books to read that come through my Twitter feed a little daunting, but mostly I’m thrilled to know that so much reading is going on, so vigorously and passionately.

Thanks to everyone who read this blog in 2015, especially those who encouraged me and prompted me to think harder or differently about the books. It is wonderfully strange for me to speak so much with people I haven’t for the most part even met about something so important to me.

Thanks too to those who published me this year, especially the wonderful people at Open Letters Monthly. Here’s to more writing next year, and of course to more reading.

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Blunders: Emma, Volume II & III

More Emma. After stalling out for a few days in Book II—distracted mostly by Vivian Gornick: excellent, you should read her—I read the last 250 odd pages in two long sessions. Here are some thoughts on Volumes II & III, in unorganized sections since it’s late in the day, late in the year.

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Something I noticed the first time I read Emma and which I’ve not seen elsewhere is the use of quotation marks around reported speech. I’m sure this simply betrays my lack of familiarity with 18th & early 19th Century literature. Here’s an example of what I mean:

“He [Frank Churchill] had seen a group of old acquaintance in the street as he passed—he had not stopped, he would not stop for more than a word—but he had the vanity to think they would be disappointed if he did not call, and much as he wished to stay longer at Hartfield, he must hurry off.”

I noted at least three instances of this quoted indirect speech, and I probably missed others. Is this technique specific to Austen (though I don’t remember it in any text except this one)? Or is it common to the period? If the latter, as I suspect, when did it go away? Does anyone know? Jenny? Rohan?

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Frank Churchill is an interesting variant of a type we see elsewhere in Austen: the gallant charmer who turns out to be a cad. I’m thinking of Willoughby in Sense & Sensibility and Wickham in Pride & Prejudice. He’s not as bad as those two, he has more redeeming qualities, but he likes to talk, he’s vain (he goes to London to get his hair cut), he’s frivolous. Worst of all, he puts Jane Fairfax in the position of having to remain silent about their engagement and it’s hard to see how that marriage can succeed, despite various characters’ claims that Jane’s deep (and fairly annoying) goodness will leaven his lack of seriousness.

Churchill is good to Mrs. Weston, and I think we’re meant to take that as a mark in his favour. But Mrs. Weston’s discrimination is shown at times to be wanting. In that sense, she’s a good match for her husband, who I find an intriguingly ambiguous character. He’s a gossip, though not in a mean-spirited way, he just can’t keep anything to himself. He’s a little hasty when it comes to considering the consequences of actions or outcomes. (His wish that Frank and Emma get together is unable to come to terms with what the lovers would do with Mr. Woodhouse—his airy dismissal that young love will find a way isn’t very helpful.) But he dotes on his wife, and he seems to have earned his position in the world through hard work.

What I most wonder about Mr. Weston is why he’s so willing to let the Churchills take his son, to the point of letting them give the boy their name. I’m sure I’m being anachronistic in being a little shocked by this—what was the young widower to do with the boy? Yet of course the novel offers us a direct contrast in the figure of Mr. Woodhouse. He didn’t farm his children out when his wife died, though of course there is no family as rich as the Churchills in the picture. I suppose what I wonder is whether we ought to judge Mr. Weston for his decision—to see it as intimating his fecklessness—or to praise him for his practicality.

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Emma wants us to think a lot about visibility and legibility. The two seldom map on to each other. Everyone sees everything, but they can’t read or make sense of what they see. Or, more accurately perhaps, they think they see everything, and this self-assurance is the reason they are often so blind. “Misunderstood,” “duped,” “mistaken”: these words and their variants reappear regularly. As does the word “blunder,” which, in a line I cannot find just now, Emma explicitly links to blindness—indeed, these words are apparently etymologically related.

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“Blunder” of course appears in the anagram scene, a private message Churchill sends Jane. But that isn’t it first appearance: we had already been introduced to it in a passage from Volume I I quoted last time, describing Emma’s dismissal of John Knightley’s suggestion that Elton is about to propose to her: “the blunders which often arise from a partial knowledge of circumstances.” By now we can see this phrase as something like the book’s motto.

I’m trying to get a handle on what blundering means for the novel. A blunder is a stupid mistake—and it’s the stupid part I’m wondering about. The coarseness or gaucherie that blunder connotes seems pretty judgmental. What sense of decorum, what ideal of grace and order is transgressed in a blunder? No doubt people have made something of the relationship between the highly structured dancing of the period and the social order or behavioural conventions that get trampled when someone makes a blunder. It’s probably important that a sure sign of Knightley’s decency is his willingness to dance with Harriet when Elton won’t.

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I wondered last time whether our feelings about Emma would change as the book went on. And they do. We see Emma chastened. But do we see her subdued? She gets the man that long experience of reading novels, especially Jane Austen’s novels, will have prepared us to see is the right one for her. Our doubts about this May-December romance are in part alleviated when we see Knightley himself admitting to Emma that she could easily and rightly been put off by his lecturing her on how to behave. But only in part. There’s a disquieting sense, for me at least, no matter how much I like Knightley, and I like him a lot, we’re meant to after all, that he is there to school Emma. I think the novel manages to avoid this outcome, though only just.

As I said last time, Emma’s love for her father, whom it would have been so easy to dislike or leave behind, is always a clue to us that there is more to Emma than her self-regard and love of ordering others’ lives might suggest. I’m glad Emma isn’t totally redeemed, either. Austen handles the growing distance between her and Harriet brilliantly. Even when amends are made, wrongs redressed, there are some things that can’t be undone or made good. Whether Emma herself sees this is less clear. We’re left with a few suggestions that she doesn’t have full self-knowledge (though of course, she’s only 20): she manages to clear the air for her cruel behaviour to Miss Bates without ever directly apologizing. (We see the difference between Austen and Dickens in a character like Miss Bates: whereas Dickens would caricature her, Austen makes us sympathize with her even if we agree with Emma’s intemperate description of her on the ill-fated Box Hill excursion.) And she maintains a perhaps surprising degree of conservatism about class distinctions, though surprising perhaps only to us and not to Austen’s first readers. Here is Emma reflecting on what she calls Harriet’s “presumption” in thinking Knightley might be interested in her:

Who had been at pains to give Harriet notions of self-consequence but herself?—Who but herself had taught her, that she was to elevate herself if possible, and that her claims were great to a high worldly establishment?—If Harriet, from being humble, were grown vain, it was her doing too.

This criticism is supposedly directed at Emma herself but in actuality seems mostly directed at Harriet. (In a similar vein, I think Knightley gets off a little easy for not having to acknowledge that he might have encouraged Harriet, or, at least, that he might need to respond to or even acknowledge her misreading of his interactions with him. Harriet, in the end, simply doesn’t matter to Knightley, and the novel has no problem with that.) I don’t mean to suggest that Austen succeeded—if it ever was her aim—in giving us a heroine that nobody could like. But not liking Emma, or not liking her all the way, is one of the interesting results of the novel.

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According to Juliette Wells in her uninspiring introduction—I really don’t think much of this edition, beyond the lovely cover—Austen advised her niece Anna on the latter’s own attempts at novel writing. Among other things, she encouraged Anna to restrict her focus: “3 or 4 families in a Country village is the very thing to work on.” On the face of it this seems a good description of Austen’s own work, Emma included. Highbury seems a closed society. Recall that isolation and insularity is what Emma fears at the beginning of the novel when her former governess leaves her. But it isn’t long before this self-contained community is breached by a number of outsiders: Jane, Frank, Mrs. Elton.

I want to end these overlong reflections with another breach, because it’s the hardest for me to get my head around. I refer to Harriet’s encounter with a group of gypsies as she and a friend walk home from the ball.

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Emma’s not present: the first she knows anything about it is when Frank carries a nearly insensible Harriet into the grounds of Hartfield. We hear the story indirectly, how the girls came across the gypsies on an isolated stretch of roadway, how a child came out to beg, how the friend screamed and ran away but how Harriet could not because of a cramp in her leg from all the dancing, how Harriet was soon “assailed” by half a dozen children and how her decision to take out her purse and give them a shilling proved “too tempting”: soon “she was followed, or rather surrounded, by the whole gang, demanding more.” We hear too that just then Frank happened upon the scene; he terrorized the gypsies just as much as they had her. The outsiders run away and Frank brings her to safety.

Having only just appeared, and only indirectly at that, the gypsies disappear for good. Their only function is to provoke more of Emma’s misreadings: she is convinced that the encounter is a sign that Harriet ought to get together with Frank. But he is only on the scene because he is making his way to Miss Bates’s to return a pair of scissors he had borrowed the night before, a surprising suggestion even on a first reading, the full spuriousness of which we don’t realize until later, when we understand that he must have been trying to see that lady’s niece, his secret fiancée Jane Fairfax.

Noodling around online about this scene I came across this reading by Miriam Mandel, which emphasizes what Emma makes of the scene she didn’t experience. Emma announces that its meaning would be plain even to someone as imaginatively insensitive as a linguist, a grammarian, or a mathematician. And since she is herself a self-described “imaginist” she believes herself that much more likely to read the scene correctly, as foretelling a romance between Frank and Harriet:

It was a very extraordinary thing! Nothing of the sort had ever occurred before to any young ladies in the place, within her memory; no rencontre, no alarm of the kind;–and now it had happened to the very person, and at the very hour, when the other very person was chancing to pass by to rescue her!—It certainly was very extraordinary!

Mandel nicely points out the shifting referent of “it” in this passage. The first “it” is the encounter with the gypsies. The second is a more generalized “alarm.” The last exclamation might be the same as the first but the third “it,” Mandel plausibly suggests, refers to “the fortuitous conjunction of events and persons,” that is, to Emma’s own plotting.

But what, I wonder, does it mean for the story-teller, for the one who arranges events into an order that reveals a meaning imposed by the teller herself, to think so insistently about her own story? What does it mean that she arranges events so falsely? What does it mean for a story (Emma) to feature a story-teller (Emma) who keeps getting things wrong? And what does it mean for the audience to be complicit in these blunders? Everyone in the neighbourhood soon forgets about the gypsies—everyone except Emma and her little nephews: “Henry and John were still asking every day for the story of Harriet and the gipsies, and still tenaciously setting her right if she varied in the slightest particular from the original recital.”

The suggestion seems to be that as readers we are implicated in Emma’s failures. Does that mean we too mature by the novel’s end? And what, most importantly, about the gypsies themselves? They “did not wait for the operations of justice; they took themselves off in a hurry.” Just one of many instances in 19th Century British literature when gypsies are summarily dispatched after serving a narrative function—Maggie Tuller’s encounter in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss comes immediately to mind, but I bet there are plenty of others. I can’t help but feel, though, that the gypsies have been wronged in this story-telling. Unlike in other instances, the true story of the gypsies is never revealed. By which I mean, their side of the story goes untold. Here is another instance of a wrong that can’t be made right—but unlike Emma’s inability to apologize to Miss Bates or to Harriet, this time the book itself doesn’t see it as such, doesn’t even see it as a wrong at all.

A melancholy note on which to end. But fitting, maybe. Emma is delightful at times, and sprightly, and droll, and very smart. But it’s also melancholic and its happy ending feels quite muted to me.

Thanks to Dolce Bellazza for organizing this readalong.

 

 

Kevin Barry-Beatlebone (2015)

Do you hear whispers from back there, Cornelius?

Ah I would do. Yes.

You mean from an old life?

Back arse of time, he says, and gestures grandly with a sweep of imperious paw.

For a long time, like many people, I was obsessed with The Beatles. I don’t think I listened to anything else between the ages of 12-15 or so. Although I always knew which album was my favourite (Rubber Soul, natch), I wasn’t so sure about my favourite Beatle. Ringo was impossible, Paul sympathetic but in the end too sweet, George the one I eventually decided upon but only because it seemed a more recherché choice than the one who was from the beginning my actual favourite, John. He was the smartest, the funniest, the prickliest, the most sarcastic, the one who deadpanned his responses to the press: “How do you find America?” “Turn left at Greenland.” I loved him because he wasn’t easy to love.

Thinking back on it now, I wonder if the reason he would come to have a hold on me was that the announcement of his death was one of the first world-historical, if I can put it that way, events I remember. I was eight, and a friend of our family, the father of my best friend in my young childhood, the girl who taught me English, in fact, or so goes the family lore anyway, came to our house, presumably to pick her up but oddly I have no memory of her being there. Instead I remember him coming solemnly into our kitchen with his omnipresent cigarette and telling us Lennon had been shot and my mother giving a gasp and even—could this be right, it seems a bit melodramatic—crying a little.

I’m telling you all this because I’m wondering if any of it unconsciously prompted my decision to read Beatlebone, the new novel from Irish writer Kevin Barry. It’s about a visit Lennon took in 1978 to the small Irish island he had bought on a whim in the 60s. The island, Dorinish, is real. And Lennon really bought it, in 1967 for £1550. Lennon visited the island a handful of times before turning it over to a group of hippies who lived on it in the early 70s.

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The trip described in the novel is fictional, but the story is based on aspects of Lennon’s life from that time. Barry imagines that Lennon has slipped away from his new family and life in New York to visit the island and have a scream (Lennon & Yoko Ono had undergone primal therapy with its founder, Arthur Janov, in 1970) in the hopes of getting through a fallow creative period.

I still like the Beatles well enough, though I hardly ever listen to them anymore. It’s enough that they inspired so much of the pop music I came to love later in life. Maybe I’ll come back to them if my daughter discovers them for herself one day. I used to know a lot about them, as much as one could pre-internet. But I’m no Beatles expert and in general I’m turned off by intense fandom.

I think that made me an ideal reader of Beatlebone. The novel has a pleasingly oblique relationship to its protagonist. It’s sympathetic but not hagiographic. Barry’s Lennon seems plausible. I can imagine this Lennon as the real John Lennon, and for some reason that matters though I don’t know why. There’s something interesting about what Barry does that I can’t quite put my finger on. I was always shuttling back and forth between things I knew about Lennon and this character. On the one hand, this Lennon was simply the novel’s John and I took him on his own terms. But on the other I could never forget the historical John Lennon. I don’t do this with other historical novels, maybe because I don’t know anything about Henry VIII or Thomas Cromwell, say, other than what I know from Hilary Mantel.

Something about this book is licensed—though how I couldn’t say—by our sense of the historical John Lennon. Certainly the knowledge of his death hangs over the book, not least because Lennon feels himself, at 37, as old and maybe even a bit finished, although Barry fortunately does not have him imagining or foreshadowing his own death. Maybe the reason for the uncertainty I’m feeling but struggling with naming is that Barry’s Lennon is always so unsure about his own identity.

The novel is mostly composed in dialogue, with some interior monologue and almost no narrative exposition. Much of its success comes from this structure, since it avoids the clunky integration of facts that bogs down most historical fiction. John’s life as a Beatle is rarely referenced. A brief reference to the Cavern Club in Liverpool aside, John doesn’t flash back to some moment with the band in the studio or on tour. What matters is his present life—he’s become a New Yorker, a stay-at-home dad, a man unsure whether he has any music left in him—and the distant past: his childhood and adolescence in Liverpool, and, perhaps most importantly, the time before his birth when his parents first met.

In other words, Barry manages to keep the Beatles (almost) out of his book. And when they do appear it’s as a joke: at the end of his Irish sojourn, on a country road in County Mayo, John meets a 112-year-old woman. He’s introduced to her as Kenneth, the alias he’s been traveling under, but she sees through him:

Have you been on the television?

Maybe I have.

When you were younger, she says.

Well this is it.

I’d recognise the nose, she says. You’ve a bit of weight gone off you since?

I’ve gone macrobiotic now.

There were four of ye, she says.

There were.

The leader was a beautiful-looking boy, she says. The big eyes like saucers and the song about the blackbird.

As this passage suggests, the glory of this novel is its dialogue. I kept hearing bits of Beckett, which is perhaps just to say that I kept hearing Irishness. Indeed, the novel cares a lot about what the Situationists called psychogeography, the effect of geography on our emotions and behaviour. In the first scene, Lennon abandons his chauffeured car in the middle of the countryside and lies face down in the soft rich dirt before turning to watch the coming of dawn: “John lies saddled on the warm earth and he listens to its bones.”  Bones are important to the novel. Bones are a source of meaning; in fact, they are a synonym for source, for ancestry. But bones are also remnants, signs of death and loss. Lennon’s father was Irish and Barry argues that Lennon was preoccupied with his Irish roots. But what John keeps thinking about while actually in Ireland is the way it calls up his hometown across the Irish Sea. He tastes the foods of his childhood—things he’s given up now that he’s “gone macrobiotic”—and hears hints of Scouse in the Irish accent.

The novel’s deepest and weirdest belief is that there are certain places where people can slip through time and enter the past. Lennon finds himself not just imagining but actually attending the scene of his parents’ courtship. Most startling is an admission Barry himself makes. About three-quarters of the way through the book he breaks from the story, incorporating a section about his process of writing of the book, which was premised on his desire “to spring a story from its places… from Dorinish itself—if I could figure out how to get there—and to be guided as purely as possible by the feelings that are trapped within these places, and by the feelings trapped within.” Places are like psyches—intense feelings are locked within each.

After a description of a notorious “time slip” on Bold Street in Liverpool—apparently dozens of people have reported being transported back to the street as it was in the 1950s—Barrry describes his own otherwordly vision in the near-deserted villages along the Irish coast. He saw a coven of women dressed in black materialize from thin air and wade through the waves, the mirror of a vision he has John remember having with Yoko the first time they visited Dorinish together.

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I’m not sure this section is entirely successful: it has a whiff of the sub-Sebaldian, complete with studiously artless black and white photographs. But I do think the book’s commitment to irrational, out-of-body experiences is fascinating. One scene is representative of this tendency: on the way to Dorinish, John’s handler, Cornelius O’Grady, deposits him on Achill Island to wait out a storm. The island is deserted except for an ancient hotel named the Amethyst now inhabited only by a Svengali-like guru and an impressionable young couple who are careering through a perverse (aka satanic) version of something like Janov’s primal therapy. In the book’s most amazing scene the trio seeks to convince Lennon to take part in their ritual. They alternate between seduction and menace: the whole thing is hair-raisingly ominous, like something from some of the stranger sections of Lessing’s The Golden Notebook.

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The guru and his followers are a more compelling but dangerous version of the journalists who have got wind of Lennon’s presence and are hunting him down. To escape these predators, Lennon strikes out alone on the island and ends up in a cave where he has a vision of all the creatures whose bones he imagines are buried in the sand—“Elkbone Wolfbone Sealbone.” Suddenly he has a vision of a new album, Beatlebone, nine perfect songs that will put his musical past to rest. We later get a glimpse of the recording sessions for this imagined album: nothing good seems to be coming from them, which is an odd note for the novel to strike, given how much it otherwise upholds the value of visionary experience. What would it mean for the product of Lennon’s ultimate artistic vision to be nothing but dull screeching?

This bathos is of a piece with the self-deprecation and irony that characterizes so much of the novel.

Take this conversation between Cornelius and John. Cornelius is describing a period in his life when he was addicted to cough syrup:

Jesus Christ. What does six cough bottles down the hatch feel like?

Like an eiderdown wrapped around yourself. It feels like goose feathers. It feels like mother’s love. No matter how hard or cruel the world or the night might be you’re… like a baby… kind of… What’s the word I’m after, John?

Swaddled?

Is right. Against all the harshness of the world.

Were there hallucinations, Cornelius?

Were there fucken what. I had a firm belief—this went on for months unending that a particular gap in the hill on the road towards the Highwood was a kind of wink at me. In the night, as I drove through. As if the mountain was marking the passage of time for me in a sort of cheeky way.

The gap in the hill was a wink?

Just so. In the headlights as I drove though

Cornelius?

John?

Oh nothing.

John’s inability to tell Cornelius about the extraordinary things he’s been experiencing—the landscape similarly alive and seeming to signal to him, the revelations about his distant past, his conviction that he is on the way to artistic renewal—fits with the book’s appealing modesty. Irrational power is everywhere, but it’s nothing to make a fuss about. We see Lennon scorn the idea that coming to terms with the death of his mother and the abuse from his father will help him to live as an adult in the present. But we also see Lennon turn again and again, and at the very end of the novel, too, to his parents, especially his love for his mother. We see any number of mystic or non-rational occurrences, but we also see a casualness about them, even a dismissal of them.

In the end, Beatlebone convinces readers that John’s time in Ireland, though hardly idyllic, is genuinely restorative. It is for readers, at any rate. This has everything to do with Cornelius, one of the most compelling characters I’ve come across in a while. Sometimes the novel hints that Cornelius is a figment of Lennon’s imagination, another part of him, maybe a better part, something like the nurturing parent to his vulnerable inner child. But happily the hints stay that way. Mostly we’re to believe in his reality, even if he is larger than life. He’s funny:

Could you handle a shave yourself, maybe?

I think maybe I could.

I see you go reddish in the beard?

When it comes through, yeah. I’m a gingerbeard.

I’m sorry for your troubles, John.

And he’s poignant. Here he is describing his father’s death:

How did it happen, Cornelius?

Well. In the same way that an old dog gets to a certain age and a level of disregard for itself and it just takes off some night into the bushes. My father heard what was coming for him. And we didn’t find him after, in the way you wouldn’t find an old dog—you just wouldn’t—because my father, I have no doubt, put himself in the sea. It was all his life nearby and it would have been an idea always of a way out. He would not have been the type to string himself from the rafter of a barn. He was considerate. There was no show in the man.

There was no show in the man. Beatlebone gives us one of the twentieth century’s greatest showmen—great because he was so ambivalent about the show, seeming to disdain it. Barry’s John is at times as unshow-y as Cornelius’s father, with whom he is associated because he’s forced to wear the dead man’s suit when his other clothes are ruined. At other times he is the petulant star, spoiled, frightened, at an impasse in his life, resentful of the Kate Bush hit that’s always on the radio and wondering if The Muppet Show will ever come calling again.

 

I don’t know what to say about this novel, exactly. I’m not sure it will stay with me for the ages, but I was absolutely absorbed in it while reading. I will say, though, that something of its belief in psychogeography worked its magic on me. In the past days I’ve returned again and again to our old kitchen, with its brown stools and ochre tile, and me sitting there watching my mother cook dinner and Ronnie, my friend’s dad, coming in and saying, with a kind of grim paranoiac fatalism that seems now as much a part of the 70s as the kitchen’s drab hues, “They shot John. They shot John too.”

One of Our Small Eggs Will Not Hurt You: Emma, Volume I

Dolce Belezza has organized a readalong of Emma to celebrate the 200th anniversary of its publication on December 23, 1815.

I’m a notorious bailer on readalongs: they always sound so exciting, especially as they often legitimate my buying yet another book. Then the demands of life and my seemingly constitutive inability to follow a reading plan—which is pretty rich coming from someone who designs syllabi for a living—get in the way. But this one coincides with the end of the semester, so I’m crossing my fingers I’ll actually keep up with it.

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Emma is divided into three volumes. Here are a few thoughts on the first.

I’ve read Emma before, quite a while ago now, thirteen years ago in fact. I know exactly because I read it in the weeks before I married my wife in August 2002. I don’t ever remember thinking it directly at the time, but now I fancy I must have made some unconscious connection between the weddings in Austen’s novels and my own. At any rate, I remember spending several pleasurable lazy days—of the kind available only to grad students, when you have almost nothing to do for years except of course for one big thing, a thing so terrifying it makes almost anything else seem a much better idea that must be pursued immediately—I remember several hot sticky air-conditioner-less days reading this novel on an old couch in the apartment that was about to become our apartment.

My memory of reading Emma is vivid. But my memory of Emma itself is not.

Maybe that’s because, as is clear to me now, Emma is a story about the failure of interpretation. It’s about missed clues and mistaken impressions. Which means it is made to be re-read even more than it is to be read.

It’s possible, of course, to see already on a first reading how closely the novel hews to its heroine’s point of view and that this point of view is dangerously misguided. It’s possible, in other words, already on a first go round to read against Emma rather than with her. But it’s impossible not to do so on a second.

That might seem a weird thing to say, since it’s not as though Austen is shy about Emma’s faults. Already on the first page, we read:

The real evils indeed of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself; these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments. The danger, however, was at present so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her.

Here the narrative voice is unusually distinct from Emma’s. It practically promises a comeuppance. We feel the full force of that famous Austen wit, gentle and forbearing but with a sting to it. “Real evils” isn’t just the pleasant exaggeration it might first seem. Emma has the power to do real harm, as we see takes on as a kind of protégé the young and naïve Harriet Smith and urges her to turn down a proposal from one Robert Martin, a man Emma deems beneath Harriet. For someone like Harriet, an illegitimate child of unknown parents, the loss of such a match, not least to someone as seemingly good-natured and besotted with her as Martin, is a serious loss. I say “seemingly’ not because I suspect he is in fact a bad guy but because I can’t remember the novel well enough to know if our opinion of him is going to change—and I’m always wary with Austen because our opinions of her characters are often forced to change. First impressions are usually wrong in Austen.

Emma has someone else in mind for Harriet, Mr. Elton, the unctuous and prepossessing local vicar. Emma is emboldened in her matchmaking by what she takes to have been her success at marrying her former governess, Miss Taylor, to a kindly, middle-aged widower, Mr. Weston. (Their marriage, and her leaving the Woodhouse establishment, much to Emma’s father’s mournful chagrin, is the book’s precipitating event.) It’s unclear whether Emma really had much to do with the success of the match, and so we should be suspicious of her efforts this time around. She’s easily able to get Harriet to fall for Elton, but it doesn’t take too long for us to realize—at least it didn’t take me long, this time around—that Elton cares for Emma herself, not Harriet. She devises all sorts of ploys to get the two of them together and never realizes they aren’t working.

For example, she allows herself to be persuaded to take up drawing again, in order to make a portrait of Harriet while Elton watches. She’d given up drawing, she says, when her attempt to draw her brother-in-law failed, before adding: “But for Harriet’s sake, or rather for my own, and as there are no husbands and wives in the case at present, I will break my resolution now.”

What follows is a classic instance of Austen’s irony:

Mr. Elton seemed very properly struck and delighted by the idea, and was repeating, “No husbands and wives in the case at present indeed, as you observe. Exactly so. No husbands and wives,” with so interesting a consciousness, that Emma began to consider whether she had not better leave them together at once. But as she wanted to be drawing, the declaration must wait a little longer.

I can’t decide whether the last line makes me like Emma more, or less. On the one hand, her selfishness—she wants to be drawing—is such that it gets in the way even of her plan. But on the other, her interest in the match isn’t purely mercenary, hasn’t consumed her entirely. What begins as mere stratagem becomes something she loses herself in. Here as elsewhere we see that figuring out how to understand Emma is our main task as readers.

If we don’t see these critiques of Emma the first time around—and maybe we do, they seem so obvious to me now, but I fear I missed them the first time—we are eventually helped by the novel to see that Emma is, in fact, misled about Elton. Her brother-in-law, the one who fussed about having his portrait done, tells her that Elton is behaving as though he is love with her. Emma brushes off the suggestion:

she walked on, amusing herself in the consideration of the blunders which often arise from a partial knowledge of circumstances, of the mistakes which people of high pretensions to judgment [her brother-in-law is a lawyer] are for ever falling into; and not very well pleased with her brother[-in-law] for imagining her blind and ignorant, and in want of counsel.

The joke of course is on Emma and Volume I ends with a lovely set piece at Christmastime, when the characters spend the evening with the Westons. It begins to snow and in all the haste of a hurried departure—everyone wanting to get home before the weather gets bad—Emma and Elton find themselves alone in a carriage. He wastes no time in proposing and each is equally amazed and hurt to find how the other has understood matters.

Austen is not always so overt in her narrative irony—and part of me wonders whether the passage about “the blunders which arise from a partial knowledge of circumstances” won’t later be subjected to further revision. That is, will we be led to read this passage in yet another way, in light of events yet to come? Will Emma prove to be a better interpreter of the world than this initial interpretation suggests? How subtly Austen’s works open up to reveal a vertiginous landscape of dizzying epistemological uncertainty!

I’ll offer just one more example of how destabilizing her prose can be. In the early scene in which Emma talks Harriet out of accepting Martin’s proposal, we read this heartbreaking response to the scorn Emma heaps on the young farmer (“I had no idea he could be so very clownish”):

“To be sure,” said Harriet, in a mortified voice, “he is not so genteel as a real gentleman.”

It’s that “mortified” that gets me. Mostly this is the so-called omniscient narrator, gently but devastatingly pointing out how terribly Emma is behaving. (Famously, Austen said of the book, “I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like.”) But it’s also possible that we’re still getting Emma’s perspective here: that Emma recognizes—and, presumably, approves of—Harriet’s mortification. It might be nice to take our distance from a character who is behaving badly. But are we allowed to?

I’m looking forward to seeing how the novel answers this question.

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Next time I’ll say more about some of the other characters, especially Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse, who is one of the most delightful characters in English fiction and, I increasingly suspect, central to making this novel work. Tom wrote some wonderful stuff about him here.

Mr. Woodhouse is a hypochondriac, a fussbudget, a man so thoroughly convinced of the rightness of his way of living that he could be a monster if he weren’t so gentle, or so gently portrayed. His constitution is so delicate that he’s frightened to eat almost everything, and he fears for the constitutions of others. Here he is advising an old acquaintance what she should take for tea:

Mrs. Bates, let me propose your venturing on one of these eggs. An egg boiled very soft is not unwholesome. Serle [their cook] understands boiling an egg better than any body. I would not recommend an egg boiled by any body else—but you need not be afraid—they are very small, you see—one of our small eggs will not hurt you.

I’ll have more to say about how the novel portrays Woodhouse. But for now the important thing to note is his relationship to Emma. She dotes on him—but also disparages him a little, makes a little fun of him, all while humouring him or seeming to. She quietly makes sure her guests get proper-sized portions of grown-up food. This is important because it makes us see Emma as shrewd and, more importantly, kind. Emma’s kindness opens up the possibility that we might follow Austen in liking her.