Six Emails about L. P. Hartley’s The Boat

Earlier this summer, based on some conversations we’d had about my post on The Go-Between, my friend Nat and I decided to read another of L. P. Hartley’s novels. We settled on The Boat (1949). Here’s what the publisher says about it on the back of my edition:

Timothy Casson, a bachelor and a writer, is forced to return from his contented life in Venice to an English village.

Taking a house by the river where he can pursue his passion for rowing, he has to do battle with the locals to overcome his isolation and feelings of incompleteness. This most complex of Hartley’s novels examines the multiple layers of Casson’s relationships with servants, local society and friends.

Over a week or so, Nat and I emailed back and forth about the book. Here’s what we had to say. Warning: spoilers ahead (such as they are).

Peter-Doig-100-Years-Ago-2001-via-peterdoig.mbam_.qc-ca1-865x577

Mon 8/21 10:50 PM

Nat,

After enjoying The Go-Between so much last year I was really excited to read more of Hartley’s work. And I was even more excited to read him along with you. But I confess I wouldn’t have finished this book if I’d been reading it on my own. It’s long. Really long. 450 pp in now-I-am-getting-old-and-irritated-with-small-print long. I’m trying to be charitable to the book, but I can’t immediately see why it has to be so long, other than that maybe the end is that much more exciting because we’ve had such a slow build up. The narrative dam bursts, like the river in spate that Timothy finally rides (to disastrous results). But honestly I think I’m being kind here. A lot of this book is just boring.

What I want to know is: how savvy is Hartley about this? It’s pretty clear that he’s set up his protagonist to be dull, a bit muddled, though basically decent. So is the novel’s dullness strategic? Does he want to tell us something about it? I guess the thing that interests me most about the book is that it’s written in 1949 and set in 1940-41 and hardly mentions the war at all. The war is happening, of course (even if at first it’s the “Phony War”) but way off-stage. This seems like a deliberate and almost wilfully anachronistic choice. (After all, this is a time when writers like Green and Bowen and Panter-Downes are writing novels that try to make sense of the war and its aftermath.)

Hartley in fact alludes to his possibly unusual subject matter late in the book (p 397 in my edition), when he ruminates on the war within the war–his war with the local grandees who have blocked the river from “the people” (or, at least, him), which his friends Tyro and Esther are sure to disparage in comparison to the actual war. Where do you think the book’s sympathies are here? Is Timothy right to insist on the importance of his fight? Is it a fight the book believes in? Does Timothy actually believe in it? Or is he just doing it in a last-ditch effort to hold Vera’s attention? In a similar vein, how do you read Timothy’s sleep at the end? A well-deserved rest after many trials and slights? Or a sign of his quiescence/cluelessness?

I think the book likes Timothy–his lack of certainty is better than Magda and definitely Tyro’s blunt convictions (see p 445). He’s a bit of an E. M. Forster muddled liberal type, which I’m not sure the book disapproves of. And often I don’t either. But I’m a bit put off by him too. He doesn’t have the saving qualities of innocence of Leo in The Go-Between.

On another note, is it crazy to think of The Boat as a version of The Mill on the Floss? Actually, I think it is crazy. But the whole boat/flood thing made me wonder. It’s only been a few years since I read MF but I’m embarrassingly hazy on details. Do you know it?

Ok, going to stop now but will flag two things I want to think more about: children, and third person instead of first.

Let me know what you think about what I’ve had to say.

d

25c43810c457a9796098b6e9e0e3a491--alex-colville-alex-katz

Wed 8/23 10:42 AM

Dorian,

I have to agree that this book was a bit of a grind; I was very enthusiastic about your suggestion to read a Hartley novel together, and I thought The Boat sounded like the most interesting option. Coming chronologically between the novels I knew (after the Eustace and Hilda trilogy of the earlier ’40s and before The Go-Between and The Hireling in the ’50s), I was intrigued to see where this novel fit. But it really wasn’t what I was expecting; some Hartley trademarks are there, such as his incisive psychological portraits of character, his exploration of class distinctions, and his occasionally epigrammatic wit (my favourite: “to do a thing badly is an affirmation of independence, whereas to do it well is to confess oneself a slave to other people’s standards”) (181). But there is also a heavy dose of politics, philosophizing, and digressing into the details of English country life. And you’re right; the book is too long by far. Never have I more strongly willed a fictional character to do something than I willed Timothy to get in that boat, which takes him a full 3/4 of the book to do (I imagine that Hartley’s alternative titles for the novel must have been Waiting for the Boat and Much Ado about Boating). The bottom line is that if we do this again (and I hope we do!), I’m letting you choose the book.

This may be just another way of phrasing some of your questions, but I wonder what you make of the central symbol of the boat itself? It’s clear that Timothy has an almost quasi-religious reverence for it, and that it represents freedom and peace for him, but does it mean the same thing to us? Or is Hartley ironically presenting Timothy’s love for boating as a foolish obsession, no different from the fishermen who object to his boat? At the end, Tyro interprets Timothy’s desire as escapism and a death wish; how much credence do we give to that opinion?

I’m tempted to play the Hartley apologist here a little bit; despite many things that I would objectively call flaws in the book (an excessive reliance on letter writing, a significant lack of action, as the main antagonists in the novel hardly ever meet, and when there is action, it is often highly melodramatic and implausible), I still found it strangely compelling. Maybe it’s just what I want to believe, but I do tend to think that Hartley is a bit more savvy than this novel appears to be. He mixes his dull protagonist with characters who belong in a range of different genres; there are the stereotypical servants who actually run the house, the upright but a bit clueless village policeman, and the femme fatale, Vera Cross, who is self-reflexively positioned in this role through the bad noir fiction that Edgell Purbright convinces Timothy to read. I feel like we are supposed to hope that Timothy can find his place in his adoptive village amongst this assortment of figures, but that Hartley is perhaps suggesting the generic and political confusion of a heteroglot England. His hero can’t find a place in this world because it doesn’t quite make sense in itself.

I’m not sure that this playing with genres ever fully works, though; take, for example, the melodramatic scene in which Timothy accidentally stumbles across the secret of Desiree Lampard’s birth and has to decide whether to use this information to prevent her upcoming wedding. Here, Timothy plays a highly conventional role, and one rather expects Hartley to return to this with some kind of twist, but instead, these characters simply fade from view.

Similarly, it seems as if the reader is supposed to be intrigued (and titillated?) by the fact that Vera Cross seems to take a romantic interest in Timothy (who is twice her age) but the explanation of this as being politically motivated is both underwhelming and implausible (she spends over a year cultivating this relationship just to try to get him to do something that would annoy the village elites?). On another note, what is with impossibly idealized women being called Miss Cross? Thinking of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, of course. On that note, I wonder what you think of Hartley’s treatment of his female characters in general? There is the painfully obvious angel/temptress opposition at work between Mrs. Purbright and Miss Cross, but is Hartley challenging this with his self-aware treatment of these types?

Your question about the war really gets at what I thought was most interesting about the book, but again, not quite interesting in a thoroughly satisfying way. I don’t know nearly enough about post-war British fiction to compare it to the other authors you mention, but on a personal level, having had a grandfather in the RAF and a grandmother who was evacuated from London during the blitz, I had always had a very homogenous idea of Britain being a united nation during the war. Hartley provides a vision of an England still very much divided along class lines, with highly politicized factions at work. It certainly wasn’t what I expected (a communist plot in little Upton?) although maybe my lack of familiarity with the period is showing here. Are there other books you can think of that deal with the role of communism/political dissent in England at this time?

As for the war itself, I thought myself pretty clever for tracing the outlines of an allegorical relationship between the larger events of the war referred to throughout the novel, and Timothy’s personal struggle. But then, Hartley has Timothy (on page 361) pretty much declare the allegorical significance of his actions. So much for being subtle. Again, I’m not sure how well the allegory holds together, but at the very least, we see Timothy moving from a Chamberlain-like stance of appeasement in which he believes that if he plays the game and ingratiates himself with the ruling elite, he will be allowed to use his boat, towards a more militaristic Churchill-like position in which he openly defies them and gives a revolutionary speech to the gathered masses. On the one hand, then, Timothy is England, learning that he can only get the freedom he desires if he stands up for himself. On the other hand, though, there are many ways in which he does not embody Englishness in this context; he is the outsider, invading the space of the landed elites (all ex-military officers) and the driving force behind his boat trip is Vera, who is using Timothy to antagonize these elites.

One can’t help but feel that Hartley is expressing sympathy for Timothy’s revolutionary action (after so much failure, taking the boat out on the water and giving a rousing speech seem like great successes) but if that’s the case, what do we make of the fact that he is, in the end, seduced by the elites and eventually flees? His near-death experience seems to change his attitude towards life in general, but is it really a change for the better, or is he simply allowing himself to be deceived by their promises yet again?

The elites are depicted as dinosaurs who need to be replaced, but Timothy doesn’t want to do this; he just wants to be able to use his boat. I agree that the novel likes Timothy, but the ending seems like yet another in a series of anti-climaxes; he leaves town and falls asleep, flanked by his two very different friends. Is this an image of a new England in which the old order (Esther) and a new modern cynicism (Tyro) unite to save Timothy, the sort of English everyman? That might be the most positive reading I can muster. On the other hand, Timothy is still blaming himself for what has happened to Vera and Mrs. Purbright when he conveniently falls asleep; is this another form of escapism?

I hadn’t thought about the connections to The Mill on the Floss, but it could certainly be said that Maggie Tulliver and Timothy Casson are both figures who repress their strong desires out of consideration for others, and both endure a flood that overpowers the arbitrary limitations of social convention with the force of nature (and, perhaps, a Freudian return of the repressed). I’m not sure how far I would go with the parallel, though, given the gender differences that inform this repression (Maggie is a young girl, relatively powerless with respect to Victorian gender norms, while Timothy is an old man in a relatively privileged position who often creates his own obstacles). Also, the flood in The Mill on the Floss has a redemptive quality to it, which is perhaps more ambiguous in The Boat; does the near-death experience really change anything for Timothy?

Your final questions put me in mind of what I really like about Hartley. For one thing, he is very good at depicting the minds of children. This is what makes The Go-Between and The Shrimp and the Anemone so fantastic. We get glimpses of that in The Boat, with the two evacuee boys who are interestingly doubled at the end by the two boys who join Timothy in the boat, but these figures are never really developed very far. The one moment that stands out for me is when Billy drops his teacup in the drawing room, which instead of being a disaster, causes all the social restraints in the room to be dropped; children are in this sense aligned with a natural rather than social way of life. In this respect, we might also want to talk about Felix the dog, who seems to play a similar role?

Finally, and most tentatively, what I really like about Hartley is his ability to explore the relationship between self and other, how the self can find a place in a world that it necessarily experiences as foreign and other. It seems to me that this almost requires the use of third person, an “other” outside the self-other relationship who is able to witness, describe and analyze it. In The Go-Between, first person works because the narrator is already “other” to himself through the passage of time. I don’t think anything else I’ve read by Hartley has used first person. But that’s just a theory; feel free to explode it.

Sorry, that was long, but you asked so many very good questions. I guess the big question that I’m left with is whether Hartley is sympathizing with the revolutionary politics that is implicit (and often explicit) within the narrative trajectory of the novel, or whether he, like Timothy, would prefer to hold an aesthetic view of the world and simply leave the politics behind?

Nat

Homer-Rowing_Home

Sat 8/26 4:40 PM

Nat,

Great question: does Hartley sympathize with the revolutionary politics referred to both implicitly and explicitly in the novel?

I would have to say, No. There’s just too much bathos for me at least to think he wants us to take it seriously. After all, isn’t Vera a bad character? She gets Mrs. Purbright killed. She leads Timothy on, and is really quite cruel to him. We’re clearly supposed to dislike her. So how can we take her crusade seriously? And what the hell kind of crusade is it anyway? Opening up the river to boating just seems extraordinary small potatoes–not even worthy as a symbol. Now, I suppose a lot does depend on whether you think she did indeed seduce Timothy only to insist he imagined it, or whether he has in fact imagined it. Where are you on that? I think it’s the former. But if it is the latter, then we would have to see Vera in at least a somewhat different light. It would have the benefit of making Timothy even more ambivalent–pathetic at best, sinister at worst. I guess looking back on it I’m really confused about Vera’s motives. She’s like a super-low-rent Mephistopheles: just doing something bad/unpleasant (not sure it quite rises to evil) just because she can.

I like what you’re saying about the third person (or a retrospective first person) as a requirement for the self-other investigation you prize in Hartley. But in that case, why attach the third person so closely to a single character? Wouldn’t a more roving, omniscient-minded narrative voice be able to do that work more fully? If we got insider other people’s heads, we might get a better overview of English society–in other words, the political element of the novel would be strengthened, or at least that’s the way I see it.

It’s a great question as to whether there are other books about the role of communist/political dissent in the period. There must be but I can’t think of anything. Bowen’s Heat of the Day (a masterpiece) is certainly about dissent–but of a fascist rather than communist sort. Bits of Lessing’s The Golden Notebook are critical of English communism, but that’s in reference to the 50s–the debates over Stalinism etc. Maybe others can help us out here. But I think we are agreed that the most interesting thing about the book is the way it addresses the class ambivalences of war-time England (thereby contesting the “we’re all in it together” myth).

You’ve helped me see that The Mill on the Floss comparison isn’t very fruitful. Eliot is a lot more progressive than Hartley. And she cares about women, which, based on the two novels I’ve read, I can’t say Hartley does. At least the women in The Go-Between have the fascination of monstrousness about them. Vera never quite rises to that level.

I’m starting to think of the book as more and more conservative. Perhaps Hartley belongs with other English writers who despaired of what they saw as the spiritual impoverishment of postwar life (often because the privileges of their own classes were being taxed away): Evelyn Waugh, late Henry Green (certainly true in his letters and such; in his early work, in particular, he is much more nuanced about such matters). I should read some more Hartley to find out, but for the time being I need to take a bit of a break from him…

Totally agree with your points about the children–I wanted more of both sets of them. And the dog’s maybe the best character in the book. Who was it said never to act with children and animals? Timothy should have known better…

What other things do we need to talk about?

d

cezanne_barque_baigneurs

Mon 8/29 12:39 PM

Dorian,

Yes, I absolutely agree that we are supposed to dislike Vera and that the revelation of her motives is just about the weakest part of the book. I like your characterization of her as a “super low-rent Mephistopheles” but even more than that the disparity between her rather minimal objective and the amount of effort she puts into achieving it (cultivating a relationship with Timothy, whom she is revealed not to like very much, over the course of something like two years) just seems laughably implausible. As for whether Timothy has imagined his seduction by Vera, it’s a tempting theory, but Hartley doesn’t really seem to have done anything to get us to doubt Timothy’s reliability (which would have actually made things a lot more interesting, I think). In fact, when I was about 2/3 of the way through the book, and it didn’t seem to me that Hartley could possibly end things in a satisfactory way, I actually found myself hoping that Vera would turn out not to exist at all, but be some kind of psychological projection of Timothy’s. No such luck, but even that would have made more sense than what we got.

But if we don’t like Vera, surely we don’t much like the representatives of the established order either? Aren’t we hugely disappointed at the end when Timothy goes to Colonel Harbord’s party and is seduced by the beauty of his lawn? Would it be possible to make the case that Hartley is advocating for some kind of liberal “middle way” between the uptight old order and the flaky young revolutionaries? Timothy fails to find such a way, being pulled back and forth between the two camps, but perhaps this is what Hartley wants his readers to strive for? Interesting that you conclude that he is being ultimately conservative, and I can certainly see that argument, but is it simply for the lack of any reasonable alternative? Is he, to invoke the Arnoldian cliché, caught “between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born”?

Good point about Hartley’s narrative being so chained to Timothy’s consciousness that it’s not all that different from a first-person narrative. The exception that proves the rule is that the sequence of chapters that is probably the most effective in the novel is (I think) the only time where the narrative strays from Timothy’s side for any length of time. Just as we are anxious to learn whether Timothy’s project of taking the boat out is to be accomplished, Chapter 28 takes us to the Rector’s house, where Mrs. Purbright makes the decision to try to warn Timothy about the high water, then Chapter 29 reveals how Vera came to arrive at just the same spot on the riverbank as Mrs. Purbright. This helps to build suspense about what is going to happen to Timothy, and then that chapter ends with uncertainty about what has happened to Vera and Mrs. Purbright, which builds more suspense as we return to Timothy and the boat in the following chapter. Hartley is at his best in this sequence, and the rest of the novel really does suffer from being so confined to Timothy’s point of view. On the other hand, part of Hartley’s point is that Timothy doesn’t really know how the other Uptonians feel about him, and perhaps if the reader did know, it would take away from the incessant anxiety he feels about how is being perceived by others. I suspect the feeling of unease that Timothy feels would be difficult to sustain with a more free-flowing omniscient narrator. (But still, your point about needing other perspectives is spot on.)

And yes, the dog probably is the best character in the book and Hartley’s genius can be seen in how he captures the essence of dogs in one sentence: “He seemed to know at once where he wanted to go and to think it did not matter what happened to his body, provided his head got there.” Also, probably the best comic sequence in the novel is the servants’ efforts to convince Timothy that he needs a dog. After deciding that he needs a companion who can speak a foreign language, Wimbush in his roundabout way tells Timothy, “A dog, now, he speaks what you might almost call a foreign language.” I found it funny, but such sequences also add to the generic inconsistency of the novel; what exactly is it trying to be?

I think we may have just about exhausted the novel, but one last thing I was thinking about was the role of Italy. Timothy comes back to England after years of living in Venice, which establishes his “foreignness” in Upton, but does this code him as somehow suspicious (he seems to prefer many Italian values and customs to English ones) or refreshingly cosmopolitan and worldly? Esther expresses the quintessential Anglo-centric world view in an early letter: “I don’t see how another country can really disagree with England, for England is every country’s other self” but on the whole, it always seems that Timothy would rather be in Italy. Is he an escapist who has been forced by the war to confront his own country? And is the bottom line that he lacks the ability to deal with living in England? And if so, is that more of a reflection on him or on the country itself?

Nat

21943919

Tues 8:29 9:43 PM

Nat,

Was I ever disappointed in Timothy for falling in love with that lawn! The middle-way theory makes so much sense, but what does it mean that the novel can’t seem to imagine it? A similar throwing up of the hands might be at work in the novel’s portrayal of Italy. I’m glad you brought that up, as I was thinking about it too. His love of Italy makes Timothy a bit more worldly, less parochial. (and it’s another way he was reminding me of Forster.) But he’s unwilling to cut Italy too much slack–rightly decrying its turn to fascism. (Does it make a difference, I wonder, that he is the only character with any direct experience of fascism? Unlike his much more political friends.) Mostly Italy seems to function as a lost paradise–it’s like a synonym for the youth and vigour he no longer has. So in the end I don’t know that it much matters that it is Italy, just that it’s a place he felt himself to have been more free in than his current circumstances. Do you think that’s right?

I agree I think we’ve done about all we can for this novel. If anybody is inclined to pick it up after our exchange (which frankly I doubt!) I sure would like to hear what they had to say.

Let’s time we’ll go for something different. Or maybe we should push on with Hartley to see whether The Boat is an aberration.

Thanks for talking about it with me–totally enjoyed it!

xo

d

Wed 8/30 12:49 PM

Dorian,

Yes, I think you’re right about Italy. Not only is it his lost paradise, but it was his job as a writer to send back romanticized portraits of Italy to England. That falls apart with the outbreak of war, and Timothy’s attempts to romanticize England in a similar way also fall apart rather quickly. This also adds to the sense of Timothy as an escapist who lacks the tools (or desire) to deal with his real social situation.

I really enjoyed our conversation as well, and only wish we had both enjoyed the book a bit more. Probably best to give Hartley a break for the time being (although I did get my hands on a copy of Facial Justice) but I do look forward to reading something with you again. Perhaps you should choose next time; your judgment in these things is clearly better than mine!

Best,

Nat

 

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“An Irremediable Act”: Agnes Ravatn’s The Bird Tribunal

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Been busy with the beginning of school and a review essay that’s been bedeviling me, but wanted to pop in to say a few words about Agnes Ravatn’s The Bird Tribunal, which I devoured in a couple of sittings over the last few days. This is Ravatn’s first book in English, ably translated by Rosie Hedger. I gather it’s been adapted as a play, which I can absolutely see working, and now a movie’s coming, and that could be quite good too. The Bird Tribunal is one of those books with lots of shortish sections that make it so easy to say, Well, I’ll just read one more. And it’s so damn unsettling that you’ve no choice but to find out what’s going on.

Briefly: Allis Hagtorn is a former academic and TV personality (apparently these things are not mutually exclusive in Norway, though I have my doubts) who’s been disgraced (for reasons that are eventually revealed but not ultimately that interesting) and needs to run away from her old life. She answers an ad to be a live-in companion to a man in an isolated house somewhere in Norway. (Norwegians or better informed readers might be able to locate the setting more precisely: suffice it to say it’s on a fjord.) Her employer is Sigurd Bagge, a man taciturn to the point of pathology, brooding, mercurial, actually pretty frightening. He does some kind of unspecified work in a room he keeps locked. He needs Allis to cook, clean, and tend to the now-overgrown garden. His wife is away, has been for some time, and, it seems, isn’t coming back anytime soon.

So the book nods to the Gothic, intimates a Bluebeard situation, but it does so in the least Gothic prose imaginable. Instead it’s stripped down, spare, as if to support our stereotypes of Scandinavian minimalism. Others might not find this an interesting as I did–I’m a total sucker for stories about loners who retreat to the forests of the North, who live simple but comfortable lives, who don’t seem to need to work, except for whatever work they do with their hands around the house or in the garden, yet who still read and drink whisky and are quite cultured without making a big deal about it. Bits of Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses are like this (I was captivated by that book all out of proportion to its actual merit, I suspect); some of Henning Mankell’s crime fiction features these similar scenarios.

What’s interesting in Ravatn’s book is the way she juxtaposes this scenario—which is usually about contemplation, where retreating from the world is a way to live better, or a reward for a life well lived—with the conventions of the psychological thriller, where retreat is about grief, trauma, or terror.

Bagge’s a puzzle, and so moody it’s hard to identify with him. But so is Allis. I found her immense need for Bagge’s self-regard irritating, but I appreciated that she does, too: she’s always checking and berating herself. I also liked the intimations that Allis is in fact really not that nice a person, or, maybe more accurately, that an unpleasant, unstable person is lurking inside her, threatening to come out but never quite doing so. Ravatn’s first-person narration effectively keeps us off-kilter.

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The best thing about the book is that it teases you all the time, and just when you think you’ve figured it out, it changes course on you. (The push-pull between the characters, and the corresponding attraction-repulsion we feel for the characters is another way that slippery quality makes itself felt.) Even better: even when we do guess what’s going on, the book always has another trick to pull on us. It makes us feel confident as readers, lets us bask briefly in our cleverness, then pulls the rug out from under us again: a more interesting, less exploitative, and blessedly much shorter Gone Girl.

And if you like all things Scandinavian as much as I do you’ll also love the descriptions of weather and landscape. These are atmospheric but never overdone. As I write this review, I realize that what I liked best about the book is its modesty. (Very Scandinavian!) Less successful, to my mind, though I’d need to read it again to be sure, are the most self-consciously literary elements of the book: a dream that gives the book its title—and introduces the term skjemtarverk, “an irremediable act, a crime so serious that no fine or any other kind of reparation could atone for it”: this term is convincingly untranslated because even Allis, an expert on Norwegian history, has to look it up—and an extended reference to Norse myth. Maybe if I’d ever read the Eddas or had even the slightest clue what’s what there I’d think differently about these moment. For me, though, they were more distracting than winning.

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Finally, a question for anyone who’s read the book. Take a look at the last sentence. Is that a dreadful dangling modifier, or has something really strange happened? (Has Allis become, perhaps figuratively but it seems literally, the bird of prey that’s been referenced in various ways throughout the book?) If it is a dangling modifier, is this horror already present in Ravatn’s text or has it been introduced in the translation?

Anyway, bottom line: not life changing but completely satisfying. If you’re looking for something nervy and unsettling that won’t make you feel used, The Bird Tribunal might be the end of summer read you need.

“Nothing but Land”: Willa Cather’s My Ántonia

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How I’ve lived 45 years without reading Willa Cather I do not know. But now that I’ve read My Ántonia (1918)—some impulse made me slip it into my suitcase just before leaving for vacation last month—I plan to make up for lost time. Because if this book is anything to go by, Cather is the real deal. As much as I’m chagrined to have taken so long to read her, I’m excited that there’s quite a lot of her to read.

(The other night I read the first 30 pages of O Pioneers!—clearly, she was a genius right from the start. If you have a favourite, let me know in the comments.)

Two things about My Ántonia really struck me: its descriptions of the Nebraskan prairie in the late 19th century, and its unusual narrative structure.

The book is narrated by a man named Jim who shares Cather’s biography; like Cather, Jim leaves his home in Virginia at age nine or ten (unlike Cather, he is orphaned) and goes to live with relatives in Nebraska, back when the land was barely plowed and not at all fenced in. My Ántonia is filled with evocative descriptions of the landscape, in its beauty and menace.

Consider this famous passage, from the end of the first chapter. Jim has arrived in the middle of the night at the station in Black Hawk, Nebraska, where he’s met by his grandfather’s hired man. He’s tucked into a kind of bed in the straw of a farm wagon and sets out on the long journey to his grandparents’ homestead:

Cautiously I slipped from under the buffalo hide, got up on my knees and peered over the side of the wagon. There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. No, there was nothing but land—slightly undulating, I knew, because often our wheels ground against the brake as we went down into a hollow and lurched up again on the other side. I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man’s jurisdiction. I had never before looked up at the sky when there was not a familiar mountain ridge against it. But this was the compete dome of heaven, all there was of it. I did not believe that my dead father and mother were watching me from up there; they would still be looking for me at the sheep-fold down by the creek, or along the white road that led to the mountain pastures. I had left even their spirits behind me. The wagon jolted on, carrying me I knew not wither. I don’t think I was homesick. If we never arrived anywhere, it did not matter. Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be.

This is such a careful melding of physical and emotional geography, the featureless but evocative and powerful landscape mirroring, even inciting, a kind of acceptance of fate and loss. There’s something artless about the prose here, helped by the child’s perspective, though Cather doesn’t stay entirely within this point of view: that brilliant description of the prairie—“not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made”—seems to come from a more mature perspective. But the vivid descriptions of the landscape here and elsewhere in the book (terrible blizzards, glorious sunsets, lazy summer days by the river) aren’t simply offered for their own sake. Instead they are central to the book’s narration. Writing about a place in which indistinction or lack or differentiation is one of the dominant features seems to have allowed Cather to think in interesting ways about what it means to structure a story. Could she write a novel that didn’t follow the usual landmarks of fiction?

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In the introduction to the Penguin edition I read, editor John J. Murphy cites what I expect is a famous passage in Cather studies. Reflecting on her life, Cather describes how she took the advice of the famous New England writer Sarah Orne Jewett, who, when they met in1908, urged her to write about Nebraska:

From the first chapter, I decided not to “write” at all—simple to give myself up to the pleasure of recapturing in memory people and places I had believed forgotten. This was what my friend Sarah Orne Jewett had advised me to do. She said to me that if my life had lain in a part of the world that was without a literature, and I couldn’t tell it truthfully in the form I most admired, I’d have to make a kind of writing that would tell it, no matter what I lost in the process.

Reading these lines after having finished the book, I thought they helped explain the uncertainty My Ántonia had incited in me. What kind of a book is this, I kept asking myself. I loved it from the start—it seemed like a more sophisticated and less politically troubling version of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books I’d adored as a child—but once I reached the halfway point I became increasingly puzzled. Why was the book telling me what it was telling me?

Jim’s ostensible purpose is to tell the story of the oldest daughter of the other family that had disembarked at Black Hawk with him that night, the Shimerdas, immigrants from Bohemia. From the start Jim is smitten with Ántonia, who has a kind of vivacity, a life force, for lack of a better term, that almost singlehandedly allows her family to survive the difficult and dangerous first years in a new country.

But as the book continues, Jim becomes more important to the story; as a man he has opportunities the many women in the novel (the characters it actually cares about) don’t. (Although this is a novel filled with powerful female characters.) Jim grows up, becomes enmeshed in the social life of the town his family moves too when he is a teenager, and eventually, as Cather did, makes his way to Lincoln to attend university. As Jim’s experience takes center stage, I thought the book might become a kind of second-rate Bildungsroman. I say second-rate because Jim isn’t a particularly interesting character. For a time he is involved with another eldest daughter of an immigrant family, a woman named Lena who Jim and Ántonia had known from childhood. For a time I thought maybe the book was going to become about her. (She’s quite fascinating.) But when that didn’t happen, I couldn’t figure out where Cather was trying to go. There didn’t seem to be any forward momentum, and the vivid descriptions of survival on the prairie that had so captivated me faded as the characters gained greater economic and cultural security.

At about this time I was lucky enough to have lunch with Joe from Roughghosts. Over pancakes and eggs, I started complaining about Jim. Why did Cather need him as a narrator? If Ántonia couldn’t tell her own story—and her inarticulateness, which is never understood by the book as a failure, suggests she couldn’t—why didn’t Cather make someone even more like herself the narrator? Specifically, why didn’t she use a female narrator?

Joe gently pointed out that I was missing the point—through Jim’s relation to Ántonia, Cather, who loved women all her life, possibly unrequitedly, I don’t know enough about her to say for sure, had found a way to queer her tale. Jim allows her to tell the book’s real story—about her own love for women, especially women like Anna Sadilek, the model for Ántonia—in a way that is at once more socially acceptable but also ultimately more interesting. Jim never gets together with Ántonia, never gets together with Lena, who for a time seems like a more or less satisfactory replacement for Ántonia (though, as I said, who is plenty interesting in her own right and exceeds our or at least my expectations for her). In other words, My Ántonia entirely avoids compulsory heterosexual romance. Well, almost. In the last chapters we return to Ántonia, who has, after a terrible experience, found a lovely, gentle man, married him, and produced a whole brood of children who the grown up Jim, now an unhappy Eastern sophisticate, spends his summers visiting, even becoming something like a sibling to them.

But this heterosexuality is almost invisible. (It is the privilege of heterosexuality to be invisible in the sense of being normalized, that is, accepted as the default state of things, but what I mean here is that it is invisible in and unimportant to the workings of the plot.) Ántonia’s remarkable fecundity is divorced from sexuality—her magnificent brood seems to have sprung directly from her own vivacity. I was struck by this description from the scene in which Jim first re-encounters Ántonia:

Ántonia and I went up the stairs first, and the children waited. We were standing outside talking, when they all came running up the steps together, big and little, tow heads and gold heads and brown, and flashing little naked legs; a veritable explosion of life out of the dark cave into the sunlight. It made me dizzy for a moment.

If sexuality is anywhere here it is in the bodies of the children (“flashing little naked legs”), but I don’t think we’re to imagine that Jim desires them—as I said, if anything he desires to be them, and in fact does so, I would argue, at the end of the book. Indeed, sexuality is almost always bad in this book—a sub-plot involving an attempted seduction, leading to a murder suicide brings this fact home.

What is valued instead is something like friendship or admiration, ostensibly between men and women but actually, it seems, between women and women. Yet even as I say that, I don’t think it’s correct. The book doesn’t just use Jim as a way to disguise Cather’s love for women. The book’s weirder than that. It’s about intense emotional currents, strong affections that don’t have any name. Friendship is the best we have but it’s a pretty paltry term for the relationship between Jim and Ántonia, who mean so much to each other but who spend most of the book living such different lives. And yet the book never presents their relationship as a missed opportunity. It’s not that they were meant for each other and should really have got together. After all, Ántonia seems perfectly content, inasmuch as that matters, with her husband. The more I think about the book the more strange, intense relationships it seems to contain: a lot could be said about Peter and Pavel, two Russians who flee to America after a terrible (and incredibly exciting, as well as stylistically distinctive—folkloric rather than realist) incident in which a wedding party is chased and mostly devoured by wolves. What’s going on with those guys?

I suppose this interpretation, if I can grace these thoughts with that term, would need to take into account the book’s title. What’s implied by the possessive? (My Ántonia.) We tend to think of ownership as being connected to domination. Certainly Jim has a lot more conventional societal clout (money, education, status) than Ántonia. But is she really his? She doesn’t seem to need him, or to be subservient to him. How does the non-normativity I’m arguing for include the possessiveness of the title?

Writing this post has made me want to read the book again, this time with pencil in hand in a more determined effort to understand its various parts. (I was on vacation when I read it, after all.) But I stand by my sense that the book’s depiction of landscape is connected to its interest in non-normative relationships, which leads it to take up a seemingly haphazard, even careless, and ultimately fascinating narrative form. I loved My Ántonia for the way it kept wrong-footing me and entertaining me as it did so.

Back Again! Philip Kerr, Daphne du Maurier, and Plenty of Self-Promotion

Been quiet around here, as I was in Canada for four weeks recuperating from life and seeing friends and family.

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I also did some reading, though never as much as I’d like to (maybe when my daughter is a little older). Over the next few days, I’ll try to write short posts on some of the things I got through.

In the meantime, if you like crime fiction and don’t already know them, let me recommend to you the first three books in Philip Kerr’s Bernie Guenther series set in Nazi-era Germany. They are excellent, with convoluted hard-boiled type plots that remain on the right side of intelligibility; lots of fascinating, mostly convincing depictions of how someone might have rejected the regime without being particularly noble or righteous; and, most interestingly, ingenious use of German slang transliterated into English (the cops are called Bulls because in German they are Bulle, etc.). Kerr wrote these three as a trilogy and then put Bernie to rest, but you can’t keep a good detective down: he revived them several years later and now there are a lot of them. I’ve got the fourth waiting for me at the library. Curious to see if the newer ones hold up.

No matter what kind of books you like, you should absolutely read Daphne Du Maurier’s The Scapegoat. At first I wasn’t sure about this story of doubles—an English scholar of French history bumps into a Frenchman whom he resembles in every way, physically at least, and is forced to take on his life—because stories of mistaken identities tend to stress me out. But this is a really smart and fascinating book. I was absorbed by it in a way that’s rare for me these days; I really cared about what happened. It’s an unexpectedly moral book. Instead of trying to write a proper review, I’ll send you to Rohan’s excellent take, which I couldn’t improve on.

And now some self-promotion:

Before I left for Canada I was writing quite a lot. Here are some links to recent publications:

For (the now departed and already mourned) Numéro Cinq I reviewed Carl Seelig’s reminiscences of his friendship with Robert Walser and Hans Keilson’s diary written while living in hiding under a false identity in wartime Holland. Both are excellent and well worth your time.

For Open Letters Monthly (still the journal dearest to my heart) I wrote about Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer’s memoir of her life in Vermont as a refugee from Nazi-occupied Europe. Equal parts sad and sprightly, this recently reissued book is definitely worth a look.

For The Three Percent Review (a new venue for me) I discussed Swiss writer Peter Stamm’s first novel, Agnes. I was underwhelmed.

Last but not least, for the summer issue of The Quarterly Conversation I wrote a review essay on the enigmatic French-Swiss writer Roger Lewinter. My thanks to Scott Esposito for commissioning and improving it with his careful editing.

On an entirely unrelated note, I was featured in this piece in the Jerusalem Post about my thoughts as a Jew by Choice on some recent controversies in Israel regarding conversion. I haven’t read the comments, but I’m told you do so at your peril.

Next time, a proper review.