March 2019 in Review

March is a long time ago now, but I wanted to say a few words about my monthly reading. A better than average set.

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Yiyun Li – Where Reasons End (2019) Sad, funny, wise, painful. I quoted bits here.

Christopher R. Browning – Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (1992/98) This Holocaust scholar could have won plenty of rounds of Humiliation for not having read Browning’s classic microhistory of the actions of Order Police Battalion 101 near Lublin in 1942. Sometimes books you feel just have to have read disappoint. Not Ordinary Men, which remains as eye-opening now as then. (Browning has written a thoughtful essay for the 25th anniversary edition, bringing the latest research, especially concerning the photograph record of the unit, to bear on his original conclusions.)

The book begins with a sobering statistic: in March 1942, 70—80% of the eventual victims of the Holocaust were still alive, and 20—30% had been murdered; by February 1943, the proportions were reversed. 1942 was the darkest year in Jewish history; Browning examines one example of the men who perpetrated that darkness. The average age of the 500 men in the battalion was in the upper 30s, meaning that they had come of age before the Nazis came to power, and they were working- and lower middle class men from Hamburg, an area and the social classes famously antipathetic to National Socialism—facts which, taken together, suggest these men would have been among the least likely to be drawn to fascism. Yet they readily participated in mass executions, round-ups, and deportations.

Browning notes that 10—20% refused to partake in atrocities (and they had the benefit of a commander who actually asked before the first action if anyone wanted out—rather than a death sentence or a transfer to the front, these dissenters were moved into clerical positions or even sent back home); 20—30% participated avidly in atrocities; while the majority (50—70%), although reluctant, participated anyway. For the men in this last category, it was easier to follow along, and too unpleasant to risk the scorn of their more hateful colleagues. These are sobering numbers, with implications beyond Browning’s specific example. What makes us think we wouldn’t number among the majority in a similar scenario?

Leslie Morris, The Translated Jew: German Jewish Culture Outside the Margins (2018) I had a realization as I reviewed Morris’s book on the idea of translation in postwar German Jewish culture: academic monographs make me grumpy and I should stop writing about them. Thus, I’ve given up reviewing books for Choice, a publication designed to help libraries decide what to buy. (I wrote for them for 10 years.) Morris, whom I have not met even though the field we work in is small, probably deserves a more charitable reviewer. I did my best to point out the inspiring range of her material—ranging from a defunct Berlin sculpture park to Jewish body art to the poets Raymond Federman and Rose Ausländer. But her insistence, so typically academic, that we think, read, or engage “in new ways,” without explaining how or why, grated on me. As I concluded: “her description of Jewishness as an endlessly deferred cipher, at once spurring and spurning interpretation, is as unexceptional as it is unexceptionable.”

Andrea Camilleri – The Overnight Kidnapper (2015) Trans. Stephen Sartarelli (2019) Of course, the crime itself has vanished from my memory, but I recall the latest Montalbano as a decent effort. I didn’t want any surprises, and I didn’t get any.

Gengoroh Tagame – My Brother’s Husband [Volume 2] (2016) Trans. Anne Ishii (2018) I read Volume 1 last month; happy to say that the conclusion doesn’t disappoint. It plays a trick on us, but a fair one: leading us to believe in an impossible ending, then gently showing us why the all-too-possible one, however melancholy, is the right choice.

Ian Rankin – In a House of Lies (2018) The latest Rebus—once again improved, I suspect, by the audiobook’s excellent narrator—is one of the best in a while, featuring a rich set of storylines, plus better use of Brillo the dog (see my February complaint). The détente between Rebus and Edinburgh crime boss Big Ger Cafferty suggested in the previous installments is gone. This despite the fact that Rebus is coming to terms with a COPD diagnosis. Has anyone written about the pathos of ailing detectives?

H. F. Heard – A Taste for Honey (1941) I admit, I did not do this book justice. I read it on a Friday night when I was exhausted and should have gone to bed. But even in a better frame of mind, I think I would have found this tale of Holmes in retirement thin gruel. You better like Holmes a lot more than suspense if you’re going to enjoy it.

Virginie Despentes – Vernon Subutex I & II (both 2015) Trans. Frank Wynne (2017 & 2018) Not sure how long they’ll stay with me, but I liked these books a lot. I tried to articulate why—and the issue I take with the conclusion they seem to be coming to—here.

Mihail Sebastian – Women (1933) Trans. Philip Ó Ceallaigh (2019) More anon.

Solomon Perel – Europa, Europa (1990) Trans. Margot Bettauer Dembo (1997) Almost on a whim, I decided to teach Agnieska Holland’s adaptation of Perel’s extraordinary Holocaust memoir this semester. It went well—I’m finding the movie more interesting the longer I spend with it (always a good sign). The film is plenty unusual, but Perel’s memoir even more so. His story is stranger than fiction: after escaping the Nazi advance by fleeing east of the Bug river (the part of Poland annexed by the Soviet Union in the Hitler—Stalin pact) and finding refuge as a Komsomol in an orphanage in Grodno, the Jewish Perel passed himself off as an Ethnic German when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. (He had been born in Germany before moving to Poland with his parents as a child.) Perel found himself honoured for fighting at the Front and then shipped to a boarding school for elite members of the Hitler Youth, where he spent most of his time worrying someone would notice his circumcision. (Tonally, both book and film are crazy: sort of funny, sort of campy, sort of moving.) Remarkably, Perel survived the war surrounded by Nazi true believers, and at war’s end found himself reunited with his elder brother, the only other member of the family to survive. Perel’s story is even more unlikely than most survivor tales. What is most interesting is the way his cognitive dissonance features in odd switches between first and third person. At heart there seems something fundamentally incurious about Perel. An effect of his experiences? Or a predisposition towards surviving them?

Michelle McNamara — I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer (2018) I don’t read much True Crime. But I do read a ton of crime fiction. So, I naively assumed, when I started listening to McNamara’s acclaimed description of her pursuit of the serial rapist she named the Golden State Killer, that I knew what I was in for. Nope. I was shocked by how visceral, graphic, and uncomfortably voyeuristic this book—and, I suspect, its genre—turns out to be. It’s creepy as shit. To her credit, McNamara is aware of these difficulties, and doesn’t shy from highlighting her obsessive interest. Sadly, McNamara couldn’t finish her book: she died about three-quarters of the way through, and the finished version has been pieced together from notes. (The editors clearly describe when and how they’ve reconstructed.) Still, I did find the book repetitive and confusingly structured—perhaps a fitting response to the relentlessness of the crimes, dozens and dozens of them, perpetrated over a decade all over California. (If I had a better sense of California’s geography I might have had an easier time of it.) The tension between what we know—the killer was finally caught (in part thanks to McNamara’s efforts—and what she didn’t gives the book a macabre poignancy. Not for the faint of heart.

Lissa Evans — Their Finest Hour and a Half (2009) Read my take, if you like, but be sure to read this novel. There’s a dog that understands Yiddish!

David Bezmozgis — Immigrant City: Stories (2019) Bezmozgis is one of my favourites, the heir to Bernard Malamud. I snapped up his new collection on a recent weekend in Canada (why no US pub date?) and finished it before I was even home. I’m not sure Bezmozgis has ever written anything as rich as his first novel, The Free World (the great novel of the emigration of Soviet Jewry), but most of these stories are the equal of those in his terrific first collection, Natasha and Other Stories. Of course, some stories are stronger than others. “A New Gravestone for an Old Grave,” for example, is a bit travelogue-y. But “Immigrant City” breaks new ground for Bezmozgis (not sure the attempt to juxtapose earlier generations of Jewish immigrants to newer ones from Syria and Somalia completely works, but it’s thought provoking—I suspect it would hold up to rereading). And “Little Rooster” is a classic that is going straight onto the syllabus of my course on postwar representations of the Holocaust.

More before too long, I hope, about April reading, which is proving decidedly more unavailing.

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The Radetzky March Readalong

Caroline and Lizzy have organized a group reading of Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March. The novel has three parts: they posed questions for each section. (Not something I’d seen done before for an online readalong. Such a good idea!) Rather than responding each week, I’ve chosen the questions that spoke to me the most and answered them in one shot.

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Welcome to the #germanlitmonth spring readalong of The Radetzky March.  What enticed you to read along with us?

Many years ago I spent part of a summer at my uncle’s vacation house, in a remote valley of northern Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland. The house, a tiny thing of stone and wood built in the seventeenth century, was, as we’d say now, off the grid, even more so than most everything was in those days. A bakery van came by each morning, and once a week a grocery truck would come up from the main valley and stop in the little mountain villages. The villages were mostly empty then, filled with old people and some summer vacationers. I haven’t been there in decades: God only knows what they’re like now.

Along with my backpack, I had an old briefcase—I think it had been my grandfather’s—that I’d filled with books I was determined to read. Hard books: Proust, Broch, Faulkner, Malaparte. Of course, I didn’t read them all. The Broch was too hard, the Proust I didn’t get to until decades later. I did, however, read The Radetzky March. Did I like it? No idea. It left no big impression. I suspect I found it difficult. I didn’t know anything about the Hapsburg Empire then. And it’s slow. I remember the Malaparte much more vividly. Malaparte is not slow. Where Roth foresees the apocalypse, Malaparte is already in it. Which is perhaps to say that Roth is wasted on the young.

The older I get the more I’m interested in what we mean when we say we’ve read a book. If I’ve read it but can’t remember much of anything about it (a vague sense that, well, it’s about Hapsburgs, ends of empires, nostalgia), then have I really read it? I’m always caught between an insatiable drive to read everything and a wish to read books the way I read the books I teach—to have them seep into my soul, to be able to recall them fully, to have them totally at my fingertips.

When I heard about the readalong, I thought back to that summer, which, certainly with the glow of passing time, and from the position of middle-aged worries and responsibilities, stands out in a shimmer of pleasure. When I sat out in the sun on a stone terrace and read all day long, with breaks only for walks and coffees and wine in the evenings.

Here’s a chance, I thought, to pay homage to that past self, and to get a little closer to soaking up this book, assuming I still thought it warranted such close attention.

And I was curious what I would make of it now that I spend much of my time thinking about Eastern Europe (admittedly, the events twenty or thirty years later). Plus a year or two ago I read The Emperor’s Tomb, Roth’s sort-of sequel to Radetzky, and liked it very much.

That’s probably more than you wanted to know!

Which edition/translation are you using and how is it reading?

A Penguin Modern Classic, first published in 1984. (The sticker on the back says I bought it Bei Morawa and paid 4,99 for it—I don’t know in what country and with what currency.) Eva Tucker translated it, revising an earlier translation by Geoffrey Dunlop. Part of me wanted to get the Michael Hofmann translation, because he handled Emperor so beautifully, and I thought he might offer easier, less syntactically difficult reading. But in the end I didn’t mind Tucker’s revision of Dunlop. A bit formal—Tolstoy and Zola are in the background—but that suits the book, and may in fact be an accurate reflection of the original.

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How would you comment on the first few sentences? Is this an effective opening? “The Trottas were not an old family.  Their founder had been ennobled following the battle of Solferino.  He was a Slovene. The name of his village – Sipolje – was taken into his title.  Fate had singled him out for a particular deed. He subsequently did everything he could to return himself to obscurity.” (Translation: Michael Hofmann)

Compare Tucker:

The Trottas were not an old family. Their founder’s title had been conferred on him after the battle of Solferino. He was a Slovene and chose the name of his native village, Sipolje. Though fate elected him to perform an outstanding deed, he himself saw to it that his memory became obscured to posterity.

(As best I can tell, Hofmann follows Roth’s sentence length more closely; Tucker combines short sentences into longer ones by using conjunctions not present in the original.)

As to whether the opening is effective: absolutely. It gives us so much to think about.

We could start with the difference between “not an old family” and a young one, which, to me, suggests the book values continuity and tradition (interestingly, the English versions contrast Roth’s text: “Die Trottas waren ein junges Geschlecht”— I’ve no idea why Hofmann & Tucker made the change. Maybe because it would sound weird to say something like “The Trottas were a young lineage). But if we think this is going to be a story about upstarts, the next few sentences set us straight. In fact, the reference to Solferino, where French and Italian troops defeated the Austrians, already hints at failure. That’s followed by the information that the first von Trotta sought to undo the rise in station that accompanies ennoblement. Or at least, that he tried. (Tucker is more definitive than Hofmann.) Given that he’s fighting against fate, we might wonder whether this surprising attempt to fail—to avoid the spotlight, to fall in the world—will itself be a failure.

The other important element in this opening paragraph is the reference to the first von Trotta’s ethnic/national identity. Although very little will be made of that origin—none of the characters ever visit Sipolje—The Radetzky March is a book about the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and as this fact becomes more evident the early reference to a minority identity—“He was a Slovene”—seems in retrospect especially telling. And all the more so because it’s not accurate. Or not in any meaningful sense. The first von Trotta shows no connection to or interest in his Slovene-ness. We learn that in the recent past his father—a vivid and delightful bit character who, after losing an eye fighting Bosnian smugglers, has been pensioned off as a caretaker of a palace about ten miles from Vienna—would address him in Slovene, even though his son can hardly speak it. But after Trotta becomes a “von” and is elevated to the rank of Captain (he takes a bullet intended for the Emperor: Solferino was one of the last battles in which heads of state fought), his father resorts to “the ordinary harsh German of army Slavs.”

Although the von Trottas identify themselves almost to the point of pathology with the Empire, this early reference to ethnic minorities, along with later ones to class unrest, unionization efforts, and strikebreaking, points to the fissures that will undo that Empire. In the opening pages, the Captain is shown writing up his weekly inspection of his regiment’s sentries: he “scribble[s] his bold, forceful None under the heading UNUSUAL INCIDENTS, thus denying even the remotest possibility of such occurrences.” The line is telling because, most of the time, nothing much happens in the book. But even the most seemingly serene status quo doesn’t just maintain itself. And the book shows first the fraying and then the destruction of a way of life that had seemed as unchanging as the entries in the regimental logbook.

In sum: not a flashy opening, but a telling one.

BTW do any other German speakers hear Trotta and think Trottel (idiot)?

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Roth subscribed to Chekhov’s view that a writer “should not be a judge of his characters or what they say, but an impartial witness.” What is the effect of this impartiality? (I changed this question a little.)

Put differently: if the book is about decline, does it judge that decline? At times, I compared the novel to Lawrence’s The Rainbow, another modernist novel about three generations of a family. Lawrence is pretty clear that the changes that happen to the family are bad. Or, at least, he regrets the way the second and third generations are forced to come to terms with history. They lose touch with a peasant, premodern, prelapsarian timelessness. Lawrence also changes his style rather dramatically from beginning to end: from an amazing King James Biblical richness to a much flatter description of modernity. Roth, by contrast, writes about the Captain, the District Commissioner, and Carl Joseph in the same way. His style remains consistent. And I’m unconvinced he really thinks that the third generation is more decadent, less vital, more helpless than the first one.

Maybe, then, the Captain’s crusade to return to obscurity is analogous to Freud’s description of what he termed “the death drive,” by which he meant not a suicidal longing, but rather the way each organism seeks to return to the nothingness from which it came. In this regard, maybe these generations are equally modern.

What does the old servant Jacques and his death stand for?

I was moved by Jacques death, especially his insistence on working even in his last hours. Similarly moving, though less consequential, is the effect of this perverse dedication on the district administrator (the Captain’s son).

In many ways Chojnicki is the opposite of Jacques. What did you think of him?

I think he’s great. He brings energy to every scene. I suspect Roth liked him. He’s almost but not quite cynical. He knows the Empire is coming to an end: he doesn’t look forward to it (after all, he stands to lose a lot), but he doesn’t mourn it either.

He reminded me of Proust’s Charlus (less louche—maybe it’s the baldness that made me think them alike—but also the change that comes over them during the war). That late scene when the District Commissioner visits the mad Chojnicki, invalided out from the front, is pretty intense. (It’s a nice touch to turn the femme fatale Frau von Taussig into a nurse: that shift in our sense of who a character is also feels Proustian.)

Chojnicki’s fate makes me think that he and Jacques are more similar than different. Duty to the Empire does them both in.

By the way, this isn’t the same Chojnicki as in The Emperor’s Tomb, right?

Were you surprised to find the last chapter of part 2 told from the point of view of Kaiser Franz Josef? How effective did you find it?

Yes, but it worked. I’ve written about this strategy before, in one of my posts on Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, where I quoted the bit in S/Z where Roland Barthes says realist fiction can only mention historical personages in passing, lest they risk absurdity. Maybe it is a function of how little I know about Franz Josef (merely that he lived to be very old, a doddering stand-in for his Empire: Roth doesn’t exactly disagree, but he embroiders on this outline, and I found the Emperor’s brief moments of decisiveness among his general fog quite touching), but to me he appeared as a fully realized character. And maybe Roth’s decision to include Franz Joseph’s POV is a sign that he isn’t writing a realist novel, but instead a modernist one.

There seems to be only one true and honest relationship in this novel—the friendship between district administrator von Trotta [the Captain’s son] and doctor Skowronnek. Would you agree? What did you think of their relationship?

I would. And I found it surprising and touching. Since women are basically absent from this novel—its most striking failure: the two or three female characters are clichés, and I’m unconvinced Roth is offering any kind of critique of, say, the limited possibilities for women in the Empire—intimacy must take place between men. The relationship between Von Trotta and Skowronnek’s also bridges a class barrier, making it even more telling, and unusual. I appreciated the delicacy of their regard for each other.

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What is the significance of the regimental party at Chojnicki’s country house?

The greatest scene in this great novel. So portentous and symbolic—a great storm breaks weeks of sultry, oppressive heat, throwing the party into disarray, but also egging it on to greater, more debauched heights, a hectic state that only becomes more intense when the news arrives that the heir to the throne has been shot. Half of the guests dance in drunken, ignorant abandon; the other half work themselves into nationalistic frenzies. You can see the Empire splintering; you can admire/pity/condemn the ignorance of those who waltz along the abyss.

It’s all so obvious; it shouldn’t work at all. But it does. (Like the later references to the wild geese who migrate south earlier than ever before that summer: the natural world, like the empire that pretends to be similar unchanging, is out of kilter. We get it! And yet those geese are great.) How? Why? Maybe because Roth has a way of being both ironic and sincere. Take the party scene: it’s knowing (look at the decadent empire!) but not too knowing (the emotions are big, heartfelt, I was totally captivated).

Chapter 21 takes us to the Eastern front.  What do you think about the way Roth depicts the conflict? How do you feel about the manner of Carl Joseph’s [the son of the district administrator: the third of the three von Trotta generations] death?

Pleasingly oblique. Carl Joseph is shot by a sniper while filling up water buckets for his men. The difference between this death and the near-death of his grandfather at Solferino is clear. One saves the Emperor, one dies for his men, doing a dangerous but mundane job. The novel is obvious about that difference—“Lieutenant Trotta died, not with sword in hand but with two buckets of water”—but I didn’t find that obviousness offputting or heavy-handed. (Roth is not Mann.)

The Radetzky March has been described as a nostalgic novel for a lost empire.  Is nostalgic the adjective you’d use?

It’s so tempting, but I’m suspicious. Too easy, surely. See what I wrote above about decline. Characters talk about it all the time, worry over its apparent inevitability, but the book doesn’t necessarily agree. Not that the present is better (by “present” I mean the time of WWI—by the time Roth wrote the book, that already seemed like the distant past) . Roth isn’t a liberal, or a socialist. There’s no belief in progress here. But neither is he conservative, reactionary. (Well, except maybe when Dr. Skowronnek and the District Commissioner bond over the ridiculous of that new fad, meat-eating contests. They’re not wrong, though.) He’s dispassionate, but not in that Olympian way that bugs me about Flaubert and some of Nabokov. Roth is warm, accepting, enlightened. I suspect he’s talking about himself when he says of Skowronnek: “He liked people as much as he despised them.”

What struck you the most in this novel, what do you like or dislike the most?

I dislike its lack of interest in women, as I said before.

I like its slow burn. So much of the novel consists of people doing the things they always do (the descriptions of the District Commissioner’s Sunday meals are mouth-watering, especially those cherry dumplings), and being bored and irritated but also fiercely insistent on that repetition.

And there are some lovely, lyrical passages, whether a deft turn of phrase (a man exhales to reveal “a surprisingly powerful set of teeth, pale-yellow teeth, a strong protective fence guarding his words”) or an indelible set piece. I was especially taken with the Emperor’s encounter with a Jewish delegation. Or this snippet, coming just after Chojnicki tells Trotta war has been declared:

Never, it seemed to Trotta, had nature been so peaceful. At this hour you could look straight into the sun as, visibly, it sank westward. A violent wind came to receive it, rippled the small white clouds in the sky and the wheatstalks on the ground, caressed the scarlet face of the poppies. A blue shadow drifted across the green meadows. Toward the east the little wood disappeared in deep violet. Stepaniuk’s low house, where he lived, gleamed white at the edge of the wood, its windows burnished with evening sunlight. The crickets increased their chirping. The wind carried their voices into the distance; there was silence and the fragrance of the earth.

Would you reread The Radetzky March?

Absolutely. I want to read so many other things, so I’ve no idea whether I will. Probably not anytime soon. But I’m so glad to have read it a second time, and grateful to Caroline & Lizzy for providing the incentive.

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Reminder! Lucky Per Readalong

Tomorrow is US pub day for the Everyman Library edition of Henrik Pontoppian’s Lucky Per (1904) in Naomi Lebowitz’s translation.

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A while ago I wrote about why I want to read it, and how much I hope others will join me. At the time, lots of you said yes. Here’s hoping you’re still interested! Whether you’re drawn to canal building, Jews, the influence of Thomas Mann on Danish literature, or the sheer delight of saying (and typing) “Pontoppian,” I encourage you to read and share your thoughts.

As a reminder, here’s what the publisher has to say about it:

Lucky Per is a bildungsroman about the ambitious son of a clergyman who rejects his faith and flees his restricted life in the Danish countryside for the capital city. Per is a gifted young man who arrives in Copenhagen believing that “you had to hunt down luck as if it were a wild creature, a crooked-fanged beast . . . and capture and bind it.” Per’s love interest, a Jewish heiress, is both the strongest character in the book and one of the greatest Jewish heroines of European literature. Per becomes obsessed with a grand engineering scheme that he believes will reshape both Denmark’s landscape and its minor place in the world; eventually, both his personal and his career ambitions come to grief. At its heart, the story revolves around the question of the relationship of “luck” to “happiness” (the Danish word in the title can have both meanings), a relationship Per comes to see differently by the end of his life.

Given the exigencies of the end of the semester, I’ll have to wait until next month to encounter Per.

So the plan is to read and write about Lucky Per anytime in May. Do join in. Write one post or several. As short or as long as you like. I’ll gladly run guest posts from anyone who doesn’t have a blog. Or you can make your contributions in the comments.

Let’s use the hashtag #LuckyPer2019 for Twitter conversations. Maybe I’ll even figure out how to make one of those emblem things participants can add to their posts.

“Good at Wrecking Things”: Virginie Despentes’s Vernon Subutex

Virginie Despentes is a novelist, filmmaker, rock journalist, and former sex worker. She is best known for her book Baise-moi (1983; translated as Rape Me), a revenge fantasy inspired by the rape and abuse she suffered as a young woman. And if her awesome author photo is anything to go by, she’s still rocking that punk sensibility.

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As a long-standing square, terrified of drugs and able to appreciate punk only as an idea (so noisy!), I’d never even considered reading Despentes. But then I started hearing about this trilogy she’d written about a man in midlife, who falls victim to the precarity of neo-liberalism and finds himself pushed to the margins of society. But even after reading an enticing review in the TLS, I still figured these were books I was more likely to read about than read myself. But then Frances and Eric raved about them; Eric even offered to pass along his copies. The die was cast.

So it was that I recently spent a week or so happily immersed in the first two volumes of the Vernon Subutex trilogy. (Volume 3 hasn’t yet appeared in English.) Vernon—“the guy with the name like an orthopaedic mattress, Subutex,” as the grown daughter of one of his former customers acidly but aptly puts it—ran a record store named Revolver for twenty five years. But then came downloading, and rising rents, and he had to close. For a few years he eked out a living selling off the rest of his stock on Ebay. But on the first page of the first volume, he’s about to be evicted, the last of his remaining possessions taken as collateral. He’s hardly eaten in days, even quit buying coffee and cigarettes. He’s 49 years old and without any plan for what comes next. Without even his noticing it—Vernon is not shrewd; in that TLS review, Chris Kraus calls him an “affable loser,” which is near enough I guess, though it makes him seem sweeter and more hapless than he is—his friends have left him behind: moved away, started families, schemed desperately to cling to economic stability (unless of course they married into money). Or they’ve left him permanently: cancer, car accident, overdoses, the losses mount up.

Of those deaths, the most consequential is Alexandre Bleach’s. Alex, a mixed-race kid who found his way into Revolver one day and learned about bands like Stiff Little Fingers and Bad Brains under Vernon’s tutelage, made it big. (Along the way he passed through a punk phase: his former bandmates are some of the first people Vernon turns to once he finds himself on the streets.) But Alex never much liked being a star, though he has enough self-knowledge to know how irritating it is to complain when you get everything you’re supposed to want. Alex would periodically hole up in Vernon’s apartment, listening to music, getting high, and hiding from the responsibilities of fame; as a recompense for having this bolt-hole, Alex would pay Vernon’s rent.

But now Alex is dead, and Vernon immediately wonders where the rent money’s going to come from. Yet like the characters of so many 19th-century novels—subject matter aside, Vernon Subutex is quite old-fashioned (and I don’t mean that as a slight)—Alex is never so alive as when he’s died. One of his last acts was to record a manifesto/testament, a combination of stoned philosophizing and vituperative score-settling. Vernon, predictably, slept through the whole thing, but the tapes are some of the only things he takes with him onto the streets because he’s convinced he’ll be able to sell them.

The series is plotty and I’ll try not to go into too much detail and reveal too many secrets, other than to say that the tapes, which Vernon deposits with a friend from whom they are promptly stolen, link the trilogy’s large set of characters. For the bombshell hidden in all that rambling is that Alex has told the truth about the death of his former girlfriend, a porn star named Vodka Satana (yeah, it doesn’t work for me either), at the hands of a movie mogul named Laurent Dopalet (part Harvey Weinstein, part Dominique Strauss-Kahn). Dopalet hires a woman known as the Hyena to find the tapes, but she joins forces with another former porn star and friend of Vodka Satana’s to forge an alliance with Vernon’s friends. (The Hyena’s job is to boost and attack directors, actresses, and other media personalities, “to plaster the internet with love notes, photos, passionate declarations and real-life accounts about how lovely and approachable they are,” or, conversely, “to stop some young starlet from making it too quickly.” Fascinating stuff, and I wish Despentes had done more with it.)

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Even more than plot, the Vernon Subutex series cares about character. This is both good and bad. Vernon’s friends, in particular, are a mixed blessing. On the one hand, they are the focus of much of the book’s energy and social critique. For example, there’s Xavier Fardin, a screenwriter with only one hit to his name who has been living for years off his wife’s family money and his peculiar fame as an avowed conservative in the leftist Parisian art world, basically a shit but a fairly decent one, especially in his love for an old and practically hairless poodle, not to mention his willingness to stand up to alt-right thugs (he’s beaten badly defending Vernon and another homeless person). Even more interesting is Patrice, a punk musician who cut ties with the industry and is now a mailman. Patrice lives alone because of his inability to stop himself from physically and emotionally abusing his ex-wife and girlfriends. (Despentes writes great male characters—the various gradations of male douchebaggery and assholery seems to be her real subject.)

On the other, the friends are a problem, because they complicate what’s really great about the books: their depiction of Vernon’s journey to homelessness. Despentes shows how easy it is to drift to the margins of society, how quickly one can be reduced to something less than human. Without being clumsy or preachy, Despentes shows a world many of her readers don’t know. Along with Vernon, we learn the rules and strategies of begging (which are the best pitches—outside bakeries, because people pay cash and leave with change—what is the etiquette about finding a new one, when to look at people’s feet and when in their faces). We experience with him the constraints of public space (realizing that the world is made up of park benches with bars down the middle of them and shop fronts with spikes, designed to stop people sleeping and sitting). We also see the camaraderie, even freedom that prevails among the homeless (one woman has a theory about how much the system needs people like her; without her example, she avers, most people wouldn’t keep going to work). But we also see how violent and dangerous it is to be on the streets: you are tired, cold, sick most of the time; your body changes on you, becomes unrecognizable, from your smell to your painful uncut toenails, not to mention the ineradicable grime that colours your skin.

Like Zola in his day, Despentes critiques the depredations of a gilded age. Unlike Zola, however, she isn’t also fascinated by the extravagance and excesses of the one percent. The Vernon Subutex books are great novels of the failures of neo-liberalism. One of my favourite sections concerns Patrice’s reflections on what he’s learned being a postman:

It’s hard fucking work. He is sorry he has always been so down on postmen. First off, it’s hard not to steal stuff. But the main problem is all the walking. And it’s an obstacle course, working out where people mount their letter boxes … If it were left to him, he would have regulations in place like a shot—the fuckers already get their mail delivered for free, the least they can do is have standard-size letter boxes situated in the same places. Make things move faster. People take public services for granted—they’ve been spoiled. People need to make sure they have the letter-box in the right place, that there are no vicious dogs barring the way, they need to realize how lucky they are to have a postman come by every morning.

Which leads him into a screed against deregulation:

The old-timers are devastated to see what the postal service has come to. It’s like everything else. They’re witnessing the systematic dismantling of everything that worked, and to top it all they get told how a mail distribution system should work by wankers straight out of business school who have never seen a sorting office in their lives. Nothing is ever fast enough for them. The skeleton staff is too expensive. Tearing down a system that already works is quicker. And they’re happy with the results: they are good at wrecking things, these bastards.

(Substitute higher education for the mail distribution system and this works just as well—for lots of other things too, no doubt, public utilities, health care, anything important that isn’t amenable to profit.) Patrice, as I’ve noted, is no saint. He’s quite repulsive, actually—but he’s also appealing. Despentes forces us to sit with that contradiction. We can even see in his own fulminations against the people he serves that he’s been infected by the neo-liberal language of efficiency (“make things move faster”).

As these passages suggest, the Subutex books, despite the presence of alt-right bullies, porn stars, popular music and movies, and plenty of drugs and alcohol, owe more to Honoré de Balzac than to J. G. Ballard. But there is some Ballard in these books. Nothing like the fascinating sexual and consumer excesses of Crash, but moments when the books’ social critique is decoupled from realism and, as in Ballard, connected to something more fantastic and oneiric.

This tendency is most apparent when Vernon becomes something like a shaman, the still, doped-out center of a network of people who reconnect through his tribulations—and his way with a playlist. Vernon’s friends track him down, and offer him money, couches to crash on, help of various kinds: he refuses all offers and finds a place for himself in an encampment on a disused railway line near the Buttes Chaumont. (Readers who know Paris better than I do will probably get even more from this book.) Vernon no longer cares about rejoining society. He only cares for music. He becomes a DJ at regular events, raves of a sort, first at a bar and then in abandoned industrial sites across France, where hundreds of people come to lose themselves in his sets.

Vernon hasn’t been on the streets for long before he starts experiencing fevered visions: sometimes he feels himself to be growing wings, soaring through the air. Sometimes he feels himself, “a hobo perched on a hill, in Paris,” to be an amalgam of all those who suffer from ordinary life, from “the drug mule pissing myself in fear ten metres from customs” to “the nurse made deaf by the cries of the patients and by dint of powerlessness” to “the cow in the abattoir.”

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I don’t know what to make of this. At least character agrees with me: “how does a guy who’s likable enough but a bit short of change when it comes to charisma turn himself into the messiah of the Buttes-Chaumont? The guy is homeless, stinks of sweat and wears trailer trash boots, but everyone treats him like he’s baby Jesus if he’d skipped the bit with the cross, he’s surrounded by dozens of Magi who bring him gifts every day.”

For the most part, though, the book asks us to take Vernon’s reincarnation as a guru at face value. But how is all this shamanistic stuff supposed to be a critique of neo-liberalism? Is Despentes arguing for the power of fantasy to counter alienation and inequality? Or is she depicting nothing more than ineffective resistance to those states? At times the books seem to manifest the inchoate rage of the gilet jaunes, but then the belief in the power of music and dance mitigates that sense of injustice. In the end, Vernon Subutex seems to hold fast to the radical potential of the 1960s and 70s, even as it is alive to the irony that its middle-aged characters, through the world they built, have done so much to undermine these ways of being.

Maybe the books’ most interesting social criticism concerns the idea of friendship. Although the books are peopled by dozens of characters (volume 2 even starts with a list), all of whom are connected in some way, they contain almost no marriages. Nor are there many sexual relationships (even though the male characters are always moaning about how women won’t sleep with them anymore, that is, when they’re not commenting on their lack of sex drive: “his libido has long since been running on empty”). If these books have utopian tendencies, they’re quite chaste. Or quite pornographic—in the sense that sex has retreated to a realm of private, managed fantasy. Which makes the insistence on friendship all the more striking.

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I’ve quoted a few bits of the books already. Enough for you to know that the individual sentences are not particularly interesting. Despentes is not a stylish writer. In its rapid cutting between different characters it seems written for tv (and apparently a series is coming, maybe already out in France). But I wouldn’t say these are badly written or structured books. They have a hurried, helter-skelter charm, which their translator Frank Wynne (presumably following the original, I’m not sure) evokes with commas rather than semi-colons, dashes, periods, or other more formal methods of linking and separating clauses. The books are easy to read and soothing to plunge into, even when the subject matter is enraging or disquieting.

At times, Despentes dabbles in aphorism. (She is French, after all.) “Past the age of forty, everyone is like a bombed-out city.” “He recognizes the fervent foolishness of people who feel the need to put the same expressions in every sentence.” “But heredity is a patient spider” (this from a man horrified to find himself becoming like the father he hated).

Sometimes aphorism connects with social critique. Alex compares life under capitalism to “the battered wives you see on documentaries: we are so gripped with terror, we have forgotten the basic rules of survival.” A woman who played in the band with Patrice and Xavier reflects on how poorly they’ve aged: “Women survive prison better than men because, throughout history, they have been accustomed to being locked up spied on hobbled punished and deprived of their freedom. Not that it’s in their blood, but it’s part of their heritage. The same thing can be said about social success: women don’t suffer as much when they don’t succeed.”

Thinking about the books’ tendencies toward pronouncements (“women don’t suffer as much when they don’t succeed”), I was reminded of a much earlier French text about how to live, one with a similarly naïve hero: Voltaire’s Candide. Admittedly, I haven’t read it in 30 years, and that was in high school French class, so I probably didn’t understand it even then, but the way Despentes depicts the raves organized by Vernon and his friends, I couldn’t help but think of Pangloss’s insistence that we cultivate our own gardens.

Of course, Voltaire ironizes the imperative as much as he avows it. And maybe Despentes is similarly ambivalent. Nothing stuck with me in these books as much as  the last line in volume 2. We’re at one of the parties, Vernon is spinning his tunes (Bootsy Collins, a favourite). He’s watching the dancers (“shapes peel away and form fleeting groups”); he’s thinking about those who aren’t there, especially Alex (“he makes contact with those who are absent”), it’s all very mystical (“whorls of moonlight open up between people”). And then this: “He is making them all dance.” On the one hand, this is a mere description, of something nice no less. But on the other, it’s a more sinister observation, even a prophecy. Does Vernon have a plan we don’t know about? Is there more to him than affable helplessness? Are the love, drugs, and music that seem to resist neoliberalism’s cruel optimism in fact nefarious?

I trust all will be revealed in volume 3.

“A Matter of Authenticity”: Lissa Evans’s Their Finest Hour and a Half

It takes all day to get from Little Rock, Arkansas to Halifax, Nova Scotia, a trip I made last week, and so I had plenty of time for reading. From the teetering stacks on my study floor, I plucked Lissa Evans’s Their Finest Hour and a Half (2009) to take with me. I chose well. It’s that rarest and most valuable thing, perfect light reading. I hope that doesn’t sound like damning with faint praise. As in her other books, Evans here is funny, but also poignant. Her prose feels effortless—but the book is about what hard work underlies effortlessness.

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Their Finest Hour and a Half is a Blitz novel. It follows a young woman named Catrin Cole, who escapes her Welsh childhood by running away to London with a painter she has only known for a week or so, takes a job writing advertising copy, and then finds herself conscripted by the Ministry of Information. Her war work will be to write scripts for propaganda/morale boosting films, specifically to write women’s roles, which apparently men can’t do. After doing her best with some tragically lame shorts—warnings against loose talk and encomiums to the delights of carrots, grown in good British soil—Catrin finally gets her big chance, a feature (very) loosely based on the story of twin sisters who took their father’s boat to help with the Dunkirk evacuation.

The creation of the film brings together a set of wonderful characters: Edith, a seamstress who worked at Madame Tussaud’s until it was bombed; Arthur, a catering specialist who finds himself over his head when he is seconded to the production as its military advisor; Ambrose, an actor who was never as good as he thinks he was but whose career is now definitively on the skids; Parfitt, a writer who almost never speaks and only in short bursts, much of which consists of grunts; and Myrtle, a teenager mad about movies.

Equal parts heartwarming, engaging, and even delightful, Their Finest Hour and a Half is also smart about how historical events get represented, both by those experiencing them and by those who come later. By centering her novel on a film production—in which a complicated, somewhat underwhelming but still inspiring event is transformed into a flattened heroic epic, and in which every decision about how to tell a story passes through multiple people and committees, each with their own agenda—Evans shows us how all events, whether dramatic or not, whether in war or at peace, must be shaped in order to be understood. I appreciated that Evans wasn’t content simply to show up Londoners’ response to the Blitz as mere myth (“London can take it,” etc.). (I’ve been speaking of Their Finest Hour and a Half, which is the UK title; unaccountably, the US publisher has reduced that to the nonsensical Their Finest. By doing so, the book loses at once its allusion to Winston Churchill’s own mythologizing of WWII, the reference to the run time of the film, and that endearingly bathetic, even ramshackle half hour. I’m reminded of the way all programs in Canada are always announced as starting a half hour later in Newfoundland.)

By focusing on the worlds of theatre, advertising, and mass media, Evans shows myths to be more than just lies, ideology, or false consciousness. It’s not that there are no truths in a modern age, but that truths need to be told—they are representations. Every telling is a framing, the result of a series of choices. And Evans, who worked as a radio and television producer before writing full time, knows how hard it is to create those representations. Some of the novel’s best bits emphasize craft, whether it’s Ambrose trying out a series of line readings, Edith replacing old bead work, or Parfitt and his partner Buckley moving around bits of paper as they organize the plot of the film, before spending hours bashing out bits of script to hit just the right note in a scene. Yes, everyone is selling something, some vision of the past, but they’re not just lying.

No wonder, then, that Evans’s own craft—her own language—is so effective. Here are a few bits that caught my eye.

The narrator, here focalized through Catrin, describes the enigmatic Parfitt, who for several months won’t even talk to the new employee: “All communication had been via Buckley, as if the latter were the string between two cocoa tins.”

A character actor bridles at how much will be added to the film in post-production. He’s insulted that a gunshot will be indicated in the take by an offstage fingersnap: “‘I want to react to the sniper out there, and not the finger-snap in here, do you see what I mean? It’s a matter of authenticity. In fact, there’s no chance of actually firing a rifle is there?’”

A cab driver recognizes Ambrose from his 1931 film “A New Leaf.” We get a sublime description of the film and its making:

The angel-faced child who’d played ‘Sonny’ (‘I don’t know whose son I am, mister, so I might as well be yours…’) had not only fleeced the entire cast at poker, but had turned out to be playing with a marked pack, supplied to him by his mother.

That’s practically Wodehouse, with the risible dialogue, and the almost gentle hardboiled story of the hard-bitten child actor. Then we get a second joke, when the puffed-up actor, filled with surprised pride that he has been recognized for a role from ten years ago, learns that the only reason the cabbie remembers him is that it was the last film he ever saw, having found religion right afterwards.

Edith, the seamstress, reflects on her impending marriage: “She would shortly be installed as Mrs Edith Frith, a name unpronounceable to all but professional linguists.”

The girl Myrtle despairs when, after years of dreaming of visiting London, she finds it entirely underwhelming:

‘Is this really London?’ whispered Myrtle, suddenly, desperately.

‘It’s a suburb of London.’

‘But it’s just houses.’

‘I know.’

‘Just house after house after house. I thought there’d be things to look at. I thought it would be exciting. I told everybody at school I was going to see film-stars. I even brought my autograph book, but it just looks like anywhere.’

‘I know,’ said Edith, ‘I’m sorry.”

And just to show that Evans isn’t just funny (though, really, what’s more important?), here is Catrin escaping the worst night of Blitz in a crowded cinema showing the Jimmy Stewart – Marlene Dietrich vehicle Destry Rides Again:

And the audience erupted again, and Catrin found herself being pulled along by the crowd, caught up in a vast and vocal caravan determinedly heading Westward for the evening, and for an hour or two there was enough applause, there were enough celluloid gunshots and gusts of laughter and galloping music, enough songs and fist-fights, enough glamour and wit and plot and spectacle to blot out the real barrage, and for a short while, the theatre seemed safer than any shelter, and the noise inside was like a shield, keeping the night at bay.

This is a resonant, almost hortatory passage, one of the few unleavened by gentle irony and wit, the one that comes closest to embracing the myth of the Blitz (J. B. Priestley: “It took bombs to deliver us”) without examining that myth. But it feels earned to me, and in keeping with Evans’s belief in spectacle, illusion, and representation as constitutive of rather than merely a second-rate imitation of political reality.

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In its interest in how the story of the Blitz has been told, Their Finest Hour shares concerns with Sarah Waters’s more overtly revisionist The Night Watch (2006). Waters’s register is different, darker, more traumatized. She’s worth reading, too. But the book that Their Finest Hour most reminded me of is Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices (1980), set at the BBC during the same time period. And when I think about the two novels Evans has written since Their Finest Hour—I wrote briefly about them here—I wonder if she might not be becoming our own Fitzgerald. What could be better than that?