July 2018 Vacation Reading

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The Three Sisters, Canmore, AB, July 2018 Photo: Brett Buchanan

 

Spent much of July in Canada, lucky me, visiting friends in New Brunswick and family in Alberta. Did a lot of hiking, caught up on some television, avoided news as much as possible, enjoyed the time with my wife and daughter, and also got in a fair amount of reading.

As usual I didn’t read very many of the things I thought I would. The need to take it easy and follow the drifts of serendipity was more overpowering than ever this year. It was a joy to read so haphazardly.

Here are some capsule thoughts on the stuff I read.

Rachel Cusk, Outline (2014)

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Late to this party, but now that I’m here, I’m staying for the whole thing. (Clumsy way of saying I will read the other two books in the trilogy, and then look into Cusk’s backlist–if anyone has suggestions about where to go first–her fiction? her nonfiction?–I’d like to know.) I’m not as over the moon about what Cusk is doing as some readers seem to have been. (I’m unconvinced this is the novel’s salvation, for example, mostly because I don’t think it needs saving.) But I found Outline engrossing and satisfying. I think it would repay re-reading more than most books. A part of me wonders if the book isn’t too perfectly devised to be interpreted in a particular way (as if it were designed for the classroom). But another part of me thinks that Cusk is likely ahead of me and has written her book in this way knowingly, to make a point about what kind of book our literary culture considers important. (I am not exactly sure what that point is, though.) I really like Cusk’s use of indirect narration–the only way, though an important one, in which she resembles Sebald, whom I suspect she is often compared to. She’s got a handle there on something significant about how we tell stories now; I look forward to thinking about this more as I read the follow-up books.

Dorothy B. Hughes, The Expendable Man (1963)

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The best book I read in July, hell, one of the best of the year. I can’t say much about it because Hughes delivers an important surprise about a quarter of the way through that shifts ours understanding of the whole thing, in a way that effectively provokes us to examine our expectations. That might sound like a trick or a gimmick, but it is totally not. Basically, all you need to know is that this is a great noir set in the American southwest. It would have been so easy for Hughes to have written this in first person. Her choice to use third makes it even more compelling. The rare thriller that demands to be re-read. (I just read another of her books and hope to write more about it soon.)

Edmund Crispin, The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944)

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The only dud of the bunch. I was excited to find reissues of Crispin’s mysteries while browsing in a bookstore, but was disappointed with my choice, which I selected because it was published before any of the others sitting on the shelf. I’m guessing it’s not the first in the series, because the detective, an apparently brilliant and maddeningly insouciant Oxford don named Gervase Fen, isn’t given anything like an ordinary introduction; it’s as though we’re already supposed to know all about him. [I just looked this up, and this book is the first of the series: another strike against it!] I don’t know if amateur and professional theater companies were as big a part of actual life in early to mid 20th Century Britain as they are in crime fiction of the period, but I find theatre stories a particularly tedious sub-genre, and as Gilded Fly involves a production so far from the West End it premieres in Oxford, I’m hardly the ideal reader of the book. I finished it–mostly because it is so short–but unless someone mounts a convincing defense of the series (and promises later ones get much better) I won’t be reading any more.

Helen Dunmore, Birdcage Walk (2017)

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An excellent novel by a writer who clearly knew what she was about, especially when it comes to preserving the strangeness of the past. A shame she died last year (at only 64), not long after publishing this book. Birdcage Walk is set in and around Bristol in the 1790s. It’s good with ideas–the joys and disillusionment the Revolution brings to progressive thinkers, including the protagonist’s mother, as best I can tell a sort of Mary Wollstonecraft type (though the hero is no Mary Shelley, except in being abused by men); the similarities and differences between those who build with their hands and those who create with their minds–but even better with things: it’s filled with vivid scenes of, for example, a difficult labour, the burying of a corpse, and a headlong boat ride, racing first with then against the tide. Dunmore reminds me of Penelope Fitzgerald (some of the highest praise I can offer). There’s nothing here quite as extraordinary as the wash day in The Blue Flower or the break-up of ice in The Beginning of Spring, but Dunmore’s book is definitely in that league. Although there won’t be any new books from Dunmore, she has a long and enticing backlist. I plan to start with The Siege, about the siege of Leningrad, but if anyone has other suggestions, I’m all ears.

Cherie Dimaline, The Marrow Thieves (2017)

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Terrific Indigenous YA from Canada. In the dystopian world of this novel–set in Northern Ontario about forty years from now–not only has climate change made much of the world uninhabitable, but, almost as bad, something has made people unable to dream. (No doubt it has something with their inability to contrive a way of living in the world that doesn’t destroy it, but fortunately Dimaline doesn’t labour over an explanation.) If you can’t dream you go crazy, so when it’s discovered that Indigenous people have been spared the affliction it’s not long before they are being hunted and placed into facilities where the bone marrow that somehow protects them can be extracted. There are obvious resonances to the residential schools that devastated Indigenous culture in Canada, but again, Dimaline underplays the connection. A friend told me she didn’t care for the book because she thought it was so poorly written, and I agree that Dimaline (in what I believe is her first novel) too often overloads her sentences with metaphor. For example, here’s her narrator, a teenage boy named Frenchie, when he stumbles across a miraculously pristine lake: “I heard capture and release and a high whine over something that echoed off the trees growing downwards towards the brook like pious monks in all manner of fancy dress, voluminous green silks peeking out of their austere brown habits.” I’m willing to believe, just about, that the boy would make such a comparison, but what is the comparison about, exactly? The end of the sentence says that trees look like monks, but the beginning is about sound, and I find it confusing that so much description should be appended to what isn’t even the sentence’s subject. But in the end, I am both a sucker for dystopian stories (which more and more are just slight exaggerations of reality) and for the balance between hopefulness and hopelessness on which the book pivots. Bottom line: I stayed up late to finish, reading as avidly as I did as a child.

Claire Fuller, Our Endless Numbered Days (2015)

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This was Fuller’s first novel, and her new one (her third, I believe) is getting a lot of good buzz. I’m certainly going to read it, because this was excellent. It shouldn’t work as well as it does, and I don’t think the frame story is as engaging as the main one. (Fuller just ran out of steam, I think, but that’s okay because I’d rather the book was 300 pages that left me wanting more than 450 pages that made me want less.) In the mid-1970s, while her mother, a concert pianist, is on tour in Europe, eight-year-old Peggy is taken on vacation by her father, a survivalist and, it turns out, a crackpot (though that’s probably a redundancy). The vacation turns out to be a nine-year odyssey in a remote valley in Bavaria, where the two live without any human contact. The father convinces his daughter that the rest of the world has been destroyed and that they have only each other to rely on. (The frame story hints at the narrator’s difficulty in re-entering the ordinary world.) Fuller’s characterization, especially of the father, is careful and convincing. We see his monstrousness, his selfishness, but we also see his capability and his ability for joy. (Mostly, though, we see the former.) Fuller handles the denouement deftly, too: it’s never clear whether Peggy escapes alone or with help. The best thing of all, though, are Fuller’s descriptions of what the two do to survive: what they eat, how they collect and catch it, how they make do with what they have, and how much their “success” is twinned with delusive failure. An unspectacular but totally captivating novel.

Lee Child, Without Fail (2002)

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A long time ago I read the first Reacher novel in the hopes of seeing what all the fuss was about, but that wasn’t a good idea, since Child hadn’t yet perfected his style. A friend gave me this installment, from much later in the series (though I think the point is they aren’t a series, each book is, I suspect, as self-contained as Reacher is supposed to be), and I plucked it off the shelf when I needed pure distraction. It was the perfect vacation read: totally undemanding and suspenseful. Child writes too much (though he’s never wordy and his syntax is as simple as possible), but the book didn’t feel padded the way a lot of thrillers do. Someone is trying to assassinate the Vice President-elect and the head of his security detail at the Secret Service calls in Reacher to help. Plenty of action, plenty of suspense, and just the right amount of neepery re: protection details. I’m not a card-carrying fan-club member just yet but I will read more for sure. My main takeaway so far, though: that Reacher, not a big eater.

Andrew Taylor–The Ashes of London (2016)

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Another good vacation book, this one historical fiction set in the immediate aftermath of the Great Fire of London composed of two parallel stories that of course intertwine, but mostly pretty glancingly, so the thing doesn’t feel too contrived. Plenty of historical figures have cameos, including Christopher Wren and even Charles II, and the criticisms Roland Barthes made of this technique about 40 years ago probably apply, but I know so little about Restoration England that it didn’t bother me too much. It’s both interesting and a liability that one of the protagonists is almost but not quite a detective–such a thing didn’t exist in the way we know it today, and Taylor, who is as pleasantly workmanlike a writer as one could wish in such a book (I mean that as a compliment: he’s a good writer, but he’s not trying to be something he’s not, Hilary Mantel, say), makes good use of the character’s in-between status as someone near but not of court life to take us all over London. There’s already a sequel, and I’ll read it for sure. Not a book to change anyone’s life, but totally enjoyable. Just like a vacation, maybe?

And you? What have you been reading this summer?

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Spent: Émile Zola’s The Kill

Keith and I continue to make our way through Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series. You can find his take on The Kill here.

The Kill is a great book, light-years more compelling than its predecessor, The Fortune of the Rougons, which Keith and I wrote about not so long ago. You could absolutely read this without having read the earlier book. In fact, I think Kill is the perfect entry point into Zola’s work.

The book is at once a miniature and an epic. It’s short—well under 300 pages—with a small cast of major characters. It has thematic density and coherence: its three great subjects—financial speculation, urban modernization, and the equation of spectacle and desire—are different iterations of the same dynamic and destructive energy. And its style is similarly uniform: the book is composed mostly of fabulous blocks of descriptions that show how significant and yet destabilizing appearances can be. An early description of the Bois du Boulogne—the vast new park that is the setting of the opening and closing scenes—is larded with the language of artificiality: what seems natural is anything but (conversely, what seems contrived is, in the Paris of the 1850s, understood as quite natural): a grouping of evergreens is “theatrical,” its foliage “like the fringe of curtains”; the landscape is “like a newly painted piece of scenery” manifesting “an air of entrancing artificiality”; the walks that wend their way through the park are lined with iron hoops “in imitation of rustic woodwork.”

I’ve already written a little about Zola’s yes of description in my post on The Belly of Paris, but there’s still more to say, not least about his use of similes—are these another instance of the insatiable drive of a capitalist economy (which of course doesn’t spare the arts) to transmute one thing into another, to take something solid and turn it into air? Or are these similes the very method by which the controlling entity that is Zola’s narration reacts against, even acts as a check on, capitalism’s headlong and glib transformations? To say more, I feel the need to read Lukács’s famous essay on narration and description. As I understand it, he posits description as a reactionary force (because committed to keeping things the same, by telling how things are) opposed to the progressive potential of narration (which is about change). If that’s right, all I can say is that Lukács must not have read Zola. (Surely he did—but what on earth did he make of him?) The power of Zola’s description might not fall neatly into the progressive/reactionary distinction, but I can’t see how anyone could read Zola and think description was committed either to keeping things the same, or neutrally observing what exists.

If anyone has ideas about this, I want to hear them. I’ll keep thinking about the issue as we make our way through more of the cycle. For now, though, tempted as I am to simply cite long chunks of the novel, I want to consider some of the moments that ruffle the novel’s clarity. These moments often concern secondary characters. Although unimportant to the plot, and perhaps even to its themes, these characters are what give the novel a pleasingly unruly and capacious quality. They are hints of bagginess in an otherwise controlled exercise.

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As its title suggests—and Keith gives a lovely explanation of the connotations of the original—this is a turbulent, even violent book. Often that violence concerns financial speculation and chicanery. In this regard, the book is only too relevant to our own gilded age. But the book’s violence is often less abstract and more corporeal. And invariably women are the ones who suffer from that violence. It’s as if the economic machinations—which are concerned with making something out of nothing (as when Saccard inflates the rents of his buildings in order to increase the payout when he is compensated for their expropriation)—need a physical analogue; the bodily version of making something from nothing is the ability to reproduce.

So we have Renée’s rape, resulting in her pregnancy, leading to her desperate marriage to Saccard. It tells us a lot about the cultural acceptability of rape that Saccard has no scruples about pretending to have perpetrated the act. In the end, she miscarries (an event uncannily predicted by Saccard’s sister, the mysterious and cutthroat Madame Sidonie, in a brisk and businesslike way that makes me wonder if she had some kind of hand in it). That might be for the best, given the fate of children (especially girls) in this novel. Saccard, for example, pawns his daughter from his first marriage off on his brother, Pascal (the doctor I discussed in my post on Fortune), although given what we’ve seen of the latter’s kindness, she might be better off with him.

Throughout the novel, Zola compares Saccard and Maxime. Although they superficially seem quite different—the father a ruthless speculator, the son a languorous dandy—the end of the book intimates that the son might be ready to follow the father into a life of speculation rather than simply gliding along as he has. (In the novel’s memorable formulation, “he usually remained at the bottom of whatever pit he fell into.”) We oughtn’t be surprised by that possibility, though, because we’ve already seen that Maxime is more than ready to ape the father when it comes to women. In fact, he does something even worse than his father. Whereas Saccard didn’t actually rape Renée—he only pretends to have been the man who did it—Maxime has no such scruples with his stepmother’s first maid. As the narrator wryly puts it, describing the way Renée introduces Maxime to the world of female sexual display by asking him to accompany her to her dressmaker: “The excellent education Maxime received bore early fruit.” The consequences of that fruit are much more serious for the maid than for him:

At seventeen the young lad seduced his stepmother’s maid. The worst of the affair was that the maid had a baby. They had to send her to the country with the brat, and give her a small annuity.

Zola’s judgmental language—“the worst of the affair,” “the brat”—isn’t just a ventriloquism of Maxime’s perspective. It’s the whole family’s, even the whole society’s. Saccard doesn’t care; he just pays out. But Renée is furious, yet not because of his abuse of his power over the young woman, but because of the girl’s social standing: “That he, whom she wanted to turn into a gentlemen, should compromise herself with a girl like that!” But she gets over her anger quickly enough, when she considers what a delightful scandal it would have been had Maxime in fact taken her advice to “have started off with a lady.” What the maid makes of it all or what becomes of her life: the novel doesn’t know or care.

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I suggested a moment ago that Maxime does what his father doesn’t—the son actually takes advantage of a woman, while the father only pretends to. But that’s only because the older man doesn’t have to. At two key moments in the book, Saccard is poised to hurt a woman, even kill her, but then something happens to stop him. One is an important scene Keith mentions, in which Saccard discovers Maxime and Renée’s affair, but is diverted from whatever emotional and physical outburst he is on the point of launching when he sees that his wife has signed over her property to him. (It is interesting that Renée is disappointed that nothing dramatic or drastic happens, as if the affair would only hold meaning if it did unleash trouble.)

The other is to my mind the most vivid scene in the novel. It describes the death of Saccard’s first wife, Angèle, whom he brought to Paris from Plassans. Angèle might be “an insipid, fair-haired person,” but she’s shrewd in her insight into the depth of Saccard’s desire to carve his fortune from the flesh of Paris, no matter what the cost. (There’s a great scene with them in a little restaurant overlooking the city, in which Saccard accurately predicts just where the new boulevards will slice through the city.) Saccard’s attitude to Angèle is deplorable; he thinks of her as “an inconvenient piece of furniture of which he was eager to rid himself.” And before long he gets his wish. She comes down with a lung inflammation that quickly worsens. It’s as the woman is dying in their cramped rooms—“death entered slowly into the hot, moist room, where the uneven breathing of the dying woman sounded like the spasmodic ticking of a clock running down”—that his sister comes to him with the proposal about marrying the disgraced Renée in exchange for money and property. Saccard is immediately tempted; he sends his sister to conclude the negotiations, leaving him to wrestle with whatever scruples he has:

Saccard went to the window and pressed his forehead against the icy panes. He forgot himself so far as to beat a tattoo with his fingers on the glass. But the night was so black, the darkness outside hung in such strange masses, that he began to feel uneasy and returned to the room where Angèle lay dying. He had forgotten her [!!!], and received a terrible shock on finding her half raised up on her pillows; her eyes wide open, a flush of life seemed to have returned to her cheeks and lips. Little Clotilde [the daughter who will soon be shipped south], still nursing her doll, was sitting on the edge of the bed; as soon as her father’s back was turned, she had quickly slipped into the room from which she had been removed and to which all her happy childish curiosity attracted her. Saccard, his head full of his sister’s proposal, saw his dream dashed. A hideous thought must have shone from his eyes. Angèle, terrified, tried to throw herself back in the bed, against the wall; but death was at hand, this awakening in agony was the last flicker of the lamp. The dying woman was unable to move; she sank back, keeping her eyes fixed on her husband, as if to watch his every movement. Saccard, who had dreaded a resurrection, a devil’s device of destiny to keep him in penury, was relieved to see that the wretched woman had not an hour to live [!!!]. He now felt nothing but deep anxiety. Angèle’s eyes told him she had overheard his conversation with Madame Sidonie, and that she was afraid he would strangle her if she did not die quickly enough. Her eyes also betrayed the terrified amazement of a sweet and inoffensive nature that discovers at the last moment the infamy of this world, and shudders at the thought of the many years spent living with a thief.

Jesus! This has to be one of the most cruel scenes in literature, up there with the end of Père Goriot and Brighton Rock. From the beginning the passage shows Saccard’s terrible selfishness: if we are expecting the first sentence to be an indication of his anxiety for his wife, or his guilt about what he is contemplating, we are immediately disabused: he’s pressing his forehead against the window not because he’s distraught but because he’s so excited by his future prospects that he beats a lively rhythm against the panes. (He’s practically about to burst into song.) Is Saccard ruthless enough to murder her? My sense is he’d really rather not but that if he had to, well, needs must. (His sister would do it in a second.) Think about how he describes the possibility that Angèle might recover: not as a blessed or fiercely-desired event, almost a miracle, but rather as “a devil’s device of destiny to keep him in penury.”

In the end, everything goes Saccard’s way. Angèle obligingly dies, and even gives mute signs of forgiveness. Clothide’s attitude here (and let’s not forget her doll: an important motif) is shown to be one of natural curiosity, a kind of childish fascination with death that could seem ghoulish but that the novel seems to present as innocent. But she’s paying attention to the wrong thing. The lesson here isn’t that bodies are mortal, but that men are bad, or, at least, that they are ready to use women for their advantage.

Throughout the novel, even in circumstances less grim than this one, women are trophies for men, pawns to be used to bolster their self image and to help them get ahead. There’s no difference between Saccard’s marrying Renèe for money and him giving her ostentatious jewelry that he requires her to wear at parties in front of his business associates. And there’s only a slight difference between these sets of exchanges and Saccard’s willingness to murder his first wife and Maxime’s casual seduction and abandonment of the maid.

So thoroughgoing is this attitude of violence to women that even scenes that could otherwise seem sweet become ominous. Late in the book there’s a vivid scene in which Saccard and some associates tour a building site. Renèe’s property, the one she in desperation signed over to her husband for pennies on the dollar, is to be torn down to make way for one of the new boulevards. As the men, dressed in their fine clothes, advance gingerly through a sea of mud, half-enviously, half-contemptuously observing the efforts of the myriad of workmen dismantling the site, they reminisce about the neighbourhood that was. One of the businessmen, who used to live there, sees his old rooms in a half-demolished building: “A breach in the wall showed it quite bare, already cut into on one side, with wallpaper with a pattern of big, yellow flowers, a broad strip of which fluttered in the wind.” The old man is overcome with emotion for his younger days, a time when he was poorer, perhaps more honest, and, it seems, a little happier, not least because, as his colleagues tease him, he was sowing his wild oats: “‘I still remember an ironing girl who lived opposite. The bed was on the right, near the window. Ah, my poor room, look what they’ve done to it.” Is the bed his or hers? Either way, they presumably slept in it. And what happened to the girl? The man doesn’t care, he’s on about his room. Hard not to read the description of the room’s violation as a hint at the fate of the woman.

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Happily, not every woman in the novel is abused. The prime exception is Céleste, Renée’s maid (presumably hired after Maxime disgraced the previous one). For most of the novel she glides almost unnoticed in the background. The most we learn of her is that she is “always methodical,: and arranges her mistresses dresses according to their dates, labelling them and “introducing arithmetic into [Renée’s] blue and yellow caprices. She kept this closet as calm as a sacristy and as clean as a stable.” These qualities inhere in all aspects of her life, it turns out: at the end of the book, she abruptly leaves Renée’s employ, the very day when she has saved the five thousand francs she needs to return to her village and set up a little shop. Renée, who has deceived herself that nothing can shake the woman’s devotion to her—to the point when she mawkishly imagines Céleste closing the eyes on her corpse—is shocked to find that the maid cares nothing for her, indeed has contempt for her whole way of life. Céleste refuses Renée’s entreaties, her promises of money: “‘You could offer me all the gold in Peru,I wouldn’t stay a week longer. You really don’t know me. I’ve been with you for eight years, haven’t I?’ … ‘I’ll go back home; I’ll buy Lagache’s house, and I’ll live very happily’.”

Céleste is the only character in the novel who doesn’t care about Paris, who doesn’t want more than she can have, who gets what she wants, and who doesn’t hurt anybody to do it. (Well, she hurts Renée’s feelings, but that’s because Renée hasn’t a clue about her.) Its interesting to compare her to Saccard’s valet, Baptiste, a figure who shares some of Céleste’s contempt for the family they serve, and is characterized by extreme rectitude. But Saccard fires Baptiste, and Céleste finally tells Renée why: Baptiste has for years been seeking out the stable boys. In the end, Baptiste differs from Céleste in that he continues to inhabit the frenzied world of Parisian high society—after Saccard fires him (rather than prosecuting him, because that would be to risk too much fuss), Baptiste ends up in the employ of another wealthy family. In stereotypical fashion, Baptiste’s homosexuality is expressed primarily through his contempt for women. In this way, he might not be so different from the novel’s other men, though they themselves would no doubt dispute it strenuously.

Out of this landscape of ruined, violated, abused women—I didn’t even mention Louise, Maxime’s tubercular wife, who dies within six months of being married off to him; Henry James would have written a whole novel about her: she is hunch-backed, and witty, and unflappable, but her knowingness doesn’t stop her from being taken advantage of, for Maxime only marries her for her money—the woman who suffers the most is Renée. There’s the rape, of course, and the abuse Saccard and Maxime put her to. There’s her father’s coldness to and disdain for her. And there’s her self-abuse, almost a kind of masochism, expressed in her need to feel her relationship with her step-son in a sin, even a crime. (In this regard, the novel shares her feeling: Zola repeatedly describes their affair as “incest,” which isn’t quite accurate, as if he feels the need to insist that what their relationship is deplorable.)

Keith finds her the only sympathetic character in the novel: I’d put Angèle in that role first, and Céleste second, but I see what he means. It’s hard not to feel for her, especially when she thinks of herself as a broken doll: “she had come to that, to being a big doll from whose broken chest escaped a thin trickle of sawdust.” In the novel’s final scene, she returns to her childhood home and makes her way to the room on the top floor where she and her sister spent their happiest times. The room is sadly denuded, deserted, silent, a shell of its former self. Among other bits of junk she finds one of her old dolls, “all the bran had flowed out through a hole, and the porcelain head continued to smile with its enameled lips, above the wasted body which seemed as if exhausted by puppet follies.”

Exhausted by its own follies—even in this offhand description the novel casts judgment on women and the figurines that symbolize them, as if the bran (or sawdust, in the earlier image) had run out through the fault of their own dissipation. But it would be more accurate to say that this enervation is the result of their abuse at the hands of men. If everything has to change so that it can stay the same—so that the rich can get richer, and the poor poorer—then we need to consider the role women play in this rapacious stasis. Almost without exception they comprise the spoils that the masters of speculation tear into in what Zola calls—and now we can see this is a pleonasm—“an orgy of gold and women.”

 

 

 

The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors: Émile Zola’s The Kill (Guest Post, Keith Bresnahan)

Keith and I continue to make our way through Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series. Here is his take on the second volume, The Kill. Mine is here.

Toronto, where I live, was recently named the fifth-most expensive city in the world adjusted for income. The house my spouse and I bought a decade ago, for a sum that at the time stretched the upper limits of plausibility, is now, at least on paper, worth three times what we paid for it. Local media outlets frequently cover stories of families cashing in on the boom and moving out of the city, and of a younger generation priced out of home-ownership — along with an accompanying rental crisis, skyrocketing rents, and new condo developments crowding out the city’s waterfront. All this was on my mind this week as I read The Kill, Émile Zola’s 1872 novel of greed, sensuality, and corruption, set against the backdrop of real-estate speculation and urban renewal in 1850s Paris.

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The Kill takes up the story of Aristide Rougon, son of Pierre and Félicité, who in The Fortune of the Rougons had abandoned his Republican ideals in the immediate aftermath of Louis-Napoléon’s coup d’état of 1851, to side with his parents’ Bonapartist politics.
One of the first things we learn here about Aristide, who has moved to Paris in the wake of the coup, is that he has changed his surname, to Saccard. This is at the request of his elder brother Eugène, a power-broker in the new Imperial government (so they don’t ‘get in each other’s way,’ Eugène says), though the choice of name is Aristide’s. A derivation of his first wife’s family name, Sicardot, this new moniker evokes money (sacs d’écus), and the sacking of cities (saccager), as translator Brian Nelson notes in his helpful introduction to this volume. For Saccard’s younger second wife, Renée, the ‘dry syllables’ of this name “reverberated in her ears like two rakes gathering up gold,” while Aristide himself reflects that “there’s money in that name; it sounds as if you’re counting five-franc pieces.” To which Eugène sardonically responds that it will either make Aristide a crook or a millionaire. Both, as it turns out.

In Fortune Aristide, in whom the “coarse, greedy” appetites of the Rougons had “matured too quickly,” was an indolent but greedy sensualist who dreams of becoming rich as rapidly as possible, “building castles in the air.” (Eugène, for his part, dreamt of “bending people to his will,” which I’m sure we’ll see more of when we get to His Excellency Eugène Rougon). In the present novel, Aristide sees these dreams realized, rising quickly through the city’s social ranks as he takes advantage of the opportunities afforded by the massive urban renewal of Paris to turn incredible profits on land speculation:

he knew that the shower of gold beating down upon the walls would fall more heavily every day. Smart people had merely to open their pockets. He had joined the clever ones by reading the future in the offices of the Hôtel de Ville. His duties had taught him what can be stolen in the buying and selling of houses and land…. he knew how you sell for a million what has cost you a hundred thousand francs; how you acquire the right to rifle the treasury of the state, which smiles and closes its eyes; how, when throwing a boulevard across the belly of an old neighbourhood, you juggle with six-storeyed houses to the unanimous applause of your dupes.

Aristide’s employment at city hall gives him insider knowledge of Baron Haussmann’s plans for the redevelopment of Paris, which he exploits by purchasing properties slated for future demolition, ‘renting’ them to fictitious tenants at inflated prices and thus artificially driving up their assumed value for the compensation monies given to landlords holding expropriated properties. It’s a lucrative game, though not without its risks — Aristide gains a fortune of millions, but finds himself both blackmailed and blackmailer of colleagues who could expose him, and anxiously teetering on the verge of financial ruin as projects threaten to fall through.

After our first two Zolas, the fantastic Belly of Paris and the so-so Fortune of the Rougons, I’m glad to say I found The Kill a great read, especially the second time through. In this second book of the series, Zola already seems to have found his voice, settling into the stylistic marks and themes that will characterize the other books. It’s also nice to be back in Paris; having already started on our next book, The Conquest of Plassans, it seems to me that there’s a marked difference between those novels set in the bustling capital and those set in that sleepy southern city — where the latter are suffused with the heavy slowness of summer days in a small town, the former, and this was true too of The Kill, seem to be impelled forward with the motive force of great cities. It’ll be interesting to see if this holds true through the rest of the novels, as we work through them.

Early on in The Kill, Aristide prophecies the future transformation of Paris, hints of which he has gleaned through attentively watching and listening at work. Eating dinner with his first wife Angèle on the Buttes Montmartre, looking out over the city laid out before them, they see a ray of sunlight illuminate the houses below, which “seemed to catch fire and melt like an ingot of gold in a crucible.” Saccard jokes that it’s raining twenty-franc pieces, while his wife comments that they are not easy to pick up. But Aristide is already off and running, demonstrating with outswept arms the great cuts that will be made in the city in the coming years:

a cut there, another further on, cuts everywhere, Paris slashed with sabre cuts, its veins opened, providing a living for a hundred thousand navvies and bricklayers, traversed by splendid military roads….

Angèle, frightened, sees Saccard himself as this knife, the movements of his hand mercilessly slicing up the city. When, later in the novel, Aristide glances at Haussmann’s famous map of Paris, he sees that the Prefect’s “blood-red pen-strokes cut even deeper gashes” than he had. It’s the bleeding of the city that will yield gold, for the man who knows how to play the system: “There lay his fortune, in the cuts that his hand had made in the heart of Paris, and he had resolved to keep his plans to himself, knowing very well that when the spoils were divided there would be enough crows hovering over the disembowelled city.”

This trope of hunting runs throughout the novel, and gives meaning to its title, which is a little misleading in English; the original French title, La curée, refers not to a ‘kill’ as such but to that part of the killed animal given to the hounds as a reward for running it to ground (the spoils, maybe?). There’s a great passage here where Zola has Aristide smelling out the traces of his prey:

[it was a] breath, vague as yet, that rose from the great city, the breath of the budding Empire, laden already with the odours of alcoves and financial deals, with the warm smell of sensuality. The faint traces that reached him told him that he was on the right scent, that the prey was scudding before him, that the great Imperial hunt, the hunt for adventure, women, and fortunes, was about to begin. His nostrils quivered, his instinct, the instinct of a starving animal, seized unerringly on the slightest indications of the division of the spoil of which the city was to be the arena.

Between 1853 and 1870, Haussmann cut vast swaths through Paris, displacing some 350,000 residents from the city center, most of them the urban poor, while building new apartments, parks, and boulevards that reconstituted central Paris as a leisure-ground for the bourgeoisie. We don’t see much of the actual demolition here, or the displaced poor (though I think we’ll see them soon enough in the series); Zola’s concern is rather with the speculators, city-planners and bureaucrats who profited from the opportunities provided by urban renewal on a grand scale. For these, it is a hunt: the city becomes a forest, filled with “the rush for spoils…with the yelping of hounds, the cracking of whips, the flaring of torches… The appetites let loose were satisfied at last, shamelessly, amid the sound of crumbling neighbourhoods and fortunes made in six months.”

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It’s not only gold that is opened up in this orgy of speculation; vice, too, “flowed through the gutters, spread out over the ornamental waters, shot up in the fountains of the public gardens, and fell on the roofs as fine rain”:

At night, when people crossed the bridges, it seemed as if the Seine drew along with it, through the sleeping city, all the refuse of the streets, crumbs fallen from tables, bows of lace left on the couches, false hair forgotten in cabs, banknotes that had slipped out of bodices, everything thrown out of the window by the brutality of desire and the immediate satisfaction of appetites…the voluptuous nightmare of a city obsessed with gold and flesh.

This voluptuous nightmare is embodied in the novel by Saccard’s second wife Renée and his son Maxime (Renée’s stepson), who embark on an incestuous affair. Maxime and Renée adore the new Paris, riding through the Bois de Boulogne, strolling along its boulevards, admiring the uniform façades of the new apartments, the shops and cafés, then returning home to Saccard’s mansion near the Parc Monceau, “the flower-bed of this new Paris.”

The city is made for them, encouraging their crime. Renée too senses an exhaled message emanating from the city’s streets, but it is different from Saccard’s: “The shamefulness that had lingered there—momentary lust, whispered offers, prepaid nights of pleasure—was evaporating, floating in a heavy mist dissipated by the breath of morning. Leaning out into the darkness, she inhaled the quivering darkness, the alcove-like fragrance, as an assurance of shame shared and accepted by a complicitous city.”

Zola’s mania for description, which was largely absent from The Fortune of the Rougons, is given full rein here, particularly in pages filled with architectural detail — much of it provided by Saccard’s mansion, whose ornamental excesses satirize the eclectic and gaudy interiors of the nouveaux-riches of the Second Empire:

balconies shaped like baskets full of blossoms, and supported by tall, naked women with wide hips and jutting breasts…[and] escutcheons, clusters of fruit, roses, every flower it is possible for stone or marble to represent…Roses and dazzling garlands encircled the arch; fillets of gold, like threads of molten metal, ran round the walls, framing the panels, which were hung with red silk; festoons of roses, topped with tufts of full-blown blossoms, hung down along the sides of the mirrors. An Aubusson carpet spread its purple flowers over the polished floor. The furniture of red silk damask, the door-hangings and window-curtains of the same material, the huge ormolu clock on the mantel-piece, the porcelain vases standing on the consoles, the legs of the two long tables inlaid with Florentine mosaic, the very flower-stands placed in the window recesses, oozed and sweated with gold.

Here, the dominant note is struck by gold; in Renée’s private apartments, it is flesh and carnality that reign:

The bed seemed to stretch out till the whole room became one immense bed, with its carpets, its bearskin rugs, its padded seats, its stuffed hangings, which continued the softness of the floor along the walls and up to the ceiling. As in a bed, Renée left upon all these things the imprint, the warmth and perfume of her body… still warm and moist, where one found on the fine linen the adorable shape, the slumber, and the dreams of a thirty-year-old Parisian woman…. The pink bath, the pink slabs and basins, the muslin of the walls and ceiling, under which pink blood seemed to course, had the curves of flesh, the curves of shoulders and breasts; and, according to the time of day, one would have imagined the snowy skin of a child or the warm skin of a woman. It was redolent of nudity. When Renée emerged from it, her fair-skinned body added a little more pink to the pink flesh of the room.

These rooms also exert an influence on the characters, various décors leading Renée to assume a different aspect of sensuality: now ‘dainty and pretty,’ now ‘a capricious, carnal courtesan,’ now a ‘goddess’ assuming ‘chaste postures…revealing noble outlines of antique grace.” There’s another place, however, the bizarre, dark center of this affair, the mansion’s hothouse, where the idea for the affair first clearly comes to Renée, and to which she ‘drags’ Maxime “on bad days, when she needed a more acrid form of intoxication… It was there that they tasted incest.”

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Zola calls Renée “the most complex of women,” which may be true; for me she was the only sympathetic character here: sad, manipulated by various men, while continually reverting to her memories of innocent childhood games. The daughter of a wealthy old bourgeois family, made pregnant at 19 by a rape and married off to Aristide, who saves her honor in return for a couple hundred thousand francs of start-up capital, she is world-weary at 30, pursuing an affair with her stepson without really knowing why — to experience “something different” but also following a path of vice she feels, since her violation, to be intrinsic to her being. Maxime, for his part, is a dissipated and effeminate child of the Second Empire, in whom vice is “a natural, external growth. It waved over his fair hair, smiled upon his lips, dressed him in his clothes,” and was reflected in his ‘whorish’ blue eyes that “were never lowered: they roamed in search of pleasure, a pleasure that comes without effort, that is summoned, then enjoyed.” He neither desires nor pursues the affair, but simply takes it as it comes, and is seemingly unperturbed by its end.

That end, when it comes, is crushing in its abandonment of Renée: Saccard discovers her in an embrace with Maxime (she is trying to convince him to run away with her) when his eyes fall on the long-sought deed to Renée’s property, which she has just signed. His anger immediately abates. He takes the deed in hand, amicably guiding Maxime downstairs, and leaving Renée alone in her apartments:

So the drama was ended! Her crime, the kisses on the great grey-and-pink bed, the wild nights in the hothouse, the forbidden love that had consumed her for months, had culminated in this cheap, banal ending. Her husband knew everything and did not even strike her. … She looked down, and when she saw herself in her tights, and in her light gauze blouse, she gazed at herself with lowered eyes and sudden blushes. Who had stripped her naked? What was she doing there, bare-breasted, like a prostitute displaying herself almost to the waist? She no longer knew…. She was ashamed of herself, and contempt for her body filled her with mute anger at those who had left her like this.

It is, of course, Saccard and Maxime who have stripped her, left her as a blank figure of exchangeability, her husband using her “like a stake, like an investment… an asset in [his] portfolio.” She is part of that ‘band of illustrious prostitutes,’ “creatures who let their lovers pay for their luxuries, and who were quoted in fashionable society as shares are quoted on the Bourse [stock-exchange].”

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The novel ends as it began: with a ride in the Bois de Boulogne, where ‘tout Paris’ goes to see and be seen. In the first, Renée and Maxime are not yet lovers, dreaming of something to shake them from their lethargy, while in the second, at the novel’s end, Renée is alone. She has just spied a reconciled Aristide and Maxime, walking together on the side of the path — Aristide is encouraging his son to invest in his newest business venture — when, suddenly, the Emperor rides by: Aristide calls out a cry of support, and is briefly acknowledged with a glance. The cruel symmetry of these bookends, which highlights Renée’s suffering (what was it all for, in the end, if nothing changed?), also shows up the real point of all this activity, this frenzy of destruction and speculation: it is precisely to make sure that nothing changes, to safeguard the city as a pleasure-park for the wealthy, where all sins, even incest, can be waved away if there’s profit in it. Reading it, I heard an echo of another fictional depiction of 19th-century bourgeois revolution, Giuseppe Lampedusa’s The Leopard, with its cutting justification for Garibaldi’s unification of Italy: “everything must change, so that everything can stay the same.”

The Example of Zannovich: Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (Guest Post by Nathaniel Leach)

Even if you got your fill of Döblin in my post, I urge you to read Nat’s shorter and smarter post on the same novel.

My excitement about Michael Hoffmann’s new translation of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz can be traced to my very first day of graduate school. In a course on the fundamentals of critical theory, we were shown one of the opening scenes of Fassbinder’s adaptation, in which the protagonist, Franz Biberkopf is lying on the ground, being told a story. It seemed like a strange choice for a course where we would be going on to read Kant, Hegel, Levinas and many other heavyweight philosophers, and I remember being puzzled about how this guy lying on the floor connected with the history of Western philosophy. It took some time for me to get over my bewilderment and realize that my resistances were coming from the excessive rationalism of my undergraduate self. In time, the professor of this course became my supervisor and mentor, and perhaps the most important lesson I learned from her was that the oblique, hidden, and seemingly chance connections between things are often more significant than relationships dictated by rationality and causality.

Not coincidentally, I’m sure, this is one of the lessons of Berlin Alexanderplatz too; although its main plot can be summed up fairly simply—Franz Biberkopf is released from prison, tries to go straight, but suffers a series of increasingly disastrous misfortunes—this narrative is continually interrupted by digressions that detail seemingly insignificant events taking place in Berlin at the same time, or that re-tell versions of biblical stories and other prominent narratives of Western culture. These narrative interpolations demand that we read Franz Biberkopf’s story within a very broad cultural context, but at the same time, the narrative mostly refrains from making any direct connections between the stories; we are never told exactly how we should read these digressions as bearing on Franz’s story, and they are in fact often highly ambiguous. For example, Döblin’s insertion of the story of Job invites us to think of Franz’s sufferings as being like those of Job, but we also can’t avoid reflecting on the fact that he is to some degree deserving of his sufferings, or that he completely lacks Job’s patience and religious perspective.

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All of this is perhaps a long-winded way of explaining why, upon reading the book, I was inclined to attribute a particular significance to the story told to Franz in Chapter 1, even though I was also not surprised to find that it raised more questions than answers. Disoriented after his release from prison, Franz is helped by Eliser, a Jewish man who brings him into his house. Franz lapses into an almost catatonic state, and Eliser tells him the story of Stefan Zannovich, the son of an Albanian peddler, who launches an impressive career of social climbing by brazenly impersonating European nobility. Eliser concludes that “what you can learn from Stefan Zannovich is that he knew himself and he knew people”. This story thus seems to be a fable about autonomy, suggesting to Franz that he can control his own fate, and it is indeed instrumental in getting Franz back on his feet (literally, as he has been lying on the floor throughout).

It is not quite so simple, however; Eliser’s brother-in-law, Nahum, arrives during the telling of the story and insists that Eliser tell the end of the story, which is that Zannovich pushed his fraud too far, was found out, and eventually killed himself. For Nahum, the moral of the story is simply that “sometimes you can’t do everything you’d like to, sometimes things get fouled up”. Franz seems to hear Eliser’s message of hopeful autonomy and ignores Nahum’s warning, demonstrating both the power of stories and the danger of selective reading. But this is a highly ambiguous moment; it is not clear which of the brothers-in-law’s interpretations should be trusted, or indeed, if both are flawed. Nor is it clear whether Franz misreads Eliser’s intentions in telling him the story, or whether the story in fact has the desired effect. Nahum calls Eliser a “bad man” for telling the story, but Eliser’s intentions seem to be benevolent, even though Franz’s revival is somewhat questionable.

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While the meaning of the story of Zannovich is ambiguous, what does seem clear, however, is that Franz has failed to understand it fully, and that if he has learned anything from it, the lesson is painfully incomplete. The narrator continually reminds us that Franz has greater punishments in store for him, suggesting, at the very least, that this story has not fixed what was wrong with Franz. Moreover, while Franz is grateful for the help, he also diminishes its significance: “these Jews helped me, just by telling me stories. They talked to me, they were decent people who didn’t know me from Adam, and they told me about this Polack, and it was just a story, but it was very good just the same, and it was very instructive for me in my position. I thought: a glass of cognac might have set me to rights just as well”. Not only does he call it “just a story”, he judges it by its results, which he deems could have been achieved by other means anyway.

Ultimately, as Eliser’s interpretation suggests, the point of the story seems to be to signal that this book is about the knowledge (or lack thereof) of self and others. But what exactly does it mean to “know oneself and know others”? Are these two different things, or are they connected? Is such knowledge to be understood as a philosophical ideal or is it merely instrumental and pragmatic? Is it significant that “self” is listed first, before “others”? Zannovich “knows others” in the sense that he knows how to manipulate them, while Franz’s understanding of others is almost always superficial and naïve. After being revived, he falls back on an overweening belief in himself that either exploits others, as in his string of relationships with women, or fatally misunderstands them, as in his toxic friendship with the womanizer and petty crook, Reinhold.

This lack of knowledge is apparent in Franz’s decision, immediately after his revival, to sell nationalist newspapers, “not that he’s got anything against the Jews, but he is a supporter of order”. While the book is not highly political, aside from a few pointed sections, I found it hard not to read Franz’s lack of self-knowledge in conjunction with the rise of National Socialism. Döblin, writing in 1928, is diagnosing the ills of a society about to be swallowed up by fascism, and one of these ills is the ugly and violent form of self-reliance embodied by Franz Biberkopf, whose lack of political conviction belies his philosophical kinship to fascism at this point in the book.

This resonance was developed for me by one of those oblique connections I mentioned earlier; while reading this book, I happened also to be reading Victor Klemperer’s The Language of the Third Reich, in which Klemperer poignantly describes the increasing circumscription of his rights as a Jew living in Germany, and his increasing immersion in his academic work to avoid the reality of Nazism: “why should I sour my life still further by reading Nazi publications when it was already being ruined by what was happening around me? If by chance or mistake a Nazi book fell into my hands I would cast it aside after the first paragraph. If the voice of the Fuhrer or his Propaganda Minister was blaring out of a loudspeaker on the street I would give it a wide berth, and when reading the newspaper I desperately tried to fish out the naked facts- forlorn enough in their nakedness- from the repulsive morass of speeches, commentaries and articles”. While I identified strongly with this as a reader in 2018 trying to avoid depressing news without entirely burying my head in the sand, it also made me think of Franz Biberkopf; if Klemperer, one of the most sensitive observers of pre-WWII Germany, can reproach himself with allowing himself to become too self-involved and overwhelmed by the media, how much more does Biberkopf in Döblin’s chaotic world embody this flaw? The polar opposite of Klemperer, Franz does not question himself, and when he does dabble in politics, selling newspapers or, later, agitating with his anarchist friend, Willi, he believes he knows all the answers. He is by no means inherently fascist, but he embodies a lack of understanding or caring about others that is easily manipulated by the much more frightening Reinhold.

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The “example of Zannovich” (as the section heading calls it), then, is a negative one, deceiving Franz into believing that he is at the centre of the world, and enabling him to subordinate otherness to his will with a fascistic autonomy. (This is also pretty much the history of Western philosophy according to Emmanuel Levinas, so maybe that grad course really was on to something). Questions still abound, of course; for one, why does Eliser tell the story? Is he deceitful, or does he (like the narrator) foresee the necessary process that Franz must go through? If the novel diagnoses the ills of its society, it does so in order to suggest a solution of sorts, one that revises Eliser’s formula and makes the understanding of self and others inextricably linked.

“We Know What We Know, We Had to Pay Dearly Enough for It”: Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz

A few weeks ago, during some pleasant days vacationing in Maine, I read Michael Hofmann’s new translation of Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz. It was good to have time to devote to it, because the book is fairly demanding. Yet I wouldn’t say I was immersed in it—it’s not the kind of book to love, fall into, think about even when you’re not reading it. At least it wasn’t for me. But I doubt Döblin wouldn’t have wanted any of that. After all, he was a doctor, a specialist in neurology and psychiatry, and there is something of our conventional idea of medicine in his prose—it is detached, even Olympian, concerned with individuals but convinced that their functioning is a result of physiological and mental processes that exceed or evade individual consciousness or willpower.

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The novel’s plot is fairly simple. Franz Biberkopf is a pimp and small-time crook. He is sentimental, sometimes kind, shrewd yet naïve, always thuggish. The book begins as he is released from prison after serving a sentence for beating his former girlfriend to death. Frightened by his re-entry into the world, he is helped back on his feet by a man he happens to run into in the street, an Orthodox Jew who impresses Franz with his wisdom. Soon an old friend gets him a job selling shoelaces door-to-door. One of his customers, a wealthy widow, takes pity on him—he reminds her of her dead husband—and intimates she will take care of him but Franz can’t help but boast about his conquest to the friend, who proceeds to rob the woman. It is one of many betrayals in the novel. In response, Franz goes on a bender; eventually he rights himself enough to find work selling newspapers, but he’s barely making ends meet. His quest to go straight is further threatened when he comes into the orbit of a small-time but seductive mobster named Reinhold. Reinhold is a magnificent, despicable character, a man who hates women as much as he is drawn to them: he loses interest in each new girl after a week or two and arranges to pass them on to Franz. But Franz tires of the scheme—in his lumpish way, he likes the women, feels bad for them, doesn’t want to do Reinhold’s dirty work for him.

Reinhold is furious and takes revenge. He allows Franz into his band of crooks, and when a heist goes wrong takes the opportunity to push Franz out of the getaway car. Franz is run over and badly hurt: he survives, but loses an arm. After his lengthy recovery, he is brought back to life yet again by the crooks he’d been involved with before going to jail. They introduce him to Mitzi, a young girl newly arrived from the provinces, who goes onto the streets for him. So Franz is back where he started, once again a small-time pimp, though he’s chastened and knows he’s lucky to have the saintly Mitzi.

But fate won’t leave Franz alone, or he can’t leave well enough alone (for Döblin it’s the same thing): Franz won’t give up Reinhold (the novel doesn’t make much of this, but Rainer Werner Fassbinder emphasized the homoeroticism of this intense relationship in his gargantuan and compelling fifteen-hour television adaptation). Reinhold’s jealousy—which the novel figures as purely evil: unmotivated and unexplained—leads to a terrible denouement resulting (SPOILERS!) in Mitzi’s death and Franz’s psychological breakdown. (Reinhold murders her when she rejects his advances.) Eventually, though, Reinhold gets his comeuppance. This is cleverly handled: Reinhold gets himself arrested by pretending to be someone else, because he figures he is safest in jail, but once there he finally falls in love for real, with a boy in fact, to whom he tells everything, and when the kid is released he can’t help but talk about the mastermind he met inside and before long one of the little crook’s associates goes to the police to collect the reward and so Reinhold is arrested again, from within prison this time, and sentenced to ten years, not least on the strength of Franz’s testimony at trial.

Franz recovers from his breakdown—it’s at least his fourth time starting over—but the book is done with him: “Straight after the trial Biberkopf is offered a job as assistant porter in a medium-sized factory. He accepts. Beyond that there is nothing to report on his life.” Among its last lines we find this conclusion: “Biberkopf is a little worker. We know what we know, we had to pay dearly enough for it.”

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As Hofmann says in his excellent afterword, the novel has “good bones.” The repetitions, the peaks and valleys, the overall narrative arc are all satisfying. And there’s plenty of lurid excitement, B-movie type stuff. But it’s not an exciting book. (It’s nothing like Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin, for example.) Events matter less than their telling. Think about that enigmatic last line: “We know what we know, we had to pay dearly enough for it.” Who is “we”? The narrator? The narrator and the reader? Franz himself, thinking of himself in the plural? (That would be weird, but the narration routinely moves from omniscience into subjectivity within a single sentence. An example, chosen at random, describing Franz’s testimony at Reinhold’s trial: “That’s all they can get out of Biberkopf on the subject of Reinhold. Nothing about his arm, nothing about their falling out, their fight, I shouldn’t have done it, I should never have tangled with him.”)

Let’s assume the “we” refers to readers. How have we paid for what we’ve learned? Maybe by mistakenly thinking the plot is what matters, that this really is the story of a guy named Franz Biberkopf, a scoundrel who wants to go straight and eventually does. In fact, that story is just a way for the novel to indulge its more urgent fascination with life in Berlin. As Fassbinder put it, the language of the novel is a way to imitate the rhythm of the S-Bahn (commuter rail), which Döblin heard coming through his window.

For an example of what that might mean, look at this passage:

It was the second week of April in Berlin, the weather could be balmy at times, and, as the press unanimously proclaimed, the gorgeous Easter weather was bringing people out of doors. In Berlin at that time a Russian student, Alex Fränkel, shot his fiancée, the twenty-two-year-old arts and craft worker Vera Kaminskaya, in her digs. The same-aged au pair, Tatiana Sanftleben, who had been in on the suicide pact, got scared at the very last moment, and slipped off as her friend was already lying lifelessly on the floor. She ran into a police foot patrol, told them the terrible details of the past few months, and led the officials to the place where Vera and Alex lay dying. The serious crime squad was alerted, and murder detectives despatched to the site. Alex and Vera had wanted to marry, but their economic circumstances would not allow it.

In other news, the investigations over responsibility for the tram accident on Heerstrasse are still unconcluded. Eyewitnesses and the driver, one Redlich, are being questioned. Technical reports are not yet completed. Only when they have come in will it be possible to decide whether the catastrophe was due to human error (driver slow to apply the brakes) or a tragic combination of circumstances.

The stock exchange was largely quiet: in the open market, prices were a little firmer, in view of a recently published Reichsbank report that took a positive view of the disposal of 400 million in obligations and another 350 million in credit notes. In individual shares, as of 11 a.m. on 18 April, I. G. Farben traded over a narrow range from260.5 to 267, Siemens & Halske 297.5 to 299; Dessau Gas 202 to 203, Waldhof Cellulose 295. German Petroleum steady at 134.5.

To return to the tram accident on Heerstrasse, all the inured passengers were said to be improving in hospital.

There’s plenty of this roving-eye stuff in the novel (all fascinating to me, and lovely in its mimicry of the language of newspapers), but it’s never just “local colour.” Here, for example, the idea of “human error” or “tragic combination of circumstances” brings up the ideas of willpower and fate that the Franz story is also wrestling with. And the story of the murder-suicide pact—a little novel in itself—is a commentary on the difficulty of life for so many in Weimar-era Berlin.

In such passages the narration is the definition of omniscience. At others, however, it closely attaches itself to Franz’s perspective, even his stream of consciousness. But it regularly abandons that perspective, in the most abrupt manner, as in this passage:

In the night Franz wakes up and doesn’t get off to sleep again. It’s freezing. Cilly [another girlfriend] beside him is asleep and snoring. Why can he not sleep? The vegetable carts are trundling on their way to the market hall. I wouldn’t want to be a horse, not in this weather, at this hour. Stables is warm, I’ll be bound. My God, this woman can seep. Can she ever sleep. Not me. My toes are frozen, I can feel the itch and tickle. There’s something inside of him, his heart, his lungs, his inner self, it’s there and it’s being buffeted and bent, who by? It doesn’t know, the mystery thing, doesn’t, who by. All it can say for sure is that it’s not asleep.

Those last three sentences are so odd. I don’t think they are free indirect discourse; I don’t think they’re offering Franz’s perceptions in third person. Why would that be necessary? We just had them in first. I think this is third-person omniscience, but a different omniscience than in the tram accident and stock market passage.

The newsreel passages tell us everything. These other passages—typically centered on Franz—hint that they know everything but without letting us in on the secret. “There’s something inside of him”—this is at once certain and vague. What is the something? Is it analogous to willpower? What makes Franz do what he does? Are we supposed to learn anything from his fate?

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In this regard, it’s no surprise that the text regularly references stories from the Torah, especially Job and Abraham. They have the same kind of gnomic assurance. And they too are famously hard to interpret. Are these references meant to be analogies to or parables of Franz’s experience? Is he suffering for no reason? Has he been selected to perform a great sacrifice? Impossible to say. Unlike the stories from Torah, which are made to be interpreted (rabbinic Judaism is in some sense nothing but the history of those interpretations), the story of Franz Biberkopf doesn’t seem to want to be interpreted.

More than anything this detachment from the conventions of interpretation is what makes Berlin Alexanderplatz easy to admire but hard to love. Thinking about its author in relation to his contemporaries, Döblin is warmer than Musil, less intellectual, his ironies less bitter. But he’s nothing like Mann, whose 1929 Nobel Prize victory quickly eclipsed the publication of Berlin Alexanderplatz. I wonder how this book compares to Mann’s Joseph and his Brothers, another German epic based on biblical stories. I bet they’re pretty different.

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Inasmuch as there is warmth or passion here, it’s in the novel’s depiction of the city. Berlin Alexanderplatz is one of the great city novels. Maybe the greatest. (More interesting in its depiction than either Ulysses or Mrs. Dalloway.) But it is not a love letter to Berlin. Nothing as kitschy as that. I don’t think it’s right to say that the city is a voracious machine, churning up all who enter into it (though the novel is fascinated by the construction of the subway, with lots of chewy descriptions of digging and earth-moving), unless of course we think of life itself—both animal and human—as a kind of machine, better, a kind of immense system. People aren’t simply pawns of that system—Döblin isn’t entirely determinist—but they aren’t in charge of themselves and the universe, either.

The best attitude to take to what Freud in another context called “narcissistic blows” to our anthropocentrism is the one incarnated in the famous Berliner Schnauze, literally, the Berlin snout, figuratively, the defiant, coarse, and clever slang of Berlin. That’s the language Franz and the others use all the time—heck, so does the narrator—and that’s what’s made the novel for so long seem untranslatable.

Hofmann’s solutions to this dilemma are admirable. He writes about this in his afterword, where he rightly notes “Döblin often has it in him to speak like his characters” (he’s not looking down on them, not offering their non-standard speech in distinction to his). Instead, the use of dialect “seems to be a function of intensity, but generally within reach of all.” Hofmann uses what he calls “the regional unspecific” to good effect, though the book does seem a little British sometimes. My favourite part of his comments concerns dropped letters: “I don’t like dropping letters and misspelling words in speech the way Dickens does, until I found the effect is entirely different if you just do it, without the rather self-congratulatory apostrophe, which is the perfect mark of bad faith.” (Ouch! I’ve been guilty of that!)

As Hofmann explains it, the book’s use of dialect is generous, and I appreciate the way that sentiment cleaves to some of the novel’s other expansive qualities. One of the ways the book is different for us than it was for Döblin and his first readers is that its invocation of the modern metropolis is now historical. In its suggestion that leftist movements are on the rise and National Socialism just a bad joke, we can glimpse how things might have been.

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The part of the book that moved me the most is an unwitting performance of this idea of the road not taken. At one point, the novel describes the movement of the # 4 tram as it leaves Rosenthalerplatz. At Lothringer Strasse, four people get on, “two elderly women, a worried-looking working man and a boy with a cap and ear-flaps.” The women are going to buy a girdle; the man needs to return a defective second-hand electric iron he bought for his boss. And the boy?

The lad, Max Rüst, will one day become a plumber, the father of seven little Rüsts, will work for Hallis & Co., installers and roofers, Grünau, at the age of fifty-two he will win a quarter-share of the Prussian State Lottery jackpot and retire, and then, in the midst of a case he is bringing against Hallis & Co., he will die at the age of fifty-five. His obituary will read: On 25 September, suddenly, from heart disease, my dearly beloved husband, our dear father, son, brother, brother-in-law and uncle Max Rüst, in his fifty-sixth year. This announcement is placed by the grieving widow, Marie Rüst, on behalf of all with deep grief. The rendering of thanks will go as follows: Being unable to acknowledge individually the many tokens of sympathy we have received, we extend thanks to all our relatives, friends, and fellow-tenants in Kleiststrasse 4 and our wider acquaintances. Especial thanks to Pastor Deinen for his words of comfort. – At present this Max Rüst is fourteen and on his way home from school, via the advice center for those hard of hearing, with impaired vision, experiencing difficulties of speech, dyspraxia and problems with concentration, where he has been a few times already, about his stammer, which seems to be getting better.

Exuent Max Rüst. His ordinary and yet, to me, pathos-laden life (that stammer! that ill-fated and perhaps ill-advised lawsuit!) might have been the focus of a different book, though it is unclear whether we are to take the same sense of fate countering an individual’s striving. Still, fate certainly has its way with Max, as of course it does with us all. This burst of narrative omniscience—reminiscent of similar moments in Woolf’s near-contemporaneous Jacob’s Room, another great city novel—suggests the triumph of determinism. But how much more moving it is for us to read this passage in light of what we know of German history. It is possible that Max Rüst might indeed have left all of his little Rüst descendents and died peaceably enough in the increasingly prosperous Federal Republic in 1968 (Kleiststrasse would have been in West Berlin). (Would Rüst have looked askance at the student demonstrations? I’m guessing yes.) But there would have been so many possibiilities in which he wouldn’t have made it to that end (deployed to the front, killed in an air raid, lost to the hatred and violence of the SS, either as victim or perpetrator).

“We know what we know, we had to pay dearly enough for it.” I suggested earlier how we readers might have paid for it. But I didn’t say what we know. The terrible rise and legacy of fascism is something we know that the all-knowing narrator can’t. Maybe we wish we didn’t know it. Maybe the cost of reading Berlin Alexanderplatz today is to know the extraordinary viciousness that overwhelmed the garden-variety, even petty viciousness of the world it depicts.

A Note on David Downing’s Spy Novels

David Downing writes pretty good historical spy thrillers. The Dark Clouds Shining concludes the Jack McColl series, set at the edges of WWI and in its aftermath, particularly Russia in the years after the Revolution. Downing takes readers to some unusual places—the Western Front is barely mentioned. Instead, his hero McColl finds himself in the Kiautschou Bay concession (home of the Tsingtao brewery), the Dublin of the Easter Uprising, the border between Finland and Russia, and Tashkent and Samrkand in the early 1920s, where Soviet and Uzbeki cultures abut uneasily. Downing is great at subordinating his historical material to his story. We learn a lot, and quite effortlessly, too.

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Unlike a lot of books set during WWI, especially those involving Britain, the emphasis here isn’t on the betrayal of innocent lives by those who want to cling to power, but rather the new ways of life that arise from the war: a world that begins to imagine decolonization, gender equality, and the liberation and equality promised by socialism and communism. Of course the books also emphasize the failures of these promises, in part by the excesses of the liberatory movements themselves and in part by reactionary forces in the not-quite-former Great Powers.

McColl finds himself working for a country and, especially, an ideology he no longer believes in; his on-again off-again girlfriend, an Irish American journalist—finds herself caught up in the exhilaration of the Russian revolution and then quickly in the disappointing, even murderous reality of what the revolution quickly becomes.

Unable to resolve its socio-political conundrums, The Dark Clouds Shining saves its tidying-up for the relationship between the two leads: a satisfying but also much less ambitious ending. But then again I’m not sure thrillers are ever able to tackle the big questions they circle around, constrained as they are to emphasize individual character rather than societal, structural, or communal concerns.

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If you haven’t read Downing before, I recommend starting with his six-book John Russell series, set before, during, and after WWII and named after the train stations of Berlin (and Prague). Downing feels more in command of that material than he does in the new series, and Russell is more fully realized than McColl (although there’s not really that much to choose between them: they are good guys who sometimes have to make hard decisions and who treat women well—a fact the novels are a little too self-satisfied about). One of the best parts of the earlier series is that Russell’s one-time girlfriend and eventual wife, Effie, grows from a bit part to a central character. In the McColl series, Caitlin is even more important—the last few books are split equally between her and Jack, and she is at the center of their most interesting scenes.

Recently I wrote about two masters of the spy genre. Downing isn’t at their level. But he’s pretty good: absolutely reliable light reading, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

 

Through the Looking-Glass: Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry

Asymmetry is Lisa Halliday’s debut novel and she is clearly a writer to watch.

The novel begins with a meet cute. Alice is a recent college graduate who works in publishing in New York. She is reading in the park when a man, much older, sits down beside her with an ice cream cone from the Mister Softee truck. Alice knows immediately who he is: Ezra Blazer, Pulitzer-but-not-yet-Nobel-prize winning writer of a series of famous and influential books. (Blazer is clearly modeled on Philip Roth, with whom Halliday was at one time apparently involved. The most preposterous thing in the book is that people whose lives his books have changed keep recognizing him; surely that doesn’t happen even to Roth.)

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Blazer tells her a middlingly funny joke and invites her over. In no time at all they are having just-a-little-bit-disappointing sex (gingerly because of his back), and watching baseball (it is 2004 and Alice is a Red Sox fan, much to Ezra’s disgust). Alice is something between personal assistant and girlfriend, running by Zabar’s to get Ezra’s favourite brand of preserves. He gives her things, some little (a sheet of stamps with the portraits of the Tin Pan Alley songwriters he introduces her to, various CDs, a wallet), some not (he pays off her student loans). He invents a persona for her (complete with fake business cards), passing her off as Samantha Bargeman, his research assistant, so that she can join him at his summer place. He gives her books to read.

It’s a May-December romance. Well, not really. She is part caretaker, part lover. He is on the verge of failing health, all colonoscopies and forgetfulness. It’s a bit tender and a bit not. It’s a Pygmalion story. Alice is lucky. Alice is put upon. Alice is being used. Alice is some kind of man’s fantasy:

Sweetheart,” he said. “I can’t wear a condom. Nobody can.”

“Okay.”

“So what are we going to do about diseases?”

“Well, I trust you, if you—“

“You shouldn’t trust anyone. What if you become pregnant?”

“Oh don’t worry about that. I’d have an abortion.”

Before too long, in other words, readers are likely to feel disquieted, indignant, uncomfortable, or worse about the relationship. Ezra is kind of funny and kind of wise but he’s also kind of insufferable. In the hospital after being beset by chest pains, Ezra watches spellbound as a couple across the cubicle lay hands on each other and pray to Jesus: “he could never get enough of humanity, so long as it slept in another room.”

This tart observation is Alice’s—the first third of the book is focalized through her. Clearly, Alice isn’t just a push-over. In fact, the book is more complicated and stranger than I’ve made it out to be. Take the opening. I said Alice was sitting on a park bench, reading. Here’s how it actually begins:

Alice was beginning to get very tired of all this sitting by herself with nothing to do: every so often she tried again to read the book in her lap, but it was made up almost exclusively of long paragraphs, and no quotation marks whatsoever, and what is the point of a book, thought Alice, that does not have any quotation marks.

That opening clause carries the suggestion that Alice is restless, ready for something to happen. Is she waiting for someone like Ezra? Has she conjured him? The preciousness of Alice’s impatience with literary pretension sounds like something from a beloved, twee, almost certainly English children’s book. If Alice’s name weren’t clue enough, the epigraph to the first section—revealingly entitled “Folly—is from Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Alice. (Her last name is Dodge, too, pretty close to Dodgson.) From the beginning, Halliday is taking us down a rabbit hole. But it takes a long time to figure out just how intricate are its twists.

I can’t talk about the book anymore without revealing some secrets. They aren’t crime-fiction-whodunit secrets, but they explain what makes the book unusual and interesting. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

When Ezra plumps down beside her, she is wondering—“somewhat foolishly, for she was not very good at finishing things”—“whether one day she might even write a book herself.” And Alice does.

But we don’t know that until the end of the book, in a short section that is a transcript of Blazer’s appearance on the BBC radio program Desert Island Discs. Asked whether he has ever suffered from depression, Blazer starts riffing on how nations and economies can suffer depression, finding his way into a screed about the complacency of American power. Then he says:

A young friend of mine has written a rather surprising little novel about this, in its way. About the extent to which we’re able to penetrate the looking-glass [WHAT DID I SAY ABOUT ALICE?] and imagine a life, indeed a consciousness, that goes some way to reduce the blind spots in our own. It’s a novel that on the surface would seem to have nothing to do with its author, but in fact is as kind of veiled portrait of someone determined to transcend her provenance, her privilege, her naiveté.

This information is slipped into a section that serves to amplify whatever reservations we have may had about Ezra. With increasing desperation and lack of self-consciousness he attempts to seduce the radio host, and his chutzpah sheds itself of the last vestiges of any charm. But readers of the book—as opposed to listeners to the program—will seize on the information, because it explains the second part of the book, titled “Madness”, which seems to have nothing to do with what’s come before and what comes after. “Madness” tells the story of Amar Jafaari, an Iraqi American, an economist, who is held by immigration officials at Heathrow on his way to visit his brother, a doctor, in Kurdistan. Amar reflects on his childhood visits to family in Iraq, in the schism in the family caused by his brother’s decision to return to Iraq, and his despairing feelings, shared by everyone in his extended family, of how much worse and less safe American intervention has made life. Halliday works brilliantly on our latent prejudices. The authorities refuse to allow Amar to enter the UK, and we keep wondering, despite all the evidence to the contrary, whether they know something we don’t. Could this intelligent, polite, and thoughtful young man be a threat? Is he part of some kind of terror plot?

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The answer is no (though that doesn’t stop British officials have detaining him in airport immigration limbo until he can get on a flight to Turkey), but the point is that we’ve wondered. The epistemological uncertainty of this moment is encapsulated in a bizarre scene in which Amar is forced to undergo a medical examination even though there is nothing wrong with him. Everything in the immigration scenes feels threatening, deadening boredom adding to rising indignation. Even more amazing than these scenes in the airport are those set in Iraq and Kurdistan, in which Halliday shows the increasing despair of Iraqis, the way they begin to take precautions like never taking the same route home or to work; to this she adds the surreal parallel life of foreign reporters and NGO officials, where drunken pool parties manifest the heartbreak and cynicism that comes from reporting on others’ suffering.

Amar’s section—which resonates with Alice’s in all kinds of small ways: remember that exchange between Ezra and Alice about what would happen if she got pregnant? Well, Amar remembers accompanying a college friend to get an abortion—feels vivid, relevant, and plain old interesting. I feel like I know Ezra’s history (he explains it to the BBC radio host). And I feel like I know Alice’s world, and can imagine it intersecting with Ezra’s. But I don’t know much of anything about Amar’s (though I understand, in a much milder, safer, and more privileged way, Amar’s frightening and frustrating experiences with immigration officials).

Because Ezra and Alice’s worlds were familiar to me, I was able to note something a little destabilizing in Halliday’s portrayals of them—the way we were meant to see how Alice wasn’t only undermined or oppressed by Ezra, for example. But I don’t have a comparable seismograph for reading Amar’s story. Which is part of the point. My readiness to find Amar’s story not exotic—Halliday is too sophisticated for that—but fascinating because foreign is built into the novel. Maybe I find Amar’s story so fascinating and plausible because it fits with little snippets of things I’ve heard on NPR or read in the New York Times. Maybe I’m just congratulating myself on encountering foreignness, on expanding my readerly horizons.

Literature is good at introducing us to foreign worlds. But I think what Halliday is doing here is asking us to think about what we mean when we say that. In that sense, her book can be taken as an intelligent contribution to the anxious debate about cultural appropriation: as Ezra puts it, it suggests we can “penetrate the looking-glass and imagine a life, indeed a consciousness, that goes some way to reduce the blind spots in our own.” (The specific looking-glass here is the one-way mirror Amar knows is there in the immigration holding area but which he cannot see.) Ezra goes on to add that this portrait of the other, no matter how convincing and flattering to our liberal sensibilities, is really a disguised portrait of the self, such that any encounter with otherness might be deemed impossible.

That’s a compelling reading, but Ezra is shown to be such a fraud, or at least, such a pain in the ass, that I don’t think we should take it at face value. I think Halliday believes we can learn something from the stories of others as long as we don’t start congratulating ourselves for it, as long as we don’t forget that what we are seeing as the other might just be a version of what we’ve been told to see (which isn’t quite the same as seeing only ourselves).

In this way we come to see the justness of Halliday’s title. She isn’t just referencing the odd, unbalanced, only tangentially connected structure of her narrative. Asymmetry inheres not just in art but also in life. The relationship between the west and the rest, and between those who have and those who don’t is anything but balanced. The connection between art and life arises, for this novel, in the idea of storytelling. Whose story gets to be told? Whose stories are finished and whose are left hanging?

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The other asymmetrical relationship important to the book is the one between men and women. If anything is clear in this slippery book it is its indictment of white male privilege. Ezra isn’t as charming as thinks: his avuncularity is a mask for a pretty ruthless narcissism that requires that he fascinate women all out of proportion to the quality of his character. Halliday deftly makes us turn against Ezra.

But even as I admired her skill here—she never casts aspersions on his work, for example; too many people are doing that these days with Roth—I was troubled by her example of insufferable male privilege. Ezra doesn’t just happen to be Jewish; his Jewishness is at times part of what the book finds irritating about him. It’s true that a disproportionate number of the most prominent abusers who have come to light in the past year or so are Jewish. And in my opinion Jewish men need to have a reckoning about their masculinity and how it’s tied to some dangerous ideas about authority. But I don’t think this book is enabling that conversation. I don’t think it’s interesting enough about Jewishness, except to tie it in a careless way to Ezra’s (and by extension, through his friends and acquaintances and the cultural institutions they are shown to have built, to his generation’s) carelessness and entitlement.

That aspect of the novel disturbed me. But I liked how it kept evading my grasp. When we say a book is slippery we often mean it is confusing or that it is cutely self-referential. But this slipperiness is as thorough going as it is thought provoking. I’ll read her next book with interest.

 

Two Superior Spy Thrillers

Does anyone remember the movie Crank from 2006? Jason Stratham plays a hit man injected with a poison that will kill him if his heart rate drops. What follows is 90 minutes of preposterous enjoyment, and a master class in narrative efficiency. There is no goal; there is only go. The movie barely has a beginning, and who knows what the end is (it’s telling that I can’t remember, because even more than most narratives this ending must undo all that’s come before). Instead it’s all middle, just one set piece after another of ingenious contrivances designed to keep the character’s—and the viewer’s—heart pounding.

I thought of Crank when reading Lionel Davidson’s terrific thriller Kolymsky Heights (1994). Davidson’s novel is more sophisticated, but like the now mostly forgotten movie it reducing narrative to its essentials. What’s really amazing is that Kolymsky does so over almost 500 pages, not a single one of which is wasted. The book gets its hooks into you from the beginning and doesn’t let go. That’s true even when it does something unorthodox, like taking until page 60 to introduce us to the hero.

And what an interesting hero he is. Jean-Baptiste Porteur is known as Johnny Porter. He is a Gitskan Indian from the Skeena River area of Northern British Columbia. (How timely and exciting to have an Indigenous protagonist., one whose indigeneity is central to his success—and not because he’s “in tune with the land” or some such nonsense but because he can speak so many languages.) Porter is a linguistic genius, having as a child already mastered several Native languages from the region, including Tsimshean, “a language so unique that linguists had been unable to relate it to any other on earth.” Later he is sent to a mission school (the horrors of which are glossed over—I’d like to think a book written today wouldn’t do so), where he learns English and French. Porter begins studying at two prestigious Canadian universities—studies interrupted by a sojourn in Russia—before completing his degree and winning a Rhodes scholarship.

Porter is back in Canada pursuing legal claims against the Canadian government when he is approached by an Englishman named Lazenby, who has received a coded message from a research station in Siberia that no one in the West knows the purpose of. Lazenby, who is the character we follow for the first 60 pages, reaches out to a former student now working for British secret services and the CIA; agents from these institutions are the ones who tap Porter as the only person able to get into Siberia, penetrate the defenses of the research station, and return. Lazenby flies to Northern British Columbia, makes his case to Porter, and exits the novel. Porter, phlegmatic, bemused, and interested despite himself, meets with the CIA and takes the case.

What follows is a gloriously ingenious journey via Japan and a Korean ship through the Northwest Passage into the heart of Siberia. Porter disguises himself as a member of the Chukchee people (he speaks the language, as well as related ones such as Evenk), going by the name of Kolya Khodyan. He gets a job at a transport company in the Green Cape along the Kolyma River (where earlier in the century many of the Gulags had been located) and patiently waits for his chance to sneak into the top-secret research facility. (This involves befriending the local Medical Officer, with whom he enters a relationship much more touching, plausible, and non-exploitative than the ones you usually find in spy novels.) The best parts of the novel detail the winter transportation routes across Siberia, mostly along frozen rivers in jeep-like vehicles called bobiks. (Kolymsky Heights has good maps and if you’re anything like me you will refer to them over and over.)

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I pretty much loved everything about Kolymsky Heights. Particularly intriguing is the absence of any references that would allow us to date the events. The events of 1991 are never mentioned, though I suppose they are indirectly alluded to in the increasing national/ethnic self-consciousness of the indigenous peoples of the north (though this is always accompanied by contempt/casual racism by whites, a fact Porter uses to his benefit, in that people are always underestimating him because they think he is “just” a Chukchee or an Evenk). I take the book to be set around the time of its writing, that is, in an interim period in which the Cold War is taken by many to be over but Russia remains an enemy, though of what kind it isn’t quite clear.

That uncertainty might explain why the mystery at the ostensible heart of the book—what is the going on at that underground research station?—isn’t the usual Cold War fare. The Russians don’t have a terrible new weapon that threatens humanity, for example. This mystery is much more intellectual, even ontological, concerning what it means to be a human being. (A question which, frankly, was answered in a more profound manner in the labour camps strewn across the whole area in which this book is set and which were just being closed at the time of its publication.) All mysteries have an easier time building up suspense than resolving it, and if there is any weakness to this novel it’s with the scenario Porter uncovers at the research station. I had a hard time really caring about the Big Reveal. But I cared a lot about how Porter was going to break into that place and then get out again. Porter’s escape through the blizzards of the Siberian winter is one of the most exciting things I’ve ever read.

A vivid evocation of a particular time and place is one of the things that links Kolymsky Heights to a thriller I read a few weeks later: Joseph Hone’s The Private Sector (1971). But that’s about the only thing these books have in common. If Kolymsky Heights reminded me of Crank, The Private Sector is, oh, I don’t know, Antonioni maybe. The Private Sector is not particularly suspenseful (though the last thirty pages or so really pick up the pace; it turns out this is the first in a four-book series and you can tell Hone is playing the long game). Nor is its presentation of events always clear. Hone is fond of shifts in perspective and time that are at times so oblique that I had read a few pages before I noticed what had happened. And the story itself is much more complicated than in Kolymsky Heights. In Davidson’s book, we know what the hero is trying to do; the suspense lies in seeing whether he will be able to, and how, exactly he will accomplish it. In Hone’s, not even the protagonist (no heroes here) is sure what he’s meant to do. This is the world of triple agents and double crossings familiar to me from the little amount of John le Carré I’ve read.

But whereas most spy fiction takes the transience of its characters for granted—having nothing to say about it beyond fetishizing the freedom of its invariably male protagonists from the clutter of bourgeois life—Hone makes this situation into an existential dilemma for his characters, all of whom have hybrid identities that complicate their work for British intelligence. Marlow, the central figure, is born in Ireland but grows up in England. He meets Henry Edwards—who first recruits him into intelligence work and whom he is now, many years later, assigned to track down—at a private school in post-Suez Cairo, where both are teachers. Edwards has grown up in Egypt, as has Bridget, the woman whom by the time of the narrative present he has become involved with and who happens to be Marlow’s ex-wife. It’s all very complicated and it doesn’t make it easier that all the male characters have first-name surnames. (Their control back in London is named Williams.)

What Kolymsky Heights does for the cold, The Private Sector does for heat and humidity in pre-air conditioning Cairo. Hone vividly describes how the heat sends everyone underground, holing up by day and timidly venturing forth at night. I was reminded of Olivia Manning’s descriptions of Egypt in the first volume of the Levant Trilogy, which I read a few years back and unaccountably didn’t finish. (If you haven’t read The Balkan Trilogy yet, stop reading this post and do so immediately. These two books are fantastic, but they’re no Balkan Trilogy.)

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All of which is to say that Nassar’s Egypt in May 1967, rushing into a war with Israel that, in Hone’s telling at least, it has no real interest in, is more than just an exotic locale. It is home to most of the characters even though almost none of them think of it that way. They think of themselves as from England, a place most of them have spent very little time in. Though less overtly uninterested in the locals than many novels set in expatriate or colonial/Pieds-Noir communities—an Egyptian colonel, in particular, is an important and appealing character—The Private Sector is still almost entirely about Westerners. That’s certainly a limitation, but I found its depiction of colonials living on in the wake of decolonization fascinating.

Here, for example, is Marlow describing Henry Edwards’s particular tribe, those Englishmen who had grown up in Egypt, would never be Egyptian, yet are highly attuned to it:

[T]hey were natural seismographs alive to its [Cairo’s] smallest tremors. They had not always been happy there; so much the more were they bound to it: they had lived a real life in the city, had given nothing false to it, in every minute passed there. Their dreams of elsewhere, of rain, of ploughed fields, sloes in the hedgerow or London Transport, were as unreal as mine would have been for sun and coral, and clear blue water. The known years spent in a landscape never tie us to it, the marked calendar from which we can stand back and reflect or think of change; we are bound to a place by the unconscious minutes and seconds lost there, which is not measurable time or experience, and from which there is no release.

You can see what I mean when I say Hone isn’t exactly easy going. His narrator is always stepping back from the action to offer these sorts of reflections. With its sophisticated syntax and complex ideas, this passage is typical. Our dreams, Hone suggests, are always of elsewhere. For him dreams are conscious things, meditations that fill our days even as we ignore our surroundings. But it turns out we’re not really ignoring them. We might think we know where we’re from—after all, we do live “real” lives, we do give ourselves over to the place where we live, it’s not that we are living in bad faith all the time—but we’re tied to the place of our history by something deeper than what we can know. We can’t even measure these experiences, but nor can we get rid of them. Most of time, this passage tells us, we live in clichés (sloes in the hedgerow or coral in a clear sea) when what really matters is happening to us unannounced.

I don’t cite this passage in order to say that Hone transcends the thriller genre, because I don’t think genres need to be transcended. They exert a hold on us for a reason. (If we’re going to wish them away we should do so in the spirit of true freedom and gleeful destruction, as Tom does, rather than as a covert way to uphold literary fiction as the standard for all writing.) Better to say that Hone’s book is both a very good spy story—though for pure excitement it’s got nothing on Davidson’s—and a thoughtful meditation on belonging. Although Marlow is thinking in this passage about belonging to nations or cities—about England and Egypt, London and Cairo—in the end the book pursues the idea most intensely in terms of the intelligence community. What allegiances do we owe to institutions that pursue their work by breaking allegiances—that is, by spying? Given its—to me, completely unexpected—ending, it’s clear Hone will have more to say about this question in the rest of the series.

*

Maybe the best thing about these wonderful books is the serendipitous way I came across them. I found Kolymsky Heights the old-fashioned way: browsing in a good bookstore, in this case Bridge Street Books in Washington, D.C. I’d never heard of Davidson, but I knew I was on to a good thing when, a day or two later, I had the good fortune to finally meet face to face with Eric Passaglia at an evening with several bloggers and book lovers organized by the inimitable Frances. (Eric has no blog, sadly, but you should follow him on Twitter.) Eric sang Davidson’s in a way that made me wonder yet again how it was I had never run across him before. The book Eric had with him that night was by Joseph Hone (I can’t remember if it was The Private Sector or one of the later ones) and he described him so appealingly that I tracked the book down at the library as soon as I returned home. Serendipity, then, and the reassurance that comes from a trusted source’s recommendation (which is what independent bookstores at their best can do): that’s how I came across these two books. I’m here to pass on the love. If you have even the least interest in spy thrillers, you should read Davidson and Hone without delay.

Emergency Thinking: Richard Lloyd Parry’s Ghosts of the Tsunami

Richard Lloyd Parry’s Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone is a sober and moving account of what happened in the Tõhuku region of the northeastern part of Honshu during the tsunami of 2011.

Parry is a British journalist who has long been based in Japan. He’s written at least one other book, a true crime story that’s meant to be very good. Here he expertly contextualizes his material for non-Japanese readers while keeping his telling economical in his telling.

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At the center of the book is an investigation of what happened at Okawa Elementary School, where a failure to follow evacuation protocols led to the deaths of 74 children and 10 teachers.

Parry details what went wrong at the school and turns a pitiless eye on the generally fairly ineffectual attempts of the surviving school officials to deny their responsibility. But he is most interested in the psychological costs of the disaster, and he is most interesting when he refuses to consider any aspect of the event as redemptive.

As he puts it in one of the book’s most memorable passages:

It is true that people can be “brought together” by catastrophe, and it is human to look to this as a consolation. But the balance of disaster is never positive. New human bonds were made after the tsunami, old ones became stronger; there were countless remarkable displays of selflessness and self-sacrifice. These we remember and celebrate. We turn away from what is also commonplace: the destruction of friendship and trust; neighbors at odds; the enmity of friends and relatives. A tsunami does to human connectedness the same thing that it does to roads, bridges, and homes. And in Okawa, and everywhere in the tsunami zone, people fell to quarrelling and reproaches, and felt the bitterness of injustice and envy, and fell out of love.

Parry is never ghoulish about the societal and interpersonal destruction levied by the disaster. If anything, he is rather matter of fact. But he makes us feel the loss strongly—think about his double use of “falling” in that last sentence. Parry returns to a handful of individuals and families, people he met and got to know in his repeated trips to the region. So when he describes the breakdown of love and trust between and even within individuals we don’t just have to take him at his word; instead we see it happening.

I was first drawn to the book by an engaging review in the TLS. The article made much of the material that gives the book its title, namely, the extraordinary phenomenon of people who, in the weeks and months after the event, felt themselves to be possessed by the ghosts of people who had died, spirits not yet at rest. In Japanese culture, Parry explains, “when people die violently or prematurely, in anger or anguish, they are at risk of becoming gaki, ‘hungry ghosts’, who wander between worlds, propagating curses and mischief.” Parry meets a Buddhist priest named Reverend Kaneda, who lives in a town thirty miles inland, near the tsunami zone but far enough away from it to have been spared. People began to come to Kaneda, reporting to him, in some mixture of embarrassment or horror, things they could not remember doing: shouting and snarling at loved ones, even telling them they must die. They described seeing bedraggled, mud-soaked, flickering people that others could not see. Kaneda prays with them, talks with them, engages with the people or personalities possessing them as a therapist might. He reasons and urges and cajoles and soothes: the ghosts, mollified, disappear.

It’s compelling stuff. But it only takes up the last part of the book. What Parry is more interested in, I think, and what really stuck with me, is the way disasters can be prepared for. When those preparations are good and when people follow the routines that have been prescribed for them, outcomes are, if not good, then at least less bad. Many schools were in the tsunami zone. Only at Okawa did so many children die.

In this regard, Parry’s book reminded me of a strange but fascinating and, to my mind, underappreciated book I read several years ago. Elaine Scarry’s Thinking in an Emergency argues that thinking and habit can go together, indeed, that the best way to prepare for an emergency is to think beforehand so that when disaster strikes habit can take its course, the way those who know CPR are drilled extensively so that they are able to react without thinking and without hesitation in the moment of crisis.

Parry reveals that in Tõhuku, and at Okawa in particular, these protocols—of which there are many in Japan: earthquakes and tsunamis are regular occurrences and the Japanese have thought deeply about the best way to respond to them—were ignored. In the terrible twenty or thirty minutes between the alerts and the arrival of the tsunami, the teachers at the school, for whatever reason, didn’t follow the plan. Even when some of the children asked why they weren’t moving to higher ground—we know this because a few bolted up the hillside behind the school and managed to escape the wave—they went instead the other direction, towards the onrushing wave.

The failure to observe protocol, to follow the procedures everyone had practiced so many times before is by no means unique to Japan. (On the contrary, as I’ve said, the country is admirable in disaster readiness—it is one of the societies, as Scarry notes in her book, which inspired her idea that we need to practice our responses to emergencies so that when they strike habit takes over.) But Parry considers a particularly Japanese aspect to the story: the reluctance of those in authority to admit to the mistakes they made, which led some of the parents of the victims to take those officials to court, a highly unusual move in a country where the good faith of governments and local authorities is rarely challenged.

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Parry never comes out and says so, but there must be some sort of connection between the parents’ refusal of the historical Japanese effacement of the individual in the face of the collective (don’t rock the boat, don’t challenge the authorities) and the more dramatic effacement of their very personalities experienced by the survivors possessed by ghosts. In both cases, violent, angry, we might say unseemly emotions are expressed, though of course with the difference that whereas at least in Parry’s telling the parents suing the school district are heroes for breaking a cultural code of silence, the possessed come to Reverend Kaneda because they long to be released from the violent spirits inhabiting them. In the first case, the idea is to be liberated from effacement; in the second effacement is a burden to be undone at any cost.

The idea of effacement carries over into Parry’s style. There is something pleasingly old-fashioned about his way of telling. Although he begins the book by describing how, far away in Tokyo, he experienced the earthquake that led to the tsunami as a minor irritation, and although he is often present in the story, returning to Tõhuku again and again in the years that follow the disaster, getting to know the people who feature in his narrative quite well, he doesn’t make a big deal of himself. I can imagine a lot of other writers making a lot more of their own response to the events.

The book itself is similarly modest. Although it suggests some serious and thought-provoking questions—what does it means for a society to respond to disaster? What is the relation between psychological and physical damages—Ghosts of the Tsunami resists making grand claims, and in fact ends rather abruptly after the section on Kaneda. In keeping with his rejection of an uplifting narrative, Parry, in telling Kaneda’s story, emphasizes not the man’s accomplishments but rather the toll the work took on him—he eventually had to give it up after it brought him to the verge of a breakdown.

Given Parry’s refusal of redemption, it feels wrong to call the book a triumph. But it’s certainly good at what it does. Parry writes carefully, precisely, and very movingly. In so doing, he indirectly attains larger, more general or theoretical significance. By focusing on a small piece of an almost unimaginable event, Parry allows us to think about disaster and trauma more generally. Grief, Parry writes, “doesn’t resolve anything, any more than a blow to the head or a devastating illness.” To say that Parry’s book doesn’t come to specific resolutions is to say nothing less than that it does justice to its subject.