On Counterpoint in the Classroom

It often happens that I ask students to work together in pairs or small groups for a few minutes during class. We usually do “think-pair-share”: students write on a prompt for a few minutes, they debrief with a partner, and then, once the class as a whole has reconvened, they share what they learned from talking with their partner. I have the pairs work together for two or three minutes, sometimes five, depending on how engaged they seem.

Sometimes I prepare a series of more involved questions about the day’s text, divide the class into five or six groups, and assign each of them a question, telling them that they will share their response with the group as a whole. In this case they spend longer together, at least five minutes, maybe ten.

This time, when the students are busily working together, is what I want to talk about today.

I find such moments equally satisfying and unsettling. They have a particular texture that, I suspect, is very different for me than for the students. What is happening at such moments? When they are bent over their writing or chatting with a classmate, what am I doing? Am I teaching?

I remember once walking down the hallway of one of the busiest buildings on campus. It was the middle of a class period, and as I passed six or seven classrooms I heard over and over the voices of professors. Some of these classes were lectures, some were discussions, some, no doubt, a hybrid. But regardless of type I didn’t hear a lot of students talking. I’m always conscious that I too am the person who talks the most in my classes. There are good reasons for this (I know more than my students do about most of the things I teach). I’d say I talk more now than I did when I started, for reasons that are both good (I’m more confident; I’ve perfected a spiel that works) and bad (I’ve gotten lazier; it’s easier to talk than to engage in other ways). But my ideal is still a class in which students talk at least as much and preferably more than I do. (I still remember a session on Virginia Woolf many years ago when I only spoke a single sentence for the first hour of class. It was amazing.)

Small-group work has many benefits. It allows people who are shy about speaking in front of the whole class to contribute to class conversation. It helps the ones who need a little time to formulate an answer and who otherwise might be drowned out by students who find it easy to give immediate answers to my questions. And it integrates writing with talking—important because for most people writing is the best way to improve thinking.

When students talk with each other, they wake up, they feed off the changed atmosphere, they gulp down the oxygen that comes into the room. At least, they do when things are going well. Like most teachers, I’ll use impromptu small group work if the atmosphere is particularly leaden (if it’s a particularly rainy or gloomy day I’ll usually come prepared with a small group exercise). Sometimes it doesn’t shake things up. Who knows why. Could be the time of the semester, the day of the week, the weather outside and inside, the intransigence or shyness or fearfulness of a particular group dynamic.

But mostly it works. Things always start quietly; students are shy about breaking the silence. They begin by murmuring, but as they warm to the task they get louder. Soon there is a pleasant hubbub, almost a roar. That’s what I love best. I can feel the class loosening up. There’s more laughter, a kind of ease comes into the room.

I’m not an idiot: I know students aren’t always talking about the thing I asked them to talk about. (Though knowing I might ask them to summarize the conversation usually keeps them honest.) That’s not even the worst thing in the world. If I hear a few groups talking about their weekends or a chemistry exam they just took then I know—though the presence of longer pauses has usually already clued me in—that it’s time to bring them back together as a class. If one group finishes their task too quickly, I’ll go over and check in, ask someone to tell me what they’ve been talking about, prod them to think further, maybe give them another question to think about.

But mostly I stay out of their conversations. Instead I walk, and I listen. Unless I’m teaching a seminar where we can all fit around a table, I always move around the room a lot. Partly because I am nervous and fidgety, but also because I think it keeps them engaged, a little off-balance, in a good way. When I’m asking questions and expanding on their responses—in other words, when I’ve conducting the discussions that make up 90% of my class time—I want to be close to the students: looking in their faces to see what’s happening (are they getting what I’m saying, do they seem confused or bored?) and bringing my presence to different parts of the room. But when they’re doing group work I want to be out of their way. So I’ll wander the perimeter of the room, maybe looking at what’s hanging on the walls (maps of foreign countries, posters listing tutoring times, cheap reproductions of art works hung by God knows who God knows when) or, better still, out the window, if I can. I’ll cast myself outside the space of the classroom, watching the trees rustle in the wind or people hurrying or sauntering along the campus’s walkways or the groundskeepers with their inevitable leaf-blowers. Part of me will be out there, in that space where I don’t have to perform, where no one needs to have something to say about the day’s text. But part of me will be inside the room, roaming.

But this walking is much less important than listening. I’ve always liked to eavesdrop—as a kid I rode the bus a lot, especially when I got to be a teenager, since I took the city bus to school and to work; that’s where I honed my skills of listening in on people’s lives—and these small group sessions are a chance for me to get a (more or less unfiltered) sense of what students are thinking. As I’m wandering the room I’m getting bits and pieces of conversations; I’ll listen for ideas that are repeated from group to group, or for passages that particular groups seize upon. When I can I’ll reference these ideas in our discussions, whether overtly (“I noticed many of you were drawn to the scene at the swimming pool”) or covertly, as a way to structure the rest of the day’s conversation. Eavesdropping is a good way for me to get a handle on misconceptions or just generally take the temperature of the class’s familiarity with the day’s text (if people haven’t read it the small group conversation will be halting; it’s always a tell when students are desperately scanning the pages in the hopes of figuring out what the hell the thing’s about).

As the voices of the students rise and fall, as I make my way around the room, casting an eye outside it and an ear within it, I’ll find myself feeling calmer, even soothed. I’m getting a little break: for a few minutes I don’t have to be the one doing the heavy lifting of making something (a meaningful conversation) out of a room-full of people with their books. I don’t have to worry about time. (When class is going well, time flies by; when it’s not, it’s an enemy, a leaden lump I am forced to try to mould.) And I’m always heartened by the surge of the students’ voices: it makes me feel that something is being achieved in this room—paradoxically, it’s when the class splits up that I am mostly likely to feel the group working together—to feel that it is, in fact, a group, rather than a bunch of individuals who happen to occupy the same space at the same time.

At such times I often recall a scene from the Canadian director François Girard’s film 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould (1993). Canadians of a certain disposition and generation probably know it, but I’m not sure it ever got much traction anywhere else. The film mixes documentary footage and interviews with people who knew Gould and adds re-enactments of important moments in his life. In these, Colm Feore plays Gould, presenting him as gentle and sweet and wise but also strange and demanding and prey to various compulsions, panics, and paranoias. (Much, it seems, like the real Gould.) It’s a good film, and worth your time, regardless of how much you know or care about Gould.

One of the vignettes is called Truck Stop:

As he waits for his eggs and orange juice, Gould, in sun glasses, black beret and wool overcoat, dials into the various conversations around him: a man tells a story about picking up a hitchhiker, a story that seems as though it will be salacious and dispiriting but swerves into a different register altogether; a waitress breaks off her affair with a regular, a long-distance trucker; two men talk sports (the woefulness of the Leafs a topic of almost perennial relevance). We see Gould marking time on his fingers, as if the conversations were a composition by Bach. Girard overlays the different conversations–we’re hearing all the stories at once–but, because he brings up first one and then another, we concentrate on different bits of the general hubbub at different times. This diner fugue is book-ended by Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” which plays on the radio both in Gould’s car and in the restaurant: a more simple musical form, but no less appealing, and important, for that.

Wandering my classroom, I fancy myself as Gould, dialing into first this snippet and then that, but weaving them together into a pedagogical counterpoint that offers an image of what I hope the class a whole will be: a set of independent voices that are nonetheless harmonically interdependent. (Am I understanding “counterpoint” correctly? Help me, musical people.)

At the best of these moments, I feel more than satisfied. I feel exultant. But I’m also uncertain, beset by questions. What exactly am I doing just now? Am I teaching or have I abdicated my responsibilities? Shouldn’t I be taking control and running the show? Similarly, I wonder about Gould’s relationship to the diner’s patrons. He’s with the people but he’d not of them. We get a sense of that distance when the waitress, excitedly, a little flushed, asks “Mr. Gould” if he wants his usual. Is Gould slumming? What is his role here, anyway? Is he composer? Performer? Conductor? Maker of found art? Is he responding to what he finds? Or is he, out of his genius, making something out of nothing, music out of noise? Do the conversations mean anything without his assessing ear?

I’m always worried I’ll let the group exercise go on too long. My worry is in part pedagogical: I don’t want the energy to peter out; I don’t want students to lose focus. But in part it’s more obscure, more personal: am I doing my job if I’m not taking a more active role? Of course, I set the task, I arranged the groups, I’m keeping an ear out for who is staying on task, and I’m the one who will turn this moment into what with luck will be a productive conversation about the text. So I’m doing a lot. Am I being an artist of sorts—is that the best way to describe a good teacher? Or am I imposing order and structure and form on something that might, admittedly, be more chaotic but maybe more valuable, more organic without me? Worse, am I using these exercises as a kind of distraction, whether for myself or for the students or for us all? After all, Clark’s “Downtown,” which is just as important to Girard’s scene as the inaudible Bach that underlies it, is a song about distraction, presented not only as a way to help us get outside ourselves but also, more troublingly, as a way to let us hide from ourselves. “You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares,” sings Clark on the tinny radio. Is that a good thing or not?

Sometimes in these moments that now don’t seem quite as peaceful, these moments when I’m watching and listening and the students are working, I’ll fixate on the close-up of Gould’s fingers and I’ll feel my own twitching. What are those fingers doing? What kinds of cares are they forgetting?


On the Opening Scene of Birth (2004)

Before we see anything, we hear a man’s voice: “Okay, let me say this.” He sighs, then repeats himself. It turns out he is answering a question at a talk he has been giving. We don’t hear the question, but it must have been about reincarnation. He thinks about what would happen if his wife died—though he doesn’t say this, what he actually says is more revealing: he imagines having “lost” her: this movie will ask whether anything or anyone can ever be lost. The man imagines an outlandish scenario in which a bird comes to tell him, “’Sean, it’s me Anna, I’m back.’” In that case, what could he say? He’d believe the bird, or he’d want to. He’d be stuck with the bird, he adds, a little superciliously. (He’s cocky, this guy.) A ripple of laughter alerts us to the presence of the audience. But other than that, other than this extraordinary or preposterous imaginary situation, no, he’s a man of science, he doesn’t believe that mumbo jumbo. That will have to be the last question, he adds. He has to go for a run before he heads home.

It’s hard to imagine anyone ending a lecture this way, but we need the information because the screen, which has been blank, offering only the name of the production company, cuts to the film’s first image, a long shot of a figure, dressed in black and shown from behind, running through a snowy landscape. We put the image together with what we just heard: the runner must be the man we heard speaking. We might have figured that out anyway, but it doesn’t matter if the transition is abrupt, even clunky. This film is about how hard it to make a transition. It’s about implausibilities, too. What happens, it asks, when we take implausible scenarios seriously?

The opening speech is connected to the image of the running man in another way, too. As soon as the man mentions Anna, music rises softly in the background. Flutes, delicate, repetitive, are soon joined by strings and some kind of bell. (I’m reminded of Mahler’s 4th.) After that opening bit of dialogue, the only sound in this opening scene is this music, which swells and fades and swells again, mesmerizing us. (It’s a shame I can’t talk intelligently about music; it’s so important to this film.)

The man is running along a snow-covered road or path, with trees and fields lined with rickety fences put up to stop the drifts. Eventually we see some other people and a road with cars, but only in the background. The man is alone in this magical winter space, which might be a function of the time of day or perhaps more likely a symptom of the privilege enjoyed by the film’s main characters. Anyone who has been there will know: this is Central Park.

It can’t be too cold; the snow on the path is pretty slushy. It’s covered in footprints, though interestingly the man doesn’t seem to leave any. The temperature is probably just a few degrees below zero. Perfect for running, especially if you’re dressed for it, which the man is, though come to think of it his outfit is a bit weird. Who dresses all in back to go for a run? Is he a thief? There’s something ominous about him, an impression furthered by our inability to see his face.

This beautiful, almost stately tracking shot has so far been a single long take. The film critic André Bazin said that long takes give us the sense that we are seeing the world entire, complete, as it is. Whatever is outside the frame exists in continuity with whatever is inside it. All of a sudden we get a demonstration of this principle. In what might be my favourite moment in a film I love to pieces, four dogs run into the image and cross the path ahead of the runner before disappearing offscreen as quickly as they appeared. The runner doesn’t slow down, the dogs don’t return. They aren’t accompanied by anyone. Where do they come from, these dogs? Where are they going? I love this moment because it is an intrusion that doesn’t intrude. It has nothing to do with the story we are about to watch other than that it is a bit of magic, a spell to use a word one of the film’s characters will later use. The dogs are living out a different story than the one we are pursuing, maybe a happier one, since their effortless, satisfying lope contrasts with the more effortful—I was going to say “dogged”—exertions of the man.

He’s running fast, though, making good time through the snow. We can’t catch up with him and as he begins to run down a gentle slope the strings become more prominent in the soundtrack, taking up a waltz tune that will reappear throughout the film. The music is elegant, sophisticated, swoony—but accompanied by enough ominous themes to keep us wondering just how to understand what we are seeing, especially when the brass instruments introduce the sort of hunting themes you’d hear in Brahms or Mahler just as the man runs into the darkness of an underpass.

We almost lost sight of him but then he reappears on the other side and at that moment we have our first cut, to another shot of the park, but somewhere other than the path we’ve been following. The man isn’t in the frame, but we have something else to look at: a word, written in curlicued, somehow old-fashioned script, is superimposed over an image of snowy trees. Finally we learn the title of the film, Birth. (The direction is by Jonathan Glazer, the music by Alexandre Desplat, the cinematography by Harris Savides.) Then, a surprise: the music that has been so important to our sense of the film abruptly stops—well, almost anyway. A triangle keeps the time and, as the title fades, the music rises again. Just then we see the man entering the screen, still running. He disappears behind a rise and the camera tracks backwards slowly, moving us, as we can tell from the curve of an archway that fills the top part of the frame, into another underpass. As we move into that darkness—once we’ve seen the film we might think of it as a kind of womb, or maybe as the passageway from which Orpheus loses Euridice—the score becomes more urgent and unsettling, dominated by loud kettledrums. The man, running if possible even faster, comes back into the frame and runs towards us into the darkness.

And now something terrible happens. The man slows, lurches, leans forward with his hands braced on his knees. And then he keels over, first on all fours and then on his side. Another edit, this time a dissolve to a close-up of the man. We see his face for the first time, but the darkness and his hoodie shroud his features. The man does not move. The music stops. Another cut. Now we are on the other side of the underpass, looking at the silent landscape of the park. There’s still no one around, no one to help the man, only us to witness his fall, though even that opportunity or obligation has been taken from us. It is snowing lightly, wet snow, fall or springtime snow. The camera tracks slowly away from the underpass with its body. The soundtrack, as if out of respect, is silent. Then, quietly, quietly, the music starts up again. We cut to something that is hard to make out. The image is quivering, almost out of focus. But soon we recognize it as a newborn baby, a water birth, being lifted out of the water in someone’s arms. The screen is filled with the baby’s mouth, gaping in what is presumably a howl, and its chest, bursting with a first breath.

This is the Prologue to Birth. Before long we will be asked to wonder whether the baby we have just seen is the reincarnation of the man who died in the park. The film is about magical thinking, and surely one of the reasons I love it so much is that I am so susceptible—or receptive, depending on your inclination—to magical thinking. To this day, I think about this movie every morning on my run, convinced, as I am, that one day, perhaps today, I will similarly collapse.

My Life in Books

Hope Coulter, my colleague in the English Department at Hendrix and Director of the Hendrix-Murphy Foundation Programs in Language in Literature, invited me to give a talk in a new series of lunchtime conversations called My Life in Books. Here’s an only slighted revised version of what I presented today. People seemed to like the talk; we had a good discussion afterward. I wrote this pretty quickly, as you’ll be able to tell; it’s a little rough. I’d to revise it further, and I welcome your suggestions.

Somewhere in my house I have a thin little book I’ve carried around with me for many years. I don’t remember when I got this book, probably I was around 8 or 9. The name of this book is The Smartest Bear in the World and His Brother Oliver. It’s by Alice Bach, who it turns out—I only learned this yesterday, never having been in the slightest curious about the author before—has had a long and distinguished career as a feminist biblical scholar, in addition to having written twenty children’s books.


Of those many books, this one dates from 1975 and my copy—which I wanted to bring today but could not find despite having ransacked the house—included wonderful, shaggy illustrations by Steven Kellogg.

The gist is this: Ronald is very smart bear. He has a set of encyclopedias that he is reading from A-Z because he wants to learn everything. But he has a problem: it’s fall, winter is coming, it will soon be time for bears to hibernate and his family just wants him to eat all the time. Ronald isn’t that interested in eating—it’s fine, but it keeps him from reading. He’s not like his brother Oliver—Oliver loves eating. (There are these wonderful pictures of the bears tucking into giant stacks of pancakes smothered in syrup.)

It’s hard to learn everything when you have to sleep for almost half the year. So Ronald makes a plan. This year he will only pretend to go to sleep with his family. Once the others fall asleep he will stay up all winter, and have many glorious months of uninterrupted reading time. He imagines he’ll be reading about zebras when his family wakes up in the spring.

You can probably see where things are heading. Ronald’s plan is foiled—he can’t help himself; he’s a bear, after all—and when the rest of his family tuck themselves under heaping piles of down-filled comforters he gets sleepy too. But everything turns out fine—he learns that he doesn’t have to do everything at once, that the encyclopedia will be waiting for him come spring, and that his brother Oliver—his sticky, always-eating-young-chef-in-the-making brother Oliver, who is so much more like a normal bear than Ronald—isn’t so bad.

In other words: moderation in all things and tolerance for people who are different from us, even people who don’t like to read.

To which I say: what a terrible message!

By no means is this the greatest kids book ever written, nor was it the book I loved most as a child. But I did read it over and over again, stopping occasionally as I did so to glance up at my own set of encyclopedias, mostly unread. And it has stayed with me as an adult, maybe because I’ve refused to take its lesson.

To this day there is a part of me—a not insignificant part of me—that believes I could read the encyclopedia from front to back. And believes, even more grandiosely, that I could read everything. Even that I should read everything.

You can guess how well that’s going.

Maybe for some people reading is a pastime. They like it, they don’t like it, whatever: it might be important to them but it causes them no anxiety or neuroses at all. This is hard for me to get my head around. I don’t mean to say that I find no pleasure in reading; I find a lot. But I also find a burden, an endless task connected to some totally unhelpful ideas of mastery. At its best the idea that you’ll read everything is motivated by insatiable curiosity. At its worst, though, it’s motivated by narcissism and egomania. No hibernation for me!


When I first heard the title Professor Coulter gave to this series—My Life in Books—I immediately thought: but that’s redundant! My life, books, these are the same thing—totally synonymous. I can’t imagine my life without books.

But of course it’s important that life and books aren’t quite the same. It’s impossible for me to imagine being able to live life—and to make sense of life—without books, but the point is that books have to be different from life. We need fake things to understand real things. (Even non-fiction is “fake” in this sense—not that it tells lies but that it represents—every book has to frame the truth it tells, and that framing is the distance between art and life.)

But I don’t just experience the book-life distinction as a theoretical matter. For me it’s also psychological, even embodied. As a pretty highly introverted person—a person for whom being around others takes more energy than it gives (it is not an easy thing for such a person to be a college professor, by the way)—I need time away from the world. I need to fill up my emotional tank, which runs dry pretty quickly.

So in addition to being objects to conquer, books have always served a second important function in my life: they’re a way to hide from the world. “Leave me alone, I’m reading,” as the title of book critic Maureen Corrigan’s memoir has it. Often, when I am having, or even on the brink of having, a difficult or intense conversation with someone, I can feel myself needing a book. If one is nearby I’ll pick it up, hold it, steal a few glances at it. We sometimes speak of books as demanding—“Ulysses is a demanding book”—but even the most demanding book has never demanded anything of me the way other people do.

Reflecting on these roles books have played in my life—as a way to define myself, as a challenge to set myself, as a tool to help me manage a world that often seems so clamorous—I wonder if I’m able to have a healthy, neutral, or, best of all, purely joyful, relationship to books. Is my relationship to books—one of the two most important relationships in my life—a good one? Is it good for me?

I think being a professional reader—and someone who teaches others to read—is both a wonderful and a terrible choice for me to have made. (If it’s even a choice: fate might be a better word.)

As I sit with this ambivalence, I’m led to think again about The Smartest Bear in the World and his Brother Oliver. Maybe its lesson isn’t so bad after all. Ronald learns that his passion doesn’t need to be his neurosis. I’m working on that too, but maybe my lesson is actually different from Ronald’s. My lesson might be about hungering for books—about needing (and wanting) to devour them. And about accepting that need. My lesson might be that I am just as much Oliver as I am Ronald. Maybe part of me is a gourmand of books not just the professor of books. I’m working, not on being the smartest bear in the world—that sounds pretty terrible, actually—but on learning to eat, and then sleep. I’m learning to hibernate.

Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau is 4!


WordPress sent me a message last week telling me it’s been four years since I started Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau. Blog years being, I suspect, like dog years, this puts the blog well into its adult years. And these days, when some of the book blogs I love best (though thankfully not all of them) have gone away or fallen into, one hopes, temporary dormancy, I think there’s value in my still being here. Not that I’m especially persistent. My number one regret is that I don’t blog nearly as much as I’d liked to. (My number two regret is that my blog causes me so many regrets.) Unfortunately, barring an unexpected change in career or life fortune I don’t think that’s going to change in the coming year.

But I have a few ideas in the works. Last year I inveigled a couple of friends into guest posting—see here, here, and here—and I enjoyed that dialogue. I’ll be continuing that experiment this year, starting with a smart post from a smart friend on Émile Zola any day now. (If you’d like to contribute a guest post, drop me a line in the comments.) In the past I’ve had fun co-organizing reading groups (I seem to do better with those than with ones I blithely agree to participate in on Twitter: those invariably defeat me), and I’m always up for more of those.

As well as adding other contributors to the blog, I’d also like to broaden the kinds of things I write for it. I recently learned I’ve been awarded a three-year grant from my institution to design experiential learning projects for students on the topic of Holocaust Literature and Education. I plan to incorporate the blog into that process, starting in the fall.

And looking even further ahead, I want to organize a series of events (readalongs, online reference posts, reviews, who knows what else) to celebrate the centenary in 2019 of the chemist, writer, and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi. Levi is one of my intellectual heroes; I’d love to organize something analogous to Heavenali’s Muriel Spark centenary. (In fact, her celebration seems so well organized, I may just have to steal her format).

Along the way, I’ll keep writing reviews as I’m able. I’ll keep melding memoir and analysis when it seems relevant. And I’ll keep writing the occasional post about a writer’s work more generally. (I have something in mind about Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series and why I love it so.)

I can’t say I’ll write to order— I’m so slow, I wouldn’t last a day as a proper working writer—but I would certainly like to know what you want to read. More of the same? Something new? Please share your thoughts.

Most importantly, I want to thank everyone who’s visited, nosed around a little, read a post or two, maybe even left a comment. (And apologies again to everyone who lands here because they want to hike the Swiss Alps.) I’m especially grateful to those who follow me and/or are regular readers. Becoming part of the online community of readers and writers has been one of the best things that’s happened to me in the last few years. Your interest and support means a lot. I promise I’ll keep plugging away as best I can.

Back to climbing the book mountain…

“Once Fertile Lands”: Roland Buti’s Year of the Drought


Although both of my parents are Swiss—they immigrated to Canada in the late 1960s, where I was born a few years later—I always sensed, even as a child, that their families didn’t have much in common. You could tell how different they were by the way they cut bread. At my mother’s parents’ house in the suburb of a small city on the beautiful Aare river, bread was cut the same way it was at ours: on a cutting board situated firmly, and safely, on the table. At my father’s parents’ house in a village about 15 kilometers upstream, bread was cut, bewilderingly, and to my childhood self frighteningly, in the crook of the arm. You’d nestle the loaf against your side and hack a chunk off with a knife that always threatened to cut your fingers or lodge in your ribs.

I say “you” as if it was something I did all the time, but in fact I never trusted myself enough to learn how to do it—nor did my mother, who looked on at this state of affairs with a mixture of bemusement and disdain. Although we didn’t visit Switzerland often—only every four or five years—those extended summertime visits provided many of my strongest memories. Although I couldn’t have put it that way at the time, my father’s family was at once richer and less sophisticated than my mother’s. My mother’s father was a machinist, a trade unionist, a Marxist, a small dapper man who loved Charlie Chaplin but whose sternness frightened me. My father’s father was an architect (really more a combination of a builder and a technical draughtsman, I think), a lover of wine, a sportsman, an inveterate teaser, a big lion of a man whose flashing gold fillings fascinated me. My father’s family had a car and a television; my mother’s family had neither. My father’s family skied or crammed in the car to vacation on the Dalmation coast; my mother’s rented rooms in boarding houses in the Alps where they hiked every day.

But no matter what luxury goods they had or where they vacationed, my father’s parents and relatives were peasants. When years later I discovered John Berger’s Into Their Labours trilogy, his brilliant tales of peasant life in the French alps in the middle part of the 20th century, I recognized its world immediately. The village where my father’s parents lived—a place that, when I lived for a time in Switzerland in my early 20s, I thought of as the most soul-crushingly boring place I had ever lived, even worse than the Canadian prairie I was trying to escape, the same prairie I now think of as the most beautiful place in the world—was set in the middle of farmland. In fact, there was a small farm right next to their house, with fly-spattered cows and a farmhouse with attached stables that stood right on the main road through town, puzzling to my Canadian sensibility, where farms where huge and far from anywhere people might live. And my grandfather’s nephew was a farmer in an even smaller town about 20 minutes away—we’d visit sometimes and I’d peer cautiously at the cows in their stalls, wrinkling my nose at the smell. The nephew lived with his mother, my great-Aunt, who seemed wizened and ancient but always served us pie, the same kind of delicious pies my grandmother would make, in a kitchen that, although better apportioned, was also filled with flies.


I thought of those flies, and these relatives, all now lost, and that inchoate sense I had that my father’s family was close to the land in a way that alarmed me, when I read Roland Buti’s Year of the Drought, awarded the 2014 Swiss Literature Prize, and now available in a lovely translation by Charlotte Mandell.

The year of the title is 1976, when a terrible heat wave brought drought to Switzerland. The setting is a farm in canton Vaud, in the French-speaking part of the country. The narrator is Gus, short for Auguste, who is thirteen years old and at loose ends during the summer holidays. He helps his father and the farmhand, Rudi, son of a distant cousin, who has Down’s syndrome. In an effort to improve the family’s financial situation, the father has borrowed heavily to invest in chickens, convinced, not without reason, that the expanding middle classes won’t be able to live without regular meals of roast chicken. But the punishing heat turns their newly installed metal-roofed coop into an oven. The fans are no match for the heat; every morning there are more carcasses to clear away. When his chores are done, Gus visits his grandfather, a spritely character who tries to escape the temperature by sleeping in the stall of his beloved ancient horse. He sketches the countryside around the farm, tames an injured dove, stays out of the way of his older sister, a temperamental and self-absorbed classical musician-in-training, devours comic books and, “in the hope that something astounding might happen… acquire[s] the habit of remaining still for very long periods of time.”

In a way, something astounding does happen. A woman enters the family’s life. Cécile works at the post office, hardly glamorous, but she has a certain quality, something that extends beyond her perfume and colourful dresses and little orange Renault. At first we imagine she’s going to seduce the narrator, introduce him to the ways of the flesh. Or maybe that she’ll distract the father from his single-minded devotion to scratching a living from the land. But in fact it’s Gus’s mother who excites her: What is first flagged by her tendency to absentmindedly brush against his mother’s arm, noted only in passing by the narrator, leads to upheaval in the household: the father moves into the guest-room, where he stays even when the mother moves out with her new lover.

The weather gets worse, even the dog faints in the heat. The narrator is angry, unsure, bored, bewildered. He loses his virginity to a local girl he’s not very nice to. Crops wither and burn up. The army is called in to irrigate the fields, but it’s too late. The horse dies, its corpse stinking in the heat, a death the boy’s father responds to by “remain[ing] stoic in the midst of the flies, which flew in every more frenzied acrobatic formations though the vapours that, for them, must have been what we humans call an earthly paradise.”

This is one of the book’s few reflective moments, though the upshot of the reflection is unclear. An ironic commentary about a world that will never, no matter how hard the father works to convince himself and his family otherwise, be an earthly paradise? Or a rueful recognition that one creature’s shit is another’s delight?

Eventually a violent storm breaks the heat; afterwards, at the end of the summer, nothing’s the same, although the book’s tone matches the family at its center. Just as they stoically get on with things—even though the distance that was always along them is now revealed for what it is and will never be repaired—so too does the novel take a measured approach to the change it depicts.

From what I’ve read online, many readers like the father, finding him a sympathetic character, maybe not noble but certainly admirable in his persistence and put-upon-ness. I was less convinced. He’s not entirely clichéd: not completely brutal and coarse. He values Rudi as a person rather than as cheap, untiring labour. He doesn’t womanize or drink (much). He even has a philosophy, a theory of the power of the land. But he is violent; he lashes out against his wife and eventually everyone who comes near him. Maybe it’s just my unease with the whole way of life represented for me by my father’s family, but I refused to sympathize with him. In that regard, I might be like Gus—his ambivalence towards his father is most clearly present in the book’s last lines, when as an adult remembering the father’s response to the death of the horse he reflects on his father’s stoicism:

I thought then that he would have liked at that very moment to be absorbed by the earth, swallowed gently into the depths, in order, at last, to merge with the relics of all the men and women who had been nourished by these once fertile lands.

On the face of it, this sounds like an acceptance if not an endorsement of the father’s belief that “all humanity’s progress… had been made possible thanks to the perseverance of the early farmers,” who had cultivated the idea of liberty and eventually, in Switzerland no less, “had one day risen up from their pastures… to slough off tyranny and plant the seeds of a democracy that would change the fact of the world.” But the description of “once fertile lands,” which seems much more grandiosely intended than a simple reference to the drought, intimates loss or failure, and might be read as the son’s distancing himself from the father’s worldview.

Actually, I think there is something valuable about the little farms that the father and my grandfather’s nephew tilled, beginning with their very scale and inefficiency. (Insofar as this way of life still exists—and even in the 80s it was clearly on the way out, many of the farming villages turning into bedroom communities for the cities of Bern, Basel, and Zurich—it’s only because of heavy government subsidies.) I can get on board with that resistance to capitalism, but in the end I didn’t find Buti’s novel that interested in—and thus not very compelling about—the material and economic aspects of its milieu. (Berger is miles more sophisticated in that regard, plus he’s even more lyrical.)

Although I was glad the mother was given the chance to escape to a new life—it seemed a big deal that the novel was even able to imagine that—I wanted more of her, even though the end of the book makes clear that it’s about the ones who stay behind not the ones who fly the coop. Too bad, because even in her brief appearances her very restraint makes her a vivid character. The narrator’s wish for more affection from her shows us how strongly she has retreated into herself:

I would have liked her to set down her towel and dry her hands, to come over and kiss me, stroke my hair, tickle my neck with the tips of her fingers. When I left for school, she would give me a dry peck on the cheek, a kiss from the very tip of her lips that echoed in the cool morning. Lingering on my skin for less than a millisecond, her mouth imparted no sense of its moistness. She never gave me a tender pat of encouragement to send me on my way. Handling me my lunch-box, she would wish me a good day. As I walked past our big elm tree in the garden, I knew without needing to check that she was not watching me go, but had already returned to her chores.

I notice I’ve scarcely mentioned my grandmothers in my memories of my relatives, not because they weren’t interesting—they were a hundred times more important in my life than my grandfathers—but because Buti’s novel is mostly about men. Maybe that’s one reason it didn’t move me to much more than appreciation.


The book’s original title is Le milieu de l’horizon, which I think (though my French isn’t good enough to say for sure, so please correct me if I’m wrong) can mean either the middle of the horizon or the world of the horizon. If horizons suggest departures or possibility or even promised lands, then either of these titles could refer to the desire (however impossible) for a different life. In German, the book is called Das Flirren am Horizont, which means The Shimmer on the Horizon, which refers more directly to the heat of the summer. The English title is at once more matter of fact and more hopeless. No horizon, only drought.

Whatever its title, Buti’s novel pleasingly combines reticence with lyricism. We get striking descriptions, as in this scene describing the army’s failed attempt to revive the scorched crops by spraying them with water pumped in from a nearby lake:

The field was in ruins. The water had done nothing but slide in little streams over the black earth, as hard as a reptile’s skin. It had accumulated in dirty, dust-covered puddles in the hollows, from where it would evaporate without ever penetrating the earth to work its magic. The long stems of the plants were still crackling. It sounded as if a fire were slowly consuming them from inside. The desiccated leaves and the beard around the corn husks looked like oakum on the verge of spontaneously combusting. The ground was strewn with little white fish, some of them still flapping their tales. They had been sucked from their habitat, to be tossed about in an immense, dark aquarium, before ending their lives with their bellies in the air, floundering in despair on the bare earth.

Even more than the flailing fish, the water that perversely brings fire highlights the hopelessness of the situation. (It’s not really apocalyptic, though: I think, however, that readers can’t help but think of the scenario as a sign of inescapable climate change rather than the once-in-a-lifetime event that the characters experience.) Even here, though, the imagery isn’t entirely fresh. I remember reading another novel (though I can’t remember which one—it would have been twenty years ago: maybe something Canadian?) in which fish get dropped inland after a water-bomber scoops them out of a lake in the course of fighting a forest fire.

Not everything needs to be new, of course, and Buti plays his low-key hand nicely. He’s given us an enjoyable read, though not one, I suspect, that will stay with me. What I will remember, however, is Charlotte Mandell’s translation. Without having read the original it’s hard to say, of course, but she seems to me to bring a delicate, sensitive touch to her work. I especially appreciated that she left the book’s bits of Swiss German in the original (they’re translated in footnotes)—it might not be evident to non-Swiss readers, but Buti seems to be making an argument for something like Swissness, that a quality of attachment persists across the so called Röstigraben, the divide between French and German Switzerland, as demarcated by whether people eat Rösti, a fried grated potato dish. The narrator’s family has lived across the Sarine for three generations yet they still eat potatoes for breakfast instead of buttered bread and jam.

In the end what I liked best in this novel was entirely idiosyncratic to me, the way it brushed against my own family history. Little moments resonated with me, like the Rösti (a staple of my childhood), or the passing reference to Aarberg, the town where Rudi was born, home, I suddenly remembered when I came across this moment in the text, to a sugar factory (a fact that struck me forcibly as a child—a factory where they made sugar!) and the site of a family reunion where, as a ten-year-old, only six years after the events of Buti’s novel, I played on a team with my father and grandfather. The older I get, the more nourishing such memories become.


Grant at 1st Reading alerted me to this book. Melissa at Bookbinder’s Daughter has reviewed it too. They both liked it more than I did and you should read them for proper reviews rather than the memoir manqué.