The Radetzky March Readalong

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s probably more than you wanted to know!

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

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

Orchard with Roses Gustav Klimt

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

Compare Tucker:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would you reread The Radetzky March?

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



Secretly Canadian

Dr. Dionne Jackson, head of the Office for Diversity and Inclusion at Hendrix College, where I teach, asked me to give a lunchtime talk in their monthly series on identity. I chose to write about being a Canadian in the US. Here’s a slightly cleaned-up version. It’s stilted–half speech, half notes. I ad-libbed somewhat; I think it sounded better than it reads. But I offer it here in case anyone’s interested, along with my powerpoint slides.

I chose this title as a joke, because if you know anything about me you probably know that I’m Canadian. It’s not exactly something I hide. Many people at Hendrix have probably heard more than enough from me about Canadian awesomeness.

But I chose it for other reasons too.

One reason is the suggestion that someone—maybe some American— in their heart of hearts might wish to be Canadian. They are secretly Canadian. Of course, a Canadian would say that. Despite our irritating sense of superiority, Canadians have a total inferiority complex in regards to the US. All we want is to be acknowledged by you—and you don’t even know that we exist! (Except for weather—all those cold fronts coming down from Canada.)

Another reason is the suggestion that one could practice one’s Canadian-ness secretly. This is often the experience of Canadians abroad, especially in the US. We can pass, for the most part. Even though people make fun of me when I say “about.”

I like this idea of a kind of stealth existence. It feels subversive.

Yet it’s not enough to just hide out—at least not for me, and, I suspect, for many Canadians. Otherwise how can you can explain Canadians’ inescapable need to point out famous Canadians. (Seth Rogen… Canadian. Leonard Cohen… Canadian. Joni Mitchell… Canadian. Ellen Page… Canadian. Feist… Canadian.)

[Jews do this too BTW. So imagine how bad Canadian Jews are! (Drake!)]

Canadians even do this weird pointing-out-asking-for-affirmation thing when Americans aren’t listening. I remember when I was a kid every time the space shuttle was launched [explain space shuttle to students], the news back home would say, “The Space Shuttle Endeavour, with its Canadian-built Canadarm, launched from Cape Canaveral this morning…”

Today I’m going to say more about this paradoxical hiding in plain sight—this sense of being secretive, of being hidden, of being overlooked, all while simultaneously wanting to be acknowledged—and how it’s affected my own life.

Here for example is a well-known New Yorker cartoon from 2001:


The implication here is that the guy isn’t Canadian. He’s probably American. He is the dominant against which the other he is faced with seems different, though, reassuringly, not too different: familiar yet somehow strange. In this sense, Canadians are queer; Americans are straight.

Notice, though, that the guy seems only mildly, even politely interested. Maybe a little bemused. Nothing in his phrasing suggests that he is obsessed with the woman’s Canadian identity.

What about her? What’s she thinking? Who knows. But if she is anything like the Canadians I grew up with, during the 70s and 80s, then she cares a lot. Then (and still to some extent now) Canadians spent a lot of time thinking about their identity. What did it mean to be Canadian? On the radio, in the newspaper: you’d here this question all the time.

This was a time when the country was threatened by Quebec separatism. There was the very real possibility the country could break up, even no longer exist. My sense is that we are lot less anxious as a nation than we used to be, but it is striking to me that Americans never spend any time worrying about what it is to be American. They just know. Rich, free, morally good. (White Americans anyway.)

You have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We have peace, order, and good government.

In 1972, the great Canadian radio host Peter Gzowski organized a little competition. He was thinking about the phrase “As American as apple pie” (my crack online research reveals the phrase was apparently already in use in 1860s but gained traction during and shortly after WWII – “as American as motherhood and apple pie—at some point motherhood dropped out).

Anyway, Gzowski wondered what the Canadian version would be. What is the quintessential Canadian simile? So he asked listeners to complete the phrase. As Canadian as…


What do you think the winning entry was?

[I canvassed the audience—various answers were mooted: “as poutine,” “as maple syrup,” “winter,” “hockey.”]

Nope, nope, nope. All plausible answers, but the actual answer is much stranger, much more delightful. The winner was: “As Canadian as possible under the circumstances


Heather Scott was a 17-year-old student at the time. I could not find a photo of her; the image is a reproduction of a painting by the great Quebecois artist Jean Paul Lemieux.

[I counted on laughter; fortunately, there was laughter.]

Why is this funny?

  • Modesty, almost hapless
  • Dayeinu, good enough
  • passive aggressive?

[These were my ideas. The audience had better ones: the suggestion that one might have to work (perhaps quite hard) to be Canadian; the sense that being Canadian in some full sense is impossible; the sense that circumstances might work against being Canadian.]

1972 happens to be the year I was born: I am as Canadian as possible under the circumstances.

This is the kind of avowal I can get behind. An ironic patriotism. The patriotism of peacekeeping.

When I was growing the US was always equated with brashness, vulgarity, and aggression.

(All Canadians are familiar with some marginal American town/city where the US TV channels came from: in my case, it was Spokane, WA and Coeur d’Alene, ID. I can still probably tell you the names of the used-car dealerships in both those places in the mid-80s. Always shouting—that was my sense of American TV as a kid. Why are they always shouting?)

I’m not sure Americans know how many parts of the world perceive their flag as a sign of aggression, even warmongering. That’s how it felt in my childhood, and it took me many years of living in the US to get over that feeling.

[Driving from Canada to Ithaca, NY for grad school—on a trip in summer to find an apartment—every little upstate NY town littered with flags. I was freaking out. Later learned it was Flag Day…]

When Canadians ask who they are, their first answer is always, Well we’re not American.

You are so much bigger than us, you set the terms of our own self-understanding.

I’m always reminded of the famous comparison offered by former PM Pierre Elliott Trudeau:


So snarky: that “beast”! He said this at the Washington Press Club!

In the metaphor, you are blissfully—though also apparently quite restlessly—asleep. Ignorant of us. But we are highly aware of you.

The Canadian mice are troubled by the elephant, but they also kind of love it.

For a certain generation of Canadians making it in the US was the ultimate goal. Again, I think that’s changing now. But I think it’s true for my generation. Or at least for me. When I applied for PhD programs in the late 1990s I really wanted to go to the US. I did not love the US. In fact, I kind of scorned it. But I felt that was where the best programs were. The best libraries. The most famous faculty. If I could make it there I could make it anywhere.

And I did come to the US. It was 20 years ago this year. August 20, 1999. I remember the date vividly because it is on all my immigration documents. I need to know it, not to celebrate anniversaries, but to keep the authorities happy.

And I got my education, and I met my amazing wife, and I got this job, and my wife and I had our daughter. I have wonderful American in-laws and they have taught me to love baseball. In seven more years, I’ll have lived as long in the US as in Canada.

It’s quite possible I’ll spend the rest of my life here.

But I’m still not a citizen, even though I’ve been eligible to become one for years.

Even with the election of Trump, when so many people in this country, immigrants and would-be immigrants especially, became more vulnerable, and as my wife and in-laws started pressing me more and more to get citizenship, I’ve kept dragging my heels. (I’ve been “getting to it” for almost a decade.)

(I recognize I am much safer than most immigrants: white male, Canadian, have Green Card, could stay on it forever, but…)

Friends sometimes ask me, more or less nicely: What’s my problem? Why haven’t you got citizenship yet? Don’t you want to vote?

The answer, I must confess, is that deep down I really don’t want to become American, even symbolically.

Every year my family spends part of the summer in Canada, and we always ask ourselves, Why don’t we live here?

I miss:

  • Sidewalks
  • Public transportation
  • Health care not tied to job
  • Politics not equal to sports—two party system turns everything into a horse race
  • Gun laws
  • Most of all, sense of public space/common good—that government can do things for you, not just ruin your life

Of course, there are wonderful things about the US:

  • Generosity
  • Can-do-spirit
  • Liberal arts colleges—America’s great gift to civilization

And terrible things about Canada:

  • Parochial
  • Chilly (I mean the people, not the weather: “old” WASP Canada)
  • Shameful destruction of indigenous communities
  • Passive aggressive
  • Smug

But my real stumbling block is internal. It has to do with me, with who I am.

As I was preparing for this talk, I realized I am governed by twin fears:

  • Fear of joining (have to take a side, stand out, which in my family = be a spectacle)
  • Fear of being lonely (not quite same as alone, but similar)

It’s almost physically painful for me to join in a group movement: I am fundamentally a-political. Partly because I am deeply introverted. And partly because I am scared of rejection. Having to ask for what I want is very hard for me. I’d rather people ask me to join than me having to ask them.

At the same time, I hate to be left out, I want to know the gossip, I have FOMO. Warhol anecdote: I don’t want to go to any parties; I just want to see what happens at all of them.

So in the end I think my situation—being a resident alien—is the response I’ve found to these competing imperatives. It suits me to be neither here nor there. Were I ever to move back home (and no one has ever shown signs of wanting to hire me…), I would probably quickly become frustrated. As it is, by being the Canadian in the US, I can assert my difference, but quietly. And I don’t have to take the risk of putting myself out there.

I ask myself: is this a critical position, a way to use the power of the minority position? Or is it paralysis, a kind of fence-sitting?

As I was writing this talk realized that maybe the reason I love Nella Larsen’s Passing so much is because that’s what my current situation allows me to do: to pass, to hide in plain sight, to be familiar yet strange.

And yet I am always avowing that hiding. Hiding itself is not enough for me. Of course, to be able to do so is a sign of privilege. Most of time passing happens, as it does in Larsen’s novel, for much more desperate motives.

And increasingly I think this privilege is something to give up. I love being betwixt and between. But I worry that maybe it is cowardly in some fashion.

What, I wonder, would it mean for me to be as American as possible under the circumstances?

July 2018 Vacation Reading


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)


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)


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)


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)


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)


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)


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)


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)


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?

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.