2018 Year in Reading

At first, I thought my 2018 reading was good but not great. But then I looked over my list and I kept remembering books that had left an impression. Maybe not a lot of books for all time, but plenty of high-quality stuff.

I read 126 books in 2019 (and abandoned a lot of others). Of these, 67 were by women and 59 by men; 99 were originally written in English and 27 in translation. 17 were audio books; 14 were re-reads.

Some highlights:

Kapka Kassabova, Border. A book I keep coming back to, and if it weren’t for a certain gargantuan novel (more below) this would be my book of the year. Border, as I wrote for #BulgarianLitMonth, is “about the periphery, places where resistance to centralized authority often succeeds, though usually at the cost of poverty and marginalization.” Kassabova’s journeys through Thrace (the intersection of Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey) is filled with indelible portraits; it is the rare travelogue that is more about the people the writer meets than the writer herself.

Phillip Marsden, The Bronski House: A Return to the Borderlands. Back in June I described this book as “a story about home and exile amid the violence of the 20th century. It is a meditation on the idea of return. And it is a portrait of a sweet and moving friendship that crosses generations, sexes, and cultures.”

Jon McGregor, Reservoir 13. I think about this book all the time, even though I listened to the (gorgeous) audio book way back in March. A novel about the passing of time as marked by the rhythms of the natural world. I’m considering adding it to my Experimental British Fiction class for its brilliant use of passive voice (except the last thing that class needs is another book by a white guy).

Laura Lippman, Sunburn. Brilliant noir that subverts the genre’s misogyny. (I think it’s a response to Double Indemnity.) At one point I made a few notes for an essay, abandoned for now, about what life was like before the Internet, when serendipity seemed to structure what we knew, and many things were hard to know. This book is set in the 90s, not just for the backdrop of the Clinton impeachment hearings, which it uses to good effect, but because not knowing, or barely knowing, or needing to find someone who knows what you need to know is central to the plot.

Alfred Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz. Michael Hofman’s translation is a triumph (his afterword is fascinating); he makes Döblin’s collage of idioms and styles live for English-language readers. Not a book to love, for me at least, but certainly one to admire. Even more fun than writing about it was reading what Nat had to say.

Nick Drnaso, Sabrina & Liana Finck, Passing for Human. My two favourite comics in a year of good ones. (Honourable mention to Jason Lutes, for his satisfying conclusion to the Berlin trilogy). At first glance, these books have nothing in common, but they’re both dark and troubling, and they use the form in such interesting ways. I wrote about Sabrina here. You’ll hear more from me about Finck.

Helen Dunmore, Birdcage Walk. Even though this book felt a bit misshapen and truncated (it was her last and I’m sure her health was bad as she was completing it), it’s stayed with me much more than I expected. I wrote a bit about it here. I’ll read more Dunmore this year, starting with The Siege. If you have other favourites, let me know.

Lissa Evans, Old Baggage & Crooked Heart—One of this year’s many blogging regrets is that I never made time to write about these two novels. I read Old Baggage (2018) on the recommendation of various Twitter friends, and then tracked down Crooked Heart (2014) at my local library. This reverse order turned out just fine, as Baggage is a prequel to Crooked; knowing what has happened to get the child protagonist to the situation he’s in at the beginning of Crooked makes the earlier book even more poignant. If you’re allergic to poignancy, though, don’t worry. Evans is funny (in real life, too—follow her on Twitter) and anything but sanctimonious or sentimental. Which could have been a real risk: each of these books, set in England during the 1920s-40s, describes a boy’s relationship with two older women, ersatz parents. Even though each is in her own way a social misfit, the women have a lot to teach the child, whether it’s how to make a speech or how to pull a con. I loved both books, but preferred Baggage because the child plays second fiddle to the indelible Mattie Simpkin, a former Suffragette leader who, in her declining years, challenges herself to galvanize a generation of young women who are taking for granted the gains made by their elders. (As far as they’re concerned, Mattie and her ilk are just “old baggage.”) What happens, Evans asks, when the movement you’ve devoted your life to fades away? As great as Mattie is, she’s not even the best character: that would be her friend and sometime amanuensis, nicknamed The Flea, so kind, so loving, so long-suffering, so surprising. Old Baggage is a quick read, but it’s packed with things to think about and enjoy. You’ll have to get it from the UK but it’s worth it.

Jessie Greengrass, Sight. Smart novel/essay about the pleasures and pains of making the invisible visible.

Olivia Manning, The Levant Trilogy. Scott and I wrote about these wonderful books. Maybe not quite as amazing as their predecessors, The Balkan Trilogy, but there’s one scene in the first volume that is such a stunner.

Rachel Seiffert, A Boy in Winter. I hate almost all contemporary novels about the Holocaust. But Seiffert won me over, partly by emphasizing the Shoah by bullets (the murderous movement of the SS Einsatzgruppen across the Soviet Union in 1941-2), partly by focusing on victims, perpetrators, and bystanders alike, and complicating those seemingly separate categories, and partly by her thoughtfulness about the relationship between assimilation and survival. I even forgave the book for being written mostly in first person, a pet peeve of mine. (Long live the past perfect, I say.) I also read her first book, The Dark Room, also about the war years: also good, though not as light on its feet as Boy.

Brian Moore, The Mangan Inheritance. Seventies books are the best books.

Marlen Haushofer, The Wall, translated by Shaun Whiteside. This book is a wonder, so still and careful and joyous. It’s about a woman who survives some sort of apocalypse that leaves her trapped in a lovely, though also punishing alpine valley, with only various animals for companionship. I reveled in the details of the narrator’s survival and the suggestion that it might take a complete rupture for women to find their place in the world. John Self says the rest of Haushofer’s (small) body of work is good, too.

Émile Zola—Some of the year’s greatest reading moments came from the project Keith and I launched to make our way through the Rougon-Macquart cycle. We read three novels this year (at this rate, our kids are going to be in college before we’re done) and it was such a pleasure thinking about them with him. The Fortune of the Rougons was tough sledding, but The Belly of Paris and The Kill were great. I’m obsessed with Zola’s use of description, and how that tendency threatens to derail the aims of the naturalist project (if we in fact take those aims seriously; Tom cautioned me not to) and even the idea of narrative itself. We’re committed to continuing with Zola in 2019—maybe I can get my act in gear to read and write a little faster.

And my reading experience of the year: Jonathan Littel, The Kindly Ones, translated (heroically) by Charlotte Mandell.

I’m sad I never made time to write about this, the longest (900+ pages) book I read in 2018. I read 20-50 pages each day in June, and as soon as I finished we left on our long Canada vacation and the moment for writing about it passed. But I have thoughts! This extraordinary novel of the Holocaust is narrated by Maximilian Aue, an SS officer who experiences most of the significant moments of the war and the Final Solution: he’s in Paris in the summer of 1940, and at Stalingrad two years later. He’s with the Einsatzgruppen as they extinguish Jewish life in the Ukraine (including a horrifying set piece describing the events at Babi Yar), he’s in the Caucasus, he’s in Vichy France, he’s in Pomerania as the Red Army overruns the Germans. It’s amazing how Littel makes Aue’s peregrinations seem plausible rather than a Forest Gump-like gimmick. Early on, I found the novel so grim and distasteful that I could only read 20 pages at a time—I asked Mandell, always so gracious on Twitter, how she could stand to translate it, and she told me it was hard, and even worse when she started to dreamed about it. Aue is not a nice man, but he’s smart and erudite and a compelling storyteller. He’s so much more reasonable, though I shudder to put it this way, in his extermination of Jews and other so-called undesirables than most of the men he works with, and he has the decency to make himself sick over what he’s done that occasionally we forget what the hell is really going on and even look on him kindly. Quite a trick how Littel pulls us towards accepting or at least understanding the intellectual underpinnings of fascism while never letting us forget what a failure it would be to really be seduced. There’s an utterly engrossing lengthy section in which Aue and various other officials discuss whether the Mountain Jews of the Caucuses (descendants of Persian Jews) are racially or “only” ritually Jewish; that is, whether they ought to be exterminated or not. The cold-bloodedness and ethnographic hairsplitting of the conversation offer a powerful example of how men can set notions of decency or morality aside.

The Kindly Ones is ultimately a flawed book: alongside the political/ideological explanations, Littel gives Aue another motivation for his actions—his incestuous love for his sister. (This is the strand that references the Orestia, the last volume of which gives the novel its name.) Littel never reconciles these political and personal strands, so that in the end all of his work at showing the all-too-human motivations for genocide is undone by the psychopathic aspects of this second strand. But the accomplishment here is tremendous. I don’t know if anyone less obsessed with the Holocaust than me could ever enjoy—well, let’s say value—such a book, but I was very taken with it, especially because the book wanted me to feel gross about feeling that way.

Some bests and worsts:

Best new (to me) series: Robert Galbraith (a.k.a J. K. Rowling)’s Cormoran Strike & Robin Ellacott books. A little bloated, but Galbraith knows how to tell a story. From the classic meet cute in the first pages of the first volume, Galbraith pushes my buttons and I don’t care. The plots are genuinely suspenseful, and the “will they/won’t they” storyline between the private detective and his temp-become-full-fledged assistant is catnip. I recommend the audio books.

Best Holocaust texts: Georges Didi-Huberman, Bark (beautiful essay on some photographs the author took on a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau); Molly Applebaum, Buried Words: The Diary of Molly Applebaum (the story of how Applebaum survived the war is incredible, as is the cognitive dissonance between that text and her postwar memoir, also included in this volume); Nechama Tec, Dry Tears (I will be writing about this memoir soon).

Best book by Dorothy B. Hughes: I read four Hughes novels this year. The Expendable Man, her last, was my favourite, and I think it’s a genuinely great book because it implicates readers in its cultural criticism. I enjoyed the more famous In a Lonely Place, but I preferred the first half of the earlier The Blackbirder. Hughes isn’t a conventional suspense writer: plot isn’t her strength. What she’s brilliant at is describing how people deal with threats they know about but can’t escape. That skill is evident from the first page of The So Blue Marble, her first and mostly utterly preposterous novel. Even though Hughes’s protagonists aren’t always women, she writes from a position women know only too well: being victimized not by some unknown person, but by someone close to them—someone the rest of the world is slow to suspect. This accounts for the atmosphere of desperation and fear that characterizes her work. I’ll hunt down more Hughes in 2019.

Best essay about prison libraries hiding inside what pretends to be a crime novel: George Pelecanos’s The Man Who Came Uptown.

Best crime discovery (I): Anthony Horowitz, who I’ve in fact been enjoying for years as a longtime fan of (a.k.a. total suck for) Foyle’s War. The Word is Murder is pure genius: Horowitz puts himself in the story, uses the oldest odd-couple idea in the book, and still makes it work. Clever and fun. Afterwards, I read the earlier Magpie Murders, similarly clever and fun, though not quite as genius as Murder, which, I am delighted to see, looks like it will become a series.

Best crime discovery (II): Lou Berney, who lives just down Interstate 40 in Oklahoma City and isn’t afraid to write about it. The Long and Faraway Gone was good, but November Road is great, and I say that as someone allergic to anything to do with the Kennedy assassination.

Book I had to stay up all night to finish: Cherie Dimaline, The Marrow Thieves. Indigenous Canadian dystopian YA—will follow her career with interest.

Best thriller—Lionel Davidson’s Kolymsky Heights, by a mile. His first, The Night of Wenceslas, is weaker, but the guy can write a chase scene.

Best SF-alternate history-who knows what genre this is and who cares: Lavie Tidhar’s Unholy Land. Tidhar hasn’t always been to my taste, but he’s always worth thinking with, and here he delivers a compelling story that imagines a Jewish homeland in Africa. (Modelled of course on one of the many such plans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.) A thoughtful book about borders, as sad as any book about that topic must be, and as such relevant to everyone.

Most vexing: P. G. Wodehouse, Thank you, Jeeves. It is delightful! But can it be delightful with a minstrelsy sub-plot?

Interesting, but I don’t quite get the fuss: Oyinkan Brathwaite, My Sister, the Serial Killer; Anna Kavan, Ice. I wrote about my struggle to teach the latter.

Books I liked at the time but have sunk without a trace: Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend is a good dog book and a book about a good dog. As I recall, it seems to be suggesting autofiction is intrinsically good at portraying grief, which is interesting. But although I enjoyed it a lot at the time, I never think of it now. I should be the target audience for Maybe Esther (Trans. Shelley Frisch), Katya Petrowskaya’s investigation into and speculation about the fate of her family in the Ukraine during WWII. And it really has its moments (there’s a great bit near the beginning about a ficus plant). But somehow it didn’t add up for me. I might like it a lot more on a re-read—do you ever feel that way about a book?

Disappointments: Claire Fuller, Bitter Orange (not terrible, and on the face of it the sort of thing I like best—Gothic country house, unreliable narrator—but underwhelming; maybe Our Endless Numbered Days was a one-off?); Ian Reid, Foe (fair bit of buzz about this quasi-SF, quasi-philosophical novel concerning humans and replicants, but I didn’t think it was as smart as it seemed to think it was).

Lousy: Leila Slimani, The Perfect Nanny (histrionic); Emma Viskic, Resurrection Bay (overwrought); Arnaldur Indridason, The Shadow Killer (losing his way, I fear).

Reliable pleasures: Tana French (Witch Elm deserves a better fate: it’s typically gorgeous and tricksy, but for the first time French concentrates on an individual rather than a relationship; I’ve read some grumbling about it, and I don’t get it); Jeanne Birdsall (Penderwicks 4eva!); John Harvey (the new book is his last and it is very sad); Ellis Peters (check out Levi Stahl’s lovely piece); Ian Rankin (came back to Rebus after many years away, and am catching up—sometimes the writing is bad, but he’s good at weaving subplots, and at knowing when a book is long enough); Phillip Kerr (making my way through the Bernie Guenther’s and they’re evocative, suspenseful, and damn funny: hard to pull off).

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My big regret for 2018 is that I wrote almost nothing for publication. I was tired after a few very busy years. And I was scared to pitch new venues after some of the journals I’d been most associated with folded in 2017. I’m aiming to write more in 2019. Here on the blog, I would love to write more frequently and less longwindedly, but I’m coming to realize that over-long, close-reading analyses are what I do best (or what I do, anyway). I’m going to try something new, though, as a way to say a little something about more of the books I read: at the end of each month, I’ll write a round-up post, something like Elisa Gabbert’s magnificent year-end piece. I don’t have her lightness or ease, but I think it will be an exciting challenge.

As always, I’ve loved reading and writing with friends this past year. For the first time I even included a post about a book I’ve never even read (thanks, Nat!). I’d love to have more contributions from other readers and writers. If you want to suggest something to read with me, just let me know. And if you just want a place to share your thoughts about a book, say the word. I do have one concrete suggestion: join me and others to read a long Danish novel about canals and Jews! And I know I will be avidly reading Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad when it comes out this summer. And I will make it back to Anniversaries, I promise. Other than that, I’ll probably keep reading as waywardly and haphazardly as always. Although a hedgehog in personality, I am a fox when it comes to reading.

Thanks to everyone for reading and commenting in 2018—I hope you’ll stick around for more in 2019. After all, the blog is turning 5 next month! And if you want to see my reflections on the last few years, you can read about 2014, 2015, 2016 & 2017.

 

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“A Canadian Loser”: Brian Moore’s The Mangan Inheritance

Now as he came closer the man reached up to the collar of his slicker and opened it, letting it fall back to reveal his windburned face, which was partly hidden by a few weeks’ growth of beard. But even with the beard, even in the shadow cast by the low-brimmed hat, Mangan saw it clear. It was his face.

Now that’s some Daphne Du Maurier or Patricia Highsmith-level doubling right there. But this passage isn’t from either of those wonderful writers. Instead it’s from another underappreciated 20th century writer who, like those precursors, works primarily in the realist vein but flirts with its representational others: the fantastic, the Gothic and, especially, the uncanny. Brian Moore was born in Northern Ireland, came to Canada in the late 1940s, and eventually settled in California. He wrote 20 novels and, if The Mangan Inheritance (1979) is any indication, I have a lot of satisfying reading ahead of me.

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The character who sees his own face in another man’s is James Mangan, a former poet, a former journalist, and the former husband of a famous actress. This encounter is in some respects the climax of the novel. It’s precipitated by a moment early in the text, in which Mangan, rummaging through some old family papers while visiting his father, finds a daguerreotype of a man who looks just like him. The image, dated 1849, has the initials J. M. penciled on the back. Mangan believes he is looking at the (actual, I was surprised to learn) 19th century poéte maudit James Clarence Mangan, and, moreover, that the man is his direct ancestor, even though most biographies claim he died childless.

Having suddenly come into a large fortune, and freed of all responsibilities, Mangan travels overseas in order to confirm his suspicion. It is January, and Ireland is cold and rainy and poor. Many of the people he meets are suspicious, even hostile. But he feels ever more alive on the trip, especially when he meets some previously unknown cousins. And always he carries the daguerreotype, carefully wrapped in plastic, in the inside pocket of his coat, for every time he looks at it he feels an electric spark. Some kind of force makes itself felt, convincing him he is connected to his lookalike.

Various misadventures on the wild coasts of southwestern Ireland lead him to the encounter described in that passage, which turns out to be with an uncle everyone thinks is dead. Which means there are three identical men. What connection binds them? Has a creative force, a virtuosic artistic talent, been mysteriously passed among them?

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One of the things I like best about the book is how far Mangan and the novel have travelled to reach this point. The book begins with Mangan in his apartment in New York. The door bell rings. It’s the super, come to fix a leaking faucet. “You have bathroom trouble?” he asks. This trouble is easily fixed, but before long Mangan has plenty of other, less remediable troubles. (Impossible not to read that word without thinking of Ireland’s Troubles, not to mention the wonderful J. G. Farrell novel, also from the 1970s, of the same name.) In the end, the man Mangan discovers, the man who shares his face, has bathroom troubles of his own, albeit of a more disturbing, irreparable, and corporeal sort.

But the swerve away from the domestic (the simple business of replacing a washer) is characteristic of the book’s trajectory, which is to break away from all that seems familiar. (This seems to be a real preoccupation of 1970s English-language fiction: I’m thinking of some of my favourite novels: The Summer before the Dark, Desperate Characters, Bear. Make of that what you will.) The book keeps moving, ever onward, from New York to Montreal to the snowy Laurentians and on to Ireland, and, once there, from small towns to a shuttered and ominous Big House to a windswept headland and a man in a tumbled down Norman keep. Only in the last handful of pages is there a return of any sort, and even then it is only geographic. Mangan goes back to Montreal, his home town, but to greatly changed circumstances that will require him to live a different life, if he is willing to do so.

Mangan’s isolation is as much emotional as geographic. Just as he is led further and further off the beaten track so too do his connections to other people fray. His initial exultation at meeting his extended family doesn’t last; before long, Mangan finds himself increasingly adrift. The more he learns about the men who share his face, the less he wants to be like and with them.

That uneasiness appears in a scene in which Mangan, blundering in the dark through a house that once belonged to the family but has been sold to a foreigner, comes across a mirror. He’s led to an uncomfortable thought:

He stared in terror at the face: a narrow old mirror framed in a gold-scrolled leaf and in it, glaring at him, ghostly pale, eyes glittering with the steely hysteria of an insane person, the features frighteningly bruised, lip swollen, missing front tooth: himself. And in that moment he knew why the house resisted him. I am the ghost that haunts it. (Moore’s italics)

How about that first sentence? That second colon, unusual where we might expect a comma to complete the itself incomplete (since the verb is elided) clause “and in it himself,” has the effect of suggesting that he himself is essentially this bruised and swollen figure. (He’s been jumped in a bar—and in so doing becomes ever more like the 19th century poet, not only in his dissolute-ness but also in his physique: the daguerreotype shows him missing the same tooth.)

And how about that final sentence? I am the ghost that haunts it. Creepy! Yet here is where Moore diverges from writers like Du Maurier or Highsmith. Whereas those writers would ask us to take the haunting seriously, as a way to make a point about identity, say, Moore ends up rejecting it. Or, rather, his ghosts are more mundane, if no less scarring. The Mangan family isn’t the repository of creative vitality, the flip side of which would be demonic grandiosity. More upsettingly, the family is ordinary in its cruelty. Some dramatic and sordid things have happened to its members, but they result from common, though terrible, bad behaviour.

All of which is to say that the terror Mangan experiences in front of the mirror is as misguided as the exultation he feels later when, in a sample of the lovely description of landscapes that Moore almost offhandedly weaves into the text, he makes his way to the encounter that he thinks will change his life:

On the other side of the wall was a footpath, a narrow, little-used track in the long rush grasses, leading back up the headland to a white, two-story farmhouse overlooking the sea. It seemed to be about half a mile away, and as he settled down to the uphill walk, the intermittent rain through which he had driven all morning was hurried off by strong, gusty winds coming in from the sea. High cumulus clouds sailed over the blue dome of the sky. Below, to his left, the sea fielded a platoon of angry whitecaps to race on top of its blue-marine depths. The bare green headland, the white house, the azure sky, all of it reminded him of a painting harshly etched, lonely as a Hopper landscape. He felt alive with expectation, as though, like someone in an old tale, he at last approached the sacred place to meet the oracle who knew all secrets. He put his hand in his pocket and touched the daguerreotype as though it were a charm.

When he passes the farmhouse and toils to another slope to his final destination and encounters a man who looks just like him, as described in the passage I quoted at the beginning of this post, he feels “elated as though he had stumbled on a treasure.” But the vision of “a man amid his books in a ruined Norman tower, living liked a hermit writing his verse” quickly sours.

Indeed, the promise of his own artistic rejuvenation, passed from the 19the century poet through the hermit and his verses reverses itself: rather than passing down genius perhaps his doubles can offer him only sordidness. Mangan speculates that “his double, like some scabrous sufferer from a dread disease, signaled that his listener was also infected.”

 

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In the end, this speculation is a fanciful as the one that led him there. No genius throbs in the Mangan blood, but neither does there lurk degeneracy. The Mangan Inheritance is ironic in its title, and indeed its disposition. It rejects genetics as an explanatory force. The inheritance of anything more than mere physical appearance proves to be a myth. There were and are no poetic geniuses in the family, but that’s okay since genius has been used to whitewash abuse. The book has no time for the idea of inherited traits. Nothing is passed down; rather, things are passed onward. Mere circulation matters more to the novel than any idea of fate or destiny. After all, the most important inheritance, the only one that has any actual force, is the one that comes to Mangan from his ex-wife. And that one, the Abbot Inheritance, wasn’t even earned by her, despite her fame.

Transmission in The Mangan Inheritance takes the form of capital, not genes: and capital doesn’t care who it belongs to or what right they think they have to it, what belief systems they’ve created to legitimize it. It just wants to be spent, like a virus blindly seeking out a new host. (A salutary lesson for our own era, which is as obsessed with genes as with capital, and, with every advertisement for genetics testing, binds them more tightly and ruinously together.)

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James Clarence Mangan, looking suitably diabolical

The only thing I didn’t like about the book is its depiction of Kathleen, Mangan’s young, beautiful, and damaged cousin, with whom he quickly becomes obsessed. She is consistently objectified, and even though the book makes it clear that this is Mangan’s vision, and that he is taking advantage of her (even as it allows us the possibility that she might be doing the same to him), and that this is just one of many things that have gone wrong in the family—not because there’s some mysterious taint in their blood but because they behave badly to each other—I couldn’t get passed the feeling that the book also enjoyed the objectification. This is the only way in which the book felt dated.

But in general Moore’s use of description is compelling. I wouldn’t call it a lyrical book, but there are lots of lovely bits, whether arresting word choices (surprised by a visit from his ex-wife, Mangan feels “his heart hit”—the intransitive use of the verb is evocative in its amorphousness, capturing how lost he feels), memorable phrases (castigating himself for losing his wife to a rival, Mangan tells himself, “And if she ditches you, it’s because you’re a loser. A Canadian loser.” (Is there any other kind?)), meta-reflections on the nature of the narrative masquerading as reflections of the main character (“To sit here in the car while the priest administered extreme unction to a dying Irish woman seemed a dream which like all true dreams moved at its own mysterious pace, without logic, toward a purpose he did not understand”), and evocative descriptions. Here, for example, is Montreal in winter: “Mangan… saw the steaming exhausts of other cars, the high dirty slabs of shoveled snow, the cleared lanes of traffic racing in the smoking Arctic air: a landscape of death.” Yep, been there.

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Like so many 20th century writers, Moore is stranger than he first appears. In this sense, his use of Gothic tropes is a ruse. For Freud, the uncanny, by virtue of its connotation in German of domesticity and coziness (das Unheimliche), is only truly evident when the familiar reveals itself as strange. Only the things we think we know can really spook us. That’s why there’s nothing as uncanny as a house. And The Mangan Inheritance has a haunted house, not to mention a ruined keep (as I was reading I kept thinking of the contemporary Irish version of this space, the housing estates left half-finished in the Crash of 2008, so brilliantly depicted by the Swiss-Irish photographer Valérie Anex). But the real uncanniness of the book lies in its prose. Take for example, the passage I cited at the beginning:

Now as he came closer the man reached up to the collar of his slicker and opened it, letting it fall back to reveal his windburned face, which was partly hidden by a few weeks’ growth of beard. But even with the beard, even in the shadow cast by the low-brimmed hat, Mangan saw it clear. It was his face.

I’m stuck on that “clear.” Yes, it’s not so strange to use an adjective in place of an adverb, especially to mimic speech. But although Moore’s dialogue is pitch-perfect, his narration hasn’t seemed interested in aping speech, and, anyway, Mangan is a pretty formal guy, who’s made his living wielding language, so it seems out of place as a representation of his speech/thought pattern. Instead I think Moore wants us to think not of seeing something (a face) clearly, but of seeing something clear. To see something clear might be to see it off, to pass beyond it. Fanciful, maybe, but this book is all about keeping things moving, and rejecting the past when it is taken as a hypostasized fantasy.

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It’s thanks to Jacqui that I read this book. Her review of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne generated so much praise for Moore that I was inspired to finally get to him. Hearne sounded a bit relentless, but I also had Mangan on the shelf. I’ve now started Hearne (40 pp in and I can tell there’s going to be heartbreak, though not quite at Jean Rhys level, I hope) and checked out several other Moores from the library. Everyone agrees that the variety of his substantial output is one of his strengths. If I even find one or two more I like as much as Mangan I’ll be pleased. Do you have a favourite Moore? Or a suggested reading order? I’d love to hear about it.

“‘Go to hell, Arthur'”: Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries (1)

Caroline and Lizzy are once again hosting German Literature Month, and I wanted to squeeze in at the last minute to offer a few notes on a very long German novel I started reading last week. Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries (Jahrestage) has recently been issued in its first complete English translation by Damion Searls (whose good work with Hans Keilson, among a host of other writers, I’ve had occasion to note before).

If you follow translated literature at all, you’ve probably heard about the book; the publisher, NYRB Classics, has rightly been making a big deal about it. It’s an epic project, and I hope they’re financially rewarded for taking the risk. Anniversaries is long: about 1700 pages, and they’re not exactly easy ones. Johnson published it in four parts in the 1970s and early 80s; NYRB has combined them into two oversize (and heavy—the books are just this side of ungainly) paperback volumes that come in a slipcover box.

I’m not quite 200 pages in, so only have the barest sense of what this immense text is all about. What follows then are some disorganized and speculative first impressions.

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Anniversaries centers on Gesine Cresspahl, a German woman living in New York in 1967 with her ten-year-old daughter, Marie. It also features Gesine’s parents, her depressive mother, Lisbeth Papenbrock, and her father, an enigmatic businessman who, as far as I can tell, has no first name. Cresspahl has emigrated to England (he meets Lisbeth on what he thinks will be his last return to Germany in the late 1920s), but returns to Germany in late 1932 with his pregnant wife, who wants to be with family when the baby, Gesine, is born in March 1933. Gesine tells Marie the story of her parents, though like everything in the book the telling happens obliquely—it’s not like we ever see them sitting down to chat, the girl demanding, Mother, how did your parents meet, that sort of thing. (Actually, there’s at least once scene like that, p 109 in my edition, but thus far it’s the exception.) The book’s driving force isn’t so much psychological (what motivated Lisbeth, say, to do this or that thing?) as structural (how are the two time periods juxtaposed?).

There’s another organizing principle, too, the one that gives the book its title: Anniversaries is organized into something like diary entries, one for each day of the year from August 1967 to August 1968. I say “something like” because Johnson makes no attempt to naturalize the entries—that is, it’s not really a diary (which, after all, would mean the book would need to be called Tagebuch). There’s no sense that Gesine is recording the events of her days. Importantly, and strangely, the book shifts between third person and first person plural, with only occasional instances of first person singular. Oftentimes, the “entries” aren’t even about Gesine and Marie’s daily lives. Instead they’re about what’s happening elsewhere to other people, whether across town or around the world. Or, rather, they’re about what The New York Times has reported in its daily edition.

Whereas the juxtaposition of past and present takes the form of oscillation—and this back and forth concerns space as much as time: the first entry begins while Gesine is on vacation at the Jersey shore, which leads the narrator to reflect on the difference between that shoreline and the one in Mecklenberg-Vorpommern, on the Baltic, where Gesine was born—the accumulation of news from the Times takes the form of linearity.

Anniversaries, then, is a highly structured book. (I am surprised how non- or un-associative it is: again, this might have something to do with the preponderance of third-person narration; easier to present associative thinking in first person: I’m thinking of someone like Proust.) But it doesn’t feel tidy or airless. It is also distinctly unwelcoming. I can’t put my finger on what makes it so, I need to think about this more as I read. But I find myself reading more from admiration rather than fascination. Which isn’t to say that I don’t like it. I really do. But so far I haven’t fallen into it, and I suspect that’s because it doesn’t want me to.

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Gesine loves the Times. Like a lot. She buys it every day, she fishes it out of trashcans if she misses a day, she reads it at breakfast and in the subway and on the Saturday morning ferry rides she takes with Marie to Staten Island (Marie’s own obsession). There are some great descriptions of how to fold the paper so you can read it in a crowded subway car. In this regard, the book has reminded me how much I love reading newspapers: first the Calgary Herald (either it was much better then than now or I was a much worse reader or, more likely, both), then the Globe and Mail, and eventually, after moving to the US, the Times, which it took me a while to warm up to but I’m not sure I’ve ever felt as fully adult as when my wife and I first took out a subscription to it. We still have one, but for a few years now it’s been digital and I don’t read nearly as much of it as I used to. Buying and reading a physical newspaper feels like one of those pleasures that life strips away from you, often for no good reason, as you get older.

But I digress. I can’t figure out why Gesine loves the Times as much as she does. Is it a sign that she, like me, is making her place in the US, binding herself to its journal of record? Is it because she needs to immerse herself in the present to keep the past away? (Remember, she’s born when the Nazis take power, and so presumably her story will become more and more representative of her birth country’s terrible path through the 20th century.) Given what I said earlier, about the book’s lack of interest in psychology, I probably shouldn’t be asking this question. Motivation isn’t the thing, here. But I’m puzzled by the newspaper material; I’ll have to keep thinking about it. We hear a lot about Vietnam, of course, and race riots in various American cities. But also about local events, crimes especially, but even some bits of local colour, news about the mayor, even sports, which Gesine seems alternately bemused by and uninterested in. 1968 is an epochal year, of course, so lots more is to come: the Prague Spring, the Democratic Convention, the assassination of MLK.

At one point, the narrator describes Gesine’s prodigious but erratic memory:

She had searched her memory for the year 1937 and once again retrieved nothing but a static, disconnected fragment. This is how her mind’s storage system arbitrarily selects things for her, stored up in quantities beyond her control, only sometimes responsive to commands and intentions.

Here, I think, we’re asked to think of Gesine as a kind of newspaper. Or is it like the reader of a newspaper, dipping into this story and that? Or as a kind of yearbook or encyclopedia or better web page, but one in which the flipping of the pages, the dipping into the entries, the clicking of the links is done for rather than by her?

Just after the passage I cited, we learn that Gesine values one function of her mind in particular:

memory, not the storage but the retrieval, the return to the past, the repetition of what was: being inside it once more, setting foot there again. There is no such thing.

You can glimpse what I’m calling the book’s unwelcoming nature in the eschewal in that last sentence of any conjunction. No “but,” no “however,” no “yet,” no “alas.” An austere, abrupt (in German they might call it ruppig) statement that almost brutally reverses or refuses what came before.   `

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Abruptness doesn’t preclude lyricism, though. Every once in a while, Johnson sneaks in something lovely, like this description of autumn in New York:

The park outside our windows is now entirely lit by the October sun that pushes every color one step closer toward the unbelievable: the yellow sprinkling of leaves on the grass, the elephant skin of the bare plane trees, the bright maze of branches in the thornbushes on the upper promenade, the cold Hudson, the hazy forest mist on the other side of the river, the steely sky. Sundayness has fallen on a Sunday. It is an almost innocent picture, in which children and people strolling along live as if harmlessly. It’s an illusion, and it feels like home.

The first lines are lovely, if a bit conventional. But the sense of quiet and lassitude is so well done: “Sundayness has fallen on a Sunday,” I love that. And yet as the passage continues, it becomes as “steely” as the sky: the picture is almost innocent; the passersby live as if harmlessly. And then this: “It’s an illusion, and it feels like home.” Is that “and” a recognition that Gesine and Marie, or maybe everyone on the Upper West Side, or maybe everyone everywhere else, too, lives in illusion? Or does it mean something like “and also” or “but at the same time”? An illusion yes, but also something like home? Can you see what I mean when I say it’s hard to fall into the book? It’s always making us think so hard.

When he wants to, Johnson can paint vivid character portraits. The less important someone is, the more sharply they come into view. Here, for example, is a description of Gesine’s friend Annie Fleury, nee Annie Killainen, a Finn who once worked at the UN, then married a writer who has taken her to Vermont, where she struggles with her three children and his abuse. She can’t keep up with the housework, what with three children and

because she also has to discuss “choice passages” of Mr. Fleury’s daily labors at night, and also has to type up a clean copy of these and all the other passages during the day. She seemed happy enough while straightening up and baking, and even though we were alone, with all the children out in the dripping-wet woods, she didn’t complain, it’s just that she hardly seemed to perceive F. F. Fleury at all when he showed his face in the kitchen and she wordlessly handed him a drink, making him a new one unasked every time, five before dinner, many more throughout the meal and afterward, until he finally found his way out of his stubborn, violent silence into the argument that Annie let pass over her, without defending herself, sitting slightly hunched, with strangely squared shoulders, hands between her knees, almost happy, as though what she’d expected was finally happening.

Amazing stuff. How economically Johnson gives us a vision of a life gone wrong, though not perceived as such, a portrait of a woman so beaten down that the only pleasure she has left lies in welcoming the beating. And although the focus is on Annie, we also get a glimpse of the pathetic, raging, and dangerous husband. Who even knows if these people will ever return in the book? (This is their only appearance so far.) I think the degradation of the scene—so powerfully presented in that image of the argument, that is, the screed, of a man battering a woman like a storm surge—is only heightened by the brief eruption into this dismal litany by that beautiful description of the children “out in the dripping-wet woods.” (Good with the compound adjectives, our Johnson.)

Almost as compelling is Johnson’s portrayal of Marie. She’s almost too good to be true, spunky and wise, a street-smart immigrant child who at first refuses to accept her new home but eventually identifies with it so fully she becomes afraid of the pull the old country might have on her mother. A bit precocious, Marie could at her most sprightly be a child from a Jonathan Safran Foer novel or, more tolerably, a Wes Anderson movie. But so far, so good. It’s clear Johnson adores her, but he hasn’t made her adorable, if you know what I mean. She has too much dignity for that. Here’s a nice moment on the ferry:

A Japanese gentleman had asked Marie for help, pressing his camera into her hand with extraordinarily fulsome apologies, and she had positioned him and his family in front of Manhattan’s skyscrapers with expert instructions and hand gestures before flexing her knees to absorb the swaying of the ship’s deck and pressing proof of the visitors’ trip around the world into their camera. As she disembarked over the gangway and up the stairs and down the ramp alongside the ferry building, she answered the tourists’ friendly looks three times, not with a smile but with a slight bow suggested from her shoulders and recognition in her eyes. – Welcome a stranger: I said in English, and even though she obviously recognized the quote from the Transit Authority’s buses, she replied, almost in earnest, almost excited: — That’s right Gesine. Welcome a stranger.

Where Marie is almost sage-like (look at her, practically quoting the Torah, practically responding to foreigners in their own idiom—that near, slight bow) and unperturbable (she absorbs more than just the swaying of the ferry in this book), her mother is at once more enigmatic and more erratic. I don’t have a handle on her yet. I’ll finish this post with the moment that has troubled me the most so far. It’s from the entry for September 12, 1967, which offers an unusually self-contained narrative.

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Gesine, who works at a bank, doing something we either don’t know about or that I have forgotten, has been asked to meet her boss at JFK to translate a letter he is bringing with him from overseas. She is taken there in the boss’s car, which is driven by his African-American chauffeur, Arthur. Arthur is distant and formal, rejecting her efforts to have him call her by her first name. He keeps the panel between the front and rear of the car up; Gesine “feels sealed, shipped, and delivered like a package for someone.” But when the boss arrives, Arthur is transformed. The two are matey, not equals but open and casual with each other. The panel between front and back stays down. Then we get this:

—And how did you and she get along? the boss asks, tossing his head towards Mrs. Crespahl. – She was fine: Arthur says, and Mrs. Crespahl catches his eye in the rearview mirror for a moment. He doesn’t wink at her, just gives her a tiny, reassuring widening of the eyelids.

I might have known that the boss would put his arm around your shoulders, hold the door for you, let you choose where to sit. Gesine, or whatever your name is.

All right, Arthur. And, go to hell, Arthur.

So many unexpected reversals here! We’re denied the possible moment of solidarity between the African American man and the immigrant woman, one who perhaps fancies herself free of American prejudice, or eager to show herself as such: he doesn’t wink. But he does offer that reassuring widening of the eyelid, an interpretation we are inclined to trust, especially if we think it comes more from an omniscient narrator than Gesine. Surprising, then, that what Arthur is thinking is anything but warm towards Gesine, anything but reassuring. And even more surprising, and disquieting, that Gesine responds with such hostility. Of course, we only have Gesine’s imagining of Arthur’s thoughts to go on. What makes her think that’s what he’s thinking? I find her hostility disproportionate in response to his—but why do I think that? Maybe the point here is that in relation to white men, who get to set the terms of how the world works, there’s no room for solidarity between those they are able to play off each other, those who need the validation of the dominant group much more than they need to look out for each other. I don’t know. I don’t know what to make of Gesine, here or elsewhere.

*

As soon as I learned this translation of Anniversaries was forthcoming I knew I had to have it. But that I have actually started reading it, so soon after its arrival (most books sit in my house for years before being read, if in fact they even are), I owe largely to Scott from seraillon. We were emailing a few weeks ago, and he was enthusing about its brilliance. At that point he was as far in as I am now (he’s probably almost finished by now!), and he said something that whetted my appetite:

What Johnson does with each day of his year of daily entries is of astonishing diversity and imagination. And some of it is really awe-inspiring, the kind of writing that just leaves me holding the book and wondering “How did he do that?” There’s a collage/montage quality, but as though of overlapping translucent motifs that gain depth and form as they accumulate.

Like all of Scott’s descriptions, this is beautiful and smart. It inspires me to make my own responses to the book equally nuanced and articulate. Check back in over the coming weeks as I report on my changing and, with luck, deepening impressions of this steely masterpiece.

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“Abandoning myself entirely to the buzzing, hot stillness”: Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall

A woman accepts an invitation to stay with friends at their hunting lodge in the Alps. The lodge is actually a two-story wooden villa with some outbuildings, including a hut for the gamekeeper and his dog. Her hosts are unusual—he, Hugo, heir to a saucepan fortune and something of a hypochondriac, has stockpiled food and supplies in the house; she, Luise, is a passionate hunter. The two don’t seem to have much in common, but almost as soon as they arrive, Luise convinces her husband to accompany her to the nearest village for a drink at the inn. Afternoon turns to evening; the couple doesn’t return. The woman is restless, but succumbs to fatigue: she makes herself something to eat and goes to bed without waiting up for her hosts. The next morning, there’s still no sign of them, and so, calling the dog, Lynx, to accompany her, the woman sets out to see what’s happened. The dog is running ahead, and suddenly he cries out in pain. He’s hurt, bleeding from the mouth, and whining in fear. The woman can’t see what could have caused the injury; she gently pushes the dog aside and continues down the path—and immediately bangs her head on something she can’t see. Apparently, an invisible barrier has been thrown up in front of her. No matter how carefully she moves her hands along it, she find no end to it; she can’t pass it. In a distant field she sees a farmhouse and the figure of a man. She calls out to him, but he doesn’t move and as she looks more closely she sees that he isn’t breathing; he’s frozen in place. Everything on the other side of the invisible barrier is as though turned to stone. The woman and the dog give up and return to the lodge. Soon she has to face facts: somehow, she and a few animals in the surrounding woods, meadows, and mountains are the only beings still alive.

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So begins Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall, a sad, moving, and beautiful novel first published in Austria in 1962 and translated by Shaun Whiteside into English in 1990. Haushofer—about whom I know little: she was born in Upper Austria, went to school in Linz, university in Vienna and Graz, and spent most of her life in Steyr, where she married the same man twice and raised a family—had a short life (1920-1970) and didn’t write many books, but on the evidence of this one she was the real thing.

The Wall is filled with lovely low-key descriptions of the land from which the narrator struggles to rest a living. But these descriptions are always practical, always connected to the task of surviving; this narrator has no time for lyric effusions about the landscape. Here for example a storm is about to break:

It’s never entirely silent in the forest. You only imagine it’s silent, but there is always a whole host of noises. A woodpecker taps in the distance, a bird calls, the wind hisses through the grass in the forest, a big branch knocks against a tree-trunk, and the twigs rustle as little animals scurry around. Everything is alive, everything is working. But that evening it really almost was silent. The silencing of the many familiar noises frightened me. Even the splashing of the stream sounded restrained and muted, as if the water too was only moving lethargically and unwillingly. Lynx stood up, jumped miserably up on the bench beside me and nudged me gently, intimidated by the terrible silence.

Haushofer reminds me a bit of Lawrence. She shares his fondness for parataxis (though admittedly this is much more common and in fact grammatically sound in German than in English), as well as his willingness to repeat words and phrases, to the point of ungainliness. Also like Lawrence, she is brilliant on animals. The Wall is a great book about how much people need animals. (I realize people are animals; I mean non-human animals.) In addition to Lynx, probably my favourite character, the narrator becomes close to several cats and to her cow, lovely, patient, beautiful Bella, whose milk keeps all of them alive.

The Wall, then, is a book about living beings—about what it feels like to be alive, and what it takes to stay alive. Mostly it takes hard work. Here’s the narrator, having decided to take Bella and her calf to summer in an alpine meadow and painfully lugged everything she needs to keep herself whole up the mountain, clearing out the long-abandoned hut in which she will live:

The hut was thick with dirt, and that disturbed me a great deal. It was by now too late to start spring-cleaning. So I washed only the necessary pots with the wire brush and sand, and put a little pot of potatoes on the spirit stove. Then I dismantled the bed and carted the musty pallet to the meadow and beat it with a stick. A cloud of dust arose. I couldn’t do anything more for the time being, but resolved to lay the pallet outside to air on every fine day.

And here she is making hay for the winter (accompanied by Lynx, who, as always, is sharply attuned to her moods but not much help with the work):

The sun cast its full brilliance on the slope. The fresh-cut swathes of hay already lay wilted and dull. I stood up and began to turn them with the fork. The meadow was one great hum of startled insects. I worked slowly, almost drowsily, abandoning myself entirely to the buzzing, hot stillness. Lynx, who had checked that everything was all right with me, trotted to the stream and drank in long, lapping gulps, then lay down in the shade, his head on his paws, his mournfully wrinkled face entirely hidden by his long ears, and dozed away. I envied him.

Sometimes she gets something like rest, as when she discovers a stretch of raspberry bushes that have just ripened:

As I had no sugar and couldn’t make preserves, I had to eat the berries straight away. I went to the patch every other day. It was the purest joy; I was bathed in sweetness. The sun warmed the ripe berries, and a wild aroma of sun and maturing fruits enveloped and intoxicated me.

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The edition of The Wall that I read comes with a blurb from Doris Lessing. It’s better than your average praise:

It is not often that you can say only a woman could have written this book, but women in particular will understand the heroine’s loving devotion to the details of making and keeping life, every day felt as a victory against everything that would like to undermine and destroy. It is as absorbing as Robinson Crusoe.

(I confess I have never read the Defoe, but I take it to be governed by a tendency to document and report, and The Wall has some of that, in its careful descriptions of how to chop wood and cut grass and never touch the seed potatoes, no matter how hungry you are.) Lessing is an important writer for me; I take her praise seriously. Indeed, reading it I was reminded of her near-contemporaneous Summer before the Dark (1973). Perhaps even closer in spirit to The Wall is a book even dearer to my heart, Marian Engel’s Bear (1976), a story about a woman sent to catalog a library in a fabulous house on a remote island in northern Ontario who finds a bear can make for good company.

Lessing and Engel’s books are stories of idylls. Is this one too? “A woman and her animals, alone at last.” Maybe. But if so, it’s a frightening idyll, one filled with hard work, and cold and hunger, the threat of death, and at the end of it all the realization that human beings might, with her, come to an end. Which isn’t to say that the narrator doesn’t experience something like positive transformation. But doing so requires that she shrug off her most human qualities. Loneliness, she writes, has led her, “in moments free of consciousness and memory, to see the brilliance of life again.” At Christmas time, depressed that in the forest it is nothing more than another snowy day, she consoles herself with the possibility of being able to forget the past: “something quite new lay waiting behind” the old ways of seeing. Imagining a real transformation means imagining something beyond herself:

One day I shall no longer exist, and no one will cut the meadow, the thickets will encroach upon it and later the forest will push as far as the wall and win back the land that man has stolen from it… The forest doesn’t want human beings to come back.

Here Haushofer reminds me of Woolf in the Time Passes section of To the Lighthouse. This passage could have come from the earlier novel:

I see the plants flourishing, green, well-fed and silent. And I hear the wind and all the noises from the dead cities; window-panes shattering on the pavement when their hinges have rusted through, the dripping of water from the burst pipes and the banging of thousands of doors in the wind. Sometimes, on stormy nights, a stone object that was once a human being tips from its chair at a desk and crashes with a boom to the parquet floor. For a while there must have been big fires as well. But they’re probably over now, and the plants are hurrying to cover up the remains. If I look at the ground behind the wall, I don’t see any ants, or beetles, not even the tiniest insects. But it won’t stay that way. With water from the streams life, tiny, simple life, will seep in and revivify the earth. I might have been quite indifferent to that, but strangely it fills me with secret satisfaction.

Given its interest in overcoming the human, it is less obvious in The Wall than in the other books I’ve referenced that the heroine’s self-discovery is a good thing. Plus—spoiler alert!—near the end something weird and terrible happens. A man comes out of nowhere and kills the bull and the dog before the narrator kills him. All of this happens so abruptly—here I was reminded of Beckett’s Molloy and its sudden, hallucinatory depictions of murder—that I’m not even sure whether it really happened. Actually, I think it does. But where this guy comes from and whether there are any more like him or if there are any repercussions or ripple-effects from this burst of violence are never explained.

That violence would seem to mitigate fully any notion of an idyll, and indeed ultimately there is no way out for the narrator. She runs out of paper, and simply ends her chronicle. Yet the book doesn’t feel hopeless. It ends on a note of what I can only call grace. Maybe today we would call it mindfulness. Over and over, the narrator is granted the peace of no longer having to think (prevented by exhaustion, by the need to keep on task, by the joy that comes from taking care of and being cared for by animals). But she doesn’t become wild. She doesn’t want to give up thought. She distinguishes herself from animals; despite the frailty of the human and the lure of its extinction, she accepts the tragedy of self-consciousness. For her, as for Leonard Cohen in his equally graceful “Famous Blue Raincoat,” that means she’s keeping some kind of record:

Over the last few days I have realized that I still hope someone will read this report. [Again, the language of documentation.] I don’t know why I wish that, it makes no difference, after all. But my heart beats faster when I imagine human eyes resting on these lines, and human hands turning the pages.

Where the book seems most feminist is in its depiction of the narrator as someone who, for whatever reason (though it is intimated that the reason is because she is a woman), needs to care for others: “There was something planted deep within me that made it impossible for me to abandon something that had been entrusted to me.” This despite the fact that care is always stymied. To love is to keep alive, but life is replaced by death, and so love is always tragic:

I often look forward to a time when there won’t be anything left to grow attached to. I’m tired of everything being taken away from me. Yet there’s no escape, for as long as there’s something for me to love in the forest, I shall love it; and if some day there is nothing, I shall stop living. If everyone had been like me, there wouldn’t have been a wall… but I understand why the others always had the upper hand. Loving and looking after another creature is a very troublesome business, and much harder than killing and destruction.

This is the most allegorical and “message-y” the book gets.

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Apparently, Haushofer took a long time to write this book. Not only did she have a household to run, even as she suffered from poor health, especially debilitating headaches, but she also wanted to make sure she got it right: that her descriptions of animals and plants were accurate and that the life she described for her heroine was plausible. I wonder if she was helped in her search for accuracy by her background: she grew up in the foothills of upper Austria, where her father was a forester. In one sense, nothing happens in this book. Yet it’s utterly compelling, partly because it has relentless forward momentum even as the telling ranges back and forth in time (only ever within the years after the incident, though—she almost never says anything about her life before the wall). The book is propelled by the changing of the seasons, of weather and climate, of life and death. It’s all very elemental, but never portentous. (Haushofer is the anti-Cormac McCarthy.)

I’m speaking a lot about feelings here. Something about this novel incites reflection on our experiencing of reading it. I felt shame, too. How could I, with a doctorate in comparative literature with particular emphasis on English and German-language 20th century literature, have never heard of Haushofer before? How could I have taken all those classes, sat through all those colloquia, and never come across this remarkable author? Maybe things would be different if I were still in graduate school today: maybe Haushofer is having a resurgence, dozens of academic teaching her works and writing assiduously about her. (I gather a film adaptation came out a few years ago; that can’t hurt.) But my shame quickly turned into something more generative. I’m thrilled with the discovery, and reassured to realize, yet again, how much literature remains to explore. Haushofer is a writer for everyone: careful, matter-of-fact, gentle, joyful—but not sweet. She’s more like the cranberries the narrator strains and jars to keep her through the winter than she is like the raspberries on which she gorges to the point of  surfeit.

I plucked The Wall from the bottom of a large stack of unread books in my study largely because I wanted to contribute to #WITMonth, the creation of Meytal Radzinski (@Biblibio), an event that has gratifyingly become a sensation in the book world. I like to think the sense of discovery that accompanied my reading of this remarkable book is in keeping with the spirit of this celebration of month-long event. Of course, now all I want to do is seek out Haushofer’s other books; every book read from the TBR pile only leads to two or three more…

 

 

“So we are both bereaved!” Olivia Manning’s Levant Trilogy

The most powerful and consequential scene in Olivia Manning’s Levant Trilogy (1977-80) occurs early in the first volume, The Danger Tree. A young Englishwoman, Harriet Pringle, is the primary observer of the scene. Manning detailed Harriet’s experiences in Romania and Greece with her feckless husband, Guy, a teacher attached to the British Council, in three wonderful novels published in the 1960s as the Balkan Trilogy. At the end of those books, Harriet and Guy, on the run from fascism, had been pushed from Bucharest to Athens and, finally, across the Mediterranean in two ancient, creaky, and overcrowded ships to safety in Egypt.

Manning couldn’t let go of her characters (another way to say this is that she couldn’t keep from revisiting her own life, since Harriet and Guy are modeled on Manning herself and her husband, Reggie, and their wartime experiences). In the last years of her life, she took up their story again, adding a new character, Simon Boulderstone, to the mix. In the opening chapter Simon, a twenty-year-old recruit freshly arrived in Egypt to fight Rommel’s army, gets separated from his regiment and falls in with Harriet and her circle of fellow refugees.

Cairo, Manning explains, “had become the clearinghouse of Eastern Europe”:

Kings and princes, heads of state, their followers and hangers-on, free governments with all their officials, everyone who saw himself committed to the allied cause, had come to live here off the charity of the British government. Hotels, restaurants and cafes were loud with the squabbles, rivalries, scandals, exhibitions of importance and hurt feelings that occupied the refugees while they waited for the war to end and the old order to return.

Except it might not. Things in Cairo are tense. The Germans aren’t far away, though no one knows for sure where exactly. The darkest rumours suggest they’ll take the city in a matter of days. Many exiles have chosen to leave for points east. The Egyptians, by contrast, are sanguine, even welcoming the possibility of German takeover, so much resentment is there of the British. The Anglo-Egyptians, by contrast, are incensed. One of them, Sir Clifford, an agent for an oil company, explains, with unpleasant distaste, “The gypo porters are having a high old time at the station. I was there yesterday, saw them chucking the luggage about, roaring with laughter, bawling, “Hitler come.’”

In the midst this turmoil, Clifford leads a group that includes Simon and Harriet on an excursion to the Fayoum, an oasis region about sixty miles from the city. The self-proclaimed Egyptologist leads the motley and mostly listless group through various tombs and a fly-ridden picnic in the heat of the day. Towards evening, they pass the home of Sir Desmond and Angela Hooper, and, despite the group’s protestations, Clifford decides to drop in to see if the couple has heard any news.

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As the group waits awkwardly in a living room “as large as a ballroom” they hear a car shrieking on the drive and a terrible commotion in the hall. A woman runs into the room, calling for Sir Desmond, “her distracted appearance made more wild by her disarranged black hair and the torn, paint-covered overalls that protected her dress.” This is Lady Hooper, returned from a sketching session that ends abruptly after a terrible accident.

Behind her, two servants carry in “the inert body of a boy”:

He lay prone and motionless, a thin, small boy of eight or nine with the same delicate features as his mother: only something had happened to them. One eye was missing. There was a hole in the left cheek that extended into the torn wound which had been his mouth. Blood had poured down his chin and was caked on the collar of his open-necked shirt. The other eye, which was open, was lackluster and blind like the eye of a dead rabbit.

Manning conveys horror through simple repetition, as if her language were shocked by what it had to describe. “Eye,” for example, is repeated three times, twice in a single sentence, which includes a meagre yet highly effective simile (the boy’s open eye is blind like the eye of a dead rabbit’s—an eye is like an eye). The idea of a hole or orifice is similarly repeated. There are the eyes and the mouth, of course, and the terrible opening in what had been the cheek. But there is also a painful contrast between these unnatural openings and the ordinary one of the “open-necked shirt.”

The Hoopers’ child—as best I can tell, he is never named—had picked up an explosive hidden in the sand while playing in the desert. The guests are horrified and fascinated by the scene. Sir Desmond and Angela react with stoic calm, but they are clearly in shock. They decide the boy should have something to eat, “a little nourishment, light and easy to swallow.”

A servant brings a bowl of gruel and Sir Desmond, “bending tenderly over the boy,” attempts to feed him:

The mouth was too clogged with congealed blood to permit entry so the father poured a spoonful of gruel into the hole in the cheek. The gruel poured out again. This happened three times before Sir Desmond gave up and, gathering the child in his arms, said, ‘He wants to sleep. I’ll take him to his room.’

I’d actually read The Danger Tree before, right after I devoured The Balkan Trilogy. Returning to it now, almost ten years later, I’d forgotten most of it, except this utterly indelible scene. The parents’ decision is so insane, so deluded—the boy is clearly dead, obviously beyond any “wants”—and yet so understandable. The matter-of-factness of the telling (that terrible sentence, “The gruel poured out again”) lends dignity to the disbelieving parents.

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In one way, the child’s death is a minor event. It doesn’t involve Harriet, Guy, or Simon directly; it has no direct connection to the war (though that’s presumably why live explosives are lying around). Simon, once he finally makes his way to the Front, has even forgotten all about it until a Signals man warns him about minefields and other booby traps: he broods on the information “until suddenly, like a returning dream, he remembered the dead boy in the Fayoum house.” Everything about the day has become distant, the people “beings of an unreal world.” Yet he muses on the moment; similarly, this minor moment echoes and ricochets across the books’ 500 pages. Like Simon, Manning keeps coming back to the boy’s death. In particular, she develops the character of his mother, Angela Hooper. In the death scene, she is a cipher: partly desperate, partly clueless. Later, she becomes a joke among the Cairo expatriates (Clifford, nasty little snake, dines out on the story for months; soon everyone knows it). Angela moves to Cairo, where, having separated from her husband and abandoned her previous life as an artist, mother, and hostess, she is a Brett Ashley figure who drinks too much and doesn’t seem to care about anything, so traumatized is she by the past.

Yet as the trilogy continues, Angela becomes increasingly complex. Her relationship with an alcoholic poet, Bill Castlebar, reveals itself not to have been the tawdry joke everyone initially took it to be but a sustaining, if not sustained, quasi-marriage of equals. She becomes especially important to Harriet, who gains in her something she has never had before: a friend of her own. Previously Harriet has always had to make do with her husband’s numerous hangers-on. (Guy attracts almost everyone he meets, men anyway, because he seems to take such interest in them, and he does, but only insofar as they are a problem for him to solve or a vessel for him to fill with knowledge or advice; besides, he is chronically over-committed, probably as a way to keep real intimacy, real friendships, at bay, and so he carelessly foists everyone who clamours for a slice of his attention on to his wife. She doesn’t want to look after them and they don’t want to be looked after by her.) When Angela first re-encounters her, Harriet is sure the bereaved woman won’t remember their first meeting. But she does:

‘I brought in my boy and the room was full of people. He was a beautiful boy, wasn’t he? His body was untouched—there was only that wound in his head. A piece of metal had gone into the brain and killed him. He was almost perfect, a small, perfect body, yet he was dead. We couldn’t believe it, but next day of course… We had to bury him.’

Harriet isn’t ready for this confidence, misreading it as some combination of delusion (and what does that ellipsis signify?) and over-sharing: “wishing this would end,” she redirects the conversation. Harriet is our hero, but as we see here she’s not always sympathetic. Her ability to see through other people’s bullshit is refreshing (she sees through Guy’s, but won’t leave him: frustrating!), but she can brusque—sometimes that makes us cheer, as when she admits she is “never unwilling to disquiet” a man who had once left Guy in the lurch, but sometimes that makes us wonder, as when she dismisses a man’s anxiety about whether he will ever be able to take up his career again once the way is over (he is an actor, and fears his moment has passed) by heartlessly replying, “We’re all displaced persons these days.”

Most of the time, though, Harrier is sensitive and perceptive. There’s nothing Proustian about Manning’s style or approach or concerns, but over the course of these novels she does something I’ve only seen in Proust: she reveals characters to each other over an extended period of time, so that by the end they only barely resemble our initial sense of them. Just as Marcel comes to see Charlus entirely differently over the course of the lifetime described by his book, so too Harriet finds entirely unpredictable depths to Angela. The same is true of Castelbar. At first, he seems merely an unpleasant, no longer young man on the make, who has attached himself to Angela because she is rich and will buy all his drinks and even, rather unaccountably, even to himself, wants to screw him. But the relationship is for real. And we learn, with Harriet, how kind he is, and Harriet, at any rate (with luck we already know this, but we can never be reminded too often), learns how important kindness is in the people we love—and how little of it she gets from Guy:

He was kind, and not only to Angela. He carried his kindness over to Harriet so she, an admirer of wit, intelligence, and looks in a man, was beginning to realize that kindness, if you had the luck to find it, was an even more desirable quality.

Harriet even comes to see the actor, a man named Aidan Pratt, the one whose worries about his career she had dismissed, in a completely other light, such that he demands her sympathy. He tells her the story of his war, which consists of two traumas: one, referenced only obliquely and never developed, concerns the death of a lover; the other concerns his experiences as a conchie, a conscientious objector, early in the war. He was put to work on a liner transporting orphans to Canada, but the boat was torpedoed by the Germans and he the only survivor, having spent days adrift in the ocean in a life-raft full of children he was unable to save, an experience that did away with his pacifism.

Over and over, Manning gives us glimpses into the extraordinary yet commonplace terrors faced by people at war. Flipping again through Deirdre David’s workmanlike but comprehensive recent biography of Manning, I’m reminded that many of the Levant Trilogy’s first readers liked the Simon sections of the book best. They were impressed with Manning’s ability to describe the confusion and terror of desert tank warfare. I suspect sexism played a part in this response—the books were most valued when Manning proved able to move past her own experiences to depict the male experience of fighting. I think these scenes are good, too, but, as I’ve suggested, they’re not what most interests me. Besides, I think the distinction between what happens at and behind the Front misses Manning’s point. These worlds are connected by a shared experience of loss and trauma, as Simon himself recognizes when, having learned that his brother has died, he is given a week’s leave in Cairo, where he meets Angela again. She remembers him immediately, even apologizing for what the scene with her son must have looked like to an observer:

‘We didn’t know he was dead, you know: or perhaps we couldn’t bear to know. It must have been upsetting for you. I’m sorry.’

In what could be a motto for the books, Angela observes that she and Simon now share the most profound and inescapable experience, of loss: “So we are both bereaved!”

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Olivia Manning, self-portrait c. 1930

I could say a lot more about these books, but this post is long enough. I’ll end by listing a few other favourite moments. Harriet is given the chance at a new life when, having almost died from amoebic dysentery, she finds a place on a ship taking women and children back to England. At the last moment, though, she decides not to get on the boat, a lucky thing too, since it is sunk shortly after entering the Indian ocean. Guy and everyone in Cairo think she is dead (some sections of the last volume are focalized through Guy; it is interesting that this doesn’t make us sympathize with him any more), whereas Harriet has no idea what has happened to the boat. Blissfully unaware, she sets out on an adventure, first to Damascus and then Palestine. These sections are fascinating, but underdeveloped. (Perhaps Manning thought she had mined her experiences in Jerusalem sufficiently in my favourite of her novels, School for Love.) More than the novel’s travelogue of the Levant, what stays with me are its arresting observations (watching a porter manage piles of luggage, Harriet “saw that from bearing so much eight, his feet had become almost circular and appeared to have toes all round”), vivid characterization, even of minor roles (who can forget Lister, who in his cups always returns to memories of his childhood nurse, who used to pull down his underwear and beat him with a hairbrush: “Bristle side. Used to pull down little kickers and beat little bum. Poor little bum!”), and striking, often violent scenes, whether of a bar in Tiberias destroyed by violent, maudlin, drunken Australian soldiers on leave, of a collapsed house after an air-raid in Cairo, where, for days afterward, survivors can be heard wailing to be released, though no one will do anything about it, or of a miserable polar bear in the sweltering Cairo zoo, with which Harriet tries to bond “through the medium of her intense pity.” She tells the bear, “’If I could do anything for you, I would do it with my whole heart. But the world is against us. All I can do, is go away.’”

Harriet’s rather despairing conclusion isn’t quite the book’s. People do care for each other, though it almost always ends badly (they get blown up, they take another lover, they get sick and die). (Maybe the only exceptions are a pair of lesbian ambulance drivers–I wanted a whole book about them–though it’s unclear whether their relationship can survive the war.) Nor is it clear that going away is as practicable a solution as Harriet here seems to think. After all, she is returned to Guy, and, in a way to life, having been presumed dead. Fittingly, this reunion is more moving to the people watching it than to the novel itself. Harriet and Guy are delighted to be together again, but Harriet, at least, now has no illusions that she will ever come first with her husband. Her tart observation that marriage is “knowing too much about each other” is fitting for novels in which the most profound togetherness comes only through loss.

I read these books alongside Scott of the blog seraillon. Please read his excellent essay.

“Hey, let me in!” Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina

A lot happens in Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina. A woman named Sabrina disappears; her distraught boyfriend, Teddy, goes to stay with his best friend from high school, Calvin, who now works with computers for the military; the woman’s sister, Sandra, struggles with her grief; a cat goes missing. But we rarely see these events directly. We see instead their after-effects, which, given the extremity of the events (the most drastic of which I am eliding here so that it stays a surprise), are traumatizing. Most often, those responses take the form of an almost wordless sinking into the anesthetizing commonplaces of middle American life. Characters sit in silence—whether they’re alone or not—watching tv, playing video games, wasting time online.

Here are some examples of what I mean:

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The style of Sabrina is at odds with Calvin’s young daughter’s favourite book. (She’s in Florida with her mother as the couple experiments with a trial separation, but she’s left a lot of toys behind in the bedroom Teddy uses.) Its pages overflowing with hectic, garish drawings, the children’s book is nothing like the one we’re reading. After all, it has a key: each page lists the names of the items young readers are meant to find in its pictures. Perhaps that promise of fixed meaning is why Teddy is so drawn to it.

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Sabrina, by contrast, feels empty. It would be easy to turn this observation into judgment, to say something like: Sabrina is about a hopeless, denuded world, “the indigenous American berserk” as a form of numbing. Or: its characters are lost, helpless, incapable of self-reflection.

But talking about the book this way—as I find myself inclined to do—is wrong. I suspect most interpretations of the book will take the form of sociological diagnoses (what is wrong with America?). Sabrina connives with this way of thinking, because of the apparent affectlessness of its presentation, and its lack of interest in interiority or psychology. (In this sense, its totemic object is the psychological evaluation form Calvin and his co-workers are required to fill out at the beginning of each shift: What is your stress level, on a scale of one to five? How many units of alcohol did you consume last night? And at the bottom, three questions about whether you want to talk to anyone about anything, questions it is clear the answer to which should always be no.) But if Sabrina leads us to read in certain ways, that isn’t because it necessarily agrees with those ways, but because it wants us to ask why we read that way.

Every text is about interpretation in some way, but Sabrina foregrounds interpretation more than most. Which might seem funny because its characters say and do so little. (What’s to interpret, you might ask.) But the emptiness I mentioned earlier has an unexpected effect. Not that we need to ignore or undo it by unduly filling it but that we have to slow down, look closely, think about this only apparent blankness. Drnaso’s emptiness is a spur to thinking, not a convenient way to shut thinking down (as would be the case if we were to dismiss these people, this world). I’m reminded of Caché, Michael Haneke’s film about surveillance, and the way it makes viewers into paranoid readers, alert to the possibility that every quotidian scene could be sinister, every seemingly empty or boring frame of surveillance video could reveal significant horror. Not that Sabrina incites paranoia, but, like Caché, it turns the very way we look at (and therefore consume) it into the thing we most need to pay attention to, instead of, as we do too often, ignoring it as simply a neutral vehicle for receiving its themes.

On Twitter, Tony from Messenger’s Booker said he was uncertain about the book. He noted how hard it was to tell characters from one another, especially early on, and I certainly agree. In fact, at first, I often wasn’t sure if many of the characters were men or women. This uncertainty bothered me. But why? What was I doing in wanting distinctions when the book apparently didn’t? For whatever reason, I found this uncertainty more of a barrier than the book’s complete lack of exposition. You only find out important information—who characters are, how they know each other, where they live, what’s happened to them—retrospectively, or sometimes not at all. And the only suspenseful sequence—a lovely bit in which Teddy finally leaves his Calvin’s house in search of that missing cat; wandering the empty suburban roads he’s eventually given a lift by a guy in a truck—resolves benignly: we expect Truck Guy to take Teddy out to some deserted stretch of highway and murder him, but, nope, he just drives him right to the Humane Society. No cat there, though.

Drasno’s way of organizing his pages is similarly unsettling. He alternates between smaller, regular shaped panels and larger ones that are two or sometimes more rows high. When that happens, do we read the top row, then the second row, and finally the big panel? Or do we read the big panel in between the first and second rows? It’s not always easy to tell.

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That I took these narrative and visual ellipses and involutions in stride but was bothered that I couldn’t distinguish characters surely says something about me as a reader: I have plenty of experience with narrative experimentation, after all, but my resistance to corporeal uncertainty apparently runs deeper. Yet in the end neither of these modes of uncertainties matters much in themselves. They are just two possible examples of something much more important: the book’s ability to disquiet readers.

But more than unsettled or disquieted, Sabrina made me very, very sad. Even the final pages, which (assuming they aren’t a fantasy—always a possibility) suggest something like fulfillment for one of the characters, didn’t change my mood. At first, I responded to this sadness by explaining it away. I don’t need to be so sad, I said to myself, because life isn’t as hopeless as this book suggests. Most people, I insisted, aren’t quite this unable to communicate, aren’t quite this isolated, aren’t quite this close to the brink of absolute desperation. (Most people aren’t quite this traumatized, either, we might also like to think.) But I realized that this was a lousy response. A better way was to be true to my feelings. The most accurate response to contemporary reality, the philosopher Theodor Adorno once wrote, is to acknowledge all the anxiety, all the sadness, our culture legitimately incites.

Besides, exaggerated or not, the book speaks truth. I felt this most strongly in its depiction of the relationship between anonymity and communication. Connection is routinely sterile, oblique, and failed; instead we are offered the echo-chamber of talk radio, the violence of online forums, the broken sentences of people under duress. When Sabrina’s fate is revealed, Calvin and Teddy are faced with virulent, cruel, hateful responses that I might have found unbelievable were I not on Twitter every other minute.

I wonder what J. G. Ballard would have made of this book. Surely, he would have recognized its landscape of empty spaces: office corridors, housing tracts, rest-stop fast-food joints. But he would have admired, even thrilled to see those anonymous non-spaces put at the center of such a powerful work. Drnaso is more circumspect. He’s not critiquing this homogeneous world, nor the people who live in it. But neither is he championing it as unsung or transformative. Even when Calvin takes a new job, packs up his life, stops on his way out of town to visit Teddy at his own new job, and hits the road (cue more rest stops, more empty restaurants, more generic motels), it’s hard to see these developments as new beginnings.

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On every page, the narrative and visual point of view of Sabrina is strikingly neutral. Perhaps the very form of comics allows this to be so. We can see things that the characters cannot; we can see things from a point of view that can more properly be called omniscient than anything in ordinary fiction. Take Calvin’s cross-country journey. In his hotel he is awoken by someone banging at the door. He stays in bed, but in the following panels we see what he can’t (though presumably he hears at least some of it): a man at first apologizing and then turning belligerent when his apology isn’t rewarded. Then we see the man’s partner calling to him from down the hall. The man—maybe he’s drunk, or just drunk on anger and self-righteousness—has the wrong room, is banging on the wrong door. The woman shuts the door in his face, and we’re left with a panel of the man in an empty corridor, standing to the side of the frame, as so often in this book. “Hey, let me in!” he shouts. No response. Good for the woman, we think. But isn’t she running a risk? Will she be okay? This resistance to the man’s violence feels dangerous in a book where violence comes so often to the surface. What does the book want us to think here? Is it critiquing Calvin for huddling in his room? Or the man for being a shit? Is it valuing the brave woman? Can anything change when people can’t talk to each other? Is talking so great anyway? Couldn’t that just be another ruse for the violent to get their way? It’s hard not to read a scene in which we are grateful that loud BANGs come only from a fist on a door and not a gun to the head as anything other than a critique of America today. But maybe the real lesson of this beautiful and disturbing book is that any diagnosis of contemporary America’s ills is just part of the problem.

 

 

“The Life We Knew Here Is Gone”: Philip Marsden’s The Bronski House

In the years after the fall of communism, Zofia Illinska, an elegant, erudite Polish woman, an émigré who at that point had lived in England for fifty years, returned to the estate she and her mother fled in 1939 when the Soviets and the Germans divided Poland. Zofia was accompanied by an Englishman half her age, the author of this remarkable book; having befriended him when, as a boy he stayed with his family in her hotel in Cornwall, the two stayed in contact ever since. The Bronski House A Return to the Borderlands (1995) is a story about home and exile amid the violence of the 20th century. It is a meditation on the idea of return. And it is a portrait of a sweet and moving friendship that crosses generations, sexes, and cultures.

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Few of the places that mattered in Zofia’s life exist anymore. She was born in 1921 in Polish Wilno, today Vilnius in Lithuania, and grew up at a house called Mantuski, in modern-day Belarus. Her story, like that of so many people in the past century (and in our own), is one of enforced change, driven by the violent dreams of others. The results of those dreams, more often than not, are sickness, death, and misery. As Marsden puts it, describing Minsk in the fall of 1917:

Stooped figures shuffled about, collecting water from puddles. Illness hung over that place like the thunder-clouds. Everyone was ill—ill from dysentery, ill from typhus, ill and widowed from other people’s war, other people’s ideas, other people’s revolutions.

Although the words are Marsden’s, it’s unclear whose sentiments these are. I’ve been speaking of Zofia, but the book is not only or even primarily hers; it’s at least as much the story of her mother, Helena. Helena is the one who experienced Minsk at the end of the First World War; Zofia, undreamed of by her mother, wasn’t yet born. The bulk of the book is based on diaries, letters, and notebooks Helena kept over the years, but for the most part Marsden is telling the story. (We are given excerpts from the diaries, allowing us to see that Helena was a gifted, if somewhat exuberant writer; little surprise that her daughter became a poet.) Marsden hews closely to Helena’s viewpoint—he tells us what she experienced and what she felt—but at times we sense his perspective.

In the Minsk passage, for example, the terrible, indelible image of the stooped figures and the puddles must come from Helena. The simile of illness hanging over the city like thunder-clouds is likely hers as well. (It fits with the language we find in her diaries.) But the final sentence, with its anaphora and its ringing condemnation of the harm done to blameless victims by ideologies and governments, feels like Marsden’s.

Indeed, if Marsden has a philosophy, a take on the material he is describing, this is probably it. There is nothing as damaging as an idea: ideologies are experienced by those who live under them primarily as violence and deprivation. To be sure, the 20th century gave us more than enough evidence to support this idea. I’m reminded of Primo Levi, who, describing Hans Biebow, the Nazi in control of the Lodz ghetto—“a small jackal too cynical to take seriously the demonizing of the race”—concluded that a pragmatist is always preferable to a theorist.

Marsden’s humanism has a lot to recommend it, though it skirts sententiousness. As I read the book—utter catnip to me; I swallowed it in a single day, and loved every minute of it—I wondered a little uneasily what is at stake when we read about vanished worlds, and about the suffering of others. It’s easy to romanticize lost worlds. They have a pathos and a dignity that our own seems to lack. (Here’s hoping someone eventually says that about us—though God only knows what that will mean for the present they are feeling bludgeoned and degraded by.) But we oughtn’t to forget that these lost worlds weren’t just the victims of history. They contained, even perpetrated, suffering too. (Zofia’s parents’ families were landowners on both sides, not tremendously wealthy, but privileged. On her mother’s side, she was an O’Breifne, descended from an Irish Catholic who came to fight for the Czars in the 17th century.) The Bronski House gives us a few indications of that inequality. One such moment is a brief standoff in 1926, when the local peasants refuse to allow the Bronskis’ timber carts to pass through the village, claiming that the wood belongs to them. The situation almost turns violent, before Zofia’s father exerts his landowning privilege and the villagers back down, for the moment anyway. In general, though, the book hews to the landowners’ perspective, which doesn’t so much disdain or disparage the peasantry as ignore them.

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Marsden, however, is too smart a writer not to have thought about these questions. Early on, he describes two photographs of Helena, one a studio portrait from 1919, taken in Warsaw, showing an almost twenty-year-old young woman in “a white high-collared dress,” and the other a candid from 1936, taken on the estate of Mantuski. (Curiously, there are no photos or other images in this book, other than a helpful map on the endpapers. Unlikely that would be true in a book released today. I’m puzzled by the omission; likely Zofia wanted them kept out. Whatever the reason, the absence of images increases the mystery of the lives retold here.)

Marsden wonders why these photos cast such a hold on him:

It was the way this woman, Helena O’Breifne, had crossed the steepest contours of our age; that for me, living in flatter decades, in a quieter corner of Europe, her world represented everything that had been lost, a place of slow villages, muddy livestock and unfenced fields, of time passing with only the backdrop of the seasons, of lives exaggerated—exaggerated in wealth, in poverty, in suffering—lives buffeted by a history no one seemed to control: Helena’s was a bigger world, a crueler world, a world of half-mad nobles living on borrowed time, of noble peasants living outside time, another Europe, an older Europe.

This is beautifully—but also slyly—put: as the sentence amasses its clauses it veers into cliché (the half-mad nobles, the noble peasants), and knowingly so. For as Marsden goes on to admit, the truth is simpler: Helena is beautiful and he has fallen a little in love with her, as so many men will do in this book. (Helena’s lack of interest in men, until she wanders haphazardly into a marriage that to her own surprise brings her much joy, is interesting, and more might have been made of Helena as a desiring (or, often, non-desiring) being, though that would have meant speculating in a way Marsden typically refrains from. This is no psycho-biography.)

Marsden’s love for Helena is of course connected to his love for Zofia. It is refreshing to see how much respect he has for this much older woman. Zofia can occasionally be eccentric—she loves to sail, though she doesn’t know how, and often needs to be rescued—but primarily she is characterized by intelligence, mildness, and remarkable good sense. The trip she and Marsden undertake is quite fraught, especially given what she finds in a newly-independent and terribly impoverished Belarus: Mantuski, her childhood home is gone, burned to ground in the early days of the war; Klepawicze, her husband’s childhood home, has become a communal farm, complete with an alarming Geiger counter that continually tests the air for radiation (Chernobyl happened not long before and not far away); worst of all, the Bronski chapel, containing her father’s grave (Adam died of complications of scarlet fever in 1936), has been ransacked and looted.

But Zofia is never bitter; she never displays rancor to those who chased her family away. (Yes, the past is past, but some of the people she meets were alive at that time, making her forbearance all the more impressive.) After returning to England, Zofia begins raising money to repair and reconsecrate the chapel. Two years later she and Philip return to dedicate it. At the ceremony, Zofia makes a speech extolling her father’s love of the land he spent working and fighting for. Then she adds:

‘But there is one thing you must understand. For more than half a century now, no Bronski has lived here. Once this was our home, but not any more. The family is scattered around the world and the life we knew here is gone. The restoration of the chapel is not for us; it is not for my family, but for you, for all of you—Belorussian and Pole, Orthodox and Catholic. You must look after it as your own home. You must use it. Come here and pray whenever you want, whenever you can—even if there is no priest to officiate; you must say the rosary and in the spring cut back the forest around the building.

‘And be warned,’ she smiled, ‘that if the chapel again falls into disrepair, it will be my ghost that comes back to haunt you.’

It’s a generous gesture, a superb acknowledgement of the inevitability of change and all that is lost. It doesn’t dig up old grudges or wounds. Yet it also ends with a sting—a gentle one, but a sting nonetheless. The past never does fully go away; it always threatens to haunt us.

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Before I end, a few scattered observations:

Marsden makes himself scarce in the book, and it’s all the better for his restraint. He is a translator, a Sherpa, sometimes a dogsbody; he is not the main attraction. There’s a lovely scene in which he and Zofia visit an old woman, Pani Wala Dobralowicz, Zofia and her mother’s former dressmaker, who lives with her chickens in a small cabin near the place where the great house once stood. The three have lunch—there are plates of potatoes and kielbasa and herring, and a bottle of vodka. Afterwards, the three sleep off the lunch “in the close heat of the afternoon—the two widows on beds behind a screen, me on an old sofa next to the stove.” Later he “hears the two women talking behind their screen long into the night.” A sweet moment, from which we, like Marsden, are quite properly barred. Their conversation is private.

So sweetness and gentleness, yes, but that isn’t the whole tone of the book. I’m not sure I’ve made it clear how dramatic, even exciting it is. The family’s escape from Poland at the beginning of the war, across the border into Lithuania and eventually to England, is the stuff of a spy novel. And the book is shrewd enough to admit that traumatic upheaval can be the making of a person. Here is Marsden’s description of Helena’s escape eastwards to Minsk and eventually Saint Petersburg with her mother and their servants and livestock during the First World War:

The forest banished all thoughts of war. Helena felt happy, exhilarated. Each day was different. Her mother withdrew the barbed constraints that normally surrounded her. She relaxed; the progress of the convoy imposed its own loose authority and, in years to come, Helena looked back on those weeks in the forest, seeing the horses’ twitching ears, the arc of the wooden hames, hearing the creak of carts, and knew that this was the closest she ever came to any sort of freedom.

It’s a melancholy conclusion (which is belied by the contentment she finds later in life at Mantuski—though of course contentment isn’t the same as freedom), which captures just how confined life could be for a gifted young woman in that time and place.

I noted earlier that Marsden helps us consider the risks of romanticizing the past. His point well taken, but I am a sucker for this particular past, and The Bronski House is filled with swoony period details, like this one that seems super Slavic and wintry and almost nineteenth century novelistic: in defiance of everything that has just happened, Helena’s aunt holds a ball on a December evening in Wilno at the end of the war. There are no horses in the city; they have all died in the war. So there are no sledges, no carriages; the guests arrive on foot. Marsden gives us this grace note: “In the portico of Aunt Marynia’s home, a great puddle spread out around the rows of felt boots.” (It’s the kind of detail you’d find in a Penelope Fitzgerald novel. No accident that hers is the only blurb on my edition.)

One last thing—and quite a different note: I found it extraordinary to read a book about this time & place that has almost nothing to say about Jews. (They are referred to once or twice, but only in passing, it’s really minimal.) I’m not sure how I feel about this. On one hand, it’s a relief to have a break from those particular terrors, especially given my academic work on the Holocaust. On the other hand, it feels like a huge effacement. Notice that Zofia doesn’t mention Jews in her speech at the chapel. Even she wanted to, she couldn’t. Not because they couldn’t pray there, but because there aren’t any of them around to address. Even in a story filled with loss, then, there are even further layers of despair, even more ghosts who don’t get their due. In the end, I prefer to think of this as a sign of the book’s modesty on the part of the book (Jews simply didn’t factor much into Zofia’s daily life—but could this be true?—and of course the worst atrocities against Jews happened after she and her family fled) rather than a sign of its values.

Too bad The Bronski House is out of print. Some enterprising publisher should reissue it. It would pair terrifically well with the NYRB Classics edition of Eleanor Perenyi’s More Was Lost (hint, hint). I’ll even volunteer to write the introduction. In the meantime, search your library or AbeBooks. This one’s a keeper.