“Wonderful, Cheerful”: Marie Darrieussecq’s Life of Paula Modersohn-Becker

Now this is the kind of thing I like. The French novelist Marie Darrieussecq has written a wonderful short book, an essay really, on the early 20th-century painter Paula Modersohn-Becker. It’s not a volume of art criticism. It’s not a biography. (In principle, I should love biographies. I love the bits and pieces of people’s lives. But anything that starts with parents and grandparents, or, God forbid, a family tree, ugh I just can’t do it.) You’ll learn a lot about Modersohn-Becker from this book, and about the circle of painters and writers she lived among, including, most famously, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, but you’ll learn it causally, almost offhandedly. Darrieussecq says she is not writing “Paula M. Becker’s life as she lived it, but my sense of it a century later. A trace.”

Before discovering Darrieussecq’s trace I knew nothing of Modersohn-Becker, and I can’t even remember how I came across this book, but I’m glad I did because both the artist and this book about her are wonderful. I’m tempted just to fill this post with examples of Modersohn-Becker’s work. Take a look at these:

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A word about names: Darrieussecq calls Modersohn-Becker by her first name. Normally, I can’t stand that kind of thing in biographies, etc. The familiarity feels unearned, presumptuous. Darrieussecq has her reasons, though. She won’t call her Paula Becker, her maiden name. Nor Modersohn-Becker, the name she took after marrying the painter Otto Modersohn. Nor even Becker-Modersohn, as the museum of her work in Bremen has it. As Darrieussecq explains:

Women do not have a surname. They have a first name. Their surname is ephemeral, a temporary loan, an unreliable indicator. They find their bearings elsewhere and this is what determines their affirmation in the world, their “being there,” their creative work, their signature. They invent themselves in a man’s world, by breaking and entering.

I like this passage. It begins conventionally enough, almost doctrinaire. But Darrieussecq isn’t bemoaning women’s victimhood. Women do find their bearings, they affirm themselves in the world. But it’s not easy. And so then comes the passage’s sting, a lovely little image of how this self-invention happens in a patriarchal world: women break and enter. Not to steal but to make a place for themselves, a task that is creative (they “invent”). If they won’t be invited they will enter however they can.

So I’ll follow Darrieussecq’s lead and call her Paula. Does Paula break into a man’s world? I’m not actually sure she does. But she does something more important: she becomes the person she wants to be. Paula has a marvelous insistence. For example, in May 1900, she writes from Paris, where she has gone to study, to her acquaintances Otto and Hélène Modersohn back at home in the artist colony of Worpswede near Bremen, telling them what she is doing and seeing in Paris. They must both come to visit, she urges. But especially he must come:

Dear Frau Modersohn, I know you are not well, what with all these flus and colds this winter, but if you are not up to the trip, do send your husband. Of course, he will say no; he won’t want to leave without you, but be firm, don’t give in to him. A week will suffice. He will return to you full of vivid impressions.

Modersohn says he cannot come. Then he sends a telegram: he is coming. He arrives on June 10th. Four days later, he returns in haste to Worpswede. Hélène is dead. Paula returns too and gives up Paris. The next year she and Otto marry.

But it’s unclear that Paula set out to pursue Otto. And as it turns out, their marriage is not really a success. Otto’s painting is not as good as Paula’s. He is not as imaginative and sensitive as his friend, Rilke. Otto admires his wife’s painting, but Darrieussecq thinks he misunderstands it, praising it as naïve and simple when it is neither. In general Darrieussecq presents Otto as a problem for Paula, not so much an oppressive patriarch but rather something like an oaf who has the power of the patriarchy behind him. (Though, to be fair, he will take care of the two small girls he has been left by each wife; he will tend Paula’s legacy assiduously.) Eventually Paula leaves him. Later they reconcile, briefly. After years of not wanting a child she gets pregnant, probably by her husband. The birth is difficult, and Paula is sentenced to bed rest. When she gets up, eighteen days later, she immediately collapses and “dies of an embolism, from lying down too long. As she collapses, she says ‘Schade.’ Her last word. ‘A pity.’” It is November 1907. Paula is 31 years old.

Always, throughout this short life, Paula is insistent. She is driven to create. She writes to her mother that something in her cries for air, and won’t be silenced. Her soul “hungers for something profound,” she tells her husband. And she satisfies that hunger. She works hard, painting all day, almost every day. Striking, beautiful paintings.

Being Here is beautiful too, but it’s not especially elegant. The prose doesn’t feel as freighted, as poetic, as portentous as some of the great essayists I love even though that style can grate (John Berger, or Annie Dillard, say). I don’t mean that Darrieussecq is a bad writer. Far from it. But elegance isn’t what she’s after. Maybe that’s one reason she is so drawn to Paula, whose figures (especially their hands) are often misshapen or bent.

Darrieussecq has a way with pithy, paradoxical observations (she is French, after all): “There is no sounder basis for a relationship than misunderstanding.” She also writes sentences that don’t seem fancy or clever but that strike a chord: “She must love her mother to write her such wonderful, cheerful letters”; “A sitting takes a long time. ‘My bum has gone blind,’ one of her models, an old man, told her.”

The book is episodic, filled with fragments. About a holiday she takes in the summer of 1904 with Otto and some friends in a nearby village, Darrieussecq offers “two highlights”: “Paula’s bed collapses; Paula and Heinrich Vogeler have a violent argument. That’s all I know about it.” The abruptness of the prose and the jaggedness of the short sections the book is divided into create the sense of the past as foreign and unknowable.I found myself trusting Darrieussecq all the more because of the fragmentary and partial nature of her representation.

Despite having been surrounded by other artists, indeed of having spent most of her life in an artist colony, Paula is in Darrieussecq’s portrait fundamentally solitary. Darrieussecq describes her as “a woman who paints, alone, whose paintings are not seen.”

Those paintings aren’t seen in this book, at least not literally. (In all the most important ways, Darrieussecq absolutely sees her, and helps us to see her too.) It’s strange that the book contains no reproductions, a fact probably explained by cost and copyright and similar practical concerns. But I think it’s also a choice on Darrieussecq’s part. Late in the book she writes:

The paintings exist. They are sufficient unto themselves. She does not say much about them. She rarely speaks about her art. … And anyway: how do you write paintings? You can describe their features, their shapes, their contrasting colours. You can express an opinion, criticize them. You can provide an historical perspective and put them into context. But write them? There is a huge gap between the words and the images. Dreams and projections arise from the faultline.

(Typical Darrieussecq: she complicates her own claim in that last sentence. The gap between painting and writing isn’t just an absence. It describes possibility as much impossibility.)

Darrieussecq doesn’t say much about the features, shapes, or contrasting colours of the paintings. She gives us some context, but no grand historical overview. Instead as I’ve tried to show she gives us bits of Paula’s daily life.

But Darrieussecq does have something like an argument to make, especially when it comes to telling us how Paula paints the female body:

In Paula’s work there are real women. I want to say women who are naked at long last: stripped of the masculine gaze. Women who are not posing in front of a man, who are not seen through the lens of men’s desire, frustration, possessiveness, domination, aggravation.

These women aren’t coquettish or exotic or provocative or any of the other qualities that Darrieussecq, in a bravura passage, associates with one after another of the great male painters of the European tradition.

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And her paintings don’t just feature real women: they show real babies, too. Darrieussecq is especially struck by a painting of a woman breastfeeding. It is “not sentimental, or pious, or erotic: another sort of sensuality. Boundless. Another sort of power.” Seeing this painting makes Darrieussecq wonder why she had never heard of Paula Modersohn-Becker before. And in that moment comes the impetus for the book: “I had to write the life of this artist and help to make her work known.”

Paula doesn’t just paint other women. She paints herself too. The book’s cover reproduces one of the now famous self-portraits painted while she was pregnant. Thinking about Paula’s paintings of her pregnant body brings Darrieussecq to one of the few times she inserts herself and her own experience into the text. (I actually don’t mind that sort of thing, but books in which the writing “I” is at least as much a part of the work as whatever thing or place or artwork it’s observing have become so commonplace that Darrieussecq’s reticence is striking.) After reflecting on facticity of Paula’s pregnant self-portraits (they show the reality of what they show; they are not allegorical, like, for example, a contemporary painting by Klimt’s called “Hope”), Darrieussecq explains that the only photograph of her in her home is a portrait taken when she was six months pregnant:

At the time, I often offered it to journalists when they asked me for an author photo. It was rejected every time. The answer was always the same: ‘We’d like a normal photo.’

For Paula, pregnancy, like everything else that met her gaze, whether birch trees or chickens or old men, was normal. Ordinary not in the sense of unimportant but rather in the sense of being worthy of being recognized.

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When we think of modernist artists preoccupied by thing-ness or objectivity (and then with metaphorical or symbolist rejections of objectivity) we might think of Rilke. Another appealing thing about this book is that Rilke doesn’t steal the show. (Hard to avoid—he was pretty much a show-stealer, as best I can tell.) He is important—a phrase from The Duino Elegies, “Being here is wondrous,” gives Darrieussecq her title—but he’s not the star. Darrieussecq likes him more than Otto. I think she’s glad, impressed almost, that he and Paula never became romantically or sexually entangled. They were kindred spirits: the best artists of their circle; they respected each other. There was something like equality between them. Indeed, if anything Paula was the one person who could make him do things for her. (There’s a nice bit about some furniture left over from her Paris studio that she makes the eminently impractical Rilke dispose of. The whole business really flummoxes him.) But in the end Rilke fails Paula, saying of her to an interviewer in 1924: “The last time I saw Paula Modersohn was in Paris in 1906. I didn’t know her work very well at the time, or afterwards, and I still don’t know it.”

In the end, though, Rilke’s self-serving and disappointing dismissal of Paula doesn’t matter. Paula’s life was too short, but it was a good life. When Darrieussecq falls in love with Paula’s work she is struck by the feeling that she misses Paula. She regrets not only not having known her work before, but, more dramatically, not having been able to know her. The lovely thing about Being Here is the way it overcomes that gap, repairs that impossibility. It makes us feel Paula’s being; it allows us to be with her. It’s a happy book, it made me happy anyway. And can’t we all use more happiness these days?

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Louise Penny’s Crime Fantasies

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Louise Penny is the best bad writer I know.

A couple of months ago, I read Glass Houses, the most recent installment of the Inspector Gamache mysteries. It’s by no means the best in the series but it helped me think about what’s particular to Penny’s work.

If you have any interest in crime fiction, you probably know about Louise Penny. (If you haven’t read her and you think you might, beware that there are a few, though not too many, spoilers in what follows.) She is famous for her lead detective, Armand Gamache: impossibly decent, intellectual, large-spirited, and psychologically well adjusted. (He isn’t tormented or self-destructive or alcoholic or divorced, which makes him a welcome change from many fictional detectives.) But for me, anyway, more appealing than her protagonist is her setting, specifically her enticing depiction of the Eastern Townships between Montreal and the US border, especially her fictional village of Three Pines. When I say fictional, I don’t just mean that Penny’s made Three Pines up. I mean that even in the world of the novels it doesn’t really exist—it’s not on any maps, no one’s ever heard of it, people only stumble upon it (and once they do they never want to leave), it’s out of cell, GPS, and internet range. In short, it’s more a fantasy than an actual place.

Specifically, it’s a fantasy about the healing power of community. Those who come to Three Pines are usually hurting, and the place nurses them back to health. It’s a place where people work only at the things they love, a place where they take walks, eat plenty of delicious food, drink plenty of delicious drinks, and somehow seem to have all the money they need.

But Penny has the good sense to emphasize the sting hidden in every paradise. For one thing, the murder rate is alarmingly high (hazard of any small-town crime setting: think Murder, She Wrote’s Cabot Cove). More interestingly, the healing or peace promised by Three Pines doesn’t come easily, maybe doesn’t come at all. People have their demons, most of which are convincingly ordinary (insecurity, jealousy, anxiety). Penny is excellent at showing how such seemingly minor problems can lead to terrible outcomes.

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I’ve been following Penny from the beginning, thanks to my wife, who picked up her first novel, Still Life, from the (now apparently shuttered) bookstore in the Halifax airport over ten years ago, back when Penny only had a UK publisher. I’ve always been terribly shallow when it comes to book covers, and I didn’t think the book could be any good because it was so ugly. I’d have never picked it up on my own. (I’ve also never been much for Canadian crime fiction—have at me in the comments, tell me what’s good.) Fortunately, my wife is much more broad-minded than I am. She prodded me to read it, and I liked it quite a bit. In general, the first few novels were quite good. And I especially liked the idea that Penny was writing a quartet—one book for each season. That seemed to be the idea, initially. But then they became a phenomenon, and the series took off.

As the books went on, the things I didn’t like became harder to overlook. I gritted my teeth at the lame banter among the Gamaches and their friends (the gay couple Gabri and Olivier, owners of the village’s B & B and bistro, are particularly egregious examples: they’re supposed to be arch, but they just come across as tragic). I rolled my eyes at Penny’s weakness for puns and long-running jokes (there’s one with a pet duck that says “fuck fuck fuck”—the less said the better). And I even got tired of the luscious descriptions of food and drink, though no one can beat Penny when it comes to describing how lovely it is to escape Canadian weather for a cozy fire and a bowl of warm nuts.

Most of all I was bothered by the prose, which is workmanlike at the best of times. All writers have their tics: one of the Penny’s that’s particularly annoying is her fatal attraction for sentence fragments. (I don’t actually have any of her books to hand, so I can’t quote an example. But they are the kind of sentence fragments that are supposed to add suspense or emphasis, but which just end up being clunky.)

After the seventh book, A Trick of the Light, a particularly uninspired outing, I gave up on the series for several years. But earlier this year I picked up where I left off, largely because I started listening to audio books on my commute, and the library had recordings of the whole series. Listening instead of reading made a huge difference, especially because Ralph Cosham was a brilliant narrator. His Gamache was so compelling: even now, when I’m once again reading the books, I still hear his voice in my head. I suspect he eased over those sentence fragments (smoothing the chopped up pieces into complete sentences). For whatever reason, Penny’s prose bothered me much less in Cosham’s narration. It was a shock to learn that Cosham died suddenly after recording the tenth book, The Long Way Home. The new guy, , Robert Bathurst, had an unenviable task. But even allowing for the fact that the first voice you hear is probably the one you’ll like best, I don’t think Bathurst is a good fit for the series (hectic rather than ruminative, sage-like). After listening to the first of Bathurst’s readings recordings—it didn’t help that it was the preposterous The Nature of the Beast—I went back to paper.

And at this point, I’m so invested in the series that not even Penny’s mediocre prose can stop me. Especially because Penny does some things extremely well. Her books are varied in style: some are classic remote location-fixed set of character mysteries (what I think of as country house murder mysteries a la Poirot (The Beautiful Mystery, a personal favourite), some are spy stories (The Nature of the Beast), some are missing person investigations (The Long Way Home). Some focus on Gamache’s friends; some take him far afield.

With its commitment to the real, crime fiction is good at teaching us about places. And you can learn a fair bit about Quebec history and culture from Penny’s books. Admittedly, some volumes are more successful than others in this regard. Hits include the references to the painter Clarence Gagnon in The Long Way Home or the fictionalized Dionne Quintuplets in How the Light Gets In. Misses include a backstory involving the real-life engineer and ballistic missile developer Gerald Bull in The Nature of the Beast and the references to the Spanish tradition of the cobrador, a debt collector, in the new book, Glass Houses.

 

 

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Like many long-running crime series, the relationships between the main characters have become more important than the crimes. That’s especially true of the one between Gamache and his second-in-command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir. Penny, herself a recovering alcoholic, does a particularly good job with the story of Jean-Guy’s addiction to prescription medication (played out over several volumes and frighteningly dark without ever being melodramatic).

But where Penny is at her best is in presenting epic struggles between good and evil. From the beginning of the series, Penny presents Gamache as struggling against corruption in the Sûreté du Quebec. Initially, this malevolence is a backdrop to the cases Gamache investigates, a kind of whispered possibility of something larger out there. But as the series goes on that battle takes center stage. The canvas of characters gets bigger; we get a better sense of the history that’s led to the current state of affairs. But Penny isn’t a sociological crime writer, the way someone like Jean-Claude Izzo or Leonardo Sciascia were. The more you read her works, the more you see that realism isn’t really her game. (The depiction of the fentanyl crisis in the new book is a case in point—it’s presented as an existential crisis, a canker on the soul of the province rather than a function of specific socio-political forces.) How the Light Gets In is probably the pinnacle of the series so far. It’s genuinely exciting. Suspenseful, yes, but more edge-of-your-seat-will-the-little-band-of-warriors-defeat-the-forces-of-evil than whodunit.

Penny, in other words, is a fantasy writer who happens to write about crime, more Tolkien than Christie. What makes Penny of her moment is the way she applies popular psychology to those epic battles of good versus evil. Penny’s books are full of what some readers might call psychobabble. I actually find Penny quite compelling on the importance of admitting our vulnerability, and devastating in her portrayal of how everyday emotions like insecurity can cause so much hurt to the ones we say we love. The juxtaposition of this language of therapy with a genre (fantasy) that I don’t associate with psychological acuity is weird and often clunky but a large part of what gives Penny her distinctive flavour and, I suspect, her staying power.

Most of the books after How the Light Gets In have detailed the aftermath of Gamache’s victory over the forces that sought to undermine the Sûreté. It’s nice to see Penny taking so long with this task: rot can’t be easily eradicated. I’ve no idea where this will all go. I thought Penny had written herself into a corner already a few times in the series, and she’s always got out of it. So I’ll stick around to see what she does next.

Does anyone know any other crime writers who write in this way? Who are really more like fantasy or science fiction writers? Is this a thing and I’d just never come across it before?

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mihail Sebastian Giveaway

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In the latest issue of Open Letters Monthly I write about the Roman writer Mihail Sebastian, whose rediscovered masterpiece For Two Thousand Years (1934) is available in a brilliant new translation.

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Thanks to the good people at Other Press, I have an extra galley of the book to give away. If you’re interested, leave a comment below; I’ll draw a name at random at 6 p.m. Central Time on Sunday, October 8th (North American addresses only, I’m afraid.)

It’s such a good book–maybe my book of the year; I encourage you to enter!

 

Six Emails about L. P. Hartley’s The Boat

Earlier this summer, based on some conversations we’d had about my post on The Go-Between, my friend Nat and I decided to read another of L. P. Hartley’s novels. We settled on The Boat (1949). Here’s what the publisher says about it on the back of my edition:

Timothy Casson, a bachelor and a writer, is forced to return from his contented life in Venice to an English village.

Taking a house by the river where he can pursue his passion for rowing, he has to do battle with the locals to overcome his isolation and feelings of incompleteness. This most complex of Hartley’s novels examines the multiple layers of Casson’s relationships with servants, local society and friends.

Over a week or so, Nat and I emailed back and forth about the book. Here’s what we had to say. Warning: spoilers ahead (such as they are).

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Mon 8/21 10:50 PM

Nat,

After enjoying The Go-Between so much last year I was really excited to read more of Hartley’s work. And I was even more excited to read him along with you. But I confess I wouldn’t have finished this book if I’d been reading it on my own. It’s long. Really long. 450 pp in now-I-am-getting-old-and-irritated-with-small-print long. I’m trying to be charitable to the book, but I can’t immediately see why it has to be so long, other than that maybe the end is that much more exciting because we’ve had such a slow build up. The narrative dam bursts, like the river in spate that Timothy finally rides (to disastrous results). But honestly I think I’m being kind here. A lot of this book is just boring.

What I want to know is: how savvy is Hartley about this? It’s pretty clear that he’s set up his protagonist to be dull, a bit muddled, though basically decent. So is the novel’s dullness strategic? Does he want to tell us something about it? I guess the thing that interests me most about the book is that it’s written in 1949 and set in 1940-41 and hardly mentions the war at all. The war is happening, of course (even if at first it’s the “Phony War”) but way off-stage. This seems like a deliberate and almost wilfully anachronistic choice. (After all, this is a time when writers like Green and Bowen and Panter-Downes are writing novels that try to make sense of the war and its aftermath.)

Hartley in fact alludes to his possibly unusual subject matter late in the book (p 397 in my edition), when he ruminates on the war within the war–his war with the local grandees who have blocked the river from “the people” (or, at least, him), which his friends Tyro and Esther are sure to disparage in comparison to the actual war. Where do you think the book’s sympathies are here? Is Timothy right to insist on the importance of his fight? Is it a fight the book believes in? Does Timothy actually believe in it? Or is he just doing it in a last-ditch effort to hold Vera’s attention? In a similar vein, how do you read Timothy’s sleep at the end? A well-deserved rest after many trials and slights? Or a sign of his quiescence/cluelessness?

I think the book likes Timothy–his lack of certainty is better than Magda and definitely Tyro’s blunt convictions (see p 445). He’s a bit of an E. M. Forster muddled liberal type, which I’m not sure the book disapproves of. And often I don’t either. But I’m a bit put off by him too. He doesn’t have the saving qualities of innocence of Leo in The Go-Between.

On another note, is it crazy to think of The Boat as a version of The Mill on the Floss? Actually, I think it is crazy. But the whole boat/flood thing made me wonder. It’s only been a few years since I read MF but I’m embarrassingly hazy on details. Do you know it?

Ok, going to stop now but will flag two things I want to think more about: children, and third person instead of first.

Let me know what you think about what I’ve had to say.

d

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Wed 8/23 10:42 AM

Dorian,

I have to agree that this book was a bit of a grind; I was very enthusiastic about your suggestion to read a Hartley novel together, and I thought The Boat sounded like the most interesting option. Coming chronologically between the novels I knew (after the Eustace and Hilda trilogy of the earlier ’40s and before The Go-Between and The Hireling in the ’50s), I was intrigued to see where this novel fit. But it really wasn’t what I was expecting; some Hartley trademarks are there, such as his incisive psychological portraits of character, his exploration of class distinctions, and his occasionally epigrammatic wit (my favourite: “to do a thing badly is an affirmation of independence, whereas to do it well is to confess oneself a slave to other people’s standards”) (181). But there is also a heavy dose of politics, philosophizing, and digressing into the details of English country life. And you’re right; the book is too long by far. Never have I more strongly willed a fictional character to do something than I willed Timothy to get in that boat, which takes him a full 3/4 of the book to do (I imagine that Hartley’s alternative titles for the novel must have been Waiting for the Boat and Much Ado about Boating). The bottom line is that if we do this again (and I hope we do!), I’m letting you choose the book.

This may be just another way of phrasing some of your questions, but I wonder what you make of the central symbol of the boat itself? It’s clear that Timothy has an almost quasi-religious reverence for it, and that it represents freedom and peace for him, but does it mean the same thing to us? Or is Hartley ironically presenting Timothy’s love for boating as a foolish obsession, no different from the fishermen who object to his boat? At the end, Tyro interprets Timothy’s desire as escapism and a death wish; how much credence do we give to that opinion?

I’m tempted to play the Hartley apologist here a little bit; despite many things that I would objectively call flaws in the book (an excessive reliance on letter writing, a significant lack of action, as the main antagonists in the novel hardly ever meet, and when there is action, it is often highly melodramatic and implausible), I still found it strangely compelling. Maybe it’s just what I want to believe, but I do tend to think that Hartley is a bit more savvy than this novel appears to be. He mixes his dull protagonist with characters who belong in a range of different genres; there are the stereotypical servants who actually run the house, the upright but a bit clueless village policeman, and the femme fatale, Vera Cross, who is self-reflexively positioned in this role through the bad noir fiction that Edgell Purbright convinces Timothy to read. I feel like we are supposed to hope that Timothy can find his place in his adoptive village amongst this assortment of figures, but that Hartley is perhaps suggesting the generic and political confusion of a heteroglot England. His hero can’t find a place in this world because it doesn’t quite make sense in itself.

I’m not sure that this playing with genres ever fully works, though; take, for example, the melodramatic scene in which Timothy accidentally stumbles across the secret of Desiree Lampard’s birth and has to decide whether to use this information to prevent her upcoming wedding. Here, Timothy plays a highly conventional role, and one rather expects Hartley to return to this with some kind of twist, but instead, these characters simply fade from view.

Similarly, it seems as if the reader is supposed to be intrigued (and titillated?) by the fact that Vera Cross seems to take a romantic interest in Timothy (who is twice her age) but the explanation of this as being politically motivated is both underwhelming and implausible (she spends over a year cultivating this relationship just to try to get him to do something that would annoy the village elites?). On another note, what is with impossibly idealized women being called Miss Cross? Thinking of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, of course. On that note, I wonder what you think of Hartley’s treatment of his female characters in general? There is the painfully obvious angel/temptress opposition at work between Mrs. Purbright and Miss Cross, but is Hartley challenging this with his self-aware treatment of these types?

Your question about the war really gets at what I thought was most interesting about the book, but again, not quite interesting in a thoroughly satisfying way. I don’t know nearly enough about post-war British fiction to compare it to the other authors you mention, but on a personal level, having had a grandfather in the RAF and a grandmother who was evacuated from London during the blitz, I had always had a very homogenous idea of Britain being a united nation during the war. Hartley provides a vision of an England still very much divided along class lines, with highly politicized factions at work. It certainly wasn’t what I expected (a communist plot in little Upton?) although maybe my lack of familiarity with the period is showing here. Are there other books you can think of that deal with the role of communism/political dissent in England at this time?

As for the war itself, I thought myself pretty clever for tracing the outlines of an allegorical relationship between the larger events of the war referred to throughout the novel, and Timothy’s personal struggle. But then, Hartley has Timothy (on page 361) pretty much declare the allegorical significance of his actions. So much for being subtle. Again, I’m not sure how well the allegory holds together, but at the very least, we see Timothy moving from a Chamberlain-like stance of appeasement in which he believes that if he plays the game and ingratiates himself with the ruling elite, he will be allowed to use his boat, towards a more militaristic Churchill-like position in which he openly defies them and gives a revolutionary speech to the gathered masses. On the one hand, then, Timothy is England, learning that he can only get the freedom he desires if he stands up for himself. On the other hand, though, there are many ways in which he does not embody Englishness in this context; he is the outsider, invading the space of the landed elites (all ex-military officers) and the driving force behind his boat trip is Vera, who is using Timothy to antagonize these elites.

One can’t help but feel that Hartley is expressing sympathy for Timothy’s revolutionary action (after so much failure, taking the boat out on the water and giving a rousing speech seem like great successes) but if that’s the case, what do we make of the fact that he is, in the end, seduced by the elites and eventually flees? His near-death experience seems to change his attitude towards life in general, but is it really a change for the better, or is he simply allowing himself to be deceived by their promises yet again?

The elites are depicted as dinosaurs who need to be replaced, but Timothy doesn’t want to do this; he just wants to be able to use his boat. I agree that the novel likes Timothy, but the ending seems like yet another in a series of anti-climaxes; he leaves town and falls asleep, flanked by his two very different friends. Is this an image of a new England in which the old order (Esther) and a new modern cynicism (Tyro) unite to save Timothy, the sort of English everyman? That might be the most positive reading I can muster. On the other hand, Timothy is still blaming himself for what has happened to Vera and Mrs. Purbright when he conveniently falls asleep; is this another form of escapism?

I hadn’t thought about the connections to The Mill on the Floss, but it could certainly be said that Maggie Tulliver and Timothy Casson are both figures who repress their strong desires out of consideration for others, and both endure a flood that overpowers the arbitrary limitations of social convention with the force of nature (and, perhaps, a Freudian return of the repressed). I’m not sure how far I would go with the parallel, though, given the gender differences that inform this repression (Maggie is a young girl, relatively powerless with respect to Victorian gender norms, while Timothy is an old man in a relatively privileged position who often creates his own obstacles). Also, the flood in The Mill on the Floss has a redemptive quality to it, which is perhaps more ambiguous in The Boat; does the near-death experience really change anything for Timothy?

Your final questions put me in mind of what I really like about Hartley. For one thing, he is very good at depicting the minds of children. This is what makes The Go-Between and The Shrimp and the Anemone so fantastic. We get glimpses of that in The Boat, with the two evacuee boys who are interestingly doubled at the end by the two boys who join Timothy in the boat, but these figures are never really developed very far. The one moment that stands out for me is when Billy drops his teacup in the drawing room, which instead of being a disaster, causes all the social restraints in the room to be dropped; children are in this sense aligned with a natural rather than social way of life. In this respect, we might also want to talk about Felix the dog, who seems to play a similar role?

Finally, and most tentatively, what I really like about Hartley is his ability to explore the relationship between self and other, how the self can find a place in a world that it necessarily experiences as foreign and other. It seems to me that this almost requires the use of third person, an “other” outside the self-other relationship who is able to witness, describe and analyze it. In The Go-Between, first person works because the narrator is already “other” to himself through the passage of time. I don’t think anything else I’ve read by Hartley has used first person. But that’s just a theory; feel free to explode it.

Sorry, that was long, but you asked so many very good questions. I guess the big question that I’m left with is whether Hartley is sympathizing with the revolutionary politics that is implicit (and often explicit) within the narrative trajectory of the novel, or whether he, like Timothy, would prefer to hold an aesthetic view of the world and simply leave the politics behind?

Nat

Homer-Rowing_Home

Sat 8/26 4:40 PM

Nat,

Great question: does Hartley sympathize with the revolutionary politics referred to both implicitly and explicitly in the novel?

I would have to say, No. There’s just too much bathos for me at least to think he wants us to take it seriously. After all, isn’t Vera a bad character? She gets Mrs. Purbright killed. She leads Timothy on, and is really quite cruel to him. We’re clearly supposed to dislike her. So how can we take her crusade seriously? And what the hell kind of crusade is it anyway? Opening up the river to boating just seems extraordinary small potatoes–not even worthy as a symbol. Now, I suppose a lot does depend on whether you think she did indeed seduce Timothy only to insist he imagined it, or whether he has in fact imagined it. Where are you on that? I think it’s the former. But if it is the latter, then we would have to see Vera in at least a somewhat different light. It would have the benefit of making Timothy even more ambivalent–pathetic at best, sinister at worst. I guess looking back on it I’m really confused about Vera’s motives. She’s like a super-low-rent Mephistopheles: just doing something bad/unpleasant (not sure it quite rises to evil) just because she can.

I like what you’re saying about the third person (or a retrospective first person) as a requirement for the self-other investigation you prize in Hartley. But in that case, why attach the third person so closely to a single character? Wouldn’t a more roving, omniscient-minded narrative voice be able to do that work more fully? If we got insider other people’s heads, we might get a better overview of English society–in other words, the political element of the novel would be strengthened, or at least that’s the way I see it.

It’s a great question as to whether there are other books about the role of communist/political dissent in the period. There must be but I can’t think of anything. Bowen’s Heat of the Day (a masterpiece) is certainly about dissent–but of a fascist rather than communist sort. Bits of Lessing’s The Golden Notebook are critical of English communism, but that’s in reference to the 50s–the debates over Stalinism etc. Maybe others can help us out here. But I think we are agreed that the most interesting thing about the book is the way it addresses the class ambivalences of war-time England (thereby contesting the “we’re all in it together” myth).

You’ve helped me see that The Mill on the Floss comparison isn’t very fruitful. Eliot is a lot more progressive than Hartley. And she cares about women, which, based on the two novels I’ve read, I can’t say Hartley does. At least the women in The Go-Between have the fascination of monstrousness about them. Vera never quite rises to that level.

I’m starting to think of the book as more and more conservative. Perhaps Hartley belongs with other English writers who despaired of what they saw as the spiritual impoverishment of postwar life (often because the privileges of their own classes were being taxed away): Evelyn Waugh, late Henry Green (certainly true in his letters and such; in his early work, in particular, he is much more nuanced about such matters). I should read some more Hartley to find out, but for the time being I need to take a bit of a break from him…

Totally agree with your points about the children–I wanted more of both sets of them. And the dog’s maybe the best character in the book. Who was it said never to act with children and animals? Timothy should have known better…

What other things do we need to talk about?

d

cezanne_barque_baigneurs

Mon 8/29 12:39 PM

Dorian,

Yes, I absolutely agree that we are supposed to dislike Vera and that the revelation of her motives is just about the weakest part of the book. I like your characterization of her as a “super low-rent Mephistopheles” but even more than that the disparity between her rather minimal objective and the amount of effort she puts into achieving it (cultivating a relationship with Timothy, whom she is revealed not to like very much, over the course of something like two years) just seems laughably implausible. As for whether Timothy has imagined his seduction by Vera, it’s a tempting theory, but Hartley doesn’t really seem to have done anything to get us to doubt Timothy’s reliability (which would have actually made things a lot more interesting, I think). In fact, when I was about 2/3 of the way through the book, and it didn’t seem to me that Hartley could possibly end things in a satisfactory way, I actually found myself hoping that Vera would turn out not to exist at all, but be some kind of psychological projection of Timothy’s. No such luck, but even that would have made more sense than what we got.

But if we don’t like Vera, surely we don’t much like the representatives of the established order either? Aren’t we hugely disappointed at the end when Timothy goes to Colonel Harbord’s party and is seduced by the beauty of his lawn? Would it be possible to make the case that Hartley is advocating for some kind of liberal “middle way” between the uptight old order and the flaky young revolutionaries? Timothy fails to find such a way, being pulled back and forth between the two camps, but perhaps this is what Hartley wants his readers to strive for? Interesting that you conclude that he is being ultimately conservative, and I can certainly see that argument, but is it simply for the lack of any reasonable alternative? Is he, to invoke the Arnoldian cliché, caught “between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born”?

Good point about Hartley’s narrative being so chained to Timothy’s consciousness that it’s not all that different from a first-person narrative. The exception that proves the rule is that the sequence of chapters that is probably the most effective in the novel is (I think) the only time where the narrative strays from Timothy’s side for any length of time. Just as we are anxious to learn whether Timothy’s project of taking the boat out is to be accomplished, Chapter 28 takes us to the Rector’s house, where Mrs. Purbright makes the decision to try to warn Timothy about the high water, then Chapter 29 reveals how Vera came to arrive at just the same spot on the riverbank as Mrs. Purbright. This helps to build suspense about what is going to happen to Timothy, and then that chapter ends with uncertainty about what has happened to Vera and Mrs. Purbright, which builds more suspense as we return to Timothy and the boat in the following chapter. Hartley is at his best in this sequence, and the rest of the novel really does suffer from being so confined to Timothy’s point of view. On the other hand, part of Hartley’s point is that Timothy doesn’t really know how the other Uptonians feel about him, and perhaps if the reader did know, it would take away from the incessant anxiety he feels about how is being perceived by others. I suspect the feeling of unease that Timothy feels would be difficult to sustain with a more free-flowing omniscient narrator. (But still, your point about needing other perspectives is spot on.)

And yes, the dog probably is the best character in the book and Hartley’s genius can be seen in how he captures the essence of dogs in one sentence: “He seemed to know at once where he wanted to go and to think it did not matter what happened to his body, provided his head got there.” Also, probably the best comic sequence in the novel is the servants’ efforts to convince Timothy that he needs a dog. After deciding that he needs a companion who can speak a foreign language, Wimbush in his roundabout way tells Timothy, “A dog, now, he speaks what you might almost call a foreign language.” I found it funny, but such sequences also add to the generic inconsistency of the novel; what exactly is it trying to be?

I think we may have just about exhausted the novel, but one last thing I was thinking about was the role of Italy. Timothy comes back to England after years of living in Venice, which establishes his “foreignness” in Upton, but does this code him as somehow suspicious (he seems to prefer many Italian values and customs to English ones) or refreshingly cosmopolitan and worldly? Esther expresses the quintessential Anglo-centric world view in an early letter: “I don’t see how another country can really disagree with England, for England is every country’s other self” but on the whole, it always seems that Timothy would rather be in Italy. Is he an escapist who has been forced by the war to confront his own country? And is the bottom line that he lacks the ability to deal with living in England? And if so, is that more of a reflection on him or on the country itself?

Nat

21943919

Tues 8:29 9:43 PM

Nat,

Was I ever disappointed in Timothy for falling in love with that lawn! The middle-way theory makes so much sense, but what does it mean that the novel can’t seem to imagine it? A similar throwing up of the hands might be at work in the novel’s portrayal of Italy. I’m glad you brought that up, as I was thinking about it too. His love of Italy makes Timothy a bit more worldly, less parochial. (and it’s another way he was reminding me of Forster.) But he’s unwilling to cut Italy too much slack–rightly decrying its turn to fascism. (Does it make a difference, I wonder, that he is the only character with any direct experience of fascism? Unlike his much more political friends.) Mostly Italy seems to function as a lost paradise–it’s like a synonym for the youth and vigour he no longer has. So in the end I don’t know that it much matters that it is Italy, just that it’s a place he felt himself to have been more free in than his current circumstances. Do you think that’s right?

I agree I think we’ve done about all we can for this novel. If anybody is inclined to pick it up after our exchange (which frankly I doubt!) I sure would like to hear what they had to say.

Let’s time we’ll go for something different. Or maybe we should push on with Hartley to see whether The Boat is an aberration.

Thanks for talking about it with me–totally enjoyed it!

xo

d

Wed 8/30 12:49 PM

Dorian,

Yes, I think you’re right about Italy. Not only is it his lost paradise, but it was his job as a writer to send back romanticized portraits of Italy to England. That falls apart with the outbreak of war, and Timothy’s attempts to romanticize England in a similar way also fall apart rather quickly. This also adds to the sense of Timothy as an escapist who lacks the tools (or desire) to deal with his real social situation.

I really enjoyed our conversation as well, and only wish we had both enjoyed the book a bit more. Probably best to give Hartley a break for the time being (although I did get my hands on a copy of Facial Justice) but I do look forward to reading something with you again. Perhaps you should choose next time; your judgment in these things is clearly better than mine!

Best,

Nat

 

“An Irremediable Act”: Agnes Ravatn’s The Bird Tribunal

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Been busy with the beginning of school and a review essay that’s been bedeviling me, but wanted to pop in to say a few words about Agnes Ravatn’s The Bird Tribunal, which I devoured in a couple of sittings over the last few days. This is Ravatn’s first book in English, ably translated by Rosie Hedger. I gather it’s been adapted as a play, which I can absolutely see working, and now a movie’s coming, and that could be quite good too. The Bird Tribunal is one of those books with lots of shortish sections that make it so easy to say, Well, I’ll just read one more. And it’s so damn unsettling that you’ve no choice but to find out what’s going on.

Briefly: Allis Hagtorn is a former academic and TV personality (apparently these things are not mutually exclusive in Norway, though I have my doubts) who’s been disgraced (for reasons that are eventually revealed but not ultimately that interesting) and needs to run away from her old life. She answers an ad to be a live-in companion to a man in an isolated house somewhere in Norway. (Norwegians or better informed readers might be able to locate the setting more precisely: suffice it to say it’s on a fjord.) Her employer is Sigurd Bagge, a man taciturn to the point of pathology, brooding, mercurial, actually pretty frightening. He does some kind of unspecified work in a room he keeps locked. He needs Allis to cook, clean, and tend to the now-overgrown garden. His wife is away, has been for some time, and, it seems, isn’t coming back anytime soon.

So the book nods to the Gothic, intimates a Bluebeard situation, but it does so in the least Gothic prose imaginable. Instead it’s stripped down, spare, as if to support our stereotypes of Scandinavian minimalism. Others might not find this an interesting as I did–I’m a total sucker for stories about loners who retreat to the forests of the North, who live simple but comfortable lives, who don’t seem to need to work, except for whatever work they do with their hands around the house or in the garden, yet who still read and drink whisky and are quite cultured without making a big deal about it. Bits of Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses are like this (I was captivated by that book all out of proportion to its actual merit, I suspect); some of Henning Mankell’s crime fiction features these similar scenarios.

What’s interesting in Ravatn’s book is the way she juxtaposes this scenario—which is usually about contemplation, where retreating from the world is a way to live better, or a reward for a life well lived—with the conventions of the psychological thriller, where retreat is about grief, trauma, or terror.

Bagge’s a puzzle, and so moody it’s hard to identify with him. But so is Allis. I found her immense need for Bagge’s self-regard irritating, but I appreciated that she does, too: she’s always checking and berating herself. I also liked the intimations that Allis is in fact really not that nice a person, or, maybe more accurately, that an unpleasant, unstable person is lurking inside her, threatening to come out but never quite doing so. Ravatn’s first-person narration effectively keeps us off-kilter.

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The best thing about the book is that it teases you all the time, and just when you think you’ve figured it out, it changes course on you. (The push-pull between the characters, and the corresponding attraction-repulsion we feel for the characters is another way that slippery quality makes itself felt.) Even better: even when we do guess what’s going on, the book always has another trick to pull on us. It makes us feel confident as readers, lets us bask briefly in our cleverness, then pulls the rug out from under us again: a more interesting, less exploitative, and blessedly much shorter Gone Girl.

And if you like all things Scandinavian as much as I do you’ll also love the descriptions of weather and landscape. These are atmospheric but never overdone. As I write this review, I realize that what I liked best about the book is its modesty. (Very Scandinavian!) Less successful, to my mind, though I’d need to read it again to be sure, are the most self-consciously literary elements of the book: a dream that gives the book its title—and introduces the term skjemtarverk, “an irremediable act, a crime so serious that no fine or any other kind of reparation could atone for it”: this term is convincingly untranslated because even Allis, an expert on Norwegian history, has to look it up—and an extended reference to Norse myth. Maybe if I’d ever read the Eddas or had even the slightest clue what’s what there I’d think differently about these moment. For me, though, they were more distracting than winning.

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Finally, a question for anyone who’s read the book. Take a look at the last sentence. Is that a dreadful dangling modifier, or has something really strange happened? (Has Allis become, perhaps figuratively but it seems literally, the bird of prey that’s been referenced in various ways throughout the book?) If it is a dangling modifier, is this horror already present in Ravatn’s text or has it been introduced in the translation?

Anyway, bottom line: not life changing but completely satisfying. If you’re looking for something nervy and unsettling that won’t make you feel used, The Bird Tribunal might be the end of summer read you need.

“Nothing but Land”: Willa Cather’s My Ántonia

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How I’ve lived 45 years without reading Willa Cather I do not know. But now that I’ve read My Ántonia (1918)—some impulse made me slip it into my suitcase just before leaving for vacation last month—I plan to make up for lost time. Because if this book is anything to go by, Cather is the real deal. As much as I’m chagrined to have taken so long to read her, I’m excited that there’s quite a lot of her to read.

(The other night I read the first 30 pages of O Pioneers!—clearly, she was a genius right from the start. If you have a favourite, let me know in the comments.)

Two things about My Ántonia really struck me: its descriptions of the Nebraskan prairie in the late 19th century, and its unusual narrative structure.

The book is narrated by a man named Jim who shares Cather’s biography; like Cather, Jim leaves his home in Virginia at age nine or ten (unlike Cather, he is orphaned) and goes to live with relatives in Nebraska, back when the land was barely plowed and not at all fenced in. My Ántonia is filled with evocative descriptions of the landscape, in its beauty and menace.

Consider this famous passage, from the end of the first chapter. Jim has arrived in the middle of the night at the station in Black Hawk, Nebraska, where he’s met by his grandfather’s hired man. He’s tucked into a kind of bed in the straw of a farm wagon and sets out on the long journey to his grandparents’ homestead:

Cautiously I slipped from under the buffalo hide, got up on my knees and peered over the side of the wagon. There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. No, there was nothing but land—slightly undulating, I knew, because often our wheels ground against the brake as we went down into a hollow and lurched up again on the other side. I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man’s jurisdiction. I had never before looked up at the sky when there was not a familiar mountain ridge against it. But this was the compete dome of heaven, all there was of it. I did not believe that my dead father and mother were watching me from up there; they would still be looking for me at the sheep-fold down by the creek, or along the white road that led to the mountain pastures. I had left even their spirits behind me. The wagon jolted on, carrying me I knew not wither. I don’t think I was homesick. If we never arrived anywhere, it did not matter. Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be.

This is such a careful melding of physical and emotional geography, the featureless but evocative and powerful landscape mirroring, even inciting, a kind of acceptance of fate and loss. There’s something artless about the prose here, helped by the child’s perspective, though Cather doesn’t stay entirely within this point of view: that brilliant description of the prairie—“not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made”—seems to come from a more mature perspective. But the vivid descriptions of the landscape here and elsewhere in the book (terrible blizzards, glorious sunsets, lazy summer days by the river) aren’t simply offered for their own sake. Instead they are central to the book’s narration. Writing about a place in which indistinction or lack or differentiation is one of the dominant features seems to have allowed Cather to think in interesting ways about what it means to structure a story. Could she write a novel that didn’t follow the usual landmarks of fiction?

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In the introduction to the Penguin edition I read, editor John J. Murphy cites what I expect is a famous passage in Cather studies. Reflecting on her life, Cather describes how she took the advice of the famous New England writer Sarah Orne Jewett, who, when they met in1908, urged her to write about Nebraska:

From the first chapter, I decided not to “write” at all—simple to give myself up to the pleasure of recapturing in memory people and places I had believed forgotten. This was what my friend Sarah Orne Jewett had advised me to do. She said to me that if my life had lain in a part of the world that was without a literature, and I couldn’t tell it truthfully in the form I most admired, I’d have to make a kind of writing that would tell it, no matter what I lost in the process.

Reading these lines after having finished the book, I thought they helped explain the uncertainty My Ántonia had incited in me. What kind of a book is this, I kept asking myself. I loved it from the start—it seemed like a more sophisticated and less politically troubling version of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books I’d adored as a child—but once I reached the halfway point I became increasingly puzzled. Why was the book telling me what it was telling me?

Jim’s ostensible purpose is to tell the story of the oldest daughter of the other family that had disembarked at Black Hawk with him that night, the Shimerdas, immigrants from Bohemia. From the start Jim is smitten with Ántonia, who has a kind of vivacity, a life force, for lack of a better term, that almost singlehandedly allows her family to survive the difficult and dangerous first years in a new country.

But as the book continues, Jim becomes more important to the story; as a man he has opportunities the many women in the novel (the characters it actually cares about) don’t. (Although this is a novel filled with powerful female characters.) Jim grows up, becomes enmeshed in the social life of the town his family moves too when he is a teenager, and eventually, as Cather did, makes his way to Lincoln to attend university. As Jim’s experience takes center stage, I thought the book might become a kind of second-rate Bildungsroman. I say second-rate because Jim isn’t a particularly interesting character. For a time he is involved with another eldest daughter of an immigrant family, a woman named Lena who Jim and Ántonia had known from childhood. For a time I thought maybe the book was going to become about her. (She’s quite fascinating.) But when that didn’t happen, I couldn’t figure out where Cather was trying to go. There didn’t seem to be any forward momentum, and the vivid descriptions of survival on the prairie that had so captivated me faded as the characters gained greater economic and cultural security.

At about this time I was lucky enough to have lunch with Joe from Roughghosts. Over pancakes and eggs, I started complaining about Jim. Why did Cather need him as a narrator? If Ántonia couldn’t tell her own story—and her inarticulateness, which is never understood by the book as a failure, suggests she couldn’t—why didn’t Cather make someone even more like herself the narrator? Specifically, why didn’t she use a female narrator?

Joe gently pointed out that I was missing the point—through Jim’s relation to Ántonia, Cather, who loved women all her life, possibly unrequitedly, I don’t know enough about her to say for sure, had found a way to queer her tale. Jim allows her to tell the book’s real story—about her own love for women, especially women like Anna Sadilek, the model for Ántonia—in a way that is at once more socially acceptable but also ultimately more interesting. Jim never gets together with Ántonia, never gets together with Lena, who for a time seems like a more or less satisfactory replacement for Ántonia (though, as I said, who is plenty interesting in her own right and exceeds our or at least my expectations for her). In other words, My Ántonia entirely avoids compulsory heterosexual romance. Well, almost. In the last chapters we return to Ántonia, who has, after a terrible experience, found a lovely, gentle man, married him, and produced a whole brood of children who the grown up Jim, now an unhappy Eastern sophisticate, spends his summers visiting, even becoming something like a sibling to them.

But this heterosexuality is almost invisible. (It is the privilege of heterosexuality to be invisible in the sense of being normalized, that is, accepted as the default state of things, but what I mean here is that it is invisible in and unimportant to the workings of the plot.) Ántonia’s remarkable fecundity is divorced from sexuality—her magnificent brood seems to have sprung directly from her own vivacity. I was struck by this description from the scene in which Jim first re-encounters Ántonia:

Ántonia and I went up the stairs first, and the children waited. We were standing outside talking, when they all came running up the steps together, big and little, tow heads and gold heads and brown, and flashing little naked legs; a veritable explosion of life out of the dark cave into the sunlight. It made me dizzy for a moment.

If sexuality is anywhere here it is in the bodies of the children (“flashing little naked legs”), but I don’t think we’re to imagine that Jim desires them—as I said, if anything he desires to be them, and in fact does so, I would argue, at the end of the book. Indeed, sexuality is almost always bad in this book—a sub-plot involving an attempted seduction, leading to a murder suicide brings this fact home.

What is valued instead is something like friendship or admiration, ostensibly between men and women but actually, it seems, between women and women. Yet even as I say that, I don’t think it’s correct. The book doesn’t just use Jim as a way to disguise Cather’s love for women. The book’s weirder than that. It’s about intense emotional currents, strong affections that don’t have any name. Friendship is the best we have but it’s a pretty paltry term for the relationship between Jim and Ántonia, who mean so much to each other but who spend most of the book living such different lives. And yet the book never presents their relationship as a missed opportunity. It’s not that they were meant for each other and should really have got together. After all, Ántonia seems perfectly content, inasmuch as that matters, with her husband. The more I think about the book the more strange, intense relationships it seems to contain: a lot could be said about Peter and Pavel, two Russians who flee to America after a terrible (and incredibly exciting, as well as stylistically distinctive—folkloric rather than realist) incident in which a wedding party is chased and mostly devoured by wolves. What’s going on with those guys?

I suppose this interpretation, if I can grace these thoughts with that term, would need to take into account the book’s title. What’s implied by the possessive? (My Ántonia.) We tend to think of ownership as being connected to domination. Certainly Jim has a lot more conventional societal clout (money, education, status) than Ántonia. But is she really his? She doesn’t seem to need him, or to be subservient to him. How does the non-normativity I’m arguing for include the possessiveness of the title?

Writing this post has made me want to read the book again, this time with pencil in hand in a more determined effort to understand its various parts. (I was on vacation when I read it, after all.) But I stand by my sense that the book’s depiction of landscape is connected to its interest in non-normative relationships, which leads it to take up a seemingly haphazard, even careless, and ultimately fascinating narrative form. I loved My Ántonia for the way it kept wrong-footing me and entertaining me as it did so.

Back Again! Philip Kerr, Daphne du Maurier, and Plenty of Self-Promotion

Been quiet around here, as I was in Canada for four weeks recuperating from life and seeing friends and family.

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I also did some reading, though never as much as I’d like to (maybe when my daughter is a little older). Over the next few days, I’ll try to write short posts on some of the things I got through.

In the meantime, if you like crime fiction and don’t already know them, let me recommend to you the first three books in Philip Kerr’s Bernie Guenther series set in Nazi-era Germany. They are excellent, with convoluted hard-boiled type plots that remain on the right side of intelligibility; lots of fascinating, mostly convincing depictions of how someone might have rejected the regime without being particularly noble or righteous; and, most interestingly, ingenious use of German slang transliterated into English (the cops are called Bulls because in German they are Bulle, etc.). Kerr wrote these three as a trilogy and then put Bernie to rest, but you can’t keep a good detective down: he revived them several years later and now there are a lot of them. I’ve got the fourth waiting for me at the library. Curious to see if the newer ones hold up.

No matter what kind of books you like, you should absolutely read Daphne Du Maurier’s The Scapegoat. At first I wasn’t sure about this story of doubles—an English scholar of French history bumps into a Frenchman whom he resembles in every way, physically at least, and is forced to take on his life—because stories of mistaken identities tend to stress me out. But this is a really smart and fascinating book. I was absorbed by it in a way that’s rare for me these days; I really cared about what happened. It’s an unexpectedly moral book. Instead of trying to write a proper review, I’ll send you to Rohan’s excellent take, which I couldn’t improve on.

And now some self-promotion:

Before I left for Canada I was writing quite a lot. Here are some links to recent publications:

For (the now departed and already mourned) Numéro Cinq I reviewed Carl Seelig’s reminiscences of his friendship with Robert Walser and Hans Keilson’s diary written while living in hiding under a false identity in wartime Holland. Both are excellent and well worth your time.

For Open Letters Monthly (still the journal dearest to my heart) I wrote about Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer’s memoir of her life in Vermont as a refugee from Nazi-occupied Europe. Equal parts sad and sprightly, this recently reissued book is definitely worth a look.

For The Three Percent Review (a new venue for me) I discussed Swiss writer Peter Stamm’s first novel, Agnes. I was underwhelmed.

Last but not least, for the summer issue of The Quarterly Conversation I wrote a review essay on the enigmatic French-Swiss writer Roger Lewinter. My thanks to Scott Esposito for commissioning and improving it with his careful editing.

On an entirely unrelated note, I was featured in this piece in the Jerusalem Post about my thoughts as a Jew by Choice on some recent controversies in Israel regarding conversion. I haven’t read the comments, but I’m told you do so at your peril.

Next time, a proper review.

“A Soviet Critic from Within”: a Vasily Grossman Q & A with Marat Grinberg

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Over the last couple of weeks I’ve posted several times on Vasily Grossman’s epic novel Life and Fate. You can read my introductory thoughts on the novel, my thoughts on Grossman’s use of character and lists, and the place of the Holocaust in the novel.

Although I’ve spent a lot of time with this book and even have some expertise with its subject matter, especially its use of the Holocaust, I don’t know much about Soviet writing, and I can’t read Russian. So I was eager to reach out to a friend who is an expert on these things.

Marat Grinberg received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and is Associate Professor of Russian and Humanities at Reed College. He is the author of “I am to Be Read not from Left to Right, but in Jewish: from Right to Left”: The Poetics of Boris Slutsky (2011) and co-editor of Woody on Rye: Jewishness in the Films and Plays of Woody Allen (2013). His most recent essays on literature and cinema have appeared in the LA Review of Books, Commentary, Tablet Magazine, and Cineaste. His latest book is Aleksandr Askol’dov: The Commissar, a study of the great banned Soviet film.

I emailed Marat some questions I had about the novel, and he was kind enough to reply. I hope you enjoy his thoughtful responses as much as I did.

 Dorian Stuber: I’d appreciate some context for understanding Grossman. Where does he fit among other Soviet writers of the time? Would you say he is a Jewish writer?

Marat Grinberg: I would hesitate in calling Grossman a Jewish writer, although that, of course, depends on how one defines this contentious category. Clearly he was a Jew who never denied his Jewishness and was invested in figuring out the place of Jews in history. The Holocaust and post-war Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaigns made this awareness stronger as well as more profound, tragic, and personal. At the same time, if we think of a Jewish writer as someone who engages in dialogue with Jewish textual universe, both sacred and secular, and comments upon it, this would describe Grossman only to a limited extent. First and foremost, he was a Soviet Russian writer, shaped by the Soviet project, which is precisely why his eventual denunciation of it after the war was so stark and unpredictable. A celebrated writer in the 30s and even early 50s and a legendary war journalist, Grossman was always a Soviet critic from within and from the depth of Russian history.

DS: One of the most striking aspects of Life and Fate is the way it links Nazism and Stalinism. Specifically, it suggests these ideologies are linked through their treatment of Jews. Is Grossman arguing that totalitarianism is anti-Semitic?

MG: I don’t think Grossman is arguing in Life and Fate or in other works dealing with the nature of totalitarianism, such as Everything Flows, that totalitarianism is inherently anti-Semitic. What fascinates him about Nazism and Stalinism and what makes them so similar in his eyes is how they both sacralize ideology and deny any value to individual human life. Like Hannah Arendt later in Origins of Totalitarianism, he views anti-Semitism as a convenient tool of totalitarianism, but I also think his understanding of anti-Semitism is limited by how he ties it to totalitarianism. Anti-Semitism is for him essentially a hatred of the other – Sartre’s “Anti-Semite and the Jew” comes to mind – but he overlooks the deeper roots of it in the polemical wars between Judaism and Christianity. The secular humanist that he was, he could never quite decide in Life and Fate whether the Nazi (and others’) hate of the Jew was an aberration or an ingrained part of human psyche and its capacity for evil.

DS: Can you tell English-speaking readers about the connotations of the two terms that give Grossman his title—and that he uses all the time?

My hunch is that fate is not simply a neutral term—not just the name for things that happen to us—but rather a way of referring to some kind of larger structure that makes human life intelligible and that even acts as a kind of judgment or way of making sense of that life.

By contrast, I sense that life is, if not antithetical to fate, then at least in some kind of struggle with it. Life is where value resides for Grossman. But is it possible to think of life without fate?

MG: I think you’re absolutely right, fate for Grossman “is not simply a neutral term—not just the name for things that happen to us—but rather a way of referring to some kind of larger structure that makes human life intelligible and that even acts as a kind of judgment or way of making sense of that life” and “life is where value lies for Grossman.” In this, he, of course, is following very consciously in the footsteps of Tolstoy. Life and fate is in many respects a paraphrase of war and peace, keeping in mind that the proper translation of Tolstoy’s epic would be War and World. Grossman mimics Tolstoy structurally, thematically and philosophically – Tolstoy also thinks of history as governed by larger structures, grand fate or destiny of a sort. It should be noted that War and Peace was the book that Russian intelligentsia and writers, in particular, turned to during the war. Boris Slutsky would later write a poem about how everyone was incessantly rereading and memorizing War and Peace in those years. So Grossman’s choice is not accidental, but what is also interesting is how he critiques the great novelistic projects of Russian literature, by Tolstoy as well as Dostoevsky and Turgenev, co-opted by the Soviet regime. He locates in them precisely the same obsession with totalizing explanations of human history which he identifies in totalitarianism and which invalidates the individual. Thus, the other key term in his novel, apart from life and fate, is freedom, which very much implies the individual’s ability to make choices and resist evil even when that evil becomes history’s organizing principle. It is through this type of phenomenological freedom that life can be salvaged for Grossman. In terms of Russian history and literature, he locates the potential for it in Chekhov, the least totalizing of Russian writers. Ultimately Grossman wants to have his cake and eat it too: write the 20th century version of War and Peace and question the very foundations of epic novelistic writing.

DS: Viktor Shtrum, one of the main characters, often said to be a stand-in for Grossman, is a particle physicist. Grossman himself trained as an engineer. Do you think Grossman’s background as a scientist affected his writing of the novel? (I’m especially wondering about its structure.) Or does science function in the novel mostly as a way of critiquing the Soviet state’s ability to politicize every aspect of life?

MG: So it’s Tolstoy’s proclivity toward discerning structures in history that mainly impacts Grossman’s systematizing thinking in the novel, but his engineer background might very well have had something to do with it. Overall the link between art and science is at the core of early utopian Soviet vision and the later Stalinist version of it. As a nuclear physicist, Viktor serves the state, which turns against him as a Jew, and exemplifies both the potential and the horror of human progress. Russian literary thinker Lydia Ginzburg defined Tolstoy’s characters, such as Levin in Anna Karenina, for instance, not as auto-biographical, but auto-psychological, in other words their task is to replicate the author’s psychology and his intellectual, moral and spiritual crises. Viktor is very much a character in that mold. His rediscovery of his Jewishness in the context of anti-Semitic assaults and the split he experiences as a result between being a member of Russian intelligentsia and a Jew reconstructs Grossman’s own trajectory in this regard.

DS: Do you think there are qualities to Grossman’s writing—in Life and Fate in particular, but more generally too—that are underrated? Are there aspects of his style or even of his preoccupations that don’t come across well in translation?

MG: In Russian criticism of Grossman there’s a tendency to view him as a great thinker, but not a great writer and because of that, some believe, he does not lose much in translation. The moral courage and breadth of his project in Life and Fate make discussing it as an aesthetic work almost impossible or at least very difficult. Certainly there are parts in it that are much more psychologically nuanced than others and it can be overly sentimental and sociological, which can be explained by his uneasy relationship with the genre of the novel. Hence some prefer his shorter works, such as Everything Flows and “The Hell of Treblinka.” Perhaps it’s the Greek and Roman historians, such as Thucydides and Tacitus, both artful writers intent on figuring out structure within history and how the human variable fits into it, that Grossman resembles most closely.

MG

Thank you, Marat! So interesting to get your expert opinion on these questions.

 

 

“Yes, Here I Am”: Life and Fate’s Holocaust

Among other things, Life and Fate is an important contribution to the literature of the Holocaust. The Holocaust touched Grossman personally. I’ve referred now a couple of times in these posts on the novel to his essay “The Hell of Treblinka.” Grossman was with the Red Army when it arrived at the former killing center, which the Germans had largely abandoned in 1943. His investigative journalism, including interviews with many of the local Poles, produced one of the earliest documents we have about the camps. But the Holocaust touched Grossman in a much more personal way. His mother was murdered in their hometown of Berdichev when the Germans invaded the Ukraine in the summer of 1941.

One of the novel’s most famous chapters contains the text of a letter from Anna Semyonovna, Viktor’s mother, to her son. Smuggled out just before the Berdichev ghetto is liquidated, the letter is a clear, careful, and enormously moving description of how quickly life turned upside down for the Jews of Ukraine in the summer of 1941. It is also Grossman’s homage to his mother; she was never able to send him anything comparable. Like his stand-in, Viktor, Grossman was plagued his whole life by guilt that he wasn’t able to get her to safety in Moscow before the German invasion.

The letter shows how fast life was overturned for the Jews of Berchidev. No sooner had the Germans arrived than many of the locals—even former friends and neighbours—feel emboldened to take over their apartments and steal their things. In a matter of days, the Germans announce the construction of a ghetto where all Jews are required to move. The ghetto is horrible—everyone hungry, sick, despairing. But it’s better than that brief period before. Anna concludes: “Now I’m no longer a beast deprived of rights—simply an unfortunate human being. And that’s easier to bear.”

Anna’s letter is filled with similar heartbreaking and pithy claims. “Nowhere is there so much hope as in the ghetto,” she writes. Anna describes herself seeing patients (she is an eye doctor) and saying “Now bathe your eye regularly with the lotion and it will be better in two or three weeks” when the signs are clear they will all be murdered soon:

The Jews who were sent to dig potatoes are digging deep ditches four versts from the town, near the airfield, on the road to Romanovka. Remember that name, Vitya—that’s where you’ll find the mass grave where your mother is buried.

She imagines herself becoming nothing but a faint memory, imagines some of her non-Jewish neighbours saying: “‘And there was a doctor who used to sit there, beneath that old pear-tree—I can’t remember her surname but once I went to her to have my eyes treated. After she finished world she use to bring out a wickerwork chair and sit there with a book.’ Yes, Vitya, that’s how it will be.”

I defy anyone to read this chapter with a dry eye.

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In addition to showing the complicity of the local population in the Nazi murder of Ukrainian Jews and daring to suggest that the crimes of Nazism and Stalinism were no so different, Grossman’s other big crime, as far as the Soviet authorities were concerned, was to assert that Jews suffered inordinately in the German invasion. That might seem obvious to us, but it was a brave, dangerous thing to say in the USSR in the 1950s. As translator Robert Chandler notes in his introduction, this was the time of the slogan “Do not divide the dead!” That is, all victims of fascism were supposed to be the same: all Soviets suffered together. Grossman challenges this orthodoxy in Life and Fate.

Indeed, one of the tragedies of the Holocaust in the Soviet Union is that many Jews there no longer or had never thought of themselves as Jewish. (This was true elsewhere in Europe too.) Viktor and his mother feel this way, as did Grossman himself. In a characteristically fine review of the novel, Adam Kirsch points out how Soviet modernity had transformed Jewish life, taking people out of the shtetls that persisted elsewhere in Eastern Europe (and in the USSR as well), bringing them to cities like Berdichev (prewar population 60,000, half of them Jewish), and allowing them access to all sorts of professions.

This transformation of Jewish life is evident in the novel. After being captured by the Germans outside Stalingrad, Sofya Levinton, an army doctor who is the other main Jewish character in the novel, is eventually deported to a concentration camp. In the cattle-car she studies her fellow prisoners and reflects on how the world of her childhood has changed:

The cattle-wagon was full of workers from different co-operatives, girls at teacher-training college, teachers from a school for trade unionists; there was a radio technician, an engineer who worked at a canned-food factory, a livestock expert, and a girl who worked as a vet. Previously, such professions had been unheard of in the shtetl.

As you can see from this example, the lists I discussed last time are present in the Holocaust sections of the book as well. Grossman uses them to show the enormous scope of Jewish persecution, as well as to remind readers that the Nazi-sponsored genocide affected Jews from across Europe and from all walks of life. In a powerful scene, Grossman depicts a meeting between (the fictional) SS Obersturmbannführer Liss and Adolf Eichmann, who reveals to him the plans for the Final Solution:

‘Can you give me some idea—just a rough estimate—of the number of Jews we’re talking about?’ …

Eichmann answered his question.

What?’ Liss gasped in astonishment. ‘Millions?’

Eichmann shrugged his shoulders.”

Riding in a limousine on the way to the meeting, Liss dreams of his future. Grossman interrupts his reverie with a kind of documentary overview of the coming destruction that is clearly not from Liss’s point of view:

Smolevichi [today in Belarus] is full of quiet little houses with gardens; grass grows on the pavements. In the slums of Berchidev there are dirty hens running around in the dust, their yellow legs marked with red and violet ink. In Kiev—on Vassilievskaya Avenue and in the Podol—there are tall buildings with dirty windows, staircases whose steps have been worn down by millions of children’s shoes and old men’s slippers.

In yards all over Odessa stand tall plane trees with peeling bark. Brightly-coloured clothes and linen are drying on the line. Pans of cherry jam are steaming on cookers. New-born babies with swarthy skin—skin that has yet to see the sun—are screaming in cradles.

On the six floors of a gaunt, narrow-shouldered building in Warsaw live seamstresses, book-binders, private tutors, cabaret-singers, students and watchmakers…

In Stalindorf [a Jewish agricultural colony in the Ukraine, established in 1924] people light fires in their huts in the evening. The wind blows from Perekop [on the isthmus between Ukraine and Crimea], smelling of salt and warm dust. Cows shake their heavy heads and moo…

In Budapest and Fastov [Ukraine], in Vienna, Melitopol [Ukraine] and Amsterdam, in detached houses with sparkling windows, in hovels swathed in factory smoke, lived people belonging to the Jewish nation.

The barbed wire of the camps, the clay of the anti-tank ditches and the walls of the gas ovens brought together millions of people of different ages, professions and languages, people with different material concerns and different spiritual belies. All of them—fanatical believers and fanatical atheists, workers and scroungers, doctors and tradesmen, sages and idiots, thieves, contemplatives, saints and idealists—were to be exterminated.

This passage is a good example of Grossman’s tendency to intersperse the narrative with little mini-essays or pieces of reportage (I gather Tolstoy does something similar with his writings on history in War & Peace). It’s also a clear statement of Jewish identity, really extraordinary given the ideological dreams and political realities of Soviet life.

Eventually, it becomes clear that Sofya not Victor is the novel’s main stand-in for the Jewish people. She is just as vivid, sympathetic, and moving a character as Viktor’s mother, Anna. Shortly after the passage I cited earlier about all the professions represented in the cattle-car, Sofya begins to think of herself as a member of a communal Jewish identity, addressing the others on the transport as Brider yidn (Fellow Jews). (Compare Anna: “But now, during these terrible days, my heart has become filled with a maternal tenderness towards the Jewish people. I never knew this love before.”)

Many pages later, when Sofya and the others are forced into the gas chamber, we’re given a passage that moves from individual Jewish bodies to the collective body of the Jewish people, from corporeal to historical continuity:

When a man has no clothes on, he draws closer to himself. ‘God, the hairs on my chest are thicker and wirier than ever—and what a lot of grey!’ ‘How ugly my fingernails look!’ There’s only one thing a naked man can say as he looks at himself: ‘Yes, here I am. This is me!’ He recognizes himself and identifies his ‘I’, an ‘I’ that remains always the same. A little boy crosses his skinny arms over his bony chest, looks at his frog-like body and says, ‘This is me’; fifty years later he looks at a plump, flabby chest, at the blue, knotted veins on his legs and says, ‘This is me’.

But Sofya Levinton noticed something else. I was as though the body of a whole people, previously covered over by layers of rags, was laid bare in these naked bodies of all ages: the skinny little boy with the big nose over whom an old woman had shaken her head and said, ‘Poor little Hassid!’; the fourteen-year old girl who was admired even here by hundreds of eyes; the feeble and deformed old men and women who aroused everyone’s pitying respect; men with strong backs covered in hair; women with large breasts and prominently veined legs. It was as though she felt, not just about herself, but about her whole people: ‘Yes, here I am.’ This was the naked body of a people: young and old, robust and feeble, with bright curly hair and with pale grey hair.

The scholar Marat Grinberg—more from him next time!—has observed that Sofya here references the hineni (Here I am!) of Abraham’s response to God in the story of the Akedah, that is, the binding of Isaac. It’s amazing to see the secular, atheist, Communist Grossman, who grew up without a traditional Jewish education, cite this central moment from what might be the most powerful and puzzling story in all of Torah. It’s even harder to know how to understand this choice. Is Grossman suggesting, via the biblical allusion, that even in the hell of the camps God will somehow look out for, even validate Jewish suffering? What could that possibly mean? These people are about to be murdered—unlike in “The Hell of Treblinka,” where Grossman also imagines a scene in the gas chamber but pulls away at the last moment, as if to say the moment of the death is beyond representation, here he actually depicts the death of Sofya and the rest:

Her heart, however, still had life in it: it contracted, ached and felt pity for all of you, both living and dead; Sofya Osipovna felt a wave of nausea. She pressed David [a little boy she cares for on the journey to death], now a doll, to herself; she became dead, a doll.

Is the “you” in this powerful passage meant to refer to Jews? To all human beings, even those who are on the other side of the doors, peeping through the porthole window? To us as readers?

Or is the reference to the hinenei supposed to be ironic? Is Grossman saying, despairingly, contemptuously: This is what has happened to the faith in the 20th century? I don’t think so. I think Grossman is wrestling with the relation between individual human life, which he values so much, as I’ve shown over and over in these posts, and group identity, which he wasn’t allowed to value except through the idea of Soviet or communist identity.

Although there’s a lot more to say about the role of the Holocaust in Grossman’s self-understanding and in the novel, I’ll finish by simply pointing out a few of the moving characters Grossman offers us.

There’s Rebekkah Bukhman, who strangles her baby when it begins crying in the hiding place from which she and her family are nonetheless wrenched during a house-to-house search in a ghetto. There’s Naum Rozenberg, an accountant forced to become a Brenner, one who burned the bodies of those shot by the SS Einsatzgruppen; Rozenberg has miraculously survived the liquidation of his unit only to be recaptured by the Germans and deported to Treblinka; he spends the train ride in a fugue state, calculating exactly how many bodies he was forced to burn. There’s an unnamed man, distinguished only by his raised collar, who suddenly shrugs his shoulders as the column of new arrivals is marched to the crematorium and “with a sudden nimble jump, as though he had spread his wings… punche[s] an SS guard in the face and knock[s] him to the ground.”

Grossman is too honest to simply ennoble the victims. Take a look at this passage, describing a husband and wife who are separated on the ramp and then by the so-called selection process. He is sent to work; she is sent to death. The passage starts out conventionally enough, just skirting piousness, but then takes a swerve that leaves false emotion far behind:

How can one convey the feelings of a man pressing his wife’s hand for the last time> How can one describe that last, quick look at a beloved face? Yes, and how can a man live with the merciless memory of how, during the silence of parting, he blinked for a moment to hide the crude joy he felt at having managed to save his life? How can he ever bury the memory if his wife handing him a packet containing her wedding ring, a rusk and some sugar-lumps? How can he continue to exist, seeing the glow in the sky flaring up with renewed strength? Now the hands he had kissed must be burning, now the eyes that had admired him, now the hair whose smell he could recognize in the darkness, now his children, his wife, his mother.

Yet he doesn’t blame the victims, either. That passage is like a punch to the gut because it acknowledges how the drive to live trumps every decent human emotion, even as it suggests how terrible it is that a person in that situation can, indeed must, become so callous. At the same time, though, the questions posed by the narrator aren’t just rhetorical. Grossman doesn’t let us forget that those of us who weren’t there struggle to understand. (Which isn’t the same as saying we can’t.) In an earlier passage, describing how the Nazis relied on their victims’ unwillingness to countenance what was happening to them “(A man cannot believe that he is about to be destroyed”), the narrator explains:

It is important to consider what a man must have suffered and endured in order to feel glad at the thought of his impending execution. It is especially important to consider this if one is inclined to moralize, to reproach the victims for their lack of resistance in conditions of which one has little conceptions.

In the vast and powerful literature of the Holocaust, few writers can convey more forcefully than Grossman the desire for life, which is as much physiological as metaphysical. In the gas chamber, the victims aren’t even animals—the way they squeeze into the room isn’t the way people move, not even the way “the lowest form of animal life moved”:

It was a movement without sense or purpose, with no trace of a living will being it. The stream of people flowed into the chamber; the people going in pushed the people already inside, the latter pushed their neighbours, and all these countless shoves and pushes with elbows, shoulders and stomachs gave rise to a form of movement identical in every respect to the streaming of molecules.

Yet even as, perversely, the air the victims desperately drive into their lungs only drives life out they remain human. The boy David, the one Sofya looks after, stands for them all. In the last minute, thinking of his summer with relatives in Ukraine, brutally interrupted by the Nazi invasion, David can’t let go of this life:

This world, where a chicken could run without its head, where there was milk in the morning and frogs he could get to dance by their front feet—this world still preoccupied him.

Next time, look for one last post on Life and Fate, a conversation with someone who really understands this book.