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Posts from the ‘Book reviews’ Category

The Language of Colors in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye

We had defended ourselves since memory against everything and everybody, considered all speech a code to be broken by us, and all gestures subject to careful analysis; we had become headstrong, devious and arrogant. Nobody paid us any attention, so we paid very good attention to ourselves. Our limitations were not known to us—not then. Our only handicap was our size; people gave us orders because they were bigger and stronger. So it was with confidence. strengthened by pity and pride, that we decided to change the course of events and alter a human life.

Toni Morrison. The Bluest Eye.

I am slowly working my way through Toni Morrison’s novels, making up for unaccountably avoiding her books for many years. Did I think she was too popular and thus I wouldn’t enjoy her writing? My favorite so far is The Bluest Eye, from 1970, a startlingly confident and daring book for a first novel. But, then, sometimes writers, knowing no limitations and full of confidence, start out with a book that blasts through all the conventions of the novel. Just look at the opening three paragraphs of The Bluest Eye, each of which contain the identical sentences—a riff on the once famous Dick and Jane readers, which depicted the stereotypical middle-class, white siblings Dick and Jane in a series of reading primers that were used in grade schools across America from the 1930s through the 1970s. The first iteration, which is the first thing you read in The Bluest Eye, is exactly as you see it below.

Here is the house. It is green and white. It has a red door. It is very pretty. Here is the family. Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane live in the green-and-white house. They are very happy. See Jane. She has a red dress. She wants to play. Who will play with Jane? See the cat. It goes meow-meow. Come and play. Come play with Jane. The kitten will not play. See Mother. Mother is very nice. Mother, will you play with Jane? Mother laughs. Laugh, Mother, laugh. See Father. He is big and strong. Father, will you play with Jane? Father is smiling. Smile, Father, smile. See the dog. Bowwow goes the dog. Do you want to play with Jane? See the dog run. Run, dog, run. Look, look. Here comes a friend. The friend will play with Jane. They will play a good game. Play, Jane, play

The second iteration repeats the same paragraphs but removes all capital letters and punctuation, while the third iteration of the text removes all spacing between the letters. The effect is to suggest that the text is speeding up in each version, finally spinning completely out of control:

HereisthehouseitisgreenandwhiteithasareddooritisveryprettyhereisthefamilyMotherFatherDickandJane. . .

After this opening, which manages to completely undermine the normally reassuring message of the Dick and Jane image of childhood (a distinctly white childhood, at that), Claudia, the book’s primary narrator, begins her story and takes us back to 1941, where she immediately shocks the reader by telling us that “Pecola was having her father’s baby.” But despite this opening sentence, which is about as far from the imagined perfect life of Dick and Jane as one could get, The Bluest Eye is not just about the aptly named Pecola Breedlove, the girl who desperately wants blue eyes. It’s about childhood, about growing up in a black (or mostly black) community in Ohio in a very different time from ours, and it’s about how children discover wisdom.

Here’s Claudia and her sister listening in as her mother and girlfriends gossip about a certain man:

Their conversation is like a gently wicked dance: sound meets sound, curtsies, shimmies, and retires. Another sound enters but is upstaged by still another: the two circle each other and stop. Sometimes their words move in lofty spirals; other times they take strident leaps, and all of it is punctuated with warm-pulsed laughter—like the throb of a heart made of jelly. . . We do not, cannot, know the meanings of all of their words, for we are nine and ten years old. So we watch their faces, their hands, their feet, and listen for truth in timbre.

To be clear, this is Claudia as an adult, reflecting back on her childhood, interpreting childhood intuitions through the language of a sophisticated adult. But she is describing how children often look for non-verbal cues to assess the reliability of information or the honesty of others.

While Pecola’s story is the backbone of The Bluest Eye, Morrison frequently drifts into the lives of others in the community. Scattered throughout The Bluest Eye are chapters in which the narration is taken away from Claudia and given over to an omniscient narrator, whose role at first seems to provide some context that Claudia has not seen necessary to provide, like an overview of the town and a brief description of the run-down storefront where Pecola Breedlove and her family live. But later on this narrator provides a chapter-long group portrait of a type of black woman who doesn’t really want to be black, who learns “how to do the white man’s work with refinement,” who learns “how to behave” and “how to get rid of the funkiness. The dreadful funkiness of passion, the funkiness of nature, the funkiness of the wide range of human emotions.”

One reason the novel seems so daring is that Morrison was unafraid to show black-on-black racism. In one example, a group of young black boys, “heady with the smell of their own musk, thrilled by the easy power of a majority,” encircle Pecola and begin to tease her with an extemporized verse about the color of her skin and an insult about her father.

It was the contempt for their own blackness that gave the first insult its teeth. They seemed to have taken all of their smoothly cultivated ignorance, their exquisitely learned self-hatred, their elaborately designed hopelessness and sucked it all up into a fiery cone of scorn that had burned for ages in the hollows of their minds—cooled—and spilled over lips of outrage, consuming whatever was in its path. They danced a macabre ballet around the victim, whom for their own sake, they were prepared to sacrifice to the flaming pit.

And Pecola’s parents are quite the pair, “an upright and Christian woman, burdened with a no-count man” named Cholly.

If Cholly had stopped drinking, she would never have forgiven Jesus. She needed Cholly’s sins desperately. The lower he sank, the wilder and more irresponsible he became, the more splendid she and her task became. In the name of Jesus.

No less did Cholly need her. She was one of the few things abhorrent to him that he could touch and therefore hurt. He poured out on her the sum of all his inarticulate fury and aborted desires.

Morrison is careful to point out that all of this—the black-on-back racism, Cholly’s alcoholism and fury, the black women who want to pass for white, and Pecola’s desire to have blue eyes—stem from the same causes: centuries of white racism against blacks and the history of slavery. But, as her narrator warned us at the outset of the novel, even understanding racism doesn’t mean that anything else comes any easier. “There is really nothing more to say—except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.” Morrison demonstrates this with the character Cholly, who, for three-quarters of the novel is little more than a drunk, evil man who impregnates his own daughter. But then we learn the source of his hatred and loathing. As a teenager, he and a young girl were caught making love in the woods by a small group of white hunters, who forced them to continue their lovemaking, much to the amusement and teasing of the white men.

Never once did [Cholly] consider directing his hatred toward the hunters. Such an emotion would have destroyed him. They were big, white, armed men. He was small, black, helpless. His subconscious knew what his conscious mind did not guessthat hating them would have consume him, burned him up like a piece of soft coal, leaving only flakes of ash and a question mark of smoke. He was in time to discover that hated of white menbut not now. Not in impotence, but later, when the hatred could find sweet expression. For now, he hated the one who had created the situation, the one who bore witness to his failure, his impotence. The one he had not been able to protect, to spare, to cover from the round moon glow of the flashlight.

Unable to hate the white men who had abused him and his girlfriend, Cholly turns the blame on herand on black women in general. He must flail back at them for making him feel small, helpless, and impotent.

One thing that is impossible to overlook when reading The Bluest Eye is Morrison’s use of color. On Saturdays, Claudia’s mother would often sing “about hard times, bad times, and somebody-done-gone-and-left-me time.” And when she did, Claudia said, “misery colored by the greens and blues in my mother’s voice took all of the grief out of the words and left me with a conviction that pain was not only endurable, it was sweet.” Because I read The Bluest Eye in eBook format, I could easily search and count the number of times various words appeared within the book. By my rough count, here are the number of times that several colors (and their variations, e.g. black, blackest, blue, blues, blueish, etc.) are found in The Bluest Eye: red 26 times, blue 123 times, green 44 times, black 104 times, white 104 times, and yellow 20 times. That’s a load of color.

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Toni Morrison. The Bluest Eye. NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970. I read the Vintage ebook, 2007.

This is book number 6 in my Vertigo 15 Books Project, in which I am looking back across fifteen years of my reading and writing Vertigo, and I am selecting the fifteen titles that have really stood out during that time.

“Art is our religion”: Saint Sebastian’s Abyss by Mark Haber

From Michel Houellebecq’s The Map & the Territory, a novel about the market-driven contemporary art world, I moved on to Mark Haber’s recent novel about the esoteric world of art history and the period known as the Northern Renaissance. Saint Sebastian’s Abyss (Coffee House Press, 2022) is about a painting of that name, a mere twelve by fourteen inches, but “a miracle, a masterwork, a trembling jewel” of a painting, and the two art historians who have built their careers admiring, studying, publishing on, and lecturing about this tiny gem. “Saint Sebastian’s Abyss” is one of only three paintings that survive by the (fictional) painter Count Hugo Beckenbauer (1512- ?), a man who spent most of his abbreviated adult life in Berlin drinking and whoring, “purchasing sex from both women and young boys” before succumbing to syphilis. “Count Hugo Beckenbauer,” we are told by the unnamed art historian who narrates the book, “was probably what we today would call a sex addict.”

The two art historians are the unnamed American narrator and Schmidt, an Austrian. The two have had a long and friendly professional rivalry until the narrator one day said a “horrible thing” that angered Schmidt and led to a rupture that ended their friendship thirteen years ago. But as the novel opens, Schmidt has summoned his ex-friend to Berlin, where he lies on his death bed. He has discovered the answer to the one secret to “Saint Sebastian’s Abyss” that had previously flummoxed the two art historians, and now he wants to pass along the information in person to the narrator before he dies. The thoughts and memories that the narrator has as he makes his way to Berlin constitute this short novel.

To paraphrase the late, great stand-up comedian Rodney Dangerfield, artists and art historians “don’t get no respect” from Mark Haber, who has great fun exaggerating the stereotypes of the artist/genius and the hyper-fixated art historian. Based on the diary of Beckenbauer’s landlady, written nearly five hundred year ago, the two art historians have convinced themselves that Beckenbauer was ill, nearly blind, and daily exchanging paintings for sex when he painted “Saint Sebastian’s Abyss.” “Schmidt and I agreed that a sublime vision is the only way to account for the masterpiece, for even though I didn’t believe in God, and Schmidt didn’t believe in God, in fact we’d always taken great pride in being vigorous and committed nonbelievers, we always nurtured a conviction in something other. Hence something other was responsible for bestowing vision to the blind madman in the Düsseldorf farmhouse in the balmy summer of 1541 as he took a small canvas, no larger than twelve by fourteen, in fact exactly twelve by fourteen. . .” The painting was, in other words, the artistic equivalent to a virgin birth. But somehow, even as he headed out to the bordellos day after day, Beckenbauer “knew enough to leave the painting behind, sensing perhaps that he’d fulfilled his artistic legacy, creating a work that he hadn’t seen but felt, a work of unequivocal sublimity.”

In “true” academic fashion, both men have been able to wring long and steady careers out of this small, once-obscure painting hanging in a museum in Barcelona. The narrator has published ten books on Beckenbauer, and Schmidt nearly as many. Schmidt’s first book, August in Rhapsody, more than twelve hundred pages long, “explained in comprehensive, almost exhaustive detail with nothing left out, no stone unturned, no argument untested” that “Saint Sebastian’s Abyss” was “the greatest painting in history.” And each art historian’s succeeding book sounds just about as silly.

But the heart of Haber’s book is not so silly. It’s the focus of the horrible thing that the narrator said in answer to a question at an art history conference on day in New York City. “I’d said, in essence, art is subjective and art is for everyone, namely a layman’s opinion is equal to an expert’s.” Schmidt’s response to this was to accuse his friend of “crimes of art criticism” and to cut off all communications between them. When the two art historians finally meet up again in Berlin, Schmidt vented to the narrator: “you want to criticize art but not offend, which is ludicrous, you want to exalt yourself, the art critic, while telling everyone else their opinions are just as valid, when their opinions, you and I both know, are less valid, in fact their opinions are valueless.”

Schmidt’s concern about his colleague’s objectivity actually goes back decades, dating, in fact, to the moment when they made their first trip to Barcelona to stand in front of “Saint Sebastian’s Abyss” together for the first time. When the narrator started weeping at the power of the painting, Schmidt had berated him. “Leave the heart out of it, Schmidt had said, the moment the heart is involved you’re no longer a critic but a spectator and he’d said that word spectator as if it were the worst thing a person could ever be.” Schmidt, on the other hand, sees himself as an “authentic critic,” operating in a universe that sounds downright Darwinian. “Each time I’ve written about ‘Saint Sebastian’s Abyss’ . . . I’ve suppressed all the feelings and subjectivity I had . . . I’ve abolished my pulse . . . my job as a critic, was to lay waste to the work and when the work survived, when the work was resurrected despite my attacks, when the work prevailed despite my many attempts on its life, then I had succeeded as a critic.”

The narrator, however, doesn’t buy this. “Each time Schmidt insisted that I leave the heart out of it I knew it was his overabundance of heart that plagued his conscience, his flood of emotions that demanded he suppress and renounce the heart at all costs, and this contradiction or hypocrisy, I began to believe, originated from a youth in Vienna that Schmidt would mention in only the most superficial terms before quickly changing the subject.”

Head or heart? How should we react to art? Should critics and art historians leave their heart at home? This is a variation of the theme that rears itself throughout Michel Houellebecq’s The Map & the Territory as his artist, Jed Martin, tries to make all of his art honor “the essence of modernity, of scientific and technical apprehension of the world” that is the Industrial Age, which he believes is mankind’s highest achievement. Jed does this by trying as an artist to stay utterly neutral and detached, to strip his work of any political or social implications.

It’s clear where Mark Haber’s sympathies lie. As an art historian myself, I can say that there are fewer and fewer people like Schmidt and the narrator of Saint Sebastian’s Abyss in the discipline, men or women seeking refuge from the chaos of our world in the imagined order of another era. Haber deliciously nails this tendency to impose one’s own wishes on the life of an obscure artist in a distant century when he has the narrator brag about his book Hugo’s Paradox. In “this work of peerless and original speculative art criticism” (in the narrator’s own words), the narrator “conceptualized” the entire body of work by Beckenbauer that has been lost to history, imagining every painting that we can no longer see. Now that’s art history.

Agota Kristof’s “The Notebook”

Somewhere near a war-torn European border that is never specified, a mother packs off her twin boys to live with their grandmother in a small, isolated village called Little Town, hoping that it is a safer place for them to live than near the fighting. The boys immediately resent having to live in a crude, backward place with a woman known locally as “the witch,” a grandmother who they have never even met before.

Grandmother never washes. She wipes her mouth with the corner of her shawl when she has finished eating or drinking. She doesn’t wear knickers. When she wants to urinate, she just stops wherever she happens to be, spreads her legs and pisses on the ground under her skirt. Of course, she doesn’t do it in the house.

The brothers commit to each other that they will do whatever it will takes to survive—and survive together. They begin by learning how to find food for themselves in the forest, how to forage and how to fish, so that they no longer need to be dependent on their grandmother’s terrible and scant offerings. Then they they begin a process of deliberately hardening their bodies and teaching their minds. Imagine a pair of ten-year olds creating an amateur Navy SEAL training course and you’ve got the idea. But their training quickly escalates and in no time they have the skills to steal, to blackmail, and to kill people. The way that they teach themselves composition is to write every day on sheets of paper for two hours about a designated topic and then make a judgement on the result.

If it’s ‘Not good’, we throw the composition in the fire and try to write about the same subject in the next lesson. If it’s ‘Good’, we can copy out the composition into the Big Notebook.

To decide whether it is ‘Good’ or ‘Not good’, we have a very simple rule: the composition must be true. We must describe what is, what we see, what we hear, what we do.

For example, it is forbidden to write: ‘The Little Town is beautiful’, because the Little Town may be beautiful for us and ugly for someone else. . .

Words that define feelings are very vague; it is better to avoid using them and to stick to the description of objects, human beings and oneself; that is to say, to the faithful description of facts.

The Big Notebook they reference is, of course, the very book we are reading, Agota Kristof’s The Notebook. The rules that the brothers define for their own writing are the same rules that Agota Kristof must obey in writing The Notebook. No “words that define feelings.” Keep “to the faithful description of facts.” Much of the time, these strictures are largely invisible as you read about their daily activities, when you don’t expect to see much emotion intrude. But then you come across passages like the one below that should be exploding with emotions of one sort or another. After the village has been successfully invaded, a neighboring woman whose daughter has been raped and murdered by enemy soldiers tells the twins she doesn’t want to live under the rule of the conquering forces.

“Do you really want to die?”
“What else could I want? If you want to do something for me, set light to the house. I don’t want them to find us like this.”
We say:
“But it’ll hurt terrible.”
“Don’t bother yourselves about that. Set light to the house, that’s all, if you’re capable of it.”
“Yes, madam, we are capable of it. You can depend on us.”
We slit her throat with the razor, then we go and siphon off petrol from an army vehicle. We pour the petrol over both bodies and over the walls of the house. We set light to it and go home.

The twins became survivors by adopting the methods of perpetrators. They have the Grandmother and other villagers under their collective thumbs. When the village is overcome by the rampaging enemy army, they immediately switch sides, learn the new language, and take up bartering with the occupying soldiers. Their loyalty is only to themselves. Kristof is not interested in the psychology of survivors, she is probing the pathology of psychopaths and how their behavior, left unchecked, can lead to fascism, how the warped world-view of an individual (in this case, a pair of individuals) develops into a Hitler, a Putin, a Trump.

Students of Freud and philosophy (I am neither) will have an absolute field day with The Notebook. In the Afterword in the recent CB Editions translation of The Notebook, the controversial Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek excitedly declares in his opening sentence: “There is a book through which I discovered what kind of person I really want to be: The Notebook.” A trim four pages later he closes his with this statement. “This is where I stand, how I would love to be: an ethical monster without empathy, doing what is to be done in a weird coincidence of blind spontaneity and reflexive distance, helping others while avoiding their disgusting proximity. With more people like this, the world would have been a pleasant place in which sentimentality would be replaced by a cold and cruel passion.” Is this for real?

The Notebook is written in the simple sentences and easy words of a children’s book, which makes it all the more jarring when the twins turn out to be evil incarnate. By the end of the book the twins are presumably teenagers, but the language they (and Kristof) use hasn’t changed. Kristof (1935-2011), who was born in Hungary, fled that country in 1956 and settled in French-speaking Switzerland and wrote her novels in her adopted language of French, which she apparently learned rather late. It’s been speculated that this might have contributed to the simplicity of the French in The Notebook.

It’s also that strange, fairly rare book narrated by the plural first-person pronoun “we.” But the effect of this “we,” which is the voice of two boys, is very different from the “we” in a book like Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic, where the “we” is the cumulative voice of many Japanese “picture brides” who came to America in the early twentieth century. In most cases, writers choose multitudes for their plural first-person “we” narrators so that the reader can’t focus on any single character as the narrator. Here, we can still envision a pair of boys as our collective narrators.

One of the things I found remarkable about The Notebook was just how much emotion I felt throughout the book, even though Kristof had deliberately stripped it of “words that define feelings.” The complete lack of emotion shown by the twins in the midst of wartime, violence, rape, and other crimes (many of which they were committing), brought out a range of horror, curiosity, and astonishment in me. The twins don’t seem to understand that their decision to stick to the facts in their notebook is no guarantee that readers will remain similarly emotion-free.

The Notebook is the first of a trilogy of novels that continues with The Proof (La preuve), 1986, and concludes with The Third Lie (Le troisième mensonge), 1991. In the last two novels, the twins are separated and the story line revolves largely around their easily confusing identities as twins and their conflicting stories about what has happened to them. One literary critic has suggested that these two novels are about “how malleable the past actually is,” especially for those “Central European countries who must reconstruct their history after decades of Communist subterfuge.” (Martha Kuhlman, “The Double Writing of Agota Kristof and the New Europe” Studies in 20th Century Literature) More than the last two parts of the trilogy, The Notebook feels like a standalone novel for its focus on the boys’ transition from victims to masters, from 98-pound weaklings to murderers. As unpleasant as The Notebook can sound, it is a brisk, captivating 160 pages that pulls me in every time I open it.

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Agota Kristof. The Notebook. London: CB Editions, 2014. Translated from the 1986 French original Le Grand Cahier by Alan Sheridan.

This is book number 5 in my Vertigo 15 Books Project, in which I am looking back across fifteen years of my reading and writing Vertigo, and I am selecting the fifteen titles that have really stood out during that time.

Don Mee Choi’s “Geopolitical Poetics”

I am a foreigner who writes in English
Because English is a foreigner like me
I write prescriptions for the injured and the sick
Scribble republic!

from “A Little Confession”

For several decades, poetry has become increasingly visual. It has been about words on a page, letters in space, words & images in relation to each other. Just pick up Don Mee Choi’s Hardly War (Wave Books) and let the pages flip through your fingers. Yes, a few of the pages look like poems “ought” to look like. But most of the pages don’t. There are photographs, tiny ones and full page ones. Drawings. A good deal of the book is written in solid blocks of text that look like prose and a long section that is laid out in the form of an opera libretto. And then there are the lines written in Korean characters, or the excerpts from musical scores (music is essentially a foreign language for me and, undoubtedly, for many readers). Finally, like more and more poetry and fiction titles do these days, the book ends with several pages of explanatory notes, which mostly provide the sources for the many quotations and references the poet has used throughout Hardly War.

The other thing that flipping through Hardly War with your fingers will suggest—and that reading will confirm—is that Choi has carefully thought out this as a book. This is not a collection of assorted random poems on various topics. It’s clear from a quick glimpse at the book that Choi has given herself an awful lot to juggle, so she uses her own biography as the spine on which to hang everything, along with a bare bones history of Korea during roughly the same years—1950 to 1968. Choi was born and raised in Korea, before eventually settling in the U.S. Her father was a photojournalist who covered the war zones across Southeast Asia and in Korea. She uses some of his photographs in the book, and she turns his camera into one of the characters in the opera libretto, “Hardly Opera,” which closes out the book.

Hardly War is a carefully orchestrated sequence of poems, prose poems, and images. It opens with a prose poem “Race=Nation,” which introduces the reader to the poet and her father, along with a few sentences about her idea of folding geopolitics into poetry. It basically serves as her elevator speech on twentieth century Korean history: occupied by Japan from 1910-1945; under the control of the U.S. military government through 1948; authoritarian president who had to be overthrown by a student-led revolution in 1960. South Korea still has not shaken this history off its back even now and we all know what North Korea is like.

“Race=Nation” is followed by “A Little Glossary,” which includes images that aren’t explained, languages that aren’t translated, and the word “gook” which isn’t defined. When we get to the end of the book, the Notes will tell us that these paired photographs show the Taedong River Bridge in Pyongyang, Korea in November 1950 (left) and December 1950 (right), before and after its destruction. Choi’s father, with a camera around his neck, is on the left. The mention of “5 petals” refers to the Rose of Sharon, the national flower of South Korea. On this page, Choi carefully and succinctly sets up the key devices that will she will use throughout the book: pluralingualism, uncertain equivalencies, non-translation, and repetition (of images, symbols, and words).

The first real “poem” of the book is “A Little Menu,” a very simple listing of the foods that an American G.I. might have had while stationed in Korea (e.g. wieners, canned fruit, crackers, soluble coffee, etc.), ending with the line “What did General Fatty eat?”. “General Fatty” is what Choi calls General Douglas MacArthur, who initially led the United Nations military command in Korea. Choi’s confidence in using humor—even silliness—is one of the reasons I have thought about Hardly War time and time again since I first read it nearly six years ago. After seeing black-and-white photographs of soldiers, war-damaged bridges, military equipment, and malnourished or orphaned children, we don’t expect poems that read like nursery rhymes or children’s taunts. This is her “hardly war,” her “faint history<‘ made up of the voices traditionally drowned out by the din of battle. In daring to contrast her “paper closet with real paper dresses in it” against “THE BIG PICTURE. War and its masses. War and its men. War and its machines.’, as she writes in “Woe Are You?” Choi knows that paper dolls and poetry won’t win wars, but that they can help change the way that history is told.

And changing history is her agenda. She wants to correct the stereotyped image of Korea which has been handed down across several generations now, defined almost exclusively by the American experience of the Korean War, even though the war ended nearly seventy years ago. She references two of the Hollywood moviesPork Chop Hill (1959) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962)that helped to perpetuate the colonialist trope of of the Korean conflict as the opposition between heroic G.I.s and the native Koreans, who were seen as inept, untrustworthy, and very likely Communists, and who were frequently referred to as gooks, the derogatory word that Americans often used for Asians and other “lower” races. Choi wants to tell Korea’s “own faint history in its own faint language.”

Geopoetics. . . involves disobeying history, severing its ties to power. It strings together the faintly remembered, the faintly imagined, the faintly discarded, which is to say race=nation gets to speak its own faint history in its own faint language. Its mere umbilical cord is hardly attached to anything at all. Hence, hardly=war.

Readers who are bilingual in Korean and English will undoubtedly read Hardly War differently than readers like me who know only one of the languages. But I think that Choi uses incomprehensionwhich is the first step toward demonization of the Otherintentionally throughout Hardly War.

The book’s narration constantly shifts between sections written in the voices of children, parts written in the pidgin English of Koreans, sections mimicking the pseudo-neutral voice of a slightly gung-ho journalist or newsreel narrator, and a loony version of an opera libretto in which most of the characters are flowers. But what is consistent about all of the voices in Hardly War is Choi’s peculiar sense of humor. She borrows wordplay tactics from nursery rhymes and other forms of children’s poetry to give her writing a slightly sinister innocence. “I was cheerily cherrily red and merely merrily washed my face in the yard and looked up at the stars. I decided to go alone as far as I could go south, do and do and to.” At the beginning of the photo/poem “With My Brother on My Back / I Was Narrowly Narrator” (shown below), Choi writes: “I was narrowly narrator / yet superbly so.” The turnabout from modesty to confidence in a seven word sentence is something I find astonishing.

I wrote about Hardly War when it came out in 2016 and I have incorporated a few bits and pieces from that review in this updated and enlarged piece. Choi’s next book, DMZ Colony, also from Wave Books, won the 2020 National Book Award for Poetry. Wave Books deserves huge kudos for the vision, support, and dedication they show to all of their authors.

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Don Mee Choi. Hardly War. Seattle: Wave Books, 2016.

This is book number 4 in my Vertigo 15 Books Project, in which I am looking back across fifteen years of my reading and writing Vertigo, and I am selecting the fifteen titles that have really stood out during that time.

River

Whenever the word ‘river’ came to mind, I imagined panoramas, views, images from childhood—the postcards memory had sent me. I ran these views and images by countless rivers, holding them up to each river landscape as if to interrogate it for something specific. For distinct shades of blue both in the sky and in the sky’s reflection on both sides of the river? For its capacity to make magic with mist, its seaward promise and pledge of a greater brightness? The comparative allure of its unknown opposite bank? I could not have said myself what it was.

The woman who narrates Esther Kinsky’s novel River doesn’t tell us why she has just moved to Hackney, in London’s East End, but she has abruptly “excised myself from the life I had led in town, just as one might cut a figure out of a landscape or group photo.” “Abashed by the harm I had wreaked on the picture left behind,” she is now living a “provisional existence” in a rented apartment full of unpacked boxes. Her neighborhood is a mix of Hasidic Jews, Croats, Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, Bosnians, Romas, and immigrants from various African nations, and she has become a passionate observer of the people around her. Smells, sounds, or other aspects of their daily routines set off recollections of her childhood. She buys things she doesn’t need in the Kosher store just because they “called forth lost memories.” During the Jewish Feast of the Tabernacle, she walks the streets of the Hasidic community, listening to the sounds of “plates clattering, voices, and table prayers spoken in the festively decorated gardens and backyards of the pious,” something that had been part of her own growing up. She begins dreaming of the dead, of her father and her grandfather and her youth.

But what has really called to her to Hackney was the River Lea. Nearly every day the narrator spends time taking long walks, exploring the marshes of the river and its banks.

On its back the river carried the sky, the trees along its bank, the withered cob-like blooms of water plants, black squiggles of birds against the clouds. Between the empty lands to the east of the river and the estates and factories along the other bank, I rediscovered bits and pieces of my childhood, found snippets cut from other landscapes and group photographs, unexpectedly come here to roost. I stumbled on them between willows under a tall sky, in reflections of impoverished housing estates on the town side of the river, amongst a scatter of cows on a meadow, in the contours of old brick buildings.

Her river walks evoke memories of growing up near the Rhine, reminding her of her father’s work as an amateur photographer. When she digs some of his photographs out of her boxes she realizes that she is seeing the world through his eyes for the first time. “I was astounded how many of these pictures had been taken on or beside a river.”

Her memories tend to dwell on the travels which have taken her to rivers—to the Po River in Italy, the Tisza River in Hungary, the Hoogly River in Kolkata, or the Yarkon River in Tel Aviv. “Every river is a border; that is one of the lessons of my childhood.” Those borders may be peaceful, or, as the narrator knows first-hand, those borders might represent hate and near certain death if one attempted to cross it, like the Neretva River in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, “the most wrecked place I had ever seen.”

One day she remembers an old instant photography camera, packed away somewhere in her boxes. She locates it and begins to take pictures as she walks. When the prints are ejected from the old camera, she is surprised by what she sees.

What came to light when the developer foil was peeled from the black-and-white photo with its countless shades of grey was a memory I did not even know I had. These pictures showed something that lay behind the things the lens had focussed on, things which, for an imperceptible moment in time, the shutter release must have brushed aside. The images belonged to a past I could not even be sure was my own, touching on something whose name I must have forgotten, or possible never knew. There was something unquestionably familiar about these landscape scenes which, apart from the odd passer-by, were generally empty. Something waved to me, whispering: Do you remember? You do remember, don’t you?

“the town came closer on both sides of the river, darker from the west, with bricks, stone and broken window-panes facing the river…”

At first, we might take Kinsky’s narrator for the pastoral equivalent to Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London, walking the marshy paths just outside the city rather than the paved streets within city limits. However, she turns out to be an equal opportunity stroller. It’s just that when she finally does explore her corner of London, she doesn’t go as a typical urban flâneuse. Instead, she haunts the difficult, unloved places, heading straight into London’s industrial ruins or down its far less affluent side streets.

Now and again I took a train in one direction or the other and studied the backs of the terraces, roofs, chimneys, gables, and rear gardens in varying light, the strips of waste ground with crows and cats, the whole hinterland of the city that stays hidden from bus-window views of street façades. With my finger on the map I followed the fine line cutting through the green and grey paper surfaces like the jagged outline of a distorted half-moon, wending across the red, brown and black threads of streets, thickening around stations, then trickling through no-man’s-land like the hairline strand of a brook. . .
I set off east, working my way through a wasteland of thorn-thickets, fox dens and rusty remains of old railway equipment near the edges of the big stations. Budding lilac nodded along semi-derelict fencing; battered shopping trolleys were rammed into bare spring bushes. Behind this zone of neglect and devastation, in the shadow of run-down factories and warehouses and within smelling distance of a sewage drain, the viaduct arches were home to goods that had been lost, given away, misappropriated or stolen elsewhere in the city, a loosely pitched series of junk-stall arches, selling anything which, for whatever reason, had been rejected, released or purloined from the commodity circuit. Under the rumbling trains trembled coach-loads of bicycles, chairs, fridges and tables, half-gutted washing machines, car seats, shelves full of fragile and unbreakable items, jackets, coats and flowery dresses, books and records, all darkened by dust that trickled from the pores of bricks and nipped by pigeon droppings. When the weather was fine the stallholders sat on camp-chairs and torn car tyres in front of their open arches.

Photographs and photography play a critical role in River, and a number of images are reproduced in the book. One day, while taking a photograph of the entrance to a building, something goes awry and the photograph shows only the feet of some passers-by, the pavement, part of the door, and a hand in a window, which she had not noticed when she took the picture.

A scrawny and presumably old hand, a hand that was unsure, reaching for something hidden to me. The picture was an image of my own uncertain future, one I would hold on to, and one day pick up, saying: Yes, Stamford Hill, London: that’s how the bricks felt under my fingertips, how the cracked paving stones with their sprouting grass and weeds felt under my feet, and how their great scattered flocks darkened my field of vision, this and no other lack of shadow was typical of the light there, that was my place, and this scrawny old hand will hang on to a piece of my life forever.

With the novel coming to an end, her seemingly aimless meandering stops and an actual destination is announced for the first time: the Thames must be found. Not only that, but she wants to find the specific location where she went with her father as a child, which means an expedition out of London toward Southend-on-Sea, where the Southend Pier extends more than 1.3 miles straight out into the Thames Estuary.

At the end of the mile-long pier that jutted into the heaving mass of waves and currents, I was practically on my own. The wind gusted across the platform from every angle and waves crashed against the steel girders below, between the rows of lights that were Sheerness to the South, and the gay blaze of colour that was Southend’s lit-up amusement park on the northern shore, between the enormous cupola of unbroken darkness over the sea in the east, and the distant glow of London in the west. Nothing began here, and nothing ended, and maybe that had been the message of the blinking lights I had seen from Sheerness. This place was the centre that never stood still.

After her experience where “nothing began” and “nothing ended,” the narrator packs up what few things she unpacked during her April to August stay in Hackney and prepares to move on in her “restlessness” to her next stay, which is in a country in “distant Eastern Europe.” As she prepares to depart, still as anonymous as when she arrived in her neighborhood, she watches one final sunrise.

Then a great torrent of light poured over the park. . . a luminosity that made each object stand out for a brief moment in an exuberant radiance that melted to fool’s gold and the sunburst delusions of cold spring days, glimmering, glistening, sparkling, and finally dissolving in a blinding, golden tremor, in which all that had accompanied me in the past months evaporated like a cloud succumbing to sunlight, and this effulgence, which broke over all I could see, transformed the marshland beyond the River Lea and the Lea itself into a shoreline that could barely be distinguished from the sea, and which, as it rose and fell like the surf, let all that was built on it founder.

There is no plot to River and only one character, about whom we learn very little. In fact, we learn more about the narrator’s childhood than her adult life. Kinsky plays with time in a curious way in River. Through memories, she exposes us to bits and pieces of the narrator’s childhood, but what we learn about her adult life is so meager that it’s like looking at a painting that has doesn’t really have a middle distance, just a foreground and some mountains very far away. Perhaps this is Kinsky’s way of telling us that it makes no difference what her narrator left behind (there’s mention of a child, although that episode seems many years earlier) or why she left her previous life in London. In any event, the book’s emphasis is on what kind of woman she is or aspires to be. We witness a woman of great curiosity and generosity of spirit. She is the sort of person to absorb everything she can about her international community of neighbors and, although she makes no deep friendships during her brief stay, she nevertheless routinely interacts with others just like a kind and helpful neighbor.

Photography tells us a little more about her. Early in the book, she looks at the images she took of some strangers and she “felt ashamed.” “It felt almost indecent to keep in my room these fragments of other people’s existence . . . snippets of the lives of strangers who knew nothing of the persistence in my possession, for the time being, of a fragment of their life.” After that, she “resolved to photograph only inanimate objects.” Later on, she buys an envelope of photographs at a flea market, only to discover that they seem to be the “testaments to a family visit” of some kind during a summer in Hackney.

What was I doing here, on this wind-buffeted, elevated station platform with its view over the zone of discontinuities gradually annexing the River Lea and its wild hinterland, with these snapshots of lives so remote from my own that I had been granted unsolicited access to them through some petty burglary or disappointing inheritance or ill-starred coincidence? I could not even think of names to give the two women who turned up in all of the photographs. I asked myself the unanswerable question of what name some other person might give me if they happened upon my photo?

Feeling like a voyeur, she abandons that envelope of flea-market photographs on the train. This obsession with names, I suspect, goes back to a temporary job she previously held in London at the Jewish Refugee Committee, where she did translations and answered inquiries “concerning the whereabouts of German Jewish refugees who had come to England in the 1930s.” She “reeled miles of microfilm,” “became embroiled in stories of strangers,” and was obsessed for days trying to solve cases. “I always took the names of the missing with me.”

The narrator’s instincts throughout the book are with the immigrants, the poor, and the struggling, those who live largely unseen and ignored in the underbelly of the city or in temporary shelters they have created among its marshy fringes. She flows through their community—almost like a river, one is tempted to say—then moves on, leaving little trace of her presence.

Three years ago I wrote about River in two posts in 2018 and I read the book rather differently then. Here is part one and here is part two of that review.

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Esther Kinsky. River. Translated from the 2014 German original Am Fluss by Iain Galbraith. Originally published by Matthes & Seitz Verlag. Published in English by Fitzcarraldo Editions (London) 2017 and Transit Books (Oakland) 2018.

This is book number 3 in my Vertigo 15 Books Project, in which I am looking back across fifteen years of my reading and writing Vertigo, and I am selecting the fifteen titles that have really stood out during that time.

Adam Scovell’s “Nettles”

In Nettles (Influx Press), his third novel in the last four years, Adam Scovell brings new life to the well-trod theme in British literature of being bullied at school. His narrator is revisiting the Liverpool area, cleaning his boyhood possessions out of his childhood home. He’s also revisiting vivid memories of twenty years ago when his school days were spent trying to dodge Himalways with a capital Hthe nameless bully who attacked him on his way to the first day of school, whipping him mercilessly with stinging nettles, and who proceeded to make his life miserable for the remainder of the school year.

It was the first day of term when He whipped my thin legs with nettle stems. The sun was glaring behind the clouds, and I knew then that I would have to kill Him. I did not know how or when, but as the stings lashed and my body quivered with pain, His fate was sealed, cast in marble.

The narrator, like nearly everyone else in the novel, has no name. He uses his wiles to try to avoid the bully and his gang as much as possible, but he also vows to himself that he will withstand whatever punishment they give him. But after one serious fight with the bully in the marshlands at the edge of the school grounds, he has to be rescued by a teacher.

A teacher dragged me through the building with my head held backward, my shirt dotted with bright red droplets, limping towards somewhere with first aid equipment,. I took pleasure in imagining the boys talking together about my new adulthood. I could not contain myself and I cackled viciously.
My body turned to hogweed.
I was the marsh and the stone.
Laughing.
The walls blurred and the teacher faded into ragwort and lichen
I drifted from the world and fainted in the chair they propped me up in.
I was utterly pathetic.

Eventually, a plan forms in the narrator’s mind. If he can lure Him to a nearby area called The Breck, a well-known and somewhat dangerous climbing spot, perhaps some sort of accident can be arranged. The Breck is famous for being the place where the first British man to ascend K2 had honed his skills as a young man. [If you are curious, you can see The Breck here.]

In the end, it turns out that we, as readers, are here to help judge the narrator, not the bully or anyone else in the novel. We are left to decide if the narrator interpreted his childhood correctly. The narrator is basically the only character with interior dimensions in the book. He seems incapable of viewing anyone else with any depth. Both of his parents are present, but neither becomes a three-dimensional person on their own. And the bully remains as elusive as if we were talking about the devil himself. All we get of Him is the physical description of “His severely shaved head and His bulky persona.” The bully and his disciples repeatedly beat up the narrator for pages on end without ever being described or characterized.

At first, it was Scovell’s “revenge” plot that made me want to keep read reading Nettles, but inexorably the narrator’s true plightthe one with his familytook over in importance. During his return visit, as the narrator looks back on this period in his youth, he began to ask himself if some of the assumptions he had made at the time about his family were correct.

Throughout his visit home, the narrator takes Polaroid photographs of the sites that were memorable to him in his youth. To us they look like square, rather blurry amateur snapshots of boring locales. As if to demonstrate how much these photographs mean to him, the only character in the book that the narrator names is Ellen, the “talented fashion photographer” who lends him the camera. But his photographs turn out to be bitter disappointments. At first he thinks he sees traces of the past in them, but then he decides, as he does with one photograph, “there was nothing there now but stone and memories.” The real story lies elsewhere.

Ironically, it is his mother who provides him with the one photograph that stings. As he is heading back to London, she hands him a photograph. . . It was more human than the reflection in the visor mirror. My eyes were light and carefree then. I couldn’t recognize the boy anymore. I would tear the photo in half later, unable to allow it to exist. It made me feel simultaneously alien and homesick.

The top half of this ripped photograph appears at the very beginning of Nettles, the torn bottom (and larger) half appears at the very end. Buried in Nettles is a bitter family story that stings the narrator far worse than the bully from his school days. It’s fascinating to watch Scovell expertly play the bullying story and the family saga against each other, until one strand emerges holding the narrator’s past at gunpoint.

With each of his three books, the way in which Scovell has deployed his photographs has become more and more tangential to the story as his writing has become stronger. In Nettles, I would argue that the only photograph that is really necessary to the plot is the torn image that we see at the front and back of the book. The other images are, as the narrator admits, “failures,” used only as evidence that there was no longer anything meaningful to him in those places. But even the torn image is one that many writers would verbally describe and then omit from their novels. I look forward to seeing how Scovell deals with photographs in his novels in the future. Here are my reviews of Mothlight (2018) and How Pale the Winter Has Made Us (2020). Nettles is just out from Influx Press this week.

The Man Who Dies: Robert Pinget’s “Passacaglia”

How do I write about Robert Pinget’s gem of a book Passacaglia? The dilemma is that Pinget has woven his novel about passion and guilt so tightly knotted up that to unwind it is to start releasing spoilers. The first problem that Pinget presents us is that his narrator has a great deal of trouble telling a very simple story about a man who dies. He doesn’t tell the story once, he tells it more than a half dozen times and each version is different. Thus the book’s title. The word passacaglia (or passacaille in Spanish) originally referred to the type of interlude music that Spanish street musicians would strum between the dance music they were performing. These interludes were usually variations on a theme played over a bass line or an ostinatoin other words, they were a persistent motif. Pinget is using the man’s death as the variations on a theme. The reader’s challenge is to figure out the persistent motif, the theme behind the death.

Here’s the first version of the man’s death from page one. The setting is the outskirts of a remote French village, at the well-to-do farm dwelling of a man referred to simply as “the master.” (Just think of him as a sort of gentleman farmer; he doesn’t seem to work very hard work at farming.) The time is vaguely in the middle of the 20th century. A local peasant, hired as a sentry because of the master’s “mania,” is checking on him and has just peeked through the masters’ window and has seen him “apparently distinctly . . . put the clock out of action and then sit there prostrate in his chair, elbows on the table, head in his hands.” Soon thereafter, the master will be found dead on the nearby dung hill. Note the phrase “apparently distinctly.”

Some six or seven pages later, in the second version, we are told that the village mayor and doctor have found the master slumped over, dead at his desk, having knocked a book to the floor. Remember the book.

The narrator’s inability to tell this story straight is being strangely echoed by the master’s inability to finish writing his memoirs. The master has been writing his memoirs in a bookyes, that bookbut he’s at a certain point where he has hit a wall. In the mean time he’s doing what many writers do in that event, he’s diddling with previous entries. “Working on marginal notes.” Over and over he tries to write further in his memoirs, but no. He will tell himself “source of information deficient” or that his memory is experiencing some sort of “hiccup.”

Throughout Passacaglia, Pinget demonstrates how language can be used to hide something, even our very own memories. We are given multiple versions of the master’s death to chose from, as if this were a lineup down at the police station. And we see the master hiding some memory away behind his ability to weave words into puzzlingly beautiful, but almost meaningless sentences, sentences which make him feel as if he has a genuine excuse not to pursue his memoir into certain territory.

Pinget’s poetic language may not be for everyone, but I happen to adore it.

Afterwards hours of pondering over all these snippets, there was nothing left on the page of memoirs but blots and graffiti, his life had emigrated elsewhere.

In the elms or the pine wood, in those carcasses everywhere, scintillations, nocturnal silences, dispersed, in disorder, irreparable, the book open at the old-fashioned illustration, the clock that doesn’t go, infinite disarray, words adrift like so many disavowals, pursued even into his dreams, the only history he would have now would be written, his only breath would be literary.

It was perhaps at this moment that the poultry dealer appeared at the gate, towards evening that is, the master became calmer, he asked the fellow to sit down and he let him go on about his obsessions, the doctor apparently said watch your liver, come and see me.

Blots and graffiti.

Other themes would emerge from disordered nerves. Working on marginal notes.

When the farm-hand had left the barn, it might have been half-past eight, night was falling, the last glimmer in the west, the line of the forest almost black, the terrace was deserted and the house had all its shutters closed, you could hear the frogs down by the marsh, it had been a hot day for the season.

Of that dreary, monotonous year.

There’s a kind of Where’s Waldo hide-and-seek when it comes to picking out what’s critical to know among all these phrases. Just as the master is hiding something from himself, Pinget seems to be hiding things from his readers. It feels like essential facts are buried in insignificant-looking passages or they get lost in flowery poetic language. For instance, it’s very easy to miss the moment when we are told that the master has been telling the doctor “the story of his death that he had imagined in detail, amplified over the years, tragic or touching according to the evening, by the fire, the bottle of spirits on the table.” In other words, all of these variations on the master’s deaths are just the late night ramblings that the master makes up when he and the doctor sit drinking in front of the fireplace. (Just as it’s easy to miss it when the master and the doctor are described as “intimate.”)

This is not an example of the “unreliable narrator” we see so often today. Part of what is going on is due to the fact that Pinget is sowing uncertainty in his reader’s mind as a matter of principle. He doesn’t want us to keep basing everything in our lives solely on reason. He wrote to his English translator, “Don’t bother too much about logic: everything in Passacaille is directed against it.” But Pinget is also showing us the lengths that the master will go to evade his sense of guilt over a child whose story only emerges toward the end of the book, although hints about this aspect of the master’s life have been laid since the early pages. The master, it seems, had “adopted” a child. “I was stuck with the child, how old could he have been, about fifteen, I always thought of him as ‘the adopted child,’ feeble in both mind and body, his mother entrusted him to us not knowing what to do with him, we didn’t either, we gave him little jobs to do which he always made a mess of.” There was only one thing the master has insisted on.

that I should soap him myself in his tub every Saturday or more or less, with neither calendar nor passion I sometimes made a mistake and I felt less alone at those moments, I have his skin under my hand, I soap him all over without exception from A to Z which naturally took us by way of P, to tell the truth it’s less a chore than a pleasure, or if in my haste to be less alone I soap him twice a week attributing my miscalculation to the absence of a calendar.

Then one day the boy dies after making what the master describes as a “wrong move” with a chain saw, and the master is not the same after that. But is never clear if this is an accident or a deliberate act of self-mutilation. This is the incident that the master keeps reimagining over and over in his memoirs, unable to move forward. He also keeps rewriting his will late at night in rambling prose that recalls, in shorthand, bits and pieces of the book’s plot.

I the undersigned in the cold room, hemlock, clock out of action, I the undersigned in the marsh, goat or bird’s carcass, I the undersigned at the bend in the road, in the master’s garden, maleficent old woman, sentry of the dead, sentry, scarecrow, in a van on the route deviated by the evil eye, plaything of that farce that is called conscience, no one, I the undersigned midnight in full daylight, overwhelmed with boredom, old owl, magpie or crow . . .

Depending on your point of view as a reader, either one of the more magical or more confounding aspects of Passacaglia is Pinget’s ability to bend time. Passages that begin at one moment in time segue invisibly a page or two later into events that are clearly in the past. The book’s final paragraph suggests, yet once again, that the master dies, “found deceased on the dunghill.” Or is this just another of the master’s late night tales by the fireplace?

I last read and wrote about Passacaglia in 2011. I clearly didn’t quite know what to make of it then and should have read it a few more times. One of the pleasures of rereading a book is finding passages missed the first time around. For example, on the second page, Pinget signals to the reader an essential clue to his book. He tells us that we need to pay attention to everything that alludes to the master’s past. (I have omitted the story of the master’s past and how he came to “adopt” the boy out of my commentary in order to not give away all the spoilers.)

The story would seem to have begun a long time before this, but talk about prudence, talk about vigilance, it looks as if only two or three episodes have been revealed, and that with some difficulty, the source of information being permanently deficient, that almost inaudible murmur interrupted by silences and hiccups, so that you might well have attached no importance to it and considered the whole thing started at the time when the clock was put out of action. Which side to take.

The reader has two basic choices with Robert Pinget’s Passacaglia: to read it straight through and enjoy it strictly for the beautiful writing, without worrying too much of having an accurate view of what is really taking place; or reading the book several times while parsing every sentence carefully. (It’s short, only 94 pages.) Both approaches are perfectly legitimate. But even the second approach won’t remove every ambiguity. In some novels, confusion is the story. Which side to take, indeed!

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Robert Pinget. Passacaglia. Translated from the 1969 French original by Barbara Wright. My copy is the out-of-print edition published by Red Dust in 1978. The only English version of Passacaglia currently in print is part of the volume Trio, from Dalkey Archive Press, which includes two other short novellas by Pinget. It’s also the Barbara Wright translation.

This is book number 2 in my Vertigo 15 Books Project, in which I am looking back across fifteen years of my reading and writing Vertigo and I am selecting the fifteen titles that have really stood out during that time.

Visitation

Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel Visitation is a hugely ambitious book for its 150 pages. Rather than follow a family through generations as a traditional bildungsroman might do, Visitation follows a single tract of land through its various owners and occupants during the twentieth century. In a brief Prologue, we learn how the ice age, which lasted some 24,000 years, shaped the rivers, lakes, and valleys of the Wannsee area west of Berlin, which is where this piece of property lies. Compared to the span of an ice age, the century covered by this novel is a mere heartbeat. And in light of the catastrophic weather events, infestations, and wars that will sweep over this property during the twentieth century, the idea that anyone might actually “own” a piece of the Earth feels a lot like hubris. As Erpenbeck suggests, the property’s owners and occupants are merely paying this property a visitationas if they might be at their own funeral. In fact, the book’s original German titleHeimsuchungsuggests the kind of visitation that drops down out of the blue, such as an infestation of locusts, a plague, or the visitation that occurred to the Virgin Mary.

The central plot of Visitation really gets underway in 1939 when a nameless architect from Berlin and his wife purchase the tract of land from its Jewish owners, Arthur and Hermine. “He’d paid the Jews a full half of market value for the land. And this was by no means a paltry sum. They’d never have managed to find another buyer in so short a time,” reasoned the architect, who, incidentally, hid his own Jewish heritage from the Nazi hierarchy and managed to become one of Albert Speer’s most trusted architects.

After the architect purchases the land from Arthur and Hermine, the couple find themselves unable to emigrate before Germany’s borders are closed to Jews. Erpenbeck’s omniscient narrator briefly describes their final months of constant struggle with the Nazi bureaucracy. Here’s how we learn of their demise:

Two months after Arthur and Hermine get into the gas truck in Kulmhof outside Łodz, after Arthur’s eyes pop out of their sockets as he asphyxiates, and Hermine in her death throes defecates on the feet of a woman she’s never seen before, all their assets, together with the assets remaining in Germany that belonged to their son Ludwig, who has emigrated, are seized, all the frozen bank accounts dissolved, and their household goods auctioned off.

The architect, on the other hand, has imagined the fate of Arthur and Hermine differently. “By buying the property, he’d helped the Jews leave the country. No doubt they went to Africa. Or Shanghai. For better or for worse.”

Meanwhile, the architect has divorced his wife in order to marry his stenographer, and he designs for them a second home on “their little bit of sod” on the lake. Unfortunately, they aren’t able to enjoy it for too many years before they are forced to flee when the Russian army enters Berlin in 1945. They are able to return at the end of the war and repair the damage, but after endless tangles with the new East German government he gives up, and the architect and his wife decide to defect to the West. On his final morning on the property, the architect looks out across the lake and tries to remember.

When he will have swum here for the last time is something he no longer knows. Nor does he know whether the German language contains a verb form that can manage the trick of declaring the past the future. Maybe at some point in early September. The last time, it wasn’t yet a last time, that’s why he didn’t take note of it. Only yesterday did it become the last time. As if time, even when you grip it firmly in your hands, can still flail and thrash about and twist which way at will.

After they defect, title is then taken over by the socialist government of the new German Democratic Republic, which then leases it to a writer and her husband, who are permitted to occupy and fix up (but not own) “abandoned” property. Because the writer had been a communist, she and her husband had gone into exile during the Nazi and the war years, spending their time mostly in the Soviet Union. But after the war they returned to Berlin so that she could write. She had wanted her words “to transform the German barbarians back into human beings and her homeland back into a homeland.” Instead, what she found was a socialist government that operated on favoritism and elitism, which readily subverted its own laws and ideals for money and the powerful.

Throughout every change of ownership of the property there has been one constantthe gardener. The gardener keeps his head down and tends to the land, blind to the religion or politics of the property’s owner or occupant. “The gardener doesn’t speak much, and he’s never been heard to say anything at all about events in the village, whether someone has drowned in the lake, a smallholder has secretly changed the position of a border stone, or Schmeling has knocked out the American boxer Louis in the twelfth round.” The gardener is clearly designated to be someone who stands apart from all of the other characters in the book, neither a victim nor a perpetrator. He stands for the property itself. In an interview (see below), Erpenbeck has referred to the gardener as “the true owner” of the property, “because of his work, and because of his real connection to the place which is founded again and again, day by day, by physical doing, physical work.” Unlike the others, he hasn’t bought his way onto the property through money or power. It disturbed me that the gardener remained a silent, obedient land manager in the employ of a high-ranking Nazi architect for years, but in her interview Erpenbeck makes it clear this was not to be held against him.

The events that happened on or affected this one tract of land during the twentieth century were traumatic, to say the leastwar, a brutal occupation, rapes, decades of totalitarian regime, plagues of insects, lawsuits. But, as in her recent novels The End of Days (2016) and Go, Went, Gone (2017), Erpenbeck has opted for a poker-faced narrator, who can sound eerily like a Nazi or East German bureaucrat at times, a narrator who sticks to the facts and statistics and is blind to the emotional toll mounting all around.

Erpenbeck’s books are always concerned with the ways in which language is used to entrap us, as well as how we use language to liberate ourselves. The law is one such place, and Visitation includes several pages of faux legalese. These sections would be comic if we knew they weren’t being used to confuse and bully someone and ultimately rewrite the ownership of the property.

Reference to the registry of deeds will be required to determine with sufficient certainty. Registry of a first priority property lien. In the present settlement. Further: Upon fulfillment of the present settlement all claims with regard to the object of dispute are hereby. Further: All claims with regard to the object of dispute are hereby satisfied and further litigation is hereby. Is hereby excluded.

There are moments when Erpenbeck’s characters find themselves thinking about how language has a different kind of potential. In this example, we are peeking in on the thoughts of an elderly woman referred to as “the visitor,” who is the mother-in-law of the writer:

The dandelions are the same here as back home, and so are the larks. Now, as an old woman, she has grown into the sentence that her husband always said to her forty years before. The dandelions in her village were the same where he grew up, in the Ukraine, from where he’d come vagabonding along, and the larks too, that’s what he always said. . . Surely her husband’s great-grandparents had at some point or other uttered this very sentence another seventy or eighty years before. She wonders whether the sentences go out looking for people to utter them, or whether its just the opposite and the sentences simply wait for someone to come along and make use of them. . . Probably, she thinks, the sentences all get overtaken sooner or later and are spoken by someone or other, somewhere or other, just as everything belongs to everyone among people who are fleeingfactored over the length of a lifetime, the course of both objects and human beings was no doubt no different from the experiences of a refugee. In peacetime it was poverty, during the war it was the front that kept pushing people before it like a long row of dominos, people slept in other people’s beds, used other people’s cooking utensils, ate the stores of food that other people had been forced to leave behind. It’s just that the rooms became more crowded the more the bombs fell. Until in the end she arrived here, in this garden, and when the gong calls her to supper, she finds it quite plausible to think this gong was already calling her back then, when she turned her back on her farm for the last time and set off with her three grandchildren, carrying an eiderdown and with a blue-patterned kerchief on her head. When you’ve arrived, can you still be said to be fleeing? And when you’re fleeing, can you ever arrive?

At the end of the book, the house that had been built on the edge of a beautiful lake, the pride of a Berlin architect, has just been torn down and “the landscape, if ever so briefly, resembles itself once more.” The newest owners of the property, who have won their lawsuit, want to design and built a new house. From scratch. But the law has the final wordon how the house must be properly torn down.

. . . Care should be taken to minimize the vibrations when the demolition is carried out so as to reduce the environmental burdens of dust and noise and prevent cracks from developing in nearby buildings.

As it turns out, the intrepid Internet researcher can discover that much of what Erpenbeck wrote in Visitation was based on her own family history and her own experiences at a summer vacation home, which the family lost when Germany was reunified. During a Between the Covers podcast produced by the publisher Tin House (you can read the transcript here), Erpenbeck revealed that Visitation was the result of extensive research and nearly all of it was based on real people and real events. She also spoke about what the reader should think upon finding this out. “When I, myself, am a reader, I’m also interested to not only read the story but also to know the story behind the story, like the biography of the author and how come that he wrote this book or she wrote this book. I think you can be happy if someone doesn’t realize that it is based on research or on true stories and you can also be happy if you can answer the question with a, ‘Yes, it’s based on something’. . . But a story is always something that is made up.”

Ω

Jenny Erpenbeck. Visitation. NY: New Directions, 2010. Translated from the 2008 German original Heimsuchung by Susan Bernofsky.

This is book number 1 in my Vertigo 15 Books Project, in which I am looking back across fifteen years of my reading and writing Vertigo and I am selecting the fifteen titles that have really stood out during that time.

“A hospital for fragments”: Annabel Dover’s Florilegia

According to my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, a florilegia is “a collection of choice extracts from literature; an anthology. . . a book describing choice flowers.” But this didn’t prepare me for what the narrator of Annabel Dover’s Florilegia throwing at me. Within the first few pages, she had referenced bear-baiting, the Great Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace, Derek Jarman, AIDS, something called the Paper Museum, Windsor Castle, David Bowie, and well more than a dozen other famous names and obscure subjects, not to mention a mini-history of the poppy plant. The narrator, a woman of indeterminate age, was veering from one topic to another, sometimes lingering for only a paragraph before moving on, constantly searching for something. She quickly sifted through history, the arts, and literature, sometimes simply listing a kind of daisy-chain of events, as if trying to understand the hidden mechanics behind history.

Mathematician and daughter of Byron, Ada Lovelace dies. The first public toilet for women opens as does Great Ormond Street Hospital and the House of Commons, designed by Barry and Pugin. Pugin dies. Thomas Edison draws a quincunx on his forearm with his tattoo pencil machine; maybe his wife Mina’s name in Morse code. The cicada grub that John Pelly Atkins brings his wife, Anna, back from Haiti remains underground, buried at the edge of the asparagus patch in their Kent garden for another 17 years. When the cicada finally hatches in 1869, it is surrounded by dahlias. Anna has two years left of her life. Rasputin, Edwin Lutyens, Typhoid Mary, Matisse and Gandhi are born.

We’ve seen these kinds of lists before, when an author is trying to take the temperature of an era. But something different was going on here. Trying to get my bearing amidst all that Dover’s narrator was skimming past, I started to jot down recurring themes: women, women’s bodies, pregnancy & ripening & bursting, collections, objects & their surfaces, plants, family, Anna Atkins. Ultimately, more space in Florilegia is given over to Anna Atkins than any other subject. Atkins (1799-1871), an unusually educated woman for her era, was a British botanist and photographer who also happened to be the first person to ever create a photographic book, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, in 1843. She seems of personal interest to Dover, Florilegia‘s author, an artist who has been writing about Atkins in art magazines recently. (This is Dover’s first novel.) Dover’s photographic work has been done in cyanotypes, the same print medium that Anna Atkins used more than one hundred fifty years ago. Why does Dover’s narrator identify so closely with Atkins and her cyanotypes? Because Atkins made her cyanotypes by placing plant specimens directly on top of the photographic paper, before exposing her arrangements to light, a practice without camera or lens. In traditional photography, objects are never in direct contact with the photographic paper; whatever is being photographed is, shall we say, translated by the light which passes through the lens. But in a cyanotype, an object might be said to speak directly to the photograph, and Dover’s narrator intuitively suspects that she needs objects to tell her the stories she requires.

Anna Atkins, Cystoscura Granulata

The tempo of Florilegia eventually slows down, and throughout the book we see the narrator in the process of trying out and accepting Atkins as her artistic antecedent, the way you try on and acquire a new overcoat. The narrator also discovers several biographical parallels between herself and Atkins and, at times, the story lines of the two women start to blur.

But the narrator is also searching for objects that might help unlock her relationship with her mother and her father. About halfway through the book, she tries to delve into her history with her mother by recalling the artifacts and the pictures in her mother’s bedroom. This exercise leads to many memories but few revelations. “I wanted to break my mother’s paperweight apart, to find the living breathing truth within. But when I tried to get to the heather which, magnified, looks fresh with ecclesiastical purple flowers, and bubbles of dew upon them, it was just a dried piece of twig fused to the glass forever.” Later on in the book, she tracks down her father, who has been missing in her life since she was thirteen. He’s a man in his seventies, watering his garden in his torn underpants, with a paunch and “a huge fuzz of white hair and beard.” She can not identify with this man who is her father. But buried in his house, amongst the towers of old newspapers, are a few objects which bring memories flooding back of her childhood, of her sisters, and of how strange her parents seemed to her and her siblings.

The objects that she has both sought out and remembered from her family home have served as catalysts for memories, memories that can be scrutinized and interrogated, that may now be written about, and that sometimes conjure up images of flowers, artworks, animals, and strange, sometimes fantastical objects. These images are represented in the book by nearly one hundred small, b&w photographs. Even though the book’s photographs are identified with figure numbers, they rarely correspond exactly to the surrounding text. Instead, they often tease us to make some blind leap of faith at the poetic connection between the image and the text. (The figure numbers are only used to link to the List of Illustrations at the back of the book.) Some of the images in Florilegia are by Anna Atkins, many are by Dover herself. Other photographs are from sources such as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, film stills from Jean Cocteau and Alfred Hitchcock & others, and various art museums.

In the opening sentence, the narrator offers an alternate description for her book, beside a florilegia. She describes the print room at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum as “a hospital for fragments,” reflecting the many centuries’ worth of disparate and often fragile collections held there. Originally, it had seemed to me as if she hoped to heal her relationship with her mother and her father. But, in this novel of many small discoveries, perhaps the most important one was for the narrator to become reunited with memories of her sisters, with whom she joined in childhood rebellion against her parents. The book’s ending, an observation on how Anna Atkins organized her albums of cyanotypes of algae, seems to confirm this. “Anna, following Linnaeus’ binomial nomenclature, which presents plants as belonging to various branches of a family tree, with a ‘mother’ (genus) and a ‘father’ (family) arranges her algae into groups of siblings.”

This is a daring first novel, one that packs many micro-packets of information on every page and yet feels like an efficient, brief, novel. (The novel, which has no page numbers, is only about 120 page long.) Florilegia is published by the brand-new Moist Books, a Nottingham-based publisher which currently issues only three books a year. You can view a complete copy of Anna Atkins’ book Photographs of British Algae here. Annabel Dover has an extensive website of her artwork.

My Favorite Books From 2021

All things considered, 2021 was a very good reading year. What follows are the eighteen titles that I found outstanding or memorable in some way out of the eighty-plus books I managed to read in the past twelve Covid-clouded months: ten novels, seven non-fiction titles, and, just for fun, one work of detective fiction. Six of the titles were published for the first time in 2021, while the remainder range from 1925 through 2019. If you want to see everything that I read throughout 2021, you’ll find that list here underneath the tab for Old Reading Logs. I keep a running commentary on every book as I read it in my current annual Reading Log, which you can find as a pull-down menu elsewhere at the top of this page. So here’s my 2021 Favorite Books List, alphabetically by author.

Renata Adler. Speedboat. NY: New York Review Books, 2013. First published in 1976, Adler’s novel center’s around Jen Fain, a journalist and member of an unnamed New York City English faculty/ It’s the model for a whole genre of novels that consist of seemingly disconnected paragraphs or short sections, such as Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights or just about anything by Maggie Nelson. It’s brilliant and funny and cutting and the whole is much, much more than the sum of its parts, even if it is difficult to say just what the book is about. But it’s clear that Adler nailed the 70s without ever leaving her novel feel dated. “There are only so many plots. . . Maybe there are stories, even, like solitaire or canasta; they are shuffled and dealt, then they do or they do not come out. Or the deck falls on the floor.”

Carole Angier. Speak, Silence: In Search of W.G. Sebald. London: Bloomsbury, 2021. For those expecting a traditional biography, refereed by a neutral and omniscient power, Speak, Silence will be seen as flawed. Angier was hobbled from the start by powers beyond her control: several key people would not speak to her and the Wylie Agency would not grant her permission to quote from many of Sebald’s letters or from his books and interviews. I, however, am terribly glad she persisted with this book, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. Limited as it is, it’s still is a remarkable and welcome achievement, chock full of new biographical information from start to finish. For my much longer review, see here.

Anuk Arudpragasam. A Passage North. NY: Random House, 2021. A Passage North is in the running for my book of the year. The plot is simple: Krishan, working for an NGO in Colombo, Sri Lanka, takes a long train journey north to attend a funeral. But the book is a complex meditation on freedom, men and women, duty, the aftereffects of war, and so much more. Arudpragasam is a student of philosophy, a stunning writer, and a very observant human being. I was bowled over by his powerful first novel, The Story of a Brief Marriage (Granta, 2016), which follows roughly twenty-four hours in the life of Dinesh, a young man living in a desperate refugee camp of some tens of thousands of people in Sri Lanka, and this is even stronger.

John Banville. Athena. NY: Knopf, 1995. I first read Athena twenty-five years ago and it entranced me even more this second time around. There are times when I wondered if Banville ever met an adjective he didn’t like, but I really admire the power of his prose style in books like Athena and The Book of Evidence (1989). Their long spiraling sentences, written with a robust vocabulary that make me keep my dictionary by my side, are perfectly fitted to Banville’s quirky story that blends snobby art history and Dublin criminal underworld. So when Banville breaks stride and writes a simple declarative sentence, it stops you dead in your tracks and you realize you are in the hands of a master writer at the top of his game.

Michel Butor. Passing Time. Manchester: Pariah Press, 2021. First published in France in 1956 as L’Emploi du Temps. Pariah Press has undertaken the wonderful job of republishing for the first time the 1960 English translation by Jean Stewart, which has long (and criminally) been out of print. Passing Time tells the story of Jacques Revel, a Frenchman who arrives in the English city of Bleston (modeled after Manchester), having been hired by a small company for one year to translate business documents. Over the course of his year he makes a few friends, starts to fall in love with one woman, then shifts his attention to her sister, all the while exploring the city on foot and by bus. Midway through his term, one of his new acquaintances is nearly killed by a car in a hit-and-run accident, and Revel believes that something he did may have set off the chain of events that led to the attempted murder. So, halfway through his year, he sets out to play detective and to see if his actions were in any way connected to that event. He tries to remember everything he can about his stay in Bleston and, to aid himself, he decides to document it all in writing, which becomes the book we are reading. The result is that time—past, present, and future—forms the three interwoven strands of the text we are reading. Passing Time is genetically related to two important artistic movements taking place in the mid-1950s in France—the New Novel (or Nouveau Roman) and the Situationist International. I think it’s one of the great novels of the twentieth century. See my longer review here.

Laynie Browne, ed. A Forest on Many Stems: Essays on the Poet’s Novel. Brooklyn: Nightboat Books, 2021. I couldn’t resist a book with this title, even though it was 580 pages long. It has fifty-some-odd essays, each discussing a single author and usually a single book. What is a poet’s novel? Well, too many of the essayists tried to answer that question to let the reader come to any clear conclusion. But here’s how the book’s editor tried to answer that question: “The texts represented in this book are the result of writers who are not content to reside in the known, who in the face of limitations of one form will create another. The leap from one textual behavior to another suggests an emphasis on process, and an impulse against completion in favor of detour, fracture, digression, displacement and discontinuity.” In other words, it’s a bit like trying to nail ice cream to the wall. A few too many of the essays are too hyper-academic for my taste, but the great joy of reading A Forest on Many Stems is that it led me to look into novels I had never heard about or considered reading before. There are essays on writers as disparate as Lewis Carroll. H.D., Lyn Hejinian, Langston Hughes, Audre Lorde, Mina Loy, Michael Ondaatje, Fernando Pessoa, Leslie Scalapino, Gertrude Stein, Jean Toomer, Rosemarie Waldrop, and Phillip Whalen. Dan Beachy-Quick writes about W.G. Sebald’s book The Ring of Saturn. He suggests that “one marker of a poet’s novel is a willingness to trust distraction, to follow digression.” So true.

Edmund de Waal. Letters to Camondo. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021. The British ceramicist and memoir-writer Edmund de Waal writes some fifty-eight “letters” to Moïse Camondo (1860-1935), who had been a friend and neighbor of his relative Charles Ephrussi (1849-1905), who featured prominently in his earlier book The Hare with Amber Eyes. During World War II, Camondo’s daughter Béatrice, her husband, and their two children, all Jews, were deported and sent to Auschwitz, where all four perished. In this beautiful and haunting book, we learn a fair amount about Camondo and about the French decorative arts, which he collected passionately. But we also learn about the French antisemitism which affected the lives and deaths of the Camondo family. Today, the Camondo mansion in Paris is the Musée Nissim de Camondo, a branch of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs.

Percival Everett. Erasure. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2001. In the first of Percival Everett’s two novels on this list, Thelonius “Monk” Ellison is a an academic and a novelist accused of writing “dense, obscure novels.” He’s initially scornful, when he sees the kind of money and movie offers thrown at the authors of books like We Lives in Da Ghetto. But eventually, under personal economic pressures, he writes a ghetto novel of his own in pseudo-vernacular Black argot under a pseudonym and strikes it rich. The dialectic between his academic desire to remain a pure, marginalized novelist read by an elite few or to be an economically independent black entrepreneur who caters to popular demands, becomes a fascinating tug of war in Everett’s hands.

Percival Everett. The Trees. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2021. I binge-read Everett’s satirical novel about lynching and Emmett Till and two weeks later I could barely remember many of the plot details. That’s the risk Everett takes in this farcical, biting book. The gruesome murders of white folks, accompanied by the bodies of seemingly lynched Black corpses, are offset by Everett’s almost breezy narrative, with its Keystone Kops, stereotypical hillbilly rednecks, and characters with names right out of Thomas Pyncheon—delicious names like Delroy Digby, the Doctor Reverend Fancel Fondle, Philworth Bass, Junior Junior, Chester Hobnobber, McDonald McDonald, Helvetical Quip, Pick L. Dill, and Pinch Wheyface. But the book is deadly serious and, like America itself, we have to ignore a world of distractions if we’re going to be able to see Mama Z’s filing cabinets, where there is a record of “almost everything ever written about every lynching in these United States of America since 1913.” Powerful. Read it twice. See my review here.

Ruth Franklin. A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. An exceptional book about some of the writers who ignored Theodor Adorno’s infamous maxim that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” although in this case Franklin focuses on novelists. A terrific writer and a judicious thinker, she studies six “witnesses” (writers who have written novels about their own Holocaust experiences), four “who came after” (writers who didn’t experience the Holocaust first hand but still wrote about it, including W.G. Sebald), and a couple of second- and third-generation writers (Jonathan Safran Foer, etc.). One of her main achievements is to try to untangle the various ethical conundrums that hover about these books, deserved or not.

Dan Gretton. I You We Them. Journeys Beyond Evil: The Desk Killers in History and Today. Volume 1. London: William Heinemann, 2019. This true doorstop of a book (1,089 pages) is an extended attempt to understand how people “sit at desks” or otherwise act remotely at jobs that knowingly result in the deaths of people, whether these people are Nazi criminals ordering the Final Solution or are corporate executives making decisions that will kill locals in the Niger Delta or some other far-off location. Gretton’s book is simultaneously an act of research (who knew what? who did what?), an exploration of the psychology of desk killers, and a tentative exploration into the subject of repentance. Needless to say, this is a tough book to read and it must have been even tougher to spend twenty years or more researching and writing it. But Gretton wisely intersperses the tough stuff with both snippets and longer pieces of memoir-like writing that are more or less unrelated to the bulk of the book. At first I thought this was really gratuitous, but I came to see that, amongst a thousand pages of horrendous acts, we need to see what normalcy looks like now and then.

Wolfgang Koeppen. Death in Rome. NY: Norton, 2001. Translated from the 1954 German original by Michael Hofmann. Throughout this novel, the reader follows members of the Pfaffrath family members as they explore the Eternal City of Rome, meet in various combinations, plot, sin, and discover family secrets. The two most prominent family members are Gottlieb Judejahn, a former SS general who has been convicted and sentenced to death in absentia at the Nuremberg Trails, but who now runs the military of an unnamed Arab nation under an assumed name, and Siegfried Pfaffrath, a young German composer whose composition is having its premiere soon at a concert hall here. But family secrets and irrepressible personal urges will ultimately prove fatal. It is Koeppen’s conceit is to bring these Germans to Rome, a city “built on the bodies of its victims,” let them loose, and watch them self-destruct. In doing so, everyone’s true nature shines through, exposing the forces that Koeppen felt led the German people astray. Full review here.

Wendy Lower. The Ravine: A Family, A Photograph, A Holocaust Massacre Revealed. NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021. A discomfiting detective story. Historian Wendy Lower takes a single newly-discovered photograph of the horrific final moments when a mother and two children are actually being shot by German officials and local collaborators and tracks it back to the site where the murders occurred in 1944 in the Ukraine. Along the way, she discovers the identity of the photographer, the shooters, and the likely victims. This is how Holocaust research is really done. A short, utterly fascinating book. Thanks to Dorian at https://eigermonchjungfrau.blog/ for pointing me to this one.

Javier Marias. Berta Isla. NY: Knopf, 2019. Translated from the 2017 Spanish original by Margaret Jull Costa. In many of his books, Javier Marias is obsessed with the trappings of traditional marriage. He has found ways to put the marital ideals of faithfulness and trust to the ultimate test through infidelity, murder, and other trials. Here he tests a marriage by dishonesty, disappearance, and silence. A Spaniard, Tomás Nevinson, is a spy for Britain’s MI6. He’s married to Berta Isla, has two children, and goes off frequently for weeks or months at a time on jobs he is not permitted to explain to her. Much of the book is told from her perspective as she tries to cope with a husband she can never really, truly know. And then, without warning, Tomás disappears, apparently for good, and with no explanation from MI6. This thought-provoking and compelling novel, which returns to some of the characters of his Your Face Tomorrow trilogy from a decade ago, is set among the ethical uncertainties of post-Franco Spain.

Ali Smith. The Accidental. NY: Penguin, 2005. A young woman’s car breaks down near the rental home of the Smart family during their summer holiday in Norfolk. Amber, youngish, but of indeterminate age, serves as the agent of change who transforms each member of the Smart family into a magnified version of themselves. Thirteen-year old Aster, teen-aged Michael and the parents, Eve and Michael, each become individually ensnared in Amber’s world in different ways, until the summer comes to a dramatic and traumatic ending. I’ve tried and failed to like two previous novels by Ali Smith, but this one, her breakthrough novel, hit it out of the park. It’s formally inventive, if not groundbreaking, and it’s terrifically funny and nicely cynical. It’s one of those rare novels that seems as if it must have been absolutely thrilling to write, day after day.

Rebecca Solnit. Wanderlust: A History of Walking. NY: Penguin, 2001. Solnit gives the reader much, much more than you would expect from the title. In addition to a history of walking, hiking, pilgrimages, marches, and just about everything else that happens when people move their two feet, Solnit deals with the issues women face on the streets, the problems of the suburbs, and recent attempt to curb walking on sidewalks and other normally public thoroughfares through a variety of legal means. Any book by Solnit is a winner as far as I am concerned.

Charles Todd. A Test of Wills. NY: HarperCollins, 1996. The first of the Inspector Ian Rutledge mysteries takes place in Warwickshire, just after WWI. Rutledge has to deal with a death in a small village where the primary witnesses seem to be an unreliable war veteran with shell shock and a hysterical child. But Rutledge also has to deal with his own war-related issues: is he still the detective he was before enduring the trenches of France and coming home to find that his fiancé has left him? This is the best writing I have run across in a mystery in some time. Rutledge is a well-rounded character, the time and place seem realistically portrayed, not set pieces, and the key characters are given psychological depth. I look forward to more of these pleasant escapes, although, sadly, one half of the “Charles Todd” team has just passed away as I write this.

Virginia Woolf. Mrs. Dalloway. 1925. This is a re-reading and it still astonishes. Every page is a delight to read. Mrs. Dalloway is even better than I remembered, though I think Woolf struggled to make the party section work as well as the rest of the book. What I had forgotten was how little of the book is seen through Clarissa Dalloway’s perspective—maybe one-tenth?