The other day on Twitter, Matthew Jakubowski mentioned a chapter from one of my very favorite books—Tove Jannson’s The Summer Book. I replied back that this book sits comfortably on my list of “perfect” books and just thinking about it makes me want to reread it immediately. Matt kindly asked me which other books were on the list – and I’ve been thinking about this question ever since.
I do not throw the “perfect” word around lightly. I hate rating systems (one of the reasons I quit Goodreads) because they involve a notion of a perfect score and I often cannot bring myself to do this. No book is perfect because books are meaningful and wonderful in so many different ways. But I had an odd reading year and I have been avoiding writing up a list of my favorite books read in 2013, so instead I think it might be interesting to finish 2013 with an attempt to explain what I mean by that ridiculous word “perfect” and why I consider certain books deserve it.
The Summer Book and To the Lighthouse are the books I most often call “perfect” and without any hesitation. But after some thought, here is my list in alphabetical order:
- John Berger – To the Wedding
- Coetzee – Disgrace
- John Fuller – Flying to Nowhere
- Laurent Gaudé – Ouragan (Hurricane)
- Tove Jansson – The Summer Book
- Michèle Lesbre – Le Canapé Rouge (The Red Sofa)
- Alice McDermott – That Night
- Marilynne Robinson – Housekeeping
- Toni Morrison – The Bluest Eye
- Virginia Woolf – To the Lighthouse
These are the books I find myself thinking about long after I’ve finished, and books I have reread multiple times. Until Matt asked me to make a list, I hadn’t considered what it was about these books that make them so perfect to me. But I’ll attempt to do that now. And it should go without saying that this is a wholly subjective list, and the criteria have to do with my own reading tastes and personality. It would be silly to claim that these are “perfect” books in any other sense.
Before I go into the list, you’ll note that I deliberately did not include any classic literature. I worry the list will be too long, and somehow the criteria very different. A perfect classic book is so much different than a perfect contemporary book. (But for what it’s worth, I love Vanity Fair as well as Northanger Abbey, I usually prefer George Eliot to Dickens, and I worship Balzac and adore Flaubert’s L’Education Sentimentale. Also, Michel Montaigne is my main 16th century squeeze).
Back to the list. First off, these are all novels. I can think of several short story collections that get me very excited—Michelle Latiolais’s Widow, Mariko Nagai’s Georgic & Mary Costello’s The China Factory to name the first that immediately come to mind—but story collections must always be broken up into their separate parts and are experienced, at least for me, with pause and distance between each piece. I’m an intense reader and I love the intensity that comes with a sustained read of a longer piece. We could obviously have another conversation about the “perfect” short story.
Despite my preference for novels, these are all relatively short books. I do have a certain kind of admiration for long, complicated, saga-type books and there are several I consider absolutely wonderful examples of this genre—although under the influence of several glasses of wine, I might be willing to admit that so far not many contemporary doorstoppers have yet to come anywhere near my “perfect” books list—Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai comes close). Yet I have found that time and again a book with more than 300 pages is difficult to engage with in exactly the kind of intense and uninterrupted reading that I prefer.
Thinking about it, the single most important element for me that gets most of these books onto my list is that there is something about the structure or the narrative perspective that is actively engaged with the way the story is presented to the reader. I suppose most good novel’s have the right kind of invisible structure that just simply and elegantly supports the story – and this is great. But I actually love it when the structure sticks its neck out a bit and subtly influences or comments on the story itself. In Gaudé’s Ouragan, for example, there are five voices telling the story of Hurricane Katrina. Some 3rd person, some 1st person – and all very distinctive. They are messy, they overlap, they re-tell parts of each other’s story and they effectively resonate as a parallel human storm alongside the natural storm. In Michèle Lesbre’s Le Canapé Rouge there are two stories being told and the trick that gets me with this book is how the story that appears to be working in service to the main story suddenly rises up and becomes the more important story in the end.
In terms of narrative perspective, what I’m talking about usually falls just a bit short of outright/obvious metafiction but again there is a particular way the perspective influences the reader’s understanding of the story. The 3rd person narrator in Disgrace, for example, who is so close to David Lurie that it feels like a 1st person. And yet this absolutely side-blind narrator manages to depict the emotional/political unsteadiness of an entire population. Or the nearly effaced 1st person narrator in Alice McDermott’s That Night who is telling someone else’s story but manages to make it extremely meaningful to her own by the time she is done. It’s beautifully done. Or John Berger’s To the Wedding, whose entire narrative perspective is a trick of re-writing and storytelling magic. And of course Morrison’s The Bluest Eye with its sorrowful yet angry 1st person narrator and her exploration of another person’s life.
Finally, I very much admire books that involve some kind of dark whimsy. John Fuller’s Flying to Nowhere is the best example of this—pure poetry, a bit outlandish or fantastic, extremely sensual but intellectual at the same time. (I found the same aesthetic in Jeannette Winterson’s The Passion and in all that I’ve read of Barbara Comyns, and I nearly put those books on this list as well). Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book does this without ever touching the fantastic—but the whimsy and the darkness is there, as it is in the most excellent The True Deceiver.
And To the Lighthouse seems to fit all of these criteria. The epitome of a perfect book (to me).
I just know that I am overlooking several books I should like to have included, but these will have to do for now. I’m surprised that I have not put any Nadine Gordimer on this list—I adore her work, and the books of hers I’d most like to include are The Pick-Up and The Conservationist (for her peculiar dual narration) but I will trust my initial hesitation and leave them off. And for the curious, here are a few other books I hesitated about including: Pia Juul – The Murder of Halland, Marilynne Robinson – Gilead, Christine Schutt – Florida, Carson McCuller’s – The Ballad of the Sad Café, Per Petterson – Out Stealing Horses, David Malouf – The Conversations at Curlew Creek, Gerbrand Bakker – The Detour, Agota Kristof – Trilogy, Kirsty Gunn – Featherstone, Clarice Lispector – Agua Viva. All excellent.
Now, I’d love to hear your thoughts – and your own lists if you care to share them. In this way you’ll give me some book suggestions for 2014. And I’ll just finish up here with a tiny New Year’s resolution to write more often on this blog – I miss the longer bookish conversations that can be had through blogging. Am hoping to find some of that again in the coming year.
“Valuing Experimental Literary Book Publishing as Non-Monetized Thought,” a conversation between Peter Dimock and Ian Dreiblatt in the new issue of The Quarterly Conversation:
From Dimock’s letter, which looks at George Dyson’s book Turing’s Cathedral and its relevance to publishing (and everything else):
I have read Dyson’s book as a novelist and editor who was trained as a historian. The book’s enormous gift to me is that it provides an intelligible interior account of the instrumentalization of the militarized forces of command and control implicit in both Alan Turing and John von Neumann’s understanding of computer technology and its potential enhancement of human thought. Dyson does this with a subtle insistence on the madness of the present, ever-intensifying magnitude of that instrumentalization, devoted to ever more effective, and exponentially increasing, applications of cybernetic techniques of command and control.
Dyson, by intimately detailing the Cold War history of the development of new technologies’ uses for modern versions of ever-increasing domination, convincingly demonstrates that their present use for the maximum extraction of profit by corporations within a militarized global state system has nothing to do with any universal scientific “law” of value, optimal rationality, or “truth.” Rather, the generative capacities of mathematical language, of natural human language, and of nature itself suggest that today’s frenzied, universal monetization of value, tied to cybernetic algorithms maximizing efficiency in ways that lead their beneficiaries to use metrics as substitutes for ethics, may be better understood as the approaching dead end of a militarized Cold War civilization from which we have been unable to find any exit.
From Dreiblatt’s response:
I am talking about restoring to literature a kind of holy pugilism, a communitarian militancy for the reestablishment of the word—not as a chimerical, status-free discursive sphere, but as the crucial material through which these other forms of value will be created. The street and the barricade in it. And what I take this to mean more practically is that we need language to supplant the analytic engine as the central force in our daily determinations of presence in, and absence from, the world. The deliberative process must be returned to language because language, for all its failures and unbridgeable chasms, is the only formal symbolic system porous and flexible enough to reflect the complexity and unrealized possibilities of human social life. It is language that invented the question.
You can read the whole essay here.
Have had the pleasure of reviewing two wonderful books lately for Necessary Fiction. The first is Red Room: New Short Stories Inspired by the Brontës—and this title tells you nearly all you need to know, except how absolutely excellent the writing is in this collection. Unthank Books and Editor A.J. Ashworth put together an incredible list of contributors, and each writer seemed to have had their fun with the idea of re-envisioning, re-writing, or working through Brontë inspiration:
Here is a little of what I had to say about the collection:
There are also stories that engage with the melancholy of the Brontës, like David Rose’s beautiful “Brontesaurus” and Carys Davies “Bonnet.” The first is an elegant story of loneliness and academic solace, a piece that worries away at words like grief and drear in first a strictly literal manner and then a more emotional, more metaphorically delicate way. In “Bonnet” we are back to contemplating the real Charlotte Brontë in an imagined scene that quite possibly could have taken place and that gets at the heart of Charlotte’s conflicting personality: the passionate writer, the careful lover.
The range of subject and theme in the other stories is quite impressive: the deceptions of a modern-day governess, the death of a loved one, a contemporary Catherine & Heathcliff romance, a hike on the moors invoking Sherlock Holmes and much Brontë lore, and even fictional letters between Emma Woodhouse and Jane Eyre. As a purely selfish wish, I would have enjoyed a bit of direct engagement with Anne Brontë, she seems so often overlooked and yet her works are as powerful and complex as her two more studied sisters. And it is fun to speculate what a story inspired by Branwell or the Brontë children’s fantasy worlds of Angria or Gondal might have added, but this is not to say that Red Room feels incomplete, only a little Charlotte-heavy. As a whole, Red Room is a provocative, emotionally-engaging and witty anthology. It is clear that the authors featured here took to their task with both application and admiration.
You can read the whole review here.
Next, I read a début novel by an American writer, Elizabeth Gentry, called Housebound, which was quite simply excellent. If you are a fan of Barbara Comyns (and I know many of you are), you will want to go right out and get this book.
“They” are a peculiar family—nine children, two parents—living in a large house on the outskirts of a small city. In many respects, they are an experiment, a utopia created by the parents according to very specific rules. The greatest of which is their near complete isolation from anyone else excepting a weekly trip to the library. This excludes the father who works every day in the city—and his difference from the rest of the family is an important element of Gentry’s narrative structure. Now, if this house and family is a utopia, it is one without a moving force; it has turned inward and become frozen. And even when the story’s action begins with Maggie, the oldest child, deciding to leave the family and take a job in town, this feeling of being perched and poised continues. As Maggie begins her preparations for leaving and, suddenly relieved of her role as child-minder for the first time, begins to wander about the property and visit the neighbors, there is a sense of the family holding its breath. And this psychological stillness begs the question—what is everyone waiting for? That tension stretches on, and gently but powerfully becomes the novel’s focus.
I have nothing but high praise for this unique story and Gentry’s descriptions and careful storytelling. It is quite dark in some ways, but thoughtful and beautifully written, and more interested in complicated salvation than any kind of long drawn-out portrayal of gorgeous failure. That sentence may need some explaining, but I hope it is clear that I mean this book does not focus on making something horrible seem beautiful nor on ending on some trite feeling of redemption. The book has a wonderful mood to it and I’m really looking forward to anything else that Gentry will write.
You can read the whole review here.
Also, I’ll sneak two mentions of my own writings in this post. I have a short poem in the Fall issue of the Ann Arbor Review. A tiny thing, some thoughts about the word proof.
Lately, I’ve been working to write fiction from photographs again, and it was nice to think about the very first time I did this and ended up with “St. Tropez.”
Finally, I started reading Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses (tr. Anne Born) the other day. What a beautiful book—I am sad it has taken me so long to get to his work. (Of course I could say this about so many authors-the panic of someone who would like to read it all.) Reading this book has me also thinking about John Pistelli’s list of books he’d put into a category he is calling Penitential Realism. I am very drawn to this idea, and I would definitely put Out Stealing Horses on this list. His essay on this idea of Penitential Realism (HT: Anthony at Time’s Flow) has been circulating around in my brain for the last week or so.
Something I am really enjoying in Out Stealing Horses are the narrator’s tangents—how odd, or slightly off-topic, but always somehow organic they seem to be. Like this one, which addresses a supposed coincidence in the story, but ends up commenting on life and fiction in general, but also addresses something Pistelli mentions in his essay about the books on his list and their “resistance to the kind of holistic plotting that binds the narrative into a fully meaningful structure of coincidence…”
I have in fact done a lot of reading particularly during the last few years, but earlier too, by all means, and I have thought about what I’ve read, and that kind of coincidence seems far-fetched in fiction, in modern novels anyway, and I find it hard to accept. It may be all very well in Dickens, but when you read Dickens you’re reading a long ballad from a vanished world, where everything has to come together in the end like an equation, where the balance of what was once disturbed must be restored so that the gods can smile again. A consolation, maybe, or a protest against a world gone off the rails, but it is not like that anymore, my world is not like that, and I have never gone along with those who believe our lives are governed by fate.
Reading Zelda Fitzgerald’s Save Me the Waltz was not an ideal reading experience. It was difficult for me to get through this book and consider it on its own—its story is too enmeshed with the history of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, and the ways in which both writers cannibalized their real lives to write their novels. Mostly, it was difficult for me to separate Alabama Knight, the heroine of Save Me the Waltz, from what I know of Zelda Fitzgerald, and this irritates me because I want to think about her as a creation. I assume that even if Zelda had been drawing on her own life for inspiration, Alabama was her creation—not a stand-in or a mouthpiece or even an example, an ideal, an apology.
This is how I always assume that fiction is written, and how the book deserves to be considered. A university professor named Harry T. Moore writes the introduction (in 1966) to my Vintage copy of Save Me the Waltz and he considers the book not much more than a footnote to Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. He spends most of his introduction talking about Scott instead of Zelda, and he dismisses Alabama Knight’s story in the same way he dismisses Zelda as a writer – asserting that her attempts to create art were based on jealousy of her husband. Even with the handful of kind words he does give this novel and its author, I cannot conceive of a more condescending and dishonest introduction to a work of literature.
Matthew Bruccoli’s Note on the Text tells me that Scott acted as an advisor to Zelda’s revisions to the novel but that it does not seem likely that he actually re-wrote the manuscript. So, I think, readers are safe to assume that the novel is mostly her own work. But we can also assume—sadly, frustratingly—that any editing Zelda may have needed or benefitted from (by Maxwell Perkins at Scribner and from Scott Fitzgerald) did not honestly take the book on its own terms, but took it already at that time as an amendment to Scott’s work.
Because of all of this background, before I say anything else about the book, I want to say this: Save Me the Waltz is a novel in its own right. A novel that stands up as a story without the reader knowing anything about its writer or her marriage or her life. It is a novel with an intriguing (if a bit lopsided) structure and form. A novel that suits its time period—with modernist language patterns and a distinctly modernist mood.
Something that struck me right away about Save Me the Waltz is how it reminded me of Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor – that dark southern gothic feel and something about the way the mysterious and brooding interior life of the female character is written. How she reacts-emotionally-to the world around her. And then I had to check dates because, contrary to what I was expecting, Zelda Fitzgerald wrote this novel ten years before Carson McCullers would publish her first novel and twenty years before Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. It is even earlier than Eudora Welty’s first short story publication. So I think we need to be very careful about ever using the word “derivative” when talking about Zelda Fitzgerald.
There are four parts to Save Me the Waltz: Alabama’s late adolescence, her marriage to David Knight and their life in Europe, her ballet obsession, and then her injury and return to extended family. It is extremely interesting that the book opens and closes with Alabama’s family in the United States, with discussions of tradition and inter-generational observations. That mirroring of sections invites a wonderful discussion about how Zelda reflects upon some of the questions raised within the middle parts of the novel’s structure—especially in terms of marriage and how a life is to be lived.
Superficially, this is the story of an American couple who travel to Europe and what happens to them while they are there. But the story is much more interior than it is about “event”; indeed, there are few events in the story. A first significant event would be Alabama’s unexpected infatuation with a Frenchman she meets during one of their first stops in Europe, when the teeth of a dangerous boredom have begun to nip at her already. This “event” creates a fissure in the relationship façade that Alabama and David have created both publically and privately. A first question is raised about personal freedom and exclusivity in love—which the Knights do not address head-on, instead they avoid each other and themselves in constant partying and an empty life of friends and high-living. Anything to keep boredom at bay. Especially for Alabama, who has nothing to do but party. No role for her except wife to her painter husband and mother to a young child. Without a passion of her own, these are her only two choices. Some time later, they have a brief exchange about their tumultuous life and David says, offhand, that he “needs new emotional stimulus.”
Alabama looked at him coldly.
“I see.” She realized that she had sacrificed forever her right to be hurt on the glory of a Provençal summer.
It is a brief moment, but the tone of the novel swings dramatically after this point. Alabama becomes bitter as David looks at other women and eventually begins an affair with a French actress. The way Alabama thinks about herself after this—in comparison to other women or the ways in which she refers to her body or her self—changes, becomes at first fidgety, and then dark. She is interested in David’s infidelity, but also in her own reaction, in her own desires. In the space of a few short pages, the reader witnesses a surprising loss of confidence, which eventually fuels the novel’s greatest “event”—Alabama’s obsession with ballet.
But just before this are a few of Alabama’s more curious & thoughtful reflections:
In response to an offhand comment about the possibility of her learning to dance:
Alabama went secretly over her body. It was rigid, like a lighthouse. “It might do,” she mumbled, the words rising through her elation like a swimmer coming up from a deep dive.
In response to David’s infidelity:
Men, she thought, never seem to become the things they do, like women, but belong to their own philosophic interpretations of their actions.
And finally, in one of the last paragraphs before she makes the decision to become a dancer:
The macabre who lived through the war have a story they love to tell about the soldiers of the Foreign Legion giving a ball in the expanses around Verdun and dancing with the corpses. Alabama’s continued brewing of the poisoned filter for a semiconscious banquet table, her insistence on the magic and glamor of life when she was already feeling its pulse like the throbbing of an amputated leg, had something of the same sinister quality.
The next section of the novel is my favorite. An intense 65 pages in which all of the novel’s difficult questions reside. Alabama becomes a dancer. She abandons her husband and her child—slowly at first, then openly when a position opens in an Italian ballet company—and she experiences something that makes her feel alive in a way that nothing up to this point in her life has ever done. And of course this feeling comes with an equally intense sacrifice. Because to feel this way, she must be alone. She cannot have this feeling and have her family at the same time.
Interestingly, the prose in this section of the novel is dramatically different than the other sections. Smoother, cleaner. Very vivid. The narrator’s sensitivity has turned from emotional to physical, and then, every once in a while, connects the two in a dramatic way:
He exhibited her to his friends as if she were one of his pictures.
“Feel her muscle,” he said. Her body was almost their only point of contact.
Isn’t that rather devastating?
I won’t ruin the ending of this book by saying anything else about it except that the story of Alabama and David comes full circle in an interesting way. The last few pages reconnect with the beginning of the book, but also draw a line straight out from patterns created in the middle. And the mood created by the ending is both curious and frighteningly bleak.
All of this is to say that I think Save Me the Waltz—its structure and especially its creation of a character like Alabama Knight—deserves much more consideration than Mr. Harry T. Moore ever thought to give it. Not to mention those involved in the book’s original publication. I’m guessing the academic world has done this or is starting to, and I hope there will be more discussions of her work on its own terms. Whatever the similarities to Zelda’s real life and despite the small ways the writing may falter from to time (ZF has trouble with metaphors and, a bit less often, with narrative consistency), this is not a book that should be dismissed so quickly. Or lauded only for its contribution to an understanding of Scott Fitzgerald’s work. It has a life of its own, it raises questions absolutely unrelated to anyone’s biography, and the writing is interesting for its fragmentation, unusual descriptions and pacing. It is the kind of book that makes me wish the author had had a chance to write again, to write differently, to finish with this story (which perhaps she needed to tell), and try her hand at another.
I thought to do a little microscoping work on Beauty on Earth for a change. Here is one of my favorite scenes, when Juliette first escapes from her uncle’s café:
But the door to the house had closed again. The girl was now on the other side of the door, in other words, on the good side. She had all the music for herself. All she needed to do was swim up it, like she would have swum up a stream. Just past the ninepins game was a kind of passage which opened up between two walls behind some sheds. She entered into the passage. She raises her head, turning it right and left. It was on the right. The wall was taller than her, but now we begin to see who she is. A wagon with a ladder had been pushed against the wall; she grabbed hold of it with two hands, having wrapped her shawl around her belt, and then began to climb up the ladder, in the moonlight, because the moon had just come out from behind the clouds, and so the moon was on her hair, on her shoulders, then on her skirt and around her legs. We saw how flexible she was. She held herself crouched for an instant at the top of the wall, leaning forward on her hands which she held flat before her; she was on the edge of a paved terrace used for hanging out the washing, which we could see by the iron lines fixed between two supports. We saw that she knew what she was doing. We saw that she knew how to take care of herself. She did not stand up, did not straighten herself; that would have made it too easy to see her. That first quarter of the moon shone like a well washed ice cube over the Café Milliquet, shining even farther out on the water like a kind of long road casting back its reflection; she crawled like a cat. She was so quiet that she seemed to add to the silence with her crawling. She made it to the other side of the terrace. All she had to do was stretch along it with her body, with only her eyes peeking out.
There are two lines I absolutely love in this short scene.
The first is, “She had all the music for herself,” and how, with these words, suddenly the village disappears completely, leaving Juliette alone with the accordion music, alone with the reader. She is rarely allowed to be alone in the novel, she is under constant surveillance – and here Ramuz allows the reader to be the only one spying on her. It’s a lovely trick.
The second line that always brings me up short is, “… but now we begin to see who she is.” This is the key, I think, to how much Ramuz stays away from Juliette’s mind. He is telling us here that the story is not going to be about her as much as it will be about the others. He is telling us that she will be fine no matter what else happens. That we aren’t to get caught up in worrying about Juliette. I love the daring in this.
One of the tangential bonuses to having this blog is that I feel fairly free to write up some of my more unfinished thoughts about a book. I recently wrote a review for Necessary Fiction of Hanna Krall’s Chasing the King of Hearts, which is the latest novella published by Peirene Press.
I really enjoyed Chasing the King of Hearts – as I have enjoyed almost everything Peirene has published. But when I started to write my review, I realized that I wanted to be able to talk about the book as an example of Holocaust literature and how it resisted some of what has become stereotypical about that kind of novel. So I started to write something and I came up with this rough bunch of sentences:
There is a moment when reading the first few pages of a Holocaust novel that a kind of uneasy wariness sets in—is this going to be exciting? is it going to start to feel like a film? It’s unfortunate that graphic depictions of human misery in literature can become exciting once they start to feel familiar, like a good thriller, or once it becomes easy to sort out the bad guys from the good guys and just exactly how many characters a reader will accept for random destruction before deciding the narrative has lost all of its beauty. Do not misunderstand me, these narratives—of all genocides, of all our horrific collective failures—must be told and retold and told again, even at the risk of becoming a kind of kitsch industry for both the heroes and the martyrs. Literature reminds, literature explores, literature reveals and unveils.
But this is also why it is such a relief to experience a novel that carefully resists this drive toward a recognizable cinematic cliché and cathartic memorialization.
When I got to the final draft of the review, I realized that I had to cut these sentences out of it. Mostly because I haven’t actually read enough Holocaust literature to make this kind of claim – and those that I have read tend to do exactly what I was claiming for Chasing the King of Hearts.
I’m thinking of books like Philippe Claudel’s Brodeck’s Report or Martin Amis’s Times Arrow, Maureen Myant’s The Search and Arnost Lustig’s Lovely Green Eyes. I have not read Thomas Keannely’s Schindler’s Ark (but I have seen the film) and I’m curious to see how I might consider it – whether it might even be possible to experience it on its own, without Liam Neeson’s face popping in. A book that I might hesitantly put into the other category is Jonathan Saffran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated, which struck me when I read it as using more superficial shock than meditative depth. After cutting those lines from my review and thinking about the idea some more, I am curious where I’ve gotten the notion that there are proper ways to handle novelizing the Holocaust (and other books about horrific historical events) as opposed to ways that are inherently cliché.
I’m not sure, but I will leave my half-finished thought up there –in the hopes that it might generate a little discussion and some book suggestions.
The other thing I wanted to mention when writing about Chasing the King of Hearts was how fitting it was that Peirene brought this book into English, especially as Peirene’s publisher, Meike Ziervogel, has herself written a remarkable novella, Magda (Salt Publishing, 2012) that also tells a WWII story from an extremely unique perspective – it is a short but brutal story going over parts of the life of Magda Goebbels. It is both fascinating and horrible (not just the poisoning of the children but the way Ziervogel illuminates the Nazi psychosis) and while I really admire Ziervogel’s work and research and narrative skill, I have found it a little difficult to write about the book. It’s a remarkable book – it is subtle and straightforward and resists cliché in the same way as the books I mentioned above. I found it devastating. From my own perspective as a woman and a mother, I think that Ziervogel was incredibly brave for working within such a story, for getting as close as she does to such a difficult series of events.
Ziervogel recently wrote about the experience of writing Magda and her thoughts add a nice filter through which to look at the book – I found her comment on why she chose to write the book’s most difficult scene from a specific character’s POV very interesting. As I was reading the end of Magda, I wondered whether the scene might actually have been easier to face – as a writer – from the perspective she chooses, but she adds some historical nuance to her choice that is very appropriate.
Just wanted to mention some of the writing and reading projects I’ve had the pleasure of seeing out in the world lately:
In August I had two reviews go up over at Necessary Fiction. The first was for the new webjournal Spolia. This is a sister publication of Bookslut and it promises really good things. Here’s just a bit of what I had to say about the first two issues:
These first two issues of Spolia establish that it is an extremely exciting new literary journal. Its dual engagement with the past and the present, its emphasis on translation, its unpretentious intellectual nature and its obvious but unstated conviction that women’s writing (as contributor or subject) is to be taken as seriously as men’s, and its sly embrace of often marginalized topics all mean that Spolia promises to become a worthy and worthwhile contributor to our 21st century literary discussions.
I make it very clear that I was really impressed with the first two issues and I’m really looking forward to see what else they come out with. You can read my full review here.
The second review was for Anne Valente’s tiny little gem of a story collection – An Elegy for Mathematics. This was a lovely read. Intense and beautiful and thoughtful. A few months have passed since I read through these stories and I am still thinking about them.
This is how I begin that review:
The fourth line of “The Water Cycle,” the ninth story in Anne Valente’s slender collection, An Elegy for Mathematics, reads:
But sometimes it made me feel strange, for reasons I can’t explain, to think that maybe you knew we had separate lives in some way, and that sometimes we did things that weren’t always the same.
The narrator and the “you” of this beautiful little story are a mother and daughter, and the question the story ultimately asks is about what the tie between them is made of, how is it formed, but this single twisting sentence works to open up a discussion about the kind of questions Valente is posing throughout the collection. How exactly are two people connected? What does that connection feel like – physically, mentally, metaphorically? And how are we different despite that fundamental association, what does our difference do to affect and alter the bonds between us?
You can read the full review here:
At the end of the summer I had a small fiction piece published over at District Lit called “the mercy and the movement.” I’m working on a series of these, putting them together into a longer work. It was fun to see this part of the puzzle published separately. A few more pieces are forthcoming, so I’ll mention those when they are out in the world.
I had the very good luck of placing a translation with Spolia (in their 3rd issue, The Wife) – this comes from my project to excavate never-before-translated women writers. Julia Allard Daudet is the first of the women I’m working on. If you are interested in French literature, you may have heard of her husband, Alphonse Daudet. Most of his work has been translated into English.
The piece itself is called “L’Inconnue” or “The Unknown Woman” and is about a woman who suddenly appears in a small Swiss alpine village and everyone speculates about who she is and why she’s there. It’s a tragedy – as all good romantic stories published in 1905 should be. Daudet was French so her setting in Switzerland was a special surprise. And the story is very much a retelling of the famous “Inconnue de la Seine” legend.
Spolia asked me a few questions about Julia Daudet and Swiss literature, and you can read the discussion here.
Last but not least, over at Necessary Fiction I recently reviewed Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall (translated by Philip Boehm). I am an unabashed fan of the publishing program at Peirene Press – foreign language translations in novella form. Chasing the King of Hearts is about a married couple (polish Jews during WWII) and what happens to them once circumstances separate them:
Here’s just a bit of the review:
This premise—that something as intangible and fragile as the connection and love between Shayek and Izolda should trump all impossible distances and insane governmental decrees and genocidal rules—is where the novella hinges. It is not so much that Izolda believes that within the context of the war she still deserves the success of her life and love, but rather despite it. On a purely psychological level, Izolda operates as if the war simply does not touch her. While her actions and movements are all prescribed and countered by what is happening in the Polish ghetto, in various prison camps, in Vienna, even in the Guben labor camp, her mindset remains firmly beyond these prescriptions. And this is this novella’s most remarkable offering.
You can read the rest of the review here.
Aside from all that I wrote about this book in my review, this is one of those books that really connects with a historical moment. That it does this through a character who literally rejects that moment is simply brilliant. And it also, though in a much quieter and subtle way, connects with the contemporary legacy of that moment. All of Krall’s work has been translated (from Polish) into German – if I’m not mistaken this is her only work now in English translation. Here’s hoping it all makes its way at some point.