For my book club this week, I got the chance to re-read Doris Lessing’s 1951 The Grass is Singing. It’s an extraordinary book—not only because of its thematic project, which is complicated and stands up to all sorts of varied interpretation and socio-historical analysis, but because her prose is somehow both utilitarian and majestic all at the same time. That word utilitarian is so ugly, I know, but I use it because Lessing is just such a competent writer. Nothing ever superfluous, and yet… she can be wonderfully, incredibly lyrical.
I marked out a long passage yesterday that struck me as symbolic of something Lessing is doing, quite cleverly, throughout the book:
In the early mornings, when Dick had gone to the lands, she would walk gently over the sandy soil in front of the house, looking up into the high blue dome that was fresh as ice crystals, a marvelous clear blue, with never a cloud to stain it, not for months and months. The cold of the night was still in the soil. She would lean down to touch it, and touched, too, the rough brick of the house, that was cool and damp against her fingers. Later, when it grew warm, and the sun seemed as hot as in summer, she would go out into the front and stand under a tree on the edge of the clearing (never far into the bush where she was afraid) and let the deep shade rest her. The thick olive-green leaves overhead let through chinks of clear blue, and the wind was sharp and cold. And then, suddenly, the whole sky lowered itself into a thick grey blanket, and for a few days it was a different world, with a soft dribble of rain, and it was really cold: so cold she wore a sweater and enjoyed the sensation of shivering inside it. But this never lasted long. It seemed that from one half hour to the next the heavy grey would grow thin, showing blue behind, and then the sky would seem to lift, with layers of dissolving cloud in the middle air; all at once, there would be a high blue sky again, all the grey curtains gone. The sunshine dazzled and glittered but held no menace; this was not the sun of October, that insidiously sapped from within. There was a lift in the air, an exhilaration. Mary felt healed – almost. Almost, she became as she had been, brisk and energetic, but with a caution in her face and in her movements that showed she had not forgotten the heat would return. She tenderly submitted herself to this miraculous three months of winter, when the country was purified of its menace.
All that underlining is mine, obviously, but these were all the places where I thought Lessing was doing something interesting. So many small elements in just one paragraph. If you read this paragraph quickly, I think you could mistake it for just a simple pause in an otherwise unsettling narrative. It feels like a break. Here is Mary (who is elsewhere in a state of constant stress and emotional breakdown), relaxing, feeling somehow at peace. And I suppose there is that. But there are warnings here too – those ice crystals, the mention of her ever-present fear of the bush, that shivering, which she oddly enjoys, and then the dazzling, glittering sun without menace. There are sharp points dotted all along this restful passage.
The repetition of the word menace struck me as well. And the way it becomes an extended, albeit sideways, discussion of “heat.” She never talks about desire, but the entire book is about the heat that seems to drive Mary crazy. And of course heat is another way of talking about desire, so I can’t help seeing that here too. Ultimately that last line, “when the country was purified of its menace,” is also about desire and about the exploration that Lessing has got going about the master/servant situation, and about the catastrophic “desire” that infuses the racial situation at the same time. I don’t mean desire in normal terms, but in the broken way that Lessing treats it. And it makes me think of one of the most incisive lines from another favorite of mine, Nadine Gordimer’s Occasion for Loving:
Every contact with whites was touched with intimacy; for even the most casual belonged by definition to the conspiracy against keeping apart.
This is, I think, what drives all that marvelous (and by marvelous, I do mean horrific) subtext throughout The Grass is Singing. And Lessing never once forgets it. She puts it into the sky and the sun, and into the very landscape. Everything is intimate.
Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs came out last year and there’s been quite a bit of discussion about it. I really like Messud’s writing (I’ve read her two novellas, The Hunters and A Simple Tale, as well as her big novel, The Emperor’s Children), mostly because she is a fiercely intelligent and intellectual writer, but also because of the way she works carefully at thorny emotional questions in her books. She can do social satire as well as intimate personal/domestic – so I was quite curious to read The Woman Upstairs and now that I’ve finished it, it’s exactly the kind of book I’d really like to discuss.
Briefly, the book is about a fortyish woman named Nora. And the book is, at least on the surface, about her anger at what life has dealt her, but also at the overall outcome of her choices and a long-chain of events that has led her to a certain moment—in this are family situations (the death of her mother being the most important, but also her childhood and her self-conception as having developed from her particular family with its specific emotional currents) and professional situations (her work as a 3rd grade teacher, her years-earlier decision to give up her dream of becoming a professional artist). Nora narrates the book, and she focuses her narrative on a single relationship, an odd kind of intense love triangle between herself and three others: Sirena, Skandar and Reza Shahid. The Shahids are a family (Reza is their young son and Nora is his teacher), and Nora and Sirena become friends and artistic collaborators (of a kind).
In the way that I have come to admire, Messud takes up a number of difficult questions in the story—namely, the particular solitude of a single childless woman in contemporary American society, the compromises a person makes in terms of fulfilling artistic dreams, the strange pull of female friendships, and also essential notions of desire and attraction and love. There is really a lot going on in the book, and she doesn’t work at these questions perfunctorily but instead she spends a lot of time on them, revisiting them in different situations and with different characters. It makes for the kind of book you can read forward and backward, slowly. Messud invites a kind of conscious reflection on Nora’s explanations and judgments, on her opinions and decisions, and so I often found myself asking – Is that true? Does it really feel like that? Do people feel that way? Do I feel that way?
I like a book that solicits this kind of engagement from me. And I love the scale of Messud’s social commentary. She can do satire (The Emperor’s Children) but in The Woman Upstairs she is decidedly never making fun of Nora Eldridge, even if the book can be funny at times. Instead, she is taking Nora very seriously—even when Nora might be difficult, or pathetic—and I found the seriousness of Messud’s project quite touching. Really, the book is a dissection of an individual’s unhappiness. Of a woman’s unhappiness. I think the distinction is important, and I think Messud makes it overtly.
One thing that struck me, however, was that the book’s emphasis on self-reflection and its choice to have Nora speak directly to the reader means that it also involves a tension between direct scene and thought-based exposition. Or, put another way, the book relies more heavily on Nora’s thinking than it does on Nora’s behavior. What she does is obviously there, but what she thinks is always and consistently forefronted. She is, quite literally, almost always “telling.” I found this a curious choice simply because the book is so much about Nora’s anger and the kind of person it has made her. Now, Nora is dealing with a simmering anger, a kind of just-barely controlled resentment—and so much of the book’s tension is wrapped up in waiting to see when she might lose control. I was surprised, in fact, at how little she does. I don’t mean big overwhelming eruptions, because I think that Messud is making a point that unless Nora intends to self-destruct (the option at one end of the anger spectrum – and something she will not ever do) she will internalize and hold it together no matter what. But Nora doesn’t ever really slip up. Not even little things. I’ll admit that because of this, it was sometimes easy to lose sight of her anger.
Finally, something else that struck me as interesting was the way the book is structured. It opens at a present-tense point, Nora in the here and now, and in this here and now she is furiously angry. At her life in general, but also because of something very specific. She then moves backward four years to begin the story of that very specific thing. And then the entire story rolls out – nearly 300 pages of it, all of it in that four years earlier time period, briefly interrupted by even earlier flashbacks. It isn’t until only a few pages from the end that we catch up to that first present-day period and where, essentially, we can now deal directly with Nora’s anger and its consequences. But it’s strange because Messud doesn’t do very much with this—she addresses it, of course, and in an intriguing (even a courageous way, I would say) way, but it is extremely brief. It surprised me. And I say courageous because Messud uses this story of Nora’s anger and what it might do/become as a launching off point into a future we cannot (or may not be able to) easily envision – if Nora can transform herself, in some way transcend the anger that has characterized her, it is only through the reader’s determination to agree with this possibility, really it is only through a trick of the reader’s imagination. That’s a fascinating idea – and one I’m still thinking about.
In February something very very very exciting happened – which I haven’t yet written about here. All the details have finally been worked out, so I can now make my small announcement.
My novel Fog Island Mountains won the Center for Fiction’s Christopher Doheny Award, sponsored by Audible. The book will be published this coming fall with Tantor Publishing. Here is what the book is about:
Huddled beneath the volcanoes of the Kirishima (Fog Island) mountain range in southern Japan, the inhabitants of small town Komachi are waiting for the biggest of the summer’s typhoons. South African expatriate Alec Chester has lived in Komachi for nearly forty years. Alec considers himself an ordinary man, with common troubles and mundane achievements—until his doctor gives him a terminal cancer diagnosis and his wife disappears into the gathering storm. Kanae Chester flees from Alec’s diagnosis, even going so far as to tell a recently renewed childhood friendship that she is already a widow. Her willful avoidance of the truth leads her to commit a grave infidelity and only when Alec is suspected of checking himself out of the hospital to commit a quiet suicide does Kanae come home to face what it will mean to lose her husband.
Narrating this story is Azami, one of Komachi’s oldest and most peculiar inhabitants, the daughter of a famous storyteller with a mysterious story of her own. Azami is interested in the kitsune folktales, stories of foxes that transform into women to trick and then marry the men they have selected, but once discovered were forced to abandon their families. Azami knows the foxes as a healer, but she learned of them first as a child, from her Grandfather’s stories and from her Grandmother’s deep-rooted superstitions.
As Azami writes (and invents and rewrites) Alec and Kanae’s story, also telling tangential stories about the couple’s three children and other Komachi townspeople, Fog Island Mountains becomes the story of an entire town and how it submits to this typhoon, how it watches a beloved English teacher get ready to die, and how it wonders at the unexpected disappearance of his faithful wife. In this Azami is re-inventing the kitsune folktale, revealing herself and cannibalizing her own difficult history.
The book is about illness and grief, about mixed culture families and relationships, and ultimately about storytelling. And (I tell you this because no one might ever notice) it is also a contemporary re-working of the longest of the classical Japanese poetry forms, the chōka (長歌).
I’m obviously really excited about this. (And obviously a little terrified, too). Once the book has a cover, I’ll post a link. And I will probably post a few excerpts over the summer.
I will be getting back to this space more regularly soon – we moved to a new village in March and I’ve been very busy getting settled in. I am extremely happy with our new place – even if I will miss our old farm house from time to time. But this new place has…. built-in bookshelves!! Everywhere!! (Which I filled up a little too quickly, even if I did a major book sorting/giving away before we moved. Sigh.) In any case, things are nearly back to normal and I have been reading some wonderful stuff, all of which I am excited to write about. A short list:
- Clarisse Francillon’s collection of stories Le Quartier – wonderful and touching vignettes of 1950s Paris
- Jonas T. Bengtsson’s A Fairy Tale – reviewing this one soon for Necessary Fiction
- Chris Yates, Night Walk – these are really lovely nature essays in praise of exactly what the title says, walking at night
- Amy Sackville’s Orkney – read this a few months ago and it just enthralled me
Also, I just started reading Sworn Virgin by the Albanian author Elvira Dones. Here is a book whose cover flap I actually should have read before diving in. On the first page the gender pronouns are switching all over the place – but this is the story of a young Albanian woman who has been living as a man in her village for the last fourteen years. The novel opens with her arrival in America, and the implication is that she will be able to be a woman again. This is proving difficult for her. Promises to be a really interesting book.
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Also, In March I reviewed Christa Wolf’s slim novella August over at Necessary Fiction. I loved this little book – it’s simple and careful and all about memory.
August opens with the words, “August is remembering.” And this very simple sentence (the present tense of it absolutely perfect) directs the reader toward a series of tender meditations on this man’s early life. That word tender seems strange when the first memory called up is about the loss of his mother during a bombing raid on a refugee train, about a difficult conversation with a woman from the Red Cross and 8-year-old August’s medical exam and subsequent removal to a tuberculosis hospital. But despite the implied horror of these events, August’s tone is tender. Perhaps it is the distance Wolf gives him, 60 years in the future, or perhaps it is the life she has given him—a life mostly only hinted about—to fill those 60 years.
Alongside the careful tenderness in August’s tone there is also a feeling of resignation, and a cautious sorrow. Now a widower, now ready for retirement, now a man with plenty of time to be quiet and alone with his own thoughts—August fits the mold for the kind of memory piece that has even become a genre: an older man looking back upon his life and revisiting its twists and turns, its more difficult questions. But August isn’t interested in understanding anything. And this is the key. August simply wants to look at it again. To feel it all again. To peer through the windows of his mind and see the people and the objects of this particular and short period of his life.
You can read the rest of the review here.
I’ve mentioned the Swiss writer Clarisse Francillon a few times, mostly on Twitter (and maybe not so much here,) but she’s someone I’m very interested in translating. I discovered her by accident one day, by wandering toward the back of the tiny public library in Vevey and finding myself in a little room that I thought, at first, was a storage space. But the sign on the door read “Clarisse Francillon Archive,” so, always curious, I turned the light on and started browsing. When she died in 1976, she donated her personal book collection to the library and they have kept it open to the public. There are about 2500 books in this small room.
A little background: Francillon was born in the Jura mountains in 1899, in the small watchmaking town of St. Imier. Her father and uncle were both involved as founders of the Longines watch factory. She was raised mostly in France, however, and moved to Paris in 1934 to live in a small rooftop garret to write as much as possible. In her lifetime she published something like 17 novels and several story collections. She was taken under the wing of Maurice Nadeau, and he was her editor for many years. Nadeau is often credited with the discovery of a number of celebrated French writers – I’m sad that Francillon is never mentioned on this list.
I am slowly working my way through her novels, all of which were published between 1927 and 1970. She has a vast and fascinating body of work. The book I started with – supposed to be her most famous – called Le Carnet à Lucarnes (The Skylight Notebook?) is written in an incredible style. Difficult, in many ways, as the sentences go on and on, and the narrative perspective isn’t quite easy to pin down, but it’s also clever and funny and definitely sometimes tongue-in-cheek. She absolutely rejects any notion of linear storytelling. But the book is about a woman who makes a Faust-like pact with the devil to remain beautiful forever. I’ve received permission from Denoël, the original 1968 publisher, to shop this novel around to English publishers, so I am working on my sample.
During the war, Francillon came back to Switzerland, and she wrote a novel of what that was like—being separated from the rest of the artistic movement, safe in the vineyards of the Lavaux. (She lived in a small cabin in Villette for those years, which is a village about 10 minutes from where I live). I’ve just started reading this one, and I think I’m about to be amazingly impressed. She is particularly interested, in all of her books, in women who are dealing with intense solitude. It’s fascinating.
I should also mention that Francillon was a translator. She was the person who brought Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano into French. They were close friends, and they had some interesting correspondence about this work and writing and the world. Her book collection involves a number of English titles – she was a devoted fan of Virginia Woolf and many other British modernists.
I had a chance to slip into the archives yesterday. The room is always dark. I’ve never seen another person in there – which is both exciting, because it makes me feel like I’ve got a kind of secret, but also a bit sad. Because isn’t anyone even in Switzerland reading her? A month or so ago, when I went to check out a stack of her novels, one of the librarians asked me what her work was like. I told her what I thought, but I was also disappointed that she hadn’t read her.
Yesterday, however, provided another treat. I have a hard time finding certain English books – especially older texts – without going to the University library in Lausanne. But I discovered yesterday that among Francillon’s own collection is an entire shelf of English books, and everyone I’d like to read. I came home with a 1950 volume of Virginia Woolf’s essays – The Captains Death Bed.
Francillon may have died in 1976, but she is lending me her books at the moment. And it feels like a very special conversation.
I read the following few paragraphs today, from Annie Dillard’s essay « Death of the Moth” which was published in 1976 in Harper’s. It is now one of those things I can never unread, and now I am different for having read it. That is the very best kind of reading. This essay was published with a new title, “Transfiguration” in her book Holy the Firm:
Two summers ago, I was camping alone in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. I had hauled myself and gear up there to read, among other things, James Ullman’s The Day on Fire, a novel about Rimbaud that had made me want to be a writer when I was sixteen; I was hoping it would do it again. So I read, lost, every day sitting by my tent, while warblers swung in the leaves overhead and bristle worms trailed their inches over the twiggy dirt at my feet; and I read every night by candlelight, while barred owls called in the forest and pale moths massed round massed round my head in the clearing, where my light made a ring.
Moths kept flying into the candle. They would hiss and recoil, lost upside down in the shadows among my cook pans. Or they would singe their wings and fall, and their hot wings, as if melted, would stick to the first thing they touched — a pan, a lid, a spoon — so that the snagged moths could flutter only in tiny arcs, unable to struggle free. These I could realize by a quick flip with a stick; in the morning I would find my cooking stuff gilded with torn flecks of moth wings, triangles of shiny dust here and there on the aluminum. So I read, and boiled water, and replenished candles, and read on.
One night a moth flew into the candle, was caught, burnt dry, and held. I must have been staring at the candle, or maybe I looked up when the shadow crossed my page; at any rate, I saw it all. A golden female moth, a biggish one with a two-inch wingspread, flapped into the fire, dropped abdomen into the wet wax, stuck, flamed, frazzled, and fried in a second. Her moving wings ignited like tissue paper, enlarging the circle of light in the clearing and creating out of darkness the sudden blue sleeves of my sweater, the green leaves of jewelweed by my side, the ragged red trunk of pine. At once the light contracted again and the moth’s wings vanished in a fine, foul smoke. At the same time, her six legs clawed, curled, blackened, and ceased, disappearing utterly. And her head jerked in spasms, making a spattering noise; her antennae crisped and burnt away and her heaving mouthparts cracked like pistol fire. When it was all over, her head was, so far as I could determine, gone, gone the long way of her wings and legs. Had she been new, or old? Had she mated and laid her eggs, had she done her work? All that was left was the glowing horn shell of her abdomen and thorax — a fraying, partially collapsed gold tube jammed upright in the candle’s round pool.
And then this moth-essence, this spectacular skeleton, began to act as a wick. She kept burning. The wax rose in the moth’s body from her soaking abdomen to her thorax to the jagged hole where her head should be, and widened into a flame, a saffron-yellow flame that robed her to the ground like an immolating monk. That candle had two wicks, two flames of identical light, side by side. The moth’s head was fire. She burned for two hours, until I blew her out.
There is an interesting essay here on the entire piece and how Dillard came to write it.
I read Ingrid Winterbach’s To Hell With Cronjé (Open Letter Books, 2010) at some point over the end-of-year holidays, staying up late to finish it despite the ongoing problems I am having with my eyes (a frustrating kind of eye fatigue). I bring this up only because the book is printed in a lovely but very small typeface called Bembo that, while pretty, made me want to throw the book across the room on several occasions as I squinted in the light of my reading lamp and rubbed at my smarting eyelids.
Eyes are very important to this book, or rather, “seeing” is important. There is a lot of scanning the landscape, watching other people to guess at their decisions and motives, studying the natural world, examining faces, being a witness to both words and acts, and even—in one special instance—the experience of a ghostly vision, a visitation.
Even the narrative perspective that Winterbach uses becomes a kind of “seeing.” The story is told through a close focus on one character, Reitz—he is the only man whose thoughts we are given. But he is watching the others so closely it often feels like an omniscient perspective. What Reitz notices and evaluates and worries at, so the reader does too.
To Hell With Cronjé is a historical novel set during the Boer War in South Africa. While the book is very much about this moment in history, I found myself much more drawn to the elements of the novel that spoke far beyond this particular setting and time. Not that I wasn’t curious to learn about it, but I think the success of the book is particularly related to how much the story operates outside its historical anchor. It is a book of wandering and of friendship forged in war, a book of longing, of fragile and fleeting connections. It is about the dangerous tension between belief and knowledge, and how people navigate that tension when they stand at opposite ends of that spectrum.
While reading To Hell With Cronjé, I found myself thinking often of Cormac McCarthy. The journey that Winterbach lays out for her two main characters—Reitz and Ben—felt very similar to the one experienced by McCarthy’s young hero in All the Pretty Horses. This comes, I think, from the juxtaposition of human-centered violence with a deep study of natural beauty and solitary thought. In many ways the book felt very masculine (perhaps I only noticed this because Winterbach is a woman?), and I know this comes from its focus on war, and on these men living out in the camps and in nature. So I am curious to read her other novels—only one other is translated into English, The Book of Happenstance—to see if she repeats this aesthetic or does something else entirely.
I haven’t said much about the story itself: the basic premise is that Reitz and Ben (and two other soldiers) leave their commando unit in order to return a traumatized young soldier to his mother. These men, some more consciously than others, are flirting with desertion. They end up getting picked up/captured by another commando unit, a band of wounded men and misfits left to survey a small area, and are in danger of being killed for having left their unit. They must prove (to the others and themselves) that they were not deserting.
Behind all of this are the little stories that make the book into such a quietly intense read: the war tales the men share around the campfire at night, Reitz’s attempts to commune with the ghost of his dead wife, Ben and Reitz’s scientific studies of the natural world, the power relationships between the men, the lack/loss of women because of the war, the variations and struggles with racism… the list goes on – with everything interconnected and related. It is neatly done.
Perhaps what I loved best about the book (and how it differed the most from, say, a Cormac McCarthy novel) was how it resisted any grand heroics and how quietly it resolved itself. Its resolution is not neat, nor was it without very serious complications. But it is very human. It asks the reader to be satisfied with something rather messy and a situation that feels both fitting but also quite sad. On top of all of this, the last line is pure genius.