Why I Am Suspending “52 Weeks of Literature” (For Now)

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If you’ve been following this blog loyally (not likely), you’ve realized by now that of the fifty books I pledged to read at the beginning of this year, at a point when I should be over halfway done, I’ve only reviewed ten. I’ve read sixteen. Clearly, this isn’t working. One of my motivations in crafting this project—besides getting through some books that I’d been interested in but were hesitant to commit the time to, for some reason—was to see how it would feel to trace a year through literature. Turns out, life is tracing my year for me; I’ve relocated to Philadelphia for a two-year job, and that in itself is an ambitious undertaking. Not to mention, this presidential election is driving me off the wall; nothing short of American democracy and progressivism is at stake. Am I letting politics and current events discourage me from one of my favorite pastimes? I don’t think so. There may well be more important things to write about on this blog over the next hundred days than literature and cinema for their own sakes. So I’ve fallen behind, and let’s face it, it’s not very possible to trace a year in your life through novels if you’re taking an extended hiatus from novels at any point during it, even if you’re impelled to make up for it by reading two novels a week (!) in the year’s back half.

The biggest reason I think my fifty-books endeavor has not succeeded, really, is that it just isn’t compatible with the way I ingest art. The best works of art to me aren’t the ones I fall in love with instantly; those peak early and pale in hindsight. The best art to me is the Stravinsky shit. When you first experience it, your reaction is “WTF?!” and it sticks in your mind, and you think about it more and realize that there might be something in there you missed the first time, so you give it a second chance, then a third…and that’s when the magic happens. Such was my experience with Portishead’s Dummy, The Cocteau Twins’ Heaven Or Las Vegas, and Slint’s Spiderland, albums that I am today never not in the mood to listen to. A good virgin learns to adapt, and a worthy underdog will always gain respect. The way that extends to literature is, the first time I pick up a classic novel, it is not uncommon for me to read a few chapters, fail to see what the fuss is, put it down, and maybe return to it X years later and finish it with a fresh perspective. Indeed, I’ve had some measured success this year with novels I’d previously started without finishing. The real difficulty came with the novels I hadn’t started and couldn’t sustain interest in after breaking the ice and seeing the fish beneath.

There’s a caveat to all this. Maybe my first impressions are right. Balzac? I was ten pages into Père Goriot and not feeling it, when I read Nabokov—in a footnote to his translation of Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, no less—slamming the French titan as “overrated” and “vulgar,” and confirming my suspicions. Adichie? One chapter into Americanah, I read an amateur online critique of the novel as (to paraphrase) an overlong Ph.D. essay, and I was inclined to agree, and regretted that I hadn’t gone with Half of a Yellow Sun. Jostein Gaarder and Väinö Linna? Either they’re simple to a fault or they suffer in translation. There’s a difference between a novel that has merit and a novel that people say has merit. The more you become a bookworm and a film buff, the more you realize that the Great Western Canon is infected by political interests, radical zeitgeists, academic egos, inscrutable media obsessions, and insidious prejudices—especially against women, people of color, LGBTQIA persons, neuro-atypical persons, and anyone else “othered” at some point. The Canon can’t be trusted; one has to look beyond it, and trust his/her instincts as to whether the back blurb promises a good yarn. No work of art, no matter how canonical, is above critical reevaluation, for better or worse. I pray that no work of art I may create and disseminate in the future will be an exception to this rule.

As a result of this, the novels I was interested in in late December form a list very distinct from the novels I’m interested in seven months later. I’ve dived headlong into the New York Review Books Classics and Pushkin Press imprints and could well read everything therein. I’ve discovered Larry Woiwode, the Poet Laureate of North Dakota; Tahmima Anam, a new bearer of Bangladesh’s great literary tradition; and some of the lesser-known yet still provocative works of Yukio Mishima. I am spoiled rotten when it comes to all manners of the arts, and if I’m going to commit to a fixed list of books for a year, clearly, I ought to be more innovative. My approach to literature itself—by which I mean, my methods of curating literature—needs some serious reevaluation, something independent from the interference of critics and pedants. Thus, for the time being, I’m discontinuing my fifty-books project. Maybe I’ll try again next year, with a theme—all female authors, for instance. Maybe I’ll do another 30 or 31 Days of Cinema soon to add some more pep to this blog. (Of course that’s an easier project—bear in mind, I haven’t done that with a theme, yet.) If there is a particular demand from my readers for me to read and review a book on the original list, I’ll oblige, but I doubt that’ll happen. Right now, this blog is very much a public diary, a place for me to brood and muse. Here’s what I’ll tell you in regards to my old list: you owe it to yourself to find a copy of Halldór Laxness’ The Atom Station. Man, that book kicked my ass.

Why I Am Suspending “52 Weeks of Literature” (For Now)

52 Weeks of Literature, Book Ten: “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair–Agitprop Trash

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Talk about badly dated.

Earlier this year, I called Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn “poverty porn”. I had no idea what I was talking about. No character in esteemed literary fiction, to my knowledge, has been through more trauma than Jurgis Rudkus, the protagonist of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle—a novel which, in the hindsight of a century plus, seems more muck than muckraking. For Sinclair, it isn’t enough that Rudkus and his family emigrate from Lithuania to 1900s Chicago and sink into the inferno of the meatpacking factories. They also have to get robbed, starved, ostracized, sacked, blacklisted, jailed, prostituted, raped, drowned, diseased, backstabbed, subjected to deadly childbirth, conned out of every last penny, drenched in booze, stuck in blizzards, and killed (not in that order). I have nothing against narratives about despair; case in point, I’ll be reading The Painted Bird shortly. I do have plenty against narratives without nuance, in which one is either completely good or completely evil, either a total perpetrator or a total victim, with no ethical complications and no insight into the ways that iotas of humor, ritual and hope can assist people in surviving the direst holocausts. The characters of Sinclair’s Packingtown are zero-dimensional. Rudkus is Baltic muscle, and nothing else. These people have no agency; they are less people who do than people to whom shit is done. And Sinclair the novelist’s exclusive interest is assuring that as much shit is done to these poor suckers as possible. The Book of Job had a point to make about faith in God. Sinclair’s point is…what, exactly?

I was honored to see Slavoj Zizek speak at the Free Library of Philadelphia almost two years ago. He told an anecdote about a lecture he was giving to a group of ethnic Somalis in Minnesota (I believe), during which he stated that if someone came up to him and starting imploring him to help “the starving children in Somalia,” he’d reply—in his über-thick Slovenian accent—“Fuck off! I’m trying to write my book on Hegel!” How do you think the Somali audience reacted? Let me tell you: they applauded him, because they understood that talking about Somalia like that is manipulative and exploitative, and more often than not loaded with toxic careerist intentions. The belief that Somalia is only what the news shows us about it—depraved, backwards and miserable—is racist, and any charity that reverts to the old colonialist rhetoric about how these guys “need our help” deserves to see their condescension mocked with relish. This generation of Somalis have seen a share of trauma and uprooting and have been without stuff we in the West take for granted, true. But those who have survived and not fallen prey to ideological crap—and most of us do survive—have formed unseen social structures by which they care for themselves and each other, and it is their incremental changes to the Somali political infrastructure, not greater access to Western resources, that will change their circumstances in the long run. Of course, I could be discussing any Third World nation, failed or otherwise.

Sinclair was a Socialist. Zizek is a qualified Marxist. I proudly voted for Bernie Sanders. I cannot imagine Zizek or Sanders liking this book any more than I did. Its naked manipulation puts it right at home with today’s caged puppy infomercials and guilt-inducing doomsday clickbait. (Maybe this hasn’t dated so badly after all.) I can at least respect Sinclair’s effort to expose every back alley on the map of corruption in the Chicago of his time. As nonfiction, that might work; as literature, in execution, it’s preposterous. This author spends three hundred plus pages unloading every single catastrophe he can think of onto the Rudkus family, in ways increasingly contrived and implausible. Every time Jurgis’ prospects are raised, Sinclair crushes them by the beginning of the next chapter at the latest. The effect is repetitive and numbing. Not that said prospects matter. It isn’t so much that Jurgis’ happier moments weren’t a relief because I, the reader, figured out they’d be fleeting. It’s that when the novel is happy, it’s a fairy tale, and when it’s mired in its characteristic gloom, it’s maudlin, self-indulgent, self-serving, and totally ignorant of the complex personalities that created and sustained Gilded Age capitalism, so many of whom were shamed into philanthropy towards life’s end. (Assuming that exploitation of labor for profit is done for sadism is historically irresponsible.) Throughout, the initially promising view into Lithuanian culture turns glib quickly and remains so, and the only aesthetic concern evident in the prose is the infinity of ways in which agony can be detailed.

Much of this novel’s abject failure stems from Sinclair’s inability and unwillingness to decide just what he ought to write. Jurgis has no definition and no identity. Depending on the author’s whims, Jurgis is alternately a sweeper of cow entrails, an assembly line worker, an unemployed drunkard, a vigilante, an imprisoned victim of injustice, an orphan, a widower, a father to a dead child, a hobo, a witness to American ostentation, a petty burglar, a bellhop, a political activist…and so forth. The sense of genre thus becomes deeply muddled. The best counterexample I know is John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy, a socialistic account of America and Europe in the years before the Depression that achieves its panoramic scope by conglomerating a cross section of characters from different literary genres and regions. The hobo, the capitalist huckster, the war vet, the socialite, the Hollywood star, the aspiring artist—these and more are all well defined by the literary conventions they embody, and they play off each other as Dos Passos scathingly attacks those conventions as part and parcel of consumerist capitalism’s stultifying mode of production. Desperate to capture the zeitgeist of Chicago with similar ambition but less space, Sinclair crams all of his favorite archetypes into an everyman vessel, meant to represent a whole society while really being a cipher. Halfway through, I stopped keeping track of Jurgis’ shifts and gave up on trying to delineate the other characters. I didn’t care.

No ending could have saved this unfocused, pandering, steaming guano heap of a book, but I was at least hopeful that Sinclair would see his pessimistic vision through to its logical end and have Jurgis martyred, hackneyed as it would be. Not the case—the final chapters are a cop-out. Socialism saves and redeems Jurgis, nabbing him a stable job and income, and the last few paragraphs portend a Eugene Debs presidency. (Never mind that to get there, Jurgis has to abandon his family in an act of cowardice—a convenient means for Sinclair to dump characters that he was making up along the way and that thus weren’t working, where the mounting death toll simply won’t do. Man, this book.) It took me a while to finish reading this, and as a result, my yearlong project was nearly derailed. In that hiatus, I thought a lot about how some youths go into the arts to strike it rich, while others aim to create actual fucking Art and/or to make a difference in the world through their Art. And because the young are frequently demeaned as stupid and naïve, their urges for creativity and invention are cruelly labeled pretentious, their idealism interpreted as evidence of a political agenda, and their output dismissed—hence the market domination of genre fiction and vapid Alice Munro wannabes. This begs the question: how can literature change the world if experiment and agenda are frowned upon? Here’s what I’ve learned: you start with the story and characters, and let everything stem organically from there. Remember the immortal last lines of Middlemarch: excessive ambition breeds disappointment, best laid plans backfire, and the ones who leave a mark on history are the ones you least expect. The Jungle got us the FDA; its importance in letters stops there. As we trundle around in a new Gilded Age, gearing up for yet another lesser-evil-versus-greater-evil election year, we need authors who can wrestle with the dilemmas of capitalism and socialism more honestly than Upton Sinclair ever did.

Grade: F

52 Weeks of Literature, Book Ten: “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair–Agitprop Trash

52 Weeks of Literature, Book Nine: “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” by James Joyce

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NB: Yeah, yeah, I know. I’m way behind. That’s because of two reasons: 1) there’s been a lot of hectic stuff going on in my life in the past few months, and 2) I was derailed by one particularly godawful novel, which I’ll get to in due time. To make this project easier, I am abandoning my original schedule, and while I intend to commit to the fifty novels I listed, I am reviewing this in lieu of Mariano Azuela’s The Underdogs, because that book is mostly pulp, a solid English translation of it is wanting (astonishingly), and there’s more I have to discuss about Joyce.

Representative quote: “The rain-laden trees of the avenue evoked in him, as always, memories of the girls and women in the plays of Gerhart Hauptmann; and the memory of their pale sorrows and the fragrance falling from the wet branches mingled in a mood of quiet joy. His morning walk across the city had begun, and he foreknew that as he passed the sloblands of Fairview he would think of the cloistral silver-veined prose of Newman; that as he walked along the North Strand Road, glancing idly at the windows of the provision shops, he would recall the dark humour of Guido Cavalcanti and smile; that as he went by Baird’s stonecutting works in Talbot Place the spirit of Ibsen would blow through him like a keen wind, a spirit of wayward boyish beauty; and that passing a grimy marine dealer’s shop beyond the Liffey he would repeat the song by Ben Jonson which begins: ‘I was not wearier where I lay.'”

The oeuvre of James Joyce is one of a handful in literature that focuses on chronicling the trajectory of a lifetime. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man depicts Stephen Dedalus’ childhood, from infancy to coming-of-age; Ulysses contrasts and connects Dedalus in his twenties with Leopold Bloom deeper into adulthood; Finnegan’s Wake (from what I imagine) is firmly in the realm of night, dreams, senility and death—the end of all cohesion. As this body of work develops, an ironic transition occurs: as the scope broadens, the length of time depicted dwindles. Portrait is a regularly paced novel spanning a decade a half; Ulysses is an epic covering 24 hours; Wake is an epic that may well be about the evening and the dreams thereafter, which may well last mere seconds. Perhaps Joyce perceived that as we age, until we reach our twilight, our memory and concentration sharpen, and we start to appreciate the constancy of the day as opposed to the vicissitudes of the year. As our fundamental units of time shift, we pay more attention to the infinitude within the second. Time is a spatial dimension that is continuously expanding, and as it proceeds, the universe’s entropy increases; the complexity of a minute of adulthood matches that of a month of childhood, so there’s no need to dwell on as much time. This is why Portrait is straightforward, where Ulysses begins as readable before the narrative gradually subsumes into a linguistic chaos, to which Wake forfeits completely. It is a credit to Joyce that he was keen enough to offer readers a template for this progression in his volume of fifteen short stories, Dubliners, which lengthen from a few pages to a novella as they cover adolescence, adulthood, middle age, and old age, before wrapping up fittingly with “The Dead”.

This is part of why I think Joyce remains a scepter haunting the world of literature, famous and well read despite his serious anti-commercial aspects—revered for the merits of his prose and technique while reviled for the alienating difficulties of most of Ulysses and all of Wake. For all his indulgences, he is well attuned to the harmonies innate in time—the rising action, climax and falling action that map out a day as well as they do a life (a day and a life each working as synecdoche for each other), and that have served as the foundation for almost all fictional narrative this side of Aristotle. We may not understand where we’re going, but at least we have an inkling of how we’re getting there. In an era in which academia is growing narrower and further from the common man’s pop culture, the best conduit into Joyce’s body of work—and it is a very rewarding and worthwhile body—is Portrait, even more so than Dubliners. The first of the novel’s five chapters, while in third-person, is mediated by the limited language and knowledge of Dedalus’ nine-year-old self and is thus easy to follow. As Dedalus grows older, the prose takes on more maturity and creativity, and the details are conveyed with greater aesthetic effort, until, by the final chapter, we delve beyond the concrete and tactile into Dedalus’ burgeoning, gutsy philosophies. And we are ready for it, because Joyce has prepared us for it and eased us into it with pitch-perfect pacing—so contrary to what some readers may believe, he does give a shit about the reader. This makes Portrait more relatable than Ulysses, which is mired on occasion by overblown parodies of archaic literary forms that no longer really matter.

As a quintessential Künstlerroman—namely, an artwork depicting an artist’s (perhaps its artist’s) development, as the title would tell us—Portrait is less a narrative than it is a meditation on a theme, which in this case is youth’s interaction with adult authority. We all trust at the beginning of life that the authority apparatus is right, even when it damages us, in which event it convinces us that we are to blame. We grow out of this phase. We realize that this authority is not the only world there is. There are other modes of thought outside the spheres of our childhoods that can be brought into dialogue with and used to challenge the typical third-rate bureaucrats who have held sway over our formative years. Hence, the push and pull against the system begins. Some fall for the system, some are defeated by it for good, some vow to have their revenge later, some escape it and stake it out on their own, and a charismatic few rise above it to build a new, more effective culture. Dedalus (read: Joyce) does all of those things at different points, and it’s a breathtaking journey. The clash between old and young generations is a pertinent theme in today’s political domain, and one that I connect with personally on a deep level. Reading this, I could feel that I was with Dedalus as he approached the rector’s office to protest Father Dolan’s unfair punishment of him. I was with him as Heron beat him with a cane for naming Byron, not Tennyson, as the greatest Romantic poet. I was with him as he went to lose his virginity to a prostitute, and as a series of typical Irish priests brainwashed him with their eloquent fear-mongering bullshit theological lectures on Hell and damnation, and moved him to confess his lust and become a pious Catholic. I was with him as he wrestled with the choice of whether to cross the Rubicon and enter the priesthood or abandon religion and embrace some other, more aesthetic form of spirituality. And when he made his decision, I cheered.

This, more so than Ulysses, has become one of my favorite novels. I usually recoil from critics and academics who say that the most challenging of an author’s works should be read last because otherwise, a reader won’t be “ready” or “mature” enough for them. I’m more of the go-for-broke type. I must say, however, that Portrait is very much in a series preceding Ulysses and ought to be read first, preferably during high school when one is wont to relate to Dedalus and his dilemmas, which are universal and apply far beyond the medium of religion. Key to Joyce’s legend is his prose, which is superlative. There’s a reason the Irish are known for their “gift of gab.” Their musical accent, their unique vernacular structures, and their pitch-dark sense of humor constitute the best representation of the English language in the world. As far as Irish literature goes, one could do a lot worse than Joyce. The historical parallels and allegories that pepper Portrait, Dubliners and Ulysses can lean on the side of schematic—single characters standing in for entire nationalities and political parties, competing against each other in sports and cards and the like. When you have writing on this level, though, such shortcomings are easy to forgive. Joyce particularly excels in his descriptions of the weather’s effect on environment, and in using details of physical sensations (some stemming from the weather) as metaphors for psychological states. Where lesser writers resort to cliché, Joyce innovates. There is no instance in Portrait of structural contrivance; no effort is made to impress the reader with stream of consciousness and pandering pretension. Much of what makes the Joyce of Portrait a modernist is what he does merely with Hamlet’s “words, words, words.” There is a case to write his name in gold not for his aggressive revolutionism, but simply for his being a great writer.

Grade: A+

Next up: An equally masterful work of literature from the other I*ELAND nation.

52 Weeks of Literature, Book Nine: “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” by James Joyce

52 Weeks of Literature, Week Eight: “Fifth Business” by Robertson Davies

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The story of Fifth Business is, in the most literal sense possible, a snowball effect. In the first chapter, the narrator, Dunstable Ramsay, recalls the moment as a kid when he dodged a snowball chucked at him—with a cruel, game humor not uncommon in kids—by his friend/rival Percy Boyd Staunton, which ended up striking Mary Dempster, the pregnant wife of a Baptist reverend. In the classic style of chaos theory, the whole novel, which is to say the whole of Ramsay’s life, stems very cleanly from this moment. This is how the novel was advertised to me—by one of my high school freshman year English teachers, the enigmatic Mr. Donegan, almost a decade before now when I have at last gotten around to reading it—and this is how I advertise it to you, with just the tease and as few spoilers as possible. I deeply enjoyed this read, as I was particularly affected by the social-cum-economic inequality between Ramsay and Staunton, and how it plays out ironically in light of their effect on the lives of Mary and her child, Paul. Staunton suppresses his memory of the incident and takes no responsibility for its consequences, and becomes an affluent huckster of sweets and a notable political figure in his native Ontario. Ramsay takes up the burden of devoting himself to the Dempster family and, as a direct result, pursues a modest living as a scholar of religious saints—that after losing a limb in World War One. Such is usually (not always, but usually) the case in life: the inertial go-getters disregard those whom they harm along the way, while those with a conscience only consider it moral that their accidents subsume and chemically change them. The narrative is an intellectual feast, abounding with provocative discourse on religion and faith, miracles and magic, historicism and fiction, as well as with irony and diversion. For instance: Ramsay promises not to go into too much detail on the two World Wars, when in execution, he spends a great portion of the novel discussing them and the ripples thereafter (he freakin’ got a leg blown off in the first one, after all). Robertson Davies’ weakness with female characters must be mentioned and do prevent this from being an outright masterpiece. The archetypes are familiar and tiresome: Staunton’s wife Leola is a wealth-chasing trophy; Diana Marfleet is a British nurse who exists mainly to fulfill Ramsay’s (read: Davies’) sexual fantasies after his service in the war; Ramsay’s mother is a disciplinarian shrew; and Mary Dempster is a simple mind made to suffer for her sexual proclivities. Only Liesl—the German-Swiss companion of the adult magician Paul Dempster, who calls Ramsay out for his instabilities late in the narrative—is granted any agency, and even then, the prose’s depiction of her as ugly and tragically masculine is needless. Fifth Business is the first volume in Davies’ Deptford trilogy; I hope to read the other two, and I hope the women of those tomes are more authentic.

Grade: A-

52 Weeks of Literature, Week Eight: “Fifth Business” by Robertson Davies

52 Weeks of Literature, Week Seven: “Transit” by Anna Seghers

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Transit is true-life Kafka—an account of refugees struggling to escape the Nazi invasion of France via the port city of Marseille, where they are imprisoned not by blunt despotism, but by simple paperwork and bureaucracy. The narrator, unreliably named “Seidler”, is an escaped German POW who comes into possession of the papers of Weidel, an author who has killed himself, and who travels to Marseille to return them to his widow Marie, all while blissfully dismissive of the chaos enveloping France. Once at the port, he is quickly indoctrinated into the Catch-22s that govern life as an asylum seeker in Marseille. You can’t stay in the city unless you can prove you intend to leave; otherwise, you must leave, but where can you go? To prove you mean to depart, you must acquire a series of documents—a visa to enter, a visa to travel, a visa to exit, etc.—in a certain order, and fast enough so that they don’t expire before you have them all, and if they do, that’s on you and the bureaucracy takes no responsibility for its bullshit. You get the picture. The Nazi lust for power, coupled with the international community’s long and storied suspicions of refugees (as pertinent in World War Two as it is today), creates a system that purports to tell those under its purview, “You may cross these borders, but you must first do this”—effectively insulting the intelligence of the refugees, who know fully that the “this” is a task designed to be near-impossible, to trap them in an inconstant theatre of the absurd, to make them feel that they are welcome nowhere and might as well perish. The Eagles said it best: “You can check out anytime you like…but you can never leave!

It is difficult to tell a story about an unmotivated character, steeped in ennui and world-weariness, since most readers demand a protagonist who wants something, for some reason, and who moves to achieve his/her goal with certain tactics that reveal just who (s)he is. I’m one of the few readers I know who empathizes with the guy who doesn’t ask for much, the objective and uninvolved observer, not passive but not desperate nor beholden to any plot machinations. Transit mostly succeeds in making Seidler this. He is a cipher, not caught up in the rush to get transit visas, only going through with the ridiculous process as a formality, adopting Weidel’s identity to facilitate the process for Marie and the doctor with whom she is having an affair, and to hint at a nuanced irony. In this Marseille, the deceased can be alive—in the minds of those who know him but aren’t up-to-date on his fate, as well as on paper. That a dead man has enough of a weight and an aura in this universe to gain transit visas more easily than most living people can is the novel’s most bitter indictment of WWII geopolitics. Nebulous identities are as free to cross borders as the papers and literature on which they are written, while our bodies imprison us and make us easy for governments to control and manipulate. Marie’s will to be unfaithful to Weidel (emotionally more than physically) with the doctor and with Seidler is made ethically dubious by her insistent belief that Weidel is alive and in Marseille, and this enrages Seidler even though he partakes in it and effectively betrays Weidel. Bodies do not matter in this political landscape because they are finite; only names and written/oral language are tangible.

Seidler’s objectivity makes him not a powerless spectator insomuch as it does a man who uses his power over Weidel’s identity in calculated, if amoral, ways. This makes it convenient for author Anna Seghers, a fervent Communist who based this novel on her own experiences as a Marseille refugee, to divert from Seidler/Weidel’s main thread and offer a panorama of immigrant lives. The most powerful anecdotes are the ones in which the characters have all the necessary papers and tickets and are ready to go, only to be swindled out of freedom at the last second—the conductor assured that the privilege of his profession will get him out of France easily, who succumbs to a heart attack over a bureaucratic fluke; not to mention, the extended family who stays behind for an elderly relative near death despite having everything in perfect order. Transit also has the peculiar quality of having benefits that on occasion work against its narrative. One would think that in this case of mistaken identity, Seidler would ease himself into the role of Weidel (if not outright embrace it, since we are talking about a less active narrator) and see how much he can get away with it, beyond the sphere of consuls and embassies. That he doesn’t, and that he merely sits in awe as Weidel shows his influence on the refugees’ lives beyond the grave, feels like a copout on Seghers’ part. The frenzy of characters, further, gives us no hint as to which figures are more important or more tertiary than the others, so that when Marie is introduced as a romantic waif flitting between cafés in search of Weidel, always running into Seidler by coincidence, the effect is hackneyed and saccharine and makes the novel’s ultimate focus on Marie and her adultery slightly jarring. None of this damages the novel’s power as a timeless testament to just how physical politics is—in place, in body, in language.

Grade: A-

52 Weeks of Literature, Week Seven: “Transit” by Anna Seghers

52 Weeks of Literature, Week Six: “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith

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Representative excerpt: “Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York. Especially in the summer of 1912. Somber, as a word, was better. But it did not apply to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Prairie was lovely, and Shenandoah had a beautiful sound, but you couldn’t fit those words into Brooklyn. Serene was the only word for it; especially on a Saturday afternoon in summer.” (p. 1)

I cite the opening line because it is a howler. That line is a smug author spending way too much time trying to find the perfect word to describe Brooklyn. Not to mention, she brings up Williamsburg as an exception and then forgets about it and goes back to Brooklyn at large. And the struggle to twist “Prairie” and “Shenandoah” into adjectives is painful. Starting a five-hundred-page novel by vacantly stating the time and place is bad enough; dragging it out like this just to fill space is unspeakable. Memo to authors: hooks are important, put the work into them. “Brooklyn was serene.” Isn’t that already much better? As it is, the first hundred pages or so of this “classic” are very reflective of its first paragraph. The characters are coming-of-age chicken stock: precocious protagonist, scrappy kid brother, well-meaning ne’er-do-well father, loving mother toughened by life, an extended family of one-notes, all together in a healthy swell of poverty porn. We get broken-record, winded descriptions of recipes and wardrobes, and an uninteresting extended flashback. If this is supposed to be Betty Smith’s autobiography and thus not fiction, then it is not infused with enough energy to make it seem a unique, original vision. Fortunately, after the needless flashback, the novel improves. There are some fascinating insights into vaccination, Tammany Hall politics, holiday traditions, World War One, and more—granted, Smith’s blunt efforts at sociology can lean towards the heavy-handed—and there’s a death in the family that hits rough. Through her alter ego Frances Nolan, Smith also offers us a passionate yet humble Künstlerroman—a subplot shedding light on her development as an artist, which has several points that are quite profound for a YA book, such as the relationship between fiction and untruth. But for all in the novel that resonated with me, the clanging failures of the opening chapters only served to draw my attention towards the scenes that rang false. Lowlights in the back half include a shameless promo for modern maternity wards, a too-easy deus ex machina out of the poverty (recall Fassbinder saying that fiction is not the appropriate place for revolution), and a schematic, clichéd back-to-the-beginning cycle-closer for an ending. Most readers hunting for gems are not going to dig as deep as I did through the manure. If the beginning and ending of your novel is not up to par, then the effort you put into the middle is simply not going to be worth it. Your tree will choke before it has the chance to blossom.

Grade: C+

What’s Next: Another escape-themed novel based on real life: Anna Seghers’ Transit, about WWII refugees in Marseille; shortly thereafter, Fifth Business.

52 Weeks of Literature, Week Six: “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith

52 Weeks of Literature, Week Five: “A Fringe of Leaves” by Patrick White

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Representative excerpt: “The blood was running warm and sticky over her hands. Round the mouth, and on one smeared temple, more transparent than she had ever seen it, flies were crowding in black clots, greedy for the least speck of crimson before the sun dried the virtue out of it.” (p. 240)

The title, A Fringe of Leaves, refers—we learn over halfway through the book—to the vine-like cord that Ellen Roxburgh ties around herself to keep hold of the one piece of “civilization” (in the narrow sense that she would likely use that broad word) that she has left—her wedding ring. This scene of despondence comes around the time when the novel transitions, abruptly yet smoothly, from what is essentially an old-fashioned post-Regency tale moved to penal-colonial Australia to a white-knuckle survival tale full of murder, rape and cannibalism. It is the novel’s strength that this transition is not so much one between genres (the prose style remains consistent) as it is simply one between places. The British decorum of the mansions and ships dotting the edges of Australia and Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania today) collapses rapidly in the interior, from where the Aborigines brood at the white marauders who will soon take over the continent and subject their persons and cultures to genocide. Roxburgh’s fringe of leaves is of course a symbol of the tenuous border between these two spheres, at once linking and dividing them. It is nature dwarfing the Western ideals of “order” and “progress” while the British and the first white Australians struggle to contort it so as to shelter and uphold them. But were the British ever truly distinct from the Aborigines?—by which I ask, are we ever much more than reflections of the primal, the instinctive, the animal? So much of us remains governed by biological principles—the need for sex from our beloveds and from others, the need to propagate the human race and feed (perhaps breastfeed) our offspring, the ridiculous need for power and hierarchy. These impulses fuel and underscore the British characters just as much as they do the Aboriginal tribes who rival them. They are different civilizations with identical skeletons.

Inspired by the true story of Eliza Fraser—the namesake of Fraser Island—A Fringe of Leaves was Patrick White’s first novel after his Nobel triumph, and it is astonishing for displaying both honesty and respect in its treatment of Australian Aborigines. The novel’s first half is a patient, almost plot-less account of the visit that Roxburgh and her husband Austin pay to her brother-in-law Garnet in Tasmania. The thematic concerns seem typically domestic for a novel of the period: Ellen’s previous life as a rustic Cornishwoman, the shift her personality took when she married Austin and moved up a class, her multiple stillbirths, Austin’s poor health, Ellen’s curious relation with Garnet, etc. Aware that the narrative would not remain in this register forever (the genre switch is foreshadowed, rather too neatly, in the first chapter), I was anxious about whether the portrayal of the Aborigines would be archaic in the worst possible sense, even while I was admiring White’s prose—which can seem florid and austere at first, but which I adapted to as I went along. This story is a slow, slow burn. White makes the reader spend time in this world and learn about it. Then, out of nowhere, he hurls a shipwreck at us, and from that point forward—well, all I really have to say is: whoa. The body count ramps up, and the author gutsily explodes the entire literary world he put so much effort into constructing. That takes Nobel-caliber talent to pull off, and White pulls it off. The tension arises not from the Aborigines themselves, but from the animosity between the whites and the natives, which is stewed in imperialism and the language barrier. The indigenous tribe here is brutal and ruthless, but it is not a racist caricature; one gets the sense that White did his homework and studied the culture. Critically, the Aborigines make an effort to integrate Roxburgh into their culture and push her to forfeit her class privilege, challenging and changing her in the process.

I could gripe about some wheel spinning in the first half, the implausibility of Ellen’s schizophrenic code switches between her contemporary RP self and her Cornish adolescent self, the cramming of a few too many new characters into the dénouement, and the handful of blunt, cruddy character names (Miss Scrimshaw, Jack Chance, et al). Screw all that. This is the first novel I read this year that I can recommend with any degree of enthusiasm. (Last Words from Montmartre, I recommend with caution and measurement. Don’t read it if you’re depressed.) The prose and the shift into high-gear survival mode make the slow burn more than worth it. Ellen’s odyssey with the Aborigines and her escape from them—which is not without assistance, from a surprising ally—is in itself a tour de force, a single hundred-page chapter, perfectly paced and sustained, never once plodding nor moving in haste. I kept on wondering whether I as an author would have Ellen stay with the tribe even longer, or if I would increase the tempo and skip over some of the more extraneous details. I then realized that my uneasy alternating between those two opposites meant that the narrative’s timing was solid and benefited the book. Patrick White is widely considered the greatest Australian author. I used to approach his dense, viscous texts with trepidation, but now that I’ve pushed myself through and been rewarded by A Fringe of Leaves, I am eager to dig into the rest of his oeuvre.

Grade: A

What’s Next: I’ll review A Tree Grows in Brooklyn tomorrow, and Anna Seghers’ Transit shortly thereafter.

52 Weeks of Literature, Week Five: “A Fringe of Leaves” by Patrick White