Tag Archives: NYRB Classics

Molly Keane, Good Behaviour

I review a lot of New York Review Books Classics books on this site because I read a lot of them. They’re my favorite publisher; there’s this uncanny correspondence between their editorial policies and my personal taste. Even books I wouldn’t otherwise have picked up are often winners. Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour is one of those, inasmuch as it’s drawing room cringe comedy. I get vicariously embarrassed reading about embarrassment, and in places I had to put the book down for a while. I liked it anyway.

Cover of Good Behaviour

The narrator is Aroon St. Charles, who by the end of the first chapter will be the last surviving member of an aristocratic Irish family in reduced circumstances. The novel opens as Aroon serves her bedridden mother a rabbit mousse. Her mother hates rabbit even more than she hates Aroon and keels over dead from, I guess, just the mousse’s powerful bunny emanations. Aroon tells Rose, the housekeeper, to call the doctor and save the mousse for lunch. “I have lived for the people dearest to me,” Aroon tells us, “and I am at a loss to know why their lives have been at times so perplexingly unhappy.” The rest of the novel jumps back to Aroon’s childhood and young adulthood in a country house called Temple Alice, as she unsuccessfully struggles to understand how she ended up sour, and unlikable, and alone.

You’ll have gathered Aroon isn’t the most sympathetic narrator. As the novel goes on you hate her less. By the end you have compassion for her. Aroon is at a loss to understand herself, but everything she’s oblivious to is clear enough to the reader. Her problem is “good behaviour.”

For Aroon’s upper-class family—her father, mother, and brother Hubert—good behavior isn’t about what you do, only what you say. Or don’t say. Good behavior is an aesthetic. Good behavior is refusing to express strong emotions, never talking about certain subjects. When someone dies, grief is kept under wraps. Mentioning money or sex is in the worst of taste. Problems and difficult subjects are hinted at, never addressed directly. If you’ve got a beef with someone you can bully them endlessly but overt anger is for the proles.

Aroon’s mother only had kids because big houses need heirs. She pawns them off on any old nursemaid, drunk or sober, and isn’t concerned when little Aroon thinks Hubert is dying. Keeping calm is Good Behavior. Aroon’s intermittently caring father sleeps around but as long as no one mentions it, her mother restricting herself to waspish comments, everything’s fine. Talking about money is unseemly—these tradesmen keep sending bills! Rude!—so the family can’t handle its finances. One of the few people who unreservedly cared for Aroon was her governess Mrs. Brock, but Mrs. Brock was emotional and prone to inadvisable crushes and drowned herself after a rejection, so as Aroon grows she’s persuaded to remember Mrs. Brock with scorn.

Aroon grows up among strategic silences. There are pieces of her life she just doesn’t get because no one’s ever actually come out and talked about them—even as she drops blatant clues, to which Aroon is entirely oblivious, on the reader. Aroon thinks alcohol has no effect on her because she doesn’t know how to tell when she’s drunk. She knows where babies come from but it’s unclear whether she fully understands the connection between love and sex. As an adult, she walks in on her father’s sickbed and doesn’t understand what Rose’s hand is doing under the covers. She doesn’t realize her father has lovers. She thinks Hubert’s friend Richard is her lover because he sat next to her on her bed once. She thinks Richard hangs around to be near her, and hasn’t noticed Richard and Hubert are gay. It’s not clear whether she ever even understands homosexuality is a thing. In that first chapter, at the age of 57, she still lists Richard among her loved ones as though any day he might return from Africa to announce their engagement.

The misunderstandings spread through the entire cast. Aroon’s father suspects Hubert is gay, but Aroon accidentally convinces him otherwise when she implies Richard is her lover; she thinks the reason he’s seemed worried is that he thought she might be pregnant. Discussing these things isn’t Good Behavior, so they try to talk about them without actually talking about them, if you get my drift. They don’t ask each other the right questions. The whole conversation is at cross-purposes.

Aroon is a classic unreliable narrator—not the kind who lies to the reader, but the kind who doesn’t understand the truth she’s telling. Which I’m a sucker for. First, I love fiction with puzzle elements. In a way Good Behaviour is kin to detective novels. We’re searching for clues to what Aroon doesn’t understand, and what she doesn’t realize others don’t understand.

More importantly, the extra space between the author and the narrator and the reader is space for ideas to resonate, for interesting thematic maneuvers. But I wonder sometimes whether this kind of narration is becoming opaque to most readers—less interpretively legible. These days when people react to books on the internet there’s been a trend towards literal readings. The space between author and narrator collapses to zero. Readers assume the narrator’s voice is the author’s, a direct expression of their inner self. In the absence of explicit disapproval, readers may assume the author approves of anything their characters do or say; in recent years a few writers even let themselves be badgered into deleting dialog that failed to display… well, good behavior.

But even a third person narrator isn’t the author. (See, for example, my comments on Lafferty’s “Continued on Next Rock” in this recent post.) The narrator who understands things one way while the author lays clues that the reader should understand them differently is a routine literary technique. It’s another way to avoid just literally infodumping a story’s themes onto the reader, which is, after all, the point of a novel; it’s the difference between adult fiction and Aesop’s fables. Fiction that caters to a literal audience flattens itself out to a single level; you get novels whose themes, philosophy, and point of view are surface aesthetics—all about how the text looks at first glance, with nothing in particular going on underneath—or with things going on underneath the author never intended.

The opposite of an unreliable narrator is an omniscient narrator; they know everything about the story and the inner life of its characters (while still not necessarily understanding everything about, like, everything). When the narrator isn’t omniscient, there’s still a sense in which the reader is omniscient, at least to a limited degree: unlike an unreliable narrator, we know there are lines to read between. Or we ought to, if we don’t want to wind up reading books the way Aroon reads her life.

Teffi, Other Worlds

The first line of Teffi’s story “Witch,” the title story from a 1936 collection reprinted in Other Worlds, asks: “Sometimes, when you think back, you can’t help wondering: Were people really like that? Was life really like that?” “Teffi” was the pen name of a Russian writer and journalist who left the country for good after the revolution. Afterwards most of her readers were émigrés and these stories have an undercurrent of nostalgia.

Cover of Other Worlds

Other Worlds is subtitled Peasants, Pilgrims, Spirits, Saints. Those are all running themes here. Other Worlds samples stories from several collections, in chronological order. Pilgrims and saints appear more in the early stories. Spirits come in later. Another theme carried all the way through the book is memory, particularly childhood memories. A lot of these stories recreate the way the world felt to Teffi as a child, when the line between reality and fantasy was blurrier.

And then they carry that feeling forward, into adulthood. The pilgrim stories involve childhood attempts to understand religion, including the drily funny tale of a child who decides to become a saint. But there are also adult pilgrims who have sudden numinous experiences. One narrator takes an unexpectedly wild and eerie carriage ride through the woods. Even in adulthood the world gets unexpectedly larger.

The tales of spirits, most from Witch, feel like the heart of the collection. (Although this may be my love of weird fiction talking.) The translators included all but one of the stories from this collection. (Robert Chandler, who wrote the explanatory material, doesn’t explain what that last story was or why they left it out.) These stories center around spirits from Russian folklore—witches, shapeshifters, Leshies, Rusalkas. Often the main vectors for these beliefs are peasants—but, no matter what they tell themselves, the upper classes are just as suceptible. In “Witch,” the ostensibly rational narrator and her husband wind up fleeing their apartment in fear that their housekeeper has cursed the place. “You may laugh all you please,” says Teffi, “but the truth is that things didn’t work out sensibly and reasonably, as educated people like ourselves always want them to.”

In the Witch stories Teffi’s prose is conversational. It feels improvisational, extemporaneous. (But it’s precise—Chandler tells us Teffi is difficult to translate.) Her narrator is reminiscing, taking you into your confidence. She’s talking to a “you,” or relaying a story told to her: “Do you remember that tragic death? The death of that artful Edvers?” Memory keeps coming up—sometimes she’ll say “I remember” or “As far as I can remember.” The stories are structured with anecdotes, asides, and associational transitions—for instance, she’ll give a quick biography of a baroness before telling the anecdote she’s involved in that’s the actual point of the story. A lot of these stories start as essays on Russian folklore—domovoys, bathhouse devils—before easing into a narrative.

These stories have a constant edge of astonishment. Can this really be happening? Is life really like this? Narrators and characters keep asking bemused questions: “Was that really Panas?” “What kind of accursed forest was this, full of murderous trees?” A lot of writers take pains to avoid exclamation points. Teffi throws them in fearlessly.

One thing you get in Teffi that more fantasy writers need to learn is a sense of mystery, complexity, and ambiguity. Take “Leshachikha.” The narrator remembers a childhood incident when her family’s neighbor, a count, brings his daughter Jadzia[1] to their house. She behaves wildly and tears her dress. Later the kids are being driven through the woods and hear a wild howling; their coachman says Jadzia, the “Leshachika,” drives the game to her father when he hunts. Then the count brings home Eleonora, another daughter, who is beautiful but slightly hunchbacked. Jadzia is jealous. One day Eleonora wanders into the forest and is crushed by a falling tree. Then the count plans to marry. In the forest his valet just barely saves him from another falling tree. Jadzia is nowhere near either time, but everyone obscurely feels she’s responsible. The count breaks off the engagement and takes Jadzia away, abandoning his home. The narrator stops to look at his pond. “I kept looking for the swan,” she says. Leshachikhas are as normal as birds; a swan is as interesting as a spirit.

This story doesn’t have a single, definite, legible interpretation. A lot of SFF stories take pains to communicate a clear, well-defined meaning. The story has a careful moral or is built around a metaphor with an unmistakable meaning. The results are often stories you’ll only read once; you’ve gotten everything out of them you’re ever going to. This is why I value messiness in fiction. “Leshachikha” is productively obscure. It could mean many things to many people. There’s more scope for rereading, reinterpretation.

One move Other Worlds often makes is to blur the border between people and spirits. Jadzia may be a forest spirit, or may consort with forest spirits, or may just be like a forest spirit. In “Wonder Worker” a peasant seems to reincarnate as a chicken. In “Water Spirit” a transgender housemaid is accused of being “from the river.” In “The Dog” the spirit of the narrator’s childhood friend who called himself her “dog” returns to protect her in the form of that animal. In a late essay Teffi identifies herself with Baba Yaga. Ordinary people are as strange and numinous as spirits.

That means sometimes it’s ambiguous whether anything supernatural is going on. Sometimes nothing supernatural is going on: the comedy in “Bathhouse Devil” comes from the narrator’s pretending to believe in spirits while leaving a more mundane story in plain sight. This might worry some weird fiction fans. Stories that go for metaphysical ambiguity are often afraid of their own weirdness; including a non-supernatural get out clause feels more respectable. But here the ambiguity has the opposite effect. Other Worlds feels weirder than a lot of outright weird fiction. Instead of taming weirdness, Teffi uses ambiguity to make the everyday weird.

  1. Deep Space Nine fans might be interested to know “Jadzia” is Russian, and actually supposed to be pronounced “Yadya.”  ↩

Leonora Carrington, The Hearing Trumpet

1. The Surreal

All this is a digression and I do not wish anyone to think my mind wanders far, it wanders but never further than I want.

—Leonora Carrington, The Hearing Trumpet

The Hearing Trumpet isn’t about the hearing trumpet. That is, the trumpet doesn’t have a role in the plot; it’s just mentioned every so often. This is not Chekhov’s hearing trumpet. Still, Leonora Carrington’s novel kicks off with 92-year-old Marian Leatherby receiving the thing from her friend Carmella, so it’s important. Marian’s been given a way to extend her senses—far enough, Carmella suggests, to hear what others say while she’s out of the room.

I love Leonora Carrington’s stories but you want to read them one at a time. Most are heavily into dream logic and too many at once are too rich. I wondered how her style would work at novel length. But of course she adapted to fit the form: The Hearing Trumpet is a novel of escalating boiled-frog weirdness. It’s also both funny—the narrator has a lot of cockeyed opinions and the confidence to state them as fact—and genuinely uncanny. Reading it is like wandering through a slapstick dream.

It starts as (just barely) a realist novel. Marian lives with her son Galahad in Mexico. She keeps to herself and keeps busy. She sweeps out her room, has hilarious conversations with Carmella, saves cat hair to knit into a sweater, and dreams of traveling through Lapland by dogsled. Her self-assurance is vast. Is she growing a beard? Marian thinks it looks gallant, so what the hell. With age she’s stopped minding other people’s eccentricities or caring what they think of her own. In the afterward to the New York Review Books Classics edition, Olga Tokarczuk argues that old age is Marian’s license to be eccentric, fully herself, and frames The Hearing Trumpet as an argument for the revolutionary power of eccentricity, which she defines as a point of view “both provincial and marginal—pushed aside, to the fringes—and at the same time revelatory and revolutionary.”[1]

Marian narrates The Hearing Trumpet in the first person. She’s practical, and calm—absolutely unshakable. Never frightened; always amused, open, and curious. She grants all these qualities to the novel. So much of the feel of a novel hinges on the narrator’s personality. (And every novel has a narrator, even if it’s pretending not to!) Look at The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s packed with events that would be grim in the straightforward, serious world of an Iain M. Banks novel. But Adams’ voice tells us not to panic. The Hearing Trumpet is a reassuring, optimistic book. But if Marian were anxious and unsettled, this would be an anxious, unsettling novel. It is, after all, a book about a woman committed to an institution where she’s subjected to a bizarre, overbearing treatment scheme.[2] The novel changes the emotional tenor of its plot by looking at it from an unexpected point of view.

2. The Surrealer

That’s the first thing Marian hears with her trumpet: Galahad and his family are putting her in a home. “People under seventy and over seven are very unreliable if they are not cats,” says Carmella. (Could Marian make Galahad into a sweater? I don’t think so.) The Institution of Dr. and Mrs. Gambit is a liminal place, the border between the real and the impossible. It could exist—within the laws of nature, I mean—but who’d build it? The elderly women warehoused there inhabit a bizarre jumble of novelty cottages: a shoe, a toadstool, a mummy case. Marian gets a miniature lighthouse she calls the Lookout. Again, she’s extending her senses. “Houses are really bodies,” says Marian, and during this out-of-body experience she’ll see and hear past the surface of the world.

The Gambits indoctrinate their charges in Inner Christianity, a vague regimen involving Movements, Self Remembering, and lots of Significant Capital Letters. Marian has free time to snoop, but can’t entirely escape the regimen—Dr. Gambit is intrusively audible even sans trumpet. Marian’s a vegetarian, used to directing her own diet. The Gambits let her stick to it but won’t give her a second helping of vegetables to make up for the lack of meat. The Institution isn’t adequately nourishing her. Still, she amuses herself by staring at a painting of a Winking Nun hanging opposite her chair. Somehow she intuits this person’s name was Doña Rosalinda Alvarez Cruz della Cueva. The painting has a hidden meaning. The castle housing the Institution holds secrets Dr. Gambit is unaware of, brought over from Spain by a refugee during their Civil War. Something lives in its tower.

Sometimes talking about the genre of a book in broad terms (like Science Fiction or Horror) is less interesting than treating a specific thing the work is doing as its own subgenre, and finding other, sometimes unexpected works that relate to it as a result. The Hearing Trumpet reminds me of Twin Peaks and Philip K. Dick’s VALIS that way, though in other ways they don’t resemble each other at all. They’re all metaphysical investigations: characters peel back layer after layer of their apparently ordinary world to discover unexpectedly idiosyncratic metaphysics. These stories often use existing mythology as a springboard. The Hearing Trumpet brings in the Holy Grail, as well as a lot of Gnostic ideas I’m not informed enough to comment on. But these are only starting points for more personal mythologies.

The mythology of The Hearing Trumpet centers around the Grail, really a pre-Christian artifact coopted by the Church: the cup of the goddess Venus, meant to hold Pneuma, or life-essence. It also takes in bees, werewolves, Taliesin, the Pole Star, soup, and the life of the Abbess Doña Rosalinda Alvarez Cruz della Cueva, who attempted to rescue the Grail from the Knights Templar. This is a book within a book—dozens of pages narrated by a medieval chronicler—provided by Christabel, a mysteriously busy resident who claims to be twice as old as Marian and guards the Abbess’ legacy.

If you’ve read Tim Powers this might sound like the kind of thing he gets up to—setting up a mythological shadow world behind ordinary reality. But there’s a difference that points to why The Hearing Trumpet, or VALIS, or David Lynch feel specifically surreal as opposed to fantastic. Powers’ novels are about specific worldbuilding. The fun is in watching the characters figure out exactly how their world works and how they can work within it. But surreal metaphysics are never completely known. They’re not logically worked out jigsaw-puzzle worldbuilding, but a line into another person’s subconscious. Some of the resonances of their symbols are only fully understood by the author, or the narrator—assuming they fully understand it themselves. Not all questions will be answered, no matter how deep the protagonist digs. The world never loses its mystery.[3] Its systems remain open—you can interpret and reinterpret them forever. These stories aren’t bothered about whether the audience understands everything they’re getting at. They’re not bothered if you understand something else—some meaning from the margins, personal to you.

3. The Surrealiest

Back in the present, two women who are really into Inner Christianity and aligned with the Gambits poison a fellow inmate.[4] This drives the other women to band together and declare a hunger strike until the poisoners are expelled. They feed themselves only from their own resources (for now, mostly a store of chocolate biscuits). As the Gambits lose control, the weather turns mysteriously cold. The world has turned on its side and the poles have migrated to the equator. The margins have replaced the center.

When the world tips over the cause-and-effect narrative (Marian embarrasses her family, therefore they put her in a home) tips over into full surrealism. Now things are happening just because it feels right for them to happen in that moment. The women’s revolution coincides with a revolution of the earth. Christabel emerges as a leader, challenging Marian with riddles and introducing the women to the local bee-goddess. Marian’s friends start turning up: Carmella digs a tunnel to the Institution to bust Marian out, hits uranium instead, and gets rich enough to supply the women with whatever they need. A European friend brings a tribe of werewolves in an atomic ark. The elderly women build an anarchic society of their own in the ruins of the Institution.

“It is impossible to understand how millions and millions of people all obey a sickly collection of gentlemen that call themselves ‘Government!’ The word, I expect, frightens people. It is a form of planetary hypnosis, and very unhealthy."

“It has been going on for years,” I said. “And it only occurred to relatively few to disobey and make what they call revolutions. If they won their revolutions, which they occasionally did, they made more governments, sometimes more cruel and stupid than the last.”

“Men are very difficult to understand,” said Carmella. “Let’s hope they all freeze to death.”

This is, I must admit, one of those stories where the protagonist is empowered by an apocalypse. This isn’t a plot I care for when handled realistically. But this is an openly metaphorical apocalypse. Marian’s inner journey is manifesting itself in the world; her inner world and outer world grow more numinous in tandem. Finally Marian descends beneath the tower and meets herself making soup in a cauldron. She jumps into the pot and the Marians converge, at once being the soup and eating it. Food in this novel is a stand-in for everything that feeds Marian’s mind and soul. She’s self-fueling, feeding her soul from her own resources.

At this point the women retrieve the grail in a full-scale assault on its captors—but it’s an epilogue. It happens very fast and, as it were, offstage. Which isn’t how a typical book would work: isn’t this the exciting part? But once Marian’s gone through her evolution, in a sense she has the Grail already; getting the literal plot-Grail is just confirmation. Again, by this point in the book plot logic has slipped out the back door and run halfway to Canada; things are happening because they feel right.

If too many books worked like this it might get old, but occasionally it makes a nice change. The culture of the 21st century is dominated by TV and film, which in the U.S. means mostly Hollywood. They account for most of what most people consume and their conventions filter out into other media. And our stories are so… let’s say, engineered. Our culture prefers a narrow range of structures and story-types. It’s not like there aren’t good reasons for that; three-act structures and heavily codified writing advice can serve as useful guard rails. It’s easy for weirdly structured or unstructured stories to just not work. But an artistic ecosystem needs mutants. Stories that are weird, baffling, ambiguous, mulishly stubborn, frustrating the audience’s expectations. Works that carve out new ecological niches, off to the sides, expand the range of possibilities for everyone else. This is where surrealism can come in handy.

Marian narrates the beginning of the novel, where she describes life with her son, and the end of the novel, where she describes life in the new world, in the present tense, but the story in between is in past tense. Marian starts out in a pleasant state of present-tense equilibrium and seems to enter into history as her problems begin. Now she’s emerged again into a new open-ended present. By the end of the novel she’s ready to ride through the newly snowy landscape on a sledge pulled by wooly dogs. She’s creating her dreams where she is.

  1. I recommend reading Tokarczuk’s afterword, reprinted at that link; honestly, it’s a better reading of the novel than mine could be. She talks about the value of “openness” and “wild metaphysics” in fiction, and when I read that I thought: yes, that’s what I’m looking for these days.  ↩

  2. For a more serious though still brave version of this story, see Carrington’s memoir Down Below.  ↩

  3. The Jamesian ghost story is a close relative, although its key emotion is fear instead of wonder. It has the investigation, the openness/incompleteness, the hints of more to the workings of the world.  ↩

  4. It might be relevant for some readers that The Hearing Trumpet features a depiction of a transgender woman that seems well intentioned for the mid–1970s but might feel dated. First, she’s also the only character who dies. Second, the characters don’t seem entirely clear on whether she’s trans or living in disguise to stay near a lover, or aware there’s a distinction. But the novel makes it clear she belongs with the other women—at one point she has a dream that indicates she’s being invited into the same mysteries as Marian.  ↩

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, The Return of Munchausen

I’ve written before about the Russian fantasist Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. Due to Soviet censorship, he went unpublished in his lifetime only to be rediscovered and translated in the new century. He took his place among my favorite writers on the basis of Memories of the Future and The Letter Killers Club. Autobiography of a Corpse and the latest release, The Return of Munchausen, are slightly lesser works but still good.

Cover of The Return of Munchausen

Baron Munchausen is as perfect a hero for Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky as he was for Terry Gilliam. Krzhizhanovsky writes philosophical fiction with the tools of the tall tale: literalized metaphors, wordplay, and so much anthropomorphism that his inanimate objects and abstract ideas can be livelier than his people. (Typical of Krzhizhanovsky’s technique is one character’s descent of a staircase: “Stairs scurried under Unding’s feet and then, damply through his worn-out soles, sidewalk asphalt.”)

Munchausen, for the uninitiated, is a fictional character loosely based on an actual German aristocrat. He’s a serial exaggerator. He rides cannonballs, vacations on the moon, and pulls himself out of swamps by his own hair–or claims to.[1]

Krzhizhanovsky’s Munchausen isn’t just a teller of tall tales, but a defender of fiction, an advocate for fantasy: “I flatter myself with the hope that I have made better and wider use than other barons of my right to flights of fancy.” His motto is “truth in lies.” He has a “theory of improbability”: where probability theory studies things that happen many times, improbability theory studies things that have happened less than once. A scholar protests that Munchausen’s theory is all metaphor, but that’s the point: “People are fractions passing themselves off as ones… and the acts of a fraction are all fractional,” he argues. Probability alone isn’t a reliable guide to anything as unpredictably irrational as human beings.

So when Munchausen is asked to tour and report on the new Soviet Union, he returns with a lecture full of the usual impossible adventures. Here we see why Krzhizhanovsky had no luck getting published. The Russian sequence is a long, caustic vent about Krzhizhanovsky’s every frustration with his country. Secret police and famines get a look in, but Krzhizhanovsky aims most of his satire at the government’s control of ideas and its treatment of artists and intellectuals–understandably, maybe, in Krzhizhanovsky’s circumstances. Trains are fueled by burning books; Munchausen’s train crawls by inches because the engineer is an ex-professor who keeps stopping to read. Munchausen can see Soviet science is advancing because the scientists, lacking blackboards, are running after the trucks on which they’ve scrawled their equations. For modern readers some of Krzhizhanovsky’s less broad and more specific jokes are obscure enough to warrant endnotes: at one point Munchausen is sentenced to a “conditional execution,” which the notes tell us was a real punishment handed down on one occasion to an engineer whose skills the government couldn’t actually afford to lose. But even without the context there’s still plenty of wit here.

Krzhizhanovsky knows this is satire but Munchausen doesn’t share his latest author’s awareness: he thinks he’s created a flight of fancy, unmoored from reality. When he learns his lecture was nothing more than a comic exaggeration of the truth, Munchausen is stricken.

While this review was half-finished, I came across a weirdly appropriate line in one of the blogs I follow. Adam Roberts, in a review of a different book, quoted this bit from Martin Amis’s book Koba the Dread: “Amis says ”˜it was a symmetrical convenience—for Stalin—that a true description of the Soviet Union exactly resembled a demented slander of the Soviet Union.’”

Munchausen is an intellectual anarchist. For him, tall tales represent freedom; absurdity opens up new imaginative possibilities. So it’s important to Munchausen that his tall tales actually are absurd–that they put some distance between themselves and the reality they depart from. If the world isn’t reasonable, Munchausen’s refusal to conform to reason is nothing special. Now reality itself is absurd enough to overtake Munchausen’s ability to reimagine it, and the jokes don’t seem so Pythonesquely anarchic anymore. Just bitter.

  1. The Baron is often misremembered as pulling himself up by his bootstraps. Next time you hear that figure of speech, remember that it describes an impossibility.  ↩

Anna Seghers, Transit

Half the posts on this blog begin by apologizing for not posting much. This is one of them. I spent 2016 increasingly preoccupied with and anxious about the news, then really preoccupied and anxious when the country decided to drive itself off a cliff, a situation for which my entire coping strategy consists of making the occasional dumb joke. My attention span has not been great and what books I’ve been able to finish include a lot of comfort fiction–game tie-in novels, mediocre Sherlock Holmes pastiches–that hasn’t inspired interesting thoughts.

So I need to occupy my mind and get it back into shape. Which means reading more seriously again (which is not always the same thing as reading books that are Serious, although this one is, a bit).

I have a shelf of unread NYRB Classics, a series with a good hit rate. So to distract myself from the news I picked up Anna Seghers’s Transit, a novel about a refugee crisis and the threat of fascism. I may not be very good at this.

Cover of Transit

Transit is set in 1937; the narrator escaped from a German concentration camp, and then a French prison camp, and finally washed up in Marseille under the name Seidler. (We never learn his real name.) Seidler is asked to deliver a letter to a writer named Weidel, who turns out to have killed himself. Seidler tries to deliver Weidel’s effects to the Mexican consulate–Weidel was trying to escape to Mexico, and Seidler figures the guy’s wife is already there. But the consulate staff think he’s Weidel and start arranging for his visas. Meanwhile, Seidler notices a woman who keeps showing up in the same cafés looking like she’s searching for someone. It’s Weidel’s wife, Marie. People keep telling her they’ve just seen her husband.

Seidler is oddly unconcerned at being one step ahead of the Nazis; he doesn’t feel fear until late in the novel upon seeing a few in a local hotel. Danger bores him: “Aren’t you sick of all these suspenseful tales about people surviving mortal danger by a hair, about breathtaking escapes?” he asks. Seidler would rather hear about everyday life: work, ordinary things. Some days when I know what he means.

Marseille is the last stop on the Continent for people on the way to Mexico, or Lisbon, or Brazil, or anywhere they can reach. What interests Seidler’s fellow refugees are visas, what you might remember from Casablanca as “Letters of Transit.” Refugees need a lot of visas. They need a visa to live wherever they’re going, and an exit visa to leave France, and a transit visa to pass through the countries in between. They all take effect and expire at different times, and if a refugee wants to move on–and avoid ending up in an internment camp–the dates have to line up exactly like the tumblers in a lock. Seidler just wants a residence permit that will let him stay in Marseille without getting arrested. France will only renew it if he’s working on getting a visa. So Seidler can only stay if he shows he wants to leave. It’s like somebody hired Franz Kafka to work on a prequel to Casablanca.

Transit as a whole is less interesting than this summary suggests. Not that the parts I just summarized aren’t fascinating. But Seidler is less interested in this stuff than he is in Marie. Marie appreciates Seidler’s friendship but isn’t that into him. Despite this he spends hefty chunks of novel obsessing over her, and feels aggrieved when she associates with another refugee, a doctor.[1] So Seidler tries to help Marie, but he’s trying to help her in some way that means he’ll leave with her, or she’ll stay with him, or at least she and the doctor will leave at different times. And he never quite tells her the truth about Weidel.

This plot–the man who fixates on a woman who isn’t mutually attracted and badgers or manipulates her until he gets the relationship he wants–drives me up the wall when reflexively dropped into a story by a writer who unthinkingly assumes this is what romance looks like. That’s not a problem Anna Seghers has–it’s not the main point of the novel and Seghers doesn’t put up a flashing neon sign to make sure every reader Gets It, but in the end it’s clear even to Seidler that he’s been wasting Marie’s time as well as his own. He’s looking back on his obsession with a certain amount of ruefulness. But if I wasn’t as bothered by the specific implementation of this plot as written by Anna Seghers, I was still impatient having to read through it.

In recent years a lot of online criticism–some of mine included–has poked at and mulled over plots and plot elements that treat as normal attitudes or stereotypes we’d like to get away from. Earlier I used the word “reflexively,” and that’s key–these plots are default narratives. They usually worm their way into stories when writers go with their first thoughts without moving on to the second. They define and reinforce stereotypes because they’re ubiquitous and rarely challenged by alternatives.

That ubiquity has an interesting side effect–or maybe an uninteresting side effect. Let’s assume for a moment you’re not interested in the question of whether stories reinforce stereotype or normalize dubious attitudes. When I see an argument take this turn, a question occurs to me that I never see asked or answered. Maybe you don’t care about the politics, but once you’ve seen the same plot unendingly reiterated in the same pattern in all corners of pop culture… at a certain point, aren’t you bored, as Seidler is with the suspenseful tales he’s heard from every fellow refugee? I was impatient with Transit not because Seidler is an entitled ass–it’s not like the novel rewards him for it. But he’s entitled in a way I’ve already seen in all kinds of older[2] fiction–novels, movies, every possible genre. The obsessed wannabe lover plot can be, and has been, dropped into any genre, format, or situation. It never changes, never tells us anything new.

This is my problem with, as we say nowadays, the problematic: when writers turn to these ancient chestnuts it’s usually in lieu of some more specific and interesting things they could have done if they’d had a second thought. When Transit foregrounds the obsession plot it’s not attending to the specific circumstances it’s set up or the unique questions and thoughts they might lead to. Seidler is thinking about Marie, or trying to arrange Marie’s life, while actually interesting things go on off to the side. That’s one of the points the novel is making, but this point is less interesting than what gets shoved into the margins to make it.

Having spent several paragraphs on that complaint… I still wouldn’t call Transit a bad book. When it focuses on its actual subject, it’s great. First, it’s an interesting window into a different world. Seghers was a refugee herself and wrote the novel not long after her experience, so the details of time and place are authentic–I was struck by Seghers’s description of pizza as an exotic novelty: “It’s round and colorful like an open-face fruit pie. But bite into it and you get a mouthful of pepper.” On a larger scale it’s remarkable that the world is falling apart–a foreign army has occupied the country, people are lining up to buy sardines, everybody’s juggling paperwork trying to avoid getting arrested and thrown into internment camps–yet everyone is so composed. People go to work, hang out in cafés, visit their lovers, and calmly discuss how they plan to flee the country. The greatest emergency of their lives is the new normal.

At the same time Transit has an allegorical streak. The first thing Seidler tells us is that he’s heard a refugee ship sank, and there may or may not be survivors, and a couple of people he knew were on board. Once the novel gets going it isn’t hard to guess who those people will be. Before then, though, Marie is already talking about Mexico as though it’s the afterlife: “When it’s all over, will there finally be peace as the doctor believes? Will we see each other again over there?” She hopes to see the husband she still doesn’t realize is dead. Seghers herself fled to Mexico to escape the Nazis. Maybe the upheaval really felt like the end of one life and the beginning of another. Seghers compares Seidler’s existence as a refugee in Marseille, his time in transit, to his life: uncertain, contingent, subject to absurd rules. In more than one sense he’s just passing through. His biggest problem is figuring out where and when he needs to stop moving.

But the best reasons to read Transit are the stories of the refugees Seidler meets, the ones he resents having to listen to. The woman who agrees to babysit two Great Danes so she can get a visa to deliver them to their owners, the couple who can’t work out compatible dates for their visas and alternate getting arrested, the family who decide to risk staying in France so they won’t have to abandon their dying grandmother… every chapter has a fascinating little story about a life sliding into absurdity. On the whole I’d recommend Transit, I think, if it sounds like your kind of thing. Just be prepared to skim a lot.

  1. We never learn the doctor’s real name, either, and I spent the whole book imagining him as Peter Capaldi.  ↩

  2. I think the “sympathetic stalker” plot is starting to die out. I mean, there’s that recent movie Passengers–when I heard the premise I immediately guessed the twist, then thought “Nah, they wouldn’t.” Except they did. But the encouraging thing is that the critical reaction has been almost unanimously “What were they thinking?  ↩

Mosaic Novels: Speedboat

As I explained in my last post, this is part of a short series on mosaic novels–novels made up of vignettes that build up to a cumulative theme instead of a single plot. For a lot of people the classic example will be Renata Adler’s Speedboat. Speedboat is a literary cult classic and its recent reprint by New York Review Books Classics got the kind of reviews and attention most new novels only dream of. Most of Speedboat’s vignettes are less than a page long, and many are single paragraphs. They’re written in the voice of Jen Fain, a journalist in the 1970s. Unlike The Book of Disquiet, Speedboat was deliberately ordered, not pulled out of a trunk. It’s also more arch, less introspective, and much more elliptical. According to its afterword, when Adler wrote Speedboat she often found herself stopping before she’d reached a section’s planned ending. The result resembles a book of compact essays suggesting more than they say outright, with a journalist’s eye for telling details.

Cover of Speedboat

Speedboat is a portrait of a particular social milieu (white, educated, upper middle class New Yorkers) at a particular time (the early 1970s). Speedboat is dryly funny and self-deprecating (which may be important for some in an age when it’s harder than it used to be to have patience with feckless privilege). I love its specificity. I said this was a book with exactly the right details but it also uses exactly the right words, in exactly the right order. Every page has several perfect sentences and at least one surprising sentence. Some characters who appear for a few paragraphs have enough comic presence to carry stories of their own. Says Jen, “Hardly anyone about whom I deeply care at all resembles anyone else I have ever met, or heard of, or read about in the literature.” (Which is, there, one of those perfect sentences I mentioned: the way “at all” might equally well belong to “care” or “resembles;” the way it doesn’t end with “read about” but with “in the literature” as though she’s checked scientific journals.)

Like The Book of Disquiet, Speedboat allows anecdotes and observations to stand on their own without having to squeeze themselves into a plot. Vignettes don’t have to justify their presence in utilitarian terms to avoid getting cut. The mosaic novel is the perfect format for authors who don’t want to kill their darlings. Speedboat is the Good Parts Version of the 1970s Great American Novel, minus the filler. But that doesn’t mean the parts don’t add up to a whole, or a hole.

Speedboat takes its name from the story of a woman taking a speedboat out for a spin who happily bounces up and down with the boat until suddenly one sharp bounce injures her spine. This is the structure of the book in miniature. Jen cruises on the amusing foibles of the upper middle class but keeps suddenly veering into anecdotes where someone gets murdered or rides a bicycle off a cliff. By the end she’s describing schoolmates who got sick on field trips, how they apologized for ruining the trip for the other students, how they’re still politely apologizing to each other even though anymore it seems everybody’s sick. Jen’s people seem silly because their money, education, and social status allow them to insulate themselves from the least silly parts of reality… most of the time. Speedboat is about what privilege will not protect you from. Accidents. Illness. Having to make really big life choices. “Even our people who stay fit with yoga seem to be, more than others, subject to the flu.” You can’t keep reality out.

Another novel with Speedboat’s theme might have been heavy, or maudlin, or just whiny. Speedboat stays light and funny because its touch-down-and-take-off-again structure lets it circle its theme without looking straight at it. You’re aware of certain subjects from the holes they leave, the way the novel flinches from them, as its characters flinch. The way Jen keeps changing the subject is the point. (Remember how Adler kept stopping her vignettes before she’d reached the most obvious ending.) It’s like a puzzle book. You triangulate Speedboat’s real subject from the themes its disparate vignettes approach but never baldly confront.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Autobiography of a Corpse

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s Memories of the Future and The Letter Killers Club, collections of fantastic tales by a once-forgotten Soviet writer, were two of my favorite books from the last few years. So it’s odd that I just last month finished the third volume, Autobiography of a Corpse. Or maybe not; it didn’t rock my world to the extent the last two volumes of Krzhizhanovsky did. Not that it wasn’t good. It just feels less new. I’ve now read enough of his stories to notice when he repeats himself. His themes and tics are familiar: loss of identity, negations, anthropomorphized ideas, the word “I” used as a noun. Most interesting writers circle back to the same wells, and that’s not a problem as long as they ring interesting changes on their preoccupations. It’s just not as revelatory.

Cover of Autobiography of a Corpse

Still, there are good stories here; all that’s lost for me is the element of surprise. “The Collector of Cracks” deals with a mad scientist who discovers that time is made of discrete moments separated by “cracks,” like the lines separating frames of a film. In “Yellow Coal” another scientist discovers a way to generate electricity from meanness and spite. In “The Unbitten Elbow” a man’s obsession with biting his own elbow becomes a media phenomenon and sparks serious philosophical debates. In “Bridge Over the Styx” a supernatural frog proposes “a bridge suspended between the eternal ‘no’ and the eternal ’yes,” allowing the dead to mingle with the living.

What struck me this time around was how Krzhizhanovsky uses anthropomorphism. He writes about objects and ideas like they’re characters: A scholar writing a dissertation on “The Letter ‘T’ in Turkic Languages” tells how “the bustling ‘T’ would go exhausted to bed, usually under a bookmark” at the end of a work day; the elbow-biter’s manager portrays the elbow as equal contestant in a wrestling match, at the end of every show declaring the elbow a winner.

At the same time, many of Krzhizhanovsky’s characters admit to feeling as though they’re ideas, human abstractions losing themselves in the cracks and seams of the world, like the “0.6th of a person” imagined by the narrator of “Autobiography of a Corpse.” The nameless narrator feels dead in life, and knows his disconnection from humanity is leading to his actual death, but he’s cheered by the thought that he’ll live on as an indelible ghostly image in the mind of the inheritor of his manuscript: the next tenant of his apartment. As a figment, he feels more alive than ever.

Fans call science fiction the “literature of ideas”–somewhat ridiculously, since you’d be hard-pressed to find interesting literature of any genre that doesn’t contain ideas, but we’ll let that pass. They mean that SF is writing in which the ideas are as important as the characters, or are even written about as though they are characters. Krzhizhanovsky takes this to the limit: in Krzhizhanovsky’s stories, ideas and people are interchangeable, and can go back and forth from one state to the other, like the living and the dead traveling the bridge over the Styx.

Dezso Kosztolányi, Skylark

I was trying to think up more creative titles for these reviews, but I’m not sure I’m that good at it… so, back to the author and title. And from half-written reviews of books I read ages ago to one I read recently…

Skylark by Dezső Kosztolányi is about a week in the life of an aging married couple in Hungary at the end of the 19th century who live in a self-contained world with their awkward, unlovable daughter Skylark. When she leaves for a week in the country, the break in their routine forces her parents to reconnect with the community and shocks them into reevaluating their lives.

This is, obviously, not science fiction or fantasy. Nevertheless I’m going to spend a large chunk of this essay writing about SF. My running theme lately seems to be “Why does the SF genre as a whole seem so disappointing, when I still love so many individual SF novels?” And here’s another clue!

Cover of Skylark

Most of the non-SF novels I read are somewhere between a few decades and a couple of centuries old. This is because the world of mainstream fiction is bigger than any given genre, and harder to keep track of, and if I filter it by what’s good enough to have stayed in print a while it’s easier to find the books I want to read. But it’s occurred to me that I also read older novels for the same reason I read SF: I want to read about how people live in environments unlike mine, and also unlike any place I could theoretically, given unlimited time and money, travel to. For my purposes it doesn’t matter if those places don’t exist because they never existed, or because they exist only in the past.

Skylark is a concentrated dose of this. Because it’s about reconnecting with life, much of Skylark just shows how people live in Sárszeg, a small Hungarian town, at the turn of the 20th century. Mother and Father Vajkay eat at a restaurant, and the food is described so well you can imagine the taste. They meet neighbors they haven’t spoken to in years. They see a lousy play that nonetheless delights them. Father visits his club for a chapter’s worth of innocent debauchery and gets drunk for the first time in ages.

Skylark describes everything in meticulous detail–not lengthy detail, but well-chosen detail, so in less than 150 pages Sárszeg feels like a place you’ve visited. Kosztolányi can tell us in a few words things that other writers would spin out over chapters:

They had given her that name years ago, Skylark, many, many years ago, when she still sang.

There’s an entire biography in that single sentence, and those last four words are devastating.

Skylark is a compelling novel about very small things. Which raises a question. Why do the science fiction and fantasy genres, no different from Skylark in that they’re about other times and places, insist that as soon as fiction steps away from the here-and-now it must turn Epic?

SF writers think the only fit subjects for the genre are wars and high body count disasters. The rest of literature creates drama from family conflicts, ordinary crimes, personal troubles, and small crises. As I’ve complained before, the only way most SF writers know how to generate that all-important Sense of Wonder is to go big. Apocalypses! Invasions! Mass death! As a result most SF novels focus on the least interesting aspects of their invented worlds. Wars and deaths in fantasy are all pretty much alike. I want to know how people in Magic World live.

How would a plot like Skylark’s would work in cultures with different underlying assumptions, including completely invented underlying assumptions? That would be fascinating. I would totally buy a book that showed me what a story like this would look like in Dungeons and Dragons world.

Skylark at once acknowledges the ridiculousness of everyone in Sárszeg–the theater is amateurish, Father’s drinking buddies are aging buffoons–yet sympathizes with everyone. To the extent that Skylark is laughing it feels with more than at.

That’s crucial to why Skylark works. A more condescending, less empathetic novel with the same plot would seem upsettingly cruel. Because the Vajkays’ ultimate realization is that their daughter, who they genuinely love, who has never intended them any harm, has ruined their lives. Under Skylark’s care the family drifted away from the community. They never eat out because Skylark disdains spicy restaurant food. They don’t go to the theater because the atmosphere makes her ill. When Skylark is present, they’re Mother and Father; only when she leaves do they regain their names, becoming for a few days Ákos and Antonia. Drunk and disinhibited, Father finally admits he hates what his life has become, and as much as he loves Skylark he also resents her.

On the other hand, the last scene of a novel is often a point of emphasis, the part the reader comes away thinking about and remembers later. And Skylark’s final pages are the one part of the novel not given to Mother or Father. For the first time the narrative inhabits Skylark’s point of view. She’s aware the people around her are miserable, and she’s grieved by it, but doesn’t know what to do. She’s not a bad person. She is how she is, and everyone else is what they are, and they just don’t fit together. Skylark gives its final words to the character who for most of the narrative was absent but, by the effect of her absence, constantly judged. It’s a measure of this novel’s kindness that its final, most important point is a reminder that Skylark has feelings, and a story of her own.

A Turtle-Related Existential Crisis

When you’ve read as many novels as I have you start to appreciate the stories that don’t settle into predictable shapes. Russell Hoban’s Turtle Diary is one of those.

Really, it’s Turtle Diaries: two narrators alternating chapters. One is William G., a lonely middle-aged bookstore clerk living in reduced circumstances after a divorce who gets an urge to liberate sea turtles from the London Zoo. The other is Neaera H., a lonely middle-aged children’s book author bored with the limitations of her career who gets a simultaneous urge to liberate sea turtles from the London Zoo. Together, they… uh, liberate sea turtles!

Cover of Turtle Diary

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, there’s a fashion in genre fiction for structuring novels like Hollywood movies. I even see writers reflexively use film vocabulary–scenes, acts, beats–when discussing their writing. These books borrow not only the structures from Hollywood, but also their focus on action and their tendency to pare away anything that doesn’t serve the plot. I usually give up on a novel when it starts to feel like the mathematical average of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, Robert McKee’s Story,[1] and Save the Cat. I like novels that let their characters ruminate, philosophize, and wander off the path of the narrative whenever they find an interesting side alley. William and Neaera think interesting, meandering thoughts and aren’t too concerned with single-mindedly and mechanically fulfilling their plot functions. The changes in their thoughts are the point of the story–really, are the story. The plot is a framework for the characters to grow on.[2]

William and Neaera seem bemused by how important the turtle project becomes to them, but the reader understands. They identify with the turtles. William and Neaera are stuck; somehow their lived dumped them into a tank. They swim in circles when they should be swimming towards… well something. William and Neaera don’t know what it is, but it’s got to be there, right? For a while freeing the turtles can be their goal.

You think you know this story, right? It’s one of those standard middle-aged catharsis deals. Hollywood loves them; they go all the way back to Bringing Up Baby.[3] Beaten-down, dead-inside protagonists stumble into quirky mysteries, or weird new hobbies, or manic pixie dream girls and/or boys, and, bam, they’re reawakened to life! If Turtle Diary followed the plan, William and Naera’s turtle release would be the climax. At the moment they let the turtles out of their crates they’d solve their stuckness. There’s never any doubt the heist will come off. William and Neaera have the cooperation of the reptile house keeper, who thinks the zoo ought to free their sea turtles on a regular schedule. So the release goes off without a hitch… well before the end of the novel.

So now what? The question for the rest of the novel is not just what William and Neaera will do next, but whether there will be a next thing or just a blankness. Is the turtle release catalyst or capstone? Stories end in epiphanies, and tell us their protagonists will live happily ever after, and we don’t have to worry about what, exactly, ever after looks like. Lives just have more days, like all the other days, until they don’t anymore. And the epiphany you have halfway through does not, by itself, make the days that come after substantially different; you’re just more awake to them. William attends a new age seminar that turns into a rebirthing ceremony; it’s a comic set piece, not a revelation. Turtle Diary is skeptical of instant renewals.

So the epiphany created by the metaphorical turtle adventure didn’t solve everything. You may think you’ve guessed what Turtle Diary does next: romantic comedy. It’s not just that “fall in love” is, in popular culture, the preeminent solution to the fictional midlife crisis. Most movies, and a hell of a lot of novels, pair a couple of characters off by the final chapter. Given all the ways two people could relate to each other it’s odd that pop culture resorts so predictably to romance subplots. Sometimes it seems like our culture devalues friendship, and indeed any relationship that isn’t romantic. Turtle Diary doesn’t feel the need to pair William and Neaera off. Neaera finds a relationship, William doesn’t; Neaera’s relationship won’t single-handedly solve her problems any more than their adventure did, but by the same token William’s singleness won’t doom him.

So what does get William and Naera on track? No one thing. The turtle release is a turning point, but also an opportunity for them to realize that finding something to swim towards is an ongoing, lifelong process. The standard pop culture depression story presents recovery as happening in three to five acts with dramatic unity. One of the little self-esteem-crushing things about depression is that recovery isn’t as automatic as our stories tell us it should be; it’s rarely solved by having a wacky adventure, getting back to nature, or find a quirky new job with eccentric colleagues. Turtle Diary acknowledges that finding reasons to get out of bed every morning isn’t that simple, and still leaves room for hope.

  1. I got burnt out on novels that feel like they want to be movies years ago after reading too many mediocre Doctor Who novels of just that sort during the BBC Books era. I have heard that, despite the fact that they published novels, the editorial staff advised their authors to read Story.  ↩

  2. Turtle Diary was made into a movie. I haven’t seen it and it doesn’t seem to be readily available, but Hoban himself didn’t think it captured the book.  ↩

  3. The genre also includes Harold and Maude, because “middle-aged” is in this case a state of mind.  ↩

Saki, The Unrest-Cure

Despite my good intentions, I haven’t managed to write much lately. I did come up with a short review inspired by a book I wasn’t expecting to dislike.

Coverof The Unrest Cure

I bought The Unrest-Cure and Other Stories because it was an NYRB Classics reprint illustrated by Edward Gorey. The only Saki stores I had ever come across in anthologies were “Tobermory,” “The Open Window” and “Sredni Vashtar.” It turns out there’s a reason for that. Once you’ve read those three stories, you have read all the Saki you will need for the rest of your life.

Judging from The Unrest-Cure Saki had exactly one trick, which he rehashed every time he put pen to paper: brief and often plotless vignettes of upper-class English people being politely horrible to each other. The blurb explains that “Saki’s heroes are enfants terribles who marshal their considerable wit and imagination against the cruelty and fatuousness of a decorous and doomed world,” by which it means they are assholes. Saki’s favorite story–it is the same story every time; only the details vary–is the tale of a young person who gets one up on an older person through a mean-spirited prank. It felt as though there were more of these in The Unrest-Cure than there were actual pages in the book.

Saki’s saving graces are his dryly understated prose and ability to come up with the occasional genuinely witty line. (i.e., “Children are given us to discourage our better emotions.”) But there aren’t enough of these to make up for the numbing monotony of Saki’s upper-class prank fixation. Get this one if you’re an Edward Gorey fan, but don’t try to read more than one of these stories in a row.