Tag Archives: Fiction

Life under the regime

Maybe it’s from growing up during the Cold War, but I always imagined life in an authoritarian state to be like One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, laying bricks in the Siberian cold, your stomach empty, your fingertips frozen. Or perhaps like Nineteen Eighty-Four, with Big Brother’s thought police around every corner and rats thrust in your face. Or the solitary confinement of Darkness at Noon, facing daily interrogations until you finally confess, only to be marched out into the prison yard and shot.

Those are indeed possibilities, especially for dissidents. But what is life like for the multitude of ordinary citizens who must adapt to a system where the paternalistic authority of the state determines the most intimate decisions? How do individuals respond? How do they survive?

Two novels written close together in time but about two very different regimes and cultures give some insight into these questions.

In Ha Jin’s Waiting, a novel about life in China from the 1960s to the 1980s, we have one answer. Ha Jin came to the U.S. in 1985 to study English literature at Brandeis University. After the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, he decided to stay here. Like those extraordinary exiles before him, Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov, Jin chose to write in English. Waiting, his second novel, won the National Book Award in 1999.

WaitingWaiting is a quiet tale that slyly criticizes China’s post-revolutionary society. It’s the story of a repressed love affair between an army doctor and a nurse in a provincial hospital. The doctor, Lin Kong, is a conscientious, ambitious and educated man who loves books, even prohibited ones from Russia and America. He is also married, an arranged marriage made at his parents’ request, to an uneducated peasant woman. His wife still lives in his native village, tending their small farm and raising their daughter. But when the doctor meets Manna Wu, a single nurse who borrows a book and responds in kind to his polite, never forward, always self-conscious friendship, a flame is kindled.

At the time their relationship begins, in the early days of the Cultural Revolution, an affair would be considered illegal as well as immoral, a non-conforming action that risked punishment, possibly transfer to a harsher assignment and certainly career suicide. Yet, per the hospital commissar’s arbitrary rules, divorce is only permissible after eighteen years of separation. Simply walking outside the hospital grounds with a fellow worker of the opposite sex is not allowed. Discreetly, the couple take this risk to nurture, through several cycles of intensity and misunderstanding, what becomes an eighteen-year platonic relationship.

Even then, their wait isn’t over. Each year the doctor goes home to ask his wife for a divorce. Each time she agrees, but then at court she balks, stumbling under the provincial magistrate’s interrogation and her own mixed emotions or bending to the social pressure exerted by her brother who seeks monetary damages from the doctor.

Waiting is based on a true story Jin heard while serving in the army. He writes in a plain style that owes much to Hemingway, but the story is pure Turgenev or Chekhov. Jin subtly evokes the stranglehold of a political system that values social strictures and the dictates of revolutionary idealism over individual freedom and happiness.

At times you want to shake the characters for not taking action, for not asserting themselves, for living so long with their repressed feelings, for wasting years and years of potential happiness. And then you realize, yes, this is what it must be like to live in a society that does not see beyond the collective. The ending of Waiting is as ambivalent and as frustrating as you might expect.

Dirty Havana TrilogyDirty Havana Trilogy (1998) by Pedro Juan Gutiérrez voices a different kind of frustration. Gutiérrez still lives in Cuba and writes in Spanish, although censorship prevents his books from being published there. (This novel is beautifully translated by Natasha Wimmer into a slangy English that is pitch perfect.) Gutiérrez depicts life in Cuba during the “crisis” of the early 1990s, after the Soviet Union has collapsed, ending its subsidies to the Castro regime, and the Cuban economy is in utter shambles.

The trilogy is really a three-part collection of short stories told from the largely autobiographical point of view of one Pedro Juan, a radio journalist who quit his job because he was not allowed to report the truth. Pedro Juan lives in a shack on the rooftop of a crumbling apartment building amid the decay, corruption and filth of Havana. With bawdy defiance, he chronicles his efforts to survive, whether that’s working as a garbage man or a janitor, stealing lobsters at night from state-owned traps, or serving as a pimp, a gigolo, a reseller of junk, or a dope peddler.

No matter what job he cobbles together, the overarching focus of his life is sexual gratification, and because of that Gutiérrez has been compared to Henry Miller. But in Gutiérrez’s case, the profligate sex is clearly a metaphor for life under the regime: if you aren’t screwing someone, you’re getting screwed.

With Gutiérrez the political criticism is always near the surface. The city he paints, the lives he describes, are transformed by his defiant sarcasm, visceral earthiness and sexual bravado, but what he reveals is devastating: the willingness of desperate people to prostitute themselves in every way imaginable in order to survive as the state fails to provide for even the most basic needs. This portrait—not the tourist photos of vintage cars and quaint art-deco mansions along the Malecón—is the disastrous endgame of the revolution. A world where the only escapes from poverty, starvation, violence and death are sex, superstition, rum and the carnal rhythms of salsa.

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“O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.”

My wife and I just returned from North Carolina, where we toured the Thomas Wolfe House in Asheville. The museum occupies the sprawling, many-gabled boarding house his mother once ran for visitors (many of them tuberculosis patients) seeking the cool mountain air. Wolfe memorialized the house as “Dixieland” in his deeply autobiographical first novel Look Homeward, Angel.

Thomas_Wolfe's_Home

The real “Dixieland” (Photo: Wikipedia)

Our guide said that fewer and fewer people coming for the tour have read Thomas Wolfe. This surprised and saddened me. When I read Look Homeward, Angel in my late teens, I marveled at the effusive Whitmanesque language—more poetry than prose—that energized every page. Certain scenes, in particular his brother’s death, are so vivid and sad, they can still bring tears to my eyes.

Wolfe begins Look Homeward, Angel with a prose poem that echoes again and again in the 500-page book:

…a stone, a leaf, an unfound door; of a stone, a leaf, a door. And of all the forgotten faces.

Naked and alone we came into exile. In her dark womb we did not know our mother’s face; from the prison of her flesh have we come into the unspeakable and incommunicable prison of this earth.

Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father’s heart? Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent? Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?

O waste of loss, in the hot mazes, lost, among the bright stars on this most weary unbright cinder, lost! Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When?

O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.

20317104In rhapsodic prose Thomas Wolfe captured the voracious youthful yearning of coming of age in an isolated Southern town at the turn of the 20th Century, the tug and tussle of a large fractious family struggling to make ends meet, the lonesome whistle of a late-night train heading into the vast world beyond the encircling hills, the smell of coffee and the taste of pancakes in a diner amid the drowsy conversation of tired newspapermen as the morning edition arrives with the first rays of the sun. The love and hunger of it all, etched upon the memory, unforgettable and lost.

Wolfe has been compared to Marcel Proust in his struggle to capture the detailed essence of his life. He loved the vast all-encompassing embrace of Walt Whitman’s poetry, but he equally admired the innovations of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which manage to compress a world into a day. Wolfe’s own uniquely American style, so profuse and personal, would influence Jack Kerouac, Ray Bradbury and Pat Conroy. Faulkner said he might have proven to be the best writer of his generation had he lived.

The story of Wolfe’s discovery by Scribners editor Maxwell Perkins is one of legend. Perkins, who had discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald and launched the career of Ernest Hemingway, became a surrogate father to Wolfe. The towering six-foot-six North Carolinian, who sometimes wrote standing up using the top of his refrigerator as his desktop, arrived in New York and famously delivered an 1100-page loose-leaf first draft to Scribners. Over 330,000 words! With Perkins’ editing, it became Look Homeward, Angel, a book as sprawling as the boarding house Wolfe grew up in.

Because of the novel’s autobiographical nature (it included some 200 characters drawn from family, friends and Ashville citizens, and not all favorably), Wolfe dared not return to Asheville for eight years after its publication. He traveled to Europe and wrote Of Time and the River, an even bigger novel that continued where Look Homeward, Angel left off. It became a bestseller, although it is a less powerful story than Angel.

Thomas Wolfe (Photo: Wikipedia)

Thomas Wolfe (Photo: Wikipedia)

Critics began to say it was Perkins, not Wolfe, who was the genius behind the books (reminiscent of what people would say sixty years later about Raymond Carver and his editor, Gordon Lish). To prove himself, Wolfe broke with Scribners and went to Harper Brothers, where he basically wrote the same books over again in You Can’t Go Home Again, The Web and the Rock and The Hills Beyond, all published after his death in 1938, just shy of his 38th birthday. (According to our guide, Wolfe was on a ferry from Seattle going to British Columbia when he shared a flask of whiskey with another passenger. Wolfe subsequently contracted influenza, then pneumonia, which in turn exacerbated miliary tuberculosis probably acquired as a boy in his mother’s boarding house. Neurosurgury sent him into a coma from which he never recovered.)

Any and all of Wolfe’s novels are worth reading if only for those sections where his prose soars. But for those without the stamina for the novels, some of his finest writing can be found in his book of stories, From Death to Morning, which includes the superlative and experimental novella, The Web of Earth, about the birth of his twin brothers.

My sadness to hear that Wolfe is read less today was lightened by our excellent guide. He left us with some hopeful news and the prediction that Wolfe’s books would reach a new generation. A movie based on the prize-winning biography Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg, about the stormy relationship between Perkins and Wolfe, is being filmed and scheduled for release in 2015. Titled Genius, it stars Colin Firth as Perkins and Jude Law as Wolfe. Perhaps a ghost, a great one, can come back again.

 

 

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A brief life, perpetual despair

In Letters to a Young Novelist, his smart little book on the craft of writing, Mario Vargas Llosa describes A Brief Life by Juan Carlos Onetti as a brilliant example of the Chinese box, a narrative technique using shifts in space, time and reality to create stories within stories.

“From a technical point of view,” says Vargas Llosa, “this magnificent novel, one of the subtlest and most artful ever written in Spanish, revolves entirely around the artifice of the Chinese box, which Onetti manipulates masterfully to create a world of delicate superimposed and intersecting planes, in which the boundary between fiction and reality (between life and dreams or desires) is dissolved.”

High praise from such a well-versed master of narrative form (who used the same technique to create his own delightful intersections in Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter).

Published in 1950 after seven years of labor, Onetti’s breakthrough masterpiece is a dark, complex and compelling urban novel that takes place in Buenos Aires, Montevideo and the fictional town of Santa María. The middle-aged central narrator, Juan María Brausen, is facing the triple psychological shock of his wife’s breast cancer, their failing marriage and the loss of his job at an advertising agency. But that is only the surface reality.

4368456Alone in his apartment while his wife recovers in hospital, Brausen eavesdrops through his bedroom wall on the woman next door, a prostitute named La Queca. Becoming obsessed with what he hears and imagines, he invents a false identity as the thuggish pimp Juan María Arce in order to enter La Queca’s life. It’s never made clear if this action by Brausen as Arce is real or imagined, but it most certainly seems real.

Here he is, sneaking into her apartment one night:

“La Queca’s apartment door was open, the key ring was hanging in the lock, the light from the hallway streamed in and died against the legs of an armchair and the design of a small carpet. I didn’t know what I was doing until it was done.”

Brausen may not know what he’s doing, but Onetti certainly does. He achieves the creepy voyeuristic reality of Brausen’s action by amassing physical detail: “the bathroom door was open and the greenish color of tiles gleamed smooth and liquid”…“there was a crumpled girdle on the floor between the balcony door and the table”…“the big bed, same as mine, placed like an extension of the bed in which Gertrudis [his wife] was sleeping, seemed prepared for night.”

Onetti ups the tension of this watershed moment and further enhances the new reality (and elaborates the novel’s theme) by precisely documenting Brausen’s sensations as he advances into the room: “I began to move across the waxed floor, without noise or anxiety, feeling contact with a small happiness at each slow step. I was calm and excited each time my foot touched the floor, believing that I was moving into a brief life in which there was not enough time to become involved, to repent, or to age.”

Meanwhile, in need of money, Brausen is also developing a screenplay, and as its plot takes form, he enters the mind of his principal character, Díaz Grey, a doctor in Santa María who, enamored of a deceitful married woman named Elena Sala, enables her morphine addiction.

In her critical essay “A Mirror Game: Diffraction of Identity in La vida breve,” Linda S. Maier notes that Onetti’s novel mimics Borges’ description of life as “an eternal and confused tragicomedy in which the roles and masks change, but not the actors.” Indeed, as Brausen explains to Gertrudis, who struggles to comprehend the state of their marriage and her husband’s growing physical and psychological distance: “It’s something else, it’s that people believe they’re condemned to a single life until death. And they are only condemned to a soul, to a manner of being. One can live many times, many more or less long lives.”

As Brausen is beginning to recognize, he may be able to live other, invented lives, but his despairing soul  is “condemned” to remain the same, and in Onetti’s world there is no comedy to relieve this soul’s tragic trajectory.

In the second part of the book, Brausen the narrator gradually disappears as his alter-egos assume a greater and greater presence in a plot that thickens with lies, murder and suicide; the mirror of invention reflects back a nightmare of psychic oblivion. By the last chapter it is Díaz Grey who is narrating the story.

Onetti-682x1024Born in Montevideo, Onetti was one of the Generation of ’45, a group of writers known for its nihilism that emerged in Uruguay and Argentina during the politically tumultuous 1930s-40s. All of Onetti’s novels contain a bleak existentialism, but the technically complex narrative and noir atmosphere of A Brief Life create a kind of morphine-dream confusion, a disorientation that becomes frightening as Brausen slides into his other lives.

Because of its despairing darkness, it took me six months to finish A Brief Life. Brausen’s world (or is it Onetti’s?) is a loveless, hopeless, violent, sadomasochistic, and misogynistic prison without reprieve. As a reader, I could only live in it briefly. But the book’s brilliant structure and narrative drive, Onetti’s technical mastery and nuanced commentary on the mirrorlike relationship between art and reality, between the artist and his creation, compelled me to stay with it to its troubling end.

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The other Mexico

Letizia of reading interrupted led me to The Book of Lamentations (Oficio de tinieblas) by Rosario Castellanos. Last year, when I noted that Elena Poniatowska had won the Cervantes Prize, Letizia asked if I knew of any other modern Mexican women writers. I needed to ask some of my better-read friends, and the writer most often mentioned was Castellanos.

castellanos

Rosario Castellanos (1925-1974)

A native of Chiapas, the southern state best known today for the 1994 Zapatista uprising led by Subcomandante Marcos, Rosario Castellanos was a poet, novelist and journalist who came to prominence during the Latin American Boom. Perhaps because so many writers of that generation achieved worldwide recognition—García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Carpentier, Cortázar, Borges, Fuentes and Asturias—Castellanos, one of the few women writers of the generation, was somewhat overshadowed.

Perhaps, too, her style conflicted with the magical realism they espoused. For Castellanos was a realist, a feminist, and a champion of indigenous cultures that remained largely voiceless in the worlds of politics and literature.

536848The Book of Lamentations, her last novel, was published in 1962. It is a work of her maturity, solidifying and extending themes she explored in her early stories, novels, and poetry.

Using a third-person omniscient voice more reminiscent of the great 19th Century novels of Tolstoy and Balzac than the narrative experiments of the Boom, Castellanos creates a sweeping epic about the age-old conflict between the Ladinos (descendants of Spanish blood) and the Maya, specifically the Tzotzil-speaking people of Chiapas.

Borrowing a grisly incident from an uprising in 1869, Castellanos places her story in the era of President Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-40), whose ambition was to fulfill the promise of the Revolution by distributing land to the poor and indigenous peoples of Mexico.

The Ladinos, however, still owned the land, maintained power through corrupt local magistrates, and stubbornly resisted any change. As portrayed by Castellanos, their ingrained racism and blindness to the plight of the indigenous poor is reminiscent of attitudes in the Deep South before integration.

By modernizing the incidents leading up to the rebellion and its dramatic outcomes, including a gruesome crucifixion, Castellanos depicts a recurring story of domination and submission that began with the Conquest and foreshadowed the political agenda of the still unresolved Zapatista rebellion.

A one-time member of the provincial land-owning class, Castellanos moved to Mexico City as a young girl. She wrote poetry from an early age and after studying at the national university worked for the National Indigenous Institute. From this remove, she preserved a compassion for the victims of her story, Ladino and indigenous alike. Power, blindness, and cruelty are not endemic to one side alone.

The 18th Century church of San Juan Chamula is the site of a critical scene in Castellanos’ novel.

While other Boom writers explored the metaphorical uses of magical realism, Castellanos kept to the constraints of realism to tap the truly magical perspective of the Maya. In the Mayan world, sacred stones can talk and a wooden cross—that strangely syncretic symbol—may suggest cultural redemption through violence. The power of myth, as told in the classic Mayan book of creation, the Popol Vuh, lives on in oral tradition. Time is circular, and death leads to life and death again. As a poet thinking in metaphor, Castellanos understands these beliefs, but as a novelist she remains an outsider looking in.

This outsider’s perspective also empowers her sharp criticism of the Ladinos she knew so well—the hypocrisy, ignorance and contempt that prevailed in the provincial world she left behind.

Castellanos described herself as natively shy and emotionally distant; she perceived herself as an outsider who found escape in writing. This helps explain her taste for narrative omniscience and her pessimism that there would ever be a bridge between the two cultures she wrote about. Her fine novel in the end is a tragedy, as the epigraph she chose, a quote from the Popol Vuh, foretells:

Whereas your glory is no longer great;
Whereas your might exists no more
—and though without much right to veneration—
your blood will still prevail a while…
 
All the children of dawn, the dawn’s offspring,
will not belong to your people;
Only the chatterboxes will yield themselves to you.
 
People of Harm, of War, of Misery,
you who did the wrong,
weep for it.

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Tenth of December

TenthDecember_interesting-angle.jpgYou could almost hear the turbines revving at Random House earlier this year as the publishing behemoth kicked off its marketing campaign for the release of George Saunders’ newest story collection, Tenth of December. Clearly, the commercial juggernaut determined to make Mr. Saunders a household name.

“George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year.” Imagine having to live up to that embarrassingly presumptuous headline. But that was what a New York Times Magazine profile, timed with the book’s release and surely pitched by a Random House press agent, declared.

George Saunders

George Saunders (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

George Saunders is probably accustomed to such pressure; he has lived with the “genius” tag since 2006, when he received a MacArthur Foundation grant. And quite possibly he knew his book was pretty good. After all, it’s not every day the likes of Jonathan Franzen, Jennifer Egan, and Zadie Smith blurb pithy praise for a book…or is it?

The good news is that, despite his publisher’s heavy-handed campaign to tell us that Important Literature had arrived, the book is good. Okay, maybe not the best book I read this year, but darned good.

As with most collections, some of the stories were better than others. The good ones stood out as kind-hearted, sharp and funny portals into contemporary life. Saunders is best at capturing the inane self-absorption of teenagers, as he does in “Victory Lap” and the eponymous story, “Tenth of December.” He’s also good with the anxious/frustrated sadness that verges on desperation/despair of parents dealing with the complexities of modern/futuristic families, as he does in “Home” and “The Semplica Girl Diaries.”

The latter, with its weird sci-fi bent and generous humor, is perhaps the best story in the bunch. Saunders explores, without pretension but with heart, the big questions of moral philosophy–our freedom to screw up, our right to die, the meaning of individuality, the meaning of community. His alternate realities, as in “Al Roosten,” and near futures, as in “Escape from Spiderhead,” are all too close to you-know-what.

As a stylist Saunders is a minimalist striving to capture the abbreviated vernacular of our modern American consciousness. Here he is in “Victory Lap” projecting the thoughts of a teenage girl who was nearly kidnapped:

For months afterward she had nightmares in which Kyle brought the rock down. She was on the deck trying to scream his name but nothing was coming out. Down came the rock. Then the guy had no head. The blow just literally dissolved his head. Then his body tumped over and Kyle turned to her with this heartbroken look of, My life is over. I killed a guy.

Why was it, she sometimes wondered, that in dreams we can’t do the simplest things? Like a crying puppy is standing on some broken glass and you want to pick it up and brush the shards off its pads but you can’t because you’re balancing a ball on your head. Or you’re driving and there’s this old guy on crutches, and you go, to Mr. Feder, your Driver’s Ed teacher, Should I swerve? And he’s like, Uh, probably. But then you hear the big clunk and Feder makes a negative mark in his book.

At times I would have liked to see him extend his vocal range; his characters/narrators tend to think in a similar fragmentary syntax, and for me they started to blend together. Their individuality seemed overpowered by Saunders’ own quirky voice. But that’s a small quibble.

Truthfully, I would have enjoyed Tenth of December much more if the publisher and its collaborators hadn’t tried so hard to tell me how great it was going to be. My gripe is not with George Saunders, who is a clever and polished satirist, but with his handlers, uh, I mean, publisher.

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A pot of tea and Malcolm Lowry

In Seattle the leaves are turning. The big-leaf maples blaze in fiery tones and the alders, parched from a long dry summer, blanch from the cooler nights. In the Cascades the huckleberries rage crimson and the larches glow golden. Leaves litter the trails and swish underfoot.

HUOLFHTDP

First edition, 1961.

This time of year I like to brew up a strong pot of tea and turn to one of my favorite authors, Malcolm Lowry. Specifically, to one of his finest works, the novella The Forest Path to the Spring. Published in the posthumous story collection Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, Lowry’s pastoral is full of lyrical language, classical allusions and keen observations on nature and self.

The plot is minimal, arising from Lowry’s life as a squatter in a shack on the Burrard Inlet, in Dollarton, near Vancouver, British Columbia. Lowry and his wife spent fourteen years there while he wrote his masterpiece, Under the Volcano. For Lowry, Dollarton represented paradise on earth, a place of bliss and creativity. His love for it shines throughout this quiet, mature work.

If Under the Volcano is Lowry’s Inferno, The Forest Path to the Spring is his Paradiso. In fact, Lowry envisioned a series of six or seven novels titled The Voyage that Never Ends, and planned to use The Forest Path to the Spring as its coda. Except for this little gem and Under the Volcano, the grand opus remained a pile of rough drafts and loose notes at the time of his death in 1957.

Lowry describes a collection of Manx, Norwegian and Danish fisherman, Scottish boat builders and other odd fellows who lived independent and very private lives in their squatters’ shacks, yet who formed a close-knit community that shared its bounty and discreetly watched out for one another. Each day the novella’s first-person narrator goes to a spring in the woods for water. In Lowry’s hands, the walk and the spring become metaphorical; the novella is about overcoming fear, resisting the intrusion of the past, and tuning out the noise of civilization to achieve happiness.

Here is Lowry’s lovely opening:

At dusk, every evening, I used to go through the forest to the spring for water.

The way that led to the spring from our cabin was a path wandering along the bank of the inlet through snowberry and thimbleberry and shallon bushes, with the sea below you on the right, and the shingled roofs of the houses, all built down on the beach beneath the little crescent of the bay.

Far aloft gently swayed the mastheads of the trees: pines, maples, cedars, hemlocks, alders. Much of this was second growth but some of the pines were gigantic. The forest had been logged from time to time, though the slash the loggers left behind was soon obliterated by the young birch and vines growing up quickly.

Beyond, going toward the spring through the trees, range beyond celestial range, crowded the mountains, snow-peaked for most of the year. At dusk they were violet, and frequently they looked on fire, the white fire of the mist. Sometimes in the early mornings this mist looked like a huge family wash, the property of Titans, hanging out to dry between the folds of their lower hills. At other times all was chaos, and Valkyries of storm-drift drove across them out of the ever reclouding heavens.

Often all you could see in the whole world of the dawn was a huge sun with two pines silhouetted in it, like a great blaze behind a Gothic cathedral. And at night the same pines would write a Chinese poem on the moon. Wolves howled from the mountains. On the path to the spring the mountains appeared and disappeared through the trees.

He continues to layer image upon poetic image, with metaphors changing shape and meaning like the mist in the mountains.

Malcolm Lowry, bottle of gin and a book in hand, in front of his shack at Dollarton.

A happy Malcolm Lowry, bottle of gin and book in hand, in front of his shack at Dollarton.

More often than not, Lowry’s febrile imagination and unquenchable alcoholism fed a delirious paranoia and self-destructive tendencies, which he captured brilliantly in Under the Volcano. In that novel, as in this novella, Dollarton represented a safe harbor, an idyllic place that could not possibly survive except in dream or memory. The squatters’ eviction in 1954 to make way for a suburban park became for Lowry an eviction from Eden, and an obsession. Though eviction had always been a theme, his writing now took on a more strident ecological protest, unusual in its day, as civilization encroached upon his piece of wilderness. From the moment of his eviction to his premature death at the age of 47 in Ripe, England, he never felt at home again.

The Forest Path to the Spring is Lowry’s testament of longing for a place and a peace of mind that he lost. It is beautiful in its affirmations. It should have a greater stature in the English-language canon than it does, and it should be read by more people than it is. Ideally, in autumn, with a fresh pot of tea.

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In “Stoner,” John Williams defies modern conventions to create a modern masterpiece

“Show, don’t tell,” say the pundits from creative writing workshops, conferences, how-to guides and “expert” magazine articles. Start with the inciting incident, they advise. Keep your plot moving. Add backstory only when and if it’s needed. Use simple sentences. Avoid adverbs.

You can find a dozen more examples of the conventional wisdom at any blog about writing. While such “tips” are worthy of consideration, the problem for this reader is that they often reduce the art of fiction to clichéd technique—as if the style of writing should come from a rulebook rather than from the story itself. Regrettably, the overuse of such well-intended advice makes much of modern literary fiction so similar, and so forgettable.

StonerAlthough he taught creative writing at the University of Denver for thirty years, John Williams ignores all of that good advice in his novel Stoner, published in 1965. Instead, he tells an honest story in a straightforward, old-fashioned way. This quiet, thoughtful and beautiful novel about the life of an English professor at a Midwestern university during the first half of the 20th Century (imagine pitching that plotline in today’s publishing world) harkens to another era. Stoner is reminiscent of the understated, character-focused novels of two other Midwesterners, Willa Cather and William Maxwell. And its form comes from a long literary tradition.

Stoner is a bildungsroman. Told with the authority of third-person omniscience (another rarity today), it is the story of a young man of humble origins who arrives at the university to study agronomy only to discover a passion for literature and the life of a scholar. We learn the bald facts of his life in the first few sentences:

William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, at the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956.

But, as Williams soon makes clear, these facts are the mere shell for the real story:

He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses….Stoner’s  colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak rarely of him now; to the older ones, his name  is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.

Inciting incident be damned, Williams is interested in why this ostensibly unremarkable man’s life story is worth telling. The next 278 pages convey the complex and sobering story of Stoner’s life: collegial friendships, financial hardships, mistakes in love and marriage, failures at work, his daughter’s estrangement, infidelity and fidelity, battles won and mostly lost, the reflections of age and the approach of death. It is a hard, sometimes painful story with moments of clarity and frustration. At times foolish, often stubborn, but always honest, Stoner defies expectations. The book’s sadness is palpable. Stoner’s only solace, as he must rediscover several times in his life, is his passion for scholarship—the pure calm source of his dignity.

Williams’ prose is confident and precise. He doesn’t hesitate to use an adverb if it adds value, as in this description of a deer in the woods: “The doe’s delicate face tilted, as if regarding them with polite inquiry; then, unhurriedly, it turned and walked away from them, lifting its feet daintily out of the snow and placing them precisely, with a tiny sound of crunching.” Eliminate the adverbs and that crisp image goes soft.

And here he is confidently telling—as he frequently does instead of showing—Stoner’s state of mind after a crucial defeat: “He heard the silence of the winter night, and it seemed to him that he somehow felt the sounds that were absorbed by the delicate and intricately cellular being of the snow. Nothing moved upon the whiteness; it was a dead scene, which seemed to pull at him, to suck at his consciousness just as it pulled the sound from the air and buried it within a cold white softness.”

Call me old-fashioned, but I love books that go deep into character, ones that explore the inner workings of the mind and heart as much as the overt actions that result. The complex reality of humanity is as much about what isn’t acted upon or said as what is. That’s why I love authors like Hawthorne, Tolstoy, Conrad and Hesse, who delve into the thought processes, the buried emotions and dark unspoken fears of their characters. I haven’t read John Williams’ other novels—the National Book Award-winning Augustus or Butcher’s Crossing—but based on the extraordinary quality of Stoner, I certainly will.

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Is historical fiction intrinsically cheap?

Henry James wrote in a letter to Sarah Orne Jewett, “the ‘historic’ novel is, for me, condemned, even in cases of labor as delicate as yours, to a fatal cheapness…” (I am indebted to Samir Chopra’s excellent blog for this thought-provoking quote.) A modern writer, James continues, can include historical details but cannot invent or represent “the old consciousness, the soul, the horizon, the vision of individuals in whose minds half the things that make ours, that make the modern world were non-existent.” Jewett wanted to write about the New England Puritans, but to James’ point, how could she without being one?

HHhHLaurent Binet, the French author of HHhH, apparently agrees. Winner of the 2010 Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman, HHhH is a gripping, self-conscious historical novel about the daring attempt by the Czechoslovakian Resistance to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, Heinrich Himmler’s right-hand man and mastermind of the Final Solution, in Prague in 1942. Through a careful orchestration of the story’s  facts, presented with the ironies that only a historical perspective can provide, he avoids the “old consciousness” entirely, except in supposition, and yet he creates a suspenseful and nuanced tale.

I was drawn to Binet’s book not only by its subject but also by his treatment of the “historic” problem. For, although I enjoy the history in historical fiction, I share James’ concern: the fictional aspect, meaning the experiential truth of it, is usually disappointing. The lack of the “old consciousness” was the problem I had with The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin, as I struggled to articulate here, and it is frequently the problem I have with books about Elizabethans or Victorians written by modern authors: they fail to capture the consciousness of the time, making the story and, consequentially, the history false.

Laurent Binet (Photo credit: Booktrust.org.uk)

Laurent Binet (Photo credit: Booktrust.org.uk)

Binet gets the problem. Born in 1972, he knows he would be faking any dialogue between Heydrich and Himmler or between the two brave resistance fighters who parachuted into Czechoslovakia to kill Heydrich. So, to get around the “consciousness” problem, he inserts himself as a first-person narrator into the novel, critiquing his own story-telling and advising the reader not to believe what he wrote: it is made up and a disservice to the important truth of the real story. This metafictional device is clever and coy at the same time, and toward the climax of the novel it delays without adding value, becoming somewhat annoying. Yet it highlights the dilemma fiction writers face with any historical drama; it also adds another, more postmodern dimension to the story (as John Fowles’ techniques did in The French Lieutenant’s Woman).

Binet forces the reader to ask not only how much of what he writes is true, but how much of the past is truly capturable. Is all history fiction? Is all fiction false? What is the point of history if our imagination and empathy are not involved? And what better way to tap our imagination and empathy than with fiction? Binet doesn’t really resolve James’ issue, but he does a fine job raising these ancillary questions.

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Stick out your tongue

image001I had never heard of Ma Jian until I read his story, “The Woman and the Blue Sky,” in the Paris Review in 2005. As soon as I finished it, I ordered the book it came from, Stick Out Your Tongue. But, for some reason, I didn’t get around to reading it until now.

Stick Out Your Tongue is a slim volume of five spare stories about Tibet. Originally published in Chinese in 1987, state censors  denounced the collection as “a vulgar, obscene book that defames the image of our Tibetan compatriots.” They accused Ma Jian of being sex obsessed and greedy for money. “No one must be allowed to read this book. All copies…must be confiscated and destroyed immediately.” That demand only increased the book’s popularity on the black market, but it finished Ma Jian’s career as a writer in China.

As he explains in the afterward, he went into self-imposed exile. First in Hong Kong, then Germany, and finally the United Kingdom. What was the point of remaining in China if he could never again publish what he wrote?

Ma Jian traveled throughout Tibet in 1985, and these stories come from that experience. Already Tibet was changing under China’s control, but these stories describe a dirt poor society of nomadic shepherds, villagers, tribesmen and monks in the high mountain plateaus and grasslands far beyond Lhasa. The people preserve a deep reverence for traditions and a Buddhist sense of fate. There is a mystical, magical  and often superstitious side to their logic and actions, but what emerges in every story is the brutality of life there and resignation toward death. Perhaps this is why the censors were troubled.

Tibet: An elderly Tibetan women holding a pray...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“The Woman and the Blue Sky,” for example, is a haunting story told in the first person. In a high mountain pass, a traveler stays the night with a Chinese soldier who lives alone guarding the military telephone line. The guard tells of his love for a Tibetan woman who has just died with her unborn child still inside her. The traveler gets to observe the sacred funeral rite for the young woman. With the calm detachment of a photographer, he describes how her two husbands, who are brothers, cut up the body to feed the scavenging birds until there is nothing left.

The powerful stories of Stick Out Your Tongue remind me of the best of Anton Chekhov and Juan Rulfo, who captured the harsh realities of Russian and Mexican peasants in historic moments of great societal change. Deceptively spare in style, these stories are complex and deeply moving. The translator, Flora Drew, has done an astounding job rendering them into beautiful English prose.

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Reading at Seattle Public Library

I will be reading from Under a False Flag at the Seattle Public Library (Central Library, Level 4, Room 2) on Saturday, December 1 from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m. Here’s the flier: Reading from Under a False Flag.

In anticipation, I’m also attaching a Q&A about the novel that was originally posted in a revised format on goodreads.com:  Q&A with Author Tom Gething

I would be delighted to meet my blogging friends in person if any of you can make it. Thanks!

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