19 September 2014

Fingersmith and "duel" narrations

A week ago Michael Dirda praised a new novel by Sarah Waters. I hadn't heard of Waters or her talent, so I went to my local shop and picked up Fingersmith, her 2002 novel, which I finished reading yesterday. I now want to read all her novels. Such is the influence of a good critic-reviewer, and, more importantly, a very good novel.

Fingersmith was full of surprises, including one of my favorite literary devices, a dual narration of the same events. This device works well in modern classics like Fowles' The Collector and a contemporary classic like Priest's The Prestige. I sometimes call these "duel narrations", because a good dual narration fights with perception, the reader's and the characters therein, and to write well of events from multiple viewpoints requires rare talent and skill.

Maud and Sue, the storytellers of Fingersmith, are surrounded by colorful minor characters--my favorites are the smut-inclined uncle, and a moaning sick woman in the Sucksby house that nobody ever sees and who is ultimately forgotten. The fog and soot soaked London and country settings seemed more influenced by Conan Doyle and Poe's Usher house than by Dickens (Waters gets compared to Dickens, but I like her better--her characters say "fuck" often), and Waters' way with fright and suspense seems better than any American novelist writing today.

01 September 2014

James Wood on David Mitchell

James Wood gets the problem of contemporary fiction down in one paragraph in his review of David Mitchell's new novel:
Much contemporary writing fetishizes style, and the priority is felt as a constant anxiety. Prose has to sign itself, establish its showy authority in silvery cutlass swipes through the air: clever insights, brilliant metaphors, unusual words, sharp observation, perpetually buoyant dialogue. The way Crispin Hershey describes a cool young woman—“short, boyish, and sports a nerdy pair of glasses and a shaven head: electrotherapy chic”—not only confirms Crispin’s literary talent but validates Mitchell’s, too: it’s the kind of thing that gets approvingly quoted in reviews like this one. But novels are not best built out of one-liners, and long novels of one-liners drum an insistent, madly intermittent tattoo.

27 August 2014


Love aphorisms, have come up with a few weak ones in my time. Chesterton, a hero, was an aphorism master.

Patrick Kurp published a good essay today on aphorisms; read it here.

WH Auden edited The Viking Book of Aphorisms, and everybody should own a copy.

21 August 2014

Hold the Dark by William Giraldi

William Giraldi is known of late for all the wrong reasons. His essays and criticism elicit trite internet responses—phony outrage, followed by fake sincerity—and Giraldi himself is mostly to blame, as he targets helpless enterprises such as contemporary erotica, contemporary writing, and debut novelists. Worse than easy marks, his criticism often quotes repetitive windbag Harold Bloom when defending literary ideals; these are ideals that don’t actually need defense, and are of no concern to actual readers of literature.

Giraldi’s new novel Hold the Dark features none of the callow complaint or stretched immaturity of his previous work.  The novel began as a short story in Ploughshares (Winter 2011) and has bloomed into something much better; a fable, a warning perhaps of isolation, or of war, or of tradition—it is a book of many and varied interpretations, and it offers a reader no easy conclusions.

The novel begins with wolves killing children in the isolated Alaskan village Keelut. Medora Slone, mother of a taken young boy, solicits the help of Russell Core, a wintry wolf expert; she wants Core to find her son’s remains so that she can show them to her husband Vernon, a soldier deployed in the arid desert wars a world away. Core finds the boy, Vernon returns from the war; and then the novel kicks into a high unexpected gear.

For a brief moment early in the novel I feared an easy set-up of circumstances, a cliché in the offing—older man, younger woman, you know the tune—and a moment later I was shocked. Shock is the best thing that happens to a reader of contemporary literature, and it is a rare experience. Afterwards, I had no idea where Hold the Dark was going, or how, if it all, it might be resolved.

Giraldi’s prose in Hold the Dark is first rate, heightened and appropriate in the mode of early Cormac McCarthy—admirers of McCarthy’s Outer Dark will love Hold the Dark. There are a couple great deadpan comic scenes featuring culture-clashing dialogue, and the nature writing is vigorous and frightful. The various narrative perspectives are voiced uniquely, and the over-the-top scenes of comic book horror don’t last long, don’t distract from the story. 

At various times I thought of Hold the Dark as a revenge novel, a pursuit novel, a novel of desperate situations. But Hold the Dark defies simple labeling. And for a 200 page novel that takes one day to read, its resonance is startling.

12 August 2014

Last thoughts from Tom Buddenbrooks

“Broad the waves,” Thomas Buddenbrook said, “ah, see them surging, watch them breaking, ever surging, ever breaking, on they come in endless rows, bleak and pointless, filled with woes. And yet there’s something calming and comforting about them, too—like all things simple and necessary. I’ve learned to love the sea more and more—perhaps I preferred mountains at one time only because they were so much farther away. I wouldn’t want to go there now. I think I would feel afraid and embarrassed. They’re too arbitrary, too irregular, too diverse—I’m sure I’d feel overwhelmed. What sort of people prefer the monotony of the sea, do you suppose? It seems to me it’s those who have gazed too long and too deeply into the complexity at the heart of things and so have no choice but to demand one thing from external reality: simplicity. It has little to do with boldly scrambling about in the mountains, as opposed to lying calmly beside the sea. But I know the look in the eyes of people who revere the one or the other. Happy, confident, defiant eyes full of enterprise, resolve, and courage scan from peak to peak; but when people dreamily watch the wide sea and the waves rolling in with mystical and numbing inevitability, there is something veiled, forlorn, and knowing about their eyes, as if at some point in life they have looked deep into gloomy chaos. Health or sickness—that is the difference. A man climbs jauntily up into the wonderful variety of jagged, towering, fissured forms to test his vital energies, because he has never had to spend them. But a man chooses to rest beside the wide simplicity of external things, because he is weary from the chaos within.”

from Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks, part 10 chapter 6, John E. Woods translation

10 August 2014

Little Hanno Buddenbrook discovers adulthood

But little Johann saw more than he was meant to see, and his eyes, those shy, golden brown eyes ringed with bluish shadows, observed things only too well. Not only did he see his father’s poise and charm and their effect on everyone, but his strange, stinging, perceptive glance also saw how terribly difficult it was for his father to bring it off, how after each visit he grew more silent and pale, leaning back in one corner of the carriage, closing his eyes, now rimmed with red; as they crossed the threshold of the next house, Hanno watched in horror as a mask slipped down over that same face and a spring suddenly returned to the stride of that same weary body. First the entrance, then small-talk, fine manners, and persuasive charm—but what little Johann saw was not a naïve, natural, almost unconscious expression of shared practical concerns that could be used to one’s advantage; instead of being an honest and simple interest in the affairs of others, all this appeared to be an end in itself—a self-conscious, artificial effort that substituted a dreadfully difficult and grueling virtuosity for poise and character. Hanno knew that they all expected him to appear in public someday, too, and to perform, to prepare each word and gesture, with everyone staring at him—and at the thought, he closed his eyes with a shudder of fear and aversion.

from part 10 chapter 2 of Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks, John E. Woods translation

08 August 2014

An old spy in a hurry

The worst, Toby Esterhase once reminded George Smiley, is an old spy in a hurry. But reading spy novels quickly is the opposite of a bad thing.

Took a break from Buddenbrooks (150 pages left) to read John Le Carre's A Most Wanted Man, a film of which is playing now. David Denby wrote about Wanted Man this week in the New Yorker, as a prelude read to Le Carre's A Perfect Spy, the book of Le Carre's that others tell me is great but I can't crack. Denby gave me hope; Wanted Man entertained me for eight hours.

A Most Wanted Man is set in Hamburg, features a great set up of characters and coincidences, and the whole thing goes by like a long summer afternoon, not in the company of friends but in the company of people good at their work--in this case spy work. Gunther Bachmann, the guru of Wanted Man, is smart and wise, a leader of Hamburg's tiny spy outfit, and he gives one of the great speeches in contemporary lit, all about the roll of spies in the post 9/11 world. Hamburg, few recall, played a major roll in that disaster.

Wanted Man isn't first-rate Le Carre, not even close to his masterpiece Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but if it can get me to A Perfect Spy, which has sat on my shelves for a decade unread, then good. Philip Roth called that book the best British post-war novel. High praise.

04 August 2014

Tom Buddenbrook and the Meaning of Life

“Yes, Tony. It may pass—just a little out of sorts, I’m sure. But I’m feeling older than I am these days. I have business worries, and yesterday, at a meeting of the Büchen Railroad Commission, Consul Hagenström simply rolled right over me, rebutted everything I said, practically had everyone smirking at me. I feel as if that sort of thing wouldn't have happened before. I feel as if something is slipping away, as if I no longer hold it as firmly in my grasp as before. What is success? A mysterious, indescribable power—a vigilance, a readiness, the awareness that simply by my presence I can exert pressure on the movements of life around me, the belief that life can be molded to my advantage. Happiness and success are inside us. We have to reach deep and hold tight. And the moment something begins to subside, to relax, to grow weary, then everything around us is turned loose, resists us, rebels, moves beyond our influence. And then it’s just one thing after another, one setback after another, and you’re finished. The last few days I've been thinking about a Turkish proverb I read somewhere: ‘When the house is finished, death follows.’ Now, it doesn't have to be death exactly. But retreat, decline, the beginning of the end. Do you remember, Tony,” he went on, slipping his arm under his sister’s and lowering his voice even more, “when Hanno was christened, how you said to me, ‘It’s as if a whole new era is beginning’? I can still hear it quite clearly, and it seemed to me then you were right, because then came the election for senator, and I was lucky, and this house rose up here out of the earth. But ‘senator’ and ‘house’ are superficialities, and I know something else that you weren't even thinking about that day, something I've learned from life and history. I know that the external, visible, tangible tokens and symbols of happiness and success first appear only after things have in reality gone into decline already. Such external signs need time to reach us, like the light of one of those stars up there, which when it shines most brightly may well have already gone out, for all we know.”

from part 7, chapter 6 of Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks, John E. Woods translation