Women Without Men

•September 29, 2009 • Leave a Comment

The title of Kate Walbert’s new novel, A Short History of Women, appears briefly in one of its chapters as the title of a pre-suffrage work of sociology, which was written, it will come as no surprise, by a man. It is a sly little jab, and belongs to the same armory of lucid, unhysteric provocation as the concluding line of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, in which we learn what a colonial administrator, whose actions have brought about the novel’s final tragic sequence, plans to call his book about Africa: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.

In that spirit, then, Walbert’s novel is about the history that isn’t written. Cleverly, it takes as its structure a series of short episodes, shuttling across decades, in the lives of five generations of women from the same family; the newest members of that family, whom we meet as late as 2007, frequently have only a partial or confused understanding of the legacy of their forebears. That legacy includes the woman at the top of the family tree: Dorothy Trevor Townsend, an Englishwoman who, in 1914, starved herself to death for the cause of suffrage. Her great-great-granddaughter, a freshman at Yale, appears only as her Facebook page – a device that could easily have felt needless and cheap, had it not so ruthlessly condensed easy comedy into a core of fierce sadness, as we watch the ambiguity and terror of the great-great-grandmother’s sacrifice squandered with a privileged teenager’s casual pith: ‘Color me revolutionary.’

Any novel called A Short History of Women implies a parallel history of men, if only by exclusion. Hemingway called one of his story collections Men Without Women in part because there is no such thing; the irony is built-in. The men in Walbert’s novel are, indeed, pushed to the periphery, even if its central female characters are highly and painfully conscious that their stories – complete, poignant, complicated – are occurring at the periphery of what’s usually called history. With the exception of one chapter, men flit into view and then flit out again. They only partially shade the novel’s action, which charts English and American life from the end of the nineteenth century to the opening years of the twenty-first; yet the novel shapes itself around the major human event from which women have traditionally been excluded: war.

Male life in the book is nearly synonymous with military activity. Men, and even many women, asperse Dorothy Townsend’s effort to starve herself in the name of women’s suffrage, because that effort happens to coincide with World War I. The men dying in French fields know a far greater sacrifice, say her critics; their suffering makes a cartoon of hers. Later, we see Dorothy’s daughter, Elizabeth, now an adult, on V-J Day, moving in a kind of dream through a wildly celebrating Manhattan. Elizabeth is at one point with her friend Helen, and, when a man appears suddenly and kisses Helen, it leaves her in a daze.

Somewhere in the Forties, Helen is wrenched into a kiss and afterward takes my hand and holds it tightly, her glasses lost, one lens crunched by a heel before they’re retrieved. It’s an interesting perspective, she’s shouting. ‘I’m left-sighted,’ she’s shouting. ‘My father’s going to kill me.’

The moment, into which Helen is ‘wrenched’ – nothing romantic about that – casts a new light on the famous Life Magazine photograph of a white-hatted (and, one is meant to assume, heroic) sailor dipping a woman in Times Square at war’s end. It is not even specified whether the man who kisses Helen is a soldier himself or simply someone benefiting from what soldiers have done; in fact, Walbert’s subtle use of the passive voice means that the agent of the kiss – the man – goes unmentioned. It is as if Zeus, the original avatar of men’s rough claims on women, had descended invisibly to do the kissing.

V-J Day marked the victory of men over men, in a contest invented by men. Later episodes entrench this theme. A kaffeeklatsch of country club wives whose opposition to the Vietnam War blends with a discussion of the hegemony of male culture generally. An aging woman with three adult children and a failing marriage engaged in a protest of uncertain merit against the Iraq War, photographing soldiers at a military base in Delaware. Walbert applies her themes deliberately, like coats of paint.

In François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, Jules, who like his friend Jim has just returned from the trenches of World War I, says the tragedy of war is that it deprives a man of his own ‘personal battle.’ It does nothing to diminish the strengths of A Short History of Women to point out that this is, at least partly, true; war is a contest invented by men, but there are limits to its use as a proxy for male life generally. Men in war would prefer, in most cases, to be anywhere else. It is interesting to read A Short History of Women alongside The Suicide Run, a forthcoming posthumous collection by William Styron, whose stories comprise an examination of war through the eyes of young men – many of whom are substitutes for Styron himself, an active-duty Marine at the end of World War II and later during the Korean War – who have not yet experienced it, and who, if they are honest with themselves, would really rather not.

Styron’s characters, in their callow youth, are anything but pacifists. They feel a fierce, deep lack as men, simply because they have not yet seen battle. Since Homer, since the Vikings, men have proved themselves as men in mortal struggle; not even the full library of war’s horror has totally erased the belief that honor is bound up in lethal adventure.

The men in Walbert’s novel indeed exist as an almost unvaried atmosphere of violence, of unseen battle on foreign shores. Which is why Styron serves as a useful counterpoint. ‘My Father’s House,’ which was to be part of a novel but in The Suicide Run appears as a long story, is told by Paul Whitehurst, who awaits orders for his company to engage the Japanese in the waning days of World War II. His comrades itch for battle: ‘Jesus, I hope this is it’; ‘I hope the fuck it’s soon.’

Whitehurst, inwardly ashamed, feels none of the same bravado:

Oh, Jesus, I thought. I hope the fuck it’s never. I couldn’t even work up a falsely brave remark, and I felt twisted with envy at their breezy offhandedness.

Homer and Tolstoy wrote of war with great complexity, but with an air of reverent inevitability; war had a necessary part to play in the course of human events, and was consequently a necessary part of masculine life. In Tolstoy’s ferocious late novel Hadji Murád, the eponymous hero, a Chechen rebel leader turned to the Russian side, is depicted as almost unvaryingly noble; and war is portrayed not without a degree of sentimentality. His wife and family, whom he loses his life trying to save, are ciphers: they could be any wife and family. Martial literature has never stinted on the tragedy at the heart of war – the deaths of good men – but only a later addition to this literary tradition, emerging from writers like Styron, Mailer, James Salter, Tobias Wolff, and Tim O’Brien, who have themselves served in the military, employs a different set of scales to measure the worth of the men who fight. (One might think also of a recent film, The Hurt Locker, which offers an ambiguous portrayal of the relationship between men and war, and which was directed, not incidentally, by a woman.)

What makes Walbert’s book effective literary counternarrative is its tangible awareness of the narrative it seeks to counter. In other words, it keeps men in the picture, even as it lodges them at the edge of the frame. Another nice touch is the presence of Florence Nightingale, who acts as a presiding spirit in A Short History of Women: she was a woman who individually made enormous strides for all womankind while serving as a nurse to men wounded in battle; who suffused traditionally feminine work with nominally unfeminine toughness, and who did so deep within the masculine arena of warfare.

But I don’t want to overstate the politics of A Short History of Women; that would give too thin an impression of it. What makes it a good novel, what makes any novel good, is that under its skin of ideas is a body of living muscle, working organs, a beating heart. People converse, yearn, suffer, take joy. Walbert knows what Tolstoy knew: men with women – or women with men – is, for all the trouble it has caused us, our basic universal experience.

[Note: I will be reading with Kate Walbert this Sunday, October 4th, at KGB Bar, in the East Village.]


Bullshit Detector

•September 22, 2009 • 1 Comment

Sincerity is a ripe target for mockery; schoolboys learn this early on. To mock sincerity, one needn’t bother with the subtle work of satire, and can instead swing bluntly, perhaps because sincerity is a close relation of earnestness: it sticks out its jaw. ‘I do not like people who are earnest about anything,’ wrote James Baldwin, and I know what he means. Everyone has had at least one encounter with the claustrophobia of another’s earnestness. The earnestness of others is embarrassing to an outsider, just as fervent belief is, or even the pangs of heartbreak – especially if they are earnest – but here we face a dilemma. Without sincerity, earnest sincerity – that is to say, without honesty, authenticity, genuineness – we don’t have much else; we certainly don’t have art. Hamlet’s soliloquy in Act III is brilliantly told and, for language, unbeatable, but it is nothing if not a piece of extremely earnest self-expression.

Earnestness, like all such terms, contains shades of meaning. Hamlet’s earnestness is not the same thing as, say, Green Day’s earnestness during their recent anti-jingoistic phase. The latter does, as Baldwin suggests, clang a bit. It’s not especially good or memorable music – certainly it does not have very good or memorable lyrics – but it does seem to be, well, sincere. Like Coldplay, it at least wears a sincere face. (Or does it? It’s also very lucrative.) Whereas the songs of LCD Soundsystem, to use an example of particular contrast, are bathed in irony, and arrive steeped in knowing allusion to other bands, genres, periods of style; yet those songs are extraordinarily good, and the lyrics are not only good and memorable, but sharp and often quite funny. (One of LCD Soundsystem’s best songs is called ‘Daft Punk is Playing at My House.’) Nobody who’s listening goes rushing off to the thesaurus to find synonyms for ‘earnest.’

It is irony, but irony sincerely done. That the incoherent sincerity of Coldplay produces laughably bad lyrics while the world-weary irony of LCD Soundsystem produces terrific lyrics probably seems self-evident to many: the link between excessive sincerity and bad art is well-documented. There’s the schoolboy in all of us; schoolboys prize irony and aloofness, and the music world (at least the world of people hip about music) preserves those distinctions. We expect the worst as soon as we see someone wearing his heart on his sleeve. (No wonder: the phrase is Iago’s.)

What about the corollary? If bad art often has sincerity as its chief ingredient, can good art come from insincerity? A recent and quite funny novel, How I Became a Famous Novelist, takes as its premise that question (sort of). Its hero, Pete Tarslaw, seeking to impress the guests at his ex-girlfriend’s upcoming wedding and in turn shame that ex-girlfriend for ever having left him, decides that the surest path to doing so is to write a best-selling novel. He models his effort on the books of (the fictional) Preston Brooks, whose writing appears to be a sort of admixed caricature of David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain, and Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain and Thirteen Moons, as well as books by Mitch Albom, Nicholas Sparks, Wally Lamb, Winston Groom, and (at his most risible) Cormac McCarthy. (One of Brooks’s novels is called Kindness of Birds.) Hely gives a precise anatomy of the finely-honed rustic outsider image Brooks has cultivated for himself: a man at home with nature and tools, with the roughness of life. (In all writer-image cultivation, and especially in parodies of such, Hemingway looms large.) These signifiers of manliness allow the luxury of fluffier descriptions of his artistic process. ‘I call this the dance hall. Because characters will appear, and introduce themselves and ask me to dance. The character always leads. I bow, accept, dance for a while,’ Brooks says in an interview.

Hely’s novel is airily and pleasurably comic, and at times awfully slapstick, but it also wades into serious questions about what we call art and how we assign value to it. His target here isn’t really bad writing per se, or even the enduring and (to many of us) vexing popularity of so much bad writing. The real target is a culture that values the apparatus of a product over the actual quality of that product: a culture that likes stickers on the fronts of its books, that has lost track of what might constitute worth in a piece of art.* Tarslaw, in crafting his Preston Brooks pastiche, relies on Wikipedia to add authentic-seeming detail to his far-flung locales, one of which is World War II-era Tunisia; later, in Hely’s bang-on version of an Entertainment Weekly review (a ‘B’), Tarslaw’s novel, although it ‘can get cloying at times,’ is praised specifically for those details: ‘want to know what Tunisian fisherman eat? pages 213-217.’

‘The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector,’ Hemingway said. But that much ought to be true of everyone, not just writers. Preston Brooks, whether he knows it or not, is full of shit, and no one seems to realize it. He belongs to a growing plenitude of false sincerity, most of which goes unpunished, in a society that seems increasingly unwilling or unable to detect bullshit. It lives in our politics and in our discourse, and it’s no wonder that it trickles into our art. In a culture where so many buy into the supposed wisdom of a Preston Brooks (or the many writers for whom he is a proxy), it isn’t surprising that millions of people actually believe Glenn Beck means it when he issues his daily tears on television.

Pete Tarslaw, in his insincere attempt to write a best-seller, is the obverse of Richard Tull, from Martin Amis’s The Information, a serious-minded but unregarded novelist with the misfortune to have as his rival a friend from university, Gwyn Barry, who is the author of preposterous, faux-profound best-sellers, such as a utopian novel called Amelior. (In interviews Barry talks about his passion for carpentry, tools, and manual labor.) Both Tarslaw and Tull see through the lie; they just enact different solutions. Tarslaw tries to replicate the feats of the bullshitters. Tull goes nearly insane trying to tear down his apparently less-talented friend, an effort that mirrors Tarslaw’s crucifixion, near the end of How I Became a Famous Novelist, at the hands of a crowd of staunch Preston Brooks admirers. They buy what Brooks is selling, and they like it.

Much of the brilliance and amusement value in Amis’s novel comes from the ambiguity surrounding Tull’s actual talent. Barry is a hack, but Tull might not be that much of a writer either; his real talent, aside from crossword puzzles, seems to be his ability to recognize Barry’s unworth. Hely, too, wisely preserves the ambiguity at the core of his satire: the reader never knows whether Brooks believes in the quality of his own writing – that is, whether it is sincerely done or is a craven pandering to commercial taste. Certainly, Brooks – like the writers he evokes – gives every outward indication of total sincerity, even as his comments about his own writing grow increasingly, glaringly ridiculous, a kind of nightmare version of the Art of Fiction interviews in The Paris Review. Tarslaw, however, knows what he thinks: ‘Preston Brooks is a genius. He’s the greatest con artist in the world.’

There’s nothing wrong with being entertained. But Hely’s novel isn’t going after the books – or the movies, or the music – that strictly entertain; after all, both Preston Brooks’s fiction and Pete Tarslaw’s novel sound like utter chores to read. Rather, Hely holds up to ridicule the belief, increasingly prevalent, that the worth of a novel is bound up in its ability to supply extraliterary value: the dietary habits of Tunisian fisherman, for instance, or perhaps something less tangible, like nuggets of self-help wisdom; and that a novel ought, above all, to make the reader feel good about himself. In other words, a book Oprah might choose for her book club.

How I Became a Famous Novelist serves as an indictment of a passive culture: we pay to see the most heavily advertised movies; we read the books everyone else is reading. That’s one of the reasons, I think, that Oprah’s Book Club is so popular: it’s popular because of its popularity. If you read the book currently on offer, you’re doing something hundreds of thousands of other people are doing. You belong. I haven’t got the figures, but I can’t imagine that her most recent pick, Uwem Akpan’s Say You’re One of Them, sold more than a few thousand copies before Oprah anointed it, despite strong reviews and two stories originally published in The New Yorker. (The New Yorker, of course, is another kind of anointment.) That she has is terrific for Akpan and good for an industry which, frankly, needs all the bestsellers it can get. What rankles is the arbitrary nature of the whole thing – arbitrariness masquerading as taste, commercial triangulation dressed up as a kind of natural selection. I haven’t read Akpan’s book and have no opinion about it one way or the other, but I am sure there are a dozen books which are just as good and which might have met similar categorical desires. (People seem to be impressed that the book is by an African writer and that it is comprised of short stories, two boxes that Oprah’s previous selections have not, apparently, checked.) Perhaps Oprah really did read a dozen books, and was struck, particularly and personally, by Akpan’s; it is impossible to know. But the fact that hundreds of thousands of people who previously held no interest in Akpan’s book – let alone possessed the sort of literary curiosity that would have led them to seek out such a book on their own – are now going to buy that book simply because of a sticker seems more than a little like madness.


*Samantha Peale, like Hely, is a writer whose recent first novel, The American Painter Emma Dial, explores the sometimes illegible border between art and bullshit. In her book, an artist’s assistant suggests to his boss running off a series of twenty prints, simply for the income they will generate; capping the series at twenty, he points out, will sustain the ideal price. Think of Damien Hirst’s dot paintings, which have almost no aesthetic virtue and would indeed be worthless were it not for Hirst’s imprimatur, but which, for Hirst, are the equivalent of legal tender; producing them, or rather signing those that his assistants have produced, is for him literally printing money, and the only reason he has authorized only 300, as opposed to 3,000, is the same reason the treasury doesn’t print bills indiscriminately: inflation.

Late August, Early September

•September 18, 2009 • Leave a Comment

The hiatus at REVISIONS has lasted a bit longer than anticipated, but that’s the way August reclines into September: subtly, almost imperceptibly. I’ve always thought of these two months as a distinct mini-season unto themselves, a season alive with light and a newness in the air itself. (So, apparently, does Olivier Assayas, whose wonderful film Late August, Early September neatly and economically illustrates the life of the mind as it is lived outside the mind – with difficulty, among people – and ought to please anyone who admired Summer Hours as much as I did.)

REVISIONS will return on September 22nd, with a new column. In the meantime, Susan Chi, another New York-based writer, very kindly did an interview with me about CITY OF STRANGERS for the blog at BOMB Magazine’s website. You can read the interview here.

In the meantime, I will mention that, for those in New York, I will be doing a reading at KGB Bar, in the East Village, on October 4th. More information on the Events page to your right. Kate Walbert (the author, most recently, of A Short History of Women) will also be reading.

Finally, CITY OF STRANGERS received some kind words a couple of weeks ago in The Star-Ledger, from Betsy Willeford: ‘Paul [Metzger] trudges through the wintry gray New York City days like one of those Graham Greene innocent Americans who get themselves destroyed for inchoate causes. . . . Ian MacKenzie’s novel is simultaneously lyric and chilling.’

Summer Hours

•August 4, 2009 • Leave a Comment

With the arrival of August, REVISIONS is taking a holiday. In the meantime, however, there are new readings coming up in the late summer and autumn, in California, New York, and Massachusetts. The next is at A Great Good Place for Books, in Oakland, CA, on the evening of Thursday, August 27. Please do come if you’re in the area. More information on all upcoming readings can be found in the Events page to the right.

CITY OF STRANGERS also got a nice write-up in The Barnes & Noble Review, where David Abrams called it a ‘bleak, beautiful novel,’ comprised of ‘one part Albert Camus, one part Philip Roth, and one part Martin Scorsese.’

Points of View

•July 29, 2009 • Leave a Comment

The problem of point of view – and it is a problem – can be a nebulous, vexing, and controversial one for a writer. Here, Henry James, in a preface to The Ambassadors, reflects on the subject of the first person singular:

Had I, meanwhile, made [Strether] at once hero and historian, endowed him with the romantic privilege of the ‘first person’ – the darkest abyss of romance this, inveterately, when enjoyed on the grand scale – variety, and many other queer matters as well, might have been smuggled in by a back door. Suffice it, to be brief, that the first person, in the long piece, is a form foredoomed to looseness and that looseness, never much my affair, had never been so little so as on this particular occasion.

‘Foredoomed to looseness’: James never was shy about marking out strict boundaries for his literary philosophy.

The first person can be simultaneously a temptation to ease and a program for difficulty; bad first-person writing is ubiquitous. But the attraction of the first person is obvious. In just a few sentences you can whip up a personality; you can invent a voice. The first person – and this was another of Henry James’s complaints about it – lends itself to volubility. Volubility, though, is a cousin of volatility: results may vary. The first person, which can seem like the safe choice for a writer of fiction, actually becomes the risky option, because of how easily it can go awry.

For one thing, the first person, even more so than the third person, demands the suppression of the writer’s ego. That ‘I’ can become a crack through which the writer’s own personality leaks. And the first person can be resistant to editing: within the sovereignty of a given voice, every sentence seems to belong; the excuse for each lies in the narrator’s id. So everything stays, and a mold of tangents grows quickly in the hothouse of a first person monologue; ill-bred sentences are spared because they add to the overall ‘voice.’ And that sort of voice easily becomes varnish for a rather dull and silly accretion of thoughts:

Yes, fellow alums, we’re boasting bright lights aplenty these days, serious comers, future leaders in their fields. Hell, we’ve even got a fellow who double-majored in philosophy and aquatic life management in college and still found time for a national squash title. Think about it, Catamounts. We didn’t have squash at Eastern Valley. We didn’t have tennis, either, unless you count that trick with the steel hairbrush and the catgut racquet whereby the butt skin of the weak was flayed. Point being, this boy, Will Paulsen (may he rest in peace), left our New Jersey burg without the faintest notion of squash, yet mastered it enough to beat the pants off every prep school Biff in the land, and still carry a four point zero in the question of Why Does the Universe Exist Underwater?

You can see why James was wary of looseness. This passage also illustrates a further danger of the unsupervised first person: a kind of lurid, soured egoism acting as a substitute for wit. Here, Martin Amis’s Money is talmudic. (Fred Exley’s A Fan’s Notes also comes to mind; and the comparison does the above paragraph no favors.) But Money, by its violent and seemingly uncontrolled flow of words, conceals the rigorous magic of its art; and Amis, like his father, actually makes the reader laugh once in a while. The prizing of pure voice, above other literary attributes, arranges literature into an unpleasant democracy in which every citizen is a tyrant, one voice as good as any other.

No contemporary writer better dodges the obstacles of the first person than Kazuo Ishiguro. He has returned again and again to the form, which he tames with an almost superhuman level of control; his entire career, from A Pale View of Hills to his most recent collection of stories, Nocturnes, comprises a study of the first person and its strange labyrinths. Ishiguro draws the suppression of his own writerly ego to an impressive extreme: he favors narrators who are themselves almost completely drained of ego. One thinks in particular of his last novel, Never Let Me Go, which may be his masterpiece, and, of course, of his Booker Prize-winner, The Remains of the Day.

The Remains of the Day is a meditation on duty, on the roles one plays in life, and on Englishness; it dares the reader to become frustrated with its narrator – Stevens, the consummate English butler. For most readers of the book, I suspect, Stevens’s willful oppression of his own ego and desires in the service or Lord Darlington initially comes across as a disastrous violation of the self. How can he refrain from being even a touch sardonic about the frequent absurdity of his role, the capriciousness of the ruling class? (It is a very English novel.) Among Ishiguro’s many novelistic gifts is a spooky talent for drawing the reader into the current of the tale. He is an addicting novelist; you are very quickly turning the pages. And, as you do, you find the logic by which Stevens lives increasingly compelling, even as his own sense of purpose begins to crack under the pressure of remembrance. You recognize the fragility of your own ego by how quickly you deemed his lacking.

Ishiguro favors a deceptively plain – which is not to say simple, or even stripped-down – style for his narrators, and Stevens is no exception:

It is, of course, the responsibility of every butler to devote his utmost care in the devising of a staff plan. Who knows how many quarrels, false accusations, unnecessary dismissals, how many promising careers cut short can be attributed to a butler’s slovenliness at the stage of drawing up the staff plan? Indeed, I can say I am in agreement with those who say that the ability to draw up a good staff plan is the cornerstone of any decent butler’s skills. I have myself devised many staff plans over the years, and I do not believe I am being unduly boastful if I say that very few have ever needed amendment.

Despite the meandering quality of Stevens’s reflection, there is not a wasted word, a misplaced gesture, in the entire paragraph. The novel as a whole shares with this paragraph an absence of figurative language; Stevens doesn’t resort to metaphor, because his life is one of concrete exactness – of tasks – and needs no analogy. Ishiguro is alert to the ironies and self-deceptions of his narrator without ever condescending to him. He ensures that each line of the novel, like Stevens himself, does exactly what it is supposed to do, as when Stevens apologizes for making a boast that many of us wouldn’t consider a boast at all.

Notice that every sentence of the paragraph contains the phrase ‘staff plan’; the awkwardness of that repetition – it is an odd mouthful of a phrase – emphasizes the stiff organizational acrobatics Stevens has to perform in discharging his duties as head butler. The circumlocution (‘I can say I am in agreement with those who say’) enacts the repetitiousness of his work – polishing the same silver, dusting the same portraits – as well as the thoroughness he brings to it; he hangs extra sentences on points he has made already. And the slight nervousness of the prose attests to the politics of his work: he has to offer his employer just enough personality to endear himself without ever offering too much personality – that is, without ever becoming a person. (In Never Let Me Go, of course, Ishiguro takes Stevens’s model of duty and selflessness to a perverse outer limit.)

In the hands of a writer like Ishiguro, the first person narrator is a rich, delicate, subtle tool; by not straining for voice – ‘voice’ here being a synonym for a loud, hyperactive, and frankly blog-like prose style – he creates poignant, credible figures whose lives, even at their quietest, are lived in extremis.

One of the most praised novels of recent years is also one that makes terrific use of the first person. Netherland does not so much follow a plot as it maps the interior of its narrator while pressing firmly but gently on many of our contemporary anxieties. Joseph O’Neill, in an interview with Mark Sarvas for The Elegant Variation, during which he spoke with great feeling and intelligence on a wide range of literary topics, offered some thoughts on his predilection for the first person:

I find the third person very difficult. I do it in short stories, but . . . I’m sometimes tempted by a baroque third person. But that’s, again, hard to do or, oddly enough, too easy to do. Nothing about writing is straightforward, but it’s not especially difficult to write a humorous, verbally tricky fantasia, because that’s a way of dodging certain big challenges. . . . Also, third person narratives lend themselves, in my hands, to plottiness, and the problem with plot is that it becomes – and again, all this is from my point of view – it becomes excessively psychological and ordinary. Whereas if you want a narrative capable of the full, flickering range of empathies, the sort of empathies that everybody has, that approximate the depth and spottiness of human apprehension, you are able to draw that out much more in the first person. At least, that’s the case with me.

See For Yourself

•July 22, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Writers are, by nature, an envious lot. They envy their peers; they envy past masterpieces; they envy the inhabitants of any perceived golden era – pre-Kindle, pre-recession, pre-The Death of Publishing. But they reserve a separate, special envy for painters and musicians: artists who do not rely on language to move their audiences. Proof of that envy can be found in the frequency with which allusions to painting and classical music (and, increasingly, pop music) appear upon the black-and-white silence of literature. For all the force that language has, it still must, as every writer knows, pass through the digestion of the brain before it is felt; whereas music and painting flow directly into the deepest ventricles of feeling. One’s flesh reports the effect.

So writers like to write about music and art. Examples abound endlessly. Updike built a career within a career writing about art; Zola and Balzac wrote minor works about the Impressionist generation of painters (and about Cézanne in particular). Kazuo Ishiguro’s new suite of stories, Nocturnes, revolves around music and musicians. Ian McEwan, in Amsterdam, the best example of fictional prose about classical music I know of, endows the composer Clive Linley’s reflections on a work-in-progress with a dense material richness. And so on.

For all the beauty of these works – these and so many other works – none replaces the direct experience of a painting or a string quartet. If any writer were ever equipped with the necessary emotional tackle to describe his contact with a great painting, it was Rilke. (This was a man capable of noticing the way ‘the dahlias and the tall gladiolas and the long rows of geraniums shout the contradiction of their red into the mist.’) In the slim, remarkable volume Letters on Cézanne, culled from letters he wrote to his wife Clara during the fall of 1907, he reports almost daily on his visits to the Salon d’Automne, in Paris, to see a posthumous exhibition of Cézanne’s paintings. Part of the pleasure of reading the letters is Rilke’s expansive, precise delight in the presence of Cézanne’s work; and part of the pleasure is seeing poetry’s most durable emotional acrobat fail at the task he has set for himself.

In the letter of 22 October, he writes, of a portrait of Madame Cézanne:

Already, even after standing with such unremitting attention in front of the great color scheme of the woman in the red armchair, it is becoming as irretrievable in my memory as a figure with very many digits. And yet I memorized it, number by number. In my feeling, the consciousness of their presence has become a heightening which I can feel even in my sleep; my blood describes it within me, but the naming of it passes by somewhere outside and is not called in.

Is there any better elaboration of the feeling imparted by great art and music than ‘my blood describes it within me’? But it is an account of Rilke in front of the picture – of his memory of being in front of the picture – rather than of the picture itself. He cannot ‘name’ it. As he wrote the next day in a letter on the same painting:

I’m not sure that I even managed to describe the balance of its tonal values; words seemed more inadequate than ever, indeed inappropriate; and yet it should be possible to make compelling use of them, if one could only look at such a picture as if it were a part of nature – in which case it ought to be possible to express its existence somehow.

For any poet to call the use of words ‘inappropriate’ is remarkable, and it cuts to the core of the problem: the experience of art cannot be reproduced in language, because language, for its comprehension and enjoyment, relies on the very faculty – verbal thought – that a painting manages to elide in its route to one’s consciousness; words make a detour. If words, as Beckett famously put it, are a ‘stain on silence,’ then words that seek to express the qualities of a work of art are a particularly vibrant stain. What’s the point?

Take one of the still-lifes by Matisse hanging at the Barnes Foundation, in Merion, Pennsylvania. The painting’s contents can be summarized in a single sentence: ‘On a white cloth sit a lemon, a glass of water, and a spoon.’ Even that sentence can be reduced; its verb is superfluous. ‘A lemon, a glass of water, a spoon.’ But the compositional facts of the painting tell you virtually nothing about it. Picasso would have painted those same objects very differently; so would have Masaccio. What attracted me to this particular still-life by Matisse – which could only have been painted by Matisse – was the bright strange liveliness with which he invested the three objects, particularly the lemon, by the use of thick limits of black to circumscribe each. The contrast of the black makes the lemon’s yellow even more vivid, and fills it with a kinetic quality: the fruit looks as if it wants to rattle and jump.

And yet I have told you nothing of the painting; I have told you only a little. When one writes about a piece of art or music he begins, inevitably, to write about himself: his own state of mind.

It is a problem that Eva Hoffman handles in her intricate, involving recent novel Appassionata. Its protagonist, Isabel Merton, is a concert pianist of international renown. She naturally carries a library of music in her head:

Her fingers drum unconsciously on the café table. They’re moving through a Chopin Nocturne of their own will. She notices and tries to stop, but the melody, winding and elongating itself into an elegant, elegiac line, is too deeply encoded in her to be halted. It seems to follow some furrow in her mind that has been laid down through countless repetitions, a physical incorporation. It is in her body, in corpore. . . . The nocturne’s gesture of wistful tenderness has attached itself to her inner cells.

The passage tells us only that the nocturne is ‘elegant’ and ‘elegiac’ and that it makes a ‘gesture of wistful tenderness.’ These are not so much direct descriptions as they are oblique shadows pouring off the music; we know what it is like to listen to the music but not what the music is like.

Hoffman, like Rilke, directly confronts this tension, in one of several passages where she records the streams of consciousness of various concertgoers during Merton’s performances. One of these eavesdrops on the anxieties of an aspirant writer:

. . . ah, listen, the tenderness, poetry, the distillation, thinks Sunil Patel / pure lyricism, no dross / how to do that in my novel, writing so prosaic that’s the problem / no lift-off, oh God why can’t it lift off like music, into pure motion / listen, new section, ah, interesting, short sections maybe that’s the answer / why spell everything out stupid words, stupid story business, this happened then that happened, plod plod plod

It’s a funny sequence because it deftly and accurately captures the admixture of fidelity to the music and wandering inattention that fills a person’s mind during a performance, the slipping in and out of rapt listening, the mind’s refusal to shut up; and also because, placed within a novel about a concert pianist, it is an admission by Hoffman of what her own novel cannot do, what no one’s novel can do: authentically reproduce the sensation of listening to music. Against a piece of music by Brahms or Schubert, or a painting by Matisse or Cézanne, literature’s powers can seem uncompetitive. Words offer at best a shallow equivalency; a proxy.

As I write this, I am listening to a recording of Pablo Casals performing Bach’s Cello Suite No. 6, in D. It is one of my favorite pieces of music. I can tell you that it makes me think of morning sunlight, which at this moment is streaming through the window of my room, and of the subtle, confused emotional transitions between morning and noon, between afternoon and evening; between summer and autumn, autumn and winter. But to understand anything I have said you first have to know the particular piece of music.

Similarly, after a recent visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I have the urge to tell anybody who will listen about a certain painting by Degas, After the Bath (Woman Drying Herself). The painting fixed me to the spot for minutes on end; I could not walk away. Why? Because of its color, a clay-like, roughly suffused red, red everywhere; because of the casual beauty of the woman’s form, seen from the back, its strong grace, its paradoxical awkwardness; because it looks like no other Degas I have seen. What more can I say? It’s a remarkable painting; you have to see it for yourself.

Degas, After the Bath (Woman Drying Herself)

Chicago Tribune Review

•July 21, 2009 • Leave a Comment

A new column will appear later today. In the meantime, here’s a great review of CITY OF STRANGERS, by Julia Keller of the Chicago Tribune.