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A Partially Realistic Novel, Yet One Full of Conundrums and Mysteries: Ludmila Ulitskaya’s “The Kukotsky Enigma”

The title of this novel at the start prepares the reader for something out of the way and curious, yet it doesn’t come up to the actual novel itself in strangeness and states of compositional alienation. it’s a 2001 novel, hence still fairly recent, translated into English in 2016 by Diane Nemec Ignashev.  It is in fact the translator’s afterword which adds part of the mystery to the novel, as it is her word that is the only explanation of some of the outré, bizarre, and fantastic elements of the book itself.  And her explanation in at least one particular seems a little off-center.  But to begin at the beginning:

“Since the end of the seventeenth century all of Pavel Alekseevich Kukotsky’s male ancesters on his father’s side had been physicians.”  As with many a traditional Russian novel of family dynasties, The Kukotsky Enigma proceeds to give some family back history, and then leads into the immediate history of Pavel’s own childhood fascination with his father’s manuals, books, and charts of the human body.  The young boy is particularly drawn to the fold-out flap anatomy book, wherein there is a “naked lady” with a fold-out womb and other organs.  As a child, he is half-afraid that if he is discovered looking at the book, that he will “get his ears boxed,”  but as it turns out, his father actually gives him the gift of a better anatomy book, one with two hundred forty-five drawings, and leaves him to examine it.  It is a book by Leonardo da Vinci, “one of only three hundred hand-numbered copies.”  From here, the boy spends “his happiest hours” in his father’s study, looking not only at anatomy books, but at books on natural history, zoology, and comparative anatomy.  His father’s next munificent gift is a microscope, and from that point on, the course is set for a life in the medical sciences.

One of his father’s friends in obstetrics and gynecology takes the student on when he reaches university age, and though his father dies and his spendthrift mother uses her time trying to retain her former state of elegance in the reduced circumstances of their 1920’s living space being “consolidated” to include three more families, Pavel retains his position and goes on developing his medical skills.  Something strange happens to him, however–the first enigma to bear the name Kukotsky.  He realizes on examining a patient that he is able to see a “full-color schematic image” of tumorous cancers inside her body without ever opening her up, and this gives him pause.  This is a gift which comes from somewhere unknown, which neither his ancestors nor his generous father could have controlled.  He calls it “intravision” and never speaks of it to anyone.  It has a price, however:  even though it improves and increases over the years, he has to live the life nearly of an ascetic in order to get it to operate.  Too much food, or physical contact of an intimate nature with women could temporarily disrupt his gift.  He, however, in order to further his gift, is willing to abide by ascetic conditions, and misogynistic ones.  At this point, he meets up with his future wife, Elena Georgievna Flotov, though he doesn’t recognize her as this at first.

The difference seems to be that she appears on his operating table as a patient, and it is necessary to remove most of her female organs; thus, she is a woman and yet not a woman, a delicate, womanly presence of grace and femininity, yet without the key things that might cause her to get pregnant again.  Quickly, he arranges for her, her tiny daughter Tanya, and her servant Vasilisa to come and live with him, and when news arrives that her husband Flotov has been killed in war, he immediately marries her and adopts Tanya.

From here on, the novel progresses for a while as a family novel, not only of this family, but of another family, Ilya Iosifovich Goldberg (a wayward genius geneticist) and his twin sons, Vitaly and Gennady.  Ilya is in and out of prisons because of his stated views, not even so much about politics, but about genetics issues which the powers that be believe can affect political things and people.  The twin sons, as they grow up, are in friendly competition with each other over Tanya.  And then, due to a tragedy amongst other, poorer people known to Pavel and Elena slightly, another little girl, Toma, is adopted into the family, which causes a permanent schism between Pavel and Elena, though they still live together.  Tanya enters training in medical research and then due to stresses in her family and society, leaves without warning, staying out all hours of the night and worrying her family.  Pavel takes to drinking too much, a habit which stays with him for the rest of the novel.  At this point, the realistic quality of the novel breaks off, and Part Two begins.

Another major conundrum of the book, Part Two, opens with a woman lying in a sand dune, and progresses with her joining a group of unknown people without names, who are going from someplace unknown to someplace else equally uncertain, led by a man known as “the Judean.”  This part of the novel reads very much like a fantasy novel, and yet it seems to me to be an approximate vision of the afterlife, as it might be.  It is this part of the novel which most closely suggests the original title that Ulitskaya, according to the translator’s afterword, had originally given the novel:  Journey(s) to the Seventh Dimension.  It is all very impressionistic, and yet after a while, one begins to recognize a few of the previously appearing characters in these strange new beings with odd names.  Some of them, however, don’t even appear in their realistic guise until the next more realistic section after Part Two, which continues the family saga(s).  Though the translator explains that some of the book is supposed to intimate characteristics of Alzheimer’s (which illness Elena gradually develops, particularly in Part Three), I stick by my impression that this section, with all its mystery, is quite like a fantastic version of the afterlife, perhaps Limbo or Purgatory, though without the religious connotations.  Then comes Part Three.

Part Three progresses with the family sagas again, until there is a sudden dislocation to talk about the murderous career of a former violent guard named Semion Kurilko.  The story follows him for several pages, without explanation, until suddenly he makes contact with one of the characters we’ve been following, and tries to murder him.  But then, Kurilko is hanged; still, we don’t follow the other character anymore, and the section ends.  Another compositional enigma!

Finally, the book ends with a short Part Four.  The subject is of two parts:  one is a picture of Elena as “Granny” to her granddaughter Zhenya, after Pavel’s death.  Though Granny lives with Toma (the poor adopted child) and her husband in another tiny apartment, it is Zhenya (heavily pregnant) who comes to bathe and take care of her.  Elena seems actually to have Alzheimer’s in this section, which was prefigured in earlier Part One and Part Two by some of her moments of disorientation and the odd journal entries she made at those times.  So, actually, I suppose, it hasn’t been entirely unprepared for.  The second part of the last subject is not of age, senility, or death, but of birth.  The book ends with the two sides of the united family grouping around the new birth, and Ilya Goldberg planning to come back from America to see the baby.  Thus, Pavel’s original interest in treating the diseases and ailments of pregnant women (not totally to exclude the major subject of his securing abortions for women who desperately needed them, amidst much societal animosity) circles round again in his posterity, though the male line of doctors which was followed at the beginning is at the end replaced by the female line of women giving birth and tending to their own.

I have made much of the curiousness of this book, and I have to say that this does not indicate that I did not thoroughly enjoy it, which I did.  It is a fine novel.  The puzzles come in when one considers the method of construction of the novel itself, and the sometimes abrupt switches from subject to subject following the divisions into sections.  Also, the two major characters in the novel, Pavel and Tanya, both die before the end of the novel, and Elena, a distant third major character in the course of the realistic sections, receives much of the emphasis if one considers that original title about “the seventh dimension” as a synonym for Alzheimer’s, and the fact that she outlives the other two.

All in all, this is quite a major achievement, and it is obvious why it won the 2001 Russian Booker Prize.  Such questions and ponderings about the structure and the substance as I have raised are meant not to denigrate its quality, but to emphasize just how much there is here to think about, how much about life we can stand to reflect upon.  And it is a rich contribution to literature about Russian life in particular, inasmuch as it locates the characters in their times and traditions in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and some areas around the Black Sea.  It is rare to come across a novel which can not only paint the picture of family relations in a complex situation, locate those families with respect to the professions and trades, and finally put the whole in a societal framework which makes the entire book more comprehensible to readers from cultures all around the world.  This novel is such a novel.

 

 

 

 

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A Masterful Job of Novel Construction, as Proven By a Mistake–Anna Quindlen’s “Still Life With Crumbs”

Normally when reviewing someone else’s work, I delve around into all the many thoughts I had about the book while reading, put together my sense about the book and what my experience of it led to in a general way, and then commence writing my post about it.  But in the case of Anna Quindlen’s novel Still Life With Crumbs, what happened was that my experience was what you might call a “nouveau” reading session, unintentionally taken on through a mistake in the website, while the book itself, though masterful, was more or less a straightforward read.  There were small flashbacks and flash forwards, but the flash forwards predominated over the flashbacks and were nearly always heralded with the tantalizing phrase which I came to look forward to, “but that was later,” or “that happened later.”

Here’s what I thought happened the first time through:  I started with a novel chapter entitled “A Young Agent, An Old Photographer,” which was fairly self-explanatory.  As I read forward from that chapter title, I was occasionally puzzled by references to characters and events that I didn’t recognize, but was able to piece together enough of the elliptical story to follow where the author was leading.  Things were clear as they developed from that point on, though I felt adrift from moment to moment, and had to stop and remember a few things more than usual in order to understand what was happening.  When I got to the last chapter, I was thoroughly startled:  this was simultaneously one of the best novels and absolutely the shortest one I’d ever read.  It was rather more of a skeleton of a novel, charming as that technique and difference from others was, than it was a full-fledged development.  Nevertheless, at that point I did what I usually do, and keyed into the website to go back to where I had started in order to write down names, plot formations, and details in order to revive the experience of reading for this post.

Imagine my surprise (and also a strange sense of letdown, oddly) to find that through some glitch in the library website, the book was actually much longer at the beginning than the point at which it had originally situated me!  In fact, the point where I had begun is roughly three-fourths of the way through the novel!  Dutifully, I read through the actual first three-fourths of the novel, and found that to my delight I had managed to get almost all of the story correctly as it had developed from the real first page!  When I thought about it, that gave me my topic, my new topic, for this post–how many novels you’ve read can you say were actually so well put together that you could follow the storyline that late in the novel and not be totally at sea, all the while feeling still excited both by the shorter storyline and the original true full length novel?

Just to clue you into the gist of the novel, it’s about a late middle-aged photographer, a woman, who is supporting both her aged parents to some extent and also contributing some money to her talented son’s well-being, in addition to supporting her own career in two different homes.  Money troubles as well as a curve in the nature of her subjects cause her to rent out her New York City apartment, which she loves, and rent a small cabin in upstate New York, a place with which she has no initial innate sympathy, lacking country roots.  Gradually, she starts to shoot new subjects and to become aware of an entirely different lifestyle and group of friends.  She is touched as an individual not only by the newness of it all, but by all the incidents which involve her friends, both old and new.  I won’t spoil the ending for you by telling you how it ends, except that it develops in a way which seems totally natural to real life, as people call it.  Though there are no improbable leaps of the imagination called for, however, the pace never lags, the interest never wanes, and the whole is a tour de force of full blown fictional creation in very simple words and sentences.  Once one has read the whole in its proper order, the last fourth of the novel, which I had at first assumed was all of it, clearly and cleanly concludes all of the foregoing material and tops it off very neatly and happily.  Yes, it has a happy ending, after various trials for the characters, and a few unhappy internal events.  And what’s more important, the happy ending is neither soppy nor improbable.  The whole gives the impression of having been written by someone well-versed with the particular sort of life lived by the heroine.

Though I’d never read Anna Quindlen before, she is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning author, and her writing shows quite obviously why she was given this award.  She has written both fiction and non-fiction.  Another book of hers which I’ve heard of before but never read is One True Thing, a title which may well be as familiar as you as it is to me.  I think I’ll look for it on the websites soon, because as curiosity provoking as her title Still Life With Breadcrumbs is, One True Thing is, as a title, equally enticing.

 

 

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The Biography of a Song–Alan Light’s “The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah'”

Today, I’m writing about a song which is my favorite popular song of all time, and one about which there is not only a lot of concord (that it is a great song), but also a lot of disagreement (that it is spiritual, that it is full of primal sexuality, that one artist or another has done a better job of conveying its “basic” meaning, that one version or another is the best, etc.).  I don’t know which artist I first heard sing it, because I turned the television on in the middle of a performance just in time to catch the lyric lines “She tied you to a kitchen chair, she broke your throne, she cut your hair,” and somehow, the incongruity of the notions of a throne and having one’s hair cut by a woman at home (or perhaps the collision inherent in the idea of a kitchen chair being like a throne) caught my attention in a very primary way.  I fell in love with the song immediately, but in spite of this book’s insistence about the ubiquity of the song, when I went to a local DVD and CD store to obtain a copy of the media form it was on, I only encountered absolute blankness from the clerks.  I did not know at the time that it was by Leonard Cohen, the famous Canadian composer and songster also responsible for such songs as “Bird on a Wire.”  I had seen the song performed by a much younger man, a very soulful character also, however, but not one whose name I remembered hearing.

My next encounter with it was on Bon Jovi’s 2008 DVD “Live at Madison Square Garden” (which, however, I did not get a copy of until about 2012 or so, or certainly a few years after its first production, anyway).  It has remained my favorite rendition of the song except for Leonard Cohen’s, and that’s because it has at least five of the now current seven stanzas (I would really love to see the original 80 stanzas just to read, but that remains for another time).  The only thing I did not like about Leonard Cohen’s own version was that he was in London at the time, and he stuck the name of his performance locale in the song when he performed, which he apparently did in other places as well.  I don’t like it particularly not because of any resentment towards London, but because I like the song the way it is, and don’t like it much when any artist or artiste kowtows to a local audience instead of during a “pure” version of the song.  But that’s just my own obsession with completeness and purity speaking; I understand that the local audiences of the various places went wild when he did it.

And now, to the ostensible subject of my post, the book itself.  The book is uneven, in that it offers a wealth of interesting detail about the song, its development, and history of production and reproduction, but also throws a bunch of famous and not-so-famous names at you, which gives a feeling of “I guess you had to have been there.”  It sometimes descends to the level of “he-said-she-said” or gossip, but for the most part, it is well worth an attentive read.  It contrasts the way the different artists performing the song have seen it, because each artist seems to have wanted to make it his or her own, even to the extreme (in my view) of leaving words and stanzas out.  The frontispiece quotes are from Leonard Cohen and Jeff Buckley, in that order, and thus offer the two most famous attitudes and artists’ views of the song.  Cohen said, “‘Hallelujah’ is a Hebrew word which means ‘Glory to the Lord.’  The song explains that many kinds of hallelujahs do exist.  I say all the perfect and broken hallelujahs have an equal value.  It’s a desire to affirm my faith in life, not in some formal religious way, but with enthusiasm, with emotion.”  Perhaps the song’s most popularly famous performer (somewhat possibly because of his own later and untimely demise), Jeff Buckley, said “Whoever listens to ‘Hallelujah’ will discover that it is a song about sex, about love, about life on earth.  The hallelujah is not an homage to a worshipped person, idol, or god, but the hallelujah of the orgasm.  It’s an ode to life and love.”

One particular thing that this book did for me, however, was to encourage me to reach beyond my own limits:  because I tend to prefer songs by their original composers or first singers (or both), because I tend to prefer to get all the lyrics and not just half or the mere repetition of a few words and a chorus, and because I get distracted when there is more than one key interpretation to a song, I found this book a challenge.  It forced me to see that the song does indeed belong not only to Leonard Cohen, but to the world, and while that’s entirely a good thing, because it seems to communicate a sort of togetherness and community spirit, I do still feel the right of my own preferences:  I, too, am in the world!  And perhaps that realization, for each person who hears the song or reads the book, is the single most valuable thing about either.

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Case study, tribute, answer, or meditation?–Julian Barnes’s “The Sense of an Ending”

A month or so ago, I wrote a post on William Trevor’s book of short stories “After Rain,” and referenced in relation to it the fine scholar Frank Kermode’s critical work first published in 1967, The Sense of an Ending.  You may imagine my perplexity when I discovered on my library website a fairly new book, published in 2011, by Julian Barnes, a novel of sorts also called The Sense of an Ending.  My perplexity was mainly because at no point in the opening pages of the book and nowhere within is Frank Kermode given a nod for his work, except in the overall sense that it becomes overwhelmingly obvious by the end of the book that it is a sort of case study of, answer to, tribute to, or meditation upon Kermode’s work.  Perhaps it is all of these.  At any event, Julian Barnes won the 2011 Man Booker prize and was nominated for other awards for this work, so Wikipedia’s confidence that the book is at least a “meditation” upon Kermode’s thesis seems well-founded, because the publicity attendant upon such fame would make it unlikely that the book could be seen otherwise.

To reiterate Frank Kermode’s notion, that humans, being uncomfortable with their short life span, have to imagine themselves as part of a historical curve of a sort of golden age in the past, to which their own lives are the present leading to an important future, is to deal with many imponderables, and yet it certainly makes sense in the way Barnes envisions it.  Barnes is in fact doing in a work which isn’t entirely novel-like what Kermode says critics must do:  whereas poets help to make sense of the way we see our lives, critics must help make sense of the ways in which we try to make sense of our lives.

The main character, the narrator, Tony Webster, tells a story in two parts in which he is engaged in the first part in telling about his younger years with his friends Alex, Colin, and Adrian, and his failed romance with Veronica (Mary), whose mother also comes into the story.  Later, Adrian writes to tell Tony that he and Veronica are now together, and Tony responds.  Then, Adrian commits suicide not long after another apparently less vital and virile classmate has done the same thing.  The remaining three friends engage in the same sort of philosophical speculation about why Adrian did it that they had shared as intellectually gifted students.  In the second part, we see Tony much later, as a retired man who has since been married to someone else, produced offspring, and been cordially divorced.  He is now reevaluating the earlier years because Veronica’s mother dies and leaves him a diary of Adrian’s; Veronica, however, is in between Tony and the bequest, and prevents him from a complete reading of the diary.  It is in dealing with her as someone who still parallels him in age that he questions himself and thinks about his past in a radically different way than he traditionally has.

“You get towards the end of life–no, not life itself, but of something else; the end of any likelihood of change in that life.  You are allowed a long moment of pause, time enough to ask the question:  what else have I done wrong?”  This is the almost casually stated thesis of Barnes’s work, not casual in the sense of its eventual importance, but in the way he slips it into the woof and weave of many other questions and ponderings about history and in particular personal histories.  For example, from his boyhood days, come memories of hilarity in the classroom at a dullard who, when asked what happened in a historical period of complexity, answers:  “There was unrest,” and when prodded to comment further, goes on to say, “There was great unrest, sir.”  Yet, this comment comes back with some significance to haunt Tony as an older man.  In the last paragraph of the book, he states, “There is accumulation.  There is responsibility.  And beyond these, there is unrest.  There is great unrest.”

That Barnes has pointed out time as one of his avowed subjects is clear from the first, when he says, “We live in time–It holds us and moulds us–but I’ve never felt I understood it very well.”  He elaborates, “ordinary everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly:  tick-tock, click-clock.  Is there anything more plausible than a second hand?  And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability.”  What is as malleable as time, apparently, or as a result of time, is memory, which lives in and changes with time, for Tony is suddenly shocked by a picture of his younger self in a letter which Veronica does return to him with a few of the diary pages before burning the rest.

And yet there is further shock to come–I will not ruin the surprise near the end of the book, for though this is a serious literary endeavor and not a suspense novel, there is a twist near the end which underlines many of the points that Tony gradually becomes aware of as he re-thinks his earlier history.  Suffice it to say that the novel is a very good book in this reader’s opinion, and one well worth the Man Booker Prize.  And I like to think that Frank Kermode might find it a fitting tribute (case study? answer? meditation?) as well.

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When is a cow not a cow, and a story not (much of) a story?–David Duchovny’s “Holy Cow!”

Maybe it’s just that it’s spring, all things are budding and blooming, and once again I’ve begun my hunt for the perfectly (or even imperfectly) uplifting book, possibly one with a message, or just one with a lot of fun to it.    I had wondered if David Duchovny’s book Holy Cow! would be it.  It wasn’t.  Perceive me as seriously underwhelmed, both in the uplifting-message and the amusement department.

Since there’s not much point in worrying about spoilers and such when a book has no suspense anyway (especially not of the literary kind), here’s what the book is basically “about”:

A cow named Elsie, a pig first named Jerry who then re-names himself “Shalom,” and a turkey named Tom, all of whom suddenly acquire the ability to read and operate technology, decide to leave the farm and go (respectively) to India, Israel, and Turkey, where they expect to elude their seeming fates as human food and be appreciated (or worshipped, in Elsie’s case) as the individuals they are.  Fair enough.  But the book’s jokes are hokey and fall flat, the twists and turns of the “plot” are unsurprising or at least unrewarding, and the “message” at the end, that we should all (humans as well as animals) appreciate that we are animals and work a better deal out between our higher and lower faculties, is not handled well, and comes out facile and silly.  The whole is clearly not an allegory, and even mentions George Orwell’s famous book Animal Farm, which is.  The later book mentions that an ordinary farm is not like Orwell’s allegorical one, which seems to initiate a departure point for Duchovny’s story, yet the point seems to be obvious:  this is a story with talking animals which is not an allegory.  So what?  It doesn’t make it as a fairy tale either, and is not one which I can imagine children taking an interest in (or adults finding enough satisfaction in to keep then reading, unless they had committed to do a post on the book, like yours truly).

The three animals travel together (and the improbabilities of this roving life are not overcome by any startling or marvelous events such as we are used to in fantasy fiction), and in each of the three target countries, they are disappointed of their goals to be individuals.  Their learning curves are very unstupendous, as they don’t change much in the choices they anticipate for themselves, Elsie (for example) returning to the farm, to the ordinary cow’s life, quite possibly.

So, what do I advise about this book?  Give it a miss, unless you are just a sort of person who’s curious about what celebrities think about in their spare time.  The “I-wrote-this-book” element comes in strongly at the end, when Duchovny presents himself as the “cow-writer” (by unamusing analogy with “ghost-writer”?).  Though I rarely pan a book wholeheartedly, this is one that I really do dislike, not for any big overwhelming thing it does wrong, but just because it’s boring and the choices are ones that are expected and dull.  But then, I guess that is a big overwhelming thing!  The author is listed in the credits as an actor, director, and writer.  I suppose it’s cranky to say he should stick to acting, where others provide him with words, and where a lot of us like him.  I’ve never seen anything he’s directed, and so can’t comment about that.  But if this a representation of his abilities as a writer, then he needs a writing class which focuses on topic (I didn’t really notice much wrong with his stylistics or grammar, but perhaps that’s because I was slogging through the book looking for content).  And now, I think I’ll take a dose of spring tonic to get over my bitchy mood, and look for a better book to read and review.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Shape Events Take in the Human Mind–William Trevor’s “After Rain”

Finally, I am back to blogging again, and it has been a long time since I could really call myself a regular blogger, several months in fact.  Therefore, I hope my readers will be patient with a very long post, to make up for all the time away.  Also, I need to issue spoiler alerts for the short stories in this volume, but since they are literary short stories and not suspense or mystery ones, but ones which a person might read again and again for their staying power and quality, I don’t feel so bad about that.  So here goes:

In his well-known short volume The Sense of an Ending, Frank Kermode said, “It is not expected of critics as it is of poets that they should help us to make sense of our lives; they are bound only to attempt the lesser feat of making sense of the ways in which we try to make sense of our lives.”  To again quote and paraphrase Kermode, this critique is thus “at two removes” from life itself, and at one remove from “the meaning of the work.”  Humans, he indicates, are “uncomfortable with their own short life span, and they try to make sense of the beginning, middle, and end of history and histories,” seeing themselves in “a middle” which is particularly important to “a future.”

I find Kermode’s words particularly interesting in the evolving story pattern which develops in William Trevor’s collection of short stories, After Rain.  Even when the characters are near the end of their lives, as are the devoted husband and wife who are snubbed by their son at his birthday celebration in “Timothy’s Birthday” in the third story of the collection, there is no real compositional sense of resolution at hand outside of what characters think.  Characters markedly have trouble making sense in any sustained way of their facts and changes near the ends of their lives, or fail to do so, as does Eddie the “rough trade” character in the same story.  By contrast, they sometimes (especially as one gets farther into the book) create whole worlds of events to happen or which they surmise have happened.

In the first story (to go back a bit), “The Piano Tuner’s Wives,” the blind piano tuner accepts that his second wife may be lying to him about things his first beloved wife described to him in detail, in order to claim her own place at his side, but he doesn’t seem to feel any need to resolve the contradictions:  instead, he faces the remainder of his life with two different versions of reality as his compass.

The story “The Friendship” is anticlimactic at the end, which spells the end of a long friendship over what was a moment’s choice of deceit in the story.  The two friends merely separate, but the finality of it, though stated, is not emphasized at its otherwise preeminent and important place at the end of the story with anything like strong emotion.  It seems instead deliberately understated.  Though they separate for good, the emphasis is rather on the day as an ordinary day, which prefigures “A Day” later on.  Yet even though no one can foresee the future, the deceitful character tells herself that the other will mention their resolve to part later on, and even thinks she knows what the circumstances will be.

“Child’s Play” is a story in which two children, Gerard and Rebecca, are thrown together as playmates because two of their parents are cheating with each other.  There is a divorce, and a new family structure is formed.  The adults are never known by their own names, but in a reversal of their importance to themselves and the children’s minor positions are known only by appellations such as “Gerard’s father,” “Rebecca’s mother.”  The children play together by imitating the words and phrases they have heard the parents say, underlining the actual rockiness and irony of the children’s ability to possess them.  But even this pattern gets disrupted in the sudden impermanence that comes from the adults’ inability to behave well themselves in terms of their children’s interests.  The children’s game is broken, and with no future to it in sight.

“A Bit of Business” is a story in which two hoodlums, Mangan and Gallagher, are busy looting empty homes left empty while people go to see the Pope in Phoenix Park.  Mr. Livingston, an older man, is left by the Herlihys to mind their flat “while the Guards [are] all out at the park,” as they tell him.  He thinks that they really just wanted him to be able to watch the Pope on their television set, and so isn’t prepared for the two crooks when they break in on him; they are equally surprised to confront anyone at home.  But the rest of the story follows the action of the two burglars, who pick up a couple of girls, or “motts,” as they call them, and spend the day drinking and taking advantage of the girls’ only too willing favors.  The worst thing that happens to them this day at least is that at the end of it, the girls become insistent about seeing them again, which promise the men do not intend to keep.  The end of their day consists in each wondering how long it will be before Mr. Livingston gives an accurate description to the police, their individual regrets that they didn’t kill him while they had the chance, and their questions, each to himself, as to whether the ability to kill was acquired.  Their future, such as it is, is one in which they imagine themselves caught.

In “After Rain,” the scene taking place once the refreshment of rain is over doesn’t happen until the last sentence, which it is compared to a visual scene in the background of a painting of the Annunciation in the Church of Santa Fabiola, in a town in Italy where a young woman has gone after the death of a love relationship.  She stays in a pensione she visited when a child.  Going to the church and viewing the painting, the young woman thinks that it was intended to show a scene that happened after rain.  “The story of Santa Fabiola is lost in the shadows that were once the people of her life, the family tomb reeks odourlessly of death.  Rain has sweetened the breathless air, the angel comes mysteriously also.”  Thus, her past and her present and her future too are telescoped just as in the Annunciation the angel was both a vision to Mary of the future and a prefiguration of the Angel of Death.  Still, the angel’s coming mysteriously is the source of the title of the whole book of stories, for the entire collection has mysteries and predictions and truncated endings as its modus operandi.  The entire book falls under the rubric of death in terms of death of relationships, as in this story, and each story ends and yet most don’t really resolve.  Therefore, after the rain, though it may seem to clear the air, the mystery of the angel remains.

The story “Widows” is perhaps not so much about the death of a relationship or death itself as it is about the transformation of a relationship, just as the Tarot card “Death” signifies not actual death but change.  In this case, the relationship between two sisters is fated to change.  Catherine (a recent widow who was happy with her husband) and Alicia (a widow of many years, who had an unhappy marriage) live together, and in this composition have to deal with a dishonest odd-jobs man with the outsize (and inaccurate) name of Thomas Pius John Leary, who insists that the job done for them before Catherine’s husband died is not paid for.  This is a kind of fraud that he and his wife are likely to practice on a widow, but because she can’t find the receipt that proves her husband’s payment, Catherine eventually feels she has to pay.  He presses, by insisting that he has no copy of a receipt in his book.  Alicia, the stronger and older sister, wants to report Leary to the Guards for trying to run a confidence trick, but even though she always protected her sister in their youth, Catherine won’t allow it now because of a strange sort of pride and desire for privacy about her married life.  “….Catherine was paying money in case, somehow, the memory of her husband should be accidentally tarnished.”  The relationship between the sisters is conditioned in the present by the relationship each had with her husband:  Alicia’s husband was a disappointment, Catherine’s was a jewel of a gentleman.  Thus, Alicia cannot understand Catherine’s protectiveness towards her own husband’s memory.  But as Catherine realizes the morning before she goes to pay the undue debt, “[w]hile they were widows in her house Alicia’s jealousy would be the truth they shared….widows were widows first.  Catherine would mourn, find in solitude the warmth of love.  For Alicia there was the memory of her [own] beauty.”  This story too has no obvious ending, other than an implied one, but this makes it more complete than the stories which are placed before “After Rain” in the book.  Indeed, the stories featured after that pivotal title story all seem to have at least some implied ending if not a complete one.

Another aspect of family membership, motherhood in particular, appears in “Gilbert’s Mother.”  Rosalie Mannion, who is the “Gilbert’s mother” of the title, is in a story which is chilling for two (at least) different reasons:  the first is that if Gilbert is the serial miscreant being covered in at least one local news story, then he is too clever to be caught.  The second is that it’s his own mother who suspects him of being that person and her suspicion is parsed in a grammar of differences that she has noticed about him, at least in her own imagination, since he was two.  “It was always the News, on the radio or the television, that prompted her dread.  When a fire was said to have been started deliberately, or a child enticed, or broken glass discovered in baby-food jars in a supermarket, the dread began at once–the hasty calculations, the relief if time and geography ruled out involvement.”  The story is left unfinished in a sense, because even though there’s never any proof against Gilbert, the suggestion is that he controls his mother and makes himself the center of her life by manipulating her fears about him.  Yet, he is never arrested or accused of anything in any but his mother’s mind.  Inasmuch as there is the Biblical clause “and Mary pondered these things in her heart,” and the central story of this collection, “After Rain,” is connected with a painting of “The Annunciation,” so this story is the negative version of the Virgin Mary’s “ponderings.”  The destiny of a child, who can foresee or control it, even its mother?

“The Potato Dealer” is a tale in which yet another birth occurs, in which the unwed mother, Ellie, is married off to a much older potato dealer, Mulreavey, to hide her shame.  He is willing to take her for the sake of her uncle’s farm and lands, a deal made for the future.  While he doesn’t insist on his “conjugal rights,” Mulreavy does expect to inherit the farm from Mr. Larrissey, Ellie’s uncle.  When the baby, Mary Josephine, is born, Ellie remembers the real father, a visiting priest, but whereas she treasures the child for the sake of this real father’s memory, Mulreavey accepts the child out of greed, practicality, and even a small measure of affection.  Finally, though, when the child is ten, Ellie can no longer keep the father’s identity a secret, and tells the potato dealer he was a priest; her family is angry with her.  Then, that same evening, she tells the child.  The local priest is as angry with her for revealing the truth as he is with her for her original activity with the visiting priest.  In the end, the revelation doesn’t much affect the relationship between Mulreavy and Ellie.–So, what is the story’s point?  Interestingly enough, and obviously enough as well, I suppose, when viewed from the perspective of the child’s name (Mary Josephine, family names, “Joseph” being Mr. Larrissey’s first name), this is about a modern version of the Biblical story of Christ, with a priest (God’s representative) standing in the place of the Holy Dove.  The story is shot with many ironies, but most of all, it suggests human dimensions to the divine birth, dimensions that one can imagine in any time or any place.  Most of all, the events are like those of a storm which has been long coming, and thus again “after the rain” is a representational idea.

Events in Northern Ireland are in the forefront of “Lost Ground.”  Briefly, it is the tale of a Protestant boy who is slain by a member of his own family for saying that a woman who called herself St. Rosa kissed him with a holy kiss in his father’s apple orchard.  Before the bitter ending, however, the reactions of people on both sides of the Protestant-Catholic split are shown.  His brother-in-law, the Protestant minister, tells him to forget about it and not to mention it.  The Catholic priest tries to help him identify the woman as a known saint, assuming that she was actually a saint, but is privately resentful and angry because the appearance wasn’t to a Catholic.  His family gradually restricts his movements until he is confined to his room permanently, because he becomes convinced that he has to go from town to town and preach about her appearance to him.  Finally, when his whole family but one is away for the day at a Protestant march, his one brother remaining, who is a butcher and a sort of gangster, comes with a friend and murders him.  And even though most of the family members secretly know that this is what happened to him, yet they as well as the other guessing members of the community remain silent.  The story ends:  “The family would not ever talk about the day, but through their pain they would tell themselves that Milton’s death was the way things were, the way things had to be:  that was their single consolation.  Lost ground had been regained.”  This is yet another story in a progression of Christianity-related material, yet even though there’s a discernible pattern of events to it with a discernible ending, the tragedy of the fighting back and forth in the Northern Ireland of the time is highlighted:  one side loses ground, then the other side.  At times, it must have surely seemed that there was indeed no ending.  And the fact that none of the family members actually witnessed the event of the boy’s murder yet that all accepted it was necessary and had been done by a family member–what if it wasn’t?  What if it had been the breaking and entering that they apparently represented it as in public?  Again, there are characters surmising, not being sure of an ending, yet creating it for themselves.

In the short piece “A Day,” reminiscent in a sense of a dark Mrs Dalloway, though it’s seemingly simple enough, there is a sudden surprise “ending”; of course, the scene is rather of repetition and continuation and not of an actual isolated event at all, by the time that the story is over in words.  Mrs. Lethwes’s day is presented, event after event, a simple unfolding of a daily routine.  In the course of this routine, we learn that her husband, who is apparently a very kind and considerate person, is cheating on her, at least to judge by an intercepted letter of his which she read and threw away (we know only a few isolated facts from it which she assumes as a matter of course, and we never see the letter.  Is it possible that there is some other explanation?).  She is barren, and is afraid that her husband intends to leave her for the other woman, whom she imagines to be younger and more fertile than she.  The story moves slowly, chronologically, through the day.  It is only at the cocktail hour, while she is preparing dinner, that we hit upon the crux of the matter:  for her repeated cocktails as she is fixing the food show that she is in fact an alcoholic, which is the real surprise.  It seems that she drinks out of fear every day, of that being the one day in which her husband will come in and announce that the other woman is pregnant and that he is leaving her, Mrs. Lethwes.  The story ends with her having passed out, as it appears she often does, and her husband carrying her away gently to bed.  The emphasis in this story is divided between the ending she thinks is coming, and the continued sense of her husband’s love and gentleness, one playing against the other.  One wonders if it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The last sentence of “Marrying Damian” is in a certain sense a motto for the whole book, but more of that in a moment.  This story, as the last one in the book, is indeed entitled to have the last word, though the plot doesn’t force this conclusion.  Though the story  is evidently complete, it reverts in a way to the overall foregoing pattern of something unresolved.  When Johanna is five, she tells her mother, Claire, and her father (the “I” of the story) that she is going to marry Damian, a family friend who is their age, and who is already married.  A brief tale of the years passing shows them manifesting consternation and some amusement as Damian weds and divorces woman after woman.  He is their soap opera, if you will.  They don’t take Johanna’s words seriously.  After all, it’s not their problem.  But then comes the day when, on one of his periodic sponging visits, Damian and Johanna meet again;  she is twenty-seven.  The parents fear at once that she is taking to Damian as one of her human projects to an alarming degree, and that the conclusion is foregone.  Yet, they do not feel that they can do anything about it.  As the speaker sees it:  “It was too late to hate him.  It was too late to deny that we’d been grateful when our stay-at-home smugness had been enlivened by the tales of his adventures, or to ask him if he knew how life had turned out for the women who had loved him.  Instead we conversed inconsequentially.”  In a way, this story has commonalities with “Gilbert’s Mother,” in that a character is postulating a series of actions that may or may not be true, though in this case they are future actions; in the case of Gilbert’s mother, she is guessing at the actions of his immediate past.  And in both cases, their surmises are a sort of annunciatory angel, as in the central story’s artistic reference, though a sort of this flawed world, which may be imperfectly true.  What we are in fact being given a chance to see and speculate upon in this collection is in fact the number of times our actions are inconsequential and incomplete, until we shape them by our own beliefs and prognostications.  Then, they become the plots in our lives whose structures seem given by our stars.  As the character above says, we try to duck beneath what we may have caused to happen by “convers[ing] inconsequentially.”

Indeed, this is a fine book of stories, and one of the best I’ve ever found for carrying a theme from beginning to end.  I hope that you will read this book for yourself, for even if you know the plots by my recalling them, the point of a fine story is in the number of times it can be reread or retold.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Sleepless Nights”–or, Getting My Insomnia Steaze on with Elizabeth Hardwick

I know that I certainly owe my readers an apology:  I have been away from the posting box for several weeks now, and during that time, occasional checks have shown me that my readers are a great deal more faithful than I am.  Readers from all over the world have been reading or possibly re-reading all my posts thus far, while I have been doing other things that called me away from the computer

What have I been doing, you ask?  Or possibly you’ve lost interest by now–let’s hope not, though.  I have been busy starting to get handmade gifts ready for Christmas in a few months.  And, I have been up early and late when I would have preferred to have been getting a good night’s sleep, many a night.  I am either sleepless thinking of all I have to get done, and have been wakeful in the wee hours (and finally, I usually give up and get up to start my day), or I’m up late at night, finishing up some aspect of one of my projects.  Sometimes, I have actually been up all night in my eagerness to get work done.  Little by little, I have been aware of how much more people could get done if only they didn’t sleep.  But finally, last night, my hectic schedule caught up with me:  I was so sleepy that all I could do was eat, read the very last of a book which has supplied me with a few moments here and there of literary pleasure during my work, and go off to sleep.

The book?  Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless NIghts.  How appropriate, I hear you say!  Yet, I have preferences in general for books which are not all about style and issues of style, whether of writing or of life.  But I had simply chosen this book off the shelf at random out of the sort of idle curiosity which has led to some of my most favorite literary adventures, so I persisted with it.  Though accordingly it’s not really my type of book, it was perfect for the episodic and halting manner in which I had time to read it.

The book begins by announcing an apparent scenario, topic, and theme, which I give here in brief:  “How nice it is–[this crocheted bedspread,] this production of a broken old woman in a squalid nursing home.  The niceness and the squalor and sorrow in an apathetic battle–that is what I see.  More beautiful is the table with the telephone, the books and magazines, the Times at the door, the birdsong of rough, grinding trucks in the street….If only one knew what to remember or pretend to remember.  Make a decision and what you want from the lost things will present itself.”  From that point onward, however, one gets lost in a kaleidoscopic shifting back and forth from one place and time to the next, from a girlhood (based on Hardwick’s own) in Kentucky, to homes in New York, Maine, Connecticut, to many life stories not her own, for example of some of the cleaning ladies and laundresses she has known.  These are all short sketches, then the topic is switched to someone else, some other locale.  Perfect to me for reading from moment to moment, a few pages one night, a few pages the next!

There are literary riffs played on the life and times of Billie Holiday, detailing her behind-the-scenes experiences as viewed by a close outsider, close in proximity if not in emotional terms.  Yet, it is hard to tell just how much of the meandering and rather plotless narrative (one cannot reallly call it a story) is actual fact and how much is made up.  Hardwick mentions at one points that her mother criticized her for making up some things which weren’t true and putting them amongst things which were, and if one were out to get either a purely fictional story or essay or conversely a memoir, then the demand to separate fact from fiction might be apt.

However, this book is a book about getting one’s insomnia steaze on, about all the ideas, notions, pictures of the past and speculations about the present and future which occur to one when one is wakeful, and if one accepts the book on those terms, then one will be more than satisfied.  Yet, it is not, curiously, the author’s own insomnia which gets main mention, first mention, or even predominant mention in this book.  She tells about Louisa, for example, an acquaintance who actually suffers from insomnia, and says:  “After a dreamy day, Louisa went into her nights.  Always she insisted they were full of agitation, restlessness, torment.  She was forever like one watched over by wakefulness in her deepest sleep.  She awoke with a tremor in her hands, declaring the pains, the indescribable, absorbing drama of sleeplessness.  The tossing, the racing, the battles; the captures and escapes hidden behind her shaking eyelids.  No one was more skillful than she in the confessions of an insomniac.  These were redundant but stirring epics, profoundly felt and there to be pressed upon each morning, in the way one presses a bruiise to experience over and over the pain of it….Her hypnotic narration is like that of some folk poet, steeped, as they say, ‘in the oral tradition.’  Finally, it goes, sleep came over me…At last…It was drawing near to four o’clock.  The first color was in the sky…Only to wake up suddenly, completely….Unsavory egotism?  No, mere hope of definition, description, documentation.  The chart of life must be brought up to date every morning:  Patient slept fitfully, complained of the stitches in the incision.  Alarming persistence of the very symptoms for which the operation was performed.  Perhaps it is only the classical aching of the stump.”  Thus, insomnia is compared poetically to a sort of illness or medical condition for which one requires surgery, and which must be kept track of by someone to assure the patient’s health and well-being.

Romances of the author’s fictional self are sketched out (for one must remember that none of this book actually purports to be a memoir, while it prefers to blur the lines and distinctions between fact and fiction).  There are also portraits of romances and life histories in miniature of other sets of lovers of whom the author knew, or with whom she was acquainted, not necessarily anyone as famous as Billie Holiday, but people who form part of the landscape of the author’s mind.  In short, these are all the topics and scenarios about which a fictionalized version of the author has thought in the small hours, and the connection amongst them is maintained by the style of masterful reminiscence of a long life, though without the sort of condescension to “elderly” memories that one might see as a danger to be avoided in this style of writing.

Thus, it seems that it can truly be said, in the “Urban Dictionary” slang of our own time, that Elizabeth Hardwick is in this work showing her “steaze” ( I am told this word means, among other things, “styling with ease,” making it an appropriate if anachronistic accolade for such a writer).  It’s not essentially my kind of work, since I prefer to be reading a consistent or at least a less episodic story line.  Still, it kept me reading from night to night as I got my own insomnia steaze on, and a good literary companion is not to be cast down upon.  I would recommend this book for its sense of control of a difficult and querulous subject, a subject as difficult and querulous as an insomniac herself.  And who knows, you might come greatly to admire a writer who can seem to meander and wool-gather without once losing track of her readers’ interest and willingness to go along in an exploration of the places and times and acquaintances of a single, remarkable, if fictionalized, life.

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