Christopher Isherwood, The Berlin Stories

The Berlin Stories: The Last of Mr. Norris & Goodbye to BerlinThe Berlin Stories: The Last of Mr. Norris & Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Berlin Stories collects Christopher Isherwood’s two novels of the 1930s set in Weimar Germany, The Last of Mr. Norris (1935), published in England under the superior title Mr. Norris Changes Trains, and the better-known Goodbye to Berlin (1939), which introduced Sally Bowles and made Weimar’s cabaret scene a pop culture paragon after being adapted for stage and screen.

Isherwood was a relatively young writer—in his late 20s—when he was having and first writing up his experiences as Berlin visitor (or sex tourist, more of which below), so The Last of Mr. Norris is a slight, callow performance.

The novel is the first-person reminiscence of William Bradshaw, a visiting English writer who is only a barely-fictionalized version of Isherwood—William and Bradshaw were the writer’s middle names. But Bradshaw is not the novels’ focus: rather, the narrative dramatizes Bradshaw’s encounters with the eponymous Englishman Arthur Norris, a middle-aged habitué of the demimonde, who introduces Isherwood and us to Weimar Berlin’s panorama of prostitution, paraphilia, and radical politics.

Norris, with his badly-attached wig and his constant debt, comes off at first as a bathetic but compelling figure, a sad sadomasochist and well-intentioned naïf in the paranoid underworld of interwar communism, an aging dandy who possesses the glamor of a faded starlet.

As the novel progresses, though, we see that his campy tremulousness conceals a ruthless will to survive even at the price of selling out his ostensible friends; as he is manipulated by the various forces conspiring to control Germany, from the police to the Communist Party, he in turn manipulates everyone that comes to hand. Bradshaw looks into Norris’s eyes toward the end of the novel to detect if he is telling the truth and sees the man for who he is:

As a final test, I tried to look Arthur in the eyes. But no, this time-honoured process didn’t work. Here were no windows to the soul. They were merely part of his face, light-blue jellies, like naked shell-fish in the crevices of a rock. There was nothmg to hold the attention; no sparkle, no inward gleam. Try as I would, my glance wandered away to more interesting features; the soft, snout-like nose, the concertina chin. After three or four attempts, I gave it up. It was no good.

Norris is at first amusing, and then he is chilling, and Isherwood manages this slow transformation ably; but as the lead of a novel, he is too lightweight, just a grotesque, and I found Mr. Norris overly long. Better than its portrayal of the title character is its glimpses of Berlin as the political situation comes apart, given in Isherwood’s style of documentary fiction:

Berlin was in a state of civil war. Hate exploded suddenly, without warning, out of nowhere; at street corners, in restaurants, cinemas, dance halls, swimming-baths; at midnight, after breakfast, in the middle of the afternoon. Knives were whipped out, blows were dealt with spiked rings, beer-mugs, chair-legs or leaded clubs; bullets slashed the advertisements on the poster-columns, rebounded from the iron roofs of latrines.

The narrator, though, has very little character of his own, just a style of ironic and detached observation that eventually seems as frigid as Norris’s amorality. Over and over again, he tells us that he smiled at some vivid eccentricity of Norris’s, a gesture that casts a pall of frivolity over the whole novel.

In Pure Pleasure: A Guide to the 20th Century’s Most Enjoyable Books, the critic John Carey speculates that Isherwood, understandably concealing his homosexuality and his real reason for his Berlin sojourn from the 1930s Anglo-American reader, in fact identified more with Norris than with the narrator:

But it seems that Isherwood also constructed Mr Norris out of parts of himself. He went to Berlin at a stage in his life when he was contemptuously dismissive of conventional morality, and cynical about political causes (‘All politicians are equally nasty’). In both respects, he resembled Mr Norris. Further, what attracted him to the city, as he frankly admitted, were the boy-bars where hungry youngsters would sell themselves to foreign homosexuals for the price of a meal. However much he might suppress it, it can hardly have escaped someone of Isherwood’s intelligence and upbringing that this was blatantly exploitative (and would have been equally so, of course, had the prostitutes been girls, not boys). He was using the misfortunes of the stricken city as an opportunity for his own hedonism, just like Mr Norris.

This speculation raises a question that might occur to contemporary readers, especially given Armistead Maupin’s preface to the 2008 New Directions edition of The Berlin Stories, which introduces these novels in the context of Isherwood’s own status as 20th-century gay icon: is Mr. Norris a gay or queer novel?

Hard to say: it takes place at a very different moment in “the history of sexuality” than our own. Its narrator, standing in for the gay author, represents himself as a rather hard-boiled, Hemingwayesque, masculinist 1930s narrator, and emphasizes several times that he resists the sexual come-on of the aristocratic pederast Kuno, and that he is, as ever, amused by Kuno’s boy-crazy ways.

Norris, on the other hand, is a heterosexual, a devoted sadomasochist, yet is he who speaks in the languid, campy tones of Wilde. His landlady reports to the narrator, “‘He’s so particular, Herr Bradshaw. More like a lady than a gentleman,'” and his beauty routine queers him in Bradshaw’s sardonic eyes:

Seated before the dressing-table in a delicate mauve wrap, Arthur would impart to me the various secrets of his toilet. He was astonishingly fastidious. It was a revelation to me to discover, after all this time, the complex preparations which led up to his every appearance in public. I hadn’t dreamed, for example, that he spent ten minutes three times a week in thinning his eyebrows with a pair of pincers. ( “Thinning, William; not plucking. That’s a piece of effeminacy which I abhor.” ) A massage-roller occupied another fifteen minutes daily of his valuable time; and then there was a thorough manipulation of his cheeks with face cream ( seven or eight minutes) and a little judicious powdering (three or four). Pedicure, of course, was an extra; but Arthur usually spent a few moments rubbing ointment on his toes to avert blisters and corns. Nor did he ever neglect a gargle and mouth-wash. (“Coming into daily contact, as I do, with members of the proletariat, I have to defend myself against positive onslaughts of microbes.”) All this is not to mention the days on which he actually made up his face. (“I felt I needed a dash of colour this morning; the weather’s so depressing.” ) Or the great fortnightly ablution of his hands and wrists with depilatory lotion. (“I prefer not to be reminded of our kinship with the larger apes.”)

Clearly, certain archetypes or stereotypes of gender and sexuality had not yet hardened by the time of this novel’s composition. Mr. Norris perhaps works better, then, as evidence for a cultural history of changing sexual ideas, than it does as a novel with its own artistic integrity.

Goodbye to Berlin, an acknowledged 20th-century masterpiece, is much better. Here the narrator is named Isherwood without pretense, and if he doesn’t tell us about his personal life it is because he famously theorizes a new form of documentary fiction inspired by the objectivity of film and journalism rather than by the stream-of-consciousness subjectivity that marked the prior generation’s high modernist novels:

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.

Divided into five freestanding sections, Goodbye to Berlin may be read as another instance, like Winesburg, Ohio, or Dubliners or Cane or Go Down, Moses, of the modernist story cycle or novel-in-stories. (On this note, it’s worth remembering that Isherwood famously championed this literary mode’s most notable use in science fiction, Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles.)

The first and last divisions are called “A Berlin Diary”—diaries being another documentary form—and they chronicle Berlin’s deteriorating political situation from 1930 to 1933, from the casual anti-Semitism of even otherwise sympathetic characters to open Nazi street violence. Isherwood’s quiet theme here, as he observes and reports, is the missed connection between public and private life (ironically exhibited by his own sexual diffidence, however understandable) that allows totalitarianism to thrive:

It’s no use trying to explain to her, or talking politics. Already she is adapting herself, as she will adapt herself to every new regime. This morning I even heard her talking reverently about “Der Führer” to the porter s wife. If anybody were to remind her that, at the elections last November, she voted communist, she would probably deny it hotly, and in perfect good faith. She is merely acclimatizing herself, in accordance with a natural law, like an animal which changes its coat for the winter. Thousands of people like Frl. Schroeder are acclimatizing themselves. After all, whatever government is in power, they are doomed to live in this town.

But the novel is better known for its second section, “Sally Bowles,” than for these weighty political reflections. Sally is a 19-year-old English cabaret singer who escaped to Berlin from her stultifying rich family (her father is a mill owner and her mother an heiress of a landed lineage); Isherwood is charmed by her sexual frankness and artistic flightiness. The climax of “Sally Bowles” is a bittersweet description of her abortion, though we see her again in the novel a final time, when she seals a sense of her corruption with a vile anti-Semitic remark. Isherwood, camera though he affects to be, is plainly taken with Sally’s air of prematurely degraded eroticism, which he captures, in keeping with his documentary realism, by several times showing us her hands:

As she dialled the number, I noticed that her finger-nails were painted emerald green, a colour unfortunately chosen, for it called attention to her hands, which were much stained by cigarette-smoking and as dirty as a little girl’s. […] Sally lit another cigarette: she smoked the whole time. I noticed how old her hands looked in the lamplight. They were nervous, veined and very thin — the hands of a middle-aged woman. The green finger-nails seemed not to belong to them at all; to have settled on them by chance—like hard, bright, ugly little beetles.

The grotesquery in these passages, the imagery of dirt and insects, the confusion of age from “little girl” to “middle-aged woman” reminiscent of Isherwood’s treatment of the puerile but decaying Mr. Norris from the earlier novel, all suggest authorial disquiet over sexual disinhibition, not celebration of Weimar freedom.

But pop culture seems not to have noticed Isherwood’s ambivalence, and Sally Bowles, while she has ancestors in prior demimondaine fiction (George du Maurier’s Trilby comes to mind), helped to create a new archetype or sexual role model: the Bohemian girl. (My own swooning adolescent encounter with a much-desexualized version of the type occurred when I made the fictional acquaintance of Neil Gaiman’s cheery, black-clad Death from the Sandman comics.) Like Arthur Norris, though, Sally Bowles is too insubstantial to carry a novel, and I was more impressed by the sections that follow.

Both “On Ruegen Island” and “The Nowaks” dramatize Isherwood’s relation to the Nowak family. He meets their youngest son on a holiday on Ruegen Island, where the 16-year-old working-class boy falls into a flirtation or affair with an older Englishman, Peter Wilkinson. Isherwood here introduces a dreamy eroticism into his docu-style:

It is Peter’s will against Otto’s body. Otto is his whole body; Peter is only his head. Otto moves fluidly, effortlessly; his gestures have the savage, unconscious grace of a cruel, elegant animal. Peter drives himself about, lashing his stiff, ungraceful body with the whip of his merciless will.

The dream hardens to nightmare—a comic nightmare in the Dostoevskean style—when Isherwood goes to live with the Nowaks in their impoverished flat, where almost everyone sleeps in one room, and where Isherwood must dodge the flailing conflict of the drunken father, the tubercular mother, the Nazi older son, the puerile little sister, and the histrionic Otto. The whole section culminates in Isherwood’s avowedly nightmarish accompaniment of Otto to visit Frau Nowak in a tuberculosis sanitarium for women that strikes the narrator as a frightening epiphany of female sexuality:

Women being shut up together in this room had bred an atmosphere which was faintly nauseating, like soiled linen locked in a cupboard without air. They were playful with each other and shrill, like overgrown schoolgirls. […] They all thronged round us for a moment in the little circle of light from the panting bus, their lit faces ghastly like ghosts against the black stems of the pines. This was the climax of my dream: the instant of nightmare in which it would end. I had an absurd pang of fear that they were going to attack us—a gang of terrifyingly soft muffled shapes—clawing us from our seats, dragging us hungrily down, in dead silence.

If this unmistakable note of authorial misogyny disturbs or displeases, though, it is dispelled in “The Landauers,” wherein Isherwood befriends the wealthy, cultivated department-store owning Landauer family.

He visits the Landauers, to whom he has a letter of introduction, because they are Jews, increasingly threatened by the rise of the Nazis. He is especially enchanted with Natalia, the family’s daughter, a literate, witty, free-spirited 18-year-old anti-type to Sally Bowles, whom she despises. Isherwood also details his complex, perhaps homoerotic relation to Herr Landauer’s nephew and business partner, Bernhard, a reserved man tortured by his divided identity (he is Prussian, English, and Jewish) and by his complicity in crass commerce. When he upbraids the pseudo-objective narrator for his clear cultural biases, we might nod in agreement:

“You are a little shocked. One does not speak of such things, you think. It disgusts your  English public-school training, a little—this Jewish emotionalism. You like to flatter yourself that you are a man of the world and that no form of weakness disgusts you, but your training is too strong for you. People ought not to talk to each other like this, you feel. It is not good form.”

In the Landauers, we see an enlightened and brilliant world, however troubled, which the Nazi brutality incubated in the hothouse poverty of the Nowaks’ flat will pitilessly exterminate.

Isherwood’s insight, against the previous generation of British writers, that political and psychological insight could come from dispassionate reportage, an objective rather than subjective style, is borne out in the amplitude of Goodbye to Berlin‘s 200 tersely-narrated pages of description and dialogue. If Sally Bowles is overrated as a character—how many readers remember her anti-Semitic crudity, however unintentional, to Natalia Landauer?—the novel as a whole is perhaps under-studied for its artful montage arrangement, for its quiet play with time (events in its five sections are concurrent with one another), and above all for the way it only half-conceals behind the camera its author’s palpable passion.


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Raymond Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love: StoriesWhat We Talk About When We Talk About Love: Stories by Raymond Carver

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A character in this iconic collection’s final story thinks of her daughter’s truancy as “another tragedy in a long line of low-rent tragedies.” This 1981 book, which perhaps more than any other made its author’s name as a figurehead of minimalist fiction, might be subtitled “low-rent tragedies.” In content, it tells stories of working-class and lower-middle-class white American life, usually in the west or northwest. It is about men and women struggling with work and poverty, adultery and domestic violence, divorce and alcoholism. Anyone who ever experienced or witnessed any of what’s described in these stories—and alcoholic desperation in the 1980s was the background, though happily not the foreground, to some of my own earliest memories—will be able smell the stale cigarette smoke molecularly bonded to the pages.

A writer can use several authorial strategies to save such subject matter from exploitation or artless severity. Carver himself tended to prefer what we might call the Chekhovian tactic of sympathetic amplitude: giving us his characters from the inside, allowing them, even in the third person, their own voice and language and sensibility with which to tell their own stories. Carver’s later fiction, his work of the mid-to-late ’80s before his death in 1988, exhibits such a classic style of story-writing.

The fiction in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, though, reflects a different aesthetic: that of its highly interventionist editor, Gordon Lish. For Lish, as I understand it, fiction was less about the mimesis of consciousness than it was about intensive semiosis. If Carver descended from Chekhov’s humanism, Lish comes down from that other and much different instituter of the short story, Edgar Allan Poe, with his almost mathematical philosophies of composition and his proto-camp approach to sentimental subjects. Lish was a reader of Shklovsky, Barthes, and Kristeva; he was a friend and companion of DeLillo. He believed literature was the arrangement of sentences for maximal effect rather than the expression in language of some pre-linguistic, self-sufficient essence popularly called the self.

Lish’s approach to Carver, then, was to delete anything that might seem extraneous, often paring down Carver’s stories by 30% or even 50%. He excised over-explanation and lopped off discursive conclusions, favoring rather the stark dialogue, the incised image, and the abrupt ending.

A classic example is the story “The Bath” (appearing in What We Talk About) in contrast to its earlier/later iteration, “A Small, Good Thing” (appearing in Cathedral). Lish’s version is a brief and benumbed account of a couple’s grief and terror after their son is struck by a car on his birthday. Carver’s text, by contrast, lets the emotions find utterance rather than evoking them by their verbal absence. Lish, faithful to writers like Joyce, Hemingway, and O’Connor, tries to induce readers to feel by withholding all feeling from the story’s own tone:

The father gazed at his son, the small chest inflating and deflating under the covers. He felt more fear now. He began shaking his head. He talked to himself like this. The child is fine. Instead of sleeping at home, he’s doing it here. Sleep is the same wherever you do it.

But there is a problem of means and ends here: Joyce wanted to show his fellow citizens the ugly reality of their political and cultural paralysis, Hemingway was trying to craft and communicate a stoic ethic that could replace modernity’s vanished traditions, and O’Connor was trying to make us recognize the necessity of the divine by presenting us with its absence. Their story-writing styles of what Joyce called “scrupulous meanness” had serious political, ethical, and religious purposes. They contrasted their cold forms with their warm contents for a reason, and their intended effect on the reader was more than a sensational one.

What purpose did Lish bring to Carver when he killed his darlings? Carver wanted to tell the stories of the world he knew in a language that was not over-stylized but rather naturalistic and discursive. Lish, by contrast, wanted those stories to be objects he could find aesthetically interesting according to his own theories. This disjunction leads, in my experience, to the curdling of modernist irony into postmodern sarcasm. Lish turns Carver’s stories into near-cartoons of curtailed emotion, as if to mock the idea of feeling at all. In his hands, Carver’s fictions end with anti-epiphanies, shock tactics, as in “Tell the Women We’re Going,” with its calmly-stated last-paragraph double-murder ( which had developed into a full-fledged suspenseful scene in Carver’s earlier draft):

He never knew what Jerry wanted. But it started and ended with a rock. Jerry used the same rock on both girls, first on the girl called Sharon and then on the one that was supposed to be Bill’s.

I derive much of my information about Carver’s drafts and Lish’s interventions from Brian Evenson’s recent book-length appreciation of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Evenson, though better known nowadays as a fiction writer, was one of the first scholars to study the Carver/Lish issue, precisely because as a college student he had so fallen in love with Lish-phase Carver, and particularly with this collection.

Evenson admits that Lish’s dealings with Carver verge upon, or even cross into the territory of, the unethical. Added to that is the political question of the high-powered editor’s not allowing stories from the provinces into circulation until he’d shorn them of all that the jaded metropolitan would regard as overly sincere or sentimental. Yet Evenson wants to defend What We Talk About When We Talk About Love as a cohesive collection that communicates an authentic nihilism. On this reading, we might say that Carver was trying for Chekhov but reaching only Dreiser, so Lish was right to use a few deft excisions to turn him into Kafka instead.

Kafka is Evenson’s own comparison: “So when I got to Carver, I had Beckett and Kafka as models for what literature could do. Which probably made me see Carver in a very eccentric light.” Despite the self-mockery in the word “eccentric,” Evenson is, I believe, trying to rescue Carver from his own reputation by making us re-evaluate his style. Later in the book, Evenson notes that his older classmates, hipper to the literary journal scene in the ’80s, were able to place Carver among the other minimalists and dirty realists of the time: “people like Richard Ford or Bobbie Ann Mason or Ann Beattie or Tobias Wolff.”

To put it somewhat unkindly, though, readers who don’t have MFAs do not necessarily care for these “crafty” short story writers who tend to feel as mannered and formulaic as “genre fiction” is supposed to be. This increasingly common observation is in fact one source, beyond his obvious gifts, of Evenson’s own success as a writer who works in the mode of the weird. There has been in this century a turn in literary fiction away from artisanal realism to artisanal fabulism, which does indeed descend, among other writers, from Kafka.

Evenson’s slyly polemical originality is to offer us the Carver of What We Talk About as an inhabitant of this fantastical lineage rather than the realist one, of seeing him as the companion less of the dirty realists than the magical realists: the explorer of a slightly different type of bloody chamber, but a bloody chamber nonetheless. The Carver of Lish’s invention, no less than Lish himself, is a child of Poe more than of Chekhov.

All of the above is literary sociology, but what about literary criticism? Are these stories, taken at face value, worth reading? Read all at once, What We Talk About is too much of a good thing (which sounds like a be-Lished Carver title). As I read them, I could only admire their compression and concision and the often brutal punchlines these artistic priorities allow. But this is a limited aesthetic, and the effect of reading one story after another in this mode is slapstick. The less up-to-date, less polished instrument of Carver’s own style, though it can do less with a single page, can probably accomplish more in a story or a book. I hardly remember a character from these stories, because they come as vivid images but don’t stay long enough to impress, still less to ramify. What I remember is a tone, an unforgettable one.

The title story is justly famous for its non-communicative dialogue and darkening tone. “The Calm” is a surprising study in homoeroticism, “After the Denim” an almost sweet and definitely scary paean to marriage under the stresses of illness and age. “I Could See the Smallest Things” has a loopy, Lynchian slug-killing suburban surrealism. My favorite is “So Much Water So Close to Home,” a true affront, and I mean that as the highest compliment. I’d quote from it, but you need to read the whole thing; I doubt Andrea Dworkin herself ever wrote with such cosmic pessimism about men, women, and sex.

Such a story validates Evenson’s claim that Carver, under Lish’s influence, attains true originality: he gives us, or they give us, lower-class American life seen under the blacklight of a meaningless eternity. They are a chortling, bleak poetry preferable to the second-rate humanism of Chekhov’s mere imitators.

“Our moods do not believe each other,” said Emerson; in one mood, I want Lish’s Carver, and in another mood I want Carver unLished. Which Carver is better? I leave it to you, but if you want to see what Poe or Kafka might have written in the 1980s about my aunts and uncles and my parents’ friends, then you should read What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.


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William Faulkner, Go Down, Moses

Go Down, MosesGo Down, Moses by William Faulkner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Go Down, Moses (1942), though not always grouped with Faulkner’s indisputable masterpieces, is nevertheless one of his most significant and influential books.

On strictly formalist or literary-historical grounds, it is a beautiful example of the short story collection as novel, an idea that developed over the course of the 20th century until becoming a major fictional mode in its own right today, as explored by Ted Gioia in his essay on “The Rise of the Fragmented Novel.”

When Go Down, Moses was first published, its title was followed by “and Other Stories,” but Faulkner himself insisted that it should be regarded as a novel. Though it ranges among several plots and several characters and has no single protagonist or narrative, it does tell the story of the McCaslin-Beauchamp family and, through them, provides a miniature history of the American South from its settlement by whites to the eve of World War II. No doubt taking inspiration from James Joyce’s Dubliners, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, and Jean Toomer’s Cane (all of which we know or suspect him to have read), Faulkner in this book pushes the modernist story cycle even closer to novelistic unity.

This novel is also a milestone in Faulkner’s literary project, often regarded by critics as marking the end of the great period that began in 1929 with The Sound and the Fury. Likewise, Go Down, Moses is also often cited as the culmination of Faulkner’s evolving political vision, even as his summa on the theme of race. Telling the tangled tale of the descendants, both white and black, of Lucius Quintus Carothers McCaslin, a fierce patriarch who tried to found a white dynasty even as he committed rape and incest among the black women he enslaved, Go Down, Moses is nearly impossible to read without consulting a family tree (luckily the copy of the novel I bought in a used bookstore came with one, pictured below, probably given as a handout in a literature course).

The novel begins with a story called “Was” that reads almost like a regional-fiction tall-tale in the vein of Mark Twain, a slightly confusing but high-spirited story about bumbling twins and a runaway slave the horror and significance of which will not become apparent until much later in the book, when we learn that the story’s black and white characters are in fact related, despite the latter’s holding the former as property.

Faulkner then switches perspective to Lucas Beauchamp, a proud and independent black descendant of the McCaslin line, and his tragicomic pursuit of buried fortune on the family farm at the expense of his wife; this long story’s titular motif of “The Fire and the Hearth” can be read as Faulkner’s celebration of basic civilized decency, as opposed to greed. A mysterious story called “Pantaloon in Black” follows: it narrates the surreal descent into madness of a grieving young black man on the McCaslin farm, whose travails are then recapitulated with flippant cruelty by a sheriff’s deputy. In each of these tales, Faulkner indicts racist reductionism by, as Toni Morrison once remarked, “[taking] black people seriously.”

In the book’s longest chapter, the classic freestanding novella “The Bear,” a young Isaac McCaslin, the closest thing the novel has to a hero, pores over the family ledgers in the farm’s commissary assembling through his forebears’ often sparse notations the appalling family history (“His own daughter His own daughter. No No Not even him“). The ledgers form “that chronicle which was a whole land in miniature, which multiplied and compounded was the entire South,” an obvious symbol, as Malcolm Cowley long ago pointed out in his introduction to The Portable Faulkner, of the author’s own literary aspiration.

The white Isaac is so disgusted by his ancestor’s crimes that he relinquishes his inheritance, makes many attempts to pay his black relatives their share of the patrimony, and becomes a simple carpenter in conscious imitation of “the Nazarene.” In a long argument with his cousin and surrogate father, Cass, he theorizes that God’s design necessitated not only the founding of America but also its violent purgation in the Civil War to purify botched humanity through suffering. As opposed to the racist sheriff’s deputy of “Pantaloon in Black,” who frankly declares his belief that black people “aint human,” Isaac judges thusly: “They are better than we are. Stronger than we are.” He recognizes his place in a universal brotherhood irrespective of race, claiming kinship with “not only the whites but the black one too, who were as much a part of his ancestry as his white progenitors.” To a northern black man who marries his cousin, he pleads:

‘Dont you see?’ he cried. ‘Dont you see? This whole land, the whole South, is cursed, and all of us who derive from it, whom it ever suckled, white and black both, lie under the curse? Granted that my people brought the curse onto the land: maybe for that reason, their descendants alone can—not resist it, not combat it—maybe just endure and outlast it until the curse is lifted. Then your peoples’ turn will come because we have forfeited ours. But not now. Not yet. Dont you see?’

Note the “not now.” Isaac, like Faulkner, is not a programmatic liberal or leftist. The “not now” theme is echoed in the penultimate story, “Delta Autumn,” where an elderly Isaac is confronted with the failed interracial relationship of another white McCaslin scion and thinks, “Maybe in a thousand or two thousand years in America, he thought. But not now! Not now!

Faulkner, like Melville, is one of the only white American writers to have come out of the critique of the canon looking better than he looked before, because his attempt to undo racist ideology from the inside using experimental literary techniques was made legible by late-20th-century literary theories that went beyond New Critical hopes for textual and social wholeness. Yet Faulkner, also like Melville, had no political program. Isaac’s anguished guilt is preferable to the Confederate nostalgia that haunts other characters in this book, but it is an equivalently mythic attitude, and undeniably patronizing toward the objects of its charitable gaze. White people are enjoined to behave like Christ and black people patiently to “endure,” a solution inadequate to the complexities of the 20th century, even if its Christo-Gothic mythos of curses and atonements may secretly structure much official anti-racist discourse even in the present.

If neither Faulkner nor his hero provides a political answer to the problems they so astutely perceive, what recompense do they offer for the injuries of history? Besides the sentimental trope of the hearth, Go Down, Moses, its modernist stream-of-consciounsess infused with latter-day Romanticism, suggests two familiar salvations from organized social violence: nature and art. These are also violent, Faulkner suggests, but at least they are animated by values higher than greed for land or gold.

In “The Bear,” Isaac is initiated into manhood by going on an annual hunt. His mentor, another surrogate father figure, is the aptly named Sam Fathers, a man of mixed Chickasaw and black heritage, who baptizes Isaac in the blood of the hunt after the boy kills his first buck. The theme of the novella is their quest to bring down Old Ben, a quasi-legendary bear, with one paw wounded from a trap, who has so far evaded capture. Young Isaac attains almost preternatural hunting skill in his quest for the titular bear, but his desire to kill Old Ben should not be taken as an Ahab-like hostility toward or rage against nature; it is rather a kind of communion with the massive eternity, outside of human time and greed and generation, that nature is:

Then he saw the bear. It did not emerge, appear: it was just there, immobile, fixed in the green and windless noon’s hot dappling, not as big as he had dreamed it but as big as he had expected, bigger, dimensionless against the dappled obscurity, looking at him.

But the “big woods” Old Ben used to roam have been sold off to a timber company by the end of “The Bear.” Walking in the forest, Isaac finds the company’s corner-markers, subjecting “dimensionless” nature to the same measurements that served avarice and cursed the south in his ancestors’ time; he judges the concrete beams “lifeless and shockingly alien in that place where dissolution itself was a seething turmoil of ejaculation tumescence conception and birth, and death did not even exist.” The theme of death’s not existing because nature is a roiling eternity ever in flux is picked up shortly after this passage, when Isaac mediates on the graves of his former friends of the hunt, and thinks of the hunt’s continuance even after death:

…he had not stopped, he had only paused, quitting the knoll which was no abode of the dead because there was no death, not Lion and not Sam: not held fast in earth but free in earth and not in earth but of earth, myriad yet undiffused of every myriad part, leaf and twig and particle, air and sun and rain and dew and night, acorn oak and leaf and acorn again, dark and dawn and dark and dawn again in their immutable progression and, being myriad, one: and Old Ben too, Old Ben too; they would give him back his paw even, certainly they would give him his paw back; then the long challenge and the long chase, no heart to be driven and outraged, no flesh to be mauled and bled—

Faulkner’s own famous literary style, a heedless onrush of indifferently punctuated and sometimes agrammatical rhetoric, its ornate and sometimes confusing diction (“myriad yet undiffused of every myriad part”) meant to defeat ordinary sense, its endless sentences (one in “The Bear” goes on for five pages) meant to triumph over time, here finds its justification: I am only, implies the author, imitating nature itself, which also runs on and contains everything. Nature and art are at one. They need to be because more and more of nature is being eaten up by the profit motive in the postbellum south, leaving art as the only repository of values that are everywhere being degraded by the curse laid on the south by the greed of its white inhabitants.

Faulkner’s art, in effect, takes the place of nature. Note the echo in the passage quoted above of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” whose panting lover, pictured on the titular art object, is ever approaching his beloved but never will reach her, just as the bear, suspended after death in Faulkner’s narrative, always runs and never is caught. In the “cold pastoral” of art, cold because art freezes time, nature and its passions are preserved. Cass quotes Keats’s “Ode” to Isaac, making the point nearly explicit:

‘All right,’ he said. ‘Listen,’ and read again, but only one stanza this time and closed the book and laid it on the table. ‘She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,’ McCaslin said: ‘Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair.’

‘He’s talking about a girl,’ he said.

‘He had to talk about something,’ McCaslin said. Then he said, ‘He was talking about truth. Truth is one. It doesn’t change. It covers all things which touch the heart—honor and pride and pity and justice and courage and love.’

That is how such a complex aesthetic artifact as this novel-in-stories allies itself to raw and wild nature: both sustain “all the things which touch the heart” in a world more often characterized by the heartlessness of civilized exploitation and oppression.

If I have enumerated the literary and political significance of Go Down, Moses above, this Keatsian humanism gives it its more basic emotional moment, and may explain more than anything the novel’s continuing influence. In just the last 12 months, I have read three contemporary American novels that almost overtly borrow from it: Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing, Toni Morrison’s Paradise, and Louise Erdrich’s The Plague of Doves. Any old novel with so diverse and distinguished a legacy as that demands to be read.


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Ernest Hemingway, The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories

Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other StoriesSnows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories by Ernest Hemingway

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Hemingway used to be overrated and is now if anything underrated. Once venerated for promoting a code of restrained masculine heroism forged in war, he is now execrated by the ideologists of “toxic masculinity.” Neither variant of gender politics, however, provides an answer to the question of whether or not his works are any good.

The Snows of Kilimanjaro offers a convenient opportunity for a literary reappraisal of Hemingway’s stylings. The book is a brief showcase of Hemingway’s short fiction published in 1961—the year of the author’s death—though almost all the stories in the collection, some of the author’s most famous, appeared in the modernist decades of the 1920s and ’30s.

The title story, first published in 1938, and “The Short Happy Life of Frances Macomber” (1936)—two expansive tales of white men on safari in Africa—bookend the shorter stories that make up the middle of the collection. These shorter stories are the most “Hemingwayesque.” Like their dual inspirations in high and low culture—Imagist poetry, journalism, perhaps even early radio and talkie cinema—their narratives are pared down to just the telling detail and their stories are conveyed mostly in dialogue. Moreover, the dialogues are never straightforward; characters only imply what they mean, they talk past each other, they repeat themselves, they circle difficult subjects. Above all they try never to disclose what they feel, even as the means they use to conceal their affect only heightens attention to their anguished inner lives.

The self-enclosed tough-guy universes Hemingway writes about, from the armies of the Great War to the criminal underworld to the culture of sport, are ruled by codes of decorum as inflexible as anything in the epicene cosmos of Henry James’s transatlantic upper class. James’s dictum for the fiction writer to “dramatize” rather than employing the expository narration that dominated in the novel from Walter Scott to George Eliot fits Hemingway’s subject matter as much as it fit James’s.

“The Killers” (1927) is the classic example. In this famous story, Hemingway’s alter ego Nick Adams is working in a diner when two hired hitmen come in to wait for a boxer they plan to murder. Most of The story’s suspense is created by the evasive dialogue of the titular killers. Empty patter occupies our attention while we wait for an “orgastic” (to borrow from Fitzgerald) climax that that may or may not come. As a number of other critics have noted, all of Tarantino comes out of this story:

“Well, bright boy,” Max said, looking into the mirror, “why don’t you say something?”

“What’s it all about?”

“Hey, Al,” Max called, “bright boy wants to know what it’s all about.”

“Why don’t you tell him?” Al’s voice came from the kitchen.

“What do you think it’s all about?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you think?”

Max looked into the mirror all the time he was talking.

“I wouldn’t say.”

“Hey, Al, bright boy says he wouldn’t say what he thinks it’s all about.”

Another classic example of the “Hemingwayesque” can be found in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” (1933), a beautiful mood piece about a late-night cafe and the pleasures and sorrows of urban alienation, about the need for a “third place” (neither home nor work) to go to be alone among strangers and stave off the nihilism that descends on us all from time to time:

“I am of those who like to stay late at the cafe,” the older waiter said.

“With all those who do not want to go to bed. With all those who need a light for the night.”

“I want to go home and into bed.”

“We are of two different kinds,” the older waiter said. He was now dressed to go home. “It is not only a question of youth and confidence although those things are very beautiful. Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be some one who needs the cafe.”

“Hombre, there are bodegas open all night long.”

“You do not understand. This is a clean and pleasant cafe. It is well lighted. The light is very good and also, now, there are shadows of the leaves.”

The longer stories in this pared-down and dialogue-driven vein, such as “The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio” (first published in this collection) and “Fifty Grand” (1927), strike me as less successful. Hemingway’s techniques pursued at length come to seem gimmicky, especially with third-person narration where you can’t explain the distinctive style as the narrator’s essential voice (as you can with Jake Barnes: this is why The Sun Also Rises is so effective). As well, the stories that lavish the “Hemingwayesque” on traditionally sentimental subjects, such as the Nick Adams tale “Fathers and Sons” (1933), make one wonder that this variant of modernism was ever thought anti-sentimental when it is only another route to the tearjerker.

The technique is also dispiritingly easy to historicize—we can just arrogate this way of writing to the Age of Freud and its theses on repression. Because Hemingway provides so little beyond bare narrative and dialogue and the rather simple emotions they imply, his stories are unable to circumscribe the contemporaneous ideas that would explain and contain them within any larger context of their own. This is one difference between major work and minor work. Faulkner, with his ever unreliable narrators and opacities of grand language, is able to throw back in the critic’s face the ultimate futility of explaining anything. Can Hemingway’s work do the same? A writer needs a total vision; Hemingway, unfortunately, had only a total style.

The two stories that begin and end the collection are larger than the stories they encompass, and both take us further afield—to the hunting grounds of eastern Africa where rich white men go to live the “strenuous life” on safari with their trophy wives. This is an experience more difficult to relate to or to admire—for me at least!—and I found the claustrophobia of the Hemingway hero’s straitened consciousness all the more confining for the African vista it here commands.

Nevertheless, the title story’s authorial surrogate Harry, dying of gangrene, is the occasion for some poignant recollections of both the war and of shell shock in ex-pat interwar Paris, as if providing a little digest of modernist living. You also get a glimpse of a Hemingway who is less remarked these days: the man of the Left:

Around that Place there were two kinds; the drunkards and the sportifs. The drunkards killed their poverty that way; the sportifs took it out in exercise. They were the descendants of the Communards and it was no struggle for them to know their politics. They knew who had shot their fathers, their relatives, their brothers, and their friends when the Versailles troops came in and took the town after the Commune and executed any one they could catch with calloused hands, or who wore a cap, or carried any other sign he was a working man. And in that poverty, and in that quarter across the street from a Boucherie Chevaline and a wine cooperative he had written the start of all he was to do. There never was another part of Paris that he loved like that, the sprawling trees, the old white plastered houses painted brown below, the long green of the autobus in that round square, the purple flower dye upon the paving, the sudden drop down the hill of the rue Cardinal Lemoine to the River, and the other way the narrow crowded world of the rue Mouffetard. The street that ran up toward the Pantheon and the other that he always took with the bicycle, the only asphalted street in all that quarter, smooth under the tires, with the high narrow houses and the cheap tall hotel where Paul Verlaine had died. There were only two rooms in the apartments where they lived and he had a room on the top floor of that hotel that cost him sixty francs a month where he did his writing, and from it he could see the roofs and chimney pots and all the hills of Paris.

“The Short Happy Life of Frances Macomber” (1936), about a love triangle on safari among a callow rich American, his actress wife, and a British “white hunter” who leads his clients on the hunt, is a brilliantly constructed tale of masculine initiation and dissolution. This dissolution—that is, the end of the initiation in futile death—calls the story’s polemically male ethos into question and serves to cut its fairly flagrant misogyny with a bit of irony.

Be a damn fire eater now. He’d seen it in the war work the same way. More of a change than any loss of virginity. Fear gone like an operation. Something else grew in its place. Main thing a man had. Made him into a man. Women knew it too. No bloody fear.

So how good is Hemingway’s work? As a primer on basic techniques for relieving fictional narrative of extraneous details or emotions, it is superb; as a guide to the inner lives of the men of a certain generation—and these men, it should be said, suffered enormously in and as a result of the Great War, a fact often neglected in today’s sometimes flip dismissal of “white male” etc.—it remains moving and helpful. On the other hand, there are writers of the same era—I think of a variety from Joyce to Cather—who were able to do what Hemingway could and also much more. Rated at his proper value, and to use a military idiom he might appreciate, he is a writer of the second rank.


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Philip Roth, Goodbye, Columbus

Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short StoriesGoodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories by Philip Roth

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

She walked away and around the oak tree. When she appeared again she’d stepped out of her shoes and held one hand on the tree, as though it were a Maypole she were circling.
—Philip Roth, Goodbye, Columbus (1959)

Just then, as if a spell had loosened them, down came a little shower of withering rose leaves from the May-Pole. Alas, for the young lovers! No sooner had their hearts glowed with real passion, than they were sensible of something vague and unsubstantial in their former pleasures, and felt a dreary presentiment of inevitable change. From the moment that they truly loved, they had subjected themselves to earth’s doom of care, and sorrow, and troubled joy, and had no more a home at Merry Mount.
—Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The May-Pole of Merrymount” (1832)

Among the nineteenth-century New England literati who form of the core of the classic tradition in American literature, Hawthorne is the patron saint of the second- or third- or fourth-generation writer—any writer whose forebears migrated to this country with one or another stern faith and a ferocious capitalist work ethic, just the combination to make those immigrant ancestors understandably disgusted when they find they have somehow spawned dreamy, perverse sons and daughters who would rather explore the possibilities of human nature and live experimental lives than venerate the household gods or do an honest day’s labor. In “The Custom-House,” the Preface to The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne, forced to get what my relatives call “a real job” by economic need, imagines his Puritan ancestors’ judgment on his true vocation, that of novelist and short story writer:

“What is he?” murmurs one gray shadow of my forefathers to the other. “A writer of story-books! What kind of a business in life,—what mode of glorifying God, or being serviceable to mankind in his day and generation,—may that be? Why, the degenerate fellow might as well have been a fiddler!” Such are the compliments bandied between my great-grandsires and myself, across the gulf of time! And yet, let them scorn me as they will, strong traits of their nature have intertwined themselves with mine.

At least Hawthorne’s forebears were long dead, and he only imagined their reproach: some of us have to hear it, still, in the flesh. But as the concluding sentence of the quotation allows, such writers as Hawthorne understand that something in their immigrant ancestors’ grim view of life is true, truer than the meliorism of settled, satisfied classes. That, in a sense, our rebellion against them reprises their flight to America, their quest for some other, better way to be.

Philip Roth was, strange to say, a Hawthorne of the late twentieth century. And Roth understood it, as the reference to the maypole in his first book, Goodbye, Columbus, demonstrates, along with the name of the rebel daughter, Merry, in American Pastoral. It’s true that nobody in Hawthorne ever fucked a liver or jacked off over his mistress’s grave, but in Roth and in Hawthorne the heroes seek—and invariably find—the limits of our American freedom, shadowed all the while by the gloom of their immigrant ancestry.

The final story in Goodbye, Columbus, “Eli, the Fanatic,” even re-writes “The Minister’s Black Veil.” It is set in a prosperous midcentury suburb populated by Jewish and Protestant professionals steeped in modern expertise from psychoanalysis to all the accoutrements of the ’50s home. At the edge of this community, Orthodox Jewish refugees from Europe have set up a Yeshiva school, and Eli, an attorney, is dispatched by the alarmed suburbanites to use zoning laws to run out those whom they consider unsightly fanatics. But Eli is unaccountably transformed by his encounter with the “blackness” of both the refugees’ traditions and their suffering and ends up donning the black Orthodox garb himself, which renders him a madman in the eyes of his bright suburban neighbors.

Roth, whom you might expect to puncture the conservatism of the Orthodox, here defends them against the merciless philistinism of the middle-minded Americans, one of whom protests against giving his daughter a religious education because the story of Abraham (“‘Today a guy like that they’d lock him up'”) gave his daughter nightmares! Such censoriousness from any quarter and with whatever justification is always disgusting, because it evades the “blackness” that has seeped from the exigencies of history into Eli.

With these ideas in mind, we can turn to the collection’s famous title novella. A work of extraordinary economy and precision—a model to the writing student, as Emily Gould notes—it portrays a failed love affair over the course of one summer between Neil Klugman and Brenda Patimkin. Brenda’s family has grown rich and moved out of working-class Newark to a better address, while Neil still lives in the old neighborhood with his aunt Gladys. This class conflict is more a subtext than the story’s explicit source of conflict: the Patimkins seem to tolerate Neil, even if they are occasionally knowing about his lower status; Mr. Patimkin even appreciates Neil’s greater proximity to Jewish life:

“Here you need a little of the gonif in you. You know what that means? Gonif?”

“Thief,” I said.

“You know more than my own kids. They’re goyim, my kids, that’s how much they understand.”

Brenda, a character of lovable complexity, is never more the spoiled rich girl than in her conflicts with her mother, while Neil at times seems to sympathize with Mrs. Patimkin, as her character was forged by struggles he understands but Brenda does not. Meanwhile, Neil’s aunt Gladys is a beautiful loving comic sketch of a certain type—I don’t think you have to be exclusively Jewish to recognize her, to hear the intonation of her voice in your own head, but you do have to have been around the old twentieth-century immigrant neighborhoods at some point in your life, as I was in my childhood.

Even as Neil enjoys his entrée into upper-class living, he works in the Newark Public Library where he forms a kind of friendship with a black boy who comes in on his summer vacation to look at book of Gaugin’s paintings. The phrase “goodbye, Columbus” has a double provenance in the text: it is intoned on a commemorative record given to Brenda’s brother upon his graduation from Ohio State, but it also appears in a dream of Neil’s wherein he and the black boy from the library are setting out from Gaugin’s Tahiti while the women on shore shout, “Goodbye, Columbus.” The real discoverers of America are not the upwardly mobile and the assimilated, we may take this to mean, but the outcasts, whether on grounds of race or sensibility, the indigenes of art. Art, as all its serious practitioners are aware, is not the same as doing whatever you please; certainly the monkish Roth—a writer all the way down, per Zadie Smith’s tribute—did not think so.

It is sex, which will become Roth’s great topic, that drives Neil and Brenda apart. Roth was and is often mistaken, by censorious sensibilities both religious/conservative and feminist/liberal, for a mere libertine, but he is not, no more than is Hawthorne. In Hawthorne’s great early story about the maypole, two gangs of extremists face off with a newlywed couple between them: the extremist pleasure-seekers of Merrymount and the extremist Calvinists of Massachusetts Bay. Both are mistaken in their exaggerations. Contra the revelers, life is not and cannot be pure pleasure, pure freedom—once you make any commitment, whether to a discipline or to another person, you are necessarily constrained. Contra the theocrats, however, commitments should not be imposed externally but must be freely chosen. Real freedom is when you are at liberty to choose that to which you will be bound.

Neil and Brenda are, on these grounds, ambiguous figures, and Roth is not obviously on the male’s side: the crisis in their relationship comes when he urges her to get a diaphragm, which her mother discovers. If there is a polemic here against the Patimkins’ punitive or puritanical respectability, there is also a disturbing element in Neil’s possessiveness and control. The couple never earnestly and openly discusses the innate difficulties of their relationship, and Neil’s insistence on the diaphragm is his way of finding a shortcut to a premarital commitment. By the end, we don’t know quite what to think, though we have been given much to think about. It is part of the iron discipline of art that the artist not choose sides.

All well and theoretical, but the pleasures of this novella are as much in description and motif as in theme and thesis. Read it for the fruit, the swimming pool, the sweat; read it for Roth’s first attempt to put all of Newark into language. And then read the rest of this book for its controversial short stories, comic allegories of culture clash and individuation, the first works to put Roth in the eye of the censors, who wanted and want a clear statement of virtue from the books they read. But in Roth, as in Hawthorne, the authorial self-control necessary to refuse resolution, to refuse to choose among America’s divided legacies, is the clearest statement of all. The point is to leave readers free to embrace whatever destiny is theirs. It is an honorable tradition to join—certainly the most honorable I have personally discovered in America—and Roth was and will remain a model practitioner of the art.


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Louise Erdrich, Love Medicine

Love Medicine: Deluxe Modern ClassicLove Medicine: Deluxe Modern Classic by Louise Erdrich

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Browsing in a library the other day, I came upon a reference—in I don’t recall which book by I don’t recall which author—to the idea of a real novelist, as opposed to a novelist whose primary interests are moral or ideological (I believe the examples of the latter were Camus and/or Baldwin). I would not want to make a hard rule out of this, because it would too decisively separate intellect from art; while maybe Camus or Baldwin (or Orwell or Kundera) could be said to write novels whose thick themes are imperfectly joined to the thin fiction meant to realize them, you could not say the same of, for example, the best novels of Eliot, Dostoevsky, Mann, Ellison, Bellow, or Ozick, in which art and idea are all of one piece.

Even at that, though, I know a real novelist when I see one, and Louise Erdrich is a real novelist. Switching my metaphor, the genuine novelist breathes in her element, can live forever in her imagined universe, and never need surface to a higher medium of justification—politics, morals, religion. Which is not to say that Erdrich’s first novel, Love Medicine (1984; revised edition 2009), has no politics or religion; it has plenty, but they are wholly immanent to the story she wants to tell. They are visible in the lives of the characters instead of being insisted upon by the narrator or overtly wrought into an allegorical plot by the author.

To summarize Love Medicine would be pointless, as I would have to explicate the family tree adorning the spread before the novel’s first page, and to fully explain the family tree, I would more or less have to rewrite the whole book. (As I once noted of Elizabeth Bishop, one of the tricks literature likes to play is to cause us to think we are reading the map when we are actually traversing the territory; this makes sense if you consider literature to be a form of expression that is constitutionally hostile to abstraction, a lapse in which hostility may be the definitive feature of the ideological as opposed to the genuine novelist.) Suffice it to say that Love Medicine narrates the complex interrelations, from the 1930s to the 1980s, among several families (the Lamartines, the Pillagers, and the Kashpaws) on an Ojibwe reservation and environs in North Dakota and Minnesota. But “narrates” might be the wrong word, as the novel’s characters mostly narrate their stories for themselves in a set of linked short stories that make up the book, itself only the opening episode of what the jacket copy calls Erdrich’s “Native American series.”

The novel-in-stories (what Ted Gioia has called “the fragmented novel”) has its potential pitfalls—done poorly, it so disperses our attention that no one character or story stands out, thus diffusing the entire novel. But its advantage, shown superbly by Erdrich’s performance here, is that it can allow the novelist, especially if she is writing a family saga, to forego reams of plodding explanatory narration, of the kind that afflicted the nineteenth-century novel with its longueurs. Erdrich instead keeps the characters in constant motion while requiring the reader’s attentive participation in constructing the whole pattern of relation suggested by the fragmented plot. That may sound like an arcane description of technique, but it just an attempt to explain (abstractly, that is, non-literarily) why Erdrich’s stories are both exciting and discrete narratives in themselves—often wildly varying in tone, style, and theme—even as they add up to a coherent novel, and, I assume, even a mega-novel formed by the other books in the series.

Erdrich organizes Love Medicine around an absence: the novel begins with the last night on earth of June Morrissey, as she meets her death by walking into a snowstorm back toward the reservation after a loveless assignation with a trucker that marks the culmination of failed escape to city life. June’s death is the vortex the novel swirls around, as Erdrich, after the first chapter, goes back to the early twentieth century to tell the whole story of the family matrix in which June was formed before ending with the coming-of-age of June’s son.

Love Medicine‘s absent-center construction embodies its theme, as the novel is a lament over the passing of a more intense and spiritual age, which it only partially identifies with traditional Ojibwe culture. The older generation who were immersed in that culture, represented by the characters Rushes Bear and Moses Pillager, are somewhat distant spiritual authorities and guides for a younger generation adrift in an ugly, impoverished post-Vietnam and Reagan-era America. The novel has a strong Catholic presence as well (reflecting Erdrich’s dual heritage), and, while the Catholics are portrayed more ambivalently than the older generation of Ojibwe—the second chapter features a sadistic nun who makes the priests in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man look like models of enlightened thinking—Catholicism itself is ultimately honored as a source of visionary experience and spiritual energy. In mode, the novel tends to alternate between passages of romantic intensity, often associated with the past, and passages of very 1980s “dirty realism,” though often leavened by gritty comedy, used to describe the narrative present of persistent poverty, incarceration, and alcoholism, as David Treuer, censuring overly identitarian critics of the novel from his own doubled perspective as modernist aesthete and Ojibwe scion, points out in Native American Fiction: A User’s Manual:

The metaphoric language…provides a metaphoric wash that is applied liberally over the past, giving it a special antique tint. The past becomes, not larger than life, but larger than modern life, which is crabbed and cramped and impoverished.

Unlike some other great writers in the era of high multiculturalism, such as Heaney, Morrison, or Walcott, Erdrich does not seem to trade in a politics of nation, race, ethnicity or even cultural exclusivity. The novel’s main white character, Marie Lazarre, marries into the Kashpaw family and becomes one of the narrative’s central moral authorities; she seems to gain the respect of her mother-in-law, Rushes Bear, in part because she has since childhood been a kind of Catholic visionary. Not only that, but the “love medicine” of the title is ambivalently and somewhat farcically portrayed in the book’s second half, as if Erdrich wished to hedge on authentic magic’s capacity to survive in the degraded present, for anyone, Indian or otherwise. Finally, the novel often emphasizes the class of its characters, white and Indian, as they are left impoverished in the upper Midwest by distant, hostile economic and political forces.

I could criticize Love Medicine. Like all novels-in-stories, it probably does not impress its characters on us sufficiently, as they make fleeting impressions without being present to us over a long duration. Like much fiction that relies on the quirky voices of first-person narrators, it can at times feel forced or gimmicky. It also sometimes descends, in trying to represent states of religious transport or sexual ecstasy or incipient madness, to a vague and portentous lyricism that for too many readers has come to define “literary fiction”:

Her look was black and endless and melting pure. She looked through him. She saw into the troubled thrashing woods of him, a railing thicket of bones.

Erdrich’s fictional world, though, is large enough to dissipate objection. In command of the novelist’s demiurgic power, she has her people up and walking around in a three-dimensional landscape and, for the most part, you will just want to listen to what they say and watch what they do. More than that, Love Medicine, though often comic, beautifully expresses the longing of its characters to escape its own grim confines. Rising above realism without the aid of outright fantasy, it hints at a fourth dimension above—or suffusing—the three of “reality.” It is more ecumenical about the modes of escape—including sex and death, as well as traditional Catholic and Ojibwe lifeways (though not the false exit of alcoholism)—than its reputation as a particularly “ethnic” novel would suggest. It is, because and not in spite of its commitment to the local, a twentieth-century novel through and through: it demands that there must be more than what the modern world has left its characters with when it confiscated their gods, but unable to believe fully in what that more might be. The narrative is the movement the characters—and the author—make when they stretch toward the beyond of a squalid realism:

How come we’ve got these bodies? They are frail supports for what we feel. There are times I get so homed in by my arms and legs I look forward to getting past them. As though death will set me free like a traveling cloud. I’ll get past the ragged leaves that dead bum of my youth looked into. I’ll be out there as a piece of the endless body of the world feeling pleasures so much larger than skin and bones and blood.

Perhaps all genuine novelists, when they are unencumbered by the weight of conviction, are able to make this movement. Such more-than-realism is as close as we can get to isolating the real of the real novel.


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Herman Melville, The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids

The Paradise of Bachelors and The Tartarus of Maids (Annotated Edition)The Paradise of Bachelors and The Tartarus of Maids by Herman Melville

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After re-reading Moby-Dick, I decided to revisit this remarkable short story (or diptych of sketches) as well. Originally published in Harper’s in 1855, it is one of Melville’s lesser-known works, not included in his 1856 collection The Piazza Tales, though today you can find it in the Norton Anthology of American Literature, where I read it. An intricate juxtaposition of two extremes—the wealth and leisure of unmarried men (paradise), the poverty and labor of unmarried women (tartarus, or hell)—the story seems to be an attack on social inequality in its economic and sexual manifestations, but a careful reading suggests that it is something more and less radical than that.

In the first sketch, we are treated to an elaborate description of a cloistral neighborhood in the heart of the City of London (near the Temple Bar and the Inns of Court) mainly inhabited by lawyers and other gentlemen of elite profession (literary men, scholars), all of them unmarried, this in contrast to the harried journalists of nearby Fleet Street, called “Benedicks”—i.e., henpecked husbands—by the narrator. These bachelors, the narrator explains in a tone of ironic exuberance, are the modern-day equivalent of the Knights Templar:

Like the years before the flood, the bold Knights-Templars are no more. Nevertheless, the name remains, and the nominal society, and the ancient grounds, and some of the ancient edifices. But the iron heel is changed to a boot of patent-leather; the long two-handed sword to a one-handed quill; the monk-giver of gratuitous ghostly counsel now counsels for a fee; the defender of the sarcophagus (if in good practice with his weapon) now has more than one case to defend; the vowed opener and clearer of all highways leading to the Holy Sepulchre, now has it in particular charge to check, to clog, to hinder, and embarrass all the courts and avenues of Law; the knight-combatant of the Saracen, breasting spear- points at Acre, now fights law-points in Westminster Hall. The helmet is a wig. Struck by Time’s enchanter’s Wand, the Templar is to-day a Lawyer.

This story, as you will see, works in a persistent idiom of double entendre, so we should understand the transition from iron to patent-leather footwear and sword to quill to imply a diminution or at least softening in the phallus.

Most of the remainder of the first sketch is taken up by a dinner the narrator shared with nine of these bachelors. The elaborate meal is described in the mock-epic terms of an army’s advance punctuated by frequent drinking, with different dishes standing in for different military ranks (roast beef is “the English generalissimo”), an analogy of comic incongruity emphasizing the decay of a warrior caste—a “band of brothers,” to quote a Shakespeareanism used in the story—into a company of pleasure-loving idea men. Melville’s satire is not directed at the worldly goods the men enjoy per se, as if good wine, fine architecture, and scholarship were merely effete preoccupations to be scorned. My point is that Melville’s irony is ever-present but gentle, skeptical but not corrosive: there is real pleasure and conviviality to this story—I was reminded of a humanistic English Renaissance poem like Ben Jonson’s “Inviting a Friend to Supper”—and it is not a Rousseauist or Tolstoyan attack on civilization as an incorrigible stew of hypocritical corruption.

But when we turn to “The Tartarus of Maids” we find the underside and upholder of civilization, scholarship, and all fine living: women’s labor, in every sense. The second sketch, unlike the first, is almost overbearingly allegorical, as the narrator travels through a hallucinatory New England rural landscape near Woedolor Mountain, his elaborated description of which evokes female genitalia and whose rustic landmarks sound like dirty and misogynistic euphemisms for the same (“Mad Maid Bellows’-pipe,” “Black Notch,” “Devil’s Dungeon,” “Blood River”). Resembling a “feudal, Rhineland and Thurmberg” scene, this is an American Gothic setting; in Melville’s compelling political paradox, calling the whole American experiment into doubt, the urban bachelors of Old England have escaped medieval times and converted its trappings to more modern conveniences, while the rustics of New England still inhabit the Middle Ages.

The narrator soon arrives at a paper mill where pale women are worked incessantly by a frightful male overseer. Granted a tour of the premises by a boy named Cupid, he watches the process by which the paper is made—a process described, not least in having the avatar of erotic love as its conveyance, so as to resemble pregnancy and childbirth (for instance, it takes exactly nine minutes). As he watches the women at the machines, the narrator is horrified by the way humanity’s seeming inventions have enslaved us:

But what made the thing I saw so specially terrible to me was the metallic necessity, the unbudging fatality which governed it. Though, here and there, I could not follow the thin, gauzy vail of pulp in the course of its more mysterious or entirely invisible advance, yet it was indubitable that, at those points where it eluded me, it still marched on in unvarying docility to the autocratic cunning of the machine.

The narrator, who also narrated “The Paradise of Bachelors,” cannot help but contrast the sumptuous civilization of the barristers and literary men in London with the laboring plight of these unmarried women, horrifically pale (like the whiteness of Melville’s whale, their pallor is the “colorless all-color of atheism”—signifying nothing, in short).

As with “The Paradise of Bachelors,” we are not reading a simple social critique written by someone who imagines a political solution to the problems he (correctly) observes. The narrator, we learn at the second sketch’s beginning, is a “seeds-man” who has come to the paper factory to purchase envelopes in which to mail his seeds. With its genital landscape and allusions to Dante, the story is so inviting of an allegorical interpretation that we should not hesitate to identify this odd occupation with that more common one of the writer, who uses paper to disseminate not his genetic but his memetic seed. The bachelor life of London—to which he is only a visitor—as well as the smallest means of his literary work depend on the exploitation he witnesses in the factory. Even so, this is not a reformist tearjerker by Charles Dickens or Rebecca Harding Davis: the factory and its machinery are also a metaphor for biological fatality, the reproduction of bodies by bodies, the burden of which falls upon women and which is contrasted to the reproduction of ideas indulged in by men of leisure, especially those unencumbered by wives and children. The artificial machinery is modeled on the natural machinery; where does humanity’s inhumanity come from if not from (mother) nature or (father) God? In which case, to whom can we appeal but to those deities?

Melville is not only attacking a particular state of socio-political affairs, but, like Captain Ahab, he is arraigning the entire cosmos out of which our socio-political affairs emanate; it is the cosmos that will have to be reformed if life is to be made more equitable, if bachelors and literary men are not to feed on the coerced labor of pallid maids. As I wrote above, this story is both extremely radical and not radical at all, in the sense that it identifies extremes of grim truth underlying everyday life even as it implies that little besides actually altering human biology or nature itself can be done to remediate the hideous injustice of human affairs—from which the narrator (and his author) so scrupulously demonstrate themselves to be the beneficiaries. This story allows its gentle irony to co-exist with its guilty fear, its sensuous pleasures with its soulful despair—life contains all this, Melville says, and its beauties and its monstrosities are inextricably intertwined. The key phrase in the story’s final sentence is “inscrutable nature.” This is a very unsettling work of literature.

It is easy to damn the heretic, but what, really, can the pious tell us about why the universe is arranged so poorly? And it is easy to scorn the aesthete, but what, really, can the reformer do about the universe?


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Published: “White Girl”

My short story, “White Girl,” which I had thought too controversial to be published even before it took on a new and ghastly relevance this summer, appears in the first issue of the brand-new (and especially beautiful) Amaranth Review. You can read the inaugural issue in its entirety here; my story starts on page 70. Its first sentence:

My father was a cop. That’s why I had to shoot him.

“White Girl” is a short story in the form of a confession about the political assassination of a police officer by his own daughter. While I wrote it about two years ago out of a sense of looming civil strife, I did not imagine that it would be published in a summer when something like the violence it describes is actually occuring. Just to be on the safe side, let me be clear that I am in no way endorsing such violence (my own belief is that so-called revolutionary or radical violence usually either reinforces whatever authority it presumes to oppose or turns its perpetrators into just the kind of people they set out to resist).

My purpose was to investigate through fiction what it might look like if some of the merely verbal radicalism that circulates today were to be taken with absolute seriousness; and to portray with fictional vividness (and a certain defamiliarization) a new social type, so far inadequately labelled as “the social justice warrior,” a fascinating Internet-age amalgam of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s or Charles Dickens’s sentimental, domestic, middle-class woman and the Dostoevskean-Conradian-DeLilloesque male gnostic terrorist.

So please read it if you like, and share it if you enjoy it!

Yukio Mishima, Patriotism

PatriotismPatriotism by Yukio Mishima

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the twentieth century’s most renowned stories or novellas, Mishima’s Patriotism of 1960 narrates the ritual suicide of Lieutenant Takeyama and his wife Reiko following a mutiny in the Japanese Imperial Army in 1936. The lieutenant’s friends are the rebellion’s leaders, though they have excluded him from their plans, because, he speculates, of his recent marriage to the young Reiko. But Takeyama concludes that he can neither fight against his comrades nor join their rebellion—his last act before suicide is to write a note affirming loyalty: “Long live the Imperial Forces”—and so he chooses seppuku, and his wife chooses to accompany him.

The paragraph above gives nothing away: the entire plot is told in the story’s own first paragraph, a journalistic recitation of the facts in the case. The remaining pages elaborate on those facts, and it is the manner of Mishima’s elaboration that discloses his values and sensibility. Biographically speaking, Mishima was a nationalist and reactionary; he himself committed seppuku following a failed rebellion in 1970, echoing this story’s events. Though I have long known him by reputation, this is the first work of his that I’ve read, and I am extremely impressed.

It might be considered strange than this story is so popular and renowned. I didn’t read it in this particular edition, as listed on Goodreads; I read the same translation (Sargent’s apparently is the only English version) in an old 1980s intro-to-lit-style textbook that I pulled from the free shelf at the college where I teach. Aside from Yeats, Pound, and maybe one or two others, Mishima is the only author of the extreme right in the book—and Yeats and Pound are represented by superficially apolitical poems, whereas Patriotism is a song of self-annihilating ecstasy, an entranced prose-poem in favor of nationalist love-death, of the subsumption of woman in man and man in nation (or, failing that, in oblivion). Why should Mishima have fared better, especially with this story, than most other artists of reaction, who have largely been marginalized by liberal civilization?

First and most importantly, Patriotism is beautifully written, a quality that comes through even in the translation’s slightly stiff English. Mishima writes with grace and control as he leads us through the lieutenant and Reiko’s preparations for death. After the opening chapter’s recitation of events and the second chapter’s similarly summary style, which gives us the history of the couple’s brief marriage, the story proceeds essentially in real time—it doesn’t take much longer to read than its events would take to accomplish. The lieutenant and Reiko bathe, and then, at the center of the story, they make passionate love, love made all the more ecstatic due to death’s proximity. Mishima’s prose is precise, metaphorical, and elevated in register:

The natural hollow curving between the bosom and the stomach carried in its lines a suggestion not only of softness but of resilient strength, and while it gave forewarning to the rich curves spreading outward from here to the hips it had, in itself, an appearance only of restraint and proper discipline. The whiteness and richness of the stomach and hips was like milk brimming in a great bowl, and the sharply shadowed dip of the navel could have been the fresh impress of a raindrop, fallen there that very moment.

The long scene of the lieutenant’s suicide is even more remarkable, as Mishima, without ever breaking the story’s heightened tone, depicts the scatological horror involved in slicing through one’s own midsection:

But, suddenly stricken by a fit of vomiting, the lieutenant cried out hoarsely. The vomiting made the fierce pain even fiercer still, and the stomach, which had thus far remained firm and compact, now abruptly heaved, opening wide its wound, and the entrails burst through, as if the wound too were vomiting. Seemingly ignoarnt of their master’s suffering, the entrails gave an impression of robust health and almost disagreeable vitality as they slipped smoothly out and spilled over the crotch. The lieutenant’s head dropped, his shoulders heaved, his eyes opened to narrow slits, and a thin trickle of saliva dribbled from his mouth. The gold markings on his epaulettes caught the light and glinted.

Mishima may write best from Reiko’s viewpoint, however. Patriotism is of course noxious to the gender ideology of liberal capitalism, but Mishima’s sympathy with the young wife is nevertheless absolute, enabling postmodern readers to understand her self-conception (or lack thereof) even as they recoil from it:

Ever since her marriage her husband’s existence had been her own existence, and every breath of his had been a breath drawn by herself. But now, while her husband’s existence in pain was a vivid reality, Reiko could find in this grief of hers no certain proof of her own existence.

This brings me to the second reason to value Patriotism: the thoroughness and clarity of Mishima’s writing has a conceptual dimension. The dominant view of the arts in America today is that any given work should promote some kind of communal, pro-social values, whether those of the left or the right. But another argument says that art is a way to explore with sympathy every potential of human nature, necessarily including those we may have rejected for perfectly good reasons. To read Patriotism is to understand not only what a man of Mishima’s sensibility believed, but why and how he lived that belief. This is literature’s contribution to knowledge, and Patriotism contributes richly.

Finally, though, literature must have some irony or ambivalence—otherwise it is disposable, mere propaganda or pornography. Patriotism dances with both propaganda and pornography, but the hesitations are there to be read too. (This kind of observation is liberal criticism’s revenge on fascist art, it should be said.) I will end with the story’s chief ambiguity. Perhaps the nuances of the political context are insufficiently clear to me, but doesn’t the main situation of the story call into question the title? Despite the lieutenant’s loyalty to the Imperial Army, professed as his dying declaration, his suicide is not straightforwardly patriotic; straightforward patriotism would involve making a decision and acting on it, choosing either the Imperial Army’s or the mutineers’ vision of what Japan should be and trying to realize it. Patriotism may secretly avow a different devotion: Death may be the patria to which the lieutenant—and Reiko; and Mishima—are most loyal.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Marie NDiaye, All My Friends

All My FriendsAll My Friends by Marie NDiaye

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

[With Marie NDiaye’s Ladivine all the rage and some claiming that the French author is about to have a Ferrante-like breakthrough in the U.S., I thought I would post here my 2013 review of NDiaye’s story collection, All My Friends; it also considers her novel Three Strong Women at length. I have not read Ladivine yet, but I hope to do so. This first appeared in print in The Rain Taxi Review of Books.]

Prolific and celebrated French author Marie NDiaye—she published her first novel at age nineteen and in 2009 became the first black woman to win France’s highest literary honor, the Prix Goncourt—is beginning to get the recognition she deserves in the U.S. All My Friends, a superb short story collection first published in French in 2004, is the third of her books to be translated into English. It quickly follows her acclaimed novel, Three Strong Women, released last year by Knopf as Ndiaye’s American debut with a major publisher.

A triptych moving between perspectives and locales, Three Strong Women tells the loosely intertwined stories of a lawyer on a disastrous visit to her dissolute father in Senegal, a down-on-his-luck white professor from Senegal reduced to selling kitchen appliances in a French suburb and haunted by the crimes of his father, and a Senegalese woman forced by poverty and the hostility of her late husband’s family to make a harrowing attempt at immigration to France. To these fearful symmetries of cross-cultural migration, familial oppression, and economic deprivation, NDiaye adds an immersively subjective style of third-person narration that filters the novel’s events through the hopes, expectations, fears, and delusions of her characters. This unsettling combination of stream-of-consciousness narration with existentially insecure and sometimes literally hallucinating characters creates Three Strong Women’s unique effect of generating readerly compassion and anxiety in equal measure—it’s as if Kafka were re-written by Virginia Woolf or the magic in Toni Morrison’s magical realism were only in her characters’ heads.

All My Friends, published by the smaller Two Lines Press and translated sensitively by Jordan Stump, offers a chance to revisit in English this contemporary giant of French letters. The collection’s title, derived from its first story, is as bittersweetly ironic as that of Three Strong Women. In the story, a high school teacher estranged from his family hires a former student as his maid and becomes obsessed with her personal life, including her relations with her ex-boyfriend and the man she married, both also former students of his. The “friends” of the title, then, are the teacher’s former students, as well as the self-serving and paranoid images of them he has created in his lonely, obsessive mind, images he is able to exploit due to his economic power over them. The mutual implication of social exclusion and psychological disturbance is the most pervasive theme of the collection, whose characters find themselves exiled from their own ideal of human community and consequently in urgent need of aid from friends real and imagined.

In the second story, a successful doctor returns to the housing project where she was raised. There she visits a childhood friend who was, as a girl, the prettier and more glamorous of the two but who never left the project and, more disturbingly, never abandoned the vow they kept as children not to outlive the beloved French singer Claude François, dead at thirty-nine. The even bleaker yet even more grimly comic third story, “The Boys,” takes place in the French countryside, where a teenager is determined to get himself sold to a sex trafficker to escape his impoverished life on a farm where his mother’s grotesque lovers come and go. The longest story, “Brulard’s Day,” is a brilliantly paranoid and mordant account of a fading film actress’s frustrated attempt to escape her awareness that her most glamorous days are behind her—and that her present life amounts to a set of lies she tells herself to avoid the difficult realities of her broken relationships with her estranged family and a lover who has apparently died before the story’s beginning.

The final, shortest, and perhaps best story, “Revelation,” narrates a mother’s bus journey to abandon her son in a distant town; the son has recently become mentally ill or impaired, and the mother can’t bear his “stupid, appallingly stupid” behavior any longer. But the enthralled reactions of their fellow bus passengers to the son’s charismatic face hints too that his beauty, which the mother notes has been enhanced somehow by his cognitive deficit, is what she truly cannot stand: it provokes both guilt and resentment in the woman who cannot simply appreciate his angelic appearance but must also carry the burden of his needs. Given NDiaye’s characteristic use of a restricted viewpoint, we might also wonder if the mother is not projecting her own rejected love for her son, expressed as wonder at his face, onto the passengers.

“Revelation,” appropriately enough, reveals the pattern underlying NDiaye’s stories by depicting with masterful psychological insight and subtle literary style—and in only six pages—its protagonist’s bitter resentment, guilty self-justification, possibly aberrant perception of reality, sub-conscious shame, and almost religious awe. An extended quotation from “Revelation” will demonstrate NDiaye’s rare ability to capture, without judgment or falsely “realistic” clarity, our bewildering tangle of emotions and desires, pride and vulnerability in a world that is sacred and profane at once:

This woman thought that she couldn’t bear the beauty of that son’s face one moment longer—and that, in the old days, when he was still right, his face was never as handsome. No one would have turned to look at her son back when there was no need to keep from him where he was being taken. His face then had no reason to be as beautiful as it was now, since it expressed only ordinary thoughts. Nevertheless, thought the woman, rebelling, no one had the right to demand that she feel grateful or pleased at this change, no one could ask her to admire that face herself, however handsome and calm it may be.

NDiaye’s characters, whether male or female, white or black, well off or poor, are lonely wanderers unable to attain the “normal” lives that seem to come so naturally to others. But her stories invite us to ask if their confusion isn’t our own, if it isn’t in fact the subterranean cave that runs beneath national borders, unequal neighborhoods, and sexual difference, an underworld where we may all meet on the equal ground of our own self-alienation and abjection. In this way, her oneiric tales suggest a necessary truth about contemporary life that explains why she is increasingly—and justly—recognized as a major world writer.

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