Saturday, August 6, 2022

Painting Time by Maylis de Kerangal

She learns to see. Her eyes burn. Fried, worked like never before, open eighteen hours a day; an average that will soon include the sleepless nights spent slogging, and other night of partying. In the morning, her eyes blink incessantly as though she'd been plopped down in full sun, lashes vibrating, butterfly wings, but at sunset she feels them weakening, her left eye limps, it slips to the side like someone sinking onto a bank of fresh grass at the edge of the path. She rinses her lids with blueberry water, places frozen teabags on them, tries gels and eyewashes, but nothing eases the sensation of tired, dry eyes, rigid pupils, nothing can stop the formation of persistent dark circles under them--her face has been branded, the stigmata of this rite of passage, of metamorphosis. Because to see, under the glass roof of the studio on the rue de Metal, high on fumes from paint and solvents, muscles sore and forehead burning, doesn't just mean keeping your eyes open to the world--to see is to engage in a pure action, create an image on a sheet of paper, an image that resembles the one the eyes have created in the brain.

Paula Karst, a young woman from Paris, whose parents once though she was bound for art school, enrolls in a Belgian school for decorative painters. Decorative painting is not like painting-painting; Painting Time is not a novel about the creative process or the ineffable genius of painters. Decorative painting is a craft, a laborious process in which the painter tries to reproduce the look and texture of marble, wood, stone. If it is done right, the painter, far from having made a statement of self-expression, finds themselves erased in the work. To reproduce the world, to make a simulacrum of it, one must know it thoroughly, as when the brilliantly talented painter and Paula's lover Jonas takes her to the quarry where the valuable marble she must copy for her school assignment has been mined for many years. To duplicate it, Paula must follow exactly the methods outlined by her instructors (there is no creative license here), but also, she has to consider the long and fantastical history of the marble itself, laid by the passing of a great ocean and its plants, then laying hidden for millennia until broken apart by Renaissance-era merchants. This is what is meant by the title Painting Time.

Painting Time is split into three parts: first, Paula's experiences at the decorative painting school, where she lives with Jonas and comes to know her friend Kate. The second outlines Paula's initial career as a set designer for the historic Italian movie studio Cinecitta, and the third a job she takes on reproducing the famous Lascaux cave paintings. The middle part, the movie studio part, layers new and interesting questions over the first section: what does it mean to reproduce the fantasy world of movies, rather than something real? But this section is meandering, I thought, especially with de Kerangal's winding sentences, that routinely go on so long that you lose track of the grammar of the sentence's beginning, and a little saggy. It's the final section that really brings the novel together. The famous Lascaux caves are no longer open to the public, but Paula's project is the last in a series of replicas that are even more popular than the original. And yet Paula must copy them without having seen them. She immerses herself in the World War II-era story of the caves' discovery, in a way trying to collapse many layers of time--prehistoric, historic, present--but the imagination required makes one wonder about the distinction between artistic genius and the workmanlike labor of craft.

Paula has heterochromia and strabismus: her eyes are two different colors, and pointed in slightly different directions. This condition is part of her unique appeal to some, including Jonas and Kate, and a romantic liaison with a man who is provocatively only called "the charlatan." In a novel about a painter-painter you might see it as a symbol of genius, a unique way of looking at the world. It might be that, here, too, and an illustration of Paula's split self, discarding more bourgeois dreams of "artistic" painting for this different path. But thinking of that title again, it seems to me an image of eyes that cross time, that point toward the present and the past, which fold, but perhaps not completely, into a single image. One eye on the real and one eye on the reproduction, but with a blurred line between that complicates one's notions of what is real and what is fake.

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Blindness by Henry Green

He got up and groping towards the window opened it. As he did so there was a sudden lull in all the noise, he could only hear the clop-clop of a horse receding into the distance, and then mysteriously from below there floated up a chuckle; it was a woman and someone must have been making love to her, so low, so deep it was. He was on fire at once. Love in the street, he would write of it, love shouting over the traffic, unsettling the policemen, sweeping over the park, wave upon wave of it, inciting the baboons to mutiny in the Zoo, clearing the streets. What was the use of his going blind if he did not write? People must hear of what he felt, of how he knew things differently. The sun throbbed in his head. Yes, all that, he would write all that.

John Haye is a senior at an English public school. He's a little lazy--as we learn from the first thirty pages of the novel, which are in the form of John's diary--but of a literary bent, and prone to childish pranks as well as bookish sentimentalism. But his life changes forever when, on his way home, a stone thrown by a child shatters his window on the train, and he's permanently blinded. John returns home to his stepmother, a sort of local busybody who struggles with the idea that her stepson might become a burden to her, and who is appalled when he strikes up an attachment to Joan, the daughter of a local drunk and defrocked priest. The match is no good, though; Joan cannot give John the kind of new beginning he desires, and in the end, he and "Mamma" sell their country estate so that John can find his way as a blind man in the sound and fervor of London.

Entirely by accident, I seem to be reading a lot of first works lately. There was Gallant, then Didion, now Henry Green, who wrote Blindness while he was still at Oxford. Like those other books, it seems awfully weak in comparison to more "mature" books, but the incipient forms of a great author's style are fascinating to see. One of the strange feelings Green's novels generate is the sense of Is that all?, the feeling that you've read something in which nothing happens and whose shape is untraceable, because it was in the accumulation of details you missed while you were waiting for grand gestures. In Blindness that means the little details of country life that John may or may not have access to any longer, and which "Mamma" must feel are distinctly at risk. 

The novel's three sections are called "Caterpillar," "Chrysalis," and "Butterfly," as if to signal that Blindness is a novel not about loss, but of becoming and transformation. Joan, the undereducated, slovenly priest's daughter, is a kind of false start in that transformation. John indulges in fantasies that she will give him a new life, one that consists of walking with him to his old favorite viewpoints and describing the view--something which, as it turns out, disinterests and bewilders her. John has Joan all wrong, preferring the version he makes of her in his head; he even mishears her name at first as "June" and refuses to call her anything else. Their interactions give the novel some particularly Green-like moments of humor, the kind that can be difficult to catch. "They seem to me so lasting," John says to Joan, regarding trees, "so grave in their fat green cloaks, or in winter like naked lace." To which she replies: "There, an' I've forgotten to feed the chickens."

Only at the very end, with the arrival of John and his mother at London, does Green's modernism start to show. He seems actually quite resistant to describing the experience of being blind, preferring Mrs .Haye's viewpoint, or Joan's, to John's, until John is listening to the street noise below. This noise both frightens and excites him; for the first time he feels as if his subjectivity as a blind person has given him a way of knowing or understanding that might not be available to other people. He ends the novel in what you might call a "vision," if it weren't such an inappropriate word: a mysterious moment of ascent and elation that he calls, in the letter that ends the novel, "a fit." Green is cagey about what it is that John is seeing at last, and perhaps at the novel's end John is only beginning to see it himself, but he describes the feeling as one of true "joy."

Monday, August 1, 2022

Run River by Joan Didion

She, her mother, Everett, Martha, the whole family gallery: they carried the same blood, come down through twelve generations of circuit riders, county sheriffs, Indian fighters, country lawyers, Bible readers, one obscure United States Senator from a frontier state a long time ago; two hundred years of clearings in Virginia and Kentucky and Tennessee and then the break, the void into which they gave their rosewood chests, their silver brushes; the cutting clean which was to have redeemed them all. They had been a particular kind of people, their particular virtues called up by a particular situation, their particular flaws waiting there through all those years, unperceived, unsuspected, glimpsed only by a wife whose bewildered eyes wanted to look not upon Eldorado but upon her mother's dogwood, by a blue-eyed boy who was at sixteen the best shot in the county and who when there was nothing left to shoot rode out one day and shot his brother, an accident. It had been above all a history of accidents: a moving on and of accidents. What is it you want, she had asked Everett tonight. It was a question she might have asked them all.

Joan Didion's first novel kept her close to home: Run River is about the wealthy families along the Sacramento River who can trace their ancestry back to California's pioneers, who braved a new land, tamed it, and then settled down to work it. The married couple at the heart of the novel are Everett and Lily McClellan, distant cousins who are both descendants of these people. Their attraction toward each other is based on this explicitly; when a young Everett looks at Lily, he knows that she is the kind of woman who he can "bring back to the ranch," who will anchor him and tie him to the place that is his inheritance. But the marriage is a poor one: the two cling desperately to each other and then push each other away. Everett abandons Lily and their young children to join the army when World War II breaks out and Lily, feeling abandoned, has a brief affair with a man she hates. The pregnancy and ensuing abortion sent the marriage hurtling headlong into ruin. When the book opens, an older Everett has just shot and killed Lily's lover, Ryder Channing; the novel then backtracks to fill in the gaps and tell us how they found themselves in such a violent place.

What is Run River's conception of those California pioneers? The blurb for Elaine Castillo's upcoming book of essays (which I'd like to read) encourages us to, among other things, reject the "settler colonialism" of Didion. Certainly, being the sons and daughters of pioneers have done Lily and Everett no good. There's a hollowness at the heart of their inheritance, a sense that they have not deserved what they have received because they don't know how to keep it, though Everett is, at heart, a farmer who knows how to work his hops crops from the ground. The passage I quoted above makes me wonder if Didion is suggesting that the virtues of the pioneers--I don't know, adventurousness, bravery, a longing for new things--curdle into vices when they become bound to one place, and that Lily and Everett might have been better, happier people in another time and place.

It's actually Martha, Everett's sister and Ryder's initial lover, who seems the most wrecked; her desperate attachment to the uncouth man seems like a consequence, sometimes, of having nothing better to do, no other purpose or desire. When he leaves her, she--spoiler alert--goes out to the river in a boat during a flood and drowns, dying in the very place she should have known better (and perhaps she did). Martha's death reverberates with the death of her and Everett's father, drowned in the same river in a car accident that kills him and his lover, another scion of a river family. In a way, California kills them. Ryder himself is a charming lout and grifter from Tennessee always trying to get in on the ground floor of some money-making scheme. Is he a representation of some non-Californian value, a capitalist who runs in on the heels of the people who made California great? Or is he a representation of those pioneers, who came in from the East as well, certain they could make the valley a Paradise for themselves, and then shut the gate?

Run River is just okay as a novel. The most extraordinary thing it does, I think, is make Didion seem sort of human. The qualities that make her later fiction--especially the crackle of dialogue between people who both hate and need each other--are here, but the Sacramento story clearly has a special resonance for Didion herself that doesn't quite make it to the page. In the end, River Run is a familiar kind of mid-century novel, one about rich people doing bad things to each other. (Why are rich people always so sad?)

Thursday, July 28, 2022

The Little Town Where Time Stood Still by Bohumil Hrabal

Now Francin had me the way he wanted me to be, a nice decent woman sitting at home, he knew where this woman was, and where she would be tomorrow, somewhere he would like to make her stay for always, not too ill, but sort of ailing, a woman who would hobble to the stove, to the chair, to the table, but above all a woman who would be some kind of burden, because for Francin it was the height of matrimonial bliss when I was grateful to him for making me my breakfast in the morning, and going on the motorbike at midday to fetch lunch from the restaurant, but above all it meant he could show me how much he loved me, with what joy he was prepared to care for me, and somehow, just as he took care of me, so ought I to be taking care of him, that was Francin's dream, that every year I might catch angina and flu, and occasionally get pneumonia. That always made him blissfully happy, nobody else knew how to look after a person like Francin did, that was his religion, his heaven on earth, when he could wrap me in sheets dampened in cold water, when he ran around me with the sheet and wound it on to me as if he were embalming me alive, but then he took me in his arms and laid me carefully in my bed, like little girls do with their dolls.

Francin is the manager of a brewery in a small unnamed town in Czechoslovakia. A decent, practical man, he takes his job seriously and is a conscientious worker. These qualities are challenged by his wife, who is beautiful but inclined to indulge every impulse, and his brother, "Uncle Pepin," a vivacious man who, something like the brother who thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt in Arsenic and Old Lace, imagines that he's still an active member of his Austrian military corps. The Little Town Where Time Stood Still is split into two halves with different narrators who tell the story of Francin and his family: first, "Cutting It Short," narrated by his wife, and then the title novella, which is narrated by the couples' young son. (Strangely, the son disappears almost immediately after telling an anecdote about how, to his father's frustration, he gets a tattoo of a naked, bearded mermaid, though he'd wanted one of a ship. The only evidence that the novella is narrated by the child after this is that Francin is referred to as "Dad.")

Both novellas bear Hrabal's trademark comic realism, one step to the left of the social realism that Soviet authorities, whose censorship Hrabal fell afoul of more than once, were trying to promote. In "Cutting It Short," Francin's wife Maryska becomes wrapped up in the trendiness of shortening everything, starting with women's skirts. She clips the horse's mane, and then the dog's tail--much to the dog's chagrin. So it's not exactly true that the town where they live is "the little town where time stood still," as the second novella asserts, but the forces of change which are played for comedy in the first novella become much more sinister in the second. First, it's the Nazis who come to occupy the brewery, and then the Soviets, who take the brewery out of the hands of owners and managers and give it to the workers. Francin loses his job this way; though the workers admit he was always decent to them, this makes him only worse, because a decent manager only entrenches the power of the bourgeoisie. So Francin takes to mushroom hunting with Uncle Pepin, becoming, in his way, as aloof and isolated as his brother. "The Little Town Where Time Stood Still" is an elegy for old ways ripped up, root and branch, by Soviet control of Czechoslovakia; one of the most affecting images comes late in the novel when Francin stops by the cemetery to see the graves and monuments being demolished and carted away.

I wasn't as taken with The Little Town Where Time Stood Still as I was with I Served the King of England, a comic masterpiece, or the absurdist novella Too Loud a Solitude. All three are stories about working people, though their relationships to the proletariat are never straightforward: a waiter, a book incinerator, a brewery manager. I never connected will with the character of Uncle Pepin, who felt funnier in theory than in practice. Part of that might be that the translator has Pepin speaking in a bewildering Scots dialect, which must be a way of transliterating whatever rural dialect of Czech he speaks, but it's just more confusing than anything. But I did like the way the comic elements of the book revolved around the stolid Francin, whose stalwart nature is challenged by a rapidly changing world.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

The Cost of Living by Mavis Gallant

Malcolm is convinced he will never have an idea about Bea until he understands her idea of herself. Of course Bea has an idea; what woman hasn't? In her mind's eye she is always advancing, she is walking between lanes of trees on a June day. She is small and slight in her dreams, as she is in life. She advances toward herself, as if half of her were a mirror. In the vision she carries Ruth, her prettiest baby, newly born, or a glass goblet, or a bunch of roses. Whatever she holds must be untouched, fresh, scarcely breathed on.

There's something nice about odds-and-sods collections like this one, which is that the hand of the author is totally absent. There's no thematic arrangement, no meddling in the order of the stories, nor do they capture a particular moment in the author's life: what you get in a collection like The Cost of Living is a snapshot of an author's career from beginning to finish. The collection opens with "Madeline's Birthday," which became, in 1951, Gallant's first published story. Madeline is a New York teenager abandoned by a selfish mother at the home of her sister in Connecticut, where she languishes alongside a German boarder named Paul and her aunt's little girl Allie. Paul wants Madeline to read over his English homework; Allie wants her to braid her hair. For her own part, Madeline is miserable, and dreams of getting away from the cloistered house, where she feels stifled and unwanted. It's not a very good story. Nothing really happens, the larger and deeper conflicts are only gestured at. A careful existence is constructed for the characters beyond the snapshot of the story, but it's hard to believe in that existence. You read "Madeline's Birthday" and think, "Is that it?"

But much of the things that make Gallant's fiction so beguiling are already there, in nascent form. Compare "Madeline's Birthday" to a later masterwork like "Malcolm and Bea" or "The Burgundy Weekend." Both are stories about marriages between people of varying degrees of social toxicity. Practical Malcolm has married Bea, maniacal and headstrong. In "The Burgundy Weekend," Lucie has married Jerome: clever, lazy, proud, flirting shamelessly with the young daughter of his old flame, who they are visiting in the French countryside. But the characters are remarkably rich, so rich, in fact, that the adjectives I've used to describe them hardly seem to capture who they are. Who they are, actually, is a mystery that keeps unfolding, and which may seem different the next time I read the story; not in the sense that they are underdeveloped or vague, but in the way that your initial impressions of real people never tend to be permanent.

What these stories do is have people collide. Some of them, like the married couples, have been colliding for years, sanding each other's edges until neither is fit for any other kind of society, but there are always outsiders, too, whose vantage points make it impossible for them to see inside the relationship. This is especially true in "The Burgundy Weekend," as Lucie's cousin Gilles--a rigid and professionally satisfied doctor who drops them off and picks them up in Burgundy--strains to see what Lucie sees in Jerome, unable to comprehend that Jerome's rudeness is, in Lucie's eyes, a victory for Jerome, who is often too withdrawn to bother. In the stories themselves, nothing much happens: Jerome doesn't sleep with Nadine; the old flame barely registers on the page; there are no murders or flat tires or moments that change everything. But unlike "Madeline's Birthday," you get the sense of whole lives coming to bear on single moments; they are scenes of great pressure in which nothing, in the end, bursts or breaks.

"Every marriage is about something," Malcolm thinks in "Malcom and Bea." "It must have a plot. Sometimes it has a puzzling or incoherent plot. If you saw it acted out, it would bore you. 'Turn it off,' you would say. 'No one I know lives that way.' It has a mood, a setting, a vocabulary, bone structure, a climate.'" Malcolm thinks his way into something true, but the original thought ("Every marriage is about something") is surely incorrect. I don't think you can properly say that any of Gallant's mature stories are about anything. Themes lurk under the surface, including the social inferiority complex of Canadians abroad (one fun detail in "The Burgundy Weekend" is that Lucie is a firm believer in the coming sovereignty of a free Quebec) but the stories aren't really about these things, partially because none of the characters, like most people, can barely agree on what matters at any given moment. This distinguishes Gallant's stories from Alice Munro, her fellow Canadian. While Munro's stories, like Gallant's, are small moments that reveal entire human histories, things happen in them, they are undeniably about something.

All of this makes Gallant's later work sort of spiky and unsatisfying. They resist the kind of pleasing roundness, the sense of a whole story told in short order, for which we often look to short stories. But The Cost of Living is interesting because you can see this quality of Gallant's grow and develop. Halfway between "Madeline's Birthday" and "The Burgundy Weekend" is a story like "Going Ashore," about a young girl on a Mediterranean cruise who yearns to see the fascinating new world she's being offered, but who must deal with her depressive mother, who only booked their passage to meet men. It's "Going Ashore" that might be the most pleasing story in the collection, because it features Gallant at a point where her talent has matured but the story has remained more conventional. By contrast, it's hard to figure out what to do with a story like "The Rejection," a strange, strange conversation between a father and his six year old (who talks like an adult), who decide they don't like each other and don't want to live together. Halfway through the conversation, which takes place in car, we're told that the girl has made a pet of some unidentified reptile, which is sitting at her feet. The story, actually, reminds me of the protagonist of the story "The Cost of Living," who is forced to listen to her actor roommates practicing Beckett plays on the other side of her bedroom wall. "The Rejection" is like Beckett, heard through a wall.

I don't think the stories collected here are as strong as the ones in the actual collections of Gallant's I've read. These kinds of "early and uncollected" compilations rarely are. A few of the later stories probably stand with her best, but a lot of them seem slight, like experiments that got halted halfway through for unsatisfactory results. But I loved getting to see the way one of the most original short fiction writers of the 20th century developed and grew over the course of her career.

Friday, July 22, 2022

Northland by Porter Fox

At sunset, the sky turned dark blue. I tried to remember the color of the stones, the cool air, the auburn sunlight touching my forehead. I thought about the first day of the trip at West Quoddy Head in Maine and tried to memorize the dark spires, rounded massifs, and marshmallow flanks of Mount Baker's glaciers. I thought about all the parts of the northland--oceans, rivers, lakes, plains, cities, reservations, towns--and how they linked from east to west. It was indeed its own territory: a forgotten belt of wild, old America delineated by iron monuments, rock piles, and clear-cuts.

We ended our trip through the Pacific Northwest last week at the Peace Arch, a monument that stands on the border between the towns of Blaine, Washington and Douglas, British Columbia. A tall white arch stands in the middle of a green park that stretches between both countries, with the entry lines on either side of it, the Canadian to the left, the American to the right. The monument is supposed to be a monument to peace between the two countries; in the middle, there is a ceremonial gate attached to the wall below a sign that reads MAY THESE GATES NEVER BE CLOSED. Just beyond the arch, a sign on the Canadian side reads, "Park Closed."

We saw a woman enter idly from the Canadian side and walk to the American, where she was collected by an official looking man who might have been from either country and directed toward a booth, presumably to be sent off to a black site. A few feet away the park becomes a stretch of carefully tended flowers and picnic benches (and the Peace Arch Park Snack Shack) on the American side. On the Canadian side, the border follows a street where a row of houses look out in to America, their residents only needing to make a few steps out of their door to enter another country. These houses made the stern theater of the border crossing stations seem performative and silly.

Porter Fox ended his journey along all 4,000+ miles of the USA-Canadian border at the Peace Arch, too. By then, the peculiar logic that exists at the Peace Arch has appeared many times: the world's longest peaceful border has, since 9/11, become hardened in ways that have sundered communities and put an end to the free travel that was once common between the two countries. The "Park Closed" signs we saw were, no doubt, the vestiges of Canadian COVID-19 policy, which has hardened the border even more--in many places, trains still can't pass through it. But even a few years ago, when Fox took up the project of canoeing, hiking, boating, and driving from the border's eastern terminus in Maine to its western one in Washington, the border was increasingly contentious.

The thesis of Fox's book is that the area around the border has its own particular identity and existence, as a region he calls "The Northland." He wants to explore the Northland, a region that is, with some exceptions, remarkably rural and remote, and understand how the border has shaped this identity. He begins in Maine, canoeing along the St Croix river, then hitches a ride on a Great Lakes tanker that takes him all the way from Lake Erie to Lake Superior. From there, he drives across the oil-rich boomlands of North Dakota, making a quick and timely sojourn into the protest camps at Standing Rock, which are not really near the border--though the oil in the pipeline is. His journey continues along the "Medicine Line," as the Native Americans who were pushed across it in the 19th century call it, stopping in at the Blackfeet Reservation and through Glacier National Park. In the North Cascades, he sleeps in a fire tower, as Jack Kerouac once did, during one of his most prolific periods.

The book is part travelogue, part social commentary, part history. As Fox travels, he recounts the history of the border, which has always been a contentious one. The 18th and 19th century politicians who negotiated the border really had no idea about the geography of the land they were dividing, and time and time again, created impossible borders that would lead to more contention, and more need for tenacious explorers and surveyors. The creation of Minnesota's Northwest Angle, for instance, the little chopped-off bit on the other side of the Lake of the Woods, exists because the agreed border point--the headwaters of the Mississippi--is a hundred miles south of where the negotiators thought it was. Fox adds to this history a sympathetic portrait of Angle Inlet, the Angle's only community, where schools and businesses have closed over the last few decades because of the stubborn and increasing difficulty of crossing the border--twice. And similar stories are told in Maine and along the Great Lakes.

I appreciated Fox's focus on Native Americans, for whom the border takes on a special relevance. Fox's sojourn to Standing Rock fits uncomfortably with the book's overall thesis (I mean, Google it, it's mostly in South Dakota) but along with his stop at the Blackfeet Nation, it gives an effective portrait of the way the border was placed over the existence of tribal nations, and which has profoundly shaped their existence. Even before the Indian Wars of the 19th century, the border was an indigenous problem, as Fox explains in his recounting of the alliance between Jesuit explorer Champlain and the Hurons against the Iroquois.

We crossed the border four times on our trip: twice by airplane, once by boat, and once on the road. But we experienced only one small part of its four thousand miles. I loved reading Northland while on this trip because it gave me a sense of exploring something larger; not merely of stepping over an imaginary line but passing through a real place on which history works its considerable, sometimes transformative, sometimes brutal efficacy.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro

All his life--he had difficulty saying this, as he admitted, being always too wary of too much enthusiasm--all his life he had been waiting for such a student to come into this room. A student who would challenge him completely, who was not only capable of following the strivings of his own mind but perhaps of flying beyond them. He had to be careful about saying what he really believed--that there must be something like intuition in a first-rate mathematician's mind, some lightning flare to uncover what has been there all along. Rigorous, meticulous, one must be, but so must the great poet.

When he finally brought himself to say all this to Sophia, he also said that there were those who would bridle at the very word, "poet," in connection with mathematical science. And others, he said, who would leap at the notion all too readily, to defend a muddle and laxity in their own thinking.

With all respect to Anton Chekhov, Alice Munro is the best to ever do it. She gets called "our Chekhov"--the Chekhov of the English language--with some regularity, but I don't think even Chekhov, as much a playwright as a short story writer, even approached the short story with the ferocity and genius that Alice Munro does. It's a gift, I think, to be living in the era of Alice, even if she has given up the writing of stories in her old age.

But all of that makes the title story of the collection Too Much Happiness, the most self-consciously Chekhovian thing Munro has ever written, all the more interesting. "Too Much Happiness" is the real-life story of Sophia Kovalevsky, the Russian mathematician who was, before Marie Curie, perhaps the best known female scientist in Europe. It's story that's strange for Munro in several ways: first, because it's a fictionalized rendition of a true story, second, because it's set in the nineteenth century, and third, because it's set in Europe, rather than Canada. And yet Kovalevsky's story resounds with the themes that Munro takes up all the time: the dignity of common lives, the transformative power of illness, the persistent oppression and marginalization of women.

Sophia is a brilliant mathematician who soon overtakes her own tutor, the German Weierstrass, and the story opens as she receives Europe's most prestigious mathematics prize, but she still requires the string-pulling of her male benefactors to get a job offer, and even then only in frigid Sweden, which she hates. Sophia's life has touched upon great things: her brother-in-law was a leader of the Paris Commune, and her sister gave her life to be attached to his kind of adventuresome bravado. And yet Sophia herself finds herself drawn not to a man like Jaclard but the spinster sisters of her tutor Weierstrass, who toil, not unhappily, to make the home in which his great work is done. She seesaws between the feverishness of her mathematical work and a deep satisfaction in a life of domestic and social pleasures; in the present of the story she is anticipating a happy marriage to another clever and larger-than-life Russian. "She was learning," Munro writes, "quite late, what many people around her appeared to have known since childhood--that life can be perfectly satisfying without major achievements. It  could be brimful of occupations which did not weary you to the bone." Yet neither Weierstrass, nor Jaclard, nor her fiance Maksim, nor her friend the mathematician Poincare, seem to think of such lives as opposed to one another.

The other stories are more standard Munrovian fare, and a few of them are among her best work. Especially powerful are those which are concerned with shocking violence, which, despite the domestic surface of Munro's stories, is something that lurks not far below the surface. In "Free Radicals," a sickly widow is briefly trapped in her home by a stranger who confesses that he has just murdered his family, including his mentally disabled sister, who he considered a drain on his own independence. This story finds frightening echoes in "Child's Play," one of the darkest stories Munro has ever written, about (spoiler alert) a woman who, as a child, and with an accomplice she has only recently met at summer camp, drowns another mentally disabled child. This act of momentary compulsion has transformed the life of the narrator, who has become an academic studying cultural ideas about mental disability, but who seems unable to deal with her own deed in any direct way. As disturbing as "Free Radicals" is, it's "Child's Play" that takes the darker route, as if putting us in the viewpoint not of the trapped widow but the killer. Once inside that head we are shocked to find no sadist, but only a very normal person, driven to a horrible act by the most recognizable of feelings: disgust, shame, and a need to be liked.

The story I think will stick with me most, though, is the opener "Dimensions," about a woman whose husband kills their three children. The husband, remanded by the court to a mental hospital, writes to the narrator, explaining that he has seen their children in another dimension, a place where they still exist, and the narrator, despite herself, finds this to be comforting. The rambling and esoteric voice of the letters the husband writes to the narrator have a kind of voice you might never know Munro was capable of writing, and captures something true about our willingness to step outside the bounds of logic and reasoning--with no contempt for those who must--in order to face the most difficult truths in life. And though there's no real violence to it, I loved the undercurrent of masculine viciousness in "Wenlock Edge," about a college student whose roommate convinces her to have dinner with her--I don't know what to call it but a sugar daddy--who instructs her to take off her clothes. Though she complies out of compulsive fascination, the narrator expects to be assaulted, only to be given a pleasant meal and a conversation about Greek philosophy.

Even one of the weaker stories, "Deep-Holes," provides a key to understanding Munro's stories: while hiking with his family, a boy falls into a deep glaciated hole and breaks both his legs. He grows up to be a kind of sour hippie who cuts ties with his mother, except when he wants money for his commune, and we are left to wonder whether this has something to do with the experience of falling into the hole as a child. Munro would never be so crude as to suggest that there's a causal line between the two--more likely they are both representations of the character's contemptuousness for boundaries and carefulness--but the image of the deep hole, lurking under the brush of life, ready to swallow you and break your bones, is one that rings true.

Monday, July 11, 2022

Explosion in a Cathedral by Alejandro Carpentier

Esteban suddenly stopped, stirred to the very depths, in front of the "Explosion in a Cathedral" by the anonymous Neapolitan master. In it were prefigured, so to speak, so many of the events he had experienced that he felt bewildered by the multiplicity of interpretations to which this prophetic, anti-plastic, un-painterly canvas, brought to the house by some mysterious chance, lent itself. If, in accordance with the doctrines he had once been taught, the cathedral was a symbol--the ark and the tabernacle--for his own being, then an explosion had certainly occurred there, which, although tardy and slow, had destroyed altars, images, and objects of veneration. If the cathedral was the Age, then a formidable explosion had indeed overthrown its most solid walls, and perhaps buried the very men who had built the infernal machine beneath an avalanche of debris. If the cathedral was the Church, then Esteban noticed a row of sturdy pillars remained intact, opposite those which were shattering and falling in this apocalyptic painting, as if to prophesy resilience, endurance and a reconstruction, after the days of destruction and of stars foretelling disasters had passed.

Esteban and Sofia are cousins, living in the great Havana hacienda Sofia's father left them. Essentially, they are orphans, passing their time playing games among the clutter of the dead man's life, until a French businessman arrives looking for the dead man. This man, Victor Hugues, is drawn into the children's games, their costumes and science experiments and adventure books, and for a time, he lives with them, until his warehouse in Haiti is burned. From there he returns to France, embarking upon a political career under the aegis of the Jacobins of the French Revolution, who task him with bringing the revolution to the Americas. Hugues captures the island of Guadeloupe from the British, turning it into a center of wealthy privateers, but he brings with him the first guillotine in the New World. Esteban, then Sofia, are caught up in the tumult of Hugues' revolution, its idealism, its bloodiness, and its ultimate failure.

Hugues, the central figure of Carpentiers' historical novel, was a real figure, a kind of Robespierre of the Caribbean. Guadeloupe, Surinam, French Guiana, and many other places still bear the marks of his regime. Historical novels about the French Revolution are not so hard to come by, but Explosion in a Cathedral highlights a theater of the world no less transformed than Europe, one upon which many of the same moral question and struggles played out. I was struck how both Esteban and Sofia, one after the other, become disenchanted with Hugues, one after the other, and for different reasons. The life of Esteban, arguably the book's main character, is intricately bound up with Hugues': Esteban travels to France and works for the Jacobins to spread the revolution in the Basque country before being sent to Hugues' Guadeloupe, where he's later shunted off into the service of one of the tyrant's famous privateers. Along the way he becomes disillusioned with Hugues' bloody methods. In one memorable passage, Esteban observes how Hugues condemns so many to the guillotine that only a small fraction can be killed in a night, and the rest must be summarily dispatched by pistol.

When Esteban returns, he's frustrated to find that Sofia and her brother Carlos remain enamored with the Revolution, believing wholeheartedly in its potential to transform the world, not having seen any of the blood or the back-dealing among its various Girondins and Jacobins and Thermidoreans. When Sofia's husband dies, she rushes off to Guiana to be with Hugues--for whom she has hidden a sexual ardor for years--but finds not even the bloodthirsty ideologue, but an apparatchik who doesn't even bat an eye when the Directory under an ascendant Napoleon reinstitutes slavery in France's colonies. Hugues might be the Revolution's quintessential man: he transforms himself entirely, as the world is transformed, but his transformation is from a man of cleverness and imagination to one without any scruple at all. Hugues survives the many purges and exiles of his peers because he is man of action, disinterested in the larger principles for which such action is performed. "A revolution is done," he insists, not discussed.

I thought this book was incredibly rich. I was impressed by the wonderfully detailed depictions of Havana and Guadeloupe and Cayenne, and the many other places of the Caribbean that were touched by the Revolution. (In his afterword, Carpentier claims to be one of the only people in the world to visit nearly all of the islands in the Antilles, though clearly much research was involved in making the particular colonial iterations of these places come alive.) He's especially interested in the way these places smelled, their mixtures of tar and tobacco and salted fish and leather and all sorts of other things. And Esteban's long meditation upon the strange life and environments of the Caribbean Sea seems to have echoes of the magical realism for which, in earlier works, Carpentier was known.

Explosion in a Cathedral asks: Are men like Hugues necessary for the world to grow? Without Hugues, there is no end to slavery in Guadeloupe, but then again, it's Hugues who brings it back, too. I found myself thinking about Sembene Ousmane's God Bits of Wood, another book that wonders if, for the world to change, it requires men that would otherwise be intolerable, because revolution requires intolerable things. Ousmane's Bakayoko is a man who is all ideals, and nothing else, a far cry from Hugues' man of action. But both books are meditations on the price we place on change.

Since Carpentier is Cuban, my "countries read" list is up to 66!

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Wild Souls by Emma Marris

As a conservationist, I had long been comfortable with the suffering of individual animals in "the wild." But with humans increasingly taking active management roles in "the wild," the premise that we had no ethical obligations to the animals there seemed harder to maintain. If we reintroduced the wolves and managed their numbers and whereabouts, it seemed to me that we were in some way responsible for their welfare and maybe even for the deer they preyed upon. But if that was true, then what about animals whose lives are shaped by us unintentionally by climate change, land development, and species we have moved around? Would they be our responsibility too? The thought induced a kind of intellectual vertigo. Could humans possibly have ethical obligations to all the untold millions of animals on Earth, to every sparrow and ground squirrel and city rat and white-tailed deer? I was overwhelmed.

What do we owe non-human animals? This question is at the heart of Emma Marris' Wild Souls, subtitled "Freedom and Flourishing in the Non-Human World." Those two words, freedom and flourishing, are central to Marris' exploration of these ethical obligations, and in some ways, they are surprising. Though we think of animals as being wild--a word Marris disdains--how often do we think of them being free, not just in the sense of not being captive, but as having autonomy, agency, and free will? We consider the ways that individual animals might suffer and die, and the threats to entire species and ecosystems, but what does it mean to say an individual--or a species--is not just alive or unthreatened but flourishing? These questions are more complex than one might think, and one of the central themes of Marris' book is that the modern conservation movement, for all its best intentions, runs afoul of them.

I'm already on board with many of Marris' values, some of which might reasonably be considered countercultural. I agree with Marris that there's no real value to terms like naturalness and wilderness, which reify environments as they were at arbitrary moments in time, and which diminish millennia-old indigenous practices of reciprocity and care. I agree that thinking of species as "invasive" is insidious and counterproductive. But many of the ethical dilemmas Marris highlights really did make me uncomfortable and uncertain. How, Marris asks, do we balance the desire to conserve species with the often brutal methods required to do so? We believe by instinct that a particular species of albatross must be preserved, but how do we balance that against the killing--by excruciating methods--of hundreds of thousands of human-introduced rats, who after all, have no idea that they're in the wrong place? A species, Marris points out, is merely a category, it has no subjectivity and cannot feel pain, and cannot be said to invoke ethical obligations.  

And how does this calculus change when we observe that the albatross species is so genetically similar to a species on a neighboring island that some consider them the same species? One of the most thought-provoking details in the book, for me, was the observation that some species are surviving by hybridizing with their nearest relatives. Spotted owl conservationists in the Pacific Northwest, for example, have been killing barred owls who venture into the spotted owl's range for decades, because the two owls hybridize too easily. But if the spotted owls can flourish by mating with barred owls, why should we stop them? When we say that a "species"--a human term that is more or less meaningless to an owl--must be protected, for whom is it true? Us or them? As human impact on the natural world becomes more and more profound, especially in the era of anthropogenic climate change, these moral questions become more and more difficult to abstain from.

Many of the ethical dilemmas here involve killing in the name of conservation, but not all: was it ethical, Marris wonders, to capture the entire dwindling population of California condors to be bred in zoos? The species has made a remarkable comeback because of these methods, but do they justify the imprisonment and immiseration of the individual condors, who might otherwise have lived full lives ignorant of their species' imminent extinction? The claims made by zoos regarding the importance of their breeding and conservation programs come into especially sharp scrutiny.

I appreciated the humility Marris brings to these ethical dilemmas. She frames the book as kind of investigation that takes her across the world, chatting with conservationists from Peru to New Zealand, and who sometimes have diametrically opposed views of how conservation should be done. She talks with a trapper known for his ability to eradicate rats and other introduced species from islands, a man who has killed thousands upon thousands of animals in the name of conservationists, as well as those who think that killing any animal in the name of conservation is a moral error. Some of the most fascinating conversations are with folks who believe their obligation to these animals means they must put their thumb on the scale of animal behavior: Australians who try to breed bilbies to fear rats and stoats, and geneticists who believe they can use CRISPR to dampen the fertility of introduced species at the genetic level to the point where they will simply disappear. She also includes insights from ethical philosophers like Peter Singer and Martha C. Nussbaum, whose competing ideas about right and wrong lead to very different judgments. In each instance, Marris weighs her own moral reasoning against her intuitions, and is often comfortable saying she's not sure what the right answer is. It seems to me we would all benefit from a little more humility like that in our interactions with the animal world.

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

Life was finally starting, Newt thought. Here he was below the border, about to run off a huge horse herd, and in a few days or weeks he would be going up the trail to a place he had barely even heard of. Most of the cowpokes who went north from Lonesome Dove just went to Kansas and thought that was far--but Montana must be twice as far. He couldn't imagine what such a place would look like. Jake had said it had buffalo and mountains, two things he had never seen, and snow, the hardest thing of all to imagine.

Okay, first of all: Three-fourths of Lonesome Dove doesn't even take place in the town of Lonesome Dove on the Texas-Mexico border. The whole point of the massive novel is leaving Lonesome Dove. Two aging Texas Rangers, garrulous Gus McCrae and stern Woodrow McCall, decide to give up their livery stable, which has led to a too-easy life, to lead a final cattle drive all the way from Texas to the Montana, arriving in the rich grasslands with their thousands-strong herd before other homesteaders and ranchers get there for them. Along for the ride are a motley crew of cowpokes: young Newt, who hasn't figured yet out figured out that he's Call's illegitimate son; Deets, the black tracker of preternatural skill; Jake Spoon, an unreliable gambler and womanizer; Lorena, a former prostitute in Lonesome Dove who sees Jake as her ticket to a better life in San Francisco; Dish Boggett, a talented cattle driver who is madly in love with Lorena. The story of these cattle drivers intersects with others: the Arkansas sheriff and his deputy who are looking to hang Jake Spoon, the sheriff's wife, who absconds with a group of rough-and-tumble buffalo hunters, and Gus' old flame Clara, long since settled on the Platte with her now-disabled husband.

Gus is the central character of Lonesome Dove. He's a skilled ranger and lawman, but he prefers to talk, and his incessant joking and chattering is the bane of his laconic partner, McCall. In fact, Gus gives the first couple hundred pages of Lonesome Dove, the part where the "outfit" is making plans for their cattle drive, a kind of broad comic quality that make the sudden death of a young Irish cowboy by a nest of water moccasins even more unsettling. It took me a long time to adjust my expectations for the novel; the juxtaposition of its comic tone and the brutality of the trail felt to sour to me, at times. The nadir of this, for me, was the introduction of a mysterious and barefoot young girl, with almost feral outdoor skills, who takes up with the hapless deputy Roscoe and who is--spoiler alert--almost immediately killed off in the most brutal manner, and not alone. But as the novel goes on, Gus' humor begins to seem more like a reasonable response to a life filled with unpredictable cruelty. The Irishman, the girl, are buried, and the cattle drive moves on.

Lonesome Dove seems, in many ways, like the quintessential western. For one, it's truly epic: 850 pages long and covering several thousand miles, as well as a couple dozen different character viewpoints. It's a snapshot of the American West at a moment when it seems empty, Native Americans driven back, the buffalo thinned out to near-extinction, but before the great droves of settler wagons and cattle drives that Call and McCrae know are coming. Sometimes, the Western tropes are a little too strong. I didn't like the depiction of Blue Duck, the unusually vicious Comanche outlaw who kidnaps Lorena and sells her to a group of Indians and Comancheros to be beaten and raped. Though Lonesome Dove makes some gestures toward ambivalence about Native Americans--Gus is supposed to have a more compassionate demeanor toward them than many of his peers--but Blue Duck seems like a monster straight out of American myth, the kind that has long been used to justify genocide and displacement. And I was troubled by the character of Lorena, too, who is headstrong at first, and who becomes terrified and helpless after her ordeal. Vicious Native Americans, helpless damsels.

But ultimately, I was engrossed by the vividness of the characters, and the sweep of the novel's great drama. The novel gets stronger, I think, the farther the outfit goes, and the wider its scope becomes. It's sort of a marvel, actually, that the novel doesn't falter as it brings in the Arkansas sheriff, July Johnson, or the story of Gus' old love Clara, a headstrong woman who has lost two children and whose husband now has been rendered braindead by the kick of a horse. But the novel is something like Gus and Call themselves: stifled by the lazy, talk-heavy life of a Lonesome Dove horse trader, and needing the great open space of the West in order to thrive. By the time the cattle drive arrives in Montana, it has become a legend in its own right, but the costs have been great: lives lost, men buried in unmarked graves in impossible to find places. Every real Western needs to have a measure of ambivalence about the West, and this is Lonesome Dove's. Has it been worth it, to reach Montana? Is the myth worth the men it leaves behind?