Recently I’ve been reading a number of very mannered, and yet quite modern, British novels. Obviously, I come across these books using the best possible catalogue of slim, mannered novels: The New York Review of Books Classics. I adore this publisher. They aim to publish “lost classics,” and yet if you read enough of their books, you’ll see that they have a very definite aesthetic of their own. Their books are usually very small-scale, compressed, realistic, and oftentimes they’re about lonely or desperate people. In modern times, novels like these are often lyrical or multi-cultural (or multicultural and lyrical), but the NYRB classics tend towards a more shabby-genteel, combined with sharp, specific, and oftentimes quite humorous, prose. I know that at this point I’ve turned off the vast majority of my blog’s readers, but this is my sweet spot. These are the sorts of books that I love.
It would be a mistake, by the way, to say that the NYRB Classics series is “white” or lacks diversity. But…I think of the NYRB classics as being from some long-ago era when our standards for diversity were different. For instance, so much of the call for diversity is about American voices. We want to see an Indian-American writing about India, or a Chinese-American writing about China, or a black person writing about what it is to be black in America. I’ve seen very few people calling for more translated fiction.
I don’t think that a book like , to name one spectacular NYRB find, quite qualifies as “diverse” according to our modern definitions. After all, the book is from Hungary, which is arguably a country of ‘white’ people, and Deszo was not, as far as I can tell, a marginalized person within Hungary. Nor is there anything in the book that strikes one as explicitly “non-Western.” It’s about an elderly couple whose lives revolve around their unlovable daughter, and who find their marriage, and their zest for life, restored when she goes off for a week of vacation.
And yet…there is something about it that feels very foreign. Something in its structure. This is a book that is clearly coming out of a very different tradition. It is in conversation with different novels. It could have taken place in America, but an American writer probably would not have written this book.
I think the world of contemporary fiction has a very difficult idea understanding that our notions of race only apply within America. Like, in what world does it make sense to say that Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a person of color, simply because he’s Colombian? He’s not a PoC. He’s white. Similarly, is Aravind Adiga really writing post-colonial literature? Is Chetan Bhagat? And where do the ancient Chinese or Japanese novels fit in? Lady Murasaki was one of the most privileged people, and one of the most fettered, of her time and place (Heian Japan). How do we fit The Tale of Genji within the systems of power relations by which we judge which works are diverse and which aren’t?
Which is to say, I think the NYRB Classics provides a lot of diversity to the world of American letters, and that people who’re interested in diversity would do well to read some of these books.
Anyways, long digression over, the best of these books I’ve read recently was Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, by Barbara Comyns, which is about a young woman, a painter, in mid-1930s Britain, who marries another painter and who attempts, amidst increasingly dire poverty, to, I don’t know–to try to survive and be happy–even as her husband grows more and more unmanageable.
What sells the book is the voice, which is indescribable. It’s such a perfect performance. The narrator is looking back on these events after a gap of perhaps ten years. She describes everything so matter-of-factly, even when things are at their worst. And yet it’s not an emotionless recital. It’s simply that she doesn’t place the emotion at the points where you’d think we’d place it. She’s a woman who’s keenly aware of beauty, and of silence, and of comradeship. She takes joy in other peoples’ company, and in the raising of her children. She loves the countryside. She even loves her husband, sometimes. She’s very pleased, at times, to be married and making a life for herself. I think…in some ways the distance has allowed her to remember things as they really were. When she was living through those days, they weren’t horror and poverty all the time. Even when she was most impoverished, she still had beautiful, carefree days. She still had joy. In many ways, the book reminds me of the Sarashina Diary, in which the anonymous author in a few words skips over her marriage and her bereavement and the children she bears, and instead spends many pages describing a conversation she had out in a snowy field with a strange traveller.