Recently read a trio of novels that weren’t appreciated in their time (and also maybe are still not appreciated)

I love Edith Wharton. So much so that I slogged through her memoir A Backwards Glance. It wasn’t worth it. Most of it was not about writing. A substantial amount was about interior decoration. But there was some good stuff in there! For instance, Edith Wharton was _not_ really a part of literary high society, either in the US or in London. Her main writer friend was Henry James, with whom she was extremely close. But she does describe the literary productions of a few other friends, amongst whom were Howard Sturgis and David Graham Phillips.

Well what I always say is that if they’re good enough for Edith Wharton, then they’re good enough for me! I promptly ordered Sturgis’s Belchamber, which wasn’t even available from Project Gutenberg! Damn, you’ve gotta be obscure when even Gutenberg won’t archive your book. You’ve gotta be obscure when even the NYRB classics series, which specializes in reissueing obscure out of print books, has allowed their edition of your book to fall out of print.

And it was really good! I honestly don’t know why the book hasn’t gotten a great reception. It’s about this dude, Lord Belchamber, who is heir to a great fortune, but who is just a shy, bookish, timid, retiring guy. The problem is that his brother and his cousin are terrible wastrels, and because he has the purse strings, it falls to him to reign them in whilst also not allowing them to be ruined by their own excesses. Belchamber, although shy, has a strong sense of right and wrong and of his own responsibilities. He is the British sense of propriety, divorced from the British sense of masculinity. Lots of readers, apparently, hate him, but I thought he was sweet! Very, very worth your time.

Susie Lenox, David Graham Phillips’s book, is a bit more of an acquired taste. It’s about a girl in turn of the century Indiana who has an affair and runs off with this dandy, who of course promptly abandons her. Then she begins a picaresque adventure that takes her through the Cincinnati and New York underworlds. It’s like a mash-up of MOLL FLANDERS with HOUSE OF MIRTH. Lennox constantly flirts with prostitution, in various forms, but then flinches away, only to flirt with it again. The book goes on a bit too long, but I was quite engaged throughout, and I thought it had interesting things to say about morality, propriety, and relations between the sexes.

The third book I read that was unappreciated in its time, although Wharton does not mention it, was Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. So good!!! I read Agnes Grey, her first novel, a few years back, and I was struck even then by how different this book was from anything else I’d read from that period. She seems far more influenced by continental authors, by Balzac and by Stendhal, in particular, than by any English writers. There’s not a touch of romanticism in Agnes Grey. It’s all about the dreary, day-to-day experience of being governess to two brats.

But The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was even better!!!! Here the eponymous tenant, Mrs. Graham, details the story of her disastrous marriage to a rake and spendthrift. Bronte is excellent at making her husband seem initially to be not that bad, and to even be loving, before everything starts to slide downwards. Graham does her best to save him, and then she does her best to protect their son from him, and, finally, she feels she’s been left with no other option than to flee.

The book is a work of astounding moral force, and I loved the characters (except for the somewhat flat narrator of the framing tale, which is about a man who falls in love with Graham after she’s fled from her husband), but I was also struck by how much more mature the writing was than it is in many 19th century novels. The landscape, the architecture, the flowers and the plants, they all have a critical role to play in the symbology of the book, and unlike in many comedies of manners, you really feel like you’re inhabiting a living world (compare, for instance, Jane Austen, who never describes anything). It’s mostly a work of realism, but there’s a slight touch of the Gothic that, in my opinion, really improves and elevates the novel. I would definitely class it above Wuthering Heights (a book to which it bears many surface-level similarities, in setting, situation, and structure). I’m sorry Anne didn’t live longer; she would’ve written some great stuff.

On the other hand, maybe she would not have, because her book was panned, when it came out, for, essentially, its moral laxity. The reviewers faulted Anne for writing vulgar scenes where the husband and his friends are partying and tormenting the protagonist, and they fault her protagonist for choosing to leave the husband! Anne ripped the mask off of some realities that Victorian-era book reviewers really wanted to keep ignoring, but, more importantly, from the modern perspective, she did it while retaining her own humanity. This isn’t a novel about an oppressed woman; it’s about a woman struggling to live a decent life within oppressive circumstances.

In the end, that’s what all three of these novels share. These books are all deeply moral. They’re about people who have a strong sense of right and wrong, and who find that although their society pays lip service to their ideals, it does not expect them to actually follow those ideals.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve become more and more interested in the ways that ideals and morality impact personal behavior. There is so much fiction about how social systems interact with people and how people interact with social systems, but less about how it affects the ways they interact with each other. Or perhaps moral fiction has always been rare, but it’s only the moral fiction that survives. These three books, while they were not successful upon release (Susie Lennox was probably the most successful, and I see that it was adapted into a movie in the thirties, but Wharton refers to it as unjustly forgotten), all still have tremendous power even after more than a hundred years, and not many books of that (or any) era can say the same.

Cash McCall, by Cameron Hawley

I first came to this author through his perhaps better-known book Executive Suite, but this book, his second, is the superior one. Hawley’s schtick was that he was, like Wallace Stevens, both a working businessman and a writer. His books, too, were comedies of manners and morals that centered around mid-sized American corporations like the one in which he worked (the Armstrong Cork Company). Basically, McCall is what’d happen if a smart person picked up The Fountainhead one day and really, really wanted Rand’s vision of the world to be true, but eventually realized that it just sort of wasn’t. There’s a sort of dialectical evolution here. Hawley obviously starts from a similar place as Rand: he believes in free markets and in the worthiness of building and constructing things. But at some point, his deeper knowledge of human nature intrudes and complicates the scenario.

Cash McCall seem to be about a businessman-hero in the Ayn Rand style: Cash McCall is a man who coldly assesses other people at a glance. He has plans within plans, and he sees the world at a much higher and more strategic level than do most. He also talks in these semi-philosophical speeches. But he’s not an architect, and he’s not a builder. He’s basically a corporate raider. McCall conducts what we would, in modern times, call a Leveraged Buy-out. He targets companies which are, for some reason, undervalued, and he borrows money to buy them. Unlike someone like Warren Buffett, he doesn’t even hold onto the companies: he revamps or disassembles them and unloads them after 6-12 months–usually for a profit.

The book centers around his acquisition of a small plastics company (and his romancing of the company founder’s daughter). Throughout, McCall is held up in opposition to Grant Austen, the founder, who stayed put and operated this company, Suffolk Molding, for thirty years. The book plays with you so expertly, never letting you come to easy conclusions about who’s the hero and who’s the villain.

I found myself admiring the book immensely. It is clunky at times, in that very 1950s and 1960s way that many popular novels, particularly by male authors, tended to be. It reminded me, for instance, of The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit or of the polemics of the era, books like The Organization Man or The Lonely Crowd. It’s just very…matter-of-fact. I don’t how to describe it. The book is very focused on its own tale, and not very focused on description or scene or dialogue.

And yet it has a subtle brilliance. This book, more than most I read, seems very fully-realized to me. It’s exactly the book that the author wanted to write, and I hope someday someone can say as much about a book of mine.

I think I’ve found the exact point where early-period Henry James transitions to middle-period Henry James

Was recently reading The Princess Casamassima, which is Henry James’s attempt to write a serious, naturalistic book about the emotional and physical life of the working class. Now I know some people are laughing at that sentence, but I don’t think it’s bad! The man is a master of psychology and characterization, and in this book he writes some characters that are truly deep and interesting, whether its Millicent Hemming, a beautiful shopgirl who thinks she’s sort of on top of the world, to Hyacinth Robinson, a bookbinder and anarchist who’s slowly swayed by the lure of the upper classes.

The first two thirds of the book were riveting. I loved the characters being introduced and the deepening and complication of their relationships.

But the last third was a slog! And as I was reading it, I was like…hmm…I remember this slog. It’s exactly like Henry James’s middle-period book What Maisie Knew, where the book turns into all this arch, sideways commentary between and about the various characters, and it feels like you’re lost in this labyrinth where everything is implied and never said.

And then I looked up when Henry James had written this book, and I realized he’d written it right after The Bostonians (one of my favorite of his books) and a few years before What Maisie Knew, and I was like ahah, I’ve found it! The exact moment where Henry James was like…screw this typical comedy of manners stuff, I am a master of this, and I can do it in my sleep. I’m gonna try something different.

The strong can afford to play it safe; the weak need to gamble

TheRiseandFalloftheThirdReich.jpgSuddenly, for some weird unaccountable reason that has nothing to do with recent political developments, because obviously fascism is totally in the past and has nothing to do with our current post-racial post-nationalist utopia, I’ve become interested in the history of totalitarian regimes. Earlier in the year, I read quite a bit about Stalinist Russia (from which my takeaway was that it was astonishing how non-cynical and genuinely idealistic so many of those communists, including the leaders, happened to be–at times they would’ve achieved much better outcomes if they’d been a little more realistic), and now, over my honeymoon, I’ve made my way through William Shirer’s immense Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich.

In some ways I don’t know that this book is that great as an actual analysis of the reasons why Nazi Germany rose and developed the way it did. The book was written in the 50s, and it relies very heavily on the diaries and other communications by/from Germany political, military, and social leaders. As such, it tended to be more of a history of things people told themselves, rather than of things as they actually were.

However, I still was incredibly fascinated by all the little facets of Hitler’s rise that I wasn’t familiar with. Shirer begins with Hitler’s birth and upbringing, and he goes through to the establishment of the Nazi Party, and then his consolidation of power. There was just so much great stuff. All through our honeymoon, I kept going to Rachel and being like, “Wow, Hitler is doing some really insane stuff!”

For instance, I think one of the most fascinating things is that, after the abortive Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler transformed the Nazi Party into a genuine political party: one that contested and fought elections. They used strong arm tactics, it’s true, but they actually campaigned and won real elections, in which the terms were largely set by their political opponents. But then, the moment Hitler became Chancellor, and I mean literally on that day and on that week, he systematically dismantled his country’s democracy! I mean this is like if Donald Trump had, within his first year in office, said that there were gonna be no more state governments–the states would all be under the direct control of the federal government–and no more elections–and no more uncensored speech–and established a single party state–and created a secret police–and–and–

It was an astonishingly nimble maneuver. I would think, just sitting at home in my armchair, that organizations designed to contest elections would, necessarily, be democratic, and that they would be unwilling to accept this sort of totalitarian dominance. But nope the Nazi Party was an entire organization that was as cynical as Hitler and as committed to pursuing power by any means.

I also realized that much of Hitler’s success just came from the fact that he was willing to take astonishingly large gambles. Other people might move cautiously when it comes to taking power, but nope, Hitler is like I’m gonna get appointed dictator within a few months of taking office. And in the early years of his expansion, Hitler routinely left his border with France totally uncovered in order to invade the Sudetenland or invade Austria or invade Poland. He took massive risks, of the sort you’re really not supposed to take. But I think his reasoning was that he was in an inherently weak position, and the only way for the weaker party to win is to be willing to risk more than the big guys.

Which put a lot of things in perspective for me. There are in this world so many seemingly incompetent people who are huge successes, and the temptation is to be like, well, maybe they’re secret geniuses. But they’re not! Really they’re just gamblers. Like Trump, every time he opened his mouth, he bet big. Other politicians would backpedal and avoid the shit he said, because they might be able to win by playing it safe, but Trump could only win if he was able to set himself apart.

I don’t think this is an analysis Trump made though! I think that there have ALWAYS been gamblers in American political life: Ralph Nader, Bernie Sanders, Jesse Jackson, Lyndon LaRouche, George Wallace, Theodore Roosevelt (the third time he ran), William Jennings Bryan, Abraham Lincoln. And when the historical moment has been right, and the Republic has been at its weakest and most troubled, these gamblers have tended to win.

 

I was explaining this to Rachel and she was like, “Hmm, so we need to be willing to take big risks, then?”

And I was like, “I don’t know if that’s the takeaway.”

The problem is, you don’t know if now is your moment. Nobody does! Most gamblers fail! Political life contains a hundred thousand Donald Trumps who never went anywhere. And there’s no way, a priori, of knowing if you’re going to be the one who wins or the one who loses. The thing about gambling is that in the long run, you usually lose.

And it was the same with Hitler. He never really changed throughout his regime. Up to the last days of the war, he was still making big gambles. But the numbers eventually told against him.

The smart advice is “Don’t risk anything you can’t afford to lose.” But, historically, the most successful gamblers have risked plenty they couldn’t afford to lose. Lincoln and the Republican party risked the entire American experiment. They wagered with the lives of millions of people, free and enslaved. But the secessionists were big gamblers too. They risked even more than Lincoln, and they lost big. Hillary Clinton, when fighting the election, knew she was wagering not just her political future but with our entire nation’s, and she chose to play it safe. But the mere fact that she lost doesn’t mean she was wrong to do so! The things she did, and the way she fought, were designed to minimize Donald Trump’s chances of victory. If she’d gambled bigger, it would’ve entailed risks that, in the long run, probably would’ve eroded her chances of winning.

I think in any contest, assuming all you want is to win, I think what makes sense the most sense is for stronger opponent–the one who has the weight of money and institutional support–to play it safe, and for the weaker opponent to gamble.

The problem is that most big contests in real life don’t have repeats. What happens is what happens, and you either win or you lose. But if you view all American elections as being a continuation of the same contest, you see that playing it safe tends to be the better choice. Like what if, in 1992,  either Clinton and Bush, seeing Perot temporarily in the lead, had pivoted and turned into insurgents? Well, probably the other major-party candidate would’ve won. But if Perot had won (which, for a while, you’ll remember, looked VERY possible), there’d have been a bunch of post-facto analysis about how the major party candidates dropped the ball.

A lot of pollsters got shit for not predicting Trump’s victory, but I, like everybody I know, was checking 538 every single day, and Nate Silver put Trump’s chances of victory at, like, 25 percent. He crunched the numbers and showed that there was high variability in some key states, which is why Trump had a higher chance of winning than Romney had had 4 years earlier, despite having the same poll numbers. And the mere fact that Trump won doesn’t invalidate his analysis.

Similarly, people are calling for major changes in what the Democratic party stands for and in how it fights elections, and I think those are merited, both for political and moral reasons, but not because of this election. In fact, if anything, the Democratic party is much stronger than the Republican party in presidential politics, and it is well-served by playing it safe. The Democratic party is weak because of the nature of our federal system, which gives seventy senators to thirty percent of the population. That’s a structural weaknesss, of exactly the sort that merits gambling.

In this, as with everything, what works best is to have actual principles and beliefs. If you have true moral beliefs then you don’t need to decide whether to gamble or to play it safe, because you’re not simply playing to win: you’re playing to win right. If you have real moral beliefs, then there are terms on which you’d refuse to win and there are things for which you believe it is truly important to speak out for. Unfortunately, I think having real, deeply-felt moral beliefs is generally a gamble in political life. Which is not to say that no moral people exist in politics! In fact I think politics is full of moral people: it’s just that the winners tend to be those with moral systems that are compatible with the, to me, abhorrent things that an American politician (wage aggressive war, support the prison state, maintain universal surveillance, etc) needs to espouse in order to win elections.

That’s the problem with gambling. You are not unique and special, and you don’t get to win just because you’re a risk-taker. No, if you gamble, then you’re giving yourself over to the zeitgeist, and you will only win if your particular gamble happens to fit the needs of the people.

WITH THE EXCEPTION OF 20 STORIES, I’VE NOW READ BASICALLY EVERYTHING ELIZABETH GASKELL EVER PUBLISHED

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Since completing Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel North and South on August 1st, I’ve read all four of her other novels (Ruth, Mary Barton, Wives and Daughters, Sylvia’s Lovers) as well as her novella collection (Cranford) and one story collection (Cousin Phillis And Other Stories). I’m currently reading her biography of Charlotte Bronte, which should finish me out on Gaskell, although I am seriously considering chasing down a few of her other short stories, just for completeness’s sake.

Aside from Sylvia’s Lovers, which is her second to last book and a rare misfire (I found the plot to be way too out-sized and Romantic), I’d say all of the above books were excellent and thoroughly worth your time! If I had to recommend one, I’d probably say Cranford, because it’s the shortest, lightest, and has the best humor.

I don’t know if I’m just crazy in thinking that Gaskell is far superior to many other Victorian authors that are generally esteemed more highly, or if it’s simply that my familiarity with those other authors has given a charm to Gaskell, precisely because she does things so many of them do not (I wondered the same thing a few years ago about George Gissing). Namely, would a person enjoy Elizabeth Gaskell if they hadn’t already gone through the work of Dickens, Thackeray, Eliot, Trollope, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, Ann Bronte, and Jane Austen (not a Victorian, but definitely the mother of them all).

And the answer is…I don’t know. I think too that my newfound love for Gaskell might be a result for my love of 19th century Continental literature, which generally tends to be much more realist than Victorian literature. Balzac and Zola, in particular, were far just as concerned with depicting the nature of things as they were with eliciting strong emotions, and I love that about them! But I also love English literature’s ability to be sort of fuddly and warm and good-humored! Gaskell, at her best, combines both tendencies! For instance, there is no writer I’ve seen who is more concerned with precise amounts. I’ve learned more, from Gaskell, about the impact of the penny post on daily life than I did from reading nineteen Trollope novels, and Trollope actually worked for the postal service for most of his life!

Gaskell seems to have this insane ability to write about anyone, from any walk of life. North and South is about the relations between the family of a curate and the family of a manufacturer. Mary Barton is about mill workers. Ruth is about an orphan who goes to work in a dress shop. Wives and Daughters is about the gradations of rank between the children of a local lord; a country squire; and the nearby town doctor. Several of her stories concern laborers, servants, tenant farmers, and yeomen. Nobody else in the Victorian era is writing novels that cover the whole breadth of the economic spectrum.

Even today, almost nobody tries it! I mean the other day I was overhearing the conversation of two girls at a café, and these two girls were in town to begin college at SF State. One was going to study communications, and the other was going to study fashion design. Now you can go to the bookstore and you can search through shelf after shelf, and you won’t find a literary novel that’s about lower-middle class people. People write about themselves, and authors tend not to be lower middle class. And even when they are, they, like DH Lawrence, become so rapidly acculturated to upper- and upper-middle class mores that it seems never to occur to them to write about the people they left behind.

It’s an incredible achievement, in a time even more class-bound than today, to write novels of manners that are about lower middle class, working class, or poor people. Some of Gaskell’s protagonists are illiterate, or barely-literate, and yet she still effortlessly maps out their emotional life. It’s incredible! Even Zola has a hard time doing that–he views poor people as being too thoroughly marked by their class. Every character, for him, represents an archetype, and someone like Gervaise Macquart–a laundress who achieves brief prosperity before being toppled by alcoholism and economic insecurity–doesn’t get credit for her indomitable will to survive: even her virtues are nothing more than the sorts of virtues that a person would demonstrate in her situation. They don’t feel specific to her.

I think the best Gaskell story I read was “The Crooked Branch,” which is about a farm laborer who comes into money late in life, buys a farm, and marries his childhood sweetheart (herself now working as a maid). He has one child, a son, who he sends off to school, but the school educates his son to want better things, and the son develops dissipated habits. The father and mother have an inkling of what’s going wrong, but he’s still their only son! The child of their old age! And so they alternately rage against and enable him. It’s not a by-the-numbers situation. It’s a situation that could only occur to people of a certain class, but their fate doesn’t feel fore-ordained. They could have reacted, and the world could have responded, in so many different ways. And the brilliance of the story comes in the specific details of how these people respond to their trials.

Anyways now this blog post is perhaps too long, so I’ll leave off saying more, but she’s a good one! Definitely worth your time (I think).

The three different kinds of novels (they’re probably not what you think)

Awhile back I ran across Edith Wharton’s book on how to write. I love Edith Wharton probably more than almost any other writer, so reading this was a no-brainer. And it was fascinating. She’s writing this book more than 100 years ago, and she’s sitting significantly closer to the invention of the novel than we are. If we go back 150 years before Wharton, we can read things that are called novels, but they’re very different, structurally, from anything we’d read today. In Wharton’s time, we haven’t yet hit modernism, but otherwise the outlines of the novel are more or less set.

And I think in her chapter on the novel, she writes very clearly:

Most novels, for convenient survey, may be grouped under one or the other of three types: manners, character (or psychology) and adventure. These designations may be thought to describe the different methods sufficiently; but as a typical example of each, “Vanity Fair” for the first, “Madame Bovary” for the second, and, for the third, “Rob Roy” or “The Master of Ballantrae,” might be named.

When I read this I was like, “Oh my god, I’ve never seen that distinction before.”

(For the uninitiated, here’s how I’ll summarize the difference between the three types. A novel of manners deals with the development and changes within people’s social relations. Most romance novels, for instance, are novels of manners. In these novels, the relationships are the real characters. A novel of character is about the development of one person. It has much more to do with the experience of living within the world and with one person’s internal development. And an adventure is the hardest to define: it’s primarily about external struggle to achieve some definite object. Of course, many novels nowadays contain elements of all of these types.)

I think the reason this came as a surprise is that most of what I know about novels I learned within genre fiction communities, and in our world, the adventure is still the predominant form. There are exceptions! Jo Walton has written novels of manners (in The Just City) and novels of character (such as Among Others). Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkisigan series has progressed through the different types, with some being adventures (Warrior’s Apprentice) and others being novels of character (Memory) and some being straight-up novels of manner (A Civil Campaign). But generally speaking, most sci-fi/fantasy books are adventures.

It becomes even more complicated for me, I think, because the type that interests me the most, the novel of manners, is also not very much in vogue in my other genre (literary fiction for adults). In some ways, it’s not surprising that I ended up writing contemporary YA, because here the novel of manners is the predominant form (this is also why I’m drawn, I think, to romance novels and to some kinds of crime novels).

As a friend of mine recently said (in a toast at my wedding), “Rahul loves conflict.” I just love all the situations in real life where people go at each other and come to cross purposes. In fact, I love movies about weddings, for exactly that reason: weddings are a time when all these feelings bubble to the surface.

Anyway, these thoughts about the nature of the novel came back to me as I was reading Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell (a stunning, spectacular novel of manners). Elizabeth Gaskell is so good. Her work is definitely better than most Eliot, aside from Middlemarch. She just has so much control when she comes to her characters. They’re so multi-faceted, and she knows exactly when to draw back and let them be real. For instance, the stepmother in Wives and Daughters is sort of shallow and horrible, but she really really tries to win over her stepdaughter, partly because she’s not a cruel person (she doesn’t enjoy causing misery) and partly because she knows that the people in the town are going to be judging and evaluating her and she doesn’t want to fall into the wicked stepmother trope. Note, she doesn’t change over the course of the book. Not really. But her relationship with her stepdaughter progresses and develops.

Anyway, these thoughts have given me so much insight into the sort of books that I want to write, and now I put them on the internet that they’ll do the same for you =]

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(Here I’ve attached an image of the Oxford Classics cover of Wives and Daughters. If you’re reading classic English literature on the Kindle and you’re not buying the Oxford Classics editions, then you’re making a huge mistake! They’re like half as expensive as the Penguin Classics editions [often under $5!] and their footnoting is so good! I think I’m coming into the part of my life where I actually enjoy annotations, which is kind of a shock. Wow, I’m officially old.)

Where has Elizabeth Gaskell been all my life!

51efO90M6qLSometimes I get in this mood where I’m like, “I’ve ready so many 19th century British novels (something like 65 in the last 7 years), and I really think I’ve mined out that vein.” And that is when, inevitably, I run across another book that shows me something totally new! I mean I suppose it shouldn’t be very surprising: this is an entire century of literature, after all. Okay so maybe I’m just really callous when it comes to history. If somebody told me that 65 great novels were published in America last year, I’d be like…duh. But my standards for books that’re 100+ years old are much higher.

Anyways, in the last week I’ve been devouring Elizabeth Gaskell. And in a miracle of pacing, each book has been better than the last. North and South was great. I loved how it featured political issues and the working class and plotting that is notably more subtle than the average political novel. However it still felt like a standard marriage plot. The next book, Cranford, was better still. This was a series of vignettes about a village populated mainly by old maids and widows. Nary a marriage plot in sight! I loved their little disputes and household dramas.

But the latest book, Mary Barton, is the best yet! This one is entirely about working class people, which for me is a huge novelty. The only other 19th century British novels I’ve read that’re about working class people are a few of Dickens novels, and in his books they’re always, like, displaced gentry (a la David Copperfield) or exceptional in some other way. Here it’s like, nope, they’re a bunch of mill workers. And they laugh and love and scheme just like gentlepeople! But they also go hungry sometimes =[

Most striking is Gaskell’s portrayal of their health problems. In Victorian literature, people are always taking to bed, wasting away, and dying. But in Mary Barton, the people don’t take to bed until they’re really freaking sick. Thus you have characters like Margaret, a dressmaker’s apprentice who knows the tiny stitching she’s doing is making her go blind, but who takes in more work anyway because she needs to save up money to support her grandfather. You’ve got Alice Wilson, the unmarried aunt of one of the characters, who starts the book as a spry old woman, a factory worker who goes out into the fields on her own time to collect herbal cures, and then deteriorates over the course of the book, first losing her hearing, and then her sight, until she’s left nodding in the corner, confused and alone.

The  book does suffer, though, from the stupid detective plot in the third act. One of the characters gets accused of murder and the other characters need to rally and find evidence that exculpates him. Yawn! Give me some more stuff about who’s gonna marry whom, please.

OUR SPOONS CAME FROM WOOLWORTHS, by Barbara Comyns

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 our_spoons_cover_image_2048x2048, 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.

I read a book about the Russian Revolution!

51tpukxxecl-_sx327_bo1204203200_The only history class I took in college (aside from economic history classes, which don’t count) was one in “Early Modern Russian History,” which ended with Catherine the Great’s reign in 1796. Other than that, all my knowledge of Russia comes from reading fiction: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Chekhov, all the way up to Solzhenitsyn and Lyudmila Petrushevskaya.

Novels are not a very good way of learning history. Well, except for War and Peace, which is actually pretty decent at teaching you about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. And if you try to read a novel without knowing anything about the time period in which it’s set, you can sort of do it, but you also sort of can’t. I realized this after I finally read a book on Chinese history and was like, “Wow, I read entire books where I literally had no idea where the characters were or what form of government they lived under.”

Recently, I was listening to these oral histories of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and I was like, I’ve read so many Russian novels, but I know nothing about this country. So I picked up a book about the Russian Revolution. It was called The Russian Revolution.

And I learned some shit. Like…did you know there were two revolutions? The February Revolution, in which the Tsar was deposed, and the October Revolution, in which the Bolsheviks took power. Mind. Blown.

Also I’d always been confused by the distinction made between the Communist Party and the Government of Russia. Like, why did they bother having the pretense of civil administrators when it was really the communist party making the distinctions? Turns out there’s a fabulous path-dependence behind this: the workers of Petrograd took power in February and formed their own government, the Petrograd Commune, that coexisted uneasily with the civil government that was left in place after the Tsar left office.

The book didn’t begin and end with 1918; it posited that the Russian Revolution was a continual process, which carried through the Russian Civil War, the early thaw of the twenties, and into the Stalinist era.

This whole business of left-wing revolution was not very advanced back in 1918. The only real example that they had was the French Revolution, and they were largely concerned with avoiding the mistakes of that time. It was fascinating to get a feel for the newness of this business of revolt. They knew that with this, the world’s first successful Marxist revolution, they were doing something entirely new within human history, and they were primarily concerned with making sure that they actually did it.

What’s fascinating is how ideological it all was. They were terrible men who cared about power, but they also really believed in communism. If they simply wanted to remain in power, they could’ve left the rudiments of market capitalism in place. Certainly, there was no need to collectivize the farmers or the small businesses. But there was definitely this sense that something needed to be done. They needed to hurry through the dialectic and achieve true socialism.

We aren’t like this today. Nowadays we’re not about systems and about evolution. All we want is to hold onto what we have (and maybe find a way to get a bit more). Russia seems, both from this book and from the novels I’ve read, to always have been a place that was brimming with big ideas. Every writer is so political. And every hero is an anarchist or a collectivist or a pacifist or some other sort of -ist. I don’t think America has ever been like that. I mean it’s not even our self-image. When we had our revolution, we built a government from scratch, but that government wasn’t about remaking society: it was just about letting people do what they wanted to do. And today, whether you’re conservative or liberal, I think that’s still how we view our government. The idea of a revolution that totally remakes our individual relations, the way that individual Americans interact with each other both on a personal level and within the marketplace, seems foreign to us.

Of course now somebody is gonna bust down my comment wall and be like, “You’re wrong! I am a revolutionary!” Well…okay. But I don’t know if you are. The Russia of 1933 was completely different from the Russia of 1917. In twenty years, divorce was legalized, women entered the workforce, private property was banned, peasants were collectivized, and almost every human being found him or herself (assuming they hadn’t starved to death or been sent to the gulag) operating in some totally different role than they had been. If you were an independent barber in 1917, for instance, then by 1933 your whole way of earning a living had become criminal. You could no longer work for yourself; instead you needed to work for a state-owned hair-cutting venture of some sort. Which is pretty wild! Your fundamental relationship to your community and to the state had been realigned!

Obviously the idea of a planned economy is a bad one, but even that level of societal change seems, to me, to be inherently unstable and unattractive.

Finished THE BETROTHED

THE BETROTHED was so good! It’s almost a perfect novel. It feels so confident and well-executed. Perhaps the only negative thing about it is also the best thing, which is that it feels in the beginning as if it’s going to be an adventure novel (a la The Count of Monte Cristo) about outwitting the evil Don Rodrigo, but it’s really not. There is that element, but mostly the evil plots are foiled by good luck.

Which is fine, because the book isn’t about that. It’s about…well, okay, there’s no getting around it: the book is about Christianity and finding God and shit. It feels very much like Tolstoy, both in its scope and its message. In fact, the book even does one better than Tolstoy, because while Count Leo only talked talked about how great the peasants were, Alessandro Manzoni actually wrote a book in which the protagonists are peasants.

These are just people who’re trying to make a life for themselves. And they’re not better than the gentry (although the nature of their lives makes it more difficult for them to do harms), but they’re not worse either, and and and and, I feel like I’m doing a bad job of describing the book. It’s just so epic in scope, first of all. About two thirds of the way through, the plague breaks out, and you get an epic description of the decimation of Northern Italy.

And you also get so many wonderful capsule descriptions of little characters. Someone will walk onstage, and then the narrator will dip back into their life and describe all kinds of shit about them. But not in an out-of-control way, like Victor Hugo does. Instead it always feels like there’s a capable guide.

Moreover, the religious themes get introduced slowly, and the book starts off by including negative examples: a priest who allows himself to be bullied; a nun who was forced into the convent by her wealthy family, and who schemes to commit murder. But, slowly, you see better examples. And, moreover, you see the value of the Christian God. Not the value of some abstract humility or sense of kindness: the book is about the consolation and strength one gets from feeling as if Jesus and Mary and the Holy Spirit are surrounding you.

Agh, I love this book. I wish everybody in the world could read it. If you like nineteenth century novels, you will love this book. It has everything good and nothing bad.