What I Read in December, 2016

January 2, 2017 § Leave a comment

Swallowed By the Cold, Jensen Beach. This collection of interlinked stories is set in Sweden, where the author has lived. The stories are not only made alive by evoking  a strong sense of place, they evoke enough of the country’s own past—such as the country’s involvement in The Winter War in Finland in 1939 or the attack on Stockholm by the Soviet Union in World War II–to make clear that the book partly wants to be about Swedish identity.

Though the stories are linked, the characters seem to ache through a loneliness, knowing who their neighbors are but not reaching them as people. The death of one of them in a bicycle accident radiates out to a number of the stories:

“Lisa,” Helle said, “is that the man with one arm?” The tennis player with only one arm?” They both laughed and then Peter joined in, laughing and saying, “You never told me about him, you never told me about him!” at Helle repeatedly, as though he were happy to have missed out on the joke.

The Door, Magda Szabó. I hadn’t heard of Magda Szabó (1917-2007) before her work was reissued by NYRB Classics, but apparently she was a pretty big deal in her native Hungary. The Door was first published in 1987 and continues the European theme of class discrepancy and the struggle to communicate across divides. The narrator, named Magda, is a writer and academic, perhaps as well known as Magda Szabó was in real life. She had been silenced during the Communist regime, but its fall has led to new opportunities, and she and her husband hire a housekeeper named Emerence, who lives in a cottage near their home. The door to this cottage is the referenced in the title; Magda and other visitors are allowed on the porch, but absolutely nobody is allowed inside.

The relationship between the two women becomes a test of wills, at first coldly professional, and then, after Magda’s husband becomes ill, seeping with an intimacy and a nosiness that seems unavoidable between two strong personalities living in close quarters. Where the novel cashes in is in the moments where their backgrounds rub against one another and Magda’s own bubble comes close to being pierced:

“What is this kitsch?” she asked. “What does it mean? Explain it to me.”

I wracked my brain for a way to explain to her the vices of the innocent, ill-proportioned, cheaply-made little dog.

“Kitsch is when a thing is in some way false, created to provide superficial, trivial pleasure. Kitsch is something imitative, fake, a substitute for the real thing.”

“This dog is fake?” she asked, with rising indignation. “A fraud? Well, hasn’t it got everything – ears, paws, a tail? But it’s all right for you to keep a brass lion’s head on your desk. You think it’s wonderful, and your visitors gush over it, and make knocking noises with it, like idiots, though it doesn’t even have a neck – nothing – just a head, but they go bang bang with it on the stationery cupboard. So the lion, which doesn’t even have a body, is not a fake, but the dog, that’s got everything a dog has, is? Why are you telling me such lies?

Stoner, John Williams. Stoner is one of the more popular and beloved NYRB reissues—The New Yorker, in 2013, called it “the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of”—and it’s easy to see why: the prose is lucid with underlying tensions and remorseless in depicting the bumps and derailments in an American life and marriage. It’s also hard not to notice the comments it makes about the suffocating environment of academia. The title character, on track for a career in agronomy, instead takes a liking to literature and becomes an instructor at the University of Missouri. William Stoner is adept at his work and for the most part successful, though he enters into personality clashes with two antagonists, a particularly testing Ph.D. candidate and a calculating department head. His relationship with his wife, meanwhile, turns quickly from one of frolic to one of function and eventually resentment, leading him all too predictably to begin an affair with a student, putting his position and everyone around him at risk.

I suspect it is the convincing jabs at the university culture that gives Stoner its audience of admirers, because any sense of movement in the book is measured out by Stoner’s collapse and moral erosion. But it also demonstrates a balanced ability with language that is fitting to the subject:

But he had room in his office for only a few of his books, and his work on his manuscript was often interrupted because he did not have the necessary texts; moreover one of his office mates, an earnest young man, had the habit of scheduling student conferences in the evenings, and the sibilant, labored conversations carried on across the room distracted him, so that he found it difficult to concentrate. He lost interest in his book; his work slowed and came to a halt. Finally he realized that it had become a refuge, a haven, an excuse to come to this office at night. He read and studied, and at last came to find some comfort, some pleasure, and even a ghost of the old joy in that which he did, a learning toward no particular end.

We Always Treat Women Too Well, Raymond Queneau. Queneau is often identified as one of the co-founders of Oulipo, a school that promotes new and experimental forms in literature, stretching against preset limits. He wrote Zazie in the Metro, which I read several years ago. This comic novel presents a more standard structure, a pulp satire surrounding a hostage-taking at a Dublin post office during the 1916 Easter Rebellion. Since it’s a comic novel, the crooks are their own worst enemies, and their plan goes awry when they try to evacuate all of the workers and leave a young woman, Gertie Girdle, who had been in the restroom. Naturally, the all-male cabal of rebels don’t know how to respond to her presence, which she leverages against them.

The absence of any point to the plot leaves the reader searching for something even of a gratuitous pleasure to hang onto, just for traction. There are clublike allusions to modernist writers, particularly Joyce (never mind that it’s set six years before Ulysses was published); there is Three Stooges-like zaniness; there is rape imposed as a joke. In the introduction, John Updike writes, “This farce feels genuinely sexy” because “we are left with an impression of relations between men and women as lawless and predatory.” But the modern reader needs to be nudged in that direction just to have a frame of reference for what Queneau is trying to achieve here.

This bewildering year ends with me having read thirty-seven books, many of them very good. I think I ended up buying more than that number, because my office floor is covered with stacks of books I haven’t cracked. I was glad to go through all five novels of Jean Rhys, even though I never got to write about them in the comprehensive way I intended. I was glad to see Colson Whitehead get the acclaim he has long deserved for The Underground Railroad; it is a tense and thickly layered book that allows imagination to be used to a weapon for processing the ugly and shameful marks of our past, and as a delivery to hope.

In real life I visited Iceland and Montreal; in books I visited both of those places (via Halldor Laxness, Jon Gnarr, and Mavis Gallant), along with Jamaica (Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings), Hungary (Magda Szabó’s The Door), Sweden (Jensen Beach’s Swallowed by the Cold), Bulgaria (Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You) and New York City in the summer of 1977 (Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire). I was warmed by a little novel called Glaciers by Alexis Smith and the chance it allows in the small acts we undertake.

There are books you read for pleasure and books you read for ideas, and one book that filled me to the brim with both was Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women. For a domestic book, it reveals so much of what a writer can do in a limited space, even with physically limited characters, tethered either literally to hospital beds or to their responsibilities. Berlin lets her characters share the wisdom they have gleaned from their experience, not explain from the bottom up like so many books do, and so her stories have a depth and subtlety I’ve rarely seen replicated anywhere else.


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