For almost a week, I’ve been savoring each page of The Master, Colm Tóibín’s 2005 novel about the life of Henry James. When reading James, I’m often forced to slow down and read like a woman of one hundred years ago, someone with time, a quiet place, organized thoughts, and a more formal vocabulary. This is an exercise in delight for me, as Henry pays huge dividends for the expenditures in reading him. Tóibín taps directly into this vein of understanding about James and those who enjoy him. The pace of The Master is distinct, leisurely, and very nuanced. All week long, I’ve been allowed to think about Henry James, and even more so, about the development of his life as a writer, a life devoted to his craft and set apart from all else. That’s an extraordinary thing, as most writers find a way to function within their art and within more intimate realms as well. Not so Henry.
Another aspect of this story that has surprised me is how Tóibín does no small bit of imagining and supposing regarding the appropriation of persons from Henry’s life into his literature. Just this week, an online book group I belong to skirted this topic when a member raised the question “Are you a fictional character?” Turns out that no one as yet has ‘fessed to being written. But it seems that James, in Tóibín, fairly nakedly borrowed from the lives of his family members and acquaintances, enriching them by his vast imagination and placing them in settings of his own choosing, but in each case, retaining something essential and ultimately identifiable in the people who live in his novels and stories. I love this technique, not so much the strict notion of borrowing, but what Tóibín is doing, confidently attributing characteristics and writerly devices to Henry. And all in a novel about the ultimate observer. Fabulous stuff with its own brand of energy, and I’m eager to fluff the pillows tonight and read late with the alarm turned off.
One thing I’m almost certain is true about James: his empathy knew no limit. He was able to imagine how other people were feeling and to trace the complex paths of burgeoning emotions. When he wrote, there was no hesitancy in hitting the mark of his characters. He knew them thoroughly and spent countless hours imagining every thing about them. Reading The Master, James’ empathy and understanding comes through so vividly; Tóibín’s novel could be the finest preparation ever for reading more James.
What a week it has been. I fought rising fever and influenza until Thursday noon when I landed in bed and stayed for almost 24 hours. Wednesday evening, I had tried to read a bit of The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu, but found it simplistically and flatly written. Unfortunate, for sure, as it’s garnered positive reviews, but I wasn’t interested. Finally, Thursday night, climbing from the feverish fog and fighting a ferocious headache, I began Clear by Nicola Barker. By the time I finished it late last night, I had laughed aloud, spring had arrived, and I felt almost new. Clear is the story of a man’s journey from muddled irony into, well, a bit of clarity, viewed around and amongst some of the circus that surrounds illusionist David Blaine’s 2003 London stunt. While Blaine is suspended above the Thames in a clear box for all to view, Adie MacKenny scampers around beneath him devising clever routines for getting laid.
Adie’s worldview is highly referential, tangential, and not the least bit existential. He’s the flatmate of another posh young Londoner who travels in elite circles, eating the right foods and listening to the right music while Adie dwells in the basement, nursing disdain for and distance from others. That is, until one night when, attendant to the Blaine spectacle, Adie is propelled into Aphra’s world. All this may seem a bit formulaic, but Barker’s zesty dialogue and narrative prevents the story from taking on anything resembling a dull sheen. Aphra is a young woman who sits distinctly apart from Adie’s circle, but who pulls him into hers. So is the novel about David Blaine’s exhibition? Now, who would think that? This is the first Barker for me, and she’s a world class ironist, in my opinion. Barker uses the atmosphere and elements of the Blaine stunt as a foil against some real magic unfolding in Adie’s life, not just the sleight of shallow romance, but the permanent silk of self revelation and elevation. It just couldn’t be more clear.
Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee’s 1999 Booker Prize winning novel about an academic spiraling from control, is a huge novel stated in just over 200 pages. And it’s spiraling from a state of controlling, not out of control, an important distinction within these taut pages. David, a 52-year old academic, finds himself on the outs of the Capetown technical school where he is an instructor by rote. He engineers his own resignation from his teaching post after instigating a sexual affair with a beautiful, teenaged student who cannot handle the situation. David is unrepentant, bold and persistent in engaging his lust for the girl, despite all of the warning signs that she is not interested and is merely passively submitting to his overtures. To him, this is of no consequence, as he views himself as under the control of a force mystical and eternal.
When David travels to spend some time out at his daughter’s farm, he discovers sides of rural life in South Africa that veer far from anything approaching bucolic. And this is where David begins to learn, how to suffer in empathy for another person, how to honestly view himself, and, just possibly, how to lay down his controlling, stifling nature. A brilliant, tense read, Disgrace begs many questions and answers none. Coetzee glances many sensitive topics without dipping heavily into them. For starters, the dynamics of rape, the mindless proliferation of animals that accompanies poverty, the startles of growing older, and the faceoff between black and white settlers in South Africa. And so many more, tucked securely within the story, but approaching the reader only after the book is closed.
It’s exciting to be in Disgrace. Halfway through in just two reading sessions, and it’s simply wonderful. This is the first Coetzee for me and his cracklingly clean sentences are just the thing to launch this reader into spring mode. Last year at about this time, I read House of Meetingsby Martin Amis, tripping through it quickly and feeling that its energy sparked a momentum that carried me many months. Yesterday afternoon, I was lucky to listen to a 1990 interview with Brian Moore, the underknown Irish writer who died in 1999, leaving the world twenty novels. I’ve read a few now, and he’s occupying the heights with Philip Roth, Henry James, and Willa Cather.
But back to the interview…Something Moore said about his pull towards leaner and more impactful prose really impressed me. I don’t usually consider the length of a novel when pulling it from the shelf, unless it’s something over 500 pages. Then, it’s a tougher choice as I tally the hours and days it may take to burn through those pages. As I listened to Moore’s soft Irish voice suggesting that literature may in fact be more powerful when it’s expressed in economical form, I agreed totally and silently reshaped a bit of my thinking. If I live to be my grandmother’s age of 97, and, with excellent health and some good genes in my corner there’s no reason to think it couldn’t happen, that’s still only another 50 years. If I’m lucky enough to read a novel per week, that’s still only another 2500 or so to anticipate at the outside estimate. So, no more wasting time on anything that doesn’t take hold in a reasonable number of pages, and I’m giving myself a pass on War and Peace and Ulysses. Springing forward.
After spending almost a week struggling to find interludes of anything to enjoy about Janice Galloway’s The Trick is to Keep Breathing, I have failed and am placing it back on the shelf. As a teenager, this brand of endlessly repetitive interior monologue might have held me fast. But, one of the most wonderful things about middle age is the knowledge that although griefs are every bit as surprising and painful as they are in youth, the residuals don’t seem to linger and aren’t half as enjoyable. I couldn’t stand Galloway’s narrator, if the truth be told, and found her extreme predicament less than believable. So, in Disgrace as it were for fizzling out on the follow through, it’s the Coetzee for me.
Well, well, well, there’s life in the old volume yet. The Trick is to Keep Breathing became somewhat interesting today on lunch hour. And just in time, as I was giving it a few more pages, then the old heave ho. As always happens when I’m into a book that is not really holding court, my mind begins to do its own bit of title shopping for the next read. Some possibilities flitting through for the moment the Galloway slows down again and I’m forced to chuck it: Angle of Repose, London Fields, anything by Philip Roth. I need an energizing read, after gobbling the O’Brien and not saving any for this week. Work is so busy right now, and the drive home finds me thinking of a glass of red rather than anything literary. Or rather than anything at all.
All week I’ve struggled to get past the first few pages of Janice Galloway’s The Trick is to Keep Breathing. As someone who is ordinarily attuned to the emotional states of women, and frankly drawn towards individuals who play to the dark side, I’m still at a loss here. Almost sixty pages in and the emotional fragility of the narrator is well established. She is compulsively cleaning and scrubbing her kitchen. She lingers in the bed. There are fragments of what may be thoughts on a lost lover. So where is the pull? Am I just unable at this point in life to devote time to a novel that seems devoted to singular navel gazing? Now, I like introspection, characters who are deeply conflicted and spend pages and pages inside themselves figuring out who and why they are. What is it about this nameless woman that I’m finding dull as tombs? It just may be the various devices Galloway uses to create that post-modern feel. Snippets of newspaper articles with optimistic sales phrases to counter the narrator’s dark mood. That sort of thing, and it’s tiring. Argh, the obvious — trick is to keep reading.