Willa Cather – My Antonia

A few thoughts from 2009…

Some years ago, there was a gangly young woman living in Kansas City, careening towards marriage to a sophisticated young man. Only, the young woman was really in love with reading, with the vast prairie, with the lowly redwing blackbird and scrub flowers.On a warm weekend in June, the man gathered his bachelor brethren for a large party at a local residence inn. Here they would drink, cavort with some topless women, and break each other’s ribs (!) in making merry for the man to marry.

The woman (thinking it possible she had not yet truly met her match) fled to Willa Cather’s home town, Red Cloud, Nebraska, for a bachelorette weekend of her own. She basked in the dry prairie grass, dusty gravel, and a greater sense of not knowing exactly where she was going or if she would make it there. She was struggling to pioneer her own life, coming to the middle of nowhere a bit as the Europeans who subdued the Midwest came, knowing only that, for some, striking out for the unknown is bred in the bone.

Of course this is not the story, and yet it is. My Ántonia is a novel of remembrance and great spirit, the recollection of a man who loves a woman he can possess only in the memory of their shared childhood. It’s a story of settlers and hardship, leaving and homesickness, sprinkled with glory, written in a spare, youthful tone. It is all about reaching out for the cherished unknown. This much I can tell you. But I’m unable to go further as I’ve absorbed this work so that it runs in my pulse, and to display it further would feel akin to opening a vein.

My Ántonia is more lovely, sweeter, and wilder than any novel I’ve read. It’s the story I think about on those occasions when I hop an outbound plane, knowing that I’m never more American than when setting out, leaving the familiar for adventures and points which can only be reckoned on some internal compass.

Self indulgent thoughts? Yeah, baby.

I had only to close my eyes to hear the rumbling of the wagons in the dark, and to be again overcome by that obliterating strangeness. The feelings of that night were so near that I could reach out and touch them with my hand. I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what a little circle man’s experience is.


Graham Greene – The Power and the Glory

It’s been a long, sad spring, made even worse by a stupid cyber attack against the web address I love to visit more than any other, the home of my online book group. I’m going to work at bringing some of my short reviews here in case the worst happens and the site goes down. These thoughts are from Nov, 2007…

Graham Greene’s 1939 novel begins with fragments of lives placed disparately and sketchily in the first pages. We meet, among others, a dentist, an old man and his wife, a military man, and a stranger. Each thread brushes its neighbor only slightly, and reading this for the first time, I wondered if the novel would ever fasten these elements. The word ‘postmodern’ flitted through my head. And then the mule sat down.

In the chapters following, an astounding character flourishes and agonizes, lives boldly and cravenly, and confronts death with equal parts trembling and equanimity. He’s a nameless priest, on the run from Red Shirts who’ve placed a bounty on him and are determined to eradicate the Church from their state. The man is many things- alcoholic, full of sin and mercy, an inappropriate giggler, and the father of a young girl.

Initially en route to visit his daughter and her mother in tense and unwelcome circumstances, the priest journeys into a series of heartbreaking attachments and artery pounding escapes. A firing squad awaits any who might harbor him, and his visit to the tiniest remote Indian village brings both the chill of danger and the relief of absolution. For in a tattered briefcase, this man carries the Host and offers communion and confession to villagers who revere the mysteries of Catholicism and who cling to their faith in spite of the government’s efforts to obliterate it.
Five years ago he had given way to despair–the unforgivable sin–and he was going back now to the scene of his despair with a curious lightening of the heart. For he had got over despair too. He was a bad priest, he knew it: they had a word for his kind–a whisky priest–but every failure dropped out of sight and out of mind: somewhere they accumulated in secret–the rubble of his failures. One day they would choke up, he supposed, altogether the source of grace. Until then he carried on, with spells of fear, weariness, with a shamefaced lightness of heart.
The Power and the Glory is a study in contrasts. Humor, pathos, irony, earnestness, and endless possibilities for theological spring boarding are here for the taking. As the little whisky priest is pursued by his legalistic tormentor, the doors into his faith open and slam repeatedly, bringing him in only to shut him out.
He had heard men talk of the unfairness of a deathbed repentance–as if it was an easy thing to break the habit of a life whether to do good or evil. One suspected the good of the life that ended badly–or the viciousness that ended well. He made another desperate attempt. He said: “You believed once. Try and understand–this is your chance. At the last moment. Like the thief. You have murdered men–children perhaps,” he added…”But that need not be so important. It only belongs to this life, a few years–it’s over already. You can drop it all here, in this hut, and go on for ever…” He felt sadness and longing at the vaguest idea of a life he couldn’t lead himself…words like peace, glory, love.

Some Days, Only a Quote

Witold Gombrowicz, Ferdydurke, 1937

See how different would be the attitude of a man who, instead of saturating himself with the phraseology of a million conceptualist metaphysician-aestheticians, looked at the world with new eyes and allowed himself to feel the enormous influence which form has on human life. If he still wanted to use his fountain-pen, he would do so, not in order to become a great writer and create art, but, let us say, the better to express his own personality and draw a clear picture of himself in the eyes of others; or to organize himself, bring order within himself, and by confession to cure any complexes or immaturities; and also, perhaps, to make his contact with others deeper, more intimate, more creative, more sharply outlined, which could be of great benefit to his mind and his development; or, for instance, he might try to combat customs, prejudices, principles which he found contrary to his nature; or again, he might write simply to earn a living. He certainly would not spare effort to ensure that his work possessed an artistically attractive form, but his principal goal would be, not art, but himself. He would no longer write pretentiously, to educate, to elevate, to guide, to moralize, and to edify his fellow-men; his aim would be his own elevation and his own progress; and he would write, not because he was mature and had found his form, but because he was still immature and in his efforts to attain form was humiliating himself, making a fool of himself, and sweating like a climber still struggling towards the mountain-top, being a man still on the way to self-fulfilment.

Nicole Krauss – Great House

A RIDDLE: A Stone is thrown in Budapest on a winter night in 1944. It sails through the air toward the illuminated window of a house where a father is writing a letter at his desk, a mother is reading, and a boy is daydreaming about an ice-skating race on the frozen Danube. The glass shatters, the boy covers his head, the mother screams. At that moment the life they know ceases to exist. Where does the stone land?

Nicole Krauss’ 2010 novel, Great House, is my favorite among those I read last year. It’s a marvel, a work layered in four first person narratives that glance off of one another, ever so tangentially, as they loosely trace the life of an enormous desk, “really more like a ship than a desk, a ship riding a pitch-black sea in the dead of a moonless night.” The four voices belong to a writer, a father, a husband, and a lover. Each carries a deeply nested and burdening truth that he or she must share. What Krauss allows them to do– pillow talk style — is unburthen so that the reader is both midwife and burial vault for their honesty. These are among the most captivating, intimate voices I have read.

The novel begins with Nadia, a writer who is deeply depressed at the loss of the desk she unconsciously associates with her modest success. Her self-awareness is acute, her self-appraisal frank. “Something in me naturally migrated away from the fray, preferring the deliberate meaningfulness of fiction to unaccounted-for reality.” Nadia has inherited the desk from a poet she met briefly, a man leaving New York for his native Chile. Years later, she gives the desk to a young woman, Leah Weisz, and finds herself suddenly panicked and bereft. Nadia hurriedly leaves New York to search for the desk in Jerusalem.

The next story is that of the father, a man whose anguished love for his favorite son projects in a not so subtle fashion. When the old man’s wife dies, the beloved son, Dov, returns to Jerusalem and walks into the emotional firestorm maintained by his father. Krauss has created an exceptionally realistic first person account of a brutal and hardened older man’s stupefying resistance to the sensitive nature of his son, and to his own as well. This is a man who appears larger than life as he is fleshed out in towering monologue.

Suddenly I saw you as you were at the age of ten…Calling and calling to me because you thought you were lost. Guess what, my boy. I was there the whole time! Crouched behind a rock, a few meters up the cliff. That’s right, while you called, while you screamed out for me, believing yourself to be abandoned in the desert, I hid behind a rock patiently watching, like the ram that saved Isaac. I was Abraham and the ram. How many minutes passed while I let you shit in your pants, a ten-year-old boy facing his smallness and helplessness, the nightmare of his utter aloneness, I don’t know.

Following these two intense narrators are another two, every bit as profound, just as deliciously readable. First is a widower, a man bereaved by the recent death of his wife, Lotte. He mourns not only the loss of his wife, but the complicated secrets of her existence. Finally there is Isabel, an American studying at Oxford who falls in love with Yoav Weisz, brother of Leah. Isabel’s desire for Yoav lifts her out of her narrow life and into unexplored terrain, “because of what I knew he could ignite in me, a vitality that was excruciating…”

Compared to what awaits within Great House, these words of praise here are pale indeed. Krauss is a writer who pours flesh and blood into her characters, places them on the pillow next to yours, and lets them spill their hearts.

Maybe you sense that I am coming to the end, that the story that has been hurtling toward you from the start is about to turn the bend in the road and collide with you at last.

In the Old Testament book of Kings, Solomon seizes upon an interlude of peace to undertake construction of his Temple, the Great House, erected in a splendor of cedar and gold and dedicated to holding the ark of the covenant of the Lord. The ark, precious beyond measure, and so holy that even its caretakers were not allowed to look upon it, held the basics of faith, the words of Yahweh, etched by the human hands of Moses into tablets of stone. Words, thrown from stone to inhabit human history and move indelibly throughout lives. Words, the gold and cedar. Stories, the Temple.

The Woman Who Waited – Andreï Makine

One of my cherished keepsakes is a small, handmade kaleidoscope purchased years ago from an artisan’s shop in Colorado. It’s a simple affair, a roughly imperfect and very bubbly green marble tethered by a thin wire to the end of a triangular, glass-lined tube. From the outside, it doesn’t look like much…

Months and even years may pass between the moments when I pick up the kaleidoscope for a short visit. Always of course, I hold the scope into light and manipulate the marble to create new patterns; this makes me smile because after all, the purpose of a kaleidoscope is nothing but a glimpse back at the viewer’s unique and private eyeful. The only thing a kaleidoscope can produce is reaction, either the dismissal or delight of such minuscule events.

A good novel brings much the same effect, that of holding a slice of life in mutable relief, inviting the reader to turn the marble of perception and consider the patterns that are revealed. The French writer Andreï Makine’s 2004 work, La Femme qui attendait or The Woman Who Waited, casts this kaleidoscope effect brilliantly.

Outwardly, The Woman Who Waited might appear to be an overly romanticized story, that of a young man who sets forth to write a satire about the lives and customs of small town folk and finds himself in thrall to a middle-aged woman who has placed herself on the shelf waiting for…someone, or is it something?

The narrator, a young man of sardonic disposition, begins to closely follow the life of Vera, a middle-aged woman of no apparent exception save the one, as she dwells within the northern Russian village of Mirnoe. There she teaches children by day while in her spare time she befriends, cares for, and buries the old, forgotten women sprinkled in poverty throughout the village and surrounding woodlands. Vera is bound to her life amid the thatched roofs and tree-darkened doorways of her village. Makine uses the forest imagery to distinguish Vera’s environ from the cynicism of Brezhnev’s Moscow and the harsh world of the young sophisticate who finds himself drawn into the physical and emotional thicket of village living.

In Leningrad, at the Wigwam, we were forever making clear-cut distinctions between good and evil in the world. I knew the evil that had laid waste to these villages in the North was boundless. And yet never had the world appeared so beautiful to me…

Within this deceptively simple premise, Makine wields muscular, clear language as translated by Geoffrey Strachan, vibrant prose that holds up and turns around for a look-see the lovely marble which is the emotional contradiction found in the act and art of waiting. The Woman Who Waited reveals the great variegation within what would appear to be a lonely woman’s existence, and it constantly surprises with challenges to the notion of waiting as simply a state of forbearance. The expressions of delicacy and exoticism in Vera’s suspended animation along with those of the narrator, himself yielding to knowledge of his new friend, cart-wheel before the reader in an athletic display that welcomes the incongruity of slow, close reading. Yet Makine never plows the reader with sentiment.

But life, easy-going life, caring little for elegance, is nothing more than a constant mixture of genres.

Makine’s ability to access the fluctuating inner life of his characters is profound. He writes into and around Vera and her nameless friend, charging them equally with the sense of both the quiescence and the purpose found in waiting.

In the boat she took one oar, leaving the other for me… Our rhythms were quickly matched. Each effort made by the other felt like a response to one’s own, down to the slightest tensing of the muscles. We touched shoulders but our real closeness was in this slow, rhythmic action, the care we took to wait for each other, pulling together once more after too powerful a stroke or the skipping of a blade over the crest of a wave…We were quite simply there, side by side, amid the somnolent hissing of the rain, in a dusk as cool as fish scales…

The French philosopher Michel Foucault once wrote, “Waiting is directed at nothing: any object that could gratify it would only efface it. Still, it is not confined to one place, it is not a resigned immobility; it has the endurance of a movement that will never end and would never promise itself the reward of rest…”

The Woman Who Waited is like that beautiful, rough marble at the end of the long tube. Read the book, turn the marble, let the kaleidoscope come in.

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

Last winter, I met up with a snail at the fringes of an oatmeal packet. It happened just like this: early one desperately cold morning, a brain teaser from the instant oats papers caught my eye as I stood, sleepy headed, in a thin gown waiting for breakfast to cool. The cereal sleeve read, Q: Which garden creature can sleep for three years? A: the snail. I felt suddenly and warmly touched by the notion of such a small, vulnerable thing bedding down for so long, instinctively knowing that all would be well upon return. For a moment, I wished to be just as deeply slept. That morning began what’s become a slight fascination with the ancient forest dweller who chews through my hosta leaves each summer and whom I can never bring myself to banish with home remedies or harsh treatment.

Forward then to last Sunday, a merciless July day that resulted in my first ever drive to Iowa City and the iconic Prairie Lights Bookstore. After an hour or so of inspired browsing, parking meter and budget constraints forced me to get serious about one or two titles. That’s when I spied the cover of Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, shyly posed on the staff picks shelf. I almost tripped in delight as I dove to pick it up. Who wouldn’t?

Bailey’s ode to the snail begins briefly recounting an illness, her own, and with it her harrowing removal from the activities of her well ordered life into forced recumbency within a sickroom. She addresses the malady and its course with grace such that her eye, and the reader’s, remains upon the gastropod who is lovingly plucked by a friend from the woods just outside her home and gifted within a pot of field violets.

These field violets in the pot at my bedside were fresh and full of life, unlike the usual cut flowers brought by other friends. Those lasted just a few days, leaving murky, odiferous vase water…But what about this snail? What would I do with it? As tiny as it was, it had been going about its day when it was picked up. What right did my friend  and I have to disrupt its life?

The disrupted life is at the heart of Bailey’s meditation upon her snail. What happens to us when things happen? Can we “love the questions”, as the poet Rilke suggests, or is there shrinking and defending afoot whenever change and uncertainty are about. Through Bailey’s thoughtful words, the life of the woodland snail provides a small template for contemplation of our larger animal selves. Snails possess so much more than their slimy reputation suggests. They have a heart, a lung, rudimentary eyes, and a sleep-wake rhythm that normally occurs within the same 24 hours as ours, though it’s true they can sleep for years. They meet disruption with slow and careful tentacles, feeling and sensing in a beautiful proportion that allows for sure footed balance.

Bailey sprinkles numerous poetic, scientific, and literary references to the snail, from the ancient Mandarin Chinese to Darwin, from mollusc experts to Emily Dickinson, all people who have thought and written about the nature of snail explorations, their architecture, slimy abilities, and their social graces.  Snails, I am just finding out, know where they are and what they are about. Though they do use some defenses, their tactics are more in line with some of my own such as hiding when the sun is too hot and cherishing a good portobello mushroom in small bites.

Then, there’s that special connection snails enjoy…

A romantic encounter between a pair of snails can take up to seven hours from start to finish and involves three phases. First there is the lengthy courtship, in which the snails draw slowly closer, often circling each other, smooching, and exchanging tentacle touches…In the second phase, the snails embrace in a spiral direction and mate…Consummation is followed by the last phase, resting; the snails, still quite near each other, both withdraw into their shells and remain immobile, sometimes for several hours.

This lovely book about the little snail traveled with me this week to Chicago and helped me to keep perspective and smile at passersby while shepherding two teenagers through the urban landscape. Snail and The City, anyone? Truth is, I would recommend this immensely charming book for just about anyone, anywhere. Who needs a noise machine, a chemical habit, or satin eye shades when there is some time to be spent unwinding with a woodland snail?

Marauder by ono no komachi courtesy of Flickr

The Outermost House – Henry Beston

            for whatever we lose (like a you or a me)/ it’s always ourselves we find in the sea- e e cummings


I went to the woods because I wished…wait, that’s not right for this, is it? Thoreau may have traipsed deliberately into the underbrush to live, but he, like Henry Beston, was surely drawn to the sea. Perhaps we all are, summoned by the weight of ancient codes and polypeptides shifting within our cells, leaning us waterward, demanding our periodic attendance to that primordial spot, the place where it all began, so as to never entirely lose our inner ooze. Elemental, yes?

Henry Beston went to the ocean in 1925 after building himself a sturdy two room home on the easternmost point of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, known as Eastham Beach. Beston intended to remain for two weeks at the home he named Fo’castle (pronounced fohk-suhl), only to find

the beauty and mystery of this earth and outer sea so possessed and held me that I could not go. The world to-day is sick to its thin blood for lack of elemental things, for fire before the hands, for water welling from the earth, for air, for the dear earth itself underfoot. In my world of beach and dune these elemental presences lived and had their being, and under their arch there moved an incomparable pageant of nature and the year.

The Outermost House is Beston’s lively commentary upon this extraordinary year, a time in which he lived alone but was never lonely, given to the solitary and singularly glorious task of observing the oceanfront environment and recording his ample ideas upon its changes within the course of that annum. Beston considered himself foremost a writer, then a naturalist. His little book affords such literary immersion in a world bordered only by water and sky and sand, inhabited by thousands of birds and very few people. Beston places the naturalist’s patina upon his images of the mundane yet haunting essences of water, wildlife, and vegetation, those ephemera which are always moving and brimming with life stories, none of them human.

Beston’s path to Fo’castle sprang from his days of World War I service. Any reader will be forced to imagine the healing course upon him of hours and days spent on the shore, the certain rhythms and the tediums of  observance filling in and smoothing grooves where before there almost certainly was horror and pain. Truly, the reader is given only to imagine this, for Beston very scarcely brings himself into the account. His personal references are almost non-existent; his philosophical musings are breezy, while containing great insight into Beston’s love of nature and his most cherished beliefs.

Creation is here and now. So near is man to the creative pageant, so much a part is he of the endless and incredible experiment, that any glimpse he may have will be but the revelation of a moment, a solitary note heard in a symphony thundering through debatable existences of time.

Beston gives us the world of the shore in all its wide, sensuous span. He devotes a chapter each to the full exploration of his beachfront existence through  sensory measures, by day and by night, with such descriptions of aural, visual and olfactory register that any reader acquainted with the ocean will recognize and appreciate the simple, evocative power of the words.

Listen to it a while, and it will seem but one remote and formidable sound; listen still longer and you will discern in it a symphony of breaker thunderings, an endless, distant, elemental cannonade. There is beauty in it, and ancient terror.

Beston also details the lives of the native and transitory birds who inhabit the Cape. He is a bird lover of high measure, going so far as to capture a large bird caught in an oil spill for an overnight’s safekeeping and an attempt at feather cleaning in the little house. He counts nests and eggs, checks on flocks after storms, and takes great pains to portray the inherent grace of even the modest sparrow and tern without sentimentality or pretense.

Henry David Thoreau did walk through Eastham in 1849, “warding off a drenching autumnal rain with his Concord umbrella,” and Beston summons something of Thoreau’s spirit, if not his wordiness, for The Outermost House. It’s the same spirit which possessed me earlier this year, a knowledge that I must get to the beach for a body-to-sand embrace, for some reflection, for some inexorable reason, pulled more than driven to that spot where the veil is partially lifted and we can glimpse another world.

There is no harshness here in the landscape line, no hard Northern brightness or brusque revelation; there is always reserve and mystery, always something beyond, on earth and sea something which nature, honouring, conceals.