In the Wall Street Journal article I mentioned Monday (found!), “Publishing’s Battle to Win the Great War” even a Real Historian laments. “‘The American public has very little understanding or knowledge of WWI,’ says historian David McCullough, the author of ‘John Adams’ and ’1776.’ ‘When I talk at colleges and universities, many of them have no idea when it happened, and know nothing about it, and seem to have very little interest in it.’”
And who am I to argue? I’m sure he is right. I’m 30 now, so get off my lawn, you kids, and listen: “David Reynolds, professor of international history at Cambridge University, says World War I lays the groundwork for America’s later role as a superpower. …Mr. Reynolds calls WWI ‘the forgotten conflict of America’s war-torn 20th century. Forgotten yet also essential.’” The war “‘helped “define the country’s self-image across the whole twentieth century.’”
But wait, who cares about all that anyway? Sure, the article may be about the US publishing industry, but this blog isn’t. Complaints about how difficult it is to slap an evocative cover on a book about a war that killed millions of people and basically created modernity slash set the stage for the other war, the one you are somehow able to evoke with magical effectiveness, do not impress me all that much.
And why do I care about a centenary anyway? Well, because it led to that daft article (and a whole raft of others I’ve read since then), and I like reading books about the Great War, and I think it’s a shame—just a sad state of affairs—that a woman who wrote a book about the war could say, “‘Quite often it is simplified to the horror of the trenches and going over the top and being blown to bits. …And really, who wants to talk about that?’”
Now I am enough of an appreciationist not just to care about trenches, but even about mud—what could be more boring?—a central feature of much Great War writing. I’m hoping to cover it as a whole topic in itself, but look at this wonderful passage from Timothy Findley’s The Wars (speaking of crying shames, this book’s being out of print in the US is certainly one):
The mud. There are no good similes. Mud must be a Flemish word. Mud was invented here. Mudland might have been its name. The ground is the colour of steele. Over most of the plain there isn’t a trace of topsoil: only sand and clay. The Belgians call them ‘clyttes,’ these fields, and the further you go towards the sea, the worse the clyttes become. In them, the water is reached by the plough at an average depth of eighteen inches. When it rains (which is almost constantly from early September through to March, except when it snows) the water rises at you out of the ground. It rises from your footprints—and an army marching over a field can cause a flood. In 1916, it was said that you ‘waded to the front.’ Men and horses sank from sight. They drowned in mud. Their graves, it seemed, just dug themselves and pulled them down.
Houses, trees and fields of flax once flourished here. Summers had been blue with flowers. Now it was a shallow sea of stinking clay from end to end. And this is where you fought the war.
It just depresses me, the lack of—what, creativity, imagination?—that finds this boring, that finds no evil here. It makes me wonder whether the real lesson of the centenary isn’t just the one that Lady Juliet D’Orsey deplores later in The Wars:
And what I hate these days is the people who weren’t there and they look back and say we became inured. Your heart froze over—yes. But to say we got used to it! God—that makes me so angry! No.
But I don’t think Lady Juliet has the problem of some contemporary authors. “These were not accidents,” she tells her interviewer. “These were murders. By the thousands. All your friends were…murdered.”
Last week, I contributed a further edition of Genre Kryptonite to BookRiot: WWI literature. Longtime readers of bibliographing will not be surprised by my interest in the subject; it’s one of my many abandoned projects. But abandoned it shall be no longer!
As I mention in the BookRiot post, the First World War does not resonate for many Americans the way it does for other around the world, especially in France, Belgium, the UK and the Commonwealh countries. As an American who lived for years in one such country, I quickly became used to the seriousness—and quiet dignity—of Remembrance Day, and wore my poppy with, frequently, every other human being in sight.
These days, to my mind, never came close to glorifying either World War, so it came as a bit of a surprise to me to read several pieces in The Guardian—published, like my own piece, ahead of the centenary of the tragedy in Sarajevo—implying that the commemorations planned in the UK for the coming years were tasteless displays of jingoism, offensive to Germans, and so forth. Not that I can speak to the plans of Mr. Cameron’s government, but glorification has never seemed top of mind for much that came out of the Great War.
Indeed, just at the same time, Bill Kristol was writing in America’s own mirror-universe version of the same narrative: “the commemorations of 1914 will tend to take [Wilfred Owen's] rejection of piety and patriotism for granted” as he laments, “do we dare take our bearings not from Owen’s bitter despair but from Francis Scott Key’s bold hope?”
The jingoism and/or bitterness is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose.
But what actually got me revved up to really complete a Great War project was an earlier story in the Wall Street Journal, sadly no longer available for me to even reference (this is what I get for putting off posting for weeks). Citing several new and upcoming titles that involve the war, being released to coincide with its anniversary, the article makes the inane implication that Americans just don’t care about WWI because there aren’t any obvious “good” and “bad” guys—you know, because with Nazis, you know just who to hate. One author—and though I may cover some in more detail, I have to say these seem like rather light fiction to me so far—went so far as to say a novel about the trenches was boring! No wonder people like her can’t find a bad guy. He is, so so often, terribly boring.
Where has she been, what has she been doing? Perhaps there are people out there who wonder these things. For better or worse, their possible existence is not why I have ever really written this blog, so I am allowed to reappear without really caring whether anyone else does. But amid a fair amount of “nothing,” I have indeed been reading, and there are far too many things that have gone un-written this year. I need to catch up, lamely as will inevitably be the case with things read without a post always in the back of mind. I’ll use the holiday week for some light catch-up work before getting to “the good stuff,” and the holiday itself for the lightest of the light.
Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott. This is one of those books that make me want to warn people: it’s not really a novel. It’s fiction, it tells a story, but we must not forget the idea of “romances” and other pre-novelistic fictions when we pick up a book like Ivanhoe. Of course, in a sense it is very important as a novel: an early historical one. But it’s so historical that all the chivalry and quasi-mythical or -archetypal figures make it something a little different. Read it, read it by all means. It’s extremely engrossing.
Rebecca and Rowena, by W.M. Thackeray. Read this, absolutely, but only after Ivanhoe. Well, I suppose you could read it as a standalone, and it would still be biting and funny, but it really is better paired. For the record: Thackeray is totally right about Rebecca and Rowena.
Revenge, by Yoko Ogawa. Ogawa’s “eleven dark tales” are pure Ogawa and very good. If you know her from The Housekeeper and the Professor, read me on The Diving Pool for a better idea of what Revenge is like. Ogawa deserves more from me, truly.
The Vicar of Wakefield, by Oliver Goldsmith. It’s kind of a travesty I did not write about this for real-real, but it’s also the sort of thing that begs for re-reading. I have wronged you as well, Mr. Goldsmith.
Thousand Cranes, by Yasunari Kawabata. I will say only that Kawabata has shot to the top of my list of Japanese writers I have not really read yet that I will be reading a lot more of.
Minotaur, by Benjamin Tammuz, was my first try of Europa Editions’ new world noir imprint, and a book I would actually write about if it hadn’t started making the rounds from me to my consumption partner to his father and likely now to parts beyond. Tammuz is Israeli and the novel is worth reading both as compelling, spy-oriented noir as well as for the very interesting (if you’re into that sort of thing, which I am) mid-twentieth-century view of Israel’s coming into being.
Last week, Sam Sacks wrote in The New Yorker on criticizing the classics and how the canon is selected in today’s world. Contrasting the current, primarily American, state of the canon with that of the past, when the gatekeepers of the ivory tower and the salon determined not just which books were classics but the very definition of the concept, he argues that the classics are now determined by democratic and pragmatic tastes:
What makes a classic today is cultural significance. Authors are anointed not because they are great (although many of them are) but because they are important.
In other words, the current criteria for classics are more a matter of sociology than of aesthetics. That’s why prose-toilers like George Orwell and Aldous Huxley are securely fixed in the canon while masters such as Frank O’Connor and Eudora Welty could easily be left out. “1984” and “Brave New World” are embedded in the weave of language and history, but what does Welty have going for her apart from stylistic perfection? Henry Miller survives—and will continue to survive—because the country once found him shocking enough to censor. (Likewise, D. H. Lawrence might very well be a footnote if not for “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”) There’s better prose in the average issue of Consumer Reports than in most Upton Sinclair novels, but “The Jungle” triggered actual legislative reform and will therefore last as long as the United States does.
I hardly consider myself a literary critic, so it’s hardly surprising I wouldn’t feel the same kind of “freedom” or “exhilarat[ion]” Sacks attributes to today’s critics, who can have at many of these classics, spitting into the Grand Canyon (to paraphrase Joyce Carol Oates) because, as it turns out, much of the Grand Canyon isn’t all that grand.* Still, I spend, I think, a fair amount of time doing just that. Great truth and beauty, such as they are, are what move me, but my curious nature draws me as well to the works of “cultural significance,” the important in addition to the great—not to mention the so-called great (since that’s what so many of these “classics” turn out to be). And while I rarely take any joy in savaging such works, or even savage them at all, I find it interesting and even a little bit important to explore the good and the bad, whenever there is any of either to be found. And I may just turn out to be halfway decent at doing it, too.
Even before reading Sacks’s piece (which is, I should say, one of the few written about the idea of “classics” that didn’t make me roll my eyes a single time), I had planned on writing this week about one such work: Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk. Admittedly, Švejk is hardly a part of the canon the way Orwell and Huxley are; I doubt many American high school English classes assign it. But it’s well-known enough to be the namesake of a popular house blend at my local coffee shop, where quotes from the novel sometimes appear on a blackboard, and has enough cult status to have been recommended to me by a “real-life human.”
Švejk is the story of a Czech soldier swept up by the currents of the First World War, fighting for an empire that systemically oppresses his own people. A note at the end of my Penguin Classics edition explains that it was “one of the most famous and widely-read novels published after the First World War,” and that Hašek died before he could complete it. It’s possible that some of my criticisms would have been mooted by a less abrupt ending, but we have what we have.
*This should not be taken as any slight on the actual Grand Canyon, which I have not yet seen, and my experience thus far of natural wonders suggests it really is that grand.
As others are haunted about not reading enough women,or enough YA, or enough world literature, I frequently torture myself over how little I read that is not prose (among many, many other things, of course). It’s bad enough the way I read fiction at the expense of nonfiction, the share of the universe of excellent essays and criticism I neglect, but the amount of space in my reading life accorded to poetry and, especially, drama, is pretty pathetic.
I’ve gotten somewhat better in the poetry side of things, and on the nonfiction side as well, though these are both things I find difficult to blog about so you often miss them here. It’s something I’d like to rectify. But to even things out in the drama department (and initially inspired, truth be told, by a Netflix marathon of Kenneth Branagh on recent weekend, along with other similar influences), I recently decided I would finally get around to reading all of Shakespeare’s plays (and finally Ocford Word’s Classics has editions that are actually attractive)–in my own sweet time, of course–as well as get into some Jacobean drama.
The most notable experience of reading the play was noticing how very many lines have become common references or clichés. It’s not just “mine eyes dazzle!”; I basically felt like I knew somewhere between a third and half the play. This is not to denigrate reading it in any way–quite the opposite. It was an enlightening experience, as well as entertaining.
The funny thing is, just as with poetry, and with short stories if I’ve stayed away from them a long time, I was also quickly noticing how much I enjoy reading in the form and wondering why I don’t do more of it. I’ll get to Shakespeare separately, as King Lear certainly deserves its own post, but if you’ve got any Jacobean suggestions I’m all ears.
…of the blogging variety, that is.
If you don’t follow me on Twitter or keep up with BookRiot, you may have thought my long-dormant blog meant I wasn’t writing anything at all. Several weeks ago I began a series on the site, “Read This Then That,” pairing contemporary novels with classics. The match-ups so far:
- What Happened to Sophie Wilder by Christopher Beha and The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. These two have been frequently compared, and when I re-read the Greene, Beha’s novel seemed even better than it already had in comparison.
- Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine and Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. How a children’s book can lead to massive quarter-life crisis—and what that says about children’s classics and those who cling to them.
- Billy Lynn’s Long Haltime Walk by Ben Fountain and Israel Potter by Herman Melville. I suppose I should be impressed with myself that I didn’t head for Melville until the third edition in the series, but of course I had to go for one of his strangest and least-known works. I still think the comparison is an apt and original one.
- Boleto by Alyson Hagy and All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. Two stories of a boy and his horse—and as superficial as that sounds, they really do have a lot in common.
- Old Filth (and The Man with the Wooden Hat) by Jane Gardam and Plain Tales from the Hills by Rudyard Kipling. My current Raj orphan obsession was fertile material for this series, with the phenomenon lasting as it did over a period of generations, and now being reexamined in a postcolonial light. Still, the fit of Gardam’s Filth books with early Kipling is almost uncanny.
- Glaciers by Alexis Smith and Mary by Vladimir Nabokov. At first I thought this was one of the more tendentious comparisons, relying as it does on the delicate thread of theme—and delicate themes at that, memory, dreams, and nostalgia. But sharper focus on the plot—a cloudy, unimportant thing in both novels—reveals other similarities as well, in the stories of intellectual loners living in transitional locations, quietly drifting among their “peers.”
I promise this work hasn’t been keeping me away from bibliographing, and it won’t in future. And do let me know if there’s any contemporary work you particularly think I should read!
I’ve reached the end of the year, and I’ve been so shamefully bad about blogging for the past several months that, as a punishment to myself (not to you!), I will not be doing the usual year-end round of bibliographing charts. Perhaps they will be a birthday present to myself in a couple months.
For now, instead, I will devote the end of the year to two things: a list (as part of the same punishment), and several posts on some of the best things I’ve been reading recently: the works of Jane Gardam.
Today, the list. These are, subjectively and somewhat arbitrarily, the 10 best things I read this year, in no particular order.
- The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño. Several years late reading this one, but it was well worth it (and thanks to Richard for another excellent readalong experience). Roberto Bolaño, where have you been all my life?
- Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy. Before reading Fellow-Townsmen, a pleasant little novella, earlier this year, my only previous experience with Hardy had been Tess of the d’Urbervilles, mere mention of which is still enough to raise my blood pressure over a decade after reading it. But Far from the Madding Crowd gave me the heart to give Hardy another go, which he seems to mostly deserve.
- Adam Bede by George Eliot. Middlemarch may be the “better” book, but again, Adam Bede was a heart-opener of sorts. In this case I had had fond memories of Eliot’s masterwork, but beginning with her first novel helped pave the way for a deeper understanding of Middlemarch when I re-read it a few weeks later. And it’s an excellent story in its own right.
- What Happened to Sophie Wilder by Christopher Beha. Someone said not long ago on Twitter that we may have reached our quota on raves about this book by now, but I’m not so sure. Expect more in future, though I’ll spare you for now—except to say: read it!
- Crusoe’s Daughter by Jane Gardam. I’m going to try to keep mum on Gardam until I’m really ready to talk about her. Except…
- Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam. …I read so many good books by her this year. Read them all!
- All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. My first McCarthy, and not my last, this was a beautiful book. Bleak and beautiful.
- Wuthering Heights the Emily Brontë. This just can’t help being on a winning list in any year I happen to read it. I’ve lost count of re-reads at this point but it never fails to completely absorb—and reveal more secrets.
- Pastors and Masters by Ivy Compton-Burnett. This was a relatively “light” book, airy and fast and witty and not exactly earnest. But it was a completely turn-on to Compton-Burnett, and I like my light and airy with a bite.
- Plain Tales from the Hills by Rudyard Kipling. My current Raj obsession is not the only reason I loved this early Kipling; he is simply a master storyteller, and I love stories. His humor, both light and black, is just the kind I enjoy most, and he may not be what you think he is at all.
This was a strange year for me, aside from writing less. I seem to have read far more contemporary—or almost-contemporary—fiction than usual. In my top 10 (really top 11) above, I have no fewer than three novels by a single woman—and those contemporary as well. And my top-10 list is more than half written by women.
In some cases, the books I read by my favorite writers simply weren’t my favorite books. This year’s Conrad and Stevenson were just not their best. And Jane Gardam really was a discovery of the kind readers like me wait years for—finally, someone still writing who I really, really care to read! The same goes for Cormac McCarthy and Alyson Hagy, though I’m less driven toward those two.
And I left out from this list a few Latin American works that I truly enjoyed, aside from the Bolaño: Juan Rulfo, Julio Cortázar, and Machado de Assis will all get more attention in future, though Cortázar is not quite to my taste. Good, most assuredly, but not quite to my taste. I also had an interesting time reading a couple novels of the Iraq War, Fobbit and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, both of which I hope to write about in a larger context relatively soon.
Before I look too gushy, let me also list the worst of the year—the airing of grievances!
- War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. If you’re new here, you may not know that I hate Tolstoy. Or that I still read thousand-page novels by people I hate. Here’s just a little bit of why.
- The Distracted Preacher by Thomas Hardy. Hardy had me, he finally had me, with The Madding Crowd, but then he lost me once again (though not permanently).
- The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. I think I liked this novel the first time I read it, many years ago, although now I have a hard time conceiving why. Like Tolstoy, I see Greene here toying with his characters. If all goes well, I’ll have much more on that at some point.
- Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. It feels unfair to put this on a list with the other three, because it doesn’t really rise to their level. It was actually enjoyable to read, for the most part. But if I do write about this one, expect it to be complainy.
Earlier this week, BookRiot posted my first official contribution to their site, an examination of What Happened to Sophie Wilder and its relation to Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. Please check it out if you haven’t and let me know what you think! There will be more to come every couple weeks—and on my quest to pair classics with contemporary literature, I’ll surely need some really excellent contemporary literature recommendations.
Don’t worry, bibliographing will not suffer. At least not more than it already has! I’ve got some good stuff coming your way now that I’ve broken out of Pastors and Masters a bit, and I’m still looking to do an Ivy Compton-Burnett group read at some point in the next few months.
I’ve been struggling all day with “Zapatos.” I find it very difficult to write about short stories—which frustrates me even more because I really like the form. But I will not capitulate; I will do my work. (I swear, I will give up on the work jokes soon.)
T.C. Boyle opens the story with the enigmatic sentence, “There is, essentially, one city in our country.” The country is never specified explicitly, but it’s pretty clearly Chile.
The point about this country, regardless, is that the people there really like to wear Italian leather shoes. “Oh, you can get by with a pair of domestically made pumps or cordovans of the supplest sheepskin, or even, in the languid days of summer, with huaraches or Chinese slippers made of silk or even nylon,” the narrator admits. “But the truth is, what everyone wants—for the status, the cachet, the charm and refinement—are the Italian loafers and ankle boots, hand-stitched and wtih a grain as soft and rich as, well—is this the place to talk of the private parts of girls still in school?” Let me just take a moment to say, I want these shoes.
Anyway, the narrator’s uncle sells them, or tries to. The margins are not good—imported shoes are heavily taxed, along with most other imported consumer goods. People are always walking by the uncle’s shoe store in their fine Italian footwear that he knows fell off the back of a truck, or whatever happens in China (we do find out). And he is determined to compete.
So we learn that the country has two free ports, where you can buy things duty-free—but to get them back into the city, you have to pay duty, “the same stultifying duty merchants like Uncle Dagoberto were obliged to pay.”
And why then had the government set up the free ports in the first place? In order to make digital audio tape and microwaves available to themselves, of course, and to set up discreet banking enterprises for foreigners, by way of generating cash flow—and ultimately, I think, to frustrate the citizenry. To keep us in our place. To remind us that government is unfriendly.
But Uncle Dagoberto does what businessmen everywhere do, when they can: he finds a way to thwart that unfriendly government and get his hands on some duty-free shoes. Or at least, ones that are almost duty-free. And he needs his nephew’s help to do it.
So the narrator, a student of hermeneutics and deconstruction who takes his Derrida on a business trip, heads to Freeport. And he has to become a businessman, his uncle telling him about a lot of shoes going up for auction the next morning, and that he must “[b]uy them or die.” He does, and Uncle Dagoberto has pulled off a magnificent trick, too good to spoil in a blog post.
That was two years ago.
Today, Uncle Dagoberto is the undisputed shoe king of our city. He made such a killing on that one deal that he was able to buy his way into the cartel that “advises” the government. He has a title now—Undersecretary for International Trade—and a vast, brightly lit office in the President’s palace.
I’ve changed too, though I still live with my mother on La Calle Verdad and I still attend the university. …I no longer study semantics, hermeneutics, and the deconstruction of deconstruction, but have instead been pursuing a degree in business. It only makes sense. After all, the government doesn’t seem half so unfriendly these days.
So where’s the work, you ask? It happens fast; you could almost miss it if you blinked. Two customs-house auctions and the work is done—although, of course, Uncle Dagoberto does have 30,000 pairs of Italian shoes to sell at the end of it, and presumably keeps selling more, at least for a while. But I find the example very interesting: Dagoberto’s work is thwarted (his real work, of simple shoe-selling), so he comes up with a clever plan to get ahead. He’s a businessman, and the only way to expand his business is to get out from under these restrictions (which, of course, don’t apply to everyone). But once he does this, those same restrictions are what enable him to stop working. Now he has his big bright office, dispensing “advice.” For a price, the price of just a bit of work, Dagoberto ensures himself the luxury of not working forever after.
I just wanted to give a quick thank you to anyone who voted for me in BookRiot‘s START HERE write-in contest. Thanks to you, Melville will be assured an entry in the book they’re developing!
If, that is, they manage to raise the rest of the funding to produce it. There are only five days left to reach the Kickstarter target and fully fund the project. If you like the the project, do consider helping to make it happen—because if you don’t, it might not. The prizes are pretty cool, too.
Thanks again to all who voted. If my post impressed that many people, I’m hoping it might also help someone get started loving Melville!