I discovered Gilbert Adair because he wrote a series of parody-mysteries of famous Agatha Christie works, for example, The Act of Roger Murgatroyd, which, I should say, is hilarious and clever and a toy made to the exact specifications of a locked-room mystery lover with a sense of humor.
But I didn’t realize The Death of the Author would be basically the same kind of mystery. Not a locked-room one, I don’t mean, at least not in the physical sense. But an impossible-murder mystery, of which the locked-room variety is but a subtype.
The novella opens with a meeting between the narrator, Leo Sfax, and a young woman named Astrid. He agrees to something she wants to do, she leaves, and he sits at his computer and begins to type, and tells the reader that at that point, he typed out the four pages she has just read.
The Sfax goes on to narrate his life story starting in childhood, which was spent in pre-War France. During the German occupation, Sfax kept his head down, and he emigrated to the US a few years into the peace. There, he went from shelving and selling books in Greenwich Village to writing them in a fictional New Haven, becoming the darling of elite comparative literature departments throughout the English-speaking world. We find out that Astrid was a graduate student at his university, and that he was not her director but worked closely with her, she falling in love with his Theory—which is, by the way, the Death of the Author. Astrid has recently called a meeting with him, whose purpose he does not know. She proposes writing a biography of Sfax. He agrees, she leaves, and he sits at his computer and begins to type, and tells the reader that at that point, he typed out the forty-one pages she has just read.
One more time. But this time, Sfax says he’s been lying. That stuff about what happened in France, it was a it more unsavory than he’d like anyone to believe. He’s built his life in America, deliciously, propounding a theory that he hopes to use to exculpate himself from authorship of Nazi-tinted writings during his collaborative period. And even more deliciously, the more he tried, with efforts at obscurity, to kill that author, the more he exposed himself to eventual exposure.
The dramatic and literary climax of the novella has, I think, at least two “collapses” that I won’t outline, maybe more. A precious postmodern puzzle-piece, The Death of the Author gave me at least one thing other than the pure pleasure I take in reading such mysteries: the realization that perhaps I like them so much because they are mysteries, just like my beloved Agatha Christies and Dorothy Sayers are mysteries, and like my big book of locked-room mysteries is full of mysteries. Not because of anything profound or fashionable (or fashionably unfashionable?), but for the fun of the puzzle.
The novella-length Arctic Summer by E.M. Forster is not in fact a novella but an unfinished novel. But its abrupt ending is one that fits naturally with the shorter form, and its easily tempting to treat it as a finished whole. At least I will do so, unprepared to do much else, especially with the extremely small knowledge of Forster that I have.
Martin Whitby, British Government bureaucrat, is changing trains on vacation with his wife and mother-in-law, on their way through Switzerland to Italy, when he trips and nearly falls onto the tracks. A fellow Englishman helps him up, and Whitby makes a point of tracking him down later on the train to thank him for, according to Whitby, saving his life. The young man, a certain cadet named March, thinks Whitby is making an awful lot of the thing, and proceeds on an uncomfortable conversation with Whitby about Milan and its surroundings.
Whitby is eager to please—eager to bring order wherever he possibly can, order being his life’s great work and that of his wife—and also eager to appear cultured and knowledgeable about Italy. But he’s unfamiliar with the frescoes March is seeking, ones which, as it turns out, were fashionable to go and see a generation earlier, when Whitby’s mother-in-law made her grand tour of Italy with her own husband. She is able to provide March with particulars, and once it becomes such a topic of conversation among the whole party, they basically invite themselves along on March’s pilgrimage to Tramonta, the medieval castle housing the frescoes.
March, at this point, definitely does not want to go anywhere with the Whitbys—at this point, he even believes Martin acted ungentlemanly by putting a woman in a position of disgrace—and ends up put entirely off his trip to Tramonta. He recounts the affair to his uncle and older brother on his return to England, and his uncle, who is training the brothers up to be real traditional English gentry, approves of young March’s judgment; Whitby is part of a new trend that, according to Mr. Vallumy, refuses to acknowledge the existence of good and evil and chips away at the good, letting evil in the back door, basically.
The boys have been well reared at their uncle’s knee, however, and both possess a visceral aversion even to vague descriptions of a character like Whitby’s. Nonetheless, something possesses Clesant March to call on Whitby when his older brother is about to be sent down from Cambridge; Whitby promised to help him whenever he could, and Clesant completely unexpectedly takes him up on it. But when Whitby and Clesant rush to Cambridge to defend the older March brother, Mr. Vallumy is already there insisting on his guilt—and his disgrace. Here, we see the ugliness of the March version of the right sort of person, and Whitby comes off rather better than usual when he mentally criticizes Mr. Vallumy for taking pride in, but never really loving, his nephews. Enter the abrupt ending, which, admittedly, comes at just the time things are really beginning to seem interesting.
I could talk more about the characters I wish had more to them, had Forster finished the novel. But instead I’d probably better read some of his other work.
If you read enough, you’re bound to find some strange coincidences among the literature you consume—even if you’re not specifically following a quirk or thread of literary history around on purpose. These coincidences can be small and meaningless; last weekend I happened to read the words “waistcoat” and “hazel” (as in the tree) in both Wuthering Heights and The Fellowship of the Ring on the same day. Funny! And sometimes they can be larger and, well, let’s find out if there’s any meaning there either.
I found myself tweeting a while ago the strange occurrence that I was reading back-to-back novels involving men uncomfortable and ultimately unable to give a semen sample in a fertility clinic, in pursuit of IVF treatments. There was something that seemed a little grotesque about it. How bourgeois is every freaking novelist I’m reading that there is a major fear among them of having to masturbate in semi-public? But I think that’s a superficial reaction.
The fear of the fertility clinic. Why does this seem like such a sad thing, above all? Let me begin to examine the two novels in question: The Dog by Joseph O’Neill and Arts & Entertainments by Christopher Beha.
Both are narrated by the male half of the couple trying to conceive. But in neither is a couple really trying to conceive; both are stories of men (gently) coerced (or not) into especial efforts to have a child that the woman wants only as a way of making her happy, not as an end in itself. How does the world react to such men, and the decisions they make?
In The Dog, the narrator, whose name we never learn (we learn that it starts with an X, so I’ll call him that) describes his ex-girlfriend Jenn’s righteous indignation when he first balks at and later completely bails on her plans to have a child. She sits him down for an all-night tirade about exactly what she is owed and why he owes it to her, and though he admits he didn’t much enjoy the experience, and that this is “a kid or kids who, in contradiction to her earlier feelings, Jenn now definitely felt ready to try to have,” and “changed her/our mind about the baby,” he carries the guilt of ending their relationship through the rest of the novel. Jenn’s a lawyer; did they sign a contract promising her a baby?
X explains, long after the breakup, that
[D]uring all those years of trying to do the right thing with and by and for Jenn, I never felt in the right. Always I sensed, close by, the doghouse. Not that I blamed her for this. Even as I understood the doghouse as an outbuilding of the phony coupledom for which surely both of us were responsible, it was clearly a doghouse built by me, with my name on it. Chronic self-misrepresentation and inner absenteeism are inconsistent with the performance of the duties of a loving partner.
But then, so is withholding sex, which is Jenn’s game—not to mention the little problem that she cares less about her actual, existing, living partner than about some beings she has no idea will even like her if they do appear.
For X, refusing to have a baby with Jenn means running away from his whole life, as she (or perhaps her friends) goes on to destroy his reputation, personally and professionally. He voluntarily exiles himself to Dubai, where the antics of a rich(ish) American expat enjoying the emirate’s boom make up the bulk of the events of the novel—and where, ultimately, he decides that the actions he’s taken in life (not limited to but including those with Jenn) amount to something he should be imprisoned for. Okay. As far as anything explicit in the novel goes, the worst thing he’s done is maybe facilitating some tax evasion, but if you’re looking for someone to call that unethical you should find another blog.
In Beha’s novel, narrator Handsome Eddie is a failed actor turned drama teacher, who would be maintaining a reasonable middle-class life with his wife Susan if it weren’t for her almost maniacal desire for children. “I just miss my children…. I know that sounds crazy,” she tells him, “but it’s like they exist out there somewhere—not just the idea of them—and they’re being kept from us.” These kinds of statements, along with the for-Eddie almost unbearable marital stress of strategic (and only strategic) sex, lead the couple tens of thousands of dollars into credit card debt to fund a first round of IVF treatments, which are unsuccessful. They’re broke, but Susan wants to try again, and Eddie decides against his better judgment to sell a decade-old sex tape to fund it (fortunately, he used to date a super hot and now-famous actress).
Most people would probably judge Eddie’s action unethical, though the novel makes clear that the actress was rather happier than not to have the tape out. But he did do it to make Susan’s dream possible, yet she seems to be the most angry with him. She immediately throws him out of the house, as if he’s wronged her in some way, and so begins the main bulk of this novel: a literary romp through the world of reality TV, where the plot of the novel—I mean, the plot of Eddie’s life—I mean, Eddie’s life—is determined by the interest and passions of the audience—I mean God. I’m not being flip here; Beha is brilliant in this book.
But the passions of the audience are against Eddie. His estranged wife, now pregnant with triplets, is lauded by the media and public, and not once called out as the reason behind Eddie’s actions. The fact that she doesn’t have the money to raise triplets (without a reality TV deal) is no reason to criticize her, even though it resulted from her impossible demand to do something very expensive without any realistic idea of how to pay for it (or how it was being paid for). Meanwhile, they hate Eddie no matter what he does, so he resolves to be as bad as possible to get a gig on Susan’s show.
Ultimately, this is Eddie’s salvation. His public disgrace is a complex ritual that ends in his absolution and his reunion with his beloved wife plus three bouncing baby girls. Why Eddie forgives his wife for shutting him out for her entire pregnancy is left, perhaps curiously, unexplained, but then again he never really gets angry with her about it in the first place. Like X in The Dog, Eddie believes he deserves to be punished.
And Susan gets everything she wanted and more. Her statements don’t “sound crazy”; they are crazy, crazy and horrible and certainly enough to send Eddie running screaming like X did, if he weren’t quite so in her thrall I guess. Presumably the explicitly Roman Catholic Susan vowed to stay with Eddie “for richer for poorer,” and they are too poor—considering the physical conditions—to have children. It is only the novel’s deus ex machina, which happily enough is actually meant to be a representation of God, that provides for Susan’s children, who have not only failed to indicate they want to live with her and Eddie at all, but certainly haven’t consented to growing up on reality TV—again, the only way to even pay for their diapers. If Nicole wrote a sequel to this novel, it would be about the triplets’ suit for emancipation in which their damages utterly ruin their parents’ lives.
The question seems less why these men would be uncomfortable sitting in a room waiting to send their sperm off for review, and more why they would take such a long walk down the sperm donor road at all.
Oh, right. Because the deus ex machina of Arts & Entertainments is society itself, and a solidly pro-natalist one.
I tried to psych myself up this year leading into the holidays to go back to some of my old spreadsheets and tot up my stats on the things that matter to me, but somehow I just couldn’t muster the energy. Instead, I felt called to create a very bibliographing sort of best-of list, which also gives me the opportunity (or should I say the duty?) to write a few words on my neglected “good reads” of the year. And anyway, I think some longtime readers will find my old categories not so different in spirit from the ones chosen in particular this year.
So, in no particular order, the 2014 bibliographing Best-Of!
Best novel by winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Of the two contenders in this category, Patrick Modiano’s Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue and Halldór Laxness’s Independent People, the latter is the far more compelling and ambitious work. The worst thing I can say about Modiano is that he cares about Paris qua Paris far more than I ever could, and the best thing I can say is that he writes beautiful sentences. I’m in a worse position to say whether Laxness does the latter, stuck as I am reading him in translation, but he brings me to Iceland, he shocks me with bleakness, he breaks my heart with hubris, and he makes me laugh.
Best fiction on the English village. Fewer contenders than usual in this category, but I’d say it goes to Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy. I broke my longstanding Hardy antipathy, and it’s safe to say the pendulum has swung hard in the opposite direction. But this one is adorable. Mac and cheese to a girl raised on 19th century English literature. Honorable mention: Some Desperate Glory by Max Egremont, though a meditation and collection of poems on the First World War, includes numerous examples of beautiful poems on the English countryside.
Best novel that other people seemed to “discover” this year. This one definitely goes to Submergence by J.M. Ledgard. While most Americans have Graywolf Press to thank for bringing this over the pond, I have Anthony of Times Flow Stemmed, who was kind enough to send me this book a few years ago when it became available in the UK. American press coverage prompted a re-read and Submergence is just lovely—as lovely as Giraffe, and as strange. Admittedly, I don’t read too many “it books,” so this category may be just a bit unfair, but the ones that I did (I’m thinking of The Luminaries and The Goldfinch here, mostly) did not impress.
Best nonfiction. I read a lot of great nonfiction this year, but I’m in no position to rank the relative value of all the great history and commentary I’ve read on World War I. On the other hand, I can say that I have cited B.R. Myers’s The Cleanest Race, a book of cultural and media criticism of the North Korean regime, on a very regular basis since reading it months ago. It’s completely fascinating. If you’re anything like me, your significant other will start hating you because you won’t be able to stop repeating crazy anecdotes.
Best book about children. I didn’t read many this year, again, but I am very particular about books about children, and Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming was beautiful for innumerable reasons.
Best comic novel not by Martin Amis. Joseph O’Neill’s The Dog. Honorable mention: Christopher Beha’s Arts & Entertainment. My promise still stands to write something real about these two. Also-honorable mention: Lydia Millett’s Mermaids in Paradise.
Best novel. Lord Jim. Because this year I re-read Lord Jim. Honorable mentions: Wuthering Heights, Heart of Darkness.
Best novel by someone I’d never read before. This one goes hands down to Kate Racculia’s Bellweather Rhapsody, which I wrote about in brief for BookRiot as my favorite book of August. Sure, Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall probably has more overall literary value, but Racculia’s debut was funny, smart, wacky, and weird. It should probably have an honorable mention in the books-about-children category, but whatever, they’re teenagers anyway. This is what I want from my fun new stuff. Racculia, Millett, Karen Russell: give me more of this, please, and I will have some fun. I’ve got to balance all that Conrad out with something, after all.
What are the best books of 2014? I have no idea at all, mostly because I’ve hardly read any of them. This certainly isn’t the year when I’ve read the smallest share of contemporary fiction, but a handful of novels is not much to judge by, I don’t think. However, I did choose the best book I read that was published this year for BookRiot‘s annual festival of bestness, and I chose Martin Amis’s latest, The Zone of Interest.
It felt strange to select the novel with little comment; though I’d tweeted about it a bit, I hadn’t written about it here, or even in more than ultra-condensed form for BR. I complained to Matt Hunte that I didn’t know if I could go about writing about it at all, because I didn’t have the Holocaust lit cred to do so. But here I am looking back at my year of reading, months later, and thinking that was the best new thing there was.
The other two contenders, as it happens, were also comic novels. Jenn Offill’s Salon interview with Lydia Millet has been haunting me, it seems. “I’ve puzzled over the divide between how funny vs. ‘serious’ literary books are received, at least here in the United States. Can it be as simple as, the literary establishment can’t easily interpret humor as having a particular message, so it tends to discount humor categorically?” Millet suggests, when asked why her earlier, funnier efforts are typically less well regarded. (I had missed this memo entirely, as it happens.) “Yeah, our literary establishment does feel — when it comes to choosing, you know, a certain year’s alleged best books or most ‘important’ books or whatever — that it needs to be seen rewarding stories that have unimpeachable motives. It needs to responsibly select the ‘right’ books for the canon, where right usually means humanist, pretty squarely in the bourgeois mainstream, and with a soupçon of intelligence.” She goes on to posit that “Maybe our anointed literary books just have to be earnest ones because earnest ones showcase that soupçon of intelligence. Maybe humor isn’t felt to indicate a genuine commitment to looking smart.”
This may not be the most obvious reason people would raise objections to a comic novel about the Holocaust. There are, after all, some things you just shouldn’t joke about (aren’t there?). Amis’s usual French and German publishers certainly weren’t willing to go there—but was it because it’s wrong to joke about genocide, or because readers of the novel just weren’t sure what they were supposed to think about it? If they are “supposed” to think anything at all; Offill says to Millet, “It’s that whole weird idea of literature as instructive, as a tool for right living. I once got asked quite seriously what the ‘takeaway’ for my novel was and I was at a loss.”
I believe this phenomenon is happening among at least some readers of The Zone of Interest, and while I’m not at all sure I’m prepared to do a real review of the novel myself, Morten Høi Jensen’s review in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Hilarity of Evil, gives me much to respond to.
Jensen has a number of what strike me as misreadings. For example: “The Zone of Interest is primarily a love story, and a comedy of errors in parts.” I may have reversed that, were I to call it a “love story” at all; something Jensen may have reconsidered when he went on, in the same paragraph, to emphasize the alleged lover’s caddishness: “This would be a big fuck. A big fuck: that was what I said to myself.”
So runs the first comment on Golo Thomsen, one of three narrators in the novel. Paul Doll, the man who runs the fictional Auschwitz in which the novel is set, comes next: a bumbling bureaucrat whose chapters focus largely on his problems at work. “And so the reader is subjected to a series of running gags about the woes of poor Paul Doll,” says Jensen, as if this would not be a significant part of the point of writing a comic novel about the man who runs Auschwitz.
This farcical routine is like something out of Fawlty Towers — if Basil Fawlty was the head of a concentration camp and not a provincial English hotel. You can almost see (and hear) John Cleese in full Nazi regalia being informed that they have now even tried blowing up the bodies.
Whether or not you find this sort of thing funny depends on your appetite for the morbid, I suppose, but as a novelistic approach to the Holocaust I wonder about its merits. (Does it really “grapple with the horrors”?) I don’t mean to suggest that you can’t conceivably write a comedy about Auschwitz without trivializing what happened there, only that it requires a different sort of comedy — Bernhard’s or Beckett’s, perhaps, or the unreality of Kafka. Martin Amis’s very English brand of satire, which has no equal in novels like Money or London Fields, only distances and distorts in The Zone of Interest.
Why, here, the distancing and distorting? Because Paul Doll is a caricature, but the world around Paul Doll—the meticulous re-creation of Auschwitz, the fidelity to the historical record—is not. This means Doll is not “validated by the world around” him, as Amis’s other funny caricatures are. “But why, then, is Nazism ridiculed in this novel rather than confronted?” Jensen asks. “It is an object of serial bad jokes.”
Of course, I would also argue that Jensen serially fails to understand many of the jokes. He complains that we are told,
in a moment of total narrative abandon, that “Mobius was originally a penpusher at the HQ of the Secret State Police, the Gestapa — not to be confused with the Gestapo (the actual Secret State Police), or the Sipo (the Security Police), or the Cripo (the Criminal Police), or the Orpo (the Order Police), or the Schupo (the Protection Police), or the Teno (the Auxiliary Police) […].”
And so on for another half a paragraph. We get it; in his research, Amis has come across these acronyms and rightly found them to be very funny. But why should Golo, too, find it funny and point it out to us? This paragraph, and the many other instances of authorial intrusion like it, is only there to give Amis a chance to indulge his research. It gives the impression that he is uncertain about inhabiting not only Golo’s mind, but the entire inferno of the Endlösung.
Why should Golo not find them funny—and why should we think he’d only find they sounded funny? In only the portion quoted by Jensen, Golo has listed no fewer than seven separate policing agencies, none of which must be confused with the other, all of which are the same but different. This is the absurdist comedy of totalitarianism, and we should fully expect Golo to find it as funny as we do—and not because German nicknames are cute.
Jensen goes on to imply that Amis fails “to actually try to imagine being an officer in the SS, living and working inside the Holocaust, putting yourself in the mind and milieu of those individuals tasked with performing the terrible work that such an annihilating undertaking required.” That would be difficult, and Jensen appears to think Amis dodges it by having Golo say that “When the future looks back on the National Socialists, it will find them as exotic and improbable as the prehistoric meat-eaters (could they really have existed, the velociraptor, the tyrannosaur?). Non-human, and also non-mammalian. They are not mammals. Mammals, with their warm blood and live young.” Couldn’t it be read as just the opposite—as Golo’s recognition that it will be very hard, even impossible to believe that normal people coming after them will be able to think that “Adolf Hitler was born, as we all are — innocently — into this world”? Instead,
Kommandant Paul Doll, whom Amis tries to goad into an embodiment of Arendt’s “banality of evil,” totters instead as a joke-figure: drunk, boorish, laughable. Evil doesn’t begin to enter into it. Nazism is just a joke — a horrible, murderous joke.
It’s clear that Amis has modeled Doll on Arendt’s depiction of Eichmann. But has Jensen read Eichmann in Jerusalem? Evil, in whatever sense he means it above, does not really enter into Eichmann’s trial, either. At least not in any sense it doesn’t enter into The Zone of Interest. Amis’s re-creation of Eichmann is, rather, brilliant, and Eichmann in Jerusalem is the perfect companion read to this novel.
Whether Jensen liked the book or not is, of course, immaterial to me, but he did ask one question I found completely fascinating, quoted above. “Why, then, is Nazism ridiculed in this novel rather than confronted?” Were we really, as a human people, depending on Martin Amis to, what—prove that genocide is morally wrong? Demonstrate that one should absolutely not kill Jews or “asocials”? Is every novel about the Holocaust required to prove, as if we are morally unformed lumps of clay, that Nazism was wrong, that Hitler and Himmler and Eichmann and all the real Paul Dolls of the world deserved to hang, or worse?
Again, my greatest recommendation would be to read Eichmann in Jerusalem. Arendt would not have much patience for this kind of weird moral lassitude, and it might remind you that Amis is representing nothing more nor less than the exact—and, yes, horrible—banality of evil.
Oh, also: it’s very, very funny, and very, very sad.
I thought it would be good to restart a very silly project I have done intermittently, writing sonnets after I finish a book, after finishing a book that is itself so taken up with formal poetry, so I return with a sonnet on Independent People. It is pre-judged a failure because I don’t use the phrase “crafty verse,” which is what Bjartur himself loves to compose in secret.
Young Bjartur, proud, alone he buys a croft
From Jon of Myri, who, now creditor
Of Bjartur, th’independent man, aloft
Will stand above this epic of the moor.
His independence, earning it is sore:
His first wife died attended by a dog
His next wife stillbirth after stillbirth bore
And three live sons to raise sheep in the bog
Where Bjartur worked them all in his long slog
‘Gainst Jon the Bailiff, his son, and the dread
Of what is worst in all the world—not grog,
Nor death, nor hate, but other people’s bread.
As independent people, they all did agree
That sooner than take help, they’d lie under the lea.
I may have freaked Rohan Maitzen out a bit saying I had tons to say because of her post on Christopher Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder, but I meant it when I said:
Perhaps the most fascinating—and clarifying—bit of Maitzen’s criticism of Sophie Wilder was focused on the religious element of the novel. Maitzen compares Beha’s treatment of religion and religious conversion unfavorably to George Eliot’s, which “offers…more to think about, more to work with.”
For instance, to me the account of Sophie’s religious experience was a reedy echo (at best) of Maggie Tulliver’s struggles with faith in The Mill on the Floss, where her passionate embrace of asceticism after reading Thomas à Kempis emerges from a rich narrative context including overt philosophical reflection on the needs religion meets for those who are suffering inexplicably. …Paradoxically, Eliot’s religion — that is, the religion of her characters — seems more solid than Beha’s, even though the tendency of her fiction is to replace sacred explanations with secular.
In doing so, she is of course making a decision about the fundamental split Beha’s dual narration leaves unresolved. Do I perhaps prefer Eliot because of that — because that is my own outlook? Was I impatient — bored, even — by Sophie’s religious struggles because they were left as religious struggles, not absorbed into other ways of thinking about the world?
Maitzen wonders if she likes Eliot’s approach better because it conforms to her own preexisting religious opinions:
was my response to What Happened to Sophie Wilder a tacit form of resistance to Beha’s apparent openness not just to religion in general (or some kind of vaguely embraced spirituality) but to Catholicism in particular? I have been trying to think of another contemporary novel with a genuinely religious protagonist that I did like — and Gilead comes to mind, so I don’t think it’s as simple as my unconsciously rejecting faith as a literary premise.
It’s a question I have frequently asked myself: am I hopelessly prejudiced against literature that is open to religion? After all, I am probably the only reader ever to have hated Gilead (yes, really). And perhaps Maitzen has given me the key to answering this question for myself. It may be just that “religious struggles…left as religious struggles, not absorbed into other ways of thinking about the world” are the only ones I enjoy. I’ve not finished The Mill on the Floss, but Maitzen’s description of Maggie Tulliver’s religious experiences suggests I would not enjoy those bits of it. The black box of mysticism forestalls any urge I might have to disagree with or even interrogate Sophie Wilder’s beliefs; they just are. And, being that she converts to Roman Catholicism and takes on the full dogma of that religion, I already know what those beliefs are—and, again, they just are. What she believes may make no sense to me, but her actions do, because they predictably follow from her beliefs—and I never have to walk through any attempts at nonmystical moral logicking with her that might rankle or irritate.
For similar reasons, I am not too bothered by what I agree is an unsatisfying passage covering Sophie’s conversion. Sam Sacks is not wrong that religious conversion is “real,” or in that it is “something that can be expressed in words because it’s real, just as any other experience can be evoked through language.” But expressing the fact of a conversion and expressing the religious experience of the conversion are two different things; I would not want Beha to attempt the latter. It is real only in that it is a real black box. That “George Eliot thinks religious belief needs explanation” may be her paradoxical weakness, for me.
So what was it that I did like so much? Well, “how the division into different narratives reflects different — perhaps incompatible — ideas about authorship and about purpose in narrative” was really the key for me. As George Michael Bluth might say, What Happened to Sophie Wilder is an awesome mind-puzzle. The resolution and tension of the two threads of narration and their conclusion is the whole point of the novel, for me, and the fun is all in slipping back and forth between them, deciding what is real-in-the-fiction (which fiction? see? awesome mind-puzzle!). It’s been too long for me to say there were no passages where the writing seemed “flat” or “forced” to me, but I can say it didn’t bother me at all that the characters were not the most substantial; their most important function for me was as concepts rather than people. And finally:
As for what actually happened to Sophie Wilder, well, my conclusion at the end was “not much,” or at least not much that the book made richly present to me.
I’ve always thought it was notable that the title of What Happened to Sophie Wilder does not include a question mark. The reader is not being asked, but told, and told two conflicting versions of what happened. Are we to decide which is true? Are we to believe both? Those are the questions that fascinate me—not the question of “what actually happened to Sophie?”
Far be it from me to, tackily, use a good man’s death as an excuse to falsely scold myself while making excuses. No. The passing of D.G. Myers—so unexpected, despite its expectedness—shames me and my pathetic will-to-write. I fail, as at many things, in the moral obligation to write well.
Go and read A Commonplace Blog. Go and read Rohan Maitzen’s worthy tribute. Go and reads the tweets of Michael Schaub and Matt Hunte and dozens of other people he touched via his blog and Twitter. He was never afraid to say what he meant, and I wish I could say the same of myself.
I can ascribe at least two books I’ve read directly to Myers: Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia and Christopher Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder. Both were too good for me to be articulate about them. And while I am still writing (a shameful but ongoing trickle for BookRiot and every once in a while something that might actually be good), my own selfish regret at the moment is not having written the essay stuck in my mind about Sophie Wilder in time for Myers to have perhaps read and even criticized it.
Still, I am grateful for everything he did write, not to mention his attitude, well represented here.
On Fridays during my Great War project, at least until I run out of material, I intend to look back on what I can of various Great War–related reading I’ve done over the years. The original posts may have quite a different focus, but that should make things all the more interesting.
Robert Nichols, a fellow English war poet, wrote an introduction to Siegfried Sassoon’s 1918 collection Counter-Attack and Other Poems
that is reprinted in my Dover Edition of the War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon
. In it, Nichols recounts a conversation he once had with Sassoon, on the topic of “certain exalté
poems in [Nichols’s] Ardours and Endeavours
.” Sassoon likes the poems, and says:
“War has made me. I think I am a man now as well as a poet. You have said the things well enough. Now let us nevermore say another word of whatever litlte may be good in war for the individual who has a heart to be steeled.”
I remember I nodded, for further acquaintance with war inclines me to his opinion.
“Let no one ever,” he continued, “from henceforth say a word in any way countenancing war. It is dangerous even to speak of how here and there the individual may gain some hardship of soul by it. For war is hell and those who institute it are criminals. Were there anything to say for it, it should not be said for its spiritual disasters far outweigh any of its advantages.”
War poems are, in some sense, a kind of Remembrance. Many are about individual fallen comrades; many more refer to the unnamed dead. Ghosts are everywhere, and dying men are everywhere, suffering and taking their last breaths. The poems are a record of horror and calamity, and many are also accusations.
How then does one read the poems without thinking of the “hardship of soul” Sassoon gained by the war? It was the war that allowed him to see and understand these things, and the war that allowed him to develop into the poet he did. His poems could only have been written by someone who had just those spiritual advantages war does offer—and as such, there is always the subtext: you were not there, you cannot Remember the way we can. Is it possible to read Sassoon’s work while following his instruction never to “say a word in any way countenancing war”?
I think the answer to that question is yes, but it’s one that I think will dog me throughout the Great War project.
On Fridays during my Great War project, at least until I run out of material, I intend to look back on what I can of various Great War–related reading I’ve done over the years. The original posts may have quite a different focus, but that should make things all the more interesting.
On Tuesday, one of the poems I wrote about, “To Any Dead Officer,” ends very bluntly, as I noted: “I wish they’d killed you in a decent show.” This kind of bluntness is characteristic, especially as a sort of epigrammatic last line to Sassoon’s poems. “Trench Duty” ends, “I’m wide awake; and some chap’s dead.” “The General,” one of Sassoon’s turns at the vulgarly humorous side of war poetry, finishes abruptly and unfunnily for our two comic actors: “But he did for them both by his plan of attack.” “The One Legged Man” last “thought: ‘Thank God they had to amputate!'”
One of the most powerful uses of this blunt instrument is in “Repressions of War Experience,” a poem about a demobbed soldier who is badly shell-shocked. The poem is off-putting in many ways. Sassoon abandons his usual clear if somewhat irregular stanzas for a more open form, and the narrator seems to drift through this open form just as his consciousness, troubled as it is, drifts illogically from one topic to the next (“And you’re right as rain…./Why won’t it rain?…”) Like “To Any Dead Officer,” this poem deals with Sassoon’s view of the afterlife, and like many of his war poems has a strong hint of nature about it.
There must be crowds of ghosts among the trees,—
Not people killed in battle,—they’re in France,—
But horrible shapes in shrouds—old men who died
Slow, natural deaths,—old men with ugly souls,
Who wore their bodies out with nasty sins.
There is very little logic to this former soldier’s thoughts, but there is a logic to ghosts, for him: they are here, but not the ones he knew—those ones are back where they died, of course.
The narrator’s mind continues to wander as he complains about constantly hearing guns, and here Sassoon hits us with his final line: “I’m going stark, staring mad because of the guns.” The guns no longer exist, realize; it’s just that “quite soft…they never cease.”
The end of this poem is angry; the beginning is bitter. The narrator’s thoughts turn to the war on his seeing moths drawn to a flame—he just can’t resist the mental metaphor. But he scolds himself,
—it’s bad to think of war,
When thoughts you’ve gagged all day come back to scare you;
And it’s been proved that soldiers don’t go mad
Unless they lose control of ugly thoughts
This is where I would say Sassoon’s bitterness most comes out—when he’s talking about how “it’s bad” and “it’s been proved,” things decided by some official yet foreign body, just as when he’s saying he wished “they’d” killed you in a decent show—the generals, who “did for them” all by their plans of attack. Also the civilian leadership back home, and civilian supporters. The calamity itself doesn’t induce as much bitterness as those who drive it along and often profit by it. In terms of Great War literature, this is a theme I first discovered in Parade’s End. Or so I thought—I’d actually encountered it long before, in “Blackadder Goes Forth” (which I saw as much, much darker after reading that tetralogy). In The Missing of the Somme, Geoff Dyer discusses the play “Oh What a Lovely War, filmed by Richard Attenborough in 1969, which sometimes tends toward “crude caricature”:
Writers may have resorted to irony, but the soldiers here rely on its more humane equivalent: the piss-take.
Appropriately and perfectly, the play ends with a song which, like that defining passage in Barbusse, looks ahead to the impossibility of conveying what happened in the trenches:
And when they ask us, and they’re certainly going to ask us,
The reason why we didn’t win the Croix de Guerre,
Oh, we’ll never tell them, oh, we’ll never tell them
There was a front, but damned if we knew where.
Blackadder’s snide remarks on General Haig’s latest “gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin” are coming from the same general place, I think, and are, similarly, just as powerful as many more “literary” attempts to describe the war. Lieutenant Blackadder asking, just as he and his troops must finally (really this time) go over the top, with classic sarcasm, “I mean, who would have noticed another madman round here?” seems to arrive, by way of the vulgar piss-take school, straight down the line from the likes of Sassoon—and by 1989, it may be cliché, but like I said, I find the show extremely dark. And I find Sassoon extremely effective.