It’s a tradition now in its third and last year: I spend one day at the New Networks for Nature conference with my husband, and then (to save money, and because I’ve usually had my fill of stimulating speakers by then) wander around Stamford and haunt the public library on the other day.
This past Saturday I browsed the charity shops and found a short story collection I’ve been interested in reading, but otherwise just spent hours in Stamford’s library looking through recent issues of the Times Literary Supplement and The Bookseller and reading from the stack of novellas I’d brought with me. I read four in one sitting because all were shorter than 50 pages long: two obscure classics and two nature books.
The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono (1953)
[Translated from the French by Barbara Bray; 46 pages]
Trees have been a surprise recurring theme in my 2018 reading. This spare allegory from a Provençal author is all about the difference one person can make. The narrator meets a shepherd and beekeeper named Elzéard Bouffier who plants as many acorns as he can; “it struck him that this part of the country was dying for lack of trees, and having nothing much else to do he decided to put things right.” Decades pass and two world wars do their worst, but very little changes in the countryside. Old Bouffier has led an unassuming but worthwhile life.
There’s not very much to this story, though I appreciated the message about doing good even if you won’t get any recognition or even live to see the fruits of your labor. What’s most interesting about it is the publication history: it was commissioned by Reader’s Digest for a series on “The Most Extraordinary Character I Ever Met,” and though the magazine accepted it with rapture, there was belated outrage when they realized it was fiction. It was later included in a German anthology of biography, too! No one recognized it as a fable; this became a sort of literary in-joke, as Giono’s daughter Aline reveals in a short afterword.
Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville (1853)
[40 pages from my Penguin Classics copy of Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Stories]
You probably know the basic plot even if you’ve never read the story. Hired as the fourth scrivener in a Wall Street office of law-copyists, Bartleby seems quietly efficient until one day he mildly refuses to do the work requested of him. “I prefer not to” becomes his refrain. First he stops proofreading his copies, and then he declines to do any writing at all. (More and more these days, I find I have the same can’t-be-bothered attitude as Bartleby!) As the employer/narrator writes, “a certain unconscious air … of pallid haughtiness … positively awed me into my tame compliance with his eccentricities.” Farce ensues as he finds himself incapable of getting rid of Bartleby, even after he goes to the extreme of changing the premises of his office. Three times he even denies knowing Bartleby, but still the man is a thorn in his flesh, a nuisance turned inescapable responsibility. A glance at the introduction by Harold Beaver tells me I’m not the first to make such Christian parallels. (This was the first Melville I’ve read since an aborted attempt on Moby-Dick during college.)
The Company of Swans by Jim Crumley (1997)
[Illustrated by Harry Brockway, who also did the wood engravings for the Giono; 39 pages]
Crumley is an underappreciated Scottish nature writer. Here he tells the tale of a pair of mute swans on a loch in Highland Perthshire. He followed their relationship with great interest over a matter of years. First he noticed that their nest had been robbed, twice within a few weeks, and realized otters must be to blame. Then, although it’s a truism that swans mate for life, he observed the cob (male) leaving the pen (female) for another! Crumley was overtaken with sympathy for the abandoned swan and got to feed her by hand and watch her fall asleep. “To suggest there was true communication between us would be outrageous, but I believe she regarded me as benevolent, which was all I ever asked of her,” he writes. Two years later he learns the end of her story. A pleasant ode to fleeting moments of communion with nature.
“Swans this wild let you into only a certain portion of their lives. They give you intimate glimpses. But you can never have any part in the business of being a swan. You can offer them no more than the flung tribute of your admiring gaze.”
“I think there is nothing in all nature that outshines that lustrous lacing of curves [of swan necks], nothing in all theatre that outperforms its pivotal tension.”
Holloway by Robert Macfarlane (2013)
[Illustrated by Stanley Donwood; 39 pages]
In 2011 Macfarlane set out to recreate a journey through South Dorset that he’d first undertaken with the late Roger Deakin in 2005, targeting the sunken paths of former roadways. This is not your average nature or travel book, though; it’s much more fragmentary and poetic than you’d expect from a straightforward account of a journey through the natural world. I thought the stream-of-consciousness style overdone, and got more out of the song about the book by singer-songwriter Anne-Marie Sanderson. (Her Book Songs, Volume 1 EP, which has been one of my great discoveries of the year, is available to listen to and purchase on her Bandcamp page. It also includes songs inspired by Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Sarah Hall’s Haweswater, and Doris Lessing’s Mara and Dann.) The black-and-white illustrations are nicely evocative, though.
Lines I liked:
“paths run through people as surely as they run through places.”
“The holloway is absence; a wood-way worn away by buried feet.”
Have you read any of these super-short novellas? Which one takes your fancy?
We often resent books we’re forced to read in school, but The Scarlet Letter wasn’t like that for me. Even though it was assigned reading for high school, I could instantly sense how important it was in the history of American literature. The tragic story of Hester Prynne and her judgmental community is one that stays with me half a lifetime later. I reread it in college for a Hawthorne & Melville course, for which I also read The Blithedale Romance, The House of the Seven Gables, and several of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s best short stories.
My more-than-average interest in Hawthorne, combined with my love of historical fiction about “famous wives” (see my BookTrib articles on the subject, including one specifically about the Hemingway and Fitzgerald wives) meant that I was eager to read Erika Robuck’s latest. She’s made a name for herself with novels about some of history’s famous women, including Zelda Fitzgerald, Edna St. Vincent Millay and one of the Hemingway wives, but somehow I’ve never read anything by her until now.
“Time flies over us, but leaves its shadow behind.”
(one of Robuck’s epigraphs, from Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun)
The novel is from the first-person perspective of Sophia Peabody, later the wife of Nathaniel Hawthorne. The Peabodys were an artistic, intellectual family who encouraged Sophia to cultivate her talent as a painter and sculptor, but illness often held her back: she suffered from debilitating headaches and turned to morphine and mesmerism for relief. The story begins and ends in the spring of 1864, when Nathaniel, suffering from a stomach ailment, sets off on a final journey without Sophia. In between these bookends, the novel spans the 1830s through the 1860s, taking in Sophia’s sojourn in Cuba as a young woman, her and Nathaniel’s courtship, and the challenges of parenthood and making a living from art.
My favorite portions of the novel were set in Concord, Massachusetts, that haven for writers and Transcendentalists. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Herman Melville all play minor roles. It’s especially amusing to see Melville, Hawthorne’s ardent admirer, overstep the boundaries of polite society and become an irksome stalker. What I did not realize from previous biographical reading about the Hawthornes is that they nearly always struggled for money. They rented Emerson’s uncle’s house in Concord but were evicted when they fumbled to make payments. Nathaniel’s jobs in the Custom House and as the U.S. Consul in Liverpool (appointed by President Franklin Pierce, who was a personal friend and whose biography he wrote) were undertaken out of financial desperation rather than interest.
The Hawthornes’ time in Europe was another highlight of the novel for me. They encounter the Brownings and finally get a chance to see all the Italian art that has inspired Sophia over the years. Their oldest daughter, Una, also falls ill with malaria, which provides some great dramatic scenes in later chapters. I warmed to this late vision of Sophia as a devoted mother, whereas I struggled to accept her as a vibrant young woman and a randy wife. Her constant complaints about headaches are annoying, and I wasn’t convinced that the Cuba chapters were relevant to the novel as a whole; Robuck tries to link Sophia’s observations of slavery there with the abolitionist sentiments of the 1860s, but Sophia’s devotion to the antislavery cause was only ever half-hearted, so I didn’t believe the experience in Cuba could have affected her that deeply. Her unconsummated lust for Fernando is also, I suppose, meant to prefigure her abiding passion for Nathaniel – which is described in frequent, cringe-worthy sex scenes and flowery lines like “In his gaze, I feel our souls rise up to meet each other.”
Ultimately, my disconnection from Sophia as narrator meant that I would prefer to read about the Hawthornes in biographies, of which there are plenty. Two novels I would recommend that incorporate many of the same historical figures are Miss Fuller by April Bernard and What Is Visible by Kimberly Elkins (about the deaf-blind Laura Bridgman – who has a tiny cameo here). Beautiful Fools by R. Clifton Spargo uses a Cuba setting to better effect in telling the story of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s last holiday. I preferred all three of these to The House of Hawthorne. However, I’m certainly up for trying more of Robuck’s fiction.
I received early access to this book through the Penguin First to Read program.