This month’s Six Degrees of Separation (see Kate’s introductory post) starts with Cormac McCarthy’s bleak dystopian novel The Road (2006).
I’ve read several of McCarthy’s novels, including this one. Believe it or not, this is not the darkest – that would be Blood Meridian.
#1 Sticking with the road trip theme, I’ll start by highlighting one of my favorite novels from 2018, Southernmost by Silas House. Tennessee preacher Asher Sharp’s family life falls apart when he welcomes a homosexual couple into his church. After being voted out of his post, he kidnaps his son and drives to Key West, Florida, where his estranged gay brother lives.
#2 A minister is also the main character in Abide with Me by Elizabeth Strout (2006). I finished this one, my fourth novel from Strout, a couple of weeks ago. She tenderly probes the dark places of a mid-twentieth century Maine community and its pastor’s doubts, but finds the light shining through. From first line to last word, this was gorgeous.
#3 “Abide with Me,” Reverend Tyler Caskey’s favorite hymn, gives the novel its title. Also named after a song is Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami (1987/2000). I have a copy on the shelf and tried the first 20 pages a couple of months ago, but it was so normal – compared to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, anyway – that I felt disoriented and set it aside.
#4 Returning to bleakness … the Norwegian reference takes me one of the first books from Norway I remember reading: Hunger by Knut Hamsun (1890). It’s a spare story of a starving writer who wanders the streets of Oslo looking for opportunities for food and publication, tramping about simply to keep warm at the onset of a bitter Scandinavian winter.
#5 Same title; rather different contents: Hunger by Roxane Gay (2017) is a collection of short autobiographical essays that riff on weight, diet, exercise and body image. The writing style is matter-of-fact and never self-pitying. This is still the only thing I’ve read by her, but I mean to read more, starting with her novel An Untamed State.
[#5.5 Her surname takes me to the title of my cheaty half-step, A Gay and Melancholy Sound by Merle Miller (1962), a semi-autobiographical novel about a man from Iowa who helps free the concentration camps and then has a career as a theatrical producer. It was Nancy Pearl’s first Book Lust Rediscoveries reprint book and is on my TBR.]
#6 While it’s not implied by that title, Miller was, er, gay, which leads to another of his books, On Being Different. I have Pearl to thank for leading me to this 1971 essay, which was republished in book form in 2013. It’s an insider’s view of what it is like to be a homosexual. A period piece now, it feels like a precursor to the revolution in gay rights. It’s one of the books (along with Straight by Hanne Blank and Conundrum by Jan Morris) that have most boosted my tolerance and compassionate understanding.
(This loops nicely back to #1 and the story of a preacher accepting homosexuality in his family as well as in his church congregation.)
Join us for #6Degrees of Separation if you haven’t already!
Have you read any of my selections? Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?
When it came to it, it isn’t me
was all he seemed to learn
from all his diligent forays outward.
(from “It Isn’t Me” by James Lasdun)
I chose to read this doorstopper from 1915 because it appeared in The Novel Cure on a list entitled “The Ten Best Novels for Thirty-Somethings.” By happy accident, I was also reading it throughout its centenary year. My knowledge of W. Somerset Maugham’s work was limited – I had seen the 2006 film version of The Painted Veil but never read anything by him – so I had no clear idea of what to expect. I was pleased to encounter a narrative rich with psychological insight and traces of the Victorian novel.
Philip Carey is not unlike a Dickensian hero: born with a club foot and orphaned as a child, he’s raised by his stern vicar uncle in Kent and reluctantly attends boarding school. Much of the book is filled with his post-schooling wanderings and professional shilly-shallying, along with multiple romantic missteps. He studies in Germany, tries to make it as a painter in Paris, and returns to London to train as an accountant and then as a doctor. Each attempted career seems to fail, as does every relationship. Philip reminded me most of David Copperfield, especially after he meets the jolly, Micawber-esque Thorpe Athelny during his hospital internship and becomes friendly with his wife and children.
As is common in Victorian novels, Philip is troubled by his conflicting desires. When it comes to women, he cannot get love to match up with lust. As a youth he loses his virginity to Emily Wilkinson, a woman in her mid-30s, then wants nothing to do with her. A few other dalliances have mixed success, but the novel focuses on Philip’s connection to Mildred Rogers. A café waitress, she’s vain and ill-tempered and acts indifferent to Philip – but is happy for him to spend money on her. He’s disgusted and infatuated all at once: “He did not care if she was heartless, vicious and vulgar, stupid and grasping, he loved her. He would rather have misery with [her] than happiness with [another].” Though Mildred tries to eschew the traditional roles of wife and mother, the Victorian notion of the fallen woman haunts her.
This on-again, off-again romance forms the heart of the book. Both Philip and Mildred are maddening in their own way. Not since Pip (another Philip, interestingly) in Great Expectations have I been so furious at a main character for consistently making the wrong choices, being dazzled by beauty and status and ignoring the more important things in life. Yet the close third-person narration sees so deeply into Philip’s psyche that I could not help but feel sympathy for him, too, cringing over his every failure – especially when stock market losses leave him destitute and he undertakes humiliating (to him) work at a department store. The novel is liberally studded with intimate paragraphs conveying Philip’s thoughts:
He painted with the brain, and he could not help knowing that the only painting worth anything was done with the heart. … [H]e had a terrible fear that he would never be more than second-rate. Was it worth while for that to give up one’s youth, and the gaiety of life, and the manifold chances of being?
Pain and disease and unhappiness weighed down the scale so heavily. What did it all mean? He thought of his own life, the high hopes with which he had entered upon it, the limitations which his body forced upon him, his friendlessness, and the lack of affection which had surrounded his youth. He did not know that he had ever done anything but what seemed best to do, and what a cropper he had come! Other men, with no more advantages than he, succeeded, and others again, with many more, failed. It seemed pure chance. The rain fell alike upon the just and upon the unjust, and for nothing was there a why and a wherefore.
Another humanizing element that especially appealed to me was Philip’s loss of Christian faith. During my study abroad year and especially my master’s year at Leeds, when I wrote a dissertation on women’s loss-of-faith narratives in Victorian fiction, I read a lot of novels about belief and doubt. In Philip’s case, I was interested to see how Maugham portrays what is usually seen as a loss as more of a liberation:
Suddenly he realised that he had lost also that burden of responsibility which made every action of his life a matter of urgent consequence. He could breathe more freely in a lighter air. He was responsible only to himself for the things he did. Freedom! He was his own master at last. From old habit, unconsciously he thanked God that he no longer believed in Him.
Although Philip frequently indulges in self-pity, he also has moments where he wakes up to the wonder of life. These epiphanies of the beauty of London, of the whole world, were among my favorite scenes.
Unusually in a long book, I thought the last 150 pages were the strongest. I struggled to pay attention throughout Philip’s schooling and wearied of the endless negotiations with Mildred, but when Philip is at his lowest point – like the protagonist of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, not even sure if he’ll find enough to eat – there’s a real intensity to the plot that made this last chunk fly by.
I read a 1930s Modern Library copy from the University of Reading, but consulted Robert Calder’s introduction to the 1992 Penguin Classics edition for background information. It seems the novel was recognizably autobiographical for Maugham, though where a club foot was Philip’s source of shame, for the author it was his stammer (and his sexuality – he married but is known to have been a homosexual).
Like Joyce’s roughly contemporary A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Calder notes, Of Human Bondage fits into the “apprentice novel” genre. Despite being published in 1915, it is set in a recent past so makes no reference to the First World War, though the Boer War plays a background role. I didn’t find the book to be particularly dated; I even discovered that a couple of sayings I might have pegged as later inventions were around in the 1910s: “like it or lump it” and “put that in your pipe and smoke it.”
Of Human Bondage met with a lukewarm critical response in its own time but does seem to be among the more beloved – if obscure – classics nowadays. Calder insists that it “remains Maugham’s most complete statement of the importance of physical and spiritual liberty.”
There have been three film versions – and another is in production this year, apparently. The best known, from 1934, launched the career of Bette Davis, who gave it her all as Mildred Rogers (she was a write-in favorite for the Oscars that year). Overacting, for sure, but her blonde wave and simpering looks were perfect for the role. By contrast, Leslie Howard’s is a fairly subtle Philip. The movie – condensed, amazingly, to just over an hour and a half – focuses on his club foot and his relationship with Mildred; I was disappointed that no attempt was made to reproduce Philip’s introspective monologues through voiceovers.
To my surprise, Calder asserts that Of Human Bondage “has become one of the most widely read of modern novels, particularly by young people, who still find relevance in Philip’s struggle for a free and meaningful life.” It was good enough for Holden Caulfield, after all. It struck me during my reading that two recent novels may have taken inspiration from Maugham: the main character in Esther Freud’s Mr. Mac and Me, set in 1914, has a club foot; and in Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life Jude’s shame over his deteriorating physical condition, especially his legs, is reminiscent of Philip’s.
I’m not sure I’ll try anything else by Maugham – how could I when there’s still so much of Dickens and Hardy left to read? – but I’m certainly glad I read this. It’s clear why Berthoud and Elderkin thought Of Human Bondage would be a perfect read for someone in their 30s: it’s infused with the protagonist’s nostalgia for his youth and regret at opportunities not taken and time lost. The novel imagines a world where, even without a god pulling a string, some misfortune seems to be fated. Even so, free will is there, allowing you to recover from failure and try something new that will be truer to yourself in this one and only life.
Airmail: The Letters of Robert Bly and Tomas Tranströmer was my first-ever Goodreads giveaway win. Way back in the summer of 2013, the good people of Graywolf Press spent a small fortune to send this tremendous book all the way from Minnesota to my tiny then-house on the outskirts of Reading, England. It took me an unconscionably long time first to pick it up, then to read it, and finally to review it. But here we are.
This is the first time I’d read a literary correspondence, and I absolutely loved it. I knew very little about either poet before picking this up, though I recognized Bly as the translator of the copy of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger I had read a few years back. The two first corresponded in 1964 when Tranströmer requested a copy of the poetry journal The Sixties from Bly’s small press. At this point Tranströmer was already an established poet in his native Sweden, but in decades to come Bly was responsible for making his reputation in English translation.
“Friendships have their rhythms and seasons, fat times and lean times,” editor Thomas R. Smith writes in his introduction. One of the pleasures of this book is watching a friendship develop, as salutations go from “Dear Mr. Tranströmer” and “Best wishes” to “Your friend” and “With deep fondness always.”
Their relationship was both professional and personal: they translated each other’s poems into their respective languages so discussed intricacies of meaning as well as publication details and reading tours, but they also visited each other and became ever deeper confidants through deaths in the family and Bly’s painful divorce. They also commiserate over the debacle of the Vietnam War (as a protestor Bly was once arrested alongside Dr. Spock and Allen Ginsberg) and the Nixon–Reagan affronts to liberalism.
These letters sparkle with humor, especially from Tranströmer, who paints a Micawber-ish picture of his impecunious family, initially supported through his day job as a psychologist at a boys’ prison. My impression of him was of an impish joker.
Our shortage of money is comical—toward the end of the month we go around and shake all our old clothes in the hope that a stray coin might fall out.
We drank some champagne, which makes you think very clearly—my head turned into an aquarium with goldfish who were mumbling sentences of Marcus Aurelius.
Bly’s a witty sort, too:
I’ll send you the most insulting review I’ve ever gotten—it’s wonderful, he objects to everything about me except the size of my shoes!
I carefully set aside these free days which are known as Introvert Days, and are to be spent in solitary anxious, obstinate, confused ectomorph brooding.
Forgive my new typewriter—its mother was frightened by a Latin manuscript, and it doesn’t believe in pauses…
You don’t have to have any interest in poetry to read this with enjoyment. In fact, I didn’t care for most of the poem extracts. In the 1960s and 70s, at least – the heyday for the letters – they both wrote free verse poems that alternate matter-of-fact observations with abstractions. Lacking in sound techniques, they struck me as flat and artless. They weren’t to my taste apart from this one stanza of Tranströmer’s that instantly jumped out to me:
Two truths approach each other. One comes from inside, the other from outside, and where they meet we have a chance to catch sight of ourselves. (from “Preludes”)
However, Bly, at least, became “positively form-mad” in his later years; “[I] now have to eat all my words praising free verse as the only food conceivable for true Christian folk,” he wrote in 1981. He even created his own form, the “ramage” of 85 syllables. Perhaps I’ll like their later work better – I’m game for trying a full collection from each of them.
For anyone interested in the nitty-gritty of translation, there are many fascinating passages here where the poets wrestle with vocabulary and nuances. “Poems are best when there are incredible mysteries in them,” Bly declares, and all the more difficult to retain that mystery as they passed back and forth between Swedish and English. “I think it was something unexplainable, something water-like or flowing in our approach to poetry that made our translations of each other full of feeling even with occasional mistakes,” Bly wrote to their Swedish editor.
These selected letters continue through 1990, when Tranströmer had a stroke and their correspondence inevitably declined. Tomas Tranströmer would go on to win the Nobel Prize in 2011 and died in March 2015. Robert Bly is still going at age 89 and has recently been the subject of a biopic. Stealing Sugar from the Castle, a volume of his new and selected poems, was published in 2013.
After this I’d be keen to try out more authors’ correspondence volumes. I love letters whether they appear in epistolary fiction or in nonfiction, and here they form a touching picture of a friendship that sustained their writers for decades. In 1978 Bly wrote: “Thank you for receiving my grief and my uncertainties and my shadowy complications without running out the door.” That’s the mark of a true friend.
With thanks to Graywolf Press for the free copy, won in a Goodreads giveaway.