Today’s entries in my colour-themed summer reading are a travelogue tracking the world’s endangered hummingbirds and a bizarre classic novel that blends nature writing and fantasy. Though very different books, they have in common lush South American forest settings.
The Glitter in the Green: In Search of Hummingbirds by Jon Dunn (2021)
As a wildlife writer and photographer, Jon Dunn has come to focus on small and secretive but indelible wonders. His previous book, which I still need to catch up on, was all about orchids, and in this new one he travels the length of the Americas, from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, to see as many hummingbirds as he can. He provides a thorough survey of the history, science and cultural relevance (from a mini handgun to an indie pop band) of this most jewel-like of bird families. The ruby-throated hummingbirds I grew up seeing in suburban Maryland are gorgeous enough, but from there the names and corresponding colourful markings just get more magnificent: Glittering-throated Emeralds, Tourmaline Sunangels, Violet-capped woodnymphs, and so on. I’ll have to get a look at the photos in a finished copy of the book!
Dunn is equally good at describing birds and their habitats and at constructing a charming travelogue out of his sometimes fraught journeys. He has only a narrow weather of fog-free weather to get from Chile to Isla Robinson Crusoe and the plane has to turn back once before it successfully lands; a planned excursion in Bolivia is a non-starter after political protestors block some main routes. There are moments when the thrill of the chase is rewarded – as when he sees 24 hummingbird species in a day in Costa Rica – and many instances of lavish hospitality from locals who serve as guides or open their gardens to birdwatchers.
Like so many creatures, hummingbirds are in dire straits due to human activity: deforestation, invasive species, pesticide use and climate change are reducing the areas where they can live to pockets here and there; some species number in the hundreds and are considered critically endangered. Dunn juxtaposes the exploitative practices of (white, male) 19th- and 20th-century bird artists, collectors and hunters with indigenous birdwatching and environmental initiatives that are rising up to combat ecological damage in Latin America. Although society has moved past the use of hummingbird feathers in crafts and fashion, he learns that the troubling practice of dead hummingbirds being sold as love charms (chuparosas) persists in Mexico.
Whether you’re familiar with hummingbirds or not, if you have even a passing interest in nature and travel writing, I recommend The Glitter in the Green for how it invites readers into a personal passion, recreates an adventurous odyssey, and reinforces our collective responsibility for threatened wildlife. (Proof copy passed on by Paul of Halfman, Halfbook)
A lovely folk tale I’ll quote in full:
A hummingbird as a symbol of hope, strength and endurance is a recurrent one in South American folklore. An Ecuadorian folk tale tells of a forest on fire – a hummingbird picks up single droplets of water in its beak and lets them fall on the fire. The other animals in the forest laugh, and ask the hummingbird what difference this can possibly make. They say, ‘Don’t bother, it is too much, you are too little, your wings will burn, your beak is too tiny, it’s only a drop, you can’t put out this fire. What do you think you are doing?’ To which the hummingbird is said to reply, ‘I’m just doing what I can.’
Links between the books: Hudson is quoted in Dunn’s introduction. In Chapter 7 of the below, Hudson describes a hummingbird as “a living prismatic gem that changes its colour with every change of position … it catches the sunshine on its burnished neck and gorget plumes—green and gold and flame-coloured, the beams changing to visible flakes as they fall”
Green Mansions: A Romance of the Tropical Forest by W.H. Hudson (1904)
Like Heart of Darkness, this is a long recounted tale about a journey among ‘savages’. After a prologue, the narrator soon cedes storytelling duties to Mr. Abel, whom he met in Georgetown, Guyana in 1887. Searching for gold and fighting off illness, the 23-year-old Abel took up the habit of wandering the Venezuelan forest. The indigenous people were superstitious and refused to hunt in that forest. Abel began to hear strange noises – magical bird calls or laughter – that, siren-like, drew him deeper in. His native friend warned him it was the daughter of an evil spirit.
One day, after being bitten by a snake, Abel woke up in the dwelling of an old man and his 17-year-old granddaughter, Rima – the very wood sprite he’d sensed all these times in the forest; she saved his life. Recovering in their home and helping Rima investigate her origins, he romanticizes this tree spirit in a way that struck me as smarmy. It’s possible this could be appreciated as a fable of connection with nature, but I found it vague and old-fashioned. (Not to mention Abel’s condescending attitude to the indigenous people and to women.) I ended up skimming the last three-quarters.
My husband has read nonfiction by Hudson; I think I was under the impression that this was a memoir, in fact. Perhaps I’d enjoy Hudson’s writing in another genre. But I was surprised to read high praise from John Galsworthy in the foreword (“For of all living authors—now that Tolstoi has gone—I could least dispense with W. H. Hudson”) and to note how many of my Goodreads friends have read this; I don’t see it as a classic that stands the test of time.
My 1944 hardback once belonged to one Mary Marcilliat of Louisville, Kentucky, and has strange abstract illustrations by E. McKnight Kauffer. (Free from the Book Thing of Baltimore)
Coming up next: One black and one gold on Wednesday; a Green author and a rainbow bonus (probably on the very last day).
Would you be interested in reading one of these?
I’ve been taking advantage of various free and inexpensive literary events – a bonus of our temporarily virtual-only world. I have five of them stored up to write about, but to keep this post from getting absurdly long I’ll focus on two for now and feature the rest another time.
George Saunders in Conversation with Max Porter
Saunders’s latest book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, is a written version of the graduate-level masterclass in the Russian short story that he offers at Syracuse University, where he has taught in the Creative Writing Program since 1997. His aim here was to “elevate the short story form,” he said. While the book reprints and discusses just seven stories (three by Anton Chekhov, two by Leo Tolstoy, and one each by Nikolai Gogol and Ivan Turgenev), in the class he and his students tackle more like 40. He wants people to read a story, react to the story, and trust that reaction – even if it’s annoyance. “Work with it,” he suggested. “I am bringing you an object to consider” on the route to becoming the author you are meant to be – such is how he described his offer to his students, who have already overcome 1 in 100 odds to be on the elite Syracuse program but might still need to have their academic egos tweaked.
The book is, thus, not just a set of essays on the Russian masters but also a guide to how to write well. It was clear there was mutual admiration between Saunders and Max Porter, who interviewed him. They discussed the revision process as an accumulation of micro-decisions that make the work better. For instance, Saunders compared two Tolstoy stories, “The Snowstorm” and “Master and Man” (written 20 years later), and noted that, though they are thematically similar, the later one is more organized.
Saunders spoke about writing as a dual process of intuition and iteration; a bunch of different “yous” have acted on a text by the time it’s done. Early on in his career, he thought that he had to choose which writer he wanted to be (e.g., Hemingway or Kerouac), but as he aged he realized that the mind is never fixed. He went surprisingly deep into Buddhism at this point, likening writing to meditation – both are practices pursued with intensity. To his younger self, he would say to keep going: improving is simply a matter of time (i.e., that 10,000 hours figure that’s bandied about as necessary for developing expertise).
The only drawback to this event was that Saunders was speaking from his snow-encased upstate New York basement and had a horrible Internet connection; often his voice was faint and delayed, while his image stayed static. We and Porter could only stare gormlessly and wait for his face to move to match his words! I think the book would be too niche for me – I’ve hardly read anything by the Russians, and since I don’t write fiction I’m not in need of a guide to those kinds of writing decisions – but it was nice to ‘meet’ Saunders ‘in person’.
An Evening with Kazuo Ishiguro
(Faber Members / Guardian Live event)
Ishiguro’s new novel, Klara and the Sun, was published by Faber yesterday. This conversation with Alex Clark also functioned as its launch event. It’s one of my most anticipated books of the year, so I pre-ordered a signed copy along with my ticket and look forward to it arriving soon. Klara is an Artificial Intelligence “friend” purchased to combat teenage loneliness. A childlike figure, she is cheerful and treats the sun like a god. Ishiguro said that the book developed from a story he wrote for children aged five to six, about a little girl who takes a doll home – except his daughter, author Naomi Ishiguro, told him no way was it suitable for young children, being far too dark. He likes “displaced or alien narrators, fish out of water,” he said, because the limited perspective allows him to focus on oddness.
In addition to Clark’s questions, a few pre-recorded questions from literary celebs (Daisy Johnson, Bernardine Evaristo, and David Mitchell) encouraged Ishiguro to create a tripartite schema for his novels, reflect on his writing about Japan, and look back at the devices he has used. Asked by Johnson about the connections between his novels, he admitted that his first three novels all retread the same ground: a man who has made a mess of his life or career picks over the past. Then his mid period is set in dreamscapes, while his most recent three novels are dystopian fantasies (though he does not see Klara as set in a dystopian world).
In response to Evaristo’s question about whether he felt an obligation to write about Japan, he said that with his early work he was conscious of needing to represent a group of people who even then (due to World War II) were viewed with suspicion or antipathy. He left Japan at age five so the country didn’t seem entirely real to him. What he knew was based on very early memories, what his mother told him, comic books sent by his grandparents, etc. As he stated in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, writing about Japan in his twenties therefore felt like “an act of preservation.” Still, he wants his characters and situations to be universal.
Replying to Mitchell’s three questions (cheeky!), he explained that his first ambition was to be a singer/songwriter, and he wrote 100+ songs. Songwriting taught him minimalism. “You can say a huge amount by what you don’t say,” he noted. He hopes to create spaces, or rather vacuums that suck in the reader’s attention. Unlike Mitchell, he always knows the ending of a book before he begins, and his decisions are all about wanting to lodge in the reader’s brain. Thus, memorable endings are a priority for him, whereas they might not be for other writers. I was struck by his characterization of his own life: when he looks back, he doesn’t see a clear path that arose from his choices; instead, he sees a “weird, incoherent mess.” For this reason, he’s turned against the reflective device of his first three books. If he can come up with a theme, he’s hankering to write a book about hitchhikers in the north of England.
Towards the end of the (overlong) discussion, he mentioned that he has been questioning the novelist’s role due to the events of the past year: wondering about the meaning of fiction when so many have died and so many believe fake news. It was a melancholy but realistic point to end on. While I’m not an Ishiguro completist (The Unconsoled doesn’t appeal to me at all and I’m not sure I can be bothered with When We Were Orphans, but I will try The Buried Giant; I’ve read the rest), the event whetted my appetite to read his new book. (See also this Goodreads interview. I loved the anecdotes about learning he’d won the Nobel!)
Bookish online events coming up soon: The Rathbones Folio Prize announcement on the 24th and Claire Fuller’s book launch for Unsettled Ground on the 25th.
Have you attended any online literary events recently?
Many thanks to the publisher for free print or e-copies of these three books for review.
In Nearby Bushes by Kei Miller
“Are there stories you have heard about Jamaica? / Well here are the stories underneath.” The last two lines of “The Understory” reveal Miller’s purpose in this, his fifth collection of poetry. The title is taken from Jamaican crime reports, which often speak of a victim’s corpse being dumped in, or perpetrators escaping to, “nearby bushes.” It’s a strange euphemism that calls to mind a dispersed underworld where bodies are devalued. Miller persistently contrasts a more concrete sense of place with that iniquitous nowhere. Most of the poems in the first section open with the word “Here,” which is also often included in their titles and repeated frequently throughout Part I. Jamaica is described with shades of green: a fertile, feral place that’s full of surprises, like an escaped colony of reindeer.
As usual, Miller slips in and out of dialect as he reflects on the country’s colonial legacy and the precarious place of homosexuals (“A Psalm for Gay Boys” is a highlight). Although I enjoyed this less than the other books I’ve read by Miller, I highly recommend his work in general; the collection The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion is a great place to start.
Some favorite lines:
“Here that cradles the earthquakes; / they pass through the valleys // in waves, a thing like grief, / or groaning that can’t be uttered.” (from “Hush”)
“We are insufficiently imagined people from an insufficiently imagined place.” (from “Sometimes I Consider the Names of Places”)
“Cause woman is disposable as that, / and this thing that has happened is … common as stone and leaf and breadfruit tree. You should have known.” (from “In Nearby Bushes” XIII.III)
In Nearby Bushes was published on 29th August.
So Many Rooms by Laura Scott
Art, Greek mythology, the seaside, the work of Tolstoy, death, birds, fish, love and loss: there are lots of repeating themes and images in this debut collection. While there are a handful of end rhymes scattered through, what you mostly notice is alliteration and internal rhyming. The use of color is strong, and not just in the poems about paintings. A few of my favorites were “Mulberry Tree” (“My mother made pudding with its fruit, / white bread drinking / colour just as the sheets waited / for the birds to stain them purple.”), “Direction,” and “A Different Tune” (“oh my heavy heart how can I / make you light again so I don’t have to // lug you through the years and rooms?”). There weren’t loads of poems that stood out to me here, but I’ll still be sure to look out for more of Scott’s work.
So Many Rooms was published on 29th August.
A Kingdom of Love by Rachel Mann
Rachel Mann, a transgender Anglican priest, was Poet-in-Residence at Manchester Cathedral from 2009 to 2017 and is now a Visiting Fellow in Creative Writing and English at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her poetry is full of snippets of scripture and liturgy (both English and Latin), and the cadence is often psalm-like. The final five poems are named after some of the daily offices, and “Christening” and “Extreme Unction” are two stand-outs that describe performing rituals for the beginning and end of life. The poet draws on Greek myth as well as on the language of Christian classics from St. Augustine to R.S. Thomas.
Human fragility is an almost comforting undercurrent (“Be dust with me”), with the body envisioned as the site of both sin and redemption. A focus on words leads to a preoccupation with mouths and the physical act of creating and voicing language. There is surprisingly anatomical vocabulary in places: the larynx, the palate. Mann also muses on Englishness, and revels in the contradictions of ancient and modern life: Chaucer versus a modern housing development, “Reading Ovid on the Underground.” She undertakes a lot of train rides and writes of passing through stations, evoking the feeling of being in transit(ion).
You wouldn’t know the poet had undergone a sex change unless you’d already read about it in the press materials or found other biographical information, but knowing the context one finds extra meaning in “Dress,” about an eight-year-old coveting a red dress (“To simply have known it was mine / in those days”) and “Give It a Name,” about the early moments of healing from surgery.
This is beautiful, incantatory free verse that sparkles with alliteration and allusions that those of a religious background will be sure to recognize. It’s sensual as well as headily intellectual. Doubt, prayer and love fuel many of my favorite lines:
“Love should taste of something, / The sea, I think, brined and unsteady, / Of scale and deep and all we crawled out from.” (from “Collect for Purity”)
“I don’t know what ‘believe in’ means / In the vast majority of cases, / Which is to say I think it enough // To acknowledge glamour of words – / Relic, body, bone – I think / Mystery is laid in syllables, syntax” (from “Fides Quarens”)
“Offer the fact of prayer – a formula, / And more: the compromise of centuries / Made valid.” (from “A Kingdom of Love (2)”)
Particularly recommended for readers of Malcolm Guite and Christian Wiman.
Official release date: September 26th – but already available from the Carcanet website.
Any recent poetry reads you’d recommend?
Everything was in its place.
along designated rails.
Even the arranged meeting
In paradise lost
From “Railway station” by Wisława Szymborska
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
From “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop
This is not your average memoir. For one thing, it ends with 34 pages of notes and bibliography. Sophie Ratcliffe is an associate professor of English at the University of Oxford, and it’s clear that her life and the narrative have been indelibly shaped by literature. In this work of creative nonfiction she is particularly interested in the lives and works of Leo Tolstoy and Anthony Trollope and the women they loved. For another, the book is based around train journeys – real and fictional, remembered and imagined. Trains are appropriate symbols for many of the book’s dichotomies: scheduling versus unpredictability, having or lacking a direction in life, monotony versus momentous events, and fleeting versus lasting connections.
Each chapter, marked with a location and a year, functions as a mini-essay; as the nonchronological pieces accrete you develop a sense of what have been the most important elements of Ratcliffe’s life. One was her father’s death from cancer when she was 13, an early loss that inevitably affected the years that followed. Another was a love affair with a married photographer 30 years her senior. A number of chapters are addressed directly to this ex-lover in the second person. Although they’ve had no contact since she got married, she still thinks about him – and wonders if she’ll have a right to mourn him when he dies.
Could she have been his muse, as Kate Field was for Trollope? Field appeared in fictional guises in much of his work and thereby inspired Anna Karenina, for Tolstoy was a devoted reader of Trollope and gave his heroine a penchant for reading English novels, too. Ratcliffe seems to see herself in Anna, a wife and mother who longs for a life of her own: she writes of her love for her two children but also of the boredom that comes with motherhood’s minutiae.
Much of life’s daily tedium is bound up in physical objects, like the random objects that litter the cover. “I am a lover of small things – and of clutter,” Ratcliffe confesses. She notes that generations of literary critics have asked what was in the red handbag Anna Karenina left behind, too. What does such lost property say about its owner? What can be saved from a life in which loss is so prevalent? These are questions the book explores through its metaphors, stories and memories. It ends with the hope that writing things down gives them meaning.
If you enjoy nonstandard memoirs (like Jean Hannah Edelstein’s This Really Isn’t About You) and books about how what we read makes us who we are (such as Samantha Ellis’s How to Be a Heroine and Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm), you have a real treat in store here.
Some favorite lines:
“Life is in the between-ness, the space in the margins – not in the headlines.”
“Books, like trains, are another way of tricking time, of moving to a different beat, a different space.”
“Has my reading been a way of keeping me company – of helping me through the worlds of nearlys and barelys and the feelings of missing, and the hopeless messiness?”
“Writing is better than nothing. Better than thin air.”
With thanks to William Collins for the free copy for review.
I first heard of the author when she was a Wellcome Book Prize judge in 2018. I was delighted to be invited to take part in the blog tour for The Lost Properties of Love.
“Now that it’s all over I find myself thinking about family history and family memories; the stories that hold a family together and the acts that can split it apart.”
Sigrid Rausing’s brother, Hans, and his wife, Eva, were wealthy philanthropists – and drug addicts who kept it together long enough to marry and have children before relapsing. Hans survived that decade-long dive back into addiction, but Eva did not: in July 2012 the 48-year-old’s decomposed body was found in a sealed-off area of the couple’s £70 million Chelsea mansion. The postmortem revealed that she had been using cocaine, which threw her already damaged heart into a chaotic rhythm. She’d been dead in their drug den for over two months.
Those are the bare facts. Scandalous enough for you? But Mayhem is no true crime tell-all. It does incorporate the straightforward information that is in the public record – headlines, statements and appearances – but blends them into a fragmentary, dreamlike family memoir that proceeds through free association and obsessively deliberates about the nature and nurture aspects of addictive personalities. “We didn’t understand that every addiction case is the same dismal story,” she writes, in a reversal of Tolstoy’s maxim about unhappy families.
Rausing’s memories of idyllic childhood summers in Sweden reminded me of Tove Jansson stories, and the incessant self-questioning of a family member wracked by remorse is similar to what I’ve encountered in memoirs and novels about suicide in the family, such as Jill Bialosky’s History of a Suicide and Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows. Despite all the pleading letters and e-mails she sent Hans and Eva, and all the interventions and rehab spells she helped arrange, Rausing has a nagging “sense that when I tried I didn’t try hard enough.”
The book moves sinuously between past and present, before and after, fact and supposition. There are a lot of peculiar details and connections in this story, starting with the family history of dementia and alcoholism. Rausing’s grandfather founded the Tetra Pak packaging company, later run by her father. Eva had a pet conspiracy theory that her father-in-law murdered Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986.
Rausing did anthropology fieldwork in Estonia and is now the publisher of Granta Books and Granta magazine. True to her career in editing, she’s treated this book project like a wild saga that had to be tamed, “all the sad and sordid details redacted,” but “I fear I have redacted too much,” she admits towards the end. She’s constantly pushing back against the more sensational aspects of this story, seeking instead to ground it in family experience. The book’s sketchy nature is in a sense necessary because information about her four nieces and nephews, of whom she took custody in 2007, cannot legally be revealed. But if she’d waited until they were all of age, might this have been a rather different memoir?
Mayhem effectively conveys the regret and guilt that plague families of addicts. It invites you to feel what it is really like to live through the “years of failed hope” that characterize this type of family tragedy. It doesn’t offer any easy lessons seen in hindsight. That makes it an uncomfortable read, but an honest one.
With thanks to Midas PR for the free copy for review.
My gut feeling: This book’s style could put off more readers than it attracts. I can think of two other memoirs from the longlist that I would have preferred to see in this spot. I suppose I see why the judges rate Mayhem so highly – Edmund de Waal, the chair of this year’s judging panel, describes the Wellcome shortlist as “books that start debates or deepen them, that move us profoundly, surprise and delight and perplex us” – but it’s not in my top tier.
See what the rest of the shadow panel has to say about this book:
Annabel’s review: “Rausing is clearly a perceptive writer. She is very hard on herself; she is brutally honest, knowing that others will be hurt by the book.”
Clare’s review: “Rausing writes thoughtfully about the nature of addiction and its many contradictions.”
Laura’s review: “One of the saddest bits of Mayhem is when Rausing simply lists some of the press headlines that deal with her family story in reverse order, illustrating the seemingly inescapable spiral of addiction.”
Paul’s review: “It is not an easy read subject wise, thankfully Rausing’s sparse but beautiful writing helps makes this an essential read.”
Also, be sure to visit Laura’s blog today for an exclusive extract from Mayhem.
Shortlist strategy: Tomorrow I’ll post a quick response to Meredith Wadman’s The Vaccine Race.
If you are within striking distance of London, please consider coming to one of the shortlist events being held this Saturday and Sunday.
I was delighted to be asked to participate in the Wellcome Book Prize blog tour. See below for details of where other reviews and extracts have appeared or will be appearing soon.
Last month’s classic was Father and Son (Edmund Gosse); this month is Fathers and Sons, the 1861 novel by Ivan Turgenev (1818–83). I couldn’t resist pairing up the similar titles, and it turns out that even though one is nonfiction and the other fiction, they are thematically similar, dwelling on the clash of generations and contrasting romanticism and rationalism.
Nikolai Kirsanov’s son Arkady, newly graduated from university, has just returned to his father’s estate with his haughty fellow student Yevgeny Bazarov in tow. Bazarov intends to take a medical degree and follow in his father’s footsteps as a country doctor, so spends the time at his friend’s house dutifully poring over chemistry texts and dissecting frogs. Arkady, by contrast, seems earnest but aimless, happy to simply while away the days. The major change at home is that his father, a widower, has taken the servant girl Fenichka as his mistress and they have a baby, Mitya. (Gasp!) Yet the real shock in the world of the novel seems to be that Nikolai is consorting with someone of the lower classes. “In any case, it’s not for a son to sit in judgment on his father – least of all for me, and least of all with a father like you, who has never restricted my freedom in any way,” Arkady graciously concedes.
Together Nikolai and his rakish brother Pavel (“Women lost their heads over him, and men dubbed him a fop but were secretly envious”) represent an outmoded idealism that values art, nature, poetry, and true love. On the other side is Bazarov, who means to tear down those dated notions and recruit Arkady to the side of realism, even nihilism. “Nature is not a temple, but a workshop, and man’s the workman in it,” he explains to Arkady. But the pals’ notions get uncomfortably muddled when they meet the regal widow Anna Odintsov at the governor’s ball. On extended visits to her country house, Bazarov and Arkady become fixated on her and her younger sister, Katya, but differ in their willingness to give in to love.
Romantic love may be a madness best avoided in some of the characters’ view, but family love is a constant. Even Bazarov, though he makes a show of being embarrassed by their fussing when he goes home briefly after three years away, values his parents’ approval. His father proudly takes him along on his medical rounds, while his superstitious mother buttresses him with her prayers. She reminds her husband that Yevgeny is fundamentally different from them: “A son is an independent person. He’s like a falcon that comes when he wills and flies off when he lists; but you and I are like the funguses growing in a hollow tree.”
I was pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable and accessible Turgenev’s writing is. My experience with the Russian masters is shamefully limited; Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich might literally be the only thing I’ve read previously. I was worried that all the patronymics, place names, and historical and cultural references would trip me up, but it’s no trouble to adjust to them here. You might think of Fathers and Sons as a friendly way of easing in to works like War and Peace: although elements of the story reminded me of Tolstoy’s epic (as I know it purely from the recent BBC miniseries) – the range of characters, from rich to poor, and their interactions; the long visits to acquaintances; the peaceful countryside; even a duel – it is on a much smaller scale, and has a correspondingly lower page count of about 220.
Something in nearly every character’s psyche rang true for me: Arkady’s relief at being home; Nikolai’s sense of being left behind; Bazarov’s feeling of smallness in an uncaring universe; his mother’s benevolent contentment with the status quo; Madame Odintsov’s well-ordered but purposeless life; and so on. Turgenev’s asides about Russia and about human nature give the narration a playful, knowing quality reminiscent of George Eliot. The idea of fathers and children being on different tracks extends to other forms of paternalism: religion (though this is a minor theme compared to in Father and Son) as well as masters versus serfs. “We all know there’s the master’s will; on account of you bein’ like our fathers. An’ the more strict the master rules, the better it be for us peasants,” as one rustic opines to Bazarov.
This is a thought-provoking but markedly readable classic that I can heartily recommend. Turgenev only wrote five other novels; if they’re all as strong (and roughly as short) as this one, I’d be happy to read them all – and will likely return to Fathers and Sons in the future.
(With thanks to Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings for putting Turgenev on my radar.)
I read a Penguin Classics edition of Rosemary Edmonds’s 1965 translation. Her brief introduction gives helpful background and is a lovely piece of writing in its own right. Beware: only read a literary introduction after finishing the text, because critics assume you know the basic story line and so spoil who falls in love with whom, who dies in the end, etc. My edition is preceded by a lengthy lecture Isaiah Berlin gave on Turgenev in 1970.
Dr. James Darke, the narrator of rare-book dealer Rick Gekoski’s debut novel, is of the same lineage as titular antiheroes like Hendrik Groen and Fredrik Backman’s Ove, or J. Mendelssohn, protagonist of the title novella in Colum McCann’s Thirteen Ways of Looking: an aging widower and curmudgeon with an unforgettable voice.
As Darke begins, this retired English teacher is literally sealing himself off from the world. He hires a handyman to take out the door’s built-in letterbox, change the locks and install a high-tech peephole; he has all his mail redirected to an old colleague, George; he changes his e-mail address; and he compiles a thorough list of service providers who will come to him – everything from grocery deliveries to a doctor. Now, with any luck, he won’t need to set foot outside his London home while he writes this “coming-of-old-age book.”
For eight months Darke stays in self-imposed exile, his solitude broken only by visits from Bronya, a Bulgarian cleaner who engages him in discussions of his beloved Dickens. Although he’s only sixty-something, Darke sounds like a much older man, complaining of constipation and vision problems and launching a vendetta against the annoying neighbor dog. Ignoring the pile of adamant letters George guiltily delivers on behalf of Darke’s daughter, Lucy, he keeps up his very particular habits and rituals (I loved the steps of making coffee with an espresso-maker) and gives himself over to memories of life with Suzy.
The novel is tripartite: In Part I we meet Darke and get accustomed to his angry, hypercritical voice. In Part II we descend into a no-holds-barred account of his wife Suzy’s death from lung cancer. She’s another wonderful character: pessimistic, ungraceful and utterly foul-mouthed. Here Darke unleashes the full extent of his bitterness. He mocks the approach, advocated by Joan Didion (“that poor Joan D’Idiot,” he calls her!), of turning to sages of the past for comfort, instead insisting that literature – including W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot and all the rest – was of no use to him in the face of his wife’s impending death:
We don’t have God, so we have literature, with its associated proverbs and allegories, its received wisdom. We quote and genuflect and defer and pay homage, as if in a holy sanctuary. But just as God failed us, so too will reading. We will turn against it as certainly, and rightly, as we did against Him. Nobody, and nothing, can explain life for us.
Luckily, Part III is something of a reprieve, as Darke starts to come out of his temporary retreat and resume life. He has a rental car delivered and sets out for Oxford, where he revisits his and Suzy’s old university haunts and hesitantly reopens a connection with Lucy and her young son, Rudy.
Sebastian Barry astutely notes the novel’s debt to Dante, but the component parts of the Divine Comedy are reordered, with the purgatory of the house-bound months broken by the hellish narrative of Suzy’s dying, which is then lifted by Darke’s return to life.
Each section has a different tone and is enjoyable in its own way, but for me there was no getting around the fact that Part I is the most entertaining. I was surprised to read in the Acknowledgments that Gekoski toned down this first dose of Darke considerably, on the advice of his wife and his literary agent; I think he could have hammed him up a fair bit more. Also, Lucy didn’t ring true for me as a character, which detracted from what’s meant to be an alternately volatile and poignant relationship; I preferred Darke’s scenes with Bronya.
In any case, the novel makes great metaphorical use of light and darkness. Not so subtle, maybe, but it works:
witnessing a protracted and horrible death infects the soul, the images implant themselves, root and flourish, you can never look at yourself or others in the innocent light – you are tarnished, uncleanably darkened.
And of course, look to literature and you find nothing but “shitslingers – Kahlil Gibran, Mr Tolstoy, the dreaded Eliot – all of them. Just wandering in the dark with flashlights.”
With lots of memorable scenes and turns of phrase, Darke is a rewarding glance at loss, literature and the sometimes futile search for salvation. It’s inspiring to see Gekoski, an American-born academic and literary critic (he’s been dubbed the Bill Bryson of the book world), turn his hand to fiction at age 71. I knew of him through his nonfiction, including Outside of a Dog: A Bibliomemoir, which I read in 2010, and have also enjoyed a couple of his articles that nicely presage this novel, on the subjects of reading through grief and turning against print books. I hope you’ll give his work a try.
Darke was published in the UK on February 2nd. With thanks to Becca Nice and Jamie Norman of Canongate for the free copy for review.
Ruth Padel is one of my favorite poets, so I jumped at the chance to read her new book-length holiday poem, Tidings: A Christmas Journey. Set across one Christmas Eve and Christmas day and narrated by Charoum, the Angel of Silence, the poem switches between Holly, a seven-year-old girl excited for Christmas, and Robin, a forty-four-year-old homeless man who follows a fox to a Crisis Centre. Here he gets a hot meal and some human kindness to make up for the usual bleakness of the holidays:
Christmas is the salt mine.
Salt in the wound, a nothing-time.
I was loved once. Who by? Can’t remember.
I especially liked the fragments that juxtapose this contemporary London story with centuries of history:
Up here the evening glides over golden moss
on the flat-top tomb of Mary Wollstonecraft
Pagan Christmas fizzes and teems with ghosts,
midwinter fires, mummers and waites, Yule
logs and mistletoe.
The poem also journeys to Jerusalem and Rome to survey a whole world of Christmas traditions, then and now.
It’s a lovely little volume, with the red, black and white theme offset by touches of gold. The illustrations are gorgeous, but the story line disappointed me: starting with the character names, it all felt rather clichéd. Padel has treated urban foxes much more successfully in her collection The Soho Leopard, and apart from a very few instances – like the above quotes – the verse struck me as largely undistinguished, even awkward (like the out-of-place clinical vocabulary in “Love, / and the lack of it, can change the limbic brain”). This means that, for me, this book fails to earn a place as a Christmas classic I’ll reread year after year.
Tidings was published in the UK by Chatto & Windus on November 3rd. My thanks to Cat Mitchell of Random House for the free review copy.
Other Christmassy Reading
This year I’m resuming my place in Waiting on the Word, Malcolm Guite’s selection of religious-slanted poems to read from the start of Advent through Epiphany. For those who want to explore the history and interpretation of Christmas, I can recommend The First Christmas by the late Marcus Borg, one of my favorite progressive theologians.
As I have for the past several years, I’ll dip into The Ecco Book of Christmas Stories, edited by Alberto Manguel. My favorites are by Truman Capote, John Cheever, Jane Gardam and Jeanette Winterson (who has a brand-new, full-length Christmas story collection out this year). I’ll also sample some Russian classics via A Very Russian Christmas, which has short stories from Tolstoy, Chekhov and more.
In addition, I have Cleveland Amory’s The Cat Who Came for Christmas and The Cat Who Stayed for Christmas out from the library, which should make for some very cozy reading under the cat. I’ll browse the numerous Christmas-themed poems in U.A. Fanthorpe’s Collected Poems, another library book. And I may even deign to try Hogfather, one from my husband’s beloved Discworld series by the late Terry Pratchett.
[See also this wonderful list of Christmas reading suggestions from Heaven Ali.]
Are you reading anything special this Christmas season?
As soon as I got back from the States in January, my husband and I rushed to catch up on the BBC’s War & Peace miniseries. It’s the latest costume drama from screenwriter Andrew Davies, who is behind many favorite literary adaptations, including Bleak House (2005). I enjoyed War & Peace much more than I expected to given my utter unfamiliarity with Russian literature. I can’t comment on how well the miniseries captures Tolstoy’s plot or tone; my response is just that of a literature lover who appreciates gripping television. (My understanding is that this has already shown in North America too, on various networks, but for those who haven’t watched it and still plan to, I’ll avoid spoilers in what follows.)1. It’s like Jane Austen – but not quite. Although Tolstoy wrote it in 1869, War & Peace is set during the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815), so the time period crosses over with most of Jane Austen’s novels. That means some of the fashions look familiar, and a major scene takes place at a ball.
2. The superb casting. At first it seemed strange to see Paul Dano, an indie movie favorite, in a TV role, but I quickly saw why he was just right for the part of earnest, indecisive Count Pierre Bezukhov. An illegitimate son who wants to live a meaningful life but keeps falling into dissolute behavior, Pierre unexpectedly inherits his father’s fortune and marries the wrong woman, yet turns personal disappointment to the good when he devotes himself to serving his fellow man through the Masons. With his little smile, deliberate speech and round glasses, Dano is perfect.
Initially Lily James, as Natasha Rostova, seems to be just like her bubbly, flirtatious Downton Abbey character, Lady Rose, but suffering and regret chasten her. I also loved Jim Broadbent as irascible Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky and Adrian Edmondson (especially with his fez and other assorted headgear) as the Micawber-ish Count Ilya Rostov. Callum Turner and Tuppence Middleton as Anatole Kuragin and Hélène Kuragina are a skeevy, scheming brother-and-sister pair worthy of Dangerous Liaisons.
3. The authentic settings. The series was filmed on location in Latvia, Lithuania, and Russia, including at the Catherine Palace outside St. Petersburg. It makes a difference to know this wasn’t shot in a London studio; the dachas, Orthodox churches and snowy vistas are all genuine.
4. The action scenes. The CGI crowd shots are unconvincing, but the up-close battle scenes are excellent: bombs, bayonets, amputations and all. Seeing one battle, Borodin, partially from Pierre’s viewpoint is an especially effective way of contrasting civilian life with soldiers’ daily reality.
5. The philosophical depth. I should have known what I was in for from a Russian novel, but I was startled afresh each time a character paused to stare death in the face or to question what his or her life was heading towards and consider how to change course. There are beautifully symbolic moments of forgiveness between separated sweethearts or former rivals. Another highlight is when Pierre, the rich count temporarily laid low, connects with a peasant and his dog. He even learns how to eat mindfully.
Now for something I didn’t like: with the mixture of cut-glass British and toned-down American accents, you’d be forgiven for thinking this takes place in an English-speaking country. It takes characters singing folk songs in Russian, wearing bearskin hats and participating in Orthodox rituals to remind you that, oh yeah, this is Russia. I’m not saying I wish the actors had all spoken in heavy Slavic accents, but especially after an extended period in a refined drawing room, it can be jolting to see onion domes and Cossack uniforms.
I’m not sure if I’ll ever read War & Peace; I have a feeling that, like Moby-Dick (an assigned book I never made it all the way through in college), it could have done with an editor. Even though I adore Tolstoy’s storyline and characters, I don’t think I’d have patience for long passages of historical exposition. Moreover, Philip Hensher (in a Guardian reader’s guide) thinks War & Peace has the worst opening and closing lines in literature. Actually reading the Russian masters can wait for another time.
For now, I’m happy to have seen this top-notch adaptation. In just six hours of television, Davies and director Tom Harper brought an epic world classic into vibrant life, full of romance, betrayal, sacrifice and redemption.
If you’ve already seen War & Peace and are interested in reading more about it, this appreciation piece by Clive James in the Guardian is great (but spoilers abound). See also this interview with Andrew Davies.
Have you seen the miniseries? If so, what did you think? I’m particularly interested to hear how it matched up to the book if any of you are familiar with both.