Not So Puritanical As That: The House of Hawthorne

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Review: The House of Hawthorne, by Erika Robuck
New American Library, 2015 402 pp. $26

Sophia Peabody has received a most unconventional upbringing for an early nineteenth-century woman, even for one born into Massachusetts intellectual circles. Her poor health has much to do with this. Sophia gets crippling migraines from random noises, commotion, or even by expending effort to concentrate–a pity, because she’s a gifted artist. Yet, on certain days, attempting to draw or paint bring on attacks that leave her bed-ridden. Her mother assumes that Sophy must give up all thought of marrying, because, if childbirth didn’t kill her, the work of keeping home and husband would. Consequently, she must devote her life to art and avoid any excitement other than what may be found in her sketchpad and books–only the appropriate sort, of course.

Fat chance. Sent to the reputedly healthful climate of Cuba with her sister, Mary, also of frail health, Sophy finds heat of more than one kind. Nature feels unleashed, more vividly savage, and the colors and marvels of the landscape stir her sensibilities as an artist and a person beginning to realize that she’d like to widen her experience. Living among the plantation gentry, the family entertains neighbors of their social class, who impress Sophy with their manners and bearing. But the slavery that supports these people and, by extension, her sister and herself, is always close at hand, and the revulsion Sophy feels for it, and the sympathy for the slaves, tells her that Cuba is no place for her. In a way, this comes as a wrench, because she’s formed an attraction for a plantation owner’s son, a shy, modest young man who seems to hate the system as much as she does. Nevertheless, the Peabody sisters return to Massachusetts.

Matthew Brady's photograph of Nathaniel Hawthorne, taken during the 1860s, not long before the author's death (Courtesy Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons)

Matthew Brady’s photograph of Nathaniel Hawthorne, taken during the 1860s, not long before the author’s death (Courtesy Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons)

Enter Nathaniel Hawthorne; talk about a thunderclap. They first meet in the company of Sophy’s sister, Elizabeth, who wants him for herself:

When I enter, Hawthorne’s eyes meet mine, and he rises. By the holy angels, I feel my soul at once aflame and reaching through my breast toward him. I falter, and he is at my arm, leading me to the sofa. I try to ignore the heat–the fire of our first joining–and lean back once I am seated. I tear my eyes from his to look at Elizabeth, and I see a pain in her face that makes me wish I had stayed in my room.

Thus begins a lengthy courtship of two people burning for one another, and I mean, they can’t wait to tear each other’s clothes off–except that they do wait, and for years. The House of Hawthorne is a charming novel, and this section is my favorite. Sophy must outwit her jealous sister and prod her intended to tell his family they’re engaged, something he’s extremely loath to do–and he has his reasons. Nathaniel and she must struggle to restrain passions that are positively transcendental. The future author of The Scarlet Letter tries hard not to be a Puritan and succeeds to a larger extent than his reputation might suggest.

I like the writing, which is simple and direct, much like the narrative itself. Notable characters from the Hawthornes’ literary circles, both in Massachusetts and abroad, play roles–Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, and the British poets Browning, for example. But none come fully alive, perhaps because Robuck never grants any more than a thumbnail sketch, generally a familiar one. Emerson is cold and pompous. Thoreau prefers his own company to that of society. Melville is a needy pain in the neck.

As with these characters, Robuck fails to make full use of the themes she introduces. Sophy’s artistic life before and after marriage makes the point, echoed by two characters and the woman herself, that she’s sacrificed to Hawthorne and his career what she might have achieved. It’s not that he discourages her art–far from it–it’s that she doesn’t have the time. But there sits the feminist argument, mentioned and mulled over a little but unfortunately not developed. Likewise, though the Hawthornes discuss slavery and feel deeply about it, especially Sophy, they take no stand, because they oppose war as the means to end it. But this resolution seems unsatisfying, particularly since their siblings, abolitionists all, were mad at them for it, as were, no doubt, their famous friends. I’d have also wanted more thoughtfulness about death, which strikes frequently during the narrative and causes the Hawthornes much grief. Again, they mention it, consider it, and utter a notion or two, but they don’t get down and grapple with it. They save the grappling for each other.

That’s not bad, just less than it could have been. The House of Hawthorne is a nice book, only lighter in impact than it could be.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Bloody Pastures: The Black Snow

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Review: The Black Snow, by Paul Lynch
Little, Brown, 2014. 264 pp. $25

It’s 1945, and the Second World War is in its final, convulsive months, but in county Donegal, Irish country folk have their own violent conflicts to think about. The barn belonging to Barnabas Kane, an up-and-coming farmer, has burned, killing forty-three head of cattle and a handyman, Matthew Peoples. The fires have hardly cooled before the whisperings begin: Barnabas sent Matthew into the barn and was therefore responsible for his death. But no charges have been filed, and no one really knows what happened.

Glengesh Pass, county Donegal, northwest Ireland (Courtesy Jon Sullivan via Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Glengesh Pass, county Donegal, northwest Ireland (Courtesy Jon Sullivan via Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Nevertheless, Baba Peoples, the late man’s crazy widow, believes Barnabas killed her husband, and that the Kanes owe her compensation. She even goes so far as to point out that Eskra, Barnabas’s wife, has brought “foreign ways” to the village; Eskra keeps bees, for example. What else would you expect from a woman born in America? For that matter, villagers hostile to the Kanes–which, by now, is most of them–remind one another that Barnabas came from America too, forgetting that he was born in Donegal, emigrated, and returned with Eskra as his bride. It’s a brilliant stroke on Lynch’s part, showing how quickly superstition and prejudice prevent any reasonable assessment of the tragedy and turn it into an occult act perpetrated by evil, so-called outsiders.

Consequently, Lynch gets remarkably far with a deceptively simple premise, and he’s not done. Not only does Barnabas privately wonder whether he did, in fact, send Matthew to his death, he’s quick to notice who among his neighbors failed to help quell the flames and to suspect that the fire resulted from arson. (A diary kept by his teenaged son, Billy, suggests that Barnabas may be right, though not for the reasons he believes.) True or not, however, his paranoid fantasies mirror what the villagers say about him, and his deep, angry depression makes him both impossible to live with and incapable of repairing the barn–for awhile, anyway. So nobody in The Black Snow gets off lightly, even when they deserve sympathy; the novel explores a complex moral problem, with no easy answers.

I also admire the prose, which, at its best, is poetic.

The plough still in the tapered field, poised with the lean of an animal in the moment before attack, its teeth bared waiting to tear at the neck of the earth, but it sat with a dog’s patience through days of raw cold and then rain and he had not the strength to go back to it.

However, though I like this passage, there are others I find self-consciously ornate. Lynch is much too fond of fragments, and though the one above works, they don’t always. Further, as I read phrases like “the damask of puzzlement on her face,” I’m puzzled too, enough to pull me out of the narrative. Or I read “That rain came with a venomous slant to cut a man wide open,” and I’m stopped again, wondering why Lynch needs venom on top of cutting someone apart.

And that’s the problem with The Black Snow–it’s over the top. Barnabas Kane (Cain?) eventually gets out of bed and rebuilds his barn, putting his faith in a fresh start. However, the setbacks come pretty hard afterward, and though I applaud these instances of “no; and furthermore,” I don’t believe them, especially when it comes to further violence from Billy and, of all people, Eskra. It feels strange to write this, for I’m one to criticize characters granted redemption they haven’t earned. In such cases, I’m tempted to ascribe that to a desire to appease the reader, a goal often (but not always) more common to commercial rather than literary fiction. But with The Black Snow, the most literary novel I could imagine, I find myself criticizing a narrative that refuses to grant redemption to characters who’ve plainly earned it, dealing out further punishment that’s frankly incredible. Go figure.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

The First 1800 Words: A Glimpse of My New Novel

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Today, I’m offering a peek at my new historical novel, tentatively titled Curtain, inspired partly by Colm Toíbín’s fine book, Nora Webster. If you care to comment, I’d be happy to know whether what I’ve written here would tempt you to read more.

It’s April 1937, and Jeff Messer has missed the funeral of his closest friend, Broadway playwright Brendan Moore, by staying too long in Europe. Back in New York, Jeff apologizes, but Anna, Brendan’s widow, is too hurt to listen, and she’s furious that her sixteen-year-old daughter, Rosemary, takes Jeff’s side and tortures her at every opportunity. But Rosemary is convinced that her beloved father’s last play is the only thing that stands between the Moores and the relief line, and that Jeff, who directed all of Dad’s hits, must stage this one. However, no one knows that the play evokes a secret from a terrible chapter in Jeff’s life that may even get him killed.
Can these people find it in their hearts to see the others’ pain and grief–and is the play the thing to make it happen?

Chapter One

Anna was out, talking to the lawyer about Dad’s will, and would be gone an hour or two, easy. It was Friday morning, and Rosemary would return to school Monday, wearing this same black dress, most likely. Now was the time, before routine trapped her.
She ventured toward her parents’ bedroom and stopped, as if the heavy, white door, open a crack, were warning her to take care. She’d have to want to widen that passageway, an act of commission.
Rosemary reached toward the cut-glass doorknob, whose facets had used to make her imagine an immense diamond, too big to wear, only to draw back. She pictured faces challenging her in hurt or anger, voices calling her a hypocrite. Not just Anna, but her aunts and uncles, even her friends, anyone whose questions she’d ever rebuffed to protect a secret. This was her parents’ private place. Anna didn’t come into her room without permission, certainly not to snoop when Rosemary wasn’t there. The girl knew that because nothing had ever been disturbed, whether on her desk, in or atop her bureau, or anywhere else. So she’d never trespass the other way. Except that Dad’s legacy was a special case and maybe their best chance to stay off relief. And she, Rosemary, seemed to be the only one to recognize this vital fact. She grasped the doorknob and pushed gently, making sure to note the precise angle the door had made.
The phone rang in the living room. Rosemary ignored it.
Anna had stopped wearing perfume, so the room no longer smelled like lilac. In fact, aside from the ghost of Dad’s Camels, fainter and fainter over time, the only odor came from cabbage cooking upstairs, a scent Rosemary loathed. Cabbage was cheap, so she didn’t hold it against the Bartons, who were struggling, like so many. But she wrinkled her nose just the same, and it struck her: Aren’t we struggling too? No cabbage had shown up yet, but if the rest of 1937 was like the first few months. . . .
She shook her head violently, because she had a job to do, which didn’t include feeling sorry for herself, and stepped into the room. Just crossing that boundary made her hold her breath, as if she expected Anna to leap from the closet and say, “I got you, you little sneak.”
The phone continued to ring. It happened so often these days, like a tired song that repeated the same note over and over until you wanted to scream.
The closet remained closed, and nobody leaped anywhere. Emboldened, Rosemary went further, stood directly beneath the globe light fixture that hung over the foot of the double bed with its pale blue bedspread. The bed she’d been conceived in, most likely.
What a creepy thought. She’d been having thoughts like that recently, imagining her parents creating her. She hoped it didn’t mean she was perverted, wondering about stuff like that. But she couldn’t help it. Had they enjoyed it? Equally? Or had it hurt, for Anna? Something told Rosemary it hadn’t, but still, Anna had never gotten pregnant again. Rosemary would have liked a younger sibling, preferably a brother who’d be sweet and adoring and vulnerable and look up to her. Maybe Anna had wanted another child too. Both she and Dad had come from large families, so having only one child themselves was very different for them. Though the condolence visit from her aunts and uncles had proven having siblings was a hit-and-miss thing. God, what if she’d had a little brother like Uncle Timothy? Disgusting.
The phone stopped ringing, thank God. Now she could think better.
Where did they keep the script? More exactly, where had Dad left it, and had Anna moved it? If she hadn’t moved it, maybe . . .
Dad’s Underwood, covered up like a canary’s empty cage, stood on a table in the corner, out of the way. Tears came. Never again would he tap-tap the keys at the kitchen table, humming and chuckling as he wrote, while a cigarette burned in the ashtray.
Quietly, as if Anna could hear–as if Dad could see and disapprove–she slid open his top dresser drawer and listened carefully for a key in the front door. If Anna caught her, Rosemary could always say she was looking for memories of Dad, and she probably wouldn’t even have to fake her tears, which would silence Anna like a piece of tape over her mouth. But all she saw were Dad’s shirts, laundered, pressed, and folded, like he was about to wear them, his handkerchiefs, and cuff links. His watch. A packet of letters, tied with ribbon. Rosemary reached out, then mentally slapped her hand. She didn’t have time for that, and besides, reading them would really be snooping. She might feel guilty for that, and she didn’t want to do anything she couldn’t excuse. Though Anna had behaved really badly.
In Rosemary’s head, Anna had been Anna, and not Mom, for exactly eighty-three days, and counting. She’d officially rechristened her the night she’d overheard Anna say out loud that Dad was dying, the first Rosemary had heard of it. She’d never been so angry, felt so betrayed. Her mother had tried to keep her ignorant of the most important thing that had ever happened in their family. How could Anna, a woman who prided herself on the straight dope, who preached honesty, honesty, honesty, lie like that? It was a stupid lie, too, the kind that would show itself sooner or later. But that hadn’t stopped Anna, whose round, angelic face and light, blue eyes could fool you, and the eggshell chin that would crack before the mouth ever uttered a falsehood.
But the very next day, Rosemary had gone to Dad and asked him, point-blank. He’d looked at her with the dark eyes that had already started to shrink into his head, like there was nothing left in life for him to see, and said softly, in a voice that had begun to dry up like old leaves, “Yes. How it hurts to leave you and Mom.”
That conversation, only a few words, was the most precious she’d ever had–and Anna, in her role as Mom, had tried to prevent it.
The memory of Dad’s confession brought more tears. Rosemary turned away so that she wouldn’t cry into his top dresser drawer. Dad would forever be Dad, but, in her own mind, the only place that was truly safe, Mom had become Anna. Out loud, Rosemary would give her what she required, but in her head, she was a rebel, a resister. Anna had forfeited the right to her intimate name because she’d done something so hurtful, so ordinary, so goddamned stupid and insensitive. And to top it off, she’d treated Rosemary, who was sixteen already, like a little kid who wouldn’t know how to handle the news.
She slammed the first drawer shut and flung open the second. Anna might catch her, but she wouldn’t be lied to.
The phone began to ring again. Honestly.
But the second drawer proved no more enlightening, nor the third and last. A great weight seemed to want to drag her lungs down past her waist, as if they’d fail, like Dad’s. She struggled for air, caught her breath gratefully. What if he’d locked it up somewhere, maybe in his filing cabinet? She closed the drawer, checked to see whether she’d moved anything, and dove into the closet.
No luck. The cabinet was locked as tight as J. P. Morgan’s bank vault. Nothing on the floor, either, or wedged onto a shelf up top.
Anna’s dresser? Rosemary drew back. Rummaging there would be like slapping the empress’s face before the court. If she had to, she’d do it, but only as a last resort.
Wait. One more place. She dropped to one knee and lifted the bedspread, fighting off visions of her parents coupling. The sight of the boxes, neatly labeled in dark pencil, made her close her eyes and exhale in triumph. Left, Right; Pinch Me, I’m Dreaming; One of Us Is Crazy; Barrel Over Niagara; Marry Soon, and Often; and the others–the whole works, literally. She sneezed, twice–the boxes were dusty–and found the newest, which wasn’t dusty at all. Interchangeable Parts. Hallelujah.
The phone stopped again.
Rosemary looked over her shoulder, as if she hadn’t already broken the law and could redeem herself, should Anna surprise her. But Anna wasn’t there, nor did her key enter the lock. Rosemary slipped the looseleaf binder out, replaced the box and the bedspread, and spent precious seconds deciding exactly how far open to leave the door. Then she raced into the hallway, and grabbed her coat and hat from the rack.
Call first? Yes. She had to be sure. She went to the living room, lifted the receiver quickly, before anyone else could call, and dialed. Some people, like the Bartons upstairs, had given up their phones to save money. If Anna and Rosemary had to do that, this call might be–but Rosemary wouldn’t think of that.
“Hello?” A man’s voice. The wrong man; the greasy roommate, Harvey.
“Hello, Mr. Mandel. This is Rosemary Moore.” She thought she heard a woman’s voice in the background, a complaint.
“Oh. Oh, yes. I’m sorry about your dad.” He rushed his words, breathing hard.
Rosemary shuddered. Poor Jeff, having to live with someone like that. Mr. Mandel was a teacher, no less. He must have called in sick just to–“Thank you. Is Jeff there?”
“No, he’s out. He said he was going to Chas Parker’s office, and then to Max’s.” Out of the way, so Harvey and his lady friend could have privacy. Did Harvey ever leave so that Jeff could . . .?
“Thanks. Good-bye.” She hung up before he could reply and reentered the hallway.
Chas Parker. Jeff was already arranging to direct another play. Rosemary wasn’t a moment too soon.
As she turned the doorknob, she stopped short. Those boxes under the bed were her siblings. They couldn’t adore anybody, and you couldn’t talk to them or play with them or button their coats for them, and they wouldn’t look up to you. But they were Dad’s children, not Anna’s. There was something to be said for that. And maybe she could care for her latest and last sibling, in a way.
The phone started ringing. The other night, when Anna was in a particularly foul mood, she’d suggested that she and Rosemary stand in Sheridan Square, handing out postcards that read: “I knew/didn’t know Brendan/Mr. Moore well, and/but I’m sorry for your loss. I promise not to waste your time and patience by calling/coming over/reciting righteous platitudes. Signed, _________.”
Dad would have been the first to laugh. Rosemary closed the door firmly on the ringing phone.

 

© Larry Zuckerman, 2016

Deadly Silences: The Longest Night

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Review: The Longest Night, by Andria Williams
Random House, 2016. 383 pp. $27

As Chekhov famously observed, a playwright mustn’t put a loaded rifle on stage if he doesn’t plan on having a character fire it. This novel, about a poorly engineered nuclear reactor, obeys the master’s dictum, to good effect. Unfortunately, however, the narrative pulls out that age-old device too many times, using characters as the rifles that you know will go off.

 

Navy personnel learn how to use a prototype of a nuclear-powered submarine in the 1950s (Courtesy Idaho National Laboratory via energy.gov)

Navy personnel learn how to use a prototype of a nuclear-powered submarine in the 1950s (Courtesy Idaho National Laboratory via energy.gov)

It’s 1959, and army Specialist Paul Collier has been assigned to a team in Idaho Falls, Idaho, that operates a nuclear reactor, among the country’s first. In moving his wife, Nat, and two young daughters to this remote town, Paul expects his family to mold their lives to his. He’s the breadwinner, subject to strict Army routine, which, to his mind, means that Nat must tend the kids, manage their home, and make sure that nothing and no one get in his way. To some extent, Nat agrees. It’s the 1950s, before American feminism had coalesced into a recognizable movement; these people, in their early twenties, have never come in contact with a differing outlook; and since their livelihood depends on Paul’s career, his demands seem reasonable, in a way.

However, there’s much more to it, and this is where The Longest Night does best. Paul, a self-willed, emotionally guarded man with a painful past, keeps his own counsel no matter what the cost. He’s not about to tell Nat that the reactor has obvious design flaws that make it unsafe, or that his immediate superiors cover up the problems for fear that the army won’t want to hear about them and will punish the whistleblower. Nor will Paul tell Nat that Master Sergeant Richards, his drunken, lecherous boss, has been hazing him and making sexual remarks about her, all of which Paul must swallow to be a good soldier. For her part, Nat, though more open than her husband, keeps quiet about how lonely she is, having no friends in a remote army town, and how bored to be chained to the house with two young children while Paul drives the car to work. She says nothing, either, about the persecution she suffers from Jeannie Richards, the master sergeant’s wife, a sadist in a beehive hairdo.

Even without reading the entire jacket flap–this one is further evidence that you should always stop after the first paragraph or so–the reader knows that the reactor will go haywire. There’s just too much talk and worry about how unsafe it is, and how nobody really knows how the infernal machine will behave. But to me, the best parts of The Longest Night depend on the tension of what can’t be said. Williams excels at depicting the pain of silence, whether in the social gatherings where Jeannie Richards cuts apart the other army wives or the growing estrangement between Nat and Paul, which seems menacing, even tragic. Two good people deserve each other yet can’t manage to talk.

But having set up this cold war, Williams has to bring matters to a head, which is where The Longest Night falls short. On an excursion with her children, Nat meets Esrom, who bails them out of a sticky situation, and you just know he’ll show up again. Why? Because too much has been made of Nat’s poor driving, and Esrom, born to a ranch, is also an auto mechanic. That tell-tale harbinger would pass muster if Esrom weren’t cardboard–gentler than Paul, sensitive, an excellent listener who amuses Nat’s daughters with tales of coyotes, snakes, and horses, who comes around to clean the gutters without being asked, and predictably falls for Nat but would never, ever say or do anything untoward.

Since Paul’s away on tour in Greenland, the community comes down hard on Nat for flouting the army wife’s code of honor. (How he got to Greenland makes sense, sort of; how Williams brings an antagonist across is path seems too convenient by half.) But in Nat’s mind, she’s done nothing wrong, because she hasn’t cheated on Paul, strictly speaking. Esrom and she just spend time together. She laments that you’re never supposed to admit that you’re bored or feel longing or want anything other than what everyone else has. Williams makes this point well. She brilliantly conveys the small-minded, backbiting world of the army base, with its petty cabals and viciousness. Yet how can Nat, who’s had a rocky sexual history, be surprised at their reaction, which, after all, has some justice to it?

I think Williams has tried to play this tricky situation both ways. She wants Nat to be completely sympathetic and Esrom to be pure, because that puts the community in the worst possible light. But Williams has already made that point, so by portraying Esrom as a total innocent, a portrait that Nat accepts, Williams has put no obstacles in their way. That, in turn, makes The Longest Night entirely too predictable and less genuine than it should be.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

The Man Who Saw It All: Dictator

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Review: Dictator: A Novel, by Robert Harris
Knopf, 2015. 385 pp.

This third book in a trilogy about Marcus Tullius Cicero has much going for it, even as it suffers pitfalls typical of biographical fiction on a grand scale. The subject is certainly worthy. Ancient Rome produced few men whose range of accomplishment rivaled Cicero’s–senator, consul, historian, philosopher, legal advocate, and, not least, the most gifted orator of an age that valued public speaking. What’s more, and perhaps what makes him such a tempting fictional protagonist, he knew everyone who was anybody, as friend, enemy, or (often) both.

Bust of Cicero from the first century CE, Capitoline Museums, Rome (Courtesy glauco92 via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Bust of Cicero from the first century CE, Capitoline Museums, Rome (Courtesy glauco92 via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

As this volume begins, Cicero’s in exile from Rome. That would humiliate anyone but especially a man used to power who believes he has upheld its dearest principles. His marriage, never particularly happy, seems more like a tenuous accommodation than a supportive partnership, while his beloved daughter, Tullia, is suffering her own marital problems. By promising to support Julius Caesar, a political enemy, Cicero regains the right to return to Rome. But as this experienced, adroit politician knows too well, such a bargain brings as many dangers as possibilities, just as he recognizes that Caesar is a man ill accustomed to hearing the word no. In other words, Cicero has little choice.

Therein hangs a tale, and a fine, often familiar one it is–the tense rivalry between Caesar and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey), which devolves into civil war; Caesar’s dictatorship; what, thanks to Shakespeare, may be the most infamous assassination in history; and its aftermath. But to read Dictator makes you realize how much Shakespeare compressed, edited, changed, or simply invented. And knowledge of the history in no way dampens appreciation of the book. One reason I admire Harris’s novels is his skill at making tense drama out of well-known events, as with Aquarius Rising (about Pompeii) or, my favorite, An Officer and a Spy (about the Dreyfus Affair). Among other things, that implies a talent for characterizing famous people, and here, they include the two Caesars, Julius and Octavian, as charismatic as they’re cold and calculating.

But that’s not where the narrative comes from. Rather, Dictator unfolds through the eyes of Tiro, Cicero’s secretary, a real historical figure, incidentally. (He invented a system of shorthand to keep up with Cicero’s prolific dictation and coined abbreviations [such as i.e., e.g.] still in use. At first a slave, Tiro was a friend and adviser even before Cicero freed him, and in these pages, his enforced proximity has lent him a keen eye for politics and for his master’s virtues and flaws. Most important, perhaps, he has infinite patience, much needed during Cicero’s rages, such as when the great man chafes at his banishment from Rome:

He should have heeded the example of Socrates, who said that death was preferable to exile. Yes, he should have killed himself! He snatched up a knife from the dining table. He would kill himself! I said nothing. I didn’t take the threat seriously. He couldn’t stand the sight of others’ blood, let alone his own. All his life he had tried to avoid military expeditions, the games, public executions, funerals–anything that might remind him of mortality.

However, Tiro’s narration, witty and ironic as it often is, keeps raising the unspoken question: What about the man telling the story? Who is he, really, aside from being Cicero’s scribe and shadow? Like any devoted chronicler, Tiro puts himself in the background, but this isn’t always satisfying. Harris has him refer to himself as invisible, meaning nondescript, but I’m not buying. Tiro may be the conveniently overlooked witness to great events, but he’s a character too, and deserves more. It’s as if Cicero and the Caesars use up so much oxygen, there isn’t enough to go around, which leaves the minor characters less able to live and breathe. Conversely, though Cicero enjoys being the center of Roman attention, he has his humdrum years, like anybody else, so that Dictator occasionally drags, despite Harris’s prodigious storytelling skills.

The novel offers other pleasures, though, not least a window on Roman politics: endless cabals, corruption, backstabbing (literal and figurative), and reversals, whose participants have long memories and sharp tongues. That Cicero, an intellectual for the ages, would attempt to make sense of this cesspool in which he waded is quite understandable, and his analyses sound as cogent today as they did two thousand years ago. For instance, when he asks, “Must the existence of standing armies and the influx of inconceivable wealth inevitably destroy our democratic system?” you can’t help thinking how prescient the ancient philosopher was. Likewise, when he supposes that a human can only prepare for death by leading a morally good life (essentially by following the golden mean), I find myself having to stop to reflect on that.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

As the Losses Mount: Everyone Brave Is Forgiven

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Review: Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, by Chris Cleave
Simon & Schuster, 2016. 424 pp. $27

This novel is hardly the first about a love triangle in wartime, but if it’s not the best of the genre in recent memory, it’s pretty damn close.

Mary North, a young woman at odds with her stuffy London family, hastens home from a Swiss finishing school in September 1939, just after Britain declares war. She wants to “do something,” so she badgers the War Office, assuming that her services must be required, maybe as a secret agent. After all, her father’s an MP, perhaps destined for a cabinet post, so why not? Nobody really knows what the war will be like, but eighteen-year-old Mary is very sure that for her, it will involve duty, freedom, and a ripping lark. In other words, Mary has the makings of an absolutely insufferable, overprivileged twit–and yet she’s quite the opposite.

 

Bomb damage in Valletta, Malta, May 1942 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

Bomb damage in Valletta, Malta, May 1942 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

Two traits save her, in my eyes. First, she’s delightfully subversive, willing to challenge commonly held beliefs in herself and others, and does so with wit and style. Second, she tries to live by her discoveries, working around the rules whenever necessary–a free spirit who becomes increasingly aware how much her ability to be one derives from her wealth and social position.

Mary finds a job as a teacher, where her readiness to see things from the children’s point of view makes her an asset. For instance, the day they’re to be evacuated from London (a war measure), her charges exchange their name tags the moment she turns her back. Being who she is, she pretends that their new names are the correct ones, which amuses them no end. “It turned out that the only difference between children and adults was that children were prepared to put twice the energy into the project of not being sad.” But Mary’s superiors think she’s unfit to teach–too much levity and sympathy, flouting the rules–so they fire her.

Are we downhearted? Only for a moment. Mary lobbies Tom Shaw, an administrator who grants her the use of an abandoned school, where she plans to teach those children shunted back from the countryside, spurned because of their skin color, emotional disabilities, or neediness. Mary throws herself into rescuing these kids and, shortly afterward, into Tom’s arms as well.

Meanwhile, however, Tom’s good friend Alistair, an officer who barely survived the Battle of France and was evacuated from Dunkirk, has come home to London on leave. (Notice the recurring theme of evacuation and rescue, and who deserves it, or doesn’t.) By happenstance, the day Alistair ships out again, Mary brings him his duffel bag at the train station. Cleave, in the simple, elegant prose that makes this novel shine, describes the feeling between them:

She laughed then, brightly and without complication, and he laughed too, and for a moment the war with its lachrymose smoke was blown away on a bright, clean wind. Alistair marveled that she could do such a thing with the tiniest inflection of her mouth and the lightest look in her eye: even exhausted, in yesterday’s dress with her hair disheveled, she could make the distance between them disappear.

Consequently, it’s no secret that while enduring the terrible, grinding, years-long siege of Malta, Alistair thinks of Mary and his friend Tom in different, not always selfless, ways. What eventually happens is anything but predictable, even if it seems so at first, because Cleave is master of my favorite literary device, the “no; and furthermore.” Just when you think things are settled, they’re not–they get even worse–and no one’s off the hook. Some readers may object to the unflinching nature of the narrative, which deals out plenty of pain and leaves quite a few prejudices intact. But I urge you to read Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, precisely because these characters earn every drop of joy they get. Along the way, Cleave treats you to terrific dialogue, much of it darkly funny, and pitch-perfect descriptions of new love, intense desperation, and loss. The characterizations feel true in every respect, save one (I don’t believe that Mary’s only eighteen at the novel’s beginning, and she doesn’t act like the virgin she’s supposed to be).

I’ve heard some people call this book same-old, same-old, or too sentimental. Don’t believe them. Everyone Brave Is Forgiven is a wrenching novel, one of the finest I’ve read this year.

Disclaimer: I received my reading copy of this book from the public library.

A Dynasty Between the Sheets: The Romanovs

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Review: The Romanovs, 1613-1918, by Simon Sebag Montefiore
Knopf, 2016. 744 pp. $35

In college, I studied two semesters of Russian and Balkan history with a professor who spiced his lectures with tidbits about outsize personalities, such as the aptly named Vlad the Impaler. Indeed, so well known was Professor Marcopoulos for his dry wit and remarkable breadth of knowledge that people not enrolled in the class would ask me, “Has he gotten to Rasputin yet?” because they wanted to sit in when he did.

Fedor Rokotov's portrait of Empress Catherine the Great, 1763, now in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain in the United States)

Fedor Rokotov’s portrait of Empress Catherine the Great, 1763, now in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain in the United States)

Consequently, I can’t read a book like The Romanovs without hearing my late teacher’s voice, seeing his long, looping script as he wrote the names of key figures on the blackboard, and starting in recognition when those names, which I haven’t heard uttered in more than forty years, pop up in Montefiore’s text. There’s plenty in The Romanovs that Dr. Marcopoulos would have enjoyed, including the focus on autocrats as determinants of history, and the depth of garish splendor and corruption that marked the dynasty.

I particularly like the section on Catherine the Great, which successfully merges the story of her private life with her politics, including precious insight into the way she viewed power. “‘One must do things in such a way that people think they themselves want it to be done this way,’” she said. When challenged, Montefiore argues, she could be ruthless but was never cruel, and preferred subtle diplomacy to banging her desk with a fist. As a woman, she might not have survived otherwise; Frederick the Great, for one, a noted misogynist, thought she was incapable.

Once, when her secretary remarked on her boundless power, she laughed and replied that it wasn’t so easy. “‘I take advice, I consult and when I am convinced of general approval, I issue my orders and have the pleasure of observing what you call blind obedience. And that is the foundation of unlimited power.’” Regarding legends of her sexual appetites, Montefiore recounts her many love affairs, yet insists that all she really wanted was a warm home life, “sharing card games in her cosy apartments and discussing her literary and artistic interests with her beloved.”

Unfortunately, Catherine’s is the only full, satisfying portrait in the book. Peter the Great comes in second, and I like aspects of Montefiore’s characterizations of Alexander II and his spineless, narrow-minded grandson, Nicholas II. Overall, however, I question the historical and narrative choices Montefiore makes, his writing style, and the numbing amount of often extraneous detail.

The author explains (repeatedly) that he’s the first to research troves of private letters that have only recently been made available to historians. I understand his pride and applaud his diligence. But just because he’s found astonishingly frank letters about sexual practices, pet names, and innumerable affairs with ladies-in-waiting and ballerinas doesn’t mean these must all be included. Such tales do convey the unbelievable corruption that plagued Russia (and still does), and some are entertaining. But I can’t help think that Montefiore simply couldn’t let any of them go, an emphasis that seriously mars his work.

The Romanovs often reads, and looks like, a suitcase that’s stuffed so full that it’s ready to spring open at the slightest touch. The text repeats itself in wordy prose that can be confusing or vague or, in some cases, unintentionally funny because of poor grammar. (Montefiore also uses the word girl when the context clearly suggests woman, an annoying, provocative lapse that, incidentally, belies his portrayal of Catherine the Great as a victim of sexism.) Voluminous footnotes occupy the bottom of almost every page; if they don’t contribute to the main narrative, why are they there, and why so many? Sexual escapades take up so much room that significant historical events and movements sometimes seem almost an afterthought. And at historical turning points, the author never looks back, refusing to ask “what if,” having summarily decided–as he says once–that “counterfactual speculation is pointless.”

Really? What if it leads to deeper analysis of what actually happened? For instance, I never knew that as a prince, Alexander II visited England and charmed Queen Victoria, newly on the throne and still unmarried. Alexander’s father, Nicholas I, said, “Forget her,” and the son duly complied. But such a marriage would have changed Europe and altered the dynastic succession in Russia. Surely that’s worth a paragraph, and something illuminating might have come from it.

I can’t recommend plowing through all of The Romanovs. But, as I said, several sections are worth your time, as are the stunning photographs. I also like the last three pages very much, about the ways that subsequent Russian regimes, including Putin’s, have adopted Romanov style and policies. I could have read more about that happily.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Death of a Genius: Fall of Man in Wilmslow

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Review: Fall of Man in Wilmslow, by David Lagercrantz
Translated from the Swedish by George Goulding
Knopf, 2016. 354 pp. $27

Like Alan Turing himself, the extraordinary mathematician and cryptanalyst whose life forms the premise of this novel, Lagercrantz’s narrative is often brilliant but fails to realize its promise. In Turing’s case, his apparent suicide by poisoning in June 1954 ended a life of spectacular accomplishment while he was still young. In the novel, the mystery quickly swims away like a red herring, and the focus shifts, a setback for the reader, who may be forgiven for expecting that the narrative will identify who might have wanted to murder Turing and build a case for or against.

 

Alan Turing's passport photo at age 16, 1928 or 1929 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

Alan Turing’s passport photo from his teenage years, 1928 or 1929 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

Instead, you get a sort of coming-of-age story about the detective who investigates, a character almost as annoying and socially inept as Turing, but who has talent of his own, submerged under a mountain of self-hatred. Leonard Corell is twenty-eight but hardly formed, conscious that he was meant for better things than to be a policeman in a backwater like Wilmslow, a town near Manchester, yet also believes he deserves nothing else. Leonard has no friends, has never had a romance, was bullied at school (which he never finished, for lack of will), and is often irritable with colleagues who try to be friendly. Just the kind of person you’d want to spend a few hours reading about, right?

Indeed, if that were all, Fall of Man in Wilmslow would be a dreary book, too much to finish. Yet Leonard learns to grow into his skin–haltingly, to be sure, a process rife with sharp elbows given and taken. He has a long way to go, and Lagercrantz’s portrait is terrifying in its depth and detail. Leonard’s father, now dead, was a narcissist who drew constant attention to himself through exaggerated stories and antics, such as announcing, on entering a room, “What a delightful gathering! May a simple man such as I join your company?” Required to revolve around this sun like an outer planet in perpetual shadow, Leonard grew up feeling that he would never be good enough. Yet, at the same time, he fantasized coming up “with an idea, a great thought which would revolutionise the world.”

What the reader knows, though Leonard doesn’t, is that Turing was just such a thinker. Not only did he develop the theory and mechanical means to crack German codes during World War II, he framed the mathematical theories that have given us computers. But Leonard, though groping in the dark, can tell that Turing was special, and you sense that in attempting to grasp how such an accomplished person could poison himself, and what Turing was trying to say about life, the young detective will change.

Turing was homosexual and prosecuted for it, victim of both homophobia and hysteria over national security. The Cambridge ring of Soviet agents (which Helen Dunmore wrote about in Exposed, from a different, later perspective) included several homosexuals, about whom it was presumed that they were led to their treason by immorality, an unnatural affinity for communism, or desire to destroy the world. Since only highly placed intelligence officers know what Turing did during World War II, most people who hear his name, including the Wilmslow constabulary, assume that he must be a danger to society because he’s gay. And the intelligence community, many of whose less enlightened denizens wonder whether Turing ever passed information to the Soviets, becomes very curious about this young policeman who asks a lot of questions.

They don’t realize what Leonard’s after, or where he wants to go. But the reader sees that he starts out sharing the common prejudices and comes to recognize the hypocrisy in himself and others. He gets there, in part, through long discussions of mathematical principles and of Turing’s life and character. These can be long, interesting though they often are, and feel like explanations, another weakness of the narrative, which tells too much instead of showing it. Nevertheless, Fall of Man in Wilmslow has tension to spare, because Lagercrantz occupies Leonard’s head so convincingly, and the young man is fit to burst with discovery and feelings he can’t manage.

I know nothing about math or cybernetics, and I don’t think you need to be passionate about either to appreciate Fall of Man in Wilmslow. However, if you’re looking for a mystery, this is one of character, not who done it, and that may be a letdown.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Art Belongs to the People: The Noise of Time

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Review: The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes
Knopf, 2016. 201 pp. $26

How can an essentially plotless novel about a man’s career path be so riveting? And how can the narration, which sprays the protagonist’s thoughts like atomic particles that ricochet and rebound, feel like seamless, inevitable chemistry?

When the protagonist is the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, and the author is Julian Barnes, that’s how.

Dmitri Shostakovich, 1950 (Courtesy Roger & Renate Rössing, Deutsche Fotothek, retouched, via Wikimedia Commons).

Dmitri Shostakovich, 1950 (courtesy Roger & Renate Rössing, Deutsche Fotothek, retouched, via Wikimedia Commons).

The story, to the extent that there is one, begins in 1936, when the Helmsman, Josef Stalin, attends an opera, a singular event in itself, only to leave in the middle. The next day, an editorial in Pravda attacks the composer, D. Shostakovich, for making “muddle, not music.” Be it known that the Helmsman’s love for and understanding of that art go no further than tapping his foot to songs from his native Georgia, and that the opera in question, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (I kid you not) has been performed for months to good notices. None of that matters, of course.

What matters is that untold numbers of people have already died for less. As Lenin said, art belongs to the people, which, under his successor, means that anything that may be construed as antirevolutionary, anti-Soviet, or possessed of occult or insidious influences must be stamped out. Naturally, captive pens will do the necessary construing, as if Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk were reactionary trash, everybody had known it from the get-go, and the groundswell of criticism were spontaneous. Shostakovich must confess his sins and be reeducated.

But even that may not be enough. Rumors fly that Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, decorated war hero and architect of Soviet grand military strategy, has been arrested. And when he’s executed for plotting against the Great Leader, Shostakovich’s days are numbered. Why? Because the late marshal, who loved to play the violin, was the composer’s friend.

Since we know that Shostakovich outlived Stalin (and Krushchev, whom he privately disdains as Nikita Corncob), the question isn’t whether the composer will be murdered or exiled to the gulag. It’s how he handles that possibility and the problems that survival poses afterward.

Yes, survival has its problems. Since the state has protected him, every several years, an emissary comes from on high, like a tax collector who must be paid, except not in money. For instance, open letters are published under Shostakovich’s name excoriating Stravinsky, whom he admires above all other twentieth-century composers; Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whom he also respects (and whom, he suspects, has actually downplayed the true horrors of the gulag); and the dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov. As Shostakovich muses late in life:

Being a hero was much easier than being a coward. To be a hero, you only had to be brave for a moment–when you took out the gun, threw the bomb, pressed the detonator, did away with the tyrant, and with yourself as well. But to be a coward was to embark on a career that lasted a lifetime. You couldn’t ever relax. You had to anticipate the next occasion when you would have to make excuses for yourself, dither, cringe, reacquaint yourself with the taste of rubber boots and the state of your own fallen, abject character.

Barnes makes brilliant use of circumstances surrounding his protagonist’s birth. His parents wanted to name him Boleslav, but a priest told them they couldn’t–and they bowed to his authority. Name the boy Dmitri, like his father, the priest said; and the future genius became Dmitri Dmitreyevich, a repetitive moniker that has no music to it. Even his name is a surrender to authority.

However, The Noise of Time would be a dull, excruciating rant if its subject were simply a coward. Things aren’t that simple; how could they be? While Shostakovich waits to be dragged away to prison and death–he spends his nights by the elevator outside his apartment door, suitcase packed–he knows that not just his friend Tukhachevsky but members of his wife’s family have been arrested. If he goes too, what will happen to her and their children, or her other relatives? Other people he knows, whose only crime is to have been his friends? When critics living in the West beseech him to “make a statement,” he answers (silently, of course) that they have no idea how much that would cost or how little it would accomplish. At the same time, he understands what they’re saying.

Dmitri Shostakovich comes across as a complicated man, a celebrated figure at the pinnacle of his profession, yet living in an abyss of conscience. Julian Barnes has made fine literature from his predicament.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Hands-on History: How to Be a Tudor

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Review: How to Be a Tudor, by Ruth Goodman
Liveright/Norton, 2015. 320 pp. $30

To paraphrase an old maxim, writing social history is like trying to nail jelly to a wall. But, as Goodman proves in her remarkable book, it helps if you’re using a hammer authentic to the period–better yet, if you’ve forged that tool yourself.

And that’s essentially what she’s done for the years from 1485, when Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond, assumed the throne as Henry VII, until 1603, when Elizabeth I died. Doublets, kirtles, ruffs, and gowns? Goodman has sewn them, by the hundreds. Want to know why Tudor folk dumped rushes on castle floors and slept on them? She can tell you, and what’s more, she’s done it. Think it would be a challenge to prepare a feast in a sixteenth-century wood-fired oven? To understand exactly how challenging, she’s built them–and, by the way, if you do likewise, remember to soak the wooden door in water so that (a) it doesn’t burn, and (b) imparts steam to the heat.

A young Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond, by an unknown French artist, painted between 1470 and 1480 (Courtesy Musee Calvert, Avignon, via Wikimedia Commons).

A young Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond, by an unknown French artist, a portrait believed to have been painted between 1470 and 1480 (courtesy Musée Calvert, Avignon, via Wikimedia Commons).

 

I’ve never read a book like this, informed both by devoted scholarship and meticulous, hands-on experience. Even more amazing, Goodman has set her focus precisely where the written sources are thinnest, on how the common folk lived. Since few commoners could read, and even fewer could write (the skills, when taught at all, were learned separately), these people created no chronicles of themselves, and upper-class or noble commentators wouldn’t have deigned to. However, by using court records, parish registries, wills, paintings, and books of advice and commentary (a literary genre just then becoming popular), Goodman has pieced together a startling amount of information about daily life among commoners. It’s not surprising that she’s a recognized expert, a consultant for costume dramas, as with the televised version of Wolf Hall.

Among other things, I learned how details of posture and dress that we would call subtle or even meaningless spoke loudly to fifteenth-century Englishmen and -women about social class and breeding. Woe betide any who failed to observe these strictures, and who thus became suspect of trying to get above his or her station, for humiliation and punishment would soon follow. Naturally, the higher up you were, the more latitude you had. Certain young gentlemen, a classification with a specific social meaning, liked to swagger with their hips thrust forward, which caused purses, daggers, swords, or bucklers to swing about and make a clattering noise. Such was a swashbuckler, who announced his presence well before he came into view. The word is one of thousands the Tudors bequeathed to modern English; and of course, nobody coined more than Shakespeare, who left us some seventeen hundred.

Goodman has subtitled her work A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Tudor Life, and the way she goes about this makes sense, though it also has its drawbacks. She begins with cock crow, when people got out of bed, and describes their rituals of prayer, dress, and hygiene, and ends with nighttime, return to bed, and what went on there. In between, she recounts what people ate; how they cooked it; what they had to learn so they could function, stay out of trouble, and maybe rise in the world; what kinds of work they did; and how they amused themselves when they had the chance. You easily understand the rhythm of everyday life, and how busy people were, especially those who had no servants to tend them–indeed, Goodman accounts for every waking minute.

The downside to this approach is the lack of narrative or individual characters. Occasionally, a person emerges from the crowd, provides an example, and quickly recedes. I lay this charge gently, because more than one critic has said the same about my work, and the dearth of first-person source material dictates how this type of social history must be written. In this book, however, I found myself pouncing on these brief stories, only to feel disappointed that they melted away so soon. I suspect that I yearned ever more for them because the wealth of detail Goodman offers can be overwhelming. I confess that I skipped over parts of How to Be a Tudor; the section on dress, for instance, goes on too long for my taste. However, I devoured the rest, such as the fine points of a bow or curtsy or the manner of baking bread.

In short, there’s something for everyone in How to Be a Tudor.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.