Category Archives: Big Loves

Big Loves: Howard Axelrod on Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels

Axelrod_Howard-264x264Today’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Howard Axelrod. Axelrod’s memoir The Point of Vanishing was recently published by Beacon Press. The memoir traces Axelrod’s movements, internal and external, and his sense of self and place in the world, after he loses vision in one eye. The book is a luminous reflection on solitude, nature, and the act of seeing. Here, Axelrod shares his love of Elena Ferrante.

No one knows if Elena Ferrante is a tennis fan. No one knows much about her at all. The identity of the author of the wildly popular Neapolitan novels remains a useful mystery—useful because it reveals the poverty of our literary-critical apparatus: without the usual cues of biography and author appearances and interviews, critics have been tripping over themselves to place her work. Feminist. Post-ideological. Neo-neo-realist. They’re not wrong, exactly. But to understand Ferrante, it might help to be a tennis fan—or, at least, to be a fan of one particular match. Krickstein vs Connors, U.S. Open, 1991.

You may have already seen it. Every year during the Open, if a rain delay leaves the commentators scrambling to fill time, the TV producers air the match again. The storyline is a sports cliché, a tennis Rocky. Jimmy Connors, lion in winter, age 39, grunts, staggers, and bullies his way to victory against rising star Aaron Krickstein. Age over beauty, grit over finesse…etc. But what’s riveting about the match isn’t the storyline. I was 17 when I first saw it, live on CBS, and what I felt was a kind of gravitational pull into the television, into the court. Connors was nowhere else. Nowhere else existed for him. In the final set, Krickstein kept glancing over to his player’s box, to the sky—you could almost see him imagining the post-match interview, the uneasy ride back to the hotel. But Connors had nowhere else. His entire life was cupped inside the stadium. Granted, he was a boor: he sat in the flowerbed, hammed for the camera, played to the crowd. Not a good sport, possibly not a good person. But judgements meant nothing to him. He had nowhere else to exist, it seemed, at least nowhere else to exist as fully. And so he was playing with his entire life—for his entire life, that is, for the possibility for his life to be expansive. His intensity was impossible not to watch, impossible not to admire.

That’s what Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels have. That’s why critics praise them as fierce, unapologetic, relentless. Her narrator, Elena Greco, a writer, has nowhere else to exist but in the pages she’s writing, nor does her best friend, Lila Cerullo. Nowhere else is capacious enough; nowhere else can offer their lives meaning. But Ferrante’s work isn’t only a display of that need—and this is where she goes far beyond what Connors hamy-brilliant-friendd to offer—but also a dramatic investigation into where that need comes from, and how it both rewards and punishes the woman who follows it.

Growing up in the nineteen-fifties in a neighborhood of Naples where husbands routinely beat their wives, where boyfriends routinely beat their girlfriends, and where families nurse feuds for generations, Ferrante’s narrator needs not just to escape but to escape with her inner life intact. Like Lila, who is more brilliant and more brash, she excels in school, hopes to be a writer, and knows herself most clearly through her instinctive detachment from the neighborhood: both need the neighborhood to know themselves, but to know themselves both need to know the neighborhood from a distance.

In the final scene of the first novel My Brilliant Friend, which takes place at Lila’s wedding to the neighborhood grocer, Elena remarks of Nino, the intellectual boy she has a crush on, “He could enter and leave the neighborhood as he wished, without being contaminated by it. He could do it, he was capable of doing it, maybe he had learned years before, at the time of the stormy move that hand nearly cost him his life.

I doubted that I could make it.”

Not being “contaminated” by the neighborhood isn’t just a drama of the moment, of their adolescent selves; it will become the drama of their lives. The question isn’t just how will Elena escape, but how will her identity survive? How will she make sense of the divide between her life and Lila’s? Between her past and her present? Between her outer life (eventually beyond the neighborhood) and her inner life (eventually containing it)? The drama isn’t just in the bildungsroman Elena is telling, it’s in the telling itself. She needs the telling to unify, without dishonesty or simplification, the disparate elements of her life, the elements no other forum can hold.  She needs to make a place to live fully—and a place for Lila to live fully.

Which brings us to what is hardest to talk about in Ferrante, and what I most love about her. The story of the artist born into a family hostile to art—Kafka, Joyce, Rilke—is nothing new. But for the focal point of a novel (or, indeed, a series) to be a friendship rather than one gifted person’s development, for the existence of an inner life and the necessity of its preservation to be expressed as matter-of-factly as the violence in nineteen-fifties Naples—this is new, and it keeps the writing deeply private. There’s the privacy of Elena’s experience—in which she admits to fepoint of vanishingelings, particularly in her complex friendship with Lila, most people wouldn’t admit to themselves; there’s the privacy of her need to understand her experience—which few writers would focus on as a drama as significant as the outer drama of the neighborhood feuds; and, perhaps most poignantly, there’s the privacy of Elena’s address—which, although not directly made to Lila, can be read as an appeal to her as a kind of projected conscience, as Lila is the only person Elena thinks might understand her, the person she hopes both to save and be saved by.

Privacy. Interiority. Literature as matter-of-fact tool for survival. All evoked quietly and fiercely, in our hyper-connected age, when our sense of privacy, of interiority, and of art as a necessity for nurturing the two is eroding. There’s no such thing as a literary rain delay—no act of God that would sweep rain across the pages and Kindles of everyone in the country on a given day. But perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad if there were. The producers in the truck could cue up Ferrante. A classic, they might say, is a match that helps us to see all other matches, a book that helps us to see all other books. It reminds us of what we’ve been searching for all along.

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Big Love: Chaitali Sen on Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow

Chaitali SenToday’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Chaitali Sen. Sen is the author of the novel, The Pathless Sky, which was published by Europa Editions this month. The novel tells the story of one couple’s quest to sustain their marriage when political violence strikes their unnamed homeland. Kirkus calls her book a “poignant and sophisticated work couched in lyrical, effervescent prose.”

I haven’t seen a real snowfall in ten years. In 2005, I left the winters of the north and landed in Texas, and when someone told me I would miss a good snowstorm, I insisted I would not. I was wrong. I have dreams about my college campus where it snowed from November to April, and every winter here in Austin, when the sky is gray and it’s cold enough to mimic a promise of snow, there is a book that I crave. I open to a random page and read until I’m sated.

I have no memory of where I was when I first read the Danish thriller Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1993). I must have been in my early twenties, and someone must have given it to me because I would not have chosen it on my own. It had the look of a typical genre trade paperback, with a bold silver and black cover and the eye of a woman peering out from a small frame in the center. It was very unlike the version I read now, a twentieth anniversary edition with a more elegant font and a picture of snow-laden branches that more accurately captures the mood and beauty of this novel.

Like most mysteries, it opens with a death, this one during a Danish winter. The victim is a six-year old Greenland Inuit boy named Isaiah who has fallen off the roof of his Copenhagen apartment building. As an adult, I have not been an avid reader of mysteries, but the mystery in this novel is not what kept me reading the first time, and certainly not what keeps me going back year after year. I go back for a sense of winter, and for Smilla, a misanthropic woman in her late thirties who cannot help infusing herSmillia narration with warmth and nostalgia. She is half Inuit, the daughter of an almost legendary female hunter and a Danish doctor who fell in love with her while on a medical expedition to Greenland. Smilla’s sense of snow comes both from her nomadic childhood in North Greenland and her studies in Glaciology as an adult. Smilla reads the footprints leading to Isaiah’s fall and begins to investigate his death. What is most interesting about the plot of this novel is how strongly it is contextualized by the colonial relationship between Denmark and Greenland, the exploitation of Greenland’s native population and resources, and the oppression of Inuit immigrants within Denmark. In my opinion, embedding a plot in its historical and political context always enriches a narrative, but is not used often or well enough in modern literature.

In a way, Smilla’s Sense of Snow was a return to my first love. As a child, I read Nancy Drew books almost exclusively. Then I read the Famous Five series by Enid Blyton. These books were sent to me from India, where they were wildly popular and made many an Indian girl long for adventure in the English countryside. I read these books for the mood they evoked, for the feeling of being on holiday and coming across something slightly dangerous, slightly urgent, adventurism with time for a picnic. In adolescence, during the years that I began to think about what it meant to be a brown girl in America and to be considered foreign in the only home I knew, I read a few Agatha Christie books but found the genre no longer had anything to offer.

But Smilla’s Sense of Snow is not, at its heart, an adrenaline-charged thriller. It is an exploration of the trauma of displacement. There are long passages in which Smilla remembers her childhood with her mother in North Greenland:

She never kisses me, and she seldom touches me. But at moments of great intimacy, she lets me drink from the milk that is always there, beneath her skin, just as her blood is. She spreads her legs so I can come between them. Like the other hunters, she wears pants made of bearskin given only a rudimentary tanning. She loves ashes, sometimes eating them straight from the fire, and she has smeared some underneath her eyes. In this aroma of burned coal and bearskin, I go to her breast, which is brilliantly white, with a big, delicate rose aureole. There I drink immuk, my mother’s milk.

the pathless sky coverAnd from beginning to end, there is snow, ice, winter: “… I’m happy because I know that now the frost has gained momentum; now the ice will stay, now the crystals have formed bridges and enclosed the salt water in pockets that have a structure like the veins of a tree though which the liquid slowly seeps; not many who look over toward Holmen think about this, but it’s one reason for believing that ice and life are related in many ways.”

I read passages like this with a sense of mourning. Will I ever again see water freeze into sheets of ice? My mourning is particular to my choice to leave the north, but it is similar to the mourning Zadie Smith describes in her essay on climate change, “Elegy for a Country’s Seasons.” It’s possible Smilla’s Sense of Snow describes a Danish winter that no longer exists. In that case, this novel is also a eulogy.

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Big Loves: Zach Falcon on William Gaddis’s JR

FalconToday’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Zach Falcon. Falcon’s debut short story collection,  Cabin, Clearing, Forest, was recently published by University of Alaska Press. In sharp and lyrical writing, Falcon’s collection explores the interior lives and domestic relations of people shaped by Alaska, in all its isolation, beauty, and brutality. Here, Falcon shares his love of William Gaddis’s JR.

I am oppositional. Confronted with a task, I buck and tug like a willful puppy introduced to the leash. For instance, at the time of this writing, I have three pressing deadlines, and I just spent the last two days unnecessarily painting our bathroom. It’s a character flaw; I’m not proud of it. But it once led me to read JR by William Gaddis, for which I am grateful. It was during the fall exam period in my first year of law school, when I should have been reading anything but fiction.

After a full semester, attending every class and taking copious notes, I had no idea what I was doing or what the hell the law was even about. The worst of it was civil procedure, a subject which, near as I could figure, concerned postal regulations. On the off chance I was mistaken (I was), I elected to spend a leisurely afternoon in a bookstore searching out an easy-to-read study guide. Instead, I found myself in the fiction section. I noticed a paperback with an inch-and-a-half-thick spine. JR. I eased it off the shelf: 826 pages. The book was a very large bathroom to paint while deadlines loomed. “You should read that,” I told myself. “It won the National Book Award in 1976. You should finish that, and then study.”

Perhaps the sole benefit of an oppositional temperament is that you can make real headway on a project so long as you are ducking something more pressing. And a reader needs to make quick headway to enjoy JR. Much has been made of JR’s impenetrability (one reviewer dismissed it as “unreadable”), but it’s not actually difficult. It is written primarily in unattributed dialogue, without chapter breaks, and it takes about forty pages to find your feet. Before that, the reader may feel at sea. After, you can JRnovel (2)lock in and make sense of what the book is about, which is America. And Wall Street. And entropy. It is a bleak Long Island satire concerning business and education and culture and art. The title character is JR Vansant, an 11-year-old boy who hustles surplus plastic forks and penny stocks into an unhinged financial empire. It crystalizes the difference between the disingenuous and the naïve, and rages against the relentless debasement of the authentic. As compelling as its subjects are, however, the genius of JR does not lie in its content. That’s not why I love it, anyway.

I love JR because of what happened to me after those first forty pages. After I locked in. The book is a carnival of voices, dozens of voices, tumbling over each other, each with their own tics and patterns and echoes and repetitions. There is Miss Flesch: “PRwise it can’t hurt us educationwise.” And Mr. Whitbeck, “Yes well ahm, yes of course that does make things simpler.” JR: “Hey wait, I mean you’re not mad are you hey?” And the ranting Jack Gibbs: “God damn it listen!” The book is built of ellipses, interruptions, dissembling, babbling, hemming, and hawing. Here is the chaos of a crowd, including a school field trip, exiting a subway:

— Okay look what do you want for it, look I’ll . . .

— We can’t hey, we’re there . . .

— Boys and girls? Let’s wait till everyone gets out . . .

— Boy this train should have had a wreck hey look at all the lousy teachers on it . . .

— When we can’t even get room in the cafeteria for driver training because they took the Senior Citizens’ painting class out of the gym when they started the prenatal care program there what’s going to happen to the adult hobby show?

— For the kind of evaluative criterions you find in these kind of environmental settings . . .

— With the educational discount a lawnmower like that should be about forty-two dollars, so I said. . .

— When they tried to tell me I didn’t know enough math to teach it I showed them enough units for the certificates and you should have seen their faces . . .

— Like they do in Russia, so I said . . .

— Nine, eleven twelve are there? thirteen? You didn’t happen to count them Mister Bast?

The genius of Gaddis is that he absolutely trusts the reader to participate, to remember, to pay attention. His sentences resist passive consumption; they invite collaborative engagement. The voices become recognizable and familiar. They play in your head like old-time radio, immediate and three-dimensional. By the time one reaches the subway scene above, it is as clear as overhearing family in the kitchen. Unique among novels, JR leaves an exquisitely designed space for the reader to occupy—the text is incomplete until it’s read. As one character, a composer, explains: “I mean there are some things you can’t really write down especially simple things, they just have to be left for the performer and till the music is actually performed it doesn’t really exist at all.” Collaborating with JR, calling it into existence through thought, remains one of the most giddily thrilling reading experiences of my life.

I consumeCabin Clearing Forest Cover (1)d JR in a three-day fever, almost without stopping. When I did occasionally set the book aside, it was often to look up a word, usually a legal one. Several subplots concern the litigation that sprawls from JR’s schemes. Many of the voices belong to lawyers, arguing about trusts, corporate law, and yes, even the finer points of civil procedure. “There is no question of justice, or right and wrong,” I learned from Mr. Coen. “The law seeks order.” Which turned out to be a fine thing to know when I finally returned to my studies, oppositional fit extinguished, forever changed by Gaddis’s brilliant chaos.

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Big Loves: Laurie Foos on Steven Sherrill’s The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break

authorphoto2 (2)Today’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Laurie Foos. Foos has published five previous novels with Coffee House Press: Before Elvis There Was Nothing, Ex Utero, Portrait of the Walrus by a Young Artist, Twinship, and Bingo Under the Crucifix. In her newest novel, The Blue Girl, mothers in a small lakeside town bake their secrets into moon pies and feed them to a silent blue girl. At turns lyrical, absurd, and heartbreaking, her fabulist novel about this strange blue girl explores the strangeness in all of us. Here, Foos shares her love for Steven Sherrill.

It was the cover that got me: the image of a half-man, half-bull sitting on a milk crate wearing work boots and a white cook’s coat with a red neckerchief, a cigarette between the thick fingers of his right hand, black horned head leaning into his left hand. And then of course there was the title above the image: The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break.  I remember thinking, If ever there was a book up my alley, this is it.

Of course it’s a risky premise, and part of the joy of a novel like The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break is watching Steven Sherrill walk that high wire to see how well and how long he can stay up, which, thanks to the verbal calisthenics and often startling beauty of the language, he does for the entirety of the novel. We meet the Picador-Minotaur-320x478Minotaur five thousand years post-labyrinth, where he is known only as M.—a Kafkaesque nod if ever there was one—and lives in the deep South in a trailer park. He works as a line cook at a steakhouse, an obvious joke, perhaps, though a writer as smart as Sherrill knows  you have to go for the obvious scenario, the one anyone can think of before you can spin it on its head. Poor M., who says little in the novel save for “Unnhs” and “Mmms,” though the other characters in the steakhouse are always asking him to repeat himself—”What’s that, M? You say something?”—is trapped within the physicality of his bull’s head. With “the cavernous expanse of his throat and…thick bovine tongue, his words (coming) out tortured and mutilated, deep, almost whining,”  he wants only to say, “I am tired of these horns and all that they mean.”  Prone to accidents in the kitchen and in love with a waitress named Kelly, who suffers epileptic fits, M. manages one painfully hilarious articulation early in the novel when he reveals to his fellow employees at the steakhouse, “I am a tit man.”

And there are many hilarious moments, but as the novel progresses, we watch Sherrill delve into the humanity of M who is painfully aware of the “transitional skin” where his human self meets his bull self. Sherrill, also a poet, writes, “On the Minotaur’s back the transition is less decisive…Sometimes this place, this division, throbs, swells, deepens, becomes a chasm, within the Minotaur that he will never span, though he will spend eternity trying…to believe for an isolated moment that he is a singular and whole being.”

We move through the novel with M., who is also quite good with his human hands. He is able to fix most any machine and has a special affinity for cars.  As we come to know M. and his life in the trailer park in the South, where he is often besotted both by memories of his thousands of years in the labyrinth as well as a painful awareness of his own alienation, it becomes increasingly clear how well the premise of the novel is so much more than the punch line the title might suggest. After a brief encounter with Kelly, the waitress M. pines for, we get a glimpse into his isolation as Sherrill describes “the architecture of the Minotaur’s heart”: “… the blood it pumps—the blood it has pumped for five thousand years, the blood it will pump for the rest of his life—is nearly human blood. It carries with it…the terrible stuff of human existence: fear, wonder, hope, wickedness, love. But in the Minotaur’s world it is far easier to kill and devour seven virgins year after year…than (it is) to accept tenderness and return it.”

The-Blue-Girl-356x535Certainly part of Sherrill’s premise concerns his satirical depiction of the American South and the crappy restaurant job that M. is relegated to, though the novel evolves, as we least expect it, into a kind of love story punctuated as much by Sherrill’s flair for gritty realism as for the absurd. The Minotaur, out of the labyrinth and into a trailer park where he drives a beat-up Vega and smokes menthols, wants only what any of us wants: to figure out how to be human.

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Big Loves: Antonio Ruiz-Camacho on José Emilio Pacheco’s Battles in the Desert

ruizcamacho_colorToday’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Antonio Ruiz-Camacho. Ruiz-Camacho’s collection of short stories Barefoot Dogs was recently published by Scribner. The linked stories, using exuberant and imaginative language, explore the fallout of a patriarch’s abduction in Mexico City, illuminated through the exile and displacement of his family. Here, Ruiz-Camacho shares his love for José Emilio Pacheco.

“I remember. I don’t remember. What year was it?” The opening lines of José Emilio Pacheco’s Battles in the Desert might as well describe my own struggle trying to pin down the first time I read the book. It was in the early nineties, but the exact year escapes me. It must have been in college, shortly after I moved to Mexico City from Toluca, the small town in Central Mexico where I grew up, because reading the book felt like an introduction to the bigness of the city and the heartbreak of first loves and the ever-unfulfilled promises of a country long bound for greatness, perennially falling short. But it was not only that. Above all, Pacheco’s novella, which is revered and has been read and re-read on end by generations of young and old-and-young-again Mexicans, felt like an incursion into everything I admired and aspired to without even knowing it: prose as rhythm, the playful recreation of the past, storytelling as a way of occupying the world.

Reading whole books was not a widespread habit in my hometown–it wasn’t even something you were required to do in order to do well at school. Before my encounter with Pacheco and the big city, the only books I had read from cover to cover in my entire life were: Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, and La Noche de Tlatelolco, Elena Poniatowska’s account of the killing of students by military forces on October 2nd, 1968 in Mexico City. They had all fallen in my hands by accident rather than choice, and I had equally devoured them with fascination and a quiet sense of wonder about the possibilities of the written form to reproduce places never visited, eras long gone, and their unmatched ability to expose injustice in societies and countries ruled by brutes. But that was all. Not one of these books ever prompted me to read more, let alone to write. I was an oblivious boy living in the suburbs of the world who’d keep his burning desire to tell stories in the closet, as if a condition that would eventually, hopefully, go away.

Battles in the Desert affected me in a radically different way. For once, unlike the (three!) books I had read before, this one was short (it is in fact so succinct–a meager sixty-eight pages in the original Spanish version–that the English edition, published by New Directions, made enough room to also include five other pieces of short fiction written by Pacheco, which might mislead you to think that the book is a story collection). There is Battles_In_the_Desert_And_Other_Stories_something atomic, sweeping and awe-inspiring about the way short novels like Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Albert Camus’s The Stranger, Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, Pacheco’s Battles in the Desert, and, more recently, Alejandro Zambra’s Ways of Going Home, and Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Down the Rabbit Hole, manage to stunningly encapsulate and expand the larger world in just a few swift strokes.

Not only was it a matter of shortness but, more importantly, the element of breath, that made Pacheco’s book irremediable and overly affecting. Each one of the paragraphs in Battles in the Desert is a micro-story in and on itself, and this not only blew me away, it defined me.

Consider the very second paragraph of the book:

“It was the year of the polio: the schools were full of children with orthopedic devices; the year of the foot-and-mouth-disease: tens of thousands of sick cattle were being shot throughout the country; the year of the floods: downtown had once again become a lake, and the people rode in boats through the streets. They say that with the next storm, the sewage system will burst and inundate the capital. So what, my brother answered, we are living up to our ears in shit anyway under Miguel Alemán’s regime.”

Originally published in Mexico in 1981 and translated by Katherine Silver for the English edition, which was released six years later, Battles in the Desert is about a boy who falls in love with the mother of one of his friends from school; about a Mexican middle-class family’s financial woes in the middle of an era of economic prosperity known as the Mexican Miracle; about American companies taking over local industries in the incipient Third World; about kids playing Jews vs. Arabs in dusty school playgrounds at the dawn of the Cold War; about old-school politicos and their housewife-like mistresses and all the mischief and tragedy that may fit and explode in between; about growing up in the late forties in the peripheries of the Western hemisphere; about nostalgia for childhood and melancholy for a future of hope and well-being that never arrived, which is to say it is about a boy with wondering eyes coming acquainted with the ever-stretching world–a world that vanished, that was never there.

Consider the following excerpt from the very last paragraph in the book:

“How ancient! How remote! What an impossible story! But Mariana existed; Jim existed; everything I went over in my head existed even after such a long time of refusing to confront it…. They demolished the school; they demolished Mariana’s building; they demolished my house; they barefoot-dogs-9781476784960_hrdemolished the Roman Quarter. That city came to an end. That country was finished. There is no memory of the Mexico of those years. And nobody cares: who could feel nostalgic for that horror?”

The desire to explain ourselves through stories is as primitive as it is untamable. Battles in the Desert aroused me to dig into the confines of my inner, unexplored writerly self and….oh, please–just say it. I simply read the book and life was never the same again. I couldn’t stop thinking, feeling that I wanted to do that. I wanted to write like that. It took me two decades to realize it, and only now that I find myself writing over and over about the same city, the same country Pacheco so perfectly captured in order to rescue it from the demolition of memory, have I finally accepted that I am, too, writing about a place that no longer exists in order to recapture myself.


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Big Loves: Andrew Allport on W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz

_MG_1814_BW_smallToday’s contributor to Big Loves is Andrew Allport. Andrew is the author of the book the body | of space | in the shape of the human (New Issues Press, 2012) and the chapbook The Ice Ship & Other Vessels (Proem Press, 2008). He holds a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Southern California, and lives in Colorado.

I began reading Austerlitz in the fall of 2001 on a train heading east from Geneva, up the Interlaken valley and eventually to the tiny station at Hasliberg-Hohfluh, in the middle of the Swiss Alps. I had forsaken the United States after the 2000 election, which, as I saw it, had exposed a political system dependent on money and ignorance, offering two candidates whose inability to distinguish themselves from each other only underscored the fact that no substantial difference existed. In short, I was young: naïve, quick to judge others, and life in America seemed to involve an intolerable compromise of principle in order to survive.

The first uncanny quality of the book was that it, too, was populated by emigrants. The plot, such as it is, involves an unnamed German-born narrator who teaches in Britain, and the history of his chance encounters and interviews with Jacques Austerlitz, who is only gradually learning the story of his own life. It isn’t fiction, or at least it isn’t recognizable as fiction, but its symbolic structure is of a kind only possible through fiction—that is to say, through the reader’s apprehension of something unsaid. You never know the narrator’s background (you might assume he and W.G. Sebald are the same person), but as you follow him and hear the story of Austerlitz, as you pass through towns in Wales, Holland, Germany and France, you grow slowly aware of recurring images (sometimes these are actual photographs): doorways, lakes, monumental buildings, eyes, signs in foreign languages. Sometimes the photographs are explained by the surrounding text, but mostly their connections are implicit, and any specific relation to place and time is overridden by their resemblance to each other; Sebald seems only to be documenting a landscape of uncanny similarities. In this way, it’s closer to the experience of reading poetry than prose. But the cadences of the book are those of prose; the Sebaldian sentence, sometimes extravagantly long, often begins with an initial supposition that is gradually eroded by the speaker’s doubt and hesitancy, until the only firm ground is the grammar and rhythm of writing itself:

If language may be regarded as an old city full of streets and squares, nooks and crannies, with some quarters dating from far back in time while others have been torn down, cleaned up, and rebuilt, and with suburbs reaching further and further into the surrounding country, then I was like a man who has been abroad a long time and cannot find his way through this urban sprawl anymore, no longer knows what a bus stop is for, or what a back yard is, or a street junction, an avenue or a bridge….All I could think was that such a sentence only appears to mean something, but is in truth at best a makeshift expedient, a kind of unhealthy growth issuing from our ignorance, something which we use, in the same way as many sea plants and animals use their tentacles, to grope blindly through the darkness enveloping us.

In Austerlitz, no one lives in the present; the past is the only relevant territory. Therefore, nothing happens that has not already happened, and the movement of the narrative depends not on rising action, but uncovering what has already been done—monstrous things, most of the time. The confusion and passivity that such a structure engenders in its characters is, I think, an accurate reflection of how we perceive our position in relation to our vast ignorance: as creatures living in the darkness of an ocean floor, reaching out with tentacle and voice. For Sebald, the only possible representation of atrocity is the representation of its lack of representation: illustrating the ways that the unspoken crimes of fathers and grandfathers lie just beneath the surface of civic life. When the narrator travels to Nuremberg, he notices sturdy shoes and a mania for tidy yards and streets, and he remarks, “I could not see a crooked line anywhere…nor was there any other trace of past history.”

The second uncanny moment: on the afternoon of September 11, 2001, I had taken a walk down the mountain to the grocery store, where I filled up a backpack with bread, coffee, cheese, salami, chocolate and tuna fish to last the week. I decided to take the tram back up, since the walk from the station, while equally long, would be along the flat path that traversed the mountain. An old man with thick glasses and a purple scarf was listening to a hand-held radio in the tram, and through the fog of my poor German I could make out the outline of a small plane accident in New York City. In the following days I called family and friends in New York, and when I could finally access the internet, I watched the impact and collapse of the towers on Youtube, the streaking shapes of men and women jumping from the highest floors. Then I listened to a song that someone had written and sent to me—It’ll never be the same again, it went. Everyone I talked to seemed angry, resolved, fearful. I didn’t feel any of this; I had been reading Walter LaFeber’s Inevitable Revolutions and the COINTELPRO Papers, and to my mind, the government had amassed such a record of atrocity that a retaliatory attack was, if not deserved, unsurprising.aust photo

Needless to say, this position alienated me even further from American political discourse. It was with a mixture of companionship and awe that I kept turning back to Austerlitz, whose observations about architecture and capitalism seemed eerily prescient on 9/11: “outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins.” I admit that this kind of language may strike some as intolerably abstracted from the actual events, and if this passage struck me at that moment as an insight into the falling towers, it was an insight made possible by my vantage point of safe remove. However, Sebald’s genius, like Virginia Woolf’s, endows abstraction with morality; like Woolf, he writes a mannered prose that is both aesthetically conservative and politically radical. For me, Austerlitz and Sebald revealed a new mode of political expression, relying on the tools of literature rather than the tools of rhetoric, and whose final goal is a recuperation of the truth, rather than an accusation of the lying parties. As he writes in “An Attempt at Restitution,” “There are many different kinds of writing…only in literature, however, can there be an attempt at restitution over and above the mere recital of facts, and over and above scholarship.” History will be reshaped and retold, and facts, of course, can change with power and influence; literature confirms what remains unknown.

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Big Loves: Claire Fuller on Barbara Comyns’s Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead

Today’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Claire Fuller. Fuller’s first novel Our Endless Numbered Days will be released by Tin House books on March 17th. Fuller’s mysterious and captivating novel travels with Peggy Hillcoat who, at the age of eight, is taken from her home by her survivalist father to live in the forest. claire fuller Here, she shares her big love for Barbara Comyns.

I like to collect book titles* and Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead is one of my favorites. First published in 1954, this short book tells the story of the Willoweed family’s involvement in a series of macabre deaths in an English village in 1911. I was introduced to Barbara Comyns’s books by my husband who owns four of them. I loved their off-beat sangfroid writing style so much I sought out all of Comyns’s fiction, and her one memoir.

The first line of Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead—“The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows’—is an excellent foretaste of what is to come. Grandmother Willoweed has vowed not to walk off her own property (when she wants to go to a funeral she get around this by going in a boat); her hen-pecked son, Ebin, dreams only of escaping; a cat is squashed by a falling woman; the butcher slits his throat with his own knives; chickens and pigs drown. Most of the characters I love to hate, apart from the three Willoweed children – Emma, Hattie and Dennis.

Peculiar things happen on every page, but what makes me love it, is Barbara Comyns’s dead-pan way of writing about English eccentrics. Everything is written in beautifully clear prose as if each outrageous event is an everyday occurrence and when Comyns suspects her reader is becoming complacent, she will slip in a simple line or two at the end of a chapter to bring us up short:

“…Emma almost hated her father and was disgusted and terrified of her grandmother. The only person she had to love was Dennis – and the dim lovers of her imagination.
That evening the baker’s wife ran down the village street in a tattered pink nightgown. She screamed as she ran.”


Similar to We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson, or Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, but for adults, this book looks at life (and death) from a skewed angle. But it’s not all grimness and horror – characters are sometimes nice to each other. The scenes when Emma cares for her younger siblings, taking them to the river with picnics of ‘honey sandwiches with ants on them’ and ‘queer tea that always comes from a thermos,’ are very tender. And when Dennis can no longer look after the grass he plants in a little bowl and cuts with scissors, his sisters sit on his windowsill and cry together.

Writers are told to be careful with point of view; it shouldn’t jump too often from one character’s head to another, or the reader will be lost. But in Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead, Comyns breaks all the rules. It is written like a game of relay: When one character passes another in the street the narrative and the point of view is handed over; when a character thinks about someone else that person picks up the point of view baton. And it works. I am never lost.

I have re-read it several times and have found only two things to be wrong with it: it’s too short – it is over in a few hours. And I think you should assume that quite a few animals were hurt in the writing of it.

*Below are some of my other favorite book titles. What are yours?

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

We Were The Mulvaneys

Behind the Scenes at the Museum

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths

Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow

A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush

Love in the Time of Cholera


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