I am trying to be more cautious with five-star reviews, but in the case of Tristram Shandy the rating is inevitable. This is the novel I think of when I read that someone in the modern realm has written an experimental novel or a groundbreaking novel – because Laurence Sterne wrote this book so long ago and basically made experimentation in fiction obsolete. His work predicts much of what would be called innovative and avant garde in later writers. He tells his story in nearly every way that a story can be told, and his novel is self-conscious, his narrator/writer very aware of the novel that is being written. It is the story of the birth of Tristram, the naming of Tristram, the family of Tristram, all at once. Unlike novels that sweep through an entire life in narrative waves, this book is discursive, and in some ways static: we think Tristram birth will be the beginning of a saga, but instead the narrative lingers on the moment of the birth, the past of the father and uncle, the disdain of the mother, the lunacy of the world, the history of wars in Europe – there is so much in the book that a mere cataloging of its contents does it nothing like justice. It is a timeless work simply by virtue of the fact of Sterne’s writing, which hovers over the story and points here and there at this oddity, this insight, that bit of story, that motif – all written with such beauty and grace. All of it, too, hilarious. There is nothing inapproachable, bombastic, or pretentious about this novel. Well, maybe there is bombast. Of the best sort. Always there is the narrator, Tristram, who promises that he will live an extraordinary life after his birth; and we can imagine that he did, indeed, keep that promise.
When I read these stories now, they remind me of Laura Ingalls Wilder; they’re all written about earnest, kind, unhappy, lost people, and the refrains in all of them are the same: finding people with whom one belongs, finding a spiritual joy that awakens real power. This makes the stories sound overtly religious, and they are, but in a quiet way, and the strength of them lies in the echoes of loneliness in the characters. Henderson writes about people who have lost their home, which was a marvelous and magical place; and they have lost each other, mostly. She is one of the few writers in science fiction or fantasy who created aliens among us in such a bright, benevolent way. Not here to conquer or to exploit, only here by accident (though perhaps a divine accident). When I read them as a child I was thunderstruck by the possibility that there were really the People somewhere; unlike some of her fans, who apparently convinced themselves of the literality of the stories, I knew it was fiction I was reading, but it was nevertheless heartening to imagine I could fly or plait twitters. These are perfect young adult stories, also for people who don’t like more than a necessary dose of unpleasantness. Even on reading them again now (I am in the midst of them) I am struck by the artful writing and the perseverance of the writer, who did as she pleased and became something of a phenomenon. It was a real wonder in the 60s to find them as they appeared and became anthologized, reading and learning more about the People a little at a time. Read all at once they have a slightly saccharine quality. But the nostalgia they evoke is enough for me. Much like Anne of Green Gables and books of that ilk, where there is never really any question that things will work out well in the end. Everybody needs stories like that from time to time. Especially in 2020.
Philip Dick’s novels have permeated our culture through the many movie and television adaptations of his work; this particular novel, though, is the one that I think about most often, even though the film version of it was not such a big moment for many people, nothing like Blade Runner or Minority Report. The novel tells a surreal, twisted story of a man whose life inverts on itself, an undercover cop whose identity is secret even to his superiors, and who is asked to observe surveillance footage of himself in his undercover role. This is one of those ideas that strikes true from the first moment, a brilliant concept that Dick elaborates in a way that is more personal than other books. At least I think this is true. The idea hit home with him and called up some of his best work. He wrote a lot of books and stories and it’s easy to identify the stronger ones because their ideas engaged him more completely and drew out his best sentences. And this is one of the very best, though it is not always named among his finest. The man who watches himself portray a criminal and in the end becomes suspicious of himself, separates himself from the version he is observing, and questions the reality of the background world. A hint of the quantum idea that the act of observation changes the observed, and in this case, the observed is the observer, only in another context; the whole thing spirals in the mind. The writing is some of Dick’s finest, even though there are cruder moments in the sentences, indicative of the speed with which he wrote. Includes an essay by Dick at the end of my copy of the book, a sobering reflection on the way he lived his life, the way drugs ate him up.
I owned this book for nearly 40 years, tried to read it a couple of times, failed to engage, put it down, and repeat. Finally picked it up again and fell into it, with some determination, only to have the old paperback fall to pieces. Ordered another copy and willed myself to finish it. This is not the kind of book that makes me rhapsodic, though I can admire the complexity of it and the writer’s complete engagement with language. There were parts of it, like Pimber’s death, that were moving and beautiful. The late chapters also struck me as strong and compelling; the search for Pimber and the recovery of his body comprised a drama I admired. But the words. I do not care for wordplay that is an end in itself, nor for puns, nor for stream of consciousness as this book represents it. When I compare this to Virginia Woolf it appears messy and erratic. Her idea of consciousness is a stream of awareness that touches on many things lightly in the space of a moment. Gass’s idea of consciousness is so forced that a person would have to spend all energy on having this kaleidoscope of thoughts in order to bring it off, and such a person would collapse from exhaustion. As this book does, for me. The very long first chapter of Furber’s section nearly made me abandon my reading; but I had bought a new copy and knew that it was a revered novel, and so I pushed on. That chapter is the low point of the book for me. What follows restores some sense of drama. But what Gass offers in the way of story he takes away, as if he is afeared someone will catch him committing the sin of having a plot. Omensetter is not convicted of Pimber’s murder, the son does not die, the revered Furber has his change of heart as easily as anything, and the whole exercise fades into gauze. This is a great book, and I am aware of that, but no book appeals to everybody.
This is one of those books you don’t hear about unless you have a friend who is very devoted to reading, or unless you are one of those people yourself. The novel tells the story of a quiet village that lies very close to magical territory, with items crossing into the real world from the other. The problem becomes acute and requires action by the mayor. This description is prosaic; the book itself is full of magic, not simply embodied in the story but present in the writing as well. Its quiet, mistressly sentences build the world one jewel at a time. I am forever grateful to the friend who offered this book to me. It is deft, quick, precise, and remarkable. What takes Tolkien page upon page to achieve comes so easily in Mirrlees that you will be left wanting more. I am learning that this is part of a trilogy she wrote; so I have two more books to find and read. The other novels are apparently less in the realm of fantasy than this one. But with writing as fine as this, one should led the author do as she will.
This epistle of Hadrian to his successor, imagined and composed by Marguerite Yourcenar, is a perfect book in very many ways, yet proceeds so quietly about its work that the author nearly vanishes. She submerges herself in the persona of Hadrian and speaks with authority in a voice that is easy to imagine as his own. The writing is never showy; I have read that it is very like good Latin in its rhythm and its austerity; it is rendered into a beautiful English by Grace Frick, who worked in collaboration with the author. This is the sort of book I would like to have written, though I lack the confidence of an historian to speak on behalf of an emperor who ruled a goodly portion of the known world. Yourcenar, however, is equal to the task. Her Hadrian has the wisdom we would wish for in a king of the world; he also has the cruelty, though it is not the malice of a Caligula or the madness of a Nero. There is a temptation to speak in platitudes about the decisions that are forced onto such a person by the fact of immense power over others; to do so would be to cheapen a reflection on this novel, which is so wonderfully composed that it avoids such pitfalls. Hadrian simply speaks, and since his audience is the person he has trained to be his successor, he lays bare all that he has become in the course of his long reign. His love of men in preference to women is a feature of the book but one could not call it a romance. I don’t think it’s appropriate to use the word “gay” in connection with him. The concept of sexual identity of this kind did not exist in this world. There was simply what he wanted and what he did not want. There is also, in this depiction of him, the measured control of the man, who could have had anything he wanted and as much of it as he could command, and yet lived in a kind of balance. If your only image of Rome is that of endless decline – a word which always crops up in connection with imperial Rome thanks to Gibbons – then this book offers a convincing contrast. A moving meditation on history, power, and heartache.
The title of the book is Brave Mardi Gras; the typo above is unfortunate. Roberts was a prolific author in the 30s and 40s and wrote a good deal about the Caribbean; this book is one of three that he wrote about New Orleans. What makes Brave Mardi Gras distinct is its concern with people of color in New Orleans during the civil war; people of color had a distinct meaning in the city at that time and should not be confused with the use of the term today. These were free blacks and folks of mixed race in the city who had formed a separate class from people who were enslaved and from American whites, and they supported the war with ardor. The book tells the story of a group of friends who were members of a Mardi Gras krewe – Mardi Gras being relatively new at the time – and their use of the krewe to hide their efforts to support the war. The book has a great number of fascinations, including the author’s obvious knowledge of the time in which the book is set, and his depictions of the fiery, honor-driven, headstrong people – dashing swordsmen, duelists, men of society and property who guarded their pride against all comers. The main story involves the love of Blaise for Lyn, a beautiful heiress who takes a turn as a spy for the south; they are separated during the war by the efforts of one of Lyn’s relatives who becomes a union supporter. The book is well written and easy to read. The treatment of Lyn is worshipful, and at least she is given a role in the war effort, rather than simply sitting at home waiting for the men to finish the work. The book deals frankly with the war itself; nearly everybody in these pages sees that the war will end badly for the south but they go on with the fight. After the war Blaise resurrects his plantation from bad management and unionism to become a benevolent patron of the people whom he once held as chattel. It is hard to read this sympathetic treatment of the plantation system, but Roberts writes with conviction of his own point of view. The book depicts the passion of New Orleans southerners for their right to what they considered a way of life; the ardor of this surprised me, largely because of the writing, which was convincing. Nevertheless the book feels minor and wrongheaded. As is usual with most civil war novels, the issue of slavery is peripheral to the story, without examination.
It is instructive, particularly in 2020, to read a book like this one, written as a refutation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin; in this syrupy novel about a northern woman’s marriage to a fabulously wealthy planter I was treated to the actual thinking of a writer who intended to do her best to defend the system of slavery. Her efforts are clear on every page. The planter in question is presented in terms of absolute, unquestioned nobility. The innocent northern girl whom he marries comes from a family of inept abolitionists whose views on slavery are presented as childishly naive. There are passages of the book that are achingly awful: a slave’s protestation of the fact that she hates her own looks and wishes she looked like a white woman; the freeing of a slave that is depicted as a callous kidnapping, ending in the slave’s return and her pleas to be returned to the good life of being human chattel; a slave rebellion by slaves who just don’t know any better, which is put down with the tenderest admonitions by the lordly master. It is a thoroughly sickening read, but if you want to know the attitudes that shaped so-called benevolent masters, here you have it, the whole deck of cards laid out for your inspection. It amazes me that the author cannot see her own false ideas. But the blindness of the writer is complete. What recommends her as a novelist is the thoroughness with which she documents the self-deception of a whole society, lost in a view of the world that reaffirmed its members in their collective wrongdoing.
I encountered this book while doing research on a project, and thought it would interesting to read this kind of conversion narrative, a woman from the south who goes north for a time in the era of the civil war, and who finds a northern man who eventually converts her to the cause of the Union. This was the description of the book and what led me to it was my curiosity as to how the author would manage the conversion. My hopes were not great but were dashed nevertheless. When the young woman, Lillie Ravenel, meets and marries her union officer, it is simply the marriage that brings about the change in her beliefs. She returns to New Orleans only to find herself shunned by her old circle of friends for having too many associations with the enemy. It is not her convictions which change but rather her alliances. The fact of slavery is not really part of the picture. It is rather a variation on the who-will-she-marry theme. Even the villainess is lackluster. The two suitors for her hand, a colonel and a captain, participate in the better parts of the book, which are the battle scenes, but action writing, no matter how fine, is lost in a novel, at least for me. But the most disappointing aspect is that a writer would see a woman’s life as being so thoroughly shaped by her husband – would see that and make nothing of it, I mean. It was an interesting moment of research that is indicative of how white Americans outside the south saw the Civil War in the years that followed its end.
He felt he was in the bell jar, too. Separated from the world by the thin surface of a screen. The world flashed onto the screen all day, one image after another, and he was trapped in front of it, witness. A white woman is screaming at a black woman in a seven eleven. A black man is dying under a white cop’s knee. Images of the past are everywhere, statues from an old war that people were tearing down, and there was a lot of noise about what was history and what was not. Every day there was a new trend to follow but it led to nothing more than a hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach and another night in which he slept restlessly and dreamed about finding his socks. He could never find his socks. Packing for a trip, dashing frantically here and there, because somebody was about to leave on a journey – he was about to leave on a journey – and he could not even find his suitcase, and he was not sure where he had parked his car. Was it here, or here, or here? And finally he would wake up and remember it was his life, he was in bed in his room, his car was parked outside in the correct space, and another day had begun. Already the computer was scrolling with all the horrible things that had happened in the world since the last time he sat in front of the screen. Easing himself into the seat. Letting the whole mass of it rise over him again.