I gave a blurb for this book when it was published, before I met Shelby at a meeting of a hemophilia support group in North Carolina. I suffer from the same disorder and syndrome. Here is what I wrote, and I stand by it. Shelby Smoak’s Bleeder is a strongly written, mournful tale of a young man learning that the medicine he has taken to treat hemophilia has the disastrous side effect of giving him HIV. I have rarely read anything as moving or as deeply human as this memoir, and I admire the clarity with which Smoak has shaped this painful narrative. As a hemophiliac myself, I have lived through much of what Smoak writes about, and can vouch for the depth of truth these pages contain. This is a superb book. Now I would add that the pain of it all, the feeling of betrayal – knowing that the bleeding medicine was the source not only of HIV but also of Hepatitis C, is wonderfully conveyed in this book, and will resonate with me for a long time. Revisiting this book today has made me wonder whether I ought to turn to this subject, too, one of these days.
I have read the Seidensticker translation three times and this one by Royall Tyler once. The novel itself is superb and deserves its reputation in every way. It is a good idea to read more than one translation since more than one can be good, and each gives a new glimpse of the book. Borges wrote that this is the beauty of reading translations in the first place, since each translation brings something new. That is certainly the case in the Tyler version of the book, which does away with Seidensticker’s use of names in favor of something closer to the Japanese text, in which the identity of a character is often hinted at rather than made explicit. Genji is such a soft, flowery hero, clouded in perfume and surrounded by such lush finery. He becomes a menace at times, visiting a woman, wooing her, taking her to his home, sometimes by force; but in the novel she swoons, resists, swoons some more. I have heard this called the earliest novel in the world, and its author is a woman of the Imperial court. The book is difficult to describe, built out of intimate events, processions, celebrations, dances, feasts, poetry contests; the portrait of a life of consummate sensuality and beauty emerges. It is not a book for you if you are looking for an adventure story or if you don’t enjoy history, because the book is as much a history lesson (for me, anyway) as it is a masterful experience of fiction.
This book is also called Dream of the Red Chamber in English, with other variants like that. I have read several translations of this book, nearly all of them abridged, but finally found this five-volume translation of the full novel by accident. I had read another unabridged translation that was produced in Beijing, which was a noble effort but weak in terms of English. The book is simply magnificent, probably the best single novel I have ever read. Because the names of the characters are rendered as Chinese it can be difficult for an English-language reader to follow, even in terms of the gender of characters. But this saga of a wealthy family, close to the emperor in terms of favor, as it slowly falls into poverty and humiliation, is a treasure. The story of the book is fascinating; it circulated in manuscript form for years before it was printed, passed from hand to hand, recopied, treasured. I don’t think there is any book in English with this scope or power; it’s beyond anything I have ever read before. The story of a boy born with a jade stone in his mouth, a man who loves women and female life, who eschews his maleness in many ways; the story of two branches of a prominent family, their intrigues, their feuds, their infidelities, their sickness; incomparably beautiful. If you are to take on the reading of this book, maybe copy the cast of characters and keep it handy, or start with one of the translations that uses the old convention of translating the women’s names and leaving the men’s names in Chinese. Be mindful that the book was begun by one writer and finished by another, and that the manuscript history is a story in itself. It is a fantastical journey.
Ford is a puzzle for me; he has such a sublime sentence gift, and he maintains it at such a level. The series of books here is masterful in so many ways and puzzling in others. Never try to read it in a hurry and never try to hurry it. The leisure with which he forms this vision of the era of the Great War can be maddening, though in my case I gave way to it and learned to love the grace and fullness. Ford draws out the fullness of every moment, and there are many passages that I remember with a rare clarity, even though it has been a few years since I read the books. There is the long passage in the trenches and in the hotel in the middle novel, Christopher and Sylvia; there is Christopher’s brother in the third novel, having stopped speaking, lying abed under a tent outdoors; there are the parties in the first novel; there are more, too many to name really, so that the reading, in hindsight, proves its worth. If one can deal with the pace of the narrative, its intricate trodding through each moment, this is a wonderful experience. Masterful in many ways. But it has such a gut-deep flaw running all through it, the character of Sylvia, the utter venom with which she is written. There is so little balance to that portrait, even when Ford attempts sympathy for her. It’s not that she’s uncomplicated or a type; she is a character who is hated very deeply by her author. At least that what was what I thought. Spoiled the book for me, though I finished it, and still appreciated the artistry. This was the first time a book struck me in this way, though it’s happened much more often as I age.
This was the first book I ever bought. Our elementary school library had a sale every year, and I was wild to own a book,\ and found this one and bought it for a nickel, I think. My mother gave me the nickel. The book had no covers but the title made we want to read it anyway. I was in third or fourth grade? Don’t remember exactly. I read it through twice immediately and made a new cover for it out of cardboard. Heinlein enthralled me. The whole process of winning the space suit, rebuilding it, told with such detail I felt as though I were doing the work myself. Then the abduction into space, the wormface, the young girl, the trek across the moon with almost no oxygen, the trip to Pluto, the meeting with the mother thing – invention after invention, a perfect experience. I wanted to live in that world, first, and then I wanted to live in Heinlein’s world and write. It was that book that made me want to write, to make my own worlds, and I set about it immediately. After that I ready every Heinlein book I could find – which was not many, in my small town. We had a bookmobile that came through periodically, then, at last, a tiny public library. I read science fiction, book after book, and dreamed about space and other planets and psi powers and such. All this came from Heinlein. He published in a category called juvenile fiction in those days; it would be young adult, now. There are some hints in the book of the stranger turn Heinlein would take in his later writing. The protagonist’s father had married one of his students. There’s an implication that the protagonist will grow up to marry the little girl he saves on the moon, which sexualizes the whole encounter. Hints of paternalism. There was a libertarian tint to the shape of the family, too, with the discussion of paying taxes and the comments about government on the part of the father. All elements that Heinlein would pursue in larger books.
Of the writers whom I admired most when I was younger, Forster is one whose luster has dimmed in peculiar ways. I know perfectly well that he wrote fine novels and thought them some of the finest ever when I first read them. They suited the romantic ideas I had in my twenties, when having love in one’s life appeared to mean everything. Then along came Maurice, a book that he had written in the early part of the century but kept from publication till after his death. It was a book that barely touched the kind of music in his other novels, for me. The fact that it was about men loving men should have made the reading of it a transcendent experience, but that was not what happened. I found it tepid. There was some aspect of my reaction to it that puzzled me; by then I had read other gay books that really did reach me – this would have been the mid 1970s when I was in college. What puzzled me most about Maurice was that Forster wrote it so long ago – 1914 is the date that I have read, though I am no scholar and have not researched whether this is correct. But he died in 1970. It’s likely correct that its publication at that time would have ended his career – but he stopped writing and publishing novels in the 1920s anyway. And it’s also true that braver souls did publish gay novels in that era; Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness is one example, from 1928. By the time he died, gay novels and novelists were stepping forward. What a boon it would have been if Maurice had been presented while he was still alive to talk about it, and about himself, and what he knew. I have no idea what his motives were but the fact of this timidity – when compared to the apparent courage of Maurice himself – spoiled the book utterly. I cared even less for the movie, and have not reread any of Forster other than his prescient story “The Machine Stops” in a very long time. It’s likely that Forster’s self-hatred touched my own and threatened me in some way. My admiration went underground. In my novel Dream Boy I echoed the ending of Maurice rather consciously, when my two boys in love disappear into the greenwood, just as Maurice did. I’m certain that my reaction is not at all fair. But one wants one’s heroes to be heroic, and Forster was not. This is the Forster I built up in my mind, and not the real man, who owed me nothing, who lived his life his own way, and I’m aware of all that. I suppose I feel guilty for liking this book so little, and for reasons that have less to do with the book than with its context. But there you have it.
Between projects. I am always wondering what to do next. I have so many partial projects that I took to the point that I understood them and stopped; there is always a book I can pick up, look at, wonder whether today is the day I should study it harder, see something new in it. There is so much of that in a writing life. I suppose I can claim that I have lived a writing life. At any rate I am making the assertion. It would have been better to do things differently. Plan more. But I am not really that person. It is either that I have too much patience or that I am too willing to put a book down in order to think about it or that I am innately indefinite. Prone to wander. Procrastination is us. Typing that word “doubts” makes me wonder why I have so many. The function of age? The fact that I have turned out to be a middling sort of person? Or is it simply the way writing works for me now? There are so many kinds of books that I would like to be able to write but I am narrower than I believed when I was young. This is a muddle, might as well let it be. I am at the muddled age in a muddled world. So back to work. Which will it be? I only have so much time left.
I encountered Mansfield’s stories when I read The Garden Party some years back and have decided to read more. This is her first collection of stories, and they are exactly what I want to read now: clear, concise, brief, without a moment wasted. She has an exactness that always pleases me when I encounter it in a writer; she begins with a sentence that makes a moment just so, and builds on it with writing so precise it feels as if it emerges out of my own consciousness, as though I am the one sitting at a dinner table with awkward company. The English narrator is critiquing the Germans and the Germans are being boorish about the English; this is a bit queasy at moments, but this is the way people see one another, and the date of the collection is 1911, just before those tensions erupt into mass carnage. There is nothing about the stories to dislike; they simply flow through, and touch at the ending, something that makes me close the book and think for a while. It is all done so easily that one nearly doesn’t notice. The stories are small. Does that matter? Not while I am in them, because the drama of the small is so much part of my own life now. I have a feeling that the stories are young, not fully formed – but I have another feeling, that I am projecting this onto the stories because I know this is an early collection. Am happy at the prospect of reading more.
While I can’t claim to have read all of Lee Smith’s books – she is terrifically prolific – I found this one to be a quietly powerful read. She is a consummate southern writer whose career has spanned decades, and one feels her command of her craft in this historical novel about the fire that killed Zelda Fitzgerald – told through the eyes of another inmate in Highland Hospital. It is a strong book that conveys the depth of her research, and she chooses to present Zelda on her own, among the people that she encountered in the hospital. Her famous husband is hardly here at all. This makes it tempting to remark that the idea of Zelda feels incomplete without F. Scott in the picture – but that’s precisely the problem with her life and with the attitude toward women altogether, that it takes a man to complete them. So that in the end I think this may be the truest look one could have at Zelda herself. The book does little that is expected; the characters simply hold the page as happens in good fiction. I doubt that this will be remembered as Smith’s best book, but for me it is proof of the breadth of what she can accomplish. She has written so much so well. If there is a problem here it is that Zelda overshadows the other characters, which tips the book out of balance. But the choice to put her in the background was the right one, and the story resonates, particularly if one knows anything about Asheville, which has some powerful literary ghosts.
A woman who is part Spaniard and part Swede grew up in a household in which a portrait of Hitler was a prominent and honored feature of the house; her father was a Spanish admirer of Hitler and supporter of fascists. This memory haunts the pages of this complex book. Söderbaum died after preparing this book for publication; it is a shame that there can be no more of her writing. But this book is one-0f-a-kind from the outset, and the consolation of that reminds me that she likely poured everything into the creation of this fiction. It certainly reads that way. This stream of consciousness in which she creates her novel is readable in spite of the length of the sentences and paragraphs, and the work one puts into the unpacking of the language makes the experience unforgettable, or at least did so for me. I did not expect to like the book when I began it but found myself drawn into it more and more. She is writing about familiar material, the trauma of Nazism, using as her touchstone an album of photographs from her childhood that, like the Hitler portrait, has grown more ominous with time. She slowly uncovers her own connection to atrocities, journeying into the past through her study of the photographs and travels with her family to some of the places where these atrocities occur. The book is filled with beautiful images of light and landscape, a dreamy and sensual revisiting of a past that remains horrific even when viewed from beautiful vistas and peaceful modern shores. A big, ambitious book that succeeds on its own terms.