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.
This searing autobiography, written with intense poetic grace, stands as a matchless memorial to a writer who was scarred deeply and whose life ended before she could produce more work. Grealy had cancer as a child, endured the treatment for it, speaks of it in terms of its heartache and catharsis. But this was only the prelude to Grealy’s true ordeal, the aftermath of surgery that disfigured her face and left her to feel ugly, freakish, and separated from any possibility of intimacy. She speaks of all this with force and with brutal honesty. I have only read a score or so of memoirs; this one stands out as the finest. Our world is so oriented toward beauty that it is easy to understand the anguish she felt as a teenage girl facing a lifetime of disfigurement. The pain did not stop at her looks; due to her surgeries she was only able to eat with difficulty. She spent much of her life in search of doctors who could help her achieve something like a normal appearance. She was, by all accounts, a vibrant, fascinating human being who had a rare gift for writing. This is not a forgettable book in its unstinting bluntness about illness and its consequences.
The strangeness of Cordwainer Smith as a writer only deepens when one reads the story of Paul Linebarger, who is the person behind the pseudonym. The stories of Smith are exotic, a glimpse into a distant future, an imagining that humans go on and on for tens of thousands of years, iterating ourselves into a civilization in which there is not quite a government but in which there is definitely a structure, an instrumentality of humans that stands behind everything else, that intervenes when necessary, with a brutal swiftness, for reasons of its own. Yet in stating this so directly I violate Smith’s own method of telling a story, which is more in tune with the fable, and in which we glimpse the instrumentality in dozens of ways throughout the short stories here. It is as if Olaf Stapledon developed an interest in narrative and wrote fiction rather than the sweeping future histories he created. All the stories here are classics of early science fiction; he was revered by his contemporaries. They are dated in their approach to women, which is their worst aspect. But character was not what Smith was about; he wrote big, strange ideas into his stories, in language that evoked a distance in time, a richness of future in which men become something else. His ideas, though, are singular. “When the People Fell” is a good example. The story is about China dropping millions of its people onto Venus in order to colonize it -literally dropping them out of the Venusian sky, knowing that most of them would die, but aware that this brutal act would create a great leap forward in which the planet would instantly become Chinese. Yet the act is simply presented, in detail but without a speck of emotion other than bemusement, as if a godlike historian were recording it all. Reading his work in a body, one sees the threads connecting them all, rich and intricate and hard to describe because they exist in themselves so fiercely, so densely. His fiction predicts the work of Philip Dick, echoes with Kafka at moments, but stands alone in terms of its elements. At its heart it is, in fact, work that is preoccupied with Christianity; Linebarger, for all his mastery of psychological warfare, knowledge of realpolitik, and vast experience among the powerful, was devout. Like all the other elements of his writing, the spiritual moments are small, vivid, and uncanny.
This is one of the essential books in the world. Four women in parallel worlds intersect and collide, their views on their own sex unfolding: Jeannine, Janet, Jael, and Joanna. Each world approaches gender in completely different ways, to the point that the conception is mind bending. One world is in the midst of a perpetual war between the sexes; another is a world where men disappeared long ago; another is like our own; another is similar to our own but the Second World War never happened. Sounds as though it might feel like allegorical writing or a polemic on feminism – it is called a feminist novel, though I think that’s confining it to box, which is something we do in order to dismiss a thing. This is simply brilliant fiction. You are dropped into the middle of this crazy situation where worlds and times and people are intersecting with each other, and somehow, through the incredible coherence of her writing, Russ unfolds the story in front of you and everything falls into place. I read it as a study of the same woman born in four different worlds. Some of the ideas in it are intensely hilarious – the world where men and women are at war with each other is particularly biting, because, of course, they still trade with one another, including a brisk business in the export of children from the women’s nation to the men’s. Jael’s lover is particularly soothing in terms of the satire and the pungency of it – an ape transformed into a man, an idea that cuts so many ways it’s dizzying, and Russ plays with it masterfully. Like all her novels, this one is brief and dense, white hot all the way through. A truly extraordinary performance.
So I am a cautious optimist at times within a framework of low expectations in general, and today I am thinking, well, white people expressing outrage about racism is not a new phenomenon. But it has never made any particular difference. My own included. So am I to believe that this time something will be different when the world moves on to another topic? As it is certain to do. I have read so many posts and essays about white reactions to the killing of black people by police. Such sensitivity. But will it make a difference? Take action, they say. I do understand the wisdom of the advice. But the first action ought to be a good long self examination. Because most of the white people I am reading are posting about other people’s racism, or about racism in general, or about all the myriad things that issues like this raise in the human mind, which jumps up at an outrage, agitates a bit, then slowly returns to its well-worn path. The racism people can do something about is their own. But people are buying books and watching movies and giving the appearance of learning. This time could be different, I hope. And I do honestly hope. But I am leery of hoping too much. The tide is always turning, that’s why it’s a tide.
Muriel Spark is a master of the compact, taut novel that bites in many directions, and this is the work of hers that I have read most often. I did not realize how much I loved it until I read it the second time, which is not to say I was indifferent to it on the first reading. I was simply inside it and absorbing it through the skin, or so it felt. The story would be simple were it not for the twist, the element of the strange caller who selects a group of people to telephone from time to time, to remind them all that they must die. Not that they will die but that they must, that death is their duty. In Spark’s vision the caller is more mischief than malice, but the malice is presents by fits and starts, as one secret after another comes to light. The cast of characters is a bit like the roster of any good British detective story, and there is a sense that a mystery is afoot, but this is sleight of hand on the part of the writer; she is more interested in the pungent comedy of these older folks who are stirred into such energy by the prank. It is tempting to say that this book is like Sparks’s other work in many ways and it is stylistically similar, mordant, and full of the needles of satire that she loves well. But I don’t find her novels to be very similar to each other, except that the cumulative effect of reading several of them is that a figure appears in the background, a quiet, sharp observer who is watching them all and smiling, just so, behind her hand. That quiet, scrupulous author is worth reading and her import exceeds the page length in every book. She is one of the masters of the short novel, which is the form of novel I love most.
This was the second Josephine Humphreys book I read and the first that she wrote; this is sparely beautiful in tone and the prose flows so simply and cleanly. The novel has a deeply meditative quality and also has the freshness of a first book, tooled and polished and refined. Even when I have read all of a writer’s work, as I have with Humphreys, I usually have a special fondness for the first book, and that remains true in this case. The plot is among the simplest to describe, the travails of a marriage that has lost its glow, the fear of infidelity, the fear of loss; a book you’ve read a thousand times, and yet in Humphreys’ hands it becomes effortlessly fresh and new. We remember that each marriage succeeds or fails in the specific terms of the people who are in it, and further, that the magic of a normal life, the struggles of the kind of people we see everyday, are anything but ordinary. This book will always have a special place on my shelf.
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.