I have been reading George Sand’s novels in and among other books, including Indiana, Mauprat, Consuelo, The Countess of Rudolstadt, and this book. The story of Sand’s life, including her cigar-smoking, pants-wearing, and Chopin-loving, are better known in English than her fiction, which until recently was not easy to find. I’m not sure what I expected. Her writing is lush, overripe, passionate, unevenly plotted, desperately dramatic; sometimes the books are so wretched (Rudolstadt, for instance) that it’s a chore to finish them. Her characters throb, tremble, weep, moan, pace the floor, take walks at midnight in dangerous castles and forests, endure abductions, betrayal, visitations; it is safe to say that there is nothing like her writing anywhere else. It is tempting to sound wiser than I am and declare that she is French through and through, but I’ve only ever been to France for three days and only know about France what I hear people say. But she is much more emotional, romantic, and florid than any other French writer I have read (in translation, of course) other than, perhaps, Genet. Valentine is of a pattern with the other books, full of descriptions of love so intense that it bursts liquid up from the page. I am in awe of her not because she is transcendent or elegant or fine but because she stuffs her pages so full of emotion that it’s at times absurdly funny. Yet still I read her and like her. This is not so much a review of Valentine as it is a chance to talk about Sand in general. Every time I finish a book of hers I swear it will be the last one. This one may in fact be it. Though there are so many more left to sample.
Blindness by José Saramago
I started hearing about this book during the pandemic, from readers who found some parallels between the Covid crisis and this novel’s narrative of an epidemic of blindness that strikes an unnamed city. I’m not sure I would have made that comparison if I had come to this story on my own. The book is a literary fantasy, set in a nameless city, inhabited by nameless people, and under the thumb of an unforgiving writer who means to shy away from nothing. In this case, thinking of the book as a fantasy helped me understand why it made me uncomfortable – apart from its gritty view of human nature. An author can take a fantasy anywhere. People begin to go blind for no discernible reason, are sequestered from one another at first, and the people in which the book is most interested are interned together in an old mental hospital. The city tries to cope but quickly becomes overwhelmed. Saramago writes about an apocalypse that is total and almost hopeless, were it not for a miraculous turn of events at the end. He is interested in the breakdown of civilized ideas and habits. Hardly any kind of order could survive the sudden blindness of nearly everyone, or at least this is Saramago’s formulation. (I wonder what people who are actually blind might make of this idea.) The book examines the collapse of civilization through the collective inability of people to deal with their feces in appropriate ways. There is a harrowing passage when thieves take over the food supply for the mental hospital and use this power to coerce women into orgies of sadism; this leads to a brutal and welcome act of revenge, which was one of the high points of the reading for me. But I did wonder how these men who had recently lost their eyesight could manage to stage orgies of this kind of violence. By the end of the novel, after the group of central characters has left the mental hospital, with almost everyone in the city blind and the city’s collapse in evidence, the conceit of the blindness epidemic has proven to be so total and hopeless that Saramago can only reach for a miracle, another act of fantasy, to resolve the book. The people who have gone blind for no discernible reason suddenly regain their sight for no reason. And the book is over. The experience of reading it was a bit too aimless for me, and I persevered mainly because of the Nobel label.
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
This is a smart book written by a smart person and you will feel smart if you read it and like it. If, like me, you don’t enjoy the reading, you will get the feeling you have failed literature in some way, that you have fallen short. I did in fact enjoy a few of the chapters very much, including the Bobby chapter about Sasha’s pretend boyfriend, and the Kitty Jackson section about the genocidal general. I spent most of my time trying to keep track of who was who and how the current chapter was going to tie itself to the sort-of-narrative about Bennie and Sasha that provides the book’s structure. The writing was at times so concise and exact it exceeded what most poets do, especially the section about Uncle Teddy folding his love in half because it was too overwhelming. There are dozens of such startling moments. There is no story as such, but there is a lot of reading to do, and I did all of it, including the powerpoint poem, which meant almost nothing to me, though I have heard about it as a dazzling this-or-that. A book can be great without my liking it, and I’m used to that, and don’t doubt that there is a lot here that I missed. But I’m going to read another book now and let this one go.
White Teeth by Zadie Smith
The sense of character is remarkable and drives the writing in fantastic ways in this novel about culture and migration and peoples butting up against each other, England and Bangladesh and Jamaica colliding. It is a dizzying book, full of voices, precisely drawn and vivid. Inhabited by people who are like raw chunks of earth, real and tangible, inserted into a comedy they never asked for. I loved reading ninety percent of it, and forced my way through the remainder. What I will remember about the book is the encounter with all these intensely separate people, who hold themselves in themselves as if they were monuments, as if their personal history is the most precious possession, as if their selves are vital to the operation of the universe. This feels like the way people see themselves. It’s an approach to character not quite like anything else I’ve read. On one plinth stands Samad with his moons of contradiction, his passionate love for his religion but his inability to keep faith with all of it, his love of Mickey’s, his loyalty to Archie; on another is Alsana, who married him in the long ago and quickly learned to keep her mental distance from him, who matches him blow for blow, and whose voice is always recognizable the moment it returns. Only two examples out of dozens. The book is overblown, too long, repetitious, ponderous at a few moments, and in its last third creeps slowly toward an ending that, when it arrives, after foreplay that just lasts too long and tries too hard, doesn’t really come off, for me. But that doesn’t really matter. The novel makes me think this kind of storytelling could endure for a while longer, and that fiction has indeed entered a new millennium. Nice.
Red Moon by Kim Stanley Robinson
I’ve read a good bit of work now by this writer and have been at times awestruck and at other times found myself with a desire to flip pages and be done with whatever it was of his I was reading. This book was somewhere between the two extremes. Like most Robinson novels, these pages demonstrate his deep learning about his subject, in this case a sweeping grasp of China. While a Chinese reader might see it differently, the Chinese protagonist of this book is very convincing, Chan Qi, a woman with the highest government connections but also with deep roots in a revolutionary movement, neither anarchistic or democratic but rather intended to bring the rule of law to future China. The book sweeps back and forth between Chinese settlements on the moon to travels over the face of the moon and long passages that take place on Earth, in Beijing and other locales. The ideas are fast and furious, the shape of the world comprises a struggle to end capitalism in the West at the same moment as the crisis in China. This is a variation of the near future world that Robinson describes in the Mars trilogy and in The Ministry for the Future, which are the books of his that I know. We have once again lava tunnel settlements, self-driving vehicles driving across an alien world, magnificent descriptions of craters, a struggle between new-world identity and Earth interference, carbon-capture-coins, blocks-chained money, deeply described environments that become possible on the colonized world, and more, if I were to bear down. The oddest part of the book for me, though, was that I struggled to keep reading it at times and then, looking backwards at what I had read and learned, felt quite satisfied. This is a book that is better in retrospect than during the experience. What’s new for me in terms of reading Robinson is the depth of the character work that he does on Chan Qi and Fred Fredericks, as two examples. This book does not have a cast of hundreds though its sweeping use of location prevents it having a sense of intimacy. I did find myself scanning pages in a few places; the birth scene, I thought, when on and on, though perhaps that’s simply my squeamishness. The complicated plot was satisfying and the breakthrough of this world into Robinsonian sunrise, when the world appears better at least in terms of its possible heading, served well as an ending. He’s too wise a writer to resolve the future. Despite my average response to the book I’ll keep reading him, because I’m sure there’s more to admire.
Rereading The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
My rereading of this book, which I first encountered in college, was less positive than I expected. I’d had it in mind to read the novel again for a long time but never had done so, unlike other of James’s novels, like The Wings of the Dove, which I’ve read a couple of times. There are a few books from my past that I have wanted to re-encounter, and this was one, and I looked forward to it. I have been slowly going through all of James, and the experience has been rewarding, especially in the case of Washington Square, which I liked at least as much on the second reading; I mention this to point out it’s not the case that I’ve suddenly lost my taste for Henry James. It’s this novel in particular. What he writes here hinges on the character of Isabel Archer, and what has happened for me is that she has faded, and was better in memory. This was not helped by seeing the movie version of the story with the very pale performance by that certain actress. There is something hopelessly strained, for me, in the portrait of her. We are told throughout the book that Isabel is singular, fascinating, lively, unpredictable, and when I first read the book I must have agreed with this assessment. But why exactly is she those things? Where is the liveliness, the fascination? She sits so elegantly in chairs or window seats or walks in gardens or puts on clothes or takes them off and all of it feels mundane and lifeless, except for James’s assertions. Every man proposes to her within a few days of meeting her and I can’t for the life of me think why. She does almost nothing except anticipate a grand future. Most of the men she meets retain a long-lasting obsession with her. I understand that she’s wealthy and that Osmond likes that, and his attraction to her is more or less easy to follow, and has its limits. But she had this attractive quality even before the legacy that her uncle leaves her, or so we’re told. The fact that I can’t see the truth of her fascination leaves the rest of the novel without a center. It contrasts poorly with a similar novel like Middlemarch, where Dorothea’s character and interest are well established before she makes her mistaken marriage to Casaubon, for similar reasons to Isabel’s alliance, to serve a man who appears greater than she. Maybe it’s the style of the book that holds such sway, including the famous scene where she sits in a chair and thinks about the choices she’s made. Though it’s not as if the book isn’t littered with long paragraphs of her thought before that. At any rate, I’d think it not a good idea to revisit books like this one, that I remember fondly, except that it has worked often enough in the past. My opinion of Isabel has changed maybe because I’ve read much more writing by women about women in the meantime, and this doll-like heroine feels a bit tepid.
Romola by George Eliot
There are only a couple of George Eliot books that I had not read by the age of thirty and this is one. It was a revelation in that it was a book of hers that I could dislike, and the novelty of that is what kept me reading. I have seen it called her best novel, admittedly by only one of her contemporaries, and kept thinking about that while I endured the reading. She herself is said to have claimed that each sentence in the novel is as good as all her skill could make it, though I am paraphrasing and maybe overstating. The sentences are certainly fine enough, and Eliot is a good writer even she is not at her best. What was most interesting here was to see her undertake an historical novel, and the idea of that was also a bit revelatory, since all her novels read like history from this distance. For the first time I understood her to be a modern novelist in the context of her time and place. Though she often writes about an era thirty or forty years in the past, as her introductions to her books often reveal. What I mean is that as a writer she was dealing with contemporary people and issues, not about the remote past, which is what I as a reader had always felt from her. This explained some of what was missing from Romola. It is certainly a good story and should be compelling except that one feels Eliot straining at the creation of the world, constantly convincing herself of the reality of historical Florence, and at pains to record all the details of her research. What is missing from the book is her sense of humor. In every other novel there are comic passages, careful touches of dialog that reveal the person speaking, like the aunts in The Mill on the Floss, or Adam’s mother in Adam Bede. She is a masterful creator of background characters and low-minded people, and these touches are vital to the representation of the foreground, the heroes and heroines, the virtuous, the sublime. This background is mostly missing from Romola. The characters have little voice. They speak in translation, as it were, and not in themselves. Which leaves virtue (Romola) and vice (Tito) to carry the book on their own, and they make a poor job of it. The end of the book, with angelic Romola among the plague victims, adored and all that, feels a bit laughable, at least to me. I am certainly not accustomed to thinking of George Eliot in these terms, as having written a not-good book. Reading the book humanized her for me. Even great writers have their failures. There’s no reason to gloat over this, though I suppose that’s what I’m doing. But there is a certain humanizing quality in the knowledge.
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez
My first encounter with Sigrid Nunez was through her novel What Are You Going Through, and I was taken by her digressive form, her prose, the accuracy of her paragraphs and insights, and the general shape of the drama. I felt at times enthralled by it and liked the poetic quality of the whole. Lately I read her earlier novel The Friend, the one that won her the great prize. My response here is much less positive, though the parts of the later book that I admired are carried over here. Again one encounters the stream-of-intellect approach, the lovely and even gorgeous paragraphs, the sense that the parts are building to a whole. But it felt so much like the other book of hers – another wrestling with suicide, another series of images of the harshness of the world, another blend of literary criticism into the narrative, only moreso. I put the book down every few pages to breathe, having begun to feel claustrophobic. I have a prejudice against books about writers; there is a sense I get that such a book is really a room full of crazy mirrors. This book is also about creative writing teachers and academia to a certain degree and these are also territories that leave me cold. So I was not disposed to enjoy the book no matter how well it was done. If it were not for the passages about Apollo, the dog, I would have been many days reading what is actually a brief book that one ought to finish in an afternoon. It was not that I was not engaged by it; it was more a fact of repulsion. Having lived a writing life, I want to escape from it when I read. That’s hard enough at my age, and impossible when the book is a depressed account about a writer’s suicide and another writer’s grieving struggle with the idea of it. In reading the passages about the lessening importance of literature it occurred to me once again that literature is dying of its own dead weight, and if one writes fiction it behoves one to remember that while novels might be less important stories certainly are not. Stories are everywhere. Even in The Friend, it is the story of the dog – the poor mundane narrative that is one of those conventions of fiction that important writers so often despise – that saves the book from its exploration of rot. I am being unfair and I am aware of it but in this case I’ll risk it. There are extraordinary passages of writing, like the chapter about the women who are exploited and trafficked, whose suffering feels so real; but to set these lives against the sad end of man who killed himself because he couldn’t lay his students any more (an unfair generalization but I am indulging myself) appeared such a strange choice. Almost manipulative. I still care very much for the other Nunez novel that I read and will be grateful for that. And also leave it at that.
Like many people I loved the books from long ago. When I began to watch the series I read some positive reviews that mentioned the negative reactions of purists who disdained the changes to the television version of the classic story. Oh well, I thought, one has to expect changes from the original, it’s just the way television works. I even reread the books, which hold up well enough but have a tattered aspect after all these decades. Very clever writing, sayings like “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent,” which became part of the landscape of science fiction in the 60s, because of Isaac Asimov’s enormous impact. The stories of Foundation, like the robot stories he wrote, are all aimed at proving the truth of his truisms in clever ways. But nevertheless it was entertaining fiction and when I was young it felt very profound and satisfying. Now, many millions of dollars later, here is this television series that gives us a glimpse of the Galactic Empire that we knew and loved. At first it was a bit enthralling. There was Hari Seldon talking about psychohistory. Right away the embellishments that were necessary to fill out the bare bones of Asimov’s books began to appear worrisome. Worst of these is the genetic dynasty and the silliness about clones being identical. Even identical twins don’t remain identical forever, and they certainly don’t see themselves as such. The idea that a clone can’t have a soul or change becomes important about midway through the first season. More silliness. From the first we hear that psychohistory can’t predict for individuals (Asimov’s doctrine, to which he remains faithful) but this becomes all muddled because it turns out Hari Seldon could foresee Gaal’s destiny and she has special powers and is a golden child (she was just Seldon’s biographer in the novels) and she has a daughter who is also a golden child and prescient and on like that. The child being Salvor Hardin, the origin of the “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent” saying (in the books), who in the television version stomps about carrying a big rifle and protecting everybody by pointing the rifle at things. Speaking of the saying, the “incompetent” appear to be television producers who cannot make television without constant resort to violence, guns, explosions, and the like. The first season is about the first crisis faced by the Foundation, which in the book is resolved by clever diplomacy but in the television series by many gunfights and killings and snarling villain(esse)s and hero(in)es. At the end of the season come emotional parting scenes as Salvor goes off to find her true mother Gaal, and after the actors have chewed each other’s shoulders for a while, Salvor sails off into the hugeness of the galaxy to the exact location were, a century later, her mother will also land in her little life pod, after chewing her own ration of scenery, and they Find Each Other At Last. In other words this is just Hollywood doing what Hollywood does, spending millions upon millions to rehash the same tripe from the last epic science fiction morass and all the previous ones. With cool space rifles. So I console myself that at least it was pretty and had some good special effects. Special effects being the true last refuge of the incompetent.
The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson
When I read this book about a week ago at first I had no idea that it would be a balm for the fear of the future that I feel all the time. The title is prosaic and uninviting on the surface but the idea of an agency that has as its responsibility the protection of future people and future living beings became larger as I read deeper into the book. I’ve read and admired Kim Stanley Robinson before but never understood that the sanity of his writing could give me such a journey as this. It is clever and learned to say that there is no one like so-and-so as a writer, but in this case there is a completeness to the fact. Robinson writes about whole planets and their evolution but not in the sense of a Stapledon, from an impossible height. His scope is simply planetary. He immerses himself in people, accepts the horrors of their situation, and methodically, painstakingly, sometimes ploddingly, explores the ways that they – we – cope with what happens to us. In this case he is writing about the subject that is central to all of us, the fact that climate change will drastically alter our near future. He begins with a heatwave that kills twenty million people and moves forward into a complex, world-spanning reaction that is detailed over years and decades. He narrates a way forward into what seems impossible. His vision is neither rosy nor bleak. Step by step the novel shows what might be possible if we take difficult, necessary, and sometimes odious action. Such is the sanity of his writing that when he touches on acts of violence and retribution there is a feeling of inevitability to it all. Because he is the author of his world he can manipulate it toward the end that he chooses, but even when he shows his hand I am still soothed and carried forward with him through the most difficult near future I can imagine. Whether it is a great book or not – and I do think it is – it was absolutely a book I needed to read.