We suffer nowadays from a surfeit of literary anniversaries. One blurs into the next until we begin to long for a moratorium. And yet even so, a few such occasions are welcome. The 150th anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland yielded a splendid array of exhibitions, lectures, and books, including Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland.
Do not be misled by the subtitle. No dark secrets are revealed here, but Douglas-Fairhurst’s account of Charles Dodgson/Lewis Carroll, the genesis of his masterwork, and its extraordinary afterlife is the best I have seen: lucid and refreshingly sane. Douglas-Fairhurst doesn’t try to “explain” Carroll according to some fashionable theory; rather, he illuminates his subject, leaving us with a sense of the man’s essential strangeness (which is, after all, the strangeness of any human life closely observed).
If you are drawn to Carroll and to Wonderland, keep an eye out for Elizabeth Sewell’s The Field of Nonsense, on Carroll and Edward Lear, first published in 1952, unaccountably out of print for a long time but just reissued by the Dalkey Archive Press. And follow that up with Sewell’s Lewis Carroll: Voices from France (a book that she’d almost completed at the time of her death in 2001, published by the Lewis Carroll Society of North America in 2008). It’s worth tracking down.
If Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass ever reach the planet Jakku, it will be in part thanks to the efforts of men and women like the Americans and Russians (none of them household names) profiled in Jay Gallentine’s Infinity Beckoned: Adventuring Through the Inner Solar System, 1969–1989. This is the twelfth volume in a series from the University of Nebraska Press, Outward Odyssey: A People’s History of Spaceflight (Colin Burgess is the series editor), and Gallentine’s second contribution to the series.
Sending robotic explorers to our sister planets leaves us well short of a galaxy far, far away, but it’s a step in the right direction. The title gives you a hint of what lies ahead. Infinity Beckoned: It reminds me of middling sci-fi novels I read between the ages of ten and fourteen. Sure enough, Gallentine’s style fits the mold. “‘Look,’ spat Hess. ‘We’re gonna cut mustard here. Either you’re gonna fund this thing or we’re pulling out.’” But Gallentine has a good story, loaded with colorful characters, and he relishes the opportunity to tell it. More than any book I’ve read in a good while, it conveys without false sentiment the satisfactions of camaraderie. And if Gallentine’s unrepentant celebration of “mankind’s insatiable curiosity” and intrepid resourcefulness lacks nuance, it is nevertheless a useful corrective to doctrinaire pessimism.
Talk about “the books of 2015” must include at least a mention of the cultural climate in which they appeared, dominated above all by a mood of ressentiment. In November, a flurry in my Twitter feed directed me to an essay online, “On Pandering: How to Write Like a Man,” due to be published in the winter issue of the literary magazine Tin House. On Twitter, many people were receiving it rapturously: Here was the true voice of the zeitgeist. The name of the author, Claire Vaye Watkins, rang a bell. Recently I had checked out an issue of Harper’s from our public library. A review of new fiction had included Watkins’s novel Gold Fame Citrus, which sounded interesting; I’d made a mental note to look it up.
In her essay, Watkins says this:
It was Toni Morrison who pointed out that Tolstoy was not writing for her, who said she was writing toward black women. It makes you wonder, Who am I writing for? Who am I writing toward?
Myself, I have been writing to impress old white men. Countless decisions I’ve made about what to write and how to write it have been in acquiescence to the opinions of the white male literati. Not only acquiescence but a beseeching, approval seeking, people pleasing.
This is not an idiosyncratic condition, Watkins wants us to know, invoking (via James Baldwin) the malign, uncanny power of “the little white man deep inside of all of us.”
I looked up the Toni Morrison quote, which seemed to be taken from a profile in The Guardian: “‘I’m writing for black people,’ she says, ‘in the same way that Tolstoy was not writing for me, a 14-year-old coloured girl from Lorain, Ohio.’” (Note that Morrison here says “black people,” not “black women,” but perhaps she said that on another occasion.)
Hmm. In one sense, of course, it’s true that Tolstoy wasn’t writing for Toni Morrison. In that same sense, he wasn’t writing for me, either, when I was a teenager in California and read him for the first time. Sappho wasn’t writing for Toni Morrison or for me. Neither was Lewis Carroll or Charles Chesnutt. But in another sense—a more important sense, it seems—they all were writing for Toni Morrison and for me and for anyone else who, in the unfathomable vicissitudes of time, picked up their books.
Marly Youmans’s new novel, Maze of Blood, has an epigraph from Jorge Luis Borges (who wasn’t writing for Marly or for me, but whose books I have read and reread over the years). It’s taken from Borges’s story “The Garden of Forking Paths”: “I thought of a maze of mazes, of a sinuous, ever growing maze which would take in both past and future and would somehow involve the stars.”
I hate to give away too much and spoil someone’s first reading, but here I will be violating that rule a bit. Maze of Blood is (among other things) a novel about the imagination—“about it” by enacting it. (Coleridge is a tutelary presence throughout.) The protagonist, Conall Weaver, is based on Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan the Barbarian. Youmans tells us that before the book begins. But it is not a novel “about” Howard. Rather, it takes his experience as a kind of template.
Howard committed suicide at the age of thirty—stunning, if you consider what he’d already achieved. (Lots of writers today have published very little by the time they are thirty!) Conall Weaver also kills himself—very early in the book. This is a novel told in reverse chronology: In the last section, Conall is a young boy.
By now, you may be shaking your head—what sort of book is this? “Experimental fiction”? Ugh. Actually, no—though it may not be your cup of tea in any case. If you are willing to trust the writer, you’ll soon get the hang of it. Conall Weaver, like Robert E. Howard, grows up in hardscrabble Texas, a setting in which his writing seems out of place. But he’s not just alienated from his setting (which he also loves); he feels at odds with his “time.” As does Marly Youmans in her “time,” which is ours as well. His stories are an act of rebellion and an act of celebration.
But this isn’t simply a Portrait of the Artist—for Artists (or would-be Artists) only. We are all characters in search of an Author, so the Spirit of Story tells Conall:
For everything inside a story—and know most of all, that the world is a story and began with a word—is made up. And so the tale of a Green Knight with his chopped-off head still holding a knight of the Round Table to promises made is no less true than the tale of a man crammed with secrets who spontaneously combusts and leaves behind only a black, tallowy mark on the floorboards, and his story in turn is no less true than the tale of a Texas sharecropper’s wife who has had a miscarriage only ten days before but just this morning was walking behind the mule and guiding the jerking plow.
Andrew Klavan has a memoir coming out this year, tentatively scheduled for publication in September, The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ. I’m looking forward to it. His most recent novel, Werewolf Cop—one of my favorites in 2015—is his best book to date.
You may be put off by the werewolf (though maybe that’s catnip for you). You may not like crime fiction. That’s OK; there are plenty of other good books to read. But if you are inclined to try this one, you’ll quickly find yourself oriented. Recent events in Paris will come to mind. How easy it is to acquiesce to evil—but how easy, too, for those who fight against it to lose their moral compass, to give vent to evil themselves.
Many passages from this book have stuck in my head. For instance, this comment by an odd professor whom the protagonist—a New York detective in a shadowy unit called Extraordinary Crimes—interviews in Germany: “If you believe in God, the evidence of Him is all around you. But if you do not believe, no evidence can ever be enough. Here, we do not believe.” Even if you’re not a secular Jew who wrote some books that were made into movies, a convert to Christianity, a political conservative to boot—even so, maybe Andrew Klavan is writing for you.
When Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2014, I had read very little of his work. One of the pleasures of this past year has been to enter his world via reissues and a steady flow of new translations. I’ve been struck by his affinity to Georges Simenon. Among the novels published this past year in English translation that I particularly enjoyed are So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood, After the Circus, and Paris Nocturne. And more are coming in 2016; I have some galleys already in hand. If you read French—I don’t, alas—several friends have said that Modiano’s language is quite accessible (again resembling Simenon).
Some very good novelists are explainers. They seem to command an exceptional clarity of mind and a preternatural self-assurance. I would put Muriel Spark and Philip Roth in this category. Others—Eudora Welty, for instance—work more by suggestion, by indirection. Neither way is inherently superior to the other.
Modiano is in the second category. Paris Nocturne begins thus: “Late at night, a long time ago, when I was about to turn twenty-one, I was crossing Place de Pyramides on my way to Place de la Concorde when a car appeared suddenly out of the darkness.” The car, out of control, strikes him. He’s not injured seriously, but he needs medical care. He and the driver, a young woman, are taken to a nearby hospital; also, a man who seems connected to the woman in some way, a “huge man,” is with them. The next morning, the young man wakes up in a different place, a clinic he’s not familiar with. How did he get there? What happened to the woman who had been driving the car? And so on.
This is a characteristic Modiano scenario. Nothing is entirely clear. The events being recalled took place long ago, when the narrator was a young man. There are abrupt shifts of time in the narrative, then a return to the remembered setting. By the time the book is done—most of his novels are quite short—you may be feeling almost as if the memories are your own.
Speaking of translations from French, there is Simone Weil: Late Philosophical Writings, edited by Eric O. Springsted and translated by Springsted and Lawrence E. Schmidt. Like many readers of my generation, I have been under Weil’s spell (even, in an intellectual way, “in love” with her) since I first encountered her, while also often feeling immensely exasperated.
Exasperated? Yes. Consider these sentences, opening a paragraph in an essay titled “Literature and Morals”:
All writers who are not geniuses of the first order in their full maturity have as their unique reason for being the creation of a space where such genius might appear someday. This function alone justifies their existence, which otherwise ought to be outlawed because of the immorality to which they are condemned by the order of things.
I want to throw the book across the room. The arrogance! But I won’t. (Truth be told, I’m in love with her still.) What an odd and wonderful mind she had. Is she being read much today by younger people? Not so much, perhaps? I should ask some of my friends who are teaching college students.
Diane Glancy also has an odd and wonderful mind, without the arrogance. I have said (not jokingly) that if she wrote in French, she would have won the Nobel Prize by now—and maybe, in any case, the French will discover her in translation and give her a European reputation.
In Report to the Department of the Interior, her new book of poems, she has the effrontery to present us yet again with an indictment. Many of the poems are glimpses of Indians in schools not of their own volition. The poems are relentless in documenting the outcome: Native children forcibly removed from their families to boarding schools, forbidden to speak their own language, subjected to a bureaucratic regime with a toxic mix of condescension and missionary zeal. But why keep returning to this misery? Because it happened. Because its effects are still playing out today. One poem is called “The Book”: “It sat on the table/silent as a rabbit./We could not leave the room/We had to stay there with it./We were inhabitants of their promised land.”
And yet, in book after book, Glancy also offends many of her fellow Native writers—whose books she reads, as they read hers—by insisting that this absurdity, this intrusion of the Gospel, writ large in the history of Native Americans, is the experience of every tribe and every nation, everything and everyone human. Because the Gospel will always disrupt. She maintains this without in any way watering down the indictment. And there is hope, as in the poem titled “Each Day Pulls like a Hill to Climb”: “Sometimes I wake with something in my throat./What can I say now—washed of all that was?—/It is here I stand beside my washing machine/with this Maker and his redeemer man.”
One of my favorite books of poetry from 2015 was not a new one but rather a gorgeous reissue: Ronald Johnson’s The Book of the Green Man, first published by Norton in 1967 (my prized copy of that edition is upstairs) and reissued this past year by Uniformbooks with an afterword by Ross Hair. Johnson (1935–1998) has by no means been forgotten—the poet Peter O’Leary, for starters, has been a tireless and peerless custodian of Johnson’s work—but neither is he known as widely as he should be.
The Book of the Green Man grew out of a couple of walking tours in the United Kingdom in the early 1960s with the poet and publisher Jonathan Williams. The poems proceed in four sections according to the seasons, beginning with winter and ending with autumn. (In the first edition, Johnson says the book “encompasses a year, October to October.”) At the end, there’s a section of unpedantic and very useful notes (Johnson, in the Poundian manner, has a sharp eye and ear for apt quotations to weave into his lines) and a bit of background on the figure of the Green Man.
Here is the beginning of the first poem in the winter section (untitled, simply headed with the numeral 1):
Tchink, Tchink, Tsee!
pure as a Thrush.
The Rothay, deliquescent
in these airs
& the sinuous yews,
There is a blinding
in Grasmere Churchyard
with the movement
of yews, blackbirds & River Rothay
as it has
a hundred years
past Wordsworth’s grave-side
who could not see
‘huge forms’, Presences & earth ‘working
like a sea’.
If, as I hope, some of you read The Book of the Green Man and find yourselves absorbed by this reckoning with all things “most rich, most glittering, most strange,” consider searching out Johnson’s Valley of the Many-Colored Grasses, which Norton published in 1969, and go on from there.
Was it ordained before the foundation of the world that the year 2015, which saw the rise of Donald Trump’s candidacy and his clumsy attempts to establish Evangelical bona fides, should also see the publication of the long-awaited first volume of In the Beginning Was the Word, Mark Noll’s history of the Bible in American public life? In any case, the conjunction is a happy one. Reading this account, which covers the period from 1492 to 1783, while following reports on the 2016 presidential campaign, will enable us to maintain a degree of philosophical detachment rather than falling into fits of apoplexy or despair.
A recurring theme in Noll’s chronicle is the “capacity for self-criticism that Scripture everywhere demands of God’s elect people” and the predictably dire consequences when that faculty is not exercised. “From this history of the Bible in early American history,” Noll writes in his concluding chapter, “the moral judgment that makes the most sense to me rests on a difference between Scripture for oneself and Scripture for others.” That is wisdom which all of us who take the Bible seriously should heed.
Among many striking sections in this book is Noll’s discussion of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, first published in 1789, the story of a former slave who was able to purchase his freedom and later became a prominent opponent of the slave trade. When Noll speaks of Equiano’s “immersion” in Scripture, he is not using that metaphor casually, as an extract from the Narrative makes clear with its “fusillade of scriptural quotations and allusions.” In the next-to-last sentence of the Narrative, Equiano asks, “After all, what makes any event important, unless by its observation we become better and wiser, and learn ‘to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before God!’” (Mic. 6:8)
If you have spent any time with young Evangelical Christians in these first decades of the twenty-first century, you will know that this verse from Micah is the one they are most likely to quote from the whole of Scripture. But the meaning it had for Equiano was a bit different from that assigned to it by our young contemporaries, responsive to calls for “social justice,” and from long-established commitments in the black church. Certainly Equiano became an eloquent critic of slavery; nevertheless, for him, Noll writes, biblical religion meant “the nearly total application of Scripture to the liberating effect of the Christian gospel for the individual person.” His faith was so markedly individualistic that, as he recorded, he found “more heart-felt relief in reading my bible at home than in attending church.” Noll comments: “The institutions of Christendom did little or nothing for him.” Many strands of the subsequent history of the Bible in American public life can be connected with this pithy summary.
Cheek by jowl with Mark Noll and Ronald Johnson, Diane Glancy and Simone Weil and Patrick Modiano, Andrew Klavan and Marly Youmans, Jay Gallentine and Lewis Carroll, Elizabeth Sewell and Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, there are many other books of 2015 in the stacks close to my side of the bed and hence within easy reach, not to mention those in stacks slightly more distant, or in the next room, or downstairs.
I don’t want to dwell on those, since I’m already all too aware of what I’ve left out. I haven’t mentioned Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald, edited by Welty biographer Suzanne Marrs and Macdonald biographer Tom Nolan (the most touching collection of letters I’ve read in years), or the latest volume in The Complete Letters of Henry James, or Catherine Lampert’s superb Frank Auerbach: Speaking and Painting (which the painter Bruce Herman will be writing about for Books & Culture), or James Curtis’s fascinating and beautifully produced William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come.
What about the noble enterprise of Ankerwycke, the publishing arm of the American Bar Association, which in 2015 began reissuing Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason novels in order? It has been enjoyable—though also disorienting at times—to read the volumes that have appeared so far. I do wish the publisher would invest in a round of proofing to catch errors made in scanning earlier editions; the typos are sometimes quite intrusive. But I am immensely grateful for the project, as many other readers will be.
And in 2015 Penguin continued the even more ambitious project to publish (again, in order) mostly new translations of the entire run of Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels, seventy-five in all. The one that appeared in December, Cécile Is Dead, translated by Anthea Bell, the twentieth volume, was first published in France in 1942, after an eight-year hiatus in which there were no new Maigret books. In 1934, wearying of the series—he was already writing many non-Maigret novels, on which he intended to stake his literary reputation—Simenon had written a novel called simply Maigret that had the Chief Inspector living in retirement with Madame Maigret and only reluctantly (and unofficially) taking up a case for the sake of a relative. Simenon intended that book to end the series. But in the early 1940s, fortunately, he changed his mind, resuming it with no explanation and with Maigret back on the job as usual.
Even as I note these omissions, I see how books from 2016 are beginning to accumulate, many in the form of galleys but some already in finished books in the first days of the new year—for instance, a new edition of War Music, Christopher Logue’s “Account” of Homer’s Iliad, which incorporates (with the help of the poet Christopher Reid) a section that Logue left unfinished at his death. Time to stop.
John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.