R. R. Reno
A few years ago, I was swept away by Laurus, the remarkable novel by Eugene Vodolazkin that appeared in translation in 2015. I've kept my eye out for further novels, and of course Vodolazkin has written for First Things. So I was delighted to get an advance copy of Brisbane (to be published in April). The story revolves around Gleb Yanovsky, a famous guitarist, and does so by moving down two temporal tracks. The first, presented in the past tense, has the tone of reportage, taking Glev from his youth through the birth of many loves (music, language, wife) to the brink of stardom. The second track, using the present tense and often the first person, narrates Gleb's decline from the summit of achievement into the musical silence of Parkinson’s. It is a journey into the shadows that is accompanied by the death of loved ones.
Vodolazkin can be very funny in the mordant Russian way. His depictions of Soviet-era academia are wry. (One of Vodolazkin's earlier novels, Solovyov and Larinov, has a marvelous set piece depicting the absurd mores of professors at an academic conference in the Crimea.) When a character asks the postman why it takes two months to get a letter from Berlin when Dostoevsky got his in two days, the letter carrier replied, “Ah, but he was a genius.”
Although funny in places, the overarching mood of Brisbane is one of nostalgia, the emotion that pines for what is lost. Vodolazkin creates an atmosphere of suspicion that one is missing the most important moments, seeing the most important truths only in passing glances. The novel’s title comes from Gleb's mother’s ambition to leave Kiev and move to Brisbane, Australia. It is for her a promised land of release and rest. After decades of yearning, she is murdered on her way to the airport. But perhaps she succeeds in getting to her destination. For what we miss, or at best glimpse in passing, is our final rest in our Father’s house, the shore of repose to which, in a dreamlike state, Gleb and his mother descend in the novel’s final paragraph, the place where our worldly successes and failures no longer disturb our souls.
Fifteen years ago, I discovered the Maigret novels of Georges Simenon (1903–89), 75 books of cases solved by the chief inspector of Paris. They were a pleasing nighttime break from work, politics, and errands. No daredevil feats by Maigret, who is middle-aged, big, and a bit slow, with pipe in hand, not a gun. He doesn't read enigmatic clues like Holmes or take a punch like Marlowe. His talent is in the reading of people, of character and personality and motive. The investigations move without stunning climaxes, more through steady progress from small discovery to discovery, all of it supervised by the steady and firm will of Maigret. Here's a description of him from A Man’s Head as he follows a curious man who certainly has something to do with a murder, though we don't yet know what: “You would have looked in vain for any trace of emotion on the detective’s broad face. Nor would you have seen either impatience or fatigue. Yet he hadn’t been to bed for days. The only thing you might have noticed was that the eyes had a slightly fixed stare.”
I’m going through some of them again, and my memory of them is weak enough to be surprised at the events as they unfold. There are some advantages to growing old. I recommend the novels to those of you who look forward to a half-hour in bed at night with no screen and no noise, only a book, these ones taking you back to midcentury Paris—lots of smoking, barges still on the Seine, and not a cell phone in sight.
Director of Development
From his feud with Oprah Winfrey to his notorious aversion to public appearances and social media, Jonathan Franzen cuts a unique figure. Of course, this prickliness is part of what makes him readable, avoiding as he does—for the most part—the identitarian Mad Libs quality of much contemporary fiction. Crossroads is both identifiably a Franzen novel and a step forward for Franzen as a novelist. To the former: It centers on the drama of a Midwestern family. To the latter: It eschews the trappings of a systems novel and, save for one small section, spares the reader a polemic about this or that policy issue. (Unfortunately, Franzen does relapse into his habit of sending a character to a far-flung country toward the end for no particular reason.) There is much to appreciate in his insights into the human experience and the messiness of morality. For example, he vividly describes how dreams or fantasies, particularly illicit ones, become unsatisfying when they are actually fulfilled and reality intervenes. The characters in this novel are thoroughly embodied.
Perhaps most pertinent to First Things readers, though, is Franzen’s treatment of Christian faith. Family patriarch Russ Hildebrandt is associate pastor of First Reformed, a liberal Protestant church of the 1970s, and each family member's story intersects with the church and its popular youth group Crossroads. Christian readers will find much to laugh at (or cringe at, or find cathartic) in Franzen’s descriptions of a quintessential “hip” church, including a memorable sequence when another First Reformed pastor suggests “toning it down a bit” with the scriptural language to make the youth group more seeker-friendly. Readers will also appreciate the distinctions Franzen teases out between Catholic and Protestant feelings about sin, guilt, and confession (“Guilt at First Reformed wasn’t all that different from guilt at the Ethical Culture Society,” says Russ’s wife Marion). More crucially, we find in Marion a sort of heroine. She plumbs the darkest depths, yet finds a seemingly sturdy spiritual resolution in the end. Now, we wait until parts two and three of Franzen's trilogy to see if she perseveres.
“If you could go back, who would you want to meet?” It’s no secret that everyone lives with regrets. If given the opportunity to travel back in time to right a wrong, most of us would probably take it. Before the Coffee Gets Cold, Toshikazu Kawaguchi's debut novel adapted from his play of the same name, explores this fundamental, and yet impossible, human desire to transcend the limits of time.
At Funiculi Funicula, a café tucked away in a Tokyo alley, patrons can travel to the past. But the time-traveling in this tale comes with a number of caveats, the most important being: Your time in the past lasts only as long as it takes for the cup of coffee in front of you to get cold; and what you do in the past cannot change the present. Which raises the question—what should we really hope to achieve by revisiting the past, if not to rewrite the present?
This novel charms with lovable characters and refreshingly simple, sensory prose, which anchor the supernatural in the everyday. Split into four parts focusing on different relationships—“The Lovers,” “Husband and Wife,” “The Sisters,” and “Mother and Child”—Kawaguchi’s story reminds us that we are redeemed not by erasing the past, but by loving and being loved. Unbound by time and space, love lightens the load of regret—and allows us to work more dutifully toward bettering our futures, which have yet to be decided.
I took up in tandem the triumvirate of Flannery O’Connor: Her Complete Stories; The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, edited by Sally Fitzgerald; and O'Connor's recently published A Prayer Journal, edited by W. A. Sessions. I had long avoided her because every young Catholic woman I meet seems to love her overbearingly. Now I know why. O’Connor wrote of beautiful things caked in mud. In her story “Greenleaf,” an unpleasant woman with unpleasant sons does daily battle with an unpleasant groundskeeper, and gets mauled to death by a bull in the finale. O'Connor once said that “the bull is the pleasantest character in the story.” In her stories, everyone is a filthy sinner and a hypocrite to boot—convinced of his own saintliness while singularly aware of everyone else’s faults. There is usually not a single hero to root for. Yet this, rather than pious pastoralism (which she despised in Catholic literature), was how she poured her devout Catholic faith into her writing: “It all boils down to Grace,” she wrote. Her stories show that we are all flawed and require God’s grace to save us from our sinful selves—usually in unexpected and painful ways.
But O’Connor would also be the first to lump herself in with her characters. In her letters and prayers she records her own selfishness, pride, laziness—all those vices about which she writes. The title The Habit of Being comes from a line of Jacques Maritain's that touched O’Connor. He wrote that “art is a virtue of the practical intellect”—its object is not theoretical knowledge, but action. It lives in transformational moments of understanding, judgment, and inspiration that spring up in the artist as the creation itself takes material form, perfecting the artist’s soul even as the artist perfects her art. Fitzgerald notes that O’Connor sought this “habit of art” but also a whole “habit of being.” O’Connor rooted her formation in daily supplications to God: “Give me the courage to stand the pain to get the grace, O Lord. Help me with this life,” she prayed. She would wake early, pray for God's grace to penetrate her heart and her writing, work for four hours, tend her assorted birds, suffer her illness, and pray again that God would let her create something permeated with “Christian principles” that would glorify him. Her art is a hard-hewn gift—the result of constant interior effort, pain, much rewriting, and prayer—that she laid on God’s altar.
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