10:04 by Ben Lerner

You can’t help but be a little bit in awe of Ben Lerner’s deftness, his complex weave of images — imminent flooding that will reshape the Manhattan shoreline, the transition to fatherhood (possibly), time’s incessant beat and its echo in the past, the book he contracted to write and the book he has written — that turn in upon themselves, multiply and become something new. Frankly, you can’t help but be a little bit in awe of his vocabulary, a diction so rich and varied and sometimes abstruse that you might wonder whether he also talks this way (he does!). Some of the writing here is so measured and perfect that it constitutes a prose poem. And you will be brought to pause and think and revel, just a little bit.

The author/narrator of 10:04 is a sometimes author, not unlike Ben Lerner, who perhaps, despite his critical success as a novelist, continues to see himself as a poet, and more important to have a poet’s sensibilities or insensibilities. We follow the narrator across the course of a year from one inundating storm that wreaks havoc on the New Jersey and New York seaboard to another; bookends, if you will, that remind us of the mutability of even our seemingly most permanent cityscapes. The narrator is anxious, medically. But also existentially. He doubts himself and his comprehension, often rightly, without the surety of any fixed fulcrum from which to view change. That is a difficulty for the narrator as well as for the conceit of the novel since the oft repeated (in the novel) Hassidic story of the world to come says that, “Everything will be just as it is now, just a little different.” But what does that difference amount to if it cannot be confidently marked? Difference, on such a view, cannot be anything but perspectival, and that, inevitably, leads to the world to come being the world as it is, or was, or might yet be. To say that we have entered a liminal space would be an understatement.

Nevertheless, Lerner is able to generate an emotional bond with his reader at times that leaps across the barriers of arcane diction, post-modern anxiety about the novelistic form, and longed-for debts to prior poets. You may even experience, as the narrator does, more than one “lacrimal event,” which for the rest of us would be a tear or two.

Always worth reading, reflecting upon, then reading again. Recommended.

Wittgenstein Jr by Lars Iyer

Lamentations typically have some object, some person or thing about which one is lamenting. But what would it be like to be in a state of lamentation without object, without point and possibly without end? What if, in the face of nihilism, one’s lamentations were nothing more than raindrops posing as tears? Or at least one might suspect they were. And what if the principal lamentation of “the philosopher” is whatever metaphysical impulsion it is that causes him to take on the form of “the philosopher”? This is the condition of “Wittgenstein Jr”, a don at Cambridge so labelled by his twelve disciple-like students.

This “Wittgenstein” models the original Wittgenstein more or less exactly (though these events are set in the nominal present), taking on many of Wittgenstein’s projects of logic and life, some of his mannerisms, and even, at one point, his Viennese ancestry and family history. His young disciples are undergraduates in their final year, all male, all in thrall to his curious personality. Ostensibly they are philosophy students but it is never clear what topic in philosophy they are studying with their “Wittgenstein”. And so, in the absence of concrete particulars, we are left with gnomic statements on the nature of philosophy itself, typically undercut immediately by counter statements. This “Wittgenstein” seems inordinately caught up in his own life drama. Whether he is waging war against philosophy itself or the perceived ill-will of the Cambridge dons. He is often transported into flights of rhetorical frenzy. And this begins to set him at odds with the real Wittgenstein, one of whose mantras might have been, “back to the rough ground”. Wittgenstein Jr is not Wittgenstein. And his pronouncements, though often seemingly gnomic, are not in themselves philosophy. So why do his students, some of whom seem intensely grounded, put up with his waffle?

Love. All twelve are in one way or another in love with their “Wittgenstein”. Indeed, love is the recurring theme of the story. In this modern Symposium, Wittgenstein Jr stands in for Socrates (when he is not overtly functioning as a Christ figure). However, the vicissitudes of the academic year, and the extra-curricular activities (drugs and alcohol) in which the students partake, bring about a natural wastage. Until, during the Christmas vacation, only one student remains, with whom “Wittgenstein” takes some solace, though without permanent effect.

In the end, the reader might wish for more of the wit and/or farce of Iyer’s three earlier novels, less ponderous though arguably just as profound. Or perhaps I’m just less well-disposed to fictional versions of Wittgenstein than might otherwise be the case. Certainly Iyer remains fascinating in his technique, his willingness to create a novel of ideas, and his daring to face down the weight of preconceptions that get shipped with any use of “Wittgenstein”, real or imagined, in literature. Intensely readable, momentarily thought-provoking, but perhaps not lastingly memorable.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante

Life is full of entanglements. And when two lives are as entangled as those of the protagonists of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels it becomes a moot point as to who it is that really leaves and who remains. Elena Greco has found literary success with the publication of her first novel, as well as a certain notoriety, and an enduring confidence in her power to effect change — she thinks it is positive change — in the lives of those dear to her. Her counterpart, Lila Cerullo, has found obscurity and destitution after a failed marriage, a failed love affair, and an unwanted birth. Yet, as ever, it is Lila and not Elena who seems to be in control of her own destiny. Even Elena’s marriage to a well-connected but dull academic and her new life in Florence cannot free her from the suspicion that far from escaping the mire that is her childhood neighbourhood in Naples, she is ever at risk of sinking back into petty jealousies and crude emotions that suffocated her in her youth.

The contrast between Lila and Elena is both sharper in this third novel in the series as it is more subtle. Elena is full of high politics and ideas about the class struggle, while Lila is being abused and maltreated by voracious overlords in a dismal Neapolitan factory. Elena has access to the power of the press and highly placed friends, but Lila knows that real power still lies at the sharp end of a knife. Elena is frustrated by her inability to help Lila in any meaningful way. Lila, on the other hand, desires only that Elena live the life of integrity that would somehow, in its purity, redeem Lila’s sorry and sordid present condition. But for Ferrante, all contrasts are at best momentary and reversal after reversal consistently inverts expectation and interpretation. The effect is bewildering.

At times this third novel can feel cerebral, almost passionless, as Elena self-consciously narrates the raising of her own consciousness. Have we strayed into the politics of the personal? Perhaps. But the real has its own demands and Elena’s suppression of her own passionate nature has repercussions, unlooked for but perhaps not unexpected. By the end of the novel, Elena is literally taking flight for the first time (a journey from Rome to Montpellier, in France) even as, she can’t help noticing, the floor under her feet trembles.

I remain riveted. And somewhat in awe of Ferrante’s skill at juggling huge political themes whilst rooting everything in the clinging mud of that Neapolitan neighbourhood from whence Elena and Lila sprang. Who knows what might yet flower in the remaining books in this series? I, for one, can hardly wait to read on.

See also

Essential reading – Alistair MacLeod

Of late, I’ve been reading the works of Alistair MacLeod. It is not a vast oeuvre. It consists of two collections of short stories and a novel. The short story collections have helpfully been brought together into a single volume, Island. The novel, No Great Mischief, won the 2001 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. But it is in the short stories published between 1968 and 1999 that MacLeod’s reputation is rooted. And it is there that I would encourage anyone interested in this essential writer to begin their journey.

The reason I started reading MacLeod recently is that my wife and I are in the midst of planning a trip to Nova Scotia. I’ve never been. Admittedly it is a long way from southern Ontario.  It is also a long way from the UK, where we spent a sizeable portion of our lives. So my knowledge of the land and life and people of Nova Scotia is sketchy at best. And while guide books and maps are of great use in planning the details of travel, they don’t often offer up that spark that lights your imagination and breathes life and meaning into your future experiences. Walk down almost any street in Oxford, or London, or Paris and you will have hundreds, perhaps thousands, of associations readily crowding your palette. At times it can be overwhelming, especially if you only have time for a short visit. But without at least some of that, it’s hard to know what experiences you would have at all. They might be no more meaningful than the digital images recorded on your phone and later deleted to make space for that new app you’ve just got to have. For me, the best way to pre-seed my experience of somewhere new is to delve into its literature. Fortunately, my wife is, as usual, a bit ahead of me in these matters. So, after some initial research and settling upon Alistair MacLeod as one of the essential writers I would need to read in order to gain an insight into life on Cape Breton Island, I was able to simply turn to our bookshelves and discover that we already owned copies of MacLeod’s collected short stories and his novel. I was ready to begin.

I suggest that if you are starting out on such a journey you should begin at the beginning with the short stories. I didn’t do that but I wish I had. One of the benefits of Island is that the short stories are presented in the order in which they were originally published, with the dates of publication indicated. Read that first story, “The Boat”, which was published in 1968 when Alistair MacLeod was 32. Incredible. Everything (or almost everything) is there. The rocky shore, identity through labour, generations, fathers and sons (and grandfathers), the sense in which the Scottish Highlands of the 18th century are barely a breath away from the real lives of these men and women on Canada’s eastern shore in the 20th century. The Gaelic. The lived, almost genetic, history of a people. The way the narrator stands at one remove from his tale, which in all other respects is straightforward, linear, and song-like. And also the constituent tragedy — tragedy as environment, as something that must be lived through and dealt with but which has no external cause. Not tragedy as punishment, just tragedy as a normal part of life. Perhaps it is little wonder that with such a rich seam, MacLeod is able to spend the rest of his writing life mining it.

Whether the story involves fishermen or miners or loggers or farmers or lighthouse keepers, there is an intimate relationship between a man’s work and who he is in MacLeod’s writing. Is there also an ambivalence there about whether the writing life shares this density? Certainly some of these stories feel like they were hewn out of rock, as though MacLeod has done all of the heavy lifting and left us only the pure metal. For the most part, however, writing as labour remains obscured here with the focus firmly fixed on the people whose stories are being told rather than the teller. It isn’t until the stories in the 1980s that MacLeod’s narrative approach begins to become more complex. However this increasing complexity does not move him away from his principal subjects. The same can be said of his novel, No Great Mischief, which shares this narrative sophistication. A related observation might be that the earliest stories have a narrative directness to them, almost like an oral tale. And it is this directness that pushes to the surface even in his more complex stories. Linear narrative set within a complex narrative form has a tendency to read as fate, the inevitability of action and person that brings symbolic meaning to resolution. Thus the writing becomes increasingly archetypal, even a bit heavy, especially in the novel.

It is hard to say whether there is something insular about MacLeod’s writing. At times it feels like writing from an earlier generation. With the prevalence of the physical environment and the close ties between man and beast, especially dogs, you might think it is quintessentially Canadian, with perhaps a hint of Jack London. But this is also a writer who was fully embedded in the professional life of writing in the latter third of the 20th century, both as an English professor and a teacher of creative writing. Yet it is as though other writers of his time, especially progressive writers, had no influence on him at all. Or perhaps that is what ought to be expected if his aesthetic choices were fixed well before he began publishing stories. In any case, his resolute focus upon a specific locale and relatively small range of themes (if birth, death, and marriage count as a small range) comes across as a conscious choice. One which needs to be considered, though I’ll leave that for others to consider more fully.

I’m glad I read these works of Alistair MacLeod. I feel as though I have gained a small sense of the possible lives of those of Scottish descent on Cape Breton. I recommend them heartily.

Of course, the Scots are relative latecomers to life in Nova Scotia, though you might not pick that up from MacLeod’s writing. So naturally I’ve been reading some of the Acadian writers as well. But that, as they say, is a very different story.

Poetry as a book club selection?

The book club that I have been frequenting for the past four years managed a first this month. It has always been wonderfully eclectic in its selections: literary fiction, historical fiction, noir fiction, memoir, creative non-fiction, graphic novels (both memoir and fiction), even YA fiction. With such a range, you can’t help but get stretched out of your comfort zone. That’s one of the reasons I really like attending. That and the lively discussions that we partake of for an hour or more once a month. The book club is organised and led by Mandy Brouse of Words Worth Books. And although my experience is limited (this is the only book club I’ve ever participated in), I think we moved this month into less travelled territory for a generalist book club. Our selection was Michael Crummey’s recent collection of poems, Under the Keel.

We were a bit uncertain — all of us — as to how this would work. As we arrived at the bookstore (our sessions are held in the bookstore in the evening) almost everyone looked around at the others and said, “I didn’t think anyone else would show up tonight.” Surprise! We actually had a solid cohort of regulars in attendance. The challenge, I think, was not the poetry itself. The challenge was what to say about it and how.

We are all wide-ranging readers and poetry certainly falls into the mix for most of us, though perhaps not as a steady diet. Michael Crummey’s poetry is both lyrical and accessible. He writes of his experiences growing up in Newfoundland and Labrador. He writes of love and the death of his father, sometimes bringing these subjects together in startling and moving ways. He explores the imagined lives of other, older Newfoundlanders. His diction is not typically elevated. His verse tends toward the free, but almost as often swings back to the song-like rhythms of his Irish ancestors. His observations are earthy and not metaphysical. His turns of phrase are worthy of pause but not typically mere displays of showmanship. In short, his poems can be read and appreciated by anyone. But that didn’t stop us wondering how we would manage to discuss the book.

Our book club discussions typically begin with each of us in turn saying our names (especially useful for newcomers) and very briefly summing up our impression, good or bad, of the book in question. Thereafter we begin delving into specific aspects of the book, e.g. characters, situations, writing style, things we loved, things we hated, and so forth. Our conversations can and do go almost anywhere. Of course it is easy to give a simple thumbs up for Under the Keel, but how would we press on from there?

As with many poetry collections, Under the Keel is not perhaps best thought of as a single work. Crummey divides the book into five sections, the poems of which loosely cohere. For example, the first section, entitled “Through A Glass Darkly”, has poems concentrating on his early adolescent sexuality, the pressing world-encompassing fascination of the 14-year-old boy. The fourth section, entitled “Under Silk”, has poems about, for, and to his wife, Holly. These are love poems of various sorts, but a mature love tempered by knowledge of life’s finitude. How would we go about discussing Under the Keel as a whole?

Here, Mandy stepped up and led us in a new direction. Instead of discussing the book as a whole, she suggested that we each pick a poem we either especially liked or didn’t like and read it aloud to the group. Then we could discuss that particular poem. There followed a moment of silence . . . and then we plunged in. Although none of us were practised public readers of poems (which is no small talent!), we each of us took up the challenge. And I have to say that the results were excellent.

The first poem selected and read is perhaps the most moving one in the whole collection, “Something New” which is part of a short set entitled, “Hope Chest”. Ostensibly it is a love poem, a declaration of fidelity and commitment. But it begins with a lengthy description of Crummey’s father dying of cancer and the loving care patiently provided by his wife, Crummey’s mother, during those long last days. The juxtaposition of images is striking and memorable. Other poems that we gamely read included, “Boys,” “Stars on the Water,” “A Carry-On,” and “Pub Crawl in Dublin”. And for each we had a fine discussion.

I’m sure other book clubs must include poetry books on a regular basis. This was a first for us, but I suspect it won’t be a last.