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The Atlantic Monthly | April 2002
Books & Critics
By the Lake
New & Noteworthy
Irish contentment and Irish misery; Robert Cohen's "formidable comic energy"; a much-hyped "immature fictional excursion"
by John McGahern
Knopf, 352 pages, $24.00
he Irish writer John McGahern's sixth novel stands in marked contrast to its predecessor, Amongst Women (1990), a prizewinning portrait of intransigent age. Joe and Kate Ruttledge keep a bit of livestock on their property alongside a small lake, but they don't depend on farming—which only makes them more keenly alive to the land and the weather in this Celtic pastoral. Lambing, haymaking, the rituals of tea and whiskey, the berries turning ripe and leaves falling in "ghostly whispering streams": the almost plotless narration follows the lake for just over a year, repeating some descriptions word for word, like proverbs, as spring comes round again. McGahern's work has always suggested what Chekhov would have been like if he'd read D. H. Lawrence; yet here the dark core of passion that got McGahern in trouble with Ireland's censors in the 1960s has been supplanted by an equally risky tenderness. By the Lake wagers everything on an attempt to make contentment look interesting, and its account of an apparently unchanging world depends on the cunning of its structure. In his early pages McGahern skillfully blurs the line between past and present as his characters tell one story after another; only later do we realize that he has never quite provided either the date of the book's action or the ages of his protagonists. Joe Ruttledge, who has local roots in the land, has been disclassed by education and a previous career in London. But McGahern barely glances at Joe's decision to leave the city behind, and never allows him to think about the past. It's as if other times and other places don't count; the present is eternal.
Or is it? The lake of the title lies somewhere in the north of the Irish Republic, not far from that border with the other north, a fact that McGahern's characters are mostly able to forget and that the reader will too—until near the end of this subtly intricate book. For this bucolic world has seen terror and cruelty, and even now has its full share of damaged souls. The Ruttledges have managed to avoid most of that. But they, too, have suffered, through a childlessness that they can no longer think about, and McGahern's achievement in this autumnal novel is to remind us how much even a happy life can know of sorrow.
Death and Nightingales
by Eugene McCabe
Bloomsbury, 231 pages, $23.95
hat Eugene McCabe is not well known outside Ireland is a pity, for he is a splendid writer whose skill, gifts, and creative instinct put him on a par with his more famous countryman and contemporary, William Trevor. True, most of McCabe's work has been for the theater and television, and he has devoted much of his life to farming, but his small output of fiction has earned him a high reputation in his native country. Yet only now is his extraordinary novel Death and Nightingales being published in the United States, a decade after its appearance in Britain.
McCabe's work is firmly grounded in his own territory, the border country between Ulster and what is now the Republic. Death and Nightingales is set in 1883, in the aftermath of the murder by nationalist terrorists of Lord Frederick Cavendish, the British government's Chief Secretary for Ireland, and his deputy in Dublin's Phoenix Park—a time when the country was paralyzed by suspicion between its peoples. It is the story of two miserable souls yoked together bitterly but unalterably: the middle-aged Protestant landlord and minor industrialist Billy Winters, master of the lovely small estate of Clonoula, and his Catholic stepdaughter, Beth, a resented, adored cuckoo in his nest. Beth chafes under Billy's rule and eventually makes a desperate attempt to escape by throwing in her lot with a furious revolutionary, but the plan, predictably, misfires: nothing, it seems, can end this life sentence of reciprocal animosity and dependence.
Colm Tóibín has called Death and Nightingales "clearly one of the great Irish masterpieces of the [twentieth] century," and he is, I think, correct. Beth and, more especially, Billy are no mere archetypes but vivid and eccentric individuals; both in exquisite lyrical description and in his masterly handling of dialogue McCabe demonstrates a mellow, seasoned power. He captures the fine social weave of the country and the time in a few apt words: "Town Hall was packed to the gills with high, middle and low gentry," Billy tells Beth after an evening out. "Old Leslie from Glaslough in his kilt and monocle, and Hare-Foster who was always prancing round your mother ... and two Bishops ... ours and yours. Your wee fella Donnelly had his chain gang with him. Maguires, and liars and small squires and dodgy contractors and cattle-shippers along with the 'millionaire' Micks and Chicago brogues."
The novel's extended metaphor is almost too neat, more a playwright's than a novelist's: Billy the Protestant landlord ruling, loving, and frequently abusing the dispossessed native, Beth (whom he himself named, presumably after Elizabeth I, Ireland's Protestant conqueror), with the revolutionary providing no good alternative. Amusingly and tellingly, none of the protagonists is in any way religious: each one's nominal religion is by now more about history, loss, greed, and tribalism than about God. In fact, both God and grace are notably absent from McCabe's nineteenth-century Ireland, where the entrenched hopelessness of our own day finds its harbinger.
by William Gerhardie
Prion/Trafalgar Square, 320 pages, $13.00
by William Gerhardie
Prion/Trafalgar Square, 255 pages, $13.00
illiam Gerhardie (1895-1977) has had many champions. Graham Greene said that he was "the most important new novelist to appear in our young life." Anthony Powell called The Polyglots (1925) "a classic"; Evelyn Waugh preferred the more ramshackle and comical Doom (1928). The two novels have recently been reissued in Prion's Lost Treasures series. Some twenty years ago the distinguished biographer Michael Holroyd organized a reissue of Gerhardie's major works, in hardcover no less, and wrote fervent introductions for the half dozen or so volumes. At about the same time, Holroyd edited, with his fellow biographer Robert Skidelsky, Gerhardie's eccentric history of the twentieth century, God's Fifth Column (1981). In short, the author of Futility (1922), Pending Heaven (1930), and Resurrection (1934) has been given every chance to be recognized as ... what?
What, indeed? Mainly, I suppose, an important comic novelist, with a wistful Chekhovian sensibility and a flair for the farcical and outrageous. In Doom, for instance, we witness the atomic destruction of Earth, engineered by a mad scientist who believes that mankind's suffering should be brought to a close. Most of the novel, however, focuses on an impetuous publishing tycoon—based on Lord Beaverbrook—and the amorous misadventures of a young novelist, Frank Dickin, the author of the clearly autobiographical Pale Primroses. Lord Ottercove is so excited by Frank's novel, which relates an erotic interlude in which the hero sleeps with two beautiful sisters, that he helps promote the book to best-sellerdom and even suggests that its author change his name to ... wait for it ... Charles Dickin. Soon there are journeys in flying automobiles, drunken parties with Russian exiles, much quoting of Shakespeare, and salacious carryings-on at the Kiss-Lick Club. Though sometimes a bit windy with theosophical speculation about realms of the spirit, Gerhardie certainly knew male sexuality: Frank "watched old colleagues overtake him on the road to fame, and felt no jealousy ... but that every woman whom he looked at twice did not immediately yield herself to him was something he found hard to bear, harder to forgive."
Why, then, for all his merits, isn't Gerhardie at least as much read as, say, the early Aldous Huxley of Crome Yellow and Antic Hay? I think because his narratives feel slightly unfocused; even these two novels, regarded as his best, tend to meander rather than accelerate toward their conclusions. Though he could be epigrammatic (in The Polyglots an unexpected and illegitimate child is called "the flower of spontaneous exultation," and a collection of paintings is "as dull as life"), Gerhardie's style in general has neither the stiletto-sharp ironies of Evelyn Waugh nor the smile-inducing similes of P. G. Wodehouse. His characters dwell amid chaos and absurdity, and tend to look on life with "abject resignation."
But Gerhardie deserves readers. The Polyglots traces Georges Hamlet Alexander Diabologh's involvement with a dysfunctional Russian-Belgian clan in the Far East just after the Great War. There are delicious vignettes of the strong-willed valetudinarian Aunt Teresa; some of the best depictions of young children in modern literature; wonderful portraits of spies, military officers, and servants; and, not least, our hero's obsession with the beautiful Sylvia. "For my own part," Georges writes, "I know of nothing so secretly exhilarating as the first meeting with a good-looking cousin of the opposite sex." Most of these figures are accompanied by verbal leitmotifs (the womanizing Uncle Emmanuel's bits of French; Aunt Teresa's scent, Mon Boudoir), and The Polyglots concludes, perhaps with a bow to Proust, as its narrator plans the novel we have just read: "I invite the reader to co-operate with me in a spirit of good will to make the end a happy one for all concerned: buy this book. If you have already bought it, buy it again, and get your brother and mother to buy it ... So tell your friends, tell all your friends—my aunt wants you to."
You heard the man: buy The Polyglots, and Doom as well, and maybe this time William Gerhardie will join Dawn Powell and Zora Neale Hurston in staying rediscovered.
The Varieties of Romantic Experience
by Robert Cohen
Scribner, 224 pages, $23.00
he formidable comic energy of Robert Cohen's new short-story collection derives from the collision of his magnificently self-deceiving characters with the unforgiving world they inhabit. From the psychology professor whose lecture turns into an unintentional admission of his obsession with a student intern to the man imprisoned for taking nude photos of a nine-year-old family friend for his night-school course, Cohen's characters move with the best of intentions toward their worst-case scenarios. Even when they don't come completely undone, they find themselves unceremoniously stripped of their illusions. In "A Flight of Sparks" an aging hippie takes off on a misbegotten journey to Mexico in search of a dying friend's long-lost daughter, only to discover that he has embroiled himself in another man's fantasies. And in "Influence," a witty illustration of Harold Bloom's theory that authors willfully misread one another, a writer-in-residence at a small New England college invites his literary idol for a visit that quickly unravels the knot of mutual deception that has bound them together for so long.
Cohen balances this robust black comedy with moments of quietly profound feeling. In "The Boys at Night" the arrival of a baby with Down syndrome throws into a family an emotional hand grenade that explodes during a bowling expedition, leaving the young narrator with a new appreciation of his aloof father. In "The Bachelor Party" a singularly inept prenuptial bash winds up unexpectedly at the Houston Astrodome, where the groom-to-be movingly asserts his belief in marriage before a crowd of oblivious Astros fans. The real variety on display here turns out to have less to do with romantic experience than with Cohen's ability to evoke seemingly contradictory emotions, often in the course of a single paragraph.
Everything is Illuminated
by Jonathan Safran Foer
Houghton Mifflin, 288 pages, $24.00
onathan Safran Foer is a twenty-four-year-old recent Princeton graduate whose first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, has attracted a great deal of pre-publication success and attention. It received a huge advance, reportedly in the neighborhood of $500,000; is the lead debut-section title on Houghton Mifflin's spring list; and is soon to be translated into thirteen languages. Quite a bonanza for an inventive but immature fictional excursion, sometimes pleasant, sometimes just pretentious.
The book was inspired by a trip Foer took to Ukraine to search for his ancestral shtetl and for the heroic woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. It consists of two alternating narratives: an imagined history of the shtetl from the eighteenth century to the twentieth (a fanciful vision that owes a little to Fellini and a lot to Rushdie), and the contemporary story of a search very much like Foer's own, made by a young man named, of all things, "Jonathan Safran Foer."
If this seems like the last word in juvenile solipsism, let it quickly be said that the author makes no attempt to delve into his fictional self's psyche; the narrator and principal character of the modern story is not the quixotic "Jonathan Safran Foer" but his Sancho Panza, a swaggering young Ukrainian named Alexander, whom the American has hired as a guide. Much of the novel's humor derives from Alexander's fractured English and his posturing antics.
That humor, though bought rather cheaply, is deft, but the too frequent flights of lyricism stink of affectation: the long passages on shtetl life are magical-realist in a specifically Jewish way, with the illogic of unrelenting poeticism intensified by the illogic of Talmudic pedantry. And when the two strands of the tale finally come together, it is in an orgy of melodrama and bathos, as we discover that Alexander's gentile family—surprise!—was complicit in the murder of Jews, and that the blustering Alexander himself is really a sensitive gay guy in disguise.
Foer has taken on the Big Subject of the past century—the Holocaust. And, not too surprisingly, it proves to be too big a subject for his undeveloped talent. "I wondered," he mused in a statement about his approach to history, "is the Holocaust exactly that which cannot be imagined? What are one's responsibilities to 'the truth' of an event, and what is 'the truth'? Can historical accuracy be replaced with imaginative accuracy?" This seems the height of callowness: for the many people alive who can remember the Holocaust, the answer is that it can be "imagined" only too well. The generation that witnessed it and, to a certain extent, the generation that came directly afterward have treated it as a real, solid, ugly fact of all our lives. To Foer, born more than thirty years after Auschwitz, it is merely the unremembered past, ripe for reinvention and reinterpretation by the artist.
The Dickinsons of Amherst
photographs by Jerome Liebling; essays by Christopher Benfey, Polly Longsworth, and Barton Levi St. Armand
University Press of New England, 209 pages, $55.00
From Atlantic Unbound:
Soundings: Emily Dickinson, "I Cannot Live Without You" (April 14, 1999)
Read aloud by Lucie Brock-Broido, Steven Cramer, and Mary Jo Salter. Introduction by Steven Cramer.
Flashback: "Emily Dickinson (Un)discovered" (April 14, 1999)
In 1891, shortly after the posthumous publication of Emily Dickinson's poetry, Thomas Wentworth Higginson recalled his correspondence with the reclusive poet and reproduced many of her letters and early poems. By Toby Lester
mily Dickinson's reclusive, sparsely documented life was nourished (or poisoned) in the bosom of her family. This generously collaborative volume chronicles that life in suggestive words and pictures, including the odd history of the posthumous discovery and publication of Dickinson's poetry, involving scandalous family quarrels that lasted several generations. Polly Longsworth tells how Emily's father, a congressman and a pillar of the Amherst community, nonetheless misappropriated the money of those under his protection. Emily's brother, Austin, married the poet's best friend, Susan Gilbert, and kept a cultured household that welcomed such visiting luminaries as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Frederick Law Olmsted. Austin and Susan lived with their children next door to Emily and her sister, Lavinia, both spinsters. Mabel Loomis Todd, the lively wife of an Amherst astronomer, became Austin's lover, with the knowledge if not the tolerance of all parties. Barton St. Armand tells how after the poet's death, in 1886, her poems began their vexed journey into the world: Mabel Todd, taking over from Lavinia, edited the early volumes, but for two generations the Dickinson descendants snubbed the Todd descendants on the street and quarreled with them in the Amherst law courts. Christopher Benfey takes up the story when, in 1990, Austin's house fell vacant and the noted photographer Jerome Liebling opened the lenses of his cameras onto a ghostly domestic scenery, including the sealed room of little Gib Dickinson, who died at the age of eight, in 1883. His aunt Emily, in her white dress, left her own home for the last time to sit by his bed. When she died, she left a drawer crammed with hundreds of poems that engage the shimmer between the living and the dead—as this book does. Unreachable through either words or pictures alone, the effect of this multidimensional book is to break your heart.
Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 2002; New & Noteworthy; Volume 289, No. 4; 139-142.