Writings and Rewritings

August Bookmarks
August is the time for frantically catching up on books before the school year begins (Unsplash, Laëtitia Buscaylet).

My most frantic stretches of reading fall during the same two months every year: in December, when I try to catch up on all the year’s books that I’ve missed; and in August, when I try to cram in as much as I can before faculty obligations begin. Reading during these times has a different feel—pleasurable, still, but also a little panicky. The clocks begin to whir and chime, I hear time’s chariot hurrying near, and then I remember that old Cheever biography I’ve been meaning to read, and then I think of that new Téa Obreht novel I’ve been saving for the summer, and I start to freak out.

This fall, I’m on research leave, and so my August reading should have been more leisurely. But old habits die hard. My tote currently has four books in it, all of which I’m reading. This number is the result of careful pruning.

Here’s what one reader read while summer ran out.

 

The past few months have seen several Jane Austen–inspired titles. (Is there ever a publishing season without them?) The most surprising addition to the Janeite canon is Karen Tei Yamashita’s Sansei and Sensibility (Coffee House Press, $16.95). This collection has two sections: “Sansei Stories,” short pieces of fiction and nonfiction focusing on the experience of third-generation Japanese Americans living in Southern California in the 1960s and 1970s, hearing stories (or sensing silences) about internment camps and the difficulties of assimilation; and “JA Stories,” imaginative flights that graft the novels of Jane Austen (one JA) onto the experiences of Japanese Americans (another JA). Pride and Prejudice becomes “Giri and Gaman,” with Mr. Darcy as a high-school quarterback and class vice president, a young man “so perfect, he was just plain boring.” Emma is reimagined as “Emi,” with Austen’s famous opening turned into something quite different: “Mukashi, mukashi, Emi Moriuchi, intelligent, headstrong, privileged, and cheerfully positive, came of age in the sixties. O.K., no big deal.”

How much you like this will depend upon your familiarity with Austen and your tolerance for goofy puns. (My familiarity and tolerance are both pretty high, so I loved when Mansfield Park’s “Fanny Price” became “Fanny Rice.” Another story title: “The PersuAsians.” Ha!) The second half of Sansei and Sensibility reads like high-level fan fic. I mean that as a compliment; Shakespeare wrote his share of the stuff, too. Even in the first, ostensibly non-Austen half, Yamashita’s stories channel Austen’s sharp social vision and exhibit her tart, sometimes icy meanness. At its best, Sansei and Sensibility works as imaginative criticism. Sense and sensibility, social propriety and conversational facility: these help Austen’s heroines place themselves, and to be a Regency Era–woman, propertied or not, is to know that one must have a place in order to have an identity. Yamashita’s sansei characters share these concerns. Like Persuasion’s Anne Elliott, they’re often caught between the demands of the previous generation and the demands of the present, trying to place themselves in a world that is both completely bewildering and depressingly provincial.

Early on in Austen Years: A Memoir in Five Novels (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28), Rachel Cohen writes, “In my reading life, I had, to this point, avoided memoirs.” In my reading life, I have, to this point, avoided books like Austen Years: an account of Cohen’s reading and re-reading Austen in the time surrounding her first child’s birth and her beloved father’s death. To my nose, nothing stinks more than literary criticism that doubles as therapeutic self-help. Despite the setup, though, that’s not what Austen Years is at all. Rather, it’s a stylish, sophisticated reading of Austen that doubles as an Austenian reading of Cohen’s own life.

Cohen’s criticism is exquisite: sensitive, lucid, and rigorous. She notes how, “in Jane Austen, there are actually few particulars, not many adjectives or textures or facial features.” (Maybe that’s one reason Austen is so often adapted, to put a face and a texture to the characters we love so much.) Cohen observes how essential a kind of “gentle forgetting” is for Austen’s heroines: Lizzie Bennet forgets Darcy’s earlier imperiousness; Fanny Price forgets the many slights she has suffered. But Cohen also thinks about her own life—her habits of being, her relationship with her father—through the lens of Austen. After describing how close Austen gets to her characters, Cohen talks about the importance of reserve, a deference to the inner lives of others that is as essential to love as closeness: “Close by but not suffocated, room enough to think and change. Circumspection is one of the deepest and most moral qualities in intimate life.” There’s a composure to Cohen’s writing, a circumspection both moral and psychological, that makes this a superb memoir and an even better piece of criticism.

 

Austen superfans aren’t the only literary superfans out there, and lovers of all things Brontë have two recent books to enjoy: Isabel Greenberg’s graphic novel Glass Town: The Imaginary World of the Brontës (Abrams ComicArts, $24.99) and Douglas A. Martin’s newly reissued Branwell: A Novel of the Brontë Brother (Soft Skull Press, $16.95). Both works take something solid from Brontë history (childhood imaginings in the case of Greenberg; addiction to drink and drugs in the case of Martin) and turn it strange and otherworldly.

While living at Haworth Parsonage in the 1820s, the Brontë siblings—Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, all celebrated novelists, as well as brother Branwell, the family’s great disappointment—created an imaginary world called Glass Town. Through text and image, Greenberg recreates both the lives of the young Brontës and the realm they imagined. Glass Town was a world of soldiers and romance, hard facts and wild fancy; it offered the isolated siblings an opportunity to think about other worlds, and it gives Greenberg the chance to blend literary biography with fantastical speculation. She tends to use muted reds and blues, surrounding stark landscapes with sublime skies and choppy waters, charting the terra incognita between the real and imagined. Her drawings are simple, bold, a little rough. She works in the style of myth—a perfect choice to recreate a mythic world imagined by a mythic literary family.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that all good prose must be described as poetic. But Martin’s writing really does display the compressed lyricism and rhythms of poetry.

By one light, Douglas A. Martin’s Branwell takes the airy Brontë myth and brings it back down to earth. Reissued with an excellent introduction by the novelist Darcey Steinke, Branwell serves as an imaginative biography of the ne’er-do-well Brontë brother: a talented, desirous would-be artist/poet (he sent letters to William Wordsworth, Thomas De Quincey, and Hartley Coleridge) who became a has-been drunk before dying at the age of thirty-one. Martin’s Branwell suffers under familial expectation. “They must coax his hidden talent out into full bloom,” his family declares. “Why couldn’t he achieve the honors his father would have liked for him to,” he worries. He also suffers from a queer desire, rumored about in Brontë scholarship but given full life here, that he can’t name or act upon without consequence. Branwell drinks away his money; he loses jobs because of sexual improprieties; he lives a life of regret and self-recrimination. Branwell takes place not in the world of spirit but in the world of matter, where the body has wants it doesn’t want or know what to do with, where “there is no freedom for man without money.

Though Branwell is an excellent novel of deromanticizing, it can be as otherworldly as Glass Town. Martin’s hero “doesn’t know how to contain all he doesn’t know what to do with,” and his mind, when under the influence of opium or erotic desire, becomes hallucinatory, beautiful and terrifying in the way of dreams. It is a truth universally acknowledged that all good prose must be described as poetic. But Martin’s writing really does display the compressed lyricism and rhythms of poetry. His sentences are crisp and cadenced, his paragraphs often a single line. When Branwell first visits London, he thinks, simply and perfectly, “The roof of reality was vast.” Of his struggles to become an artist, he alliteratively observes, “He could sketch the lodgings, when not sketching the men with guns who went for game around the grounds.” “It’s through touching things that we come to know them,” Branwell thinks. That’s his tragedy: How can he know himself when he can’t admit what he longs to touch?

 

This summer often has felt defined by what we can’t do and where we can’t go. It’s hard to go on a road trip right now, so it was a delight to be taken on an imaginative one in Daniel Hornsby’s excellent debut novel, Via Negativa (Knopf, $23.95). This tale begins dramatically and memorably: a retired priest, driving through Middle America, sees an injured coyote on the side of the road and decides to take him in. Moving books around on the back seat, the priest “set the coyote’s head on the selected writings of Origen of Alexandria and wedged [his] collection of the Venerable Bede’s homilies between the seat belt and the blanket.”

Nature cheek-by-jowl with divinity, the coexistence of violence and grace: this image previews much of the theological landscape that Hornsby covers. Via Negativa nicely displays the simultaneous teleology and aimlessness of good road-trip lit. Fr. Dan is going somewhere for a serious purpose, but he’s continually getting sidetracked. Sometimes, he wanders in memory, as when he thinks back to his first reading of The Cloud of Unknowing and remembers his run-ins with various parish interests. Sometimes, he stops off at surrealistic roadside attractions straight out of DeLillo: “Martin’s Hole to Hell” in western Kansas; a fake Spanish castle in the “Sweden-themed” town of Lindsborg. Hornsby has set himself a difficult tonal challenge, zooming between the comic (there’s an amazing story involving a young Dan mishearing the story of Jesus healing a leper as healing a leopard), the sad (the abuse crisis moves from a minor to a major note by the novel’s end), and the theological (the apophatic tradition comes in for frequent discussion). But he pulls it off with only a few missteps, as when, at times, Dan sounds less like the elderly priest he is supposed to be than the talented young writer Hornsby actually is.

One boon of this strange summer: it turns out having nowhere to go gives you more time to notice the changing light on the white ash outside your window and to listen to the varied songs of that tree’s resident birds. No poet has a keener ear for birdsong, or a more acute eye for light, than Sidney Wade. Her latest collection, Deep Gossip: New and Selected Poems (Johns Hopkins University Press, $19.95), contains a new poem called “Here, Kitty Kitty Kitty Kitty.” The title leads into the first line: “sings the Bachman’s sparrow / in an amusing mnemonic / for those who listen.” Wade is one who listens, and she shares her aural reports in skinny stanzas often organized into couplets:

Others offer sonic

 

commentary on food:
Who cooks for you?

 

asks the barred owl
tending to her brood.

 

Drink your t-e-e-e-e-e-e
instructs the loud

 

and bossy towhee.
Potato chip! Potato chip!

 

squawk bright flocks
of goldfinch.

In “Nature Poets,” Wade wonders “how / we can simply stand / and bless the outrageously beautiful / as we hold on to the now / and ogle / this vision on the bow?”

That verb, ogle, suggests there can be something darker at play in our perceptual glutting on the world around us. Sometimes, we simply stand and bless the beautiful; sometimes, we ogle the beautiful to distract ourselves from the ugly. Another poem begins with an ecstatic description of birdwatching: “Sharp beaks, the shining eyes, the radiant songs, / numinous parables of light and feathers, / I swear, I could watch birds all day long.” The speaker could watch birds all day long, but she doesn’t, as rage often trumps (pun intended) contemplation: “much of the time / I contemplate a different sublime: / The clueless greedy fuckwad at the helm / keeps on braying out his shitty piehole.” Technology only amplifies the leader’s braying: “The lardass sits / on his golden crapper and tweets, the stupid schmuck.” In this poem, beautiful nature gets six lines; the italicized, splenetic rant against President Trump gets twelve.

Deep Gossip places wonder against rage in a way that seems appropriate to 2020.

Deep Gossip places wonder against rage in a way that seems appropriate to 2020. We desperately hope that beauty will win out over ugliness, and we desperately tell ourselves that it will. But, as Wade writes in her villanelle “Nothing New,” this hope remains far from a certain thing: “There’s nothing we can do about the lunatic, and so / This too shall pass, we tell ourselves. But we really don’t know.”

 

Some final hurried notes from a hurried month of reading. I love Princeton University Press’s Writers on Writing Series: slim, idiosyncratic offerings that promise not a definitive take but a sharp-angled, singular vision of one writer on another. So I was really looking forward to R. F. Foster’s On Seamus Heaney (Princeton University Press, $19.95). The book isn’t a total disappointment. Foster is a strong critic, he quotes generously, and he offers a nice overview of Heaney’s life and career. But the book’s structure—straightforward in chronology, offering a reading of each new volume of Heaney’s poetry, then summarizing the critical responses to it, then shuffling off to the next one—makes it read like a comprehensive biography that isn’t that comprehensive. (It’s around two hundred pages with large margins.) This would work as the bones of a longer, authoritative life, like the one Foster wrote of Yeats. Imagine if Princeton had asked Paul Muldoon to write this instead. What a wonderful, and weird, book that would have been.

I also love David Mitchell; I also found his new novel about an imaginary 1960s British rock band, Utopia Avenue (Random House, $30), disappointing. It’s Mitchell, so there’s wit and energy in the prose, as well as occasional interjections of the fantastical into the realistic. These incursions work when they’re Mitchell’s bread and butter: an evil spirit hijacking a character’s consciousness; a metaphysical battle poking through the more prosaic career arc of a rock band. They fail when the fantasy isn’t so much metaphysical as musico-historical. David Bowie makes a few appearances and speaks like a hip fortune cookie. A mysterious man named Lenny reminisces about “the saucy twinkle in Mother London’s eye.” Turns out Lenny is Leonard Cohen. Oof.

Brandon Taylor’s Real Life (Riverhead, $26) doubles as a great grad student novel (most attempts trade in stereotypes; this offers the real, complicated, dark thing) and a great, positively Persuasion-like novel about the relationship between consciousness and embodiment. Henrich von Kleist’s 1810 novella Michael Kohlhaas (New Directions, $14.95), newly translated by Michael Hofmann, presents the inexorable unfolding of one calamity after another: the titular character has a minor bureaucratic annoyance involving some horses, which leads to a lawsuit, which leads to the death of everyone he loves, which leads to him waging war against the state, which leads to his execution. Like Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, von Kleist’s narrator sees “one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage.” Sounds like 2020.

Anthony Domestico is Associate Professor of Literature at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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