The lesson of the book critic

September 24, 2015

There’s not been much activity here on TLC this month. That’s because all I want to do is read, and when I finish a book, all I want to do is pick up the next one. But all I want to read are the books on my reading table. The ones I’ve been saying I’ll get to eventually — the ones I keep re-arranging into different pile configurations: Lydia Davis’ translation of Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary, Louis Bromfield’s 1926 Pulitzer Prize-winner Early Autumn, Michael Crummey’s second novel The Wreckage, Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery Gaudy Night, Declan Kiberd’s nonfiction book Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living, John le Carré’s famous novel The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, Kathleen Jones’ biography Katherine Mansfield: The Story-Teller, to name a few.

I don’t seem to be interested in the new books being published this fall, aside from Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, which I keep intending to read, but then I pick up another book. The galley sits on my dining room table like a spaniel patiently waiting for a biscuit. I’ve actually dusted it. Meanwhile, I reread Lord of the Flies. I finished the Patrick Melrose series by Edward St Aubyn, finally completing the Booker-nominated Mother’s Milk and At Last. I read John O’Hara’s National Book Award winner 10 North Frederick and Erskine Caldwell’s The Last Night of Summer, written about in the previous post. I read Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks mystery, published in 1989, The Hanging Valley, the fourth in his detective series I began long ago.

The other night I combed through the forecasts of new books coming out in October and November, and then I proceeded to start reading Fragments by Jack Fuller. Originally published in 1984 and reissued by the University of Chicago Press in 1997, Fragments is counted among the best Vietnam novels – Michiko Kakutani, in her review for The New York Times, February 1984, described it as an “elegantly executed” story about “the uses of memory – to transcend, not simply to recapture, the past.”

I bought Fragments three years ago and then delayed the gratification of reading it. I think that’s what’s gotten to me – the employment of delayed gratification, mixed with hope and promise, isn’t holding the pile steady anymore. I’ve come to think this may be due to a deepening feeling that constantly advancing forward to read the next new book is becoming a chase when, right under my nose, terrific, published-in-the-past books are in my house waiting to be read. Put another way, delayed gratification is beginning to feel more like neglect.

I’ll still be reading new books (I have to, I want to!), but as for the books I’ve been meaning to read for a long time, it looks like their day has arrived. At least, for now.

Here are three I’m moving toward, after I finish Fragments.

I don’t know how I found The Last of the Just. It was originally published by Editions du Seuil, Paris (Le Dernier des Justes), in 1959. It won the Prix Goncourt, the top literary prize in France awarded by the Académie Française. The English translation followed in 1960 by Atheneum House. The novel, a literary sensation during its time, must’ve been referenced by someone, or mentioned in something I read, which then took me down the discovery trail. The Herald Tribune is quoted on the back of the book, saying: “A drama that seizes you and will not let you go.” From Overlook Press, which issued the novel in paperback in 2000, here’s a story summary:

“On March 11, 1185, in the old Anglican city of York, the Jews of the city were brutally massacred by their townsmen. As legend has it, God blessed the only survivor of this medieval pogrom, Rabbi Yom Tov Levy, as one of the Lamed-Vov, the thirty-six Just Men of Jewish tradition, a blessing which extended to one Levy of each succeeding generation. This terrifying and remarkable legacy is traced over eight centuries, from the Spanish Inquisition, to expulsions from England, France, Portugal, Germany, and Russia, and to the small Polish village of Zemyock, where the Levys settle for two centuries in relative peace. It is in the twentieth century that Ernie Levy emerges, The Last of the Just, in 1920s Germany, as Hitler’s sinister star is on the rise and the agonies of Auschwitz loom on the horizon.”

The Lesson of the Master by Henry JamesHenry James’ The Lesson of the Master is part of the Melville House series The Art of the Novella. Others in this series include, to name just two out of many, Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych and Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener. From the dust jacket description about The Lesson of the Master:

“With extraordinary psychological insight and devastating wit, the novella captures the ambiguities of a life devoted to art, and the choices artists must make. They were choices the expatriate James knew well by the time he published the novella in the Universal Review in 1888, and the work reveals him at the height of his powers.”

Odd that I would want to read Philip Roth’s The Human Stain first, the third in his American Trilogy, preceded by American Pastoral and I Married a Communist. Why not start at the beginning? I own almost all of Roth’s novels, including these two. But like other books I pick up or select along my reading and book-buying paths, this one sparkled and got singled out. So I’m trusting there’s a strong reason I dropped The Human Stain onto my delayed gratification pile. On the back of my Vintage International paperback, there’s this summary:

“Coleman Silk has a secret, one which has been kept for fifty years from his wife, his four children, his colleagues, and his friends, including the writer Nathan Zuckerman. It is Zuckerman who stumbles upon Silk’s secret and sets out to reconstruct the unknown biography of this eminent, upright man, esteemed as an educator for nearly all his life, and to understand how this ingeniously contrived life came unraveled.”

In 2012, Philip Roth wrote an Open Letter to Wikipedia in The New Yorker about incorrect information on the site concerning his inspiration for The Human Stain. He mentions Wikipedia’s response to his attempt to fix the misstatement — they said they required secondary attribution (as if the author wouldn’t know the inspiration of his own novel). Wikipedia currently references Roth’s letter and incorporates the correction.

Football Friday nights and tailgating Saturday afternoons are on the horizon. So, too, good books from new and established writers. 

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen is getting a lot of attention, including a cover shot of Franzen on Time magazine. Other books also are getting attention, just more quietly. Here are some scheduled for September publication. A note about October books at the end. 

The Gendarme by Mark T. Mustian: A first novel published by Putnam’s Amy Einhorn imprint that brought us Kathryn Stockett’s debut, The Help. This is the story of 92-year-old Emmet Conn who’s suffered memory loss all his life from a war injury in World War I. Now, due to a brain tumor, long-suppressed memories surface in dreams and visions. “What does it mean to forget, and then remember?” asks the author’s website. Set in Turkey in the beginning of the 20th Century and America at the end, the plot portends an intriguing read.

The Widower’s Tale by Julia Glass: This is the fourth novel by 2002 National Book Award-winner Glass (Three Junes). Her new story focuses on a retired man named Percy Darling who gives the barn on his historic farm to a local preschool. Naturally, there are unexpected consequences. From the publisher’s website: “With equal parts affection and satire, Julia Glass spins a captivating tale about the loyalties, rivalries, and secrets of a very particular family. Yet again, she plumbs the human heart brilliantly, dramatically, and movingly.” 

Room by Emma Donoghue.  This 2010 Man Booker longlist candidate is narrated by five-year-old Jack, who lives with his mother in a small room where they’re held captive. Jack’s mother was abducted seven years ago, and Jack is a result of the sexual relationship she’s forced to have with her abductor. From Emma Donoghue’s website:    “…ROOM is no horror story or tearjerker, but a celebration of resilience and the love between parent and child. VOGUE calls it ‘A dark fairy tale… curiously uplifting.’” From Library Journal: “Gripping, riveting, and close to the bone, this story grabs you and doesn’t let go.” 

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray.  Another 2010 Man Booker longlist candidate, this is the story of a boy at an elite boarding school in Dublin, Ireland, and the circumstances surrounding his death. You can purchase either the omnibus version (closing in on 700 pages) or three paperbacks in a set. Definitely a reading commitment but, considering the praise this novel’s received, I’m betting it’s a worthy investment of time. You can read an excerpt from the book on the Guardian website.

Vestments by John Reimringer: A debut novel published by small press Milkweed Editions about a priest torn between his love for the church and love for a woman. On Reimringer’s website, Publisher’s Weekly describes it as “suspenseful, illuminating and highly readable.” You can read an excerpt on the Milkweed Editions website, which says this about the book: “Originally drawn to the priesthood by the mystery, purity, and sensual fabric of the Church, as well as by its promise of a safe harbor from his violent father, James finds himself—just a few years after his ordination—attracted again to his first love, Betty García. Torn between these competing loves, and haunted by his father’s heritage, James finds himself at a crossroads.”

October books:  Looking further ahead, in October we can anticipate books from established authors Bernhard Schlink (author of The Reader), Michael Cunningham (author of Pulitzer Prize-winner The Hours) and, no surprise, the prolific Philip Roth.

"The Humbling" by Philip RothI started reading Philip Roth with The Plot Against America (2004). After that, there was a new novel in 2006 – Everyman, and then 2007 – Exit Ghost, and then 2008 – Indignation, and now, 2009 – The Humbling.  This new novel — small, less than 150 pages — is concerned with themes similar to Everyman and Exit Ghost, of aging, dying, sex and identity. One would think a repeated writing about Jewish male protagonists (also a Roth hallmark) mourning lost youth and virility would get stale. Instead, under the pen of this literary legend, the stories keep getting better. 

The Humbling is the best yet.  It’s tightly written with perfectly timed character exits and entrances, exquisitely scored monologues and discussions, and an emotional palette that’s not too sentimental yet passionately real.  There is no line out of place.

The protagonist Simon Axler is a classic American stage actor in his sixties. His fame derives from his ability to rivet audiences with a powerful presence of characters’ eccentricities and mannerisms. When the story opens, he’s lost his magic, having failed on stage as Prospero and  Macbeth at the Kennedy Center. Axler suffers a breakdown and, fearing he’ll take his life, enters a psychiatric hospital for 26 days. Within months of leaving the hospital, his wife divorces him, unable to cope with her husband’s failure. Alone in his New York farmhouse, Axler gets a visit from his agent. 

Here Roth writes an unforgettable 14 page conversation between the two, a business dialogue that’s a psychological tug of war. The agent spins a web of persuasions to get Axler to return to the stage, and Axler delivers smart, self-aware rebuttals illustrating he knows he’s not simply hit a temporary impediment. This is it. He’s done.

Axler’s relief from despair arrives in the daughter of long-ago friends, a lesbian in her 40s, sad about a recent break-up. She jumps the sexual preference divide into Axler’s bed. Axler takes her to New York for expensive new clothes and haircut, enhancing her transformation with feminine accoutrements. They are an unusual couple in a relationship based on need. A tenuousness hovers over their interactions, except when they’re in bed together. The sex scenes are powerful, erotic and seamless with the rest of the action, neither gratuitous nor improbable.

Roth casts a dim view of greatness in the last chapter called The Final Act. Axler has played the mightiest characters in his career on stage from Shakespeare’s kings to Eugene O’Neil’s dysfunctional men, but his fame and history of past greatness do not sustain him. Axler believes he is finished, and he acts the part brilliantly.

I’ve wondered how much of Philip Roth, now in his 70s, appears in his aging protagonists. In this instance, does he believe his own greatness will not sustain him? In an interview with Tina Brown on The Daily Beast Video, he says he fears for the loss of ideas: “When I finish a book, I think What will I do? Where will I get an idea? … A kind of low-level panic sets in.” He also talks on The Daily Beast about writing the sex scenes in The Humbling and comments on the future of the book.

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