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In Search of the Lost Trail

September 26, 2014 | by

Remembering Le Grand Meaulnes on the centenary of its author’s death.

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Detail from Edward Gorey’s cover of the Anchor 1950s edition of Le Grand Meaulnes, dubbed The Wanderer.

“There is no doubting the classic status of Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes,” the novelist Julian Barnes wrote in the Guardian in 2012, having revisited the novel in his sixties to see if it retained its “youthful enchantment.” “A poll of French readers,” he noted, “placed it sixth of all twentieth-century books, just behind Proust and Camus.”

Those two are widely known to English-speaking audiences, and yet Le Grand Meaulnes and its mysterious-sounding author are not. I asked twenty self-admitting Francophile friends if they had ever heard of Fournier; most of them hadn’t. It doesn’t help that the novel—the only book Fournier published in his lifetime—has had at least seven different titles in English: The Wanderer (sometimes with the subtitle Or, The End of Youth), The Lost Domain, The Land of Lost Contentment, The Big Meaulnes, The Magnificent Meaulnes. The most recent translation, from 2007, is called The Lost Estate, with Le Grand Meaulnes in parentheses.

Originally published in 1913, the novel only barely predated Fournier’s death on the front lines in the first months of World War I, on September 22, 1914—a hundred years ago this week. Fournier was, at twenty-seven, one of the war’s first literary casualties. “His unit strayed accidentally behind the loose German lines in a forest of the Hauts-de-Meuse,” the novelist John Fowles wrote in an afterword to the book in the early seventies. “They found themselves trapped at the edge of a beechwood. The Frenchmen charged. Lieutenant Fournier was last seen running toward the Germans, firing his revolver. His grave is unknown. He was presumably buried by the enemy.”

Having recently become a parent, I’ve started to cobble together a young-adult reading list to give to my son one day—which is what led me to Le Grand Meaulnes, with its affecting treatment of lost innocence and its finely tuned, fairy tale–like depiction of the “twilight world between boyhood and manhood.” Read More »

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The Great Unread

August 26, 2014 | by

Why do some classics continue to fascinate while others gather dust?

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An illustration by Attilio Mussino from a 1911 edition of The Adventures of Pinocchio.

Even in our era of blurb inflation, it’s hard to top Giuseppe Verdi’s claim that Alessandro Manzoni’s novel The Betrothed (1827) was “a gift to humanity.” Verdi was hardly alone in praising the author, who ranks second only to Dante in Italian literary history. Manzoni’s contemporaries Goethe and Stendhal celebrated his genius, while the critic Georg Lukács said that The Betrothed was a universal portrait of Italy so complete that it exhausted the genre of the historical novel. In Italy, such is the ubiquity of Manzoni’s novel that Umberto Eco claimed “almost all Italians hate it because they were forced to read it in school.” Manzoni was named senator in 1860 by the Italian government; in his greatest honor, Verdi dedicated his Requiem to him on the one-year anniversary of his death.

So why do few outside of Italy care about Manzoni—or, even more tellingly, why do they care much more about other books, written around the same time as The Betrothed and devoted to themes similar to its own? By comparison, one of the best-selling Italian books of all time is Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio (1881), the story of a mischievous puppet who dreams of becoming a boy. The scholar Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg has shown that Pinocchio, in his struggle to assert his individuality against the controlling wishes of the outside world, represented the archetypal Italian child in the newly formed nation: the book first appeared twenty years after unification. Similarly, Manzoni’s Betrothed gives us two typical Italian peasants, Renzo and Lucia, who struggle to marry and build a life together amid class inequality, foreign occupation, and church domination.

But here the similarities end: Manzoni’s novel promotes a Christian faith whose adherents are rewarded for submitting to God’s providential wisdom. Collodi’s story, beyond exploring the plight of Italians in their newborn nation, describes how children learn to make their way in an adult society, with all its strictures and codes of behavior. Manzoni’s legacy in Italy is so strong that his book will always be read there. But outside of Italy, those same readers curious about Collodi’s star-crossed puppet are likely never to give Manzoni’s thoroughly Christian universe a second thought. Read More »

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I’ve Got a Secret

August 12, 2014 | by

Keeping mum in the age of spoilers.

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From one cover of Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru...

For about four months I have kept a secret. Because few people knew that I had it, the difficulty wasn’t in resisting others’ demand to know but in quashing my own desire to tell. Still, the challenge was significant. The value of a secret seems to increase for the holder in proportion to the level of interest it will attract from its potential audience, and in this regard my secret seemed quite valuable.

In April, after several years writing reading-and-teaching guides for various publishers, I was hired to work on Knopf’s guide to the forthcoming English translation of Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. A few weeks later, I found the galley at my doorstep. The only information I received about the book, other than its title, came in the form of a brief note of encouragement: The novel would be much shorter than 1Q84, the nine-hundred-something-page tome that preceded it. One other fact, recovered by way of a quick Google search: Colorless Tsukuru sold more than a million copies during its first week on sale abroad.

We often come to a book already knowing something about it—we’ve seen it mentioned online. My experience with the Murakami novel was entirely different. It was chosen for me; I knew nothing about it. No one I knew had read it or recommended it or tweeted about it. Because I was working from an early galley, there was neither cover art nor jacket copy to inspire any preconceptions or early opinions. Though it had been published internationally, there was, quite remarkably, little information to be found online. My copy of the novel was—fittingly, given its title—without color. There were only the black words on the white page and my thoughts about them. And so I read what will undoubtedly become a popular work as if it were obscure. Read More »

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I Remember Georges Perec

July 30, 2014 | by

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“I remember that Stendhal liked spinach.” Stendhal, Olof Johan Södermark, 1839, oil on canvas.

I remember reading Joe Brainard’s accumulated aphoristic memories for the first time. I remember the way each entry built on the one that preceded it, even when they had little to do with each another, and I remember the texture of the entire enterprise: a pointillist portrait of a man by way of his internal dialogue; his observations, at one time absorbed as impressions, sent back out into the world, now shaped by a unique river of associations.

I can only imagine the extent to which Brainard’s I Remember has influenced writers since he penned his flowing juxtapositions forty-four years ago. I had long thought Édouard Levé’s Autoportrait the most obvious example—a seemingly endless sequence of declarative sentences that coolly relate both trivialities and intimacies. But I’ve now discovered that Georges Perec got there first.

In 1970, Perec met Harry Mathews; Mathews introduced Perec to ideas then circulating in the New York art scene, including Brainard’s “serial autobiography,” which was then on the cusp of publication. The French writer likely never saw Brainard’s book, but tale of its concept—each sentence beginning with the phrase “I remember”—was enough to inspire him. Next month, the fruits of Perecs efforts, also titled I Remember, will be published in English for the first time, by David R. Godine.
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Working on My Novel

July 28, 2014 | by

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From Cory Arcangel’s Working on My Novel.

I wonder whether there will ever be enough tranquility under modern circumstances to allow our contemporary Wordsworth to recollect anything. I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness that characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction. —Saul Bellow, the Art of Fiction No. 37, 1966

Cory Arcangel’s new book, Working on My Novel—based on the Twitter feed of the same name—is a compilation of tweets from people who are putatively at work on novels. No more, no less. On Twitter, this concept feels merely clever; printed and bound as a novel would be, though, it becomes a vexed look at novels’ position in the culture, and a sad monument to distraction. Or so it seems to me. Arcangel’s “elevator pitch” puts a brighter gloss on it:

Working on My Novel is about the act of creation and the gap between the different ways we express ourselves today. Exploring the extremes of making art, from satisfaction and even euphoria to those days or nights when nothing will come, it's the story of what it means to be a creative person, and why we keep on trying.

But the book piques my interest for the opposite reason: it’s the story of what it means to live in a cultural climate that stifles almost every creative impulse, and why it so often seems we should stop trying. Arcangel suggests there’s something inherently ennobling in trying to write, but his book is an aggregate of delusion, narcissism, procrastination, boredom, self-congratulation, confusion—every stumbling block, in other words, between here and art. Working captures the worrisome extent to which creative writing has been synonymized with therapy; nearly everyone quoted in it pursues novel writing as a kind of exercise regimen. (“I love my mind,” writes one aspirant novelist, as if he’s just done fifty reps with it and is admiring it all engorged with blood.)Read More »

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In Defense of Fanny Price

July 10, 2014 | by

Mansfield Park at two hundred.

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A publicity still of Billie Piper as Fanny Price in a 2007 adaptation of Mansfield Park.

Poor Fanny Price. The unabashedly mousy, pathologically virtuous protagonist of Mansfield Park—which turns two hundred this year—is Jane Austen’s least popular heroine. She spends most of the novel creeping around the periphery of the titular park, taciturn and swallowing tears; she tires after the briefest of physical exertions; she looks down on her wealthier cousins for engaging in flirtatious amateur theatrics; and for most of the book’s five hundred pages, she refuses to voice her long-held love for her cousin Edmund.

Austen’s own mother reportedly found Fanny “insipid”; the critic Reginald Farrer described her as “repulsive in her cast-iron self-righteousness and steely rigidity of prejudice.” Even C. S. Lewis—in the voice of his demon Screwtape in The Screwtape Letters—let loose a vitriolic rant about Austen’s most priggish heroine, calling her “not only a Christian, but such a Christian—a vile, sneaking, simpering, demure, monosyllabic, mouselike, watery, insignificant, virginal, bread-and-butter miss … A two-faced little cheat (I know the sort) who looks as if she’d faint at the sight of blood, and then dies with a smile … Filthy, insipid little prude!” Even if we are to separate Lewis from Screwtape, it’s difficult to see Fanny as anything but, to quote Nietzsche’s famous description, “a moralistic little female à la [George] Eliot.”

And indeed, those who defend Fanny tend to see her as a Christian heroine in the mold of a Dorothea Brooke. As the Austen biographer Claire Tomalin puts it, “it is in rejecting obedience in favor of the higher dictate of remaining true to her own conscience that Fanny rises to her moment of heroism.” But to read Mansfield Park as a kind of Middlemarch is to miss the far more complicated story Austen has told. Fanny Price’s story is less about her individual virtue, or her richer relatives’ lack thereof, but about class, about privilege in its most insidious form—before the term ever cropped up in contemporary social justice discourse. Fanny isn’t moral or upright because she wants to be, but because the role—along with a whole host of so-called middle-class values—is forced upon her. For all we know, she may well wish to be as carefree, as filled with dynamic sprezzatura, as Woodhouse or Elizabeth Bennet, Austen’s more fortunate heroines, but the social dynamic, and the circumstances of her birth, deny her the security necessary for such frivolity. Fanny has too much at stake to be easygoing. Read More »

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