Heartwood 7:1 – Greene on Capri by Shirley Hazzard

greene-on-capriThis blog post is prompted by the news that Shirley Hazzard died this past December at age 85.

It’s kind of funny to me that I read this book without ever having read Graham Greene (though he’s long been on my radar, and I’m a fan of the film The Third Man). Funnier still since I’d also not read anything by Shirley Hazzard (her Transit of Venus won a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1980, and The Great Fire won the National Book Award in 2003). But a few years ago, one of my book-talking buddies handed me this book and said I should read it. I must say I was quite taken by the cover, and seeing the book’s slim length, I decided to give it a try.

In the opening scene, Hazzard has run into Greene at a café on Capri where he is dining at a separate table with friends and reciting part of a Browning poem to them. Before leaving, Hazzard supplies him with the line he’s struggling to recall. This literary showiness rankled me enough that I put the book aside. But some weeks later, I picked it up again and found myself very much enjoying Hazzard’s stately prose, the descriptions of Greene’s home and the island of Capri (accent on the a, she tells us), and the friendship that develops between Greene, Hazzard and her husband, Francis Steegmuller.

Hazzard devotes much of the book to Greene, mostly during their shared time there in the 1960s and ’70s, but she also includes some interesting details about the history of the island. Her account of Tiberio, the island-top ruins, features some fine descriptive language, and we learn that a number of Russian writers visited the island in their day, such as Gorky, Turgenev, and Ivan Bunin.

For the most part, Hazzard writes admiringly of Greene, but not without particular criticisms, such as in the passage here:

Repeatedly singled out as a writer of his “era,” Graham, even so, long eluded literary chronology. His best work, with its disarming blend of wit, event, and lone fatality, has not staled; and he himself, always ready, with eager skepticism, for life’s next episode, did not seem to “date.”  However, in one respect – his attitudes to women – he remained rooted, as man and writer, in his early decades.

From the 1920s into the 1940s, Greene and several of his talented male contemporaries were working, in English fiction, related veins of anxiety and intelligence, anger and danger, sex and sensibility, and contrasting an ironic private humanity with the petty vanities and great harm of established power.  Their narrative frequently centered on the difficulty of being a moody, clever, thin-skinned – and occasionally alcoholic – literate man who commands the devotion of a comely, plucky, self-denying younger woman.

The book doesn’t have chapters as such, but in one section, on the importance of reading to Greene, she tells how Greene insisted his biographer, Norman Sherry, travel to every place Greene had been, as background to writing his biography. Remarkably, Sherry did this – but Hazzard notes:

Had Graham enjoined his biographer to read, rather, the countless thousands of books, celebrated or obscure, that fuelled his life, thought, and work, consoled and informed his passions, and caused him, as he said, “to want to write,” that request would have been absurd, unfeasible, and entirely apposite.

Literature was the longest and most consistent pleasure of Graham’s life. It was the element in which he best existed, providing him with the equilibrium of affinity and a lifeline to the rational as well as the fantastic. The tormented love affairs of adult years – and, supremely, the long passion for Lady Walston – brought him to the verge of insanity and suicide. It was in reading and writing that he enjoyed, from early childhood, a beneficent excitement and ground for development of his imagination and his gift… Our own best times with Graham usually arose from spontaneous shared pleasures of works and words – those of poets and novelists above all – that were central to his being and ours.

In its closing pages, Hazzard returns to the literary exchange that opens the book: in 1992 she received a letter from Michael Richey, one of those present when Hazzard supplied Greene with the words of the Browning poem at the restaurant all those decades before, and this letter, coming the year after Greene’s death, is what triggered her decision to write this book.

After finishing Greene on Capri, I looked for Capri on a map and discovered it is off the west coast of Italy, near the mainland city of Sorrento. And it strikes me that this would be the perfect book to take along to a “silent reading night” at the Sorrento Hotel in Seattle. Or maybe one of Greene’s novels.

Heartwood 6:6 – Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

carmillaI don’t normally read to scare myself, boost my heart rate, or get a jolt of adrenaline, but this time of year I often find myself looking for something a little spooky, dark, or supernatural. This year, the 140-year-old novella Carmilla, one of the earliest vampire tales (predating Bram Stoker’s Dracula), delivered just the dose of gothic elegance I was after.

When a carriage crashes on the road near their Styrian castle, Laura, a young woman, and her father offer their assistance and find themselves taking temporary custody of the weakened Carmilla, a woman in appearance about Laura’s age, as her mother has urgent business she must attend to farther down the road. Laura is thrilled to have found a female companion, and they form a remarkably quick and somewhat seductive intimacy. But early intimations that all is not quite right with the languid guest, who only emerges from her room late in the afternoon, grow more serious when Laura too begins to experience a similar loss in vigor and vitality.

The story moves along quite quickly and is told in an appealingly antiquated style with calm deliberateness and economy (though it does include a bit of unneeded repetition while also leaving a number of things unexplained). What I liked best about the book was Carmilla’s mysterious way of talking about being together forever with Laura, the significance of dreams, and the dreamlike ways in which the vampire would strike. Additionally, avid readers will be happy to see that book learning plays a large role in eventually putting the vampire (and story) to rest.

Heartwood 6:5 – Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett

PondHeartwood mostly focuses on older books, but once in a while I’m so taken with a new release that I simply must tell people about it. Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond is such a book, one of the most dazzling debuts I’ve read. It could be labeled an experimental novel or linked short stories or even autofictional memoir without really mattering much to me (a pond is a pond is a mudhole). What does matter is how Bennett puts you inside her narrator’s head. I don’t know that it’s voice necessarily (but what a voice!), or even the quirky richness of the main character’s personality, but rather a kind of intensity, a shared personable intimacy, as if the reader is discovering and experiencing the author’s thoughts at the same time that she is writing them down.

The book focuses on an unnamed young woman who has moved to an old stone cottage in the rural countryside on the west coast of Ireland. The chapters often feature small details of daily living which serve as unlikely launching pads for wide-ranging meditations on recent or distant events in her life, relationships past and present, or things going on right inside or outside her cottage. For example, the broken control knobs on her mini-oven, or the act of taking a bath during a storm, or simply cleaning the fireplace grate will trigger a flood of unexpected reflections on such things as the intensity of feelings upon encountering a forgotten love letter, memories of reading a book about the last woman alive, feeling alienated from a particular place and its history. She moves from topic to topic in a perfectly natural but discursive way, telling us everything in a voice that is exactly right, conveying her wit, intelligence, gentle misanthropy and sense of wonder.

Here are some of the themes that stood out for me: a keen attention to the earth – to the everyday dirt, mud, stones, ponds, gardens, storm-blown leaves and other detritus; a concern with language, both to uncover one’s understanding of things but also in that it can misdirect, and its inability to fully capture and communicate experience; the value of solitude; a background fear of the unknown or imagined, and a compulsive interest in embracing it; love in all its complexity – as all-consuming, obliterating, brutal, inexplicable, happy; the unaccountable workings of the mind and imagination; the pressures of history; and the challenge to attune yourself to the “earth’s embedded logos,” to experience a “deep and direct accordance with things.”

I can’t begin, in this short review, to do justice to this phenomenal book; there’s so much going on and, from one perspective anyway, it seems to demand immersion and living-through rather than description and analysis. But let me, as further examples, at least chart some of the unexpected jumps in the first long chapter, “Morning, Noon, and Night.” The chapter opens, comically enough, with a detailed consideration of what makes the best breakfast food but then takes up such things as: living without purpose but just to take things in; abandoning academia; the purchase of a couple of pieces of textile art and changes in what she sees in them; how to talk of what most moves us would spoil it; fulsome sex and the pleasure of writing lustful, salacious emails; finding a secret garden and becoming an accidental gardener; a quiet early evening of intently listening in the garden. This chapter so impressed me that I found myself reading it again immediately.

Librarians have a tendency to compare and connect books, even though the most unique and striking books can only be crudely compared to anything else. So, yes, I encourage you to read Pond, it is beautifully idiosyncratic, and I will add that anyone who admires what Bennett has done with her female lead might also want to look at Robert Thomas’s Bridge (one of my favorite books of 2014), Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, and Joanna Walsh’s Vertigo.

Now I’m going to shut up and return to rereading the rest of this book.

Heartwood 6:4 – The Waitress Was New by Dominique Fabre

JacketPierre is a 56-year-old bartender in a Parisian restaurant called Le Cercle. The restaurant is owned by a husband-and-wife team (Henri and Isabelle) in their early 40s. In addition to Pierre, they also employ a Senegalese cook by the name of Amédée, a waitress named Sabrina (with whom, it is assumed, Henri is having an affair), and a new girl, Madeleine, who’s been hired to fill in for Sabrina, who is out with the flu. The title is a bit misleading, as the new waitress is a very minor character and this tale is really about Pierre, the wonderfully – and a bit woefully – composed barman who the reader comes to understand through his gentlemanly behavior and conversations with the others, but especially through his thoughts and observations.

The action takes place over just a few days. On the day the new waitress starts, the boss slips out the backdoor and disappears. The boss’s wife typically shows up mid-day and she is glum when she finds her husband has skipped out. There is a pattern to this behavior, and Pierre and Isabelle assume he has gone off for a tryst with Sabrina. This is the dramatic set-up which makes the workday that much harder for the other employees, being a small operation where every hand is needed to get things done. The day ends with Pierre wondering if the new girl will even return the next day. As the senior employee, Pierre provides some emotional support for the boss’s wife, and we also learn about the dissolution of his own marriage (which he thinks was for the best), his mid-life crisis of two years earlier, and even a bit of his mother’s parenting style. The story develops from here in ways that are significant for the few Le Cercle staff, but without any great action, mostly we get Pierre and details of his daily life: Pierre in his apartment doing domestic chores, worrying about reaching the point where he can claim his pension, attempting to shake off the image of dead leaves from a dream, taking his medications, and trying to muster his energy for the next day.

One might grumble about the rather abrupt ending, but this is in keeping with the slice-of-life narrative and the uncertainty that circumstances have thrust Pierre into – I only wished for a little more time in his company. The Waitress Was New is an everyman kind of story told by a character with an easy and, at times, melancholy grace. We’re there as Pierre habitually wipes down the bar, sizes up and interacts with customers (some of whom need to pay off their tabs), banters with Amédée across the pass-through, and reflects on the path his life has taken. Readers drawn to books for character will definitely be glad to have taken a seat at the bar where, in a switch of typical roles, they get to listen to this personable barman’s story, insights, and observations.

Heartwood 6:3 – The Invention of Morel

MorelThe Invention of Morel, by Adolfo Bioy Casares, is a remarkable and strange tale of the experiences of a marooned fugitive on a now deserted island. The tale unfolds as a kind of Dr. Moreau1-on-the-holodeck2 – an eternal return3 groundhog’s-week4 of mechanical reproduction5, all watched over by machines of loving grace6.

The slight water damage to the library’s copy of this book will merely assist in transporting you to the island’s tidal marshlands where the narrator jots down his notes (the book you’re reading). He’s been driven there when the appearance of newcomers causes him to flee the abandoned museum with its aquarium floor, statuary idols, and alabaster urns.

To say much more than the cryptic sentences above would give away too much, so I’ll just add that if you like adventure stories with speculative elements, a forthright narrator (of questionable veracity), and the heartfelt pull of unattainable ideals – especially love – then this short book will be one you’ll remember long after finishing it. Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinian master of fantastic stories, has said about the book: “to classify it as perfect is neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole.”

Incredible and fantastic. Don’t miss it.
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  1. The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells
  2. Star Trek technology
  3. Nietzsche
  4. Harold Ramis / Bill Murray
  5. Walter Benjamin
  6. Richard Brautigan

Heartwood 6:2 – The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas

IcePalaceThe Ice Palace is a story set in Norway about a girl, Unn, who has moved to a new town to live with her aunt after the death of her mother (her still-living father is someone she has never known). At school Unn is welcomed by her new classmates but she is reluctant to join in with them. When Unn finally invites the leader of the other eleven-year-olds (Siss) to her house, they quickly establish an intimate connection, but one that is grounded in large part on the mysterious and unspoken. During this brief encounter, Unn is tempted to share a secret with Siss, but then does not; a little later, when she again appears ready to share her secret, Siss becomes uneasy and leaves the house in haste.

The next day, Unn does not go to school, but instead goes to visit the ice falls along the river, a natural wonder the class is scheduled to visit in the coming weeks. Siss is surprised that Unn is not at school, where she had hoped to approach her again and make things right between them. Siss decides she must visit Unn again immediately after school, but when she gets to her aunt’s house discovers that Unn is not at home, and the aunt learns that Unn had never arrived at school.

An all-night search is organized and although the reader knows what has happened to Unn, her disappearance hangs unresolved for the book’s characters, and her withheld secret puts Siss in an awkward position as everyone asks what Unn had said to her but she is unable to tell them. The focus then shifts to Siss and the unfolding days of remorse, self-blame, and mourning that she has to endure throughout the long winter and spring.

Vesaas is a lyrical storyteller for whom what is withheld is as important as what is revealed; his characters are desirous of friendship and intimacy but are also presented as complex beings that can never be completely known by another. The magnetism between the girls is a beautiful example of this. On the night they met at the aunt’s house, Unn takes a mirror off her bedroom wall and has Siss sit by her side as they silently gaze at themselves and each other in reflection. Later, Unn suddenly suggests they undress, and just as quickly that they put their clothes back on after they have stood for a moment “shining” before each other.

This is a gorgeously told story, filled with Norwegian winter scenery and the ache of living, love, and loss.

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The Ice Palace won the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 1964. For my review of Tarjei Vesaas’s The Birds click here.

Heartwood 6:1 – With My Dog-Eyes by Hilda Hilst

With My Dog EyesThis impressive, very brief book – the story is only 59 pages long – crosses a lot of terrain and mixes in mathematics, poetry, existentialism and madness. It won’t be for everyone, but readers of Virginia Woolf, Kafka, Beckett, and Joyce should all find things here to like.

The story centers on Amós Kéres and his sudden mental deterioration. Kéres is a math professor who is married and has a son, but his work and family life are inexplicably becoming matters of indifference to him. Something happened to him one day when he climbed a small hill and had an experience he describes as “a clear-cut unhoped-for” and a vision of “incommensurable meaning.”

The book mostly delves into the thoughts of Kéres in an off-kilter, stream-of-consciousness fashion, but it also explores his interactions with a few other characters, concluding in a dark, enigmatic ending. The narrative voice twitches unexpectedly between first person and third person as Kéres expresses his thoughts and describes his actions – this creates an unsettling, out-of-body effect, as if Kéres is living his thoughts while also observing himself from across the room.

As with the swirling narrative, it’s a bit of a challenge to figure out exactly when the story is taking place: As a sequence of flashbacks in his classroom where he’s suddenly fallen silent and wears a thousand-yard stare? In the home of his mother where he’s written the line that appears on the first and last page of the book (“God? A surface of ice anchored to laughter”)? In a through-the-looking-glass nightmare of Kafkaesque proportions?

This is a strange and disquieting little book – I encourage adventurous readers to give it a try.

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Hilda Hilst was an important 20th Century Brazilian writer whose work has only recently begun to be translated into English.

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