Archive for November, 2009|Monthly archive page

On the Essay, Lately

Last night, I picked up David Sedaris’ When You Are Engulfed in Flames. I got this book when Sedaris came to town and I spent the whole night right next to him, listening to his funny and weird stories, watching him draw small penises on the monkey that graced the advertising poster for the event,  and giving away mini bottles of shampoo (because he ran out of condoms, his usual gift). Additionally, I chatted to the fans who came to get their books signed and who were breathless to meet him. At the end of the night, he signed a book to me saying “thanks for the wonderful company”. He’s very nice. I only tell you this story because of the feelings/thoughts that I had when I finally picked up his most recent book of essays. I felt like the essays would have more meaning because I knew him. Well, I didn’t know know him. But I met him. We talked. He complimented my “frock”. I felt like I had a duty to read his essays and that I would know (not in the sense of knowing, know him), but I could at least picture him in the things that he discussed. I made up in my head a little mini-version of him (which usually just has their face on a baby body), for the parts of his childhood, etc. .  His essays are often about his life: as a child, growing up, as an adult, other people he’s met, etc. One assumes that they’re autobiographical, but there’s no reason to really believe that.

Then, I read an essay by Zadie Smith in The Guardian today, discussing “novel nausea”, and her recent turn to essays. I remembered that we recently got the book in and I was enamored with it. She discusses Zora Neale Hurston, George Eliot, and David Foster Wallace, it’s called Changing My Mind. Her discussion was mostly about another upcoming book of essays, Reality Hunger by David Shields, who discusses the neat and abhorrent plotting of a novel. He dismisses  the “crafted novel, with its neat design and completist attitude, to be a dull and generic thing, too artificial to deal effectively with what is already a ‘unbearably artificial world’.” Smith uses this a jumping off point to talk about the off-putting nature of narrative “and then, and then” and that there are probably only 10 good novels per decade. She believes that most books aren’t very good, and ones that are old and we think are good (i.e. Jane Eyre, Middlemarch), weren’t received well on first publication. Ultimately, she privileges the essay over the novel (though admits her present novel nausea bias) as something within which one can be oneself, but is not confined to being oneself. That is, it has elements of the writer but doesn’t have to be a memoir, autobio, etc. There is personal and public, there is fiction and non-fiction. A fictional discussion of non-fiction, a real conversation/discussion about an imagined world. Oh the possibilities!

This brings me back to Sedaris. My original feeling of closeness with this internationally acclaimed author through is essays was really just based on the fact that I’d met him. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether these things happened to him or not. I still picture him with his man head on a tiny (or much diminished body), and it makes me laugh.

This leads me to consider the larger implications of these thoughts. Essays are interesting to me because they are often shorter and therefore more thought and effort must be put into one so that it will be coherent and clear (unlike here), which I value and recognize, but do not practice. The essays I enjoy most are authors writing about other authors, as I mentioned above about Smith discussing Foster Wallace and Neale Hurston. Sedaris doesn’t touch that part of essay-ing, but his humor and stories transcend any snobbery I might feel about autobiographical essays.  I also attribute this desire for essays to many personal circumstances: shorter attention span, feeling like all novels are the same, reading a 300 page book in a night, and some others I can’t think of now.

I think the essay is a very personal thing for both reader and writer, it is both personal and public. One’s personal experience with a subject is put out in the open and discussed on more levels than the personal. Often, the cultural, the financial, the historical, the academic, the natural are included and the possibilities are endless. All that being written, watch for reviews on essays in the upcoming posts.

Are you ready for my review of “Wolf Hall”? More importantly, am I?

A few weeks ago, I finished Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning Wolf Hall. First I’ll give you my impressions leading up to reading it. Then, I’ll tell you how I felt after reading it. And last, I’ll give me review. It’s like eating the bun of a cheeseburger before you eat the meat.

I had been waiting for weeks, checking the release date, making sure they hadn’t moved it up, reading all the excerpts and reviews I could from UK websites, etc. I even listened to her speak about the book at the LRB bookshop along with Sarah Dunant. I don’t even know why I was so excited about this book. It’s not even a time period I particularly care for, the Tudors are overdone, out of the oven and into the bin, really. But it was promised to be a different treatment, a {brace yourself} revisionist history of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, and Thomas More. Probably the desire for something I couldn’t have put me over the edge, more than anything else. So I bought it, hardcover, no freebies this time.

After finishing the book, I have continued to think about it. It’s brilliant subtlety, it’s overt play with perspective, pronouns and language. It is always the curse of a good book. You have to find something that’s really good, but completely different, or else you’ll meld them together in your mind. But you find that nothing is quite that good, so you read something pretty bad to lower your standards, so you can be impressed when you read another great one. So I’ve been slowly meandering through the New York Review of Books and Maisie Dobbs (see my previous post). Not that either of these are bad, they are different and entertaining or informative, while Wolf Hall was brilliant.

Hilary Mantel had quite a task in front of her. Just about everyone of adult reading age knows the story of Henry VIII, six wives, no male heirs, schism with the Roman Catholic Church, the founding of the Anglican religion, etc. But really, instead of rehashing all that, she makes her focus Thomas Cromwell. From my very small bit of memory about Cromwell, I always remembered him as Henry’s watchdog, without much sense, good at being told what to do, and split up the church and helped a misogynist to find a woman of male child-bearing capabilities.

But this Cromwell is a family man, loyal first to Cardinal Wolsley (even after Wolsley loses favor with the king), and then right at Henry’s side. He has travelled extensively into Europe and trained in many professions, and though continuously reminded of his low birth, he is always trusted and feared by those above and below him. He is a businessman and a lawyer, he loves his family, those he loses and those who remain. He is a human, smart and wily, but sad and concerned.

Wolf Hall is more than just a character study of Thomas Cromwell, however. It touches and shares some of the more humanistic aspects of Henry, Anne Boleyn, and Thomas More.  The reason Henry wants to be divorced from Katherine of Aragon is because he is in love with Anne Boleyn. They act like young lovers in public and they both get flustered around one another. Anne, however, is not portrayed as this passive little sparrow, who was swept up by the king and then left after she was unable to bear a male child. For Mantel, Boleyn and her family engineered all of this, set it up, played the cards right, and luckily, the king fell in love with her.

Mantel does not quibble about character flaws, she is upfront about who people are, no postmodern ambiguity here. Throughout the book, one comes to hate Thomas More.  He attempted to institute an English Inquisition, and personally tortures heretics throughout the book. His downfall comes when he refuses to sign the Act of Supremacy, which states the Henry VIII is the supreme head of the Church of England. He hates Cromwell and is jealous of his skillful maneuvering.  I suppose More has always been admired for his ideals, his staunch adherence to church dogma, and was willing to give his life for his beliefs. But in Wolf Hall he is damned.

So there’s the characters, what’s the story you ask? Well, it’s history as you know it. We are skipped from Cromwell’s childhood to a point in life where he has already become a trusted advisor of Cardinal Wolsley’s. Wolsley loses favor, lots of others vie for position, Henry has fallen in love, the Pope refuses divorce, Cromwell gets it for him, etc., etc.

Really, for me, the part of the novel that makes it all worth it is the last paragraph or so.  Just to set it up, Cromwell is setting up the king’s itinerary.

“From Bronham-we are now in early September-toward Winchester. Then Bishop’s Waltham, Alton, Alton to Farnham. He plots it out, across country. The object is to get the king back to Windsor for early October. He has his sketch map across the page, England in a drizzle of ink; his calendar, quickly jotted, running down it. ‘I seem to have four, five days in hand. Ah well. Who says I never get a holiday?’ Before ‘Bronham’, he makes a dot in the margin, and draws a long arrow across the page. ‘Now here, before we go to Winchester, we have time to spare, and what I think is, Rafe, we shall visit the Seymours.’ He writes it down. Early September. Five days. Wolf Hall.”

All that. 500+ pages. And the name of the book that foreshadows what we already know is to come. Henry’s marriage to Jane Seymour. Brilliant. Mantel shows us that the actions of humans are sometimes planned out and sometimes not. That history is human actions, decisions, choices made and unmade. And that people are more than abstract terms of monarcy, government, religion, love, greed, and naviete. You should read it. Really.

The Brilliance of Maisie Dobbs

Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series is by far one of the best series I have ever read. I don’t usually have a lot of time or energy for series, unless they are something like Harry Potter or the Dark Tower series, which really have more to do with a fast-paced compelling plot immersed in a fantasy world that I have to pull myself out of, almost physically. But detective mysteries that span six or seven books, no thanks. I’m sure I would get bored of the character’s inner musings and how they solve the case, just in the nick of time, to save someone’s life, or reputation, or something.

Maisie Dobbs, while having some of these distasteful qualities, is something quite more. Let me explain. She is, of course, British and living in London (Fitzroy, to be exact) during the inter-war period. She is a psychologist investigator with a twinge of Eastern philosophy in her practice. As a young woman, the daughter of a working-class father and a mother who died young, she is sent to be a servant in Lady Compton’s home (who later becomes her good friend and benefactor). Before the war, she is at Girton (Cambridge) and falls in love. As with many people before WWI, when it began, all life that resembled anything recognizable is wiped away instantly. She becomes a nurse in France through the end of the war. When she returns, she finishes her education. She then becomes apprenticed to Maurice Blanche, a private investigator whose business she soon takes over.

If it is not already apparent, a single woman working as a psychologist investigator is a very unlikely situation in this period, but an intensely desirable one (for the modern reader). She is pretty, but not too aware of it, she is intelligent, practical, methodical, and in control of her emotions and aware of her feelings. Her character is one that inspires imitation, awe, and respect.

To move beyond her character and to the plots of the books is to really look into the confusion and sadness that many felt after the war. The betrayal and loss runs deep and creates all sorts of consequential actions and feelings, not always manifested in depression, but sometimes anger, violence, and pride. The plot of a Maisie Dobbs novel usually has 3 components. One is the case that Maisie is to solve. It has, so far, had something to do with the war: an unexplained death or disappearance that has its roots in the war. Two, a personal obstacle that Maisie must overcome, also related to her time as a nurse in France. And three, a problem with a close friend or colleague, also some issue with the war. Although formulaic, the three components are  interesting and move the plot along quite quickly. And, since the components are thematically related, the reader finds no trouble bouncing back and forth between them. Usually, the friend/colleague sub-plot is given less treatment but the denouement is quite emotional, for Maisie and her friend/colleague. The main case speaks to a larger question of the conduct of the war, what the big players were doing: the military, the government, private but quite rich individuals with a lot of influence. Maisie’s personal journey is the most emotional and has the biggest pay off, because at the end of the novel, you know more about this enigmatic Maisie Dobbs.

I highly recommend them, and while they provide a little something to think about,  they are ultimately light reading, a compelling few hundred pages before going to bed or to take your mind off something more difficult.

They are (because I like to list things):

Maisie Dobbs, Birds of a Feather, Pardonable Lies, Messenger of Truth, Incomplete Revenge, and Among the Mad.