Category Archives: Literature

“The End of Your Life Book Club”

The End of Your Life Book Club, Will Schwalbe

I get annoyed at people who complain about e-readers in favor of “real” books.  The inner eyes roll whenever someone opines to me, “I just can’t let go of the feel of a real book in my hands,” or, “Words on a printed page are just sturdier,” or, “If there’s no physical heft, it’s not a book.”  In response, I offer you my Gob Bluthiest, “Come on!”  Do we thoughtfully abstain from movies because the actors aren’t really on stage in front of us?  Should we harumph out of a party because the host has the temerity to play digitized music for us, in lieu of live band members getting sweaty?  Next time you move, I’ll help with everything but the book boxes.


(Disclaimer: I apologize to all of you who over the years have told me that you’re a non e-book person and have met only with my approving grunts and gazes.  Chalk one up to politesse.  Sorry about that.)


Sadly, however, I’m not the codger I aspire to be.  Behind me as I type are bookshelves filled with books that tell stories, but not only the ones contained inside them.  Every volume I’ve read is linked to when I read it and, just as importantly, with whom.  Consider:

— It isn’t simply that ten years ago I found Robert Stone’s Bay of Souls to be his weakest novel, it’s that my brother and I discussed the novel over Leffes at a tiny bar in the 4th arrondissement during an aureate afternoon the likes of which are always found in Paris but only rumored elsewhere.

— Cormac McCarthy novels recall a dusty back porch in Texas where I explored his “Border Trilogy” with a dear friend.

— Ditto Graham Greene: there’s Graham, but there’s also Jeff and the gin-and-tonics we poured in an effort to recreate the existential crisis stared down by befuddled, 20th century British diplomats.

— A new friend gave me some Italo Calvino last fall, so I consider Six Memos for the New Millenium with him in mind.

— My wife Emily and I have books that are ours, together; I don’t mention them here.  — Whenever I’m back with old comrades from high school, an insertion of an undulating “kill the pig, cut her throat, spill the blood” enlivens any dull stretch of conversation.

Without books on shelves, I lose much of these stories.  Memories are tactile.  Maybe I should ditch my Kindle.  (So you see, my approving grunts and gazes at you who are book luddites really aren’t disingenuous, after all.)


Books are totems to lives shared together, ciphers marking our place in a greater fabric that must mean something before the dying of the day.  They’re stories that are already written but nevertheless write new ones for us, and ours into others’.  The tragedy of Crooks in Of Mice and Men (“S’pose you didn’t have nobody.  S’pose you had to sit out here an’ read books.  A guy needs somebody—to be near him.”), or at least one of them, is that he was forced to read alone.


The End of Your Life Book Club, a featured book at Collingswood’s Book Festival this year, is a book about books, plus all the big stuff like people and family, life and death.  It’s a memoir written by Will Schwalbe that that centers upon the conversations about books shared between himself and Mary Anne, his mother dying of cancer.  Both lifetime readers, Will and Mary Anne sit together in hospital waiting rooms, beaches, and homes while commiserating about what they’d just read.  It was shortly before the end of Mary Anne’s illness that Will decided (with his mother’s permission) to collect their exchanges into a novel.  The books they share are touchstones of communion, remembrance, celebration, and construction.  “[The novels] reminded us that no matter where Mom and I were on our individual journeys, we could still share books,” Will writes, “and while reading those books, we wouldn’t be the sick person and the well person; we would simply be a mother and a son entering new worlds together. What’s more, books provided much-needed ballast—something we both craved, amid the chaos and upheaval of Mom’s illness.”  The End of Your Life Book Club is a beautiful story.


Mary Anne Schwalbe lived from 1934 to 2009, and roughly two years before her death she was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer.  Many of us, if we were writing of our mothers, would present them to the world as extraordinary, but truly Mary Anne fit the label.  In addition to having served as admissions director for Harvard and Radcliffe and having held other positions at different universities and schools, she was a tireless advocate for women’s and refugees’ rights around the world, visiting countless distressed regions and later founding the Women’s Refugee Committee.  Will portrays his mother as a person of deep compassion and energy.  I wish that I could have known her.


The End of Your Life Book Club focuses on the months in which Mary Anne struggles with cancer.  Through the good days and bad, the latter of which eventually outnumber the former, Mary Anne maintains an honest outlook that acknowledges death and yet holds to a gratefulness and optimism that anchors herself and those around her.  She had lived well, and so does she die.  (If I could give any critique to Book Club, it would be that the grace with which Mary Anne bears her declining health is at times difficult to believe—I occasionally found myself waiting for her to say, “Soon return to Dagobah, I must.”  I would have been just as interested to grapple with a narrative about dying from someone that was less sanguine about one’s own demise.  However, since this is a memoir and if Mary Anne genuinely was this saintly, I can’t fault an accurate accounting of her.)


Still, Book Club isn’t only about dying, or even chiefly so.  Mary Anne and Will read and talk about so many different books (Joan Didion, Marilynne Robinson, Herman Melville, Alice Munro, et. al.) that to take them all in is thrilling and dizzying.  Through showing (but not telling), Will details how all of the different texts in the book club add to his and Mary Anne’s sense of humanity, whether by way of confirmation, inspiration, or challenge.  Will also notices that books they share allow him to grow in his knowledge of Mary Anne; he learned more of her through the book discussions (and the time together that the conversations engendered).  At one of her last doctor’s visits as Mary Anne fills out a “Do Not Resuscitate” form, Will is surprised to see that legally, his mother is “Mary Ann,” lacking the final “e” that she and everyone had always used: “And her middle name was Ann. Without an e. I’d never known Mom’s real name.”  Will then knew.  We likewise are given a window into the life of someone remarkable.


Will also affords us a view from which we’re able to appreciate why books are so important to us in the first place.  Gorillas, dolphins, unicorns, and Shetland ponies may communicate with one another, but none of them read.  We do, and we should.  An effect of my reading Book Club was that I resolved to read more books and waste less time on facebook,, and  (Well, maybe not that last one.)  Isn’t it strange that if using the internet and social media tend to dehumanize us, reading books does the opposite?  Facebook has words and is about people—and nothing against facebook, I’m jus’ saying’—but if I veg for an hour or two there, I’m ready to be an extra for Walking Dead.  On the other hand, pushing through Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for the same amount of time gives me courage to persist in the human experiment.  Through books, we know better, and are better known.  Will and Mary Anne’s joint consideration of scores of novels draw each closer to the other.  He observes towards the end of his mother’s life,

When I looked at Mom in that moment, I saw not a sick person, but not quite the same Mom I’d known all my life. After reading so much together, and after so many hours together in doctor’s offices, I felt I’d met a slightly different person, a new person, someone quirkier and funnier. I was going to miss my mother dreadfully but also miss this new person, too—miss getting to know her better.

Reading is a fundamentally relational activity.  We relate to text, to author, and to each other through the mediation of words.


Book Club succeeded as well in making me want to choose better and more challenging books to read.  I’ll keep a few of my sweet tooth, literary peccadilloes, but I need to cut out some narrative junk food.  Which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t read silly things; we only need to find the right kind of silly.  Will at one point in his novel assumes that Mary Anne would sneer at the works of Lewis Carroll, but she retorts,

Lewis Carroll is definitely not silly. It has silliness, but it’s a wonderful, fascinating, complicated book. I’m talking about those novels where the characters aren’t really interesting and you don’t care about them or anything they care about. It’s those I won’t read anymore. There’s too much else to read—books about people and things that matter, books about life and death.

I want to read about people and things that matter and wrestle with life and death.  It would make me a better person.


What’s on your bookshelf?  Will may sound a bit portentous when he observes, “We’re all in the end-of-our-life book club, whether we acknowledge it or not; each book we read may well be the last, each conversation the final one,” but he’s not wrong.


Make no mistake, however: The End of Your Life Book Club is often crushingly sad.  We know from the beginning that we’ll not reach a happy ending.  Mary Anne dies, and that impending event shadows on every page.  I assume I’m not alone among Schwalbe’s readers in that it was impossible for me not to read Book Club without considering my own aging parents, after which an already impossibly heavy subject became so much sadder.  When Will comments, “Mom almost always smiled—but when she was happier than usual she beamed. Her cheeks, just under her eyes, would crinkle, and her smile would encompass her whole being,” I think not only of Mary Anne’s smile, but those of my mom and dad, and at the singularity of each.  I think of the countless other details that only one’s children will remember about a parent, and that many of those once exacerbating markers of identity are becoming forlorn warnings of what’s soon to be no more.  Very near to her last day, Mary Anne attends a gathering for which “she’d put on one of her favorite blouses and a turquoise scarf and her pearls.”  Any author can write a detail like that about any person, but it’s different when you’re describing your dying mother.  The blouse that you may have considered fussy, the scarf outdated, and the pearls overdone suddenly transform into the most beautiful objects in the world.


And can I say this, that death sucks?  It really, really does.  Schwalbe is correct to observe that “more than anything, we are a pretty awkward society when it comes to talking about dying. It’s supposed to happen offstage, in hospitals, and no one wants to dwell on it too much.”  At the same time, the very reason that we prefer to sweep death aside is that it’s so horrible.  You can’t Botox the Grim Reaper.  As a pastor, I’m occasionally asked if I’ve ever officiated a “bad” funeral.  I understand what the question indicates: a bad funeral is one where the death is particularly tragic, early, sudden, or horrific.  My response to this question begins with my allowing that the churches that I’ve pastored have all skewed fairly young in age, so I’ve done far more weddings than funerals.  So I’m lucky, I guess.  Moreover, on the surface I’ve never had to speak at a “bad” funeral, but here’s the thing: all funerals are bad funerals.  There’s always a despondent child, or spouse, or parent, or friends, always lament, always heartbreak, always confusion, always anger.  Not for nothing does St. Paul call death “the last enemy.”  Book Club does well not to ameliorate the abyss that death simply is.


I’ll wrap up by offering a few thoughts on Book Club from a Christian perspective, which hopefully doesn’t seem strange for a Christian pastor to do.  You may be familiar with the Gospel according to St. John.  It’s the last of the four gospel accounts of the life of Jesus, written towards the end of the first century.  Most scholars would agree that the other three gospels were written while many eyewitnesses to Jesus would still have been alive.  John’s gospel is later and in some ways more deeply reflective.  John famously starts his gospel with the declaration, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.”


What’s up with that?  In the centuries before Jesus, Jewish and Greek theologians and philosophers had developed the idea of the divine “logos” (or “word”) that serves as a kind of metaphysical blueprint for the entire cosmos.  It’s the foundational principle or rationale for life, the universe, and everything.  In a daring gambit, John appropriates this concept of logos and applies it directly to Jesus, the “he” of John’s gospel prologue.  Christians have often taken the beginning of this fourth gospel as a statement of Christ’s divinity—which, as a Christian, I hold as an article of faith—but I believe that there’s more going on here than that.  John could have found any number of ways to stress the divine nature of Jesus, but he specifically chose word.  To me, we can glean from John’s gospel that behind all of our words stands a Word from which all of ours flows.  Our words and stories, therefore, are not merely an exercise in our painting language games upon an ultimately mute interstellar canvas.  Instead, because there is a deeper, sturdier Word, our words gain anchor, value, permanence, and even nobility.  Soon after the opening of Book Club, Schwalbe writes, “Reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying.”  I believe this to be true (and bracing) at many levels, but the reality of the Word causes this statement to be true, completely.


What’s more, what if this Word—and remember, words at their most pure are also the most ephemeral—was in human history married to the material and contended with the last enemy, the brute physicality of which would seem to render even the most powerful words silent?  What if that Word was defeated by death but in that act conquered the conqueror and gave new songs, new words to a hobbled creation?


Will and Mary Anne in The End of Your Life Book Club together read John Updike’s Tears of our Fathers, a passage of which reads,

The list of our deceased classmates on the back of the program grows longer; the class beauties have gone to fat or bony-cronehood; the sports stars and non-athletes alike move about with the aid of pacemakers and plastic knees, retired and taking up space at an age when most of our fathers were considerately dead. It continued: But we don’t see ourselves that way, as lame and old. We see kindergarten children—the same round fresh faces, the same cup ears and long-lashed eyes. We hear the gleeful shrieking during elementary-school recess and the seductive saxophones and muted trumpets of the locally bred swing bands that serenaded the blue-lit gymnasium during high-school dances.

Updike here evocatively describes both the ravages of age and the buoyancy of the human spirit.  Through the Word, a loving God knows us not as our brokenness deforms us but as new, if not as we once were yet as we will be.  There will be new words.



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“Tree of Smoke”

Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson

With the newest adaption of The Great Gatsby soon arriving at a silver screen near you, I’ve been interested to see various opinions of the novel appearing across the internet: it seems we agree that Gatsby is a great novel, but many of us didn’t enjoy it very much.

Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke—the 2007 National Book Award winner for fiction—may have given me a similar, Gatsby-esque experience.  Before Tree of Smoke, I’d read a tragicomic book called The Imperfectionists; I enjoyed reading it but regretted that I had.  Tree of Smoke is the opposite.

Could it be, however, that I’m only succumbing to the hubris inherent in wanting to enjoy important fiction?  Johnson’s tome has all of those telltale signs.  It won prestigious awards, ran on very long (700+ pages), lacked a coherent plot, jumped wildly between major characters and time periods, and ended with an irresolute sense of ennui.  Send in the clowns!

But not so fast.  There’s a difference between books that ridicule who we are (read: The Imperfectionists) and others that grieve over it.  The former type dehumanizes us, but the latter yields a quiet sobriety that brings us back to our better angels.  One of the characters in Tree of Smoke observes, “I know from experience that life is suffering, and that suffering comes from clinging to things that won’t stay.”  I find that to be a bitter axiom, but probably a true one.  Realistically, if our world is broken, what alternative do we have to clinging to things that won’t stay?  Better to cling and then lament than not to need at all.  Watching sports will only take us so far.

The Vietnam War provides the backdrop for the entirety of Tree of Smoke, although the novel is not really about the war.  Instead, Vietnam becomes a projection of our conflicted psychology that removes us farther and farther from our unified selves.  One soldier in the book wonders out loud, “It’s just stupid, man. Have you looked around yourself lately? This isn’t a war. It’s a disease. A plague.”  The late 20th century’s allegorical cave.

The main character of the book, to the extent that there is one, is Skip Sands, a CIA psy-ops agent whose role in the conflict becomes increasingly unclear.  Skip’s uncle, simply referred to as the “Colonel,” is a semi-rogue operative in the area; the novel begins with Skip serving his country by aiding him.  Soon after, Skip merely helps his uncle as the U.S.’s interests (whatever they might have been in Vietnam) recede from view, after which Skip finally serves no larger interests than his own.  (The “Tree of Smoke” itself is the Colonel’s master plan for spying against the Vietcong; however, although the Colonel calls the Tree of Smoke his “guiding light of a sincere goal for the function of intelligence,” the Tree of Smoke comes to represent the wisps of everything ambiguous about the war.)  The fascinating aspect of the arc of Skip’s moral decline is that he ends up crossing the line specifically because it doesn’t look like there is one.  None of us simply decides one day to be a monster; it grows on us.

Skip eventually is executed years following the Vietnam War for running guns throughout the far east.  Days before he faces his firing squad, he writes to an ex-girlfriend, “After I left Vietnam I quit working for the giant-size criminals I worked for when I knew you and started working for the medium size. Lousy hours and no fringe benefits, but the ethics are clearer. And the stakes are plain. You prosper until you’re caught. Then you lose everything.”  The author has already shown us, however, that Skip had lost everything long before he lost everything, even if (scarily) we’re not sure just when that first loss occurred.  Still, we cling to what won’t stay, and therefore we suffer for Skip while we avoid the mirror.

We encounter other people in Tree of Smoke, most notably two brothers who grew up in poverty in the Southwestern United States and are turned into savages by Vietnam, but the reality of death so thoroughly pervades the novel that it becomes a character in its own right.  (Remember how I said that this wasn’t a fun read?)  Often in Tree of Smoke’s jungles, death merges with the mud, the puddles, the humidity, the tangles.  “When death was around,” one grunt recalls, “you got right down to your soul.  These others felt it too.”  Maybe as a pastor I have to deal with death more frequently than most, but don’t we all feel death crowd in, at least sometimes?  We want to disagree with the Colonel who at one point warns his crew, “I tell you this sincerely: there’d better not be a man at this table who in any way fears death.  It’s all death anyway.”  But we’re listening to him.

The problem is not only that we can’t escape the seriousness of the question, but that somehow we know we shouldn’t.  The heaviness of the darkness is lost on most creatures, but not to us.  One person in Tree of Smoke stares out into evening and writes in his journal, “Night again, the insects are loud, the moths are killing themselves on the lamp.  Two hours ago I sat on the veranda looking out at the dusk, filled with envy for each living entity—bird, bug, blossom, reptile, tree, and vine—that doesn’t bear the burden of good and evil.”  We can try to drown out the tolling bells and the burden of good and evil, but it would be a less than human existence.  Hello, bug zapper.

Tree of Smoke ends strangely: it closes with Skip’s ex-girlfriend, who is just a minor character, stepping into center stage for the first time (after 700 pages!).  Perhaps Johnson’s focus straightforwardly shifts to her because she outlives all of the other actors in the novel.  The final sentences of the book portray a sense of desperation along with a concept previously unexplored in Tree of Smoke yet often conspicuous by the emphasis upon death as its photo-negative.  As the curtain falls, Johnson writes, “She sat in [a large group of people] thinking—someone here has cancer, someone has a broken heart, someone’s soul is lost, someone feels naked and foreign, thinks they once knew the way but can’t remember the way, feels stripped of armor and alone, there are people in this audience with broken bones, others whose bones will break sooner or later, people who’ve ruined their health, worshipped their own lies, spat on their dreams, turned their backs on their true beliefs, yes, yes, and all will be saved. All will be saved. All will be saved.”  Before these last words, who in Tree of Smoke said anything about being rescued?  But it’s another human question.

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“The Imperfectionists”

The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman

It’s not often that reading a novel makes me angry—who gets mad at books?—but Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists made me angry.  While working through the book, I occasionally greatly enjoyed it, but it all curdled in the end.  The Imperfectionists caused me to wonder why I read fiction in the first place.  I watch movies, TV, and sports to escape, but those media plasticize me if I overdo it.  I swim in books to remember how to feel deeply, and The Imperfectionists only stirred me up like a bad Phillies game.

Set in the latter part of last decade, Rachman details the decline and fall of an English-speaking, International Herald Tribune-style newspaper (albeit without the New York Times backing) in Rome.  Various and mostly American expats shuffle around the deck in an effort to rescue some dignity while the vessel sinks, and Rachman relates the story of the paper through interlocking chapters that each focus on a different person from the news office.  (For this kind of structure, think Olive Kitteridge, A Visit from the Goon Squad, Cloud Atlas, etc.)  The characters in The Imperfectionists tend to be well articulated, and you’ll find nothing unpleasant about Rachman’s writing style.  However, most of the actors are quite petty and distasteful, which wouldn’t bother me, except that it doesn’t seem to bother Rachman, either.

Let’s read books about people’s lives falling apart—I prefer sad books to happy ones because they feel more real—but let’s agree that the disintegration of souls is something to lament, or else why note it in the first place.  From the publisher whose star falls with the demise of the paper to a foreign correspondent that writes increasingly empty pieces, The Imperfectionists depicts characters burning down their own wicks.  All well and good, but as I read through every person’s perfectly fitting collapse, an overall archness pervaded the novel in such a way the volume finally came across as an ironic tease.  (In order to keep readers from any lingering questions as to how completely these characters break down, a convenient summary list of the dramatis personae at the book’s conclusion supplies us with the disagreeable, off-camera denouements for each one.)  If too-perfect happy endings are trite, so are the immaculate sad ones.  Tragic novels, or even tragicomic ones like The Imperfectionists, require a measure of warmth and compassion for its characters or else it all just seems mean.  We appreciate the lovable drunks, but not the nasty boozers.

Case in point is a chapter in which the newspaper’s CFO fires one of her editors but believes that the fired editor doesn’t know that she herself gave the order.  The CFO then finds herself next to her ex-editor on a transatlantic flight in which his gentle manner and optimism about future job prospects attract her.  A naturally withdrawn divorcee, she over the course of the flight begins to imagine yielding herself to another in love for the first time in years.  After the flight, the two eventually drift to a hotel room stateside, and the former editor seduces the CFO until she sits naked on the side of the bed, beckoning for him.  Only then does his voice harden and he asks, “Why did you go and get me fired?  Explain me that.”  Chapter’s end.

I don’t dispute that we can be that bad, but only that we’re actually that good at being bad.  For the chapter about the CFO and the editor, if Rachman wants to demonstrate that a human being can’t fire another without consequences, I’d be interested to read that story, but not one where the comeuppance isn’t nearly as believable as the “crime.”  As the novel progresses and more lives dissipate—we read how crazy a crazy hoarder really is, about a man who can’t relate to people but whose canine best friend dog dies suddenly, and so on—I felt less and less sorry about what was lost, but more cheated: I prefer my nihilism less facile and tidy than The Imperfectionists.   Maybe the joke’s on me, but I get mad when I feel like I as a reader care more about the characters than the author.  I’m the one on the edge of the bed.

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“The Sun Also Rises”

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
What a scoundrel, that Ernest Hemingway.  At least that’s what I think that many people think about him: Hemingway was a lush that had all the best times and travels, enjoyed more fun than anyone (except for the suicide part at the end), but was lucky enough to have won the cosmic lottery and received extraordinary gifts of prose that enabled the sun never to set upon his rambling, moveable feast.

Then the backlash: Hemingway was a lush, etc., but was lucky enough to trick everyone into believing that he had won the cosmic lottery and gained extraordinary gifts of prose, etc.  The Hemingway has no clothes.  On this contrarian view, Hemingway is only well regarded by his male readership because they wish they could be like him, and female readership with him.

Thank goodness for Words of Angehr, so that this whole mess will be sorted out once and for all.

This is my first Hemingway.  On the basis of The Sun Also Rises (1926), billed as his first masterpiece, is he a great writer?  The answer requires me to dip into Beatleology.  Ringo Starr, the drummer of the Fab Four, is considered one of the finest of the kind in rock and roll, and a distinctive one at that.  The problem is, Ringo apparently lacked some basic drumming skills for which he had to improvise alternate techniques that would hide his faults; these Starr cover-up moves were hailed as genius by legions and generations of imitators, although most of the imitators knew meat and potatoes drumming better than Ringo.  Sooooooooooo, is Ringo a great drummer?

Sure he is, and Ernest Hemingway is a great writer.  But not the greatest.  It’s his minimalist prose that makes some readers into true believers, and yes, Hemingway must have had bad experiences with adjectives when he was growing up.  The Sun Also Rises has a spare beauty of style that gives a toughness and clarity to its characters and narrative.  (I actually think West Texas is beautiful, so maybe I’ve been set up to be a Hemingway fan.)  At the same time, I suspect that his bag of writer’s tricks is smaller than some of his contemporaries’.  But hey, I’m beginning to really dig the Beatles.

Most importantly, however, the style of The Sun Also Rises serves the story magnificently.  A gang of disaffected, not-so-young-anymore Americans maraud around post-World War I Europe, looking for diversions as they hen-peck each other to death.  If that sounds a little bit nasty, it is.  The central axis of the novel is the doomed relationship between Jake, for whom a vaguely-described war injury has left him impotent, and Lady Ashley, whose beauty is failing ever so imperceptibly but inexorably.  This doomed, unconsummated affair attracts other “friends” that are animated by the sadnesses that spill over from Jake and Ashley.

Aside from Hemingway’s gifts as a writer, I’m glad I read The Sun Also Rises because despite (or perhaps because of) the meanness, the book is true.  I relate to Jake as he relishes the obvious anxiety of his friend Cohn:
At the station the train was late, and we sat on a baggage-truck and waited outside in the dark. I have never seen a man in civil life as nervous as Robert Cohn—nor as eager. I was enjoying it. It was lousy to enjoy it, but I felt lousy. Cohn had a wonderful quality of bringing out the worst in anybody.
We all have our Cohns, don’t we?

Still, Jake is honest enough to realize that the problem isn’t Cohn at all.  After Jake learns that Cohn and Ashley have become lovers, he ruminates,
Why I felt that impulse to devil him I do not know. Of course I do know. I was blind, unforgivingly jealous of what had happened to him. The fact that I took it as a matter of course did not alter that any. I certainly did hate him. I do not think I ever really hated him until he had that little spell of superiority at lunch. . .
Jake hates because he wants to.

I’ve heard people criticize Jake as facile and ill-formed, but in Jake, Hemingway comprehends the difficulty of staying hateful all the time and the inconsistency of the contrary.  It’s easier to dabble in genuine spite and then hide behind masks.  Later in the novel, at a dinner of the same crew that has occasionally savaged each other thus far, Jake relents: “There was much wine, an ignored tension, and a feeling of things coming that you could not prevent happening. Under the wine I lost the disgusted feeling and was happy. It seemed they were all such nice people.”

If only life were that simple, but Hemingway knows it’s not, which is why the book cuts as deeply as it does.  All of the characters in The Sun Also Rises end worse than they began—older, meaner, more dissolute—but at least they have the dignity to be sad about it, which is itself rather an act of courage.

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W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz
Recently at church I remarked that to comprehend sadness requires great courage and resolve.  I admit that I’m often a coward, whether in relation to taking in the scope of the hurricane destruction of my hometown, New Orleans, the tsunami that brought havoc to Japan, or something like the Holocaust, the subject of W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz.  Too much.

Schindler’s List, another Holocaust remembrance, was a wonderful movie, but I only saw it once.  For all of the tragic beauty of the film, why would I endure witnessing panels from that genocide again?  So I’ve avoided Holocaust fiction, which is a large genre, for the same general reason.  Individual sadnesses seem easier to comprehend than mass ones.

I’m puzzled that I’ve now read a representative of Holocaust fiction—Sebald’s—but I suspect that Austerlitz itself gives the clue.  The title character of this novel—published here in translation from the German in 2001—is an old British academic strangely drawn to train stations.  One time, as Austerlitz wanders through a particular Paris depot, a sudden flashback overtakes him.  He vividly recalls sitting in the same area as a four year-old child waiting to be adopted by a childless Welsh couple.  Austerlitz has known that he was not native Welsh but had known very little of his previous life, where he was from and why he was given away.  The recognition of the Parisian train station, however, causes him to excavate his own past.  After psychologically torturous reconstructions, he finds his way back to the Czech Republic and to the now elderly nanny that long ago had set him on a train ultimately to Wales.  Austerlitz was Jewish, and as Hitler tightened his grip upon Eastern Europe, his parents spirited him away to safer shores; his father, an anti-Hitler agitator, was hunted down by the SS in occupied Paris, and his mother, a stage actress, perished in a concentration camp.

Before coming to understand his true identity and past, Austerlitz was a man haunted and distracted.  At the beginning of the novel, he tells a confidant “about the marks of pain which, as he said he well knew, trace countless fine lines through history.”   Full knowledge of his beginnings, however, turns this distant person into a devastated one:
In the end I was linked to other people only by certain forms of courtesy which I took to extremes and which I know today. . .  I observed not so much for the sake of their recipients as because they allowed me to ignore the fact that my life has always. . . been clouded by an unrelieved despair.
What a strange novel.  How strange of me to read it.

I know next to nothing about W. G. Sebald, who had enjoyed a long literary career but died before Austerlitz was released.  Why would he tell such a story?  Why does Austerlitz compulsively seek knowledge that will unravel him?  And less importantly but still interestingly for me (of course), why would I read such a book?  I think the answer is the same for all three questions, namely that human beings possess the peculiar quality of desiring ugly truths over pretty falsehoods.  At least the (sometimes) courageous ones do.  Why live if we don’t want to know?

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“Saints and Sinners”

Edna O’Brien, Saints and Sinner: Stories
During the falls of my freshman and sophomore years of high school, while then-athletes and soon-to-be couch potatoes banged into each other with football pads, I ran cross country instead.  Preferring the thoughtful elegance of basketball—my winter sport—to the pseudo-Darwinism of the gridiron anyway, I was glad to have passed on the sport of mules.  (Just kidding, you former football players and current couch potatoes, and could you please pass the French Onion dip?)

Still, I hated cross country.  It’s a great sport, builds character, separates the men from the boys (unless girls’ cross country), etc., but there sure was a lot of running involved.  Plus, cross country always began in August.  In New Orleans.  At 3.30pm.

Dave Rice was my cross country coach, and he was a great guy.  He lived right across the street from my school, had coached since the 19th century, and truly dedicated his life to generations of students.  Coach Rice also had a very peculiar command of the English language, as is the case with many New Orleanians.  One word that in particular sparked reaction occurred on days where instead of steady jogging, we’d do long series of sprinting, then jogging, then sprinting, then walking, the sprinting, then fainting, then sprinting, then “Clear!!!” [zap] “Clear!!!” [zap], then sprinting, then driving home.  On such days, we cowered before the prospect of certain exhaustion that leered before us, but the sheer despair that enveloped us was slightly ameliorated by the fact that Coach Rice called this sprint-stop-sprint routine “fartleks.”  “Fartlek” is pronounced just like it’s spelled, and we were astounded and delighted that “fartlek” was one word that Coach Rice nailed.  The spasmodic laughter that struck us 15 year-olds every time Coach Rice pronounced “fartlek” was thunderous.  “Time to do fartleks, boys!”  “Do what, Coach?”  “Fartleks!”  “I thought that was for Tuesdays?”  “No, today we’re fartleking!”  “Doing what?”  “Fartleks!”  “How long?” “One hour of fartleks!”  “By ourselves or together?”  Et cetera, for as long as we could put off the misery of interval training.  The roar of our laughter was only dampened by the sobering knowledge that we were wasting oxygen that would have come in very handy later on.

Adolescence aside, fartleks were excruciating.   You fully invest in an all-out run, exhausting yourself, but then you only have moments to recover before doing the same thing all over again.

I find reading short story collections to be like fartleks.  I can handle novels far more easily: they’re a leisurely jog with only gentle inclines, merciful slopes, steady pacing, then kick it up at the end.  Books of short stories, on the other hand, require me in the space of only a few pages to give myself over to a set of characters, a plot, and a setting that will soon end, and then I take a deep breath just for a moment before sprinting ahead into a completely different fictional world.  I’m spent many times over by the end of the work.

For all of my giggling and grousing about high school fartleks, however, I still do interval training every week or so when I jog in Tech Terrace Park.  Sure, there’s nothing as tiring, but regular jogging isn’t as exhilarating as fartleks, either.   I guess that’s why, despite the debilitating demands, I love to read short story collections.  (Life is short; read hard.)

Casting around for a book of short stories, I found Saints and Sinners: Stories, written by Edna O’Brien, a grande dame of Irish literature.  O’Brien has written many things, including the controversial-for-the-time The Country Girls in 1960, and is a master of Irish English.  (I would have loved to have overheard a conversation between her and Coach Rice.)  So many things came together to turn me into a homer for this volume: the short story genre itself, verdant prose, Irishness, a title that appealed to my hometown sensibilities and current vocation, Kindle friendly.  I’m in!  Saints and Sinners is wonderful.  I’m working through piecemeal John Cheever’s Pulitzer-winning short story compendium, and while it’s longer than Saints and Sinners, I’m not sure it’s better.

For starters, short stories are sour if they don’t get the details right.  Interestingly, I tend to believe that Irish writers in particular have an ear for the little things.  In “Send My Roots Rain,” a vignette about an aging single woman, with a boyfriend one night she “watched a video of Elvis that she had rented, sitting in her front room by a warm fire and drinking red wine from the good glasses.”  Now, Mrs. Siegel taught me in fifth grade that using the word “good” in fiction is banal, but the “good” in this O’Brien sentence is sublime.  We have here close third-person narration, in which the voice of the narrator approximates the perspective of the main character.  Consider, then, that rich people don’t differentiate between the “good” wine glasses and “bad” wine glasses.  It’s just wine glasses to them.  Ditto, actually, for the truly destitute: it’s just a glass, and be thankful you have one.  But imagine, however, a woman rich enough to have a couple of “good” wine glasses, yet poor enough to have to save them for special occasions, and aware enough to know that every time she enjoys a Cabernet there’s a choice to me made.  Envision this woman, as her boyfriend pops a video (Elvis, no less) into the VCR, being called to the couch just as she opens the cabinet and quickly calculates whether the evening will be a “good” glass or “bad” glass kind of night.   Picture the pathos and loneliness that must be woven into a life beset by such decisions.  Finally, understand that what took me three sentences to explain, O’Brien captures simply in “good.”

Another example of O’Brien’s mastery of detail: “Green Georgette” tells of an impoverished young girl who chances into a car ride with the wealthiest and gaudiest woman in town, whom the girl has always idolized from a distance.  Who else but a small girl in this type of situation would reflect, “I try to maneuver a seat in front of her, so that I can turn round and stare at her, and take note of her little habits and how often she swallows. She blinks with such languor”?  As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago at church, I’m still relatively new to the world of girls, but I know that if either of my daughters would as pre-teens be enraptured by a genteel lady, they alone and they in particular would notice the languor of her blinking.

Details aside, O’Brien likewise possesses a sure hand when it comes to place, as seemingly all Irish writers do.  (What is it about Ireland that makes Irish writers so Irish?) Strangely, though, Irish attachment to place seems to me consistently and deeply ambivalent.  One character in Saints and Sinners observes, “The odd thing was that you can be attached to a place, or a person, you don’t particularly like, and [I] put it down to mankind’s addiction to habit.”  I’ve never read an Irish fiction or poem that doesn’t say something like this.  At least from an outsider’s (read: my) perspective, the remarkable aspect of Ireland-as-place in the eyes of its natives is its givenness.  By contrast, seldom is Ireland a comfortable proposition, but neither is anyone else.  One person in “Shovel Kings” speaks of another, “He doesn’t belong in England, and ditto Ireland.”  Of course, the man in question is Irish.

Perhaps it’s this sense of unease yet connection to place that draws me to Irish literature.  Place-but-displacement is a profoundly Biblical idea.  Ireland may be wretched, but it’s home, except that it can’t be.  Ditto England, or America, or wherever.  In a fallen world, our connection to place always transmits with static, the clear signal just beyond any twist of the dial.  Most people in Saints and Sinners wrestle with this dialectic, and one even registers that ambivalence for place is actually a reaching for a better country: “Soon as I can walk I will set out.  To find another, like me.  We will recognize each other by the rosary of poppies and the speech of our eyes.  We, the defiled ones, in our thousands, scattered, trudging over the land, the petrified land, in search of a safe haven, if such a place exists.  Many and terrible are the roads that lead to home.”  It’s no coincidence that the woman voicing these words—the story is “Plunder”—has been sexually brutalized to death.  There must be a better place for us.

It takes some audacity to title a book Saints and Sinners; it’s pulpy to a fault, unless the meat of the book is anything but.  I’m glad that Edna O’Brien took the risk on a could-be-bad title.  I don’t know if she harbors any religious convictions, but that’s really beside the point; fittingly, Saints and Sinners through short fiction tells a meta-story of creation, fall, and redemption.  Truly we are sinners, and it’s a symptom of the disease that we may not even know it.  The tragic spinster of “Sinners” has died before her death, for “her heart had walled up a long time ago, she had forgotten the little things, the little pleasures, the give-and-take that is life.  She had even forgotten her own sins.”  This person is walking dead, and guilty.

Another story in Saints and Sinners ends with a vision of heaven.  In “My Two Mothers,” a middle aged-woman mourns the loss of her surrogate mother, but she experiences a grieving not untouched by hope.  She muses, “I wait for the dream that leads us beyond the ghastly white spittoon and the metal razor [of a hospital], to fields and meadows, up onto the mountain, that bluish realm, half earth, half sky, . . to begin our journey all over again, to live our lives as they should have been lived, happy, trusting, and free of shame.”  This is a universal longing and hope, I believe.

The tragedy, however, is that our hope of heaven is assailed by our own guilt and despair.  Can we ever somehow return and  live our lives as they should have been lived, and can we ourselves truly live as happy, trusting, and free of shame?  Is that possible, and—haunting to consider—would we even deserve it?  O’Brien answers these questions in a different story than “My Two Mothers,” as the answer must come from a different story, this time from “Black Flower.”  And could the answer come in anything but a prayer?  “How beautiful it would be if one of us could step forward and volunteer to become the warrior for others.  What a firmament of love ours would be.”

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