Molly Fox's Birthday, by Deirdre Madden

Another remarkable novel from Madden, who is rapidly rising in the ranks of my favorite authors. On this midsummer's day, which happens to be the birthday of the fine and famous actor Molly Fox, our narrator wakes to find herself in Fox's bedroom in Dublin. The two are long-time friends and have swapped homes for a bit while Molly does some work in London and our narrator works on her new play. It has her a bit stymied. She's struggling to find the meaning of the image that has captured her imagination and is the germ of the new play: a man holding a hare. Madden, who has written so perceptively about the artist's process is equally adept at getting to the heart of those in the theatre.

For me, as a playwright, the creation of a character is like listening to something faint and distant. It's like trying to remember someone one knew slightly, in passing, a very long time ago, but to remember them so that one knows them better than one knows oneself. It's like trying to know a family member who died before one was born, from looking at photographs and objects belonging to them; also from hearing the things, often contradictory, that people say about them, the anecdotes told . . . For me, the play is the final destination. For Molly, it is the point of departure. She takes the text, mine or anyone's, and works backwards to discover from what her character says who this person is, so that she can become them.

Questions of identity, of understanding ourselves and those closest to us drive this book, as we go through the day in Dublin. You'd think there'd be a rule against taking on a classic like Ulysses, yet Madden makes me forget I've ever heard of Joyce. She cheerfully breaks another writer's rule: don't start your novel with a dream. She succeeds by getting through the dream quickly, using the awakening as a natural introduction to Molly Fox's world, and having the meaning of the dream be so oblique that it is only when the novel is done that we fully understand it.

I enjoyed this book so much that I didn't even register that it is a continuous narrative, without chapter breaks, and that the first-person narrator remains unnamed. I loved reading about the theatre, but it is the gradual revelation of character that enthralled me. Along with the narrator, we circle deeper and deeper into the past and present of her closest friends, adding nuance and complexity with each slim layer.

One of the strange things about really old friendships is that the past is both important and not important. Taking the quality of the thing as a given—the affection, the trust—the fact that I had known both Molly and Andrew for over twenty years gave my relationships with them more weight and significance than friendships of, say, three or four years' standing. And yet we rarely spoke to each other of the past, of our lives and experiences during that long period of time.

Even on this magical day they say very little, yet much is revealed. Andrew is an art historian who has improbably become a television personality, able to drop his shyness and pedantry in front of the impersonal camera. Molly too protects herself, refusing to answer direct questions, tossing off valuable bits of personal information only in the most offhand manner in an improbably situation. She “communicat(es) something of her deepest self in a way that is only possible for her when she is on stage.” Perhaps we can only reveal ourselves in artificial situations, or perhaps we can only recognise the truth of others when they are taken out of context. I remember seeing Farewell, My Concubine and being unbearably moved by the love story, I who thought myself immunized through boring repetition to love stories. It was only in this—to me—foreign context that the emotion could reach me.

It is not only friends who move through this tale, but family as well, families abandoned or abandoning. The narrator's older brother, Tom, a parish priest, has been the great bulwark of her life, introducing her to the theatre, preserving her self-confidence as she grew into the knowledge that she was the oddball in her family. Molly cares for her damaged brother, Fergus, while Andrew is haunted by his brother, Billy. Seemingly straightforward, these relationships and interrelationships whisper through the story, shedding veils, prompting more questions.

I learned long ago that the roles people choose to play are one way to get at the core of their identity, but I'm still left wondering how well I know anyone. I also still wonder how well people know themselves. In contrast to Molly, Andrew and the narrator, we meet an old school chum the narrator runs into at the shops. As they catch up on the intervening years she thinks, “In that instant she looked like someone who had awoken from a dream, the dream that was her life, and who saw it for the first time for what it was, how far it was from what she had imagined in the past it might become.”

The book bears these weighty themes lightly, being on its surface simply delightful, with lovely descriptions of Fox's garden full of sweet peas and climbing roses, raspberries and blackberries, and an unlikely life-size black-and-white cow made of fiberglass. There is also plenty of gentle humor in, for example, the number of people who turn up at the front door to wish Fox a happy birthday and try to hide their dismay at finding our narrator instead. I highly recommend that you spend a midsummer day with Deirdre Madden, while I hare off to find more of her novels.

The Cove, by Ron Rash

Deep in the mountains, outside the small Carolina town of Mars Hill, there's a hidden cove. You approach it by walking past Slidell's farmhouse and then going down a trail past a tree hung with bottles that clink like wind chimes, crunching old salt licks and broken glass underfoot. You pass through a grove of dead chestnut trees and find another farmhouse, standing alone amid fields starved of sunshine by the granite overhang.

Ron Rash is expert at summoning up a sense of place, selecting just the right details to convey his story's mood, here one of isolated beauty shadowed by implacable rock.

A brother and sister live in the lonely farmhouse: Hank, who lost a hand in the war—World War I—and Laurel. Hank's service and sacrifice have finally made him acceptable to the townspeople. who have long believed that the cove and its inhabitants are cursed. Their forbearance doesn't extend to Laurel, whom they still believe to be a witch because she has a birthmark. She has been forced out of school and is shunned when she goes into town. Only Slidell—who has his own quarrel with the people of Mars Hill—has stood by the pair.

From the farmhouse, Laurel takes a path down to the pond where she washes clothes and spreads them to dry on the rocks, one of her favorite places because it is blessed by a spot of sunshine. Working there one day, she hears birdsong, one she doesn't recognise. Following the sound she discovers a boy dressed in tatters playing a flute, playing so beautifully that it seems almost unearthly. The boy, Walter, along with Laurel and Hank are the core of this story of superstition and prejudice and love and loyalty.

Their story is only too relevant to today's society where preconceptions and self-serving distortions of the truth feed fear and anger, which in turn make us lash out at the perceived enemy—so conveniently “other”—and keep us from recognising our common humanity.

Rash has given us yet another gripping story, set in the past but speaking to our present. I particularly appreciate the directness of his sentences. Though seemingly simple, they feel freighted with meaning. Cumulatively they set up the expectation of a story told well and with great control, so the slightest hint of lyricism becomes take-your-breath-away powerful.

I found Rash's stories strong, but sometimes short story writers trip over the long form of a novel. Not Rash. This novel displays all the gifts of pacing and surprise that I found in his stories. He has another novel, Serena, which is currently being made into a film, so I will add that to my to-be-read pile.

Do you prefer to read books before seeing the film? Are there any films that you thought more successful than the books on which they were based?

Collected Poems, by Hope Mirrlees

Born in 1887, Mirrlees was a poet, novelist, and translator who is best known for her fantasy novel, Lud-in-the-Mist (1926), and an influential modernist poem, “Paris” (1920). After graduating from Newnham College, Cambridge in 1913, Mirrlees came to Paris where she eventually settled and was joined by her former tutor and great friend, Jane Ellen Harrison, well-known as one of the first women academicians and someone whose books on the function of ritual I've long treasured.

In the 1920s, Mirrlees was part of the Bloomsbury group, friends with Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Dora Carrington, Roger Fry, Mary MacCarthy, and Lady Ottoline Morrell. In Paris she became friends with Gertrude Stein, Bertrand Russell, and André Gide.

“Paris” chronicles a day's trek through that city, starting in the underground, wandering the streets, and finishing up at dawn in her room on the hotel's top floor. At the start, this experimental poem puts us on the metro with Mirrlees. We see the ads; we hear the clacking of the wheels. As writers we are told to select our details carefully to support the story. Mirrlees does this brilliantly, even with the ads deep in the metro tunnels:


I recognised the name of the cigarette paper and love the way it foreshadows her trek through Paris. I didn't know the other two products, but “noir” and “cacao” both call up the idea of darkness, not just the darkness of the underground tunnel, but the metaphysical darkness to be explored.

We come up to the Place Concorde, famous as the site where the guillotine did its grisly work but also as the setting for Pound's poem, “In a Station of the Metro”:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;?
petals on a wet, black bough.

As she walks the streets, Mirrlees crafts her impressions and meditations into a vivid portrait of the city. The sights and sounds coalesce the way the planes of a Cubist painting merge into movement. We get moments out of history: a flâneur's cape, a Roman boy, Saint-Honoré and the Duchess of Alba. We get glimpses of other parts of France in references to people and architecture.

An Auvergnat, all the mountains of Auvergne in
every chestnut he sells . . .

Paris is a huge home-sick peasant,
He carries a thousand villages in his heart.

Further study pays off, though. I appreciated the Notes by Julia Briggs included in this edition which helped me to grasp some of the more esoteric references and jokes. For example, the “Brekekekek coax coax” that perfectly mimics the rattling of the carriage wheels is also a quote from the chorus of the frogs in Aristophanes' play of the same name, when they are in the underworld.

Her fragmentary, stream of consciousness style was new to British poetry when Hogarth Press published “Paris”. She acknowledged the influence of Jean Cocteau's poem “Le Cap de Bonne-Espérance”, and her poem became a bridge between French experimental poets and British writers. Her erudite references and use of footnotes are believed to have influenced her close friend, T.S. Eliot, in “The Wasteland” which he began the following year. He was a long-time friend of her wealthy family and lived with them during WWII; he wrote “Four Quartets” at their home. It's hard to believe her theme of a day-long stroll through a city didn't influence Joyce's Ulysses which was published in 1922.

After “Paris”, though, she did not publish poetry again until the 1960s. Although she continued her intellectual life in Paris and later Capetown, South Africa, she was reclusive, retaining only a reduced circle of friends. In the 1960s she began publishing poetry again, but instead of continuing her experimental work, her later poems are formal. I enjoyed them as well, though some seem more successful to me than others. And she certainly did not lose her sense of humor, as evidenced by this sweet poem:

A Doggerel Epitaph for My Little Dog, Sally

Here lies the dust of my small peke.
She had no need to learn to speak,
For tongues will sometimes tell you lies,
But never will a doggy's eyes.
She had no need of printed book,
For she could read my every look.
She owned but little: harness, ball,
Her basket and my heart, that's all.
And if I hear in death's dark valley
A distant bark, I'll know it's Sally.

In the intervening decades, she worked on a biography of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton, one volume of which was published in 1963. I had never heard of this 17th century Member of Parliament, but he is famous for amassing what is known as the Cotton Library, a huge collection of ancient manuscripts. Mirrlees passed away in 1978.

I recommend “Paris”, this rediscovered modernist masterpiece. Take your time with it.

The Art Forger, by B.A. Shapiro

I'm still thinking about artists and their process. Here we have Claire Roth, a young painter who has somehow made herself anathema to the art world. She is still painting, alone in her hardscrabble Boston studio, one of a warren of studios carved out of an old handkerchief factory where she—illegally—also lives. She's working on what she calls her windows series. As she describes them to the gallery owner who has come to view her work:

“It's urban windows, Boston windows. Hopper-esque thematically but more multi-dimensional. Not just the public face of loneliness, but who we are in many dimensions. Unseen from the inside. Or unknowingly seen. On display from outside, posturing or forgetting. Separations. Reflections, refractions.”

Mostly, though, she makes her living copying paintings for Her specialty is Degas. As the story opens, Claire is offered a Faustian bargain that, if it comes off, will restore her place in the art world and coincidentally do good in the world.

As I followed her struggle to distinguish right from wrong, not just in this initial decision but throughout the book, I thought about another book I am reading. In Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, Sissela Bok delves deeply into questions around deliberately telling untruths. Is there any circumstance where it is ethical to tell a lie? What are the true costs and benefits of each kind of lie? As one character says to Claire, “‘There's illegal and there's illegal.'”

I loved hearing Claire describe her own paintings, the genesis of them and how she executes them, how she hangs them and what she admires about them. I also became deeply caught up in the details of copying, even forging, an old painting. The particulars about glazes and washes and brushstrokes were slipped casually into the story, at first almost without my noticing and then I started seeking them out.

I wanted more, but at the same time was thoroughly caught up in the story. It becomes quite a thrilling mystery, touching places and events in Boston with which I am very familiar. Finally I just gave up pretending I would wait until bedtime to finish it and tore through to the end.

Of course, I rooted for Claire as an underdog—her pariah status hounds her attempts to establish herself as an artist—but I also loved her snarky reaction to a pretentious fellow artist who won a contest she herself had hoped to win and thereby re-establish her reputation. I loved too the banter with her friends in the local at the end of the day.

The inside look at the art world and its politics matches what I've heard from artist friends. Who has the power and what they choose to do with it. A theme through all of the books about artists I've been reading lately is that there is the making of art and then there is the selling of it. Not so different from writing.

One of the things I particularly enjoyed about the book is how she describes Degas' paintings, his techniques, especially during a visit to the MFA:

I'm touched by Degas' artful use of asymmetry to catch the viewer off guard, to bring her in, then to reveal so much. . . His work is astounding. The way he creates light from within and without, faces glowing with life where there is only canvas and paint. The way he captures movement with the tilt of a head or the hem of a dress drifting off the edge of the canvas. His use of dark and light values to create texture, depth, and shadow. How he seizes an unselfconscious moment of everyday life, like the mother and wet nurse in Races pressed together as they proudly gaze at the infant, then sends it galloping away.

Shapiro's novel makes for a great, light read. Or, if you choose to ponder further some of the ideas embodied here, you'll find much to consider.

Authenticity, by Deirdre Madden

Finding a new favorite author is a lovely bit of serendipity. Sometimes the prose itself blows me away and, as for example with Cold Mountain, I stop at the end of the first page and tell myself to slow down and savor it. Sometimes, as with Last Orders or Angela's Ashes, I fall in love with the voice. With other books, the plot grips me or the protagonist is someone I want to spend time with. Here all of these elements are done well, but none stands out. It is simply a good story well-told, a rare and remarkable accomplishment. This Irish author has published several novels, and I will be trying to get my hands on every one of them.

Set in Dublin, the story revolves around two artists. Roderic has achieved a good measure of success as a painter but not without personal cost. The one person he hasn't managed to drive away is his older brother, Dennis, a serious and solitary man, who took to heart his mother's words when she first handed him the new baby to hold: “‘Will you look after him always?'” and his own promise to do so.

Roderic's new relationship with Julia, an artist twenty years younger than he, promises a chance to atone for the wrong turns and betrayals of the past. Julia lost her mother at a young age and has been raised by her father, Dan, who is what I call an artist of daily life: he knows little about visual art but has a deep appreciation for the world around him and the quiet joys of daily life. Julia and Roderic's new life together is threatened when she meets a desperately sad man in the park and tries to help him.

This is a story about art: the joys and costs of pursuing your gift and the consequences of ignoring it. As such, it is a good corrective to Gauguin's story where his obstinate devotion to his art comes to seem more like self-indulgence, challenging me to weigh the mesmerizing beauty of the paintings against the pain he inflicted on others.

Here the story is more layered, more complex. I love the descriptions of the process of creation, the way Julia, for example, ponders a piece having to do with scents, interviewing people by presenting them with a cut apple or a turf fire and asking them to write what comes to mind. She isn't sure yet what form the piece will take; perhaps it will never coalesce. I love Dennis's difficulty understanding his brother's abstract paintings and he thoughts as he tries to find a way to connect with them.

Madden takes us back and forth in time, presenting a varied texture of voices, yet never leaving me in any doubt as to where we were and the rightness of learning this bit of the puzzle at this moment. The past is a puzzle. I though of another book I read recently, Perlmann's Silence, by Pascal Mercier, about a German linguist questioning his life's assumptions while trying to lead a conference in Italy. Although the beginning was promising, it was about twice as long as it needed to be and became rather tedious. What has stuck with me, though, is the description of one of the papers. It was on memory and the way we choose the words to describe our past experiences, creating them as lasting artifacts. More than that, though, we try to fit them into a coherent narrative, discarding the aspects and incidents that do not fit that narrative, just as a writer pieces together a novel, laying scene against scene to carry us deeper and deeper into the world she has created.

Although I sometimes assert that I don't like skipping about in time and point of view, I felt safe in Madden's hands. This is a woman who knows what she's doing. I'm off now to find more of her books.