The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, by Rainer Maria Rilke

Although I’ve been meaning for years to read this novel by one of my favorite poets, I only just got around to it, prompted by last week’s The Blind Owl I heard that Hedayat had been influenced by the Rilke novel, and I could see that. Both plunge the reader deep into the mind of a troubled young man, seducing us with poetic prose that draws us in ever deeper. Rilke’s novel, however, is not a plunge into madness, but an existential journey.

Twenty-eight-year-old Malte leads a solitary life in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century. He walks the streets, dismayed by the poverty and despair of the people he sees. Death is all around him: a man dying near him in a cafe, a young girl dying in front of his eyes on a trolley. He says, “I have no roof over me, and it is raining into my eyes.”

He takes refuge in libraries, museums, and his own bare room. He reconstructs his childhood, when only his mother was powerful enough to dispel the night fears. Daytime fears abound: a mysterious hand he encounters under a table as he searches for a dropped crayon, costumes and masks he dresses up in that suck his soul away. Two encounters with dead women, one a visible manifestation and one, a story of his mother’s, only felt—but there was the dog’s behavior. And death: he says that we each carry our death inside us “as a fruit has its core.” He movingly recounts the terrible deaths of his grandfather, father and mother.

Masks become a motif throughout the novel, as Malte determines how to live and how to love. They recur in various ways, as decorations on the wall, a death mask of Beethoven, the false front certain other historical figures have put on, the world itself. He asks, “Is it possible that despite our discoveries and advances, despite our culture, religion, and science, we have remained on the surface of this life?”

He explores the lives of various poets, saints, kings, and others, always in beautifully evocative language. Here he is, after pondering a number of women whose stories have come down to us, famous for their grief at having lost their great loves, thinking suddenly of a childhood memory.

I found a jewel-case; it was two handsbreadths large, fan-shaped, with a border of flowers stamped into the dark-green morocco. I opened it: it was empty. I can say this now after so many years. But at that time, when I had opened it, I saw only what its emptiness consisted of: velvet, a small mound of light-colored, no longer fresh velvet; and the jewel-groove which, empty and brighter by just a trace of melancholy, vanished into it. For a moment this was bearable. But to those who, as women who are loved, remain behind, it is perhaps always like this.

He turns to love, requited and not. I remember a long time ago a friend of mine pointing out how much easier it is to be the one who loves rather than the one who is loved. Malte takes this insight even further, declaring that the Prodigal Son left home because he could not bear to be so loved by his family. He imagines the freedom of running away through fields escaping even the dogs, and preferring the harshness of life on his own. “What were all the darknesses of that time, compared to the thick sorrow of those embraces in which everything was lost? Didn’t you wake up feeling that you had no future? Didn’t you walk around drained of all meaning, without the right to even the slightest danger?”

I thought of the two novels I read recently which featured a child mysteriously resistant to family ties who runs away. In The Stone Carvers it was a son who ran away and ran away until finally he didn’t come back. In The Orchardist it was an adopted daughter who goes off with the horse wranglers every season until she too does not return. This beautiful novel by Rilke helps me understand these other two novels better and also myself.

In the Introduction, William H. Gass ties Malte’s story closely to Rilke’s own biography. Yet he also clarifies how much editing and revision went into the final version. We who write fiction may use elements from our lives but using imagination and passion we craft them into something whole and shining, or try to. Rilke succeeds brilliantly.

What novel have you read whose poetic prose you particularly noticed?

The Blind Owl, by Sadegh Hedayat

Rummaging around in my TBR mountain (books waiting To Be Read), I came across this slender novel. I don’t remember where it came from; I’ve never heard of it, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t buy it. However, once it jumped into my hand, I was intrigued. The cover unsettled me; an interesting collage of Persian rugs, rather jumbled, with the title text pushing out of its box and just a corner of an owl’s head, it hinted at secrets and mysteries and dark things just outside your field of vision.

The story is indeed dark. The narrator is a Persian man living—if you can call it that—just outside the city of Rey. With the first line we are plunged into his maelstrom: “There are sores which slowly erode the mind in solitude like a kind of canker.” He goes on to talk of the agony of his disease, which I at first assumed to be depression or youthful alienation, but turns out to be much worse.

He tells us he is writing this story to capture what he remembers of a series of strange events. “My one fear is that tomorrow I may die without having come to know myself . . . I am writing only for my shadow,” he says, reminding me of Jung’s archetype.

The story is divided into two parts. The first part, chapters one to three, tells how he, a man who makes pen-cases, always painting the same scene, sees a woman, sees in fact that very scene. After this coup de foudre, he goes out walking, looking for her, although he has already told us that he has not been the same since losing her. The second part, chapters four and five, go back over and over the story, adding more information, changing details, swapping personas, building in intensity.

The story is an unsettling journey in the mind of a man going mad, as dark as something out of Poe or Kafka. That he treats his “disease” with copious amounts of wine and opium only makes what he observes even more obscure. The ever-shifting reality, the surreal happenings leave the reader reeling with vertigo, unsure of what is true and what is not.

While this is not usually the sort of story I like to read, the power of the prose held me rapt until I turned the last page. It is a bit flowery for our modern reading tastes—the book was first published in 1941—but it is irresistible.

The night was departing on tip-toe. One felt that it had shed sufficient of its weariness to enable it to go its way. The ear detected faint, far-off sounds such as the sprouting grass might have made, or some migratory bird as it dreamed upon the wing. The pale stars were disappearing behind banks of cloud. I felt the gentle breath of the morning on my face and at the same moment a cock crowed somewhere in the distance.

Also, the puzzle addict in me was kept busy trying to untangle all of the motifs and themes that the story kept spiraling back to, finding them changed each time, such as the two months and four days turning into two years and four months or the origin and composition of the mysterious bottle of wine metamorphosing.

I have seen so many contradictory things and have heard so many words of different sorts, my eyes have seen so much of the worn-out surface of various objects—the thin, tough rind behind which the spirit is hidden—that now I believe nothing. At this very moment I doubt the existence of tangible, solid things, I doubt clear, manifest truths.

Once I finished it, I set out to learn more about the book and discovered that The Blind Owl is considered the foremost work of twentieth-century Iranian fiction. Hedayat wrote it between 1925 and 1941, the last years of Reza Shah’s reign, and so is assumed by some to be about Iran’s tug of war between tradition and modernity. Yet the story is so deep and passionate that one can read it many ways. I suspect, too, that on each rereading, it will appear to be a different story.

What Iranian fiction have you read?

The Awakening, by Kate Chopin

Edna Pontellier, a 28-year-old wife and mother, is on vacation with her two small sons. They are at a pension on Grand Isle where other families have taken refuge from New Orleans’ August heat, husbands joining them at the weekend. We see her first through the eyes of her 40-year-old husband, a prosperous businessman, as she returns from bathing accompanied by Robert Lebrun, the son of the pension owner. Mr. Pontellier criticises her for getting sunburnt, “looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage.”

Yet there is clearly an understanding between them as she, laughing, holds out her hand and he knows she is asking for her rings which she asked him to hold for her. Edna has a certain reserve that sets her apart. “Even as a child she had lived her own small life all within herself.” Although she does have friends among the other women on Grand Isle, she does not feel at home among them because she alone is not a Creole, with their freedom of expression and absence of prudery. Also, she is not a “mother-woman . . .They were women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.”

Almost imperceptibly, through one small scene and then another, Edna begins to recognise herself and “her position in the universe as a human being”. She begins to do the things that she wants to do rather than the things she is supposed to do, spending her days painting in an atelier she has created at the top of their town mansion, not attending her own “at homes”. I love that rather than defining herself by those around her, she tries to define herself from within, to become her authentic self, although at first she does not know what that is.

First published in 1899, The Awakening is as relevant to women today as it was then, when women—and men—were struggling to free themselves from Victorian tradition and authority. In her introduction, Sandra M. Gilbert places the novel in the context of fin de siêcle writers and their predecessors, such as Oscar Wilde, Gustave Flaubert, Walt Whitman, Emile Zola, and Guy de Maupassant. As Gilbert points out, though, Edna differs from George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke and Emily Brontë’s Catherine Earnshaw Linton in that their struggle ends with them "accepting their own comparative powerlessness." Edna never does.

Gilbert also points out the sensual images of the sea that permeate the book and suggests that Edna’s story may be a retelling of the story of Aphrodite. I had not considered these ideas when I first read this book in the 1970s. Reading it now, it seems deeper and richer than ever, and I appreciate more the structure and the subtle changes Edna undergoes.

Chopin achieves these almost imperceptible transitions by leaving some mystery around Edna’s feelings: she cries after being awakened and reproached by her husband, but "She could not have told why she was crying." This is appropriate since Edna herself does not understand for a long time what is happening to her. Her statements and the close third-person narration gradually become stronger as her feelings and goals become clearer. Also, much of our understanding of her feelings comes from what others say about her and from the descriptions of her surroundings. These seem only loosely linked to her journey at first, more obviously reflect her feelings as we go on.

The water of the Gulf stretched out before her, gleaming with the million lights of the sun. The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude. All along the white beach, up and down, there was no living thing in sight.

What book from the past have you reread and found better than you remembered?

The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach

This compulsively readable novel is about a handful of people at a small college in Michigan whose plans, dreams and ambitions are thrown off course. Mike Schwartz is more than the captain of the baseball team; he is its heart. Acting as the assistant coach the school can’t afford, he pushes his teammates to do more and better than they ever thought they could. He discovers shortstop Henry Skrimshander at a summer Legion game and, impressed by the boy’s astounding fielding ability, engineers a place for him at Westish College.

The best part of the book for me is the description of Henry’s first days at this place that seems to him like something out of a movie. “If he’d been able to imagine the students of Westish College in any specific way, he imagined twelve hundred Mike Schwartzes, huge and mythic and grave, and twelve hundred women of the sort Mike Schwartz might date: leggy, stunning, well versed in ancient history. The whole thing, really, was too intimidating to think about.”

He hesitates outside the door of his dorm room, wondering how many roommates he will have and what kind of music was trickling out of the room. Henry’s roommate turns out to be Owen Dunne, sophisticated, gay, totally cool, and compulsive about cleanliness: Henry first meets Owen as the boy is scrubbing the en suite bathroom grout with a toothbrush. The unlikely duo become friends. Owen too has a well-thumbed copy of Henry’s Bible: The Art of Fielding by a fictitious Aparicio Rodriguez, supposedly the greatest defensive shortstop ever. Rodriguez’s book is filled with snippets of advice and epigrams that border on the enigmatic.

The other two characters we follow are Guert Affenlight, the president of the college, and his daughter, Pella, who shows up at his home fleeing from an intolerable marriage and ready for a new start, though she has forgotten to bring any socks. All of these characters are afflicted by sometimes crippling self-doubt as they pursue their dreams. All but Owen, rather, who seems untouched by such mundane concerns.

I have to say that, although I enjoyed the camaraderie and mutual support of the baseball team and appreciated the various baseball metaphors, I found the main characters uninteresting, if not repellent. Although we spend a lot of time in Mike and Guert’s heads, I cannot muster enough sympathy for them to overcome my dislike of their actions. The two sad sacks, Henry and Pella, seem pretty impenetrable to me, and Owen is just too perfect to be real.

Still, I could not stop reading. I’m not even sure why. I certainly wasn’t interested in the fate of the baseball team or the characters. Certainly, the prose is addictive, easy to read, and often funny. The voices of the five are well-differentiated. One thing I particularly like is that Harbach is able to write about deep emotions in his male characters without either gruffness or sentimentality.

I had to laugh at the climax; it was not at all what I expected from a baseball novel. The ending, though, seemed contrived to me, as though the author had dug himself into a hole and didn’t know how to get out.

Yet I’m still scratching my head trying to figure out why I couldn’t stop until I had read every single word.

What book have you read recently that you couldn't put down?

The Sleeping Dictionary, by Sujata Massey

The Sleeping Dictionary is the best sort of historical fiction: an absorbing story with plenty of detail to immerse you in the time, all supported by an historically accurate framework. Set during the turbulent last days of the British Raj, this is the story of a child who is orphaned when a tsunami sweeps away her village and her family. We follow her struggles to make a place for herself in a world that is not kind to women or to Bengali peasants.

Our narrator's name changes with her circumstances, but her voice is strong enough that we never lose sight of who she is. She starts out as Pom, beloved Didi (older sister) to her siblings. Massey weaves in the foreign words so naturally that I had no need of the glossary provided. There are lovely descriptions of her Hindu family's life on the land that they farmed but did not own.

We had potatoes and eggplants and tomatoes and greens from our own vegetable garden. Fruits beckoned from old abandoned orchards and from neighbors who did not mind sharing. To buy foodstuffs we could not grow, my mother raised a small amount from selling the brooms [she made] in summer and catching fish during rainy season.

As the monsoon approaches, she says, “Stillness precedes the rains: a kind of energy that holds you and everything else motionless. It was holding us then.”

When the flood comes, she happens to be in the woods and survives by climbing a tree. Afterwards, several boats of survivors pass her but are not willing to pick her up, saying they had no room for another. Finally one family grudgingly lets her climb into their boat, but refuses to share their food and water with her and abandons her as soon as they reach land. This is a portent of things to come as she finds sometimes reluctant help, a few generous people, and many more who want to make use of her.

I enjoyed the section where, renamed Sarah and ordered to be a Christian, she works as a servant in an Anglo-Indian school. There, through the kindness of a teacher and a student, she discovers a love of reading and languages. The school's name of Lockwood of course reminded me of Lowood, not the only reference to Jane Eyre. But our heroine finds herself more adrift in the world than prim and passionate Jane. She makes more mistakes, poignantly believing in the kindness of strangers and the lure of appearances.

When she finally makes it to Calcutta and renames herself Kamala, she finds a job but also becomes caught up in the movement to free India from the British Empire. Tempting as it must have been for the author to tell us all about those tumultuous and thrilling times, Massey never loses the story. She limits herself to only what Kamala might know and encounter in the course of her daily life. Thus the historical detail remains organic and never intrudes on the story.

I highly recommend this novel. I've enjoyed Massey's earlier books, award-winning mysteries featuring Rei Shimuri. This big novel reads just as fast and fluently as her mysteries. I loved watching Pom/Kamala remake herself over and over, adapting to new worlds, but never losing sight of what's most important. It's a complex story, giving the flavor of many of the smaller worlds within India during the last days of the Raj, always from a woman's point of view.

What historical novels have you enjoyed?