Mary, by Vladimir Nabokov

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Mary (Mashenka) is Nabokov’s first novel, written in his mid-twenties while he and his wife Vera were living in Berlin. It is brief, what we would consider a novella today, and has some the characteristics we have come to expect from first novels.

Lev Glebovich Ganin is a 25-year-old Russian émigré living in a pension in Berlin, nostalgic for his lost country, and unsure what to do next. It is hard not to suspect autobiographical parallels.

The year is 1924, early in the Weimar Republic, but Ganin’s Berlin bears no trace of the gaudy gaiety I associate with that time. Instead, the city and its inhabitants are depicted as tawdry and unattractive, even repulsive. The unsubtle piling on of dingy details seems overdone, not unusual in a novice writer.

Ganin wants to move on, calling it “nostalgia in reverse, the longing for yet another strange land,” but he is marooned by depression. In the first scene Ganin and the new arrival to the pension, Alfyorov, are stuck in the elevator. Later in his career, I’m sure Nabokov would have left it up to us to see the connection, but here he makes it explicit. Alfyorov says:

“Don’t you think there’s something symbolic in our meeting like this, Lev Glebovich?” . . .

“What’s symbolic about it?” Ganin asked gloomily.

“Well, the fact that we’ve stopped, motionless, in this darkness.”

At one point Ganin cannot even rise from the chair in his room, “powerless because he had no precise desire” yet “vainly seeking something to desire.” That something is provided by Alfyorov who, unable to leave any thought unspoken, tells Ganin that his wife Mary is arriving on Saturday. His description of Mary prompts Ganin to decide that mysteriously, miraculously, this Mary must be his own lost love, their last contact some letters while he was at the front.

Nabokov uses an omniscient point of view, staying mostly with Ganin, but sometimes moving from one character’s thoughts to another’s, even within the same paragraph. Today we call that head-hopping and consider it a beginning writer’s mistake because it is disorienting for the reader, but I believe it was not uncommon at the time this novel was written. It’s been a while since I’ve read Nabokov’s later novels but remember them as staying closely with the protagonist.

Yet even with these marks of a first novel I can trace qualities I’ll value in the later books, especially the theme of memory and the delicate interweaving of past and present. Ganin and his Mary’s past is gradually revealed, as he continues to interact with Alfyorov and the pension’s other occupants. In particular, he tries to help the elderly poet Podtyagin obtain the passport and visas he needs to go to Paris. Through these interactions some sweetness and generosity begins to shade these characters and the story becomes more complex and intriguing.

This copy was given to me by my friend Hayley. It’s part of Penguin’s series on Great Loves. From the back copy, it seems they included it because of Ganin’s attachment to Mary, his first love. While that drives the plot, a stronger love here is for his lost country. Ganin’s reminiscences contain less detail about Mary than about the places where they met: a boat poled on the river amid fir and mimosa, the pavilion with its diamond-shaped panes of colored glass, the terrace of a deserted mansion shaded by lime trees.

Proust wrote, “les vrais paradis sont les paradis qu’on a perdus” which, while open to discussion, Scott Moncrieff translated as “The true paradises are the paradises that we have lost.” Nabokov’s loss of the paradise of his youth and the theme of memory are constants in his work. In contrast, Berlin had to seem unvaryingly dark and ugly.

What paradises have you lost?

Fear of the Dark, by Walter Mosely

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Mosely’s fans know that his many novels, including the Easy Rawlins and Fearless Jones mysteries, are rousing adventures that navigate the liminal areas that lie in the shadow of good and evil, guilt and innocence. While we race along with the narrator, trying to avoid danger and death while figuring out just what is going on and what to do about it, we are testing our own moral code.

This addition to the Fearless Jones collection is narrated by Fearless’s friend Paris Minton, bookstore owner and ferocious reader. Most of Paris’s problems follow visits from his cousin Ulysses “Useless” Grant, a petty crook who spreads trouble in his wake. Although Paris turns Useless away at the door, refusing to help him, trouble comes in the door anyway. Luckily Paris can turn to his friend Fearless—a man Paris says is “outside the law” and “stronger of thew and character than any other man I had ever met.”

For me, the great joy and value of fiction—all fiction, highbrow or lowbrow, genre or literary, ebook or audio, text or graphic novel—is the chance to live someone else’s life. In Wired for Story, Lisa Cron explains the biology behind our deep-rooted desire for virtual adventures: stories are how we learn about the world and test our abilities. Most of all, to my mind, they increase our empathy by enabling us to see the world through someone else’s eyes and by forcing us to fill in the gaps with our own emotions and experiences.

Walter Mosely’s novels let me encounter the world as a black man, an especially difficult and valuable stretch for me. This particular book is set in Los Angeles of the 1950s: not the easiest time to be a black man in this country. Without disrupting the flow of the story or preaching, Mosely gently reminds us of just how different life was and is for a black man than for someone, say, like me.

The most explicit moment comes when Paris comes upon a white man lying dead on the bookstore floor. He calls Fearless for help, and he brings a friend to help dispose of the body. Paris says:

There I was, in a truck with desperate men. I was a desperate man. It was hard to believe that a milquetoast coward like myself could be involved in such a clandestine and dangerous operation. But the reasons were as clear as the quarter moon shining through the windshield.

All three of us were living according to black people’s law. The minute I came upon that white boy’s body I knew that I would be seen as guilty in the eyes of American justice. Not even that—I was guilty. There was no jury that would exonerate me. There was no court of appeals that would hear my cries of innocence.

I wasn’t a brave man like Fearless or a born criminal like Van Cleave, but we all belonged in that truck together. We had been put there by a long and unremitting history. My guilt was my skin, and where that brought me had nothing to do with choice or justice or the whole library of books I had read.

This is not empty polemic. It is a necessary explanation of why Paris doesn’t just call the police when he finds a dead body on his property. It is why this quiet man gets drawn into the dangerous currents of the criminal underworld.

Being such a big reader explains Paris’s voice being a little more florid than today’s readers might be accustomed to. One area where I particularly noticed his voice was in the descriptions of every character, even the most minor walk-on extra. As David Corbett points out in a recent blog post, “the ability to describe the human face in fiction seems to be, if not a dying art, at least in a state of decline, even indifference.”

In this story Mosely mixes it up. He makes use of faces, posture, clothing and behavior to bring his characters memorably to life. Here are some examples:

Jessa was wearing an orange sundress that had little white buttons all the way down the front. The collar had a little dirt on it. Her red purse was scuffed.

Mona was a beautiful young woman. She was Negro and she was brown, but the brown mixed with gray everywhere in her appearance. Her skin was touched by it; her eyes sometimes shone with lunar possibilities. Even her hair seemed to be lightened by the midtone color.

Rinaldo had copper skin and slicked-back hair that did not seem straightened. He was missing one tooth and stood and walked in a hunched-over posture that he blamed on forty years leaning over pool tables.

Cleetus Rome, an elderly white man, . . . was old and toothless. He smelled something like dust or maybe even loam and he always bought magazines from me that had swimsuit models on the covers.

I was especially interested in the different ways Mosely describes skin color. He never falls back on the overused “coffee” or “mocha” but instead imagines the particular tone of a character’s skin.

As a writer and as a person I am learning a lot from this book. Even after providing an exciting read, it continues to reward further study.

Have you read a mystery or thriller that transported you to another world?

The Man Who Knew Infinity, by Robert Kanigel

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Subtitled “A Life of the Genius Ramanujan”, tthis dual biography tells the story of one of the world’s greatest mathematicians and the man whose support made him known to the world. Their stories raise questions pertinent to today’s societies about prejudice, privilege and education.

Ramanujan was born in southern India 1887. Although his family was Brahmin, they were not wealthy. Ramanujan’s mother treated him like a little prince, probably in part because he was her only child until he was ten. From his first experience with school at age five, he rebelled against its teachers and rules. “Even as a child, he was so self-directed that, it was fair to say, unless he was ready to do something on his own, in his own time, he was scarcely capable of doing it at all.”

Anyone with a gifted child in a bureaucratic school can recognise this situation, but Ramanujan’s gifts were so extraordinary that, once he discovered mathematics, he could not bring himself to work on anything else. As a result, he failed the all-important exam which dictated who could go to university.

Kanigel’s story details Ramanujan’s obsession with mathematics and subsequent struggle for recognition and for the means to support himself and his family. By the time Ramanujan came to Trinity College, Cambridge, as a result of a letter to G. H. Hardy, he’d reinvented much of the then-current mathematical theory that hadn’t been available to him at home and gone far beyond it. Even today mathematicians are building entire careers working on portions of the book of theorems he brought with him to England.

Caught by the Great War, Ramanujan stayed at Trinity from 1914-1918, working with Hardy and others. Kanigel details his difficulties with the cultural differences, the racial prejudice he encountered, and his own personality. Perhaps most significant was the problem of simply getting enough to eat. A devout Brahmin, Ramanujan would not eat anything with an animal product in it. Today that would not be a problem, but at that time there was little he could eat and even that diminished with wartime restrictions. The effect on his health from a poor diet, the cold climate, and his passion for his work was catastrophic. In 1918 he went home to India near death from tuberculosis.

As in other nonfiction, writing a biography presents certain challenges. You want to write an engaging story, but unless the subject has left revealing diaries or letters, you don’t have access to their emotions and motivations. Despite years of research, you may still be missing information about critical areas of your subject’s life, but you cannot just make up things to fill in the gaps. If you speculate about his or her feelings, you must be sure your readers know that’s what you’re doing.

If in the end I felt I knew more about Hardy as a person than about Ramanujan, that says more about me and my prior knowledge than the book. It was also probably unavoidable since Hardy lived longer and wrote and spoke much more than the man he championed. Given that Ramanujan’s only writings were professional papers and a few letters, Kanigel does a good job of teasing out the internal and external forces working on him. One of the most interesting aspects of Ramanujan’s personality that Kanigel brings out is the Brahmin’s blend of science and spiritualism.

An added difficulty is that your subject’s area of expertise may be too esoteric to easily present to a lay reader. Kanigel does an excellent job of presenting tidbits of mathematics in easily digestible chunks anyone can understand. The reader can certainly skip over them without losing the story, but reading them helps deepen your appreciation for Ramanujan’s extraordinary accomplishments.

The relevance of his story for us today is best captured in this quote from Nehru’s Discovery of India, provided by Kanigel:

Ramanugan’s brief life and death are symbolic of conditions in India. Of our millions how few get any education at all; how many live on the verge of starvation . . . If life opened its gates to them and offered them food and healthy conditions of living and education and opportunities of growth, how many among these millions would be eminent sceientists, educationaists, technicians, industrialists, writers, and artists, helping to build a new India and a new world?

It’s impossible not to apply Nehru’s words to our own slums and impoverished rural communities, plagued by poor education, food insecurity, vanishing job prospects, and often inadequate health care. What geniuses are lost to us? As Kanigel ably points out, we cannot rely on the bromide that genius will out. Ramanujan’s story shows how much was lost by his long obscurity and early death, how many times his eventual recognition hung in a precarious balance.

Today’s uber-wealthy, comfortable in their gilded fortresses, may write off great swathes of people, but by doing so they may be depriving themselves of the person who might one day have cured their cancer or discovered a new and more profitable energy source.

It’s no wonder Ramanujan’s story has gripped the imaginations of so many people. It is inspiring to see what a single mind may be capable of. And sobering to see how easily it could be defeated by society’s strictures.

Have you seen the film or read the book? What did you think?

The Penderwicks, by Jeanne Birdsall

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There is nothing like a good children’s book when you want to take a little break from the world. What seemed like a monolithic category when I was a child—probably because I read everything on the children’s side of the local library—is actually broken into picture books, middle grade (MG) or juvenile (ages 8-12), and young adult (YA) (ages 13-18). Of course, there are gradations within each of these categories; a story aimed at an eighteen-year-old may not appeal to a thirteen-year-old.

There are also differences other than age at play. YA books are longer and have fewer restrictions on content. More interesting to me is that while YA characters are able to see the world through the eyes of others and to face real-world problems, characters in MG novels are quite different. Like children of that age, they are still the center of their universe and likely to see every setback as the end of the world.

Jeanne Birdsall’s modern series about the Penderwick family is classified as juvenile/MG. It is a delightful romp, reminding me of some of the best books of my own childhood.

In this first book, the four Penderwick girls and their father take a cottage unseen for their summer vacation. It turns out to be on an estate called Arundel owned by a snooty woman named Mrs. Tifton, whose formal and conventional life is turned upside down by the influx of rambunctious girls.

Twelve-year-old Rosalind feels the responsibility of being oldest keenly. Skye, the next youngest, is pure tomboy, determined to go her own way. Then comes Jane who at 10 has her head in the clouds when she isn’t writing flamboyant novels about an adventurer named Sabrina Starr. The youngest is shy, four-year-old Batty who wears butterfly wings all the time and communes with Hound, the most beloved of dogs.

While tunneling though a hedge in the forbidden Arundel gardens, Skye runs into a boy—literally—who turns out to be Mrs. Tifton’s son. Jeffrey quickly becomes an honorary Penderwick and the girls rally to his cause when Mrs. T. and her boyfriend, the Dreadful Dexter, decide to send Jeffrey to a military boarding school.

Individually and collectively the children scamper through the story, having adventures and escapades. Although I’ve enjoyed the post-Potter deluge of magical childrens’ advetures, I especially liked that the only magic here is the ordinary magic of childhood, when so much of the adult world seems incomprehensible.

Most of all I loved the family rituals the girls have developed, such as calling a MOPS (meeting of Penderwick sisters) or understanding the responsibility of being the OAP (oldest available Penderwick). Having grown up in a large family, much of this rang true for me, as did the way the sisters sometimes had to transcend their different personalities to respond to various crises.

One of my adult sons reads across all the categories of children’s fiction. They are a good balance for his serious reading and his often stressful job. One aspect that he particularly appreciates in them is the focus on right and wrong, good and evil.

In this book, while we clearly start with Mrs. Tifton and Dexter as thoroughly evil, by the end they have acquired more subtle shadings. They seem more misguided than cruel. When it comes to Jeffrey and the Penderwick girls, their essential goodness doesn’t prevent them from behaving badly at times.

Also, there are shadows in this lovely world. Their mother’s death when Batty was born affects the girls just as Jeffrey’s missing father affects him, though these griefs do not weigh heavily on the story: a difficult trick that Birdsall pulls off beautifully. A missing parent is a common trope in children’s stories. Being left unprotected, or less protected, enables the child to be the protagonist, to be the one to solve the problem, instead of expecting an adult to take care of it.

This book and the others in this series are a delightful reminder of my own childhood, back in the days when children were tossed out of doors to entertain themselves without parental oversight. We got into trouble and found our way out of it. And even then I loved stories like this one about mischievous but good-hearted children.

Is there a children’s book that you enjoy reading as an adult?