When the Next Big War Blows Down the Valley: Selected and New Poems, by Terese Svoboda


I keep coming back to the poems in this newly released collection by award-winning author Terese Svoboda. They are not always easy to read. Some I still don’t understand, but others call me back with their fierce tenderness, their blend of humor and tightly controlled anger. She writes about small betrayals and huge atrocities, a man who leaves with a stinging goodbye and Japan’s lethal human experimentation in World War II.

Some poems speak of experiences in far-off places such as New Guinea, Japan, Polynesia, New Zealand. Others tell of things closer to home. But I warn you: they are not for the faint-hearted. These poems cut close to life, telling the truth about the violence that co-exists with beauty and art. For example, “Slaughter of the Centaurs” tells of finding, amid a soft green mist “the coarsely forelocked boys,/none more than fifteen,/beardless, death//catching them cantering,/berets cocked, weapons not.” And then there is “Eurydice Abandoned in the Caves of Hades”:

You hire a guide. See several waterfalls,
a dock for a boat, and why not a boat?
You rock to a shore where bats rise as gulls.
Or fall. Such silence. You keep your head low,
wade black pools, one for each of the senses.
You light a cigarette, unnerved, defenseless
in the blue of that smoke. You see the roots
of trees — your sisters’ hair unpinned — you see
what leads out. The sky! Then the guide rapes you,
steals your purse, and disappears. You really seethe.
Oh, god. Even Orpheus has lost it.
You can hear him through the rock, if that Shit!
is him shouting. You say, Let the stones drip
their milk.
You’ll sing louder, sing till you drop.

Some poems examine the family, and our familiar/unfamiliar Western milieu: the twisting power of money, a rescue in a library. Others celebrate small moments such as an evening when “a kid changes/into her tutu and tap shoes/and sings ‘Swanee’ by the light/of the high beam.//We go wild. Even the baby,/nude as a June bug, tattoos/out a step.”

I love the word play, especially when Svoboda uses homonyms to create layers of meaning, like kakekotoba, the use of pivot words in Japanese poetry. Here’s an example from “Fuel Adieu!” where the narrator imagines herself as a seal: “If you//lichen on Facebook the box/unlichens, living living living/on margins really singular//for the green electricity/that meets its demand, the seal/no-friended on account of/gamboling on lichen . . .”

Some poems seem bound together more by sound than by the sense of the words. Others use imagery to distance the pain enough to write of it: a dog trapped in a wall, a car leaving the road, a brother on blue satin. Either way they touch something deep and hard and true. These are poems where humor walks hand in hand with an unswerving attention to the dark things of this world.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a digital copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, by Elizabeth Taylor


Elizabeth Taylor was a well-known and much-loved British author, publishing thirteen novels and short stories in magazines such as The New Yorker and The Saturday Evening Post. She has been praised by writers such as Kingsley Amis and Hilary Mantel; Anne Tyler compared her to Jane Austen, Barbara Pym, and Elizabeth Bowen. However, since her death in 1975, her fame has faded; somehow women, especially those who write about society and the family are less likely to make it into the literary canon. The Telegraph calls her “one of the forgotten geniuses of the [short story] form.”

I came across her name and this title on one of those lists of best books. Mrs. Palfrey arrives at the Claremont on a dreary January day, comforting herself with the words “If it’s not nice, I needn’t stay.” Recently widowed, she is coming from a visit with her golf-mad daughter and her family in Scotland. Once in her room “she thought that prisoners must feel as she did now, the first time they are left alone in their cell, first turning to the window, then facing about to stare at the closed door: after that, counting the paces from wall to wall.” But she thinks this “briskly”. After all:

She had always know how to behave. Even as a bride, in strange, alarming conditions in Burma, she had been magnificently calm–when (for instance) she was rowed across floods to her new home; unruffled, finding it more that damp, with a snake wound round the bannister to greet her. She had straightened her back and given herself a goo talking-to, as she had this afternoon on the train.

I love this kind of everyday courage. It is so rarely celebrated. It stands her in good stead as she adjusts to the routines of the somewhat seedy hotel, where long-term residents mingle with “birds of passage”. The residents are a marvelously eccentric bunch, their world narrowed to the hotel and its inhabitants, the predictable dinner menu a source of endless speculation. Mr. Osmond tells racy stories and frowns on Mrs. Burton’s nightly drinks–they cost extra–as does Mrs. Arbuthnot, a rather stern woman crippled with arthritis, but also the person who first spoke to Mrs. Palfrey, including her in the group, a kindness Mrs. Palfrey never forgets.

Before she realises that visitors are a major topic of conversation, Mrs. Palfrey mentions that her nephew Desmond lives in London. When he doesn’t show up, Mrs. Arbuthnot and the others commiserate with her, something she cannot bear. When she encounters a young writer on one of her walks, Ludo, and repays his kindness by inviting him to dinner at the Claremont, she decides to pretend that he is Desmond.

The webs become ever more tangled, but–as with Anne Tyler–Elizabeth Taylor treats her characters with respect. She may invite us to laugh at them sometimes, but never loses sight of their essential goodness and the courage it takes to face a lonely and penurious old age. I found this novel satisfying and unexpectedly moving. I see that it was made into a film in 2005 and hope that I can find a copy.

What other once-famous writers can you recommend?

A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler


My book club rarely comes up with a unanimous verdict on a book, but we all loved this book by Anne Tyler, as we have loved other of her books we’ve read. It’s not just because she writes about Baltimore, and specifically the part of Baltimore we are most familiar with. No, it is something more.

In this, her 20th novel, Tyler introduces us to the Whitshank family. You know families like this one: while there are tensions and long-held grudges between Abby and Red and their four grown children, there is also love and concern and care, even if these emotions are sometimes tempered with frustration or incomprehension. They take for granted their connection with each other, just as they know that if asked to go for a walk on the beach, one is expected to agree.

Part of the glue holding them together is their belief that they, as a family, are special, though Tyler undercuts this assertion by telling us that it is based, among other things, on their ability to keep pets alive to a great age. There are also the stories that they tell about themselves. One has to do with the way Red’s father came to build and then own their house on Bouton Road. The house itself is a character, a vessel for all of their narratives: the wide, deep porch where Abby discovered her love for Red, the curving staircase that funnels sound up to someone hidden upstairs, the kitchen where the real heart-to-hearts take place.

Abby and Red, in their 70s, are starting to experience the effects of aging. Red has trouble hearing and has pulled back from the family construction business started by his father. Abby has begun to blank out for periods of time, finding herself in odd places when she comes to. Over their protests, their dutiful son Stem and his family move in with them, only to be joined unexpectedly by Denny, the black sheep son.

Abby’s baffled love for Denny, a rebel from a young age whom she has never understood, won my heart for this story. I know so many families where one child seems to absorb all the oxygen in the room, driving parents and teachers to distraction. In some ways I was that child, with my constant refrain: Leave me alone! Tyler’s portrait, not just of Abby, but of Denny himself subtly evolves through the book and is just so utterly true to life.

My book club had a long discussion over one critic’s remark that this was a “comic novel”. We agreed that Tyler’s humor is everywhere, but that it is subtle and witty rather than comic. One person, reading it a second time to remind herself of the story, suddenly noted all the little clues scattered in the text that would come to fruition later. Tyler’s craft is astonishing; she distracts us with a compelling story so that we do not notice her writer’s guile.

What we love about Tyler’s novels is her genuine compassion for her characters. She does not shy away from their faults and peculiarities, but she never mocks or criticises them; she instead treats them with respect and dignity. In a recent post on Writer Unboxed, literary agent, author, and writing teacher extraordinaire, Donald Maass suggests that readers are drawn to positive characters, those who have a hopeful outlook on life (though not the uniform optimism of a Pollyanna). These are the kind of characters we readers want to spend time with, whose spirit inspires us. Maass says in another post, “Generally speaking, we choose company that is pleasant. People who are warm, open, curious, compassionate and interesting are good to be around. We gravitate to people like ourselves, who share our outlooks, interests and values.”

In a story, characters encounter obstacles that try them to their limit (in a workshop with him, I started calling Maass The Don—thinking of The Godfather—because of the creative ways he kept pushing us to torment our protagonists). A positive character, confronted with barriers, does not wallow in helpless despair but pushes forward. As Maass says, “The human race is hopeful, yearning, seeking a more perfect world and full of faith that we can make it one.”

It is this quality that we love in Tyler’s novels: her ability to give us people who, with all their quirks and flaws, yearn for something better and have faith that they can get there, people whose stories play out in families so true that we recognise them immediately.

What do you look for in the protagonist of a novel?

Emily, Alone, by Stewart O’Nan


O’Nan is one of my favorite writers, for his appreciation of and immersion in his characters, however humdrum or exciting their lives might be. Here, we inhabit Emily Maxwell, an elderly woman living out the tail end of her life in the modest home in a Pittsburgh suburb, the one she’d shared it with her husband Henry until his death. Her friends are also dying off, leaving her with her brash sister-in-law Arlene as her regular companion for breakfast buffets and conversations about the grown children. Alone at home besides her elderly dog, Emily makes an elaborate routine out of her regular chores.

Emily relies on Arlene’s driving which, if shaky, is better than her own. However, all of Emily’s arrangements are thrown into disarray when Arlene faints in a restaurant. Not only does she have to drive Arlene’s car, but she has to navigate the hospital and run errands for Arlene. As her confidence blossoms, she buys a small car and, little by little, begins to expand her world.

I love how O’Nan uses specific details to bring a memory to life and then submerges you in Emily’s reactions and emotions. Here, she is recalling a birthday dinner for her daughter, Margaret, at the country club Henry had introduced her to:

It must have been forty-five years ago, because Margaret was slim as a ballerina in her pinafore, curtseying to everyone for the fun of it. Emily’s own parents were there, a rare occasion, her father gawking in his cheap brown suit, impressed by the high windows and the murals on the ballroom’s ceiling, the white-gloved waiters circulating between tables to deliver iced pats of butter stamped with the club crest. Emily would have arranged for Margaret to have her favorite–yellow cake with chocolate icing–and Henry would have paid by signing his name. Forty-five years.

She could not stop these visitations, even if she wanted to. They plagued her like migraines, left her helpless and dissatisfied, as if her life and the lives of all those she’d loved had come to nothing, merely because that time was gone, receding even in her own memory, to be replaced by this diminished present . If it seemed another world, that was because it was, and all her wishing could not bring it back.

This 2011 novel is a sequel to Wish You Were Here which I read in 2007. I have to admit I don’t remember much of it beyond the characters’ names, the premise of the story and how much I liked it. Liked it? I was buried in it.

I came to this one with some apprehension. Though younger than Emily, I know what it is to live alone once children are grown and gone. I know what it is to have to create a life almost from scratch once work and family fall away, how to find new routines and habits. But once engaged in the story, I thought mostly of my mother, how she sat alone in her townhouse for years until, over her vociferous protests, we persuaded her to move to a comprehensive care facility. She bloomed there, making friends, taking up water-color and quilting.

As Emily blooms here. Although I’m not there myself yet, I believe O’Nan captures the inner life of an elderly woman, moving through her days accompanied by memories of the past, finding ways however unexpected to be in the present and look forward to the future. I enjoyed spending time with Emily. I saw much of myself in her and the potential for more. I especially loved her conversations with her dog, Rufus. She calls him Mr. Feisty, Mr. Excitable, Mr. Pork Pie, and Chubbers McBubbers. They share the same difficulties moving around, taking multiple medications. They remind me of my conversations with my little cat, the Love Bug.

I’m not exactly looking forward to aging, though of course it’s better than the alternative, but Emily’s story helps me prepare myself for times to come, and more patiently appreciate those who are there now.

What books about aging and loneliness have you read?

On Wings of Song: A Journey into the Civil Rights Era, by Molly Lynn Watt


Molly Lynn Watt’s latest poetry collection is a memoir of her work in the Civil Rights movement in 1963. It compellingly captures the time and the emotions surrounding it, the dangers and the innocence.

The book opens with a few poems describing incidents from her childhood that introduced this New England girl to racism and Jim Crow. The bulk of the book is made up of poems describing a time in the pivotal year of 1963 when she and her husband and two toddlers went to Tennessee to lead the new Highlander School, dedicated to training interracial volunteers to register voters in the South.

Traveling through the South, they are exposed to Jim Crow in chilling incidents. Their integrated caravan is refused service at restaurants and gas stations. Worse, they learn that trying to register voters can have fatal consequences.

She captures the fear in terse, direct lines. From “Tonight”, describing their first night at the Highlander School.

fireflies spark by the window
cans rattle in the alcove—
Mr. Tillman Cadle is arriving

we’re weary fake sleep
feel Tillman hover
sense his shotgun over us
throughout the night
Tillman stumbles and mutters
there’s going to be trouble

As it turns out he is the owner of the land, which he’s provided to the school. He’s there to guard them, not harm them, but as the author says later in the poem “Tillman Cadle/knew trouble when he smelled it”. The young family and their friends are about to meet trouble first-hand.

The final section of the book ponders the changes since that time, from her elderly mother’s apology for refusing their phone calls back then to her granddaughter’s refusal to vote, not understanding how fragile and incomplete this armistice is.

Watt says that she chose to write this memoir in poems “to limit my discomfort” in reliving that terrifying time when hatred and prejudice bared their face to her. For a memoir to matter, for it to grab the reader and not let her go, you have to plunge back into the storm, the one you thought you’d come to terms with long ago. The emotions are still there for you to find if you dig deeply enough.

Watt does. Each poem rings true.

There are plenty of other reasons for using poetry to write memoir. Poetry’s concentration of experience into a few lines makes the reader pay attention to every word and has the power to shock us into experiencing a revelation or moment of deep emotion.

Too, poetry’s use of imagery can assuage the author’s fear of revealing too much. Wrapping secrets in metaphor and motif not only gives the reader a tantalizing challenge, but also offers the author a semblance of protection. And a poetry collection, by breaking the story into fragments, mimics the way our memory works: an image here, a bit of dialogue there, a certain smell or glance of light.

Watt’s book is something to treasure, capturing a time and a body of experience that too many now forget. It’s a valuable resource for anyone curious about using poetry to write memoir. Most of all, though, it is a collection of powerful poems that leap from the page.

Have you read a memoir written as poetry? What did you think of it?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a digital copy of this book free from the author, who is a friend of mine. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

On the Threshold of Winter, by Michael Hersch


Not a book this week, or rather a production that started as a book. In 1996, Romanian poet Marin Sorescu died of liver cancer. Earlier that year he had been nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature, and he did not stop writing after his diagnosis. In the last five weeks of his life, he wrote a searing collection of poems, later published as Puntea (The Bridge), much of it dictated to his wife, Virginia.

Taking these poems as his libretto, composer Michael Hersch created On the Threshold of Winter. It is a monodrama, that is, an opera for one voice. I heard it performed by soprano Ah Young Hong and the NUNC ensemble conducted by Tito Muñoz.

I not only heard it, I drowned in it. This stunning performance seized me from the start and immersed me in its tides of emotion. I was swept up in these last cries of grief and despair and anger and longing. Pulled this way and that, repeatedly ratcheted up and released, until reduced to the final letting go, the quiet liberation.

Hersch’s works have been performed around the world by acclaimed conductors with major orchestras and chamber ensembles. He also teaches composition at the Peabody Institute, where Ah Young Hong also teaches voice. Hong’s performance was astonishing. I cannot begin to calculate the physical and emotional strain of singing and enacting such a strenuous role for two hours. She received a well-deserved standing ovation, sustained for some time through repeated curtain calls. The audience simply would not let her go.

Full disclosure: I am acquainted with Ms. Hong. But I defy anyone to experience such a performance without being overwhelmed with awe and admiration at her achievement.

But let’s get down to business. I had not previously encountered these poems, but reading over the libretto before the performance I was horrified on Sorescu’s behalf to read that Hersch had broken them apart and rearranged them. After some thought, though, I realised that such intervention was needed.

A monodrama—or any other theatrical production—calls for a drastically different structure from that of a poetry collection. Hersch repositioned the fragments of poems to create a sustained narrative, with rising and falling action, with dramatic scenes, with a resounding climax. And we still get the power and beauty of the lines (from the translation by Adam J. Sorkin and Lidia Vianu), such as these:

I balance on something frail . . .

Blasted apart by the spasms
Of a fierce whirlwind
A bridge between nothing and nothing
I have not asked to cross.

I’m not a musician, so I cannot comment on the music, though it certainly supported and enclosed the singer and the song, as one dancer supports another through intricate lifts and catches her when she leaps.

I do want to credit the stage director: James Matthew Daniel. The imaginative set, while spare, gave the solo performer much room for action. Large erections of scaffolding were hung with fabric and plastic. Ms. Hong at times climbed them or arduously pushed them into new positions. Statues, a bed, flowers, and a few other bits and pieces each served its purpose.

Ms. Hong’s costumes enhanced the role. Starting with an enveloping hooded bathrobe, each change revealed a bit more, even as the character’s last self was stripped as she approached the end.

When we write, we are limited to the page, hoping to evoke in readers the kind of sounds and visions delivered directly by a stage production. But there is much to learn here about pacing and setting and blocking and how to use such a limited palette to stun your audience.

What stage production have you seen recently that knocked you sideways?

Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill


This is one of those books that I appreciated rather than enjoyed. Sure, there are beautiful sentences and sentences whose intelligence, perception, and depth of emotion require no ornamentation. There are quick, deft depictions of character, such as this one of our narrator, Hans:

“Let me introduce myself properly,” Chuck said. “Chuck Ramkissoon.” We shook hands. “Van der Broek,” he said, trying out the name. “South African?”

“I’m from Holland,” I said, apologizing.

Boy, are there characters. Chuck hails from Trinidad but is 100% American, with his handful of shady businesses, his huge appetite for life, and his outsize dream of saving the world by establishing a cricket club in an abandoned field on the edge of the city. Through him, Hans meets and becomes a part of a subculture of cricket clubs, made up of émigrés, himself the only white one.

Much as I appreciated the writing—more about that later—I have to admit that I was bored. So much so that about halfway through I set the book aside for two weeks, and debated whether to finish it or not. First off, I don’t share the fascination those who live or have lived in New York seem to have for novels about what it’s like to live in that city. Surely they know already. I am more fascinated by The Hague and deeply enjoyed the brief flashbacks to Hans’s youth. I was also fascinated by his enigmatic mother, by far the most interesting character to me, though barely present.

Secondly, the plot is not an attention-grabber. We learn in the first few pages that Chuck’s body has been found in a canal and that Hans and his wife have been estranged but are now back together. The exploration of cricket and Chuck’s world are somewhat interesting, but the story of yet another middle-aged man, estranged from his life and feeling disconnected from his fellow humans doesn’t excite me. At least there are those beautiful and penetrating sentences.

Some people have no difficulty in identifying with their younger incarnations: Rachel, for example, will refer to episodes from her childhood or college days as if they’d happened to her that very morning. I, however, seem given to self-estrangement. I find it hard to muster oneness with those former selves whose accidents and endeavors have shaped who I am now.

A little background: Hans, who grew up in The Hague and lived in London before moving to New York, is a successful equities analyst for a large bank. In the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center, he and his wife and young son take up temporary abode in the Chelsea Hotel. The dislocation and the danger prompt Rachel to take the child and move back to London. Her refusal to let Hans come with them signals her intent to end the marriage.

If this almost casual use of the 2001 attacks is one of the successes of the novel—for once they are not used to ratchet up drama and sentiment—Rachel is one of its failures. Presented as active in contrast to Hans’s passivity, she is a mass of unexplained contradictions, secrets, and sometimes seemingly random decisions. While such a depiction makes sense given that we are being told the story by the mystified, miserable, and angry Hans, it turns Rachel into a chesspiece designed to move the story along rather than a person.

I liked the depiction of the fellowship Hans forms with his fellow cricketers, the way they watch out for each other even though their lives only intersect in this one area. I was not particularly charmed by Chuck, whom some reviewers have compared to Gatsby, and questioned why Hans became so involved with him. I derived some amusement from random oddball characters—no, I don’t want to give them away—but after living in Baltimore, they seemed mild to me.

I’m left with the beautiful and unexpected passages, such as this one:

The business world is densely margined by dreamers, men, almost invariably, whose longing selves willingly submit to the enchantment of projections and pie charts and crisply totted numbers, who toy and toy for years, like novelists, with the same sheaf of documents, who slip out of bed in the middle of the night to pitch to a pajama’d reflection in a windowpane.

I appreciate the transnational perspective brought by O’Neill, who is of Irish and Turkish descent, grew up in The Netherlands, and now lives in the U.S. His memoir, Blood-Dark Track, should prove interesting.

Have you ever set a book aside for a few weeks and then gone back to it? What did you end up thinking about it?

Fierce Attachments, by Vivian Gornick


In The Situation and the Story, Gornick’s classic writing craft book, she describes the difference between the two as the situation being what happened—the plot—and the story being “the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” A memoir includes both the experience and the author’s perspective on it. She goes on to say, “What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.”

Gornick’s highly praised memoir, Fierce Attachments, explores her relationship with her mother. In the introduction Jonathan Lethem calls the book “mad” and “brilliant”, but it is more than that. The story of these two women, and the other men and women drawn into their orbit, drives forward with an intensity and, yes, ferocity that I’ve rarely encountered.

It starts out in an all-Jewish apartment building in the Bronx, where Gornick’s mother reigned over her neighbors by virtue of “the certainty of her manner”. Supremely self-confident, riding on the myth of her perfect marriage to a man who adores her, she exercises her authority, giving advice and arbitrating quarrels.

She seemed never to be troubled by the notion that there might be two sides to a story, or more than one interpretation of an event. She knew that, compared with the women around her, she was “developed”—a person of higher thought and feeling—so what was there to think about?

Gornick powerfully describes that world of women, the world of the kitchen that looked out on the alley in the back of the building, the gossip exchanged and schedules arranged while leaning out of the window hanging wet clothes on the line. But she also shows us how limiting that world could be, how her mother despised it, channeling her restlessness and boredom, like a torrent confined to a narrow gulley. “Passive in the morning, rebellious in the afternoon, she was made and unmade daily. She fastened hungrily on the only substance available to her, became affectionate toward her own animation, then felt like a collaborator.”

The structure of the book brilliantly reinforces this double view; like a stereoscope we get the experience of the past and Gornick’s present-day perspective on it. Chapters alternate between stories of the past and current interactions with her now-aged mother during their marathon walks of the streets of New York.

I read recently, though I can’t remember where, that the tension created by these two sometimes conflicting views of the past is one reason memoirs are so fascinating. Even in a memoir written entirely from a child’s viewpoint, we know that it is the adult author who is selecting and arranging incidents for us.

In her craft book, Gornick delves into memoirists “whose work records a steadily changing idea of the emergent self.” And it is Gornick’s self, forged by encounters with her strong-willed and much-loved mother, who finally captured my attention in this book. As in the best memoirs, Gornick wastes no time on complaints, but rather treats her mother with love and respect, even if sometimes also with exasperation. Gornick doesn’t spare herself, but admits her own mistakes. And I think we all know that moment when we look in the mirror and see our parent’s face looking back at us.

Gornick goes on to say of the memoirists in her craft book, “But for each of them a flash of insight illuminating that idea grew out of the struggle to clarify one’s own formative experience; and in each case the strength and beauty of the writing lie in the power of concentration with which this insight is pursued, and made to become the writer’s organizing principle. That principle at work is what makes a memoir literature rather than testament.” (emphasis mine)

Fierce Attachments is truly literature, and a story you will not forget.

What memoirs do you recommend?

Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life, by Hermione Lee


I like to read biographies of authors. When the biography is as good as this one, I like to stop and read the author’s books just before they are discussed. Yes, the works stand alone; you don’t need to know details of the author’s life to appreciate them. But as a writer, I am curious about how her experiences shaped the author’s perspective and choices.

I’ve been particularly curious about Penelope Fitzgerald for two reasons: I’ve loved her novels, and she was 60 years old when her first novel was published. She did publish two nonfiction books, one when she was 58 and the other the same year as her first novel. I wondered how her life story meshed with the stories described so vividly in Tillie Olsen’s Silences.

Indeed, it does. While working at the BBC during WWII, she married Desmond Fitzgerald, whom she’d met at Oxford. Within six months, he’d been sent to North Africa with the Irish Guards. Like so many soldiers, he returned damaged in ways less visible than a missing leg. His misadventures meant that the family lived in poverty, even being homeless for a while before gratefully moving into a council flat. Working to support the family and raise her children left Fitzgerald little time for writing, but she was storing up ideas and experiences that enabled her to produce nine novels and three biographies in just 20 years.

In this rich and readable biography, Hermione Lee gives us not just Fitzgerald’s story, but also a discerning evaluation of her work. Lee incorporates excerpts from Fitzgerald’s speeches and writings: letters, reviews, essays. Without being didactive, she suggests places in the novels where Fitzgerald made use of her experiences. Fitzgerald’s first five novels draw on her own past, but even the later novels reveal traces of past preoccupations and concerns.

Lee gives us the events and people that shaped and influenced Fitzgerald as a writer. For example, knowing that her beloved father, Edmund “Evoe” Knox, wrote for Punch, adds a new perspective to her brisk, humorous prose. Her father and his siblings provided a rich, if unusual, environment for the young writer.

In talking about the novels, Lee traces some common threads, such as, “Bourne-Jones attracted her, too, because she felt a strong imaginative pull towards characters at odds with their world: the depressives, the shy, the unworldly, the emotionally inarticulate.”

Her own experiences enabled her to sympathise with such characters. In an interview, Fitzgerald spoke of “the courage of those who are born to be defeated, the weaknesses of the strong, and the tragedy of misunderstandings and missed opportunities which I have done my best to treat as comedy, for otherwise how can we manage to bear it?”

In her later works, she experimented with an impressionistic style, putting together fragments that push the reader to actively engage with the story. This style is most effectively used in The Blue Flower, her story based on the life of the German Romantic poet Friedrich von Hardenberg, known as Novalis. It is especially effective because it mirrors his own style. In an early notebook, Fitzgerald wrote, “Novalis wrote: One can imagine stories which have no coherence, but only association of events, like dreams, or poems which at most have single verses which can be understood, like fragments of the most various objects.”

Lee pins down another aspect of this novel, saying, “she has been thinking all her writing life about the relation between biography, history and fiction. Now she merges the genres to create a new kind of book.”

What most impressed me in this account of Fitzgerald’s life and work was the incredible amount of research she did for each book, not just for the biographies, but for each novel as well. For Beginning of Spring, for example, Lee says, “there is a great deal of homework in her notebooks on printing works, alongside notes on merchants, railway stations, ministries, churches, birch trees, dachas and mushrooms.” Some extensive reading may only be come a detail, such as the sandstone towers of a market in Moscow.

For me, this remarkable biography sheds new light on Fitzgerald’s novels. Plus I love that it sent me back to read all the novels again.

What biography have you read recently that gave you new insight?

The Normans: From Raiders to Kings, by Lars Brownworth


I’ve recently taken a little detour into the Middle Ages, starting with Helen Hollick’s The Kingmaking, a well-researched novel about Arthur Pendragon’s rise to power in 5th century Britain. Then I jumped ahead to the 12th-15th centuries, viewing a four-part series hosted by historian Dan Jones called Britain’s Bloodiest Dynasty: The Plantagenets.

I also read Judith Merkle Riley’s witty novel, The Master of All Desires, about a young woman who finds herself at the center of Queen Catherine de Medici’s intrigues at the French Court and looks to the Queen’s Astrologer, Nostradamus, for advice. The story is set in the 16th century, thus putting it over the historians’ line and into the Renaissance, although the reliance on seers and spells seems more apt for the Middle Ages.

Finally I tackled this book on the Normans, set in the 11th and 12th centuries. It is relatively short at a little over 200 pages and immensely readable. Maps, family trees, descriptive lists of people and places, and endnotes explaining possibly unfamiliar terms, make this history accessible for a reader with little or no foreknowledge while not boring one who knows quite a bit about the Normans already.

I knew that the Normans who invaded Britain came from—surprise!—Normandy and were descended from Viking raiders who’d settled there in the 9th and 10th centuries. I knew about the Battle of Hastings and have my list of English monarchs well situated in memory.

What I didn’t know was that the Normans played a huge role in the rest of Europe, creating kingdoms as far south as North Africa, going on crusades, and taking on the Papal States, the Holy Roman Empire (aka the German Empire) and the Byzantine Empire. And that much of that was accomplished by members of a single family, the de Hautevilles.

The question Brownworth sets out to answer is: “How did Western Europe, which was militarily, technologically, and socially far behind its immediate neighbors in the Middle East, manage not only to catch up with them, but to rise to global dominance?”

He finds much of the answer in the Normans. Without downplaying their ruthless suppression of local languages and customs, he does explain how they eventually assimilated with their conquered peoples. While some of the Normans he describes were warriors first and last, others actually found creative ways to govern, becoming respected and even beloved.

Still, the net result for me of all this reading and viewing was a sickening sense of the brevity of life in the Middle Ages, not only for the conquered peasantry and the waves of warriors thrown at various foes, but for the rulers themselves. Intrigue is too mild a word for the fostering of revolts in a brother’s country, the poisonings and outright murders. And then there were the frail, inbred children placed on thrones, controlled or fought over by power-hungry nobles.

None of this was new to me, but the span of this little detour of mine showed how prevalent it was. Yet another person murdering all of his brothers to gain a throne, in turn murdered by another claimant. Over and over.

In this season of the U.S. presidential election, a time I loathe, one that has me avoiding the saturated media, I actually found the slaughter of the Middle Ages comforting. Yes, the airwaves are dominated by amoral pretenders, each trying to stir up more hatred than the next, making the U.S. a laughingstock in the international arena where people cannot believe such clowns could even be considered for office. But at least they are not killing each other. At least they are not cooking up charges to have each other’s entrails dragged out or having their opponents beheaded or poisoned or burned at the stake. And this season, at least, there are a few who are refraining from even verbal attacks in favor of—shocking as it may be—a discussion of the issues.

I will take comfort where I can find it.

What do you know of the Normans’ involvement in the Crusades?