London Review of Books, Vol. 40, No. 21, 8 November 2018

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A recent vacation gave me the opportunity to catch up a bit on my backlog of LRBs. I’m a longtime subscriber to this review that comes out twice a month, enjoying not just the reviews themselves, but also the British perspective.

This issue has many articles that intrigued me. A review of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s final volume by Frederic Jameson in which he analyses the fascination of Knausgaard’s massive My Struggle, placing it within the history of writing and philosophy, exploring questions of truth versus fiction, theorising about the identity of the “you” addressed in these books. I’m still not convinced I want to jump into these books, but I learned a lot from the review.

On the other hand, Michael Wood’s review of Graham Greene’s The Third Man & Other Stories, in which he delves into Greene’s process of working on the film and the story at the same time, made me watch the film again and sent me in search of the book.

When the LRB began including political essays some years ago, I was disappointed. Yet I’ve found the British point of view on U.S. and world events intriguing and the insight into British politics helpful. Of particular interest in this issue is a point-by-point analysis of the consequences of a no-deal Brexit by Swati Dhingra and Josh de Lyon. This should be required reading for every British voter, and news commentators from other countries.

I was also fascinated by Malcolm Gaskill’s “Plot 6, Row C, Grave 15”, his account of looking for the grave of Lieutenant Van Dyke Fernald, killed near Conegliano in July 1918. He gives us Fernald’s short life, especially taking us inside his experience as a fighter pilot in the ridiculously dangerous planes of the time. A U.S. citizen, Fernald became a British citizen at the age of 18 so he could join up. Most heartbreaking is Gaskill’s account of the reaction of Fernald’s mother to his death: devoting herself to spiritualism, certain that he was contacting her, ignoring her younger son Jack in the process.

Deeply moving, as well, is Jane Campbell’s account “The Year of My Father Dying” about Peter Campbell who, among other things, created all of the LRB’s cover art until his death. She captures the unreality, the chasm between past and present.

I understood how pampered and oblivious I had been before; perhaps the most shocking thing about the emotional torture of the year of my father’s dying was how ordinary I now realised it must be. I sat on buses and walked down high streets, wondering how many others like me there were.

She uses Christian Marclay’s art piece The Clock to explore time itself, its elasticity and ultimate inscrutability.

My one complaint about the LRB is illustrated by its appallingly low Vida Count: only 27% women in the latest count (though in fairness their count is up 5% from the previous year). This breaks down to women making up 28% of authors reviewed, 24% of book reviewers, and 28% of bylines. By comparison, The New York Times Book Review’s count is 46% women, Poetry Magazine’s a healthy 50%, and The Times Literary Supplement’s slightly better 36%. The New York Review of Books, however, clocks in at only 23% women.

I’ve only scratched the surface of this issue. Take a look at the LRB in your local library or use the three free articles a month available to nonsubscribers on their website. Let me know what you think.

Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, by Toni Morrison

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Published in 1992 but still relevant today, this work of literary criticism looks at how writers create characters different from themselves, specifically how white writers use black characters in their work. As a writer she must imagine others and, thinking about that process, she became curious as to how black characters are portrayed in the U.S. literary canon, which at the time was almost exclusively white.

Morrison also looks at the effect on the work of these white writers as they pretend that race is not a factor in their work. “What became transparent were the self-evident ways that Americans choose to talk about themselves through and within sometimes allegorical, sometimes metaphorical, but always choked representation of an Africanist presence.”

Applying this new critical approach, Morrison describes the deliberately constructed Africanist persona and how it functions in the American literary imagination, examining works by Faulkner, William Styron, Hemingway, and others.

She looks at the silence around race, for example, in Henry James’s What Maisie Knew and the lack of critical attention to the black woman who is the agent of moral choice in that novel. In Willa Cather’s story “Sapphira and the Slave Girl”, Morrison’s reading of race shows Sapphira not so much a cruel mistress as a desperate and disappointed woman whose social superiority is the only thing she has left to validate her self-image.

Examining American literature through this lens is fascinating. Morrison looks at the way authors such as Melville and Twain use the image of a slave population to investigate problems of human freedom and the fear of failure or powerlessness in white people. She shows how these authors relocate internal conflicts to slaves whose voices are silent.

These speculations have led me to wonder whether the major and championed characteristics of our national literature—individualism, masculinity, social engagement versus historical isolation; acute and ambiguous moral problematics; the thematics of innocence coupled with an obsession with figuration of death and hell—are not in fact responses to a dark, abiding signing Africanist presence. It has occurred to me that the very manner by which American literature distinguishes itself as a coherent entity exists because of this unsettled and unsettling population.

She also points out the troubling discrepancy between the fearful and haunted early American literature—Hawthorne, Poe, etc.—and the American dream of a city on a hill.

In addition to offering an allegorical foundation for major themes of American literature such as autonomy, absolute power, and freedom itself, Morrison suggests that this Africanist imagery “provided the staging ground and arena for the elaboration of the quintessential American identity.”

To me, her discussion sheds new light on today’s concerns about cultural appropriation. I am sympathetic to all sides : the writer’s need to tell the story she is passionate about, the importance of not preempting marginalized voices, and the necessity of having more diversity both in our reading and in our writers.

Have you read something or seen a lecture that gave you new insight into the books you’ve read?

Best books I read in 2017

As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. These are the ten best books I read in 2017. Please check the links to the blog archive for a fuller discussion of each book.

1. The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, 1965-2010, by Lucille Clifton

What makes Clifton’s work so astonishing to me is the way she uses plain language in what are often quite short poems and yet addresses complex themes. Moreover, she packs her poems with music and emotion. What a privilege to be able to delve into a lifetime of work from this remarkable woman!

2. Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

We start with the story of a notary sailing from the Chatham Islands home to California in 1850. This story is followed by others that moved forward in time to the present and beyond. Part of the fun is detecting how the stories fit together. Each of Mitchell’s eras is written in a different style: a journal, an epistolary novel, a genre mystery, etc. It’s masterful writing!

3. Thérèse, by Dorothy Day

Social activist Dorothy Day was deeply influenced by St. Thérèse of Lisieux, also known as the Little Flower. Thérèse came from a humble background and lived what would seem to be an unremarkable life until her death from tuberculosis at 24. What sets her apart from other saints is her simple approach to spirituality, one that is open to all of us.

4. Dante’s Tears: The Poetics of Weeping from Vita Nuova to the Commedia, by Rossana Fenu Barbera

Sometimes you find a book that answers questions you didn’t know you had. This book roused my curiosity about many things, not just Dante and tears, but also silences, numerology, medicine, and religious beliefs during the Late Middle Ages. By tracing the way Dante presents his own tears and those of others, the author demonstrates how Dante’s philosophy and world view developed over the time he spent writing these works.

5. Bread and Wine, by Ignazio Silone

In this 1936 novel by an Italian who worked underground against the fascists and was exiled, the main character, Pietro Spina, much like the author, works against the fascists. Depending on who is talking, he is either a dangerous revolutionary or an admired freedom fighter. The meat of the story, for me at least, is not his political work but his own inner transformation.

6. H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald

In this memoir of training a hawk as she copes with her grief over her father’s death, Macdonald lays bare her emotional journey in language that is achingly precise, with moments of grace that left me breathless.

7. The Man Who Knew Infinity, by Robert Kanigel

Subtitled “A Life of the Genius Ramanujan”, this 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.

8. The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes

In this new book from Julian Barnes, we enter the world of composer Dmitri Shostakovich. We begin in the year is 1936 when Shostakovich is about to undergo the first of three “conversations with power” that will alter the course of his career, his life, and his self-respect.

8. Collected Poems, by James Wright

Before reading this book I had only read one poem by James Wright, his most famous one: “The Blessing”. I was drawn in and held by the gentle images, too specific to be sentimental, until the final image hit me like a fierce wind, lifting me out of this life. How lovely, then, to find this collection by the beloved and influential poet.

9. The Penderwicks, by Jeanne Birdsall

There is nothing like a good children’s book when you want to take a little break from the world. Jeanne Birdsall’s modern series about the Penderwick family 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.

10. Hélène, by Deborah Poe

In this chapbook of poems, a young woman, Hélène, works in a factory-convent in 19c France weaving silk. Gently, always leaving space for us to make Hélène’s story our own, Poe juxtaposes the beauty of the silk tapestries with the working conditions of the time. We cannot help asking ourselves what confines us and how we escape.

What were the best books you read last year?

Dante’s Tears: The Poetics of Weeping from Vita Nuova to the Commedia, by Rossana Fenu Barbera

Rossana Barbera

Sometimes you find a book that answers questions you didn’t know you had. This book roused my curiosity about many things, not just Dante and tears, but also silences, numerology, medicine, and religious beliefs during the Late Middle Ages.

Earlier this week someone mentioned a history professor she once had who hated the sentence: “Things were different back then.” When I read these works of Dante’s back in my schooldays, that’s probably why I didn’t question all the weeping that goes on in them. As it turns out, though, the cultural context for tears really was different from today’s.

I haven’t read Dante since then, though of course I’ve encountered references and bits and pieces of his work over the years. Still, I had no trouble following Dr. Barbera’s explanations of the various meanings of tears during that time and how this understanding illuminates Dante’s most famous works. (Full disclosure: I have known the author for over ten years, first as a teacher and then as a friend.)

By tracing the way Dante presents his own tears and those of others, the author demonstrates how Dante’s philosophy and world view developed over the 26 or so years he spent writing these works. In Vita Nuova, where he first meets Beatrice,:

Dante’s confused and distressed state of mind is not merely emotional or decorative. It embraces the very essence of the book, the writing of which seems to be motivated by Dante’s finding a new path in life, finding his new life . . . Vita Nuova is the stage on which Dante represents his struggle to define the truth of Love, to test positive and negative behavior. Vita Nuova was the occasion, in Dante’s life, to discover a new poetic; in a way, it is the paradise and wood where Dante gets lost.

The Commedia, in which Dante travels through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, demonstrates Dante’s evolution to a more nuanced understanding of love and death, sin and redemption, and to a new poetics to express them. He more subtly uses different kinds of weeping to describe whom he meets and what he learns during his time in Hell and Purgatory. For some he meets, tears are a relief or a means of atonement. For others, they are a terrible punishment.

For example, Dante reserves the ninth and lowest circle of his Hell for traitors, those who broke the political order or society’s rules, which to him meant betraying the community itself. I was struck by the current relevance of this verdict, centuries before Rousseau published The Social Contract, which describes how citizens are willing to surrender some of their freedoms to the government in exchange for protection of their remaining rights.

Confined with Lucifer in a frozen lake of tears, these traitors are not allowed to weep, and therefore not given any way to relieve their sorrow or to petition God for forgiveness. If they do cry, their tears are frozen in their eye sockets, their heads tilted back. By delving into the significance of tears and Dante’s poetic use of them, the author brings home the true horror of these punishments and the depth of Dante’s scorn for these traitors.

I was also particularly interested in the history and meaning of the sin of acedia, better known today as sloth. However, it is more complicated than laziness. What we now call sloth was understood as a medical problem related to melancholia and tristitia (sorrow) until the “first Christian thinkers . . . began to associate diseases with or to explain them as a product of vice and sin.” When first identified as one of the seven deadly sins, it was considered “an inertia of the spirit” seen among monks who shifted their attention “from spiritual aspirations to earthly appetite.”

The relevance to today is obvious. As massive problems beset our society—problems we feel powerless to solve—it is tempting to bury our heads in the sand, whether by binge-watching television shows, video games, retail therapy, or focusing on personal ambition. Even though Thoreau’s “To be awake is to be alive” has been my motto since my teens, I am not immune; the lure of my book-lined room is sometimes irresistible.

In Dante’s Purgatory, acedia is the middle of the seven plateaus, separating the sins “that cause harm to others (Pride, Envy, and Wrath)” from the sins of “excessive love of earthly goods (Avarice, Gluttony, and Lust).” It is “intended as the mother of all temptations”. The exploration of Dante’s uses of weeping helps us better understand Dante’s struggle in this crucial area, the centerpoint of the entire Commedia and how we ourselves might move forward with open eyes.

Drawing on over a hundred sources, the author summarizes research and scholarship. She goes further and adds her own conclusions, clearly expressed and supported by the journey she has taken us on through the beliefs and worldview of the late 13th and early 14th centuries. Like the most satisfying of jigsaw puzzles, the pieces of the author’s argument slot together and yield a fascinating new portrait of Dante, his times, and his works.

Nearly all of the academic writers I know loathe tangled academic prose. What makes this book such a joy is not just the breadth of scholarship and the shrewd conclusions, but also the clarity of the prose. Even if you are not familiar with Dante’s works, the liberal quotations here will bring it to life and perhaps inspire you to explore these two works armed with your new understanding.

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