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35: TWO CONTEMPORARY NOVELS YOU'VE PROBABLY ALREADY READ (AND THREE YOU PROBABLY HAVEN'T) BUT I LIKE

#35: TWO CONTEMPORARY NOVELS YOU’VE PROBABLY ALREADY READ (AND THREE YOU PROBABLY HAVEN’T) BUT I LIKED THEM SO I’M GOING TO WRITE ABOUT THEM ANYWAY.

---Very occasionally you run across a novel in which everything goes almost mysteriously right—the author finds a story, a terrain, a tone exactly suited to her gifts. In Possession (Random House, 1990), with several volumes of fiction and criticism behind her, A. S. Byatt hit form—but what a form! It’s subtitled “A Romance,” which sets you up for a heightening of emotion as well as a certain latitude about probability, but Possession is one of those wonderful books that flies all over the place—mystery, historical novel, love story (doubled—cubed, actually), a whopping satire of academic life—and yet it remains serenely under command. The protagonists are each expert in nineteenth century poetry; a letter surfaces suggesting an unsuspected connection between their two favorite poets; and you’re off, the letter triggering a series of parallel pursuits, like the pirated cassette in “Diva”. The grandstanding is in Byatt’s invention not just of the two poets but of their poems and stories, each a clue to the plot; but the richness is in the bug-eyed energy with which Byatt’s characters hit you—poets, professors, pedants and all, ringing as many changes on that one-word title as you can imagine. It’s a brilliant book and a splendid read.

--- “For instance? Well, for instance, what it means to be a man.” The epigraph to Ian McEwan’s Saturday is a passage from Bellow’s Herzog—a little overture that should be disastrously chesty but comes to seem merely just. Saturday (Doubleday, 2005) is about twenty-four hours in the life of Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon, and I don’t want to give away too much more of the story—if possible Saturday is a book that deserves to be read cold, without prompting; I’d say skip even the jacket blurb. When it came out it was hailed and discussed as McEwan’s 9/11 novel, and it certainly is about the lowering insecurity of the contemporary world, but it’s also about how we respond—our intimate, personal choices. The comparison is with Camus’s The Plague. When I’ve told people Saturday is a novel fit for adults, I’ve meant in part the generosity of adulthood—the steady running current of intelligence. (Note, for instance, how McEwan refuses to make a hanging case out of a man not recognizing a quote from Matthew Arnold.) Page by page, the evocation of the first part of the novel is so absorbing that, as with Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry, we feel almost a blip of dissatisfaction when the plot begins to come to the fore; but that’s next to nothing. Saturday is near to seamless, and gets everything right that counts. McEwan earns, amazingly, that quote from Herzog. “You yourself are a child of this mass and a brother to all the rest. Or else an ingrate, dilettante, idiot.”

---Dai Sijie is a Chinese-born novelist who was “re-educated” during the Cultural Revolution, and who has lived in France since 1984. In Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Random, 2001) two young men are sent to western China for re-education; the education that actually takes place, with the village folk, the daughter of the local tailor and a cadge of forbidden European novels is of course a woeful and touching satire of what the Party had in mind. What’s wonderful is the easy, unembittered sense Dai shows of how life continues to happen over, around, despite and in sad disregard of all the slogans and programs of Communist China. It teems with loving references to the forbidden literature and plays out like “Jules and Jim” and “Pygmalion” reset in the rural provinces. The translation by Ina Rilke is well done, and Dai himself directed the excellent film version, released in 2002 with Xun Zhou as the Little Seamstress. In his second, Mr. Muo's Travelling Couch, the tone wobbles a bit but there are some staggering bits of comic invention; his third, Par une Nuit ou la Lune ne s'est pas leveee, published by Gallimard in 2007 and not yet translated, is a bravura piece of work: a modern-day romance wound around a torn piece of silk inscribed with a Buddhist text. It’s in full flight virtually from page one and snaps neatly, perfectly closed in its final paragraph. I’m assuming it’ll get translated—keep your eyes peeled.

P.S.: Par une Nuit has been published in translation as of August 2009, as Once on a Moonless Night, translated by Adriana Hunter and published by Knopf. Go to it.

----In Michael Downing’s Breakfast with Scot (Counterpoint, 1999), a Harvard Square gay couple keep a promise to a deceased friend, to take care of her eleven-year-old son in the case of her death; this cheering and sweet-tempered novel details the first four months of an unexpected and warily-approached guardianship. The emotional trigger in the book is that Scot, with his “peculiarly limp limbs and his gooney posture,” is a screaming sissy, a boy whose belt is “shiny white imitation leather with pink dancing dogs and jazzy little musical notes.” Scot is a walking embarrassment, not least to his guardians, who are cornered into facing a lot of fears and insecurities they’d thought safely buried—and not just their own. “Scot raises a lot of questions,” one of his guardians says. Fortunately, what could have been an unhappy horror of a novel is instead a comedy of reconciliation and coming to terms, with just the right Austen-like shape and severity. In it, Cantabrigian sophistication comes to seem not just a verbal style but a dogged courage of toleration. It’s a clean shot of a novel, with terrific dialogue; Downing is a generous man and hellaciously funny.

----Tobias Wolff has labeled Old School (Knopf, 2003) a novel, but it’s plainly a continuation of his memoir This Boy's Life, at least in some important particulars. In this case, the adolescent narrator has wangled his way into a posh boy’s school, and proceeds to 1) attempt to become a writer, which includes the goal of winning the school’s annual competition for an audience with a famous visiting author, and 2) erase, in conversation and behavior, any sign of his less-than-posh bringing-up, including some socially inconvenient Jewish blood. These two worn-shoe-leather themes Wolff polishes to a lovely, funny luster, partly with the unabashed glee he shows in knocking the stuffing out of his younger self, but also with his humane understanding of the boy’s need to fit in and his seduction by the glamor of the school’s traditions. The visiting writers are Frost, Ayn Rand, and Hemingway; the mimicry in each case is pretty good, and no one has ever so neatly shown the effect on an unprepared mind of reading Ayn Rand, which immediately turns his narrator into a smug little Nazi. It’s the book’s high point, and a great comic payoff.

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