Monday, November 22, 2010

Daisy Hay writes a compelling literary biography of a generation of poets and writers.

I got the feeling that Daisy Hay’s study of the second generation of Romantic poets might read like a novel, and it surely does. It is richly informative, to be sure; but it is also simply a good read!

Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry’s Greatest Generation

In Young Romantics (384 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27.50), Daisy Hay gathers material from various sources, some well-known and some relatively new, to tell a familiar story from an inspired perspective, and the results are successful. Hay describes her inspiration: on her honeymoon she visited the English cemetery in Rome, where she encountered the graves of Keats and Shelley. When she noticed that both graves have what seem like companion graves in which friends are buried (Joseph Severn in the case of Keats and Edward John Trelawny in the case of Shelley), Hay became fascinated with the notion of friendships among the Romantics, and this book is the result of her research.

The book does many things that make it worth reading. For one thing, it brings out vividly the central place of Leigh Hunt in any discussion of these poets in context. Hunt was the sometime friend to Byron, Shelley, and Keats, and he encouraged all three men in their attempts to write poetry and find voices of their own. He also set a political agenda that for a time each of these poets subscribed to. Unlike the earlier generation of Wordsworth and Coleridge, who were influenced by the French revolution, Hay argues, this generation was influenced by Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and the resulting restrictions placed on individual liberties throughout Europe and in England especially. Hunt protested (and was prosecuted for doing do) in his periodical, The Examiner, and he drew literary friends of all kinds into a circle of committed and politically aware young men and women.

Hay tells this story compellingly, and she also tells how Hunt therefore became the avatar of what became known in conservative literary circles as the Cockney School of poetry. Poets like Shelley and Keats were grateful for Hunt’s support, but they also worried when it became a liability. Some of this tension animates the tale that Hay has to tell.

Another much-discussed feature of this group that Hay approaches directly is that of their sexual irregularity. Hay talks about the role of “free love” as part of the political agenda of this group, most famously articulated by Percy Bysshe Shelley in his poetry and other writing. Hay looks at the women who became involved with these men: Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin ran off with Shelley while he was still married to his first wife; Claire Clairmont accompanied this couple because of her own devotion to Shelley, only later to become involved with (and discarded by) Byron; Marianne and her sister Bess seemed to share the affection (if not the bed) of Marianne’s husband Leigh Hunt, and this threesome was the cause of public gossip as well as private consternation. Hay tells all these stories with careful attention to the actual feelings of these women. Without mocking the notion of free love, she also shows what kinds of pain it caused.

The great accomplishment of this book is its creation of the sense of a community of poets and writers. As careers go in different directions and several members of the group die at tragically young ages, tensions develop that eventually manage to pull things apart. But Hay creates a vivid sense of what these writers shared and how they derived strength from one another as much as from the ideal of poetic isolation. Hay uses a line of Keats as an epigraph. He described Hunt’s circle like this: “The web of our Life is of tangled yarn.” Hay does a lot to untangle these complicated lives and explain to us something about the true singularity of that poetic moment.

This is a book for students and scholars of the Romantic period, but it is also for anyone else who likes a great story about a great generation.

Daisy Hay

Get a copy of Young Romantics at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Armisted Maupin takes us to Barbary Lane once more.

This novel is another late edition to Maupin’s Tales of the City. I read it a bit for old times’ sake and a bit because I really liked his last novel, Michael Tolliver Lives. I thought this one might be fun too.

Mary Ann in Autumn

Armisted Maupin’s latest novel, Mary Ann in Autumn (304 pages, Harper, $25.99), tells the story of an older Mary Ann, now separated from her wealthy husband, who returns to San Francisco to be with her old friends as she faces a serious operation for ovarian cancer. Maupin hauls out all the old characters from Tales of the City. Michael Tolliver, Anna Madrigal, Shawna and others are back, and, as we discovered in Michael Tolliver Lives, they have a lot of life in them yet.

This volume includes a bit more of the lurid side of Tales of the City. The pedophile Norman is back, with a vengeance, and Mary Ann has to confront some of the gloomier hosts of her past. For me this feature of the novel creaked just a bit—it seemed almost quaint that Maupin would try to resurrect all that ghoulishness. But then he always had quite a light touch with it, and he does here too.

What’s new is a deeper interest in transsexuality. That was always there, of course, with Anna Madrigal as an early example of M to F transition. Well, she is now serving as mentor and house-mother to a young F to M trans character named Jake. Jake’s struggle to realize his new male identity, and his confusion when he is actually taken as a man, a gay man, by a visiting Mormon crusader, makes an engaging side plot. And of course Jake’s desire for a hysterectomy can be played against Mary Ann’s dread of one, and Maupin does play them against each other with good effect.

I looked on to see what readers are saying, and they seemed to be thrilled at this resurrection of the characters and the prospect of even more novels in the series. I can’t say that I share this enthusiasm. I’d like to see Maupin devote his considerable talents to writing novels that take us beyond this narrow and circumscribed world of Michael Tolliver and his friends. I am as happy as the next reader to see Michael as a slightly overweight and happily married sixty-year-old. But the petty difficulties that beset Michael’s relationship with the much younger, and very charming, Ben are only mildly interesting.

There is a terribly strong valedictory feeling about this novel, and a sense that nothing is really new but only reworking of things that have already happened. The San Francisco, moreover, that Maupin’s characters seem bent on rediscovering is not really the city as it exists in the twenty-first century. I think Maupin could do more to make the contemporary city come alive.

Suddenly I feel like I am sounding cranky about this novel, and I don’t mean to be. I quite liked it, and I know I would read another in the series should it be published. I also feel that we have had more than enough of these characters, and I would encourage this wonderful writer to try something else as he reaches the peak of his career.

Armisted Maupin

Mary Ann in Autumn is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Emma Donoghue has written a spectacular novel about a child’s view of pain and deprivation.

Emma Donoghue has written some wonderful novels, but this one is her best yet. It is no wonder that it was short-listed for the Booker Prize in England. I think it is one of the best novels I have read in a long time.

The Room

Emma Donoghue’s The Room (321 pages, Little, Brown and Company, $24.99) is a little confusing at first. A young woman and her five-year-old son are celebrating the boy’s birthday. The reader starts to notice how much is absent and how vividly the pair is improvising. Jack, the boy, is telling the story from his own perspective. This child’s voice and child’s perspective is one of the great achievements of the novel. Like one of the great novelists of the nineteenth century, Emma Donoghue creates a child-narrator that captures the reader’s attention and makes the entire story irresistible.

At first Jack is explaining how he and Ma pass their time in “The Room,” where they seem to be living. As Jack explains their games and the delightful ways they find to spend their days, it gradually dawns on the reader that these two characters are somehow trapped in a single room. Later it becomes clear that they are imprisoned in a sound-proof garden shed by a psychopath who has abducted the girl some years earlier.

Jack has been born in The Room, even he seems to understand, and until midway through the novel, that is the only world he knows. He has created a wonderland out of Bed and Stove and Skylight and Wardrobe, but the limits of his experience are truly harrowing.

Old Nick, their jailer, visits occasionally, sometimes bringing presents and always asking for sexual favors from Ma. She does what she can to placate the maniac because she fears for the little boy, and whenever Old Nick visits, Jack hides in the wardrobe and tries to keep silent.

The woman has been imprisoned for nearly seven years, it turns out, and finally she and Jack between them figure out a means of escape. It is a crazy plan, but somehow it works; and suddenly Ma and Jack are in a clinic that is trying to help them reacquaint, or in Jack’s case acquaint, themselves with the world.

The second half of the novel, which takes place outside The Room, is almost as ghoulish as the time spent within. Everything is new and monstrous to Jack. The air is too fresh, the sun it too strong, and life itself is a challenge for him. Ma, too, seems overwhelmed by the experience facing them.

Ma’s family does not help. Her mother, so guiltily solicitous, and her brother trying to help but putting his foot in it every time, are nearly maddening. Everyone, except the folks at the clinic, think Jack just needs to get out a bit. But when he does, the experience of the world nearly overwhelms him.

Ma has her own problems too, when her story becomes known and the media descends in an attempt to make her into a celebrity. For a while it seems as if neither of them will survive the ordeal of their liberation.

But remember that this entire story is told from the perspective of a five-year-old. He is a precocious boy in a lot of ways, but still! Jack’s perspective on everything that happens is more than unusual. It is magical in the ways that only the very best children's narratives have been. I am thinking of novels like Alice in Wonderland , David Copperfield,or Peter Pan. I would put this novel in a class with those masterpieces.

That is to say: Emma Donghue has written a masterpiece with The Room. I urge everyone who reads this blog to get it somewhere and read it right away. I have a copy I will share with anyone nearby.

Emma Donoghue

The Room available at Vroman's and Amazon.

Tristan Garcia writes about the effect of AIDS on Paris intellectuals in the 80s and 90s.

I read a review of this novel, which has been celebrated in France, and could not wait to read it. I am teaching a course on AIDS Literature this term, and I wish I had known about this book before I set the syllabus.

Hate: A Romance

Hate (283 pages, Faber and Faber, $24) is translated by Marion Duvert and Lorin Stein. It is Tristan Garcia’s first novel, which in French is called The Best of Men. The story, told by Liz (Elizabeth Lavallois), a child of the eighties, concerns three men. Two are Parisian intellectuals who trace their roots back to the heady days of 1968, while the third younger man, is handsome and far more elemental than the others.

Will, or Willie, Miller, the younger man, from Amiens, trades on his good looks and disrupts the world of Dominique Rossi, an openly gay writer and thinker, originally from Corsica. Dominique has confronted the horrors of AIDS and begun a “safe sex” program that is supported by the largest and most powerful gay organizations in France.

Jean-Michel Liebowitz, the second intellectual, is a deeply committed Jewish leftist who, in the course of the novel, comes to seem more like a neo-con, both in his politics and in his personal style.

Liz is close to all these men. Indeed she is having an affair with the married Jean-Michel for most of the novel. She is friendly with Dominique, or Doum, and Will, when they are lovers, and she carries a torch for the handsome Will, as so many other characters in the novel do.

The novel is brilliant in its presentation of the vagaries of Parisian intellectual life. At times almost heady with Marxist and post-structuralist ideas, Garcia, who is himself trained in philosophy, seems happiest when he is diagnosing the in-breeding of French thought in the late twentieth-century. But he also tells a riveting tale of sexual transgression, personal confrontation, and generational catastrophe.

Will finds himself at odds with Dominique, first within their relationship, which we see only briefly, but vividly; and then, after they split, everywhere else. Will's obsession with the man, with whom he was clearly in love, leads him to go after him publicly where he is most vulnerable. Because Doum’s most visible public cause is his “safe sex” program, Will becomes the avatar of unsafe sex. Attacking Doum and his cronies as the old men who want to destroy sex for the young, Will starts a barebacking campaign that has great success with the young.

“Prevention=Repression,” his t-shirts and bill-boards say, and without anyone quite knowing how, Willie Miller becomes the man of the moment. He writes a diatribe against Doum and the older gay leaders, and he becomes the man of the hour.

Garcia is spectacular at depicting the heady world of those who are defying AIDS, claiming that it is a grand conspiracy and even, a "Jewish conspiracy." Willie angers all the old guard, on the left, on the right, and in between.

One sleeping giant this activity angers is Jean-Michel Liebowitz, who comes out swinging; and in fighting the younger terror, he and Dominique meet up and try to call in all their cards in order to deal Will the final blow. They want to crush the young man, and they know exactly how to do that. They publish an interview about the "history of AIDS," as a way of reclaiming their position in it.

It seems, however, that Will’s physical breakdown will do even more than they can do with their timely publications. Garcia is great at depicting the gradual and then sudden breakdown that is typical of AIDS, and it is painfully ironic that we see the defiant young firebrand and many of his friends nearly wasting away.

Liz, the narrator, brings us in and out of these characters lives, and she offers her own assessments along the way. What Garcia is doing, though, besides giving us these three portraits—or four, really including Liz—is to give us a breathtakingly clear portrait of an entire age. These figures may not represent specific historical individuals, but they remind one of everything that was happening, politically and culturally, around the issue of AIDS in the later twentieth century.

I think this is one of the great novels to have emerged from this hideous history. I know it will be on my syllabus the next time I teach this course.

Tristan Garcia

Get a copy of Hate: A Romance at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Howard Jabobson’s latest novel treats the topic of British anti-Semitism.

I read about this novel when it was shortlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize, the English equivalent to the Pulitzer. By the time I finished reading it, it had been awarded the prize. I can certainly understand why.

The Finkler Question

Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question (307 pages, Bloomsbury,$15) tells the story of two men, a Jew and an non-Jew, who are friends from school and who stay friendly as they pursue their professional lives in London. They also stay close to an older man who was their favorite teacher, now a retired widower, who lives near Regent’s Park in London.

Julian Treslove has never been married. Women seem to drift in and out his life, but he hardly notices their coming and going. He has had two sons, though, now both grown, but he feels as remote from them as he does from their long-forgotten mothers.

Sam Finkler, his close friend, had been married to a wonderful woman called Tyler. Finkler loves Tyler deeply, and since her death some time before the opening of the novel, he is mourning her loss. A rather big and fairly demonstrative Jewish man, Finkler can hardly contain the grief he feels. He misses his wife Tyler terribly, and he also feels bad that he cheated on her—but surely this was the Jewish husband’s right, he thinks—as much as he did.

Tyler appears in the novel during various flashback scenes, and she is a wonderful character. More than a match for Finkler, when we see him in her company, we realize how deeply she could humanize him. In losing her, it is true that he lost a remarkable woman.

The older friend and former teacher to these guys, Libor Sevcik, a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia, has also recently lost a loving wife. An almost sardonic counterpoint to the younger men, Libor tries to create a place where they can seem at home, but their evenings together have a deeply funerary feel. They also spend their time—or at least Finkler and Sevick do—arguing about Zionism and the presence of the Jews in Palestinian territories. Sevcik’s life experiences and his deeply ingrained political views cause him to support Israel and defend Israeli choices, political and social. Finkler takes a far different position. He finds, as a leftist and thinker—he is a professional philosopher, as it turns out—that he is ashamed at what has been perpetrated under the name of Zionism. Once these conversations start, needless to say, they are intense and long-lasting.

Julian merely watches when these two go at it. Not Jewish himself, he recognizes the pain that these two men express, but he cannot really feel it. This is a great cause of chagrin to him, for he almost feels as if he has missed the boat somehow.
As Sam finds himself founding and going public with a group he calls the ASHamed Jews, Julian stumbles his way into the arms of a wonderful Jewish mother figure, who offers to take care of him. What he really wants from her is an experience of Jewishness, and before long she learns that his wanting to be close to things Jewish has become something of an obsession.

It would be hard to capture the rich and wonderful humor of the novel. But Jacobson is truly humorous, even at the level of style. The novel is a pleasure to read, and it is sometimes so funny that I found myself laughing out loud.

The novel is also deeply upsetting. What it exposes about British anti-Semitism is breathtaking in some ways. But Jacobson tells this story so lovingly, so humanely, that it is possible to feel consolation, even as these characters do ridiculous things.

The bond that these three men share, and even more elementally the bond between Julian and Sam, as complex and sometimes ruthless as it is, is one of the great friendships of literature. These men—Sam, a larger than life public personality, and Julian, a nowhere man if there ever was one—share a bond that sometimes almost makes them the same person. They are rivals, to be sure, but deep down they are also unmistakably in love.

Howard Jacobson

Get a copy of The Finkler Question at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.