Sunday, January 23, 2011

Wendy Moffat writes a new biography of E. M. Forster

I usually only write about novels here, but a new biography of a great novelist is always interesting, and this one is especially so.

A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E. M. Forster

Wendy Moffat’s new biography of Forster, A Great Unrecorded History (404 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $32.50) is an elegant rethinking of the biography of E. M. Forster. Forster, Morgan to his friends, was far more deeply engaged in issues that his sexual preference for men brought to his attention. Thinking about men, talking to them, dating them, and making love to them were all central in ways that other accounts have not made clear. But Moffat has looked at letters and contemporary materials to paint a more complete picture, one that makes Forster a man with desires and needs like other men. Even if he struck some people, like Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf, as a pathetic case, stumbling along and never achieving much, Moffat shows us how very much was happening at each stage of his career and in every decade of his life.

Her careful reconsideration of Forster’s gay writing, both his ground-breaking novel Maurice and some of the greatest short stories of the twentieth century, gives Moffat the opportunity to show us a more coherent figure, one who decided early in life what really mattered and kept himself to a high standard of behavior, both personal and professional. In Maurice, Forster told the story of a suburban hero who falls in love with a working class lad. Friendship fails Maurice, the hero, and when he and Alec go off together, they seem utterly alone. While Forster’s own sexual interest, in lower class and racially distinct young men, was as clearly stated as that in the novel, his life was as rich in deep abiding friendship as it was in romantic interest. Friendships with Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, Hugh Merideth, Malcolm Darling, Joe Ackerley, Sebastian Sprott, Christopher Isherwood, Paul Cadmus, and many, many others are discussed here interestingly, and each relationship is documented with quotes from an enormous selection of personal letters, which can be found in archives both here and abroad.

Moffat is deft at presenting Morgan’s obsessions, whether he is fretting about keeping something from his mother, worrying about a potential blackmail, or trying to figure out the correct ending for Maurice, and she has a deep feeling of sympathy for the man whose biography she is writing. This would seem to be the first qualification for a good biographer, but you’d be surprised at how often a very different feeling is revealed.

Moffat has also made clear and vivid Morgan’s many-decade involvement with the policeman Bob Buckingham. She shows how much the two men meant to each other, and she also shows with a lack of judgment that is remarkable, how these two men accommodated the younger man’s marrying a nurse and starting a family. What is most remarkable about this complex involvement is how close Morgan and May became in later years.

This biography is a great one to set beside the authorized two-volume biography of P. N. Furbank, which was published in 1977-78. In the last thirty-some years, it has become possible to talk about some things more openly, to be sure. But it also takes a great biographer to both find all the relevant material and to construct a compelling and very persuasive account. That is what Wendy Moffat has done.

Wendy Moffat

A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E. M. Forster
is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Paul Auster writes a diagnosis of these depressing times.

I liked the sound of this novel, which centers on a group of lost souls who are squatting in an abandoned house in Brooklyn. It is wrenching but powerful.

Sunset Park

Sunset Park (320 pages, Henry Holt, $25) tells the story of a neglected corner of Brooklyn, known by this name, where a group of aging misfits has established a beachhead in the modern world.

They're led by the ardent politico Bing, who feels that every action he chooses must be aimed against the contemporary world of multi-national corporations and its contempt for the common man. His actions are all local; hence the squatting—a small house with all its utilities seems simply to have been abandoned—and his work repairing bits of machinery—like typewriters and toasters—from an earlier age. He is a big, burly and almost lovable guy who is trapped in his own physicality and hasn’t really known love before this story begins.

Miles is also a misfit. He dropped out of college out of a brooding guilt that he was responsible for his step-brother’s death. In a sense he was—he shoved the boy into oncoming traffic—but the actual situation, when rehearsed, reads as an accident and nothing more. Miles escaped from college and from family, and he has bopped around the country doing odd jobs. When we first meet him he is in Florida, and he has fallen for a girl just shy of eighteen. When the girl’s sister starts to threaten him, he moves north and takes up with the Sunset Park crowd. He also takes the occasion to get back in touch with his parents, with mixed results.

The two other residents—Alice and Ellen—are interestingly drawn portraits of women in need. Ellen is a real estate broker who is so deeply lonely that she can hardly function. Alice, a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia, is finding that the work she does in activist organizations is far more meaningful to her then her dissertation work, but she soldiers on nonetheless. Her own boyfriend seems to be slipping away, and they will break up before the novel reaches its conclusion.

All the people living in the Sunset Park house are putting off the inevitable--their idyll must end--but they are already like the walking wounded. Alice is writing her dissertation on the film, The Best Years of Our Lives, and the bittersweet mood of that work—the desperation facing those coming back from the war—seems to have infected these characters too. Their lives seem to be on hold, and they cannot figure out any way to move beyond that.

When movement comes in the form of outside forces—their lair is uncovered—the results are hardly salutary. They may finally have to face their inmost demons, but before they do they have to confront the legal quagmires in which they are stuck. The ending can only be considered happy in that they are less self-deluded. But that’s little consolation after all.

Auster has written a powerful novel about powerlessness and misdirection. I’m interested to look at some of these many other novels he has written.

Paul Auster

Sunset Park
is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Justin Halpern writes about a Dad with a Mouth

I was getting over a cold last week, and I decided to look for a comic novel. Well, I found one all right. Sometimes I was laughing so hard I thought I might choke. It’s probably not for everyone, but it’s certainly for anyone who’s had a father.

Sh*t My Dad Says

This novel/memoir is truly a delight. Sh*t My Dad Says (176 pages, It Books, $14.99) chronicles the brutal honesty and ruthless straight speaking of the author’s Dad. His sayings line up like soldiers at the beginning of every chapter. They are hilarious in the abstract, but at times they are even funnier when they are read in context.

I would give examples, but they abound on the internet and elsewhere. Some of them are also reproduced on the sometimes entertaining sit-com $h*t My Dad Says on CBS.

The Dad in question is foul-mouthed, but he also loves his son deeply. He is also in Nuclear Medicine at UCSD; he served in Vietnam; he is an avid basball fan; and he seems like an all-round good guy. His directness is often shocking, but it’s also a breath of fresh air. No one would recommend talking to a child the way this Dad does, but each time Justin quotes his father’s sayings, he is clearly doing so out of awe.

Another thing that comes across clearly is this Dad’s willingness to support his kid and to do everything he can for him. He supports him in every situation, and even when it seems that he has turned on his son, a reader can recognize that he is supporting him in another way. Justin’s attachment to his Dad is profound, and his book is really a measure of his gratitude to this man who allowed him to follow his dreams.

Whether or not you have watched the CBS sitcom, I recommend reading the novel. I promise you that it’s a different experience entirely. What started as a Twitter list of family reminiscences has become a national sensation. I think it’s right that it should.

Justin Halpern

Sh*t My Dad Says is available at Vroman's and Amazon.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Paul Murray writes an astonishing novel about Irish schoolboys.

I am not sure where I read a review of this novel, but it sounded interesting enough. In the end, I think I would have to say that it is very close to being great.

Skippy Dies

Poor young Skippy, a fourteen-year-old Irish schoolboy, dies in the opening chapter of Paul Murray’s first novel, Skippy Dies (672 pages, Faber & Faber, $28), but then the author takes us back to some months before this tragedy, and he leads us up to it—the death it no less tragic for our knowing that it is about to happen—and then takes us beyond. The action transpires in a private Catholic boy’s school called Seabrooks.

Before we are far into this enormously long novel—Murray has the Irish gift of long-windedness, to be sure, and I for one would like to see the novel a few hundred pages shorter—we know several of the students, some teachers, and the Acting Principal.

The latter figure, Greg, a lay teacher and alumnus who has risen to this position when the priest who is head of the school falls ill, is about as immediately antipathetic a character to have appeared in fiction in some time. Always feeling that he knows what is best for the school, he clearly hates the teachers, the priests especially, the boys, and even the school itself. His only true interest is his own advancement.

He is contrasted to Howard, a feckless History teacher, another alumnus, who has returned to the school after a failed career in finance. Howard lives with an American girl, Halley, but he is bored in his relationship and bored with his job. He is bored, that is, until a substitute geography teacher comes to the school and he enters a romantic fantasy from which he can hardly escape.

While Greg plots against the most vulnerable students and Howard bumbles through his pathetic life, we are endlessly entertained by the goings-on of a group of boys who are eccentric in the ways that cause kids to be ostracized in high school. Rupert, an overweight whiz kid who obsesses with scientific attempts to break through to other dimensions, and his roommate Skippy, a slight but handsome kid who has won some trophies at swimming, form the center of an odd group consisting of Denis, a world-weary fourteen-year-old who seems only to be going through the paces of being a student or a friend; Mario, a sexual braggart who is all talk and no action; and several other likable if utterly gullible young men who hang around and get into mischief. This is close because all of them are boarders, and all of them show signs of feeling abandoned by their families.

Murray has a great gift for creating the language of these kids. Every conversation, every text, every phone message rings true. It is shocking how desperate these kids are; but when we see them popping pills and getting drunk, we realize that their lives are falling to pieces before their eyes.

We meet some girls too, from St. Briget’s, the girl’s school next door. And they are just as bad, if not worse. Lori, the girl with whom Skippy falls in love, is usually high on something or other, and they spend their first evening together, after a disastrous Halloween “Hop,” popping pills and taking drags on Rupert’s asthma inhaler. In spite of this, though, they manage to touch each other emotionally, and what they do with those feelings are part of the subject of the novel.

There is so much else one could talk about too. Rupert’s string theories are provocative and complex; Howard gets interested in the role of Irish soldiers in World War I; video games, role-playing, all sorts of student adventures abound: there is no end to what Murray finds interesting and what he can make entertaining. This is one of the best tragicomic schoolboy novels I have ever read. If I wished it could be a little shorter, that is just so that other folks might read it too.

I read somewhere that Neil Jordan is making a film of this novel. That would be exciting.

Paul Murray

Skippy Dies is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Niccolo Ammaniti writes a gripping tale about Italians falling victim to a capitalist dream.

I saw this novel in a bookstore and noticed that it had received a prize in Italy. I decided to give it a try.

As God Commands

Niccolo Ammaniti’s novel, As God Commands (406 pages, Black Cat Books, $14.95), is translated from the Italian by Jonathan Hunt. It tells the story of three down and out Italian pals living in a marginal town called Varrano. These guys—all in their forties—are in desperate straits. They have lost their construction jobs to immigrant labor and they all see their lives as largely behind them.

Danilo lives in the fantasy of the life he shared with Teresa before their daughter died and his wife left him to marry her employer. Danilo keeps fantasizing that he can win her back, but every time she tries to help him, he ruins things by going too far or misreading the signs. She has had just about all she can take from him.

Quattro Fromagio, the one friend who is nicknamed after a kind of pizza, also lives in a fantasy world, but his is a fantasy of pornography, which he has imbibed in the form of a video that he found in the trash somewhere. In the video, which he watches and rewatches, a young girl allows herself to be used sexually in various ways and with various persons or groups of people. All these images excite Quattro Fromagio, and although he seems to suffer sexual dysfunction, he still imagines that he can find a little heroine like the one in the film.

Rino, the most together of these three, is also out of work and largely given to drink and complaining; but he also has a young teenage son, Cristiano. The relationship between Rino and Cristiano is beautiful, and as devoted as they are to each other, they still cannot escape the world in which they are trapped. They are effective at tricking the social worker, and they have a certain amount of success with the ladies—Rino is a good-looking man, muscular and wiry, and Cristiano is handsome too, even though he is shy around the girls who approach him--but they are no match for the reality that confronts them.

The world these characters inhabit reads like something out of Beckett, and Ammaniti makes it almost as comic a world as it is tragic. The three men plot to break into a bank in order to steal an ATM machine, and they imagine running off with a lot of money and laughing at everyone who has ever put them down. The heist, though, is s total bust, and they don’t even get close to their objective. Instead, their obsessions take them in self-destructive directions, to say the least; and before the end of the novel each one of these characters has been brought low.

Cristiano seems to survive the great conflagration, but one is forced to wonder what kind of survival this will be. He seems to have lost faith in his father, and in all his friends, and in the end he is confronting a world that seems in every way to have let him down. It remains to be seen whether he can make the best of this situation, or not.

Ammaniti writes compellingly, and even in translation this novel is wonderful. It is not for the faint of heart, to be sure, but if you have a taste for gritty realism that uses humor to make a powerful point, then this may be the novel for you. I found it on the sale shelf at Powell’s in Portland.

Niccolo Ammaniti

As God Commands available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Matthew Gallaway writes a stunning novel about life and art.

A friend recommended this novel to me, and I can honestly say that I haven't enjoyed another novel from 2010 as much as I have enjoyed this one.

The Metropolis Case

Matthew Gallaway’s debut novel, The Metropolis Case (384 pages, Crown, $25), is a stunningly beautiful fantasy that defies the limit of the realistic novel to make a profound statement about life and art and the truth that they offer.
The story has three centers of focus, which become complexly interwoven as the narratives develop. The end result is astonishing and deeply satisfying. Gallaway almost defies expectations by pulling all these strands together so effectively.

In the story that begins closest to the contemporary moment, we are introduced to Martin, an unsatisfied lawyer who began life in a band and then wrote music reviews for a time. Law was a desperate alternative when he worried about where his life was going; and when we meet him, he is just about fed up. He is seriously considering early retirement—he has reached the ripe old age of 41—when 9/11 happens. After a truly harrowing day, he decided to retire anyway. And then he starts trying to put his life together.

An HIV positive gay man, Martin has had little luck in dating or finding a life-partner. His experiences have, if anything, jaded him, and he has begun to feel that love is a lovely fantasy when you are young but that it has no bearing on the meaning of life. Then he takes in two cats, one has been hanging around the neighborhood and he sees another in the pound. In any case, he devotes his life to these two creatures, and through caring for them and engaging with them, he begins to think, as strange as it might seem, that he can experience love.

Another vivid and compelling figure is Maria, who, like Martin, grew up in Pittsburgh, and like him, was also an adoptee. We see her in the 1970s and 1980s, when she is first finding her talent as a singer and later working with the Julliard singing teacher and former Wagnerian soprano, Anna. The relationship between these two characters is key to the meaning of the novel, but also key is Maria’s search to find her voice and accept herself as a great singer.

Gallaway tells a similar story about a nineteenth-century Italian boy, Lucien, who, as he grows into a strapping lad, also shows signs of being a great opera singer. Gallaway makes this story compelling, too: he shows how Lucien is taken up by the local aristocratic lady, how he finds his way to Vienna, and how at last he finds himself singing in the premier of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

This opera, it turns out, is a link for all these characters. Early in the novel, after a memorable performance of the opera in which she stars as the female lead, Anna is offered an original score of the work. Lucien and Maria also mark the performance of that opera as the high points of their careers. Because the opera is about true love, and these characters are singing about it without necessarily experiencing it in their lives, the opera always leads to soul-searching of the most compelling kind. Even Martin, who is not himself a singer, attends a performance that sets him on a change of life-course as well.

Gallaway manages to bring all these strands together in surprising ways. If at first you feel that certain things about the ending might seem forced, simply allow yourself to give into it and you will find that the novel takes you places where few novels do.

I have nothing but praise for this exciting debut, and I can only hope that Matthew Gallaway will treat us to another masterpiece soon.

Matthew Gallaway

The Metropolis Case available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Mary Glickman places a Jewish family in Mississippi.

This novel about Southern Jews sounded intriguing, and I was pleased that it was every bit as good as I had hoped.

Home in the Morning

Mary Glickman’s Home in the Morning (224 pages, Open Road, $24.99) talks about a complex relationship among Jackson Sappaport, a Jewish lawyer from an established Jewish family of merchants and professionals in Mississippi, and friends from his youth. Jackson has had a boyhood and young adult crush on a local black woman, Katherine Marie, who worked for his family at one time. Her beau, Li’l Bokay, was also a boyhood friend of Jackson’s. Before Jackson left for college up north, at Yale, which he followed with Law School, something occurred which caused all these relationships to fall apart.

It takes a while, both because of the characters’ reticence and because of the way the story is told, for the true story to emerge. I won’t give away the secrets of the novel, but there is an account of violence and racial contempt that makes it hard for Jackson to continue in association with the friends he has known.

When he comes back from Yale, he brings a northern wife, also Jewish, who is something of a political radical. Stella Godwin is trained as a social worker, but she is also a beautiful woman who is as much in love with Jackson as he is with her. Together they try to do the right thing when they find themselves living again in Mississippi; but as times change, it becomes harder to stick to their earlier ideals.

The novel covers the time from the sixties, when Jackson is growing up in the south, until the nineties when some of the characters are reassessing what has happened in the last half of the twentieth century. Some wounds are so deep that they can never heal, but others can be soothed with the passage of time and some old friendships can become new again.

This story is told in a compelling manner, and it brings alive some of the racial tensions that we may have forgotten. These are memorable characters and it truly feels that their story matters. Mary Glickman has told it compellingly.

Mary Glickman

Home in the Morning is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.