August Reading: DeLillo, Ditlevsen, Eisenberg, Ellmann, Moore, Morrison, Proust

IMG_0692(What a pleasingly alliterative set of author names)

There’s an epigraph that I often remember, from Dave Eggers’ debut A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000 – and boy I wonder if anyone’s read or reread that book recently. It would be an interesting experience.) In fact the book has two memorable epigraphs: firstly, ‘THIS WAS UNCALLED FOR.’; and, secondly:

First of all:

I am tired.

I am true of heart.

And also:

You are tired.

You are true of heart.

Both of them sum up the radical sincerity and potential mawkishness at the heart of his writing. Both, because of this, are memorable. They stay with me, because as statements they are so widely applicable – they are applicable now – as well as being pertinent to the book for which they act as curtain raisers, or perhaps, rather, mottos painted on the safety curtain of the book’s theatre.

I am tired. Teaching starts next week. Summer’s over. I am sure that you are tired. I make no claims for the trueness of either of our hearts, but let’s accentuate the positive.

I am tired. That’s it. That’s the tweet.

And but so:

Books are wonderful relaxation. They are also wonderful energising. There’s nothing I love more than grabbing my phone to tweet a response to something I’m reading, whether it’s Don DeLillo describing a woman putting a condom on a man’s penis as “dainty-fingered and determined to be an expert, like a solemn child dressing a doll”,

or Lorrie Moore pole-axing the reader with the devastating end to the first page of her story ‘Terrific Mother’.

I’ve been trying to read Proust with my phone to hand, too, as an enhanced form of annotation, and that, too, has been fun and exciting.

Fun and excitement: wow. That’s it. That’s the tweet.

But, sometimes, writing about books can be a chore. It’s a terrible thing that a book, once read, even a good book, can be put on one side and forgotten. What’s the point of all of this, you think, if a book that engages your brain and emotions over a number of hours over a number of days just gets put back on the shelf and, to all intents and purposes, forgotten? Because sometimes they are picked up again. Sometimes they are passed on. My August reading contained left-turns and blind alleys, slogs up stony hills and brief gleefully shrieking slides down sandy dunes. There was reading for work, reading for the soul, reading by accident and reading by design.

The Don DeLillos are there for an academic chapter I’m writing, and I found myself zooming through them. Mao II, a re-read, is far from my favourite of his novels: too slick and portentous, too glib in the way it throws around its themes.

In one aspect at least it’s a victim of its success. The famous riff about terrorists having replaced the novelists at the heart of the inner life of the culture is blandly prophetic, but it’s too on the nose. The other ‘prophetic’ moments or images in his novels – such as the most photographed barn in America, or the playing dead response to the Airborne Toxic Event, are more oblique, more generally symbolic. The writing is spiffing. It’s spiky poetry has just become too easy to read.

Running Dog, by contrast, I enjoyed. I don’t think I’d read it before. It’s more corny in its plotting – closer to a spy thriller or a contemporary hardboiled thriller – and that allows the author to have more fun, and for the punchier writing to stand out from the more familiar skeleton. Another extract I tweeted managed to pick out something that occurred to me elsewhere about the male (I think) approach to language. Here it is:

Vietnam, in more ways than one, was a war based on hybrid gibberish […] where technical idiom was often the only element of precision, the only true beauty [the fighting man] could take with him into realms of ambiguity. […] Caliber readings, bullet grains, the names of special accessories. Correspondents filled their dispatches with these, using names as facets of narrative, trying to convey the impact of violent action by reporting concatenations of letters and numbers. […] Weapons were named, sur-named, slang-named, christened, titled and dubbed. Protective devices. Bearings of perfect performance. Reciting these names was the soldier’s poetry, his counterjargon to death.

Commuting into work, a year or so ago, and looking at the books that people were reading – men and women – it occurred to me that, at an entirely basic level, the books you choose to read are determined by the vocabulary you like to read. Reading is partly world- and image-building in your mind, but it’s also recognising words, and recognising familiar words in familiar or unfamiliar combinations or contexts. Men like books about war and violence, for instance, not because they like those things, but because they like the words associated with them.

And, of course, readers of literary fiction like words like “Caliber readings, bullet grains, the names of special accessories”. We’re no different. Just different vocabulary.

The Lorrie Moore was an accident. I already had a paperback copy of her Collected Stories, but when I saw a hardback copy in a charity shop for £3 I didn’t hesitate to buy it. Reading it on the train home I was first of all impressed by the production of the book – and surprised to find, when I got home, that the hardback was actually less thick front to back than the paperback, which must, I suppose, be printed on thicker, coarser, less fine paper stock. Second of all, after refreshing myself with ‘People Like That Are the Only People Here’, I read a story I don’t think I’ve read before, ‘Terrific Mother’, and oh boy that one knocked me for six. It has got an opening page that takes no prisoners, and then slips sideways, builds into something else, and eventually circles back around to give you some of the payoff you think you and the character deserve. (You can read the opening page on the New Yorker website even if you don’t subscribe.) It’s a classic example of Moore’s schtick: somehow serious-minded, outrageous, downright funny and offhandedly smart – all at the same time.

As it happened this week we welcomed out new Creative and Professional Writing students at St Mary’s, where I teach, and we gave each of them one of the Faber Stories individual story book-lettes; and one of the ones I gave was ‘Terrific Mother’, which Faber had decided was strong enough to work as a standalone story at £3.50. They’re right. It’s a corker.

Also as it happened I dipped into Your Duck is My Duck by Deborah Eisenberg, who I don’t think I’ve read before – but I was ready and waiting for it after reading this appreciation of it by Drew Johnson on my Personal Anthology project. Which starts like this:

I’m still more than a little surprised that every short story-reading human I meet doesn’t greet me by grabbing my shoulders and demanding that we talk right now about Deborah Eisenberg’s ‘Your Duck Is My Duck’.

Now, it is a great story, but reading it so soon after the superficially similar ‘Terrific Mother’ made it work harder for its effect. Both feature women whisked away from boring life to a wealthy and supposedly intellectually rich artistic environment that turns out in fact to be stultifying. It might seem unfair to compare Eisenberg’s story to Moore’s, but there you go: Moore’s is a virtuoso performance, that does its one thing very well. Eisenberg tries hard to bring her story round to the realities of the world we live in, and broadly achieves it.

But reading both these stories did make me think about the risks of writing these rich environments. I’m not immune to it. My first novel is set in the rich world of contemporary art, my second at an academic conference. There have been many points made about this, from Proust to Fleabag: that while it’s true that we can read these rich privileged lives as parables or analogues for our own (we canrelate to them: the rich are notvery different to us, contra Scott Fitzgerald), we do this more readily than we read ‘downwards’, to poorer or more marginalised lives. Why? Perhaps it’s simply because we enjoy reading about the failings of the rich and privileged (the richer and more privileged than us) and can allow ourselves to endorse and approve the lessons they learn, the tragedies they experience, while also telling ourselves that if wewere in that situation, wewould act better, be better people, by virtue of the fact that we are better people, because we’re less privileged. Which, obviously, is entirely fallacious thinking.

It’s a thought.

I’ll stop here, really without even considering Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which I started reading on the day she died, as you do (if you’re like me, yeah, yeah, I know). I found tough-going at first but brilliant and above all brilliantly structured. How are you going to get a whole novel out of this, I thought, once I realised who Beloved was. But she kept going deeper and deeper, and back and back, and got rid of Paul D, and let Denver grow as a character. It went against my narrative expectations, is what I’m saying. A wonderful counter-intuitive novel. My second Morrison, after Sula.

And then there’s Tove Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen trilogy (Childhood, Youth and Dependency), which is an example of what might stupidly (yes, I’m very tired) be called pure writing. Or writing degree zero. Or transparent writing. It tells the story. The narrative is coloured by the age of the narrator, which means that Childhood is a little folksy and naïve, despite the awfulness of the family life. For some reason I read them out of order – Childhood, Dependency, Youth. Dependency: shit, what a book. Ferrante is the obvious comparison. Should really have been published as one book. Great writing. I’ve sunk to banalities here. I am tired and you’ll have to take the trueness of my heart on trust. What would we think of her poems or novels, though, if we had the chance to read them? the issue of the primacy of memoir in the current climate pertains here, I think. Perhaps.

Ducks, Newburyport: still reading, but I’m tired, and there’s work. And that book needs time ring-fencing.

Proust: still reading, but tired, and work.

(Oh yes, I reread The Gate of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald as well during August – and that is a book that doesn’t need ring-fencing. As someone said on Twitter recently, about The Bookshop, her novels are slight: beautiful, but slight. It’s already slipping out of my mind. That won’t happen to Ducks, or Proust, or Beloved. Or ‘Terrific Mother’. Ditlevsen? Not sure.)

(Oh yes, I also reread Arcadia, and cried, as you must, but that was probably September and should be saved. We all should be saved.)

Thank you to the publishers for the following copies: the Ditlevsen trilogy (Penguin); Your Duck is My Duck (Europa); Ducks, Newburyport (Galley Beggar).

2 comments

  1. JacquiWine

    An interesting round-up as ever. I really want to read the Ditlevsen trilogy. Penguin seem to be on a roll right now, especially when it comes to literature in translation. The Eisenberg sounds interesting too. I first came across her a few years ago when I read Dorothy Baker’s brilliant novel ‘Cassandra at the Wedding’. Have you read it any any chance? The NYRB edition contains an afterword by Eisenberg, hence the connection.

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