Frederick Turner, who lives here in Santa Fe, is the writer or editor of over a dozen books of fiction and nonfiction. This volume is a delightfully easy read, because of both its style and subject. Who wouldn’t want to read all about the famous temple caves of France, by a writer who knows more than a thing or two about them, and relays it all in a delightfully erudite and travelogue style? Turner has a range of companion accomplices, all of whom are as interested in the history of the caves and what they tell us, as they are in good food, wine and art. Turner is himself a great character, and the comrades in his quests, from St. Emilion and Alain Querre to St. Sulpice and Turner’s son, Charley, stand up well alongside him in these tales.
We learn, of course, about the caves, the dozens of millennia they span, and what they tell us about the history of human interest in and capacity for making art, as it developed over time. We get readable and sophisticated accounts—not just from professors and professionals, but from vintners, rustic hoteliers, and all manner of interesting other people—on what we know and don’t about the various caves and other sites Turner visits. “If your antennae are out, even your mistakes and meanders can give you gifts that enrich your sense of a territory in ways you appreciate only later.” We get an unexpected jolt from a chapter about a site that has little to do with art, but tells the astonishing story of Oradour-Sur-Glane, where war crimes were committed by the Nazis on a solitary village—a place that is no more, but was intentionally left to stand as a reminder of the power of the darkest human souls. Astonishing and unsettling.
Two slim chapters near the end, “Balzac versus Hitler” and “Degenerate Art”, serve as a poetic ramble, through some singular country places, about what the place of Art is in human life. To attempt all this in language that is both elegant and simple, while tackling all the intangibles of lives well lived and lives lost to the worst in people, is to shoot for the moon.
Turner’s done that, and hit a star.
So find a copy online, or put your local independent bookseller on it. You’ll both be glad you did.
Roberto Bolaño was born in Chile and lived much of his writing life in Mexico and Spain. He was born the same year I was, but died twenty years ago. By that time he’d received all kinds of prizes and accolades, and was widely read all over the Spanish-speaking world, and in translation everywhere else. Most of which I knew before finally getting around to picking up this paperback recently.
It includes three novellas, including the title story. But the one I started with was the second and shortest, “French Comedy of Horrors”. What we have here is a work of surrealism-in-print rather than on canvas. Real places turn eerily uncommon. Strange events unfold that make no sense at all . . . and all the sense in the world once viewed another way.
In the opening scene our protagonist and narrator, Diodorus Pilon, is waiting for the solar eclipse in Port Hope with a group of friends of one Roger Bolamba, a former athlete who has retired to a literary calling. At the next table, a tall, well-dressed man starts dancing with a young woman while “staring straight at the sun” without the “film negatives or special sunglasses” others are wearing. Her mother watches, too, unsettled about something. When the eclipse is over, Roger’s table starts a wave of applause that spreads through the gathered crowd, but is interrupted a moment later as the older woman cries out, “I’ve gone blind!” This turn of events is largely ignored as the after-party mood descends on the crowd.
“The sea below had suddenly grown calm and the tide, according to Roger Bolamba, didn’t know whether to come in or go out. . . . A sound like charcoal against dry wood, like stone against gem, imperceptibly scored the air of the capital.”
Bolamba’s literary crowd moves on to a nearby park, where they recite their poems to one another with Bolamba moving among them, the straw stirring the drink. He eventually leads them in a cheer, “To victory” against the not-so-young poets who hope to replace the old guard while Bolamba and his younger gang go wanting, still waiting their turn.
When Bolamba goes home to take a nap, the crowd moves on, drifting, shedding numbers. Eventually Diodorus is wandering the parks and streets alone, watching as night falls, ruminating on the trees that made:
“strange sounds in the breeze. As if they were talking. As if they were all mulling over the same story. As if the eclipse, which wouldn’t come again for another thirty years, had settled permanently in their leaves.”
When Diodorus happens upon a telephone booth on the opposite sidewalk, it rings and rings and rings as he passes. Eventually he picks up. The caller knows him, though he doesn’t know the caller.
“Would you like to know? Do you want to hear our proposal?”
“’I’m dying to hear it,’ I said.”
What follows is a tale of two warring factions of surrealists, told in a way that is by turns inscrutable, incredible and hilarious. Breton appears in the tale before the young surrealists, explains what Diodorus will be getting himself into if he commits to joining, including who will show him the ropes in the sewers of Paris where he’ll be working with a band of other Clandestine Surrealists, and the elegant women who will bring each of them an envelope of money every month of each year. Diodorus has to get himself to Paris first, and agrees he’ll find a way.
As he steps out of the phone booth, he’s presented with what seems a potential opportunity to raise the money he needs . . . from a familiar but unexpected source.
This superlative work of contemporary nonfiction was a gift, both literally and figuratively. It tells the story of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, centering on the usual suspects, like Gerry Adams and Brendan Hughes of the republican cause, but also lesser-known individuals caught up in the struggle, including Dolours and Marian Price, sisters who perpetrate the opening act of violence then find a way out of it all for a time, only to be dragged back in.
Patrick Radden Keefe opens the story with the 1972 abduction and murder of a mother of eight, Jean McConville, who is suspected by members of the IRA of colluding with Loyalist forces against the cause of a united Ireland. The perpetrators are the Price sisters and one other, all of whom live in the Catholic ghetto of government housing known as Divis Flats. They kidnap McConville from her apartment, in front of her children, then shoot her and bury the body in a desolate location for her suspected treachery against the cause, all of which she vehemently denies.
From here we meet Adams and Hughes, towering figures in the IRA, and learn of the work they were doing. The accounts here make clear that Adams was no saint, and the depth of the research into all that transpired in the four or five decades thereafter—in The Troubles generally, but also in the personal lives of all these figures and many others—is staggering. The endnotes in the back of the book share all the sources by page number, to support the narrative without interrupting the flow of the text.
The narrative is striking in places, complicated in others, and dramatic as hell in many. We learn about the broader forces driving the political and social conflicts, the leaders and other characters on each side, and how all this took place against the backdrop of world affairs. But what keeps us turning the pages is all the elements of story—the stakes that are so high for these characters and the world, the many antagonistic forces at play, the real people we’ve come to care about who face extraordinary challenges. The problems confronting the politicians on all sides, the personal circumstances that befall individuals we’ve come to know, the guns and grenades and the shocking violence—which is all the more powerful for being underdone—all combine for a satisfying and extraordinary read.
All this, and it’s nonfiction, including lots of material I don’t recall reading in the newspapers and magazines as these decades went by: the unravelling of the IRA and its leaders, the cloak of secrecy that hid the truths and all the rest, the narrative returning to the Price sisters here and there as the years go by, all make for a terrific true story. The author is a long-time contributor and staff writer for The New Yorker and it shows.
A worthy work of social and political nonfiction, about a conflict we lived with for decades.
You might consider pairing it up with Kenneth Branagh’s new film, Belfast, a superlative bit of filmmaking about a young family caught in the cross-fire of The Troubles. The tremendous musical soundtrack argues for selecting a theater with a good sound system.
This is my kind of novel. The deliberate development of the protagonist by an author with a sure hand. A broader social or historic theme serving as backdrop to the more intimate story. A resolution that answers just enough while leaving the rest to a more enlightened reader than the one who began—even if it’s his second or third read over a span of ten or twenty years.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day won The Booker Prize back when it meant something. It spins the tale of a man, Mr. Stevens, who has devoted his life to serving as long-time butler to a nobleman, Lord Darlington, whose English house, Darlington Hall, Stevens keeps in order; and after the Lord’s demise, to a Mr. John Farraday, an American gentleman. Over the course of a solitary week-long excursion in Mr. Farraday’s Ford—a rather more noble Ford than the ones most of us drove back when, though it does break down at one point—Stevens casts his mind back over his life as the ranking member of a household with a dozen or more on staff, including his erstwhile second-in-command, Miss Kenton, and his own aging and fading father.
The drive takes place in 1956, long after the Second World War has been won. The story he tells concerns not just his own life, and as best he can tell it the matter of his relationship over all the years with Miss Kenton—which seems to us to have been badly misplayed—but the story of how Lord Darlington’s involvement in the run-up to that war nearly cost his countrymen dearly. The history of British appeasement, and the nobility and conservative views behind it, are set off against our protagonist’s own actions in his private life: Stevens is as clueless and reticent as the nobility’s power brokers were back when. And he’s perfectly comfortable with—in that he won’t even speak against—the nobles’ notion that democracy should take a back seat lest the whole nation go to hell in a handbasket:
“Look at Germany and Italy, Stevens. See what strong leadership can do if it’s allowed to act. None of this universal suffrage nonsense there. If your house is on fire, you don’t call the household into the drawing room and debate the various options for escape for an hour, do you? It may have been very well once, but the world’s a complicated place now. The man in the street can’t be expected to know enough about politics, economics, world commerce and what have you. And why should he? In fact, you made a very good reply last night, Stevens. How did you put it? Something to the effect that it was not in your realm? Well, why should it be?”
In this way and others, echoes of the more intimate story of Stevens—who won’t, and indeed can’t, think for himself on personal issues or anything other than his work—resonate in the broader story. Opportunities are overlooked and timings misplayed, again and again, and not just by Stevens. The character of Miss Kenton serves also to further consideration of all these issues, particularly when Stevens stops to see her near the end of his journey.
A masterful job of storytelling it is, and not just for fun, but for keeps.
Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017, and his latest novel is Klara and the Sun.
Nick Hornby is a prolific writer—novels, screenplays, nonfiction—he does it all, and he’s good at all of it. His debut novel, High Fidelity, was made into a terrific hit movie by the same name many years ago, and he’s seemingly never looked back or questioned his ability to pull off any crazy idea.
His latest novel, Just Like You, is another unlikely love story, this one between a young black man who pinch-hits for a middle-aged white woman’s regular babysitter, and they fall in love. Well, a sort of love anyway—they certainly care about each other—but both are fully cognizant of the likelihood that it can’t last forever. Few writers would even attempt to pull this off, but Hornby is fearless, perhaps because he’s so prolific it may sometimes seem he’s already done everything else. Or maybe he just loves a challenge.
He has one here, to be sure. But from their chance encounter at one of Joseph’s several part-time jobs, this one behind the counter at a butcher shop, Lucy hires him to watch the kids one evening when her ex is unavailable. They stay and talk when she returns, and the kids want him back as much as Lucy does; he’s good for them, and she sees that. The writing has the look of all good fiction: Characters are drawn and put in motion, and Hornby watches what transpires and follows the truth as it goes down on the page. He would seem absolutely fearless if one thought of him at all, but only reviewers would bother with all that; to a reader, the words on the page and the story they tell just seem like the truth at every turn.
When Lucy has a long talk with a friend who’s having trouble finding someone, she says of her new circumstances with Joseph:
“I suppose you could call him a family friend. But really. That’s all I want to say. And it’s not going anywhere. We’re just . . . keeping each other company until something else happens.”
“That’s what I want! Exactly that!”
It may be what you want, Lucy thought, but it isn’t what you need. You need books, music, maybe God. But some guy in between wives isn’t going to do much for you.
But isn’t this what Joseph is for Lucy? Not exactly, because Lucy has books and music, and wasn’t looking for this relationship when it happened. But the point is well made and keeps us all thinking. Hornby always keeps us thinking, in all his books.
Including their endings. Here we get an ending that is so true—Hornby doesn’t shrink from the truth—it proves his bona fides as a novelist. Of course, it’s not to be given away in any review.
I wanted to say something here about Colm Toibin’s latest novel, which I mentioned last time around.
At least on first reading, The Magician is my least favorite of all his novels. The Master, his early novel about the life of Henry James, is enlightening on its subject’s life and thought. It’s a great novel, which was shortlisted for the 2004 Booker Prize. The Magician, on the other hand, strikes me—on first read, at least—as muddled and extremely difficult to follow.
The problem may be, in part, the difference between its subjects. Thomas Mann fathered five children with his wife, but harbored homosexual yearnings he rarely acted on but often wrote about, and not just in his diaries. I read Mann’s slim novella Death in Venice to try to make some sense of all this, and have no trouble recommending it. Henry James, on the other hand, was essentially asexual it seems to me, and not tormented about it; he saved his energy for his life’s work, and enjoyed deep friendships with the women in his life. To write about him was mostly to write about the creative process, the few deep friendships he had, and the loneliness of such a life.
Moreover, to write about Thomas Mann with all his political persuasions—which shifted dramatically over the course of a life that spanned two world wars—and how these views and so many others affected his writing all along, seems a tall order indeed. It’s hard to care very much about a man whose feelings about everything, even his family, seem to shift all the time; and writing a novel about someone who’s tough to like is a tall order.
If you’re interested, have a look at the linked articles from The New Yorker, which shed some light on some of this.
Russell Banks is an American novelist who has been writing at the highest level for many years, twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. For some reason, I’d read only one or two of his books over the years, so when I saw his latest at my local I took a flyer.
The many ways in which his new novel Foregone is an exceptional work are difficult to capture in a short review. There is the unusual and inventive set-up, and the stunning delivery of plot turns that time and again amaze. When I found myself a dozen pages from the end, I had to put it down to save and then savor those final pages.
Our protagonist is a celebrated Canadian filmmaker, Leonard Fife, who is dying. His long-time acolyte and then collaborator, Malcolm MacLeod, has a contract to make a documentary film about Fife before he passes. The filming takes place over the very few days Fife has left, with his live-in nurse wheeling him in and out of film sessions in the living room of the home he and his wife, Emma, have lived in for years. Malcolm plans to elicit pearls about filmmaking and the rest from the Great Man before he dies.
Fife has other ideas. He intends to tell the truth about his life—it’s not the simple story everyone’s heard of an American who dodged the draft to live his life in Canada, there’s a whole lot more to it. And he intends to have his beloved wife hear it all straight from his own mouth before he dies. This frustrates MacLeod, of course, but he owes his career to Fife, who will get his way if he stays alive long enough to tell his story. It also delivers to readers a novel-in-a-film we can watch right there on the page.
I won’t say much about Fife’s secret past, the first part of which involved a first marriage in the U.S. that presented the opportunity to live an easy and wealthy life it turned out he had no interest in living. They take a break from filming.
“He’s fighting off waves of nausea and thudding back pain. His body is a battlefield, as if his liver is at war with his kidneys and both have been mortally wounded. He’s woozy and suddenly confused about where he is exactly and who’s here with him. As long as he is talking into the mic and being filmed, he is able to forget his body, to wear it like loose clothing, and it doesn’t matter where he is located or who is there with him. But as soon as the camera shuts down and he goes silent, he becomes his body again, and he worries about where it is and who is near it.”
But he wants to keep going, and so does Malcolm. Emma not so much. And even Malcolm has come for a very different documentary—“This is supposed to be about your films,” he says at one point, “we’ve got questions about process, for example”—the documentary Emma, too, had been expecting and wouldn’t mind so much. But Fife has come to bear witness to all the lies he’s been living, and to leave Emma as he must, but only after coming clean to her. At one point he addresses the perplexed and impatient crew:
“It’ll sound like fiction to you, like I’m making most of it up, which is fine by me. I don’t care what you do with my story after I’ve finished telling it. I’ll be dead. You can cut and splice it any damned way you want . . . But no matter what you do with my story after I’ve told it, you’ll have seen and heard me tell my wife what kind of man she married and lived and worked with all these years.”
At one point, Banks has us—the readers—as perplexed as the crew by Fife’s running catalogue of his past crimes of the heart and head. This is all very intentional, of course--we feel like the crew feels, like even Emma feels, listening to all this. And Banks lets us know that he knows how we feel.
In the end, Fife delivers what he has come to say, and more. Indeed, far more than even he knew he had to say. He’s asked a question by Malcolm, and hidden somewhat among the pearls is:
“Back when they started sleeping together, he liked to tell her that she was the first woman he was attracted to who didn’t need him more than he needed her, and she said the same thing back to him, that he was the first man she was attracted to who didn’t need her more than she needed him, and they both took it as a compliment. . . .
Fife looks directly into [the] camera lens and says, You want to know if Emma, like all those others, is the real deal? For nearly forty years, she was, yes. Until this morning, when he woke and knew down to the bottom of his mind that he was dying and therefore he no longer had to be afraid of dying and realized that at last he truly loves her and desperately needs her to love him before he’s dead. It’s that simple. He needs to be loved by her more than she needs to be loved by him. Emma is still merely afraid of dying. For Fife, it’s too late now to be afraid of dying.”
Banks is not done swinging for the fences with those lines. But I’ll leave the rest to your reading.
Suffice it to say that here, again, is a Great American Novel that, like Richard Ford’s Canada, takes place north of the border. Here too, it seems, distance yields advantageous perspective.
Richard Yates has served as a beacon to writers like Richard Ford and Raymond Carver. His debut novel, Revolutionary Road, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Alas, while writers and critics loved his work—Richard Russo, Dorothy Parker, Tennessee Williams and Robert Stone all wrote blurbs of unabashed adoration—none of his books sold well in his lifetime. I cannot explain that--Revolutionary Road is a stunning work of literary realism that shines unflinching light on the untold realities of so much domestic life in the 1950’s. It has often been described as part of the inspiration for “Mad Men” but has none of the schmaltzy bling.
I found A Special Providence, Yates’s second novel, while loitering in one of our local used books store. I began reading with the expectation that it would be a minor piece compared to Revolutionary Road, but was delighted to find out how wrong I’d been. This, too, is a Great American Novel.
The exquisite Prologue: 1944 sets up the characters who will drive the story, in twenty pages that could stand alone as their own short story.
Part One is the story of young Robert Prentice’s induction into the army in World War II, making his way in a rifle platoon that is eventually headed overseas, preparing to fight a war that won’t end soon enough to save him from that. Robert is a hopeful young man, and makes friends with soldiers named Quint and Logan, one of whom he idolizes until combat brings out the worst in him. Prentice has become ill, and Logan can’t see or doesn’t care about it.
Part Two gives us Robert’s youthful backstory, and the tale of the principal second character, his divorced mother. Alice Prentice is an artist and sculptor with unrealistic hopes and dreams that always have her too far out over her skis. Expectations that could never pan out fuel her ambitions. With a backstory of tragedy far greater than her recent divorce, she is unhinged and untethered to reality, and Bobby is carried along into one unstable living situation after another. Denied opportunities to form stable and lasting friendships, he grows into the soldier we’ve seen in Part One, eager to be one of the guys. The plot turn that closes Part Two is one we don’t see coming, though we’ve worried for Alice all along; and it sets up an echo later in the novel that helps Robert make it through a dark time on the battlefield.
In Part Three we learn that Robert, who joined the fighting just after the Battle of the Bulge, was coming down with pneumonia when last we saw him in Part One. He has spent five weeks in hospital, which “became an exquisitely peaceful time for Prentice, a time of warm sponge baths and clean sheets, of low, courteous voices and regular meals.” On discharge, checking through a depot to get back to the 57th Division, he’s happy to have a uniform that’s dirty enough to make him at least look authentic even though his time in combat has so far been limited. And his only real buddy, Quint, is gone. We are given Robert’s first experiences in combat, where he fights his own insecurities and struggles to feel he measures up to the soldiers around him.
The Epilogue:1946 brings us back to Alice, whose lofty goals and expectations have her waiting for something few artists achieve. The last page is a shocker, so entirely unexpected, so simple and yet so true, it cannot be given away in a review.
Real people, thoroughly rendered inside and out, jump off every page. The war years are drawn as perhaps only one who was there can manage; and yet, like Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, it’s less the battles than the interpersonal dynamics of those fighting it that drive the story.
I’ll leave you with this, from Richard Russo’s Introduction to the 2001 Collected Stories of Richard Yates:
“Yates has been described as a writer’s writer by people who consider that a high compliment, but I suspect Yates himself would have understood that the phrase trails an unintended insult by suggesting that only other writers are sophisticated enough to appreciate his many gifts. The truth is that Richard Yates is not a sophisticated writer. He doesn’t need to be; he’s far too talented to have much use for either smoke or mirrors.”
The long-awaited new novel by Colm Toíbín, The Magician—based on the life and times of Thomas Mann—was released today. Anyone who knows this great writer’s work will detect analogies to Toíbín’s The Master, a novel based on the life of Henry James. But there’s really no telling what to expect except, based on all his previous work—the lovely Brooklyn, the riveting The Testament of Mary, the wonderfully Irish The Blackwater Lightship and Nora Webster, to name just a few—one can count on literary fiction of the highest order. Watch this space for my review, or better yet, stop by your local for one of their first few copies.
So, another dabbler who thinks he’s a writer, I was thinking, with chops from acting--Dead Poets Society and so many other films. But the first few pages, and a peek here and there from the middle, and I’m hooked. I carry it next door to the café. If it’s no good it’ll be ok; I haven’t graced these pages with a negative review in a while.
William Harding, the fellow at the center of Ethan Hawke’s fourth novel, is crazy as a loon. A film actor about to play Hotspur in King Henry the Fourth, Parts One and Two on Broadway, with a celebrated director and cast, he inhabits swank quarters nearby with a wife who’s a pop singer and casts a shadow much longer than his own, their young children the only thing keeping them together. He says things—in first-person narration of his tale, or in dialogue with others—that clearly lack credibility . . . until something happens a step or two later that makes it all very credible indeed. At a party, he’s shoveling coke up his nose while talking to a young starlet, laying out two lines through each of several rounds, when he realizes he’s been snorting both lines himself each round. Then he does it again. He’s out of control in so many ways, to say it’s hard to like him is to understate things by half.
At the first preview, his “dresser” gets a soliloquy of sorts: While trying to get William out of his locked private restroom and into his elaborate costume, he lights into him with remarks that put everything in perspective:
“You’re sad because you are getting a divorce, but what you don’t know is that you were never married. Do you hear me? I don’t lie in bed at night and wonder if my husband loves me. I know he does! You seem to have this intellectual view that maybe all married people are like you, either living ‘unexplored’ lives or are secretly unhappy. But that’s not true. I love my husband and he loves me. . . . When I was on tour last year with Bye Bye Birdie, he took care of everything—laundry, school forms, bath time for our son . . . .”
Through it all, the novel’s leading man is “crying so hard there was no way I was going to stop.” And William doesn’t get pearls only from his dresser, who succeeds in getting him onstage. A few pages later he and the entire company get this from their world-famous director, “JC”—who’s working with a world-famous leading man as King Henry—at the tail end of a very long tongue-lashing of the whole company following the first preview after six weeks of rehearsals:
“None of that ‘acting’ shit, OK? Don’t do that to Virgil or to me; don’t do that to yourself. Remember: It’s not how far you throw your voice. It’s how far you throw your soul.”
William gets pearls like this from his mother, too. In the middle of a long scene in which she tells him the marriage he’s just lost wasn’t all that worth keeping, this committed humanitarian who spends most her time in Haiti running an operation that makes a difference in the lives of so many poor people, tells him:
“If you weren’t so handsome, you’d have less than half the friends you have now. It’s true, you’re not that interesting.”
He is, indeed, a very uninteresting bloke, which can be a challenging thing in a protagonist.
Halfway through the novel, the actor playing the King walks with William backstage to await their turn at the opening night curtain call. “Fame is a black death,” he whispers to William.
“We like to watch people die. So we put them on magazines and fan the flames of their egos until they actually catch fire and explode. The zeitgeist is trying to do it to you right now.”
Then, standing there in the wings, the King delivers what may be his best line of the night:
“I mean this in the kindest way possible . . . I believe in you. I think you are doing an excellent job with a very difficult role and that if you were to quit smoking and apply yourself fully to the art of acting, you could have a great life in the theater and make serious art. But there are traps all around you; it doesn’t take a psychic to see them. It doesn’t take a clairvoyant to see that, most likely, you will die of the Black Death. . . . Do not underestimate the disease. I’ve watched it eat better than you.”
They make their way to their places behind the curtains, and the King leans closer to our unlikely hero.
“‘I have only one real applicable piece of advice for you,’ he said, his perfect diction piercing through the noise of the crowd. ‘Have a boring life and make your art thrilling.’”
We will leave it there, except to say the closing pages of the novel give us a William who is as credible and strong as the opening pages’ version was irritating.
I will note that in several places the book could have used a better copy editor—double-words, dropped articles and other oddities abound. But this actor can write, and I’ll be keeping an eye out in the used bookstores for one of his first three.
Matthew Geyer is the author of two novels, Strays (2008) and Atlantic View (2020). .