Well, it’s happened two months in a row. Seven hundred pages of non-fiction. What’s become of me?
The first volume of Barack Obama’s presidential memoir, A Promised Land, takes us very quickly through his early life (covered in prior works, but I’d not read them, so I was grateful for the background) and his Senatorial term. Then he turns to his decision to run for President, the primary campaign that followed, and his first three or four years in the White House. A whole team assisted in the research, writing and revisions, but the voice is Obama’s throughout and it rings true. He mostly proves capable of acknowledging his own missteps, and always acknowledges the good work of the team around him, both in the White House and the Pentagon. He expertly describes the workings of the House and Senate, and the politics that inform the actions of all the principals. This is history, but it’s history we all lived through not so long ago, and the level of detail is just right, bringing it all back without bogging down the narrative.
His account of the election—from a fulsome treatment of the Iowa caucuses, to the unveiling of a new President who looked like no other in Grant Park in Chicago—strikes me as even-handed and true. His treatment of the first nine months of his presidency—from the fall of Lehman Brothers even before the inauguration, to the repayment of most of the $67 billion lent to the country’s nine largest banks—is detailed but succinct. Key decisions here are described both as they were made and in retrospect, usefully comparing the two, and the detail provided is exceptional but not overdone. A real cliff-hanger it was, the first of many.
Through each chapter in the saga, he takes time to recognize the criticisms some liberals level—even today—that he missed opportunities to bring about more radical change in our economy and society. With regard to the banking crisis, for example, he acknowledges that “many thoughtful critics [regard] the fact that I had engineered a return to pre-crisis normalcy as precisely the problem—a missed opportunity if not a flat-out betrayal. According to this view, the financial crisis offered me a once-in-a-generation chance to reset the standards for normalcy, remaking not just the financial system but the American economy overall. If I had only broken up the big banks and sent white collar culprits to jail . . . .” Obama takes time to respond, in measured tones making salient points, to argue his case that radical changes suggested by liberal critics “almost certainly would have made matters worse. Not worse for the wealthy and powerful [but] for the very folks I’d be purporting to save.”
He goes on to lighten the narrative here and there as needed. He tells of being taught on the morning of his inauguration how to deliver a proper salute, before diving back into the serious business of finding a way out of Iraq and dealing with Afghanistan. He tells of dealing with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, knowing the “real power in Russia” was still Vladimir Putin, “the leader of what resembled a criminal syndicate that had its tentacles wrapped around every aspect of the country’s economy.” And of the moment in law school when he realized his future would have little to do with law practice, and everything to do with politics and public service. He traces the story of the Affordable Care Act coming into being, with plot turns that would make a scriptwriter proud, all of it true. And he doesn’t leave that terrain without making clear that, while the ACA meant little to large swaths of the American public, it meant everything for the many poorer families among us.
The book closes with a chapter on getting Bin Laden. It’s certainly the most dramatic, owing in part to its exquisite detail, and it was the perfect choice for ending this first volume.
I did have one recurring qualm as I read. Hillary Clinton is almost uniformly referred to as just “Hillary,” even when she hasn’t been mentioned in fifty pages or more (I half expected her citation references in the Index to be listed under H). I found this off-putting, perhaps even demeaning, and can’t recall anyone else being repeatedly referenced in this way. Had I been on the vast team of editors and other contributors working on this project, I’d have said something.
This talented and successful novelist came out in November with her first collection of short stories. Much of the collection has been published in one or another of the leading American magazines, two of these then republished in Best American Short Stories in 2003 and 2019.
The first, “Switzerland”, was published in The New Yorker in November. It tells the story of Soraya, a sexually and emotionally precocious classmate our teenage narrator befriended in school in Geneva. It’s a coming-of-age story, so delicately drawn it transports even an old man back to the time when sex was mysterious and frightening and fun, all at the same time—even, indeed perhaps especially, when you were in over your head.
“Zusya on the Roof” is a nearly inscrutable parable, about an old man who has survived a fortnight at death’s door, trying to retrieve the insights all the delirium had yielded (if he had it right). “Restored to life, he could no longer parse the infinite wisdom of the dead.” I found it lacking, to be honest; and I found “I Am Asleep But My Heart Is Awake” completely inscrutable, never a good thing in a short story. Both of these stories, and several others included here, are examples of the writer’s turn toward postmodernism, perhaps having become bored with writing just good literary fiction.
Eventually I came to one that had not been previously published. “Amour” is largely the story of Sophie and Ezra, who had a long relationship that satisfied them both over a span of many years. The story is told by an unnamed narrator who knew Sophie “when we were very young,” but was never able to win her heart, especially after she met Ezra. He’s always wondered why Sophie and Ezra never married. When he spots her, many years later, in a refugee camp, she tells of how they broke up after all the years. The vignette is so simple and yet so powerful that I dare not give any of it away, for it holds in it a jewel that shines the brightest light on what long, loving marriages that go the distance are made of; and why some relationships that otherwise could make it, do not. So simple and so true, we have here a gleaming example of what great short stories are made of. It alone is worth the cost of the collection, because you can’t read it anywhere else . . . yet. Look for it next year in Best American Short Stories of 2020, is my bet.
Another contender for that volume is “The Husband”. Here we meet a pair of adult siblings, their respective mates come and gone, and a stranger who’s come in a mysterious way to befriend their widowed mother, who’s nobody’s fool. At the center of the story is the grown daughter, Tamar, who is so full of suspicion about the stranger and his intentions toward her mother, she can’t see past all that to the happiness it may promise. Told in five chapters, we get some wonderful lengthy digressions, in one of which we learn not only more about the characters, but more about Alzheimer’s disease—what it is and isn’t—than I’ve ever been able to piece together. It’s a story told on a high wire, that itself delivers “the awareness that the people who arrive to us from nowhere and nothing are only ever that: a gift, received without our having known to ask, with only the wonder of how life delivers and delivers.”
I look forward to digging into one of Krauss’s four novels. A bit of research suggests the last three have been more post-modernisms, which is not particularly tempting to this old coot. But I welcome any of your suggestions.
P.S. 1/10/21 I hadn't read the last story in the collection when I wrote the review above. It's the title story, "To Be a Man", and it's the best in the whole collection, and the contender for the Best Stories volume, hands down. First rate literary fiction with a bit of post-modernism structure. Just the right balance. Bravo.
I can’t recall the last time I read 700 pages of fiction or nonfiction, but I read Ninth Street Women with relish all the way through. It tells the story of five American painters, all of whom were women and most of whom were associated with what is often called “The Second Generation” of The New York School of Abstract Expressionists. The writing is exceptional; Gabriel is a master at the nonfictional approach to telling a great story. Her prose flows like fiction, attending to the arc of the various subjects’ stories, laying out the ups and downs of their careers and their lives.
Lee Krasner and Elaine de Kooning were married to First Generation artists Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Somewhat overshadowed early on by their more famous husbands, Krasner spent much of her early years minding her more famous alcoholic mate and unable to find the time to develop her own work. But she eventually got the chance to make some terrific abstract paintings. (click here and use the back button on your browser to return) https://whitney.org/collection/works/6153 Elaine de Kooning developed a career in art journalism along with her own work, which eventually moved past strict abstraction to painting portraits that employed abstract brushwork and combined the emotional feel of abstraction with recognizable imagery, producing wonders like John F. Kennedy’s presidential portrait. https://npg.si.edu/blog/elaine-de-koonings-jfk
Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler were younger and never lived in the shadow of more famous mates, although Frankenthaler married Robert Motherwell, another First Generation artist, somewhat later in life. Hartigan sometimes incorporated human figuration into her abstraction. https://www.moma.org/collection/works/79636 Mitchell developed the use of colorful brushwork into a signature style that was perhaps the purest abstraction of any of these artists, and far and away my favorite. https://www.moma.org/collection/works/79586 Frankenthaler is most often associated with thinning and pouring paint onto linen or canvas to create color fields she left alone or used as background for abstract designs. I dare say this one early Frankenthaler bears some relation to two of the best First Generation painters, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still.
Along the way we get entertaining accounts of all the New York School’s hangouts, like the Cedar Bar and The Five Spot where the downtown artists drank and talked all night or listened to a young Thelonius Monk and others; and the Club, where the downtown and even uptown artists talked serious shop through the Fifties and Sixties. We learn about the various galleries and gallery owners who showed their work, the writers who covered them, and the East Hampton and Provincetown getaways where they spent summers and beyond. Their personal lives, and the number of lovers they took—both the women and the men—are covered in appropriate and entertaining detail. Having thought the Sixties didn’t really start until the Summer of Love, and the Fifties were more Ozzie & Harriet, I was a bit surprised at some of this.
I came across Gabriel’s delightfully engaging account of all this as part of my research for a novel set in the same time and place, involving some of these and related historical figures. For my money it’s the best nonfiction treatment, and certainly the most accessible for a general audience, of anything I’ve come across.
I teased this little volume last month based on a slim review by Ethan Hawke in the New York Times Book Review. I was hoping to find another first-rate foreign writer, whose back catalogue is ready to appear in English two or three books a year once he or she has been translated. Patrick Modiano a few years back came to mind.
I doubt that’s going to happen. In part, it’s the eccentricities of the writing. Here, Wondratschek eschews quotation marks to denote dialogue, while writing in first person from the point of view of the narrator sometimes and the separate protagonist other times. That’s a wicked combination, which while it lends mystery and intrigue sometimes, yields frustration and consternation often.
The story is a good one. Set in Vienna, it concerns an old Russian concert pianist, Suvorin, who tells an anonymous café acquaintance his story. The mystery this setup (one might say conceit) yields feels intriguing at times, and just plain false and unnecessary at others. The book shines when it has Suvorin telling his story in large stretches over drinks in his favorite café late into the night. And it’s a good story, of how he was a leading Russian pianist who gave up his position out of an irrational but very real dislike—a violent dislike, bordering on rage—of . . . wait for it . . . applause at the end of a concert piece.
"The final note, it hasn’t even completely faded yet—and immediately you get screaming, noise, people shouting bravo. Not a moment of quiet, not even half a second. What ignorant people! What barbarians! No last reverberation, no lingering in that last echo, no trepidation, wonder, not a hint of abandon in those who had been listening. . . . What kind of people are they who, after a sonata by Schubert, the late one in B minor for example, completed two months before his death, break out into cheers?"
It’s a good point, but can you build a novel around it? Actually, this author could. But he didn’t, in my view, largely because that wasn’t enough of a challenge. Rather than write clearly enough that we can all follow, he muddies the rest of the tale with ambiguities of every sort. Eventually we do see that Suvorin happily served the rest of his days—after the authorities in Moscow relieved him of his career—playing at night in bars in places like Vienna. But even that part of the story is denied us: It’s in the past when our unnamed narrator meets Suvorin living out his days alone, missing his deceased wife, but enjoying his talks with he-who-shall-go-unnamed. And when our correspondent returns from six months away from Vienna, Suvorin is nowhere to be found.
I don’t think Wondratschek’s back catalogue is in danger of extensive further translation. But the failure of this foray into works-in-translation convinced me to write about the singular phenomenon of Patrick Modiano.
Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014. He writes in French, and for the next several years a small cadre of translators went to work producing English versions of all his novels. I believe the one who has translated the most is Mark Polizzotti. His work on one of the early translations, a book of long stories called Suspended Sentences, was one of the first to market and I fell hard for this talented writer. Unfortunately, I must have lent that one to somebody and couldn’t find it in the bookcase. So I picked one off the stack I hadn’t yet read.
Matthew Geyer is the author of two novels, Strays (2008) and Atlantic View (2020). .