‘Florida’ by Lauren Groff – If It’s not the Alligators and Snakes, It’s the Suffocating Heat

 

‘Florida’ by Lauren Groff    (2018) – 275 pages

The Florida of this new collection of stories by Lauren Groff is not a very likable place. Groff’s Florida is not the beachfront coastal Florida but the swampy central deep-country Florida of alligators, snakes, and lots of insects. The setting is typical of Gainesville, Florida where Groff currently lives. This is the Florida of makeshift boats in stagnant ponds and “frenzied flora and fauna”. And then there is the oppressive sweltering heat and the quite frequent hurricanes. Even an occasional panther and a lot of bad smells. And the people are nearly as bad as the climate.

Even when the main character somehow escapes Florida to Brazil in ‘Salvador’ and France in ‘Yport’, things don’t get any better in these stories.

In some of the stories the main characters go unnamed. In the story ‘Above and Below’, the main character is referred to always as either ‘she’ or ‘the girl’. In the Guy de Maupassant story ‘Yport’ the main characters are only ever called ‘the mother’ or ‘the older boy’ or ‘the little boy’. This lack of names distanced me from the stories. One of the many problems for me with this collection is its lack of immediacy or charm.

‘Above and Below’ is about a young woman who voluntarily gave up the academic life and descended into the life of the homeless. However it seemed more like she passively sleepwalked into the life of a homeless poor person and it was not a spirited descent. I wearied of this story.

I suspect that Lauren Groff is a writer more suited for the novel rather than the short story. Her stories here are too cluttered and vague for this short form, and we readers lose interest.

In too many of the stories the main character, usually a woman, seems world weary. She is stuck entertaining the kids while any man is off somewhere else. In ‘Yport’ our nameless heroine is in France with her two nameless kids to further study the famous French writer Guy de Maupassant for a potential book about him. She has already discovered that Guy de Maupassant was a total creep, and most of his literary work besides the famous stories is not very good. This could potentially have been a fascinating story about how our literary heroes can turn out to be lousy human beings. Instead the story is mostly about the morose mother listlessly entertaining her children in various French places. Reading about someone who is so dispirited and tired eventually becomes tiresome itself.

I searched the stories in ‘Florida’ in vain for even one spark of the vivacity of Lauren Groff’s ‘Fate and Furies’ which made that novel such a delight. (‘Fates and Furies’ was my favorite fiction read of 2015.)

 

 

Grade : C

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‘Blue Self-Portrait’ by Noémi Lefebvre – Inspired Chatter

 

‘Blue Self-Portrait’ by Noémi Lefebvre (2009) – 139 pages Translated from the French by Sophie Lewis

Even though ‘Blue Self-Portrait’ is a relatively short novel, with its exceedingly long sentences and its unbelievably long paragraphs it is probably the most challenging book I have read this year. However at the same time, with its depth and its charm ‘Blue Self-Portrait’ is also one of the most rewarding novels I’ve read this year.

‘Blue Self-Portrait’ is a painting by the music composer Arnold Schoenberg which he did in his spare time.

Two sisters in their late twenties or early thirties are returning by airplane to Paris after a short vacation in Berlin. The one sister, our narrator, looks back on their time in Berlin and especially her romantic interlude with a German pianist composer. Meanwhile she is reading the correspondence between Theodor Adorno and Thomas Mann. This is a stream-of-consciousness novel like no other.

The sisters together on this trip sort of bring things down to earth. Otherwise this novel might have gotten too philosophical and abstract and dry. Here I will quote one of the shorter sentences just to give you the lively flavor of the writing.

I excuse my sister everything and myself nothing, not only do I excuse without calculation but I appreciate more than anything in my sister that which I loathe more than anything in myself, I consider magnificent in my sister whatever horrifies me in myself, am unconditional with my sister and always disappointed in myself.”

The pianist she met criticized our narrator for talking too much. She herself knows she talked too much, “sure that I’d put him off seeing me ever again, even by accident, instilled a lifelong revulsion in him for the kind of girl I am, the kind who talk too much and whose flaws we know well, who go on exasperating those around them down the generations, who ruin the lives of their husbands, children, and lovers, never content with that understanding silence required for happiness”.

But her endless chitting and chatting are some of the most profound and acute yet still charming conversations I have encountered.

Blue Self-Portrait

This is a deep work, yet the two sisters bring it down to Earth. As their plane flies over Wannsee Lake our narrator’s thoughts turn to the terrible Wannsee Conference at which the German Nazi officials planned the implementation of the Final Solution to the Jewish Question, the systematic murder of millions of men, women, and children. The father of Reinhard Heydrich who was the director of the Wannsee Conference was also a composer of German music. January 20, 1942 which is the date of the conference is perhaps the most significant date for whole humanity. January 20 is also her sister’s birthday. This work has the courage to confront pure evil.

I doubt I will read another novel this year as intelligent and filled with ideas as this one. With her incredibly long sentences, Lefebvre manages to be deep yet charming at the same time. If you are up for a challenge, I recommend this one.

 

 

Grade :   A

 

‘Sweet Days of Discipline’ by Fleur Jaeggy – At the Girls’ Boarding School in Switzerland

 

‘Sweet Days of Discipline’ by Fleur Jaeggy (1989) – 101 pages Translated from the Italian by Tim Parks

‘Sweet Days of Discipline’ starts out eerie and only gets eerier.  Here are the opening sentences:

At fourteen I was a boarder in a school in the Appenzell. This was the area where Robert Walser used to take his many walks when he was in the mental hospital in Herisau, not far from our college. He died in the snow. Photographs show his footprints and the position of his body in the snow.”

This girl’s boarding school is the Bausler Institute, in the Appenzell of Switzerland near Lake Constance. The time is the mid-1950s. Her parents have packed her off to various boarding schools since she was the age of eight so this is normal life for her although nothing approaches normal in this story. We don’t hear much about her father but she writes letters to her mother who is in Brazil and remarried.

This girl is dismissive of her German roommate Marion; instead she is obsessed with the new girl Frédérique and follows her around until Frédérique finally notices her. There is a shortage of males, so regimented school life is all about the girl crushes.

Of course we are experts when it comes to women, we who have spent our best years in boarding schools. And when we get out, since the world is divided in two, male and female, we’ll get to know the male side as well. But will it ever have the same intensity? Will conquering men, I wonder, ever be as difficult as conquering Frédérique?”

By the age of fourteen, most of these girls feel they have been stuck in the authoritarian setting of the boarding school way too long and are hanging out waiting for their actual lives to begin. After fourteen, this feeling of being in suspended animation at the school gets only worse for the girls. But when they finally do get out and experience the vexing freedom of the real world they may long for those sweet days of discipline at the boarding school.

Every sentence is loaded with a grotesque slant in this short novel. We learn little about attending classes or other activities at the school. There is an occasional glimpse of the headmistress Frau Hofstetter who seems nice enough, not at all the wicked headmistress of some boarding school novels. It is most all about the other girls.

 

 

Grade:   B

 

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje – The War That Wasn’t Really Over Yet

 

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje (2018) – 285 pages

‘Warlight’ takes place in England in the years immediately following World War II. The main protagonists are fourteen year old Nathaniel and his sixteen year old sister Rachel. After the war in Europe was officially declared over, both of their parents leave under mysterious circumstances, and two unfamiliar men whom they call The Moth and The Darter are left in charge of their household, and every night there are colorful strangers crowding into their house.

In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.”

People assume that World War II in Europe ended in the spring of 1945 when Hitler committed suicide, and Germany surrendered. However all the hostilities that had been unleashed did not immediately end. All across Europe, impromptu groups sprung up to carry out vengeance against their fascist neighbors who had brutalized them during the war. Also especially in the Balkan countries guerrilla squads of ex-Nazi soldiers formed to continue the fight. The work of the British intelligence agents continued after the war to bring some semblance of order to the turmoil of post-war Europe, and we find that Nathaniel and Rachel’s mother was involved in that effort.

Michael Ondaatje is very good at capturing the ambiance of London immediately after the war. The term ‘Warlight’ refers to that reduced lighting that was used all over England to somewhat protect itself from German bombers during the war. With the war over, London was like a ghost town but ready to come back alive.

There were parts of the city where you saw no one, only a few children walking solitary, listless as small ghosts. It was a time of war ghosts, the grey buildings unlit, even at night, their shattered windows still covered over with black material where glass had been. The city still felt wounded, uncertain of itself. It allowed one to be rule-less. Everything had already happened. Hadn’t it?”

Later in the 1950s Nathaniel himself pursues a career in British Intelligence partially in order to find out exactly what his mother was doing during the war.

Michael Ondaatje has enough confidence in his literary abilities, he does not have to try real hard to captivate his readers. It comes naturally. The story is not at all direct or straightforward or told in linear fashion, but rather takes many twists and turns. Whereas other writers may have simplified this story to make it more dramatic and palatable to the reader, Ondaatje is sure enough of his own skill to deal with the complexity in meaningful fashion. He succeeded for me. His main achievement is capturing the ambiance and atmosphere of bombed-out England after the war and the mystery and excitement and color of these people waking up and resuming their peacetime lives.

 

Grade :   A

 

 

“I hate writing. I love having written.” – Dorothy Parker

Some Ideas on Fiction and Other Things that I Accumulated More than Thirty Years Ago

Here are some items I accumulated more than thirty years ago in a notebook that I recently found. What is nice is that some of these have disappeared from usage since then. Some you may agree with, some not.

We will start with a bit of humor.

If you can’t annoy somebody, there’s little point in writing.” – Kingsley Amis

“In the ways people are strange, they grow stranger.” – Marilynne Robinson

All literature is gossip.” – Truman Capote

As soon as you can say what you think and not what some other person has thought for you, you are on the way to being a remarkable person.” – James Barrie

Like everybody who is not in love, he imagined that one chose the person whom one loved after endless deliberations and on the strength of various qualities and advantages.” – Marcel Proust

Fiction, even at its best, is remarkably useless in the world of events. The man who has read everything is less subject to action than the man who has read nothing. It would be fine to say fiction maketh a man good, but the evidence is scanty.” – Wright Morris

Everyone has their own eyes to choose the world with.” – John Ciardi

Each day only has enough difference in it to make what you’ve already learned unnecessary.” – Joy Williams

The virtues of some people repel us, yet the vices of others are their greatest charms.” – Francois de La Rochefoucald

You wouldn’t worry so much what people think of you, if you knew how seldom they did.” – Anonymous

Tell it Slant.” – Emily Dickinson

To want to forget something is to think of it.” – French Proverb

You read every sex manual in the house and wonder how on earth anyone could ever do these things with someone they truly loved.” – Lorrie Moore

The less one feels a thing, the more likely one is to express it as it really is.” – Gustav Flaubert

It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.” – Mark Twain

Anyone who has survived childhood knows enough about life to write for the rest of their days.” – Flannery O’Connor

Say what you like, but such things do happen – not often, but they do happen.” – Nikolai Gogol

Saying nothing sometimes says the most.” – Emily Dickinson

Intensity always prevails. Whoever possesses intensity is bound to conquer other minds, whatever the nature of the intensity, angelic or diabolic, positive or negative, minor or major, human or inhuman.” – Van Wyk Brooks

Children begin by loving their parents. After a time they judge them. Rarely, if ever, do they forgive them.” – Oscar Wilde

If you want to tell people the truth, you better make them laugh…or they will kill you.” – George Bernard Shaw

I have written with a certain success about failure.” – Arturo Vivante

“It serves me right for putting all my eggs in one bastard.” – Dorothy Parker

People are not always tolerant of the tears they themselves have provoked.” – Marcel Proust

 

That’s enough for now

 

 

‘West’ by Carys Davies – Meanwhile Back on the Farm

 

‘West’ by Carys Davies (2018) – 149 pages

‘West’ is a bright little novel which is packed full of events and quite a lot of subtle humor. Author Carys Davies is from northwest England, but she has chosen to tell a story that takes place in the United States in 1815.

Pennsylvania settler and farmer John Cyrus Bellman has read articles about the giant animal bones that have been found in Kentucky. We now know that these were prehistoric dinosaur bones, but Bellman thinks that these giant creatures must still be roaming the prairies and mountains out west. He decides to leave his motherless ten year-old daughter Bess in the care of his sister Julie and head out west searching for the giant animals. He will follow the same Missouri River route which the explorers Lewis and Clark used.

At a trading post. he equips himself with trinkets to trade with the Indians he will encounter and with a stovepipe hat. Then early on in the trip, he picks up the teenaged Shawnee scout funnily named Looks Like a Woman From Afar to help him. From the scout, we get the Indians’ point of view of being cheated with trinkets and driven out of their own land by ruthless and dishonest white people.

Everyone thinks Bellman is a ridiculous fool for going on his quest, but they don’t tell him that. Bellman writes several letters to his daughter Bess, but they all get lost or waylaid somehow before reaching her.

Meanwhile back on the farm, a neighbor man named Elmer volunteers to help Aunt Julie and Bess to run the farm.

The stories of Bellman on his western adventure and of his small daughter Bess left on the farm are told side by side in separate short chapters.

What impressed me most about ‘West’ is Carys Davies’ economy of style. Davies gets more mileage out of her direct and straightforward sentences than any writer I know. Every word, every sentence has its purpose and drives the story forward. The novel is an adventure story, a domestic drama, and a wickedly ironic tale all rolled into one. ‘West’ is Davies’ first novel, and it definitely is an auspicious debut. I hope it starts a new trend of substantial 150-page novels.

The ending of ‘West’ is quite far-fetched, but Davies’ method of juxtaposing the two stories and finally bringing them together makes it seem almost credible.

 

 

Grade:   A

 

‘American Histories’ by John Edgar Wideman – Odds and Ends

 

‘American Histories’ by John Edgar Wideman (2018) – 221 pages

Most of the items in the new collection ‘American Histories’ do not reach the level of a story although one of them, ‘Writing Teacher’, did get published in the New Yorker. Most of these are narratives or accounts or vignettes or dialogues. They do not tell fully developed stories with fully developed characters. Some are very short, only a couple pages long.

I first encountered the fiction of John Edgar Wideman in the 1990s, I became hugely impressed with his fictional work, especially his novels ‘Philadelphia Fire’, ‘Reuben’, and ‘Sent For You Yesterday’. His dramatic stories gave me some much-needed insight into black life in the United States. Since the 1990s, Wideman has mostly switched from writing fiction to writing memoirs and other forms of non-fiction, and since I generally only read fiction I have not kept up with his work.

So I returned to John Edgar Wideman with ‘American Histories’ after a twenty-year hiatus. Unfortunately ‘American Histories’ is not a collection for us fiction lovers but rather more for those who like non-fictional forms of writing. I am disappointed that Wideman gave up on fiction as he was such an excellent fiction writer.

The first entry in the collection is ‘JB & FD’ which is a dialogue between the fiery abolitionist John Brown and the statesman and orator Frederick Douglas. Basically this piece is just a dialogue between the two figures with very little historical context. If you are wondering if these two historical figures ever met in real life, you will not find that out from this sketchy dialogue.

I did like the story ‘Writing Teacher’ because it probably was the closest to having the values of fiction. ‘Williamsburg Bridge’ is about a man sitting on the bridge contemplating jumping, and again any context is missing.

I don’t believe this collection is top-shelf Wideman but instead leftovers from a busy writing career. Also the work is more geared to people who like non-fiction. I found the work too didactic with too many generalities, abstractions, and cliched situations throughout the work to contend with. If anything, this collection reinforced my reasons for avoiding non-fiction. There is too much telling and not enough showing.

For those of you who like fiction, I would recommend reading Wideman’s excellent early fictional work such as ‘Philadelphia Fire’ or ‘Sent For You Yesterday’ instead.

 

 

Grade: C

 

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