Archive for October, 2009

The Jinx, by Theophile Gautier

October 28, 2009

gautier amazon

Purchased at

Let’s start with a confession: I bought this book solely because of its cover. After two very positive experiences with novellas from Hesperus Press featuring two of my favorite authors (Henry James’ The Lesson of the Master and Edith Wharton’s The Touchstone), I visited Hesperus’ home page to see what else they had on offer. I’d never heard of Theophile Gautier or The Jinx, but the primary colors and the grotesquely smiling image jumped right off the screen. And, to prove that I am not just a pretty cover kind of guy, it also informed me that the book featured a forward by Gilbert Adair, whose own novella, The Death of the Author, was another positive experience in the 2009 reading year.

It was a great decision — the book is every bit as good as its cover. In fact, my biggest criticism is that the publisher should have retained the original French (actually Italian) title — Jettatura — instead of opting for The Jinx, but I’ll admit that is a quibble.

Born in 1812, Theophile Gautier was a contemporary and friend of Victor Hugo and Honore de Balzac. A biographical note informs that he is perhaps best known for coining the phrase “art for art’s sake” in the preface to his first novel, Mademoiselle de Maupin. A poet, travel writer and journalist, the same note says that Gautier is also known for his ballets, including Giselle, which I have certainly heard of but never seen performed. Adair, while acknowledging that Gautier’s fiction “has ceased to be much read”, calls him a forerunner of Oscar Wilde and a master of the conte fantastique or “fantasy in a frock coat”, a perfectly descriptive image of this book.

The jettatura of the original title is a phenomenon — superstition, actually — of Naples, where the novella is set. Perhaps better translated as “the evil eye” rather than the jinx, it is a gaze that produces tragedy and disaster in all those on whom it alights. The possessor of the jettatura, the Frenchman Paul d’Aspremont in this book, is not evil in and of himself; rather he has been cursed with the affliction.

We meet d’Aspremont on his arrival in Naples to resume his courtship of the well-bred Englishwoman, Alicia Ward, whom he first met on her home turf and to whom he is at least promised, if not formally betrothed:

He was a young man of between twenty-six and twenty eight, or least that was the age you were tempted to ascribe to him at first glance, for when you looked at him more attentively you found him either younger or older, to such an extent was his enigmatic expression a mixture of freshness and fatigue. His dark blond hair was that shade of colour the English call auburn, and in the sunlight it blazed with a coppery, metallic sheen, while in the shade it appeared almost black; his profile was composed of cleanly drawn lines: a forehead with such protuberances as would have attracted the admiration of a phrenologist, a nobly curving aquiline nose, finely moulded lips, and a powerfully rounded chin reminiscent of ancient medals; and yet all these features, handsome in themselves, did not add up to an attractive whole.

Those sentences capture much of Gautier’s style (very well translated by Andrew Brown in this edition). The descriptions are meticulous and extensive throughout the novella. The sentences cascade through detail but (presaging Marcel Proust) they build toward an end — if you like the subject to precede the object, Gautier is probably not an author for you. He builds to conclusions rather than stating them. Consider his introduction of Alicia:

Alicia was wearing a dress of grenadine with flounces festooned and embroidered with red palmettes, which went marvellously with the small-grained coral braid that made up her coiffure, her necklace and her bracelets; five pendant stones hanging from a multifaceted coral pearl trembled at the lobes of her small and delicately curled ears. — If you disapprove of this misuse of coral, remember that we are in Naples, and that fishermen come up out of the sea with the express intention of presenting you with those coral branches that turn red when exposed to air.

As the reader soon discovers, that reference to coral is important. The Neapolitans believe that the way to ward off the jettatura is to meet the gaze with a direct, forked response: a raised hand with pointed index and little fingers, animal horns worn as charms and the forks of coral will all do in a pinch. The plot thickens when we are introduced to Count Altavilla:

A third person completed the group; it was Count Altavilla, a young Neapolitan man-about-town whose presence brought to Paul’s brow that contraction which gave his physiognomy an expression of diabolical malevolence.

The Count was, indeed, one of those men whom one doesn’t like to see too close to a woman one loves. He was tall and perfectly proportioned; his hair was jet black, swept up into abundant tufts over his smooth and finely-sculptured forehead; a gleam of Naples’ sunshine sparkled in his eyes, and his teeth, broad and strong yet as pure as pearls, seemed to be even more dazzling because of the bright red of his lips and the olive hue of his complexion. The only criticism a meticulous taste might have found to make against the Count was that he was just too handsome.

It is no surprise that the Count has his own designs on Alicia; more important, however, it is he who introduces to Alicia, her guardian and indeed Paul himself the notion that d’Aspremont possesses the jettatura (an observation that has already been made by the much more suspicious Neapolitan underclasses who have come in contact with the Frenchman). As well, the Count has both a reputation and a record as a superb duelist; this is the nineteenth century, after all, so that too will become an important factor as the novella unfolds.

Paul and Alicia are rationalist Christians from the north and this southern superstition is beyond them — at first. Yet slowly, inexorably, Paul in particular begins to lose that reason-based view. Memories of disasters in his past, which had been neatly filed away with rational explanations, return and need to be re-examined: Could the “evil eye”, in fact, be the explanation?

Thus, Gautier poses the question of when does superstition overtake rational thought and become reality itself. The author does resolve it, as Adair concludes in his forward:

Well, given that for most of us a monster in a frock-coat is inherently scarier than one with horns, scales and claws, The Jinx in its entirety proves to be a curiously terrifying work.

I can offer no better summary. The writing in this novella is superb (I’ve overrun this review with quotes already — there are numerous other examples describing Naples and its people that are every bit as good). And all of that talent is put to work to create and deliver a “curiously terrifying” story. The Jinx in the final analysis is every bit as good as the promise of its wonderful cover.


A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore

October 26, 2009

Purchased at

Purchased at

Lorrie Moore is an American author, now living and teaching in Madison, Wisconsin, who has been on my “read soon” list for all too long. Her catalogue is slim — three short story collections and now three novels in a publishing career that began in 1985. But she is one of those authors who attracts passionate endorsement of the “you have to read Moore” variety from both respected bloggers and book people who get paid for their opinions. So for me this year’s publication of A Gate at the Stairs, her first novel in 15 years, seemed a good excuse to start.

The novel is a first-person reminiscence from Tassie Keltjin of her years at university in Troy, WI. I’m assuming it is a representation of one of those American university towns like Madison, home of the University of Wisconsin where Moore teaches — Tassie is a farm-girl and Troy is regarded as a pseudo-sophisticate town where people think too highly of themselves (“they drink their own bathwater”). The action is set post 9/11, so even the memories are of a recent vintage.

If there is a central idea that runs through A Gate at the Stairs it is the frustrating dislocation and alienation of virtually every character in the book, with Tassie’s acquaintance with each of them the unifying element. Her father is an organic farmer with a small plot (Keltjin’s offbeat potatoes have their own fame); her mother is Jewish and that is just the start of her Wisconsin isolation and Tassie’s younger brother, Robert, is confused enough that he is considering enlisting in the U.S. army as his most viable option for the future. Here’s Tassie returning home for “Christmas” from college:

My mother had sprung for eggnog, and a little brandy, and although my father had already gone to bed she and Robert and I sat up for twenty minutes or so, with a coffee log burning low in the fireplace and a plate of gingersnaps on the mantel before we were all too tired to pretend. The coffee log was a favorite of my mother’s although to me it smelled less like coffee and more like a burning shoe. “I’d light the menorah,” said my mother, “but remember what happened last year with the curtains catching on fire.” The curtains had gone up in a blaze and we had thrown a punch bowl of eggnog on them to douse the flames, and the eggnog had sizzled and cooked into the fabric until the whole house smelled like a diner omelet.

“That’s OK,” I said. “I’ll light the menorah tomorrow for you.” Though I would forget to do it. Every year it was my job to clean it, scrape off the previous year’s wax with pins and a fork, so perhaps my forgetting was convenient.

That excerpt is a good example of two Moore traits: she has an exceptional eye for telling little details and she loves a good gag (“the whole house smelled like a diner omelet”).

She also cares about families that don’t quite work out according to the norm. In addition to the Keltjin’s, the novel explores Sarah and Edward, a liberalish couple (Sarah owns Troy’s fancy restaurant, Edward is a scientist) who hire Tassie as a part-time nanny. Actually they hire her before they even have a child on hand; Tassie is taken along for the adoption interviews which eventually result in the arrival of a mixed-raced child, Mary, renamed Mary-Emma, quickly shortened to Emmie. Moore uses this family as another platform. Troy may be tolerant, but mixed-race families still think they feel discrimination and Sarah and Edward begin hosting a support group. Tassie tends the children of all the members while the parents meet downstairs:

On Wednesday nights … the house filled up with visitors and their remarks. Contentious shards of discussion floated upward like dust shaken from a rug.

“Postracial is a white idea.” This again. It has all begun to sound to me like a spiritually gated community of liberal chat.

“A lot of ideas are white ideas.”

“Its like postfeminist or postmodern. The word post is put forward by people who have grown bored of the conversation.”

“And the conversation remains unresolved because it’s not resolvable. It’s not that kind of conversation. It’s merely living talk. Whereas you put post in front of it — what is that? It’s saying ‘Shut the hell up. We’re tired and we’re going to sleep now’.”

“If you reject religion, you reject blackness.”

“Black culture here is just southern culture moved north, that’s all.”

“Well, that’s not all.”

“Blacks have preserved the South up here — the cooking, the expressions, the accents — better than the southern whites who’ve moved here have.”

This overheard support-group conversation goes on for some pages and it is no spoiler to say that it is not resolved — it does supply Moore the opportunity to explore white liberal attitudes towards race and insert a few more gags (“Why do black people get so tall?” “Why?” “Because their knee grows!” she squealed with delight.)

In addition to the two families and their issues, Tassie has an unconvincing affair with Reynaldo, whom she thinks is Portugese but it turns out may, or may not, be a member of an Islamic cell. It is one of the less convincing story lines in the book. Tassie is also a bass player (both guitar and a difficult electonic upright version — her email address is “bassface-at-isp-dot-com”) and she and her roommate, Murph, spend some time jamming, improvising and semi-rapping when both their love affairs break up.

I think those thumbnail story lines illustrate the problems that I found with the book. While dislocation and alienation may be the uniting themes of the book, it proceeds in a very episodic fashion and never acquires the flow that one has a right to expect from a successful novel. Moore is a very talented writer and some of her gags really are quite good. (As someone whose knowledge of Wisconsin is pretty much confined to the Green Bay Packers — and cheese –, she does construct some very good riffs on the green-and-gold football team and its impact on the state.)

The result of all this is that I am pretty much convinced that I started my Moore reading with the wrong book. She seems to be better known for her short stories and I am left wishing that I had started with one of her short story collections (Birds of America (1998) seems to be held in highest regard — one story was an O Henry Award winner that year). The observational skills, the gags and the ability to add life to seemingly trivial details all serve the short story writer well. For a novelist, alas, they tend to produce clutter rather than focus.

I don’t regret reading A Gate at the Stairs but do admit I was eager for it to end. Throughout the latter part of the book, I had the feeling that I was experiencing a very good writer not at her best. Had I more experience with her short stories, I think I would have been far more tolerant. Heck, even Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers had their off days, although to date the cheese gives Vermont a run for its money. I’ll give Birds of America a try sometime down the road.

Trevor reviews The Golden Mean

October 25, 2009

lyonShadow Giller juror Trevor Berrett has reviewed The Golden Mean and pronounced it his favorite of the four shortlisted novels that he has read so far. Turns out he is a classics fan and loved the way Annabel Lyon spoke to that experience. Here are a couple of paragraphs from his review that provide a sample:

This book picks up in about 343 B.C., when Aristotle is travelling to Pella, the capital of Macedon, with his very young wife Pythias. They have just left Atarneus, where Aristotle had founded his first philosophical school under the patronage of Hermias (Pythias’s father, probably). Lyon does an exceptional job subtly introducing some of the region’s impending doom. Aristotle is couriering a treaty from Hermias to Philip of Macedon, who is just beginning his campaign to take over the known world. Atarneus lies frighteningly close to Persia, so Hermias was hoping to get Philip’s protection in return for Hermias’s loyalty.

When the narrative begins, Aristotle has already stopped by Stageira, his birthplace (in Macedonia), to witness for himself the destruction brought about when Philip destroyed the town. We get a great sense of the time when we meet Philip and Aristotle humbly submits himself to him. In The Golden Mean Philip and Aristotle were friends in youth — at least as close to friends as one can become with the future king. This is possible since Aristotle’s father was Philip’s father’s chief physician. Consequently, they have an interesting relationship in The Golden Mean now that both have grown up, Aristotle in Athens building his mind, Philip in Macedon building for war.

While that establishes the context of the story, Lyon devotes most of her attention to Aristotle’s tutoring of Alexander and explores what happens behind the main events of the time. You can find my my review of The Golden Mean here. Lyon’s novel has now been shortlisted for all three major Canadian fiction prizes — that is a good indication that this is a very well-written book.

The Mistress of Nothing, by Kate Pullinger

October 22, 2009

Purchased at

Purchased at

The 2009 Canadian book prize season has had two surprises — Annabel Lyon’s debut novel The Golden Mean has made all three short lists; Kate Pullinger’s The Mistress of Nothing was longlisted for the Giller Prize and is shortlisted (EDIT: and has now won) for the Governor-General’s fiction award. In many ways, Pullinger’s performance is more of a surprise — she has lived in England for more than a quarter of a century and her book has no Canadian references. I was going to give this novel a pass but when it showed up on the G-G shortlist (known for a preference for edgy books), I thought I should give it a try.

On the surface, The Mistress of Nothing is about Lady Duff Gordon and is a story of the soon-to-be-declining English aristocracy set in the mid-nineteenth century. My Lady is consumptive and her only option is to leave England — and her noble family — for the arid climate of Egypt. She does and eventually settles up the Nile at Luxor, goes native in habit and dress and, in her own way, survives, at least for a while.

giller avatarThat story line is so strong that it is the normal description of this book, but it is most misleading in terms of what the book is really about. The Mistress of Nothing is not the story of Lady Duff Gordon, it is the story of her lady’s maid, Sally Naldrett, who accompanies My Lady to Egypt and finds in that removal her own set of opportunities and challenges:

I am Lady Duff Gordon’s maid; I am thirty years old, a very great age for a single woman. I reckon I became a spinster some years ago although the precise moment it happened passed me by. I have been in the Duff Gordon household for more than a decade, and those dozen years have been good years for me. Before then, penury. My sister Ellen and I were orphaned when we were very young; our parents, Battersea shopkeepers, were killed in a train derailment at Clapham. We were staying with our Aunt Clara in Esher at the time — our parents were on the way to fetch us home — and that is where we remained. But Aunt Clara could not afford, or was not inclined — I never knew which was more true, though I have my suspicions — to keep two extra children and we went into service, me that same year, and then Ellen one year later.

As is implied in that quote, Sally has done well by her time in service. Now, while the move to Egypt is a choice of survival for her mistress, it is a chance for Sally of adventure and experience. She is eager for the opportunity — Pullinger in a piece of foreshadowing lets us know early on that it will not turn out well.

Very early on in the Egyptian experience, the Duff Gordon party is introduced to Omar Abu Halaweh, a factotum who soon becomes an essential part of the household. Not long after (this is a spoiler but essential to the novel, so I apologize and it is hardly a surprise) he becomes Sally’s lover. She becomes pregnant and will eventually bear his child.

That plot is central to Pullinger’s novel but it is not the centrepiece of the book. Rather, the writer’s portrayal of the noble Englishwoman and the adaptation of both herself and her household to Egypt is its strength. Egypt is part of the Ottoman empire and the Pasha is transfixed by updating it — not the least by building the Suez Canal, but with a public works program that means taxes and labor demands that destroy the inidiginent economy. Lady Duff Gordon, Sally and Omar settle in Luxor to a redolent life but around them the turmoil of the Pasha’s rule reigns. While both local and foreign dignitaries visit often for My Lady’s salons (a reminder of British life deserted), they are a reminder of life that was, not what will be. My Lady adapts:

One morning I entered my Lady’s room and found her already up; we had adopted the Egyptian custom of rising before dawn long since. This morning she had dressed already.

“This is it,” my Lady said with a flourish, spinning herself around, “this is the new a la mode.”

“Lady Duff Gordon!” I said, unable to say more.

“What do you think?” she asked and spun around again. She was wearing the most extraordinary outfit I had every seen. She had on a pair of Egyptian trousers — men’s trousers, brown cotton, loose flowing, tied at the ankles — and a long white cotton tunic on top — a man’s tunic, plain — and sandals on her bare feet. That was it.

When Sally becomes pregnant, she and Omar make the mistake of assuming that Lady Duff Gordon’s “going native” has extended beyond dress. Omar is already married in the Muslim tradition and has a daughter, but it is quite legal in the Egypt of the day for him to have a second wife. Sally understands and accepts this and both she and Omar delude themselves that My Lady will also adapt, although not so sure in that decision that they actually tell her about the impending arrival.

It is at that point that Pullinger’s story begins to take on another form and, at least for this reader, unravel. For example, Sally’s adoption of Egyptian dress means that her mistress does not even realize her maid is pregnant until the baby arrives. And when it does, Lady Duff Gordon retreats into a caricature of her traditional English behavior. The last third of the book — I am afraid equally unconvincing for me — is the story of Sally’s recovery from these circumstances.

The Mistress of Nothing was an enjoyable and satisfying read, with some quite intriguing digressions on Brits hanging around Egypt in the mid-nineteenth century. It does have the elements for a very good movie with beautiful scenary — Pullinger co-write the novel for The Piano with film director Jane Campion, so it is hard to ignore that angle. Alas, it does not have much more. A very entertaining book, but not one that you are liable to be thinking a lot about in the week or two after you have finished it.

Trevor reviews The Disappeared

October 21, 2009

echlin Shadow Giller juror Trevor Berrett has now passed the shortlist halfway mark. Here are the opening paragraphs (find the full review here) to his excellent review of Kim Echlin’s The Disappeared:

The Killing Fields of Cambodia, the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, have been covered before, particularly by the courageous Dith Pran, who died last year. I knew going in to The Disappeared (2009) that the book could not be as affecting as the journalistic accounts. Yet, there’s something haunting and reverent about the cover that compelled me and gave me hope. I hoped like mad that the book could be as haunting and, knowing the topic, especially as reverent. In the end, despite a few flaws, the book greatly exceeded my expectations.

Our narrator is Anne Greves, a Canadian who, in her youth (she was only sixteen), fell in undying love with the passionate musician Serey, a Cambodian exile to Montreal. With only minor clunkiness that we get over soon enough, we come to know that Anne is writing this book to Serey as an attempt to take account of their past:

“Bones work their way to the surface. Thirty years have passed since that day in the market in Phnom Penh. I still hear your voice. I first met you [. . .]”

And you can find my earlier review of The Disappeared here. I would say that Trevor and I agree that while it is not a perfect book it is a very good one.

Old School, by Tobias Wolff

October 19, 2009

Purchased at

Purchased at

The time is November, 1960 and the setting a private boys’ school somewhere in the northeast United States. While the rest of the country is preoccupied with the presidential election pitting Nixon against Kennedy, the school is preoccupied with the impending visit of Robert Frost. The school has a tradition of three author visits a year and has the reputational clout to attract quality — we are told that Robert Penn Warren and Edmund Wilson have been previous visitors. While every student can attend the guest lecture, the real prize comes from the writing competition which precedes it; the winning student is given a one-hour audience with the visiting writer.

The institution in Tobias Wolff’s Old School is obviously not your down-market public school next door (the author himself was expelled from the Hill School near Philadelphia — that school is part of an organization that includes Choate, Andover, Exeter and Chaffee so he knows something about the elite prep schools). The unnamed narrator is a scholarship student but he is fully aware of the required state of avoiding reality that is essential to the school’s self-image:

It was understood that some of the boys might get a leg up from their famous names or great wealth, but if privilege gave them a place, the rest of us liked to think it was a perilous place. You could never advance in it, you could only try not to lose it by talking too much about the debutante parties you went to or the Jaguar you earned by turning sixteen. And meanwhile, absent other distinctions, you were steadily giving ground to a system of honors that valued nothing you hadn’t done for yourself.

While the school consciously denies those aspects of class and economics that are a vital part of its function (they are so powerful that they do not seem to need to be recognized), it does have a snobbery of its own: “Its pride in being a literary place — quite aside from the glamorous writers who visited three times a year”:

How did they command such deference — English teachers? Compared to the men who taught physics or biology, what did they really know of the world? It seemed to me, and not only to me, that they knew exactly what was most worth knowing. Unlike our math and science teachers, who modestly stuck to their subjects, they tended to be polymaths. Adept as they were at dissection, they would never leave a poem or a novel strewn about in pieces like some butchered frog reeking of formaldehyde. They’d stitch it back together with history and psychology, philosophy, religion, and even, on occasion, science. Without pandering to your presumed desire to identify with the hero of a story, they made you feel that what mattered to the writer had consequence for you, too.

In fact, much of Old School is a meditation on writing and what motivates a young man to become a writer. Wolff is best known as a memoirist and short story writer — he’s pretty much repudiated his first novel, Ugly Rumors (1975), so this book, first published in 2003, is his only full-length fictional work — and it is hard not to see that aspect of the book as autobiographical. The narrator reveres Hemmingway (“I had some magazine pictures of Ernest Hemmingway tacked above my desk. In one he was baring his choppers at the camera in a way that left no doubt of his capacity for rending and tearing, which seemed plainly connected to his strength as a writer.”) but there are many other role models whom the boys eagerly debate.

Wolff, in fact, cannot resist a wonderful digression, that gently mocks all this, while at the same time reminding readers again that America’s future upper class is being trained at this school. At the insistence of the chair of the board of trustees, who “rained money on the school” and thus cannot be ignored, whatever his follies, Frost is followed as visiting writer by none other than Ayn Rand (“she tore into our school motto — Give All — and urged everyone to ignore such drivel and live for themselves alone”). She also rebukes the chair of the board for describing her as a “conservative” in his introduction: “She said that she was a radical, not a conservative, and that people should attach meaning to the words they speak.” (Wolff must have had great fun watching Sarah Palin last fall, but now I too digress.)

The Rand pages, funny as they are, serve mainly as reminder of the school’s quiet denial of its real role. The plot begins to move more swiftly when Hemmingway himself is announced as the final visiting writer of the year — a tribute to Dean Makepeace to whom successive classes have paid homage for knowing him during the war and an incentive to the narrator to finally win the writing contest.

We already know that the narrator, like his school, is hiding a secret. His father is Jewish, something that he has only recently discovered and admitted to no one. He had this brought to mind at a dinner with his roommate’s father early in the year:

Mr. White was a widower and lived in Peru, where he owned a textile company. He had Bill invite me for dinner at the village inn, and seeing the two together produced a certain shock; both of them tall and fair and green-eyed, Mr. White an older version of his son in every respect save the Brooklyn in his voice and an almost eager warmth. He referred often to their family and it soon became obvious that they were Jewish. I had roomed with Bill for two years and he’d never given me the slightest hint. Though I had practiced some serious dissembling of my own, I’d never suspected it of Bill. I thought of him as honest, if aloof. Who was he, really? All that time together, and it turned out I didn’t know him any better than he knew me.

All secrets have their reasons and all secrets carry costs. Perhaps an exploration of those themes would be appealing to Hemmingway when it comes to the writing contest.

As you have probably guessed, nothing is quite what it seems to be in Old School. Difficult issues and facts that might cause concern are preferably just avoided. It is not so much that truth is not told or broken as that it is avoided through omission. Wolff hones this part of his work superbly as the novel draws to a close. The ending in particular takes the book to a whole new place, albeit one entirely consistent with the rest of the book.

I have said before that I am a sucker for “school” books and this one joins the front rank in that category (with John Knowles’ A Separate Peace and Richard Yates A Good School — for another view of this book and a discussion about great school novels check out Trevor’s review here). Or my own thoughts on two “school” books that feature female leads. And if you think you might prefer Wolff’s short stories, check out John Self’s review of Our Story Begins, his most recent collection.

In Old School, Wolff does go in a different direction than all of those books. His epigraph for this book, from Mark Strand’s “Elegy for My Father”, details it perfectly:

Why did you lie to me?
I always thought I told the truth.
Why did you lie to me?
Because the truth lies like nothing else and I love the truth.

Trevor reviews The Winter Vault

October 17, 2009

U.S. edition

U.S. edition

Shadow Jury international member Trevor Berrett has posted his second review from the Giller shortlist, Anne Michael’s The Winter Vault. You can read the full review at the Mookse and the Gripes . Here’s an excerpt:

I remembered that when KevinfromCanada reviewed this book, he was disappointed, yet his review still made me want to read the book. The setting and topics sounded very interesting to me, so I was secretly pleased that it made the shortlist.

After reading it, I’m still fascinated by the topics and setting (oh! and the astute reader picks up on the limiting language I use in that sentence!). I’ll describe the setting first, as a kind of introduction to the plot. We start in southern Egypt, near the temple of Abu Simbel, in the mid-1960s when Abu Simbel was being removed from its original site where it had set for millenia, much of that time burried under sand. Because of the construction of the Aswan High Dam, the original site would flood causing Abu Simbel to be under water. Letting such a wonderous site die under water seemed wrong, so the Temple was cut up and relocated to higher ground. I cannot imagine what it must have felt like to be the one who wielded the saw that made the first cut. Michaels does an excellent job presenting the tragic irony that was unfolding:

“The dam would make a gash so deep and long that the land would never recover. The water would pool, a blood blister of a lake. The wound would become infected — bilharzia, malaria — and in the new towns, modern loneliness and decay of every sort.”

My earlier review — and some very interesting comments — can be found here. Further comments are certainly welcome.

The Touchstone, by Edith Wharton

October 16, 2009

Purchased at

Purchased at

I admit to being a fan of all Edith Wharton’s work — short stories, novellas, novels. Born to the purple and wed to it as well, throughout her career she maintained her ability to portray New York society at the turn of the century with a discerning critical eye. Like Henry James, she left the country of her birth for Europe, but she never lost her skill to analyze it. If anything, again like James, distance heightened the perception that was already present.

The Touchstone, an early novella (written in 1900, so very early in her overall work), displays all of these traits — while it is not perfect, it is an excellent example of what is to come. And I would be very remiss if I did not acknowledge the wonderful look and feel of the Hesperus Press edition that I read, not just the beautiful cover but also the way that Hesperus produced a physically impressive short volume that is a delight to hold as well as read.

Stephen Glennard has only one marketable asset — the love letters sent to him by the eminent, now deceased, author, Margaret Aubyn. They had grown up together in upstate New York; Margaret (not unlike Wharton) had married poorly, then divorced and she and Stephen had carried on an affair, mainly (again not unlike Wharton) through correspondence. Now that Mrs. Aubyn, the famous novelist, has died, her correspondence has value. Stephen, who has formed a new attachment that he cannot afford, “owns” something of value — will he sacrifice his integrity to exploit it and serve his own ends?

It is no spoiler to say that he does — that in fact is the touchstone of the title. What this novella does is explore the cost that that betrayal inflicts on him and, indeed, on his success. It is a study in the price that is extracted by known but unacknowledged guiilt. It is Wharton showing hints of her best — even though she will get better as she gets older. Consider Stephen’s initial betrayal:

It must have been an hour later that he found himself automatically fitting a key into a locked drawer. He had no more notion than a somnambulist of the mental process that had led up to this action. He was just dimly aware of having pushed aside the papers and the heavy calf volumes that a moment before had bounded his horizon, and of laying in their place, without a trace of conscious violation, the parcel he had taken from the drawer.

The letters were tied in packets of thirty or forty. There were a great many packets. On some of the envelopes the ink was fading; on others, which bore the English postmark, it was still fresh. She had been dead hardly three years, and she had written, at lengthening intervals, to the last…

One of the things that I most admire about Wharton is that her central characters always place expedience ahead of morality — and then spend the rest of their life paying the price for doing that. Stephen Glennard is the prototype for that role. He publishes the letters, makes enough money to afford his society marriage and then has to deal with the consequences.

In true Wharton fashion (no spoiler here), he wants to be discovered. He leaves hints everywhere, and he sees plots. Alas, no one pays any attention. The author winds the yarn tighter and tighter on the bobbin — Stephen can’t wait to be exposed and it just won’t happen.

The subplot that plays out as this is going on is an equally important aspect of the book. Mrs. Aubry wrote the letters to her lover but even though she is now deceased should she be subject to this travesty? While it preoccupies Stephen, no one else in New York society seems to be very much concerned by it — that in itself is an interesting Wharton sub-theme. They love the scandal of the story so much they cannot start to contemplate the cost at which it comes.

Like Henry James’ The Lesson of the Master (reviewed here), The Touchstone is another wonderful novella that opens a Pandora’s box, let’s some things escape and then asks “Why?” As one would expect from early Wharton, it offers some intriguing thoughts about the New York of the time (and now, if you are up to making a few mental leaps). Stephen Glennard had to make his choices — and he did. Edith Wharton in 92 pages does a great job of exploring what those choices actually meant.

The Golden Mean, by Annabel Lyon

October 14, 2009

Purchased at

Purchased at Owl's Nest Books

Every story has a back story. And Canadian author Annabel Lyon has gone a long way back to find her story in The Golden Mean — an aging Aristotle is recruited by Philip of Macedon to tutor his young son, Alexander (not yet the Great, but he will be) and introduce some thoughtful moderation into a royal life that is, and will always be, based on action. As much as he would like to devote his attention to something else (a treatise on theatre, actually), Aristotle is up to the challenge. In fact, he is equally entranced by the prospect of tutoring Alexander’s older — and disadvantaged — brother, Arrhidaeus, who has been coolly rejected by all his family because of his disability.

The golden mean of the title in this Giller Prize short-listed novel is the conflict between contemplation (as represented by Aristotle) and action (Alexander). As Aristotle complains to Alexander, late in the book:

“Your father suffers from what in an ordinary man we would call an excess of the virtue of pride. I’m not sure if such a thing is possible in a king. We are wasting time.” I’m angry suddenly and don’t care if he knows. I’m Macedonian to the Athenians and Athenian to the Macedonians. Maedi was a triumph; the Academy is not a pressing issue. “We are wasting each other’s time. You would like to be with the army and I would like to be in Athens writing books. Alas, we are left to each other’s company. Shall we make the best of an unpleasant situation and get this lesson over with as quickly as possible so we can each return to our own solitary pursuits? Show me your notes from last time.”

giller avatarLyon avoids the temptation to follow Philip — and eventually Alexander — through their various wars and conflicts. She does pay attention to various diplomatic and courtly intrigues, but her focus is always on Aristotle’s pursuit of the mean:

“My few meagre tools with which I try to order the universe. You must look for the mean between the extremes, the point of balance. The point will differ from man to man. There is not a universal standard of virtue to cover all situations at all times. Context must be taken into account, specificity, what is best at a particular place and time. You must–“

Alexander interrupts. There is a limit to his willingness to contemplate.

While the author remains true to keeping that central theme in focus, she also remains true to history. Despite the forthright focus of the novel, an introductory cast of characters, in order of appearance, has 43 names and all of them come into play. Aristotle’s pursuit of the golden mean is not limited to Alexander, it extends to everyone with whom he has contact from the king to the lowliest slave.

All of this makes for a somewhat frustrating book. While there is a lot of action around it, there is not much action in it — rather it is a study of the complex web of relationships that an outcast (as noted in the quote above, Aristotle is not at home anywhere) must maintain if he is to survive in the upper echelons of a warring world. For the reader, that plays out as moving from sideline to sideline, always aware of the real game that is being played but never being taken to the centre of it. Aristotle remains appropriately philosophical and curious throughout; while Alexander matures as the novel progresses, he never actually acquires the depth of character that this reader would have liked.

One side effect of that is that Aristotle’s wife, Pythias, (awarded to him by another king in gratitude) becomes a much more interesting character than he who will become the Great. Devoted to her husband, and much more aware of the aspects of real politic, Pythias’ dinners and positioning become every bit as important to Aristotle’s success as his tutoring and philosophy. And there are some very nice set pieces when the philosopher buys his wife a new slave, who happens to be a witch and limits most of her conversation with the male master to “fuck off”.

Alas, for this reader, that was not enough to save the novel. It is a straightforward, decently written book but in the final analysis the back story is simply not enough to carry the book. As the end approaches and Alexander ventures forth into the real world of conquest, while Aristotle stays behind, there is a distinct feeling that we have seen only part of the story — and perhaps not the most interesting part. Despite the lengthy list of characters, the reader has been exposed only to sub-plots. The book that Aristotle wanted to write about Greek theatre might have been more interesting after all.

(EDIT, Oct. 14 — The Golden Mean was named today to the Governor-General’s award fiction shortlist along with Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness and Michael Crummey’s Galore (reviewed by Shadow Giller juror Trevor on his blog here). Other finalists are Kate Pullinger for The Mistress of Nothing (which I promise to get to soon) and Deborah Willis for her short story collection, Vanishing and Other Stories. My initial guess (and this will be the KfC kiss of death) is that Munro wins the G-G award in a walk. The absence of Atwood is yet another indication of how bad her book is.)

A Book by its Cover

October 13, 2009

U.K. hardcover

U.K. hardcover

U.S. cover

U.S. cover

Canadian hardcover

Canadian hardcover

Can. paperback

Can. paperback

Here are four different versions of covers for the same book. I would say that Anne Michaels has confused her cover designers as much as she has confused this reader. Review of the book is here — you can figure out which cover suits you best.

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