Here, again this month, is the short version of my adventures in reading beyond book club selections. Would love to hear you hit the highlights and lowlights of yours.
1. Sonny Brewer, The Poet of Tolstoy Park
This novel takes place in 1925, and its protagonist, a retired professor from Idaho named Henry Stuart, has been diagnosed with tuberculosis and told that a warmer climate will increase the quality of his remaining days of life, which are, as one might have guessed, numbered. He selects his new location, Fairhope, Georgia, and prepares to leave his two sons behind, all three men knowing that his departure means absolute final goodbyes. And here’s where the book begins to falter a bit. Here, as throughout, the author’s portrayals of interpersonal relationships, with the exception of the truly intriguing connection later developed between Henry and a young Georgia widow named Kate, lack complexity. Here, as for most of the rest of the novel, the characters face circumstances that would seem to demand complicated, delicately crafted personal responses, but instead, the major figures generally behave predictably, taking their responses from stock characters or, at best, classic personages before them, and the truly troubling part is that Brewer, at times, sorta kinda kinda sorta seems to be laying the groundwork for something more intricate and sophisticated, but this effort soon fizzles out. Overall, in fact, I would commend this text for its ability to raise audience expectations and set readers guessing ahead to plots that, even when we’re dealing with a reader like me–one self-consciously lousy at imaging plot twists to come, are probably far more satisfying than the directions the book does take. Similarly, what drew me to this novel was, of course, the mention of “Tolstoy” in the title and the back cover blurb’s claim that Henry, facing his own mortality, takes perspectives “inspired by the writings of his beloved Tolstoy.” Indeed, Henry names the small estate he purchases, where he builds a round house of concrete blocks, “Tolstoy Park.” But despite that, there really is very little Tolstoy–or at least, very little that demonstrates much beyond the average educated reader’s depth of knowledge about Tolstoy or insight into specific issues in, let alone passages from, Tolstoy’s work.
There is something clearly Thoreauvian about Henry’s construction of his primitive shelter and about the relationship between his physical labors and the development of new elements in his consciousness. Accordingly, painstaking detail is given about much of Henry’s labor. The problem is, however, that Thoreau was an insightful literary craftsman whereas Brewer, at least for my money, is neither a distinguished nor a disgraceful stylist, so this material makes for dull reading. In fact, it seems less often as if an attempt to dazzle the reader has gone awry than as if there has been no such attempt made but still the details of an activity have been preserved with enough care to enable readers who wish to retrace the protagonist’s steps to pay homage to Henry in some sort of home improvement project.
If you, however, like the sort of inspirational spirit that radiates from novels whose dying protagonists are miraculously given extra years, their health coincidentally improving after some sort of enlightening transformation in their souls, but have found that the overall prose quality and plot development in such books is often simply abominable, you might like Brewer’s work. It is far less gimmicky and fraught with cliche than such books generally are. And, in fairness, I must admit that the spirit in which I greet such miracles has been labelled “not kind enough to be called hostile” and even in one case, “somehow deserving of the label ‘sadistic’,” so I may not have given this novel the chance it needs to work its magic, although I think I was prepared to suspend my disbelief because of the Tolstoy element and all. That and because, I was told in advance, the novel doesn’t behave, as some such texts do, as if the newly reinvigorated protagonist may well have achieved immortality because after his/her return to health, he/she approaches and passes a succession of ripe old ages with never so much as a thought of death.Instead, as the novel draws to its close, many years having passed, we watch Henry prepare for his approaching grave.
It is in these preparations and in the final chapters of the book that we find the most engaging and even touching prose ands the most memorable developments in character relationships. In fact, the strongest section of this book is its brief epilogue, in which the major Fairhope characters react to differing aspects of Henry’s legacy that move them to far-less-than-obvious thoughts and emotions that relate to everyday and non-Henry-centric issues. Here I was moved to pause briefly and factor my latest read into my ongoing ruminations on the question of what force an individual human legacy may exert upon the lives of others. Now, I’m not claiming I got anything worth the effort of reading the entire book, but rather asserting that, had the entire book risen to the level of quality the author here displays the potential to reach, this book could have been quite an effort, indeed.
2. Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited by Vladimir Nabokov Occasionally, if I need more inspiration to love books in general than I’ve found in my last few new reading selections, I dig in to my collection and extract one of my personal classics for a third or fourth read. This is how I recently came to be reading Speak, Memory, Nabokov’s autobiography and one of the few autobiographies I wholeheartedly enjoy, written by one of the authors whose work, in general, I most wholeheartedly admire. It’s the quality of literary artistry present in an author’s creations that most often earns him or her this rank with me, and Nabokov is truly, as many have called him, a master craftsman. I could quote any of the thirty or so underscored passages of sheer genius I cherish in this book in support of this assertion, but I think I’ll stick to the famous opening:
The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is headed for (at some forty-five-hundred heartbeats an hour).”
And yes, there is more, much more, where that came from.
Speak, Memory is an “autobiography revisited” in that Nabokov first published it in 1951 under the title Conclusive Evidence and then, in more or less its present form, after much revision in 1966. Although I have not read the 1951 version, the revision process involved still intrigues me, most keenly so when Nabokov himself makes reference to it: for example, when he says that he neglected a certain task the first time around, for what reasons, and what he hopes to achieve now that he plans to face some creative or personal challenge head on. He does this, for example, with reference to his generally emotionally distant brother in a particularly moving section of one of the book’s finest chapters.
On the whole, Nabokov’s autobiography tells of his life before he moved to the United States in 1940, including his Russian childhood, his education at Cambridge, and his drifting life as an emigre who formed very few lasting friendships during his tour of several European cities. The text is and isn’t chronological: looking across the grain of the chapters as a whole, things start, as the above quotation suggests, with his birth and move through his journey into manhood. Notable points along the way include his first love, his interest in entomology, his first efforts as a poet, and the career and death of his father (in no particular order). But he does quite a bit of leaping forward and lurching backwards along the way. He can be said both to be crafting an autobiography and to be drawing together into a coherent whole a number of previously published pieces.
Memory, as the book’s title suggests, figures heavily in this process, and its power to bring things together is but one of its virtues here celebrated. I believe, in fact, that the common claim that Nabokov’s autobiography can be viewed as a celebration of memory is well-founded. Memory, for Nabokov, if properly pursued brings well-defined portraits and a general sense of stasis to situations and issues that otherwise blur or breed insecurity.
For me, Nabokov’s memory outperforms those of many other writers in its efforts to transform everyday scenes and incidents into heartwrenching portraits and clever tales. In addition, many authors’ recollections reach their most awkward points when the writer speaks of the processes of his/her memory and its shortcomings, dragging readers off into some self-indulgent and far-too-familiar-to-be-clever-anymore-oh-someone-please-tell-him-oh-please digression after which one’s position in relation to the writer never feels quite comfortable for as long as the work in question endures. Nabokov’s notes on what he wishes to remember are concise and are often presented as if he were making the effort to remember at the same time as he is writing; these features, alone, however, do not account for the vast difference between the affective wonder Nabokov achieves and the discomfort that many writers inflict upon their readers when they engage in similar endeavors.
What does? I have long wondered, still taking this question with me every time I enter one of Nabokov’s texts. I feel something of the answer instinctively yet can articulate nothing of it, and this may be a large part of what so fascinates me about Nabokov’s work overall. But I have recommended this book to people who had tried to read one of his novels but found little to interest them there, all of whom did manage to complete this book and most of whom gave generally positive reviews. If, however, the very idea of reading about a young man’s life in pre-Revolution Russia and then post-Revolution Europe just sounds like it cannot help but be boring to you, then, against what I believe to be overly optimistic advice: some critics would contend that you should go ahead and read this particular book anyway because Nabokov’s talent will take you far beyond any content issues if only you appreciate high quality writing. I concede that it will probably just about as dull as you expect it to be as you dread ever to touch the book’s cover. There are certain dispositions and inclinations that hold too much power over certain readers for any author’s magic to overcome them.
In most other cases, for most other readers, I’d contend that there’s something to be specially admired within Nabokov’s collected works, and there’s quite a good chance that Speak, Memory will turn out to be just the thing. Have you read either of these books/authors?
If so, feel free to tell me how far off base I am. If, not, then what are you reading these days?