David Nobbs, 1935-2015

The British writer David Nobbs has passed away at the age of 80. Nobbs was best known for a series of novels centered on the life of Reginald Perrin, who fakes his own death as a means of casting off the shackles of a life in middle management at a dessert company. Perrin was a hit with readers and TV viewers alike. The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin was the first iteration of Nobbs’s books to make the small screen, followed by other series in both the UK and American. Episodes the The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin are available in full on Youtube.

There’s also an omnibus edition of the Reginald Perrin novels available for Kindle

— John McIntyre

Elizabeth Harrower’s Third Act

This essay originally appeared in issue 93 (Summer 2014) of Brick Magazine. 

Writing, romantic notions hold, is a way of a life, an identity, a state of being. There is a degree of truth to these assessments. It’s also a job, and we’ve witnessed the retirements of three major writers in recent years. In late 2012, when Philip Roth told the French magazine Les Inrocks: “I’m done,” he touched off debate about whether writers can, in fact, retire. The conclusion, per the New Yorker’s Ian Crouch: sort of. Jim Crace’s announcement greeted readers ahead of his final book, Harvest, which was a finalist for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. Alice Munro had tried to quit once before, in 2006. It was one of the very few failures in her literary life. Four months after her most recent retirement announcement, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

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Scores of one-novel writers sit at the far end of this spectrum. We lament Harper Lee’s silence and the fact Ralph Ellison never finished Juneteenth, but they are outliers. The disappearance of a mediocre novelist is a non-event. It’s harder to gauge the scale of loss attached to a writer who stops producing fiction in mid-career. E. M. Forster is perhaps the most well-known example, but he already had A Passage to India to his credit when he stopped publishing fiction at the age of forty.

Elizabeth Harrower is a more mysterious and ultimately more gratifying case. Between 1957 and 1966, she published four novels. Notable for the unsentimental tone she used to portray bright female characters beset by limited options, she belonged squarely amid Australia’s finest writers of the era, figures like Christina Stead and Kylie Tennant, who enjoyed long, acclaimed careers. Harrower’s first three books were well regarded, but The Watch Tower set a new standard. At thirty-seven, she was poised to build a body of work that would help define her country’s literature in the latter half of the twentieth century. Patrick White, who would win the Nobel Prize in 1973, encouraged her to follow the path she’d started. Instead, as far as readers knew, she disappeared. Years passed, then piled up. The prospect of a new novel grew remote. Reader interest flagged. The four novels went out of print. Harrower slipped into de facto retirement from the literary world, for undisclosed reasons. It might justifiably have been a long pause, a chance to draw a deep breath after four books in less than a decade and marshal resources for a next, major effort. But, with time her name faded into irrelevance. Despite White’s continued encouragement, Harrower opted for a different sort of life.

Imagine if Roth had stopped writing after Portnoy’s Complaint or Munro after Who Do You Think You Are? We would still know their names, but their reputations would be nowhere near so great. If Crace hadn’t written beyond Signals of Distress, he would likely be a marginal figure today. This is not to cast Harrower as a writer of their calibre, not if entire bodies of work are considered. But through four books she showed tremendous promise. And four novels in less than a decade is a consistent output.

It’s reasonable to wonder whether Harrower’s career was a casualty of the gender politics of her time, directly or otherwise. She has declined to identify as a feminist, concluding that, “the sense of grievance doesn’t appeal to me.” This is a surprise in light of her work, which contains ample cause for grievance among its female characters. There’s a temptation to suspect slyness here, to suspect that she’s advancing a grievance indirectly. If so, the choice is stunningly effective. The Watch Tower finds two sisters in a world so proscribed it’s cruel. In the aftermath of their father’s death and their mother’s decision to move abroad, Laura and her younger sister Clare are left to make their own way. They end up beholden to Felix, the man Laura marries in spite of her lack of real attraction to him and the sizable age difference between them. He takes in Clare as well and provides her with the resources to attend a secretarial course rather than finishing high school. Clare then goes to work for Felix, like Laura before her, and the two of them live at the mercy of his whims and moods. It’s a crushing arrangement. Felix’s motives remain opaque, his sulks and rages unpredictable. He builds up businesses and sells them at a loss, without consulting his wife. There is an intimation of repressed homosexual longing in Felix’s desperate desire to impress other men, even at the expense of his own family’s well-being. The possibility never occurs to his wife, though in her defence, there is no offence so grievous as doubting or questioning him.

The sisterly bond gives way to the bond between husband and wife, but the shift feels more like the result of Stockholm syndrome than a new, shared mission. A casual mention of Felix’s likeness to Bluebeard, and his acquisition of a china figurine of the mythic figure, prompts a moment of ghoulishness:

He knew how to treat his women! He knew the stuff to give ’em! Is he like me? Huh?’ He grimaced more horribly than ever into Clare’s face, popping his eyes at her, and she backed away, giggling kindly. She did not really think him funny at all, but she was very obliged that he tried to be.

‘What?’ The source of Laura’s indignation changed. ‘He was the one who had rooms full of murdered wives!’

Felix gave a dreadful roar and rolled his eyes wildly. ‘Aha! You want to watch out!’ He laughed into the smiling, wary faces with glee.

Felix nurtures uncertainty in the sisters, making no exception his wife: “He was rather miserly about any new facts he happened to acquire. He hoarded them in secret as though they were personal wealth, only popping one out occasionally to give Laura a feeling that this poor sample was the very least of all he hid.” Gradually Clare concludes she has “no choice but to resign herself to the unchangeableness of her existence.” Harrower builds hope and longing for change in the reader as well, only to undermine or delay those moments in the women’s lives and heighten the tension still further. It’s the work of a very sure hand. The reader longs to see what the writer did next. But what she did next was draw back from writing and publishing.

In his survey of Australian novelists, The Burning Library: Our Great Novelists Lost and Found, critic Geordie Williamson speculates that “The very success of [The Watch Tower] meant that no further attempts were required.” Williamson’s explanation is credible in the sense that it notes Harrower’s mastery in the novel, but it doesn’t account for the turmoil implicit in her own remarks and actions. She has spoken obliquely to her choice to stop writing, remarking that, “Other people have an interest in your not writing.” She has also taken a portion of blame for herself, saying, “I was self-destructive,” and noting some unidentified irritation she let get in the way of her work. Whatever her reasons, those early works show the emergence of a mature novelist and leave many tantalizing questions in the what-might-have-been range.

“Retiring from writing is not to retire from life,” Jim Crace has said. Elizabeth Harrower would no doubt agree. She has noted that many of the friends she’s made in the past twenty or thirty years have no idea she ever published a word. Of her books, Harrower has said it “does seem like another person” wrote them. The reissue of those books by Text Publishing has brought a new wave of attention from readers in her native Australia, and from abroad. With the rare exception, reissued classics seldom yield big responses. The groundswell of belated recognition for John Williams’s novel Stoner in the United Kingdom last year was as notable as it was improbable. The early results in Harrower’s case are promising, however. Michael Dirda wrote a glowing review of The Watch Tower in The Washington Post. A piece in the Guardian (U.K.) suggested an affinity between Harrower’s novel and the band Portishead’s album Dummy. And 2014 will see Harrower’s first new novel in better than forty years. In Certain Circles was set for publication in 1971, but Harrower withdrew it late in the process. She consigned it to a drawer until publisher Michael Heyward convinced her it belonged in print. It should bring still more attention to Harrower’s past life and perhaps add a triumphant final chapter to her literary legacy.

– John McIntyre

The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter by Malcolm Mackay

Lewis Winter is something of an unfortunate. He’s a low-level, middle-aged drug dealer in Glasgow, a man with few bigger prospects, until he gets involved with Zara Cope. She’s young and attractive. She believes he can up the stakes of his business, or says she does. Whether she’s right or not is ultimately irrelevant. Lewis is pitiable, and he’s suddenly on the radar of men with the will and decisiveness he’s always lacked.

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Enter Calum McLean. He’s a hitman, a freelance operator. That suits him, and no one organization has pushed for him to commit to working for them only. It’s his job to dispatch of Lewis Winter. None of that’s surprising; Malcolm Mackay gives away Winter’s death in the book’s title. To his credit, that becomes one of the book’s strengths, or creates room for Mackay to develop them.

The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter has a number of moving parts (dueling events and motivations, mostly), but none of these strike false notes or seem included as simple foils. Zara Cope is ambitious in her way, though whatever ends she wants to achieve can only be reached by back channels, through various forms of manipulation. The organized crime figures – McLean’s bosses, their competitors and the couple of other hitmen we encounter – work with straightforward enough intentions in mind. It’s Calum McLean who remains a cipher to some extent, beyond his professionalism, tight-lipped demeanor and love for video games, but this, again, ends up feeling like a selling point, since Lewis Winter is the first of a trilogy of novels by Mackay.

He’s a stylist, Mackay, in an alum-strict sort of way. He avoids cliche for the most part, lyricism as well. This is stripped-down, matter-of-fact writing, and it’s hard to imagine another style serving better here. Taken in isolation, most any sentence Mackay writes in Lewis Winter would appear drab. Simple actions, the kind writers are so often conscious of skipping in favor of more apparently lasting observations, add a definite gravity here by way of accumulation. We don’t absolutely have to know that Calum, “gets a coat; it’s a colder day. Blustery outside. He picks his car keys from the top of the fridge in the kitchen and leaves the flat,” but that clinical thoroughness becomes a very fine weave as the pages pile up.

The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter is a success, and I say that without qualification. The slight hiccup in the final pages – the pace seems to accelerate a bit suddenly, at first glance – in fact sets the stage nicely for a follow-up. I’m left thinking of triumphs like Geoffrey Householder’s novel Rogue Male and Allen Baron’s 1961 film Blast of Silence as cousins to Lewis Winter. But it’s Malcolm Mackay’s time now. On to How a Gunman Says Goodbye.

— John McIntyre

Discovering Yasushi Inoue

Yasushi Inoue’s name doesn’t ring a bell in America the way those of writers like Yasunari Kawabata and Junichiro Tanizaki do. In truth, he’s about a generation after Kawabata and probably more than one after Tanizaki. He devoted much of his early career to journalism, which may factor into the measured, unsentimental character of his work. His first fiction appeared when he was forty-two years old, after World War II had ended. This, too, is no doubt a significant difference between Inoue and the other two writers. It’s also worth noting that Inoue made his greatest mark writing historical fiction. The highest profile edition of his work by an American publisher in recent years was a New York Review Books Classics series reissue of Tun-Huang, a volume with historical elements central to its plot, filtered through a lens of imagined but plausible peripheral events.

Inoue’s earliest fiction, though, was more in line with the realist contemporary fiction of his day. His first novella, The Hunting Gun, is a frame story presenting a brief and poignant retelling of a secret affair between a woman and a man close to her family. It’s recounted via a series of letters the book’s narrator receives in response to a poem he publishes called “The Hunting Gun.” It happens that the man he describes in the poem, a stranger, recognizes the description of himself and contacts the poet. He seeks to account for his demeanor on the day memorialized in the poem via letters from three women central to his life. The form Inoue chooses – the gradual release of information from various points of view – and the tone here are at times reminiscent of Tanizaki’s great short novel, The Key. The sense of regret, though, is almost palpable in The Hunting Gun, spaced as it is among the five different points of view. Even the poet/narrator expresses some regret that his poem wasn’t appropriate to the viewpoint of the magazine in which it appeared. He was “raised by a mother with a violent dislike of all forms of killing,” and “never so much as held an airgun in my hands.” Yet while the poem likely strikes an odd note with many of the magazine’s readers, the letters he receives in response are evidence his work has touched someone deeply.

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The heart of the book is of course the affair between Misugi Jōsuke and his mistress, Saiko. The letters, a brief missive from Misugi Jōsuke, followed by one each from his wife Midori, Saiko and Saiko’s daughter (not in that order), combine to portray what’s ultimately an unremarkable situation. A man is unfaithful to his wife, who isn’t actually deceived. The daughter of his mistress eventually learns of the affair as well. There are tears and recriminations, but in person relations all around range from pleasant to stoic. Instead the hurt is recounted in correspondence, a narrative choice that allows each character to provide an uninterrupted account of events and emotions. The voices are distinct and memorable: witness, for instance Midori’s assertion that, “A man’s lies can sometimes elevate a woman, you know, to the very level of the divine.” Inoue’s restraint prevents the accounts from descending into mere petty grievance. There are real emotional stakes here, and Inoue offers credible responses to them from all quarters.

Somewhat in the vein of Rynosuke Akutagawa’s “Rashōmon”, The Hunting Gun comes to pivot on multiple versions on a single tableau, albeit a far less dramatic one than in the Akutagawa story. It deals with a brief moment in which Saiko wears her “grayish-blue Yuki haori” she received from Misuge Josuke. Each of the three women imbues the moment with her own particular meaning, but the upshot is a nuanced view of a single man’s impact on their lives.

Of the three, Midori emerges as the most notable voice. Her love letter-cum farewell to her husband is a tour de force. “For the time being, at least,” she says, “men will be verboten; I have grown a trifle weary of your masculine rooms.” Then, later, there’s her powerful closing to the letter:

Come to think of it, I will close with one bit of unusual news. Today, for the first time in years, I went and cleaned your study in the annexe myself, rather than leave it to the maid. I was impressed by how settled it is – a very nice study indeed. The sofa is singularly comfortable, and the Ninsei pot on the bookshelf does much to enhance the atmosphere, like a blaze of flowers in the otherwise muted room. I wrote this letter in your study. The Gauguin does not quite suit the space, and if possible I would like to take it with me and hang it in the home in Yase; I took the liberty of removing it from the wall, hanging the snowy landscape by Vlaminck in its place. I also rotated the clothes in the drawer, setting out three winter suits, each paired with one of my particular favorites among your neckties. Whether or not you will be pleased, I cannot say.   

Inoue, as I’ve said, emerges here as a reflective, unsentimental writer. Much the same impression comes across in his letters to the scholar and writer Daisaku Ikeda, collected in Letters of Four Seasons. But where the tone in The Hunting Gun is bittersweet at best, his letters, though at times melancholy, reveal a man grateful for the life he’s had. At one point, he notes that,

During my second stay in Beijing, I received the shocking news that my friend the writer Shōgo Nomura had died…He and I had worked together on the newspaper Mainichi Shimbun when we were young and had both begun writing novels at about the same time. In the early stage, when I was feverishly trying to become independent, he often covered up for me at the newspaper by doing work that was supposed to be my duty. Because of him, I was able to get a good start. It was as if he stood aside at an important time and said, “You go ahead first.” At any rate, the attitude summed up in those words often seemed to be in his eyes.

Despite this gratitude and the passing of friends, Inoue was far from ready to retire from the world. “In other words,” he writes to Ikeda, “human life may be no more than the chance to paint one’s own portrait on the blank page of the future. My portrait is not yet finished. I am still at work on it. And it is the very incompleteness that gives me courage.”

Inoue died in 1991. His work has been in and out of print in English, though Pushkin Press is responsible for this new edition of The Hunting Gun. They also published The Bullfight late last year, with Life of a Counterfeiter due in 2015. He’s perhaps a minor writer next to Kawabata or Tanizaki, but he’s been a welcome discovery to me.

— John McIntyre

  

The Tumble Inn by William Loizeaux

A few years ago at AWP, I was on a panel with Michael Dirda. A question came up about writers’ prospects when approaching publishers and when their books enter the retail market. Dirda – playing devil’s advocate, he admitted – suggested that young, attractive writers are more likely to get the benefit of the doubt from publishers in terms of promotion, for instance. It wasn’t a well-received observation. He did turn the conversation toward a trend I find more troubling and disappointing: the difficulty mid-career, mid-list writers may have in finding a home for their work. I suppose by way of consolation we have a sizable selection of small presses, many of which do a remarkable job with comparatively limited resources, but they aren’t equipped to offer the financial considerations or simple prestige the major houses can.

I would like to imagine we will see an alternate track emerge, or become more prominent. I don’t mean self-publishing, which is still a very long way from a viable option for rank-and-file writers. What I’m thinking of here are University presses, those entities long known for producing scholarly texts. Some are also publishing quality fiction, though I’m not sure how many readers are aware of this fact. The writer Mark Merlis, whose debut novel American Studies (1995) was highly decorated, has a new novel due from University of Wisconsin Press early next year. You can read the opening chapter on his site. University of New Mexico Press is publishing a new novel by John Nichols, he of The Milagro Beanfield War, this month. And Syracuse University Press has William Loizeaux’s first novel for adult readers, The Tumble Inn, due in September.

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Loizeaux’s memoir, Anna: A Daughter’s Life, was a New York Times Notable Book in 1993. He is also a highly regarded children’s writer. In short, he’s a writer with an established career, one whose work has appealed to readers for at least twenty years. And so we come to The Tumble Inn, a story about a man (Mark) and his wife (Fran), throwing over their day-to-day routine as high school teachers to start anew, running an inn in upstate New York. This despite the fact that their qualifications for the job are questionable. Mark notes that, “the ad did have, even for me, the sort of misty appeal of an alternate life,” but he plays it straight all the way. This is not a Reginald Perrin-type scenario, in short. They get through the interview on guile and luck (a sizable dose of the latter), and somehow pass the tests thrown at them by the months that follow.

Another stroke of luck, or something like it, leads to Fran’s pregnancy with their first child. That said, life at the Tumble Inn is not wholly idyllic for them. The gaps between what they know and what they need to know are apparent, but Fran excels at presenting a favorable picture of their progress. The board renews their contract, and their new direction takes on an air of permanence.

Perhaps a word on Mark and Fran is in order here. He reveals to us early on that Fran is the more resourceful of the pair. It’s her letter, full of creative interpretations of their talents and interests, which gets them an interview for the innkeeper job. He also lets us know that she’s the more energetic, engaging teacher. There were moments when I wondered whether that energy might have served the novel better than Mark’s voice, which while accessible is also quite mild. He explains his failings as a teacher with the following example: “On the board, I’d neatly outline in Roman numeral headings and alphabetized subheadings the causes and effects of, say, The Great Awakening, which promptly put the class to sleep.” The situation in The Tumble Inn isn’t as dire as all that, but the reader may at times wish for a bit more verve from its narrator, a little something beyond the tone of gentle recollection Loizeaux employs.

At its best, though, there are echoes of Richard Ford’s Bascomb novels. Mark is a man in midlife, looking back on a significant decision he and his wife made almost unwittingly. There’s a certain poignancy in that, a sense of wonder at his fortunes, good and bad alike. The first spring at the inn yields a lyrical recollection of an intimate (and wholly imperfect, what with the blackfly attack they endure) outing he and Fran shared. He tells it all and concludes,

But looking back, I don’t begrudge any of it: not the fun poked my way, not all the itching and scratching, not even the lopsidedness that made urinating a wayward adventure, not even the three days when it took a half hour to get dressed, when I walked bowlegged, when at Orma’s we got the strangest looks – What the hell happened to you? – and when at nights we marinated in witch hazel and Rhulicream, and still didn’t sleep a wink…

No, I don’t begrudge it. I’d do it all again.

Later there is tragedy – I don’t want to reveal too much – and Loizeaux’s portrait of a man and his daughter grappling with its aftermath is subtle and convincing. Grief can ravage both memory and our immediate perceptions, and The Tumble Inn rises to the task of showing us that. It actually brought to mind our most recent visit with Frank Bascomb in 2006’s The Lay of the Land, when a jarring, unforeseen catastrophe upset Bascomb’s comfortable life. The latter stages of that novel have always felt like one of Ford’s few real missteps to me. In fairness, I may be emphasizing the specific event too much and the significance of it as a mechanism in the plot too little. In either case, Loizeaux runs out the string in The Tumble Inn in candid, measured fashion, tracing Mark and his daughter’s gradual return to balance in life.

Novels like this and writers like Loizeaux deserve a home. Here’s hoping Syracuse University Press and its ilk continue to provide one.

— John McIntyre

David Ireland, or: a line to make me stop and think and write this

I’m slowly getting through the Australian writer David Ireland’s work, or what’s thought of as the best of it, at least. That’s only thanks to Text Publishing and Michael Heyward, who happened to send me a copy of The Glass Canoe at one point. I will be writing about that at length, and but in the meantime, on the strength of that book, I picked up A Woman of the Future. I have a pronounced weakness for writers like James Salter, Michael Ondaatje and J.M. Coetezee, who have the ability to bring me up short with an unexpected lyrical utterance. Ireland stops me every bit as completely at times, but he does it with the most unremarkable stuff. It’s like someone handed him grade-school art supplies, and he looked them over, nodded, and brought out a line of brilliant gesture drawings.

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In A Woman of the Future, it took a little over a page for him to get my attention in that way. “His past was before him like a beacon; he would keep going in that direction and call it the future.” Hawthorne’s “Wakefield,” in a single line. I look forward to the rest.

— John McIntyre

The Ordinary Line

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In a review-essay on her novel Prosperous Friends and, beyond that, Christine Schutt as a writer and prose stylist, the writer David Winters classes her as “one of the finest stylists alive.” I agree, without hesitation. Schutt is the rare writer whose next move, on a line-by-line basis, stands a real chance of surprising me as a reader. It’s worth noting that those surprises vary from pleasurable to unsettling. That she possesses the capacity to provoke such reactions seemingly at will is reason to marvel and places her in the company of, for me, writers like James Salter, Michael Ondaatje, Alexander Maksik and Andrew Holleran. That’s an incomplete list to be sure, but it’s indicative of the sensibility Schutt presents.

By the end of Prosperous Friends, though, I had begun to respond less to the lyricism Schutt employs, worthy thought it is, than her unerring sense of when to opt for basic phrasing, the ordinary line. Maksik’s work in A Marker to Measure Drift showed a sustained willingness to subvert his lyrical impulse in the service of the narrative. Salter has spoken in recent years about an urge to curb his own tendencies in that direction, because he feared readers were too focused on the line’s he’s known for, rather than the narrative as a whole. Schutt has found the delicate balance between the lyrical and the nondescript. She delivers runs of evocative description and sharp character insights, but there’s always an anchor to hand. So, we get plenty of passages like this:

To walk from one house to the other was not to be undertaken lightly: In the plaid field, thorns scored the body and stung; nothing drooped but stood up in the heat – and today, huzzah! The out-of-doors roughly washed, not yet dry but  cooler, cleaner, like walking through sheets on a clothesline.

But we also get the matter-of-fact, as in the passage below, which I stopped and read fully half a dozen times to understand its full range of implications. It’s a chancy turn on Schutt’s part, but she brings it off so deftly:

“What are you making?” he asked.

“A modest scarf?”

“In brooding colors,” Dinah said and she touched his arm, and he put his hand on her shoulder and kissed her on the forehead. “Dinah,” he said because he liked to say her name.

I read it again and still it loses nothing. A formidable writer, Ms. Schutt. It grieves me to realize there are only four other books in her name at this point.

— John McIntyre

The Headmaster’s Wife by Thomas Christopher Greene

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We should never take for granted the risk-taking novelist. Open your book with a man disrobing in snowy, daylight Central Park, and you send the reader a clear signal to regard you warily. Anything might happen. The burden then falls to the writer to use that power judiciously, for each successive surprise threatens to either make a lesser impact or send the book veering into the realm of melodrama.

Thomas Christopher Greene is fearless in deploying surprises. I will attempt to avoid revealing them here. They deserve to have their full impact when the reader encounters them. Less fortunate: those surprises are the most successful part of the book.

On its face, The Headmaster’s Wife is concerned with Arthur Winthrop, the headmaster of a small, prestigious private school in Vermont, his wife and a girl named Betsy Pappas, or so we’re led to believe. There’s a tragedy lurking behind him, and Arthur takes measures to lessen its impact on him, as does his wife, though he can’t seem to fathom her approach.

There’s no question Greene knows the elite-school milieu, both from his own academic background and his current professional position at the head of the well-regarded Vermont College of Fine Arts. If Greene found the prospect of a private-school campus novel too staid and opted to surprise, that’s a perfectly defensible choice. It’s just possible, though, that he underestimated his own ability to take a seemingly prosaic set of circumstances and elevate them in a straightforward  manner. Arthur and Betsy’s assignations, as taken from Arthur’s memory, are finely drawn and memorable. His gradual unraveling is more compelling before we learn the full truth of its implications.

There is a sense that Greene works carefully at the sentence level, and that care produces some memorable lines. A favorite: “At dusk we cross the Zakim Bridge, ship like with lights strung across its high curved beams.” That degree of mastery makes the repeated instances of ready-made language Greene resorts to all the more difficult to accept. He is far too skilled a writer to reach for the merely handy, as when we’re told, of a plot to secure time for an illicit meeting with a new lover, “The amazing thing is that it comes to me on the spur of the moment.” In fairness, perhaps this language register is meant to reinforce the ordinariness of Arthur as a man. He is earthbound, a mere functionary rather than an inspiring leader. The board of the school is losing faith in his focus and initiative.

Granted, there is a danger in overstating these things when considering a novel. It’s not subject to the same strictness as short fiction. A smeared brushstroke here and there is forgivable. It’s harder to overlook when the picture as a whole takes on a smudged look.

At its heart, The Headmaster’s Wife has a set of large concerns, and there are moments when its author treats those with great skill and insight. But the book’s center of gravity shifts several times, and not merely as a function of changes in point-of-view. In the end, the reader is left with an unexpected tableau, as well as a lingering uncertainty that this is where we should’ve arrived, with these characters. For me, it was an unearned ending. I simply can’t help feeling that, in this case, the risks outweigh the investment in character development. That is to say, the novel is more accomplished in terms of form than content, a balance which would work better if it were truly experimental.

And it bears mentioning that the book has received not just good reviews thus far, but raves. Certainly it has merit, and it’s a book Greene has invested much in emotionally. It emerged from a personal tragedy, and I would like to say that it’s an unqualified success as a novel. Instead, the makings of an emotionally resonant, straightforward novel are hidden beneath this tricky scaffolding. In the end, I’m merely a single, dissenting voice, and Greene is in full-stride in what is already an undeniably accomplished career. The Headmaster’s Wife doesn’t strike me as the best place to start with his work, but there’s more than enough here to make me curious about where he goes next.

— John McIntyre

I had never fathomed the depths: Hella S. Haasse’s The Black Lake

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English-language readers haven’t had much exposure to Hella S. Haasse. If The Black Lake (originally Oeroeg in Dutch) is any indication, that lack of access is a shame. Until the Granta imprint Portobello Books brought out The Tea Lords in 2010, it had been fifteen years since a new title appeared in English. Now Portobello has employed translator Ina Rilke’s fluid rendering of The Black Lake to further remedy the situation. As an object, this new edition (the book was originally published in 1948) is slim and handsome. As a work of fiction, it’s clear why the book is regarded as a classic in the Netherlands.

Haasse was born in Jakarta – it was then known as Batavia – in 1918, a fact which accounts for her authority in rendering Indonesia through a child’s eyes, in the years between the wars. The situation in the novella is simple enough: a young Dutch boy whose father owns a tea plantation in Indonesia befriends Oeroeg, the son of servants who work on the plantation. The two are very young when the book begins. The Dutch boy’s parents treat their friendship indulgently for a time, before the boys are old enough to go to school, and he remembers that period as an idyll, long days of shared play and easy acceptance of one another. Haasse doesn’t stay with this arrangement long enough for it to become tiresome or for the reader to suspect that the author’s view is as blinkered as her protagonist’s. The inevitable changes come, though not in the expected form: Oeroeg’s father dies. It fosters a sense of the family’s obligation to Oeroeg, and they decide to pay for his schooling. The circumstances of his death, coupled with their reaction, carry the scent of guilt, but there’s no indication of resentment on Oeroeg’s part.

Haasse allows other tensions to bubble to the surface in their own, good time. The boy’s mother carries on an illicit relationship with his tutor, Mr. Bollinger, until finally she and his father separate and divorce. His friendship with Oeroeg endures, despite his parents’ expectation that he will turn his attention elsewhere. His parents, it turns out, aren’t alone in their view: “So I was all the more surprised to find, as time went on,” he observes, “that the familiarity between Oeroeg and me and my parents was frowned on and ridiculed by our servants.”

Those first cracks gradually widen. Distance grows between him and Oeroeg, though he takes pains to avoid it, and then to avoid acknowledging it. His father suggests that Oeroeg will likely begin work upon finishing primary school, and adds, “You surely do understand, don’t you, my boy? You’re European, remember.” But he doesn’t remember, certainly not in the way his father expects him to. The boys eventually part ways. Of an outing to a nearby mountain lake  they mythologized when younger, the boy observes that past wonders, “no longer took our breath away…I glanced at Oeroeg and saw the same discovery in his eyes. A sense of finality. We were children no longer.”

There’s little indication that Oeroeg shares the narrator’s regret at the distance which grows between them. The depth of the narrator’s regret is difficult to gauge in its own right, primarily due to the extent of his naiveté during at the time of the events described in the book. Haasse does remarkable work there. Her narrator avers that, “I am describing the events as I experienced them at the time,” and though he shows Oeroeg’s maturity outstripping his own, a real understanding of where he’s fallen short never quite coalesces. Yet it turns out that’s an asset rather than a failing here. The Black Lake is effective as an indictment of the actions and consequences of a colonial regime, but it’s effective precisely because it proceeds from the guileless perspective of a young man whose family benefits so richly from the arrangement. His is a sentimental education, unfinished. He doesn’t arrive at a wholesale critique of colonial doctrine, or even detailed objections to specific policies. Instead, he revisits a youthful friendship, surveys the disconnect between his older self and that long-ago friend, and concludes, “I knew him as I knew Telaga Hideung, as a reflecting surface – I never sounded the depths.” It’s a sin of omission, one the reader will work harder to avoid after The Black Lake.

–John McIntyre

 

The Rector of Justin by Louis Auchincloss

rector

Louis Auchincloss was the author of more than sixty books of fiction in a writing career that spanned the second half of the twentieth century and the opening years of the twenty-first. He was also an estate lawyer for a sizable portion of that time and a denizen of a privileged sphere of New York society. Not surprisingly his work trades heavily on those experiences. The result is a body of work that prompted Gore Vidal to write that Auchincloss, “Of all our novelists, Auchincloss is the only one who tells us how our rulers behave in their banks and their boardrooms, their law offices and their clubs. Not since Dreiser has an American writer had so much to tell us about the role of money in our lives.” There’s also the fact that he wrote much of this work during years when that particular milieu wasn’t at the forefront of the American literary imagination. Yet among his extensive body of work there remain standout performances. Auchincloss himself told George Plimpton that he would like to be remembered on the strength of three books, Portrait in Brownstone, House of Five Talents, and The Rector of Justin, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1965. It lost out, deservedly, to Saul Bellow’s Herzog.

The rector of Justin is Reverend Francis Prescott, D.D., founder and headmaster of Justin Martyr, a school modeled on Auchincloss’s years as a student at Groton. He is a great man in the eyes of his new hire, a young master by the name of Brian Aspinwall, who provides early impressions via his journal. Aspinwall is undeniably callow, and wracked with self-doubt, but he views Prescott as a pole star of sorts, a man whose example he will never be able to credibly follow, but whose very existence justifies his own efforts to live as a man of faith and guide his young charges as ably as possible. It quickly develops that Aspinwall is not alone in his reverence for Prescott. The most credible explanation for this – Prescott never rises to a level that inspires anything more than ordinary respect from the reader – is that those who so admire him form their impressions in youth, amid the school’s isolated surroundings and sheer force of presence on the headmaster’s part. Charley Strong, a former Justin Martyr who eventually ends up in a romantic relationship with Prescott’s daughter, writes in the aftermath of his World War I service that,

Hope for redemption can lie only in casting myself at the feet of him whom I have betrayed. For it is he, I know, who made me senior prefect; the upper school’s election is merely advisory, and by no means is it clear that I had a majority…He it was who baptized and confirmed me, he who talked to me of my doubts and miseries, he who gave me a love that made the shallow, prattling love of shallow, prattling parents seem like the spray on one’s face in a speedboat at sea.

Aspinwall is relatively older than Charley Strong when he encounters Prescott, twenty-seven and taking his first proper job. That he is so awed by the headmaster makes him seem weak and sheltered at times, but it also places the skepticism and contrary views of others who have known Prescott in a clearer light.

Early on, Aspinwall notes that he would like to use his newly started journal to keep a record of Prescott’s last years at Justin Martyr. Gradually the idea emerges – not of his own accord – that he should write Prescott’s life. He consults Horace Havistock’s account of a youth spent as Prescott’s great friend, but this is prior to David Griscam’s conclusion that, since Prescott won’t cooperate with his idea to write the headmaster’s life, Aspinwall should do so. Aspinwall is less taken with Griscam, a man who has achieved considerable success in the business world. He observes that “Everything about him, however, suggests to me the small man who would like to seem larger, the guest who is trying to look like one of the portraits in the club.” Griscam gets in a slight rejoinder when Aspinwall expresses surprise that he enjoys the novels of Samuel Richardson: “English teachers are always shocked to find that Wall Street can be literate. You think of us as bullying sparrows who peck canaries to death because we cannot sing. As men who may collect but who never read.” Indeed Griscam emerges as a generous and well-meaning man, albeit one with a conflicted relationship to Prescott, and whose endeavors are perhaps never properly appreciated by the great man. It’s also with Griscam that Auchincloss really shines. He shows a sense of ease at evoking Griscam’s life of power and means, as well as his discomfort attempting to bridge the gap between what has brought him success in the world and what Prescott values.

Once Aspinwall commits, however tentatively, to writing Prescott’s life, the design Auchnicloss opts for is almost immediately evident. It’s ingenious in its simplicity – it’s apparent early on how Dr. Prescott’s character will emerge, via the written or transcribed recollections of various people who have known him – but Auchincloss fends off any sense of gimmickry through his firm control of each voice, each highly distinct point of view on Prescott’s character. His daughter Cordelia, for example, notes that,

For all Pa’s faith and for all his accomplishments there was a side of him that tended to identify the priest’s cassock with a woman’s skirt and to sneer at the world of education as an ivory tower. He was in it himself, to be sure, but he had the vanity to want you to know that, unlike most of the inmates, he had not fled to it for refuge.

A more direct rejection comes from David Griscam’s late son, Jules, who writes of seeing through Prescott. “And when you saw through me, what did you see?” Prescott asks.

“I saw you weren’t God. I saw that you don’t even believe in God. Even in yourself as God. I saw you were only a cardboard dragon.”

Eventually Prescott steps down from his position as headmaster. He remains close to the school, geographically and otherwise, and is resistant to any substantial change in its makeup, physically or academically, though he does give in when David Griscam arranges for a sizable expansion of the campus. Prescott the idealist lives on until the bitter end, though the value of his idealism, in practical terms, is increasingly unclear. The Rector of Justin is among the best-loved work Auchincloss produced. It was acclaimed by critics, and the author himself considered it a hallmark. It’s easy enough to see why; Justin Martyr is appealing as a sort of elite, closed world, as is the question of what makes Frank Prescott so outsized an influence on so many young men who pass through that world. I am yet unqualified to say that this is the finest of Auchincloss. Aside from a  handful of short stories, I have nothing to which I can compare The Rector of Justin. In time I will, though, and that’s an endorsement in its own right.

– John McIntyre