A Literary Cavalcade

Literary comments by Robert A. Parker on a wide range of serious 20th and 21st century novels

Cain, by Jose Saramago

This atheist author, in the last year of his life, decided to abandon the detailed modern world of reality that characterizes most of his work and turn to a portrait of the god he despised. This lower-case god is a cruel, merciless, authoritarian being—i.e., one with very human characteristics. And Saramago, in 2009, creates this portrait of God through the story of Cain. But, except that Cain does kill his brother Abel, this is not the Cain who briefly appears in the Old Testament, but rather a time-traveling Cain who happens to witness many Biblical stories through many books of the Old Testament.

Once Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden, the author makes an initial break from tradition. Adam and Eve are no longer seen as our first parents, for when they leave the Garden they are told by an angel that other humans exist. And so, they encounter a caravan of wanderers who take them in. Whereupon, Cain is born, followed by Abel. Which is soon followed by Cain’s jealousy of Abel, when the Lord accepts the younger brother’s offering but not that of Cain. Whereupon, Cain kills his brother, is given the traditional mark on his forehead, and is ordered to wander the earth for the rest of his life.

And, indeed, he does so—literally. For Saramago sends Cain wandering through the Bible for the rest of this novel. And during these travels, like in a time-travel fantasy, he emphasizes the horrors of Biblical history. That is, as Saramago deepens his portrait of the God of the Old Testament, he furthers his philosophical exploration of God in human terms.

First, however, he bypasses the Bible to tackle the legend of Lilith, which says that Eve was not Adam’s first wife. That it was Lilith, that she refused to be subservient to Adam, and that she left him to settle in her own palace. Whereupon, in his first wandering outside the Garden, Cain encounters Lilith, and becomes both her guard-servant and her lover. Indeed, Saramago here begins an account of Cain’s sexual life that will last until the end of this novel.

But even as the narrative of Cain’s adventures expands, Saramago uses techniques we are familiar with. That is, the human conversations, the negotiations, the down-to-earth details that characterize his novels set in the modern era—all are present here. Indeed, this is what gives these events of fantasy their reality. He is also, of course, emphasizing the humanity of the Biblical characters, particularly the human nature of the god Cain encounters—and whom Cain continually debates as an equal.

It is at this point that fantasy has truly entered. And along with it a critique of god that Saramago now introduces in earnest. For whether it is Abraham’s immanent sacrifice of his son Isaac, the creation and destruction of the Tower of Babel, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and all its inhabitants, or Moses’ revenge on those who adore the golden calf—every opportunity is taken to show the cruelty, the insensitivity, the arbitrariness of this god. Saramago, through Cain, particularly focuses on the innocent children who are slaughtered along with their sinful parents. Cain’s mistake, an angel says is “to assume that guilt is understood in the same way by god and by men.” That is, Saramago, through Cain, is continually comparing this god in human terms, unlike traditional scripture.

At about two-thirds of the way into this fiction, I considered abandoning it. But curiosity led me to continue. Where was the author headed? What was his point? And so I followed Cain to Jericho, where Joshua is laying siege to the city, and where more innocent people die.

But at least there is an explanation of Cain’s frequent time travel. It seems that each experience involves not an advance into a different future, but rather that Cain exists in a new and different present. And while he himself cannot explain why this is happening, there is an implication of a higher power. One wonders if it could even be the Satan who appears occasionally on these pages.

The climax arrives when Cain encounters Noah as he is building his ark. Again, Cain fits naturally into this human environment. Indeed, the ark’s women also find him sexually attractive. And Noah himself encourages his women to couple with all available men. For, since they are the last human survivors, is it not up to them to generate the new human race?

And at last we reach the point of this novel, which is that creating the human race has been God’s mistake. And so begins Cain’s final revenge on this God, a revenge which began when Cain killed his brother because God recognized Abel’s offering and not his own. It is a grand concept, I acknowledge, but Cain is acting for petty reasons, for human reasons. Saramago has blended his own denial of God with Cain’s jealousy of God.

And so Saramago ends his novel with a contradiction, just as he began it. He began with Adam and Eve encountering other humans outside the Garden of Eden, meaning they could not be the first parents. And he ends his novel with Cain refuting the human race, even though human history has continued and proven otherwise. The result is only cynical wishful thinking.

The overall impression I get of this work is that of an author having fun with tales that many believe reflect the weakness of mankind and the fairness and mercy of God. But since this author does not accept God, he attacks Him by ascribing to Him those very human weaknesses. Which is legitimate, perhaps, in literary terms, but certainly not in spiritual terms. Thus, every inconsistency Saramago, through Cain, encounters in scripture, he attributes to the stupidity or forgetfulness of God. This is how he makes God very human. Except, of course, God is not human. Which means that the believer, like Lot’s wife, looks back on these tales with a grain of salt.

And this is, note, a series of tales. It is not a novel in the traditional sense—if Saramago could ever write a novel in the traditional sense. My point is that he moves Cain through a series of disconnected tales, connected solely to enable the author to make a series of human points about God’s failings. Whereas, I much prefer those works of Saramago that challenge the everyday conditions of life and the failings of men. (October, 2017)

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Nutshell, by Ian McEwan

I have read many novels by McEwan, often because I am fascinated by his premise, as I am again here. But I am often disappointed by his work, as well, because at the end I do not accept his frame of reference, his view of the world or of his characters. And both factors are again reflected in this work.

The fascinating premise in this 2016 work is that the narrator of this novel is an unborn baby. Which is made more intriguing because he is witnessing a plot by his mother, Trudy, to murder his father, John, her estranged husband. The disappointment comes for me in the execution of the baby’s narration. First, it is overwritten. It is too poetic, too descriptive, too intellectualized. I will accept that through the hearing of voices and sounds an unborn child might envisage some of the existence he is about to enter. And through taste and feel get even more of a hint about what his future existence will be like. But this unborn surmises far too much. He also thinks too deeply and interprets too broadly what his senses detect, far more than I am willing to accept.

On the other hand, Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times loved this novel, declaring that it “possesses all the verbal gifts of its creator.” That the narrator is, “by turns, earnest, mocking, sarcastic, searching and irreverent.” He is, indeed, all of those things, except it is not really him; this is McEwan’s, the author’s, verbal gifts. And the result for me is a false perspective that reflects an author showing off, showing he can get away with breaking literary rules, just as his two villains are breaking moral and legal rules. Indeed, at the end of her review Kakutani writes: “It’s preposterous, of course, that a fetus would be thinking such earthshaking thoughts, but Mr. McEwan writes here with such assurance and élan that the reader never for a moment questions his slight of hand.” Oh, yes, he does, he surely does.

What also works against this novel is that the two plotters, by both their nature and their actions, lack any sympathy. Indeed, it becomes a chore to read this overwritten narrative about these two manipulating people. I neither care about them nor admire their cleverness as Trudy, the baby’s mother, and Claude her lover, the brother of the baby’s father, conspire to murder John, the unsuspecting victim. Nor does it help one relate to the villains that Trudy is more enthralled by Claude’s sexual prowess than by his intelligence and sterling character. How, one wonders, can she prefer this dull, crass real estate mogul to her sensitive, if striving, poet husband?

Indeed, husband John seems such a straight-forward character that one wonders if the author will let the plot succeed. And then, once the couple have acted, they begin to disagree, and almost turn on each other. But such a reversal seems to come more from the author than from the villainous pair. And, indeed, as they seem to be more motivated by self-preservation, they become still more unsympathetic and more unattractive.

The author attempts a certain complexity when the unborn narrator contrasts a baby’s natural love for his mother with the hatred this one feels for what she is doing. Where do his loyalties lie? He moves back and forth between dreams of proving her innocence and worrying about a life in which he’ll be moved from one prison to another. But he also resents that, amid all her plotting, she thinks only of herself and her lover, and rarely of him.

But with all the narrator’s deep certainty about the complex world he is about to enter, he is not clear about other things. Or at least the author wishes us to be. Does his father John have a lover of his own, the poet Elodie, or is she honest in saying there was no affair? And does John still truly love his betraying wife, as he claims? But such issues do not equate to the complex fate of the narrator. Instead, they lead back to: will or will not the lovers execute their plot, and, if they do, will or will not they be caught?

Which leads us to the ending. And for me, more dissatisfaction. It seems intended to be inevitable. And also intended to give the unborn child a role in deciding the fate of the two villains. After all, he cannot be passive right through until the end, can he? The result is, for me an unusual ending, yes, but an undramatic one. And an unfulfilling one for a literary work. Like the entire structure of the novel, it is more in keeping with the structure of a mystery novel. Which it does evolve into at the end, in fact, when the police enter the scene. And when the reader is distracted from the fate of the baby to follow the fate of the villainous couple.

The nutshell of the tile, incidentally, is from a line in Shakespeare. It refers to the narrator’s confinement in the womb and the lack of movement he endures. Of which McEwan continually reminds the reader. As a metaphor, however, it is more provocative than meaningful. It is a reminder of how limited the narrator is physically, even as his mind, or is it just his consciousness, wanders far abroad. Reviewers also refer to the parallels with Hamlet, with the baby a questioning Hamlet and Trudy and Claude standing in for Gertrude and Claudius, while the quote’s bad dreams refers to their dastardly plot, the evil that exists in the world this baby is about to enter.

McEwan was surely pleased with this novel. One can envision him chuckling as he writes, relishing his witty comment on the complex world his narrator is about to enter. But wit can carry one only so far, even if the baby can select whatever he wishes to comment upon and stretch his thinking in any direction. For, there must be action, and the only action left here is the lover’s plot. Thus, McEwan loses control, and cannot help turning to the perfidious act to be performed, then to the justice to be administered and the role of his narrator in seeking such justice. He has lost, for me, his literary cache, and become himself trapped in what is basically a mystery novel. The emotional entanglement among the four actors, father, mother, son, and lover, as well as the morality of their actions, fades into a final theatrical act that is all drama, without a sign of further moral complexity. (October, 2017)

Sweet Caress, by William Boyd

I am always pleased with Boyd’s novels, and I am yet again with this 2015 novel. It is truly a professional work. It is similar to what he has written before, but it is also different. It is similar in capturing the full life of a person, not just a dramatic portion of that life. And it is different in two ways. More significantly, it stretches beyond the meaning of one particular life; it explores the existence of life itself in the context of the 20th century. Less significantly, it is about a woman, Amory Clay. She is a photographer, whose profession confronts her with the era’s many moments of history.

But it is less as a photographer that we get to know her. It is more as a woman, a wife, and a lover. What we do learn about her interior life comes from a 1977 journal, in which she reviews past events of her life at age seventy. But these journal entries offer author Boyd a second purpose, which is to give a perspective to her far ranging personal and professional life. And also to tie together those life experiences that have no real connection.

Thus, the reader first experiences her family life, highlighted when her father, suffering from a horrendous World War I experience, attempts asuicide drowning  in the family car, with Amory trapped inside. The family life is forever damaged. Then her photographic career takes her across the world: to sleazy Berlin of the 1930s, to the pre-war London and New York art scenes, to fascist riots in London, to D-day and beyond in Europe, to an unexpected encounter, and marriage, to a World War II soldier who turns out to belong to nobility, and finally to Vietnam and then to California in search of her daughter Blythe. What is remarkable is Boyd’s skill in creating the reality of each scene, especially in wartime Europe and distant Vietnam.

But while a photographic career makes logical many of these adventures, we never see Amory’s mind working as a photographer. We never witness what her imagination sees in an image, or when darkroom magic reveals it. We do see what are purported to be her photographs, as they are scattered through the book. But they are not truly artful. They appear to have been carefully researched—as if to substitute for showing us a photographic mind at work. Three images make this research obvious. In one, Amory is caught posing on a beach, looking directly at the camera, but says she does not know who took the picture. While another is a famous close-up of crossed legs in net stockings. Finally, another image, of a soldier at war, which presumably earned Amory a high award, is simply undistinguished.

In an interview, Boyd explains that he collects anonymous amateur photographs, and decided to use them here in this novel about a photographer. He says that he is “trying to make fiction seem so real you forget it is fiction.” He also says that he contrived a few scenes to match a photograph that he had at hand. But for me, an amateur photographer who has exhibited his work, these photographs lend an air of artificiality to this novel that is supposed to be about a highly skilled successful professional photographer.

As I said, more care is taken to portray Amory as a woman rather than as a photographer. Thus, we look frequently into the female side of her mind, as she describes people’ clothing and appearance, that is, details of more concern to a woman. We are also informed frequently about her emotional state, particularly as she takes on five, often conflicting, lovers during her life, as well as the raising of twin daughters. It should be noted, however, that one reviewer, Roxana Robinson in The New York Times, faults Boyd in capturing this female viewpoint, declaring that “all the descriptions of emotion are pretty unemotional.”

Boyd seems equally intent here to offer a portrait of the 20th century, at least its history surrounding three major wars, two in Europe and one in Vietnam. Is this why he settled on a photographer, as a way to cover such a broad expanse? If so, it was a wise calculation in the conceptual stage. It does allow him to cover a range of 20th century history. But it seems to be a stretch in detailing a full rich life for his heroine. The two final sections appear especially arbitrary, first when Amory decides she needs to go to Vietnam to prove to herself at age fifty that she can justify her life as a photographer, and second as she travels to California to rescue one daughter from a commune.

The meaning behind the sweet caress of the title is elusive at first. I read later that it is taken from a translated quote lifted from a hypothetical French novel written by one of Amory’s lovers, that is, a fictional character. But I completely missed this. I would prefer that it refers to Amory’s life experiences, which have been, in her words, “rich, intensely sad, fascinating, droll, absurd, and terrifying—sometimes—and difficult and painful and happy.” That is, she has had many fleeting experiences such as a caress implies, and that such experiences have been emotionally intimate and led to a sense of connecting with history. Life has treated her well, even as, at the end, she feels ill and vulnerable. Indeed, her journal entries at the end seem intended to give meaning to her life, to the novel, and to life itself. One suspects that this has been the reason for their existence, in addition to tying Amory’s adventures together.

There is a final scene in which Boyd attempts to have his cake and eat it, too. The ill Amory realizes she is nearing the end of her life. So she rationalizes that she herself should control that ending, and in her journal justifies taking her own life. And one infers that Boyd is speaking through her as well. It is a moment intended to add philosophical and psychological depth to the portrait of this woman. But then Boyd pulls a fast one, and reverses himself in an ending that I shall leave the reader to discover. But for me, not an adherent of assisted dying, it was a disappointing outcome. Perhaps, however, Boyd intended her introspection to mirror the early scene in which Amory’s father also attempts suicide.

Despite my criticism, Boyd is still on my list of favored novelists. I have not read all twelve of his novels, but I have enjoyed each one I have read. And I look forward to still more. (September, 2017)

The Gods of Guilt, by Michael Connelly

There is nothing like a good mystery novel to clean one’s literary palette. After starting and never finishing novels by Michael Downing and Gregor von Rezzori, and then finishing novels by Mario Soldati and Julian Barnes, but not inspired to write about them, I sought a novel with a strong story line. I needed to clear away the deeper psychological explorations of life that existed in those four novels that had long been sitting on my bookshelf. And so I turned to a mystery. I wanted a change of pace. I wanted to read about people doing interesting things and a world I also found interesting. I wanted to sit down with a book that swept me up into a non-existent world that was as real as my own.

And so I turned to Michael Connelly, whose world was easy to enter, intriguing to follow, and yet intellectually and emotionally fulfilling. No, the world of mysteries may not be literature, but it brings its own pleasures. And The Gods of Guilt, published in 2013, offered me such pleasures.

This is the story of two crimes, and two campaigns for justice that confront Mickey Haller, a Los Angeles lawyer and one of two series heroes that Connelly has created. In the first crime, Andre La Cosse is arrested for the murder of a call girl, Gloria Dayton, whom Haller had helped in the past. And when La Cosse, who arranged the girl’s assignations online, says he is innocent of her death, Haller wants to believe him, and the reader does as well. But if La Cosse is not the killer, then who is? For the police to absolve La Cosse, Haller must find that person. And to do that, he must find out why Gloria was killed. Was it something she did in her past? And, sure enough, he recalls that a while ago he helped her betray a powerful drug dealer, Hector Moya, who is now in jail. And so he must now revisit the ramifications of Moya’s, perhaps false, arrest and his potential desire for revenge.

Whereupon, many complications follow. The major one is that the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has led the local cops to identify La Cosse as the girl’s killer. So Haller has to battle with two levels of law enforcement, especially with a corrupt DEA man, James Marco. He also has to deal with a smart lawyer now in prison, his incompetent son, and another smart lawyer, who is now in a nursing home, plus two other call girls who once worked with Gloria. With one, Haller even establishes a romantic relationship.

There is also a personal complication. The Gods of Guilt of the title refers to juries, which decide the gilt or innocence of the person on trial. But Connelly extends this idea to a personal guilt that Haller feels. There is the guilt he feels for being estranged from his daughter, Hayley, who will not speak to him because she believes he caused the death of one of her girl friends. He also feels guilty because in the past he had tried to save Gloria from her call girl life, and now realizes that he has failed her. And there is further guilt awaiting him if he does not get the police to release La Cosse, his innocent client. Thus, by seeking justice for both La Cosse and Gloria, Haller his seeking redemption for his own sins of the past.

These complications enrich Haller’s character, create a certain vulnerability, and help the reader to identify with him. Thus, we accept his insistence that he will stretch the rules of the court in order to defend a client—that, “any ethical question or gray area could be overcome by the knowledge that it is the sworn duty of the defense attorney to present the best defense of his client.” In other words, a smart lawyer uses the law to his client’s advantage. And so we give Haller the benefit of doubt when he challenges the legal system in behalf of La Cosse.

It should also be recognized that Haller cares for people. He cares for Gloria, who he feels deceived him when she accepted his help. He cares for his daughter who will not speak to him. He cares about the employee he loses during this case. He cares about how his two ex-wives feel about him. And he cares about himself, about the guilt he feels at how he has failed in his relationships with others.

This novel is enhanced further by Haller’s relationship with each member of his legal team. All are real people because of those real relationships. When he loses one loyal member, for example, we feel its emotional impact on him. And with another, Jennifer Aronson, we relate to this young girl who begins as a legal aide but by the end of the case has impressed Haller with significant legal contributions.

The heart of this novel is the lengthy trial scene at its conclusion. It is told to the reader with supreme craft, for Connelly has Haller explain the purpose behind each legal step he is taking before he dramatizes it. Yet, this explanation is in no way condescending to the reader. Indeed, one is fascinated by the misdirection Haller employs to catch off-guard witnesses testifying before him. The result is legal steps so complicated and yet so logical that one speculates that Connelly is challenging here one of our best authors, Scott Turow, in creating courtroom drama.

This courtroom drama is developed with step-by-step logic to arrive at a convincing resolution. If there is no last-minute development, no surprise ending, none becomes necessary. Its logic simply works. Yes, there is a sudden act of violence at the end, but it was not, for me, necessary. It simply turns into dramatic action an admission of guilt, a technique that many authors rely on these days. And Connelly uses such a dramatic moment to achieve his convincing ending.

While this work is certainly not literature, it encourages one to seek out more Connelly novels, whether the central figure is lawyer Mickey Haller, as here, or policeman Harry Bosch. They are half brothers, and each has a distinctive attitude toward their job. But both do believe in justice, and in each Connelly series they do not hesitate to stretch the law in order to achieve it. (September, 2017)

The Hive, by Camilo Jose Cela

This 1953 novel has been on my bookshelf for more than forty years, perhaps longer. I bought it when my interest in Spain and Spanish literature was at its peak. I wished back then to compare this author, who was then called Spain’s greatest living novelist, with Jose Maria Gironella, whose The Cypresses Believe in God was a favorite of mine.

I now regret having let so much time pass before reading this book. Because my memory can no longer track the experiences of each of the scores of characters who appear and reappear throughout. That is, I was not able to connect their daily, often insignificant, encounters, which make up the substance of this novel. This failure applies to both linking with the past actions of specific characters as they reappear, and also recalling how different character earlier reacted to each other when these characters appear again. For the accumulation of these connections is how Cela gives a literary depth to the underside of Madrid society.

What he does is use isolated moments to reveal the substance within each character. But he reveals them through different approaches: an incisive description, a subtle psychological analysis, one’s role in society, or a routine confrontation. Cela’s objective here is to convey a cross section of Madrid’s lower-class society as a means to portray to unaware readers the impact of poverty in the 1940s on millions of Spaniards.

Cela himself has written that this novel “is nothing but a pale reflection, a humble shadow of the harsh, intimate, painful reality of every day…..My novel sets up to be no more—yet no less either—than a slice of life told step by step, without reticences, without external tragedies, without charity, exactly as life itself rambles on.”

And he has certainly achieved this. For there is no overarching story here. There are, simply, people meeting in a café, in tenements, on the streets, or even in brothels. They negotiate with each other, help each other, lie to each other, loan or borrow money, feed each other, betray each other, seduce each other, laugh and cry with each other, and on and on.

There are, indeed, too many characters for a cohesive story line—160 by the author’s own count. Instead, there are these disconnected incidents that serve to convey a way of life that most readers are unaware of. Yet these characters share certain characteristics: a desire for love, for companionship, for independence, for personal fulfillment, for a successful career, and, most importantly, for respect from others.

As Arturo Barea says in his Introduction, “He shows us the pitiful content of their lives: hunger, greed, fear, frustration, desire, malice, snobbery, poverty, nausea, and fumbling tenderness, all expressing themselves through small talk and small actions.”

As these characters interact with others, most do so only within their own group. And there are many groups. Which, altogether, comprise a portion of Madrid society. And Cela compares this interaction with bees in a beehive, which complement one another to make the hive work. Thus, with his title, Cela creates the metaphor that suggests the purpose he is striving for, the portrait of a cohesive but hidden society that the reader never thinks about.

I finished this novel more out of respect than enjoyment. For I usually prefer a novel that explores the inner lives of its characters. Not the slice-of-life approach, as here, an approach that remains on the surface, that deals with objective reality rather than probes the minds and souls of its characters. But Barea defends this approach as appropriate for a novel set in Spain in 1943, in the midst of World War II. This novel, he says, has “a hard core of truth in the Spain of today. There, the surface of life has once more to be described with all its significant ugliness, before the writers can go on to the exploration of the ‘inner country’; to put it differently, any Spanish psychological novel would be lopsided unless it included the harsh domination of hunger, misery, and unsafety in their humdrum forms.”

This hard-core surface approach may also explain why Cela’s reputation has not spread beyond Spain in the years since he wrote this work. Not only did Spanish literature exist in a world apart back then, but his slice-of-life approach has not since gained favor in the literary world. Moreover, the crude experiences of his characters were difficult for his contemporary readers to identify with—and remain so for readers today.

Which explains why I will not pursue Cela’s further work. As I wrote, he is an excellent writer, a true writer of literature, who has created here a rich world of troubled but sympathetic characters, and caught their physical and emotional environment, as well as their common humanity. But he did not create characters a reader could identify with, nor a world in which one feels comfortable. He was his own man. He had his own integrity. But, sadly, it is not for me. (September, 2017)

Nora Webster, by Colm Toibin

The Irish widow whose name comprises the title of this novel surges to life on these pages. As does Ireland itself. But the heart of this 2014 novel homes in on the mourning that Nora endures, following the death of her husband of 21 years from a heart attack. Even though she does not mention it, and neither does author Toibin, that mourning produces in Nora an emotional seclusion that is buried deep within her. It surfaces with such thoughts as: “You learn, no matter what age you are, to keep things to yourself.”

And so, we follow the widow Nora as she, first, pushes away any help from her own and her husband Maurice’s family. While her two older daughters, Fiona and Aine, are away at school, and so concern her less. In her own suffering, she is also blind to the mourning of her two young boys, Donal, who hides behind his photography, his stammer, and smart comments, and Conor, who hides intelligence inside his own innocence.

But there are those in town, and the perceptive reader, who recognize what she does not. That she is withdrawing from the world and hiding behind her own mourning. Whereas, she needs to turn back to the world. So people try to change her. Because they loved her dead husband Maurice, see the goodness inside Nora herself, or they value her reputation. One offers her a job, to supplement her pension. One asks her help to start a union in her company. One invites her into the public arena by filling a gap at a community function. One suggests she get away by joining her on a vacation to Spain. One suggests she join a choir to take advantage of the voice she has inherited. And as she does accept these invitations, albeit some with reservations, one does sense her cautiously re-opening herself to the world around her.

Moreover, as Nora gradually comes out of her defensive mode, she re-evaluates the needs of both her children and herself. She understands that an awareness of reality and a certain freedom will make her children stronger, and that she needs to think of her own needs as well, such as the pleasures of buying new clothes and enjoying music. And slowly, she learns to make such decisions, rather than wondering what Maurice might have wanted.

One wonders where this novel is going, once Nora seems to have recovered her bearings. But this is when the work becomes truly rich. For she has not fully recovered. There is more to be absorbed, and more withdrawal to be made from the past. She must ignore dreams of a past death, or any conversation with her dead husband. And she must renew the closeness with her three sisters that has not existed for a long while. Even an overheard conversation among those sisters—“She was a demon,” one says—opens to the reader the younger Nora, and deepens her portrait, revealing how her marriage to Maurice saved her from a life that was stifling her.

Nora’s final withdrawal from the past will be the symbolic burning of the letters her husband wrote before they were married. “She did not look at them. She knew them.” And: “they belonged to a time that was over now and would not come back.” For some, this might be too obvious a symbol to appear on the final two pages of this novel. But for me the burning as well as the entire final wind-down to this novel is the perfect conclusion to this life whose story is concluding at one level and yet must continue on another.

For this novel is about life. Yes, about Nora’s life. But also about human existence. How each story within our own lives often does wind down quietly. And how any dramatic event would have spoiled this novel, spoiled its blend of uncertainty and confidence that characterized Nora’s life after her husband’s unexpected death. And Toibin does emphasize that uncertainty, for Maurice in his ghostly reappearance suggests, without detail, that something is going to happen to Conor; and then he also says, “The other one. There is one other.” And neither we nor Nora understands what he means. But it is a suggestion of the unknowableness, the uncertainty, of life itself.

In the background of this quiet story, anti-British violence flares in Ireland. It is the 1960s and 1970s. Much discussion of these events takes place, but the reason is not clear. It appears to be intended to offer a contrasting drama to heighten the quiet of Nora’s life, and perhaps, through the family discussions, to bring to life those people in her extended family. Even Nora’s visit to Dublin with Fiona in search of Aine, who is participating in an anti-British demonstration, is anti-climatic, for Nora trusts that Fiona will find her sister, and so the mother returns home.

Perhaps, as Jennifer Egan suggests in the New York Times, “each of these crises dissipates, as crises often do in real life…[and represents] Toibin’s resistance to an artificially dramatic arc.” She also adds: “The absence of melodrama…gives the illusion that Toibin’s carefully engineered novel is unfolding with the same erratic rhythms as actual life.” And that, indeed, is the path of Nora’s initial escape—into the details of her job, the details of her music training, and the details of family get-togethers.

It is such small decisions that Nora makes, along with her growing self-awareness, that help us identify with her suffering. As she realizes she will never have a musical career, she does enjoy the pleasures of music, even if it is “leading her away from Maurice…she was alone with herself in a place where he never would have followed her, even in death.” To step away from Maurice, and toward independence, she knows, will help save her.

As Nora slowly recognizes this need to break from the past, she becomes more alive. Living within herself was not enough for her, just as it was not enough for the reader. As an example, she begins repainting her home without thinking of what Maurice would want or say, or of the cost. And if the latter comes at a price, a few strained muscles, she learns that she cannot do everything herself. She must also rely on others.

To separate herself from the past, Nora finally donates the clothes of Maurice that she couldn’t let go. And then burns his letters. She also agrees to sing in a concert of religious music, a concert that memorializes a concert of forgiveness offered after World War II. It represents indirectly, I think, the peace Nora now feels, and perhaps starts her wondering if she can forgive God, the God Donal has just reminded her of, for the loss of her husband. It also reminds me to look for more of Colm Toibin’s fine work. (August, 2017)

History of the Rain, by Niall Williams

This 2014 work is an unusual novel, almost not a novel, just a searching portrait, though one beautifully crafted. But then it introduces its story, the story of the Swain family, and turns itself into a still unique but marvelous novel, marvelous because, not least, it makes a beautiful connection between life and literature.

“We are our stories,” the books narrator Ruth Swain announces at the beginning. “We tell them to stay alive or keep alive those who only now live in the telling.” Ruth is a bedridden teenager trying to bring her father back to life through his books. And she refers to many of his 3,958 books as she does this. “I’ve read all the usuals, Austen, Bronte, Eliot, Hardy, but Dickens is like this different country where the people are brighter, more vivid, more comic, more tragic, and in their company you feel the world is richer, more fantastic than you imagined. But right now I’m reading RLS. He’s my new favorite. I like writers who were sick.” And Robert Louis Stevenson was, like her, an invalid.

Faha, the town in Ireland where Ruth lives, lies on the banks of the Shannon, another character in her story—not least because it is a source of salmon. And fishing, a pastime of her grandfather, was passed on to her through her father, Virgil Swain. Indeed, with her memory of her father highlighted by his effort to be a poet, she suggests a poem created is like a fish caught. “A poem is a precarious thing,” she writes, “It is almost never landed clean and whole in one go. Virgil had a phrase, one bite, that’s all. But he wouldn’t let it go, and as poetry is basically where seeing meets sound, he said the phrase aloud…and found in repetition was solace of a kind.”

But before telling that story, she must tell how her English family moved to Ireland, about the town of Faha, the life of a farming community, the details of the house they lived in, and then about Virgil’s courtship of her mother Mary, and the birth of herself and her twin brother Aeney. And, finally, about the Swain family curse, the Philosophy of Impossible Standard, that one must always strive for perfection, even if it will never be attained.

We are now at the halfway point of the novel—and nothing has happened. There is no story. All is past. All is mood. And not just a literary mood, but the long Irish failure through history, the Swain family failures, and now the failure of Virgil to cultivate his farm, with its rocky terrain, and the constant rain that blocks out an invigorating sun. And yet, the reader perseveres, because the telling, the language, has been beautiful. And as Ruth finally warns us: “This, Dear Reader, is a river narrative. My chosen style is The Meander.” And later: “I’m not writing a book, I’m writing a river.”

We persevere because we are entertained by Ruth’s astringent style, such as describing her grandfather’s marital status in Ireland. He has sired three daughters, and not yet his son Virgil, and has becomes bitter toward his wife. “But in those days once you were wedded you were in Holy Deadlock, and in Ireland the priests had decided that once a man entered a woman there was No Way Out. The vagina was this deadly mysterious wrestler that could get you in a headlock, well, metaphorically-speaking, and then, boys, you were rightly stuck. That Will Teach You, was Number One sermon at the time. Number Two was Offer It Up.”

What Ruth believes in, and author Williams believes in, is books and literature. This novel is filled with the books that Virgil has bought and read, and that his daughter Ruth wishes to read to understand him—and to recreate him for us. This dedication becomes truly real when she refers to the title, edition, and publisher of each book she cites. But more significant is that she recalls certain passages that apply to her own life or to that of her family.

Thus, she felt a humming when her father read to her. “He just made this low thrum. John Banville would know the word for it, I don’t. I only know the feeling, and that was comforting. I lay in his lap and he read and we sailed off elsewhere. Dad and I went up the Mississippi, to Yoknapatawpha County, through the thick yellow fog that hung over the Thames or in through those dense steamy banana plantations all the way to Macondo.”

But there are tart references also. Following “Amen to him,” on the death of a despised ancestor, she suggests a counter-balancing “Awomen.” Or: “Look at Edith Wharton, she’s Henry James in a dress.” And then there are human insights, like when Virgil returns from his honeymoon to move in with his wife’s family: “Dad moved in with the baffled deepsea shyness of a character just arriving in a story already underway.” Or: “In a single moment the two of them shared a look that said those things in silent mother-daughter language, that would take a hundred books and more years to tell.” Or: “We tell stories to heal the pain of living.” And: “The fact is grief doesn’t know we invented time. Grief has its own tide and comes and goes in waves.”

These final lines come toward the end, when Ruth concentrates on Virgil, whose passion for reading has led him to pursuing poetry. But he is up against the Impossible Standard. Will he break the family curse, and allow himself to succeed? The final pages become truly beautiful, as Ruth imagines her father alive in the afterlife of her own book, this story she is telling.

“If I’m alive this is my book, and my father lives now in the afterlife that is a book….And my book will be a river…and be called History of the Rain, so that his book did not and does not perish, and you will know my book exists because of him…You will know that I have found him in his books, in the covers his hands held, in the pages they turned, in the paper and the print, but also in the worlds those books contained, where now I have been and you have too. You will know the story goes from the past to the present and into the future, and like a river flows.”

They cannot avoid the river Shannon that flows along the banks of the Swain’s farm, nor the rain that falls continually in Ireland. From clouds to rain to the river and back into the clouds. It is a natural cycle, not unlike the literary cycle from life to books to reading and then back to another’s life. Or: from life to death to eternity, and then back to living again through one’s books that survive. Ruth herself suggests this when she writes of “a river flowing ever onward between writers,” as she seeks to recreate her father’s life in order to understand him, and then present him to us. (August, 2017)