The Assumption of the Rogues and Rascals, by Elizabeth Smart

I liked this later book much better than By Grand Central Station if only because its view of the world is much closer to mine. The prose is still poetic and cut up into short sections, but together they make up a mosaic that—for me, at least—was much more intelligible and satisfying than the earlier book.

I read it in conjunction with On the Side of the Angels the second volume of her journals and, as before, found much that is lifted from her journals and woven into the book. In one entry, too, she talks about organizing Rogues and why she put the pieces in the order she did; I confess that this helped me better appreciate the book’s structure.

Rogues starts out in post-Blitz London, a bleak environment where people must count over their losses. And, indeed, this book is about loss: about growing old, trying to write in the face of waning powers. Smart’s journals are full of the difficulty of trying to start writing again in middle age, having spent the decades since By Grand Central Station working as a copyeditor and sometime journalist to support her four children.

In Rogues Smart writes, “The page is as white as my face after a night of weeping. It is as sterile as my devastated mind. All martyrdoms are in vain.” Her poems too—I was also reading her Collected Poems at the same time—talk of the difficulty of writing. One is even titled “Trying to Write”. But they are also full of the difficult joys of parenting and the small lessons learned from snails and bulbs in her garden.

These are struggles I know all too well, however much I berate myself for insufficient self-discipline, for spending too much of myself on the day-to-day pleasure: that first cup of tea in the morning, watching the birds at the feeder, or taking a walk through this astonishing world where lilacs and dogwoods are blooming again, surprised all over again by their extravagant ebullience.

I thought about Tillie Olson’s Silences which discusses the silences in women’s lives, the long stretches when they do not write or paint or whatever because they are busy with children and home-making. I swore that wouldn’t happen to me but it did. How could it not? Now, like Smart, I struggle to find the words that once filled my head and hands. But I have the great joy of my children’s company and all the lessons they have taught me. I’m also delighted to see many of my friends, their children grown, taking up (or retaking) some form of art: painting or writing, viola or piano.

I hate it that we have to learn these lessons all over again, every generation. And saddened that, for all our work in the 1970s and since, for all our progress, this is one riddle we have not solved: how to do the best for our beloved children, as we so desperately desire, and not lose the vocations and avocations that seem intrinsic to our very selves. Although perhaps they are only postponed, and that is not so bad. At least these days most of us live long enough to embark on a second life once the children are grown. For Smart, having to care for two of her grandchildren, that second life seemed far too short.

Necessary Secrets, by Elizabeth Smart

This is the first of two volumes of her journals, from 1933-1941, up to the point where she has written By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept the impressionistic novel/memoir for which she is most known. More a series of prose poems than a narrative, By Grand Central Station takes the reader inside the tumult of her affair with George Barker. She fell in love with him through reading his poetry, not realising at first that he was married. As the book opens, she is waiting to meet Barker and his wife for the first time, having sent them money to come to the U.S.

I first read By Grand Central Station in the late 1970s when I was a single mother, struggling to raise my children with no child support, and have to confess I was impatient with all the emotional drama. Look out, I remember thinking, or you’re going to end up raising kids on your own. In fact, that is exactly what happened to Smart. She went on to have four children with Barker, as he alternated his time between her and his wife.

I enjoyed it more this time around, caught up in the lush prose, the images tumbling over each other. I liked the humor that punctured her swollen prose, like the title with its reference to biblical grief twisted into—for me—an image of a bag lady huddling in a corner of that lobby in New York. She grounds her fanciful passages with the details of daily life: meals, swimming pools, rattlesnakes and spiders.

I kept going back trying to analyse how she strung the images together, how she structured the book, how she achieved her effects. But every time I ended up enthralled again and just reading, immersed in the flow. By reading Necessary Secrets at the same time, though, I could see how she used her journals in writing the book.

Smart kept several journals concurrently. Sometimes separately, sometimes jumbled together, she recorded her daily activities, lists of books she had read or wanted to read, quotations, conversations with herself, images to remember. Writers keep journals for a variety of reasons. Some, like me, need to write things out in order to understand them, in order to think them through. Others use their journals as workshop, i.e., a place for writing exercises. Some use them as a catch-all for ideas and images that may be useful someday. Others, like Smart, simply need to record things and then later go back and troll through them for input to their writing. (I’m grateful to Kathleen Flenniken for sending me a compilation of responses to her question as to why poets keep notebooks).

There are great chunks of her notebooks in By Grand Central Station and I enjoyed seeing how she blended them in and filled them out. Writers are predators, for sure, ready to steal anything from our lives to enhance the writing. The other interesting thing about Necessary Secrets was seeing her style develop over the years, enabling me to better appreciate the full-bore gush of it in By Grand Central Station with its unrepentant emotions and its comedic tragedy.

The Lost Upland, by W.S. Merwin

I seem to have been jumping around in my reading: France, Guernsey, Quebec, England, Maryland, Iran. With this book, I return to France, specifically to the southwestern rural uplands with their limestone outcroppings, sheep pastures, and vineyards. Merwin’s poetry is among the best that I’ve read, so I was curious to see how he would handle these three stories. The answer is: beautifully.

“Foie Gras” circles around the tale of Fatty the Count and his love of that delicacy. Merwin paints a rich portrait of the people and customs of the area. Rumors, relationships, and robbery blend together to create a memorable cast of characters. I was reminded of Flaubert and—more recently—Nemerovski in their joyfully affectionate look at the absurdity of their countrymen and women.

“Shepherds” uses the narrator’s work in restoring a vegetable garden and his interactions with his neighbors to illustrate the region’s change in the 1960s to factory farming. The local shepherds are persuaded, bullied, and coerced into replacing their stone barns with larger corrugated metal barns where the sheep could be kept all the time and given commercial feed instead of being allowed to graze for free in the pastureland. Corruption and graft in the local government—but I’m getting carried away. In fact, the tone is more nostalgic than outraged. This gentle story brims with evocative descriptions of fields bordered by walnut trees, ancient stone fences with little huts built into them for shepherds, neighbors helping each other out. Well, that’s not entirely right either. For every luminous sunset, there is a clear-eyed description of a neighborhood feud or a house with all its furnishings left to rot while the heirs fight over it. Beautiful and provocative at the same time, the story captures what it is to be human in society and in this beautiful world.

“Blackbird’s Summer” at first seemed to ramble, somewhat in the way that the main character is often on the move, showing a local spring to the priest, delivering wine to his customers, visiting neighbors, helping his daughter and her husband in the hotel. Gradually, however, I came to respect the nuanced image of Blackbird that was being built through all these interactions and reflections. He begins to pick through the contents of the old house, down the road from the hotel: old account books, crocheted bedspreads, wooden kneading troughs. His thoughts of the past are reinforced by talks with his customers, those who are prospering and those whose fortunes are fading. And he begins to wonder who would be willing to carry on his wine business, since his son-in-law is a milk-drinker and his only grandchild still an infant and a girl at that.

Merwin’s language is simply gorgeous. And his insights into these flawed and endearing characters are devastating. Their stories are enlivened by humor and a sense of the past—the Occupation, the 1914 War, even Napoleon cast their shadows over the present. The many tales of parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and the concern for the children’s legacy brings out the sense of nostalgia, of an ancient way of life slipping away.

Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai

I have learned not to trust books that trumpet their bestseller status on the cover and have pages and pages of glowing endorsements. More often than not, these books disappoint me, perhaps because my expectations have been raised by all the hype. Some are real stinkers: I couldn’t get past the first 50 pages of our last month’s book club pick Lempriere’s Dictionary with its frenetically jumping point of view and lack of any discernable plot. Desai’s book was this month’s book club pick and, while not a stinker, it has serious flaws that would have made me abandon it if I were just reading it for my own pleasure.

Certainly the language is often gorgeous. The lush descriptions of the house and garden in Kalimpong, in the Himalayas, drew me into the story. The details of the lives in the house—the leather-bound National Geographic magazines, the scorpions in the woodpile—were brilliant.

The inhabitants are Sai, her grandfather (a retired judge), and the cook (whose son Biju has emigrated to New York). Sai’s isolation among the artifacts of the past is broken by regular trips to the village, where she is tutored by one of two sisters who have retired to the village, and visits from Gyan, a young man who has been brought on to tutor Sai in mathematics and science.

How Sai came to live with her grandfather nine years earlier is one problematic area: too many threads are left dangling. The judge disowned his daughter when she married, but apparently paid Sai’s school fees after his daughter and her husband were killed. Then when for some unstated reason, the fees are not being paid, the school decides to send Sai to her listed next of kin, her grandfather. Did he stop paying the fees? Why? Why did he pay them in the first place if he had disowned his daughter? It seems as though this section was not thought out completely.

The main problem with the book is structural. Within the first few pages we get the mandatory in media res scene of seemingly-irrational violence erupting into their quiet, inwardly-focused lives: McEwan’s favorite jump-start for a plot. But Desai then abandons her plot for 200 pages of static backstory, slowly filling in the backgrounds for Sai, her dead parents, the judge, the cook, his son, and so on. When she finally picks up the story again—did I say it was 200 boring pages later?—she also picks up the pace and the last section of the book is excellent. Desai’s insights about revolution and identity, about immigration and dreams, family and the loss of the past are woven into the story of Sai’s affair with Gyan and the fate of her family and friends during the Gorkha insurgency.

Usually I dislike too many changes of point of view, but here Desai handles the switch between Kalimong and New York very well, keeping the different settings in separate chapters. The interspersed chapters about Biju’s rather predictable life as an immigrant without a green card are short and add another dimension to the concerns of the people back in Kalimpong. In fact, all of the chapters are short and cut up into even shorter segments.

As it turned out, everyone else in my book club was still mired in those 200 pages, though several said they were enjoying them and not bored at all. I ended up enjoying the book and was glad I finished it. Still, if Desai had only shortened those 200 pages to perhaps 30 pages of backstory and integrated the backstory better, this would have been a truly excellent book.