Run, by Ann Patchett

Even though I like to read the biography of a writer while I am reading his or her work, I don’t expect or want to see traces of authors’ lives in their fiction. Rather, I am interested in how writers balance work and life, whether and how they earn enough money to support their families while still writing, when they find or make time to write. I’m interested in who they met or what they experienced that contributed to their theories about literature.

At the same time, I recognise the danger of knowing too much about a writer, or any artist for that matter. Jonathan Franzen’s apparent arrogance in the Oprah flap has prevented me from reading any more of his books. Yes, even though I believe the work should stand alone. Equally, I cannot bear to watch films made by Woody Allen or Roman Polansky.

I blogged about Patchett’s Truth and Beauty a couple of years ago. It is a memoir of her friendship with Lucy Grealy. Well, she calls it “friendship”. I call it creepy, more of a classic addict-enabler relationship than anything else. What was most disturbing about the book was its claim to being a model of friendship between women. Ick. I hope no reader took it that way.

I’d hoped that after two years my distaste would have faded enough for me to read this novel recommended by Kim. It is the story of a family of men and a stunning encounter in a snowstorm. The father, Doyle, a former mayor of Boston, has been raising his three sons since the death of his beloved wife. The boys are grown now: Sullivan, the oldest, a rebel who has—in his father’s mind anyway—thrown his life away, and the two much-younger boys, Tip and Teddy, who are just on the cusp of adulthood, Tip a senior at Harvard and Teddy an easily distracted twenty-year-old. The two were adopted at the same time, when Tip was 18 months and Teddy five days old, and just four years before the death of Doyle’s wife. Doyle and his natural son are Caucasian; Tip and Teddy are African-American.

Their encounter in the snowstorm forces each man to question his role in the family and, going forward, his role in the world. They wrestle with big issues, questions of responsibility and sacrifice. It is an interesting story, and Patchett is a terrific writer. Her prose is compelling, keeping me reading late into the night. Not only does she manage to orchestrate just the right balance of description, dialogue and action, but her characters have interesting quirks, such as Tip’s interest in ichthyology and Teddy’s habit of quoting political speeches. Although I didn’t particularly care about any of the characters, I was curious to see what would happen to them and what they would choose to do.

Still, I couldn’t quite shake my uneasy distaste. I thought perhaps it was because Patchett, who attended Sarah Lawrence and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, tries to capture the contrast between the very privileged lives of this family and that of the woman and her 11-year-old daughter whom they meet the night of the snowstorm. Patchett describes the life of privilege beautifully, summoning up details of careless beauty, but when it comes to the women’s lives—housing projects, menial jobs, public schools—she is less successful. Similarly, she seems unable to put herself on the other side of the racial divide. She alludes to issues of race and class and economics, but ultimately trivialises them in favor of the rather common rebellions and negotiations between parent and adult children. There’s also the role of religion, Catholicism in particular, which is also touched on but never explored.

I thought perhaps she was trying to do too much in one small novel, and trying to describe worlds she didn’t really know enough about. But then there was a scene where Sullivan comforts the girl by picking her up, and the crying girl wraps her legs and arms around him, just as Patchett so often described Lucy doing, and the ick factor simply overwhelmed the story for me. The scene would not have bothered me if I hadn’t read the earlier book, so perhaps all of my reactions are tainted and should be read with that possibility in mind.

Babel Tower, by A.S. Byatt

This is the third book in Byatt’s series about the Potter family, taking up shortly after Still Life leaves off. Rereading the first two books gave me much to think about, as I mentioned in blogging about them, and deepened my understanding of them, so I hoped for a similar experience with this book. I hadn’t liked it the first time around—in fact, it put me off reading anything by Byatt for a number of years—and I didn’t much like it this time either.

Set during the mid-1960s, the main story follows Frederica and her marital difficulties. This narrative is interrupted by sections of a fable about a group of people who flee the Terror following the French Revolution and set up a utopian community in a remote mountain hideaway. The story is also interrupted by Frederica’s summaries of manuscripts she is reviewing. And by sections of a fairy tale about two children on a quest. And by pages of court transcript. And by pages of text made from letters and quotations cut up and rearranged to form what looks like an essay but doesn’t actually make sense. These last are Frederica’s attempts to create something that expresses the truths she is discovering. She surrounds these chunks of text with quotations from newspapers, books, and speeches.

Yes, all very interesting in a post-modern way, and continues Byatt’s exploration of the relationship between words and the things they describe, but tedious to read. Perhaps if I hadn’t already read most of the books she quotes, if I hadn’t lived through the time period myself, I would have found great excitement in the juxtaposition of ideas that might then have been new to me. I confess I was also irritated by the fact that many of these insertions are in a tiny font that is very difficult to read. And the book is long, over 600 pages. Some of my favorite books are that long, The Discovery of Heaven for one, but this one drags.

However messy and sprawling, the structure is not inappropriate for a book set in the 1960s. Kudos to Byatt for managing to write about the period in a way that doesn’t seem silly or unrealistic. It’s not an easy time to write about. The way she accomplishes this is twofold: first, with Frederica she gives us an observer who is a bit older than most of the flower children and who has the responsibility of caring for a child; second, along with the hippies and happenings, Byatt includes the elections and sensational trials and minutiae of daily life (planting window boxes, having to go home to relieve the babysitter). Not everyone was swinging in the Sixties, not even in London.

I also have to mention how brilliant Byatt is at presenting children. All the children here are real characters, complex, true to life. It’s so hard to write about children without making them precocious brats, miniature adults, or unbearably cute manikins. Byatt’s children are children, not adults, perhaps with similarities to their parents but fiercely individual.

I love the intelligence behind the book, the way Byatt expects us to step up and stop being so lazy. There is much to like here. Another reader might find this book great fun, taking joy in seeing how all the extraneous bits are pieced together—not a melting pot but a mosaic—like the multitude of languages into which the inhabitants of the original Tower of Babel devolved.

On Reading

I want to take a step back here and talk about synchronicity. In my blog about Still Life I mentioned how surprised I was when I stumbled across a long passage referencing Dawkin’s concepts as presented in The Selfish Gene which I also happened to be reading at the time. If you’ve read the last few blogs, you may have noticed that I’ve inadvertently been reading a string of books about war, why men go to war, what happens when they try to come back.

This often happens to me. Books chosen at random turn out to have a common theme or to explore related concepts. They seem—as one of my friends put it—to be conversing with each other through me. For example, I’ve also been reading a lot of Robert Frost’s poems and critical works on him to prepare for the poetry discussion I’m leading. A couple of themes resonated with another book I was reading at the same time, The Likeness which is Tana French’s second book. I blogged about her first book In the Woods a few weeks ago.

Frost was greatly influenced by Emerson. Frost’s poems about hard-working New Englanders who swing axes at alders, cut posts, mend walls, pick apples, tap maples and plough snow illustrate Emerson’s law of compensation from his essay, “Power”: “Nothing is got for Nothing.” This reminded me of where a character in French’s book quotes a Spanish proverb: “Take what you want and pay for it, says God.” He goes on to rail about our modern culture, so good at taking what we want, so bad about paying the price.

Lexie, another character in French’s book, moves through life like a shark, always on the go. She is incapable of thinking about the past, never looking back at the wake she leaves behind. Lexie reminded me of a story Wolf once told me of seeing a man, who from his mismatched layers of clothing was apparently living rough, buy a used paperback and walk off down the street reading it. As he finished the first page, he tore it out and threw it over his shoulder. As he finished the next page, he tore it out and again tossed it over his shoulder. And so on down the street, leaving a trail of abandoned story behind him.

This attitude toward the past reminded me of a quote from Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” that greatly influenced Frost: “Life only avails, not the having lived.” Power is to be found in movement, in transition. In “The Wood-Pile” the speaker comes across a cord of maple wood that had been cut and stacked and then abandoned, left to rot and be covered in weeds “To warm the frozen swamp as best it could/With the slow smokeless burning of decay.” You could say that even in repose the wood-pile is changing, but its burning is smokeless. It has lost the power it once possessed. This power is similar to Bergson’s concept of élan vitale which Frost, who had read Bergson’s work, used often in his prose to describe the force that animates life and poetry. By yet another odd coincidence, we had just been studying Bergson in the Philosophy Book Club I attend.

We’ve also been studying various philosophers who have addressed the problem of what we can actually know of the things of this world, whether our senses are reliable, whether things actually exist independently of our perceptions of them, whether somewhere outside of our knowledge things exist in their ideal form. Again, Frost reminded me of these discussions. One of his early poems is “The Demiurge’s Laugh” where the narrator is checked in his joyful flight through the woods in pursuit of what was “no true god.” In Gnosticism, the Demiurge is a god of limited ability who has created this flawed world of ours that is only a shadow of a higher reality. In Frost’s “After Apple-Picking”, the narrator speaks of seeing the world through the thin sheet of ice he has lifted from the surface of the water trough, a wonderful metaphor of our flawed perception of the things of this world.

It’s also a metaphor of the vast gap between things themselves and our words for them, Foucault’s Les mots et les choses, the theme powering the series of books by A.S. Byatt that I’ve been reading and blogging about, particularly Still Life. Perhaps these coincidences are not so significant. Perhaps it is simply that these are concepts that many writers are concerned with. Still, I like the idea of books conversing through my reading of them.

The Painter of Battles, by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

I have long been a fan of Pérez-Reverte’s books. His The Fencing Master remains one of my favorites; it brought me to a whole new understanding of the grip that the past may have upon our lives. It also made me rethink what I value and why. This book, however, is neither a mystery nor an adventure story like Pérez-Reverte’s other novels. It is something much more profound.

Set in the present day, it is the story of Andrés Faulques, an award-winning photographer who has retired from the world and from his career covering wars. Faulques has taken up residence in an old tower on the coast of Spain where he is painting the interior, creating a 360-degree mural that depicts battles ancient and modern. And the fallout from those battles: the executions, the rapes, the ethnic cleansing. There is very little of the heroic here. He has too many memories for that.

Calling his painting an attempt to come to terms with the horrors he’s seen would be much too simplistic. Rather, he is trying to find the structure, the equations and architecture, that will explain war and the cruel punishments that men inflict on each other. And on women. Collateral damage.

There is much about painting here, the effects of certain colors to portray a misty dawn or to highlight a knife’s edge. There is much about photography, the shutter speeds and so on that Faulques used for the photographs he remembers as he paints. There is much about war, details of atrocities that counteract the distance and depersonalisation of names of colors and f-stop settings. Pérez-Reverte himself was a war photographer, so he speaks from a position of authority about the role of the photographer versus the painter, the degree of immersion experienced by a war photographer, the responsibility he has or doesn’t have towards his subjects.

The story is set in motion when a stranger arrives at the tower. He turns out to be a soldier whom Faulques once snapped as the man rested, weary and dejected, by the side of a dusty road. The conversation between the two men weaves in and out of Faulques’s memories and his work on the painting. Some reviewers have felt that the philosophical bent of their conversation bogged down the book, but I found the whole thing fascinating. In fact as soon as I finished it, I started it over again, something I rarely do. If I found the ending a little too neatly wrapped up, that is the only flaw in this astonishing book.

The vivid descriptions made me feel as though I had fallen into Faulques’s life: the tourist boat that comes by at the same time every day, swimming in the sea below the tower, 150 strokes out every day, 150 strokes in. And into Faulques’s memories, such as what it is like to sit on a terrace with a fancy dinner before you and hear captured soldiers being dragged off by alligators, a particularly gruesome and sadistic form of execution. Faulques recounts all these and discusses them with his visitor using an unemotional tone that is more deeply moving than the strongest hysteria or hand-wringing. This is the way it is. This is the way we are.

Faulques circles back to a handful of incidents, such as the day he met Olvido Ferrara in a museum. She abandoned her life as a fashion model to go with him and take pictures of wars, of small things: a pair of shoes, a notebook, an empty road. He remembers her learning to break down and reassemble an assault rifle blindfolded, and the way she could analyse a painting and make him see things he had never seen before. He remembers the people in his photographs, the teacher leading a cadre of his young students, the prisoner who refused to beg for his life. Old now, older even than his years, Faulques is taking the measure of his life. Not dismissing his previous occupation, but sure that what he’s doing—painting these battles—is the most important thing he can do.

I know. It sounds awful and ugly. But it isn’t. It’s true, and it’s beautiful.