Read-in-Progress: Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North

This is a pathetic Read-in-Progress. Season of Migration to the North is only 169 pages long; I should just “progress” straight to the end. Oh well, whatever, never mind.

The blurb on Goodreads describes Season as “a rich and sensual work of deep honesty and incandescent lyricism.” What’s worse in that statement – the racism or the marketing BS? Help me out! Anyway, while reading I found myself thinking instead of Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro. Both Season and Kokoro feature young university graduates (in settings where a degree seems an uncommon commodity) paired with older, equally educated men whose biographies are slowly revealed. There are violent events and great emotion, recounted in a dispassionate tone. Season‘s prose, at least in Denys Johnson-Davies’s translation, is clean to the bone. And though I haven’t finished Season yet, I’m hoping that the novel’s brevity is a sign of a tight focus maintained until the end.

Salih wrote very little other than this, so there isn’t much for me to follow up on, unfortunately..

The Centennial: February 25, 1915

It was a girl. They named her Rosamund, after the Gone Girl. And with Cam still in the hospital and Ian there most of the time, Eran found other things to do with his time. Like telling Mildred he wanted to quit.

“I’m not surprised,” Mildred said, tipping up her cappuccino. “I’d rather work with Xiaoyu than Stefan, frankly. There’s just not much to him.”

“Wait, so you thought I might leave? Why?”

It was a week when the Twin Cities had trouble staying above 0 degrees for twenty-four hours straight. Only the prospect of March, the literal light at the end of the tunnel, kept people going. People said, as if it were an unfathomable gift: soon it will be forty.

“I mean, you’re here because you have a slightly higher than casual interest in history and you didn’t have other options, right?”

“Right. Whereas you’re here because you have a slightly higher than casual interest in history and you didn’t like the other options.”

“Right. That’s not much of a commitment. Makes sense to leave if the offer doesn’t meet expectations.” Mildred rolled her eyes. “So what else would you do?”

Eran cursed not getting a degree in engineering, or medical laboratory science, or some other field that corresponded to a job. He had vivid memories of reading European social theorists in college, and thinking that his deep thoughts would someday translate into a raise.

“I have the skills employers claim their new hires aren’t learning. Critical thinking, communication, all that. I just don’t have any of the skills they’d actually hire for. I guess generic office work. Kind of like my last job.”

“When are you going to go?”

“I don’t know that I’m decided. The benefit of grad school is that it’s easier to be weird here than anywhere else.”

“Why does that matter to you? You’re not that weird.”

An example presented itself.

“Did you see how my eyes went unfocused? For just a second?”

“Right.”

Why not tell her? If he left, he was probably never going to see her again. “I was on a ship in the Dardanelles. February 1915. Preparations for the Gallipoli campaign. It was cold. The seas had been churning. I was some kind of newbie sailor; I had been doing a lot of puking. But finally the weather had cleared. We had done an initial bombardment of the Turkish forts; it was on pause until the water flattened out, but finally we were heading back into action. We had been firing from sea, but we were planning to actually head into the straits this time. We were trying to target individual Turkish guns, to take them out of commission, and to land some parties on the shore. In the end it wasn’t going to matter, the campaign was still doomed, but I was just a sailor and I didn’t have the authority to tell anyone anything, let alone have them believe me.”

“You mean you had a dream?”

“I mean I had a past-life regression done and now I’m having flashbacks into the lives of people from World War I.’

Mildred looked at him for a long moment. Her cappuccino cooled.

They said, in unison: “That’s pretty weird.”

February 25, 1915: British ships conduct a second bombardment of the Turkish forts in the Dardanelles, in preparation for the Gallipoli campaign.

Read-in-Progress: Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook

British people talking about politics, socioeconomic status, and the decline of empire in drafty old rooms? Sign me up. Thus far Anna has taken a detached, ironic view of her literary and sexual life in 1950s London, and a bitter, nostalgic view of her time as a young leftist in Rhodesia. In the latter, Lessing pulls off the neat trick of Franzening without the Franzen – of skewering her young characters’ hypocrisy and myopia without actually hating them, or making them hateful. (Except Willi.)

However. As I read The Golden Notebook, I keep flashing back on my definition of “middlebrow” (“stuff I already understand,” or “a strong technical evocation of a world that has already been brought to life”). If I adhere to those definitions, then Lessing, at least in my own reading experience, is middlebrow. Her prose is technically clean, but not terribly distinctive. Lessing is a Nobel laureate – ostensibly a mark of highest quality – but so is Sinclair Lewis, and that guy was basically an American Charles Dickens (i.e., not highbrow). And awards aren’t everything; as I mentioned before, the Pulitzers for fiction are resolutely middlebrow. Right now I’m feeling The Golden Notebook as a mix of Ford Madox Ford (end of an era), Jean Rhys (impending breakdown) – maybe a bit of Kingsley Amis for the snideness. And the fact that I can Lego together an impression out of those building blocks suggests that Lessing is treading ground that has been trod before.

Reading this in tandem with Invisible Man, I try to imagine what I would have thought of The Golden Notebook if I had read it in high school, when my own personal bibliography was even thinner than it is now. If I had, I think I’d rank it up there with Invisible Man and The Death of Virgil…and I think I wouldn’t be able to stand it anymore. I’m predicting it as a finish, then a giveaway.

The Centennial: February 21, 1915

For all that Vyacheslav had trusted his martial spirit, for all his desire to serve the tsar, surrender came easily. It took only two weeks of blizzard, defeat, and disorderly retreat. The end was a relief.

The old forest, Eastern Front trees unstripped by trench artillery, was peaceful. Amid the trunks, snow eddied in whirls like strands of DNA. It blew in tatters among his countrymen, who sat chilled, exhausted, wordless. They were nothing and nowhere. Would they be marched back to Berlin? Would they be confined in East Prussia?

He took some comfort in the magnitude of their defeat. The sheer number of Russians to be guarded, fed, and sheltered could easily prove too much for the Germans. As long as they weren’t executed on the spot.

He remembered his friends, laughing, arrogant Vladimir and serious, feckless Trofim. Vladimir had gone missing during the fall campaign. He had quickly lost his taste for the soldiering life, and had often talked of slipping away in the night. Vyacheslav could well believe he had done it, was home in Arkhangelsk, visiting his old haunts. As for Trofim, Vyacheslav had last seen him tripping on the ice as the retreat began, waving Vyacheslav on, swearing he would catch up, that he would survive. Vyacheslav wanted to believe, but he had hope enough for only one of his friends.

The cold seeped into his bones. He was ready to move. Berlin, the grave, anything so as to dispel the cold. He would –

Eran shook awake. His quiet attic was not cold. Cam and Ian kept the heat at shorts-and-T-shirt levels all year long. New windows, central heating and cooling, effective humidifiers. Lap of luxury.

It had been a while since a scene that vivid. Even the names had come through. They seemed to pour questions into his head. What would happen to the prisoners? Would they live? Would they starve? How had Germany treated them? How did France and England treat their prisoners?

Eran flipped open his dissertation notebook, where he had scratched in a new outline just the night before, and tried to find a place for this strand. There was none. He couldn’t conceive of a dissertation that could encompass a new angle every week. It was too much. The words of a great philosopher in a time of trial came to him. Fight the ocean and you will drown.

What was he going to do?

February 21, 1915: After two weeks of fighting and retreat, Russia’s XX Army Corps surrenders to the Germans in Augustow Forest, ending their participation in the Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes. The Germans claimed as many as 100,000 Russian prisoners.

The Centennial: February 9, 1915

One throwaway remark to Cam – “Landlord’s increasing my rent by $130, in the name of ‘maintenance'” – and a few days later Eran was unloading UHaul boxes in the driveway of Cam and Ian’s Highland Avenue home. He couldn’t afford the rent increase, Cam and Ian did have two extra bedrooms, and Cam could use another adult around after the baby arrived – but Eran couldn’t help feeling that he was going to end up like Bertha Rochester. Not the least because he would occupy the room in the attic.

He had tried making that argument to Cam. “I’ll feel like a Victorian poor relation.”

Cam said, “No more than I do, since my parents paid half the mortgage.”

And so Eran hefted boxes up the ladderlike staircase while muttering to himself. “It’ll be nice not to have to manhandle those old storm windows.” And, “Off-street parking. Haven’t had that in a while.”

He had even called off his class that morning. Why not? Stefan, worried about his secret getting out (Mildred had stayed silent; Kyle was out of contact with the department), was letting him get away with murder. He never asked for proof of activity and even offered Eran an extra $2500 fellowship for the spring, assisting with Stefan’s research (really, “running database searches”) for the promise of a co-authored article.

Eran, however, still felt his lack of progress. While Ian paid the movers, Eran pulled out his dissertation notebook. His latest outline was topics-focused, looking at major changes grouped by theme:

  1. MONEY. In which Thomas Piketty is proven right and so much capital is dispelled.
  2. IMPERIALISM. In which formerly triumphant states pay the price for their greed. 
  3. FAMILY. In which the destruction of a generation realigns the balance of power in the home.
  4. MODERNISM. In which Victorian sentimentality burns itself to death like Qui-Gon Jinn.

There was no birth, only death. Eran was looking, Romantically, at the death of the old world.

“The ceiling is moving, moving in time.” The old lyric came to him. The host was on his back, staring upward out of happenstance. The ceiling seemed to be high above him. The cot – Eran engaged peripheral vision – was a handspan off the floor. It lay within arm’s reach of another cot, in which, Eran saw, lay another body just like the host’s. There were hundreds like him in a room as cavernous as Hozier’s church. Above them floated nurses in dingy, streaked aprons who had no relief to give.

He thought he had been a soldier.

Eran waited for the host to lift up his head and look, but the host couldn’t. He was damp, shaking. Across the century, the body felt like sitting across the room from a fire on a cool, damp night: pleasant enough, but you know that you can only get so close.

A sudden flash of light across his face and the host recoiled.

For his own memory, Eran reached for the host’s name. It wouldn’t come. Before, there had been a sense, something he could divine, even if he were inventing it. There was nothing. Eran realized, with a shock, that the host himself couldn’t remember his name. There were no tangles; the circuits were good. It was just as if the power source that sent the signals was faltering, giving off just enough energy to keep the power symbol lit.

A doctor and a nurse spoke at the foot of the cot. Eran was sure they were discussing his host. But the words sounded as if they were spoken underwater.

It seemed important, moreso than anything since Dinant, that he be able to act. Could he shunt some power backward to the host, like a miracle of government engineering? Wasn’t time simply another dimension?

Too late: he dropped back into his body. No name. Not even the sense of a language. Had he wanted to, he still could never find out what happened.

Typhus caused millions of deaths on the Eastern Front during the war. An epidemic began in Serbia in late 1914 – early 1915, with estimates of deaths there ranging into the hundreds of thousands.

Review: Maxine Clair, Rattlebone

Rattlebone has two problems. The narrow, technical problem is that it’s a novel of interlocking short stories. This isn’t automatically a problem, but if a book needs a strong narrator to get over, it faces a harder challenge if it has many narrators. The growing Irene Wilson is at the book’s heart, and she’s fine. But her parents’ chapters, told in third person, read as if Maxine Clair was trying to nudge Rattlebone across the two-hundred-page threshold with interstitials. Her parents are understandable, but they aren’t inhabited the way Irene is. It recalls the Gustafsson problem. Here, it’s not quite as problematic because Irene has a larger share of the book, but it still drags the thing down.

The other problem is that Rattlebone is middlebrow. I spent a while reaching for that word. I ran through a bunch of approximations: surface-y, glib, popcorn-y. I tied it in to Maxine Clair’s now being a a conscious-living coach. Then I realized Rattlebone reminded me of the movie Rich in Love, and the word came.

What is middlebrow, exactly? Wikipedia defines – oh, fuck that. I’d define middlebrow as “stuff I already understand.” I phrase it that way deliberately. I don’t automatically agree that “middlebrow” is inferior or risible. I think it denotes a particular kind of reading experience, one that I’ve often found in Pulitzer-winning novels (Carol Shields and Alice Walker spring immediately to mind; so does Jonathan Franzen, lack of Pulitzer aside), where a book is a strong technical evocation of a world that has already been brought to life.

This isn’t a bad thing. At best, my own writing is middlebrow. It’s just that I want more challenge from a reading experience. Rattlebone is a mostly fine book that doesn’t offer that challenge, so it doesn’t make the shelf.

The Centennial: February 4, 1915

Addicts Eran had known: his Aunt Elaine (Xanax), his sophomore roommate (Adderall), and various people he saw on the bus (alcohol). Before Kyle, heroin was mythic, like pictures of crack-infested projects from 1988. He expected Kyle to live in one of those, amid broken windows, cracked pavement, and bleary yellow floodlights shadowing through netless basketball rims.

Kyle’s parents actually owned a trim house in south Minneapolis, within walking distance of the Russian art museum and the shops on Lyndale. They were shy, retiring Minnesotans who weren’t sure what had happened to their son and were waiting politely for the world to explain it to them. They left money to order pizza and announced, pretextually, that they had errands to run.

As their car creaked away, Eran asked, “So do they think we’re shooting up, or having sex?”

Kyle had lost weight. He said he had lost more and was gaining it back. His cheekbones formed garish asymmetrical planes in the winter light. He also had spacers in his ears, as if he weren’t pushing thirty.

“The drugs were plenty bad, but they weren’t that bad. At first they were great. They made me not feel guilty because I was twenty-seven and dicking around in grad school. I mean…”

Eran, past thirty, waved it aside.

“But then I started feeling guilty becauseI was doing drugs. After a while I felt so guilty that I didn’t want to see anyone. So I just gave my students their assignments over email. They submitted everything electronically and I graded it that way. Online education is the wave of the future, right? But then I stopped meeting with Stefan. And then I stopped answering emails. And then my grandma died, and I got enough money to really get into it.”

“Did you OD?”

“No way! But after I didn’t come in for a while, the school called my parents because they were my emergency contacts. They came over and saw me shooting, so that was that. Rehab. But now I’m clean.”

“It sounds like magic.”

Raimund, his head shaved, his togs unkempt, came into the host’s berth of U-20. We’ve heard it! From the Imperial Gazette. The leash is off. Captain Schwieger says we’ll finally have our chance at the British.

Eran’s host banged his head sitting up. U-boats were tight quarters. But isn’t the kaiser worried anymore about public opinion?

It seems not. Just a few more weeks. The British can’t hide their materiel on passenger transports anymore.

But won’t that just draw the Americans into the war? The host – a Hans, maybe? – was not truly concerned. If anything, he was angry that he hadn’t heard the news first. The policy was a risk, but it was also a relief. Since August the war had been like a noose tightening inexorably around Germany. They had heard about the rationing; they wondered if they would be the next to feel the bite. They wondered what else would be taken away. Finally, they could strike back.

“I guess it was magic. I didn’t get in that deep.”

Eran pretended to accept this. “So, pizza?”

“Sure. Now what’s this news you had about Stefan?”

February 4, 1915: Germany announces that it will begin treating the waters around the British Isles as a war zone. This policy is a prelude to the sinking of the Lusitania later in 1915.