a la recherche du temps perdu

The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope

The Small House at AllingtonThe Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Speeding through Trollope is never wise: each of his books are long, drawn out performances, where the various threads he weaves throughout eventually come together in the end—the different characters of different social stations and statuses; the bickering family members, neighbors, and parish members; and also the young men and women (typically, the latter) who defy gender norms and conventions, but who, by the novels’ ends, adhere to a Victorian readership’s expectations and satisfy their sense of closure, of right made wrong, of good triumphing over evil.

But this is to overlook Trollope’s greatest strength as a novelist: he never condemns those who have transgressed against social norms; he doesn’t join the neighbors who gossip and spread rumor and cast stones. In each of Trollope’s characters—both the worthy and the unworthy—we see facets of human nature, and, in turn, we see shimmer of ourselves, to be examined and never judged. In short, Trollope recognizes that all of us are as capable of evil as well as of good, and he explores the thin line that divides what society and culture would view as extremes, and which he views as humanity merely toeing the line.

As the fifth book in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series, The Small House at Allington casts a much smaller net than its predecessors, and, from what I recall, from the finale that follows. Whereas The Warden began the series on a somewhat tentative note, almost unsure of itself or where it stood (standalone book or part of a series?), Trollope’s ventures from Barchester Towers—the most widely-read of Trollope’s novels, perhaps, and not a good indication of his scope, as I wrote in my linked review—to Doctor Thorne, and from Framley Parsonage (perhaps the most successful thus far of the series; see my review there) to this title show a steady progress toward world-building and the reader who tackles these books in order will be a much happier reader for the dipping in and out of characters from previous volumes, many of whose backstories Trollope takes for granted that you know.

While the second through fourth books highlight how skilled Trollope is at assembling a wide range of characters and having plots and subplots abound, all of which intersect around a certain character or a problem (usually money or marriage), The Small House at Allington is much smaller in scope, dealing almost solely with the same group of characters during and after the young, beautiful, but immensely annoying Lily Dale is jilted by Adolphous Crosbie for a woman of rank and, so he thinks, money, the Lady Alexandrina de Courcy. In her introduction to the lovely new Oxford editions of the series, Dinah Birch states that this was the most popular of the Barsetshire books for Victorian readers (and was even viewed by Trollope as such: “I do not think that I have ever done better work,” he wrote in An Autobiography), but she does note that today the novel “divides its readers, and the character of Lily Dale has always been the central point of contention.”

Allington is a much bleaker world than we see in the other Barsetshire novels: characters don’t change much here; they don’t learn much in their toils of troubles; they don’t succeed or triumph in ways that most readers of Trollope expect from his characters. And, in some ways, that is this book’s strength: it categorically refuses to give readers what they expect from a novel, what they have grown to expect from a certain author, and, as such, Trollope can take liberties that he has not done before. However, while Lily Dale’s jilting is the central problematic around which numerous characters revolve, some of the more interesting characters do get more room in the spotlight: the “hobbledehoy” John Eames, who is trying to make his way in the London world of business and busyness, longing all the while for his childhood sweetheart, Lily Dale; Crosbie, who has won Lily’s heart but who has his own selfish desire for power and wealth in mind when he jilts her; Mrs. Dale, who is a fascinating study of motherhood and female power (as well as restraint) in dealing with widowhood, bringing up two daughters alone, and being forced to live off the “generosity” of her dead husband’s family; and earls, squires, ladies, and lords galore. Unlike the previous books in the series, though, Trollope fails to unite these refracted characters; and, as a result, the novel does not read as well thought-out or as well-plotted as his others. Indeed, there are even three or four chapters on Plantagenet Palliser’s dangerous liaison with Lady Griselda Dumbello (whom one will recall from earlier Barsetshire novels) which seem to add nothing to the main plot here at all; Trollope was working on the Palliser series’ first book, Can You Forgive Her?, as he was writing Allington, and appears to have got some of his signals crossed.

I do still strongly recommend that those new to Trollope begin with his lesser-known, but wonderfully executed, The Claverings (you can read my review there).

Still… yet still… ah, still, still… There is nothing quite like spending a month immersed in a 600-or-more page Trollope. It is very much like a holiday, getting acquainted and reacquainted with characters; getting close to them, seeing them flaws and all and being almost as nonjudgmental as the narrator/author is about their deeds and misdeeds. It opens one’s eyes to human nature in microcosm, and forces one to see things in oneself that one might prefer to keep buried or cloaked in shadow. Allington is very much the bridge to the finale of the series, and I look forward to revisiting that before the year’s end, before I take my leave of Barsetshire for the world of the Pallisers.

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Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson

Frankissstein: A Love StoryFrankissstein: A Love Story by Jeanette Winterson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Despite this being longlisted for this year’s Booker, I might have given Winterson’s latest a pass, had it not been for several people whose opinions I trust calling this “a return to form.” My relationship with Winterson’s work is both perfect and harried; during my undergraduate days, I spent a lot of time with her work, and her work from the 1990s through the early-2000s is very strong, ground-breaking, and original.

But after The PowerBook, Winterson’s work started to become derivative; I even attended three or four of her lectures, and she returned again and again to the same anecdotes and stories in the talks—likely as these were the ones that earned some guffaws. After the masterpiece that was Art & Lies, can any author surpass their own best creation?

And this is something like the main conceit in Frankissstein: the question of artificial intelligence; how wedded is our consciousness to our brains; is artistic creation the same as, or at least akin to, scientific inventions; how do the bodies we inhabit—and which change both with time and with our wills (made emphatic by one of the main characters, Ry, whose trans body is much on display and much discussed in the novel)—problematize things like being, consciousness, and desire if the promise or threat of AI is on the horizon?

I began the novel with high hopes: the early sections, told from Mary Shelley’s point-of-view, detail the genesis of Frankenstein and the conversations about gender, authorship, artistic creations, and also vivisection were some of the more interesting sections here. Given that two of Winterson’s strongest novels, The Passion and Sexing the Cherry, are historical and tackle these same questions seemed to bode well. However, the present-day sections are riddled with cliches and stereotypes, e.g., the African American woman who checks Ry into the AI conference in Memphis; Ry’s own trans body, which, as a cisgendered person, even I took some issues with: it will be interesting to see what trans readers make of Winterson’s depiction of Ry as something like the promise of the future, the making of the new self—something she pairs very haphazardly with AI.

The sections with Mary Shelley—and those of her meeting her own fictional creation in Bedlam—being the strongest, the present-day sections (dealing with sexbots and trans bodies and lots of fucking and the question of whether a disembodied brain can still house consciousness and intelligence) are a mess: Winterson fails to join them, even though one can see that the underlying themes with which Shelley grapples and with which Ry and Dr. Victor Shelley grapple in today’s Manchester are indeed united. Winterson chooses to join them by poetic repetition and the use of literary quotes—one of which is her own—and this feels more like a patchwork quilt of a book than a novel.

Still, this was a fun read overall, and I would recommend it; however, I would in no way recommend that readers new to Winterson begin here. This is an author definitely back on track after more than a decade off the mark, but Frankissstein fails to deliver a convincing narrative, despite its topical questions, and instead reads like two very different novels that have been joined together in places where they seem to “fit.”

With thanks to Netgalley for an ARC of this in exchange for my honest thoughts.

3.5 stars

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The Hide by Barry Unsworth

The HideThe Hide by Barry Unsworth

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Homo homini lupus [Man is a wolf to man] The existence of this inclination to aggression, which we can detect in ourselves and justly assume to be present in others, is the factor which disturbs our relations with our neighbour…

— Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents

Josh, or Josiah, is a 20-year-old lower-class youth, working “on the stalls” at an amusement arcade in what reads like Brighton. An innocent, he latches on to Mortimer, an older and seemingly wiser man with whom he works, forming an odd and sometimes queer friendship with him. When Mortimer speaks of sex and class and the revolution and the bourgeoisie, the naive Josiah—who often asks “What’s your terms?” to get Mortimer’s use of vocabulary correct—begins to take on this man’s beliefs as his own.

Simon is a forty-something-year old neurotic effete: over-educated and under-socialized. Living on the grounds of his widowed sister Audrey’s massive estate, he has acclimated to life by burrowing underground, creating what he terms his “hide.” Some of Unsworth’s most stunning descriptions in this book of landscape and distance are in Simon’s sections, and, admittedly, it’s unclear just how skillfully Simon has constructed his hideaway or if it’s just merely a series of bushes and fences. From here, he moves about the estate, surveilling and watching neighbors and also the social gatherings of his sister’s theatre group—distanced, remote, but judgmental: “Why should I always be on the outside of everything, appreciating my exclusion with an aesthetic ache?”

When Audrey realizes that the estate needs a gardener, Josiah answers the call, and the lower-class gardener’s presence—bringing more to the fore the same-class but servant-like Marion, Audrey’s late-husband’s cousin—begins to complicate everyone’s lives. While Simon is innocent in his voyeurism and underground burrowing, insofar as he never acts on his desires, this is juxtaposed with Josiah’s less-educated and much more youthful innocence: the wide-eyed, believe-all-you-tell-me sort that takes words at face value, an innocence that longs to explore. Both of these get tested and pitted against one another in a theatrical and truly psychoanalytic way; indeed, while immersed in this, my first Unsworth, I read somewhere that this was an early and more minor work of his. I can only imagine how his insights into human nature have grown with his subsequent books.

Much of Unsworth’s strength in this book is how slowly the creepy and evil aspects of human nature begin to become apparent—and this is even long after the first chapter, when we witness Simon observing the neighboring woman (virtually naked) do her chores in a heat wave from the security of his hide:

I do not know her name. She has brought me often, and especially on windy days when I am vouchsafed incidental revelations, to the threshold of intense pleasure, and on occasion I have been enabled, kneeling in my little corner here, with the complicity of the laburnum… to cross the threshold. I have never been nearer to her than I am now, I do not desire any closer proximity.

Lust, covert queerness, hero worship, sibling rivalry, and an ever-growing sense of the strange and the downright eerie… The Hide grows steadily just as it ping-pongs back and forth between the two men narrating, keeping a running volley on very different voices’ commentaries on social class, generational gaps, and displaced (or repressed) desires. A true commentary on, as Unsworth puts it, “how inscrutable we human creatures are, what a mystery inheres in every follicle.”

Highly recommended for fans of interior and gradually unsettling prose.

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for A.T.

we send them both off bare-chested into the den to plug in their machines and watch the images on screens morph into shapes they assume for the duration of the spell     in Guadalajara the trees bloom and then wilt spent spine curved like a question mark I send you messages while they are occupied that sound like branches snapping or me lapping up your saliva     when he is next to me the proximity can lie or at least slant the truths the dreams speak to me as dire as any sibyl mouthing doomed doomed     I imagine your hand is less bony than his and that your tongue when it reads words aloud from the page hits the upper palate like the bolt my own words caused in the wake of their banishment     remember that I never wish to cause you regret if that can be avoided in the drone of distances crossed to let me touch your spine so that I might straighten out my own remember too that I love him even though I am sending you messages the shape of pellets troubadours once threw at windows in the dank hours of night before lighting up the air with their song     perhaps whatever words we are free to speak while they become dragons or zombies or humans can sunder us both but I believe that if the words are that strong we must heed them like portents we must follow them where they lead     me into your mouth or else into his you into some crevice while the city decides its season

infinite endings

Since my Electric Literature piece on social media and disconnection—as well as trying to reconnect, in some way—was published, I’ve been scant on social media. I creep on it like a phantom from time to time, wondering if I’m missing anything; I sometimes miss the connections there, the camaraderie I felt and which I tried to describe in my piece to which I’ve linked above. But it simply doesn’t feel right to me anymore. I’m toying with moving back to Tumblr as more of a home base for now: Tumblr for me is, after all, where it all began, so it makes more sense to use as a kind of commonplace book.

I appreciate those who have emailed or messaged or been in touch in other ways: your kindness and support has meant a lot to me. I am working on several projects which I hope will soon see the light of day, but part of me is shying away from that, too, for the time being. A lot of revelations and magic has happened in the time I’ve been away—and I suppose I’m best trying to describe that kind of magic in words, which, sadly, seem a futile medium to do so just yet. For a writer this is usually torture; for me, as a writer, I am riding the waves, knowing that the words will come and be ready to be read when the time is right and the moon quivers enough, as a portent, as it waxes. For then it will be time.

Until then, the words I left up on Tumblr many months ago by the wonderful Louise Glück still ring true:

I think here I will leave you. It has come to seem
there is no perfect ending.
Indeed, there are infinite endings.
Or perhaps, once one begins,
there are only endings…

And so… Until the infinite, then. Resurgam.

Some literary news

After many arduous months spent trying to write a specific experience out, to make sense of it the only way I knew how (through words), I am pleased to announce that Electric Literature has published a long memoir piece of mine. This piece, entitled “Shedding Skin: Sex, Intimacy, Writing, and Social Media,” is about trying to reconnect on social media while disconnecting from a lover; it’s about sex, skin, intimacy, Virginia Woolf, Kundalini yoga and meditation, the writing life, and a lot more. I believe that most writers will find at least shadows of themselves within the piece, and I hope that at least some readers take something away from my attempt to grapple with and join together these various threads into a coherent narrative of sorts.


There was a crook in the treeline where leaves willowed into the pond; we spread a gingham tablecloth across the tilted grassblades and sat crosslegged but upright as expectants.

Sunspots deepened; your teeth opened saying one thing but meaning another. I catch hold of your hip to anchor you down, say: here there is only us acres of cloud no one I promise will know who you are.

I can’t see your eyes for the shades; a bird rattles by or else a dragonfly, my open palms show you the map inked on the skinflesh there. The longer we remain the sooner the gloaming, you vulnerable no other witnesses.

This scene might have been fictitious had we brought wicker baskets wedges of cheese those knives used to slice open taboo yellow novels; I’ve fed you some of these as me, in words I cyphered once then lost.

I try to recall the dictum, time, the way I dragged you by the haunches back to root in our gingham earth. There is a brief caesura of leaves caressing the water’s surface, I realize in a lull that I have jumped past a crucial exchange of tutoyers.

And all before day has set the questions you must ask wane quickly, my eyes obscured by night just at the moment you remove your sunglasses: this silence an opening a diagram the way you are you right now winding your watch.

An invigilation scene almost, like I am feeding you histories of me the formality of walls shaping systems of trust even though we are hardly nameable yet—you cried out another’s name last night—to warrant it.

Here there is only us cloud cover now no one will know you are I promise with me. Since we have eschewed all pretense I remind you of my presence by taking your toes into my mouth.

Moonrise quickens your jaw, teeth saying another thing but meaning only one; we move smiling through rooms maps no longer necessary, the palms of my hands against your spine, ushering, ushering you into us.

I remember the mandate for flipping over hourglasses; I pet your broken watch and somehow can predict by it that morning will shatter patterns of behavior that touch will replace.

On Henry Green, Part 1

Henry Green is a truly remarkable literary figure, writing nine novels spanning the period after the First World War until the mid-1950s, despite living some twenty years past that. The Green fans I’ve encountered in my life have been staunch advocates of his work—for good reason—and yet those who had never heard of him remain the vast majority, sadly, especially among those who would be his most faithful readers, almost to the point of idolatry.

Thankfully, the New York Review of Books will begin publishing all nine of Green’s novels beginning in October 2016; this will be the first time most of these will be back in print in the US since their initial publication. Beginning with Caught, Loving, and Back, NYRB will then reissue the remaining six over the following two seasons, into 2017. For fans of British literature from the interwar period; for lovers of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf and the more working-class fiction by interwar writers like novelist Elizabeth Taylor; for readers who wonder which literary stylists helped to carry the torch of modernism into mid-twentieth-century Britain; and for those who enjoy equal parts realism with psychological exploration, equal parts pathos with deep, resounding joy—this is indeed a true literary event of the highest order.

I’m currently re-reading Caught, and, as it’s been numerous years—a decade, if not more—since my own acquaintance with Green’s work first made me realize what a genius he was, it’s been like meeting an old friend again. Caught deserves to be up there with the finest twentieth-century British novels dealing with war and its repercussions, alongside other giants like Rebecca West’s The Return of the Solider, Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room (as well as her other works, the earlier which deal with a changing post-WWI British climate, and the latter which foreshadow and consider the rise of fascism in the lead-up to WWII), Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September and The Heat of the Day, and even, spreading further outward into Europe, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game. Finally, Green will be able to stand firmly and be considered in the context of the very tradition out of which his own work emerged, and into which he was always able to strike up a productive dialogue about individuals and society facing a changing, uncertain world together.

And Green’s prose is an utter joy to read, even when he is describing heartache, loss, melancholy, or the tensions that war engenders within family life: there are myriad revelations here about what it means to be human. Playful, evocative, and downright sensual at times, reading Green is something akin to reading Proust by way of Joyce, or Woolf by way of Conrad; his prose is at times so rich that one sometimes has to put his books down or else risk a kind of sensory overload.

As an example of what readers new to Green’s work have to look forward to, here’s an excerpt from Caught, wherein the protagonist Roe’s captain in the Fire Brigade, Pye, reflects on his memories of love and loss during the First while in the midst of the Blitz of the Second World War (something, it is worth noting, that Bowen herself does in her short story “The Demon Lover,” wherein the protagonist Mrs. Drover relives the trauma of the prior war—tinged with love, promise, and the threat of loss—while living through the bombings of the current war). In this passage, there’s such a singular rendering of the memory process, Pye’s thoughts running from past to present war, from love to pain, from sex to violence, all in Green’s wrenching use of color and odd syntax to mimic not only stream of consciousness, but the very act of reliving the memory of one war through the reality of another in the present:

[Pye] had been close to the earth then, and it led him back to the first girl he had known, not long before his father took them away from the village in which their childhood was passed, for that too was of the earth. In the grass lane, and Pye groaned as he lay on the floor, his head by a telephone, that winding lane between high banks, in moonlight, in colour blue, leaning back against the pale wild flowers whose names he had forgotten, her face, wildly cool to his touch, turned away from him and the underside of her jaw which went soft into her throat that was a colour of junket, oh my God he said to himself as he remembered how she panted through her dose and the feel of her true, roughened hands as they came to repel him and then, at the warmth of his skin, has stayed irresolute at the surface while, all lost, she mumured, “Will it hurt?” Oh God she has been so white and this bloody black-out brought you in mind of it with the moon, this blue colour, and with the creeping home. He had been out hunting that first night right enough as he came home, her tears still on the back of his hand, with the cries of an owl at his temples, like it might be the shrieks of that cat on the wall over there, bloody well yelling for her greens.

NYRB are to be applauded for their efforts bringing Green back into print, with introductions by top literary critics ranging from James Wood to Roxana Robinson. If you’re on the fence about what long-term reading plans 2017 might hold for you, I would strongly suggest that you make 2017 a year of Henry Green; I can guarantee you that you will not regret it—your intellect, your heart, your gut, and your sense of a shared humanity will all be whetted from the sensual gristle of a truly inimitable prose stylist who has, for too long, been existing on the margins of literary history.

Haruspicy, Part 3

The soothsayer grunted I was too rootless as he smeared blood against your cheekbones marking you for carrion     the neighboring houses are far enough away so that the woman who spends the entire winter in bed with a fluorescent lamp and a hot water bottle can hear nothing of the spells the rustle of flame lighting the entrails into which the seer sees something akin to futures     We hardly glance at one another stolid with fear or love or the kind of lust that acts almost like fetters a conspiratorial hush out of which the man’s to’ing and fro’ing comes shockingly the moon through the beeches landing crimson where he has stained your cannibal face to exaggerate the bones     no one knows us here where the willows arch lopingly against a brook those trees against which you gnarled me and upon which we wrote no names no signs of any sort

I can scarcely even remember why we have called upon this shaman what fortune do we want told what buried truth do we want brought to light at the sake of an animal’s breath the last shred passing between us and the firelight the beech shade masking the man’s hands digging deep into a guzzle or esophagus     I could have asked you myself in my own words however feeble or needy they might have been I could have swallowed the anxiety like I swallowed you without thinking just tonguing out the words to know whatever it is we are     instead this man leaves me untouched even though he has painted you red your eyes dart across the distance to plead with me but if I knew the answers we would never have found ourselves here in the first place

Rooted in spite of being called the inverse I know what I want from you but can this stranger see my desire in a mangled heap of entrails can this magician give us a potion so that my wish might be granted come morning     and yet this is not solely about me for why would we both be here scared shitless by his guttural clicking silenced by the shock of blood beneath your incredulous eyes     What horrors have we unleashed in coming together and then in coming together again like this to make sense of it all of what idiocies are we guilty that we require a third party skilled in bloodletting and haruspicy to untangle our future for us     when the answer is given it is written on the ground where the moon strikes it with a waxing force but I can make neither heads nor tails of the design the intestines like commas or discarded condoms the context of which is unclear and the consequence of which you and I are unclear whether to embrace or to fear

It is summer so there is no smoke spiraling out of your eccentric neighbor’s chimney but we hear her window frames shiver from the timbre of her voice as we pass the woods behind us the brook into which he washed his hands a crime scene with two walking bodies to show for it     I do not know what to do with your hand when it is mine to take hold of again and it is with the insecurity of unknowing another that we fuck leaving your face still marked by the future we cannot read and which the shaman suggested was only ours to decipher     looking into your eyes I envision the animal in whose death we have inadvertently taken part so that we might live but to live as what we are just as bewildered as before so much so that that when morning arrives my shoulder blades are caked with two red lines and I believe but I could be mistaken a trail of tears you forced on to me while we both slept back to front

Virginia Woolf on her birthday

On my birthday, I’ve plucked out some of Virginia Woolf’s diary remarks about her own birthday (25 January 1882), somewhat at random:

“Another lazy morning—read however the greater part of my review book, so that will be written tomorrow with luck—& then?—I must turn about for something fresh to do. My birthday, by the way — the 25th but, as usual, it was somehow rather forgotten which one begins to expect at my age—!” (25 Jan 1905)

“My Birthday. L. slid a fine cow’s horn knife into my hand this morning. … Writing all the morning, reading & walking the rest of the day.” (25 Jan 1918)

“Here have I waited 25 days before beginning the new year; & the 25 is, not unfortunately my 25th, but my 39th birthday; & we’ve had tea, & calculated the costs of printing Tchekov…” (25 Jan 1921)

“It[’]s the cold hour, this, before the lights go up. A few snowdrops in the garden. Yes, I was thinking: we live without a future. Thats whats queer, with our noses pressed to a closed door.” (26 Jan 1941)