I took a break from Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels and will soon to return to those. Meanwhile, three titles I highly recommend:
Nora Webster, Colm Toíbín (2014)
I came to the end of Nora Webster early one evening in January and laid the book on my reading sofa, and the next morning I picked it up and started all over again. I’ve read several reviews that describe Nora Webster as a character study; it’s that and more—a portrait of grief. Indeed, upon the death of her husband, Nora is locked in an emotional stasis so profound that her grief becomes a character in its own right.
With Maurice gone, and their two grown daughters away at school, Nora must finish raising their two young sons on her own. The question of money dominates: there’s not enough. Nora sells the family’s beloved summer cottage, and she returns to the dreary office in which she worked years ago, before she met Maurice. Everyone in town knows everyone else as well as their business. (Echoes of the busybodies in Toíbín’s Brooklyn. Also, Eilis, the main character in Brooklyn, is the sister of the man who buys Nora’s summer cottage). And everyone wants to help Nora, but help is offered in a patronizing manner, and Nora’s intrinsically critical self is further embattled. Simultaneous with her own suffering is that of her young sons, Conor and Donal, now not only fatherless but uncertain of their mother’s well-being. Furthermore, Donal has developed a strong stammer, about which everyone in the family and at school seems to be more concerned than Nora herself. Nora is so seemingly deaf and blind with grief that she cannot fully address much of what happens around her, and we, as readers, recognize the concern and frustration of those who observe her. At the same time, we are one with her disorientation and sadness, having observed the other characters and events wholly from her point of view. Nora recovers slowly and gently and, in large part, reinvents herself. Through a new friend she rediscovers her love of music, and joins a listening group, and begins to take singing lessons. Toíbín’s descriptions of the music she listens to and the songs she learns to sing constitute some of the most beautiful passages of this novel. Perhaps the greatest gift, however, of this quietly powerful book is that just as we, the readers, travel with Nora through a dense fog, we feel ourselves released, at the end, with her.
Faithful and Virtuous Night, Louise Glück (2014)
In these highly meditative poems, memory meets refraction as a small group of travelers—seekers on a pilgrimage? souls of the departed caught between worlds?—tell their tales. I’ve been able to so far identify four distinct voices: a male artist; a female writer; a raconteur-philosopher and a secretary-chronicler, the gender of the last two unclear. The poems, or tales, unfold on mountain paths and rivers and seas, in Cornwall and London and Montana and in an unnamed “city famous for its wooden toys”. They speak of childhood and “that time of life/people prefer to allude to in others/but not in themselves”, and are spoken from beds and gardens and the office of an analyst, from cemeteries and riverboats and the artist’s studio. There are friends who are trusted but envied; strangers who tell stories of their own; parents; an aunt; a brother, a sister; there are missed trains, rides on steeds, and remnants of songs. The poems in the voices of the raconteur-philosopher and secretary-chronicler create a sort of theater and stage, providing an entrance and exit and the occasional scenery change: intermezzi from the meditations of the artist and the writer, the import of each meditation being not so much what happened, but why that which happened is remembered.
Citizen, an American Lyric, Claudia Rankine (2014)
How racism enters the body, and colonizes memory, and distorts the mind; how the body responds, often with dire consequences, or obeys the mind that chooses to not respond: this contra-dynamic is the core of Rankine’s brilliant, razor-sharp Citizen. Divided into seven sections that alternate between essays and poems, and are interspersed with photos, paintings, drawings and collages, Citizen ranges in content and style from anecdotes of private encounters to analyses of sports and media events to scripts for videos on Hurricane Katrina and Trayvon Martin, among other issues. Throughout, the narrator returns to this central question: How does one silence the memory of injustices and insults? “The world is wrong. You can't put the past behind you. It's buried in you; it's turned your flesh into its own cupboard. Not everything remembered is useful but it all comes from the world to be stored in you.” Some insults are obvious, others subtle. Some are spoken, others intended. They occur in public and in private, between strangers and between colleagues and friends; in school, in airplanes, in a drugstore checkout line, at a campus café lunch, even with a therapist; the effect is cumulative, an overwhelming “buildup of erasure”. So besieged is the “I” of the narrator that she/he must speak in second person, addressing the “you” that is herself/himself. Which, in the nature of the second person voice, addresses the “you” of the reader as well. “Don’t say I if it means so little,/holds the little forming no one.” And so the narrator wants to know: Should “you” act on what is heard? Should “you” not accept “erasure”? “To your mind, feelings are what create a person, something unwilling, something wild vandalizing whatever the skull holds. Those sensations form a someone. The headaches begin then.”
Until next time. Patience. Spring is coming.