What Muriel Spark Saw

 

Parul Sehgal, New Yorker.com, April 8, 2014

She loved lightning. It wasn’t her favorite weapon—fire was, or knives. But lightning has a brutal, beautiful efficiency, and she used it to good effect, once frying alive a pair of lovers. Lightning seemed to seek her out, too. It struck her houses repeatedly, and on one occasion caused a nearby bell tower to come crashing down into her bathroom. The lightning entered her bedroom, she said, and danced across her upper lip.

To her readers, Dame Muriel Spark arrived aptly named and like a bolt from the blue in 1957, with her first novel, “The Comforters,” published when she was thirty-nine. She went on to produce at least a book a year with a facility that even she found bemusing. Writing novels was so easy, she said, “I was in some doubt about its value.” Rumor has it her drafts were pristine—no strike-throughs, scant revisions. It was as if she were taking dictation, faithfully transcribing those rawboned stories of blackmail and betrayal in her schoolgirl script. When she died, in 2006, she left twenty-two novels, poems, plays, biographies, essays, and a memoir—a body of work singular in its violence, formal inventiveness, and scorching opening lines. “He looked as if he would murder me and he did,” one story begins.

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On ‘Bark’ by Lorrie Moore

Bookforum Feb/Mar 2014 issue

The known risks of laughter, according to a recent study published in the British Medical Journal, include dislocated jaws, cardiac arrhythmia, urinary incontinence, emphysema, and spontaneous perforation of the esophagus. None of this, I suspect, will be news to readers of Lorrie Moore, who has never taken laughter lightly. In her work, humor is always costly and fanged. Here’s her idea of a joke (from her 1998 story collection, Birds of America): found among the rubble of a plane crash is a pair of “severed crossed fingers.”

Bark is Moore’s eighth book—gaunt, splendid, and notable for having a significantly lower body count than usual. These stories rarely rise to the gaudy horror of her previous work. Death does not stalk her characters the way it once did. Children are finally allowed to survive to adulthood, and only animals meet spectacular ends—a decapitated deer’s neck is left “open like a severed cable bundle.”

But there is ash in the air; the September 11 attacks and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq are a through line. We’re meant to understand that these are stories of people in wartime, peculiar people during a peculiar war, a distant, endless war. Bark alludes to Abu Ghraib, Obama’s 2008 campaign, and the recession, but current events remain for the most part offstage. Politics are invoked but rarely shape choice or fate in these stories (the way they did in her 2009 novel, A Gate at the Stairs, which dealt explicitly with immigration and interracial adoption). They fade into backdrop for the more exigent narratives: the love stories. How could they compete? Moore’s real subject has always been Heterosexuality and Its Discontents. Her chosen people are the lovelorn.

And what an irresistible bunch of characters she conjures up: star-crossed midwesterners terrifically intimidated by their children and worried about their lawns. They are sweet, in a concussed kind of way. They suffer with great élan. In an interview with the New York Times early in her career, Moore spoke of discovering Margaret Atwood’s work: “For the first time I read fiction about women who were not goddesses or winners. In some way they were victims, but they weren’t wimps. They were stylish about their victimization.” This could be a thrifty description of Moore’s own characters; their spouses desert them, but their wit never does. “If you’re suicidal,” says one, “and you don’t actually kill yourself, you become known as ‘wry.’” It’s as if Raymond Carver’s characters preferred wordplay to whiskey. Take the depressed divorcé from “Debarking”: “He did not like stressful moments in restaurants. They caused his mind to wander strangely to random thoughts like Why are these things called napkins rather than lapkins? or I’ll bet God really loves butter.”) They are prone to private revolutions, tart one-liners (“He had never been involved with the mentally ill before, but he now felt more than ever that there should be strong international laws against them being too good-looking”), joyless couplings. “Hey, cutie,” a man calls to his wife “after not having looked her in the eye for two months. It was like being snowbound with someone’s demented uncle: Should marriage be like that? She wasn’t sure.” You’ll notice that Moore’s characters continue to sound alike—and have sounded alike for almost thirty years, since Self-Help was published in 1985. At its best, this sameness of voice and unremitting archness give her work a Wildean luster. At its worst, the compulsive punning is just punishing (sorry): “He was really into English country dancing. Where eventually he met a lass. Alas.”

Even the title is a gag. The word “bark” crops up throughout the book, in different contexts and with different meanings, connoting, most often, human laughter, involuntary laughter mingled with scorn and surprise. It’s the harsh music of this collection, which has a looser weave than Moore’s other books. From what she described as the “feminine emergencies” and experimentalism of her early books, Self-Help and Anagrams, and the hard glitter of Birds of America, she’s now settled on a simpler structure and more muted tone: An encounter with a stranger forces a muffled epiphany and a languid denouement. Again and again, she assembles the powder keg, strikes a match—and blows it out. She still writes complex melodies for the ear—the sentences are full of sprung rhythms and internal rhymes (“The yard had already grown muddy with March and the flower beds were greening with the tiniest sprigs of stinkweed and quack grass”)—but narratively, there’s less shock and more mystery. We get ragged plotlines, a ruminative homage to Nabokov, a gentle ghost story, characters suspended in amber, mystified by their own paralysis.

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On ‘The Wind in the Willows’

NPR. org, December 27, 2013

Listen on All Things Considered

We want simple things from books in winter — or at least I do. I want a vindication of my desire to loaf, laze, retreat from the world, the assurances, in short, of The Wind in the Willows, whose edicts are sane and just: “No animal, according to the rules of animal-etiquette, is ever expected to do anything strenuous, or heroic, or even moderately active during the off-season of winter.”

 

A Year in Reading

Picture 17By Parul Sehgal, The Millions, Dec. 17, 2013

The plan was to have an orderly Year in Reading. To finally fill the gaps, dammit, to scale The Magic Mountain and read Hollinghurst properly instead of flipping around for the filthy bits. To read sitting up for a change — like a human adult — rather than burrowing in bedclothes like a vole.

But it was comfort I craved, reliable pleasures: Anne Carson and Elizabeth Hardwick, Sarah Waters’s novels, Virginia Woolf’s diaries, Zadie Smith’s essays, Martin Amis’s reviews (on Malcolm Lowry: “To make a real success of being an alcoholic, to go all the way with it, you need to be other things too: shifty, unfastidious, solipsistic, insecure and indefatigable. Lowry was additionally equipped with an extra-small penis, which really seemed to help.”). I read so much Larkin I worried I’d start sprouting anti-Indian attitudes myself.

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On ‘Art as Therapy’ by Alan de Botton

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, December 13, 2013

Who’s afraid of Alain de Botton? At 43, he’s already an elder in the church of self-help, the master of spinning sugary “secular sermons” out of literature (“How Proust Can Change Your Life”), philosophy (“The Consolations of Philosophy”), architecture (“The Architecture of Happiness”). He has a remarkably guileless face and a friendly, populist vision of art. Why then do I keep checking my pockets? And why the grumbles that he condescends to his subjects and regards his readers, as the British writer Lynn Barber put it, as “ants”?

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On ‘The Twenty-Seventh City’ by Jonathan Franzen

By Parul Sehgal, The Slate Book Review, Nov. 8, 2013

Some books ought to be allowed to molder in peace. Jonathan Franzen’s first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City, published in 1988, is a paranoid conspiracy novel, the kind of thing that doesn’t age well—and hasn’t. It has earned some rest. But it’s been trotted out for its 25th anniversary, and to make matters worse, saddled with a new introduction, a moist and ghastly piece of writing by an academic named Philip Weinstein. “Most readers know about Jonathan Franzen by now,” Weinstein writes. “One of our darling novelists, an earnest bad boy.” He tells us everything about the book—its excellent reception, its ambition and prescience—everything except how roundly Franzen has denounced it.

9781250046703The Twenty-Seventh City is one big mask,” Franzen told the Paris Review in 2010. “I was a skinny, scared kid trying to write a big novel. The mask I donned was that of a rhetorically airtight, extremely smart, extremely middle-aged writer. To write about what was really going on in me with respect to my parents, with respect to my wife, with respect to my sense of self, with respect to my masculinity—there was just no way I could bring that to the surface.”

What Franzen was capable of bringing to the surface is a hectic homage to Pynchon and DeLillo that springs from an appealing, slightly porn-y premise. The year is “somewhat like 1984,” and three Indian women—a chief of police, a princess, and a junkie—orchestrate a real estate scam in St. Louis with the help of its most prominent citizens, who they sexually manipulate into submission. The police chief (and mastermind) S. Jammu meets her foil in virtuous Martin Probst, who is almost “Christ-like in his incorruptibility.” To win him over, she tries to induce in him something she calls “the State,” a confused compliance that takes over once an individual has been stripped of everything he values. Jammu arranges for Probst’s teenage daughter to run away from home and has an operative seduce and kidnap his wife. Then she goes to work on Probst with her own subtler weapons.

I confess I’m making the book sound more entertaining than it is. Rarely has a novel about municipal politics so evoked the feeling of municipal politics: the tedium, the needless busywork. On every page Franzen heaves around evidence of his research on everything from St. Louis tax laws to Indira Gandhi’s suppression of civil liberties. On every page is the palpable anxiety—anxiety that feels specifically male—to prove that writing is labor. Franzen’s own parents “actively discouraged” his work, he has said: “They considered art of all kinds, including creative writing, frivolous.” Hence this book, perhaps, its suspicion of beauty and pleasure that seems like an ethical stance. The son of a civil engineer is proving to his father that he could build a city (and destroy it).

“I see a 25-year-old with a very compromised sense of masculinity,” Franzen says in that Paris Review interview. “There was a direct transfer of libido to the brain—this was my way of leaving the penis out of the equation and going with what I knew I had, which was that I was smarter than most people.”

An Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri

By Parul Sehgal, photograph: Liana Miuccio, ELLE India, September 2013

I meet Jhumpa Lahiri in Brooklyn on a hot, blue morning in August. Such is her reputation for reserve that I’m expecting a Bengali Garbo—or at least the woman from her author photo, with hair pulled back severely; wary, light eyes; arms shielding her body. Standing at the doorstep of her brownstone, I feel briefly ashamed in my mission, like I’ve been deployed to divest a turtle of its shell.

But she greets me in a sundress and sandals, her hair loose on her shoulders. At 46, she has a tense, tawny beauty, with a formality that falls away almost immediately.

Her home is warm and bright, and we chat in a busy room full of books about Italian architecture and children’s toys that look vaguely medieval in function. Her 11-year-old son, Octavio, finishes breakfast at the table and her daughter, nine-year-old Noor, lolls on the sofa next to me, playing a game on her iPad. We’ve barely been talking for 20 minutes when the doorbell rings. Her publisher has sent over a package (addressed to “JHUNPA LAHIN”) containing the first proof copies of The Lowland. The jacket is white, the title a chocolate slant, almost the color of dried blood.

“What do you think?” she asks her daughter. Turning the book over in her hands, Lahiri catches sight of the praise, the blurbs, the bio on the back. “Let’s not look at that,” she says, and I’m not sure if she’s talking to me or to herself. She puts the book down on the coffee table, face up, and doesn’t touch it again.

In that same modest, measured way, she discusses the attention her work has received. Since she made her debut in 1999 with Interpreter of Maladies, she’s produced a book every five years or so, each one a critical and popular success. Her first book won the Pulitzer Prize; her second, The Namesake (2003), was made into film directed by Mira Nair. Her third, Unaccustomed Earth (2008), hit number one on The New York Times Bestseller list and was awarded the Frank O’Connor Prize. And The Lowland, out this month, has already been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

She was happy to hear about the nomination, she says, for the freedom that recognition affords her. “My writing has always come from a place where I feel—and need to feel—completely alone and anonymous,” she tells me. “I’m very grateful for the attention because it allows me to keep working, which is what I love. But I have to seal myself off from it, absolutely negate it, because the writing won’t come otherwise. It’s such an intimate thing; I can’t do it in front of other people. It’s a rich dimension in one’s head – to access it, the noise has to be shut off. And there is a lot of noise in the world.”

That noise has been, on occasion, critical. There is a dissenting minority when it comes to Lahiri’s work—critics who have dismissed her (along with Arundhati Roy and Zadie Smith) as just “part of the late ’90s fad for beautiful young women novelists with Commonwealth roots,” those who have called her representation of the immigrant experience inauthentic or her depictions of India naive. For all her plain prose, Lahiri is divisive—unsurprising, perhaps, when you consider how eccentric a writer she really is, and how compulsively she has been drawn to variations on a single theme: The confusion, alienation and trauma of her parents’ migration to America. But that chatter feels very far away from the bright room we’re sitting in. Here, the talk is of work, of the stealth and patience that writing requires. “It’s all in the dark, all feeling around,” she says. “For me, it’s not a rational process at all. It’s living and breathing with the characters. Working with them. And slowly, they come to life, the story comes to life. That’s how it’s always been.”

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Holding On Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore

9780374107291_p0_v2_s260x420Linda Leavell, Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 480 pages. $30.

By Parul Sehgal, Bookforum, September 2013

Call it the Curious Case of Marianne Moore. She was an American Athena, spawned by no particular school but championed by every major poet of her generation. Her poems are Wonderlands populated by spiny creatures and pools of sudden malice, where language is precisely used and used precisely. She was also a beloved pop icon, instantly recognizable in her tricorne hat. She threw the first pitch for the Yankees in 1968, palled around with Norman Mailer and Muhammad Ali, and was invited by Ford to name a new car. The New York Times noted her death in 1972 on page one. She continues to anticipate us with her enthusiasm for data and sampling texts, her horror of sentimentality.

Biographies, wrote Auden, are “always superfluous and usually in bad taste.” I’m inclined to believe he’d make an exception in the case of Holding On Upside Down, a new book about his great friend Moore. It’s deliberate and sensitive—“creeping slowly as with meditated stealth,” in Moore’s words—capable of containing her many contradictions, most notably her desires for recognition and privacy.

Moore left behind thirty-five thousand letters but few clues to her personality. She strove, as Frost wrote, “to keep the overcurious out of the secret places of my mind both in my verse and in my letters,” and she largely succeeded. Her biographer Linda Leavell admits, “Eight years and six hundred draft pages into the project, I realized that while I had come to know [Moore’s mother and brother] Mary and Warner rather well, I still knew little about Marianne.” Eventually, Leavell determines that the poems are “the best record of her inner life,” and turns to them as a primary source of information— with mixed results.

She reads the poems as gnomic journal entries. Thus “The Fish,” an inky philosophical whorl, becomes a coded reference to a rift in the family, an interpretation based on a single image: water driving “a / wedge / of iron through the iron edge / of the cliff.” The book falters when Leavell goes this far, and she frequently goes this far. She comes to conclusions like (and I shudder to type this): “The most significant legacy of Marianne’s kindergarten experience is her almost instant affinity, when she encountered it in the early twentieth century, for the work of other moderns.”

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Lost And Found: 5 Forgotten Classics Worth Revisiting

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By Parul Sehgal, NPR, July 16, 2013

I don’t remember when I first realized that books could go away, that they could — and did — pass into obscurity or out of print. Myra Breckinridge by Gore Vidal, All About H. Hatterr by G.V. Desani, Speedboat by Renata Adler, the sublime An Armful of Warm Girl by W.M. Spackman. Each of them, snuffed out. It seemed a scandal. But I vividly recall becoming aware that particular books were prone. To take chances with language or form was to court extinction.

But every now and then, if the moment is right, if the culture is finally ready or a champion found, these books return. (Most of the novels mentioned above have been brought back into print, though Myra has not. Vidal’s heroine so intent on “the destruction” of the American male still waits for her moment.) This summer I’m reading and recommending books that have been restored to us, that have been reissued, reimagined or — in one instance — presumed lost and discovered for the first time.

9780345803702_custom-97164fcdf4054bc80821ebeefcb800f012307739-s2-c85My Last Breath: The Autobiography by Luis Buñuel

Luis Buñuel, Paperback, 256 pages
I’ve long loved this strange, slanted little book for its offhand genius and excellent gossip. But I used it to prop up a wobbly table in Calcutta in 2003 and haven’t seen it since. It’s been reissued, and I’m happy to find it as remarkable as I recall. Like any surrealist masterpiece, it’s playful, subversive and (frequently) baffling.
Devoted to protecting the “essential mystery in all things,” Buñuel doesn’t excavate the past or take us behind the scenes of Belle de Jour (a pity). It’s not information he cares for, or veracity, but wisdom and beauty; not memories but the act of remembering. Scenes come to us highly aestheticized. In one early memory, Bunuel walks with his father in an olive grove. They come across a strong, very sweet odor, and then the bloated body of a dead donkey. Around the carcass, vultures staggered, too full to fly. He’s a confident, discursive writer eager to riff on what he loves (“vast damp forests wreathed in fog,” “little tools like pliers,” firearms) and loathes (crowds, Borges, newspapers). He recounts meeting Hitchcock, collaborating with Dali, mourning Federico Garcia Lorca, attempting an orgy with Charlie Chaplin. He settles scores and spills his friends’ secrets shamelessly. On the topic of Dali’s sexual proclivities he tells us that the painter was fond of seducing American heiresses, but being almost entirely asexual, “those seductions usually entailed stripping them naked in his apartment, frying a couple of eggs, putting them on the women’s shoulders, and, without a word, showing them to the door.”

Unmastered: A Book on Desire Most Difficult to Tell

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By Parul Sehgal, Slate, June 7, 2013

Angel asks the same questions we always ask about desire: Why do I like what I like? Am I wrong to like what I like? and Why is it so hard to ask these questions anyway? But she poses them stylishly. The book edges forward in fragments—aphorisms, accusations, snatches of pillow talk. On every page, a riddle or two. On every page, an eel of text.

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