The first copies of my novel Necessary Errors have arrived from the printer! On sale August 6.
Over at the New Yorker‘s Page-Turner blog, I write about stumbling across War in Heaven, a 1930 novel by Charles Williams about satanism, publishing, and the Holy Grail.
I’m pleased to introduce the cover to my forthcoming novel, Necessary Errors, which will be published by Penguin as a paperback original and an e-book in August. The cover is visible at the top of the right-hand column of this webpage—it’s the one in light blue. If you click on it, or if you direct your browser to necessaryerrors.com, you’ll be led to a webpage for the book, hosted on this blog, which reprints the advance praise that a few early readers have been kind enough to send along.
Also, for the very curious, below is what the jacket for the advance reader’s copy looks like. It has what are known as French flaps, as the finished book will—though the finished book will look slightly different in other respects.
The English writer Elizabeth Taylor drew on her real-life affair with the painter Ray Russell in her 1951 novel A Game of Hide and Seek, and earlier this year, in the introduction that I wrote to the New York Review Books Classics reprint, I mentioned this long-secret fact lying behind her fiction:
Taylor and Russell exchanged hundreds of letters. . . . She burned all the letters in her possession. “Every single loving word you have written to me is gone,” she wrote to him. “I cannot endure the thought of it. No one has ever written to me like that before, or said such wonderful things to me, & now I have nothing left.” She seems to have asked him to destroy hers as well, but he copied her early letters into a notebook before doing so, modestly changing some of the names as he transcribed. Later, apparently repenting of even this much discretion, he resumed saving the letters she sent. Their survival, and the fact of Taylor’s affair with Russell, was disclosed in Nicola Beauman’s 2009 biography, The Other Elizabeth Taylor.
Evidently Ray Russell saved Elizabeth Taylor’s books as well, because his collection of her works, including several inscribed by her to him, are now for sale from the London booksellers Bertram Rota Ltd. The inscriptions seem quite formal. “Ray from Elizabeth,” most of them read. The fact that Russell kept twenty-four of her books seems more revealing. Beauman wrote in her biography that Russell “never fully accepted that [Taylor] had broken with him.”
My essay “Melville’s Secrets” will be published in the September issue of Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies. A subscription to the journal is sent to all members of the Melville Society, so join now (you can use Paypal and do it all online), if you’d like a copy. The essay is a mild revision of the Walter Harding lecture that I gave at SUNY Geneseo in September 2010.
I’m very happy to announce that Penguin will be publishing my novel Necessary Errors as a paperback original in 2013. My editor will be Allison Lorentzen; the deal was negotiated by Sarah Chalfant of the Wylie Agency.
The title comes from a phrase in an Auden poem. I haven’t yet quite risen to the challenge of saying what the novel is about; when asked, I murmur, “Youth,” and gesture vaguely and wistfully upward. But it’s probably too soon to say more to the world at large anyway. More news in a year or so!
Over at the Paris Review Daily, I have an essay up about the mixed feelings that a writer is subject to when it’s time to let go of a book.
Diderot defends what novelists do, in his essay "In Praise of Richardson":
You accuse Richardson of boring passages! You must have forgotten how much it costs in efforts, attentions, moves to make the smallest undertaking succeed, to end a lawsuit, to conclude a marriage, to bring off a reconciliation. Think what you like of these details; but I'm going to find them interesting if they're true, if they bring out passions, if they show people's characters.
They're commonplace, you say; they're what one sees every day! You're mistaken; they're what takes place in front of your eyes every day that you never see. Be careful; you're putting the greatest poets in the dock, under Richardson's name. A hundred times you've seen the sun set and the stars rise; you've heard the countryside echo with song breaking forth from birds; but who among you has felt that it was the noise of the day that rendered the silence of the night so touching? All right, well, there are moral phenomena that exist for you the same way physical phenomena do: outbreaks of the passions have often reached your ears; but you are very far from knowing all that there is in the way of secrets in their tones and in their expressions. There's not a single one that doesn't have its own physiognomy; all these physiognomies appear in succession on a face, without its ceasing to be the same; and the art of the great poet and of the great painter is to show you a fugitive circumstance that had escaped your notice.
I'm tempted to do something I don't usually do: write critically of a book that I have no intention of finishing. The book in question bothered me. I've been tussling with my botheration, trying to figure out what exactly I disliked, and I wonder if it will clarify my objections if I try to put them into words. Since it doesn't seem quite fair to the book to judge it without finishing it, I'm not going to name it or its author. This disguise is not meant to be impenetrable. Please understand the anonymity as a polite veil, not at all hard for an internet user of average resourcefulness to tear away.
As a reviewer, I'm sent a fair number of books by publishers, and I don't remember whether I happen to have requested this one, though I suspect I didn't. It arrived while I was suffering from a mild fever, a condition that's relevant because I won't be able to get to the bottom of my final dislike of the book unless I start with its initial appeal, which was considerable. I was feeling muzzy, bored, and a little vulnerable. My attention had been tenderized by a sick-day's indulgence in Twitter. The book in question is a novel, written in the first person. In the first few pages, in simple and declarative sentences, modestly spiced with British slang, the heroine-narrator lets herself be seduced into a risky sexual encounter. She enjoys herself intensely—the experience seems to fracture an idea of herself that she has—but she doesn't seem to have done this kind of thing before, and it isn't at all clear that she's going to be all right.
I kept reading, conscious that the plain grammar (subject-verb-object) and the explicit sex suited the debilitated state of my mind. The sentences practically read themselves. Sometimes, as a writer, one is aware that one also has the specious motive of doing something so as to be able to write about it later, and my conscious rationalization for continuing the novel included the somewhat recursive notion that if I did continue to read, I might be able to mine the experience for an essay about the kind of book that appealed to people who were spending too much time on Twitter and whose brains were befogged by toxins, viral or otherwise—about the limitations that the novel as a genre might have to accept in order to seize and hold attention in the current environment.
Less consciously, I had perhaps identified with the heroine, as someone who, like myself in an earlier era of my life, was putting herself in danger through a sexual responsiveness that she didn't understand.
My resistance to the text first became conscious to me in questions of style. Though technically written in the past tense, the short, plain sentences and their narrow time-focus gave the impression of a story unrolling in the present tense only. The heroine never thought about her past, though visits with a grandmother and with parents suggested that she did have one. She never reflected on how she had come to have the career that she did, or what had drawn her to her best friend, let alone on how she had become so cut off from her inner life that she could only return to it through episodes of violent, near-anonymous sex. This limitation in the telling of the story seemed one, however, with the urgency of the story's appeal. The narrator was Everywoman; the reader was not put at a distance by any details of her past or by any elements of her personality that the reader might not happen to share. On the contrary, the reader was constantly being invited to join in a fantasy: What if I were to have an irresponsible fling? What if I were to antagonize my friends? What if I were to mess up my safe but boring job? There was no awareness of anything in the heroine's life or mind that might hold her back. She was completely free. Or, to look at another way, her vanity and neediness were uncompromised by any consideration of other people as beings just as real as she was. The book began to remind me of Jay McInerny's Bright Lights, Big City, which I read twenty years ago when I was under the impression that I ought to keep up with best-sellers; the transgression began to seem monotonous in a similar way.
Because of the narrow focus—limited to the narrative's present, and to the perceptions of a narrator not motivated to understand anyone around her—a number of scenes had the flat feeling-tone of a certain kind of comedy routine, which depends for its success on the audience's collusion in a sadistic ridicule or dismissal of embarrassing feelings. Some of these scenes "worked" as jokes, but on second thought, seemed unlikely to be able to "work" in the real world. In one such scene, the heroine half-jestingly hits some children that she has been asked to take care of, and the children respond by precociously and coldly turning against her and voicing their hatred of her. I found myself thinking, well, in fact it is kind of awful of the heroine to have hit the children, but I doubt that real children would be able to find on such short notice sufficient insight and sufficient confidence to punish a faulty caregiver. In another scene, the heroine undresses while drunk for a man who is disgusted by her drunkenness, and I found myself thinking that if this character was charming enough to hold my interest as a reader, she probably wouldn't be the sort who, even drunk, would so badly misjudge the responsiveness of a potential suitor. In real life, she would have noticed his recoil, even through the haze of alcohol, before going quite so far.
I stopped reading when I found myself resorting to diagnosis of the characters. The heroine becomes obsessed with the man she has the sexual encounter with, despite his commandeering, abusive manner, or maybe because of it. He is portrayed as someone at ease with himself—at ease with his sadism and manipulation. Oh, I thought, a sociopath, charming and dangerous. And the heroine's focus on connection with him as the only source of meaning in her life: Oh, I thought, she's a borderline personality, who disintegrates unless she maintains contact yet needs the drama of always falling out of contact. It occurred to me that in real life the story of these two people would be so exhausting to hear about that it would be hard to stay focused, while listening, on how sad it was. In real life, it would end badly, unless disrupted by care and insight. It would probably end badly even if it were disrupted by care and insight. One way for it to end would be by his killing her. I thought of a book with a similar setup (whose plot and ending I will implicitly be giving away, in order to make my analogy, so look away if you need to), Muriel Spark's The Driver's Seat, though Spark's heroine understands herself in a way that this novel's heroine does not seem to. Though I admire Spark and would be happy to re-read her Girls of Slender Means or Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I didn't enjoy The Driver's Seat and have no intention of ever re-reading it. Once I made the comparison, I couldn't bear to keep reading the novel at hand—the thought of having to sit through the tedium of a borderline's relationship with a sociopath, only to be punished for my patience with an unhappy ending, was too much.
Does he kill her? I flipped to the end. (Spoiler ahead, obviously; if you think you might track down this book and read it despite me, stop reading now.) It turns out that the author—in a reversal of expectations that to my eye again functions better as a joke than as a plausible rendering of human experience—gives her heroine the opportunity and the strength of purpose to kill her beloved torturer. I don't think this is really a happier ending than it would be if he killed her; it certainly wasn't an ending that I wanted to spend any amount of time or effort reaching, once I knew it. What keeps Spark's Driver's Seat interesting (though it remains unpleasant) is that the borderline personality in that novel fails to find the sociopath she's looking for and has to make do with another personality type altogether, by blackmailing him. There's no such complexity of motive and outcome in the new novel. I don't think the unexpected reversal would have any chance of convincing a reader if it weren't for the stylistic constraints on its telling, which make it harder to see how unlikely it is—if it weren't for the impairments that also function as appetite stimulants.
Admittedly, I broke the rules of the reader-writer contract. It's possible that if I read every word of the novel in sequence, I would find the reversal of roles at the end psychologically plausible. I doubt it, though. I suspect that if such "funny," impoverished consciousness—the final triumph of "showing" over "telling," in the specious language of writing instruction—is the only way to hold attention in a splintered world, the novel is in trouble. If the novel must always be recapturing the reader's attention, by prurient means, the novel is in the plight of a needy borderline, doomed to tedious pursuit of the cruel, elusive reader, who alternates between taking his pleasure from the book and dropping it for more compelling pleasures elsewhere. My own reading pattern here—beginning to read almost in scorn for the book, finding itches scratched by it almost despite myself, ultimately dismissing and abandoning the book—is weirdly complicit. I've even kept my encounter with the book, like the heroine's with her sociopath lover, anonymous, as if my meeting with this book were somehow disreputable for both of us. I must have fallen more under its spell than I realized. For the sake of disenchantment, then, maybe I should reveal the name of the book after all: True Things About Me, by Deborah Kay Davies. It comes out next week in paperback from Faber & Faber.
If a thing is weighing on one’s mind—a topic, say, like 18th-century tea smuggling or political paranoia—one tends to find it even when one isn’t looking for it. While reading novels, for example.
Americans were far from being the only people in the eighteenth century who smuggled tea. In fact, the ratio between the tax on East India Company tea and its underlying price was so high that it eventually became a classic example in economics of the way that overburdensome regulation may encourage illegality, and awareness of the problem seems to have spilled over from economics into literature quite early on. While researching “Tea and Antipathy,” I happened to read John Galt’s Annals of the Parish (1821), a charming novel that Galt himself liked to think of as a “local theoretical history.” The book is written in the voice of Reverend Micah Balwhidder, a Presbyterian minister, recently retired, who has decided to set down an account of his life in the Scottish parish of Dalmailing. Each year gets its own chapter, in which Reverend Balwhidder, with a guileless lack of self-awareness, summarizes the doings in Dalmailing, spiritual and nonspiritual. In 1761, the most remarkable thing in Dalmailing was the smuggling of tea and hard liquor:
It was in this year that the great smuggling trade corrupted all the west coast . . . . The tea was going like the chaff, the brandy like well-water, and the wastrie of all things was terrible. There was nothing minded but the riding of cadgers [sellers] by day, and excisemen by night—and battles between the smugglers and King’s men, both by sea and land. . . . I did all that was in the power of nature to keep my people from the contagion; I preached sixteen times from the text, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. I visited and I exhorted; I warned and I prophesied; I told them, that, although the money came in like slate stones, it would go like the snow off the dyke. But for all I could do, the evil got in among us. . . .
Indeed, a year later, in 1762, the evil has made its way into Reverend Balwhidder’s own home, in part on account of the charitable interest he takes in an indigent widow, Mrs. Malcolm, who has begun selling tea. “I lost some of my dislike to the tea,” the minister admits.
It did no harm to the head of the drinkers, which was not always the case with the possets that were in fashion before . . . ; so, both for its temperance, and on account of Mrs Malcolm’s sale, I refrained from the November in this year to preach against tea.
By 1778, when the rage for smuggling returns, Rev. Balwhidder is not above chuckling over the story of a woman who has hidden a stash of smuggled tea in her mattress ticking and lies on top of it, feigning to a customs officer that it’s her deathbed. Loosened from strict virtue by time and his affections, the reverend even goes so far as to observe, “Of all the manifold ills in the train of smuggling, surely the excisemen are the worst.”
Not long after, while reading Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), I unexpectedly came across some 18th-century political paranoia—in particular, the variety known as the 18th-century Commonwealthman tradition. In chapter 19, the Vicar, Dr. Primrose, is invited to dine at the home of Wilkinson, a man so interested in politics that he reads six newspapers, seventeen magazines, and two reviews. Wilkinson complains that George III hasn’t let himself be managed the way a king ought to let himself be managed:
I don’t think there has been a sufficient number of advisers: he should advise with every person willing to give him advice, and then we should have things done in anotherguess manner.
When the Vicar protests that such management would be meddling, a lady calls him “sordid” and indignantly apostrophizes “Liberty, that sacred gift of heaven!” Wilkinson, too, takes offense: “Can it be possible . . . that there should be any found at present advocates for slavery? Any who are for meanly giving up the privileges of Britons?”
This was the lingo of the 18th-century Commonwealthman, which Goldsmith disliked, and the Vicar—or Goldsmith, in the Vicar’s voice—proceeds to dress Wilkinson down. The way he does so is rather interesting to an observer in 21st-century America, where income inequality is higher than it has ever been. The Vicar argues that the antimonarchical rhetoric of people like Wilkinson is obfuscatory piffle served up by rich oligarchs, who resent the king’s power as an interference with theirs—as interference with the manipulation by the wealthy of the poor and the oppression by the wealthy of the middle class:
It is the interest of the great . . . to diminish kingly power as much as possible; because whatever they take from that is naturally restored to themselves; and all they have to do in the state, is to undermine the single tyrant, by which they resume their primaeval authority. Now, the state may be so circumstanced, or its laws may be so disposed, or its men of opulence so minded, as all to conspire in carrying on this business of undermining monarchy. For . . . if the circumstances of our state be such, as to favour the accumulation of wealth, and make the opulent still more rich, this will encrease their ambition. . . . Now the possessor of accumulated wealth, when furnished with the necessaries and pleasures of life, has no other method to employ the superfluity of his fortune but in purchasing power. That is, differently speaking, in making dependants, by purchasing the liberty of the needy or the venal . . . the rabble of mankind, whose souls and whose education are adapted to servitude. . . . But there must still be a large number of the people without the sphere of the opulent man’s influence. . . . In this middle order of mankind are generally to be found all the arts, wisdom, and virtues of society. This order alone is known to be the true preserver of freedom, and may be called the People. Now it may happen that this middle order of mankind may lose all its influence in a state, and its voice be in a manner drowned in that of the rabble: . . . In such a state, . . . all that the middle order has left, is to preserve the prerogative and privileges of the one principal governor with the most sacred circumspection. For he divides the power of the rich, and calls off the great from falling with tenfold weight on the middle order placed beneath them.
A strong central government, the Vicar insists, is the middle class’s safest ally. The rich demonize such a government as tyrannical, because no other force in society is capable of standing up to wealth. Should the rich succeed in fooling even the middle class into distrust of government, the result will be a country where “the laws govern the poor, and the rich govern the law.”
The contradiction outrages Wilkinson. Before Wilkinson can throw the Vicar out of the house, though, Wilkinson’s master and mistress come home: it turns out that Wilkinson is really no more than a butler.