The Italian Teacher (2018) – Tom Rachman
Comedy in a Minor Key (1947) – Hans Keilson
Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books (2016) – Ursula Le Guin
Upstream: Selected Essays (2016) – Mary Oliver
My two favorite books in July also happened to be two “slender volumes”—Keilson’s novel Comedy in a Minor Key and Oliver’s essay collection “Upstream.” Even though the two together added up to barely 300 pages, they each held me rapt in their words far longer than did the other two books.
The Keilson novel sat on my “To Read” shelf in our living room for years. I first learned of him when Francine Prose profiled him for the New York Times in 2010. Keilson, a Jewish German/Dutch novelist and physician, had been in the Dutch Resistance during WWII and set many of his works in the war years. He celebrated his 100th birthday in 2009, and in 2010 two of his most well known (in Europe) novels, Comedy in a Minor Key (1947) and The Death of the Adversary (1959), came out in English. I chose Comedy over Death for my shelf. Keilson died in 2011, and the book continued to sit on the shelf. I don’t know what prompted me to pick it up this summer. It’s not exactly a beach read. But I am very glad that I did. An ordinary young Dutch couple, Wim, a bookkeeper in a factory, and Marie, a housewife, have been hiding a Jew, Nico, during the last days of the Nazi occupation. Nico dies of pneumonia while with them, and they are faced with having to dispose of his body. Of course, there is nothing “ordinary” about this at all, as the perilous task could expose them. Keilson’s quiet, elegant story-telling makes the extraordinary courage and compassion of the couple, and others in their community who are also part of the Resistance with them, both more real and more miraculous than any melodramatic rendition could have done.
In five sections, Mary Oliver’s Upstream offers essays on nature, literature, and Cape Cod. They span her life, from her childhood in a suburb of Cleveland through her nearly 50 years of living in Provincetown. (She only recently relocated to Florida.) The middle section’s studies of Emerson, Poe, Whitman and Wordsworth were a little too close to literary criticism for me, bringing back memories of graduate school. I sped through those. But every one of the essays in the other four sections was a delight to read. Oliver is, of course, a poet. And her word choice is so finely tuned, the detail so precise, that you see what she is seeing and feel what she is feeling, whether it is delight or discovery or, very rarely, despair. Here is her description of turtles in egg-laying season:
They come, lumbering, from the many ponds. They dare the dangers of path, dogs, the highway, the accumulating heat that their bodies cannot regulate, or the equally stunning, always possible cold.
Take one. She has reached the edge of the road, now she slogs up the impossible hill. When she slides back she rests for a while, then trundles forward again. Emerging wet from the glittering caves of the pond, she travels in a coat of glass and dust. (p. 51)
And you don’t have to be a woodsman or “outdoorsy” person to enjoy reading these essays. (I went camping in the Adirondacks once, and once was enough.) Read the essays for the pleasure of witnessing a master at work.
On the surface, the content of Le Guin’s Words Are My Matter resembles Lorrie Moore’s See What Can Be Done. (See Month of Books April/May.) The sections are:
Talks, Essays, Occasional Pieces
Book Intros and Notes on Writers
Just the kind of stuff I love to read. In spite of the similarity, though, I could not warm to the Le Guin material in the same way I warmed to Moore’s. Le Guin’s use of language enlightened but (at least for me) didn’t entertain, so I was reading on only one level. And she was often pretty grumpy, whether about the dire state of the publishing industry, clutched in the paws of giant corporations (inarguable), or about her unhappiness that science fiction (about which I know nothing) is always treated as a second-tier genre. The not trivial number of negative reviews she chose to include surprised me. In particular, she was a bit rough on Margaret Atwood. I couldn’t help feeling that in those reviews lurked some underlying envy that Atwood’s dystopian novels were treated as mainstream. (In Le Guin’s judgment, the novels of Atwood and Jan Morris should be categorized as Sci-Fi.) On the positive side, I wholeheartedly agreed with her on several of her conclusions: not a fan of Wallace Stegner, big fan of Kent Haruf and José Saramago. The best part of the book was in the last 15 pages: a 1994 journal of a week at a women writers’ retreat north of Seattle. In these pages I saw Le Guin the writer rather than the critic, and I liked her very much. She captured the evolution of her initial unease about even attending the retreat into her deep appreciation for the natural setting, the friendships that developed and, ultimately, the writing that grew out of her stay: “all the beauty, the sunlight, the rabbits, the deer, the walks, the good fellowship of the younger women, the sweet deep silence of the nights, and the waking to see the treetops through the tulip window of the loft in the first light—all that was gravy.” Her descriptions of “all that” were the meat of the piece for me.
I won’t spend much time on Tom Rachman’s The Italian Teacher. I had very much enjoyed his 2010 novel The Imperfectionists, but this one disappointed. The basic tale is the classic one of a son, overshadowed by a famous father (in this case, a renowned painter), who dwells in that shadow his whole life, never reaching any heights in anything that he chooses to do, including becoming a painter himself. The interesting story embedded in the chronicle of the son’s life is that the son, as an adult, actually copies his father’s paintings and fraudulently sells them. But even that episode peters out. Olga Grushin in a New York Times review reacted to this section with, “I, for one, found it highly ambiguous and not a little horrifying. Yet so apparent are Rachman’s humanity and intelligence throughout that this ambiguity must be fully intended.” I don’t share her assumption that the ambiguity was intended. The book felt as though he had written quickly and just had to wind things up. I’m not sure Rachman even took the time to let an editor go over it before publication. Surely an editor would have objected to the sentence construction of a character “deploring himself” and to Rachman’s sloppy overuse of adverbs, e.g., “Grinningly, Pinch waves this away.” That one would have had such an easy fix!
(So speaks the former English teacher…)