- The Beginner’s Goodbye—Anne Tyler
- 36 Arguments for the Existence of God—Rebecca Goldstein
- Don’t Let the Bastards Grind You Down: How One Generation of British Actors Changed the World—Robert Sellers
- A Giacometti Portrait—James Lord
- The Submission—Amy Waldman
- Grace Williams Says It Loud—Emma Henderson
- Skylark—Dezsö Kosztolányi
I have been writing in these pages for nearly ten years, on and off, so I’m long past the point where I’m worried about repeating myself. I hope you’re long past that point too, if you’ve been here since the beginning. I hope you treat this column as if it were your favorite chocolate bar: you’ve consumed something not just similar but exactly the same in the last few weeks, but you like it, and it’s been a while since the last one, so it’s OK. And if you follow those serving suggestions, you may actually be surprised every now and again, because it’s not as if I say the same things about the same books every month. The ingredients are the same, sure, but at least the column has the virtue of being wildly inconsistent.
As you have probably guessed, I am about to repeat myself. I have said it before, every time Tyler has published a novel in the last decade, and I hope I have many opportunities to say it again: Anne Tyler changed my life. Before I started reading her books, back in the 1980s, I had no idea that novelists were allowed to do what she did, and still does, namely, write with simplicity, intelligence, humor, and heart about domestic life. Many years later, I realized that she had been given permission because she’s a genius, but the blessing and the curse of her gift is that it seems effortless, and as a consequence she makes lots of idiots, this one included, think that they can do it too. It has also, I suspect, led lots of other idiots to underrate her as a writer. Yes, she’s won a Pulitzer, and she frequently gets ecstatic reviews, yet her seriousness and her craft are so user-friendly that she still doesn’t get the credit she deserves. She is a living American great, right up there with anyone you can think of, but her sympathy for her characters, and her determination to find redemption even for the most hopeless of them, sometimes leads to her being patronized by those critics who need writers to make a song and dance about their profundity and their worth.
Tyler has had a career that, I suspect, is unrepeatable. In 1964, when her first novel was published, she decided that she felt uncomfortable talking about herself, and didn’t give another interview for the next forty-odd years. She simply stayed at home in Baltimore, writing novels about Baltimore, and slowly built a readership—a large, adoring readership, eventually—in a way that is no longer an option for anyone starting out on a literary career now: any first-time novelist who refuses to tour or tweet or make imaginary friends on social-networking sites is effectively announcing to publishers and bookstores that he or she would prefer to do something else for a living. As you may already have noticed, I haven’t read her latest novel yet. But I bought it in Oxford, the day before I heard her talk about her work to nine hundred devotees at the Oxford Literary Festival. I have a personalized, signed copy of both The Beginner’s Goodbye and The Accidental Tourist. I have met Anne Tyler, and that is something I never thought I would say.
Some people claim that they have no desire to meet their heroes for fear of disappointment, but this seems nuts to me, or at least suspiciously affected. So it’s 1869, and you’re at a party, and you notice Dickens leaning against the mantelpiece banging on about penal reform. It turns out to be his last year on Earth. You don’t go over and listen, in the hope that someone will introduce you? Yes, there is the possibility that you’ll think he’s a pompous twit, in which case you’ve got a story that you’ll tell people forever. There’s a chance that he’ll think you’re a boring nonentity, but you can edit that bit from your narrative. But seriously, dude? You’re too cool to bother to talk to Dickens? What about Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Marvin Gaye, Cézanne, Babe Ruth, Orson Welles? No? Wow. Well, good for you, I suppose. You’re a deeply serious person, although you’re almost certainly no fun at parties, and you may well be unhappily single. Me, I’m going to take every chance I get to make a nuisance of myself when somebody I admire is in the vicinity, and if that means wearing a builder’s hardhat that made me look like an unsuccessful animated children’s character, then so be it. (Thierry Henry, Arsenal’s record goal-scorer, while the new stadium was being constructed in 2005, in case you’re wondering.)
It’s true, though, that the real privilege lay not in meeting Henry but in owning a season ticket that allowed me to see just about every single goal he ever scored in the home games. And the real privilege here was in listening to Tyler talk about her work, in the company of several hundred other people. Some of you may have heard writers being asked about their process before; some of you may even be writers who have answered the same question. Well, you’ve never heard anything like the description she gave us. She was hesitant while giving it, and she laughed nervously at a couple of points in her narrative, as the extent of her commitment to her work became apparent (perhaps to her, as well as to us). I can’t quite remember how it went. I know it involved a longhand draft, followed by an insane number of corrections, and then a draft on the computer. And there was an old stenography machine in there somewhere, too. It was when she introduced the notion of the second longhand draft that the audience gasped, and those of us there who until that moment had thought of ourselves as professional writers shrank as far down into our seats as physics and biology would allow. Why is Anne Tyler so good? Oh, it’s just one of those freakish gifts—some people are born lucky. I am about to read her new novel, and I will write about it in the next issue, and I will introduce it by drawing attention to the repetitiveness of this column.
Anyone who has now developed a taste for maddening circularity may want to move on to James Lord’s little book A Giacometti Portrait, in which Lord reports, in diary form, on his experiences sitting for his friend in 1964. It wouldn’t have been much of a book if
everything had gone according to plan; Giacometti wanted “an hour or two, an afternoon at most.” At the end of that first afternoon, though, the artist’s dissatisfaction with his work was such that he asked Lord to come back the following day. The second day, though, is equally dispiriting. “It’s going so badly that it’s not even going badly enough for there to be some hope,” says Alberto cheerfully. On the third day, Giacometti is sufficiently discouraged to claim that he’s been wasting his time for thirty years; on the fourth, he threatens to give up painting for good. “It’s going very badly, my friend,” he says on the fifth. “But what does it matter? There’s no hope of finishing it anyway.” There’s a flicker of hope on the seventh day—“I’ve reached the worst now”—but by the tenth, the painting is “unbearable, abominable. I think I’ll die from it.” Even Samuel Beckett would have ended up telling him that worse things happen at sea. There are eighteen such days altogether. You start to feel that Giacometti is on some carousel in hell, and your job is to wave at him cheerfully every time he goes past. Every single one of the eighteen is patterned in the same way, by abject despair and, at the end of the session, a determination to continue, despite the apparent impossibility of the project. “No one else could do it. Moreover, no one else is even trying to do it,” he says gnomically at one point. Unless I’ve misunderstood not only the book but the accompanying illustrations, Giacometti was trying to paint a man’s head, but we’ll have to take his claim to singularity at face value.
When Lord takes a peep at the work in progress, he comes to the conclusion that the artist’s misery is at its peak when the painting is at its best. This is no consolation, however, because the misery invariably leads Giacometti to paint over the detail of the day’s work, and the next day he begins more or less from scratch, with a gray, smudged outline, although he frequently claims to be able to “see an opening.” Jonah Lehrer, whose wonderful book Imagine explains, among other things, the neuroscientific necessity of hopelessness as a precursor to artistic breakthrough, could more or less have scripted Giacometti’s side of the conversation, but Lord’s book is still worth reading. It’s funny, and smart, and though it hardly demystifies the creative process, there is great virtue in its opposite achievement: you thought painting a portrait was a simple matter of bashing down what you see in front of you? Boy, are you in for a shock. An artist friend recommended this book to me, just before he asked me to sit for him. He’s doing some quick, off-the-cuff, forty-five-minute portraits of people he knows. I was with him for four or five hours, but it didn’t work out in the way that he’d hoped, so I’m going back in a couple of weeks. Just for half a morning. Probably. Oh, god.
Mohammad Khan, the central character in Amy Waldman’s brave, measured, and gripping novel The Submission, is an architect, but the design of complex buildings seems like a breeze compared to the torture of portrait-painting. The difficulties for Khan all arise not from his work but from his name; he wins a competition to design a 9/11 memorial, a garden intended for the spot where the Twin Towers stood, and his ethnicity and religion make a lot of people very unhappy. The bereaved are unhappy, politicians are unhappy. Politicized Muslims are unhappy when it becomes clear that the politicians may not allow Khan to win; Khan’s white, liberal supporters are unhappy when he seems reluctant to distance himself from some of the cultural undertones in his own design.
There are a lot of ways, it seems to me, in which this book could have gone wrong; it would have been disastrous if Waldman had privileged one special-interest group—grieving families, say—over another, or taken the furious arguments for and against Khan’s design more or less seriously. Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities is mentioned by one of the characters on page six of The Submission, but whereas Wolfe’s book charged headlong into all sorts of complicated social issues, the stakes are higher now, and Waldman knows it. She’s just as ambitious with her cast of characters, but her careful navigation through the almost impossibly difficult environment of the last ten years is exemplary. I rewrote that last sentence about four times before I was satisfied that it wouldn’t unintentionally piss anyone off; I can only imagine the task that was facing Waldman. And I don’t want to give the impression that The Submission is damaged by its balance, because it’s not: it rocks along, and its characters live and breathe.
It’s been a month of fictional bravery, although not on my part, obviously. All I did was read the stuff. Grace Williams Says It Loud is narrated by a spastic. I know the word is no longer acceptable, but Grace Williams was born in 1947, and most of the book is set in an age when that word was used unflinchingly, and when a desire for circumlocution would have been very low on Grace’s list of priorities. She is institutionalized, she’s visited infrequently by her family, she’s sexually assaulted, and she’s treated with brutal indifference by those charged with her health and welfare. But before you thank me for reading it on your behalf and move on, I should point out that this bleak synopsis doesn’t convey the charm of the book, nor Grace’s extraordinary tenacity and buoyancy, nor the moments when she is able to transcend her crippled body: there are a couple of scenes in which Grace and her friend Daniel, an epileptic with no arms, manage to have sex, for example, and it’s no big deal—or, rather, it’s no bigger deal than it would be for the rest of us. Emma Henderson finds a calm, engaging, and credible voice for Grace, full of wordplay and ellipses, and a narrative full of surprising and rich incident. There’s a fire, a stolen night in a B&B, and a whole Victorian patchwork of injustice and feeling. Emma Henderson had a sister like Grace, but this book feels like a novel, not thinly disguised memoir. I suspect that it has taken a long time, and a lot of internal processing, to get to a point where Grace Williams is a rounded fictional character rather than a painful tribute to somebody else.
Every now and again I am appalled enough by my ignorance of un-English literature to attempt to do something about it. Skylark was on somebody’s list of little-known classics, and it’s published by NYRB Classics, almost a guarantee of quality, and it’s short. What did I have to lose? A weird thing happened as I was finishing it, though. One of the kids was watching a program on TV made by the Sport Relief charity, and I happened to look up from my book and see film of a little boy and the heroic, heartbreaking journey he has to make every day to get clean water. And Skylark, which is about the unexpectedly exciting week that an old married couple spend in their small Hungarian town when their spinster daughter goes away, just started to hiss, like a punctured beach ball, and go flat. (I should point out that the exciting week was exciting only in context, by the way, and the context is a stifling life of duty and self-denial.) Is it fair to ask novels to compete with real life in this way? Probably not, but sometimes they have to anyway.
Next month, I will be writing about the new novel by Anne Tyler, who is one of the people… Oh. OK. Point taken.