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Nora Webster

Screen Shot 2014-12-26 at 11.47.49 AMChristmas came a little early to my house this year. Padraic bought me the novel, Nora Webster by Colm Toibin, touting the fact that Toibin has been compared to Henry James — the author of my favorite novel, Portrait of a Lady — in his rendering of female characters. It took me about two days of intensive reading to make my way from front cover to back, and here are my reflections:

I get the Henry James comparison. While Toibin writes in a very simple, declarative style that couldn’t be less similar to James’s sprawling, intricate prose, there’s a subtlety to the narrator’s relationship to his protagonist. In Toibin’s straightforward, unapologetic observations of his central character’s thoughts and actions, we readers experience a sensation of hovering, hugging close to Nora Webster’s every move in an attentive but non-judgmental way. USA Today writes that Toibin “sneak[s] up on readers” which, in retrospect, seems true; suddenly you feel yourself rooting and looking out for Nora Webster without knowing exactly how the author manipulated your sympathies. Looking back, there’s only sentence after sentence of concise, resolute declarations to draw you into Nora’s world. I recall a similar feeling in reading James — it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the narration turns Isabel Archer into a sympathetic figure.

But I’m getting ahead of myself — Nora Webster is the story of a recently widowed middle-aged woman of Wexford, Ireland, charting her attempt to put back the pieces of her life and maintain normalcy for the sake of her four children. Nora is strikingly honest, independent, and nonconformist, and Toibin makes us privy to her consciousness as she confronts the challenges of her newfound solitude.

Nora’s relationship to her children in the aftermath of her husband’s death is decidedly unsentimental. For example, she confesses to moments of awkwardness with her young sons and struggles to know what to say to her daughter, Fiona. We, the reader, follow her far into her own thoughts while in the presence of her children, which highlights the very individual, internal process of grief that shrouds the interactions of the family.

As Nora settles into her new independence, she accesses a rebellious streak, expressing itself in her decision to join the union at work, regardless of her friendship with the boss, or her open disdain for certain proprieties while visiting her sister — it’s amusing to witness her character flirt with the possibilities for nonconformity, to see her grow into her new role as solitary mistress of her house. But there’s also a weariness about Nora — we sense the struggle it takes to make it through the days and nights, and the sense of resignation that she carries with her, reluctantly giving into the visits of neighbors or the exhortations of “Sister Thomas.”

Perhaps the most memorable, distinct aspect of the novel is that it invites us to watch Nora Webster move through her loss and come out the other side. She takes up singing lessons, finding refuge in music; she takes on house projects, knocking down the fireplace and repainting her living room, finding refuge in the rythms of housework. She purchases new clothes and loses herself in TV movies with her young sons. She returns to the same office where she worked as a young, single woman, and she vacations with her children on the strand. We witness Nora putting one foot in front of the other, and learn to appreciate her resilience. There’s an understated, muted quality to Toibin’s writing, and it’s in the precise, small, mundane steps forward that we witness Nora’s transformation from overwhelmed, grief-stricken widow to a self-possessed mother and worker.

Turning the Page

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 4.37.10 AM‘Tis the season for list-making! I recently shared a fantasy smorgasbord of Christmas cookies (one down, four to go), and today I feel compelled to share a few books on my shortlist, an homage to that other, all-consuming winter pastime: curling up on the couch with a good read. From literary criticism to historical fiction to memoir to spy novel to a book lover’s self-help manual, Forrest Gump might liken my selection to a box of chocolates, as in, “you never know what you’re gonna get.” I’m cool with that — it aptly describes the pleasure I derive from bookstore browsing. Here are some of my far-flung finds:

Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 4.38.41 AMAt least once before on this blog, I have tried to put my finger on what is so doggone compelling about Henry James, going so far as to cite Zadie Smith’s insights and dignifying the ridiculously overwrought The Golden Bowl with a detailed book review. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that my desire to understand James — how he crafts such highly sympathetic, surprisingly tragic characters — is still burning. It’s a nerdy fixation, but one that evidently plagues other members of his fan club, including Michael Gorra, author of Portrait of a Novel, which I discovered in a September 2012 issue ofThe New Yorker. In essence, Gorra’s book distills James’s literary genius into an analysis of his most famous and critically acclaimed novel. Reviewer Anthony Lane is another ebullient fan, and points out the dramatic potential of a “book about a book” by emphasizing how James’s poised, understated prose somehow left “the equilibrium of [its] readers shaken,” all starting with this innocuous opening line: “‘Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.’” For obvious reasons, Lane reserves his recommendation of Portrait of a Novel — part biography, part textual analysis, part literary criticism — for those with an established attachment to Portrait of a Lady. However, he ends his review with a message for less ardent fans, saying we “need him [Henry James] more than ever,” referencing Gorra’s assertion that Portrait of a Lady’s greatest accomplishment is exposing the “limits of self-sufficiency.” Yes, I’m wholeheartedly onboard — Isabel’s misplaced trust in her own bright and promising future, with such an all-American commitment to her own destiny, is what makes the failure of her choices “shake our equilibrium” as cock-eyed, optimistic Americans. If the current state of our economy has made many people more open to the fallacy of the American dream, if TV shows like “Girls” garner accolades for depicting modern-day Isabel Archers on their hapless journeys toward self-actualization, then perhaps there’s never been a better moment to explore the coming-of-age story of the twenty-something author who called us out on our false pretenses circa 1880.

The Paris Wife

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 4.39.29 AMA few months ago, I spent some time perusing this 2011 historical fiction novel in a bookstore. It seemed like a light diversion, telling the story of a 28-year-old midwestern woman, Hadley Richardson, and her whirlwind relationship with Ernest Hemingway. Rich with references, it contains a glamorous cast of real-life legends — Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, in addition to Hemingway — a fabled setting — Chicago and Paris circa the roaring twenties — and the intensity of a love affair in which wife equals literary muse. According to Janet Maslin of The New York Times, The Paris Wife is addled with clichés and clumsy pastiches of the characters that populate its pages, but who really cares? I have a feeling that much like Woody Allen’s disjointed film, Midnight in Paris, this book earned its popularity for more sentimental reasons, serving as a wistful ride back in time and across the atlantic.

A Story Lately Told

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 4.39.53 AMI enjoy the fact that memoirs are a kind of inclusive, “bottomline” writing endeavor, concerned with honestly sharing the writer’s experience rather than word-smithing. More than other genres, the art of writing a memoir (and the pleasure of reading one) seems to be purely about the transfer of information, about illuminating the myriad layers contained in a single life. I’m drawn to Angelica Houston’s recently published memoir as a way to glimpse into pop culture history. She touches on the marital dynamics between her flamboyant, self-absorbed film director father and her young, beautiful, ballet dancer mother, her pastoral upbringing in Galway, Ireland, her power couple status vis-a-vis Jack Nicholson, even her unapologetic embracement of fashion as a source of aesthetic pleasure and self-expression. It cracks the surface of a life mostly known through images, whatever your generation.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 4.40.56 AMI’ve never read anything by acclaimed crime writer John Le Carré, but he’s been on my radar via book reviews and recommended reading lists since the publication of his 2008 novel, A Most Wanted Man. His name seems to pop up with increasing frequency, from film adaptations (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in 2011) to new works (A Delicate Truth in 2013) to the increasing relevance of espionage in our culture (the NSA, Edward Snowden, the popular TV show, Homeland, to name a few examples). Touted in Anthony Boucher’s 1964 New York Times review as “a novel of significance, while losing none of the excitement of the tale of sheer adventure,” The Spy Who Came in from the Cold seems like a good place to start within Le Carré’s formidable oeuvre. The protaganist, Alec Leamas is disillusioned with espionage work, undertaking one last assignment before quitting the field. The story doubles as a suspenseful account of his assignment and a deeper, psychological portrait of a man “permanently isolated in his deceit.” Having just finished season two of Homeland, this description sounds eerily like Carrie Mathison and Nicholas Brody, and their mutual experience of being “isolated in deceit.”

How Proust Can Change Your Life

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 4.41.39 AMI read de Botton’s The Art of Travel last summer, which I have written about at length on this site. After confiscating the book from my husband during our road trip down Highway 1, I quickly became smitten with de Botton’s ability to expound upon broad, timeless topics in a manner both original and unexpectedly practical. De Botton has a singular focus on essay writing, and rather impressively sticks to large, universal subjects, such as Art as Therapy, Status Anxiety, and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. If the measure of a good cook is their most basic dish, the same test applies to writers — the best ones can take on well-worn topics head-on, infusing them with flavor. The Art of Travel mustered a lot of flavor, and from what I’ve read, How Proust Can Change Your Life contains the same mixture of insight and practicality. According to de Botton’s website, the book developed out of the notion that literature is a transformational thing, a belief widely proselityzed by English teachers but rarely examined in-depth. So de Botton examines Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, characterized as “a byword for obscurity and irrelevance,” to demonstrate some of the ways in which literature can literally be a guide to real life. I have never read any of Proust’s books, which may speak to the unsubstantiated claims of English teachers, but why not start easy, with “a self-help book like few others”?

[Photos: “Turn the Pages,” Krissy.Venosdale’s photo stream via Creative Commons, and photos of the books’ front covers]

Victorian Novels + Hearing The Grass Grow

Screen Shot 2013-04-03 at 1.24.41 PMI have always liked nineteenth century Victorian novels. I find them only too true. They have a keen way of getting at the heart of things, you know. (I just finished Henry James’s The Golden Bowl. Please pardon me if I can’t quite shake his roundabout, flared-nostril rhythms.)

When asked to describe my favorite books — George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady – it can be awkward to enthusiastically endorse white male authors who wrote about aristocrats. (Okay, George Eliot was a white female writing under a pseudonym.) However, like a hipster with her Indie musician, I take reverse pride in my appreciation for these thoroughly vetted classics.

What is so revelatory? George Eliot puts it this way, in her masterwork Middlemarch:

“If we had a keen vision and feeling for all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.”

It’s the nuanced narration of ordinary life that turned me on to Henry James when I read Portrait of a Lady, often cited as his best book and inconveniently for me, his first book I read, sending me down an ever-loyal slope of slightly more underwhelming reads from Daisy Miller to Wings of a Dove until I hit bottom with his last and most excessive book, The Golden Bowl.

Zadie Smith has an essay called “Middlemarch And Everybody,” which I discovered in Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. She talks about James, Eliot, and a variety of other topics. I had always felt the similar strain of psychological complexity running through Eliot and James, but I was glad to find a kindred, more articulate spirit in Ms. Smith. As a successful writer of contemporary fiction and not inconsequentially, a person of color, she states with added authority and eloquence what the Victorian novel offers to our modernized sensibilities:

“Why do we like them so much? Because they seem so humane. We are moved that…[Eliot] is so alive to the mass of existence lying unnarrated on the other side of silence.”

She summarizes George Eliot’s unique style as poetic, in the language of one of Eliot’s characters:

“To be a poet is to have a soul…in which knowledge passes instantaneously into feeling, and feeling flashes back as a new organ of knowledge…”

This discerning, feeling voice sounds a lot like Henry James’s “sympathetic narrator,” the stylistic gift that led me to suffer through all 1496 pages of The Golden Bowl. I have emerged less blinded by the light, and can provide a bottom-line analysis for anyone who is entertaining a first-time foray into James:

Portrait of a Lady

Isabel Archer is a young, single, recently orphaned American facing a precarious financial situation and possessing a strong will to live independently. We meet her on an estate in London, the home of her British aunt, Lydia Touchett, who has invited her to experience Europe. James paints a vivid profile of Isabel’s charms — her combination of naiveté, sincerity, pride, curiosity, and innate intelligence — capturing the reader’s sympathies and the affections of Isabel’s uncle, Daniel, several rejected suitors, and her sickly cousin, Ralph. When Daniel dies, Isabel inherits a vast portion of his estate.

Ironically, Isabel becomes less and less in control of her destiny after inheriting her uncle’s estate. Due to her own misjudgments, her seemingly charmed fate slowly deteriorates. After turning down several suitors, she accepts the proposal of a snobby American expat who objectifies her and cheats on her.

Isabel’s disappointments feel tragic because James so carefully establishes her competence, then carefully, sympathetically describes how she faces the task of living with her mistakes. Maybe it’s such a beloved classic because it’s an eloquent meditation on the simple fact that life isn’t fair. “Once she saw through a glass, darkly, now she is the less deceived… Of how many Victorian novels could that sentence serve as shorthand” — this is Zadie Smith’s succinct analysis.

As for The Golden Bowl? Yawn. It’s all this stuff about seeing through the glass darkly, being deceived, plus oppressive, repetitive symbolism (a golden bowl that shatters at the peak of the deception, really?) told through choppy, cloying syntax, separated by oh, so many commas. But I can’t say it was pure misery. It transports you to a different universe, and true to form, the seemingly naive protagonist turns out to be the most interesting and calculating character of them all. Feel free to read the plot summary below, or if you’re a glutton for punishment, the whole thing. I’ve finally had too much of a good thing and I’m ditching Henry James in favor of Mary Karr’s memoir, Lit, with sentences like “my first therapist’s name was — I shit you not — Tom Sawyer.”

The Golden Bowl

Screen Shot 2013-12-11 at 6.49.45 PMMaggie Verver is the daughter of a rich American art collector. She and her father have an unusually intimate relationship, having served as each other’s primary companion for many years, traveling the world on behalf of his collection. The book opens as Maggie prepares to marry an Italian prince. He takes a patronizing view of his future wife, openly wedding her for financial gain. Meanwhile, Maggie has trouble cutting emotional ties with her father.

To assuage Maggie’s guilt and to escape the older women now vying for his attention, Mr. Verver eventually marries Charlotte, Maggie’s childhood friend, a poised, cosmopolitan young woman, less privileged than Maggie. However, Charlotte and the Italian Prince have a lingering romantic connection that is first established when Charlotte and the Prince go shopping for Maggie’s wedding present and come close to purchasing a golden bowl.

Charlotte gradually enters into an affair with the Prince, Maggie becomes increasingly suspicious, and her suspicions are confirmed when she visits the London antiques shop with the golden bowl. The shopkeeper shows her the bowl and she suddenly realizes the truth.

The golden bowl then becomes a metaphor for the pristine, perfect deception that all four parties have partaken in, living in close, claustrophobic proximity on a lavish London estate. Maggie observes it in restrained silence with increasing comprehension. When she eventually confronts the Prince, her restraint seems to alter his perception of both Maggie and Charlotte, to Maggie’s advantage.

In the end, Charlotte and Mr. Verver move back to America. Maggie triumphs, given a fresh start with the Prince and their son. Wah wah.

[Photos: “Henry James,” mr lynch’s photostream, under CC by NC SA 2.0, “Golden Bowls,” mararie’s photostream, CC by SA 2.0]

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