Patrick Leigh Fermor, one of travel literature’s most colorful, beguiling pedestrians, famously decided to walk across Europe when he was 18. Why not? He’d failed out of every school he’d gone to, after all, had given up on joining the army, and was living a somewhat-too-dissipated life in London among the aging remnant of the Bright Young Things. So, in the winter of 1933, equipped with a rucksack, walking stick, military greatcoat, puttees, and the Oxford Book of English Verse, he hopped on a boat to Rotterdam, Netherlands, pointing his hobnailed boots in the direction of what he’d always call Constantinople (not Istanbul), where he’d arrive in just over a year.
Eighty years later, we finally have the complete account of that trip. But it was a long road getting there—a kind of parallel journey. In 1962, Holiday magazine asked Fermor to write an article on “The Pleasures of Walking,” which he took as a chance to revisit the “Great Trudge” of his youth. He managed to cover the first two-thirds of the trip in a mere 70 pages, but the conclusion ballooned into a book of its own. Fermor wanted to call it Parallax, to underline the dual vantage of adolescence and middle age. His long-suffering publisher suggested A Youthful Journey instead. As it happened, it became neither as, busy building a house in the Peloponnese, Fermor abandoned the project altogether. By the time he took it up again, 10 or so years later on, he’d decided to start from the beginning again and write not one book but three. A Time of Gifts, which covers his walk from Holland to the middle Danube, was published in 1977. Between the Woods and the Water followed nine years later, taking him as far as the Iron Gates separating the Balkan and Carpathian mountains and ending with the words “TO BE CONCLUDED.” With the posthumous publication of The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, it kind of is.
IN 1801, THE GERMAN POET and dramatist Heinrich von Kleist, in the throes of what has been called his “Kant crisis,” took a house on an island in the Swiss river Aare, near Thun. A reading of Kant (which particular work has not been established) had led Kleist to conclude that truth was no longer graspable and reason illusory, effectively refuting the Enlightenment values by which he’d conducted his life thus far. As a result, he felt his world fly into a series of irreconcilable fragments, initiating what Nietzsche called a period of “upheaval and despair” from which he would never recover: 10 years later, at the age of 34, Kleist shot himself by the Kleiner Wannsee as part of a suicide pact with a woman named Henriette Vogel, whom an autopsy later revealed to be dying of cancer.
But it is in Thun that the Swiss poet Robert Walser — whose own despair in his art eventually drove him across the border of madness — imagines an encounter with Kleist. There, as Walser writes in the story “Kleist in Thun,” the playwright finds himself “somewhat unwell”:
The fields are thick with flowers, fragrance everywhere, hum of bees, work, sounds fall, one idles about; in the heat of the sun you could go mad. It is as if radiant red stupefying waves rise up in his head whenever he sits at his table and tries to write. He cursed his craft.
At the end of the story Walser turns back to himself, reflecting, seemingly apropos of nothing, of Thun: “I know the region a little, perhaps, because I worked as a clerk in a brewery there.”
For a couple of years, I wrote a horoscope column for my college paper under the name “Claire Connection.” (The pseudonym was meant as parody, but—as I discovered when an actual astrologer by that name wrote my editor a threatening email—it wasn’t.) Despite the flippancy with which I approached the task then, I do still find myself turning to the horoscopes from time to time. Because you needn’t buy what astrology’s selling to be interested in the conjunction it forces between human make-believe and the arbitrary structure of things, a curious relation that the discipline (if one may be allowed to call it that) throws into relief: We’re unwilling to give up on freedom, serendipity, and plain old hard work—but we don’t want to just be a fluke. There’s a deep reassurance to be had in feeling oneself part of some great cosmic cycle. [READ MORE…]
TO A STRAIGHT WOMAN, the phenomenon of inter-male friendship possesses a certain anthropological interest. Yet the tendency, I’ve found, is — quite in contravention of scholarly norms — to be at once jealous of it and somehow touched; to falsely exoticize it, in other words, viewing it as an unattainable utopia of uncomplication and purity, as we might succumb to viewing some remotely primitive tribe. Jealous because we feel the need to fill this role for our lovers or husbands, to be total besties, as it were, as well as romantic and sexual partners, and also because we’re sure (we are!) that we’d do a better job at it than any man would do. Touched, possibly, tear in our eye, by its being so mysterious, and, well, maybe noble in some utterly incomprehensible way. So imagine this reader’s delight upon hearing that it’s this very mystery into which Norman Rush delves in his long-awaited third novel, Subtle Bodies, and that — hosanna, as one of his characters puts it — he’s given us a female perspective, too. Specifically, the novel nudges at the question of what happens to male friendship when men are no longer equals — to solve, even more specifically, for “x” (women are, for once, the “y”) in the equation of friendship plus time, a calculation involving both the limitations of sympathy and its consequences. [Read more…]
IN 1976, ITALO CALVINO, in his capacity as an editor at the Einaudi publishing house, flipped through the correspondence of his late friend and mentor Elio Vittorini, which was being prepared for a book. “His letters to Guarnieri form one of the meatiest parts of the correspondence,” Calvino wrote to Carlo Minoia, the volume’s editor, in a letter that appears in a new collection of letters of his own. “First because it is about friendship, holidays, girls; then there is the flare-up in Spain, which bursts to life very suddenly, after a dark period […].” (According to the notes provided by the editor of Calvino’s correspondence, a sentence has been omitted — it’s unclear by whom — that deals with Vittorini’s private life.) “The letters to [Vittorini’s] family are of great biographical interest,” Calvino continues. “For the work letters […] we’ll see what might be useful in covering any period or phase of his work that is less well documented; otherwise let’s leave them out.”
These workmanlike missives from one editor to another (which arrive with us in book form courtesy of yet another) are only noteworthy in that they offer a sort of tease, a brief glimpse of what the new 500-plus-page collection of Calvino’s selected correspondence, titled Letters 1941-1985, might have been, while also representing perfectly much of its spirit. Though we’ve seen plenty of friendship by the time we’ve arrived here on page 465, there’s been nary a sign of holiday-making or girls, and there has been, in fact, very little bursting into life (besides, of course, Calvino’s own lively intelligence). Instead, there has been much having to do with work. Calvino does report, peripherally and obliquely, having hidden in the mountains with the Italian Resistance (“I’ve been a partisan all this time, I’ve been through an unspeakable series of dangers and discomforts”), resigned from the Communist Party (“I find myself facing history without intermediaries for the first time”), and witnessed the 1968 student protests in Paris (“Basically I find myself in the ideal position of being a spectator: things are happening that interest me profoundly”). But Calvino’s marriage, his infamous affair with the actress Elsa De Giorgi, and his meeting with Che Guevara are not mentioned at all. One wonders, in passing, if Michael Wood — who made this selection from Luca Baranelli’s much more extensive (though still incomplete) Italian collection, Lettere 1940-1985 (2000) — included this particular one as a form of wishful thinking, a kind of Easter egg hinting that, really, it would have been nice if there’d been more girls. [Read more…]
It’s an old conversation, this one:
In the 13th century, according to one account, Icelandic historian and poet Snorri Sturluson wrote in his Skalda, a handbook of poetry: “A metaphor is thought to be well conceived if the notion that has been adopted is maintained throughout the verse. But if a sword is called a serpent, and later a fish or a wand, or changed another way, people call it monstrous and regard it as spoiling the verse.” [From the Mouth of the Whale]
To which, some seven centuries later, Pierre Reverdy replied that no, “the image is a pure creation of the mind. It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities. The more the relationship between the juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be.”
The big U.S. debut being given to Sjón this month by the publisher Farrar, Straus, and Giroux is an affirmation of this broader, more inclusive sense of the figurative strange. Of course Sturluson’s monsters have been on the move for some time now, with vampires and other fantastical beings (both metaphorical and non-) making themselves at home on our couches and in our refrigerators, as well as our lakes and lemon groves. But as it usually manifests in the work of this country’s younger, literary-fictional types, the language of myth and fable feels more accurately something like whimsy: seemingly there because we like these odd, shiny things rather than out of any kind of urgent creative need for, or real sense of commitment to, the sword that can be both twig and tongue. We don’t have much cultural or linguistic truck with myth over here; never did. Maybe it’s that we are too cynical, or too puritan, in our thinking. Or maybe this kind of mytho-poetic belief, as in Snorri’s time, seems an ugly and hazardous rejection of some unspoken literary rule. [Read more…]
Novelist Aleksandar Hemon’s first book of nonfiction in English, The Book of My Lives, begins and ends with an infant girl. In the first instance the child in question is the four-year-old Hemon’s newborn sister, Kristina. “One spring day, Mother stepped out of the kitchen to pick up the phone and left her along with me…I watched the little creature, her unreadable face, her absolute absence of thought or personality, her manifest insubstantiality, her unearned presence. So I started choking her, my thumbs against her windpipe, as seen on television.” [More…]
The ending of “The New Veterans” in Karen Russell’s story collection “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” leaves one with a sense of the limits of fantasy — strange for a writer so deeply dedicated to the imaginative. On its face, the story’s plot is fantastic enough: a masseuse treating an Iraq War veteran named Derek Zeiger finds that she’s able to alter his traumatic memories by manipulating the tattoo on his back, moving pictures and erasing parts with her hands.
After a while, it seems she’s erased his memories too, changing Zeiger’s horrific story into one of triumph. But the masseuse ends uncertain: “Most days, she doubts she helped the sergeant at all. She thinks it’s far more likely that she aggravated his condition, or postponed a breakdown.” Only in her “wildest imaginings” can Zeiger’s story be both true and beneficial, and she doesn’t know which version to chose.
The collection’s title story, which is, as advertised, about vampires in a lemon grove, contains a similar moral. A vampire named (in a characteristic gesture for Russell, who treasures such sparks of postmodernist humor) Clive recalls his years “on the blood,” before he learned from his wife — “the first and only other vampire I’d ever met” — that the old stories about them were lies: “I listened to the village gossips and believed every rumor, internalized every report of corrupted bodies and boiled blood . . . I slept in coffins, in black cedar boxes, and woke every night with a fierce headache.” As in “The New Veterans,” the story’s ending both confirms and belies its myths. For the purposes of narrative the vampires must have a nature to struggle against (“We lift the lemons and swing them to our faces. We plunge our fangs, piercing the skin, and emit a long, united hiss: ‘Aaah!’”) if this is to be more than a comic exercise and lead us to its central truth: that love, like vampiric hunger, is defined by its inability to be satisfied. But the ending again casts doubt. [Read more…]
AT THE END of Matthew Goulish’s The Brightest Thing in the World: 3 Essays from the Institute of Failure, the author quotes the second-to-last entry in the journal of the 30-year-old naturalist W.N.P Barbellion, written as he lay dying of disseminated sclerosis in June of 1919:
Rupert Brooke said the brightest thing in the world was a leaf with the sun shining on it. God pity his ignorance! The brightest thing in the world is a Ctenophor in a glass jar standing in the sun.
I have no way of knowing if the Scottish-born novelist and short story writer Ali Smith has read The Brightest Thing in the World, or if she is aware of the existence of W.N.P. Barbellion, born 72 years ahead of her on a point at the opposite end of the British Isle’s North-South axis. But reading her latest book, Artful, the image of that Ctenophor — a creature retrieved from the memory of a dead man — sticks in the mind. For one thing, Artfulis one of those books that, as you open it, expands like jelly in a jar — moving like an accordion, or (to borrow an image from the French novelist Jules Renard) a caterpillar over a leaf. Smith, like Goulish and Barbellion, is also reaching for that thing that survives loss, the pliant, gleaming thing, the brightest in the world. It’s my suspicion that, somewhere in all of this, she may have found it. [Read more…]