Jenny Hendrix

Things I've written, mostly.

The Long Journey of Patrick Leigh Fermor

The View from There

What's Your Sign?

Empty Chairs at Empty Tables: Norman Rush's Subtle Bodies


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…]

This One is the Whole: Italo Calvino's Letters

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…]

In Iceland Everyone Believes in Fairies, and People Write Amazing Novels Like These

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.”

Another century of so on, another refutation, this one from Icelandic novelist Sjón: “Balderdash! Let the sword turn into an adder and the adder a salmon and the salmon a birch twig and the birch twig a sword and the sword a tongue. … Let it all run together so swiftly that it cannot be separated again.” [From the Mouth of the Whale]

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…]

An Interview with Aleksandar Hemon

Vampires in the Lemon Grove

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…]

The Brightest Thing in the World

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…]