My initial response when I started to read Helen Mundler’s Three Days by the Sea (Holland House Books, 300 pages) was “Yes, we need more of this.” In addition to the interest of the story, the book serves as a reminder of the strengths of literary realism, at a time when for many readers, journalism and nonfiction have replaced the novel as a chronicle of lived experience.
This situation is the product of a changing culture but it’s also, I think, the fault of many novelists, who too often settle for what I’ve come to think of as “weather report realism.” In these novels, Plot X or Y occurs against a backdrop of dutiful descriptions of everyday life, a supposedly reliable accounting of facial expressions, brand names and what the weather was like that day.
Of course life is full of facial expressions and brand names and weather, but verisimilitude is not an end in itself. Saying as much is nothing new. Surely it’s what Willa Cather had in mind when she defended the novel démeublé. As a masterful realistic writer, she knew the risks of her chosen mode. An artist can faithfully render how life appears while neglecting how it feels. “How wonderful,” Cather observed, “it would be if we could throw all the furniture out of the window.” Continue reading
THE BRAVURA BEGINNING
The beginning of this novel (Random House, 262 pages), pervaded, as one reviewer writes, with “dazzling cinematic bravura,” is worth citing at some length. The protagonist Joe Rose, a science writer, and his wife Clarissa Mellon—a university professor who has just returned to London from the U.S., where she was doing research on the poet John Keats—are about to have a picnic.
“This was the moment, this was the pinprick on the time map: I was stretching out my hand [for the bottle of wine], and as the cool neck and the black foil touched my palm, we heard a man’s shout. We turned to look across the field and saw the danger. Next thing, I was running toward it. The transformation was absolute: I don’t recall dropping the corkscrew, or getting to my feet, or making a decision, or hearing the caution Clarissa called after me. What idiocy, to be racing into this story and its labyrinths, sprinting away from our happiness among the fresh spring grasses by the oak. There was the shout again, and a child’s cry, enfeebled by the wind that roared in the tall trees along the hedgerows. I ran faster. And there, suddenly, from different points around the field, four other men were converging on the scene, running like me. Continue reading
Originally published in England by Collins, 1988; republished by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, a Mariner Books paperback edition, 2015, 246 pp.
Set in Russia in 1913, this is an astounding book. Seldom does a novel so astound me. My first question is “How did Penelope Fitzgerald do it?” In an article on the writer Julian Barnes mentions that everyone asked this same question about her last four novels, all set in foreign locales. Andrew Miller asks it again in his introduction to the paperback edition: “how on earth can someone living in England in the second half of the twentieth century know so much about the minutiae of day to day life in Moscow in 1913?” Continue reading
The Best American Short Stories, 2017 (Selected from U.S. and Canadian Magazines by Meg Wolitzer with Heidi Pitlor), Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017, 303 pp.
Ten years ago the writer Elif Batuman wrote an article on two anthologies titled Best American Short Stories, for the years 2004 and 2005. Her amazing conclusion, well-reasoned and argued, was that many of the “best stories” in these collections were not very good stories. As she puts it, “Contemporary short stories contain virtually no reference to any interesting work being done in the field over the past twenty, fifty, or hundred years; instead, middle-class women keep struggling with kleptomania, deviant siblings keep going in and out of institutions, people continue to be upset by power outages and natural disasters, and rueful writerly types go on hesitating about things.” Domestic realism. Urggh. Continue reading
I am happy to announce that U. R. Bowie (pictured left) will be joining Dactyl Review as Contributing Editor. Bowie is the 2017 recipient of the Dactyl Review literary fiction award for his novel The Tale of the Bastard Feverfew. At DR we believe literary fiction writers make the best literary fiction reviewers. And vice versa. Bowie’s work offers substantial support for that premise.
Bowie has been contributing reviews regularly since the spring of 2016. As a professor of Russian literature, he brings special insight to novels that are touched by the Russian soul. His reviews of The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis (both dealing with Russian themes) and his most recent review of The Trick of It by Michael Frayn (a novel about novel writing) stand out as the kind of reviews literary fiction authors want and need. (Read his reviews now, if you haven’t yet.) Unlike a lot of hack reviewers working for pocket change for the prepub make-it-or-break-it publications such as Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, Bowie, working for the love of it alone, has actually read the books he reviews, not just skimmed them. We can tell because he analyzes the actual language used by the author and does not make comments about the characters as if they were real people not literary constructs. Continue reading
What to say about Things we Lose (New Island Press, 228 pages) a book that stunned me, time and again. I might call Billy O’Callaghan a “writer’s writer,” if that term did not immediately consign a writer to obscurity. (In the USA, Richard Yates is often referred to as a “writer’s writer,” and until the movie Revolutionary Road, few people, apart from those who taught in MFA programs, knew his name.)
I would like to invent a new way to describe what I think Billy O’Callaghan will leave as his literary legacy. I would call him a “human’s human” (with a pen) or an “explorer’s explorer” of our dreams. I would call him a poet of the spirit. Or, maybe, to use a more prosaic analogy, he is a housekeeper who assiduously dusts the cluttered rooms we keep closed, even from our conscious minds. Continue reading
So here we have one more translation into English of Anna Karenina (Yale University Press, 754 pages) the greatest novel ever written in the history of world literature (my opinion, but not only mine). The publicity announcements and blurbs make big claims for this book. Marian Schwartz, a renowned translator with extensive experience, “embraces Tolstoy’s unusual style—she is the first English language translator ever to do so.” Hmm. “Clearly a labor of love—over a decade in the making—this translation is the most accurate Tolstoy we have in English.” Hmm. Marian Schwartz “bequeaths us not a translation at all but Tolstoy’s English original.” Huh?
Such grandiose blurbery places quite a burden on the shoulders of the translated text. Let’s see if the text can bear such a heavy weight. Continue reading
Cocoa Almond Darling (Kindle, 126 pages), by Jeffra Hays, is a rather intense, deliberately-paced story about a tailor Mr. Benton, his assistant Milly, and their daughter Nicky. The main action seems to be set in the 1960s, give or take a decade, and the story is told entirely from Milly’s perspective. The novel’s limited first-person narration is masterfully rendered by Hays, who allows the reader to experience a degree of empathy not possible except through the lens of skillful realist fiction. The language of the novel is plain. The narrator is not a gifted poet, nor especially clever or funny. She is not given to much analysis, but she does pay attention to detail, and she is sometimes capable of rather admirable self-awareness and honesty. Continue reading