Lit Coverage

"The Woman Upstairs" by Claire Messud

A quick break from blog posts about my book "Isolde 1939" to review the latest novel by Claire Messud, "The Woman Upstairs." The book is narrated by Nora, a 42-year-old schoolteacher in Cambridge, MA whose plans to become an artist fell by the wayside. She never married, doesn't have children and refers to herself as "the woman upstairs", although she doesn't fit the spinster stereotype (that would be another teacher in her school). Nora develops an infatuation for the parents of a boy she teaches: a couple in town for only one year with the husband a visiting scholar at Harvard and the wife an artist, like Nora herself, except that the wife is actually making a career out of it.

The narrator's voice is very strong - one really feels that Nora is speaking to us. Messud's writing style (with very long sentences interspersed with "--" so that the narrator can go on and on) is very well-suited for this choice of point of view, both when 42-year-old Nora expresses her anger after realizing she's been betrayed and also when she recounts the events that happened when she was 37. It is the sort of voice that keeps pulling you into the novel and doesn't let go of you until you reach the last page.

Without giving too much away, I'll say that Nora is ultimately used and discarded by someone she admired, and because she doesn't come across as a very reliable narrator, not only might she have been used from the start by a selfish, self-centered person, but an important moment with another protagonist might turn out to have only been a small gesture - what the two did is never spelled out, and since Nora explains everything else in detail, I suspect nothing happened at all beyond perhaps a short embrace. But that's my interpretation.

I did read the last few pages in the bookstore before buying it, and I felt that knowing the ending did help me enjoy the book, because I knew it was going to end in the manner that most resonated with me.

The story struck a chord in me because I have enough experience in the world of education to see how something like that could happen - how someone might put her dreams on the backburner while she focuses on earning a paycheck, turn down marriage proposals to remain true to herself and then get caught in the empty hecticness of her daily work, while someone else (a parent in the book's case, but you could imagine other scenarios) tries to take advantage of her - probably thinking that she must be a pitiful individual, if she's childless and single well into her late 30s - while she desperately tries to make her dream of art happen. Messud has a fine eye for what slowly pushes someone to the brink. We all know that lives don't always turn out the way teenagers expected them to when they were growing up, but Messud really shows us the state of mind of someone coming to terms with that, and still young enough to do something about it.

Nora is in fact far from pitiful. When I read about her art and about the other woman's, I found that hers came across as far more original and innovative - it reminded me of the movie The Big Picture, where the character played by Romain Duris (a lawyer in crisis who enjoys photography as a hobby) kills the photojournalist neighbor who was sleeping with his wife and takes his identity. Duris ends up being far more talented as a photographer than his neighbor, although success is fleeting precisely because of what he has done. But fear not: Messud's novel is psychological in nature. It recounts Nora's emotional journey and in spite of angry Nora's ominous threats, there is no violence in it whatsoever.

47-year-old Messud, who has ties to France, Canada and the United States, came to national prominence in 2006 with her novel "The Emperor's Children", set in New York City in the months preceding, as well as in the days immediately following, September 11, 2001. While I enjoyed the book, with its richly textured descriptions and its translation into English of long-winded French sentences that reminded me of home (I'm French), Messud received a lot of flak for her writing style and, most importantly, her use of September 11 as a key plot device in a book focusing on rather shallow people.  

Much has been made of that fact that Messud was quite obscure before the publication of "The Emperor's Children", having published with small press books such as a group of novellas - the ultimate sign of a writer indifferent to commercial success, if there ever was one. When I read the description of "The Woman Upstairs" on Amazon.com, I had serious misgivings about buying the book. In particular, an early description of the novel, which has now been edited, mentioned that the young boy that enters the life of the narrator is attacked in the schoolyard by bullies who call him a "terrorist". And I remember reading that word and shaking my head. I knew Messud most likely hadn't taken part in writing the description, but she already aroused very strong negative feelings for her use of September 11, was it really necessary for her to invoke the t-word? Thankfully, this description has now been edited, and the new one gives a better idea of what the book is about.

I do feel that plot summaries don't do the book justice. Messud masterfully shows us the emotional world of Nora and attempting to summarize it by glib sentences such as "she falls in love with all three of them, the father, the mother and the child" (variants of which I have read) are enormously reductive. The novel works. It simply does.

The review in the New York Times by Michiko Kakutani was on the cold side of lukewarm, with words such as "incongruous mashup of a very self-consciously literary novel (invoking the likes of Chekhov) and one of those psychological horror films... in which someone, ominously, is not who she appears to be." Frankly, with all respect to Kakutani, referring here to a psychological horror film is pure nonsense. Nora's fascination for the family, especially the mother-artist, is very PG-13. I'm disappointed that the famous NYT critic didn't identify Nora's (successful for a time) attempts to reconnect with her passion as an artist as her main drive, and as her redeeming feature that saves her from turning into a cardboard character from those horror films Kakutani refers to. (No stalking, no breaking-into-home, no authorized reading of emails... She looks at the woman's art in her part of the studio they share and wishes, in an admiring way, that she had her family. When she realizes she's been used she cuts the family out of her life. That's the horror? Please.) It's a pity Kakutani didn't realize that the story isn't as far-fetched, and as much a transparent commercial ploy, as what she seems to believe. A great book.


Review of “Too Cool for School”

Too Cool for School”, just published by HBH Press, is a memoir by teacher and essayist Elizabeth Collins, a graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop and longtime resident of the Philadelphia area, about her years teaching English at a private, Catholic high school – and more precisely, the horrifying incident that put an end to her time there.

Without giving too much away, I’ll say it involves the (unnamed) parents of one of her then-students, prominent members in the local community and donors to the school, who took offense at Collins when she mentioned on her blog that she was “’dismayed’ to have recently heard a student’s speech that did not effectively utilize tone.” The student’s speech was on “Obama’s lies”, although Collins had “warned against choosing highly divisive, political issues”, and included the vehement, strident refrain “You lie! You lie!” This went against the purpose of the assignment, which had been to convey ideas in a civil tone using Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address as a model.

Collins was dumbfounded that her instructions could have led to such a result and wrote a blog post about the lesson. Readers of Collins’s blog, probably students who’d been in the classroom with her, then told or text-messaged the classmate who had given the “You lie!” speech about the post, although Collins never named her. The student then unleashed the fury of her wealthy parents.

Their reaction seems so disproportionate to the offense that you can only stare at the page in stunned horror while you read this story of idealism vs money, and (spoiler alert) idealism doesn’t win. Wouldn’t it have been better for all involved if the parents had encouraged their daughter to use Collins’s teachings to write a powerful yet civil speech against the President’s policies, which she has the right to disagree with? This, of course, betrays my background as an educator always looking for teaching moments. Other people, it seems, prefer more extreme reactions.

The innumerable ways Collins was attacked and pilloried, which she describes unflinchingly in the book, are truly frightening – leading to Collins losing her job after school administrators preferred to side with the donors. She recounts for instance how a meeting involving the parents and school administrators included the following hurled at her: “I will laugh as you and your family die in the street!” (Die, really? Not only Collins herself but her two little girls? Wow, is all I have to say.) When you finish the book you can only be inspired by Collins’s determination not to let herself be destroyed by such a traumatic, shattering experience.

This is perhaps the first book that takes stock of our new, Internet-driven era where wealth makes some apparently believe they can behave in rulers from the Gilded Age, where anonymity on public forums turns others into hate-spewing vipers, and where freedom of speech only seems to exist when the speech matches what the listener wants to hear. The book is mesmerizing because it bears witness to this new time – it is not just Elizabeth Collins’s story, but that of the epoch we live in.

Disclosure: I read an early draft of the manuscript and as such am mentioned in the book’s acknowledgments. Months after reading that draft, I continue to find what happened to Collins (both her treatment at her school and the nasty anonymous comments about her online) absolutely appalling. Her book deserves to be widely read.


"Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits"

Dorothea lange book cover Last month I read "Dorothea Lange: A life beyond limits" by Linda Gordon. I'd seen the book in bookstores many times but had not bothered buying it because I wasn't familiar with Lange's work and I have an enormous amount of books I have to read already. What changed my mind was that Gordon's biography was selected by one of the Politics & Prose book clubs as their January selection, and I'd thought I might be able to attend. (In the end I did not, having other commitments in Pennsylvania on the same day.)

I'm so glad I bought - and read - the book. In hindsight I would've known right away that I would love "A Life Beyond Limits" if I had spent just a few minutes researching its subject: from Martha Gellhorn to Lillian Hellman to Lee Miller, I've always felt particularly interested in biographies about women artists with strong personalities (next on my list: Lee Krasner).

Lange's story, with its beginnings in the middle class followed by the double trauma of polio at age seven and her parents' separation when she was twelve, her apprenticeship of photography and her move to San Francisco to become a commercial photographer doing society portraits at a time where women got married and stayed home raising babies, and with its core documenting the plight of the Depression (as well as, to a lesser extent, the Japanese-American internment camps a few years later) made for a highly compelling story.

By the time Lange marries noted painter Maynard Dixon, I couldn't stop reading - and found in the biography another element that I find myself fascinated by: the dual sides of its main character, who captured poverty in photographs that remain breathtaking to this day, and also more or less left her children grow up by themselves, if not outright abandoned them.

Gordon early in the book also mentions the fate of other women photographers, whose career petered out as soon as they found a husband. The challenges faced by Lange shouldn't be underestimated, although the way she chose to deal with them had strong consequences on her children. Thankfully she also benefited from a stable, grounded second marriage to the Berkeley economist Paul Taylor, who played an important role in introducing her to the plight of Main Street America during the Depression.

This interview of Gordon on CPAN-2 (Book TV) gives a good overview of Lange's early life - CPAN-2 probably has the full-length interview in its archives somewhere, for those of you who want to learn more about Lange without having to read the book. If you do choose to read the book, don't let the first chapter, where Gordon has to make a lot of assumptions about Lange's early life due to the lack of documentation, turn you away from this fascinating story of a complex, talented woman passionate about social justice.

The rest of the book is much stronger than the (not bad) first chapter and Gordon has a very enjoyable writing style that makes the five hundred pages fly by. At no time did I feel she got bogged down in unnecessary details, in spite of the length of the book. "Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits" eminently deserves its 2010 Bancroft Prize and its place as finalist for the 2009 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Biography.

Further reading (links to reviews of the book):

Further watching: book trailer.

In the words of the New York Times reviewer: "Gordon’s elegant biography is testament to Lange’s gift for challenging her country to open its eyes." Five stars out of five in my mind.


On Czeslaw Milosz

I knew about Nobel Prize winner Czeslaw Milosz before I bought What light can do by Robert Hass a few months ago (I reviewed the book here), but I would be hard-pressed to recall where or when I first heard his name. I suspect I read his obituary in The New York Times in August 2004, and even of that I am not quite sure, since I was just settling in my new apartment and was about to start my new job when he died. Perhaps I came across this article about him, a month after he passed on.

When back in September I browsed through Hass's essays in the bookstore, though, and realized that he had not only translated many of Milosz's poems, but included a few essays about him in his book, I remembered I'd wanted to learn more about Milosz for some time - and I am glad I did remember, many years late.

Now that I have read Milosz's poems - spellbinding, inspirational, true gems - it occurs to me that his work in my case illustrates one of those hackneyed stories where what you need (call it spiritual nourishment as far as I'm concerned, or remembering what matters in an environment that conspires to box you in and make you small and bring you down) is right in front of you but it takes you forever to see it.

Milosz indeed belongs to my favorite kind of poets, those who bear witness and take a stance against totalitarianism, those who remind us of the duty to remember and make us think about the world we live in. While I also enjoy lighter poems or poems about quiet personal worlds such as those by Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon, good engaged poetry will always have my preference.

Others have expressed the essence of Milosz's work much more eloquently than I can, so I'll quote the words of a journalist in The Nation, writing at the time of the poet's death: "[A] witness to the Nazi devastation of Poland and the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe, Milosz deals in his poetry with the central issues of our time: the impact of history upon moral being, the search for ways to survive spiritual ruin in a ruined world." Or, under the pen of a writer for Shambala Sun who discussed one of his poems in the November 2012 issue: "Czeslaw Milosz... was a poet of exile... In poem after poem, Milosz writes about how one might begin to heal after the spirit has been injured in a damaged world."

Hass actually refers to Milosz quite a few times throughout his book of essays, but I'll focus on "Milosz at eighty" and "Milosz at ninety-three", since the poet was the central figure of those. In contrast with some other pieces in the book, those are short essays - a few pages each - but while much about Milosz is available in the many biographical notices on the Nobel Prize website, various poetry websites, and his obituaries, Hass succeeds in giving us a novel glimpse into the mind and life of the poet.

What I found most fascinating about the first essay is that, according to Hass, Milosz wrote a letter to the New York Review of Books to protest a rave review he had been given. In Hass's words, "[t]he substance of Milosz's objection was that he was always being seen either through the lens of the Second World War or through the lens of his rejection of the Communist government of Poland and his exile... Having had to deal with what history inflicted on him, he then had to deal with being seen always in terms of it..."

I don't know how much the experience of working closely with Milosz influenced Hass's thinking, but I was reminded of his statement about Milosz when, about two hundred pages later in What Light Can Do, he mentions Russian poet Osip Mandelstam: "He was a tremendously moving figure. But I am made uneasy by our fascination with him for a couple of reasons. The first is the suspicion that our fascination exists because his martyrdom flatters us. One stubborn poet hunted to death like a wild animal... is a compelling image... There is something wrong in admiring the calamitous." (Please refer to the full paragraph on pp.372-373 of the hardcover edition for Hass's complete thoughts on the topic.) I wouldn't necessarily use the word "admiring", but I understand that what inspires us in those lives, what makes us attempt to live ours with a bit more courage, a bit more honor, a bit more dignity, might feel reductive to the people whose lives prompt us to standing taller. They were so much more than the feel-good parts we like to repeat about them.

"Milosz at ninety-three" was written shortly after the poet's death. How touching that Hass seems to forget at times that his friend has died. (Second sentence of the essay: "He revisits his childhood very often in his poetry...") This piece completes and extends the review of Milosz's life that had been begun in the previous essay, but is even shorter than its predecessor. Hass, a wonderful poet and essayist in his own right, clearly has no interest in letting himself be solely defined by his work relationship with Milosz. What he wrote was enough to make me buy an anthology of Milosz's work, though. As for Hass's poems themselves, I've enjoyed what I found in the Poets Laureate Anthology, especially "Meditation at Lagunitas", and look forward to buying The Apple Trees at Olema soon.

Now, on to Milosz's poems - or at least those in Selected and Last Poems (1931-2004), which is the book I have. The book starts with "Dawns", which is about memory of childhood and the aging of an old woman, and right there I knew I had made the right choice in buying the book, because the poem reminded me of someone I know and helped me feel compassion for that person - so many dashed dreams, lost hopes, memories of happy times that will never come again. When poems cast a new light or a forgotten one on your own life, you are always on the right track.

Other poems that I particularly enjoyed include the famous "Dedication" ("You whom I could not save / Listen to me..."), "Classmate" with its beautiful last line ("I don't even remember your first name"), "Six lectures in verse", "On parting with my wife, Janina", "A ninety-year old poet signing his books", "In Szetejnie" (which Hass quotes in the end of his second essay on Milosz), "Orpheus and Eurydice" and the last poem he ever wrote, "Goodness".

Most remarkable about "Goodness" is that Milosz finished working on it in December 2003, but only died in August of the following year. His son Anthony, who introduces the last poems in the book (and translated them), points out: "It was clear that he was quite deliberately preparing to depart." "Goodness" serves as a magnificent goodbye.


Blog I Like: Philip Kennicott's Blog

I recently discovered Philip Kennicott's blog - I had already read a number of his articles in Gramophone and Opera News, and was pleasantly surprised to discover he also blogs when I was looking online for his article on the future of opera. So for today's post I decided to convince those among my readers who enjoy culture and art - and hopefully if you ended up on my blog you do enjoy culture and art, otherwise my writings might bore you rather quickly - to give his blog a try. Kennicott serves as the art and architecture critic at the Washington Post, after stints as its classical music critic and culture critic. I'm not sure why he isn't as famous as The New Yorker's Alex Ross (also very deserving of the success he has received), but hopefully this will change soon.

Anyway, here are a few blog posts or articles that I recommend:

If you care about "anything visual" (his new definition of his beat, technically "art & architecture") happening in DC, you know what to read.


Sartre and Old Age

As promised in my last post, I wanted to touch upon Jean-Paul Sartre's old age, as described by Hazel Rowley in her book about him and Simone de Beauvoir. She also wrote an interesting article in The American Scholar entitled "Censorship in France" which deserves to be widely read, although I completely disagree with her debating whether she should have defended Sartre and Beauvoir more. Beauvoir, a self-professed heterosexual, slept with some of her young female friends and then passed them along to Sartre. This is indefensible. (More about the censorship controversy and the philosophers' love affairs here.)

But anyway, there is no love lost between Rowley and Sartre's literaty executor: his adoptive daughter, another lost young female who contacted him for career advice and whom he apparently had a brief liaison with. The woman is described in the book as a parasite who removed Sartre's belongings after his death, with the help of Sartre's secretary, before Beauvoir had a chance to retrieve his papers. (It might be useful to remind the reader that Rowley, who wrote her PhD dissertation on Beauvoir, seemed to have a lot of admiration for the author of The Mandarins.)

Sartre's secretary is also described as someone who took advantage of Sartre in his old age, especially in a series of interviews he made with the philosopher as his mental faculties appeared to be waning. This last part was discussed in the literary circles before Rowley's book found its way into print, in fact ever since the interviews were published - I became aware of the rumor a while ago.

When I read the end of Rowley's book I was reminded of the prize-winning biography of Willem de Kooning by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan. It seems that "friends" of de Kooning removed paintings from his studio at the end of his life, when he was afflicted with Alzheimer's disease, and claimed that they were presents of his. Being famous and old is a fraught combination. Beauvoir herself is said to have been afraid that Sartre's secretary would become his "Schoenmann", in reference to the secretary-general who claimed during the proceedings of the Russell tribunal to speak for the ninety-four-year-old Bertrand Russell , too old and fragile to do so himself.

What is interesting in the case of Sartre's literary executor is that she does seem to be fighting to protect Sartre's image. I can't say how her behavior has affected his legacy, but while Rowley hints that the woman became rich because of all the royalties pertaining to her illustrious adopted father's work, that continued allegiance makes her a more multi-dimensional character than her description in Rowley's book suggests - as if the honor of becoming Sartre's daughter had transformed her from a floundering young woman to a determined guardian of the philosopher's masterpieces.

The description of Sartre's decline (precipitated by alcohol and the excessive consumption of other substances), though, which Beauvoir also documented in Adieux, should serve as a warning to anyone hoping senescence will not apply to them - or not as much as to others - because they started off with a high IQ. The moments where Nobel Prize winner Sartre, almost blind, doesn't realize he is putting food all around his face while he eats are truly heart-wrenching - but not more so than those when de Beauvoir reads him books because he is no longer able to have a thoughtful conversation with her.

In contrast with Camus's abrupt death at age forty-six in a car accident, the physical and mental decline of such a towering intellectual figure offers a stark reminder of what happens when nature runs its course. And of the temptation by some to take advantage of such frailty, whether directly or indirectly by claiming that others did, when the main protagonist can no longer set the record straight.