Boswell’s Presumptuous Task

Boswell’s Presumptuous Task by Adam Sisman

What did it win?

National Book Critics Circle Award 2002

What’s it all about?

Boswell’s struggle to write the Life of Johnson.

Was it really any good?

It’s certainly an enjoyable trip down a well-traveled road. But it’s also hard to recommend to anyone already familiar with Boswell’s story – which I imagine is pretty much anyone with an interest in reading it. Sisman is obviously going after Simon Winchester’s audience, but Winchester’s light-reading pop histories have taken relatively obscure and neglected historical figures for their subject (James Murray and W. C. Minor in The Professor and the Madman, William Smith in The Map That Changed the World). Sisman can hardly say the same.

The story of Boswell’s presumptuous task is the stuff of literary legend, but not because it has grown in the telling. Johnson scholars (and Boswell, in this regard, ranks among the first) have always been a hard-headed bunch when it comes to getting the facts. To their awesome mountain of Johnsoniana Sisman has nothing new to add, and little insight to offer (his conclusion – that the Life of Johnson is a unique work, and that “never again will there be such a combination of subject, author and opportunity” – struck me as particularly weak). Instead, the most interesting material in the book is found on the margin. Sam and Bozzy are well-known characters, but for introducing us to as marvelous a villain as Boswell’s would-be patron James Lowther, Lord Lonsdale, Sisman deserves a special round of thanks.

Except for the final chapter, describing the critical fall-out over Boswell and his great book, the quick pace of the narrative never flags. But then a biography of James Boswell would have to try very hard to be dull. It is difficult to think of another major literary figure who has provoked so much exasperation. Perhaps some of this is due to the fact that he was so transparent. One wonders if his famous journals would have revealed anything that wasn’t already evident to those who knew him. But isn’t knowing too much, and feeling that it is too much, what makes him our contemporary? Wasn’t everything about him presumptuous?

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Atonement

Atonement by Ian McEwan

What did it win?

W. H. Smith Literary Award 2002

What’s it all about?

Thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis falsely accuses a young man of rape. She spends the rest of her life imagining how she will atone.

Was it really any good?

Very good. The kind of novel that might almost have been written a hundred years ago – which isn’t a backhanded compliment (in this case), but a sad comment on the state of the art of fiction.

The major knock against it is the structure. The long middle section dealing with Robbie Turner on the retreat to Dunkirk seems particularly awkward. And yet the fact remains that this book has a total structure. Speaking of Harold Pinter, the British film critic Leslie Halliwell once characterized postmodern writing as intelligence without meaning and plot without structure. Whether the latter point was an academic outgrowth of chaos theory and “resistance to closure”, part and parcel of magic realism’s affinity for wandering, fabulous narratives, an artistic surrender to Eliot’s chaos of modern life, the product of too many memoir-style novels, or just plain laziness on the part of the author, I find myself agreeing with Halliwell more and more. Too many novels these days just . . . go . . . on. Are these authors only throwing clay at their editors and expecting them to give it a shape? Not McEwan.

That Atonement is such a deliberately crafted work is only part of its old-fashioned charm. This is a book that summarizes a whole century of fiction writing. At times it seems as though McEwan is trying to do for the twentieth-century novel what Joyce did with the English language in the “Oxen of the Sun” chapter of Ulysses, but in a way that takes the novel out of history (progress, evolution) and into that imaginative space where all great works of art maintain a present existence. Take the nature of the narrative. For any student of modern and postmodern fiction the questions will be familiar: Is McEwan really playing with different centres of consciousness? Just how conventional is that middle section? How are any of the parts meant to relate? Is Briony a “reliable” narrator? Are we reading Briony’s book?

All of this also means that McEwan risks making Atonement too self-consciously literary. Whenever I come across a character in a novel who spends a lot of time reading I start to get the feeling that this is another novel about the writing of novels, and that maybe I should just go and watch TV. McEwan walks a fine line, but Briony is such a believable and engaging fantasist, and her predilection for creating fictions is such an integral part of the story, it all works. The book talk never seems heavy-handed. And, as passages like the discourse on “cunt” make clear, McEwan is obviously enjoying himself:

the word was at one with its meaning, and was almost onomatopoeic. The smooth-hollowed, partly enclosed forms of its first three letters were as clear as a set of anatomical drawings. Three figures huddling at the foot of the cross.

How wonderfully imagined! Then you think of the anatomical drawings in Robbie’s medical text which gave rise to his letter, and go on to consider the three figures as the three main female characters, Robbie as Christ, a foreshadowing of Briony’s atonement . . . Who cares if the “almost onomatopoeic” part doesn’t make a whole lot of sense?

The novel does have an uneven pace. Nothing quite measures up to the first section, leaving me to wonder if McEwan made a mistake in leaving his usual “to be read in one night” comfort zone. But in every other way Atonement is a triumph. Little aggravations in the writing – living so close to Toronto, I have to take special exception to the improbable description of German dive bombers circling “like Raptors” – are offset by the care taken in designing the whole.

Is there time for a word about Robbie and Cecilia in the library? Well, it’s some of the best sex I’ve ever read.

To Say Nothing of the Dog

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

What did it win?

Hugo Award 1999

What’s it all about?

A pair of 21st century time travelers are sent back to Victorian England to repair a fault in the space-time continuum.

Was it really any good?

Definitely. I think what I appreciate the most about Connie Willis is the care she takes as a writer. Her time travel stories are as well constructed as they are researched. Structure is not a strong suit for many writers of fiction these days, and among SF writers it is particularly weak. SF novels have a tendency to just collapse, reinforcing the conclusion that the genre is best represented in short story collections. As one way around this I’ve found that many SF novels are strengthened by an infusion of mystery blood. Mystery is a genre that requires coherence and integrity – in its beginning lies its end. Willis wisely adopts this cross-breeding approach here, acknowledging her debt to detective fiction in a series of winking references to writers like Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie.

Willis is also careful in her handling of the novel’s intricate plot. Of course stories involving time travel never make sense, but the events described here have a superficial plausibility that manages to side-step the inevitable objections over paradox. There is actually an interesting debate over the nature of history and the role of the individual in it, but nothing is ever resolved. Meanwhile, the novel’s historical matter is pure book stuff. The fascination with the Victorian era is something shared with a lot of contemporary SF (The Diamond Age, The Difference Engine), but Willis seems more at home with the period than most, perhaps because of a certain conventional-mindedness (not always a bad thing) and perhaps because she is less concerned with technology than she is with literary models (the title is from Jerome K. Jerome’s Victorian comedy Three Men in a Boat).

I could think of some minor complaints – the author’s technique is sometimes a little obvious as technique, the characters are props – but these are almost by the way. To Say Nothing of the Dog is a lark and only meant to be fun. And any book with a line like “Come here cat. You wouldn’t want to destroy the space-time continuum would you?” must be pretty confident in its power to charm.

No Great Mischief

No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod

What did it win?

Trillium Book Award 1999, International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award 1999

What’s it all about?

An orthodontist meditates on his family’s history.

Was it really any good?

Certainly if you like MacLeod you’ll think so. I say this because it is very much the same sort of stuff we find in the short stories (which were in themselves ample evidence that MacLeod is a writer with only one string to his bow).

Fans of the short fiction, however, may still be disappointed. For starters, the novel lacks dramatic tension. MacLeod’s short stories all deal with the conflict felt by natives of Cape Breton who are either leaving home or returning in some way changed. In No Great Mischief this conflict is not in play, since it is taken for granted that Alexander MacDonald will be going off to become an orthodontist. No one ever reproaches him for making this decision, nor is he profoundly troubled by it.

The other big difference between No Great Mischief and the short fiction is that the sense of a vanishing way of life is not as developed. “Progress,” that inhuman, modernizing force that threatens all the good old Cape Breton virtues and traditions, is not as imminent an evil. Modernism is now just the “modernistic” house in Calgary where Alexander’s sister lives. The MacDonald family is a force of nature, and will endure. The death of Calum MacDonald is truly no great mischief since it’s obvious that the clann Chalum Ruaidh will just keep rolling along.

But even so, how can you not like this book? MacLeod’s great strength is his ability to write with a kind of decorous and old-fashioned honesty that shouts defiance at our hard-hearted and cynical age (not to mention our hard-hearted and cynical reviewers). It’s tough to think of another contemporary author doing this material without collapsing into parody. Those dogs that “care too much and try too hard,” and those Gaels always ready to burst into song at the drop of a hat are ludicrous creations, yet No Great Mischief is a novel entirely without irony. The great curse of Canadian writing is its sentimentality, but MacLeod’s sentimentality is so ingrained, so unapologetic, so obvious and so essential to his writing that you couldn’t imagine him without it:

Sometimes when he would tell me those stories his eyes would fill with tears. People used to say he was sentimental, but it was because he cared. He felt everything deeply.

I admire that.

Mercy Among the Children

Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards

What did it win?

Giller Prize 2000 (co-winner)

What’s it all about?

The miserable life of a Miramichi man puts his childhood vow to never harm another human being to the test. His son has different ideas.

Was it really any good?

It is, and I was happy to see it win an award. It was certainly a much better read than its Giller co-winner, Anil’s Ghost (which I couldn’t finish). Just in passing, however, I think it should be pointed out – and I don’t recall anyone mentioning this at the time – that one of the judges on the Giller panel in 2000 was Alistair MacLeod. Now MacLeod is certainly an eminent Canadian writer, and I’m sure an all-around great guy, but Richards’s last novel, The Bay of Love and Sorrows, was dedicated to him. Aren’t you supposed to recuse yourself when this happens?

As far as the book itself is concerned, it might best be classified as popular romance. By popular romance I do not mean the same thing as literary pulp romance, those upscale nurse novels like The English Patient and Cold Mountain. Richards’s version of the popular romance is more akin to the regional folktale (think Hardy, Faulkner, or the Brontës). The narrative in such novels is often, as here, imagined as an oral performance, and is closer to myth than realistic fiction.

To say that Mercy Among the Children is not primarily a realistic work may strike some as strange. This is because Richards’s work is so identified with a real place (the Miramichi), and so powerfully evokes the lives of the local inhabitants, and in particular those of the poor. Poverty is something physical in Richards’s prose, its “colour” and “smell” brought to life in the bad haircuts, wiry muscles, rotten clothes, loud music, and rough language of his characters.

But while realism is notoriously difficult to define, since everyone’s reality is different, Mercy Among the Children is obviously less a social documentary than a spiritual inquiry. Like any moral work, it is organized to illustrate a point, which lends it some of the qualities of a fable or fairy-tale. Once we recognize the sort of world we are in, the contrived elements of the plot seem less out of place.

While I am on this subject, I should add that it is a common mistake among reviewers to fail to recognize what kind of a book they are talking about before passing judgment. Not every novel can be expected to adhere to conventions of verisimilitude, yet many reviewers automatically ask whether characters and plot are “believable,” even in books where this clearly isn’t an issue. Sydney Henderson is a saint, his wife Elly an angelic vision, yet in this book they are hardly out of place. In addition, the story features a number of elements taken straight out of romance, like the revelation of the secret illegitimate children of Leo McVicer, the local Prince. And the ending, with Sydney and Elly’s two surviving children transformed into an internationally recognized author and a multimillionaire scholar gypsy, is entirely outside a realistic presentation of the lives of those who inhabit the “soil of the damned . . . the wide empire of the poor.”

Then there is the morality. My sense is that Richards is a strictly moral writer whose judgment is tempered somewhat by an uneasy naturalism. Naturalism, in the literary sense, is an approach to fiction that explains human behaviour in quasi-scientific terms as the product of genetic forces or the social environment. Mercy Among the Children is quite typical of naturalism in its focus on crime and lives destroyed by poverty, as well as its awareness of how the behaviour of people like the Pits can be determined by their upbringing and environment. Since no one is strictly responsible for their actions, a wide sympathy and tolerance can be extended for events that are accidental, preordained, or unwilled. Take, for example, the following description of Cynthia Pit plotting to trap Rudy Bellanger with her pregnancy:

Now that Rudy was vulnerable and in too deep to find an avenue to escape she allowed him none. None of this was done with conscious malice. It simply happened, suddenly – like her pregnancy. She would see an opening and dive in. There always came a moment when she thought it better not to continue, but then her eyes would burn like brilliant dark stars, her beauty would turn suddenly vulgar and wanton, and she would tell people to dare her.

There is plenty here to quibble with – like how something can simply happen unconsciously and yet also be the result of seeing an opening and diving in – but we understand where Richards is coming from. We mustn’t be too quick to judge Cynthia; it’s in her nature.

Fair enough. Sympathy and tolerance are usually considered to be cardinal virtues for a novelist. But what I think Richards really wants to write are passages like this:

When a child he had prayed to be safe, to be happy, to be loved. And now too late he realized that he had been given what he prayed for. By the time he was twenty-one he had been safe and happy and loved. But it wasn’t enough for him. And did he give anything in return? No. He had not been kind to Elly because of conceit and lust. He had not been good to Gladys because of greed. And he had not loved because of fear.

Now that is the real Richards talking: A preacher who doesn’t at all mind judging the thoughts and actions of others. No shilly-shally about pregnancies that “simply happen” – we’re talking about lust and greed and fear.

There are real faults with the book. The sentimentality is as pronounced as it is in MacLeod, and sinks perilously close to bathos with the death of Percy Henderson. (I realize the scene’s function, but did we really need the image of his “blond hair wisped in the wind,” his eyes “filled with tears,” and the old dog licking his face?) But as with MacLeod, the intensity of feeling and vision more than compensate. There is a fullness in the work of both these writers, some heartfelt mine of life, that makes the work of most other contemporary novelists seem lightweight in comparison.

We could use more of their kind.

In the Heart of the Sea

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick

What did it win?

National Book Award 2000

What’s it all about?

A sperm whale sinks the Nantucket whaler Essex, leaving the crew to cross the Pacific in three small boats.

Was it really any good?

A great story, only capably told. Though I have to admit the cliché-ridden Preface (“a sight that would stay with the crew the rest of their lives;” “look back to that distant time as if it were yesterday”) had me expecting something worse.

The genre of true adventure has boomed since the phenomenal success of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm. Obviously there are a lot of us who feel that life in the twenty-first century isn’t tough enough. Unfortunately, the entertainment industry has stepped into the gap and made “reality” into Adspeak for anything having to do with absurd physical challenges and televised tests of survival. As a result, Philbrick’s contention that the story of the Essex is “not a tale of adventure” but a “tragedy” is hard for us to appreciate today. (Would such a distinction apply to the story of the Gloucester fishermen? Or the lives lost on Everest?) Whale hunting was a dangerous way to make a poor living in 1820, but in the twenty-first century readers may safely imagine it as a kind of Extreme Sport, the nineteenth century equivalent of rock-climbing or bungee-jumping. Gladiator was the most successful movie released in 2000, and only a year later American courts had to decide whether to allow the broadcast of Timothy McVeigh’s execution over the Internet as pay-per-view. Such things remind us that even killing people may be a form of popular entertainment.

In other words, the time was right for another re-telling of this classic American tale. That it is a modern re-telling is made especially clear in the politically correct sense of poetic justice it carries with it. The whaling industry, for example, has always been an environmentalist’s nightmare, and there is something satisfying to a modern sensibility in the way the tables are turned on the Essex. Then there is the dramatic irony that has the xenophobic crew members choose to avoid making the relatively short run to Tahiti because of their fear of cannibals, only to find themselves driven to the same extreme in their attempt to reach South America.

The past is a foreign country, and we should be wary of judging its citizens by what Auden called a “foreign code of conscience.” This said, the book’s most curiously modern feature is its sincere but overly decorous way of handling race. Instead of pointing out the obvious – that the black members of the crew may have been the first to die because they were not like the others; not, in Conrad’s magic phrase, “one of us” – Philbrick finds a scientific explanation in a study showing low percentage body fat among African Americans. And as for the reason why the people of Nantucket didn’t like to talk about the Essex tragedy in later years:

It wasn’t just the fact that the men had resorted to cannibalism. It was also difficult for Nantucketers to explain why the first four men to be eaten were African American. What made this a particularly sensitive topic on Nantucket was the island’s reputation as an abolitionist stronghold.

This is unconvincing, and left me wondering what evidence Philbrick had for thinking race was such a sensitive topic. The endnotes only offer support for Nantucket’s abolitionist reputation. Without something more, I can see no reason why Nantucketers in the nineteenth century would be upset in the slightest that so many of the victims were black. One would have thought there were far more obvious reasons why the tragedy would have remained a sensitive topic not to be discussed within a close-knit community where almost everyone had some connection to the families of those involved.

If the past cannot be punished under a foreign code of conscience, neither can it be redeemed.

The Elegant Universe

The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene

What did it win?

Aventis Prize 2000

What’s it all about?

On an ultramicroscopic scale, quantum mechanics is incompatible with general relativity. String theory, which makes tiny vibrating strings the fundamental building blocks of nature, harmoniously unites the two within a unified theory of the universe.

Was it really any good?

Yes and no. I have to admit, I’m a sucker for books like these. Most of modern physics is magic to me, and reading about it usually boils down to trying to get a handle on the metaphors. But I also love the big philosophical issues involved. I can spend hours trying to imagine extra dimensions, or what it would mean to be outside of both space and time. And there’s no end to considering the origins of the universe. What was before the Big Bang? If the universe is expanding, what is it expanding into? Will we ever know? Can our limited human brains comprehend such ultimate knowledge?

Greene has his work cut out for him. Sometime in the twentieth century the links snapped between the world we experience every day and the world explained by scientific theory. Every writer trying to describe advanced science to a lay audience today has to begin by making it clear that nothing they are discussing has anything to do with common sense. While the great scientific breakthroughs of a hundred years ago may be easily reproduced and understood (feeding the growth of the “history of science” as a separate field of publishing and scholarship), the present state of the art is rarified indeed. As Greene puts it, “special relativity is not in our bones – we do not feel it. Its implications are not a central part of our intuition.” Similarly, quantum mechanics is said to describe a nature that is “absurd from the point of view of common sense.” String theory may be elegant, but it is not an elegance that is easily appreciated, especially at an introductory level.

I wasn’t able to keep up with Greene all the time. In fact, I don’t think I kept up with him at all after the first few introductory chapters. A lot of this is my fault, but the author has to share some of the blame. The stories Greene tells to illustrate basic principles are often unnecessarily complex. The diagrams, of which there are many, are helpful in the early going, but are suspicious when we start talking about extra dimensions. Then again, when trying to describe such an exclusively mathematical reality, words and pictures are probably not the most useful tools.

If nothing else, you do come away from all of this with some new ideas about life, the universe and everything. In an elegant summary (except for the mixed metaphor at the end), Greene tells us that “If string theory is right, the microscopic fabric of our universe is a richly intertwined multidimensional labyrinth within which the strings of the universe endlessly twist and vibrate, rhythmically beating out the laws of the cosmos.” I could live with that.