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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

March Reads

A list of the books I read and what I thought of them.

Henry and June by Anaïs Nin

This 1986 book, comprised of material excerpted from the unexpurgated diaries of the French-born American writer Anaïs Nin, documents one of the most fascinating, and turbulent, love affairs within recent literary history. The entries span from October 1931 to October 1932, and Anaïs Nin, in her late twenties, is living in Louveciennes on the western outskirts of Paris with her husband of eight years, Hugo. An aspiring novelist with a penchant for romanticism, Anaïs meets novelist Henry Miller and his wife June, with whom she’s immediately taken: “I saw for the first time the most beautiful woman on earth.” Infatuated with June’s beauty, captivated with Henry’s writerly mind, Anaïs falls headfirst into a romantic web through which she finds both a sexual and moral liberation of sorts. It begins with June who, after a short time departs for America, leaving her husband Henry behind in Paris, and it is with him that Anaïs picks up the affair. What ensues is at once a vivid snapshot of Paris just after the turn of the twentieth century, a glimpse into the perambulatory, bohemian lifestyles of expat artists, and one woman’s erotic journey towards self-discovery and self-fulfillment.

At nearly three hundred pages, Henry and June took me almost two weeks to read, the reason for which, I quickly discovered, was that Anaïs Nin demands to be read slowly, sweetly, and savoringly. Her diaristic prose–varying from but not widely from her fiction–allures, tempts, and leads the reader through reverie and revelry, dream and debauchery, love and lust and the myriad conundrums which punctuate their connection. Nin’s unique free-flowing prose which weaves the external and internal, the physical and the emotional, contains an auditory quality, a sonorous something that carries the full range of sensory invocations, from the lingering sweetness of a kiss shared, a letter read, a sip of wine swallowed, to the striking bitterness of a quarrel, a dismissal, a pang of heartache. Such a range invoked in the reader is only a reflection of all contained in the content; Nin’s diaries paint the visceral, animalistic gravitational pull of several young people caught in the turbulent throes of erotic obsession, and the power of Nin’s writing is found in her ability to articulate such an experience, the singularity of it, the meaning behind the French phrase la petite mort, the very sensation of the world falling to the wayside and the intensity of the present truly reigning supreme. Revealed throughout is just how common all our most intimate interactions truly are–how seemingly similar, prevalent, and perhaps even universal are those acts which manifest from across the spectrum of love and lust, though which are simultaneously impossible to describe accurately. The expression of love, like reading, is both a collective and singular experience. I think that’s why I found this book so profoundly affecting. Writing about one’s diaries is an endeavor far from writing about fiction. Henry and June, comprised of fragments, passages delineated by page-breaks and structured by the changing months, remains outside the bounds of fiction–in style, in form, in content, in character. And frequently as I read, I would have to stop not because I was so taken by the content (which, no surprise, was indeed the case much of the time), but because I would fall into contemplating the competing voices of narration. There is Anaïs Nin, the writer; Anaïs Nin, the reader; Anaïs Nin, the narrator; and Anaïs Nin, the subject of her diary entries; and as one continues to read, the greater the space between these four separate versions there seems to be. Such is the essence of diary-writing; it’s a literary mode within itself, one of at once impossible complexity and brilliant simplicity. Anaïs Nin kept a diary for nearly sixty years, most of which are published. So, it’s safe to say I’ll be reading, and thinking about, her work for many years to come.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence

This 1928 eleventh and final novel by English writer D.H. Lawrence is a story of scandal, a novel of notoriety, a controversial classic, whose longstanding legacy has and continues to permeate the pantheon of modern literature. Set at the Wragby estate in the rolling English countryside, the novel follows newly married couple Clifford and Constance “Connie” Chatterley, but their marriage begins on a tragic note. Returning from the frontlines of WWI, Sir Clifford is rendered hors de combat, paralyzed from the waist down. Though he gets around by motorized wheelchair and finds respite in his writing, Sir Clifford depends on his wife Connie in almost all day-to-day habits and rituals. As the months turn to years, ennui settles upon Connie, forced into routine with little to excite or inspire her. But when she meets Clifford’s gamekeeper, a man named Oliver Mellors, who works the grounds of the estate and lives with his dog Flossie in a tiny stone cottage at the edge of the woods, suddenly the flickering flame in her chest leaps back to life. An affair ensues, one of brilliant heat and electric intensity; feelings fly, passions are enkindled, and the physical urges which had lain dormant for years are awakened anew. But their secret seems fated to be found out: among the townsfolk, suspicions arise, eyes pry, mouth chatter, and eventually, the walls of the clandestine world which Connie and Oliver had tried to build come crumbling down in a devastating denouement which seems still to resound through the annals of twentieth century literature.

Its reputation carves through the last hundred years of literary history, or perhaps, “disreputation” is a better word to use. It is one in the trident of masterful novels which spurred obscenity trials both in the UK and US (along with Joyce’s Ulysses, and Miller’s Tropic of Cancer), and was not fully published in the States until forty years after its first appearance. My heart aches for those eager readers who were never able to attain a copy and so were deprived of the experience this truly magnificent novel. About the novel, Anaïs Nin wrote, “In Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Lawrence’s work reaches its climax. Paradoxically it is at once his fleshiest and his most mystical work. Artistically it is his best novel because one idea is sustained to its conclusion with intensity and clarity…[F]or the first time Lawrence could, in Walter Pater’s words: ‘burn with a pure white flame.’ The result is our only complete modern love story.” Nin’s words allude to the aspects which, in my opinion, contribute most to the novel’s wondrous grandeur: the characters, the themes, and of course, Lawrence’s astounding prose. Beyond Connie and Oliver’s relationship–fraught with complexity, fear, and emotions in ways inarticulable–there are several other characters whose relations weave in and out, changing and transforming over the arc of the novel, which only deepens one of the central narrative sentiments: that one cannot live on ideas alone, that true fulfillment in life is found in the relationships with others, both intellectual and physical. And that sentiment is rendered in Lawrence’s fantastic prose, at once magniloquent and modest, powerful and subtle, heartbreaking and heartwarming. Lawrence’s modernist inclinations ink the distinction between narrator and character, exterior and interior, daubing the smallest of moments with the greatest of colors. For example, descriptions of clouds recur throughout, but each instance comes within a different context, contains a different meaning, different metaphor, which only blends elegance and insight into the world of Lawrence’s words. There were certain scenes that took my breath away, scenes that stopped me, seized me, sent me; scenes that I simply cannot describe here due to the nature of their content, but which I can say were written with such brilliance, care, and mastery that I struggle to name other writers whose work may compare. I lived inside this novel for over a week and struggled to climb out and back into the real world once I’d finished. And I confess, even as I write this, part of me simply wants to pick it up and dive back into its beautiful, powerful refuge.

Also, I thought the new Netflix film adaptation starring Emma Corrin and Jack O’Connell was profoundly affecting, brilliantly done, and a wonderful complement to the novel.

Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo

This 2003 thirteenth novel by American writer Don DeLillo charts the strange and at times outrageous escapades of one wealthy man in the city that never sleeps. It’s the year 2000 and Eric Packer, at age 28, is a wunderkind of high finance: he’s a multi-billionaire asset manager who lives at the top of a skyscraper in Manhattan. Spanning the course of a single day, Eric sets out to get a haircut, and the novel follows his odyssey from one side of the city to the other, as he encounters a multitude of obstacles and events which impede his journey. Traveling by limousine in near bumper-to-bumper traffic, with his bodyguard Torval, Eric’s excursions include: encountering his newlywed wife out and about on several different occasion, the two grabbing food at each instance; a quick morning tryst with his mistress; a particularly invasive physical exam conducted in the limo; encountering a watermain break and flood in Midtown; navigating a massive, violent horde of anarchic protesters; attending “The Last Techno-Rave” at a theater under construction; and getting caught behind a funeral parade for the recently deceased Brutha Fez, a popular Sufi rapper who happens to be Eric’s favorite. All of these events and many more unfold in immediate present, as the global economy teeters on the brink of collapse in the background and Eric faces not simply the threat of financial ruin, but also getting pied in the face as the Pastry Assassin is hot on his heels.

If one can imagine a Twilight Zone episode portraying a day in life of, say, Jordan Belfort, Cosmopolis might come close; needless to say, it was entertaining. Upon publication, reviews of the novel were mixed: for the New Yorker, John Updike wrote, “DeLillo's fervent intelligence and his fastidious, edgy prose, buzzing with expressions like ‘wave arrays of information,’ weave halos of import around every event, however far-fetched and random,” while also citing the “terse, deflective, somewhat lobotomized quality of the novel’s dialogue,” which rings closer to the critique made by Walter Kirn for the New York Times: “Beware the novel of ideas, particularly when the ideas come first and all the novel stuff (like the story) comes second. Cosmopolis is an intellectual turkey shoot, sending up a succession of fat targets just in time for its author to aim and fire the rounds he loaded before he started writing.” I had almost as much fun going through the reviews as I did reading the novel, especially as each one contained points which I agreed with, despite however laudatory or scathing their nature. What Kirn cites as a shortcoming of the novel, I actually find to be one its triumphs–the deferred intellectualization of each odd occurrence carries with it a subtle sardonicism which inevitably invokes a short smirk or two, and also possibly parts open an entryway into greater philosophizing about “what’s truly being said.” In other words, I liked the “intellectual turkey shoot.” One thing’s for certain, it’s fantastically entertaining, and with quick wit and fast sequences, the novel runs rapidly, in stark narrative contrast to the stand still of the traffic seizing all the characters. On top of that, DeLillo’s treatment of the most outrageous, even the most violent of acts, with the utmost nonchalance, a trademark of his style, provides an endless stream of amusement. It’s something I’d nearly forgotten, DeLillo’s signature air of insouciance invading the narration, turning absurdity to normalcy, oddity to frivolity. It was a good one to reintroduce me to his style and imagination after a hiatus from his work, and I cannot wait to read more of his book in the near future (Underworld beckons from the shelf).

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

This 1911 fourth novella by American writer Edith Wharton, upon publication, The New York Times described as a “grim tale of a bud of romance ice-bound and turned into frozen horror in the frigid setting of a New England winter landscape.” Indeed, set in the snow-steeped town of Starkfield, Massachusetts toward the turn of the twentieth century, the novella is a frame narrative, the frame following a nameless narrator who, having traveled to Starkfield on business, encounters Ethan Frome, a mysterious older man with a limp, whom the narrator ends up hiring as a driver. But when on one night a blizzard rolls in during a ride, the two take refuge in Frome’s home, and it is there that our narrator learns the history of Ethan Frome that comprises our narrative. Twenty-eight-year-old Ethan Frome lives with wife Zeena, who is five years his senior and wracked with medical afflictions. With them lives Zeena’s young cousin, Mattie, who’s been with the Fromes for over a year, and during that time Ethan has developed an intense infatuation for her, feelings which, though suppressed, seem to be reciprocated in Mattie. The two live their lives in secret, acknowledging each other but not acting, looking but not seeing. That is until, Zeena has to go away for a short time for medical reasons, and Ethan and Mattie can be alone together. But when Zeena returns, the light of their shared dream isn’t turned down again, but completely stamped out for good, as Zeena has planned for Mattie to move away, and Ethan, due to financial reasons, cannot do a thing. What unfolds in the wake of this turning point at once ensures and upends the fate of Ethan and Mattie, fomenting an end to the frame which shatters all expectation.

It was my first Edith Wharton, a writer whose work I’ve been meaning to get to for a long, long time now. You know it’s time to begin a writer when you can list off their “greatest hits” without having actually read them yet. I think Ethan Frome was a perfect place to begin as its barely two hundred pages grant a certain glimpse into both the content of Wharton’s imagination, and the brilliant form it takes in her writing. Indeed, I thought her characters were wondrously captivating, even if a bit conventional as they were at times; strange, clumsy, self-doubting, awkward, unconfident, and untimely–all these and more could describe more than just Ethan. And the dialogue throughout was frugally crafted, lines written in a way where more is said in the silences between than the actual words themselves, which I think is a testament to the form of Wharton’s craft. Her prose was seizing from the start–simple descriptions of the weather, snow on a landscape, took a whole new dimension; stars were not simply stars, graves not simply graves. And there’s a subtle rhythm to her words, as if the wind that carries the ever-present snow also moved the momentum of the text. But the novella’s structure is what elevated the whole work for me. Frame narratives are nothing new to me, but seldom are done to such a magnificent and efficient degree; it was truly elegant. Moreover, it was especially curious that I happened to pick this one up so soon after reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a novel with which Ethan Frome bears uncanny similarities: Chatterley follows a wife who, discontent with her husband, seeks an affair with their male servant; Frome follows a husband who, discontent with his wife, seeks an affair with their female servant. Additionally, a man wrote Chatterley; a woman wrote Frome. The affinitive gender flip-flopping across the two novels was not lost on me, and in fact, only added to the experience. Interestingly, Frome came out seventeen years before Chatterley first appeared, and now I wonder what, if any, influence Wharton may have had on Lawrence. Also, the edition that I read included a certain periodical at the back which lends a seriously deep layer to the rest of the story and its creation; those familiar will know what I’m speaking of. There’s much more that I could say about this short, powerful novel but best to leave it here. I’m happy to have finally ventured forth in the work of Wharton.

Lie Down in Darkness by William Styron

This 1951 debut novel by American novelist William Styron is a portrait of a family unraveling. Set in the fictional town of Port Warwick on the Southern Virginia coast during the first half of the twentieth century, the novel, on the surface, follows Milton and Helen over the course of a single summer day as they transport the body of their recently deceased daughter Peyton from the train station to the cemetery where, joining her older sister Maudie, she is to be buried. But slipping below the surface and into the past, revealed are the complications and dysfunctionality which have marked the Loftis family from their humble beginnings. Milton is an attorney with great political aspirations, but whose unconquerable alcoholism and infidelity drive a spike in his marriage and his relationships with his daughters and thwarts any career ambitions; Helen is the devout homemaker, overly pious, who dotes on her eldest daughter Maudie who has special needs, yet loathes her younger daughter Peyton, the perceived golden child whose beauty and brilliance no one can deny. The Loftises live in affluence, status, surrounded by their close friends and family, though few would be privy to the heartache which flourishes behind closed doors. As childhood turns to adolescence to adulthood and the seasons roll onward like the waves of the Chesapeake Bay, the discontent, ennui, and despair festering in plain sight becomes too much to bear, and the events and emotions which entailed the novel’s beginning climax slowly rise from out of the darkness and into the light.

It was William Styron’s first novel which he began writing at age 23; it was published at age 26; and it went on to receive the prestigious Rome Prize awarded by the American Academy in Rome and the American Academy of Arts & Letters. Styron is an author whose name rings through the annals of late twentieth century American literature, though with a timbre that sparks as much contention as it does laudation. But after this one, I can say with certainty that I plan to read all his other novels. Darkness, though with its flaws, I thought, was masterful in both content and form, the textual tie binding the two a brilliant invocation of the Southern Gothic tradition. About that, one author whose influence I couldn’t help seeing in spades was William Faulkner; indeed his novels and style, content and form, seep through the pages: a family grieving the death of a family member transports her body to her final resting place: reminiscent of As I Lay Dying; yet written in a series of long-sentenced, meandering flashbacks which send the reader tumbling into the past, never knowing when they’ll be wrenched back into the present, and a long section towards the end written entirely in stream-of-consciousness: reminiscent of Absalom, Absalom! And family, death, religion, vice, the fall of man, etc. – all are found in troves throughout this southern saga. Moreover, I realized another reason I enjoyed this one so much was simply the setting: Virginia, my home state. Beyond the central setting of Port Warwick which seemed to me modeled off Newport News, the story spans from Richmond, my birthplace, to Charlottesville, and all surrounding counties, their landscapes, geography, and unceasing humidity the subjects of Styron’s exquisite descriptions and frequently striking a certain nostalgic nerve which I didn’t known I had. The novel consumed me for eleven days straight, and I had to read it in increments as, while certain passages awed me endlessly, others induced a dizzying effect, a vicarious anxiety of sorts, a pervasive perplexity by prolix proxy, doubtless the result of the near constant alcoholic stupor in which the patriarch of the family, Milton Loftis, exists. Seldom have I encountered a more accurate and disorienting portrayal of inebriation. The same goes with the unrelenting grief which crashes in tidal waves of pain and anguish as it does percolate gradually through the past, slowly accumulating, shifting, transforming. The novel teems with life in all its hardships and injustice, and the result is a stunning, powerful debut, which I certainly read again in the future.

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