Book Review: The Wife, by Meg Wolitzer

 

by Renee Kimball

“The moment I decided to leave him, the moment I thought, enough, we were thirty-thousand feet above the ocean, hurtling forward but giving the illusion of stillness and tranquility. Just like our marriage.”

In 2003, Scribner published The Wife by Meg Wolitzer—a short novel of 219 pages, and it packs a punch.  For those women of a certain age and time, it is a knock-out punch that is visceral and blinding.  Wolitzer’s writing is exacting, deeply pointed, writing that draws the reader into the heart of the story, towards the character—the wife.

It is a story of women born in the ’40s and ’50s who were expected to became wives and mothers—the only worthy feminine social contract of the age.  The goal was respectable: women, as mere women, had no other option for fulfillment than as wife and mother.  Many women today cannot relate to this story; it will come at them like a foreign language, no meaning, gibberish—make-believe murmurings, not acceptable, unbelievable.

For this story describes the kind of woman who went to college to obtain a MRS. Degree; if she didn’t marry, she graduated to become a secretary or teacher or nurse until she found Mr. Right.  Mr. Right was enough for a life’s goal; there really wasn’t anything else needed or desired.

Although women had earned the right to vote in 1920, during the ’40s and ’50s they were still somehow something less; feminists’ rising voices were in the future.  A successful marriage—a good husband, a home, children—was the purpose of womanhood.  It was a long time before society would accept that women might want more, or could contribute outside the home, offer something other than what had been preordained by a male dominated world.

It is hard to imagine that being a woman during that time offered limited life choices and failed to offer much that could be achieved without male approval.  The gender differences were deeper then, more difficult, more ingrained.  Being a wife, the wife of a successful man, keeping a home, raising children, was the goal.

The Wife is the story of a woman who becomes the wife of a “great” novelist—a man who wants it all—sexual conquest, notoriety, money, lasting fame—and her part nurturing and ensuring that those dreams come true.  She sits on the sidelines through the years, willingly relinquishing the loss of herself and her own innate talent as a writer.

 

“He was Joseph Castleman, one of those men who own the world.  You know the type I mean: those advertisements for themselves, those sleepwalking giants, roaming the earth and knocking over other men, women, furniture, villages.  Why should they care? . . There are many varieties of this kind of man: Joe was the writer version, a short, wound-up, slack-bellied novelist who almost never slept, . . . who had no idea how to take care of himself or anyone else. . .” (p. 11).

 

Meg Wolitzer, by Larry D. Moore. CC BY-SA-3.0. Via Wikipedia.

In this marriage, the wife doesn’t shrink from exposing her own weaknesses and her acquiescence to play her part—she proclaims her personal failures loudly—admitting surrendering her life to a man who basically exploited her mind, talents, and body to enrich his own life.  She quietly works and goes along to get along; she plays nice and gives up everything without a fight.  She blames herself, stating she was lazy, she was too easy; she is remorseful she was not stronger, more forceful, more demanding of her worthiness.

In The Wife, Joan is a young earnest co-ed at Smith, enraptured by her mesmerizing married English professor, Joe Castleman.  An affair ensues, and Joe divorces and abandons his wife and newborn daughter.  Joe—with Joan in tow- moves to New York to pursue becoming a famous author.  While Joan is forced to work to sustain them; Joe stays in their squalid apartment with roaches in attendance and writes his novel.

 

“It kills me to say it, but I was his student when we met. There we were in 1956, a typical couple, Joe intense and focused and tweedy, me a fluttering budgie circling him again and again. . .None of us was in the thick of anything in 1956 we understood that we were being kept separate from the world that mattered. . .We were being preserved for some other purpose, willingly suspending ourselves like specimens in agar for four years.” (p. 38-39).

Throughout it all, the marriage is held together by Joan’s efforts, through the birthing of Joe’s first novel, the further birthing of three children that follow, long years of Joe’s constant infidelity, and Joe’s unending neediness and whininess, and at last, the attainment of his final monumental success, the Helsinki Prize for literature.

Withstanding all the humiliation, the pain, the children and attendant issues, and her sheer monstrous personal sacrifices —Joan remains stoic, supportive, ever willing to smooth, console, and face whatever crisis assaults them all over the long years.  Joan never strays, she doesn’t waiver, she lives to make her husband successful and proud, she never says no to his demands no matter how outrageous, even if those demands degrade her morally, ethically, while crushing her belief in herself, she remains steadfast in her purpose—Joe’s dream—that the world acknowledge him as a literary author, a writer of great fiction, memorable for all time.

 

“Everyone knows how women soldier on, how women dream up blueprints, recipes, ideas for a better world, and then sometimes lose them on the way to the crib in the middle of the night, on the way to the Stop & Shop, or the bath. They lose them on the way to greasing the path on which their husband and children will ride serenely through life.” (p. 183).

 

In the face of her personal loss of her creative self, Joan passes that talent on to her husband gladly, keeping silent, working tirelessly to enrich his life and career in confirmation of their union as man and wife.  As Joe’s fame increases, she benefits and does not deny that; yet, she suffers in silence, knowing there is more to the literary success than Joe’s brilliance: it is her brilliance that brought this about for him, out of love, adoration, anger at his infidelity, even her own deep seated confusion, she isn’t really sure.

As Joan ages, becoming angry with herself, with her silence, with Joe, with the life of secrecy that she allowed to grow layer by layer around her, angry at the lies that kept the children outside her life safely unaware of the truth behind their father’s prodigious output, their mother’s silent necessary secret.  Joan knows that speaking the truth at this late date would not only destroy their carefully crafted life, splinter their family, eradicate their hard-won position in the elite literary circles, but destroy her life’s mission—the belief that Joe is a great novelist.  In turn, the truth would then erase her as well.

All throughout the marriage she remains his rock and muse—but she is more, so much more, and we do not know the extent of her worth until the end of the story.  While she simmers and her distaste for her life grows out of control, her repulsion, her self-loathing rises even more, and she reaches the decision to break free for whatever time she is left, reaching towards a life without Joe, a life of freedom.

Not all women can relate to this story—it seems farfetched that a woman would give up her intellectual gifts so easily to live in the shadow of a well-known author, allowing him the spotlight, the adulation, the honors.  Sadly, many know this tale in one form or another, and it exists in many relationships even now, but we hope that there are more options today for these bright and talented women.

But there is so much more to Joe and Joan’s story in the end.  It will not be spoiled for you here; read it for yourself.  The Wife is not a novel for all women, but it is not so narrow a tale that the subtleties and nuances of the relationship have no meaning—it is a worthy read.

***

**The Finlandia Prize (Finlandia-palkinto) is a literary award in Finland by the Finnish Book Foundation. It is awarded annually to the author of the best novel written by a Finnish citizen (Finlandia Award), children’s book (Finlandia Junior Award), and non-fiction book (Tieto-Finlandia Award). The award sum (as of 2010) is 30,000 euros (previously 100,000 Finnish Marks). Works may be in Finnish or Swedish but non-Finnish citizens are not allowed to enter. However, in 2010 the Finnish Book Foundation made an exception for a nominee.

***

The movie adaptation of The Wife stars Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce.

Book Photo: Courtesy by Amazon.com

***

A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate and fosters and rescues both dogs and cats and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.

Tell Me a Story! P.D. James, Talking about Detective Fiction, 2009

 

by Helen Currie Foster

Tell me a story,” begs the child.

Tell me a story about before you met me,” the lover entreats the loved one.

Tell me the story about how you met,” we ask the new couple.

Tell me the scariest moment,” the reporter demands of the returning explorer.

Tell me a story,” we whisper to the books on the library shelf.

After an astounding career as master of detective fiction, P. D. James finished Talking about Detective Fiction in 2009, when she was nearly ninety. This small but hugely thoughtful book touches many topics: the history of detective fiction, authorial arguments over point of view and whether or not the murderer can be a protagonist, variants in the genre. Then James tackles the importance of setting, the importance of character, and the importance of plot.

As to setting: “If we believe in the place we can believe in the characters.” She notes that one function of the setting is to add credibility to a story. For James, credibility is particularly needed for crime fiction, which often offers not just dramatic but bizarre or horrific events. (This immediately brought to mind Robert Galbraith’s (J.K. Rowling’s) Cormoran Strike series, including The Silkworm.) According to James, “My own detective novels, with rare exceptions, have been inspired by the place rather than by a method of murder or a character.” She says her Devices and Desires was born when she stood on a deserted beach in East Anglia, then turned and saw the vast outline of a nuclear power station.

Character: her characters “grow like plants” while she’s writing but still bring surprises, so that “at the end, no matter how carefully and intricately the work is plotted, I never get exactly the novel I planned.”

As to why people love this genre? For the story. For the story! Here she quotes E.M. Forster:

“‘We are all like Scheherazade’s husband in that we want to know what happens next. That is universal and that is why the backbone of a novel has to be a story….Qua story, it can have only one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next. And conversely it can have only one fault: that of making the audience not want to know what happens next.’” [E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel]

Our mystery genre has at its heart, of course, a mystery, and we know that by the end it will be solved, more or less. Of course, we readers relish solving the mystery, but, as James says of herself, if that were the only attraction, we wouldn’t reread our old favorites. Which many of us do.

Why do we reread? Not just for the solution, but for the story. Once upon a time there was [a character] who lived in [a setting] and one day, a [terrible awful amazing startling promising exciting bizarre weird shocking hilarious unexpected] thing happened. And what do you think happened next?

We can’t wait. Bring it on. Because we want a story, in a setting we believe in, even if surprising, so we believe in the characters, and––even when we’re re-reading an old favorite–– we want to keep turning the pages so we can know what happens next.

Thank you, P. D. James, for this rich small book, and for all your books with their settings, characters, plot intricacies…and story.

***

Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series. She earned a BA from Wellesley College, an MA from the University of Texas, and a JD from the University of Michigan.

Having grown up in Texas surrounded by books and storytelling, she taught high school English and later became a prize-winning feature writer for a small Michigan weekly. Following a career of more than thirty years as an environmental lawyer, the character Alice and her stories suddenly appeared in Foster’s life. In her writing, Foster explores the interaction between history and the present and the reasons we tell the stories we do.

Married with two children, she lives north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She works in Austin, and she’s active with the Hays County Master Naturalists and the board of Austin Shakespeare.

BOOK REVIEW: FULL DARK, NO STARS by Stephen King

Written by Renee Kimball

From the start . . . I felt that the best fiction was both propulsive and assaultive. It gets in your face. Sometimes it shouts in your face. I have no quarrel with literary fiction, which usually concerns itself with extraordinary people in ordinary situations, but as both a reader and a writer, I’m much more interested by ordinary people in extraordinary situations. I want to provoke an emotional, even visceral, reaction in my readers. Making them think as they read is not my deal.” (Full Dark, No Stars. p.365).

There are some who avoid works by Stephen King. Literary elitists have shown disdain towards King for years arguing his writing is story-telling for the masses. This review isn’t about the literary merits of King’s works, or his overwhelming success, or even about the monumental effect King’s life-long dedication to writing has had on the horror genre. This brief review is a discussion of four novellas which are found in Full Dark, No Stars, released in 2010.

Short stories and novellas are not a new format for King. King has published very successful short stories and multiple novellas over his 35-year long career. He has clearly succeeded yet again, with Full Dark, No Stars. Full Dark contains a common theme of each novella, a theme that explores the darker human psyche, retribution, revenge, and a sense of twisted justice. Redemption is not found, but retribution appears in each. Even evil acts can result in a twisted kind of justice—black and damaging kind of justice, but justice nonetheless.

1922: NOVELLA ONE

The first novella, 1922, is set in Depression era Nebraska. The story involves a barely solvable working family farm, a life of constant work, brutally harsh and unrelenting. The wife and mother, Arlette, is a bitter and manipulative character who constantly harps to her husband to sell the farm and a plot of 100 acres that Arlette inherited from her father. Arlette’s dream is to leave the country life and start again in the city of Omaha.

The husband, Wilfred “Wilf,” verbally dominated and hen-pecked, is the browbeaten beleaguered husband whose only desire is to stay on his land. Wilf tells Henry, their only child, of Arlette’s plan. Wilf then convinces Henry to help him murder Arlette. Wilf intones that if Henry does not help with this, then they will be forced to leave the farm, and Henry will never see his girlfriend, who lives on a close by, ever again. Henry, a meek and obedient boy, resists but finally agrees to help with the murder of his mother.

As Arlette’s demands to sell increase, Wilf and Henry, determine it is the time for murder. It is a clumsy and brutal murder, both father and son are deeply shaken afterwards. Arlette’s murder becomes the prelude to the story that evolves into a twisted tale of backwoods justice and supernatural interference. Their deed results into the ultimate destruction of both father and son. The darker psyche of Wilf bobs and weaves throughout the tale, and in the end, destruction follows. (Spoiler: If you have a phobia against rats, you may not want to read this dark tale). (Photo Wikipedia.org)

BIG DRIVER: NOVELLA TWO

Big Driver is the second story in the collection. The main character, Tess, is a resourceful and successful mystery writer. She is the author of a “cozy” mysteries series and well known for her work in that type of genre. To ensure a little extra for retirement, Tess travels and gives readings of her books. She receives an invitation to read in a small-town library not too far from her home, and readily accepts. After reading, she takes a shortcut home on the advice of her hostess, the local librarian.

Things become dangerous when she has a flat tire in an isolated and abandoned area. When a seemingly well-intentioned good Samaritan stops to change her tire, instead of helping her, Tess is beaten and raped. Left for dead, Tess awakes to find herself in a culvert along with several decomposing female bodies. Pulling herself together, she leaves the area on foot and begins walking towards her home. She reaches her home and begins to plans her revenge.

Tess shows both sharp intelligence and quiet bravery, and no one portrays a woman’s strength better than King. Tess is a force who leaves the reader applauding her quiet inner strength and problem solving skills. When she meets up with her rapist/ would be killer, Tess achieves her revenge on a much larger scale than she imagined.

FAIR EXTENSION: NOVELLA THREE

While King’s Tess is resourceful and brave, the third novella, Fair Extension, is written from the perspective of a male, Streeter, who is a bitter and unlikable character.

Streeter, suffers from incurable cancer secretly blames his bad health, career, marriage, and lack of income, on the twisted idea that if he had not promoted and helped his best friend, Tom Goodhugh, through high school, Streeter would have had all the successes that Tom enjoys –money and success and a perfect family. Streeter believes that Tom should suffer the trials and tribulations Streeter has endured, after all, it is only fair.

 Late on evening on his way home, Streeter takes an unplanned detour to a kind of roadside market. He had seen a sign reading “FAIR EXTENSION,” and became curious. A lone man named George Elvid, sits at the table with the sign. When Street askes what kind of “extensions” Elvid offers, Elvid responds all kinds but the type of extension depends upon the requestor. All extensions are tailored made and could be anything- credit extensions, love potions, to corrective eyesight. A Faustian trade ensues, and Streeter exchanges the extension of his life for the life of his best friend, Tom.

The Streeter story is a black tale of harbored grudges and selfishness. As Tom experiences horrific setbacks and death, he is slowly physically and mentally broken. As this is happening to Tom, Streeter becomes healthy and rich. In the end, Streeter remains unrepentant by his part in Tom’s tragic decline. FAIR EXTENSION fails to arouse the reader’s sympathy, and there is no retribution, rather, it is a tale of cruelty and Jealousy.

A GOOD MARRIAGE: NOVELLA FOUR

The fourth and last story, A Good Marriage, is thought provoking and believable. The main character is a stay-at-home wife, Darcy, whose children have gone to college and left to start their lives. Darcy has been married to the same man, Bob Anderson, (who she believes she knows well), for over 25 years. She thinks she is living the American dream, or a semblance there of—not perfect, but predictable. Then, by shear accident, she trips over a misaligned carton in the garage. Darcy then realizes that the man that she believes she knows as well as herself, has a double life and is a serial killer.

Once Darcy does her research and confirms her suspicions, she realizes that there has not been a killing for 16 years. She attempts to come to grips with what she knows for certain. Her husband, Bob, intuits that she knows about his secret life realizing that the carton has been moved. Bob confronts Darcy, and manages to convince her that it is all up to her what happens. But that as long as she keeps quiet, he will suppress his killing urges, he then promises he won’t kill again.

Bob explains Darcy is the reason he took a break from killing, being with her has allowed him to suppress and ignore his need to kill. Bob also says that it can all start up again if she doesn’t keep quiet and if she turns him in, then the children’s lives will be ruined and Darcy will suffer the consequences and will be ostracized by the very people she believes to be her friends.

Several years go by with both partners ignoring their shared secret and no killings. But Darcy, never feels at ease and in limbo. Darcy is ashamed and feels responsible because she knows she is the only one that can reveal thebtruth and bring Bob to justice.

Finally, Darcy stages and then succeeds in killing Bob. When a bit too tipsy from an evening celebration, Darcy manages to push Bob down a flight of stairs. Darcy is cleared of any foul play, but she knows there will be someone knocking on the door sooner or later who knows she staged Bob’s murder. And, the day did come, and someone came knocking, but it wasn’t who she expected.

There is retribution in the end, and a good dose of twisted justice, but you have to read the book.

You will enjoy this collection, it is something that will make you think, even if that is not King’s aim and may even surprise you. One can never really know what they might do if pushed to the absolute edge.

Happy Reading . . .

From the Afterword:

“I have tried my best in Full Dark, No Stars to record what people might do, and how they might behave, under certain dire circumstances. The people in these stories are not without hope, but they acknowledge that even our fondest hopes (and our fondest wishes for our fellowmen and the society in which we live) may sometimes be vain. Often, even. But I think they also say that nobility most fully resides not in success but in trying to do the right thing…and that when we fail to do that, or willfully turn away from the challenge, hell follows.” (Stephen King).

“Stephen King has proven himself to be one of the finest chroniclers of the dark side of the human psyche over the 35 years of his successful career. While literary snobs sometimes cock a snoot at his mainstream appeal, there is no doubt that on his day he can spin as compelling a yarn as anyone” . . . These tense tales delve into the dark heart of a knitting society and a serial killer’s last stand.” (Doug Johnstone. Independent. November 14, 2010. (https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/full-dark-no-stars-by-stephen-king-2130460.html).

 

References

King, Stephen. FULL DARK, NO STARS, 2010. Simon & Schuster, New York. New York.

Kirkus Review. “Deals with the darkest recesses of the human soul. . .” Kirkus Review. https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/stephen-king/full-dark-no-stars/ Nov 10, 2010.

Johnstone, Doug. Independent. November 14, 2010. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/full-dark-no-stars-by-stephen-king-2130460.html

Image of Stephen King, press photo, via https://www.stephenking.com/the_author
Image of Full Dark, No Stars cover via Amazon.com
Image of semi truck by Kcida, free licence, via Wikipedia
Image of “Faust” by Harry Clarke, public domain, via Wikipedia

*****

A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate and fosters and rescues both dogs and cats from shelters and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.

 

One Pebble in a Shoe Can Change the Universe

 

It happened again.

An author killed off a character I love.

I hate that. I hate the author. I continue to like the book, but the author I despise.

This time it’s Anne Tyler. I love her novels. The Accidental Tourist. Breathing Lessons. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. My favorites, if I have favorites, are Back When We Were Grownups and Saint Maybe.

Tyler’s plots are rather loose. Instead of going directly from here to there, they detour, turn corners you didn’t see coming, abandon the now for backstory that might take you a generation or two into the past before returning to the main narrative.  “[C]haracter is everything,” Tyler said in an interview. “I never did see why I have to throw in a plot, too.”

She writes about families: ordinary, quirky, dysfunctional families–dysfunctional as ordinary families tend to be. They’re humble people, living in ordinary houses, working at ordinary jobs; their furniture is often mismatched and their carpet runners often worn from someone’s pacing. Her families stick together; children and grandchildren don’t stray far, come home often, and sometimes don’t leave at all.

Even their extraordinary problems  are ordinary, the kinds of problems real people experience.

Her characters’ days are filled with matters of little importance. “As for huge events vs. small events,” says Tyler, “I believe they all count. They all reveal character, which is the factor that most concerns me….It does fascinate me, though, that small details can be so meaningful.”

She loves to “think about chance–about how one little overheard word, one pebble in a shoe, can change the universe…The real heroes to me in my books are first the ones who manage to endure.”

If her plots meander, it’s because they reflect the common, insignificant, everyday events that are the most important, because, taken together, they form the essence of life.

Tyler cares about her characters. “My people wander around my study until the novel is done,” she said in another interview. “It’s one reason I’m very careful not to write about people I don’t like. If I find somebody creeping in that I’m not really fond of, I usually take him out.”

And therein lies my problem, and the reason that Anne Tyler is, for the moment, on my bad list.

She’s not the only one who likes her characters. I like them, too. Some of them, I love. And when one dies—or, as I see it, when she kills one—I take it personally. The character’s family stand around in the kitchen saying all the plain, simple, often awkward, frequently funny things that real people say when someone they love has died.  They crowd together in pews to hear a sermon by a minister who didn’t know the loved one and might not know how to pronounce his name. They return home to refrigerators stuffed with casseroles and play host to friends and neighbors until they’re so tired they’re about to drop. Left alone, they get on one another’s nerves and offend with, or take offense at, the most innocent remarks. Then they pick themselves up and go on with their lives.

But I don’t. Because even though I stand outside the novel, reading about people who don’t exist, never have, never will, I know them. I’ve been where they are, said what they say, done what they do. And when I have to go through it one more time, with them—that seriously messes up my day.

Tyler always manages to redeem herself, though. One of her characters says or does something so remarkable, so absolutely right. And the world of the novel shifts. And so does mine.

In the book I’m reading now—I won’t mention the title so as not to spoil it for you—Tyler gives that role to the “disconcertingly young” minister who conducts the funeral. After a friend and a sister-in-law and a fourteen-year-old granddaughter wearing “patent leather heels and a shiny, froufrou dress so short she could have been a cocktail waitress,” have paid tribute to the deceased, he approaches the lectern and does what the deceased wanted–to “say something brief and—if it wasn’t asking too much—not too heavy on religion.’”

He starts by saying he didn’t know their loved one and so doesn’t have memories like they have.

But it has occurred to me, on occasion, that our memories of our loved ones might not be the point. Maybe the point is their memories–all that they take away with them. What if heaven is just a vast consciousness that the dead return to? And their assignment is to report on the experiences they collected during their time on earth. The hardware store their father owned with the cat asleep on the grass seed, and the friend they used to laugh with till the tears streamed down their cheeks… The spring mornings they woke up to a million birds singing their hearts out, and the summer afternoons with the swim towels hung over the porch rail… and the warm yellow windows of home when they came in on a snowy night. “That’s what my experience has been,” they say, and it gets folded in with the others–one more report on what living felt like. What it was to be alive.

And so Anne Tyler performs her magic. Once more I start bawling. I reconsider. My hostility passes into nothingness. I forgive her. We’re friends again.

I leave the church and go home with the family to a refrigerator stuffed with casseroles, and visit with their friends, and watch them give and take offense but then quickly, or perhaps slowly, repair their relationships, and pick themselves up and go on with life.

Now I have to read the second half of the book. That’s a lot of pages to cover without the character I love. But, like the others, I pick myself up and get on with it.

If I can’t have the character, I can still love Anne Tyler. And I will. And I do.

###

A film adaptation of Breathing Lessons starring James Garner and Joanne Woodward appeared on the Hallmark Hall of Fame in 1994.  Very funny.

The novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996.

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0109335/

###

Of Tyler’s novel Searching for Caleb, John Updike wrote, “Funny and lyric and true, exquisite in its details and ambitious in its design…This writer is not merely good, she is wickedly good.”

What a fine thing to be–wickedly good.

###

In writing this post, I relied heavily on “Anne Tyler” from Wikipedia. More information can be found at

http://www.nytimes.com/topic/person/anne-tyler
https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/457.Anne_Tyler
http://www.npr.org/2015/02/10/384112113/cozy-blue-thread-is-unabashedly-domestic
http://www.baltimoresun.com/entertainment/arts/bal-book-review-anne-tyler-s-vinegar-girl-a-clever-riff-on-shakespeare-s-shrew-20160622-story.html
http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/04/19/specials/tyler.html
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/feb/15/anne-tyler-interview-i-am-not-a-spiritual-person-spool-of-blue-thread
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/event/article-2931435/Anne-Tyler-began-writing-idea-wanted-know-like-somebody-else.html
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/apr/13/anne-tyler-interview

Find her on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Anne-Tyler/e/B000APV4K0/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1466827414&sr=8-2-ent

###

This review first appeared on Telling the Truth, Mainly, June 24, 2016.

M.K. Waller blogs at http://kathywaller1.com. Find her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/kathy.waller68/

Confessions of a Closet Re-Reader: Le Carré and his Characters

by Helen Currie Foster

In her 2001 collection Rereadings, Anne Fadiman challenged writers to revisit books they read before they were twenty-five, and still re-read. Contributor Arthur Krystal (his favorite re-read is a boxing book, Witwer’s The Leather Pushers), quotes George Orwell: “The books one read in childhood, and perhaps most all bad and good bad books, create in one’s mind a sort of false map of the world, a series of fabulous countries into which one can retreat at odd moments.”

Oh yes, “odd moments,” like when the world is too much with us. Then I repair to the shelves and drag off not only my pre-twenty-five faves (Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, Jane Austen, Kim) but also later loves: Patrick O’Brian, tattered volumes by Dorothy Dunnett, mysteries by Rowling/Galbraith, Marsh, Hillerman—and, especially, John Le Carré. Over and over I return to the travails, humiliations, and perilous triumph of his character George Smiley. Sometimes re-reading feels guilty—shouldn’t I be reading Important New Novels, not the Le Carré spy novel genre?—but it’s  guilty pleasure, like getting on a train clutching a Hershey-bar-with-almonds I don’t have to share.

“John Le Carre” by Krimidoedal licensed under CC BY-3.0

One Rereadings contributor vindicated my re-reading of Le Carré. The terrific Pico Iyer addressed D. H. Lawrence’s The Virgin and the Gypsy, which he discovered “within the tightly guarded confines of a fifteenth-century English boarding school.” Iyer says, “[Lawrence] had something in common with all the great English writers who railed against English narrowness  and skepticism (Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham, John Berger and John le Carré)….”

Yes! An English writer calling Le Carré a “great English writer”! Rereading is justified!

For instance, consider Le Carré’s genius for character depiction. Let’s look at just two of his repeating characters, George Smiley and Peter Guillam, and their relationship, in three books: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974); Smiley’s People (1980); and his recent A Legacy of Spies (2017). Le Carré builds Smiley in part through others’ eyes:

From the outset of this meeting, Smiley had assumed for the main a Buddha-like inscrutability… He sat leaning back with his short legs bent, head forward, and plump hands linked across his generous stomach. His hooded eyes had closed behind the thick lenses. His only fidget was to polish his glasses on the silk lining of his tie, and when he did this his eyes had a soaked, naked look that was embarrassing to those who caught him at it. (Tinker)

A police superintendent describes the complexity behind Smiley’s face, in Smiley’s People:

Not one face at all actually, the Superintendent reflected….More your whole range of faces. More your patchwork of different ages, people, and endeavours. Even—thought the Superintendent—of different faiths.

He’s so physically unimposing as to be nearly comical, yet his intellect and ferocious tenacity come across to other characters. We come to understand why he inspires fear in his adversaries and devotion in those, like Peter Guillam, whom he has mentored.

In other words, I can pick up my Hershey bar with confidence that—again—Smiley will triumph…for the Circus…at least for a time. I have the same confidence as Guillam that Smiley will ultimately succeed…for this battle. So, another bite of Hershey bar.

And I, like Guillam, have confidence that while others are still scrambling to see the big picture, Smiley will ultimately hold all the threads in his hand. But—again like Guillam—I cannot see all the threads, until the end, if then.

Le Carré uses physical description to support Smiley’s reliance on Peter Guillam for sometimes perilous tasks. We see the younger Guillam in Tinker:

Guillam drove languidly but fast. Smiley wondered how old Guillam was and guessed forty, but in that light he could have been an undergraduate sculling on the river, he moved the gear lever with a long flowing movement as if he were passing it through water.

Le Carré shows us Guillam in action when at Smiley’s request Guillam sneaks into the Circus to steal records. Despite appalling potential consequences, under the very eyes of Smiley’s adversaries, Guillam pulls off a bald-faced daylight theft:

Move. Once you stop, you never start again: there is a special stage-fright that can make you dry up and walk away, that burns your fingers when you touch the goods and turns your stomach to water. Move…. His shirt was clinging to his ribs. What’s happened to me? Christ, I’m over the hill. He turned forward and back, forward again, twice, three times, then closed the cupboard on the lot. He waited, listened, took a last worried look at the dust, then stepped boldly across the corridor, back to the safety of the men’s room.

Then, when we meet him later in Smiley’s People, Guillam’s still fast-moving and independent (the Porsche has a role in the plot):

Guillam, it may be added, was an athlete, half French, but more English on account of it; he was slender, and near enough handsome—but though he fought it every inch of the way, he was also close on fifty, which is the watershed that few careers of ageing fieldmen survive. He also owned a brand-new German Porsche car, which he had acquired, somewhat shamefacedly, at diplomatic rates, and parked, to the Ambassador’s strident disapproval, in the Embassy car-park.

Guillam worked for Smiley on and off for years. By the uncomfortably present time of A Legacy of Spies, both are retired and have not seen each other in nearly a decade. Did Guillam ever see the big picture? He asks himself that question as first-person narrator of A Legacy of Spies, where we see everything through his eyes. British interrogators haul him out of retirement in France and back to London, where they confiscate his British passport (he’s hidden another elsewhere). They repeatedly demand, “Where’s George? When did you last see George? Or talk to him?” Guillam hasn’t, and won’t, until the last five pages of Legacy. The plot involves laying blame on Guillam for decades-old failures at the Circus, and Guillam has to rely on decades-old tradecraft skills to escape, plus, appropriately, some new skills, like resorting to his hearing aids (“deaf aids”) to buy time in his interrogation:

[‘Bunny’ Butterfield] “Let me ask you just one question ahead of the rest of the field. May I?” —squeeze of the eyes. “Operation Windfall. How was it mounted, who drove it, where did it go so wrong, and what was your part in it?”

Does an easing of the soul take place when you realize your worst expectations have been fulfilled? Not in my case.

“Windfall, Bunny, did you say?”

“Windfall”—louder, in case he hasn’t reached my deaf aids.

Keep it slow. Remember you’re of an age. Memory not your strong point these days. Take your time.

But when it appears his captors won’t let him go, Guillam is off and running

When the truth catches up with you, don’t be a hero, run. But I took care to walk, slowly, into Dolphin Square and up to the safe flat I knew I would never sleep in again. Draw curtains, sigh resignedly for the television set, close bedroom door. Extract French passport from dead letter box behind fire precautions notice. There is a calming ritual to escape. Don clean set of clothes. Shove razor in raincoat pocket, leave the rest in place. Make my way down to grill room, order light meal, settle to my boring book like a man reconciled to a solitary evening. Chat up Hungarian waitress in case she has reporting responsibility.…Saunter into courtyard….Prepare to join exodus to Embankment, never to return.

No spoilers about Guillam’s final reunion with George Smiley.  A Legacy of Spies feels even more complex than earlier plots, given Guillam’s flashbacks and immersion in old records, and more immediate with his first-person narration. Of course, British cold war spylore is still a trip to another country, though not necessarily as Orwell says a “false map of the world.” Indeed, Guillam puzzles over whether the Circus itself had a false map of the world, whether even George Smiley had a false map of the world, or whether he himself—with his unquestioning patriotism—had one, and Smiley might have known it was false but did not tell him, for all the best reasons.  

For re-reading? Where’s that Hershey bar?

***

 

 

Helen Currie Foster

Helen Currie Foster is author of the Alice MacDonald Greer mystery novels, the most recent of which is GHOST NEXT DOOR. For more information about Helen and her books, see her website.