The Locked Secretary, or: the Italian Wall

Who’d have guessed: a Henry James work predicated upon the platonic friendships of middle-aged men and women. Well, what else?

Toward the end of “The Aspern Papers” Henry James, giving in to a traveler’s impulse, pronounces the character of Venice:

Without streets and vehicles, the uproar of wheels, the brutality of horses, and with its little winding ways where people crowd together, where voices sound as in the corridors of a house, where the human step circulates as if it skirted the angles of furniture and shoes never wear out, the place has the character of an immense collective apartment, in which the Piazza San Marco is the most ornamented corner and palaces and churches, for the rest, play the part of great divans of repose, tables of entertainment, expanses of decoration.

In his preface to the tale (written later for a new edition) James again indulges himself, revealing a little more, not so much of Venice as of Italy as a whole: “So, right and left, in Italy [...] penetration fails; we scratch at the extensive surface, we meet the perfunctory smile [...].”  To follow James’s imagination–not, of course, to measure its worth in fact, which is anyhow far beyond the abilities of an untraveled American–to follow his imagination, then, I make his Venice out to be a house that does not yield secrets readily, that offers only “the perfunctory smile” of its displayed decorations of history to the researcher.  Venice becomes an amplification, then, of the Bordereau house.  The monumental domicile of the city, its grand stone furniture: an inscrutable hive of locked rooms and locked secretaries, of traveling trunks and heavy mattresses, of stoves and furnaces.  Henry James’s Venice is the stronghold of secrets, and the incinerator, too.

The roving American boarder, you see, doesn’t have a prayer of getting at the Aspern papers or any other Italian treasure.  One must be of the house to unlock its doors; to pace and and to knock are the devices of strangers.  The Bordereau women, on the other hand, have committed.  They own the house, and they are, despite American roots, privy Venetians.  Until the end the narrator fails to grasp this essential requirement.  Turning over the impoverished heiress’s suggestion of marriage one last time he tells himself, “I would not unite myself and yet I would have them,” in reference to the papers.

James does not begrudge the narrator his folly in that miscalculation.  No, he cannot get Jeffrey Aspern’s letters, and the comedy ends gently with that simple acknowledgment of futility.  I detect the author’s judgment, however, in the germ of the story, in the narrator’s need to “have them” in the first place.  Again, from James’s preface: “The historian, essentially, wants more documents than he can really use; the dramatist only wants more liberties than he can really take.”  The protagonist of “The Aspern Papers” is just such a historian; the tale’s author is just such a dramatist.  What does the historian expect to accomplish with his documents?  They will of course contain or confirm facts, but these facts are just more impenetrable Italian walls, and the secret they harbor is nothing less than the past.  Again, it is by becoming of the house, by immersion, that one wins a truth.  Fiction–or, more broadly, imagination–is that wedding, that plunge, and therefore in the very act of composing the blundering historian’s tale, James refutes him.

The narrator stumbles into the past during an attempted burglary of the Aspern papers.  Caught by the elder Miss Bordereau, for the only time in their acquaintance he receives an unobstructed view of her eyes–earlier she rests them behind an eyeshade or veils herself.  The view chastens him.  History it seems is the finicky employ of amateurs.  Artists must probe the past for truth.

-Barry Best

The Reader and the Censors

The oft-remarked sentences, generously hyphenated, each stretching out over at least a page, are the least remarkable of the book’s virtues.

Summer in Baden-baden has almost no plot to speak of.  A man rides the train from Moscow to Leningrad, the once and future St. Petersburg.  During the trip he reads a book.  He visits an old friend to reminisce about her son, a long deceased bosom buddy of his.  He visits the Dostoevsky museum-house.  This exterior action fills, by my estimate, 18 to 20 pages, or roughly one eighth part of the book.  The rest is the book he reads: a memoir of Anna Grigorievna, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s stenographer and second wife who lived with him for the final fifteen years of his life, the time during which he produced most of his enduring work.

Let me take a few steps back to discuss the whole literary picture.  The last century of fiction has seen major attempts to portray the action of pure thought: Joyce’s stream of consciousness, Proust’s flood of memory, the ins and outs of desperation in Seize the Day–all are attempts to codify the clouds of internal experience.  And major works of the Western canon portray the effects of reading.  Don Quixote, which comes to mind because I am reading it now, obviously depends on reading to drive it, as do Northanger Abbey and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, less comprehensively.  These narrative impulses (or, if you like, impasses) persist.  I am thinking of Tony Soprano’s morphine dreams and the Quixotic (capital Q intended) fictional Jonathan Ames, lover of detective stories and novice private eye.

Leonid Tsypkin enacts a fusion of these old goals with Summer in Baden-baden, whose primary aesthetic mode is to reproduce the experience of reading a novel.  How faithful his reproduction is to my own experience of reading!  First there is, of course, the book itself.  The narrator’s copy of the memoir is an old one he has stolen from an “aunt who possessed a large library” that he has had repaired and bound in a more durable cover.  I, too, open a book with an idea of its history, particularly the portion of its history that begins with my first laying eyes on it.  Then I begin to read, and the otherwise relentless train of my own thinking submits wholeheartedly to the text.  To put it another way: the words on the page bend my thoughts to themselves so that they become at least parallel, or perhaps become one and the same.  In the same way, the huge fields of text that one might take as a simple paraphrase of Dostoevskaya’s memoir are recast as experience of a higher order because they are not presented as a composed report but as the ordered spontaneity of a reading mind, which will embroider and lightly annotate, as the narrator’s does.

The aptness of Tsypkin’s style is most evident in the restraint he exercises when shifting from exterior action back to reading, or vice versa.  There are no triggering events, a la Walter Mitty, nor are there any typographical signals.  The shifts rather resemble the movement of the eyes, every once in a while, up from the page to a woefully incongruous physical realm.  Eyes will see wherever they are pointed with no great fanfare as they flit between foci.  It is an absorbing portrayal of absorption.

That is my definition of Summer in Baden-baden–what do I take from it?  I admire its honesty.  I do not refer so much to the plain treatment of the narrator’s (and probably author’s) dilemma with Fyodor Dostoevsky, whom he reveres even as he belittles the great novelist, even as he winces at the latter’s rampant anti-Semitism; or to the rotten recollections of the Purges and the Siege that he is both blessed and cursed to have survived.  I mean the honest act of recording an experience as it happens, in this case the collective experience of reading a book, of being simultaneously of two worlds, which requires true discipline of vision.

Perhaps there is something in the hyper-censorship of the Soviet regime, too, although I am no scholar and can only speculate.  Tsypkin wrote, as he often said privately, “for the drawer.”  Rather than face scrutiny for his literary achievements–he made his career as a scientist–he locked them away, and they were published after his death.  In this light, the narrative of reading becomes more precious because it is the only literary sphere, due to its inherent privacy, which he could pursue unmolested.  Then the reader’s portrait gains a provocative clandestine force as the confessions of a censored man.

Robinson v. the State of Idaho

As quotable as Bartlett’s, as familiar as a nagging ghost.

Anyone who has brought up children knows the overwhelming power of the larger culture, and how for the peace and sanity of the family it must be in some degree accommodated.  Anyone who struggles to meet the expectations the society creates must cope with emotional injury and exhaustion, or at best, very unsatisfying rewards.  We are all in effect dragooned into it, enforcing compliance on ourselves, because as individuals we have few real choices, even if we know we should want them.  It is hard to be critical of society without seeming uncompassionate toward its members, yet, mysteriously, societies themselves tend not to be compassionate toward their members, and must be criticized for that reason. –Marilynne Robinson in the essay “Facing Reality,” collected in The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought

Taking the narrow view, the State of Idaho has a strong case against Sylvie Fisher’s legal guardianship of her niece Ruth in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping.  The superficial details of the affair bode poorly for her.  Her neighbors and the sheriff observe that she has no discernible routine, Ruth rarely attends school, and the two of them stay out of doors one night after stealing a rowboat and losing their way home while crossing the enormous glacial lake.  Those details, however, are simply line-items on a form compared to the event that draws the Fingerbone community’s close legal scrutiny of them: Ruth’s sister Lucille, deeming her aunt’s household unfit, legally divorces it and ingratiates herself into the home of an unmarried local teacher.  Sylvie and Ruth, very fond of each other and loath to separate, nevertheless mount only a meek defense against society’s encroachment on their privacy.  The case does not make it to trial because its defendant and her charge bolt in the night and afterwards are presumed drowned.  I think it is safe to assume that given the chance the judge would have–and should have, according to the law–sided with the State of Idaho.

Robinson does not take such a narrow view of her characters.  On the contrary, several details in Housekeeping undermine the state’s assessment of what makes a healthy living environment.  What does Idaho–in the context of Housekeeping, “Idaho” means the same thing as “society”–want of Sylvie?  Idaho wants Sylvie to raise Ruth and Lucille according to a generally agreed-upon plan: hot meals, well-tended shelter, a regimen of school and chores.  In these ingredients the state has arranged a recipe for successful upbringing.  If parents and guardians meet those conditions, the child will grow into a healthy adult.  If they do not meet the conditions (a circumstance that Idaho will do all in its power to counteract) then the child has little chance of success.

Of course, Sylvia Foster, Ruth and Lucille’s grandmother, kept a model house for her own three daughters.   Molly, her oldest, perhaps thrived.  Sylvie, however, utterly fails to conform to Idaho’s view of a productive adult, becoming rather an obdurate drifter.  And Helen abandons her children one day to drown herself in the lake.  So it seems Idaho’s prerequisites for healthy adulthood do not, in fact, foreshadow success.  Judging by Sylvie’s generation of Fosters (or her regular stories of suffering adults she has met in her travels) the Idaho Model is a risky gamble at best.  More likely, the precepts of its formula actively oppress and torment souls at least as often as they nurture them.

In no uncertain terms, the state miscalculates and ignores the evidence of its miscalculation.  Robinson takes it a step further, though, essentially characterizing Idaho’s social practices as doomed and insane.  Like the magistrate’s excavation of a mass grave in J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, Sylvie leads Ruth to an ominous relic during their illicit rowboat excursion.  It is a dilapidated rural house in the midst of mountains, abandoned by its keepers, and in the throes of nature’s and time’s fruitful ruin.  Ruth speculates that the entire family, which must have included several children, froze or starved to death one winter.  She and Sylvie sense the ghosts of those children playing joyful games just beyond their peripheral vision.  It is a vision that portends very poorly indeed for acts of settlement and upkeep, two essential goals of the state, and necessary factors to its formula for private success.  In the context of Fingerbone’s annual spring melts, during which time the whole citizenry enacts anti-diluvian (and positively Sisyphean) measures to keep the lake at bay, it is clear that permanent existence, even for the relatively short period of a human lifetime, is plain unexamined delusion.  Thus Robinson uses evidence of society’s past to indict its present and future.

But this turning of the tables on Idaho’s social authorities represents only the shallow end of Robinson’s arguments.  Housekeeping will be read and reread and earn a legacy because it is an excellent novel, but I hope that legacy will include its author’s streak of staunch and eloquent contrarianism, as provocative in this simple narrative as in any of her more forthrightly argumentative essays.    While Housekeeping explicitly questions the value of keeping house, its most startling philosophical tenet is the more fundamental underlying equanimity with which its two protagonists regard life and death.  Through the example of Sylvie, Ruth learns to be profoundly indifferent to those conditions which most vex others: cold, hunger, boredom, and mortal fear.  What gives?  Robinson is a Christian, and indifference to suffering and death can be read as the companion philosophy to the doctrine of salvation and resurrection.  But Robinson’s protagonists in Housekeeping do not practice Christianity, and if they are believers, they believe by accident.  Call them transcendentalists, perhaps, though their sphere of communion be not in nature but in the absolute, felt knowledge of those who are dead and those who will die, and their academic atmosphere be not in the study of scripture and the classics, but in the stench of carcasses wafting forever toward them, like the approach of one’s reflection in a mirror, at the surface of the lake.

-Barry Best


Pretty good, but–and Rachel Kushner is only one of many authors to use the techniques–can we put a 3-year moratorium on a.) sentence fragments that are only fancy definitions for the last noun in the preceding sentence, and b.) etymology straight from the OED meant as a stand-in for perceptive analysis in novels and memoirs? Good grief, writers of America.

Early in my reading of Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers I noticed a funny trope, a stupendously artificial detail that she includes as an innate feature of her novel’s world: men occur in pairs.  These include Sandro and Ronnie, Valera and Lonzi, Burdmoore and Fah-Q, Scott and Andy, Marvin and Eric, Gianni and Durutti.  Other men do not conform to this trope (the manic Thurman, the married Stanley Kastle, Didi Bombonato the landspeed record holder, Henry who carries a barber’s pole throughout SoHo) but one gets the sense that they, too, are only a group activity away from finding their male spiritual partner.  The women, on the other hand, exist individually.  Reno, Giddle, Mrs. Valera, Talia, and a host of minor characters travel, to borrow the imagery of the novel, on motorcycles of experience as single occupants.  I am sure this trope is the index to a feminist critique of society, although I cannot put the exact critique into words.  My best guess at a reading of it goes: Over thousands of years men have established many, many institutions for male fraternization and networks of support, but the only institution for women they established over that same period is marriage to men.  For men, marriage is merely one of several options, but the choice for women is between matrimonial companionship or none at all.

Another striking feature of The Flamethrowers, too central to call a trope, is its superabundance of art.  In the essay “After the Apocalypse,” Michael Chabon describes the peculiarity and pleasure of creating an artifact in all its imagery  as the only means available for a writer to convey that it no longer exists.  It is a counterintuitive method that verges on the sublime, and Kushner’s art writing throughout The Flamethrowers requires a similar performance.  She describes dozens of fictional works of art from conception to drafting to construction to performance to reception to critique, with the result that they crowd out and diminish each other in an overload of strong perspective.  The counterintuitive trick in the writing of this clamorous, protean New York art scene–a trick Kushner uses to great effect–is that in order to critique each work of art and imbue it with its crowded, diminished quality, she has to describe each piece with as much care as if she is the artist whose singular, ambitious perspective brings it into being.  In other words, to create the impression of a noisy crowd, she writes intensely from individuals’ visions.

Most of the art in question depends on performance (here’s a helpful google image search) and imitation of performance, which, by about the midway point, amount to the same thing.  The confusion surrounding the authenticity of performance drives both the novel and Kushner’s stable of imaginary artists within it.  Some examples: Henry, who pretends for the sake of art to carry a barber’s pole around Manhattan, actually carries a barber’s pole around Manhattan.   Giddle pretends to work as a waitress and sleep with Reno’s boyfriend; in order to pull off the performance she actually works as a waitress and sleeps with Reno’s boyfriend.  Sandro Valera and Stanley Kastle both manufacture their art industrially to create art that comments on the effect of industrial manufacturing on art.  The actress in the pornography film Reno watches in a Times Square XXX show pretends, for the necessary fiction of the film, to fornicate with an overweight masked man by fornicating with him.

All of this imitative art results in a playfully dubious universe for Reno–playful, that is, until the question it necessarily provokes–Which of these experiences constitute actual consequential life?–touches not only the isolated subjects of art but the larger violent world.  The context of the performance and imitation artists in the novel’s first half cannily informs any serious view of its second half, casting light on the performative, slightly fashionable aspect of the strikes, protests, riots, and crackdowns.  (At times, even, revolutionary groups in The Flamethrowers use the art of imitation as a sophisticated tool to dissimulate and disguise themselves against identification, taking advantage of the confusion of authenticity.) We readers, like Reno, begin to see each spectacular demonstration as only a massive masquerade of many characters: if we follow Kushner’s suggestion, the demonstrations are certainly masquerades in which each performer consciously projects a role for herself, but they are not only masquerades, and they carry with them the threat of real violence, a sort of high-stakes art in which the thousands of artists stand to lose much more than the favor of the gallery goers.

Does Reno represent all of us as she doubts time and again the underlying reality of her performances?  She treats her near-fatal motorcycle crash on the Bonneville Salt Flats as yet another subject of art.  In doing so, she elevates the value of her art above the value of her life: not an easy trade, but one to which she is entitled.  She cannot claim the same entitlement as she enters the Italian labor struggle, though she approaches it from a similarly artistic mindset.  Her involvement with it carries the weight of lives other than her own, and Kushner implies that not every one of them involved in her imitation of a revolutionary escapes it alive.  It is a difficult task to pretend to be what you are not, but perhaps not a more dangerous one than to delude yourself into pretending to be exactly what you are.

-Barry Best


When is a mirror only a doorway? When is a reflection only another man?

Jorge Luis Borges’s entry for “The Double” in The Book of Imaginary Beings does not offer much perspective on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s two eponymous Goliadkins in The Double: A Petersburg Poem, but the illustration by Peter Sis on the adjacent page is a good start: a human figure in profile drawn within another human figure in profile.  The figures share an eye, but they walk in opposite directions.  Some literary doubles are, in fact, two people.  Philip Roth’s Philip Roths in Operation Shylock: A Confession; or the Zuckerman brothers in The Counterlife; or the young Philip Roth and his neighbor Selwyn in The Plot Against America, for example, share many traits but never the exact same location in space-time.  The Goliadkins Sr. and Jr., on the other hand, are competing iterations of a single divided mind.  (Past critics have noted the resemblance of Goliadkin’s mannerisms to clinically defined symptoms of schizophrenia.)

I cite Roth’s doubles over, say, Robert Louis Stevenson’s or Vladimir Nabokov’s or Oscar Wilde’s because Roth’s method of inquiry makes a sharper contrast with Dostoevsky’s.  Roth introduces his doubles as indisputable matters of fact in order to study their effects.  In The Plot Against America and The Counterlife, the doubles serve as guinea pigs in the morbid fantasies of their originals; in Operation Shylock one Philip Roth vies for the identity of the other–Roth (the author, not the character) concerns himself in each case with the consequences of the double’s appearance.  In The Double, only the dissolution of Goliadkin Sr.’s mind progresses from the time his double appears, a consequence probably well under way before the story begins.  Dostoevsky is more interested in the origin of the phenomenon than its consequence.

So what is the nature of Goliadkin’s split into two?  Does any external event catalyze it?  The most likely answer is the clinical diagnosis of schizophrenia.  To that well-worn analysis I add only that the schizophrenic episode is probably related in a crucial way to his passion for Klara Olsufyevna, so recently engaged to his superior.  So Goliadkin, driven by some force to think of himself as two, writes letters to his double, houses him for a night, and watches in dread as this “other”–in some cases an imaginary projection of himself, in others the real self as seen from an imagined projection–usurps his social position, for all he knows supplanting him entirely when he is taken away to a government sanitarium.  And so ends the story of the Man of Two Minds.

Nevertheless, another explanation interests me, however unlikely.  The “Petersburg” in the subtitle of the work is not a trifle.  The Double, of course, plays out against familiar streets and landmarks of Russia’s imperial city.  Still, the subtitle does not refer to the actual capital so much as to a literary Petersburg, the unmistakable misanthropic petty officialdom of Nikolai Gogol’s short pieces “Diary of a Madman,” “The Nose,” “The Carriage,” “Petersburg,” and, most influentially then, as well as now, “The Overcoat.”  Dostoevsky appropriates Gogol’s imaginary capital, perhaps, because it is especially conducive to the phenomenon of the copy: a hive of scriveners, clerks and middle managers, as interchangeable in function as to seem copies of each other anyhow, spend hours upon hours, day after day, rewording, redirecting or simply duplicating government documents.  Is Goliadkin, Jr. then just one more inevitable clerical error?

An office atmosphere seldom remains at the office.  It clings like fleas to the employees’ overcoats, riding away with them as they exit and gnawing at them abroad.  Minds are not quite sophisticated enough to split into two along a designated boundary between the personal and the professional: our dual selves linger both ways.  In a sense, Goliadkin has been a split person for longer than the introduction of his double.  At home he collects anecdotes and invents phrases to define and justify himself among his peers, and he imagines himself a successful and amiable fellow.  When he tests his words at the office, however, another Goliadkin emerges: an incomprehensible, stuttering, suck-up who speaks only for the pleasure of awaiting a response.  The dissonance of his expectations and the truth requires more effort and imagination to keep up than he, or perhaps anyone, can muster.  It is no wonder that he cracks.

-Barry Best