The Flamethrowers. A short review in French.

I’m trying to improve my French — that is both my excuse and my apology in advance for my newest use of this blog that I update so rarely and unpredictably. Just to give myself an short, free-form way to work on my expository French, I decided to try and write mini-responses to all of the books I read this summer in French, translate them into English, and post both here. So far, I’ve probably read 8 or 9 books and I’ve managed to write about one. I doubt that I’ll catch up (I never do) but I may keep pace better in July and August than I did in June. Here’s the first one, a short review of Rachel Kushner’s newly published novel The Flamethrowers. Feel free to criticize/correct/be vocally scandalized by the quality of my French. I’d love the help (especially if you know how to correctly translate “salt flats”). Also, I know the English translations aren’t the prettiest either, but don’t let what I’ve written about this book deter you: Kushner’s novel is great and you should read it.

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

En Français:

The Flamethrowers est un roman sur la vitesse. Un roman sur le contrôle et ses limites. Sur le temps, et la célérité avec laquelle les moments de nos vies nous passent. On rencontre la protagoniste, Reno, dans les années 1970, quand elle voyage à moto aux marais salants en Utah, pour faire les épreuves de vitesse célèbres. En ce moment, elle est seule—une femme et sa moto—et bien que le roman monte sa vie à New York, son copain, Sandro, ses amis, qui sont pour la plupart les artistes, et un panorama d’Italie dans les années de plomb, c’est quand même un histoire de la solitude. On n’apprend jamais le vrai nom de Reno, surnommé par ses amis à New York City pour sa ville de naissance dans le sud-ouest. Il y a beaucoup de choses qu’on n’apprend jamais dans ce livre ; c’est un roman dans lequel les questions—les questions d’art, d’amour, d’essence, de la vérité—restent ouvertes. On n’a que les histoires, les représentations, et les objets d’art (de temps en temps, les trois sont un), tous les chemins indirects pour comprendre le monde et nous-mêmes.

Suivez la prose électrique de Rachel Kushner, les phrases qui craquent et scintillent avec l’énergie de la jeunesse, du désir, et de la frustration et la fascination de regarder le monde, de regarder vous dans le monde, et de se demander si vos choix changent votre destin. Ce roman n’est pas facile, mais c’est magnifique et il mérite votre effort.

En Anglais:

The Flamethrowers is a novel about speed. A novel about control and its limits. About time, and the swiftness with which the moments of our lives pass us by. We meet the protagonist, Reno, in the 1970s, as she’s traveling by motorcycle to the salt flats in Utah, to ride in the famous speed trials held there. In that moment, she is alone—a woman and her motorcycle—and even though the novel shows her life in New York, her boyfriend, Sandro, her friends who are mostly, like Sandro, artists, and a panorama of Italy during the Years of Lead, this is nevertheless, a book about solitude. We never learn Reno’s real name, just the nickname given to her by her friends in New York, the name of her hometown in the southwest. There are many things we never learn in this book; it’s a novel in which the questions—questions of art, of love, of meaning, of truth—remain open. We have only stories, performances, and art objects (sometimes the three all in one), all indirect paths for understanding the world and ourselves.

Follow Rachel Kushner’s electric prose, her sentences which crackle and flicker with the energy of youth, with desire, and with the frustration and fascination of watching the world, of watching yourself in the world, and of wondering if your choices change your destiny. This novel is not easy, but it’s magnificent and worth the effort.


Slim Paperback Three: The Professor’s House

First of all, I know I skipped Slim Paperback Two. Don’t worry, I’ll be going back for it. I just felt more like writing about this book first.

A couple weeks ago I read Litlove’s thoughts on Willa Cather (which as usual were inviting and perceptive) and though I didn’t act on it immediately, the thought of reading a Cather novel lodged itself somewhere in my head. Last week, when I found myself yet again flipping though my To Be Read pile, I came across The Professor’s House, and I shoved it into my bag with three or four other books before heading out to a favorite coffee shop. Then I sat for hours, reading, writing and talking with a couple of friends, The Professor’s House lying beneath my notebook on the table in front of me.

For some reason I found myself hesitating to pick it up and begin, likely worried it would disappoint me and that it wasn’t actually the book I wanted or needed. This was foolish of me. I started the book that evening, back in my apartment, and read the first hundred pages or straight through, and then finished the novel the next day. Last year, when I went through a brief and terrible stint of not reading any fiction, a Dover Thrift Edition of Cather’s My Ántonia (found in the English language section of a FNAC in Nice) mesmerized and reinvigorated my mind. I shouldn’t have doubted that anything of Cather’s wouldn’t be something I’d want to read. Of her extensive oeuvre, My Ántonia and O Pioneers! are the only two I’ve read. The Professor’s House is very different from both of those books, and yet it was so distinctly the product of the same writer that I felt while reading it very much on familiar ground.

Both O, Pioneers! and My Ántonia take place in the great plains, among immigrant families forming new communities in the broad, flat lands that make up the center of this country. The Professor’s House, on the other hand, takes place in a college town near Lake Michigan, and has a plot line featuring the cattle ranges and mesas of the American southwest. The characters in this book were different too—more erudite and more moneyed (the offspring, perhaps, of the characters who leave the farming communities at the end of her other novels) and yet many of this book’s concerns—Cather’s concerns, I suppose—remain the same: roots and rootlessness, solitude, nature, aging, death, and the effects that a single, wholly remarkable and magnetic human being can have on all of those around him or her.

What I love about Cather’s writing is the way its superficial simplicity and placidity overlays deep and dynamic tensions between people and within individual minds. The major conflict in The Professor’s House seems a relatively benign one: an aging Professor, Godfrey St. Peter, is loath to abandon the cramped attic room where he has written for decades, and he refuses to move himself into the spacious new house where his wife and all the rest of his belongings now live. But his refusal to move is not mere obstinacy. Rather, it is generated by a deep and intensifying misanthropy, connected to the Professor’s general disillusionment with human relations. This disillusionment springs in large part from the death of his one stellar pupil, Tom Outland, a young man from the Southwest who died fighting in World War I.

Cather has a knack for writing characters—particularly narrators—who are engaging and booksmart but whom I don’t really like…or at least, whom I don’t really like all that much. Often she uses these narrators as framing devices for other, more magnetic characters, as she does with Jim Burden, who narrates My Ántonia. St. Peter is such a narrator as well—definitely flawed, both as a man and as an observer of others. Funny for me to say this, I guess, but I had to come to terms with his solipsism, to focus on his fear of nearing the end of what he feels has been an partially un-lived life, and I had to find a way to sympathize with the loneliness he in large part brings upon himself, in order not to despise him a little for his stubborn passivity, his refusal to engage, his detached, almost entirely affectionless treatment of his wife and daughters.

But I did ultimately feel for St. Peter, in large part because of the things that Cather manages to impart through his narration but beneath the level of his own conscious awareness. This is another great gift of Cather’s as a writer, a little reminiscent of what Kazuo Ishiguro does in The Remains of the Day. There’s a slightly strange and beautiful scene at the beginning of the novel where St. John blocks the door to his attic workspace so that Augusta, his family’s seamstress, can’t remove the wooden and wire-frame forms she uses for dressmaking from the space he has shared with her for years. There’s something about the image of the handsome, greying Professor, in his cramped garrett full of books, refusing to let go of an empty and inanimate female figure, in the presence of a living, breathing woman for whom he has never expressed his love. It’s a moment so full of reserved and melancholy passion that I think it contains nearly as strong a declaration of love as when, toward the end of the book, St. Peter talks about the difference between his love for his wife and his love for Tom Outland. He says that “he had had two romances: one of the heart, which had filled his life for many years, and the second of the mind—of the imagination.” The pluperfect “had had” here is so repetitively final: both of these romances are over, and all St. Peter has left (or all he feels he has left) is the loss of them, particularly the loss of the latter.

I guess one of the questions this book made me consider is when someone you love a great deal dies, what happens to all of your affection for them? Where does it go? What do you do with it? And how does it change all of your other affections, perhaps particularly the more minor ones? What does it do to your ability to love less passionately, or your ability to love anyone else, including yourself?

The Professor’s House threatens one tragic ending, and then produces another quieter conclusion that is perhaps just as somber. There’s a lingering note of ambiguity to the book’s ending that for me, at least, strengthens the novel as a whole. But I’ll leave that for you to discover on your own, should you so choose.

What I’m Reading: Two Serious Ladies

Every once in a while I stumble across a book I’ve never heard of before that completely enchants me. The only thing better than this is turning to the front matter of said-enchanting book and seeing a long list of titles beneath the heading “Other Works by the Same Author.” I found Jane Bowles’ Two Serious Ladies in Shakespeare & Co., read the back cover, skimmed one or two of the reviews, and knew I’d found something special almost before I really began to read it. I also knew, thanks to the introduction, that the book was her only novel, and that the rest of her small oeuvre consists only of a single play and a handful of short stories.

I’d never heard of Bowles before, though she was a contemporary of one of my favorite writers, Carson McCullers, and the friend of several well-known authors and artists including Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams. Born Jane Sydney Auer to an affluent New York family in 1917, Bowles suffered from tuberculosis as a child, and the illness left her with a permanent limp.

Cover of "Two Serious Ladies", by Jane Bowles.

In 1938 she married the writer Paul Bowles, though each continued to have other lovers: she, mostly women and he mostly men. She published Two Serious Ladies in 1943, and her sole play, In the Summer House, in 1953. After years of difficult health problems Bowles passed away in 1973, six years after McCullers (who, like Bowles, was also born in 1917).

Two Serious Ladies is the story of two women, Miss Goering and Mrs. Copperfield, and their adventures in the world, their search for new experiences, for understanding and for salvation, in some form or another. Mrs. Copperfield goes on a trip to central American with her husband (an episode taken from Bowles’ own honeymoon with her husband, Paul), where she falls in love with the Spanish-Panamanian prostitute, Pacifica. Miss Goering, a New York heiress, abandons her comfortable home for a cramped, unheated wooden house in an area so bad she can “smell the glue factories.” Both women are in search of something, something vague and unidentifiable, something like truth.

Bowles is really a singular writer—her style is reminiscent of other authors I’ve read, but it remains in every moment very much her own. To give you a sense of her writing, here is a passage from the middle of the novel, describing Miss Goering in her new, dilapidated house with her companion, Miss Gamelon and her friend Arnold.

They sat in silence for a few moments. Miss Gamelon was thinking seriously about all these things when suddenly a bottle broke against her head, inundating her with perfume and making quite a deep cut just above her forehead. She started to bleed profusely and sat for a moment with her hands over her eyes.

“I didn’t actually mean to draw blood,” said Arnold leaning out the window. “I just meant to give her a start.”

Miss Goering, although she was beginning to regard Miss Gamelon more and more as the embodiment of evil, made a swift and compassionate gesture toward her friend.

“Oh, my dear, let me get you something to disinfect that cut with.” She went into the house and passed Arnold in the hall. He was standing with his hand on the front door, unable to decide whether to stay in or go out. When Miss Goering came down again with the medicine, Arnold had disappeared.

To use a term that’s sterilizingly over-technical, the way that Bowles’ writes diffuses the sense of agency attached to the characters in her novel. “Miss Gamelon was thinking seriously about all these things when suddenly a bottle broke against her head.” Bowles doesn’t write “…when suddenly Albert broke a bottle against her head,” which is what the next line reveals to have happened. Initially, she leaves out the actor and shows only the action. Things just seem to happen, to arrive, and not always inline with the intention which impelled their happening in the first place; as Albert says, “I didn’t actually mean to draw blood…I just meant to give her a start.” It’s as if things are done merely to see what will happen, or things themselves simply happen and in so doing reveal themselves a little bit for what they truly are.

This style of writing echoes the attitude of Bowles’ two “serious” ladies, both of whom do things as much to see what will happen as to effect any ultimate goal. They are after reaction more than action, and both Mrs. Copperfield and Miss Goering seem to watch their own lives unfold with an attitude of affable and curious self-scrutiny. They are on the watch for those flashes of unintentional honesty (if honesty is the right word to use—openness might perhaps be better), those instants of almost debilitating self-knowledge that reveal, for a moment, something of one’s true identity.

Jane Bowles in New York City, 1946, by Karl Bissinger. From the front matter of "Two Serious Ladies."

I adored this book and Bowles’ characters for seeking out these moments—moments I know from my own best writing—and also for recognizing the daunting murkiness that fills the rest of life. Take for instance this passage, which occurs shortly after the bottle-breaking incident.

“While [Miss Goering} was still outside, Miss Gamelon seated in the parlor before an empty fireplace, felt that all of God’s wrath had descended upon her own head. The world and the people in it had suddenly slipped beyond her comprehension and she felt in great danger of losing the whole world once and for all—a feeling that is difficult to explain.”

This book approaches a lot of things that are difficult to explain, but it does so in a way that is incredibly stylish, compassionate and witty. And while it is often a very funny book, it is also often melancholy and at times deeply sad, because at its heart, it is a book about people who feel quite often unrooted and alone, even in their own parlor, surrounded by friends. Amidst all the color and the wit, there’s a sombre underlying suggestion that the moments of clarity and love which punctuate the greying muddle of human life may themselves be only a distraction: interesting, but ultimately, not important.

In the end I really loved this book; the only disappointing thing about it is that Bowles never wrote another. For better and for worse, Two Serious Ladies is truly one of a kind.

If you liked Two Serious Ladies: I recommend Carson McCullers, Dorothy Parker, or Truman Capote (whose memoir of Jane Bowles, incidentally, is included in my addition of the novel).

Note: If you try to track down Two Serious Ladies (which I highly recommend you do!) you may run into some problems, as the older editions are out of print, and the edition I just purchased is from a UK publisher and hasn’t been released yet in the US. It should be out in the fall (and if you’re desperate before then, and you promise to return it, I’ll let you borrow mine).