Casey (Genealogy, 2006, etc.) fictionalizes a story based on the real-life figure of Albert Dadas, a man from the late 19th century whose strange pathology dictated to him that he walk continually, though he temporarily ends up in an asylum—and eventually walks away from that as well.
Although Dadas is at the center of the narrative, we’re also introduced to the Doctor (unnamed but always capitalized) who works at the asylum and who develops his own obsession with Dadas. Along the way, we meet some of the other patients being treated, including the veteran, suffering from a type of PTSD, and Elizabeth, who believes that even the most mundane phenomenon is a “divine miracle.” But the most enigmatic figure of all is Dadas himself, who’s led to the asylum by a lamplighter. Dadas has been all over Europe, though his memories of these travels are both fleeting and fragmented. The Doctor tries to help him recover his memories with various strategies, the main one being empathetic listening. The key questions the Doctor wishes to ask are “Why do you walk? Why can’t you stop?” but the answers to these questions are only hinted at rather than directly confronted. While Dadas vaguely recalls having deserted the army with his friend Baptiste and also alludes to a difficult and problematic relationship with his father, his story ultimately remains cryptic and inexplicable.
Lyrical in its style and fascinating in its psychology, Casey’s narrative provokes a host of intriguing questions beyond those the Doctor raises, and Casey is wise enough as an author not to provide easy answers.
The German poet Novalis (1772-1801) was really Friedrich Leopold von Hardenberg and Fitzgerald (The Gates of Angels, 1992; Offshore, 1987, etc.) here re-creates him, his family, his doomed young lover Sophie von Kühn, and Sophie's huge family—not to mention the era all of them lived in—in the most human-sized and yet intellectually capacious narrative a reader could wish for. Times were once better for the Hardenbergs, who've sold two estates, may have to sell another, and meanwhile live in a more manageable house in town. The pious and old (he's 56) father of the many-childrened family is Director of the Salt Mining Administration of Saxony, one of the few vocations (the military is another) not forbidden to members of the aristocracy, and the same calling the oldest Hardenberg son, Fritz, will follow upon conclusion of his studies at the universities of Jena, Leipzig, and Wittenberg. To say he's a salt inspector, though, is a little like saying Shakespeare was an actor. Not only have Fritz's studies brought him among faculty the likes of Fichte, Schiller, and Schlegel—but he himself is already a visionary poet helping bring the 18th century to its close (" 'The universe, after all, is within us. The way leads inwards, always inwards' ''). What transpires, then, in the inward universe, when Fritz first sees 12-year-old Sophie von Kühn standing at a window looking out? Says he: " 'Something happened to me.' '' This cheerful, careless, laughing child-woman becomes Fritz's star, his guide, "his Philosophy.'' Against all precedent (Sophie isn't of the real nobility), and in keeping with the changing times (there's been the revolution in France), he gets his father's permission to become engaged—but dreadful sorrow lies just ahead. A historical novel that's touching, funny, unflinchingly tragic, and at the same time uncompromising in its accuracy, learning and detail: a book that brings its subject entirely alive, almost nothing seeming beyond its grasp.
With language flickering, sparkling and flashing like the northern lights, Kent debuts with a study of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, an Icelandic servant convicted of an 1828 murder.
The murder was horrific: two men bludgeoned, stabbed and burned. Agnes and two others were convicted, but sentences—Agnes was to be beheaded—require confirmation by Denmark’s royal government. Kent opens her powerful narrative with Agnes, underfed and unwashed, being moved from district capital imprisonment to Kornsá, a valley farmstead. Stoic, dutiful Jón and his tubercular wife, Margrét, are forced by circumstance to accept her charge. Reflecting intimate research, the story unfolds against the fearsome backdrop of 19th-century Icelandic life. It's a primitive world where subsistence farmers live in crofts—dirt-floored, turf-roofed hovels—and life unfolds in badstofa, communal living/sleeping rooms. Beautiful are Kent’s descriptions of the interminable summer light, the ever-present snow and ice and cold of winter’s gloomy darkness, the mountains, sea and valleys where sustenance is blood-rung from sheep. Assistant Rev. Thorvardur has been assigned to "direct this murderess to the way of truth and repentance," but he is more callow youth than counselor. His sessions with Agnes come and go, and he becomes enamored of Agnes and obsessed by her life’s struggles. Kent deftly reveals the mysterious relationship between Agnes, a servant girl whom valley folk believe a "[b]astard pauper with a conniving spirit," and now-dead Natan Ketilsson, a healer, some say a sorcerer, for whom she worked as a housekeeper. Kent writes movingly of Natan’s seduction of the emotionally stunted Agnes—"When the smell of him, of sulphur and crushed herbs, and horse-sweat and the smoke from his forge, made me dizzy with pleasure"—his heartless manipulation and his cruel rejection. The narrative is revealed in third person, interspersed with Agnes’ compelling first-person accounts. The saga plays out in a community sometimes revenge-minded and sometimes sympathetic, with Margrét moving from angry rejection to near love, Agnes ever stoic and fearful, before the novel reaches an inevitable, realistic and demanding culmination.
Phillips (Lark and Termite, 2009) fuses the established facts surrounding the 1931 trial of serial killer Harry Powers with her imagined version of the victims’ inner lives and the fictional lives of a handful of characters connected by the crimes.
Financially strapped since her husband’s death, Asta Eicher lives with her three children in a large suburban Chicago house, where she takes in boarders. Devoted to her and the children, former boarder Charles O’Boyle, who has prospered in his business, proposes to Asta while celebrating a joyful Christmas with the family in 1930. Aware he is gay, she turns him down. Instead, she assumes she will solve her problems by marrying Cornelius Pierson, with whom she’s secretly begun corresponding through the American Friendship Society (think snail-mail Match.com). In July 1931, Asta leaves her children with a babysitter while she travels with Cornelius to set up the family’s new home. A week later, Cornelius returns alone to fetch the kids. Phillips brings the Eichers to vivid life—Asta’s guilt, 14-year-old Grethe’s innocence, 12-year-old Hart’s protectiveness, 9-year-old Annabel’s spirit—and wisely eschews the grisly details of their deaths. Months later, the police discover the Eichers’ remains in the basement of a garage belonging to Harry Powers in Quiet Dell, W.V. Charged with the Eichers’ murders, Powers is indicted for the murder of Dorothy Lemke, whose body has also been discovered in the garage, because the circumstantial evidence in her case is stronger. The snippets of actual court testimony and reportage included are harrowing. While digging up dirt on Powers, (fictional) Chicago Tribune reporter Emily Thornhill falls deeply in love with Asta’s (real-life) banker. She also takes in an orphaned street urchin. So in the aftermath of one family’s destruction, Emily creates a new if unconventional “family” of people she loves.
Phillips’ prose is as haunting as the questions she raises about the natures of sin, evil and grace.
Labyrinthine machinations having to do with the Dreyfus Affair, the late 19th-century spy case that disclosed a latent anti-Semitism in French culture.
The main character and narrator of Harris’ novel is Col. Georges Picquart, former professor of topography at the École supérieure de guerre in Paris. While on the surface, topography might seem a peripheral issue to the military, according to Picquart, it involves “the fundamental science of war,” since it requires surveying terrain and generally looking at landscape from a military perspective. Chosen to head a counterespionage agency looking into the crimes allegedly committed by Dreyfus, Picquart has already been rewarded with a nice promotion and seems convinced of Dreyfus’ guilt. But in investigating the case, Picquart begins to have doubts about this guilt and is fairly sure espionage is continuing through Maj. Esterhazy, a Germany spy who’s been passing along the secrets Dreyfus has been accused of disclosing. Military officials are not pleased that Picquart is coming up with evidence that might exonerate Dreyfus since, by this time, Dreyfus has already been convicted and condemned to spend time on Devil’s Island, recently reopened solely for him. Gen. Gonse, for example, cautions Picquart not to be overly enthusiastic in his inquiries concerning Dreyfus since, after all, he’s already been convicted and so his guilt is proved. Public opinion, alas, is on the side of Gonse, for much of the population, inflamed by the popular press, already sees Dreyfus as a traitor and delights in conveying their virulent anti-Semitism.
Espionage, counterespionage, a scandalous trial, a coverup and a man who tries to do right make this a complex and alluring thriller.
British author Barnes’s deeply satisfying tenth novel, based on a turn-of-the-century cause célèbre.
In 1906, Arthur Conan Doyle, the renowned creator of Sherlock Holmes, was roused to passionate indignation on behalf of a sedentary—and extremely near-sighted—lawyer named George Edalji, who was disbarred and imprisoned after being convicted of mutilating farm animals. Doyle’s investigations—which lifted him out of the despondency occasioned by the death of his first wife—confirmed that the Edalji family had long been a target of police persecution. Doyle’s widely read articles and petition to the Home Secretary offered new evidence of Edalji’s innocence and suggested the identity of the actual criminal, resulting in the overturning of Edalji’s conviction, his re-admission to the bar and the establishment of the Court of Criminal Appeal. As enthralling as Barnes’s fictionalized account of these events is, with its satisfyingly morbid Victorian elements—the anonymous threats reprinted here verbatim, the dead birds strewn on the Edaljis’ lawn, the vicar’s odd practice of locking his son in his bedroom every night well into adulthood—detection is only one component of the novel. The author also respectfully narrates the parallel lives of two Victorian gentlemen: George Edalji, whose Apollonian downfall was to trust too much in the rationality of his fellow citizens; and Arthur Conan Doyle, who, when logic took him only so far, made the great Dionysian leap into spiritualism. Like his favorite writer, Flaubert, Barnes is a connoisseur of middle-class normalcy, which he chronicles with loving attention to the peculiarities of bourgeois life subsumed under its sheltering cloak of good order. His past novels have been praised for their brilliance but occasionally faulted for a dry style overburdened with detail. Here, with a mystery at the heart of the narrative, every detail is a potential, welcome clue. The precision of the style suits the decorum of the period and serves to underline the warm, impulsive generosity of Doyle’s support, which saved an innocent man from ruin.
A big, splashy novel about a little, splashy subject: Charlie Chaplin, the original movie star.
Gold (Carter Beats the Devil, 2001) takes on much more than the Little Tramp, however. His narrative is set against the broad canvas of the First World War era, with appropriately attendant surrealist moments, as when the German Kaiser marvels at a Wild West show staged by one Duncan Cody, then worries that he will one day have to be fighting these savage Americans, only to be consoled, “Er ist nicht Buffalo Bill.” Chaplin, for his part, enjoys the occasional quiet getaway, which nearly earns him a drowning off the wild coast of Northern California but instead results in the acquaintanceship of some fine but never ordinary folk, all of whose stories intertwine with his and wander even farther afield—among other destinations, to northern Russia, where an American expeditionary force landed after the Bolsheviks came to power, ostensibly to secure American materiel but in fact to fight the Reds on their home turf. (“Why am I here?” ponders one soldier, a movie buff. “Where am I? And why do we have overcoats? I am depressed.”) Gold hits a promising scenario with that adventurist debacle, but he doesn’t quite work it for all it’s worth, since his story requires travel elsewhere while Chaplin attempts to make a doomed film called, yes, Sunnyside—doomed because, then as always, the suits got in the way. (“The kingpins of the industry, having taken the measure of the situation, finally brought their plans to fruition, with the result of stopping Charlie Chaplin dead in his tracks.”) Gold’s tale strains from overreach now and again, but that is the price one pays for such ambition—and this is an ambitious, very well-written book full of memorable moments, not least of them starring Rin Tin Tin.
Historical but not didactic, in the manner of the master of the genre, E.L. Doctorow, and more completely realized than Gold’s debut.
The last days of poet Sylvia Plath, as seen by a co-editor of the anthology Mothers Who Think (as well as co-founder of Salon.com’s feature of the same name).
Plath’s tragic end has been so horribly romanticized that it has almost overshadowed the life and work that led up to it. A poetic prodigy, Plath (1932–63) won a scholarship to Smith College and began publishing verse while still a student. Her first mental breakdown (vividly described later in her novel The Bell Jar) came during her junior year at Smith, but she quickly made a name for herself as a poet and, in 1955, won a Fulbright scholarship to Cambridge. There, she met and married English poet Ted Hughes, with whom she had two children. Moses concentrates her entire story on the winter of 1962, when Plath was facing the recent collapse of her marriage (Hughes had fallen in love with another woman) along with the first full flowering of her success as a major poet. Having published her first book of verse (The Colossus) in 1960, Plath had now begun writing in a more intensely personal style, composing works that depicted and arose from the failure of her marriage. As Plath moved back and forth between her house in Devon and her London flat, her life became increasingly scattered and disorienting. First-novelist Moses convincingly portrays the stress that finally overcame the poet as she went about her daily routines—recording for the BBC, looking after her children, receiving visits from literary friends and from her mother—haunted by her husband’s rejection of her and by her growing discomfort at the necessity of constructing her poetry from the raw elements of an increasingly unhappy life. We don’t see the suicide, but by story’s end it is clear that Plath has painted herself into an emotional corner leaving no other way out.
Rich and harrowing, told with none of the sensationalism or cheap sentiment that has undermined so many accounts of Plath’s life and end.
Versatile British author Tremain's eighth novel (after The Way I Found Her, 1998) is the stuff of which fairy-tales are spun, though it also exhibits a compelling psychological and moral density.
The tale begins in 1629 as Peter Claire, a young English "lutenist'' who’s been summoned to the court of King Christian IV, arrives in Denmark to become the newest member of the royal orchestra. Then, in a skillfully presented array of increasingly interlocking narratives (each keyed to a different character's consciousness), Tremain explores a considerable range of human responses to, and involvements with, the overt expressiveness of "music'' and the "silence'' that pervades hearts and minds given to introversion and secrecy. The tale of Christian's embattled boyhood and sudden ascension to the throne—a sort of Hans Christian Andersen fable of a mind eagerly expanding, then possessively contracting— brilliantly dramatizes a hungry spirit's resolute perfectionism. The "confessions'' of Christian's adulterous consort Kirsten (petulantly recorded in her "private papers'') vividly portrays an antic superego that thrives on selfindulgence and subterfuge. And the parallel tale of the love between Peter Claire and Kirsten's favorite handmaiden, Emilia, who’s also been traumatized by a complex legacy of intrigue and lust—ironically echoes the royal drama to which it is gradually, ingeniously linked. Not all the connections here work quite so effectively (the story of Danishborn Countess O'Fingal, for example, whose Irish husband is destroyed by his obsession with a heavenly melody heard only in his dreams feels redundant and contrived). But Tremain's deepening characterization of King Christian—both as an incarnation of acquisitiveness who believes in his own divine right, and a sensitive seeker of higher things—is masterly and, ultimately, very moving.
Tremain studied with the late Angus Wilson, and the influence of his fertile imagination has clearly helped shape, and energize, her own. Music & Silence may be her best yet.