The Casual Reader

André Bernard

Arthur & George. By Julian Barnes. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 2006. 400 pp., $24.95.

I had not intended to read this book. Although I read and completely loved, twenty years ago, Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, a novel taking an actual stuffed parrot with a distinguished literary heritage as its starting point (to this day I keep a photo of the parrot in question, donated to Rouen’s Museum of Natural History by the author of Madame Bovary, on my desk), I had somewhat lost track of Julian Barnes over the years. Too many books, it seemed to me, and books with wispy titles that didn’t make me want to pick them up: Love, Etc.; England, England; Cross Channel. This new book, too, had in my superficial estimation a weak title, and an uninspiring jacket design as well, including poorly chosen colors (such are the ways books are selected by readers). In the ever-continuing flood of new novels, Arthur & George felt like a book that could be left unread.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. What finally impelled me to open this novel was discovering that the Arthur of the title is Arthur Conan Doyle, creator, of course, of the Sherlock Holmes stories. If you like Sherlock Holmes-and who doesn’t?-you’ll be plunged immediately into a marvelously readable account, written as fiction but entirely based on fact, of how Conan Doyle becomes involved in a great judicial injustice, and how he tries to solve a great mystery, Holmes-style. The George of Arthur & George is George Edalji, a half-Parsi, half-Scottish lawyer who is accused of various indecencies, including the mutilation of a number of horses in the rural countryside where he lives. It is clear George is under suspicion because of the color of his skin, because of the oddity in high Victorian England of his parentage, and because of his own personal eccentricities. As events proceed, Barnes creates, with mesmerizing skill, a remarkably tense and exciting drama. Will George collapse under the pressure? Will Conan Doyle solve the case? Who is the culprit, and, more important, can England, a nation seemingly more devoted to the orderly world defined by the law than any other, embrace and change the reality of its innate racism and provincialism?

This is an addictive novel that is exciting to read. Beautifully written in a most elegant language, and reminiscent of the better English novels of the nineteenth century, it covers a great deal of territory while galloping at enormous speed, and yet is also loving in its minute details of village and city life, in its revelations of the oppressive truths of a rural environment and a suffocating Victorian moral sensibility, and in its examination of the sins of Empire. Not quite a mystery, nor yet a novel of ideas, it is simply terrific reading. May I recommend, to enhance the experience of reading Arthur & George, turning immediately to any Sherlock Holmes stories that come to hand and falling headlong into the whirl of Baker Street and foggy London byways.

I Feel Bad about My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman. By Nora Ephron. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 2006. 160 pp. $19.95.

A few years ago I was standing at the baggage carousel in the San Diego airport, chatting with a work colleague who had traveled with me. As the bags tumbled out of the chute, I saw mine, a very, very small red synthetic bag, quite unattractive but a bargain remainder-sale item from the Land’s End catalog, and as I snatched it off the belt, my colleague, a woman, snorted, “What is that? Is that your purse?”

Well, I do carry a purse; all men do. It’s called a briefcase. This is not an original observation, but I’ve been contemplating this issue ever since my California humiliation. And it’s true; whatever we tote to and from work, whether it’s made of beautiful leather or has hard sides or alligator corners or pretends to be the fabled New York messenger bag, it’s still the male equivalent of a purse. And why shouldn’t it be? We need our daily items, and our comfort blankets, just as much as women do. Mine is a now-shabby black cloth bag, one I can sling over my shoulder, leaving my hands free for a paper cup of coffee and the newspaper. A random sampling of today’s contents includes an extra pair of glasses, a brush, a checkbook for an account that I might have closed last year, though I’m not sure; several newspaper sections from months ago-I do plan to read them but I can’t remember what I found in them interesting enough to save; a Verizon cell phone user’s manual, which I haven’t looked at, although I need to program my new phone; several loose Euros; a bottle of Advil; my daily calendar; a battered metal glasses case, empty, which doesn’t look familiar; a copy of J. M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace, which I’m finding too depressing to read further; lots of tiny packs of Post-its, most of which have been submerged in the bag for so long they’ve lost their gummy edges; a handful of black Rollerball pens; a stained, ripped, and barely legible gift receipt for cuff links someone gave me on my fortieth birthday, ten years ago, and which I need to do something about since I dislike cuff links and have never worn this particular set; and several dozen matchbooks, some of which are just torn bits of cardboard because I used all the matches up. And Nora Ephron’s new book, I Feel Bad about My Neck, which is why I’m bringing up the question of purses in the first place.

A terrific collection of pieces short and shorter, most of which were previously published in such places as the New Yorker and O, the Oprah Magazine, I Feel Bad about My Neck includes the wonderful “I Hate My Purse,” a Vogue piece detailing Ephron’s love-hate relationship with the purses in her life. In other pieces she tackles the mental difficulties of turning sixty, her increasing dependence on glasses, the way women feel the need to maintain their hair and nails, her obsession with cabbage strudel, and the inevitable physical changes produced by age, notably the unhappy transformation of one’s neck skin. Along the way she also details the end of her political love affair with Bill Clinton, her standing as perhaps the only White House intern who never slept with JFK, the importance certain cookbooks held in her early married life, and, in a wonderful piece for New Yorkers, the reasons that she loves being a New Yorker.

I love Ephron’s writing, which flows easily and quickly from one observation to the next. I love how she takes on topics that are of obvious interest and makes them global in scope. Mostly I love that she’s just so funny: “Our faces are lies and our necks are the truth. You’d have to cut open a redwood tree to see how old it is, but you wouldn’t have to if it had a neck.” “Your parents weren’t into parenting. They were merely parents. At least one of them drank like a fish.” “The first birth control pill had been invented, and the first Julia Child cookbook was published. As a result, everyone was having sex, and when the sex was over, you cooked something.” “Sometimes I think that not having to worry about your hair anymore is the secret upside of death.” Enough-you get the idea. She’s a quick wit who sprinkles her charm liberally over her articles.

After spending several evenings sitting up in bed listening to my wife laugh out loud next to me as she read this book (which annoyed me a lot, since at the same time I was struggling with Jennifer Egan’s too-creepy The Keep and the pretentious, derivative, and unreadable sensation of the moment, Marisha Pessl’s novel Special Topics in Calamity Physics), I decided to see for myself what she liked so much. And Neck is very, very likable. So much so that when I finished it (it’s a very fast read) I turned to Ephron’s first novel, Heartburn, the book that, thinly disguised here and there, chronicled the disintegration of her marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein. Published in 1983, Heartburn, unlike a lot of novels of the era, really holds up after all this time-it’s a wonderfully readable story mixing deep sadness and anger with a devil-may-care hilarity and even with recipes (Ephron’s interest in food and cooking is a big plus for her writing. And the foods she invokes are a kind of time capsule of the new kitchen discoveries of the ’80s: ratatouille, goat cheese, arugula, sorrel, and so on.). The narrator, a version of Ephron herself, even gets the writer Isaac Bashevis Singer to make noodle kugel in the pilot of her newly launched TV cooking show.

For sheer fun, give Nora Ephron a chance. Her pieces are emphatically not just for women, despite this collection’s subtitle. Anyone who is noticing and wondering about one’s own advancing years, anyone who has searched blindly for something in his own briefcase, will appreciate these pieces. Light as a velouté, and yet far more profound than you’d think, her writing will make you happy.

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. By Sloan Wilson. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1956. 288 pp. $13.95.

The surprise turned out to be a large leather armchair with a matching hassock for Tom to put his feet on. Betsy had put a small table by it, with a box of cigarettes, matches, and an ash tray. She had also placed an ice bucket there, two glasses, and the mixings for cocktails. “You looked so tired when you got back from Atlantic City last night,” she said. “I figured you ought to have a place where you can just sink down and rest when you get home. I’m going to try to organize things so we have a half hour of quiet before supper. Kids, go upstairs, the way you promised you would!”

For years I’ve had a weakness for certain movies set in New York in the 1950s and early 1960s. Filmed in unnaturally bright colors, they usually star Tony Randall, and their plots, such as they are, take place in ad agencies perched high atop skyscrapers in midtown New York. You know the ones I mean: they involve intriguing new business developments and are filled with bright-eyed secretaries sitting at typewriters, cocktail lounges heavy on the faux-Hawaiian atmosphere, backdrops of glamorous New York scenes such as the skating rink at Rockefeller Center or the buses heading up (in those days) Fifth Avenue, and lots of clean-shaven men wearing identical suits and hats. There must have been an equal number of novels published, too, using the new postwar excitement and wealth of New York as plot driver, although so far I’ve run across only a few. One recent discovery at a yard sale, The 5:45 to Suburbia, featuring a young and disaffected executive on the prowl and a very promising cover involving bottles of alcohol, is on my bedside pile. And the classic mid-’50s novel by Rona Jaffe, The Best of Everything, which rips the lid off the genteel world of publishing and offers the most lurid kind of subplots possible, is required reading every few years.

So when I ran across The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, I had to pick it up. A massive bestseller in its time, it launched a new catch-phrase for middle-class aspirational conformity and got turned into a movie starring Gregory Peck as the eponymous hero. I now sit on the thirty-third floor of a building erected in the early 1960s in the dead center of midtown. I don’t wear a hat, but my predecessors at work did. The East River scene out my window is the perfect Tony Randall backdrop, and my office furniture (which includes a typewriter) is appropriate, design-wise, to the period. I had to read this.

Thomas Rath is a young (early thirties) foundation employee. Every day he commutes through Grand Central Station to and from Westport, Connecticut, where he lives in a very modest house with his wife, whom he married just before he went off to serve in World War II, and their three small children. He wears a suit and a hat. He takes the same trains every day. His job never varies. His social life is predictable. His daily existence is just like that of every other resident of his street. Except that it isn’t: he is bored with his job, he begins to understand that he is bored with his wife, there is never enough money for anything they want to do, and he is haunted by his wartime experiences. After Tom changes careers, accepting a nebulous but potentially rewarding position working for a nationally known media mogul, we gradually learn that he has never recovered from what happened to him overseas, where he killed seventeen men, including, in a tragic accident, one of his own soldiers, and where he fathered a child with a young Italian prostitute with whom he felt the stirrings of real love for the first time in his young life. How he deals with his guilt over the killings, his disaffection for his wife, his ambivalence for his work life, his utter lack of ambition, and with the reality of his illegitimate child, is what makes the plot creak forward.

All of this must have been quite exciting, even scandalous, in 1956. And although today’s readers can see the bends in the road coming for miles, Tom’s progress does hold attention. There’s potential treachery and disaster in his new job, which also involves a great deal of questioning of the value of work. There’s tension at home-a faded or nonexistent sex life is implied-with an ambitious wife who wants to climb to a bigger house and a bigger bank account. There’s emotional dislocation as Tom struggles with conformity and the emptiness of the daily grind. Above all, there’s Italy-the scandalous love affair, the resulting child, the deaths, the war, the lust, the shame.

What kept my attention were the many period details. Just as one can savor the novels of Trollope for (among their many other pleasures) the detailed descriptions of the meals, clothing, transportation, and furniture of the era, I loved the details of the corporate life and the New York atmosphere in this book. The telephones, the suits, the attitudes toward secretaries and wives and bosses, the many small transactions such as riding an elevator or buying something from a sales clerk, added up to great fun. And the drinking! Mon Dieu! Endless pitchers of martinis and highballs; gallons of hard liquor consumed over lunch, followed by a couple of afternoon pops before settling in for some serious pre-dinner cocktails; sitting up in bed, smoking in the dark, and finishing a pitcher of gin. When I first moved to New York in the early 1980s, the older, more distinguished editors would roll into their offices after what had clearly been a liquid lunch, and no one thought twice about it. Amazingly, they seemed as capable after three martinis as they did before lunch-and they were very capable indeed. Times have changed, but reading about the routine consumption of an astounding amount of hard booze was a nostalgic and slightly scary experience (though anyone who’s read Dickens, among other writers, will remember the pints of ale downed at breakfast, and then throughout the day, by entire families, including the wee little ones).

As a brief tour of the recent corporate past, Wilson’s book is a most pleasant excursion, a retro visit to a world now seen only on Turner Classic Movies. It’s worth a visit.

• •

You are reading this issue of The Kenyon Review in the spring, but I am writing it in the throes of a cold and windy November. Over the course of the past few months I’ve had occasion to read some of the new books that made the news in one way or another, and I’d like to mention a few briefly. Among the novels that came out with great hype and that fell flat, in my opinion, were Wendy Wasserstein’s Elements of Style, an account of post-9/11 New York society that fails to ignite any of the late and great playwright’s famous wit, and (as mentioned earlier) Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics, a derivative academic novel that seemed like a written version of paint-by-the-numbers art. Jeremy Blachman’s Anonymous Lawyer made me wonder why books like this are still published—didn’t mean-spirited accounts of law offices flourish in the ’80s, and hasn’t genuine humor, such as the television show The Office, become more desirable? I skipped Charles Frazier’s follow-up to Cold Mountain; I’m sorry, but it just didn’t sound interesting.

On the other hand, to use the Michelin Guide’s rule of thumb, that a restaurant “mérite le voyage,” there were some outstanding publications that will stay with me for a long, long time. Bill Buford’s Heat, some of which was excerpted in the New Yorker, is a thrilling account of an amateur cook’s baptism into the world of restaurant kitchens, as well as an account of the career (and temperament) of famed chef Mario Batali. I couldn’t put it down, and it has made me consider meats and kitchen labor in an entirely different light. Anne Tyler’s Digging to America proves that she is one of our most compulsively readable writers; in her account of two families who adopt children, she plumbs the nature of love and family ties like few of her peers. Cormac McCarthy is unique. Often compared to Faulkner, he isn’t like Faulkner—he’s his own man and writes like no one else. Any new book by McCarthy is a real event, and this year’s The Road was a profoundly disturbing and ferocious masterpiece. Richard Ford came out with The Lay of the Land, the third of his novels about Frank Bascombe. Very long, yet languorous, this new installment of Bascombe’s life has been (unjustly) compared to Updike’s Rabbit novels. Actually Ford is a very different kind of writer. I love Updike’s novels too, but Bascombe is a most remarkable character and the three novels, which also include 1986’s The Sportswriter (one of the great contemporary American novels) and 1995’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Independence Day, together form a work of art that handily surpasses most of today’s fairly anemic fiction. And Ward Just’s new novel, Forgetfulness, knocked me out. Just is one of those writers who is tremendously admired by other writers and who is nominated for important prizes, but who hasn’t gotten much of a reading public. His subject tends to be political America in decline: morally corrupt congressmen or congressional aides; shadowy bureaucrats working on behalf of a militaristic, amoral government; former CIA operatives who, like the isolated Japanese soldiers marooned on a Pacific island for decades after World War II ended, don’t know or don’t care that their missions were terminated long ago. He’s an absolute master of style and character and deserves the accolades of the reading public.

This Thanksgiving weekend promises more delights: the Modern Library’s new collection of Joan Didion’s nonfiction; Regards: The Selected Nonfiction of John Gregory Dunne; and the latest in P. D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh series. Happy reading!

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