Happy Accidents

Last month I developed an extreme case of Attention Deficit Disorder due to the rigors of the holiday season. As a result, when it came to reading I just picked up whatever happened to catch my eye at any given moment. Ah, the joys of serendipity! For I managed to stumble, blindly, on some real treasures.

First of all, Tim Page. Page is the brilliant critic who won a Pulitzer during his years of writing about classical music for the Washington Post. In 1997, at the age of forty-five, he was belatedly diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. Page was astounded, never having heard of this disorder on the autism spectrum that is often associated with very high intelligence but also with emotional rigidity, obsessive behavior, and a difficulty in making and maintaining personal relationships.

Now aspects of Page’s life began to make sense to him for the first time, and in his moving and often hilariously funny memoir, Parallel Play: Life as an Outsider (Doubleday) he looks back at his childhood and early years with a new understanding. Page is deeply emotional (this book ought to blow the stereotype of Asperger’s sufferers as affectless automatons) and displays an easy sense of humor, laughing at his frequently ridiculous behavior even while empathizing with his young self. His parents held on to many of his childhood stories and essays, and he includes in his narrative killing examples, such as a second-grade paper about a class trip to Boston in which young Tim was clearly far more interested in the various highways and thruways they took to get there than any of the city’s great sights. Page persuasively connects his disorder with the unusual critical gifts and feeling for music he evinced very early in his life, and while there is a certain amount of sadness in the memoir there is also much hope, joy, and humor. I absolutely loved this book, and I came to love Page as well.

Brad Leithauser has long been a favorite writer of mine: incapable of producing anything that is not of a high quality, he is an accomplished poet and critic as well as a novelist, and his 1997 novel, The Friends of Freeland, made me laugh so hard I was inspired to visit Iceland, the fictionalized setting for the book. Now he has written a new novel, his sixth: The Art Student’s War (Knopf), set in 1940s and 50s Detroit, Leithauser’s beloved home town.

This paean to Motor City at its brashest and busiest, its automobile plants devoted to turning out military materiel at a rapid pace, makes poignant reading nowadays, what with auto manufacturers desperately looking for a way to stay afloat and all those houses so hopefully built in the postwar boom going into foreclosure, their inhabitants out in the streets. Leithauser’s tale is nostalgic, yes, but it is also a strong coming-of-age tale focusing on a young art student, Bianca, who volunteers to draw portraits of wounded soldiers in a Detroit hospital. The forces of history and the implosion of her own family draw Bea outward from her sheltered life into a world of rapidly changing values and opportunities: Leithauser charts the shifting currents of social change with a fine descriptive skill.

Doing a bit of Christmas shopping I picked up, for myself, a book by a writer who has often been recommended to me, the English novelist Jane Gardam. Gardam has been writing since the 1970s and has a number of devoted aficionados, but her work is not very well known in America, a lack that might be remedied by the recent appearance of several of her best under the very interesting new imprint, Europa Editions. (Other authors published by Europa include James Hamilton-Paterson, Chad Taylor, Wolf Erlbruch, and Jean-Claude Izzo.) Gardam is a master of the well-crafted psychological novel, and her 1991 book The Queen of the Tambourine is a surreal journey through the mind of one particular desperate housewife, the fifty-year-old Eliza Peabody. For decades the beautiful, childless Eliza has been the perfect diplomatic wife; now things have fallen apart, though initially we are not quite sure why. Told in Eliza’s own voice, through a series of letters she writes to a mysterious and possibly nonexistent friend, the story is full of surprising twists as we begin to understand the agonized Eliza, and as she begins to understand herself. Those who enjoy The Queen of the Tambourine might be interested in Gardam’s Old Filth, The People on Privilege Hill, and The Man in the Wooden Hat, also available from Europa.

I live in the Hudson Valley, and recently attended a wonderful lecture at the Thomas Cole House here by the art historian Barbara Novak, an emeritus professor at Barnard whose American Painting of the Nineteenth Century (1980) was deemed by Hilton Kramer to be “surely the best book ever written on the subject.” As a young student in the early 1950s, Novak went off to Europe to study Flemish art — for in those days art history was by definition European art history — then found herself growing passionately interested in the painting of her native land. She became one of the pioneers in the study of American art, and now, more than fifty years later, is still producing important work. Her latest book is the fascinating Voyages of the Self: Pairs, Parallels and Patterns in American Art and Literature (Oxford University Press), in which the author pairs key American artists with writers and thinkers she finds to be philosophically allied with them; a few of the twosomes she covers are Winslow Homer and William James, John Singleton Copley and Jonathan Edwards, and Jackson Pollock and Charles Olson. “Out of such couplings, perhaps,” she writes, “we can begin to track the voyages of the self in America, in which the smallest and the most unique unit, the ‘personal’ self, and its most salient characteristics in each artist or writer considered contributes to and derives from the larger map of an American cultural context.”

Andrew Motion’s harrowing and beautiful memoir In the Blood was published in the United States two years ago, but there has never, until now, been an American edition of his poetry; strange, considering that he was Britain’s Poet Laureate from 1999 until 2009, when he stepped down from the post. (He was the first Laureate to negotiate for a limited term of office; traditionally, it has been an appointment for life.) Now the Massachussetts publisher David R. Godine has come out with a very welcome selection of Motion’s poetry for American readers, The Mower: New & Selected Poems.

“I want my writing to be as clear as water,” Motion has said. “No ornate language; very few obvious tricks. I want readers to be able to see all the way down through its surfaces into the swamp. I want them to feel they’re in a world they thought they knew, but which turns out to be stranger, more charged, more disturbed than they realized.” In the poems collected here — elegies, nature poems, sonnets, memories of childhood — he richly fulfills this ambition, showing himself to be a worthy heir to his heroes Marvell, Wordsworth, Hardy, and Larkin. Motion has many subjects, but he is at his strongest in the pastoral, in which he celebrates and mourns the ancient, dying rhythms of rural England; the last six poems, which deal with the poet’s father, are especially powerful.