Introspections

By BROOKE ALLEN

Top-notch Canadian authors too often go unpublished and unknown in the United States. Carol Windley is one such case: this gifted writer, who has won or been nominated for several of Canada’s major literary awards, is only now, on her third book, making her American debut. Home Schooling (Atlantic Monthly Press) is a collection of highly impressive and accomplished short stories, all set against the weather-beaten landscape of Vancouver Island and the Pacific Northwest.

Comparisons with her compatriot and mentor Alice Munro are inevitable, and Windley is not unworthy of the association. She excels at communicating a character’s inner life, matching exactly the right words to even the most tentative and inchoate feelings. In the title story, two adolescent sisters try to come to terms with their feelings for the same boy, and the tragic accident that has shattered their idealistic father’s dream and destroyed his livelihood. In “Family in Black,” another young girl observes her mother’s defection from their idyllic rural life and her remarriage to a timber tycoon. But it is the first story, “What Saffi Knows,” that made the greatest impression on me, being one of the very best evocations I have ever read of the peculiar consciousness of early childhood: the wavering line between truth and fantasy, the lack of words and concepts with which to communicate, and the absolute certainty that adults will not really hear or understand what you have to say. Readers who are enthusiastic about Home Schooling might be inspired to track down Windley’s earlier books, published in Canada: another short story collection, Visible Light, and a novel, Breathing Underwater.

Barnes & Noble Books has come up with a new imprint, Barnes & Noble Rediscovers, that resuscitates interesting titles in many fields that have been long out of print, some practically forgotten. Somewhat in the spirit of the wonderful New York Review Books imprint, this project is an exciting one and the books that have so far been chosen are eminently worthy. The first that caught my eye was Stendahl’s Memoirs of Egotism (edited by Matthew Josephson, and with a Foreword by Michael Dirda). In 1832 Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle) had already participated in Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, published his great novel The Red and the Black, and spent several years traveling through Italy. Now French consul in the dull Italian town of Civita Vecchia, he cast his mind back to the rackety life he had led in Paris a decade previously, writing about it informally and exploiting the fashionable new idea of psychological introspection, which he called egotism. That was a bit of a misnomer, since Stendhal was as interested in gossip as he was in the machinations of his own head and heart, and there is plenty of in what he called “these nonsensical reminiscences.” Take, for example, his description of the venerable Marquis de Lafayette:

A tall figure, surmounted by a cold, imperturbable face, as meaningless as an old family portrait, the bumpy head covered by a short, ill-fitting periwig, the huge body clad in a nondescript, shapeless gray coat, such was General de Lafayette as he came limping into Mme. de Tracy’s drawing-room, leaning on his cane….Mme. de Tracy always addressed him as my dear Sir, in her flutiest tone.
…I also felt, without needing to be told, that M. de Lafayette was quite simply a hero out of Plutarch. He lived from day to day, without much understanding, performing the great deed required of him at the moment, like Epaminondas.
Meanwhile, despite his great age (he was born in 1757 — the same year as Charles X, with whom he used to play court tennis as a youth) he was mainly concerned with plucking at the skirt of some pretty young girl from behind (vulgo: to goose). This he did as often as possible and without standing on much ceremony.

The chatty, honest pages of Memoirs of Egotism are full of such little gems, which throw a truly intimate light on the author and the larger world of Paris under the Bourbon Restoration.

Another Barnes & Noble Rediscovery is Owen Barfield’s History in English Words (with a Foreword by W.H. Auden), first published in 1926. Barfield (1898-1997) was an English academic and a member, along with J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, of the Oxford-based discussion group The Inklings. He propagated a holistic method in the study of language and history, illustrated beautifully by this book which takes an almost poetic approach to philology. “It has only just begun to dawn on us,” he wrote, “that in our own language alone, not to speak of its many companions, the past history of humanity is spread out in an imperishable map, just as the history of the mineral earth lies embedded in the layers of its outer crust….In the common words we use every day the souls of past races, the thoughts and feelings of individual men stand around us, not dead but frozen into their attitudes like the courtiers in the garden of the Sleeping Beauty.” Through the historical developments of a number of particular words, chosen not for their usefulness but for their telescopic capacities — panic, sorcery, cannibal, finance, law, cross, and logic are a few of the examples — Barfield takes us through centuries of evolving culture and thought.

The third Rediscovery that caught my eye was Suzanne Langer’s Philosophical Sketches. The magnum opus of Langer (1895-1985) was Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, published in three volumes between 1967 and 1982; these sketches, all papers or lectures delivered between 1956 and 1961, were explorations of the various ideas she would bring together in the larger work. In clear, elegant prose these essays range through the subjects that fascinated Langer throughout her career as a philosopher: the origins of speech, the function of communication, the question of symbols and symbolic thought, abstract thinking, art, and the adjustment of civilization to the great technological changes of the twentieth century. She has much to say on the differences between animal and human communication, a perennial challenge to scientists, and her reflections on the function of art in human life are of the greatest interest in today’s fights over school curricula.

Every culture develops some kind of art as surely as it develops language. Some primitive cultures have no real mythology or religion, but all have some art….
The ancient ubiquitous character of art contrasts sharply with the prevalent idea that art is a luxury product of civilization, a cultural frill, a piece of social veneer.
It fits better with the conviction held by most artists, that art is the epitome of human life, the truest record of insight and feeling….

Philosophy, according to Langer’s formulation, is “a systematic critique of common sense.” To read her work is to have one’s own “common sense” and received ideas challenged and teased in the most intriguing manner.

To end the column with lighter matter: mysteries. Recently I have been in the depressing position of having read all the books by all the mystery writers I admire, and not knowing where to turn next. I’d picked up quite a few likely-looking ones, but been disappointed over and over by finding cutesy, tongue-in-cheek send-ups of the genre. The only mystery novels I really like are serious ones that follow the genre’s conventions without condescending to them, and these seem to have become rarer in recent years.

At length I tried one by Magdalen Nabb, encouraged by the green Penguin Crime/Mystery jacket, virtually a guarantee of quality. Nabb (1947-2007) was a British-born author who made her home in Florence for more than thirty years; her long-running detective series featured Marshal Guarnaccia, a native Sicilian to whom Florence is in many ways as mysterious a city as it will be for Nabb’s readers, for it is, in her words, “a very secret city. Walk down any residential street and you have no idea what is going on behind those blank walls.”

The book I started with is The Marshal and the Madwoman, which sees Guarnaccia hunting down a killer in the withering heat of an Italian August. The tale takes the reader far beyond the familiar purlieus of tourist Florence and into the city’s vibrant little working-class quarters, where neighbors know each other well and memories are long. The settings are extremely atmospheric. Guernaccia is a bon bourgeois detective in the tradition of Maigret’s Simenon, and like Simenon, Nabb was clearly concerned more with the moral than with the sensational aspects of crime. The Marshal and the Madwoman was an excellent read, and I plan to sample more of the Marshal’s adventures as soon as the mystery urge — impossible to fight against — next overtakes me.

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