3 Must-Read Novels
Madison Smartt Bell’s swift-moving and daring new novel follows one damaged woman’s trajectory from her involvement in a Manson family-like cult’s mass murders in 1969 to her unpredictable actions in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The Color of Night is a pared-down novel from Bell, 224 pages compared to his epic 2,000-plus page voodoo-infused trilogy about Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian revolution ( All Souls Rising, Master of the Crossroads, The Stone That the Builder Refused).
Mae, Bell’s narrator, is an American demon; she is a loner working as a blackjack dealer in Las Vegas. She spends her off hours stalking rabbits, coyotes, and rattlers in the desert. The day the Twin Towers fall, she spots the televised image of Laurel, a former lover, on her knees in the ruins, “her mouth a black hole, as if the Furies were lashing her breast with the scorpion whip. As if she were a Fury herself.”
Mae’s thoughts dart back to the 1960s, when she was a 16-year-old runaway trading sex for food and fell in with D___, a Charles Manson-like cult leader. D___ is linked in her mind to her older brother Terrell, whose five years of sadistic abuse left an indelible imprint on her body and mind, and to Laurel, another cult member, whom she loved.
As she sinks deeper into the past, Mae recalls in fragments the “higgledy-piggledy” madness instigated by D___ and his drugs. She hires a detective to track Laurel down—it turns out she’s working at a Greenwich Village prep school—and becomes obsessed with seeing her again. Laurel doesn’t want to remember. “I can’t go back into that crazy fantasy with you,” she says. But Mae cannot forget.
Bell’s subject is the nature of evil. He makes it clear this novel isn’t for everyone. In an author's note, he offers a caveat: "Surely it is the most vicious and appalling story ever to pass through my hand to the page, so inevitably some people will hate it." How can human beings commit unthinkable acts? In The Color of Night, Bell looks unflinchingly at our darkest impulses and offers illuminating answers.
—Jane Ciabattari, Contributor
From the relaxed vantage point of today, the Hungarian writer Dezsõ Kosztolányi (1885-1936) seems to have had it all: early fame, marriage to an actress, a command of different genres, a post as the first president of the Hungarian PEN Club, and credit for having re-skinned the syntax of his mother tongue. As for the last accolade, the novelist Péter Esterházy remarks in his introduction to Kosztolányi’s 1924 novel Skylark that: “[He] simplified the Hungarian sentence, made it shorter, purer. The 19th-century sentence was long-winded, the meaning wandering through long periodic structures, and in any case the Hungarian long sentence is a dubious formation because the words do not have genders and the subordinate clauses are more uncertainly connected to the main clauses than in the reassuring rigour of a Satzbau (German sentence construction).”
Of course, to limn a man’s life in nothing but pastels is to sully it; certainly, Kosztolányi had his own buffet of hardships—for one, his physical decline was a protracted affair due to cancer of the palate. All the same, one detects that he was abundantly aware that his facility with words would prompt wobbly conjectures. You know that he must have been a tormented genius, or one for whom everything clicked as tidily as a safety pin. In an essay titled “On Myself,” published in 1933, he scoffs at the former notion, stating: “I am not willing… to append a medical certificate to my poems confirming that I do indeed suffer on their behalf, that what causes them pain causes me pain as well, that I bleed if stabbed, or if one of them is stabbed, that artistic creation always springs from human torments.” In his final novel, Kornél Esti—published the same year as the aforementioned essay—he unspools a yarn about a penniless widow who importunes a writer for financial assistance. Though she has never met the writer before, she feels confident in her request because she conflates the sentiments in his work with his personal disposition.
Incensed by her naiveté, the writer fumes to himself: “I’m not a good man,” Esti protested inwardly. "I’m a bad man. Well, not a bad man. Just like anybody else. The fact that I retain my old, pure feelings—only and exclusively for purposes of expression—is a trick of the trade, a piece of technical wizardry, like that of the anatomist who can keep a heart or a section of brain tissue that hasn’t had a feeling or a thought for ages in formaldehyde for years and years… What feels ‘refined’ on paper, however, is only so because it’s precise, finely tooled, and I am behind it, I—curse it! ... I’m supposed to be refined? In that case, so’s the blacksmith."
In this second example, Kosztolányi gestures implicitly toward his well-known hobbyhorse, which he discusses in “On Myself”: the distinction between Homo moralis (the man of morals) and Homo aestheticus (the man of aesthetic sensibility). Borrowing theses terms from the French philosopher Jules de Gaultier, he sets forth a Weltanschauung that’s rather reductive. He defines Homo moralis as intolerant, judgmental, and conflicted, “ Homo moralis wants to induce us to give our overcoat to someone else, but then he presses us, again in the name of morality, to strip others of their overcoats.” Conversely, Homo aestheticus is open-minded, independent, Nietzschian—in his capacity to think beyond good and evil. He is “a man who sometimes fancies perfect the imperfect world, who saved himself first and foremost from the saviours, who awaits nothing and receives everything in a single moment of wonderment, who entreats this moment, and with it life itself, to linger.” (One wonders what the essayist would have made of someone like Godard who uses art as a soapbox for disseminating ideology and for proffering a concentrated aesthetic experience.) Taking into account this dichotomy, it is possible to view Skylark and Kornél Esti as, respectively, a mediation on Homo moralis and Homo aestheticus.
Skylark peeks into the misery that dares not reveal itself openly, which is to say, a parent’s disappointment at their offspring’s shortcomings. The novel follows Ákos and Antonia Vajkay, a 50-year-old couple who reluctantly dispatch their 35-year-old, unattractive daughter for a weeklong stay with her maternal uncle. While Skylark is away, in the countryside, they chance upon a vitality that has evaded them for too many years.
Having grown stale from their routines and prejudices, these erstwhile homebodies rediscover the joys of dining out, moving in polite society, and taking in popular entertainment. Right until the end, the novel uncovers the ways in which the Vajkays’ have acted as their own jailers, both for the sake of propriety and regard for one another’s feelings. Kosztolányi's indictment of Homo moralis rings out in a number of passages such as this: “[Ákos] didn’t consider novels and plays as things to be taken ‘seriously’… As a rule he preferred stimulating, edifying books which elucidated some moral truth or the interconnections between otherwise meaningless or incomprehensible facts. Truths like ‘hard work is always rewarded’ or ‘evil never goes unpunished’; books that rock one in the lap of the comforting illusion that no one suffers undeservingly in the world, nor dies of stomach cancer without due cause.” While literary critiques of bourgeoisie narrowness are as common as narcissists in the politics, Skylark is intriguing because it articulates a paradox that most of us would rather not consider: It is possible to dread the return of a beloved for whom one would sacrifice anything.
Owing that its subject matter is Homo aestheticus, it is unsurprising that Kornél Esti is free of the sort of napping condescension that features occasionally in Skylark, as typified in the above quote, or the book’s mention that the de facto function of the church to which the Vajkays’ belong is to provide a platform for social theater. Ironically, Kosztolányi’s final book makes for the better read—and by suggesting this, I in no way mean to devalue the earlier book’s bevy of superlative qualities—because it is free of the moralizing that inadvertently rears itself from beneath the cover of a moral critique.
In essence, Kornél Esti is a novel that celebrates the cultivation of masks. The unnamed narrator, who sets things awry, is a 40-year-old writer. After a decade-long hiatus, he decides to rekindle his friendship with the titular hero whom the narrator teases is “not a legal entity.” Once reunited, the narrator and his doppelganger (both of whom share the same birthday as Kosztolányi) make a pact to collaborate on a novel that will unfold as a series of vignettes bound together by poetic logic as opposed to an overarching plot. The book plays fast and loose with identity, details, and subject matter. The early chapters contain psychologically precise evocations of Esti’s first day of school, followed by a soaring account of his first trip abroad as a young man. Then, as if succumbing to the charms of its nectar, the novel becomes more extravagant as it progresses. Among other things, there is a fanciful write-up of the most hospitable hotel in the world, an account of a crime reporter’s descent into madness, a demonstration of how to converse in a language one doesn’t understand, and a story about a miser who grows undone by a rare showing of generosity. Each of these stories display a mastery of texture, nuance, and pacing that is absolutely first rate.
—Christopher Byrd, Contributor
Tove Jansson was a hugely popular author and illustrator of children’s books when she retired in her fifties to devote the last three decades of her life to writing books for adults. Her children’s books about the Moomins have a massive following in Scandinavia, Japan, and other parts of the world. Jansson wrote and illustrated nine books about the Moomins in addition to five picture books and worked for a number of years on a comic strip. They would go on to spawn multiple animated series and films, picture books, theme parks, a museum, and even a cookbook, but they’ve never been especially popular in the United States.
Though the stories of the hippopotamus-like Moomins and their extended family and friends would seem worlds apart from the subdued and insightful tales that Jansson wrote for adults, the truth is that they share a great deal in common. By releasing her 1989 book Fair Play, the New York Review of Books publisher makes the case for Jansson as the anti-Steig Larsson of Scandinavian writers. To think of her books as belonging to an earlier time than the high-tech, hyper-caffeinated world of Lisbeth Salander would be a mistake; they seem to belong to another planet.
Fair Play is a slight novel composed of 17 chapters. These chapters are vignettes with little connection to each other, centering around two women, Mari, a writer and illustrator, and Jonna, a filmmaker and artist. The women live together and work on opposite ends of the apartment. The book tells the story of the two skipping a dinner party to watch a Fassbinder film on television, rearranging the pictures on the wall, getting lost in fog, talking about work, visiting cemeteries and “the Great City of Phoenix.” In describing the book as such, it sounds inconsequential, but Jansson’s great talent is how she is able to illuminate her character’s inner lives through mundane events and details.
There is a line in the second story that gets to the heart of much of Jansson’s work: “There are empty spaces that must be respected—those often long periods when a person can’t see the pictures or find the words and needs to be left alone.” The line is referring specifically to how the two main characters treat each other, but it’s also very true to how Jansson treats her characters. There is a quiet discretion and distance that defines the book and many of her others as well, even though what is revealed in these books is very personal. Jansson brings the reader into the space occupied by these two women to the point where it's almost voyeuristic, and yet, there are spaces that are respected and a great deal of their lives is left unexamined.
Perhaps this comes from Jansson’s own life. Fair Play seems to resemble the life that Jansson lived with her partner, the Finnish artist Tuulikki Pietila. To read older biographies of Jansson, which describe her as living alone or which speak in awkward terms of her being friends with Pietila, are a reminder of the disconnect between the private and the public lives that so many gay and lesbians have led and often continue to lead. The publisher certainly plays up this autobiographical connection by using as the cover for this edition, a portrait of Pietila that Jansson did.
Yet the book cannot be read solely as a thinly veiled autobiography. Jansson was fond of using a series of short vignettes to tell a larger story, the accumulation of details transforming what might seem insignificant into something that truly illuminates a life in the way that all great minimalist fiction can. Her novel The Summer Book, which NYRB released in 2008, tells the story of a young girl and her grandmother over the course of a summer spent on a small island off the coast of Finland. Jansson’s memoir The Sculptor’s Daughter and November in Moominvalley, her final Moomin novel, a work of psychological realism that can barely be called a book for children, similarly use this structure to different effect.
After all, it is only by observing people in mundane situations, that we come to know each other. Joy over simple things that are all too often taken for granted is something that Jansson addressed in her children’s books. Her books for adults are just as fable-like in their own way, focusing on just a few people and how they interact with each other and the natural world with a conclusion that feels natural, and yet makes clear that nothing is truly finished.
In the end, Fair Play rarely directly addresses the heart of the book. The word “love” appears infrequently. That is perhaps the best illustration of how Jansson worked. She doesn’t tell us, but rather, as every writing teacher had said since time immemorial, she shows, and by showing, makes the point with such clarity that it doesn’t need to be said. It’s something the reader can simply come to take for granted. In this sense, Jansson’s novel offers something radical indeed, a love story between two women that defies every convention by portraying a happy, content relationship. Nat King Cole used to sing, “this can’t be love because I feel so well.” In Fair Play, Jansson has no interest in contradicting anyone; she just tells, in a matter of fact way, what it means to feel so well.
—Alex Dueben, Contributor