Must Reads: Margot Livesey, Robert Walser and More

Adventures, of sorts: an updated version of Jane Eyre, the gimlet musings of Robert Walser’s Berlin, and a woman who swims in Ireland with fantastical results.

A Twin for Jane

The Flight of Gemma Hardy By Margot Livesey. 464 pages. Harper. $25.99

Reinventing a beloved classic is a risky business, but it will come as no surprise to Margot Livesey’s admirers—a small but fervent group likely to be greatly enlarged by her wonderful new novel—that this abundantly gifted writer is more than a match for Jane Eyre. It’s not necessary to have read Charlotte Brontë’s protofeminist masterpiece to enjoy The Flight of Gemma Hardy, which works splendidly on its own terms, but the resonances and dissonances between these two compelling works enrich our appreciation of both.

Gemma Hardy is the orphaned daughter of a Scottish woman and an Icelandic fisherman. When we meet her at age ten on the first day of 1959, the protective uncle who brought her to Scotland when she was three has recently died. His bitter widow is eager to get rid of Gemma, who is happy to leave for the Claypoole School but soon learns that as a “working girl” (scholarship student), she’s basically an unpaid servant.

Though Livesey follows the main arc of Brontë’s story quite closely, the alterations she makes signal a subtly different authorial agenda. Gemma has vague memories of her parents and warm ones of her uncle; unlike Jane, deprived and abused from infancy, she has known love and experienced its loss. Her fear of further bereavement shapes her destiny in ways more plausible than the vividly melodramatic devices that drive Jane Eyre.

Gone are the mad wife in the attic and the apocalyptic conflagration, replaced as plot catalysts by postwar Britain’s shifting social and psychological dynamics. Claypoole is a relic of a waning, class-stratified society with few opportunities for women. The other working girls are working-class and think Gemma is a snob; her complicated relationships with them and the school staff display Livesey’s trademark gift for strongly detailed characterizations and rueful knowledge of the painful inconsistencies of human behavior.

While Jane Eyre derives its power from Brontë’s complete identification with her protagonist, a visceral connection that generations of readers have shared, Livesey trades some of that feverish intensity for a wider perspective. Gemma’s first-person narration is as tartly engaging as Jane’s, but underneath it we sense the presence of an author who understands more than she does, and who gently guides her toward a quality in short supply in Jane Eyre: empathy. Gemma can be angry and unforgiving, but she becomes capable of seeing other people’s point of view. One of the novel’s great pleasures is watching her generous spirit slowly unfold amid difficult circumstances.

Declining enrollment leads to Claypoole’s closing in 1966. Instead of taking the exams that would enable her to attend university, Gemma must take a job as nanny to the eight-year-old niece of wealthy businessman Hugh Sinclair on an island in the remote Orkneys. The psychologically credible and surprisingly vulnerable Mr. Sinclair lacks the saturnine sexiness that has had schoolgirls swooning over Mr. Rochester through two centuries, but here, too, we see that Livesey’s intentions diverge from Brontë’s. Gemma’s desire “to be beloved and regarded,” though it echoes Jane’s longings, has broader dimensions than simply finding a soul mate.

“Don’t you want to know about yourself,” Gemma hears a voice asking her in a dream, “before you become somebody else?” Her flight from Mr. Sinclair, whose dark secret is less important than the fact that he lied to her, ultimately takes Gemma to her childhood home in Iceland. Reclaiming her Icelandic name, Fjola Einarsdottir, affirms her bond with her dead parents and frees her to move forward and reunite with Mr. Sinclair on her own terms. “Perhaps,” she thinks, “I was not yet ready to be a wife. Perhaps being a wife was not the only choice.” Those simple sentences contain a universe of expanded possibilities that were not available to Jane Eyre. Renaming and relocating Brontë’s indomitable heroine, Livesey transforms the drama of a passionate rebel against Victorian constraints into an odyssey of self-discovery in a changing world.

—Wendy Smith

Idling with Intent

Berlin Stories By Robert Walser160 pages. NYRB Classics. $14.

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In 1895 the seventeen-year-old Robert Walser left his native Switzerland for Germany. After an unsuccessful stint in Stuttgart he decamped for Berlin in 1905. With the help of his brother, Karl, already working there as a theater set-designer, he began mixing in artistic circles. It wasn’t long before he was writing for literary journals and the feuilleton sections of newspapers. Berlin Stories is a collection of some of the best articles he wrote during his stay. Each one offers a unique view of “the metropolis,” with Walser’s wry descriptions of Berlin’s customs, culture and topography interspersed with acute profiles of those he encountered and his own private reflections.

But firstly a caveat: Berlin Stories is a misnomer. Walser described these texts as ‘prose pieces’, which is a vague but fitting classification for writing which is often nothing more than a snapshot or extended opinion. And yet he never squanders a word, tightly packing his sketches with keen-eyed observation. In the first section we get “Market,” which describes just that, in all its abundance; “Aschinger” does the same with a restaurant; in “Friedrichstrasse” he makes the city’s “very heart” pulse. The second section is given over to the theater, and while the glitzy and grubby cabaret scene of the ’30s as portrayed by the likes of Isherwood is arguably more exciting, it is still refreshing to read about Berlin’s theatrical scene during Walser’s stint.

During one performance at the Komische Oper Walser professes to feeling like ‘an astonished hayseed amid all that gleaming intoxication’ and ‘sense-beguiling tumultuousness.’ But Walser felt the same away from the theater, being routinely overwhelmed by all aspects of Berlin. His inability to truly fit into the city strengthens his prose, his outsider-looking-in position being a neat alternative to that of the knowledgeable native, such as Joyce in Dubliners. The later sections show him ruminating less on the city and more on its citizens, and by extension, human nature itself. There are two expert character studies of his landladies, “Frau Wilke” and “Frau Scheer”; and “Food for Thought,” one of the highlights here, is a masterful, if sobering, meditation on how mankind is “sinking ever deeper into the midnight of unrefinedness.”

Susan Bernofsky rises admirably to the challenge of translating Walser’s satirical outbursts and dry wit. Some baroque descriptions leave us wondering if the original was just as jaunty: he admits he enjoys “scallywagging” around tempting food; an artist, we are told, is prone to ‘sluggardizing’ and “slug-a-beddishness”; the theater-going public pines “black-puddingishly”; Paris is “fee-fi-fo-fum-fabulous.”

Walser left Berlin in 1913 feeling he had failed as a writer. Depression, insomnia and insanity were to come, and later he would freeze to death in a snowy field in Switzerland. Even amongst the carefree jollity of his Berlin account, Walser unwittingly affords us glimpses, even premonitions, of his tragic future. In “Frau Wilke” he explains:

Often I walked in the neighboring forest of fir and pine, whose beauties, wonderful winter solitudes, seemed to protect me from the onset of despair. Ineffably kind voices spoke down to me from the trees: “You must not come to the dark conclusion that everything in the world is hard, false, and wicked. But come often to us; the forest likes you. In its company you will find health and good spirits again, and entertain more lofty and beautiful thoughts.”

Berlin Stories is a treat that showcases two captivating enigmas, Berlin the city and Walser the writer. Many of these vignettes come alive because he spent much time as a flâneur, gleefully recording street-life. J. M. Coetzee has written that despite Walser’s travelling, he was never able to shrug off his class’s “intolerance of people like himself, dreamers and vagabonds.” The latter is too harsh, but we should be thankful that Walser was a dreamer, an idler with intent, whose wistful wanderings could engender such virtuosic writing.

—Malcolm Forbes

To Swim is All

The Night SwimmerBy Matt Bondurant288 pp. Scribner. $25.

A perpetually stormy stretch of the North Atlantic off the southern tip of Ireland exerts an eerie allure on Elly, the young American long-distance open water swimmer who narrates Matt Bondurant’s absorbing third novel.

Elly’s husband Fred has won an Irish pub called the Nightjar, title and deed, in a contest sponsored by Murphy’s brewery in the city of Cork in 2002. (“It began with a dart, a pint, and a poem, three elements that seemed to demonstrate the imprecise nature of fate,” Bondurant writes.) The two move from Vermont, where Fred worked in corporate training, to County Cork. While Fred begins his apprenticeship as a pub owner and works on a book, Elly spends most of her time on windy Cape Clear, a ferryboat ride away. There she encounters wild and unpredictable storms, a mysterious no-armed creature who stalks the fields at night, a blind goat farmer and his tribe of organic gardeners, and the irascible and domineering Corrigans, who are descended from Ireland’s first saint, St. Kieran (born A.D. 325), who predicted that his clan would be chieftains of their race forever.

Elly has a special skin condition—congenital hypodermic strata, or “skin like a walrus” —that allows her to swim for miles in frigid waters. But even she is brought up short by the daunting conditions of Roaringwater Bay.

On an early sailboat excursion to Fastnet lighthouse, where the ocean is at its most extreme and brutal, Elly has a premonition that “something ancient and unknowable guided their future.” Her optimistic vision is unclear, but as Bondurant ratchets up the suspense expertly, he details the myriad unforeseen ways in which Elly and Fred misjudge their dreams, and allow obsessions to draw them into dangerous territory.

The lighthouse becomes Elly’s magnetic goal, the focal point of her nightly nighttime swims. Fred has a similarly single-minded approach to keeping his pub from failing, and a growing animosity toward his competition.

Bondurant uses exquisitely sensual language to describe the couple’s erotic connection, Elly’s experience of swimming (Bondurant is a competitive open-water swimmer himself), the earthy rural life and wild Irish landscape that catches them up as fate shifts from benign to violent in a series of explosive scenes.

The film version of Bondurant’s second novel, The Wettest County in the World, based on his grandfather’s exploits as a moonshiner in Virginia, is coming up this spring. The Night Swimmer should show up on filmmakers’ radar, as well, with its appealingly idiosyncratic central couple, raw and atmospheric coastal landscape, and intriguing tale of conflict between the mythic Ireland and the new.

—Jane Ciabattari