I hate to think of what I would have missed if my daughter had not given me this unusually structured, magnificent novel for Christmas, 2021. It was published in 2017. That I had never heard of it is, to me, like being the geologist who didn’t notice an earthquake he was standing on.
The first page of The Weight of Ink is dated twice: June 8, 1691, and II Sivan of the Hebrew year 5451. The place is Richmond, Surrey, which was then on the outskirts of London.
The first sentence of the first page: “Let me begin afresh, this time to tell the truth.”
The very next page is dated four hundred years later, November 2, 2000, in London, where Helen Watt, an ailing professor, near the end of a less than satisfactory career, is about to get access to the papers in which the unknown writer promises this time to tell the truth. One of Helen’s former students, whom she doesn’t remember, and his wife, are legally prohibited from finishing the remodeling of their recently purchased 17th century house in Richmond until the authenticity and historical value of a cache of papers recently discovered by an electrician behind a panel can be evaluated. If Helen can identify the author and place him or her in the context of that time when the Great Plague was about to arrive in London, she will retire in some glory, thus redeeming her career. To do this she must unlock the mysteries before her younger colleague, favored by the department head, does.
Thus, two women are connected across the centuries, Helen Watt and Esther Velasquez, an immigrant from Amsterdam who, contrary to the norms of the time, was permitted to be the scribe for a blind rabbi, a role usually reserved for men. The novel switches back and forth between their lives as Esther, secretly a philosopher and seeker of truth, navigates her tenuous situation, and Helen and her young assistant, study the papers to unlock their mysteries, most importantly the identity of Esther – who they at first naturally assume is male.
What is delicious for the reader is the dramatic irony in the novel’s architecture: Helen and her assistant and their competitor can only read the papers while the reader of the novel has access to all the rich dimensions of Esther’s life in the time when Jews were only recently allowed to live in England. The reader always knows more than Helen does and hopes that Helen will catch up in time to win her race. The reader cares just as fervently for Esther to find her truths and survive.
Thus, The Weight of Ink thrives vibrantly in several genres simultaneously: mystery, historical novel, career novel, feminist novel, while transcending all genres via the literary quality of the writing. Here is Helen approaching for the first time the house where the cache of papers is still behind a panel:
“She approached the door, her cane slipping on the irregular stones. Her breath was uneven from the unaccustomed exertion – she slowed to calm it. On a narrow window beside the door, a reflection of her own bent figure. As she leaned closer, it rippled as though on the dark surface of a stream: a pale aged professor in her outdated suit. Tilted to one side, leaning on her cane.
——— Straightening, she took the cold iron knocker in her hand. Both – the smooth weighty metal and her thin quaking hand – were impervious to the sunlight that fell profligate over everything: the door, the marble threshold, the sleeves of her wool coat. The knocker’s blows reverberated dully through the thick door and died. And in the silence – the unmistakable silence of an old house – she felt, for just an instant, the old feeling: the impossible ache of standing so close to a piece of history. A feeling like something dropped endlessly inside of her – like being in the presence of a long-ago lover who had once known her every inch, but now refused to acknowledge her.”
I figure I extracted about a third of the richness in my first reading. I’ll get another third in the next. And if I’m still around in a year or so, I’ll read it for the third time.
If you haven’t read it for the first time yet, you’re in for a treat.
THE WEIGHT OF INK, A NOVEL BY RACHEL KADISHstephendaven2022-07-01T21:52:42+00:00
Like in all great narrative, the opening lines reach beyond the particulars of that narrative to identify for us what is universal in the story, in this case paradise lost, Adam, looking back on what disappeared, the instant he lost his naivete. The world changed while I slept, and much to my surprise, no one had consulted me. That’s how it would always be from that day forward. Of course, that’s the way it had been all along. I just didn’t know it until that morning. Surprise upon surprise: some good, some evil, most somewhere in between. And always without my consent.
‘That morning’ was when his father told Carlos Eire, “Batista is gone. He flew out of Havana early this morning. It looks like the rebels have won.”
In 1962 at the age of 11, Eire was one of the 14,000 children airlifted out of Cuba, exiled to physical safety and emotional turmoil, by, and from, his own parents, because Fidel Castro came to power. Eire’s memoir describes his boyhood with lyrical precision that brings every scene to life and is full of nostalgia, not just for the privilege and affluence he took for granted as a part of the upper crust in Batista’s, world, but also, indirectly, for his innocence about Batista, who, in cahoots with the mafia and the CIA, was a cruel, murderous dictator, surely no less and maybe more, evil than Castro. Eire’s father was powerful judge who sent his children to the same private school in Havana that Batista’s children attended. One of the key moments in the memoir comes when Carlos accompanies his father to the courthouse and watches his father act as both judge and jury, dispensing summary ‘justice’ to the less than powerful, then, after only three hours of work, returning to his comfortable home and art collection.
Memoirs are never about what happened; they are about what the narrator remembers about what happened, and how he or she shades that memory toward one version of truth. Carlos Eire reveals which truth he chooses in the final verse of the poem which serves as the preamble to this stunning memoir:
Still, all of us are responsible for our actions.
Not even Fidel is exempt from all this.
Nor Che, nor his chauffeurs, nor his mansion.
Nor the many Cubans who soiled their pants
before they were shot to death.
Nor the fourteen thousand children who flew away from their parents.
Nor the love and desperation that caused them to fly.
In my opinion, any person with the sensibilities that enabled Carlos Eire to write to write so superb a story would eventually become an outcast wherever he ended up living. If Fidel had lost and Batista won, and Carlos’ family remained at the top of society, still wealthy and powerful, he would have eventually learned that Cuba was never the paradise he had thought it was, because it wasn’t a paradise for most. He would have left in his heart but stayed in place, rather than the other way around. To me, that is what makes Waiting for Snow in Havana universal. This is not a story of what happened to happen to Carlos Eire. This is the story of the nature of exile, of the experience of diaspora, wherever it has happened and wherever it will happen again.
I didn’t read Waiting forSnow in Havana when it came out in 2003. I wasn’t even aware of it. Several months ago, browsing in a bookstore I saw the those words in the title: Snow in Havana? No way could I resist.
This one’s a keeper. I’ll remove a book from my shelves to make room for it, and if I’m lucky enough to still be here in a year or so, I’ll read it again.
WAITING FOR SNOW IN HAVANA,CONFESSIONS OF A CUBAN BOY, BY CARLOS EIRE, PUBLISHED 2002, WINNER NATIONAL BOOK AWARDstephendaven2022-05-16T22:21:34+00:00
“They were natural and supernatural, in that blank space, like amorous figures from mythology.”
When I was a teenager, in thrall to my hormones, I couldn’t imagine a more enthralling love story than Romeo and Juliet. Then I went to college where I succumbed to English professors’ groupthink that Pride and Prejudice takes that prize. And I am still occasionally excited by the notion of re-reading all that sturm and drang about Helen of Troy.
But now that, at age 90, I have been a grown up for a few years, I submit to you, seriously, that Shirley Hazard’s novel, The Transit of Venus, published in 1980, transcends any category. It is what it is, a love story like no other as a great poem is like no other: to change it but a little, changes it altogether.
The “they” in the quoted sentence above are two lovers, Ted Tice, an astronomer, and Caroline Vail, a widow; the blank space is an airport. The sentence comes in the second to the last page in the novel and is earned by everything precedent. It names what the alert and therefore enthralled, reader has sensed from the beginning: that this story is both their story and ours, that in its fluid projection from future to past and back again, its marriage of fate and character, its straightforward prediction of the outcome, and the Olympian distance from which it told, it rises to the level of myth. In my copy, worn out by five readings – three of mine and two my wife’s – the lovers’ fates are predicted on page 12. The novel is divided into four Parts, in each of which the whole arc of the story exists, and the ending is so indirectly narrated that act of divining it is an arrow in the reader’s heart.
I’ll say no more, except that I hope you will read this novel. Don’t read it late at night or after too much wine. It requires your brightest attention. When you read the last page, stop, stay with your emotions for a few minutes, then turn the first page and start again. You will marvel at how even richer your second experience is.
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THE TRANSIT OF VENUS, by Shirley Hazardstephendaven2022-05-18T17:35:07+00:00
A DEATH IN THE FAMILY, BY JAMES AGEE, PUBLISHED IN 1938
There are two tragedies associated with this Pulitzer Prize winning novel: the death that is central to the story and the fact that the novel had to be published, and the prize awarded, posthumously. Agee’s fatal heart attack, in a taxicab on the way to his doctor at age 45, silenced one of the finest American writers of the 20th century. You may have read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, with photographs by Walker Evans, documenting the lives of sharecroppers during the great depression, and if you are of a certain age, you may have watched Humphry Bogart in The African Queen, screenplay by James Agee, and I guarantee that anyone who has read his short story, A Mother’s Tale, will never forget it.
A Death in The family is autobiographical. When Agee was six years old, his father was killed in a car accident on his way to visit his father, James’ grandfather. In the novel, Jay Follett is killed trying to get home from a visit to his father on time to say goodnight to his six-year-old son Rufus and his younger daughter Catherine.
The great value of of this novel is that it engenders a level of empathy for the grief of the survivors that is both uplifting and so harrowing that this reader could read only a short section at a time. I gave myself recesses not available to Jay’s wife Mary, her two children and other members of the extended family. When we say to a grieving friend, “I wish I could share your burden,” we are saying we are willing to participate in your tragedy, to suffer and do that heavy lifting. Well, here’s the opportunity to do these things, at least vicariously – just read the book.
The genius of A Death in The Family comes not from telling about the accident that kills Jay Follett – that is told indirectly by those who go to the site of the accident and figure out how it happened- but instead, by telling of the emotional impact on Mary, the two children, especially Rufus, and others in the family, citizens of a small town in Tennessee. Via Agee’s lyrical prose, often italicized for that heightened intensity we see also in much of Faulkner’s writing, we can feel what Mary and her children feel. We join Mary and her aunt through the long night to find out whether Jay was just seriously injured or dead, and we are there with her when his death is confirmed, and with her too in the morning when she tells her two children who want to know where their father is. We are allowed an intimacy with the mind and heart of a six-year-old boy as Rufus gradually absorbs the brute fact that his father is gone from him forever.
For years A Death In The Family stayed on my bookshelves unread. Who needs to read about a death in a family? What’s there for us to learn after experiencing that loss ourselves, firsthand? Now I feel blessed to have finally read it. To be as empathetic as this book allows us to be is to find our better selves, and to feel the love for the lost father and husband and for each other that Mary, Rufus, Catherine and various aunts, uncles and grandparents feel confirms the immeasurable value of each person’s life. There is value in the paradox that the random, meaningless death of her husband that causes Mary to question her religious faith and confirms her brother’s apostacy, is made to be uplifting by a writer’s interpretation of his own experience.
Send not to know for whom the bell tolls, John Dunne said in a famous sermon long ago in St Paul’s Cathedral in London. It tolls for thee. James Agee said this too, without sermonizing, in A Death in The Family, one of the great American novels.