Paean to the Long Grass Books, no. 1
In 2007, I'm going to write more about books that ought to be more visible than they are--books by writers who work in the shade of the mid-list. It can be hard for readers to find those books when they are left scattered in the long grass, seldom seen.
My first choice is by Clare Dudman; the Penguin edition of 98 Reasons for Being came out in late 2006. (My second will be Jeanne Larsen's translation of Tang poets--consorts and court women, courtesans, ladies of the Tao. Both small poetry collections and literature in translation tend to be found in the long grass.)
* * *
Reasons for Reading / 98 Reasons for Being
He keeps me from my other place. It is as though he is holding my hand, and even though I twist and pull he holds me fast with his secrets and the things he should not be telling: a wicked child he cannot own; a wife who lashes him with her clever tongue; a household that has him by the neck and is squeezing tight. I listen. I need to hear the end. He relaxes his grip. He takes another breath.
The changing bond between Dr. Hoffmann (a character based on the historical German physician and author of, among other things, children's books) and his young Jewish patient, Hannah Meyer, is the spine of Clare Dudman’s 98 Reasons for Being. In the quote above, one sees how this essentially simple structure—Hannah’s illness and healing—becomes complex. The rift inside Hannah is filled with grief and dream-memories of the past. One element that helps to lead her out of the dark place between trees is showing those memories to the light; another is the power of story. Hoffmann, the storyteller of a volume of fairy-tale-cruel cautionary poems called Struwwelpeter, has secret stories of his own. They burden him; they prick now and then in his too-busy day. As he shares them, revealing his own dark corners, the desire to know what happens next and to be a part of the larger human story begins to tug at Hannah Meyer.
The pace of this book is not rapid; it is slow work, coaxing Hannah Meyer from her dark wood. But it is the natural pace for a story about this young woman and her doctor, one that also allows her to be seen as a part of the microcosm that is a nineteenth-century city asylum. The others in his asylum all need "a reason for being," as Hannah does.
Hannah is the means by which all patients are given the full glory of an individual self. Through her, Hoffman sees that his many patients and those around him partake of both "wellness" and "illness"--that the world is a place of brokenness. In glimpses, he understands that his own family and his own heart are places where what he calls “madness” has bedded down. As the Cheshire Cat said so well (and it was marvelous and mad for a cat to say so at all), “I’m mad. You’re mad. We’re all mad.” Disturbance of mind is a crooked thread that wanders through the beautiful and the ugly, the anorexic and the obsessive: through a whole pageant of asylum patients and their flawed and yearning tenders. In this book, Clare Dudman is, as Bloom said of Shakespeare, myriad-minded, and she draws her myriad with vividness and verve. One of my favorite things about her characters is that they do not appear to be contemporary people in fancy dress--a mode of historical fiction that has been popular with the bestseller list but is blessedly absent here.
Tensions press on the book. Clare Dudman enters the past as a place—my favorite sort of historical book—but we cannot help but set that past against our own, cannot help but let a current diagnosis flit through our minds from time to time. The child who would be “classified” at school, the anorexic, the gay man, the obsessive: these and more exist in our minds in double ways, as Hoffmann attempts to understand them, as mad-minders and Hannah and more see them, and as we bring to bear the culture and understandings of our own also-limited time. A strong alternation between the idea of “person” and the idea of “case” lends another doubling of vision. These doublings and alternations work as large structures and as small ones--so that, say, Josef is climbing his tree while Hoffmann is unaware, sinking into a mental lagoon of shade and quiet.
Tensions, large and small, support the alternation of feelings in the book—one of its strongest gifts to its readers. The world of the asylum demands that one eat grief, guilt, and unhappiness. Go there and you will know these, as well as the leaven of love and joy.
One note: it is vital to read this book without attempting to impose one’s idea of a typical “novel” on it. The book contains a wonderful mix of main story, multiple minor characters, faux erudition or mock-period letters that begin many chapters, along with interpolation of poems from Struwwelpeter. (Clearly the poems inspired certain moments and anecdotes in the larger story, as when an intensely unhappy maid burns herself to death, setting flowers of fire around the room.) I can’t help but think of Northrop Frye’s discussion of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and his critical category of “anatomy,” with his admonition that one must be careful not to dismiss romances, confessions, and anatomies because they do not “fit” one’s mental categories of genre.
Did I say that the book is beautiful?
It is beautiful.
MORAL OF THE TALE IN THE MANNER OF DR. HOFFMAN'S STRUWWELPETER
. . .
Buy this book, dear reader please*
Or we'll come and crack your knees,
Bite your ears and pull your socks,
Pelt your head and give you knocks.
. . .
* No kidding, buy the book: You might make little difference to a bestseller, but when you buy a book from a mid-list writer, you are setting down a vote of confidence and interest that will matter to the publisher.
P. S. I suppose that, not being a proper reviewer in this context, I don't have to be entirely proper. But I'll be proper anyway and say that I 'know' Clare via her blog, The Keeper of the Snails, and email. Since I was drawn to her because of books, I would say that the link is a recommendation rather than a disqualification. You can say what you like, of course: go to!
Illustrations include illustrations from Dr. Hoffman’s Struwwelpeter and one of the cover illustrations for 98 Reasons for Being.
Blogging resolutions for 2007
1. Talk about invisible or semi-invisible books that are worth the “seeing.” (See the start, above.)
2. Learn to post with haste.
3. Discuss or interview some younger writers who are scrambling up toward book publication.
4. Interview a few of the more curious people who pop up on the blog…