Somewhat of a Review: Daniel Mendelsohn’s THREE RINGS: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate

Three_RingsIn “Little Gidding,” T. S. Eliot wrote: “We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.” In Daniel Mendelsohn’s Three Rings, based on lectures he gave at the University of Virginia in 2019, the eponymous “rings” refer to the narrative construction of Homer’s Odyssey, as Mendelsohn defines and understands it, and to both the construction of his narrative and the pattern that helped him escape from a stasis in his life’s journey.

When the narrative opens, Mendelsohn tells us he was in a state of what the Greeks called “aporia,” (a kind of, from my weak demotic Greek, “unknowingness”), “a helpless, immobilized confusion, a lack of resources to find one’s way out of a problem … I was, in the Greek way of thinking, pathless — the adjective, as it happens, that, in the Odyssey, is used to describe the sea, the terrifying blank nothingness from which Odysseus must extricate himself, literally and figuratively, in order to claim his identity and find his way home”.

After writing two “big” books (one a years-long attempt to uncover how six family members were lost in the Holocaust; the other recounting his teaching of Homer’s Odyssey and relationship with his father, a text and story inundated with fathers, sons, and occurrences of separation and connection) and enduring his father’s loss, being emotional journeys as much as intellectual ones, Mendelsohn found himself, like Dante at the opening of “Inferno”: “Midway upon the journey of our life/I found myself within a forest dark,/For the straightforward pathway had been lost.” Mendelsohn then tells the story of three men, emblematic of the central figure of our time and place, the wanderer, the exile, the DP, Berger’s “seventh man,”: first, Erich Auerbach, author of Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature; then, an eighteenth-century French archbishop, François Fénelon, author of The Adventures of Telemachus (a telling that centres the Homeric narrative on fils over père); and, lastly, W. G. Sebald, the German writer who lived in East Anglia, and wrote strange hybrid tales of memory, history, haunting photography, and journey-logues. Continue reading

Samantha Harvey’s THE SHAPELESS UNEASE: A Year of Not Sleeping

The_Shapeless_UneaseMy sole response to reaching the end of Samantha Harvey’s The Shapeless Unease was gratitude, not to Harvey, but to reaching the end and not giving up. It was a long, difficult slog, but I made it, sheer stubbornness propelling me forward to its vague conclusion. It’s not a terrible book, not by litfic, and not memfic, standards: it has the requisite lyrical prose, occasional, brilliant insight, only to lapse into lyrical existential-babble that hopes to dissolve the self, or digressive, tangential passages, never coming together with what came before, or what comes after.

Initially, I was drawn to the topic, but driven away by the style. As someone who has experienced bouts of insomnia, one in particular, I’d say, debilitating, and is an obsessive lover of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the greatest account of insomnias ever written, I wanted to read Harvey’s memoir. It started out great: Harvey, a regular sleeper pre-year-of-not-sleeping, recounts the incident at the heart of her not-sleeping: her cousin’s death. My understanding, and who knows, given the impenetrable style, I may be wrong, is that Harvey’s insomnia is linked to an existential dread of death, triggered by her cousin’s loss: “my cousin’s death has invited all deaths”. Continue reading

Vivian Gornick’s FIERCE ATTACHMENTS and “Urban Peasants”

Fierce_AttachmentsVivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments, I hoped, when I picked it up, would be a “fierce” rallying cry for the feral spinster. But Gornick disappointed me: there she is, growing up in a Jewish-American working-class Bronx, one generation ahead of me, writing about the “making of” a feral spinster and certainly no celebration of it. Primarily, Gornick’s memoir recounts the antagonistically loving relationship she had with her mother and another woman in their shared building, Nettie, who served as her mother’s alternative “voice”, to Gornick reaching her true calling, the life of the solitary. It is neither celebration, nor fulfillment, nor acceptance, but there are glimmers of what will come to mean most to her. I read Fierce Attachments‘s first two-thirds desultorily, wanting so much to like, but hating every moment of it. At a mere 200 or so pages, I persisted and ended up, in the final third, devouring it in one sitting and loving every page. My notes and mark-ups and solitary-reading-couch chuckles resonated through my solitary apartment. 
Continue reading

Miss Bates’s Favourite Books: 2017 Edition

Pretty_FaceAnother year of reading and reviewing for Miss Bates, a strange, difficult one, the reading sparse and hesitant at times. Personal and world affairs often took precedence over quiet evenings of reading and certainly less blog writing, reading, and commenting. Those books that took Miss Bates out of the daily eddies were all the more precious. She reminds herself and readers that the act of reading books that posit human love and justice are bright lights in times of darkness. As MBRR enters its fifth year, Miss Bates thanks her readers for visiting Miss Bates Reads Romance so faithfully. She also thanks the writers who pen their books and offer us respite, pleasure, and food for thought. She wishes fellow readers and writers a new year filled with possibility, inspiration, peace, hope, and love. Continue reading