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David Leavitt and Meg Wolitzer

Staying at a friend’s place, I saw on the shelf Martin Bauman, a novel by David Leavitt published in 2000 that I’d never heard of. I read it and it was excellent. I’d call it “Jamesian”: I’ve never read anything by Henry James, but the style seems to fit the many descriptions of James that I’ve gathered from literary critics over the years. Comparing to authors I’ve actually read, I’d say that Martin Bauman is similar to The Remains of the Day and other books by Ishiguro: a style that is so simple and open and guileless that it approaches parody. Indeed, The Remains of the Day is clearly parodic, or at least a classic of the “unreliable narrator” genre; Martin Bauman falls just short of this, to the extent that, when I looked up reviews of the book, I found that some labeled the book as satire and others took it straight. I’m not sure what Leavitt was intending, but as a reader I’d prefer to just take the book’s sincerity at face value, with any parodic elements merely representing Levitt’s recognition of life’s absurdities.

In any case, I’m reminded of a couple other authors we’ve been discussing recently. First is Ted Heller / Sam Lipsyte, whose style is in some way the complete opposite of Leavitt’s (straight rather than gay, brash rather than decorous, etc.) but is telling a similar story. An amusing comparison is that Heller/Lipsyte describe male characters in an accurate way, while all the women are pictured through the prism of sexual and social desire. With Leavitt it’s the reverse: the female characters get to be simply human, while the men are viewed through the prism.

The other comparison is to Meg Wolitzer. I’ve read several of her books recently, and she has a style that’s direct and open, similar though not identical to that of Leavitt. I get the impression that Leavitt is a bit more ruthless, willing to let his characters hang in classic British style (e.g., Evelyn Waugh or George Orwell), in contrast to Wolitzer who likes her characters so much that she wants to give them a happy ending. But, still, lots of similarities, not just in biography (the two authors, close to the same age, had literary success while in college and then each wrote a series of what might be called upper-middlebrow novels about families and relationships) but also in style.


  1. Phil says:

    I was about to mock you for not having read _anything_ by Henry James, and then I thought: wait a second, what have _I_ read by Henry James, other than The Turn of the Screw which I read in a literature course and didn’t much enjoy? The answer is Nothing, as far as I recall, and I just looked at his Wikipedia page to see if I might be forgetting something. So, OK, no mocking!

    And why didn’t I read more James? Well, here are two quotes that appear on his Wikipedia page, and that pretty much capture my feelings about the only work of his that I read: Oscar Wilde criticised him for writing “fiction as if it were a painful duty”. Jorge Luis Borges wrote about him, “Despite the scruples and delicate complexities of James, his work suffers from a major defect: the absence of life.”

    So I’m not sure James is who you’re looking for, if you want to praise Bauman (at least to me).

    On the other hand, that Remains of the Day comparison… I really liked Remains of the Day but one could imagine Wilde and Borges making those same exact critiques. It is not a lively book, indeed its lack of liveliness, or perhaps the lack of life in the narrator, is what makes it so poignant. So maybe you’re onto something. That said, whereas with Ishiguro the effect was clearly intentional, I’m not sure that’s true with James.

    Whatever. Since I’m here and we’re talking literature, I’ll add that I am most of the way through Moby Dick, which I ostensibly read about 35 years ago but evidently did not because I don’t remember hardly any of it, and: oh my god this book is hilarious! Intentionally so! Some other friends and acquaintances are reading it at the same time — we are doing a little Moby Dick book club, at least in the sense that we will get together at least once to talk about it after we’re all finished — and we have all been talking about this. To give one of many many examples: “Furthermore, as his windpipe solely opens into the tube of his spouting canal, and as that long canal — like the grand Erie Canal — is furnished with a sort of locks (that open and shut) for the downward retention of air out the upward exclusion of water, therefore the whale has no voice; unless you insult him by saying, that when he so strangely rumbles, he talks through his nose. But then again, what has the whale to say? Seldom have I known any profound being that has anything to say to say to this world, unless forced to stammer out something by way of getting a living.” If Melville were going purely for comedic effect, perhaps he should have stopped at “what has the whale to say?”, but it seems Melville couldn’t resist giving Ishmael a chance to get in a little dig at him (Melville). Anyway, contrary to received ‘wisdom’ Moby Dick is not at all boring and certainly not humorless. Maybe everybody knew this except me and my book club, I dunno.

    • Kyle C says:

      I have read The Ambassadors several times and recommend it to readers of this blog as in part a narrative of Bayesian updating in an unfamiliar social context.

    • Dzhaughn says:

      I ventured, having dabbled lightly–with varied level of pleasure, yet constant difficulty–following a film and opera by Capote and Britten, respectively, in the writings of Henry James, that “so simple and open and guileless” was, approximately, so much the opposite of what my own characterization of the American-born European author’s style would have been, that I was compelled, from that point, to consider Ishiguro, whom I had–without malice–so far neglected.

      Let me plug the wonderful 1961 movie “The Innocents” and then reading Turn of the Screw. Were there really ghosts? What does it mean to say there were not?

    • Andrew says:


      I picked up Moby Dick a few years ago and read the first few chapters. I found the book to be hilarious at a sentence-to-sentence level, but I found it difficult to read at the level of paragraphs or pages or chapters. But it might just take some getting used to. I found George V. Higgins difficult to read too, and then I got used to his style, and now I even enjoy his less tightly-written books.

      • oncodoc says:

        I have read Moby Dick multiple times. Whenever I find myself growing grim around my mouth, whenever it is a dark November in my soul…I sail with Ishmael, Ahab, Starbuck, and Queequeg to search for the white whale, to earn that Spanish ounce of gold. Obviously, I love the book. It is so captivating for me. I know that many don’t share my feelings, and I don’t care.

        • jim says:

          Damn I always loved that line! You convinced me. I’m going to read it again. I liked it a lot up to Cetology – but that was before 10 years of education in geology and paleobiology.

      • jim says:

        “Why, dad whale dead” (Queequeg)

        Thinking about it now, parts of Moby Dick are reminiscent of Cannery Row.

        I got lost in the chapter on cetology 30 years ago, but I think I could swing that now.

      • Phil says:

        When I picked up the book I gave myself permission to skip or skim, but in fact the only place where I was even tempted to do so was in the chapter on whiteness. That chapter is at for anyone who’s interested. But event there, although it did get wearying in spots, and one has to tolerate the line “giving the white man ideal mastership over every dusky tribe”, even that chapter had enough interest for me to keep me going. Like this, for example:

        “I remember the first albatross I ever saw. It was during a prolonged gale, in waters hard upon the Antarctic seas. From my forenoon watch below, I ascended to the overclouded deck; and there, dashed upon the main hatches, I saw a regal, feathery thing of unspotted whiteness, and with a hooked, Roman bill sublime. At intervals, it arched forth its vast archangel wings, as if to embrace some holy ark. Wondrous flutterings and throbbings shook it. Though bodily unharmed, it uttered cries, as some king’s ghost in supernatural distress. Through its inexpressible, strange eyes, methought I peeped to secrets which took hold of God. As Abraham before the angels, I bowed myself; the white thing was so white, its wings so wide, and in those for ever exiled waters, I had lost the miserable warping memories of traditions and of towns. Long I gazed at that prodigy of plumage. I cannot tell, can only hint, the things that darted through me then. But at last I awoke; and turning, asked a sailor what bird was this. A goney, he replied. Goney! never had heard that name before; is it conceivable that this glorious thing is utterly unknown to men ashore! never! But some time after, I learned that goney was some seaman’s name for albatross. So that by no possibility could Coleridge’s wild Rhyme have had aught to do with those mystical impressions which were mine, when I saw that bird upon our deck. For neither had I then read the Rhyme, nor knew the bird to be an albatross. Yet, in saying this, I do but indirectly burnish a little brighter the noble merit of the poem and the poet.”

        I definitely understand how the cetology chapter could be tiresome, indeed it may well be where I more or less aborted my previous reading of the book 35 years ago or so, but this time I found it pretty interesting, perhaps because I’m far more interested in the natural world than most people (and than I was as a young man) — much of my leisure reading consists of books about ecology, animals, etc. — but also I found the writing absolutely wonderful in places. For example, here’s the entirety of the description of the ‘sulphur-bottom whale’, what we call the Blue Whale today (according to Wikipedia), of which very little was known in Melville’s day:

        “Another retiring gentleman, with a brimstone belly, doubtless got by scraping along the Tartarian tiles in some of his profounder divings. He is seldom seen; at least I have never seen him except in the remoter southern seas, and then always at too great a distance to study his countenance. He is never chased; he would run away with rope-walks of line. Prodigies are told of him. Adieu, Sulphur Bottom! I can say nothing more that is true of ye, nor can the oldest Nantucketer.”

        The surprise there, to me, is that there is no mention of the most striking fact about the blue whale: it is absolutely huge. My wife and I kayaked in the Sea of California while a mother and calf fed around and under us, and the mother was gigantic. The maximum confirmed length of a blue whale is ‘only’ about 30 meters, and I assume (just based on the odds) that she wasn’t anywhere near that, so maybe 20 or 25…which doesn’t sound so very huge, but jeez, you see it in person and lordy it’s giant. Sperm whales, whose size Ishmael expounds on many times, are much smaller, so it’s odd that the size isn’t mentioned in the description of the ‘sulphur-bottom whale’ in Moby Dick. Perhaps he didn’t want to diminish the Sperm Whale by comparison. At any rate, I do love the description. The first sentence wasn’t ideal for me because I did not know what “Tartarian” meant and did not pause to look it up — it means “intentionally veiling one’s own discoveries, inventions, creations, etc., in order to remain unknown, anonymous, or obscure” or at least that’s what it means now — but other than that sentence every sentence seems perfect. “Run away with rope-walks of line”, that is so much better, in the context of whaling, than simply saying he dives deep. (I already knew what a rope-walk is). And those last three sentences…so perfect.

        My advice for reading the book: skim, don’t skip, and if in your skimming you come across a phrase that strikes you, or an arresting image, stop and read the whole paragraph, and then start the next one. You might find that you end up reading every word.

        • jim says:

          I dig everything about the natural world but for me most books on nature are just flat out lame. Too much contemplation.

          There are however a few excellent books. Bernd Heinrich’s “Winter World” and “Summer World” are must reads for any outdoorsmen, as are Tom Brown’s books on tracking (all are good but the first one is the best). And if you kayaked in the Gulf, if you haven’t already you must read Steinbeck’s “Log from the Sea of Cortez” (non fiction). And if you’re a fan of the intertidal you gotta get the book by Steinbeck’s good friend and companion from “Log,” Ed Ricketts’ “Between Pacific Tides”.

          • Phil says:

            Thanks Jim! I have read the Steinbeck, just before the trip I mentioned! That was more than twenty years ago though..boy, where does the time go? I have not read Between Pacific Tides, but now I will.

            I liked Heinrich’s The Mind of the Raven, and Winter World. Haven’t read Summer World.

            Running through a few books that come to mind: What the Robin Knows was a good quick read. H is for Hawk is good, although not as good as I expected based on rave reviews I read. The Hidden Life of Trees is very good, as is The Botany of Desire. Eye of the Albatross is fantastic. The Wild Trees is a bit frustrating but really good. The Mortal Sea (about overfishing in the northern Atlantic) is really informative and is largely the reason I only eat fish about once a month now. Cod (by Kurlansky) as another excellent book. Man, I could go on and on. Haven’t even mentioned the classics: Sand County Almanac, lots of John McPhee…there’s lots of good stuff out there. Oh wait, I forgot my very favorite: How Animals Work, by Knut Schmidt-Nielsen; I have tried to model my professional writing on this book.

            The funny thing is, I wouldn’t say any of those are ‘contemplative’, except parts of Sand County Almanac I guess. What the Robin Knows _recommends_ sitting in quiet contemplation, but the book itself is not contemplative. I’m struggling to think of any nature book I’ve read that fits that description, even the ones I don’t like. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, maybe; I liked it OK, but I could see how someone could find it too slow-moving. But hey, it’s about a snail, whaddya want?

            Maybe I’ll blog a list sometime soon, and invite people to comment or to add their own.

            • jim says:

              Phil, hey cool, yeah do blog a list! There are a few more I could add but I’d have to dig around.

              Yeah, several of Kurlansky’s books are pretty good. I like his weaving of natural and human history together. I listened to The Wild Trees on CD and I loved that, great narration. Ha, funny I’m geologist but I never really liked McPhee’s books. I don’t know if it’s “contemplative” so much as it is too much description. That’s why I like Bernd Heinrich’s books: he’s always investigating, putting things together, not just staring at things.

              “How Animals Work” sounds really appealing to me.

              Yeah, definitely blog a list, that would be great.


    • steven t johnson says:

      Haven’t been able to read James’ late novels, which so far have felt like painful duty. But those are merely what the literary people talk about. The short stories and novellas are quite striking. The Turn of the Screw is barely tolerated, but apparently can’t quite be ignored because it’s so popular. But the story about the would-be writer who dutifully sacrifices his life to the cause of Art to see his Master get married (for money?) was quite droll. The story about the wealthy couple who couldn’t get jobs as servants because essentially they didn’t seem high-class enough, ditto. There’s a reason why the BBC did adaptations of The Americans or The Spoils of Poynton. The Jolly Corner or The Beast in the Jungle are not painful to read, not for me. If you read between the lines, What Maisie Knew or The Pupil are penetrating enough to be disturbing. To be honest, Oscar Wilde seems more like jealous, plus disinclined to be a friend of both James and Bosie.

      The Borges comment made me try to remember the “life” in The Library of Babel, or a number of other stories. “Life” is generally regarded as some sort of realism or plausibility or maybe a programmatic commitment to portraying society (or maybe sex lives.) I loved many Borges stories but I never thought they were about depicting “life.”

      • Phil says:

        I interpret the Borges comment to refer to the absence of liveliness and spirit, rather than the absence of realism. I felt that way about The Turn of the Screw, but maybe I should give it another try: I didn’t enjoy it when I read it in college, but maybe I would now. After all, I didn’t enjoy Moby Dick back then either, and now I’m loving it.

        • steven t johnson says:

          You may be right. I’m not quite sure that Borges’ dead pan literary comedy is really everybody’s notion of liveliness, as opposed to bookishness. But then, I found early and middle James’ style to be so lively that even a preposterous story and unlikely theme as found in The Princess Casamassima was quite readable.

          As to The Turn of the Screw, perhaps I should spoil you: The issue about whether the children see the ghost is whether Quint has sexually corrupted the children. Sort of like the coded reading of Oliver Twist, where Fagin probably was not executed for running a pickpocketing ring.

  2. Dr. Federico Baskerville-Wright says:

    It’s interesting to hear what literature (= fiction and semi-fiction) books non-literature people like or don’t. It would also be interesting (or more so) to hear what books they liked that they shouldn’t (according to the experts, or that the experts say are bad or whatnot); or didn’t/don’t like although they should (= that the critics praise). Or that they liked before but don’t now, or vice-versa. Even more so if they can provide reasons. Even more so, if the readers’ academic or professional background (if any) is provided.

  3. steven t johnson says:

    Is a gay style the male gaze misdirected?

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