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Reflections on John Miller’s “Wild and Beautiful is the Night”

It is said that as authors of fiction, we write what we know and we make things up.

The “what we know” part is often people or events or emotional experiences drawn from our own life.

The “make things up” part is the creation of characters and storylines in our imagination.

There’s a third source for our stories: stuff that we don’t “know” initially but that we learn through research. Sometimes that research is done in libraries or online, sometimes by immersing ourselves in an unfamiliar context, sometimes by interviewing or shadowing a person whose life or work we need to become familiar with in order to depict a similar character authentically.

John Miller did difficult research for his new novel, Wild and Beautiful is the Night. He interviewed in depth a friend and former colleague whose struggles with drug addiction and whose years as a sex worker provided graphic details of her day-to-day life and windows into the psychological terrain of her interior life. Because she was a friend, Miller didn’t have the emotional distance that he would have had if he were interviewing a stranger. He had the challenge of listening intensely to capture the detail and nuance that he needed for his writing while at the same time being drawn through the gut-wrenching pain that this friend was describing to him.

There was a further level of complexity to his research: he struggled with the ethics of a) asking his friend to grant him interviews as she was going through a particularly crisis-ridden period and b) whether compensating her financially ameliorated or exacerbated his use/exploitation of her hardships for his literary purposes. After his novel was published, John wrote about these ethical dilemmas in an article “A delicate question: How far will writers go for our craft – and at what cost?” published in the Globe and Mail.

When we write fiction, we are never in the exclusive realm of drawing on only one of these three sources. Because our brains are such integrative mechanisms, we are always, in varying proportions depending on the nature of the project, writing through the filter of our own life and perceptions, fashioning the sentences and storylines with the creative juices of our imaginations, and using material that we have gathered from outside.

Such was the case with Miller as he crafted Wild and Beautiful is the Night. He was writing out of the framework of his own life experience much of which has been spent in professional and volunteer capacities empowering vulnerable individuals and families living on the margins and helping to create more supportive and equitable social systems. He was grounding much of the substance of his story in the world that had been opened to him through the interviews with his friend. But Wild and Beautiful is the Night is not a biography of his friend. It is a fictional novel and, as such, truly a product of his imagination.

Given all of the above, I understood that Miller would be deeply and personally invested in the writing of Wild and Beautiful is the Night. But what was intellectually understandable became viscerally experienced when I immersed myself as reader in the book. It was as if some energy vortex had drawn me into the mind and the heart of John Miller and I was living this story through his being. His grounding as a person of great empathy and social commitment pervades the writing. The graphic detail of the world his characters Paulette and Danni inhabit and the portrayal of their physical and emotional struggles for survival come across as so immediate it is as if I were Miller himself sitting in the coffee shop listening to his friend recounting her experiences. But his personal orientation and the interviewing research do not ensure an engagingly written story. It is Miller’s creative imagination that has made Wild and Beautiful is the Night one of those books that will live with me for a long time with characters that vibrate off the page, conflicts that had me on the edge of my seat, and heart-breaking twists and turns that are depicted with such clear-eyed and unsentimental poignancy that I could feel Miller’s ethical dilemmas roiling around in his heart and mind as he tried to do justice simultaneously to his craft as an artist and his commitment to his friend’s legacy.

Wild and Beautiful is the Night is a masterful piece of writing.

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Information on John Miller’s Wild and Beautiful is the Night and his previous novels The Featherbed and A Sharp Intake of Breath is available on his website at: https://johnmiller.ca

Information on my collection of gay literary short stories Book Tales, my novel In Search of Gilead, and my memoir August Farewell is available on my website at http://www.DavidGHallman.com

Wild and Beautiful is the Night

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Hadrian – the novel by Marguerite Yourcenar and the opera by Rufus Wainwright

Near the beginning of Marguerite Yourcenar’s exquisite novel Memoirs of Hadrian, the aged Emperor writing his memoir observes that:

I was at twenty much what I am today, but not consistently so.

Near the end of the novel, these words are spoken by the dying Emperor:

I sometimes think that through the crevices I see and touch upon the indestructible foundation, the rock eternal. I am what I always was; I am dying without essential change.

Hadrian spent a lifetime seeking to understand the dynamics of the body politic, rising through the ranks of the Roman militia, distinguishing himself in foreign campaigns, being bequeathed the mantel of Emperor by his predecessor Trajan, ushering in an era of stability for the Roman empire, constructing major public works in Rome, Athens, Alexandria, and beyond, executing a few notably savage campaigns, fostering the arts, revitalizing appreciation among his fellow Romans for the riches of the earlier Greek culture, falling deeply in love with young Antinous only to lose him in the murky waters of the Nile, and preparing a succession plan for the youthful Marcus Aurelius to become Emperor after a mentorship by Antoninus Pius.

And yet, with such a full life, he maintained that he was essentially the same person when dying as he had been as a youth.

Is that true of all of us?

Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian is full of life and is full of dying. Much of the novel chronicles the major events of Hadrian’s life with the richness lying in his personal, sociological, political, spiritual, and philosophical reflections on those events. The core of the novel, however, is Hadrian’s relationship with Antinous and his grief at the premature death of his young lover. So death predominates, both that of Antinous and Hadrian’s own anticipated ending. Hadrian grieves profoundly, far more for the former than the latter. Yourcenar’s intense depiction of Hadrian’s mourning resonates authentically with my own:

That death would be in vain if I lacked the courage to look straight at it …

Most historians credit Marguerite Yourcenar with having produced an account of Hadrian’s life that is faithful to the historical record. Memoirs of Hadrian is not written as biography. Rather, as the title suggests, it is an autobiographical narrative written in the first person. First published in French in 1951 with the English translation appearing in 1954, Yourcenar was writing brilliant historical fiction sixty years before Hilary Mantel’s similarly engaging Thomas Cromwell series, Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012). Both writers have the capacity to draw us into the souls of the principal characters living centuries ago enabling us to see their life and times through their eyes.

Singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright was inspired by Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian to compose an opera. Entitled simply Hadrian, it received its world premier in Toronto in the fall of 2018 produced by the Canadian Opera Company. I saw it at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts on October 17th. Like the novel, the core of the opera is the relationship between Hadrian and Antinous and the consequences for Hadrian of his lover’s death. I had a few reservations about the opera and how it was directed but they were minor compared to my enthusiasm for it.

I posted on Facebook that evening:

I’m thoroughly enraptured tonight experiencing Rufus Wainwright’s new opera “Hadrian” with lyrics by Daniel McIvor and directed by Peter Hinton – intense lyricism, lush orchestration, dramatically-drawn characters, powerful singing and acting. Rufus’s inspiration to write the opera was his reading of Marguerite Yourcenar’s novel “The Memoirs of Hadrian” twenty years ago. 

The process of artistic creation fascinates me — how Marguerite Yourcenar was able to bring to life the loving and tragic relationship of Hadrian and Antinous from 1900 years ago in a novel that I luxuriated in reading and how Rufus Wainwright was able to transform the story into dramatic symphonic and operatic music that I relished experiencing on stage.

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For information on my memoir August Farewell, my novel Searching for Gilead, and my collection of gay literary short stories Book Tales, see my website at: http://DavidGHallman.com

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“Call Me by Your Name” – James Ivory’s Exquisite Skill in Adapting the Novel for the Film

The star of the film Call Me by Your Name is screenwriter James Ivory.

Certainly the actors Timothée Chalamet as Elio and Armie Hammer as Oliver deserve a lot of credit as does director Luca Guadagnino who brought their performances to life. But the haunting look in Chalamet’s eyes and the tortured covert courtship dance between him and Hammer is magic wrought by the hand of James Ivory.

Adapting a novel for a film is a complex process. Novels and films are fundamentally different art forms. Adaptation requires an imagination that resonates with the written word and conjures it into visual images. Difficult decisions have to be made about what to keep from the text and what to exorcize. But the biggest challenge is to capture the spirit, the tone, the essential atmospheric core of the book.

I saw the film at its première at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September 2017. I have just now in February 2018 finished reading André Aciman’s novel on which the film is based. It’s as if those five intervening months did not exist. The symbiosis between the book and the movie is so complete for me that I might as well have been reading the book while sitting in the theatre or, conversely, watching the film with the book’s text superimposed on it.

The crazy thing about my experiencing such profound symmetry is that the two are radically different. There are significant characters in the book that never appear in the film. Locations are changed. Whole scenes from the book are cut in the film and a few scenes in the film never occurred in the book. And, perhaps most dramatic of all, the ending is different.

No, that’s the second most dramatic difference. The most dramatic deviation is that the novel is written in the first person. The story is told by Elio. As we are reading the book, we are seeing the action through his eyes. We know what’s going on in his head and his heart because he is telling us. A common device used by screenwriters when translating such a personally narrated novel is to use voice-overs in the film. That sometimes works but it is also, in my opinion, a lazy way out. Much more difficult is what James Ivory has done. The screenplay is so brilliantly crafted that it is as if we are Elio, falling in lust/love with Oliver from the moment that he sees him arrive at the villa, struggling with Elio to decipher whether signs from Oliver are positive or negative, riding Elio’s rollercoaster of emotional responses as the relationship takes on an intimate reality while Oliver’s summer sojourn in Italy draws towards a close. What James Ivory has done in the screenplay is to evoke the atmospheric essence of the novel — the soul of Elio.

James Ivory is 89-years-old. He and Ismail Merchant were romantic life partners and creative professional partners for forty-four years from 1961 until Merchant’s death in 2005. The two of them together with Ruth Prewar Jhabvala in their company Merchant Ivory Productions won awards at the Oscars, BAFTA, Cannes Film Festival, Venice Film Festival, New York Film Critics Circle for films such as A Room with A View, Maurice, Howard’s End, and The Remains of the Day.

I have admired and respected James Ivory’s work for years.

I love his work on Call Me by Your Name.

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For information on my memoir August Farewell, my novel Searching for Gilead, and my collection of gay literary short stories Book Tales, see my website at: http://DavidGHallman.com

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Imagination and Structure in “All the Light We Cannot See” and “Lincoln in the Bardo”

Anthony Doerr and George Saunders are accomplished and celebrated authors. As fiction writers, they work from their own imaginations and seek to provoke the imaginations of their readers. In the case of Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize winning All the Light We Cannot See and Saunders’ Man Booker Prize winning Lincoln in the Bardo, they also researched the historical periods and settings in which they placed their characters and incorporated great detail from that research. We may appropriately label both of these novels as historical fiction.

Combining the historical research with the process and product of their fertile imaginations, they then melded stories into novels with unorthodox narrative structures. They are by far not the first to develop structures for their novels that deviate from the traditional linear and chronological format. Sometimes such experimentation works brilliantly, sometimes not so well.

In any novel, it takes a while for us readers to figure out what’s happening, who the characters are, and how they are interacting. Unorthodox structures can make a novel a particularly challenging read especially in the initial stages. In All the Light We Cannot See, Doerr flips back and forth in time and runs multiple storylines in parallel. In Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders intersperses direct historical quotations with the dialogue of characters and he places the whole novel’s text in stand-alone statements explicitly attributed to specific characters, historic or imagined.

The provocative structure of Lincoln in the Bardo has defeated more than one reader that I know who have given up on the book, finding it just too confusing … and that’s quite apart from the fantastical depiction of purgatory-dwelling spirits interacting with living human beings in the cemetery where Abraham Lincoln comes to mourn the death of his eleven-year-old son Willie.

The lives from childhood to early adulthood of Marie-Laure and Werner are told in alternating chapters in All the Light We Cannot See and it takes a while to figure that out. The challenges for the reader are compounded by many of the fourteen sections of the book each made up of multiple chapters being arranged in non-chronological order: 1944, 1934, 1944, 1940, 1944, 1941, 1944, 1942, 1944, 1944, 1944, 1945, 1974, 2014.

So, Doerr and Saunders are challenging our imagination as readers not only to engage with the characters that they have created but also to do so through complex organizational structures.

Are they successful in challenging us yet keeping us reading until the end?

The more unorthodox of the two was the one to which I responded more enthusiastically. I was totally perplexed initially when I started Lincoln in the Bardo but I was hooked once I figured out what was going on and how the structure and even the page layout contributed to the evolution of the story. Saunders has crafted a story of immense metaphorical complexity and heart-rending poignancy. I loved it.

I appreciate the beauty of the writing in All the Light We Cannot See and the tough yet tender WWII story that Doerr tells. The structure was somewhat problematic for me at the start but I got over that difficulty relatively easily. What I didn’t get was being grabbed in the heart and the intellect. My imagination was provoked but coasted relatively dormant through 530 pages.

I’m glad that I’ve read both of them but it is Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo that I’m raving about to friends.

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For information on Anthony Doerr’s books including All the Light We Cannot See: http://anthonydoerr.com

For information on George Saunders’ books including Lincoln in the Bardohttp://www.georgesaundersbooks.com

For information on my books including my recent collection of gay literary short stories Book Tales: http://DavidGHallman.com

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The Comedian Becomes a Humorist

We know Shawn Hitchins as a comedian. He is now a humorist as well.

With the publication of his A Brief History of Oversharing, Hitchins joins the ranks of those who use humor in writing. He continues to perform stand-up but we don’t have to wait to catch one of his shows to enjoy his wit. We can pick up his book.

Hitchins’ humor is multi-facetted. The unpretentious folksy settings and stories in A Brief History of Oversharing carry some of the same tone as the writings of Mark Twain or Stephen Leacock. But Hitchins goes where Twain and Leacock never ventured: raunchyville. His ribald zingers are akin to Dorothy Parker. Except Hitchins is not acerbic like Parker. He can be cutting but not cruel.

As a writer, he is not only a humorist. He is also a memoirist. The subject of A Brief History of Oversharing is Shawn Hitchins. The book is autobiographical. And this is where his humor becomes really interesting. It is highly self-deprecating. There are many laugh-out-loud moments as Shawn Hitchins describes the wacky crazy life of Shawn Hitchins. We are simultaneously laughing with and at Shawn Hitchins. But we don’t laugh too long or too hard because we sense something beyond the hilarity of the scene. There is an unanticipated poignancy that surfaces frequently in his stories. He is sharing (not oversharing) his vulnerability. There’s not a hint of the maudlin in this. It’s clear-eyed tough writing about the scars as well as the successes.

Because of the nature of my own writing, I’m drawn to memoir. There is a robust literary conversation these days about the genre-bending aspects of contemporary memoir-writing, in particular the convergence of autobiography and fiction in memoirs/novels such as those of Karl Ove Knausgaard or Elena Ferrante. Hitchins similarly combines genres — he has written a memoir that uses humor as its principal narrative vehicle. A Brief History of Oversharing is a memoir and a book of humor rolled into one.

There are so many gems in A Brief History of Oversharing. Just a few of my favourites:

  • “I moved to Toronto and quickly learned that living in the Big Smoke is just like living in a small town. Both are full of gossips, bigots, boozers, sluts, addicts, criminals, and Jesus freaks, except living in the city I’m not related to any of them.”
  • “I was raised with an intense sense of belonging and a blind sense of comfort that I’ve been desperately trying to regain since I lost it.”
  • On the thrill of realizing the against-all-odds triumph of the Ginger Pride March in Edinburgh: “Like a cat darting from a litter box, I duck into an alley and begin to laugh so hard and so deeply that I take my sweater and jam it in my mouth to muffle any sound.”
  • On the death of legendary director George Bloomfield with whom Shawn was a personal assistant: “…for the first time I had to negotiate with grief, trying to rationalize loss as if it were an algebraic equation where the sum of permissible feelings would be derived by the number of dinners at the Bloomfields’ multiplied by the number of hours spent on set.”
  • “A succession of memories played in my head, and like Russian dolls they fit neatly within each other, memories dating from adulthood back to childhood where I questioned why I felt like a witness but never the direct object of happiness.”
  • On trying to masturbate to donate sperm to two lesbian friends: “I reach down and knead my genitals while debating what to think about during the next one to twenty-five minutes.”

A common definition of humorist is an intellectual who uses humor in writing. Hitchins has a basket full of insecurities on display in A Brief History of Oversharing, some blatantly and some inconspicuously. While as a person he is about as far from a traditional intellectual as one could imagine, as a writer he is not. A Brief History of Oversharing is a work of considerable intellectual competence in its conception and in its delivery. He should be proud of what he’s accomplished here.

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For information on A Brief History of Oversharing, see: https://shawnhitchins.com

For information on my writings, see: http://davidghallman.com

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Writers Reading

 

“I take it as an article of faith that novels I have loved will live in me forever.” Pat Conroy, author of My Reading Life (and The Boo, The Water is Wide, Prince of Tides, et al)

“People who write books generally read books, and most books carry with them the traces of some of the hundreds or thousands of books the writer read before attempting the one at hand.” Will Schwalbe, author of Books for Living (and The End of Your Life Book Club, Send)

I love to read books. I love to write books. So I decided to write a book about reading books.” David G. Hallman, author of Book Tales (and August Farewell, Searching for Gilead, et al)

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Philip Roth, one of the most renowned American writers and author of Goodbye Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint, declared in a 2011 interview that, “I don’t read fiction anymore…I wised up.” He apparently prefers history and biography now. But, at least he is still reading.

Virtually every writer that I know, reads, most of us voraciously. It is more than just curiosity about what others are writing, their subject matter, and their style. There is an intellectual stimulation and an emotional nurturing and a spiritual enrichment that we gain by delving into the stories created by others’ imagination and research. But it goes even further. Reading feels as essential for us as food and water. We couldn’t survive without it. And we couldn’t write if we didn’t read.

I’ve read three books recently in which writers talk about the role that reading has played in their lives and about specific books that were particularly important for them: Pat Conroy’s My Reading Life, Will Schwalbe’s Books for Living, and Book Tales by a guy named David G. Hallman.

I take two major insights away from these books, one about life and one about death.

The first lesson is the importance of reading in our lifelong formation as writers and then, by extension, in the creation of our identities as human beings.

Pat Conroy says, “My mother turned me into an insatiable, fanatical reader. It was her gentle urging, her hurt, insistent voice, that led me to discover my identity by taking a working knowledge of the great books with me always…I have tried to read two hundred pages every day of my life since I was a freshman in high school…From the beginning, I wrote to explain my own life to myself…stories are the vessels I use to interpret the world to myself.”

Will Schwalbe puts it, “What follows (in Books for Living) are stories of books I’ve discovered that have helped me and others in ways big and small with some of the specific challenges of living in our modern world, with all its noise and distractions…Many of the books I write about are books I first read when I was young. I’m not just a fifty-something-year-old reader; I’m the reader I was at every age I’ve ever been, with all the books I’ve ever read and all the experiences I’ve ever had constantly shifting and recombining in my brain.”

Rather than quote myself, I’ll quote one of the reviewers: “Book Tales, a collection of short stories by David G. Hallman, explores literature and sexuality as dual forces in the construction of a person’s experience and identity…Often explicitly erotic and always well-written, these stories explore the connection between life and art, from haunted artists to the stories that haunt us…Hallman’s use of books as a recurring theme is always evident…Hallman honors the lives of those who create art as much as the lives of those who consume it. By illuminating the intertwined struggles of sexuality, identity, love, and loss, this collection’s atmospheric style and intimate characterization create seven rich worlds well worth reading to the bittersweet end.”

For Conroy, Schwalbe, and Hallman, reading books has played a key role in how they understand themselves and indeed how they have created themselves from childhood through adulthood. And there are bittersweet ends that they have each experienced in which literature continues to be an active ingredient.

Conroy died of pancreatic cancer on March 4, 2016. My Reading Life was published in 2010. Near the end of the book, he writes, “The subject matter of all writers is the terrible brightness that wards off the ineffable approach of death.”

Schwalbe’s The End of Your Life Book Club is a memoir of his accompaniment of his mother as she dealt with a pancreatic cancer diagnosis and about the books that they read together and discussed during those last eighteen months of her life. In Books for Living, he comments, “During this time we read casually, promiscuously, and whimsically, allowing one book to lead us to another…At times the books gave us something to talk about when we wanted to talk about anything rather than her illness. But they also gave us a way to talk about subjects that were too difficult to address directly. They helped guide and prompt our conversations, so that I could learn as much as I could from my mother while she was still here to teach me.”

I wrote the memoir August Farewell after Bill, my longtime partner, died two weeks after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It is subtitled, The last sixteen days of a thirty-three-year romance. The final chapter in Book Tales is one of the stories with a semi-fictionalized autobiographical component. It concludes, “Patrick lifts himself up out of the chair and goes over to the piano. He runs his fingers lightly over the keyboard. He depresses the keys A-A-A-B flat-F-A, the three first bars of Breathe on Me, Breath of God. And repeats, more softly. He leans over and picks up the ceramic box from the window ledge and returns to his chair. Resting it in his lap, Patrick traces the raised glazing of the fish symbol on the cover. He lifts the lid and stares at the tiny sealed bag of gray dust that he had taken out of the urn before the interment of Evan’s ashes. Poking up ever so slightly from the midst of the ashes is a silver ring. Patrick lifts his right hand to his mouth and rests his lips on its twin on his finger.”

Three writers. Reading and writing. Life, identify, and death.

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For information on Pat Conroy’s My Reading Life, see: http://www.patconroy.com/about.php

For information on Will Schwalbe’s Books for Living, see: http://willschwalbe.com

For information on my Book Tales, see: http://davidghallman.com

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Devastating Beauty and Tragedy: Madeleine Thien’s “Do Not Say We Have Nothing”

Such devastating beauty in the elegant writing, the intermingling of literature and music, the simple poignancy of human connections.

Such devastating tragedy in the violence of repression, the lost opportunities to create, the rupture of relationships.

And the importance of memory, preserving both the beauty and the tragedy.

One of the first things that struck me in reading Madeleine Thien’s “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” was the beautiful writing itself and more specifically her gift for evocative imagery:

  • Their incompatible love made her feel hollow, as if the world had turned out to be flat after all.
  • …it was as if the very air shrouded the buildings in paranoia.
  • …the elongated question mark of his body as he loped down the slippery walks…
  • He leaned toward the child like a comma in a line so that, momentarily, the child, confused, suspended his wailing…
  • The landscape passed in waves of green and yellow as if the country were an endless unharvested sea.

It’s a gift of vision of both the outer eye and the inner eye. Thien draws into her descriptions concepts and pictures from totally different realms offering to us readers a deeper insight into the character and the scene.

There is much beauty in how music and the written word are reflected as two tributaries of the same stream in this novel. They feed into each other becoming something new, and then part and move off on their own though richer now, only to reconnect in a different way later on: Wen the Dreamer’s “Book of Records,” Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” Sparrow’s unfinished “Symphony No. 3,” Prokofiev’s “Violin Concerto No. 1,” the poetry of Li Bai and Wang Wei inspiring Mahler to write his song symphony “Das Lied von der Erde” (The Song of the Earth), and Thien’s literary descriptions of music itself:

  • Yet Zhuli imagined that she could hear her father’s presence in the music just as clearly as if Wen the Dreamer’s name was written on the page.
  • But what was music? Every note could only be understood by its relation to those around it. Merged, they made new sounds, new colours, a new resonance or dissonance, a stability or rupture. Inside the pure tone of C was a ladder of rich overtones as well as the echoes of other Cs, like a man wearing many suits of clothing, or a grandmother carrying all her memories inside her.

Thien beautifully sketches her characters with a fine brush that projects deeply intimate and yet tortured relationships within families including the narrator Li-ling and her mother, Sparrow and his daughter Ai-ming, Sparrow and his cousin Zhuli, Big Ma and her husband Ba Lute, Big Ma and her sister Swirl, and between lovers and would-be lovers especially Sparrow and Jiang Kai. Her writing is so deft that I was never aware of her developing these relationships. I was inside the story from the first page and living with the characters as they tentatively reached out to the other, faltered, fought, touched fingertips, tore up a loved-one’s manuscript, smiled at a sweet gesture and just as quickly averted their eyes.

And then there is the multi-dimensional tragedy in “Do Not Say We Have Nothing”.

I am a fan of historical fiction such as the novels of Hilary Mantel, Jane Urquhart, Viet Thanh Nguyen. I now add Thien to my list. Through the eyes and experiences of her characters, Thien has graphically and gut-wrenchingly recreated the repression, violence, and social upheaval of Mao Zedong’s attempt to reassert his authority over China’s Communist party through what came to be known as the Cultural Revolution from about 1966 to 1976. I am grateful to Thien for bringing alive a dramatic time in history that affected hundreds of millions of people and allowing me to experience it in the first person, so to speak, through her characters. And that experience is devastating with the forced relocations and separations from family, the shaming and torturing of citizens for what was maligned as “decadent” intellectual interests and artistic competence, the suppression of opportunities to create art, the unremitting attempts at brainwashing, the brutal suppression of dissent that Thien describes graphically in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

Sparrow’s inability to compose for such a long period of time during the Cultural Revolution is the most prominent example of the devastating loss that occurs when art that could have been, isn’t. It is not only that he was essentially forbidden to compose. It was devastating because the repressive environment had silenced the music in his soul. Art was suppressed as well through the closing of the universities and the conservatories and the prohibition to perform works that had not been sanctioned. Sparrow reflects at one point on Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony:

  • This is a fragment, he thought, of something that once existed but that no longer grows here, like a corn field cut down…you could close a book and forget about it, knowing it would not lose its contents when you stopped reading, but music wasn’t the same, not for him, it was most alive when it was heard.

The rupturing of relationships is portrayed by Thien in an under-stated style that ramps up the tension and the pathos to an intensity far greater than had she used a vociferous style. The secret long-term connection between Sparrow and Kai is heart-breakingly written:

  • “Sparrow, remember the classics that we memorized? The words are still true. ‘We have no ties of kinship or even provenance, but I am bound to him by ties of sentiment and I share his sorrows and misfortunes.’ We’ve waited our whole lives and now the country is finally opening up. I’ve been thinking…there are ways to begin again. We could leave.”
  • The possibilities before Sparrow, which should have given him joy, instead broke his heart. He was no longer the same person.

Finally, Thien’s novel epitomizes the essentialness of memory and the active commitment to remembering. The “Book of Records,” with its dual literary and musical connotation, forms the core of this process of preserving memory. At the meta level, “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” serves the same function…and does so brilliantly.

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For more information on Madeleine Thien’s “Do Not Say We Have Nothing,” see: http://penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/259732/do-not-say-we-have-nothing#9780345810427

For more information on my books including my recently-published collection of gay literary short stories entitled “Book Tales” see: www.DavidGHallman.com

 

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