The best books on the mind at play

Norman Lock Author Of American Follies
By Norman Lock

Who am I?

I have written stage and radio plays, poetry, short story collections, and, beginning in 2013, novels that comprise The American Novels series, published by Bellevue Literary Press. Unlike historical fiction, these works reimagine the American past to account for faults that persist to the present day: the wish to dominate and annex, the will to succeed in every department of life regardless of cost, and the stain of injustice and intolerance. In order to escape the gravity of an authorial self, I address present dangers and follies through the lens of our nineteenth-century literature and in a narrative voice quite different from my own.

I wrote...

American Follies

By Norman Lock,

Book cover of American Follies

What is my book about?

Narrator Ellen Finch recalls, from the vantage of twenty years after the madness of 1884, her months spent as a stenographer-typist for Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, the most powerful voices in America’s Woman Suffrage Movement, as well as her friendship with the diminutive Margaret Hardesty, one of P. T. Barnum’s “eccentrics.” In a delirium resulting from a postpartum infection, Ellen imagines that she, Margaret, and the two suffragists travel aboard Barnum’s train from New York City to Memphis to rescue her infant son, whom the Klan abducted and intends to sacrifice as the product of free love and miscegenation – or so it appears in the complex delusion in which the novel unfolds. In its review, The Washington Post called American Follies “provocative, funny, and sobering.” (Published in 2020 by Bellevue Literary Press.) 

The books I picked & why

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Madame Bovary: Provincial Lives

By Gustave Flaubert, Geoffrey Wall (translator),

Book cover of Madame Bovary: Provincial Lives

Why this book?

How very terrible is the overmastering desire that torments Madame Bovary! How large is our sympathy and, at the same time, our disgust for this woman of the provinces who, longing for the gay life of a Parisian, as it was in the first half of the nineteenth century, betrayed everyone she knew, including her doltish, if devoted husband, Charles, a country doctor. Fifty-five years have passed since my first acquaintance with Gustave Flaubert’s 1856 masterwork of psychological and sociological realism, a work that does not pass judgment on human folly but only presents it, although the absurdities of society and the pretentiousness of certain egotists are skewered by the author’s satiric ferocity.

In 1967, I was unprepared by life to receive Flaubert’s insights, rendered in the subtlest of prose, in, arguably, the first example of literacy realism. Do you hunger to read gorgeous language and enjoy a reader’s sensual pleasure? Do you wish, at whatever age you are now, to begin to understand the human heart? (It can never be fully comprehended, only felt.) Read Madame Bovary in the Lydia Davis translation, and prepare to be astonished.

Night Train

By A L Snijders, Lydia Davis (translator),

Book cover of Night Train

Why this book?

Impulse and happenstance set the syllabus of my reading, and so it was that, shortly after reading Lydia Davis’s Madame Bovary, I chanced to see a notice for her rendering into English, from the Dutch, a selection of the very short stories written by the late A. L. Snijders. He wrote plainly, eschewing elegance and complications of form and syntax in favor of simple sentences that laid out, in workmanlike prose, his casual, wry observations of, and on, his fellow Dutchmen, Dutch women, and also Dutch animals, of whom he was fond. Here is no Modernist heroic ambition, no Postmodernist archness, no posturing, or overbearing intellectual or moral superiority. He wrote thousands of his peculiar miniatures, we are told by Davis in her foreword on the writer and on the problems of translation in general.

Those she chose for Night Train rise above anecdote or sketch, despite their Dutch topicality, to achieve a vernacular universality. The movement inside his stories is often a meandering one, feeling accidental, like the habit of thought itself, initiated by whatever he happened to be observing at the moment of composition. (Reading, I don’t know if I am in the presence of metaphor or if the entire book may not be a metaphor for an elusive whole called life. I suspect that, like William Carlos Williams, he would insist on “no ideas but in things.”) Snijders doesn’t raise his voice. He is talking to himself, after all, and, to his readers, mostly about his small universe: his house in the country, a handful of friends, his domestic familiars, dogs, chickens, cats, and the unrepentant fox who comes and goes from the woods “just beyond.” (Yet a sudden enlargement of circumference will make us say, “Ah, it’s the larger world after all!”) 

Break It Down

By Lydia Davis,

Book cover of Break It Down

Why this book?

It’s time I was reading Lydia Davis’s own stories, I tell myself, which are said to be remarkable, and I find that they are just that. She is nothing new to readers of serious literary fiction, having been writing her curious short stories since the late seventies. Her constructions are precise and elegant. Although plainspoken, her language is stylized and restrained in its effects. She is very much in control of her fictional creations. In some instances, they seem like exercises in logic, however Kafkaesque. Unlike Snijders’ stories, hers are more formal in tone and presentation. They have a satisfying shape and a sense of an ending that is not arbitrary.

Davis’s theater is that of consciousness. Personages in her small dramas of “the mind working” are exceptionally alert, sometimes painfully so; often they have trouble falling asleep. Their dreams have the solidity of objects. Dither and nervousness characterize her world, which reminds me of Russell Edson’s, a poet whom she readily admits as having been an influence on her radical redefining of the short story. Her pieces can be read as glosses on modern life, which is shown to be in a constant state of dread and waiting. Her characters are perplexed, distracted, and dissatisfied with how their lives have been arranged. In writing as she does, I am all the more amazed by her translation of Flaubert’s highly wrought surfaces. 

A Frozen Woman

By Annie Ernaux, Linda Coverdale (translator),

Book cover of A Frozen Woman

Why this book?

Why does an intelligent young woman who is ambitious to occupy a place of her own in the world collaborate with men, in this instance, a husband, in constructing a life that is “perfectly organized unto death?” The story, you say, is a familiar one. What makes Ernaux’s different and painful to read is her narrator’s awareness of her gradual surrender (that of Ernaux herself) to patriarchal expectations, regardless of how strenuously she would deny them, delay their satisfaction, struggle to follow her passion (for teaching and writing), and, in ever-increasing panic, remind herself that even Virginia Woolf baked pies. By what deception does she come to accept that her existence is a purposeful one, knowing that it has been arranged by others?

This abnegation to the reductive role of womb and breast is all the stranger in this book (part novel, part memoir, part sociological study) because only in those roles can she escape, now and then, into her own thoughts, independent of the urgencies of her husband’s career, which is the means of their common survival. To read French feminist author Annie Ernaux’s A Frozen Woman is to be present at the autopsy of a woman who assists in the suicide of selfhood, as dismaying for her as her first menstruation. (Autopsy is inaccurate – say, instead, “vivisection,” since the narrating consciousness is, at the end of this chilling work, “Just on the verge, just” of disappearing.) Annie Ernaux’s talent and courage allow her to confront her betrayal of the person she imagined for herself, related by the author in a dispassionate voice and with a prose as unsparing of lard (narrative and emotional) as a surgeon’s knife.  

The Malady of Death

By Marguerite Duras, Barbara Bray (translator),

Book cover of The Malady of Death

Why this book?

I suspect that I was led to take The Malady of Death from my shelf by a subconscious directive. I admit that I am afraid of this book, its relentless probing, afraid I will never understand it however much I struggle. Confounded by it twenty-five years ago, I put it aside until my consciousness could mature. (Ha!) The fault must be mine, since her style, language, and structure are as limpid as Ernaux’s or Davis’s, although Duras’s prose carries a poetical charge deliberately absent in the other two writers. I begin to think that the trouble lies in my sex, that as a man, an Other to women, I can’t possibly know what Duras’s narrator is being made to gradually reveal not with the leer of a striptease artist but with the solemnity of a priestess presiding over ancient feminine mysteries.

Would feminists accuse me of being obtuse and, perhaps misogynistic? Or might it be that the gulf between men and women, between one human and another is so great that we will never see one another truly? Duras gives this to the narrating man to say as he interrogates the unseen and unspeaking man whose malady it is, “Nor will you, or anyone else, ever know how she sees, how she thinks, either of the world or of you, of your body or your mind, or of the malady she says you suffer from. She doesn’t know herself. . . . She is incapable of knowing.”

The man is easier for me to fathom; he is cut off from the source of life and, therefore, suffers the malady of death. He pays this woman to spend several nights with him in the hope that he can learn to love, although he fails. “A dead man’s a strange thing,” says the woman in this erotic novel, if a text so short and dispassionate can be said to be one. What, I wonder, do contemporary feminist writers and theoreticians think of this work, written forty years ago, and of the oeuvre of Marguerite Duras, who gave us The Lover and Hiroshima Mon Amour, among many other frank explorations of women’s sexuality? 

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