The Stranger’s Child

Robert Frost once noted – “…my poems – I should suppose everybody’s poems – are all set to trip the reader…”  The meaning of poetry may depend more on the reader than the writer.  Allan Hollinghurst uses that construct to create a family saga about a poet in The Stranger’s Child.

Hollinghurst’s long detailed story starts in Britain before  the first World War and continues to present day.  The language and thematic undercurrents reminded me of studying the British novel of manners as an undergraduate – appreciating the references to Evelyn Waugh but also cringing at the slow-paced unraveling.  Hollinghurst beautifully sets the scene with an aristocratic young man, Cecil, visiting his schoolmate’s family home at Two Acres – a comfortable but not wealthy estate.  Cecil and George are secret lovers – quietly revealed through a dinner and subsequent scene in a hammock, but, it seems, no one in the family knows or suspects – including George’s younger sister Daphne.  Cecil nurtures the young girl’s crush and leaves a poem in her journal.

Later, when Cecil dies in the war, his poem becomes famous – much like Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier.”  Only after the narrative jumps to modern times with a biographer investigating Cecil’s life, is the truth of the poem – written to George, not Daphne –  revealed.   The reader will find clues throughout, but Hollinghurst neatly wraps up the drama in the last chapter – revisiting Daphne’s marriages and dalliances, and, finally, Cecil’s bisexuality.

The book is a slow read – overdone with allusions, literary references, and pithy characters with a proper veneer.  It’s easy to get lost in the language and lose track of the real story; if you are looking for a strong plot with a satisfying resolution – you will not find it here.   The theme is reminiscent of a McEwan novel – though much longer – nothing is as it seems, and in the end, people will believe what they will – no matter what the evidence.

Hollinghurst has been compared to Henry James, with a “stylistic antiquarian style,” or maybe a poet writing in prose.  James Wood offers a thorough analysis and his thoughts on both the author and his books in The New Yorker.

Read Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” – here

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The Art of Fielding

You don’t have to live and breathe baseball to be a fan of Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. You might better appreciate some of the references that Harbach uses, but the nuances are only an excuse to draw you into the game – of life, not baseball.

Henry is small but a talented seventeen year old shortstop from South Dakota, dedicated to his game, and hoping to make it to professional status with the St. Louis Cardinals. Mike Schwartz, a sophomore at a small prestigious Michigan college and catcher for the school’s baseball team, recognizes Henry’s talent when he sees him playing a high school game, and Henry’s path to glory begins.  Schwartz convinces the college to give Henry a scholarship and mentors him into a career that eventually attracts the pro scouts. At the game that has Henry tieing the record of his baseball hero, fictitious Hall of Fame shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez (possibly a reference to Venezuelan Luis Aparicio), the ball deflects off his mitt into the face of his fellow teammate, Owen – sending Owen to the hospital.  And the real game begins.

Baseball ties the characters together as the story follows the team to the final championship.  Harbach compares Henry to Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, but when Henry begins to think too much about catching and throwing the ball, his dazzling career seems to be over.

Harbach creates characters that are destined for success, yet they never seem to grab that brass ring.  Each has a story of amazing luck and talent, with Henry as the focal point.  Schwartz, the captain of both the football and baseball teams, the catalyst for team spirit and pseudo-father to his buddies, is unable to envision life after college sports. The college President, Guert Affenlight, a former Harvard English professor, struggles with his closeted homosexuality and his estranged relationship with his daughter.  Owen, known as Buddha to his teammates, is Henry’s gay roommate and Affenlight’s lover.  As he offers wisdom and a conscience to others, he remains detached from participation.  Pella, the President’s daughter, who dropped out of high school a few credits short of graduating to elope with an older man, has returned to live with her father and begin again.

If you know baseball quirks, you will recognize the familiar superstitious rituals – growing a beard, tieing and retieing shoelaces, kicking a spot on the instep – but Harbach also uses literary references to foreshadow some of the action as well as confirm the characters’ state of mind: Henry’s obsession with Aparicio’s guidebook – a list of ambiguous entries on improving life through baseball; President Guert’s dream of a Franzen-like solitary cabin with no distractions for writing his next book; Pella’s dropping her book by Murakami on the soccer field.  Melville’s Moby Dick works as a pervasive and foreboding harbinger in the story.  As an undergraduate at Westish College, Guert uncovered original note pages written by the famous author.  The discovery eventually changes the direction of Guert’s life, and becomes an excuse for the college’s mascot – the team is named the Harpooners and Melville’s thoughtful statue overlooks the lake.

The book ends a few times  – with the resolution of the final game, the convenient exit of Guert’s embarrassment, Pella’s tribute to her father –  Harbach is determined to tie all the loose strings and foretell the characters’ futures, and you will be glad he did.  And Henry shows he still has “the stuff” in the end.

Like a baseball game, The Art of Fielding has unpredictable moments, and I came away with a satisfied and hopeful feeling.

“Poets are like baseball pitchers.  Both have their moments.  The intervals are the tough things.”             Robert Frost

Final Jeopardy Answer

The game show Jeopardy gave a nod to Poetry Month yesterday with its final Jeopardy question:

Who said, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation?”

Answer: Robert Frost

In his 1931 essay “Education by Poetry” – delivered at Amherst College – Frost wrote:

Then there is a literary belief.  Every time a poem is written, every time a short story is written, it is written not by cunning, but by belief.  The beauty, the something, the little charm of the thing to be, is more felt than known.

Rather than dissecting a poem, Frost would have you find its meaning in yourself.

William Wordsworth’s birthday was yesterday (April 7th).  Here’s one of his shorter poems – what does it mean to you?  It reminds me that Earth Day is coming.

The World Is Too Much With Us

The world is too much with us: late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.–Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

 

Liu’s book includes Wordsworth’s poems about nature, among them “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud” and “It’s a Beauteous Evening, Calm and Free” – with illustrated scenes by James Muir to complement the poetry.