What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?
Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.
Wednesday, November 19, 2014
"I slipped into art to escape life..."
Every bibliomaniac can empathize with Aaliya, the narrator of Rabih Alameddine's eloquent and simply un-put-downable novel, in her approach to literature. We may not have lived our lives in Beirut in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, dealing with everything from the civil war to overly-curious neighbors. We may not have to deal with accidentally dyeing our hair blue, or deciding which classic work of literature we will translate into Arabic. But in our own ways we have all "slipped off into art to escape life"; we have all "sneaked off into literature" at one point or another.
I read An Unnecessary Woman very early in the new year and am coming back to it today because tonight it will be announced whether it will win this year's National Book Award. I hope it will -- it would win my vote -- though I fear it won't. After all, its rivals include two ultra-popular novels, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (lots of fun, but ultimately just a particularly entertaining and creative dystopian rumination about what matters in life, with predictable answers), and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I have to confess that I actually feel slight afraid admitting that I didn't love the latter. Did I admire the careful artistry? Sure, but I was so busy admiring that, I never forgot that I was reading a Work of Impressive Artistic Accomplishment. Which, let's admit it, is the kiss of death for a novel.
Here's why Alameddine's novel trumps both of these, and still -- months later -- is on track to end 2014 as my favorite novel of the year. And no, it has nothing to do with the fact that its heroine, Aaliya Saleh, has her own Twitter feed. It has everything to do with Aaliya herself, however, the "unnecessary woman" of the title, divorced, childless, maintaining at best a tenuous relationship with those around her, including her extended family. (She meets her nephew's children at one point and they have no idea who she is.) She came of age in the Beirut of the 1950s; now, decades later, she is elderly and she to question some of her rituals and established ways of existing -- and the decisions that led her to this point.
When the novel opens, another new year is about to begin, and Aaliya has to decide which great novel she will translate next. It is one of her private rituals; one that is most important to her sense of self. She has worked in a bookstore, keeping it open throughout the worst days of Lebanon's civil war, and it is literature that has kept her going. Her choice of translation project is ritualized: only books written in a language other than English or French (the two lingua francae of Lebanon) qualify; she then relies on both the English and French translations to complete her own undertaking: an Arabic version. When it's complete, the handwritten pages are put into a box, along with the English and French versions, and stored in her apartment, in the bedroom originally reserved for a maid. She has completed 37 such translations -- and nobody else in the world is aware of them. Is it time for 38, or is she now too old?
Other changes, too, may be looming. While Aaliya's literary passions have helped her cope with her lot as a surplus woman, with family turmoil, with war, with the loss of her closest friend, with the isolation -- she hears what each of the women in the apartment building is doing and can identify when one is in the bathroom above her or making dinner -- she now finds reality intruding to an unwelcome extent. Her family suddenly imposes on her. She struggles to decide what to translate next -- would Roberto Bolano be too much of a challenge? Her body isn't cooperating isn't as much as it once did. As she ponders her options, and travels the streets of Beirut, the reader accompanies Aaliya back in time as she reviews her life.
Alameddine handles all of these revelations about Aaliya gradually and almost delicately and the result is a work of great beauty and empathy. It's a pitch-perfect portrayal of an individual's insistence on living according to her own rules and by adhering to her own set of priorities, even in the most impossible circumstances. Aaliya herself is a fascinating and complex character: precisely the kind of person who would have a Twitter account, and who would use it to make scathing comments about the shallowness of much of contemporary literature (a la Peter Stothard?) Did I always "like" her? Nope, but that isn't the issue. She's fascinating, but most importantly, authentic. I'd rather spend a day sitting down and listening to her stories and opinions: she makes the characters in the other two NBA finalists that I've read (the other two, Lila by Marilynne Robinson, and Redeployment, by Phil Klay, I haven't started to read yet) look like milquetoast types in comparison. I fear that may be the reason the book doesn't win: readers (and by extension, judges) like their characters to be a little more, ahem, realateble?)
It isn't that Aaliya isn't, though. She isn't an unreliable narrator, or an unlikable narrator. She is a woman out of place in her era and her geography: someone with intense curiosity and intellectual passion, trapped in Beirut in the midst of a civil war, and belonging to a middle class family that values women as wives and mothers, nothing else. She stares these uncomfortable truths right in the face, and finds a way to live with them. She is devoid of sentimentality -- she even despises the too-easy epiphanies in today's "literature lite". Aaliya makes her choices, and lives with the consequences.
Oh, and did I mention that I loved the writing. Well, there's that, too.
I've read a lot of novels this year. And we've finally reached the part of 2014, when everyone is making their lists -- you know, those "best of" tabulations. And while I still have three or four candidates vying for the top spot in the non-fiction category, it's hard for me to look back and say that a single book has beaten this one out. Hans Fallada's Every Man Dies Alone came close, but I look at that as an older book that I'm only just discovering, rather than a "best book of 2014". And it would take something pretty damn unique to dethrone Aaliya at this point.