Jerusalem Co-Review

[This post originally appeared on Hazel & Wren as the start of a planned year-long review done with author Joshua Johnson. This is the only part that appeared.]

One of Hazel & Wren’s New Year resolutions is to find new ways to engage with and review books. You’ve already seen our review roundups, and here’s another grand experiment: a yearlong, co-reviewed readalong of Alan Moore’s newest novel, Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is 1,200 pages of magical realism, historical fiction, and experimental prose about Northampton, England. Each month, we’ll read approximately 100 pages and post a short roundtable discussion. And the coolest part? You can read along and join the discussion! Let’s pick this beast of a book apart.

This month, Josh and Aaron will be discussing the first 97 pages. With 1,100 pages to go, there’s still time for you to grab a copy and join in.

Aaron: A majority of the first 100 pages is about members of the Vernall family across generations. One restores church frescoes in the late 19th century. Others paint and dream in the modern day. All of them suffer from mental illness.

First of all, it feels like this is going to be a book about perspective. Alma’s opening scene is about architecture and angles, and she thinks about the family madness in metaphor, pondering those ancestors who’ve gone round the turn, the bend, the twist, effectively disappearing from view. Mental illness makes someone invisible, no longer able to be perceived in traditional ways.

Josh: It’s a curious way to start a book, right? It at once lets us know the scope of this thing he’s given us, the truly omniscient attempts at narration. It’s as though Moore wants to be clear with us right from the get-go: this book will shy away from no consideration of place, person, or perspective, so buckle up. It reminds me of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books wherein Peake is happy—thrilled, even—to spend huge amounts of time widening his perspectival scope, not for considerations of plot or even character but because of his fidelity to truth, as though you can only really understand a person in a place by totally and completely seeing/understanding the place itself. This seems to be a touch of what Moore is after here right from the start.

A: The Gormenghast reference is a perfect one! I loved how inseparable Peake’s prose was—labyrinthine, precarious, and unexpected—from the shape of Gormenghast Castle. It forced the reader to experience from the perspective of the characters.

And speaking of characters’ perspectives, when Ginger Vernall is raised up to paint a chapel ceiling, he has the pleasure of looking down on two monks coming around a corner at the same time. Ginger knows beforehand that they’re going to collide before it happens; in the right conditions, perspective can be the same thing as precognition.

Are the strange visions the characters suffer also a consequence of a changed perspective? And does that perspective shift come from their mental illness, or does the madness come from a changed perspective? Or it something more magical, more science-fictional? Are there actual angels and demons who are viewing us from a higher dimension and thus appear to teleport or extrude themselves into our world in weird ways a la Flatland?

(diagram from Flatland)

J: I’ve been wondering some of this same stuff, too! The supernatural, such as it is, walks a really thin line here, I think. The elision of madness and magic is well-trod territory and can verge on offensive when romanticized, but Moore seems really interested in showing both sides of that line: the beauty and wonder of seeing angels building in the middle of the night juxtaposed with lives and bodies and minds broken, seemingly irreparably.

I’m curious to read more and see how the book continues to make use of the supernatural forces here that seem to be flittering around the edges of things, coming forward at moments and hanging back at others.

A: Taking a turn from the supernatural to the realistic: Jerusalem also feels like a book about the working class. Moore’s Northampton is poor and dirty, full of damaged infrastructure , subsidized housing, and CCTV cameras. Food is scarce in Ginger’s time, and pubs are empty in the present day. No one has money to spend, but they work all the time. With so many novels about writers, professors, and other white-collar workers, it’s nice to read something about the blue collars.

J: Yes! I was thinking this same thing. I’m fascinated by the way Moore navigates space in this book; it feels very Dickensian to me. Class (and specifically the working class) seems to somehow thrive in these tight, sometimes-grubby, carefully described, much loved spaces, especially since most of the spaces in this book become defined by their workability. Even the sense of beauty Moore finds in this place is often wrapped up in industrialization of some sort.

“A fat pearl cylinder of failing daylight coloured by the worsening storm outside dropped from the windows of the Whispering Gallery to the cathedral’s flooring down below, dust lifted by the bustling industry caught up as suspension in its filmy shaft” (50).

A: And being stuck in the working class, being stuck in a dead-end job or with a drug addiction like Marla has in the third section of the book—that’s its own form of perspective limitation. Marla herself hints at it when she’s thinking about her drug addiction:

“Not feeling like a fucking angel on fire, forget that, that’s not going to happen for you anymore, no, no, just feeling like a fucking person like you was again for just ten fucking minutes, that’s your fucking big ambition these days. Heaven, where you went the first time, that’s all shut. The ordinary world you used to be in, that’s shut too, most of the time, and you’re stuck somewhere else, somewhere that’s under all of that, like being under fucking ground.”

Marla, as a person of color, a sex worker, and a drug addict, has had her perspective squashed like a Flatlander’s. She can’t see up or down, only looking forward.

J: Your ideas about perspective limitation are really great, and Marla is a great example of this. She has such a complicated relationship with memory—she seems to be a character at once struggling to keep one foot out of the past and the other in her present. I keep thinking of her interaction with that fellow on the street—the one with the big nose who Marla tries to take a run at. I wonder about how that interaction gets narrated, with Marla continuously running into her inability to figure this guy out, getting caught up on his strange speech, unable somehow to extend her perspective deeper into who he might be or what might be going on with him (beyond just calling him “really mental”).

I’m wondering about the place of the reader in this book. At times during these first 100 or so pages, I felt encouraged—even demanded—to pay really close attention to detail in the text. Moore pushes off plot in favor of this encyclopedic lens—every detail, significance thrown out the window, recorded and captured. And so I invest myself where he asks me to, but there are times where I feel a little punished for that investment. I end up overloaded, juggling information (like reading one of the great Russian novels and trying to keep characters straight in your head) that I have no idea how to prioritize. Did you experience anything like that?

A: Not consciously, but now that you brought it up, jeez! So many thoughts.

When I started the book, when I was walking through that first dream world, I definitely considered keeping a list of characters and relationships and terms I didn’t understand—with everything being given that same encyclopedic (great term for it, by the way) weight, I was left without the traditional narrative signals of, “Hey, this thing is important!”

Feeling that way, though, always pulls me in two directions. The first is, “Everything is important and I must keep track of it all.” That was the note-taking instinct…which I ignored, because I’m a terrible student. Instead, I ended up where I always end up—with everything being given the same narrative weight, I felt like it was up to me to choose what was important to me. With everyone in the book walking everywhere (which is probably something I’ll come back to), I get the pleasure of walking along with them, focusing on things that catch my eye and letting my eyes glaze over if they need to. But maybe I’m just a bad reader. Regardless, it reminded me (probably on purpose) of Mrs Dalloway and Ulysses and all the other British walking-around novels.

Supplemental reading:
Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884) by Edwin Abbott Abbott
Titus Groan (1946), Gormenghast (1950), and Titus Alone (1959) by Mervyn Peake
Mrs Dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf


Hav by Jan Morris (New York Review Books Classics, 2011)

This printing of Hav contains two of Jan Morris’s books, 1985’s Last Letters of Hav and 2005’s Hav of the Myrmidons. Together, they cover both of Morris’s visit to the titular Mediterranean city, a city that transcends its fiction to become real.

Hav is, on Morris’s first visit, a city just like any other: jumbled in geography and history and purpose. The land was originally settled by people known as the Kretev, an indigenous population possibly related to Celtic wanderers, possibly Greek. It was settled and colonized in waves by Greeks, Kurds, Crusaders, Russians, Chinese, a tripartite German/French/Italian force, and British. Modern-day Hav (in 1985, at least) is a mix of all these cultures.

Morris, as a travel writer, approaches the city with an open mind. She wants to know what it means to be Havian—what the Iron Dog statue really portrays, whether Hitler actually visited, where all the Hav bears are hiding out. And she actually finds some answers too: clear answers, obtuse answers, contradictory answers. It’s confusing. Take, for instance, the Iron Dog, a statue at the southern tip of the Havian peninsula:

It was not, when I reached it, how I had foreseen. From a distance, it looks all stark arrogance, its head held so high…but so relentless does it appear, especially in photographs, that some modern scholars have declared it to be not a dog at all, but rather the fox that young Spartans were supposed to take into the hills, to gnaw at their bellies and make men of them…But when you get close to the figure, such notions seem implausible. Whatever else he may be, the Iron Dog is certainly not a fox.

So a dog in name, a fox in photographs, but neither up close. He’s also bronze—not iron at all. One Havian says the dog is actually a dragon like the ones on the Ishtar Gate of Babylon. So it’s a Greek/Babylonian Iron/Bronze Dog/Fox/Dragon, depending on how you look at it, but however you try to classify it (and the classifications will surely change with time and viewer), the dog is there. It can be seen and touched.

The same is true of the people of Hav:

‘Do you really think your friend Mahmoud is an Arab? Some Arab! He’s no more Arab than Missakian’s Armenian!’

‘Missakian’s not Armenian?’

‘Of course not. He’s pure Greek, anyone can see that, like half the people in this place who call themselves Armenian, or Jewish, or Syrian…’

‘Dear God,’ I said to Magda one day, trying to assimilate all these confusions, ‘I don’t think I shall ever master the meaning of Hav.’

Morris discovers that it’s easiest to define things when they’re viewed from a distance—a fox in a photograph. But as you get close, as you put your hands around it, definitions get slipperier. Because even if you call Missakian a Greek, what does that mean? Look closer: Greece was a collection of culturally different city states, and it was ruled by Romans and Turks and inhabited by traders from around the world. Calling a Havian Greek is like saying a mixed thing is a mixed thing, and in Hav (and in the rest of the world), everyone is a mixed thing.

But Morris is okay with this. It’s the charm of a city, and it’s the charm of a person. How do all these pieces interact and change each other and change us? It’s okay to have definitions slip through your fingers. It’s okay not to know.

When Morris returns in 2005, however, Hav is much changed. Shortly after her first trip, there was an Intervention—an attack by black planes and warships. Much of Hav was razed, but it’s been rebuilt and is now governed by a Cathar theocracy. They believe they’re descended from Achilles’s Myrmidon soldiers, and they’re unifying Hav in their name.

So Hav of the Myrmidons, in stark contrast of old Hav, only has one history: it was started by the Myrmidons, and although it has been conquered and diluted, the Myrmidons, by way of the Cathars, rule it again.

But it’s a false history. The Myrmidons, magically evolved from ants, weren’t real. Hav’s unification only happened due to a fictional narrative being wielded as a blunt force tool. The Cathars have smashed Hav into shape with a story. Those bits of life that don’t agree with the story—the Kretevs, the Arab call to prayer, and the messy, mixed neighborhoods—are all hidden away or cleaned into nothing.

But who are the Cathars? They’re a heretical religion similar to Manichaeism: they believe in dual forces that rule the universe. Where Hav was multitudinous, Catharism is two; where Hav was messy, Catharism is clear.

(And there are hints that the leaders of the Cathars are an older generation from the Athaeneum, the center of learning on old Hav. Leave it to the old academics to demand definition at the cost of diversity.)

The fact that the destructive event is known as the Intervention is telling. It could have been called the Battle, the War, the Blitz, the Strike, but Morris chose a somewhat neutral, almost bland term. And where a War would implicitly have two sides, an Intervention is what you do when someone does something wrong. It’s how you get a messy person to clean up their life. One has to assume that the Intervention was part of the Cathars’ plan to get Hav in line.

Morris isn’t allowed to stay long on her second visit. After just a few days, she’s forcefully hustled onto a plane. Is her life too messy for Hav of the Myrmidons? She was divorced from her wife after having five children together, only to be later reunited in a civil partnership. She’s Welsh but British. She served in World War II but helped opposed the Falklands War. And she had to travel all the way to Morocco for sex reassignment surgery because British doctors refused her. Like every real person, Morris is too messy for the streamlined fiction of Hav.

And that’s the scary part of Hav in 2005—its loyalty to its own fictions, even over the happiness, wellness, and very lives of its citizens, is reflected in the national narratives of countries all over the world. It’s the kind of story that makes people think it’s okay to build walls on their borders and to assume that countries only belong to people of one skin color.

Readers, are there books that help you make sense of a messy subject? And are there books that frame complicated situations too tritely?

The Snake Pit

The Snake Pit by Sigrid Undset (Vintage, 1926/1994)

Maybe I’m just Baader-Meinhofing, but I’ve seen numerous complaints of a lack of criticism of older work. It’s easy enough to find recommendations for contemporary books, even if they’re not huge bestsellers, but what if one is curious about an old used paperback?

Case in point: my copy of The Master of Hestviken (of which The Snake Pit is the second book of four) by Sigrid Undset. The spine is ragged, the colors are faded, and the back cover copy is vague. Its Wikipedia entrydoesn’t even have a plot summary.

Undset, though, is far from an unknown. She’s a Nobel laureate, she has a crater on Venus named after her, and her trilogy Kristin Lavransdatteris well-known; it was given a new English translation as recently as 2005.

The lack of love for The Master of Hestviken, then, is a mystery. It’s most recent translation appears to be from 1994. Maybe it’s the length of the book? It’s a tetralogy, compose of The Axe, The Snake Pit, In the Wilderness, and The Son Avenger. Confusingly, they have been printed separately, in pairs, or as a single book.

Or maybe the historical context makes the book seem daunting. It’s set in 13th-century Norway during a time of civil war, and while it’s not about the war, the flurry of faction names, rulers, and family connections can be difficult to keep track of.

But I’m here to dispel that worry. The Master of Hestviken, specifically The Snake Pit, is a human novel about failures, secrets, and the inability of speech to bridge the gap between intention and impact.

The book begins with Olav Audunsson’s assumption of the titular position as master of Hestviken, his ancestral estate. His wife, Ingunn Steinfinssdatter, soon joins him, and they set about turning the decaying estate into a family home.

However, both have secret serpents eating at their hearts. Ingunn had a son out of wedlock. The boy is the product of violent rape, but Ingunn is too ashamed to reveal that fact, not even to Olav. And Olav killed the man—in his mind, a seducer but nothing more—and bears the guilt of not confessing or reporting the murder, not even to Ingunn.

The process of learning to live together, then, becomes a slow, strange dance in which the married couple keep each other at an estranged distance buffered by secrets and lies. Events that loom huge in their minds, that inform everything they do, remain unknown outside of their heads, making their actions seem puzzling at best and incomprehensible at worst. And Olav and Ingunn both suffer.

Ingunn’s suffering is most obvious—she is literally wasting away. She and Olav try over and over to conceive a child, and each is stillborn or dies young. Ingunn feels bits of herself drift away with each failure, blaming herself and her body. She has weeping and fainting spells, she can’t concentrate, and she’s frequently sick. A reader might call it PTSD, but we have the benefit of modern medicine, and we know what Ingunn has been through. To the other characters in the book, though, not privy to the violence enacted by rapist Teit Hallsson, Ingunn is a weak and fay creature who can’t do what a wife is expected to do: bear children and keep house.

Olav’s suffering leads to social ills. The men he turns to—surrogate fathers from the church, his adopted family, and neighboring houses—all die or leave or misunderstand his needs as he tries to confess what he views as a damning sin. And so Olav closes up, too afraid of judgment to reveal what would most likely viewed as a blameless act on his part. His neighbors and extended family begin to view him as a dour and severe man, which only causes him to draw back even more.

This chorus of gloom and doom, the constant and naturalistic grinding away of the characters’ selves, is punctuated by selfless acts of love. They range from small concessions to life-changing ones—Ingunn’s continued attempts to cook, Olav’s adoption of Eirik (Ingunn’s daughter by Teit). But it’s difficult to know if these acts are enough—enough to show affection in spite of looming secrets, enough to balance out the misunderstandings of a tight-knit, newly Christian society?

The entire book is a push and pull between the consequences of speech (which is almost guaranteed to be misunderstood or tinged with anger and sadness due to the characters’ histories) and the consequences of silence.

For instance, upon returning home from a time at sea, Olav kills a lynx on their land. What follows is an exchange between Olav and Ingunn regarding how Olav treats Eirik:

“If you gave Eirik the fairest colt ever bred—with saddle of silver and bridle of gold—what would that serve, Olav, if you cannot alter your feelings—can never look at the boy without a grudge?”

“That is not true,” said Olav hotly. “You are heavy too, you sow of Satan”—he had got the lynx on his spear and hoisted it over his shoulder.

It’s a shocking moment where, for only a second, a reader has to wonder whether Olav is calling Ingunn a heavy sow. It replicates what Ingunn must feel, and even after she and the reader realize Olav is talking about the lynx, the wound of the perceived insult would linger.

Undset’s prose is terse and minimalist, drawing from the Norwegian and Icelandic sagas. Using such straightforward prose to explore the emotional depths of her protagonists leads to a formal echoing of the tensions between those protagonists. It’s like Virginia Woolf, if Virginia Woolf wrote about the consequences of late Medieval revenge slayings.

Undset’s place in the canonof literary writers, of saga-style writers, of Norwegian authorswas more than secure on the basis of Kristin Lavransdatter. The Master of Hestviken cements that place even further, and it has me hungry for her other works. It also makes me curious about that entire strata of authors who are less-than-household names in America but have earned a measure of success and recognition abroad. How much am I missing out on?

Who are your favorite authors that don’t get the recognition they deserve? And what are their lesser-known works that we should be reading?