Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan

What’s lacking in this world is analyses of second-rate novels.  When I finish a novel I like to figure it out.  What does the title mean?   How do the parts interact?  When he sent the letter, did he know she’d already left town?  Is the game of Russian roulette in chapter 3 explained by the ultimatum in the prologue?   This is why people have book clubs.  But I don’t have a book club, so I look for analyses on the web.  Where all I find is reviews.  And even the best reviews can’t do a full analysis for fear of spoiling the plot.

What follows is an attempt at an analysis of Ruth Gilligan’s Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan.  It will give away every plot point, and it won’t be tremendously intelligible if you haven’t read the book.  But if you have read the book, and are trying to figure it out like me, it might give you something to build on.

The book has five parts, titled “In the Beginning,” “Names,” “In the desert,” etc.  So the novel presents itself as a Torah.  Each of the parts has three chapters treating three different story-strands, so we begin with Moshe’s story, then Shem’s, then Aisling’s, then we have part 2 and turn back to Moshe, etc.  The first strand begins in 1901 when a family of Jews immigrates to Ireland, the second begins in 1958 and gives us an Irish boy who has been placed in a mental hospital because he does not speak, and the third is set entirely in 2013 and deals with an Irishwoman, displaced to London, considering converting to Judaism to marry the man she loves.  So the story spans 112 years and moves to from eastern Europe to Ireland and thence to London, which is to say that in the new Torah that is the novel, eastern Europe is Egypt, Ireland is the desert, and London is, as I suppose, the promised land.  Terrible things happen in the first two story-lines, but the world of the story is gradually on the mend, such that Ireland heals the problems of eastern Europe, and London heals the problems of Ireland.  Still, London cannot do without Ireland.  The promised land relies on the memory of the desert, and Ireland remains the novel’s anchor.

London is not the only promised land in the novel.  There is another place, further off, more sunny and perfect, represented both by Palestine and the utopian “fifth province” of Irish legend.  But while characters do make aliyah, Palestine does not appear in the novel;  it does not, as it were, take the stage—a fact underlined by the fate of Moshe’s play about the “fifth province,” a play that is never published or produced.   But even London in this novel is a bit of a pipe dream.  Ireland is what matters.  We know that Ireland is the desert for many reasons besides its place in Gilligan’s Torah.  We know it because of Lady Gregory’s play, “The Deliverer,” a performance of which features in a notable scene.  We know it because Ireland is the font of meaning, the locus of stories.  And we know it because a Book is given there, an Irish guide to conversion to Judaism, a book that will take people and make them into Jews and thus a Torah within the Torah that is the novel, a book that brings revelation to several of the characters and to us.

A bit of plot is necessary here.  The first strand begins with the immigrants—Moshe, his wife, and their daughters Ruth and Esther—disembarking from the boat at Cork, which they have mistaken for New York.  The father, a playwright and inveterate story-teller, becomes a pedlar.  The family ekes out a living, and eventually hires an Irish servant, who also tells stories.  Ruth grows up, unloved but loving Ireland.  In her late 40s, she falls in love with a man named Alf, but after their first night together a Nazi bomb destroys her apartment, and each thinks the other has been killed.  Alf signs up to fight in WWII, loses his legs, and is eventually institutionalized. 

The second strand features Shem, who suffers from severe OCD that manifests as joyous but obsessive word-play, and an equally severe oedipus complex.  Shem is happy, but has two deep worries.  He has been traumatized by a rabbi’s discourse on the unforgivable sin of loshon ha’ra, and he has been unable to read what he believes is his mother’s diary.  The day before his Bar Mitzvah, he sees his mother holding hands with a man who is not his father.  He is silent at the bimah, and does not speak again, afraid that if he opens his mouth he will reveal his mother’s secret, damning her for adultery and himself for loshon ha’ra.  Institutionalized, he meets Alf, whose story he writes down. 

The third strand treats Aisling, who has moved from Ireland to London, where she has become a writer of obituaries.  She would like to marry Noah, but he cannot marry a non-Jew.  His parents give her a second-hand book on conversion, and, devastated, she leaves to spend Christmas with her family in Ireland where she reads the book. 

What holds the three story-strands together?  Linking the first and second is Ruth:  the daughter of Moshe becomes the lover of Alf, who becomes the friend of Shem.  Linking the second and third is a book:  for the book that Shem thought was his mother’s diary is actually the Irish guide to conversion, bought by Shem’s father for his mother, and rebought by Noah’s parents for Aisling.  On top of this, linking all three strands is a series of stories.  Moshe tells his stories to Ruth, Ruth tells them to Alf, Alf dictates them to Shem, Shem writes them down.  The prologue and epilogue show us Aisling visiting Shem, now living in a benevolent old folks’ home.  Aisling has traced Shem through the marginalia in the book, marginalia written by Shem’s mother.  From the same source Shem learns that the man her mother held hands with was his non-Jewish uncle, and that his silence has been meaningless.  Aisling gives Shem the Book, and in return he gives her all his writing.  Moshe’s stories, retold by Ruth and then by Alf, inscribed by Shem, are now the possession of Aisling.

This transition from word of mouth (Moshe-Ruth-Alf) to writing (Shem-Aisling) is another way the novel reflects a Torah:  what begin as oral stories are eventually written down.  And then there is the fact that the conversion book, the Torah within the Torah, also spawns writing, so that in addition to a transition from oral to written, we make a transition from text to commentary.  (Gilligan hammers this home by presenting us the marginalia as footnotes to her own text.)  Overarchingly we have a story of the failure to communicate which comes right.  Cork is mistaken for New York.  Moshe cannot understand the letter he receives from Lady Gregory.  Alf and Ruth lose one another.  Shem becomes mute because he is not allowed to read a book.  But the Book is read in the end, and the stories are preserved and written and read and retold, and commentary is salvific.  Shem’s silence is based in an untruth, but his OCD tells a truth.  He is right to think that words are the magic that holds everything together.

If word magic is to work, it must involve love, and particularly the love match of two languages or of two sets of stories.  An odd scene in the middle of the second strand is a key to this part of the novel’s meaning.  Ruth, working as a midwife, has become famous in the Jewish community for telling Irish stories to ease the birth process.  She records each birth in an official file, but she also keeps a private list in which she records not only name chosen by the parents but also the name secretly chosen by herself, a name from the story she told during the birth.  When an antisemite sets fire to her files, her secret list can reproduce the information.  The weaving of Jewish names and Irish names allows these births to be recorded again.  As Aisling’s reading of the Book—the Book’s second reading—will bring healing to the story cycle, so Ruth’s second text will bring rebirth to the babies.

Two more things, lightly interconnected.  One is the malignancy of water.  The ship bring Moshe’s family to the wrong country.  Ruth’s sister Esther buys another ticket to America but her ship sinks.  Moshe goes swimming and dies.  Ruth is swimming while the bomb falls on her apartment.  To enter water is to lose or to drown.  At best water promises but does not deliver.  There are baptisms that do not take;  miracle immersions that do not cure.  Water does not belong in God’s desert. 

The second thing is the prevalence of animal stories, notably of rats, bees, and swans.  All of these are binding stories—stories of love—but the rats and bees injure even as they hold things together.  The swans, though, enact a transformation over the years.  They enter in one of Moshe’s story fragments about a man who makes paper animals and one day decides to fold his wife in the same way, breaking every bone in her body.  They continue in a story Ruth invents about a man who digs up a paper swan which comes to life.  They close in the paper swans that Noah makes for Aisling, and in a pair of real swans she sees.  Swans are folded into Gilligan’s novel, and perhaps go some way toward redeeming the water.  But nine?  What are the nine folds?


I said that reviews can’t analyze because analysis has to spoil the plot.  But every single review of the new episode of Sherlock (4.1) revealed the surprise ending and not one of them offered any analysis.


Jonathan Lethem has sold Yale University a great many pictures of vomiting cats for an “undisclosed amount of money.”  This is why the academic enterprise deserves to die.

The Hunger Games

I don’t really think the HG series is worth blogging about, so I’m going to keep it short.  I’m writing because the discussions of the books I’ve read miss what seem to me the most obvious things about them.  This mystifies me.  It might actually be because they are too obvious for people to mention, but I can’t be sure.  So here I go, with some simple stuff.

First, I have heard a number of people speculating that Cinna joins the conspiracy because he is gay and the Capitol is not gay-friendly.  The claim that he’s gay is based on his being artistic, into clothes, and very cool — and that’s okay I guess.  But the other part of the claim can’t be right, as it is just not plausible that the Capitol insists on any kind of sexual normativity.  The Capitol is a portrayal of Roman enormity, and must treat sex the way it treats food:  the more the better, the kinkier the better, throw up and do it again.  Its grotesque morality is premised on excess, not limitation, and if it can be said in any way to represent our society in order to criticize it, it’s not our homophobia that’s being criticized, but our vapid, imperialist capitalism, and commodity fetishism.

Second, there is in the plot of HG a hint of Greek mythology laid over the Roman background insofar as the arena, as well as being a gladiatorial colosseum, should also remind us of the labyrinth.  It is the labyrinth into which, each year, an equal number of young men and young women were sent to be killed, sent as tribute and as a reminder of conquest.  Each of the three books highlights a different aspect of the parallel.  The labyrinth of the myth is escaped, as in the first HG volume, by a young man and a young woman working together.  And the labyrinth of the myth is mastered, as in the second HG volume, by a thread.  And the labyrinth of myth is defeated, as in the third volume of HG, by a joining of forces from the city (in the case of the myth, Ariadne) and from the party representing tribute (in the case of the myth, Theseus).

Actually I don’t think people are commonly aware of the Theseus roots, and especially not of the thread, Ariadne’s and Beetee’s, stretching from the centre of the maze or the heart of darkness out to the extremity, and facilitating its defeat.  But surely this third point is known to everyone:  that HG is not really about the colosseum or Greek mythology.  It is about reality TV, in particular the show that set the tone for the rest:  Survivor.  The kids are dropped off in a desolate place and must fight to survive, rewards are sporadically given to them from outside, each evening a few of them are, albeit rather drastically, voted off the island, there are arbitrary rule changes, and the rest of society, forced to watch the whole damn thing on TV, find themselves presented with more soap than contest.

Presumably this is critique of our society on a different level, but it’s pretty weak critique.  It’s like one of those documentaries condemning porn where the real interest is that you get to watch all that porn.  And this, of course, is the real problem with HG.  The games are fun.

Dystopian politics

I’ve spent the past two days reading a book my students have been trying to get me into for years:  Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.  It holds interest for me mainly because it provides another entry in the short list of novels that follow what I call the Lawrence of Arabia Pattern.

In the Lawrence pattern, a group of rival nations come together to fight off a common threat, an imperial power that is much more powerful and technologically sophisticated.  Beating the threat takes just about the whole text to accomplish:  the war is the pretty much the whole story.  Except that to fit into the pattern there has to be a twist at the end:  a denouement, in which politics resumes its natural course and the rival nations, no longer facing a common enemy, begin to squabble.

The idea is probably simply that humankind naturally tends toward war.  It gains philosophical depth, though, by the fact that the tendency is always presented under an ambiguity.  Either hostility is the necessary human condition or it’s marginally preventable;  war is either inevitable or almost inevitable.  The general idea gives the books a cast of tragic realism; the narrow ambiguity gives them a cast of political profundity.  Together they make readers feel wised-up, and smart.

I first met the pattern in John Christopher’s Tripods series.  More recently, it became the political backbone of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy.  Orson Scott Card does it all in one book, and it feels a little rushed.  The real problem with Ender’s Game, though, is something else.  Both Card and Collins present the pattern in plots that hang on a game — yes, Ender’s game is a game, and yes, the hunger games are games.  But Ender’s game is nothing more or less than a video game.  Seriously:  this whole book is a matter of reading about someone playing video games.  In comparison the Hunger Games’ game, which is gladiatorial, seems like real life.

And there’s more.  Following Christopher, Collins uses her game as a feature of dystopia:  it’s the bad guys who force you (Collins) or encourage you (Christopher) to spend your life playing games.  In other words, for Christopher and Collins, games are a distraction and prevent you from accomplishing anything.  In Card, they are the only thing to do, and they win wars.

Favourite characters

I talked about favourite books, so now it’s time for favourite characters. What does it mean: a favourite character? More specifically, is your favourite the character you identify with, or is it the character you’re in love with? Obviously J.M. Barrie is sympathetic to Peter Pan. But does that mean he sees himself as Peter Pan? That’s what lots of scholars say. Or is he in love with Peter Pan? That’s what I think.

My guess is that most people reading the Harry Potter books identify with Hermione. Girls, boys, it doesn’t matter: she is the voice of common sense, as well the one who understands the muggle perspective, our perspective. I’d go so far as to say it doesn’t really make sense to read the books without identifying with Hermione. What she thinks is always, in the broadest sense, true; it’s what we’re meant to think, what we’re being drawn to think. But does this make her the universal favourite? I do not think so. Nor, for that matter, does it make Ron the universal favourite. But I’m thinking more and more that “favourite” implies a loosely erotic connection.

One of my students came into my class with a favourite character: Bellatrix Lestrange. I have put gentle effort into questioning this choice, and believe I have successfully steered him in the direction of his next love, who turns out to be Narcissa Malfoy. In turn, he has convinced me that Cissy is one of the great behind-the-scenes manipulators of the books. I look forward to future character studies.

Favourite books?

I’ve thought for a long time that people lie when asked their favourite books.  I usually do, and I bet my experience is general.  I lie because I don’t know what the question means.  Does it mean the books that I think are the best?  Or, of the best, those that I particularly enjoy?  Should I try for a list that includes representative examples from various genres and periods?  Should I pick a book typical of an author by whom I’ve read everything?  Now that I think of it, I don’t exactly lie.  It’s just that in one mood my answer might constitute a list of Shakespeare plays, and in another mood, Plato’s dialogues.  Or the collected works of P.G. Wodehouse.

But this morning, responding to a post on Meg’s blog, I realized that a better, more honest answer might come in response to a different question:  to what books do I turn when I am sick, or unhappy?  It wouldn’t produce a list of favourites (no Nabokov!), but, then, there is no list of favourites.  It does, however, produce a revealing list, which is what the original question seeks to elicit.

So what do I read – and read again and again — when I am at my most lowest and most fragile?  It’s a short list, and it is characterized by a cast of naiveté.

1. Marchette Chute’s The Innocent Wayfaring, than which a sweeter, charminger lighter, less angst-ridden book has never been written.

2. E.F. Benson’s Lucia books.  I am a full-blown Luciaphile.  These books delight me, and have no other effects.

3. Robert Heinlein’s Have Space Suit Will Travel.  I’m not sure what grabs me about this book.  I like all Heinlein’s juveniles (as much as I dislike all his adult sci fi, which is a lot) but this one stands out from the rest.  It is heroic, innocent, and, like the other things on this list, profoundly non-annoying.

4. The Lord of the Rings. I don’t need to say much about this, except that I am always happy to read it even though (a) I know it almost by heart, and (b) I would have to criticize it strenuously if I ever taught it.  I like the books in order of appearance, one better than two, two better than three.  And while the other books on this list I usually read from front to back, these I can pick up at any page.

Should you read Why You Should Read Kafka? Oh, go ahead.

I open James Hawes Why You Should Read Kafka Before You Waste Your Life expecting to find an account of how exactly a Kafka-less life would be wasted, to be amused and enlightened by a grand division of lives into Kafka-added (good) and Kafka-free (bad).  From the fly-leaf, however, I gather that what I’m going to get instead is a systematic debunking of prevalent myths about Kafka, a full-scale attack on “the K-myth” that’s been created by a cabal of over-protective scholars.  Then what I get when I start reading is something else entirely.  The book is a tidbit-stuffed rant, going off in a variety of directions pulled together in the culminating argument that Kafka was a pretty regular guy and that pretty regular guys like us should therefore find his writing all the more relevant.  And I agree.  Bravo!

Hawes does organize his book around a series of myths he wants to debunk.  But in order to make himself sound radical he oversells his myths, and the upshot is that half the book reads like a big straw man and the other half reads like the obvious.  Take myth #1:  “Kafka was the archetypal genius neglected in his lifetime.”  Does anyone actually believe this?  Hawes marshals all sorts of interesting evidence of Kafka’s literary success, but presents it in a sneering tone, as if he’s got one on somebody.  Does he?   He makes a lot of the fact that Kafka’s biographers don’t give much mention of his having split the Fontane prize in 1915, but, if they don’t feel that there’s any doubt about Kafka’s moderate literary success, why should they?

Or take the final myth, that “Kafka takes us into bizarre worlds.”  If people believed his works didn’t bear on reality, why would they read them?

And Hawes doesn’t only oversell the myths.  Sometimes he oversells the anti-myths.  One of the myths he takes on is that Kafka, as a Jewish German living in Prague, was part of a “minority within a minority.”  He presents numbers to show that most German-speakers in Prague were Jewish, and explains the historical fact that the Germans were the ruling elite.  So far so good:  the myth, if myth it was, is debunked.  But the argument gets weaker when he suggests that because of this, Kafka’s Jewishness couldn’t have been a source of anxiety.  Honey, Jewishness can always be a source of anxiety!  And how much more so in a country where, as Hawes lets slip in a chapter dealing with a different topic, Kafka’s second serious girlfriend was locked up in an insane asylum by her father for nine months for wanting to marry a Jew?  So we lurch from oversold myth (people think all his work can be explained by Jewish insecurity!  but do they?) to oversold demythologizing (he couldn’t possibly have experienced Jewish insecurity!  but couldn’t he?).  It’s a crazy ride.

However, I enjoyed the craziness, and had fun discounting for Hawes’ excitement.  And I learned lots of things – no, not things that corrected my false impressions, just things I didn’t happen to know.  Like that Kafka was fond of porn.  And that he made a good salary as a civil servant.  And that he liked Conan-Doyle.  And that his father wasn’t (from an objective perspective) any more intimidating than most people’s fathers.  Also, that he once wrote that “though the might of his work, Goethe probably holds back the development of the German language.”  Which means he was having thoughts similar to those of his contemporaries, Rosenzweig and Benjamin, about the relationship of literature to the history of a language.


I taped a TV show last week on Absalom, one of the sons of King David. I’ve never paid much attention to his story before but it’s an awfully juicy one. If it were a play in two acts, the first would treat his fratricide — his eldest brother has raped their sister and Absalom avenges her – and the second his almost-successful campaign to overthrow his father and take the throne. Lots of interesting things happen along the way. An advisor turns traitor, a crop is burned for small political gain, Absalom flees Jerusalem and returns, David flees Jerusalem and returns, a spy is used effectively, a wise woman is manipulated into making a prophetic comment and adds a comment of her own, and there’s a kind of truth and reconciliation affair at the very end. Absalom even has a cool death. While he’s fleeing the battlefield, his mule passes under a tree and he is caught in the branches. David’s commander is led to the spot and, against David’s instructions to deal gently with his son, kills him. David dies not long afterwards, probably from grief.

What I didn’t point out on the show (for several reasons) were the parallels between Absalom and Jesus, parallels that become all the more interesting in light of my interlocutor’s argument to the effect that Absalom’s sin was perfection. There’s a Jewish argument for you, and no surprise coming from an Orthodox rabbi: “be perfect” is just not advice that works for Jews. That argument is his and I cannot duplicate it here. It has to do with Absalom’s much touted physical perfection, his restraint as a life-long Nazirite, his apparent lack of regular human relationships, and his inability to tolerate the injustices endemic to regimes. But I can say in more detail what’s mine.

-Absalom is born to the most illustrious father and a lowly mother (his mother was a captured slave woman).
-we have no childhood stories; after the account of his birth he re-enters the narrative in his prime.
-he is very beautiful.
-he is a defender of women.
-he believes the ruling regime in Jerusalem to be unjust, and makes the idea known.
-he starts a revolution to defeat the Jewish leadership.
-he rides a mule.
-someone refuses to betray him for 10 (or 1000) pieces of silver; he is nevertheless betrayed.
-he ends up hanging from a tree, pierced by spears.
-his body is taken down and placed into a pit, which is then sealed.
-he is much mourned by his father.

What might happen when you tie my argument about the parallels to my interlocutor’s argument that Absalom’s sin was to be too perfect could be very interesting, and might give a whole new spin to the scorn in which Absalom is held by the Jewish tradition.

Don’t bother with this unless you’ve read Norrell & Strange. If you haven’t, and happen to want to read Harry Potter crossed with War and Peace, do.

The book is about the restoration of English magic. Why, asks John Segundus in the first chapter, do we only study magic, not perform it? and thenceforth the question governs the action of the book, providing motivation for Norrell (and, as we later learn, for a much more powerful force) and eventually bearing fruit in the book’s climax. But though Clarke is generally careful about her loose ends, the original decline of English magic is never explained. We learn gradually that at a certain point the tradition began to decay, and are given a hint that Uskglass might have been responsible, but the matter is never made clear.  Mr. Segundus’s question is never answered.

I put the question to my mother: “how,” I ask “did England lose its magic?” But as soon as I put it that way, I know that the answer doesn’t matter. Because it’s true: England did lose its magic. Always the political scientist, my mother writes back that “perhaps we’re just intended to think of the history of England. Age of Reason. Scottish Enlightenment. Industrial Revolution. Etc.” And she asks: “So what would we conclude about the age in which magic returns?” What indeed? Before she replied, I had been thinking of literary rather than political history, of Uskglass not so much as Arthur but as someone like the Gawain poet, and of magic as a power in the management of words that waned as the language was modernized. But it’s the same kind of deal. And Janet’s question still stands. What is this revival Clarke describes? Or, as I would put it, how can a novel make us feel the restoration of magic convincingly without a treatment of its decline? I love the book, but I’m wondering if there’s a philosophical hollow here.

Lost and found

I just read in the paper (=the TLS) that Kipling burned all his letters before he died, and that after his death his wife bought and burned most of the rest of his correspondence and 45 volumes of her diaries.  I am overcome.  Not that I wanted to read those 45 volumes or that I am ever likely to read a biography of Kipling – I do not read biographies – but I might have read those letters dammit.

But I am so ornery that I can be annoyed by found texts as well as lost ones.  A few weeks ago I discovered (this time by reading Christopher Hitchens’ illuminating review of a biography of Saki in the Atlantic, for I do read reviews of biographies) that my Penguin edition of Saki’s Complete Short Stories is missing six.  Stupid me, I assumed that the complete short stories would contain all of them.  Fortunately the missing six are in the public domain and available on the web.  But don’t get the idea that I was overjoyed to discover them.  The pleasure of reading Saki is rereading:  reading over and over again, immersing myself once again in the world of preposterously clever young men and revenge taken on cruel aunts, a world from which I emerge with sharper, longer, better patterns of speech.  These new stories are strangers to me, and I resent their existence.  In short, I have missed 25 years with what I may now not be able to make old friends.

Eila sick, Laura coming

Yes, Eila is sick, and once again I notice that the main difference between Eila sick and Eila well is that while she is sick she is obedient.  She remains smart, funny, and good hearted, only it’s not all mixed with foot stamping, door slamming sulks and demonic screams of “no!!”  Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around?  Isn’t health supposed to be conducive to politeness?  Isn’t sickness supposed to make you cranky?

I am so pleased that Dmitri Nabokov has decided to publish The Original of Laura.  It was touch and go for a while there: having sat on the index cards for 30 years, despite his father’s instruction to burn them, he began a few years ago to discuss with fans and critics the question of what to do, and seemed for a time to be leaning toward the fire.

Apparently Vladimir wanted them destroyed because he was afraid that an unfinished manuscript would be subject to even more vulgar criticism than a finished one.  And he was always despairing about the critics: of one of the many Freudians who “twisted” his work, he wrote: “And he will be read, he will be quoted, he will be filed in great libraries, next to my arbors and mists!”  Maybe Dmitri was heartened by the many fans who, with love and wit, agreed that the cards should be burned.  But we are all glad to have them.