Flickers of Light: The Goldfinch

I would have loved to live in a Charles Dickens novel. I would have because, in Charles Dickens’ universes, everything makes sense. The tiniest fact, knock on the door, face seen through a window in the dark, silhouette drawn in the distant fog, dream or vision, signifies something. You would get to the end of the novel and realise in every little detail from the very first page there was the ending, an unavoidable fate written in every line, a unique conclusion advertised in every omen; everything is a sign.

Perhaps in our everyday lives, it is harder to see the connections, to interpret the omens, to wade through the random and insignificant. Is everything random, coincidental, or do we just fail to see the connections? That’s something Donna Tartt’s third novel The Goldfinch had me asking myself regularly. Dickensian in its structure, marvellously paced and incredibly moving, The Goldfinch is one of those novels that not only rescue the genre but bring it to its full bloom, an incandescent explosion of meaning, beauty, tragedy and humanity.

What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civil responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster?” 

The Goldfinch is the story of Theo Decker told by himself. An autobiography and a manifesto. For him, it all revolves around the tragic death of his mother at a bombing when he was thirteen. The incident irrevocably links Theo’s fate to a painting, Carel Fabritius’ The Goldfinch from 1664, and to an antique shop in New York, Hobart & Blackwell.

As Theo puts it, the death of his mother made a clear cut in the fabrics of his life, there was a before, where everything was happier yet illuminated by a dim light, almost blurry when looked at, and there’s an after. An after in which he is alone. The events take Theo to the Barbour’s house on Park Avenue, to Las Vegas with his father, to his calling as an antique’s dealer in New York, to unlikely friendships and drugs, to unrequited love and the underworld of illegal art dealing. And in the middle, connecting it all, is The Goldfinch.

“And I’m hoping there’s some larger truth about suffering here, or at least my understanding of it—although I’ve come to realize that the only truths that matter to me are the ones I don’t, and can’t, understand. What’s mysterious, ambiguous, inexplicable. What doesn’t fit into a story, what doesn’t have a story. Glint of brightness on a  barely-there chain. Patch of sunlight on a yellow wall. The loneliness that separates every living creature from every other living creature. Sorrow inseparable from joy.”

I cannot express how much I loved reading the novel. I can’t say I enjoyed all of it, for it is a sad book, but I read it obsessively, always scared that it might end. Like a painting, this novel is made of light. It is made of thousands of brushstrokes, some fast-paced, some slow-paced, some violent and some gentle, a million colours, shades, textures by, surprisingly, a single brush: Theo’s point of view.

The narrator is, by the way, one of the things I most enjoyed. Like Jane Eyre, Theo is a compelling storyteller that mingles his memories and his reflections in a delightful way. The pace of the novel is also remarkable, for the time in the novel is like the time of the mind, some periods pass by rapidly in a couple of paragraphs while some instants—golden summer afternoons, visions of The Goldfinch— remain for pages, as if lived in slow motion.

Ultimately, The Goldfinch‘s theme (as with another of Tartt’s novels, The Secret History) is beauty. Could beauty be the meaning itself, instead of an accessory to the meaning? In Theo’s life, it is, for there is beauty in the most tragic of circumstances—or, at least, the most tragic events of his life led him, through crooked paths and unorthodox methods, towards beauty. Is beauty an honourable thing to seek? Who cares, argues Theo, the heart wants what it wants.

And I keep thinking too of the more conventional wisdom: namely, that the pursuit of beauty has to be wedded to something more meaningful. 
Only what is that things? Why am I made the way I am? Why do I care about al the wrong things, and nothing at all for the right ones? Or, to tip it another way: how can I see so clearly that everything I love or care about is illusion, and yet—for me, anyway— all that’s worth living for lies in that charm?

In Tartt’s novel, and in this it is not Dickensian, beauty is found in the connections between things and not at the end of a chain of events. There’s no meaning in the destination, but in the light that shines out of the cracks in an otherwise evenly paved path. And this is also why Theo Decker is not a hero or a villain, perhaps a decadent hero, a troubled one, a mistaken one, an honest one. The Goldfinch is, then some sort of Dickensian novel for our times, one that does not offer happy endings or meaning, but one that creates meaning in its very composition, in its own beauty.

“Whatever teaches us to talk to ourselves is important: whatever teaches us to sing ourselves out of despair. […] life—whatever else it is—is short. That fate is cruel but maybe not random. That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it. That maybe if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open. And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch. For if disaster and oblivion have followed this painting down through time—so too has love. Insofar as it is immortal (and it is) I have a small, bright, immutable part in that immortality. It exists; and it keeps on existing.”

Men and Gods: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Secret History by Donna Tartt has been on my radar for a while now. I’ve heard many people praise it and as many hate it, which really made me want to read it. One of the reviews on the back of the book says, “a thriller for thinking people”, which I took as a challenge.

It took me almost three weeks to read this one, which is extremely rare for me. It wasn’t however, because it was boring or tedious, it was just because this is one of those books you want to savour slowly, taking in every word, every sentence. I spent many a sleepless night reading The Secret History and thinking about it; sometimes, after hours of reading and what felt like a thousand pages, I would come out of a daze to find out I had read less than fifty. Donna Tartt’s novel is both bewitching and gripping, chilling and endearing, paced masterfully, a perfect balance between contemplation and action, narrative and dialogue.

The Secret History tells the story of Richard, a California-born 20-year-old who gets accepted into Hampden, a prestigious college in Vermont, to study Classics. In Hampden, he’s quickly seduced by professor Julian Morrow and his reduced group of students, some kind of elitist sect in which all study hours are devoted to classic Greek. A group of rich, young people who dress cool and spend their afternoons discussing the sublime? Yes, defiintely cool. As Richard slowly gets to know his new friends, he also starts suspecting something is definitely wrong with their weekend getaways, their excess drinking and their suspicious behaviours at night.

I would definitely describe the novel as a thriller. Not because it adjusts to the model narratively speaking, but because the whole plot is driven by expectation. The first part of it deals with the anticipation and suspicion of murder while the second part deals with the consequences of the murder and the possibility of it being discovered. The plot is at all times intertwined with various literary references, mostly to Greek tragedies, in which various themes come up: can one escape destiny? is it possible for us to understand ancient texts? can we achieve an experience rid of thought? is beauty good? is knowledge good? (and what does good mean, for that matter?)

While the plot kept me both horrified and intrigued, it was Tartt’s descriptive abilities that made me fall in love with the book. Every description of gloomy New England in words of our protagonist, Richard Papen, who had never been outside of California before, is magical and nostalgic. Every word about trees, skies and clouds, about flowers and college buildings, sleepless nights and Vermont landscapes is spellbinding. Every time I opened the book I would feel immediately transported to this dreamy, hazy New England.

There also many philosophical topics that come out as the novel advances, most of them related to Classical philosophers, but also the burdens of the modern mind and the possibilities of existence without thought, a discussion that leads to fatal events in the novel. I guess what’s chilling about The Secret History is that its about a bunch of nerds who take their philosophy classes too far.

“It’s a very Greek idea, and a very profound one. Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instant, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves? Euripides speaks of the Maenads: head thrown I back, throat to the stars, “more like deer than human being.” To be absolutely free! One is quite capable, of course, of working out these destructive passions in more vulgar and less efficient ways. But how glorious to release them in a single burst! To sing, to scream, to dance barefoot in the woods in the dead of night, with no more awareness of mortality than an animal! These are powerful mysteries. The bellowing of bulls. Springs of honey bubbling from the ground. If we are strong enough in our souls we can rip away the veil and look that naked, terrible beauty right in the face; let God consume us, devour us, unstring our bones. Then spit us out reborn.” 

A cover by Edward Gorey I was reminded of.

The book also a powerful critique of our society and its constant quest for the aesthetically pleasing, whether through money, excess or knowledge. There is a very relatable theme too, for any person who, like me, studied anything related to humanities: the loss of innocence that comes when we discover that our teachers aren’t perfect, that our favourite authors are mortals, that artists aren’t necessarily good and, in words of Richard, that “there is nothing wrong with the love of Beauty. But Beauty – unless she is wed to something more meaningful – is always superficial.”

And I believe that in The Secret History beauty and that “something more meaningful” come together in a perfect balance. In conclusion, I enjoyed this book enormously and it gave me the chills very often. I can’t wait to read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt too! She’s a wonderful writer.

Have you read The Secret History? I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

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“The World Was Hers For The Reading”: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

In 1943, Betty Smith published what would become her most famous work and one of the most representative pieces of American literature. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn* was an instant hit, at the time being only surpassed by Gone With the Wind * in sales.

The novel narrates the life of Francie Nolan and her family in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Francie’s parents are both first-generation Americans, of Austrian and Irish ascendance, which is one of the aspects that mirror the life of Betty Smith, herself the daughter of German immigrants. The social dynamics of the Brooklyn described in the novel are greatly determined by nationalities and religious beliefs, so the Nolans live in a mainly Catholic and Irish neighbourhood, Catholicism being also an important part of Francie’s upbringing and it’s present throughout the novel.

The way in which A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is narrated is fairly traditional, but has various peculiarities. We are first introduced to Francie: she’s hiding in a corner between the fire escape and a window of her building, out of sight, a book in hand, observing the world around her. This first description is already telling us a lot about the protagonist, who is six years old at the beginning of the novel. We then are taken through a series of passages about every day Williamsburg and are introduced to Francie’s family: her little brother Neeley, her father Johnnie, and her mother Katie. Some pages later the narrative goes back to Katie and Johnnie’s youth. From here, the novel often goes back and forth in time to tell of events or give other character’s backgrounds. Betty Smith is also the kind of narrator that actively introduces her voice to assess and give opinions about the event’s she’s narrating.

So what is the story? A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a book about poverty and hardship, but it is not a moral made out of poor people. Being partly biographic (Francie Nolan and the author even share the same birthday, 15th of December), Smith manages to include all the hard and uncomfortable aspects of poverty without glorifying or martyrising her characters. The result is an amazing and endearing set of characters whose personalities and stories are not entirely about their social circumstances.

It could be said the story focuses on how education and sacrifice can better lives—certainly Francie’s love for reading is a great part of her character’s arc throughout the novel—, but if I had to define the novel I would say it is about dignity and character, about resilience and hope, about the universality of human experience and the search for beauty. It is also a book about a people who read, and I think those are usually my favourites.

The highlight of the book is, of course, Francie Nolan. What a character! She is a voracious reader, a quiet observer, a determined and stubborn girl. Her family is far from perfect, her father is an alcoholic and her mother supports them all by cleaning houses. Growing up, Francie goes through a lot—her family can barely afford food, she suffers bullying and harassment, has to quit school to work, is told by a teacher not to write about her family for it is “shameful”.

She is a lonely, shy child, and yet she exhilarates so much life through her reading and writing, her feelings and observations. She is one of those character’s whose internal life is far richer than what their appearances might give out, which is perhaps why I sympathised so much with her. One of my favourite parts of the book is actually a description of Francie:

“She was made up of more, too. She was the books she read in the library. She was the flower in the brown bowl. Part of her life was made from the tree growing rankly in the yard. She was the bitter quarrels she had with her brother whom she loved dearly […] She was all of these things and something more that did not come from the Rommelys nor the Nolans, the reading, the observing, the living from day to day. It was something that had been born into her and her only—the something different from anyone else in the two families. It was what God or whatever is His equivalent puts into each soul that is given life—the one different thing such as that which makes no two fingerprints on the face of the earth alike.”

At the very beginning of the novel, Francie observes a tree. It is a small, weak-looking kind of tree that grows right outside her building, out of concrete. Not a beautiful tree, perhaps, but a strong one. The whole novel then revolves around the similarities between Francie and this tree, their similarities as resilient beings, gathering strength from scarcity and hardship.

“Who wants to die? Everything struggles to live. Look at that tree growing up there out of that grating. It gets no sun, and water only when it rains. It’s growing out of sour earth. And it’s strong because its hard struggle to live is making it strong.”

And Francie is strong, but she is strong in quiet ways. As it happens with many readers, she dreams too much and expects much out of life: she wants to experience everything books have told her exists, she wants to be, in her words, “drunk with life”. This is perhaps why every description of things from her perspective is so lively, from a bakery to a firework show.

“But she didn’t want to recall things. She wanted to live things—or as a compromise, re-live rather than reminisce. She decided to fix this time in her life exactly the way it was this instant. Perhaps that way she could hold on to it as a living thing and not have it become something called a memory.”

For me, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the kind of book that says, okay, these are the cards you were dealt, what the hell are you gonna do with them? how’re you gonna make it into an interesting story? No self-pity in it. I sure saw many things of myself in Francie Nolan and many familiar things in her family, that is perhaps why I enjoyed the book so much. I also loved how it approaches reading and literature.

From the moment Francie learns to read, she becomes a voracious reader and then a writer, and throughout the novel the book poses important questions about both: do we read to escape life, or to have a bit more of it? What is really the purpose of fiction, why do we need it so much? To help us cope with living, or to allow us to live more, if only vicariously?

“From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours. There would be love stories when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone she could read a biography. On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book every day as long as she lived.”

I think we read and write for both reasons. What are your thoughts on that? Have you read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? I am currently reading A Discovery of Witches* by Deborah Harkness, but I am afraid I’m not enjoying it that much. I took a break from it in which I read V for Vendetta*. That was a wild ride. I’ll finish this post with another beautiful quote from Betty Smith.

“‘Dear God,’ she prayed, ‘let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry… have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me sincere—be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.'”

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“Trouble with mice is you always kill’em”: Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men

In 1937, John Steinbeck published what would be considered by many his finest novel, Of Mice and Men*. It is a book, I hear, that appears in many basic courses of American Literature. It is also an introduction to Steinbeck’s California and its many injustices, its changing landscapes, burning suns and many struggles at the beginnings of the 20th century. Also, it is only a hundred pages long and composed mainly of dialogue.

It was only this year that I was introduced to Mr Steinbeck’s work. I read Travels with Charley in Search of America* in January, then East of Eden* in February and The Grapes of Wrath* in March. Needless to say, I am fascinated with Steinbeck and very surprised about the fact that I didn’t read him for any of my university modules, not even for North American Literature. But I am trying to repair the damage here, so Of Mice and Men seemed like the obvious choice. What can I even say about this book? It is heartbreaking in a way only Steinbeck could achieve, masterful in its narrative and its characters, engrossing and gripping, somewhat of a punch in the gut. It seems to be a more mature work than both East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath even though it was published before both (and even though East of Eden will always be my favourite).

“As happens sometimes, a moment settled and hovered and remained for much more than a moment. And sound stopped and movement stopped for much, much more than a moment.” 

John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men

I know this is a very common high school read, so I probably won’t spoil anything here. Basically, it is the story of two friends: George, who is small and cunning, and Lennie, who is big, strong and has an undescribed mental disability. George takes care of Lennie, but Lennie’s strenght often gets them both in trouble because he’s not aware of it. Lennie also has a characteristic trait: he loves to pet soft animals, such as mice, but he often kills them involuntarily.

When we meet them, George has found a new job for the two of them at a ranch close to Salinas. The ranch is okay and Lennie is even promised a puppy, but things get complicated when the son of the ranch owner, Curley, picks at Lennie. In addition to this, his wife is always flirting with the ranch labourers. Anyway, George has a plan for him and Lennie, whose only relative died and left him in charge of George: if they can handle a season of work, then they’ll have enough money to buy their own piece of land. The topic of lower classes looking for a piece of land in the still unexploited California and the relations drawn between the state and the Promised Land is common throughout Steinbeck’s work, the impossible achievement of the American Dream:

“Just like heaven. Ever’body wants a little piece of lan’. I read plenty of books out here. Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land. It’s just in their head. They’re all the time talkin’ about it, but it’s jus’ in their head.” 

This small book is really perfect, every word seems to be in place, every dialogue has a cadence and rhythm that brings the world of ranch labourers to life in just a couple of pages. Every character exhilarates life and a rich personality of which we learn through other characters and a few, scant lines of description.

What is probably more interesting about the book is its structure, that of Matryoshka dolls: events repeat themselves in different layers, over and over. For example, when Lennie kills a mouse at the beginning for petting it too hard, you kind of expect this will happen with the ranch puppies, and later when Curley’s wife mentions she has really soft hair, well, you see what is coming. Another story that repeats itself is that of the dog, although here the circle is broken by choice (a very important topic in Steinbeck, too: free will). Candy, the oldest labourer, can’t bring himself to shoot his own dog, his companion for so long, and other labourer does it for him. Candy can’t get over this and regrets not having done it himself, “I oughtta of shot that dog myself, George. I shouldn’t oughtta of let no stranger shoot my dog.” Shooting a friend or let strangers do it is a choice George faces later, in the tragic ending of the novel. Also, the plot of the novel is advanced by hints continually, which is why there is so much tension in it. Of Mice and Men is read compulsively like a thriller, you really get a sense of what is going to happen, yet you have to keep reading.

The theme of the novel reminded me of East of Eden for its appraisal of free will and choice. There is always a search for the motivations of people in Steinbeck’s works, a try to understand the meanness and evil that we’re capable of, but there is often a flicker of light—friendship, love, sacrifice— found at the heart of the smallest acts.

Finally, who is the protagonist of the novel? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one since I’m still thinking about it. Even though I think the main theme is friendship—the relationship between George and Lennie—, I believe the main character is George. They are both unlucky, tragic characters: Lennie seems doomed to kill everything he loves, and George seems doomed to have all his plans ruined by his friendship to Lennie, he promised his dying aunt he would take care of him. But George does have a choice, and he chooses to stay with Lennie over and over again, even if it costs him his jobs. It’s a heartbreaking piece of literature, definitely one that I’ll be thinking about for a while.

Have you read it? What did you think of it? If not, I couldn’t recommend the book more! I just finished another American classic I loved, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn* by Betty Smith.

Right now I’m stepping away from heartbreak for a while and enjoying In a Sunburned Country* by Bill Bryson.

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*Disclaimer: If you do buy any of these titles from the links, I receive a commission from Amazon. This does not affect the price of the books anyhow.