William Trevor, How to Live, and Bandit Love: Weekend Great Reads
In our weekend books column: an unusual biography of French essayist Michel de Montaigne, from Italy a gritty gangster-filled thriller, and a new selection of stories from Irish master William Trevor.
Since the publication of Michel de Montaigne’s Essays in 1580, readers from Blaise Pascal to Virginia Woolf have seen the French author as a kindred spirit and friend. He was the inventor of the essay, a word that comes from the French essaie meaning “attempt,” and, in his short, conversational works, with titles such as “How Our Mind Hinders Itself” and “Of the Custom of Wearing Clothes,” captured what Sarah Bakewell calls “the experience of being human.” In How to Live, an affectionate introduction to the author, Bakewell argues that, far from being a dusty old philosopher, Montaigne has never been more relevant—a 16th-century blogger, as she would have it—and so must be read, quite simply, “in order to live.”
Bakewell’s book is, broadly speaking, a biography—but, perhaps to support her argument that the Essays are pertinent to every aspect of our lives, the book is divided into 20 self-help-style “lessons”—a frame that seems at times just a little forced (see Lesson 3: “Be Born”) but, for the most part, turns a vast body of research into manageable chunks. As a child, we learn, Montaigne was encouraged to explore his own “ordinariness” when he was sent off by his parents to live with peasants; later, his parents set him on to classical literature by demanding that he speak only Latin at home. As a young member of the French parliament, he met his best friend Étienne de La Boetie, whose death from the plague in 1563 profoundly affected his writing. His relationship with women is also a point of interest for Bakewell, who describes his wife (“he married his mother,” she writes, sympathetically) and his relationship with his first editor, Marie de Gournay. As is fitting for a portrait of a writer whose strength lies in what he himself called “inanity and nonsense,” and in narrative detours that inspired stream-of-consciousness writers including Lawrence Sterne and James Joyce, Bakewell’s own narrative is full of lively contextual digressions: explanations of French politics; vivid descriptions of witch-hunts; medical background on gallstones (with illustrations to boot).
Most impressively, Bakewell’s biography extends to the “long party” attended by readers of the Essays—a work as full of contradictions as any human, which has been interpreted in multiple ways. Montaigne’s contemporaries praised his Stoic wisdom, whereas the libertines of the 17th century saw him as a daring free thinker, and Romantics saw him as cold and unfeeling, before Moralists blushed at his crudeness. Bakewell is a wry and intelligent guide—but wisely refrains from dissecting Montaigne’s work too closely herself, instead leaving the writer to speak for himself in the Essays—a book to which the reader of this charming guide will, without a doubt, want to turn next.
— Emily Stokes, Contributor
Bandit LoveBy Massimo Carlotto
Tired of Swedish mysteries that zigzag through frozen northern landscapes and feature grizzled police detectives or troubled computer hackers? Massimo Carlotto’s Bandit Love may not measure up to Henning Mankell’s best or even Stieg Larsson’s ubiquitous Dragon Tattoo trilogy, but its tight plotting and hard-boiled Italian private investigator are worth a read.
The latest Carlotto thriller to feature Marco Buratti, Bandit Love, follows the ex-con and blues aficionado as he tracks down his smuggler friend Rossini’s kidnapped girlfriend, a gorgeous belly dancer. Buratti and his partner, distractingly known as “The Fat Man,” join Rossini to investigate the original drug heist that led to the kidnapping, dodging—and killing—of plenty of Eastern European gangsters along the way.
Bandit Love packs plenty of plot into a slim volume, with space set aside for elaborate northeast Italian meals, musings on women, and plenty of Calvados drinking. But Carlotto, a former political activist who fled abroad to escape wrongful imprisonment in the 1970s and finally returned to Italy after numerous appeals, has a penchant for distracting tangents about Italian corruption and organized crime. Skim through those sections and savor instead Carlotto’s plot twists and satisfying denouement.
— Martha Mercer, Senior News Editor, The Daily Beast
Selected Stories By William Trevor
There are two kinds of short-story collections. Most popular are the novelistic ones, made up of 10 or so overlapping vignettes, bound together by common characters but radically varied in style—the better to showcase the author's gifts. Typically produced by a writer not ready for a first novel, they are easy to chew up, digest, and forget about in the morning. And then there are the collections whose stories stand alone, without the faux-novelistic crutch that makes life easier for reader and writer. Those are the books that William Trevor writes.
He has been producing them since the '60s, and by 1993 had written so many that Penguin could fill 1,200 pages with his greatest hits. Seventeen years and a half-dozen books later, there are enough for another large volume. Trevor's new Collected Stories is not a book to speed through in a week or a month, but one to pick over slowly, two or three of these 15-page gems at a time.
Spending more than an afternoon in Trevor's Ireland would be punishing. His characters—quiet, pathetic, frightened—live on the verge of collapse, too polite to fight whatever doom approaches. Many are farmers clinging to increasingly useless land: a trite setup that Trevor executes gracefully, by keeping the volume low. In "The Potato Dealer," a father secures his farm's future by forcing his pregnant daughter into marriage with a local trader, while the children of "At Olivehill" forsake their past by converting their late father's property into a golf course, leaving only watercolor landscapes as proof of generations of work.
Even Trevor's city-dwellers and suburbanites are desperate enough to be at home in his grim agricultural settings. The teenage heroine of "Bravado" watches her boyfriend beat a stranger to death, and invents rationalizations to make up for not putting a stop to violence that was meant to impress her. "Timothy's Birthday," originally published in a 1993 issue of The New Yorker, is a gut-wrenching story of two parents meandering through retirement with only their son's annual visit to look forward to. No longer able to bear their sad celebration of his birth, he sends in his place his live-in boyfriend, a gruff piece of "rough trade" who eats their lamb, drinks their gin, and goes on his way with a stolen piece of silver in his pocket. It isn't melodrama; it's just damn sad.
Consumed bit by bit, the stories are vibrant, the characters sharply rendered, their pain strong without being obvious. Read too many at a time and the settings and tone start to run together, a problem not helped by the book itself, which presents the stories without introduction, annotation or even the date of publication. No matter: The stories stand alone. William Trevor has been doing this long enough that he doesn't need the help.
— W.M. Akers, Contributor