My parents sentenced me to a life of literature when they named me after an ancient Greek monkey in a Lawrence Durrell play and then had the nerve to tack on the middle name Esmé. “Love and Squalor” is not only a nod to my namesake short story (R.I.P. Salinger) but a reminder of two ingredients that too often go missing from contemporary fiction. In this column, I’ll try to include the kinds of prose that give publishing houses migraines: story collections, translations, fiction set abroad, and works that defy genres. Basically, books that like to travel as much as I do.
The Same River Twice
I’ve always been obsessed with miniaturists: scrimshaw makers, dollhouse architects, those gentlemen in Central Park who offer to write your name on a grain of rice. (Well, maybe not that last one.) Which leads me to British-born Helen Humphreys, the Canadian poet and novelist who has tossed flash fiction, prose poem, and Encyclopaedia Britannica into her magic word-processor and cooked up The Frozen Thames, a collection of appetizer-size vignettes that read like main courses. This elegant chain of tales is based on a piece of trivia that in lesser hands would come off as a writing exercise: “In its long history, the river Thames has frozen solid forty times. These are the stories of that frozen river.”
In a season when the UK saw its coldest winter in 30 years, The Frozen Thames may seem like overkill. (Just reading this book may make you fire up the space heater.) Then again, after the recent appearance of snow in every state but Hawaii, it may be just the reminder we need. In these 40 stories, weather is everything—birds fall dead from the sky, 17th-century ships freeze where they float, and inkwells might as well contain stone. “Frost fairs,” temporary theme parks, were set up on the Thames, where revelers dined, drank, and skated on sheep bones. In these glimpses of lives affected by the frozen river, we watch as starving watermen lose their livelihood, as a queen under siege makes a break for freedom across the ice, as a man who lives in a house atop London Bridge describes its collapse.
Full disclosure: I will read or watch anything with Henry VIII in it; I am a sucker for half-timbered houses; I once drank mead. Yet I draw the line at the literary equivalent of Medieval Times. Too often, historical writing is heavy on the exposition, drawing so much attention to how many hours its creator spent in the stacks that we can only tap the author on the shoulder and whisper that his research is showing. With grace and precision, Humphreys keeps her petticoat under wraps. The vignettes, titled by the year, are the perfect vessel for doses of history that span an almost impossible seven centuries. (Curiously, the author’s Web site lists the book as creative nonfiction, though the publisher categorizes it otherwise.) No matter the pigeonhole, Humphreys quickly makes us care about the plight of men and women whose lives may open to us for only three pages.
The frozen river as metaphor never comes off as contrived; instead, it’s a natural way for Humphreys to examine her characters’ need to be delivered—from taxes imposed on the number of hearths, from the laws that restrict the wearing of colors to members of the nobility, from disease and persecution: Quarantined in their house after their father shows symptoms of the Black Death, a brother and sister will do anything to escape; a Jew living as a Spaniard says, “I can feel the tight grip of the ice around me, around my life, and what I want, this evening by the edge of the river, is to be cast back upon the water, to be set free.”
Humphreys’ prose has been described as “spare,” an adjective I’ve never considered a compliment. At its worst, minimalism is like removing all the furniture from the room and then urging one to admire the baseboard. Despite her restraint, Humphreys never writes as if she is being charged by the word; miraculously, she takes on the challenge of crafting at least 40 original ways to describe the cold and comes back with crystalline phrases: “Puddles are small icy windows laid upon the earth.” “His breath snaps back at him, the only warmth there is in the room.” As if all this poetry weren’t enough, the book is illustrated—yes illustrated—with period maps, paintings, and portraits. It’s a cool rebuke to the Kindle, a coffee-table book that fits in your palm.
Moving on to a warmer clime touched by crime: Italian author Valeria Parrella’s For Grace Received, the first of her books to be translated into English (by Antony Shugaar), is composed of four novellas that take place in Naples. Whether they’re actually novellas or long stories is irrelevant: In an interview with WNYC, Parrella said, “I don’t believe in categories about literature.”
Yes, there’s a “mamma,” and young men who live at home, and even a mention of an escarole pizza, but if you long to be under the Tuscan sun, you’re in the wrong solar system. The southern city of Naples, with one of the highest murder rates in Europe, is beset with problems familiar to American city-dwellers: class differences, lousy schools, gangs. For many of Parrella’s characters, organized crime is the best option. As a drug dealer muses in jail, “But prison isn’t a punishment of the soul for a soul that has erred, as the parish priest tried to tell us at Mass. It is the punishment of the body for a body that didn’t know how to do things any other way.”
While Humphreys uses setting as a point of entry, Parrella’s work is character-driven. Her people—a photoengraver who works at a not-so-legitimate printing press, a single mom whose lover was killed in a Mafia hit, a woman who got out of a rough neighborhood only to feel a kind of spiritual homelessness—are fighters all the way, moving with an eye toward their future; even the most bourgeois protagonist, the gallery worker/mother in “Imaginary Friends,” is in battle mode, fighting with the idea of an extramarital relationship that has yet to bloom. Not that there isn’t time for gentle humor: in one scene, the book forger admits, “We have lots of books about Naples: The Proverbs, The Neapolitan-Italian Dictionary, and even Neapolitan Cooking by Caròla-Francesconi, which Mamma uses as a trivet for her pots and pans since she always cooks the same things.”
Parrella is adept at first-person narration, dialogue, and nailing the one quirk that will define an individual: In “Run,” the single mom never wears shoes that have less than two-and-a-half-inch heels. In “Siddhartha,” the photoengraver who gave up the guitar years ago refuses to cut his nails. These decisions, like the book itself, feel crucial and authentic.