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Midwinter Reading: Reginald Hill, Teju Cole & Anne Brontë

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When a favorite author dies, we feel as if we have lost a good friend. When the author is the creator of a series whose characters we have lived with for many years, we feel as if we've lost a roomful of friends.

I was saddened last month when I turned a page in the New York Times and discovered an obituary for Reginald Hill, dead at the age of 75. For some time now, I have been following the adventures of several literary detectives, trying to remain patient as I await their annual or near-annual reappearances. On my list are Peter Robinson’s Alan Banks, Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley, James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux, P. D. James’s Adam Dalglieshand Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski. My list formerly included Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse and Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander, but they are certainly not coming back. With all these detectives competing for attention, however, I have always considered Hill’s Yorkshire coppers Dalziel and Pascoe my personal favorites.

“Fat Andy,” as his colleagues call Dalziel, is witty, rude, vulgar, and intuitive, with more than a bit of Falstaff in his character. Pascoe is younger, married, university-educated, and politically correct. They would seem to have nothing whatsoever in common, but as crime-fighters, they make a formidable team.

These characters are so vivid that their lives have always seemed to me, on some curious level, independent of the stories they appear in. Once I became involved with these 24 novels, I began to wonder what Dalziel, Pascoe, Ellie, Wieldy, and the others were getting themselves up to between episodes. At least there was always the prospect of a new book to fill in the gaps, but now they’ve all skidded to a halt and will remain forever in literary limbo.

I thought at least Dalziel would go on forever...

* * *

In a recent blog post, I lamented the fact that first novels and I don’t often hook up. Mostly I don’t hear about them, and when I do, in places like the New York Times Book Review, I can rarely work up sufficient enthusiasm to pursue them.

If I had only read the ambivalent Times review of Teju Cole’s Open City, I might have been tempted to give it a pass... and in doing so would have missed an engrossing, unusual, and beautifully-written reading experience. Although I finished it a few weeks ago, Open City continues to haunt me at odd times of the day or night. The story’s momentum at first seems almost non-existent. A young man takes solitary walks around Manhattan (with a European interlude). He meets people; he engages with them in conversation. His walks inspire meditations on a variety of themes involving race, identity, culture, and isolation. For a while, I thought the story was only a triumph of narrative voice, because it was that sensitive, lyrical, and often funny voice alone that propelled me forward. By the time I had finished, however, I realized that, along the way, a number of memorable and sharply delineated characters had emerged, all set precisely within a quietly modulated but very distinctive storyline.

Open City has to qualify as some of the best writing about New York that I’ve ever come across. As the main character ambles about Manhattan, the city becomes a living presence, throbbing to its own inner rhythms and pulses. I not only visualized the scenes and settings of the novel, I felt them on some deep, internal level. This is the city I know; this is the city I dream about.

* * *

In my recently born and now seemingly inexhaustible fascination with the Brontës, I’ve finally come to the baby of the family, Anne Brontë. Although I was quite familiar with Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, I had never actually read or even thought much about Anne’s novels, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, perhaps regarding them as pallid imitations of her sisters' more powerful works. Now I’ve discovered they are so much more than that.

How even to get a hold on elusive Anne? Only a handful of her letters and private papers survive. The closest we come to a contemporary portrait is when Charlotte — the steely, determined, domineering elder sister, in her Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell — describes Anne’s “constitutional reserve and taciturnity,” which “covered her mind, and especially her feelings, with a sort of nun-like veil, which was rarely lifted.”

The first biography of the Brontës, by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell, solidified the portrait of “docile, pensive” Anne, who from childhood was “always patient and tractable” and turned it into a sort of mythology. Yet this portrait does not entirely mesh with an author who, in the back of her prayer book, could write that she was “Sick of mankind and their disgusting ways;” who, as the most consistently employed of the Brontës, claimed that her governess position was colored by “unpleasant and undreamt-of experiences of human nature;” whose two novels, depicting the shady side of upper class moral standards, were characterized by most reviewers of the time as “coarse” and “brutal.”

I have recently finished Agnes Grey, the story of a plain heroine suffering the humiliations of a governess (written before Jane Eyre), and went right on to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the story of an abusive, drunken husband and the wife who walks out on him (the second idea being even more shocking to Victorian society than the first). While suffering a bit only in comparison to Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, these are both uniquely fascinating, powerful, highly readable novels which deserve attention not only for their own virtues, but for the fresh perspectives they cast on the Victorians in general and the Brontë family in particular.

Watch out for my public presentation, The Passionate Brontës: The Life and Works of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte, to be given some time in late September or early October 2012.

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Wonderful thoughts on reading

Wonderful thoughts on reading for a winter's day. I, too, was very, very sad to read of Reginald Hill's untimely death. His books were at the top of my mystery list as well. I also read Open City and found it absolutely mesmerizing. I look forward to more from Teju Cole.

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