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Review: Caleb Crain on Paul Kerschen
There are many ways for a historical novel to go wrong. Voice, for example. It’s hard for a writer to feel his way into the diction and sentence structure of another era, and it’s easy for a reader to hear when a writer hasn’t read enough to be able to: characters sound either jaunty but anachronistic, or authentically antique but dead. Overexplanation is another common mistake. Everyday lives in the past were different from ours in ways that of course went unremarked-upon at the time, and cramming up on the past and then keeping the research under wraps takes more discipline than many writers have. The worst is when a writer introduces a famous person into a novel with clumsy deference, leaning on the figure’s real-life importance for effect. The note of self-congratulation is fatal.
I was skeptical when I started Paul Kerschen’s novel The Warm South, which imagines that the poet John Keats, after dying of tuberculosis in Rome in 1821, rose and lived again. The premise alone is a set-up for writerly embarrassment. Who in his right mind would try to ventriloquize Keats? “How long is this posthumous life of mine to last?” the real Keats asked, on his deathbed, as if he foresaw the challenge. I was ready on page one of Kerschen’s novel to lose heart, but as I turned the pages, more and more eagerly, distrust yielded to admiration. The story felt uncannily plausible. Even more impressive, it sounded plausible. Kerschen’s Keats says “a vegetable diet” instead of “a vegetarian diet,” and “a beefsteak” instead of “a steak,” but he makes jokes, too. In a letter to Fanny Brawne, his fiancée in England, Kerschen’s Keats writes:
You will chide me that I have been so long without writing, & I will deserve it. I might plead my illness, & you will say, Shakespeare’s Heroes run through with swords still managed fifty lines to their beloveds—
The character is at ease in the language that Kerschen has found for him. “You are advised to stay,” Kerschen has a friend tell the just-resurrected but still frail poet, who is already impatient to leave Rome. “I am desired to stay,” Kerschen’s Keats revises, playfully—and completely in idiom. I never stopped worrying about the literary hazards that Kerschen was running, but after a while I came to think of him as playing a game of not humiliating himself that resembled, in showmanship, the tricks that the French postwar writers of the Oulipo movement achieved when challenging themselves with arbitrary strictures. Writing a novel without the letter e, as Georges Perec did, seems like child’s play next to “Write a novel about the most beloved poet in the English language in which he writes more poetry.”
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Keats was a doctor as well as a poet, and a feint from poetry to medicine is one of Kerschen’s cleverest strategies for disarming the reader’s expectations. In his first post-death conversation, Kerschen’s Keats appraises the soundness of his own liver and pancreas, and, shortly after, he recognizes a symptom of tuberculosis in the foamy blood coughed up by a Roman sculptor. A tour de force comes in Pisa, where, broke and impatient with being dependent on his friends—many of whom were, after all, struggling to survive as painters and writers themselves—Kerschen’s Keats agrees to be employed as a dresser by an Italian surgeon named Vaccà, and assists at the removal of a tubercular abscess from a farmer’s knee. “Vaccà chose a slender ivory-handled knife and pressed the flat of the blade against his own neck,” Kerschen writes, in his own narrative voice, which is always specific and vivid; “that was an artist’s touch, to warm the steel.” Kerschen’s precision, control, and ruthlessness in the scene that follows bear comparison with Penelope Fitzgerald’s virtuoso account of surgery without anesthesia in The Blue Flower.
Kerschen imagines that Keats is drawn to Pisa by an invitation from the wealthy poet Percy Shelley. “It never occurred to Shelley that he wasn’t helping,” Kerschen writes. This Shelley is reminiscent of Henry James’s re-animation of Coleridge in his story “The Coxon Fund”; he has an egotism so strong and free as to be tantamount to idealism, or easily mistaken for it. Percy can’t make good on his offer of hospitality in part because his wife, Mary Shelley, immediately resents Keats as one of her husband’s crushes. Mary gradually softens, however. She lets Keats read her novel Frankenstein, which, like The Warm South, is about a doctor and about patching together human remains and mobilizing them. Early in Shelley’s novel, Dr. Frankenstein spends a year writing verse, prompting Kerschen’s Keats to worry, as he reads, “A novel about a poet—is that really the aim?” The joke at Kerschen’s own expense suggests that he is aware that the real Mary Shelley is perhaps even more his book’s co-parent than the real John Keats is. Mary Shelley’s monster reminds Kerschen’s Keats of his passage through death and provokes in him a vision that suggests the dark artifice behind Kerschen’s labors: “The face of one’s thought laid open on the dissecting table has black lips, opening and closing in gasps.”
The Warm South is a resurrection, in other words, that knows itself to be a makeshift—that knows giving the dead speech demands methodical dissection, discomfiting to Romantic ideas of genius. Another helpful resource is grave-robbing; as Kerschen explained in an interview last year, he plundered Stendhal’s travel writings for descriptions of early nineteenth-century Italy and supplied his Keats with a new play by translating a German one by Georg Büchner, a near contemporary of Keats’s who was also a doctor and also died young. The play, about the French Revolution, interestingly entangles Kerschen’s Keats in Italy’s post-Napoleonic politics, but Kerschen, again wrong-footing his readers’ expectations, presents it as a literary failure—too heady to work on stage and a bit derivative. Failure, after all, is a natural development in writers who keep on living and writing. “It’s copied!” Kerschen’s Byron exclaims, when it’s staged in his palazzo, meaning copied from the historian of the French Revolution whom Büchner copied from. “He was trying to do all of Shakespeare all at once” is the more thoughtful verdict of Kerschen’s Fanny Brawne, as she watches incognito from the back of the room. Dissection and grave-robbing may be necessary but they alone are insufficient; it’s the experimentation that went on in Kerschen’s laboratory that has enabled him to work this compelling shock through the literary tradition.
Poet Meghan O’Rourke, who has written about her own encounter with illness, reflects in The Atlantic this week on how unprepared we are as a society to face the challenges posed by the COVID-19 epidemic: “We have no shared discourse,” she writes, “for the idea that the hard thing to do, the truly challenging thing to do, might be to do less in order to help another.” And “the experience of being ill is one that underscores our interconnectedness … COVID-19 is a stark reminder that the community, rather than the self, may be the first line of protection,” it “gives us an opportunity to frame our fears not in the context of panic or overwhelming anxiety, but as care. Our interconnectedness is part of the very meaning of life.”
Further to the meaning of life, what goes better with being at home alone than a book? As the publishing and bookselling industries close up shop along with everything else, booksellers are reminding readers both that books and the ideas they support live in fragile ecosystems, and that readers can bolster these ecosystems even as they strengthen our challenged connectedness—through books. (Re fragility: Italy’s book market fell, by way of warning, 25 percent the first week in March.) Booksellers appear to have seen brisk sales as readers anticipated the coming lockdown, but shoppers at least on the coasts have begun to observe the admonishment to stay home. Josh Cook of Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Massachusetts, offered ten ways you can support your local bookstore in the midst of COVID-19, from the obvious (order lots of books from independents) to the less obvious (preorder future books or buy gift cards, to help with cash flow). A number of bookstores are covering shipping costs to juice orders. The UK has eliminated the VAT tax on ebooks (physical books are already VAT-free, see our Notebook on European book supports). Some authors are replacing their book tours (one of the lifelines of the independent bookseller) and imagining new ways to reach readers virtually: graphic novelist Gene Yang is signing book plates to send to the stores on his cancelled reading tour and has embarked on a “cartoon tour” for his new book Dragon Hoops, releasing a cartoon each day on social media. He described his thinking on being an author in a time of quarantine to the industry magazine Publishers Weekly: “As one small individual, how do you approach something so big? For me as a cartoonist and an author I just have to worry about what I’m connected to and if everybody does that, we’ll have a bunch of our bases covered. I’m connected to the book community and the comic community.” We at Book Post are connected to you, dear readers, and connect you in turn to the writers who help us plumb our confusions and possibilities; may we hang together (however separately) and nourish each other in dark times.
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