Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Twilight's Last Gleaning

ISBN-10: 0385520778 ISBN-13: 9780385520775 Published: Nan A. Talese, 02/12/2013 Pages: 224 Language: English
Jim Crace was recommended to me by my co-worker Erica Eisdorfer, an author in her own right and a massive Hilary Mantel fan. I had just finished being utterly blown away by Wolf Hall, and Erica suggested Crace as having a similarly masterful control of "voice." So, I picked up Harvest, Crace's eleventh and most recent novel, a deftly told story about a way of life collapsing in the English countryside circa the early 17th century. As a history geek, it was a real pleasure to see the enclosure movement depicted realistically (it involved fencing in land and replacing peasants with more profitable sheep), but Crace's novel is so devoid of leaden historical novel cliches-- endless name-dropping, shoddy attempts at authentic dialogue, grafted-on action scenes, etc.-- that it reads equally well without any context or knowledge of the time period. 

Crace depicts a small feudal village where peasants live an agrarian life in huts clustered around their master's run-down manor. A fire starts a chain of events that leads inexorably toward the peasants' ruin, but plot is hardly Crace's concern here. Harvest is one of the few books wherein language is the point rather than a means to an end. The narration reflects peasant pragmatism while also lyrically contemplating a dying era. An example:

"Any hawk looking down on the orchard's cloistered square, hoping for the titbit of a beetle or a mouse, would see a patterned canopy of tree, line on line, the orchard's melancholy solitude, the jewelry of leaves. It would see the backs of horses, the russet, apple-dotted grass, the saltire of two crossing paths worn smooth by centuries of feet, and two gray heads, swirling in a lover's dance, like blown seed husks caught up in an impish and exacting wind and with no telling when or where they'll come to ground again."

Although Crace's prose is a little more clear and earthbound, I was reminded repeatedly of one of my favorite books, Faulkner's masterpiece As I Lay Dying, and of one of my favorite lines from that book and from all of literature:

“I feel like a wet seed wild in the hot blind earth.” 

Just like Faulkner, Crace's language makes a kind of visceral sense that doesn't require exegesis, even if it deserves it far more than most critically-lauded texts. Also like Faulkner, Crace feels earthy and unpretentious-- his massive ambition doesn't feel like ambition. To quote Castiglione (and to prove how pretentious I am), Crace has "sprezzatura": "an easy facility in accomplishing difficult actions which hides the conscious effort that went into them." Harvest is a beautiful book that feels as natural as the world of Crace's protagonist, as if it grew from a seed rather than a word processor. 

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