A waterfall of effusive praise spills across the first four pages of my paperback edition of Vendela Vida’s novel, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name. Compelling. Economical. Lush. Spare. Unflinching. Precise. Searing. It is a somewhat confusing thesaurus (how can something be both economical and lush? Perhaps this is a failure of my own imagination) and for some reason it left me skeptical. It was as if all the praise roused my inner contrarian and I wasn’t on the book’s side at the beginning. Ultimately, I liked it. I didn’t love it, but there is so much to admire in Vida’s skill as a prosodist that it balanced out the elements of the story that strained my credulity.
SPOILER: Here’s the basic plot outline, minus the climactic finale: Clarissa’s mother abandoned her when Clarissa was 14. Clarissa is now in her late twenties. After her father dies she finds out that he wasn’t her biological father. Then she finds out that her fiance knew about that and didn’t tell her. So she goes to Finnish Lapland to find her biological father (without telling anyone back home). Turns out the person named on her birth certificate as her father isn’t her father either. Turns out her mother was raped and the rapist is Clarissa’s father. Turns out Clarissa, too, was raped (when she was a teenager). Clarissa discovers she is pregnant with her fiance’s child. Incredibly, Clarissa finds her long-lost mother in Lapland. Her mother ignores her and, when forced to acknowledge her, reinforces what she made clear when she left in the first place: she doesn’t want to be a mom. And on and on the story goes, in a tight spiral that reiterates its favorite theme after every revolution: Major Communication Breakdowns Hurt and Define Clarissa.
While I did find the plot a bit too taut (everyone, from the shuttle bus driver in Helsinki to the dudes Clarissa meets in the mini mart have a pointedly meaningful role to play) and melodramatic, and the evocation of Finnish Lapland was patchy, Vida’s prose is mesmerizing. In Clarissa Vida has created a voice that is direct, unwavering, and brazen. I read the book in two great gulps over the period of two days, and part of the reason I couldn’t put it down was because Clarissa felt like that girl in sixth grade with black fingernail polish who talked back to teachers and dared me to go up to boys I didn’t know and ask for their phone numbers. Clarissa must navigate an unthinkable situation. She takes powerful, direct action, action with high-stakes consequences. She strides through the novel with a force that is daunting and delicious.
The other reason I didn’t want to put down the book was the charm of Vida’s similes. Here’s my favorite: Recently, everything around me felt familiar yet amiss, like the first time you ride in the back seat of your own car. It is a simple, perfect simile. It illustrates exactly why writers should continue to employ them. It points straight to something unmistakable. After I read it I was almost embarrassed by the intimacy I suddenly felt with the author, because I know exactly the feeling she references. So did my boyfriend when I read the sentence aloud to him – he smiled and nodded, and so too would any car owner who has found himself in that weird backseat position. The novel is littered with such jewels. Collecting them is the novel’s primary pleasure. In the end, it is a pleasure well worth the read.
Maybe it’s because I’ve been knitting the same lace stole for almost three years and I am grateful that the process has taught me the virtue of patience. Maybe it’s because the feeling I get while I’m sitting at my Ashford spinning wheel, pedaling with one foot and practicing the short forward draw, is one of peace, integration and a sweet kinship with the spinners of past centuries. It could be because I just finished writing a novel and I’m suddenly, impossibly, gleaning lessons learned as I move ahead to my next literary endeavor. Or maybe it’s because you just can’t beat the sense of satisfaction that comes when you give a friend a handmade gift. Whether it’s plum jelly or a hand-knit scarf, there is something fundamentally life-affirming about making. Whatever the reason, lately I’ve been relishing the ways that craft is part of my life, and enjoying some new twinges of understanding about it.
I’ve always been uncomfortable calling myself an artist. As a novelist, I understand my “art” not so much as the numinous kernel at the heart of every painting, sculpture, poem, and novel, but as the perseverance, the doggedness it takes to build a form for that kernel to live in. For me the word art implies magic, and while I am the first one to admit that there is something inexplicable and nourishing (not to mention gratifying) about those moments when something unexpected and spontaneously right spills onto the page and becomes a touchstone leading me forward, most of the time I am working on my craft in a decidedly un-magical way. I am a craftsperson.
That said, sometimes the word craft is unsatisfying. There is that pesky division we’ve created between high art and lower craft. Craft smells faintly of stencils and crocheted stuffed animals. Or, it can imply purely utilitarian objects. Often, when I put down my “real work” of the day and amble out to the workshop to spin fiber, knit, or dream up a sewing project, I feel just a tiny bit frustrated to be moving “down” to handiwork, and that downward movement implies a departure from the world of ideas into something not quite as valuable. For years I’ve demoted all the crafts I practice. In this way of understanding things, I’ve denied the myriad ways that craft integrates and transforms my consciousness.
A Way of Working: The Spiritual Dimension of Craft is a book edited by D. M. Dooling (1910-1991), the founder of Parabola magazine. So far I’ve only read three of the essays in this slim volume, but already they’ve lent a crucial hand in reconciling my mistake in splitting art from craft. I sense a profound consequence for me personally in mending this rift. To be able to see my work as knitter, spinner, and designer as kindred in some way to my work as a novelist, and not “lower,” is a great step toward inner unity, one that I am eager to take. From the introduction to A Way of Working:
“Craft” originally meant “strength, skill, device,” indicating at its very inception the basic relationship of the material, the maker, and the tool: the opposition of thrust and resistance and the means of their coming together in a creative reconciliation. The artist must be a craftsman, for without the working knowledge of this triple relationship subject to opposing forces, he has not the skill to express his vision. And if the craftsman has no contact with the “Idea,” which is the vision of the artist, he is at best a competent manufacturer. Art and craft are aspects (potential, not guaranteed) of all work that is undertaken intentionally and voluntarily…Both art and craft must take part in any activity which has the power to transform.
I shop at thrift stores for everything except underwear and books. The former needs no explanation; the latter reveals some snobbery. Thrift store bookshelves are crowded with ragged Reader’s Digest editions and the type of mauve-jacketed women’s fiction that serves as a force field to keep me away. I have no problem pawing through aisles of sweaters in an obsessive hunt for cashmere, but I wouldn’t be caught dead searching the bookshelves.
That was all well and good until I spied a copy of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union among the Maeve Binchy at the San Leandro ThriftTown. The unmistakable turquoise and red cover caught my eye while I was in the checkout line, and, while I have already read that lovely book, seeing it over there triggered a doubt about my dismissal of thrift store book sections. Who donated Michael Chabon to the thrift store? What other treasures might be out there? On my next trip to ThriftTown I went straight to the book section.
My most recent foray yielded James Salter’s 1975 novel, Light Years. In typical thrift-foraging fashion, I noticed the Salter book first because of the color of the spine, a soothing creamy yellow. I then had a vague positive feeling about James Salter…perhaps I had read something by him? Had he been quoted by someone else in an epigraph? I picked up the book. I think what clinched the purchase was the fact that the paperback edition had a dust cover. Cool.
At first it would seem that Light Years was a miss. It considers the lives of very beautiful people, and they are too refined, too delectably gourmet, too alien in their Westchester country home, too perfectly lovely, smart, and tantalizing. They spend too many summers in Amagansett, and they indulge in too many affairs. They are Nedra, her husband Viri, daughters Franca and Danny, Jivan (Nedra’s lover), Marcel, Kaya (Viri’s lover)…on and on in an unwinding spool of linen, expensive wine, drives to the country, delicate frowns, and highly educated angst. I mean, come on! These characters seem totally exempt from a mundane existence, and so they are irritating. Or maybe they just make me feel gauche.
Strangely enough, after about a hundred pages, I was taken in. The lives of Nedra and Viri, she the untouchable beauty, he the average architect, entranced me, and the reason is because the book is written very lightly (as the title explicitly states). I do not mean it is lighthearted or flimsy. There is darkness in these characters, and plenty of it. But Salter chooses to remain in the realm of their lightness, so that their darker sides, while barely explicitly considered, come through with a graceful poignancy, in sentences like this: “Their friends that year were Marina and Gerald Troy.” Their friends come and go; they are annual trends in an unending pattern of covetousness. Throughout, the book reminded me of Italo Calvino’s essay on lightness in Six Memos for the Next Millennium, in which he says in reference to Ovid, “…everything can be transformed into something else, and knowledge of the world means dissolving the solidity of the world.”
Salter’s achievement in this novel is his employment of a subtle first-person narrator whose presence establishes a graceful distance between the reader and the characters. That distance is plenty of room for Salter’s assured, omnisciently-leaning observations, which work in concert with an almanac-like movement through time and the seasons.
Salter’s prose is unhurried and unabashed in its repetitive, short declarative sentences. It is hypnotic, with its predictable rhythms and endless catalogues of the accoutrements of New York mid-twentieth century aristocracy. And while you may, like me, roll your eyes more than once at the angst of the very privileged, and marvel at how, exactly, to stay engaged with so many scenes of people lying on beach towels, seemingly able to take every summer entirely off (and use it to ponder their existences), in the end the book is, well, as delicious as an hors d’oeuvre of cold meats and French cheeses. A main course it is not. Here’s a short excerpt:
“She had trimmed the stems of flowers spread on the wood of the counter and begun to arrange them. Before her were scissors, paper-thin boxes of cheese, French knives. On her shoulders there was perfume. I am going to describe her life from the inside outward, from its core, the house as well, rooms in which life was gathered, rooms in the morning sunlight, the floors spread with Oriental rugs that had been her mother-in-law’s, apricot, rouge, and tan, rugs which though worn seemed to drink the sun, to collect its warmth; books, potpourris, cushions in colors of Matisse…clear crystal dice, pieces of staghorn, amber beads, boxes, sculptures, wooden balls, magazines in which were photographs of women to whom she compared herself. Her dreams still cling to her, adorn her; she is confident, composed, she is related to long-necked creatures, ruminants, abandoned saints. She is careful and hard to approach. Her life is concealed.”