Books of the week
Invitation to a Bonfire by Adrienne Celt (Raven Books) $32.99
A novel fuelled by rage, a novelist driven by anger at a man’s betrayal – these are hardly new. But to write fuelled by rage at the newly discovered transgressions of a man the author has never met is surely novel.
Such is the driving force for the second novel by US writer Adrienne Celt, whose debut, The Daughters, won prestigious awards. Invitation to a Bonfire is about a married writer, his wife and his lover, a relationship too challenging and complex by far to be summarised as a love triangle.
Celt’s tale of White Russian e´ migre´ author Leo ‘‘Lev’’ Orlov, his controlling wife Vera, ‘‘grandest and most terrible Vera’’, and his young lover Zoya, an orphaned Russian peasant, was inspired by the discovery that her literary hero Vladimir Nabokov, best known for his controversial Lolita, had been unfaithful to his wife Vera. Nabokov’s editor, critic, muse and even security guard (she carried a gun for his protection), Vera orchestrated his life – as the fictional Vera does Leo’s – and he depended on and cherished her. ‘‘I’ve adored Nabokov, reverently, for my entire adult life, and yet this book came from a place of sudden rage at discovering that he’d had an affair (well, probably many affairs, but one especially significant one) – and quickly thereafter a desire to get even,’’ Celt has said.
Lev meets Zoya while teaching at the Donne School, an elite New Jersey girls’ school where he had accepted a teaching job, at Vera’s insistence, to provide stability. Dysfunctional Zoya was educated there – and relentlessly bullied – after arriving in the US as a refugee and stayed, working in the greenhouse.
There are elements of a thriller: Invitation to a Bonfire is constructed as a collection of papers, a Donne School alumni project funded posthumously by Vera Orlov, a supporter of the school since returning to France after her husband’s murder in
1931. This choice morsel is revealed in the introductory
‘‘A Note on the Text’’ which also reveals Zoya ‘‘died under hotly debated circumstances’’ that same year. So, in a sense, everything is leading to the revelation of what happened to them.
But progress is slow and convoluted.
The novel interweaves Zoya’s diary, letters from Lev, mostly to Vera while on a dangerous, illegal mission to Russia to retrieve a missing manuscript, and other documents such as newspaper clippings and police reports – fictional, of course. Celt plays with the chronology, at times confusingly so, and even emulates the arcane literary style of Nabokov himself.
This makes for challenging reading requiring considerable patience. It does not help that Zoya, whose diaries and point of view dominate, is not a particularly empathetic character.
As the denouement nears, the novel becomes livelier and tense, the reader driven on by the uncertainty of the pair’s fate.
The reward is an unexpected and not fully explained twist, but a satisfying ending nonetheless. But the journey to this destination is arduous. – Sue Green
Amateur: A True Story About What Makes A Man by Thomas Page McBee (Canongate) $37
The ability to change gender is a feature of our age. The first pioneering reassignment surgery (male to female) occurred in Berlin in 1930. In the 21st century, such operations are routine.
Beginning with Christine Jorgenson’s autobiographical article The Story of my Life in 1953, there have been many memoirs of male to female reassignment. There have been fewer first-person histories of female to male transitions. Thomas Page McBee is one of the recent writers who is reshaping social views.
Born a woman, McBee is now a married man and a journalist. His second memoir, Amateur: A True Story About What Makes A Man uses his participation in a charity boxing match at Madison Square Garden in New York as a pretext to untangle the links between masculinity and violence. It is an approachable and thoughtful account.
Injecting himself with testosterone each month, McBee is physically familiar with the chemical basis of gender. As a consequence of his hormone shots, he has a beard and a masculine body shape. Testosterone has also forced him to confront male violence: how much is hormonal, and how much is culturally instilled?
Amateur, however, is not simply McBee’s story. He works out and trains in two New York City gyms. His book is often the story of men together. They compete. They share. They teach. His sparring partners, trainers, friends and the worlds they inhabit are acutely observed.
So too is McBee’s wife, Jess, with her doubts and affirmations. The story of their relationship is a vital undercurrent to the book. Her belief in ‘‘the person beneath rather than the appearance’’ is a practical take-home message.
McBee’s status as an outsider – where only a few people know his real story and his birth-gender – means he sees things in the world of boxing that others would not. His personal history requires an awareness of expectations and interactions that open up fresh perspectives in an old debate.
While Amateur goes to authorities in the fields of gender and aggression for information, it is also willing to debate their views.
McBee’s memoir is a paced and suspenseful reading experience. With its focus on preparations for a competition and the final event itself, the book becomes more than an exploration of gender. The fleshy thuds of Madison Square Garden’s boxing arena are translated onto the page.
In an era where gender has become such a triggering subject, Amateur provides a refreshing alternate version. It is a book which ably demonstrates how central the debate is to modern life – and how little it should really matter. – David Herkt
‘‘I’ve adored Nabokov, reverently, for my entire adult life, and yet this book came from a place of sudden rage at discovering that he’d had an affair.’’