Books of the week

Nelson Mail - - Weekend -

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.’’

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