VENICE FOR LOVERS
By Louis Begley and Anka Muhlstein
Grove, 216 pp., $19.95
THE WRITER AS MIGRANT
By Ha Jin
University of Chicago, 96 pp., $14
By P. F. Kluge
Overlook, 286 pp., $25.95
Any visit to Venice is a gift, even a visit by proxy, offered here by novelist Louis Begley and historian Anka Muhlstein, husband-and-wife authors. Each year for three decades they have spent a few weeks in Venice, sealing themselves up in their room to write and not emerging till it's time for dinner at one of a few favorite restaurants.
This city of island neighborhoods can be literally insular - one restaurateur shocks Muhlstein by admitting that he has been only once to St. Mark's, perhaps a half hour's stroll across the nearest bridge - but the authors' shut-in regimen seems extreme. Even their contributions to the book are made in isolation. Muhlstein writes charmingly of the restaurants where they have become regular patrons and friends of the family. For his part, her husband presents a confessional-sounding novella in which a Harvard undergraduate arrives in Venice in the hope of an assignation with an older woman who is toying with him, but comes away instead with a valuable friendship. A literary essay by Begley on the Venice of Proust, James, and Mann concludes the book: worthy reflections, though with little of the immediacy of place that we anticipate.
"Publish or perish" might make a concise epigraph for this novel, which has several virtues, though concision is not one of them.
Born in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, raised in the émigré colony of midcentury Hollywood, hailed as the new Faulkner with the appearance of his first novel, George Canaris published two more books, then stopped. Wrestling to a standstill with his fourth, his magnum opus, Canaris took a timeout, a year as writer in residence on a bucolic Ohio campus. That was in 1970. He never left but stayed on to teach and occasionally inspire generations of students. And, really, what is wrong with that?
"Gone Tomorrow" poses a number of other questions that are more dramatically compelling if less challenging to our fame-obsessed culture. The bulk of the book consists not of Canaris's long-awaited novel but of a revealing memoir he secretly composes after learning he's about to be replaced by a best-selling young rival. Then Canaris dies mysteriously. How? And where is this masterpiece that has supposedly been gestating all these years?
P. F. Kluge, himself a writer in residence at a rural Ohio college, persuasively depicts the lotus-eating lure of pastoral academia. But he leaves us feeling obscurely and, like Canaris's exasperated colleagues, perhaps unreasonably shortchanged.
In our national mythology, and often enough in our national history, immigration holds out the bright hope of success for those willing to take the risk. For writers who become migrants, whether from choice or necessity, the risks are hugely magnified, since not just their livelihood but their art and craft, for many their self-definition, rest on the acuity of their insights into place and culture and their intimacy with language. Can these be packed and moved along with the migrating author's household goods, sewn into the lining of the refugee writer's coat?
These life-and-death questions are addressed simply and soberly by Ha Jin, who retains his identity as a novelist of China - not quite the same thing as a Chinese novelist - while living in America and writing in English. He fashions an autobiographical sketch indirectly by considering the example of variously displaced authors such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, miserable in his long Vermont exile; Joseph Conrad, whose struggle to master English left chisel marks on his prose; cosmopolitan chameleons like Vladimir Nabokov and Lin Yutang; and writers such as V. S. Naipaul who confront the subject of the migrating author head-on. These brief essays constitute an earnest meditation and a rewarding one.
Amanda Heller is a critic and editor who lives in Newton.