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An Understated and Gently Profound Voice

Posted on Apr 27, 2012

By Lauren B. Davis

“The Beginner’s Goodbye”
A book by Anne Tyler

Judging from the wit, observational skills, insight and compassion exhibited in Anne Tyler’s novels, she’s just the sort of person with whom I’d love to have a very long chat over dinner, and honestly, I don’t say that about many writers. Tyler’s perspective on life is uniquely her own, and yet to the reader it feels absolutely correct, filled with those moments of recognition that make reading such a pleasure.

Perhaps this perspective is due in some part to Tyler’s background. Although she now lives in Baltimore, where all of her 19 novels are set, she was born in Minneapolis, the eldest of four children. Her father was a chemist and her mother a social worker. She spent her childhood in Quaker communities in the mountains of North Carolina and in Raleigh and didn’t attend a formal school until she was 11. Was it this quiet, contemplative tradition that shaped her worldview and her understated, yet gently profound prose? Possibly. In an era when novelists are publicity ninjas, Tyler lives far from the glitterati, does not grant face-to-face interviews (although she made an exception this year), rarely does book tours and only occasionally agrees to email interviews. There is a story that, in 1989, on the morning after Tyler won the Pulitzer Prize (for “Breathing Lessons”), she politely but firmly turned away a reporter by saying she was simply too busy writing to talk. The reporter had apparently interrupted her in the middle of a sentence. 

She published her first book, “If Morning Ever Comes,” in 1964 and since then a new book has appeared every few years. Tyler’s ninth novel, “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant,” was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1983. “The Accidental Tourist” was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1985, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1986 and was made into a movie starring William Hurt and Geena Davis. “Ladder of Years” was shortlisted for the inaugural Orange Prize for Fiction in 1996, and “Digging for America” was shortlisted for the same prize in 2007. This year she is the winner of the Sunday Times (of London) Award for Literary Excellence. Proving she’s not a recluse in the style of, say, J.D. Salinger, she went to London—her first trip to the U.K.—this month to receive the award and was interviewed by the newspaper’s chief fiction critic.

To see long excerpts from “The Beginner’s Goodbye” at Google Books, click here.

Tyler once said, “There aren’t enough quiet, gentle, basically good people in a novel.” She writes about families and how complicated they are. She writes about ordinary, if eccentric, characters and their problems: marriage, sibling rivalry, resentments and losses. “The Beginner’s Goodbye” continues this tradition. 

book cover


The Beginner’s Goodbye


By Anne Tyler


Knopf, 208 pages


Buy the book

This elegant, witty and elegiac novel begins with the marvelous first line, “The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted.” If that’s not going to keep the reader reading, I can’t imagine what might. Aaron, the protagonist, has a crippled right arm and leg, but thinks of himself as “unluckier but no unhappier” than anyone else. He spent his childhood keeping his bossy sister at arm’s length. He is an editor at a vanity press that publishes “Beginner’s Guides” on various subjects, and while editing “The Beginner’s Cancer” he meets Dorothy, a somewhat detached and self-contained doctor. They fall in love, marry and live unremarkable lives until a tree crashes through the house and kills Dorothy. Since the house is uninhabitable, Aaron moves in with his sister, and, “months and months later,” begins seeing Dorothy’s ghost. This is not, however, a ghost story. It’s the story of an ordinary man coming to terms with grief. Although Tyler does not write autobiographical fiction, she certainly knows this she lost her husband of 34 years, psychoanalyst Taghi Modarressi, in 1997 when he died of lymphoma. 

The strength of this slim, almost feather-light, novel is in the psychological observations of the grieving process. Consider: “That was one of the worst things about losing your wife, I found: your wife is the very person you want to discuss it all with.

There is a moment early in the novel when Aaron looks at Dorothy’s body lying in the hospital bed:

The cords and hoses had been removed and she lay uncannily still. I had thought she was still before, but I had had no idea. I had been so ignorant.” 

When he walks the streets he can’t help but notice how healthy everyone looks.

A boy standing at an intersection had so much excess energy that he bounded from foot to foot as he waited for us to pass. People looked so robust, so indestructible.

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By elisalouisa, May 3, 2012 at 10:43 pm Link to this comment

The fact that there are no posts concerning the subject matter is indicative of the fact that after Chris Hedges it’s difficult to go back to Anne Tyler.

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By EmileZ, April 30, 2012 at 4:13 am Link to this comment

As there are no other comments here, I thought I would post an excerpt from “Hermione” by Steven Jesse Bernstein.

Jesse Bernstein was hardly an understated character in real life, but we get a lot of understatedness in his magnificent short novel “Hermione” about a catatonic schizophrenic, her mild mannered husband Vladimir who “hates his fucking job” and their plain housekeeper Elda, all living together in harmony somewhere out there, intentionally removed, so it seems from…

Here she sits. The house is isolated. She sits in a closed porch looking out on a full orchestra, carved in the snow. The sky, too, is white. The sky and the earth are like bars of soap. Hermione is like a bar of soap, with terrific, secretive eyes. The orchestra plays softly, tremulously. Some speckled brown birds pause on a wire, listening patiently.

It’s a deep couch of a winter—overstuffed, blinding white. Everything living is numb; everything not living feels as much as it is able.

Hermione’s eyeballs wiggle. She touches the wooden chair with both hands, steadying herself. Then she coughs. It’s a light, unconscious cough.

What can she learn from fear? The music stands up straight in its tails, in its brutal wig.

“It’s the medicine acting up,” Hermione thinks of slipping on the bathroom tiles, cracking her chin on the tub. She’s done that four times in her life, each time repeating the same movements, exactly. That’s part of her illness: She repeats herself. The medicine misfires exactly as it did yesterday, and the day before yesterday.

The music woos her. She starts to smile. The fear slides away from her bony forehead like a sheet of ice; it’s replaced by an exotic flower petal. Although she only moves a few inches, she seems to be reclining. Hermione offers her hand courteously, then crudely whistles a few bars of the music she has been listening to. “A kiss, then a slap…it’s just like they told us.”

These are all mechanical movements—they happen over and over, thoughtlessly. The music is played, Hermione offers her hand to the snow, the medicine stops working and she’s scared peeless for a few seconds, then the gears fall back in place and everything runs smoothly, again. Her illness keeps her busy. She’s a sick machine. A sick machine that starts its day on farina and light toast.

She continually hears people coming and going; footsteps, doors opening and closing, light chatter. She won’t allow herself to believe that she’s alone. She’s comforted by the clattering of a banquet. The guests have come from miles around. They admire the garden: “Oh, aren’t these lovely? And what’re those? They’re so delicate!” Hermione’s safe, surrounded by cheerful company. “And let me show you Vladimir’s greenhouse.” She’s flushed with pride and a cozy sense of well-being. Hers is such a bright, busy home.
She leans forward with her hands pressed into her stomach and throws up delicately on the painted floor. “Oh, goodness!” She wipes her mouth on her hand and wipes her hand on the hem of her dress. The brown medicine doesn’t agree with her. The music whirls her around a few turns. Hermione almost falls out of her chair. “Nooooooo…..” She manages to regain her balance.

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By EmileZ, April 30, 2012 at 4:05 am Link to this comment

The birds blink on and off. The electrical wire shivers. The flow of the current crackles. Lights and appliances glow unsteadily. The music chokes and glugs. Hermione listens: The wire whistles in a bright wind. The snow is silver. The shapes of the birds flash nauseatingly, here and there.

“The walls are so close. My own hide is too close.” Hermione’s very skin is expensive, a little too well tailored. She suffers the pinched nervousness of a thoroughbred animal. She squeezes herself unlovingly.
Elda crosses the kitchen floor to the laundry room, where she has been ironing all morning, with an electric iron. She has been in the bathroom. Elda uses the bathroom a lot: She has some very unpleasant personal problems. She is ironing the bedsheets…the bedsheets and the napkins. Smells of scorched cotton and starch. After-smell of bleach. Something in her manner and appearance is identical with these smells—they seem to come from her body. A woman whose slow, determined progress across life is evidenced by a blank, sunny, nearly straight stripe peeling back behind her. She picks up the iron and starts working. In the bathroom a length of pink rubber hose hangs dripping from a nickel-plated bar over the tub.

She looks out the window, across miles of snow. Over and over she wipes the steam off the glass. So, this will probably be it. She will live out her last years here, keeping house for, and taking care of Hermione and Vladimir. Elda has no ambition. “It’s good enough.” Her life shows no sign of imagination. Her own illness is the only thing that actually touches her feelings, that awakens any fascination in her. She’s one of those people who eats, does her job, goes to bed at night…and that’s all. She never married. She never thought of marrying. And it never occurred to her to pursue any interest in life. She continues to look out the window.

Vladimir found Elda by advertising in the newspaper. She didn’t bother sending a resume—she appeared at the front door with her suitcase, and that was it. Vladimir hired her, at once. It was easy to see that she was experienced and possessed of the right temperament for her work. Hermione expressed her approval plainly, without words. She treated Elda with warm familiarity, from the start.

“She hasn’t spoken to anyone out loud for almost two years. She needs some looking after, but mostly she just sits quietly in a chair.”

Hermione stood in a doorway. At that last pronouncement she nodded her head peaceably and turned her palms outward.

“This house needs a scrubbing.”

“We’ve just recently moved here. Hermione is claustrophobic.”

“If you don’t mind, sir, I’ll put my things away and start the cleaning.”

“We’ll call each other by first names. Hermione, Vladimir and…?”

“Elda. Why will we do that?”

“Because we don’t have a last name.”

“Very well.”

“And now I’ll show you your room.” Vladimir led the way to the foot of the stairs, followed closely by Elda.

Hermione turned around and walked back to the dining room table where she had been sitting, looking through a big pile of pictures. Her long, white fingers separated the dingy squares and oblongs of paper and cardboard. She seemed to be reading the pictures with her hands. Her eyes were fixed on the window, on the strip of glass between the drapes. In the distance she saw a line of white birch trees. “They’re cut out of paper.” Hermione looked down for a moment, at a picture she held between her fingers. “A bearded man on a bicycle.” She put that picture next to another one of a prize-winning pumpkin.

Upstairs, Vladimir and Elda stood in the middle of a bare, dusty room. There was no mattress on the narrow bed frame. The dresser was missing a drawer. The carpet was rolled up against a wall. Vladimir found the mattress and missing drawer in the closet. He pulled them out and put them where they belonged. Then, the two of them unrolled the carpet. “Well, that’s done.”

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By EmileZ, April 30, 2012 at 4:03 am Link to this comment

Elda put her suitcase on the mattress. “Where are the linens and cleaning supplies?”
“They’re in the service room. Here, I’ll show you.” He ushered her out of the room and closed the door. They walked side by side down the long hall, toward the stairs.

Hermione stands with her face and hands pressed against one of the big panes of glass out on the closed porch. She is humming, whimpering a little between the lines of music. “Will I ever get out? Will I ever get out?” She places her body as close as she can to the rigid perimeter of her confinement. The world is barren on both sides; Hermione wishes to prove this for herself. “It might just be a picture, put there to trick me.” As long as there is more than one side to the world….

The orchestra has turned to a mob of balding old washer women, swinging their mops in the snow. They are all bitter philosophers, chewing on their lower lips. All Hermione hears now are cackling accidents of music—buckets banging, knobby joints crackling. Groaning and grumbling. Every one a soloist, a genius. That’s what they’re screaming at her, through the glass…

“Hermione, it’s time for your medicine.” It’s Elda. “I have it right here.” She stands, waiting to be recognized, in the broad doorway.
Hermione moves away from the glass. The strange music dims. She turns around, moving her mouth as though chewing. Elda approaches her with the medicine tray—two small cups, some bottles, a glass, a spoon, a pitcher of water.

“There now. Drink it down and I’ll give you a glass of water.” Hermione guzzles the water, choking and sputtering.

The interface of pink cheek and icy glass. Her two fists balled up in her hair. That there’s a dream rising, like the red fluid in a thermometer is almost plain, is certainly to be suspected. Look how it troubles Hermione’s eyelids. She how her lips move, soundlessly? Who can believe that she’s simply “thinking things over?” Elda’s in the service room thinking. Vladimir’s thinking at his desk, in his toasty office. Hermione is being thought—a confusion of words. A mix-up. But is she dreaming? The images are straight out of her life.”

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