Although a novel about astronomers assembled on a fictional island in the Indian Ocean for the best view of a comet’s return did not seem a very promising subject for a novel to me, I found Andrew Sean Greer’s The Path of Minor Planets insightful and absorbing (after some initial difficulties). I also admired his stories collected in How It Was for Me.
In the beginning of February of 2004, a week before the publication of Greer’s second novel, The Confessions of Max Tivoli, a review that can only be characterizes as a “rave” by John Updike appeared in The New Yorker. Updike wrote that the book “is enchanting, in the perfumed, dandified style of disenchantment brought to grandeur by Proust and Nabokov.” In his own mandarinate sylte, Updike proclaimed the book to be “resplendently poetic and loftily sorrowing.”
I am insterested in books set in San Francisco before (and through) the 1906 earthquake, such as Oakley Hall’s series of Ambrose Bierce mysteries (commencing with Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Hearts ), and, especially, Matthew Stadler’s lyrical Landscape/Memory, plus the late-19th-century New York part of Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days (which also contains three variations on the same tragedy with the same characters(‘s names) and has a SciFi element). And M. Proust’s great novel…
Just after the book’s publication, I heard Greer read very engagingly from it, and explain that the book’s concept came from Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages: “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now” (lines I recognized/remembered)…* Still, the science fiction(y) concept of someone born physically old and growing younger and younger made me dubious about whether I would enjoy the book.
It took a second reading by Greer, after winning the California Book Prize, when the book was selected as the “On the Same Page” book for The City, that I finally decided that I had to give the book a chance. From his readings from the novel, from his other writing, and with the imprimatuer of John Updike, I had no doubt that the prose would be excellent-though I’m not easily enchanted.
The book turned out to be more immediately absorbing than The Path of Minor Planets. Its subject (and here is where the invocation of Nabokov and Proust seems completely apt) is love thwarted and lost than about. The reverse aging (youthing?) complicates matters, but also gives Max more than one chance with the love of his life. In the very second paragraph, Max tells the future reader of his memoir that it has a plot: “There is a dead body to explain. “A woman three times loved. A friend betrayed. And a boy long sought for.” (At the end, I can check off all the items on this checklist.) Plus the agonies of starting as a small 70 year-old and knowing death will come 70 years later to a man who will look like a newborn infant (”Inside this wretched body, I grow old. But outside-in every part of me but my mind and soul,-I grow young.”).
“We are each the love of someone’s life” is the very first sentence Max writes in his notebook, before he starts in telling his own story.” There is a simple A loves B, B loves C, C loves A triangle, though this does not become clear for quite a ways into the novel (but, keeping it algebraic and not linking the letters to characters, I think does not constitute plot spoiling). And there is a D loved by A and B, too. “We are each the love of someone’s life” is the very first sentence Max writes in his notebook, before he starts in telling his own story.
“Growing apart” is an apt metaphor for many New Yorker stories and novels about straining marriages. For Max and his wife, it is remarkably literal. Although both were born in 1871, Max is growing younger while his wife is growing older.
Max is afraid to tell her about his freakish nature. His own furtiveness and sense of being a monster is paralleled by another character with same-sex desires to conceal (“gay” and “closeted” are both anachronisms that Greer wisely eschews). Early on, his mother laid down the rule: “Be who they think you are,” a rule he obeys. The looking ever more innocent (in that many see young as automatically innocent) resonates with Dorian Grey and his aging portrait, too. And with little Oskar refusing to grow in Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum.
Max paints his own portrait as a thwarted lover who seemed to be a dirty old man when he was (chronologically) in his early teens and has accumulated weltschmarz when he looks to be in his early teens. When he first met Alice Levy, the daughter of his mother’s tenant in a mansion on South Park back when it was a neighborhood for rich and/or genteel southerners who had come to San Francisco, Max looked to be in his 50s. Alice’s mother looked to be a more suitable match, and, like Humbert Humbert, he used that to be near the one he loved (except that he did not just feel like a teenager, in terms of life experience and chronological age he was one.
When his apparent age approximates his chronological age, when he and Alice chronologically are and look to be in their mid-30s, Max has another chance. Alice does not recognize the codger who was involved with her mother as being her agemate. And that’s as far as I can go without plot spoiling. Though a cataclysmic event rocked northern California when Max is 35 in 1906. (Max was conceived during another (less-famous) jolt, BTW.)
I can say that as in Proust’s massive roman fleuve, I am not completely convinced that Max (or Marcel) loves Alice (or Albertine). He is besotted with her, “in love” if you will, but to some degree “in love with love” and more agonized by loss than joyed by union. Max is more sure than Marcel that the bond will break, Marcel wallows more in post hoc (and even posthumous) jealousy, but what is so enchanting about Alice (and Albertine) is not clear to this reader. (And, I suspectif the initials Greer gives his characters mirroring those of Proust’s is not entirely accidental.) Time ravages love in both books, with the main characters going opposite directions on what is sometimes said to be the mighty, inexorable river of time. Max is propelled upstream against the universal current, but this does not make love any easier!
The SciFi concept seems to me to make things difficult not only for Max. The ages of the characters in the last part do not seem to me to fit with Max and Alice being born at the same time (roughly, she seems to have been bortn in 1874) and aging in opposite directions. Max notes that “we all hate what we become…. [Others] thought they would shed the worst of youth and gain the best of age, but time drifted over them, sand-burying their old hopes…. We waste so much time within ourselves.”
Greer said that some friends were concerned about how sad Max’s tale is (though he believes it and Max have joie de vivre. Max is certainly is Proustian in sharing the sense that the only true paradises are the lost one, though Greer supplied another (opposite) epigram from (or to?) Proust: “Love, ever unsatisfied, lives always in the moment that is about to come.” Greer does not seem melancholic. (He said he was working on another novel based on his paternal grandmother who moved from Kentucky to San Francisco’s Sunset District. He said that he enjoys the historical research for this book and for Max though he doesn’t think that he is a very good researcher. )
* He said that he later learned that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a story, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” with the aging-backward concept.I have to wonder if Greer’s book inspired the making of the movie of the out-of-copyright Fitzgerald story.