The final weekend of August is upon us, and though summer is not unofficially over until September, this weekend, for all intents and purposes, is the swan song. Savor the final days of August with MFA Illustration as Visual Essay faculty member and author (most recently of the novel Last Train to Paris) Michele Zackheim’s recommendations, which include two series of novels and a poem to reflect on the season’s passing.
The Man in the Wooden Hat, Last Friends and Old Filth by Jane Gardam are three novels that could, really should, be read in order. When I finished the last novel, I had to take a walk around the block to work off my disappointment that there wasn’t a fourth. The writer revisits most of the same characters in all three books and you care about them with all your heart. It has been said that Gardam can be compared to Dickens. I agree. Every character is marvelously intricate and sated with lop-sided, yet sane identities. As Gardam famously quipped, “If I’ve got one thing I really believe about fiction and life, it’s that there are no minor characters.” Thank goodness.
Like Jane Gardam, Elena Ferrante has written a series, called her Neapolitan novels: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of The Lost Child, which will be the fourth and final volume, to be published in September. They are eloquent and painfully honest books, following two friends from a poor Naples neighborhood. But, Ferrante isn’t Ferrante. No one knows her real name. It’s probably best that she’s a mystery, for her stories are intensely personal and could be nothing but autobiographical in nature. “I’m no longer dependent on the movement of others, only on my own,” she said in a rare interview. By giving up fame, she has accomplished autonomy. She told her publisher that she had done enough; she wrote the books.
Mary Oliver is an “indefatigable guide to the natural world,” wrote the brilliant poet Maxine Kumin, “particularly to its lesser-known aspects.” Kumin says it better than most. Now that August is here, here is the last stanza of Oliver’s poem “August.”
“June, July, August. Every day, we hear their laughter. I think of the painting by van Gogh, the man in the chair. Everything wrong, and nowhere to go. His hands over his eyes.”