CONFESSIONS OF MAX TIVOLI | Andrew Sean Greer

Poignantly Awry - Life Between Ordinary and Extraordinary

I recently re-read THE CONFESSIONS OF MAX TIVOLI and am glad that I did. It is a leader in a small class of novels that deal so entertainingly with immortalism and aging.

Upon picking up the book for the first time, any of us would naturally ask ourselves: Did Max Tivoli really emerge from the womb an old man? That has to be writerly bravado, a wild swing at capturing the reader’s attention. Or the beginning of a story that has never been told before. Either way, the author has moxie.

The Confessions of Max Tivoli is an enchanting and affecting novel about an old man born old in 1871 in San Francisco who is destined to grow young.

1st Picador Edition (2005)  ISBN 978-0312-42381-0

1st Picador Edition (2005)  ISBN 978-0312-42381-0

Andrew Sean Greer tells how this improbable mistake of biology, time and physics occurred in strikingly rich exposition. Max’s mother is from a wealthy Carolina family relocated to Comstock-crazed San Francisco. His father is one of the countless dreamers drawn to the Gold Rush. As Max tells it, “…the Comstock had made too many beggars into fat, rich men – so society became divided into two classes: the chivalry and the shovelry. My mother was of the first, my father of the wretched second.” Suitably, their union is a paradox of the mundane and the magical, which combine to create a moment of timeless possibility.

Max learns soon enough that while his condition is not unique, he is one of very, very few. So rare is his dilemma that only once – later in life as he grows younger – does he encounter another of his kind, and then it is only supposition.

Max meets his life’s great love early and their future seems doomed by the secret between them. Over time, he wins her through desperate deceptions for a glorious period in his middle years. Even then, she is unaware of his magical condition.

Greer's literary voice has been compared with Ford Madox Ford, which is high praise. Greer's narrator Max is direct whereas Ford's Good Soldier John Dowell is disengaged and distant. The ultimate unreliable narrator. " . . . I have generally found that my first impressions were correct enough. If my first idea of a man was that he was civil, obliging, and attentive, he generally seemed to go on being all those things."

Max is comfortable with seemingly straightforward declarative sentences, which are in fact occasionally complex expressions of deeper emotions woven like Celtic coils into his trustworthy narrative. He earns our confidence with candor and a voice that is consistently true to 21st century sensibilities despite its slant and attitudes of 1890's San Francisco. Max's out-of-time experiences and priorities complete the illusion of otherness. "While at twenty I had been far off the map of youth, now that I was nearly thirty I looked nearly right. Perhaps not quite in the bloom of youth, but approaching it in my ogreish way, and I began to get more than my usual share of glances from ladies who peered like fascinated children out of carriages, streetcars and shop windows."

Greer also consistently surprises and delights the close reader with his offhand use of opposites, subverting expectations and recharging our attention with the unexpectedly profound cast off phrase.  

The century turned, the seasons changed, but little changed for me until a lucky and terrible disaster.
Something of youth comes back with age.

This novel received extraordinary support with blurbs from John Updike, Michael Cunningham, Michael Chabon, the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, the L.A.Times, and the plaudits go on and on.

I enjoyed THE CONFESSIONS OF MAX TIVOLI and will look for his short story collection, HOW IT WAS FOR ME and the novels, THE PATH OF MINOR PLANETS, THE STORY OF A MARRIAGE, and THE IMPOSSIBLE LIVES OF GRETA WELLS.

 
If you read THE CONFESSIONS OF MAX TIVOLI and have an issue with my description, please comment below. I will respond if appropriate and update this post to reflect new information.

 

Andrew Sean Greer

Born to two scientists, Greer studied writing at Brown University, where he was the commencement speaker at his own graduation. He worked for years as a chauffeur, theater tech, television extra and unsuccessful writer in New York City. He earned his Master of Fine Arts from The University of Montana in Missoula. Currently, he lives in San Francisco and is a fellow at the New York Public Library Cullman Center.

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THE CAT'S TABLE | Michael Ondaatje

Occasionally, writing penetrates the walls we build around ourselves, opens the windows to let sunlight in, and reminds us of who we are, what events shaped us, and hints how we got to this particular place. Michael Ondaatje’s writing does this for me.

Some events take a lifetime to reveal their damage and influence.

This truth, a defining presence in Ondaatje’s writings, is a powerful current in the flow of this novel. The Cat’s Table is understated and life-affirming, with a cast of characters that capture a lifetime of experiences during several weeks at sea.

VIDEO: John Berger and Michael Ondaatje

Two important writers discuss story telling and the creative process in a conversation recorded courtesy of the Lannan Foundation.

I have read, been inspired by, and re-read several of these writers’ books. John Berger’s To The Wedding and Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion and English Patient are particular favorites of mine. This conversation was recorded at John Berger’s farm in Quincy, Mieussy, France, October 2002.  Enjoy…




Resonance: Dreams give us lift . . .

Sometimes, a passage in a book stops us in our tracks. It might be that its meaning intersects with a personal moment of significance, or it states a truth so powerfully that we pause to appreciate the moment of connection. Here is one that caught my eye today.

 

Dreams give us lift …  The trick is to bear up after the weight of life comes back.

Ivan Doig
HEART EARTH (p. 133)

ANIL'S GHOST | Michael Ondaatje

Nothing Civil About This War

This novel was published after the phenomenon that was THE ENGLISH PATIENT. It is more grounded in human tragedy than PATIENT, and hews more closely to the female protagonist’s (Anil’s) story than PATIENT’s Hana.

Ondaatje’s achievement here is capturing horrible truths in asides. It is in the actions of supporting characters that he makes his case for the best and worst aspects of the human experience.

In THE ENGLISH PATIENT, Kip the sapper lives and works at the edges of the novel’s principal plot. Yet it is in his seemingly incongruent actions that he is so effective a presence. For example, he hoists Hana on a line into the high shadows of the Church of San Francesco in Arezzo so that she can glimpse the centuries-old frescoes. In doing so, he lifts her above the nightmare of Nazi occupation in WW-II Italy and transports her across time to the heights of mankind’s artistic triumph.

In ANIL’S GHOST, we are dropped into the terror of Sri Lanka’s civil war. There she is caught between three intractable forces: leftist and separatist insurrections and the government’s ruthless repression. Here she collaborates with two brothers – one an archealogist and the other a doctor. In their world, abduction is to be expected, torture is a fact of life, and the aspirations of their professions – discovery, knowledge, compassion – are dark and threatening ideas. They are ultimately loyal to these values, these abstractions of light, shadow, and hope.

It is especially relevant reading now, when what appears to be nascient civil war threatens the Middle East from Tripoli to Tehran.

GHOST is deeply researched and written. It is a good addition to the literature of our time.

Anil’s Ghost: A Novel

Related: Michael Ondaatje: Auteur, Author