At our book club recently, we discussed Nicholas Baker’s novel The Anthologist (2009). Though I had read perhaps only a third, I was one of two among ten with a decidedly negative reaction to the main character, a poet who’s failing spectacularly to complete an introduction
to an anthology of poetry. He’s just been abandoned by his live-in girlfriend; he wallows in humorous self-disgust, fear, distractions–can’t even play badminton with neighbors without berating himself for his awkwardness. Along the way, he delivers little set-pieces about poets and poetry, including sex tidbits–Louise Bogan and Theodore Roethke and their delicious sex weekend–musings on rhyme (which he loves) and its demise. All the while being unable to keep himself, his clothes, his surroundings decently clean. He set my teeth on edge.
Hoping I hadn’t been a horrible curmudgeon, though trusting to my friends’ stalwart ability to hold to their own assessments, I came home, wondering about my extreme reaction. During these searches in my private history cabinets, I happened on thoughts of the movie “The King’s Speech,” which I’d just seen a second time with my daughter. Why had I wept at King George VI’s debilitating stutter when I’d sneered at this anthologist’s mental lock jaw? Partly it was the dramatic presentation, I decided: we see “Bertie” interacting with his daughters, the future Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. He’s adorable in that role: turning himself in his tux into a penguin and lisping a journey across oceans and land, flightless, until he wraps them in his flippers and magically turns into? An albatross. We see him with his wife, the future Queen Mum who eventually outlives him by (I’m guessing) at least 50 years. She takes the initiative to find him another speech “therapist” in the person of an Australian failed actor, Lionel Logue, and though Bertie resists at first–Logue insists on equality between them, has no glamorous pretensions, and soon challenges the stutterer’s protective armor–their eventual friendship and working partnership (the king flailing his arms, rolling like a log around the room, repeating true tongue-twisters, reading to music, mouthing swear words in the midst of pauses) shows their joint triumph over the king’s damaged self.
He also has truly ugly antagonists: first among them his brother, King Edward II who, when Bertie urges him to give up his affair with the twice-divorced Wallace Simpson, mocks Bertie’s impediment to the point of rendering him speechless. But it’s the combination of events and Bertie’s essential strength of mind and character that bring the shine to Colin Firth’s stunning performance. Forced into the role of king when Edward abdicates for the woman he loves, Bertie must find his voice. Hitler looms–making stirring speeches, as Bertie witnesses on film. There will be war again. This combination makes Bertie’s and Logue’s triumph over the stutter not only a personal, but a national imperative. Hard to beat motivation like that. But it is Bertie’s softness, his descent into tears a few nights after taking the throne, when he realizes he cannot make any sense of the papers in an official box. His trouble and his tears are motivated by a challenge larger than most mortals could bear; and he has not been allowed (by his mocking family) to grow the confidence to meet it. Only as an adult, with the help of his gentle, witty wife and the sensitive, assured guidance of Lionel Logue, a commoner if there ever was one, does Bertie gain the majesty and command to become George IV.
I’m also reminded of a long review in The New Yorker (March 7, 2011) of a late 19th-century German writer none of us has ever heard of: Theodor Fontane. In his review Daniel Mendelsohn comments that Fontane’s novelistic strategy was likely formed by his years as a drama critic–almost all scenes presented as conversations, i.e. very dramatic. Just like Jane Austen, I thought. Nicholas Baker uses hardly any conversation at all, probably because his character not only lives alone, has little concourse with the outside world and is a thorough narcissist. (Forgive me, Book Club Pals.) That isolation does change, so I learned from those who read the whole book: the anthologist goes to Switzerland where all kinds of things break loose. But I won’t return to the book to find out. The self-involved “voice” persisting for over 100 pages simply doesn’t hold my esteem or attention for that long.