Saturday, November 18, 2017

Cherise Wolas

Cherise Wolas is a writer, lawyer, and film producer. She received a BFA from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and a JD from Loyola Law School.

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby is her debut novel.

Recently I asked Wolas about what she was reading. Her reply:
I think I’ve read every day of my life since I was five. Although I dip into nonfiction occasionally, my lust is for gorgeously deep, beautifully written, powerful novels that open up new worlds, present unexpected and original truths, peopled with complex, multi-faceted characters who defy easy categorization, the way people are in real life. I adore novels that get me thinking, about the world of the novel, of the world beyond the novel, and of my own work. I adore novels where the words sparkle like gems, where the sentences are jewels, where enormous care has been taken, not only with the story, but in the telling of that story.

Right now, I’m rounding toward the finish line of Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann. Despite years of education and my own dedicated reading, I’d never read him. He dropped into my life unexpectedly while I was watching a movie in which a character pulls a copy of Buddenbrooks from his ex-wife’s bookshelf. Nothing more is said about the book, but something clicked for me. The movie didn’t hold my attention, but I will always think of it fondly because it brought me to Thomas Mann.

Having just published my first novel, The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, it felt like a serendipitous symmetry when I learned that Buddenbrooks was Mann’s first novel.

It is a story that portrays the lives, loves, loyalties, masked and unmasked desires, and the values, morals, and mores of four generations of a wealthy north German merchant family. Presented as a family saga, it delves into the conflicts that arise from family ties, from pride of position, from failed love, from the limitations that existed even for the well-born in German bourgeois life. It is an intimate portrait of characters the reader comes to know well. Happiness, that elusive quality, bleeds out of this family as the years pass, and it is heartbreaking to know they are aware both of this bleeding and their inability to staunch it. The time period encompassed is from 1835 to 1877, and I imagine the groaning of anyone reading this. But the story and the writing are as current, as modern, as anything being written today.

Mann’s narrative is masterful, often ironic, incredibly rich in details, and cinematic. He handles his characters with a clear-eyed approach that permits us to see them fully and to understand their myriad, often competing, aims. This book portrays drama the way I understand drama—small dramas that create or undo lives.

As I read Buddenbrooks, I have been debating a couple of things: Would this masterpiece, if written by a woman today, and published now, be sloughed off for inhabiting so thoroughly the realm of the domestic, deemed unimportant? I think it’s more likely than not. Recently, there have been some long books written by men about the domestic, books lauded, applauded, and awarded, and it saddens me to realize that had those same books been written by women, they likely would not have enjoyed such rapturous commendations. Second, I’ve been wondering what if Thomas Mann submitted Buddenbrooks to his agent and publisher today? Would he be told It’s too long. Where is the big betrayal? Where is the sex appeal? Please go back and cut, cut, cut. Very possibly. And yet, it’s exactly the length it should be, and reads faster than any thriller I’ve read in the last ten years. This book is, wonderfully, and strangely, a kind of thriller, a sort of detective novel, a biography, a memoir, a roman a clef, a bildungsroman. It is a rare sort of juicy tale.

And as Mann brilliantly culls, tills, and cultivates the domestic, we are privy to numerous betrayals, deep disappointments, longings for real love, for place, for serenity, for hope for the future. Thomas Mann pulled open the heavy curtains in those large rooms in those large houses in that unnamed German town and 116 years after it was first published in 1901, the impact of his novel still stunningly brings us into an entirely fascinating and utterly political world. Not all that different from our world today.

I already have my copy of Mann’s The Magic Mountain on my nightstand.
Visit Cherise Wolas's website.

--Marshal Zeringue