Ticknor arrived unexpectedly on my doorstep, sent to me by Lorin Stein at FSG who knew of my appreciation for all things Hungarian. (Sheila Heti is of Hungarian descent.) I took the book away with me on my January Paris trip because, frankly, it was light. In size, only, as it turned out.
I was immediately captivated by the voice of Heti's disgruntled narrator George Ticknor and by the end I knew I'd found my first LBC nominee. It was exactly the kind of book I become a litblogger hoping to find.
I don't know that I can express my thoughts any better than I did in the review I wrote for Boldtype, so I'm going to reproduce that here to serve as your introduction to this slender gem:
When George Ticknor's Life of William Hickling Prescott was published in 1864, it received rapturous notices, and reviewers were quick to point out that the long-standing friendship between Prescott and Ticknor made the latter an ideal Boswell. Sheila Heti, whose debut short story collection, The Middle Stories, was published in this country by McSweeney's, has pulled this obscure leaf from the literary archives and fashioned a mordantly funny anti-history; a pungent and hilarious study of bitterness and promise unfulfilled.
As a fretful Ticknor navigates his way through the rain-soaked streets of Boston to Prescott's house ("But I am not a late man. I hate to be late."), he recalls his decidedly one-sided lifelong friendship with his great subject, a friendship that Heti has estranged from its factual moorings. Unlike the real-life Ticknor, this one is an embittered also-ran, full of plans and intentions never realized — coveting his friend's wife, writing letters that never get answered, working on essays destined to be rejected — always alive to the fashionable whispers behind his back.
Heti seamlessly inhabits Ticknor's fussy 19th-century diction. It's a feat of virtuoso ventriloquism that puts one in mind of Kazuo Ishiguro's self-deluded butler Stephens in The Remains of the Day. It also raises fascinating questions about biographies and biographers (if this is how it was, what are we to make of Ticknor's glowing, laudatory Life?). Heti's Ticknor would be insufferable if he weren't so funny, and in the end, the black humor brings a leavening poignancy to this brief tale. But don't let the size fool you — this 109-page first novel is small but scarcely slight; it is as dense and textured as a truffle. And with George Ticknor, Heti adds an unforgettable new antihero to the Pantheon of the Misbegotten. Surely, Prufrock is smiling.
(The original review includes some cool links in the body of review, but I'm going to send you over to Boldtype to see those.)
And herewith, in the new LBC style, an excerpt from the nominated title:
It was only after having returned from my journey of several months that I found everything changed, his gatherings as much attended by those curious to meet the son of William Hickling Prescott Sr., said to be remarkable, as those who wanted to show themselves off, young men and old from the academy and literary circles. His parents had grown proud of the once solemn young man who overtook the study, then the sitting room and the sleeping quarters of a maid who was no longer needed, and it wasn't long before the whole thing grew established in the mould that had been set by his father, and soon after that he took for himself the house on Beacon Street, not far off. The entire time I was gone my eyes were set on home, and it wasn't until I returned that I discovered what had occurred. While I had acquired nothing, the glory of his name was already all about him. Archbishop Hughes publicly praised him for his judicious treatment of the Catholics, and though two years previous he had been known to only ten people in New York, that number had grown to more than two hundred, and there was not one day on his whole five-day visit to New York to begin work on his Ferdinand that he did not wake after noon, dine after ten, or fall into bed past two, expending all his spirits and energy with his new acquaintances and friends. He had thought, on setting out, that it would be no more than five days of loafing in New York, and clearing up some details with his publisher before returning to Pepperell and plunging into his pages. But five days were soon extended to twelve as the invitations of more than two hundred people assailed him, so that when at last he returned to Boston he was too weary to begin his work straightaway. Too pleased by the cordiality he had known and still feeling the blush of the many gratifying tributes, he was in no way equipped to approach his book, the excitement of the social world having been too great. Five days should be the limit, he put in a letter to Claire. How could I then spend a season in London? I shall not try. He vowed never again to exceed two or at most three days visiting a great American city, and made good this promise the rest of his life.
Returning from my journey I had known none of this, and expected none of this from the solitary boy who had been my friend. I saw him only once before he left for London and Paris for medical advice. Following his return home, many months went by and no note came. At last an envelope arrived. I was invited to visit the following evening, and all day I occupied my mind with errands to distract myself from the approaching fact of the night. I brushed my hair well and found a tie beneath my bed. I put on the tie and buttoned my vest. Then, circling in my mind the little intimacies we two would share, I made my way through the streets. When I arrived, the door opened to reveal not the quietness of Prescott and Claire, but a house filled to bursting with brass buttons, men who could, without effort, best me in every possible way. I moved toward a divan, sat and bent down to adjust the sock that had gathered at the bottom of my foot on the walk over. When I stood up again, I was as lost as a card that has blown from a deck. Not one man turned to face me; no woman smiled my way. I saw there was nothing I could say to Prescott that these men could not put better, and it was not nine o'clock before I moved into the night, avoiding Prescott as I went -- my friend who had chosen upon my return to parade himself before me and display what wealth of stature he had acquired in my absence, shedding the skin we had both worn, that now only I wore. Coming onto the lawn, there was laughter and the ringing of glasses which I could hear from where I stood, and lit up in the window and arranged behind the curtains, a premonition of the whole of Prescott's life was laid clear before me like a carnival poster. Seeing that, there was no hope left in me that things would right themselves, and should any force try to stop these men from gathering and using all of their influence to lift each other into the highest ranks, no fewer than two dozen able-bodied men from that room on Beacon Street would raise their swords against it, preventing any merit from draining from their positions as the heads and treasurers of every society and association in the Union. After that, I still did see him, though not as much. You say you saw him almost as much, but you barely saw him at all, and when you did there was always a group. He would have liked me to sit closer but other people pushed in beside him and he didn't seem to care. Still, he would smile, and it was not as though our friendship was ruined. You claim a friendship. Well, it has been that way since we were boys. Such a recording of events would only be of transient interest to him, so I don't bring it up. No, you have never remarked on it. His disposition fared well; he could have been ruined, but he wasn't.
I hope you'll check out Ticknor and return for the discussions that will begin here Monday. (It's only 109 pages - you can finish it by then!)