East Of The Mountains by David Gutenberg Saturday January 15, 2011

What is it, psychologically speaking, about a good read? I’ve just spent several days with a book which, if I had to summarise it in one word, would be “beautiful”. On the front cover of David Gutengerg’s East Of The Mountains, they quote The Times saying it was “ravishing”. Indeed it is; that describes it as well. Not in a sumptuous or colourful way, but in wonderfully simple language evoking all manner of themes, tensions and dramas, with great subtlety.

The story concerns a 73 year old doctor, Ben Givens, who has painful terminal cancer and who’s decided to end his life before it gets worse. He’s told no one about his illness, and plans carefully so there’s no suspicious circumstances which might compel his doctor to convey the facts to his daughter. It has to look exactly like an accident, and what he has in mind is entanglement in barbed wire and shooting himself in the neck with his shotgun, when out hunting.

He sets off on a trip in the hills to expedite his plan, but what happens is very different. He crashes his car, and sustains a badly damaged eye but nothing critical. One of his dogs is killed by an Irish Wolfhound chasing a coyote, the much larger animal is about to kill his second dog, so he shoots it dead. He saves the injured animal’s life, carrying and dragging it a long and painful distance to a vet which reminds him of the soldier’s way of disidentifying with hard labour, the nonstop marching with a heavy pack both to survive and carry out orders. It’s beyond exhaustion, beyond endurance. This was the point where I began to really like Ben. He was dying, suffering, tired and in medical pain, and overcomes all of this for the sake of his dog.

His mind roams backward to his youth and the enduring image is plains of fruit trees laden with apples, pears, and cherries. I enjoyed this theme when I read Snow Falling On Cedars a few months ago; this time, reading East Of The Mountains, I really got it. A fruit tree harvest. Sunshine. Simple physical labour. Open fields. A congregation of people. A river where – of course – he invites a girl to swim with him (in Cedars, it’s a hollow tree where they meet). Reading the description of the land and trees and fruit, scenes Gutenberg knows very well, is as delicious as the fruit itself: apples, pears, cherries. It reminds me, by association, of quiet joys and blissful contentment when I’ve walked in the mountains – which feeling in turn, corresponds to boyhood days in the summer.

Ben served in the war and at one awful moment, his buddy is attacked by a German. He freezes, then opens fire only after he’s been shot. His heavy gun literally cuts the German in half, and he carries his comrade to the field doctor where for a minute or two he is clinically dead. He gets plasma, morphine, surgery and resuscitation, and finally the doctor cuts open his ribs and literally massages his heart back to life.

When he is reunited with his love, Rachel, who’s been serving as an army nurse, you reach the heart of Gutengerg’s prose and why this book is so ravishing. The symbolic and thematic centre of Snow Falling On Cedars is the young girl and boy hiding away from the world in a hollow cedar tree, learning about their mutual love when the world around them denies it: war time again, and she is Japanese and he is American. The heart of Mountains is the swim in the river and their conversation after, when both are going off to war:

He thought about dying, not seeing her any more. “I wouldn’t want any regrets,” he said. “So I guess I should just say it.”
“What do you mean? You’d better say what?”
“That I like you Rachel. That’s all.”
“I like you too,” she answered.
They kissed by the heat of the fire. He was surprised at the human smell of her flesh, the human smell of her mouth. It was not something he would have thought to predict, because for so long he’d imagined her sweetly perfumed – but here she was, mysteriously human, so that it seemed to him, with his lips against hers, that he grasped her mortality. “I don’t know,” he whispered in her ear.”This might be a mistake.”
“I don’t think so,” said Rachel.
“We ought to think about this,” said Ben.
“I already have,” said Rachel.

For Gutenberg, love is a nest-like place where two people meet, physically apart from the world and the greatest solace. It’s an opening, a space, a gap in the order of things, which you find and which then transforms the world. Rachel heals the sick, Ben fights and kills, and when they meet again after the war, resting in an idyllic Italian landscape and enjoying some food, they carry on where they left off:

Ben told Rachel about the field surgeon who had saved Bill Stackhouse’s life. “You were right,” he said. “I should have been a medic. I should have listened to you.”
“This place is a dream,” Rachel said. “A fairy tale or a dream.”
“You warned me. You tried to warn me.”
“There’s green onion in the dumplings, too, mixed in with the chives.”
“I want to be like that surgeon,” said Ben. “A person like that, a doctor.”
“I’m with you all the way,” answered Rachel.

This emotional interplay is delicately and poetically observed. For Ben’s part, he initially falls in love with her, before the war, watching her pick fruit, ride her horse, and smooth her hair back. Ben’s mind wanders thus over his past; his wife (they marry) has died nearly two years ago. He gets an illegal Spanish worker to hospital when he is mortally tubercular, and assists with the labour of a fifteen year old girl when the baby is stuck and her life is threatened.

East Of The Mountains is no cliff hanger of suspense. The war scenes that Ben recalls are full of squalor and suffering rather than valour, and there isn’t a dramatic plot. And yet, I wanted to know what Ben was going to do with as much compulsion as any book I’ve read. In particular, his shotgun is stolen by the Irish Wolfhound owner and he plans to get it back. The latter points a gun at his head in bright headlights and insists the shotgun – Ben’s father’s – will recompense him for the loss of his dog, never mind that Ben’s dog has just been killed and the other is mortally wounded. Ben is a 73 year old terminally ill doctor. I found myself getting angry at this and wanted retribution. I wondered if there might be a struggle and Ben gets shot, which would damage the bully’s life and achieve Ben’s plan. Instead, Ben confronts the bully, says the gun is cursed, “All guns are cursed”, and he can have it. Ben returns home, having accepted his suffering and approaching death, alongside the fact that his daughter and grandson want to see him. He will not kill, even himself, and whatever he suffers he will do so for other people.

East Of The Mountains reminds me a little of Steinbeck’s Grapes Of Wrath; though it’s a long time since I’ve read it I’m inspired to refer to it again for its beautiful themes of suffering, charity, adversity, and love.

Mountains is essentially about love. You find it, recognise it, and then it sustains you. The attentions of love are effortless, and this is the pleasure of a good read: you don’t want it to stop, you don’t force yourself to do it, and it captures your imagination.

According to Carl Jung we have four psychological functions, which consolidate into different character types: feeling, thinking, sensation and intuition. These are organised into extrovert, introvert and conscious and unconscious tendencies. We are inclined in different ways and sometimes have to develop or nourish neglected or unbalanced parts of the psyche. A ‘sensation’ book might be a traditional war story, sport, or sexual. I don’t read that kind of material. I used to enjoy Colditz stories as a boy, and my Saturday comics had traditional ‘boys’ characters: a cricketer, a soldier, and so on. Roald Dahl is one of the most enduringly popular children’s writers and his books feature people getting squished, eating worms and such: a delightful ‘sensation’ experience for many youngsters. In regard to sex scenes in books there was a public conference recently at Manchester University hosted by Martin Amis. I wasn’t interested in going but it alerted me to how the subject might be considered in terms of its problems and attractions: how to do it well, how it fails, and so on. My view on this at the moment is I don’t particularly want to read elaborate accounts. In both Cedars and Mountains Gutenberg is brusquely explicit when his young lovers explore each other, in only a sentence or two. I rather like that. As with emotions, to which sexual experience is closely entwined, I prefer restraint rather than elaboration: tell us about it, and don’t be ridiculously prudish, but don’t linger over it as an end in itself.

‘Thinking’ novels might be the works of Herman Hesse (my adolescent favourite), Dostoevsky perhaps (I’ve tried reading Crime And Punishment but it uses sermonising Christian language I find repellent and indigestible), and possibly Ian McEwan. McEwan used to be my favourite writer a few years ago but that’s no longer true. I read Atonement recently and while accomplished I much prefer, for example, David Gutenberg’s work. McEwan is interested in the psychological landscape, and I now find it a little intense and over wrought. ‘Feeling’ novels would be characterised by Mills And Boon, which are often surprisingly racy and entwined with ‘sensation’. Or at least they appear to be, when you see their amusingly suggestive titles. Jane Austen and the Brontes work with similar themes, heaving bosoms and mysterious wealthy men etc, but develop and express those themes with more sophistication and depth.

Jung classified thinking and feeling as ‘rational’ and sensation and intuition as ‘irrational’ functions. The term ‘emotional intelligence’ is now commonly used, and there are both rational and irrational emotions. Working through emotional experience and how to feel, what to feel, is a large part of literature.

Gutenberg writes, I would say, ‘feeling’ novels: the origin and development of love, and how it shapes a person’s life. Towards the end of Mountains, Ben Givens remembers watching Rachel’s back as she undresses and how, after long years of marriage, he still loved and wondered at the moment:

It was something that never ceased to move him or to prompt in him a momentary reflection on the nature of love’s good fortune. He did not take such a thing for granted, even after fifty years: always he celebrated what he’d been granted and admired what he saw.

He returns to his home ill, bereft, with nothing to live for except that his daughter and grandson can see him. It’s a return to life, but also a return to his impending painful death expected in a few months.